Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Furiously Fast Mad Max: Fury Road

     It's sacrilege to write a review of George Miller's two-hour chase movie, Mad Max: Fury Road, and state in the first sentence that I never enjoyed the original Mel Gibson films that nearly every film lover holds in such high regard. So I came into Fury Road with fresh eyes and almost no idea of the specific plot lines of the first films (other than the post-apocalyptic gas/water being sacred aspect). It's been 30 years since the original films, and in that time, director Miller has worked on projects that are virtually the complete opposite: Babe, the talking pig movies, and the animated Happy Feet series. But he must have had this Max on the back of his mind for years: Fury Road is batshit crazy for a summer blockbuster opening the weekend before Memorial Day, a metaphorical dropping of the mic for Miller, an I-Can't-Believe-the-Studio-Gave-Him-150 Millions-Dollars desert of the weird, maniacal, violent and yes, womanly. It's not perfect--but it deserves all the praise and box office winnings of the world, just for totally not giving a fuck.
     Miller is in his mid-70's, but you'd never guess watching Fury Road: it's one of the fastest-paced action movies in recent memory. After a start that left me wondering how much I was going to like the film (it takes a few minutes to get your bearings in this strange world), once the accelerator is slammed to the floor, it never lets up until the final credits roll. This time Max is portrayed by Tom Hardy (filling in for Mel Gibson's original role), and though he's clearly up-for-anything, most actors could have played the character--he has less than 30 lines of dialogue (minus grunting), and really ins't the star of this installment. The real star is Imperator Furiosa (a shaved-head, one-armed Charlize Theron), who drives the gasoline-collecting War Rig across the barren landscape.
     Furiosa works for King Immortan Joe, who has a cult-like following of Powder lookalikes who are addicted to thoughts of the afterlife and act like crack addicts. At the beginning of the film, Max has been captured by these albino thugs, and he gets thrown in a cage and used as a blood bag for the sickly Nux (Nicholas Hoult, having plenty of fun). Eventually, our Max is strapped to the front of a desert dune buggy and the epic chase (and it is epic, as most of it is with real vehicles and real explosions without an overdose of special effects) begins.
     Reviews have been glowing for Mad Max: Fury Road, which is surprising not because the film isn't pretty great, but because it's incredibly weird and brutal. But--other than the 90 minutes of chase that is the beating, bloody heart of the film--Mad Max: Fury Road, in all of its ugliness and emptiness (the entirety of the movie was filmed in the infertile deserts of Namibia, Africa), is unrelentingly beautiful. Much of it is a work of art straight from Miller's mind: the intricacies of the complicated vehicular warfare, the costumes and make-up of the characters in the fictional world, the gorgeous post-apocalyptic wasteland and Miller's choice of camera angles and cinematography. Something this ugly is rarely so alluring. Specifically, the last portion of the film shines the brightest, with all of the bits and pieces of the action building into a crescendo of blood and fire.
      Many film goers are speaking of the feminist aspects of Mad Max: Fury Road, due to the arc of Furiosa and the women that she is trying to help, but I'll stay away from that. The film doesn't delve far enough into that aspect to truly make a case for it. What Fury Road  really is: an unrelenting action film that doesn't need a real plot to succeed. Other than Furiosa's plight, Fury Road exists for cars, trucks, buggies and motorcycles to drive incredibly fast, smash into each other and explode, all while racing from one end of the desert and then back again, with characters who are bizarre living in a post-society world created by Miller. And for that, it succeeds: Fury Road is incredibly interesting, and though its not quite completely mind-blowing, mind-blowing is what comes to mind when thinking of the movie studio giving Miller 150 Million dollars and sending him off to the African desert to create a summer blockbuster as funky as this one.     (A-)

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Avengers: Yawn of Ultron

     It's my own fault, and there's nobody to blame but myself: I'll admit I was excited when the first trailer for the new Avengers dropped late last year: Joss Whedon returning to direct after the stellar first incarnation of our favorite superhero clan, a new villain that I wasn't too familiar with, our favorite cast of characters returning (plus a few new faces, like Quicksilver, who stole the best scene in the recent X-Men: Days of Future Past). But expectations can turn into a fickle problem: Avengers: Age of Ultron is--no doubt--an incredibly well-made superhero movie, a Marvel of colorful, fast-paced entertainment and humor that would make any 12 year old laugh. But it just doesn't bring enough new to the table to be more than well-made: it's more of the same Avengers, with an uninspired villain and action scenes that too often delve into pieces of metal clanging against each other.
     Three Marvel movies, two of them solo projects since the last Avengers film, are better than Avengers: Age of Ultron: Iron Man 3, the 2nd Captain America, and Guardians of the Galaxy. The problem with having film versions of The Avengers is there is not nearly enough screen time for each of the characters--they are all battling for our time and laughs like the Royal Rumble of a WWE match. The great HBO show Game of Thrones for an example: with dozens of characters, we need 10 episode seasons (and sometimes that doesn't even feel like enough) to truly get involved in each character's plight. A two hour and twenty minute Avengers movie, when we get 3 new, significant characters added to the main ones, just isn't enough time. It's a collage of colors and metallic action with not enough new excitement to make much of a dent in the summer movie season.
   Yet again, this Avengers at least somewhat focuses on Loki's staff and the power of the Infinity Stone that lies inside of it. Who will harness this power, the Avengers (Thor, Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow and Hawkeye) or a new Artificial Intelligence known as Ultron that can take over the Internet and anything metal to build an army of Iron Man-esque steel to--you guessed it--try and destroy the world? I think we all know the world isn't going to be destroyed, and most of the tension lies within the characters that are jockeying for screen time.
     I hear that Ultron is pretty powerful in the comic book world, but--voiced by James Spader, an interesting if weird decision--in the film he never matches up against the distinct powers of our Avengers: in other words, he never stands a chance. Originally, he has two new characters on his side (Quicksilver, played by Kick-Ass's Aaron Johnson, who can move at the speed of light...and the Scarlet Witch, played by Elizabeth Olson, who can give people visions and animate her power of telekinesis), and they add a nice change of originality. But anyone who knows the comics knows whose side they are really on. The action set pieces are huge and impressive (there are at least 3 or 4 of them), an intensely admirable attempt by Whedon to shock and excite--they just don't excite enough when compared to the action of the rest of the Marvel cinematic universe. (It's futile to compare to the best action of the last few years, The Raid 2. I don't even bother anymore.)
     Reading over this review, I feel like a grumpy old man. No doubt kids in their teens will love Avengers: Age of Ultron, with its bombastic special effects, its attempts at humor, its blasts of action. But damn it if Avengers: Age of Ultron doesn't feel like The Avengers with a new coat of fresh paint. And like a new coat of fresh paint, occasionally Ultron comes to close to the excitement of watching paint dry: a new unexciting villain, a plan to destroy the world, a plot that jumps between a dozen characters with scientific jargon that doesn't make a whole lot of sense: It's got a been-there-done-that feel. At one time, late in the movie, Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye states (I'm paraphrasing), "We're on a city rising into the sky, fighting an army of robots, and I'm using a bow and arrow--this doesn't make much sense". Agreed.     (C+)