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Lone Survivor (2013)

Lone Survivor 2013

by Steve Habrat

Way back in 2012, one of the first films that kicked off the summer movie season was director Peter Berg’s sci-fi Hasbro epic Battleship, which ended up being one of the biggest flops at the box office that summer. Whether you loved or loathed Berg’s aquatic aliens-vs.-humans blockbuster, it was clear that he is a very patriotic gentleman. A little over a year and a half later, Berg returns to the big screen with Lone Survivor, a breathtaking true war story that sheds the cartoonish Navy propaganda of Battleship and embraces a hair-raising grittiness that drops you right into the cold heart of combat. While Lone Survivor can be accused of bookending itself with the typical war movie sentiments (brotherly bonds, lump-in-the-throat jingoism), the film avoids clichéd mediocrity through the fluid chemistry between its hardened cast members, it’s pulse-pounding gunfights, and a shell-shocking brutality that leaves you sore and aching for hours after seeing it. More importantly, Berg works in a nerve-racking moral debate, which he uses to set the character’s fates into doomed motion.

Lone Survivor tells the true story of four Navy SEALs, Petty Officer Second Class Marcus Luttrell (played by Mark Wahlberg), Lieutenant Michael Murphy (played by Taylor Kitsch), Sonar Technician Matt Axelson (played by Ben Foster), and communications officer Danny Dietz (played by Emile Hirsch), who were sent into the rocky hills of Afghanistan to gather surveillance on Ahmad Shahd, a high-ranking member of the Taliban. The SEALs set up camp just outside the village where Shahd is believed to be hiding, but their position is soon compromised after three goat herders happen to stumble upon their position. The SEALs take the goat herders prisoner, but after a lengthy debate about whether to kill them or let them go, the SEALs decide to let them go back to their village. But soon after being letting them go, the goat herders quickly report the run-in to Shahd, who orders a small army of Taliban soldiers to take to the hills and smoke out the Americans. With poor radio connection and no way out, the outnumbered SEALs are forced to engage the charging Taliban forces in a gunfight until they are able to radio the nearby American base for extraction or reinforcements.

Given the film’s title, it is no secret that only one soldier (Luttrell) makes it out alive from this confrontation. Still, Berg ups the film’s tension considerably, and he applies a bruising realism that practically blasts you from your chair. Berg begins the film with stock footage of soldiers in basic training, reconfiguring themselves to be able to endure the intensities of war and the unforgiving environments where they may fight. It’s pretty captivating stuff, and you can’t help but admire these men for doing this, but when our four protagonists are wedged into the rocky Afghani terrain and taking bullets from all angles, it’s truly difficult to imagine that the wounds suffered are met simply with loud groans and a quick grits of their teeth. Rest assured that realism wins out, especially when a heavily wounded Dietz goes into shock after taking a few bullets and having several of his fingers shot off. And then there is the violence itself, which ranges from a nauseating decapitation early on, and then culminates in compound fractures, shrapnel protruding from legs, and spraying gunshot wounds that are executed with exploding squibs and red corn syrup, which gives the violence an extra punch that isn’t shaken off easily. What truly is astonishing is that these four men were able to keep their composures, even after tumbling down rocky cliffs and clearly suffering unimaginable internal injuries that must have been excruciating.

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Berg’s swipes at realism are also aided by the performances from Wahlberg, Kitsch, Foster, and Hirsch, who all seem to instantly click as a unit. Over the past several years, Wahlberg has worked hard to establish himself as a serious actor, and with Lone Survivor, he continues to earn our respect. His performance as Luttrell is one that the audience really feels as he drags himself over jagged rock and collapses in a nearby stream. Kitsch, who was the star of Berg’s Battleship, gives an authoritative performance as Mike Murphy, the group’s leader who has the final say over how to deal with their grim situation. Foster, an actor who has always remained shy of the mainstream, contributes an impressive performance as Axelson, a man who was willing to do whatever it took to keep his fellow brothers alive. Then we have Hirsch as Dietz, the boyish communications officer that slips into shock after having several of his fingers taken off by whizzing bullets. When they are all together, the group really makes the brotherly camaraderie seem natural, even if they sometimes flirt with burly clichés. Rounding out the main cast is Eric Bana as Lieutenant Commander Erik S. Kristensen, who attempted to lead the rushed rescue mission that ended tragically. Also on board is Ali Suliman as Mohammad Gulab, the kindly Afghani villager who was willing to do whatever he could to protect the horribly injured Luttrell.

