Sometimes it is difficult to know to what standard a movie for younger audiences should be held. And make no mistake: Tomorrowland is really a movie for younger audiences. Which I am grateful for. I'm hoping the film sparks a revival in fun live-action movies you could take your kids to without feeling like you're watching a Disney Channel sitcom. In a lot of ways, that is the film's greatest accomplishment. It could very easily have turned into one of Disney's harder-edged PG-13 blockbusters in the spirit of Pirates of the Caribbean or The Lone Ranger, but it didn't. The only trouble is that, while it stuck to its family film guns, it sometimes felt too boiled-down for its lofty premise to support.
Tomorrowland is about Casey, (Britt Robertson) a smart, idealistic girl doing what she can to combat the world's self-destructive side. After she finds a pin that shows her an amazing alternate reality, she decides that the best way to save her world is to go to the other.
I want to note that the film does have a lot of strong points. Chiefest of these is how good it looks. Cinematographer Claudio Miranda's work always looks brilliant, and here is no exception. The design of Tomorrowland itself is also just really cool. It is a fun world to explore, as it should be. The first time Casey explores it, we are treated to the coolest shot of the film: one long, wandering take as she finds her way around the city. The film really sets and maintains a high visual standard for itself.
The other really strong point is Casey herself. She is the kind of grounded, realistic, and positive female character that is usually lacking in films meant for girls to see. We are (really slowly) getting away from this, and she keeps us heading in the right direction.
Most of what doesn't work in the movie comes down to structure. It feels like 100+ minutes of exposition with a second-act climax substituting for the real one rushed through at the end. Don't get me wrong: the forever leading up to actually getting to Tomorrowland is never boring. In some respects it actually has the film's best material. And I guess, depending on how you look at the story, my outline above doesn't really work because during this time Casey is growing and overcoming challenges. But given its setup it feels kind of lopsided.
My guess is these issues come mostly from the screenplay, specifically from Damon Lindelof's contributions. He seems to do well with big initial concepts that then lack in execution (see Prometheus, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Lost--although, to be fair, these were all co-written as well.) He also has difficulty providing exposition in any other way than by constant questions by characters, which does get super annoying here. Director and co-writer Brad Bird's other scripting work (Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille) tends to be better structured and have less irritating exposition tricks.
Given its issues, the film does maintain a pretty constant, optimistic tone. Some aren't really pleased with this: it feels a little didactic at times, even obnoxious depending on your politics. On the other hand, it encourages us all to be dreamers and to think that something better can happen tomorrow than happened today. Which, considering the cynical, world-wrecking state of our blockbusters, isn't necessarily a bad message to hear.
Tomorrowland features Britt Robertson, George Clooney, Raffey Cassidy and Hugh Laurie, and is rated PG for actiony stuff and some small swears.
Written by Brad Bird and Damon Lindelof
Directed by Brad Bird
Last week, I had an experience that is unfortunately all too uncommon: on coming out of Mad Max: Fury Road, I was absolutely giddy. Like, my hands were a little shaky and I had trouble focusing on things. Since then I have tried to come up with what I might say to you, how I might recommend this movie. And, wonderfully, I don't have much. Only that Mad Max: Fury Road is possibly the best action movie of the decade so far.
The story is pretty barebones. Max (Tom Hardy) is taken captive by a tribe of zealots led by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). When Furiosa (Charlize Theron) decides to leave with one of his war rigs, Max, by now a human blood bag, is caught up in the chase.
The film is essentially one wonderful car chase, as one might hope from a movie titled Fury Road. And it is the most fun you'll have in a movie this year. Period. Much of this is, of course, due to the miraculous zaniness director George Miller and his team bring to the screen in their design of the world. And it is miraculous because this film feels like an absolute anomaly in our present cinematic atmosphere.
Much has been said of the film's feminist leanings, and indeed the film profits greatly by the women it shows us. This is, sadly, quite anomalous in itself. But I won't talk about that here. For it seems to me that it is equally anomalous in its practicality, especially as a large tentpole summer feature. This film throws into stark relief how permissive we have become of computer generated cartoon effects, and how often they fall utterly short.
