Kicking the Tweets

Aloha (2015)

It Also Means "Goodbye"

Did I ever tell you about the panic attack I had while watching Elizabethtown? Ten years ago, my wife and I went to see what was, at the time, the new Cameron Crowe film. The brains and heart behind such classics as Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Say Anything, Jerry Maguire, and Almost Famous, Crowe stood tall in our personal pantheon of generational greats—second only to John Hughes. His movies spoke to us as hopeful young searchers in a world bustling with the deliberately lost. But everything changed that afternoon, as my moral stance against leaving a movie before it finished clashed with an unrelenting psychic assault of twee, cookie-cutter drivel that simply…would...not...end.

Fast-forward a decade. Enough time had passed that I’d forgotten what it was like for a movie to incapacitate me with despair.* Maybe it was time to give my one-time hero another shot.** Sure, Aloha’s trailer made it look like another identity-starved dram-com about a Damaged Guy (Bradley Cooper) pining for The Girl That Got Away (Rachel McAdams) while also, maybe (definitely), falling for a Comely Young Thang (Emma Stone). What the canny marketers didn’t give away was the fact that only half the film is a gooey, complicated love story; the other half is a rusty-B-52 of a polemic against the military industrial complex that belongs in another film—if anywhere at all.

Granted, I don't know how one would sell this schizophrenic disaster to theatregoers who just want to enjoy a light love triangle,*** with a dash of adorable hipster hero Bill Murray thrown in. You know that touching trailer moment where Murray’s character opines about life? Remember the chills? Well, it’s a throwaway line in the movie, dumped into one of those annoying scenes in which people in a crowded club seem to have a perfect grasp of what others are saying and doing across the room.

So what’s the movie about? Damned if I know. Cooper plays a disgraced former Air Force hotshot who takes a gig helping a billionaire (Murray) get a civilian satellite into space over Hawaii. This involves bartering with distrustful natives, and contending with both an eager, wide-eyed liaison (Stone) and an ex-girlfriend (McAdams) who lives on the island with her kids and never-around pilot husband (John Krasinski). Crowe was blessed with a game, capable cast and several nuggets of good (if played out) ideas. The problem is that he’s so afraid of being conventional that he spends all his time juggling narratives instead of committing to characters that feel real.

On top of that, the Hawaiian setting is beautiful but its cultural intrusiveness (or Crowe’s perception of it) is downright ugly. In the writer/director’s version of Hawaii, one could hardly ask for a gas station bathroom key without receiving a sappy, rambling oral history of the god Lono--or even a visit from the rain deity himself while zipping up. Alexander Payne's The Descendants creaked under the weight of this bizarre patronage, too, but not nearly as much. Imagine a film, set in Chicago, in which every character talks like the SNL Superfans, eats nothing but brats and deep-dish pizza, and drops the Great Fire of 1871 into every single conversation. Aloha is like that, and it's grating.

Speaking of grating, is Hollywood just about done with Emma Stone? I’m a big fan of the actress, but she’s very quickly become a new version of (to borrow Nathan Rabin’s description of Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown) The Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Stone has mastered the art of saving grumpy, privileged, middle-aged men from existential dread in films like Magic in the Moonlight, Birdman, Crazy Stupid Love, and now Aloha. In this, her most cartoonish role to date, she’s the unflappably chipper, island-lore-obsessed foil to Cooper’s flippant moper--until precisely the film’s halfway point, when the screenplay suddenly requires a modicum of sturdiness from this otherwise wobbly table leg. Stone shares a similar fate with Krasinski here, as his character is alternately a man of few words, a man of no words, an absentee father, a loving dad, a bottled-up rage machine, and Aloha’s Zen beating heart. The film’s characters are so inconsistent that it often seems as if Sony sent editor Joe Hutshing’s work-in-progress file to theatres instead of the completed film.

This is also a big step back (or at least sideways) for Cooper. Regardless of what you thought of American Sniper’s politics, there’s no denying that the actor created a unique, nuanced character—as he’s done in films like American Hustle and even Guardians of the Galaxy. Aloha represents the kind of movie that people who don’t like Bradley Cooper could easily point to as a confirmation of their bias. None of that blame belongs on his shoulders, though. He simply has nothing to work with—as exemplified by a truly bizarre scene in which his character gives a knowing look to another character and induces an onslaught of tears. I laughed out loud at this moment, which played less like empathetic bonding than the comic-book origin of a demented psychic assassin.

