Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) / *****

zz7be3aadbI first watched Mad Max: Fury Road during its theatrical run, and spent the entire running time in shocked, stunned awe at what I saw unfolding. I wrote about it here, but suffice to say that I felt like Fury Road was one of the most exhilarating, exciting films I’d seen in years, a piece of pure cinema that reminded me why I love movies.

Now, 9 months later, I decided to revisit the film. Since then, it’s become massively acclaimed; it won a lot of technical Oscars last night, topped a slew of critics “Best Of” lists, and all that jazz. And so, of course, I worried. Would I cool on the movie now that the “new” had worn off? Would it be a case where I loved the initial dazzle but realized that there just wasn’t much there?

Nope.

In fact, if anything, my rewatch only confirmed my feelings – that Fury Road isn’t just one of the best action films in years, it’s one of the best films, period. And your reaction to that is probably either “Yup.” or “I just don’t know what you’re talking about.” So let me explain.

First of all, it’s rare to piece of filmmaking that’s as visceral, intense, relentless, and stunning as Fury Road is. The knock has been made that the film is nothing but one long car chase, and while there’s some truth to that, that’s ignoring the fact that making a car chase last that long and never get boring is a heck of a feat. Fury Road is relentless, never taking a break and never stopping, and it’s to the film’s credit that instead of being exhausting, that’s exhilarating, as George Miller gives every section of the film its own flavor, its own separate battles, and does it all while keeping his camera constantly in motion, giving the film even more visceral impact while never losing sight of the coherence of each sequence. You always know exactly where every car is – who’s where, who’s driving, what the stakes are – in this film. And that’s no small feat.

Of course, maintaining a visual coherence is one thing; delivering this level of intensity and impact is another. The stunt work on Fury Road is jaw-dropping, making me cringe and fear for people’s lives like nothing short of The Raid managed to do. Much has been made of Miller’s choice to rely on practical work, and rightfully so; it gives every crash, every sweeping stunt, every impact, and every flipping car a power that no CGI could ever match, even if you didn’t know it.

That practical choice, though, also goes towards the creation of Miller’s nightmarish hellscape. Rather than pack his film with backstory and exposition, Miller lets his props and cars tell the story, as we see tribes worshipping these remaining machines, a warlord who decorates himself with medals of a fallen civilization, and other strange memories of the world that have been distorted throughout history. What at first glance might appear to be a random collection of detritus and props combines together to create its own fascinating, strange civilization, where cars are worshipped, warlords rule through fear and control of resources, and technology rules everything. It’s a master class in world building through props and visual style; you can learn as much about the characters from their vehicles and their attire as you can from their dialogue and actions. Maybe even more so.

Which brings us, of course, to the characters. Fury Road establishes its characters just like it does its world – with a minimum of exposition. We don’t know much about Max, beyond the fragmented stress-induced hallucinations he suffers; we can assume he let someone die, maybe a daughter and wife, but not much else. Furiosa is an enigma as well; she despises Immortan Joe, has tried to escape numerous times, but is trusted with the war rig. There’s reasons for all of it, we know; we’re just not privy to it all. And that’s fine. What matters isn’t their backstories; what matters is who they are, and Miller establishes it wonderfully, through actions, reactions, and their physicality. It’s a strange role for both Hardy and Theron; what dialogue they have is functional at best, and largely about what they’re doing. Instead, we learn about them through their movements – from Max’s silent agreement to serve as a sniper scope, from Furiosa’s confidence in her rig, from silent looks, and so forth.

And none of that even touches on the big elephant in the room: the fierce, uncompromising feminism of the film, which permeates every aspect of it. It’s not just that the film has a female heroine; it’s that she takes over Max’s own movie, becomes the true lead, the focal point. While she fights the big villain, it’s Max who fights the sidekick; when shots have to be taken, it’s her who takes them, not Max. It’s her truck that survives and destroys, not Max’s. And then there’s the story, which deals with women being subjugated and turned into property, and the fact that Max – and even some of the warboys along the way – cannot abide that to happen in their sight. But rather than solving the problem for them, the girls fight for themselves, smash back the patriarchy. After all, as characters ask more than once, who is it that killed this world, if not men like Immortan Joe? This is a blow against a world that views women as a commodity, that views them as incubators and property; it’s the The Handmaid’s Tale writ large, turned into something more epic and brutal.

