the best in this film

#800: ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’, dir. George Miller, 2015.

It’s hard to believe that this film only came out two years ago. Since then, I’ve probably seen it six or seven times - in cinemas, at home, and once at an outdoor cinema at a winery in Hawke’s Bay. It never fails to amaze me, and while some parts of it still make me twitch when they fall below ‘perfection’ this is Miller at the top of his game. I can’t imagine him improving on this film, either technically or thematically. It really is just that good.

What makes it all the more impressive to me is that this is one of those films where failure to achieve in any one of a host of different areas would immediately reduce this film to the level of ‘very good’. People on the internet have written exhaustively about the film’s narrative development, about its treatment of female characters (turns out having multiple women reduces the burden of representation! Who’da thought?), and about how it treats disability and mental illness as characteristic and baggage-free traits that don’t need to be central aspects of the character. I don’t want to add to the pile of work done by people far more educated and far more directly affected by these portrayals than I am. What I want to talk about is liquid.

It’s hardly surprising that in a film about a desolate and dry world, that water would be a significant object within Fury Road. However, it’s only one of several liquids that are important here. In fact, of the four most critical liquids, water is third in the list, beating only guzzolene in terms of symbolic importance. Ahead of it are Mothers’ milk and blood. Through this one narrative aspect, I think Miller shows exactly how much thought has gone into every part of this work. If this film were just a script, these thematic resonances would still be there.

Guzzolene and water are both directly connected to the masculine nature of the Mad Max films. In Fury Road, water is possessed by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) in much the same way as his wives are - a vital asset to be preserved and withheld in a ‘for your own good’ sort of way. Joe teases the gathered survivors with water as a device to control them, but is satisfied to let the water soak into the ground. Even though he knows the water is scarce, he is still stuck in the old ways of consumption. When we see his wives’ quarters, they are sealed behind a vault door and there is a grand piano in there, but these luxuries serve only to reinforce how much he objectifies them.

Like water, guzzolene is constantly wasted in the film, usually in pursuit of macho pandering. The war rigs are kitted out with the necessary sharp bits to keep raiders away, but the flames and the nitrous tanks and the turbochargers are less about functionality and more about performance, in the theatrical sense of the word. They bolster the masculinity of their drivers, which suggests to some degree just how fragile this masculinity is.

Above water, we have Mothers’ milk, which fills one of the tankers of the War Rig that Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is driving. This liquid is particularly potent as a symbol: not only does it tie into themes of motherhood and continuing generations (themes carried on in the group’s interactions with the Vuvalini), it also tied to Julia Kristeva’s concept of the abject. The abject is that which is us but not us - it is disgusting partly because of its familiarity to us. If that sounds like anti-feminist nonsense, consider how disgusting we’re meant to perceive it as when the fully-grown Warboy Rictus samples a bottle of fresh Mothers’ milk. Later in the film, Max (Tom Hardy) uses a pail of Mothers’ milk to wash off the blood from his killing of the Bullet Farmer. It’s perhaps a bit of a stretch to think about this as the milk of women washing away the sins of man, but that was the analogy that occurred to me in the moment, and I think there’s decent thematic support for it in the film.
However, Mothers’ milk is not a sacred liquid, and Immortan Joe and his Warboys are happy to see it wasted in pursuit of Joe’s wives. Their rigs pierce the tanker of Mothers’ milk with grappling hooks in an attempt to slow Furiosa’s rig down, and Miller lingers on several shots of the milk pouring from the tanker. No liquid is worth more to Immortan Joe than his wives are, it seems.

That being said, there are other characters in the film beside Immortan Joe, and here is where the fourth liquid comes into play: blood. Blood and Mothers’ milk are the only liquids to have more than one discrete use in the film. Mothers’ milk is useful for both child-rearing and for washing, it turns out. Max’s blood, though, is useful in three separate scenes: in his early role as a blood bag for Nux (Nicholas Hoult), as a tool for drawing maps in the middle of the film, and as a transfusion partner for Furiosa near the end. This is why Miller hammers home the idea of Max as a universal donor both visually and verbally near the start of the film: we won’t need this information for 100 minutes, but when it turns up we’ll probably remember its significance.
(The idea of Max as a universal donor is true not just medically but psychologically too. He’s a provider of talent and strength on a par with the other characters.)

