Review: “Tomorrowland”

Tomorrowland

“What if there was a place…where nothing was impossible?”

After he fails to impress the judges of the World’s Fair with his homemade jetpack, young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) is befriended by a girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) who gives him a strange pin that leads him to a mysterious futuristic world with robots and other contraptions he could only dream of inventing.

Decades later, Casey (Britt Robertson), the daughter of a NASA engineer (Tim McGraw), struggles to find her place in a world that seems determined to brace for the apocalypse rather than trying to prevent it. After being arrested for trespassing on government property, Casey discovers a Tomorrowland pin of her own when she reclaims her belongings in the police station. Upon touching it, she receives visions of a fantastic world of imagination and sets out to find more information on the strange land. This eventually leads her to an old Frank Walker (George Clooney) who has been excommunicated from Tomorrowland and is every bit as cynical as Casey is optimistic.

If that seems like a really long buildup for a plot, you should try spending 45 minutes in a theater waiting for the pieces to connect.

“Tomorrowland” is the latest attempt by Disney to monetize every aspect of their existing properties. Much like “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “The Haunted Mansion,” this film is intended to expand the Disney empire while also (hopefully) putting together an interesting film.

Dialing down the cynicism for a moment, “Tomorrowland” has some very interesting things to say about the world we live in today. We are a culture engrossed in chaos and violence on the news and dystopian futures in our entertainment (“The Walking Dead” and “The Hunger Games” come to mind). Every day there is a new story to outrage over, a new product or company to blacklist, new laws or guidelines enacted that stomp out creativity or free speech and so on.

What the film continually asks of the audience is “What happened to our vision of the future as a beacon of hope, light, and imagination?”

As great as these ideas are, director Brad Bird and writer Damon Lindelof still have to mold them into a cohesive plot that is entertaining and makes for a good film. That’s where the trouble starts.

It is well known around the film community that Lindelof has a reputation as a writer that dreams up big ideas that he can’t necessarily deliver on. The two best examples of this are the TV show “Lost” and “Prometheus.” While not all of Tomorrowland’s faults can be placed on Lindelof (Bird also handled the script), it’s important to point out the pattern.

The biggest issue with the film, aside from the writing, is pacing/editing. As previously stated, it takes 45 minutes for the film to address what the story is about. Until that point, the story is mainly several scenes of Casey tripping over objects while “walking” through Tomorrowland or Athena telling Casey that she’s important in the most cryptic way possible.

After all the time the movie spends setting up the plot, the payoff is extremely underwhelming. Tomorrowland itself looks like a leftover “Divergent” set and the villain (Hugh Laurie) who has been set up to be a very bad guy (his robot army kills several people early on) ends up being a pretty reasonable character who has the best monologue in the film. Not to mention that the “chosen one” is barely of use in the climax.

“Tomorrowland” is what happens when a creative team comes up with about 60% of a full story, realizes it can’t finish it in the remaining time, and hopes the audience won’t notice the corners that were cut.

There are pieces of a great family adventure film scattered throughout “Tomorrowland,” but the final product looks more like a first draft than a film Disney would bank $190 million on. Not even the Tim Allen-esque performance of Clooney will help the film earn back its big budget.

All in all, “Tomorrowland” is a missed opportunity that may be best enjoyed on Redbox or when it inevitably pops up on ABC Family.

Grade: C+

Happy viewing.

Advertisements

Review: “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Mad Max Fury Road

Thirty-six years after Mel Gibson first donned a policeman’s uniform in the original “Mad Max,” the titular hero returns, this time played by Tom Hardy.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” picks up with Max once again wandering the desert trying to steer clear from packs of marauders and psychopaths. After unsuccessfully fleeing the followers of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played Toecutter in the original Mel Gibson film), Max finds himself prisoner in a cult-like society where Joe controls the water supply and demands the worship of his people.

At the same time, Imperator Furiousa (Charlize Theron) is trying to smuggle Immortan Joe’s captive brides out of the territory and return to her homeland: a “green place” that promises a better life than the barren desert where they currently reside. Through a series of events, Max teams up with Furiosa and the brides (future band name?) and aids in their attempt to flee Immortan Joe, who has an army of suicidal followers in pursuit of them.

Writer/director George Miller returns to the material that first gave him a career, but this project has actually been in the works since around the time “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” wrapped up in 1985. Much of Fury Road’s main storyline has allegedly stayed intact over the years, but a series of rewrites, casting changes, and other production drama has kept the project on a shelf for a long time.

Miller’s input is vital to the film because he has a vision like very few people in Hollywood have today. Just watch the trailer and try to think of another filmmaker doing anything remotely similar these days. As a director and world builder, Miller is nearly irreplaceable.

