Monday, May 18, 2015

Fast and Furiosa

As post-apocalyptic flicks go, ‘Mad Max’ is the grand-daddy of ‘em all.  Indeed, George Miller’s seminal low budget 1979 B-movie and its sequel, the even better ‘The Road Warrior’ starring a young and then unknown Aussie who goes by the name of Mel Gibson, have become somewhat synonymous with movies in the genre.  The dystopian desert wasteland depicted in the Mad Max films is bleak and unforgiving in the purest Hobbesian sense: a mad, mad world in which Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” and the laws of the jungle reign supreme.   What ‘Mad Max’ did better than perhaps any other post-apocalyptic movie is its portrayal of our dark future as a sort of post-modern Wild West and its protagonist as the perfect anti-hero.

Some thirty years after ‘Beyond Thunderdome,’ George Miller attempts to update and bring Mad Max to a whole new generation in ‘Fury Road,’ this time with Tom Hardy playing the former lawman-turned-lone avenger as he was first kidnapped by feral “War Boys” to be an involuntary blood donor before being swept up by a maelstrom of events beyond his control thanks to the machinations of Imperator Furiosa (a bald headed Charlize Theron) which led to the often exhilarating and merry chase through the desert that took up about three-quarters of the movie’s two-hour running time.  While character development and dialogue are in short supply in ‘Fury Road,’ its old school “live” stunt sequences more than made up for it and are far more visceral and believable than the sanitized and overcooked CG stuff we've been subjected to in the ‘Fast and the Furious’ films.  Yawn.

Brutal and uncompromising, ‘Fury Road’ delivers the goods and captures the sheer essence of the previous Mad Max movies.  Its simple black-and-white “kill or be killed” morality in a post-apocalyptic western setting still resonates today as much as it did more than 30 years ago.  And given that it did fairly well at the box office despite its ultra-violence and hard R rating, it’s not a stretch to say that ‘Mad Max’ still retains an appeal that goes beyond biker gangs and fans of Iron Maiden or ‘Heavy Metal’ magazine.

Grade: A

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Freaks and Gleeks

2012’s ‘Pitch Perfect,’ loosely based on Mickey Rapkin’s book about the quest for collegiate a capella glory, was a pleasant sleeper hit which made $65 million at the box office and more besides after its theatrical run on DVD and VOD.  Impeccably timed at the height of a certain FOX high school musical dramedy’s success and popularity (hint, see this review’s title), what made ‘Pitch Perfect’ work was its perfect blend of humor and sorority charm, thanks in no small part to Anna Kendrick, who shined bright as the adorably sweet and innocent girl-next-door Beca Mitchell.  I dare you to listen to her fresh take on the Depression-era Americana folk song “When I’m Gone” (aka "Cups") and not fall in love with her, I mean, it:

As sequels go, ‘Pitch Perfect 2’ could do a lot worse (see my review of ‘Hot Tub Time Machine 2’ if you don’t believe me).  Directed by Elizabeth Banks, who also starred as one of the announcers of the a capella competition, PP2 starts off with an incident (a “wardrobe malfunction” or “muff-gate” involving Fat Amy as an aerialist) at the Lincoln Center attended by the Obamas which brought the Barden Bellas to national disgrace and shame.  To get their groove back, the Bellas must put their differences aside and work together to defeat the international a capella champions “Das Sound Machine,” led by that perfect specimen of Aryan superiority, uberwoman “Kommissar” (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen).  As such, like Vince Vaughn’s 2004 movie ‘Dodgeball,’ PP2 is “a true underdog story” of redemption and overcoming the odds.  And who can say “no” to that?  Not me!
If you liked the original PP or are a gleek at heart, you will no doubt find much to enjoy in this sequel.  Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson (Fat Amy) and Hana Mae Lee (Lilly) provided much of the laughs this time around, and Hailee Steinfeld (who was a revelation in 2010’s ‘True Grit’ remake) also featured prominently as the group’s newest member Emily, who’s saddled with the rather unfortunate last name “Junk-Hardon.”  Still, PP2 makes for harmless PG-13 “almost-but-not-quite-raunchy” humor.

Grade: B+

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Monday, May 4, 2015

Age of Robopocalypse

Brilliant weapons designer Tony Stark’s “Peacekeeping Program,” developed to defend earth and maintain world peace after the Battle of New York in the wake of the Chitauri invasion, goes haywire in the guise of Ultron in Joss Whedon’s follow-up to his mega blockbuster extravaganza ‘The Avengers.’  In the Marvel cinematic universe, Avengers movies are perhaps the most highly anticipated due to the team’s ensemble cast of colorful superheroes, and in that regard ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ certainly did not disappoint.

Compared to the near non-stop action sequences and epic level destruction seen in 2012's ‘The Avengers’:, Joss dialed down the apocalyptic mayhem a smidgen in his sequel and unveiled three new characters: Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Quicksilver (Kick-Ass’s Aaron Taylor Johnson) and Vision (Paul Bettany).  Two romantic sub-plots were also introduced, between Natasha Romanoff and Bruce Banner on the one hand (she’s his berserker “off” switch), plus Clint Barton and his wife Laura (Linda Cardellini of ‘ER’ and ‘Freaks and Geeks’) on the other.  Then there’s the titular cyber-villain himself, a rogue AI in a sinister robotic body given voice and a good dose of maniacal character by the charismatic James Spader, who gave Ultron the same snarky cynicism and rebelliousness as his creator.  When Ultron comes to the logical conclusion that humans must “evolve” and the path to peace lies in our extinction, Tony Stark belatedly realized that he may have made the biggest mistake of his life.  Oops.

While those who expected ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ to be as big and badass as its predecessor might come away a little underwhelmed (you’re spoiled!), this second act is still packed to the gills with action and a worthy addition to the Avengers canon.  The witty banter and humor we’ve come to expect from Joss are in evidence, as are the obligatory “super power beat down” (this time between the Hulk and the latest Iron Man armor called “Veronica”) and the always welcome appearance of the too cool S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier.  While Joss is now done with the Avengers, I can’t wait for the two-part “Infinity War” series from the Russos slated for 2018 and 2019.
Grade: A- 
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