Monday, June 22, 2015

Impotence is a fact of life

No, seriously. It is. If you don't believe me, just go watch episode 1 of the second season of True Detective. They will beat you over the head with that fact even worse than the beatdown that Colin Farrell's character delivers to the father of the kid who bullied his son at school. Problem is, I think impotence kind of wound its way into the script, too. Was it a bad hour of TV? No. Was it anywhere near even the slow opening of season 1? About as close as Carcosa.


Let's meet our cast: Taylor Kitsch is Paul Woodrugh, a CHP officer (degree of difficulty limits on all Erik Estrada comparisons begins now) having a secret affair with the big, blue pill that he can't tell his girlfriend about and which leads him to getting suspended when he figures some desperate low-grade starlet might be the solution to getting it back up without the assist. Fine. Those sound like human motivations and provide us our rogue operator who will be torn between sticking to the law and running across it in order to get back to the force. He has a little bit of stock Hollywood in him with the burn scars and the stories "from the war" (Tangent: We're confronted with an odd situation in this, our modern era, in that when someone says "from the war", he/she could be talking about Iraq, Afghanistan, or both, so we're never quite sure which of our endless wars they're talking about. But that's OK, since Ignorance is Strength. Now back to the Ministry of Love./tangent) but we can live with that. It gives him a background. Unfortunately, it didn't also give him good dialogue, such as when he tells his lieutenant that the bike "makes me feel alive!" I could understand if he just wanted his job back and didn't have to express how having the throbbing machine between his legs was what made him... Oh. Right. You think I'm projecting? Just wait.



Then we come to Rachel McAdams, who plays Detective Antigone Bezzerides. I shit you not. Her character's name is "Antigone". A little Greek classical drama/mythology lesson for those not in the know: Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus by his mother, Jocasta, just in case you thought sexual mores weren't going to utterly dominate our story. The name means "in place of one's parents", which is exactly what we see Antigone doing in her first scene, where she runs an operation to clear out a webcasting studio that happens to employ her sister, Athena(!), gettin' busy for dollas. See, prostitution is a crime, but making porn for willing customers isn't. However, Ani's impotence extends to both her attempts to shepherd her sister into something Ani considers worthwhile (She's against porn; shouldn't her nickname be "Anti"?) and apparently her ability to feel meaningful outside of her job, since we spend a few seconds watching her load up to receive the last charge on the Alamo before she heads out to the casino and somehow fails to beat the house (clearly, it's not just men who need their guns to feel powerful.) Hard-drinking cop, gambles, has family refuse to accept advice or protection; bog standard, but OK. Maybe there's something more. It's the name that just kills me. I mean, fine, I'm probably in a small minority who knows the reference but, seriously, did Pizzolatto really want to be this obvious? It's not enough that her sister could have been wrapped up in drugs or something more subtle, but that sex theme just won't go away.


Continuing our soiree is Frank Semyon, played by Vince Vaughn. Frank's a crimelord with a heart of gold, since those guys always seem to be successful. In Hollywood. They also seem to be really numerous in Hollywood, which makes you think that most writers may never have met someone who actually controls a significant part of the underworld (out of the goodness of his heart, no doubt.) Frank's frustrated because his big development deal for a new light rail system (doubtlessly going right through Toon Town) hinges on the city planner who has recently disappeared. Frustration mounts, but in Frank's case, it's even more obvious when it becomes apparent that his wife, Jordan (Kelly Riley), is far more adept at running his business than he is. See, Frank's impotence isn't because of hormones or family issues or even just job frustrations; it's because his wife makes him so. So, back when season 2 was announced, there was a hot rumor that the story would center around not just one but two female leads, in the same way that season 1 had used women as little more than background for the main story, which was the struggle between Rust Cohle, Martin Hart, their differing philosophies, and how they were both running from them. If that's your story, great. Sometimes you're just not going to have other people in prominent roles. Now we've arrived at season 2 and not only is one of the leads completely overshadowed by her compatriots in terms of interest, but another is kind of a secondary character who find herself cast as a symbol of the problem that afflicts all the rest. This is hardly a step forward. It's not helped by the fact that Reilly is the far superior actor to Vaughn, who not only didn't sell me on the idea of him being some kind of underworld kingpin, but was also stuck with the most rote scenes imaginable, even in what appears to be a trumped-up police procedural. For the whole minute that we waited for Osip (Tim Murphy) to leave the room after handing Frank his glass, I muttered: "Don't throw the glass. Don't throw the glass. Don't be fucking standard rage nitwit and throw the gla-. Shit." And, just in case you didn't get that whole impotence thing (No. Really.), Frank has to let Ray know that he and Jordan are going the IVF route because, you know, it's not working. A lot of things aren't.


Oh, yeah. Ray. Colin Farrell is Detective Ray Valcoro. He is. Just look at him. The hangdog eyes. The pornstache that pretty much screams "down on his luck." The heavy sigh that accompanies every spoken word. The character is basically the walking definition of malaise. Of course, we discover that not only was he unable to prevent his wife's rape, but that he's now reminded of it every time he looks at the son who resembles him not at all and whom he now can't even get regular access to, in standard American weekend-dad style. You almost might say he was impotent... or something. Once again, cinderblock meets head when we're informed that he's "not interested in that anymore", when asked by Frank if he's dating anyone. It's at this point where I'm wondering if we're watching an HBO series or a dramatization of a Dr. Ruth call-in show (which, now that I think of it, might be kinda interesting...) To Farrell's extreme credit, he takes the turgid material that he's given and turns some of it into points of genuine interest. You can see the inner conflict in his face at several points of the episode, even right before he delivers the aforementioned beating. That said, the character is so standard police procedural that you wonder why someone (director, editor, Farrell himself) didn't stop and turn to Pizzolatto and say: "Is that it?"


Because that's the way I'm feeling about the whole show right now. The disappearance of the city planner who then turns up at the end, setting up what might just be a long game of: Who killed Casper? (we didn't get the answer to that with this guy, either) is memorable of nothing so much as The Killing, the AMC show that Pizzolatto did write for and which he probably never wants anyone to ask him about again. And, yet, here we are. It's a murder mystery, doubtlessly involving multiple factions of interest, and affecting most of our main cast, all of whom could have "angst" tattooed on their foreheads. Sounds familiar? It does to me and that's terrifying. Of course, Pizzolatto gets miles of credit from season 1, so I'm not bailing after one episode (again, last season started a little slowly, too) but there's a lot of ground to make up next week. Pile all of the above on top of the interviews with Pizzolatto that seem to indicate he's not letting anyone else interfere with his singular vision (like director of all of last season, Cory Fukunaga, whose talents led to the greatest long shot in the history of the medium) and I start to get pretty leery of how quickly this might crash and burn in the face of mammoth expectations, not least my own. Get it up, Nick.

Monday, June 15, 2015

For the Watch. And the fans?

