Mad Moana: Fury Cove

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Disney’s Moana (2016) was a jarringly alienating experience for me in a way I haven’t felt since venturing to the theater to watch John Waters’s brief cameo in Alvin and the Chipmunks: Road Chip (although the raucous laughter at my screening of the brutally unfunny Deadpool ranks as a close second). I just had no business being there, to the point where I have no business rating or reviewing the film in any traditional way. I’ve had positive experiences going out of my comfort zone to watch highly-praised Disney productions this year, namely Zootopia and The Jungle Book, but with Moana I was way out of my league. The buffoonish sidekicks, the uncanny valley CGI, the constant indulgences in  *cringe* musical theater: Moana was mostly just a reminder that Disney’s princess mode, no matter how highly praised, is just not for me. Brave, Mulan, Frozen, and so on have all alienated me in the same way (with The Little Mermaid being a rare exception to the rule) and not even song & dance numbers from the likes of a pro wrestler (The Rock), a Flight of the Conchords vet (Jemaine Clement), and a Godzilla cameo could turn me around on an experience that was so uncomfortably foreign to every fiber of my being. Moana did feature one isolated gag that spoke directly to me, though, an extended homage to Immortan Joe & the War Boys, just about the last influence I expected to find in a Polynesian Disney Princess action adventure.

The filmmakers behind Moana (an extensive team that has included names as significant as Hamilton‘s king nerd Lin Manuel Miranda & comedic genius Taika Waititi at some point in its production) have acknowledged in interviews that the film’s homage to Mad Max: Fury Road was indeed intentional, so I’m not just grasping at straws for something to enjoy here. The homage is brief, however, and although the film was not nearly as much of an obnoxiously undignified experience as Road Chip, it did remind me of mining the entirety of that work for a pitifully minuscule glimpse at the Pope of Trash. While on their quest to restore order in the world via a pebble-sized MacGuffin, Moana & [The Rock] are at one point pursued by a tribal army of Kakamora, a fiendish crew of mythical spirits who take the physical form of coconut War Boys, complete with their own coconut Immortan Joe. The Kakamora approach Moana’s puny-by-comparison boat in massive warships, attempting to board her ship & rob her of her all-important MacGuffin Pebble. Moana doesn’t directly reference Fury Road with any specific visual cues; it instead tries to mimic the feel & the scale of George Miller’s massive accomplishment in a more general way. The Kakamora appear in ocean mist the way the War Boys appear in the kicked-up dust of desert sands. They tether their ships to their target vessel as a means to both board it and slow it’d progress. Most tellingly, they play themselves into battle with a live music soundtrack of tribal drums. All that’s missing from the scene is a blind little Kakamora threateningly riffing on a coconut guitar.

If history has proven anything it’s that I’ll continue to shell out money for any new theatrical version of Fury Road that achieves distribution: 2D, 3D, (most absurdly) black & white. I doubt I’ll ever stop returning to that well and, alongside its stellar reviews from those more in tune with the merits of the Disney Princess brand, just the mere mention of a Fury Road homage was enough to drag me to the theater for a CG cartoon musical I had no business watching in the first place. In some ways it’s tempting to read into how Moana & Fury Road communicate plot-wise. Both films center on a female badass trying to welcome back Nature to a crumbling society  by employing a storied male warrior sidekick & the restorative help of water to defeat an evil presence and convert a longtime patriarchy to a matriarchal structure. In both instances, success also hinges on a race to a narrow physical passage that seems impossible to reach in time. These shared sentiments are likely entirely coincidental, though. Borrowing a little of Immortan Joe’s War Boy mayhem for its coconut pirates was simply a means to an end. Besides being a delightful nod to a property you wouldn’t expect to be referenced in this context, it also affords a key action sequence the sense of scale & visual specificity that makes George Miller one of the greatest visual minds of the genre. So much of Moana was Not For Me (which is obviously my fault and not the movie’s), so it was kinda nice in those few fleeting minutes to mentally return to a property that is a continuous source of personal pleasure. Moana was smart to borrow some scale & adrenaline from Fury Road in a scene that desperately needed the excitement (despite the Kakamora never registering as at all significant to the overall plot). Honestly, though, I was just glad to have the film’s more alienating musical theater & CGI sidekick buffoonery broken up by something familiar & genuinely badass that offered me a moment of escape from what was a personally misguided ticket purchase.

