Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri(11/23/2017)

It has been almost ten years since Martin McDonagh made his feature film debut with a little crime film called In Bruges and yet he’s still established himself as a pretty strong voice in pop culture just the same.  I wasn’t expecting much from In Bruges, a movie that was basically advertised as a Tarantino riff of modest ambition, and while I didn’t immediately love that movie as much as some people it did certainly exceed my expectations.  It was a movie that managed to easily transition between some legitimate psychological turmoil on the part of its characters and this very biting and subversive sense of humor.  At the end of the day I don’t know that it quite had the substance it needed underneath it all, but it’s a movie that’s improved my memory more than I would have expected.  His sophomore effort Seven Psychopaths, on the other hand, went all in on that subversive sense of humor and pushed it into a place of meta-textual anarchy that proved to be a little too messy and too crazy for its own good.  Despite how nutty that movie was it didn’t actually seem to leave much of an impression on the culture and in many ways his newest film, Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri feels like a more direct continuation of what McDonagh started with In Bruges but also feels generally weightier more focused than that movie.

As the title implies the film takes place in and around the fictional town of Ebbing, Missouri and follows a woman named Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a divorced woman with a high school aged son named Robbie (Lucas Hedges).  Mildred is at this point a rather prickly woman who’s done taking crap from anyone and is at this point reeling from the violent death of her daughter Angela (played in flashbacks by Kathryn Newton) seven months prior.  Angry that the town’s chief of police Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) has yet to make progress on her case she decides to rent three billboards on the outskirts of the town which read “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrests”, and “How come, Chief Willoughby?” respectively.  In town this causes a great controversy, in no small part because Willoughby is a very popular figure in town despite the fact that a lot of his deputies seem to act like dictatorial monsters, especially one named Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a dangerously stupid little monster who is alleged to have tortured an African American suspect in a prior incident.  What follows is a standoff of sorts between this determined woman and a police force that is completely unprepared to look itself in the mirror.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has widely been hailed as a remarkably topical movie given that it’s about a strong willed woman trying to make sure a rapist is held accountable.  It’s not too hard to read the film that way, but there are a couple issues with that.  For one, while sexual assaults often aren’t taken as seriously as they should be by law enforcement, it’s usually less extreme cases like date rapes that have trouble getting investigated or rapes that occur in areas that are backed up by bureaucracies.  A white girl being forcibly raped by a stranger and then viciously killed and burned alive in a rural area is not one of those cases, that’s the kind of thing that usually does get significant police and media attention.  The movie does acknowledge this; the first thing that Willoughby does upon hearing about the billboards is try to go to Mildred and explain everything he’s done to investigate the case and the reasons why the trail went cold.  The film’s take on Willoughby himself is a bit complicated.  He doesn’t seem like a “bad” guy exactly but he does allow bad things to happen through a sort of obliviousness.  He willfully employs Dixon even though he’s plainly both a racist and an incompetent officer to boot basically just because he doesn’t have the vision to improve on the town’s status quo.

The film works better if viewed less as a specific expose of how police handle sexual assault cases and more as a metaphor for the process of what’s needed for citizens to hold their governments accountable.  The dysfunction going on at the Ebbing sheriff’s office plainly runs deeper than their handling of this one case and Mildred makes it clear throughout the movie that in addition to her anger that no arrests have been made in her daughter’s case she also frequently points out that the deputies spend their time harassing African Americans and is in general need of reform but no one seems to do anything simply because the like Willoughby and never seem to think to challenge him either out of some kind of courtesy or fear.  The film suggests that sometimes “good” people need to be exposed in order to make needed change happen and that this kind of protest often involves sacrifice and determination and that there’s no guaranty of accomplishing what you set out to do.  The film is also interested in the possibility of improving certain people and reconciling them to a certain side, which is where it perhaps runs into trouble.  There’s a redemption arc here for one of the characters which is going to be a bit of a hard sell for a lot of people.

