“Feed the right wolf.” Disney’s Tomorrowland (2015 film)

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“Find the ones who haven’t given up. They are the future.” So says George Clooney at the end of Brad Bird’s latest Disney offering Tomorrowland, inspired as much by Disney’s ubiquitous theme parks (from which it derives its inspiration) as it does Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and … Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.

In fact, this may be the first children’s film that directly addresses – so darkly, so interestingly, so strangely – global warming among other mankind-created global calamities. I can’t recall the last kiddie flick that depicted so darn many mushroom clouds, or had such a nihilistic sentiment at its gooey center. Good for Brad Bird.

Clearly a passion project for the director, the film suffers, alas, from a narrative lumpiness. It is composed almost like a junior novella, with very abrupt chapter breaks, and an unclear sense of the overall purpose until the crackerjack final act.

Regardless, the journey is an entertaining and worthwhile one, at least philosophically. As I find myself personally at a crossroads in life – looking back at what erroneously seemed an idyllic small-town, all-American way-of-life and now dreaming of a much-needed present/future state when we all can embrace empathy, kindness, and love, regardless our geographically defined boundaries – the film hit a raw nerve for me.

Ostensibly, the film is about Britt Robertson’s Casey Newton, a young, overeager space-loving kid horrified that America has given up on all dreams of galactic exploration. Casey discovers a magic pin that gives her glimpses of a sparkling utopia where we all live hand-in-hand, driving electric cars, zipping to-and-fro in bullet shaped sky-trains, and all wearing flowing garb designed in collaboration between Vera Wang and Judy Jetson (?). (Oh, and everybody in the future is fit. No fast food, no gluten, and, yeah, I bet vegan. Go figure.)

In truth? The film is really about George Clooney’s Frank Walker, a bright-eyed young boy born of nuclear optimism now a middle-aged sot calcified by millennial atrophy. He sees a world that he hoped would be (pushed to be), its limitless potential now squandered by petty greed and intentional hate. The classic baby boomer dilemma.

Casey sparks a reluctant optimism in Frank, as they meet cute, amidst a gaggle of murderous robots blowing up Frank’s steampunk farmhouse. They travel to Tomorrowland in hopes of preventing global catastrophe. Tomorrowland, you see, is an alternate dimension designed as a free-thinking societal construct, intended to gather humanity’s best and brightest in order to effect great change, but now turned to seed. Hugh Laurie, all glowering smarm, is its chief magistrate.

Robertson, who unfortunately has the acting range of a peanut, mugs and screams shamelessly, but Clooney with his oily charm is the perfect antidote. It takes quite a bit of screen time for him to finally emerge, but when he does the film starts firing on all cylinders.

Tomorrowland (the place … in the film) is a marvel of design, taking many cues from but never limited by the aesthetic of Disney’s theme park Tomorrowland(s) as well as the original designs for EPCOT – all swooping spirals, glittering towers, and burnished concrete.

As I understand it, Walt Disney and Ray Bradbury were pals, and they and their creative legacies share a similar take on the “future,” a concept as nebulous as it is thrilling. For these mid-century marvels, the future is a pearly veneer with a toxic venom ever curdling underneath. Both men telegraphed a healthy agnosticism and distrust of humanity – see Bambi, for one – with a deep desire to see us collectively rise above our own insularity and self-absorption … once and for all. Fat chance.

Brad Bird does a fine job capturing and forwarding this idea in Tomorrowland. The film is not perfect, a bit tedious at times, but it is a worthwhile summer blockbuster exercise in challenging how stunted we have become. At one point Casey says something to this effect: “There are two wolves. One bright and hopeful and one dark and cynical. Which wolf wins? Whichever one you feed. Feed the right wolf.”

Feed the right wolf.

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital) In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Damsels in distress? I don’t think so … Gravity and Blue Jasmine

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A few months ago, I decided to review a Miley Cyrus CD because I was being ornery about seeing either Captain Phillips or Gravity. Lord, I was an idiot.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved (and still love) Miley’s Bangerz (her delightful MTV Unplugged special last week being vindication of that earlier review) … but I was certainly wrong in my snooty dismissal of both Captain Phillips and Gravity.

Gravity is an art film in theme park ride clothing. The superb director Alfonso Cuaron (who helmed my beloved A Little Princess and Children of Men) gives us a woozy and claustrophobic take on deep space survival like nothing I’ve ever seen. (I caution anyone with a propensity for sea sickness from seeing the IMAX 3D version … unless you come prepared with a case of Dramamine.)

Cuaron takes the sweaty paranoia of Kubrick’s 2001 and ups the ante one-hundredfold. The concept is as absurd as can be: Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are astronauts (!) on opposite ends of the skill spectrum, and, after runaway space debris shreds their shuttle and the Hubble Telescope upon which they are making repairs, they find themselves playing hopscotch across the star-field from American to Russian to Chinese space stations.

