You may well, and with good reason, ask yourself why at this point we would need still another Sherlock Holmes. We have, to name only the most obvious, the wildly popular Benedict Cumberbatch-Martin Freeman series on Masterpiece, the Lucy Liu-Jonny Lee Miller series on CBS, and the Robert Downey, Jr.-Jude Law films that have been box office gold for Guy Ritchie. We seem to be in the midst of a Holmes renaissance, and one might assume that the current Bill Condon film Mr. Holmes is simply a low-budget, little-promoted attempt to jump on the Holmes bandwagon. It is not.
Featuring the brilliant Ian McKellen as a nonagenarian Mr. Holmes, Condon’s film is a quiet meditation upon the hyper-rationality of the great detective, as created by Arthur Conan Doyle. But based on Mitch Cullin’s 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, Jeffrey Hatcher’s screenplay gives us a different kind of Holmes than we’ve become accustomed to. In a meta-fictional twist, in this film the “real” Sherlock Holmes is somewhat resentful of his old partner Dr. Watson’s published accounts of his escapades, because of Watson’s tendency to fictionalize things—the deerstalker hat, for instance, and the pipe are simply props created by Watson to round out Holmes’ “character.” In the film, Holmes is particularly annoyed with Watson’s account of his final case. He knows that the resolution of the case as Watson conveyed it in the published story is false, but at his advanced age he cannot remember precisely how that ending is false, and from his faltering memory he spends much of the film trying to piece together the true story of that case, which had for some reason led him to abandon his investigative career, and to leave Baker Street and retire to a small house on the coast near Dover, to raise bees.
The story opens in 1947, as the aging Holmes is returning to England from post-war Japan, where, at the invitation of a mysterious admirer there named Mr. Umezaki, played by Hiroyuki Sanada (Lost, The Wolverine) has lured him with the promise of a miracle herb he hopes may restore his failing memory. Growing only, apparently, in what is left of bomb-ravaged Hiroshima, the plant may be emblematic of new hope springing in the midst of devastation—like the desolation of Holmes’ own psyche. But there is something else going on in Japan, and one of Holmes’ challenges is to find the true reason for Mr. Umezaki’s invitation.
Another mystery, much more mundane, concerns what is killing Holmes’ bees. In his remote farmhouse, Holmes’ only company is his housekeeper Mrs. Munro and her tween-aged son Roger. In a remarkable casting feat, Condon has here been able to call upon and unite the lead actors from his two most critically successful previous films—McKellan (Oscar-nominated from Condon’s Gods and Monsters) and Laura Linney (Oscar-nominated from Condon’s Kinsey), who plays Mrs. Munro. Linney is convincing as a disgruntled widow, trying to do what is best for a son whose remarkable intellect she cannot understand herself. A real surprise is young Milo Parker (Robot Overlords) as Roger. In a sympathetic and compelling performance he manages to arouse our affections as he does those of Holmes, who begins to rely on the boy as his helper with the bees, while at the same time becoming Roger’s mentor and surrogate grandfather.
The film flashes back regularly to 1917, thirty years before the film’s “present” of 1947—the date of that last maddeningly elusive final case, his own “true” version of which Holmes is striving to compose. It involves a despairing, grief-stricken young wife (Hattie Morahan) whose husband believes is being manipulated by a music instructor. The case is set up like a typical Holmes mystery, but in the end turns into something quite different. The film keeps returning to the past as aspects of that case return in snatches to what is left of Holmes’ memory, and with Holmes we learn the truth. McKellen’s shifting back and forth from the frail old man battling senility to the detective at the height of his rational powers is a tour-de-force for actors—though part of the “willing suspension of disbelief” required for the film is accepting that there is in fact a thirty-year difference in age between the 1947 Holmes and the 1917 Holmes.
Ultimately the film looks at the cold detachment and rationality with which Holmes regularly solves his cases and asks whether there may be something missing in a life so tightly contained. Holmes fans may well be disappointed in the film if they are expecting the sort of twist that brings together all the clues at the end, solving the puzzle. If so, they have missed the point, which in large part is that life holds out for us no such denouement.
Among the “action films” and the raunchy comedies of the summer movie season, there’s a good chance that Mr. Holmes might be lost in the shuffle. I’d advise you not to let that happen. Here’s a thinking viewer’s movie that will entertain and enlighten you, and still get you out of the sizzling summer heat. Three Tennysons for this one.
