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Saturday, May 30, 2015

San Andreas



The last superhero in a movie to take on the San Andreas Fault was Superman and he cheated: he spun around the world and turned back time. In the entertaining and literally earth-shattering disaster porn San Andreas, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson can't prevent Los Angeles and San Francisco from being utterly annihilated by a 9.6 earthquake ("the largest ever recorded" according to geologist Paul Giamatti). The best Johnson can do is rescue his family. When The Rock sets his mind to making sure his estranged knockout wife Carla Gugino and their knockout daughter Alexandra Daddario are safe, nothing come hell or high water (which he faces in abundance) will stop him. What a super man.

In San Andreas, Johnson is a heroic para-rescue captain who saves a teenage girl trapped in her car from plummeting off a cliff at the start of the movie. This would be the last and only person in the movie he rescues who isn't related to him (or really, really wants to be). When the earthquakes start, first utterly destroying the Hoover Dam in minutes and then demolishing all of downtown Los Angeles, Johnson and his rescue chopper go AWOL from his job. He singlemindedly focuses on rescuing his beautiful, physically perfect, genetically anomalous family in peril. First up is Gugino stuck at the top of a collapsing skyscraper, showing an incredible amount of well-placed faith in her husband by rushing to the roof while everyone else is trying to get down to the ground. Next up is their daughter Daddario, who is in San Francisco with Gugino's boyfriend, a smarmy billionaire real estate developer played by Ioan Gruffudd. Gruffudd is no Mr. Fantastic; besides looters, he's the closest thing to a villain in the movie who isn't Mother Nature herself. When trapped by an earthquake in a parking garage, Gruffudd abandons Daddario and fends for himself, even assaulting people on the street to save his own skin. Gruffudd's character's surname is "Riddick" in the movie; he's a disgrace to the proud movie name of Vin Diesel's science fiction anti-hero.

The luminous Daddario turns out to be a chip off the old Rock. Not just extremely easy on the eyes, she possesses myriad survival skills she learned from her daddy, the People's Champion. Befriending a British guy her age (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and his precocious little brother (Art Parkinson), who saved her from the collapsing parking garage when Gruffudd skedaddled, Daddario imparts her knowledge of how to use rotary phones and land lines, survival kits in rescue vehicles, and emergency frequencies to contact her father and keep them all alive while San Francisco is decimated by the earthquake. Can The Rock and Gugino make it from Los Angeles to San Francisco in time to save their daughter from certain doom? Raise the People's Eyebrow if you have doubts. It's apt that San Andreas is named after one of the popular Grand Theft Auto video games, as The Rock borrows, steals, and pilots helicopters, planes, boats, and cars to get to San Francisco. He and Gugino parachute from a crashing plane into AT&T Park and then drive a speedboat right into and over a burgeoning tsunami. Following The Rock's lead, Gugino and Daddario are totally game to jump, swim, duck, dive, and endure every horrible fiery catastrophe San Andreas can throw at them.

San Andreas delivers all the eye-popping destruction it promises. Los Angeles being toppled and ripped asunder would have been enough, but San Francisco got the worst of it. Poor San Francisco really can't catch a break; last summer Godzilla and a couple of other giant monsters tore half the city apart, and now San Andreas finishes the job. To its credit, San Andreas' script, written by Lost's Carlton Cuse, goes out of its way to celebrate science and the ability scientists like Giamatti have to predict earthquakes of this magnitude. The upside to all of this devastation is that Giamatti was able to get on TV and warn people soon enough that evacuation was made possible and more lives were saved than not. However, San Andreas is most concerned with just one particular set of lives saved, and that Johnson (in an emotional, remarkably layered performance) was able to put aside a past family tragedy to save and reunite his family in the wake of unspeakable destruction. "Now, we rebuild," The Rock declares, as the American flag is unfurled over the ruins of the Golden Gate Bridge at the conclusion of San Andreas, leaving us all a little more inspired by Johnson Family Values.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Disney's Tomorrowland