After last week's tirade, I'm in an interesting spot as a reviewer. Once you enter The Snark, it's difficult to leave it. As anyone who's ever written criticism of any kind (both constructive and non-) will tell you, it's far easier to be negative than it is to be positive. Knocking things down is much easier than building it in the first place, so I can go ahead and continue to be dismissive of a couple of the storylines in the season 5 finale, "Mother's Mercy" and I will be. At the same time, I think I still have room to say that there were a number of great scenes that both brought us back to the usual level of quality that GoT is associated with and also did a rather amazing job of bringing most of the storylines and characters around to where they are at the conclusion of A Dance with Dragons, the fifth book. So, let's be pedantic and get the sorest spot out of the way first.


In Jerkoff Motion Land, we finally see the buddy cop sequence drawing to a close as Jaime, Bronn, and Myrcella leave behind the ephemeral Doran, the directionless Tyene, and the not-even-named-in-the-show Areo Hotah. At this point, I'm not sure where Dorne fits into the overall picture, as there's a sizable element of the plot in the books that's been left out of the show. Furthermore, Ellaria and the Snakes seem to have just initiated the war that Doran went out of his way to prevent by essentially placing the Snakes under house arrest in the books. Thus, in the show, the rebellion against the crown is on. And, in the books, the rebellion against the crown is also on, but in a less venomous form. It still wasn't worth an entire season of slaphand in a Dornish dungeon.

That said, the scene between Jaime and Myrcella did nothing to damage my impression of Nikolai Coster-Waldau as one of the best performers on the show. The serially changing emotions on his face when Myrcella told him that she knew he was her father were great. That kind of revelation isn't an easy thing to sell without dialogue.


Across the sea in Sitcom, we had the expected commiserating about the loss of the queen and the hashing out of the "what do we do now?" moment. While it wasn't overly surprising to see Daario being the voice of reason, since he's the least burdened by alcohol and emotion among the group and also the most likely to look at things in a linear fashion (straight, like the edge of a (sell)sword), the conclusion that he came to was stock Hollywood. We just ended season 5's buddy cop excursion and now we start another as Daario and Jorah venture off in search of each episode's swordplay scene and, ostensibly, the queen and her largest dragon. It's like D&D have decided that they can't get through a season without a Hollywood trope. This is example A of what has concerned me about much of this season: the episodes were formulaic. You needed X amount of dramatic conversation and Y amount of swordswinging and Z amount of shocking event(!!!) and every episode had those. Sure, there's such a thing as dramatic structure and you do have to apply yourself to the terms of the medium (story told in 10 separate parts) that doesn't lend itself well to a sprawling epic. But when that structure becomes rote and obvious, you have issues. I'm just hoping that they can loosen things up a bit when they start filming this summer, since the screenplays are already written.


Even though it's not canon, I was pretty pleased to see Varys return. He's not in Meereen in the books, but the exchanges between him and Tyrion on the show have been excellent and they picked up last night right where they had left off in Volantis. Watching the two of them try to run Meereen for much of next season should be pretty entertaining. Meanwhile, out on the plains with the queen, we're right in stride with the books, although the perspective was a bit off. Why would an entire khalassar demonstrate in front of one small woman whom they could easily pick off the Dothraki Sea at a whim? I had always assumed that what kept them from immediately claiming her as chattel at the end of Dance was the massive black reptile sitting next to her. Effects shots do cost money, so it was probably cheaper to leave Drogon out, but if they were already doing the CGI for the riders...


The Braavos scenes... bugged me. Arya finally taking vengeance on Meryn Trant seemed wasteful and stupid, probably because it was intended to be that way. Stabbing a victim's eyes out and then basically parading around him isn't quite the conduct of a Faceless Man or any of the other assassination cults of the world (She, clearly, was not sorry at all.) But we already knew that she wasn't willing to be "no one" simply by her conduct from last episode and even from the beginning of the season, since she hid Needle, rather than discarding it. So we really didn't need to see her doing the bloodspatter thing. Even killing Trant with the water and then retreating to the temple would have been enough to get her in trouble, since the took the wrong life. The over-the-top murder scene kind of made it difficult for me to take the blinding scene well. Having someone go blind in an (ahem) visual medium, especially that quickly, is a difficult thing to convey, so I don't have a problem with the technical merits. It just ended up being an evening of too many Arya shrieks and not quite enough of the subtlety that she'd been developing. Either that or I'm just impatient for her to get to the next steps of her development, as she ended up somewhat behind the pace of the other stories.


And so we come to the momentous events of the evening, beginning with Stannis. Carice van Houten really shone here. She had her usual self-satisfied look when the coincidence of the thaw signaled the approval of the Lord of Light (somehow, coincidence always serves religion...) but looked genuinely surprised when Stannis physically brushed her off in the tent and then clearly shaken when the desertions where announced. Going from her usual ic(y hot) queen image to someone who finds her own faith shaken for the first time was a great moment. Stannis, realizing that he's been left with no alternative and no longer a believer in R'hllor, goes all in, anyway. However, I was immediately irked when we see Stannis, supposedly military commander par excellence, leading a disorganized mob toward Winterfell. This is not how sieges are laid, especially when you're leading only those troops that are blood loyal to you and you know the enemy is expecting your approach (yes, I'm totally anal about these things.)

The CGI of the closing battlelines was a great shot and redolent of other double envelopments throughout history like Cannae (the harvest of gold senatorial rings, etc.; yes, I'm a total history nerd. Shut up.) That said, it was aggravating that, once again, the scene ended up being a complete driveby on the battle itself (reminiscent of Tyrion's first martial encounter that he slept through in season 1.) Once again, we have a season full of build-up for... this? We get two minutes of Stannis fighting the rearguard? Epic fail. The sequence was partially saved by the fairly exciting confrontation of Brienne and Stannis. Unlike the Arya/Meryn moment, this one felt wholly justified and Stannis even reinforced that with his typically stalwart acceptance of his fate ("Go on. Do your duty.") Of course, since they didn't show his actual execution, I have my doubts that it actually occurred, since Brienne is wise enough to know that having yet another ally in rescuing Sansa is better than fulfilling her thirst for vengeance.


Speaking of which, Sansa's scenes should have been among the less controversial of the finale except for one thing that the producers and actor did right. So, the whole season we've been watching Reek continue in his servile manner, knowing that no matter what happened (a childhood friend being raped in front of him; said childhood friend pleading for the smallest of favors; etc.), he was Ramsay's, body and soul. Thus, when the confrontation with Miranda occurs, it somehow seems even less likely that Theon would use that moment to reemerge. Alfie Allen had been so good in his role that it was simply accepted fact: he was Reek. By the same token, he had shown a fair amount of struggle in that identity over the latter half of the season, so it's not unbelievable that he chose that moment to finally save his friend, but it did lead to some degree of question. One would suppose that as surely as the arrogant, self-assured Theon can be turned into the mewling sycophant that refuses to leave his dog cage, that same self-assurance can break back through for just a moment. Thus are unusual character studies made, I guess. It's the same route that took place in the books, after all; just not with Sansa.


