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Wilmington on Movies: Tomorrowland

birdlandTOMORROWLAND (Three Stars)

U. S.: Brad Bird, 2015

To Morrow (Fragment: A Railroad Lament).

 

I started on a journey, about a year ago,

To a little town called Morrow in the state of O-hio.

I’ve never been much of a traveler and I really didn’t know

That Morrow was the hardest place I’d ever tried to go.

 

So I went down to the station for my tickets and applied

For tips regarding Morrow, not expecting to be guyed.

Said I: “My friend, I’d like to go to Morrow, and return

“No later than tomorrow, for I haven’t time to burn.”

 

Says he to me. “Now let me see, if I have heard you right:

“You’d like to go to Morrow, and return tomorrow night.

“You should have gone to Morrow yesterday, and back today,

“For the train today to Morrow is a mile upon its way.”

 

Says I: “My friend, it seems to me you’re talking though your hat.

“There is a place called Morrow on the line, now tell me that.”

“There is,” said he, “But take from me a quiet little tip:

“The train today to Morrow is a fourteen hour trip…”

 

“The train today to Morrow leaves today at 8:35.

“At half-past-ten tomorrow is the time it should arrive

“So the train today to Morrow, if the schedule is right:

Today it goes to Morrow, and returns tomorrow night……”

 

Lew Sully, arranged (mostly) by Bob Gibson, courtesy of The Kingston Trio.

 

1. Yesterday

Watching Tomorrowland –a great big film hunk of love and optimism and confusion from the Walt Disney Studio — you sometimes get the idea that director-writer Brad Bird and company are trying not just to create a new movie but maybe to found a new movement; Dianetics for Disneyphiles, or Pessimists Anonymous or Worldmakers. (Just kidding.)

I liked the show, or at least parts of it. But there’s something undeniably preachy and predictable about Tomorrowland — even though it’s an incredibly well-made picture, bursting with the usual Disney high grade talent, loaded with laudable ambitions and extraordinary technique, and packed with correct politics, directorial flair and top-chop acting by some very engaging, very attractive players. (The movie’s ensemble is headed by George Clooney, the British comic Hugh Laurie and two terrific young actresses, Britt Robertson and Raffey Cassidy, both of whom are younger than Tina Fey or Amy Poehler, at their snarkiest, would have wished on Clooney). It‘s also loaded with good intentions: those good intentions, as Robin Wood once cracked, with which we understand the road to hell to be paved. I was rooting for the movie from the early scenes on, which is, of course, a sure sign that it wasn’t quite working.

Tomorrowland doesn’t lead you to Hell — you‘ll find that elsewhere in the multiplex, especially in the theatres showing found footage horror movies, car-crash-a-thons and some of the more bourgeois romantic comedies. But it may be stuck in a kind of Purgatory of sermons and special effects. Bird’s story, which he co-wrote with Damon Lindelof of “Lost,“ is set first in the ‘60s, and then 45 years or so later (just about now). It revolves around those two girls, Casey and Athena, and a one-time prodigy kid inventor, Frank Walker, played by an actor, Thomas Robinson, who would have fit right in on the original TV “Leave it to Beaver,“ and who grows up to be an old grouchy recluse (Clooney, who is strenuously unsmiley in the last half of the movie).

2. Today

In our current decade, Frank is rousted out of his hermit’s lair — packed with inventions nobody ever bought and books nobody is reading any more — and persuaded (after some well-groomed but murderous robots disguised as cops burn his house down) to undertake a curious expedition: to find the storied Tomorrowland. His on-the-road companions: a bouncy, smart teenager named Casey Newton (Robertson) and a mysterious little girl with a beguiling British accent named Athena (Cassidy), who met Frank back in the 1964 World’s Fair, and hasn’t aged a minute since. Casey lives with her dad Eddie (Tim McGraw), a nice guy NASA employee who‘s been laid off. Athena hangs around, then and now, with people like Hugh Laurie as Governor Nix, which is either a nickname for Richard Nixon, or some apt moniker for the ultimate negativist.

We first meet Casey at her Spielbergishly suburban home. We first met Athena at the 1964 world’s fair, where Frank discovered Tomorrowland — introduced by the Sherman Brothers’ maddening little ditty “It’s a Small World.” Tomorrowland, of course is one of the four theme parks that were combined in the original Anaheim super-theme park Disneyland (it was also the name of a segment on the ‘50s TV show “Disneyland,” hosted by Walt). The others, in case you forgot, are Adventureland, Fantasyland and Frontierland — with a pristine early 1900s Main Street, complete with ice cream parlor and a silent movie house showing Charlie Chaplin movies (at least they did when I was there last), a street that was the all-American nostalgia entranceway into the four parks and the whole wonderful Magic Kingdom.

