Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

Sad Hill Media's latest short film, LIFEGUARD, directed by Devan & Will, will be premiering Thursday, October 1st at Vancity Theatre at 9:15pm! A second presentation will also take place a week later on October 8th at 4:30pm in the same location.

It'll be exhibiting with five other short films from across Canada, so come out and enjoy a night (or afternoon) of neato Canadian cinema!

Tickets can be purchased here.

by Will Ross

A couple months ago, my close friend and codirector Devan Scott came to me and said “Our short got into VIFF.” I felt myself light up; those words brought a lot of excitement, gratitude, and relief. They ought to. The Vancouver International Film Festival is a major fest, with terrific, diverse programming from all over the world (especially its Asian section), plenty of exposure, and a good number of panels and events that make a free festival pass worth salivating over.

Yet when I take off my business hat and put on my artist’s hat, my feelings mix. The Canadian programming at VIFF doesn’t do much to inspire pride in me as a filmmaker, because VIFF doesn’t seem to do much to support a challenging local or national cinema. For a long time now, VIFF has seemed to judge regional films by the perceived amount of money that was poured into them, and by how closely they mimic Hollywood films. “Production value” has become a tradition of quality.

That’s not an aberration in these parts. In the BC film industry, the focus is on marketable content first, artistry second. There needn’t be a dichotomy between the two, but it’s clear where priorities lie (an exception last year: the structurally ambitious Violent taking the fest’s top prize over a lackluster field). This centralization of finance over aesthetics isn’t even a dirty little secret in this city — it’s touted openly, even proudly, by major figures in the local cinema scene. Take, for instance, local producer Shawn Williamson’s rationale for his preference of VIFF’s BC rival, the Whistler Film Festival:

“I love the Vancouver [International] Film Festival and they're awesome, but they don't really matter to the film industry….At the end of the day, all that really matters is that we finance things that people are going to buy….We can try to make all we want and I've made many, many films that nobody will see. But at the end of the day, it's a business….Art is awesome but if no one sees it, it doesn't matter."

Anyone, of course, can sympathize with the economic pressures in film. Movies are expensive to produce and expensive to distribute. But the profit motive always seems to supersede the artistic one in BC cinema. In my five years in Vancouver I’ve seen industry clout and marketability dominate and define discussions about local success more often than not. This city’s obsession with proving its relevance to the industry at large has put it in a closed loop, one inaccessible to fresh filmmakers and novel ideas. (I often think about 2012’s “Save BC Film” campaign, which lobbied tax credits for US productions to “save” the local film industry. How much of BC’s film did we actually save?)

There most telling sign of BC and Vancouver’s wilful resistance to distinctive local talents: despite being one of the largest film production hubs in North America, BC can’t boast a single homegrown cinematic talent who is recognized and lauded on an international scale, be their movies “arthouse” or otherwise. I don’t expect everything to come out of BC to be great, but we generally have a low ceiling on quality, because our local perception of “quality” is an imitation of American cinema funded by Canadian (i.e. less) money. A friend put it this way: ours is a colonized cinema, a cinema that allows itself to be defined and governed by the needs and terms of outsiders. Specifically, outsiders looking for a tax credit.

Why does VIFF, which touts itself as cinephile-friendly, have an Industry component that is so irrelevant to the kinds of films that cinephiles patronize (a major VIFF event like Arabian Nights would never be lauded by its mindset, Where Content Means Business)? Why doesn’t VIFF program critically-buzzed, up-and-coming Canadians like Isiah Medina or Kazik Radwanski? Why does Vancouver’s most famous and attended film school, VFS, define its output not by their critical success or even awards, but by the fact that VFS alumni had credits on films that earned $18 billion in 2013 and 2014? (The overwhelming majority of those credits, I promise you, were not for creative roles.) Vancouver is a service city, Transaction Town, and if you’ve got something to say, you ought to keep your head down unless it’s got dollars and cents at its center.

I urge VIFF not to measure its homegrown talent on these terms. VIFF is the hub of film culture in this city, and that gives it a responsibility to foster local filmmakers, not by teaching them the rules of the gatekeepers’ game, but by encouraging them to write their own rules, and rewarding them for it. TIFF doesn’t get to do things like Wavelengths because it’s a relevant festival. It gets to be a relevant festival because it does things like Wavelengths. Nobody’s plugging that hole west of Toronto, and VIFF has an obligation to do it. That doesn’t just mean programming the biggest successes from Cannes, it means VIFF taking risks all its own.

I admit that this is a little bit personal. I’m a young filmmaker. I know that if I’m going to get any traction making art on my own terms I’ll have to work hard and long. Sometimes I’ll have to make compromises. But there’s a difference between paying your dues and selling your soul, and this industry only gives me and a lot of other passionate filmmakers the latter option. Excited film students learn about the 90s wave of Vancouver filmmakers like Bruce Sweeney, Mina Shum, and Lynne Stopkewich, and then they’re unleashed on a culture that couldn’t care less about all that. Today those filmmakers make movies for less money than ever. We haven’t had a significant global presence since their heyday.

Our local industry needs a major shift in tone. VIFF’s Canadian programming has an opportunity to provide that vision, take risks, and help make Vancouver’s local cinema something that commands the whole world’s attention. It’s high time to make it something we can be proud of.

by Will Ross

Spoilers, I guess.

