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Mad Max: Fury Road

It has been exactly 30 years since George Miller brought us the seemingly final entry in the “Mad Max” trilogy with “Beyond Thunderdome.” With action movies having evolved since then, the original movies, especially the first one, now look dated. Although stylish for the 80s, they lack much of the pizzazz modern day action movies possess. The newest installment, “Mad Max: Fury Road,” looks to reinvigorate the franchise with the same level of over-the-top excitement we see in cinemas today and it succeeds. Unfortunately, it retains most of the problems from the original films, as it focuses more on chases and explosions than it does story or character development. Like other movies of this ilk, “Mad Max: Fury Road” rings pretty hollow, but it’s fun while it lasts.

The story is simple, nigh inconsequential, as it exists solely as a means to lead to action. All you need to know is that Max (Tom Hardy) is on a cross-desert trek with Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who is helping female captives known as the Five Wives escape from a ruthless clan leader named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Pretty much everything before and after this part-way through set-up is narratively irrelevant. Sure, lots of things happen, but like the other “Mad Max” movies, nothing really happens.

At its best, though, “Fury Road” is a mesmerizing action movie, with enough impressive stunts to keep any filmgoer entertained. It begins and ends without doing or accomplishing much of anything besides mindless action, but that action is something to behold. Suicide leaps, fisticuffs atop moving vehicles, crumbling landscapes and more give the action an edge few other action films have. Even at the age of 70, director George Miller hasn’t lost a step. One could easily scoff at a man whose last three films were “Babe: Pig in the City” and both “Happy Feet” movies for trying to provide what many other directors have already seemingly perfected, but he has, in fact, surpassed those people, as he delivers some of the most impressive action put to screen in many years despite having not touched the genre in three decades.

Even better, “Mad Max: Fury Road” is an absolute beauty, one of the most gorgeously shot action movies I’ve ever seen, to the point where it should be given serious cinematography Oscar considerations. Couple that with terrific art direction and costume design, where the inhabitants of this post-apocalyptic world sport chapped lips and scarred skin due to an overbearing sun and lack of resources, and you have a film that is a sight to behold. Pure chaos and destruction has never been captured onscreen so beautifully.

If only such praise could be given to the other facets of its production. In a welcome surprise, Theron owns this movie and is even given the expected payoff at the end, but it nevertheless comes as a disappointment that Hardy is so underutilized. A terrific actor in his own right, he is given almost nothing to do except grunt and groan and stand broodingly. His scenes of dialogue are so few and far between that you start to wonder if poor Max somehow became a mute in the time period between this movie and its predecessors. While you can certainly develop a character without dialogue, the attempt here is poor and his lack of speech doesn’t do much to help. He is still emotionally suffering from the loss of his family (though they don’t contextualize it in any meaningful way for those who haven’t seen the first film), but instead of exploring it through character, they give him a few sudden flashbacks and hallucinations in a lame attempt to give his journey meaning.

The movie also suffers from the questionable decision to speed things up, a move done in the previous films to, one can assume, mask budget constraints. Here, it’s completely unnecessary. This world is so vividly realized and the action so stunningly choreographed that it comes as a disappointment that the film so often doesn’t give us enough time to truly appreciate it, as it instead cuts to the next explosion or gunshot. It doesn’t help either when the narrative can legitimately be compared to the frowned upon practice of backtracking in video games, as it gets them from point A to point B only to turn them around and send them back to point A again.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” is simultaneously a disappointment and an absolute blast. It’s hard to argue against its visual quality and exciting action, but it’s also easy to destroy its thinner than thin narrative and lack of substance. It’s one of those movies you’ll watch once in the theater and then never watch again, but during that one viewing, boy, is it something.