After the first 20 minutes or so set up the film, the rest is an adrenaline-filled car chase for nearly its entire length. That may sound exhausting, but the script breaks up the action just enough to let you breathe. Though there isn’t much in the way of traditional character development, the performances by Theron and Hardy provide enough backstory simply by their small mannerisms.

Around the time the film was released, there were several articles floating around discussing how this was a feminist film (negative connotation) and how Mad Max wasn’t even the hero, etc. This is the furthest thing from the truth. While the film does feature strong female characters and most of the men aside from Max and Nux (Nicholas Hoult) are evil, there’s no secret agenda at play. If the worst thing about “Mad Max: Fury Road” is that both males and females get good roles and fun action sequences, that’s actually high praise.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” is the best action film since “John Wick” and makes the CGI sequences of films like “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Fast and Furious 7” look like child’s play. Practical effects with the right execution will beat computers 9 times out of 10 and this film is a perfect example. Though its simple story and characters may leave some viewers wanting a little more, “Fury Road” delivers in every way that it should and is easily one of the year’s best films so far.

Grade: A

Happy viewing.

Review: “Avengers: Age of Ultron”

Avengers 2

In the summer of 2008, Marvel began a journey with “Iron Man” that culminated in 2012’s first team-up with the star-studded Avengers. Since then we’ve added more solo outings for Iron Man, Captain America and Thor, as well as the mostly irrelevant (but downright entertaining) “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Now that we’ve come back around to another outing with the Avengers, the question is: Can the sequel live up to its predecessor’s expectations? The short answer is “no,” but that’s not such a bad thing.

“Age of Ultron” picks up with the full team rushing to defeat Baron von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), a leader of Hydra, who possesses Loki’s scepter from the previous film. Though the villain is foiled rather easily, his work lives on in superhuman twins Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) Maximoff. When Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) discovers that the scepter holds the key to artificial intelligence, he decides to create Ultron (James Spader), an AI system that can theoretically police the world through an army of robots. If you’ve seen any science fiction movie ever you probably know where this is headed.

In the first Avengers film Joss Whedon spent a large portion of its running time bringing the team together as a unit. Like an NBA franchise that brings in several megastars on one team, there has to be time for ego to give way to camaraderie. With that issue mostly settled, the new film gives the audience a look at a more mature squad of heroes. More choreographed team maneuvers cannot hide, however, the divisions that will be coming soon in Captain America 3 when civil war strikes.

There is no mistaking that “Age of Ultron” tries to make up for the flaws of its predecessor as well as a recent DC film. The former is that the film spends a lot of time developing and shining a spotlight on Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye. Under mind control for most of the first film, here the archer gets to make more quips and interacts frequently with Pietro aka Quicksilver. As for that DC film, one of the main gripes Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel” received was that it didn’t firmly establish Superman’s concern for civilians and their safety. Fast forward to “Age of Ultron” and we are spending half of the finale watching Avengers put people on lifeboats to avoid Ultron’s deadly plan. It doesn’t detract from the action enough to be a major complaint, but no one really bought a ticket to watch the Red Cross go to work either.

While the film delivers more than enough explosions and laughs to warrant the ticket price, the sequel does have a “been there, done that” feel to it. Perhaps I’m the only one, but 11 Marvel films is a lot. Part of the reason why “The Winter Soldier” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” were able to breathe life into the Marvel universe is because they felt different and each had its own personality. “Age of Ultron”, on the other hand, feels more like a generic superhero movie. Very fun and entertaining, but generic nonetheless.

Originally the film was set to be roughly a half hour longer, but Whedon and Co. were forced to leave a lot of footage on the cutting room floor. This leaves the film with a bit of an uneven pace as well as a few small questions in the plot. It also makes Thor a substantially less interesting character by reportedly cutting out most of his subplot setting up 2017’s Thor 3.

But enough with the negative, let’s talk some positives.

  • Though I think the character could have been handled better, James Spader was perfect casting for Ultron. Voice acting isn’t as easy as some people make it out to be and he nailed it.
  • “Age of Ultron” was finally able to make the team feel like something more than Tony Stark and friends. For good reason, Robert Downey Jr. has been the face of the franchise until now, but here he is a member of a team rather than the most important guy in the room.

“Avengers: Age of Ultron” is an imperfect, but entertaining action film that sometimes suffers from being too generic and following a long line of other Marvel films.

Grade: B

Since the internet is all about lists these days, I would probably rank “Age of Ultron” 4th out of all of the Marvel films to date, just between “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Iron Man”. Feel free to share your thoughts below.

Happy viewing.

Back to the Basics

The Apartment

Two weeks ago, I wrote that I wanted to resurrect this blog and start writing again. Two…weeks. Oops.