-Brandon Ledet

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)’s Black & Chrome Makeover

When I first reviewed George Miller’s high octane action spectacle Mad Max: Fury Road last summer, I was a little late to the table and the film had already been relegated to cult classic status, earning high marks from fans & critics, but failing to beat out less memorable films like Tomorrowland & San Andreas at the box office. Before reviewing the film I watched it twice in the theater in two different formats, 2D & 3D, and contextualized it by plowing through Miller’s entire catalog for perspective (for the record, it was just slightly bested by Babe 2: Pig in the City & The Witches of Eastwick as a career high for me). Despite all of that effort I floundered to find anything new or interesting to say about the film that wasn’t a mere echo of the praise it was already lauded with. Over a year later, I’ve now seen Fury Road reach its third theatrical format, the colorless Black & Chrome edition, and I still have nothing significant to add outside an echo of how wonderfully bizarre & overwhelmingly kinetic this film is. It’s still one of the best action films in recent memory. Immorten Joe is still a total fucking nightmare. Not much has changed in this most recent theatrical release but the color, so don’t beat yourself up if you couldn’t catch it in theaters (especially since there’s a Black & Chrome release on BluRay & VOD currently available for the still curious).

All that being said, I absolutely loved returning to the theater to witness this bizarre work unfold for a third time. Catching Fury Road in three distinct formats has been illuminating in that it allowed me to appreciate different aspects of the film in each run, while I still don’t believe I’ve seen it enough times to fully take it all in. While the campy, drive-in spectacle of watching it in 3D was my personal favorite way of experiencing the film, there was a definite novelty to the Black & Chrome version that highlighted aspects of what Miller accomplished I don’t remember noticing before. The story goes that while screening a work print of Fury Road without a score & without color, Miller found his preferred version of the film. The studio obviously rejected the idea of releasing the film in that state for fear of scaring off general audiences, but a year later a home video & brief theatrical release has made its way into the world after this production anecdote piqued fans’ interest (although with the score intact). As the title suggests, the black & chrome Fury Road is a little shinier and higher contrast than a traditional colorless film is presented, particularly in details like when Immorten Joe’s “war boys” spray that mysterious chrome substance across their teeth as a pick-me-up. This aspect of the print is emphasized in-film by lines like “Look at that! So shiny! So chrome!” and “You will ride eternal, shiny & chrome.” Although the color change doesn’t entirely alter the film’s DNA (how could it?), it is a shift that’s often justified & accentuated by the script.

I caught the black & chrome Fury Road at the only theater in Louisiana (and one of only a few dozen in the nation) that was screening a print. A little dazed by catching Moonlight earlier that afternoon & enjoying a few cocktails downtown in the meantime, I was confronted with two major annoyances at the cinema: a very talkative older couple who were brazen in their interruptions since there were only three of us “witnessing” Miller’s glory & a loud, hideous whine emanating from the projector. In an attempt to escape both distractions, I moved to the very front row of the tiny theater, completely immersed in the black & chrome madness blasting before me. Although I was mostly annoyed by the talking, I was a little amused when, after the glorious dust storm finish to the first chase scene, a man exclaimed, “Son of a bitch. I’m worn out! That was fucking genius.” As long as I’m echoing already-expressed sentiments here, I guess I have to whole-heartedly agree with that drunk man-child. Fury Road wore me out every single time I’ve seen it long before the end credits rolled. And, despite my exhaustion, it was indeed “fucking genius”. There’s an undeniable, infectious “how did this get made?” quality to Fury Road (as if it’s something Miller got away with, not just something he filmed), that strikes me every time no matter what row I’m sitting in, how disruptive the audience is, or in what state it’s being projected. There was something especially cool about watching it a few feet away from the screen, though. I’ll readily admit that, even if it wasn’t my first choice.

Overall, I am saying that the Black & Chrome edition of Fury Road isn’t an entirely unique experience, but that doesn’t mean nothing changed for me in that format. In a lot of ways, the black & white digital grain makes the film feel more 90s, recalling Aronofsky’s π or, once the supermodels appear, the world’s craziest perfume ad. A lack of color also called attention to the film’s dust & grit, as if it were a feature length adaptation of a White Zombie music video (the Russ Meyer-inspired “Thunderkiss ’65,” specifically). The horror of the zombie-like war boys popped off the screen more in the opening capture & detainment sequence. A little of the CGI is clouded without the color, making it play like a forgotten relic, maybe along the lines of Hardware or, hell, even Metropolis. All of these elements were already lurking in Fury Road to begin with, though. All switching formats does is make them more obvious. Some would even argue that the original version of the movie is near-monochromatic to begin with, so the difference is negligible at best. Personally, I would miss the bright reds & purples of details like the dust storm or the guitar goblin if this were the only version of the movie available, but thankfully it’s not. There’s now three versions of Fury Road out there waiting to impress & confound you as to how something so goddamn insane was ever made in the first place. I’m lucky to have seen it even once, let alone from so many angles & shifted perspectives. If nothing else, the black & chrome flavored Fury Road is at least worth seeking out to add that extra layer of appreciation to something we all already knew was wonderful. When you seek it out, though, just try to avoid the whining projectors & talkative drunks out there aiming to distract from it. There are many roadblocks to avoid on the path to Valhalla.

