by Bill Stamets

Dark Places: “our blood” and “a useful life” in true-like crime

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on August 9, 2015

Dark Places
written and directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner
acted by Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Corey Stoll, Christina Hendricks, Chloë Grace Moretz, Tye Sheridan
distributed by A24 and DirecTV

 

Charlize Theron (“Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Prometheus,” “Monster”) powers through another role as a damaged combatant. In “Dark Places” she plays Libby Day wrestling with a 28-year legacy of lies. She is dragged into digging up ugly truths about the murders of her mother and two sisters in their Kansas farm house.

Back in 1985 Libby testified that her older brother Ben did it, and he’s been in prison ever since. Tye Sheridan (“The Tree of Life,” “Joe,” “Mud”) plays Ben as a 16-year-old with Satanic metal band posters in his bedroom, and Corey Stoll (“Ant-Man,” “House of Cards”) plays middle-aged Ben as a prisoner with Shakespeare tattoos on his forearms.

Like “Gone Girl,” “Dark Places” is adapted from a novel by Chicago author Gillian Flynn, a one-time TV critic for Entertainment Weekly. Although I cannot compare novels I have not read, I can say “Dark Places” is almost as good as “Gone Girl.”

“I was eight the night they were killed,” narrates Libby, who was seven in the novel. “And suddenly I was famous. The little orphan girl of the Kansas Prairie Massacre. So strangers sent me money just enough for me to do nothing. Which is exactly what I did.” She neither wrote nor ever read “A Brand New Day,” a book about her trauma that no longer earns her royalties.

The film opens with Kill Club– a Kansas City gathering of true crime buffs– inviting Libby to make a paid appearance. Her contact there is the treasurer. He’s a local laundromat owner played by Nicholas Hoult (“Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Warm Bodies”). “Lyle Wirth looked like a serial killer, which probably meant he wasn’t one,” narrates Libby.

French writer-director Gilles Paquet-Brenner retraces themes found in “Sarah’s Key,” his historical mystery melodrama from 2011. Kristen Scott Thomas plays a journalist investigating a 1942 incident during the police round-up of Jews in Paris. Ten-year-old Sarah hides her little brother in a closet. He dies before she can escape a detention camp and unlock the closet. In “Dark Places” a more charged bond between a sister and a brother is uncovered decades after a tragedy.

Redundancy is a drawback in Paquet-Brenner’s screen adaptation. Perhaps Flynn’s prose is to blame. On the trail of her no-count drunk dad, Libby learns from the manager of a men’s shelter: “I’d bet anything he’s living at that toxic waste site, that’s an old dumping spot for grasshopper bait, loaded with arsenic.” Right afterwards, Libby narrates: “I wondered what it said about me, that my own father was living in a toxic waste dump.”

If the narrative is overly framed, the editing of diverse timelines puts each revelation into a sequence without off-the-shelf suspense. Thankfully, there’s no countdown over the three weeks before the Day case evidence is tossed due to budget cuts. But why does Libby need to tell others they have no idea what happened that night in 1985 and then not tell them what did? Her own father uses that line too.

Visually and tonally “Dark Places” is not too dark, but using different film styles for different perspectives on the past is unoriginal, especially for the first-person killer. A costuming faux pas is outfitting Theron with a dark green baseball cap that makes her look like a celeb hiding her fabulous face from the paparazzi. When she takes it off for a closing scene of trite closure, it’s just another overdone touch.

“Dark Places” works in the true crime genre on more than one level. Although the triple homicide, the conviction that was never appealed, a survivor’s book, and a club of crime-solvers are all made up, Paquet-Brenner’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel make compelling use of truly dark news from the 1980’s: foreclosed farms, serial killers, child molester charges, and teen satanists. The Day family deals with “the Day blood,” “our blood,” “my blood”– and how to make “a useful life” out of too many lies and too little money.

Why So Mad, Max? It’s Not the Oil.

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on May 19, 2015

Why So Mad, Max? It’s Not the Oil.

Mad Max: Fury Road
directed by George Miller
written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, Nico Lathouris
released by Warner Bros. Pictures/ Village Roadshow Pictures

by Bill Stamets

Two stoic strangers on the run from a post-apocalyptic tyrant seek “redemption”– one of the few words this hard body duo shares– in “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Max (Tom Hardy from “Locke, “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Bronson”) and Furiosa (Charlize Theron from “Prometheus,” “Aeon Flux,” “Monster”) flee shirtless shaved-head War Boys manning fiercely armed vehicles, bent on Valhalla. It’s a spectacular road saga with a tornadic maelstrom of lightning and red sand that evokes a DeMille epic.

Director George Miller continues the outback western series he and Doug Mitchell started with “Mad Max” in 1979. Miller set his looney debut: “A few years from now.” Mel Gibson plays a rural cop in a V8 Interceptor chasing a psycho biker.

