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After my little rant about the omission of director Robert Stevenson from "Saving Mr. Banks," I figured I had better go and actually watch the film to make sure I wasn't making a mountain out of a molehill. I think my point still stands, with a couple of caveats. Yes, the movie is limited to examining the two weeks of pre-production on "Mary Poppins" in 1961 that Stevenson had nothing to do with. And yes, plenty of other creatives who were vital to the film ended up on the cutting room floor, including writer Bill Walsh. Yet the events of "Saving Mr. Banks" as they played out were largely invented and very skewed. Walt Disney did greet P.L. Travers upon her arrival to California, and then promptly left town, so it still rankles that his presence looms so large in the film and he's been handed such an outsized share of the credit for the success of "Mary Poppins."

If you put all that aside and buy into the fictionalized version of events, though, how was the movie? Not bad. It's an entertaining watch, particularly if you're a fan of the 1964 "Mary Poppins" film, which I am. Emma Thompson plays the uptight, combatative P.L. Travers, author of the "Mary Poppins" books, who has been cajoled by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) for over two decades to sell him the rights to make a "Poppins" film. Financial necessity forces her to board a plane to sunny Southern California, to work on a film treatment with writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman (B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman). As Travers battles for creative control, we also learn the origins of "Mary Poppins" through flashbacks to her troubled childhood in Australia, when she was a little girl named Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley) with a loving, but unstable alcoholic father (Colin Farrell).

The film starts out well enough, with Emma Thompson's performance a major highlight. P.L. Travers is a career curmudgeon, who hates cartoons and musicals, rolls her eyes at whimsy and sentiment, and makes impossible demands that change from one day to the next. Nobody likes her, with the exception of her cheerful driver, Ralph (Paul Giamatti), and she doesn't care. However, thanks to Thompson she isn't unlikeable. The scenes that take place at the studio, where we get to see some of the painful adaptation process for "Mary Poppins," is easily the best stuff in the film. This is also the material that is truest to history, since there are audio recordings of many of the initial story meetings with Travers and the "Mr. Banks" crew had one of the people who was actually in the room, Richard Sherman, to consult with.

Things get iffier with the portrayal of Walt Disney. Tom Hanks turns in a nice performance, but he's not playing Walt Disney as he was, but very much the corporate image of Walt Disney that he projected to the world, with a couple of minor faults like enjoying alcohol and the occasional cigarette. We get a few glimpses of the shrewd businessman who built the Disney empire, but you have to look pretty hard beneath the charming veneer of Uncle Walt. What's worse is the totally invented notion that the "Mary Poppins" film somehow purged Travers of some of her childhood demons, that Disney magic and Walt's insight into her psyche, rather than money, triumphed over her cynicism. This is the kind of sugarcoating that Disney detractors have always despised, and I couldn't help feeling pretty frustrated on Travers' behalf.

The film is well-made and well-executed, a feel-good bit of corporate self-gilding that most audiences should eat right up. If I had known less about the production history of "Mary Poppins" and Walt Disney, I'm sure I would have enjoyed it more. The only really problematic stuff is the flashback sequences, which are commendably darker and tackle heavier subject matter than the usual Disney film, but they take up too much time and are rarely well connected to the events taking place in 1961. I wasn't surprised to learn that "Saving Mr. Banks" originally devoted far more attention to Travers' personal life and history, and the dealings with Disney were only added much later.

So all in all, I have very mixed feelings about the film. Thompson's performance is definitely worth the watch, and Disney fans should be happy to get a chance to see "Mary Poppins" concept sketches from the archives and the Sherman brothers working out the compositions for those iconic songs. But making-of films about famous films rarely manage to impress me, because there's too much of a tendency to glamorize real-life events, and this is just the latest example. The filmmaking process is fascinating enough without having to graft these tired old redemption plots into the works. I'm glad I saw "Saving Mr. Banks," but I wouldn't watch it again.

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I was living in Oakland at the time the events depicted in this movie took place, but I wasn't living in the same Oakland as Oscar Grant was. Sure, I had a pretty up-close look at the aftermath of some of the rioting downtown in 2009, but it hardly made any impact on me. I commuted across the bay to San Francisco every work day and spent most of my time there. On the weekends I did my shopping in Chinatown and the more affluent areas around Lake Merrit. I was on the BART train nearly every day, but I certainly never had the same experience as a rider that Oscar Grant did.

Grant was African-American. He was from a lower-income background, had a record, and seemed to be a guy who everything was stacked against from the start. If he looked and talked like me, there's no question that he wouldn't have been singled out by the BART police in the early morning hours of New Year's Day, 2009. And he wouldn't have become the victim of one of the most awful instances of police misconduct in recent memory. "Fruitvale Station" dramatizes the last day of Oscar's life, where we get to see the version of Oakland that he knew and experienced, leading up to that last ride on the BART train.

It would have been easy for filmmaker Ryan Coogler to idealize his protagonist and blame society for all his woes, and the screen version of Oscar has been called out for being too good to be true for some critics' tastes. However, I found Oscar, played by Michael B. Jordan, a nicely humanized mixture of good and bad impulses. He's recently out of jail and trying to get his life back in order, spending time with a girlfriend, Sophina (Melanie Diaz), his young daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal). A big portion of his last day is taken up with running errands for a birthday dinner for his mother, Wanda (Octavia B. Spencer). Oscar has a lot of potential, but he's also got an aggressive, angry streak. No one needs to explain that he brings a lot of the pain upon himself.

I also liked the portrayal of Oakland, which tends to get a bad rap in the Bay Area. It certainly has its problems, but in "Fruitvale" it's not the poverty-stricken, violence-plagued ghetto that it's often portrayed as. Instead, it's a realistic mix of people from different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds across the spectrum. More importantly, none of the people Oscar meets comes across as anything other than an individual, even the police officers. There's a scene where he's in a grocery store, trying to reason with a former employer who fired him. The boss is reasonable, stays calm, and is entirely polite and sympathetic while Oscar is the one who loses his temper and comes off looking like a troublemaker.

Where the film runs into trouble is that the sequence of events feels entirely too contrived. There are too many chance meetings, too many coincidences, and too many points where you can tell that the filmmakers are trying to convey a point subtly, but end up hitting you over the head with a piece of symbolism or a line of dialogue. Frankly, too much happens to Oscar, requiring him to demonstrate multiple sides of himself in a way that is far too calculated. This is Coogler's first film, so some of these bumps are not unexpected, but because of his inexperience he does occasionally lose the nice sense of verisimilitude that sets this film apart from the more typical, polished studio issue films like "The Butler."

Fortunately the performances are good enough to carry the weaker material, and get us to the intense finale, where the shooting of Oscar Grant is recreated. We see events largely from the point of view of Sophina and Wanda, and it's here that Octavia Spencer really gets her chance to shine. I think I would have preferred the film if it had dropped the earlier sections of the story with Oscar making his rounds in the East Bay and focused solely on the shooting and aftermath, because there's more than enough going on in these sequences to sustain a full film.

But then we wouldn't have that great performance from Michael B. Jordan. And we wouldn't have some genuinely moving moments that help to set up that memorable finale. Ultimately, getting know Oscar Grant and the city of Oakland makes an impact, makes the shooting feel more real and immediate. I had some of the necessary context going into the film, but not all of it, and most viewers wouldn't be familiar with the community at all. So I'm glad the filmmakers took the approach that they did, and "Frutivale Station" was about more than just a shooting.
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People have been complaining about the state of romantic comedies for years, me included, so it's nice to see one come along that happily subverts the status quo while still being, unarguably, a romantic comedy. Written, directed, and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the titular ladies man, this film has been billed in some circles as a more realistic story about relationships from the point of view of a typical guy. The main character, Jon Martello, is a modernized version of the famous lover, a nightclub-hopping ladies' man who never gets emotionally involved with his conquests and admits that pornography is better at sexually gratifying him than his flings with actual women. There's a "Jersey Shore" vibe too, since Jon is Italian-American and from what appears to be the New York area. In short, this isn't your typical rom-com hero.

But then into his life comes the girl, the "dime," as Jon refers to her, a rare winner of the top score on the 1-10 scale that he and his buddies use to rate potential hookups. This is Barbara (Scarlett Johanssen), whose sex appeal is so high that she gets Jon to break many of his rules in order to win her over. He finds himself getting into a real relationship with her, and willing to meet her demands, including going back to school. The only real sticking point is Jon's consumption of internet porn, which Barbara has no tolerance for, and Jon finds difficult to give up. Does the real girl win out over the digital ones? Well, it's not as simple as that, and Jon discovers that he's got a few other issues that he needs to work out regarding his love life.

I'm not surprised that this film has gotten some mixed reactions, especially from audiences who traditionally enjoy romantic-comedies. "Don Jon" is so much raunchier and testosterone driven than your typical romance, initially it comes as something of a shock. We see R-rated, but still fairly graphic examples of the porn Jon prefers, and he describes his masturbation practices for us without a hint of shame. He uses pick-up-artist techniques and discusses women as disposable objects without hesitation. Jon is charming enough to get away with it, of course, but it's also clear that he is not bad person. He does nothing out of line with any of the women we see him with, but he's got certain notions about relations with the opposite gender that are troubling.

"Don Jon" offers some interesting commentary on the differing versions of ideal love connections that modern day men and women often subscribe to. Jon may have bought into the player culture to a potentially damaging degree, but Barbara has been similarly conditioned to expect the fairy-tale romance. Of course, she's a fan of more typical romantic comedies. Where did Jon's ideas about gender relations come from? Well, there's his family, headed by his hyper-masculine father, played with delightful brashness by Tony Danza. And then there are Jon's weekly trips to the church confessional, where all his myriad transgressions are easily confessed and absolved.