But isn’t a little strange to treat Tomorrowland as if it were El Dorado? These two Spielbergishly spunky kids, along with grumpy Frank/George, who needs a shave, have discovered a sort of alternate universe in the place, which boasts a spectacular variety of futuristic rides and hangouts and knockout visual effects, and which Casey can reach by pressing a little Tomorrow pin she‘s picked up — a talisman that then zips her in and out of the place and its world and the waving wheat-fields outside, without a ticket or a pass. (Let’s hope word on these pins doesn’t get around and bankrupt Disneyland.) The girls are eager to see more — just as we‘re relatively eager to see them see it.

So the three Amigos take off together, pursued by those evil robot kind-of-Matrix cops (so evil they actually kill real cops), bantering away (and nobody, of course, banters like Clooney), to ride, boldly ride, in search of Tomorrowland. They arrive just in time to save the world. (Did I forget the Spoiler Alert? Sorry.) As I said, I was rooting for them.

3. Tomorrow

Tomorrowland the movie is a technical marvel, full of moving sidewalks and futuristic cityscapes and electronic super-gizmos and almost everything else you’d want to see if you were a prodigy kid inventor in 1964 who stumbled into a time warp, and met the Big Crush of your life, or at lest of your boyhood. It’s also probably one of the most optimistic and fervently good-hearted movies around right now, saturated with a faith in the future and a liberal idealism that come just this side of clanging you over the head and handing you a petition. Remember those flashing “Author’s Message” signs that budding screenwriter Woody Allen inserted into 1965’s What’s New, Pussycat?? A few of them would fit right into Tomorrowland, especially in its climactic “Hey Kids, Let’s Put on the Future!“ scene with Frank, Casey and the youngsters gathered around them who’ll make the new world.

Unabashed liberal George Clooney has taken a little heat in some reviews for stuff like this: for what some pundits choose to see as his malign ultra-liberal influence on the movie — as if Clooney were some kind of Johnny Appleseed of the Hollywood Left, or as if Bird hadn’t put out messages pretty much like this into his other pictures as well. It didn’t bother me, because my politics are somewhat the same as Clooney’s, and here as elsewhere he’s one of those effortlessly ingratiating actors whom you mostly don’t mind getting proselytized to by. Anyway, I doubt that he rewrote Bird’s and Lindelof’s script to give himself a sermon or two, and President Obama and Michelle don’t show up here, as they just did (via archival trickery) in Pitch Perfect 2. But it is (perfectly) true that Tomorrowland could use a few less speeches and good intentions and a few more snazzy inventions and spectacular set-pieces and many more memorable characters.

What sense does it make to spend all that money and energy on the setting for a movie, and expend so much less on imagining the people who live or hang out there? In the middle of the show, Keegan-Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn show up as Hugo and Ursula, the weirdo salesgeeks at an overflowing pop culture shop called Blast from the Past, and when the script almost immediately rubbed them out, and then 86’d some character actor cops as well, I felt cheated.

A lack of characters and unforgettable small roles is one of the movie’s big problems and one of the script‘s big holes. The writers seem to be spending all their energy on setting off the technological whizbangery of Tomorrowland, and relatively neglecting to imagine the fictional people who actually live there, or the people our three amigos will meet along the way — which is rather like basing a movie on the Taj Mahal or the Eiffel Tower (which makes a guest appearance here) and neglecting to populate them, or skimping on writing some more dialogue for the actors to say against those spectacular backdrops. As it is, even though there are hundreds of people in the ultimate Tomorrowland cast and crew list (the end-credits offer another sea of names and participants: enough, it almost seems, to swing a small gubernatorial election), they‘re mostly nameless walk-ons, or too quickly killed off, like hapless Hugo and unlucky Ursula.

Brad Bird became a star animation director (for The Iron Giant, Ratatouille and The Incredibles), before becoming a star live action director (with Tom Cruise’s last Mission Impossible), and he was so successful (financially and artistically) with all those shows, that maybe everybody figured this one was an unblockable slam dunk. But, despite all those magnificent effects and those visuals, and the small city of people employed to put it all together — or the fact that the film becomes such a passionate advocate of education. youthful invention and innovation, and the unleashing of dreamers and their dreams everywhere — Tomorrowland drags more, and is more obvious, and less delightful and just plain less entertaining than Bird’s other major outings. Not, I hasten to add, because of any shortcomings in Clooney and his two very gifted and mucho charming girl chums in the bantering, wisecrack, speechifying, or chemistry departments. They’re all just fine — although Clooney could use a shave. (Doesn’t Brad Pitt complain?)

