It’s hard not to look at the future and see only arid, lifeless deserts and murderous biker gangs. If grim stories of the apocalypse have taught us anything, living through nuclear winter and/or the energy crisis only to be faced with underground pig farming or caged death matches seems to be fairly inevitable. Is there any way to avoid the maniacal violence and swine labor? Sure, maybe the polar ice caps will melt and people be mutated into fish men instead, or destiny will doom you to walking down an interminable road with some kid, not talking and being excited by any food that isn’t human, but I doubt it.
Regardless, it’s going to be rough out there. How did it come to this? It all seems to happen so quickly in the movies, the fall of mankind, but those people who have to make the actual transition from bad to hell-on-earth worse are rarely portrayed – what of them? The ones who, while clutching the last scraps of their moral codes, must somehow psychologically come to terms with the changes brought on by the end of everything they thought to be right and just? The process must be painful, filled with messy conflict both outside and in. So how are you going to handle your entire family being killed and everything you cared about turning to dust? Be sad? Try to retain some small part of your former civilized self? Are you going to cry? If you said yes to any of those things, cinema history of the future tells me you’re already dead. No, the only way to survive a situation like this is to become angry. Or better yet, get mad.
Yes, The Road Warrior may be the best and most iconic, and yes, Beyond Thunderdome may be the weirdest, and yes, Fury Road may be the most intense. Before any of those classics, however, there was the low-budget story of why an otherwise perfectly sane Australian Main Force Patrolman named Max Rockatansky eventually became Mad Max. Taken as a whole, these movies form a franchise of dystopia that is unrivaled, but it’s the sequels that seem to get most of the play time – not the one that started it all. It’s easy to see why, with their imaginative, visually stunning takes on what life without society looks like. The Road Warrior especially has defined the look and feel of these types of films since its release, with scores of wannabes and copycats, but what these uncivilized films lack is what I find most fascinating about the original Mad Max: civilization.
What? You mean it’s not all about the speed of the car chases (exhilarating), the epic crashes (fantastic stunt work), or the badass hero (Max is as cool as ever)? Yes, those elements are all still great reasons to watch Mad Max, but in truth they can also be found in the other entries in the series. What makes the first so special is its glimpse into the final days of a society, the dissolution of the sociological glue that holds people together, which is something more haunting than the disastrous end results later shown. We all live and die under order and authority, blankets that keeps us sane and safe. Classic westerns (like The Searchers) have explored the effects of the untamed frontier on civilized man, his inability to cope with a lack of structure and rules he can’t understand, but the wild west doesn’t exist anymore. The world has been vastly explored, vastly populated, and vastly industrialized. Mad Max presents a new version of this old idea, with a new frontier emerging out of societal failure, and those yet clinging to their urbanity struggle to come to grips with the fall. They cannot see that in order to live in the wilderness, one must become wild.
Taking place at a time when there has been a massive energy crisis, Mad Max shows a world where institutions are only starting to break down. There are still cities, governments, laws, and police. Most people have not abandoned their jobs for pillaging and plundering (yet), but things are getting worse, day by day. As a result, motorcycle gangs have formed in the outlying parts, testing the reach of urban order. Thus, we have Max. The best officer on the force, Max is a man known not only for his impressive driving abilities, but also (and almost more importantly) his lack of fear. However, there’s a softer side to the hardened patrolman, brought out by his wife, Jessie, and his son, simply called Sprog (Australian for “squirt”). He has a cozy, modest home, and the moments we spend there are a stark contrast to those on the job, on the road. In their marriage bed, Max seems happy, content, at peace.
This is a part of the bleak future we rarely get to be a party to, where things might not really look so bad at the moment (though they are), but writer-director George Miller takes some time with it, establishing a Max that is beginning to break down from the violence and depravity he is a witness to every day, just like the society he inhabits. He doesn’t like what he is turning into, and so threatens to leave law enforcement altogether, no longer sure whether he can tame the predator inside. Max does his best to preserve his domestication, much like the world itself, afraid of what the alternative may cost him, but a wild heart still beats within his chest, too inherent to ignore. Eventually he is lured back to the road (to the disapproval of a spendthrift government lackey) with a bribe of independence in the form of automotive technology.
