Thursday, May 21, 2015

Disney sci-fi with George Clooney

Tomorrowland tries to save humanity from itself.

Among the many things I had hoped never to see in life was George Clooney flying through the air with a jet pack strapped to his movie-star back. In Gravity, Clooney floated over the earth as an astronaut. But in Tomorrowland, his late-picture airborne antics seem almost cartoonish.

And as much as I support efforts to save the planet, I had no desire to hear an Imax-scaled lecture about it, which is pretty much what happens at the end of Tomorrowland, an ambitious but not entirely satisfying addition to summer's box-office sweepstakes.

There's a good deal of anticipation about Tomorrowland, not only because of Clooney, but because Tomorrowland was directed by Brad Bird, a Pixar veteran who has acquired avid followers for his animated work in The Incredibles and The Iron Giant. In addition, the screenplay for Tomorrowland was co-written by Bird and Damon Lindelof, best known as the show runner of the popular TV series Lost.

Bird certainly hasn't made life easy for himself with Tomorrowland a large-scale production that demands lots of heavy imaginative lifting, particularly when it comes to the movie's vividly realized production design.

Bird and his team try hard to keep the visual environment stimulating, but it's the movie's foreground -- a somewhat confounding story -- that troubles.

Clooney plays Frank Walker, a disillusioned guy who opens the movie talking directly to the camera while being interrupted by an unseen character who's trying to give him directions about how he should tell his story.

We later learn that Walker's off-screen tormenter is none other than Athena (Raffey Cassidy), who appears to be a girl of about 12. I don't think it's a spoiler to tell you that Athena is a highly developed child robot, another striking example of how far artificial intelligence has progressed -- at least in the movies.

As it turns out, Walker's telling a story about how, as a boy, he visited the 1964 Worlds Fair in New York and was transported to another dimension. That would be Tomorrowland, the alternate universe where young Frank cemented his relationship with Athena.

At that point, Clooney goes on sabbatical for a while, and another plot development takes over. A perpetually avid young woman (Britt Robertson) also travels to Tomorrowland.

As it turns out, these young people don't get to Tomorrowland by accident. They're chosen when they receive a pin that as a "T" embossed on it. For a time, they don't know exactly where they are or why they're shifting back and forth between two realities.

If you've passed the age of 10 and still are paying attention, I'll tell you that the movie's two plot strands eventually merge. Robertson's Casey Newton joins a reluctant Walker on a visit to Tomorrowland, where they trip out on manufactured wonder, run from evil androids and try to convince us that the world is worth saving.

Bird has no trouble being visually creative as he spins a scenario in which he pays increasing homage to "special" people, the chosen few who presumably will save the rest of us from extinction. At one point, a rocket blasts off from inside the Eiffel Tower. A visit to a toy shop provides amusement.

But the story isn't exactly gripping, and it's odd to see Clooney running around with kids in what sometimes looks like a massive hunk of children's theater.

Of course, there's a villain: Hugh Laurie plays Nix, one of the more benign bad guys in recent movie history.

At times, I wondered if Bird -- who first forayed into live action with 2011's Mission Impossible -- Ghost Protocol -- might have had an easier time had he made Tomorrowland as animated feature rather than as a live-action movie that sometimes feels like an animated feature.

And I never entirely found an answer to a question that bothered me throughout: What the hell is Clooney doing in a sci-fi movie with a Tinker Bell heart.

Perhaps as an act of self-protection against those critics who aren't impressed, Tomorrowland takes a stance against cynicism and negativity. It goes something like this: If you think the future will be a dystopian disaster, it probably will be. And aren't big movies already propagandizing us for a horrible "destiny"?

Sorry, I didn't buy it. I'm not unduly cynical, but Tomorrowland didn't do much for my today, although I have to confess that some days I wouldn't mind getting a pin that could transport me to another dimension.

But wait. I already have such a device. It's called my imagination.

When dreams begin to age

Blythe Danner boosts I'll See You In My Dreams.

