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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 4, 2015

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Tomorrowland, Aloha, San Andreas, Respect

Here's my quandary. A lot of the well-reviewed movies, the ones that jaded critics get all excited about, are pretentious twaddle. A lot of the huge-hit movies are comic-book things that are very hard for me to care about (I mean, the guy's a "superhero" in an embarrassing costume, for pete's sake).

So whether I go by the huge opening weekend or the rave reviews, I get burned again and again.

Then, months or years later, I watch one of the dispraised, financially lukewarm movies on cable and discover that I really like it. The reviewers and the huge movie-going crowds simply got it wrong.

Armageddon was the huge hit; Deep Impact was the good asteroid-hits-Earth movie. From the promos, who knew? They both looked like CGI extravaganzas with stuff in space and stuff on Earth.

So this past week, I pursued a deliberate strategy of watching the kind of one- or two-star movie that I keep discovering, and liking, on cable.

It's not a recipe for sure success. Sometimes, bad reviews are deserved. Sometimes, when crowds do not show up for a movie, they're right.

Take Tomorrowland, for instance. I'm sure that after the success of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, some Disney execs slobbered all over the big tables as they demanded, "Which Disneyland ride can we turn into a huge franchise movie next?"

Tomorrowland was an obvious choice, and there were people involved with it who tried to do a really good job.

And such people! Director and co-writer Brad Bird is one of the best filmmakers around, having created The Iron Giant and The Incredibles. And let's not have any nonsense about his being less effective directing live actors. George Clooney can do a bad job, but he didn't; Hugh Laurie cannot do a bad job ... and he didn't. The young actors were also engaging and convincing.

This movie did not have any acting problems. It didn't have any visual problems. In fact, they made one choice that was absolutely right: They stayed true to the Walt Disney "Tomorrowland" vision from the 1950s.

Back in the '50s, the "future" meant even more streamlining. Trains had just switched over to designs that offered little wind resistance, and cars were following suit. Disney captured that with his balloon-inspired cartoon cars from the era, and his Tomorrowland looked like the covers of half the sci-fi magazine covers for the previous twenty years.

But we dumped that "future" vision with 2001: A Space Odyssey, because real spacecraft now existed, and they weren't streamlined after all. Alien took the same concept and made it tatty-looking, and we haven't looked back.

The visual impression of Tomorrowland does look back, however -- including the absurd flying cars and jet-packs, and skyscrapers with spires like cathedrals. It was a blast from days of future past.

Let's just pretend that the weird, boring, talky opening sequence, which has some of the worst dialogue that real actors have ever had to say, doesn't exist, because on DVD and DVR, you can fast-forward past it (it adds no useful information).

Here's where the movie collapsed in on itself: Nobody who actually understood science or technology or science fiction had any decision-making power on this film.

Bad science abounded, but it wasn't any worse than in, say, Gravity, which broke all the laws of motion and thermodynamics. Newton's body achieved escape velocity in his grave on that one.

Even when Tomorrowland was making up magical stuff, they couldn't follow their own rules. When we first see a kid go to Tomorrowland, he's simply dropped into it from the Small World ride at the New York World's Fair. And he's really there.

But then a later kid touches a special souvenir ring and is transported there instantly, no physical transportation. However, though she sees Tomorrowland all around her, she's physically still inside a building, so when she walks around she bumps into furniture and walls that she can't see.

Then, a third time, they open a "portal" to the "other dimension" where Tomorrowland resides -- and it's a big technological deal to get there, requiring massive machinery.

They call the souvenir-ring method a sort of ad or come-on, so apparently it wasn't real (so you could easily drown or fall off a cliff while walking around inside the hallucination). But the other two trips were radically different, the one requiring only an offramp in a carnival ride, the other a spaceship-like vehicle.

I know it's a fantasy -- in fact, exactly the kind of fantasy that Star Wars is, full of lots of wishing-makes-it-so masquerading as future technology. But Star Wars tries for, and sometimes achieves, internal consistency. Tomorrowland never comes close.

They try to do something and suddenly bad guys are there; the bad guys seem all-powerful and all-knowing until the plot needs them to be stupid and easily broken.

But if it had been a simple adventure movie -- like the upcoming Pixels, dumb fun with cool old-fashioned visuals -- we probably would have forgiven all the deep stupidity in the plotting.

Alas, however, this is a movie with a Message. Apparently, the human race is about to destroy itself, and the people in Tomorrowland have an incredibly precise countdown running to the precise moment of our self-destruction.

What will destroy us? Everything at once. War. Famine. Disease. And, of course, the devastating curse of global warming.

