Movie Review: Mad Max: Fury Road

After sweeping the tech Oscar awards, it should come as no surprise that MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is a technical marvel. It almost makes you glad it was in development hell for almost 20 years, as some of the stunts and CGI could not have been done (or at least not done as well) had it been made back then. But beyond these technical aspects, is the movie good?

Max is a loner in a post apocalyptic world covered by desert. Getting around without vehicles is practically impossible. There are still spots where people can manage to live, and warlord Immortan Joe rules over one particular area, secluded in mountains with drills to access water deep below, with an iron hand. Max is captured by his forces to be used as “blood bag” to help heal Immortan Joe’s soldiers. When Imperator Furiosa, one of the ruler’s top commanders, deserts with five of his wives in tow to find a better life, a chase begins and Max is brought along. A giant sandstorm separates Max and the soldier he is hooked up to from the rest of Immortan Joe’s forces, and he joins Imperator Furiosa in her quest for the “green land” she remembers from her childhood.

The film does an excellent job at world building. There are no awkward info dumps, the viewer is just thrust into the world and slowly gets a sense of the planet in these characters’ time. Unfortunately, the plot is a little lacking. Other than a predictable twist, there is not much more to it than the synopsis above. For what it is, the story does work, but in such a rich world it seems a waste to not do more for the plot.

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD knows what it is (that is, a thrill-fest) and does that incredibly well. Cinephiles might come a while disappointed, as this is a far cry from Tarkovsky or PTA, and there is not much beyond the surface. As for others, the simple plot does not hold up upon second viewings as well as one would hope, but again, director George Miller knew what he wanted to do with this movie and he checked every box on his chart, and first watches are bound to blow away many viewers.

Looking back over the technical side, it’s hard to imagine a better film from the past year. If it had not competed with THE REVENANT for best cinematography, it would have been a strong contender for that category.

All in all, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is worth at least a watch from even the snobbiest of moviegoers and will be regarded as a masterpiece of science fiction. And while I would hesitate to rank it with, say, Wong Kar Wai or Kubrick, it is definitely on the next tier. The technical aspects alone ensure that it will be remembered and perhaps even studied for some time to come. Even if it is not your usual type of film, give it a try.


The 2016 Oscars

After watching the Oscars last night, all I can say is thank God I did not try to predict some of the lesser known awards as I would have been very wrong. For the ones I did predict, I went 9/12, with AMY beating THE LOOK OF SILENCE, Mark Rylance winning Best Supporting Actor over Stallone (I know there would be an acting upset, I just wasn’t sure if it would be for this category), and SPOTLIGHT winning Best Picture over THE REVENANT. Overall, not good enough I would consider actually betting on future predictions, but not too bad either.

Some historic stuff went down last night: the last time a Best Picture winner won only one other award was all the way back in 1952, with THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH winning Best Picture and “Best Story,” mirroring SPOTLIGHT’s Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay wins.

Winning Best Director two years in a row has only happened twice before, the last times in 1949/1950 with Joseph L. Mankiewicz (the other was John Ford, who won in 1939 and 1940), but Alejandro G. Inarritu managed to pull it off. Unfortunately, with no films scheduled for this coming year, it does not seem like he’ll continue his streak at the next ceremony.

And, of course, last night was the first time Leonardo DiCaprio has won an Oscar, after four other acting nominations and one for Best Picture as a producer on Wolf of Wall Street.

Here are my reviews of the Oscar winning films SPOTLIGHT and THE REVENANT and a review of the nominated THE MARTIAN.

And for anyone who can’t wait to start predicting next year’s awards, plenty of websites have you covered.

Oscar 2016 Predictions

I don’t put much stock in the Oscars. I won’t search out old winners just because they won, like I will for other prizes; if I’m watching an old best picture winner, it’s because it has stood the test of time. But I love predictions, and there is no literary or film award that receives more attention from pundits than the academy awards, so I cannot help but follow each year’s speculations. And this year is particularly interesting in this regard. In years prior, the race for the top prize was between two movies, but by the time the broadcast happened, everyone was pretty sure which of the two would come away with best picture. Not so now: there are three flicks considered front runners, and while THE REVENANT has a slight edge over THE BIG SHORT and SPOITLIGHT, competition is tight and any three of these winning would not come as a surprise. And that’s not taking into account other categories.

