Friday, May 29, 2015

Blogorium Review: Mad Max - Fury Road

 (editor's note: please forgive the relative lateness of this review - the Cap'n insisted on seeing the film a second time before turning this in.)

 Eh. It was okay, I guess. You know, nothing special.

 Nah, I'm just pulling your chain. This is the internet, where everything either rules or sucks, and there's no level of hyperbole big enough to attach to something, but even I can't argue with the fact that Fury Road is the goods. For a little while there, at the beginning, I thought I maybe had, though: it's not for very long, but right after Max (Tom Hardy) crashes his Interceptor and gets captured, your fearless Cap'n was worried he might have overhyped himself for this movie. Something about the persistent flashback, um, flashes (that might not actually be what we think they are, but more on that later) and the strangely under-cranked action as Max tries to escape the Citadel just felt... off. Like, something wasn't working. Also, it felt less like under-cranked camerawork and more like someone set the video to play at 1.5 speed but kept the audio the same. Since we're in a digital projection world, I did worry that maybe that could actually have happened.

 But then that went away and George Miller settled down and suddenly it was a Mad Max movie, and it just got better and better. And by that I also mean more bugnuts crazy until you thought it couldn't anymore and then there's the guy strapped to the wall of amplifiers on a truck who plays an electric guitar that also shoots fire while six dudes play massive drums behind him. All so you know that doom is coming. Also, his name is The Doof Warrior. That's not even the craziest character name in the film, which includes the likes of Immortan Joe, Imperator Furiosa, Rictus Erectus, The Splendid Angharad, The People Eater, and Cheedo the Fragile. All of a sudden, Max Rockatansky, The Humungus, and Aunty Entity don't seem so outlandish.

 In the Retro Review for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, I singled out how much I liked the "world building" aspect of the film, specifically Barter Town. Miller ups the ante a bit in Fury Road by giving us three hubs of post-apocalyptic civilization (even if we only see one): Gas Town, The Bullet Farm, and The Citadel. We only spend any time in The Citadel, run by warmonger Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), but we meet The People Eater (John Howard) and The Bullet Farmer (Richard Carter), who run things. No Master or Blaster here. They don't seem particularly happy to be dragged into a "domestic squabble" when Joe's lieutenant Furiosa (Charlize Theron) smuggles his wives out of The Citadel inside of her "War Rig" - a fully loaded tanker truck designed for offense and defense. Joe doesn't take kindly to Furiosa stealing his "property," and takes great exception to The Splendid Angharad (Rose Huntington-Whiteley) writing "We are not Things" inside the vault he keeps them in. His "brides" are for breeding, just like his Warboys are for fighting, and the milk maidens are for, uh, milk.

 Joe is a diseased ridden old man covered in cancerous tumors, but underneath his painted muscle shell and hidden behind his post-apocalyptic Darth Vader breathing apparatus, he's managed to brainwash the huddled masses of The Citadel into thinking he's a god. He gives them water when he feels like it, has a shrine of removable steering wheels, makes grandiose speeches and promises the equally "half life" diseased Warboys that their sacrifices will lead them to the gates of Valhalla. And they believe it. The Warboys and War Pups worship this guy, and in his defense it's not like Joe just sends out his minions to get Furiosa and the brides back. He packs into his "cars stacked on top of each other" monstrosity and leads the pack, aforementioned Doof Warrior along for the ride. Also in the convoy is a rebuilt V-8 Interceptor, freshly pilfered from The Citadel's newly acquired "blood bag": Max Rockatansky.

 I'm sure you've noticed that we got a ways into the synopsis before Max figures into the story, but that's because, like in Thunderdome, he's dragged into another power struggle that he had no part in to begin with. We just spend a little more time with the players in this particular story than we did in Thunderdome or The Road Warrior. It's not Max's fight, and this time he really doesn't want to be involved, but since he's literally strapped to the front of Warboy Nux (Nicolas Hoult)'s car, feeding him "high octane road warrior universal donor" blood, Max has no choice. He's chained to Nux, and Nux is a hard core fanatic of Immortan Joe willing to die at least three times to stop Furiosa. And Max is stuck to this idiot, to the point that he literally has to carry him around after they miraculously survive an electrical storm Furiosa drives through to lose the convoy.

