Monday, May 27, 2024


Furiosa is an unhurried adventure epic to Mad Max: Fury Road’s cannon blast actioner. Together they form quite a pair. George Miller’s 2015 revisiting of his post-apocalyptic Aussie wasteland was an instant classic, with his hero Max riding that Fury Road with the imperious Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a warrior truck driver for a nasty desert despot who’s decided to free the villain’s harem and flee to her homeland. That film was an all-out road-rage chase picture that barely lets its foot off the gas. Miller’s endless invention found more ways to wring suspense and energy and righteous violence out of jerry-rigged, tricked-out vehicles than even his Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome—though no slouches in the action department—ever suggested possible. But now we’re borne back into the past for Furiosa’s origin story. Immediately it’s clear this movie will take on a different pace, with a structure of sturdy chapter designations letting us know we’re in for something with the weight of an epic—a story of sprawling biblical dimensions, a biographical excursion, a story of a girl’s survival across decades of duty and despair, and a gripping tale of vengeance long in the making.

The movie’s telling has a classical widescreen elegance—all Lean and Leone stretching across the desert in expressionistic CG embellishments—and a hard-charging action eccentricity, with Miller’s usual dedication to details of his world colored in quickly and casually. And it has that heart-felt attentiveness to vulnerability and consequences that give each act of violence such horrible heft, and each clever reversal in favor of an underdog such vivid satisfaction. It starts with Furiosa as a child (Alyla Browne) stolen by bandits from a verdant oasis. She takes a vow of silence to protect her friends’ and family’s hidden home, though it dooms her to stay in the villainous clutches of the brutal biker tribe lead by Dementus (Chris Hemsworth, breathing a menacing squawk of a voice through a prosthetic nose). He rides in a rumbling chariot pulled by two snarling motorcycles, and his ragtag gaggle of reprobates rev engines around him. There’s a Miller villain if ever there was one. The movie follows his attempts to consolidate power in the Wastelands—bringing him into conflict with one Immortan Joe, Fury Road’s despot with scraggly blonde hair, wild eyes, and a toothy mask. As war for resources in this corner of the dystopic post-civilization Outback escalates, Furiosa grows. She hides out in one camp, then another, making tenuous allies and proving her worth, all the while biding her time to get her revenge. She’s surrounded by oddball characters and dangerous deviants in a world tearing itself apart in the wilderness. Through her eyes, it becomes a movie about a society in free fall, and the indignities of chaos and injustice that accrue and explode.

This war for control of the Wastelands is clearly the crucible that forms Furiosa’s steely heroism. But rather than proceeding apace to a foregone conclusion, this is a movie that’s alive with possibility and entirely invested in her survival and development. An early scene in which she witnesses her mother tortured to death is shot in an extreme close-up as a reflection in her watery eye—and that sets the tone going forward. Here’s a girl who’ll see unimaginable horrors and, though they will become a part of her, they will not break her. Later, there’s an extended sequence—one with a lengthy chase sequence behind, around, aboard, on top, and through an enormous tanker truck attacked by Rube Goldberg machines (one imagines this is also Miller proving he can still pull off what made the last picture so great)—finds young adult Furiosa (Anya Taylor-Joy) making an ally of one of the Immortan’s drivers (Tom Burke). Together they find a kinship as kindred caring hearts made hard through the needs of survival. They connect on a human level in an inhumane environment. And yet this tenderness is inevitably subsumed by the need to fight—to emerge from flames holding a machine gun, or racing off on a motor bike cradling a broken and bleeding limb. (The action is as gripping as it is patiently distributed.) Miller finds time for these grace notes of cool and caring alike, in a film equally interested in iconography as it is in morality and motivation. It imbues the transformations of its title character with a deepening emotionality—coloring in the implications that were in Theron’s gaze last time with all this new understanding born from excitement and tragedy. Out of the darkest times, new hope grows.

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Child's Play: IF and I SAW THE TV GLOW

John Krasinski’s IF is a miserable, infantilizing family film that disrespects children and adults in equal measure. It’s advertised as coming to us “from the imagination of…” the Office actor turned writer/director. If his Quiet Place movies, workmanlike horror pictures with modest charms, were enough to convince you he had one, here’s reason to doubt. It’s sloppy, sentimental hogwash about Imaginary Friends abandoned by children who grew up and forgot them. One girl (Cailey Fleming) encounters some of them corralled by a tired, impish ringleader and caretaker (Ryan Reynolds). She’s sad because she has to live with her grandma (Fiona Shaw) while her dad (Krasinski) undergoes surgery for an unnamed ailment. For all we know, he merely has a terminal case of whimsy, what with his few scenes eventually petering out with limp quips and smirking self-satisfied pauses for laughs or tears that never arrive. Since the girl’s mom died of implied cancer in the opening montage, it’s understandable that she’s leery to see her dad in the hospital, and amazing she doesn’t get more exasperated by mild japes like dancing with an IV bag on which he’s placed googly eyes, or when he hides in the closet and pretends to have escaped out the window with a ladder of bedsheets. She reacts to this struggle by retreating into her creativity. Or does she? It’s all a bit too simple to be this fuzzy.

The crux of the ostensible emotion is the group of CG creatures wandering melancholically without their former children—creatures that only the girl and Reynolds can see. They all look like Monsters, Inc rejects and have big name cameo voices that rarely register as such, while they mope about doing nothing. The movie wants us to think it’s sad that they’ve been forgotten and should be reunited. But they aren’t real characters and never do anything for anyone. Ah, maybe they reawaken an inner child of some grump for a moment of two. But to what end? It’s best scenes—anything involving Shaw, a dance number to Tina Turner, the girl’s eventual tearful, spit-flecked bedside breakdown—feel dropped in from a better movie, one without its cloying contradictions and flat staging. Here’s a movie that tries to be an ode to youthful imagination being a balm for troubled times. Instead it bumbles its way into saying that we should never grow up and put away childish things. It’s arguing in favor of a permanent immaturity. Why? Because it’s a cheap hit of feel-good when confronting adult emotions is too difficult. Yeesh. We’re not exactly a society overcrowded with maturity.