Twentieth-century civilization is on the cusp of a steep descent. A sign on Highway 9 reads “Anarachie 3KM.” White lines still run down the middle of the road. Police radios work. Newscasts appear on TV. Max has a beachside home with electricity and running water.

After his wife and infant end up as roadkill, Max kills off the guilty motorcyclists like a down under Judge Dredd. “His only weapon”– growls the trailer– “600 horses of fuel-injected vengeance.” A very mad Max drives off into the end credits.

Gibson returns for more mayhem on rougher off-road terrain in the next two films. Six camels will replace the cylinders in his earlier muscle cars. In “Mad Max 2” (1981; with the subtitle “The Road Warrior” added for its U.S. release) and “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome” (1985) Max is still on the road to dystopia. Outlandish details increase as the standard of living drops. Cue longer chases in improv-welded vehicles more inventively weaponized. Max suffers some more. Does some good. Moves on alone. His sidekicks– a dog and a monkey– do not survive.

In the 1981 film Max helps a caravan of peaceable folk start their 2000-mile trek to a better, greener place they call Paradise. He drives a decoy tanker to divert marauders seeking a tank-load of gasoline. In the next film Max helps a tribe of orphans return to Sydney in semi-ruin. They light beacons in the “highscrapers” to bring others home.

A risky mission of mercy likewise drives “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Furiosa, who holds the Roman rank of Imperator, kicks off the main chase by steering her massive “2000 horsepower nitro-boosted” War Rig off course during a routine run to Gas Town. Her secret cargo is five wives of Immortan Joe (Keays-Byrne, who played the vile biker in the first film.) In tow is a trailer filled with 3,000 gallons of “guzzoline” (aka, “juice” in the 1981 film) to purchase safe passage through rival territory.

Immortan Joe is the demigod of the Citadel. Atop a butte (more like what geologists used to call a monadnock) he commands boys on jumbo treadmills to haul up water from an aquifer under the desert. The precious fluid is known as Aqua-cola. “Because he owns it, he owns all of us,” explains Furiosa.

He soon finds his live-in bank vault no longer holds his “prized” breeders. Furiosa freed them. Taunts painted on the wall include: “Our Babies Will Not Be Warlords” and “We’re Not Things.” Furiosa plans to drive the women to the Green Place and Land of Many Mothers where she was born. “My clan was Swaddledog,” she proclaims to the remnants of her people, a tough band of elderly women on motorcycles.

It was Immortan Joe who stole Furiosa and her late mother “7,000 days ago, plus the ones I don’t remember” by her count. That’s it for her backstory, except for an off-camera detail Theron says Miller passed along: Furiosa is “barren.” Sounds like she was originally enslaved for breeding. With the built-in affect of her name, this taciturn character embodies more fury than the entire cast of the “Fast & Furious” franchise.

Max is mad this time because in the opening scene some War Boys steal his wheels and boots, then hang him upside down shackled inside a cage. Intravenous tubing mainlines his “high octane crazy blood” into the veins of Nux (Nicholas Hoult.) Max is moved to the front of Nux’s war vehicle like a live hood ornament. The doomed War Boy and his attached O-Negative “blood bag” join the chase after Furiosa. “If I’m going to die, I am going to die historical on Fury Road,” rhapsodizes Nux.

A massive desert storm distance Nux and Max from an armada of Citadel pursuers. They regain consciousness near the War Rig. After a messy struggle with wonderfully engineered reversals, the two men cast their lot with Furiosa and the five women. Trust is in low supply, yet they must keep moving. Max and Furiosa both hate Immortan Joe to the bone.

Miller shifts gears for a you-can’t-go-home-again narrative. “Max is somebody who just wants to go home, but there is no home,” Hardy explains in the press notes. Furiosa finds her own home is no more. Maybe there’s a better place out there, across the uncharted Plains of Silence. She figures the women can haul enough gas to travel for 160 days, the script’s least sensible line.

Max parts ways, then circles back with a better plan. Their itinerary boomerangs. Since the Citadel is now undefended, let’s drive back the way we came, he urges. Make that home. Water– “a ridiculous amount of clear water”– draws the old women. And they like the prospect of kicking more ass.

Magnificent fiery chases ensue. One tyrannicide later, women literally and figuratively ascend to power at the Citadel. In the 1985 film women– Aunt Entity and Savannah Nix– lead two communities Max encounters. “I can’t help but be a feminist,” Miller tells Vanity Fair.

“I love action movies,” Miller admits to the Sydney Morning News. “I think for me that’s where film language basically evolved.” “Mad Max: Fury Road” is “a continuous chase,” the 70-year old director adds with no apology.