 When Max finally catches up to the actual protagonists, there's a funny moment where Miller plays with the concept of the "male gaze" in introducing the "brides": Immortan Joe keeps women who look like supermodels and has them all in similarly scantily clad white... well, I guess cloth would be the right description. It's not really clothes. Max sees Splendid drinking, to the point where she's soaking wet, but it becomes clear very quickly that his (and the camera's) gaze is directed at the water, not the post-apocalyptic wet-shirt contest on display. And then there's a fight, because Max decides to hold them at gunpoint. The ladies have been using a bolt cutter to remove chastity belts that give the term "vagina dentate" a new meaning, and after a drink, he wants to lose some Nux dead weight. Furiosa, robot arm detached, doesn't take kindly to this, and a smarter than usual struggle involving Max, Furiosa, the brides, Nux, and the chain ensues. But Max isn't interested in killing anybody. He just wants out - this isn't his fight, but he'll take your War Rig, thanks.

 Some folks have complained that Max is more of a supporting character in Fury Road, and that it's unfair to have his name in the title since Furiosa is more or less the protagonist of the film. However, the story isn't that much different than the way The Road Warrior or Beyond Thunderdome are structured: Max travels the wasteland, runs into trouble, and reluctantly helps a group of survivors before taking off again on his own (SPOILER for The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome). The difference between those films and Fury Road is that we spend most of the expository period with Max, whereas in this one there's a lengthy period of time where he has little or no agency. Max is a prisoner all the way up until he wrestles the pistol away from Furiosa, and when her "kill switch" shuts down the War Rig, he's essentially at her mercy. Max doesn't so much agree to help them as he does go along for the ride, eventually deciding to do the right thing when they pass through the canyons.

 (MILD SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT: There's an interesting, if underdeveloped parallel between Joe's obsession with his "property" and Max's continued protestation about the Warboys stealing what's belongs to him. He repeatedly shouts to the driver of his Interceptor that it's "mine," and the first thing he does after he's freed from Nux is take his jacket back. There's not really any kind of thematic resolution to being fixated on "things" for Max - the Interceptor is destroyed, but he keeps his jacket, and he's mostly replaced his stuff by the time he kills the Bullet Farmer)

 What follows is a mostly non-stop chase in one direction, and then a chase back, after the "Green Place" Furiosa promised the brides no longer exists. It's actually impressive to consider that a film with this much uninterrupted action has enough of a plot that I'm leaving out everything that happens after the "wetlands"

 I'm going to address and sidestep the "is this a reboot / is this a prequel" argument by saying that if Furiosa hasn't seen the Vuvalini in "7,000 days" - roughly twenty years and that Max was still a cop before the world collapsed, then maybe Fury Road is both. And by that I mean that since Miller (Happy Feet) has been working on this Mad Max film since 2003 (when it almost happened) that Furiosa could have been kidnapped post-apocalypse and taken to The Citadel while, let's say, The Road Warrior was happening. You could argue that a Mel Gibson-aged Max would have made sense in that timeline, while a Tom Hardy Max seems, um, a little young. And not just because he's three years younger than Theron. But since we have the math we have in Fury Road and it at the very least directly acknowledges Mad Max, let's just agree that none of them have to be sequels and are all stories set in the Wasteland. Chronology dodge activated.

 That said, it was nice to have tiny, unobtrusive nods to the other Mad Max movies (and Peter Weir's The Cars That Ate Paris), ones that you might not have noticed. The music box one of the "wives" is playing with. The shot of Toecutter's eyes when Max is dreaming in the rig. My favorite is the Thunderdome reference, when Max is collecting weapons from Furiosa and completely misses the knife hidden in something else. They don't draw attention to themselves, but they're there. Miller's idea of "fan service" is to remind you of what world you're in without saying "hey, everybody, remember The Road Warrior, that movie was really cool!" Like everything else, it's about the economy of storytelling: showing, not telling. We learn a lot about the Citadel and the various factions in Fury Road without exposition dumps.

