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Women at the Wheel 

Mad Max: Fury Road and Pitch Perfect 2 drive on

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MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. It's been 30 years since Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and George Miller's bleak, cracked, brilliant vision of a gasoline-crazed, water-poor landscape of nightmares hasn't slipped a bit. In fact, the intervening decades have been kind, after a fashion. Not only has cinematic technology caught up with Miller's grand design, but the state of the world has decayed enough to make it seem all that much more prescient.

For the past several months, the promise of Fury Road has afforded me at least a few moments of genuine happiness before settling in to the generally demoralizing process of watching whatever new uninspired slop came sliding down the chute. Every time I watched the trailer I was warmed by its glow, and at least some of that residual heat would help me through the probably dark night of whatever movie would follow it.

Now it is here, and it as grand and fever-dreamy as I could have hoped.

Max (Tom Hardy) is still wandering the wasteland alone, dogged both by visions of the past and, more immediately, the marauding horde of the present. Today, that means the bleached-out freakazoid War Boys of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a pustular megalomaniac with an arcane breathing apparatus and a mane of dirty white hair. The War Boys set upon Max and haul him in shackles back to the Citadel, a butte-top complex housing Immortan Joe's nasty fiefdom. Healthy humans like Max are enslaved as reusable transfusion kits for the War Boys. Others are held in servitude by Joe's occasional and miserly doling out of clean water. One bright morning, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) fires up her twin-supercharged War Rig for a gas and bullet raid, to much fanfare. Early in the journey, though, Furiosa's real agenda becomes clear, and she is pursued by a cadre of bloodthirsty weirdos, including young Nux (Nicholas Hoult), an especially sickly War Boy with something to prove. He straps Max to the grille of his death machine, plugs into his bloodstream for a healthy boost, and blasts off across the sand where, before long, he, Max and Furiosa find themselves in an unlikely alliance.

What follows is a desert chase on the grandest scale, punctuated by frequent action sequences of joy-bringing imagination and intensity. But even as the set-pieces get bigger, the character work at the heart of the piece remains focused and precise. The distrust between Max and Furiosa is palpable and well founded; only through rigorous trials is it worn away. Nux has a similar trajectory, beginning as an impressionable killer with minimal inner light, and then slowly becoming a person with a sense of purpose, an impulse toward self-sacrifice for a greater good.

In terms of style and scope, nothing this year touched Fury Road. The Avengers may have in terms of sheer size, but by comparison comes off frantic and unfocused. Miller keeps things simple, with the linear storyline as backbone for his ever-expanding opus. He uses light and color like a real artist, in a way that action directors seem to have mostly forgotten. And the movie throbs and hurtles with a real urgency, a kinetic intensity that one might think unsustainable. To my ear, the only slight misstep is in the score, and that only occasionally.

One of the unexpected pleasures of Fury Road, and one that has provoked the ire of some "men's rights" morons, comes from its decidedly feminist theme. In many ways, the movie is more about Furiosa than it is about Max, which adds a dimension of heart and intelligence to an already impressive work. R. 120m.

PITCH PERFECT 2. Those close to me are painfully aware that Anna Kendrick can do no wrong. This is a naïve, vulnerable perspective and she'll probably break my heart, but I'll let her do it. So that's the disclaimer.

During a performance for the president at Lincoln Center, a capella troupe the Barden Bellas embarrass themselves, incurring the wrath of the competitive a capella sanctioning body. They are barred from holding auditions and from participating in their national tour. Looks like the end of the line for our heroines. But in a desperate play, they convince the disciplinary committee to reinstate the group contingent on their victory at an international competition that nobody believes they can win.

Thing is, the controversy has shaken their confidence, and Beca (Kendrick) has taken an internship at a recording studio, further splintering the group. There's a lot of rebuilding to be done, made all the more difficult by the looming menace of Das Sound Machine, a German juggernaut singing group.

Pitch Perfect 2 may not be full of surprises, and it may hew pretty closely to a familiar underdog-sports-movie formula, but in the end its many charms win out. The cast is talented and self-assured, the songs are cleverly put together and well executed, and there may be more successful jokes per scene than any movie I've seen this year. Elizabeth Banks directs — and shares hilarious scenes with John Michael Higgins — with an ease and confidence that belie her inexperience. It is a wonderful thing to see a woman-helmed movie with a female-dominant cast kick ass at the box office and succeed artistically. Hopefully this is just the first of many more to come. PG13. 115m.

John J. Bennett

Previews

FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD. Thomas Hardy's version of the Bachelorette, with Carey Mulligan as the Victorian woman who inherits a farm and is pursued by three men. PG13. 119m.

MOOSE THE MOVIE. Your wait for an Alaska-centric horror spoof about a half-man-half-moose monster is over. No rating, but you can see Russia from the set. NR. 119m.

POLTERGEIST. Sam Rockwell stars in a remake of the haunted house movie that made TV snow scary. PG13. 93m.

TOMORROWLAND. Disneyland with George Clooney — all your dreams come true. Young geniuses and an inventor travel through time in a sci-fi family adventure. PG. 130m.

THE AGE OF ADALINE. Blake Lively as an eternally young woman in this pleasant date-night confection with old-Hollywood style, if not substance. PG13. 113m.

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON. A big, cacophonous superhero sequel with a stellar cast, Director Joss Whedon's trademark quippy writing and serious meditations on human nature. PG13. 141m.

EX MACHINA. A compelling, original and exceptionally well-acted AI thriller about a robot, its creator and a man who doesn't know which of them to trust. R. 108m.

FURIOUS 7. Big, fun and slick as Vin Diesel's bald head, the franchise continues with a revenge plot and plenty of smoking tires. PG13. 137m.

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

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John J. Bennett

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