“Tomorrowland” Review

The overall message of Tomorrowland is that it’s easy to tear down, but more impressive to build something in its place. If only the movie could take its own advice about trying to look forward to a brighter future. Rather than actually build, we hear an awful lot about how hard it is to build with a culture of doom and gloom. It’s important to discuss problems, but it’s hard to be optimistic for a future when we spend so much time drowning in a future that is grim and dark. Keep in mind that this was intended as a family picture with futuristic robots and gadgets.

The perfect question for this movie is asked by a plucky young inventor in the first few minutes. After his idea for a jetpack is shot down for not having a practical use for the betterment of humanity, he asks “why can’t it just be fun?” I wanted Tomorrowland to be fun and it had every opportunity to be such a picture. Director Brad Bird certainly has an eye for staging action sequences with real thrill and excitement. His influence is indeed present with such incredible scenes as a laser-gun shootout in a geeky merchandise shop and an intense escape from a futuristic house being attacked by androids. All of that is pure fun. What drags it all down is a script by Damon Lindelof which actually stops the movie for a rather long rant about humanity being terrible for desiring destruction.

The movie exists in three timelines. The 1954 World’s Fair presents a glowing reveals a glowing vision of the future. The present day features a declining of faith in humanity. The future is a post-apocalyptic wasteland where a few bits of future-tech survive in the gloomy setting. For most of the picture, we follow the plucky Casey (Britt Robertson) in the present as the daughter of an engineer who is smart enough to sneak into a NASA launch pad and sabotage its dismantling. She still believes she can do some good in a world that seems obsessed with doom and gloom as her teachers drone on endlessly about 1984 and the incurable effects of global warming. Her ingenuity is what makes her a target of great interest for preventing mankind’s own destruction.

But Earth’s destruction is never directly addressed with a cause. It just seems to happen – presumably from a combination of nukes, global warming and environmental mistakes. But how do you stop it? It’s not so much about the specifics – you just have to want to change first. It inflates the baby steps of wanting to better the planet and its future. Now, granted, this is a logical path for a family picture meant to inspire the young ones to be bolder and pursue world-changing paths. But it’s tough to embrace that message when it’s presented so bluntly amid such a bleak plot. By comparison, Wall-E was incredibly subtle with its message about consumerism.

When Tomorrowland isn’t trying to beat you over the head with scary futures, there is a genuine sense of adventure. Casey has an amazing experience when she discovers a hologram vision of the wondrous future with jetpacks and robots litter a lavishly designed city of tomorrow. When she seeks the help of Tomorrowland member Frank (George Clooney), the angry old man shows off with all his dynamic tricks of hidden tech in the modern age for getting back to the future. Doc Brown’s DeLorean doesn’t have anything on a time-traveling pod that launches from the Eiffel Tower. And any scene where they flee the human-disintegrating androids with those artificial smiles has a nail-biting level of action.

But for every scene that has some sense of fun and excitement, it follows with another that is either too preachy or too blunt. The villain of the picture is the cold David Nix (Hugh Laurie), the leader of Tomorrowland who doesn’t want to destroy the world – merely believing it cannot and should not be saved. But when Casey disagrees, the future flickers to a better tomorrow. And as if that weren’t blunt enough, the ending is so forced and ridiculous that it could have doubled as the ad for a community college.

Tomorrowland has some segments of a great adventure, but it’s muddied up by a poor script. While its heart is in the right place, the movie just can’t bring itself to be entertainment before a message movie. I want to be there for this picture as it carries a much needed boost of optimism for a generation that could seriously use it. But rather than offer an inspirational allegory, it wallows too much in its horrifying omens that its ultimate message of  “go out and find answers” just doesn’t feel fulfilling. The special effects don’t have any strings, but the script certainly does the way it binds under its own unconvincing nature. The goal of the picture is that it ultimately wants the adults of tomorrow to become the innovators of today. Hopefully it will inspire a few filmmakers to make a better science fiction picture that can push through a message without the force of a wreaking ball.

