Movie Review ~ Poltergeist (2015)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A family whose suburban home is haunted by evil forces must come together to rescue their youngest daughter after the apparitions take her captive.

Stars: Sam Rockwell, Jared Harris, Rosemarie DeWitt, Saxon Sharbino, Jane Adams, Kennedi Clements

Director: Gil Kenan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 93 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: I was mad when MGM and Fox announced they were remaking the 1982 horror classic Poltergeist.  Like, mad.  Like, really, really MAD.  How could any studio, director, or screenwriter even hope to come close to, let alone best, a film that has aged well and still scares the ever loving hell out of anyone that gives it a spin?  Haven’t we learned from remakes lately that it’s best to leave well enough alone and maybe focus on something original…or in the absence of something original pour through the countless numbers of average films and give them a spit-polish for a new generation?

Now let me say that as mad as I was and as incredulous as I remain that a remake of Poltergeist made it through the planning stages, I’ll tell you now that this 2015 take on Poltergeist isn’t a bad film.  It’s made well, has a fair freak-out factor, and features worth-a-watch performances that don’t feel like they’re careening down the copycat highway.  Here’s the thing, though.  It’s also so completely unnecessary that I wound up just feeling bad for everyone involved because their budget and time were all for naught.

Screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire (Oz The Great and Powerful) may have changed the names and some key plot elements from the original script by Steven Spielberg (Lincoln) and he may have inserted some new millennium colloquialisms and technology that wasn’t present in the early ‘80s but he’s retained the overall gist and familial themes that worked so well in Tobe Hooper’s film.  This turns out to be a wise choice because what’s been carried over remains the most interesting thing about the film.

Downsized from his job and forced to move into a new home with his wife and three children, Eric Bowen (Sam Rockwell, The Way Way Back) is your typical cool dad that has a witty quip at the ready but loves his family.  He’s a little ashamed that he can’t be the provider and feels guilty that his family has had to uproot their lives.  The original film featured a family that lives in a pristine new residential development but the neighborhood that the Bowens call home feels sad, another victim of a depressing economy.  The groovy ‘80s décor from the 1982 film gives way to a bland three story cookie cutter home with butter yellow walls and a heck of a lot of ghosts.

The events unfold in much the way we expect.  Family moves in, bad things start to happen, little girl starts talking to the television, a big storm arrives and the little girl vanishes.  While Lindsay-Abaire has nobly tried to put some feeling into the Bowens, the economical running time doesn’t leave much wiggle room to develop the characters as well as Spielberg did originally.  What made Spielberg’s script so jazzy for the time was putting JoBeth Williams’ stay-at-home mom front and center, a key player in the action of finding and saving her young daughter.  Rosemarie DeWitt’s (The Odd Life of Timothy Green) mom is more passive and not only lets her husband do most of the work but lets her scared of the dark son overshadow her when the going gets rough.

Nice to see that the children cast aren’t the annoying tots that they could have been.  Kennidi Clements is a sprightly tyke, precocious enough to believe she may have been born with a psychic gift but endearing enough to make you fear for her safety.  Saxon Sharbino as the oldest daughter seems like an afterthought, a character kept in because the remake rules demanded it.  Though I had some problems with Kyle Catlett’s middle child being moved to such a prominent role at the expense of his parents, the young actor does good work with a role that might seem more at home in a PG rated thriller for kids.

Now for the bad stuff.

The original film featured Oscar-winner Beatrice Straight as a wise but unprepared paranormal psychologist who enlists the help of Zelda Rubinstein’s medium to save the day.  The remake casts Jane Adams (I Love Trouble) in Straight’s role and turns the medium into a television ghost hunter (Jared Harris, Pompeii) that was romantically involved with Adams years ago.  Adams is full-on crazy cat lady with her unkempt hair, multiple pairs of glasses, and plaid skirts while Harris is no worthy replacement for the missing medium Tangina.  I just haven’t the faintest clue what the thought process of the creation of these characters was…landing on the idea that perhaps the studio hopes to make some sort of spin-off with these two (if you must, stick around for a post-credits sequence that explains my thoughts) but it’s just unwise through and through.

