Tomorrowland


George Clooney has a chat with Brett Robertson over her TV viewing habits.

George Clooney has a chat with Brett Robertson over her TV viewing habits.

(2015) Science Fiction (Disney) George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, Tim McGraw, Kathryn Hahn, Keegan-Michael Key, Chris Bauer, Thomas Robinson, Pierce Gagnon, Matthew MacCaull, Judy Greer, Matthew Kevin Anderson, Michael Giacchino, D. Harlan Cutshall, Shiloh Nelson, Xantha Radley, David Nykl, Priya Rajratham. Directed by Brad Bird

The future is a subject that fascinates most of us. How we view the future tends to be a reflection of how we view the present; in the optimistic days of the early and mid-60s, the epoch of the New York World’s Fair, there was optimism. Things would get better and our ingenuity would get us there. The future was full of sleek buildings, mass transit via monorail, wondrous scientific advances, cities on the moon, flying cars, jetpacks and cheerful, smiling people without a care in the world. In short, a theme park.

These days the way we view the future is dark and hopeless. Inevitably in our view of the future civilization has collapsed, resources have been depleted and humanity is on the verge of extinction. There are no gleaming cities, no jetpacks, no cheerful, smiling people; just dirty, destitute denizens of a hardscrabble world desperate to survive in a world where survival on any given day is no picnic. Welcome to the 21st century, no?

In Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland, yet another Disney film based on a theme park attraction – or, in this case, an entire themed zone within a theme park – there is a return to that bright shiny future but in this particular case, the future isn’t all that it used to be.

Meet Frank Walker (Robinson). He’s a brilliant kid living out in the sticks who dreams of jetpacks and shiny cities and heads over to the 1964 World’s Fair with stars in his eyes and a (nearly) working jetpack under his arm for a competition for inventors. His invention is rejected but a little girl named Athena (Cassidy) gives Walker a pin and tells him to follow her and her group. Walker follows them onto the It’s a Small World ride via which he is transported to an alternate dimension, one in which the future is now. He has arrived in Tomorrowland, a place where humanity’s most creative minds, most artistic souls and most brilliant scientists have gathered to create a Utopia. In short, not unlike the SyFy Channel’s Eureka.

Flash forward 50 years and over to Central Florida where Eddie Newton (McGraw), a NASA engineer, is given charge of dismantling the launch site for the Space Shuttle after which he’ll be out of a job. His spunky daughter Casey (Robertson), who has a brilliant intuitive mind and is able to figure out almost instantly “how things work,” has been repeatedly sabotaging his efforts. One of her attempts at sabotage gets her caught and lands her in jail. When she goes to collect her things, there’s a strange pin among them – one she didn’t have before. Whenever she touches it, she is transported to Tomorrowland, although it is more of an immersive hologram of Tomorrowland. And there’s a time limit on the pin’s battery, after which it  ceases working.

Casey is obsessed with finding Tomorrowland and her search takes her to the doorstep of Frank Walker (Clooney), now a grizzled old hermit whose house looks dilapidated yet is taking in more electrical current than Walt Disney World. It turns out that Frank was exiled from Tomorrowland, and that he harbors a terrifying secret; while in Tomorrowland he built a machine able to look into the future and to his horror, it showed that the end of the human race was approaching. And it appears that Casey may hold the key to stopping it, but they have to get to Tomorrowland to do it. And there are some killer robots who are dead set on making sure that doesn’t happen.

Bird has created a marvelous universe that is brilliant to watch. Sure, it’s a bit of a retro vision but he has managed to make it visually stunning, an extension of the future worlds we saw 50 years ago (that are supposed to be now) but modernizing them somewhat. Tomorrowland thus becomes believable, at least to 2015 eyes.

In a movie in which ideas and dreams are extolled, Bird has several of his own and they bear thinking about. For example, he posits that because we’re conditioned to think that the future is bleak and awful, that we are making it come to pass. It’s a concept not without merit. The news about our present is unrelentingly bleak, when you consider climate change, income inequality, peak oil, religious fanaticism, water and food shortages, overpopulation and all the other issues that are affecting our survival. Hollywood also tends to make big budget sci-fi movies about futures in which mankind is not prospering. Post-apocalyptic wastelands are easier and cheaper to create than futuristic utopias, after all.