With that acknowledged, I wanted to spend today reminiscing some of my favorite films. Any time you are disappointed with the current state of film or feel that there’s nothing of value playing in your local theater, recounting the movies that made you fall in love with the medium can be a breath of fresh air. And since you don’t need yet another negative review of “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2,” let me share with you a few of my favorites.

On the Waterfront

Though Marlon Brando’s “I coulda been a contender” scene is often the one remembered from this 1954 film, there are a multitude of strong performances. Karl Malden as Father Barry and Lee J. Cobb’s Johnny Friendly are two of the best characters from classic Hollywood. Though awards aren’t everything, the film basically took home all of the Oscars with achievements in writing, directing, cinematography, and five(!) acting nominations on top of a Best Picture win.

Saving Private Ryan

A completely different kind of film, Steven Spielberg’s WWII tale is one of the best war films ever shone on the silver screen. Like most films of its kind, there are a slew of top-notch actors peppered throughout the film (Paul Giamatti, Ted Danson, Nathan Fillion, Bryan Cranston, to name a few) in addition to the main cast. The opening scene on Omaha Beach is considered by many to be the most accurate portrayal of war in film and the filming techniques that Spielberg uses are perfect. The whole film is shot beautifully and it succeeds by being both entertaining and hauntingly real.

L.A. Confidential

A year before “Saving Private Ryan” was robbed of Best Picture by “Shakespeare in Love”, another great film was ignored in favor of a romantic tale (“Titanic”). “L.A. Confidential” is the story of 3 very different 1950’s detectives who are all caught up in the same case from different angles. The movie may sound pretty standard at first, but throw in Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey, and the setting of Los Angeles and you’ve got cinematic magic.

The Apartment

Taking it back to 1960 for what I often refer to as my favorite movie, “The Apartment” is a Billy Wilder film starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. Lemmon plays a young employee at an insurance company who tries to climb the corporate ladder by allowing his superiors to use his conveniently located apartment for their extramarital affairs. Things turn for the worse, however, when he discovers that the elevator girl he’s in love with is one of his bosses’ mistresses. The chemistry between Lemmon and MacLaine is fantastic, the characters moving, and the film is wonderfully shot in black and white. The Apartment is one of the best comedies ever written and was an instant favorite the minute I watched it.

Though this isn’t an exhaustive list of my favorite films, they are a few that have been imprinted on my mind in recent years. Film is something that is immeasurably personal and everyone has their own tastes and preferences. Soon I will be getting back to reviews, but today I just want to enjoy some personal favorites. I would also be interested in hearing about your own favorite films in the comments below.

Happy viewing.

Resurrection

Star Wars 7Inspiration can be a hard thing to find. Sometimes the monotony of life can pull us away from the passions that we would normally pursue and in their place we devote all of our attention to simply waking up and checking off our daily list of tasks.

For the last 3 months I’ve neglected this blog because I had lost that inspiration. January-March is often considered the time of year for films that the studios have no faith in. Perhaps the mediocrity of films such as “The Wedding Ringer”, “Fifty Shades of Grey” and “Jupiter Ascending” played a part in my new-found apathy. Whatever the reason, it’s time for a comeback.

From my perspective, the movies could also use a comeback. Aside from a few successes here and there (“Guardians of the Galaxy”, “Interstellar”), 2014 was a rather disappointing year at the theater. Oscar bait like “The Imitation Game” and “Foxcatcher” left something to be desired, whereas many of the anticipated summer blockbusters fell flat.

But that’s the past. Let’s talk about the future.

Though the first few months of 2015 were a little bumpy, this year has the opportunity to be one of the biggest the industry has ever seen. If not in quality, then certainly in box office dollars and anticipation.

Here is a list of the franchises that have a new installment in 2015 (more notable series in bold):

Taken, Divergent, Paul Blart, Monsters, Avengers, Mad Max, Pitch Perfect, Poltergeist, Entourage, Insidious, Jurassic Park, Ted, Terminator, Magic Mike, Despicable Me (Minions), Mission Impossible, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Fantastic Four, Hitman, Fast and Furious, The Transporter, The Maze Runner, Hotel Transylvania, James Bond, The Hunger Games, Rocky Balboa, Star Wars

There is something to be said, of course, for originality and fresh storytelling. Is it a little hypocritical to anxiously look forward to these properties while also at times complaining about the lack of new ideas in Hollywood? Probably. But the sheer magnitude of franchises being revisited is incredible. If there were new Indiana Jones and Batman movies coming out this year, basically everything I have ever loved would be present.

Obviously this could all end very poorly for me and any others waiting for these films. I can already tell you that “Furious 7” is an absurd letdown. That being said, 2015 is poised to be a juggernaut of a year and could be a much-needed return to quality entertainment.