But which of these is the countdown counting down to? And if one of the characters introduces hope (as the movie asserts), exactly what will she do to change things in order to avert that pinpoint date?

Global warming has no pinpoint date; even if it's really being caused by human CO2 emissions, for which there is still zero evidence, the worst-case scenario is that a lot of people have to move away from low-lying coastlands. Not the end of the world.

What, then? Nuclear war? That's still pretty much the only life-ending toolkit in our possession, unless somebody weaponizes a new plague. So now the question is: What will this teenage girl do that will prevent the unspecified end-of-civilization event?

All we are ever told is that she will keep hope alive. Apparently, the detonator for nuclear war is universal despair, and so because of her hope the bombs won't explode. Or the plague won't spread.

It's just so ... stupid. We've spent the whole movie being preached at, but the solution they offer would embarrass even the most faith-based religion. That's your method of salvation? It's even dumber than The Force.

So ... good filmmakers couldn't overcome one of the stupidest magic-based sci-fi plots ever invented. Tomorrowland will not be worth watching even on cable.

Aloha, though: How could it be so bad as to rate only a 10% on Rotten Tomatoes? It has Bradley Cooper and Emma Stone and Rachel McAdams and John Krasinski and even character roles played by Bill Murray and Alec Baldwin!

And it was written and directed by Cameron Crowe, who wrote Fast Times at Ridgemont High and wrote and directed Say Anything, then went on to create Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire, Vanilla Sky ...

Well, Aloha is getting treated like his flops: Elizabethtown and We Bought a Zoo -- and the question now is, are the critics right?

Yes and no. The maguffin is so stupid that the movie itself barely notices that it's there. Rich guy Bill Murray is preparing to launch a satellite that probably doesn't contain weapons. It's apparently Really Bad to put weapons in space, though we aren't told why -- or whether any terrorist or hegemonist nations are preparing to launch weapons of their own. We just know it's Wrong and must be prevented.

That's because the established religion of the Elitists (i.e., the Saved -- the same people who know global warming is going to end life on Earth) knows that you don't have to explain or justify any Bad Things. Once they have declared something to be Evil, no more questions are allowed: Anybody with a different opinion is evil and will destroy the world.

But, as I said, the movie pays almost no attention to this silly plot. Nor does it care all that much about the second maguffin: Bradley Cooper's assignment to persuade the self-proclaimed King of Hawaii to bless the burial ground that will be crossed by a pedestrian bridge that apparently could not be built anywhere else. The launch of the satellite depends on this, for some reason.

The movie isn't about that, either, though this plot at least has some fun moments.

The real story -- and the one that made Aloha worth watching -- is the double romantic triangle. Bradley Cooper's character, Brian, flies back to Hawaii with Woody, a pilot and friend who has long been married to Brian's one-time sweetheart, Tracy (Rachel McAdams). They have a daughter and son.

We learn why Brian and Tracy broke up in the first place (Brian's refusal to obey Tracy's vacation ultimatum: Come on this vacation or our relationship is over). We also learn why Woody's and Tracy's marriage is in trouble: Woody just doesn't talk about stuff.

Meanwhile, Emma Stone plays Allison Ng, the military liaison who is supposed to shadow the notoriously unreliable Brian. Her character is impossible, of course, because a Holly Golightly-style "free spirit" character would not have risen to a position of any rank or trust in any branch of any military anywhere.

Her character is also impossible because Emma Stone is extremely Caucasian, and Ng is supposed to be 1/4 Chinese and 1/4 Hawaiian. There has been some outcry about this -- but I've sat in on casting discussions and I know exactly why she was cast.

Everybody's heard of Emma Stone, and nobody has heard of whatever part-Chinese, part-Hawaiian actress they would have cast if they cared about ethnically correct casting.

I mean, in a world where half-Indian Ben Kingsley is cast as a half-Maori character, you know that racism and stupidity rule. Somehow Emma Stone's big round Bette-Davis eyes could emerge from a part-Chinese ancestry. Right.

But forget that (because Hollywood routinely does). Emma Stone is a star because she's a very good actress, and so she is able to make her free-spirit character not only kind of believable but also extremely endearing.

Allison and Brian fall in love. Or at least into bed. But we know that when Brian makes the launch of an evil weapon system possible, he will lose her. The movie spends a few minutes making him sacrifice his career in order to impress the girl. Cool. But then he nobly declares that ... oh, something or other that makes him give her up.

The story that matters is the Brian-Tracy-Woody triangle, and this is the one place where Aloha achieves true brilliance, though only for a few moments of screen time.

When Woody comes home from an assignment and finds his wife's ex-lover, Brian, in his house, he says nothing. But Brian translates all the gestures and grunts so that Tracy can understand what Woody was really "saying."

