mad max, the sopranos, and moralizing monsters

One night a few days ago, around 2 am, half-asleep, I became convinced that it would be intellectually fruitful to contrast Mad Max: Fury Road with the Sopranos.

Now, fully awake, I’m not sure there’s any connection between the two except that I watched them both this past week. But by looking for excuses to compare them I found a rather good one – a parallel between two scenes that seem, on the face of it, somewhat unremarkable.

mad max and moral defeat

You can glean pretty much all you need to know about Mad Max’s dusty hell-future from the preview. In Mad Max: Fury Road, a scene that stuck in my mind – and the only one that I can link tenuously at all to anything regarding the Sopranos – arrives in the first 15 minutes, even before Mad Max gets on the road. It’s an early way to show you the the twisted moral universe of the movie’s prime villain, Immortan Joe. (He’s the frighteningly pale, long-haired hulk with the breathing mask which, strangely and confusingly, features its own set of gums and chompers.)

Joe might be described as half medical nightmare, half despot. He rules over a clan of withered peasants and psychotic warrior boys, whom he’s fed a makeshift religious mythos that he’s at the center of.

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pacific rim suspends some of your disbelief, lets some of it fall to the ground in a heap

Suspension of disbelief is not a given. It’s not a license you hand a movie as part of your admission. It’s a negotiation; the suspension needs to be earned. A movie has to win it, minute by minute.

I’m thinking about this because of Pacific Rim, which by turns validates my suspension of disbelief and then squanders it.

Before I get to the why and how (and do some plot spoilage), a primer on the movie: The global menace of the near future turns out to be the “Kaijus,” a breed of Godzilla-sized aliens that appear regularly off the coast of major cities, which they ravage until such time as they are stopped by “Jaegers,” a kind of skyscraper-tall humanoid mecha we’ve designed to battle the Kaijus. The mental effort of manipulating the Jaeger, it is said, is too great a “neural load” for a single person. The solution is that two operators will typically pilot a single Jaeger, requiring them to mind-meld via “the drift,” a method of connecting two minds.

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beginners: like a slide show going off the rails

There’s a key scene in Mike Mills’ 2010 film, Beginners, that I think is worth looking at in some depth. But to get why it’s meaningful, it will help to have some context.

Beginners alternates between two timelines, both following artist and Angeleno Oliver (Ewan McGregor). One story has him taking care of his dying father, Hal, played by Christopher Plummer, who came out not long ago after the death of his longtime wife, Oliver’s mother. The other story, told in parallel, is Oliver’s new romance with Anna, one that begins some months after Hal has died.

Each of these plots is smartly written and performed, but there’s much more to love here. For one, there’s its tone: Lonesome and quiet, the movie’s approach to death and love is reserved. Also, maybe most importantly, it manages to make the whole context and history of 20th century America seem as though they are waiting just off screen. It does this through occasional sequences composed of stills and footage — the President, a shot of the night sky, the colors of the rainbow flag — forming a haphazard assortment of facts about our lives and culture of the past several decades. These odd little sets of curated images are like a slide show, with voiceovers from Oliver that sound like the field notes of a very sad anthropologist.

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beauty and the beast (1946): the cost of growing up

It’s hard to imagine that Google directed you here because you were looking for an article about Jean Cocteau’s 1946 live-action version of Beauty and the Beast, rather than the Beauty and the Beast with animated dancing teapots or even the Beauty and the Beast TV series featuring romance-novel Hellboy. But Cocteau’s masterpiece is what this post is about, so, sad to report, if you were hoping to hear about candlesticks voiced by Jerry Orbach, you’re out of luck.

Jerry Orbach

That said, Cocteau’s take on the classic story still feels fantastical, even at a remove of nearly 70 years. For whatever reason, I find it somehow gratifying to find that a film from just after the Second World War could use practical effects to evoke magic so … magically … and without the raw power of CGI. This occurred to me in an early scene, when Belle’s father stumbles into the front hall of the Beast’s enchanted manor. The candelabras lining the walls are held up by human hands and arms, and as he walks forward, the candles suddenly light and the arms extend in turn, evidently living but also doing a perfect imitation of an unliving mechanical process. A moment later, a disembodied hand in the table pours Pops a drink while the eyes of statues follow him around the room. This is typical of the Beast’s residence, which seethes with animation, and not of the cartoon sort.
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the giver is a study in “wait, what?”

Like a lot of mediocre movies, The Giver‘s problem is not so much in its fundamental conception but in its execution. I’ve been thinking about it since I saw it on Saturday, not so much because it’s special — it’s not — but because it’s middling in the way that so many movies are: It’s full of details that are confusingly counter-intuitive and character motivations and relationships that make little sense. Cumulatively, these small mistakes stop the better elements (like the strong performances of Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep) from adding up to anything greater.

So, as an exercise in examining the many ways that cinema narrative can be poorly handled, I will present my specific objections to The Giver in the form of rhetorical questions, for want of any better organizing principle. Frankly, this will be more satisfying if you’ve seen the movie, but don’t take that as a suggestion that you should.

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is gladiator a tragedy?

When I first saw Gladiator, at 19, I was only really watching Maximus.

The general-turned-warrior, played by Russell Crowe, was a real man any which way you looked at him. You could love him for his intelligence; you could love him for his brawn; you could love him for being a leader; you could love him because he actually just wanted to go home to his family. If the fearsome killer didn’t do anything for you, you could admire the family man.

In theory. I, for one, could not have given two hoots about the family man. Gladiator worked for me because it elaborated vividly and at length on the premise that Maximus was a badass. The beginning and ending of Gladiator’s appeal was that it let me forget I was myself for a while and pretend I was him.

photo by Nick Thompson

Of course, one finds oneself a bit lost in the end when this is what one yearns for in a film. Leaving the movie, I went through a sort of withdrawal. The fantasy ended, I was left with the reality that I was an anonymous college student waiting for a bus in the basement of the Mall of America. Spending time wanting to be Maximus was time wasted, and I knew it. Now, more than a decade later, I find that a little part of me still enjoys watching Maximus being a badass, but it’s no longer the only story in the movie. I have traded my ability to become completely engrossed in a dream for the ability to watch a movie more carefully and for other reasons.
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vol 2. of my comments on the house of blue leaves in kill bill: vol. 1

When I wrote about Kill Bill a couple of weeks ago, there was another whole aspect of the House of Blue Leaves sequence I didn’t get around to. It was the way the movie creates an action sequence that feels like more than just a bunch of noise and fury — an action sequence that causes the viewer to sense the violence and the physical aspect of the fight on something more like a gut level.

What I’m trying to describe could be called an aesthetic of brutality. With “brutality,” I’m trying to put a label on the general idea of destruction and mayhem as depicted in movies. Across movies, some punches seem to land harder than others, and some explosions seem more propulsive than others. Some movies, for lack of a better word, are more artful in their brutality than others.

The House of Blue Leaves section of Kill Bill: Vol. 1, for instance, has a higher brutality quotient than a lot of battle scenes I’ve watched, and I’ve been thinking about why. Part of the effect, I think, is achieved just by the length of the battle, which takes place over 30 odd minutes. Another reason the action feels so visceral, though, is what Quentin Tarantino does not just in the night club but to the night club. That is, he lets the Bride and the Crazy 88 gradually destroy it and leave a heaping mess of blood and body parts every which place, until the place is nothing but a war zone, totally transformed from the hip dance joint it was only minutes before.
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