Sunday, May 31, 2015

"San Andreas"

 1.5 / 5 

San Andreas is a disaster movie made for audiences that grew up with the Syfy Channel, watching entertainment like Sharknado and Mansquito, movies that I haven't seen (OK, true, I've seen most of Sharknado) but that were made with tongues solidly lodged in cheeks.  They were deliberately awful.  I don't think San Andreas is deliberately awful, which is kind of surprising.

If it had been called FloodQuake or QuakeNami and been shot at a fraction of the budget, Syfy might make the perfect home for San Andreas, which is at about the same overall quality level as one of those Z-grade shlockfests.

San Andreas stars Dwayne Johnson, who no longer goes by "The Rock," which might be because he's a serious actor now who doesn't even take his shirt off onscreen anymore.  It also stars Paul Giamatti (also fully clothed, perhaps thankfully) as a Cal Tech seismologist who pops in and out of the movie at key moments to say helpful things like, "It's a 9-point-6 ... the biggest earthquake ever recorded."

Giamatti and Johnson are the two biggest stars, but they're probably not really the reason anyone is interested in seeing San Andreas.  Pretty much the only reason to see San Andreas is to watch the state of California get destroyed, from L.A. to San Francisco.  (Good news, people of San Diego and anywhere-north-of-San-Francisco: You're spared this time.)

On that level, it would be nice to report that San Andreas does not disappoint, but the fact of the matter is that its computer-generated earthquake scenes look like the kind of thing you might find on a History Channel documentary about The Next Big One.  San Andreas has visual effects that are on par with every other film out there these days.  Sure, L.A. and San Francisco get shaken up pretty spectacularly, but there's no shock-and-awe moment for the audience, the camera never stops moving long enough to give us a good, hard look at the devastation, which is about as much of a rip-off as watching a porn movie in which the actors never fully disrobe.  You catch some glimpses of the good stuff, but never get a moment to be properly impressed.

While watching San Andreas I found myself, not surprisingly, thinking back to movies like The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake, The Towering Inferno and even Titanic.  The directors of those movies didn't like to let down their audience.  They made sure to include long, lingering widescreen vistas that let us see all the devastation and destruction.  San Andreas comes close, but never really gives us the money shot we came to see.

What we're left then, instead, is the story and the individual incidents.  The story is non-existent.  Two pre-earthquake scenes set up that Dwayne (Not the Rock) Johnson is a heroic, indefatigable fire-rescue officer with a teenage daughter who lives a spoiled-girl rich life with her mother's new boyfriend.   In the movie's first 10 minutes, we get to see Dwayne (Not the Rock) Johnson take part in a daring rescue mission, get interviewed by the world's most unbelievable news crew, then go home to open his divorce papers.

That all happens in a few scenes.  San Andreas has no time to linger, no time to develop characters.  It does not have a first hour, like Poseidon or Towering, where all you're doing is getting to know the characters so you can feel bad for them later when they die.  It has a 10-minute setup, then San Andreas gets right into the thick of things with the first earthquake.

It's a doozy.  It destroys all the buildings in downtown L.A.  It might have destroyed many buildings in many other parts of sprawling Los Angeles, but we only capture brief hints of that from the air.  L.A. isn't actually very much on the mind of San Andreas.  It wants to get to San Francisco.

Convenient, then, that there is a previously unknown fault out near the Hoover Dam that apparently links up smaller faults to the big one.  Or something like that.  The science and geology is more than a little fuzzy in San Andreas.

The only thing that Paul Giamatti's seismologist knows for sure is that the giant, massive earthquake is, at quite an unexpectedly slow pace, making its way up the coast to San Francisco.

I've never heard of the ability to track an earthquake's physical movements, nor heard of an earthquake that moves up the state so methodically.  I didn't even know earthquakes had movements like the ones in this movie, but I guess that's why I'm not a seismologist.  Helpfully, though, the earthquakes in San Andreas seem to be aware of and even a little respectful of people, so if someone is trying to run with outstretched arms toward someone s/he loves in San Andreas, the earthquake is always destroying the ground s/he just walked on, so that everyone is (quite successfully) always outrunning earthquakes in San Andreas.

San Andreas is pretty much all earthquake, all the time, except for a couple of painfully out-of-place scenes in which Dwayne (Not the Rock) Johnson and his screen wife Carla Gugino talk about his feelings about the daughter they lost years before in a drowning accident.  None of the other characters, though, get a backstory.  None of them are real, flesh-and-blood people.  There are no soap-opera-style setups like in the heyday of disaster movies.  Why waste that kind of time when you've got all those CG artists on standby waiting to make digital buildings look like they're falling down?