No other film seems to capture the divide between the former order of Hollywood aesthetics and the decodifications of the 60s better than The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), the final consensus masterpiece of John Ford. Though Ford had spent the last two decades teasing apart the myth of the western he defined as much as anyone up through Stagecoach (1939), Liberty Valance is perhaps the most drastic break from aesthetic norms for a director who always seemed to shift into chameleonic formal perfection no matter which project he took on.

Was John Ford’s elegy to the division between high-minded modernism and the social entropy of the old west partly inspired by the sudden break between the misfortunes of Hollywood studios and the concurrent explosion of foreign films in influence and availability? On one hand, that’s tempting to dismiss as a reduction of Ford’s career (which always imagined American progress as existing between the comforts and character of traditions, and the security and freedom from barbarism offered by a self-renewing civilization), but Ford had never personified both sides of that division so starkly and sympathetically as he did through their avatars of John Wayne’s braggart cowboy Tom Doniphon and James Stewart’s uppity lawyer/politician Ransom Stoddard. And the dividing line goes farther than that: Ford it seemed, had mastered classical beauty so thoroughly that he had found the confidence in his picturesque craft to give it all up and shoot soundstages on black and white stock with nary a vista in sight. Though Ford’s ease with cutting, emotive camera placement, and expressive geometric compositions are still there, very few shots have that instant put-this-in-a-picture-frame beauty so typical of the rest of his career. Axis breaks, rapid editing, high contrast photography, a total lack of vistas — there's even a couple jump cuts in there!

On my first viewing of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, no supporting character struck me more thoroughly than Valance himself; it’s been oft-observed that Lee Marvin’s stock casting in vicious, unsparingly violent roles is a sort of reenactment of the grisly horror he saw and perpetrated in World War II, and his performance as Valance has always seemed the most distilled and pure and terrifying of those roles. The specter of fear that follows him everywhere is Ford at his most humanist: the threat of any death is repulsive and fearful to all. That even goes for the death of Valance, whose titular dispatch may be the saddest physical performance of any death in the western genre. It’s a token of Ford’s by-then fully formed humanism that all death, even the death of such an agent of evil, is destructive, for nobody’s existence is more defined and dependent on the threat of Valance than Tom Doniphon, an expression of the John Wayne heroic outlaw character so simple and direct that Wayne complained there was hardly anything to the character at all (exactly!). Doniphon is, more than anything, the counterweight to chaos against Valance, and as soon as Valance is destroyed, so is Doniphon.

But on this viewing the secondary role that shone brightest was Edmond O’Brien’s newspaperman Dutton Peabody, possibly the greatest and most richly performed comic relief character in the Ford canon (which, as any Ford devotee can tell you, is no small nor meanly earned offer of hyperbole). Peabody is a man of immense intelligence and moral fiber whose every instinct and ambition is clipped by his fear of inadequacy and tempered by alcohol, and his fearful ascent from a local word shill to a journalist of influence and integrity is profound and multi-layered enough to carry a great film on its own.

Two of his scenes move me more than any others. First, the scene where Ranse Stoddard reads the front page proof of Peabody’s latest edition of the Shinbone Star, in particular an editorial attacking the influence of the state’s wealthy cattlemen. O’Brien handily steals the scene from Stewart, and as Stoddard exclaims “This is great… it’s just great”, you can see O’Brien’s face move from sheepish fear that he has stepped beyond his place, to surprise and confusion at Stewart’s response, to a deep pride and determination that he carries with him through the rest of the film. A scene that, on paper, is not much more than a cowardly and bumbling editor playing comic astonishment at his newfound competence, strikes home as a man who is being told — after a lifetime of dreaming of it while reading newspapers and Shakespeare — that he is important and his life has meaning. The second moment is in the film’s political climax, after Peabody has advocated at an election for Ransom Stoddard to represent the region’s bid for statehood. After his intense, crowd-pleasing poetics, his opponent mounts a snobbish and withering dismissal of Ranse’s credibility, and Peabody turns to find Stoddard has disappeared. After Stoddard regains his drive — that is, after he learns who really shot Liberty Valance — he re-enters the election through a pair of swinging doors, and as the doors swing, we see for one instant Peabody throwing his arms in the air and joyously crying out “Ranse!"

It is, for me, the most intensely cathartic moment in the movie. Nobody, not even Stoddard or Doniphon, works as hard, loses as much, or has so much at stake in the film as Peabody does. For all the nostalgia and melancholy of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, that flash of sheer joy and victory is Ford’s clearest concession that the loss of the old world, as sad as it may be, is necessary to gain a better one.

by Will Ross

In discussing and reminiscing over cinema history, one of the most common and tantalizing touchstones is the Lost Masterpiece, a promising, ambitious film that was agonizingly close to being unleashed upon the world and then snatched away. But the reputations that form around these hypothetical films often rest more on a small set of keywords than on certainty of just how good the end product would be; we may swoon at the sheer cinematic scale suggested by “Kubrick’s Napoleon,” but could we really expect the end product of those ambitions to improve on Barry Lyndon? Can we expect anything to improve on Barry Lyndon?

