Girl Power For A New Generation
By Johnny Pomatto
There has been a lot of talk lately about sexism in Hollywood. This institution is way overdue for an overhaul of both their hiring practices and also for the types of female characters they portray in their movies. If they’re looking for a model of a direction they can start to go in, they need look no further than this past weekend’s multiplexes, where women dominated to both financial and critical success, with MAD MAX: FURY ROAD and PITCH PERFECT 2. While I personally had different reactions to both films, they are proof that there’s room in Hollywood for strong women to dominate a film, and that there are throngs of people willing to see the things they do best, which include but are not limited to singing acapella and kicking ass.
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is a movie I’ve been looking forward to for quite some time. There has been talk of reviving the character made famous in movies like “The Road Warrior” for at least two decades now. I could think of dozens of scenarios in which someone could betray the roots of this franchise and make a bloated, boring, noisy reboot, but the odds of success went up significantly when the godfather of the series, director George Miller, took it upon himself to develop Max’s return. Miller has surpassed even the highest of hopes and expectations and succeeded brilliantly. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is the kind of adrenaline-fueled, action thrill ride that Hollywood isn’t all that good at making any more. It has a visual style that looks unlike any other film we’ve seen in this new century, and while the effects and stunts have become more polished since Miller’s original trilogy, the spirit and attitude of those films are in tact.
People have asked me if they will be able to understand and enjoy this new film without having seen any of the original “Mad Max” movies. The mythology of these stories does not run very deep. All one need understand is the difference between the good guys and bad guys before watching them chase each other in the desert for two hours. When Michael Bay makes a movie like “Transformers” or the like, people often accurately accuse it of having a lazy, non-existent story as a mere excuse to string together a lot of explosions and action. There is far more action and far less plot in MAD MAX than in your typical Michael Bay extravaganza, but Miller intentionally makes his story as simple as possible and lets the action and chases fill in the details by shaping and driving the film. The basics of this post-apocalyptic story find our titular hero a prisoner in a camp of desert scavengers. When Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, one of the camp’s fiercest warriors, goes rogue during a mission, in an effort to liberate the leader’s sex slaves and breeders, Max is taken along for the ride, caught between the two feuding factions. I do mean “taken for a ride” in the most literal of ways, as Max spends much of the first half of the movie attached to a car as a human hood ornament, and even after escaping that, remains a prisoner at the behest of Furiosa before getting the chance to decide who, if anyone, he wants to be fighting with in this war.
Taking over for the iconic Mel Gibson, Max is now embodied by another icon in the making, Tom Hardy. Hardy is an intimidating physical presence and he grunts and growls with the best of them, however it is Theron’s Furiosa who makes the strongest impression. Her vanity-free, bald, one-armed fighter is the kind of badass hero that is rarely offered to women in the studio system. Though she ultimately enlists the help of Max, she’s no damsel in distress and provides the film with some of its most memorably violent and electrifying moments. Even the girls that Furiosa is rescuing are strong, well-defined characters who get their fare share of heroic moments. When one of them pleads to return to the safe confines of slavery, it isn’t because she is weak, but rather a depiction of the dangerous, no-win alternatives that are presented in the wasteland of this future. To see the fear that they rightly express is to know the horrors of the world that Miller has created.
There have been some who have criticized Miller for making Max a supporting character in his own movie. I wonder if those people have strong recollections of the original “Mad Max” trilogy. In the “The Road Warrior” in particular, Mel Gibson speaks even less dialogue than Hardy ever does in this new installment, and while his actions save the day, they are helped by the assistance of a colorful cast of nameless characters, such as “The Gyro Captain” and “The Toadie.” Mad Max doesn’t need to be a dominating force when he’s surrounded by such a fun and diverse ensemble who are all working together. He’s an essential member of the team, but part of a team nonetheless. Much like Clint Eastwood’s character from the “Dollars” trilogy, he reluctantly drifts into town where he is needed and never stays long enough to take credit for his heroics. The critical raves that this film has received, along with its strong overseas box office, should be enough to ensure it as the start of a new franchise. I’m somewhat wary of the optimism of signing Tom Hardy to a four picture deal as the character when even Mel Gibson couldn’t succeed at making three great “Max” movies. But the important thing is that Hardy’s Max will be back and I can’t wait to see more of his adventures and see just how far that desert stretches. If Hardy is not joined by Furiosa in the next installment, hopefully Miller will be smart enough to continue pairing him with more equal counterparts, regardless of their race and gender. Whether one decides to view this film as the story of an action hero savior or one of misfits banding together to overcome evil, I can’t imagine one not falling in love with the dangerous world Miller has created. This is good guys vs. bad guys in its purest form, and it needn’t matter if said characters are represented by actual “guys.” Theron and Hardy are so evenly matched that I half expected Furiosa to reveal that her real name was in fact Maxine. There’s room in this apocalyptic desert for two heroes.