The constant Disney references in the movie are probably delightful to most Disneyphiles, from visions of Space Mountain on the edge of the frame during a visit to Tomorrowland, to the It’s a Small World ride in 1964 – which was actually filmed at the attraction in Anaheim, which is much longer than the original which was in the Pepsi Pavilion and not its own stand-alone facility. However, I’m betting those of you who have ridden the attraction are now cursing me because they know they won’t be able to get the song out of their heads for hours. In any case, there are references to Disney movies, Disney theme parks and Disney memorabilia throughout the movie and while most of it is subtle, some of it is blatant enough that it makes one feel like one is experience a 2 1/2 hour advertisement for Disney. But that isn’t the movie’s deadliest sin.

What I object to most about Tomorrowland is that the filmmakers have dumbed it down to appeal to a younger audience. Gigantic leaps in logic and common sense abound here as we get to watch a kid save the world. I don’t object intrinsically to having a kid be smart, but smarter than everyone else? Wisdom comes with experience; it isn’t something we are born with, something movies aimed at kids conveniently tend to overlook in order to stroke the fantasies of kids in that they’re smarter than the adults around them, and more able. While thankfully most of the adults in the film aren’t portrayed as buffoons as they often are in kid-oriented films, not one of them seems to have any sort of optimism within them whatsoever which defies the odds. I think making this too kid-oriented was a tremendous error. Look at the facts; on those Disney attraction-based films that have been completely kid-oriented (i.e. The Haunted Mansion, Country Bears) the box office has been anemic. On those that have aimed to be entertaining to all audiences (i.e. the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise) the box office was through the roof. Not all of it was Johnny Depp, mateys; a lot of it had to do with that most adults won’t watch Nickelodeon, the Cartoon Network or the Disney Channel for very long.

Clooney puts aside his suave sex symbol image and plays an unshaven, pessimistic sort who out-Get Off My Lawns Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino. He doesn’t flash his trademark grin very often in the movie, but remains engaging and charismatic nonetheless. I can’t say the same for Robertson however. I get that her character is supposed to be optimistic to the point of mania but she comes off as cloying instead. Worse, she seems to be overacting throughout, using broad gestures and expressions where subtlety would have been more appreciated. The 24-year-old Robertson is playing a young girl in her mid-teens and I get that girls that age are generally more dramatically inclined and that playing it over-the-top is more realistic than subtlety but it takes me out of the movie as I am continually reminded that someone is acting here.

This will probably rank as one of the summer’s greater disappointments. I had high hopes for it and was hoping that perhaps a new franchise might be brewing. The movie is doing pretty well at the box office but given its monster budget will have a hard time recouping all of it at the rate it is going.. I think if Bird had taken a page from Gore Verbinski’s book and appealed less to the youngest moviegoing audience and more to a more mature audience, this could have been a huge hit; it does have some admirable ideas to think about and is visually impressive but at the end of the day the things in the film that are annoying trump the things in the movie that are worthwhile. A world of tears, indeed.

REASONS TO GO: Nifty eye candy (not Clooney). Some fairly complex themes.
REASONS TO STAY: Dumbed down. Robertson overacts.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mildly bad language, sci-fi violence (robots beating each other up) and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When Casey confronts the holographic dog early on in the film, her footprints form a Hidden Mickey.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/3/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mom and Dad Save the World
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Top Spin

Resident Evil: Afterlife


Resident Evil: Afterlife

A triple treat for Milla Jovovich fans!

(2010) Sci-Fi Horror Action (Screen Gems) Milla Jovovich, Aly Larter, Kim Coates, Shawn Roberts, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Spencer Locke, Boris Kodjoe, Wentworth Miller, Sienna Guillory, Kacey Barnfield, Norman Yeung, Fulvio Cecere, Ray Olubuwale.  Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

The term “popcorn movies” refers to movies that are kind of lightweight, don’t require a lot of thought and are thoroughly entertaining. For some critics, popcorn movies are a dirty word. For moviegoers however, they are often the reason they go to the multiplex in the first place.

Alice (Jovovich), the superhuman T-virus recipient of the Umbrella Corporation, invades their Tokyo facility with a small army of her clones in order to take out Albert Wesker (Roberts), the malevolent CEO who unleashed the horror of undead flesh eaters on the world and effectively instituted Armageddon.

