Tomorrowland (2015)

Pretty scifi for kids, starring some kids, mostly human kids. Britt Robertson is Casey, 18 years old and a freedom fighter for science, though NASA would probably call her a terrorist, it’s always in the point of view concerning that duality. George Clooney was a kid, and he got his chain yanked by a darling robot played by freckly newcomer Raffey Cassidy. So Clooney is bitter and gloomy, and Britt is bubbly and optimistic, and that’s really our plot.

The plot is a bit thin and the devices are a bit preachy, and when this came out there was some grumbling that there are very few black people in the cast, but this week we see that the NAACP Image Award for Best Motion Picture of 2015 was “Straight Outta Compton” and it’s funny, isn’t it, that movies with white leads never win that award, right? So who’s being race-exclusive here? Disney made this movie as a positive voice for humanity’s future, and it didn’t seem like they were excluding black people on purpose, so all that griping falls on deaf ears until the day when the Image Awards are based on something other than just race.

This one is a more adultish Disney movie, like they tried with The Black Hole 35 years ago, thus people get killed and maimed, and a bunch of killer robots get offed. Mostly, instead of being a white-people movie, this is a girl-power movie. Britt Robertson has to save the world, and it’s Disney so we know she does, no spoiler there, but the best girlpower is from Athena (Raffey Cassidy), a ten-year-old dynamo of chopsocky asskicking, exterminating bad robots and, since this future has never heard of Asimov’s Laws, Robot Raffey also takes out some humans.

The scenes of the title place are stunning CGI, fully populated with realism and coherent artistic vision. Very pretty movie to watch, though there are some unexplained loose ends as though the script went through some changes after shooting began, or the editing process cut out some bits of continuity.

Since this is the 2010’s, there is no clear-cut bad guy, other than robots who can be blown up without offending anyone, but one of those missing bits in the plot is that a human controls all those killer robots. It’s namby-pamby stuff like that which is making Hollywood movies steadily lose cultural relevance, then they complain about falling box office without looking in the mirror. In this case, the bad guy turns out to be almost reasonable near the end of the movie, so maybe the real bad guy is humanity itself?

Blah, and that’s what i meant about the preachy stuff, though Disney does not mention oil companies specifically, because Disney is a global corporation too, and the upper floors know which side of the real world is buttered and which is plain. You simply can’t be preachy if you’ve got a tarry gnarled member lodged in your own throat.

So the message is a washed-out fail, but the movie is fun to watch and the characters are plucky and easy to root for. The scifi is good, effects are great, but a few things guarantee that there will be no sequel here.

Rating and more info…

Fury (2014)

Gritty war drama, with all the foul language and gunfights and spitting that a gritty war drama should have. Written by the director and that’s always a good sign, and produced by the star, which always shows confidence in the script. Well made with smoky and misty evocative shots, an ethereal score and good attention to costuming hundreds of extras.

Story is basically about greenhorn Norman and his introduction to World War II, by way of being pressed into a tank crew who have all been together for a few years of heavy combat. Norman is idealistic and wobbly, but with the stern hand of Brad Pitt, he becomes a man.

A wild ride across Western Germany in WW2’s last month, which is supposed to add tragedy to the story since we know the war ends in a few weeks, so all lives lost at this point are lives wasted. Whatevy, it’s still wartime and that means plenty of, well, war. Centering on a tank crew is always a good subject, second only to a story about a submarine crew, for cementing the bonds between the characters.

Some tank-to-tank tactics, some infantry maneuvers, a little taste of town fighting, and deus ex machina by way of random hits by invisible artillery. Hey, it’s a war movie. What sets this one apart in the action sphere is the great final battle. Among the genre, what sets this one apart is great acting from all the main cast. Doesn’t make you think deep thoughts, just keeps you rooting for our good guys, keeping the tension on a tight line and competently pacing the action to keep us engaged.