Director Gil Kenan helmed the admirable animated Monster House and his Poltergeist comes across like a sequel to that film more than it feels like a remake of the 1982 Poltergeist.  In fact, in Kenan and Lindsay-Abaire’s hands the film has the overall sense of a campfire story that’s been passed down over the last thirty years.  Over time the names have changed and modern references have been inserted…but the heart of the film remains and when the ghosts come out to play there’s some marginal fun to be had.

Still…I left the film not totally disappointed in what I’d seen but so very depressed that much effort was spent on something with no lasting value.  I’m especially troubled by the thought that some audiences may see this film before ever experiencing the dynamite scare fest that inspired it.  I think it’s better than Poltergeist II: The Other Side and Poltergeist III…but overall it’s a bummer.

Down From the Shelf ~ Poltergeist III

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Carol Anne is staying with relatives in a high-rise building and the supernatural forces that have haunted her previously follow her there.

Stars: Heather O’Rourke, Zelda Rubinstein, Tom Skerritt, Nancy Allen, Lara Flynn-Boyle

Director: Gary Sherman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: The best thing that can be said about Poltergeist III is that at least it’s better than its predecessor…though the bar was set so low by Poltergeist II: The Other Side that that’s not saying much.  The third sequel to one of my all-time favorite films had a troubled production and limped onto the screen amidst a cloud of doom.  Still, it has one or two interesting sequences and is more than competently made…but fails to deliver on anywhere near the same level at Poltergeist.

Young Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) has been sent to live with her aunt (Nancy Allen, Carrie) in a new high-rise apartment building in Chicago.  She’s there to attend a school for the gifted but it’s clear that it’s maybe more to give her beleaguered family some distance from the girl that attracts ghosts…and most likely because JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson wanted nothing to do with the movie.  Her aunt lives with her new husband (Tom Skerritt, Steel Magnolias) and stepdaughter (Lara Flynn-Boyle) in a gloriously late ‘80s mirrored apartment…a perk of his job as one of the developers of the building.

It’s not exactly clear how it happens but somehow the vengeful spirit of Reverend Kane wasn’t totally vanquished in the previous film and has tracked Carol Anne down with the intent to finally take her to the other side.  This traveling ghost takes a page from the shark in JAWS: The Revenge and travels out of his comfort zone to lay claim to the girl that got away.  Over the course of an evening, Carol Anne and her family are hunted by Kane and his minions of spirts throughout the building, from the parking garage to the swimming pool.

Now I firmly believe that a good movie could have been made of the material here…but director Gary Sherman was either too limited by the paltry budget or his imagination to deliver a worthy film that wound up putting the final nail in the Poltergeist coffin.  Not that he was helped by the numerous maladies that seemed to plague the film…chief being the tragic death of O’Rourke before the film was finished.

Performances are all over the board here with Skerritt and Allen showing up for their paychecks (though Allen seems to have fun with how alarmingly insensitive she is to her niece) and O’Rourke improving slightly on her dreadful previous performance as Carol Anne.  It’s nice to see Flynn-Boyle’s first screen appearance but stormy weather arises when Zelda Rubinstein shows up to preside over a master class of bad acting.

A film that’s literally just smoke and mirrors, it’s a shame that Poltergeist III couldn’t make something of material that should have worked better than it did.  With multiple deaths associated with the series that came to be known as the Poltergeist Curse, it’s no wonder the studio took one look at the finished project and anemic box office returns and decided to call it quits on future installments.

 

Down From the Shelf ~ Poltergeist II: The Other Side

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The Freeling family has a new house, but their troubles with supernatural forces don’t seem to be over.