And then there was Jon. This was the last moment for book-readers to have the one-up on show-watchers, since there's precious little left to know that hasn't been written out of the TV series at this point. I think D&D took the unfortunate route of playing up Olly's discomfort with the inclusion of the Wildlings for the entire season. While the dissent was a factor in the books, it was presented as an undercurrent, such that the final event was a bit of a surprise (yes, even jaded book readers can be taken in once in a while; despite the reputation for Martin killing anyone and everyone, it really doesn't happen that often.) Here it was obvious from about midseason onward, mostly because of Olly. All things considered, they played the scene extremely well. Thorne didn't show any particular glee when he contributed to the removal of his rival and no one else showed much emotion other than some wisps of the dismay that was all over Olly's face. If you're going to mutiny and assassinate your sworn commander, you might as well show some degree of regret or concern over the size of the crime when you commit it, because there's supposedly going to be no one left to call you on the carpet for it. Kit Harrington has been cited in a couple sources stating that his character is dead and he hasn't been asked back. There's at least one link being cited that shows the contract extensions through season 7 for the "A tier" cast, which includes Harrington, but that extension doesn't matter if their character is written out.

Of course, killing off a character far more central than Eddard or Robb ever were, given the theories about his parentage and him being the only other perspective character at the Wall now that Sam is gone, is pretty unlikely. Given Jon's ability to warg (into his direwolf, Ghost... Remember Ghost? Remember when we had direwolves in this show?) and the presence of Melisandre at Castle Black, most fan theories since the publication of Dance have centered around how he's going to return, which suggests that the actor is just engaged in some hardcore trolling.

One interesting note about the scenes at the Wall is the discussion about Sam's voyage to Oldtown to become a maester. In the books, it's Jon who tells Sam to do it, using the same arguments (he's suited, Castle Black needs a replacement for Aemon, etc.), but in the show they decided to reverse it, leaving Jon feeling vulnerable without his friend rather than Sam feeling guilty for abandoning his. It's an interesting statement on where the respective writers see the central character. It also makes me wonder just how much of Sam's activity in Oldtown we'll see, as there are some important details that occur there, but it's also another huge expenditure of sets and locations (although they can probably just use a different angle in Jerkoff Land since it's at the same latitude... snarking, sorry) Since they decided to completely reverse the scene, I wonder if Sam will sail down the west coast of Westeros, rather than the east, since the presence of Ironborn piracy hasn't been nearly as prominent in the show?


And, finally, the Walk of Shame. I have a long-time friend who is also a book-reader who has always been disappointed in the selection of Lena Headey for the role of Cersei, as the actress doesn't fit her image of the character. As I've mentioned before, my opinion is the direct opposite: I think she's been fantastic and has shown aspects of the character as a whole being, rather than the cardboard wicked witch that she sometimes appears to be at certain points in the story. Grasping, vain, ruthless, devoted, spiteful, cunning, arrogant, deluded; Headey has done it all and done it well. The Walk scene last night was easily the best of the entire season and one of the best directed scenes of the series as a whole. Walking revealed and accused as a common criminal through the city that she ruled with iron (no matter who was sitting on the throne), you could see that arrogance trying to shield her from all of the abuse, physical and verbal, but finally failing. It makes up for a lot of things that have gone wrong in season 5 and perhaps gives some hope for season 6. As I said, in the end, they did a lot of good work in wrapping everything back to where most of the book fans think they should be. I still think they need to inject a new writer or two to escape the formula trap and perhaps lessen the obviousness of the short cuts they're taking to condense parts of the books. But now that the books are no longer a framework, I guess we'll see how well they do entirely on their own.

Lines of the week:

"Long may they sneer."
Sam and Jon; spoken like two high school-aged outcasts.

"I'm glad the end of the world's working out well for someone."
Jon's despondency doesn't completely extinguish the sense of humor that all Night's Watchmen require. Look at Edd.

"Bolton has women fighting for him?"
This just struck me as a funny expression of the limits Stannis had pushed himself to in the face of obvious futility. 'After all that and now I have to put up with women from the Dreadfort?'

"You want a good girl, but you need a bad pussy."
Don't we all?

"Have you ever known your mother to like anyone aside from her children?"
"She likes you."
"I'm not so sure about that."
Like Jon, Jaime's wry humor rarely abandons him. That's part of what makes Coster-Waldau so good.

"My Valyrian is a bit nostril."
Mine, too.

"So, mainly you talk?"
"And drink."
Don't count out drinking as a solution, especially in a sitcom. (I'll stop. Really.)

"He's the toughest man with no balls I've ever met."
Ha. Daario has no idea. He just rode away from the world's toughest in Varys.

(What should have been a line from Drogon with that annoying queen-thing on his back: "Go 'way. I'm sleepin'.")

And the winner:

"A grand old city, choking on violence and deceit. Who could possibly have any experience managing such an ungainly beast?"
"I did miss you."
"Oh, I know."
Seriously, the two of them next season just might be awesome.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Dancers at the End of Time


If only I was actually writing about the Michael Moorcock series and not the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Truth be told, I'd be far more inspired to spend the next hour or two recapping one of Moorcock's lesser efforts (in comparison to things like Elric or Jerry Cornelius) than I am in going back through the latest offering of a series that, barring the one serious uptick last week, has pretty rapidly descended from its former heights. Likewise, this episode, barring a couple great acting moments, offered virtually nothing memorable other than the fairly surprising loss of Shireen. The Dorne scenes were, once again, almost completely superfluous. The Braavos scenes were obvious and fairly pedantic. And the stuff in Meereen continued to be a half-assed version of Gladiator which seemed to leave that storyline with even less direction and intrigue than it had before. Why is Jorah already back in the queen's good graces when the character is so much more interesting when he's stewing in frustration? Why is Hizdahr zo Loraq dead, thus robbing the story of his connections to the nobility of Meereen (i.e. the Sons of the Harpy) and the rivalry with Daario? With Daenerys gone, is the rule of Meereen to end up in the hands of a former slave (Missandei), a mercenary (Daario), a disgraced Westerosi knight (Jorah), and the Imp? It sounds like a sitcom. My suspension of disbelief is withering quickly and with it, the wonderful pace and texture that has been the hallmark of this series since it began.

Despite the leading image, I'm not overwrought about the loss of Shireen. I think Kerry Ingram played the role well and brought a lot of humanity to scenes that often lacked it because of the presence of her father. Unlike in the books, she also opened the door for moments with said father that made him more human than he has otherwise been portrayed. As many of you probably know by now, the decision to end her story is one that has been made by GRRM and will be a moment in The Winds of Winter, so giving D&D abuse for deviating from "canon" in this instance is sorely misplaced, as they didn't.

Tangent:
Giving the showrunners grief for their deviations from the books at this point is idiotic; full stop. The show was never going to be in lockstep with the books. It's impossible. Martin specifically wrote the story to be unfilmable because of its size and the number of characters involved. It was his playground to finally be able to do whatever he wanted and logistics be damned. People crying about this or that happening to Sansa or not happening to Jaime really just have to get over it. The books are unfilmable. No set of actors, directors, and producers could do it. Changes have to be made, have been made, and will continue to be made. The show has to be enjoyed on its own merits now, especially given the fact that the next book may not emerge before the show wraps up. This will be the last time I bring this up. /tangent

That said, if you are going to run a show for several years, you kinda have to maintain your audience by giving them something worth watching (This is today's Tautological Lesson™.) Season 5, with few exceptions, has not been a way to maintain that audience because Weiss and Benioff haven't really given us anything to wonder about other than why they're making the choices that they are.


