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When I was a kid," Frank Walker (George Clooney) says, "the future was
The difference between Disney's Tomorrowland and other current sci-fi's like Mad Max, Avengers, and Ex Machina is optimism. A younger female version of himself (Casey played by a terrific Britt Robertson) turns his pessimism into hope. That hope bolstered by individual energy as opposed to the forces of family in such as Guardians of the Galaxy (or Clooney's memorable Gravity).
Inventor Walker interacts in a delightfully joyful and sardonic way with spunky Casey, who mysteriously lands at Walker's home/lab, and a magnetic young robot, Athena (Raffey Cassidydimpled, blue eyed with a great acting future). It has to do with another world that sees itself as superior to earthlings, who are swiftly moving themselves to distinction.
It's up to Frank, Casey, and Athena to save the world. Hey, this is a Disney flick, so the world will be saved for those who want to visit Disneyland, and the heroes will be pure of heart, you can bet. While the digital effects are what's to be expected these days, the optimism is the trump card.
Disney has learned not to overplay that hand, so Director Brad Bird knows how to lace his story with believable young people who won't give up the good fight for a positive future. As in his Ratatouille and The Incredibles, the good citizens will fight to the end to keep their freedom.
The production design and cinematography are pure and simple like Disney's Tomorrowland circa 1964. Yet, the heart of this family-friendly adventure is the emphasis on individualism and dreaming, both essential for humanity's future. The usual summer blockbusters have forgotten this formula:
"Which way do you want to go?" Backwards or forwards?" (Athena)
In the Georgia, Apkhazeti region of summer 1992, Georgians were warring
with Estonians, forcing them back to their homeland. In Tangerines, an
intriguing Oscar nominee for best foreign film, Estonian carpenter Ivo
(Lembit Ulfsak) stays behind to make crates for harvested tangerines
with his gentle farmer neighbor Margus (Elmo Nuganen). The ensuing
drama pits warriors from both sides, who must peacefully co-exist while
being tended for their wounds by the caring Ivo at his home.
The story of enemies becoming friends has been writ many times before, and in Tangerines these enemies do not go gently as Muslim Chechen mercenary Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze), fighting on the Abkhazi side, badgers Christian Georgian Niko (Mikheil Meskhi), who gives back as good as he gets. Meanwhile Ivo's role is to comment on war's absurdities and injustices, like a chorus reflecting writer/director Zara Urushadze's philosophies about war:
Ahmed: "I will avenge my friend. This is a holy thing for us, Old Man, you don't understand." Ivo: "Killing a sleeping man, when he is unconscious, is that a sacred thing too? I didn't know." Included in his wisdom is some well-placed sarcasm that serves the anti-war thoughts of everyone watching this film.
The most remarkable trait of Tangerines is Ivo's humanity, an aging farmer with a world vision that allows him to care for two enemies without taking sides and create an environment that makes them devotees of peace and brothers. The setup tends toward the stagey with speeches dramatizing the universals amid the dung of battle, set in a confined area that could have been out of a Sam Shephard drama.
Other virtues of this unassumingly powerful film are the claustrophobic farm house and its rough exterior, as much an evocation of Winter's Bones's impoverished Appalachia as it is of proud but poor Georgia. The actors are every bit as rough-hewn as the fence that keeps no enemies out. The exception is the generous Ivo, whose soft face and meek mien are the markers for peaceful survival amid the dirty and dangerous landscape of farm and humans.
Like Ivo, the tangerines are a promise of peace's nourishment, an easy metaphor for the contrast between the toxic battle and the bounty of peace. The crates emphasize the tribal environment which can rot only too soon if not tended. Similarly, the oft-referenced photo of Ivo's lovely granddaughter reminds us that beauty still exists somewhere even if it seems unattainable.
"He didn't fit in, and he knew it." Frank Oz
I Am Big Bird: the Caroll Spinney Story is a big, feel good doc about the man under the bird for over 40 years. While Big Bird is arguably the best known animal icon for kids in the world, relatively few know the soul of that puppet, much less the workings of its animated presence on Sesame Street.
Caroll Spinney's story, as told in this documentary for all ages, is an upbeat survey of a life well lived for children by him and other geniuses like Jim Henson, for whom puppets were an expression of the highest creativity even when the circumstances are not as perfect as the kids' perception of Big Bird.
