Sunday, May 24, 2015

TOMORROWLAND Crashes Like A Faulty Jet Pack

TOMORROWLAND (directed by Brad Bird, 2015)

How much you enjoy "Tomorrowland" largely boils down to how much you're willing to lie to yourself.

Here is a movie I'm desperate to like, I'm practically dying to like. Director/co-writer Brad Bird (of "The Incredibles" and "The Iron Giant" fame) has yet to inflict cinematic wrong, and with his latest, he attempts no less than to conjure classic live-action Disney magic of the past, where the movie screen feels like a doorway, beckoning us to a more extraordinary version of ourselves and our world. "Tomorrowland" proudly slaps its heart on its sleeve, then asks us why we aren't doing the same.

And yet...and yet. Do we support a movie for what it's trying to do, or for what it ultimately does? I want to live in a world where "Tomorrowland" kickstarts a new wide-eyed, original franchise. I want to live in a world where it imbues us with that feeling of hope and optimism it so clearly wishes, where kids exit the theater keen on becoming scientists and artists and inventors and thinkers. Sometimes life demands painful admissions we'd rather deny, though, and here's one of them: "Tomorrowland" fails. I support its intent and its spirit and its message with every fiber of my blogger being, but at a point, we must remove the goggles and face the world we've got to live in. Bird stands on the mountaintop and preaches the gospel of wonder. What a damn shame his movie curiously lacks it. 

I take no pleasure in this.

Chief among the movie's faults is the most elemental one of structure. As the movie starts, we meet young inventor Frank Walker in 1964, hitching a bus to the New York World's Fair to show off his new jet pack. Although he fails to impress judge David Nix (Hugh Laurie), he is invited on a ominous fair ride that launches him on a secret tunnel to Tomorrowland, a futuristic, seemingly otherworldly city where anything is possible and dreaming is encouraged. Flash forward to today, where cynicism abounds and a young, idealistic girl named Casey (Britt Robertson) starts having visions of the city, and only an adult Frank (now played by George Clooney), who was mysteriously exiled from Tomorrowland, can take her there. 

As reasonable a pitch for a movie as any. But you don't spend all day cranking a Jack In The Box only to learn there's nothing inside - there are basic rules of pacing and payoff. You set up a world, introduce the players, create the stakes, and take us to the finish line. For a movie clocking in at two solid hours before credits, "Tomorrowland" feels oddly stuck in Act 1, constantly feeding us table scraps of information that only mildly tantalize the story's true scope, creating unreasonable anticipation for where we're heading, until arriving at a bizarrely rushed conclusion.

It's not that "Tomorrowland"'s ultimate destination - that of a basic end-of-the-world scenario - is disappointing (though it is). It's the blatant tease of it all. What we have here is a fundamentally obvious story marred by the promise of something grand, an almost bizarre experiment in how much of a feature length movie you can create using set-up. "Tomorrowland" pulls back curtains only to reveal more curtains.

All the more tragic is what "Tomorrowland" clearly could have been. From the deepest recesses of the celluloid, you can almost hear a passionate work of art screaming to be set free, everything good and noble about Bird as a filmmaker and a storyteller swallowed up in the quicksand of the studio machine. Consider the movie's ultimate message, that our world on the verge of extinction can be saved not through bombs or bullets or domination, but through sheer hope - the unlocking of our best selves. That's a brazenly personal note of optimism to strike when most summer movies climax with buildings crumbling and people fleeing, and it requires a healthy dose of awe to land. 

"Tomorrowland" has no awe. It has no wonder. Where it should have us saying, "Wow," we can only say, "Huh?" Remember the fist pumping passion of Bird's "The Iron Giant" as the machine proclaims, "I am not a gun!"? Or the lovely little aside in "The Incredibles" as Dash, finally given permission to run as fast as he can, chuckles with joy as he races across water? Moments like that make Bird such a vital voice of optimism in film, a masterful weaver of story, character, and action able to strike the exact emotions he wants, when he wants.