While Lone Survivor is certainly gripping and unforgiving, the film isn’t completely immune to a few creeping clichés. There are the expected slow-motion acts of heroism that coax tears to the eyes of the viewer, and the brotherly bonds, while convincing, are laid on pretty thick. Clichés aside, Lone Survivor’s real problem shows up when the guns start blazing and the grenades start exploding. The action looks, sounds, and flows spectacularly, but Berg allows it to overshadow his human subjects, which results in speculation that the filmmakers may have cared more about making an action picture rather than remaining fixed on the men who fell in this fight. Still, these complaints are minor, and they are neutralized by the moral debate at the film’s turning point. Watching the SEALs deliberate the fates of the three goat herders—a group that consists of an elderly man, a teenager, and a young boy—is something that will really ignite conversation when the credits roll. Overall, stretches of Lone Survivor will feel slightly familiar to most audience members, but Berg and his cast do a fine job at paying tribute to the men who lost their lives during Operation Red Wings. It’s a tribute made with scorching realism and teary-eyed patriotism, sending you away with a renewed appreciation for those who lay down their lives for freedom.

Grade: B+

TRAILER TUESDAY!

“If you’ve got to fight — fight dirty!” Here is the trailer for the 1974 exploitation classic The Street Fighter, starring Sonny Chiba and directed by Shigehiro Ozawa.

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

Catching Fire #1

by Steve Habrat

Last year, a little movie called The Hunger Games snuck into theaters and became a monster hit. Remaining number one for several weeks and earning rave reviews from both audiences and critics, it was clear which young-adult-novel-turned-blockbuster-movie was filling the space left open by the Harry Potter series and the concluding Twilight series. With Lionsgate clearly understanding they have a major moneymaker on their hands, the studio furiously got to work on a follow-up that is dropping a little over a year after the first film. Among the big blockbusters bringing 2013 to a close is director Francis Lawrence’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, an inevitably darker middle chapter that is surprisingly thoughtful and entertaining, something you’d never imagine from a film that was slapped together in a rush for a big payday. With star Jennifer Lawrence still bringing down the house as the girl on fire herself, Katniss Everdeen, Catching Fire allows the talented young star to dig into the trauma left over from the first film and in the process, give audiences a resilient heroine who refuses to go down without a fight. I’ll take Miss Everdeen’s rebellious spunk over Bella Swan’s angsty high school drama any day, and it appears that quite possibly America is feeling the same way!

Catching Fire picks up several months after the 74th annual Hunger Games, with Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence) still coming to terms with some of the horrors that she saw during the games. On the eve of the Hunger Games Victory Tour, President Snow (played by Donald Sutherland) pays an unexpected visit to Katniss and her family. President Snow warns Katniss that she needs to continue with her fake romance with fellow Hunger Games winner Peeta Mellark (played by Josh Hutcherson) in order to calm the unrest brewing in the districts. If she doesn’t comply, Snow will kill both her family and Gale Hawthorne (played by Liam Hemsworth), the mineworker Katniss has been carrying on a secret romance with. Katniss agrees to continue on with the charade, but as the Victory Tour gets underway, she sees what her win has meant to the twelve districts and the brutality being carried out by Snow’s forces. With rebellion on the horizon, Snow and new Gamekeeper Plutarch Heavensbee (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman) devise a new way to eliminate Katniss and crush the hopes of the twelve districts. They decide to recruit all the previous winners from past games to compete against each other, drawing out some of the most dangerous contestants in the area. Realizing that Peeta and Katniss have their backs against the wall, mentors Haymitch Abernathy (played by Woody Harrelson) and Effie Trinket (played by Elizabeth Banks) get to work preparing the kids for this new game.

At nearly two and a half hours long, you could almost split Catching Fire into two different movies. The first half of the film dares to be intimate with the trauma that Katniss and Peeta suffer from and how their lives have been changed forever. They are yanked from district to district, paraded in front of grieving families who were forced to give up one of their own to the games, while scraggly town citizens look on with a mixture of awe and resentment. One particular scene has Katniss tearfully recalling her fallen friend Rue, a tearjerker moment nicely followed by that famed whistle and three finger salute. It is within these scenes that we get to see the extent of Snow’s brutality and manipulation, as his masked forces, known as Peacekeepers, pump bullets into the heads of anyone who dares show hints of rebellion. They flood into districts, trash homes and markets, and install a whipping post for anyone who acts out. As the anger simmers and director Lawrence ventures to the lavish capital where elite citizens, who sip drinks to purge their full bellies in order to eat more, rub elbows, you’ll begin to see this is going the route of class warfare. There appears to be no middle class, just those with everything and those with almost nothing. It’s heavy stuff for a young adult story, especially when Snow and Heavensbee begin discussing how to control the masses. They devise puff pieces that divert the attention of the public, blinding them to the violence and oppression spilling into the streets. It’s within this first hour that Catching Fire really does ignite, effectively earning its right to brood and scowl.

