Friday, May 15, 2015

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD: A Bruttally Brilliant Western On Wheels

Now playing at multiplexes everywhere:

(Dir. George Miller, 2015)

Believe the hype. The return of the iconic post-apocalyptic world of Mad Max to the big screen is a brutally brilliant blast - an exhilarating experience that majorly ups the action epic ante for this summer movie season.

After a 30-year absence, series creator George Miller re-ignites the franchise with this fourth entry that while connected to the original trilogy’s spirit, and over-the-top tone, it doesn’t feel like yet another re-boot, remake, or sequel. No, MAX MAX: FURY ROAD feels like a reclaiming of the genre it helped create.

Tom Hardy is a good fit in the role originally played by Mel Gibson of Australian badass Max Rockatansky, who we first meet as he is captured by the War Boys, the white-painted minions of the movie’s tyrannical villain, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Incidentally, Keays-Byrne is the only actor here who appeared in the original 1979 MAD MAX.

Then the movie’s real protagonist bursts on the scene: Charlie Theron with a shaved head covered in grease-smeared war paint, and a CGI-ed mechanical arm, as Imperator Furiosa, Furiosa has rescued Immortan Joe’s five wives , his young, pretty “prized breeders” (all played by supermodels), and is driving them to freedom in her big ass “War Rig,” a heavily armored tanker truck.

Immortan Joe and his War Boy army take off after them, including the sickly Nux (Nicholas Hoult of ABOUT A BOY and X-MEN fame putting in his most scarily invested acting yet) who straps Max to the front of his 5-Door Chevy Coupé outfitted as a war machine (like all the vehicles are in this savage world) so he can continue to use him as a blood bag.

A chaotically compelling chase through a massive sand storm ensues, which allows for Max to escape from Nux, and finally be able to remove the metal grill that’s been locked on his face for a third of the film. After some initial friction, Max joins Furiosa and her bevy of breeder beauties on their journey to what they refer to as “the Green Place.”

Despite some downtime in the blue darkness of nightfall, the movie is essentially an ginormously overblown chase sequence through the infinite, blindingly bright orange desert, but that so isn’t a complaint. Its pace and focus never falters, nor does the explosive impact of its violent visuals.

Wonderfully the 
“western on wheels” that Miller promised, MAD MAD: FURY ROAD is an insanely entertaining experience that tops itself over and over. It’s an orgy of fire-breathing cars, pole-swingers, chainsaws, steampunk thugs, and gas fire explosions all given a heavy metal soundtrack by a masked musician with a flame-throwing electric guitar atop a vehicle piled with amplifiers. Try finding anything like that in another summer blockbuster this year, or any other year mind you.

I haven’t seen any of the MAD MAX movies in nearly three decades, but they were such cable staples when I was a kid in the ‘80s that I recall their crudely exciting ethos quite well. Here, Miller’s fourth entry does better than just to recall the series’ spirit; it re-instates its power with an updated yet still vitally raw vision.

As I said before, Hardy makes a good Mad Max, but Theron's movie stealing part as Furiosa often makes it seem like she's the real road warrior, and our title character is just along for the ride. Theron's tour de force performance not only proves her Oscar win for MONSTER was no fluke, it establishes her as a serious action star who could do what fellow actresses, Scarlet Johansson and Angelina Jolie, have so far been unable to do - i.e. front a quality franchise. Here's hoping that happens with Miller's proposed MAD MAX: FURIOSA sequel set for 2017.

So as much as I enjoyed AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is, so far, the biggest, and the best would be blockbuster this season. I'm looking forward to seeing it a second time, and having my senses get assaulted all over again.

More later...

SALT OF THE EARTH: A Photography Exhibit Of A Biodoc

Opening today at an indie art house near me (like The Colony Theater here in Raleigh, or The Chelsea Theater in Chapel Hill):

(Dirs. Juliano Ribeiro Salgado & Wim Wenders, 2014) 

The bulk of this biodoc about Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado is a straight forward display of hundreds, maybe thousands, of the man’s exquisite black and white photographs. A cinematic slide-show largely narrated by Salgado (in French with subtitles), the film takes us through the last several decades of a globe-trotting career chronicling the lives of the world’s dispossessed.