Stars: JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Heather O’Rourke, Oliver Robins, Zelda Rubinstein, Julian Beck, Will Sampson, Geraldine Fitzgerald

Director: Brian Gibson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: It’s no secret that the mid ‘80s produced a bad case of sequelits in most major studios and after 1982’s Poltergeist scared the pants of audiences throughout the summer it didn’t take a genius to see that a sequel would be on its way.  Released in May of 1986, Poltergeist II: The Other Side is one of the worst sequels ever and while it doesn’t tarnish the memory of its predecessor it sure gives it the good college try.

It’s been one year since the Freeling family encountered some nasty goings-on in their storybook like tract-house in suburban California.  Steve (Craig T. Nelson, Silkwood), Diane (JoBeth Williams, The Big Chill), Robbie (Oliver Robins), and Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) are living with Diane’s mother (Geraldine Fitzgerald) while they find a place to live.  In the original film there was a third child and she’s never mentioned…at all.  Tragically, the young girl that played the role was murdered shortly after the film was released, the first to die in what was later called the Poltergeist curse.  I get that they didn’t want to recast the role but to not mention her at all was very strange.

Anyway, our feisty medium Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) has enlisted the help of an Indian shaman (Will Sampson) to help dig through the remains of the original Freeling home to discover secrets of the bodies that were buried under the development.  She uncovers the skeletons of a religious cult that died with their leader, Reverend Kane (Julian Beck, the second actor to die, this time before the movie was even released).  Somehow the spirit of Kane is released and again targets Carol Anne…hilarity, sorry, hysteria ensues.

It’s been rumored that Poltergeist II: The Other Side went through some major cuts in the editing room and it shows.  At a scant 91 minutes, the film doesn’t have the luxury of the slow burn that made the first film so enormously enjoyable. It’s a very get in and get out affair with a special effects heavy third act that inspires more snoozing than shrieking.

Especially disappointing is how bad the performances are here.  Nelson and Williams seem like they’re serving community service, but I’d be mad too if I had to pretend to vomit up a gigantic animatronic tequila worm like Nelson does in one particularly nasty scene.  Robins was never an especially, um, gifted child star and when he’s attacked by his braces you may be rooting for the metal to win.  The angelic O’Rourke was a tiny six year old in Poltergeist and her performance felt spontaneous and without guile…but in the four years between films she must have enrolled in too many child acting classes because she stinks.  While I loved Rubinstein’s unexpected charisma in the first film, her Razzie Award nomination for the sequel was absolutely deserved.

The worst thing about Poltergeist II: The Other Side is not that it’s a cheap money grab for fans of the original…it’s that it’s so very boring.  Though loaded with decent effects and benefiting from Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting score, it barely holds your interest for even seconds at a time.  It’s a silly mess that doesn’t even deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the landmark film it followed.

Down From the Shelf ~ Poltergeist (1982)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: As a family moves into their new home, they notice strange events that mostly affect their young daughter.

Stars: JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Heather O’Rourke, Oliver Robins, Dominique Dunne, Beatrice Straight, Zelda Rubinstein, Richard Lawson, James Karen

Director: Tobe Hooper

Rated: PG

Running Length: 114 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  How sweet it is to feel the tingle that goes up your spine when you’re sitting down watching a truly satisfying horror film…there’s just no other feeling like it.  Horror films have come and gone over the years, each one a more cannibalistic example of mindless copies of something original.  But try as they might, no haunted house ghost tale can hold a candle to classics like 1963’s The Haunting and 1982’s Poltergeist.  Both films are handsome, classy productions that aren’t cheap scarefests and each delight in playing (or rather, preying) on the things that scare you.

Poltergeist is one of my favorite films of all time because it fits into several categories at once (like the best horror films do…see JAWS as an example).  It’s a drama, a mystery, a midnight movie freak out, a paranormal thriller, and a period piece all centered on one suburban Regan-era family out to live the good life in a new home development that holds its share of buried secrets.