This should not, however, be mistaken for some dry take on civil action, it is still a Martin McDonagh film with all of the irreverence that this implies.  Much of the film’s entertainment value comes from it the cleverly biting and often politically incorrect lines that McDonagh puts in Mildred’s mouth as well as Dixon’s shameless incompetence.  If you’ve watched the red band trailer for the film or you’ve seen other movies by McDonagh or his brother John Michael McDonagh you probably know what to expect from the movie’s humor and it’s brought to life very well by the cast, who adeptly manage to strike the right balance between serious naturalism and heightened comedy.  I would caution people that this isn’t necessarily a laugh a minute comedy so much as a dark story with frequent moments of piercing wit.  The film also loses some steam in its second half when the shtick starts to wear off a bit and that somewhat questionable redemption arc starts to kick in.  That McDonagh is a playwright originally becomes clear as the movie goes on.  It’s not that if feels locationally condensed or conspicuously talky but the themes all present themselves and the plotlines all come together in a way that feels self-contained in a way that a stage play would.  Still, it’s a bold piece of work for the most part which finds a unique way to present its themes and is for the most part well worth seeing.


Thor: Ragnarok(11/8/2017)

The last couple of times a Marvel “MCU” movie came out I was surprised to see people talk about how all of Marvel’s films were “the same” and how they were tired of them having “too many cameos” and that they felt the films were acting as advertisements for each other.  Every time I saw a reaction like that I couldn’t help but think “where were you guys when I felt that way.”  While I generally gave a pass to most of their movies I definitely thought they were lame all through “phase one” and on and off again into “phase two.”  But Marvel is actually on something of a winning streak right now.  Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and Spider-Man: Homecoming were all winners, each probably better than the last.  Granted, even the best MCU movies aren’t “great” and at times I worry that I grade them on something of a curve but I didn’t have much in the way of major complaints about any of them.  If there’s one movie that I worried would derail this string of success it was almost certainly Thor: Ragnarok, which would be a follow-up to the MCU’s low-point: Thor: The Dark World.  That second Thor movie was a disaster; it’s probably the one MCU movie that I’d say was outright bad, a movie that seems to basically only exist because it was on their schedule to make another Thor movie at that point and which did little but tread water for two hours.  Still, I don’t see myself ever skipping an MCU movie in theaters so I was willing to give it a shot anyway.

The film picks up a few months after the ending of The Avengers: Age of Ultron and depicts what Thor (Chris Hemsworth) was up to while the people back on earth were going through the events of Captain America: Civil War.  It begins with him on one of many unsuccessful attempts to find infinity stones after his epiphany at the cave in that rather strange scene in Age of Ultron.  This particular adventure found him defeating an ancient force which claims that it will bring the Ragnarok apocalypse upon the Asgard.  For all his prophetic talk the guy is actually pretty easily defeated and his crown collected.  Thor then returns to Asgard with the crown and uncovers within minutes that Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is impersonating Odin (Anthony Hopkins) as was set up in the cliffhanger of the last Thor solo movie.  Thor demands that Loki show him where their father is and the two go to Earth, where Odin has been hanging out and contemplating his life.  Soon he dies, seemingly of old age or something, and leaves them a parting warning of the looming Ragnarok.  Shortly thereafter Hela (Cate Blanchett), the goddess of death, shows up and sends them off to a strange prison-like planet run by a guy called the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) while she goes to conquer Asgard.  Thor must thus escape the odd prison he finds himself in in order to have a shot of saving his people.