Maybe none of that works for you. Maybe you look at the film and see empty spectacle – a never-ending car chase, a token female role, a world that feels cobbled together and full of random items. That’s all complaints I’ve heard, and I guess everyone has the right to their opinion. But what I see is a powerhouse film, a stunning piece of action cinema that manages to be as much about the world today – about demagogues who play off of fear, who warn people not to be addicted to water the same way leaders caution us not to get addicted to having rights – as it is about its post-apocalyptic nightmare. It’s a film with some of the most stunning visual style I’ve ever seen, where every frame could be mounted on a wall, where color saturates the screen, where the world sears itself into you. It’s a film where the camera moves constantly, where faces and cars come to life and express more than any dialogue, where the film could lose every spoken word and still be instantly comprehensible and no less effective. And beyond all that, it’s an action powerhouse, delivering some of the best stuntwork, action choreography, and inventive staging that I’ve ever seen – staging that borrows as much from Buster Keaton as it does 70’s gearhead films.

So, if you don’t see the same movie I do, that’s cool, and it’s your right. But man, are you missing out on the masterpiece that I’m seeing.

IMDb
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Ex Machina (2015) / *** ½

ex-machina-posterOne of my all-time favorite science fiction writers is Philip K. Dick. It’s not that Dick is a particularly poetic or adept writer; his prose can be clunky, his dialogue a little heavy and not always natural, his characters often more functional as stand-ins or symbols than real people. And yet, there’s something truly engaging about Dick’s writing, as he engages himself wholly with wild, thoughtful ideas, and uses his novels to explore them in as much depth as he can manage, all before often blowing up the debate in a way we never expect. It’s Dick’s ideas, really, that make his books so compelling, so rich, and so rewarding.

I bring up Philip K. Dick to begin this review because he’s the obvious comparison point for Ex Machina, a film that’s deeply concerned with exploring its ideas in all of their complexity and thoughtfulness. Ex Machina is a simple film, one that’s almost entirely about three characters: an inventor, his newly-crafted robotic AI, and a young coder brought in to test the AI and see if it passes the Turing test (more or less; mind you, the term “Turing test” doesn’t exactly apply, since he already knows that she’s an AI…but you get the idea). And over the course of the film, writer-director Alex Garland runs with the idea, exploring what artificial intelligence is, where the line is between AI and life, and the blurring lines between consciousness and programming.

That’s heady stuff, and although it’s the subject of plenty of films, Ex Machina handles the debate adroitly and with style to spare, focusing on the dialogue and the complex ideas and assuming that the audience can keep up with the subtleties. And the lowkey performances help keep the film’s focus; these are smart people having intelligent conversations, and the film lets them be without condescension or dumbing them down.

So why, then, is my rating up there so mixed? Mainly, it’s thanks to the last act, which chucks out a lot of the interesting nuance and thoughtfulness in favor of a thriller where complex characters become flat, everyone’s nuance is lost, and people are sorted into categories instead of letting them be complex. Garland has a history of bad endings – most notably there’s the much-maligned final act of Sunshine, in which a hard science-fiction film becomes a slasher flick – and while Ex Machina‘s ending doesn’t feel like a cheat, it’s a massive letdown from the film before it. That’s especially true in the case of Oscar Isaacs’ prickly genius, who becomes a cartoonish villain instead of acknowledging his thoughtful, quite valid points. More than that, the film ultimately feels like it’s tipping its hands, weighing in on the moral questions that the film raises instead of letting the viewer decide for themselves – and if you disagree with some of it, the film’s ending will feel especially jarring. (Most notably, I think the way I took the ending is very, very different from the way Garland wants us to interpret it, tonally speaking.)

There’s still so much to like about Ex Machina – Garland’s style is impeccable here, bringing an icy calm to everything and using color in really gorgeous ways. The performances are all solid, especially Vikander as the AI at the heart of the film. But ultimately, that ending is frustrating, mainly because the first two acts of the film are so, so strong, and the choice to turn it into a generic thriller at the end really detracts from what could have been much more complex, thoughtful, and interesting.

IMDb

Made to Kill, by Adam Christopher / ****

81ufyzqwmulLook, I know that the conventional wisdom is “don’t judge a book by its cover,” but can we just acknowledge up front that Made to Kill has a pretty spectacular cover? Look at the retro feel of that, the way it blends sci-fi with noir sensibilities. First of all, it’s a great-looking and attention-grabbing cover, but more than that, you’d be hard pressed to come up with a cover that more accurately prepares you for the wonderfully fun world of Made to Kill.

In his acknowledgments, author Adam Christopher discusses the origins of Made to Kill, and it’s no surprise at all that the book began life as a tribute to Raymond Chandler. More accurately, it’s a tribute to what Raymond Chandler might have written if he had ever written a science-fiction tale. So, just as that gorgeous cover implies, you’re getting a beautifully hard-boiled detective story, but one that’s been run through a science-fiction filter, with a story that starts with a missing person and ends up being about the CIA, Communist plots, mind control, and so much more.