I won’t even touch the space/espionage plot: Real Genius pulled that thematic switcheroo thirty years ago, and only narrowly succeeded by working in an exploding popcorn house at the end. Look it up.

Aloha has all the hallmarks of a solid Cameron Crowe film. The artist has made a terrific career of championing creative outsiders against shifty adults, and he hasn’t lost his knack for orchestrating gooey, trailer-ready sentiment. Perhaps one too many laps around the industry hamster wheel softened his stance on convention—or dulled his ability to spot the traps. Whatever the case, Crowe’s youthful, lava-hot passion has coagulated and cooled, much like my ability to even get worked up over his movies. I’ll take a panic attack any day.

*The only “real-life” event to have this affect on me since was the sudden death of my father two years later. I still feel two things in my bones: Elizabethtown and that phone call.

**I skipped We Bought a Zoo, which is holding steady at #6,483 in my “Someday, I Guess” Queue.

***Remember, this is a summer release, not fall.


The Human Centipede 3: Final Sequence (2015)

Bowel-ing for Dollars

Loving The Human Centipede movies is not a crime, but finding a fellow traveller (especially in "serious" circles) is like playing "Spot the Convict". Three weeks ago, a friend and I came to that iffy crossroads in film chatter when we had to decide just how much fandom of writer/director Tom Six to divulge. There are two steps in determining the flow of this particular conversation--if it even gets off the ground:

Without making eye contact, ask the person you're speaking with if he or she loves The Human Centipede A) ironically or B) genuinely. If the answer is "A", steer the conversation immediately to Avengers: Age of Ultron.*

If "B", relax that nervous smile just a bit. There's one more hurdle to clear, but it's a minor one. Look your companion dead in the eye and ask if they respond more to the films' gross-out factor, or if they appreciate Six as a Warholian prankster--an artist whose ability transcends craftsmanship and rockets over most audience's heads on its way to the stratosphere.

(Don't worry about hyperbole: if your friend answers "B" to the second question, you'll both be giddy as geeks on grades day. If the answer is "A", however, see above but swap out Mad Max: Fury Road for Age of Ultron.)

Luckily, my friend and I were on the same wavelength. It was refreshing (and really strange) to find someone else who enjoys these films and, more importantly, can talk knowledgeably about them. I've written before about my frustration at conversations that begin and end with, "Ugh! I'd never watch those stupid movies!"

In fairness, neither of us had seen The Human Centipede 3: Final Sequence at the time of this mutual confession. Had that been the case, I suspect our enthusiasm would have been greatly tempered by the worm turning on our gonzo genre-hero's filmography. This film, unlike its predecessors, is grotesque in all the wrong ways; a hate-fueled, childish assault on mankind that is as impossible to defend as it is to recommend to even fans of the series. This feels like Tom Six's indignant sign-off to a global, puritanical cabal that he genuinely believes knows who he is and cares what he does. My only surprise at the end of an hour-and-forty-five minute celluloid tantrum was that the writer/director didn't actually kill himself on camera.

On the other hand, it's entirely possible that Final Sequence is the masterful realization of Six's thesis statement, and that it is I who must now look up at the brilliant points soaring far above my head. That said, I'm okay with being left behind on this journey.

The film opens with a climactic scene from the first Human Centipede film, and then transitions to a clip from The Human Centipede 2--which was, of course, key to the sequel's big meta point. We then realize that Part 2 is being watched by the main characters in Part 3, who are played by the principal actors from the first two movies. Dieter Laser is William Boss, the hard-bitten Nazi warden at a Texas penitentiary. Laurence Harvey is his sweaty, nervous accountant, Mr. Butler. Faced with termination due to high recidivism and severe budget problems, Butler proposes that Boss turn the prison population into a 500-person human centipede.

