Archive for May, 2015


For the uninitiated, allow me to *attempt* to describe the world of Mad Max.

As envisioned — or perhaps better described as pulled from a beautiful nightmare — by writer-director George Miller, the world of Mad Max is one in which a totalitarian warlord named Immortan Joe launches a fleet of modified diesel-powered machines across a sun-scorched hellscape to retrieve the beautiful women he keeps as slave breeders for his army of white-painted sons.

Oh, and one of the larger warships in his armada is adorned by a particularly committed zealot whose job during battle is to shred riffs on a flame-throwing, double-neck electric guitar.


It’s virtuoso absudity, a crank-it-to-11 masterpiece of explosive action that takes chaos to an operatic level. It’s the kind of movie that makes you ask “How did people not die while filming this?” in the rare moments that you’re able to actually lift your jaw up off the floor and produce coherent thoughts.

And it’s beautiful to look at, filmed with a gorgeous attention to light and contrast that makes you feel every grain of sand blowing off the dunes, makes you taste every drop of oil and taste blood in your mouth. This is no green screen extravaganza, with ones and zeros replacing actual felsh, bone and metal. With the exception of a dust storm scene early in the film, Fury Road relies on practical effects, smashing cars and truck into each other with *seemingly* reckless abandon for human safety. It’s an incredibly effective technique that demands attention in a way that few recent blockbusters do.

Stepping in as the Road Warrior, “Mad” Max Rockatansky is Tom Hardy, who is abruptly taken prisoner by soldiers of The Citadel, a plateau fortress lorded over by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who also played the villain Toecutter in 1979’s original Mad Max). Max’s captive life is that of a “blood bag,” whose only value is the O negative coursing through his veins.

But when a rogue driver named Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, sporting a metal prosthetic arm) absconds with Joe’s prized wives, the Citadel’s leader cries “Havoc” and let’s slip the dogs of war, including the dog who’s getting topped off by Max’s intravenous donation.

That sets off the first of several breathtaking sequences, in which Theron and her gang are chased down the Fury Road by Joe and his goons and Max, scooped up for the ride, fights to survive. But where Miller truly shows his technique is knowing when to ease of the throttle and allow the audience to take a breath before starting the engines back up again.

The flow of the film will be familiar to anyone who has seen the Mel Gibson “Max” films, and newcomers need not be concerned about missing plot details from the early series — which are notoriously devoid of plot. But it’s also a disservice to assume Fury Road is nothing but orgiastic explosion-porn. What Miller does is akin to a silent film, telling story in nonverbal ways, only with all the might and muscle of a healthy budget and a choreographer’s mind that rivals any other.

Grade: A

*Mad Max: Fury Road opens nationwide on Friday, May 15.

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Pitch Perfect 2

As far as inevitable sequels go, the prospect of a second outing with the Barden Bellas seems like a pleasant, or at worst innocuous, idea.

The original Pitch Perfect, which leveraged intentional camp and toe-tapping pop songs to boost a story about rag-tag A Cappella singers, was a gonzo smash, extending far beyond its intended audience. It would seem like a relatively simple formula to follow but there’s the rub, as the script clings to the original with such ferocity that the sequel has little room to breathe, let alone sing.

After winning three consecutive national championships, the Bellas are riding high. But after a horribly ill-timed wardrobe malfunction at a presidential event shocks the nation, the Bellas are suspended from official A Cappella activities and barred from recruiting new members (all the Bellas are graduating seniors, because plot).

It looks like the end of the road for the group, except for an improbable loophole: should they succeed at winning the World Championships in Copenhagen, they’ll succeed at being reinstated. Unlikely, because as it is explained to them, Americans never win the worlds, because the world hates us.

That sets off the long and winding road to the competition and along the way they pick up a new Bella in the form of Hailee Steinfeld‘s Emily, the daughter of an alumna and therefore “legacy” Bella. The road is also filled with detours, as the threepete national champions are apparently so shaken from their fall from grace that it takes a series of failed side-performances and a mountain retreat in order to rediscover their “sound.”

Oh and Beca (Anna Kendrick) is distracted, having started a stressful and demanding internship at a recording studio that she keeps secret from her sisters for fear of looking unfocused.