A war movie is not for everyone, but this one’s pretty good. Since it’s 2014 and not 1954, the gore is real and visceral, with plenty of guys losing their heads on both sides. Important characters, of course, look great when dead. Even when a couple grenades go off inches away. Hollywood magic, that.

Rating and more info…

The Family (2013)

Fun movie with plenty of violence perpetrated by both adults and children, making this a black comedy. Deniro is a mobster turned state’s evidence and now in the witness protection program. Tommy Lee Jones is his FBI handler, a thankless and difficult job because Deniro keeps committing crimes while hiding in France. Just a murder here and there, a savage beating or three, and a reasonable bombing at the local factory.

On the other hand, it’s not all Deniro’s fault. His wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) blows up the local supermarket on their first day in town, and both son and daughter unleash separate reigns of terror in high school, with more beatings, bribery, extortion, drug dealing and general racketeering. All in all great fun, and if the French townsfolk had a nebulous uncertain unease about Americans before the Blake family moved in, well now they have a much more clear idea about why they fear Americans.

A little unrealistic, because not even in small-town France can someone get away with a crime wave like this. And the way that the mob in New York gets wind of where The Family is laying low (!) is very unbelievable. But that’s OK, a couple suspensions of belief are not too much, since this is not a gritty gangster movie, it is a comedy. A gritty black comedy, but still.

Since it’s a witness protection program comedy, we know what’s going to happen, in broad outline at least, so no reason to give any details or spoilers. Suffice it to say that there’s good performances from Bobby and Tommy and Michelle, the kids are a riot, and the mobsters all wear black.

Rating and more info…

Red Dawn (2012)

Didn’t suck as bad as the critics said. The premise was a lot more plausible in 1985 when we could use the Russians as the bad buys, them being a superpower and all. When this remake came out 28 years later, they had to use North Korea. Really, there’s no two ways about it: this decision cripples the effectiveness of the movie.

The original was a good movie, and deserved to be remade. This one has all the elements which made the original good. But swapping out Russia for North Korea, because the movie studio didn’t want to offend Putin, makes this movie fall flat on its face. The rest of the movie is decent, the script and plot, the actors and acting. Directing and editing were competent. Just the setting is too ridiculous to overcome.

With that fatal flaw, this movie is forgettable. The only reason the remake happened was that the original is still loved by all males (and many females) who were between 7 and 27 in 1985. Still a great movie, one of the 1980s best action flicks. It worked because the premise could work. Russians in 1985. North Korea does not work, in any year. This remake dropped the ball so badly, that it will not be remembered by anyone.

The original worked because it was set in Michigan, thus the plausible emotional use of the term “wolverines”. This one is set in Spokane, Washington, even though it was filmed in Michigan. Ridiculous. It’s a mess of ham-handed decisions by upper executives.

It seems like the first idea was to make a good remake of a good movie. But someone overruled using Russia as the invaders of the USA, because they didn’t want to hurt Putin’s dainty emotions. Another executive, the kind of producer who has a lot of money but not much sense, probably then suggested that the project go forward using China as the invader of the USA. Keeps the plausibility, but obviously that can’t happen. China’s government would never allow the film to screen there, and would use economic and diplomatic muscles to “convince” a bunch of other countries to ban the movie too. There goes 1/4 of overseas ticket sales.

So the next bright idea (this is sarcasm) was to swap in a politically acceptable bad guy, North Korea. At this point, somebody realized that setting the flick in Michigan was idiotic, because North Korea doesn’t have the manpower to invade as far as the Great Lakes. So that was swapped for Washington State. Now we see the snowballing of absurd rationalizations that the production staff had to contort around.

Wolverines in Spokane. Vague allusions to Russians on “the Eastern Seaboard”. A cludgy mention that North Korea has “the world’s fourth-largest army”. Hmmm, where have we heard that before? I know, weren’t we once told that Iraq had “the world’s fourth-largest army”? There was a way out. They could have just set the movie in 1985 and used the Russians as the bogeymen. Either that idea was also shot down by the Kremlin, or nobody among the producers was bright enough to think of it.

