Monthly Archives: May 2015

All Shook Up

Earthquake flick makes a major mess of things…again

SAN ANDREAS

San Andreas

Starring Dwayne Johnson, Alexandra Daddario, Carla Gugino & Paul Giamatti

Directed by Brad Peyton

PG-13

No need to look at the calendar: If the world is about to end, you can be pretty sure that summer’s almost here. As the temps rise, so do the odds that you’ll see some really big things blow up, be swept away or get pulverized—again. Alas, London. Nice knowin’ ya, New York. Woe is Washington, D.C.

In San Andreas, named for the famous fault line that runs through much of California, a monstrous earthquake turns both Los Angeles and San Francisco into pancake-like piles of rubble, creates a tsunami that takes out the Golden Gate Bridge and—symbolism cue—dramatically reunites one “split-apart” family.

This adrenaline-pumping summer blockbuster really busts some blocks, literally. It starts off with a rockslide, and in just a few minutes, we’re watching the Hoover Dam explode in a heaving, slo-mo convulsion of concrete, rebar and water.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is Ray, an L.A. helicopter-rescue pilot, whose plans for a pleasantSAN ANDREAS weekend drive to take his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) back to college are disrupted by gaping chasms, toppled, flaming skyscrapers and collapsed, crumbled interstates (not to mention what must be countless victims that, curiously, never seem to require his services).

Ray’s wife, Emma (Carla Gugino) has filed for a divorce and is about to move in with a filthy-rich real estate developer (Ioan Gruffudd), who turns out to be every bit the weasel the movie leads you to think he’ll be.

Before the big shake-and-bake, Blake meets a couple of oh-so-charming Brits, a resourceful young engineer (Hugo Johnson-Burt) and his bright little brother (Art Parkinson). In movies like this, meetings like this usually pay off later, and this one certainly does.

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Duck! Paul Giamatti takes cover with a TV reporter (Archie Panjabi from TV’s ‘The Good Wife’).

Paul Giamatti is a data-streaming seismologist who predicts the Big One. (“No one listens to us until the ground shakes,” he glumly tells a TV reporter.) Australian pop singer Kylie Minogue has one scene, in a fancy, high-rise restaurant, where she basically gets to chat, scream, run and plummet.

The earth shakes, the oceans rise, buildings topple and fall. But this is clearly The Rock’s show, which is why the screenplay by Carlton (Lost, Bates Motel) Cuse weaves plenty of personal drama into the disaster, and much of movie concerns Ray and Emma’s search for their missing daughter-in-distress. And believe me, if the world is ending, The Rock is the guy I want on my team: A mountain of muscle with a heart of gold, he can rappel out of a hovering helicopter and leap from a zooming airplane, hotwire a pickup truck and pilot a boat through a tsunami, and even bring someone back from the dead. He’s The Rock and The Man.

SAN ANDREAS

Art Parkinson, Alexandra Daddario and Hugo Johnson-Burt stay afloat.

Some of the effects are impressive, but really: We’ve seen it before. And we’ll see it again. “So, what now?” ponders Emma as she surveys the CGI rubble and ruin. Ray, looking out over San Francisco Bay at the exact moment a gigantic American flag is unfurled from the wreckage of the Golden Gate Bridge, has the answer.

“We rebuild,” he says. Yes! In time next summer, and the next disaster movie!

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Disney Dreams

George Clooney goes back to the future

 

Disney's TOMORROWLAND..Casey (Britt Robertson) ..Ph: Film Frame..?Disney 2015

Britt Robertson stars as an idealistic teenager who gets a ticket to ‘Tomorrowland.’

 

Tomorrowland

Starring George Clooney, Britt Robertson & Hugh Laurie

Directed by Brad Bird

PG

Walt Disney always wanted his parks to be “magical.” Here’s a movie that takes that idea and really runs with it. Actually, Tomorrowland takes that idea and flies with it—with rocket packs, no less—into the teeming, gleaming futurama of Uncle Walt’s dreams more than half a century ago when he opened the gates to Disneyland.

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Young Frank (Thomas Robinson) tests his rocket pack prototype.

 

In Tomorrowland, George Clooney plays the modern-day, grownup version of a bright young lad, Frank, who lugs along his homemade jetpack to an invention competition at the 1964 World’s Fair—where Disney unveiled four major attractions. Frank and his contraption are rejected, alas, but he gets a special invitation to hop aboard Disney’s new ride It’s a Small World, which turns out to be much more than just a poky boat cruise through an international chorus of singing animatronic children: It’s a secret portal to the future!

Frank has a glorious time in the splendid world-yet-to-come, a fabulous sky-tropolis called Tomorrowland. But he can’t stay there forever. We eventually find out why he must leave, and why, decades later, he’s compelled to return.