But even apart from the sci-fi elements of the plot, there’s our hero, one Raymond Electromatic, the last robot left in America, and a current detective who also moonlights as a professional killer. That sounds like a complicated setup for a book, and that’s before Christopher brings in all sorts of wrinkles – most notably, that Raymond’s magnetic tape memory only lasts a day, so he has to start each day by being reminded of what came the day before. And yet, Christopher handles it all wonderfully, moving through his setup and backstory with grace and ease, covering it all with humor, style, and fun, and never letting it slow down the Chandler-appropriate fast pace of the story.

More than that, Christopher does his electric hero right, turning Raymond into a narrator who’s more than just a simple gimmick. Yes, he’s capable of wisecracks – who wouldn’t be in a Chandler homage? – but he’s also thoughtful, careful, and a pretty good investigator. And if that’s not all enough, there’s Raymond’s own constant awareness that he’s a strange, alien sight who’s not always welcome. Raymond’s robotic nature isn’t just a gimmick; it’s fundamental to who he is, and it shapes the story along the way in wonderful and surprisingly rich ways.

In the end, though, Made to Kill is a Chandler homage, for better or for worse. For better because its fast pace, clever plotting, entertaining story, and engaging banter make it a blast to read; for worse because that’s about all there is here. It’s a fun detective story, and an original one, but not much beyond that. It’s Cold War pulp, and it’s clever, but it’s popcorn, through and through. But sometimes, all you want is some popcorn, and I can’t deny that Made to Kill scratched that itch and then some. It’s fun, it’s funny, it’s entertaining, and it’s a blast to read. Just don’t expect too much depth to chew on when you’re done.

Amazon

Shadow and Claw: The First Half of “The Book of the New Sun”, by Gene Wolfe

40992I read The Shadow of the Torturer – or, at least, I read some of it – way back in high school. At the time, I don’t think I was quite prepared for this strange, fascinating book. I assumed – quite wrongly, as it turned out – that this might be of a piece with the Thomas Covenant series, giving me a true anti-hero to follow through this world as he reluctantly became something more. That’s not a bad assumption, given that the series is about a professional torturer who is exiled from his tribe and forced into a world that mostly despises him and those who practice his trade.

And yet, that basic premise is more of the starting point for The Book of the New Sun, rather than its hook. Yes, Severian is a fascinating anti-hero, a man who is capable of brutal torture and yet whose principal crime is one of kindness; a man who is both selfish and oddly kind; a man who is both interested in the honor of his guild and in overthrowing the society around him. But none of that really seems to touch on the heart of Shadow & Claw (which is comprised of the first two books of the New Sun series, The Shadow of the Torturer and The Claw of the Conciliator), which is as interested in its strange, undefinable world as it is in its characters.

And what a unique world it is. It’s easy to make the assumption that Shadow & Claw is fantasy; there’s an undeniably medieval feel to the setup, to the massive castles and shadowy guilds and deadly swords. But before long, you realize that this is not an ancient world, but an impossibly distant one, and that what we are seeing is not primitive settlements but devastated ruins. What we see is not a mankind learning to connect and build a society, but one that may be dying out, as the universe itself dies out around it. That uneasy blend of past and future, of science-fiction and Arthurian myth, is one of the features of The Book of the New Sun that’s so fascinating, so compelling.

For all of that, though, it has to be said that The Book of the New Sun doesn’t read like anything else, either. Even now that I’m halfway through the series, I’m not sure I could tell you what it’s truly about; yes, Severian is on a journey, but to what end? To what are we building? What, if anything, does it all mean? I don’t have any answers to that, and to be honest, I’m not even sure that there will be answers to it. Part of that comes from Wolfe’s conceit (the series is written as Severian’s memoirs, written much later in his life, and for an audience presumably of the world around him), which results in a book that’s meandering at times, philosophical in others, and more subjective than we often realize. But much of it comes from the plotting, or lack thereof; the book often feels like a mosaic, a collection of incidents that are coming together to create something larger that we can’t see until we step back a bit and take it all in.

