by Bill Stamets

“Dunkirk”: valorizing mechanics of suspenseful survival

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on July 31, 2017

“Dunkirk”

directed by Christopher Nolan
written by Christopher Nolan
produced by Emma Thomas and Christopher Nolan
acted by Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan
scored by Hans Zimmer
presented by Warner Bros. Pictures
running time: 107 minutes
rated PG-13 for intense war experience and some language
screening in 70mm at Music Box Theater, Chicago

 

“Dunkirk” is a war movie about an historic retreat that equivocates about English valor. Writer-director Christopher Nolan renders an epic maneuver by interpolating tales of soldiers, sailors, pilots and civilians. Set between May 26 and June 5, 1940, the panorama encompasses France and England, the sea between and the sky above.

England evacuated 338,226 troops from a French beach under German attack. Most of the British Expeditionary Force crossed the English Channel in 222 Royal Navy and 861 English civilian vessels. Joshua Levine, the film’s historical consultant, quotes 113 eye-witnesses in his 2010 book “Forgotten Voices of Dunkirk, in Association with Imperial War Museum.”

This masterful 107-minute narrative unfolds linearly, like every other piece of cinema ever projected on a celluloid strip or from a Digital Cinema Package. The distinctively edited “Dunkirk,” though, installs three distinct timelines, each with its own duration: one week, one day, one hour. Nested episodes overlap for novel continuity. Shuttling between the three strands is disconcerting only on cuts when the times of day do not match.

Nolan’s originality lies in narrative form. Machinery for concocting anomalies in chronology appears in the mise-en-scène of his films “Memento” (2000), “Inception” (2010) and “Interstellar” (2014). Their respective plots foreground technology: a Polaroid camera, a dream-sharing Portable Automated Somnacin IntraVenous device, and a gravitational lens intervening in spacetime via an Einstein-Rosen bridge.

In the tie-in book “Dunkirk: The History Behind the Major Motion Picture” Nolan tells Levine he shot “from the point of view of the pure mechanics of survival… We don’t deal with the politics of the situation.” Screen time for the German operation Case Red (Fall Rot) is limited to shooting and shelling by the Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe strafing and bombing. There’s no to-do about the design of “Dunkirk” other than onscreen titles introducing three time frames– “one week,” “one day,” “one hour”– during Operation Dynamo.

“To me, narrative is controlled release of information, and I don’t feel any obligation to make that release chronological,” Nolan told the Village Voice when he debuted his first feature in 1999. “Following” embedded “an ingenious structure that involves flashforwards and doubling back,” stated its press notes.

“Nolan’s now trademark twists and turns and disjointed approach to time’s linearity” is noted by one contributor to the 2015 book “The Cinema of Christopher Nolan: Imagining the Impossible.” Seven other writers there use the misnomer “non-linear” to describe Nolan’s style. That term comes from algebra. In the 1970s it was adopted to market film editing on video using meta-data and random-access. It’s trending among reviewers as if linearity is the default narrativity for the last millennium or longer.

The arc of “Dunkirk” is grounded in the historical record. But the viewing experience is anything but distant. Cameras attached to Spitfires catch tilted vistas during dogfights. Close-ups of his fuel level dial increase tension about the fate of Royal Air Force pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy, “Inception”). Hans Zimmer’s score ever ratchets upward through a jagged sawing of strings.

“We looked at a lot of suspense films,” Nolan told entertainment reporters. “I really wanted the film to be driven primarily through the mechanism of suspense, which I think is one of the most cinematic of film forms, the most pure cinema.” He mentioned “Wages of Fear” directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot in 1953. He disguised his screenplay by titling drafts “Bodega Bay” after the California locale of “The Birds,” Alfred Hitchcock’s 1953 thriller that climaxed with a fictive evacuation.

“I don’t see it as a war film,” Nolan tells Levine. “It’s a suspense film, but we try and push the visceral suspense as far as we can. So you get into the language of horror films, definitely… I didn’t look at too many war films. We looked at Spielberg’s `Saving Private Ryan,’ which was also instructive because it has a horror movie aesthetic.”

As for the Germans– and not just those helming U-boats– “It’s like the shark in `Jaws,’ maybe you see the fin but you don’t see the shark.” When cameras started rolling Warner Bros. Pictures slotted “Dunkirk” as an “Epic Action Thriller” in a May 26, 2016 press release.