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As we enter the second hour of Catching Fire, we begin meeting all sorts of different characters that seem to be introduced simply so we know who the hell they are in the third film. They are all characters that we want more from (Jenna Malone’s Johanna Mason, Amanda Plummer’s Wiress, Lynn Cohens’s Mags, to name a few), but sadly, Lawrence is forced to cover so much ground that he just can’t quite balance everything out. He has to maintain focus on Katniss and Peeta as they battle for their lives on a tropical island with as many manipulated threats as well as flesh and blood threats. There are spots where the pacing seems to stall as the contestants attempt to make sense of a lightning tree, poisonous CGI fog, CGI mandrills, and, yes, CGI tidal waves—computerized threats that drown out the human dangers that prowl that tangled mess of vines and leaves. Furthermore, the film asks us to really care when several secondary characters are killed; something that is extremely difficult considering that we have barely been gives the chance to get to know some of them. When several of the contestants finally group together to stay alive and more secrets emerge from the island itself, things manage to perk up and the thrills once again pack their punch in the grim final stretch.

As far as the A-list cast is concerned, Jennifer Lawrence is top dog once again. She’s a feisty heroine who isn’t afraid to let the world see a few tears stream down her face. Whether she is in the concrete streets of one of the districts or in the sweltering heat of the island, she remains the poised hellraiser that we fell in love with in the first film. At times, the script threatens to allow a Twilight-esque love story take control of her character, Lawrence places her character’s love life on the back burner, something that is solidly believable considering the harsh realities of the world she inhabits. Hutcherson’s Peeta is still the softie with clear feelings for Katniss, feelings that go beyond a simple friendship. Hemsworth is still underused as Gale, the beefy blue-collar mineworker who swoons for Katniss and isn’t afraid to fight back against the ruthless Peacekeepers. Banks and Harrelson are still as colorful as ever as fashionista Effie and drunken Haymitch, the eccentric mentors to Peeta and Katniss. Sutherland is still commanding as the calculating dictator Snow, who is willing to kill as many people as he needs to in order to keep his citizens in line. Hoffman is equally cruel and savage as Heavensbee, the ruthless new Gamekeeper that will stop at nothing to make sure Katniss perishes in the game. Other newcomers include Jeffrey Wright as the brainy Beetee, Plummer as Beetee’s sidekick Wiress, Jena Malone as the axe-wielding Johanna, and Sam Clafin as the charming new ally Finnick.

Compared to the original film, Catching Fire expands its scope and improves its special effects, but there are places where the computerized wizardry still looks dated. The sprawling shots of the Panem capital look great, the fire that was ablaze on Katniss’s dress has improved, and the futuristic shuttles the glide above the capital are convincing, but the poisonous fog looks cheap, the tidal waves appear rushed, and a spinning portion of the island looks way too cartoonish for its own good. One aspect that I am particularly torn over is the way the film ends, in a “to be continued…” style that doesn’t allow this installment any sense of closure, something I found immensely infuriating. However, despite leaving the door wide open, I did admire the way the film sprung multiple twists and turns in the story in such a short period of time, and I particularly liked the final blow that is sure to leave members of the audience gasping in shock. Overall, while the second half may pale in comparison to the first and some of the characters may be left a bit underdeveloped, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire still rewards with a smart script, a darker tone, and a fantastic performance from Jennifer Lawrence. Bring on round three!

Grade: B  

TRAILER TUESDAY!

“Dangerously angry one minute… rockin’ and rollin’ the next!” Check out a trailer for 1958′s Dragstrip Riot, directed by David Bradley.

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TRAILER TUESDAY!

“Mothers…lock up your sons!” Things get rowdy with a trailer for the 1975 exploitation girl-gang picture The Jezebels aka The Switchblade Sisters, directed by Jack Hill.

The Jezebels Poster

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Thor-the-Dark-World #1

by Steve Habrat

Just six short months after dominating the summer with Iron Man 3 and three short months after announcing details for their Avengers follow-up, Marvel is back with a sequel to Kenneth Branagh’s intergalactic epic Thor. Branagh’s iridescent 2011 effort really took me by surprise, mostly because I was convinced that the Norse god wouldn’t translate well to film. It didn’t help that the trailer failed to really sell the swords and hammer mayhem. Despite my apprehension, Thor turned out to be one hell of a thrill ride even though it was distractingly acting as a partial tease for The Avengers. With the first Avengers film out of their system, Marvel can now focus on giving their Avengers cast movies that are free of that crossover blockbuster’s chains. Here we have Thor: The Dark World, a sequel that doesn’t feel like it’s rushing to develop this character just so we know who the heck the beefcake with the hammer is in The Avengers: Age of Ultron. With Thor: The Dark World, we are given more time on Thor’s home planet, Asgard, and we are treated to more strange creatures looking to rip the universe to shreds. While the second half is undeniably entertaining with its billowing high-stakes showdowns, the opening stretch seems like a lazy reworking of what we saw in the previous Thor film. To make things worse, star Natalie Portman seems like she was forced at gunpoint to reprise her role as Jane Foster. Is this the same woman who won on Oscar for Black Swan?

