Mad Max: Fury Road

mad max fury road poster

As a huge fan of the Mad Max movies, I had low expectations for Fury Road. It had been talked about for so long, and went through many iterations- or at least, the Internet rumor mill did. It was going to be all CG, like the Happy Feet movies! (also directed by George Miller). Mel Gibson would return! Or worse, it would take all the worst parts of Thunderdome and run with it.

Well, George Miller and company made a movie, that for pure action enjoyment, blows all the other three Max movies away. Now, The Road Warrior will always be my favorite. (I reviewed Mad Max, Road Warrior, and Thunderdome here). I saw Mad Max 2 when I was twelve, and it scarred by brain. Any car chase I write is inspired by its insanity. But side to side, there is no comparison. The stunts are bigger, the chase neverending, and the world of the film is immense. Road Warrior felt like one settlement was all that remained. Fury Road gives us a bleak continent.

The story kicks off with Max captured by the war boys of the Citadel, a water station run by Immortan Joe, whose young killers worship him like a god. He’s built a new mythology out of metal album covers and when his lieutenant Imperator Furiosa (Cherlize Theron) goes rogue, with Max along for the ride, the movie is a two hour balls-out car chase of war rigs, Big Daddy Roth monster hot rods on monster truck and battle tank frames, and hornet’s nests of nomadic bikers. The world, and the characters, are painted in such detail that the lack of exposition is no matter. This is a tapestry, not a history book. My favorite characters were a band of woman on motorcycles with rifles, young and old, survivors who fight like the Night Witches of World War II.

vuvalini mad max

Tom Hardy makes a fine Mad Max. He’s a favorite actor of mine, daring, a fiery star of emotion, who’s played iconic British gangsters and violent men with incredible power. Here he wavers between ice cold killer and leather-clad Buster Keaton on an out of control murder convoy. The movie is equally his and Theron’s; as always, we get very little backstory on Max. If you want backstory, watch the other movies! Theron’s Furiosa is equally cryptic, and they make a brutal team of reluctant equals. The movie is relentless, but I’d watch it if it were twice as long. I’d watch a prequel about the bad-ass biker women. I’d watch another movie with Furiosa and Max. I’d watch George Miller set a bag of dog crap on fire and ring Hollywood’s doorbell, because he made a better action movie than the Marvel toy-selling machine and the DC grit-shit-show has been doing for the last decade.

Unshackle your imagination with bolt cutters and burn out on a fury road…

mad-max-fury-road-ReviewI wasn’t going to mention it, but some “man website” was trying to make manly real man-men boycott the movie because it’s “feminist” or whatever. The movie has bad-ass women in being bad-ass, and it made their peepees feel small. I don’t take “the manosphere” seriously (how can you, with a name like that?) but I found this takedown site hilarious. We Hunted The Mammoth takes down the boycotters’ whining here.

Belly up to the Bar with Andrew Nette

Andrew Nette is one of the founders and editors of Crime Factory, and the author of Ghost Money, a gritty crime novel set in Cambodia and published by Snubnose Press. His fiction has also appeared in Noir Nation and Phnom Penh Noir. Welcome Andrew to Tommy’s Tub, where we serve up the suds… 

TP: Welcome to Belly up to the Bar, Andrew. What are you drinking?
AN: It’s hot in Melbourne today, so I’ll have a Pacifico and a tequila chaser.
TP: I looked forward to meeting you in New York before NoirCon, but Hurricane Sandy put the kibosh on that. The City has inspired plenty of writers, and many readers who never visit love to read about it, to tour it vicariously. You chose Cambodia as the setting for your first novel. Have you lived there, and what makes you passionate about it?

AN: Yes, I glanced at some pictures on Facebook today of people yukking it at Noir Con and saying what a good time they had and I’m deeply jealous. Now I’m thinking of hitting the northeast of the US in the first half of the year now.

I started writing the book that eventually became Ghost Money in 1996 when I worked for several months in Cambodia as a wire service journalist.

I’d first travelled to Cambodia in 1992. It was a desperately poor and traumatised country. The Khmer Rouge, responsible for the deaths by starvation and torture of approximately 1.7 million Cambodians during their rule in the seventies, were still fighting from heavily fortified jungle bases. The government was an unstable coalition of two parties who’d been at each other’s throats for the better part of a decade and whose main interests were settling historical scores and making money.

