Movie Review – Mad Max: Fury Road


One of the movies I was most looking forward to this year was Avengers: Age of Ultron. It was a decent movie. A solid B. A better film than the first one, but less entertaining.

The other big summer blockbuster I was looking forward to was Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s odd, because I have never seen the original movies (despite growing up in the 1980s), and it didn’t seem like one of those sorts of films that I’d be at all interested in. Then I saw the trailer.

After seeing that, I thought, “This looks likely to be stupid as fuck, but entertaining as hell,” and I made plans to see it at some point.

Then, on Friday, it was released, and the reviews began to come in. Four stars on Roger Ebert’s website (out of four). A great review on Slate. 98% on Rotten Tomatoes. That’s an insanely high-level rating. By contrast, Birdman, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 2014 has “only” a 93% rating. For a “genre” film to get that kind of high rating is almost without precedent.

And so I went to see it yesterday (and yes, that was partly to annoy certain men’s rights assholes out there), and I was impressed. So very impressed. It’s entertaining as hell, yes, but also, surprisingly, very intelligent, has a good, strong plot, interesting characters, and strong messages about gender and religion.

The story concerns Max who, at the beginning of the film, is captured by the bad guys (lead by a religious leader who controls all the local water supply), who plan to use him as a mobile blood bank. He’s glomed-onto by a “warboy”, one of the religiously-minded soldiers his captor keeps around, who attaches himself to Max’s blood supply. This get interesting when a woman named Furiosa (love it), steals a large semi that’s been outfitted as a battle platform. Inside? Several women who are basically the cult leader’s sex slaves. Their goal is to make it to an idyllic “green place”. The warboy goes in chase, dragging along Max (and everyone else, including a mobile heavy metal rock platform), and the movie kicks into high gear.

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I really cannot overstate how much I liked this movie. It’s easily the best movie this year, and one of the best new movies I’ve seen in quite sometime. Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron turn in the best performances of their careers (which in her case especially is really saying something), and Nicholas Hoult still manages to somehow bring the sexy, despite being covered with way too many scars and what is possibly the worst case of chapped lips in all of human history.

The pacing is excellent, despite being basically nothing but a giant chase for most of the film. Also, unlike many films of this type, the action is very well-executed, excellently filmed and easy to follow. At no point does one experience a real sense of spatial disorentation, as can happen with even a lot of the best films (I’m looking at you, The Dark Knight

If you’re looking for an enjoyable, escapist film that you can have a great time watching while eating popcorn, this is that movie. But, surprisingly, if you want an intelligent, interesting film that’s also great popcorn entertainment, well…this movie is that, too. An astounding feat.

One last note; the 3D is well done, but not really required. If you see it in 2D, you’l be fine.

Movie Review – The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug


The_Hobbit_-_The_Desolation_of_Smaug_theatrical_poster

If I’ve learned nothing else from the two most recent movies in the Tolkien series, I’ve at least learned how to pronounce “Smaug”. When I was a wee lad in high school we read The Hobbit for a sci-fi/fantasy class I was taking, and myself, as well as everyone else including the teacher, pronounced the name as “Smog”. Now I know better.

It was thoughts like that that kept me going throughout this movie’s 161 minute run-time. Now normally I’m the last person to complain about a movie being long. As Roger Ebert once noted, no good movie is too long and no bad movie is too short. He didn’t have a lot to say about middle-of-the-road movies and length, but he really should have.

I really enjoyed the various Lord of the Rings movies, and the first movie in this series. But, alas, it must be said that this movie is decidedly middle-of-the-road. It is quite dull in several stretches, and it makes you feel every single one of those 161 minutes. The entirety of act 2, especially, drags and drags.

But let’s discuss some of the good. The acting was great, as expected, and the dialogue was well-written and entertaining. I particularly enjoyed the scenes between Bilbo and Smaug, which were crisp, enjoyable and entertaining. Some of the new characters, like Stephen Fry’s pompous mayor, were thoroughly enjoyable as well. And of course it was lovely to see Gandalf, Radaghast, Bilbo, and the various dwarfs. It was even, yes, quite nice to see Legolas who is still pretty easy on the eyes, even if he doesn’t exactly need to be in the movie. I will also say that while I know he was’t in the story, it would have been nice to see Gollum again.

And of course one needs to take a moment to appreciate the sheer beauty of the world presented on the screen. The lakeside town, with its bridges and canals, the inside of the dwarf kingdom, the interior of the elven kingdom (though, oddly, no one in Middle Earth seems to have invented the handrail), and the regular New Zealand scenery are all put to excellent use.