Life for the Freeling family is pretty typical of the time period.  Dad Steve (Craig T. Nelson, Silkwood) is a sales agent for the residential development where he lives with his wife Diane (JoBeth Williams, The Big Chill), and three children (Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Heather O’Rourke).  The kids go to school, the mom cleans the house, sports are watched on the television over the weekend, and the biggest problem they face is worrying about the new pool they’re putting in the backyard.

Strange things begin to happen, though, seemingly out of the blue.  Little Carol Anne (O’Rourke) starts to talk to the television and the “TV people” that want to play with her.  A scary tree and ominously stormy nights keeps young Robbie (Robins) from getting a peaceful slumber.  Not to mention the kitchen chairs that stack themselves and some strange gravitational pull that moves things across the room at an alarming pace.  It all culminates in the film’s first big scare and before you know it, Carol Anne has vanished yet her presence and voice remain in the house.

What happens next involves a team of paranormal investigators (lead by Oscar-winner Beatrice Straight) and one tiny medium (Zelda Rubinstein) as they attempt to help the Freelings find their daughter and rid their house of the titular entity that for some reason has targeted them for trouble.

Directed by Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and written/produced by Stephen Spielberg (Lincoln), the film is a welcome blend of the eye-popping scares that Hooper was famous for capturing under the watchful hand of Spielberg’s sensitive script.  I’ll admit that there’s a part in the film which always causes me to tear up a bit…how often do you find that in a film that literally tosses skeletons and rotting flesh at the screen?

What’s so wonderful about Poltergeist is that even though it spawned two disappointing sequels, inspired three decades worth of copycats, and is clearly a film from the early ‘80s it manages to remain timeless and timely.  The scares continue to work like gangbusters and no matter how many times I’ve seen it I never manage to lose interest in the story being told.

Movie Review ~ I’ll See You in My Dreams

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A widow and former songstress discovers that life can begin anew at any age

Stars: Blythe Danner, Mary Kay Place, Martin Starr, Sam Elliot, June Squibb, Reid Scott, Malik Akerman, Rhea Perlman

Director: Brett Haley

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Screening movies can be an interesting experiment in timing. Between seeing Avengers: Age of Ultron and Mad Max: Fury Road (two gigantic movies in scope and sound) I caught a preview of the quiet drama I’ll See You in My Dreams. The title alone lulled me into a slight slumber and I’ll admit to being this close to “resting my eyes” on several occasions…but I’ll admit that by the time the credits rolles I found the film to be a nice change of pace from the current cinematic offerings and features a lovely star turn from its leading lady.

I’ve always liked Blythe Danner and appreciated that in her later years she’s not merely known as “Gwyneth Paltrow’s Mom” but had continued to find roles that showcase her well. I met Danner in New York nearly a decade ago after her stellar performance in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies and was struck not only by her dynamic onstage presence but how radiantly beautiful she was up close and personal (something I can’t say for some actors I’ve met over the years).

The film is nearly a one-woman show as Danner (The Lucky One) anchors every scene of the movie she’s in (which is every one of ‘em) whether sharing it with one or more members of its pleasant supporting cast or going it solo playing a long-time widow retired to Florida. Though she doesn’t live in one of the numerous retirement communities the state has to offer, she still makes it out to the weekly bridge game held at a local senior palace with her spry friends played by Mary Kay Place (The Big Chill), June Squibb (Nebraska), and Rhea Perlman (The Sessions).

Focusing on two burgeoning relationships: a friendship with her pool boy (Martin Starr, This Is the End), and a romance with a newly arrived hunk (Sam Elliot, Draft Day) the movie develops at its own pace and takes its time to highlight the feelings both men stir in Danner’s independent character. A strength in the screenplay from Bret Haley (who also directs) and Marc Basch is that they’ve crafted Danner’s widow not as someone lacking something in her later years but excited at the prospect that a new adventure she never expected may be awaiting her.

Truly, it’s a piffle of a movie and feels perhaps too small for a big screen but it’s wonderfully acted and conveyed with a sensitivity toward those in their golden years that know it gets greater later. Even a phony-feeling section where Danner and her pals toke up on medical marijuana gets a pass from this citic because the four ladies play it with such verve. A truly special scene finds Danner and Starr in a barely populated karaoke bar where Danner delivers a tender rendition “Cry Me a River”.

