Mad Max: Fury Road



When I reviewed ‘Boyhood’ in July of last year, I wrote that I was certain I had already seen the best movie of 2014. And I was right, though admittedly, ‘Mommy’ was a close second for me. I’m tempted to repeat this. There is a very high probability that George Miller’s ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ will top my list of the best films of 2015.

Miller introduced audiences to the titular character back in 1979, and after delivering two sequels he made two movies about a talking pig named Babe, and two animated features about dancing penguins (‘Happy Feet’). Mr. Miller, who is now 70 years old hasn’t been softened by age. Or by the talking pigs. Or by the dancing penguins. His return to the series as director and co-writer (it has been 30 years since ‘Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome’) is marked by a reinvigorated vision and unabridged vehemence. Gleefully violent and hallucinatory, but in the best possible way, ‘Fury Road’ is a visually astounding experience that outperforms ‘Furious 7’ in terms of vehicular warfare.

The role of Max, whose name remains unrevealed until the picture’s final moments has passed from Mel Gibson to Tom Hardy, one of the best actors of his generation – I’m still astonished that the Academy voters neglected to nominate him for his timeless performance in last year’s ‘Locke’. For a good chunk of the picture, Hardy’s good looks are concealed by a face-mask (just as they were in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’).

Since I, regrettably, am not familiar with the original trilogy, I don’t even know if this is a sequel or a reboot. It doesn’t matter. This is a true original and functions perfectly as a standalone feature. The future is very bleak. King Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) lords over a desert complex known as the Citadel. He only occasional releases water to the scorched multitudes, and rules with the help of an army known as the War Boys, which includes Nux (Nicolas Hoult).

He employs Furiosa (Charlize Theron) as a musclewoman and she is tasked with leading a convoy to another outpost for fuel. But she is a rebel with a cause. Though the rest of the convoy doesn’t know it, she has Joe’s five breeders: The Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), Capable (Riley Keough), Toast the Knowing (Zoe Kravitz), The Dag (Abbey Lee) and Cheedo the Fragile (Courtney Eaton) hidden in the rig and is planning on driving them to the Green Place, which she believes is safe. More importantly, she drives the plot.

Mr. Hardy gets top billing as the titular character but the real star of ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ is Ms. Theron. Her fiery performance coupled with a lean but sharp screenplay makes Furiosa one of the most kick-ass ladies the movies have ever known (to say that she gives Sigourney Weaver in the ‘Alien’ series and Linda Hamilton in the ‘Terminator’ films a run for their money is entirely justifiable). Though Max endures greatly and ascends courageously, if unwillingly initially, to further her insurgency, he is more a sidekick than a hero, or within the context of this film, more of a passenger than a driver.

A curiosity – ‘Pitch Perfect 2’, which wasn’t a very good movie, topped the box office this past weekend thanks to its built-in fan base grossing more in its opening weekend than its predecessor did during its entire theatrical run. A friend informed me that this was because audience members are in the mood for female-centered movies. Though the ads may not sell it, trust me when I say ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ is the ultimate girl-power picture. When a character takes a pair of bolt cutters to her chastity belt, it is a declaration of independence.

Furiosa, a one-armed warrior with a buzz cut, a greased face, and an artificial leg eclipses Max as a sharpshooter, positioning her gun on his broad shoulder for a straight shot.

Lengthy plot description above aside, ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ is 120 minutes of fights and chases through an unrelenting desert (the action is put on pause for about 15 minutes at the halfway point so we can catch our breath and learn a little more about these characters).

Bad guys on motorcycles fly through the air. Characters are tossed back and forth on flexi-rods annexed to armored vehicles. There’s a heavy metal guitarist fastened to the front of a moving vehicle. Wonderfully crazy art. Fast, frenetic, and ferociously efficient. The roar of those souped-up engines will have you revved up from the get-go, and your insurance agent will have every right to be concerned.

Nux, who has branded the tumors on his collarbone as Larry and Barry, is a sympathetic figure and his turnaround to aid the uprising unfolds convincingly. “Oh, what a day! What a lovely day!” he cries as he chases the War Rig through the mother of all sandstorms. There is also a very sweet romance between Nux and one of Joe’s breeders – one that doesn’t rely on the verbosity of its characters.