The last three MCU films have been a bit disconnected from the wider Avengers storyline.  Doctor Strange had an infinity stone in it but was ultimately mostly about establishing a new character, Spider-Man: Homecoming was all about how Spider-Man wasn’t prepared to handle Avengers-caliber foes, and the Guardians of the Galaxy movies are kind of off in their own corner of the galaxy disconnected from what the other Marvel characters are up to.  As such it seems that Thor: Ragnarok was in the position of having to pick up a lot of the burden of setting things up for the Avengers movie that’s coming in less than six months.  This becomes quickly apparent when we get an extended (and ultimately rather pointless) cameo by Dr. Strange, many references to previous films including Black Widow stock footage, and (as anyone whose seen the trailer has had spoiled for them) a fairly large part for The Incredible Hulk.  That would seem like a recipe for disaster but somehow some way the movie gets away with it.  Thor: Ragnarok is a movie that seemingly makes every mistake that an MCU movie can make and yet still works in spite of itself.

Most Marvel movies tend to have large and frankly over-qualified casts and this one is particularly impressive in that regard.  We have all the returning actors from the Thor series like Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, and Idris Elba but also some newcomers like Cate Blanchett, Tessa Thompson, and Jeff Goldblume.  Blanchett is obviously someone who’s “above” doing a movie like this in many ways and could have easily done this villainess role in her sleep, but she does seem to have brought her A-game or at least her B+ game just the same and is almost unrecognizable here.  Jeff Goldblume is also fun even if he’s largely doing a riff on his usual persona and Tessa Thompson is a solid addition as well who seems likely to play a role in the series going forward.  As with previous Marvel movies including the original Thor there’s a lot of comedy to be found here, like, A LOT.  The movie seems to be following the lead of Guardians of the Galaxy is practically being a straight-up comedy at times but does wisely find a slightly different approach.  The film was directed by the New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi, an associate of the comedy duo Flight of the Conchords who sort of shares a certain dry sense of humor with them.

Where most movies have comic relief one could almost call this a comedic movie with moments of dramatic relief.  At times this feels like a bit of a crutch to conceal some screenplay problems (like the immense coincidence of Thor and The Hulk finding themselves stranded on the same remote planet) and sometimes this abundance of yucks can lead to some odd dissonance, like the fact that it more or less forgives Loki for the many many murders he committed in previous movies just because it’s fun to treat him like a lovable rogue.  For the most part though the movie actually does a surprisingly good job of keeping the stakes of the story in place while subverting them at every chance.  Part of it is the film’s bisected structure in which the antics on the Grandmaster’s planet are separated from the slightly more serious peril going on in Asgard.  This format would probably lead to a tonal disaster if the plight of the Asgard felt just a little more grim or the escape from the Grandmaster was just a little lower stakes, but the balance does seem to work out just right so that the two parts can support each other rather than detract from each other.

Thor: Ragnarok is a movie I want to be careful not to over-rate but also avoid under-appreciating.  If the most you want out of a movie is to be entertained for two hours then this is definitely a movie that will leave you satisfied, but I also don’t consider it to be particularly special in any way.  It’s basically doing nothing that other MCU movies haven’t already done and it also isn’t the MCU movie I’d send anyone to if they haven’t already bought into what Marvel does.  I definitely think less of it than I do of some of Marvel’s other recent triumphs like Spider-Man: Homecoming or Doctor Strange which were better able to tell self-contained stories or Captain America: Civil War which managed to deliver even more in terms of fan service.  It is, however still part of a fairly triumphant string of Marvel films and is notably better than some of the more mediocre films they were putting out earlier including the first and second Thor movies.

Toni Erdmann(2/4/2017)


One of the first major rifts that tend to form between parents and children tends to occur when the children become teenagers and stop wanting to be seen with the parents everywhere they go.  Parents often take this personally and don’t get it but the teenagers in question do usually have reasonable reasons to do this in their minds.  For one thing they’re trying to become independent and want to feel less like little children and secondly because parents have a nasty habit of not taking said teenager’s various social anxieties as seriously as the teenager does and they tend to be very bad wingmen because of it.  This usually causes a bit of family discord for something like four or five years but once the kids move out tensions usually smooth over; the parents learn to give the kids space and the kids start to find the parents to be perfectly fine to visit when appropriate.  But this eventual understanding probably doesn’t come to ever family and I’m sure there are plenty of people who come to dread being around their parents well into adulthood.  That’s the subject of the new German comedy Toni Erdmann, which peaks in on a daughter who is still sort of embarrassed to be seen with her father and a father who gives her a lot of good reasons to feel that way.

