Mad Max: Fury Road

(Australia/USA 2015)

Mad Max: Fury Road is not a movie I would have bothered to see but for the fact that it was nominated for Best Picture. It’s a huge Hollywood blockbuster retooling of an earlier Hollywood blockbuster—totally not my thing.

Tom Hardy is Mad Max, and he’s taken captive by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his gang of warboys who look like an army of “Zero” era Billy Corgans. Max gets away and finds himself working with Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a rig driver liberating a gaggle of Joe’s “breeders”—young women he keeps for reproductive purposes. Loaded with fast cars, a badass woman, fox females, a rock band, and weapons, the first hour is nonstop noise and destruction. There’s some decent acting in the middle, but it doesn’t last. A final plan to take out Joe brings on another barrage of destruction.

Mad Max: Fury Road is exactly what it’s supposed to be: an action picture. The costumes and cars are imaginative even if derivative. John Seale’s cimenatography is snappy: he makes the desert look hot, colorful, and stunning with not all that much to work with. It’s easily the film’s most impressive element. Hardy is nice to look at, all rugged and filthy and with all his teeth (unlike many other characters). This is about all I can say that’s positive. Director George Miller’s cho-mo (my term for choppy motion) technique gives the film a cheesy, horror movie look. There are no big surprises here—we know how it ends.

Mad Max: Fury Road is an indulgent, guilty pleasure for those who dig this stuff. I’m just not one of them. Best Picture, my ass.

(ArcLight) D+

2001: A Space Odyssey

(USA/UK 1968)

I expected a long, slow, laborious, and arty history of mankind extending into the near future—well, near for the late Sixties but already a decade past now—set to Classical music, with lots of scenery from outer space and little or no plot. Think of an elaborate promotional video for space travel—that’s what I anticipated. Fortunately, Stanley Kubrick was more sophisticated than that.

2001: A Space Odyssey is a cool film. After a silly opening segment that involves a group of apes, a monolith, and the birth of tools, the story jumps ahead two million years or so to the 21st Century. In the second segment, Dr. Floyd (William Sylvester) shuts down colleages asking questions about a coverup on his way to a space station to investigate an artifact discovered in a pit: it’s a monolith just like the one that sent the aforementioned apes into a frenzy. A third—and the best—segment involves two astronauts (Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood) on a mission to Jupiter controlled by a computer named HAL. HAL is making mistakes, exhibiting jealousy and vindictiveness, and being generally creepy—a little too human. The final segment is a tripped out time warp for David, one of the aforementioned astronauts. And there’s that monolith again, this time inside a goofy Italian Renaissance inspired bedroom with a glowing dancefloor.

It’s total sci fi, but 2001: A Space Odyssey is clever in ways that allow it to transcend the genre. Kubrick’s vision of the future is not only elegant but remarkably smart and accurate. Humans are still human, but technology is everywhere. Despite the appearance of defunct companies like Pan Am and Howard Johnson’s, his characters use tablets, video conferencing, flat screen TVs, and plastic credit cards. There’s a coffee bar and acronyms for unidentified things called “ATM,” “COM,” and “HIB.” Furnishings and clothing look a little different in a realistic way. The story is open to many interpretations, none of which Kubrick ever debunked. He left a lot of fodder for discussion. I see why it’s on many “best of” lists.

I saw a restored version that included an overture and an intermission. The latter broke up what probably would’ve verged on too long for me.

In 1991, the United States Library of Congress deemed 2001: A Space Odyssey “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (

(Music Box) A

Music Box Theatre 70mm Festival

Bridge of Spies

(USA 2015)

I watched this movie twice because I wanted to make sure I wasn’t unduly harsh on it. I really hated it the first time I saw it, but I must confess that I was drunk and really didn’t pay attention to it. Upon my second (and sober) viewing, I’ve reconsidered my position.

Let’s get this out up front right away: I can’t stand Tom Hanks, and Steven Spielberg hasn’t grabbed me with anything since maybe Schindler’s List. Both have done interesting things in the past, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen either of them put out anything interesting (they’re so soft now). For the last 20 years, their work has been exactly what deters me from most mainstream Hollywood movies: formulaic feel-good stuff with a tidy ending.