Phnom Penh, the crumbling capital of the former French colony, was crawling with foreigners; peacekeepers sent by the West and its allies to enforce peace between the various factions, and their entourage of drop outs, hustlers, pimps, spies, do-gooders and journalists. The streets teemed with Cambodian men in military fatigues missing legs and arms, victims of the landmines strewn across the country. There was no power most of the time. The possible return of the Khmer Rouge caste a shadow over everything.

Cambodia fascinated me from the moment I first arrived. The people, the contrast between the anything goes, Wild West atmosphere of Phnom Penh and the hardscrabble but incredibly beautiful countryside.

History oozed from the cracks in the French colonial architecture and protruded from the rich red earth, sometimes quite literally in the case of the mass graves that litter the countryside. Things happened every day – terrible events and acts of heart breaking generosity you couldn’t make up if you tried.

I always thought Cambodia would be a good setting for a crime story. But I also wanted to capture some of the country’s tragic history, the sense of a nation in transition.

I was too caught up in the day to day reporting of events and trying to make a living as a freelance journalist to put much of a dent in the book. That didn’t come until nearly a decade later, when one day I sat down and started reading through some old notes.

TP: My dream is to travel as widely as Lawrence Block, probably my favorite New York writer. He’s been all over. He was in Japan, and missed the storm, in fact. I know from your blog Pulp Curry that you love the old stuff, but who are your favorite living writers, and why?

AN: Well, a number of your countrymen and women make the list. James Ellroy, because his LA quartet blasted a huge hole in crime fiction that a lot of others were able climb through and do interesting stuff.

I’ve loved everything Megan Abbott has ever written. An enormously talented woman and a master of allowing class, sex and social observation to collide in a way that does not take away from the precision of her plot and characters.

I’m a big fan of Martin Limon’s books featuring Sueno and Bacom, officers in the Criminal Intelligence Division of the US military based in South Korea. They are among the small but growing number of good, hardboiled/noir books set in Asia.

Donald Ray Pollock’s The Devil All the Time is a work of genius. I read it in January this year, and it’s still my best book for 2012. Rural noir with major kick, but no matter how sexually and physically deranged things get, Pollock avoids the temptation to play the story for cheap thrills. There is real humanity in these stories, even the most wretched of his characters struggle for meaning. Can’t wait to see what he does next.

In terms of non-US writers, let me see. UK author David Peace is up there for his quartet, Nineteen Seventy Four, Nineteen Seventy Seven, Nineteen Eighty and Nineteen Eighty Three. It is possibly the best crime series I’ve read. His depiction of northern England is incredible. And, unlike Ellroy, many aspects of what Peace writes about are familiar to me because of the cultural transference that took place from the UK to Australia.

I’d like to be able to list a lot more Australian writers as being major influences, but the crime scene here can be a bit pedestrian, partly, I suspect because we are so small (numerically not in terms of land mass). Garry Disher, who writes the Wyatt books, is a great writer and a great guy. The Cliff Hardy books by Sydney writer Peter Corris, have to get a mention, especially the earlier ones, for their depiction of class in eighties Australia. Western Australian writer, David Whish Wilson is also terrific. His debut crime novel, Line of Sight, is the best piece of crime fiction written here in years, an incredibly evocative depiction of Perth in the seventies as well as a great study of organized crime and corruption.

TP: I appreciate your rigor with research. I try to do the same. While not all stories require it, I think the attention to detail allows you to paint a picture with a few strokes and not set off the reader’s bullshit detector. Ellroy and Abbott are two of my favorites as well. They’re like archaeologists unearthing the history of human weakness. What do you strive for in your own fiction?

AN: I think I am still trying to figure that out. Indeed, I suspect writing is a continuous and ever evolving act of try of trying to figure out what you want to do. For now, I’d say I’m striving for to entertain but also deliver grit, authenticity and, as I said above, a convincing sense of place and history, one that hopefully sheds some light on a few little looked in nooks and corners.

That’s why Abbott and Ellroy are so interesting. Ellroy’s books read like a parallel history of the second half of the 20th century in the US. Abbott’s work exposes alternative histories. My favourite of her books is The Song Is You, the story of Gil ‘Hop’ Hopkins, a movie studio publicity man/fixer/pimp whose life unravels when he is confronted with the consequences of a seemingly insignificant act one night. It’s a wonderful counter narrative to the myth of Hollywood.