Wesker escapes but not before infecting Alice with an antidote to the T-Virus, effectively taking away all her superhuman attributes and rendering her human once again. At a crossroads, she decides to fly to Alaska to link up with the friends she sent up there to find Arcadia, the reputed safe haven for non-infected humans. Instead, she is attacked by her friend Claire Redfield (Larter) who has a strange device strapped on her. Alice manages to defeat Claire and take off the device, but Claire has lost most of her memories of what happened to her teammates that went up there with her.

They decide to follow the Arcadia signal which is now down in Los Angeles. There they find a group of survivors in a high security prison surrounded by zombies. The ragtag band is led by Luther West (Kodjoe), a former pro basketball player. Among them is Bennett (Coates), a self-centered former film producer, Yong (Yeung) his assistant, Crystal Waters (Barnfield), a former actress, Angel (Peris-Mencheta) a mechanic and incarcerated in the prison, Chris Redfield (Miller), Claire’s brother (small world, ain’t it).

Alice finds out that Arcadia is actually a tanker that has been moving up and down the West Coast, picking up survivors as it goes along. The plan is then to get themselves there and try to make it past the horde of survivors that surrounds them, among whom is the Executioner, a gigantic zombie carrying a gigantic hammer.

Chris claims to know an alternative way out. First, they would need to get a mobile infantry vehicle ready which Angel, Bennett and Yong are tasked to do. Second, they would need to reinforce the front gate to buy them more time to get ready, which is Luther and Claire’s job. Finally, they needed weapons and Chris, Crystal and Alice go to the armory to retrieve them.

However, their time is running out. Zombies are beginning to find ways into the prison through the sewers. The gates are failing. They are about to be betrayed from within. And once they make it to Arcadia, what is it that they are going to find there? New hope? Or a new betrayal?

Anderson, who directed the original Resident Evil and has written or co-written all of the movies in the franchise, returns to the director chair for the second time and takes the series, which had begun to look moribund after the last two movies, and revitalizes it. The action moves at a frenetic pace here and the opening Tokyo sequence is one of the best in the entire series in terms of mayhem.

One of the main reasons for seeing any of the Resident Evil movies is Jovovich. She is a genuine action star, as good as Linda Hamilton in her day or Angelina Jolie currently. Jovovich does most of her own stunts, but also is beautiful and charismatic onscreen. Going back to her days in The Fifth Element she has become one of the more reliable actresses when it comes to action movies. She’s also capable of dramatic acting, although she doesn’t get many of those sorts of roles these days.

I might have liked to have a bit more exposition in terms of some of the mutant zombies. The Executioner, for example, just shows up at the prison gate. How did he get so huge? What’s his backstory? Gamers might know the answer, or they might not care but a movie audience requires a bit more substance.

The movie kicks ass, which for the most part is all anybody picking up a disc or streaming it is after. Who’s gonna argue with a small group of attractive people kicking zombie and monster ass? Not me, I can tell you. The movie works the way it’s supposed to and leaves room for a sequel that brings back Jill Valentine (Guillory), reason enough to make fans of the series giddy. Although a giddy gamer can be a site far more terrifying than any flesh eating zombie.

WHY RENT THIS: High octane action and Jovovich make a lethal combination.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not a lot of character development and monsters show up without explanation other than for kick-ass value.

FAMILY VALUES: Big time violence, some fairly foul language and a few disturbing images make this one I’d think twice about showing to smaller kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first film of the series to be released in IMAX and also the highest grossing film of the series to date.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While there isn’t much on the DVD in terms of extras, the Blu-Ray has a trivia track as well as a picture-in-picture feature (Undead-Vision) that is one of the better of these type offered. There’s also a nice nod to the gamers who make up the core of the RE audience with a feature on them called “Pwning the Undead: Gamers of the Afterlife.”

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $296.2M on a $60M production budget; the movie was a big hit.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Captain America: The First Avenger

2012


2012

Here's the real star of 2012.

(Columbia) John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, Woody Harrelson, Thandie Newton, Danny Glover, Thomas McCarthy, Liam James, Morgan Lily, Zlatko Buric, Beatrice Rosen, Johann Urb, John Billingsley, Jimi Mistry. Directed by Roland Emmerich

Nearly every culture has an end-of-the-world scenario, as does almost every religion. What would happen if one of them actually came to pass?