Does Nolan’s 2017 big screen genre correspond to the 1940 wartime event? England grappled with Dunkirk, an exodus christened the “Miracle of Dunkirk” not long after a Day of National Prayer on May 26 in Westminster Abbey attended by the Archbishop of Canterbury, King George VI and prime minister Winston Churchill. “Wars are not won by evacuating,” Churchill told the House of Commons on June 4. “Dunkirk” survivors read his speech in newspapers the following day on the train from Dorset to London.

That same day Deutsche Diplomatisch-Polititische Korrespondenz informed the Berlin bureau chief of the New York Times that the prime minister’s speech, broadcast by BBC radio, was “a sober, unvarnished, manly confession of defeat.” An Associated Press dispatch from Paris called Dunkirk “a great retreat.” The Chicago Tribune called it “a defensive holocaust to meet the Nazi drive.”

“England’s rout at Dunkirk,” as Colliers magazine war correspondent Quentin Reynolds put it in his 1963 autobiography. “Only incredible courage, amazing luck, and unexpected German stupidity had saved the English army from complete annihilation,” he recollected in The Ottawa Journal on October 18, 1941.

Just days prior to the evacuation, on May 22, 1940, an Associated Press forecast: “The British expeditionary force, in peril of being pinned against the English channel, means to die where it stands rather than let the Germans occupy the coast where they could face an attack on the British Isles.”

“WE NEVER SURRENDER,” later thundered the all-caps headline in London’s Daily Mirror on June 5. Ninety-nine soldiers in the Royal Norfolk Regiment did surrender near Dunkirk on May 27. Waffen-SS troops then machine-gunned them at a farm house in Le Paradis. Two survived. Some 200 French West African soldiers in the vicinity were not even allowed to surrender. They were massacred at once. A German High Command communiqué claimed German forces captured 40,000 Allied troops left behind at Dunkirk.

“The emerging story of Dunkirk was being shaped to fit the sense of national self,” writes Levine in his 2017 book. Author J.B. Priestley mused on his weekly BBC radio broadcast of June 5, 1940: “The news of it came as a series of surprises and shocks, followed by equally astonishing new waves of hope. What strikes me about it is how typically English it is. Nothing, I feel, could be more English both in its beginning and its end, its folly and its grandeur… What began as a miserable blunder, a catalogue of misfortunes ended as an epic of gallantry. We have a queer habit– and you can see it running through our history– of conjuring up such transformations.”

“Dunkirk” too is transforming history. Nolan calls his serious entertainment “an intimate epic” about “communal heroism.” Yet valor is individualized, equivocally.

In the opening scene Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) makes his way through the deserted streets of Dunkirk. German propaganda flyers flutter down. They show a map and spell out: “You Are Surrounded!” Tommy filches a cigarette butt from an ashtray inside a window sill. Unseen Germans shoot down his five mates. He runs to an English emplacement then heads to the beach and beholds endless lines of soldiers waiting to board ships home.

Tommy helps a French soldier (Damien Bonnard) bury an English one in the sand. They exchange no words, as the latter puts on the uniform and boots of the dead man, identified by his dog tags as Gibson. Together they pick up a stretcher bearing a wounded English soldier and push their way ahead of able-bodied men to reach a hospital ship.

Nolan charts their mission with a revelatory chain of tracking shots. Left ambiguous are the young men’s motives: selfless aid to an abandoned comrade, selfish opportunism, or an impulsive tangle of both. Stretcher-bearers are turned away in one scene, though. “One stretcher takes the place of seven men,” bluntly states an officer counting evacuees.

Levine’s 2010 book quotes a few Dunkirk survivors who call themselves “cowards.” Others do not come home. A sergeant in the Royal Engineers recalls: “I saw chaps run into the water screaming because mentally it had all got too much for them. During the two days we were on the beach, at least a couple of dozen men committed suicide by running into the sea.” Nolan shows Tommy, the nameless French soldier and Alex (Harry Styles) on the shore witnessing one such incident, wordlessly.

Another casualty is the fault of a shell-shocked Englishman rescued at sea by the Moonstone, a “little ship” owned by retired Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance). Listed in the credits as Shivering Soldier (Cillian Murphy), he panics and shoves George (Barry Keoghan), a young civilian onboard who dies of his resulting head injury. George’s dying wish is fulfilled. His local newspaper, Weymouth Herald, memorializes him as a “hero” instead of the unlucky victim he in fact was. Nolan renders this episode with duplicitous sincerity. There’s no angst over the `noble lie’ of civic fictions found in his “The Dark Knight” (2008) and “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012).

