Saturday, May 23, 2015

Far from the Madding Crowd

There is an exhilaration to the beginning of Far from the Madding Crowd that’s best expressed in the eyes of the film’s star Carey Mulligan. Mulligan plays Bathsheba Everdene, who as we find her is working on the farm of her aunt in the bracing English countryside. Bathsheba is aware of her modest circumstances, but the physical labor of the farm and the freedom of riding a horse over the hills has given her a joy and an awareness of her own agency. My favorite moments in Far from the Madding Crowd, directed by Thomas Vinterberg from Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel, came in these early scenes. Carey Mulligan uses her natural expressiveness to great effect, as in the smile she gives as she walks away from her first meeting with neighboring farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts). Oak will be the first man to propose marriage to Bathsheba, but a reversal of fortune will soon change the way each thinks of the other.

As good as Carey Mulligan is as Bathsheba, the film around her can’t quite pull off being more than a pretty period piece. (The gorgeous cinematography is by Charlotte Bruus Christensen, who never over lights the numerous nighttime scenes.) The plot turns come heavy and swift, and the film at times feels rushed to a slightly ridiculous degree. When Bathsheba becomes attracted to the soldier Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge) her attraction comes almost as a surprise. Can the heady woman we’ve seen become a successful farmer - after an inheritance gives her property - really be won over by Troy’s swordplay?

It is worth mentioning that the 1967 film of Far from the Madding Crowd directed by John Schlesinger is almost an hour longer than the new adaptation, and Bathsheba’s seduction by Troy is one of a few places where I wanted Vinterberg to have let things breathe. The famous 1967 scene where Terence Stamp’s Troy dazzles Julie Christie’s Bathsheba with his swordsmanship is here shot with too many close ups and a lack of the tactile quality that’s one of the new film’s strengths. Vinterberg makes us believe working on a farm entails backbreaking labor, and he gets the feeling of night in the country or a coming storm just right. The sword scene is a busy moment in a too fast film, but at least there’s Carey Mulligan to set things right. Her stillness after receiving Bathsheba’s first kiss is a counterintuitive acting choice, but it only points out just how much of the character’s life is still unsettled.

If the men of Far from the Madding Crowd were more compelling then the film might have transcended the melodrama that the plot evokes. Schoenaerts is physically right for the role and appropriately stolid, but there’s not enough wit or anger in the character and the performance is finally too flat. Sturridge never seems like more than a brat, and there’s also Michael Sheen as a suitor who offers Bathsheba financial security. Sheen is good - his manic desire for Bathsheba is rather touching - but he is onscreen the least of the three men. For too much of the film it feels like Bathsheba is being thrown together with suitors instead of making choices, and that quality finally betrays Mulligan’s excellent performance. Still, Mulligan’s work is strong enough to reclaim Bathsheba as a pre-feminist heroine and to remind us that this choosy actress is one of our biggest screen talents.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

We do not, strictly speaking, need another Mad Max movie, but we have one and what a pleasure it is. Fury Road is a superb piece of work, both for the kinetic energy of its action sequences and for the way it serves as a corrective to years of dull, male-centered action blockbusters. Director George Miller’s vision of a post-civilized world seems to have deepened in the thirty years since the last film in the series. Where Mel Gibson’s Max lived in a world where oil was the most valuable commodity, here Max (Tom Hardy) hangs on as a haunted man in a blasted out world where (as the portentous opening voice over tells us) the only object is to survive.. The world of Fury Road is ruled by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a grotesque sort of human Jabba the Hutt who doles natural resources out to an increasingly desperate population. After Max is captured by Joe’s men the film proper begins with the introduction of Furiosa (Charlize Theron, giving the definitive female action badass perfomance). Furiosa’s job is to bring gasoline back from an outpost, but she decides to prick Joe in his one vulnerable spot by kidnapping the five young women who serve as Joe’s chance to conceive a male heir.