Try not to think about the set-up too much and just go with the exquisitely filmed, edited, and paced flow. Honestly, Clooney is the film’s weakest link – sometimes I wonder if his face cramps from holding those endearingly twinkly smug expressions all the time. He basically serves the thankless role of being Sandra Bullock’s “Jiminy Cricket in Space” offering wise counsel, always preternaturally calm despite all hell breaking loose every five minutes.

Bullock is fine as the protagonist Dr. Ryan Stone, having to carry 90% of the film on her own. I have to admit I wonder how much stronger the film might have been with an unknown in her role. I was hyper-conscious of her sheer Bullock-ness the whole time, especially the umpteenth time she squealed “no, no, no, no, no, no, no” in that trademark exasperated “aren’t I a regular joe?” manner she brings to every role.

Regardless, Gravity is an efficiently gripping marvel – a 90-minute Cast Away-in-space – exemplifying in crisp detail  that “if anything can go wrong it will.” Cuaron’s masterwork is a techno allegory on our ability as opportunistic animals to adapt and to evolve and to survive in the face of endless calamity.

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Speaking of endless calamity, Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine also centers on one woman’s quest to thrive in a world hellbent on throwing roadblock upon roadblock in her path. Like some tilt-a-whirl mash-up of Blanche DuBois, Auntie Mame, and Courtney Love, Cate Blanchett in the title role rocks the house in Allen’s latest. She is amazing.

(She is, by all accounts, the Oscar front-runner for Best Actress this year … and rightly so. No one can touch her.)

I have often struggled with Allen’s films – they can feel half-baked, disjointed, and thrown-together. Not Blue Jasmine; like Bullets Over Broadway or Purple Rose of Cairo, Allen has a solid narrative here, trucking along with a surety of purpose and a compelling, tragic inevitability.

One can’t help but wonder if Allen is exorcising some personal familial demons with this one, perhaps serving penance for his well-documented patriarchal wrongs. And given the Mia Farrow camp’s very public reaction/meltdown of late, it becomes exceedingly difficult to separate fact from fiction.

Nonetheless, Blue Jasmine is spectacular filmmaking. Blanchett’s Jasmine is a clenched-jaw Manhattan socialite whose house-of-cards world collapses around her when her philandering, conniving Bernie Madoff-esque husband (a pleasantly subdued Alec Baldwin) commits suicide after being indicted for fraud. Jasmine moves into her sister’s shabby digs in San Francisco to reclaim some semblance of her former life (and her soul). Sally Hawkins is phenomenal as the trashy heart-of-gold sisterly counterpoint to Blanchett’s frayed-nerves pretension.

The film tracks back and forth between Blanchett’s current circumstances and the heartaches in the past that brought her there. Allen and Blanchett make a stellar team, giving us a wry, raw, and visceral treatise on gender politics and social warfare. Jasmine learns the hard way that money (and Xanax and vodka martinis) can’t buy happiness and that revenge (while sometimes essential) brings its own kind of karmic blowback.

Blanchett is a slow-burn supernova, bouncing corrosively off a stellar supporting cast that includes Bobby Cannavale as a comically emo Stanley Kowalski, Peter Sarsgaard as a twee Kennedy-wannabe, and Andrew Dice Clay (!) as Hawkins’ thuggishly wounded ex. But the movie is at all times Blanchett’s. She walks a phenomenal high-wire act, balancing heartbreak, disappointment, betrayal, arrogance, and abject fear, sometimes in a single line delivery. Hers is a performance for the record books, personifying our era’s raw neuroses, economic desperation, emotional materialism, and chemically induced numbness.

I think I’ll take Blanchett navigating a rotten life over Bullock navigating a collapsing space station any day…though both actors fabulously turn the tired cliche of the “damsel in distress” on its tired, simplistic, reductive noggin.

…and I got a pretty nifty t-shirt too: The Book of Mormon … Detroit engagement

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This isn’t going to be an honest-to-goodness, legitimate theatre review per se. Heck, I bought a bag of t-shirts and three magnets at the “Shop of Mormon,” for heaven’s sake, so you know I am not playing the dispassionate critic here.

Nonetheless, we saw the musical The Book of Mormon this afternoon at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre…and we loved it.

Crude? Yes. Offensive? Maybe. Catchy? You bet. Heartwarming? Indubitably.

The show, written by South Park‘s Trey Parker and Matt Stone and Avenue Q‘s Robert Lopez, is a loony melange with Forbidden Broadway, The Producers, The Lion King, and (oddly) The King and I in its Great White Way-loving DNA.