In director Brad Bird's Tomorrowland, the future's so bright, you gotta wear a jetpack. Or at least, it was, laments the movie. And it can be again. "What if there were a place where all the brightest scientists, artists, thinkers, came together to create the future without politics and governments interfering?" postulates George Clooney, one of those very scientists who, as a boy at the 1964 World's Fair, was recruited (against the wishes of  the stern governor of Tomorrowland Hugh Laurie) to be one of the visionaries of tomorrow. The future envisioned in Tomorrowland circa 1964 is of the quaint Walt Disney/Jetsons variety: art deco spires scraping the clouds, jetpack-propelled folks zipping across the horizon, and everything is sparkling and... white, especially the inhabitants, who are distinctly Caucasian. "It's a Small World After All," and boy, isn't it? Imagination was prized but inclusiveness seems to be another story in this land symbolizing tomorrow.

As for the real world, the one right outside our window, nothing's changed. Tomorrowland blatantly argues, and it's hard to disagree, things are getting worse. Wars, cultural unrest, climate change creating catastrophic weather, and a population too distracted and inert to care or dream of something more and - even more difficult and unappealing - to do something about it all, are the order of the day. And of tomorrow, unless something is done. This is where Britt Robertson unwittingly comes in. A bright, plucky, teen heroine who moonlights as a saboteur (she destroys the cranes NASA is using to dismantle the launch platforms for their defunct space shuttle program in a fruitless attempt to save her NASA engineer father's job), Robertson is given a mysterious "T" emblazoned pin by a mysterious British girl (Raffey Cassidy) that allows her to see a hologram of Tomorrowland. (The very same British girl gave young George Clooney his pin in 1964, right before young Clooney quickly fell for her.) The dazzling sequences where Robertson breathlessly explores the wondrous Tomorrowland are the best moments of the movie. Everyone in the audience wishes they had a pin.

In order to understand the meaning of the pin she received and what exactly Tomorrowland is, Robertson hits the road on a cross country journey, to Houston, Upstate New York, and, by teleportation (sponsored by Coca Cola), Paris! She is chased by a disturbingly upbeat and smiley army of Tomorrowland robots armed with destructo-ray guns, and she gains allies, mainly the older, disenfranchised George Clooney. Clooney was exiled from Tomorrowland 25 years ago and lives as a hermit in a high tech farmhouse rigged Home Alone-style to defend against an invasion by Tomorrowland robots. Little by little, miraculous escape after miraculous escape, we learn the secrets of Tomorrowland, which exists in an alternate dimension discovered by our greatest minds (Alexandre Gustav Eiffel, Thomas Alva Edison, Nikola Tesla) decades ago. The Eiffel Tower itself "was never meant as a monument," and houses a Flash Gordon-style rocket underneath it that is news to everyone who lives in the City of Lights.

Upon finally reaching the real Tomorrowland, Robertson, Clooney and the audience can't help but be let down by what they find: the fabled future city laid shabby by lack of maintenance and disinterest, curiously underpopulated, and worst of all: a third act sorely lacking in the imagination promised. An intriguing reveal that Laurie is in fact responsible for the world's current plight by filling people's minds with visions of an apocalyptic future broadcast from Tomorrowland that humanity chose to embrace is a direct counter to the ending of Watchmen, which argued that when faced with impending doom, Mankind would band together to fight for a better future. Who would have guessed Watchmen would be less cynical than a Disney film? It all degenerates into a disappointing climax where the screenplay by Bird and Damon Lindelof pitches aside its heady ideas for dunderheaded action. We're told throughout that Robertson is special and can "fix" what's wrong with Tomorrowland, but not through science or know-how. She can do it by blowing shit up! Everything hinges on George Clooney and Hugh Laurie brawling with fisticuffs on a beach while Robertson scrambles after a bomb resembling a thermal detonator from Return of the Jedi (Star Wars is blatantly referenced throughout. Gotta love Disney corporate synergy).

