Saturday, May 16, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road Review

(dir. George Miller)

Warner Bros. Pictures

“If you can’t fix what’s broken, you’ll go insane.”

After 30 years, George Miller returns to the post-apocalyptic world of Mad Max and simply put, it is a wonder to behold. The atmosphere and style of the Mad Max franchise has been mined and imitated for decades in various films, television shows and video games, creating a look of sameness across these waste lands. But Fury Road allows Miller to usher in a new and distinct visual style, one that washes away the dull gray and brown color palate we’ve come associate with a world gone rot, and replaces it with bright bursts of color and operatic grandeur. There is beauty in George Miller’s wasteland, and I can promise you that no matter how many times you’ve seen fictionalized depictions of our world post-nuclear holocaust, you’ve never seen anything like Mad Max: Fury Road.

There’s no strict continuity between the latest Mad Max films and the earlier Mel Gibson-led franchise. It’s not necessary to have seen the previous trilogy (though they are certainly worth a watch) but I wouldn’t say Fury Road is a reboot. Rather, it positions Max as a legendary figure, an anti-hero archetype who can be readily placed in new stories, with little need for backstory. Fury Road finds Max, this time played by the always fantastic Tom Hardy, prisoner of the warlord Immortus Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Max’s escape causes his path to cross with the rogue Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) who is smuggling Joe’s breeding wives to the fabled “Green Place.”

Like the previous Mad Max films, Fury Road has a narrow narrative scope. It’s not a complicated story, and just as the previous films borrowed from the western genre, Fury Road feels borrowed from classic myths or fairy tales, which makes it the perfect story for Mad Max. But borrowed narrative elements aside, there’s an incredible amount of original world-building in the film. Every location, every costume, every vehicle is packed with detail and story. Truly, George Miller and production designer Colin Gibson have outdone themselves in every way. Even with few characters and little exposition there’s a lived in feeling to this cinematic world and a rich sense of history that makes the waste land seem palpable. You can almost smell the diesel-caked bodies and dust-ridden clothing. Yet there’s also something distinctly alien about the film, a sun-saturated color palate that washes over you like a fever dream. It’s a reminder that, yes, this is a film. So often our modern blockbusters seem overly-concerned with making fictional worlds seem real and grounded for audiences, but Fury Road goes the other way. It’s not interested in realism but art, and drawing attention to the handmade quality and care that went into this production.

To fully appreciate what a cinematic feat Fury Road is, there are two things that should be known. 1: Because the film relies more so on visuals than dialogue, the film was storyboarded before a screenplay was ever written. 2: 80% of the film was made using practical effects, and when you see it you’ll wonder how the hell that was even possible. Imagine Cirque Du Soleil atop of vehicles and thrust into an action film that's nearly a two-hour road chase. The stunt team and coordinators deserve all the praise in the world. If there was ever a film that could cause the Academy to wake up and create an award for Best Stunts, it’s this film. There haven’t been action scenes like these, and each one is a staggering shot of adrenaline. And worry not, the trailers have not spoiled the best scenes in the film. Not by a longshot. And all of this action is made all the more engaging by a fantastic score by Junkie XL. Clearly, a student of Hans Zimmer, Junkie XL’s booming percussionist score and guitar riffs amp up the film’s tension and make the quieter moments all the more alluring. Also responsible for this beauty is cinematographer John Seale who not only creates breathtaking overhead landscape shots, but also catches the glint of fire burning in each actor’s eyes.

Tom Hardy’s Max is just as short on words as the character was in The Road Warrior, but Hardy takes full advantage of the titular character’s madness. There always seemed to be some of that lawful cop left in Gibson’s Max, but Hardy’s is something devolved, an almost Cro-Magnon man who can barely remember what it’s like to speak to another human being. Hardy’s power is all in his eyes and he creates a character that seems just as dangerous as he is afraid of getting too close to anyone. But for being the titular character, Max exists somewhat in the background, a power tool to be harnessed by Theron’s most excellent Imperator Furiosa. Furiosa’s arc is parallel to Max’s, both are looking for redemption but only she has the audacity to hope. She's also incredibly badass and capable. Really the same can be said for all the female characters in the film. While the story may borrow from the “rescue the princesses from the tower” narrative, Immortus Joe’s wives each prove to be strong and fully realized characters in their own way (remember friends, “females are strong as hell.”) For a movie that’s constantly pushing forward from one action beat to the next, there’s a deft handle on character development in motion.

Almost without warning, 70-year old George Miller just revolutionized what action films are capable of. This is a watershed moment in action filmmaking that hasn’t been seen since The Matrix. And for those who grumble about summer blockbusters being too similar and don’t see Mad Max: Fury Road? You’ve lost your right to complain because George Miller just changed the game. I’ve seen this movie twice this weekend, and I can definitely say that with all the hundreds of movies I’ve seen, Mad Max: Fury Road is something else, an event-movie that needs to be seen on the big-screen. Because if you miss it, it’s the kind of movie you’ll want to buy a bigger TV for just to better appreciate the Blu-ray. “My world is fire and blood,” Max intones at the film’s beginning and Fury Road is fire, blood and so much more.

Grade: A+

Friday, May 1, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron Review

(dir. Joss Whedon)

Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Pictures

“Everyone creates the thing they fear. Men of peace create engines of war. Invaders create Avengers. Parents create...children that will supplant them.”

