Tomorrowland

Tomorrowland should be a slam dunk. It’s Disney. It’s George Clooney. It’s Brad Bird (director). It’s nostalgia. It’s the future. But, like an errant jet pack, it goes off course.

Not to say that Tomorrowland isn’t entertaining. It is. But it could’ve been great. And, sadly, it’s just okay.

The concept has merit, but there’s just too much “business” going on and not quite enough real meat on the bones of this message movie. And, in case you don’t get the message, it is pounded into you: Yes, we have big problems in our world. But rather than complain about them, you should get busy solving those problems.

Frank Walker (George Clooney, with stubble) opens the film by talking about the future and how attitudes toward the future have changed since he was a kid.

A young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) is shown attending the 1964 New York World’s Fair and showing off the jet pack he’s invented. Nix (Hugh Laurie) nixes the device but young Athena (Raffey Cassidy) helps deliver him (and the jetpack) into Oz, um, I mean, Tomorrowland.

Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) is busted while trying to sneak onto the grounds at Cape Canaveral. She finds a cool pin among her personal effects when her rocket scientist dad (Tim McGraw) bails her out. The pin takes her to Tomorrowland.

Upon her return, she visits a collectables store and asks the clerks (Keegan-Michael Key and Katherine Hahn) about the pin, thereby setting in motion a sequence that echoes Men In Black.

With guidance from Athena, Casey meets up with Frank Walker and they begin their mission to get back to where they once belonged.

Tomorrowland bogs down on more than one occasion in preachy dialogue. And for a PG-rated movie, there are a couple of things that might freak out a small fry—such as when a little girl is hit by a speeding truck. Oh, she bounces right up, but the shock resonates.

For those of us who’ve made a few journeys around the sun, Tomorrowland comes off as idealistic pap. We’ve rolled our eyes at futuristic visions for decades.

For the younger, bright-eyed optimists of the world, this great big beautiful Tomorrowland is manna from Disney heaven. If your cynicism level is zero, you’ll eat Tomorrowland up like warm gooey butter cake.

Pitch Perfect 2

Pitch Perfect 2 hits all the right notes. It’s funny. The music is tremendous. The film’s opening scene which features Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) in a “commando performance” kicks things off on a raucous tone. A spontaneous acapella sing-off guided by David Cross is a blast.

As with any sequel, the goal is to revisit what made the first film a fan favorite and to introduce new elements to surprise and delight.

What’s new this time? A new Barden Bella, Emily (Hailee Steinfeld). Several Green Bay Packers singing in the film. A smoldering romance between Amy and Bumper (Adam Devine). Becca’s (Anna Kendrick) internship at a record company run by Keegan-Michael Key. And a new rival for the Bellas, an edgy German acapella group led by a hunk and a hottie.

Does it feel fresh? Yes, but it’s like the second time you taste something wonderful. It’s just as good but it’s hard to match the feeling of that first time.

The film begins with a Barden Bellas performance in Washington before the President and First Lady. Amy has a wardrobe malfunction that results in shame for the group (abundant media coverage and jokes about “Muffgate”) and a suspension from the college president. But there is one shot at redemption.

The suspension does not affect the group’s invitation to compete at the world championship event in Copenhagen. Can you imagine what might happen there?

Elizabeth Banks, who also directed PP2, is back as co-host Gail who, along with master of snark John Michael Higgins as co-host John, delivers some of the film’s funniest lines.

Pitch Perfect 2 comes awfully close to matching the energy and novelty of 2012’s Pitch Perfect. With the current absence of traditional movie musicals, let’s hope that PP2 generates enough ticket sales to keep the (sequel) ball rolling. It’s a feel good flick that will make you smile.

Mad Max: Fury Road

George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road is a loud, violent, angry film that assaults the senses with adrenaline-fueled vehicle chases, fiery crashes and painful death. It is a masterful piece of filmmaking.

In a future wasteland, the scenario is ripe for revolt. A tyrannical leader King Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) rules a population that receives water only sparingly. Within the mountainside lair called the Citadel, where women produce breast milk to sustain the ruler and his minions, Max (Tom Hardy) is imprisoned.

Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is selected to pilot a tanker to Gastown along the straight and narrow Fury Road. When she heads off course into unpaved desert, King Joe and his convoy pursue, with Max secured to a lead truck like a human hood ornament. On one vehicle, a guitar player provides a rockin’ accompaniment to the mission (with a guitar that is a flame throwing weapon).