Directors Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker do not sugar coat or dumb down Spinney's story: He was initially wracked with doubt about his abilities, his director did not like him for unknown reasons, and his role was alone amidst the very social other members and roles of the cast. Yet out of this isolation came a character that showed his humanity in ways different from everyone else, to such a successful extent that NASA invited him to fly with Challenger. That role's last minute cancellation spared Spinney's life and saved him for generations of youngsters.
The Challenger tragedy and his contemplation of suicide keep this doc from being too sweet, peppering it with the kind of reality Sesame Street never shied away from, and in the case of Henson's death, was able to turn the grief into a lesson for the kids.
"I am a woman. It is my intention to astonish you all." Bathsheba
Thomas Hardy would make a fortune today writing soap opera period pieces like Far from the Madding Crowd for HBO. That's a compliment because this film is done with such restraint (far fewer gratuitous country-beautiful shots and more close ups) that it could have been set in any era and the human condition would be the same.
Besides its fidelity to the spirit of Hardy's typically bright, tough farm girl ("I have an education. Nothing else"), class division, complicated loves, Far offers a heroine, Bathsheba (well-cast, crooked smiling Mulligan) far ahead of her time (See the above quote). Although she doesn't want for suitors, she doesn't want to be subjugated by a husband either ("being some man's property"). Katherine Hepburn could have played this role.
As life and Hardy would have it, chance and human nature have their own agendas, and Bathsheba makes bad decisions based on youthful passion and naivetéHardy, frequently a figurative scold, makes sure she pays amply for her mistakes before he sets the balance right between fortune and misfortune. His more famous Tess of the d'Urbervilles is the finest example of the strong-willed, suffering heroine, who, because of weak men, is mercilessly buffeted by the fates and her own weakness.
One of Bathsheba's suitors, the painfully shy William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), personifies the aging Victorian society, bound in property and loneliness; to her he importunes, "I want very much to protect you for the rest of your life." However, the temporary prize of Bathsheba is given to the crimson-uniformed rake, Sergeant Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge), another character waiting for Hardy's punishment.
The obvious right guy for her is farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), whose steadfast love for the heroine could only be compared to Job's suffering. To her he always speaks honestly and lovingly: "I'm not going to tell stories just to please you. You can be sure of that."
Far from the Madding Crowd is a crowd pleaser. Hardy would have loved the adaptation.
If Welcome to Me is a comedy, then it's a very dark one. Alice Kleig
(Kristen Wiig) has Borderline Personality Disorder that manifests
itself in ways like eating a meatloaf cake with sweet-potato icing on
TV and walking nude through a casino.
After winning the lottery, she buys a TV talk show and proceeds to talk the whole boring time about herself (no surprise as the title of her show is the title of the film and leaves no room for doubt that it's all about her). She strangely advises the audience, "You can have what I have if you really believe in it." She asks a stranger on the street if there was "a rape in A Tale of Two Cities." She's not even goofy, just much past the borderline of normalcy with few laughs.
To be fair, she's attempting to find out, as we all should, who she is, and therefore using the therapy of a talk show to expunge her demons and discover "me." It just doesn't make for good comedybizarre yes, funny no.
Although I find little humor in her BPD, at least in the dreary way director Shira Piven and writer Eliot Laurence present it, I was hoping for some broadcast humor such as Will Ferrell (a producer of this film) and Adam McKay gave in Anchorman or the insightful satire in Broadcast News and Network. Her talking on TV about masturbating and actually neutering animals in front of the camera were off the mark and weird without being witty.
It's fun, however, to see Tim Robbins as Alice's therapist and too little of Jennifer Jason Leigh as a TV staffer. Joan Cusack in the control room expertly expresses my disbelief in Alice's shenanigans, and like me, she finds it dreary without being funny.
I have to hand it to the filmmakers, however: I have a very good idea about Borderline Personality Disorder. In a summer chock full of blockbusters, this small film looms larger than it ought.