 Take, for example, the moment that actually launches Fury Road: Furiosa's sudden turn left on the road to Gas Town. In most movies where someone working for a big bad guy decides to betray them, the people accompanying the "traitor" try to stop them, much to their detriment. What happens instead in Fury Road is an insight into the mentality of the War Boys. Without being told that they obey their power structure without question, we understand that they wouldn't dare question Furiosa when she says they're taking a "detour," even though she provides them with no explanation whatsoever. They fight for her and protect her, and end up dying to defend her mission without even knowing what she's trying to do.

 It's the same unquestioning loyalty Nux has for Immortan Joe for the first half of the film, and even though we don't know much about Furiosa or Joe, we know that no matter what they decide, the War Boys support them. Nux is functionally our gateway into the mindset of Warboys, who are so naïve and sheltered that he doesn't even know what a tree is. The brides, in contrast, seem to have a better understanding of Immortan Joe's propaganda, but some of them (Cheedo in particular) believe he's capable of forgiveness in the same way they are. They stop Furiosa from killing Nux and convince her (and Max) to let him help, and their mercy contributes to the success of their plan. They also contrast well with the Vuvalini, the tribe of warriors Furiosa comes from. There's a conversation between The Dag (Abbey Lee) and the Keeper of the Seeds (Melissa Jaffer) where the former expresses surprise at the latter's boast she's killed everyone she met in the wasteland. "I thought you'd be above all that," she muses.

 While I remain partial to The Humungus and admire the ambiguous threat that is Aunty, Immortan Joe is quickly rising on the list of "Mad Max villains." He's arguably just a combination of Humungus and Wez into one character, with a much better power structure, but Keays-Byrne conveys a sense of entitled insanity using only his eyes most of the film. He doesn't ever actually do anything other than drive, but the aggregate effect of his influence over the brides and the Warboys is palpable throughout the film. It raises the question of how someone so charismatic and control oriented would allow Furiosa to meet with the Rock Riders in the first place. He trusts her, and it's clear she's been in the Citadel since a very young age, but it seems unlikely that he authorizes trips anywhere other than Gas Town or the Bullet Farm. I'd also like to mention former WWE Smackdown Superstar Nathan Jones as Rictus Erectus, Immortan Joes' healthiest son (when you see Corpus Colossus, that will make more sense), who has a fantastic moment of pride when he announces that he had a baby brother, who was "perfect in every way!" He's surprisingly touching as the "heavy" of this film.

 I'll get to Tom Hardy in a moment, but there's no point in discussing the actors in Fury Road without taking some time to appreciate what Charlize Theron does as Furiosa. She emerges early in the film as fully formed, even though she has arguably less back story than even Max. We know Max - we've seen him before - but Furiosa effortlessly takes the stage and keeps the stakes high. Theron balances a steely determination with eyes that reflect doubt at every turn. She's not making a mistake in what she's doing, but is how she's doing it going to work? Can she really trust Max or Nux, or are they just going to hinder her? We know very little about her relationship with Immortan Joe - he obviously trusts his Imperator, to a fault, but if she's been in the Citadel since a very young age, in what capacity? Was Furiosa a bride before she lost her arm? How did she lose it? What about the skeleton stencil on the War Rig? Is that some kind of reference? There's a lot to wonder about them, all of which comes to a head when she growls "remember me" near the end of the film. What she's seeking "redemption" for isn't always clear, but we want her to find it, and so does Max.

 Oddly enough, Tom Hardy left less of an impression on me the first time I saw Fury Road. It wasn't until the second viewing that I really paid attention to Max, knowing where Furiosa's story was heading. Hardy has a strange balancing act, not quite sounding like Mel Gibson (or even Australian, at times), but still playing a character we know. I'm not going to lie that sometimes his pronunciation choices sounds just a little like Bane, but it was less distracting the second time. He's more chatty when tied to the front of Nux's car than I would have expected, but it's drowned out by the noise surrounding him. He's less chatty in the rest of the film, speaking more frequently through action (although the best moment in the movie happens off-screen). Hardy seems a little hampered by a character development I'll mention in a bit, but overall he assumes the role of Max well. It would have been interesting to see Gibson playing this part, but I think it might have radically changed the way audiences react to Max's fight with Furiosa.