Thor: The Dark World begins by explaining that many years ago, Thor’s grandfather had a battle with the Dark Elf leader Malekith (played by Christopher Eccleston), who was planning on using a matter called Aether to destroy the Nine Realms. The Asgardians won the battle and managed to secure the Aether from Malekith, but the Asgardians were unable to destroy the weapon, so they buried where no one would find it. Angry over his defeat, Malekity fled into space with a group of followers to regroup. In present day, Thor (played by Chris Hemsworth) and his Asgardian followers attempt to bring order to worn torn planets across the universe while Loki (played by Tom Hiddleston) faces his sentencing for what he did to New York City. On Earth, astrophysicist Jane Foster (played by Natalie Portman) has been waiting two years for Thor to return to her. Just as she is attempting to move on with her life, intern Darcy Lewis (played by Kat Dennings) tracks her down to show her an abandoned building that appears to have multiple portals into other worlds. After Jane stumbles through one of these portals, she discovers the hidden Aether, which latches itself onto her and begins flowing through her veins. The disrupting of the Aether awakens Malekith, who has been drifting in space with his soldiers waiting for the smallest sign of the Aether’s whereabouts. Fearing for Jane’s life, Thor returns to Earth to take her back to Asgard where he can protect her, but Malekith is isn’t far behind and he is hellbent on bringing darkness to the galaxy.

Director Alan Taylor opens Thor: The Dark World with a pair of rousing space battles that allow the viewer a glimpse into the expansive Marvel universe beyond the stars. There are all sorts of grotesque creatures that will make your eyes pop, but it’s the story foundation that is built under this action that seems all too familiar. In place of the glowing blue Tesseract is the Aether, a flowing red matter that swims through the air and resembles Kool-Aid. Rather than an unlimited energy source, the Aether plunges everything into darkness and it is naturally sought after by the baddies so that they can destroy the whole universe. Then there is Darcy, Jane, and Stellan Skarsgard’s Dr. Erik Selvig, who all dart around with flickering devices that detect portals and other alien anomalies while everyone else thinks they’ve got screws loose. The only thing missing are the SHEILD agents prowling around! This middling commencement is spruced up with some geeky humor and a cutesy cameo from Bridesmaids star Chris O’Dowd. Thankfully, when war comes to Asgard, the battle gets a bit more personal for Thor and Loki, both who loose someone very close to them. This is precisely where the glimmers of familiarity start to get buried beneath some sprawling clashes that are capable of bringing down the theater walls. They’re also fairly impressive in 3D, a format that Marvel has been shockingly lazy about considering all the money they are dumping into each one of these films.

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As far as the action scenes are concerned, they single handedly make up for the film’s shortcomings. It never gets old watching Thor leap into the air with his hammer raised, bringing it down on the ground to knock about ten bad guys charging him off their feet. There is a hilarious confrontation between Thor and a snarling rock monster that gets tamed with one swing of Thor’s mighty mallet. The opening battle between masked Dark Elves and Viking-like Asgardians is a buzzy cocktail of Star Wars-esque laser battles and Lord of the Rings swordplay. The standout action set piece is easily the battle on Asgard, in which Malekith’s forces rocket at the gold city in sleek jets that cut right into the gold heart of the towering palace that Thor and his family call home. It helps that these scenes have dropped Branagh’s spit-polished approach, allowing them to feel rough around the edges and, dare I say, legitimately dangerous. Then there is the big finish, which features Thor and Malekith duking it out as they tumble through multiple portals that send them careening through the universe. The constantly shifting backdrops are a blast and Taylor weaves the action through them seamlessly, but what grows frustrating is the fact that Jane and her buddies can dart through all the destruction unscathed. They are several of Malekith’s soldiers hot on their heels, but they just never seem to be able to catch up or hit them with a laser blast. Oh, come on!

