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

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The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen


The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Sean Connery is the epitome of an extraordinary gentleman.

(2003) Action (20th Century Fox) Sean Connery, Richard Roxburgh, Peta Wilson, Stuart Townsend, Naseeruddin Shah, Tony Curran, Shane West, Jason Flemyng, Max Ryan, Tom Goodman-Hill, David Hemmings, Terry O’Neill, Rudolf Pellar, Robert Willox. Directed by Stephen Norrington

 

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, based on a wonderful graphic novel by Alan Moore, had such high expectations among its fans that almost no movie could meet them. Consequently it got terrible reviews and a great deal of Internet drubbing, which is too bad, since it’s quite a nice little movie.

The setting is just before the 20th century. The legendary African explorer and adventurer Allan Quatermain (Connery) lives a semi-retired life, having already found King Solomon’s Mines. He is recruited to save England from a madman, one who is using terrible technology to set world powers against one another in an effort to start a World War.

Queen Victoria is very much against the idea, so she has the mysterious M (Roxburgh) recruit the most extraordinary team of people she can find; Mina Harker (Wilson), who suffers from an unusual blood disease; the brilliant Captain Nemo (Shah), captain of the fabulous Nautilus; Rodney Skinner (Curran), a petty thief who happens to be invisible; and Henry Jekyll (Flemyng), who hides a hideous dark side. They also recruit the fey Dorian Grey (Townsend), a brilliant mind who has seen it all.

Attacked by the goons of their quarry, they escape with the aid of Tom Sawyer (West), a brash American Secret Service agent. Together, as a league, they journey to Venice to prevent the destruction of a peace conference. They are too late to entirely prevent the bombs from going off, but by teaming together they manage to save the city and most of its populace. They find that there is a traitor in their midst, and their adversary is not who they think he is at all.

This film has taken its share of critical abuse, and some of it is deserved. There are some definite leaps in logic; having a sub the size of the Nautilus floating in the canals of Venice is ludicrous at best. The computer-generated Mr. Hyde is dreadful. However, despite the reported problems on the set between Connery and director Stephen Norrington, Connery handles his role like a pro, making a believable Quatermain. He is gruff and irritable but absolutely money in the clutch. This is Connery’s film and he carries it well.

The atmosphere of a Victorian era slightly warped from the reality of history comes off nicely. There are plenty of terrific effects to make this big screen-friendly. The cast, once you get past Connery, is decent enough but nobody really stands out except for Townsend as Dorian Grey, channeling “Project Runway” a bit too much. Wilson, so good in the “La Femme Nikita” TV series, has plenty of screen presence but it’s not really channeled well, more the fault of the filmmakers than the actress.

Does it measure up to its source comic? Depends on what you mean. And it shouldn’t have to. Comparing a movie to a comic is like comparing a car to a plane. They are different media with different qualities. The comic book League is one of the best (IMHO) ever, and the film wisely departs from its storyline. Why compete with greatness when you can, perhaps, establish your own?  Of course, the movie doesn’t really establish greatness but it does try. Seeing all these beloved fictional characters together is a hoot, but ultimately is disappointing; you don’t get the sense of epic adventure their original tales gave us.

The movie actually did better in the global market than it did here in America. Although room is left at the end for a sequel, you will never see one. Moore has divorced himself completely from the movie, which in all fairness, he has pretty much done with every movie made on his source material. Still, it’s a wonderful concept, and the atmosphere combined with Connery as an adventure hero is enough to make this a movie worth seeing – especially inasmuch as this is, in all likelihood, Connery’s final film.

WHY RENT THIS: What is in all likelihood Connery’s final film performance is delivered with all the fire and charisma of all his previous ones. Fascinating concept. A kick to see all those beloved fictional heroes together.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks the epic spirit of adventure of the source. A bit silly in places.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s plenty of action violence, a few bad words scattered here and there and a bit of sexual innuendo.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was one of the first five movies to be released on Blu-Ray by Fox.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $179.3M on a $78M production budget; despite the perception that this was a flop,it actually made a slight profit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Ice Age: Continental Drift

Journey 2: Mysterious Island


Journey 2: The Mysterious Island

My name...is Michael Caine.

(2012) Family (New Line) Dwayne Johnson, Michael Caine, Josh Hutcherson, Vanessa Hudgens, Luis Guzman, Kristin Davis, Anna Colwell, Stephen Caudill, Branscombe Richmond, Walter Bankson. Directed by Brad Peyton

 

Jules Verne was one of the great science fiction writers of all-time. Among the things he presaged in his works included submarines and space travel. His books are some of the most beloved ever written. They’ve been made into movies many times over, some of them becoming classics of cinema as well (I’m looking at you, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea).