Dr. Adrian Helmsley (Ejiofor) is a junior geologist working for the U.S. Government. When he gets a call from colleague and old friend Dr. Tsurutani (Mistry) summoning him to India, he is happy to go but a bit mystified by the urgency. When his friend shows him figures regarding the temperature at the earth’s core, Helmsley immediately gets on a plane and crashes a fundraiser where presidential advisor Carl Anheuser (Platt) is holding forth. When Helmsley shows Anheuser the report, Anheuser leaves the fundraiser and informs Helmsley that he now works for Anheuser.

Flash forward several years later. Unsuccessful science fiction writer Jackson Curtis (Cusack) is resorting to driving a limo for an overbearing Russian billionaire (Buric). He gets a weekend off to take his kids – angry Noah (James) and incontinent Lilly (Lily) – camping at Yellowstone, where he and estranged wife Kate (Peet) once canoodled.

He meets a whacko end-of-the-world nutjob named Charlie Frost (Harrelson) who tells him why he and Kate’s favorite lake has dried up, and in the best conspiracy theory fashion, that the government not only knows about it but has been feverishly building spaceships to save the human race, the locations of which he conveniently has a map to.

Initially Curtis dismisses Charlie’s ravings but when they start to come true, he hightails it back to L.A. in his stretch limo and races against the earthquakes that will soon render the City of Angels a disaster zone, which might bring the property values down somewhat. From then on, Curtis and his family along with Kate’s nebbish plastic surgeon boyfriend (McCarthy) try to stay one step ahead of Armageddon.

Those special effects are absolutely worth the price of admission. Realistic and spectacular at the same time, we watch things in the words of the immortal Farm Film Report “blow up real good” and then blow up real good some more. Fleets of helicopters fill the skies as do flocks of hysterical birds escaping their impending doom. Waves crash over the Himalayas like they were pebbles on a beach, and we lap up every mind-blowing second of it knowing that it’s a little ghoulish but nevertheless we love it.

Cusack makes for an attractive lead. He’s not really suited for the action hero genre being much more of a hip indie sort but he soldiers on like the trooper he is. Ejiofor is one of those actors who I tend not to think about as a really compelling performer but every time I see him I notice how good he is – I think he’ll be on my list of must-see actors soon. Glover makes for a dignified president but compared to the Morgan Freeman presidency we got in Deep Impact doesn’t hold up quite as well, but still it’s nice to see him. Peet and Platt are two outstanding actors who take what they can out of a script that really doesn’t deserve them.

The big problem here is that the script is so predictable and cliché that after awhile you just long for a twist or a turn that you aren’t expecting. Also the movie at nearly two and a half hours is about 20-30 minutes too long. Still, these are things that get swept aside when you are in your special effects happy place.

Emmerich in that respect has become the Irwin Allen of his generation, and 2012 might just be his masterwork in that regard. He takes some pretty good actors who know well enough to just go with the preposterous dialogue and lets loose his digital effects subcontractors. The results are great entertainment and if that’s what you’re after then you’re in the right theater.

REASONS TO GO: Spectacular apocalyptic special effects overwhelm the many script deficiencies. John Cusack even in his weaker performances is worth seeing.

REASONS TO STAY: The script is predictable and riddled with clichés. Character development is nearly non-existent.

FAMILY VALUES: A good deal of disaster violence and some occasional salty language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character name of Jackson Curtis is the real name of rapper 50 Cent backwards (Curtis Jackson).

HOME OR THEATER: The eye-popping disaster scenes must be seen on the big screen to get the full experience.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Superbad

Knowing


Nicolas Cage is irate - not because the plane crashed but because he was forced to fly coach.

Nicolas Cage is irate - not because the plane crashed but because he was forced to fly coach.

(Summit) Nicolas Cage, Rose Byrne, Chandler Canterbury, D.G. Maloney, Lara Robinson, Nadia Townsend, Alethea McGrath, Danielle Carter, Adrienne Pickering, Alan Hopgood, Ben Mendelsohn, David Lennie. Directed by Alex Proyas

We are all of us curious to one degree or another about the future. It is the infinite unknown, and yet we are all touched by it. After all, we are all meant to live in it, although sooner or later our future comes to a halt, and then we die. While we are curious about our future, we are less curious about the nature of our own demise. After all, who wants to know how and when they are to meet their maker? Would knowing make any difference whatsoever?

