Monday, March 14, 2016

"Mad Max: Fury Road" and "The Revenant" Display Technical Wizardry, But the Former Leaves a Better Impression

Mad Max: Fury Road literally features a character who just plays a
flaming guitar to set the mood for Immortan Joe's men.
For all their differences, Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant strike a similar chord with me. Both feature actor Tom Hardy and both take a hard look at the violent nature of men, but the connection runs a bit deeper than that. They are certainly the most divisive films among the recent Best Picture nominees with each having been called a masterpiece by some and an overhyped piece of garbage by others. I’m somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. While I respect the undeniable craft, ambition and technical wizardry on display in each film, both feature parts that are greater than their collective wholes.

Fury Road is the fourth Mad Max film, but you don’t need to have seen any of the Mel Gibson-led entries to watch it. Not at all, really. Writer/director George Miller has spoken about how the Road Warrior franchise isn’t meant to be some ongoing narrative with sensical continuity, but rather a pliable urban legend of the post-apocalyptic wasteland. These stories are whisper-down-the-lane lore told around camp fires, mythical tales about a man who takes on different shades depending on the orator.

It is helpful to appreciating the film if you view it in that context, because the narrative is little more than a sparse allegory and Miller makes some big stylistic choices that are likely to turn off viewers looking for something a bit meatier and a lot less weird. Fury Road thrusts a haunted Max Rockatansky (Hardy, communicating mostly via his glances and grunts) into a feminine uprising against Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a maniacal warlord with several of wives (i.e. sex slaves), throngs of devoted War Boys who view him as a god and even more oppressed plebs just hoping to get bit of the water Joe hoards from all but the select one-percenters.

The action starts when Imperator Furiosa (a dynamite Charlize Thernon), one of Joe’s top lieutenants, goes AWOL during a gasoline run in an attempt to liberate Joe’s five wives from captivity. It’s basically one long car chase from there, but really it’s a psychedelic music video for a feminine empowerment ditty that’s raging against overbearing masculinity and maybe a little against capitalistic over commodification as well. It’s all good zeitgeisty stuff that fits snuggly alongside the likes of Ex Machina (reviewed here) and all the other media examining gender entitlement and rape culture. But, while I expect Fury Road to age well, I’m just not as gaga over the whole thing as its most ardent admirers. There's just some mysterious x-factor missing that prohibits me from connecting fully to the film, which probably says more about me than the movie itself.

Nevertheless, Fury Road is a sensory experience of the highest order. The Oscars it netted for editing, sound, costuming, makeup and production design are well deserved, and the film also would’ve been my choice for director and special effects due to its inventive lensing, energetic choreography and eye-popping stunt work. That doesn’t even cover the performances, which do their fair share in adding to the artistry of the visuals. Take, for instance, Nicholas Hoult, who is somehow batshit manic and introspectively still as Nux, one of the more nuanced takes on a homicidal zealot you’re likely to come across.
Leonardo DiCaprio finally got his Oscar for The Revenant.

The Revenant delivers plenty on the sensory level as well, with stylistic flourishes wrapped around a traditional narrative that will sit just fine with people unaccustomed to tonal idiosyncrasies. The tale of a fur keeper (Leonardo DiCaprio) who is mauled by a bear and then left for dead by the cohorts left in charge of tending to his needs, it’s basically concerned with suffering and survival, although it does make some nods toward the all-consuming nature of vengeance. Much of that is hollow tokenism, especially compared to Prisoners (reviewed here) or even something lesser like Death Sentence.

Packaging impressive long takes and unbelievable camera movements that trump what director Alejandro Gonzalez IƱarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki previously achieved together with Birdman, The Revenant is as viscerally immersive in its best moments as any movie out there. Unfortunately, in between those moments the film is so emotionally static and faux meditative that it falls way beneath their previous collaboration.

DiCaprio won the Academy Award for his work here, and while some would have you believe his victory was basically a lifetime attaboy along the lines of the Oscar Al Pacino received for Scent of a Woman, that would be untrue. DiCaprio gives a grounded and raw performance, and although this doesn’t even rank as one of his 10 best performances and I wouldn’t have even nominated him this year, his win is far from some embarrassing make-good. It’s just that there’s not a lot of meat on the bone. Hardy has more to work with as the chief antagonist, another brooding brute like Max, albeit inverted, rotten and way more talkative. A win for him would’ve made more sense to me, but I’m not in charge of awards.

I prefer Mad Max: Fury Road to The Revenant, but they are both good films chiefly defined by the auteur touches of their directors. Neither is a top 10 film for me in 2015, but there’s always a few of those thrown in with the Best Picture crew, and I would way rather have those spots go to these masters of the form than some boilerplate prestige pic defined by middling competence.

Mad Max: Fury Road B+, The Revenant B