"This is a madhouse." Mativo (Kyalo Mativo)
Roar, an action film about a marauding gang of jungle beasts such as lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards, and cougars, is one of the worst movies I have ever seen, yet like an Ed Wood production, not without its amusements. While the animals appear to be real, the actors are mostly grade-school quality. Even the accomplished Tippi Hedren as Madelaine and her daughter, Melanie Griffith, as Melanie, come off as amateurish probably because of the ineptitude of the other actors; the script; and her husband, the writer-director of Roar, Noel Marshall (who plays Hank, the soul-mate of the animals).
While the core conflict is about poachers who are central-casting nasty, most of the story involves the loving animals chasing Hank's hapless family until we realize the animals are not going to hurt them, in fact just long to hold and be held by the humans. Not so lucky are the poachers, whose sneers and overall seedy looks promise retribution. Not so lucky are some real production people, such a cinematographer Jan de Bont, who needed a scalp reattachment and Melanie Griffith, who had facial reconstruction after being mauled.
It's a partly-true story of Marshall's family, who lived among 100 beasts on their California estate. Although the pedestrian plot is obvious from the get-go, Roar is saved by the sincere intentions of Marshall and Hedren, who must have wanted to make some kind of conservation statement with the film.
Re-released from 1981, Roar did show me that tigers love to swim and lions not so much and that anyone with money can make a movie that eventually falls into the hands of discerning, unkind critics. Hank running around yelling in order to shepherd the animals is just one of many repeated scenes that lose impact the minute one realizes these are animals trained to love humans. Surprisingly, the animals are house-trained, or so it seems.
The film feels like a Jungle Jack Hanna production, spiced up from Born Free, and encouraged by former Keystone Cops, who also must be animal trainers.
"Eugene O'Neill long." Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) about an active
The bad news is that Avengers: Age of Ultron is not only long (141 min.) but also overstuffed like thanksgiving turkey that keeps giving until you can't take it anymore. Yet, the film is filling, that is, filled with explosive set pieces and characters aplenty. If any summer hero movie could have been split in two or three, this one could.
The good news is that it is fun, as always. Writer-director Joss Whedon has peppered the dialogue with smarts, like the above quote (I just sat through an O'Neill play, so I get it) and when Stark describes their challenge: "This is going to be like finding a needle in the world's biggest haystack... fortunately, I brought a magnet!" It's not that quips have been absent from other Marvel hero flicks, it's just that this iteration is filled with them. Unfortunately they are sometimes lost among the loud ubiquitous explosions.
I understand the need to appeal to young males and therefore to load the sci-fi thriller with testosterone, but this much is a loss for the more humanistic elements such as the intriguing love affair between the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). Consider also the fascinating youngsters, twins Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who have powers capable of subduing the Avengers. So much story waiting in so many characters yet so much fighting.
Having just enjoyed Ex Machina, about artificial intelligence, I was pleased that beyond the special effects in Avengers lies a treatise on the dangers of man playing God, a lesson we have not learned from Frankenstein to 2001 to this film. Yet, something is there to be enjoyed when we can be cautioned about our pride through art.
So enjoy the first blockbuster of the summer. There is goodness in the mayhem: We learn to adjust to civility as we evolve, we hope, into higher beings: "The world adjusts, evolves to live with changes." Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson)
We witnessed the kinetic energy of the Oscar-winning Birdman about an
aging actor making a comeback on the Broadway stage. Now with the
expert and engaging Clouds of Sils Maria we witness a middle-aged
actress, Maria (Juliette Binoche), contend with both her 20-year return
to the same play but as the older character and the energy of a
personal assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), that reminds Maria of
time's passage and the changes in her profession.
Writer/director Olivier Assayas delights us with stunning camera work in an early sequence on the train;Hitchcock would love the camera and editing if you remember Strangers on a Train. Assayas also features the Alps with such loving cinematography you'll be booking a trip. Credit Yorick Le Saux for the editing and Marion Monnier for cinematography.
The heart of an excellent drama such as this is its words, the best way to convey the complex emotions each actress must display. Besides Binoche's up-close glamour, Kristin Stewart's sassy, dark beauty is there to remind us that youth rules.
The screenplay offers advice about the changing nature of dynamic dialogue: "The text is like an object. It's gonna change perspective based on where you're standing." (Valentine). In the case of Maria and Valentine, the sometimes screwball-comedy-like repartee reveals layers of perception and emotion heightened by the fact that we are witnessing the deconstruction of the acting experience: Maria holds to classical interpretation while Valentine's thesis is that spontaneity and electricity are the key components.
