Movie Review: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

May 31, 2015 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

Mad Max

It’s kinda shocking that I’ve never seen any of the original Mad Max films with Mel Gibson. Too campy? Too 80s? Too Aussie? (All baseless assumptions, by the way). Whatever it is, I’ve never really felt the urge to watch them. And so I wasn’t all that hyped up when I heard the the franchise was receiving a reboot 30 years later, surprisingly with original director George Miller returning and the super likable Tom Hardy replacing the now-super unlikable Gibson.

But rave reviews and strong word of mouth got me thinking that, against all odds, Mad Max: Fury Road might actually be a good film.

Well, I was wrong. Because Mad Max: Fury Road is a bloody modern masterpiece. In my memory it will surely go down as one of the best movies of 2015, one of the best action movies of the decade, one of the best Aussie movies of all-time and one of the most visionary post-apocalyptic movies ever.

You don’t need to know anything about the previous films; you don’t even have to know the premise or who Mad Max is. That’s the first fantastic thing about the movie — almost everything about the world in which the story is set is revealed by showing as opposed to telling. There’s no narrator, no scrolling introductory text — and yet from the very first scene it manages to immerse you into this strange and terrifying new future. The opening sequence introducing us to Mad Max is insanely tense and horrific, but it’s also a slick lesson in world-building and storytelling.

And so I won’t say much about the plot except to note that the narrative focuses on three main characters. There’s Max Rockstansky (Tom Hardy), a loner constantly battling inner demons and fighting for survival. There’s Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a warrior on a deadly mission of redemption. And there’s Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a pale-skinned “War Boy” brainwashed into worshipping a ruthless dictator (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who apparently played a different character in the original trilogy).

In an era when most action movies are predictably conventional and follow familiar arcs — whether it’s superheroes, long-running franchises or Taken/Bourne imitations — Mad Max: Fury Road stands out for being something completely different. The film is essentially a long, exhilarating car chase with one jaw-dropping action sequence after another. That said, don’t be mistaken in thinking it is anything like the Fast and Furious franchise, which relies on a mix of old and new star power and having to constantly one-up itself in the crazy stunt stakes. Fury Road is more raw, more strangely grounded despite its over-the-topness, more brutal, more unabashedly bizarre, and far more creative. Frankly, I’d never seen anything like it, and the film’s combination of thrills, suspense and horror blew me away.

That said, Fury Road also turned out to be a lot more emotionally involving than I had expected. Granted, it’s still predominantly style over substance, but there’s something about it — whether it is the strong characters, the brilliant performers or the construction of the narrative — that elevates its dramatic elements above your average action flick.

Speaking of performers, George Miller hit the jackpot with the trio of Hardy, Theron and Hoult. Max is a man of few words and spends a good portion of the movie in a face-blocking mask, making Hardy’s performance even more impressive. To be fair, he has had some mask experience after playing Bane, but it’s the quiet magnetism and emotions he exudes that turns Max into a hero you can easily root for.

As good as Hardy is, Max is actually more of a sidekick to Theron’s Furiosa, who absolutely owns the movie. Apart from sporting the best shaved head since Sinead O’Connor, the Oscar winner turns Furiosa into the heart and soul of the movie, a badass whose quest for redemption drives everything that happens.

And if you thought Theron had uglied herself up for Monster, then you ought to see Hoult as Nux — powdery skin, bald head, skeletal features and perpetually chapped lips. Amazingly, he still looks better than most people, though the sacrifice for his art is impressive. Without giving too much away, Hoult’s charm and willingness to do whatever it takes makes Nux an unusual and intriguing supporting character that might not have been nearly as interesting without his jittery, frantic performance.

As for the rest of the cast, the physically imposing Keays-Byrne leads a cast of grotesque villains, and balancing them out is a group of hot models led by Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Zoe Kravitz. It’s good to see other Aussies such as Nathan Jones, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton and Megan Gale getting some burn. I like that Miller just let everyone speak in their native accents (maybe no one can do the Aussie accent properly), and yet the diverse mix of pronunciations is never jarring or feels out of place.