After Max escapes and joins forces with Furiosa, he finds that she is ferrying five gorgeous babes, the mountainside leader’s sex slaves, to her intended destination, a land of vegetation where she was born. The chase continues until… they all head back to the Citadel.

Mad Max: Fury Road is one of the best action/adventure films I’ve ever seen. Because of its fantastic settings, its distinctive characters, its primal story, its savage spirit, its forceful soundtrack and its high energy level. The film starts at a sprint and doesn’t slow down until 30 minutes in.

Hardy is a brilliant choice to play a hero who saves his own skin first, then becomes part of a bigger effort to help others. Theron, in her non-glam buzz cut, is all business as her character asserts her own will and proves to be just as tough as any man.

Director Miller may be guilty of overkill, but the unrelenting intensity of Mad Max: Fury Road will satisfy audiences who are ready to have their minds blown. For action movie fans, Mad Max: Fury Road is a must-see!

Far From The Madding Crowd

 

Carey Mulligan wears her impish grin and her impressive wardrobe to great advantage in Far From The Madding Crowd. As Bathsheba Everdene, she has spunk. She’s an independent woman who claims she doesn’t need a man—while three suitors want her.

Set in the late 1800’s in rural England, FFTMC (based on the Thomas Hardy novel) teems with sexual tension. When this beautiful woman on horseback meets her handsome neighbor, sheepherder Gabriel Oaks (Matthias Schoenaerts), the attraction leads to his quick proposal of marriage (and gift of a baby lamb). She says no.

Bathsheba inherits a successful farm from an uncle and hires Oaks (who has lost his farm after all his sheep die) to work for her. Meanwhile, middle-aged neighbor, bachelor farmer William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), offers his hand (and the prospect of a farming merger). Again, she says no.

Enter handsome soldier Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge). Yep, women love a man in uniform! He impresses her with his swordsmanship. (Is the sword a sexual metaphor? I think yes.) He introduces her to the pleasures of the flesh and marries her. But a quick case of buyer’s remorse sets in, leading to the story’s final chapters.

Not unlike a similarly named fictional character, Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games (novelist Suzanne Collins took the Everdeen name from FFTMC), Bathsheba operates proactively. She is not the demure flower of a woman we often see in Victorian era stories. She gets things done even if it causes her to get her hands dirty. When she jumps into the water to help with sheep washing, her farmhands (and Oaks and Boldwood) are impressed.

Director Thomas Vinterberg and screenwriter David Nicholls keep the story moving at a quick pace. (The 1967 version of FFTMC starring Julie Christie ran nearly an hour longer than the new film.) A nice slowdown is the after dinner song Bathsheba sings with Boldwood.

Carey Mulligan has turned in several impressive performances in recent years but has not dominated a film quite like she does in Far From The Madding Crowd. This is her showcase and she shines.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hot Pursuit

 

Hot Pursuit is a disappointment. It’s not funny. Just minutes into the show, it becomes obvious that the film, which is essentially one extended chase scene, is going nowhere.

Policewoman Cooper (Reese Witherspoon) and drug lord wife Daniella Riva (Sofia Vergara) are travel mates in this would-be madcap comedy. Like last year’s Tammy, the set up is okay, the stars are likable, but the movie, ultimately, is a failure.

Cooper is assigned to escort Riva to Dallas where her drug lord husband is set to testify against a former partner. But the pickup is botched when gangs burst in with guns blazing. Cooper and Riva escape and take to the road in a classic Cadillac convertible, the first of several vehicles they’ll use to get to their destination.

Witherspoon, despite being raised in Nashville, speaks with a southern accent that sounds inauthentic. Vergara, brings little beyond her Modern Family TV persona to her role. Neither excels at physical comedy. Hot Pursuit is a mess.

Who gets the blame? Director Anne Fletcher delivered another bad road trip movie The Guilt Trip (with Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand) in 2012. The writers David Feeney and John Quaintance are veterans of (mostly failed) TV sitcoms. With the exceptions of comedians Jim Gaffigan and Mike Birbiglia in small roles, the supporting cast has no real charm.

Witherspoon and Vergara have producer and executive producer credits, so they are among the culprits.

I’ll concede there are a handful of chuckles, but if you want big laughs you won’t find them here. (Even the outtakes that are shown during closing credits are not funny.) Do not pursue.