“Avengers: Age of Ultron” Review

As the grand finale to Marvel’s second phase of their cinematic universe, the Avengers sequel aims to cram as much content as it can to deliver the biggest of bangs. But even at two and a half hours, it’s a picture that feels very cramped for all that it wedges into the script. There’s too many heroes, villains and murderous robots on screen that it becomes a rather complicated juggling act for writer/director Joss Whedon. The good news is that Whedon not only manages to maintain a certain level of balance, but also delivers more character development than I would expect for a superhero ensemble picture.

The Avengers have assembled once more with every returning character accounted for. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) continues to helm the tech of Iron Man, now more fearful of alien invasions from his previous Avengers mission. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) as Captain America maintains his noble spirit after dealing with the corruption of SHIELD. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is just sort of there as the dimensional-traveling warrior, wielding his magic hammer and blithering on about prophecies in his poetic talk. They all carry a little something with them from their previous movies, but it’s the characters without their continuing series that take a bigger chunk of the screen time (and for good reason). Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) has developed a relationship with Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), but they’re both frightened of each other and worry about their relationship. But it’s Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) who steals the movie this time as the slick-talking archer who gets the best lines and most unique life outside saving the world.

On their latest adventure, the group finds themselves combating the evil robot Ultron (voiced by James Spader) that wants to destroy humanity after Stark programmed him to protect it. Though relegated to just a voice, the motion capture performance of Ultron showcases him as more expressive than your usual movie robot bent on destroying planet Earth. This brings about a surprising amount of personality and charisma to a walking, talking machine that wants to kill us all. His philosophy is rather base given how often he talks about it and his method for wiping out the human race is pretty standard. All that intelligence and character ultimately leads to his master plan of chucking a rock at the Earth. Additionally, he build an army of robots to defend his project and give all our heroes something to hit.

In between this simple plot of murderous robots, several new characters and plot lines are introduced. We’re introduced to the Maximoff twins as escaped experiments of HYDRA – known from the comics as Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) – acting as ambiguous superheroes choosing sides. Though they were technically mutants (children of Magneto), there’s not mutants to turn to in this universe so they find themselves very cautious of who to trust. There’s the introduction of Vision (Paul Bettany), Stark’s computer program turned 90’s-looking superhero with the classic cape and painted face. There’s a hefty supply of Easter eggs wedged inside the script in the form of future villains (Andy Serkis as The Claw) and artifacts still on the self (the Infinity Gems to be used by Thanos’ Infinity Gauntlet). And let’s not forget a seemingly endless stream of secondary characters the pop up from Nick Fury to War Machine to Falcon and so on. The only character who seems curiously absent is Loki. He wouldn’t add much of anything to the picture, but at least he would give Thor a little something more to do.

Even with a massive running time, the movie just doesn’t have a lot of time to explore all these areas in between the action. Whereas the first Avengers movie found enough in the script for every character to be involved, the expanded cast makes this picture far too crowded. There are a handful of scenes where Whedon relies far too heavily on exposition dialogue to drive the plot rather than visuals. If the Maximoff twins have a tragic past, why not show those evnets? If the people of New York are angered by the actions of the Avengers, why not give us that scene rather than hear a verbal report?

Several characters are shoved into a corner for many scenes simply because we don’t have time for them. Thankfully, the characters we do focus on the most have engaging arcs and are a thrill to follow. The complicated romance of Black Widow/Hulk and the secret life of Hawkeye are far more interesting than Captain America’s distrust of national security or Iron Man’s concerns for intergalactic insecurity. The big names have had their movies and politely step aside for most of this picture.