This is, of course, the film's selling point. A horror movie about a mad scientist sewing three people together, ass-to-mouth, in his basement must naturally scale in order to succeed as a franchise. But it takes nearly an hour to even get to the planning stages of this unholy organism, and the road is fraught with a degree of racism, sexism, brutality, and plain bad filmmaking that, frankly, I found offensive; not in sensibility, but in watchability. I'd guess fifteen minutes could have been axed from this thing, had Six chosen alternate takes on Laser's dialogue--ones in which the actor didn't drag out every syllable of every word while screaming at the camera or his co-stars. Early on, I stopped seeing the Boss character as a latter-day Colonel Kurtz, and began wondering if Laser was undergoing some extended trauma flashback.

Of course, when I accuse the film of being poorly made, series novices will jump to, "Well, what did you expect from the third Human Centipede movie?" That's not what I'm talking about. Those who take Six seriously know that he's a filmmaker capable of great restraint and great depravity, both of which are dialed up or down on the whims of a beautiful intellect and capable hand. The first film was all sick premise and dark-humor execution. The second film was a reaction to critical outrage from people who'd heard the premise, skipped the film, and went straight for their keyboards.

Final Sequence is Six nuking the institutions (indeed, the organisms) that make film possible. He eschews realism and orders his actors to do the same;** he revels in graphic material designed to shock people who would never consider watching his movie; and he drags the diehards through a meandering, sun-drenched slog of pointless asides that make solitary confinement sound really attractive.

I'll give Six credit for one inspired shot. Fortunately, IFC Midnight put it in the trailer and promotional materials, so you don't actually have to watch this thing to appreciate the image's context or impact. From the vantage point of the prison-yard wall, we look out on an unconscionably ghastly scene: 500 prisoners (and one beleaguered secretary) forming a "human prison centipede". As with the the premise of Six's series, the idea is disgusting, but there's an underlying dark poetry that one must actually look at in order to understand. The chain forms a surreal tapeworm, fanned out and dried out--with a tiny team of examiners walking its length to see what they can learn from the bizarre parasite. Boss and Butler see prisoners as societal resource-suckers and as the literal excrement that the host must shed in order to survive.

Coupled with Eric Roberts' bemused turn as the Governor,*** and an endearingly offbeat performance by Clayton Rohner as the prison's ethically conflicted head doctor, the centipede money-shot provides exactly two reasons to check the film out--or to look up the highlights on YouTube, a practice I'm loathe to recommend.

But unless nearly two hours of the following can entertain you:

  • Sexual assault
  • Kidney rape
  • Comatose rape
  • Gunshot to a colostomy wound
  • Graphic castration
  • Consumption of fried clitorises (you read that right) accompanied by the line, "Thank God for Africa and thank God for female circumcision!"

...I suggest you stay far, far away from The Human Centipede 3.

The strange thing is, it didn't have to be this way. Buried deep beneath the scatology and attention-desperate ravings are several kernels of brilliant satire. Had Six played the first half of the film totally straight, delivering a measured and artful narrative that in no way tipped its hand to the oddball horrors to come, Final Sequence might have amounted to something--or at least something more. The story takes a turn halfway through that reminded me of the brain-tickling twists in the previous two films. By the same point in Part 3, I'd just about given up. Six undoubtedly has some interesting ideas about prison culture and what it says about society as a whole, but his message is lost in characters and situations that start at 11 and go to 16 as part of what feels like a tired, Bush-era critique of...something or other.

I'm glad I saw the third (and, hopefully, final) chapter so that I can overlook it in the future, with a clean conscious. Tom Six has spent a lot of time, resources, and other people's money to make folks think that he doesn't care about what they say about his art. Sadly, he not only dropped the ball on this film, he deflated it and burned down the stadium--leaving even his most ardent supporters nothing to defend, and providing gleaming, powerful ammunition to his critics. This may not mean much to him, but for we fragile few who gather in coffee shops or online to talk about art we "shouldn't" like, Six has inadvertently (or advertently) sentenced us to eat shit forever. 

*Pro or con, it doesn't matter; the debate will be infinitely briefer and more comfortable.

**When the performer trying their hardest to do something legit with the material is former porn star/former Charlie Sheen "goddess" Bree Olsen, we're dealing with foundation-level issues.