Even after seeing the film for a second time, the feeling I came out with was still one of admiration. It's rare to see an action film that's so carefully constructed, so clearly thought out. These days I'll be happy for one that unobtrusively relies on quick edits or CG heavy sequences (Furious 7, I'm looking at you), but to see a film with action that's easy to follow and is still dynamic is really impressive. Georg Miller conveys his information visually, more so in Fury Road than in any of the other Mad Max films. He expands on the concept of post-apocalyptic "world building," but never lets it detract from the story. Everything you learn about the world surrounding the Citadel comes from seeing it and how the characters react. Something as simple as the people in stilts wandering through a radioactive swamp is evocative of a world we may never explore again. All of the tribes in the film are fully realized, even if we only get brief glimpses of them. It really is something to behold.

The one exception to this is an out of place reliance on Max's hallucinations / dreams about the people he couldn't save. I don't necessarily mind explaining to an audience thirty years later why the character is "mad," but the haunted quality is sometimes distracting from the immediacy of Fury Road. If I'm going to pick nits here, this is a recurrent them in Fury Road almost exclusively - Max never addresses things like this in The Road Warrior or Beyond Thunderdome. He doesn't say much of anything about his life "before" in either film, but I suppose if we're operating on the premise that there's no real chronology here, I can live with it. It keeps him alive at least once and is (mostly) resolved before he gets back to the Citadel, but even after the second viewing it sticks out to me. If the series continues - and announcements aside, there's no guarantee of that - I wouldn't miss dropping this version of "Mad" Max.

 Of course, it's nice that Mad Max: Fury Road is technically a reboot that's content to be self contained. In an age where every movie needs to have an opening for a trilogy or a spin-off, I find it refreshing that as much as I like Furiosa, we've probably seen as much of her as we'll ever seen. Knowing Miller's penchant for Mad Max continuity, it's very unlikely that a major character - even one as memorable as hers - will appear again. There's plenty of Wasteland to explore, more towns and world building, and while it doesn't feel like audiences I saw the film with really embraced Fury Road (half empty auditoriums will give you that impression), maybe there's a chance for one more down the line. If not, there are now three great Mad Max movies, and Thunderdome, which I think is still mostly pretty good. I can't complain about that. Hell, I might go see it on the big screen one more time - if you're going to see it (and you should), you owe it to yourself to see it as large as possible.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Retro Review: Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

 So there's some kind of Mad Max movie coming out this weekend, but I heard it sucks so there's no point in talking about that, right? Why waste time talking about some dumb reboot when we can discuss the true highlight of George Miller's post-apocalyptic saga, the only one to have earned its own dedicated Mystery Science Theater 3000 joke? Of course, I'm talking about Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, and all joking aside, I do actually like it. I know that Thunderdome is the "black sheep" of the Mad Max movies, if only because most people have only seen Mad Max 2 (The Road Warrior) and / or forget that Mad Max 1 (Mad Max) is nothing like its sequels, vehicular mayhem aside. That's okay, because they're kind of right to think that Thunderdome is not as good as The Road Warrior, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have its charms. As long as those charms don't involve the term "Captain Walker".

 There's significantly less vehicular mayhem on display for most of Beyond Thunderdome, starting with the fact that Max (Mel Gibson) is riding on a camel-drawn truck, which he quickly loses to Jedediah (Bruce Spence), who is not the gyro-copter pilot from The Road Warrior* but is another pilot who has a son (Adam Cockburn). We don't even know it's Max right away, but I mean, who else is the movie going to start with? Max has scraggly, long hair, and one of his eyes is a different color after the crash Wez (Vernon Miller) caused in the last movie, but it's still him. He's understandably not pleased that someone knocked him off of his vehicle and took it, so he follows the trail of detritus to Barter Town. If you meet somebody who will admit to liking Thunderdome (as I do), this section of the film is probably their favorite part. It is for me, but that's because I'm a sucker for world-building in post-apocalyptic cinema, and Barter Town is a great example of how humanity reforms itself after collapse.