TP: I’ve never been to Australia, but will be visiting soon enough. My wife has always wanted to tour the whole continent. When I think about pop culture that’s affected me, it always goes back to Australia. My favorite band? AC/DC, preferably the Bon Scott years. He had that outlaw edge, and that really influenced me. We spoke a bit about musical influences, I think they get overlooked with writers. Who doesn’t write with music playing these days? Who are your favorite bands, and do they influence your writing at all, in tone, subject or rhythm?

AN: Bon Scott’s time with ACDC is still incredibly influential in Australia. The way ACDC played, their incredible outlaw rock and roll life style, it contrasts so sharply with the sanitized mainstream rock scene today, it’s almost like they were from another planet. I remember very vividly watching TV with my parents in late seventies and witnessing their sense of shock when ACDC came on. They simply could not get why Angus would wear a school uniform when he played, in addition to so many other things about the band. Interestingly, there is very little writing, and certainly no crime writing, I’m aware of, that’s captured this.

I have to say, the only music I ever listen to when I write is jazz and only the jazz up until the late sixties, Davis, Coultrane, Mingus, Cannonball Adderley. I’ve never really thought about it, but if I had to answer why this is the case, I think it’s as much about the incredible sense of history I get from listening to jazz, as the music itself. History is very important to me and this is reflected in how I write. I don’t know whether my style hardboiled, noir, pulp, whatever those labels mean, but I always try and inject a sense of history, of paths taken and not taken, into my characters. It slows me down as a writer. I like to get the history right, but each to their own.

TP:  Movies are another influence. I’d be nowhere without Mad Max. Australia has a great film industry. You had a grindhouse era, but also haunting films like those of Peter Weir, and ones that are just plain fun like Starstruck, the new wave musical. Hell, I even liked Young Einstein, and I’ll admit it. You write about crime films on your blog as well. What are some that you think deserve to be better known?

AN: I think we used to have a great cinema scene, one that was not afraid to put out gutsy, capital ‘G’ genre films, like the ones you mention, that were either terrifying or funny. These days we still put out some great films, but are funding bodies are dominated by film academics, so preference seems to go to long, ponderous art house films, which usually seem to involve a torturous coming of age story in some dreary working class suburb or depressed rural town.

Related to this, we have a rich history of directors doing an incredibly kick arse genre movie as their first film, then going onto to make progressively more mainstream fare, usually overseas. Not that there’s anything wrong with mainstream, but it’s almost as though they are afraid to touch another local genre film once they get a hit under their belt.

Bruce Beresford’s first movie was Money Movers in 1979. I’d argue it’s one of the best heist movies around. Phillip Noyce’s first movie in 1982 was Heatwave, a terrific noir based on the real life murder of an anti-development campaigner in NSW in the seventies. More recently we’ve had Animal Kingdom, Red Hill and Snowtown, all terrific crime films by actors who are now going onto more mainstream fare.

In terms of other must see films. Anyone with a thing for rural noir should check out the 1971 film Wake in Fright, about a mild mannered teacher who gets stranded in a hard scrabble town in the middle of the Australian desert. One of the most overlooked Australian films in my view is The Cars That Ate Paris, a 1974 horror/comedy by Peter Weir. It’s about a rural town whose inhabitants make a living from causing car accidents and scavenging the remains, both materials and people. Weir also made an excellent film in 1977 called The Last Wave, about a Sydney lawyer whose life falls apart in steange ways after he becomes involved in defending an Aboriginal man accused of ritual murder. Last but not least, I would encourage people to check out the little known 1979 film, Thirst, a uniquely Australian take on a vampire film.

TP: I honestly think the latest generation of writers, especially plot-driven fiction, are as influenced by film as they are by books. Let’s go back to New York. I’m sorry you didn’t make it this time. New York is one of those cities that means a lot of things to different people. What were you looking forward to most?

AN: For me, New York summons up the ghosts of so many books and films, it’s hard to know where to start. 2012 has been a bastard of a year, the low light of which was my mother dying of cancer in January. It left me exhausted and, to be honest, what I was looking forward to most, aside from meeting you and a number of other writers, was a couple of weeks to myself to walk about a city I’ve heard so much about. Aside from attending Noir Con in Philadelphia, that’s really all I had planned. Like I said, next year.

TP: Going back to the Hurricane, folks in Coney Island are refusing to evacuate because of looting. Do you think people are generally good or bad, and either way, do you think the veneer of civilization make us more likely to behave badly when it is broken?

