Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Project 365: Movies 95 - 98

95 / 365: Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)
© Warner Bros.

If you watched Road Warrior, and thought "This is great, but, you know, I wish there was less 'road' and less swears"... then this is the movie for you!

Immediately after watching Mad Max 2, drunk on the intoxicating musk of Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), we plowed right into Beyond Thunderdome, the last Mad Max film for us to tackle before the release of Fury Road in two weeks. George Miller continues—and admittedly, jacks up—the style of his previous movie by not only introducing new people into this bizarre, post-apocalyptic world; this time, he introduces an entire city, Bartertown, a lawful answer to a lawless land. Yet the citizens' depravity is surpassed only by their insatiable thirst for violence, represented wholly by the introduction of the Thunderdome — two men enter, one man leaves.

Max strolls a bit unknowingly into Bartertown at the start of the film, which takes place 15 years after the events of Road Warrior, where he is forced to relinquish his weapon stockpile at the door just to dig around in the muck to find the man who stole his wagon and camel. All well and good, but his penchant for throwing punches catches the eye of Aunty Entity (Tina Turner, fabulous!), the founder and ruler of Bartertown. The city is powered by the methane gas from pigs living underground, the power center controlled by the greatest mind, Master (Angelo Rossitto), and his muscle/protection, Blaster (Paul Larsson). Master-Blaster (as they're called) have started to challenge Entity's power, so she enlists Max to go beneath the city to instigate a fight that will lead he and Blaster into the Thunderdome.

Everything doesn't go according to plan, however, and Max is eventually banished from Bartertown, seeing Aunty Entity for the power-monger she really is. Everything leading up until this point had the heady mix of post-apocalyptic science fiction and Return of the Jedi-like fantasy. The underworld controlled by Master-Blaster is disgusting and intriguing, and so many opportunities are introduced when the Thunderdome comes into play. Is Max going to become a post-modern gladiator? Will Bartertown have parallels to ancient Rome? In short: NO. None of that happens. Which brings me to this...

Am I the only one that noticed this movie takes a huge shift once Max is sent away from Bartertown? So much so that I suddenly thought someone had turned off the movie, and started playing Hook. In fact, the more I watched, as Max gets rescued from the desert by a handful of Lost Boy wannabes and gets told a nursery rhyme/myth in Pidgin English... I became pretty damn convinced Hook completely ripped Beyond Thunderdome off. Some of the similarities are literally uncanny. Unfortunately for me, the movie never really recovers from this, simply because it just doesn't fit. The potential we see at the beginning never materializes as it becomes a movie for kids, with more slapstick than violence and the depletion of all the stakes. Thunderdome might bring the fun, on occasion, and it's responsible for maybe the greatest father-baby Halloween costume ever imagined, but it departs too much thematically from the previous Mad Max films to really make an impact. Now, bring on Fury Road!

Rating: ★★ / 5 stars
Watched: VUDU
Seen Before: No

96 / 365: The Spectacular Now (2013)
© A24

There's something magical that happens when a filmmaker creates an emotional drama using classic "teen movie" tropes in refreshing new ways. James Ponsoldt directed a story, based on the book by Tim Tharp, that examines the subtleties of teen romance, from the exploration of the physical to the concessions we make with our values to keep the person we think we love loving us back. A romance that doesn't start with fireworks, but with a crush, a compliment, and a hopeful promise—one that isn't laden with tragedy or sickness. The Spectacular Now feels like real life.

When Sutter (Miles Teller), a high school senior known to be the life of the party, gets dumped by his equally hard-partying girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larsen), he drowns his sorrows in booze and denial. That is until he meets Aimee (Shailene Woodley), a sweet but quiet sci-fi reading 'nice girl', when she finds him passed out on her front lawn. Drawn to her lack of confidence, Sutter takes it upon himself to show her sympathy and lift her up a bit, directing adoration towards her that he isn't able to give to Cassidy. Little does Sutter know that this act of charity is leading Aimee to fall for him hard, and might actually cause him to question his "live in the now" philosophy as they both explore the prospect of life after high school.

Shailene Woodley wears her teenage-hood so well, it might be the most relatable portrayal of a high school senior I've ever seen on screen. Hyperbole aside, every awkward giggle endeared her to me, and reminded me so much of myself. She is average but wonderful, like most of us were when we were young, and her naivete in young love is resoundingly heartbreaking. The casting of Miles Teller in the role of Sutter immediately grounds this movie in reality. He's not classically handsome, not the beefy quarterback falling for the nerdy girl with glasses. He's rough and flawed, wrestling with his own vices and pain while hiding behind his smile and charm. These two are a lovely reflection of the high school relationships you actually saw happening around you—or were in yourself.

I can't get out of my head the moments where Aimee apologizes in tears to Sutter when he is the one being selfish. How destroyed she is at the prospect of potentially losing this already fickle and insecure love. Woodley plays these scenes so beautifully, her shyness not an act, but a vulnerability, one that we watch Sutter take advantage of, unknowingly. He doesn't want to cause her pain, but he's reckless with her heart, and she allows him to be, because he's the only boy who's ever paid her any attention. All of that sounds overly dramatic, what wasn't high school? Wasn't it all just cripplingly emotional, the prospect of love and sex enough to make everything feel like life and death?

