Monday, May 18, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road (***1/2)

Directed by George Miller


Mad Max: Fury Road is demented poetry; watching it is probably the closest I'll ever come to mainlining amphetamines. The film is the fourth of the Mad Max series, and while all have been directed by Australian filmmaker George Miller, it's the first film in the franchise in 30 years, since 1985's Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. This is also the first one in which the titular Max is played by Tom Hardy, replacing Mel Gibson who built his stardom on the character of Max Rockatansky. Hardy isn't the movie star that Gibson was, but neither was Gibson when the initial Mad Max film arrived. I should admit early: I've never seen any of the previous Mad Max films. Fury Road is my inaugural stroll through George Miller's dystopian universe and it's a doozy. This film doesn't care much about characterization, but it doesn't completely ignore it either. It's the rare film that can tell you all you need to know about its characters through its action sequences, and Fury Road has plenty of those. More than anything, Fury Road is a trademark of a smart director, a person who sees that a car chase and a story don't have to be mutually exclusive, that you can make an action film with above average intelligence without alienating your intended audience.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Far From the Madding Crowd (***1/2)

Directed by Thomas Vinterberg


The literature of the Romantic-era poet and novelist Thomas Hardy is amongst the most-read of the Victorian period. Like his predecessors, Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, his work is so rich with narrative and heavy with drama that no one adaptation can really suffice. There are many ways to tell a story, but it takes a special kind of story to continue drawing intrigue with each subsequent retelling. This latest version of Far From the Madding Crowd, I must admit, is the first that I've ever seen, but showcases the novel's lush, elegant aspects; both a testament to the density of the narrative and a strong argument for the novel's cinematic capabilities. The film is directed by Thomas Vinterberg, the Danish filmmaker famous as the co-founder (with the notorious Lars von Trier) of the Earth-shattering Dogme 95 movement. I'm not sure what the man who directed The Celebration would think of directing this version of Madding Crowd. If anything, this is the complete antithesis of a Dogme film - it's storytelling manipulation in its purest form. People evolve and filmmakers are no exception. The seventeen-year evolution from The Celebration in 1998 to this year's Madding Crowd shows a strong, consistent growth from one of our most under-sung filmmakers.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Welcome To Me (**1/2)

Directed by Shira Piven


Kristen Wiig's post-Saturday Night Live career has been exciting and unforeseen. She could've taken a path similar to her Bridesmaids co-star Melissa McCarthy, accepting any and all major studio offers for broad, belligerent comedies made for mass box office appeal. Wiig has taken a different route, choosing roles that intentionally test her abilities as an actress and expand the limits of her comedic performance. Wiig is one of the funniest people on the planet, but her film roles often explore the well-worn saying of comedy stemming from inner pain. She doesn't seem committed to being a strong film actress as much as she seems interested in visualizing the way comedy is often conceived - which isn't always funny. Last year's The Skeleton Twins was the closest Wiig has come to a dramatic role, where she plays a chronically adulterous wife. There were times when she seemed more willing to make her character less sympathetic than the film itself was. There's a similar commitment to character in Welcome To Me - her latest film - an indie that is both a hysterical comedy about viral trend culture, as well as a tragic story about mental illness.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron (**)

Written for the Screen and Directed by Joss Whedon


Before the latest Avengers movie, I was privy to a half-hour's worth of previews that presented an entire generation's worth of superheroes for audiences to enjoy. There's the upcoming Ant-Man which has a trailer that seems to prove the film's own mediocre premise (super small heroes don't exactly gravitate toward the big screen); then there was the latest Fantastic Four movie which is a franchise that we already know can produce sub-standard material because we saw two movies fail less than a decade ago; then of course Zack Snyder's Batman v. Superman which not only undermines what Christopher Nolan just accomplished with his Dark Knight movies (we just got finished with Batman three years ago!) but gives us an opportunity to begin a new DC-led saga with multiple strands leading to a Marvel-esque supermovie where all these strands stand to meet. The only non-superhero movies previewed were the theme park-inspired Tomorrowland where George Clooney is running from robots, and Pixels, where it isn't enough that Adam Sandler and crew are fighting a villain, but the villains are actually 1980's video games. It was a belligerent bukkake of Hollywood franchise movie excess, a forceful reminder that movie studios consider nearly everything that isn't based on some previous popular entity as niche. Story comes second to selling toys.