Yes, this film uses CG effects. But they are usually to help with scale, landscape, or to remove things like safety harnesses or tracks in the sand. The film does not rely on them as a crutch to create drama or energy where none is elsewhere present, as is too often the case. Miller understands that if someone is swinging on a 25-foot pole attached to a car going 80 miles-per-hour, the most exciting way to show that is to actually show it. For a medium as intentionally alienating as film, increasing the alienation with unreal artificial effects rarely does any favors. Indeed, it often does the opposite of what it was meant to do. As audiences, we can very often tell when something is "real" and when it isn't. The Hulk fighting Iron Man loses vital energy, no matter the frenetic action onscreen, simply because it is a cartoon that is not real and there is one more layer of disbelief to suspend. Mad Max feels as real and immediate as its predecessors of 30 years ago, which is one of its greatest achievements in this age of increasingly artificial filmmaking.
So if you haven't, go see it already. Really. You will not find another movie experience like this for a long, long time.
Mad Max: Fury Road features Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Hugh Keays-Byrne, and Nick Hoult, and is rated R for surprisingly blood-free fighting with cars.
Written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, and Nick Lathouris
Directed by George Miller
Incidentally, this film has had some of the best trailers of recent memory. Here's the first one that sold me like a year ago.
With Mad Max: Fury Road finally out today (as soon as I'm done writing this I'm off to go see it) I wanted to complete my retrospective with a look at the until-now final installment in the series: Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. While still fun, this film lacks the same precise focus as the other two and suffers a little on the side of plotting. But I will say that if you have been afraid to get into these movies, this one is probably the most accessible (or at least, least edgy) while still delivering plenty of George Miller lunacy to keep you around.
Max turns up in a place called Bartertown in order to reclaim his stolen camel rig. To do so, he strikes a deal with Auntie Entity (Tina Turner) to overthrow the town's energy baron Master Blaster. He also eventually meets up with some Lord of the Flies-style lost children.
I said the film lacked the same kind of focus the other two have, and that comes from the side plot involving the children. The film really doesn't need it. While Max is in Bartertown the movie clips along nicely, giving us a glimpse at the attempt at recivilization. There are the same freakshow side characters as well as the marginally-exploitative duo of Master Blaster. Bruce Spence's pilot even returns, though probably not as the same character (kind of like Lee Van Cleef's character(s) in For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.) I think if the movie stayed in Bartertown the whole time it would have been stronger.
But it doesn't. Max winds up halfway through the movie in the midst of a society of lost children who think he will lead them back to the world. This side plot isn't a bad story in itself; it is just so unrelated to the main plot that it really detracts from where the movie is going. If I had to include it in the movie, I would have put it first, then gone on the trip to Bartertown. As it stands, when Max and some of the children end up returning to Bartertown, the tone has lightened so much that there is no real threat there anymore. If he meets the children before going to Bartertown, then the stakes are raised for him as a hero and there is at least a sense of menace for us as an audience.
By the end, though, the movie has all of its strings picked up again. There is a brilliant chase through the desert with the same level of ridiculous stuntwork we've come to expect. And it ends harmoniously with the other two films. Mad Max was always the man in the desert looking for purpose, and I guess that is why we like these movies. They capture the absurdity of our lives in an oblique enough way to not be confrontational, but they resonate because we have all been wanderers in the desert looking for purpose at one point or another.
Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome features Mel Gibson, Tina Turner, Bruce Spence, Angelo Rossitto and Helen Buday, and is rated PG-13 for violent stuff.
Written by Terry Hayes and George Miller
Directed by George Miller and George Ogilvie
Happy Saturday, everybody! With less than a week to go until Fury Road hits, I am continuing on with my Mad Max retrospective with a look at 1981's sequel, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. Buckle up, because the crazy really gets turned on high in this one.
After the events of Mad Max, Max is aimlessly roaming the desert, looking for fuel for his car. He meets up with a gyro pilot (Bruce Spence) who tells him of a fortified refinery still producing gasoline, but that is under siege by a band of crazies led by Lord Humungus. If you aren't sold now, I guess you never will be.