Again, we see it’s true: lose your roots and lose your way. A shame, because if it was redone properly, it could have matched the original’s cultural staying power. But as it ended up, mangled by political correctness, nobody remembers this movie, only 3 years later.

Rating and info here…

Broken City (2013)

The City is New York, though this was shot in New Orleans, and the Broken thing is Billy Taggart, a NYPD detective who shot a kid in the projects under murky circumstances. Was it self defense, or vigilante cop murder? That gets cleared up later but it really doesn’t matter. The real story is that it’s 7 years later and Billy is a private eye, catching infidelities through the window and having trouble paying his bills.

Enter Russell Crowe as the charmingly filthy Mayor, and a small role for Griffin Dunne as Hizzonner’s real estate mogul crony. There’s a deal going down for billions, pushing pesky poor people out of the projects to make room for spacious condos. And where there’s billions sloshing around in New York, there will be politicians. Naturally, this all happens during the end stretch of the mayoral election.

So it’s part detective story and part political thriller. In this kind of thing there’s hired muscle, there’s double-dealing aides, and as always, there is a patsy. Billy’s girl has a slight part to play in explaining why he’s about to go off the leash, but there isn’t really much else to give depth to the character. One car chase, one short fight scene, a couple dead guys in the street. The action here is not the action, but the plot. Of that, it’s fairly standard gumshoe pulp but some good performances peppering the film. Not remarkable, but not a bad movie.

Rating and info here…

Gangster Squad (2013)

Los Angeles, barely post-war, it’s 1949 and Mickey Cohen is a gangster on his way up, a rise fueled by particular violence which we get an inkling of in the opening minutes, where Mickey (Sean Penn) has an emissary from the Chicago mob torn in half, fully on camera. Ewww. But it’s a gangland drama, and it’s made in 2013, so let’s not skimp on the gruesome violence.

Of course this serves as our motivation to see Mickey get what he’s got coming, and it comes in the form of a deeply undercover team of LAPD white-hats who report to nobody and answer to nothing but a smoking gun. Based on the true story of how the mafia was turned back from inroads into LA, this flick is half detective thriller and half vigilante rampage. In the historical sense, this is the story of how the mob only made it as far West as Las Vegas, and this nipping of the buds of organized crime saved, in the end, the whole West Coast from turning into Chicago or New York.

Since it’s 1949, the film is full of glorious old cars, Packards and Hudsons and De Sotos, all curvy bodies with flat windows and no radios. Speaking of curvy bodies, Emma Stone turns in a great performance as expected, as the moll with the gams and a sweet streak, and she’s lovingly introduced as a “tomato”. Ahh, the 1940s.

Since it’s the 40s, the soundtrack has lots of nice jumps from Hoagy Carmichael, Pee Wee King and Stan Kenton, and we even get an actress portraying Carmen Miranda. One gripe is that not much thought was applied to marrying the music to the video, and few of the vintage songs go on past a few bars. There is a ton of music which would have been current on the radio in 1949 and applicable to our story, but this score seems to have been assembled in isolation of the film production, and by someone bereft of a broad knowledge of 1940s pop. The one bright spot in the score is using Peggy Lee’s “Bless You” in its entirety as the credits roll.

The ending of the movie is too quick and pat, with little feeling of real denouement, but otherwise the story is good and the acting more good than poor. A great span of supporting cast: Michael Pena, Giovanni Ribisi, Nick Nolte, and Anthony Mackie all turn in good roles, and the leads (Penn, Brolin, Gosling and Emma) all do a fine job. Josh Brolin is wooden, but that’s on purpose, that’s why he was cast as the main good guy, he’s what we expect from him, the grizzled toughie with a gold heart.

