Sunday, May 31, 2015

San Andreas

I've always had a soft spot for Disaster movies ever since my Dad sat me down as a wee one and told me I should watch The Poseidon Adventure. It was on from there as I soon found my way to The Towering Inferno and later the increasingly cheesy Airport movies and Earthquake. I also dug more contemporary offerings that came out after, such as Twister, Deep Impact, ArmageddonDante's Peak, The Day After Tomorrow and even 2012. There was just something about them that I couldn't help but love. The special effects, the destruction, the human melodrama, and of course the prompting of thoughts of what you would do in that situation. The latest genre offering, San Andreas, fits in nicely with the hallmarks of the genre. 

The film is anchored by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as a Los Angeles rescue helicopter pilot Ray, who is going through a bit a tough time. He and his wife, Emma (played by Carla Gugino) are in the process of getting divorced. We are informed their marriage crumbled in a large part due to the impact of one their daughters accidently drowning. The remaining daughter, Blake, (played by Alexandra Daddario), is preparing to leave home to attend college at UC Berkeley. Emma and Blake are currently living with Emma's new boyfriend, the douchebag du jour real estate developer Daniel (played by Iaon Gruffudd). 

Meanwhile, a local seismologist, Lawrence (played by Paul Giamatti), is working at Cal Tech to try and come up with a way of predicting earthquakes. One of his colleagues, Kim Park (played by Will Yun Lee), discovers seismic activity in Nevada, revealing a previously unknown fault line. They head out there to check it out in time to witness it go off with a 7 point earthquake, causing the destruction of the Hoover Dam. This is just an early taste of the destruction this movie is going to unleash, but the effects are impressive and a harrowing sight indeed, especially in 3D. From then on, it's a race to try and warn the people of the west coast of the impending swarm of earthquakes before it's too late.

Upon receiving a call that he's going to be sent to Nevada to help with relief efforts, the transport of Blake to college falls to David, who is heading to San Francisco on business anyway.  Once they arrive, David and Blake stop off at David's office where she runs into Ben (played Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and his younger brother Ollie (played by Art Parkinson). Ben is the impossibly cute, very British love interest for Blake, so naturally I liked him immediately. Ollie is his moppety younger brother tagging along to Ben's job interview. Before long, the first of several earthquakes hits the coast. Daniel bails, running off in a panic concerned only with his own safety, leaving Blake to fend for herself along with Ben and Ollie. They make a great team though as Blake has clearly taken plenty of survival situation lessons from her father. 

Ray meanwhile witnesses the destruction first hand being ravaged on Los Angeles and manages to rescue Emma in the nick of time from the rooftop of a high rise before it collapses. From there, the two set out to rescue their daughter by any means necessary. Of course, their journey is fraught with peril whether it be their vehicle breaking down, looters, earthquakes or resulting land mass shifts creating giant, impassable trenches. Never ones to be stopped, the two keep moving determined to try and reach San Francisco before the next big earthquake hits there. 

Of course, the main draw of this film is the orgy of destruction it presents and it is pretty intense stuff that is rendered remarkably well. The film is presented in 3D as well and I have to admit they made good use of the effect, forgoing any of the usual gimmicks, but rather using it as a tool to make the experience that much more immersive. And boy did it work on me. I mean, the level of destruction in this movie is absurd, not to mention that the San Andreas fault is not capable of producing the level of seismic activity seen in this movie, but I was still sucked into the intense moments on screen. I also have to give the movie props for it's pacing. Once the action starts, it moves at a brisk pace only pausing for a few moments for some character development. But for me, those moments were welcome as it gave me a chance to catch my breath for a moment. 

Overall, San Andreas fits in nicely among other entries in the disaster movie genre. It has all the tropes one comes to expect from the genre along with some genuinely impressive action set pieces and special effects, as well as a great use of the 3D effect to add to the pathos. It's all completely ridiculous of course and is probably not doing the California Tourism Board any favors, but the actors bring enough conviction to it that it works. If you're as much of a fan of these movies as I am, you're going to have a good time. 

Mad Max Fury Road

"What a lovely day!"

Now, finally, we come to the latest and possibly the best installment in the Mad Max series. George Miller brings us another tale of "Mad" Max Rockatansky and returns us to the post-apocalyptic wasteland for the first time since Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome hit theatres thirty years ago. To say it was worth the wait is an understatement. This is sure to be the best action movie of the summer and yes, I realize it's only May. 

We catch up with Max (played by Tom Hardy this time) once again wandering the Wasteland when he's ambushed and taken prisoner by goons of Immortan Joe (played by Hugh Keays-Byrne), a cruel dictator who rules over an outpost called the Citadel. He lives high above the clamoring masses and has an army of boys that have been brainwashed to worship him. He keeps women prisoner, using them to farm out breast milk or kept as concubines, referred to as his Brides. Or at least he did, until the strong willed Imperator Furiosa (played by Charlize Theron), figured out how to get them free and staged and escape with them. When Joe discovers this, he's enraged and follows in pursuit with most his army, including an unwilling Max, who is literally hooked up to one of Joe's soldiers, the hyperactive and crazy Nux (played by Nicholas Hoult). 

After Nux speeds ahead of Joe's army to try and capture Furiosa and the brides himself, Max manages to get free and begins a tentative partnership with Furiosa. What follows is an intense chase through the desert wasteland as Furiosa, Max and the Brides try to reach the prophesized Green place, where Furiosa grew up. With rough and unforgiving terrain ahead and the cruel and nasty Immortan Joe behind them, it's going to take everything they have to try and reach something resembling a better life.

George Miller, who has directed all four Mad Max films crafts what may just be his ultimate one. Given a huge budget to work with, everything in this film is so much bigger than anything that came in the previous three films. Bigger is not always better, but in this case it really works, in part because Miller is such a visionary director and I get the feeling he was really able to fully realize the gonzo world his films take place in for the first time. The film sports the same super-charged sensibility as the other films, only turned up to eleven. In no other way is this clearer than with Immortan Joe's army bugler of sorts, a guy attached to a vehicle filled with amps playing a flame throwing electric guitar. 

I have to give special nods to Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron. Both do great as Max and Furiosa. Hardy had the tough task of coming into a role that had been firmly established by Mel Gibson over the course of three films and make it his own. He does a good job while making this Max his own. Theron does a fantastic job with Furiosa, a tough, no nonsense heroine who is more than an equal to Max. 

The interesting thing about Mad Max Fury Road is that despite appearing as a reboot or remake, it is a fully fledged sequel and one that as far as I can tell takes place between The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome. There are little nods all over the place, from Max still driving the Interceptor at the beginning of the film to appearances of such significant props as the music box or the Feral Kid's razor sharp boomerang from The Road Warrior as clues to where in the timeline we are. Don't get me wrong, much like the other films this one stands on it's own, but there are little nods for fans of the movies to pick up on.

Overall, Mad Max Fury Road is the summer movie to beat in terms of overall quality. It's a high bar to set in May, but I just don't quite seeing it being matched. It's an impressive and thrilling entry into the action film genre. 

Friday, May 22, 2015

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

"Two men enter. One Leaves."

I've always had a certain affinity for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. It may be because it was the first of the original trilogy that I saw and therefore did not have the raised expectations coming from Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior to dampen the experience and was able to enjoy it on it's own terms. Tone wise it is a very different movie than the two that came before it. It's also a richer and more imaginative film as well.

We once again catch up with Max, this time he is crossing the desert in a covered wagon drawn by a team of camels. It's a unique sight for sure, especially since upon closer inspection the wagon is in fact a retrofitted pick up truck, long since run out of gas. Before long, Max is ambushed by Jedediah (played by Bruce Spence) and his son Jedediah Jr. (played by Adam Cockburn), who is definitely a chip off the old block. The two manage to hijack Max's wagon and leave him stranded in the desert. Max follows the tracks which leads him to a shady town called Bartertown, a trading outpost in the middle of the desert. Max appeals to the local authorities to try and retrieve his stolen goods. Seeing an opportunity, they take him to see the self appointed dictator/queen of Bartertown, Aunty Entity (played by Tina Turner).

Aunty Entity has a problem that she thinks Max may be able to help with. She's locked in a power struggle with a duo that refers to themselves as MasterBlaster. Master (played by Angelo Rossitto), is the brains of the operation having created an intricate fuel and power system for Bartertown, fueled by methane derived from pig excrement. Blaster (played by Paul Larsson), is the muscle and Master's bodyguard. Aunty Entity wants Max to pick a fight with Blaster and challenge him to a fight in the town's arena, named the Thunderdome. The rules of Thunderdome are only one: Two men enter, one leaves. With Blaster out of the way, Aunty Entity can regain full control of Bartertown. In exchange for his services, she will see to it that his vehicle is returned to him, fully outfitted and fueled to send him on his way. Max agrees to the deal. 

Soon enough, Max has picked his fight with Blaster and the two are brought to the Thunderdome, bringing about what may be the most inventive and interesting movie fights I have ever seen. Both Max and Blaster are led into this large dome steel cage with various weapons placed around the walls that include large steel hammers, chain saws, spears and assorted other weapons of destruction. Max and Blaster are both placed in harnesses attached to bungee cords and jettisoned from opposite ends of the area, flying through the air trying to dodge one another's attacks. The hulking Blaster proves to be a formidable foe, giving poor Max quite the beating. However, Max is able to finally get the upper hand but when he's about to kill Blaster, he knocks off the helmet that Blaster wears and discovers Blaster is mentally challenged. No longer able to go through with it, Max backs off, sparing Blaster's life. Enraged at Max for breaking their deal, Aunty Entity forces Max to face the town's wheel of fortune to determine his punishment. He winds up being banished to the desert without any supplies or water. 

Stranded in the desert and having fallen unconscious, he is found by Savannah Nix (played by Helen Buday) and taken back to her oasis in the desert, a small area populated almost entirely by children. Soon Max awakens again and is shocked by the sight of his saviors. They soon reveal to him their story, calling him Captain Walker. It turns out that they are the descendants of the survivors of a plane crash captained by a pilot named Captain Walker, who was trying to get as many people away from the impending apocalypse but they didn't make it and the plane crashed in the desert. The survivors found shelter, food and water at the oasis the kids now populate. Eventually, the adults left in search of rescue and civilization, promising to return with help. They never returned. The children persevered at the oasis, keeping things up as instructed. They now believe that Max is the fabled Captain Walker, returning to take them all to the "Tomorrow-Morrow Land" they have heard stories about. Max tries to explain that everything, the Tomorrow-Morrow Land (cities) are gone and that they are better off staying at the Oasis where they are safe. Refusing to listen to reason, Savannah leads a group of them off in search of Tomorrow-Morrow Land in the middle of the night. Max is then forced to follow them in an effort to catch up with them and keep them safe from the dangers that lay ahead in Bartertown, leading to a final confrontation between Max and Aunty Entity.

As I read up on Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome prior to watching it again, I was shocked at how disliked it seems to be on the internet. This came as a surprise in particular because in many ways it has always been my favorite of the trilogy. Yes, technically Mad Max 2 is the better film, but Beyond Thunderdome is still my favorite. It has a more imaginative and unique plot as well as a memorable villain in Aunty Entity. It also has the storyline with the kids which seems to be the main dividing factor, with some being on board with it and others finding it too out of place with what came before in the Mad Max series. For me, I thought it was a unique and inventive story, telling of this group of kids who were more or less left behind by their parents to fend for themselves and wound up building their own culture while isolated from the rest of the world. It is some pretty out there stuff, but it also adds some color and scope to the world this series exists in. 

Another complaint is the fact that this seems to be a softer entry in the series that the two previous films, with this one being rated PG-13 and the other two being R rated. Upon revisiting the series, none of the films have been exceptionally violent or gory and this one feels just as action packed as the others between the Thunderdome fight and the chase scene between the train and Bartertown cars at the end are just as thrilling as anything in the other two films. Yes, the film is a little softer, but not significantly so. Part of this has to do with Beyond Thunderdome having been intended as the closing chapter of Max's story. In this film he finally comes full circle, from the broken, hollow man who lost his family to someone who finds purpose in his life and manages to regain his humanity in the process of looking after this tribe of lost boys and girls (and yes the Peter Pan allusion is apt as the movie suggests it as well).  

Overall, I feel that Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is a criminally under-appreciated film in the series that deserves to be revisited and reevaluated on it's own merits. Yes, it's going to pale in comparison to Mad Max 2 (and probably Mad Max Fury Road, although I haven't seen that one yet), but it doesn't try to beat it but rather tell a fuller, richer and more complex story than it's predecessor, focusing less on the action and more on storytelling and character development, especially when it comes to Max. That alone makes it worthwhile viewing in my book. It's a fantastic movie and one that I feel has been unfairly maligned by people who just wanted another The Road Warrior. They easily could've done that but decided to expand on what was already established and craft something new and more interesting and in my opinion they succeeded quite well.  

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior

It's increasingly rare that a sequel will wind up being better at all, not to mention significantly better, than it's original. However, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior manages to pull off the impossible, creating a kinetic edge of your seat ride through a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The film is a giant leap forward, so much so that it seems to cast a bit of a shadow over the original film. 

We catch up with Max Rockatansky (played again by Mel Gibson) as he is wandering the wasteland the world has become in in his charged up Interceptor police vehicle, now showing a bit worse for wear. We are informed during an opening montage that the world fell into chaos over energy crisis and nuclear war. Now, the few survivors left salvage what they can as gasoline, food and water have become the most precious commodities.  During his travels Max crosses paths first with an oddball referred to as the Gyro Captain (played by Bruce Spence) while trying to salvage some gasoline from the Captain's helicopter and then the two encounter together a group of people holed up in a remote oil refinery operation. The group are attacked daily by a roving gang lead by hockey masked Lord Humungus (played by Kjell Nilsson, looking like a sort of post-apocolyptic Jason Voorhees in fetish gear), who are trying to get in and steal the gasoline. 

Max is able to make contact with the group and offers them a deal. Give him as much gasoline as his car can carry and he will help them get a rig to transport the gasoline they've refined out and away from the gang outside. Keeping his car as insurance, Max sets out to retrieve a truck he knows about, trailed by a youngster from the group, the Feral Kid (played by Emil Minty), who has taken a liking to Max and is armed with a razor sharp boomerang. After evading Lord Humungus and his cronies and returning with the truck, the stage is set for the final confrontation. Max is left with choice, does he join the group in trying to find a place to settle down or leave and continue on his own? 

While from a plot standpoint, Mad Max 2 doesn't break much new ground with a plot that borrows heavily from the Western genre, it tells it's story with a tremendous amount of style and talent. At a lean 96 minutes, the plot moves like a freight train with plenty of action sequences, the biggest being a 13 minute long chase sequence between Lord Humungus and his cronies attacking Max and the tanker truck. 

This film also marks a big change in the way it handles the character of Max from the first one and would be carried over to the third film as well. In this film, Max is very much portrayed as a mythic hero, journeying across the wasteland and helping those he finds in need. This fits in a bit with the Western theme, with this film being a bit of a post-apocalyptic Shane. The entire story is told from the point of view of the Feral Child in retrospect, although this isn't revealed until the end of the film. It's a nice touch by director George Miller and writers Terry Hayes and Brian Hannant. This is also something that would carry over to the third film. 

Overall, Mad Max 2 does an excellent job taking what was established with the original film and building on it to create an even better, more effective and thrilling film that was a massive influence on both the science fiction and action genres. It truly was a bit of a game changer and remains to this day a superior action film and quite possibly the best of at least the original trilogy of Mad Max films (although I do have a soft spot for Beyond Thunderdome, but I'll get to that later).  

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Mad Max

It was 1979 when the world was first introduced to Mad Max Rockatansky and director George Miller's wild, world gone mad that he inhabits. It was such a unique vision for a possible future, one where human civilization seems to be self destruction with only a few dedicated police officers, which Max is a member of, to try and hold it together.

Max (played by Mel Gibson) is a young husband and father and works as a police officer for the MFP (Main Force Patrol), who monitor the highways and try to rein in a world going more and more crazy. Things escalate further as a motorcycle gang led by the insane Toecutter (played by Hugh Keays-Byrne) and Bubba (played by Geoff Parry), things are taken up several notches as the gang unleashes a rein of terror on the town and in particular the MFP officers, including Max and fellow officer Jim "Goose" Rains (played by Steve Bisley. After one of the gang members manages to dodge a conviction due to a technicality, Max's captain instructs his officers to do whatever it takes to combat the gang as long as the paperwork is clean. This results in an all out war between the MFP and the motorcycle gang that also winds up putting Max's wife Jessie (played by Joanne Samuel) and young son Sprog (played by Brendan Heath) in jeopardy. 

It's interesting to watch the original Mad Max again after knowing everything that comes after it. Watching it again, I had a similar experience as I did watching the first Fast and the Furious movie in that I remarked how small and intimate the first film was compared to all the epic scope and massive action spectacle that was to come in later installments. This one is much more focused on it's characters, especially the character of Max. He starts out the film as a relatively happy fellow, grinning a lot and generally not much to complain about. But the end though, he's a burned out shell of a man, destroyed inside and out by all the violence and mayhem he's been through. It's a hell of a character arc and still pacts a punch all these years later. 

For a film series that is known as being a post-apocalyptic series of films, I wonder how many people forget that it actually hadn't happened yet in the first film. It's pretty clear it's coming from the state of the world that is depicted throughout the film, but there still is some semblance of society functioning in the background. Part of this may be that the film was filmed on a shoestring budget for roughly $350,000. Still, they clearly spent every penny well and crafted a good story to go with it as it doesn't feel super low budget. It may just be the tip of what was to come with the future installments of The Road Warrior, Beyond Thunderdome, and Fury Road, but it remains a potent and impressive debut for George Miller and Max Rockatansky. It's just that the sequels managed to take what was here and build on it so masterfully it can't help but seem smaller in their shadows. But despite that, it remains an auspicious start to a memorable film series.