The film begins in contemporary Germany, where we’re introduced to a man named Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), a music teacher who seems to have been living a somewhat aimless life after divorcing his wife and finding he misses his grown daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) as she jet-sets around the world in her role as a consultant for oil companies.  Her most recent assignment has brought her to Bucharest where she’s on the verge of a very important presentation when suddenly Winfried decides to drop by and visit.  Needless to say, she’s in no mood to deal with her goofball father that weekend and as such she proves to be a less than complimentary host.  The two seemingly part ways but Winfreid decides to remain in Bucharest to find some way for the two of them to reconnect, seemingly whether his daughter wants to or not.

At first the film seems to be a sort of darkly comedic take on Yasajiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, a film in which two parents try to visit their grown children in Tokyo only to be treated like an annoyance by their ungrateful kids.  That’s a movie that has a rightful place in the cannon and I’m not going to argue with Ozu’s unique visual language, but I’ve always found the story to that movie to be a bit of a crotchety guilt trip.  It’s a movie made by a middle aged man that whines about those “damn ungrateful kids” for having the gall to not drop everything and kiss their parents asses.  There’s something similar going on in the first half of Toni Erdmann in that Ines does not have a lot of time to deal with Winfried to his disappointment, but the film does not make Winfreid into some kind of paragon of elderly wisdom either and the film does realize that he’s putting her into quite a bind by showing up unannounced and occasionally butting into her business dealings.  In the second half though the film changes directions and leans more towards a strange sort of reconciliation brought along in a way that I could almost see a Hollywood comedy going, albeit in a much different way stylistically.

Toni Erdmann was directed by Maren Ade and after the film earned raves at Cannes I checked out here previous (and also well regarded) film Everyone Else and was kind of disappointed by it.  That movie was certainly pretty well made but I never really connected to the film’s characters at all and was never really able to go along with their journey.  I connected with the characters here a little better to a point, or at least I connected to them initially, but as the film depicts them reconciling their differences later in the film it started to lose me.  So as a character study it doesn’t quite work for me.  The film also seems to be trying to say something about modern globalism given the nature of Ines’ job, but this also never quite gets pressed hard enough and doesn’t quite work for me.  Then of course it also wants to be something of a farce at certain points but again never really commits to this enough for it to fully work.  In general it just seems like a movie that tries to do a number of things and never really pulls the trigger on any of them.  I can see a pretty interesting movie somewhere in this thing, and there are certainly scenes in it that are great, but in its attempt to be all things I think it loses something.


Things to Come(12/10/2016)


What are we talking about when we call a movie “bad.”  The new Mia Hansen-Løve film Things to Come is a film I intend to give a two and a half out of five star rating, which under the old Ebert rules would qualify as a “thumbs down,” and yet I certainly think it’s better than various movies I’ve given three stars to this year like Deadpool, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, and The Conjuring 2.  Is this simply a matter of expectations?  Of holding non-genre films from respected auteurs to a higher standard?  To some extent, yes and yes.  Those three “three star” movies were all movies I watched on blu-ray instead of in theaters and on some level it’s a lot easier to casually give a “light pass” to something I’m throwing on at home versus something I actually drove to a theater and paid to see.  Also, yeah, to some extent I do have to take the fact that certain movies have more modest goals in mind when I look at them, and that does give something of an advantage to a movie that just wants to show a super hero making dick jokes over a movie about a woman’s existential crisis following a divorce.  If that sounds unfair, well the catch is that when they’re done right these movies I’m holding to a higher standard stand a much better chance of getting a very high rating, which is probably more of an advantage than a disadvantage.  But perhaps I’m getting way ahead of myself and setting the wrong tone for my review of Things to Come.