“All we did was survive,” a soldier admits. This shame was overshadowed by a rallying cry dubbed the “Dunkirk spirit.” For the sake of home front morale, Churchill blocked the news on June 17 about Germany sanking the RMS Lancastria off the French coast. Operation Ariel, an ill-fated replay of Operation Dynamo, overloaded this requisitioned Cunard liner with civilians bound for England. Some 4,000 to 6,000 died from drowning, burning oil on the surface, and strafing.

Two years later Joseph Goebbels invoked what Churchill had once labeled a “colossal military disaster” to argue that “an attempted landing anywhere in Europe would quickly provide England with a second, and far worse, Dunkirk. [Churchill] cannot risk such a defeat without causing a fatal crisis for the Empire.” The article– titled “The Air War and the War of Nerves”– ran in the June 14, 1942 issue of the Ministry of Propaganda weekly Das Reich. The Allied invasion at Normandy would start on June 6, 1944.

Dunkirk interested Hollywood long before “Dunkirk.” Variety claimed: “Within 20 days there were four claims on the subject” with the disclaimer: “nothing more than a title and an idea exist for most of these pictures.” Universal eyed “Dunkerque.” Warners lined up properties titled “Dunkirk” and “Evacuation.” A November 27 Variety headline read: “Dave Selznick… Yens `Dunkirk’ Yarn.” His tentative title was “Beaches of Dunkirk.” The source was supposedly “a semi-official story by a survivor.” The August issue of The Atlantic Monthly ran a short story by a Royal Navy captain using the pen name Bartemius. “The Beaches of Dunkirk” relates a plucky gal disguising her gender and motoring across the Channel to Dunkirk. Is her sweetheart among the survivors?

Another fictive skipper appears in “Channel Incident,” released September 23, 1940 by the Ministry of Information. Anthony Asquith directed this eight-minute short “told in story form” starring Peggy Ashcraft. The Sydney Morning Herald deemed it “a film which is almost unbearably true in its simplicity.” A brief review in the Motion Picture Herald, published in Chicago, related: “A yachting, sporting lass hears the call for boats. She rallies the yachting club bartender, a feeble minded but faithful retainer and an errant soldier, aboard her boat; and does her heroic evacuation work. She also finds her soldier friend among the defeated. The short contains actual Dunkirk scenes. But these are few. The rest are acted, and in the manner of amateur theatricals.”

Documentary News Letter, founded by John Grierson and based in London, panned “Channel Incident” for “its insistence on the outlook of the Edwardian novelette.” The anonymous critic continued: “It is a flaming insult to the men of Dunkirk and to the men and women of the little boats, a flaming insult indeed to the British people, to reduce this great story to the terms of a middle-class female chuntering back and forth across the Channel and rescuing soldiers only incidentally while she searches for her husband… If ever a film symbolised the mental outlook by which Britain could lose this war, `Channel Incident’ did it it; and it was splendid to note the disgust, either frigid or vocal, with which it was received by many in the public cinemas.”

The Guardian agreed that “Channel Incident” was useless for bolstering or burnishing the new Dunkirk spirit: “a slight story, but no moral whatsoever.”

Variety noted that English novelist Louis Golding– sailing to New York City in November 1949– pitched a feature-length drama inspired by Dunkirk that would push no moral or message. “These Are the Lads” nonetheless “presents the point of view the British are anxious to get across.” Variety stated “he wanted to make the picture on a straight commercial basis, as he feels it is not propaganda but a story.” Four months later, syndicated Hollywood columnist John Truesdell wrote: “Golding, has the movie factories bidding high for his story of the Dunkirk devastation, titled `Leave It to the Lads.’” Golding claimed he could not shoot on the English coast because the civilian boats would become military “targets.”

“Hollywood has an acute naval situation, a shortage of small sea-going craft,” announced Variety on May 28, 1941. British Air Ministry help on Spitfire scenes in Hollywood’s “A Yank in the R.A.F.” Twentieth Century-Fox shot the Dunkirk evacuation scene on a back lot in June. The National Board of Review called it “a thrilling reconstruction of the debacle at Dunkirk.” Betty Grable and Tyrone Power starred. It premiered on September 25, 1941.