So far this summer the movies have been appropriately gonzo but unexpectedly overwhelming which has led to a decided fatigue even before the previews have ended. If you’re looking for a respite from the flash, give I’ll See You in My Dreams your time instead.

Movie Review ~ Tomorrowland

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Bound by a shared destiny, a teen bursting with scientific curiosity and a former boy-genius inventor embark on a mission to unearth the secrets of a place somewhere in time and space that exists in their collective memory.

Stars: George Clooney, Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, Judy Greer, Tim McGraw, Hugh Laurie, Kathryn Hahn, Thomas Robinson, Keegan-Michael Key

Director: Brad Bird

Rated: PG

Running Length: 130 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Just last year I made my first trip to Walt Disney World in Florida in over a decade and the area I was most looking forward to visiting in the Magic Kingdom was Tomorrowland, home to Space Mountain, the PeopleMover, and most importantly to me…the Carousel of Progress. Now, all you Disney fans out there you probably read that and thought. “Carousel of Progess? Nerd alert!” but I’ve always found that the ride documenting the advances in technology stirred a nostalgia within that superseded any feelings that the ride is dated (which it surely is).

So it was pretty exciting to hear the theme song for the ride, “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” pop up in Tomorrowland within the first twenty minutes.   While the song is just one of several references to the various attractions from the section of the park that the film takes its name from the movie is more than just a big screen version of a theme park attraction and, like the imagination of the man that created it, it’s filled with lots of big ideas and strong ideals.

Admittedly not the slam dunk picture I wanted it to be, the large majority of Tomorrowland works both as a sturdy give-them-what-they-want blockbuster and as a throwback to the Disney studio films of yesteryear which showcases an ordinary person finding themselves in the middle of an extraordinary adventure.

Establishing two stories in quick succession, the movie begins at the 1964 World’s Fair where young inventor Frank Walker hopes to win a prize for his jet pack invention. When his creation is rejected by a weary adjudicator (Hugh Laurie) the young boy catches the attention of a mysterious little girl (Raffey Cassidy, Dark Shadows) who gives Frank a gift that unlocks a whole new world to him.

Flash forward to the present where teenager Casey (Britt Robertson, much more at home here than she was in The Longest Ride) is doing everything she can to keep her NASA employed father (TimMcGraw wearing his newest toupee) on the job even though the space program has been cancelled. Sneaking in at night to the retired launch site in Cape Canaveral, Casey is being watched by a face from the past, a presence that needs her help to save the world from destruction.

It’s at this point, about forty-five minutes in, that the film hits its peak potential and all the elements are working in its favor. There’s an air of mystery that’s kept afloat by the breakneck direction from Brad Bird (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) and the script from Bird and Damon Lindelof (Prometheus, World War Z) doesn’t give away all of its secrets in one breath. Then it gets messy.

There’s an oddly wacky scene featuring Kathryn Hahn (We’re the Millers) and Keegan-Michael Key (turning in a performance for the second week in a row that generates zero laughs…last week it was Pitch Perfect 2) that feels spliced in from another Disney film…just one of several sequences/loose ends that are never fully explained or resolved. Where’s Casey’s mother? Judy Greer (Carrie) has a literally blink and you missed it cameo as Casey’s mom but is never mentioned again. There’s a band of square-jawed robo assassins hot on Casey’s trail but we never fully understand who exactly they’re taking orders from.

When an older Frank (George Clooney, The Monuments Men) meets up with Casey is when the movie that felt like it was about to sputter out shows more potential. It’s best to leave the rest of the film for you to discover on your own because Bird and Lindelof have snuck in a pretty good message underneath a bunch of handsome special effects and unexpected turns that occupy the final 1/3 of the film.

