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"Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga" is Immune to Bad Box-Office Takes

Tainted Glory: Ana Taylor-Joy looks back in anger in "Furiosa: a Mad Max Saga" / Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Tainted Glory: Ana Taylor-Joy looks back in anger in "Furiosa: a Mad Max Saga" / Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Late capitalism has made bean counters of all of us. Hence, these timely reports on who scored and who failed at the weekend box office. Sure, we always got notice of monster hits - lines around the block for “Jaws” (Steven Spielberg, 1975)! -. Golden-age Hollywood press relished kicking people when they were down - Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis got the “Box Office Poison” label as soon as the fortunes of their projects faltered. I may be romanticizing the past, but I think the accountants’ ledger never monopolized the discussion of movies as much as now. Our devotion now lies with executives and not the artists who make movies.

Theater owners cry foul as the long Memorial Weekend fell short of expectations. The crazy thing is that one of the year's best movies of the year opened in a flurry of great reviews, with 10 years of expectation built up. The other contender was custom-made for the family audience, usually prone to spending money with no other consideration than keeping the kids distracted. What happened? Well, should we care? At least, one of the movies is a thing of grimy beauty.

George Miller’s latest opus faces soft competition as it faces its second weekend. Slasher horror “In a Violent Nature” and comedy “Summer Camp” appeal to limited audiences. The Art House circuit brings family drama “Ezra” and Viggo Mortensen’s western “The Dead Don’t Hurt.” They might do well, but will not do blockbuster business. “Furiosa” has the field cleared to hold on to the number one spot, if good word of mouth does its magic.

Then again, what if it doesn’t make it? It will not stop being a great movie. The only problem I see is that not recouping its budget at the box office would prevent Miller from cranking up another one of these, and as he has proven time after time, he always has gas in the tank for more. It would be our loss. At least, we have five epic chapters to discover and revisit. 

Let’s read the tea leaves of last weekend. 

1. Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga: $26.3 M

George Miller’s long-awaited return to the Wasteland took the top spot for a nose. No, it was not a nose, but over $2 million over the other big premiere of the week, “Garfield.” Expectations were sky-high for the movie, fed by a series of films that, over 25 years, has accumulated a cult following, great reviews, and an Oscar or two. In the red meat action market, this is the filet. And oh, boy, does Miller deliver a bloody delicatessen.

“Furiosa” takes us about a quarter of a century before the events of “Fury Road.” The societal collapse is close enough in the past, that an environment-loving matriarchal community survives in a secluded valley. There is no steampunk detritus here, but a picturesque village full of eco-boho charm with solar panels on the roof of every cabin. This is where little Furiosa lives (played in infancy by Alyla Browne), until one good day, a gang of violent marauders spot her in the forest and kidnap her. She comes from “a place of abundance.” They see it in her beautiful dress and good hygiene. It's a place ripe for pillage. The hoodlums run with the kidnapee and the information to their boss, Dementus (Chris Hemsworth). He is an egomaniac with theatrical flair, golden brown muscles, and unbound cruelty. Little do they know the kid’s Mom is tracking them. She is armed and dangerous. She will do anything to save her daughter and kill whoever knows of their haven to protect what looks like the last reduct of humanity in a world rotten to the core.

When fops attack: Hemsworth is a fantastic villain in "Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga" / Photo by Jasin Boland, courtesy of Warner Bros.

When fops attack: Hemsworth is a fantastic villain in "Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga" / Photo by Jasin Boland, courtesy of Warner Bros.

We know the gist of how things will play out. After all, this is a prequel, an origin story of the stealth protagonist of “Mad Max: Fury Road” (Miller, 2015). In the long trek to making the movie, Miller considered using CGI to de-age Charlize Theron, but he was not satisfied with the results. And thank God he did. Good casting goes a long way and suspension of disbelief does the rest. Browne looks so much like a miniature Ana-Taylor Joy that once a time-jump switches the actresses, we barely bat an eyelash. After a minute or two, you can buy that a young Furiosa would look just like her. And sound, too. I could swear she takes the voice cadence of Theron to sell the illusion. Then again, suspension of disbelief is powerful, when such rich and elaborate world-building sustains it.

Miller is our best living action director not just for his ability to stage exercises of baroque destruction and mayhem. He has a knack for conveying action at its most basic state in expressive movements. He choreographs individuals and machines within a frame, but also the camera that registers them. The effect is thrilling. Virtually every contemporary action-adventure movie falls prey to the altar of set pieces: sequences of massive destruction sandwiched between rote exposition dialogue and poor character-building scenes. “Furiosa” does not do lulls. Everything is on, all the time, even if nothing is exploding. The silhouette of a girl running through a sandstorm is as compelling as a ball of fire.

Visual proficiency is evident, but Miller’s secret weapon is storytelling chops. For him, world-building is not just about decor, but giving every little character a reason to be. Each one is living his or her narrative arc. We glance at them for a significant moment, when it crosses with Furiosa’s. They run the gamut from the compelling to the ridiculous, the heartbreaking to the heartwarming. Check out the henchman that ends up head-down buried in the sand, legs sticking out like Willie E. Coyote. It’s an image that would not be out of place in a Loony Tunes cartoon. Here, it’s not a jarring digression, but brushstrokes of madness and comedy. Miller controls the tone of his narrative so that it can segue from tragedy to comedy and back, sometimes in the same scene. Or the same shot. Some critics report that Taylor-Joy only has about 20 lines of dialogue - the word counters who accused Martin Scorsese of being a male chauvinist pig for Anna Paquin's near-silent supporting role in “The Irishman” will have a fit! -. The adult Furiosa comes up about forty minutes into the running time, but she dominates the movie. Both actresses playing the role are in perfect synch, Taylor-Joy's commanding presence conveys the spirit of Charlize Theron.

2. The Garfield Movie: $24.00 M

I can’t qualify nor disqualify “The Garfield Movie,” a new big-screen adaptation of Jim Davis' vintage comic strip. The thing is, I’m not going to watch it. What can I say, I’m an adult. But fear not for the big orange cat. Enough people surrendered their money to make it number two in the top five earners of the weekend.

3. IF: $16.1 M

Ryan Reynolds's kiddie imaginary friend comedy slipped to number two in its third week of release. Don’t cry for the insolent star, who will re-establish his bona fides in a few weeks with the sure-to-be-a-hit “Deadpool versus Wolverine.” 

4. Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes: $13.4 M

CGI Monkeys keep claiming a stale of the box-office, and cementing the safe-bet status of this surprisingly sturdy franchise.

5. The Fall Guy: $6.00 M

Colt Seavers, we hardly knew ye. “The Fall Guy” keeps slipping into oblivion. At best, it will gain status as a cult comedy. Maybe.

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