Two other films came later: “Dunkirk” (1958) and “The Sands of Dunkirk” (1961). The 2016 release “Their Finest,” directed by Lone Scherfig, is a workplace romance set in the Ministry of Information. Two screenwriters adapt an irresistibly uplifting, if factually iffy, tale of twin sisters borrowing their father’s fishing boat to help bring soldiers home from Dunkirk.

Nolan valorizes the mechanics of evacuation in his “Dunkirk.” Zimmer’s valedictory score at the end mobilizes the Miracle of Dunkirk motif. It’s hard to imagine Nolan adding coda to acknowledge a June 2, 1940 report from the Paris bureau of the Associated Press headlined: “Turn Back Nazis at Dunkirk. 200,000 Germans Attack in Waist Deep Flood; Mowed Down.” Allied defenders opened flood sluices to create a seawater moat to block Germans advancing on Dunkirk. “Bursting shells made geysers in the water and churned it into a muddy and bloody froth.”

©2017 Bill Stamets

Making things work: The Martian, The Walk, Sicario, 99 Homes

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on October 6, 2015

Four new films– “The Martian,” “The Walk,” “Sicario” and “99 Homes”– are factually informed fictions of efficacy. Each one is a tribute to ingenuity in many guises. Characters obey laws of physics on Mars and atop the World Trade Center, and break other laws in Mexico and Orlando.

Four filmmakers impart distinct agendas to plots about making things work. Towards what ends? Getting home to Earth, walking on a wire between the Twin Towers, assassinating a narco-cartel CEO, and profiting from foreclosures to recover a home of one’s own. Apart from the pragmatics of technique and teamwork, the writers and directors are moralizing– more or less intently– in their respective narratives.

“The Martian” is set in an optimistic near future of robust funding of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) by Congress. Ares III, the third mission to Mars, goes awry. Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left behind in a blinding dust storm after his malfunctioning sensors transmit no vital signs. “The Martian” details the dire task at hand. “He needs to go home home,” as earthling Elliot (Henry Thomas) explains in Steven Spielberg’s “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982). To survive, Mark will re-engineer more than a Speak & Spell toy.

Director Ridley Scott (“Prometheus”) directs a science-is-really-cool screenplay that Drew Goddard adapted from a techie novel by Andy Weir titled “The Martian.” The son of particle physicist, Weir says he began his computer science career at age 15 at Sandia National Laboratories in his hometown of Livermore, California. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), located in Livermore, figures in the book and the film. He later wrote code for the real-time strategy game “Warcraft II” and worked as an Android programmer.

Weir begins his novel, originally posted as a online serial in 2012, with Mark writing: “LOG ENTRY: SOL 6. I’m pretty much fucked. That’s my considered opinion. Fucked. Six days into what should be the greatest two months of my life and it’s turned into a nightmare… So yeah, I’m fucked.” Or, as Val Kilmer’s character turns the phrase upon departing Mars in Antony Hoffman film “Red Planet” (2000): “Fuck this planet!”

“The Martian” splices themes of two films about voyagers imperiled by vehicular collisions. In “Gravity,” directed by Alfonso Cuarón, debris from a decommissioned Russian satellite hits a NASA shuttle in a nearby orbit. In the Indian Ocean a stray shipping container breaches the hull of a yacht in “All Is Lost,” directed by J.C. Chandor. The mechanics of surviving lend urgency to both of these 2013 releases.

As Mark verbifies in “The Martian”: ”I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.” Damon also played an intrepid tech improviser in Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium” (2013), a sci-fi film set in 2154 about the ultimate in class-based health care. Its costly access is literally orbital– limited to residents of Elysium, a deluxe space station circling Earth. Terminally ill, Damon’s character engineers a life-saving treatment for other doomed commoners.

Earth is “vastly overpopulated” reads an opening title in “Elysium.” That updates the opening voiceover of “Red Planet,” set in 2050, stating “we had begun to overpopulate” our planet in 2000. The fix was to terraform Mars, then move there.

