Mad Max: Fury Road

20 May

There is a car chase in Michael Bay’s The Rock that became instantaneously famous when the movie debuted in 1996. This action sequence, involving Nicolas Cage pursuing Sean Connery through the streets of San Francisco, completely changed the way action sequences were shot and edited in Hollywood. It also is annoying and frustrating and not very good.

The Rock‘s car chase is certainly is visceral and intense. So is accidentally sticking your hand into a Cuisinart. Neither are much fun and both eventually are a complete mess. The main problem in The Rock‘s car chase is that everything is shot so close and edited so tight there is very little spatial sense of what is happening. Where the hell is anyone in relation to anyone else? A car chase is suspenseful only if we know what is going on: is Cage one block or ten blocks behind Connery? How can there be suspense if we don’t know?

Re-watching it, the sequence is rather tame by today’s standards because what it began has intensified and ramped up so ridiculously. Movies like Man of Steel and The Furious Saga are shot and edited so close, so fast… and often so dark… that all spatial sense goes entirely out the window. These movies no longer are about actual suspense, narrative tension or, god forbid, character. They are designed instead to bludgeon the audience into submission.

The use of CGI has also completely taken over these movies, actors mostly performing in front of green screens with everything digitally created around them. Consequently, nothing we see can actually happen in real life which also drains the action of any real intensity.

All of which is why George Miller’s long gestating Mad Max: Fury Road, six days now in theaters, is so incredibly thrilling, exhilarating and, please Lord, game changing. 

Mad Max Fury Road 9

Given that everything about Fury Road is awesome and mind-blowing, I will only cover a few things here. Let’s start, however, with the spatial. George Miller is not just a visionary (see almost any image within this often gorgeous movie). Miller is a master at coherent, definable space. Coherent does not mean tame! Much of this movie is absolutely insane. Take, for instance, the much talked about blind bungee jumping guitar player, hung from the front of a massive rig, who plays a real flame-throwing guitar as he blindly bungee jumps:

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Insane! But whatever is happening in Fury Road, no matter how chaotic, fast or explosive, we the audience always know exactly what is going on. Who is doing what. Where people are in relationship to one another. What is at stake. (We will get to the fact something is indeed actually at stake in a moment.)

Miller’s directing, editing, planning and use of the frame is ingenious and purposeful. It always makes sense. If we happen to be momentarily confused about something, that, too, is purposeful, Miller withholding information for a time to keep us leaning forward and to surprise us later. This understanding of the spatial alone means Fury Road should and will be taught frame for frame in directing classes for years to come. 

Then there is the CGI or, rather, the incredible lack of it. Miller is obsessed with everything happening for real. Sure there are a few CGI effects, such as the amazing desert storm with tornadoes that ends the first Act.

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Yes they also used some CGI to wipe away safety wires. But that’s pretty much it. If you see it in Fury Road, it happened. Which makes the movie incredibly organic, tangible and breathtaking. As Miller said, “We didn’t defy the laws of physics. These are real people in real cars in a real desert.” It might be cool to see amazing digital effects but the real life stunts and real life consequences in Fury Road blow away anything that’s been on screen. 

So if you see a blind bungee jumping guitar player, playing a guitar that is also a flame thrower, you can know Miller made a real guy spend six real weeks learning how to play a real guitar, while blindfolded, on a real bungee cord, while it threw real flames. You even hear his actual music in the movie (click here for more).

If you see guys on motorcycles fly over other vehicles to throw down grenades, it happened.

Or if you see this, it happened:

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As did this:

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If you see Tom Hardy hanging upside down between two huge mack truck wheels speeding thru the desert, his head inches above the ground, it happened.:

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And when you sit, after 100 minutes or so, unable to breathe, wondering how on earth they might top themselves, as surely Miller could come up with nothing else as mind-blowing as what you have already seen, this happens:

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Not even Miller thought these ‘pole-cats’ could be done for real, so crazy insane is this final action sequence. Yet with the help of an amazing team and Cirque de Soleil performers, this astounding sequence also happened. And it shows. (Even Tom Hardy, afraid of heights, swung around on these poles for a while.)

Best of all, when you see 80 or so vehicles speeding across a desert or through a canyon, as the camera swoops perfectly choreographed above, it happened. The effect is stunning. Unlike most action sequences of late, Miller knows that what is truly mind-blowing are wide shots. Because when done real time, they cannot be faked. Fury Road is filled with some of the most deliriously epic and stunning wide shots every to be seen on camera. 