Furiosa wants to take the young women to “The Green Place”, where they will be out of Joe’s reach and have a chance to safely continue humanity. The bulk of Fury Road involves the women fleeing Joe’s army across barren landscape with Max along as an ally after escaping his duty as a “blood bag” to Joe’s man Nux (Nicholas Hoult). Max and Furiosa don’t say much to each other, but why should they have to? We never know how Max’s feels about Furiosa’s agenda but what unites them is the simple objective of survival. Someone looking for a flaw in Fury Road might say that Max isn’t a character as much as a symbol of an outmoded value system. Hardy might be a little too private school for the role, but he’s physically right and there’s so much else going on that it doesn’t matter. The vehicles that most of the film takes place in spin, and clang, and crash like real objects in space, and we’re always clear on where all the key players are in the frame. In the years since the last Mad Max film George Miller directed films like Babe and Happy Feet, but he seems to have lost none of his feel for action.

As much as the cinematic elements of Fury Road deserve celebration, the film is first and most surprisingly a story about What We Do to Women. The five young women under Furiosa’s protection are played by Zoe Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, and Courtney Eaton. Their names are worth listing because it’s important to know whose story Miller is telling. The film evokes a time when women were more than just baby machines, most notably with the introduction of a wonderful group of older women who join Max and Furiosa. (Melissa Jaffer is a standout as a sharpshooter) Anchoring it all is Charlize Theron, who has never been more of a physical presence than she is here and who has rarely been asked to keep such depth of emotion under the surface. Theron is without question the star of Fury Road and the last shot of the film suggests that her work isn’t finished. In its feminism and its stripping away of affectation, Fury Road is an action film for this moment to a shocking degree. In Charlize Theron, George Miller has found the right actor to make sure that the moment lives on.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Ex Machina

Ex Machina posits that a reclusive search-engine billionaire named Nathan (Oscar Isaac) has developed an artificially intelligent being named Ava (Alicia Vikander) in his home laboratory. Nathan brings Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) , a young programmer, to his estate for a week for the job of performing a "Turing test" on Ava. The test is meant to determine if Ava's intelligence is indistinguishable from that of a human, but Nathan throws in a few wrinkles. The test is conducted in a series of face to face conversations, and Ava herself turns out to be a bombshell whose component parts are visible unless masked by clothes. What's a lonely young programmer to do?

Alex Garland makes his directorial debut with Ex Machina, and the film puts humanity in peril much more subtly than Garland did in his scripts for Sunshine or 28 Days Later. The question of what it means to be human isn't exactly a new one, but what happens if humans fall in love with machines that are indistinguishable from people? Caleb is almost immediately smitten with Ava, whose one-room existence leaves lots of time for drawing pictures and causing the mysterious power outages that are the one blemish on life at Nathan's compound. Vikander gives Ava some fine, delicate shadings of curiosity and self-awareness, but if you begin to think that her personality seems to address Caleb's vulnerabilities a bit too perfectly then you may be onto something. The events that unfold over the week Caleb and Nathan spend together have a hidden purpose, one designed to find out just how much of a monster Nathan may have created.

The chilliness of Nathan's home and Ava's cell are cut against by Oscar Isaac, who gives Nathan the perfect degree of controlled megalomania. Isaac plays arrogance very well, he did it in Inside Llewyn Davis and here he underplays a messianic fervor regarding humanity's eventual replacement by A.I. Pay attention to the irritation Nathan shows when his silent housekeeper (Sonoya Mizuno) spills some wine, it's more than just embarrassment at a social faux pas. Isaac gives the film a needed jolt of energy, since Gleeson's character is required to project so much onto Ava that he ends up being a little blank. Though Caleb is very sweet when nervously chatting with Ava and smart enough to figure out Nathan's plans I didn't feel quite enough about the place he's in at the end, and that's probably the film's biggest flaw. Still, Alex Garland has a vision which he executes with superb control. The final uncomfortable shot of Ex Machina could serve as his depiction of the beginning of our end.