Carol Peterson lives in a nice home in a pleasant California neighborhood. She's a retired widow who evidently has no money or health problems. But even at that, Carol's life isn't perfect. When she's forced to put her 14-year-old dog down, her loneliness becomes more acute. Carol knows there's something missing from a life in which the "to-do" board in her kitchen contains only two items: "Walk" and "dry cleaning."

I'll See You In My Dreams belongs to Blythe Danner, the actress who plays Carol.
Having been widowed for 20 years, Danner's Carol becomes a kind of case study: What happens when an older woman who's secure in most ways can't entirely conquer her loneliness?

The movie introduces a couple of men into Carol's life. The first is Lloyd (Martin Starr), her pool boy. Don't fret, director Brett Haley, working from a script he co-wrote with Marc Basch, isn't going to force Carol into an affair with a younger man whose life can't seem to take root. The two develop an emotional closeness with hints of romantic attraction. Nothing more.

After a reluctant and disastrous attempt at something called "speed dating" -- men and women meet in a contrived situation in which they're supposed to get to know one another within minutes -- an attractive man (Sam Elliott) approaches Carol and expresses a straightforward interest in her.

Elliott's Bill is a self-assured bachelor with a boat. He charms Carol, although he may be needier than he lets on. Bill usually carries an unlit cigar (an oral fixation, he muses), and he may be a little too eager to push Carol toward commitment.

For her part, Carol's happy for the company, and when she shares news of her involvement with her visiting daughter (Malin Ackerman), she's clearly anticipating a new chapter in her life.

Carol's gal pals provide the movie its own Greek chorus: Rhea Perlman, Mary Kay Place and June Squibb all have their moments.

Haley's direction hardly qualifies as ambitious. Still, this mostly quiet movie deserves credit for dealing with something real: the emptiness that can accrue to those who are left alone and who sometimes feel the taunting vacancy in a day's silence.

Besides, you get to hear Carol, a former singer, do a karaoke version of Cry Me A River that may just give you new insight into the song, as well as a greater appreciation for Danner's ample gifts.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

George Miller takes action to the max

Mad Max: Fury Road has visionary moments, speed and a wild sense of daring.

In 1981, The Road Warrior became an arty, pedal-to-the-metal slice of action that caught critical eyes as a stand-out in Lincoln Center's New Directors, New Films series.

At the time, few moviegoers had seen Australian director George Miller's original entry into the series, 1979's Mad Max. Likewise, few knew that Road Warrior's star, Mel Gibson, had a passion for controversy and for Christ.

Miller followed Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior with 1985's Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, a bigger and more heavily promoted movie that added Tina Turner to the mix.

Miller went on to direct Witches of Eastwick (1987), Lorenzo's Oil (1992), Babe: Pig in the City (1998), and Happy Feet (2006). He also wrote the screenplay for the original Babe. (1995)

This record suggests that Miller marches to his own drummer, which is why I'm beginning with background that usually gets buried in the depths of a review.

In Mad Max, Fury Road, Miller, who's now 70, resurrects Mad Max with British actor Thomas Hardy taking over the Gibson role and Charlize Theron adding additional marquee appeal.

Steeped in action, brutality and creative daring, Mad Max: Fury Road hardly qualifies as an actors' movie. With her hair shorn to crew-cut length and one arm digitally omitted, Theron proves that she, too, can be an action star.

Hardy -- a fine and volatile actor -- spends a good deal of the movie hidden behind an iron mask that Hannibal Lector might have regarded as a fashion statement. The past -- a lost family -- haunts Max, but Hardy seldom loses touch with Max's inner animal.

All of Hardy's dialogue might not fill a cocktail napkin, and Theron (really the dominant present in the film) benefits greatly from her character's name, Imperator Furiosa, which sounds like some forgotten and possibly disreputable Latin classic.

The action set pieces in Mad Max are so kinetically charged and bizarre that I spent a good deal of time wondering how Miller had managed to pull them off. I was more interested in what Miller and his team would do next than I was in the whisper of a plot that blows across the endlessly brown landscapes Miller found in Australia and in the South African desert.

The movie's most visionary achievement occurs early. Miller introduces us to The Citadel, a fortress carved into a cliff. A warlord, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) rules this outpost.