So, without further ado, here are my predictions for the 2016 Oscars:

Best Picture: The Revenant

One movie usually sweeps the guild awards. This year, the three major prizes all went to different movies. Due to wins at the BAFTAs, the Golden Globes, and a number of nominations, The Revenant is considered the frontrunner, but the other two could easily win, especially considering THE BIG SHORT won the Producers Guild Award, which has picked the best picture winner 9 times in the past 11 years. Still, THE REVENANT was one of my favorites from the past year, so I’ll stick with it.


Best Director: Alejandro G. Inarritu

The last time a director won this prize twice in back to back years was in the 1940s, but Inarritu, who won last year for BIRDMAN, seems poised to do just that. His closest competition, George Miller for MAD MAX, could pull off an upset, but the chances of that are extremely low.


Best Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio

With Leo wracking up all the prizes leading up to the Oscars, it seems like this is his year. Most websites are not even considering the possibility of an upset by Michael Fassbender. All signs point to Leo finally not going home empty handed.


Best Actress: Brie Larson

The young actress has wowed many viewers, to the point where the Oscar going to anyone else would be like Fassbender winning over Leo.


Best Supporting Actor: Sylvester Stallone

If there’s an acting category this year ripe for an upset, this is it. Sylvester Stallone is predicted to get gold, but Mark Rylance in BRIDGE OF SPIES could also win. And if any of the others walk away with the prize (Mark Ruffalo, SPOTLIGHT; Christian Bale, THE BIG SHORT; Tom Hardy, THE REVENANT), it is likely their movie will win best picture. A part of me wants to root for Tom Hardy, but another part sees how unlikely that is, so Stallone it is.


Best Supporting Actress: Alicia Vikander

Starring in two big movies this year (THE DANISH GIRL and EX MACHINA) is sure to help Vikander, even if she’s only nominated for one of them. I think an upset will occur in one of the acting categories and I feel like it might be this one, but I don’t know who would beat Vikander to the prize. Most places have Kate Winslet in second place (and Leo and Kate on stage together is an appealing idea) but I don’t think it will be her. Therefore, although I’m not convinced Vikander will win, I have no idea who could be at the podium instead of her, and so I’ll keep her on.


Best Original Screenplay: Spotlight

The writing in SPOTLIGHT is phenomenal. Although the rest of the film didn’t blow me away, the script is definitely deserving of Oscar recognition,


Best Adapted Screenplay: The Big Short

Smart and funny, it seems like this adaption of Michael Lewis’s book will win the Oscar.


Best Cinematography: The Revenant

Sorry, Roger Deakins, but you’ll have to wait another year for your Oscar. The REVENANT’s cinematography was amazing, to the point where even haters of the movie concede it will win this Oscar, making history as El Chivo wins his third consecutive Academy award.


Best Foreign Language Film: Son of Saul

The first Hungarian film to be nominated since 1988, it looks poised to win. It also took home the Grand Prix at the Cannes Festival. When was the last time those two awards matched up?


Best Documentary: The Look of Silence

AMY is by far the frontrunner for this category, but THE LOOK OF SILENCE, Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow up to the acclaimed THE ACT OF KILLING, is too good for me to pass up. Also, the Academy snubbed his previous film, probably one of the most important documentaries of recent times, and it wouldn’t surprise me if academy members wanted to rectify that.


Best Animated Feature: Inside Out

As much as I like Anomalisa, it’s foolish to bet against Pixar.


As for the other categories, I either haven’t seen enough of the nominated films to make educated guesses or I am out of my league (what qualifies as Oscar worthy costumes?). Tune in tomorrow for results!

Movie Review: Boogie Nights

This movie has it all: sex, drugs, glamor, murder, Mark Wahlberg, and an amazing script and cinematography. Directed and written by Paul Thomas Anderson, one of the most acclaimed contemporary auteurs, this, his second feature film, marked him as a “big bright shining star,” to quote Wahlberg’s character.