As expected for a $200 million picture, the action sequences are loud, detailed and gorgeous. Shot around the world, Whedon picks some great locations for a battle with Hydra or an Iron Man versus Hulk duel. And while he does go for the big moments of destroying buildings and smashing cities, there’s still a sense of heroism and consequence. While Iron Man and the Hulk end up causing a massive amount of damage to an African city, the movie doesn’t shy away from the folly of their ways. There’s still a level of distrust the public has after the events in New York City from the previous big battle. But the Avengers aim to do better with more scenes of them saving those caught in the crossfire from a family in a crumbling villain to a woman’s car toppling off a cliff. It’s a pleasant reminder that these superheroes are more than just powerful warriors that smash bad guys and blow stuff up.

While Avengers: Age of Ultron is rather overstuffed, it still manages to be a solid followup. The character chemistry is all still present and the villains have some wit and grit. Despite the laundry list of developing content to keep these Marvel movies more as serials, it doesn’t take away from being able to enjoy the movie on its own. You don’t have to know all about Thanos, the Infinity Stones, the activities of SHILED or the secret operations of HYDRA to have a great time with the picture. It certainly adds to the enjoyment, but it’s not a requirement.

“Cinderella” (2015) Review

In an era where it seems as though all fairytales need to be turned on their heads from over-the-top action (Jack the Giant Slayer) to rape allegories (Maleficent), Disney’s live-action Cinderella surprisingly stands out for not following the crowd. A lesser director may have balked at the original story and turned it into a drab action picture of a beaten orphan turned female warrior. The wicked stepmother would be a cruel torturer, the fairy godmother would hand out weapons to Cinderella and the movie would end with some grand battle loaded with special effects.

I feel the need to mention this as the picture at one point was going to be directed by Mark Romanek as a much darker movie. I would have thought this is what Disney wanted the way Maleficent turned out to be a such a depressing and ill-fitting fairytale makeover that pulled in a ridiculous amount of money. But when director Kenneth Branagh was brought on to the project, he could see there was more to the story worth exploring without overhauling the entire narrative.

While Branagh mostly plays the fairytale straight, he does expand the characters just enough without damaging the wonder of the original codex. Lily James is given much more to do as the titular character who is given far more to work with as opposed to standing around as a pretty face. She does her best keep up a cheerful spirit despite the misfortune of being reduced to a maid by her stepmother after the death of her father. Character development favors songs as we get build up Cinderella as a girl we want to get the prince.

Here is where the picture really gets interesting as Cinderella and the prince have a pleasing chemistry. In their first meeting riding horses across a field, the two share their thoughts and ideas about hunting. Rather than just being shy kids who are thrown together by beauty, there’s a reason to hope they end up together. It’s as if Branagh took the original material and injected it with a much needed dose of character development. Even the royal ball – which was practically all dancing and beauty that won the prince’s heart – features the two characters dashing off to a private room to talk some more. It makes the prince’s quest to seek her out via glass slipper more understandable than fantastical.

But, of course, Cinderella still retains all the magic of the animated movie as well. The cooperative mice help out our future princess, the fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) comically casts some spells and the ball is a beautiful sight of golden interiors and period clothing. Once again, Branagh polishes these familiar elements without retooling them. He finds the fun in it all without dumbing it down or amping it up. A lesser director may have taken the scene where the carriage transforms back into a pumpkin as an opportunity for an action-worthy race against time. It was my first thought as I saw the carriage swerve around a cliff side road. I braced myself for the moment where Cinderella dangles off the side of the carriage as her animal pals struggle to lift her to safety. Thankfully, Branagh narrowly avoids this moment that would have easily taken me out of the movie.

And, ultimately, the tone of Cinderella is just pleasing and enjoyable. The stepmother’s slaving of her daughter to chores is not treated with a drab palette and the romance of prince for his future wife is not overdone. While I still have a nostalgic spot in my heart for Disney’s original animated movie, it’s generally savaged by critics for its flat portrayals. In that sense, this live-action Cinderella is more of the adult version – not in content, but in writing. Now I can fully enjoy the magical splendor of fairy godmothers and helpful mice without noticing glaring issues with the script. It’s a real treat from beginning to end and rather old-fashioned for maintaining its graceful fantasy tone.