There could hardly be a greater difference between the first and second installments of a film series. Where Mad Max had a fair level of emotional grounding driving it on, Road Warrior feels like some kind of waking hallucination. The gyro pilot has weaponized snakes as booby traps and dresses in bright yellow long johns. One of the residents of the refinery is a feral kid who wields a metal boomerang. And Lord Humungus wears a hockey mask and a leather diaper with suspenders.
Director George Miller doubles down on the spectacular stunts and crashes introduced in the first film while scaling back to almost zero any humanity that might have remained. The road sequences are really pretty awesome, all the more so because of the obvious lack of artificial effects and the terrible lack of covering clothes many of the crazies have as they jump from car to car.
All of which is, of course, what makes the film such a bizarre delight. Although we are given something of a backstory in the form of stock footage montage, there is still no real explanation for the behavior of all these riveted-leather crazies. They just are. And in a way, that's all that can really be said about this movie without straining yourself. It just exists. We could say that the film functions as a metaphor and catharsis for the grief Max feels from earlier, or that we are all just as crazy in our own way as either the dedicated refiners looking for a better life or the maniacs trying to get their gas, but statements like that just fall apart.
And so, you will either love it or not care at all. The only people reading this are the ones who care, and as such this is probably a futile exercise, but I am going to write anyway since it is rainy outside and yardwork is impossible. But if it is new to you, I really think you should give it a try. There are lots worse things you could watch this week.
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior features Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence, Michael Preston and Kjell Nilsson, and is rated R for the same thing as the first one, only more so.
Written by Terry Hayes, Brian Hannant and George Miller
Directed by George Miller
Here's the trailer, this time without awful American dubbing.
Well, it's only May, and I finally have been to a movie in a theater! Believe me, it was far more enjoyable than squinting at my computer like has been necessary due to some international wanderings. And to get back into the swing of things, I thought I would go out to the Tower in Salt Lake and take a look at Maggie, Arnold Schwarzenegger's new zombie movie.
You read that right. Arnold Schwarzenegger stars in (and produced) an indie zombie movie. And the thing is, while it is not perfect, it has a strong spirit and might even make you cry a little.
The story is that Maggie (Abigail Breslin) is infected with the virus that slowly turns people into zombies, and her father (Arnold) decides to keep her at home instead of taking her to the mandatory quarantine area. And that's it. He doesn't storm any hospitals demanding medicine or have a semiautomatic last stand or go postal on a zombie hoard or anything. He isn't even ex-military. What the film is is a slow burning meditation on death and loss and love.
Haters say that the film suffers because "nothing happens." And if you are looking for plot twists or action this is not the place to find it. The film instead chooses to simply ask a question and let the audience simmer on their answer 90 minutes. It is not so much a narrative plot-driven film as it is a narrative emotional portrait. And mostly, it works.
Much of why it works is the visual control the film demonstrates. Whether you dig digital or not, it sure makes it easy to make pretty pictures to look at, even if they are as starkly color-free as those here. At times they create a more impressionistic feel, one that is distinctly not as scared of zombies as it is of Maggie's impending, unavoidable fate. It's all pretty absorbing.
And I think the visual elements end up doing what Arnold can't quite, which is give voice to a full emotional situation. Much of this is intentional: the script seems purposefully pared down (sometimes to the point of creating less-than-good dialog) and he just isn't given things to do. Again, some say this just makes it boring and that as a consequence we miss out seeing him do some actual acting. I'm not sure I feel that way. His presence is constant, if a little uncomfortably subdued, and his haggard face and greying beard shot in close up as they often are often give off the kind of stoic sadness that is at the heart of the film.
Even though there are more than a few external flaws, at its heart Maggie is a really keen examination of death, or more accurately dying, and coping with terrible things beyond one's control. You can also read some commentary on AIDS or at the very least stigmatization of people being treated for longterm illness if you like. The zombie movie has turned a corner here and is more plot device than plot itself.
So I say go to the Tower and see it. (It is technically also on Amazon, but why would you do that to yourself?) At the very least you'll get a zombie movie with a flushed out emotional examination, which isn't something you can get everyday these days.
Maggie features Arnold Scharzenegger, Abigail Breslin and Joely Richardson and is rated PG-13 for having themes and some gross looking stuff.
Written by John Scott 3
Directed by Henry Hobson
by Chase Harrison