Shaun Celebrates Mad Max Fury Road and its Feminism in Disguise

Mad Max: Fury Road is the best movie of 2015 and one of the best action movies of all time.  A majority out there, while not necessarily agreeing with that statement fully, will nod their heads in understanding for where that sentiment comes from.  But, when a film gets the kind of praise Fury Road has since its release it will have its fair share of backlash.  It’s understandable.  Part of human nature is to feel unique and contrary opinions are one way to achieve that.  A person can be in a bad mood upon first seeing a film most love.  Then there’s the fact that the hype surrounding some films (as well as bands, books, foods, and nearly anything one can have a positive feeling toward) is so intense that nothing can ultimately live up it.  This could very well be the case where Fury Road is concerned.

To explain at least partially what I love so much about Mad Max: Fury Road, I’ve realized while trying to organize my thoughts on the movie I could probably write a novella length piece about it and no one wants that, I’ve taken some of the most common complaints I’ve heard aimed at the movie in an attempt to replace some of the negativity with appreciation.  I don’t expect to convert anyone through this article as film appreciation is such a subjective endeavor, but I can at least hope for understanding.

Fury Road is just a two hour long car chase

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This complaint is the one I hear perhaps the most, and it’s also a great place to start since it sets up a discussion of why Fury Road is such a unique film.  I often respond to this complaint when I’m in one of my more snide mood with, “Yes.  That’s the point.”  I think this complaint comes from people who are more comfortable with and find more enjoyment in story telling which relies on dialogue.

The word “movies”, though, is a shortened slang word derived from what they were originally called – moving pictures.  Movies as a storytelling device was a happy accident (though, possibly an inevitable one) as the original intent for the invention of film was closer to a photograph than a novel or a play.  The earliest movies created to tell a story were silent, and therefore had to rely entirely on visuals to get their account across.  Eventually someone came up with the idea of using title cards for dialogue, and shortly after that sound-on-film was invented, but at its core movies are moving pictures.

Mad Max: Fury Road isn’t a silent picture by any stretch of the imagination, it’s actually quite noisy, but it uses dialogue sparsely relying primarily on images and action to tell its story.  In making Fury Road George Miller understood that while there are many ways to create a narrative, only film can use images captured over large and myriad areas from any angle as a means of depicting his.  His being said two hour long car chase.

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There are many reasons to tell a story which is essentially just one long action sequence, the first of which being exactly that.  How cool is it to craft one long action sequence?  The story is driven not by what people say, but by what people do.  Talk is cheap, and a picture is worth a thousand words, and all that.   Sure, occasionally a command is barked but little time is wasted on people speaking about their feelings or their motivations, those are shown in the most direct way possible – through the actions the characters take.

Beyond the fact that Mad Max: Fury Road fully takes advantage of the medium of film by being almost entirely composed of action, there is also the fact that making an entire film from what is normally a single beat in a standard film adds up to a truly unique experience.  It makes for a film that, in a literal sense, very rarely slows down.  The start, the finish, and during the act breaks we get an opportunity to leave the vehicles and get a little expository and character building dialogue in, but outside of those four short sections the characters, the story, and thus our attention never slows down.

This a brave decision because it had the chance to alienate a good part of its intended audience (and, I think it actually did do just that which is part of the reason I felt compelled to write this piece) and it forced the writers to get across character development and themes in the middle of a whirlwind with little speech.  The fact that they not only accomplished that, but did so in a manner more loud and clear than a great many character pieces let alone action films, is a great testament to their talent.

There is one more very important reason the film makers made the movie one long car chase.  But, that reason ties in more closely with my discussion of themes which will come along a little later.

Everyone in in the post-apocalyptic world has great hair and make-up

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The Mad Max movies portray a world in which the last humans are trying to survive on an Earth with little food and water left, in which gasoline is more valuable than any precious metal or gem, and where gangs impose their power on the weak where they can and join together with would be dictators when they become the weak themselves.  They also all apparently have attended cosmetology school and have access to whatever makeup and hair styling tools they want.

Or do they?

If you remember, when Max is discovered at the start of the film, his hair and beard are overgrown, tangled, and matted.  He’s dirty and I imagine if a film could convey smell we’d all be grateful that the opening scene is over quickly.  Once he’s captured, the first thing the War Boys do to him is shave him, wash him, and brand him and once the action starts in earnest he’s freshly cleaned up.