Then we have our performers, who for the most part slip comfortably back into the skins of their characters—well, expect for Portman. Hemsworth is still lovable as the gruff God of Thunder, who relishes a good fight but sulks over Jane during the post-battle celebration. I especially enjoyed his increasingly complex relationship with Hiddleston’s Loki, who is as devious as ever. When the lightheartedness is dropped and the two confront each other over the events in New York, the drama cuts like a knife and leaves a sting that is difficult to shake. Eccleston’s Malekith booms with plenty of promises of death and destruction, and it helps that the look of his character just screams evil. Malekith has been downplayed in the trailers, which is nice because it shrouds his character in malevolent mystery. Then we have Portman, who acts as through the material here is beneath her. She fluffs off guys who wish to pursue a relationship with her and she pouts over Thor’s absence like a spoiled child. There is none of the starry-eyed swooning going on here, only huffy obligation and line delivery that seems like she is reading from a script buried in her lap. Anthony Hopkins returns as Odin, Thor’s one-eyed papa who promises to defeat Malekith and his advancing forces. Rene Russo proves to be one tough mama as Frigga, Thor’s mother who gets a chance to engage Malekith in a sword fight. There is also the always-welcome Idris Elba as Heimdall, the gatekeeper of the Bifrost who brings down one of Malekith’s ships with his bare hands. Talk about a major badass!

One of the biggest disappointments of Thor: The Dark World is the fact that the film never adopts the darker tone that was hinted at in the trailer. There are some heavier moments and a few death scenes that will hush the children pacing the aisles with excitement, but it almost always seems obligated to deliver a joke. Mind you, the humor works, but I think it would be nice to see Marvel allow these films to venture into some bleaker territory. This exact problem plagued Iron Man 3, which initially hinted that Phase 2 of the cinematic Marvel universe was going to opt for the shadowy path where our heroes were going to be dealt personal blows from the villians. On the flip side, it is understandable considering that Disney now has a presence and they are desperate to draw in young kids who may be turned off by the darker material. Overall, while the first act is a bit clunky, Thor: The Dark World is bursting with rollicking cosmic thrills in the second and third acts. It may not be Marvel’s finest achievement, but it makes for some solid entertainment that ends with a cliffhanger guaranteed to leave you wanting more. More importantly, it feels like a bonafide standalone story in the series, something that was plaguing the pre-Avengers efforts. As always, make sure to stick around through the credits for some more surprises.

Grade: B

Rush (2013)

RUSH

by Steve Habrat

In 1976, little Opie Taylor himself Ron Howard starred in the Roger Corman car chase movie called Eat My Dust, agreeing to be in the film if B-movie king Corman would let him direct his own picture down the line. A year later, Corman made good on his promise and he let Howard direct Grand Theft Auto, his own car chase comedy tailored for the drive-in crowd. Several years and A-list movies later, it seems that the speed demon that lurks within Howard still hasn’t been tamed. Racing into theaters just in time for awards season is Rush, a stylish and sexy Formula One action-drama that also happens to be based on the real-life rivalry of James Hunt and Niki Lauda. From the time the green light flashes and those Formula One racecars roar to life, it’s clear that Rush is trying to blast itself straight into Oscar gold. While the melodramatic pauses that break up the tightly edited and sleekly framed action sequences might prevent Academy members from voting it into the Best Picture category, the film is a technical wonder, featuring screen-shredding crashes and sound work that kicks up the loose popcorn and Sour Patch Kids that are stuck to the theater floor. There are also the central performances, especially from newcomer Daniel Bruhl, who speeds off with nearly every single scene he struts steps into.

Picking up in 1970, Rush introduces us to lowly Formula Three racers James Hunt (played by Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (played by Daniel Bruhl), who quickly develop a fierce rivalry on the track of the Crystal Palace circuit in England. From 1970 to 1976, the British party boy Hunt and the all-business Austrian Lauda battle to enter the ranks of the Formula One drivers. In 1976, their rivalry was pushed to the breaking point as they went head-to-head in the Formula One races, risking their lives one race at a time to become the world champion. Meanwhile, their rivalry begins to spill over into their personal lives as Hunt struggles to hold on to his wife, supermodel Suzy Miller (played by Olivia Wilde), and first-place holder Lauda grapples with the fact that Hunt is breathing down his neck for the number one. The relationship between Hunt and Lauda takes a curious turn when Lauda is involved in a horrific car wreck that leaves him with third-degree burns covering his most of his face and badly damaged lungs. While fighting for his life, Lauda watches as Hunt closes in on the number one spot, which causes Lauda to make a speedy recovery and get back in the tournament.