AN:I think we are both good and bad and I’m not sure it has much to do with our so-called level of development or economic advancement. I spent nearly seven years working as a journalist in Asia in the nineties, including in some of the poorest countries in the region. Obviously, I saw some dreadful things. I also witnessed and been on the receiving end personally of some incredible acts of generosity.

TP: Crime Factory just put out a Horror issue. I think both genres are similar in many ways. They can be a response to fear, and they can be cautionary tales. Are you a fan of horror fiction, and what do you make of the recent popularity of supernatural crime novels?

AN: I read recently that Western society’s interest in supernatural and the occult increases in times of great social dislocation and upheaval. Certainly, that makes sense if you think about the upsurge of films and books about the supernatural in the late sixties and early seventies.

I can’t stand a lot of the stuff that passes for horror these days. As far as the films go at least, there seems to be a hell of a lot of incredibly violent, gratuitous stuff around.

I am interested in some of the books and films that came out in the sixties and seventies, like The Mephisto Watlz, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and The Omen, Race with the Devil, The Wicker Man, to name just a few. Back then there was much more of a focus on the genuine weirdness and horror of the occult and the people who practiced it, rather than demons or whatever slashing up teenagers.

TP: I’m with you on the gratuitous horror. I think young men especially try to shock, to show we’re unafraid of flinching from the dark, but it gets tiresome. I call it squalor porn, and I agree that Mr. Pollock managed to evoke some sick individuals without crossing that line. He’s one of the best of the bunch. Frank Bill excels at it too, but he’s a lot more raw. You can shine a light on the depths of human depravity without drooling over it. If you’re just showing it to show it, it’s been done a thousand times before. Evil is banal, serial killers are boring once you catch them. They’re all the same, broken machines. People are interesting. The choices they make, and how they live with them.

I’m glad you gave us some Australian novelists to check out. I think with the shipment of criminals in the 18th and 19th centuries, people expect Australia to have a lot more crime fiction, about guys like Chopper Read. Does the outback give Australians the same sense of wild pioneer spirit that Americans get from the West, like you could run off and be an outlaw?

AN: I have to say I am not a fan of Chopper. He is basically a violent career criminal who has made a living writing books of questionable authenticity and accuracy about what he’s done. We are very into true crime in Australia at the moment and at the risk of annoying a lot of people, most of it is sensationalised crap. That’s not meant to sound squeamish, I just think the reality of Australia’s past is much more interesting than it is usually portrayed in the true crime books or shows in TV. Virtually the only exception I can think of now, is a series called Blue Murder, about a career criminal in Sydney called Neddy Smith and his relationship with a legendry hard man and cop, Roger Rogerson. It is the best true crime TV ever made in Australia.

Regarding how we view our outback, that’s a very interesting question and in answering it, I’m probably talking as much about my own feelings on the issue as I am trying to sum up any sort of consensus about what Australians think.

Most Australian, like me live on the coast. I think for a long time we were basically terrified of our interior, which is beautiful but also incredibly vast and inhospitable. Linked to with is the incredibly brutal nature of our establishment as a British colony that I think we are still a bit in denial about.

I mentioned Wake in Fright earlier. It’s a great example of the fear about the bush semi hard-wired into the psyche of most city dwelling Australians. The movie is also excellent but when it first showed in the late sixties, people walked out in disgust at its – very accurate – depiction drinking and male violence. Another movie that deals with our extreme ambivalence about the outback is Walkabout by Nicolas Roeg. It’s an incredibly haunting film about two children stranded in the outback. They are befriended and saved by a young Aboriginal boy but the two cultures simply cannot understand each other.

Improved transport and technology have broken down the remoteness of the outback and with it a lot of our fear. But what we have now is a sort of enforced bullshit nationalism that idealises the bush and our past relationship without, I think, really understanding it. We don’t really want to come to terms with things out our treatment of the original inhabitants, which was/is bloody shameful.

Interestingly the outback is now the scene of a huge mining boom. It’s provided a second chance for a lot of people. You can, literally head out there and make a fortune, which fits into the pioneer notion you talk about. The boom is delivering great prosperity but also damaging the environment and dislocating small rural towns.

So, in terms of how this has been reflected in crime fiction and film, the results have been pretty unsatisfactory. There have been a few road movies of varying quality. In terms of crime fiction, Auther Upfield wrote a series of great books in the sixties featuring a black police detective called Boney, which are worth reading. More recently, Adrian Hyland has penned two novels set in the outback and featuring an Aboriginal policewoman. I have to say I’ve not read either of them but they are supposed to be excellent. I am waiting for a really good crime novel to use the mining boom as a setting.