 Max has to enter with the rabble, because who is he? Nobody. No one in Barter Town cares that he used to be a cop or that he saved a whole community and smuggled out their gasoline from Lord Humungus (Kjell Nilsson) that one time. Those stories don't get passed around until the Feral Kid (Emil Minty) grows up, anyway. To Barter Town, he's just some dude who walked in, just like everybody else. He doesn't have anything worth trading with The Collector (Frank Thring) at the gate, so he has to be a little more, shall we say, persuasive, but you still have to turn in your weapons or get lost. You can keep the flyswatter, I guess. The pilot has to be here somewhere, so Max has one hour to find him. Instead, he meets Aunty (Tina Turner)**, and her goons.

 Aunty likes Max's moxie, and when he dispatches some goons with the knife hidden inside his flyswatter, she's even more impressed. Like Max, Aunty was someone else before, and she senses that he's resilient, and adaptable. Mostly that he's dangerous, which is good, because Aunty has a problem. She likes to think she runs Barter Town, but there's a bit of a power struggle. See, in order to keep the power running, she needs the generator to keep running, and only Master (Angelo Rositto) knows how to keep the pig shit / methane production going underground. Master's a diminutive fellow, but that's why he has Blaster (Paul Larsson) as his muscle. As long as Master Blaster is a unit, Aunty doesn't really run Barter Town. Master runs Barter Town, and if he feels he's being slighted, he cuts the power off to prove it.

 The way that Master and Blaster are introduced leans heavily on presenting them as antagonists, even though there's clearly something about Aunty that's not to be trusted. Max goes down to Underworld, where Master runs everything, in order to learn more about Blaster. If he can defeat him in combat, everything the pilot stole will be returned to him, plus methane. Of course, once he's down there, it becomes clear who has his truck: Master. Max rigged it to explode, so any attempts to repair it have been thwarted. Master draws a hard line with Max, but in the process reveals Blaster has a weakness: high pitched sounds, including a penny whistle that Max has been carrying around. Max takes Aunty's offer and we're off to Thunderdome. Two men enter. One man leaves.

 It goes without saying that the Thunderdome portion is the best part of the movie, not only because it's an inventive, exciting action sequence, but also because it has some of the best examples of world-building in the film. Aunty keeps the citizens and criminals of Barter Town in line by giving them gladiatorial-like combat, provided in a dome they can hang onto. She also gives them easy to remember catchphrases to keep them invested: "Two men enter. One man leaves." "You break the deal, you spin the wheel." Nobody watching Max fighting Blaster seems to know or care about the stakes, and it's not necessarily clear that anyone cares who really runs Barter Town. There's a fight in Thunderdome, and Blaster is the reigning champ. There is, of course, another twist, one that we find out at the same time Max does, that almost immediately reverses our sympathies towards the otherwise loathsome Master. Aunty gets what she wants, even when Max "breaks the deal," and he has to "spin the wheel". Luckily for Max, he lands on "Gulag". It may not be so lucky for us.

 So Aunty ships off Max, on the back of a horse with a paper mache mask, into the desert, thus exiting the "Barter Town" section of the film. Unfortunately, it ushers in the "Never, Neverland" portion of Beyond Thunderdome, which feels like it belongs in a different movie. Mostly because it does: the original concept, prior to being appropriated into a Mad Max film, was about a group of children left alone in the post-apocalypse, who form their own Peter Pan-esque society. It turns out that when you drop Max into the equation, that doesn't harmonize as well as one might think. I'm not opposed to juxtaposing the hardened Max Rockatansky with innocent children, many of whom seem to have completely forgotten about the plane crash they survived (and almost everything else), but the mid-section of Beyond Thunderdome grinds whatever narrative progress there was to a halt. Okay, the children think he's "Captain Walker," the pilot of the plane they crashed in who left to get help. Only he's not, and they figure that out, but decide they can still find the "Tomorrow-Morrow Land" Captain Walker promised them, so he reluctantly follows them back into the desert. I wonder where they'll end up?

