Reviewed by: Jamaal Ryan

“Don’t get addicted to water. You’ll regret it when it’s gone.”

Much like the pheasants scurrying at the bottom of the cliff for water with rusted tin plates desperately held high, sitting through Fury Road’s 120 minutes felt refreshing, it felt rare, and I didn’t want it to stop. It’s nearly two hours of brutal, cacophonous sequences, complete with a simple story and a fascinating world all in which redefine why Mad Max is such a seminal name among action films. And much like those pheasants, by the time the credits rolled, I regret it ever stopping.

Mad Max: Fury Road elevates the style and desert-punk exotica from the third film of the series, and the unrelenting violence of the second, all while thankfully ignoring everything about Mad Max the original – a film so reflective of director George Miller’s lack of experience back in 1979 that no other releases carrying the Mad Max name afterwards has given it anything more than a subtle referential nod to.

Max, the lone-wolf road-warrior of course played by Tom Hardy, is somehow captured for the first time in his desert venture by the War Boys. They’re a violent tribe who’s martyr driven war code is fittingly depicted by their ghastly, ghost-white body paint and want nothing but to carve themselves a warpath to Valhalla after capturing the attention – or even a glance – of their leader, Immortan Joe (played by Hugh Keays-Byrne, who also played Toecutter in the original Mad Max). Max is then imprisoned and used as a blood-syphoning tool for battle when Immortan Joe finds out that the once trusted Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) has stolen his Five Wives who no longer want to fulfill their roles as Joe’s breeding subjects for his twisted lineage.

When the War Boys begin their pursuit into battle, we get a good look at the fascinating war culture that have manifested within these perpetual “water wars”. War is a celebration for this lot as they treat their steering wheels in much of the same manner that marines hold their rifles near and dear, and they ceremonialize their calls to battle with tribal drums, shooting flamethrowers, and speaker-backed guitarists all while parading into battle on top of their jagged, amalgamated vehicles of carnage. The depiction of the War Boys’ ritualistic love for combat is so intricate and bizarre that it becomes a shame that the other groups seen in Mad Max aren’t fully explored in the same manner.

Mad Max is, by all accounts, a visual masterpiece. While almost all of the action – and most of the film –take place in one big elaborate pursuit, everything is immaculately paced, beautifully shot, and incredibly well orchestrated. The color palette rivals that of Zack Znyder’s work with intense and domineering color themes that change throughout day and night scenes as the story moves rapidly down this “fury road”. Stunt coordinator Guy Norris makes his return – whose history with Mad Max dates as far back as 1981’s The Road Warrior – with an impeccable handle on what makes Mad Max a tent-pole in the action film genre.  Each sequence is jaw dropping with mangled and exploding vehicles, flinging bodies, and death defying stunts that make perfect sense for this world, all captured by some of the best cinematography that I’ve ever seen. It equates to Transformers levels of intensity, but without all the glossy lens flairs and CGI.

As an aside, I also have an odd appreciation for Mad Max’s restraint in its brutal action. Fury Road is, undoubtedly, a very violent film. People die in very horrifying and over the top ways, however scenes don’t draw much attention to torture porn where it very easily could have. They cut away at just the right moment where the viewer still feels the impact with a brief glance at blood splatter, but can effortlessly fill in the blanks with their imagination. Though the action is quite visceral, it’s clear that George Miller has not been tainted by the explicit gratuitousness of modern film.

Tom Hardy is front and center of much the action as the great physical actor he’s beyond proven himself to be. And as much of a theatrical performer we’ve seen him demonstrate before (look no further than his previous work in films like Bronson and Locke), here he sinks right into the man-of-action/less-so-with-words character that Mel Gibson portrayed back in the 80’s. However, more than making up for Hardy’s stoic’ness, Charlize Theron as Furiosa has taken Mad Max: Fury Road and made this a film of her own. With her shaven head, black war paint, and mechanical arm, Theron embodies a true badass by every sense of the word. Not only is her physicality frightening, but she commands each scene she’s in even when Fury Road begins to explore her more as a home sick orphan than a hardened imperator.

But Furiosa isn’t the only powerful woman in Mad Max. Naysayers of Age of Ultron’s treatment of Black Widow should be more than satisfied with Fury Road’s use of women. These female characters have adapted to this salty landscape in more ways than they have in previous Mad Max films. It’s enough to say that the “damseled” Five Wives are being rescued and transported by Furiosa herself, but they prove to be far more complex, useful, and unpampered in the events that unfold in the movie. And without spoiling anything, women play a bigger role later in the film, and become a significant part of Mad Max’s most high octane action sequences.

It’s rare to see the reboot of a classic film best the original in every way, shape and form; however there’s no question: Mad Max: Fury Road is the best Mad Max film ever made. Perhaps it’s partly because George Miller stuck with the franchise and preserved what made the 80’s films so alluring, but Mad Max: Fury Road is the Mad Max movie for a modern era, and it’s a complete festival for today’s action film fans.


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Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Reviewed by Jamaal Ryan

Like Iron Man 2, it’s almost unfair to expect The Avengers: Age of Ultron to live anywhere up to what is – to some – perhaps the best Marvel movie to date. The original Avengers was tight, funny, spectacular, and well-orchestrated considering the number of Marvel heroes vying for the spotlight. It’s difficult for Age of Ultron to do much harm with Joss Whedon once again at the helm who’s already established an efficient formula on how to write and direct Cap, Stark, Thor, Hulk, Widow, and don’t you dare forget – Hawk Eye. That said however, like many sequels, Age of Ultron doesn’t quite measure up to the first Avengers as it’s often too self-indulgent, leaving a less muscular superhero action film.

Age of Ultron literally hits the ground running with the imperfect team engaging in an assault on a Hydra outpost in attempts to track down Loki’s all too powerful scepter. Here, the Avengers run into Sokovian twins Quicksilver (who’s distractingly and less charismatically played by Kick-Ass’ Aaron Taylor-Johnson compared to Even Peter’s Quicksilver in Days of Future Past) and Scarlett Witch, both whom you may remember from the Winter Soldier post credits and may or may not play an important role in the Avengers’ future (comic book fans need not weigh in).

The introductory action scene doesn’t do much for the film as an opening not only because the action itself seems muted in a snowy woodland as opposed to the bank-breaking city destruction that Marvel movies are so good at, but because – in spite some of the sprinkled foreshadowing moments – the film doesn’t really feel like it begins until the subsequent story beats, especially after a much welcomed dinner party scene that fans of the previous film would have like to have seen after the post-post credits scene set in the restaurant.

 It’s also when we meet Ultron, the titular big bad who begins as one of the most interesting and captivating villains I’ve ever seen. Ultron, sequentially built from a half destroyed Iron Legion bot to a more complete and more harrowing form, initially comes off as somewhat convincing that he has the world’s best interest at heart, ignoring the fact that it’s later revealed that he wants – unsurprisingly – nothing but to have humanity replaced by “living metal”.

Pulling from his cold, confident, yet oddly benevolent performance in Blacklist, James Spader as Ultron had me best at a scene where he expressed genuine compassion as Quicksilver and Scarlett Witch bled their story covering their experience in their homeland’s bombings. With little human features to illustrate an even fabricated concern for their loss, Ultron’s stillness, head tilted to the right, and empathetic tone was enough to show that he was truly listening. It’s unfortunate that this altruistic villain song and dance doesn’t last throughout the film, as Ultron’s arch inevitably devolves into striving for  generic global extinction.

But despite issues with his increasingly simplified motivations, Ultron sense of humor and comedic delivery is the best among the Avengers cast. I won’t take away from how well written and acted this character is, but Ultron partly stands out because the Avengers themselves are working overtime to make you laugh. Expect to get annoyed at the incessant sardonic quips spliced between frequent and distracting pauses in the action leaving just enough time for the characters to loosen the mood. The Avengers is still one of the funniest of comic book films to date because it knew how to pace itself and show restraint which left some of the lighter moments to be absolutely hilarious. Age of Ultron seeks to one-up itself, and it succeeds – albeit only quantitatively.

 Part of what made the original Marvel film work was the cracks that constantly threatened the cohesion within the Avengers team. This follow up makes great efforts to flesh out these characters even more, but with mixed success. Robert Downing Jr.’s Iron Man, who’s originally responsible for the birth of Ultron, is a true “mad scientist”. His fixation on achieving world piece by building sentient machines in mass quantity is the critical plot device that moves the narrative forward and makes him (still) the most interesting member of the group.

Iron Man’s steadfast motivation proves to be too much for the equally brilliant, but more so hesitant Bruce Banner (Hulk) who’s once again well performed by Mark Ruffalo.  And while this exchange of great minds is enjoyable to watch, Age of Ultron focuses more on Banners relationship with Scarlet Johanson’s Black Widow. Though their time together doesn’t take too much away from the film’s focus as it often neatly finds its place when Banner is “greened out” – outside of one particular scene that aptly humanizes Black Widow even further, it’s hard to say that it adds much to the story. As a fitting second act in their relationship, it’ll be interesting to see where the next Avengers film takes it, perhaps with more drama and potential sacrifice. But for now, it only works as the obligatory romance thread amid the large scale action.