To me, it seemed largely the fault of that old culprit and usual suspect these days, the script, which seemed to be in better than good hands, with both Brad Bird and “Lost‘s“ Lindelof, and may be better than a lot of what rolls down the chute these days, but still seems deficient dramatically and comedically. Perhaps everybody was lulled by anticipating those dynamite effects and visuals, and by figuring that the wondrous technology could dig them out of any hole that opened up under them. AUTHOR’S MESSAGE! AUTHORS MESSAGE! But you need people to fill up a theme park, and also, most of the time, to tell a good story in the movies. And, as a great man, dream-weaver and inventor named Disney (or his songwriters) once said, “It’s a small, small world.” END OF MESSAGE. END OF MESSAGE.

 

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The Art of Movie Titles

Just got an email announcing that Homework, the Freddie Highmore/Emma Roberts teenage-angst-slacker drama that Fox Searchlight picked up at Sundance, is getting a title change to The Art of Getting By.

Personally, I think this is a good move on Searchlight’s part. Homework was a bland title that had “working title until we think up something better” written all over it. The Art of Getting By, in any case, is both catchier and more fitting for what the film is really about. I bet they had a lot of brainstorming meetings over bagels and coffee with a white board figuring out something better to call this film. Hey, at least they didn’t go with “Annoying Rich White Kids Get Life Lessons” or something.

Now, if they could just find a way to cut the diabetic coma-inducing sugariness of the script down just a notch (no, I will NOT use the words “twee” or “precious” to describe it, no matter how apropos they may be) … we might be getting somewhere. I felt when I was watching Homework at Sundance that it wanted to be edgier and braver. Terri and Submarine both, for me, dealt with teen issues and angst with more honest and real — and interesting — characters. But at least it’s got a better title now.

John Hughes’s movies often had great titles for what they were. The Breakfast Club. Sixteen Candles. Pretty in Pink. Weird Science. Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Some Kind of Wonderful. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Home Alone. (Come to think of it, I like all those movies, even now. Yes, even Home Alone — the first one, not the sequels.)

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet … or would it? I’m kind of with Anne Shirley, who didn’t think a rose would smell as sweet if it was called a skunk cabbage. Would those Hughes films have been the same movies if they’d been titled … Detention? I Can’t Believe They Forgot My Birthday? Wrong Side of the Tracks? Two Geeks and a Hot Babe? Get Me Home for Thanksgiving? Crushing on the Wrong Girl? Playing Hooky? Bad Parents Forget Kid?

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Review: Mildred Pierce

Kate Winslet is terrific in many ways in Todd Haynes’s lengthy five-episode HBO miniseries adaptation of Mildred Pierce — not the least of which is bringing her own unique sensibility to the role made melodramatically iconic by Joan Crawford back in 1945. Although Crawford won her only Oscar for the role, I’ve never been a huge fan of the Michael Curtiz-directed adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1941 novel of the same name, probably in part because Crawford has just never been one of my favorite old-school actresses.

But no worries, because Haynes has gone back to the source material rather than the Curtiz film, and the end result is far more Douglas Sirk revisisted than Curtiz. Which isn’t altogether a bad thing — Sirk’s Imitation of Life is one of my favorite old guilty pleasure melodramas … and what better time than now to to revisit a Depression-era melodrama revolving around a fulcrum of economics and class and survival?
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Somewhat in Defense of Sucker Punch (Well, Parts of It, Anyway …)

It will probably surprise you to learn that, for all its flaws, I kind of dug Sucker Punch. Or rather, I like the idea of Sucker Punch a lot, and I like parts of how it was executed. Visually, it’s pretty stunning. Loved the desaturated and tinted tones, loved the hair and makeup (yes, even the many false eyelashes), loved the costuming (and look forward to seeing gangs of roving teenage cosplayers lovingly recreating those costumes at cons over the next year).

I loved the movie’s opener, which in many respects evokes the opener for Watchmen, which was also brilliant … and was also, as is the case with Sucker Punch, the best part of that film.
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Juno Temple Joins The Dark Knight Rises. Cool.

Here’s some casting news in which I’m particularly interested: Variety is EXCLUUUUUSIVELY reporting that indie starlet Juno Temple is locked to join the cast of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. The pot had already been sweetened by the addition Joseph Gordon-Levitt to the mix, but Juno Temple being cast as well is great news.
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Spotlight: Cinematographer Michael Simmonds on Working Collaboratively with Ramin Bahrani

You’ve probably seen Michael Simmonds work, even if you don’t realize it. The ace cinematographer has been very busy over the last few years shooting lots of movies, including notable docs Project Nim and The Order of Myths. He’s also shot all of Ramin Bahrani’s better-known films: Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo, and Plastic Bag, a terrific short narrated by Werner Herzog, and featured on Futurestates.

I first met Michael at Sundance years ago when Man Push Cart, Bahrani’s first major feature, was playing there, and his work so impressed me that that I’ve followed it since. A while back (okay, a LONG while back, like in October), we chatted through email about the way in which he and Bahrani collaborate, and he was kind enough to allow me to share his thoughts with you here.
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Imagining the Future Through Film

The site Futurestates, part of ITVS, is a very cool site that challenges students to think about what the future will look like 25, 50, 100 years from now. The site combines films on pertinent subjects with lesson plans that tie in and challenge students to think about what they’re learning and hypothesize about what consequences might result decades from now, from choices they’re making today.

One of the Season One lessons, for instance, used Ramin Bahrani’s terrific short film Plastic Bag, narrated by Werner Herzog, to illustrate the relationship between humans as consumers and how we impact the environment without thinking.

One of the season two episodes, Exposure, which releases April 4, was directed by Mia Trachinger, whose film Reversion played at Sundance a few years ago. Reversion was a trippy film about a group of people who lack the ability to travel linearly through time. Trachinger used this basic conceit to explore the idea that if we don’t experience life linearly, we don’t ever see the direct consequences of actions, as an allegory for consequential morality generally.

Reversion had some flaws in the execution (Trachinger just told me she’s recut the film, though, so I am really interested to see it in this new iteration), but it was a really smart concept and Trachinger herself kind of reminds me of a sci-fi Miranda July … very smart and passionate, with a particularly interesting and engaging way of looking at the world.

Here’s the trailer for Trachinger’s film Exposure, which imagines a future world in which teams of government workers are tasked with the job of inoculating the population against disease by exposing people to contagions, and a group of people trying to avoid being exposed.

I’ll be keeping an eye on this project, now that I know about it, and maybe using some of the lessons with my middle school youth group at the Unitarian Church to kick off some discussions about some of the issues addressed. Pretty cool.

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The Real Problem with Mars Needs Moms

Over on the Hot Blog, David (again) takes Brooks Barnes to task for lazy writing on his blog-tastic piece titled “Many Culprits in Fall of a Family Film.”

And as is often the case, David has some interesting and astute points to make about the journalism (or lack thereof) in this piece of writing for The Paper of Record and the business side of who did what to whom and who’s taking the heat for the failure of this film. And there’s lots to pick apart there, lots of business angles to analyze and quotes to dissect, and if you’re interested in the nuts and bolts of the business analysis of Mars Needs Moms, you should go read it.
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Dallas IFF Announces Stellar Lineup

SXSW may be rocking Austin right now, but the Dallas International Film Festival, which runs March 31-April 10, is just a few short weeks away, and the fest, under the leadership of Artistic Director James Faust and Senior Programmer Sarah Harris has just announced an impressive slate.

Last year was the first year that the fest took off under its own steam, after three years of partnering with AFI, and this year from the looks of it Faust, Harris, who set out with the goal of bringing films from a wide array of cultures to Dallas audiences, certainly seem to be aiming for that goal. I’ll be in Dallas myself a few days toward the end of the fest, so I’ll be keeping you apprised of all the cool happenings at this year’s fest. In the meantime, you can check out the press announcement with the full line-up right here.

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Spotlight: Ari Gold on Adventures of Marketing Adventures of Power

Three years ago, filmmaker Ari Gold made a little film called Adventures of Power, a quirky comedy about a dorky air drummer (played by Gold himself) who pursues his air drumming dream all the way fro New Mexico to New … Jersey where he battles Adrian Grenier for a $2000 smackeroos. Unfortunately for Gold, the film debuted at Sundance to divisive reviews, just as the faltering economy was bursting the bubble of industry sales at the Park City fest.
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Review: Mars Needs Moms

I’m going to be right up front about Mars Needs Moms and tell you that I wasn’t overly impressed with this movie. And I feel bad saying that, because it’s apparent that an awful lot of work went into making it. Actors wore little dots all over their faces, for Pete’s sake! To do motion capture! That’s gotta count for something, right? Unfortunately, someone forgot to give the story as much thought as they gave to the motion capture technique, which isn’t in and of itself new enough or nifty enough to overcome a flawed script.
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Hope for Hathaway

Okay, people, I need to get something off my chest here. What the hell happened to Anne Hathaway?

As I watched the Oscars, with poor Hathaway so gamely and desperately trying to make it work, I just felt … sad, I guess. What happened to the Anne Hathaway who showed such damn promise in Rachel Getting Married? Who the hell has been helping her choose her projects since then? I mean, really. Let’s go to the map:
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Anime Girlfriend

There’s a new episode of My Anime Girlfriend up over on Atom.com. I kinda dig this little web series about a data entry dork and his anime girlfriend, Yuruki. I’ve seen a lot of little gems at Atom over the years … more so before they got bought by MTV and essentially made into a web channel for Comedy Central a few years ago, but you can still find a lot of good stuff over there.

One thing, though, is that it’s all comedy now there, so a lot of the indie stuff that wasn’t comedy isn’t there anymore.

P.S. If you have a fave short film that you’d like me to check out, send me a URL. I’ve been watching more shorts of late, and I’m particularly interested right now in shorts that are really original, or even experimental.

Episode 3 of My Anime Girlfriend is embedded below. If you’ve not seen the first two episodes, you might want to watch them first. Short, but cute, especially if you’re an anime geek.

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Marriage of the Minds

Well, this is some welcome news, even if it means I might have to finally suck it up and subscribe to HBO. Variety reports that Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Wonder Boys, Mysteries of Pittsburgh) and his wife, writer Ayelet Waldman, have a project set up at HBO called Hobgoblin, about conmen and magicians using their skills to battle Hitler during WW2.

Chabon just happens to be my favorite (living) writer, and I’m quite a fan of Waldman, who I’ve been reading and loosely corresponding with since way back when I was mommy blogging on my previous blog, Catawampus, and she was mommy blogging on Bad Mother. Chabon may be the better known of the pair, but I’ve always loved Waldman’s sass and style. I asked her once many years ago how she dealt with “competing” with Chabon when it came to work and she replied simply, “I don’t.” Well, exactly.

This project marks the first time the couple is collaborating on a project — at least professionally. They’ve already survived marriage with four kids for quite a while now, so I expect they’ve hammered a lot of the balance of how they work together out a bit. I’ll be following this project with interest, so stay tuned.

By the bye, if you’ve been wondering what’s up with the adaptation of Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, it’s apparently still a go at Sony with Scott Rudin and the Coens. Good news on that front as well … though I’m still waiting for Kavalier and Clay, which still appears to be “in development.”

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Consenting Adults

Still one of my all-time fave short films, directed by pre-Thank You for Smoking Jason Reitman:

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Quote Unquotesee all »

“We don’t defy the laws of physics: There are no flying men or cars in this movie. So it made sense to do it old-school: real vehicles and real human beings in the desert. We shot the movie more or less in continuity, because the cars and the characters get really banged up along the way. The biggest benefit of digital technology for me was that the cameras were smaller and much more agile, so you could put them anywhere. We also spent a huge amount of time on spatial awareness—making sure the viewer could follow the action and understand what was happening. There has to be a strong causal connection from one shot to the next, just the same way that in music, there has to be a connection from one note to the next. Otherwise it’s just noise. Too often, if you just cram a lot of stuff into the frame, you get the illusion of a fast pace. But there’s no coherence. It doesn’t flow. It comes off as headbanging music, and it can be exhausting. We storyboarded the movie before we had a script: We had 3,500 boards, which helps the cast and crew understand how everything is going to fit together. Movies are getting faster and faster. The Road Warrior had 1,200 cuts. This one has 2,700 cuts. You have to treat it like a symphony.”
~ George Miller

“I was having issues with my script for It’s All About Love, so I called Ingmar Bergman and we ended up talking about everything but the script. He said, “Well, Festen is a masterpiece, so what are you going to do now?” At that point, I had not decided if I was going to make It’s All About Love, so I answered, “Hmmm, I don’t know. Maybe this, maybe that.” There was just a long pause, and then he said, “You’re fucked.” I said, “Well, how can you know?” “Well, Thomas, you always have to decide your next movie before the movie you’re doing presently opens.” And I said, “Why is that?” “Well, two things can happen. One thing is that you fail, and then you’ll feel scared and humiliated. It’ll get into your head. Second, and even worse, you have success, and then you’ll want more of it, or you’ll want to maintain it. But if you decide on your next film while you’re in the middle of editing, it becomes a very nonchalant choice. And then it’s shorter from the heart to the hand.”
~ Thomas Vinterberg

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