A Trip To The Movies: Review – “Mad Max: Fury Road 3D” 5.17.15

I’m not sure how many directors have gone on to make a reboot or remake of their original films. Then comes in writer/director George Miller, who, in 1979, made the original “Mad Max” (1979), and its subsequent sequels – 1981’s “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior” and 1986’s “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” (1986). Here we are thirty years later, and Miller presents us with his 4th installment of the series. I have to admit, when I first heard about this film I was very reluctant, as I’m not usually one for remakes, redos, reboots, or whatever you want to call them. Then I found out that it was going to be helmed by the original writer/director of the series, and after seeing a trailer way back in January after “American Sniper” I thought to myself “wow, this looks like something that has some serious potential”. I also thought either they did a really good job with the trailer and that it looked like it could be the next great action movie, or it could wind up like something more akin to Miller’s 3rd installment – a film held sacred but not by anyone I know other than its deepest admires of the series – “Beyond Thunderdome”. Which after the groundbreaking innovative first and second installments within the series, frankly put, should never have been made. What also intrigued me which I don’t usually follow was the rumor mill from the set – stars Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy were at each others’ throats, Hardy was reportedly very difficult to work with on set (not the first time I’ve heard this), and that the filming process took much longer than usual for a film to complete. However, after having recently revisited the first and second installments in my anticipation for the newest, that and its great reception coming out of Cannes last week and glowing reviews that came in at the end of last week, all but pretty much sealed the deal for me. My anticipation for it plus the bar were set high.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” starts off with a bit of back story of shots in black and white, similar to how “The Road Warrior” did, providing us with some background into how the film’s setting of a future-esque Australian desert wasteland came to be. Also, similar to “The Road Warrior”, natural resources are scarce, particularly that of gasoline. A philanthropist by the name of “Immortan Joe” employs a young woman named Furiosa (played by Charlize Theron – more on her to come) to take an armored big rig truck across the barren Australian desert to collect gasoline. Meanwhile the newest and first Max in the quadrilogy to feature anyone other than Mel Gibson, played by the always wonderful Tom Hardy, is caught in middle of the whole thing and is taken prisoner by the “War Boys”, Joe’s army, and is imprisoned to act as a blood donor for one of the War Boys (Nicholas Hoult – the young boy, now obviously much older and almost unrecognizable, from 2002’s “About A Boy”). The action really picks up when Furiosa veers off course with Joe’s five wives on board, setting off a spectacular chase scene (or shall I say chase movie) with other contributing gangs following their trail. Max is eventually freed and steals Furiosa’s rig, but the truck is soon disabled and Max and Furiosa butt heads as to whether or not she is going to allow him to carry on with her and Joe’s 5 wives on board. Though Max proves himself as a force to be reckoned with, and the two rebels band together across an action packed, visually spectacular high-octane thrill ride, fighting of the legions upon legions of Joe’s army while doing so.

To start, I’ll say that this is maybe the best action movie that has come out post-2000 (sorry “The Bourne Trilogy”, this one ups you in every department). It starts off with an absolute chaotic and balls to the wall roller-coaster that grabs a hold of you from its first sequence and doesn’t let up until the end credits role. It’s the greatest example I’ve seen so far of a film’s original creator, taking their original concept and story, and redoing it, the way it should have been done to begin with, for more contemporary audiences who may or may not be familiar with the original trilogy. I haven’t seen a movie with this much energy, this much velocity, and this much non-stop action since Gareth Evans’ “The Raid: Redemption” (2011), a film until seeing this film I would have labeled the best action movie of this century. But this movie goes deeper in that in almost every angle from an action film standpoint. I couldn’t help but think of Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), and the opening sequence where they storm the beaches of Normandy. Now imagine that level of visceral action and continue it throughout an entire duration of a 2 hour film. It’s a hyperbolic comparison I know. But one that seemed to enter my brain throughout. The film is also perfectly cast – with Hardy playing the epitomized loner. A man whose actions clearly speak louder than his words. Then there’s Theron in a role that puts her in the same echelon as say someone like Sigourney Weaver in the Alien quadrilogy (1979-1992). Bringing a nice blend of post fem attitude along with its several other sub-genres. Resembling something of that of a post-feminist action film, punk-western (and I really have to emphasize the futuristic punk look and vibe of the film), and post-apocalyptic road-rage chase-thriller. Lastly, I should point out its dazzling use of 3D in a film that’s a breathtaking visual splendor, with every burn, crash, and explosions coming off the screen at you. In fact, it’s the best use of the format that I’ve seen since Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity (2013) and really deserves to be seen as such, as I can’t imagine it being half the immersive experience it would had I of seen it otherwise. This is about as high-octane and thrilling of an action movie you’re bound to see all year, which also happens to be the very best in what the action genre has produced for us in as far back as I can remember. And one can only imagine that writer/director George Miller is sitting back and marveling at his creation in what can undoubtedly be considered the best in the series of “Mad Max” films to date.