When he's feeling especially good, Joe releases torrents of precious water from giant spigots, a gesture of totalitarian beneficence that's supposed to soothe the benighted multitudes who serve him.

Some of Miller's Citadel shots made me think of what Hieronymus Bosch might have painted had he lived in the age of the graphic novel, a hellish reversion to undisguised primitivism.

So here's the story: Captured by Joe's hordes, Max escapes, and hits the road. He eventually allies himself with Furiosa, who's fleeing the Citadel with five of Joe's wives, all of whom have lithe fashion-model figures. They've been selected to give birth to Joe's heirs.

Equally important are the costumes and vehicles. The latter seem to have been cobbled together from the spare parts of the world that preceded this post-apocalyptic chaos.

These range from vehicles that look like spiky, metal porcupines to trucks from which giant poles extend, allowing combatants to tip one way or another as they attempt to smash the opposition. A movie or Cirque du Soleil? Maybe it doesn't matter.

There's no faulting Miller's imagination. One of Joe's vehicles -- always in hot pursuit of Furiosa, Max and the runaways -- tethers a punk-rock guitarist to its hood. The rocker's heavy-metal licks are accompanied by ejaculated bursts of flame that shoot from his guitar.

That's the kind of humor, you'll find here, along with at least one terrifying mask. Joe, who somewhere along the line lost much of his face, wears a mask that makes the Joker's frozen rictus look like a wan smirk.

Surprisingly, a few quiet moments and even a bit of touching humanism can be found amid the debris.

Nicolas Hoult plays Nux, a former Joe loyalist who eventually sides with Max and the fleeing women. Nun has an endearing quality. And when Max finally reveals his name to Furiosa, the moment seems emotionally authentic in a stammering sort of way.

Such bits stand out because, as Max tells us at the outset, nothing is more important in this world than survival. Anything else should be deemed a debilitating luxury.

Miller makes this clear from the outset. Our introduction to Max consists of watching him stomp a scurrying lizard, which he then eats.

Despite the presence of the occasional emotional oasis, Mad Max 's throbbing, remorseless pace can cause the action to lose edge, a danger when a movie seems intent on bombarding us with epic-scaled overkill. You can get a little numb.

Fury Road may no longer have the kind of surprise quotient that accompanied its predecessors, but it retains the eccentricity of Miller's strikingly weird vision.

Whatever else you may think about Mad Max, pay attention to the word "mad" in the title. This is one demented action movie. I mean that in a good way -- I think.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Kristin Wiig breaks many molds

Is Kristen Wiig an actress, a comedian, a sketch artist or maybe a daredevil?

She's probably all of those things -- and she brings a bit of each to Welcome to Me, a purposefully weird comedy in which Wiig plays Alice Klieg, a woman suffering from borderline personality disorder.

Alice's life changes when she wins the California lottery and decides to use her new-found fortune to finance her own talk show.

Obviously no one in his or her right mind would put someone like Alice on TV -- except for a financially strapped production company that's wallowing in failed infomercials.

As a compulsive fan of Oprah Winfrey, Alice believes that she can become a talk show host, but her idea of a talk show involves sharing weird recipes (a meatloaf cake), near-hysterical reenactments of childhood traumas and a series of programs devoted to neutering dogs.

I'd be lying if I told you I knew exactly what to make of Welcome to Me, which was directed by Shira Piven from a screenplay by Eliot Laurence.

The movie made me laugh; it made me queasy and, by the end, I concluded that it couldn't quite sustain its crazy premise.

Still, Wiig doesn't flinch from the challenge of carrying the movie, even though she receives support from Wes Bentley and James Marsden, as the owners of the infomercial business, as well as from Joan Cusack, as the show's director. Linda Cardellini plays Alice's best friend, and Tim Robbins appears as Alice's therapist, a role that's handled with enough seriousness to keep the movie off-balance.

But then everything about Welcome to Me is a bit off-balance, and I imagine that audiences will include those who laugh, those who squirm and perhaps even a few who walk out.

Wiig has had big hits (Bridesmaids), voiced animated characters (How to Train Your Dragon) and veered away from the mainstream (The Skeleton Twins).