Though the focus is on a young porn star named Dirk Diggler, played by Wahlberg, there is a large supporting cast, each with their own compelling side plots. The film follows them through the exciting 70’s until the mid 80’s, when changes in the porn industry and various excesses start catching up to them. It can get dark, particularly in the second half, but comic undertones scattered throughout prevent the story from getting too heavy, and here lies one of the movies greatest strengths: the movie flips from laugh out loud to nail bitingly tense (like the famous drug dealing scene) and makes sure none of these switches are out of place.

Despite PTA being only 27 when this was released, he clearly knew what he was doing. From the 2 minute long opening shot to the well-constructed script, already at a relatively young age PTA knew what he wanted and how to get it across on screen. The idea had been gestating in his mind for a while; it is actually an expansion of a short mockumentary film he made with friends when he was 17, called THE DIRK DIGGLER STORY. Though BOOGIE NIGHTS sheds the documentary feel and introduces a lot of new characters, the main plots in both are comparable.

If there is a flaw here, it is that some details get cut out due to the long length. At just over two and a half hours, there is not much room to stay and linger on certain side characters, and yet that is what’s needed—PTA even admitted that if there was one thing he could change, he would grant Diggler’s abusive mother more screen time. Other characters would have benefitted just a little more time in the spotlight, such as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character, who has a falling out with Diggler on screen and an apparent reconciliation off screen.

For those not turned off by the pornographic premise, this is not one to be missed, and for anyone interested in film, I’d say watch it even if the subject matter disinterests you. It is a great offering by one of the best currently working directors, with some fans (me…) even ranking it above his more famous THERE WILL BE BLOOD. It is a great addition not just to PTA’s oeuvre but also to world cinema.

Movie Review: The Martian

While evacuating a Mars research post due to a storm, astronaut Mark Watney is by debris, getting knocked unconscious and having his lifeline severed. The crew, believing him dead or close to it, reluctantly leaves him behind as they blast off Mars and prepare to return to Earth. But—Watney is still alive. He awakens after the storm has subsided and makes his way back to the outpost, refusing to give up and determined to live off of the limited available resources.

Numerous complications arise, and Watney must solve each one if he hopes to one-day return home. This is definitely one of the movies greatest strengths, as each solution is rooted in real science. The only thing that is not possible is the storm that got him into the mess: such powerful gales do not occur on Mars.

Based on a book which grew out of engineer Andy Weir’s pet project to see if a human could possibly survive on Mars, the movie captures the energy and passion of the novel. The basic premise of the movie is reminiscent of THE REVENANT, but tonally they could not be more different. While Leo’s latest romp is deadly serious, many jokes pepper scenes and prevent THE MARTIAN from ever getting too heavy. On the other hand, this also prevents the movie from ever becoming incredibly gripping, as this light-heartedness makes the ending obvious from the beginning.

But, despite its 141 minute run time, THE MARTIAN never drags, thanks to the screenplay and an amazing performance by Matt Damon as Mark Watney. His acting has made me looks at potatoes in a whole new light.

Overall, THE MARTIAN is difficult to hate. But it is also difficult to truly love. At heart, it is a fun movie, but truly breathtaking scenes and far and few and its seven Oscar nominations—including for best picture and best actor for Damon—is a bit much. I would recommend the movie to anyone with even the tiniest bit of interest in it but would also be surprised if it still receives numerous mentions outside of its scientific accuracy a few years down the line.

Movie Review: Spotlight

SPOTLIGHT tells the story of the team of reporters at the Boston Globe who broke the Catholic priest sex scandal. Viewers expecting more about the scandal itself might come away disappointed: it is focused solely on the reporters. This is both a strength and a weakness.

It allows the audience to learn with the characters about the scandal, each development not only shocking watchers but also those on screen. It keeps the film engaging even when it is not moving forward. SPOTLIGHT will not keep you on the edge of your seat, but it is tough to pull yourself away from the scenes.