This won’t be. In fact, there is almost nothing in common with Verne’s Mysterious Island other than the title and that they’re both set on an island. Billed as a sequel to 2008’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (but only retaining Hutcherson from that cast), the movie starts out with Sean Anderson (Hutcherson) attempting to elude the police on his motorbike.

It turns out that the reason the cops were chasing him, other than for driving a motorbike, was that he’d broken into a satellite dish shack to boost the signal of a message he believes is from his grandfather, two years missing. Unfortunately, it’s in code so Sean can’t be sure.

Needless to say this doesn’t sit well with his mother (Davis, played by Jane Wheeler in the original) who has since remarried, to ex-Navy code breaker Hank (Johnson) who Sean is having trouble bonding with his well-muscled stepdad. That code breaking stint comes in handy as Hank helps Sean solve the code and locate Grandpa in the South Pacific. Sean is raring to go fetch.

However, like any sensible stepdad, he is willing to fly with his troubled stepson to Palau (close to where the signal originated from) to charter a helicopter to the island which apparently is in a stretch of ocean where nothing exists. Piloting the ‘copter is Gabato (Guzman), also known as plucky comedy relief and his comely daughter Kailani (Hudgens), also known as gratuitous tank top and Daisy Dukes wearer.

The four take off for the island that nobody thinks exists in a patch of ocean known for its extreme storms. Yeah, Hank’s parenting skills are right up there with the parents of Sparta; danger? Leave the weak ones in the snow to die.

Anyway, predictably the storms wreck the copter and the four are stranded on the island where elephants are the size of Chihuahuas and lizards are the size of city busses. After a run in with an angry mama lizard after a stroll through an egg field that the team of “Top Chef” could turn into an amazing omelet (complete with an attack from a grouchy lizard embryo), the castaways run into dear old Grandpa, Alexander Anderson (Caine) who has built himself a nice little treehouse and MacGyvered a radio out of a spoon and a watch…or something like that.

However, there’s a problem. The island is sinking and they have only a few days to get away before their real estate with an ocean view gets a whole lot closer to water – and on top of that those pesky Class 5 hurricanes (with fancy water spouts) are still hanging around the island. Their only hope may lie with a 150 year old vessel that may or may not exist.

Like the first movie, the environment is nearly all CGI as well as all of the critters both large and small. Given the tropical setting, it’s a little bit of “Lost” with a whole lot of Disney. While the mouse house isn’t responsible for any of this, there’s an element of theme park attraction here and in a good way. The movie has a sunny energy that takes your mind off of things for the hour and a half you’re watching it.

Much of the reason for that is Dwayne Johnson. He’s become a genuine movie star, elevating every movie he appears in, and this one is no exception. Johnson’s charm carries the movie – he even sings the old Sam Cooke chestnut “What a Wonderful World” while accompanying himself on the ukulele. Yes, the Rock sings. Deal with it.

Hutcherson hasn’t yet impressed me as a lead. He’s a bit on the wooden side and lacks the charisma to really take over a scene and make it his own and the colorless Hudgens generates no sparks with him. Caine plays a bit of the rascal here, which he does as well as anybody. His banter with Johnson make some of the movies best moments.

That said, the CGI can be a little weak and the conceit that the Island is the remains of Atlantis makes absolutely no sense – the island was supposed to be in the Atlantic ocean, not the South Pacific for one thing. Also, the set for Atlantis has a tile mural that says “Atlantis.” In English. Makes it look more like a Bahamian resort than an ancient civilization, dude.

Like the first movie, the intent is to go family first and adventure second. Therefore the critters – including giant bees, ants, centipedes and spiders – never feel too dangerous and the five never seem to be in too much danger. A little more tension might have made this a better movie.

Still it’s entertaining enough, with plenty of eye candy and lots of easy charm, mainly courtesy of Johnson. Like the movie’s predecessor it isn’t going to win a lot of kudos from Jules Verne’s fans but it is a movie likely to keep both young and old interested. Nothing wrong with that.

REASONS TO GO: Dwayne Johnson is at his best here and Caine is always reliable. Some fairly whimsical moments.

REASONS TO STAY: Weak CGI in places and a real lack of imagination in the Atlantis scenes. Tried too hard to be family-friendly and wound up missing a real sense of jeopardy.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few scenes with critters that might be too frightening for the impressionable, as well as a couple of mildly bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Dwayne Johnson, who is the lead here, and Brendan Fraser, who was the lead in the first movie, played characters in The Mummy Returns and Caine played Captain Nemo (whose submarine the Nautilus makes an appearance here) in the 1997 version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/20/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100. The reviews are fairly mixed but trending towards the negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Journey to the Center of the Earth

JULES VERNE LOVERS: References three of his novels (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Mysterious Island and From the Earth to the Moon) as well as being the sequel to a movie loosely based on a fourth (Journey to the Center of the Earth). The author himself appears photographically on the walls of Sean’s bedroom.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Vow

Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008)


Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008)

Anna Briem and Brendan Fraser test out the next theme park attraction based on the movie.