TP: One last question. What’s your death row meal?
AN: Anything Mexican.
TP: Thank you for coming by, Andrew. It was great having a drink with you. I hope we meet sometime, in New York or on your side of the world.
AN: Thanks for having me.

Skyfall – 50 years of Bond

My favorite Bond used to be Roger Moore, but I got better.

See, he was all I knew growing up in the ’80s. The first James Bond movie I remember seeing was For Your Eyes Only, which gave me an instant crush on Sheena Easton and a love of espionage thrillers, with a little goof thrown in. Not as ridiculous as Moonraker, but hardly the strongest of the Bond franchise. I have a bit of a soft spot for Live and Let Die, but most of the Moore films are pretty forgettable, except for the villains- Yaphet Kotto, Christopher Walken. Richard Kiel.

I read all the Ian Fleming novels and ran to Curry’s Home Video, our big video store, to rent all the Bond films. Love Connery, even Never Say Never Again, which showed he kicked Moore’s ass even when he was joking about his age by going to a spa retreat. I still think Goldfinger is the best of the Bond franchise, Craig included. And I like the Craig films a lot. From Russia with Love is probably second, I appreciate the roughness of Dr. No, Thunderball upped the game and You Only Live Twice gave us the hollowed out volcano lair full of ninja warriors that defines the supervillain archetype. Diamonds Are Forever was a good time to check out. I like some of it, but by that point we sat around waiting for the snappy one-liners, and that’s never a good thing.

Bond with a Holland & Holland style .500 Nitro Express Double Rifle – old school English cannon!

I liked Dalton and Brosnan, though both their runs ended silly, with Licence to Kill and Die Another Day crapping on the good they did with The Living Daylights and Goldeneye, respectively. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has found new love, and it is good compared to the silly Moore films, but it’s not very memorable to me.  Casino Royale was the best reboot of modern times- better than Batman Begins, in my book- and Quantum of Solace may not have been a great follow-up, but I enjoyed it.

Skyfall is a fitting denouement to Craig’s Bond. That’s assuming that Idris Elba is truly taking over the double-0 moniker, something I welcome fully. It was hilarious when fans choked with rage over a blond blue-eyed Bond, I can’t wait for the response to a black one. I mean, he’s not an American, so get over it. Bond is a British operative, and by this point we have to accept that he is not the same man in all the films, despite Skyfall’s one misstep- making James Bond the character’s real name, and not one he uses for missions.

She’s gorgeous, sharp, and dangerous.

Other than that- and a little flirtation with the excellent high tech espionage from The Bourne Ultimatum- they stay very true to what makes Bond Bond- a gritty, fatalistic sense of expendability, as a spy and operative who is supposed to be beyond top secret. He is a throwaway weapon, and they make that clear in the excellent opening scene where he is partnered with sexy sniper Eve (Naomie Harris).  The heart of the film is an attack on MI6 from multiple fronts, politics and terrorism. I liked grounding it in reality, especially after the recent scandals and dust-ups the superpowers have had with their intelligence divisions. Director Sam Mendes keeps the tension high, and the action scenes are easy to follow and still quite thrilling, whether it is hand to hand combat, gun battles, ambushes and car chases, military helicopters, trains and bulldozers and yes, komodo dragons. The exotic locales are Shanghai, the Middle East, Macau and the gorgeously bleak Scottish north.

Bond has become less a Lothario, and some have made complaint. There is the lethal Severine, played by French actress Berenice Marlohe, and a nameless beauty in Bond’s Mediterranean hideaway, but for me the sexual tension between him and Eve during one scene was enough to fuel the whole film. The film teases that we will be seeing more of her, and I hope we will. The Bond fan in me loved the final battle. We get a throwback that fits perfectly. Javier Bardem plays a Bond villain some will mock, but no one will forget. He is incredible, fierce and disturbing, as cunning as Heath Ledger’s Joker and just as memorable. I’ve heard nervous laughter about his homoerotic scene with Bond as his captive, and I had to laugh. Anyone forget Auric Goldfinger aiming a laser at Sean Connery’s lap-haggis?

No, Mr. Bond! I expect you to die. Le petit mort, you know. wink wink.