It is 1959 and the William Dawes Elementary School has opened its doors for the very first time. Miss Taylor (Carter), a teacher there, is pleased and delighted that one of the students in her class was responsible for the idea that was selected to mark the occasion; a time capsule to which all the students would submit drawings of what they thought the future would look like. The winning student, Lucinda (Robinson), is an odd sort; quiet and distracted, she is tormented by the sound of whispering voices which only she can hear. While her classmates are drawing rocket ships and robot, she is furiously, almost mechanically, writing a sequence of seemingly random numbers. A little unnerved, Miss Taylor puts her sheet of numbers into an envelope, and along with all the other envelopes, into the time capsule where it will remain sealed in the ground.

It is 2009 and young Caleb Koestler (Canterbury), a student at Dawes, is preparing for the anniversary celebration the next day. His father John (Cage), an astrophysics professor at M.I.T., is grieving the loss of Caleb’s mother (Pickering) in a hotel fire the previous year. While he appears to be functioning, he’s numbing himself out with alcohol and musing on whether the universe is orderly, marching along to a plan, or is simply a random sequence of coincidences which ultimately has no meaning.

When the time capsule is unearthed and the contents removed, it is young Caleb who receives the sequence of numbers. He takes it as a possible math puzzle, but when his father sees it, he finds that it is something far more chilling. It is a list of every major disaster in sequential order for the past fifty years. Asian tsunamis, Mexican earthquakes, 9-11, they’re all there with the date of the disaster and the exact death toll. There are, however, three events that haven’t happened yet. The last of them indicates a disaster of global proportions.

Director Proyas has been responsible for some of the most innovative and interesting movies of the past ten years, including The Crow and Dark City. This is one of his more mainstream efforts. The premise is intriguing, to say the least, but the execution is a little bit disappointing. From a technical standpoint, this is a very well-made film. The effects are spectacular bordering on terrifying, but at times they seem to be the reason the film was made to begin with, never a good thing.

The problem here is a script ponderously heavy with coincidence and contrivance. For example, how does John Koestler deduce that the sequence of numbers is all about disasters? Believe me, it’s a pretty impressive string of numbers but to randomly pull a few numbers from the string and determine it refers to 9-11 stretches credibility past the breaking point. Throw in a group of eerie strangers who watch in unnerving silence and you’ve got Armageddon meets Dark City meets Close Encounters. It’s unnecessarily complex, and yet you feel like you’ve seen it all before. By the time you reach the film’s godawful ending, you’re convinced you’ve already seen it before.

I’d pay ten bucks to watch Cage gargle with Listerine, but he doesn’t have much support – okay, make that any. Rose Byrne is hideous as the grown daughter of Lucinda who doesn’t have much to do beyond getting hysterical and acting not so much as a mother fighting for the safety and well-being of her child, but basically like a panicked hysteric. She’s a mom, but without a maternal instinct. Da Queen found her thoroughly unbelievable, but that was more the fault of the script. However, she did chew the scenery ever so thoroughly. 

Much of the movie rests on the shoulders of the child actors playing Caleb, Lucinda and Abby (Lucinda’s granddaughter, played by the same juvenile actress who plays Lucinda), and for the most part the kids are alright, particularly Robinson as the tormented Lucinda. However, the screenwriters turn Caleb into one of those preternaturally mature children who don’t really exist in real life. It’s a Hollywood mistake and it takes you out of the movie early and often.

The movie is not without some merit – Proyas is an outstanding director with a great hand for science fiction. Unfortunately this movie is a bit of a mess, a concept that looked great on paper but became unwieldy in practice. It’s a great looking mess, and Nicolas Cage is in it so it’s at least a palatable mess, but a mess nonetheless.

WHY RENT THIS: The disaster sequences are riveting, and often terrifying. Nicolas Cage is one of those actors whose presence in a movie will motivate me to see the movie regardless of plot or anything else. The whole concept is rather intriguing.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script is poorly written in places, relying too much on contrivance and coincidence. Once you get past Cage, the acting becomes a bit rocky. The ending strains credulity and there are too many unnecessary plot threads.

FAMILY VALUES: The disaster sequences may be too intense for those who are sensitive about mayhem. Children are placed in jeopardy, which is offensive to some. Otherwise, this is pretty much fine for all members of the family except for the very young and impressionable.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The equation on the blackboards during the classroom sequence are actually clever mathematic predictors of the events that take place at the end of the movie.

NOTABLE DVD  EXTRAS: An interesting feature on the apocalypse, exploring the origins of the concept and scientific thought on how it might actually occur.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Man on Wire