Ironically, IF’s opposite is likely playing in the theater across the hall in a big enough multiplex. Jane Schoenbrun’s I Saw the TV Glow is a slow, entranced nightmare about getting trapped in childhood nostalgia. It conjures a fuzzy, bleary vibe and rides its off-kilter tremors to an odd, grotesque ending. The intimate movie follows two isolated, disaffected adolescents in the late-90’s getting hooked on a weird television program about psychic teenage girls fighting phantasmagoric monsters. Clearly a blend of X-Files, Twin Peaks, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Are You Afraid of the Dark? it’s easy to see why a freakish blend of kid-friendly plotting and woozy creature design airing late at night would mesmerize a young teen. These two kids seem especially prone to getting drawn into such an enveloping fantasy. One is a quiet, awkward, friendless 7th grade boy (Ian Foreman, though he grows into narrator Justice Smith) whose mother (Danielle Deadwyler) is dying and father (Fred Durst) is distant. The other is a lonely 9th grade girl (Brigette Lundy-Paine) from an abusive home. She introduces him to the creepy show, and is totally into its lore, such that it starts to become the architecture of her fantasies of running away. He's scared and hooked in equal measure. As Schoenbrun gives the interactions between the teens the kind of goosebump intimacy of lost souls connecting in their brokenness, the camera’s slowly mesmerized imagery lends a grainy, hushed suburban dreaminess and creeping dread.

It speaks directly to people who allow their adolescent obsessions to overtake their personality and identity, replacing satisfying adult pursuits with increasingly hollow simulacra of real experience. It becomes a way to avoid inner truths. Suddenly, a childish idea grows and darkens and inflates in complexity and importance. A key scene is when, late in the picture, so spoilers ahoy, our lead re-watches the show as an adult and finds something almost embarrassingly quaint. All that for this? This new view rattles and echoes off a maybe-imagined reunion that devolves into a darkly dreamy magical-realist monologue. How sad when love of a TV show seems to hide what you'd express as something truer about your identity than you’re ready to admit. And how frustrating to be unable to let that childhood comfort fantasy go. The movie’s mood is so intensely focused on the hypnotic tremors of this cultish entrapment bleeding between fantasy and reality that the final moments of the picture—clangs of hallucinatory violence followed by embarrassments, deflating and awkward—bring some kind of cringing reality crashing in. It’s about an inner hollowness that can never be filled so long as you’re chasing the unattainable—nostalgia, television, your adolescent understanding of your future, or your adult longing for youth. It’s ultimately a hazy movie feeling like a half-remembered nightmare slowly leaving your head after waking on the couch in the middle of the night, bathed in the TV glow.

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Playing Doubles: CHALLENGERS

In Challengers, director Luca Guadagnino puts his usual obsessive attention to sensual detail to use in a hard-charging sports picture twisted around a juicy relationship drama. Its first shots find sweat dripping in slow-motion off the faces of its main competitors—one-time friends who are now rivals in a tournament. One (Mike Faist) is a wealthy tennis pro; the other is a struggling wild card (Josh O’Connor). When they were teenagers, they both had a crush on the same rising tennis star (Zendaya). Their paths merged and diverged over a decade. One dated her. The other married her. An elaborately structured screenplay volleys between timelines, stretching what a lesser effort might make the climactic match across all two-hours of the film while sketching in the details of their criss-crossed, intertwined romantic lives. Guadagnino makes of this his usual tale of romantic obsessions and lustful appetites marveling at what the human body can do. His camera drinks in the physical beauty of his stars, while his style swoops and zooms and cuts with an ecstatic aesthetic. It has the precision scrambling chronology, snappy dialogue, and the techno-momentum of a pulsating Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross score, which lends the film some of the surface cool of The Social Network. It also has talented young actors effortlessly embodying suggestive body language in a screenplay of crackling dialogue that bops and zips with repartee that might as well be tennis balls.

Guadagnino’s investment in sexual tension has the film sizzling and throbbing on a different wavelength. His films are always attuned to an intimacy of touch and the suspense of lingering looks—one doesn’t make the yearning romance of Call Me By Your Name or the tingling pool-side thriller of A Bigger Splash without a keen sense of physical and emotional textures. In Challengers, that’s all compounded the sheer physical exertion of a sports movie sends pulsing energy through its teasing, tense love triangle that wraps itself into knots of jealousies and frustrations that are professional, romantic, and athletic all at once. Each sizzling interaction plays like a dramatic volley across the net, complications arising with the regular sensation of a serve and a score. Zendaya plays a steely ref between the competitors, complicated by her own thwarted career aims sublimated into her husband’s. For their part, the guys are complicated, fascinating figures, too—by turns preening and pathetic and always carrying a capacity for physical prowess. Here’s a movie about three fascinating people driven by their appetites—for each other, for winning, and for whatever success feels like. They end up manipulating themselves as much as others. The way the characters shift and share and shame across the run time, refracted through the competition animating the sequences, are finely-tuned drama. When Guadagnino goes hard on the style—taking his camera on a tennis-ball-view or slowing down to watch every rippling muscle twitch or secret speechless message—it takes the sensational drama all the farther. It’s entirely an invigorating, enlivening experience. Where most modern melodramas trend toward the plodding, here’s one that dances.