Mad Max: Fury Road and the times studios actually make good decisions.

The 2015 Movie Club

How Did George Miller Convince a Studio to Pay for Him to Blow Up Cars in the Desert?!

The 2015 Movie Club

How Did George Miller Convince a Studio to Pay for Him to Blow Up Cars in the Desert?!
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 7 2016 11:51 AM

The 2015 Movie Club

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Entry 13: Mad Max gave me just a little faith that every once in a while a studio might make the right crazy decision.

Mad Max.
Tom Hardy in Mad Max: Fury Road.

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

The Forceful Four,

Oh ho, geniuses, lower your voices! You keep out of trouble and you double your choices. Actually, of course, as your editor, I’m glad that this Movie Club has proven itself to be full of Alexander Hamiltons, shooting off at the mouth. Meanwhile, I’ve been an Aaron Burr, editing in the background, never letting you know what I’m against or what I’m for. But I’ve been so jealous this whole time, watching you four trade opinions about the year in movies. It’s time for me to be in the room where it happens, the room where it happens, the room where it happens. So before y’all launch your fourth and final round of dispatches, I’ve got something to say.

Dan Kois Dan Kois

Dan Kois edits and writes for Slate’s culture department. He is writing a book called How to Be a Family and co-writing, with Isaac Butler, an oral history of Angels in America.

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I bring up Hamilton not just in reference to Mark’s mention of the yearlong, avid debate about representation that Hollywood’s found itself in. Nor am I dropping Lin-Manuel Miranda lyrics simply because my children played the soundtrack 525,600 times over winter break. But it’s notable, I think, that their imaginations have been fired by Founding Fathers and not by Rey, Finn, and BB-8, though they saw The Force Awakens and enjoyed it. This is symptomatic of a year in which, despite the monster box office numbers of select hits and the awards aspirations of various “quality” pictures, no single movie truly commanded the imagination of people who love storytelling. In fact I might argue that among the friends, family, writers, and tweeters whose taste I trust, no film approached the impact of the year’s buzziest Broadway musical or its most divisive book, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. When was the last time the culture industry could say that?

(And oh man, won’t the movie of Hamilton be great? And won’t the movie of A Little Life be a horrifying nightmare??)

That doesn’t mean that it was a bad year in movies but that in 2015 my attention was scattered among many good movies without ever landing on one with the kind of passion and focus with which I thought about, say, Boyhood or 12 Years a Slave or The Tree of Life in past years. Which means there are a whole bunch of 2015 movies I really want you guys to talk about that you’ve barely addressed so far! So I am going to make a series of bold, foolhardy statements about them for you to rebut/amplify/ignore in favor of saying your own smarter things. Ready? Here we go!

Mark, you wrote paragraphs about our franchise-driven moviegoing era, yet tucked the one film this year that gloriously bucked this grim trend—Mad Max: Fury Road—into a single clause. It demands further discussion! Nothing exhilarated me more at the movies this year than seeing this franchise—the exact kind of musty IP that studios would typically value only for its name-recognition—transformed, in its latest installment, into something exciting, relevant, inspiring, and totally insane. George Miller filmed much of the movie in Namibia, and when the studio saw the footage he’d shot there, says one camera assistant, “they gave him more money to come back to Australia to shoot it all practically—to blow up the cars and destroy everything.” Far more than any competently produced, decently acted Star Wars episode, Fury Road made me admire a studio—in this case, Warner Bros.—for, just this once, devoting studio-sized resources to letting a weirdo like George Miller explode cameras and cars in the desert. Not to mention, in maybe even a more shocking move, letting Miller keep his leading man (Tom Hardy) silent and shackled for most of the movie, turning the film’s action (and moral core) over to the indelible Charlize Theron, who gave, I’ll say it, the best performance of the year, though she won’t get nominated for nothin’.

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Does a movie like Mad Max give you hope that studios have a future, despite the fact that they’re potentially being made obsolete by lil’ upstarts like A24 (profiled so engagingly by David here in Slate this fall) and enormous upstarts like STX (profiled so depressingly in the New Yorker this week)? Or is Mad Max a unicorn? I’m worried it’s a unicorn. What does our panel of film writers think about the future of film envisioned by David’s A24 story and Tad Friend’s STX one?