Welcome to Me again takes Wiig off the beaten track with a comedy about a mentally ill character who finds a temporary home on television. Draw your own conclusions.

It probably would be wrong to categorize Welcome to Me as any kind of media satire: Like Wiig, it exists in its own category-resistant world -- and probably is better off for it.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

'Hot Pursuit,' not even lukewarm

Reese Witherspoon joins with Sofia Vergara in search of comic heat.

Last year, Reese Witherspoon received praise and an Academy Award nomination for her performance in Wild, an adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's 2012 memoir about how Strayed found a measure of redemption by taking a solo, 1,100-mile trek along the Pacific Crest Trail.

That was then. The view from 2015 doesn't look nearly as good.

Witherspoon returns to action with Hot Pursuit, a painfully bad comedy that seems to have been engineered to float in the wake of The Heat, a female buddy movie that teamed a street-wise Boston cop (Melissa McCarthy) with a by-the-book FBI agent (Sandra Bullock).

As one of the film's producers, Witherspoon presumably had something to do with how Hot Pursuit turned out. Let's assume, then, that she wasn't totally victimized by a formulaic story, third-rate dialogue and bungled direction from Anne Fletcher.

For the record, Fletcher also directed the nearly unbearable Guilt Trip, a comedy starring Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand, two performers who probably never again should be caught in the same movie, maybe even the same state.

Witherspoon teams with Sophia Vergara, who got an executive producer credit, for a story about a Texas cop who's assigned the task of guarding the wife of a key witness who's supposed to testify against a Colombian drug lord.

How off-key is the comedy? An early picture joke involves the way Witherspoon's Cooper mistakenly uses a Taser on an innocent youth, just the sort of gag we need in a post-Baltimore, post Ferguson world.

Witherspoon spends most of the movie being southern, perky, clueless and plain. Working the Latin bombshell routine as hard as she can, Vergara could pass for the love child that a union between Charo and Desi Arnaz might have produced.

The humor plays on the difference between the exaggerated sexuality of Vergara's character and the supposedly boyish looks of Witherspoon's Cooper. Not funny in the beginning and not funny at the end.

After a bit of violence eliminates Cooper's partner, she and Vergara's Daniella take flight in a road movie that has the two of them having what (for the sake of argument) we'll call adventures.

An example: In a confrontation with a Texas redneck, Cooper and Daniella pretend to be lesbians.

The two antagonists eventually become friends -- although not before the movie makes a last-minute attempt at behaving like a thriller.

And, yes, we see outtakes in which Vergara and Witherspoon crack each other up. I'm glad that they, at least, had a good time. But then, they didn't have to sit through this tin-eared mess of a movie.

Another run at Thomas Hardy

Carey Mulligan holds the center of Far From the Madding Crowd.

Filmmakers haven't always had the best of luck with British novelist Thomas Hardy, so it's hardly surprising that director Thomas Vinterberg's big-screen adaptation of Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd is a curiously mixed affair.

In its early going, Winterberg's movie plays like a CliffsNotes-inspired cascade of hurried plot developments.

A sampler:
-- We meet Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), a young woman who fancies herself as radically independent. In short order, Bathsheba inherits a farm and an estate-like home in the fictitious rural area of Wessex that Hardy tended to favor.

-- An aspiring farmer (Matthias Schoenaerts) meets Bathsheba, and, within what seems like seconds, proposes to her. Schoenaerts, who hails from Belgium, makes the interchange believable, a sincere expression from a socially awkward man.

Of course, Bathsheba turns him down.

-- Thanks to a poorly trained sheep dog, Schoenaerts' Gabriel Oak loses his flock in a harrowing sequence in which his sheep are driven by the dog over a cliff. The loss causes Gabriel's farm to fail. Bereft of land, he sets out to find a new life.

-- After helping extinguish a fire on an estate he happens to be passing, Gabriel learns that he has stumbled upon Bathsheba's newly inherited property.

She hires him to work as the place's shepherd in residence. Metaphorically, he's always trying to put out the fires in her life.