A pretty good movie overall. Period piece but not drenched in itself, great pacing of the action, and a range of heroes easy to root for and baddies we’re glad to see get shot. It’s The Untouchables redone, 30 years later and set 15 years later, and it was about time someone flattered that great movie. I recommend watching this.

Rating and info here…

Kill The Irishman (2011)

Gangster drama about Danny Greene, the true story of his rise and fall through the ranks of the Cleveland underworld. Always an outsider because he wasn’t Italian, but tougher than nails and hard as a brick, Danny was. His bid to take over the Cleveland mob in the middle of the 1970s sparked a war, with hundreds of mobsters dead and dozens of bombings ripping apart warehouses, restaurants and long dark luxury sedans.

It didn’t end until the New York families finally took Greene out, on the 10th try. But the aftermath was nationwide, leading to the downfall of most of America’s crime families, once the feds could no longer look the other way after hundreds of killings. The ripple effect was a wave of rooting out corruption within the police departments in several large cities, and left the traditional mafia so weakened that the door was opened in the 1980s for other organizations to move in, including less respectable and far more vicious gangs of Jamaicans, Russians and Chinese.

So on one hand this is the story about the last of the breed, the dapper dons and sitdowns among capos. On the other hand, it’s the story of how their world ended and a cautionary tale about being careful what you wish for. The old mafia was violent and greedy, yes, but cracking them down meant a new mob with less self control and zero incentive to work anything out with gentlemens agreements among themselves. And then someone invented smokeable cocaine, so the 1980s got real violent in gangland.

There’s a dabble of Danny’s lifestory outside of business, with the wife who left him because, well because he was a gangster. And a new girlfriend, played by the beautiful Laura Ramsey who fills out all those slinky rayon 70’s clothes very well. In the end it’s a pretty good slice of seedy Cleveland and gritty rustbelt gangsters blowing each other up willy nilly. And there’s Christopher Walken. What’s not to like about that?

More info here…

The Hot Potato (2011)

Reminds me of “Morons In Outer Space”, but these ones didn’t even have to leave Earth. Based on a true story, which is right scary, mate. The titular tuber is not a vegetable, but instead a lump of metal about the size of a grapefruit. It weighs about 60 pounds, because it’s made of the metal uranium. First time you watch this, it’s a mystery briefly, but the second time you can’t help but cringe when you see the things these idiots do to the potato.

Working-class Brits are the main cast, so the accents and slang get a bit heavy, but not too difficult to suss out what they’re on about. Just remember that “Old Bill” means the coppers, which means the police. Danny (Jack Huston) finds a shiny box when a weapons research lab blows up, and lugs it round to the metal salvage shop of his mate Kenny (Ray Winstone). It’s 1969, so the Cold War is in full swing, so there are a lot of shady and spicy people interested in getting hold of the potato.

Israelis want to make atom bombs, various gangsters want to make money, and everyone involved makes an ass of themselves through a combination of thuggery and stupidity. Thus, calling this a comedy. No pointedly uproarious laughlines, but generally funny throughout and all the characters are drawn as caricatures.

The plot winds across half a dozen European cities, as every operator in this farce chases the potato in the most inept manner possible. Great fun, engaging cast of small-time hoods and not-quite innocent regular folks caught up in a web of international cloak-and-dagger. And this really happened, yipes.

More info here…

The Monuments Men (2014)

Based on the book by Robert Edsel, about how the Nazis looted Europe of anything of value not bolted down, and many things which were. And about the group of artnerds who got a lot of the stuff back. When this came out the critics fawned over it. An all-star cast, a story about hi-falutin’ stuff, and for once, there was a war movie which no intelligensian can be too snobby to hate.

It’s a true story, or the book is anyway, and the cast really is outstanding. Bill Murray and Bob Balaban teasing each other is the running gag and it’s perfect. There’s even a parting shot of them ripped straight out of Casablanca, as in a beautiful friendship beginning. Star, narrator, producer, and director is Clooney, and he even worked on the script too. Matt Damon turns in another great role. John Goodman is a master at work. Cate Blanchett, nuffsaid?