Bridge of Spies is all of that. Based on true events, it’s actually two stories in one movie. During the Cold War era, Brooklyn insurance defense attorney (egads!) James Donovan (Hanks) is asked—no, coerced—by his boss (Alan Alda) to defend a Russian spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), in a pro bono criminal case. Donovan notices defects in the warrant that led to Abel’s arrest, but no one, including the judge (Dakin Matthews), wants to hear it. All hell breaks loose when Donovan goes full throttle on his defense—all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. He loses. Abel goes to jail.

Donovan is then asked by the CIA to negotiate a prisoner exchange of Abel for an American spy (Austin Stowell) captured by the Soviets. While in Berlin, Donovan learns of an American student (Will Rogers) held in East Germany. He unilaterally deals for the release of both Americans—much to the dismay of the CIA agents on the case.

Bridge of Spies might not be schmaltzy, but it’s got no edge to it: it’s a straightforward (though liberal with reality), standard-issue Law and Order type drama. The film is classified as a thriller, but it’s not really; it’s neither particularly intense nor suspenseful. It has its moments, and Rylance is easily the standout performance here. However, the pace is uneven and the story gets dull at points. Donovan’s need to do the right thing in the face of adversity drives the dramatic tension. His “argument” before the Supreme Court is an eyeroll-inducing pitch for an Oscar. Whatever. The ending is typical Spielberg. I didn’t love Bridge of Spies, but I’ve seen much worse.

Side note: I’m surprised to see the Coen brothers attached to this project; it’s not their speed.

(Home via iTunes) C

The Martian

(USA 2015)

Aside from Alien and Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s films don’t excite me. So, it should come as no surprise that The Martian didn’t do it for me, either. I didn’t hate it, but I definitely found it lacking. It aims for blockbuster status, which it achieved—good for it. Like far too many blockbusters, though, The Martian is an average Hollywood film at best.

Matt Damon stars as botanist/astronaut Mark Watney, a member of the Ares III mission to Mars. To Scott’s credit, he gets right down to business from the very first scene: while the crew is collecting soil samples, a violent dust storm kicks up out of nowhere and knocks down a sattellite (or something). Watney is struck with debris and pushed out of sight. His crew mates take him for dead. He’s not, we learn once the dust settles (no pun intended) and Ares has already left Mars.

Based on Andy Weir’s 2011 novel of the same name—which I didn’t read—the story seems to lend itself naturally to drama, suspense, and action. Somehow, The Martian is oddly low on all three until the last half hour or so. The story moves along and Watney faces his share of obstacles, none of which are a surprise. He approaches them all with a MacGyver-like ingenuity (duct tape literally does fix anything). I won’t ruin the ending, but all it got out of me was a shrug. Eh.

Mars to Houston: what is Kristen Wiig doing in this movie? I laud her efforts to expand her horizons, but she’s not there yet. She can’t do drama. She sticks out like a sixth finger.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, The Martian has its positive aspects. The shots on Mars (actually Jordan) are realistic and downright stunning. Damon is excellent: he single-handedly saves The Martian from slipping into a black hole. Good thing, because the success of the entire script rests on his shoulders. He gives Watney sympathy and relatability. I like his character. His constant talking to himself to act as narrator easily could have gone south fast but he makes it work almost unnoticeably. To lighten the tone, he adds a believable sense of humor that I didn’t expect considering the plot. I now understand the Golden Globe “best actor in a comedy” thing. The disco hits are a nice touch that effectively augments this subtle comic relief. Overall, though, I expected something a lot more interesting.

(ArcLight) C

The Revenant

(USA 2015)

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines revenant as “one that returns after death or a long absence.” Citing the Random House Dictionary, goes a step farther and calls it “a ghost.” The Revenant is certainly an appropriate title for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest film: its burly-man protagonist, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), literally comes back to life after a bear attack nearly kills him. His resurrection, however, is only the beginning of the story.