The film is set in more or less contemporary France (presumably a few years ago as it’s established that Nicolas Sarkozy is the president and there’s some sort of economic austerity measure that everyone’s abuzz about) and focuses on a woman named Nathalie Chazeaux (Isabelle Huppert).  Chazeaux is a middle aged philosophy professor living in upper-middle class domesticity with a husband and two teenage/young adult children.  This all takes quite a blow when it’s revealed that her husband has been cheating on her and intends to divorce.  Meanwhile, her mother’s mental and physical health has been in decline, which has taken up a lot of her energy and she’s also taking a few hits to her professional standings as of late.  That’s a lot to take all at once and the tension of the movie is all about how she’s going to react.

The only other Mia Hansen-Løve film I’ve seen is her last film, Eden, which looked at something like ten or twenty years in the life of an EDM DJ as he rises and falls in the world of Parisian house music.  I admired that film’s ambition and the scope of the story it was trying to tell, but its central character never quite intrigued me enough and I didn’t really care for Félix de Givry work in that role.  Things to Come seems to have the opposite problem in many ways: it has a fascinating central character played beautifully by Isabelle Huppert, but Hansen-Løve never quite seems to provide an interesting enough movie to put her in.  Nathalie is a character with some fairly complex depths, she’s clearly a dedicated to her philosophy studies but it’s never entirely clear that what philosophical school of thought she belongs to, if any, and she seems to react to all the personal turmoil she goes through in the year or so the film takes place in with aplomb.

The character’s general strength is however something of a double-edged sword.  The general format the film is seemingly supposed to follow is: “woman goes through hell, finds her way out, and is stronger for the experience.”  And yet, in many ways Nathalie is so strong that all this craziness only barely seems to faze her and you never really get the impression that she isn’t going to persevere through adversity.  Of course there is something to be said for the film not going down the entirely expected and it is interesting to watch the character handle all this like a pro, but there is a point where it kind of robs the film of drama and conflict.  What’s more I feel like the movie starts and ends in strange places; we see a lot of how her life falls apart but when it gets the “I will survive” portion it just cuts forward a year, plays a coda, and then ends.  I don’t know, I think I might be missing something here and I’d be willing to read up on people’s interpretations of it but for the most part the film just kind of seemed to go nowhere and if there’s any profundity in what we are given it’s kind of lost on me.  Still, that cerntral performance is quite good and the movie is an engaging enough watch even if it’s point was lost on me so you can do a whole lot worse than this but I want my arthouse movies to leave me with a little more to chew on than this.




If you spend any time in some of the hipper left-leaning corners of the internet you know who Amy Schumer is.  To certain websites and constituencies she’s the world’s most important comedian and every episode of her sketch show, “Inside Amy Schumer,” is eagerly dissected and reposted as stories with titles like “Amy Schumer brilliantly skewers [insert patriarchal tendency] in pitch-perfect sketch.”  In truth the show isn’t quite as omnipresently popular as it seems within certain internet bubbles.  Each episode is watched by a little more than half the audience of the average episode of the much derided “Tosh.0” and around a third of the audience of an average episode of “South Park,” but its ability to establish a devoted following within a dedicated niche is impressive.  Personally, I find the show and Schumer’s comedy stylings kind of hit and miss.  Is it over-rated?  Well, how could it not be over-rated given how much hype is behind it?  The show is funny and clever at times but there are certainly better sketch shows out there.  A lot of its appeal is rooted in the fact that most of its humor is related to feminist issues and the more important those issues are to you the more likely you are to worship the show and as someone who views these issues as important but not centrally important I was probably not destined to love the show.  Still, Schumer is clearly a pretty important comedic voice and the idea of her teaming up with comedy super-director/producer Judd Apatow is pretty damn promising.