Co-directors Juliano Ribeiro Salgado (the photographer’s son) and Wim Wenders, who also provide narration alongside their subject, begin their portrait with intensely detailed images of mud-caked masses climbing Serra Pelada, a gold mine in Brazil.

These are taken from a series of pictures Salgado shot in 1986, and are among his most well known works. “I could almost hear the gold whispering in the souls of these men,” he recounts. The 71-year old Salgado, with bushy gray eyebrows and a shiny bald head, sometimes appears in close-up super-imposed on top of his photos, in black and white, of course, to better blend in.

There are bursts of color between the dry runs of b & w photography, as we journey with Salgado and son to the West Papua Highlands of Indonesia, then to Wrangel, a remote island far north in the East Siberian Sea, and later to a beautiful Amazonian rain forest.

We also get the prerequisite back story in which we learn that Salgado grew up on a ranch in Aimorés, Brazil, at 17 met the love of his life, Lélia, who he soon married; earned a Master’s Degree in Economics, but was sidetracked when he realized that taking pictures gave him so much more pleasure than his economic reports.

With his wife’s support, Salgado abandoned his promising, well-paid career as an economist and started from scratch as a photographer. His first photo series was done in Niger in 1973 during a severe drought, while back home in Paris, Lélia was pregnant with this film’s co-director.

Following that, Salgado and his collaborating spouse start work on their first major project, “The Other Americas” (1977-1984), which focused on Latin America. While looking through the photos from that collection, Salgado observes, “When you take a portrait, the shot is not your alone. The person offers it to you.”

Other photography projects turned acclaimed award-winning publications followed: “Sahel: The End of the Road” (1984-1986), which reported on the famine in Ethiopia, Africa: “Workers: Archaeology of the Industrial Age” (1986-1991), which Salgado says pays “homage to all the men and women who built the world around us,”; and “Exodus” (1993-1999), a project about refugee camps and people fleeing genocide that left Salgado disgusted and disturbed (“My soul was sick”).

The tons of stark, sharp photographs of emaciated, starving people, and piles of corpses in mass graves, will be difficult for some audiences to handle but with hope they’ll take to heart Salgado’s statement that “everybody should see these pictures to see how terrible our species is.”

However, Salgado’s spirits, and ours, get lifted in the last third by two developments: he and his wife’s forming the Instituto Terra so that they could replant two million trees in order to rebuild the Atlantic Forest in Brazil, and “Genesis” (2004-2013), a project with the goal of showing what “nature, animals, places, and peoples were like at the beginning of time” as Wenders puts it.

The “Genesis” segment contains some of Salgado’s most glorious, and astonishing photography, though I may be partial to his spectacular pictures that he took in Kuwait at the end of the first Gulf War of the hundreds of oil rigs that Saddam Hussein set fire to. Salgado: “It was like working in a huge theater, 500 oil wells burning - a giant stage, the size of the planet!”

Essentially a photography exhibit of a film, SALT OF THE EARTH lost the Best Documentary Oscar to Laura Poitras’ CITIZENFOUR, but it’s a much more nuanced, emotionally affecting, and certainly more visually gripping experience than that highly touted Edward Snowden biopic.

Its imagery may be painful to endure at times, but there’s so much power to the portraits of strife, struggling humanity, and troubled terrain captured by Salgado’s lenses that most likely moviegoers won’t walk away from it with sick souls.

More later...

Friday, May 01, 2015

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON: Satisfyingly More Of The Same

Now playing at every multiplex in the galaxy and beyond:

(Dir. Joss Whedon, 2015)

If you live on planet Earth, you’re aware that today the Marvel machine is rolling out the biggest super hero movie of the year - sorry, ANT-MAN, but, c’mon!

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (from this point on, A:AOU), the sequel to the biggest superhero movie of 2012, THE AVENGERS, and the 11th entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise that began with the first IRON MAN back in 2008, is here to officially kick off the summer 2015 movie season - sorry, FURIOUS 7.