Witness Dorne. The entire excursion into the last of the Seven Kingdoms has been a complete waste of time. Alexander Siddiq, as Prince Doran, has had a grand total of about 10 minutes of screen time for the whole season. What has that told us about him as a character? What has it accomplished other than showing Ellaria's impotent rage over the death of her paramour, Oberyn? We already have that with Cersei. We already have that with Sansa. Hell, we have that with most of the women in the show and would have more of it if they'd included the Lady Coldheart storyline, but that theme has been beaten into the ground. If they were going to introduce Dorne (and I would have been sorely disappointed if they hadn't but, yes, would have recognized the logistical need to sacrifice it), then include the genuine plotting nature of that family and its portrayal in Feast and Dance. If there was anything that could have been cut, it's the Sand Snakes and their (all together now) impotent rage. In a season marked by extended conversations about background events, the ones that really could have whetted our mass appetite for next season are the ones we didn't get from Prince Doran. Yes, show-watchers, there's an assload of story (surprise!) behind the Dorne stuff that has a lot to do with what's going on in Essos and what happened during Robert's Rebellion (even more than what Oberyn referred to last season.) But you're not going to get any of that because, instead, you got Bronn being Bronn and Jaime being Jaime and no one doing anything but running in place, both in terms of character development or plot progression. The one word label for "jerking off motion" in all of its possible connotations (and there are many) is now "Dorne"; even more fitting because they couldn't even be bothered to give the city its actual name ("Sunspear", in case you didn't know or missed it the first time I ranted about it) and not because it's a phallic symbol.


The best moment of the entire episode was watching Thorne's expression from the top of the Wall as Jon and the Wildlings approached. That one moment of acting told us everything about the man, his opinions, his relationship with the new Lord Commander, and everything they'd been through together. It was brilliant and Owen Teale deserves every bit of praise for pulling it off. That moment was the only one of genuine tension in the episode, as we sat there wondering whether Thorne would let them back in or leave them to die at the hands of the Others. He would have been justified in doing so, given most of the Watch's antipathy toward their other hereditary enemies, the Wildlings. It would also have been convenient, given his and Jon's personal distaste for each other and his conviction that Jon's plan for the Watch is a bad one. That's storytelling. That's plot. That's character. That's real conflict. Thorne's acquiescence and commitment to duty was evident as we all crossed that hurdle together. None of that occurred in the entirety of the Dorne material for the season.


The other great moment of the episode was, of course, the subtle goodbye that Davos had with Shireen. In the end, when you're telling stories, whether it's a plot-driven epic like a Song of Ice and Fire or a character-driven tale like Tom Sawyer, the people involved need to be real. "Real" usually means "human", in that they act and feel in ways that the watchers or readers can relate to. It's something I'm hyper-conscious of because I've written a number of things where people acted in ways that were either rote or unnatural and those are always the stories that crash and burn. Watching Davos (Liam Cunningham) be torn between his affection for Shireen and his natural predilection toward doing what's right on the one hand, and the duty imposed on him by his king on the other, was excellent. Shireen's unknowing earnestness about their friendship was the crowning touch. Again: conflict, character, plot, story. It was all there. The rest of the episode largely lacked it and so has most of this season.


I mean, seriously, what was the point of killing Hizdahr here? What did it do for us? There's no longer any question of whether he was tied to the Sons of the Harpy, which is one of the more interesting plot points about the character, because he's dead. There's no longer any question about whether he was attaching himself to Dany for personal ambition or political motives or even genuine affection, because he's dead. Now we have to imagine that a bunch of outsiders, without the force of personality and dragons of their queen, and alongside the increasingly inept Unsullied, will somehow succeed without a single person in Meereen by their side? Good fiction occasionally does take leaps of logic (most people refer to them as "plot twists") but this one is going down a road that seems less likely by the minute. I'm not watching the series to see Daario do a Die Hard in the great pyramid of Meereen. I'm watching for a good story and, right now, I'm not getting it.

That complaint becomes even more acute when considering Arya's storyline, which is one of my favorites in the books and has been so for the last two seasons. Yet this episode's lengthy time in Braavos found her wandering after Meryn Trant and wheeling an oyster cart into one of the most expensive whorehouses in the city. Somehow no one stopped her at the door? Somehow an editor didn't look at this screenplay and say: "Perhaps wandering around with Arya while she wavers between murderous intent toward Trant and concern about that same intent toward the ship insurance guy without actually doing anything might be a little tedious?" It was at that moment that I wondered, with all of the increasingly obvious shortcuts they've been taking to keep the story under control, somehow they thought an episode full of no actual action by Arya was OK? Are we at the point where we have to consider the idea that D&D, largely unmoored from Martin's books, have lost their way? It's certainly starting to look that way.

Side notes:

Along that whole "leap of logic" thing, I found it especially unreasonable that Ramsay and his 20 picked men could have become so familiar with the layout of Stannis' camp that they would have been able to burn the food stores and the siege weapons and escape without being seen. Granted, doing it in the midst of a low-grade blizzard is a sure way to cover your tracks (literally) but trying to scout a camp of 6000, enter it, set enough fires to burn successfully, and leave in the midst of a low-grade blizzard isn't exactly likely.

Was I the only one kind of disappointed in the production value this season? It became pretty obvious that, for all the glory of the Water Gardens in Sunspear, they were essentially shooting the same room from different angles. That's a trick you have to do in order to control costs, but it was getting kind of tired by the end. Of course, that might be just because there was nothing actually happening. But it really hit me when Dany did the Great Drogon Escape at the end. Her riding on his back looked like nothing so much as the kid in the Neverending Story; a movie from 30 years ago with vastly inferior technology.

Lines of the week:

"You have a good heart, Jon Snow. It'll get us all killed."
Alliser Thorne, pragmatist.

"It's always changing. Who we're supposed to love and who we're not. The only thing that stays the same is who we want."
Ellaria making the case for modern sexual politics.

"What great thing has ever been accomplished without death and cruelty?"
"It's easy to confuse what is with what ought to be, especially when what is has worked in your favor."
And Tyrion chiming in with an easy statement about modern America.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Snowball


For the last two episodes, the greater amount of action has taken place in the North, perhaps to remind the audience that the basis of the story is a Song of Ice and Fire. The real threat is what the Starks have been saying for generations: Winter is coming. Leading the way just happens to be The Others, who have their first significant and lasting presence on-screen since the end of season 2, when Sam witnessed their advance on the Fist of the First Men at the head of a horde of undead (The nomenclature is about to become very difficult, since the dead are "walkers" in The Walking Dead and The Others have become the "White Walkers" in the GoT series.) Here our horde of undead is present, but so are not only the seeming priests or mages of the Others who raise the dead of Hardhome in front of Jon and Co., but also one badass warrior who moves in a way that icy guys generally don't in most fantasy tropes. Of course, neither do the undead. But we'll get to that.