Mad Max: Fury Road receives 3/5



John Hillcoat is one of cinema’s most underappreciated directors and his movies are maddeningly underseen. His last film from 2009, The Road, was one of the best of that year, but was largely ignored by most everyone, including the supposed film experts who snubbed it of all Oscar nominations. That was a film that dared to face death and despair head on. It wasn’t a pleasant movie, but it was thematically deep and emotionally complex. It was everything movies should be, but it’s grim nature assured it would never overcome that bittersweet underrated status. Hillcoat’s latest, Lawless, based on the book “The Wettest County in the World” by Matt Bondurant, is once again brimming with greatness. It demands to be seen by a wide audience, but if history really does repeat itself, it’s destined for a quiet greatness, one that is known by those who have seen it and ignored by those who haven’t. Lawless has flaws, more so than The Road, and it’s not as contemplative, but it’s nevertheless one of the best of the year.

The film takes place in Franklin, Virginia in 1931 and stars Shia LaBeouf as Jack Bondurant, the younger brother to Forrest and Howard, played by Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke, respectively. It’s the Prohibition era and alcohol has been illegalized. As anyone who has ever cracked open a history book knows, this led to lots of unlawful practices surrounding the distribution (and ingestion) of alcohol. The Bondurant brothers are just one group of many who decided to profit off of  the law, but it has become a problem in their little town and a hot shot deputy from Chicago, Charlie Rakes, played by Guy Pearce, is brought in to fix it. In the midst of all this, Jack begins to fall in love with a pretty young girl named Bertha, played by Mia Wasikowska. She comes from a more traditional, conservative family and is expected to act and dress a certain way, but she begins to reciprocate Jack’s feeling, which leads her astray and puts her in danger. By the end, tragedies will befall the characters and blood will be spilled.

This story, based on a true one about the author’s own family, is as gripping as any to come out this year. Movies about Prohibition are no rarity, the most popular being 1987’s horribly overrated Brian De Palma film, The Untouchables, but whereas that movie featured a wooden central performance from Kevin Costner and inconsequential shootouts with unnamed baddies, Lawless is rich in characterization and every event matters, causing a ripple effect to its amazing and inevitable conclusion. The brotherly bond is there and the romances are never played as hokey. These feel like real people living through a tough time in history, when the simple sale of alcohol threatened violence. The three brothers are far from upstanding citizens, but there’s a humanity to them and you understand their actions, even when you disagree with them. You may not approve of what they’re doing at a certain point in time, but you’ll never condemn them. Everything they do has a reason and the way they’re portrayed in the film—as flawed, but ultimately good people—is excellent.

These characters are three dimensional, there’s no doubt about that, and the dialogue they recite leads to some of the best and most intense dialogue driven scenes since Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, but Lawless isn’t all talk. In fact, it’s quite violent, brutally and uncomfortably so at times, but that makes the movie all the better. It doesn’t glorify it in any way and it exists for a purpose, to both give the characters some motivational weight and to give the film a gritty, raw and realistic feel. Lawless never feels exploitative in these scenes and knows when to leave things up to the imagination, like an early rape that is only implied, effectively eliminating that feeling of hopelessness many rape scenes elicit while still providing the anger and understanding such a scene hopes to instill in its audience.

If there’s anything wrong with Lawless, it comes from a lack of screen time for two of cinema’s most underrated actors, Guy Pearce and the as yet unmentioned Gary Oldman. Oldman features prominently in the beginning of the film and his utter disregard for the sanctity of human life makes him a captivating villain, but he’s quickly forgotten in favor of other narrative exploits, serving only as a catalyst for Jack’s eventual bootlegging ways. Pearce on the other hand is there from beginning to end, but his performance is so breathtaking and wholeheartedly deserving of an Oscar nomination that you just want him to be there more. All of the performances are great, in fact, but it’s the writing that allows them to be. Everything comes together beautifully in Lawless. It’s the perfect way to end the summer movie season.

Lawless receives 4.5/5


The Dark Knight Rises

There are few people that would argue The Dark Knight is anything less than a fantastic film. Most tend to agree it’s one of, if not the best superhero movie ever made. There are even those who think it’s one of the best movies ever made, superhero or otherwise. That film raised the bar for superheroes so high that it’s likely to be a very long time before one reaches or surpasses it. That philosophy holds true for director Christopher Nolan’s follow-up, The Dark Knight Rises, but luckily, the film is only a disappointment in comparison. It may not reach the brilliance of The Dark Knight, but it’s still the best and most exciting movie of the summer. Dark, violent, terrifying and exciting, The Dark Knight Rises fires on all cylinders.