While hunting for pelts somewhere in the Northern Plains States, a crew of trappers is attacked by Native Americans. Most of the crew is killed—brutally—but a few survivors, including Glass and his half-native son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), escape on a boat. Glass knows the terrain better than anyone, and assumes the lead as the men abandon the boat and head back to camp on foot—an undertaking no one is thrilled about. Virulent crew member John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who was scalped by Indians in the past, goes along with the plan but proves to be an adversary of Glass and a general pain in the ass. After a grizzly bear mauls Glass and leaves him essentially paralyzed on a makeshift stretcher at the mercy of the crew, Fitzgerald volunteers to stay behind with Hawk and Bridger (Will Poulter)—quite literally a babe in the woods—and either bring Glass to camp or bury him when he dies. See where this is going?

Based on Michael Punke’s 2002 novel, The Revenant is billed as a ‘revenge’ story. While revenge definitely drives the drama, the story is really about survival. The Revenant poses the age-old but ever interesting existential question: how are humans any different from other animals? Civilization and savagery are depicted here, often as the same thing. Glass and his son represent a dichotomy, occupying a middle ground between the two. Glass even looks like an animal as he walks through the snowy wilderness, furs piled high on top of him, and fights his way through various attacks, including his own sickness. A band of French trappers are neither mannerly nor enlightened in their conduct. The camp certainly is no model of humanity.

While God comes up many times, I see God as beside the point here; He (or She) is presented as a by-product of something more basic. The analogies to God—a tree, a squirrel that is shot and eaten, and a bombed out church—do not convey a sense of permanency or power. The answer I got as to what differentiates humans from other animals is our concept of justice, or karma: we all get what’s coming to us in the end.

The Revenant is long, deliberately slow, extremely violent, and very gory. In fact, it plays out like a big budget, artfully done video game: we are right there with Glass as we move through treacherous terrain and sudden attacks from man, beast, and the elements alike. We gather items—a gun, a canteen, a horse—for whatever comes next. The sound of arrows whizzing by and bullets hitting bodies is loud and clear. A large part of understanding The Revenant, though, is in its brutality. DiCaprio is good, but I thought Hardy stole the show.

(ArcLight) B+

The Bicyle Thief [Ladri di biciclette]

(Italy 1948)

I didn’t expect much from a film approaching 70 years old, but I was wrong. So wrong. Deceptively simple, beautiful, and easy, The Bicycle Thief strikes a universal chord that resonates today as much as it must have when it was originally released. Bravo!

The plot is practically nothing: a down-and-out bricklayer (Lamberto Maggiorani) gets lucky and snags a job hanging posters advertising movies (Rita Hayworth, specifically) in Rome. He needs a bicycle to do the job, and his bike is stolen on his first day of work. The impact is devastating: he can’t do the job without a bike, which means his family goes hungry. So, he enlists his son (Enzo Staiola) and neighbors to track it down. His desperation is palpable, and it gets all the more intense with each unsuccessful attempt at finding his bike. A series of events leads him to the thief (Vittorio Antonucci), culminating in a confrontation that does not go as expected. There’s a moral to the story, and it hits hard.

I’m blown away by the psychology here: Vittorio de Sica’s statement on human nature is simple yet eloquent and totally spot on. The Bicycle Thief is a fine example of cinema, Italian or otherwise, at its best.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) A

We Are Twisted Fucking Sister

(USA 2016)

I liked two videos in 1984, but I can’t say I was ever a fan of Twisted Sister. I wrote them off as a low-talent, gimmicky flash in the pan. I had no idea that the story of their path to fame—told by band members past and present, managers, bar owners, record executives, and fans—is so interesting.

Inspired by of all performers David Bowie (I wonder what he would have thought of that), they started out in 1972 as a glam rock covers band on the New York and New Jersey bar scene—everywhere except Manhattan. I can see why: they’re a group of suburban guys, and Manhattan in the Seventies was not what it is today. A series of twists, turns, and personnel changes, including the addition of Dee Snyder (not an original member), evolved into the Twisted Sister we all know. They filled bigger venues and, after branching out into Manhattan, even sold out the Palladium—without airplay or even a record. With all signs pointing to greater things, however, they couldn’t snag a lasting recording contract to save their lives. The industry saw them as a joke.