Director Brad Bird, who’s shown his skill in both animation and live action with The Iron Giant (1999), The Incredibles (2004), Ratatouille (2007) and Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol (2011), mixes brisk, old-school adventure and a spirit of boundless idealism onto a palette of gorgeous, eye-popping visuals. The script, which he co-wrote with Damen Lindelof (Lost, Prometheus, World War Z, Cowboys and Aliens) and Jeff Jensen, crackles and pops mystery and suspense, wit and whimsy, and deeper, more passionate themes about science, technology and ecology.

Britt Robertson—recently seen saddling up in The Longest Ride—plays Casey, the spunky teenage daughter of a NASA scientist (country singer Tim McGraw) “chosen” for her own trip to Tomorrowland. British actress Raffey Cassedy is Athena, a mysterious young girl who connects both Frank and Cassidy across time. Hugh Laurie plays Tomorrowland’s top dog, who turns out to have quite a bite. Keegan-Michael Key from Key and Peel and Kathryn Hahn, who stars in Showtime’s Happyish, have a Men in Black-ish scene as a couple of space-oddity souvenir-shop owners.

Disney's TOMORROWLAND..Frank Walker (George Clooney)..Ph: Film Frame..©Disney 2015

George Clooney visits a famous international landmark…which is much more than just a famous international landmark.

The movie doesn’t note it, but Disney fans will certainly be aware that Tomorrowland was one of the five original “lands” of Disneyland, opening in 1955 to give visitors an imaginative taste of the future and outer space. Its silent “background” presence in the film deepens the movie’s make-believe mystery about just how forward thinking the House of Mouse might have really been.

There’s quite a lot happening, sometimes almost too much, and the cartoonish violence—aliens blasting people away, humanoid robots being bashed and decapitated—may unsettle some little ones. Plot points become muddled in the rush to keep moving, and the movie’s message gets a bit preachy.

But, like Frank says at one point, “Can’t you just be amazed?” Any movie that can get young people thinking about the future—the future of the planet, their future, our future—and about not giving up, even in the face of doom and gloom, is pretty amazing in itself. Maybe it really is a small, small world, after all. And now I’m super-curious about the secret purpose of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Max is Back!

Explosively revved-up reboot is big, brash, brutal & beautiful

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Mad Max: Fury Road

Starring Tom Hardy & Charlize Theron

Directed by George Miller

R

If Australian director George Miller never did anything else, he’d forever be remembered as the man who gave the world the post-apocalyptic road-thrills drama Mad Max. Miller’s movie, in 1979, was a low-budget landmark of gonzo filmmaking that became an action-adventure icon, spawning two sequels, both starring Mel Gibson and both directed by Miller.

Now Miller—who went on to produce, write and/or direct other acclaimed films, including Dead Calm, Lorenzo’s Oil, Happy Feet and Babe—has returned to where he started, and this explosively revved-up reboot, epic in every sense of the word, may become the crowning achievement of his already impressive career. It’s big, bold and brash and makes the loudest bang, by a long shot, of any movie this year so far—if not any movie of any recent year. It’s grotesque and gorgeous and glorious all at once, both brutal and beautiful, a thing of cinematic wonder and wizardry, a circus of eye-popping, old-school stunt work, and a crazy orchestration of such sheer, all-out gusto, spunk, energy, imagination and nerve, it makes most other blockbusters, superhero sagas and special-effect blowouts look like they were made with doodles, doodads and trinkets from a toy box.

Miller’s new Max grabs you from the first scene and never lets go as it establishes its central character, its parched desert setting and its harsh parameters. “My name is Max,” intones the figure we first see onscreen snatching a lizard from his boot—then popping it into his mouth and eating it. “A man reduced to a single instinct: survival.”

FURY ROADAnd then, BAM—Max (Tom Hardy) is off and running—and so are we—on a wild, wild chase across a bleak wasteland of sand, mud and rock, pursued by a banshee-like posse of freakish “war boy” cultists, and thrown by dire circumstance into the company of a ferocious, one-armed defector (Charlize Theron) and her precious cargo: the four young wives of the cult’s terrifying leader, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who also appeared in the original Max).

FURY ROAD

Charlize Theron

Miller stages his story (written with collaborators Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris)—a ripping fable about a small group of people looking for redemption in a ruined, bizarr-o world of fire, water, gasoline and blood—with constant movement. His cameras, like his characters, almost never pause; they’re always sweeping, swooping, panning, scanning or tracking, adding to the persistent, insistent sensation of motion and danger, of never feeling like it’s safe enough to slow down.