Importantly, the movie isn’t devoid of character or depth. As crazy as the movie often is, there are moments of amazing beauty and haunting quiet. Much has been made of the fact the movie is actually about Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, the strongest female character to hit the screen since Ellen Ripley.

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Her performance is kick-ass, as is the character. All the characters have depth. Which lends the movie gravity. When two superheroes are flying around slamming into buildings, and ‘the world’ is at stake, nothing is really at stake because you know the superhero is never going to die, nor is the world going to end. It’s wildly different here. No one is safe and the physical consequences to the action and violence are real. Additionally, unlike most action movies, Miller is willing and able to stop the action for quiet and moving moments such as Furiosa’s devastating reaction here:

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Mad Max: Fury Road is an incredible, astounding achievement in cinema. Miller long has been one of our best and most inventive directors. Unlike many, he has directed great movies in various genres, from action to comedy to kid’s movies to heartfelt, impassioned drama. Here, at age 70, he has topped even himself and outshone ‘bad ass’ directors well under half his age.

As one critic said, Fury Road “will burn your face off”.  I cannot deny this is true, I’ve had my face burned off twice. I will be back soon for a third facial. Miller and Fury Road are astounding.

 

“Sunday Gravy”

5 Mar

 

A bowl of Sunday Gravy

A bowl of Sunday Gravy

Occasionally in life you meet someone who truly changes your life. This happened to me in 1998 when I decided the time was right to buy a house. On the advice of a friend, I met with a realtor, Phyllis Harb, who took me on as a client. Two and a half dizzying weeks later I found myself in escrow on a beat up but amazing old fixer-upper that is probably the house in which I will die.

Finding the house and fixing it up is a story for another day.  And if that were my only interaction with Phyllis, I would be blessed because not only has the house changed my life, she is an amazing person who guides you through a very stressful time.  Thankfully that was not my only interaction with her.  Over the years she has become a dear and trusted friend.  Phyllis is one of the more thoughtful and generous persons I’ve ever met.

Phyllis herself has a wonderful home and once a year or so she will have a few ‘former clients’ over for cocktails and dinner.  Last year about ten of us showed up for her version of what East Coast Italians call ‘Sunday Gravy’, a meat laden tomato sauce Esquire described as “A sacred meal for a sacred day born in the kitchen of an Italian-American family.”

Phyllis's kitchen during the process

Phyllis’ kitchen during the process

As any follower of this blog knows, I love tomatoes and love me a great tomato sauce. I’ve already done posts on tomato sauce here and here and here. When Phyllis served us this deep rich sauce over pasta, however,  I knew I was going to do another post because when I took my first bite, I thought I was going to die. It was so @#%#$ good!! Once again, Phyllis changed my life. I told her that night she had to teach me how to make it and she readily agreed.

Just a few of the ingredients

Just a few of the ingredients

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Two pots toward the end of the process.

This is an amazing sauce. It’s incredibly thick, marvelously so. Packed with meat, it has a rich, divine flavor. I served a batch on Oscar night and everyone at my house declared it the best red sauce they had ever eaten. It truly is that good.

Pork Roast for the sauce

Pork Roast for the sauce

Some of the meat from the sauce, and blueberry cobblers ready for the oven.

Some of the pork from the near finished sauce, and blueberry cobblers ready for the oven.

As for learning how to make it, Phyllis and I both stay pretty busy so it took a while but a few Sundays ago I showed up at her house at 8:30 AM for a day long lesson on “Sunday Gravy.” Phyllis learned this from her grandmother, who in turn learned it from her husband’s family in Palermo, Italy. This gravy has credentials, people!

It is not hard to make, but it is time consuming: we started at 8:30 AM and the sauce was ready around 6 PM. Trust me, it’s worth the effort. Make it alone on a day you can be in the kitchen most of the time. Or have some friends over and get them to join in the fun. I love scheduling a day where I am in the kitchen all day, cooking a variety of things, usually doubling recipes to have food to freeze (this ‘gravy’ freezes beautifully), listening to music, working on the computer as food simmers and, of course, drinking wine. It’s 5 o’clock somewhere. You will have a wonderful day and the payoff will be incredible. 

A bowl of Sunday Gravy

A bowl of Sunday Gravy

Note: for those who need very specific recipes in order to cook, this will be a little scary! But don’t let the unspecificity deter you. Follow the general guidelines of the recipe, throwing things in the pot at the specific times and you will end up with a dream sauce that will please anyone to whom you serve it. There’s a reason this “gravy” is made on Sunday. It’s heavenly.

