Girl Power Struggles: ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ & ‘Pitch Perfect 2’

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Mad Max: Fury Road

Who is the main character in Mad Max: Fury Road? The question could be part of a fifth grade fill-in-the-blank comprehension test, but the teacher would probably find some real ambiguity after grading a class’ answers. For the movie’s first 15 minutes it’s obvious the correct response is the titular hero — just watch the way he stamps a two-headed lizard and chomps it off without hesitation. His voiceover describes the wasteland he purveys (oil wars have tapped the Australian land dry) before he’s kidnapped, tortured and branded as property of a ruthless despot named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Max, who grunts sporadically and is played by Tom Hardy, is haunted by memories of his wife and daughter, family he could have saved.

All of this, including the Van Winkle beard he’s grown through years of desert thirst, suggests some sort of paternal redemption saga. Instead it’s Imperator Furiosa, a head-shaved, one-armed Charlize Theron wrapped in grease and loaded with a penetrating stare, that’s doing the redeeming. She’s taken an oilrig and veered it off course during a supply run, liberating Joe’s five wives from their rock canopy harem. The rest of the movie is an intermittent dusty, violent chase, watching those imprisoned – Max is strapped to the front of a war machine — and the white powdered mutants rev their motorcade in pursuit of Furiosa. One abrupt turn of the wheel and she’s stolen the movie.

Staging action recently has become a gluttonous exercise. The bigger the budget, the bigger the scale, or something close to that, meaning that CGI isn’t used like a Micron pen anymore, it’s turned into a paint roller. That was one of the problems with The Avengers: Age Of Ultron, which decided to cram disorienting disaster into scenes with little explanation or worry of their implications. As worlds expand, and as their near-annihilation predictably follows, those left on the ground screaming and running feel superfluous. You’re not invested in the destruction because you were never invested in the place being destroyed. What’s another city getting toppled when its toppling ultimately doesn’t matter?

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Fury Road doesn’t fall into that trap mainly because there is nothing to crash down. The barren wasteland lets you focus on what’s moving, not what’s being moved into. That includes rusted, yet armored and reconfigured vehicles, some of which appear as gas-guzzling sea urchins, others with giant, bending poles that lean down to toss explosives, and one with a house of amps behind an electric guitarist – the “Doof Warrior” — that shoots fire from his fender. He’s the apocalyptic bugler.

Maybe car chases have an inherent heightened heartbeat, but the director, George Miller, responsible for the three previous Mad Max films, is deftly aware of how to stage climactic action. He keeps things simple, which is to say you get to witness cause and effect. It’s exhilarating. The energy and mania, with a soundtrack that offers a throbbing crescendo and pace, mostly from the several timpanists aboard speeding pickups, offers a visceral pleasure. You can tell Miller isn’t relying on a computer to capture this motorized rush. You look through the rearview mirror and see the heat rising from the earth and the war parties approaching through the mirage. It makes the sweat dripping down Theron’s forehead seems believable, if not completely warranted.

Like the chain and blood transfusion tube that keeps Max imprisoned to his raging War Boy (Nicholas Hoult), Fury Road is tethered to this kind of frantic pace. That’s not to say it doesn’t catch its breath. Out of a dust storm, around the time Max agrees to play vigilante and help Furiosa’s underdeveloped crusade against the patriarchy, Max spots the five wives, one severely pregnant (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), wrapped in white clothing as though they’re Greek sirens. The analogy isn’t obscure, mostly because this pressure cooker of a movie turns into an odyssey (Again, you can argue who Odysseus really is between the two). They’re on their way to find fertile land, where dictators don’t tease the starving poor by hording clean water and share it in condescending spurts. For both practical and vengeful reasons, Max obliges to aid the quivering brides.

There’s little time to be afraid though. The manslaughter, through flames, grenades and shotguns, can be exceedingly brutal. Miller injects some humor, as though this were a silent film, through sped up shots and extreme zooms. There’s even a scene that watches Hardy wash himself with breast milk stored inside the truck. But don’t let the frenzy fool you. By the time you reach the movie’s culmination, which includes a group of sixty-year-olds on motorcycles, you’re watching an army of women fend off their boiled, grotesque male pursuers while subverting the genre’s ecosystem. The miracle is that it never feels forced. When Theron uses Hardy’s shoulder to mount her sniper and splinter an oncoming war party, you’re not sure which revolution is worth cheering about more: The one in the plot or the one for first billing.