Like most car films, Rush explores those who truly feel alive when they are defying death at over 100 miles per hour. Being a sports movie, the film never veers into existential terrain like such efforts as the recent art house thriller Drive or the high-octane cult-classic Vanishing Point. Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan are more intrigued by the blistering rivalry between these two drastically different personalities and how, in the end, they actually needed each other. They balance the rat-faced geek vs. handsome jock act quite well, slipping it into tightly edited race sequences that make you feel like you’re squeezed into the driver’s seat with Hemsworth and Bruhl. Most thrilling are the races set against torrential downpours, placing us behind the helmets of Hunt and Lauda as they frantically search for a way to outdo the other. With visibility a blur and the engines rupturing our ear drums, you can’t help but admire these men as they put their lives on the line for a chance to stand above a cheering crowd and spray champagne into the air. What truly astonishes is the calm demeanor and nonchalant boldness of these men as the hop behind these mechanical beasts. They seem invincible, but Howard reminds us that they are flesh and blood through compound fractures and the fiery crash that almost takes Lauda’s life.

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Bringing these two fearless daredevils to life are the brilliant Bruhl and Hemsworth, both of which settle quite nicely into the skin of their characters. Hemsworth sharpens his acting abilities as the playboy Hunt, who stumbles around the racetrack with a cigarette dangling from his mouth and a chugging a bottle of booze like he may never be allowed another drink. He’s irresistible to women, who get weak in the knees over the self-assured smile he flashes their way, and everyone seems to genuinely enjoy his presence when he steps into the party. The only time he ever shows any sort vulnerability is when he vomits before a race or when he is faced with the possibility that he may not get sponsored. At the other end of the spectrum is Bruhl’s Lauda, a squeaky clean stickler for the rules who is early to bed and early to rise. He rises to fame through money and by barking orders at the bewildered mechanics wondering just who the hell the guy thinks he is. He’s cold, calculating, and absolutely relentless in trying to keep Hunt down, spending every single solitary second tinkering with his car. Of the two men, Bruhl is the one who comes out on top, giving a top-notch performance that you just can’t take your eyes off. Don’t be surprised if you see his name among the Best Actors list when the nominees are announced.

With so much focus on the complicated relationship between Hunt and Lauda, Howard seems to be largely uninterested in adding a spark to each man’s personal life. Sure, we catch glimpses of Hunt’s crumbling marriage but it only gets maybe five minutes of screen time, and Lauda’s devotion to Alexandra Maria Lara’s Marlene Knaus is seen only through the silent glances that they continuously share. Wilde and Lara try to rise above their underdeveloped roles by hovering around television screens and holding their breath for their warring speed junkies, but none of the behind-closed-doors melodrama comes close to matching the breathless exhilaration of the races. Further muting the drama are the raw violin musical cues from composer Hans Zimmer, who contributes a beautiful but oddly mathematical score to deepen the impact of the emotional heart-to-hearts. Overall, as a study of ego and rivalry, Rush is a crackling triumph one could enjoy again and again. It finds Howard delivering on all the pedal-to-the-metal action that you’d expect from a film called Rush, and you simply won’t be able to pry your eyes off all that handsome cinematography. As an A-list crowd pleaser, this one should rocket right to the top of your must-see list.

Grade: B+

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

by Steve Habrat

When discussing film trilogies, most of the classics feature a third entry that suffers from fatigue in some way, shape, or form. Whether it is from a strained story, waning creativity, or implausible action, by the time the third installment has been reached, it might be time to for the filmmakers and the studio to call it a day. We’ve seen it happen countless times, in classics like the Godfather trilogy, the original Star Wars trilogy, and the Indiana Jones trilogy, all of which include a third entry that is passable entertainment, but lacking when compared to the first two films. Another trilogy that could be added to that list is the Mad Max trilogy, which reached its peak in 1981 with Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. In my humble opinion, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior surpasses the original Mad Max and has firmly secured a place among the greatest action movies ever made. In 1985, directors George Miller and George Ogilvie decided to bring their post-apocalyptic series to a close with Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, which finds the directing duo ditching the brutality that the first two Mad Max films dolled out and getting in touch with their softer side. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is deceiving, especially within the first half hour, but when the film reaches the second kid-friendly act, things start to come apart and fast. Plus, who invited Tina Turner to this party?

Set several years after the events of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome picks up with Max Rockatansky (played by Mel Gibson) wandering through the desert wasteland with his vehicle and a camel. Suddenly, Max is attacked by a plane piloted by Jedediah (played by Bruce Spence), who steals all of Max’s belongings with the help of his young son. Left with nothing, Max finally stumbles upon Bartertown, a colony riddled with the scum of the earth. Left with no other alternative, Max offers up his services to the Collector (played by Frank Thring), who believes the Aunty Entity (played by Tina Turner), the head of Bartertown, may have some use for Max’s skills with a weapon. Max meets with Aunty Entity, who puts Max through an audition to see how good of a fighter he really is. Max passes, and Aunty Entity hires him to infiltrate Bartertown’s Underworld and confront Master Blaster, the duo who oversees the pig feces refinery that powers Bartertown. Max’s job is to start a fight with Blaster (played by Paul Larsson), a mindless, hulking brute that protects the pint-sized Master (played by Angelo Rossitto), and kill him in a gladiatorial competition held in the Thunderdome. Upon learning that Blaster is mentally challenged, Max refuses to kill him in the battle, which leads Aunty Entity to banish him from Bartertown. Not long after he is sent out into the desert, Max is rescued by a group of children who believe he is their savior.