Jon doesn't interact with women who aren't family or don't score high on his rating scale, so the most important relationship he develops in the film isn't with Barbara, but with an older woman he happens to meet and become friends with at college, Esther (Julianne Moore). Most of the discussions of "Don Jon" I've read don't talk about her much, probably because her role involves a lot of spoilers. That's a shame, because she is a big reason why the film works as well as it does. Joseph Gordon-Levitt's performance is the one driving the film, of course, but many of his better scenes are with Moore. I'm sorry to say that Scarlett Johanssen feels a little wasted. She looks great, but there's really not much to her character.

As for Gordon-Levitt as a director, this is certainly a promising first film, nice and light without feeling flippant, stylized without feeling overworked. Moreover, I find it encouraging that this is the kind of material he chose to tackle for his debut, a friendly tweak on a masculine ideal that fits right in with Michael Bay's "Pain & Gain" and Scorsese's "Wolf of Wall Street." And he got to play a role that I don't think anybody would have thought to cast him as - mind you, I hope this isn't indicative of the role that Gordon-Levitt wants to play from now on. One movie with him as The Situation's stand-in was fun, but it could get old real quick.

"Don Jon" skews more guy-friendly, but I certainly enjoyed it and appreciated its aims. It should be an entertaining watch for anyone that doesn't mind a little smut and knows what they're getting themselves into. And for those of us tired of the usual rom-com formulas, it's a welcome change of pace.

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I'd never heard of Oscar Wilde's fable about "The Selfish Giant," so I admit that I spent a good portion of Clio Barnard's new film trying to work out how the title was applicable to the story. There are no literal giants in sight. Instead, we meet two boys from a poor neighborhood in Northern England, Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas). Was one of these two the metaphorical Giant?

Arbor is the more noticeably troubled of the pair, who has behavioral problems that require medication, is contemptuous of authority, and uncontrollable by his harried mother. Early on in the film, he gets himself permanently expelled from school for going too far when he defends Swifty from bullies. Arbor is happy about the development, because it gives him more time to earn money by collecting or stealing metal objects around town to sell for scrap. But Arbor is a scrawny kid and it's hard to call his actions selfish when they're frequently the result of good, if misguided, intentions. What about Swifty, his larger, more hulking friend? He's even less likely as a candidate for the role of the Selfish Giant. Swifty helps Arbor go scrapping, but he has a much gentler temperament and frequently serves as the voice of reason. He also has a brighter outlook for the future, with a particular knack for handling horses.

Maybe the Selfish Giant is Kitten (Sean Gilder), the owner of the local scrap yard who pays the boys for the collected metal and rents out his horse and trap to them to bring in bigger hauls. He's a mean old cheat who none-too-subtly encourages the boys to steal and vandalize, because they'll receive lesser punishments than an adult if they're caught. However, he's clearly a secondary character to the two boys, one antagonist among dozens who they have to contend with. Arbor and Swifty both come from dysfunctional homes run by exhausted mothers and hostile fathers. Everyone is poor, everyone is desperate, and there are no visible alternatives to living this way. Violence is a constant in their lives, where adults don't hesitate to get physical to show their disapproval, accompanied by streams of verbal abuse. As terrible as Arbor's behavior is, it's hard to blame him when you look at his role models and environment.

Stories of children surviving on the brink have been a mainstay of cinema for decades. Often the kids are idealized little saints, so it was nice to have a protagonist like Arbor, whose mean-spirited antics and bald-faced greed would test the patience of any adult. For the majority of the film's running time it seemed inevitable that he would grow up to become another crook Kitten or another disinterested father. Though I sympathized with him I found it difficult to root for him, because Arbor getting his way would almost certainly lead to trouble for both himself and everyone around him. The best thing in his life is clearly Swifty, but is the friendship really beneficial for either of the boys? Nearly all the adults in the film name Arbor as a bad influence. Even Swifty himself admits as much. So why are they friends?

This is Clio Barnard's first narrative feature after she rose to prominence with the innovative documentary "The Arbor." She both wrote and directed. Her stark images of poverty and avoidance of artifice are reminiscent of similar coming-of-age features by Andrea Arnold and Ken Loach. However, there are also the placid transitional shots of cooling towers and power transformers, of animals peacefully grazing in the fields that the boys traverse. We see that their world isn't entirely miserable and unpleasant, and though the characters are often awful to each other, there are moments of humanity and redemption too. Friendship and sacrifice are the major themes film, as they were the major themes of "The Selfish Giant" fairy tale, which inspired it. And the longer I thought about it, after reading up on Oscar Wilde's original, the more I was sure that the Giant wasn't any of the characters in the film, but rather something bigger and less defined. Something spiritual, perhaps.

Make no mistake that "The Selfish Giant" is an unrelentingly harsh and bleak film. Though some of the characters do find a measure of redemption, the audience isn't likely to take much comfort in it. However, I was surprised at how moving I found the film, thanks in large part to the performances of the two young actors, and the candidness of the filmmaking. The story is strong, with unexpected twists and turns, including an intense illegal racing scene with the horses on a public rode that would have come at the end of a more conventional project. But most vitally, "The Selfish Giant" does a wonderful job of capturing a particularly brutal time and place and culture that gives its simple story so much power.

I can't wait to see what Clio Barnard does next.
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I've never found museums particularly inviting places, probably because I've never had enough time to really enjoy them as intended. I've always had to rush through them, getting only a few minutes with each individual piece of artwork. I learned to appreciate museums, but only managed to connect with the art itself very rarely, and then never for very long. I think that's why I got so wrapped up in "Museum Hours" which presents that ideal museum experience that I never managed to have. It follows the lives of two people, an elderly guard named Johann (Bobby Sommer) at the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum in Vienna, and a traveler from Montreal, Anne (Mary Margaret O'Hara) who has come to see a comatose relative in the local hospital, and needs something to fill the lonely hours of her vigil.

"Museum Hours" is not an especially long film, but its pace is slow and deliberate. There are long scenes of people simply talking about art and art history for several minutes at a time, including a lengthy digression where a lecturer (Ela Piplits) delivers a talk to a group of visitors on Bruegel's work that segues into a spirited debate. We learn Johann's views on his job, the various museum patrons, his co-workers, and his own favorite pieces through occasional, thoughtful narration that appears throughout the film, paired with cinematography that lingers on paintings, statues, architecture, and the silent winter landscapes outside the museum. The story of Johann and Anne's developing friendship feels incidental to the simple experience of seeing and observing the world that they inhabit. It's a lovely, rare film that is sure to be an infuriating bore to some viewers, but an entrancing, absorbing watch for others.

The subject matter may seem intimidating, but you absolutely don't need to know a thing about art to enjoy "Museum Hours." The movie is not about the art or the museum, but the ways in which two characters who are in the best position to benefit from them, perceive and are shaped by the museum visits. It's almost as fun to hear about Johann describing a series of humorous Arcimboldo paintings, and give his opinions on them, as it is to actually look at the paintings themselves. He's awkward talking about himself, but becomes far more comfortable when talking about paintings or music. Slowly, over the course of the film, art becomes not just a convenient topic to help fill in the empty spaces and long gaps of time, but something that the characters seek out and enjoy together. We see how it helps to define who they are and facilitates the growing connection between them.

Jem Cohen is not a name I was familiar with, and it's not a surprise that the director is known mostly for experimental and documentary films, video art installations, and multidisciplinary collaborations with other artists, particularly musicians. In this case one of his leads, Mary Margaret O'Hara, is better known as a musician than an actress, and contributed the few pieces on the film's minimal soundtrack. Cohen's background also has parallels to Johann's, who we learn managed rock bands in his younger days, and then became a teacher before taking up his position as a guard. This is an artist well versed in the culture and the atmosphere of museums, who can comment on them intelligently, and does a better job of sharing his enjoyment of them with the audience than I've ever seen anyone else manage.

The scenes that take place outside the museum tend to be the ones that move the plot along, mostly casual scenes that show Anne and Johann getting to know each other, visiting the hospital, and a few sightseeing trips. We hear snippets of their conversations, learn details of their lives, and watch them enjoy each other's company. These scenes feel intensely private, moreso even than the ones where we're hearing Johann's train of thought directly through his narration. There's a lovely, sad moment where Anne quietly sings to her cousin in the hospital that says more about their relationship than any of the dialogue does.

"Museum Hours" is one of those films that I nearly let slip between the cracks. It had a very small release over the summer that barely attracted any attention, but fortunately it came up on a couple of critics' top ten lists at the end of the year, and it's been readily available on all the usual streaming services for some time. Hardly anyone but the most highbrow film fans saw it, but I don't see why it couldn't appeal to a much wider audience. Anyone who has ever enjoyed a museum visit, or like me wishes that they could have gotten a little more out of their museum visits, should look into "Museum Hours."
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There are so many expectations that have been heaped on the latest Disney CGI feature, "Frozen," that I feel obligated to start out this review by addressing some of them. Yes, the marketing campaign featuring Olaf the Snowman was terribly misleading, and "Frozen" is really much darker and more interesting than the slapstick-filled trailers made it look. Yes, it is a musical in the grand tradition of Disney musicals.