“Maleficent” Review

Be it the popularity of Game of Thrones or that trend of darkening up classic fairytales, Disney has taken a new approach to the story of Sleeping Beauty with a focus on the villainous Maleficent. But as the voice-over introduction implies, there’s more to the story than we originally thought. In fact, this version believes that the story is completely wrong. Maleficent wasn’t a villain at all, but a wronged woman who ends up saving the day. Such a route isn’t uncommon as the only two ways to make a movie about a villain is to either have them turn around as the hero or slink comfortably into their role of evil. But in the quest to make Maleficent the hero in this story, so much else is sacrificed in the name of making a female-friendly witch of great power and pathos.

The movie begins innocent enough portraying Maleficent as a curious, young fairy of the forest who fancies a prince that wanders into her domain. The two form a relationship, but their souls grow apart as the kingdom of humans threatens to encroach on the magical forest. Battles ensue between the king’s army of knights and Maleficent’s army of trees. Eventually the prince must make a serious choice about where he stands by cutting off the wings of his secret love. And this is the moment where the story loses all its character and tone the way Maleficent being de-winged is staged as a rape allegory with her being drugged, sliced and crying in a pool of her tears in the morning.

This would seem to be the setup for a darker path of a villain given how horribly wronged she was by her first love. But once we get to the familiar story of Sleeping Beauty with the iconic scene of the wicked witch cursing the princess, the movie starts dipping down into the depths of a mediocre fan-fiction. Rather than despise Sleeping Beauty and attempt to keep her comatose for eternity, the magical matriarch regrets her decision after years of watching over her like a mother hen. Rather than harbor some fleeting emotions of their earlier romance, Maleficent and the prince-turned-king are simplistic enemies. And rather than Sleeping Beauty being awakened by the kiss of a prince, she’s actually awakened by Maleficent herself.

All of this staged as if to imply that the true story of Sleeping Beauty was a massive coverup by a patriarchal society. There’s nothing wrong with rewriting a fairytale from a different perspective, but this one appears more vindictive than creative. The best part of the picture is Angelina Jolie as the cackling and sinister Maleficent, embodying the role as no other actor could. The worst part of the movie is everything else. The character that surround Maleficent’s arc are all one-dimensional. The king who descends into madness has no buildup – one scene he’s a boy in love with a fairy, the next he’s a babbling madman swinging a sword. Prince Charming appears in the picture, but only as a worthless red herring. The three fairies that watch over Sleeping Beauty are just forced comic relief embodying a female version of The Three Stooges. And Sleeping Beauty herself would have been better off spending the entire movie asleep with how little she has to say or do.

The consensus among both the writer, director and Jolie was that they felt compelled to make this movie as an aspiring figure for little girls. Sure, because this is what little girls want to see in a movie, right? They don’t want a fantasy story filled with enchantment and wonder – they want rape allegories and pathos in a tone-deaf revenge tale. The movie is entirely dependent on Jolie’s performance to hold this rickety narrative together that tacks on CGI battles and light humor. At its best, the grand effects of walking trees and fire-breathing dragons is serviceable. At its worst, the bickering of the fairies will have you tearing your hair out in annoyance.

Maleficent features Angelina Jolie all dolled up as the perfect villain with nowhere to go. She leaves behind every single actor in the dust as if her magical powers sucked every ounce of character out of the cast. Even her companion – a crow that transforms into a man – isn’t much for conversation. Though given how terrible the dialogue is of the three fairies, maybe he got off lucky. It’s such a shame that the marvelous talents of Jolie are wasted on a ham-fisted script where she has to act against cardboard characters. Sure, she’s a memorable character for rediscovering love and she emits a palpable charm, but at what cost? I want to love her and this movie, but it’s hard to do that when this picture refuses to define its characters or pick a consistent tone.