Unlike the other liquids, though, Max’s blood is never wasted - it always has a practical purpose whenever it’s employed. As weird as it sounds, this is the principal difference between Max and Immortan Joe: their relationship to others is defined by the concept of waste. Max and Joe both wind up prizing the wives, but Max doesn’t see them as objects by the end of the film. They display their individual talents and characters and both Max and Furiosa delegate tasks to them as needed. This idea of waste, though, is a true mark of difference. It indicates that Max is ideologically more closely-aligned with Furiosa and the wives than he is with Immortan Joe. It’s this that makes him a hopeful protagonist, rather than the antagonist some criticism framed Max as.

This whole theme is tied inextricably to a bunch of other elements of this film - editing, scripting, gender politics, the depiction of emotion as it relates to masculinity, all of it. This is why I think one misstep would seriously damage the film’s effectiveness overall.
Mad Max: Fury Road is not quite a perfect film - the final quarter is a bit more muddy than it could be, but never so much so that it makes the end result any less impressive. To have put so much thought into every major theme of your work, and to make all that work while managing amazing stuntwork, stellar character development and a colour palette and score to die for… that’s just good filmmaking. In fact, it’s a pretty good candidate for the best thing on the list.

8

Mysterious thing, time… powerful and when meddled with, dangerous. Sirius Black is in the topmost cell of the Dark Tower. You know the laws, Miss Granger. You must not be seen. And you would do well, I feel, to return before this last chime. If not, the consequences are too ghastly to discuss. If you succeed tonight, more than one innocent life may be spared.

The Best Films of 2017 - Mid-Year List

There have already been many great films so far this year, so I felt it worth doing a run down of my favourite films of the year so far. These all reflect the cinema releases we’ve had so far in the UK in 2017 - for that reason this list includes some films that were released in the US in 2016. Enjoy, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on the best films of the year so far!

Honourable mentions: Their Finest, Colossal, Gifted

1. Get Out, dir. Jordan Peele

This film really knocked me for six, to such an extent that I simply had to see it twice in the cinema. It got even better upon a re-watch, when I was able to watch it with full knowledge of the characters’ underlying motives and the things to come. It’s a terrifying concept (the racism of an all-white suburb is taken to a horrifying extreme) executed with incredible panache, and you feel every emotion that Chris goes through thanks to Daniel Kaluuya’s excellent performance. Get Out also represents one of the most brilliantly communal experiences I’ve ever had at the cinema - I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say that the audience erupted into spontaneous applause at a key moment in the climax. Simply fantastic. 

2. The Handmaiden, dir. Park Chan-wook

This film is exquisite - it’s first and foremost a beautiful boundary-smashing love story, and an absolutely marvellous tale of female defiance. It transplants Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith to 1930s Korea, and the story is effortlessly adapted to become intrinsically interwoven with its new setting. Sookee is a talented pickpocket plucked from a thieves den and sent as a handmaiden to trick a rich heiress into falling for a conman. To say any more would spoil the twists, but this film is just a masterwork of suspense, keeping you guessing throughout a series of interlocking pieces that take their time to reveal their secrets. I’ve seen the theatrical cut and the extended version, and they’re both great - you’re in for a treat with either.

3. Jackie, dir. Pablo Larrain

This is a film that soars on the strength of Natalie Portman’s incredible performance, which is complemented by Mica Levi’s haunting score. Portman’s performance is painfully vivid, with her agony and wretchedness coming through so intensely that it’s often uncomfortable to watch. Jackie is probably the best portrait of grief I’ve ever seen, and it sucks you into a famous historic event by providing an incredibly intimate perspective on it. This is great cinema, but be prepared for suffering.