In Trainwreck Schumer plays a woman named Amy Townsend who works at a GQ-esque men’s magazine called S’nuff Magazine.  At an editorial meeting one of her colleagues (Jon Glaser) proposes a story about a pioneering sports doctor who’s planning to test a new surgery that could cut down players’ recovery time significantly.  Townsend initially dismisses the story because of her blanket bias against all things sports related but her editor Dianna (Tilda Swinton) begins to think that Townsend’s hatred of athletics could bring an interesting dimension to the story and gives her the assignment.  When she goes to interview the doctor, Aaron Conners (Bill Hader), she is initially unfazed by his medical expertise and his friendship with LeBron James (who plays a version of himself) but her interview escalates into a date which turns into a one-night stand.  Oddly smitten by Townsend, Conners makes it known that he wants this relationship to turn into something serious, but Townsend has been living a cavalier life of drunken debauchery up to this point and is not sure she really wants a real truly monogamous relationship.

The film’s title is supposed to refer to the life of its protagonist, but it perhaps seems a bit judgmental given the relatively tame lifestyle depicted in the film.  Sure, Amy Townsend seems to have an above-average number of sexual partners but her liaisons mostly don’t seem wildly reckless or dangerous, and she drinks a lot but decidedly isn’t depicted as a full-blown alcoholic.  She doesn’t seem to use drugs beyond a sporadic toke, she holds a fairly enviable job for most of the film, and starts the film with a doting boyfriend (played by John Cena, of all people).  She’s certainly not a role-model and I wouldn’t necessarily want to switch places with her, but to call her a “trainwreck” seems a bit much.  Shame this is not.  Given that this is meant to be a comedy that may well have been an understandable decision, but just the same I can’t help but feel like the movie is kind of posing as something edgier than it actually is.

The film does not place feminist gender issues front and center the way that Schumer’s TV series does but I do think there’s an implicit statement being attempted in the way the film swaps traditional romantic comedy roles.  Traditionally these modern romantic comedies are about slovenly but charming men overcoming their inhibitions and bettering themselves in order to win over the beautiful leading woman looking for stability.  Here it’s the woman with the dumpy bachelor lifestyle who must better herself and win over the straight laced man who seems to be looking for domestic stability.  Bill Hader is probably not a handsome lead who could be called the male equivalent of a Julia Roberts or Katherine Heigl but otherwise the romcom subversion does seem to be pretty consistent.  The gender swaps work fairly well when done on a macro level as described above but it begins to feel a little forced and cutesy when it comes to some of the individual scenes forcing the characters to behave in ways that are un-stereotypical in unbelievable extremes like one scene where Schumer receives a call from Hader the morning after their initial hook-up and along with her friend acts with masculine incredulousness at the gesture while Hader and LeBron James are on the other end of the call giggling like schoolgirls.

And make no mistake; this is a fairly formulaic romantic comedy at its core.  It doesn’t flaunt this to the point of being a parody, but there’s a misunderstanding separating the couple at exactly the point you expect there to be one which is resolved in typical romcom fashion with a grand gesture.  It hides its genre trappings fairly well early on but in its third act it does indulge in this formula and in ways that feel more like cliché than like subversion.  The film also feels like it could stand to be trimmed a little.  Judd Apatow movies have long been accused of being too long, which I generally haven’t felt was the problem that others did but I did feel it a little bit here, in part because it seems a bit more like it’s following a set formula than Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin did.  All told I would say that on every structural level this film is kind of flawed.

That having been said, there’s a lot of funny stuff here.  A lot.  Like, more than enough to make up for most of the movie’s shortcomings.  We’ve seen women try to do Apatow-esque humor before with varying degrees of success before but it seems to work a lot better here.  This might simply be because Apatow himself is behind the director’s chair rather than Paul Feig, but it probably has more to do with the fact that Amy Schumer is closer to being a female Seth Rogen than Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy do.  She does a good job bringing the improvised funny lines and so do most of her co-stars.  The movie makes great use of B-tier comedic actors like Colin Quinn, Brie Larson, and Randall Park and also manages to get some surprisingly credible comedy out of non-actors like LeBron James and John Cena.  I would say that Bill Hader is perhaps a bit wasted in his largely straight role, on Saturday Night Live he always thrived when he was doing impressions taking on strange comedic characters and his doctor character here doesn’t really play to those strengths.