Unlike "Tangled," which was light on song numbers, "Frozen" boasts nine on its soundtrack, and for the first half hour more is sung than spoken. No, the movie is not a "Tangled" clone, though the designs are similar and it's clearly intended for the same audience. And finally, no, "Frozen" is not as good as the A+ Cinemascore and big box office returns would seem to indicate. It is very good as animated features go, and worth seeing, but expectations need some tempering.

So what is "Frozen" all about? A few elements from the Hans Christian Anderson classic, "The Snow Queen," are incorporated into a largely original, modern-minded fairy tale about two royal sisters. Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell) are born princesses of the Scandinavian kingdom of Arendelle. As children they are very close, but Elsa has magical abilities to summon ice and snow that get away from her one day, and cause a terrible accident, harming her little sister.

For everyone's safety, and particularly Anna's, Elsa shuts herself away from the world, and tries to control and suppress her powers. Anna is puzzled and hurt by the rejection, but Elsa maintains the distance between them, even after their parents tragically perish. However, another accident on Elsa's coronation day causes disaster for the kingdom and prompts Elsa to flee into the wilderness. Anna goes after her, with the help of a mountaineer named Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his reindeer Sven, and a snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad) that Elsa inadvertently brings to life with her magic.

At first glance, "Frozen" looks like a very typical Disney fairy-tale adaptation. You have the Broadway musical story structure, the goofy sidekicks, the bickering love birds, and not one, but two doe-eyed Disney heroines who sing about their feelings. However, "Frozen" actually subverts parts of the Disney formula, particularly some of the more troubling old conventions about love and romance. There are villains, but very different from the kind we typically see in Disney films. It's not clear at first whether Elsa is meant to be bad or good, as she's made to be extremely sympathetic, and when she acts like a villain, we understand why. She gets the film's showstopper, "Let it Go," a thrilling self-affirmation anthem that Idina Menzel knocks out of the park.

Moreover, while "Frozen" does have a lot of romance in it, the most important relationship is really between Elsa and Anna. Their sisterly bond is given far more attention and development than anything else in the film, and handled with considerably more thoughtfulness than the similar mother-daughter dynamics of last year's "Brave." Also, the treatment of Elsa's magic, referred to repeatedly as a "curse" has shades of the Beast's condition in "Beauty and the Beast." There are some very complex emotions and motivations in play that might go over the heads of the smallest members of the audience.

So luckily there's Olaf the Snowman, who is not nearly as precious or as cloying as he looked in the previews. Instead, he's a good reminder of why movies like this have comic relief, because that's exactly what he brings to the story, When things get too dark or grim, there's sincere, sweet-natured, dim-witted Olaf to jump into the fray and lighten the mood for a few minutes here, or ten seconds there. He and Sven the reindeer are extremely well deployed, mostly staying on the sidelines but pitching in when appropriate. Olaf in particular is a great character, a subtle manifestation of Elsa's softer side.

Given all the things that "Frozen" does right, it feels stingy to point out that the movie is far from perfect. The music is hit-or-miss, an acceptable approximation of the work of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman on the earlier Disney musicals, but not at the same level. The three acts that are all very well plotted and well written, but tonally might as well be three different movies. Elsa, despite being the most interesting character by far, gets an abbreviated arc that doesn't really deal with the impact of her transformation. And then there's Anna, perfectly likeable, but also clearly Rapunzel-lite.

The film was made on a very short timeline, and I expect a lot of these problems could have been ironed out if the filmmakers had a little more breathing room. At the same time, what they managed to accomplish in that span is astonishing. The visuals are a clear step up from "Tangled," full of gorgeous snow and ice effects, and still retaining that ineffable Disney atmosphere. The heroes are an unusually well-rounded bunch, with Kristoff and Anna's princely suitor Hans (Santino Fontana) making for a nice departure from the usual Disney love interests.

I'm glad to see Disney Animation's fortunes on the rise again. "Frozen" makes for a strong addition to their library, more promising than fulfilling ultimately, but definitely another big step in the right direction.
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2013 may go down as the year of the survival film, with many of the biggest prestige films of the fall featuring individuals placed in extreme situations. "Captain Phillips" is based on the true life hijacking of the Maersk Alabama cargo ship by Somali pirates in 2009. This is easily the kind of film that could have been turned into a gung-ho, bombastic action fantasy with slick set pieces and black and white morality. Fortunately, the movie was put into the capable hands of Paul Greengrass, former documentary filmmaker, and the director of such films as "United 93" and "Bloody Sunday," as well as the latter two Matt Damon "Bourne" films.

"Captain Phillips" takes us step by step through the hijacking, from the ship and the pirates departing from their respective ports, to the attack on the ship, to the hostage situation that results, and finally to the inevitable resolution. It certainly doesn't lack for intensity and thrills, and the central performance by Tom Hanks as Phillips is a good one. However, what really gives the film its power is the decision to give equal attention and character development to the four hijackers. We first meet Muse (Barkhad Abdi), Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman), Najee (Faysal Ahmed), and teenager Elmi (Mahat M. Ali) at their village, and get glimpses of their lives. This provides vital context for everything that follows, and much of the film is told from their point of view.

The commitment to a high level of realism is noticeable all throughout the film, and elevates it. Some incidents and much of the dialogue were clearly invented, but the script by Billy Ray is full of technical and military terminology that no one stops to explain. The Somalis all speak English to some degree, but among themselves they converse in Somali, and they do so at length. In your typical action spectacular, the threat of four armed men in a speedboat would seem to be too small, but in "Captain Phillips," it is carefully established that no one on the ship is armed, the shipping company has failed to provide adequate security, the safeguards and procedures to thwart such an attack are limited, and though military aid is eventually dispatched, it takes a long time to get to there. By the time the pirates manage to board the ship, the seriousness of the threat is clear.

The Somali characters were played by actual Somali actors, a key detail that really helps to sell the story. No one is saying that Samuel L. Jackson is not a great actor and wonderfully intimidating, but he could never play the leader of the pirates, Muse, the way that Barkhad Abdi does. We would never be able to experience the same, gradual humanization of the character the way that we do with him. As good as Hanks is, it's Abdi who gives the most memorable performance here, a wonderful mixture of naive optimist, who keeps trying to reassure us that everything will be all right, and world-weary cynic who has been lied to too many times.

The fly-on-the-wall approach puts the viewer in the thick of the action, which makes the tension all the more terrific. However, the director at the helm make a lot of difference. I've seen an awful lot of films with bad shakeycam recently, but Greengrass all but started the trend with the "Bourne" films, and he knows how to use it better than anyone. The camera bobs up and down with the speedboats and the life rafts, peeks through gratings and binoculars, and when the characters are plunged into darkness, so are we. More importantly, it's all very restrained, controlled, and the action remains perfectly coherent. No motion sickness warnings this time.

The Maersk Alabama story was all over the news when it happened, but I suspect that few in the American public knew the details of what went on during the hijacking, aside from the fact that Phillips survived. And surely there can't have been many who knew the fates of the four Somalis, which the film gives equal narrative weight. Cynics might wonder what the point of dramatizing the event in a film would be, and "Captain Phillips" provides a very good answer. It shows you parts of the story in a way that the news reports never could. It demystifies the Captain even as it celebrates him. And it reminds us that the pirates were human beings too.

I'm not particularly inclined to call "Captain Phillips" one of the best films of the year, though I think it's tremendously entertaining, a technically impressive pieces of cinema, and successfully addresses some tricky issues surrounding Somali piracy head on. It's about the best dramatization of the hijacking that we could have hoped for, but at the same time I don't feel I understand what was so compelling about this story to warrant the film being made. The characters are all a little too idealized, and the plotting is often terribly thin. There are a lot of true life stories that I'd have rather seen Paul Greengrass's talents applied to.
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Let me get the obvious comparisons out of my system first. FOX's new science-fiction cop show, "Almost Human," could also be titled "Blade Runner: The Series" or "Alien Nation: The Android Years." It's takes place in a world roughly thirty years into the future, where android "synthetics" are now a common part of human society. After a massive uptick in crime due to the rise in well-organized, well-armed criminal syndicates who deal in all kinds of dangerous new technology, all police officers are now required to have a synthetic partner.

We're introduced to John Kennex (Karl Urban), a decorated detective who lost his human partner and the team he commanded to a syndicate ambush, and is only returning to duty after nearly two years of recovery, with a synthetic leg and a lot of personal baggage. He initially rejects the idea of a synthetic partner, but is eventually paired up with Dorian (Michael Ealy), an older model that has been largely discontinued, because his model was designed to mimic humans very closely, and had an unfortunate history of mental instability. Supporting players include Kennex's supportive superior, Captain Sandra Maldonado (Lili Taylor), fellow detectives Richard Paul (Michael Irby) and Valerie Stahl (Minka Kelly), and the eccentric lab tech Rudy (Mackenzie Crook), who is their go-to for information on synthetics.

The first few synthetic police officers we see speak and act like we'd expect robots would, with slightly electronically modified voices, overly technical jargon, and strict adherence to the rules and regulations. It doesn't hit the viewer until they meet the far more human-like Dorian that sentient beings in "Almost Human," are being treated as possessions and property, despite the clear evidence that some are built to think and feel and intuit on the same level that human beings do. The fact that Dorian is played by a black actor, and Kennex by a white one only underlines the point. Though there's been a lot of unsubtle hinting, these issues haven't been addressed directly yet, because the show is still busy setting up the buddy-cop dynamic and introducing this new world to the audience, bit by bit.