in 3D [A-]

in 2D or any other format you choose to see it in other than the following [>B+]

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A Trip To The Movies – Review: “American Sniper” 1.17.15

Let’s face it Clint Eastwood hasn’t directed a great film in a decade. His last really good film was his 2004 masterpiece – “Million Dollar Baby” which was an absolutely stunning achievement garnering Academy Award nominations in almost every category, including a well deserving Best Actress win for Hilary Swank. This is an especially important thing to highlight because Eastwood’s creative output (a film every other, sometimes twice a year) has been at an all time high during these past 10 years. His back to back War films “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006) both were failures, both from a cinematic stand point and in terms of box office revenue, and little to next to nobody I know saw either one of them. Then came maybe his best yet still underwhelming year in 2008 with the release of both “Changeling” and “Gran Torino”. Both semi worthwhile efforts despite having their fair share of flaws. 2009 brought us his first collaboration with Matt Damon, the sports drama “Invictus”, an Eastwood effort that I skipped as it didn’t pique my interest in the slightest, that and I’m not particularly a fan of films that cast Damon in the lead role. 2010’s “Hereafter” I too skipped as it was a poorly reviewed film that featured another collaboration between Eastwood and Damon once again in the lead role. The year after he released the J. Edgar Hoover biopic “J. Edgar” (2011) featuring a stand out Leonardo DiCaprio performance in what was an otherwise long, tedious, and boring film. Enter 2014 and Eastwood planned to release another 2 films – the first based on a book about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons called “Jersey Boys” which featured no well-known actors and got mediocre to below average reviews, and basically flew under the radar of just about everyone I know (most people I talk to didn’t even know it was an Eastwood film). This being his latest film, which looked like it had some serious promise after revealing one of the better looking and well constructed trailers I had seen all year. That and the “surprise” Oscar nominations this past Thursday morning recognizing it for both Best Picture and star Bradley Cooper in the Best Actor categories quickly catapulted it from a “I’ll probably see that movie once it comes out in the theater” to a “how quickly can I get to the theater to see it” status. I then bought my advance tickets the night of the announcements, expecting the crowds to look like something similar to that of the newest “Hunger Games” release. All of that aside, I can’t say I had the highest of expectations for it, as it looked like it had the workings to either be a great film, or yet another Eastwood disappointment.