But if you’re reading this, you most likely know all that, and just want to know if this highly anticipated, star-studded, and CGI-saturated production lives up to its huge hype.

I’ll say - yeah, it does. I had a tremendous amount of fun watching the reunited team - Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America/Steve Rodgers (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), The Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) – working together with lots of wit and energy to defeat the powerful robotic villain Ultron (voiced by James Spader).

This adventure begins with an already-in-progress action sequence, involving the comic book crew storming the castle of Hydra leader Baron von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) in the icy terrain of the fictional European nation of Sokovia.

Amid the standard chaos and wisecracks (most of which are pretty funny) we are introduced to a couple of new characters, brother and sister duo Pietro/Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). “He’s fast, she’s weird,” is what SHIELD’s Maria Hill (the also returning Cobie Smulders) says of their powers, which means that Pietro can move at supersonic speeds, while Wanda can manipulate minds with magic.

The Avengers rescue Loki’s scepter, one of the McGuffins of the series, and return to their headquarters at the Stark Tower Complex in Manhattan, where we actually get to hang out with the guys as they party, and engage in a game of taking turns trying to lift Thor’s hammer. Meanwhile, Stark’s Ultron project, which is supposed to be a global peacekeeping program, is co-opted by the scepter and becomes sentient.

That means Spader, who in addition to providing the voice, performed on set in a motion-capture suit, takes over as the movie’s major villain, and sets out to wipe out humanity (“There is only one path to peace... your extinction”).

As if he thinks we don’t have enough characters to keep up with, Whedon keeps piling them on. We meet Barton’s (Renner, in case you forgot) wife (Linda Cardellini of Freaks and Geeks and Mad Men fame) and kids living at a “safe house” farm where the Avengers lay low between battles, geneticist Helen Cho (Claudia Kim) who gets co-opted by Ultron, arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, a motion capture master himself), and the re-occuring role of Stark’s A.I. companion J.A.R.V.I.S. (voiced by Paul Betttany) is expanded via a red and green android body (Bettany in the flesh).

There’s also the many cameos from the MCU including Don Cheadle getting in a few good one-liners again as as James “Rhodey” Rhodes/War Machine and Anthony Mackie getting in a few glaring grins as Sam Wilson/Falcon, along with appearances by Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, Idris Elba as Heimdall, and of course, Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, who no Marvel movie should be without. And yes, there’s a Stan Lee cameo, but, c'mon, you knew there would be.

Yes, A:AOU covers every single fan-pleasing base it can in its 2 hour and 21 minute running time and is a pretty bloated affair because of it, but it swiftly juggles all these strands until they collide in the big climax set on a ginourmous hunk of a Sokovian city land mass that Ultron has lifted from the earth and is planning on crashing down. The Avengers try to save the city's people while warring with the armies of robots that are all forms of Ultron (in a MATRIX sort of way I guess).

The special effects, of course put together by thousands of digital artists, are flawlessly top notch, but it’s the human moments that give a lot of heart, soul, and humor to this enterprise. A romance blooming between Ruffalo’s Banner (another invested portrayal - where's this guy's Hulk movie?) and Johansson’s Romanoff adds a thoughtful touch, and while Downey Jr.’s Stark is still full of snark, there’s an unmistakable conscience behind it. The rest of the gang also have their moments, but Hemsworth's Thor is still my least favorite Avenger.

Spader, even with only a mechanical presence, makes for a powerfully worthy foe, one who gets his share of well delivered quips and takes delight in destruction.

If this is Whedon’s final fling with the super hero franchise, he went out with a multitude of big bangs. Maybe they’re all riffs on the familiar formulaic tropes of the genre we’re all used to, but that doesn’t make them any less effective. 

A:AOU is winningly and satisfyingly more of the same; it’s everything a superhero superfan would want out of a Marvel movie. Non fans who haven’t been won over by any of the movies in the series before won’t be converted by it, but I seriously doubt many of them will have read this far into this review anyway.

More later...