Sunday, May 24, 2015

Current Reels: Tomorrowland's Convoluted Plot Hampers Its Thrill Factor

Where did my plotline go again? wonders Britt Robertson in Tomorrowland.
Brad Bird is one of my favorite directors, so when I heard Tomorrowland was coming out, I got mega excited. His films such as The Iron Giant and The Incredibles, while not totally flawless, are true gems in my movie collection, ones that I can watch over and over and that I hope to share with my future kid someday. Bird also has a particular fascination that I happen to share with the way the 50s and 60s were obsessed with sci-fi and "the future." Despite the trailer for the film being a tad confusing, I was buoyed by Bird's successes of the past, and boldly went forth into Tomorrowland with high hopes...

....and I walked away a bit disappointed, perhaps, unsettled - I had the same sensation of eating at a restaurant highly recommended and still leaving hungry. When I went home to my long-suffering sweetie (who had declined to go) and attempted to dissect it over dinner, he said, "You've been talking about this movie for 20 minutes and I still have no idea what it is about." I thought about that for a moment and said, "You know, I'm not sure I know what it is about, either."

Tomorrowland has the feel of something half-baked; there is a lot of good concepts and plain ol' sci-fi fun floating around, but it doesn't quite come together in a coherent way for adult viewers (although the kids sitting behind me had a total blast, and for them, I am happy). Unlike some of Bird's other features, there were two other writers involved in the screenplay on this one, and they all seemed to be competing against Bird for first place. The film begins with George Clooney, playing Frank Walker, and his cohort, a precocious teen Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), arguing over who is going to tell the story first. This becomes weirdly appropriate as the film trundles along on shaky tracks. It starts out as Frank's story and his childhood, captured in bright and buoyant colors, entering and growing up in Tomorrowland, which is simultaneously a nostalgic tribute to Disneyland's days of yore and full of wondrous little touches, such as large, imposing, but ultimately helpful and friendly robots (throwback to The Iron Giant) and the rocket pack, a purposeful wink to adults in the audience who would remember one of my favorite Disney films of my childhood, The Rocketeer.

It then switches to being Casey's story, and this is the point where the plot unravels into the weird and convoluted. The linchpin that connects these two stories is (minor SPOILER) an android little girl Athena (Raffey Cassidy) that Walker as a young boy fell in love with and who first "recruited him" into this alternate future universe in the form of a pin that helps transport him.  It then ultimately becomes Frank's story again when Athena recruites Casey to convince him to return to save Tomorrowland - and by proxy, save the future...from what? Pessimism? I'm still not really sure. Also, I should note there is something ultimately weird about seeing a 50-something Walker saying to Athena, who as an android hasn't aged a day, admit his childhood crush on her. Bird, I'm sure, was aware of the shaky ground he was treading on filming that sequence, but it still made me feel a bit skeevy watching it.

While I am happy to disband my notions of reality to indulge in escapist fantasy, there were a few moments back in the real world seemed totally implausible. Example of the worst faux pas: Casey gets arrested for destroying public property and bailed out by her father. Upon being bailed out, she discovers a pin with a "T" on it. When she touches it, it takes her into Tomorrowland, if only for a moment. Her Dad, of course, doesn't believe her and thinks she is tripping out. She then decides it will be a good idea to head out on her own to find out just what the hell is going on, so she tells her little brother to tell Dad she's gone camping with friends and that she'll call when she gets to the campsite. Okay, if I were a parent and my daughter who I had just bailed out had gone missing and I couldn't reach her cell phone (which at this point in the movie is dead) I would be completely losing my shit. Bird makes some attempt to reconnect with reality with having her call her Dad via a payphone (apparently those are still around in some places?) and leave a voicemail saying that she's fine, but weird stuff is going down, and she has to do what she has to do. At this point as a parent, I would definitely have called the cops and started tracking her down. Upon her return, I would be happy, relieved, but mad as hell. But the plot doesn't bother with any of that.

