Monday, May 25, 2015

Movie Review: Tomorrowland

Movie: Tomorrowland
Directed by: Brad Bird
Starring: George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, Britt Robertson

Brad Bird’s aggressively optimistic Sci-fi utopia flick tries hard to dazzle with visions of a possible tomorrow, but while Raffey Cassidy’s performance as Athena simmers alongside the special effects, neither were enough to uplift the film’s horrendous pacing and tragically underwhelming plot to anywhere near its promise.

In depth:
For such an effects-heavy film, Tomorrowland was surprisingly muted in most of its previews, being more focused on building an optimistic vibe and buoyant, hopeful atmosphere, rather than on wowing the audience with special effects.  I was initially pleased with this angle, for despite my love of Blade Runner and the rest of the Cyberpunk canon, years of relentlessly bleak and nihilistic dystopian science fiction had ground me low, and while I couldn't stomach a return to the Space Age euphoria of The Jetsons and its relatives, Tomorrowland's exaltation of scientific possibilities as per the previews showed promise in filling a void left in me since Disney’s 2007 animated feature Meet the Robinsons.  Unfortunately, the previews went well beyond merely “doing justice” to the movie - they were downright disingenuous.  Like the film’s hapless protagonists, I felt duped, deceived by a glossy veneer of thoughtful utopian futurism which turned out to mask a spastic and unwieldy film, with seemingly minimal direction and only a heavy-handed “message,” delivered with all the subtlety of a back alley mugger, to greet me at the end.  

Our mournful tale centers around two decidedly different protagonists, both of whom have had their lives altered by contact with the eponymous location. We’re introduced to Frank Walker (Clooney), a bitter and cynical man who is apparently addressing an undisclosed audience about “how we got to here.”  The film throws us back to the 1964 World’s Fair, where an eleven-year-old Walker is gearing up to present his homemade “jetpack” to a very bored Hugh Laurie.  I’ll admit that this is the first - and sadly, only - hope spot in the entire film; the scenery was bright and colorful, and the quasi-philosophical exchange between the boy-genius and Laurie’s character Nix, though hurried and shallow compared to presentations in other movies, did strike at the story’s main nerve: that the invention of any dream, any idea - however fuzzy or incomplete - may spark the seeds of tomorrow’s innovations, if only by willing the heart to consider possibilities.  However, the best part of the beginning was undoubtedly the introduction of Raffey Cassidy as Athena, a young girl with a secret who takes a liking to young Frank and gives him the pin that functions as a pass to Tomorrowland - the hyper-futuristic, creative utopia where all the world’s best minds gather to make the impossible happen.  Yes, it’s true that “English little girl” is usually more than enough characterization to stand out in an American production, but in this case she actually has some meat to her.  Throughout the beginning and going the full nine yards, Cassidy was one snarky, sardonic, butt-kicking, heart string-pulling fountain after another, and the fact that she’s barely past the puberty gateway only makes her ability to meet most of the expectations placed on her all the more impressive.  Her charm and sincerity are all natural, and I wonder what her future has in store for her.

But still, it’s got to be pointed out that Cassidy’s acting chops, even allowing for her age, are only somewhat above adequate, and really only stand out because most of her castmates are sort of a let down.  While I usually enjoy Clooney in most of the films he’s in, this time he came up rather short, playing to stock the most conventional kind of curmudgeon-scorned you could possibly imagine.  However, the exemplary irritation in the acting department  resides squarely with Britt Robertson and her character Casey, the shrill and annoying magnet for most of my frustrations with Tomorrowland.  Playing opposite Clooney as the young, bright, and optimistic science enthusiast, Robertson promised to drive the film’s direction, perhaps bringing Clooney out of the dark and setting a good pace for the rest of the movie.  Unfortunately, she turned out to be a dud, a quintessential example of character shilling who, while smart, never did much more than shout and have her common sense observations called out as “brilliant.”  As with Clooney, her scenes and motivation all amounted to a big “ho-hum,” though I suspect that I probably wouldn’t have noticed as much were I fifteen years younger.  

Worse yet, her appearance coincided with where the plot takes a real nosedive...and pretty much stays at low altitude for over 90 percent of the remainder of the movie.  Story rot doesn’t even begin to cover it; everything spanning from the time she discovered the Tomorrowland pin, until she actually arrives there, was the most bloated, meandering and drawn out stretch of cinema I’ve seen in the past year.  This was supposed to be the point where the plot hits its “meat” - when we learn that not all is sunshine and sprinkles in Tomorrowland, and a contingent of creepy robots are sent to silence Casey from discovering the truth.   Unfortunately, we’re treated to a couple of robot fights, a few extended chases, and a lot of fluff and filler.  It had its moments, I admit - for example, seeing Frank Walker’s near Batman-levels of prepared ingenuity when the bad guys follow Casey to his home was good fun, and one of the best scenes in the movie.  But by and large this hour-long stretch, in an already overly-long 130-minute movie, limped on with little direction, dragging the viewer along while giving no incentive to command our attention other than a sub-adequate jigsaw plot.  Of course, piecing together the story’s “puzzle” might have been fun were there anything at the end of the road worth discovering, but alas, no; they don't even arrive in Tomorrowland until the last 30 or so minutes of the movie, after which everything resolves on the words of the villain’s rather illogical 2-minute diatribe, and not even the surprising maturity by which the movie’s message is presented could offset its heavy-handed delivery, or Tomorrowland's many failings in general.