Furiosa has lived most of her life in The Citadel as one of Immortan Joe’s lieutenants, and so has had access to plenty of clean water to wash with.  Plus, she shaves her head so hair isn’t an issue and she doesn’t wear make up.  She just happens to be played by Charlize Theron, so of course she’s incredibly beautiful even without the normal trappings, but that’s bone structure and other genetics, not the result of being dolled up.

The War Boys, Immortan Joe, Nux, and the other denizens of The Citadel all exist in various states of ragged dress, skin disease, and uncleanliness depending on their position within the society and their age.  The young War Boys look the most fit, but even they shave their heads completely and cover themselves in a white chalk.  The elder leaders of The Citadel have boils, cysts, and oozing sores.  The commoners in The Citadel have it worst of all, bent over, covered in grime, skinny, overgrown, the throngs of The Citadel not able to fight for Immortan Joe exist in state which can barely be considered human by the standards of here and now.

Which brings us to Toast, Splendid, Capable, and The Dag collectively known as “The Wives” who are the real target of this complaint.  The Wives do have impeccable hair, make-up, and skin.  This is because until the start of the film they were considered the property of Immortan Joe, the god-king of The Citadel and controller of the entire region’s water supply.  He makes sure they have the best, but he also makes sure they look the best since they are his personal baby factories.  Sex slaves.  Their appearance is essential to several Mad Max: Fury Road‘s themes, plus it just makes sense that the people of The Citadel would make absolutely sure the Wives always looked the best the possibly can to keep their master Immortan Joe pleased with them.

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So it’s not that everyone has hair stylists and make-up artists on their personal payroll.  It’s that Fury Road understands and has something to say about social classes.  It’s not something I’m going into any more detail in this particular article, but the reason people look so good post-apocalypse is George Miller saying in effect the more things change the more they stay the same.  The rich and powerful keep people as toys, and they want their toys kept in peak condition.

It is weird that with so many high-powered, large-tired motor vehicles moving at top speed through the desert that every single character isn’t covered in sand and dirt a few minutes into the chase.  If you want to make that complaint, I’ll give you a side eye for nitpicking but will grudgingly agree.

The movie is named Mad Max: Fury Road, but Max doesn’t do much

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Max has not been the focal character in any of the Mad Max films since the very first installment, and even that one could be up for debate.  The Mad Max films are more about the world they take place in and why George Miller feels that is a world we are hurtling toward if we don’t change our ways than they are about any of the people inhabiting that world.  Max has always been closer to a very active narrator than a protagonist, he brings us to the stories, tells them, but they are not his stories.

The popular opinion is that Furiosa is the main character in Mad Max: Fury Road.  It is she who who rescues the Wives, she who steals the War Rig, she who teaches the Wives to be strong, she who leads the group, makes the deals, and she who ultimately kills Immortan Joe and becomes the leader of The Citadel after great personal sacrifice. Those are all the traits of a hero, and normally the hero is also the protagonist.  But, while she is a paragon and of utmost importance to the film’s themes she is not the main character, either, as she doesn’t have a character arc.  She begins and ends the movie in the same place, literally and figuratively, and she makes that place better for everyone around her.

My more unpopular opinion is that the War Boy Nux is the main character in Mad Max: Fury Road.  Nux begins the movie an aggressive man-child eager to be noticed by Immortan Joe who has promised his War Boys a place in Valhalla if they fight well for him.  Nux is told to stay home by his superiors instead of joining the war party going after Furiosa because he is not well (for some unrevealed reason).  Nux, however, insists that his newly captured blood bag, Max, has strong blood and as long as Max can keep giving him his blood infusion (against Max’s will) he’ll be fine to join the party seeking to recapture their god-king’s sex slaves back from the evil woman who stole them.

Nux finishes the movie sacrificing his own life to be sure the horde of hyper-aggressive men he was once proud to be a part of won’t be able to capture the women whom he now loves and respects so they can retake The Citadel now empty of the warmongering horde and turn it into the paradise they were seeking elsewhere.  Now that’s a character arc, and it is all handled organically through visually focused story telling.

Why Mad Max: Fury Road is a movie worth celebrating

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As I in my opening, I could go on and on about Fury Road.  I haven’t mentioned its spectacular, Oscar winning art direction.  I could put an entire section on how in an age of CGI laden visuals Fury Road returned to stunt work and practical effects.  Fury Road out actions most action movies without cheating (okay, CGI isn’t cheating, but you get the idea), but what really sets it apart is what it has to say and how it says it.