The main problem is, there's far too many things happening in the movie all at once as well as too many things left on the table and never addressed again. We get a short glimpse at Walker's father and saw he wasn't a super nice guy, but did he ever mourn his son's loss when Walker chose to stay in Tomorrowland for 20 years? It it those things I wonder about on an adult level. I am not sorry I saw it, but it left me sad knowing it could have been so much more.

Toby sez: While visually stunning and a fun adventure caper for kids, a plot hampered with too many twists and uneven storytelling make it a muddled conundrum for adults. 

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Reviewing The Rewrite; Reflections on an Ever-Present Past

 Grant & Simmons enjoying Speidie & Rib Pit in Binghamton, NY 
I'd like to start out this post by saying Happy Birthday to the blog! It has been five years since this little adventure launched, and it has led to amazing things in my life, including becoming a column in my local paper, which has been an honor and a boon because it forces me each week to sit down and write about one of the things I love best - movies.

I recently took a trip back to my alma mater, Binghamton University, since this year marks a decade since I graduated with my Bachelor's degree in - what else? - English and Rhetoric. It had been almost five years since I had been back in the area and it was time to visit "the old country" once again. Binghamton is an incredibly special place, and though it has grown and changed since the time I have been there, I find it encouraging that it continues to thrive and attract a huge eclectic group of students from all walks of life. It is that eclectic nature of the school that drew me there in the first place. I made lifelong friends in the time that I was there, such as writer and fellow blogger Libby Cudmore, who has contributed her writing to this site and has her first novel, The Big Rewind, hitting the shelves early in 2016. She and I and Corey Christopher, engineer and amazing leatherworker who I featured on the Critic's Pick of the Week not too long ago, hit the streets of Binghamton this month for a fun adventure of running around the Nature Preserve, hitting up a local comic shop, blasting "Everybody Have Fun Tonight" by Wang Chung, and, of course, drinking lots of bubble tea at K&K's The Old Teahouse. (See picture below).
Badass BU broads in the Nature Preserve

When I found out a film called The Rewrite - about a disgruntled film writer (Hugh Grant) that came out late last year had been filmed at Binghamton, good or bad, I had to watch it. What a perfect way to wrap up such a moving nostalgia trip, of visiting all my favorite places and seeing so many of my lifelong dear friends and fellow alumni - although due to time constraints, not as many as I would've liked to!

I wasn't expecting much. Hugh Grant rom coms tend to be a tad formulaic, and with only a 40 percent audience rating score on, it didn't bode well. What I wasn't prepared for was remarkable writing, snappy dialogue and humor so edgy you can cut your tongue on it. Grant plays stylishly weathered has-been screenwriter Keith Michaels, who after winning an Oscar years ago has since fallen into a desperate slump. His agent, an all-business LA bottle blonde, finds him a teaching job at what the synopsis amusingly calls a "remote" university in the Northeast - certainly a far cry from Los Angeles. One of my favorite actors, J.K. Simmons, plays the head of the English department that brings Michaels on with a cautious optimism that is characteristic of anyone who has been privy to the mercurial world of academia. Simmons proves he had reason to be cautious - Michaels proceeds to make a complete ass out of himself, screwing up his foray into college teaching in every possible way. Marisa Tomei offers a welcome reality check as Holly Carpenter, a hardworking single mom of two who has gone back to college for her degree, and arm wrestles her way into Michael's class.

The Critic at Binghamton U, circa 2002.
What is refreshing about The Rewrite is how unabashedly funny it is. Very few movies make me literally LOL - and this one did, several times. It pushes the envelope and pulls serious punches - addressing sticky issues such as Michaels bedding one of his students without much moral reflection on the matter with a boldness that acknowledges the reality of the situation without belaboring the ill-fated consequences on a professional career. Grant plays his role with a kind of comfortable uneasiness, a paradox of a personality that he has honed over the decades. Buoyed by excellent writing and a supporting cast of talented students (particularly the venomous but sympathetic Karen played by Bella Heathcote, whom first catches the rakish Mr. Michael's eye), it runs a brisk 107 minutes and doesn't belabor the inevitable romance to spring up between Michaels and the more sensible Holly. My only real complaint with the film is an unnecessary scene in which Holly and Karen have a rather public catfight with one another, which is cliche and beneath both characters. It makes Holly, to anyone who has spent any time in the real world, appear to be an insecure older woman threatened by this young filly, which runs counter to the poised, confident nature of her character throughout the rest of the film.