In all, Mad Max: Fury Road is a revelation. It’s one of the most visually stunning films I’ve seen in a long time, from the sandy Australian landscape to the visceral violence and the uncomfortable characters to the gritty machinery. While I’m sure there are plenty of special effects involved, the CGI never overwhelms like it does for many action films these days. The performances are top notch, and the story is simple but effective. At exactly two hours, the length is close to perfect for a film of this kind, though there were times when I felt a little burned out from the endless sand and moving parts. Minor quibbles aside, this is an unexpected masterpiece. It’s hard to see how the planned sequels could top this experience or provide something fresh to prevent familiarity fatigue, but after what I’ve just witnessed it’ll be hard to bet against George Miller again.

5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

May 3, 2015 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

International-Avengers-Age-of-Ultron-Poster

The Avengers was an ambitious experiment that surprisingly succeeded despite the naysayers and the weight of expectations. The idea that you could create an ensemble superhero feature by taking a bunch of characters with their own franchises was risky, but thanks to the genius of Joss Whedon it turned out to be one of best superhero films of all time.

And so I was excited about the inevitable sequel, Avengers: Age of Ultron, but I was also wary of unreasonable expectations. After all, what else could they do to improve on what was essentially a near-perfect formula?

As it turns out, not a whole lot. Joss Whedon tried a few new things and did all he could lift the bar again on the coolness and wow factors, though when you boil it down, Avengers 2 is basically the same movie as its predecessor. For a lot of people, that’s good enough.

You have the same superstar cast with a few notable new additions, some fresh faces and some familiar faces from existing franchises (I won’t spoil it, but suffice it to say there were will be surprises unless you’ve been following the production closely). You have eye-popping special effects that turn the screen into a beautiful and coordinated mess of flying bodies, projectiles and explosions. You have an intelligent villain who controls an army of fairly useless robots and appears to have a bunch of mysterious schemes, but all he really wants to do is what all supervillains want to do: destroy Earth. And of course tensions will flare between our heroes and all will seem bleak, but in the end they realise — yet again — that unity is their greatest strength.

Running alongside this proven formula is all the stuff the comic book geeks want. Most of it will likely go right over he heads of regular viewers, but from what I understand there were plenty of well-placed leads into other characters and comics in the Marvel universe that set up the future direction of the franchise as a whole (you can read up on all that in your spare time if you can be bothered).

Despite not doing a whole lot different, Avengers 2 is still an entertaining blast fans of the first film will no doubt enjoy. Whedon finds creative ways to pit different members of the Avengers against each other and show off cool new powers and gadgets, while also giving existing characters opportunities to develop and evolve. Much of it is fairly shallow but I suppose it’s better than not trying at all.

The action itself is also varied and clever so that it’s not just a rehash or imitation of what has been done before. As usual, it’s all heavily reliant on CGI, though it’s done seamlessly enough that it allows you to be immersed in the action. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s an upgrade from the original, but it’s at least different enough so you realise you’re not watching the same film.

The cast is of course spectacular, with Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye (also known as the shittier members of the Avengers) getting upgraded roles to get equal screen time — at least — with the main leads of Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo and Chris Evans. Of the four, it felt like only Chris Evans did not display noticeable signs of character fatigue. Downey Jr, in particular, simply looks like he’s fed up with playing the same character over and over, and he’s pretty much said as much interviews about the future of Iron Man.

The two new characters introduced are Soviet twins the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor Johnson) — who coincidentally played wife and husband in Godzilla last year. The former has mind control powers and what appears to be a similar power to The Force, while the latter has the ability to move extremely fast. Both were kind of disappointing, to be honest, partly because of the strained Russian accents and partly because they don’t get much time to develop, especially Quicksilver, who pales in comparison to the version of the character in X-Men: Days of Future Past played by Evan Peters.