So why does the movie fall so far short? Artsy critics were quick to praise this one, we already mentioned how it’s a war movie all their own, but it seems like no one got past that to evaluate the film on its own cinematic merits. Beautifully shot, Clooney is a fine director, there is nothing technically wrong with the movie. So why does it feel hollow?

Like a documentary but dramatized, and light on information because it’s a drama, not a documentary. The root trouble with this movie is covering too much story with too little information. A finer scalpel running over the book would have found the spine of a simpler plot, isolated it, and built a new creature around it. That’s what screenwriters do.

You can tell that someone attempted to do it with Edsel’s book. Focusing the plot on the Ghent Altarpiece and the Madonna of Bruges was a stab at boiling the plot down. Unfortunately, these two stories (where there should be one) happen in the beginning and in the last 15 minutes, and the intervening time is a series of anecdotes, disjointed vignettes of nostalgia.

Very entertaining anecdotes, to be sure. The Murray/Balaban feud is great and putting John Goodman into combat is bound to be hilarious. But then throw in an almost love story, and a dozen anecdotes about nothing more than how tough it was to invade Germany, and the whole middle hour of the movie turns to jelly. Bookending scenes with FDR and Truman are exemplars of how the movie skips around from thing to thing, jamming in as many odd loose bits of the book as it can.

It could have been a tight story about a few guys chasing Nazi plunder across Europe, with a quality side-story about unfulfilled desire in Paris in April. On one hand, the plethora of A-listers almost ensures that the plot will be diluted. At 1:51 the movie is plenty long, but there’s just too much starpower to contain. All the cast are brilliant, but none of them get to shine.

Would have made a great comedy, specially with this ensemble. A movie about the relationship between Damon and Blanchett would make a great movie. Or a movie about this group hunting down one specific trove of artworks, done as a combo of detective-movie and war-movie would be a fun ride. But this movie tries to be all those films at once. Predictable results.

In the end, it’s good entertainment with a tiny amount of culture sprinkled over it, but no meaty plot to bite into. Worth watching for the laughs, but like the ancient American proverb about Chinese food, you’ll be hungry again soon afterwards.

More info here…

Captain Phillips (2013)

Pretty long movie but a good story, and it really happened, despite all the legalese denials at the end of the credits. Keeps the tension up for over two hours, casting real Somalis as the pirates was a genius move, and Tom Hanks does his part like a veteran A-lister. Despite a whole lot of violence, there’s no actual death until the final unraveling.

Taking place onboard various ships, the running theme is claustrophobia and this reaches a fever pitch as the whole thing comes to a head in a pretty tough but very tiny little lifeboat. Early on, the foreshadowing machine plays a “special security announcement” when Cap’t Phillips arrives at the airport, just after he tells Mrs Phillips “everything’s gonna be OK.” So we know that not everything will be OK, since there’s two hours of movie left.

The devilish thing this movie does, and the main reason a mass of critics circle-jerked over it when it came out, is that this film takes extra time to make sure we get the story from both points of view: the pirates and the piracy victims. Because we know what happens, because we watched the news in April of 2009, we know the SEALs save the day, but by the time it comes, this crafty flick has you caring whether the pirates live or die.

A straight action flick has you accepting that the bad guys must die simply because they dared to point a Kalashnikov at the hero. In this one, the bad guys are still painted bad, and you’re made to feel they get what they’ve got coming, but the film also slips in a bit of pathos. You’re sad to see the waste of life but buy into the idea that these punks really have nothing better to do, and you are prodded to think of that as the true crime. Don’t fall for it.

There are some fun lines in the script, like the pirate leader Muse (Barkhad Abdi) saying early in the pirate attack that he wants to go to America. And he did. And he’s going to be in prison a long time. Arrr, matey, you stupid douchebag.

More info here