It’s why I haven’t really rated this entry in the series yet. On one level, it’s a masterful piece of writing – wholly unique, thought-provoking, endlessly fascinating. On another, it’s frustrating, wandering, unfocused, and sometimes bewildering. Its scope and imagination are impossible not to admire, even while you sometimes wonder what it all means – or if it means anything at all. And perhaps that will change as I finish the series and I get a sense of Wolfe’s larger goals, his bigger pictures. Whatever the case, it’s a series that I’m fascinated by and compelled to keep reading, and one that I’m glad I came back to after all these years. I don’t know how far I made it when I read it all those years ago, but reading it now, it’s a book that I feel I’m far more likely to appreciate now that I’m (slightly) more mature.

Amazon

John Freitas short stories / ** ½

About a month ago, I read John Freitas’s Pulse: When Gravity Fails, a speculative science-fiction novel about a series of gravitational waves that are rocking the Earth. At the time, I commented on how frustrating the book was – that parts of it were genuinely engaging and exciting, while other parts were badly-written or painfully ham-handed. The question, then, was what came next: more of the good, or more of the bad? And, as I should have almost guessed, the answer was “both”.

26589322Freitas’s first follow-up, a short story named “The Quantum Brain,” is basically a heist story set during the final gravity waves that rock the Earth. The idea is a solid one, and for much of its length, “The Quantum Brain” is a lot of fun, giving us a wonderfully amoral protagonist who thinks he’s above the law and capable of anything. The idea of using the Pulse to cover up a heist is a good one, and Freitas stages the action nicely, taking his time, emphasizing the planning that’s gone into it, and generally conveying a sense of excitement that keeps it all moving. There are some issues still (why are there guards there, if everyone else has been sent home under martial law?), but for the most part, things work until after the heist concludes. Then, suddenly, it’s as if Freitas realizes that he doesn’t have an ending. Things start rushing and becoming less clear. The quantum brain that got stolen suddenly becomes something more, and turns itself into its own deus ex machina. Plot threads are left dangling in what could be a tease for a sequel but instead just feels bewildering. It all ends up fizzling out the goodwill that the first part of the story delivers, and that’s a shame, because the story shows that Freitas can write a fun tale when he wants to.

41cczlwbugl-_sx331_bo1204203200_That’s more than can be said for the confusing, baffling “Oh Hell No!”, a time travel tale whose connection to the Pulse series is tenuous at best. “Oh Hell No!” takes place in the distant future, where mutated descendants of humanity are doing their best to prevent the louse-conveyed plague that’s decimated their planet. That’s a pretty tried-and-true time travel formula, but it’s not one that lends itself entirely well to a short story. Freitas rushes the establishment of his future world, and it ends up being more of a confusing series of moments than anything coherent. The same, really, can be said of the plan to go back in time; while I sort of pieced together what the crew was attempting to do, it never really made much sense, and the stakes of the whole thing never really came together in any sort of meaningful way. Beyond that, “Oh Hell No!” brings back Freitas’s worst tendencies as a dialogue writer, once again delivering some painful, clunky speech that sticks out like a sore thumb. “Oh Hell No!” might have worked better if it was longer – it feels weirdly abridged and as though it’s missing a lot of details it requires – but there’s just as much chance that the length would result in some real issues and plot holes.

Freitas is the most frustrating kind of author  – one who has some genuinely engaging, interesting ideas, and sporadic moments where he’s able to live up to his promise and his best ideas. But every time you’re getting into it, he takes a turn backwards; it’s as though his books are written by a strange pair of co-authors, and only one of them knows what he’s doing. I wish I could recommend them more, but as they stand, his books feel like promising rough drafts that never got turned into the polished final works they could have become.

Amazon: “The Quantum Brain” | “Oh Hell No!”

The Snow Queen of Somerville High, by Adam Bertocci / ****

51jolrdp66l-_sy344_bo1204203200_Had you told me, a few years back, that Adam Bertocci would be writing high school romance stories, I’m not sure I would have believed you. His first book that I discovered was the amazing Two Gentlemen of Lebowski, in which Bertocci re-creates The Big Lebowski in wonderful, truly Shakespearean prose; after that, the next few stories I read may have been set in high schools, but each dealt with supernatural or dark elements, ranging from ghosts to a send-up of Twilight‘s warring supernatural factions. All were fantastic, mind you; each created rich, interesting narrators, plunged you nicely into the high school experience, and managed to both tell a story and grapple with richer ideas at the same time.

Now comes The Snow Queen of Somerville High, which sets aside all of the supernatural elements to tell a simple story of a girl who meets a new student and falls in love. That’s it – no bigger twists, no novel elements, no shocking swerves. More than that, this isn’t a Nicholas Sparks book; there’s no big melodramatic reveal, no shocking deaths. It’s just the story of a flirtation that has the possibility of blossoming into something more, and then changes once some…well, some new information comes to light, to borrow a phrase.

