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Movie Review: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Mad Max

It’s kinda shocking that I’ve never seen any of the original Mad Max films with Mel Gibson. Too campy? Too 80s? Too Aussie? (All baseless assumptions, by the way). Whatever it is, I’ve never really felt the urge to watch them. And so I wasn’t all that hyped up when I heard the the franchise was receiving a reboot 30 years later, surprisingly with original director George Miller returning and the super likable Tom Hardy replacing the now-super unlikable Gibson.

But rave reviews and strong word of mouth got me thinking that, against all odds, Mad Max: Fury Road might actually be a good film.

Well, I was wrong. Because Mad Max: Fury Road is a bloody modern masterpiece. In my memory it will surely go down as one of the best movies of 2015, one of the best action movies of the decade, one of the best Aussie movies of all-time and one of the most visionary post-apocalyptic movies ever.

You don’t need to know anything about the previous films; you don’t even have to know the premise or who Mad Max is. That’s the first fantastic thing about the movie — almost everything about the world in which the story is set is revealed by showing as opposed to telling. There’s no narrator, no scrolling introductory text — and yet from the very first scene it manages to immerse you into this strange and terrifying new future. The opening sequence introducing us to Mad Max is insanely tense and horrific, but it’s also a slick lesson in world-building and storytelling.

And so I won’t say much about the plot except to note that the narrative focuses on three main characters. There’s Max Rockstansky (Tom Hardy), a loner constantly battling inner demons and fighting for survival. There’s Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a warrior on a deadly mission of redemption. And there’s Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a pale-skinned “War Boy” brainwashed into worshipping a ruthless dictator (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who apparently played a different character in the original trilogy).

In an era when most action movies are predictably conventional and follow familiar arcs — whether it’s superheroes, long-running franchises or Taken/Bourne imitations — Mad Max: Fury Road stands out for being something completely different. The film is essentially a long, exhilarating car chase with one jaw-dropping action sequence after another. That said, don’t be mistaken in thinking it is anything like the Fast and Furious franchise, which relies on a mix of old and new star power and having to constantly one-up itself in the crazy stunt stakes. Fury Road is more raw, more strangely grounded despite its over-the-topness, more brutal, more unabashedly bizarre, and far more creative. Frankly, I’d never seen anything like it, and the film’s combination of thrills, suspense and horror blew me away.

That said, Fury Road also turned out to be a lot more emotionally involving than I had expected. Granted, it’s still predominantly style over substance, but there’s something about it — whether it is the strong characters, the brilliant performers or the construction of the narrative — that elevates its dramatic elements above your average action flick.

Speaking of performers, George Miller hit the jackpot with the trio of Hardy, Theron and Hoult. Max is a man of few words and spends a good portion of the movie in a face-blocking mask, making Hardy’s performance even more impressive. To be fair, he has had some mask experience after playing Bane, but it’s the quiet magnetism and emotions he exudes that turns Max into a hero you can easily root for.

As good as Hardy is, Max is actually more of a sidekick to Theron’s Furiosa, who absolutely owns the movie. Apart from sporting the best shaved head since Sinead O’Connor, the Oscar winner turns Furiosa into the heart and soul of the movie, a badass whose quest for redemption drives everything that happens.

And if you thought Theron had uglied herself up for Monster, then you ought to see Hoult as Nux — powdery skin, bald head, skeletal features and perpetually chapped lips. Amazingly, he still looks better than most people, though the sacrifice for his art is impressive. Without giving too much away, Hoult’s charm and willingness to do whatever it takes makes Nux an unusual and intriguing supporting character that might not have been nearly as interesting without his jittery, frantic performance.

As for the rest of the cast, the physically imposing Keays-Byrne leads a cast of grotesque villains, and balancing them out is a group of hot models led by Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Zoe Kravitz. It’s good to see other Aussies such as Nathan Jones, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton and Megan Gale getting some burn. I like that Miller just let everyone speak in their native accents (maybe no one can do the Aussie accent properly), and yet the diverse mix of pronunciations is never jarring or feels out of place.

In all, Mad Max: Fury Road is a revelation. It’s one of the most visually stunning films I’ve seen in a long time, from the sandy Australian landscape to the visceral violence and the uncomfortable characters to the gritty machinery. While I’m sure there are plenty of special effects involved, the CGI never overwhelms like it does for many action films these days. The performances are top notch, and the story is simple but effective. At exactly two hours, the length is close to perfect for a film of this kind, though there were times when I felt a little burned out from the endless sand and moving parts. Minor quibbles aside, this is an unexpected masterpiece. It’s hard to see how the planned sequels could top this experience or provide something fresh to prevent familiarity fatigue, but after what I’ve just witnessed it’ll be hard to bet against George Miller again.

5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Transformers: Dark of the Moon (3D) (2011)

I’m a sucker for big blockbusters and they don’t come much bigger or louder than Michael Bay’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon (let’s just call it Transformers 3).  And even after telling anyone who would listen that 3D is a complete waste of money, I inexplicably forked out the extra dough for the 3D experience. (Why am I such a tool?  Is it because Transformers 3 was allegedly filmed with the same 3D cameras as Avatar, the only worthy 3D film I’ve seen?)

Anyway, I had heard some good things about the film (apparently ‘the best of the series so far’) and I knew Steven Spielberg was an executive producer, so I had reasonably high hopes.  But ultimately, while it was visually spectacular, full of star power and contained some fairly good action sequences and clever ideas, Transformers 3 was one insanely overlong, unnecessarily convoluted and uncompelling disappointment.

The Story

Transformers 3 takes off not long after Transformers 2 finished.  Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) has just graduated college and is looking for a job, while his Autobot friends have all but abandoned him for top secret government missions.  Megan Fox’s Mikaela is of course gone after that very public dismissal, replaced by British lingerie model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley (horrible replacement in my opinion, and it’s not just because she has a Cameron Diaz-ish face), who plays Carly, his new girlfriend.  A bunch of stuff happens and as it turns out it was all related to the original Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969 (hence ‘Dark of the Moon‘).  Autobots and Decepticons fight, humans get in the way, things get blown up.

Stunning Visuals

The good thing about Transformers 3 is that visually, it is another step above the previous two films, which were already amazing.  I’m not sure if it was the 3D (I highly doubt it), but from memory the robots from the first two films were not this finely animated, to the point where you could see each scratch mark on the outer shells and every little piece of machinery moving inside.  And as I recall, the robot fight scenes in the previous films (especially the first one) were criticised for not being very clear — there are no such issues in this one.  Every move, every thrust of the sword, every blast of the gun is crystal clear in Transformers 3 (complete with crafty slow motion shots for emphasis), creating by far the best robot-on-robot battles in the series yet.

Tremendous Action

Speaking of battle scenes, there were some whoppers.  Sure they were improbable and ridiculous, but man they were fun.  Without giving away too much, there was one particular sequence inside a building that ranks as the best in the franchise.

Having said that, we’re accustomed to expecting wild, crazy action from Transformers, so to some it might not be anything special.  I guess that’s also true to some extent because, to be honest, we’ve seen most of these action sequences before (there’s only so much robots can do), just not with such great execution.

Alternate History

Another thing I liked about Transformers 3 was the clever intermeshing of real-life people and events, something I enjoyed immensely in the recent X-Men: First Class.  In this case, it was the Apollo moon landing (amongst others) but I was appalled by the atrocious ‘lookalikes’ they got for famous figures.  Even with the intentional blurring and angling it was embarrassingly unlike the real-life counterparts.

Super Cast

The Transformers films have always had star-studded ensemble casts, and this one is no different.  In addition to the regulars such as LaBeouf, Josh Duhamel, John Turturro and Tyrese Gibson, Michael Bay brought out the big acting guns this time with John Malkovich, Patrick Dempsey and Francis McDormand.  While it’s always good to see these three on screen, it was sad to see how poor their roles were.  They played important roles but terribly lean characters with horrible dialogue that was unworthy of actors of their calibre.  And I think it showed.  None of them looked like they were there for anything other than the money.

The highlight of all the additions was actually Ken Jeong, the Asian guy from The Hangover movies.  Unfortunately he didn’t have a meatier role.

As for Shia LaBeouf — I do like him, even though I think he has been over-exposed the last few years — but by now Sam Witwicky’s in-your-face personality was wearing a little thin.  LaBeouf isn’t afraid to make fun of himself, but at times he treads a fine line between being funny and being  obnoxious, and I think this third time around he fell to the obnoxious side more often than he should have.

The big replacement — Huntington-Whiteley — was better than I expected as an actress, but I still don’t think she was right for the role.  And it’s not just because I don’t like her face.  Her chemistry with LaBeouf was almost non-existent.  Not even the 3D could bring her character to life.  On the other hand, it just shows how thankless the female lead role is in the Transformers franchise.

Convoluted Plot

Now that I’ve ventured into the negatives, I might as well keep going.  I’ll admit I didn’t entirely understand what was going on with the robots and their business, and it was because I didn’t care enough to put in the effort.  I have no idea why they had to make things so convoluted but it was totally unnecessary.  Was it so they could throw in some plot twists?  I don’t know, but what I do know is that I didn’t go to see a Transformers movie for the brilliant plot, that’s for sure.

Far Too Long

Another thing I didn’t understand was why the movie had to be 155 minutes long (and it felt that long too), which was 5 minutes longer than the already overlong Transformers 2.  And like that film, it didn’t have to be.  This was at the very most a 2 hour movie.  So much of the fluff at the start of the movie could have been condensed.

The staggering length of the film was not helped by the strangely uneven tone, which made it feel like several different movies.  Transformers 3 started off as kind of a teen comedy, then morphed into a serious historical re-envisioning before becoming an all-out alien invasion action movie for the final hour or so.  It didn’t quite fit together.

Conclusion

While we’re on the subject of far too long, so is this review.  So I’m going to wrap it up.  For me, Transformers 3 was better than Transformers 2, but not as good as the original.  There were parts I found enjoyable, but despite being bigger, louder, and with better special effects and being in 3D,  it just didn’t have that freshness and spark it once had.

2.5 stars out of 5

PS: Was the 3D worth it?  I can’t be conclusive as I haven’t seen the 2D version, but I can’t honestly say I noticed that much of a difference.

PPS: I heard in an interview with Patrick Dempsey that Michael Bay goes off at people who cross his line of vision.  What a nut.  Maybe Fox wasn’t exaggerating after all.