In covering a fair amount of ground, Michael Sapochnik's direction is fairly clipped. Not only do we sprint around the globe while checking in on the various storylines, but we also do so in repeated snippets. While we could have easily done Cersei's scenes in one sequence (Qyburn comes in, followed by nun with the Ladle of Confession, Cersei laps the floor.) Instead, he broke that story into two scenes, along with the extended conversation between Tyrion and Dany. I think that technique is normally put to good use and, in fact, Martin does it regularly in the books and it frequently produces the same sensation that I got here: that of mild frustration that a Tyrion moment was ending and someone else was taking his place. I guess that's what keeps the reader reading and the viewers viewing, but this time it felt like no one was getting the space they really needed to tell their story, except for Jon and Tormund, which turned out to be the one extended scene of the episode and its close.


The one I especially wanted to see more of was, of course, Dany and Tyrion. Not only has this event not happened in the books, but it's been a long-awaited one and I think the two of them lived up to the occasion. Combining Dany's emotional impulsiveness but obvious intelligence with Tyrion's overflowing common sense about politics but neo-nihilism was bound to be a good mix. Now comes the time where two of the most obvious "good guys" end up facing the depredations of their respective authors (Martin and D&D.) Given the caterwauling over the way Sansa and the rest of the Starks have been treated, one can only imagine how loud it's going to get once the Imp and the Dragon Queen run into serious trouble on their quest to help the common people. Remember, we have two whole seasons to fill after this one.

In truth, as both a book reader and viewer who was relatively disappointed through the first half of this season, I've noticed in the past two weeks that my interest has hopped around in the same way this episode did. When I watch the Cersei scenes, they seem rote. Everything is proceeding in the same fashion as in the books and I'm OK shrugging my shoulders at it (in addition to the fact that those scenes are taking place inside a cell with a wholly predictable response by the character leading them.) OTOH, when events take place that weren't in the books, I'm kind of fascinated in a way that exceeds previous seasons. Before this, they were deviations, albeit ones that struck me as allowing the actors to really spread their wings. Now, they're new material that may be glimpses into what's developing in Winds of Winter (Yes. The Sansa rape scene may be in WoW. How many fans will give in to their outrage and stop reading the books as a consequence?) and/or are giving us insight that wasn't otherwise apparent, as with Hardhome.


In the books, the collecting of the Wildlings from Hardhome hasn't taken place, although Jon knows of the dire situation there (far moreso than what appears on camera.) Tormund is sent to retrieve them and that's the last we know to date. Tonight, we discover not only the presence of different kinds of Others, but also that there's another substance other than dragonglass that they're vulnerable to: Valyrian steel. In truth, this seems obvious. If the steel comes from the place where dragons once roamed the countryside ("Fire") then it makes sense that it has an effect on the opposite number ("Ice") and is more than just a version of Damascus steel in the world of Martin. All the same, I admit to being surprised when Jon's confrontation with the warrior Other ended the way it did, as I've had dragonglass stuck in my brain as the only effective thing for nigh-on 20 years now.


All that said, the sisters Stark also had fine moments, with Arya finally assuming her role as Oyster Girl (a kind of mashup of how her sequence played out in both Feast and Dance) and Sansa getting vicious with Reek and finally learning that she may not be the last surviving Stark, after all. In both cases, new worlds were opened to the sisters, albeit in drastically different ways. It feels as if they're setting up one of the epic moments of Feast in the way they're introducing Arya's progression, which can only be a good thing. By the same token, I have a hard time knowing what they're going to do with Sansa, since they've spent the latter half of the season kind of reinforcing the "there is no hope" mantra. Again, with Stannis on his way, things could change rapidly or, in some ways, veer back to the way things developed in Dance. As much as I said there aren't ways to spoil the story any longer, there really are, so I'll wait out the rest of the season to see if the snowball grows in the way I expect it to.

Side notes:

Iain Glen played his scene in the throne room with a very light touch, which I think is to his credit, as he could have emoted all over the floor at being cast out once again. Instead, he showed that Mormont resolution, took the Long Walk, and just found a way to get back in the queen's presence one more time. What he's going to do once he gets there is open to question. Meanwhile, the greyscale thing is still utterly superfluous to the story.

It's fair to say that Ramsay's seemingly rash decision to do a commando raid on Stannis in the snow is both exemplary of the character's nature in the books (and in the show) and also a pretty easy out for Sansa if things go poorly. In that respect, I find it hard to believe that they will, so the Helen Lovejoys may have to wait yet another season for the Boltons to get theirs.


All things considered, given the momentous happenings elsewhere, one of the best scenes of the night was the conversation between Sam and Olly about how to make your enemies your friends. It was an extremely heartfelt moment and there was a good rhythm with the way both Brenock O'Connor (Olly) and John Bradley (Sam) played it. I think it continues to add to Sam's character and prepares him for some of his upcoming changes.

Despite the thrilling events at Hardhome, I was a little perturbed at the appearance of the undead. First off, they were moving a lot faster than we've seen before. The shambling masses of the end scene of season 2 is the usual, despite the swiftness of the one creature that Jon waylaid at Mormont's door in season 1. Also, despite their ability to throw themselves off a cliff and resist grievous wounds and multiple arrows (as you'd expect from most things no longer animated by respiration), they did react in typical zombie fashion from time out of mind every time they were shot in the head (i.e. falling over like the magic bullseye had been hit.) I really, really hope that D&D haven't surrendered to that trope. Granted, not having an Achilles' forehead may make them ridiculously difficult to kill, having to do the Wunwun Stomp (new dance meme: Go!) or basically dismember them, but The Walking Dead has already (ahem) killed the "shoot them in the head" thing for basically all time.

Lines of the week:

"How can a man tell a girl this? If he knew what she would see, there would be no reason to send her."
This is both a reproving comment and a demonstration to Arya that she is now a key cog in the machine.

 "Hit first, hit hard, and leave a feast for the crows."
Title check!

"Men brawl from time to time. It's only natural."
When lies are the truth.

"Gather the elders and let's talk."
There's nothing particularly memorable about this except for the extreme beatdown of the Lord of Bones that accompanied it.


"My ancestors would spit on me if I broke bread with a Crow."

"So would mine, but fuck'em. They're dead."
Pragmatism, but if she only knew at that point...

Peter Dinklage and Emilia Clarke had excellent chemistry. As with the Varys and Littlefinger scenes, I could have watched the two of them volleying for another half hour. There were a number of great dialogue moments:

"Killing and politics aren't always the same thing."
and
"Someday, if you decide not to have me killed, I'll tell you all about why I killed my father. On that day, should it ever come, you'll need more wine than this."
and
"Why did you travel all this way to meet someone terrible?"
"To see if you were the right kind of terrible."
and
"If I want jokes, I'll get myself a proper fool."
If that last one was a sly reference to some of his scenes in the books, then well done.

