Sunday, May 24, 2015

"Tomorrowland" Review

Disney's Tomorrowland (based on its namesake area at the theme parks) follows up Alex Garland's superb Ex Machina as another entertaining, albeit this time unspectacular, piece of original sci-fi.

Tomorrowland represents a utopia in some alternate dimension built by the world's smartest and most creative individuals. It's seemingly free of the earthly bounds that neuter ingenuity such as bureaucracy, politics, limited funding, etc. Young optimist Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) and jaded former boy-genius Frank Walker (George Clooney) find themselves on a mission to uncover the true secrets of Tomorrowland after Casey is chosen to reverse the effects of a doomsday machine predicting the end of the world.

Eventually, the narrative devolves from a light-hearted caper into a sermon against human nature. It suggests our blind acceptance of the idea of an impending doom and blames that flaw for global warming, war, poverty, disease, and every manner of blight against humanity. In that moment, I felt the entire message of the film was dashed. You're supposed to feel senses of wonder, joy and optimism with a desire to create. I felt that way after last year's Lego Movie. The diatribe of Tomorrowland just made me feel like crap.

As for the characters, Hugh Laurie proves a very boring, un-sinister villain as Governor Nix, and the 25-year-old Robertson turns in a mediocre performance that Jennifer Lawrence could've outdone in her sleep. Clooney is classic yet makes for a believable former boy-genius. I didn't feel like I was just watching Clooney play himself again. The standout is Raffey Cassidy as Athena, an android recruiter who maintains the visage of a 12-year-old between the early 1960s when she brings in young Frank Walker and the near future where she reaches out to Casey. The almost annoyingly-British Cassidy gives the film's most nuanced performance with the poise of a seasoned veteran. I laughed and got misty-eyed on all the right beats thanks to Cassidy's work.

Furthermore, audiences should be delighted to see cameos from Keegan-Michael Key (TV's Key & Peele) and Kathryn Hahn (Step Brothers) as two fanboy/girl antique toy shop owners whom Casey first visits for answers about Tomorrowland. It's clear to see Key and Hahn are having fun with the material in a goofy scene that reminded me of Billy Crystal and Carol Kane in The Princess Bride.

It should be said that Scott Chambliss deserves an Oscar right now for the production design on this film. Perhaps it's the IMAX talking, but the atmosphere of this movie is spectacular. Sets are intricately detailed, and every "Tomorrowland" scene made me feel as if I were there. Costumes are also very strong with lots of bright colors, patterns and styles matched in ways that look futuristic yet grounded in current trends. Think West Coast circa 2075.

Although it suffers from some undercooked ideas and characters, as well as a muddled message, Tomorrrowland is still a mildly entertaining piece of original sci-fi cinema that doesn't involve comic book or franchise characters. Isn't that enough?


Friday, May 22, 2015

"Poltergeist" 2015 Review

Though the updated story paints a unique portrait of the post-2008 nuclear family, the Poltergeist remake lacks the scares of its classic predecessor.

Few liberties have been taken with the plot, which now sees a Midwest family, affected by the economic crisis of the late 2000s, moving into a new suburban subdivision. Things get weird really quick when middle son Griffin (Kyle Catlett) finds younger sister Madison (worthy-Heather-O'Rourke-successor Kennedi Clements) talking to an imaginary friend in the closet during their first tour of the new house. Disturbances become more violent until the malevolent forces capture young Maddie, prompting her parents (Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt) to seek the help of a team of parapsychologists as they attempt a rescue.

It's pretty much the exact same as Tobe Hooper's 1982 original.

The new Poltergeist features some standout moments, though, including a heart-stopping sequence with one of the parapsychology students (Nicholas Braun) almost literally getting "drilled" while installing a video camera in Maddie's closet. Director Gil Kenan (Monster House) also makes use of drone technology to get some unique angles that give parts of the film a found-footage feel. It's welcome since the drone acts as an extension of Griffin's point of view of the story.

At this point in history, the story of Poltergeist represents the fears and anxieties of post-economic-crisis middle America. Many breadwinners lost their jobs and saw their families at risk. This is exactly what happens with patriarch Eric Bowen (Rockwell), who represents a contrast to Craig T. Nelson's successful realtor Steve Freeling from the original film. I don't think it's a coincidence that these films, at their core, both reflect the state of the nuclear family during significant periods in America's economic life: Freeling an embodiment of Reaganomics in the original Poltergeist and Bowen a reflection of the 2008 economic crisis in this remake.

What inherently keeps this remake from being so sharp is that the story is now sadly contrived due to the success of the Insidious films, which also center around a family losing a child to spirits in an alternate reality. The target audience for Poltergeist 2015 has seen Insidious. Those kids are going to see this movie this weekend and say, "it sucked because it was just another Insidious." That's a disappointing reflection on the state of the horror genre today because the mainstream audiences seeing these new films likely have never bothered to watch the original Poltergeist, without which there would be no Insidious. Or Sinister or Conjuring or Paranormal Activity. Talk about history working against you.

