Monday, May 18, 2015

George Miller's Spectacular 'Mad Max: Fury Road'

Pure action films are definitely a tricky business. If you hurl machines, bodies, and buildings at your audience for two hours without rhyme or reason, accompanied by a relentlessly crashing and slamming soundtrack, you risk inducing boredom.

However, if you present the same action in comprehensible, well-edited, and exciting sequences, you’re more likely to keep them riveted. Happily, George Miller has once again achieved the latter — in spades.

Miller, whose original Mad Max blasted onto the scene more than 35 years ago, makes a triumphant return to the Wasteland and, at age 70, shows that he’s still able to school younger filmmakers in how one does action right.

His outrageously exciting Mad Max: Fury Road is a garishly-colored jolt of adrenaline that strips plot to the barest minimum in order to deliver the bone-crushing goods. From its striking opening scenes, Fury Road hurtles us back into Max’s world, giving us in shorthand everything we need to know about the society in which he now dwells. No superhero, Max (Tom Hardy) is a mournful survivor suffering from PTSD who’s immediately kidnapped by the “War Boys” of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), the half-human, half-machine leader of a society of cliff dwellers that keeps its subservient populace under control with the occasional gift of precious water, pumped from underground wells to a surface that has been irreparably blighted by man.

Right off the bat, Max finds himself literally attached as a “blood bag” to insane War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult), who is desperate to earn the affection of his master and be carried henceforth through the gates of Valhalla. When word reaches Joe that one of his prize warriors, Furiosa (Charlize Theron), has gone rogue, kidnapping his harem of breeders and escaping his realm, Nux snatches his chance to get them back and earn his reward.

Thus the stage is set for a two-hour chase that, in less talented hands, would become stultifying, but Miller knows how to keep the engines revving. He’s always had a gift for populating his Max films with interestingly bizarre secondary characters, and Fury Road is no exception. In addition to Joe’s army of maniacal War Boys on a fleet of vehicles modified for maximum mayhem, there’s a canyon-dwelling motorcycle gang, a strange group of stilt-walking swamp-dwellers and — most surprising for this genre — a mob of elderly female warriors who provide a link to Furiosa’s past and hold the key to the world’s survival.

In a surprising but well-realized twist, it’s the feminism that Miller introduces into the film that is refreshing. Brian Tallerico at rogerebe says the director consulted with no less an authority than Eve Ensler, author of “The Vagina Monologues,” on the script, and it results in a depiction of female empowerment that’s free of cliché and so rare for this genre. These women are here to take back the earth from filthy dictators like Joe, whose only interest is to spawn a male child — which flatters his disgusting ego, but is a dead end, reproductively speaking. Even the breeders, who could have merely been a simpering, cowering lot, have strong wills of their own.

As far as the performances go, Theron is magnificent as the conflicted Furiosa, who’d been snatched from her peaceful existence to slave for Joe (and lose an arm in the process) before finally rebelling to rescue the breeders to take them back to her Green Place. Like Max, Furiosa is a strong and silent type, but Theron lets us know what her character is feeling with her eyes.

Hardy’s Max is an impenetrable cipher at first, but he also manages to win us over. Initially loathing all human interaction (his opening narration informs us: “Who was more crazy? Me or everyone else?”), he aligns himself with Furiosa’s cause and even convinces the erstwhile antagonist Nux to fall into line.

As for Nux, Hoult goes full-bore in his depiction of this religiously insane character, kicking his pretty boy image to the curb with a bald pate, crazy eyes, and a painfully scarred torso. And, like Theron’s Furiosa, he’s got a soul in there somewhere just dying to come out.

The action, as previously mentioned, is off the hook, with Miller utilizing as many real stunts and actual mechanical vehicles as possible. According to the Miami Herald, he lured the 72 year-old Oscar-winning cinematographer John Seale (The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley) out of retirement to give Fury Road a decidedly old-school vibe, including the familiar trick of undercranking the camera to give the action a surreal speed. Miller also bucked the trend of dark, washed-out post-apocalyptic films, and this one pops with vivid reds and oranges — and gleaming chrome. I was concerned about a score by a composer named Junkie XL, but it’s just as intense and orchestral as the earlier work of Brian May (The Road Warrior).

I saw Fury Road in 3D, and it’s fun, but it’s really not necessary to relish Miller’s terrific return to the genre he created.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

All That Chekhov: 'Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike' in San Antonio

How does Christopher Durang's acerbic comedy play in the hinterlands? Actually very well indeed. San Antonio's Classic Theatre finishes off its 2014-15 season with a well-mounted production of his Tony-winning play.
Vanya (John O’Neill) and Sonia (Anna Gangai) live together in their family home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Having spent the prime of their lives taking care of their now-deceased, theater-loving parents (hence the Chekhovian names), they’re middled-aged, unemployed and inexperienced in the ways of the world. Their housekeeper, the aptly-named Cassandra (Danielle King), is their only regular visitor, constantly delivering dire predictions that neither believes, and they spend their days waiting for the blue heron to come to the pond and arguing whether 10 cherry trees are enough to constitute an orchard.
Their existential malaise is interrupted by the arrival of their movie star sister, Masha (Emily Spicer), who breezes in with her much younger lover, Spike (John Stillwaggon) in tow. She also comes bearing upsetting news. Her career is at a standstill and she is forced to sell the house as she can’t afford to support her siblings anymore. Thus the stage is set for an evening of accusations, revelations and resentments — plus a dewy ingenue (McKenna Liesman) and a couple of dwarves.
Durang, best known for his biting comedies and satires (Beyond Therapy, The Marriage of Bette and Boo),  is in a mellower mood here. There are Chekhov references aplenty, but it's not overdone. His characters bicker and insults are flung, yet there’s a recognizable humanity within each of them. Perhaps he indulges them a bit too much in the second act, but there are many laughs in the piece, particularly when he can squeeze in such groaners as ingenue Nina deciding to start calling Vanya Uncle Vanya. And the Chekhov gloom is hilariously skewered when the sisters literally throw themselves to the floor in soul-searing agony.
The actors all inhabit their roles with skill. Spicer’s Masha delivers the right mix of narcissism and insecurity, complemented by Stillwaggon’s lunkheaded himbo. O’Neill’s Vanya is dryly acerbic at first but he catches fire with a lengthy second-act lament about way things used to be. King is clearly having a good time as the soothsaying housekeeper, and Liesman does a nice job as Nina, whose sunniness would be irritating if it didn’t feel authentic. Gangai has the meatiest role playing the adopted (as she frequently reminds everyone), perpetually-in-agony Sonia, and she makes the most of it. Director Diane Malone smartly keeps the staging simple in order to focus on the humor.
Speaking of staging, the Classic Theatre’s space is unusual. Tiered seating on both sides of the stage eliminates a back wall, which is effective for a single-set piece such as this. Scenic designer Karen Arrendondo takes full advantage of this configuration, transforming the entire theater into the family’s home, inside and out.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike plays Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. through May 17 at the Classic Theatre, 1924 Fredericksburg Road, San Antonio. Reservations can be made online or by calling (210) 589-8450.


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