-Brandon Ledet

Brandon’s Top Films of 2015

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1. The Duke of BurgundyPossibly the least commercial movie about a lesbian couple in a BDSM relationship possible. Equal parts an intentionally-obfuscated art film & a tender drama about negotiating how to balance romantic & sexual needs in a healthy relationship, The Duke of Burgundy isn’t for everyone, but it is the most beautifully-shot film of the year and a surprisingly poignant portrait of a timeless romance. If you have the patience for its languid pacing & reliance on repetition, the rewards are rich & plentiful.

2. What We Do in the Shadows In a year when a surprisingly limited number of American comedies hit the mark, this gem from New Zealand geniuses Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi was an easy pick for best comedy of the year, if not the decade. You’d think that a mockumentary about vampire roommates in modern times would be the last breath of a dying genre, but What We Do in the Shadows is readily-available proof that the stake hasn’t been driven into its heart quite yet. This is a hilarious film that only improves upon repeat viewings, with a wealth of quotes waiting to make their way into your daily vocabulary. Now leave me to do my dark bidding on the Internet.

3. Ex Machina – Just really solid, well-constructed sci-fi. I can’t think of a film from this year that got a bigger effect out of so few, subtle moving parts. A lot of what immediately stands out about Ex Machina is the incredible talent of its three lead actors, but the film also has an intense, well-curated visual language to it that can make your blood run ice cold with the most minimal of efforts.

4. Tangerine The movie from 2015 I’d most like to watch/discuss with (the greatest human being walking the Earth) John Waters. Tangerine is a raucously fun, poorly behaved whirlwind of an adventure through Los Angeles’ cab rides & sex trade. For a movie shot entirely on iPhones it’s got a surprisingly intense cinematic eye & despite leaning hard towards over-the-top excess there’s a very touching story at its heart about the value of friendship & makeshift family.

5. Mad Max: Fury Road – Probably the most intensely weird & go-for-broke action film of the past decade. George Miller may be in his 70s, but this is the work of a youthful spirit grinding the gas peddle hard to the floor, hands off the steering wheel. In a time where CGI is casting an insufferable blandness across most action properties, Fury Road is a practical effects masterwork that feels like a breath of fresh air, despite the chokehold it takes on your senses.

6. Magic Mike XXL – The first Magic Mike film is a somber, reflective drama that just happens to be centered on a gaggle of male strippers. XXL, on the other hand, is an over-the-top road trip comedy where said strippers act like an over-aged boy band: horny, sassy, and high on drugs. One of the most unashamedly fun movie-going experiences of the year, not to mention the lagniappe of its intense cinematography.

7. The Diary of a Teenage Girl – An incredibly uncomfortable coming-of-age drama about a young girl in 1970s San Fransisco exploring her sexuality in wildly dangerous ways. Its comic book art visual palette works like a major asset instead of a gimmick & relative newcomer Bel Powley delivers what might be the best lead performance of the year.

8. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens – Interstellar was the most hilariously over-complained about movie of 2014. The Force Awakens easily earned that distinction in 2015. It’s a genuinely fun, intricately detailed return to form for a franchise that hasn’t been nearly this satisfying since 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back. If you need insight into just how much the movie bends over backwards to please its audience, just take a look at the beyond-adorable BB-8. What a little cutie.

9. Straight Outta Compton – As far as its historical accuracy as an N.W.A. biopic goes, Straight Outta Compton might be shooting about 20%. All of its self-congratulating indulgence aside, it’s a 100% awesome (or “dope”, if you will) late-80s/early-90s pastiche with a killer soundtrack and some stunning visual work from regular Aronofsky-collaborator Matthew Libatique.

10. Felt – A hazy, disconnected portrait of a visual artist coping with a past, vaguely-defined (but likely sexual) trauma. Felt is an unforgivingly intense gaze into a super-specific form of art therapy, even before its meandering pace crashes in a grandly violent display at the film’s conclusion.

11. White God – As most revenge movies tend to go, the endless parade of abuse in this film’s early storylines are not nearly as fun or as easy to watch as it is when shit hits the fan. It just so happens that in this case the revenge is carried about by a massive herd of stray dogs that have a very good list of reasons to tear down an entire city. It’s an incredible, one-of-a-kind spectacle.