And what a world. Created by J.H. Wyman, a veteran of "Fringe," and produced by J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot, "Almost Human" is one of the best-looking science fiction universes I've ever seen on television. The worldbuilding is gorgeous and the special effects are feature-quality and liberally used. There's rarely any sign of subpar graphics work or iffy practical elements that tend to dog similar shows like this. The second, case-of-the-week episode is just as impressive-looking as the action-heavy pilot. The show cribs quite a few design elements from "Blade Runner," and "TRON," which gives it an appealing retro-futuristic '80s feel. I suspect that's why "Almost Human" was also giving off some distinct "Miami Vice" vibes too, not that John Kennex would ever be caught dead in pastels.

So far Kennex has been the stoic grump hiding a lot of pain, and Dorian put in a quasi-counselor role, pointedly trying to get him to reconnect to humanity. I really like the pairing of Urban and Ealy, two actors who have been knocking around the media landscape for far too long without adequate opportunities to show what they can do. I know I've seen Ealy before in other roles, but found it hard to recall those performances, but in "Almost Human," it's almost impossible to stop looking at him. He doesn't play up any quirks to denote Dorian's artificiality, but it's there. I could spend the rest of the season just watching his uncanny valley reactions to things.

The banter's been great, and the overall writing strong enough that I'll be happy to wait for the deeper, juicier storylines to develop the way they have on the other Bad Robot shows like "Person of Interest." So far the show has set up a big arc that will follow Kennex trying to bring down the syndicate and find out what happened to his ex-girlfriend Anna (Mekia Cox), who disappeared while he was in a coma. There's also a lot we need to uncover about Dorian's origins. This is pretty rote stuff, but hopefully it'll lead to better things in the future.

I'm also itching to see the supporting cast fleshed out and developed more. Minka Kelly's character, yet another victim of low-cut blouse syndrome, is so obviously Kennex's major love interest that the show doesn't bother trying to pretend that she isn't for more than one episode. Lili Taylor and Mackenzie Crook on network television should be a treat though, if the creators give their characters enough to do. And apparently John Larroquette will be joining the cast shortly. He's always fun.

If "Almost Human" keeps up its current level of quality and ambition, this could be a great sci-fi series, and there haven't been many lately. I'm also very encouraged that we're dealing with a hard sci-fi concept, artificial intelligence, rather than the softer genre entries that have been coming in lately, like all the superpower and post-apocalypse shows. And with a cast and budget at this level, I'm hoping for the best.
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I was a little confused by the early trailers for "The World's End." Wan't this supposed to be Edgar Wright and company's spoof of an apocalypse film? Or were we looking at something closer to "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," which though technically under the aegis of the sci-fi genre, is much closer to horror, and they'd already covered very similar thematic ground in "Sean of the Dead," right? Anyway, the prior collaborations of Wright with actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost was strong enough that I was willing to give them some benefit of the doubt.

"World's End" caps off what is now popularly known as the "Cornetto Trilogy," begun with zombie parody "Sean of the Dead," and continued with action movie lampoon, "Hot Fuzz." If you didn't know anything about "World's End," you might initially mistake it for a pleasant little comedy about a group of old college friends who reunite after a few decades to go bar-hopping together. Simon Pegg plays Gary King, once the coolest guy in town, but now a washed-up, middle-aged nobody who never really did anything with his life. Trying to recapture some of his former glory, he manipulates his old friends Andy (Nick Frost), Steven (Paddy Considine), Oliver (Martin Freeman), and Peter (Eddie Marsan) to come help him finish the Golden Mile, which requires twelve pints downed from twelve different pubs around their hometown of Newton Haven. Twenty years ago, they didn't manage to finish, but this time Gary is determined to succeed.

There's absolutely nothing genre-related going on in the first thirty to forty minutes of the film, but it's still a pretty entertaining look at a group of old friends taking stock of where they've ended up after twenty years. Gary is extremely likeable, in spite of being a mess of a human being and willing to resort to all kinds of lies and tricks in order to get his way. Pegg gives him a lot of rough-edged charm and vulnerability. Frost, meanwhile, is playing against type as the most world-weary and most successful of the bunch, who has the least amount of patience for Gary's antics. Their relationship, as is tradition, is the heart of the film. The other three members of their group are less well defined, but get their own little subplots and moments to shine. I'd have been perfectly happy to see a straight comedy with these guys, just dealing with typical middle-aged problems.

So when the supernatural action business does get underway, initially I was a little put off. Were we really going to have to drop all this good character-building for an hour of fights and chases and CGI explosions? But this wasn't "Transformers," but an Edgar Wright film, and he's always very adept at weaving all the themes and the story threads into the action. The guys do quite a bit of soul-searching and personal demon slaying as they try to survive the night. I won't give away the nature of the threat, in case you haven't been spoiled by the trailers and the commercials yet, but rest assured that Wright and the rest also do right by the science-fiction genre, the way they did with the zombies and the action heroes.

Edgar Wright's movie universes are always a lot of fun because they're so well constructed. "The World's End" has loads of little details you won't pick up until a rewatch, all of them subtly and not-so-subtly reinforcing the story's themes and ideas. The science-fiction story parallels the guys' own gradual slide into complacency and suburban stagnation over the years. Each new bar brings new surprises, the situation escalating to a wonderfully weird finale. I liked that there were real consequences to people's actions, and the story goes to some surprisingly deep, dark, and serious places. On the other hand, the action is a blast to watch, the humor delivers, and the movie is an awful lot of fun.

As with the previous Cornetto films, keep an eye out for cameos, in-jokes, references, and visual puns. I expect that opinions are going to be very mixed as to how this compares to the previous installments in the trilogy. It's probably the least action-oriented, and the least concerned with dissecting genre tropes, but it also has some of the most well-rounded characters with the most touching stories. The epilogue has been downright controversial in the discussions I've seen around the internet. Personally, I like "The World's End" a little less than "Shaun of the Dead" and a little more than "Hot Fuzz." And it is by far the best of it's own particular little sub-genre of similar films that we've seen this year.

And does this have to be the last Cornetto film? There are so many more movie genres that could use this trio's attention.
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I read "Ender's Game" when I was in junior high, and several of the sequels, but I was never particularly taken with the series. The elements that many of its fans prize - the shockingly young age of the primary characters, the brutality of their actions, and the sadism of their elders, did not particularly appeal to me, and I didn't find them vital to the story. That's probably why I didn't react as badly to the film version of "Ender's Game" as many others, which has predictably had its content considerably toned down from the book.

In a not-too-distant future, mankind has barely survived an invasion force of insectoid aliens called the Formics, and have directed their entire society towards training a generation of young soldiers for the next encounter with them. Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), who runs the Battle School program for the most gifted children, singles out a boy named Andrew "Ender" Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) as their best hope, and aggressively begins to train and mold him into a ruthless leader. Ender is conflicted, and despite Graff's efforts to isolate him, tries to maintain ties with his older sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin). Ha also make friends and allies at Battle School, including a girl named Petra (Hailee Steinfeld) and a younger boy, Bean (Aramis Knight).

"Ender's Game" stays fairly faithful to the books, perhaps too much so, trying to cram far too much story into a film that one suspects was contractually required to run shorter than two hours. There is way too much exposition, introducing concepts and characters at breakneck speeds, and the pacing is a mess. Even with several important subplots deleted from the story, everything still feels rushed. The timeline has been seriously compressed, so that Ender's training only seems to take a few months instead of several years. Many characters don't get nearly as much fleshing out as they need to, and there are some parts of the story that are so watered down, that they don't really work any more. The primary one is the Mind Game, a video game used as a psychological testing tool that takes on greater for Ender. Rendered in unappealing CGI, all the Mind Game sequences are a bust.

Then you have the main feature of the Battle School, the Battle Room, a zero-G training environment where two "armies" of cadets meet in simulated combat. Despite so much importance and emphasis being placed on Ender's experiences in the Battle Room, which have by far the most impressive visuals of the film, we only get to see two training sessions and two full battles. After that, we're whisked away somewhere else completely. It's difficult to stay invested in the film when we keep bouncing around from place to place, from one set of characters and dilemmas to the next. Ender has many challenges to overcome, but they're overcome so quickly that most of them hardly feel like challenges at all.

Still, the movie gets some fundamental things right. The first is Ender, aged up to about twelve or thirteen. Asa Butterfield, last seen as the waif in "Hugo," is credible as a boy with the potential for enormous cruelty and destructiveness, but who also has great intelligence, empathy, and sensitivity. Many of Ender's experiences could have come across as dry philosophical exercises, but Butterfield succeeds in humanizing the young genius enough to make the audience care about him. Likewise Colonel Graff is about the best performance I've seen out of Harrison Ford in years. Some of his actions border on the inhumane, but you understand Graff's motivations and his reasoning.

I wish I could say the same for some of the others. Hailee Steinfeld and Abigail Breslin's roles have been so altered or truncated, they're not left with much to do. Ender and Petra's friendship gets some unfortunate romantic connotations the way they've been aged up. The role of Major Anderson, the second in command at Battle School, was beefed up for Viola Davis. She's placed as a counterpoint to Graff, concerned with Ender's psychological well-being and the damage that the training may be doing. Unfortunately, it's a thread of the story that goes nowhere, and abandoned before it can really pan out. Then there's Moises Arias, an interesting choice to play Ender's chief rival, Bonzo, but severely undercut for simple lack of time.