And yet, the simplicity is what makes the story work so well. Bertocci writes teenage girls well, and that’s no small feat; for many male authors, trying to write a teenage girl is a hilarious, sad endeavor. Bertocci, meanwhile, makes his narrator really live and breathe, immersing us not only in her crush, but in her wry comments on the world, her banter with friends, and her generally optimistic outlook on even the worst cold weather. No, The Snow Queen isn’t really interested in telling a sweeping, massive love story, but that’s what makes it work for the best; rather than spending time on complex plotting or absurd complications, he focuses on the character beats, and brings everything to the right ending, one that feels both earned and right, while dodging easy conclusions.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I missed Bertocci’s odder stuff; I loved the use of warring supernatural factions in The Usual Werewolves as a way of exploring high school society, and the pitch black comedy of Veronica’s Vengeance really worked for me. But even if I preferred his other work slightly more, I really liked The Snow Queen of Somerville High, which tells a simple story, but does it well, and evokes that tension, unease, and bliss of teenage love in a way that so many books attempt to and never quite succeed. It’s a great little romantic tale, one with a good heart, and written by a writer who’s really found a solid, reliable, interesting voice.

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Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees / *****

73574You could easily be forgiven for never having heard of Lud-in-the-Mist. Heck, I only picked it up on a whim, thanks to a raving cover blurb from Neil Gaiman, who recommended it as one of his all-time favorite novels. Even then, it sat unread on my Kindle for a long while until, as I was reading some articles about Susanna Clarke’s masterpiece Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, I found multiple references to the book as a possible source of inspiration. And having read the book, that connection is pretty undeniable – Lud-in-the-Mist feels like a clear ancestor to Strange, a quiet, quintessentially English fantasy book about dealing with a history that we’re not quite comfortable with and questioning whether it’s okay to acknowledge art, music, and such “frivolous” matters in the world.

But more than that, Lud-in-the-Mist feels like a genuinely overlooked classic, a beautiful little piece of fantasy that’s been ignored and forgotten for nearly a hundred years. Yes, Lud-in-the-Mist is nearly a century old, but you wouldn’t know that offhand; it has a wonderfully timeless feel to it, as though it’s outside of any typical signifiers of time and place. It’s the tale of the titular village, where any mention of the Fairy Kingdom over the hills is verboten, where any reference to Fairy magic or efforts is among the greatest taboos, and where life is pretty simple, down-to-earth, and sensible. That is, until the children of one of the big families in town start eating fairy fruit, and a strange new dance instructor comes to town, and everything else starts getting…well, weird.

Like Strange and NorrellLud-in-the-Mist is as much about its world and its characters as it is any sort of story. The plot is simple, and pretty low-key; in fact, the novel’s climactic scenes take place entirely off stage, and are left largely to our imagination. No, it’s a book about digressions, and character dialogues, and debates about the proper way to approach the world. It’s about the strange things we observe when adults aren’t around, and the ways in which we sometimes feel that there must be more to the world than the everyday reality around us. And more than that, it’s about how we handle realizing that we don’t fit in anymore, and when we have to follow our own spirit.

It’s a wonderfully human novel, and although I commented that it feels quintessentially English (it’s very much a novel about restraint, shameful behavior, and proper manners, in some ways), it resonates far beyond its story and setting, touching on great and rich themes all while never betraying its fantasy setting. You could easily argue that the book is basically using its fantasy world as an allegory, and while that’s not necessarily a false claim, it also overlooks just how rich and detailed the world is, and how committed it is to that world. The brief glimpses of the fairy worlds, for instance, are genuinely strange and odd, and they feel like something truly foreign to us, in a way that doesn’t rely on symbolism or Big Themes. (It captures that sense of the strangeness of magic that Neil Gaiman so often relies upon; it’s really no wonder that he loves this book so much.)

It’s a quiet little piece of fantasy, but it’s no less wonderful for its simplicity and beauty, and it’s not hard to feel that it’s been unjustly forgotten. Lud-in-the-Mist feels utterly unique and timeless, and I mean that in the best way; it’s a window into another world that still feels as relevant today as it did 100 years ago, and still feels fresh, engaging, funny, beautiful, and rich, even with 100 years of imitators who could have come after (but don’t seem to have done so). If you’re a fan of Gaiman or Clarke, this is an essential read, plain and simple; if you’re a fan of true fantasy – and not just the epic kind – you might find something wholly new and remarkable here. But one way or the other, it’s a book that deserves to be embraced and more fully recognized as the beautiful work that it is.

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