Wernher Von Braun proposed we colonize Mars in an October 24, 1960 speech in Dallas. The former German rocket scientist had joined NASA when the agency was created two years earlier and took over the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Man has learned to live and multiply so proficiently that if he keeps it up for another 500 years he won’t have a place to sleep because there’ll be `standing room only’ on this planet,” Braun told the Independent Petroleum Association of America. Under the headline “Colonies on Mars Seen Answer to Birth Boom,” the Associated Press reported: “Dr. Wernher Von Braun said Monday the United States could put a man on Mars and keep him alive longer than a native in the tropics could exist in the Arctic.”

Mars colonization is underway in John Carpenter’s “Ghosts of Mars” (2001), set in 2176, and Andrzej Bartkowiak’s “Doom” (2005), set in 2046. In the latter two films archaeologists inadvertently unleash lethal pushback by indigenous life forms. Visitors from Earth are not attacked, though, in Byron Haskin’s “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” (1964) and Brian De Palma’s “Mission to Mars” (2000).

Mark is the only sign of sentient life on Mars in “The Martian.” His psyche is a cypher to NASA’s director of Mars missions back on Earth. Before making radio contact with the marooned Mark, Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) observes: “He’s 50 million miles away from home, he thinks he’s totally alone, he thinks we gave up on him– I mean, what does that do to a man, psychologically? What the hell is he thinking right now?” In one of too many simplistic cuts, the next shot answers. Mark is blasting vintage disco music.

Weir is not into nuance. “The only reason I write is to entertain,” he admits in a Google Talk. “I never have a point. I never have a moral. I never want to do anything other than make the reader go `Cool!’ and that’s it.” In the last scene of “The Martian” Mark is back on Earth briefing fledgling astronauts on what to do when things go wrong on another planet: “You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem. Then you solve the next one. And then the next. If you solve enough problems you get to come home.”

It was not all about engineering when Mark worked on his homecoming. Trained as a botanist, he found a way to grow potatoes on Mars. Besides exchanging emails with NASA and JPL, he got one from the president of the United States. “The coolest one. Coolest, though. The coolest one I got was from University of Chicago, my alma mater,” he shares. “They say once you grow crops somewhere, you have officially colonized it. So technically, I colonized Mars.”

Mark figures he must be the first Martian. And in a further flight of theorizing– with nothing to do with orbital dynamics– he decides under international law he’s a pirate to boot.

“The Walk” salutes a trespasser. The lengthy tagline for the film is: “Twelve people have walked on the moon. Only one has ever, or will ever, walk in the immense void between the World Trade Center towers.” That one risk-taker receives an affirming paean fixated on his methodical planning to lessen the odds of gravity putting him in an early grave.

With civic sentiment on his sleeve, Robert Zemeckis directs a screenplay he co-wrote with Christopher Browne based on “To Reach the Clouds,” the 2002 book by Philippe Petit. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays this French-born wire-walking artiste who put on an illegal show 110 stories above lower Manhattan on August 7, 1974.

Philippe regularly addresses the camera for garrulous and self-congratulatory exposition, in contrast to Mark voices his log entries with sarcastic self-deprecation in “The Martian.” A charming trickster, Philippe is more introspective, make that narcissistic, than Mark and his skills are more screen-friendly. I cringed at the sight of his footwork during his playful walks between the Twin Towers, even though Alan Silvestri’s uplifting score dispenses with anticipated notes of suspense.

The press notes bill “The Walk” as “A love letter to the World Trade Center.” (So call “The Martian” a valentine by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.) Philippe’s feat may feel like a Paris-accented segment from the old ABC show “Wide World of Sports” show, but Zemeckis packages his parting message with patriotic tropes familiar from his allegorical one-man saga “Forrest Gump” (1994).

“The Walk” renders the World Trade Center as monuments by indirectly referring to their ruins. The death of the Twin Towers is implied by valorizing the date of  August 7, 1974 as their birth in the eyes of New Yorkers. Last reel shots of uniformed NYPD and FDNY responders to Philippe’s stunt evoke their comrades at that same address on September 11, 2001.

Philippe imagines he’s transformed the Twin Towers: “They’re different.” His girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) wonders, “So did you bring them to life?” One local boasts: “Now every New Yorker I talk to now says they love these towers.” Philippe changes his citizenship. “I was proud to become a New Yorker,” he narrates. He also cherishes his special visitor’s pass to the observation deck of the World Trade Center. Its expiration date is filled in as “Forever.”

