Saturday, May 30, 2015

Mad and Madder

Mad Max: Fury Road is everything you’ve heard. Fast, furious, but no Vin Diesel. For a franchise that has been dormant for 30 years, the film (and its 70 year old director George Miller) has a confidence and drive that grabs you from the very beginning and doesn’t let go for two hours. Like The Road Warrior (the previous high benchmark of the series for many people) Fury Road is basically a chase movie, but it’s remarkable how much character detail and emotional themes are woven in amongst the virtually non-stop action.

Tom Hardy makes a fine Max (it’s doubtful anyone will miss Mel Gibson) but the true star of the movie is Charlize Theron as Furiosa. Her character is an awesome badass but she’s a well-rounded one, with enough hints given to explain why she’s seeking redemption by rescuing the sex slave wives of Immortan Joe (the very creepy Hugh Keays-Byrne). Max is merely along for the ride for the most part, but still gets plenty of moments to shine. Nearly all the supporting characters are memorable too, from Nicholas Hoult’s warboy with a heart of gold to The Doof Warrior, who shoots flames from his guitar just because he can.

The action is incredible and looks refreshingly real after all the CGI spectacle we’ve been subjected too lately in movies. This feels like the same world as the other Mad Max movies while also updating it enough to keep it relevant. As epic and over the top as the story is, it never forgets the humanity of the characters so this is one of few relentless action movies that you don’t have to turn your brain off to enjoy. Extremely belated sequels don’t have a good track record (Dumb and Dumber To, anybody?) so the fact that Miller and co were able to make a film that pays respect to the earlier films while blazing a new trail is amazing. Can’t wait to where Max ends up next!

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Avengers Disassembled

Avengers: Age of Ultron is a very odd experience, at least on first viewing. In many ways, it’s the darker, more personal sequel that Joss Whedon promised. But it also has more (a lot more) of everything audiences loved about the first one. It’s hard to imagine viewers not thinking they’ve got their money’s worth. In fact, the film is so stuffed with characters, action and quips, not to mention references to what has come before and events that will happen in future Marvel movies, that it sometimes forgets to be its own thing. Whedon’s plotting usually works better on the small screen and it’s almost like he crammed a whole TV season’s worth of ideas into a little over two hours. I’d be very interested to see the rumored 3.5 hour original cut, which hopefully does a better job of getting the plot coherently from a to b. It’s also missing the novelty and more simple charm of the first film, which is probably why the critical reception has been more muted. Don’t get me wrong, there’s definitely more good here than bad, but it’s not the Empire Strikes Back or Godfather Part II of comic book sequels.
I’ll break down what I liked and didn’t like about the movie, without giving too much away (though there will be some spoilers):

The James Bond style opening starts at 11 and doesn’t let up. It’s a lot of fun and makes for a stronger opening than the first film, which really took about half an hour to hit its stride.
Hawkeye. People who were like, “what’s the deal with the bow and arrow guy?” last time will be pleasantly surprised. Jeremy Renner has a lot to do and really becomes the heart of the movie (especially in a subplot with the always welcome Linda Cardellini as his “secret” wife). Lots of funny lines, too. I liked the misdirection with setting him up to be the Avenger to sacrifice himself in the final battle when the one that actually dies is (no, I won’t spoil it).
Iron Man, Bruce Banner and Captain America are pretty much themselves. If you liked them last time you’ll like them this time.
Thor is given more to do. He gets many of the movies best lines and action (though his magic pool subplot probably should have been cut).
The twins. I was worried about Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, especially as X-Men Days of Future Past seemed to steal Marvel’s thunder with the former character. But both characters are actually pretty good, despite their dodgy Eastern European accents. Elizabeth Olsen comes off the better of the two, and fits neatly into the River Tam/Willow Rosenberg school of Whedon’s wounded heroines with special powers. Aaron Taylor-Johnson does his best with an underwritten role and just about manages to sell the emotional arc he goes through.
The Avengers attempting to lift Mjolnir at a party – classic Whedon humour that is also paid off later.
Ultron – his origin was rushed and he had a few too many goofy lines (I get that he was emulating his “father” Stark, but I wanted him to be a little more menacing) but he looked cool and James Spader was the perfect voice.
The philosophical debates about AI and the nature of heroism are nicely done, though I would have liked to have seen Stark face more anger for his recklessly creating a murder bot that almost destroys the world,
The visions the Scarlet Witch puts in the Avenger’s heads were creepy but I would have liked to have gone further – what did she put in Banner’s head to make him Hulk out?
Hulk vs. Hulkbuster – probably the most epic action scene in the movie.
The chase scene in South Korea was pretty cool.
The Vision is so awesome he’s what Superman should be like in the DC movies.
The final battle, while not as insanely fun as the last act of the first movie, is still spectacular and full of great moments. One shot in particular, with all the Avengers fighting Ultron’s drones in a circle is the closest any movie has ever come to capturing the look of a comic book splash panel.
The way the heroes go out of their way to reduce collateral damage (even more so than in the first film) was great and a nice little fu to Man of Steel.
The ending is a perfect Whedon moment where Cap’s dialogue is cut off just before he calls the new Avengers (yep, there’s a different team at the end of the movie) to assemble.

THE BAD (or just odd)
The action is more relentless and quicker cut than the first film, and does become a little tiring in place.
The score is unmemorable (even with an assist from Danny Elfman) but at least they brought Alan Silvestri’s main theme back.
As mentioned before, so much has been stuffed in (and then cut out) of the movie, the plot lacks coherence in certain places. It’s never exactly clear how or why the twins join Ultron, and their turn on him is just as abrupt. It almost would have been better to just make the movie about the twins facing the Avengers or Ultron/Vision. Both stories are good, but neither is given the screentime they deserve.
Hulk isn’t as fun in this movie. There’s no moment to rival pounding Loki into the ground, and he doesn’t even speak (mute Hulk is getting old, Hollywood).
The Hulk/Black Widow romance is also a little weird. I like the actors together, but it seems out of character. And the part where Natasha says she is a “monster” because she can’t have kids is somewhat problematic, even if that wasn’t Whedon’s intent.

Overall, it’s a good movie but also a flawed one. If it had been half an hour longer (or cut out some of the lamer one liners and unnecessary subplots) it might have been a great one. Sad to see Whedon leave the Marvel Cinematic Universe behind, but it's been a great run.