This is the first movie in his repertoire where you can see the wheels spinning, where the movie tells us what to think instead of making us think it. If "The Iron Giant" and "The Incredibles" (and his other Pixar effort, "Ratatouille") felt like genuine, complete encapsulations of hope and possibility, "Tomorrowland" is a corporate seminar on the stuff.

Instead of a whole movie, we just have threads of a movie, many left awkwardly dangling. Who sent the characters played by Keegan-Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn to capture Casey, and why? How did Tomorrowland crumble into the destitute wasteland it is today? Why did Hugh Laurie's character stick around? And the main draw of the movie, Tomorrowland itself, comes explored frustratingly little in the first two thirds, so when we see its ruins in the end, we have no sense of enchantment to compare to the tragic rubble. 

You can feel the material getting the better of Bird, played with the same awkward, self-serving corporate synergy of Disney's "Saving Mr. Banks" that lacks an intelligent drawing together of its themes. He is absolutely a great filmmaker, and will absolutely be great again. Sometimes earnestness just can't overcome obliqueness.

To paraphrase Cosmo Kramer's take on an unpublished manuscript, it's a story about love, deception, greed, and unbridled enthusiasm - that's what led to the movie's downfall. You see, "Tomorrowland" was a simple country movie, some might say a cockeyed optimist, that got itself mixed up in the high stakes game of Disney sponsorship and artistic passion projects.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD Surges Like A Bullet Filled With Caffeine Shot From A Volcano

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (directed by George Miller, 2015)

Reviewing "Mad Max: Fury Road" presents me with two problems. 1) How can I possibly describe a movie this gloriously gonzo, this triumphant, while using words that sound coherent? 2) How can I resist the urge to write those words in all caps?

Here is a movie that not only inspires hyperbole, it demands hyperbole, that breathless stream of adjectives and adverbs in the lobby sounding like rubbish to everyone but the initiated. Its very essence is a cinematic hyperbole. Got a point to make and a movie to make it with? Why go small when you can go big? Why go timid when you can go ecstatic? Why go subtle when you can go insane?

Why go great when you can go greatest? 

That's precisely what George Miller did, returning to the franchise's director chair for the first time since 1985's "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome." It truly feels like, at some point down the road, he asked the simple question, "You know what the action genre could use? A new benchmark." And now we have "Fury Road," setting the bar at a height that even CGI can't create, an incredible cacophony of sound, image, and idea, all coming together for a sweaty rush of pure cinema.

Decades from now, when fresh young filmmakers discuss what inspired them to make movies of their own, this is what they'll point to.

Stripped to the frame and ready to rumble, Miller streamlines his movie with remarkable precision, telling us exactly what we need to know when we need to know it and showing us the rest. Set unknown years after "Beyond Thunderdome," Max (Tom Hardy, replacing a certain sugar tits enthusiast) continues to wander the post-apocalyptic wasteland, no goal in mind except pure survival. Immediately in the opening frames, he's captured by the War Boys, members of a tyrannical cult led by Immortan Joe, who use him to pipe blood to the veins of tumor-infested soldier Nux (Nicholas Hoult). When Furiosa (Charlize Theron) drives the armored War Rig to ostensibly collect gasoline for the city, Joe learns she's kidnapped his beloved Five Wives, women used expressly for breeding, and taking them to freedom, causing the War Boy army to chase her down with Max strapped along for the ride.

As a plot, it's pure allegory. Here's the good guys, here's the bad guys, and off we go, rarely letting up for a break. As a cinematic experience, though, it's unparalleled, short of you mixing mushrooms, cough syrup, and Drano until stuff just started happening. Movies, both the good and the bad, can often be any one thing. Maybe the movie wants to be a storytelling device. Maybe a visual experience. Maybe it's a genre like comedy or horror, built to elicit a specific emotion. But sometimes, sometimes a movie can be all the things. 