The titular villain, Ultron, voiced by James Spader, received a lot of attention throughout the production but ultimately wasn’t as impressive as I thought he would be. He’s formidable and intelligent, much like Loki was in The Avengers, but he didn’t add as much to the table as I had wanted. Spader’s voice is great, but never did I feel like he was truly capable of defeating the Avengers.

On the whole, Avengers: Age of Ultron isn’t as fun as The Avengers, but Joss Whedon fuels it with just enough enthusiasm and excitement for me to rate the experience as on par with its predecessor. As a piece of popcorn entertainment there’s not much I can complain about. He took the “why fix it if it ain’t broke” approach, upped the ante on the action and special effects, took the characters to the next level in their natural progressions, added some faces he knew fans would like to see, created new branches for future storylines, and even threw in a few nice little surprises.  It is of course not as fresh as the original, and it’s also not as funny, though all things considered the film takes the Avengers formula about as far as it can go. From here, it’s clear that Marvel has even bigger things planned for the future, and while the Avengers could very well return in future films, their presence and involvement will have to be very different to what it has been.

4 stars out of 5

PS: There’s a short mid-credits scene this time, but don’t bother sticking around until the end because there’s nothing there.

Movie Review: Tracers (2015)

April 18, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Tracers-Poster

A strange thing has happened to the perception that starring in popular film series ruin the careers of young actors. Ever since the world bestowed upon us the Twilight Saga, Kristen Stewart has been in a bunch of movies. Robert Pattinson has been in a bunch of movies. Most of them have been fairly high-profile, well-received movies too. That leaves Taylor Lautner, the third angle in the love triangle, who hasn’t been tearing up the screens since he stopped tearing up his shirt in Twilight for no apparent reason.

Apart from the poorly conceived star vehicle Abduction from 2011, Lautner hasn’t been a top biller for a film since the third Twilight film, and it now appears that his career is heading in the wrong direction with Tracers, a niche-market film about a bunch of young Parkour enthusiasts caught up in a crime ring.

Parkour is exciting to watch, which is why there have been a few movies made about the phenomenon in recent years. I never watched Brick Mansions or the French film it was based on, District 13, though I did catch a little-known film called Run (review here) last year. Tracers is basically a better and more expensive version of Run, mixed with that Joseph Gordon Levitt bike messenger movie Premium Rush.

In fact, Lautner (Cam) actually plays a struggling bike messenger who starts using his athleticism and well-proportioned body for parkour so he can get to know a pretty girl played by the up-and-coming Marie Avgeropoulos. But the girl and her brother are in a gang headed by a criminal who uses parkour to evade police capture, and Cam must find a way out by taking advantage of both his skills and smarts. And yes, Lautner does take off his shirt in this film, but the dim lighting could disappoint those looking for clear shots of his abs.

Tracers is a small film made for just US$11 million, and it shows. It’s a fairly pedestrian script with the familiar dialogue and attempts and character development, and you can pretty much guess what is going to happen next as the story predictably hits the designated checkpoints. The greyish tints and dilapidated settings also mean that the film is not pretty to look at, though to the credit of Daniel Benmayor the parkour scenes are at least done stylishly and with flair. I don’t know how realistic they are, but the running and climbing and jumping all over the place is undeniably thrilling. But that’s about all there is, unless you count the obligatory romance between Lautner and Avgeropoulos which I’m sure his fans are itching to see.

At the end of the day, Tracers is what it is — a low-budget, formulaic action film riding on the popularity of parkour that would have been straight-to-DVD without Lautner’s name attached to it. While it has its moments, you could probably get the same excitement from watching parkour highlights on YouTube.

2.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Wild Card (2015)

March 31, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Wild-Card

Wild Card is a really unusual film starring action superstar Jason Statham, undoubtedly one of the busiest men in Hollywood. Directed by Simon West, who has some notable credits on his resume including Con Air and The Expendables 2, it’s actually a remake of the 1986 adaptation of the same name starring Burt Reynolds and based on the novel Heat by William Goldman.