The performers all acquitted themselves beautifully in the well-oiled, pneumatic, theme park way that merchandise-pushing, cash cow national Broadway tours nowadays achieve effortlessly. The first act was a bit sluggish which was partly an issue with the book and partly the consequence of it being a matinee show at the end of a long run. Christopher John O’Neill as schlubby, screw-up Elder Cunningham was the standout among an exceptional cast, giving a lovable, transcendent performance in what could have been a shrill, one-note role.

As you may already know, the show is about two young Mormon missionaries who are sent to Africa to teach the people there about Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and “golden plates.” Things go awry for the duo almost immediately, and the resulting misadventures – an uneasy, yet thrilling mix of satire and homage – call into question the very nature of faith itself.

Much mock disdain may come in these twitchy, thin-skinned times of the creators setting organized religion in their snark-filled sights. Those uptight twits are missing the point. The show has a clear and refreshing point of view. Okay, there is no “one true” religion and all religious texts are inherently goofy if you think about any of their myth-filled contents too much. However, faith in something – a book, a higher power, one’s own imagination, Orlando, frogs, each other, whatever – can inspire and helps us grow, providing fulfillment and evolution.

My favorite numbers of the show – “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” and “Joseph Smith American Moses” – highlighted this perspective with zany aplomb. Blind adherence to some notion of divine reward/punishment saps one’s spirit. Faith in ourselves and in our ability to do the right thing here and now is key to an authentic existence.

Who’d a thunk the South Park guys would turn in such an empowering, humanistic treatise disguised as a scatalogical, sophomoric romp? …and I got a pretty nifty t-shirt too!

This isn’t Disney’s first dance in Oz: Oz the Great and Powerful

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So I have always loved The Wizard of Oz. Not just the 1939 MGM classic film, but all of the books and the various spin-offs/prequels/sequels/reboots/homages/ rip-offs over the years. I even adore Sidney Lumet’s infamous box office disaster The Wiz.

And, now, we have the latest in a long line: Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful. This isn’t Disney’s first dance in Oz. The company, including Walt himself, has rather famously circled the property since the days of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Most notably, Disney tried to create a movie Oz franchise nearly 30 years ago with the dark and kinda creepy Return to Oz, a movie I also really liked, given its thematic commitment to L. Frank Baum’s original books. But it too was box office poison. (In fact, if I recall, the original Wizard of Oz was pretty tepidly received in its day.)

So how will this James Franco tentpole fair? Disney seems to have its marketing machine in high gear (though that didn’t much help last year’s John Carter) and the subject matter and approach align well with other recent hits like Tim Burton’s bloated-but-uber-successful Alice in Wonderland. I’m guessing this may be the first Oz film to be an unequivocal box office smash in its original run.

Too bad it’s just not a better film.

I enjoyed a lot of it, but the whole thing feels trapped in a CGI/soundstage bubble. There’s just not enough genuine humor, wit, or tension to make it feel like anything but a mammoth cash grab from the Disney empire.

(Note: theme park competitor Universal owns the rights to Broadway musical Wicked, which takes a similar “what happened before Dorothy got there approach.” I couldn’t help reflecting that this was Disney’s attempt to get their version of the story told first, make buckets o’ cash, and then get cracking on some new animatronic theme park attractions before Universal even leaves the starting blocks. Hmmmm…)

Rachel Weisz as one of the three witches of Oz is the only one who seems to be having any fun at all. I’m not a fan, but she gives her Evanora a nice zippy crackle that the rest of the film lacks. James Franco is in fully charmy/smarmy “Franco!” mode, and he’s perfectly serviceable. Mila Kunis alas seems to sleepwalk through her rather pivotal turn as Evanora’s sister – I won’t spoil the surprise, though I understand the merchandise from the Disney Store already has. And Michelle Williams as Glinda has a cute moment or two but mostly seems to be channeling a fluffier version of her uncanny Marilyn Monroe impersonation from My Week with Marilyn.

That is a whole mess of Oscar winners/nominees for this enterprise to be as flat as it is. However, there are a couple of reasonably cute CGI sidekicks – China Girl and a flying monkey named Fenley. They get the best lines but unfortunately seem like refugees from the inevitable Wii U video game to come.

Director Sam Raimi, unfortunately left most traces of his adventurous and sardonic wit with the Spider-Man franchise, and this overly long film suffers for it.  Seriously, cut 20 minutes from this behemoth and there would have been a really good Wonderful World of Disney TV movie in there. Somewhere.

Yes, the movie will make a lot of moolah. Some people may even enjoy it…I will say the exciting conclusion almost made me forget how bored I was by the first 90 minutes of set up. And I daresay we won’t have to wait another 30 years for Disney’s next bite at the Oz apple. Sigh.