If "Fury Road" were just the visual extravaganza it is, you'd absolutely be demanded on opening weekend. If it were a mere collection of car chases, you'd still see it at least twice. George Miller, though, makes no little plans, for they have no magic to stir men's blood. "Fury Road" is ultimately the kind of avant garde blockbuster rarely seen before and likely rarely seen again. Ultra-commercial while achingly personal. Relentlessly entertaining while emotionally resonant. R-rated action spectacle and a wounded cry from the heart.

Beneath the eye-popping dazzles and intensely realized dystopian imagery, "Fury Road" covertly delivers a feminist rally cry, all the more remarkable for how seamlessly it's fused. One of the most hollow ways to describe female characters is "strong," because really, what does that even mean? That she's literally muscled? That she's courageous? That she kills the most bad guys? In Furiosa, Theron creates a female action heroine for the ages that comfortably stands alongside Sigourney Weaver's Ripley precisely for those reasons and precisely in spite of them. She's vulnerable. She worries. She's unsure. When she rescues the wives from Immortan Joe, though, it's on her own accord, breaking free from a quite literal patriarchy and harnessing her own agency. Max assists them along the way, but he's not the magic male ingredient that lights the fire. He's an ally who stands beside Furiosa as her equal. 

Still, don't consider "Fury Road" an agenda movie. Miller might have things on his mind, but why force it into your mind when he can invite you into his? During the precious bits of downtime, he doesn't reduce Furiosa and Max to speechifying (each of them maybe gets a couple of hundred words throughout the movie). Instead, he allows his themes to breathe and play out through sheer action, never clubbing you with them, but keeping them lurking just beneath the surface. 

When theorists refer to "pure cinema," this is what they mean. "Fury Road" rules as a remarkable fusion of idea and skill.

And what skill! What audacious, bone-crushing skill! George Miller is a 70-year-old man. Ordinarily that wouldn't rank high among important facts, but just consider where most 70-year-olds' heads lie. Maybe they're content with their life, maybe they're filled with regret, but either way, their legacy is probably set. When you watch "Fury Road," don't forget who made it, because it radiates the passion of a hungry young artist with something to prove. 

Miller approaches the concept of "more" not as a challenge, not as a question, but as an expectation. Of course he has to give us more. Of course each scene has to top itself. Of course each moment has to top itself. This is just the kind of movie he feels compelled to make, and as "Fury Road" hurtles forward, we feel exhausted, but not overwhelmed. Stuff happens in this movie. My god, stuff happens in this movie. Cars flip and crash into other cars. Stunt people vault around on poles. A man strapped to the front of a tanker plays electric flame-shooting guitar because wouldn't you want your chase to have its own live soundtrack? Insane levels of visual detail fill the frame and decorate the fringes. And yet, for a movie with more than 2,000 cuts, we never feel lost, grounded by Miller at all times with a keen sense of geography and physicality. 

Forgoing CGI and green screens in favor of practical effects and stunt work, "Fury Road" ramps up the stakes higher than most lesser action films because the stakes feel higher. When we can see what's happening and we know what's happening and we believe what's happening, that's when our knees start jiggling and our posture leans forward and a little grin sprouts, first of awe and then of joy. That's when movie magic goes down.

Money in the movies can be a heckuva tool or a heckuva crutch. "Fury Road," budgeted at $150 million, exceeds the other "Mad Max" movies by a wide gulf, and yet Miller uses that cash at his disposal to make things harder on himself, to expand his artistic vision accordingly and then heave his vast balls forward to achieve it. Consider this his plea to the filmmaking world, throwing down the gauntlet so hard it shakes the earth's core, hoping he inspires other action filmmakers that this is how much fun we can be, this is how awesome we can be, this is how essential we can be. 

Please, please see it in theaters. Not a pirated bootleg, not streaming, not a DVD. Not on your television, not on your tablet, not on your phone. Make it tower above you and around you, and if your theater offers it on multiple screens, call ahead to ask which is the biggest.

"Fury Road" deserves it, and so do you.