12. Appropriate Behavior – Writer/director/actress Desiree Akhavan brings an impressive amount of authenticity to a genre that’s been a little too popular to feel truly distinct lately: the drama-comedy about the 20-something New York City woman who just can’t seem to figure her shit out. This a dark, but hilariously raunchy work & for my money its far more satisfying than its most (financially) successful comparison point from the same year – Trainwreck.

13. Spring – Part of what makes Spring so fun is that it’s such a difficult film to pin down. Is it a tender romance drama or a modern version of a natural horror? What’s more important: its central doomed-to-be-seasonal romance or the horrific nature of its shape-shifting sci-fi beast? Let’s just split the difference & call it the most interesting answer to Linklater’s Before Sunrise/Before Sunset series to date.

14. It Follows – In a lot of ways it feels like John Carpenter’s entire aesthetic is making a (much deserved) cultural comeback. Weirdo action films like The Guest & Drive have at least incorporated his distinct soundtrack work into their highly-stylized worlds, but It Follows takes the homage a step further and constructs more or less what a modern John Carpenter horror would look and sound like. It isn’t as successful as Carpenter’s masterworks like Halloween or The Thing, but its haunting sexually-transmitted-curse premise & killer synth soundtrack make for some remarkably weird & memorable moments.

15. Driving While BlackPresented on the surface as a laid back stoner comedy, this film actually packs a surprisingly powerful (and unfortunately timely) political punch in its depiction of “the extra layer of bullshit on top of regular life” that black people have to face daily in modern America. Detailing the public harassment & personal violation of being constantly persecuted by the police on the receiving end of racial profiling, Driving While Black walks an impressive tightrope of feeling like an important movie, but never losing track of being consistently funny.

16. Creep/The Overnight – Writer/director Patrick Brice just had a pretty incredible year. His first two feature films, Creep & The Overnight, earned wide distribution withing months of one another and both stood as darkly funny, often hilarious reminders of how much of an impact a director can pull from a great script, a limited set, and just a handful of actors. Although one is a found footage horror (Creep) and the other is a twisted play on the traditional sex farce (The Overnight) they pair nicely in their lean towards minimalism & in their collective declaration of Brice as a talent to watch.

17. Queen of EarthThe two minute trailer for Queen of Earth might be the best short film of the year, but the movie itself is a lot more delicate & detached than the psychological horror that the ad promises. It’s difficult to pin down exactly what transpires in this film (I personally see it as a vicious, yet subtle tale of revenge through drawn out emotional torture), but the seething hatred mounting between its two leads is bound to bore a hole into your memory no matter where you land on its plot.

18. Predestination – Predestination is neither a wholly unique work nor an exercise in good taste. It is, however, an example of the virtue of sincere, traditional acting & storytelling and how those elements can elevate ludicrous material into something special. Although its major twists & reveals may occasionally be telegraphed, it’s fascinating to watch the film reach those conclusions in its own time and on its own terms. There’s a sci-fi tradition to its sincere, pulpy sense of tonal balance, but it’s a vintage tradition that’s unconcerned with the new territory that sci-fi cinema’s been exploring in recent years.

19. Goodnight Mommy – There’s a major twist at the core of Goodnight Mommy that most discerning folks will be able to catch onto within minutes of the film beginning, but that withheld reveal in no way cheapens the ugly brutality of its horror imagery or the delicate beauty of its art film surreality. Goodnight Mommy is not looking to outsmart you with its plot, but rather to tie you down & torture you with its relentless horror film intensity. As a bonus, it also functions like cinematic birth control the same way that great works like The Bad Seed, The Babadook, and We Need to Talk About Kevin have in the past. It’s a very specific genre that I’m always a sucker for.

20. Mistress America Noah Baumbach’s latest pulls an incredible trick of not only exposing the harrowing emptiness behind a know-it-all, creative-spirit Millenial’s Everything Is Perfect & So Am I facade, but also making you feel sort of bad for her when the illusion crumbles. Like the film’s protagonist who looks up to this human anomaly, we want to believe that someone so free & so in tune with The Ways of the Universe could actually exist, but by the end of the film you’re left with the feeling that the very idea of someone living that impossible lie on a daily basis is not only far from admirable, it’s also deeply sad.

H.M. Girlhood – Despite what you might expect from a film about roving packs of French girl gangs, Girlhood is far from an on-the-nose melodrama with explicit messages about the powder keg of poverty & puberty. Instead, it’s a brutally melancholy slow burner about an especially shitty youth with dwindling options for escape. It’s far more open-ended & hazy than I was anticipating, opting more for a gradual unravelling than a grand statement. It’s that aversion to closure & moralizing that makes the film special when it easily could’ve gone through the motions of rote Lifetime Movie schmaltz. Besides, its mid-film, impromptu music video for Rihanna’s “Diamonds” easily ranks among the year’s most uplifting moments in film.