We have a film in which powerful men control the world’s most important resources and dish out just enough of them to the people to keep them from revolting while also controlling the masses through false proverbs and promises of an afterlife.  These lords are powerful enough that they naturally feel entitled to anything they want, including other people, and they pass this sense of entitlement on to those closest to them in their hierarchy.  A powerful woman who was stolen as a child from her clan of all women who lived in a paradise is now mature and experienced enough to see the evil her master is doing, and decides to free the women he keeps as sex slaves and take them away with her to the green place of her childhood where they can join and be protected by the matriarchy rather than mistreated by the patriarchy.

She means to sneak away, but she’s found out and every man able to drive a war vehicle and fight soon comes after her.  One of these men brought along against his will joins her crew, and soon after one of the War Boys also joins her after disappointing the lord who promised him rewards after death and finding he respects the people in this band more than those he grew up with as they are kind, forgiving, and thoughtful in addition to also being strong willed survivors.

When the woman and her crew find that the green place no longer exists and barely a fraction of the matriarchy are still left, they decide to go back to The Citadel from whence they started and take it over for themselves now that the warmongers in charge are all outside The Citadel chasing them.  The sex slaves learn they can fight against their captors and the woman and former War Boy make sacrifices, the War Boy the ultimate sacrifice, to stop the war party and their leader in its tracks.

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So, put that all together and what we have is a film about literally and metaphorically removing the toxic masculinity from a society, and replacing it with more feminine ideals to heal the damage done to it by aggression and entitlement over the decades.  It shows us this through the state things have declined to under the men who lie, coerce, and bully to get their way and contrasting that with a woman who is just as powerful but was brainwashed from childhood to believe what the rest of society believes and now realizes the error of those beliefs.  It gives us a boy who is just another cog in a machine to be used by his master, and thus is filled with this contagious toxic masculinity, but who becomes loved and respected once he is able recognize the poison inside of him and release himself from it, and revered when he acts out of love instead of out of greed and entitlement for the first time in his life.

Mad Max: Fury Road tells us that the green place actually is within our grasp, and it’s closer than we think.  It’s right here.  But, to get to it, we have to remove the toxic masculinity which has been controlling our religions, our governments, our economics, and our entire way of life for centuries and embrace the feminine.  It’s not about hating men.  Men are essential to the human race’s success.  It’s about letting the women have at least an equal voice, maybe more until we can achieve some type of balance between the masculine and feminine voices.

Mad Max: Fury Road gives us the most feminist of messages wrapped up in a style and genre which most appeals to the hyper-masculine.  It uses action and visuals, not words.  It uses spears, and fast cars, and amazing stunts instead of soliloquies and serious facial expressions.  Mad Max: Fury Road is a feminist film masquerading as the toxic, supposed alpha male’s most desired fantasy.  It delivers its message not to the choir, but to those who most need to hear it, and in a way in which they want to listen.  That’s what makes Fury Road so brilliant and worth celebrating.

 

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (Vaughn; 2017)

Kingsman: The Secret Service was arguably the most pleasant surprise in film for the year 2014.  It was a film that capitalized on a nostalgia for the over-the-top camp prevalent in the spy films of the 70s and 80s while also modernizing them for today’s audience.  It did for the Roger Moore era James Bond what Casino Royale did for James Bond in general.  By giving us heroes and villains with realistic motivations and plot devices that paid off in droves by film’s end alongside action sequences ripped straight from the most bombastic of kung fu movies and cool gadgets that would only be ruined if they were explained in any way we saw a movie that knew exactly where to be smart and where to be dumb to make a roller coaster ride that had honest stakes.  When it made 414 million dollars from an 81 million dollar budget and only increased its following from there with incredible word of mouth, it was inevitable a sequel would be made.  Say hello to Kingsman: The Golden Circle written and directed by Matthew Vaughn just as the first film was.

It’s less than a minute before we are treated to the frenetic action and comic book gadgets of the first film, but moreso.  The combination car chase, fist fight, and gun fight shows off more spectacle than anything in Kingsman: The Secret Service, so it seems that we are about to get the creative adrenaline fueled film we were hoping for.  But, this leads us to the film’s first problem.   While it does have a lot of action scenes, all of them way over-the-top in the stunts and special effects departments, more action does not mean better when the scenes aren’t terribly well thought out.  Most of the action scenes come from an overly contrived situation or they involve actions taken by people that make no sense given the context of the scene around them.