The idea of the Lost Masterpiece is so pervasive in film discourse that sometimes it can be predictive, as it was for Francis Ford Coppola’s troubled production of Apocalypse Now, which seemed to promise both greatness and certain failure in the same breath (“Apocalypse Never”, the press deemed it). And if Gilliam gets to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, maybe he’ll   f i n a l l y   live up to Brazil (somehow, I doubt it, but the film is scheduled for production this summer, so we shall see).

But to the best of my knowledge, nobody was talking about Mad Max: Fury Road like a classic in chrysalis, or putting it on Best Movies You’ve Never Seen lists, or really giving it much attention at all. You would think that George Miller — who defined and perfected the post-apocalyptic action movie — returning to that field with his most ambitious project yet would send cinephiles into a storm of anticipation, especially since The Road Warrior's place in the action canon has only firmed up over the years. Maybe it’s because we don’t register action movies as potential masterpieces anymore; maybe the idea of career-best work lying ahead of Miller, a man whose focus has shifted over the years from epic mythmaking to dancing penguins, was a bit much to swallow.

Whether we paid attention or not, Fury Road had a grueling development — delayed, among countless other things, by an unusually flowery season in the Australian desert that forced the production to relocate to Namibia. There was no script. The actors weren’t happy on set, largely because there was no script. These are usually very bad signs, indications of a movie without a clear purpose or direction (in fact, they eerily mirror one of this era’s most reviled pieces of sci-fi action, Michael Bay’s Revenge of the Fallen). But it turns out they’re a result of a total refusal to compromise one of the most audacious epics of the digital era, of a film absolutely committed to not just include images that skirt impossibility, but to almost only include images that skirt impossibility.

The first: a man, shoddily dressed and standing next to a beaten-up V8 Interceptor, overlooking a totally barren desert. In voiceover, he tells us that his name is Max (Tom Hardy), that he is haunted by the face of his daughter and his failure to save her, and that this wasteland is a pretty fair representation of what war has made of the planet, while he eats a two-headed lizard. That’s not the first impossible image. The first impossible image comes about 30 seconds later, when that V8, racing to escape a small horde of pursuers, crashes in what seems to be an endless series of flips, tumbling straight towards the camera before stopping right next to the lens. It’s a heart-stopping piece of choreography, stunt driving, camera coordination, and post-production stitching. It’s also the least impressive piece of car action in a movie that has as many scenes with car action as it has without.

From here, things only worsen for poor Max, who is fixed with an iron muzzle, tatooed, and designated a “universal blood donor” by his captors, the War Boys. Gaunt, fanatical soldiers who worship skull-symboled steering wheels and wear cocaine-white body paint in perpetuity, the War Boys are the military of the tyrant Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). The warlord rules the wasteland from the Citadel, a makeshift tower embedded in the rock face of a desert butte, and both placates and controls the starving populace below by dumping brief waterfalls from an apparently unlimited water supply onto them from far above, while he and his disciples enjoy the breast milk pumped from his captive women, morbidly obese and milked by machines.

Joe is an odd villain; he’s an old, out-of-shape man whose lower face is forever-obscured by a mask adorned with breathing tubes and buck-toothed horse teeth. To conceal his flab, he wears a translucent chest plate, molded with abdominal shapings, and a host of medals hinting at a military background in the pre-apocalypse. His cult of personality extends throughout the citadel, especially to the War Boys, who believe that dying for Joe in battle will earn them a place in Valhalla. It extends, that is, up until his “five wives” — a harem of sex slaves selected as “perfect” breeding candidates, whom Joe considers his prized possessions. As one of his generals, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), drives an armoured and weaponized tanker truck (a “war rig”) to the neighbouring Gas Town to procure fuel from its refinery, she suddenly swerves left into the open landscape, and within seconds Joe realizes that Furiosa has absconded with his entire harem and is making a break for it. A chase begins, and it does not end for the better part of two hours.

It’s a complex, microcosmic society whose origins and workings are easily communicated to the audience in a matter of minutes, exclusively through visual means. What’s extraordinary about the world carved out by Miller, his cowriters (Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris), and production designer Colin Gibson is not just its originality, nor that it is fully defined and comprehensible to the audience in a matter of minutes, but that it is so instantly graphically iconic that it fixes a permanent place in the mind and stays there. It’s also politically potent: military despotism, artificial resource scarcity, patriarchal domination, and dynastic oligarchy all receive an immediate outline and comment in these moments, all without the story stalling on the main attraction that lies ahead.

After Furiosa turns left, a small army of vehicles gives chase, and it is here that the production design goes from wholly brilliant to a seemingly impossible work of genius. The cars of Fury Road, you see, are all both fully-functioning vehicles and fully-bedecked works of sci-fi character excess: some are fixed with hundreds of spikes, others rigged with boarding polevaults; one even features a slope of taiko drummers riding one side, and on the other, a bungee-corded, red-jumpsuited guitar-shredder spewing flames from his instrument’s double-neck and sound from the wall of amps behind him as he careens through the wasteland at a hundred klicks an hour. That this piece of heavy-metal overkill is both a consistent source of comic relief and totally believable in the context of Immortan Joe’s culture is yet another testament to Gibson and his design team.

