Tomorrowland is the most expensive movie that Joe Dante never got a chance to make. It’s a lot of fun, a creative blast of thoughtful ideas and colorful imagery, trading off of familiar properties while still retaining a unique identity to call its own. For a film to be this dependent on CGI and special effects, for the most part, the visuals are stunning, due in large part to Claudio Miranda’s luminous cinematography. This is the genius who shot The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Life of Pi, and as such, Tomorrowland has a twinkle-glisten aesthetic that’s beyond eye-catching. The busy – and I mean busy – plot involves so many elaborate ingredients, and while the finale spends a bit too much time with people explaining stuff rather than showing, it’s a minor quibble to lob at a $180 million gamble (given that it’s not based on a toy or a comic book or a lunch pail or a remake of something) that clearly has tons on its energetic and fertile imagination. Gee-whiz filmmaker Brad Bird and co-writers Damon Lindelof and Jeff Jensen throw in allusions to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Wizard of Oz, Indiana Jones, Epcott Center and good old Walt Disney himself, television’s Lost, with nods to real life inventors and scientists whose greatest achievements might have been even greater if they had the opportunity to play with the technology of today and tomorrow. There’s a wide-eyed wonder to much of Tomorrowland, carrying a massive whiff of Amblin-inspired Spielberg movie-magic, with The Beard’s influence felt over much of the film, from having children act as fearless lead protagonists, adults who need to be shown the way, and a bright eyed optimism that extends from the themes to the visuals. This is as earnest of a blockbuster as I can think of, crafted with a ton of heart, never feeling shallow, if for no other reason than it just so clearly wants to be seen as an alarm for what might occur to our planet if we don’t stop and look around to see what it is we’re doing to the place we call home. Yes, Tomorrowland is as liberal as it gets, with Clooney essentially playing a version of Bill Maher (minus the cursing), and the core of the story involves an incredibly overt plea for environmental activism. As it should. We’ve been destroying our planet with casual disregard for years, and we absolutely love paying next to no attention to the consequences; climate change deniers will positively hate this film, and I’m glad, because it further underscores the diseased notions that these monumental asses are espousing to weak willed individuals who look to Fox News for their main source of daily information. Brad Bird, no stranger to blockbusting with a touch of the humanistic (Ratatouille, The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol), directs as if he were making a live action Pixar movie – anything, and I mean anything – is possible in the world of Tomorrowland. The PG-rating, as is customary for a Spielberg-influenced production (his name may not be on it but there’s no way this film would have been made without his iconic cinematic contributions), is stretched to the max, and while kids will enjoy the incredible sights and sounds, the themes and messages are going to sore way over their heads. As I said up top – this felt at times like a passionate movie from the likes of 80’s master Joe Dante (Explorers, Matinee, Innerspace, Gremlins) – a filmmaker who always brought a sense of awe and wonder to his efforts. Britt Robertson is going to be a BIG star; she’s got a wonderfully expressive face and the perfect type of optimistic attitude to bring to a project such has this. And wow, loved the performance from Raffey Cassidy, who makes you care in all the correct spots. And as always, Clooney is the reliable anchor, allowing himself to be continually upstaged by his younger co-stars, while navigating the demands of a summer blockbuster with grace and class. I only hope that parents take their kids to see this instead of upcoming schwill like Pixels or more-of-the-same from Marvel Studios. Embrace the idea that sometimes a family movie can be made that isn’t afraid to show some mental creativity to go along with the special effects.