Statham plays Nick Wild, a super lethal dude who earns money by doing odd jobs around Las Vegas. We learn early on that he’s a reasonable guy who doesn’t like to rip off his clients and likes to help people out in a no-nonsense way. When a good friend of his (Dominik Garcia-Lorido, Andy Garcia’s real-life daughter) is brutalized by three thugs — led by Milo Ventimiglia (remember him from the TV series Heroes?) — Nick reluctantly agrees to help seek revenge.

So far so good, except that the film then goes off on a completely unexpected tangent, where we discover that Nick is also a gambling addict who has serious trouble knowing when to call it quits. From here, Wild Card turns into a weird gambling movie for a while , which is OK, but then his actions against the thugs come back to haunt him and the film flips into something else again. In some ways, Wild Card is a — pardon the pun — a wild collection of set pieces, each of which works effectively on its own but doesn’t quite come together as a complete motion picture.

The action sequences are very good, with an impressive visual flair that utilizes slow motion and bone-crunching sound effects that almost make you feel the pain. Here is where Statham is at his absolute best, and to his credit he absolutely milks his charisma and knowledge of on-screen fighting to their fullest.

His acting is obviously not as good, which is probably why West decided to pair him with some outstanding performers. Ventimiglia, who has faded since Heroes turned to shit (though I hear it’s coming back without him), is actually excellent as a buffed up, narcissistic douche. The great Stanley Tucci makes an appearance as a crime lord of sorts, while other big names landing extended cameos include Jason “Costanza” Alexander, Hope Davis, Anne Heche and Sofia Vergara.

Wild Card is not great — it’s too all over the place to be anything close to that — but there are aspects of it I enjoyed, such as the action and some of the dialogue. I was quite stunned to discover that it was made for a budget of US$30 million, which feels excessive considering what I saw on screen, though I was even more astonished to learn that it made just US$1.6 million at the box office, which is far too low for what it deserves. While you won’t miss much by skipping this at the cinema, catching it on DVD won’t be the worst decision you could make.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Big Hero 6 (2014)

January 31, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Big-Hero-6-Movie-Poster-2

Big Hero 6 is the kind of animated film I would have thought was the best thing ever when I was a kid. Kid geniuses, cool superpowers and a cute robot friend to boot, it’s every little boy’s dream come true. I admit I had a great time with it as an adult too despite its fairly straight-forward sci-fi action premise, conventional plot and Avengers team concept (not surprising because it’s loosely based on a Marvel comics series of the same name).

Set in the fictional hybrid city of San Fransokyo (even though the Japanese aspects remind me more of Osaka), Big Hero Six is all about the conveniently named Hiro, a 14-year-old genius who loves to design fighting robots and using his 3D printer to turn them into reality. Without giving away too much plot, let’s just say Hiro designs something really cool that ends up being utilised by a masked villain for evil purposes, and it is up to him and his team of five very clever friends to save the day.

Big Hero 6 does not break any new ground, but it’s a strong effort by Disney that ticks all the right boxes. The visuals are colourful and easy on the eyes; the characters are affable and have plenty of heart; the action is exciting and creative; and the innovation — in particular the designs of the robots and their abilities — is very impressive. None of these things would matter very much if the film doesn’t have heart, but fortunately it does thanks to the strong development of Hiro’s journey.

If you’ve seen the trailer or the posters you’ll know there’s a very adorable white inflatable robot called Baymax, which is a health care assistant designed by Hiro’s brother Tadashi. It’s totally deliberate, but Baymax succeeds in supplying the film with ample cuteness and humour. You know that’s what he’s designed to make audiences feel but you can’t help but fall in love with him.

Big Hero 6 is up for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars next month and I’ll probably be rooting for it to win. It’s not super hilarious like the snubbed Lego Movie, it’s not super cute and moving like Up, and it’s certainly not on the level of Toy Story, which is all of those things and more — but Big Hero 6 succeeds as a fun, entertaining and pretty animated film that audiences of all ages will enjoy.

3.75 stars out of 5

 

 
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