Then, in very short order, the fighting begins, and cars jostle Furiosa’s rig and fall over and explode all over the place. Max, who has been rigged to the hood of one of a War Boy's car as a kind of blood-bag ornament, is placed in the thick of it, and after much fighting, distrust, and shifting of loyalty, he finds himself riding alongside Furiosa and the former harem, and his interests inch from self-preservation to genuine concern for his accidental allies.

This arc should be familiar to anyone who’s seen The Road Warrior, and its repetition here (in broad strokes) should also be familiar to anyone familiar with Mad Max’s inconsistent timeline. Miller’s approach to franchise continuity is mostly pragmatic, a refreshing change of pace from Hollywood’s standard practice of pandering to fanboy expectations of literal cohesion. Sometimes, he uses it to call back to Mel Gibson’s adventures in the Wasteland: Max wears a leg brace alluding to a series-wide injury, a headbutt accentuated with a single white frame repeats the same technique in The Road Warrior, and a lightning-fast flashback montage includes an instant of a bug-eyed extreme close-up grabbed from the original Mad Max. But Miller also willingly discards or alters some backstory where it better suits his latest narrative, most notable of which is the change of Max’s child from a baby boy to a little girl, an alteration more in keeping with Fury Road’s focus on subjugated women.

The biggest shift between Fury Road and its predecessors in this respect is that this film moves emphatically into present tense. The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome were each bookended with narration from a witness to Max’s adventures, recalling him as an almost mythical figure and suggesting that he doesn’t occupy a single timeline, but is a sort of campfire story, to be revived in different permutations for each tale. This Max makes the difference clear from his very first line of forcefully here-and-now voiceover: “My name is Max”. Still, Max’s myth status is foregrounded, particularly in his regretful, hallucinatory flashbacks; Miller uses our knowledge of the character’s origins to flesh out the hints of backstory for this particular depiction of Max.

This ‘present tense’ approach applies elsewhere, giving the film a speed and scale in its carnage that is both more calibrated for the audiences of modern blockbusters and more suited for Miller squeezing every last bit of Movie he can out of 120 minutes. Other changes affect the blood-bathed road wars more intrinsically; gas and bullets aren’t quite so precious as they used to be in Max’s world (although the latter are much scarcer for the Imperator’s crew than they are for Joe’s marauders, who are allied to the self-explanatory Bullet Farmer).

Nonetheless, both parties expend an amount of gas and cars and bullet casings that is enormous by any post-apocalyptic standard. In the midst of this chaos, the escapees find themselves in bizarrely close repeated contact with an especially sickly and ardent War Boy, Nux (Nicholas Hoult), and it’s through this zealot that Miller begins to extend the full range of his humanism, for Nux is mocked and derided by his comrades and superiors alike for his weakness and frailty. So clumsy is Nux that he fails in kamikaze attempts multiple times, and has a crisis of faith: if Valhalla awaits those who have faith and die in service, but no amount of the former can accomplish the latter, what does that make the faithful? The answer, delivered in a scene that is as simple as it is surprisingly tender, lies at the dead center of the film’s conflict between the dangers of freedom and the comforts of subservience. Hoult’s performance is easily the most outwardly expressive of the cast, with expressions and body language that would feel at home in a Fritz Lang silent film. In spite of the understatement that every other major role brings to their part, this entirely works to make clear both the fevered devotion that governs Nux’s life, and the fundamental innocence and tragic redeemability of not just Nux, but by implication all the War Boys. It is perhaps the riskiest part in the cast, but Hoult pulls off the bumbling idolater without a false step.

Hardy and Theron’s trauma-hardened survivalists, on the other hand, require a much lighter touch, especially Hardy’s part, which has him spending roughly the first third of the film behind that muzzle, and hardly saying a word after that. But it’s all in the eyes. With them and, once the mask comes off, the rest of his face, Hardy accomplishes his arc from selfishness to selflessness almost entirely through his reactions to the things around him. It helps that his frazzled ingenuity and constant poor fortune also make him the funniest character in the movie against all odds (shades of Buster Keaton), which endears the audience to a man who, for a while, is otherwise a cold-hearted bastard.

Hardy and Hoult do excellent work, as do each of the five wives and many other bit players who sculpt complex personalities with minimal screentime, but of all the players, Theron handily takes the crown performance. Furiosa is at the center of the plot, and under her mask of her rugged competence (masks and concealments of the body and mind are a major motif), the crackshot driver bears everything that happens along the war rig’s way on her conscience. Theron plays this agony — along with a growing worry that her quest for personal redemption may only make things worse — across her face with each and every setback, until a crushing late-period discovery momentarily breaks her. Furiosa is, from the word go, the most valorous person in the Wasteland; the film’s thesis may well be found in the change in her rebellion’s motives and methods.