Highlighting the struggles and bad luck that plagued their early years despite their success in a local market, director Andrew Horn stops at their breakout album, Stay Hungry. Snyder himself seems to concede without saying it that the band sold out. His candor, along with that of the rest of the band members, makes We Are Twisted Fucking Sister not just entertaining but insightful. It’s a bittersweet story well worth the arguably gratuitous two-hours plus it takes to see the whole thing, fan or not.

(Music Box) B—ing-sister–movies-125.php

Twisted Sister: The Movie


(USA 1958)

I’m probably in the minority when I say that I found Vertigo stupid. The story, complicated and intricate as it is, takes a long time to get going; once it does, it’s so fanciful that it’s not believable. The movie is longer than it needs to be. Plus, the ending—I can only assume it’s supposed to be dramatic and impactful—comes off as silly; in fact, Aaron and I turned to each other at the same time and rolled our eyes.

All of this said, it doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the film. I did, actually—very much. There’s a lot to like here.

James Stewart is Scottie Ferguson, a cop forced to sit on the sidelines after a bout with vertigo while chasing a criminal across a bunch of rooftops nearly kills him. A wealthy former classmate, Galvin Elster (Tom Helmore), seeks him out and convinces him to act as a personal investigator; it seems Galvin’s wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), is possessed by her dead Mexican grandmother. She’s hot (even if she’s not one bit Mexican), and Scottie falls for her. Hard. It’s not long before he’s personally involved, wandering through northern California in her car with her. She opens up to him, he takes the bait, and he loses her. Or so it appears.

Vertigo is certainly a beautiful looking film. The interior sets are gorgeous. The exterior shots of late 1950s San Francisco are stunning, and considering how the city would change a decade later makes them all the more precious. The wardrobe choices are classic yet snappy. The restored version I saw was crisp and vivd. An ominous yet mesmerizing score by Bernard Herrmann takes Vertigo to an even higher place—no pun intended.

Being an Alfred Hitchcock film, there’s more to Vertigo than meets the eye. Symbolism is all over: tunnels, flowers, birds, towers, stairs, heights, the color green. It’s not hard to find articles, scholarly and not, that analyze the many themes here: desire, death, reality, appearances, power, the past, the damsel in distress. All this aside, I can sum up the message I got out of Vertigo in five words: “don’t think with your dick.” The interactions between Scotty and both Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) and Madeleine are sexually charged and tinged with danger. Vertigo is hypnotic, mysterious, psychological, and suspenseful even if it’s not exactly what I would call a thriller.

It takes some work to get through, but Vertigo ultimately proves to be a treat despite its flaws. After almost 60 years, it’s still breathtaking and weird. It’s easy to see why at least one so-called authority named it “the greatest film of all time” ( Hitchcock influenced many, but Vertigo immediately called to my mind David Lynch; I see traces of it throughout his work, and its influence on him specifically is undeniable.

In 1989, the United States Library of Congress deemed Vertigo “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (

(Music Box) A-

Music Box Theatre 70mm Festival

Pretty in Pink

(USA 1986)

Being a full-fledged child of the Eighties—I entered the decade at 9 years old and came out of it at 19—John Hughes spoke to me. Naturally, his teen movies (before he started aiming for Millennials with drivel like Home Alone and Curly Sue) hold a special place in my heart. It seems strange then that even though I played the soundtrack so many times I had to replace it twice, I never saw Pretty in Pink from start to finish. So, when a theater near me screened it to commemorate the 30th anniversary, I thought, “fuckin’ A, why not?”

Andie Walsh (Molly Ringwald) is a poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Her mother abandoned her and her father (Harry Dean Stanton), who’s lost in sorrow because of it. Andie attends an apparently elite high school mainly for “richies”—poor girl slang for “rich kids.” Prom is looming, and no one has asked Andie, something she laments to her boss (Annie Potts) at the record store where she works. One of the aforementioned “richies”—Blane (Andrew McCarthy)—suddenly takes an interest in Andie, sparking jealousy and resistance from Duckie (John Cryer), Andie’s buddy since childhood, and Steff (James Spader), Blane’s best friend. Things get ugly when Blane asks Andie to be his date to the prom—uglier than that homemade dress she wears to it.