There is plenty of school spirit to go around - sweeping vistas of the campus (Oooh lookie, that's the room I took Anthropology in, and the New Student Union!), quips about the weather - Michaels darts into the bookstore to buy an umbrella because it is pouring and goes outside to beautiful sunshine a few minutes later - and enough BU merchandise on everyone. They even make a big deal about the plethora of antique carousels and the famed spiedie sandwiches, which offers a comforting taste of home for any BU alumni, and a fun backdrop for a smart comedy for anyone unfamiliar with the area.

Toby sez: Hilarious razor-sharp comedy and a heartfelt plot make this film stand out from a slew of mediocre rom coms, and those with a connection to the university will enjoy revisiting "greatest hits" of the Binghamton area on the big screen.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Critic's Pick of the Week: Nocturna, a hidden star in the wide sky of European animation

The Cat Shepherd, Tim, & Tobermory, Tim's assigned guardian cat, with friends.
Most of us have been afraid of the dark at one point or another in our lives. We try to face those fears as best we can, and it is good training for later in life when as adults we face bigger and altogether too real demons. Nocturna, an animated film that is a collaboration between two French and Spanish studios and directed by and, explores this theme of facing terrors in the dark with a collection of round-faced, quirky characters, done in the traditional hand-drawn cel-animation style.

I stumbled across this little gem completely by accident. I was on Amazon Prime trying to find Song of the Sea, an Irish animated film by the creators of one of my absolute favorites, The Secret of Kells, which was nominated for best animated feature in this year's Oscar race. (Sadly it did not win, and I have my own personal grumblings about two Disney featured films winning that title two years running, but I'll save that for another time). Unfortunately, Song of the Sea was not available, but Amazon did recommend Nocturna to me (plus, it was free to watch - bonus!) Hmmm..lots of cats, check, focus on the slighty grim topic of shadowy night figures, check, cute, pudgy looking kid, and only 80 minutes long. Okay, let's wind this up and see what happens!

The pastel colors and beautiful watercolor skies make the viewer feel like they are inside a Monet painting. We see that our pint-sized hero Tim is something of an outcast in the orphanage where he lives in an unspecified city (looks a bit like Paris, or perhaps Barcelona - the European influence is palpable here). He also happens to be a budding astronomist, gazing up into the sky from the orphanage window and relying on his stars there to keep him safe from his fear of the dark. One night, he discovers that his favorite star has winked out, which upsets him greatly. When a school bully pulls a nasty trick on him the following night, leaving him in total darkness, he finds his way up on the roof, and discovers a whole other world that comes alive at night, of creatures and cats - loads and loads of cats - each who are assigned to a child to make sure they are sound asleep to ensure the world of Nocturna can be kept safe and undiscovered by the unsuspecting human world. The cat's long,elegant tails quirk upward like a dancing parade of questions marks as they wind their way through the night with shining, golden eyes and sleek, blue-grey bodies.

Tim and Tobermory - images courtesy of Filmax Animation. 
Unfortunately, Tobermory, Tim's assigned cat, has a case of narcolepsy (his version of course, since his "daytime" is at night), so he doesn't do a great job of getting him to go back to sleep. As a result, Tim meets the Cat Shepherd - a hulking, doll-like being who is short on temper but big on heart, who grudgingly agrees to take him to Moka - the coffee-bean crunching head honcho of Nocturna - when they realize more than one star is disappearing on them. I enjoy the stage set effect of the nighttime in the city - that everything atmospheric is achieved through gears, levers, wires - and a dash of magic amid all the practicality.

