26.5.15

they don't make tomorrows like they used to: thoughts on tomorrowland

Strip away Tomorrowland’s thematic ambitions and you’re left with an entirely serviceable Disney product: entertaining, easy to consume, and the usual uneasy blend of the heartfelt and the glib. Directed by Brad Bird, who co-wrote the script with Damon Lindelhof and Jeff Jensen, the film is most charismatic in its depiction of the marvelous City of Tomorrow with its streamlined architecture, gleaming spires, levitating trains, daredevil jetpacks, shiny rocket ships, and helpful robots. The film’s retro-futuristic vision purposely draws on the past’s hopes for the future, asking why our present doesn’t live up to the utopian ideals dreamt by a world still reeling from the devastation of World War II and, crucially, its atomic horrors. What went wrong?

Insofar as Tomorrowland follows the beats of a conventional adventure movie – with teenaged Casey (Britt Robertson) caught up in a plot to prevent world destruction by solving the mystery of a city glimpsed virtually via a lapel pin – we get our fair share of excitement from the usual moments of peril (and hair-raising escapes), punctuated by the frequent, shamelessly fun indulgence of our fetish for cool gadgets. The most thrilling moment involves the Eiffel tower and a bit of revisionist history. But some of the quieter character moments are impactful too, whether it’s the loving father-daughter interaction between Casey and her NASA engineer dad (played by Tim McGraw) or the moment budding child inventor Frank (Thomas Robinson) presents his jetpack at the World’s Fair in the hopes of proving himself. Also: the never-dull Hugh Laurie as the film’s antagonist, David Nix.

Tomorrowland’s appeal is mostly eye candy, but we can at least sympathize with a teenager who resorts to sabotaging cranes in an effort to prevent the demolition of a NASA shuttle launching pad. The film is fundamentally rooted in the wonder of science – a sentiment that is all-too-lacking in an industry that has a greater affinity for magic and fantasy.

Yet the film doesn’t mean what it thinks it means. Although presenting itself as a critique of the apocalyptic mindset we’ve apparently adopted, reminding us of the hope and optimism the world once held in regards to the future, Tomorrowland offers instead an unworkable, self-defeating, and corruptible vision. The story’s premise of a secret city in which the world’s best and brightest dreamers can work unencumbered by politics and bureaucracy is troubling in itself. It’s an idea lifted from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, reinforced by notions of recruitment via special pins delivered to the worthy few as well as the repeated assertion that Casey, like Frank before her, is “special.” Not only does Tomorrowland set up a literal ivory tower whose relationship to the world is lofty and superior, the film populates said tower with insular elitists where the ordinary and common need not apply. How the work of these elites is supposed to benefit the common people is never explained, which leads to another risible aspect of the film’s vision: the utopia it presents is technological in nature, as if better and more wondrous technology is enough to fix everything. It would be laughable for its naivety if it weren’t an attitude adopted by many of the world’s technologists, like Bill Gates and Elon Musk. In positing a politics-free community, Tomorrowland misses the point: all human interactions are politics to some extent. The question isn’t one of eliminating politics, but of replacing bad politics with better ones. Alas, the social dimensions of the problems we face are swept aside by the awesome sight of technological innovation. Why grapple with the gray chaos of psychology when you can launch your jetpack with the 1 or 0 certainty of engineering?

Trying to pass an elitist techno-utopia as a vision to aspire for is enough to sink the film’s preachy claim to optimism. Seeing how Tomorrowland’s idealism lacks conviction exposes how superficial its vision is. The film’s cavalier treatment of violence is one example. As Casey, grouchy adult Frank (George Clooney), and the android child Athena (played with scene-stealing personality by Rafey Cassidy) try to find a way back to Tomorrowland, they are pursued by Stepford Men in Black who unhesitatingly vaporize humans who get in their way. No thought is spared for these victims … nor is any question raised about the violence directed towards the androids. The only difference between the beheadings, stabbings, and beatings in Tomorrowland and those we’d find in a horror movie is the sanitizing effect of mechanical destruction versus flesh-and-blood gore. On a broader level, this casual brutality serves to ironically betray the antagonist’s condemnation of the world’s savagery. If his Tomorrowland represents civilization, why is violence so thoughtlessly deployed? And why does David Nix style himself like a military dictator?