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One area which was very smart in Secret Service is also excellent in The Golden Circle, and that’s the motivations of its villains.  In the first film we were given a villain who saw himself as the hero, or perhaps the anti-hero, doing a job that needed to be done even if it was distasteful.  Here, Julianne Moore as Poppy gives us a villain who knows she is one, but feels it’s unfair that the world considers her one and comes up with a grand scheme to make herself socially acceptable.  It’s a pretty fantastic motivation for a villain not quite like anything I’d seen before but still makes a lot of sense.  Add to that the reaction of the government of the United States to Poppy’s plot, and you have a really true to life reaction to an incredibly unbelievable situation.  There is a problem in the plot in that the scheme affects the entire world but only the reaction of the United States seems to matter, and this in a movie that focuses on a British Spy Agency and features a Swedish Princess, but for the most part the forces that drive the plot are quite intelligent and allow for real social commentary.

The rest of the writing, though, does not share this same intelligence.  The beats of the storyline feature manufactured drama after manufactured drama.  If a simple solution to a problem is apparent, you can be guaranteed that those involved will choose the most convoluted, illogical course of action nearly every time.  Kingsman: The Golden Circle relies on easily settled misunderstandings and epicly idiotic planning on the parts of its characters to work, and this very much soils the intelligence put into its overall premise.  Add to that that the opportunity for social commentary is largely wasted, and you have a script which is no where near the level fans of the first film were hoping for.

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The music in the original Kingsman subtly added quite a bit to its combination retro and modern feel by giving us a mainly orchestral score very. and purposely, reminiscent of a James Bond film, so that when “Freebird” suddenly comes in to the forefront in the infamous church scene it’s an adrenal shock to the system which adds an incredible amount to an already bonkers scene.  The Golden Circle does away almost entirely with the orchestral score and gives us action scenes set to Prince, and ZZ Top, and covers of classic rock songs done in different styles, and therefore ruins the juxtaposition of styles which added so much the original film and made for yet another Guardians of the Galaxy clone where the music is concerned, which was fun for a while and was shown it can still work in Baby Driver and Atomic Blonde, but this is a styling that is starting to wear very thin.

The performances here are on a par with the first film for the most part, though Julianne Moore’s villain has nowhere near the opportunities to shine that Samuel L. Jackson’s did and giving Elton John such a large role in the film in which he plays himself did not work for me, which is okay.  The Kingsman isn’t a showcase for acting, so we don’t really need more than okay in my opinion, though it would have been nice if someone could have given us at least a creatively thought out character like Samuel L. Jackson and Sofia Boutella did in the original, seeing the workmanlike but otherwise unspectacular performances here showed my just how much life those two brought to the first Kingsman.

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The cinematography is another high point of the film, with shots that are both good looking and practical at the same time, and while CGI is in obviously constant use it flows fairly seamlessly for the most part, though there are a handful of exceptions to this.  Even if the plot is dipping into one of its more stupid bits or the pacing of a given scene is leaving you bored or overstimulated you at least know that whatever’s in front of you will be great looking.

Final verdict: Fans of the original Kingsman: The Secret Service will almost certainly leave Kingsman: The Golden Circle disappointed.  The script is sloppier, the nostalgic James Bond feel nearly non-existent, and the plot holes are on larger than life display.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t things to love here, though.  The over-the-top action is still incredibly fun to watch and the comic booky spy trappings are still creative and fun.  Most Kingsman fans could probably wait until this is rentable to see the movie, or even better catch a cheap matinee if possible, but if you are more into the movies for the stunts and special effects more than for story, Kingsman: The Golden Circle should scratch the over-the-top spy flick itch nicely.

Baby Driver (Wright; 2017)

Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End, and Scott Pilgrim vs the World.  All four of these films are cult classics, if not just outright classics without the cult attached, and all four were written and directed by Edgar Wright.  That would make for an impressive enough resume, but what makes it even more impressive is that, for major motion pictures, that is its entirety  There is no Coen Brothers’ The Ladykillers, no Kurosawa’s Dreams, no Polanski’s The Ninth Gate, there is, so far no bad movie marring an otherwise perfect record.  So, when Edgar Wright’s new film Baby Driver was announced it was to a good deal of anticipation and fanfare, and I’m happy to say the fanfare is deserved and the perfect record is still intact.