 This then leaves Hawk Eye, the only character who doesn’t have his own film, nor has he been given enough screen time before to establish much character. Age of Ultron makes a huge effort in attempting to make Hawk Eye relevant with a nice surprise that partly comes in the form of Bloodline’s Linda Cardellini. It’s an obvious and even on-the-nose response to fans’ criticisms of Hawk Eye’s forgettable role in the Avengers, which can also be better appreciated after seeing Jeremy Renner’s appearance in Fallon’s Tonight Show. However it’s too bad that not only does it completely loose context once the story moves past it, it also slows the film down considerably, doing little for the character in this movie and leaves little to look forward to in the future.

 As a by-the-numbers comic book action film, Age of Utlron adheres shockingly close to the same formula from the original towards the end, so much so that the next film simply cannot get away with assigning similar roles and tracing the same action beats a third time. It’s less effective because of it, but it’s also less effective thanks to the grey, dusty city that the final showdown takes place in. It’s a noticeable contrast to the glossy Manhattan battle that concluded the first film, losing out on the visual pop of glistening skyscrapers and city skylines in place of crumbing Eastern European architecture. To be fair, that’s quite tough to live up to, as the final battle in the original Avengers is one of the very best large scale fights I’ve ever seen in a film. Full stop.

But none of this means that Avengers: Age of Ultron is a bad sequel in comparison, or even a bad film outright. Each of the cast members have fully settled into their roles, and the chemistry is palpable both in action and off duty. Though some of the character development may feel reactionary or formulaic rather than serving as clever table setting for the next film, they make for good plot threads in a movie full of sexy superheroes. All things considered, The Avengers: Age of Ultron is gorgeous, funny, substantive, and very fun to watch.


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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Reviewed by: Jamaal Ryan

The development of self-awareness in artificial intelligence is a common theme within science fiction. Many theorize that the moment AI develops a consciousness well enough to resist the strings attached by their maker, whether that would be in an act of self-preservation or a calculated effort to save humanity from itself, mankind could be looking at the beginnings of a hostile takeover by the very machines they’ve created. Ex Machina, written and directed by Alex Garland, isolates us within the former scenario. However instead of fleshing out a story built around physical conflict riddled in bullets and scrap metal ala the much lesser successful film, Chappie, Ex Machina weaponizes the use of wits and emotional manipulation.

After winning a companywide raffle, talented programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is flown out to the estate of his company’s founder and CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who heads up this films version of Google. Nathan outlines the purpose of this visit as giving Caleb the rare opportunity to be the first human engage in a “Turing Test” – an assessment that gauges a human’s ability to discern a machine’s behavior from that of a human – with Nathan’s AI project, Ava (Alicia Vikander).

Ex Machina is as lean in its script as the clean, glass doored, underground penthouse it’s set in. Scenes hold no more than two individuals on screen, which pulls the entire focus on intense and uncomfortable dialogue. This leaves the three above actors with little to rely on outside of their deafening theatrical muscles. Nathan is arrogant, smart, and incredibly self-aware, using all three characteristics to collude Caleb who is impulsive, vulnerable, and emotionally reactive, who’s particularly drawn to Ava’s frighteningly developing insight, intellect, and sexuality. With the deliberately indistinguishable Caleb caught between Nathan’s fit, buzz-cut and bearded confidence, and Ava’s uncompromisingly robotic, yet feature filled seduction, Ex Machina exists only within the chilling and hostile triangle that unfolds, revealing no clear winner until the very end.

The story on artificial intelligence is handled with rare brilliance, both visually and thematically. Nathan’s truly massive estate – encapsulating mountains, forests, and frozen landscapes – creates a crisp and beautiful juxtaposition to Ava’s assembled existence who’s manufactured with soft layers of artificial skin, doll-like feminine features, and a translucent frame that cases the strangely flattering anatomy of wires and blue lights. Both Nathan and Caleb challenge each other on the scientific goal of the tests, debating factors of sexual arousal, further experimentations, and ulterior motives, all without having real insight into Ava’s adaptive machine of a brain. The conflict here isn’t all that exclusive (or as inclusive) however. The narrative primarily develops as scenes mix and match one on one interaction with any of the three characters, often leaving a third in the dark.

Ex Machina’s conclusion is provocatively intangible, despite the inevitable devastation that occurs. It avoids leaning in the direction of alliance or discord that so many films of this science fiction ilk tend to land on without pulling the rug from right under the viewer.

Alex Garland has scripted a gripping and uncomfortable character study with an inseparable formula of AI theory and primitive sexual impulses.  Ex Machina is as haunting as it is smart, creating a rare kind of science fiction.