I got enough out of the movie that I would recommend it, but with a lot of caveats. It's compromised, it's messy, it has a lot of good ideas it doesn't know what to do with, it's too short, and it's too reductive. And yet, I admire it for its great ambitions and for pushing the envelope as far as it did. And I'm glad that we've reached a point, culturally, where an "Ender's Game" film of any faithfulness could be produced.
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The recent French romantic comedy "Populaire" depends heavily on the fact that it takes place at the end of the 1950s, when a bright young woman named Rose Pamphyle (Déborah François) considers a secretarial job for an insurance firm to be something to aspire to. Her new boss, Louis Échard (Romain Duris) quickly dubs her a terrible secretary, but is intrigued by her ability to type at incredible speeds. He maneuvers her into competing in speed typing competitions, becoming her coach and biggest supporter. Is there any doubt that his prickly exterior will eventually soften, and the two will end up together, just as Rose faces her greatest challenge on the world stage? But as always, it's the execution that makes all the difference.

Romances and competition films have similar structures, and it's a mystery to me why they're not paired up more often to such good effect. My guess is that the filmmakers have trouble balancing the two sides of the story, and tend to lose the character drama as the sports cliches take hold. "Populaire" manages the trick by throwing its full weight behind the love story, which is very much a new spin on the old "Pygmalion" plot. The leads have wonderful chemistry and they have plenty of room to build up good characters and establish their onscreen relationship. Déborah François is charming and fresh, while Romain Duris comes off as a jerk at first, but slowly metamophoses into someone worth rooting for.

What I really appreciated about "Populaire" was that it's fairly straightforward, with few of the maddening little arbitrary complications that tend to plague most modern romantic comedies. When the roadblocks do come up - Échard still having feelings for an old flame Marie (Bérénice Bejo), and Rose rising to greater fame, they come up organically and they're earned. The end of the second act, when sports movies generally toss in some new group of rivals, or romances have an old boyfriend return out of the blue, avoids the common pitfalls by digging deeper into its characters. Rose has had all the growth and development so far, so now we turn to Échard and figure out his motivations, and see how he's been changed by the experience.

One of my favorite segments of the film is a brief series of scenes where Rose is left with nowhere to go on Christmas, so Marie takes her to Échard's house and introduces her to his assembled family as Échard's fianceé. A different film would have dragged out the deception, or inflated its importance. "Populaire" does not, simply using the evening to get the pair used to the notion that they make a good romantic pair, and Échard's family are neither seen nor mentioned again. Or then there's the running series of bets that Échard makes with his friend Bob (Shaun Benson) on the typing competitions. This is not a plot point at all, but a gimmick used to illustrate Échard's character. It's revealed to Rose very early on, and it barely seems to matter to her. How many other romantic films have blown similar bets all out of proportion?

As a result, "Populaire" is a breeze to watch, very familiar and predictable and pleasant. The typing competitions are a lot of fun, exciting and agreeably silly at the same time. A lot of humor comes from the subtle satire of the time period, with lots of visual caricatures of businessmen and typists, particularly the period fashions. The production design is very bright and colorful, heavy on the pastels and graphic patterns. Homages to older films are everywhere and brief appearances are made by older stars. You get the feeling that if you just walked a few blocks away from the clattering typists, you might run across a Jacques Demy musical taking place at the same time.

I think I reacted so well to "Populaire," because there have been far too many romantic-comedies that have gotten it so wrong in recent years, too goofy, too melodramatic, too complicated, too subversive, too retro, or too modern. Or more often, they get all the right components lined up, but end up with all the wrong proportions. "Populaire" is perfectly balanced, between the sport and the romance, between Rose and Échard, and between the giddy effervescence of the '60s trappings and the decidedly more forward-thinking attitudes of our heroes toward being in love.
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Cartoon Network's "Adventure Time" just isn't losing steam, after three years and five seasons. I've mostly missed the boat on this series, to my regret, but I'm getting in on the ground floor of a brand new show that could be described as something of a spiritual spin-off, "Steven Universe." It premiered on Cartoon Network last week, helmed by Rebecca Sugar, one of the most high profile staff members of "Adventure Time." So here's a review.

"Steven Universe" is getting a lot of press for Sugar, who is the first woman to be billed as sole creator of a Cartoon Network production. Since Cartoon Network has been a little light on programming featuring girls since the Powerpuffs went off the air, I was glad to hear it. And sure enough, "Steven Universe" features three very strong, interesting female characters, Garnet (UK singer Estelle), Amethyst (Michaela Dietz) and Pearl (Deedee Magno), who are known collectively as the Crystal Gems, and protect Earth from all manner of monsters and mayhem with their special Gem powers. Amethyst can conjure a whip and has shapeshifting abilities, and Pearl conjures a sword and can create holograms, for instance.

However, the story is firmly focused on their youngest and newest recruit, Steven Universe (Zach Callison), an energetic, roly-poly boy around preteen age who inherited a Gem from his departed mother, but doesn't know how to use it yet. In the premiere he briefly manages to activate it, conjuring up a shield. Sadly, attempts to repeat the feat have so far failed. Steven lives with the Crystal Gem warriors in their temple/headquarters/apartment, and does his best to help them with their world-saving while getting into plenty of trouble on his own. He's very much a little brother figure, struggling to prove himself and live up to his elders. Everything is seen from his point of view, and it's a funny, cheerful, and entertaining one.

The Gems have a lot of personality and have a lot of potential as characters, but the show works because Steven works. He's a lot like Finn from "Adventure Time," except a little younger and sillier, and much less competent. Steven works very hard, but has to deal with a lot of failure. Fortunately Steven is a very resilient kid who never stops trying, and he's got great support from Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl, who may be busy, but clearly care a lot about him. We briefly meet Steven's dad, Greg Universe (Tom Scharpling), in the second episode, a former rocker who lives out of a van. He's loving and amiable, but clearly "a mess," and Steven is probably better off rooming with the superheroes.

So far it's the show's visuals and its genial sense of humor that have me hooked. I love, love, love how the Crystal Gems have been designed. They're all clearly female, but Garnet is a big, stoic warrior figure, Amethyst is messy and laid back, with some huggable heft to her, and brainy Pearl is icicle thin, but all angles. They're very different from how women and girls are usually caricatured in animation, with little effort to make them look conventionally attractive. The animation is fun, full of crazy action and wacky facial expressions, but what's really impressive is the gorgeous background art and environments. The Gems' temple is a real stunner, featured heavily in most recent episode.

Best of all, I like how the show is goofy and weird and very much committed to doing its own thing. Steven has a habit of randomly singing songs - most of which he made up himself. He gets obsessed with things like ice cream sandwiches and making snappy comebacks. A whole episode is devoted to him showing off the usefulness of a novelty backpack shaped like a cheeseburger. It's only been four episodes, and the potential for memes is already off the charts. And yet underneath it all, the show has a lot of heart. The Gems act like a group of close siblings, and plots are more concerned with relationship dynamics and interpersonal issues than the usual superhero action schtick.

I'm rooting for "Steven Universe" to stick around for a while. It has completely won me over and I'm curious to know about the show's bigger mythology and everybody's backstories. There's a lot that has been hinted at, but we don't know many specifics yet. It hasn't been explained where the Gems come from or if the girls are even Earthlings. There's also not much of a wider cast so far. Aside from Steven's family unit, the only other potential semi-regulars that have appeared are a mailman and the employees of a local donut shop. But as we've been getting introduced to this world little by little, it's been a blast. And I look forward to getting to know "Steven Universe" a lot better.

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I'm glad I went into "Man of Steel" with fairly low expectations. The Richard Donner "Superman" is so deeply embedded into my psyche, I've pretty much accepted that there's never going to be another take on the character that will live up to it for me. The new version certainly didn't, but it didn't try to. Rather, it is exactly what Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder kept threatening it would be, a much darker, moodier, serious version that shows no trace of Superman's origin in comic books for wide-eyed young children. I found the movie mostly well made, very uneven, and overwhelmingly joyless, humorless, and honestly a little depressing.

Still, I understand perfectly why many moviegoers enjoyed "Man of Steel." Not everyone wants the larger than life superhero figure that I always think of Superman as being. This version is far more human, full of doubts about his place in the world and his responsibilities toward Earth and Krypton. Henry Cavill does a great job filling out the suit and giving Kal-El/Clark Kent some psychological depth. Much of the running time is devoted to his growing pains, charting encounters with bullies, struggles to hide his burgeoning powers, and his relationship with his adopted father, played by Kevin Costner in one of his best performances in years.

Less successful are the parts of the movie that deal with the Kryptonians. Superman's father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) gets a much expanded role, setting up the conflict with the film's villains and sending his infant son to Earth in the opening sequence. These scenes are too exposition-heavy, designed to deliver mind-numbing action sequence after action sequence, and take away from the more personal exploration of the Superman character that the rest of the film tries to give us. The villains, banished Kryptonians General Zod (Michael Shannon) and Faora (Antje Traue), are a bust. They're intimidating, sure, but they're not developed well at all, and because "Man of Steel" plays everything so straight, Michael Shannon isn't in a position to really let his inner ham loose the way we all know that Michael Shannon can.

Somewhere in the middle, and often getting a bit lost amid all the other plot threads, is the romance with Lois Lane (Amy Adams). She provides a lot of early momentum to the plot, chasing after an elusive proto-Superman in order to report on his story, but becomes caught up in his plight and the threat from the Kryptonians. Adams gets a lot to do, and I like this more grounded conception of the character, but Lois Lane remains fairly blank, barely making an more of an impression than her disapproving boss, Perry White (Laurence Fishburne). When she falls in love with Superman, it's so matter-of-fact, you wonder if any of the writers had ever been in a romantic relationship before.