When we last saw Batman (aka Bruce Wayne, played by Christian Bale), he was running from the cops. He was taking the fall for the murder of Gotham’s district attorney, Harvey Dent, who the people of the city had put their faith in to clean up their streets. In Bruce’s mind, it was his duty to prove that true good couldn’t be corrupted, which meant making a martyr out of a madman. Now, Bruce has hung up his cape and mask because the city has turned against him, thinking him to be a violent sociopath who deceived their trust. However, a new villain is emerging. His name is Bane (Tom Hardy) and he’s out to destroy the city. He’s a bullish brute and it soon becomes clear that the police force won’t be able to stop him, which forces Batman out of retirement.

The Dark Knight Rises may be a misleading title for the film, seeing as how Batman does more falling (both literally and figuratively) than he does rising, but that’s why these films work. Nolan doesn’t treat his hero as a god. He treats him as he is: a human being. Bruce has demons to wrestle with, first isolated to the anger felt from losing his parents all those years ago, but now combined with the heartbreak of losing his only love, Rachel (played by both Katie Holmes and Maggie Gyllenhaal, respectively), at the end of The Dark Knight. He’s not cracking jokes like Andrew Garfield in The Amazing Spider-Man (despite the occasional witty moment). There’s too much at stake for such trivialities. His desire to fight stems not just from doing what’s right, but from the pain he’s feeling, his need to restore balance to a city gone mad, a city that took the life of everyone he ever loved. The Dark Knight Rises is a dark adult tale told by a masterful filmmaker who knows how to balance the necessary action with character development and relationships.

If anything, it’s the action that dragged down Nolan’s first film, Batman Begins, which was heavy-laden with too much shaky cam and too many cuts. Whether a product of the time, when the Bourne movies were finding so much popularity with the technique, or simply due to Nolan’s own inexperience with staging and filming fast paced action scenes, they were easily the film’s weakest aspect. But with The Dark Knight, Nolan refined his craft. The camera was smooth for much of the action, moving only to give us a better view of it, not to blur it. Nolan carries that maturity over into The Dark Knight Rises. While large in scope, including an absolutely incredible opening and appropriately epic finale, the action is never too much, never overloading your senses like many action movies these days. It’s presented in a way that feels organic, not forced for the sake of keeping action hungry audiences at bay, and Nolan’s steady hand approach ensures we get to savor every second of it.

But regardless of the film’s strengths, it’s impossible to watch The Dark Knight Rises and not compare Tom Hardy’s Bane to the late Heath Ledger’s Joker. When doing so, there is a clear winner. The Joker was a larger than life personality, one that gave the film a quirky feeling, kind of in the vein of a dark comedy, and the man behind the make-up gave one of the best performances ever put to film. Awarded posthumously at the Oscars that year, Heath Ledger created a terrifying monster, one that frightened, yet delighted at the same time. Bane, on the other hand, is too prophetic to be frightening. The majority of the fear instilled by him comes mainly from his size and brute strength rather than from anything psychological. He intimidates visually, but lacks the personality and off-the-wall insanity that made Heath Ledger’s cackling Joker so terrific.

Of course, Bane isn’t a bad character and Tom Hardy’s representation of him is just fine; they look worse only because Heath Ledger’s Joker was so amazing. The only true problem with the character comes from his voice, which is so modulated (thanks to the ever present mask covering his mouth) it’s sometimes hard to understand what he’s saying. Why such a problem was left unhandled—despite Nolan’s partial admittance to making select modifications after fan complaints from an early trailer—baffles the mind. A few other problems bring about the same reaction, like Bane’s nonsensical villainous plot that, for some reason, takes at least five months to unravel or why Batman would waste time lighting his logo on fire on a Gotham City bridge when he has mere hours before the city is destroyed. These moments don’t necessarily make sense, but they make the proceedings flashy and tense (and it’s impossible not to smile when that logo lights up).