So on this Easter Sunday, I’m bringing back the reviews and looking forward to what might be a great year at the movies.

Happy viewing.

Review: “Taken 3”

Taken 3

As is often the case in Hollywood, less is usually more.

After spending some time as an air marshal in “Non Stop” and a PI in “A Walk Among the Tombstones”, Liam Neeson returns to the franchise that breathed new life into his acting career.

The first “Taken” film was an instant classic about a father trying to find his daughter after she’s abducted in Paris. The regrettable sequel dealt with similar themes as Bryan Mills (Neeson) and his family are once again endangered by the family of the first film’s villains. This time around Mills is on the run in the US after he is framed for the murder of his ex-wife (Famke Janssen).

What made the first “Taken” film such a hit was that it was a revenge film where a father is essentially tearing apart Paris to find his daughter and make her captors pay. A man with “a particular set of skills” is going after drug smugglers/human traffickers with a righteous cause the audience can all support? What’s not to like? Of course the second film tried to make the same formula but it was all watered down with a silly script and a terrible director. So how did they try to improve this third outing? By getting the same writers to write an even sillier script and bringing back that same director.

French director Olivier Megaton, whose best film is probably “Transporter 3”, returns to deliver choppy action sequences that are edited too quickly and too zoomed in to really enjoy. It’s understandable that measures have to be taken to make Neeson look like more of a killer at his age, but little effort went into making any of the sequences more than mildly entertaining.

The newest addition to the cast for this latest outing is Forest Whitaker, who plays the inspector trying to hunt Mills down. His role here is very similar to the one he played in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “The Last Stand”, a cop who mostly barks orders or talks on the phone with the characters who are actually advancing the plot. Dougray Scott also joins the cast to replace Xander Berkeley as Lenore’s current husband, Stuart.

While the film is pretty easy to pick apart, the main thing that keeps it from working is that Mills is no longer running across Europe like a one-man wrecking crew, killing or torturing everyone in his way. Since he is dealing with the LAPD in this film, almost every fight scene is just him throwing those magic knockout punches on two dudes then calmly walking away. For those of you who like stats, Mills kills 5 guys in this film. That’s less than 1/6 the number of people he took out in the first film. There are also zero tough guy lines in this film. Half the fun of the first film was hearing Liam Neeson deliver this speech (I just got chills listening to it for the millionth time). Nothing like that here.

For fear of sounding like a broken record, let me just sum up that this film is nowhere near as good as the first film and really doesn’t even match up to the sequel. Let’s hope that Bryan Mills either stays retired or at least gets a new director for his next outing.

Grade: C-

Happy viewing.

Review: “Whiplash”

Whiplash

There are many methods of teaching used in classrooms across the world. Some teachers focus more on testing, others on free-thinking environments. Then there are teachers who throw chairs at your head and verbally assault you.

One of the many prestige films sure to be talked about this awards season, “Whiplash” presents its audience with the high-stakes world of jazz music. Often seen as a dying genre, those who possess true talent have to prove their worth or burn out in the process.

When young drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) is invited to play in the prestigious studio band at his conservatory, he learns that he will have to overcome the abusive teaching methods of its conductor, Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). if he is to be one of the greats.

Originally a short film starring Simmons, writer/director Damien Chazelle adapts his initial idea to fill a larger storyline. It isn’t the first time he has based one of his films around the world of music, though it is by far his best effort. Last year’s “Grand Piano,” which Chazelle wrote for, was a thriller about a pianist who is targeted by a madman sniper and forced to play perfectly or be killed. Though there are less guns involved this time, the stakes are still pretty high.

The driving force of the film is the performance by Simmons as the cutthroat conductor. Bouncing back and forth from humor and villainy, his character is the one that will keep you from checking your watch. Here’s a little taste to get you interested. For years Simmons has been excelling in a variety of roles like “Juno,” “Spider-Man,” and “Up in the Air.” Even though he isn’t the star of the film (Teller is also great), this is Simmons’ shining moment.

As you would expect from a film like this, the music is also fantastic. From its early moments to its powerful conclusion, almost every scene involves some top notch jazz arrangements. There’s also a lot of talk about greats like Charlie Parker and Buddy Rich to please fans of the genre.

The further that Andrew dives into his music, the more obsessed he becomes. Risking his health and cutting off those close to him, he adjusts everything in his life to the outcome of him being one of the greatest jazz drummers of all time. At times this can lead to some scenes that are hard to believe if you’re more of a realist, but the film tries to fly past it before your suspension of disbelief is too rattled.

Without spoiling the ending, the film’s conclusion is a powerful one that could lead to some good conversation on the way home. Most films either entertain or make you think. “Whiplash” is one of the select few that might just do both.

Grade: B+

Happy viewing.