You get the idea: Vinterberg, who began his career making Dogma films (The Celebration), and who, in 2012, scored with the disturbing The Hunt, advances the plot while offering what amount to quickly drawn character sketches.

The approach might have worked had Vinterberg's otherwise naturalistic images not been interrupted by the arrival of plot twists that seem hopelessly melodramatic. Hardy intended those same twists as evidence of the ways in which chance -- indifferent to human aspiration -- could alter and even ruin lives. Here, they're awkward stand-outs.

The rest of the story concerns a series of developments in which Bathsheba debates the merits of three suitors: Gabriel, whose love and loyalty never wavers; the tediously tormented William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), owner of the farm adjoining Bathsheba's estate; and the dashing Sgt. Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge), a military man and obvious cad.

In one of the novel's most discussed scenes, Troy cuts through Bathsheba's resistance with a deft display of swordsmanship that arouses her desire. The movie follows suit, and Bathsheba -- heretofore governed by common sense -- falls prey to passion.

Marriage always seemed superfluous to Bathsheba, who needed no man to support her. Troy upsets the apple cart by turning her on.

Bathsheba marries Troy only to discover that she's not his one true love. Troy believes that the real love of his life (Juno Temple) humiliated him by leaving him waiting at the altar. He was wrong. In dithering haste, his fiancee showed up at the wrong church.

Mulligan ably conveys Bathsheba's intelligence, determination and wit, and there's nothing particularly wrong the rest of the performances, either.

But David Nicholls' screenplay either dawdles or moves to quickly, and although the movie flirts with being exceptional, it never quite fuses Hardy's themes into a heartbreakingly felt drama.

In a 1967 version, director John Schlesinger took two hours and 48 minutes to tell Hardy's story; perhaps it's a sign of progress that Vinterberg's version comes in just under two hours.

Secrets of the Iranian middle class

About Elly is another fine film from Asghar Farhadi, director of The Separation.

If you don't know the work of Asghar Farhadi, you should.

A major figure in Iranian cinema, Farhadi won an Academy Awarding for A Separation, a movie he followed with The Past, a complex family and cultural drama set in France.

Gifted and smart, Farhadi is one of the few directors working today who makes believable movies about adults. He's also particularly skilled at conjoining personal and social issues in ways that allow us to look deeply into both the souls of his characters and the social pressures they face.

About Elly previewed at the Berlin Film Festival in 2009, but only now is finding its way to the U.S. It's Farhadi's fifth movie, and we're lucky that the distribution problems that kept it from us have been resolved.

The story couldn't be simpler: A group of friends travel from Tehran to spend a weekend at the seaside. Among other things, they seem eager to find a match for one of their number, a young man (a fine Shahab Hosseini) who recently returned from Germany and is recovering from a bitter divorce.

The target for the young man: the beautiful but shy Elly (Teraneh Alidoostie), the teacher of one of the couple's kids.

When the group arrives at the resort, they learn there's a problem with the house they were supposed to occupy; they solve their problem by taking a rundown, abandoned beach house that they'll have to clean during their three-day stay.

The house has no heat, and evenings by the shore can be chilly, but the three couples talk themselves into persevering.

At first, the ebullience and good humor of Farhadi's middle-class characters made me wonder whether I was in for an Iranian Big Chill. The mood is one of cordiality and fun. The kids are cute. In the evening, everyone gathers for charades. We relax into the movie, even though suggestions of tension arise.

Of course, the story can't remain in this faux middle-class Eden forever. The near-drowning death of one of the kids sets up the movie's central conceit: Elly disappears from the beach. Has she drowned in an effort to save the boy? Has she returned home? Why was she insisting on leaving before the weekend was done?

As the group tries to unravel what happened, trouble beneath the happy surface emerges. Not only do we understand all of the characters better as the movie progresses, but we begin to see that they may not be quite as liberated as they thought.

All the performances are good, but the work of Golshifteh Farahani qualifies as exceptional: She plays Sepideh, the woman who's most tormented by the unfolding events.

Toward the end, Farhadi's screenplay may have a bit too much on its plate, but About Elly stands as another fine achievement from someone who's emerging as one of the world's most important directors.