The Dark Knight Rises is bogged down by a bit too much expository dialogue as well, but it more than makes up for it with a plethora of other brilliant little touches, like a sly reference to Killer Croc, another villain in the Batman universe. In an act of extreme skill, Nolan brings this story full circle, wrapping up his take on the character in as satisfying a way as one can imagine (though that very last shot, which I dare not spoil, should have been taken out). It works narratively, emotionally and on a visceral level—if the final 30 minutes don’t get your blood pumping, nothing will. It’s certainly not perfect and if comparing it to The Dark Knight, then it’s a disappointment, but if that’s the case, this is one of the best disappointments I’ve ever experienced.

The Dark Knight Rises receives 4.5/5


This Means War

Originally set to be released on Valentine’s Day, This Means War was pushed back to the Friday after to avoid competing with the demographically well received Nicholas Sparks-esque romance, The Vow. It’s probably a smart move—I imagine most people would want to see a straight up love film than a silly screwball comedy like this on Valentine’s Day—but if we’re lucky, nobody will want to see it at all and we can stop future movies like this from coming out. This Means War is hopelessly derivative, unfunny and far more boring than an espionage comedy should be.

This film stars Chris Pine and Tom Hardy as FDR and Tuck, two best friends and secret agents at the CIA. FDR is a playboy, seemingly more interested in picking up women than he is in completing his missions, and Tuck is a romantic. He has a kid and an ex-wife, but he rarely sees them and he’s lonely. He wants to fall in love. After seeing an ad on television for an online dating service, Tuck posts his profile and gets a hit from Lauren, played by Reese Witherspoon, who was forced into it by her best friend, Trish, played by Chelsea Handler. After they have a nice meeting, Tuck finds himself smitten, but immediately after, Lauren runs into FDR who woos her as well, unaware that it’s the girl Tuck had just seen. When they find out they’re both after the same girl, the competition is on and they’ll do anything to win, utilizing every spy technique in the book to sabotage each other.

This Means War has a great cast. Aside from the over-the-top and grating Chelsea Handler, the three main stars are all charming, good looking and talented. The poster alone should sell this movie. However, not all talent is created equally. Witherspoon is still as lovely as ever and Chris Pine, who showcased some great comedic talent amidst all the sci-fi shenanigans in 2009’s Star Trek, is as funny as he can possibly be with what he’s given here, but Tom Hardy is miscast. Although he has proven himself as a wonderful dramatic actor in films like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and the criminally overlooked Warrior, he is simply not funny. He isn’t a comedian and doesn’t know how to deliver comedic lines. When working with mediocre material such as this, his inexperience comes through even more noticeably.

Most films can overcome such a flaw, however, if their characters are fun to be around—jokes don’t always need to land when we’re spending time with people we like—but This Means War’s two main characters, the two battling it out for Lauren’s affection, are daft, selfish, shallow and manipulative. They spy on Lauren using advanced government technology (which would lead to all kinds of offensive invasions of privacy if this were anything other than a vacuous romantic comedy caper) and they use it to gain the upper hand. When they learn what Lauren doesn’t like about them, for instance, they change those aspects of themselves to fool her into thinking they’re someone they’re not. Their dishonesty is off-putting and by the end, you’ll hope she picks neither of them and moves on with her life.

You’d think that’s exactly what she’d do too after discovering that her feelings were the center of a crude and infantile competition, but she doesn’t and makes her choice. While I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to spoil who she picks, her decision is boneheaded for a number of reasons and doesn’t feel authentic. It feels like the choice was made only because, through an early contrived set-up, it allowed for a gushy happy ending for all the characters, even the one she toys with, doesn't choose and leaves heartbroken.

The pretentiously named McG, whose best movie is probably the first Charlie’s Angels (which certainly isn’t saying much), directed This Means War and it feels exactly like one of his films: stylish, but overblown; sometimes serious, but obnoxiously childish; fast paced, yet still amazingly boring. He has so many things to improve on, it’s hard to know where to begin in listing them. Even when compared to his previous failures, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle and Terminator Salvation, This Means War fares only slightly better, if only because it’s shorter and a bit breezier, but for every one thing it does okay, it botches five.

