Friday, May 29, 2015

Tomorrowland Review

I was psyched after seeing the original teaser trailer for Tomorrowland (2015); instantly teleporting to a different world with the touch of a pin was intriguing. I became even more excited when I heard it was directed and co-written by Brad Bird, the genius behind titles such as The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and even Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Tomorrowland is the latest Disney film inspired by a Disney theme park attraction. As was the case with its predecessors it won't inspire you to run off to ride the rides, but this one just might inspire you to try and change the world.
Whenever Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) touches a lapel pin with the letter T on it, she finds herself transported to another place somewhere in time and space called Tomorrowland, a city filled with huge robots, advanced technologies, and sleek buildings governed by David Nix (Hugh Laurie). The optimistic young woman recruits the help of former boy-genius scientist Frank Walker (George Clooney), who previously visited Tomorrowland, and years ago made a startling discovery about the future. Together with a Tomorrowland recruiter named Athena (Raffey Cassidy), the two adventurers set out to find the futuristic metropolis to uncover its mysterious secrets, as the fate of mankind hangs in the balance.
Good science fiction makes commentary on contemporary issues in a unique, metaphorical way.  One could argue that looking at how our science fiction stories have changed over the years is just as telling of our history and social issues than history books are. Awhile back, I read an article on that suggested that Star Trek: The Next Generation Was the Last Sci-Fi Show Hopeful About the Future. It took me awhile, but eventually I had to agree. Over the past several decades science fiction has become more and more bleak and pessimistic about the future, reflecting our attitudes about climate change, overpopulation, scarcity of recourses, international wars, and pollution. All of that is present in Tomorrowland, but as a warning of sorts. The prevailing theme is not one of doom and gloom, but is meant to wake the viewers from apathy, regain the sense of optimism for the future that we had in days past, and to make that bright future a reality. Since Tomorrowland is inspired by a Disney theme park, it was heavily influenced by Walt Disney's optimistic philosophy of innovation and utopia, such as his conceptual vision for the planned community known as EPCOT. By no means does Tomorrowland suggest that pollution, climate change, and other world issues are unimportant; it tells us these are very real problems and encourages us to act and improve the course of the future. This is probably the first science fiction story I've seen in a long time that is not only an optimistic vision of the future, but earnestly tries to instill a sense of optimism and responsibility within its audience. That alone makes Tomorrowland a breath of fresh air.
Brad Bird seems to like an artistic aesthetic that I can't think of a word for other than "retrofuturism", a blend of old-fashioned retro styles with futuristic technology: basically science fiction as it was fifty years or more in the past. Both The Iron Giant and The Incredibles featured a visual style that drew heavily from antique science fiction robots, classic James Bond movies, and vintage comic book super heroes. The Tomorrowland world that Casey sees is heavily influenced by this retrofuturism aesthetic and was a sheer delight to see. It shows us just enough to spark our imaginations and want to see more, but not enough to fully satisfy us with what we do get to see of Tomorrowland.