"Man of Steel" tries to do too much and be too many different movies. The parts that worked - the character pieces about the young Superman, the examination of two different father-son relationships, and the journey of self-discovery, would have been more than enough on their own to fill out a whole feature film. However, this is a summer superhero spectacular, and Zack Snyder was hired to direct, so of course it also had to be an epic scale action movie too. The trouble is that action movie is an unrelenting smash-fest, completely missing the nuance and the atmosphere of the rest of the movie. The final climactic battle seems to go on forever, an orgy of destruction that completely loses human dimensions in yet another attempt this year to best "The Avengers."

"Man of Steel" did some things right, and established the new Superman well enough that I think he has the potential to carry a full franchise. However, the way the movie was constructed, so that it's all the fights and CGI that are pushed front and center, ironically all the character development got backgrounded. Cavill gets tossed around, but he rarely gets to do much acting. The bulk of the development is really with the kids in the flashbacks. Consequently, I don't think I got nearly as good a sense of what this Superman is all about as I should have. And that's a shame.

Will I give him another shot? Sure, I guess. Pairing him with the new Batman in the next outing is a good idea, and should help to better distinguish his character. "Man of Steel" took a few too many cues from "The Dark Knight," delivering another brooding hero in a grim universe. It'll be good to see him face off with Batman directly so the filmmakers will have to address what really makes Superman, well, Superman. On the other hand, assuming it's the same creative team, there's a strong likelihood that we're in for more brainless carnage overload.

I'm really not happy with where the DC movie universe is going right now.
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It's turning out to be a very good year for documentaries. There are two recent ones that couldn't be more different in subject matter or execution, but they both use some similar techniques and bring up some of the same questions about the nature of documentary filmmaking. The first is "Stories We Tell," Sarah Polley's exploration of her origins and the complicated history of her family. Polley conducts interviews with relatives and friends to construct her narrative, and then uses actors and period sets to recreate scenes from the past to fill in the details.

The second is the far more sobering "The Act of Killing," where filmmakers Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and an anonymous third director interview Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry, revered Indonesian leaders who in the 1960s were directly responsible for the death squads that wiped out as many as two million Communists and accused Communists. Like Polley, the filmmakers in "The Act of Killing" are interested in how their subjects perceive themselves and their own version of events. They ask Congo and others to reenact the killings as they wish for film, and this later leads to the creation of these elaborate film fantasies that reflect their troubled psyches.

"Stories We Tell" is a small film, a family history that one of Polley's sisters chides will probably be of no interest to anyone besides the people who appear in it. However, I found the film fascinating as it explores a family secret that has had a very different effect on all the different people who have been a part of it or were affected by it in some way. The subjects are interesting, lovely, and loving people, who it's easy to get attached to very quickly. It's not only the stories themselves, but the way they are presented, and the interrogations of the documentary form that continuously pop up during the narrative, almost like a running subplot. Many of Polley's family express doubts about the nature of the documentary and how she is going about it. One thinks that the inclusion of so many different viewpoints is completely unnecessary and questions why Sarah should be the one who gets to decide the shape of the story as it's presented to others.

The truth is not only a subjective thing in "Stories We Tell," but a shifting, amorphous one too. We can see this most clearly with Michael Polley, Sarah's father, who provides the bulk of the film's narrative and emerges as the central figure in the story. We see his views on some things change as the documentary progresses, and his version of events likewise adjusts as a result. New pieces of information are constantly being added, putting information we already knew if a different context. Different perspectives bring contradictions but they also present a fuller, richer picture of the whole. At first it seems odd that Sarah Polley's own version of the narrative hasn't been included until of course, you realize that the film is her version of the narrative, her attempt at finding a cohesion amongst all these different stories. The recreated video footage, appropriately aged so that it doesn't appear to be recreated at first glance, are her interpretations of what other people have told her. And of course, her editorial choices are vitally important.

"The Act of Killing," by contrast, only has one side of the story. With the victims long dead, it's only the perpetrators who can provide illumination on the events that took place during the purges. It's chilling, and often bizarre in the beginning, when we are introduced to these men, who have suffered no negative consequences at all for the their actions. On the contrary, many have grown rich and powerful over the years and are speak openly about the atrocities they committed. Initially there is no remorse, and hardly a glimmer of self awareness from any of the subjects. Anwar Congo demonstrates his execution techniques with horrific nonchalance. I've seen some debates regarding whether the film's subjects were perhaps misled into participating in the project, and didn't have a full understanding of what the documentary would entail. However, they're so open and so forthcoming about their experiences, practically all the filmmakers have to do is roll the cameras.

However, as the recreations are staged and Congo and the others have to face up to what they have done, they do begin to question the documentary's aims and their own perceptions of the past. One wonders how the public will perceive them after seeing the film. Others reveal that they understand that what they did was wrong, and have struggled with it. Congo himself only reaches an epiphany after Oppenheimer becomes more vocal in challenging his assumptions and engaging with him. Perhaps the most startling and memorable sequences are the fantasy film segments that are put together at the direction of the interview subjects to reflect their view of what happened. One has elaborate musical sequences with brightly costumed dancers. Another stages an interrogation like a scene from a gangster film. Congo fancies that he resembles Sidney Poitier.

"The Act of Killing" is a far more difficult watch, but it's unquestionably a powerful and important piece of work, presented in a way that is unique. It's also a film with potentially very serious consequences, as many of the people who appear in it are still very powerful in Indonesia. I've never seen a film where so many of the crew, including one of the directors, chose to be credited only as "Anonymous."
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I've soured somewhat on coming of age films over the years, having seen too many bad ones that either tried to make themselves grand statements that they were never going to be, or by dipping too often into salacious material related to mental illness, drugs, abuse, or sexual dysfunction. I've found that these films work best when they're more grounded and more personal, films that take care to limit themselves to a certain size and scope. This year there were two fairly successful examples that came out quite close together, "The Kings of Summer," and "The Way, Way Back." I suspect "The Spectacular Now" may be a third, but I missed my chance to see it in theaters, and it's still three months to the home media releases. And I want to talk about the other two now.

"The Kings of Summer" follows two teenage boys, Joe (Nick Robinson) and Patrick (Gabriel Basso), who are both chafing at the restrictions that their parents have placed on their lives. Joe's recently widowed father, Frank (Nick Offerman), is overly critical and unsympathetic, trying to move on with a new romantic relationship that Joe isn't ready for. Patrick's parents (Megan Mullally, Marc Evan Jackson) are cloying and overprotective. One day, Joe finally has enough and convinces Patrick to run away together. They construct their own ramshackle house out of spare parts in the woods , with the help of an oddball kid named Biaggio (Moisés Arias), and declare that they're ready to live by their own rules. However, the newfound freedom and the complications of teenage love prove challenging for the boys to navigate.

This is by far the best performance I've seen out of Nick Offerman, better known for his work on "Parks & Rec." He plays Frank as a reflexively sarcastic, bitter jerk who has to face the fact that his prickly personality is doing real harm to his relationship with his son. Watching him work through his baggage and reconnect with Joe is the best part of the film. Nick Robinson is likewise playing a very imperfect kid, smart but too cocky for his own good, and manages to make him far more memorable than the similar teenage boys that are always at the center of these stories. Between the two of them, a movie that is built on a big heap of contrivances actually works to a surprising degree. Joe's relationships with his father and his friends feel genuine, and the way they develop and change over the course of the film likewise feel genuine.

The material is still on the slight side, and it has a sense of humor that I think it's fair to describe as a little peculiar. Biaggio and the ineffectual local cops seem to exist in a film universe closer to "Napoleon Dynamite" than the fairly realistic environs that the rest of the characters are inhabiting. Also, at times it feels like the director, newcomer Jordan Vogt-Roberts, wants to say something about nature and the appeal of a more rustic way of life, but it doesn't quite come across. However, he does a great job with the boys and their interactions, and interpersonal dynamics. I think the reason this story works is that Joe and Patrick have real, recognizable problems. They may seem common, and not very serious in the long run, but we can see how they are terribly important at this particular point in thier lives.

The same can be said for the protagonist of "The Way, Way Back," a fourteen year old boy named Duncan (Liam James), who is dragged along on a long summer trip to Cape Cod with his mother Pam (Toni Colette), her bullying boyfriend Trent (Steve Carrell), and his hostile daughter Steph (Zoe Levin). Duncan is emotionally withdrawn and miserable until he meets a local girl, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), and has a run-in with a free-spirited guy named Owen (Sam Rockwell), who turns out to be the manager of a local water park. Owen gives him a job, which affords Duncan a much-needed escape from his increasingly uncomfortable home life.

"The Way, Way Back" was written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who shared scripting duties with Alexander Payne on "The Descendants." Here they prove to be equally as good with a new set of more familiar, but still complicated emotional dynamics, and tackling lot of uncomfortable subject matter without banging the audience over the head with it. By the time we realize just how miserable all the kids are, not just Owen, we've gotten a pretty good picture of how this little vacationers' community operates. Steve Carrell and Toni Colette are especially good as two characters who could have so easily been cyphers from the teenage hero's point of view.

Still, I can't help wishing that the whole film had been about the crew at the water park. Sam Rockwell steals the film so completely, you feel like sitting up straighter every time he shows up on screen. He gets all the best lines, delivered with the kind of unselfconscious cool that not too many actors can pull off. Maya Rudolph, along with Faxon and Rash, play other water park employees, and there's the potential for so much more than we get to see of them. The ending feels very rushed and some of the climactic scenes feel unearned, and I think it's largely because we don't get to spend enough time seeing Joe really connect with this weird little community of water park denizens.