 I don’t think Skyfall needs defending. I admire that the target is Britain, and not “the world.” He’s a spy, not Superman. I liked seeing the internals of MI6, I loved Eve, and that everyone who works for the agency is effective… if not as effective as 007. Bond does not meet his female match, but Eve is not a damsel. M (Judi Dench) is a desk jockey. Bond is a killing machine, and they make it clear that he has the psychological problems that any trained killer experiences. It’s still a movie, but I like that our image of a hero now allows for a wounded warrior concept, that killing, even for good, takes a toll. And it’s not a job you want to sign up for. It’s one that finds you, because it’s something you can do and not lose it.

But enough heavy talk. This isn’t a silly Bond movie. It has some laughs and winks, but it is as gritty as the other Craig films and perhaps ends the trilogy, right where it should. This is a must-see for Bond fans of any era, and an excellent 50 year anniversary topper for the franchise. Some of my Twitter friends were disappointed, but I’m not sure what they were expecting. I was thrilled, I cheered several times, to my wife’s chagrin, and seeing it in IMAX was worth every penny, and every minute of waiting in line.

The film is confident enough to serve Bond a martini and have him say “perfect,” when it is shaken and not stirred. Have you ever seen a martini stirred? Having him say “shaken not stirred” is irrelevant, but the movie is not. Perhaps it has learned a bit from The Dark Knight and the Bourne films, but I think that makes it stronger. It didn’t top either of those films, but they’ve proven that the Bond films can remain relevant and true to their heart.

White Lightning … Gator McClusky for President?

Now I am not sure of where Gator stands on most of the issues. I think he’s a one issue voter. With that issue being “kill the sumbitch sheriff who murdered my brother.”

WHITE LIGHTNING is the story of a bootlegger named Gator McClusky doing time in prison for running booze. They won’t let him go to his brother’s funeral, but the Feds have an idea he was murdered by a crooked sheriff, played by Ned Beatty. So they let Gator out and give him a supercharged beast of a Ford LTD, a super sleeper that no one in the county can catch. His mission? Run booze! Run it better than the Sheriff, so they can catch him at it.

Actually the mission isn’t all that clear once Gator is out of prison. He visits friends and family, he taunts the Sheriff by racing around town, he makes a few moonshine runs. He strong-arms a mechanic into sabotaging a runner’s car so he can take over, he sleeps with his buddy’s girlfriend, he shoots up a few crooked lawmen and races all over creation. This was before Reynolds got huge and let his ego take over, and he plays a backwoods boy quite well. He’s a little rough around the edges, but he can charm the bloomers off a sweet county clerk. I had never seen this minor classic, but I remember watching Gator, the sequel, on Videodisc back in the day. Yep, my father had one of those. I bought an HD-DVD player, so choosing the losing medium must be in our blood.

White Lightning was a lot of fun. It’s not quite up there with VANISHING POINT and BULLITT for car movies, but Hal Needham did the stunts, and it makes for a nostalgic and enjoyable night’s viewing. I drank an Abita and remembered a simpler time, when a fast car, a quick wit and a whole lot of guts was all you needed to wipe the county clean of evil. Movies like this, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, and Mad Max certainly inspired me to write  Jay Desmarteaux.

White Lightning

The Dark Knight Rises

I was in a cranky mood when we went to see this. I was in Editing Mode. Is it a horrible movie? Hardly. Is it a great movie? Definitely not.

I think Christopher Nolan did great things with The Dark Knight. Even that one has some holes in it, but I can’t say I don’t enjoy watching it, again and again. It’s the Empire Strikes Back of the trilogy, and Rises … well, it’s not Return of the Jedi. It tries to go darker, and fails. But not without failing greatly, and giving us solid entertainment in the process.

What I liked/What I Didn’t:

Bane. Great villain, a big hulking menace for Batman to whale on. I really liked all the similarities to The Dark Knight Returns, the comic book that made me like Batman (and Year One, which Batman Begins cribbed heavily from). Topping the Joker may have been impossible, and Thomas Hardy- a great, rising actor- does the best he can with an idiotic mask that makes him look like Hannibal Lecter and sound like a kid talking through a paper towel tube. Hint: Darth Vader was INTELLIGIBLE. Bane needed subtitles. Coupled with “The Batman voice” by Christian Bale, the most important dialogue of the movie sounded like it was uttered while both men were trying to expel a twelve pound impacted fecolith. “Can I have a bat-lozenge?” Bane’s origin was interesting, and almost makes him a tragic antihero in the end, but his final scene is played for a very weak joke.