The White Dawn is a rugged, cold, manly film, directed with an intense muscularity by Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff, The Wanderers). Released in 1974, the film tells the story of three whalers who become stranded in the Arctic Circle in 1896, and details their rescue by Inuit strangers. Warren Oates, Timothy Bottoms, and Louis Gossett, Jr. are the three men trapped in the barren tundra, unaware of how their cultural differences could potentially lead them down a path of violent conflict with their saviors. Shot on location on Baffin Island in Northern Canada, the film feels desolate and forbidding, with the constant snow and wind peppering the visuals and soundtrack with an icy chilliness that you can feel in your bones. What’s more, the filmmakers employed authentic dialect on the part of the Inuit characters, in many instances sans English subtitles, which ratchets up the tension and the verisimilitude of the entire project. Based on the 1971 novel The White Dawn: An Eskimo Saga, original author James Houston was able to co-write the screenplay with producer Martin Ransohoff and Thomas Rickman (Coal Miner’s Daughter), which details how the whalers ingratiate themselves into the Inuit tribe, and then how they slowly try to take control over the group by foisting their American/European values on a group of people who have become accustomed to a VERY particular way of life. Warren Oates makes the biggest impression (no surprise) out of the trio of rapscallions, playing a boozer who is more than happy to teach the natives the values of the drink and gambling, while Bottoms’s affair with one of the women certainly raises some local eyebrows. But the most impressive aspect of this production was clearly the physical demands that Kaufman placed on his brave crew and dedicated cast, many of whom were clearly amateurs. There are shots that defy logic (especially for the time and on the relative miniscule budget when compared with today’s blockbuster standards), with Michael Chapman’s bleak cinematography offering up a blunt, unassuming, and matter of fact view of this harsh lifestyle, while the musical score by Henry Mancini is appropriate in all respects, never overpowering the story, but contributing to the overall sense of exploration and finally dread that settles in for the characters. This is a macho stuff, and I’d recommend it to anyone who likes survival based cinema.
**CAUTION – SPOILERS**
“Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland, in search of our better selves.”
-The First History Man
George Miller’s Fury Road is the most progressive, thematically subversive, studio-funded blockbuster I’ve ever seen. Last weekend, upon first viewing, I was totally overwhelmed and gob-smacked by the intense physicality of the production; it felt as if my eye-balls were melting. Today’s second viewing has confirmed it: The is not only the best action movie of my lifetime, but it’s easily one of the best, most visually creative, and all together absorbing films – in any genre – that I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. Now that I knew what to expect from this beast on a narrative and physics-defying level, I was able to really sit back and allow the story, of which there’s plenty, to wash over me, along with those pulse-pounding visuals matched by the thoroughly amazing musical score, instead of just staring in slack-jawed amazement at the screen. This is the most disciplined summer movie that I can think of, not a hair over two hours, knowing exactly when to call it quits, ending on a narratively satisfying note that doesn’t require a sequel to be fully pleased with. It’s also, without question, one of the finest (and most overt) Anti-Religion statements to come out of Hollywood in a long while; Miller clearly shows a disdain for the notion of blind worship, and it’s exhilarating to see all of the pieces come crashing down around Immortan Joe, a brilliant creation that seems like a visual and sonic hybrid of Darth Vader and Bane with all sorts of psychological internal logic that’s gone greatly askew. This is the strangest movie ever to carry such a lofty price-tag, and when coupled with the decidedly adult R-rating, it’s a film that boldly changes the game for all other impending spectacles. I’ve grown increasingly tired of the Marvelization of action films, with the PG-13 rating blurring the line repeatedly between honesty and disservice – give me something that grabs me by the balls (and heart) like Fury Road any day of the week over the latest exploits of computer-crafted superheroes who constantly need to deliver a joke at the end of all the mayhem.
Miller shrewdly uses CGI only in spots that are absolutely necessary (the sand-storm, body replacement, crowds of extras), and even more so than the first time, the stunt work and assorted acts of bodily insanity are positively transfixing to behold. This movie is bonkers at all times, showing you sights that you’ve never seen before – and to be honest – why else should we be going to the movies other than to see something new and exciting and potentially unhinged from the cookie-cutter norm. And when Miller unleashes his big CGI money shot right at the close of the final action scene, it’s all the more impressive and allowable, because he’s gone out of his way NOT to bombard you with stuff that takes you out of the reality of the situation. Even during the big sand-storm set-piece, there’s a surreality to the visuals that cancels out any feelings of artificiality; it’s here that Miller embraces the pop-art aspects of comic-book-inspired filmmaking and takes it to the extreme, way past the next level, practically inventing new levels along the way. But Miller isn’t just content to slam us with insane action scenes – he demands that we pay attention to the kinky subtext and surreal flights of fancy. Those lactating obese women chained up to produce gallons upon gallons of “Mother’s Milk;” the Crazy Electric Guitar Guy who serves as a version of a Revolutionary War-era bugle boy who just so happens to be wearing a mask made from the facial skin of his dead mother (or so said an interview/article I just read…); the willowy and sad “stilt-people” who are glimpsed during that eerie mid-film sequence bathed in varying shades of desert nighttime blue, suggesting years of forgotten starvation; the extrication of a dead fetus from its recently slain mother, a woman who would rather have been killed (along with her unborn child) if it meant that she’d have to spend any more time under the power of Immortan Joe – this is a filmmaker who threw it ALL in there, and it all adds up to a wild explosion for the eyes, ears, and brain.