The accents of the various characters in the English dub are a bit confusing - Tim has a refined British accent, while other characters sound like they have arrived fresh out of the Bronx. But it seems to fit the kaleidoscope of cultural influences the film embraces. I particularly enjoyed the hair "undressers", doll-like creatures who resemble middle-aged women with Long Island accents whose job is to mess up children's hair in their sleep and thus create the effect of "bed head." The plot does become unfocused at times, particularly during the sequences involving Moka. His apparently flexible morals are befuddling rather than intriguing, to the point of where one wonders why he needs to be part of the plot at all. But the eye candy of of the animation and the warmth and grit of the supporting cast (including one very tough little light fixture) more than make up for it's less-than-streamlined moments.

Toby sez: Quirky and unexpected, it is a true showcase of stunning animation created across the seas. Plus, the plethora of cats is a big thumbs up.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Critic's Pick of the Week: Feeling the love with HP Lovecraft's Precipitous Tales, Narrated by Neil Hellegers

Image courtesy of 
Ah, February. A time for Valentines, Mardi Gras, roses, and....slowly going mad?

Precipitous Tales: Origins of Mythos features four of the master of horror HP Lovecraft's earliest short stories, retold by New York voice actor, Neil Hellegers. Accompanied by the ominous music expertly mixed in by the good people at Alcazar Audioworks, an independent audiobooks publisher based on the West Coast, it makes for well-produced suspenseful listening. 

Hellegers' deep, rich voice conveys a sense of cultured aristocracy with a tinge of the uncertainty of one who has experienced terror so great as to be scarred for all time. Most haunting is the fourth tale, "The Music of Erich Zahn," which tells of a young man who rents an apartment in a rambling old mansion and finds he has a rather...interesting neighbor. He is an old man who must play his music furiously through the night to keep at bay some kind of all-consuming evil force threatening to rip out of its world into ours at any moment. What is enjoyable about Hellegers' narration is the sense of doubt underlying his tones as he embodies the questionable psyches of the main narrative voices in each story. He understands that the characters in the story know how crazy they sound - and they don't care. All that matters is the story be told before it is too late. It helps that Hellegers doesn't take himself too seriously - he reads the work with a comfortable flow that eschews stodginess so often affected in retelling classic works of literature. His desperate, cautionary edge, honed to a sharpness with well-placed dramatic pauses and rising inflections, creates a polished finished product that will satisfy fans of Lovecraft and help usher in new ones. It is a great introduction piece to Lovecraft's writing, a prequel for the masterpieces that he would later write. 

Toby sez: Suspenseful, fun, engaging - A great homage to the works of a classic American writer. Well worth two hours of your time for a listen. 

Click below to hear an audio sample! 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Critic's Pick of the Week: Leatherworker Corey Christopher

As promised, I am featuring something or someone cool that I run across each week. I'm happy to feature artist Corey Christopher as the first of this series, whose Etsy page TaDaLaboratory blew up last November when her Smaug leather cuff (among others) was featured on Fashionably Geek. I'm here to showcase a bracelet she made specifically for me, fondly entitled, "Once a King or Queen in Narnia, Always a King or Queen in Narnia."

 This is Corey. Hi, Corey!

Corey says, "I'm badass."

This is the cuff in the initial process of engraving the soft leather. 

Closeup of the Aslan image.

Once the engraving is completed, the painstaking process of painting the details begins. Corey mentioned that this was "definitely one of the toughest paint jobs I've done. His eyes are really piercing." I'm inclined to agree!

His gaze is searing into my soul!

The final product once the paint drys, including the incredibly ecstatic recipient!

Corey makes every single one of her cuffs by hand from real leather from beginning to end, and she also makes key chains, belt bags, and baggage tags. Prices range from $15 to $60; pretty reasonable for something so unique! Her designs range from Lord of the Rings to Dr. Who to Marvel and everything in between; she always has something new and exciting to add to her collection! Follow her on Twitter @CoreyChiev and check out her shop here. 