Thanks to production designer Colin Gibson and director of photography John Seale, we’re scanning the frame admiring all the rich details of this dilapidated world, which are clearly defined by the use of overhead shots. And the details of the muscle cars, tanks, trucks, wagons, trailers, oilrigs, rocket ships, and combinations thereof reformulate the very concept of a hybrid with very little adherence to Newton’s Laws of Motion. Junkie XL’s score is just perfect – grandiloquent when it needs to be, and contemplative when it needs to be.

Rarely is writing credited in action pictures but this is a lean and sharply penned screenplay that is devoid of expository exchanges. Too many pictures of this genre feel the need to resort to dialogue to explain everything that is happening. Miller lets the visceral images tell the story, and trusts that his audience can infer through action. The poignant moments are intensified when the camera zeros in on the faces of its terrific cast. And they say more than words ever could.

There weren’t any 2-D showings of ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ on its opening day, so I opted to see it in 3-D (which I typically avoid), and I’m glad I did – this is one of the rare occasions in which the surcharge is worth it. See it on the biggest screen with the best sound system possible. Miller’s old-school filmmaking sensibilities (Leone-esque wide angle views and practical effects) blend perfectly into this modernistic format. Even with a manipulated frame rate and hyperactive editing, there is a back-to-basics simplicity contained within this that is exhilarating. Most action sequences today are assembled chaotically with heavy slabs of CGI and quick cuts. Observe just how coherently the action unfolds here – you become involved because you can make sense of the geometry.

During the first chase sequence in ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’, I was certain I had witnessed one of the great set pieces in cinematic history. It turned out to be the fourth or fifth best sequence in the picture. This is what going to the movies is all about. Rarely are big-budget pictures, especially sequels, this rousing. Miller is a master filmmaker working at the top of his game. In a perfect world, this would be a serious Oscar contender with nominations across the board: all technical categories as well as Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress (this is arguably Charlize Theron’s best work to date). Miller has just left all of our contemporary action filmmakers so far behind in the dust that it may be years before the standards established by this film can be surpassed. QED.




A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed ‘Ex Machina’, an exceedingly intelligent motion picture about artificial intelligence which examined female identity, and the construction of female identity in a male-dominant society. I raved and called it one of the best films of the year. Christian Petzold’s ‘Phoenix’ occupies an entirely different genre. But, there are overlapping themes, and this is also one of the best films of 2015.

‘Phoenix’ stars Petzold’s longtime collaborator Nina Hoss (they worked together on the superb war drama ‘Barbara’, ‘Yella’, and ‘Jerichow’). Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) escapes from a concentration camp but suffers a facial injury caused by a bullet wound. She undergoes significant plastic surgery in an effort to rebuild her face resulting in a version of herself that doesn’t match the one that existed prior to the war. Presumed dead by her friends and relatives, Nelly returns to post-war Berlin to search for her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). But as she scours the shattered city to find him, she is presented with some convincing evidence which suggests that it was Johnny himself who betrayed her to the Nazis: he was released two days after his arrest, which was the same day Nelly was arrested.

On paper, some of this may sound preposterous and I apologize if my plot description above doesn’t do the film justice. There will be some viewers who question the credibility of the events that transpire in the picture. And if so, they have missed the point entirely. This is a film about denial. Johnny (who has rebranded himself Johannes), a former pianist now working as a busboy in a nightclub called Phoenix, doesn’t recognize Nelly when he sees her and assumes that she just bears a passing resemblance to his wife; he refuses to accept she could be his wife, instead choosing to believe that his wife is dead. Johannes ropes Nelly into a scheme to pretend to be who she actually is in order to inherit an unclaimed fortune (from Nelly having lost her entire family to the camps). He trains her to be his late wife: dressing her in the clothes she used to wear, working on her walk, her movements, her mannerisms, her handwriting, everything. She acquiesces, fearful of divulging the truth, and trusting this gives her a glimpse into the life she once occupied. But, she too is in denial, refusing to believe that her husband gave her up for his freedom.