So, what to make of Trainwreck… this is kind of a tough one to call.  I certainly like it, but how much do I like it?  Let’s just say that the film’s shortcomings were more apparent to me after it was over than they were while I was actually watching it.  The movie works a lot better moment to moment than it does as a complete work, but I don’t want to exaggerate its structural flaws either.  There are a lot of comedies that are a lot more ramshackle than this and while the Judd Apatow comedy structure might seem a little less special now than it did ten years ago, you can still tell why his movies feel a bit easier to respect than some of the less grounded varieties of comedy.  For whatever flaws the film may have had, I can’t help but say “yeah, but I was laughing at a lot of stuff.”

***1/2 out of Four



I could have sworn J.J. Abrams had something to do with this.  Looking at IMDB after the fact I realize he does not have so much as a credit on it, but I still find it hard to believe.  It’s not just because he previously worked with both director Brad Bird (on Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) and co-writer Damon Lindelof (on the show “Lost”), rather it’s because of the movie’s advertising campaign.  In its run-up Tomorrowland had a very Abrams-esque advertising campaign in that, rather than announcing a press conference for every last element of the movie in an attempt to get the movie in front of people for days on end, the campaign tried to keep every last detail save for a few tantalizing images a secret in order to give it an intriguing aura of mystery.  As a movie viewer I’m inclined to love this approach, I hate coming out of a movie feeling like I’d already seen it because of an overly pushy ad campaign that gave away everything before the movie came out.  However, I’ve found that more often than not this “mystery box” approach to film publicly seems to backfire.  Part of the problem may simply be that the masses want to know what they’re getting themselves into with any given movie, but the bigger problem is that these campaigns invite audiences to imagine a movie in their heads which almost always ends up being a lot grander than the movies that actually get made.  Still, even without the mysterybox campaign Tomorrowland looked like a hell of a project with its hotshot director and cool premise, and now that it’s here it can finally be a mere movie rather than an abstract bundle of promise.

The film is set mostly in the present and mainly focuses on Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), a sixteen year old with a penchant for technology and a strong set of optimistic beliefs.  As her story starts she’s rather angry that NASA is planning to dismantle the Cape Canaveral launch site, which offends her both as an admirer of space travel and as the daughter of a NASA engineer.  This vandalism eventually lands her in jail and shortly after she’s bailed out she stumbles upon a seemingly magical pin that give her visions of a strange futuristic city.  Eventually this pin seems to run out of power, leading her to go on something of a quest to find answers about this strange place where it seems the world’s brightest minds have come together to work unimpeded by red tape and naysayers.  Along the way she meets a mysterious young girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) that wants to help lead her there as well as an aging former inhabitant named Frank Walker (George Clooney) who has become embittered by his experiences in this city of tomorrow and seems to know about some sort of massive threat that has emanated from it.

Tomorrowland, the place not the movie, is a pretty intriguing idea.  The glimpses that we do get of this titular location (which is sort of like Columbia from “Bioshock Infinite” but more futuristic and less racist) are visually rich and generally intriguing.  The thing is, the movie does not really spend a lot of time in Tomorrowland, nor does it go into detail about what it’s like as a society.  The basic concept, that human society would be far more advanced if scientists didn’t have to contend with red tape is kind of a fucked up idea if you think about it too long.  At best it’s a kind of Randian argument in favor of deregulation, at worst it almost seems like the kind of philosophy that Josef Mengele could get behind.  Also it’s kind of a mystery why these scientists are inventing all this fun shit only to stow it away from the rest of us.  But I don’t think the movie is really all that concerned about scientists being stifled by regulation so much as a general lack of vision on the part of society.  The film barters in the same “gee wiz” enthusiasm for science and progress that fueled Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar last year and like that film it kind of suffers from a case of maybe trying a little too hard to be a sort of infomercial for the STEM fields.