The theme and structure of Tomorrowland is a rejection of dark dystopia style sci-fi movies. The whole movie is kind of a big race to reach and save utopia. Yet for all of its insistence of diverging from the norm, it continually falls back into the pessimistic tropes of contemporary science fiction. Our heroes are regularly fleeing from mechanical men in suits who have a more than a passing resemblance to Agents in The Matrix movies. In fact, the big expositional dialogue just before the big fight at the end of Tomorrowland is remarkably similar to Agent Smith's exposition with Morpheus about how "humans are the virus." The exposition does get convoluted, but not to the point that viewers would likely fall too far behind. That's just one example, but there are several others. I respect the movie for what it was trying to do, that is be a unique and optimistic take on science fiction. They just didn't quite manage to do it without defaulting back to bleak futuristic sci-fi.
The cast here is really good. Naturally, George Clooney got the headline credits, but he's absent for most of the movie. The young Frank is played by Thomas Robinson in flashbacks, who looks remarkably like a young Clooney. If you're going to grow up to be a celebrity, Clooney is definitely a good choice. Britt Robertson has been raved about as the next up and coming actress, but I think most of the credit should go to Raffey Cassidy. She embodies a wonderfully complex character, has amazing chemistry with her co-stars, does most of her own stunts, has impeccable comedic timing, embodies the optimistic spirit of the film, and even steals scenes from Gorge daggum Clooney! She's only 12 and is amazing to say the least. Tomorrowland's cast is fantastic, but Cassidy is the most impressive in my opinion.
Lastly, I think I should comment on our main protagonist. It's fairly obvious that during development that the character of Casey was meant to be gender neutral; even the name can be male or female. The character was developed to be optimistic, enthusiastic about science and learning, and to be very intelligent. Holding to movie tropes, this has all the stereotypes of a boy character, yet Casey is a girl. She's clever, resourceful, and hopeful. She's not a warrior princess nor a fighter. She's not obsessed with boys and shopping. She's just trying to be a good person and make the world a better place where dreams can be achieved and science accessible to everyone. I think she's a great character that challenges Hollywood's concept of female characters, and she's a character whose values and opinions are worth instilling in our daughters. The only real slip up in this character is that for being so intelligent she doesn't always put the pieces together and often needs things explained to her. I would have liked it if she figured things out on her own a bit more, but I think this is a minor slip up and I don't think it has anything to do with the fact that she's a girl.
Tomorrowland tried very hard to buck the system of science fiction tropes, but doesn't quite manage to fully reject contemporary bleakness. By its nature, dystopian settings lend themselves to conflict, and conflict is what makes a good story. Utopias don't have conflicts with which to tell dynamic stories. But I very much appreciated the optimistic vision of the future that Tomorrowland was aiming for; that was quite refreshing. The cast is fantastic, the theme is interesting if inconclusive, the setting is fascinating, and visual effects are a splendor to behold. I feel like the movie could have had more story and less manic chase scenes, but it was decent for what it was. While I adore Brad Bird's work, this is probably my least favorite of the his films that I've seen. It gets preachy at times and displays a low opinion of the human race despite its forced hopefulness about how dreamers of the world are the ones who can save the future. I enjoyed Tomorrowland overall, but it's not something I'd go out of my way to see again. It's not a bad movie to take the family to see in the theaters, but it's worth the wait to rent.