Pitch Perfect 2 does many things right. Elizabeth Banks, who stepped in as director of the sequel, and once again deliver a series of knock-out one liners and Keegan Michael-Key brings a welcome mania to the role of Beca’s boss. The movie also wisely avoid the sequel pratfall of giving Beca and love interest Jesse (Skylar Astin) a slew of relationship drama, with the pair instead seeming as solid as ever.

The rest of the movie, however, could use some fine tuning. While there’s plenty to laugh at, long sequences drag on with only dull thuds and the entire proceedings reek of diminishing returns. First-time director Elizabeth Banks also shows her trepidation, relying on bulky transitions to move the plot along that would be much better left on the cutting room floor.

Pitch Perfect 2 is about 30 minutes too long, and yet despite its running time is able to introduce only a single new major character and sidelines the bulk of its returning cast. That’s because the film is so focused on replicating the winning ingredients of the first film — the Riff Off, the montage song, Bumper — that it ends up simultaneously overstuffed and hollow.

Outside the core triad of Beca, Fat Amy and Chloe I could not tell you the name of a single member of the Bellas, making the whole film feel like a modernized version of that dinner scene from The Hobbit.

When the final performance ends, there’s a sense of overdue relief. And because the Bellas now consist of a single Freshman student, it would take some major storytelling gymnastics to bring audiences back for a third, undesired, round.

Grade: B-

*Pitch Perfect 2 opens nationwide on Friday, May 15.

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*Note: Portions of this review were originally published in January as part of a series of capsule reviews for the Sundance Film Festival.


Remember *that* guy in high school? The guy all the girls wanted and all the other guys wanted to be? For alumni committee chairman Dan (Jack Black) that guy is Oliver Lawless (James Marsden) and getting Oliver to come to the school’s 20-year reunion is Dan’s master plan at saving the event and establishing himself as one of the cool guys.

Of course, convincing Oliver to make the trip home requires Dan to take things a little too far, and the bulk of The D Train consists of Black as humble schlub, trying to keep cool while his personal and proessional life unravels.

Jumping between Los Angeles and Dan’s home base in AmericaTown, U.S.A, ‘D Train’ gets good mileage out of the unrealistic envy people place on each other’s lives. Dan, happily married and comfortably, if not discontentedly, married, fails to recognize the value of his situation compared to Oliver’s, whose acting career has peaked with a Banana Boat commercial and who can only dream of being as successful as Dan believes he is. Oliver’s narcissism feeds off of Dan’s idol worship like an overheated appliance, sucking up energy until it explodes.

If that sounds a little heady for a comedy, it is. And the failure of the film to strike a balance with its comedic impulses results in a movie that’s as uncomfortable in its own skin as its protagonist.

Ultimately the film takes a relatively simple premise and stretches it beyond comedy into increasingly bizarre territory. The result is a not-unenjoyable film that plays more odd than funny.

Grade: B

*The D Train opens nationwide on Friday, May 8.

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In a weird way, ‘Hot Pursuit’ is a feminist film. It proves, or at least provides evidence, that female-driven comedies can be just as obnoxiously asinine as male-driven ones.

Using the tired trope of the odd couple buddy comedy, ‘Pursuit’ sees Reese Witherspoon’s straight-laced officer Rose Cooper on the run with cartel wife Daniella Riva (Modern Family’s Sofia Vergara) after a witness transport assignment goes south. It’s like 3:10 to Yuma, only instead of the Wild West and gun-slinging outlaws our heroines find themselves having heated debates about their choice in undergarments and using the carcass of a deer to slip past a pair of corrupt cops.

The presence of Vergara is hardly surprising, as her non-Modern Family career has been marked by this kind of lazy, low-brow chucklefest (last year’s ‘Chef’ being a notable and baffling exception). But it’s Witherspoon who shines a too-bright light on the insipid goings-on. This is a woman who earned an Oscar for Walk the Line and appeared to returning to better things with last year’s Wild (for which she scored her second Academy nod). You could almost chock it up to a typical post-Oscar slump (see: Halle Berry in Catwoman, Charlize Theron in Aeon Flux or Sandra Bullock in All About Steve) except for the fact that Witherspoon also *produced* this film, meaning she knew exactly what she was signing up for but still took the job.

Every joke in this film is roadmapped miles ahead and arrives with the subtlety of a freight train. It functions less as a comedy than as an exercise in cinematic sleepwalking and manages to make 90 minutes feel like a monotonous eternity.

Grade: D

*Hot Pursuit opens nationwide on Friday, May 7

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