I wish I were as enthusiastic about PITCH PERFECT 2 as I was about MAD MAX. When the first “Pitch Perfect” was released in the summer of 2012, it was marketed to a very limited and specific demographic that I was not a part of. Still, I was a big fan of Anna Kendrick’s and it looked like a fresh and breezy take on the teen genre. I went to see it on opening day in a nearly empty theater and I found it delightful and fun as hell. For the rest of the summer I would tell my friends how surprisingly great it was, and none of them believed me. Cut to about 9 months later when it made its cable debut and the film blew up. Suddenly people were telling me of the film’s wonders and I worried that this very enjoyable and entertaining film was being over-praised as something more important than it was. There have been so many great, original films that have been dampened by unnecessary sequels. It can be even worse when one makes a sequel to an unexpected surprise hit film. The makers of “The Hangover” were trying to make a good comedy, but they had no expectations that they would be making the most successful comedy in movie history. Once they got around to making the sequels, they went into the process with an inflated ego and a feeling of invincibility with the plan of repeating what worked so well the first time around, and as a result made two of the most forgettable and disappointing sequels ever made. I’m sad to say that the same thing has happened with PITCH PERFECT 2.
The Barden Bellas have returned with many of the same moves they had in the first film, but something is missing, and I’m not talking about minutes from the original’s significantly shorter running time. This overlong sequel has more songs, bigger set pieces, and no sense of the concept of “too much.” Some of this blame has to go to first time director Elizabeth Banks, a hands-on producer and bit player from the first movie, now taking the franchise under her wing. Most of Banks’ instincts in shaping the attitude of the first film are present here, but one gets the sense that she was having too much fun to ever say the word “cut.” Each scene of the movie goes on for at least a minute more than it should, never allowing the story to move on before each member of the Bellas gets a one-liner out to close the scene.
Anna Kendrick, who solidified her star power in the first film, feels oddly distant and removed this time. She looks bored and spends most of the movie separated from the rest of the group, in a storyline about her internship that should have been cut entirely. Not even the hilarious Keegan Michael Key as her boss can make these scenes seem relevant to the film’s plot or Kendrick’s arc. I actually started to wonder if Kendrick didn’t get along with the rest of her cast members and specifically requested to break off in a subplot that would keep her front and center with less of the screen to share with others. Even her relationship with Skylar Astin doesn’t get more than one scene to establish that Kendrick’s Beca loves anyone in this world more than herself. When Kendrick inevitably becomes too big for this franchise, at least Rebel Wilson as Fat Amy should continue to breathe some life into these films. Wilson consistently makes the movie enjoyable, bringing energy to scenes that have none with an empowering confidence to her overweight character that makes sure the movie never makes a fat joke at her expense before she is able to make one herself. I wish the same sensitivity and restraint had been applied to the rest of the girls, as they’re reduced to one-joke props and ethnic stereotypes, rather than fully formed characters with personalities.
I know it seems like I’m being awfully hard on this movie that many people have been loving, but all of this is stemming from my disappointment after being such a fan of the film’s first outing. There are some high points in this film though. The musical numbers remain lively and impressive, even if there are a few too many of them this time around. But at least if the girls are singing it means they aren’t speaking, with dialogue full of constant thud-landing jokes. Elizabeth Banks and John Benjamin Hickey reprise their roles as the tactless commentators and each has the occasional hilarious one-liner, but there are plenty of barbs that are met with silence. While their moments are often the best in the film, I feel like we either need a lot more or a lot less of their tone. The film is constantly flirting with making fun of itself and acknowledging the absurdity of so many of these situations. The first film was much better at going to these places, what with Kendrick’s undeniable talent placing her in singing competitions that she thought were silly and ridiculous,, but this time around the script seems a little too in love with these girls to make fun of their dreams of being acapella champions, even though that’s the only source of the story’s comedy.
So why am I praising PITCH PERFECT 2 as a step forward for Hollywood feminism if I didn’t like it? Well, in just two weeks the film has made over $100 million worldwide and that number is likely to double before too long. Clearly there is a major audience for female driven films and if there’s one thing that Hollywood pays attention to, it’s money. I’d hate to think that the lesson that they’ll take from this is that “Pitch Perfect” needs even more sequels, but I do hope that its success helps green-light more original for these ladies and others that could hope to give birth to something as exciting and new as the first “Pitch Perfect.” As dreadful as the trailer for “Jem and the Holograms” makes it look, the very notion that someone in Hollywood thought it had an audience and potential for success is, in and of itself, truly outrageous. Keep ‘em coming, girls. Just next time, try to set the bar a little higher.
Hear more of Johnny Pomatto’s reviews on his podcast MOVIES AND FILMS WITH JOHNNY AND FRIENDS available on iTunes