(New Line) Brendan Fraser, Josh Hutcherson, Anita Briem, Seth Meyers, Jane Wheeler, Jean Michel Pare, Garth Gilker. Directed by Eric Brevig

The trouble with making a movie from a classic novel – particularly one that has been filmed as many times as this one has – is that it’s easy for the audience to get the feeling that they’ve seen it all before, even if they haven’t.

Trevor Anderson (Fraser) is a volcanologist who gets little respect from his colleagues, particularly from Professor Kitzens (Meyers) who covets his lab space at the university to use for storage. Trevor has spent most of the past ten years trying to prove the theories of his brother Max (Pare) who had disappeared ten years earlier while out in the field.

To make matters worse, Trevor has forgotten that he has agreed to watch over his nephew Sean (Hutcherson) while his sister-in-law (Wheeler) is out of town. Sean and Trevor regard each other warily, with only the long-missing Max in common between them. Sean barely remembers his father; Trevor is a painful reminder of that.

His sister-in-law has also brought some of Max’s effects that she thought Trevor might want to have including a copy of Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” There are some strange notations in Max’s handwriting in the margins, as well as a name – Dr. Sigurbjorn Asgeirsson.

Noticing that one of Max’s sensors in Iceland seems to be active, Trevor realizes that Max might have been onto something and here at last was his chance to prove Max’s theories once and for all. Reluctantly taking Sean in tow, he heads over to Iceland and to see Dr. Asgeirsson.

The Asgeirsson Institute of Volcanology turns out to be an unprepossessing shack in the middle of Icelandic nowhere – which is about as far away from anything resembling civilization as you can get. The good doctor turns out to be dead, but his daughter Hannah (Briem) isn’t. She reveals that her father, like Max, was a Vernian, a somewhat cultish group of people who believed that the works of Jules Verne weren’t fiction but was in fact documentaries of actual events. She knows the location of Max’s last sensor and can guide them there, which she does. However, a lightning storm chases them into a cave and then a stray lightning strike seals the entrance of the cave with a rock fall. Don’t you just hate when that happens?

Forced to find another way out, the trio find some old mine tunnels and go looking for an alternate means to the surface. Instead, they plunge through extremely thin rock and fall a long ways down into an entirely strange and different world.

Here they discover strange glowing birds, gigantic fungi and weird lifeforms that have either vanished from the surface world or were never there to begin with. However they discover to their consternation that the temperature is rising and if they don’t find a way out soon, they will all die and lie buried forever in the center of the earth.

We’ve seen this movie before, or at least a pale imitation of it. We’ve seen lizards masquerading as dinosaurs and fiberglass sets with twinkling lights. Here, we see a fully realized digital domain with amazing creatures and realistic environments. The movie was filmed using 3D, and there are plenty of 3D effects likely to make you jump off of your couch.

Fraser has the kind of charm that is lovable in a goofy kind of way. He is aw-shucks modest and a little bit clumsy as action heroes go but when the chips are down he can throw a punch. He’s the center of the movie and when he’s on as he is here he can carry a movie effectively.

Briem is a fresh-faced find, filling the romantic interest role with a different flavor than we usually get with American actresses. The only quibble I would have is that there wasn’t as much romantic spark between her and Fraser as I would have liked, although I think that the script was written that way in deference to the family audience it was going for.

The filmmakers (and probably the studio as well) seem to have been aiming for family-friendly action adventure and you get plenty of it here. It isn’t terribly offensive or scary (although there are a couple of scenes that the youngest of children might be frightened of) and therein lies the movie’s big issue. It is a little too whitebread for my tastes. I could have done with a few more scares and a little less of the annoying nephew. Still, if you have kids and you want to see something big and action-packed, this is your ticket.

WHY RENT THIS: Big, broad adventure for the entire family with some nifty 3D effects. Fraser’s goofy charm carries most of the movie.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Extremely disposable and bland. There is little or no chemistry between Hannah and Trevor.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fairly scary dinosaur as well as some hungry carnivorous fish but otherwise suitable for the entire family.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During an early scene in the caverns, the explorers come across emeralds, rubies and diamonds. The diamonds the explorers examine are already cut and polished; in the raw they would actually resemble yellowish pebbles.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Loaded with ‘em! It comes with both 2D and 3D editions of the movie, and four pairs of 3D glasses for viewing it in all its multi-dimensional glory. There is an interesting feature on the history of “hollow world” theories, as well as the scientists who loved them as well as a couple of interactive games.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Shutter Island