***Roberts and co-star Tommy "Tiny" Lister also appeared in The Dark Knight. The two films have nothing to do with one another aside from this fact--and, possibly, their perfect illustration of filmmaking's beautifully varied spectrum.


Poltergeist (2015)

Hooked on a Freeling

Last week, I wrote that Mad Max: Fury Road had ruined me for summer movies this year. The same goes for remakes, too, and the exhilarating experience of watching George Miller reinvent himself in real time made getting through Gil Kenan’s Poltergeist update exponentially more painful. Not that I’d expected much (revisiting horror classics rarely pays off), but I hoped the director of Monster House and the writer of Rabbit Hole (David Lindsay-Abaire) would at least make my ninety minutes worthwhile. Alas, their movie is a lot like its eponymous ghosts—an aimless, ham-fisted phantom who inhabits two disparate worlds, while belonging to neither.

The first world is that of Tobe Hooper’s 1982 classic, Poltergeist. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre director teamed up with producer Steven Spielberg to create a supernatural commentary on suburban malaise that also worked as a harrowing family drama. The resulting film gave a whole generation nightmares and pushed ratings-system boundaries.* Hooper and company used the ultra-relatable Freeling family to plunge audiences into a weird and wily world of possessed clowns, corpse-filled swimming pools, and nether-realm portals that ran horizontally into a little girl’s closet and ended vertically above the family room.

The second world is actually a planet-sized sausage factory in which original ideas go in and safe, market-tested product rolls out—polluting the surrounding universe in a cosmic cloud of diminishing standards. Between The Conjuring, the Conjuring spin-off, Annabelle, Insidious, Insidious 2, the forthcoming Insidious 3, and the twenty other off-brand haunted-house/haunted-child/haunted-bauble flicks of the last five years, pop culture is awash in movies that ultimately only want one thing (besides money): to be as scary as a 33-year-old movie. 

It would take a damned genius to wade into these waters and not be overwhelmed by expectations. Sadly, it feels like Kenan and Lindsay-Abaire were forced to shoehorn fan-favorite Poltergeist touchstones into a movie that would have been better off as a drama about unemployment and the dangers of power lines.**

Let’s back up. In this reality, the Freelings have been swapped for the Bowens. Eric (Sam Rockwell) is a recently laid-off John Deere executive. His wife, Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt), is a frustrated writer. Using what must either be a gargantuan severance package or awesome royalties, the jobless Bowens move their three kids into a large house in suburban Illinois. Snotty teen Kendra (Saxon Sharbino) won’t get off her phone; middle child Griffin (Kyle Catlett) suffers PTSD from having been lost in a mall three years earlier; youngest Maddy (Kennedi Clements) talks to ghosts and gets trapped in one of her struggling family’s massive flat-screen TVs.

Eric and Amy seek help from a local university’s Paranormal Research Department and, eventually, from a ghost-hunting reality-show star (Jared Harris, providing some much-needed charm, but still cowering in Zelda Rubinstein’s shadow; the iconic actress’s signature line from the original has literally been reduced to a hashtag: “#thishouseisclean”). Besides new ghost-chasing gadgets and an unoriginal yet mildly tense scene involving a drill, Poltergeist 2.0 is little more than a truck-stop-spinner Greatest Hits collection—with a few key tweaks reminiscent of Spielberg’s ghastly E.T. edits from a few years ago, that serve as a reminder of how stale our allegedly progressive culture has become. Instead of Mom and Dad smoking pot after getting the kids to bed, Eric and Amy drink booze; the face-ripping scene now consists of a bloody-eyed reflection in a faucet, made possible by Walking Dead-quality CGI. And as if one evil toy clown isn’t creepy enough—how’s about a box of ‘em?! 

It’s a shame, too, because Rockwell and DeWitt (and, to some extent, the actors who play their kids) are great in these roles. When Amy, frustrated that Eric blew their remaining credit on silly gifts, yells at Griffin for whining about the strange things happening in their house, the film slips briefly into authenticity. The hurt feelings, the underlying tension of greater problems—tempers come to a recognizable head that, say, a malicious spirit might feed off of.*** Think of the emotional depths Lindsay-Abaire and Kenan could have plumbed by incorporating (or even acknowledging) Spielberg’s original idea of “The Beast” into their story. Instead, the filmmakers veer right back into nickel-Xerox scares with tattered tangents standing in for complete thoughts.

Sure, some audience members will jump in their seats (the teenage girls in my screening did, sadly), but die hard Poltergeist fans are more likely to throw their drinks at the screen when the “Hooper High School” bumper sticker shows up. Both Kenan and Lindsay-Abaire are old enough to have been raised on and traumatized by Hooper’s film, but their re-telling is less loving tribute than hasty, demographic-chasing product rollout. 

I can’t recommend this film as a legit horror-movie experience. The 1982 Poltergeist still fits that bill (looking past some dated special effects). I can recommend it as a lesson in how not even brand-recognition, star power, and high-priced digital artistry can save a film that lacks identity. Poltergeist 2015 is lousy with spirits, and its spirit is lousy.

*Ah, the 1980s: when the only thing kids needed in order to see a guy claw his own face off was a little “parental guidance”.

**Seriously, there are a lot of ominous shots of power lines and trees in this movie.

***Hell, this isn’t even the best movie our leads have appeared in together this year: check out Joe Swanberg’s Digging for Fire in August to see what two tremendous actors can do with a thinking-person’s script.


I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story (2014)

Nesting Doll

It should come as no surprise that I was a weird kid, a bona fide generational anomaly. I never watched or responded to The Muppets.* Sesame Street was ubiquitous at my house, but the show only ever registered as white noise. For me, it was drawing, action figures, and Nickelodeon all the way. This has made growing up and growing old rather difficult: when friends raved about the new Muppets movie a few years ago, for example, I stood on the sidelines, convinced they'd been lost in the disorienting fog of a nostalgia grenade. And when the Internet suffered a mild hemorrhage following the announcement of a Caroll Spinney documentary, I asked, "What's a 'carol spinny'?"

I found out in Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker's lovely new documentary, I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story, which traces the artist's journey from awkward kid to puppeteer of a global children's icon to legit icon in his own right. Spinney's is an inspirational story of following one's creative instincts wherever they might lead.

It's a good thing, too, because the filmmakers' delivery system is rather flat. There's nothing inherently wrong with LaMattina and Walker's approach, it's just the standard talking-heads-and-archival-footage approach we've seen a hundred times before. In fairness, I don't know how one might break the form in this case, but I kept thinking the subject deserved more innovation in his life-story's presentation.

In fairness, my issue may be familiarity with the Sesame Street doc. A few years ago, I reviewed Being Elmo, which covered very similar ground--including Muppet creator Jim Henson's making dreams come true for a shy, young performer. In that case, it was Kevin Clash, whose public controversies retroactively add color to a movie that could have already been accused of blatant audience manipulation. In I Am Big Bird, all the thrills come from Spinney's anecdotes, and those of his wife and colleagues.

Lucky us, those anecdotes are thrilling, and many are dramatized by clips from the Spinneys' exhaustive home-movies collection. Though many questions are left in the air regarding Caroll's first wife, we track what seems like every moment of his relationship with Debra--who has been his life partner, manager, and co-adventurer for decades. From a harrowing TV-special shoot in China; to wrestling with a professional life that kept Carroll from his kids for weeks on end; to a bone-chilling account of Big Bird's ill-fated trip into space, the filmmakers weave a colorful tapestry of life lessons and cosmic coincidences that connected me to the Spinneys in ways I never would have thought to associate with Sesame Street.

I Am Big Bird really clicked for me during an animated sequence demonstrating the elaborate mechanics of the Big Bird costume. It's a testimony to Caroll Spinney's balletic grace and perseverance that I took for granted the Herculean task of making an 8-foot-tall bird come to life--with neither eye holes nor assistance from digital wizards. The tricks are painful to even consider, and the feat becomes a point of downright reverence when one considers that Spinney has been hard at work on the set since the late 1960s. In recent years, he's pulled back a bit,** but his commitment to making this character real for children of all ages evinces a nearly spiritual quest to be a global ambassador of positivity and possibility.

If you'd have suggested thirty years ago that I would someday cry through a Big Bird documentary, I might've stuck you in the leg with my plastic He-Man Power Sword. Sure enough, I Am Big Bird didn't just make me feel for a man in a costume, it made me feel as though I'd missed out on something greater my entire life.

*Somehow, The Muppets Take Manhattan and Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird are exceptions. For decades, I've compartmentalized those films as not being associated with their respective brands. I imagine that's like falling in love with The Brady Bunch Movie and having no situational awareness of the TV show.

**This is partially due to a change in the show's demographics: goo-goo-voiced Elmo is more palatable to two-year-olds, I guess, than the relatively more sophisticated Big Bird. It's also a factor of age, and Spinney hand-picked Matt Vogel to be his successor in the event he ever steps down.


Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Paved with Grand Invention

Mad Max: Fury Road is the work of insane people. Determining the craziest member of the production is like a mental shell game where the ball is a live grenade. It’s easy to pin this unconventional blockbuster on director George Miller (who created 1979’s Mad Max, its two sequels, and this new-century re-launch) and co-writers Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris. But someone at Warner Brothers green-lit this thing, and it’s hard to imagine they’d had anything in mind at the time but a conventional, brand-recognition cash-grab. Instead, Miller and company emerged from the African desert with a grimy, fiery spectacle of pathos, passion, and danger sure to join Star WarsDie Hard, Batman, and Terminator 2 as one of those genre-re-defining films whose opening weekend you’ll remember forever.

That sounds like hyperbole, but it’s not. This is the thrill-ride that’s been promised to me by every summer tent-pole adventure of the last decade, and the only one to fully deliver the goods. For nearly two hours, I sat open-mouthed and bug-eyed watching practical, grand-scale action choreography that my mind could literally not process as being possible. In an era of CGI robots, Avengers, and urban disaster porn overseen by (and catering to) script-suspicious man-children, I guess it takes a sixty-seven-year-old to prove that computer graphics are more effective as enhancements than substitutions—and that cars colliding should be a blood-curdling event instead of a less compelling distraction than a friend's text message from two seats down.

Intentionally or not, Miller’s approach to re-introducing Mad Max (Tom Hardy, taking over from Mel Gibson) mirrors that of Robert Rodriguez’s journey from micro-budget indie phenom, El Mariachi, to the studio-backed, star-packed Desperado. Fury Road is at once a remake and a sequel that establishes its universe in a series of disorienting, quick-cut flashbacks. One need not have seen the other films in the series to understand or appreciate Fury Road, and Fury Road doesn’t take pains to erase what’s come before.

Max is an ex-cop who went crazy after losing his wife and daughter to a fierce gang of desert marauders in the hope-starved, post-apocalyptic landscape. We catch up with him as he's captured and brought into the citadel of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne*).  When the warlord's top lieutenant, Furiousa (Charlize Theron), absconds with his harem of "breeders" (one of whom is pregnant), Joe leads an army of tricked-out murder machines into the desert. Furiousa's armored tanker truck is loaded down with gasoline, mother's milk, and five stowaways whom she's promised to bring to "the green place"--an oasis from which she was kidnapped as a child. Joe's gang includes a death-metal band riding storeys-high speaker trucks; homicidal acrobats; and pasty, afterlife-obsessed "War Boys", who subsist on the blood of captured desert folk--like our bonkers hero, Max.

Fury Road has been falsely described as "two hours of non-stop action" by fans and critics who desperately want genre freaks to see this thing in theatres. I appreciate the effort, but it's a misguided sentiment. Miller has directed one of the most uniquely rousing action films ever, true, but I don't want casual moviegoers to think of Transformers or Battleship when passing a Fury Road billboard. There's so much more going on in Miller's desolate landscape than meets the eye, so much that's left up for interpretation and discussion than any recent capes-and-catastrophe popcorn flick. There are, if I recall correctly, three major action scenes in Fury Road; a handful of tense skirmishes; and a whole lot of lean introspection that's just as chilling in its ideas as the sight of bodies flying through the air and then steamrolled under tank-sized tires.

