‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ one for the ages

At first glance, another Mad Max movie feels like Hollywood just reaching deeper into the apple barrel looking for more franchises to bring back from the dead. So what should an audience member expect from a film whose last entry was 30 years ago? Few would expect one of the best action movies of all-time.

The film starts in the middle of dystopia, the earth a desolate wasteland with few survivors. These survivors quickly organize themselves into gangs of biker-riding, flame throwing hooligans intent on waging war against each other and securing the most precious of resources: food, water, milk, gasoline and fertile women. Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) is the leader of one particular faction, having taken a number of wives.. These women however are stolen from him by Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) who intends on taking them to a promised green land where they will be free from his rule.  Caught in the middle of this storm ,and just trying to survive, Max (Tom Hardy) finds himself forced into helping the freedom seeking women out of necessity.

The first thirty minutes of the film are nearly flawless, the camera seemingly delving straight into Max’s subconscious as the shots are quick, the effects loud and the score thundering. There is barely any dialogue as we are led into the realm of these road warriors as they pillage at a frantic pace yet the story is still conveyed to us dramatically.

Director George Miller, having directed the other Mad Max films, returns to the franchise seemingly determined to use modern technology to create the dystopia that he never could in the 1980s. Special adoration must also be given to editor Margaret Sixel, cinematographer John Seale and composer Junkie XL for creating such a strong cinematic environment.

The action scenes are so wonderfully done that you forgive the filmmakers for their occasional bloatedness. The combination of stunts, ingenuity and occasional CGI effects create breathtaking sequences.

Mad Max: Fury Road may be Hollywood again refusing to try anything new, but it is a breathtaking adventure film that should not only entertain fans of the original films, but the casual action film moviegoer. It is already an instant classic, one that people will reference for years and years.

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‘Bridge of Spies’ heartfelt if less than great

Bridge of Spies is Steven Spielberg and Tom Hank’s fourth film together. Saving Private Ryan (1998) is a modern classic (despite its flaws). Catch Me If You Can (2002) is a fun ride. The Terminal (2004) is admirable if largely forgettable. As the two have gotten older, their choices of projects have changed, but they both still seem to be intrigued by history and reflecting the past onto our present. Bridge of Spies feels like a story told by two friends who see a world bent on blood for blood, who see reason and negotiation falling by the wayside, replaced by pride and force. It is told by older and wiser men, the style and acting very subtle, building up simple moments of suspense, such as waiting for a telephone call. The result is a solid, if unspectacular film.

James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is an insurance salesman (formerly part of the prosecution at Nuremberg) who is tasked with defending a known Communist spy. Hated by most Americans for standing with such a man, Donovan simply states that all men, whatever their crime, should be met with dignity and justice as ordained in the Constitution. When a U2 spy plane pilot is shot down and captured over the Soviet Union, Donovan is presented with a unique opportunity; he is recruited by the CIA to negotiate a trade of his Communist spy for their American pilot.

Spielberg is in no rush with his storytelling. He glides smoothly from introducing the spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), to his trial to introducing the U2 pilot to the negotiations between nations. It is both refreshing and a bit maddening at times. A good half hour could have been cut out of the film (especially during the first act), but the deliberate pace really lets you examine the political atmosphere and think about the ideas in the film: Do foreign agents deserve the same rights as legalized Americans? What is the value of a single, innocent person in comparison to the pride of nations? Is standing for your beliefs no matter the cost worth it if you put your life and the lives of your family at risk?

Spielberg and writers Joel and Ethan Coen and Matt Charman answer these questions with solutions of heartfelt understanding and respect for all people. Whether or not one’s personal view is similar is besides the point; they are presenting a vision of cultural respect and rule of law that they believe in. As the world still deals with suicide bombers, illegal immigrants, enhanced interrogation techniques and opposition to nuclear deals, the film is very timely and worth examining. Some may resent the ego of Hollywood idealism attempting to impose its views on a complex world, but few will find fault with its sentiments.

Hanks carries the film in an everyman kind of way that is easy for the viewer to relate to. Given free range to really define his character as he travels from Washington to East and West Berlin and back, his good nature and simple belief in everyone deserving a fair shake is distinctly American in the Jimmy Stewart, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-sense. Indeed, the film feels like an homage to the simple morality films of the 1950s and 1960s; fair is fair, right is right.

What could have really helped however is some form of ticking clock. There is tension throughout the narrative, but a deadline of some sort that drives Donovan would keep us on the edge of our seats. In addition, we are barely given a glimpse into the true horrors of the world Donovan is entering into. There are some moments with East German gangs and prisoners attempting to escape past the Berlin Wall, but a storyline involving prisoner Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) could have been fleshed out more to show individuals in the crosshairs of a world out of control. The result feels like a dampening down of the truth.