In issue #34 of Showcase magazine in 1961, a new comic-book super-hero was introduced—a brilliant scientist who had found a way to shrink himself down to the size of an ant, while still retaining the strength and power of a full-grown man. The publisher was DC comics and the superhero was called “The Atom.” As the alter-ego of scientist Ray Palmer, the Atom was a huge success, soon getting his own magazine and becoming a member of the famed Justice League of America. The following year, in the September 1962 issue of Tales to Astonish, Marvel comics introduced a new super-hero who could also miniaturize himself, the secret identity of the brilliant scientist Hank Pym. In those days, riding on the popularity of Superman and Batman, DC was the 400 pound gorilla in the comic book universe, and Marvel was just beginning to make its mark with quirky but more psychologically complex characters like Spiderman. Why shouldn’t they take a little bit of creative license and tweak DC’s new hero into something similar in a Marvel vein—and call him “Ant-Man”?
In the newest movie set in the now dominant Marvel universe, however, director Peyton Reed (Bring it On, The Breakup) chooses to adapt the story of the second person to wear the Ant-Man uniform, Scott Lang. In the comics, the character of Lang, introduced in The Avengers magazine in 1979, was an electronics expert who turned to burglary when he was unable to support his family. After doing time in prison, he was hired by Stark International, but when his daughter Cassie fell ill with a heart condition, Lang returned to his criminal life, broke into Hank Pym’s house and stole the Ant-Man costume, and broke into Cross Enterprises. There he found that the villainous Darren Cross was holding Dr. Erica Sondheim prisoner. Lang was able to free Sondheim, the only person capable of saving Cassie’s life, and once Cassie was cured, Lang sought to return the Ant-Man suit to Dr. Pym, but Pym decided to allow Lang to keep the suit, on the promise that he would only use it in a good cause.
The film’s script only follows the broad strokes of the original story. Here, Lang (played with likeable self-deprecation by Paul Rudd) has an MA degree in electrical engineering, but was sent to prison for hacking a giant corporation’s files and taking money from them to put into the accounts of people they had cheated. He’s released early for good behavior, but can’t find a decent job, and is unable to send money to his ex-wife Maggie for Cassie’s support. At his daughter’s birthday party, where Maggie’s new cop-boyfriend Paxton (Bobby Cannavale) makes it clear he is not welcome, Maggie (Judy Geer) tells him he needs to get a job and start stepping up or she’s canceling his visitation rights.
Enter Lang’s old buddy and fellow burglar Luis (Michael Peña), who in ludicrous detail tells Lang about a job he wants to do. Turns out the job is breaking into a safe in Dr. Pym’s house where the only thing Lang finds is what he thinks is an old biker’s suit—but what turns out to be the Ant-Man uniform. It soon becomes clear that Pym (Michael Douglas) set Lang up to steal the suit, and wants him to become Ant-Man in order to stop his former protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) from duplicating Pym’s own technology for Ant-Man and selling it as a weapon of war, the lethal Yellowjacket. The plot to stop Cross also involves Pym’s daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly of TV’s Lost), who works for Cross and has some issues with her father, mainly regarding the death of her mother years before.
The film has a very light touch for a Marvell superhero movie—think a little more Guardians of the Galaxy than Captain America, though the scenes with Pym and his daughter tend to be more serious than those with Lang and Peña. Still it does comment on father-daughter relationships, and gives us an interesting parallel between the Lang/Cassie and the Pym/Hope relationships. There’s also a bit of an Oedipal conflict between Cross and Pym, so that Cross’s villainy seem largely fed by father-figure Pym’s rejection of him, leaving him with a desire to destroy the father. But these things are only very lightly touched upon.
The movie does have its flaws. My wife, never much enamored of giant insects and not much impressed by action scenes, called the movie “gross and boring.” There is something to be said for that point of view. The bugs are kind of disgusting, but mainly I didn’t find them particularly interesting as visual effects. Which reminds me—don’t waste your money by seeing this in 3-D. There’s nothing here that needs that enhancement, and no effects worth remarking on from my point of view. As for the action scenes, yes, they tend to be as dull and redundant as the action scenes of summer blockbuster movies usually are, full of quick cuts that make it difficult to figure out just what is happening; but fortunately there aren’t that many of them, and often the unusual point of view of the Ant-Man character gives such scenes a comic twist, as in the scene where the toy train threatens to run over Yellowjacket.
There are moments when the script seems to be confused—perhaps the inevitable result of four different hands working on it, including Rudd himself and the original director Edgar Wright (of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, who left the production because of “artistic differences”—his intent, apparently, was to make the movie an all-out spoof). But when Pym has to explain to Lang (who has a master’s in electrical engineering) what the quantum universe is, it doesn’t quite ring true. And the movie as a whole is schizophrenic. Overall, it’s a little hard to tell whether the movie wants to be that serious one that Pym and Hope want to play in, or that comic one of Rudd and Peña’s.