Earthquakes and tsunamis account for about 85% of San Andreas's running time, and that much earthquaking gets exhausting after a while.  Lest your attention flag, however, a bombastic score is ready to beat you over the head with the points that should otherwise be obvious.  San Andreas is not a movie that believes in restraint or subtlety, so the music is as overbearing and inescapable as the natural forces on screen.

By the time the last 10 minutes rolled around, I didn't care who lived and who died anymore, I just wanted the shaking to stop.  And it does, finally, just long enough for a massive American flag to be unfurled from atop the now-ravaged Golden Gate Bridge, for Dwayne (Not the Rock) Johnson to look lovingly at his screen wife as they survey the wreckage from a vantage point across the Golden Gate (never mind wondering how they got there since the bridge is out) and helpfully point out the next step: "We rebuild."

That's what Americans do, it seems -- we destroy and we rebuild and we feel good about it.  We move on immediately from the biggest earthquake in recorded history, the one that destroyed all of California (or, at least, Los Angeles, San Francisco and some of Bakersfield), and we become patriotic.  We remind ourselves why our country is so great.

Rah-rah.  Earthquakes will bring us closer together.  Never mind the millions of people who just lost their lives.  The setting sun shines onto that flag and we know we can do anything we put our minds to doing.

That's really how San Andreas ends.  And the visual effects really aren't all that good.  There, I've just saved you $12 from going to see it yourself.  If you do persist, though, don't say I didn't warn you: San Andreas is a disaster.

Viewed May 31, 2015 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Saturday, May 23, 2015


 2.5 / 5 

For 90 minutes, Tomorrowland had me captivated.  For the sake of sharing its unabashedly optimistic vision of a future that never was, for the sake of reliving the Spielbergian charm of its settings and pacing, and with the hope that it was all leading to a climax as gloriously nutty as its concept, I went along with it.

But Tomorrowland winds up in much the same place as the theme-park setting that shares its name, a place that has run out of ideas and lacks the courage of its ambitions.  With a final act that feels cribbed from The Abyss, Tomorrowland winds up as a beautiful, sleek shaggy-dog story, all setup and no punchline.

Still, it's one heck of a setup, one that will likely resonate most with longtime Disney fans -- and director Brad bird and writer Damon Lindelof are clearly fans themselves.  The Disney nut in me felt my heart flutter and my brain spin as Tomorrowland took us back to the legendary 1964 World's Fair, incorporated little notes of the Sherman Bros. "It's a Great, Big Beautiful Tomorrow" into its score, and conveyed exactly the right look and feel -- or, at least the one we imagine.  Though his name is barely uttered, Tomorrowland feeds off of the latter-years visions of Walt Disney, who remained defiantly optimistic even while the world flipped its lid and fell off its rocker just about the time he died.

Tomorrowland proceeds from the notion that the Disney vision was exactly right, that the American-led vision of a world filled with sleek, white buildings and lots of angular towers was where we all wanted to head until the damned Sixties and Seventies with their hippies and corporate CEOs mucked it all up.

The spectacularly Utopian vision of the future in Tomorrowland, the kind of future in which men wear jumpsuits and most modes of transportation have the word "hover" in front of them, was one that Walt Disney tried to depict in real life, first with Tomorrowland and then with the impossible (and, it's always been said, slightly sinister) idea of EPCOT, a real-life city of the future.

Tomorrowland approaches all of this with an absolute straight face and no sense of irony.  There's no acknowledgment that the very company that's releasing the film is the same company whose bottom-line-oriented CEOs quashed that idealistic, not-so-vaguely socialist vision because of its economic impossibility.  The future just isn't possible if you also want to make a lot of money.

Yes, this review is rambling, and that's exactly what Tomorrowland does for its first 90 minutes, doing more to convey its story points than actually tell them.  Even if you pay attention very carefully, you will likely have no idea exactly what is happening in Tomorrowland.  In part, that's because the movie is more enamored with the idea of presenting a lot of ideas than actually resolving them.  This may sound familiar to fans of the great TV series Lost, which was guided for a long while by Tomorrowland's Lindelof.  It was a great puzzle-box of a TV show that kept throwing out more and more and more ideas even until the last minute, but couldn't bring itself to wrap them all up.  Tomorrowland falls into the same trap, over and over and over.