Zemeckis closing shot embraces a sun-burnished World Trade Center, circa 1974, with a slow fade to black. Martin Scorsese’s coda to “Gangs of New York” (2002) likewise frames the World Trade Center in an elegiac light. The takeaway line from “The Walk”: “Look at that. We did it. We showed the world that anything’s possible.” Not only can someone do what Philippe did on a wire, but others can do what al-Qaeda did with two Boeing 767s.

“Sicario” takes on the post-9/11 targeting of so-called narco-terrorists by the United States. Covert operators play a tough and dirty game of offense against drug cartels in northern Mexico. Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners” and “Incendies”) directs an incisive, screenplay by Taylor Sheridan for a unsettling procedural. Cinematographer Roger Deakins indelibly surveils the unforgiving borderlands infiltrated by traffickers of drugs and migrants. Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson suffuses the vexed terrain with an ominous thrum. Adrenaline-driven scoring cues kinetic action sequences.

The film’s title predates by many centuries the creation of the Office of Homeland Security on September 20, 2001 and the Homeland Security Council that convened five weeks later. Scholars of antiquity variously identify the Sicarii as first-century Jewish dagger-men (from the Latin sica for small dagger) as we’ll as assassins, insurrectionists or terrorists. In the 1980’s Colombian cartels deployed hit men called sicarios (paid assassins).

“Is Narco-Violence in Mexico Terrorism?” ask anthropologists Howard Campbell and Tobin Hansen in the Bulletin of Latin American Research. Defining “narco-violence” as “intra-cartel, inter-cartel, cartel vs. government” violence, the co-authors weigh their wording: “Yet, if narco traffickers were labelled ‘terrorists’ then militaristic counter-terrorist measures might become more politically acceptable to the general public.” If “Sicario” has any agenda, it is precisely to complicate that issue.

I recall hearing “terrorist” and “Homeland Security” maybe once or twice in “Sicario” but the dialogue includes no serious or sustained points using either expression. Nor does Sheridan’s screenplay draw on items like this one posted at FoxNews.com in 2013: “Mexican cartels hiring US soldiers as hit men.” Five years earlier one cartel reportedly put up a banner (a narcomantas) over a Mexican thoroughfare that read: “Members and Ex-members of the Military, Los Zetas Wants You. We offer good wages, food, and benefits for your family. …We pay in dollars. We offer benefits, life insurance, and a house for your family and children. Quit living in the poor neighborhood and riding buses. You choose, the latest model car or pickup truck. What more do you want?” (Original in Spanish.) Militarization has reached the point where narcotanques is a new coinage for heavily armored “narco-tanks” that travel openly on Mexican highways in cartel convoys.

For a Mexican point-of-view on cartel violence, two realist dramas portray local victims: “Miss Bala” (2011) by Gerardo Naranjo, and “Heli” (2013) by Amat Escalante. “Sicario” contains a side storyline about a cop in northern Mexico. The film’s ending at his son’s soccer game– with a timeout for the nearby sirens and automatic weapons fire–  is a compelling, if dispiriting, masterstroke by Villeneuve. The players and bystanders soon turn their attention back to the game.

Villeneuve affords his viewers the perspective of Kate Macer (Emily Blunt, “Edge of Tomorrow”). She is an FBI agent leading a kidnap-response-team. The opening scene takes her to a suburban Arizona house where tortured and executed corpses wrapped in plastic are hidden inside the walls. After a northern Mexican cartel is implicated, Kate’s supervisor introduces her to Matt Graver (Josh Brolin, “No Country For Old Men”). He has indefinite ties to the Department of Defense and is accompanied by a Colombian “consultant” named Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro, “Traffic”). Bearded commandos just back from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan will join Matt’s operation, a less than transparent task force with sketchy oversight.

Kate is brought onboard for the sake of inter-agency protocol. Her presence somehow ensures a mission that will end at the mansion of Sonoran drug lord will go “by the book.” All she is supposed to do is sign a paper saying so when it’s over. Until then, it’s her duty to watch. And so that’s what we do too.

One night at a U.S. military base right by the border, a soldier asks Kate: “Want to see something?” He takes her to the roof and points south. Is it fireworks or a firefight?

“Nothing will make sense to your American ears, and you will doubt everything we do,” Alejandro advises Kate. During the questioning of detained Mexicans, she cannot figure out the objective: “What are we looking for?” Matt simply instructs: “Just keep watching.” Later she’s told: “Learn, that’s why you’re here.” Like a shrewd screenwriter, Matt maneuvers the diegesis. What Kate– and Villeneuve’s viewers– need to know comes by a slow reveal, knowledge allocated for a controlled panic.

Kate’s eyes and ears take in more than she can  square with her training. Alejandro and Matt lead her deep into compromising muck of tactics. They prove to be highly effective in taking down a cartel CEO notorious for such atrocities as dropping a prosecutor’s daughter in a vat of acid.

“Sicario” has no Socratic dialogue about the war on drugs. Villeneuve and Sheridan are hardly running a seminar here to sort out ideas of a just war, the just use of force, and force short of war.  Nonetheless, their mise-en-scene articulates the fog of this awful war. High stakes call for extra-legal measures, implies “Sicario.” Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012) posed a similar rationale for assassinating Osama bin Laden in the war on terror.

Alejandro’s parting tip to Kate, more vulnerable than ever to a sicario aiming at her: “You should move to a small town where the rule of law still exists.”

“99 Homes” maps inter-locking interests in Orlando, Florida where bankers, judges, sheriffs, county commissioners, real estate agents and eviction crews oversee the misery of one-time homeowners downscaled into debt refugees. Director and editor Ramin Bahrani and his co-writer Amir Naderi offer a drama of discovery founded on wide-ranging research. “I’m going to figure it out,” states their protagonist at the start of his learning curve.

As in “Sicario, “99 Homes” shows an exemplar of efficacy schooling another character and the audience in the workings of the world. Here a loaded vocabulary of “predatory lending” and “toxic credit” replaces terms prefixed with “narco” in “Sicario.”

Rick Carver (Michael Shannon, “Take Shelter”) of Rick Carver Real Estate evicts Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield, “The Amazing Spider Man”) then hires this young carpenter and single dad to evict others. At a Chicago screening, Shannon said Garfield met a man in Florida who did that. Then he had to evict his best friend, who later forgave him after finding work on an eviction crew himself.

Driving though a residential area, Rick asks, “What do you see out there?” Dennis replies, “I see homes.” Rick sees more: “I just saw nine opportunities to make money in the last five blocks. There were three properties without mailboxes. One with an overgrown lawn and no car in the drive. Two with white signs taped to the windows. And three with shiny new floor knobs and lock boxes. If you can get attuned to seeing those kinds of opportunities, then maybe you can up get off your hands and knees and really start working for me.”

Heading to the posh home of hedge fund manager with a foreclosed mortgage, Rick advises Dennis: “Keep your mouth shut and your eyes open and maybe you’ll learn something this time.” Dennis indeed learns, and it makes him ill. Like Kate in “Sicario,” he cannot reconcile ethics and efficacy.

“99 Homes” and “Sicario” critique intricacies of political economy, whereas Newtonian logistics underwrite the plots of “The Martian” and “The Walk.” Consumers play a role: “99 Homes” faults self-deluded homeowners with unreasonable goals and “Sicario” blames cocaine users.

The screenplay by Bahrani and Naderi is less blunt than “Kill Bankers”– the message a foreclosed Floridian spray painted on his living room wall. Less loquacious than Philippe in “The Walk,” Rick spells out his life philosophy with allusions to the deluge, bilge pumps and drowning-in-debt. After asking Dennis if he goes to church, Rick declares: “Only 1 in a 100 is going to get on that ark, son. And every other poor soul is going to drown. I’m not going to drown.” He lectures to his conflicted employee: “America doesn’t bail out the losers. America was built by bailing out winners. By rigging a nation of the winners, for the winners, by the winners.”

Bahrani’s drama “At Any Price” (2012) observed an Iowa farm family in crisis. “During the six months I spent with farmers in the American Midwest,” he related in his press notes, he kept hearing a “mantra” among farmers pressured by agribusiness: “Expand or die.” That capitalist imperative fits a Sonoran drug cartel and Rick Carver Real Estate too.

Bahrani ends “99 Homes” with Dennis undermining a key deal for Rick by admitting to fraudulently filing a backdated document for him at the Orlando court house. He knows enough how things work to make the right thing happen. In her last scene in “Sicario” Kate likewise plans to make a break. “I want to tell everyone what you did,” she tells Alejandro. “That would be a major mistake,” counters this quite efficacious sicario. Villeneuve takes that chance and tells us.

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.