Who knows? Maybe it would have given Lang a more believable motive for becoming Ant-Man if they had kept the original comic book plot of his having to rescue the doctor that could save his daughter’s life, rather than trying to prevent Cross’s using the technology for evil, which is really Pym’s big concern, not Lang’s. The movie could also have been more entertaining in itself without the necessity that the producers seemed to feel of connecting Ant-Man’s story with the rest of the Marvel universe (the scene in which Lang visits a Stark Enterprises warehouse seems completely unnecessary as far as this particular film’s plot goes).
But some of these things are quibbles. The movie is fun and entertaining. Rudd is charming, likeable, and funny as he always is, and his light touch is perfect for a movie about a very light super hero. Peña is hilarious as the sidekick. Douglas is appropriately respectable and virtuous, and gets to be a little more than one-sided because of his complex grief over his wife; Stoll’s could also be pretty much of a one-note performance if not for that Oedipal thing he’s got going on. Greer, unfortunately, is given almost nothing to do, which makes her character forgettable, as opposed to her boyfriend Cannavale, who has a lot more to play with in his relationship with Cassie and with Lang. Abby Ryder Fortson is fine as Cassie—at least she’s not cloying and annoying as child actors are often wont to be—and she is believable as a child forced to divide her loyalties. Much better fleshed out (character-wise) is Lilly, and there is a nice chemistry between her and Rudd.
On the whole, the film is worth seeing. You’ll probably have a better time at it than some of the bigger action movies of the summer that are taking themselves much more seriously. I’ll give it two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson.
Back in the fifth century, a Latin writer named Prudentius composed a poem called Psychomachia (the “Battle of the Spirits”), in which he personified virtues and vices that might coexist within the human mind and portrayed them at war with one another: Chastity is assaulted by Lust, Patience is attacked by Anger, Greed is presented as the enemy of Love. It was the first of a whole literary tradition of allegory—the personifying of abstractions—popular throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. Flip the calendar forward to 2015, and Pixar has come up with a “creative” and “new” approach to presenting internal conflicts by externalizing them (the inside does come out) and presenting them in the form of…personified abstractions.
Not that I have anything against this approach. It worked for a thousand years back in the day, why shouldn’t it work now? Especially when it is undergirded by contemporary psychology and entertainingly voiced by the likes of Amy Pohler (as the sometimes overbearing Joy), Phyllis Smith (as the overlooked but ultimately vital Sadness), Bill Hader (as Fear), Mindy Kaling (as Disgust), and the absolutely hilarious Lewis Black (as, who else, Anger).
There are two levels to the plot of “Inside Out”: there’s, well, an inside and an outside. The outside, or surface plot, goes like this: Riley (Kaitlyn Davis) is an eleven-year old girl who moves from Minneapolis to San Francisco. Hard enough for a child of any age, but for a pre-adolescent eleven-year-old girl, forced to leave all of her friends and her most avid interests (ice hockey in Riley’s case) and start over again, a real trauma. Riley’s parents (voiced by Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) are having their own difficulties adjusting, and her mother expresses her gratitude to Riley for taking everything in stride in being her “happy little girl.”
But Riley is called on by her teacher on her first day at her new school and forced to introduce herself to her classmates, breaking down in the midst of her introduction as she realizes how much she has lost. Her audition for the local hockey team also goes awry, and Riley spins emotionally out of control.
The parallel inside plot follows Riley’s personified feelings—Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust—as they react to the things that are occurring in the outside world, and try to drive Riley in particular directions. In this they are led primarily by Joy, who believes she must be dominant in Riley’s life, largely to the exclusion of other emotions. The inner feelings preserve Riley’s memories, most of which—particularly the “core memories” that are stored deepest in Riley’s psyche—are the color of joy.
With the family’s move to San Francisco, however, Sadness begins to take a more active role in matters inside Riley’s head, much to Joy’s dismay. Not only does Joy struggle against events as she seeks to dominate Riley’s psyche, but at the same time she does everything she can to keep Sadness down and negate any effects that contrary emotion might have in Riley’s emotional life. But when Joy and Sadness are accidentally sucked deep into Riley’s long term memory, where they meet the nearly forgotten Bing Bong, Riley’s imaginary friend (Richard Kind), who helps them as they struggle to return to the control center of Riley’s mind. In their absence, Anger, Fear and Disgust have taken over and have steered Riley onto what may be a disastrous path.