Surprisingly rated PG even though it’s quite scary (have fun explaining nuclear war to your kids!), this seems like a film that doesn’t quite know where its audience is. Disney clearly wanted to target the family folk but Bird/Lindelof have a script that’s decidedly more mature and could bore little tykes as the film approaches the end of its 130 minute run time. Still, it’s brainier than your average summer blockbuster and considering the caliber of people involved, it’s a marginal win at the end of the day.

The Silver Bullet ~ Steve Jobs

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Synopsis: Set backstage at three iconic product launches and ending in 1998 with the unveiling of the iMac, the film takes us behind the scenes of the digital revolution to paint an intimate portrait of the brilliant man at its epicenter.

Release Date:  October 9, 2015

Thoughts: Less than two years after another biopic of the late Apple wunderkind was released, another look into the life of Steve Jobs is coming our way.  After the cool reception and workmanlike effort of Jobs, I was wondering if we actually needed another film on the same life so soon.  Turns out, we did.

The first trailer for Steve Jobs is out and looks like something to get, if not excited by, then overly interested in.  Directed by Danny Boyle (Trance) from a script penned by Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network), the film is comprised of just three scenes set at the unveiling of key products that Jobs had a hand in creating.  A bold structure to be sure but it’s different enough than the earlier film that any comparison will hopefully just be on who did the better interpretation of several key characters.  Though Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) was set to reteam with his The Beach director Boyle, another film (Revenant) took him from the project.  Replacing him is Michael Fassbender (Prometheus) and he looks like a better fit anyway…and let’s not forget Kate Winslet (Divergent), Seth Rogen (The Guilt Trip), and Sorkin favorite Jeff Daniels (Arachnophobia) are part of the team as well.

Movie Review ~ Mad Max: Fury Road

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In a stark desert landscape where humanity is broken, two rebels just might be able to restore order: Max, a man of action and of few words, and Furiosa, a woman of action who is looking to make it back to her childhood homeland.

Stars: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Megan Gale, Nicholas Hoult, John Howard, Nathan Jones, Zoe Kravitz, Richard Carter, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee Kershaw, Courtney Eaton, Josh Helman, Jennifer Hagan, iOTA , Angus Sampson, Joy Smithers, Gillian Jones, Melissa Jaffer, Melita Jurisic

Director: George Miller

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

Trailer Review: Here & Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  Forgive me, but it’s been three days since I caught Mad Max: Fury Road and I’m still a bit speechless but this giant juggernaut of a film.  It’s been 30 years since the last time Max Rockatansky raced across movie screens in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and a full 36 years since the character was introduced in George Miller’s cult favorite Mad Max (the sequel Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior arrived in 1981).  Though Miller had tried to get a fourth entry off the ground with Mel Gibson in early 2003, an agreement over budget and filming couldn’t be reached and the idea was scrapped.  Interest was again stirred around 2012 and that brings us to the awesome power of Mad Max: Fury Road.

The 70 year old Miller has spent the time between Max movies directing an impressive variety of films from The Witches of Eastwick to Babe to Happy Feet…but more than a little Mad Max-ness was still kicking around for the director and it’s a joy to see what he’s produced here with a new star and a sky high budget that thankfully isn’t all tossed away on CGI effects.  What Miller does is nothing short of a modern miracle of cinema and one that positively shouldn’t have worked as well as it has.

What you have here is really a two hour long car chase film with only the occasional rest stop to relieve the tension.  Giving the middle finger to the traditional film structure, it’s clever and full throttle entertainment, not for the faint of heart or hearing.  Miller assumes you’re well versed in the Mad Max universe (and if you aren’t, what’s wrong with you?) and doesn’t waste a millisecond getting you acclimated to the current state of affairs.  From frame one you’re thrust back into the apocalyptic wasteland (the Namib Desert in Africa, standing in for the Outback which was too wet for filming) where Max (Tom Hardy, The Dark Knight Rises) calls home.  Captured by a gang of marauders and imprisoned as a human blood bag for sickly warriors, the future doesn’t look very good for our hero of few words.