The best I understand it, George Clooney's character, Frank Walker, was a little boy with grand ideas in 1964, and during a trip to the World's Fair got an invitation to journey to some parallel-universe futuristic city, but then he lost his hope.  After an extraordinarily long set-up, the movie introduces us to a girl named Cassie (Britt Robertson), who's equally intelligent and optimistic, and also gets a glimpse of this wondrous place, where Space Mountain (but, oddly, given its inspiration, not Spaceship Earth) is an architectural centerpiece.

About every 20 minutes, the plot turns back on itself and heads in a different direction until the screenplay feels like a hopeless jumble.  Eventually, Frank and Cassie and a sassy little British-accented robot make it back to Tomorrowland (apparently that's really its name) and find it in a horrible state of decay, much like the theme-park land or EPCOT Center.

Up until this point, I may not have understood what was happening, but I was reveling in it, having a blast -- the Disney geek and the movie geek in me were both thoroughly entertained, especially by a dazzling scene in which the Eiffel Tower becomes a rocket-launching pad.  In a film filled with visual inventiveness, it's perhaps the high point. But like a roller coaster that climbs and climbs and climbs, it's all downhill from there.

Tomorrowland gets stuck.  Backed into a corner by its own endless cleverness, it has nowhere to go and nothing to do except state its intentions rather than reflect them.  The talky, lumbering final 45 minutes are filled with awkward exposition, as if the moviemakers suddenly discovered that geeing out on Disney-inspired futurism wasn't enough to keep Tomorrowland moving forward.

The Blu-ray release is going to have a lot of bonus material, and that's in large part the problem: Tomorrowland is overstuffed with ideas that never quite expresses in a satisfying, cohesive way.

Viewed May 23, 2015 -- Walt Disney Studios Theater


Friday, May 22, 2015

"Pitch Perfect 2"

 3.5 / 5 

Hyperactive, hyper-sexual, hyper-aware, Pitch Perfect 2 is a direct descendant of the Airplane!-style movies where jokes come faster than you can react to them, and when one of them lands with a thud, who cares?  The movie just gleefully, effortlessly moves on to the next one.

There is a plot in Pitch Perfect 2, which has to do with the Barden Bellas, the singing group from the first movie, competing in the world acapella championships, but that's entirely beside the point.  The movie, directed with humor and flair by Elizabeth Banks, just cares about the laughs, and since the majority of them are delivered with, well, perfect pitch, the details of the story are merely window dressing.

The cast from the first movie reassembles, including Anna Kendrick as the leader of the singing group, Rebel Wilson as its most wildly inappropriate and oversized personality, Britany Snow as its most ambitious member.  They're the leads, but they're surrounded by surreal supporting players like Hana Mae Lee as the a reclusive and oddball Korean girl, Ester Dean as a spirited lesbian, and, hanging around like the original Mousketeers, the "other ones" who lurk in the background.  (The movie plays some sly tricks with these borderline-extras, including a moment where Kendrick's Becca admits she's not sure which one is which.)

The sequel makes some assumptions that the audience has seen the first film, but if you haven't, you'll miss very little.  The Barden Bellas have achieved some national fame after winning whatever championship they won in Pitch Perfect, and begin Pitch Perfect 2 with an outrageously catastrophic performance in front of President and First Lady Obama.

They fall from grace rather spectacularly, but find a way to redeem themselves, and as far as plot goes, that's about it.

All Pitch Perfect 2 really wants to do is create clever and elaborate jokes, situations that escalate like a plot-driven Goldberg device until they pay off with mostly impressive punchlines, the bulk of which can't be repeated despite a highly questionable PG-13 rating.  The parents next to me may have regretted bringing their 8-year-old girls to see this, though even the raunchiest, most sexually oriented humor (and there's a lot of that) is presented with such levity it's not possible to be really offended.  That said, if hearing "vagina" and its many synonyms causes discomfort, Pitch Perfect 2, which also seems to relish in jokes about lesbianism, might not be your thing.

The music is presented as impressively this time around as it was the first, though even it takes a backseat to the rapid-fire verbal and visual silliness.  A subplot about Becca getting an internship at a recording studio seems more like a digression than an integral part of the proceedings, but its lightened by a small-but-memorable performance by Keegan-Michael Kay as a megalomaniac music producer who dreams of a Christmas album recorded by Snoop Dogg/Lion.

What kind of sense does that make?  About as much as anything in the film, including the imposing, hard-edged, black-clad German acapella troupe that becomes the Barden Bellas' biggest competition.

