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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Down From the Shelf ~ Mad Max

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A vengeful Australian policeman sets out to avenge his partner, his wife and his son.

Stars: Mel Gibson, Joanne Samuel, Hugh-Keays-Byrne

Director: George Miller

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Ozploitation: a type of low budget horror, comedy and action films made in Australia after the introduction of the R rating in 1971.

Released in 1979, Mad Max is one of those rags to riches indie film success stories that film historians love to cite as a high water mark of its era, with good cause.  The highest grossing film in Australia for that year, it became a cult classic in the U.S. in spite of the fact that its distributor screwed up its release and relegated it to mostly drive-in theaters.  Though the film would really take off with the release of its 1981 sequel (Max Mad 2 AKA The Road Warrior) there were the dedicated audiences that got the word out on this little engine that could of an Ozzie mini masterpiece.

It’s hard to view the film today without comparing it to its admittedly superior sequels but if you’re truly able to separate it from what came after, there’s a heck of a fun ride that awaits you.  Having recently seen all of the Mad Max movies in quick succession, what I appreciated most about the one that started it all were the quieter, more humane moments that are largely absent from subsequent installments.  I say humane because it’s only in this film that we see the family of policeman Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson, The Expendables III) and come to understand why and how he becomes the force of vengeance that will stop at nothing in his quest for retribution.

Though the next films in the series increasingly paint Max as more myth than man, director George Miller and Gibson give the character some necessary nuance that allows the audience to be on his side, even when he’s committing acts of violence.  Of course it helps that Miller has created such disgustingly evil villains (the main baddie is called Toecutter for pete’s sake!) for Max to feast upon.

With chase scenes that were revolutionary in 1979 and still look dangerous now, Mad Max may be pushing 40 but it works like a charm.  It’s not my favorite overall of the bunch, but it scores highest on the drama quotient which helps movie-goers appreciate what’s up next.

Check out my review of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior &  Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome!

Movie Review ~ Pitch Perfect 2

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After a humiliating command performance at the Kennedy Center, the Barden Bellas enter an international competition that no American group has ever won in order to regain their status and right to perform.

Stars: Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Alexis Knapp, Brittany Snow, Adam DeVine, Hailee Steinfeld, Ester Dean, Kelley Jakle, Hana Mae Lee, Katey Sagal, Anna Camp, Skylar Astin, Keegan-Michael Key, Flula Borg, Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, Ben Platt

Director: Elizabeth Banks

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 115 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  What Pitch Perfect 2 has is a deadly case of sequelitis.  It’s a not-so-very-rare disease that most sequels succumb to and, sadly, it has no cure.  Now, it should be said that Pitch Perfect 2 doesn’t deserve to be chucked in the hazardous materials bin with the likes of Poltergeist II: The Other Side and The Hangover Part III but it deserves a good spanking for taking the sweet surprise fun of the original and turning it into a off-key and slack feature length ad for a variety of advertisers.

What made 2012’s Pitch Perfect so, well, perfect was that no one involved was expecting much from the modestly budgeted comedy…least of all its studio.  When early test screenings scored high with audiences, Universal launched a smart ad campaign and released the film slowly allowing that good ‘ole word-of-mouth to drive people into the theater.  The film exploded and, thanks to its (mostly) charming cast and skilled mash-up of the musical and college comedy genres, became a bona fide repeat viewing go-to for old and young, male and female.

A sequel seemed like a no-brainer and, true to form, that’s exactly what we get.  Returning screenwriter Kay Cannon hasn’t done much to move our characters along; merely letting a few of them graduate school or to new planes of maturity doesn’t exactly qualify as improving a character arc.  Cannon’s screenplay gives the film no purpose and commits the deadly sin of gathering up all the laughs from the previous film and just repeating them, sometimes verbatim.  Laughs that worked in small doses back in 2012 are piled high and frequently fall flat because they feel so been-there-done-that.  Worse, even more time is given to Adam DeVine (who I referred to in my original review as a Jack Black-alike…and at this point DeVine should be paying Black a percentage of his earnings) who pops up all too frequently to stink up the joint.

A co-star and producer of Pitch Perfect, Elizabeth Banks (Man on a Ledge) steps behind the camera for the first time as the director and while that may seem like an inspired choice, Banks can’t seem to find a rhythm to the overly episodic nature of the film.  With its garish lighting and questionable use of color it looks like a badly produced industrial training video and unspools at an awkwardly motionless pace.  Continuity between the two films is non-existent (Anna Kendrick’s character originally sported a canvas of tattoos that she seemingly had removed in the last three years) and there just seems to be an overall forced energy in the film.

What does help to qualify the film as only a near miss in my book are several engaging performances and a loud and clear message of female empowerment and positivity.

While Pitch Perfect really centered on grumpy Beca (Kendrick, Into the Woods) falling in with the all-female a capella group at her new college, the sequel doesn’t have one central character and that works in its favor.  Now, it’s an ensemble comedy that mostly gives equal time to several of the Barden Bellas that are going through some “stuff” while the group struggles to regain its reputation after an incident labeled by the press as Muffgate (to explain it would give more time to this idiotic plot device than necessary).

The breakout star of the first film, Rebel Wilson (Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb), is of course given more to do here and that’s a decision that has qualified success.  Too often she’s a Rebel without a cause as the actress lazily mumbles through some improvised shtick that probably was better than what the script had her saying.  Returning Bellas like Brittany Snow, Ester Dean, Hana Mae Lee are joined by freshman Hailee Steinfeld (The Homesman) and all deliver exactly what’s expected of them…which is very little.  As for the men, Skylar Astin and Ben Platt are barely utilized because the film has no real place for them or any real reason to add them into the mix.  Each time they pop up it feels extraneous and more unnecessary than ever before.  A time-waster of a side-story features Keegan-Michael Key as Beca’s boss…these scenes could have been subtitled The Sound of Silence because the comedian’s jokes land with a thud.

Forced to fight for their survival at the World Championship, the Bellas go up against Das Sound Machine, led by Flula Borg & Birgitte Hjort Sørensen.  Looking like the Eurotrash villains from a stage musical of Die Hard, the members of DSM are supposed to be forces to be reckoned with but, as is the case with an alarming amount of the musical numbers, next to none of the performances are very exciting.  It’s only in the finale (with a surreally bizarre cameo by Robin Roberts) that some sparks are ignited with a song composed by Sia and Sam Smith Hailee Steinfeld’s character.  In Pitch Perfect the music seemed to be justified and had a pulsating verve that got your toes tapping but the song choices for the sequel are pretty bewildering and not memorable in the least.

A centerpiece of the original was the Riff Off, a battle of the bands of sorts that tests the best of the best.  There’s a repeat of that (of course) here and it happens to be one of the more inspired bits in the film.  Watching the Bellas battling the likes of DSM, the Treblemakers, and one totally random group (the biggest spoiler of the movie…if someone tells you who it is, they aren’t your real friend) is where the most joy in this rather joyless sequel is found.

I recognize that I’ll probably be in a minority of those that failed to fall into the orbit of Pitch Perfect 2 (and hey, I liked Hot Pursuit so clearly I’m operating on a different playing field currently) but if this is the sequel fans were waiting for I’m glad it did its job.  I just happened to find it off-key and resting too much on its well-earned laurels.  When Pitch Perfect 3 comes out (and trust me, it will), can I make a suggestion that it’s a prequel?