 In the defense of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, things do pick up when they decide to rescue Master and escape using the locomotive he lives in, with the help of Jebediah and son. The chase scene is largely what Miller directed (George Ogilvie handled the rest of the movie), and it's reminiscent of some of the better moments in Mad Max and The Road Warrior, even if the comically un-killable Ironbar (Angry Anderson) eats up much of the screen time. The ending is surprisingly reminiscent of The Road Warrior, substituting Savannah (Helen Buday) for the Feral Child, as Max once again becomes a story of a budding society. Epilogue aside, I do appreciate the last scene between Max and Aunty, when she and her gang have him dead to rights, having once again separated from the others in an act of sacrifice. There's no reason she shouldn't kill him, having functionally ruined Barter Town and costing her Master, but she just laughs and lets Max go. There's the grudging respect between two survivors we saw early in the film, and after everything goes to hell, what's the point in killing him? We don't need another hero. He's alone in the desert, and she's going back to Barter Town. Let the chips fall where they may.

  To be honest with you, despite being a studio mandated "American" presence for this Mad Max sequel, I really like Tina Turner as Aunty. There's a lot about this movie that seems kind of like a watered down version of Mad Max, but Turner seems really invested in playing this ridiculous character with her ridiculous haircut. She's an equal onscreen with the not quite Lethal Weapon-level famous Gibson (one could argue that Tina Turner was a bigger star than Mel Gibson in 1985), and even though he destroys everything she built, something tells me that Aunty will be all right. She'll set up shop again, re-open Thunderdome, and Barter Town will be back. Meanwhile, Max will roam the wasteland, hopefully not running into more kids. I guess maybe the brides of  Immortan Joe or Toecutter or whatever he's calling himself. Max will get his Interceptor back and somehow be younger or something. You know, reboot crap.

 I mean, if we're being honest here, there's no way that Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome isn't a better movie than Mad Max: Fury Road. Even with the stupid kids. No chance I could eat crow or something like that. Happy 30th, Thunderdome. You might not be everybody's favorite Mad Max movie - or anybody's - but you're good enough for me.

* Or maybe it is. It depends on what story you hear or what person is citing George Miller at what point. A similar problem exists when you try to figure out whether Mad Max: Fury Road is a reboot or whether it fits somewhere between The Road Warrior and Thunderdome, or after Thunderdome, because over the last five years, Miller has vacillated a bit about that. Although the current position is that it's a reboot. A terrible, no good, nobody likes it, reboot.

** I know the credits say "Aunty Entity," but I challenge you to find me any point in the movie where someone says the word "Entity" in relation to her. Hell, Max only says his name one, and that's to Master.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Blogorium Review: Lost River

 Now it might just be the Cap'n against the critical community here, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Lost River is getting pummeled less because of what's in the movie than because of who made it. That's not to say that Lost River isn't a mess - and at times a hot mess at that - but it's a far cry from the disaster you'd think it would be reading the Rotten Tomatoes reviews*. It's somewhere between the two: a stylistic, albeit sloppy exercise in mood over narrative, with a very good cast that keep things from falling apart. Most of the time, anyway. If you choose to buy into the "urban fairytale" perspective, some of the logical ellipses are less problematic. As a directorial debut, Lost River isn't a disaster for internet meme Ryan Gosling, but there are some areas he could work on before (or if?) he makes another film.

 Before I jump into the movie, let's juxtapose Lost River with another actor-turned-director debut from not long ago, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Don Jon. I mentioned the "internet meme" adjective(?) before Gosling's name because by and large, that's how people think of him. He's an actor who was making fairly bland romantic comedies or dramas and was considered harmless enough that there are hundreds of "hey girl" memes out there devoted to his inoffensiveness. Hell, I made a few of them, based on the juxtaposition between his "romantic" phase vs. the newer, indie-er fare. The transition from The Notebook to Only God Forgives seems to rankle some folks, and I guess that's how we ended up here. It's funny, because Gordon-Levitt is considered more "likable" - for whatever that's worth - or is more favorable, so when he made Don Jon, it received mostly positive marks. Kind of a "wow, good for him" vibe.