Can you think of another movie in the last thirty years or so that has an optimistic vision of the future? Would you like to see science fiction like that? Comment below and let me know!

Friday, May 22, 2015

Chef Review

Jon Favreau initially started as an indie film favorite actor and director. He moved on to bigger and better things, but recently came back to doing independent films. His most recent endeavor was Chef (2014). This was a lot of fun on its own, but if you know what to look for, you can view it as a tongue-in-cheek autobiography of sorts. That aspect aside, Chef is a good solid film that I thoroughly enjoyed.
Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) is an acclaimed chef with a family life that seems as decaying as his artistic freedom. Those frustrations boil over into a raucous viral-videoed public confrontation against a restaurant critic (Oliver Platt) who panned his cooking of food that his boss (Dustin Hoffman) ordered him to make against his instincts. Now with his career ruined, Carl's ex-wife, Inez (Sofía Vergara) offers an unorthodox solution in Miami: refit an old food truck to offer quality cooking on his own terms. Now with his young son, Percy (Emjay Anthony), and old colleague, Martin (John Leguizamo), helping, Carl takes a working trip across America with that truck to rediscover his gastronomic passion. With Percy's social media tech savvy and Martin's enthusiasm, Carl finds that he is creating a traveling sensation on the way home. In doing so, Carl discovers he is serving up more than simply food, but also a deeper connection with his life and his family that is truly delicious in its own way.
We have Jon Favreau to thank for getting the Marvel Cinematic Universe rolling. He directed the first two Iron Man movies. If that first Iron Man movie hadn't as amazing as it was, there wouldn't have been additional Marvel movies and we never would have got to The Avengers and other fantastic films. As I'd suggested in my Age of Ultron review, Marvel seems to be constraining and limiting its directors. In the case of Favreau, he was flat out replaced as the director for the third Iron Man movie. I don't know if that was specifically why he didn't direct the third movie, but I'm inclined to think so. It was an influence, at least.
At any rate, Favreau got a big thing going but stopped to return to indie films where he would have more flexibility and creativity with less influence from studio executives controlling his creative process. This was similar to Carl stepping down from a nice restaurant to work in a food truck. Favreau said he also worked comparisons to Carl and himself, such as being a father while having a busy career and coming from a broken home. I get the impression that Chef was a kind of therapeutic means of self expression for Favreau; and I wish more celebrity therapy would result in excellent films like this.
The cast was fantastic in this movie. You can tell that Favreau, himself, threw his whole heart into the role and into the production. Leguizamo was a lot of fun as well, playing an optimist who was both laid back and a hard worker at the same time. This is the first time I've seen child actor Emjay Anthony on screen. His is quite talented for a kid actor; only once or twice did his acting falter, but only by a little bit. Some of Favreau's other actor friends were involved in small roles. For example, this was the second time Favreau, Robert Downy, Jr. and Scarlet Johansson all worked together on a project directed by Favreau. The cast was simply outstanding, and created some highly relatable and likable characters.
The food in Chef was just as important as the characters themselves. And it was positively gorgeous to look at. Watching things simmer, melt, sear, roast, and cook was delightful. Then seeing the succulent meats sliced, and exceedingly fancy dishes prepared was titillating. The food photography was every bit as tantalizing and fascinating as it was in The Hundred-Foot Journey and Julie & Julia. You will probably be famished by the time you're done watching this movie. Even if you aren't intrigued by the main plot, you won't be able to take your eyes away from the amazing food on the screen.
Chef is rated R for language. There are very few characters who don't work in the kitchen at one point or another during the movie. And having worked in a kitchen myself, I know how stressful, frantic, and fast-paced everything often is. Profanity abounds as part of the job. Having said that, the profanity seems perfectly at home in the scenes where it is used. Currently, a PG-13 movie can get away with no more than two F-bombs. Truly the only reason Chef has an R rating is because there are more than two F-bombs. I think it's reasonably applied to the situations and characters, so I don't view it as being bad. It's just maybe not something you would want to play in the presence of impressionable children.
Whatever you do, don't go see Chef on an empty stomach. It's a feel-good foodie film that will have you salivating within minutes. Whether it is an artistic statement or self-justification of film craft, Chef confirms the core talent of Jon Favreau. It's comfort-food-meets-comfort-movie. Favreau wrote, directed, and starred in this excellent film on a smaller scale than his previous films, but this is by no means a film of a poorer quality. The story is a modern telling of a familiar feel-good formula, but it's an excellent example of that formula. As of writing this, it is available to watch streaming on Netflix and I highly recommend seeing it, just not on an empty stomach. I liked Chef well enough to want a copy on my movie shelves.

Can you think of another simi-autobiographical movie like Chef where the movie makes indirect comparison to its writer/director? Comment below and tell me about it!

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Avengers: Age of Ultron Review