“Inside Out” has four major positives going for it: First, its allegorical presentation of the workings of the mind—the subconscious, the memory, the intertwined emotions—is creative, imaginative, and entertaining, even if it is 1500 years old. Second, the story allows for moments of clever humor (the “train of thought” is an actual train that puffs along the tracks of Riley’s mind; dreams are created in a “dream factory,” complete with a production crew and soundstage. One of Riley’s more frightening memories is a clown from an early birthday party). Third, the voices of the television personalities who inhabit the major roles do a remarkable job bringing those characters to life. Finally and most importantly, the film undercuts the dangerous attitude that all our emotions must be sublimated to happiness in favor of a healthier acceptance of sadness, anger and fear. It is a message that may surprise audiences expecting Joy to win out in the end, as a good summer Hollywood blockbuster should.
The film is animated, but may be beyond the grasp of small children. Adults will get the most out of it, but eleven-year-olds who can relate to Riley’s plight are likely to grasp most of the subtleties of Docter’s story. This is a film that ranks with Dokter’s other great triumphs—“Toy Story” and “Up”—and as such is likely to be the best animated film of the year. I’ll give this one three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare.
If you’ve been out of the country for a month as I have, you may not have seen Spy yet, and if that’s the case, let me take this opportunity to recommend it. With Jurassic Park and Age of Ultron having already garnered around half a billion dollars each at the box office, Hollywood’s summer blockbuster season of nonstop action and computer-generated special effects is off to a very lucrative start, but if you’d like a little comedy as a change of pace, you might get a lot out of this feminist spoof of the traditional spy genre a la James Bond.
The film opens with a pop song blasting over the opening titles and credits that sounds (and looks) uncannily like Shirley Bassey’s brassy rendition of the title song over the opening credits of Goldfinger fifty years ago, and we are immediately confronted by Bradley Fine (Jude Law as a suave, deadly Bond-like hero) shooting and fighting his way through a series of bad guys without breaking a sweat or wrinkling his dinner jacket.
But this is not Bradley Fine’s story. It’s the story of Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy), the CIA agent who works at a desk back in Langley and is the voice in Fine’s ear, using computer technology to warn Fine when a group of bad guys approaches him from around the next corner. Cooper, it turns out, tested well as a field agent but lacks self-confidence, and besides, Fine has convinced her they make a great “team” and doesn’t want her to give up her desk job helping him out from Langley’s rat-infested basement. The fact that she has clearly had unrequited feelings for Fine for years has helped convince Cooper that she is in the job she needs to be in.
But when Fine is apparently gunned down while seeking a stolen nuclear device, Cooper is pressed into duty as a field agent, since all of the CIA’s top agents are known to the criminals. She must go on a fact finding mission to Paris, Rome, and Budapest to track down a criminal mastermind arms dealer named Rayna (Rose Byrne, McCarthy and Feig’s Bridesmaids costar), who seeks to sell the nuclear device to a rogue terrorist organization, which plans to detonate it on U.S. soil. And, of course, hilarity ensues.
But it might not be the kind of hilarity you’d expect. The typical Hollywood scenario would have Cooper commit all kinds of silly faux pas because of her inexperience and essential incompetence and then, by sheer luck, she would emerge victorious in the end. But that’s not what happens here. Cooper is in fact a well-trained agent with a talent for the work. The company’s use of her turns out to be ridiculous, putting her in guises such as a dowdy Midwestern frump with a house full of cats, and giving her high-tech Bond-like gadgets in the form of stool softeners, hemorrhoid wipes and a Beaches watch. McCarthy must spend a good part of the movie transcending the stereotyped boxes that her superiors want to put her in until, cornered by Byrne, she must make up her own identity—a tough-talking bodyguard—which allows her more familiar screen persona to emerge and trade salty barbs with Byrne in a manner reminiscent of her character in The Heat. It is a microcosm of Hollywood’s treatment of women of McCarthy’s physical type who are not conventionally “beautiful.” The spy-thriller genre a la James Bond becomes, in McCarthy and Feig’s hands, a metaphor for the movies’ stereotyped images of machismo and conventional “femininity” that have influenced, and been influenced by, society’s own stereotypes since the beginning. In Spy, Moneypenny gets to put her considerable talents to work, and the Bond/Jude Law types are revealed finally to be attractive but manipulative users of women.
Or they can be the less sophisticated but (in the movies anyway) far more prevalent action-hero types embodied in Rick Ford (Jason Statham), a rogue agent who doesn’t believe Cooper will be able to track down the nuclear device and decides to go after it himself. Statham’s performance is a hilarious sendup of his own screen persona, and he boasts of his increasingly more absurd exploits in more and more unbelievable hyperbole. At the same time he bungles his way into Cooper’s business and nearly ruins things several times, until at one point she is forced to save him from his own incompetence before he blows up himself along with a crow of innocent bystanders.