The automotive stunts, chase scenes and fights are so extraordinarily, intensely over-the-top, they become things of art—manic, mad-hatter masterworks of coordination as men scamper over, under, through, in and out of all kinds of cars, trucks and monstrous hybrid vehicles as they roar along at great speeds, often colliding, frequently exploding—and, in one absolutely stupendous sequence, being sucked up into a sand cyclone.

Harding is terrific, Theron is even better, and Miller, well, this time he’s outdone even himself. Mad Max: Fury Road isn’t just the movie to see—it’s the movie so “max” you’ll need to see it more than once to marvel in all it is, all it does, and just how much it blows almost everything else away.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Second Verse

Tuneful reprise picks up a cappella tale, reunites cast

Pitch Perfect 2

Pitch Perfect

Starring Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson & Hailee Steinfield

Directed by Elizabeth Banks

PG-13

A musical comedy that costs under $20 million to make and racks up more than three times that much at the box office will likely get another chance to sing.

That’s exactly the case with Pitch Perfect 2, a tune-filled reprise of the its 2012 predecessor that picks up the tale of a fictional all-female collegiate a cappella group, the Bellas, and reunites almost of all of the original cast (Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Brittany Snow, Skylar Austin, Adam Devine, Anna Camp, Ben Platt and Ester Dean).

Pitch Perfect 2

Das Sound Machine

This time, the Bellas are headed to a world championship sing-off against new rivals, an über-haughy German group called Das Sound Machine. But a major wardrobe oopsy during a performance attended by Present Obama and the First Lady has caused a serious kerfluffle, throwing off the Bellas’ musical mojo. And their senior member, Beca (Kendrick), is ready to move on to life beyond the group.

Forget—and forgive—that most of the actors and actresses (playing college coeds) are pushing 30, or just beyond it. Don’t worry that the plot is a shoestring of jokes and songs stretched 10 to 15 minutes longer than it really needed to be. Let slide the fact that Wilson’s roly-poly character, Fat Amy, would never be called that name by any group of good friends—unless it’s in a movie like this one.

Pitch Perfect 2

Hailee Steinfield

Pooh to all that, because Pitch Perfect 2 just wants to make you laugh—which it certainly does—in between silly cooing about the bonds of sisterhood and the awkwardness of young love. The jokes fly fast and flip, and the humor gets spread throughout the big cast, which includes Hailee Steinfield, who plays a fresh-faced Bella newcomer; Keegan-Michael Key, of the Comedy Central sketch show Key and Peele, as a cocky music producer; and rapper Snoop Dogg, who gets laughs just as himself, singing Christmas carols. (Also watch for Katey Segal; Comedy Bang Bang’s Reggie Watts, bandleader for The Late Late Show with James Cordon; and members of the Green Bay Packers, riffing on Beyoncé’s “Bootylicious.”) Of the returning cast, Wilson, in particular, steals every scene in which she appears, and the writers know it, giving her optimum setups, plum punch lines and plenty of room to improvise.

Pitch Perfect 2

John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks

Some of the funniest bits, however, belong to John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks, who play the commentators covering the various singing competitions at which the Bellas appear. Higgins’ character’s snarky, sexist, racist observations may be politically incorrect, but they strike comedy gold.

The real “star” of the show, however, is its director. Making her feature debut behind the camera, Elizabeth Banks joins a very exclusive club—alongside Angelina Jolie and Jodie Foster—of actresses who’ve moved successfully into an almost wholly male-dominated domain, taken control of a major motion picture and made all the pieces fit—and work—together. Bravo, Ms. Banks!

It’s not quite as fresh as the original, but Pitch Perfect 2 is still a bright, light, fem-centric frolic of music and goofy fun for anyone who likes their laughter with a peppy soundtrack of razzle-dazzle a ca-showmanship.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Not So Hot

Witherspoon, Vergara comedy a clunky, schlocky misfire

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Hot Pursuit

Starring Reese Witherspoon & Sophìa Vergara

Directed by Anne Fletcher

R

An uptight, by-the-books Texas policewoman and a sassy, motor-mouth Latina mob wife flee from crooked cops and drug-cartel assassins, leaving a trail of cross-cultural hilarity across the Lone Star State.

That’s obviously what was supposed to happen in this odd-couple matchup with Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon and Modern Family TV star Sofìa Vergara. And why not? One’s short, blonde and Caucasian, the other’s tall, brown and Columbian. They start as “enemies” and end as friends. It’s a time-tested yuk-yuk template that worked, with various tweaks, in countless other movies.

But it sure doesn’t work here. Just about everything is wrong in Hot Pursuit, a clunky misfire that chokes on the fumes of tired lowbrow gags, worn-out stereotypes, shrill slapstick and lazy, predictable, sub-sitcom writing. One reason might be because two TV-sitcom writer-producers, David Feeney (According to Jim, 2 Broke Girls) and John Quaintance (Material Girls, Whitney), came up with the flimsy concoction that passes for a script without bothering to work in anything new, novel or even halfway worthy of the big screen.