Hughes went for something a little more dramatic and maybe mature than what he had done up to this point. Nice try, but no cigar: Pretty in Pink doesn’t totally suck, but it’s not one of his better movies. The acting is good, particularly the scenes with Ringwald and Potts. However, the plot—poor girl meets rich boy—was a cliché even at the time. Hughes himself explored the idea of class and social hierarchy many times before in more interesting and thoughtful ways. The writing lacks the punch of, say, Sixteen Candles or The Breakfast Club. The characters, even Duckie, are colorful but hollow compared to other Hughes films. I found it hard to relate to any of them. Even the alternate ending—Andie ends up with Duckie—is no improvement.

Perhaps its worst flaw is that Pretty in Pink is not one bit fun—it lacks the wit that marks a John Hughes films from this period. The subject matter is heavy, and there’s too much going on that weighs down the story—the business, for example, with Andie’s missing mother and having to coach her father back into reality coupled with the hate she and Blane face from their respective friends give Pretty in Pink a dour vibe. There’s a palpable cynicism that doesn’t work because it comes off as bitter. On top of that, there’s far less comic relief from the sidelines—Potts does her job here, but Cryer is more annoying than funny. Sure, there are some nice moments and a few good lines, but that’s it. Hughes hadn’t lost his touch—Ferris Bueller’s Day Off came out later the same year—but Pretty in Pink is a drag.

All that said, no movie from the Eighties is complete without a soundtrack—and Pretty in Pink was a great one. When my music vocabulary was culled from pop radio and MTV, it introduced me to stuff I otherwise would have missed. I still listen to it today; in fact, I’m going to put it on now.

(AMC River East) C-

Little Miss Marker [The Girl in Pawn]

(USA 1934)

Poor Marthy “Marky” Jane (Shirley Temple)—she’s five years old and has no idea what she’s just gotten into. For what seemed a sure bet on a horse race, her father (Edward Earle) leaves her as collateral—a “marker”—with a group of gangsters. He loses his bet and doesn’t come back, leaving cute little Marky, who has a thing for King Arthur, in the hands of Sorrowful Jones (Adolphe Menjou), a bookie, who plans to drop her off at the nearest police station. When Marky serves as an unwitting vehicle to a scam involving the horse of ringleader Big Steve (Adolphe Menjou), Sorrowful has no choice but to keep her around. He enlists the assistance of fellow hoods Regret (Lynne Overman), Sore Toe (Warren Hymer), Benny (Sam Hardy), Canvas Back (John Kelly), and Big Steve’s girlfirend, sassy jazz singer Bangles Carson (Dorothy Dell), in caring for the girl.

Big shock: Marky grows on all of them, softening their hard, criminal hearts with her sweetness and light. Sorrowful reads Marky bedtime stories, pays for a new wardrobe for her that Bangles picks out, and even teaches her how to pray. Bangles sings a duet with Marky—a great number called “Laugh, You Son of a Gun”— and tucks her in at night. Sadly, their rough edges and shady ways soon rub off on Marky, turning her into a “bad girl.” How can they save her innocence?

Little Miss Marker was Temple’s first starring role in a major motion picture, and it was a hit. Despite its dips into heavy handed morality, it’s a cute story that kept me engaged. It’s gritty, bawdy, and maintains a kind of cynical comedy that ultimately pulls at the heartstrings. Translation: it gets sappy at the end. Little Miss Marker reflects its time: it feels like a Prohibition/Depression Era film, which it is (Prohibition ended the year before). Marky is an orphan in the big city, and she works her cuteness to get her from rags to comfort if not necessarily riches. The accents are affected in that overdone, early “talkies” way. Crime and sex are part of the story, and I had the fortune to see it as part of a lecture series during which it was pointed out that the film is rife with undertones of pedophilia. Um, hello: Temple runs around in tiny shorts that nearly expose her cooter, she climbs all over the men and talks to them in a weird manipulative way, and in one scene she coyly removes her underwear beneath a bathrobe in front of Sorrowful before slipping into his bed, leaving him to sleep alone on a chair—with a bad case of blue balls, no doubt. Creepy!

In 1998, the United States Library of Congress deemed Little Miss Marker “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (

(Gene Siskel Film Center) C+