The parallels to current politics. TDK had the surveillance device that mimics Carnivore and Echelon (what the FBI is using to read this, right now) and Rises has The Dent (cough, PATRIOT) act, a heist on the Stock Exchange, and a Catwoman (never so named) who openly loathes and steals from the 1%. Anne Hathaway does a decent job, but lacked character development; the film suffers a bit from too many villains, including a surprise one in the third act. It’s not a perfect parallel, but it does make you think, something you rarely do in a comic book movie. The peace in Gotham is based on a lie, and this poisons the city. Sadly the villains reference the first film instead of TDK, for a couple of needless cameos; the poison lie of Harvey Dent is a brilliant bit of writing, but they don’t cultivate it. And finally, I found it very funny that a “failed energy project” was played as Wayne’s scandal, and I am glad that it doesn’t make sense now unless you followed politics very closely.

For the final act, the entire city is held hostage for three months. I couldn’t suspend disbelief for this one. The Joker’s plan in TDK lasted hours. Bane’s siege depends on Commissioner Gordon making a terrible tactical mistake, which I didn’t buy. I did like how it made Gotham into the crime-infested hellhole that opens Frank Miller’s 80’s-era “The Dark Knight Returns.” It seemed a bit forced, but the images Nolan gets to use to depict it are stunning. So I’ll forgive it. The music throughout the film is a sledgehammer to the heartstrings, and became incredibly annoying. THIS… IS.. EXCITING! DUN DUNT!  OOH ANGELIC SINGING! SOMEONE GONNA DIE! Yes, that bad…

The setup in the first act is excruciating. As a writer, I have never felt the pain of backstory and exposition inflicted on me in such a manner. And yet I forgot why Bruce Wayne has a limp (he jumped off a building with Two-Face, to save Gordon’s son).  If I watch this on cable and skip the beginning, I know I will like it a lot more. I can’t even remember how Bane was introduced. That’s not good.

Michael Caine has an early scene that makes you wish the movie was better. He’s utterly gripping in it. Once again, I never liked Christian Bale in this one except for the physicality. He looks like Batman, and he looks like he can pull off the stunts. But I never care about him, ever. He never looks haunted, just tired. He plays the Bruce Wayne playboy parts perfectly, but when he’s supposed to be the haunted orphan… I don’t buy it. Never did. But I still don’t want a reboot.

The ending was fantastic. The fight with Bane was pretty awful- two guys throwing haymakers and grunting and grimacing, when they are martial arts masters, and Bane was originally a wrestler- but they pull a decent switcheroo on you, and point the story to a definite ending, with not all loose ends tied neatly. And you know what must happen next. I look forward to that story, and I hope Nolan gets to tell it. If anyone can make the story of the Joseph Gordon Levitt character compelling, it would be him.

So it’s flawed, sort of like Spiderman 3, but not as weak. It reaches for the heavens and doesn’t make orbit, but it wasn’t a disappointment. I commiserate with Nolan- he has a lot to say in this one, and he manages to get it all in there, but in places, it is muddled and we nod along, waiting for the good stuff.

Worth seeing if you liked the other two. Bravo to Nolan for writing a story with an ENDING, something Hollywood and Television are loathe to do. Stories don’t really end, I know. But the interesting parts do. They end this where it should be ended, and open doors for other stories that I want to see.

3/5 bat-lozenges

American Me

I watched this excellent movie the other night. Released in 1992, starring Edward J. Olmos, it is a daring portrayal of the inception of the Mexican Mafia from prison gang to street presence.

The movie begins with the ’40s Zoot Suit Riots, which to put simply, began with wartime racial hysteria and a hatred between soldiers and zoot suiters who flouted the rationing laws by tailoring flashy suits. Montoya Santana is literally a child of the riots, conceived during them after his parents are beaten and savaged by soldiers on leave in Los Angeles. The brutal beatdown turns his father bitter, and this poisons Montoya’s childhood. He runs with friends in a makeshift gang, and after a failed rumble, he and his pal J.D. break into a shop to hide, and are wounded by the owner.

Sent to juvie, Montoya is raped by a bigger prisoner on his first night, in a painful to watch scene. He immediately avenges himself, gaining a twenty year adult sentence, and an iron clad rep that brings him followers, and cements his presence as a gang leader when he is transferred to Folsom. Between the Aryan Brotherhood and the Black Guerillas, he builds his own gang, the Mexican Mafia, to protect other Latinos at first, then it becomes a full fledged criminal enterprise.