Still, I liked both films. They're warm and nostalgic and bittersweet and offer a glimpse of adolescence the way I remember it. And they tell stories that only work with teenagers as the heroes, which I wish more filmmakers would keep in mind when making these films.
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"Leviathan" is a documentary that chronicles life aboard a North Atlantic fishing vessel. It's inevitable to want to make comparisons to the Discovery Channel show, "Deadliest Catch." However, "Leviathan" has no orienting narration and no context at all is provided, aside from a brief Biblical epigraph. It does not identify the ship or any of the crew by name, and we don't get any of their backstories. It does not follow a conventional narrative or really any kind of narrative at all. Because of this unorthodox approach, some have classified "Leviathan" as an experimental film.

What "Leviathan" does do is to plunge the viewer into the thick of the action, immersing them in all the sights and sounds of life on the ship and the surrounding ocean. We begin at night, while the fishermen are bringing in their catch. It's difficult to make out what we're looking at, but images become more distinct and recognizable quickly. Nets and traps are hoisted from the sea. Then fish fill the screen, often spilling over the edges. The camera is placed at the level of the deck in many scenes, so every rush of water or new wave of incoming fish threatens to overwhelm our field of vision. The sound of the ocean and the ship's machinery is inescapable, drowning out the few bits of offhand chatter from the sailors.

The idea here is to capture the sensory experience rather than rely on the momentum of a standard dramatic narrative. Shots linger on what we might usually consider incidental things, like fish heads being washed off the deck, or an unlucky bird momentarily trapped by some of the equipment. The ship becomes a microcosm of drama and struggle. The human beings aboard are not neglected, shown going through their regular daily routines, but always with a clinical eye and a necessary distance that allows the audience to view their behavior in more objective terms than we usually see. Mundane actions like working, cooking, and showering are highlighted. In a humorous moment, there's also a lengthy shot of one sailor watching an episode of "The Deadliest Catch," with stone-faced scrutiny.

And then the camera turns to look at what's going on off the ship, and this is where the visuals go from intriguing to sublime. The cameras travel over the surface of the water and beneath it, taking in the natural world. However, this is not a series of serene beauty shots edited together with soothing music, but a rough, often jarring exposure to the elements and the wildlife. The cameras bump and jostle along, sometimes only catching glimpses of fish and birds at strange angles. However, the movement of the cameras become part of the experience, so much so that the viewer often forgets to wonder how the filmmakers are achieving the unique shots that we see.

The signature sequence of the film is a long shot where the camera is being pulled along by some unseen mechanism, and keeps plunging in and out of the roiling water. Under the surface, the sound is muted and the image is murky. Things move more slowly and the frame often feels empty. Above the water, it's chaos aurally and visually. The sky is full of gulls and other sea birds who have been attracted by the fishing operation. Filmed from below, they look like an endless mass, and their calls are deafening. As the camera goes back and forth between these two extremes, we are better able to appreciate how they contrast with each other.

I've never seen another nature documentary like this, one that makes aesthetic choices that are so different from the expected norm in order to create an intensely tactile and engulfing film. "Deadliest Catch" certainly has its good points, but there are too many reality show devices in play to really let you get a sense of the rhythm and atmosphere of life on its vessels the way that "Leviathan" does. I've never seen birds the way they appear in this film, or the doomed fish sloshing around on the deck in wretched limbo. Above all the soundtrack stays with me, the chugging engines and motors, the hundred different manifestations of the ocean, and the screaming gulls.

I've seen several reviews insist that the only way to see "Leviathan" is on the big screen, with a full surround sound system, so you really get the full effect of all the sensory bombardment. They have a good argument, but I found "Leviathan" a perfectly good watch at home on my laptop. It's very easy to get sucked into the movie, to the point where I would hesitate to characterize this as a casual watch. It's certainly nothing that requires much investment or brain power, but it's definitely an experience that needs the viewer's full attention.
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The cinematic journey of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) now spans three films, eighteen years, and multiple countries. You don't have to have seen the two preceding films chronicling their love story, "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset," but "Before Midnight" is much more effective if you're already familiar with the characters' histories and the series' format.

The couple are now in their forties, enjoying the waning days of a summer in the Peloponnesian region of Greece. A lot has happened since we saw them last. Jesse divorced, married Celine, and they have a pair of twin daughters. However, thanks to a severe falling-out with his ex-wife, he doesn't get to see his son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) very often, and feels like he's neglecting him. The opening scenes follow Jesse dropping Hank off at the airport, before being driven home by Celine, sparking the beginning of another long, rambling, revealing conversation that will carry us through the film. We learn their lives have become busy and complicated. We learn that significant tensions and conflicts have resulted.

The earlier installments of the "Before" series impressed me for being so well written and so good at capturing the nuances of a very specific, but fascinating relationship between two people who only met by chance. The movies are deceptively simple, just following the pair around a picturesque locale as they converse, and intensely personal. Hawke and Delpy have screenplay credits alongside Richard Linklater, the series' chief architect and director. I think "Before Midnight" may be my favorite of the set, though, because it departs from the formula in several ways, and because it tackles a stage of life that is very rare to see handled on screen so well and so honestly. This is the movie where the relationship itself finally becomes as important a force as the two personalities who share it.

Encroaching middle age and the diminishment of romantic passion aren't all that uncommon to see in films, but rarely do you get to know the people involved the way longtime viewers know Jesse and Celine. We've seen them as bright-eyed twenty-somethings and more tempered thirty-somethings. We know about Celine's passionate ambitions and her strong convictions. We know about Jesse's more laid-back approach to life, his occasional carelessness, and the course that his writing career has taken. "Before Midnight" also picks up many threads from "Before Sunset," so we learn the consequences of Jesse's terribly romantic decision at the end of the previous movie, which have had nine years to play out. As the pair wend their way through the day together, the details are filled in gradually.

The nine year gap didn't hit me quite so hard the last time, as I watched "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset" fairly close together, a few years after the second movie. This time it did, possibly because I experienced the interval closer to real time, or because my own relationships had progressed to the point where I could make some comparisons. Jesse and Celine felt slightly removed from time prior to this, two picture-perfect lovebirds rambling around Vienna and Paris, having these erudite conversations. But with so much of this outing involving their children, and encounters with other people, bits of the modern world inevitably intrude here. Little things like the references to Skype and old cartoons made me acutely aware of the existence and passage of time in the "Before" universe.

Also, touching lightly on some spoiler territory here, "Before Midnight" also sees a momentous event in the couple's relationship that is different from the past ones, though handled just as well. This makes the film an unexpectedly gripping watch, because Linklater and his actors are treading in very different territory. We're not looking at two people contemplating the potential for a relationship anymore, but a long-estaplished pair trying to figure out how to deal with a very solid and weighty reality that they live with every day. The romance isn't over, but reality has sunk in. We find they've made sacrifices for thier marriage, expended great effort to keep it going, and perhaps both aren't quite so happy with how it all turned out.

I'm not in the camp that would like to see the "Before" movies go on indefinitely the way the famous "Up" documentary series has, following its subjects into old age. However, I think there's definitely room for another movie or two, to follow up with Jesse and Celine at another stage in their lives, further down the road. Even if we don't get a "Before Noon" in 2021, this has been an extraordinary run of movies, up there with the best of all time. You have to go back to Bergman and Truffaut and Satyajit Ray to really find anything comparable.

And it's my favorite film of the year to date.
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I've been putting this one off for a while, but Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby" is a film that requires some attention, for the scope of its grand ambitions if nothing else. Also, I'm fairly sure that I'm the only one who is going to be comparing it to Zack Snyder's "Watchmen," another deeply troubled adaptation of beloved source material.

So for those of you who didn't read the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel in school, "Gatsby" takes place in the early 1920s on Long Island, where a young bond salesman named Nick Carraway (Toby McGuire) rents a house next door to the palatial mansion of a mysterious man named Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), who throws wild parties constantly, but is rarely seen. Across the bay lives Nick's cousin Daisy (Cary Mulligan), who has married a rich polo player, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). One night Nick is invited to one of Gatsby's parties and becomes caught up in his neighbor's seemingly charmed life. It turns out that Daisy and Gatsby have history together, and Gatsby is keen to reconnect, with Nick's help.

Set at the height of the Roaring Twenties, when jazz and flappers and loose morals were in full swing, "Gatsby" has become associated with a bygone era of American decadence that Baz Luhrmann was clearly keen to exploit. Much of the film's budget goes to the massive parties thrown by Gatsby, in an ornately decorated estate where everything seems to be embossed with his initials. The whole film boasts magnificently stylized visuals, full of bright colors and art deco flourishes. Luhrmann has always been a showman at heart, and here he unleashes the full bag of tricks to make this far and away the best looking "Gatsby" ever filmed. And with Jay-Z handling the anachronistic, but appropriate soundtrack, the aural magnificence matches the visuals.

The trouble is that the spectacle only gets Luhrmann so far. He's perfectly faithful to the Fitzgerald prose, perhaps even leaning on it too heavily at times with Nick Carraway's on-the-nose narration. However, Luhrmann seems reluctant to really engage with the novel's major themes, and the heightened reality he creates leaves little room for subtlety. Each new twist and turn in the relationship between Daisy and Gatsby lands with a hammer-force blow, and every major epiphany is underlined several times. For instance, there's the famous scene where Gatsby is showing off his wardrobe to Daisy, who famously starts crying, and can only blurt out that she's never seen "such beautiful shirts." Luhrmann sees fit to add narration from Nick Carraway on top, explaining exactly what she's feeling.