Now on to the rest of the movie. The pacing was absolutely terrible. There were huge stretches of the movie where there was nothing but dialogue. Well-written, well-delivered dialogue, to be sure, but there was just so much of it! Add to that the fact that several of the action scenes, while certainly reasonably entertaining, went on and and on and on. There was no need, for example, for the barrel sequence to be as long as it was, and don’t even get me started on how stupid it is to have someone body-surfing down a river of molten metal without getting his beard singed. There’s also the matter of the cliffhanger ending, which occurs exactly where you’d expect.

I’m really not sure where Jackson and company went wrong here. They can and have made excellent movies before, but this time it just felt terribly off. It wasn’t at all a bad movie, and I’m not disappointed that I saw it. But I can say that I won’t see it in theaters again and I don’t see myself feeling the desire to watch it when it comes out on blu-ray, and that’s really quite a shame.

Movie Review – Prometheus


I wanted to like this movie, I really did. I wanted it to restore my faith in the Alien franchise and in Ridley Scott as a director. I wanted it to blow me away and leave me as impressed as anything I’ve ever seen at the movies. It is possible, perhaps, that my hopes for the film were too high, but I really wanted this movie to be great and instead it was just…there. Not great, not bad. Merely Serviceable and it should have been so much more.

You probably are aware by now that this is a (more or less) prequel to Scott’s sci-fi epic, Alien. This film owes much to that and has many parallels, though you don’t need to have seen the other movies to watch this one.

The movie shows us a world where alien astronauts visited the Earth back in the day (they’re vague as to when, but at least as far back as 35,000 years ago), and apparently the aliens had a hand in the creation of humanity. A team of scientists go to an alien world to have a look-see and find out what was going on all those centuries ago. Bad things happen, stuff gets blowed up real good and we get our tie-ins with the other movies.

If this sounds like I’m writing off the plot as being kind of a paint-by-numbers affair, it’s because I am. There’s no real revelations, except a stupid and pointless one involving DNA, the main character isn’t nearly as interesting as Ellen Ripley and the science in the movie is laughable. This is also one of those films that relies on everyone acting like an idiot (ie: a biologist who, when confronted with a snake-like reptile that’s clearly adopting a threat posture, moves in for a closer look, resulting in what you’d expect to have happen). The movie leaves us asking far more questions than we should be, and they aren’t ones like, “What’s the real nature of humanity?” but instead are ones like, “Why did anyone think this was a good idea for a film?”

But that’s not fair, perhaps. It wasn’t a bad idea for a film. There’s some rich treasure to be mined with the premise. It’s just that the execution was very flawed. I’ll say that Michael Fasbender did an excellent job as David, and the film looked very good. But beyond that, it just isn’t anything like what I’d wanted.

That said, given how very disjointed the plot is, I’ll be very curious to see what the director’s cut will be like. Mark my words: I’m expecting at least half an hour of deleted scenes which will probably clear up some of the problems with the film. I certainly hope so, anyhow, because as it stands it just isn’t very good.

Movie Review – The Avengers


Well, I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it, and for a change, I actually haven’t anything bad to say about a movie I’ve seen. Usually if I push, I can find at least one or two things to complain about, but this? I actually can’t think of anything.

You probably know the plot by now. Loki (from Thor), is working with a mysterious alien someone to invade the Earth and wreak havoc. Nick Fury gets the Avengers together, including Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye, and they all fight Loki and company. What follows is every fanboy’s wet dream as we get action, excitement, comedy, suspense and plenty of bang for the buck!

Surprisingly, I have really no major complaints about this movie. It is everything I like in an action film. There’s characters I like and can root for, there’s a clearly defined threat, and all the action was very easy to follow. Compare and contrast with something like Transformers 2.

How much did I like this movie? I’d be willing to pay again to see it in the theater, and given my current financial state, that’s saying something. Really aces all around! I can’t wait for the sequel!

Movie Review – Hugo


If you just looked at the trailers, you might think Martin Scorsese’s latest film was about nothing more than a little boy living in the clockworks at a train station in Paris, having magical, vaguely steampunk, Harry Potter style adventures. You’d be mostly wrong. Hugo is, instead, at its heart, a film that’s about films and the people who love them.

The main character is a boy named Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), who, like most of the French people in this movie, speaks with an English accent. He’s been living at the train station ever since his father (a clockmaker), died, leaving him an orphan in the care of his drunken uncle, who maintains all the clocks at the station.