Furthermore, Poltergeist 2015 features plenty of sins of its own. Aside from the now contrived plot, a shoddy 3D presentation fails to do justice to the wacky special effects. Otherwise, Jared Harris (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) doesn't hold a candle the unforgettable Zelda Rubinstein as the professional psychic brought in to assist the rescue when the university team runs out of answers.

You could do far worse for a night at the movies with friends, but I'd wait for a rental. Better yet, just watch the original Poltergeist instead.


Friday, May 15, 2015

"Mad Max: Fury Road" Review

OK, now that the adrenaline has subsided a bit, I can finally get a few words out here...


As an independent blogger, I have no press credentials anymore, which means there were no early press screenings for me to attend. Had there been, I might have approached Mad Max 4 with skeptical caution and then proceeded to have both my mind and my low expectations blown to smithereens.

Unable to shut out the loud universal praise this film has received, I went into the theater with unbelievably high expectations. They, and my mind, were still blown to smithereens.

That's how phenomenal this movie is.

Most typical Hollywood summer fare can be nitpicked apart as viewers catch faults in narrative and character development. I kept looking for chinks in the armor here and found none of consequence.

Fury Road isn't a wall-to-wall, blood-n-guts romp like The Raid is, but that isn't a fault. The action lets up just enough in certain places to get some nice character development going. Otherwise, the plot is really an afterthought; it's nothing more than a chase picture in which Imperator Furiosa (a kick-ass Charlize Theron) hijacks her own convoy while on oil duty for the evil Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, in his second turn as a different Mad Max baddie). Once he realizes that Furiosa has betrayed him, Joe and his fellow warlords form a massive convoy of their own to retrieve the stolen oil tanker and kill Furiosa.

Through an edge-of-your-seat turn of events that I won't disclose, an imprisoned Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is thrust right into the middle of the conflict. The fight would've started without him anyway, but he has a profound influence on the stakes and the outcome of the conflict at hand. This is indubitably a "Mad Max" picture that does the character justice, despite what some viewers have said about him playing second fiddle to Furiosa. She's equally fun to watch though as Theron carves out a place in cinema history for another badass lady. Think "Ellen Ripley... Sarah Connor... Imperator Furiosa."

What else can I say? Roughly 80-90 percent of the film was completed through practical means. High-flying stunts, fire, explosions, deformed characters, wrecked cars... all achieved through makeup and rigging. No CGI overload here.

At age 70, director and series creator George Miller delivers a modern action masterpiece like the return of the Prodigal Son. Through the wholehearted realization of his unique vision, Miller schools us once again on what a blockbuster movie should be.

If you see one movie in theaters this summer, make it Mad Max: Fury Road. This is a glowing example of what can be achieved when a master visual storyteller is allowed full creative control. Throw every last dollar you can at this film to remind the studios of that assertion.


Saturday, May 2, 2015

"Avengers: Age of Ultron" Review

The latest high-flying escapade in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is big early-summer fun to a fault. Overall, it's a worthy addition to the canon that features some seriously cool set pieces and the customary witticisms of the unwieldy cast of characters. It is a textbook example of why audiences go to movies during the summer months. It's nothing but big, loud fun and doesn't really try to be much more than that.

But perhaps more so than anything Marvel has yet produced, Age of Ultron feels like a manufactured product. Some scenes follow each other in ways that don't make sense; as if important plot points were cut out entirely. This was my first thought a mere two minutes into the film. It's as if Kevin Feige and his merry band of executives thought it best to get in there and chop the thing to bits just to keep it at a market-friendly 2 hours & 20 minutes.

(Now there are rumors of a 3.5 hour extended cut making its way onto the Blu-ray later this year, but it's more than likely that just a handful of deleted scenes and an alternate ending will be included on the disc. It would be a first for Disney to release an "Extended Cut" Blu-ray of one of its Marvel titles. Either way, I would love to get my hands on the Blu-ray to see if any of the deleted material fills in the plot holes that currently riddle the theatrical cut.)

The film stays very busy as it balances the subplots of each individual Avenger. For the most part, they service just fine although the Hulk and Black Widow make a strong case for this year's celebrity odd couple. The overarching story is that Tony Stark uses the Infinity Stone from Loki's scepter to build a global peacekeeping protocol called "Ultron." The protocol quickly evolves into a sentient computer program with a skewed view of reality. Ultron believes that the best way to keep the peace is to rid the world of human weakness entirely. It's up to the Avengers to stop Ultron and save the world once again.

I recommend seeing the film at least twice to really catch every caveat to the story and to the characters. On my first rodeo, the film seemed incoherent and nearly unwatchable at times. The second time I felt much more taken by the simple idea of the Avengers facing a villain who actually comes terrifyingly close to realizing his plan. I really got a grasp of the stakes at hand upon second viewing, and it made the film much more exciting to watch.


Bottom line is that the people who typically watch these kinds of films will see them regardless of what the critics say. I did, despite the film having one of the weakest critical receptions of any film in the MCU. I understand where the complaints are coming from, and I agree with some of them. But I still believe there's more good than bad in Age of Ultron. The film's choppy narrative keeps it from being as good as the series' very best films, but it's as fun and over-the-top as any of them. I enjoyed it more than the first Avengers team-up.