And then there’s the Spielberg schmaltz. It was mostly kept in check during Lincoln (2012), but it returns at times in Bridge of Spies with a vengeance. Why Spielberg can not just let the story tell itself is baffling. He must for some reason have multiple endings that overdramatize his narrative past the breaking point.

But all in all, the story is interesting and solid, its heart is in the right place, and it proves that Spielberg and Hanks still know how to churn out a good film. And that’s what Bridge of Spies is; good, not great. Not among the year’s best, but certainly something worth remembering.

‘The Big Short’ aims to be the definitive film on the financial meltdown

Early in the writing process on “Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”, Stanley Kubrick and his team found themselves in a predicament. All their focus on creating a serious story about the threat of nuclear annihilation between the U.S. and the USSR was fruitless. The film was turning stale on the page. That’s when Kubrick realized that the story wasn’t working because it was so ridiculous. He turned the Cold War into a comedy and suddenly everything fell into place. That is why “The Big Short” seems so much stronger than other films that examine the financial meltdown of 2008. The situation behind the calamity is just so devilishly maniacal that at some point you just have to sit back and laugh.

Directed by Adam McKay and written by him and Charles Randolph, the film follows three storylines and multiple characters who foresee the upcoming housing market calamity and bet for it on Wall Street in order to accrue a huge profit when the economy does tank. Based off the book by Michael Lewis, as Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), Michael Burry (Christian Bale), Mark Baum (Steve Carell), Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) begin to uncover just how dire the situation is, they begin to question their own ethics as they stand to profit off the misfortune of so many.

McKay, the director of comedies such as “Talladega Nights” (2006) and “Anchorman” (2004), might seem like an odd choice to helm such a project, but his instincts for comedy blend well the serious subject matter. The film is soaked in a comedic outrage over the situation and the possibility of it reoccurring. The breadth of such flagrant corruption is in its own way hysterical, something that more serious, similar fare such as “Margin Call” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” did not present.

Shot in a frenetic style and using comedic breaks of the fourth wall (the characters directly addressing the camera), the film feels very inclusive with the audience, almost as if we are there with them during the story, and the fact that we are watching the movie with our own background experiences of the financial meltdown fresh in our minds makes the film even more powerful.

With a strong script, powerful acting, tight editing and topical message, “The Big Short” is one of the best movies of the year. Though it lays its intentions on pretty thick near the conclusion, the overall structure, character development and humor mixed with drama make for a potent moviegoing experience.

‘Ex Machina’ one of the best movies of 2015

What does it mean to be alive? That’s the question that “Ex Machina” contemplates as it focuses on its three characters: Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a multi-billionaire attempting to create genuine artificial intelligence, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young, idealistic computer programmer hired to determine if the A.I. is genuine, and Ava (Alicia Vikander), the intelligence herself.

It’s a gripping psychological drama focused on consciousness itself; is what we feel and experience really that different from something that we can program into a computer? After all, we are full of flaws. We are capable of cruelty, irrationality and deceitfulness. Are we really that much more capable of handling our emotions than a programmed intelligence? How different are we, and where does that difference start?

Secluded in a certifiable fortress in the woods, the two men begin the project of determining how cognizant Ava is of her life. As Caleb begins his task by interacting with her, asking her questions, she questions him in return, flirts with him, and he starts to fall in love with her. This clouds his judgment until he begins to question everything happening around him; his world, his own sense of mind and especially Caleb and his motives. When such emotions take hold of us and make us do strange, sometimes even horrible things, who are we to determine the validity of conscious intelligence?

Shot in a very serence, still style with a color palette of monotones to evoke a mysterious sense, director and writer Alex Garland keeps the twists and turns coming in a very emotionally satisfying story that offers no real answers but poses fascinating questions.

 

‘Hail, Caesar’ an unconventional love letter to the movies

The Coen brothers tell good stories. Whether it be “No Country for Old Men”, “Fargo”, “Burn After Reading”, “True Grit” or any of their other works, it doesn’t pound you over the head with themes or dumbs down its plot to accommodate the audience: they simply tell good stories in their own way.

In their latest feature, “Hail, Caesar”, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a Hollywood fixer dealing with conflicting emotions about leaving Hollywood. During a production shoot of the biblical epic “Hail, Caesar”, his star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), is kidnapped by a mysterious organization that calls itself “the future.” Over the next 24 hours, he tries to get Whitlock back, deal with a never-ending parade of issues, and resolve his qualms about decency in his life.