This Means War receives 1.5/5



In my review for The Fighter, I began with a simple thought: “If you’ve seen one sports story, you’ve seen them all.” At that point, it seemed true. Though still a good movie, The Fighter was nevertheless overrated. It was predictable and formulaic to a fault, despite some solid performances. It was just like every other sports drama I had seen. But now it appears I’ll be eating those words because Warrior stands apart from the crowd. It’s a unique film in an overabundant genre and it gets nearly everything right. It’s so good, I'm a little tempted to go back and bump all my recent scores down a point because nothing so far this year has come close to matching it. It may be getting the same score as Kung Fu Panda 2 and the last Harry Potter, but make no mistake, Warrior is superior in nearly every way.

The film begins with Tommy (Tom Hardy) sitting on the steps of his father, Paddy’s (Nick Nolte), house. They haven’t seen each other in 14 years, but there’s a reason for that. Paddy was a drunk and it tore the family apart. Tommy has never been able to forgive his father for his past mistakes, despite the fact that he has been sober for over two and a half years, but he is seeking his help anyway. He needs a trainer so he can fight in “Sparta,” a mixed martial arts tournament that is handing over five million dollars to its winner. Meanwhile, his brother, Brendan (Joel Edgerton), with whom he also has bad relations, is having financial problems and cannot pay his mortgage. If he can’t come up with the money soon, the bank is going to take his home. Being a former UFC fighter (and a family man), he can’t let that happen and also enters into the tournament, unaware that he could end up facing Tommy.

Warrior is as gripping a sports drama as any that has come out in recent memory. A big part of that is due to its refusal to follow the typical path sports dramas usually take. Because the two estranged brothers are pitted against each other (a story point that shouldn’t be considered a spoiler given the all too revealing trailers), it gives the film more depth. Their fight is not one of glory or fame and the money is merely a means to an end, to solve whatever problems and battle whatever demons they might be facing. Their fight is one of emotion, an emotion that has been building for many years and for many reasons. This is not a feel good movie where there’s a clear team or person to root for like in Remember the Titans or The Express (or, for that matter, most other similar movies). In Warrior, you are presented with conflicting emotions because both fighters have noble motives, one to protect his family from bankruptcy and the other I’ve deliberately kept mysterious to avoid spoilers. You come to feel for each of them and wish for both to be victorious, but it’s an outcome that is simply impossible.

All of this works because of the actors. Hardy and Edgerton both show the desperation their characters are going through, though one is more an inner turmoil, ashamed of something he has done and wishing to make it right. Their performances bring their characters to life and though they talk a lot about forgiving others, it’s in their mannerisms that you can tell what they really need to do is forgive themselves. The real standout, however, is Nick Nolte in a comeback role for the ages. In recent years, he has done little more than voice work in garbage like Zookeeper and Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore and it’s nice to actually see him in a role that doesn’t require him to hide behind CGI animals. His character is trying to turn things around and wants nothing more than to reconnect with the sons he regretfully neglected so many years ago and his performance is heartbreaking. While this movie deserves a number of nods come awards season, if Nolte isn’t nominated for an Oscar, it should be considered a crime against cinema.

I’m not a fan of mixed martial arts. To me, it’s nothing more than senseless, barbaric violence. It’s a sport that if done in the street will land you in jail, but surround yourself with a cage and suddenly it becomes acceptable. I simply do not understand the fascination of watching two men beat the living daylights out of each other for sport, but that’s what’s so great about Warrior. It’s not about the sport. It’s about the characters. It’s about the drama. It’s about forgiveness. It’s about family. It’s about everything but mixed martial arts. In this movie, MMA is merely a tool used to create deeper meaning, a metaphor for the struggles the characters are going through. You may hate the sport as much as I do, but that shouldn’t stop you from seeing this film. It’s not what you expect—it’s not cheesy like The Blind Side or emotionally manipulative like, well, any other sports drama—it’s raw and real. It’s as gripping as movies get.

Warrior receives 5/5