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FilmWatch Weekly: ‘Furiosa’ earns her name, ‘Babes’ is fertile and funny, and ‘Wildcat’ explores the life and work of Flannery O’Connor

Anya Taylor-Joy hits the road to revenge in the latest installment in George Miller's "Mad Max" saga.

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Anya Taylor-Joy in “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga”

Who says they don’t write diverse roles for women these days? This weekend alone brings us a post-apocalyptic revenge monster, an ambivalent but hilarious single mom-to-be, and a tortured literary icon of the American South. What more could one want as far as female representation?

(I’m kidding, of course. There’s still a mountain to claim before anything close to genuine equity will exist. But this sampling is at least a start…)

Rarely has a character been more aptly named than the heroine of Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga. First played by Charlize Theron in 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road and now embodied by Anya Taylor-Joy in George Miller’s full-throttle prequel, Furiosa’s shift to the other side of the titular colon is significant. She out-badassed Tom Hardy nine years ago, and now we get to see exactly how she got that way.

It ain’t pretty. Miller spends about the first hour of Furiosa reminding us that the Mad Max universe is a post-apocalyptic one. It may look supercool when a dirt bike jumps over a massive tractor-trailer rig with a dude playing a flame-shooting guitar strapped to its radiator, but these sorts of shenanigans wouldn’t be necessary if humanity had managed to prevent the world (or at least Australia) from descending into a resource-starved, Hobbesian hellscape. In that vein, we’re introduced to Furiosa as a child, living in a matriarchal oasis called Vuvalini (a bit on the nose, eh?) before being almost immediately abducted by a band of ugly, nasty bikers.

She then spends the first hour or so of the film as the captive of Dr. Dementus. (No, not the lovable, top-hatted popularizer of oddball music.) He’s played by an eventually red-bearded, scenery-chewing Chris Hemsworth, and we no longer have to wonder what the Avengers movies would have been like with Charlton Heston as Thor. The balance between Dementus’s cartoonish posturing and the strongly hinted, if not explicitly rendered, violent atrocities he commits, orders, or at least tolerates isn’t perfectly struck. But by the time Taylor-Joy makes her impressive entrance, we know enough not to question Furiosa’s unrelenting drive for merciless retribution.

Narratively, the movie is occupied with two things. One is filling in the gaps in Furiosa’s resume. How did she end up working for Immortan Joe (Lachy Hulme, taking over for the late Hugh Keays-Byrne)? When did she shave her head? And what happened to her other arm? These are all answered in somewhat perfunctory fashion. The second is following her somewhat suspense-free (spoiler: she survives) revenge tour.

Fury Road, coming two decades after the previous Mad Max film, was a quantum leap in vehicular mayhem and other death-defying stunt work. Furiosa isn’t as awe-inspiring, but it does work in some nice variations on the same themes, including paragliders for aerial attacks and the world’s most formidable pair of truck nutz. The digital enhancements that were so seamless in its predecessor are a bit more obvious, too. Which is not to say that the movie’s ever boring, just that there are moments where the mind might wander. I found myself musing about whether Immortan Joe’s War Rig can haul enough gasoline to make up for all that’s consumed during its, and its support vehicles’, cross-desert caravans.

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I’ll admit to being skeptical that Taylor-Joy, best-known for more indoor roles such as those in Last Night in Soho, The Queen’s Gambit, and The Menu, was up to matching the grueling physical performance and aura of menace that Theron brought to the role. But her relative fragility makes it even clearer that Furiosa’s most dangerous weapon isn’t her body or the weapons it wields, but her Omega-level willpower, forged in barbarity and presented as an example of the comeuppance we’ll all be due if we don’t start taking better care of the place we live. (Opens Friday at theaters everywhere.)

Eden, the yoga instructor played by Ilana Glazer who finds herself unexpectedly facing a single pregnancy in Babes, doesn’t have to deal with vile henchman like Furiosa’s Rictus Erectus (Nathan Jones) and Scrotus (Josh Helman), fortunately enough. She does, however, have to contend with the messy—physically and emotionally—appurtenances of becoming a mom, which can be just as unpleasant. Fortunately, Eden has a best pal in Dawn (Michelle Buteau) to help see her through these trials.

Not long after Dawn goes into labor with her second child during the pair’s annual Thanksgiving movie date, Eden has a meet-cute with a charming actor named Claude (Stephen James) and they spend the night together. In somewhat jarring fashion, their encounter retroactively becomes a one-night stand and Eden must decide whether to keep the fetus. (Note: this film takes place in a time when a woman still had the right to make that choice.) She does, and willingly surrenders some portion of her bodily autonomy to the creature growing inside her.

Glazer co-wrote the movie with her Broad City collaborator Josh Rabinowitz, and it was directed by Pamela Adlon, the creator of Better Things. Both of those shows presented unvarnished, wryly funny takes from a female perspective, and Babes definitely belongs to the post-Apatow school of “girls can be gross too” comedy. (There’s a particularly surreal, if box-checking, scene with the two friends on mushrooms.) At its core, though, this is an earnest story about enduring female friendship.

Buteau, in her first (co-)lead film role, has an earthy ease that pairs nicely with the frazzled energy Glazer brings. There’s some nice support work from Hasan Minhaj as Dawn’s husband, John Carroll Lynch as an obstetrician without a filter, and Oliver Platt as Eden’s estranged father. Sandra Bernhard even shows up! (Opens Friday at multiple locations)

Flannery O’Connor never had children, but she did live in what seemed to her at times like a post-apocalyptic world, or at the very least a fallen one. In her productive but short literary career, she chronicled the misfits and grotesques of a Catholic, Southern Gothic landscape, and in Wildcat, Maya Hawke (directed by her dad Ethan) tries to demonstrate how the writer’s tortured humanity infused and informed her work.