When he is released, he is faced with a world that has changed. He’s never been with a girl. He’s never driven a car. When he meets a beautiful neighborhood woman named Esperanza, he feels as innocent as the boy he was before prison, and she falls in love with that side of him, unaware that he commands La Eme, the Mexican Mafia. The Italian mafia runs drugs in their community; he moves to take it over, and in a brilliant and shocking scene, Olmos juxtaposes Montoya’s love scene with Esperanza with the rape and murder of a mafia don’s son in prison.  Montoya has never made love to a woman, and once he is excited, he flips her over to take her like a jock would a prison punk, until she slaps and pushes him away.

It is very hard to watch, and three consultants to the film were later murdered for disrespecting the machismo and ethics of the Mexican Mafia, by contributing to this film. By not shying from the foundation of brutality that creates a man who can lead a murderous gang, Olmos does what Scorcese, David Chase, and other directors who’ve portrayed crime bosses were afraid to do. Show the monsters they really are, instead of feeding the glorification we give them.

While the movie gets confusing in the third act, it follows fact and makes Montoya almost a tragic and symbolic figure for the rebellion against hatred of his people. While he can never be called a hero, when thrown in the “animal factory” of prison he did what he needed to survive, protected his friends, and attempted to move from gangster to liberator, only to die before his redemption could begin. This is one of the best gang movies of the ’90s, and is still powerful today.


Mad Men – Far from Heaven, the series?

The highly anticipated return of the series Mad Men finally pulled me in- the show is set in the early 60’s in the legendary era of the martini lunch. Set in a high-power ad agency, it reminds me of the Billy Wilder classic The Apartment, with the subversiveness of Douglas Sirk, and 20/20 hindsight of Todd Haynes’s Far from Heaven. “Mad Men” was the self-imposed nickname that the Madison Avenue crew gave themselves, and they live up to the title.

Joan has wits to match.

The series concentrates on Donald Draper, a top ad executive working in New York City in the early 60’s. The show has gotten many accolades for its realism in recreating the look and feel of the era, from the skinny ties and slim suits to the well-coiffed women in office and home. Everyone smokes and drinks like mad, office liaisons are commonplace, every man is a cad with a piece on the side, and woman chafe at the societal boundaries that still corral them.

You’ve come a long way, baby.

Don is in his mid-30’s and has younger men nipping at his heels, but he is still the big dog; though he often lies tortured on the couch before getting a brainstorm that comes up with the perfect ad campaign. The ad industry was just on the cusp of using known psychological concepts to market products as a lifestyle, and Don rejects it, though when he comes up with concepts on his own, they are certainly crafted as if by a head shrinker; he just doesn’t link the two yet.

Peggy smiles like a shark.

What reminded me of the excellent Todd Haynes film Far From Heaven was not only the technicolor look of the show, but the update to Douglas Sirk’s brilliant subversiveness. In Sirk’s classics All That Heaven Allows, Rock Hudson is the artistic and freethinking bachelor who Jane Wyman falls in love with, to the disdain of society and even her own children; in his remake of Imitation of Life, two single women, one black and one white, meet and manage to succeed; the black woman’s daughter passes for white and is ashamed of her mother. He skirted what was considered acceptable and there was always the suggestion of things still labeled taboo; in Far From Heaven, Haynes goes that extra step and lets us see what Sirk might have done, unfettered.

Do I want a child? Oh, the irony.

In “Mad Men,” society still has taut reins of conformity around its neck, and we see even the paragon of 60’s manhood Don Draper (Jon Hamm) chomping at the bit, though he hides it quite well. The women are more fascinating than the men, in how they consolidate what little power is left to be had. Joan (Christina Hendricks) the office manager, a buxom redhead with wits to match her … wiles, is the de facto alpha female; Peggy (Elizabeth Moss), the newcomer in the first episode, has clawed her way into copywriting by the beginning of season two, after some trials and tribulations I’ll leave you to discover. The men have their own problems; they live hard and it affects their home life. Super-cad Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) doesn’t think he makes enough to support a child yet, and his new wife is tortured by the bouncing babies throughout their social circle.

“Mad Men” is able to show us a side of the mythical 50’s and 60’s that even Sirk couldn’t allude to, and it makes for riveting viewing. The first season is available On Demand with some cable providers (even in HD) and the show plays Sunday nights at 10pm EST for the DVR-deprived.