It’s disappointing to find a film proclaim imagination and hope as the antidote to apocalyptic despair only to ultimately settle differences of perspective by the brute force that enables apocalyptic movements. When Hugh Laurie’s dour character eloquently describes the motivational problem we have as a species confronting world-alternative challenges, his bleak and accurate outlook is not defeated or counteracted by imagination and superior reasoning, but by explosions and a crushing death. Forget the hopeful message, then: Tomorrowland reduces itself to capacity of the strong to impose their will on the weak, however indirectly, even as it hopes the victors are special, enlightened people.

That Tomorrowland is enjoyable at all stems from the strength of many of its parts; the production design, character-building moments, and that flicker of a genuine human hope for a better future. Yet as far as the search for a credible 21st Century update to Gene Rodenberry’s optimism is concerned, these aren’t the droids we’re looking for.

abigail/1702: not a crucible, but still fine theatre (at TFPO)

Review of Abigail/1702 at the Long Beach International City Theatre

What ever happened to teenaged Abigail Williams? Last we heard, she escaped Arthur Miller’s The Crucible – and the ruin she catalyzed in Salem – with money stolen from her Uncle Parris. Her fate was left to us to imagine for ourselves, based on our appraisal of her character. Was she a  sociopath or merely a troubled opportunist? Malicious or … READ THE REVIEW AT THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE

30.4.15

I and You sings the body electric, but ends on a false note (at TFPO)

Review of I and You by X, on stage at the Fountain Theatre.

I and You begins with a scenario that is beautiful in its simplicity and both poignant and funny in its staging: A sick, shut-in teenager named Caroline receives a visit from classmate Anthony to complete a class assignment on Walt Whitman. Throughout their time together, they enact an antidote to the sort of insidious alienation Pink Floyd so vividly charted in The Wall, as both Caroline’s fortress and Anthony’s easy-going façade are dismantled brick-by-brick until they spark a relationship. English teachers everywhere would rejoice to learn that this bond is achieved via the teens’ growing appreciation, and eventual endorsement, of classic but still living poetry. No more banging heart’s against a mad bugger’s wall. Here comes Whitman, from 150 years ago, who triumphantly declared … READ MY REVIEW AT THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE

14.4.15

quick review: frozen

Frozen opens with Frode Fjellheim’s beautiful blend of Saami yoiking and the Danish Christmas hymn “Dejlig er jorden” (”Fairest Lord Jesus”), eliciting the hope that the film, like the music, will be something other the porridge Disney tends to serve out. Alas, it’s not to be. The music quickly returns to that peculiarly unambitious Disney pop house style, punctuated by the catchy but cloying Let It Go, which seems entirely fitting for a film that is lukewarm at best.

The animation rates as nice in quotation marks, with the snowy special effects standing out. Overall, however, Frozen’s rendering exhibits the CGI gloss that makes the characters and the environment, designed in Disney’s safe house style, seem too much like extruded plastic. The story feels similarly extruded from the big Hollywood book of marketing-approved plots, with a narrative that rushes to introduce its premise before becoming curiously inert (e.g. nothing much happens, although foreseeable twist involving the prince is a nice touch). There are flashes of cleverness in supporting characters such as the amiable rock trolls and, in particular, an oddball snowman who consistently charms scenes away from the main cast. But the core story might as well be called a shell story; a simplistic affair that, unlike the similarly simplistic but charming Tale of Despereaux, doesn’t benefit from especially rich drawing. Elsa’s alienation, on account of ice-related magic she can’t control, is treated perfunctorily, and her devoted sister Anna is plunked into an entirely predictable love triangle. Though it’s a tale of sisterly bonding, the emotional stakes rarely arise from anything other than sitcom setups. As a story of female empowerment, it’s hard to see the mix of Disney’s usual Princess fetish with a message to embrace one’s unique qualities as anything more than a well-intentioned but ineffective gesture. The best that can be said is that, in the vein of films like Paranorman, Frozen foregoes the usual Manichean climax in favour of a lesson in forgiveness. Isn’t that nice?

8.4.15

odyssey theatre pops the corktown '57, with winning results (at TFPO)

Review of Corktown ’57 on stage at the Odyssey Theatre.

Science-fiction author Frank Herbert rightly observed that “Blood is thicker than water, but politics are thicker than blood.” Set in a Republican Irish neighbourhood in Philadelphia, Corktown ’57 deftly dramatizes the way in which familial bonds can be worn, frayed, and ultimately disintegrated by ideological conflict – in this case, the historical antagonism between the Irish and the British.

Loosely inspired by playwright John Fazakerley’s family memories, and embellished for dramatic effect, Corktown ’57 invites us into...READ THE REVIEW AT THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE