Friday, May 15, 2015


Opening today:

Pitch Perfect 2The 2012 comedy to which this is the sequel was set in the world of collegiate competitive a cappella groups. It had adorable young actresses, beautiful singing, and catty wit offset by a bit of heart, so on the whole, it was a fun couple of hours. It also had—and was, for me, marred by—some self-conscious, heavy-handed gross-out gags.

Pitch Perfect 2’s excuse for a plot has our heroines the Barden Bellas accidentally disgracing themselves at a Kennedy Center performance in front of the President. They’re pariahs in the a cappella community, but aim to redeem themselves at an international competition in Copenhagen. As they prepare for this, all sorts of wacky stuff happens, along with a bit of undemanding romance.

At the center of the ensemble, once again, is the charmingly commonsensical Anne Kendrick as Beca, supported by Brittany Snow, Rebel Wilson, Ester Dean, Hana Mae Lee and the rest of the gang from part one, along with additions Hailee Steinfeld and Chrissie Fit. Reprising their roles from part one are John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks as two cheerfully inappropriate play-by-play commentators.

Banks also took over directing duties this time, replacing the original’s Jason Moore, and I think the results are looser, sillier and funnier. Banks sustains the comic energy through some nutty extended sequences, like a competition between four vocal groups, and the big numbers have some spectacle and punch. The script, again by Kay Cannon, is dense with quizzical, non-sequitur verbal jokes that play surprisingly well, and when Kendrick and her pals sing a wistful version of her improbable hit “Cup Song” around the campfire, it manages even to be a little touching.

About the music: A friend of mine expressed doubt that the songs here were truly a cappella—it sounded to him like bass and percussion enhancement had been added. He could be right, and if he is I suppose I would find that a disappointing cheat. But even so, it sounds good.

Mad Max: Fury Road1982’s Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior is, I believe, arguably the best action movie ever made, at least of the chase variety. It would probably be somewhere in my top twenty or thirty favorite movies. So this follow up had a lot to live up to.

Set in the Down Under outback, The Road Warrior, a sequel to the 1979 low-budget actioner Mad Max, depicts a not-too-distant future in which the world economy has collapsed in the wake of a global fuel shortage. Society in the desert has returned to tribalism and savagery, and gasoline is the only currency left for the marauding brutes that rocket along the desolate highways in motorcycles and hopped-up cars. A small, fortified colony of reasonably civilized people have developed a refinery, and are trying to move the cache of gas they’ve generated to a safe location near the sea, but they can’t get past the besieging army of the masked, hot-rod-riding warlord Humungus.

To the reluctant rescue comes the title character, the mysterious “road warrior” known as Max, played by Mel Gibson. This soul-wounded loner agrees to drive the armored tanker-truck for the colonists and fend off the onslaught of the freaky gas-pirates. The resulting climactic sequence, full of thrilling and often horrifying stunt work and the sustained kinetic direction of George Miller, is, for my money, the most headlong, jaw-dropping, Wagnerian motor-vehicle chase ever put on film.

The 1985 sequel Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome wasn’t as good, and with the new film clearly employing heavy doses of CGI effects, I had my doubts that Miller could recapture the earlier classic’s remarkable quality. And he doesn’t, quite—The Road Warrior remains without peer. But happily, Mad Max: Fury Road is still a very potent action movie, and the second best of the series.

Miller has lost none of his directorial panache—Fury Road casually offers up everything from two-headed lizards to human dairy farming to combat inside a raging haboob. Along with this grotesque yet epic visual imagination, there’s a certain grandiosity, tinged with irony but still visceral, to Miller’s staging of violent action that is one-of-a-kind. His cutting has the speed and dazzle of modern action masters like, say, Paul Greengrass, but it also has a clarity and precision that give it a Rube Goldberg comic dimension, and a relentless momentum. There’s simply no filmmaker quite like him.

Fury Road benefits from having, like Road Warrior, a relatively straightforward storyline. Max finds himself helping similarly haunted, one-armed driver Charlize Theron transport a handful of the “breeders”—who look like refugees from a Victoria’s Secret ad—of a masked, rumbly-voiced warlord very similar to Humungus, to safety, wherever that might be. The path leads through a seemingly endless supply of bizarre vehicular killers.

As for Tom Hardy, he cuts a serviceably lively figure as Max, but—much as it galls me to admit it—he doesn’t have the electric presence of Mel Gibson. Unlike the somehow sullen Hardy, Gibson’s Max seemed…well, mad. Maybe he wasn’t acting.

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