That lays the groundwork so that the next time there's a wordless exchange, the movie offers hilariously explicit subtitles to the gestures and grunts. And then, the third time, we don't need any translation.

This is Cameron Crowe, so even when the movie is at its stupidest, the dialogue is pretty good; and the acting is excellent, except (as always) Bill Murray -- but his part is a cartoon character anyway. The result is that Aloha is quite watchable, as long as you turn down your brain's crapmeter to its lowest sensitivity.

Hey, there were moments dealing with the family relationships that brought tears to my eyes.

So here's a suggestion to Cameron Crowe: You're at your best when you're writing about real people in the real world. Don't try sci-fi or thriller adventure plots again. Really. You're very bad at it because you don't know how that stuff works (when it works), while you do know human relationships.

I forgive you for "Show me the money," Mr. Crowe. The subtitled nonverbal manliness redeems it completely.

I don't regret spending money to see Aloha in the theater. You might prefer catching it on cable, when it comes around. It has some wonderful moments -- way more than most movies have.

Then my wife and I decided, on a Monday night, to go see another low-reviewed movie: San Andreas.

OK, we know what this is, don't we? Dwayne Johnson is the big star. Ioan Gruffudd, Archie Panjabi, and Paul Giamatti play supporting roles. So it's a disaster movie, and the actual storyline doesn't matter, right? All that counts is the same thing that mattered with Titanic: Do we get really cool visuals of people dying in scary ways?

Normally I wouldn't cross the street for a disaster movie. I saw Towering Inferno and Poseidon Adventure (three times, always with subtitles, because my missionary companion had a thing for it in Brazil back in 1973; thanks, Ferron Sonderegger). I saw the execrable Volcano (1997). I'm done with all that.

Except. The other choice that night was Pitch Perfect 2 and I decided that instead of watching an overblown sequel to a modest hit, I'd rather make fun of a bad disaster movie.

Only we didn't make fun of it. Well, not much. Because it's actually pretty good.

What do I mean by "pretty good"? A thousand times better than any of the Hobbit movies. Adequate special effects. An engaging set of family and romantic relationships.

There was dumb stuff. But the movie made me care. And the ending was not embarrassing.

You know what I mean. "Embarrassing" was the ending of Volcano, where volcanic ash has made all the people grey-colored, thereby showing that racism shouldn't exist because we're all grey under the volcano. Didn't we all groan or laugh aloud at the pathetic preachiness? And at the sheer stupid arrogance of Hollywood elitists who think most Americans need little "morals" at the end of our movies?

Or the horrible moment where the old woman throws the jewel over the side in Titanic, along with the absurd meeting of the dead lovers along with the ghosts of all the ship's passengers, who are apparently all deeply invested in hanging around the place where they died until one particularly lucky survivor comes back for her dead boyfriend. I don't know of any religion's version of the afterlife where this would make sense.

If there was any moral at the end of San Andreas, I missed it. And we don't have any ghosts meeting up. Only living people are alive at the end.

Screenwriter Carlton Cuse was partially responsible for Lost -- one of the great wasted opportunities in the history of screenwriting (almost as bad as The Matrix series). But remember that Lost had a lot of wonderful moments. So does San Andreas.

The movie follows all the formulas -- because this is the kind of movie those formulas were invented for. We start by seeing Ray (Dwayne Johnson) as the competent hero, rescuing a driver so stupid she doesn't actually deserve to live. His helicopter is damaged and needs repair. But when he's on his way to get it serviced, a huge earthquake strikes, and he has to rush to rescue his wife from an LA skyscraper.

Will the chopper break down at some crucial moment? Duh.

Meanwhile, Paul Giamatti plays Lawrence, a seismologist whose team has devised a way to predict earthquakes. They're investigating a series of tiny quakes at Hoover Dam (because earthquake guys always go down inside dams when earthquakes are happening) and they find that a series of tiny magnetic spikes are an accurate predictor of a coming earthquake.

The problem is that when they see those spikes, the earthquake comes, like, three seconds later. Personally, I think a three-second warning is not really what we mean by "accurate earthquake prediction." A half-hour's warning is prediction. Three seconds is not.

Fortunately, part of the nonsense science is that all the later magnetic spikes come longer and longer before the actual quake. So they actually give some meaningful prep time. Cool.

Meanwhile, we learn that Ray's wife Emma (Carla Gugino) is in the final stages of divorcing him -- and is about to set up housekeeping with her boyfriend, architect Daniel Riddick (Ioan Gruffudd). The divorce began with the death of one of Ray's and Emma's two daughters, who drowned on a rafting trip, when Ray was unable to save her.