The film introduces us its real life based on a true story character Chris Kyle. A Texas man who spends most of his time at the bull races trying his best to make a living as a cowboy. His then current relationship quickly dissolving and he begins feeling unfulfilled as to where his life is heading. Like most people, he doesn’t seem content on just “being”, and strives to look for something more out of life and for himself (a lesson he is taught at an early age by his father in a flashback dinner scene with both him and his younger brother). Chris decides at a rather late age of thirty to enter the Navy, and in a montage showing him and other recruits going through basic training, it seems like he is tailor-made to be suited for his new calling as he is everything the military represents – he’s a man of high moral value that stands for loyalty, discipline, and dedication to the cause. Not to mention he’s an expert marksman. During one weekend he meets a young woman (played by the increasingly impressive Sienna Miller, who played another high-profile role this past year in Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” as Mark Ruffalo’s wife). They seem like a perfect fit and soon after decide to get married (in one of the first of many great scenes that I thought clearly exemplified a soldier’s loyalty to their cause over that of their own family – a major theme and focus of the story). Chris and his new wife quickly get accustomed to their newly married, domesticated lifestyle, only to have Chris get deployed for his first of four tours. The film then quickly transports us to the Middle East, where we see Chris as a Navy Seal sniper picking away at militants in combat. The camera looking up the barrel of his gun and square into his eyes as he picks off his targets right and left. Chris becomes an almost martyr-like hero to his peers as he continues to save life after life with his expert skills as a sniper. But at what cost will all of this have on Chris’s psyche and even more importantly, will it have on his increasingly distant wife and children, who seem to be deeply affected by Chris’ absence as he goes back and forth between tours in the Middle East and being back stateside with his family.

This is a landmark achievement between director Clint Eastwood and star Bradley Cooper and it turned out to being something much more than I had expected which was a pleasant surprise. There are many things I’d like to point out about this film that I liked, but I’ll try to keep it to just the essentials. First off, it’s an incredible character study with Cooper in his career best performance to date. I thought he was great in “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012) and good in “American Hustle” (2013) (but didn’t think he deserved a Best Supporting Actor nomination). But this film puts him on a new platform as an actor. His restrained, subdued, yet expressive performance is nothing short of amazing. He also put on about 40 pounds of muscle (which looked to be about double that) to play the role, and is almost unrecognizable as his normal baby face appearance is transformed into someone much more tough and rugged. Which is a true testament to Cooper as an actor as you can tell he must have totally immersed himself into the role. Unlike Steve Carell in “Foxcatcher”, despite the transformative physical appearance, there is an undeniable sense of serious acting chops underlying his performance from within. The second thing I wanted to point out is that it feels nothing like a standard Clint Eastwood film, who tends to follow a lot of stereotypical Hollywood movie tropes with his usual lyrical narrative approach to storytelling. There is very little here that resembles that. Though a couple of minor criticisms I had of the piece is that some of the scenes at home felt melodramatic and laid the sentiment on a bit too thick. That and I thought they downplayed the relationship between Chris and his younger brother. Outside of that though I thought it was an incredibly confidently directed and assuredly shot piece of filmmaking, and is both compelling and captivating from start to finish. Which is remarkable given that Eastwood is in his later years and we may only get another film or two out of him until he retires from moviemaking all together. The scenes of Chris during his tours of duty are visceral, gripping, taut, and utterly intense. One could only imagine the difficulty of this shoot as the “sniper scenes” were filmed brilliantly giving the viewer fly on the wall access to the proceedings. Lastly, and what surprised me most, was how it defied my expectations, particularly when it came to how Chris’ heroism is portrayed. I thought at the hands of Eastwood it could have had some serious potential to fall into flag waving American propaganda territory. Had it of been depicted in this way which I honestly thought it might I would have most likely liked it a lot less than I did. But there was nothing even remotely glorifying the Navy Seals and/or military, as many of them including Chris, are faced with difficult ethical and moral decisions in scenes both inside and outside of war that I thought were presented rather deftly by Eastwood and the rest of his writing team. The last thing I thought to be rather profound, that in a fully packed sold out theater, not one person clapped when the house lights came on and the credits rolled. Every person piled out and exited the theater one by one like zombies and it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. I think they like me, were so moved by the experience of what they had just seen, that they had a hard time coming up with much of anything to say. Which is why you’ll always hear me encouraging people to see movies at the theater or cinema, as it truly is one of the few last remaining communions we have. A place where a group of people can have a collectively shared, present moment experience. And this was another perfect example of that. Ladies and gentleman, even at the tender ripe young age of 84, Clint Eastwood is back.

[B+]