But the winner had to be:

"Belief is so often the death of reason."
This man speaketh truth. The odd thing, of course, is that Qyburn was banished by the masters of reason in Westeros: the maesters.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Presents for the setup


As with previous seasons, the seventh episode (The Seven?) tends to be the setup episode for the end of the season. As of the end of tonight, the balls are pretty much all in motion and it remains to be seen what peaks will be reached in episode nine. Will it be Stannis' siege of Winterfell? Or the great games in Meereen? Or Jon and Tormund's encounter at Hardhome? Or all three?

The title of this episode was The Gift. It's clearly a nod to the meeting of Tyrion and Daenerys, but it's also easily extended to any of the other events that took place. The most obvious theme is that of the High Sparrow and his followers. In their eyes, they're merely extending the gift of the gods' justice, wisdom, and protection to the average people in the face of the depredation of the nobility. Of course, the way they'd see it, it's also a gift to the nobility, in order to rescue them from their lives of sin and eventual damnation. The faith has been waiting 300 years to throw off the dominance of the blood of the dragon and return the land of the Andal faith to the actual descendants of the Andals. Their chance has arrived and it will be the tools provided to them by the Queen Mother herself who gives the faith the control of the throne that it has always desired. Interestingly, the Sparrows feel that they are doing the same work as the Brotherhood without Banners: protecting the common people from being injured by the wars of the nobility. Of course, the Brotherhood under Lord Mallister carries the banner of the Lord of Fire, while the Sparrows are devotees of the Seven. Will it be the common people exchanging a war of houses for a war of faiths? Such a gift.


But the theme is also that of children. Many people choose to see them as a gift and I think the example of that and its complications was obvious throughout. From the passing of Aemon's life while he warned about the preservation of Little Sam to Jaime's frustration at being told the truth by the daughter he can't admit to having to Cersei's moment of true emotion when she told Tommen how important he was to her. These are emotions deeply rooted in not just the human impulse for survival (Aemon) but in the animal instinct for the preservation of one's young (Jaime and Cersei.) Aemon continues to think of the mission of the Watch and the preservation of the realm, but the parents think of the preservation of their blood and hoping that someone doesn't take that gift away from them, be it Trystane Martell and his scheming family or an army of religious fanatics. Stannis also steps into that parental role by finally revealing his waning faith in order to spare the life of his only child.

Strangely, the two scenes where that gift theme is most obvious- Tyrion and the prison scene with Bronn -are also the two scenes that seem to be the clumsiest in a story sense. While I get that Tyrion had to make contact with Dany this season (his path toward that goal in the books is far longer, far more convoluted, and nowhere near as distinct a desire on the part of Tyrion), bringing the queen of Meereen to a wilderness fighting pit outside the city is about as hackneyed a plot shortcut as D&D have ever delivered. There are a hundred different reasons, having little to do with the "traditions" of Hizdahr's family, why that's simply not a good idea (the Queen bothering to pay attention to lower fighters, the Sons of the Harpy, etc.) Even the mechanics of the scene played out poorly, as there was little reason for Dany to remain there to watch the butchery, "traditions" or no, and then even less for her to watch the masked warrior (Jorah) go through the process of beating everyone before revealing himself. The whole scene felt like a poor premise and just as poor execution. Granted, it stuck out as a budgetary and pacing necessity, as there was probably only enough money to do the great games once and it would be logistically difficult for Dany to recognize and receive Tyrion in those circumstances.


Likewise, why Tyene would bother to spare the life of an enemy in exchange for simple compliments is completely beyond me. They've already established that the Snakes all seem to have Obara's lust for and approach to enacting vengeance but also that Tyene was the one looking for Ellaria's approval. Are they presenting her as someone constantly looking for attention, such that she'd give some unnamed mercenary the gift of life just for saying that he appreciated her tits? And this only after the sexposition moment of her explaining that she'd not only envenomed him with the Long Farewell but obviously gotten it to speed up by getting his blood moving to the wrong places (for a prison cell)? I'm really lost here. The Snakes are kind of a fan favorite among book readers that has little to do with their actual impact on the story. So far in the show, they easily rank among the most misused characters and in a role that seems wholly superfluous. Are D&D using them simply because the Arianne storyline of the books was too much of a tangent and otherwise the Dorne scenes would be nothing but Doran scheming amidst his gout?

But, in the end, the greatest gift, of course, came from Littlefinger. In revealing what he knows about Cersei's sex life to Olenna, who then passed that knowledge to the High Sparrow, he not only reaffirms his alliance with the (currently) most powerful house in Westeros (They should change their words from "Growing Strong" to "Winter is coming... and we got the food.") but also removes the rogue element near the throne (Cersei) that engendered a greater threat to all of those in power and, for that matter, trashed his bordello. That's Petyr; always thinking ahead even while he gets revenge. Olenna's quote ("You've always been rather impressed with yourself, haven't you?") may be true, but few have more reason to be at this stage than Lord Baelish, the truest example of a relatively lowborn man rising to unmatchable heights.

Side notes:

I'm sure all of those still seething in frustration over the Ramsay/Sansa storyline must have been mildly apoplectic after watching Reek betray everyone else in favor of his torturer yet again. That Hollywood ending isn't getting here anytime soon. Sophie Turner does it again, though. That moment where she tried to shake Reek back to being Theon was gripping, even if it is a fair question that, given the weather, how a candle would stay lit in the Broken Tower.


Likewise, John Bradley's performance in the attempted rape scene with Gilly was really superb. The monotone voice while he warned them when he rose to his feet was excellent. OTOH, the appearance of Ghost, while welcome, was rather jarring. Ghost's owner and other self, Jon, has just set out on a dangerous mission to the far side of the Wall. Why in the world is Ghost still in Castle Black? Of the few complaints I've had about the series, the use of the wolves is one of them. Working with the animals is extremely difficult and time consuming, so it's at least partially understandable, but the bizarre changes to Ghost's role and presence seem to be annulling one of the key points of the book and an important aspect of Jon's character and his time at Castle Black.

While arming himself, Jorah reveals that he's still wearing his family ring. There's no way any slaver would let someone being sold on the block retain that kind of value. That said, the expression on the slaver captain's face when Tyrion finishes beating his restrainer was fantastic. "See what I'm offering? This dwarf kicks ass!"

You're going to get tired of me saying two things this season: 1) Jonathan Pryce is killing it as the High Sparrow and 2) Where the hell is Alexander Siddiq (Prince Doran)?

Lines of the week:

"I believe this mission to be reckless, foolhardy, and an insult to all the brothers who've died fighting the Wildlings."
"As always, thank you for your honesty."
The way Jon just continues to shut down Ser Alliser never fails to entertain.

"Your name is Theon Greyjoy."
It almost looked like Sansa broke through there for a second but, no...

"This is the right time and I will risk everything."
Even the devotion of the red priestess, apparently.

"Oh! Oh, my!"
Sam's moment when Gilly finally gives him the business was great.


The scene with Lady Olenna and the High Sparrow had a few:
"Don't spar with me, little fellow."
I've gone out of my way to find other Diana Rigg films just because of how great she is in this role.

"The people always do the dirty work."
Fer reals.

"A lifetime of wealth and power has left you blind in one eye. You are the few. We are the many."
Heard this one before, too.