Pitch Perfect 2 just bounces along giddily from scene to scene, not pausing to care whether any of it really goes together.  The movie brings in Hailee Steinfeld from True Grit as a new member of the Bellas, and since she's actually 18, her presence suddenly make the rest of the cast look about as age-appropriate as Stockard Channing playing a high-school student in Grease.

Maybe it would be worth caring about inadequacies of plotting and characterization in another film, but Pitch Perfect 2 is such a happy lark it just speeds past any little bump it finds.  As a director, Banks wants to keep things moving -- though she also shows some real style in shooting the musical scenes, and knows when to let the actors, instead of the camera, carry the comedic moments.  It's an impressive feature debut, which shows off her desire to please the audience.

It works. What might come across as crass, unformed or even desperate in another movie feels here like it's all part of the whole -- a whole that, like the Bellas themselves, just wants the audience to love it.  In the end, it's kind of hard not to.  Pitch Perfect 2 is a movie that sends you out of the theater wearing a broad, well-earned smile, and that's something that happens all too rarely these days.

Viewed May 22, 2015 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Saturday, May 2, 2015

"While We're Young"

 4 / 5 

In a particularly vulnerable moment, Josh, the documentary filmmaker played by Ben Stiller, tells his much younger protege, "Before I met you, I had two emotions: Wistfulness and disdain."  It's more than clever writing -- it's a sentiment that will feel uncomfortably real to the target audience for Noah Baumbach's insightful, warm-hearted While We're Young, which explores much more than a generation gap.

More urgently on its mind is an emotion gap, one into which many of us childless, (ulp) middle-aged children of the 1980s fall.  We're not old enough to be the wise adults -- or, as the film makes it clear, we don't want to be old enough to be that -- yet not young enough to have our whole lives before us.  We're as stalled in our careers and ambitions as Josh is with the documentary he's been working on for the better part of a decade, a thuddingly dull film so obtuse that even Josh doesn't know what it's about anymore.

Into the life he shares with his patient and equally uncertain wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) come the retro-bohemian twenty-somethings Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), free spirits if ever there were ones.  They eschew a digital life and favor books, board games and vinyl records: The very things Josh and Cornelia have thrown away are alchemized into useful objects once more, and Josh is enamored by their youthful enthusiasm.

Suddenly, Josh is wearing hats with brims, riding bikes instead of hopping in cabs, and turning his back on old friends, who begin casting wary eye at him for his middle-aged craziness.

Even more excitingly, Jamie thinks Josh's modest acclaim as a documentarian can help him with his own quest to enter the field, and in a heartbeat Josh feels something he hasn't felt in a long time: He's wanted.  Admired, even.  Hesitant at first, even Cornelia becomes smitten with the idea that maybe they aren't as old as they thought they were.

While We're Here is a final fresh and vibrant breath of maturity and adulthood before the multiplex is overrun with explosion-filled blockbusters.  It's made for grown-ups, and takes as much glee in being off-putting to youngsters as the latest Marvel film does in shutting out the old fogeys.

Baumbach covers a lot of territory in While We're Here, from the ethics of documentary filmmaking to the dread that greets the first diagnosis of arthritis.  (Josh's visit to a straight-shooting, humorless doctor is painfully funny.)  Charles Grodin, who at 80 is the embodiment of Baumbach's thesis that age does not diminish effectiveness in humans, plays an extended supporting role as Josh's father-in-law, a legendary documentary filmmaker whose own success was more hard-won than Josh imagines.

In a key scene, Josh rushes in to a Lincoln Center tribute to the old man.  Wearing an ill-fitting jacket and roller-blades, he recalls the panicked Dustin Hoffman at the end of The Graduate, and has much of that younger character's heated emotion.  But the result is different here, and Josh's seemingly heroic pronouncements are met with tepid response.

Josh, it turns out, hasn't been aiming for success most of his life.  It was his goal once, until he learned more about the world, until he defined success in his own terms.  In While We're Young, he comes to the realization that he's never understood his own ambition, his own desires -- and it's just now, as his body starts to creak and groan and his hair starts to gray, that it's time to re-examine what's important to him.

It's that sudden realization, and the accompanying moment of self-reflection that many audience members are going to feel when it happens, that makes While We're Young more thrilling and more exciting than the latest super-hero movie.  For me, at least.  Then again, I might just be getting old.  And the most lovely thing about While We're Young is, it made me feel OK about that.

Viewed May 2, 2015 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks