Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Mad Max Fury Road, Pitch Perfect 2, Wild Tales Reviews

Mad Max: Fury Road
Dir. George Miller

In 1979 George Miller created Mad Max, introducing us to a fresh-faced Mel Gibson and creating a new kind of post-apocalyptic world on a shoestring budget. In 1981 Miller upped the ante with its sequel The Road Warrior and crafted some of the best car-based action scenes ever. But in 1985, Miller dropped the ball and made Beyond Thunderdome. Tina Turner, a dumb prophecy plot, and a bunch of children following Max effectively turning the film into Hook-in-the-desert: the movie was a major disappointment. So much so that it took 30 years to get to Mad Max Fury Road. But holy mother of GOD was it worth the wait. Fury Road feels like Miller, possibly regretful about how Thunderdome turned out and having done a number of family films like Babe: Pig in the City and Happy Feet, just let every bit of repressed fuel-soaked rip-roaring sun-drenched wasteland fantasy pour out of his head and onto the screen. This movie is everything a gritty action movie should be: almost entirely shot with practical effects (with limited CGI), actors who do their own stunts, a world that feels believably fleshed out, characters that have a purpose to the story and bring a layer of depth through mostly physical performances, and probably some of the best road rage action I've ever seen.

 The movie takes place in the "Wasteland," a post-apocalyptic hot and sandy future where those who control water and fuel control the world. And it's the tyrannical Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) who controls the water inside the fortress known simply as Citadel to its survivors. Joe has everything in the Citadel under his control - that is until one rebellious leader, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), plans an escape during a routine oil run. She meets up with Max (Tom Hardy), and the two race and shoot and scream and claw and sweat and bleed their way to a supposed paradise with a relentless group of gangs on their tail. So much of the story is pure action; Miller has quoted Hitchcock in some interviews, saying "I don't want them to have to read the subtitles in Japan." Mad Max Fury Road, as off-the-wall crazy as it is, is pure cinema - telling a story through images.

This movie is also surprisingly human - and its female characters are portrayed as warriors living under a repressive patriarchy. Charlize Theron does an amazing job as a rough-and-tough woman of the Wasteland, made even more impressive that her character only has one arm, which I'm sure added a whole different complexity to acting in the action scenes. Tom Hardy may be no Mel Gibson when it comes to charisma, but his Max is also fantastic from a physical perspective. He's a pure cowboy here: he's first and foremost out for himself, but clearly has a set of morals (and no, you don't have to worry about this being "Peter Pan" Max from Thunderdome). The villain, Immortan Joe (ironically played by the same actor as Toecutter from the original Mad Max), is brilliantly terrifying. His character design has to be experienced firsthand rather than me explaining it in a blog, but his eyes do most of the work, and they are truly the eyes of a madman. Nicholas Hoult also does a commendable job as Nux, a lowly "War Boy" working under Joe. His undying, zealous devotion for Joe's approval is creepy and certainly adds stakes to the story.

I loved everything about this movie. Every nook and cranny of the film has life in it, from the cars themselves (each steering wheel has it's own sort of "personality" - almost like a religious relic), to the character design (Nux has scarred the schematic for an engine on his chest), to the intricacies of daily routines - all shown to us at a breakneak pace and none of it feels expository. It's a sensory overload, it's a comment on society, it's a can't-miss theatrical experience. If this movie doesn't get your heart racing, you're probably dead!

Rating: A

Pitch Perfect 2
Dir. Elizabeth Banks

I remember back when I was in high school hunting for colleges, my first exposure to the harmonic world of college acapella groups was at an open house for Emerson College, and I was blown away. As we were ushered into an auditorium, a group was singing as background music on stage, and I was so impressed, my eyebrows raised to the point of leaving my body. There's just something about that pure sound of a bunch of different voices [in key] together that makes my ears happy. Unfortuntely, the Pitch Perfect movies don't have that "live" feel to them, unlike that group I first saw and many others thereafter - whether at other colleges or as street performers. Everything feels pre-packaged, over-produced, and ear-piercingly shrill - it's pretty much an extension of Glee. Still, sometimes when you can't get a prime cut of beef, a McDonalds hamburger will suffice, and that's exactly what Pitch Perfect 2 delivers, like its predecessor: predictable, mediocre entertainment.

The story is almost exactly the same as last time, with the Barden Bellas embarassing themselves in the first act ("Fat Amy" has an on-stage wardrobe malfunction - aka exposing her butt crack), then they train to redeem themselves in the second, and finally going to their major make-or-break performance at the end, this time against international competition from Germany, Das Sound Machine. It's all pretty light stuff, and I'd say about 40% of the jokes landed for me, but the characters are all pretty likable. 

Strangely, I found this movie to be overstuffed, even with its really simple plot. There's a new freshman Bella whose mother started the group (Hailee Seinfeld), a sub-plot involving Anna Kendrick interning for a major music producer (Keegan-Michael Key), a romantic plot between Fat Amy and Adam DeVine, and a series of run-ins with exes, inconsequential side characters, and foolishly intimidating Germans. The movie doesn't have as much focus as the first one, making it feel slightly sloppier. The comedy here is also as broad as you can get, and features some truly cringe-worthy lines usually playing into stereotypes (there's a character here who's a black lesbian who seems to exist just to remind that she's a black lesbian - it's played for a joke, I guess). But overall, not a terrible movie - there's some chuckles to be had, a lot of familiar comedy cameos (David Cross! Reggie Watts! Key...sans Peel!), a handful of music numbers that I was happy with (the best in my opinion being an early one in the film for the song "Lollipop"), and some sweet moments with these characters whose respective actors and actresses all seem "above" this material, but are clearly having a ton of fun with it. So, despite not capturing that awe I first felt watching that college group 6 or 7 years ago, Pitch Perfect 2 is harmless entertainment.

Rating: B-

Wild Tales
Dir. Damián Szifron
Watch Trailer

Usually what makes a great anthology movie is not only the strength of the individual segments, but the way in which they're tied together: in Creepshow George Romero used the model of old EC horror comics to transition from one story to the next, Sin City used its respective vignetted source material, and Four Rooms used the goings-on of a bustling hotel, shifting from room to room but connected through a single, weird bell boy. But the vignettes in Wild Tales aren't really connected at all, other than theme. These stories are a little bit Hitchcock, a little bit Tarantino, and all entertaining. Violence, male hubris, jealousy, revenge, blown-up cars: and all set in a somewhat off-kilter alternate reality where crazy things happen (think the ending of Magnolia).

I think it's best to go into this knowing nothing, and since I'm averse to writing spoilers I'll keep it short, but I really enjoyed this movie, as whacky as it is. Some people might be turned off by its darkly comic tone and disconnectedness, but I got wrapped up in this one.  My personal favorite was the "highway" short. If Wild Tales pops up in Netflix one of these days, give it a whirl, and you may also find yourself on the edge of your seat in both suspense and incredulous laughter.

Rating: A-

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