The movie follows O’Connor as she journeys back to her hometown in Georgia in 1950, leaving behind her literary ally Robert Lowell, to stay with her mother (Laura Linney) and recuperate from the physical infirmities that will shortly be diagnosed as lupus. Hawke and co-writer Shelby Gaines interweave scenes from several of O’Connor’s stories, with Hawke and Linney appearing as characters ostensibly inspired by O’Connor’s reality. This makes Wildcat more of a treat for confirmed devotees than those without previous exposure, but the film still works as a primer on her life, her themes, and her brilliance.

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Hawke is almost unrecognizable as the fresh-faced cast member of Stranger Things, especially with those cat’s eye glasses and the rest of the hair and wardrobe crew’s work. She also, at least to this carpetbagger’s ears, pulls off a satisfactory Southern accent. Linney, of course, is predictably solid, and when you’re a star like Hawke père you can recruit mainstays such as Liam Neeson, Steve Zahn, and Vincent D’Onofrio to fill out your film’s case.

The film’s press notes include a three-page explanation from the director about why, considering what’s now known about O’Connor’s uneven (to put it mildly) treatment of and views on race, he decided to make a movie about her. It’s not a very satisfactory explanation, and the O’Connor on screen seems to chafe against casual Southern racism more than the real one did. For some, that may be a deal breaker. But Wildcat does enough to acknowledge the writer’s complexities and contradictions to make it a worthy tribute to her peculiar genius. (Opens Friday at the Living Room Theaters, Kiggins Theatre, and Salem Cinema).

STREAMING PICK

About Dry Grasses: Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s intimate epic about a cynical schoolteacher working in a remote eastern Turkish village is one of the best films of the year, and it’s now available to stream on the Criterion Channel, so you can pause it during its 197-minute running time if you need to use the bathroom. More on it here.

ALSO OPENING

The Garfield Movie: the voice cast for the latest animated atrocity starring everyone’s least favorite orange feline includes two cast members from Ted Lasso, two cast members from Saturday Night Live, and two cast members from Pulp Fiction. Also, Chris Pratt and Snoop Dogg. Nice work if you can get it, I suppose. (wide release)

Sight: After escaping the godless Cultural Revolution, a Chinese-American eye surgeon (Terry Chen) and his colleague (Greg Kinnear) try to restore the vision of a young girl from godless India in this drama from faith-based Angel Studios. (wide release)

The Keeper: A retired Army veteran resolves to hike the entire Appalachian Scenic Trail carrying the name tapes of over 300 military members who committed suicide as a way of raising awareness of the issue. (Regal Divison St., Regal Movies on TV)

ALSO THIS WEEK

Love Letter [1953]: This is the debut feature from director Kinuyo Tanaka, who made her name as an acclaimed performer for Kenzo Mizoguchi and others before becoming only the second Japanese woman to direct a feature film. It probes postwar Japanese society through the story of a Japanese soldier who has returned home and taken a job writing letters in English from Japanese women to the now-departed American soldiers with whom they had fallen in love. (5th Avenue Cinema, through Sunday)

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With Love and a Major Organ [2023]: In a world where people can dispense with their emotions by literally removing their hearts from their bodies, an artist goes against the grain by retaining hers, until a tragic loss prompts her to try joining the affectless masses. (Tomorrow, Saturday)

Treasure Island [1986]: The prolific and endlessly inventive Chilean arthouse icon Raúl Ruiz tackles and transmogrifies the Robert Louis Stevenson classic, employing a surreal smorgasbord of actors that includes Anna Karina, Jean-Pierre Leaud, Martin Landau, and, of course, Vic Tayback [?!?]. (Clinton Street Theater, presented by Church of Film, Wednesday)

REVIVALS

Friday

  • Donnie Darko [2001] (Academy, through Thursday)
  • Duel [1971] (Hollywood, also Saturday)
  • My Neighbor Totoro [1990] (Academy, through Thursday)
  • Party Girl [1995] (Tomorrow)
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark [1982] (Academy, through Thursday)

Saturday

  • Cloak & Dagger [1984] (Kiggins, also Monday; Dabney Coleman tribute)
  • The Goonies [1985] (Salem Cinema, benefit for Center Stage Theatrics)
  • The Red Shoes [1948] (Cinema 21)
  • Stop Making Sense [1984] (Hollywood)
  • Terminator 2: Judgment Day [1991] (Hollywood, in 35mm, also Sunday)

Sunday

  • Catching Fire [2024] (Tomorrow)
  • James Bond Double Feature [titles TBA] (Hollywood)

Tuesday

  • Grindhouse Secret VHS Screening [title TBA] (Hollywood)
  • Petey Wheatstraw [1977] (Clinton)

Wednesday

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  • The Crow [1994] (multiple locations, also Thursday)
  • V: The Final Battle—Part 3 [1984] (Hollywood)

Thursday

  • The Dark Crystal [1982] (Clinton, with original live score)
  • 3rd Annual Best of PPS Film Festival (Hollywood)

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since, as the manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité; and as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, he pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017 and graduating cum laude in 2020 with a specialization in Intellectual Property. He now splits his time between his practice with Nine Muses Law and his continuing efforts to spread the word about great (and not-so-great) movies, which include a weekly column at Oregon ArtsWatch.

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