At its best, Tomorrowland is enchantingly retro filmmaking, recalling the feel of Back to the Future with its expertly staged chase sequences, impossible escapes, whiz-bang adventure, and dogged optimism. Robertson is an appealing lead, though the screenplay too often reduces her to asking an endless barrage of questions, with Clooney doing a lot of explaining. Robertson is touted for her optimism and for being someone who "understands how things work," but her expertise with explosives turns out to be her greatest skill. Upon gaining control of Tomorrowland, Clooney and Robertson together take the brave steps into creating a better tomorrow for all Mankind, recruiting the best and brightest from all nations and creeds (but only the best and the brightest - there goes that exclusivity again) and giving them a stake in Tomorrowland. The timing of this is ironic: the hopeful, multi-ethnic future Tomorrowland embraces echoes the recent series finale of Mad Men, where Don Draper invents the most famous ad of all time: teaching people from all over the world to sing with Coca Cola in the 1970s. Tomorrowland hopes for a better tomorrow, but no matter the past or future, it seems the corporations will always win.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road




Mad Max: Fury Road is the most senses-shattering fun an audience can have in a post-apocalyptic future you would never, ever want to live in. Dispensing with such trivialities as story or character development, director George Miller presses down as hard as humanly possible on the action throttle with blistering results. Mad Max: Fury Road is an action movie distilled into its purest form, filled with explosions, reckless abandon, visceral frenzy, and nightmarish sights and sounds one won't soon forget. This is the world of the Road Warrior, a bleak un-reality of dirt, metal, spikes, blood, desperation, and human beings barely recognizable as such. It is quite literally hell on wheels, and it is eye-poppingly spectacular.

Tom Hardy is Mad Max, a former cop tortured by visions of the people he failed to protect when the old world ended in a nuclear war for oil. He sometimes is also mad as in angry. Captured and enslaved as a "blood bag," an unwilling human blood donor, Max finds himself in the closest thing to civilization we see in this world: the Citadel, giant buttes in the desert converted into fortresses, surrounded by a shanty town of desperate, starving, parched survivors. The Citadel is ruled by an aged warlord called Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who drills deep into the earth for the water this world desperately needs and hoards it to make himself a god. When Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is sent in a war rig to a neighboring conclave to trade water for gasoline, she reveals she has other plans in mind. Furiosa has absconded with Immortan Joe's harem of "breeder" wives; let me tell you, that old scuzzbag Joe has been holding out on everyone because there are five incredibly beautiful, gossamer-clean women in this horrible world - Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Zoe Kravitz, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, and Courtney Eaton - and Joe had been hoarding them all. Whiteley is pregnant with Joe's child, but dreams like the other women of the "green place," the former home of Furiosa somewhere east, past the canyons and the endless desert.

When Immortan Joe learns all the hot women in his life skedaddled, he rallies his entire army of Road Warriors to give chase, including Max, held prisoner as a hood ornament at the nose of his car. What transpires is an unbelievably grotesque yet painterly beautiful series of car chases; a smorgasbord of death and destruction escalating in utter insanity. Max manages to free himself and joins forces with Furiosa and her courageous, rebellious women, along with a young true believer (Nicholas Hoult) who simply wants to enter the chrome Valhalla as a great Road Warrior. Courting even more factions of grimy enemies to come after them, Max and the breeders eventually meet up with elderly survivors from Furiosa's former home, who are more than a match for these grisly demons they wage war on. The big surprise is the welcome feminist bent Mad Max: Fury Road embraces as Furiosa and the women commit themselves to retaking the Citadel and ending Immortan Joe's rule once and for all. Max is more or less along for the ride, lending his skills to their fight as these women forge a place in this horrible world for themselves. Max himself is simply one of many hoping for a better path in this new world. Throughout Mad Max, the question is asked "Who ruined the world?" By the end of Fury Road, we're glad who runs the world: Girls.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron



Peace In Our Time

The defining moment of Tony Stark's life wasn't when he was captured in the desert and built a crude Iron Man suit to escape. It was at the conclusion of Marvel's The Avengers when he flew a nuclear missile into the wormhole over New York City, glimpsed the horrific alien Chitauri force in outer space ready to invade Earth, and nearly lost his life. Since then, Stark has battled PTSD (as seen in Iron Man 3), and now his deepest fears take shape and are given murderous artificial life in Avengers: Age of Ultron, writer-director Joss Whedon's bigger, badder, denser, more aggressive, and thoroughly idiosyncratic follow up to the second biggest blockbuster of all-time. So psychologically damaged was Stark that his misguided dream (whereas before, his dream was merely to pleasure himself in any way he saw fit) has become "to build a suit of armor around the world" and usher in "peace in our time." "To end the fight... so [The Avengers] can all go home," as Stark tries to justify to Captain America. Instead, Stark's hubris invites catastrophe and gives birth to Ultron (a wicked James Spader), the killer robot to end all killer robots in the Marvel Universe. The Age of Ultron is just a few days from when Ultron comes to life to when he kicks the Avengers' asses and tries to destroy all life, but it's a few days the Avengers will never forget.

The Avengers are all back -- Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man, Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America, Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/The Hulk, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, Jeremy Renner as Clint Barton/Hawkeye -- and then some. Age of Ultron flexes outward, making plenty of room for Samuel L. Jackson  as Nick Fury and Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill, both formerly of S.H.I.E.L.D., to return, as well as inviting guest stars Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson/The Falcon and Don Cheadle as James Rhodes/War Machine to drop by. On the villainous front, Ultron recruits "the Twins": Aaron Taylor-Johnson as super speedster Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff/The Scarlet Witch, because, you know, Ultron needs someone to talk to about his nefarious schemes. (Of course, the more Ultron talks, the more the Maximoffs realize this thing they sided with is insane. Then again, the more Wanda and Pietro talk, the more we grimace at Olsen and Taylor-Johnson's affected Eastern European accents.) Meanwhile, talk Ultron does; this loquacious, eloquent evil robot is equal parts mad genius and undisciplined child stomping around a toy store breaking all the toys. In addition to destroying the world, Ultron also seeks to evolve himself, creating a humanity-sympathizing android called the Vision, which then gains the artificial intelligence of Stark's robo-butler J.A.R.V.I.S., played by Paul Bettany.

Joss Whedon has spoken at exasperated length to the press that Age of Ultron is the hardest thing he's ever done. To see the fruits of his toil and labor is to understand completely: Age of Ultron is an astonishing, all-encompassing juggling act, telling a gigantic superheroes vs. homicidal robot comic booky tale, while weaving in myriad clues to the forthcoming events in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The result makes Age of Ultron feel like it's bursting at the seams. Whedon opens Age of Ultron with the resolution to the year long saga of Hydra (#ItsAllConnected to TV's Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.). The Avengers, at the apex of their teamwork (but at the nadir of CGI making their superpowered fighting look realistic) are riding high with maximum swagger after finally putting an end to the evil Hydra organization and retrieving Loki's lost scepter and the Infinity Stone contained within. As Scarlet Witch uses her mutant powers to give each Avenger "visions," Whedon drop hints of the upcoming Ragnarok Thor must face, makes a point of spotlighting the African nation of Wakanda to set up the Black Panther movie, and previews the galactic catastrophe awaiting the Avengers in their announced Infinity War sequels. Tony Stark's motives and judgment are repeatedly questioned and he's treated almost as a villain by his fellow Avengers, boding ill for when he will wage Civil War with Captain America next year.  Black Widow's traumatic past of growing up in Mother Russia's Home for Future Assassins and Captain America's lost dreams of a happy life with Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) are also given their due. Age of Ultron requires an exhaustive, encyclopedic knowledge of past and future events of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and makes no apologies to non-True Believers.