"I'm sorry about the locale."
"No, you're not."
Seriously. She's so good.

"Lies come easily to you. Everyone knows that. But innocence, decency, concern? You're not very good at those, I'm afraid."
Margaery with the brutal truth before the ravens finally come home to roost.

And the winner:

"All rulers are either butchers or meat."
Daario with the sage advice.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Drama's milk




Tricia and I got into a textversation today about what may or may not be an underlying theme and/or plot point in Fury Road that had occurred to me for a second or two while sitting in the theater and which I had then discarded (probably under the avalanche of spiked Buzzard-mobiles or something equally menacing.) And that was:

Why is Immortan Joe so determined to retrieve those breeders?

I mentioned the two essential liquids of the Mad Maxian world: fuel and water. I also cited what I felt was a third: blood, as it seemed to me that Joe was trying to ensure his personal legacy by living on through his offspring in the typical fashion of most animals, human and otherwise, and especially monarchs of human history. Furthermore, blood was seen as essential to the war machine that was the very thing that the women of the film were trying to disrupt (and which Max was the unwilling participant in.) At a couple points in the film, it’s revealed that not only is Joe farming breast milk from a number of other breeders but that the war rig that Furiosa is driving is also filled with it, presumably to trade with the other two locations of Joe’s empire (Gas Town and Bullet Farm.) Tricia suggested that that was the 4th crucial liquid of society and that Joe was pursuing Splendid, Toast, and the others because only they could produce it, as potential mothers. Any human can provide blood, but only mothers can provide milk.

 
But, again, why those mothers? If he already has a stable of producers, why was it so important to retrieve Splendid and the others? Was it a genetic factor? Was Joe old enough to know that he ended up with superior War Boys from certain women? Rictus might have been a superior specimen because of his size and physique or he might have developed to that level from the better conditions afforded Joe’s favorites (nature or nuture.) It seemed that Joe was going for at least a tiny mix of genetic patterns, in that two of the women were blonde, one a brunette, and the last a redhead. Of course, they were all apparent Caucasians or close to it, as almost everyone has been in the Max films, so genetic diversity isn’t that high on the scale, apparently. Toast the Knowing was the lone exception and only because I know that the actress (Zoë Kravitz) is half-black (and half-Jewish.) Also, as Tricia reminded me, the best "breeders" are women with broad hips that can more easily handle delivering something the size of a human infant. None of the women that Furiosa and Max were protecting were particularly broad anywhere, much less below the waist. Thus, the larger women shown in the milk farming room would have been the more reliable breeders over a longer period of time.

Was it simply a figment of control? Joe is the supreme power in his corner of the world and if someone runs off with the women that he considers his possessions, it presumably would be a sign of weakness (not least because the theft was conducted by one of his own lieutenants.) If someone steals your stuff, you try to get it back. If you're trying to maintain your possession, you do so as savagely as possible to try to assure anyone else of what happens if they were to be so foolish. But that seems too simple, especially since Joe made an effort to call Splendid back to him, rather than simply trying to destroy the rig and kill everyone in it once he'd seen how difficult a task the chase was turning into. Simple isn't really Miller's style (this is, after all, a man who signs off on every frame of his films, including the score.)


Instead we're faced with the possibility that Joe may have been motivated by the most essential of dramatic compulsions: love. But was it love for his unborn son? Splendid? All of them? Are they his prized breeders- his prized possessions -because he loves them? Or does he only love having them? Are they his prizes because of lust or because he's actually come to care about them, especially Splendid? It's difficult to differentiate at that level without being inside the minds of the director and the actor (Hugh Keays-Byrne.)

Lust would be an easy answer if we assume that Joe conforms to the common standard of beauty, in which screwing someone like Capable (Riley Keough) or The Dag (Abbey Lee) is assumed to be more interesting to most hetero men than screwing one of the milk women in the Citadel. Again, no way of knowing but, again, Miller is not known for "easy". I think Keays-Byrne played the role fully intending to indicate that Joe desired more from Splendid than just the sex. I think it was clear from the emotion in his voice that he wanted her back for her (and the child) and he felt the loss of her death as the loss of a person, rather than just an asset or a toy. And if we look at much of Miller's other work in the last couple decades (Lorenzo's Oil, Babe, Happy Feet), we see family as a recurrent theme. In this case, we see not only Joe's anguish at the sundering of his family (the loss of his Five Wives and potential (and actual) loss of his unborn son) but we also see the bonding of the women, Furiosa, Nux, and even Max as a unit looking for a place of refuge; a new home, even as Max's continued visions about his lost family are what almost cause him to leave their new unit.

So we circle back to the original debate: Is mother's milk the fourth precious liquid of their society? I think my answer is still "no", if only because Joe's desire for his wives goes beyond their status as simply favored breeders and veers into the deeper question of relationships. Mother's milk is a resource and perhaps a thematic fluid for Miller's theme of family, but I think it remains outside the story's essential resources that define Max's world as the semi-nightmare that it is.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Furiosa Road


I loved Roger Zelazny. His work was boundlessly inspirational to me and, perhaps even more importantly, was packaged in a use of language so intricate and poetic that I used to put down books of his in the middle of a paragraph and boggle over how someone could come up with turns of phrase that creative as often as he did. One of his lesser works is a novel-that-should-have-remained-a-novella entitled Damnation Alley. It's about a post-apocalyptic setting where the lead character volunteers to make the run from formerly LA to formerly Boston and deliver a package. The passage across the nuclear wasteland that is formerly the USA is known as, of course, "damnation alley." The story was an inspiration to a number of other creators, including John Wagner, scribe of the Judge Dredd comics who used it as a spark for his first extended arc, The Cursed Earth; and Chris Avellone, lead designer of the Fallout series of games; and the band, Hawkwind, who wrote a couple of tracks based on a world like the Alley. Another was Australian director, George Miller, who wrote and directed Mad Max and The Road Warrior after seeing the rather shoddy film based on Zelazny's work. This month, after 30 years away, Miller released the latest chapter in the trials of Max Rockatansky, known as Fury Road.

I'm way behind the curve in writing this review, since the film holds an astounding rating on Rotten Tomatoes (98%(!)) I say "astounding" because Mad Max: Fury Road is "just" an action film, most of which rarely see this kind of unanimity among major critics, since most are not particularly burdened in the plot department. Fury Road is no different in this respect (protagonists are trying to get to a place; antagonists are trying to stop them) but the fact that the story is fairly linear makes a certain degree of sense in the big picture, the shortest distance between two points and all that. However, when the basis of your entire world is that it is utterly dependent on two liquids (gasoline and water; a situation not overly dissimilar from our own), it's understandable that trying to add in things like circles and triangles to your basic geometry will only slow you down and make the film lose focus. What's truly successful about Fury Road is that it does take time to add in those higher concepts but leaves them as undercurrents in a raucous display of intensity such that they can be enjoyed by those willing to pay attention (as I did) or ignored in favor of the rambunctious action (which, I think it's safe to say, the bulk of the audience to date has done.) If you went to see an action film, man, were you lucky, because you found a great one. If you went to see some slowly-revealed cultural touchstones that still have something to say about our own reality ("Who wrecked the world?"), then you were just as lucky.