 And don't get me wrong, I like Don Jon, both as a movie and as a directorial debut. It gets a lot of mileage out of Gordon-Levitt's charisma, and that helps smooth over the fact that the flashy beginning fades away into a wholly conventional conclusion. Gosling isn't on camera in Lost River, but a few people he worked with before are, specifically from his "serious" phase: Christina Hendricks (Drive), and Ben Mendelsohn and Eva Mendes (The Place Beyond the Pines). Also along for the ride are Ian De Caestecker (Filth), Saoirse Ronan (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Matt Smith (Doctor Who), and Barbara Steele (Black Sunday), although her role amounts to little more than a glorified cameo, as she's mostly catatonic during the film.

 In the town of Lost River, everything is falling apart. Literally. Buildings that aren't being demolished are crumbling, abandoned, as residents pack up and move out. Billy (Hendricks) lives in her grandmother's old house with Bones (De Caestecker) and Franky (Landyn Stewart). Bones has been stealing copper from abandoned buildings in order to sell it to fix his car, but he won't leave without his mother and little brother. Billy won't leave, even though she's three months behind on the mortgage and the bank marks the house for demolition. Stealing copper has put Bones on the bad side of Bully (Smith), a vicious thug who claims to "own" any abandoned territory in Lost River. Bully's violent predilections threaten to affect both Bones and Rat (Ronan), a neighbor who lives with her Grandma (Steele), who only watches videos of her wedding from decades ago. Rat and Bones discuss the origins of the town's name after Bones discovers streetlights leading away from Bully's hideout into the water. The old town was flooded in the 1960s, and Rat believes that Lost River is cursed. In order to set things right, Bones takes a particularly unusual reading of "kill the dragon" literally and heads underwater, even as Bully closes in on him.

  I've seen quite a few reviews compare Lost River to David Lynch (often unfavorably), which is odd to me, because it seems like another example of "tie something to David Lynch because it's 'weird'". If you really want to throw lofty comparisons out there, the beginning of Lost River is reminiscent of The Tree of Life, both in Gosling's focus on the children, but also his choice of camera angles. In reality, I'm much more inclined to say that if Lost River resembles any other films, stylistically, it would be fair to say that Gosling picked up a lot from Nicolas Winding Refn and Derek Cianfrance, who he's been working with recently. There's a heavy does of Only God Forgives' fluorescent lighting clashing with the natural ambience of The Place Beyond the Pines, somewhat uncomfortably, to be honest. It's hard to tell what the geography of Lost River is, because Gosling filmed in Detroit (it's fairly evident when you watch the film, especially if you've seen Only Lovers Left Alive or It Follows), but where Billy's house is in relation to the city or how far Bully's hideout (an old zoo) is from Rat's house is really unclear. You have to take a car or a taxi to get from where they live to downtown, but Bones can walk unfettered between apartment complexes and the woods where the river is.

 The most "Lynch-ian" element would be, I suppose, the "club" that Dave (Mendelsohn) operates in Lost River. He's taken over as the manager on foreclosures at the bank, and whenever he moves into a town, Dave sets up a club catering to fans of Grand Guignol enthusiasts, where women entertain the audience before being brutally murdered. That's how Billy meets Cat (Mendes), the star attraction of Dave's show. She's friendly, blasé about the bloodletting (it's all for show, anyway), and at Dave's behest, offers Billy a job to help pay that mortgage off. She also shows Billy the "downstairs" section, which involve private rooms and some sort of device the girls can "lock" themselves into while clients... do something. It's the most abstract element of an already abstract narrative, and other than bringing Dave and Billy's relationship to its logical conclusion, serves little purpose other than to be menacing and slightly weird. Far more interesting are the girls routines, particularly Billy's. I'm not sure if the acts are meant to be some kind of magical realism or simply artifice, but I seriously doubt she could put together hers in three days. It's grotesque, but a highlight of the film.

 Matt Smith is easily the other high point of Lost River; as Bully, he's a true threat to anyone and everyone he comes into contact with. Long before we see what he likes to do with his scissors (and, believe me, if Billy's act doesn't scare away the squeamish, what he does to his sidekick Mouth certainly will), we know to fear him. Bones drops all of the copper he's found the moment he sees Bully waiting outside of the school he's been pillaging. If you only know Smith at the Eleventh Doctor, you're in for a real surprise. He's terrifying without having to say a word, using his lanky frame to impose, his face twisted, capable of snapping at a moment's notice. Even when he's being nice (as he seems to be while driving Rat home), there's a palpable tension. This man is Evil, and you should not upset him.

