Tomorrowland Review

            Damon Lindelof (showrunner of Lost, screenwriter of Prometheus, Star Trek Into Darkness) is one of the most controversial screenwriters working today.  He has some fans thanks to the ambitious nature of most of his scripts, but he has just as many detractors (if not more so) thanks to his ability to ask way more questions than he can answer.  Even with the expert direction of Brad Bird (The Incredibles and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol), Tomorrowland is not going to change anyone’s mind about Lindelof.  It’s filled with amazing and exciting ideas that ultimately lead to a rushed conclusion.  However, as a big fan of Lindelof, I couldn’t help but admire the ambition and optimism that is on full display.  With some breathtaking scenery, this is a summer film that makes you think while also giving you imagery you haven’t seen before.

            Tomorrowland follows Frank Walker (played by George Clooney in adult form and Thomas Robinson in child form), an inventor who has lost his fascination with the world after being told disturbing news about the fate of humanity, and Casey (Britt Robertson), an optimistic teenager that just wants to right the wrongs of the world, as they are brought together by Athena (Raffey Cassidy), a mysterious girl, in order to rediscover a futuristic city known as Tomorrowland.

            The plot of Tomorrowland can certainly be called convoluted as so many ideas are being thrown around that we don’t really get any momentum into finding Tomorrowland until well into the second hour of the film.  While this is certainly a problem, the interesting concepts that are spoken about and the visual imagery employed by Brad Bird do more than enough to mask the loads of exposition in the film.  This is a film that can have an overlong argument between characters explain a major part of the plot followed by a stunning one-take sequence that is really just there as a visual rather than something necessary to the plot while still feeling better as a whole than its individual parts.  Many will point to the tidy ending that comes about from nowhere in the last thirty minutes but it is hard not to love the mishmash of things that come before.

            It also helps that the film does a great job of creating an interesting cast of characters.  Frank Walker is a much more interesting character as a child (and fortunately there is a decent amount of screen time for the younger version of the character), but George Clooney brings enough gravitas to make the emotional arc of the character work.  It’s really the women who make this film so interesting.  Britt Robertson’s Casey makes for one of the more memorable heroines in recent years as her unabashed optimism is refreshing in the current age of antiheroes, and Raffey Cassidy’s Athena is just flat out one of the most memorable characters of the year.

            With a film as optimistic and ambitious as Tomorrowlandit is just too easy to ignore its many flaws.


Far From the Madding Crowd Review

            The summer movie season tends to feature a ton of CGI action films and star-driven comedies, but the season surprisingly does have a lot of room for counter programming from the independent section of cinema.  The indies are off to a great start this summer as Far From the Madding Crowd is the kind of quiet but well-made counter programming that this season needs more of.  With a fantastic cast led by the incredible Carey Mulligan, beautiful imagery and a stunning score, Far From the Madding Crowd is able to overcome some of the problems with its melodramatic storyline.

            Far From the Madding Crowd, based off the book by Thomas Hardy, follows Bathesheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) during the 1800s in England as she tries to keep her farm afloat while being courted by a farmer (Matthias Shoenaerts), a soldier (Tom Sturridge) and a wealthy landowner (Michael Sheen).

            With so many characters being involved in a romantic drama such as this the storyline tends to get a little overly melodramatic, especially when another female character (played well by Juno Temple but without enough screen time to make a true impression) is added into the plotline.  This probably could have been handled with a much louder approach than the subtle approach that director Thomas Vinterberg (whose The Hunt is definitely one of the best foreign language films in recent memory) takes to telling the story.  The problem with that is Vinterberg’s subtle approach does so many wonders with the other sections of the film. 

            It’s a catch-22 situation that never allows this film to rise to true greatness, but fortunately everything else in the film is working quite well.  The imagery that Vinterberg and his cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen are able to conjure up is incredible.  The England they put onscreen can feel magical while still feeling in line with the subtle approach of the film.  It also helps that the score accompanying this imagery is so well done.  Craig Armstrong brings a moody score to the film that is quite effective in adding another layer to what is going on onscreen.  However, this film is nothing without the strong cast led by a career best performance from Carey Mulligan.  This might be the most intricate character Mulligan has played yet and Miss. Everdene allows her to use all of her abilities to great effect.

