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Review: ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

'Mad Max: Fury Road' (Warner Bros.)
‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ (Warner Bros.)

Phenomenal. Arriving 33 years after The Road Warrrior, the greatest movie ever made, Mad Max: Fury Road is an entirely satisfying motion picture.

It’s an action thriller down to its core, tense and dramatic and breathtaking, a near-future tale of a small group of people intent on breaking free from society’s constrictions. It’s a chase movie, focused entirely on surviving a life-threatening flight toward somewhere better. It’s a character drama, exploring how people who must constantly fight to stay alive are fundamentally different than those who live in comfort and peace.

After many years in the barren wasteland, Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is a hard-scrabble survivor with a fierce instinct to live, yet still haunted by his personal failings in the past. Taken by surprise, he is captured and imprisoned in a thriving settlement. It’s ruled with an iron fist by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who becomes enraged when Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) escapes with five of his “breeders,” beautiful women who are held against their will solely to give birth to his children.

Immortan Joe scrambles his forces to chase down Furiosa and recapture his breeders, which is how Max is thrown back in the fray. He’s become the property of Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a member of thhe War Boys, a bald-headed cult of male religious fanatics, who intends to recharge himself with the transfusion of all of Max’s blood into his body. But the chase instead prompts Nux to affix Max to the front of his pursuit vehicle, and the action races onward from there, with Max and Nux eventually teaming up with Furiosa and the other women.

For those who have seen the first three installments in the series, Mad Max: Fury Road plays as both a sequel to, and a remake of, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), reusing elements from that disappointing film to far better purpose. Max has become, once again, a grunting, single-minded personality, but his experience in life has taught him some much-needed lessons in modesty, as well as the importance of accepting help from others when it’s offered in a selfless and genuine manner.

Even if you haven’t seen any of the previous films, Mad Max: Fury Road plays as the best action movie in years. Director George Miller has a great feel for how to stage and frame rapidly-moving sequences without ever inducing a degree of fatigue. It’s always easy to follow what’s happening, to understand where the main players are located, and to comprehend their relative peril. The color palette has been broadened, though individual sequences tend to be monochromatic; the result is a greater variety in the backdrops that are, after all, intended to represent a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Hardy carves out his own impression of Max that feels entirely genuine and weighted with memory, loss, and grief. Theron is no less impressive, an indelibly exciting figure who is an outstanding leader, even while carrying around her own bag of loss. The “breeders” (Zoe Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee Kershaw, Courtney Eaton) are most notable initially for their model-esque beauty, which soon gives way to their defiant instincts for survival. Keays-Byrne, who appeared in Mad Max as a different sort of villain, brings great menace to his role as Immortan Joe. Hoult demonstrates impressive range as the maniacal Nux.

Cohesive, corrosive, and completely charged-up, Mad Max: Fury Road is a thrilling ride that features cogent arguments about the future of humanity. It’s easily the best movie of 2015 (so far).

The film opens this evening with screenings at select theaters before expanding wide tomorrow.

Review: ‘The Drop’

dfn-drop-poster-300Bob Saginowski is a quiet, ordinary man who minds his own business.

As played by Tom Hardy in The Drop, Bob is a special kind of New Yorker, the kind that blends into a quiet neighborhood in Queens. He works long hours as a bartender for his cousin Marv (James Gandolfini), an outspoken, unhappy fellow. Marv is single and lives with his sister Dottie (Ann Dowd) in what we assume is the family home, an entirely ordinary house, but that’s really none of our business, either, except their father lives in a nursing home that costs a lot of money they don’t currently have.

Thus, Marv feels compelled to do something to earn a lot of money in a short amount of time. The bar that he formerly owned and still manages now serves occasionally as a “drop,” a place where the new owner — a member of the Chechnian mob — will designate randomly for ill-gotten money to be deposited throughout a single night, bit by bit, the envelopes overstuffed with cash, until the owner returns to collect in the morning. Marv intends to make that money his own.

Now, bear in mind that Marv’s story serves as a background in the screenplay by Dennis Lehane, based on his short story “Animal Rescue.” The foreground is occupied by Bob, the quiet, ordinary man who doesn’t present himself as the brightest bulb in the house. That assessment has nothing to do with academic excellence or scholastic achievement or intellectual discourse. Instead, it’s the manner in which Bob lives and expresses himself.

Take, for example, a moment when Bob is walking briskly through his neighborhood and hears whimpering coming from inside a garbage can. He doesn’t hesitate to stop and open the container, where he sees and promptly picks up the puppy dog inside, and then embraces the whimpering animal. When a woman comes outside to see what he’s doing outside her house, she insists on seeing his driver’s license — and snapping a photo of it — before finally, reluctantly, allowing him into her home so they can clean up the dog.

From there, the wary relationship between Bob and Nadia (Noomi Rapace) develops. Bob does not push things. He keeps the focus on the dog. His guarded yet somehow still open personality strikes a chord with Nadia, who perhaps recognizes a kindred soul, someone who has been hurt, badly, in the past, and so is slow to express any emotion that might be regarded as “weak.” Meanwhile, Nadia’s past haunts her in the form of the shadowy, menacing Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts), who crosses paths with Bob on more than one occasion.

The Drop itself is not a warm, open-hearted movie. It, too, is guarded and protective of its secrets and motivations, wary of those who might label it “a thriller” or “a mob movie.” It develops slowly and becomes more absorbing as it goes, in a similar vein to Bullhead, the first movie directed by Michaël R. Roskam.

While Bullhead cuts deeper and wider than The Drop, it serves as a good point of comparison for the newer film, which is also not in a rush, and more fascinated by what makes people tick than showing, exactly, how they tick. Nicolas Karakatsanis, who served as director of photography for Bullhead, returns in that capacity here; once again, the palette is limited intentionally, this time capturing the autumnal colors of the city from ground level and contributing to the mood of slowly-gathering anxiety.

Roskam elicits equally fine performances from the cast, which includes John Ortiz as a somewhat frustrated police detective and Michael Aronov as the nasty mob chief. It’s James Gandolfini who sticks out, in part because this was his final role before his premature death, and in part, because he’s playing a character who could have been a Soprano if he lived in New Jersey. As Marv, he’s bitter and unsettled. Despite being almost constantly surrounded by people, he’s so isolated that he can only follow, or trust, his own faulty counsel.

That spirit permeates The Drop. Living in a crowded neighborhood in a crowded city, the characters are all isolationists, cautious because past experiences have soured them on the essential goodness of mankind. They have to live with that, but it doesn’t mean they have to like it.

The film opens in theaters throughout Dallas and Fort Worth on Friday, September 12.

Review: Inception

Christopher Nolan's 'Inception'
Christopher Nolan's 'Inception'

It’s a magical mystery tour, a mathematical print by M. C. Escher, a family drama, and a suspense thriller, all wrapped up in one huge, dazzling package. It’s Inception, and it may blow your mind.

Or it may not. Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to The Dark Knight is strikingly reminiscent of The Prestige, his follow-up to Batman Begins. Filled with puzzles, populated with good actors, and hiding much of its intellectual heft beneath its distracting surfaces (like the iceberg in Titanic), the movie is challenging but not revolutionary. It feels like an extended, exhilarating roller-coaster ride that slows now and again, allowing time to think about the distance that’s been covered, and to take a quick peek ahead.

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