Cars are important in a world with a gasoline shortage. Those who have them are mobile, which equates to self-reliance. They can run in defense or pursue what they desire. They represent power, freedom, and a lifestyle open to possibility and excitement. This is an enormous temptation for the dual-natured Max, with the thrill of the chase competing against a potential stable serenity. The car (and the hunter) wins out, doing what an accompanying speech about the merits of society could not. It is here, when Max makes a conscious choice to partake in the increasing savagery of reality, that we know the apocalypse is truly upon us, and soon it will be every man for himself.
An attack upon his co-cop and best friend Goose ends up with Max and family taking a nice, long holiday, a last-ditch effort of refusal in accepting the inevitable. Yes, in this crumbling world, people still think they can go on vacation. The population buries their heads in the sand in a vain attempt to deny the world changing around them, and of course tragedy follows, as it must to those who resist adaptation – like a hero in refusal of the call. When the Evil Biker Gang takes out Max’s family, running them down in brutal fashion, the villains have birthed the new breed for this phase of humanity. Whatever is left in Max’s civilized heart dies along with his wife and son, and he turns into a merciless hunter, a body fueled on revenge, unclear and unconcerned as to what happens when his hunger for bloodlust dries up. He is now an animal, and can never go back.
Coincidentally, this is also when Max seems to fit in best into the story’s world, seems to exist in his most natural state. No more internal conflict, no longer torn between primal urge and societal responsibility, he is free to act on instinct, a regression that slaps all the restrictions and niceties humankind has achieved over the last several thousand years right in the face. The logic of his new “insanity” supersedes any of the arbitrary rules that some nameless, outside force can no longer enforce. Instead of futilely opposing the new reality, like so many others who will soon become mere prey, Max embraces what is happening, and though philosophical questions of the soul will be dealt with later, he ensures his own survival by choosing the winning side.
So, is Mad Max named such merely because he’s angry over the death of the only two people that gave him the possibility of happiness? It’s possible, in a superficial sense. But couldn’t it also have to do with the fall of western society and the important transition from hopeful dreamers to maniacal race car murderers we all must mentally make in order to survive the lack of civilization in the outback of the apocalypse? I like to think so. Regardless, Mad Max stands out in the genre, an outstanding take on the dystopian future, with a captivating look at the tattered remains of a world order taken for granted.
Oh, and it’s a pretty awesome action movie too.
Sam Mendes Creates a Rare Cinematic Experience with ‘1917’
War movies have been a constant trend in cinema since the beginning of film. From black and white propaganda pieces during World War I and II to grand, ultra-realistic, modern dramas like Saving Private Ryan, war films have intrigued filmmakers and audiences alike for over 100 years. There’s a long list of films that have succeeded in recreating the horrors of fighting on the frontlines while telling a captivating story of heroism. Telling an emotionally gripping tale combined with some visually stunning filmmaking, 1917 can now be added to that list, and is nothing short of an incredible achievement.
Directed and co-written by Sam Mendes, and starring Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay, 1917 tells the story of two British soldiers during World War I that are given orders to personally deliver a message to a battalion off in the far distance. The message: to call off an attack that will result in the death of thousands, including one of the soldier’s brothers, should they fail to make it in time. Early on the two soldiers walk swiftly through crowded trenches; one of them, dragging behind yells, “Shouldn’t we think about this?” The other doesn’t reply. There’s no time to think about it. He carries on forward without looking back. The two had just been given orders, and time is now their worst enemy.
It’s this sense of urgency and persistence that drives 1917. Every minute is critical, and every moment feels dire. The two soldiers constantly push forward despite the overwhelming odds, as the life of thousands are in the lone hands of these two young men. The threat of failure is real, and 1917 never allows the audience to forget that.
Chapman and MacKay give wonderfully human performances as the main protagonists, Lance Corporal Blake and Lance Corporal Schofield. The audience gets to know the two men through little bits of conversation amid all the tension of getting closer to enemy lines. Their deepest and darkest secrets are never revealed, yet their actions provide reasons to care about them. The two men have their differences, but it’s clear that they want to help each other see the mission to its end. Their loyalty to one another and to the mission relentlessly drives them forward, and ultimately makes it easy for the audience to hope these characters succeed.