With such a cluttered story, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome almost feels like two movies. The first half, which takes place in Bartertown, seems to fit perfectly with the first two Mad Max movies. It has colorful characters and a steam punk attitude that wins you over almost instantly. The detail of Bartertown is amazingly grungy, overcrowded, and dangerous, the type of place you’d expect to see in a world as cutthroat as this. Miller and Ogilvie guide this promising set up to the Thunderdome, where they stage an impressive fight scene that finds Max and Blaster hoping around on cables and swinging clubs and chain saws at each other while the dusty spectators chant, “Two men enter! One man leaves!” Once the fight is over and Max is sent on his way out into his sandy tomb, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome hits a wall. With the introduction of the tribe of children, the film seems to come to a screeching halt as they babble on endlessly about “Captain Walker,” an airplane pilot who promised them that he would lead them to a new civilization. It is here that Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome goes soft on us, only to slightly redeem itself in the final frames by recreating the chase sequence at the end of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior.

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Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome does feature an interesting progression within its title character, and Gibson does a fantastic job despite the fact that he is asked to melt some of the ice that formed around his heart. Gone is the cynical man looking out for his best interests and in its place is a guy who seems to have bowed to the world in which he is living. He shrugs his shoulder when Jedediah and his son make off with his belongings and he warms to the tribe of children almost instantly. When in Bartertown, Max is hardened enough to fit right in and his former bad-ass self pokes through when he aims his sawed-off double-barrel shot gun at someone or he lunges at Blaster with a chain saw. Then there is Tina Turner, who does a fine enough job with her villainous role, but is way too distracting with her jazzed up soundtrack conflicting with the action. Bruce Spence is great in his returning role as Jedediah, the Gyro-Pilot from Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. He basically only pops in here and there, but he gets a chance to be a real hero near the end of the film. Angelo Rossitto is scummy as Master, the brain behind the flourishing Bartertown, and Paul Larsson is flexing intimidation as the masked muscle Blaster.

Wearing its PG-13 rating proudly, a good majority of the graphic violence that the previous two installments displayed has vanished. Despite the lack of blood and gore, there are still a bunch of stunts that will hold the attention of action junkies. The final chase features plenty of fireballs, crashed dune buggies, and death-defying   stunts aboard a speeding locomotive. The action is undeniably handsome in all its debris-flying glory, but the sequence seems recycled from the second film. The scene in Thunderdome is also pretty epic, as Max and Blaster battle for their lives while hundreds of extras look on through the area’s bars. Just don’t be fooled by the presence of that chain saw. Overall, Miller and Ogilvie’s attempt to extend the scope of this rough and raw series is certainly commendable, and the set direction and costume design, especially in the opening sections, is first-rate. However, the introduction of the children and the sudden shift from merciless action thriller is distractingly spineless and tedious. It’s this kiddie-savior angle that causes Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome to clash with the rest of the series and rank as the worst installment in the Mad Max trilogy.

Grade: C+

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

TRAILER THURSDAY!

Hot chicks, supped-up cars, ultra-violence, and Sylvester Stallone coming your way courtesy of Roger Corman. It must be Trailer Thursday! Here is a trailer for the super awesome 1975 dystopian car-chase thriller Death Race 2000, directed by Paul Bartel.

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Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)

The Road Warrior #1

by Steve Habrat

In 1979, a small little Austrian action thriller called Mad Max was given a limited release in the United States. The film made a measly $8 million in the U.S., but worldwide, the film took in over $100 million, which caught the eye of Warner Bros. The studio convinced director George Miller to come up with a sequel to his uneven and ultra-violent revenge tale and the rest is history. In 1981, American audiences were re-introduced to Mel Gibson’s Max Rockatansky in Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, a leather-clad follow-up that easily roars past the original film and leaves it choking on its dust. Released under the title The Road Warrior due to lack of audience familiarity with the first Mad Max film, Miller’s follow-up is just as high-octane and colorful as his first film, but The Road Warrior possesses a consistency that the first film didn’t quite enjoy. There is no abrupt revenge climax and the best action sequence doesn’t come blasting at the viewer in the first fifteen minutes. The Road Warrior saves the blistering best for last, a heart-in-the-throat chase executed with real death defying stunts and gnarled steel. And then there is Gibson, turning his vengeful Max into a silent legend who is only looking out for himself.