The film has three stars: lead actors Hardy and Theron, and a team of editors, production designers, stunt artists, and wardrobe whom Miller led through this most improbable of victories. Let's start with the cast first. Hardy is great as Max, but mostly because he's barely in the movie. For at least the first half hour, the actor's face is obscured by either a raggedy beard or a metal muzzle (which, of course, recalls his role as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises). The ostensible headliner of what has been planned as a new trilogy, one would expect Hardy to go the route of, say, Chris Hemsworth's Thor: a character known for wearing an iconic helmet, who never wears the iconic freaking helmet. But Hardy sheds vanity and builds a real character here, one who has gone clinically insane and so spends most of the film in a darting-eyed, mumbling fugue state when not propelled by instinct to flee or fight.

This leaves plenty of room for Fury Road's true hero, Furiosa, to shine. Franchise devotees might find it blasphemous to learn that macho maniac Max has been superseded by an Oscar-winning, makeup-model darling aping Ellen Ripley. But these are the same imagination-starved cretins who're still waiting for Mel Gibson to reprise the title role. Let us never underestimate Theron's gifts as a performer;** let us instead marvel at the bold character she's created with the writers and director. Furiosa is the epitome of toughness, compassion, and perseverance--a woman unspeakably damaged by the world and yet single-mindedly focused on forging a new one. Ultimately, Max couldn't cut it. His relationship to society is strictly incidental, whereas Furiosa dreams of a land in which peace and justice might once again stand a chance. She doesn't need rescuing, nor does the screenplay require that she find an identity by sleeping with or sticking by the grizzled, world-saving hero.

Sidebar One: I'd like to address one of the big talking points surrounding Fury Road. Under the same rock where you'll find the aforementioned Gibsonites are a loose collective of talking turds known as "Men's Rights Activists". I don't know what they want or where they came from, but they're very upset at Fury Road, because it's emblematic of cultural castration--or something. I would like to point out that genre films, in particular, have a rich history of strong female characters kicking ass and saving dudes. You can start with the Alien franchise and end with just about every slasher film of the last thirty-five years.

The only crime Fury Road commits, as far as I can tell, is to leave out the romantic entanglement between the hero and heroine. Max still cracks skulls and gets to save the girl--just as Furiosa punishes the wicked and helps redeem Max on her way to a far richer victory. I'm sure there are plenty of media signposts to indicate that, at any moment, men will be pulled from their homes and placed in gender re-assignment camps (or something), but that highway doesn't intersect with Fury Road.

Sidebar Two: Feminists could use perspective in this area, as well. To hear some describe the state of mainstream cinema, you'd think women are still struggling to get out of the celluloid kitchen. Hollywood may not have achieved parity between the sexes (whatever that means, or however it might be measured), but arguments touting the lack of female-targeted and female-empowering entertainment are false on their face. I'm not the biggest fan of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Julie & Julia, Bridesmaids, or may of the other so-called "chick flicks" flooding the market. But one look no further than this weekend's runaway smash, Pitch Perfect 2, to see that the extreme positions on both sides of the gendertainment argument are, well, extreme.

As for Fury Road's third star, the team that created this world is to be commended for its ambition in the face of low expectations. Miller and his crew didn't need to put so much thought into how their impoverished future society would function; they just needed to put asses in cars to get asses in seats. But every aspect of the production has been so expertly curated as to spark the mind. From the porcupine-like Bug cars piloted by the Mad Max universe's version of Sand People to Immortan Joe's intricate human-electricity empire, there is a wealth of untold stories at the edges of each scene; Fury Road is a sun-soaked Children of Men crossed with Dredd

I'm not sure where blockbusters go from here. The rest of this summer feels like a wash already, and I'm not even that jazzed for The Force Awakens anymore. George Miller has already transported me to a galaxy far, far removed from anything I'd had a right to expect. The long and short of it is: see Fury Road now, see it loud, and see it big. Waiting to see this epic on home video (or, God forbid, your phone) isn't just a foolish idea--it's downright mad.

*The actor also played the murderous biker Toecutter in Mad Max.

*The Devil's Advocate aside.