The men in the film (Fine, Ford, and Aldo, an Italian ally played by Peter Sarafinowicz who does little but leer lasciviously at Cooper and every other woman in view) are all too self-involved to be much help in actually accomplishing the mission. Byrne, of course, is herself an anomaly—no Bond film has a memorable female villain, and if they did, she would simply be seduced by the irresistible charm of the suave hero. It’s the other women (with the notable exception of Rayna, of course) who prove the most useful to Cooper: the CIA director played by Alison Janney (who has made a niche for herself playing serious character roles despite not being the conventional Hollywood type herself), and Cooper’s fellow desk-jockey Miranda Hart (another unconventional type for Hollywood, from PBS’s Call the Midwife), who turns field agent in the end as well. In a way, this makes the film seem a bit too obvious (Women good! Men bad!) but it doesn’t come across that pat and the men seem redeemable. And it is a comedy after all—there are winners and losers, but the losers don’t suffer much.
Aside from having a pretty lame title, Spy is not as funny as, say, The Heat was, partly because Cooper is too sympathetic to laugh at much. You feel with her—particularly in an exchange late in the film when Ford scoffs at her and asks sarcastically if she thinks she can seduce a male target and you feel like asking, with her, why that is so hard to believe. The jokes are not on her, so they’ve got to be on the men. And they are, particularly the men whose world view has not yet expanded to encompass the competency of women as women, rather than as air-brushed icons.
A good three Tennysons for this one.
If you’re looking for an antidote to the nonstop action or violence so typical of the summer blockbuster as we know it, you may be in the market for the newest film version of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel Far From the Madding Crowd, from Danish director Thomas Vinterberg. Here, with a few significant and even shocking exceptions, the action is chiefly internal, driven by the emotions, or lack thereof, of the characters who make up the love pentangle that forms the story.
Vinterberg’s film comes exactly 100 years after the first film version of the story, a now lost 1915 British silent film that stared Florence Turner, and nearly 50 years after John Schlesinger’s poorly received 1967 film starring Julie Christie, fresh from her Oscar. Vinterberg’s is not a perfect film, but may be the best of the lot, based mainly on a fine performance by Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene.
The title of the film is confusing for some folks. The fellow who sold me the ticket ssid “Okay, two for Far from the Maddening Crowd.” I stifled my pedantic reflex and just smiled. After all, I figured, nobody really has any reason to use the term “madding” anymore., and unlike Hardy, Vinterbrg does not have the reasonable expectation that any educated person in his audience was more than familiar with the lines from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a County Churchyard” to which Hardy’s title alludes:
Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenour of their way.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the adjective “madding” as “Becoming mad; acting madly; frenzied,” and notes that the word is now used “chiefly in far from the madding crowd [in allusion to Gray’s and Hardy’s uses… (of a place) secluded, removed from public notice; also in other phrases modelled on this.” In other words, the only time the word is used nowadays is in allusion to Hardy’s book or Gray’s poem.
But changing the word to “maddening” ignores the deliberate irony in Hardy’s title. Gray’s lines imply that a pastoral life, away from the frenzy of the city’s crowd, is by nature calm and peaceful, a “cool sequester’d” life, while Hardy’s story of love’s turmoils and the hardships of farming life belies that naïve assumption.
Like Hardy’s other major novels (Return of the Native, Jude the Obscure, Tess of the D’urbervilles), the story is set in the English West Country, in a mythical county called Wessex. Bathsheba Everdene is a beautiful and independent woman who, helping on her aunt’s farm, draws the attention of a neighboring sheep farmer, Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), who somewhat surprisingly springs a marriage proposal on her. Bathsheba is taken aback, but is not in love with Gabriel and besides, does not really want a husband.
Things change when Bathsheba inherits an uncle’s farm, and despite some raised eyebrows among the local farmers, determines to manage the property herself. When Oak loses his own farm and needs a job, he applied to Bathsheba after helping put out a fire in her barn, and is employed by the new mistress as a shepherd. Their fortunes reversed, Bathsheba gives no more thought to Gabriel’s earlier proposal, but capriciously sends a valentine to a wealthy middle-aged neighboring farmer, William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), who, interpreting the gesture more seriously than it was intended, proposes to Bathsheba himself. She does not accept his proposal either, but does suggest she will consider it.
She doesn’t. Instead, she meets a handsome young sergeant, Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge) that same night and, infatuated by his demonstration of swordsmanship, goes off and marries him. Like that’s going to be a good idea. You’d think this independent-minded woman who has resisted two other suitors and has never felt she needed a man would be able to resist this kind of foolish choice—I mean, hasn’t Bathsheba read Jane Austen? Doesn’t she know what happened to that foolish Kitty Bennett? But I digress. Anyway, turns out (shocker!) that Troy is a gambler and wastrel, too precious for farm work, and besides, has a previous mistress, Fanny Robin (Juno Temple) who shows up pregnant.
Well I won’t spoil the end for you if you haven’t read the book. Suffice it to say that the movie reads in many ways like a Victorian soap opera—no doubt if Hardy were around today, he’d be paying the bills by writing episodes of Days of Our Lives. But the film goes beyond that, in creating a believable character who insists on being her own woman against all the social mores of her time. Mulligan manages to embody every emotion one might feel being pursued by three very different men. She does this chiefly through her eyes and body language, delivering the exquisite line “It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.”
Sheen is excellent as her high strung, emotionally unstable neighbor Boldwood. Schoenaerts is appropriately restrained and stoic as the long-suffering Oak. And Sturridge manages to squeeze something more out of his sleazy character than a simple cad and bounder. One change that David Nicholls’ screenplay makes from Hardy’s novel is the elimination of an early scene in which Troy rejects Fanny and casts her off because she has embarrassed him by not showing up for their wedding, though the silly girl had only made a mistake by going to the wrong church. Nicholls presents Troy as more heartbroken by the incident, and so manages to create a modicum of sympathy for Troy, though it is difficult to maintain it.
It’s also fun to play with the names in the movie, as Hardy no doubt expected us to. Bathsheba, of course, is David’s neighbor, married to the soldier Uriah, whom David covets. In Hardy’s scenario, Boldwood is in the position of David and Troy of Uriah. The name Troy, though, suggests a downfall brought about by the disregard for matrimonial bonds—as Paris abducted Helen and brought about the destruction of his home city of Troy, the sergeant’s misuse of Bathsheba, and of Fanny, seem to combine to bring about his destruction. As for Gabriel Oak, he is as strong and steadfast as the sturdy tree for which he is named, and like his namesake Gabriel serves despite all else as Bathsheba’s guardian angel.
This is also a beautiful film, in particular its costumes, especially those worn by Bathsheba once she inherits her own estate. And award-winning cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen manages to milk all the beauty of rural West Country England in scene after scene of beautiful natural scenes that call up like nothing else in the movie the spirit of Gray’s original lines—the cool sequestered background against which the tempest of the lover’s madding life plays out.
Certainly there are some flaws in the film, in particular in the sometimes eviscerated script that leaves out a good deal of exposition, a fact that makes Oak’s and Boldwood’s proposals seem to come out of nowhere. And without giving away the ending, it is a little disappointing to see the very unconventional Bathsheba squeezed ultimately into a conventional role, though that is Hardy’s doing, not the filmmaker’s. Still, it is no accident that Bathsheba Everdene is the spiritual mother of Katniss Everdeen, the strong willed and self-sufficient heroine of the popular Hunger Games series—who is also the object of more than one suitor’s affections. Katniss has somewhat more agency in her society than Bathsheba is allowed in hers, but it must be stated that without the Bathshebas blazing the trail, there would have been no possibility of a Katniss.
Three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare for this one. If you want to get away from the madding crowds this summer, skip by The Avengers and Fury Road, and duck into this movie. You’ll be glad you did.
Thirty years ago Australian director George Miller made Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, the third in his series of post-apocalyptic road-warrior movies, and it appeared to be the last—he went on to make innocuous children’s films like Babe: Pig in the City and Happy Feet. But the 70-year-old director has gone back to his roots with Mad Max: Fury Road, and found a lot of new toys to play with.
What he has made is an adrenaline-pumping, two-hour thrill ride that feels like a perpetual video-game, full of explosions, crashes, fireworks, and pieces of wrecked auto parts and human bodies flying at you in 3D. With its panoramic desert vistas, the film is visually stunning and seems clearly the product of a director who sees film as a visual medium rather than a linguistic one. The desert scenes are reminiscent of a John Ford western, with a stagecoach replaced by a war-wagon pieced together from a rusted oil tanker and various truck parts, and the pursuing Apaches replaced by a cavalry of turbo-charged jeeps and other crazily modified vehicular hardware. The biggest difference is that the western is a movie interrupted at some point by a dramatic chase scene; Fury Road is an exciting chase scene interrupted briefly by a few snatches of dialogue.
The story is set in a waste land some time after a nuclear holocaust has destroyed civilization. The humans who are left alive are plagued by deformity, disease, cancer and mutation, while at the same time they struggle to eke out the necessities of life—particularly gasoline (they’ve got to run all those souped-up ancient vehicles) and water. There is no real exposition in the film—it opens with Max standing on a cliff, with his voice over saying “My world is fire and blood,” and bemoaning the people he had not been able to save, including his wife and a young girl who is, perhaps, his daughter, who appears to him in images that spring into his mind at various times through the movie. Then he stomps his foot down on a two-headed gecko scurrying by, and pops it into his mouth to eat raw.
In the movie’s opening scenes, Max (Tom Hardy) is captured by a gang belonging to what is in effect a primitive tribe whose chieftan, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), dresses in body armor that covers his deformed body, and a hideously barbaric mask that makes him look proto-human. He has seized power and maintains it by controlling their access to water, by using people like Max as forced blood donors to keep his War Boys alive, and by using women as personal sex slaves in the hope of begetting normal children.
Enter Furiosa—Immortan Joe’s top raider, with shaved head and blackened eye-sockets, and a mechanical arm. She is leading a band of raiders to scavenge for gas, but suddenly switches direction. Turns out she’s rescued Immortan Joe’s harem of slave-wives and has them stowed in her vehicle. When Joe realizes this, the chase is on, with Max strapped to the front of one of the pursuing vehicles, wearing a metal cage face mask and connected by IV to a skinny diseased War Boy named Nux (Nicholas Hoult).
Nux, whose dream is to die in battle so that he can be reborn in Valhalla (following the neo-pagan beliefs of his neo-barbaric society), just can’t seem to manage it, and, after a budding love affair blossoms between him and one of the stolen wives, ends up joining the women. Max, who at first simply wants to take off by himself in Furiosa’s truck, ultimately must join them as well as Furiosa tries to make her way to what she has promised the captive women are the “Green Place of Many Mothers,” the lands of her birth far, far to the east. She does succeed in finding the mothers, a band of battle-hardened older women called the Vuvalini. But I won’t reveal the end of the movie. Which, as you might expect, takes place after another very long climactic chase and road-battle.
Let me say, first, that this movie is not for everyone. You may have heard about the fuss raised by “male activist” bloggers, calling for a boycott of the movie, because they believe it to be “Feminist propaganda” disguised as an action movie. In particular, Miller’s consultation with Vagina Monologues writer Eve Ensler aroused the ire of the “men’s rights” crazies, when he brought her in to discuss her work with real-life sex slaves in the Congo with the actresses playing Immortan Joe’s five “breeders.” It seems unlikely that this “boycott” will have much of an effect on the movie, other than to make women more interested in seeing it.
So if you happen to be one of the aforementioned protectors of fragile male identities, you might have a problem with this movie. Conversely, if you are one of those women who is intrigued by the movie because of those blog posts, you may find yourself disappointed. My wife hated every minute of the movie, and said afterwards that she has never enjoyed herself less in any film she has ever seen. The film is not for the weak of stomach or the faint of heart. It resoundingly earns its R rating. So much for feminism.
Nor is this the sort of movie I am generally interested in. Like many another summer action flicks, this has the feel of a video game, but essentially it is like watching someone else play a video game for two hours. Eventually, you’re going to lose interest. Or at least I am.
But then of course, I’m not the intended audience. And neither is my wife. If you like summer action movies, you’ll like this movie. If you like video games, you’ll love this movie. If you liked the three original Mad Max movies, you’ll go nuts for this movie.
But I think there is more to it than that. I think with what is clearly a genre movie, it is important to ask whether there are aspects of it that transcend the genre. Fury Road appeals to viewers on a much deeper level than the surface story might suggest. There are archetypal themes here that not only transcend but perhaps even transform the genre. The film exploits the archetype of the waste land, which must be restored to fertility by the grail knight, whose quest heals the dead land and brings life to it. Here, Max must defeat the old king and bring the waters of life back to the people.
At the same time the film makes use of the archetypal Eden motif—the green land of fertility that existed before man lost paradise—and, in the world of the film, created the waste land. The desire to return to Eden, to regain paradise, is strong in the film, and is what motivates Furiosa and her rescued slaves. The mothers, the Vuvulini, are keepers of the seeds, restorers of fertility. The film brings the two themes together and makes the point that to regain the Eden that was, we must restore the waste land that is. It works on a mythic level, and in that way even converted skeptical me. And that took some doing.
I’m giving this three Tennysons, a ranking that will disappoint my wife, who would have given it a Robert Southey, and will disappoint the millions of adolescent video gamers, who would have given it four Shakespeares plus. But that’s how I see it.
Summer is icumin in, loude sing “kerblam”!
If it is May, it must be time for groups of comic book characters to save the world from certain destruction, and to do it while destroying much of the planet as they do so. Imagine my surprise when the latest Avengers movie, Age of Ultron, was nothing of the sort.
Just kidding, of course that’s what it was. The film begins with an attack by the Avengers on the hideout of Baron von Strucker in the imaginary eastern European country of Sokovia, where they meet a pair of hostile genetically-engineered super twins, Pietro and Wanda Maximof (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen, whom my wife refers to as “the non-Olsen-twin Olsen”), known to Marvel comics fans as Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, and they also discover the defeated Loki’s scepter. Ironman Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), with the help of Bruce “the Hulk” Banner (Mark Ruffalo), takes the scepter back to Avengers headquarters and finds that it contains a gemstone that holds an artificial intelligence program (yeah, I know, just go with it). Stark is able to create from this the “Ultron” program (voiced by James Spader), which he designs to be a peacekeeping system, powerful enough to defend the entire world so that, presumably, the Avengers won’t have to.
As it turns out, though, this Artificial Intelligence has a mind of its own. Ultron believes that the Avengers themselves are one reason there is no peace on earth, and determines that they must be exterminated. And while he’s at it, he figures if he can just get rid of people in general, think how peaceful THAT would make things. And so of course, Ultron is off to destroy all human life on the planet.
That means, of course, that the world’s greatest heroes—Iron Man and the Hulk, Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner)—have to team up to stop Ultron before he can make good on his nefarious plans. For good measure Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, and a few other folks from the Marvel universe show up, and it also plays out that those crazy kids Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch finally realize they are helping the guy who’s going to kill everyone and join the good guys. There are a few other surprises along the way, and I won’t play spoiler for them, but that pretty much is the plot. There is a lot of science –fiction sounding mumbo-mumbo, none of which is really intended for us to follow, we just need to nod our heads and accept it. The details of the plot aren’t really what’s important here.
As for the characters, one thing that writer/director Joss Whedon (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame, who was also responsible for the first Avengers movie in 2012) has going for him is the fact that several of the characters—Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, Thor—are already familiar to the audience through their own movies, or series of movies. That means that he doesn’t have to spend much time giving us background—except a bit for Black Widow and Hawkeye, who get a nod toward characterization. For the most part, though, we get snippets of interaction between a few of the characters (a budding romance between the Hulk and Black Widow, a glance of the home life of Hawkeye, a glimpse of Iron Man’s conscience, of Captain America’s regrets) many of which could be fruitful to follow up on. But there’s no chance to do that.
Because in fact the audience isn’t here (or at least the producers don’t believe the audience is here) to follow the plot or to relate to the characters, except to laugh at the occasional wisecracks, some of which—the allusion to Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, for example—aren’t references many viewers are familiar with. What the audience is really here for is to watch all of the explosions, the fights, and the computer generated effects, almost all of which involve explosions, fights, and the destruction of large portions of every city the characters visit. The film is 141 minutes long, and it feels like a good half of it is spent on one major fight or another. As my wife so often tells me, ”you are not the intended audience,” but it does strike me that if this is what the audience wants to see, wouldn’t it make more sense for them to simply play a video game rather than spend ten to fifteen dollars or whatever it is to watch the 3D version of this stuff.
Whedon is a cultural force to be reckoned with, but he’s being asked here to invest in the crazy Hollywood mantra that “more is more.” How can you have a coherent movie with what, nine major stars? Each vying for enough screen time to make their participation in the movie worthwhile and to create something memorable about their character in the three minutes that they’ve got between the destruction of this building and the explosion in that one? A fascinating aspect of this film is the Red Witch’s ability to cause the characters to experience waking dreams, which reveal something about their hopes and fears—which would have been a fascinating thing to explore, but is shunted off almost before it gets off the ground for another big battle scene.
Oh Whedon does manage to squeeze in a few moral questions that linger in the smoke somewhere amid the rockets’ red glare and the bombs bursting in air. The chief question here is, in fact, the one that Ultron raises: are the Avengers truly peacemakers, or do they cause as much destruction as they prevent? Ostensibly, the Avengers take this criticism to heart, and spend a good deal of time in the final and nearly interminable battle scene trying to save citizens of the Sokovian city from the destruction that is coming (for reasons not completely clear, the city needs to be destroyed), Underneath, though, there are at least three different cities in this film that are brought to rubble by various battles, so that Whedon, in what has been billed as his last go at directing a Marvel movie, seems to have left the answer to this question, and to the question of the value of such films, ambiguous. Maybe, like the Eugene O’Neill joke, it’s his way of saying, “Look, I know what I’m doing here, and I know what the genre requires of me. But I’m leaving you with the question.”
There’s a lot of cleverness here. Just not enough to raise the movie above its genre. Two Jaqueline Susanns.