The cast is a long list of Hollywood stars in and of itself, including Frances McDormand, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill. The fact that real-life Hollywood stars are caricaturing their counterparts of the 1950s adds to the flavor of the film. Each character is lost in some form or another, all trying to find their way; through religion, communism, love, politics, smoking. What unites them is their  idealistic vision of cinema, the promise of happy endings and creating movie magic.

There are so many characters and so much going on that sometimes it is hard to keep focus on what is happening, but the Coens have always been able to utilize the idiosyncrasies in their characters to make sure that even with limited screentime, they are still memorable and relatable. If the movie were a little bit longer and some of the characters were able to be fleshed out just a little bit more, it would really aid the pacing and emotional impact.

Though decidedly one of their “lesser” works because of its rambliness and overstuffed plot, “Hail, Caesar” is still a blast, a lesser work from the Coens equal to superior work from most other filmmakers.

‘Beasts of No Nation’ harrowing

It would have been easy for “Beasts of No Nation” to offer great moral musings on the redemptive qualities of Western intervention or how things are going to go back to the way they were with no repercussions or how if we stick together we can overcome anything. Wisely, the film does none of this. It offers a bleak, uncompromising, close-to-honest (no film is ever truly honest) look at child soldiers in an unnamed West African nation. And while it is not specifically shocking for anyone aware of the situation, its attention to detail and its refusal to sugarcoat makes it a strong portrait.

Agu (Abraham Atta) is a young boy living with his family in a warm, loving environment. As a war breaks out between government forces and an insurgent uprising, Agu loses his mother and watches his father and brother die. With nowhere else to turn, he is recruited by the rebels and their charming, intense Commandant (Idris Elba). Initially going with them only to survive, young Agu learns the value of camaraderie with his new comrades and the potent release of killing as he helps the rebels murder soldiers, men, women and children. Has he truly become one of them, or is there still that young, innocent boy in there somewhere?

Beautifully shot by cinematographer, writer and director Cary Joji Fukunaga, the film does not go for the “crying scene” or the “great moral lesson” scene as so many Oscar-bait movies do (I’m looking at you “The Imitation Game”). It simply focuses on Agu and his journey, telling it exactly as it has happened to thousands of similar children on the African continent. We are not told what to think because the film offers no answers on the evil present in it; we have to come to those conclusions on our own.

Idris Elba shines as the nameless Commandant, portraying him with swagger, loyalty, intensity and charisma. He is able to harness the despair and anger of his “family” to doing the unthinkable: mass murder. One has to wonder what his true motivation is: is it to advance whatever political motivations he claims to be fighting for or is it simply the accumulation of power, the sheer joy of destroying what is valuable to others? The movie seems to point to the later.

Unfortunately, the film does not really show us anything new. It is the story of a child soldier and the men he kills with. That’s it. There are no real twists and turns in the narrative. It does not have as much of an exploitative feel to it as much as a simple story told simply; it is told well, mind you, but very simply.

But “Beasts of No Nation” is an important current affairs film that people should see, especially people who are unaware of the child soldier situation occurring in so many parts of the world. The true value of the film are the themes it presents to the Western world: the sway of violent forces in places without resources, how normally peaceful people are seduced by warmongering leaders, how revolutions start with political aspirations but instead become excuses for mass killing and how innocence is so easily corrupted and no one knows if it can ever be restored. It deserves to be experienced and remembered.

 

‘Sicario’ a taut thriller

Often lost among all the talk about terrorism, gang violence and mass shootings is the fact that the United States is still fighting a drug war. Billions of federal and state dollars are being used to keep cocaine, heroin and other narcotics off our streets, and it has largely been forgotten in comparison to other policy matters. “Sicario”, directed by Denis Villeneuve, illuminates how that fight is taking place mostly in the shadows and without due process of law.

Idealistic FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is recruited to a special CIA task force by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) after an IED kills two officers at her crime scene. She finds Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) also on the task force, but something seems off about him. After a confrontation in Juárez against the cartel, Kate discovers that the team is operating outside of the law as they seek to take down the architect of the fiasco, Manuel Diaz.

The film builds off the knowledge that the viewer already understands the roots of the drug trade. It expects you to view it with seasoned eyes. That makes the tension stronger as you know what will happen to naive Kate as you witness the lawlessness and disorder of the region. Chases, gun fights and executions are portrayed expertly. Blunt and del Toro shine. The film is an excellent example of setting the stage, laying the trap and delivering high quality action set pieces. It is not the most original film, but it delivers what it promises.

The film struggles a bit by trying to tie everything into its message of violence leading to more violence and America instigating carnage, but the film needn’t have bothered. The message comes through clear enough through the story itself. The destruction of innocence is a story that will never cease to interest us.

 

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