Monthly Archives: May 2015

“Mad Max: Fury Road,” Reviewed: The Fast and the Furiosa.

Charlize Theron in 'Mad Max: Fury Road.' (Warner Bros.)

Charlize Theron in ‘Mad Max: Fury Road.’ (Warner Bros.)

When a storyteller stops telling one particular story for 30 years, it’s safe to assume he won’t be coming back to it without having something remarkable to say. So it is with George Miller and Mad Max: Fury Road (rated R), a fourth installment in the post-apocalyptic car-chase saga that began in the late 1970s and went into hibernation after the second sequel, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, in 1985. I bought my ticket and sat down to watch this return with jaded skepticism: Another sequel no one asked for. I was wrong. Go see this movie.

The Australian-import Max films always skewed toward a particular taste: They’re not just action movies, but over-the-top acts of cinematic anarchy with a love of vehicular carnage and a fashion sense that overindulges on punk rock. The original Mad Max and Mad Max 2 (renamed The Road Warrior when it came to America) made Mel Gibson an international star, and helped define a subgenre of muscular action movies – ’roid-rage flicks, before that term even existed.

Tom Hardy as Max. (WB)

Tom Hardy as Max. (WB)

What’s new about Fury Road? Well, Gibson is gone, of course, replaced by Tom Hardy (Locke) with an ease that reminds me of just how disposable some actors can be. But the title character, onetime cop turned desert-dwelling nomad Max Rockatansky, isn’t really the star of this installment anyway. This time Miller lets the women do the driving – a revolutionary act, in a franchise that historically had no time for women. The result is jarring and extraordinary – not for politically correct reasons, but just for its bracingly different perspective. Fury Road is the Mad Max film we never knew we always wanted.

Specifically, Miller hands the keys to his franchise to Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a grim one-armed heroine with a past that motivates her to strive for change in this post-nuclear wasteland. While on a gasoline run for her boss, the disfigured hulk Immortan Joe (Hugo Keays-Byrne), she steals his five best “wives” and hits the road in search of … well, that would be telling. Max winds up tagging along, and Hardy’s taciturn loner adds value to Furiosa’s journey – especially when Joe sends teams of pale-skinned War Boys and sharpshooters after his escaped citizens.

What follows is essentially a two-hour car chase across an unnamed desert (the film was shot in Namibia), as hordes of souped-up vehicles crash, careen and explode with brutally choreographed precision. Furiosa’s stolen tanker truck is just big enough to provide its own set pieces for intimate action sequences – think of it as a moving version of the skyscraper in Die Hard – and the driver, her charges and her Mad co-pilot all hold their own in one-on-one and group encounters with Joe’s rampaging army.

The relentlessness of the enterprise would be impressive enough, but Miller has upped the ante by making Fury Road beautiful in its sweeping scale. He brought in John Seale, the cinematographer who made the dunes in The English Patient look almost sensual; but more importantly, he’s turned this perpetual-motion world into a demented circus, with eye-popping details that make every scene feel deliriously overstuffed. While the cars pound away in the background of one scene, an anonymous character slowly strides in front of the action, dressed in rags and suspended on stilts. Why? For no better reason than the decision to strap a hard-rock guitar player on the front of one of Joe’s trucks – playing an instrument that spits fire, naturally, and contributing a mobile soundtrack to all this savagery.

These extra bits are there because Miller says so, that’s why. The over-the-top elements contribute to a feeling that you’re watching one of the most full realized films in recent history – a work of cinematic courage that makes a bold argument for summertime blockbusters having the potential of true art. They don’t distract from Theron’s haunted performance as Furiosa, or from the sense of urgency to her journey. But taken together, they make Mad Max: Fury Road something special in this summer wasteland of buddy comedies and superhero slugfests. It’s a film that took 30 years to get here, and was absolutely worth the wait.

“Avengers: Age of Ultron,” Reviewed: Superheroics and String Theory.

Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth in 'Avengers: Age of Ultron.' (Marvel/Disney)

Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron.’ (Marvel/Disney)

Photoshop, the image-manipulation software NASA used to fake the moon landing, has a useful feature called Flatten Image. After you’ve monkeyed around with backgrounds, foregrounds, colors and shading, flattening the file seals those changes into a single impenetrable level – as if putting the image behind glass, or, I suppose, turning it back into a unchangeable photograph. (At least, I think that’s how it works. I hardly ever use Photoshop.)

For some reason that particular analogy popped into my head last night during a screening of Avengers: Age of Ultron (rated PG-13) – and it wasn’t because I watched it in 2D instead of 3D. Writer-director Joss Whedon, the reigning creative king of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has pulled off the impossible and delivered a skillful sequel to his 2012 ensemble opus that’s bigger, louder, more complex and yet easier to follow than the first Avengers. By rights there should be too many characters in this film, and yet no one feels shortchanged by the brisk plot and adorably chatty script. (Don’t get too attached to each and every character, however: This is still a Whedon movie, if you know what I mean.)

And yet there’s this … flatness to the affair. It’s a product that feels like a product – processed, spliced and diced, and pre-chewed for easy digestion. Age of Ultron is absolutely entertaining, but that inescapable feeling of manufactured-ness keeps the puppet, as it were, from becoming a real boy.

The first Avengers was obligated to spend precious minutes bringing the superheroic band together, but this sequel quite literally hits the ground running. There’s an opening sequence that’s wall-to-wall action, as our team of heroes – Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) – beats the snot out of a platoon of rent-a-goons in an eastern European forest. There they find Loki’s scepter, lost since the first film, as well as a super-powered brother-and-sister team, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen, looking much less married than they did in last summer’s Godzilla), with an axe to grind against Downey’s Tony Stark.

Downey remains the MVP of the MCU, giving us a wisecracking Iron Man whose brilliant mind is both his secret weapon and his own worst enemy: Stark thinks too many levels ahead, and lets his anxieties about what could happen color his actions in the moment. In this case, the futuristic energy contained in Loki’s scepter inspires him to create that artificial intelligence he’s been dreaming of – he’s worried about threats that might someday be bigger than the Avengers can handle, and as an inventor he figures he can build a machine that will save the day.

It doesn’t work. That AI is the robotic Ultron (James Spader), and literally within the time it takes for the Avengers to enjoy an after-hours party, this newly created super-intelligence calculates that the best way to protect humanity is to wipe it out – starting with our heroes. Ultron is connected to the world’s computers and likes to create increasingly indestructible bodies for himself to inhabit; he’s a tough cookie. And when the other Avengers learn who created him, they get sooooo mad.

Age of Ultron hits its marks with deceptive ease: The battle sequences are long and sustained and (mostly) well-choreographed, and a couple of times Whedon cuts to slow-motion to let us drink in the full-tilt glory of an orgiastic scene of wide-scale super action. He’s still at his best, though, in the human moments between the characters – the running jokes about Cap’s fuddy-duddies and Thor’s enchanted hammer, and a surprisingly sincere flirtation between Johansson’s emotionally scarred former killer and Ruffalo’s scientist who fears the gamma-generated rage machine that lurks inside him.

After 11 interconnected films we know what to expect from the MCU brand in general, and Avengers in particular: Each film exists to thrill us in the moment and prepare us for the next chapter. On that score Age of Ultron is pretty close to an unqualified success … but I’m not surprised to learn that Whedon himself has said he’s done with the franchise after this entry. He’s a pop-culture geek, but his own superpower is his ability to inject humanity into his creations. At one point Ultron references Pinocchio, as I did above, and comments that there are no strings on him any more. But the film’s strings are still there, and the bigger the MCU gets, the harder it will be to ignore them.