Fury Road’s ability to sketch terrific characters through implication and small pieces of history leaves it all the more time for action (though even in periods of downtime, the chase goes on; Miller makes sure to remind us that Joe and his War Boys are getting closer), and the action is nothing short of genre-defining. If there’s a film with more impressive stunt work and more perfectly structured battles imbued with such physical impact as this, please tell me, for the love of god tell me right now. This is complete car chase choreography (I believe Richard Wagner called it 'gesamtautounfall'), where the form of the film is pitched to precisely lay out the causes and effects of each fire-shrouded wreck, a tall order given that many scenes involve dozens of cars jockeying for the best spot to spike and shoot and flame Furiosa's tanker, and that there are so many moving pieces to map out for the puny limitations of human eyeballs. But map it out Miller does, with both the experience of a man who knows that blockbusters must engage with the sensibilities of a wide audience, and the wit of one who’s worked out how to rewrite action grammar regardless.

In fact, one of Miller’s cleverest gambits is his use of many of the modern cliches of modern blockbuster filmmaking. Miller motivates each and every aesthetic decision so well that one can’t imagine a better way to achieve his goals. How better to capture both the stark desolation and hyper-saturated harshness of the Namibian desert than with teal and orange? How to ensure that the action music will be heard and registered among all the engine noise and explosions, except with Zimmer-esque production and simplicity? How could Miller capture so many details of the chase and production design and history while maintaining a breakneck speed except with rapidly paced cutting?

Miller’s editing stratagem, executed by Margaret Sixel, deserves particular acclaim here. The choreography, spatial relations, and Sixel’s proficiency (amazingly, this is her first action film) in understanding the rhythms of the frequently undercranked footage are all action filmmaking par excellence, but what keeps it all comprehensible is Miller’s framing dogma, unseen in any of his other films, of centre-framing the vast majority of each shot's focal points. Because of this, no matter how quickly the film cuts from one moment in the action to the next, your eyes don't need to scan the screen to find what's important (it's right there in the middle, where you were already looking!) and so despite the rapid cutting the film feels less like a montage and more like a continuous torrent of images. Every shot allows you to look at the peripheral details on the left and right of the generous 2.35:1 frame if you wish (and have time!), but leads you back to the centre subject to prepare you for the next.

Among all this formal frenzy, Miller never drops the ball on what it all means for each of his characters. And, while many think-pieces have already proclaimed (or denounced) Fury Road's obvious feminist interests, "what it all means" is surprisingly difficult to wrap one's head around, let alone summarize. There's a lot to unpack in Joe's tyrannical rule, the nature and accountability of the brainwashed, the pains and responsibilities of rebellion and the uncertain future that always greets its success. This isn't a sprawling playground of ambiguous political allegory; Miller raises these issues from the perspective of a distinct ideology, yet that guiding ideology defies being easily packaged into a tidy set of 'isms.

In many ways, this resembles no recent film more than the late Aleksei Gherman’s Hard To Be a God, which also features an anti-hero in a squalorous ‘fallen world’, rendered with unrelenting intensity and seam-splitting minutiae. (What’s more, it too was only realized in a finished form after decades of planning, hustling, and setbacks, though Miller survived his opus's completion.) Unlike God, whose formal pyrotechnics draw so much attention to themselves (almost literally clogging the camera lens) that they render its already hazy narrative and politics opaque and obscure, Fury Road synthesizes production design, plot, character detail, and theme into each and every scene without one ever running interference on the others; plus, it has cars falling over. The function of any given beat is clear and simple, but often its effects ripple into many different parts of the film. Objects in particular take on shifting metaphorical significance as the plot develops, from Furiosa’s prosthetic robot arm to the blood transfusion tubing that Max never bothers ripping off. These objects reach back (to suggest the culture and events that would cause their existence, telling wholly unseen stories with their own contributions to the film's themes), they reach into the present (how do we deal with this object's implications right now) and they reach forward to their inevitable resolution, resolving every bit of backstory and plot that's been attached to them with all the mechanical satisfaction of a well-done action pay-off and all the intellectual and political thrust of any agitprop art film.

It is, by token of that, also as demanding as an agitprop art film — complete attention is mandatory to having a full-fledged experience, and it's futile to try absorbing all its nuances in one viewing. But there's an easily graspable interface here, and it gives the audience a framework to analyze and digest the myriad complications that Miller throws at them — which are too exhilarating to ever feel like work. (In all these respects and a few more, Fury Road recalls no film more than Buster Keaton's masterpiece The General.) This is much more than a satisfactory or even exemplary return to a vision that has already left an indelible impact on the cultural landscape. This is a film whose every pleasure is neatly woven into a seemingly limitless whole, an action movie that has its cake, eats it, and while it’s at it invents a totally new kind of cake that tastes as good as any cake ever made. It is a masterpiece, but more than that, it’s one that could have only come out of impossible ambition and adversity, and the fact that it is so excited to entertain us, and to change the action movie game, and to stand as a complex social statement, is more than enough grounds to fête Mad Max: Fury Road as the best action movie of its time.

by Will Ross

It takes less than 10 seconds after the Warner Brothers logo to know that this is going to be an awfully big comedown. Perhaps there is a version of Mad Max that gels with gated drums, pop synths, and Tina Turner’s crooning, but George Miller is not the man to do it, and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is certainly not a movie that did it. That makes sense, in a way, since Miller’s heart had gone out of the project since the death of his longtime producing partner Byron Kennedy. The once-mad, now-deflated action maestro eventually went ahead with it, but enlisted George Ogilvie as a co-director, and the result is the one Mad Max film that doesn’t feel like it sprang roaring from its maker’s soul.