‘Phoenix’ is Petzold’s masterpiece, mining the premise for its psychological and emotional potential. This expertly plotted picture is a scintillating examination of how people deal with affliction. Or refuse to deal with affliction. Most movies plug characters in to further advance the plot. Petzold uses the narrative to make piercing statements about the mystification of humanity. Hoss was the strong center of ‘Barbara’, and she does a complete reversal here projecting that aura of fear – the fear of losing her face, her identity, her husband, and her life. The memory of her husband kept her alive in Auschwitz, but she now believes he might be the reason she was sent there in the first place. How does she move on from here? This may be Nelly’s story but it is representative of the postwar alienation faced by any survivor and the realization that the only way to make sense of the past is to face it sincerely.

Johnny and Nelly’s relationship is so absorbing because of their shared denial – his refusal to accept the woman in front of him is the wife he betrayed and her refusal to accept that what is in front of her is counterfeit currency or a representation of a past that she is never going to be able to go back to.

‘Phoenix’ called to mind Alfred Hitchock’s ‘Vertigo’; Johnny and Nelly aren’t all that different from Scottie and Judy – recall the painstaking lengths Scottie went through to shape the woman he encounters into the woman of his desires. The picture has the look and feel of a classic noir and while the influences of these master filmmakers are evident, Petzold is after something else – choosing to confront the unspeakable acts of history.

Hess is in every single scene of ‘Phoenix’ and she is spellbinding. It’s as good a performance as I’ve seen all year. Observe the way her character deliberately unravels as Johnny transfigures her; early in the film, she is hunched and often seen in the dark settings, but as the dread of her plight becomes clear, she becomes increasingly self-reliant rising to the heights suggested by the film’s title. The methodically orchestrated climax, which I will not reveal to you, has the power to break the hearts of even the most hardened of viewers. ‘Phoenix’ is what we talk about when talk about greatness in cinema. Seek out this breathtaking movie at TIFF Bell Lightbox. For some inexplicable reason, ‘Phoenix’ doesn’t have a US release date. QED.

Avengers: Age of Ultron


Does the world need more reactions to ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’? As of this moment, the picture has already grossed 125% of its $250million budget – it had the second biggest box office opening of all time, only surpassed by, appropriately enough, the first ‘Avengers’.

‘Age of Ultron’ is a solid entry in the Marvel cannon. I might be battling superhero movie fatigue and it is only going to get worse (Marvel and DC have a reported thirty projects in the works between now and 2020). With each entry adhering to the “bigger is better” belief, the day may arrive in which the sensory overload puts me to sleep the way babies nap to block out overwhelming stimuli. Thankfully, today is not that day.

Writer-director Joss Whedon was able to juggle the various moving pieces skillfully in ‘The Avengers’; in ‘Age of Ultron’, he drops the ball on a number of occasions. Bigger and louder doesn’t necessarily mean better. And with a running time of 142 minutes, there isn’t much room for air. In addition to the all-star ranks – Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) – there is an assortment of supporting players from Marvel’s solo outings – The Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) among others. And of course there is the titular villain voiced by the invaluable James Spader. It’s a crowded canvas. Too many characters. Too much exposition. Too many behemoth set pieces. Too much of a muchness.

It looks like we need rescuing. Again. The plot, not that it really matters, involves Tony Stark creating Ultron, an autonomous version of himself that can’t quite distinguish between world peace and annihilation. There is no shame in being baffled by the plot machinations – the villain appears equally perplexed (he can fire wisecracks like Stark, but he has got Banner’s befuddlement and insecurity). Ultron is a prime example of our conviction in technology running berserk; as a creation, Ultron looks the part (eat it, Chappie) but he isn’t the minacious presence he should be partly due to his identity crisis.

As The Avengers traverse from one major city to another (some real, others fictional), each model city is nearly left in a heap of ruins. Whedon serviceably stages these sequences but there are only occasional glimpses of true artistry at work – an overhead shot of our heroes in circular arrangement attacking in every direction is an example one of them: the cinematic equivalent of a splash moment. Whedon isn’t as imaginative as Bryan Singer is for the action moments – look at what Singer accomplished with Quicksilver in ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’.