So was there anything good in this movie?  Well, aside from Cassidy and her antics, the special effects were great, as to be expected.  They were dazzling on their own, but what really stood out was how they dovetailed into the movie’s wider theme of optimism and possibility; the effects, along with the various props accompanying them, had a very “classic” feel, almost as if they were cooked up in the mind of an imaginative ten-year-old - which, when you think about it, may have been the point.  Likewise, they weren’t splattered everywhere, giving the viewer new distractions every 3 seconds, but were used economically, mainly to punctuate how this or that event was in some way “amazing” - and to be honest, it usually worked.  Too bad that even this concession merely damns by faint praise, since the concentrated usage of special effects only highlighted the absolute barrenness of the rest of the film; the draw of flickering lights or a CGI explosion every minute has been the saving throw of many a sub-par movie, as they at least keep the adrenaline amped and the mind numb. But with no such salvation in Tomorrowland, the long desert between the first and last 20 minutes of the movie where nothing of real substance happened felt that much longer.

It’s easy to sneer at my harsh critique - to call me a tin bully, to chide me for cutting down a movie obviously meant to appeal to children.  But that all misses the point; there are many, many, many movies, for children and for adults, that push the same optimistic message of “dream big” with a grace, subtlety, or charm Tomorrowland couldn’t hope to achieve.  While it definitely contained within it the seeds of a solid, mature reconstruction of the future utopianism it tried to embody, we will have to wait another day for a film that can bring those seeds to bloom.

Grade: D

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Movie Review: The Age of Adaline

Movie: Age of Adaline
Directed by: Lee Toland Cooper
Starring: Blake Lively, Harrison Ford, Michiel Huisman

Director Lee Toland Cooper delivers an epic romance with Age of Adaline, enlivening an often overwrought archetype with dazzling performances by Blake Lively and Harrison Ford and a good dose of heart, and in the process just barely rising above an overindulgence in romantic cliches and a barrage of implausible coincidences.

In depth:
I came into Age of Adaline not really knowing what to expect.  I knew very little about the movie right up to the premiere, and even less about its leading lady, Blake Lively.   Still, the intriguing premise promised, I thought, some similarity to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and other films of that type, so I was willing to give it a shot.  I’m glad I did, for despite some surprising shifts in focus and a few horrible choices in storytelling, Age of Adaline proved quite capable of breathing fresh life, and more than a little warmth, into a tired old genre.  Advertised as a romantic drama  with a fantasy twist, it chronicles the cross generational journey of  Adaline Bowman, a normal woman in San Francisco who had been rendered ageless in the 1930s by a freak and horribly implausible incident involving a car accident, near-frozen water, and a defibrillating bolt of lightning.  Going into any further detail - and the film’s pseudo scientific hand wave of how it happened - would surely make your head explode at the sheer nonsense of it all, but that doesn’t matter. The filmmakers aren’t going for a science fiction thriller, but rather a slow, patient exploration of still life, in which Adaline, forever forced to move around due to her “condition,” reconsiders after catching the eye of Ellis Jones (Huisman), a young and scarily persistent philanthropist determined to win her heart.  While on the surface seemingly another romance with a lame gimmick and a foundation built on sand, it works once you get past the strangeness of the scenario and truly immerse yourself in the meat of the story .

That said, the first road block to said immersion pops up right at the start, for even before the opening sequence we are treated to a virtual fountain of information diarrhea  from an unknown and unseen narrator.  This wasn’t a major irritant at first; though I generally frown upon exposition on principle unless it’s somehow built into the story, the very beginning at least  kept its focus of our lovely lead where it belonged, following her mysterious trek through downtown San Francisco, and only occasionally interrupted by the prattling of our off-center commentator.  The atmosphere builds to a muted, almost sad crescendo, and I’m left wondering how the tension would break.  This all changes, though, once we reach Adaline’s library, when the narration vomits up a full exposition of Adeline’s life, up to and including delivering the weak, quasi-fantastic explanation for how she came to be.  As far as the art of story-crafting is concerned, this isn’t just a cardinal sin - it’s a card for eternal damnation, one likely to earn you a cold seat in Satan’s bloated rear-end.  Show, Don’t Tell, is (or should be) the holy mantra of any writer, in any medium, around the world, and for good reason; with precious few exceptions, the inclusion of a Mr(s). Exposition never contributes much beyond a break in immersion and a loss in tempo.  You could argue, I suppose, that the limitations of time and the construction of the plot demanded some exposition, but not a full ten minute’s worth, and certainly not when there’s no clear link between the expositor and the story.  Indeed, the info dump seemed completely utilitarian, carrying no purpose other than to bring the moviegoer “up to speed” on Adaline’s life, and then clearing out for a huge stretch of the film in order to make way for the actual story.  This kind of thing alone can break a movie experience for me, as I subsequently spent a significant portion of my time stewing in irritation at what I'd just been put through, and the failure of the movie to provide it with context.