It also means some things are not as explored as in depth as they should have been. There will be no spoilers here, but, at the risk of being vague, there is one scene where a reporter confronts a priest that reveals new revelations that do not get much discussion. Additionally, I mentioned in my REVENANT review how the demanding film parallels Leo’s journey within it; here once again the structure mirrors the content. SPOTLIGHT is a “just the facts” journalistic account. There are few if any frills. Which is a shame, as certain characters had backstories that would have been interesting to investigate, particularly the two most lauded performances, Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton. Both have troubled personal lives but these are only hinted at. These backstories occupy an awkward middle ground where either less or more information would have been satisfying, but as it is these half-formed side stories distract rather than enhance. One wonders if a director’s cut could fix this.

The cinematography and direction are also lackluster, but then, in a film such as this, they do not need to be awe-inspiring. The writing and acting, though not themselves perfect, more than make up for any flaws in other departments.

Still, SPOTLIGHT is an example of a film that is elevated by its subject matter. If it had not been about such an important and jaw-dropping scandal, would the movie—still featuring similar levels of acting, writing, directing, etc—become as acclaimed as it is? It is difficult (and perhaps not even worthwhile) to try to divorce story from film, but it is certainly food for thought.

Although a lot more space in this review was dedicated to the film’s negatives, SPOTLIGHT is a great work, a movie that should not be missed. The plotting and characters will keep almost everyone watching. It is just a shame that a film with certain aspects as excellent as the writing and acting here should also feature such averageness in other departments.

In the coming weeks, as the Oscars approach, stay tuned for more movie reviews and predictions.

Movie Review: The Revenant

I was annoyed last year when Alejandro G. Inarritu’s BIRDMAN beat BOYHOOD for both best director and best picture at the Oscars, but I think I’ll be even more upset if his latest feature, THE REVENANT, wins neither of those. The film, based on a true story, stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass, a navigator mauled by a bear, and Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald, a fur trapper on the same expedition. Fitzgerald is assigned to make sure Glass dies in peace and receives a proper burial, but under the threat of violent Native Americans and the promise of money, he instead kills Glass’s son and leaves him for dead, prompting Glass to find the strength to crawl back to civilization and wreak vengeance.

The movie has its fans and critics, with most of the acclaim centering on the amazing cinematography and Leo’s performance, and the long run time, unnecessary scenes, and lack of subtlety frequently cited as detracting from the experience.

It’s tough to argue with the last point: Inarritu is not known for being understated. BIRDMAN repeatedly hammers the viewer with its themes and its thoughts on movies and art and superhero flicks. But in THE REVENANT it seems to mirror Glass’s single mindedness: kill Fitzgerald. Little else matters.

Going along with this, the movie challenges the audience the same way nature challenges Glass. Though the shots of mountains and forests, plains and rivers are beautiful, at times it feels like for every breathtaking scene there is a bit of violence to even it out. There are also dream sequences, usually populated by memories of Glass’s dead Native American wife and his son. Some have decried these scenes as self-indulgent, but, other than one featuring a pile of buffalo skulls, none are out of place or ruin the pacing; instead, they offer a view into the life and thoughts of the quiet Glass. Couple all this with long stretches that are just Leo wordlessly crawling and surviving, and the end result is a long movie where structure embodies theme.

Clearly, THE REVENANT is not for everyone. Those expecting the dark comedy and banter of BIRDMAN will be disappointed, and those expecting a romp with the dreamy Leo will spend a lot of the run time covering their eyes. But for those who can stomach the gore and the long run time, THE REVENANT should not be missed. Looking at Oscar odds, it’s likely I’ll come away disappointed this year as well, but at least it looks like the Leo meme will end this year.

In closing, I’ll offer an interesting fan theory that’s been making the rounds: the revenant of the title (definition: someone who comes back from the dead) is not Glass, but his wife, who haunts him throughout his journey back to civilization. Some point out how the nonfiction book the movie is based on is also entitled THE REVENANT and features no such wife figure, but then in real life Glass neither had a son nor got his revenge, so there is no reason why the film can’t take liberties and have the title refer to someone else. At the very least, this theory puts the ending (which I won’t spoil here) in a new light.