As I understand it, Marvel/Disney was originally considering doing only one superhero team up movie, but after The Avengers broke box office records and became the third highest grossing film, they changed their minds. Following The Avengers we got to keep up with some of our heroes in Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Finally, with much anticipation, The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) was released. While it's an exciting and fun ride, it's not nearly as satisfying as the first Avengers movie.
Now officially fighting as allies, The Avengers - Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr), Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), and Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) - raid a Hydra outpost where Hydra has been experimenting on humans using the scepter previously wielded by Loki. The Avengers encounter two of the experiments; twins Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) who possess powers of superhuman speed and psychic powers respectively. Once the scepter is retrieved, Stark and Banner discover an artificial intelligence within the scepter's gem and secretly use it to complete Stark's Ultron global defense program. Unexpectedly, Ultron (James Spader) believes he must eradicate humanity to save Earth. The Ultron A.I. eliminates Stark's A.I, J.A.R.V.I.S. (Paul Bettany), takes control of Starks global defense program, and attacks The Avengers in their headquarters. Building newer mechanical bodies to house himself in, Ultron soon has an army of robots under his control as well as the Maximoff twins. Ultron puts his complex plan into action, but as he systematically exploits the weaknesses of each of The Avengers, the six of them may not be enough to save the world again.
Joss Whedon returns to direct Age of Ultron. He's proved his writing and directing skills many times over. He is particularly proficient in telling stories with multiple characters; it's tricky to tell a good story about more than one or two characters and still give them their own compelling story arch. That was expertly done in the previous Avengers movie. Here, Whedon again allows the very distinct characters their own screen time, lets them have their moment to shine, and lets them bounce off of each other wonderfully.
There are problems with the movie, though, and I'm not confident that it is Whedon's fault. I can tell studio executives got their hands on things a lot, effectively limiting and constraining Whedon's creative liberties. It's as if they tinkered with what was probably a much better script to maximize what they thought would make money and draw in audiences, at the expense of what would be a solid, satisfying movie. Iron Man, The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier were phenomenal successes because they were left in the hands of competent directors and writers. If future Marvel movies are manipulated by the studio and executives as much as this one is, I can't see the franchise doing as well further down the road.
The movie becomes practically bloated with his huge cast of characters with new allies, enemies, and cameos making appearances. Maria Hill, Nick Fury, War Machine, Peggy Carter, Prof. Selvig, Heimdall, and Falcon all return from previous movies to make appearances to varying degrees. There are even some overt hints at future characters whom we know will be getting their own movies if you know what to look for. Don't get me wrong, it's incredibly exciting to see more Marvel characters make it to the big screen, but it effectively gets to the point that there are too many characters to keep track of. Age of Ultron doesn't rely on previous films to develop the returning characters; they still develop and have their own story arches, but there are so many story arches to keep track of.
Age of Ultron is a long movie with a run time just shy of two and a half hours. As I understand it, it was originally closer to three hours long. You can tell that there were chunks of the movie omitted. After having his mind toyed with by Wanda, Thor decides that he must leave briefly go on a vision quest. We see very little of this quest, none of the actual vision, and are left confused by Thor's sudden change in perspective. This was not a small change as Thor suddenly takes actions against his fellow Avengers, insisting that they trust him. We don't understand Thor's motives here, and it is caused by important scenes being cut from the movie. There are a couple of other times where scenes left on the cutting room floor make the story hard to follow. It's no less exciting and fun to watch, but certainly gets harder to follow and a bit confusing.
One of my favorite scenes was the party following the retrieval of Loki's scepter. Our heroes are socializing, relaxing, and sharing their victory. Thor and Stark quibble about who has the better girlfriend, Romanoff and Banner flirt with one another in a charmingly awkward way, Rhodes/War Machine tries to find an audience to tell his victory stories to, Steve gives relationship advice about waiting too long, and it culminates with various characters trying to lift Thor's hammer. This developed the characters various histories, interests, and personalities wonderfully. But the tone changes drastically when Ultron interrupts, appearing for the first time in a battered mechanical body. He's weak and just learning how to make a body for himself; he resembles a broken, creepy marionette and delivers a disturbing and beautifully written dialogue about how The Avengers are all killers, and he has a mission to bring peace to the world. In spite of its flaws, what the movie does well, it does very well. It may be bloated with many characters, but they are, for the most part, good characters. Even Ultron is an intimidating and menacing villain.
The previous Avengers movie was incredible, and was greater than the sum of its parts. The Avengers: Age of Ultron, frankly, is not. But it still boasts some pretty incredible parts and is one heck of a fun superhero party. There's more superhero action, the story is influenced by the various storylines from all the previous Marvel Cinematic Universe movies all the way back to Iron Man, and boasts some amazing visual effects. It is abundantly clear that the movie suffers from creative constraints imposed by the studio and scenes that were left on the cutting room floor. But there is going to be a three-hour extended cut with an alternate ending available once it hits blue-ray, so maybe that will improve the overall quality by having few scenes left out. This is absolutely worth seeing in the theaters; it may not be as satisfying as the previous film, but it's not one to miss. I also advise watching the phase two Marvel movies I mentioned at the top of this review again to remember where our heroes were before this movie started.

Joss Whedon won't be returning for the third Avengers movie. Do you think another director will do as good a job? Comment below and tell me what you think!