Jack Black's 'D-Train' derails

A quasi-serious comedy that makes mince meat out of credibility.
Suppose some of the young men who admired the most popular guy in high school weren't just envious. What if they were flirting with unacknowledged homoerotic urges? That's the underlying question raised by The D-Train, an unbelievable (and I don't mean that in a good way) movie about nebbish Dan (Jack Black), a guy who's chairman of his high school's alumni committee. In hopes of upping attendance at his 20th class reunion, Dan creates an elaborate ruse that requires him and his boss (Jeffrey Tambor) to travel from Pittsburgh to LA in pursuit of a major business deal. Married with a teen-age son, Dan really wants to persuade one of his high school's former big shots (James Marsden) to attend the reunion. Marsden's Oliver Lawless moved to LA to pursue a show-business career: He's had no success, but Dan can't see through the glow of his high school admiration for Oliver. He's so caught up in Oliver's world that he actually sleeps with the former hotshot after a drug-fueled night on the town. Oliver's sexual preferences apparently are ... well ... casually eclectic. As a result of his business ruse and his foray into homosexual sex, Jack's life begins to unravel. His wife (Kathryn Hahn) can't figure out what's happening with her husband until the night of reunion, which results in an excruciatingly embarrassing scene for Dan -- not to mention the audience. Black is burdened with an impossible role; Marsden looks as if he's doing a James Franco imitation, and the movie winds up just as you might expect -- with a late-picture turn to sentiment.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

'Avengers' strikes again -- but not as deftly

Still, summer's first comic-book movie probably will connect with fans.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is the first of summer's bona-fide comic book movies. As such, it surely will score with fans of the series, as well as with those who've awoken from winter's hibernation hungry for another helping of their cherished Marvel superheroes.

Here's a list for those keeping score: Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner).

These are the same actors who helped turn director Joss Whedon's The Avengers (2012) into an entertaining megahit.

This time out, Whedon and company provide a demonstration of what happens when a culture begins replicating itself, doling out the latest version of the same-old-same-old. The movie plays like an echo of its predecessor -- albeit a very loud one.

Also directed by Whedon, this edition alternates dull exposition with slam-bang action, some of it spectacularly created by the movie's welter of CGI geniuses. For my money, these unseen artists qualify as the movie's real stars, although they probably have been called upon to create more battles than any single movie needs.

The movie opens with an action-packed prologue set in the fictional eastern European country of Sokovia. The commotion has something do with invading the headquarters of Hydra. If you're an aficionado, you need no further explanation. If you're not, you probably don't care anyway.

The story's stakes, of course, are both high and par for the comic-book course: Our superheroes square off against Ultron (voice by James Spader), a super-intelligent robot (or at least some sort of metalic creature) created by Tony Stark, who's also Iron Man.

Uninspired by what he sees of humankind, Ultron decides that he wants to wipe out all of humanity.

Although it has been engineered to give each superhero time in the spotlight, the movie ultimately delivers a message about the importance of team work. The superheroes must use their unique individual skills to accomplish a joint task; i.e., rid the world of Ultron -- while delivering one-liners, of course.

The movie introduces several new characters, two of them twins played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen. Taylor-Johnson's Quicksilver is lightning fast; Olsen's Scarlet Witch has some kind of out-sized mental powers.

A few subplots also peek through the action, notably a digression into Hawkeye's civilian life and suggestions of romance between Hulk and Black Widow.

Paul Bettany shows up late the movie as a character named Vision: He reassures us that an invention with artificial intelligence can appreciate humans, despite not being one of them.

All of this tumult results in a somewhat confusing entertainment that still manages to wring a bit of sentiment out its finale.

Before the screening, I was mentioning to a companion that I'm starting to wear out on Robert Downey Jr.'s smart-and-smug act. Ultron did nothing to change my mind.

I enjoyed some of the big set pieces, but at 2 1/2 hours, my biggest reaction upon conclusion of Ultron was relief.

I also wondered whether Whedon and some the principal cast members might not feel the same way. These mega-productions definitely can wear you out.