Enter Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, Snow White and the Huntsman, sporting a shaved head and bionic arm) a trusted disciple of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who also played the villain Toecutter from Mad Max) the ruler of the appropriately named Wasteland.  Immortan Joe is an evil dictator who enslaves women either to produce milk for his War Boys or breed new children to add to his royal family.  When Furiosa makes off with Immortan Joe’s prized Five Wives, a race ensues that puts several bands of very bad men on the hunt for Furiosa and her booty of women, water, and gasoline.

If we’re being honest, this is really Furiosa’s movie with Max along for the ride.  How he gets involved with Furiosa and her cargo is best left for you to find out but Miller has correctly given Max an equal that seeks the same justice he does.  I find it interesting that Mad Max: Fury Road has come under fire from men (of all people) that are upset a woman leads the way…claiming they were duped into thinking this was a “man’s movie”.  If you’ve seen any Mad Max film to date, you’d know that Max has always been a character that aids the disenfranchised and, somewhat begrudgingly, comes to their aid.

What sets Mad Max: Fury Road apart is that Furiosa largely doesn’t need Max’s help to get the job done.  Yes, he’s there to help her on multiple occasions but she’s got things under control, no doubt.  The fun of the film is watching Hardy and Theron lock horns, band together, and wreak havoc on all that get in their way.

Good support is offered from a bevy of interesting actors that pop up throughout the film.  Nicholas Hoult (X-Men: Days of Future Past) is whacked out as an amped up War Boy hot on the heels of Max and Furiosa that could become their greatest ally.   Zoe Kravitz (Divergent), Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, and Riley Keough (Magic Mike), are three of the Five Wives that prove their value as Furiosa’s tanker clanks and clashes around canyons and sandstorms, trying to avoid the grasp of Immortan Joe and his crew that are accompanied, hysterically, by a convoy including six timpani banging War Boys and a mutant guitarist with an electric guitar that shoots fire.

It could be said that Miller doesn’t know when to quit and that’s a very, very good thing.  From the opening titles to the totally insane action sequences, there’s not a moment that doesn’t feel in motion and the effect is often so overwhelming you feel the need to close your eyes to get your bearings.  Then you remember that if you close your eyes you may miss something…and you solider through it.

For fans of the Mad Max films, there are nice touches here and there that reference the previous three films.  Nothing too apparent or instantly obvious, but trinkets there to reward those that have stuck with Miller and his gang over the years.  Each Mad Max film has been a standalone story and with Tom Hardy signing on for at least three more Max films you can bet that once Miller has had a chance to catch his breath, he’ll hit the ground running with another escapade for his legendary hero.  The bar has been set so very very high with Mad Max: Fury Road…but Miller knows how to surprise us.

Mad Max: Fury Road puts all other summer blockbusters to shame.  It’s gorgeously shot, ferociously edited (culled from a staggering 480 hours of footage), and thrillingly produced with an insane level of detail in the costume and make-up design.  A second viewing is almost required to catch all of the inventive design Miller and his crew have worked up.  Not to be missed…and if I were you I’d plan on seeing it twice.

Down From the Shelf ~ Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A former Australian policeman is rescued by a tribe of children when he is banished from a desert town and sent into the desert to die by the desert town’s evil queen.

Stars: Mel Gibson, Tina Turner, Bruce Spence, Angry Anderson

Director: George Miller & George Ogilvie

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 107 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: It’s interesting to look back at Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and realize that it arrived in theaters before Mel Gibson ever took up with Danny Glover in the Lethal Weapon films.  Though the actor had increased his street cred with roles in dramatic films, he wasn’t yet a household name as an action star…but he sure was on his way when the third film in the Mad Max series was released in 1985.