Friday, May 8, 2015

Home Review

I've been hearing that Dreamworks is not doing so well these days. The animated features they have released over the last couple of years that were not sequels to already successful franchises were box office flops; Rise of the Guardians, Turbo, and Mr. Peabody & Sherman did pretty poorly. Their latest film, Home (2015), is has been doing quite well in the box office. I wasn't thrilled to see it after seeing it's  mediocre trailer, but some friends invited me to see it with them and I ended up enjoying it a whole lot!
After a hive-minded alien race called the Boov conquer Earth, lead by Captain Smek (Steve Martin). The Boov relocate the planet's human population -- all except for a little girl named Tip (Rihanna), who has managed to hide from the aliens. When Tip meets a fugitive Boov named Oh (Jim Parsons), there's mutual distrust. However, Oh is not like his comrades; he craves friendship and fun. As their distrust fades, the pair set out together to find Tip's mother, but, unbeknown to them, the Gorg -- enemies of the Boov -- are en route.
Home has some good and bad things going for it, though frankly the bad points are easy to forgive. The story is predictable; anyone over the age of 10 will see the plot twists from a mile away. I daresay it's a formulaic family movie that is about, surprise surprise, family. The character designs and action tends to be pretty darn creative. I can't think of another instance where our protagonists hide from aliens in a flying car powered by convenience store junk food or drive soap bubbles to outrun the Eiffel Tower. Conventional as the story and its structure may be, it ends up being a fun, simple delight to watch. Even as the end of the movie approached, I didn't fully anticipate the final plot twist; so it's not as if it fails completely in this regard.
The real strength comes from the dialogue. The exchanges between Tip and Oh are simply hilarious. Even though she is a kid, Tip is self confident and a bit on the sassy side. Oh is a mess of contradictions; he wants to socialize and have friends, but he's demonstrably not good at it; he wants to live comfortably, but is somewhat uptight. On top of that, Oh's speech patterns are a little inaccurate, but in a charming and amusing way. This makes for some funny scenes between the two characters. In one of their early encounters, Tip locks Oh in a convenience store walk in refrigerator. A little hurt by being trapped, Oh asks, "What for are you did this? I am Boov, beloved of all humans." "I know what you are." Tip replies coldly. "Excellent. Can I come into the out now?" Nearly everything Oh says is amusing on some level.
In another hilarious scene Tip turns on some music which causes involuntary physical responses from Oh. In a panic Oh says, "Confusion. What is happening to my body?" "It's called dancing." Tip explains. "Boovs do not dancing." "I can tell. But you're getting the hang of it." "How long before this kills me? I am not in control of my own extremities." Tip tries to encourage Oh, "That's it. Work it." "I do not want it to work." "Hey, you know what? Boov rhymes with groove. Shake your Boov thing." "It is shaking in a most undignified way. Oh no, my hands are in the air as if I just do not care. This is not how a Boov behaves." The two characters are lots of fun and bounce off of each other delightfully. They are so fun to watch together that it tends to overshadow the predictability of the story.
This is a family movie that talks about how great families are. This is an overused theme that essentially every family movie has used for decades, but it keeps being used because it's a nice message that we like to believe in. But "families are great" isn't the only thing that this movie addresses; it beautifully weaves together many themes which makes it more interesting. It tackles ideas like what defines a home, taking things versus being given things, communication, understanding things from another's perspective, mutual respect, sacrifice for others, and how deeply the emotional bonds to one's family are. I think I've seen such thematic elements achieved more successfully by other movies, but this one addresses many of them together in a succinct and logical way without beating you over the head with it. It made the movie even better, and even touching at times.
I had low expectations for Home. thanks to an advertising campaign that focused more on funny characters acting silly and making pop culture references than it did on boasting its good animation, charming characters, multilayered themes, or even the plot. The poor advertisements and trailers notwithstanding,  Home has done quite well in the box office. I think this is worth the cost of a matinee ticket if it perks your interest; it was better than I expected it to be. I may not go out of my way to get my own copy, but I'm glad I saw it. It's worth renting at the very least.

Some family movies about families are so painfully trope ridden and cliche they are painful to watch. What's another family movie about families that really did a good job? Comment below and tell me about it!