            Far From the Madding Crowd is a strong start to the counter programming slate for the summer season.


While We're Young Review

            One of the first things I realized after watching Noah Baumbach’s latest film, While We’re Young, is that the quirky director must have really hated The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst if he watched it.  One of the many things on the mind of this film is the morality of taking creative liberties in documentary filmmaking, and the film no doubt makes an interesting discussion about the topic.  Just like the now famous HBO documentary series, While We’re Young is narratively ambitious.  Unfortunately, there is so much on the mind of While We’re Young that it seems to lose its way in so many different and interesting ideas.  It’s a noble effort for sure, but a problematic film in the end.

            While We’re Young follows a forty-something couple (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) going through the motions.  That is until they meet a much younger couple (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) that entices them into the world of their generation.  Slowly, a battle between generations begins to emerge, though.

            There is a lot to like in this film.  There are both interesting ideas and interesting characters.  There are some in depth discussions on interesting and important topics like the effectiveness of marriage as an institution, ethics in documentary filmmaking, the fight the younger generation has to endure to be accepted and the need to cheat to get ahead.  Meanwhile, Adam Driver’s Jamie is one of the more unique and memorable characters you will see in a film this year.  It also helps that the other three main characters work quite well too.

            Yet despite all of this, the film seems like it only amounts to a mishmash of concepts that don’t really gel together.  Noah Baumbach’s style works for a long time but when it comes to the third act nothing really comes together as his laidback style seems to hinder the film.  Baumbach still finds the right moments to place in humor and his quirkiness still works when it’s supposed to but this ultimately seems like a missed opportunity to make his greatest film yet.  The material is there, but the execution just isn’t.

            While We’re Young is an ambitious effort from Noah Baumbach.  It captures the realism of the situations showcased within while still finding time for its quirkiness.  Unfortunately, Baumbach strives a little too far and ends up with a film that can only be described as an interesting failure.


Ex Machina Review

            Cinema has been fascinated with the idea of AI and the consequences of their existence for a very long time.  Classics, like 2001: A Space Odyssey, have put the debate over AI into the public sphere.  So it was unsurprising but still interesting to see two films dealing with AI be released in recent weeks.  Of course there is the now smash hit Avengers: Age of Ultron and its portrayal of the rogue AI, Ultron.  However, the much less talked about of the two films, Ex Machina, might be the better representation of AI and the better film in general.  Ex Machina is a much more subtle, character driven and small-scale take on what the creation of AI means for humanity.  It certainly isn’t reinventing the wheel and its portrayal of AI is cliché in concept (even if its execution is certainly interesting), but this is a solid film.

            Ex Machina follows Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a computer programmer for the world’s most popular search engine, as he wins a contest to meet his boss (Oscar Isaac) at his remote mansion.  It is here that his boss informs him that he has finally invented AI and wants Caleb to confirm the creation by performing the Turing test on the AI.  Once the procedure begins, thought, it quickly becomes evident that not all is as it seems.

            The film is directed and written by Alex Garland, who has spent his entire career writing sci-fi films that have had interesting concepts while never reaching the potential of those concepts (28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go, etc.).  Here he strips down the story to its essence and turns it into a three character play.  This allows for the character development to be much greater than his previous efforts and completely puts the success of the film on the back of his three leads instead of some concept that fizzles away by the end of the film.  Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac and (especially) Alicia Vikander as Ava all do exceptional work in this film.

            While the film certainly feels small as it’s functioning as a three character play there are still some interesting cinematic qualities within it.  Garland finds a way to really ratchet up the tension in surprising ways, and the creation of the AIs he puts in this film are truly fascinating.  I still have no idea how they created the robots, and trying to find out seems like trying to ruin one of the great cinematic surprises of the past few years.

            Of course I would have preferred that the film finds a more original or at least commanding ending, but there is a lot to like in Ex Machina.


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