The Road Warrior begins with a flashback that explains that oil supplies have nearly run dry, and an apocalyptic war has wiped out all remaining law and order. The roaming gangs and surviving humans are locked in a constant battle over the remaining tanks of oil. Among the survivors is Max (played by Mel Gibson), a scowling loner who is still licking the wounds of his family’s brutal demise at the hands of ruthless motorcycle gang leader Toecutter. After narrowly surviving an attack by another motorcycle gang, Max stumbles upon a wandering Gyro-Captain (played by Bruce Spence), who attempts to ambush Max while he tries to steal fuel from his autogyro. Max disarms the Gyro-Captain, who quickly tells Max about a local oil refinery that has been taken over by a band of survivors. Max forces the Gyro-Captain to take him to the oil refinery, where he discovers that the same gang that attempted to attack him on the highway are also attacking the refinery. After the attack, Max finds a wounded refinery survivor, who tells Max that if he gets him back to safety, he can have all the fuel he wants. Max takes the man back to the refinery gates, but the leader of the group, Pappagallo (played by Michael Preston), refuses to make good on the deal. The refinery survivors take Max prisoner, but the gang that has been terrorizing them soon returns to their gates looking to strike a deal. The gang’s leader, The Humungus (played by Kjell Nilsson), explains that if the survivors will hand over their oil, then they can have safe passage from the gang’s territory. The survivors are about to agree when Max steps in and explains that there could be a way for the survivors to protect their precious fuel and escape the gang’s clutches.

After a slightly disturbing, stock-footage heavy stage setter, The Road Warrior jumps right into another high-speed pursuit across the barren wasteland. Miller smashes up more cars and sends more leathery punks careening right at Max’s armored Interceptor, which roars triumphantly along the highway in intimidating black. Motorcycles and supped up rides smash through highway wreckage and bodies go tumbling like dummies through the air. Barely a word is spoken as the carnage blasts the picture to smithereens. Unlike the first Mad Max, this car chase isn’t the highlight of the entire film. Further down the line, we are treated to wide shots of the gang relentlessly attacking the oil refinery, jumping their motorcycles at the walls like the crazed maniacs that they are. With the lack of computer effects (it was 1981, folks), these attacks are so white-knuckle because they are being executed with real flesh and real machine. There is not a phony stunt to be found within the action. Miller is just teasing us, as he works up to a car chase finale that involves a rusted tanker, a slew of armored dune buggies, the autogyro, and more high-speed destruction than you can handle. And believe me when I say it looks and sounds absolutely fantastic, better than anything we see in the CGI-heavy blockbusters of today.

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Standing out amongst the twisted metal are the flesh and blood characters, especially Gibson’s animalistic Max. Stripped of his family man warmth, Max has let himself be overcome with his vengeance. He no longer fights for others and even if he wanted to, the Main Force Police is long gone. He looks out for only himself, scavenging to make it from day to day while chowing down on some dog food that he shares with his four-legged pooch. Near the end, when Max sits behind the wheel of the tanker, we catch a glimpse of the man he once was, a man fighting for those who are unable to stand up for themselves. Preston’s Pappagallo is the figure the guides Max back onto the helping track. He pleas for Max to help them make their escape from the bloodthirsty gang that won’t let them go. Spence’s Gyro-Captain is more of a cartoonish sidekick to Max, but he turns out to be pretty useful with a Molotov cocktail. Nilsson’s homoerotic villain The Humungus conceals a mutated mug behind a futuristic hockey mask and enjoys keeping any gang member that displeases him on a leash as his personal pet for a day. Vernon Wells turns up as The Humungus’ crazed lieutenant, Wez, who leads the early highway attack on Max. Emil Minty is present in a small but significant role as the Feral Kid, a grunting little runt with a seriously deadly boomerang.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of The Road Warrior is how surprisingly violent the film actually is. While there were a few gruesome deaths and images in Mad Max, a good majority of the violence was kept off screen. The Road Warrior is a completely different story. People are thrown off motorcycles, strapped to the front of dune buggies and then tortured, rundown, or taking a boomerang right to the side of their head. This is a shocker considering that the original Mad Max was a foreign import made outside the studio system. In addition to the amped-up violence, there is a strong sexual and homoerotic feel to some of the characters, especially in The Humungus and Wez, but this touch is oddly fitting for the film. It also gives way to one of the film’s greatest sight gags, which involves two of The Humongous’ gang members having sex in a tent, only to find themselves out in the open after a car goes roaring past. Overall, with timeless effects, distinct characters, and skull-crushing action, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior has stood the test of time and become a highly influential action classic. It is a massive step up for the Mad Max series and it ranks near the top of the greatest action films ever made.

Grade: A

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

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