Miller’s elemental plot sets up intricate action sequences largely free of CGI-style implausibility. Thankfully absent are the default cheats of Hollywood chases and fights. Hardy, Theron and a legion of stunt players look like mortals taking uninsurable risks and flexing limbs that could break. Special effects amputate part of Theron’s arm. And yes, there are fireballs. I like how the crudely refined petrol burns an ugly deep red shade with foul black smoke.

“One of the most common uses of CG (computer generated imagery) in this movie was to change the color of the sky,” Miller told the press on a junket. Namibia is where he shot the chases, passing on deserts in Chile and China. New South Wales furnished locations for the 1979, 1981 and 1985 films.

Accents are the main cues that all four Max characters are driving in Australia. After revisiting the three earlier films and seeing the new one in its 2D and superior 3D versions, I do not recall hearing any country named. All the steering wheels are on the right side in the 1979 film. American International Pictures released it stateside dubbed with accents sounding less Aussie. Techno-devolution may account for the steering wheel of the War Rig changing to the left side by 2015.

Scarce as words are as the world goes downhill, Miller and co-writers Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris indulge in faux retro names for their characters. Who needs lines if your moniker is Capable, Rictus Erectus, or Toast the Knowing? A noun unknown to Nux is “tree” until he sees his first one in the Wasteland.

“Neo-medieval” is Miller’s label for the mise-en-scene of “Mad Max: Fury Road,” reports Bill Zwecker in the Chicago Sun-Times. Miller’s bravura detailing recalls the canvases of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. “Fascist feudalism” is how production designer Colin Gibson identifies the rigid regime of the Citadel.

“It’s 45 years after fall of the world,” state the press notes for “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Miller tells us nearly nothing about the past. “As the world fell, each of us in our own way was broken,” relates Max in his opening voiceover. Later he tells Furiosa, “If you can’t fix what’s broken, you’ll go insane.”

What broke the world? Other voices can be heard: “It’s the oil, stupid”…“Mankind has gone rogue, terrorizing itself”… “Our bone are poisoned.” The compass spins wildly in the Gigahorse monster truck driven by Immortan Joe.

A narrator other than Max opens Miller’s 1981 film with lore about “a firestorm of fear” that birthed “this wasted land.” Over a black-and-white montage of newsreel chaos intercut with decolorized clips from the 1979 film, he continues: “For reasons long forgotten, two mighty warrior tribes went to war, and touched off a blaze which engulfed them all. Without fuel they were nothing.”

“Mad Max” scenarios inform two studies by the United States Air Force: a 1994 exercise pondered “future space activity” in the year 2020; a 2009 “research report” looked ahead to 2080.

The military academics and their outside consultants variously imagined: “a devastating, earthquake in California decimated the US economy and led to mass internal migrations”; “Most critical will be the availability of fresh, uncontaminated water”; “A crisis in values may…occur in wealthy countries due to the rise in individualism caused by the immense access to information technology and the pursuit of happiness of the wealthy labor force.”

The Air Force may retrogress once aviation fuel runs out and need to deploy “solar-powered” dirigibles and gliders for surveillance and attack. “Oil is literally the lubricant and the fuel of the world‘s economic engine, when it depletes, the world economy will throw a rod,” argued one study.

“Who Killed the World?” That accusative scrawl left on the wall of Immortan Joe’s inner chamber is unanswered. Miller is more into Max’s psyche than the planet’s tilt. No Cassandra or Pandora, Miller instead name-drops a popularizer of world mythology who George Lucas often cites. ”When you read Joseph Campbell, you realize what he [Max] is: He’s a character who predates cinema and is almost in all folklore, the wanderer in the wasteland searching for meaning,” Miller tells USA Today.

Campbell took directions from The Decline of the West. He read Oswald Spengler’s two-volume tome seven times, confiding in a 1932 letter: “Spengler has become my major prophet.”

Miller takes a more parochial view than Spengler and the Air Force futurists. “In Australia we have a car culture the way Americans have a gun culture,” he told Starlog, The Magazine of the Future, in 1982. “The cult of the car. Violence by car.”

Rage on the road propels Miller’s films, not peak oil or carbon debt. “One fourth of motorcyclists have a Mad Max syndrome, characterized by an inability to stop physical and verbal aggression, anger and hostility,” reports the Polish Psychological Bulletin. A 2010 study tested 510 bikers for this “personality type” by using the Multifactor Risky Behavior Scale, Pavlovian Temperamental Scale, and the Unhealthy Behavior Inventory.

What makes Max so mad? Bad guys wrong him. Besides the lives of loved ones, they take his stuff. His ride, his boots, his coat, his blood, his freedom. That’s not right. So he makes it right. And will keep on doing it until all the gas is gone.