More pleasingly, when not blowing things up or having the Avengers smack things down, Whedon hones in on what makes each Avenger tick, lending special TLC to the characters currently without their own cinematic franchises. Renner's Clint Barton receives ample screen time, wisecracks, and reveals a heretofore unknown happy home life with his wife (Linda Cardinelli) and young children. An unlikely but unexpectedly touching romance blooms between Natasha Romanoff and Bruce Banner (her whispering "I adore you" before pushing Banner off a cliff to make him Hulk out is the weirdly sweetest moment in the movie). Whedon even goes the extra mile to explain just why Natalie Portman as Thor's love Jane Foster and Gwyneth Paltrow as Stark's better half Pepper Potts are absent this time around, while carrying out a drunk Stan Lee making his traditional cameo. Finally, Thanos (Josh Brolin), perhaps aware the Internet has been mocking him mercilessly for managing to obtain zero Infinity Stones after a dozen Marvel movies, finally dons the dreaded Infinity Gauntlet in the traditional mid-credits tag. Through it all, during the many quiet moments, the patented Whedon Wit is at the height of its powers, delivering snark and running gags about Captain America's disdain for foul language and the logistics of being "worthy" to lift Thor's hammer. Whedon's character work deepens the conflicts and relationships between the characters themselves as well as between the audience and these characters we've come to love.

Two years since Man of Steel, Whedon and the Marvel braintrust seem well-aware of the cacophonous complaints levied at their Distinguished Competition about the horrific destruction of Metropolis and the repeated ad nauseam accusations that Superman didn't save enough innocent people. In response, Age of Ultron is a chest-thumping treatise how How Superheroes Save People. In the crowd-pleasing centerpiece action spectacle where Iron Man, clad in his gigantic Hulkbuster armor, grapples with the rampaging Hulk, Whedon pointedly makes sure that everyone in their seats is aware the buildings they smash into and demolish have no innocent people in them. After musing about meteors and extinction-level events, Ultron's ultimate scheme (visuals borrowed from a different Superman movie, Superman Returns) involves using vibranium (the indestructible metal Captain America's shield was forged from) to rocket the fictional Eastern European city of Sokovia into the stratosphere and then drop it onto the Earth to create a deep impact that would wipe out all human life. With thousands of people trapped on an ascendant rock surrounded by hundreds of Ultron replicants, the Avengers assemble and beat the living crap out of all of those robots while again pointedly making sure no one (who isn't an Avenger for a few minutes) dies. Amidst the astounding superpowered action, the Avengers go out of their way to rescue every innocent person in Sokovia, with a big assist from Fury, Hill, and a S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier they happened to have lying around, which is a welcome sight indeed.

Being all things to all Marvel movies, Age of Ultron is also a darker, more somber middle act in a grander saga, and one of transition to boot. Avengers comics tradition has always been about the fluidity of team membership, and as any Marvel fanboy would expect, the Avengers roster going into Age of Ultron is not the same coming out. By the time the smoke clears and all of the Ultrons are dismantled, the emotional and psychological toll of the ordeal sees a mass exodus of no less than four of the original six Avengers: Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, and Hawkeye all disassemble and disappear (they are joined in real life by Whedon, making his grand exit as well). Captain America's New Avengers aren't the household names the originals have become, but they aren't exactly slouches either: Black Widow thankfully remains and they are joined by "some hitters": War Machine, The Falcon, The Vision, and The Scarlet Witch. Their fates will be guided by directors Joe and Anthony Russo, who made Captain America: The Winter Soldier arguably the best of the Marvel movies, and will helm Avengers: Infinity War Parts I and II. If the New Avengers can't save the world, they'll damn sure Avenge it, with the help of a certain friendly neighborhood wall-crawler before long. But until then, the Avengers, Marvel, and Joss Whedon can be proud that they have wrapped the world in a suit of armor made of money. Here's hoping Joss Whedon enjoys the quiet of life without the Avengers and finds well-earned peace in his time.