As a sequel to the third highest-grossing movie of all time, Avengers: Age of Ultron needs little introduction. When Tony Stark’s effort to save the world through the creation of artificial intelligence has dire consequences, the Avengers must work past their fragile emotional states and distrust in order to prevent humanity’s annihilation. Once again, director Joss Whedon assembles the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes whose biggest challenge will always be their ability to stand together as a team. Age of Ultron complicates the already complicated team dynamics of the first film by adding some new faces to the mix and introducing a big bad with personal stakes. Like a massive network, Age of Ultron is bigger, twistier, more complex, and ultimately a satisfying expansion of all that’s come before. If the first film felt like a comic book come to life, then Age of Ultron is like a whole six-issue trade collection splashed across the screen.

The returning cast members are all in top form. By now these actors have all got a strong grip on their characters and that hasn’t changed. No one seems tired of these characters or inclined to half-ass their way to a paycheck. There are new wrinkles added to the characters, particularly Tony Stark’s ongoing struggle to redefine his legacy, but in terms of characterization, there are no major upheavals. These individuals are who they are, which is their greatest asset and their greatest handicap. While the first film clearly centered on the big three (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor) Whedon makes the effort to give the characters without their own solo franchises (Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye) most of the spotlight this time around. That doesn’t mean that anyone is left wanting for more screen time, but those later three form the emotional center of the film. Anyone still sore about Hawkeye’s treatment in the first film will have plenty to celebrate this time around as Jeremy Renner gets to put his Oscar-nominated acting skills to good use and deliver some of the film’s best quips. Black Widow and Hulk get some of the film’s best action scenes and a romantic subplot. Bruce and Natasha’s relationship is an interesting development but a little too cutesy and heavy-handed at times to be entirely convincing. Still, Whedon has an expert handle on each character’s voice so that every line out of their mouth sounds like something only they would say. There is no generic battle talk or exposition in this film, making the film’s numerous plot points and comic book logic all the more digestible.

New characters Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Vision (Paul Bettany), and the villain Ultron (James Spader) are all well-developed, which is particularly noteworthy given how many characters there are in the film. Though I’d add the caveat that this feels true to a lesser degree for Quicksilver. Still, he and Scarlett Witch are welcome additions to the team as antagonists turned allies. Their initial alliance with Ultron and later team-up with the Avengers feels like an earned transformation and they definitely create some new dynamics for the team. Ultron is full-on James Spader in the best way possible. He may be made of metal but there’s nothing cold about him. He’s all passion, drive, and misplaced emotion. He’s also, unexpectedly, quite funny. Like some of the best villains, Ultron sees himself as a hero, striving towards mankind’s evolution. Marvel Studios has quite the reputation of creating lackluster villains, but Ultron can stand alongside Loki as one of the most memorable Marvel villains so far. And the final new character, Vision, introduced right before the third act proves plenty memorable in his own right. If Hulk was the scene-stealer in the first film, that role goes to Vision this time around. Non-comic readers may not be familiar with the character, but by the end of this film they certainly won’t forget him.

Whedon is also back on script-duties, and as his swan-song for his Marvel Studios involvement, the film is brimming with comic book goodness and Whedonisms. While some critics have complained that there’s too much going on, none of the plot points feels extraneous. While some of the set-up pertaining to future Marvel movies, Black Panther, and Thor: Ragnarok create some extra plot complications, they still feel like natural elements of the central story. More importantly, these extra beats allows for some globe-trotting adventures that really take the characters out of their America-centric element. While it doesn’t go for the funny bone or wow factor quite as much as the first one, Age of Ultron never tries to repeat beats from the first film. While there are a few minor issues, Age of Ultron isn’t a film that’s coasting on the familiar and I think those complaining about superhero film fatigue simply don’t get how pliable the genre is. Yes, there’s still copious amounts of CGI, explosions and destruction, but if those somehow no longer hold any thrill for you, there’s still the deft characterization and dialogue which carries most of the film’s weight.

Age of Ultron is a smart film, one that’s probably too smart to even fully appreciate on the first go round. The film hits the ground running, and its cold open moves so fast that it’s enough to give you whiplash. While the action once again showcases Whedon’s impeccable knowledge of these characters' powers and how they can be combined for full K.O effects, some of the film's best moments come from the quieter ones. While the third act battle against Ultron is the best comic book battle committed to screen, it’s the Avengers Tower party early on in the film that provides not only some of the most satisfying moments in the film, but also the best in all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. These quiet and humorous scenes are a reminder that what works about these characters is that at the end of the day these powerful heroes are just people, carved out of the very same stuff that makes us human. That’s the idea that Stan Lee built the Marvel Universe on and that’s the idea that drives the film and separates The Avengers from Ultron. They may have moments of weakness, loneliness, and self-doubt, but they can adapt their ideals, which is ultimately what prevents them from resigning to isolation.

Age of Ultron gives you everything you’d want out of an Avengers sequel, so much so that the issues that do exist barely matter. It’s a film worth seeing at least twice, just because there’s so much eye candy to be dazzled by that it’s impossible to catch everything on the first round. While it faces the impossible task of beating the sheer joy in seeing these characters together for the first time, and it can’t quite match the fresh and irreverent humor of last summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Age of Ultron rounds out the top three best Marvel Studios films. And like all the previous entries, it’ll leave you counting down the months until the next installment. Truly, it’s a great time to be a Marvel fan.

Grade: A