And while that final digital showdown runs far too long, I must say I greatly admired how much time was dedicated to protecting civilians caught in the enfilade. Part of the reason I considered ‘Man of Steel’ to be an epic failure was because there was no consideration for human casualties – Superman and General Zod threw each other from skyscraper to skyscraper, over and over again, and the picture failed to show the multitudes of civilians being killed.

‘Age of Ultron’ is at its best when we are just hanging out with the gang – in a farmhouse where we learn more about Hawkeye, or early on at a party where everyone is in noncombatant mode exchanging quips while trying to lift Thor’s mighty hammer. Watching these scenes, I was convinced that I would be more receptive to an indie-version of ‘The Avengers’ – a movie that gives us time to spend with these characters, to let the dialogue sparkle brightly; a movie that didn’t feel the need to conclude with a gargantuan never-ending CGI set piece. But, I’m not sure that’s what audience members want. You’ll get out of this movie what you’re hoping to get out of it and I suppose that is totally fine. Marvel Enthusiasts will be in comic book heaven. And Marvel Agnostics might just be pleasantly surprised. QED.

Pitch Perfect 2



There is a moment early on in ‘Pitch Perfect 2’ that had me laughing so loudly I almost had to excuse myself. I’m referring to the opening sequence at the Kennedy Center in which a character is suspended from the ceiling in a cat suit as she does a riff on Miley Cyrus’ ‘Wrecking Ball’. As the leotard splits open, the camera cuts to the shocked and disgusted reactions of the audience members, which President Barack Obama and Michele Obama happen to be a part of. If only the picture had maintain its level of comic energy beyond this point.

The first ‘Pitch Perfect’ from 2012 about a group of college a cappella singers known as the Barden Bellas was a total blast. It grossed $65 million domestically on a production budget of $17 million and was very well received by audience members.

Every cast member of ‘Pitch Perfect’ (Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, and Elizabeth Banks to name a few) was given a chance to provide off-kilter laughs. Here, we get more characters at play in addition to the returning ones and the screenplay struggles mightily at giving each of them their due. Because there needs to be an accountability framework in place, I should note that this picture marks the directorial debut of Elizabeth Banks.

My question is if you know that your movie already has a built-in fan base, why not aim higher? Why bring back these characters and have them deliver the same jokes all over again? Why replicate the exact same structure as the previous film? With an increased budget, why have such shoddy production values? Why overcrowd the frame with all of these performers? And if the final showdown takes place in Copenhagen, why have just one shot (and an unremarkable one) to establish the setting? Why include Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld to the cast for no reason other than to set the stage for ‘Pitch Perfect 3’?

‘Pitch Perfect 2’ isn’t without its moments though. Aside from the uproarious opening, I also laughed at the politically incorrect narrations by the a capella commentators, and enjoyed the wide-ranging song choices deployed within the musical sequences. In between these moments, however, ‘Pitch Perfect 2’ really lags as the proceedings are imbued with an unshakable sense of déjà vu.

Oops, I see I neglected to mention the plot of ‘Pitch Perfect 2’: the Barden Bellas enter an international competition that no American team has ever won. Will they redeem themselves from that ‘Wrecking Ball’ incident? You can guess where this story goes.

The summer movie season has just begun and I am already battling an extreme case of sequelitis. I wasn’t certain if I was watching the sequel to ‘Pitch Perfect’ or a remake of it. And with the original being currently available on Netflix Canada, there really is no reason to make the trip to the theater for reheated leftovers. QED.

Ex Machina



‘Ex Machina’ is one of the best films of the year (alongside ‘Wild Tales’, and ‘Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter’). This is “true” science fiction – the kind of picture we rarely get because studios are more interested in spending hundreds of millions of dollars on mindless spectacle. ‘Ex Machina’ is going into wider release on the same day as ‘The Avengers: Age of Ultron’. Which “science fiction” feature do you think is going to top the box office?