-Brandon Ledet

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

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fourhalfstar

So, I’m a little late to the table with my review for George Miller’s 30-years-late-to-the-table Mad Max sequel Fury Road. There are a few various reasons for this delay. Before I went to the cinema, I wanted to contextualize the film in the grand scheme of Miller’s bizarrely disparate catalog, so I watched everything he’s directed so far. During this time, I got to revisit some all-time favorites like The Road Warrior & The Witches of Eastwick, discover some new bizarre worlds like in Babe: Pig in the City, and experience the excruciating, frozen depths of Hell thanks to the Happy Feet franchise. It was a confusing time. By the time I made it to the theater for Fury Road, the excitement surrounding the film had reached a fever pitch among a dedicated few who had already seen the film many times over. It’s crazy to think that with the amount of buzz this film has earned it’s never reached the number one spot at the box office, losing out to films critics have been understandably less enthusiastic about: San Andreas, Tomorrowland, and Pitch Perfect 2. This dichotomy of ignored-by-many, obsessively-loved-by-few pretty much sealed Fury Road’s fate as instant cult classic, one that will surely be remembered for far longer than San Andreas or Tomorrowland, before I even got a taste of its ridiculous charms.

During the initial you-gotta-see-this frenzy surrounding the film, I missed a lot of opportunity to find new things to say about it. All I can really do at this point is echo the praise. Yes, it’s one of the best action films released in years. Yes, it has surprisingly satisfying feminist bent for something so thoroughly violent. Yes, it’s an incredible technical feat stuffed to the gills with impressive practical stunts & confident art design. In a time where a lot of movies, such as Zombeavers & WolfCop, intentionally aim for a cult film aesthetic, it’s refreshing when something as authentically bizarre as Fury Road comes along and earns its rabid, isolated fan base naturally. Although the movie is less than a month old, it’s already gathered a cult following so strong that I doubt that there’s any praise I can throw at the film that hasn’t already been bested elsewhere. I loved the film. I thought it was fantastic, wonderfully distinct, up there with The Road Warrior, The Witches of Eastwick, and Pig in the City as one of the best things Miller has ever released onto the world. I still feel like that’s merely faint praise when compared to some of the more hyperbolic reactions out there. Because it’s not my favorite movie of all time, or even my favorite of the year so far, it might be best if I back off a bit from saying anything even vaguely critical and just say it’s great & I’m glad so many people love it.

That only leaves room for a couple details that I feel haven’t been addressed loudly enough. Firstly, it’s been said that because Miller filmed Fury Road in 2D and the 3D release was created in post-production, the 2D release is the superior viewing choice. Having now seen the film in both formats (another reason for the delayed review), I’d advise you to ignore that common wisdom. I enjoyed the 3D version of Fury Road immensely. It not only highlighted in the impressive depth of the chase scenes’ bizarre imagery, but also added a classic drive-in aesthetic layer to the film’s cult movie vibe. I think it’s worthwhile to see the film in 3D while it’s still an option, since it’s less likely you’ll be able to once it leaves the theaters. Another aspect of the film that’s been somewhat overshadowed is the strength of its central villain. A lot has been said about the badass character design & story arcs of Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, Tom Hardy’s Max, Nicholas Hoult’s Nux, and whoever the Hell played that weirdo guitar dude, but not nearly enough ink has been spilled on the central antagonist, Immortan Joe. Joe is a nightmarish brute, truly terrifying in both his abusive actions & basic look. When he gets his eventual comeuppance it’s a thoroughly satisfying moment, a fitful end to an eccentric villain who belongs to be recognized along with names like Darth Vader, Cruella DeVille and Freddy Krueger as one of the greatest of all time. Like a Jason Voorhees or a Michael Myers in their respective franchises, Immortan Joe is a large part of what makes Fury Road feel so special.

That’s about all I have to add to the already endless Mad Max conversation. I’d urge you to go see the film, but it’s likely that you already have. I’d praise its charms, but there’s little I can say that hasn’t already been hyperbolically topped. I’d pick at its (very few) faults, but there’s no point in deflating any of the air out of the party balloons. It makes me so happy that a film this strange has been exalted this high this quickly, so there’s not much left to do except to bask in its glory and try to get over these Immortan Joe nightmares. Maybe they’ll stop before I get to Valhalla, but probably not. At least I have these cans of silver spray paint to see me through in the mean time.

-Brandon Ledet