In all honesty, I don’t especially mind that Tina Turner song, and I don’t mind the notion of a post-apocalyptic family adventure film; what I mind is that this is such a bloodless affair. It is, on one hand, by far the densest of the films in terms of the world it presents, but if The Road Warrior was a vast collection of details serving a simple story, Beyond Thunderdome is a simple story serving a vast collection of details, and the difference in emotional resonance is basically the difference between a heroic legend and show-and-tell.

When we come upon Max, he seems as worn out as ever (indeed, not only does the character arc of Mad Max 2 not seem to apply here, the only reference to his backstory at all is when he mentions he was once a cop). Max, in search of his stolen car, enters a crowded desert outpost called Bartertown, whose skimpy, pseudo-medieval, methane-powered hive of traders is as close to a metropolis as the Wasteland’s ever likely to get. After making a brutish show of force to gain entrance, Max is taken to Bartertown’s ruler, Aunty (Tina Turner, who is the least convincing member of post-apocalyptic society in the cast, and that winds up to be saying quite a lot). Aunty is in a going feud with Master Blaster, who runs the methane production in a squalorous cave called Underworld. Master Blaster, in fact, is a duo: a vernacularly challenged but technically brilliant little person called Master, and a grunting, statuesque enforcer in a Mask called Blaster. Max agrees to assassinate Blaster by provoking a fight in a legally sanctioned, gladiatorial arena known as Thunderdome, and the bungee-corded brawl there winds up being the only ingenious, suspenseful action Miller manages to conjure.

Bartertown, in general, is a pale imitation of its predecessors, not only because the feud between Aunty and Master is totally undeveloped, but because there’s no sense that anything is at stake for Max except his car. Still, the production design of Bartertown is undeniably impressive, if a little nonsensical, and the power struggle is clear enough to give a sense of purpose to the proceedings. What’s more, Maurice Jarre proves a capable replacement for Brian May, even if his lovely melodies and lush strings have lost the edge that May’s blunt and beautiful style lent to The Road Warrior. If the qualities of the first half of Beyond Thunderdome were carried through the whole, it would be an enjoyable if disappointing finish to Gibson’s Max.

Alas, Thunderdome’s second half takes a turn, and not for the better. After a “This wasn’t part of the deal!” moment that is both confusing and painfully predictable, Max is exiled from Bartertown, and through sheer chance winds up in a near-feral oasis colonized by children who survived a plane crash some years ago, and now wait for a prophesied saviour called “Captain Walker” — whom, of course, they presume Max to be. In bizarrely broken English, they explain that they expect Walker to reanimate their crashed planes and take them to “Tomorror-morrow Land”, which they know only through a photograph of a pre-nuclear Sydney.

Those kids are insufferable.

Everything falls apart in this segment, from the production design (it is not convincing at all that the kids would have formed their tools and clothes with the resources on hand) to the over-earnest, gratingly numb-skulled performances (extending across the child actors and to the two early-20s tribe leaders who serve as mother- and father-figures) to the way Max’s initial cold-hearted threats of violence towards the tribe turns on a dime to risking his life to save them, to the nonsensical introduction of mysticism and destiny to the proceedings. After Max finds them in a failed expedition, they realize the only place with the means to survive is Bartertown and, given that Bartertown is run by cold-blooded bastards who would sooner let a child die than take them in, they set out to rescue Master (who goes from a grotesque Steampunk villain to a warm, professorially-dressed ally without a word of explanation) and escape on a truck that’s been repurposed to drive on train tracks.

What follows is an unintentionally comical reversal of everything that made The Road Warrior’s climax effective. While that scene had characters whose plight we had come to care about, and who suffered and died and struggled through every inch of the elaborate, lightning-paced final conflict, not a single person gets killed in Beyond Thunderdome’s final chase. Nobody even gets seriously hurt, besides a spear to the leg that winds up inconsequential to the action that follows and is removed with relative ease. It would seem that the two “shit”s and one scene of dark bloodletting of the film’s first half were the farthest they were allowed to stretch their PG-13 rating (the only time that rating has been applied to Mad Max to date, and hopefully the last). The result is that villains and good guys alike mug for the camera, make wacky “Waaaaah!” sounds instead of real screams, and never do much real damage to each other before the film comes to its unceremonious end.

That’s unfortunate, and the downgrade in visual storytelling from exemplary to decent is unfortunate, and the kids are very unfortunate, but what pisses me off most about Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is that not a single person changes in any meaningful way, ever. Max is never clearly defined at the beginning, and when he winds up being a selfless hero at the end, it’s not really clear exactly how much he’s changed or why. Ironically, the character does more stuff here than either of the preceding Mad Maxes, but makes the least impression. Maybe that’s down to the pressures of big-budget studio filmmaking. Maybe it’s down to Miller’s grieving detachment from the whole affair. But one way or another, it would be a shame if the apex of Mad Max’s budget and sweep was a mess like this. Thankfully, it isn’t.

by Will Ross

First, before we get to the meat of this thing, I think The Road Warrior is an amazing title, an all-in-one package. It both scans well and connotes the car movie action, mythical trappings, and lone-hero context of the film; few titles are so precise that their form could not survive the removal of the definite article “the”. Because while the words “Mad Max” are just too delicious to leave out of any of this franchise’s titles, I love the phrase “The Road Warrior” (the full title given the film for its North American release) in quantities that no measly “2” could live up to (as it had to in every other market), so there it is. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. Consider my flag planted.