In ‘Ex Machina’, a bright young programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) learns he has won an office contest to spend a week with the reclusive CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Nathan runs an Internet search company that demotes Google to Dogpile status. When Caleb asks the helicopter pilot how soon they’ll get to Nathan’s place, the pilot says they have been flying over his estate for the past two hours. By my calculations, this suggests a property the size of Nevada – this sort of grandiosity is limited to dialogue just before Caleb enters Nathan’s remote, underground and highly secretive home/research facility in the forested mountains and the picture maintains a sense of enclosure from this point on. The only other two characters we meet are Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), a mute and seemingly fragile woman who tends to Nathan’s daily needs, and an artificial intelligence named Ava (Alicia Vikander) who appears strikingly human.

Caleb has been brought there to perform a Turing Test on Ava. Professor Baronski (my former Data Structures instructor) may revoke my degree for my reductive explanation of the Turing Test, but here goes: the test is designed to see if the intelligent behavior exhibited by a machine could leave the human participant unable to determine whether he or she is interacting with a machine or a human. Caleb goes about this by interviewing Ava and the narrative unfolds as a series of titled chapters, each focused on a topic of conversation.

This is a difficult review to write. It’s hard to tackle some of the film’s larger ideas without revealing spoilers. Because I don’t wish to spoil it for you, my review may appear a little more amorphous than normal. What I can say is that there is a lot going on here and the movie goes in some very fascinating directions, constantly pulling the rug from underneath us in a way that doesn’t betray what we had seen onscreen up until those moments.

Alex Garland, a novelist-turned-screenwriter making his directorial debut (he collaborated with Danny Boyle on Sunshine’, and ’28 Days Later’) sets an eerie mood from the opening frame. His choice to set this story within a single location gives him the advantage of establishing a highly controlled environment. This is a sleek and spare chamber piece hinging on the performances of its actors.

And thankfully, the performances are uniformly excellent. Domhnall Gleeson, who was charming in ‘About Time’, shifts his appearance from film to film and there is quiet sadness to his sense of solidarity here. Though the Motion Picture Academy has yet to recognize Oscar Isaac, he is one of the best actors working today – after ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’, ‘A Most Violent Year’, and now ‘Ex Machina’, he can do pretty much anything, and I can’t wait to see what he brings to the upcoming ‘Star Wars’ picture. And Alicia Vikander is completely mesmerizing – ultimately, her performance is the reason we become increasingly empathetic towards Ava.

Nathan repeatedly addresses Caleb as “bro” or “dude”. But, Nathan isn’t cool so this attempt at a lax conversation ends up feeling strained and awkward. He spends many of his nights getting drunk but purges the next day by hitting the gym bag hard and consuming antioxidants. There is also this cheerfully wacky disco dance sequence that comes out of nowhere. Random as it may seem, all of this perfectly illustrates Nathan rebelling against the geek stereotype.

The special effects are the result of movie magic, especially for a film with a $16 million budget. Observe the detail in Ava’s metallic bones through her transparent flesh. Or the detail of Nathan’s fortress which left me in amazement – only accessible by helicopter, it is remote, chilly, industrial, and every bit as precise as Caleb’s restricted key card which denies him admittance into off-limit areas. The hypnotic score and cool cinematography work in unison with all these different elements to create a foreboding sense of place that lingers long after the end credits roll.

The screenplay incorporates references to history, art, physics, and computer science using simple language. I didn’t find ‘Ex Machina’ to be cold or emotionally distant – the movie takes us beneath the surface, allowing us to enter the minds of its characters as the many layers are slowly and methodically revealed.

First and foremost, this is a picture concerned with ideas. It is about technology, humanity, megalomania, gender, identity and the construction of identities in a male-dominant world. It called to mind ‘The Skin I Live In’, ‘Her’, and ‘Under the Skin’ – all of which examined feminine identity.

Thought provoking, intelligent, and intense, ‘Ex Machina’ has all the markings of science fiction classic and I suspect this is a picture cinema lovers will be talking about for years to come. I don’t normally think back to distributors when reviewing movies but I must say A24 chooses wonderfully: ‘Ex Machina’, ‘The Spectacular Now’, ‘Under the Skin’, ‘Locke’, ‘Obvious Child’, ‘A Most Violent Year’, ‘While We’re Young’. QED.