4. A Cure for Wellness, dir. Gore Verbinski

This is a delightfully strange Gothic fairy tale of a film, and I’m amazed and impressed that a Hollywood studio gave Gore Verbinski a budget sufficient to pull it off with such beauty and style. I’ve seen this film attract love and hate in equal measure, but I adore it - the trailers set you up for a rehash of Shutter Island, but nothing could be further from the truth beyond the isolated setting. If I had to compare this to anything, I would compare it to Roger Corman’s Poe cycle of films from the 1960s - it has a similarly lurid sensibility and a deep-seated sense of fantastic romanticism at its core. Great if you’re after something uncompromisingly bonkers.

5. Wonder Woman, dir. Patty Jenkins

This film represented pure joy for me - I couldn’t have anticipated how emotional I was going to get at witnessing a (wonder!)woman crossing No Man’s Land and deflecting bullets with her bracelets. This simultaneously rejects the wry self-awareness of the Marvel films and the grim self-importance of the previous DC movies, instead unabashedly depicting a superhero who triumphs thanks to her overriding belief in love and compassion. Patty Jenkins adds endless little touches - from funny moments to quiet scenes where characters talk simply to learn about each other - that enrich the film and make it feel vivid and intimate in a very rare and special way.

6. Silence, dir. Martin Scorsese

This is truly the work of a master filmmaker, and it represents a stunning artistic achievement and a moving and intelligent investigation of the threshold of faith. Scorsese tried to get this made for decades before finally succeeding, and his passion for and belief in the project shine through in every painstakingly crafted frame. Silence is equal parts beauty and brutality, and it uses this contrast to illuminate the painful questions that the faithful must ask themselves when faced with the harsh reality of the present world. It’s heavy stuff, but well worth your time if you’re up for a film that raises more questions than it answers.

7. In This Corner of the World, dir. Sunao Katabuchi

I had no idea this film existed until a few days before I saw it, but I was really struck by its poetic treatment of the joys and tragedies of life. This film follows a young bride who moves to live with her husband’s family in WWII-era Japan, and while it deals unflinchingly with the trauma and horror of war - particularly the bombing of Hiroshima - it’s also surprisingly funny and ultimately hopeful. The power of this film comes through in the little moments of human connection and the way that the full potential of animation is exploited to maximum effect.

8. La La Land, dir. Damien Chazelle

A lovely ode to the classic Hollywood musical, La La Land is a technical marvel that sticks with me because of its heart and humanity (those words are recurring a lot, right?). It tells a very small story of a love affair between two dreamers in Hollywood, but it feels much bigger than them because of the way in which their story is told. La La Land draws from influences across the spectrum of cinema, and its homages to the classics are joyful and loving. The final ‘what might have been’ sequence represents the perfect marriage of raw emotion and filmmaking virtuosity. 

9. Okja, dir. Bong Joon-ho

Not many films can balance flatulence jokes with uncompromising critique of capitalist greed, but Okja pulls it off with aplomb. The core story hinges on the innocent and endearing friendship between a young girl named Mija and a bio-engineered super pig called Okja, and the film succeeds because you totally buy their connection and desperately want the two of them to have their wish and live together in the mountains. I’m delighted that Netflix gave Bong Joon-ho a platform to make such a weird beast.

10. Logan, dir. James Mangold

Logan may be bleak, but that isn’t what makes it great - Logan is fantastic cinema because it remembers that superheroes are still people who struggle with their own souls as much as super-villains. This film features the best character work managed in any of the X-Men films, and Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart and - in particular - Dafne Keen give heart-rending performances that really ground the film and give it an emotional core. I hope we get more superhero films like this, and that the takeaway from it for the industry is the importance of stressing character rather than frantic spectacle.

Most anticipated films still to come: War for the Planet of the Apes, Valerian and the City of A Thousand Planets, Dunkirk, The Beguiled, Mother!, Logan Lucky, Blade Runner 2049, Murder on the Orient Express, The Shape of Water, Annihilation, Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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in a heartbeat (2017)

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Happy 1 year anniversary to the greatest masterpiece in the history of short films