Toby rating of finished product: 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

In the Projection Booth with Michael Dunaway, director of 21 Years: Richard Linklater

Michael and I at the Sewanee Union Theatre, Sewanee, TN
I had the pleasure of interviewing 1991 Sewanee, University of the South alumn Michael Dunaway, editor of the film section of Paste Magazine and founding partner of Gasoline Films and of Poitier & Dunaway Motion Pictures. Last month, Dunaway showed the latest film he directed, 21 Years: Richard Linklater, a documentary (currently on DVD) that follows the work of a pivotal filmmaker whose film Boyhood is currently nominated for SIX Oscars, including Best Picture. (Linklater's also long been a favorite director of mine -  you can read my review of his film Bernie here.) Passionate and affable, Dunaway agreed to meet with me in the projection booth of the Sewanee Union Theatre, where he as a student worked many a night, and answer a few burning questions about 21 Years and why he chose to become a filmmaker. You can view in the interview below! Special thanks to Laura Willis, editor of the Sewanee Mountain Messenger, and Alexander Bruce at the Sewanee Union Theatre (go like their page on Facebook!) for making this opportunity possible. 


Words of wisdom from Linklater that Michael cherishes:
"He captures that punk rock ethos: Don’t ask anybody for permission, don’t wait till the time is right, don’t wait till everything’s perfect and until your skills are perfectly honed, f that, just get out and make something."



Friday, December 5, 2014

A singular listening experience: Gethsemane, An Epic Poem About Us brings back the compelling genre of radio theatre

Cover of Gethsemane, used by permission of the author
When I think of epic poems, I recall pieces of work written long ago, such as Homer's Odyssey and John Milton's Paradise Lost. So when California author Raymond Jacobs reached out to me about reviewing his most recent work, Gethsemane, An Epic Poem About Us, I was intrigued. And, to celebrate my 100th post on this blog, I thought it was only fitting to review something as thoughtful and fascinating as this title.

 Jacobs takes on the challenge of rhyming an entire intense storyline into three acts, describing the fall of Lucifer and mankind, and then his own ultimate undoing, through the eyes of the Devil himself. Taking it one step further, Jacobs made his poem into what he calls a "Radio Theatre Experience"; inspired by the works of Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre he founded in 1937 that brought famous radio dramas such as War of the Worlds to listeners across the country. Though Jacobs is the main narrator, he utilizes a host of vocal talents to act out various scenarios that the poem describes, such as Lucifer's initial fall from God's grace in the first act. He also uses vocal manipulation software at times - for instance, the deep and booming "voice of the Lord" (played by Sigmund Kramer) is accentuated with an effect making it sound echoing and cavernous.

The result is a program just under two hours that is surprising and wholly unique. While the title lends itself to be thought of as a religious work, Jacobs refutes that, saying that the story is "philosophical, and one with conviction," that speaks to people from all walks of life and all belief systems.

That being said, Gethsemane takes patience. Being such a complicated work, it demands close listening, particularly because of its format as a poem and the accompanying rhyme scheme. Jacobs has an understated, even tone and crisp enunciation, but there are moments when the accompanying sound effects hinder rather than enhance. One such instance is a snake hissing in the background that to my ears overshadowed the main narration, making it hard to catch the main narrator's words, particularly when I was listening in the car. However, the baroque music, composed specifically for this work by Mark Moya, is balanced perfectly to the text and adds an extra layer of emotion to an already powerful work.

Jacobs, who describes the poem as being an "asylum for him to exercise his demons," says that the major challenge of converting Gethsemane into the audio realm is finding volunteers willing to donate their time and talents to the project.

"Their invaluable contribution had more to do with the material they were performing than anything else.  This means casting voice-over actors who were willing to travel (long distances, in some cases) to act a part or recruiting musicians who were willing to squeeze what little time they had between a busy class schedule to rehearse and then record," says Jacobs, via email. "All the musicians involved in the recording of the original, baroque score are students at the University of Southern California and the esteemed Thornton School of Music. They all saw the potential behind the audiobook and made it the unique and exhilarating production that it is."

Gethsemane will not be for everyone - it is edgy with its stark portrayal of passion and death, and how narrow the chasm is between the two. Due to some graphic sensual content, it is definitely geared towards mature audiences. The message is about us as humans - deeply flawed and yet with resilient spirits capable of redemption, even from ourselves.

Toby sez: Moving and complex, this work successfully engages audiences in "active listening" and though some of the sound mixing could've been better balanced, the journey will give them food for thought long after the last stanzas of the story are told.