The final 30 minutes are tantamount to the best extended action scene ever devised, inviting a sense of awe and loony madcap into the proceedings which felt cut from the same exuberant cloth that Miller’s masterful Babe: Pig in the City originated from; the bad guys swaying back and forth on those long pogo-sticks are a dead ringer for Babe and all of his animal friends swinging from the rafters of the grand ball-room at during the wild climax of Pig in the City. The editing by Miller’s wife, Margaret Sixel, is beyond incredible to witness, as thousands of cuts rush before your eyes yet still retaining a coherent fluidity, not to mention an extreme emphasis being placed on geography and spatial distance between characters and objects. Exposition is close to non-existent, backstory is conveyed visually, hokey dialogue is kept to a minimum, and the primal, internal method-acting stylings of Tom Hardy brilliantly counterbalance the unleashed ferocity and fuck-it-all-attitude of Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, who will go down in history as one of the greatest action heroes of all time. Sick and tired of seeing the five captured women being raped and humiliated (because, after all, that’s what these women are – rape victims), she says enough is enough, and kicks anyone’s ass who comes into contact with her. Nicholas Hoult is spectacular, even more so on second glimpse, as an alliance shifting Warboy, a slave to Immortan Joe, who really loves to spray that silver paint in his mouth to get that one last high right before he heads off to Valhalla. I fucking LOVED this movie on every single level. You have your head in the sand if you’re ignoring this monumental piece of cinema. As I said last weekend – cancel the rest of the summer movie season because nothing will be this show-stopping, this visceral, this in your face. Miller has bitched-slapped everyone. The contempt that he shows for the ideas of mass worship were bracing and awesome for a non-believer such as myself, and I loved how the unrelenting energy of the entire film extends from one scene to the next, even when the story is clearly trying to catch its breath, which is a nearly impossible task. John Seale’s radiant and eye-popping cinematography at times recalls the work of David Lean, shooting vistas with a master’s touch, and then getting up close and personal to the vehicular destruction and carnage that is so lovingly displayed in real-time with real stunt men and women and real explosions and real debris and real sand and real smoke by people who seemingly could have cared less for their safety. Make no mistake – I’ll see this film again for a third time in theaters.
I’m a big fan of vigilante revenge movies. Harry Brown is a terrific example of an effective genre piece, stripped down to its base elements, shoving a nasty and grim narrative in our faces, and providing for an excellent performance from Michael Caine as a widowed Royal Marine veteran who becomes incensed over the violence and depravity lurking in the shadows of his hardscrabble neighborhood. He gets especially pissed off when his best friend is despicably murdered by a group of thugs. Aggressively directed by Daniel Barber from a ruthless screenplay by Gary Young, Harry Brown lives in the same world as potent flicks like Death Wish and Gran Torino, offering up a nasty set of violent showdowns that pit Caine against a series of young hoodlums, who are slinging drugs, murdering innocents, and showing a casual disregard for human decency. I get a charge out of seeing bad things happen to bad people, so a film like this one is right up my alley, playing to my primal instincts, allowing for amazing emotional catharsis as Caine dispatches one piece of human garbage after another. Emily Mortimer is solid as a local cop looking into the various crimes that feature in the hostile and angry story; there’s a bitterness that permeates almost every scene of this dark, sordid film. If you don’t get a charge out of seeing Caine taking out the trash, and make no mistake – the baddies in this film are ugly and BAD – then I’m not sure what to tell you. Extremely well written with great observations and insights into the damaged male psyche and directed with a violent urgency that compliments the slow-burn nature of Caine’s work and Young’s hard-charging script in general, Harry Brown will make you sit up and take notice, as it’s a film that shows you societal ugliness right up front, never taking the audience out of the grips of a brooding, sometimes nightmarish scenario where anyone is fair game. A pre-Unbroken/Starred Up/’71 Jack O’Connell has an small but impressive role as one of the weaker hoodlums, who becomes prey to Caine’s unrelenting sense of vengeance.