Friday, May 1, 2015

Insurgent Review

Last year I reviewed Divergent, and decided that while it was much better than the book, it still wasn't a wholly remarkable movie. I also said that I'd just barely liked it enough to check out it sequels. That is essentially the only reason I ended up at the movie theaters watching The Divergent Series' second installment, Insurgent. While Divergent was underwhelming, Insurgent proved even more so.
Following the surges of unrest among the factions at the conclusion of the previous movie, Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) is on the run with her love interest, Four (Theo James); her brother, Caleb (Ansel Elgort); and escaped Dauntless soldier, Peter (Miles Teller). The four of them have taken refuge in the Amity faction until they can formulate a plan. Racing against time, they must find out what Tris's family sacrificed their lives to protect and why Jeanine (Kate Winslet), the leader of the power-hungry Erudite faction's elite, will do anything to stop them. Haunted by her past choices but desperate to protect the ones she loves, Tris, with Four at her side, faces one challenge after another as they unlock the truth about the past and ultimately the future of their world.
For most of the movie there really isn't much that actually happens. There is certainly is a sense of urgency, but why time is of the essence frequently eluded me. In the wreckage of Abnegation, where Tris and Caleb's family lived, Jeanine's mind-controlled Dauntless soldiers find a box with the symbols of each of the five factions on it. Jeanine is certain it contains data from the post apocalyptic city's founders and the means to end the Divergence problem. Of course, only a Divergent can open it, but none of the ones Jeanine captures actually comes remotely close to doing it. Even when Tris and company figure out what it is, it's not as if Jeanine was anywhere near close to opening it.
Our heroes end up talking a lot about grief and forgiveness, identity and loyalty, politics and love, but never anything deeper than the most simplistic superficial speculations on such topics.  They spend so much time doing this that it doesn't allow for very much actual plot. In fact, things don't get moving until around the third act. It's a good thing they throw in random and usually unwarranted fight scenes, or I would have fallen asleep early on.
In my previous review, I pointed out that The Divergent series bears a more-than-passing resemblance to The Hunger Games; dystopian future, society divided into groups, rebellion, searching for a sense of identity, worrying about being different, etc. Insurgent feels even closer to The Hunger Games. There's a leader of the Factionless, Evelyn Johnson-Eaton (Naomi Watts), who wants to overthrow the Jeanine, and believes that war is inevitable. This sounds a whole lot like President Coin in Mockingjay. For Divergent, I thought things were similar to The Hunger Games because someone was trying to capitalize on its popularity. But for Insurgent there are so many more similarities that I can't help but wonder if there's potential for a copyright lawsuit. The Hunger Games did it first, and did it much better.
Tris often ends up having some trippy dreams and is put in some hallucinogenic simulations like she was in the first movie. The CGI and visual effects were even more impressive than they were in the previous film. Oddly, a lot of things (people, buildings, locations, etc.) shatter, crumble, and drift away in these simulations. This visually complements the overarching plot device that the faction system is weakening and crumbling away, but made less sense for Tris's character to have dreams like that. Insurgent was quite a bit more violent than the previous movie when they actually had action scenes. It stays safely in the PG-13 realm by having pointblank headshots occur just off screen, but they seemed to be trying to push what they could get away with. It might not be something to let younger audiences watch.
While Divergent was an uninspiring movie with a dull script, Insurgent was even more so. Again we've got some above average actors with very poor material to work with, some excellent visual effects that were genuinely interesting to see, and a story that lacked depth and narrative. Insurgent drew too much inspiration from  The Hunger Games, so you may as well just watch The Hunger Games and get a much better story. Even with its open ending, Insurgent has enough closure that doesn't truly require future stories. Unfortunately the third book is being made into a two-part set of movies, also like The Hunger Games. Insurgent wasn't as good as Divergent and that wasn't very good to begin with. It's not worth seeing in theaters, it's scarcely worth the cost to rent. I'd avoid Insurgent unless you were a real fan of the books.

Did anyone notice that Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort play siblings here and lovers in The Fault in our Stars? Can you think of other examples of actors playing siblings in one title and lovers in another? It's kind of weird to think about. Comment below and let me know what you think!