What really sets 1917 apart from other war epics is the masterful directing by Sam Mendes. The film creates the illusion throughout that the audience is watching a single continuous shot. From the first shot until the last, the focus never strays from its protagonists, allowing the audience to experience every step as it’s taken. Aside from the characters moving into a dark trench or behind a tall structure, it can be really tough to tell just how long each take is; where the director says “action” and “cut” is blurred to a point of fascination here, and though audiences have seen prolonged shots of war in past films, this is on another level. Combined with some brilliant pacing and jaw-dropping action sequences, 1917 never loses grip of its audience, as everything is seen without pause.
It’s also worth noting that every shot is elevated by a phenomenal score by Thomas Newman (who has worked with Mendes before on Skyfall). It seems that the goal here was not only to increase the intensity and drama of each scene, but also to allow the audience to feel exactly what the characters are feeling at all times. Whether the soldiers are walking through crowded trenches, cautiously cornering buildings, or taking a brief moment to catch their breath, every bit of what they’re feeling and just how their fast their hearts are pumping is translated. The music always feels natural, even in its most dramatic moments, and it deserves high praise for complimenting Mendes’ story so well.
1917 is one of the most unique movie-going experiences in recent memory. It takes the war movie genre and does something no one has ever seen before, which is extremely difficult with so many memorable war films in cinematic history. With 1917 Sam Mendes has created an unforgettable experience that needs to be seen on the biggest screen, and it deserves to be ranked among the greatest war films of all time.
With ‘Road to Perdition,’ Sam Mendes showed another side of Tom Hanks
In his long, distinguished career, one thing Tom Hanks hasn’t done a lot of on screen is dispassionately shoot people. Sure, in Bonfire of the Vanities he hit a kid with his car, and in Cloud Atlas he threw someone off the roof of the building. And yes, he played a soldier in both Saving Private Ryan and the Vietnam part of Forrest Gump, and there was a third-act gunfight in his 1989 cop/dog comedy Turner & Hooch. But the one and only time Hanks has played a full-on murderer was in Road to Perdition, director Sam Mendes’ 2002 meditation on fathers, sons, crime, and the legacies of violence.
Naturally, Hanks being Hanks, Mendes’ film positions his Michael Sullivan not as an irredeemable monster, but rather a humanized character who may not be beyond redemption (the film’s poster tagline was “Pray for Michael Sullivan.”)
Set in the 1930s and adapted from a first-rate screenplay by David Self, Road to Perdition tells the story of Sullivan, a mob enforcer in Rock Island, Ill., who works for local crime boss Rooney (Paul Newman), the man who raised him. Frequently dispatched to bump off Rooney’s rivals, Michael is committed to not allow his young son, Michael Jr. (future Arrowverse actor Tyler Hoechlin), to go down the same path in life he did.
When the young Michael witnesses his father committing a murder, it leads to a chain of tragic events that has the two Michaels on the road to Chicago to make a deal with Al Capone’s crew (in the person of his henchman, played in one scene by Stanley Tucci), and eventually on the run from a rival hitman (Jude Law.) Meanwhile, Rooney’s jealous son, Connor (a pre-Bond Daniel Craig), schemes against him.
Road to Perdition attaches a violent crime plot to considerations of sin and specific references to Catholicism, which is something that directors from Martin Scorsese to Abel Ferrera have done for decades. But Mendes’ film finds a new way to tell that particular story by focusing it on the gangster’s young son.
Road to Perdition, which came out in the summer of 2003, was Mendes’ second film, and his first after 1999’s Best Picture-winning American Beauty. It’s the better film, thanks to a strong script and the work of a great cast, but more than that, it’s absolutely visually stunning in a counter-intuitive 1:33 to 1 aspect ratio. The film’s final sequences, of both the rain-drenched gunfight and the denouement on the beach, are among the most beautiful cinema of the 2000s.
The film won the Best Cinematography Oscar for Conrad L. Hall, the third of his career, although sadly Hall passed away before the Oscar was awarded; it was accepted on his behalf by his son, Conrad W. Hall. Hall’s Oscar was the only one the film won after it was nominated for six, although not including Best Picture or Best Actor.
Road to Perdition came at the front end of Hanks’ nearly 20-year Oscar nomination drought, between Cast Away and this year’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor. But Road to Perdition is an underrated Hanks performance. Even beyond all the murder, it’s very understated, and much more strong/silent than is typical of Hanks’ work. He also wears a hat most of the time, which Hanks doesn’t often do.