I had an absolutely highlarious time watching the long lost cult classic An American Hippie in Israel. Made without an ounce of filmmaking polish by Israeli writer/producer/director Amos Sefer, this aggressively asinine counterculture relic from 1972 was recently rediscovered, refurbished, and released on Blu-ray by that fine man of cinematic idiocy Bob Murawksi over at Grindhouse Releasing. Clearly, the film was made with a purpose and intent, but the filmmaking chops are so non-existent that you just sit back and groove with the shenanigans, if you’re up for this sort of demented and stony silliness. I kept asking myself throughout the first hour — why is there an echo quality to the dialogue and a laugh track, as I was totally not getting the importance or significance of having a studio-audience-esque laugh track accompanying every scene. Maybe for a stab at satire? Maybe just to be a clown? Then, about an hour into the film, I realized that the disc had booted up with the “New Beverly Audio Experience” special feature, where you get to hear a live audience’s reaction to a special screening of the film. that was recorded in Los Angeles at the famed theater. LOL. Then, I figured, what the hell, I’ll watch the rest with the Hebrew subtitles running at the bottom of the screen, because, well, why the hell not? Was everyone literally blasted while making this film?
There’s blatant amateurish laughter from almost every main performer and extra that the camera passes by, and the film was clearly made with a love for the ideas but without a shred of filmmaking prowess. Honestly, it’s perfectly terrible in every department, with the “narrative” resembling a loose jumble of scenes and ideas, revolving around a 20-something American hippie and Vietnam war veteran named Mike (the impressively horrendous Asher Tzarfati), who travels to Israel after serving time in the war. He hitchhikes a ride with three random strangers, who then take him to an island community of hippies and freeloaders, where they can live a life of peace and harmony, while frequently undressing and ragging on the government, ripping doobies and often times twirling around in place. But the revelers are not without their issues, as a seemingly random set of bullying mimes show up from time to time to inexplicably annoy the crunchies; my guess is that they are supposed to represent “The Man,” who Mike is so agitated with all throughout the story.
There are lots of scenes of people driving in a convertible along the Israeli coast, lots of detours for dirty, unkempt lovemaking, tons of female nudity, with the addition of a live goat spicing up the proceedings for a bit. The film ends in fabulously chaotic fashion with tons of screaming, yelling, phony violence, and arm flailing. It all has to be seen to be believed. It’s wildly funny at times, whether intentional or not, and it’s never boring despite it feeling wholly slapdash and incredibly off-kilter. Ya’ackov Kallach’s cinematography is actually kind of cool to look at despite the budget being obviously low. Tzarfati gives a fabulously terrible lead “performance,” seemingly inventing new wave-lengths of awfulness as his performance “progresses.” Driving in circles seemed like THE thing to do!
Out of all of the films that David Mamet has directed that I’ve personally seen (House of Games, Homicide, Oleanna, The Spanish Prisoner, The Winslow Boy, State and Main, Heist, Redbelt, and Phil Spector), his underrated 2004 effort Sparta is easily my favorite. Mamet has long been one of my favorite writers (ask me about the letter I wrote to him in high school…!) and I loved how ballsy this political action thriller is, and I’ll always be continually fascinated with the i…dea that he wrote pretty much the entire film in code and technical jargon — you REALLY have to listen to what’s being said in this ultra-cryptic film. Not that it’s not coherent, it is, it’s just that nothing is traditionally spelled out, and you definitely have to be up for some back-story digging and you’ll need to be able to make some logic jumps on your own.
The film has a 70’s meets the 90’s vibe, with a pessimistic narrative and slick cinematography; the climatic sequence at a private jet hangar is shot with some seriously awesome lens flare POWER, and I loved how gritty Mamet made the early training sequences, where we see two potential black ops recruits being placed in a room, and being told that only one of them is allowed to leave alive. Val Kilmer, on paper, may not have seemed like a logical choice for Mamet’s brand of staccato and stylized dialogue beats, but he’s right at home in one of his best, most focused performances. The excellent supporting cast includes Ed O’Neill as a take-no-bull-shit government worker, Derek Luke as Kilmer’s partner, William H. Macy as a corrupt government official, Clark Gregg, Steven Culp, Johnny Messner, Tia Texada, the always great Said Taghmaoui, and Kristen Bell as the president’s daughter, who has been kidnapped and potentially sold into the EurAsian sex-slave market, with Kilmer and his team trying to relocate her before the press catches wind of the situation.
The events in this film are often far fetched, but I never cared, because everyone takes it so damn seriously, and with Kilmer leading the charge in a totally committed and visceral performance, any plot contrivances are made up for with the ear-catching dialogue that’s filled with numerous lines worthy of quotation and the propulsive direction that Mamet brought to the table. “Where’s the girl?” POWER.