Second, before we get to the meat of this thing, Brian May, whose score for Mad Max I spent a good portion of my last review criticizing, deserves amelioration. May does absolutely wonderful work here, turning in what might be the finest pulp exploitation score I’ve ever heard. May had only completed one film score before working on Mad Max, but completed eight more in the two years separating its completion from its sequel’s production, and that experience shows: the themes are better-constructed and terrifically integrated, the big, blaring stingers are judiciously applied, and in spite of the second film’s much more operatic tone and scale, he exercises a great deal more restraint in its quieter scenes. And all that is to say nothing of the cue played over the prologue and end credits, which is now and will probably always be one of my favourite single film cues ever, a beautiful string melody connoting mystery, myth, and a pained personal history all at once before escalating into tones of conflict with the entrance of a militaristic drum beat, and then working through a crawlingly slow key change before introducing another theme and finally exploding into the action music for the opening chase. Even its double-duty status is brilliant; when it plays over the apocalypse recap in the beginning, it connotes endless conflict and uncertainty, but in context of the film’s ending, it conjures feelings of doggedness, bravery, and hope amidst strife. It’s a masterful cue in a great score, and its re-entrance 15 seconds into the initially silent credits never fails to give me shivers.

Now, the meat of this thing: I cannot think of anything wrong with The Road Warrior, and the film that represents a massive step up from its predecessor in every department. That’s no small feat for a follow-up to something that had already revolutionized its genre, but George Miller, given his success in turning out an enormous profit from such a small film, was aching to return to the universe he’d dreamed up with the added scale and ambition that his newfound finances and experience would allow.

One result is that Mad Max 2’s world is not entirely congruous with Mad Max’s; the still (barely) functioning society teetering on the edge of chaos in the earlier entry is much farther behind the sequel’s Australia than Mel Gibson’s barely-aged face could possibly imply. Not, of course, that that matters, as The Road Warrior stands totally on its own (indeed, much of its American audience had no idea it was a sequel), making no direct reference to any of its predecessor’s events save the prologue’s mention of the fate of Max’s wife and child.

Since then, Max has become a psychologically shattered scavenger in what is only known as the Wasteland, an endless expanse of dust and desert that seemingly stretches over the entire mainland. As marauding gangs and settlements begin to form and consolidate their strength with old-world technology, gasoline has become a most precious resource. And so we meet three parties warring over a massive repository of it: on one side, a small settlement based around a refinery, pumping gas as quickly as they can; on the other side, a massive gang of raping, murdering, leather-clad pillagers led by the goalie-masked Lord Humungus; and Max, who finds the first faction defending itself against an endless onslaught by the second. Max finds a wounded settler outside the compound and takes him back inside in exchange for all the gas he can carry, but is quickly branded a parasite by the uncooperative settlers.

What follows should be familiar to anyone who’s seen a western or two, as Max finds his motives for helping the settlers shifting further from self-preservation and closer to conscience, the Humungus gives the settlement a dubious offer to simply walk away in exchange for their lives, and everything finally rests on an all-or-nothing escape from the refinery to the distant coast. What distinguishes The Road Warrior is the utter originality it finds in its means of telling this story, much of which comes from visual confidence with which Miller, his cinematographer Dean Semler, and his team of editors assemble the film; the horizon slicing out the dusty tan of the earth with the burned-out blues of the sky, each angle chosen with such exactitude that one can’t imagine another order or rhythm for its images, each action scene’s movements and cuts paced and pivoted with far more grace than what a bunch of diesel-bellowing metal behemoths should be capable of.

The editing is a particular improvement on Miller’s part. Mad Max’s quick and jagged onslaught of dissolves, wipes, and smash cuts heralded a director unafraid of stretching his formal grammar, but at times the energy of its optical quirks felt trumped-up. Mad Max 2’s cutting takes on a dexterity and propulsion in its pulpish flourishes more akin to Star Wars than anything else, especially in its virtuosic dissolves, which in turns elide the time between their adjacent shots and emphasize their connective qualities. So confidently does the editing contribute to the tone that in the defining moment of Max’s mythical ascent from hypercompetent scavenger to saviour of the Wasteland it is the pace and placement of the cuts in the scene as much as anything (including Gibson’s quiet but considerable emotional range) that signals to us that this person has found a soul he thought he’d lost long ago, as he rises to take his place among the settlers.

That spirit and moral of hope is what endears me the most to The Road Warrior. After the first outing’s howl of disillusionment, Miller seems to have found even greater commitment to redemption and optimism among ruin. That idea is expressed in simple terms here, but it’s the emotional honesty and very real pain underlining the movie (which successfully makes tragedy out of the deaths of characters we knew only through a few defining lines) that raises it from hokum to profundity. Yes, the perfection of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior’s craft blows just about any action movie save a thimbleful out of the water, and every corner of the production suggests a carefully conceived history behind each detail in the props, performances, and settings. But all those things are there to underline the humanism that ultimately drives this rig to glory.