The film is easily one of the more frenetic adventures I've seen in quite some time. Between the swarming Buzzards, the fanatical War Boys, the Polecats, the war rig, the war drums, and the flamethrower guitar, you couldn't get much more visually impressive while still keeping the majority of effects in real time, rather than CGI. This is a Car Wars adventure taken about as far as you can go. What I also appreciated was cinematographer John Seale's sure handling of camera angles during the chase/fight scenes. A trend over the past decade or so has been to close in on action sequences to try to simulate the chaos of a fight for the audience. What that has led to is a lot of blurred action and an inability to follow what's actually happening until they cut to "really cool move" by whomever the star is. In the comic world, we'd accuse the inker of having spilled water on the pages except for the one panel he managed to preserve. You lose the ability to follow the story with that technique and your choreography that you likely spent thousands on goes for naught. In contrast, Fury Road, with dozens of bodies flying about the screen and scrabbling across vehicles at high speed, still managed to follow a sequence of events from one point to the next so you knew exactly how dangerous the Polecats were (to their targets and themselves) and exactly how destructive the Buzzards could be (again, to targets and selves.) It was a really refreshing experience to be able to know just where everyone was on the highway of death even before they were smoking hulks left to the side.

The upside to all that excitement is that it was exactly that: exciting. Seeing Miller's imagination at full blast while he strove to make a two-hour car chase continually interesting is a phenomenon that won't soon be equaled, I think. OTOH, for those that have seen the Max films before, it's pretty easy to look at Fury Road and say "This is just the chase scene from the second half of The Road Warrior. But bigger and with more explosions." And that would be true, except for the subtext.


In the Road Warrior, the  most important liquid is "the juice", meaning gasoline. The only way the crazed road gangs can rule the wastes is with the ability to ride them (and, it has to be said, in vehicles that might get about a half mile to the gallon, if they coast a lot. (Every fantasy world has its little incongruities. Go away, science self. We're having fun here.)) In Fury Road, they've come to the realization that it's not just the juice that's necessary, but also water. Control those two fluids and you control the world. But, interestingly, what becomes the even more precious liquid to many of the characters is actually blood. Immortan Joe's War Boys, altered to be combat machines that somehow burn out their own plasma, use human blood banks to keep going. Our man, Max, has the misfortune to be one of those. But even more important to warlord Joe is the idea of  blood as heredity. The cargo being chased by him and his warriors is his harem; one of whom is pregnant with his son. As Joe is obviously in the last stages of life (needing a respirator harness to move around), it's clear that he feels the same need that many dictators do: to establish a legacy and live on through the offspring left behind. That's his self-centered contribution to reestablishing the society lost to all of the individuals in Miller's world.

The harem fled with the assistance of one of Joe's top lieutenants, Furiosa (Charlize Theron), and not because they particularly objected to being sex slaves, as they had living conditions vastly better than almost anyone else at the Citadel where Joe ruled. Instead, they objected to what people like Joe had turned the world into and how they sustained it as a place of fire, chaos, and death. By the time they disappeared, they had painted slogans around their quarters ("Who wrecked the world?" "Our babies will not be warlords!") explicitly condemning the world that Joe and those like him (such as Lord Humungus from The Road Warrior) had made and perpetuated. As many critics have pointed out, this is an intrinsically feminist message and a pointed one; specifically blaming men for having reduced society to this barbarous state and doing nothing to restore it. That's a far more complex and noteworthy message than the "tragic hero loses family" motif of Mad Max and the basic nihilism of The Road Warrior.  Of course, the clownshow that is "men's rights" groups have played right into this, objecting not only to the movie's central themes but also to the fact that Theron is every bit the action hero that Max (Tom Hardy) is and even more dynamic than he is for much of the film.


Speaking of the two stars, it's interesting to note that both of them have played far more complex roles in the past but both inhabited their rather taciturn characters fairly well. Max, as played by Mel Gibson in the three previous films, is a withdrawn, brooding, and fatalistically cynical person after he loses his family. Hardy did an excellent job playing the Gibson role and even fattened it with more expressiveness than Gibson had ever done (all three films were still relatively early in Gibson's career.) By the same token, Theron took on the role of nascent idealist and still managed to keep her realist combat approach front and center. You never doubted that she was capable of killing you, me, and everyone else in the room. At the same time, you could see the earnestness that had driven her to break away from Joe and attempt to restore some sanity, not just to the world, but her own worldview. My only regret in all of that is that I felt like the character of Furiosa didn't allow Theron to display the kind of fire that she brought to roles in films like Monster and North Country, since most of her interaction with opponents was about disposing of them as efficiently as possible, rather than meeting their rage with some of her own. Only one moment in the film gives her the opportunity to channel that rage into something other than another deathgrip with her bionic arm.

There are many style points you can laud or dispute about the film. Miller was obviously enamored of the whole skull motif approach, as they appear everywhere it's possible to put one, whether carved or real. As a long-time fan of Games Workshop's 40K and Old World settings, I have no problem with this cranial obsession but it, like the flaming guitar player, can bend things from grim to more of a circus-like atmosphere. Whether that detracts or adds to the film depends on whether you're (ahem) willing to go along for the ride. But I appreciated a lot of the other little touches that Miller and his co-writers (Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris) brought to the screenplay and, especially, the dialogue. When Max asks Nux if he's a "blackthumb", they don't stop to explain what that is, but instead just leave it to the audience to figure out that it's their phrase for "mechanic" when Max tells him that he's to take care of engine #1. Likewise, their phrase for exalted action is "going chrome", like the spray paint they inhale before doing something daring/brave/insane/suicidal. I've long been fond of writers that simply dropped you into their world and let you figure it out while their characters continued living in their world as they typically would, without stopping to explain basic facts of life to people who already know them.


There were also a lot of little touches scattered throughout the film that were Easter eggs for those who'd seen the previous movies, like the fact that Hugh Keays-Byrne played lead villain, Immortan Joe, 36 years after playing lead villain, The Toecutter, in Mad Max. Or seeing Toast the Knowing (Zoë Kravitz) playing with a broken music box in the war rig, a device which virtually matched the one that so excited the Feral Boy in The Road Warrior. After seeing at least one reviewer refer to the film as a "reboot" of the Mad Max series, I was kind of thrilled to see not only the far more beaten down V8 Interceptor at the start of the film, but also the knee brace still present on Max's left leg from injuries he sustained in the first film. If the story and Max's continual flashbacks to his family didn't make it clear that this was a continuation, then those details surely did.

In the end, I can say that Fury Road is certainly worth seeing in the theater whether you're a fan of either well-done action movies or post-apocalyptic scenarios (I'm kinda the former but definitely the latter) or simply want to drive screaming across the desert into a dust hurricane for an evening. I guess time will tell whether the underlying themes of the story become more prominent in the response to it by much of the audience and, for that matter, whether Miller will be continuing that train of thought in the next two in the franchise that he's supposedly working on. You can't kill Max. You can only hope to contain him.