The reason Edgar Wright keeps making classics is because he keeps sticking to what he does best and that is taking a genre and half paying homage, half satrizing, and stylizing the hell out of said genre while using it to skewer the way we live our lives.  Wright actually switches up the formula mildly, because while it is most certainly a stylized genre filck, there is little of the satire, humor, or society skewering which is half of Wright’s trademark style.  What Wright gives us this time is a slick, smart, but straightforward crime movie.  Baby (Andel Elgort) was orphaned at a very young age, and the auto accident which killed his parents left him with tinnitis (a permanent ringing in the ears) and an obsession with cars.  A run in with crime lord Doc (Kevin Spacey) at a slightly older, but still very young, age left Baby with a debt he had to repay and, so he now works as Doc’s permanent get away driver in a crew of otherwise constantly rotating criminals including Jon Hamm as Buddy, Eliza Gonzalez as Darling, and Jamie Foxx as Bats.

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These characters are all compelling due to a real sense of motivation, dialogue that is both natural and clever, and performances that exemplify a commitment to the art of bringing a fictional person to life.  While there isn’t a bad performance in the bunch, it is Jon Hamm and Eliza Gonzalez who truly go above and beyond in Baby Driver and steal every single scene they are in as their Bonnie and Clyde-esque criminal lovers who eventually reveal themselves to be far more unstable than their charming exteriors would suggest.  These two give two of the most accurate portrayals of true sociopaths I’ve ever seen captured in film in the way they disarm even the viewer with their charisma and false empathy all the while caring about nothing beyond themselves.

The camerawork is also excellent here, though, a few of the action pieces which do not involve cars did get a little dark and muddled, allowing us to experience the intense pacing of Baby Driver with very little confusion or lack of perspective.  The excellent choreography of both the actual action pieces as well as the cameras which capture these pieces show a true area of growth for Wright as a film maker as, while he has always focused on action genres in his previous films, he has never before been given a budget this large nor a story which relies so much on truly death defying stunt work, and he handles it all at a level that embarrasses many directors who have been putting together high spectacle action films their entire careers (yes, I’m still angry at you for last week Michael Bay).

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The use of music in the movie is also invigorating.  Due to Baby’s tinnitis, he listens to music throughout nearly the entire running time of the film to show that music is a never ending obsession of his because it drowns out the ringing in his ears, and other reasons which would enter into spoiler territory.  The music selection is mostly older, but it does run a gamut from the incredibly popular and overplayed to the “how have I never heard this song?, I love this band” level of exposure, and it really adds an additional level of fun to the film in very much the way the Awesome Mixes did in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies.

What really makes the film shine, though, is the way all of these elements are edited together into a cohesive whole.  We get why the characters are criminals, and we appreciate their motivations and quirks.  We ooh and ahh at the stunts and the excellent cinematography being used to capture them, and the tunes get our foots tapping and our heads bobbing .  When the car is spinning and the guns blazing in the rhythm of the hip hop beat as the graffiti going by in the background portrays the lyrics of song on the        I-Pod and the banter even starts to go along with the beat, that’s when we realize what a true work of love we are experiencing.  The visuals, acting, and screenwriting are all very well done, but the editing is the real masterwork on display.

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All that is not to say Baby Driver doesn’t have its share of problems, though, and a couple fairly serious ones at that.  The first is that by removing Wright’s sense of satire, we really don’t have much more going on here than a remarkably pretty series of action set pieces broken up by bits of banter.  There is no lesson to be learned here, no exploration of character, and no real insight into our universe.  The love story is believable, but ultimately pretty banal for a movie, and even the pseudo familial ties ultimately are nothing more than an excuse for be involved in a certain power dynamic.

The other, and I feel slightly more serious, problem is one of pacing, though not a typical issue in which the director couldn’t quite get the timing of action versus plot advancement.  In Baby Driver we get incredible action right off the bat letting us see right away the creative and kinetic journey we have ahead of us, and while the film never ceases being intelligent, frantic, and stylish, it also never surpasses what it gives us at the start.  This leaves us with a movie that plateaus immediately and never really builds to a climactic resolution, leaving us a bit disappointed without really completely understanding why at the end.

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Final verdict:  Edgar Wright continues his legacy of excellence with Baby Driver, but this most likely is a film that will remembered more as a film made by Edgar Wright than as a film which stands as great under its own merit.   Despite its problems, there is a lot more to like here than to dislike, an awful lot more, but this is also certainly a film that many will walk away from feeling it was overhyped and will suffer a hit of reputation due to this.  Baby Driver is a fun, stylish, fantastic crime movie which will leave nearly everyone satisfied.  Just understand that on the Edgar Wright scale, this is closer to The World’s End than Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz.