Culture

Maximized Madness

Tom Hardy as Mad Max
All sound and Fury Road, signifying nothing

En route to Jurassic Park way back when, I warned my screening pal: “When Spielberg decides to scare you, you’d better duck.” But the millions of people excited by the Internet trailer for George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road aren’t just ducking, they’re bowing down. The odd thing is, film culture has changed so much since the 1993 Jurassic Park that trailers (a tool of marketing) have become the end-point of interest in movies. Jurassic Park’s F/X spectacle was the event; now the sell is the event. Those who were teased by Fury Road’s trailer will surely prefer it to the two-hour-plus movie. Who can blame them? But that preference signifies a huge problem.

Fury Road continues the end-of-civilization premise from Miller’s 1980s Mad Max films, which starred Mel Gibson (Beyond Thunderdome was the best of them). Tom Hardy, playing survivalist-loner Max, joins a group of runaway female concubines, led by Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, zooming for peace and regeneration in a dystopian world. With few explanatory narrative details other than the elaborate cartoonish freakdom (“Mankind has gone rogue! The Earth is sour! Who killed the world?!”), it’s all just nonstop road-rage violence.

Director-writer Miller capitulates to the low instincts he originally pandered to more than 30 years ago. He’s gotten better at it — demonstrating lotsa panache — but the problem is that popular taste has degraded into an appetite for outlandish destruction and fantastic cruelty. The pop audience (and not just youth) has become like the crazed yahoos Miller depicts on screen without exactly satirizing them.

The most watchable moments of Fury Road offer chase-movie overstatement to a point of laughable shrillness: Among the starving masses begging for water, one can be spotted lifting up a bedpan to catch his rationed portion. Fury Road itself is a bedpan filled with crazed details. Miller overflows it, intending audiences to get drunk on his excess — drunk on what Bill Murray in Quick Change called “used wine.”

SLIDESHOW: Mad Max: Fury Road

Fury Road offers nothing new; Miller rehashes his 35-year-old formula with a vengeance. There are clear, split-second edits of motorized, diesel-fueled caravans topped by jungle drums and a flame-thrower rock guitarist hurtling through the desert; Max strapped to the front of the juggernaut like a hood ornament; a car outfitted with rusted metal porcupine quills; and assorted branded, tattooed, screaming weirdos — at one point swaying like pole-vaulters across the width of the screen.

Miller doesn’t simply master this we-are-all-gladiators trope, he celebrates it. None of today’s specialists in nihilism can match this stuff. Not Darren Aronofsky, not Christopher Nolan, not Bong Joon-ho, not Quentin Tarantino. But so what? When Miller put aside the Mad Max franchise and made the marvelous Babe: Pig in the City and Happy Feet, he showed more feeling for a pig and for penguins than for humans. Hardy’s charisma is wasted (masked again, as in The Dark Knight Returns), leaving the film’s emotional core to Theron’s one-armed Furiosa — a grindhouse cliché like the one-legged Rose McGowan in Planet Terror.

None of this mindless madness is meant to scare you as Jurassic Park did. Miller’s action-cinema ferocity is hollow. His apocalyptic circus has video-game spectacle but no cinematic power; its revved-up imagery is unconnected to an understanding of what sensation and violence have done to our souls. That was the real point of Jurassic Park as well as of Neveldine/Taylor’s unnerving pre-apocalypse satire in the Crank series, Gamer, Jonah Hex, and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. Neveldine/Taylor stepped up action cinema and stepped forward philosophically, whereas Miller applies the intellectual version of what race-car drivers call “drag.”

By overinflating the biker-movie concept (featuring whips and chains, leather and studs, and a body-pierced, dreadlocked, skinhead chorus line), Miller allows his outré flamboyance to rob subcult menace of its edge. This distracts from the cultural collapse that’s really taking place on screen. His degraded audience mistakes the sentimental ending for narrative satisfaction. That’s what happens when movie culture has moved to a state of entropy. Fury Road is essentially an expanded movie trailer, full of inflated highlights — exactly what everyone expects and has already seen.

 

<img alt="In the Name of My Daughter" class="media-image img__fid__122041 img__view_mode__default attr__format__default attr__title__In the Name of My Daughter" src="http://c1.nrostatic.com/sites/default/files/pic_giant_051515_SM_In-the-Name-of-My-Daughter.jpg" title="In the Name of My Daughter” />

‘You have those lefty ideas; you’ll phrase it right,” a mob boss tells his lawyer in André Téchiné’s In the Name of My Daughter. One of many small but meaningful details, it creates the moral tenor of this film about the cross-purposes of several individual justice seekers: casino owner Madame Le Roux (Catherine Deneuve), her ambitious assistant Maurice Agnelet (Guillaume Canet), and her estranged daughter, Agnès (Adèle Hanael), who out of spite begins an affair with Agnelet, leading to a court case that stretches on for years.

In the Name of My Daughter is extraordinarily timely given this era’s confusion about the even-handed application of law and the recognition of a person’s essential qualities (all confused by today’s “No Justice, No Peace” circuses). Téchiné applies the justice of artistry that seeks to understand all sides. This is another of Téchiné’s complex dramas, stirring together various characters and their irrational impulses (as when the casino’s ousted workers futilely chant “Occupée!”), which makes him a vibrant modern storyteller.

#related#A lesser director would have made In the Name of My Daughter an epic or a mini-series, but Téchiné (whose 1976 French Provincial rhapsodized a family’s 75-year dynasty in 96 minutes) breezes through circumstances and emotions, always deepening his characterizations, showing how the characters’ often mad actions reverberate. His expressive imagery — whether Deneuve’s dowager wardrobe exhibiting her sense of luxury and dominance, Agnelet’s secretive reading and hidden hostility, Agnès’s constant isolation, whether backing away from family or moving in on an outsider — is fluent, even when events are enigmatic. He adds Faulkner’s intense narrative shifts to Jean Renoir’s empathetic emotional scope.

Téchiné gives humane emphasis to what is, at heart, a political story. Just as his 2009 The Girl on the Train transposed New York’s Tawana Brawley case to Europe, In the Name of My Daughter is based on real-life incidents that were a social flashpoint in France. Téchiné cools down the inflammatory aspects of these cases (ignoring what Hollywood would sell as controversy) so that he can get deeper into each character’s strength, pain, mystery, and madness. Madame Le Roux’s monastic, old-age mission, Agnelet’s devastating specificity about the arrogance behind regret, and Agnès’s examining her body and then rejecting her bourgeois background in an internalized African dance are all moments of a sort you’ve never seen before. Téchiné’s art contemplates other people’s emotions especially when they are most fraught. That’s makes him an ideal, though never obvious, political filmmaker.

 

<img alt="Pitch Perfect 2" class="media-image img__fid__122042 img__view_mode__default attr__format__default attr__title__Pitch Perfect 2" src="http://c5.nrostatic.com/sites/default/files/pic_giant_051515_SM_Pitch-Perfect-2.jpg" title="Pitch Perfect 2” />

Agnès’s twerking, self-negating dance puts the cheery inanity of Pitch Perfect 2 to shame. There has never been a movie that showed more clearly how American girls — and by extension the U.S. itself — can be irredeemably insipid. (Although the first Pitch Perfect was probably worse.) This time actress-producer Elizabeth Banks also self-directs, clueless about how to present the musical performances of the Bellas, the college a capella group headed by Beca (Anna Kendrick), the schoolmarmish vocal arranger, who leads the gals to Copenhagen for a world championship.

Rarely has a movie musical shown such little joy as do these strident, unpleasant, poorly lipsynced, and tasteless musical numbers. Readers may be amused to know that the film’s tastelessness begins with inserts of President Obama enjoying the on-stage hijinks. (Unfunny Australian actress Rebel Wilson moons the audience: “I gave Obama a gift from down-under”). It’s consistent with cameo appearances by several TV-news pundits – a further example of the embarrassing collusion between showbiz and journalistic and political shamelessness. Pitch Perfect 2 is like a lousy politician’s unearned second term.

— Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review Online and received the American Book Award’s Anti-Censorship prize. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.

 

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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