Click here for the recipe and many more photos: Phyllis Harb’s Sunday Gravy.

One final important note! Phyllis’ daughter, Krissy, who helped us with the sauce and made the day even that much more enjoyable, works for an amazing Olive Oil company, Kiler Ridge. We used this olive oil with the sauce and it made it even that much better. Link below:

www.kilerridge.com

 

 

Shameless Self-Promotion ’15

25 Feb

Apologies in advance, I do this once a year.

But I do have something original to post! 

Cinema Language Logo

As readers of the blog know, I teach a filmmaking seminar once or twice a year in Los Angeles: Cinema Language: The Art Of Storytelling. This year Cinema Language is the weekend of March 7-8. We present it in the gorgeous Charlie Chaplin Theatre on the Raleigh Studios backlot. While I teach individual seminars all over the country as well as Graduate Screenwriting at Pepperdine University, this is a fun, intensive weekend for film professionals and film buffs alike, an encapsulation of what I teach all year long. The class is always filled with interesting people with whom you can network and discourse. (This is all in relation to my “sister blog” CinemaLanguage.org.)

*** If any readers of the blog are interested in coming, comment below and I will give you a great deal! We have people coming this March from as far as London! It should be another great weekend, we would love to have you.

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One fun recent occurrence that happened because of Cinema Language: I was asked to do an interview for NPR. I am a big fan of the great editor Chuck Workman. His Oscar-winning tribute to movies, Precious Images, literally changed my life when I saw it on the big screen in college. In part as a tribute to him, I cut a 3 minute movie-montage, which you can see below. One of my favorite NPR reporters, Neda Ulaby, found it online and called me in to NPR West to talk about Workman. Her piece ended up on Weekend Edition Saturday with Scott Simon. You can hear the piece here:

NPR Interview

And if you have not yet seen it, here is my Workman-style montage which I use to start the class each time I teach.

Thanks as always for reading. My next post is going to be one of the best, a fun and delicious post about a mind-blowing recipe a very good friend taught me last weekend. Stay tuned!

Your “Go To” Dip for 2015

23 Jan


I am blessed with three wonderful sisters, Diane, Jeanye and Ruth. They came into my life in my 20’s, when my mother remarried after my father died. I’ve had many wonderful and hilarious times with all three ever since. They are the best.

Jeanye and I are addicted to cards and will play for hours at a stretch. Which means, of course, we need some ‘nibbles’, as she likes to call them, while we play. Sustenance is important, right? (It also keeps the mind sharp for kicking ass at cards… We are a little competitive.) The last time we played at her house, she combined the remains of two left over store-bought items on a whim: pimento cheese and a corn salad.

We inhaled it.

It was so good I was determined to create a homemade version. After a few rounds of experimenting, I present you a dip you will make for the rest of your life. This stuff is good. Because of the ingredients, it also lasts a while in the fridge. I always double it, in fact. So make a big batch, serve with vegetables and/or crackers, and enjoy.

This is perfect for the Super Bowl, btw.

Oh and importantly, for the Southerners anyway, this is the best pimento cheese recipe ever, one I’ve come up with by combining a few recipes over the years. Make just the pimento cheese for the best pimento cheese sandwich on the planet.

 

Pim Cheese corn dip

Pimento Cheese Jalapeño Corn Dip

 

For the recipe, click here —>  Continue reading

Favorite Films of 14

9 Jan

It’s been a different year for movies. A good friend of mine noted there didn’t seem to be any big ‘Oscar movies’, nothing that screamed Must see! or that has a lock on Best Picture… and that is true. But for me, this has been a good thing. In an age where so many movies are huge depressing blockbusters: sequels ad nauseam with the same old, same old tired CGI action that makes me numb, my personal favorites of the year were movies that were small, indie and often very weird. Some of these even blew me away.

In no specific order:

EDGE OF TOMORROW / LIVE. DIE. REPEAT

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Whoa, whoa, whoa! Isn’t this the type of big budget blockbuster you were slamming above?

Actually… no. This terrific, very smart, very suspenseful movie is what every big budget action movie should be. It’s the most sheer fun I had at the movies all year. A blast of a picture, Edge Of Tomorrow (or Live. Die. Repeat.) is extremely clever and, along with terrific supporting performances, has two kick-ass lead performances by Tom Cruise and the heavenly Emily Blunt. Wretchedly marketed by Warner Bros, (the movie’s name has even changed!) the ads looked like same old same old and revealed none of the humor (it is very funny), none of the romance (it has a heartbreaking romantic subplot) and hid just how good Tom Cruise was as he played one of the great cowards ever to be portrayed onscreen. That’s right, a total, yellow bellied coward. I confess, I love the guy, he is a superb actor (watch Magnolia if you disagree) and he clearly had a ball playing very against type. You probably missed it on the big screen, which is a bummer, but see it anyway. It’s a @%#$ blast.

 

SNOWPIERCER

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This is a wild, weird, phenomenal twist on the action thriller by one of the most inventive directors alive, Joon-Ho Bong. Very hard to describe, the entire movie takes place on a futuristic speeding train containing all that is left of humanity. With splendid action scenes and extremely inventive set pieces (wait until you get to the ‘classroom scene’ with a deliriously upbeat Allison Pill) Snowpiercer has a wild, weird sensibility that is all Bong, who also directed the equally wild and wonderful movies The Host and Mother. Chris Evans does his best work yet on screen. He’s terrific. As are all the supporting players. And then there’s Oscar Winner Tilda Swinton. Her part, Mason, was written for a man. When she was cast, they changed not a word, she transformed her appearance and this remarkable, fearless actress gives a hilarious, biting performance unlike anything you’ve ever seen. While the movie is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, it has a classic revenge suspense plot holding it together that will keep you leaning forward. Experience something wonderful and trippy. See this movie.

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**For the rest of my “Best of”, click here —>  Continue reading

A Perfect Christmas Cocktail

15 Dec

From Thanksgiving stuffing to Christmas Cocktails, ’tis the season! I have a number of blog posts lined up but have been so busy I cannot find time to finish any of them. Sounds like a good New Years Resolution… “Finish Blog Posts!” Of course the effect any resolution has on me is less than nil. We will see what happens in January.

In the meantime, here is a cocktail for your holiday celebrating that is just about perfect. My twist on the great Gramercy Tavern‘s Cranberry Daiquiri.

Cranberry Daiquiri

Cranberry Daiquiri

 

Understand, I am not a fan of sweet drinks. The fact I love this cocktail and will happily drink it in lieu of a martini says a lot about how wonderful it tastes.

The daiquiri takes a little prep, both getting the right rum and making Cranberry Syrup. Make a big batch of the syrup, however, and you are ready anytime between now and Epiphany to make the cocktail.

People go crazy over this, trust me.

Since we are talking cocktails, I’ve also included another drink I will humbly admit I have become famous for, my version of a classic Manhattan. So invite some people over, make some goat cheese spread (A Near Perfect Food, my first post) and have a blessed Christmas season. Gourmet magazine’s Baked Cheddar Olives are another sublime appetizer to serve.

For two amazing cocktail recipes, click here —>  Continue reading

Stuffing!

20 Nov

Stuffing! 

There are few things I love more than Thanksgiving. And there are few things I love more on Thanksgiving than stuffing. Just in time for the big day, then, a stuffing post. 

Or do you call it dressing??

We grew up calling it stuffing. Even though we never stuffed a bird. My mom thought it was a bit gross to stuff a bird. Subsequently I never stuff the bird either. I hear from my dear and trusted friend Phyllis that stuffing the bird creates incredibly moist, tasty stuffing. I will have to try it sometime!

Thanksgiving Table 2013

Thanksgiving Table 2013

One thing I love about stuffing is how versatile it can be. Mom, for instance, made an incredible shrimp and crabmeat stuffing I can still taste to this day. During the year she would also make a southwestern stuffing, with green chilis, black olives and cheese. A good basic stuffing recipe is incredibly adaptable to almost any flavor. 

There is also the question as to white bread or corn bread. I say, why choose? Each year I have one of each at the table. So whether you call it dressing or stuffing or, um, Stove Top (Never, Ever, Ever), below are two terrific stuffing recipes, from two very good friends. Both these recipes are so good, I make them not only at Thanksgiving but throughout the year when I have that craving for stuffing. 

Remember first a few general stuffing notes:

* Stuffing tastes better over time so you can ease your Thanksgiving by making the stuffing the day before or even days ahead. Bake it, then it can sit in the fridge a day or two, getting more flavorful, or you can make it even a week before, freeze it, then reheat it (my trick.)

* You can make fresh vegetable stock in 30 minutes or fresh chicken stock in less than an hour. Fresh stock makes a world of difference. Just do it. Click here.

* Stuffing is not an exact science. I never ever follow these recipes to the exact amount and the stuffing is always is wonderful. Just taste as you go!

For the recipes, click here —>  Continue reading

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