May 14, 2015

Mad Max (1979)

by Will Ross

Three decades after the final film in the Mel Gibson cycle of George Miller’s Mad Max series, I’m not sure that the aesthetics of post-apocalyptic science-fiction cinema have progressed even fractionally in comparison to what Miller accomplished in that six-year span. That trilogy, you see — beginning with our current subject, 1979’s Mad Max — had such an immediate and lasting influence on the subgenre that significant deviations from its leather-clad, fuel-starved world of scavengers and machines crudely repurposed from old-world technology are often hardly recognizable as post-apocalyptic sci-fi at all. (A marvellous exception: Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.)

The franchise’s design has had a broad and precise effect on everything from The Terminator to zombie fiction, which is all the more impressive given that its debut entry was a shoestring affair that represented its director’s first feature outing. A lot of its likability and appeal comes from watching Miller and co. make hay out of such bare resources, largely by sticking to dilapidated locations and investing much of their budget in the car stunts and wrecks that, even more than its imagination of a world stripped of law and resources, define these movies.

In this particular entry, however, there are still some remnants of law, largely upheld by the Main Force Patrol, a squadron of crack drivers in searing-yellow chase cars. Among the most respected of this unit is Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), who is introduced in a lengthy opening chase with an escaped convict known only as the Night Rider. After leaving several wrecked police cruisers in his wake, the Night Rider meets his end in an explosive crash that Max may or may not have purposefully caused. But his death spurs his former gang, led by a particularly savage and and anarchistic man known as The Toe Cutter, to take vengeance — not upon any specific person or entity, but seemingly upon social order itself.

And it is The Toe Cutter’s gang that drives and define the narrative more than anything else in the movie, Max included. For while the serial crimes that follow are often perpetrated upon those responsible for the deaths and mutilations of their fellow members, the sense is always that this is less out of any particularized hatred or revenge, and more because they’re the nearest available targets.

Parallel to this is Max, whose idyllic family life (a little too idyllic, if you ask me; their home is too pristine and neat to be believable in a dystopia like this) belies his growing discomfort with his line of work. Max, to his own horror, is beginning to enjoy the carnage of the road, and knows it’s only a matter of time before the police are morally indistinguishable from their prey. Fearing all this, he takes a few weeks off pending resignation, and drives into the countryside with his family. It’s not clear whether he intends to come back or not, but what is clear is that Max dreams of being the button-up dad of a bygone world, and as he watches friends and loved ones senselessly murdered and mutilated around him, it becomes clear to the audience that this is an impossible, even delusional dream. By the end, he lives up to the title in its cruelest, most deranged sense.

This may, as much as anything, represent an artist’s own bitterness towards his former occupation. For much of his youth, George Miller was not an action movie maestro, but his own kind of beleagured civil servant, a medical doctor working in an emergency room. If that experience has left an observable mark on any of his films, it’s Mad Max, whose vehicular chaos and social devastation functions, more than anything, as a metaphor for the frailty and decay of the human being itself, both body and mind. Surprisingly for a small-budget genre film to break through to mainstream success, this is a work of unreserved cynicism and nihilism.

Nearly every scene in the film reinforces this, starting with the opening chase. For one thing, the Main Force Patrol is utterly callous and indifferent, seemingly relishing the chase more as a break from boredom than as a means to uphold justice; one officer, frustrated at his wrecked car being taken out of the game, reacts to his partner’s near-mortal glass-in-the-neck wound with tossed-off annoyance. More delirious still is the Night Rider himself: he and his passenger-seated girlfriend laugh through all the carnage until near the very end of the chase, when he seems to have some sort of existential breakdown, crying and sobbing, “It’s going… There’ll be nothing left, it’s all gone!” Even Max’s vengeful retributions in the last act are shot through with hollowness and despair.

This has somewhat a numbing effect on the action, which is otherwise as kinetic and boisterous as any car chases ever boasted by a film of such meager budget. Those chases are liberally scattered throughout, but their excitement is always tempered with a sense of doom. The world of Mad Max is so utterly hopeless, so roundly presumptuous even in its most lawful corners that everything is going to shit anyway, so we might as well all accept it and strap in, that it makes the scenes with Max and his family seem a little artificial, a quality not helped by Brian May’s cloying music in these moments.

Indeed, Brian May’s music is impassioned but inconsistent throughout, showing all the energy but little of the precision that he would in the next outing; there is often a sense that its pounding drums and dramatic brass are overcompensating for the limits of the production, and it's rendered all the more problematic by the film’s generally poor sound mixing: dialogue is often drowned out by the score and sound effects, and the recording quality is muddy all around. This could be attributed to the budget, but it’s a shame Miller couldn’t find the same resourcefulness with the film’s audio as he could with its visuals.

Regardless of the technical deficiencies of its soundtrack and some lapses in narrative energy, Mad Max is so doggedly crazy and imaginative with its world and action that its watchability never suffers beyond tolerance for its otherwise excellent craftsmanship. What bothers me more is the film’s deeply felt but ultimately cheap pessimism. In spite of all its indie ingenuity and gleefully staged action, Mad Max’s cynicism still leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, though thankfully that’s a trait that Miller’s career would thereafter abandon.