The actors do what they can to breathe some life into characters who keep threatening to turn into caricatures. Leonardo DiCaprio makes an excellent Jay Gatsby, giving him an easy charm, bullheaded stubbornness, and deep personal flaws. Cary Mulligan makes shallow, spoiled Daisy at least sympathetic, but she doesn't get much opportunity to dig any deeper. Joel Edgerton was a nice surprise, elevating Tom above the usual villainous cliches. Sadly it's Toby McGuire who is the weak link. I'm still trying to decide if he was miscast or if Luhrmann's more morose, emotional version of Nick Carraway was the problem.

It's a little startling how much Baz Luhrmann imposes his sensibilities on the material, and how distracting it becomes. The movie shares almost the same basic structure with "Moulin Rouge!" for instance, including the story being framed by scenes of Nick Carraway as a depressed alcoholic, who bangs out the story of Jay Gatsby on his typewriter, while the narrative is relayed through his flashbacks. There are also the odd comedy beats that find their way into the movie early on, like Gatsby micromanaging the tea party that he's asked Nick to host, so that he can have a private meeting with Daisy.

And this is where the "Watchmen" comparisons come in. Zack Snyder had similarly good intentions when adapting the Alan Moore graphic novel, displayed a similar passion for the material, and was in some ways faithful to a fault to his text. However, he was far more interested in creating a spectacle than in really grappling with the questions that "Watchmen" presented. And Snyder's trademark use of stylized violence is completely inappropriate. As a result, his film feels shallow and misses the point, though there are some outstanding individual sequences.

"The Great Gatsby" has similar flaws. Luhrmann does do a few things right, giving us some evocative visuals and setting the stage for some good performances, but he glosses over the complexities of the story in favor if his trademark glitz. And in the end, he has to have Nick Carraway spell out nearly all the big messages for us, because it seems that Luhrmann can't figure out how to convey them to us cinematically.

Baz Luhrmann's "Gatsby" is entertaining, but Fitzgerald it ain't.
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It's easy to get caught up in all the hype about how Alfonso Cuarón made "Gravity," his new space adventure thriller. The film's impressive visuals required the invention of new technology, and a radically different production timeline than most studio features. After all, the major selling point of "Gravity" is its spectacle, the ninety minutes of visceral thrills and awe-inspiring special effects work that distinguish a very simple survival story.

Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a medical engineer, is on her first mission as a newly trained astronaut, with the space shuttle Explorer. Disaster strikes when a destroyed Soviet satellite causes a debris cloud that wreaks catastrophic damage on everything in its path. Caught out during a space walk, with all communications with Earth severed, Stone and fellow astronaut Lt. Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are separated from the shuttle and at risk of drifting away beyond anyone's reach. They have to find their way back with limited resources and limited time, in order to return to Earth safely.

I heard some complaints when the trailers were first released for "Gravity," that casting two major A-listers like Bullock and Clooney was distracting. However, I think having actors of this caliber in the film was a necessity. The script by Alfonso Cuarón and his son Jonás is very simple, and the characters are fairly generic. Nearly everything depends on the performances of the two leads, and they don't have much to work with. We have to relate to and root for the astronauts to overcome each obstacle in their path on the way home, and the film wouldn't have nearly as much impact if the emotional journey wasn't as engaging as the physical one. "Gravity" wouldn't work without Sandra Bullock, and after all the drama about casting the film in the early going, I'm glad she's the one who ultimately got the part.

However, the bulk of the kudos have to go to Cuarón. As we saw last year with Ang Lee and "Life of Pi," it's one thing to have access to sophisticated special effects, but quite another to be able to use them to tell a story in an engaging way. The reason "Gravity" required so much innovation was because of how Cuarón wanted to tell the story. Cuarón insisted on opening the film with a complicated, endless shot that starts with the Explorer as a speck on the horizon and then zooms around it to introduce and follow the characters as they work on the maintenance of the Hubble telescope. Existing methods of simulating weightlessness simply wouldn't cut it, so new methods had to be invented.

One of my favorite shots in the film is the "womb" shot, where we see Sandra Bullock briefly curled up in a fetal position, floating in isolation. It looks so simple at first, but when you consider the logistics of what was necessary to achieve that image, suddenly it becomes exponentially more impressive. Scientific accuracy isn't always paramount in this film, as multiple scientists have already pointed out, but there was clearly a high awareness of the necessity of getting the little details right. Sound doesn't carry in space, so all we hear are the astronauts and the score by Stephen Price. Fire behaves differently. The actors have to move in specific ways to convey the lack of weight and friction. I especially like how all the space shuttles and space stations in the film are ones that actually exist or are planned for the near future.

The technical achievements are without question. The viscerality and the immersiveness of the experience play a major part in its effectiveness, and I think it's to Cuarón's credit that so many critics are calling for the film to be seen in a 3D IMAX format. But at the end of the day, were all these thrills put to use in the best way to tell a good story? Spectacle for its own sake can make for a decent movie, but I expect more from a director like Alphonso Cuarón. By and large I think he managed it. I don't think this is his best film. The dialogue is too simplistic and the metaphors are too blunt, but I was on board with the story the whole way through, and there were times when the human drama did make me briefly forget about the spectacle.

That said, I can't help hoping that Cuarón's next film is a smaller one. "Gravity" is a wonderful film, but I'm not so sure it was worth seven years out of the career of one of the best directors currently working. I don't like the idea of Cuarón turning into another James Cameron, because we already have James Cameron. In any case, I want to see what Alphonso Cuarón wants to do next.
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I had to see this thing for myself. Back in January, "Escape From Tomorrow" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and attracted a huge amount of attention. You may remember it as the notorious guerrilla Disneyland film where director Randy Moore and his actors surreptitiously filmed large sections of the feature film in and around the Walt Disney World theme parks in Orlando, Florida. Disney being notoriously protective of their IP, was expected to bury it in litigation, ensuring it would never reach general audiences. And yet here we are, nine months later, and the film has been given a very limited theatrical release and has been made available online.

First things first. The movie is terrible. It depicts the nightmarish final day of the White family's trip to the Disney theme parks. In the opening scene, father Jim (Roy Abrahamsohn) is fired over the phone. He doesn't tell his wife, Emily (Elena Schuber), trying not to spoil the day for their two young children, Elliott (Jack Dalton) and Sarah (Katelynn Rodriguez). However Jim becomes increasingly frustrated with his family and disillusioned with the theme park experience. He gets sinister visions. A pair of teenage French girls (Annet Mahendru and Danielle Safady) keep distracting him. He flirts with a fellow parent (Alison Lees-Taylor). As the day goes on, things keep getting stranger.

The acting is marginal at best, the dialogue is clunky, and the plot is nearly incomprehensible. Moore's idea of satire is to juxtapose the Disney branding with adult lewdness, creepy horror movie imagery, and art school surrealism. At least, I think he's trying to do satire. When the story really goes off the deep end in the last half, and Jim apparently wanders into a paranoid science-fiction conspiracy, the movie becomes a series of nutty B-movie hijinks, each weirder and more unpleasant than the last. Some of the black-and-white cinematography is pretty good, the special effects are occasionally impressive, and the kids are cute, but the whole project is so confused and convoluted and ultimately amateurish, it's difficult to take seriously.

And yet, in terms of sheer conceptual daring, "Escape From Tomorrow" has a lot of impact. Simply having the film take place in the real Disney World adds a lot of and atmosphere and tension that a recreation couldn't hope to match. That's the real line for the "Buzz Lightyear" ride that Jim and Elliott wait in endlessly. That's really "It's a Small World" where Jim and Emily have a brief spat, even though the iconic theme song has been replaced by a generic jingle for legal reasons. The Disney parks, hotels, shuttles, merchandise, and characters are everywhere, inescapable, and you do get a sense of the company's famous insidiousness, though the ham-handed family drama at the forefront is much too blunt to capitalize on much of it.

I can see why Disney didn't feel compelled to quash the film, because it's so clearly the kind of curiosity that will only appeal to a very select audience. It's not good enough to attract the attention of mainstream viewers, though it may be bad enough to qualify as a cult film in a few years. More importantly, even without the big disclaimer at the beginning about Disney corporate not having anything to do with the film, no one in a million years would mistake "Escape From Tomorrow" for a Disney product. It's a bleak, antagonistic, unhappy piece of work from its opening frames, and presents a version of the Disney World experience that is totally antithetical to everything Disney promotes itself as being.

So they've opted to ignore the movie and not give it any attention to capitalize on, which most viewers can feel comfortable doing as well. "Escape From Tomorrow" is daring, but it's not particularly well conceived or well made. I expect that some Disney enthusiasts will get a kick out of it, for some of the unintended campiness and black humor, or just seeing familiar Disneyana through a different, subversive lens. For instance, I loved one scene that takes place during the flying simulator "Soarin'" ride, where Jim sees scantily clad women on the giant screen instead of picturesque landscapes. It's meant to be disturbing, yet another sign that Jim is losing his mind, but I found it hysterical.

Having grown up near the Disney empire in Southern California, I can definitely appreciate the impulse to take some artistic potshots at the Mouse. However, I wish the movie had been made by someone a little more creative with better writing chops. Throwing David Lynchian dream logic into the works didn't accomplish much, and made it feel like the ending was made up at the last minute. And bits of business like equating the Disney princesses with sex workers are positively old hat.

"Escape From Tomorrow" is ultimately a novelty item, and like all novelties, wears thin pretty quick.
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