Fortunately, this rather shoddy choice on the part of the filmmakers wasn’t enough to completely turn me off, and Blake Lively’s shimmering performance more than made up for the major headaches at the start.  Once freed from the confines of enclosed library room for the term of her exposition,  Lively sweeps us along with her convincing portrayal of a world-weary immortal - a woman at once classy and magnetic, yet withdrawn from her surroundings and isolated from the people whom she knows she will outlive.  Some, to be sure, might see her as muted, even emotionless; I disagree - in fact, I consider Adaline to be a rather accurate portrayal of a normal person’s confrontation with agelessness.  Adaline isn’t an immortal android, nor an impassive guardian over the currents of time; she is, right down to it, a normal woman, with a grown, elderly daughter - played by a delightfully crisp and spirited Ellen Burstyn - and no greater eccentricities than a justified knack for trivia and an eye for detail born of experience.  While the tortuous exposition does give a nob to the obligatory “government men” pursuing Adaline for what we can only guess were nefarious purposes, the film thankfully does not dwell on this, setting The Age of Adaline apart from the other films in this unique genre.  More than anything, Blake Lively gives Adaline a touch of sadness which radiates throughout the rest of the movie, lending real emotional torque in a genre so often obsessed with the more cerebral ramifications of eternal life, and she pulls it off commandingly.

Besides Lively and her reserved yet powerful performance, the rest of the cast also take their fair share of the accolades (and blame) for the film’s power.  I hate to admit that Michiel Huisman did very little in his role as Adaline’s love interest; as a character he is the most shallow and conventional of the lot, and frankly, his behavior - constantly following Adaline, “randomly” running into her home since “she won’t return his calls” - would likely lead to a restraining order in real life, or any other context for that matter.  He lives solely as a means to spur Adaline’s out of her 70-year emotional lethargy, and while he serves admirably to that end, I’ve never been fond of characters being used as props for a screenwriter’s idea.  Far more interesting is Harrison Ford as Ellis’ father, a thoughtful yet hard-nosed man with a connection to Adaline’s past.  It was pure joy to see Ford in such a melancholy and contemplative role, adding to the film’s snug atmosphere and playing counterpoint to Adaline regarding the struggle to move on in life. I won’t divulge the details of his link to her (FYI: you’ll probably see it coming a mile away) but suffice it to say that Ford’s soulful portrayal of a man who, while not clinging to an unattainable past and appreciative of his present, still wonders “what might have been,” is a believable and pleasant contrast to both Lively's willful detachment and Huisman’s stock characterization.  

Unfortunately, the movie’s pacing, which up to this point had been painless and rather well-oiled, begins to lag as the sad and heartfelt examination of a life unlived and the redemptive power of love decays into tacky melodrama that nearly implodes on itself in the home stretch.  In fact, the entirety of last third or so of the movie was almost a complete bust between the melodrama, a series of mounting and irritating coincidences, and the return of the verbose exposition to explain exactly what was happening in the plot.  It’s hard to tell which of these sins is the most damning, but the coincidences hit particularly hard, as they both compounded and highlighted the very poor storytelling choices, impacting enjoyment and even the suspension of disbelief.  While it’s alright to use a technical contingency from time to time to get your characters in trouble, over using unlikely or rare occurrences simply to move your plot along - by revealing an identifying scar on Adaline’s hand, for example, or outright recreating the event of her initial, one-in-a-million accident in order to dissolve the story’s central conflict - is sloppy to an unforgivable degree, and like the use and misuse of exposition (which by this point was so out-of-place it was actually hilarious) should have been apparent to the filmmakers from the word go.  As a result, I found myself cringing yet again at the silliness of the whole thing, which is never a good point on which to leave a heartfelt romance.

My judgement, unminced and seemingly harsh as it is, should not be taken as a condemnation of the film as a whole.  I enjoyed Adaline on a personal level, and it left me with more food for thought than I expected.  For a plot bearing so close a family resemblance to cerebral heavyweights like Benjamin Button and A.I., it puts a much-needed focus on the emotional impact such a lifestyle would have an an ordinary woman, one merely wanting to love and be loved.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that The Age of Adeline is the complimentary “heart” to the aforementioned films' “head,” with a nice enough romance and an expected but well executed message on the importance of simply living, regardless of what life's put you through.  It’s just too bad that it’s relatively few flaws are so glaring and boneheaded as to nearly bring down the feel of the whole film.  I guess only time will tell if Adeline will be recalled fondly in the future, or left buried in the sands of time.

Rating: C