4.5/5

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Pitch Perfect 2

Sequels, more often than not, are burdened by their own self-awareness. Whatever successful formula an original movie finds is rarely repeatable and not easily identifiable. Studios usually disagree with both beliefs, especially the latter. That tends to skew a follow-up (think The Hangover 2). Pitch Perfect 2 is the latest unfortunate example, a movie that naively replicates its predecessor’s beats and disproportionately embellishes its stars. That’s the problem, and the challenge, turning an underdog into a heavy favorite. You lose its kindred spirit.

Most of that was harnessed in the first movie by Anna Kendrick, the acapella outcast turned mashup savior who brought her dorky charm to the Barton Bellas and made us believe that there was still wonder to be had in an underground, non-instrumental sing off between ethnically diverse groups of college students. “No Diggity” found a new fan base and Kendrick heard her version of “Cups” surf around the Top 40. Needing an excuse to stage another, and narratively unnecessary, song battle, writer Kay Cannon pushes her luck. David Cross, as the world’s biggest acapella fan, invites the Bellas to his home for another battle – this time an imposing German team and the Green Bay Packers are there – and rattles off a few song categories for the groups to sing. The scene works but it feels uninspired.

In the first movie, Kendrick, playing the sour-to-sweet Beca, propelled the Bellas to winning Nationals, but it also made a star out of Rebel Wilson, who stuffed Fat Amy with the proper dose of insults and self-deprecation. As if to show where its priorities are, Pitch Perfect 2 begins with Wilson committing an unflattering wardrobe malfunction during a performance in front of President Obama and his family. The song being played at the time is “Wrecking Ball,” and for the rest of the movie, first time director Elizabeth Banks seems to use that as her guiding ethos.

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This is understandable considering the returning character she plays is a foul-mouthed acapella podcaster and commentator, paling in obscenities to her partner (John Michael Higgins). They announce to the Bellas that the embarrassment has disqualified them from performing at school, though a loophole still allows them to compete at Worlds, which just happens to be that year in Copenhagen (Brittany Snow as a third time returning senior is still heartbroken). That doesn’t deter a newcomer, Emily, played by Hailee Steinfeld, whose mother was a Bella legacy and can’t wait to be the next Beca! She’s already budgeted a scary amount of hazing and her eagerness to start, in light of the group’s recent tribulations, tips the “acting” scale slightly off balance.

But off balance is how much of this movie operates. The momentum towards preparing for Copenhagen is disrupted by the momentum of impending graduation. In her free time Beca, worried about her future, scurries off to an internship at a music studio, where a scene-stealing Keegan Michael Key hands out insults with glee. Meanwhile Fat Amy is contemplating advancing into a relationship with Bumper (Adam DeVine) that includes a Pat Benatar song. And poor Emily just wants an initiation and a chance to share her songwriting abilities. It doesn’t help that the reigning world champion German team, “Das Sound Machine,” keeps winning every verbal altercation they initiate with the Bellas (Kendrick can only compliment their lead singer).

The non-white Bellas only find the spotlight when they become the brunt of poorly tasted jokes that mask as self-aware but do little to suggest it. An ongoing gag, for example, includes an Hispanic girl playing superlatives with her immigrant experience, over and over and… It stops being funny and quickly turns into an eye roll. At one point, when the movie goes for a moment of sincerity by staging the girls around a campfire, someone asks, “What about you, Fat Amy?” regarding her post-grad life. For the first time I cringed at that nickname.

You eventually see the theme that ties this all together, and for the most part this movie isn’t as disconnected as it could have been, and maybe should have been. Originality is apparently a sensitive issue in the acapella world. There’s room for Ke$ha and Muse here, but new songs, as in non-covers, are frowned upon. Beca strives for her own voice in her mixing and producing. Emily has already got it in her lyrics. You see where this is going, towards another rousing finish. But it’s lost some of its original surprise. Kendrick seems checked out by the end. It makes sense. Her Senioritis has overlapped with the movie’s Sequelitis.

2.5/5

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