The plot of Maria's accepting a stage role for a play she acted in 20 years ago as the young lead loosely parallels the scenario of this film (young assistant provoking the older actress) until a climactic moment on the mountain, a moment whose ambiguity will demand you complete the scene for yourself. Regardless, you will know you have seen one of the best films of the year depicting the rigorous working of the art of acting given by two of the best actresses today in film (Stewart won a Cesar for this role, Binoche won an Oscar for English Patient, and a mature Chloe Grace Moretz is sure to be Oscar nominated soon!).
"Don't be afraid, they're just a bunch of dogs." Man at a club.
Well it's not the surrealistic Cujo with its rabid St. Bernard or the benign Benji. White Dog, rather, feels like a realistic horror film, at least till the closing when it does get surreal. Indeed, these mutts are not "just a bunch." They loosely represent the abused and subjugated underclass of the world, and you guessed it, they revolt like apes from that infamous planet or workers from Metropolis.
Until that fantasy ending, where the dogs are let loose to wreak havoc, the story is an effectively scary progression of the dog Max's descent into rabid madness through various masters, the last of whom teaches him how to kill for dog fights. Young Lili (Zsofia Psotta) befriends Max as a stray until she's forced to let him goon to his bloody career. Lili's struggles to keep the dog put her in opposition to her father, Daniel (Sandor Zsoter),and most authoritarian situations like playing in an orchestra under a controlling maestro.
As the drama slowly exposes (think about Hitchcock's measured exposition in The Birds) the constant abuse stray dogs are accustomed to, it parallels Lili's battle with a clueless father and abusive dog catchers, who sometimes resemble Ghostbusters in their uniforms and bungling dog chases. In either case, dog or girl, adults are usually clueless about the suffering they inflict on their dogs and children.
Like the poor French of their Revolution, the downtrodden and dogs will have their day. Today's increasing gap between the rich and poor or the brutality of Mid-Eastern ISIS persecutions can serve as the objects of writer/director Kornal Mundruczo's figurative story. For those not interested in English-major deconstructions, White God (the title may be homage to Sam Fuller's White Dog) is a fine horror story about the voiceless downtrodden rising up against their oppressors.
No matter which side you're on, it's a disturbing tale, bloody and depressing, elevated to artistic worthiness by an uncanny fusion of the real and the surreal.
Egads! I'm reluctant to tell you I enjoyed The Age of Adeline, a
dramatic romance that reeks of Nicholas Sparks except when it doesn't.
Adaline (Blake Lively) is 29 years old forever due to a freak
occurrence of nature. As poets have always predicted, such a blessing
has some regret as the ones she loves pass away and as she dare not
commit to anyone because of her curse.
Much of this fantasy depends on the sentimental lingering of Adaline as she reviews her more than century of life without permanent love. Where I found a core of true humanity without sentimentality is in the latter half of the film as Adaline faces committing to an attractive, intelligent, and charitable philanthropist, Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman). Once again she faces the urge to leave because of her curse, but he and his family, notably the excellent Harrison Ford as his father, William, make her pause to consider letting go of her agelessness.
And so must we pause to consider how poets like Browning opined that the gods were jealous of mankind because of our ability to love and suffer, at, of course, the cost of our lives. But then Jesus Christ chose the imperfect route to redeem our sins. Not a bad reason yet it still holds the pain of death. This film at least makes us consider whether or not we would wish to live like Adeline, constantly running from reality unable to hold anyone but her aging daughter, Flemming (always excellent Ellen Burstyn), and Adaline's dog. Watch out for Harrison Ford's best performance ever as a father caught in the web of time and a Trivial Pursuit game that shows us all how it should be played.
Realists might better stay home than face the usual romantic absurdities like how the substantial Ellis could so quickly fall in love with Adaline (called Jenny at this time in her life) or how the sentimental ending could have sunk a less intelligent film. Yet, the Twilight Zone could have produced such a fantasy, and I never complained about Rod Serling's manipulations.
While at the end the film gives in to sap of the usual romance kind, it regularly rises above the trite to tackle the eternal puzzle of life, love, and romance. Besides, who doesn't want to consider embracing the joys of aging, wrinkles and death?
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