Woodley and Teller give this movie its life-breath. They are fascinating together, but just as compelling apart, despite some heavy handed moments. The film and their lives are messy, occasionally uneventful, but it never loses its hold on you. I adored this movie, one of my favorite teen dramas since Say Anything.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars
Watched: VUDU
Seen Before: No

97 / 365: Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
© Fox Searchlight

The buzz surrounding the release of this film seemed to have a life of its own, sweeping past the qualities of the film and focusing steadily on the surprising performance of star, Elizabeth Olsen. In her feature film debut, Olsen plays a young woman named Martha, who escapes from a rural commune in the early morning hours, seemingly crippled by fear and anxiety. In what appears to be a last resort, she makes a call to her estranged sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who doesn't hesitate to pick her up and take her in.

At first, Lucy and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), do their best to appease Martha's paranoia and settle her restless mind with boat rides, swimming, and yuppie kale smoothies while on vacation at their expansive lake house. But Martha's deep-seated fears begin to wrestle with her hatred, anger, and insecurities, as memories of her time entrenched in the secret cult headed by the charismatic Patrick (John Hawkes) threaten to destroy her chance at freedom.

The film edges on being too subtle in its storytelling, interlacing Martha's introduction and indoctrination into the cult with her inability to adapt to life in the weeks following her escape. Writer/director, Sean Durkin (also in his feature directorial debut), makes every effort to make these switches as abrupt as possible, to the point where you're not sure what's reality and what's a demented memory. The prospect of the situations Martha had to endure aren't always starkly portrayed, but when they are, it crosses quickly over the line into disturbing. These reveals build upon Martha a stigma that her sister and brother-in-law never really see, because Martha never actually tells them. This, surprisingly, leads to an infuriating movie-watching experience.

Our sympathies for Martha are ebbed when she remains quiet about her experiences, and yet our hatred for her family begins to flow when they show her a similar lack of sympathy. It's a strange emotional cycle that might have paid off if it didn't diminish the characters on screen, particularly Lucy and Ted. Their inability to make any attempts at understanding Martha or her hidden past makes them seem petty and small, as they throw their hands up in the air exclaiming they don't know what to do anymore, never having really tried anything at all. They exist only to make Martha feel worse about herself and more ashamed of her past. While this might be purposeful, it makes the script feel lazy in its execution.

Elizabeth Olsen, however, rises above and beyond the flaws in the script and the dimensionless characters around her. She is the primary reason the film succeeds at all, riding the line between repulsion and adoration like a seasoned acting veteran. A special shout-out should be given to Hawkes, as well, even though his portrayal of Martha's cult leader is stunted by too little screen time. All of the ingredients are there to make a thrilling drama—sadly, the mixture just comes out a bit under-cooked.

Rating: ★★★ / 5 stars
Watched: VUDU
Seen Before: No

98 / 365: Neighbors (2014)
© Universal Pictures

There are really two separate stories happening here. (1) A fraternity planning for the party of the century, and (2) a young married couple navigating their first year with a child. Fine on their own, but terrible when combined into one plot. The result is a trying and sociopathic comedy that makes almost everyone irredeemable. Max (Seth Rogen) and Kelly Radner (Rose Byrne) are struggling to stay cool in light of having just brought a new baby into this world. It's hard to really tell whether they were ever cool to begin with, but I suppose we're meant to believe they were because the script says so.

This challenge to 'not be lame' is put to the test when Delta Psi Beta takes over the house next door. Frat President, Teddy (Zac Efron), and his merry men could care less about the noise they're making, and Max and Kelly stupidly take it upon themselves to bring the fraternity down. They are just young enough to blend in with the party, but old enough that they have to try really, really hard at it. And they do, miserably—and embarrassingly—which is roughly 99% of the movie's comedy shtick. The other 1% is pot or poop humor, or both.

It rubs me the wrong way, watching the 'absurdity line' get crossed, because the movie didn't need it. It could have been much more straightforward than the trailers let on, and the characters are too real the majority of the time to be so stupid and so oblivious the rest of the time. Byrne and Rogen make an unsuspectingly nice modern, married couple. Their chemistry is the chemistry of a couple whose fire has dimmed, but their history, rapport, and the life they're building together illicit plenty of matured passion and excitement. It's that maturity that makes their attempts at immaturity in the face of their Frat enemies unbearable to watch, and impossible to believe.

While this movie had more to offer than I expected in terms of character relationships, it's marred by its gross attempts at humor. Lowest common denominator, just ahead of Million Ways to Die in the West. The fraternity brothers were marginally more developed than they probably even needed to be to accomplish the film's goals, but it's wasted, and doesn't make up for the fact that the blatant disregard for anyone's physical safety is completely ridiculous. I mean, what if Kelly sat down with her baby on one of those airbags?!?!  More often than not, I was too distracted and appalled to laugh. I love Zac Efron, but even his abs can't make me want to watch this again.

Rating: ★½ / 5 stars
Watched: VUDU
Seen Before: No

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