Naturally, they will be reconciled before the movie's over -- and not only will Daniel be revealed as unreliable and unworthy, but even his catty sister will also be killed. I mean, in this movie, people pay hard for their sins. (Except for that careless texting driver from the opening.)

But what matters is that Ray's and Emma's surviving daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario) is saved from certain death in a parking garage by a young Englishman, Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt), and his little brother, Ollie (Art Parkinson), and then she saves and leads them in turn.

Yes, the sequence of extravagant coincidences always lead to things getting worse just when it seems that they can't possibly -- while the heroes also happen to just be missed by total-death events that squish, burn, drop, or drown everyone around them.

I did mention that this is a formulaic disaster movie, didn't I? But the script and the director (Brad Peyton) give us a surprising number of Good Moments, and we come away from the movie actually liking and caring about the main characters.

Ben and Ollie are especially engaging, and we really like Paul Giamatti's and Archie Panjabi's characters. But let's give Dwayne Johnson his due. There are moments when it actually seems as though he might be feeling an emotion. This is an acting breakthrough for him.

This doesn't mean that they don't play fast and loose with actual earthquake information. For instance, tsunamis can sweep far inland -- but the water starts receding immediately. But the plot required that San Francisco stay under water -- a lot of water -- for hours. So ... in this movie, water does not flow downhill. Instead the Pacific seems to have risen a hundred feet and keeps on rising. Extraordinary.

And completely forgivable. Saying "it's just a movie" doesn't excuse stupidity, but certain genres have such low standards that we overlook mere stupidity, grateful that there were so few offenses against logic and believability.

One thing is true: There will be a massive earthquake along the San Andreas fault someday. It's also true that earthquakes can crop up anywhere, because tectonic tension does not always find relief in the expected places.

So if you think you might enjoy a better-than-mindless disaster movie, San Andreas is better than the bad ones and nearly as good as the best ones. Worth watching in the theaters.

*

The best movie I saw this week was a repeat of an HBO original: Taking Chance. This movie dates from 2009, and I missed it the first time around, mostly because I assumed that an HBO movie about a Marine lieutenant colonel (Kevin Bacon) accompanying the remains of a dead Marine back home to his family would be an anti-war diatribe.

I couldn't have been more wrong. This movie could not have been more fair, honest, real, and moving.

It moves slowly, showing us every small step along the way. We watch how Marine LtCol Michael Strobl supervises every aspect of the coffin's transfer. We see how the baggage handlers, the crew and flight attendants, and the other passengers join him in showing respect to the fallen Marine.

It is deeply moving to watch Strobl's slow salute as the white box is loaded and unloaded; and just as moving to see how many passengers voluntarily stop to watch with respect.

Along the way, we are given very brief bits of information about the life of the Marine, Chance Phelps. How he died. How he lived. What he meant to the tiny rural community in Wyoming where he grew up, and to the family he left behind.

We also get just a glimpse of Strobl's personal ambivalence. He served with great distinction in the Gulf War, but now he holds down a desk job from which he comes home to his family every night. So this journey is complicated by his own survivor's guilt, especially because he knows so many other Marines from the Gulf War who are back in combat.

But an old veteran calls him to account: "You are his witness," he says to Strobl, assuring him that this service is also worthy, and that it's not wrong for Strobl, who already laid everything on the line, to be with his family this time around.

Taking Chance doesn't hate anybody. It doesn't show the standard leftwing disdain for the kind of people who volunteer for military service, and it also doesn't show any hint of being gung-ho for military service. Nor does it ever seek an unearned tear-jerking moment.

The script was co-written by the real Michael Strobl, drawing upon his journal, and director Ross Katz. Together, they have created what may be the most perfect tribute to those who give their lives to the service of their country.

What Taking Chance is about is simple enough: Respect and honor. These are virtues that seem to have faded in many segments of our society. This movie rekindles them in everyone who watches it with an open heart and mind.

Perfect as the writing and direction are, and lovely as the performances of the actors are, the towering presence in this film is Kevin Bacon, giving the performance of a lifetime. I would measure him against Spencer Tracy in The Old Man and the Sea, or Gary Cooper in High Noon, or James Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life.

This film and Bacon's performance are every bit as iconic and memorable. It might have been made for TV, but that's actually a good thing. This movie is too intimate for big screens, and too sacred for popcorn-eating, pop-drinking crowds.

Taking Chance is not a snob hit, not an action extravaganza. It's not for children. Instead it's a great work of public art, and it would be hard to imagine a better film to watch, alone or with people you love, for Flag Day (June 14th) or Independence Day.


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