Ex Machina

 

The best film I’ve seen this year is Ex Machina, which ranks near Bladerunner in its story of artificial intelligence creatures and their interactions with humans.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a 26-year-old coder for a large search engine. He wins a company-wide lottery and is chosen to spend a week with the company’s founder, the just slightly older Nathan (Oscar Issac) at Nathan’s remote mountain hideaway.

After a copter ride over miles of wilderness, Caleb makes his way to Nathan’s crib and meets the quirky genius. Nathan tells Caleb about Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot Nathan has created that Caleb will evaluate over the next few days.

Caleb never gets comfortable. His room, and much of the building, has no windows. There are occasional power shutdowns. Nathan counters his drinking binges with extreme workouts. Nathan speaks to his female Japanese housemaid (Sonoya Mizuno) abusively.

Caleb has daily sessions with Ava where they converse but are separated by glass. Following the sessions, Nathan debriefs Caleb.

As the week progresses, Caleb’s curiosity about Ava and her capabilities grows. As with Deckard and Rachael in Bladerunner, Caleb and Ava appear to be developing genuine affection for one another, which helps set up the story’s climax.

Rookie director Alex Garland makes a smashing debut in a film that is understated. This movie depends more on a thoughtful script (Garland wrote it) than on effects and tricks. The focus on conversations makes Ex Machina a film that, with a few accommodations, could be presented as a stage play.

With a small group of actors carrying the film, casting and performances are crucial. Issac and Gleeson, in their portrayals of these brainy nerds, are fun to watch in their interactions. Vikander brings appropriate restraint to her role as the gorgeous robot Ava. Bravo to all three!

One reviewer quoted in the above trailer called Ex Machina “an instant classic.” For any fan of great movies, I recommend it. For any fan of great sci-fi, Ex Machina is a must-see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Water Diviner

 

Russell Crowe’s directorial debut The Water Diviner is a gem. The story, characters and settings blend the sweetness of family love with the in-your-face violence of war.

Connor (Crowe) is a rural Aussie widower who goes to Turkey to find his three missing sons who fought in the century ago Battle of Gallipoli. (Remember the 1981 film Gallipoli?) Upon arrival in Turkey he meets the beautiful Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko) whose husband is among the Turkish war dead. She hesitates to admit it because she would then be obliged to marry her husband’s brother (who she does not want to marry).

Occupational forces try to stop Connor from searching battlegrounds but he is determined. When he finds remains that indicate a son was killed execution style, Connor threatens the vanquished Turkish officer Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan). After cooling off, and learning that one of the three sons may be alive, he and Hasan become allies. As Connor continues on his quest, he actually has an opportunity to save Hasan’s life.

Connor is one of Crowe’s most likable characters ever. Though grieving the death of his wife and sons, Connor has some light moments with Ayshe’s son Ohran (Dylan Georgiades) and some flirtatious moments with Ayshe.

As a director, Crowe is solid, focusing of advancing the narrative with many gorgeous images and a handful of directorial flourishes (such as dissolving from a whirling dervish to a spinning windmill). Some of the war scenes are a bit more grisly than might’ve been expected.

Crowe’s acting talent has been a given since he first appeared on U.S. screens. Whether The Water Diviner is a one-off shot at directing or the start to the next chapter in his career, TWD is an impressive effort.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

True Story

Brilliant opening shot: A teddy bear falls slowly, landing softly next to a little girl who is, inexplicably, curled up in a suitcase. It is quickly revealed why.

Meanwhile, Mike Finkel (Jonah Hill), a New York Times reporter, goes to Africa for a story that makes the cover of the Times Sunday magazine. The story is written while Finkel plays poker with colleagues in the newsroom. He wins the hand but it turns out his story is not quite accurate. He is fired.

Finkel goes to his cabin in Montana with his lady Jill (Felicity Jones) and pitches freelance writing pieces. A call comes from a reporter in Oregon (Ethan Suplee), informing Finkel that accused murderer Christian Longo (James Franco) claimed he (Longo) was Finkel when he was arrested in Mexico.

When Finkel goes to Oregon to visit Longo, the fun begins. In a series of jailhouse one-to-ones, Franco and Hill each show off their acting talents. Finkel is flattered when Longo mentions how much he likes Finkel’s writing. Longo sends Finkel a lengthy handwritten letter and Finkel offers to use its content to co-write a book, once the case is cleared.

Jill has doubts about the whole scenario, but Finkel is totally seduced by Longo’s apparent intelligence and his cool demeanor (despite being charged with four murders).

After this enticing setup, the film bogs down. But… here comes another memorable sequence: Director Rupert Goold juxtaposes Jill’s piano playing with Finkel’s writing on his laptop. Keyboard on keyboard action. Nice.

True Story has a bit of suspense: What is the true story? Did Longo kill his family? What will happen at trial? Will Finkel and Longo co-author a book? Will Finkel be redeemed after his journalistic faux pas?

But the payoff is weak. Oh, there’s resolution, but it doesn’t quite deliver what the first few chapters of the film indicated might lay ahead.

Nonetheless, Franco and Hill are a delight to watch. Someone told me when she heard those two were in a movie together, she presumed it was a comedy. Nope. True Story is serious stuff. It takes a shot, but ultimately misses out on greatness.

Unfriended

 

When an entire movie takes place on a high school student’s computer screen, it’s easy to expect the film to be dumb or cheesy. Actually, the presentation of Unfriended is rather clever.

For those of us who spend hours each day in front of a computer screen, with pings and bells alerting us to new emails, Facebook notifications and other updates, Unfriended takes place in a familiar, generally comfortable setting.

Unfriended is a short movie. Runtime from the first Universal logo to the first end credit is 77 minutes. A longer telling of this story could’ve easily become bloated and tedious.

Unfriended’s tale plays out during a Skype video chat among six friends, plus one mystery participant. The stranger who butts in seems to be a student who killed herself after being shamed in a Youtube video.

Blaire Lily’s (Shelley Hennig) Apple computer screen reveals the Youtube videos depicting the shaming of Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman) and her suicide. The screen also displays Blaire’s outside-the-chat messaging with her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm) where suspicions of something weird first arise.

Facebook plays a big role as Laura (or someone who has hacked her account) keeps messaging Blaire, even after Blaire unfriends her.

When this mystery online intruder begins a cruel game and threatens to kill chat participants, tension mounts and secrets are revealed.

Director Levan Gabriadze makes the film look seamless, as if it were completely shot in real time. The other main cast members (Renee Olstead, Courtney Halverson, Jacob Wysocki and Will Peltz) interact believably with Hennig and Storm. (As is usual with movies depicting high school students, most of the actors are in their mid to late 20’s.)

It’s weird enough to get Facebook friend requests from deceased individuals. (I’ve had that happen.) My hope is that any laptop grief I experience today will be the result of glitches, not due to meddling with my accounts from beyond the grave.

 

 

 

 

The Longest Ride

 

Sweet, sappy romance. With challenges and complications and maybe some peril. Probably some tears. Oh, and generally happy endings. That’s what we’ve come to expect from Nicholas Sparks movies and The Longest Ride follows that well-worn path. And, as has happened in previous Sparks movies, his home state of North Carolina provides scenic settings.

Sophia (Britt Robertson) is a senior art major at Wake Forest University. A sorority sister invites her to a rodeo. Luke Collins (Scott Eastwood, Clint’s son) is a bull rider who spots her at the event and, later, flirts with her at a bar. Their first date is a picnic at an impossibly gorgeous, dusky lakeside setting.

On their way back, they rescue an older gentleman (Alan Alda) who has driven his car off the road and hit a tree. Luke pulls the man from the burning vehicle and Sophia gathers his wicker basket from the front seat. At the hospital, Sophia checks the basket and finds it filled with love letters the man, Ira, wrote to his late wife, Ruth.

As things heat up between Luke and Sophia, she becomes chummy with Ira and through his letters and conversations she learns the story of their courtship and marriage, including a complication that challenged their pursuit of happiness together. In flashbacks, the younger Ira (Jack Huston) indulges Ruth (Oona Chaplin) and her love of art, just as Luke is making a modest effort to do the same with Sophia.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch (actually in Luke’s cozy barn residence), Sophia and Luke have a hookup that’s appropriately sexy without being overly steamy. But, since these are two very attractive stars, their tryst should be enough to stir up romantic desires for moviegoers.

But here comes a complication or two: Luke, who’s already had a bad injury thanks to a bull named Rango, wants to complete his comeback with more perilous rides. And Sophia has an internship waiting at an art gallery in New York. How can things possibly work out for these two?

With a script by Craig Bolotin from Sparks’ novel, director George Tillman Jr. (whose prior work has included urban and action films) has made a film that looks good and maintains great pacing. The bull rides and the flashbacks to Ira and Ruth keep things moving beyond Sophia and Luke’s romance.

The Longest Ride is true to the Sparks brand. The film accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do. And delivers exactly what audiences expect from a Nicholas Sparks story.