Some have turned up their noses at director George Miller’s second sequel to Mad Max, his landmark film of 1979.  While Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior had done good business in 1981, it had a shiny little R rating to keep the violence high and make it a more enticing option for teens to sneak into.  With the arrival of the PG-13 rating in 1984, studios realized the value in a movie that could be given the stamp of approval as more than a tame family film but less than an adults-only affair.  So Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome was shot with a PG-13 rating in mind…and while certain fans scoffed at Miller going soft with his mythological hero Max Rockatansky, I found this to be the best of the Mad Max films starring Mel Gibson.

Admittedly, the film is probably the most dated of all with its synth score (from Maurice Jarre, taking over for Brian May) and cineplex friendly three act structure.  While Mad Max had the most story to tell, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior eschewed most plot contrivances and just became a locomotive of action scenes and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome falls somewhere in the middle.  It’s been said that Miller was less focused on this film after the tragic death of longtime friend and producing partner Byron Kennedy and it shows.  The overall effect of the film feels handled with less care than its predecessors, though it still advances the legend of the cop turned seeker of vengeance.  Miller actually shares directorial responsibilities with George Ogilvie who helmed the action-less scenes, freeing up Miller to add his flair to the over the top chase sequences that had at that point become the calling card for his Mad Max adventures.

The first half of the film is arguably better than the latter, with Max entering into Barter Town and meeting up with Aunt Entity (a marvelously game Tina Turner) who enlists his help in regaining control over rogues that threaten her rule.  When the deal goes south and Max takes a spin inside the death match of the Thunderdome, it sets the stage for an unexpected detour into a tale that involves a lost band of children who see Max as their champion (inspiring Turner’s closing credit jingle We Don’t Need Another Hero, one of two good sound tunes she contributes to the proceedings).

Though the film stumbles a bit on the way to its soft ending, I still found myself engaged more than ever with Gibson (The Expendables 3) and the plot cooked up by Miller.  It may be rather typical fare, especially considering the era, and it’s too long but it’s an enjoyable example of the mid ‘80’s summer blockbuster offerings.  Plus, it has a fabulous poster…the last one created by legendary artist Richard Amsel.

Down From the Shelf ~ Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In the post-apocalyptic Australian wasteland, a cynical drifter agrees to help a small, gasoline rich, community escape a band of bandits.

Stars: Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence, Michael Preston

Director: George Miller

Rated: R

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: With 1979’s Ozploitation epic Mad Max being made on the cheap and going on to become the highest grossing film in Australia, it didn’t take a genius to figure out that a sequel would find its way to cinemas Down Under…but what about the United States?  The original had a release that was famously bungled by its indie studio so when Mad Max 2 made its way stateside Warner Brothers was ready to snap it up.  They had a problem though…how do you give a profitable wide-release to Mad Max 2 when most audiences hadn’t heard of Mad Max?  The answer, rename the film The Road Warrior.

When I was young and started browsing the video store shelves, I never could remember which came first, Mad Max or The Road Warrior but the differences between the two films is totally clear.  Where Mad Max was a revenge tale (a genre popular with the Death Wish-heavy 1970s) The Road Warrior cantered on the fine line between car chase action and apocalyptic sci-fi.  Also, with the central character of Max (Mel Gibson, The Expendables 3) getting his revenge at the end of the first film (sorry, was that spoiler?) screenwriter and director George Miller chooses to bring Max forward as less of a man and more of a myth-based savior for a band of rebels fighting to protect their stash of the now-rare gasoline from a band of outlandish psychopathic thieves.

It’s 94 minutes of near non-stop action, with Miller using his added budget and resources to focus on creating death machines that race through a dystopian Australian Outback where no one is safe.  There’s precious little in the way of dialogue (Gibson has about 20 lines) or special effects, a formula Miller would use on all of his Mad Max tales.  While the central bad-guys may lack a little of the terrifying nearness of Mad Max’s Toecutter, it’s a muscle-bound lot of crazies that bring purposeful color to Miller’s barren wasteland.  Ending with a whopper of a chase, The Road Warrior is what Aliens was to Alien…a film that takes a valuable character and enriches them.

Check out my review of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome!

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