 Likewise, but to a lesser degree, people who only know Hendricks as Joan from Mad Men or De Caestecker as Fitz in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will be pleasantly surprised to see them in different sorts of parts. Although, I'd hesitate to say there's much in the way of "characters" to speak of: the fact that many of them don't have names should be an indicator of just how closely Gosling hews to the "fairy tale" aspect of Lost River. Bones and Rat are more or less thinly sketched out collections of "traits," and Bully is, strictly speaking, just the monster. Dave has a bit more nuance, only because there's so much we don't know about him during the film. Unfortunately, while nobody really has a character arc to speak of, Dave gets the most build up for a quickly glossed over moment of dramatic irony (tied to the fact that he continually mentions being deaf in one ear).

  Only the legendary Barbara Steele feels wasted, spending most of the film sitting in a chair, a funeral veil covering her face. She only has a moment or two with Ronan onscreen, when the tape stops playing and Rat finds her cowering in the room, unsure of what to do with herself. Other than being a sort of jumping off point for exposition - how Rat would know what she knows about Lost River - Steele serves little purpose in the film, and it's debatable that just having her there at all is more important than not having that character. Billy is underdeveloped, which wouldn't matter as much if the middle of Lost River didn't shift so heavily in her direction. Gosling seems to be unclear whose story the film is: Billy's or Bones', so he alternates, haphazardly, between the two, without ever really bringing them together at the end.

 The issues with who (or what) Lost River is about are indicative of the overall sloppy nature of Gosling's writing and direction. As a mood piece, the film is certainly worth seeing. As a film, it falls short of the mark and is often too confused about where it was aiming for in the first place. But as I stressed at the outset of the review, it's nowhere near the disaster that critics claim it is. It's appeal is limited, yes, but there's enough to appreciate about what Gosling was trying to do that I can think of a few people I know who might enjoy it. I've heard the phrase "overindulgent" lobbied at Lost River, and while I don't necessarily agree with it, there is an at times deliberately obtuse way in which Gosling presents information.

 His visual metaphors are obvious, but their purpose is often times unclear, or at best poorly conveyed. There's a continued through line of juxtaposing fire and water, which seems to relate to his uncomfortable shoehorning of "slaying the dragon" into the narrative. It's introduction into the film is more problematic than how Bones finally "lifts" the curse on the town, and I give Gosling credit for finding an arresting image on which to close out the film. On the other hand, the resolution of Dave and Bully as alternate antagonists feels rushed, as though an afterthought. Bully, in particular, exits the film in such an anticlimactic manner that you might miss what's actually happening to him - the shot preceding his last moment is a perfect example of the "fire / water" theme, but it's barely onscreen long enough for it to resonate. There's also a questionable issue of geography (again).

 And yet, despite all of this, I kind of liked Lost River. I would certainly be interested in seeing what Gosling the director does next, although Gosling the writer could use some fine tuning. Many of the films problems are less on what's on screen than in the translation from what they were supposed to mean. If anything. To suggest the film might be "Lynchian" in the sense that what's on screen was never meant to refer to something specific, or to defy conventional explanation might be fair. But by the same token, Gosling is utilizing well worn themes and archetypes in ways that conform to traditional fairy tale structures. It's a combination that could work, but doesn't necessarily in this case. That said, there are many striking moments and visuals in Lost River, enough to keep adventurous viewers engaged between scenes of leaden exposition. If nothing else, it's a real showcase for Matt Smith, who makes the strongest impression with a character we barely know. His feral performance kept me invested for most of the film. Lost River, while not an unmitigated disaster, is a curio: a rough draft, a sketch of a mood piece, that maybe needed more refining. That's not what we got, and your mileage may vary about whether it's worth seeing, but don't (necessarily) believe the hype. A noble failure might still be a failure, but it's not a train wreck just because the director is easy to ridicule.

 * I realize that this shouldn't be used as the sole barometer of the quality of a film, but the site does give you a good idea of what a wide swath of critics think about a movie.