Young Hugo takes over the job after his uncle disappears, though this is a secret that isn’t known to the station denizens, including the local police chief (Sasha Baron Cohen). He spends his spare time stealing food and occasionally swiping bits of clockwork from an old toy maker (Ben Kingsley). This goes well for him until one day when the toy maker catches him in the act, and finds a notebook on Hugo detailing a clockwork automaton that his father was working on repairing.

The toy maker goes a bit bonkers over this, and confiscates it, telling Hugo he’s going to burn it. Then his young goddaughter (Chloe Grace Moretz, who thankfully doesn’t kill anyone in this film), takes pity on the boy and tries to help him out. They’re both surprised to realize that a key she wears around her neck fits into a keyhole on Hugo’s clockwork man. They’re even more surprised when the image the automaton draws is one of the Man in the Moon with a rocket sticking into his eye. That the girl’s godfather is named Georges might start to give some in the audience pause for thought.

I loved this film from start to finish, and it’s by far the best film I’ve seen this year. It really does have everything, and oozes a love of film like nothing I’ve seen in a long time. The power of film to move the audience is explored here in ways I’ve never seen before, and like any good movie, it does an excellent job of showing me things I’ve never seen before.

I also greatly enjoyed the fact that the movie takes time to slow down and explore all the supporting characters. The policeman, the flower girl, the newspaper seller, the woman at the cafe. They all get their own stories, and those add something wonderful to the film, and something sadly lacking in most movies that can’t wait to get to the next explosion and haven’t time for character development for their main characters, much less supporting ones.

The 3D effects must be addressed. I’m not a fan of 3D, not even remotely. I find it a distraction, for the most part, and generally regard it as a way for movie studios to pad out their profits. It’s generally unnecessary and adds nothing to the plot. Even in the best 3D film I’ve seen before this, Avatar, it wasn’t that much more than a gimmick, though one used to good effect.

In this film, though, it really does add something. It really does give a whole new dimension to the movie. I guess this isn’t a surprise with a filmmaker like Scorsese. In his hands, this isn’t a distraction, and it isn’t a gimmick. I’m willing to bet that the film is just fine without 3D, but with it, it really becomes something unique and fascinating. If all 3D films were this good, I’d be less unhappy with them.

Hugo is a masterpiece. Look for it to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars and for Ben Kinglesy as Best Actor. Yes, it’s that time of the year again. 🙂 Also, this movie is doing very poorly at the box office, so if you can, go see it in the theaters. You’ll be happy you did.

Movie Review – J. Edgar


Perhaps the only thing worse than an evil man getting near absolute power is a good man getting near absolute power. With an evil man, everyone is going to be watching him, on the lookout for abuses .With a good man, everyone assumes that he’s doing right because, well, he’s a good man.

J. Edgar Hoover, the first, and for several decades only, director of the FBI, started out as a good man, but a man who was clearly willing, from the start, to use legally and morally iffy tactics. No one really challenged him very hard on this. Why would they, since he was a good man? Then as the decades rolled on, the tactics became less legal and less moral and Hoover turned into something far from good.

J. Edgar, the new biopic directed by Clint Eastwood (who is, somewhat to my surprise, 81 years old), and staring Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role, tells the story of Hoover’s rise to power against a background of terrorist attacks in the early twentieth century; attacks which included the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building and a bombing on Wall Street in 1920. Hoover gets directly involved following a bomb attack on the home of the Attorney General (one of eight bomb attacks that night). He’s a young up-and-comer who has ideas for a more scientific, procedural approach to crime.

Hoover is eventually put in charge of the Bureau of Investigation, and begins to surround himself with various men, including one Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), who are nearly as committed to stomping out Communism as he is.

The Bureau gets its first real chance to show the public what it can do when the Lindbergh baby is kidnapped. At first Hoover’s hands are tied by the fact that the Bureau can’t really do much and doesn’t have any federal jurisdiction. He gets the laws changed, and eventually has enough power to pursue and arrest a man who, in retrospect, probably didn’t do it.

At that point there’s no real stopping Hoover. He begins to amass secret files against anyone who he views as a threat to the nation (or to himself, though he seems to view the two as one in the same). These files soon become tools which he’s able to use to keep himself in power through blackmailing everyone from Congressmen on up to, at the very least, Presidents Roosevelt and Kennedy.