It’s not entirely clear how old the character of Casey Newton is supposed to be.  She’s of driving age, so I guess she must be sixteen or seventeen, but she’s played by a twenty five year old actress and all too often seems to be written like she was originally supposed to be thirteen or fourteen.  The character actually comes off pretty well on screen, which I largely attribute to the efforts of Britt Robertson, but on the page it’s kind of an odd character.  She’s almost immediately established as an optimist, a dreamer, and a science wiz with an emphasis on the former two roles much more than the last one.  I’m pretty sure that the character is supposed to be some kind of science and engineering savant but the film very rarely actually has her doing anything scientific.  This actually isn’t too far out of line with the movie’s general approach to science, which is the opposite of Thomas Edison’s approach in that it seems to think that genius is 99% inspiration and 1% perspiration.

It’s established at the end of the film (Spoilers, I guess) that what ails the world is pessimism.  In fact it’s established, via an incredibly on the nose monolog, that the problem ailing the world is that people are far too pessimistic and that we’ve lost the optimistic spirit of the sixties.  Popular culture itself is itself indicted for telling stories that are a little too Mad Max and not enough Star Trek.  Frankly I think this logic is flawed both because it endows fiction with way more power than it actually has (the cheerleaders seldom have any real influence over which team wins) and secondly just for being generally inaccurate about the history of science fiction.  Apocalyptic sci-fi visions were not, contrary to popular belief, invented the day Blade Runner came out.  There was a strong strain of nuclear paranoia and scientific pessimism that ran through the science fiction all through the age of the space race.  The fact that cinema viewers in 1968 witnessed Charlton Heston stumbling upon a rusted and destroyed Statue of Liberty in the middle of a desolate wasteland that used to be New York didn’t seem to do anything to hinder the moon landing one year later.   Of course these movies kind of had a good reason to be skeptical of unrestrained scientific advancement what with all the nuclear bombs and polluting automobiles and to dismiss these cautionary tales as counterproductive is maybe to miss the point.

Long story short, the science fiction in this movie is dumb, instead you’re probably better off ignoring that as much as possible in order to simply enjoy the movie as a sort of Spielbergian adventure movie and on that level the movie succeeds more often than it fails.  I wasn’t a huge fan of Brad Bird’s first live action effort, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (a movie which was basically three pretty decent set-pieces loosely tied together by a whole lot of nothing) in part because it didn’t really establish Bird as the kind of unique visual stylist that that series needed, but this movie feels a lot more like a natural extension of his animated work.  The guy seems to have a very good grasp of the whimsical tone the film needs and also creates some really fun action scenes out of the film’s creative science fiction equipment.  Also, the dude’s shot compositions are fucking luscious.

Despite the fact that it has some rather gaping problems Tomorrowland isn’t a particularly easy movie to dislike.  On paper it has everything we all keep asking Hollywood to give us what with it being an original IP with a distinctive visual style and a message beyond “hey isn’t this action awesome.”  There’s definitely some good stuff in the movie and as clumsy as its message is I guess I did sort of appreciate that it was trying to say something when all too often this kind of movie actively says nothing.  In fact I was pretty much ready to give the movie a light pass when I left the theater, but the more I think about the movie the less I can really justify supporting it.  This is not a good movie, it does too much wrong and ultimately it’s a swing and a miss.  However, this is not the kind of bad movie that people should be mad at, it’s a noble effort one that might work better for children than for adults and I wouldn’t be shocked if it turns out to be something of a cult film amongst a certain generation of viewers.

**1/2 out of Four