Back in 2009’s Movie Club, Dana praised the year’s “artisanal horror”—movies with their own teensy, idiosyncratic visions that revived her interest in being scared in a dark theater. I was reminded of that conversation this spring watching the Internet go gaga for David Robert Mitchell’s horror microhit It Follows. It seemed way too scary for a chicken like me to see it, but every clip I’ve watched between my fingers and every inspired essay I’ve read suggests it’s unique, elegant, progressive, and unsettling. Is It Follows as great as everyone says, or was it overpraised? Were there other movies this year that horrified you in surprising ways? (Chappie doesn’t count.)

As Ehrlich is to loving Carol, so am I to hating Lava—it’s the subject I was born to tweet about—so I’m delighted that you guys hate it too. But it’s dismaying that we’ve devoted more column inches in this Movie Club to that vulcan shitshow than to the masterpiece it preceded in theaters, Inside Out. I truly think that, in addition to being lovely and satisfying and funny, the movie has struck a real chord in parents like me, teaching us to embrace and accept our children’s sadnesses in ways that we previously were afraid to do, to make our goal our children’s well-rounded happiness, not their moment-to-moment joy. Inside Out’s quality is a testament to the odd-by-Hollywood-standards creative process at Pixar, which retooled the movie late in the game to make Sadness a linchpin character. (Granted, the wanness of The Good Dinosaur, which endured its own development reboot, somewhat rebuts that point.) And David, what on earth are you talking about? Bing Bong is grating, he’s foolish, and he’s crucial to the success of the film. And Richard Kind gave the best performance of the year, though he’ll be completely ignored by the Oscars. 

But in a year of great performances, the best, bar none, was given by Jeremy Strong in The Big Short. Too bad it’s the kind of understated, centered work that gets ignored at awards time in favor of flashy fake glass eyes. (OK, OK, Christian Bale is good, too.) As Vinnie Daniel, the gum-chewing, no-BS manager at Mark Baum’s hedge fund, he’s resolute, focused, skeptical, always thinking—the brain to Steve Carell’s unbalanced heart. I found him utterly compelling and, like Bing Bong, essential to the movie: a steely, serious human being staring us down from Adam McKay’s madcap financial carnival, saying, in essence, “If I can believe this shit, so can you.” Does no one besides me think this movie is crucial, hilarious, and incredibly bracing?

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Did you guys understand the title of Bridge of Spies? I did. Let me explain it to you. There’s that bridge at the end, and the spies stand on the bridge. One of the spies was Mark Rylance, who gave the year’s finest performance; watching Mark Rylance lose an acting award to Sylvester Stallone is gonna be the most Oscar thing that has ever happened.

Let me finish by highlighting two young actresses who each gave, without exception, the best performance of the year. Mark, you mentioned Room already, and I share your dismay that it’s so hard to convince people to see Lenny Abrahamson’s lovely movie. (Parents, in particular, are soooooooo not into the idea.) I worry its underwhelming box office means it will underperform at Oscar nomination time, which would be a shame since a passel of nominations is the exact thing that could get serious but reluctant moviegoers into the theater to see it. No matter what happens, though, there’s the inarguable beauty of fierce, loving Brie Larson protecting her son and coping with the impossible. Consider her offhanded, emotional funniness as Amy Schumer’s sister in Trainwreck, and Larson had the kind of year that sets an actor up for a long and fascinating career.

Similarly best was the Irish-American actress Saoirse Ronan, funny and sad and uncertain as Eilis, the heroine of John Crowley’s story of midcentury immigration and return Brooklyn. One of my favorite filmgoing memories of 2015 is the gasp my entire theater gave at a reveal of a drawer full of letters late in the film. The moment was well-paced by Crowley and his editor Jake Roberts, yes. But that’s not what earned the horror-movie gasp for a moment that could have easily played as unimportant or melodramatic. Ronan earned it by making her character so open and real that we ached to see this evidence of the pain she was feeling and the pain she soon would cause someone she loved.

BB-8 deserves an Oscar, and it’s a crime that ze won’t even get nominated,

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Dan

P.S. Oh, right, Spotlight! There is definitely no way this very good movie about how if you give dogged, kind, empathetic reporters unlimited resources and time to investigate a single story they can change the world is being overvalued by people who work in journalism. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have 11 blog posts about Star Wars to edit.

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