Throughout all this, we see Hoover’s relationship with his mother (Judi Dench), and his personal secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), as well as, of course, his relationship with Tolson, which might have been more had Hoover’s mother made it very clear that she’d rather see her son dead than gay.

Ah, yes, the Tolson question. Tolson was Hoover’s friend and ally and quite probably more. The movie presents them as being deeply committed, probably in love, and never consummating their relationship. The only time Tolson kisses Hoover does not end well. For the record, from everything I can tell the way that their relationship is presented on screen as one that was intensely loving and yet non-sexual seems to be pretty accurate.

The film works for the most part, aside from some pacing issues, and interestingly, I feel that it could have benefited from being a bit longer, so as to have more time to explore the life of Hoover.

For example, the movie spends a great deal of time focusing on the Lindbergh kidnapping, and while that was clearly an important thing for Hoover personally and the FBI in general, I do wonder if there might have been a way to communicate that in a shorter time. It also would have been good to see some of Hoover’s failed efforts and to explore a bit more the illegal nature of much of what he did.

I also would have liked to have seen more of Hoover’s time in the 1950s. His involvement with the likes of HUAC, Joe McCarthy (who he openly scorns in the film), and especially closeted homosexual Roy Cohen could have proven very fascinating.

Also problematical on a more technical level is the aging makeup worn by Hammer to play the older version of Tolson. With him it looks like what it is: a latex mask adjusted somewhat by CGI. It didn’t look nearly as convincing as what Di Caprio had, which might speak more to Di Caprio’s ability to act through such makeup.

I haven’t seen a huge number of Eastwood’s other films, so it’s hard to me to put this one in relationship to those. I will say I found it far more engaging and enjoyable than Unforgiven and about as good as Million Dollar Baby (and certainly less depressing than that). It was also a lot more enjoyable than Invictus.

J. Edgar Hoover was clearly a complex and frequently troubled man. Ultimately this movie does do a very good job of showing him as a determined, effective and deeply flawed human being, every bit as complex as we might expect.

DVD Review – The Colors of the Mountain


(special thanks to Film Movement for providing me with a screener!)

Growing up anywhere isn’t really easy, especially once you hit the age of nine or so. At that age, you’re starting to understand that there’s a greater adult world that you don’t have access to, and that doesn’t intersect with your own, except for certain horrible times. Hard though being at that age is anywhere, I can only imagine how much worse it must be to be a child and grow up in a war zone. That’s the situation in which young Manuel finds himself in The Colors of the Mountain.

The story centers around a picturesque mountain village in Colombia. It’s a place where families scrape by, earning what they can by farming. You know, the standard salt-of-the-earth kind of people. They ask nothing from life and get even less.

Manuel lives there with his mother, farther and little baby brother. His biggest passion in life is soccer, though he also enjoys drawing and loves hanging out with his friends Julian and Poca Luz. He even loves going to school, though at least in part that seems to be due to him developing a crush on a girl there and on his teacher.

Not all is well in Manuel’s world, though he’s not really aware of that fact. His village is in an area where rebels are fighting the national military; each of whom seem to be worse than the other. Manuel’s father walks a narrow line of not supporting either, and, well, you know what happens with people like that in wars like this.

Manuel is vaguely aware of these things happening, but not really. The war is something that doesn’t matter to him. Or at least it doesn’t matter until his birthday rolls around and he gets a soccer ball which winds up in the middle of a minefield…

This really is a wonderful movie. It’s very touching and at times very funny. The performances all around are excellent, especially by Hernan Maurico Ocampo, who plays Manuel.

Also, the film is flat-out beautiful, showing the lush countryside of the Colombian mountains. Like most Americans, those mountains are something I’m really only accustomed to seeing in news reports about the ongoing drug war. It’s nice to see them in a somewhat more pleasant way.

And I must say, I found myself really caring about the characters. There’s at least a couple whose fate is left up in the air at the end of the movie, and I’d really like to learn what became of them (though I suspect the answer is “nothing good”).

This isn’t always an easy movie to watch, and it’s one that I’d have a tough time recommending for younger children. But it is a beautiful, well-acted and generally wonderful film and for any adult audience, I highly recommend it.

=== Short Film ===

This month’s short film is a Cuban film called “The Swimmers”. It’s about a determined swim coach who wants his young charges to be the best swimmers around. The fact that their pool is currently devoid of water is something he seems to view as merely a minor setback.

This was a good film, and quite funny in parts, but I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as the main feature. It’s worth seeing, but it’s not worth picking up the disc just for this movie.