Paul Newman was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for what would be his final on-screen role, although his voice continued to be used in Pixar’s Cars movies, even after his death. As for Daniel Craig as Connor, he’s playing a character who in today’s parlance would be called a “failson,” and it’s a role that he undoubtedly has been too big a star for just a few years later.
Sam Mendes has had something of an uneven career. His first film, American Beauty, won Best Picture, but its reputation has somewhat suffered over time for reasons fair and unfair. He’s directed great James Bond movies (Skyfall), and not-so-great ones (Spectre.) He’s made small films that were decent (Away We Go) and big ones that were disastrous (Revolutionary Road). But while he’s getting some of his best attention for 1917, which has emerged as an Oscar frontrunner, Road to Perdition stands as his most complete and satisfying work.
‘Color Out of Space’ is Pure Cosmic Horror
Festival de Nouveau Cinema 2019
Color Out of Space stands out as one the best direct adaptations of Lovecraft’s work.
Even before a meteor streaks out of the sky, Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space firmly establishes an atmosphere of alien, otherworldly dread. Opening on a fog-shrouded forest dripping with foreboding atmosphere, Stanley evokes the spirit of the controversial author in a way few filmmakers have, and the use of direct quotes from the short story further cements this as a love-letter to Lovecraft and his work. But Color isn’t just a slavish ode to the influential writer and his cosmic horror creations; the South African director also injects just enough of himself into the film to create something that builds upon the core of Lovecraft’s story, maintaining that kernel of pulp horror while introducing elements that feel wholly personal to the filmmaker. For this and many other reasons, Color Out of Space stands out as one the best direct adaptations of Lovecraft’s work, and one of the most engrossing genre movies this year.
The film by and large maintains the narrative core of the original, recombining elements to suit the change in medium, but staying quite faithful otherwise. Nic Cage stars as Nathan Gardner, who has moved his wife and two children to a secluded country home to get away from urban life. The Gardner family’s pastoral bliss is interrupted by a meteor that strikes their farm in the dead of night, and both their home and their very bodies begin to change soon after.
Unsurprisingly for a film with the hands of Lovecraft, Stanley, and Cage on the wheel, Color is often quite a strange experience, rife with disparate influences and odd touches. Nathan’s daughter, Lavinia, is a practicing witch, which is a story element that could only have come from Stanley, a magician himself. The Gardner family are also trying their hand at Alpaca farming — a bewildering plot element that feels like it could have been one of Cage’s notoriously eccentric fancies, right down to the brief lesson in Alpaca milking. Of course, Lovecraft’s passion for unknowable cosmic terrors is draped over all of this. There’s a wonderful atmosphere of dread and the unknown, about as pure an expression of Lovecraft as one could hope for in a contemporary setting. You’d think it would all make for a disjointed mishmash, but it all gels quite nicely, with the quirky family coming off as endearing more often than not.
Color Out of Space is one of the most engrossing genre movies this year.
There are a few distracting, odd moments, like Lavinia’s turn to self-scarring in a desperate ritual to avert disaster. It largely isn’t commented on, and her sudden appearance with arcane runes carved into her flesh doesn’t end up feeling like the important story or character beat it probably should have. Likewise, Cage’s performance is on the eccentric side, with odd mannerisms and a truly strange accent taking over as the Gardner patriarch begins to go off the deep end. But then, that’s half the fun when it’s Cage we’re talking about.
Like so much of Lovecraft’s work, Color Out of Space deals with the intrusion of the unknowable and alien into the mundane waking world. While other works have had this manifest in the form of eldritch space gods or croaking fish-people, Color instead uses an alien environment as the intruder. While Stanley clearly isn’t working with a massive budget, this idea is still used to create some stunning environments as the Gardner farm’s transformation progresses, with the climax offering some of the most engaging visuals in recent memory. There’s also some truly unsettling body horror, more gruesome and explicit than anything from the story, but an organic fit for the material. Color Out of Space is Stanley’s first feature-length fiction film in around fifteen years, and by all indications, he hasn’t lost his edge. For both fans of Lovecraft and the director’s own works, there’s much to see and love here. The visuals are breathtaking, the atmosphere sumptuous, and it’s Lovecraft to the core with just enough original madness thrown in.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on October 14, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Festival du Nouveau Cinema.
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