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Another could be because director Anne Fletcher (The Proposal, The Guilt Trip) doesn’t seem to have any idea what to do with her two leading ladies; maybe she was preoccupied planning her next project, the sequel to Disney’s Enchanted. Here, she mostly seems leave her stars stranded to fend for themselves in scenes that require them to scream, screech, make out with each other and crack groan-worthy jokes about lesbians, menstruation and “man parts.” In one scene, Witherspoon—literally covered with cocaine—hops around like a bunny rabbit. In another, she and Vergara disguise themselves in a blanket and a ridiculous fake deer head to elude a police dragnet. In a roadside souvenir shop, we get to see their undies as they try on new outfits, mainly so Vergara, in her form-fitting bra, can make a quip about Witherspoon’s frumpy-looking underpants.

A whopping part of the blame has to go to the Vergara and Witherspoon, both of whom are credited as producers of this schlock—which means everyone else was working for them. Ouch.

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Vergara’s shtick—mangling the English language and parading her voluptuous feminine form—is a big part of Modern Family, and it seems like everyone just wanted to shift her TV character to the screen with a minimum of thought or effort. Witherspoon’s done comedy before (Legally Blonde, Election, Four Christmases), but coming off last year’s hot Oscar-nominated run producing and starring in Wild, appearing with Joaquin Phoenix in the groovy-wacky Inherent Vice and producing Gone Girl, this feels like a real misalignment of talent, timing and material.

The two leads valiantly manage to coax a few laughs out some of the setups, like a ride with a busload of senior citizens that becomes a crazy, three-way interstate shootout. But the best part of the movie is at the end, when outtakes show them flubbing their lines, cracking each other up and apparently having a great time all around making Hot Pursuit.

If only sitting through it was that much fun for the rest of us.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Super-Stuffed

New ‘Avengers’ is full of most everything—including itself

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Avengers: Age of Ultron

Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson & Jeremy Renner

Directed by Josh Whedon

PG-13

Summer is when Hollywood rolls out its big guns, and this star-packed, superhero-stuffed eruption certainly starts things off with a bang.

The second movie in Marvel’s Avengers franchise, it’s full of just about everything, including itself. It’s got all six of the do-gooders from the first movie, plus a couple of newbies. It’s dense with character backstories, relationship dramas and plot points that zip and zing in every direction, including forward—to more movies to come—and backward, riffing on things that happened in previous ones. It begins with one extended mega-wallop of a fight, a castle siege in a snowy forest, and ends with an even larger one, on a crumbling island city in the sky. And it crams even more in between, including a dyna-whopper that rips up most of Manhattan.

I imagine insurance premiums for the Avengers are through the roof.

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James Spader provides the voice of Ultron.

Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), the Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and the Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) band together again, this time to fight an evil, smack-talking robot, Ultron (voiced by James Spader), who quotes the Bible and sings a ditty from Pinocchio as he goes about his mission of global annihilation.

Two new characters, the genetically altered twins Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), also come aboard—but only after playing freaky and fast for the other team first. Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, Stellan Skarsgård, Anthony Mackie and Cobie Smulders return for cameos. Look—there’s Andy Serkis, who played Gollum in Lord of the Rings! Paul Bettany, previously unseen as the voice of Tony Stark’s computer system, Jarvis, materializes anew as a floating, red-faced uber-android named Vision.

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Paul Bettany

If you’re a Marvelite, you’ll probably be in fan-gasm heaven. Otherwise, you might find the constant, crashing swirl and whirl of imagery and the barrage of inside references overwhelming and exhausting.

The cast is top-notch, and returning writer-director Josh Whedon packs the script and the screen with cleverness as well as ka-pow. But even at a lengthy 141 minutes, things still feel jammed and crammed. All the busy CGI huffing and puffing make the quieter moments stand out even more, like a scene in which the other Avengers, a bit tipsy after a party, humorously try (unsuccessfully) to lift Thor’s hammer from a coffee table, or the romantic subplot between Natasha Romanoff and Bruce Banner, in which she reveals a deep secret about her past and he painfully admits why his raging alter ego makes him less than ideal as a boyfriend.

It’s all part of the Marvel long game, a studiously crafted, mega-million-dollar maneuver in which comic-book characters are morphed from page to screen, connected, separated, then re-combined in various combos for a seemingly endless chain of box-office catnip. Coming up: Ant Man on July 15, a new Captain America next summer, the third Thor plus Dr. Strange in 2017 and another Avengers in 2018.

“Someone’s been playing an intricate game and made pawns of all of us,” muses Thor as Ultron draws to a close. True that, in more ways than one.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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