Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 4, 2015
First appeared in print in The Rhino Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Tomorrowland, Aloha, San Andreas, Respect
Here's my quandary. A lot of the well-reviewed movies, the ones that jaded
critics get all excited about, are pretentious twaddle. A lot of the huge-hit
movies are comic-book things that are very hard for me to care about (I mean,
the guy's a "superhero" in an embarrassing costume, for pete's sake).
So whether I go by the huge opening weekend or the rave reviews, I get
burned again and again.
Then, months or years later, I watch one of the dispraised, financially
lukewarm movies on cable and discover that I really like it. The reviewers and
the huge movie-going crowds simply got it wrong.
Armageddon was the huge hit; Deep Impact was the good asteroid-hits-Earth
movie. From the promos, who knew? They both looked like CGI extravaganzas
with stuff in space and stuff on Earth.
So this past week, I pursued a deliberate strategy of watching the kind of
one- or two-star movie that I keep discovering, and liking, on cable.
It's not a recipe for sure success. Sometimes, bad reviews are deserved.
Sometimes, when crowds do not show up for a movie, they're right.
Take Tomorrowland, for instance. I'm sure that after the success of the Pirates
of the Caribbean franchise, some Disney execs slobbered all over the big tables
as they demanded, "Which Disneyland ride can we turn into a huge
franchise movie next?"
Tomorrowland was an obvious choice, and there were people involved with it
who tried to do a really good job.
And such people! Director and co-writer Brad Bird is one of the best
filmmakers around, having created The Iron Giant and The Incredibles. And
let's not have any nonsense about his being less effective directing live actors.
George Clooney can do a bad job, but he didn't; Hugh Laurie cannot do a bad
job ... and he didn't. The young actors were also engaging and convincing.
This movie did not have any acting problems. It didn't have any visual
problems. In fact, they made one choice that was absolutely right: They stayed
true to the Walt Disney "Tomorrowland" vision from the 1950s.
Back in the '50s, the "future" meant even more streamlining. Trains had just
switched over to designs that offered little wind resistance, and cars were
following suit. Disney captured that with his balloon-inspired cartoon cars
from the era, and his Tomorrowland looked like the covers of half the sci-fi
magazine covers for the previous twenty years.
But we dumped that "future" vision with 2001: A Space Odyssey, because real
spacecraft now existed, and they weren't streamlined after all. Alien took the
same concept and made it tatty-looking, and we haven't looked back.
The visual impression of Tomorrowland does look back, however -- including
the absurd flying cars and jet-packs, and skyscrapers with spires like
cathedrals. It was a blast from days of future past.
Let's just pretend that the weird, boring, talky opening sequence, which has
some of the worst dialogue that real actors have ever had to say, doesn't exist,
because on DVD and DVR, you can fast-forward past it (it adds no useful
Here's where the movie collapsed in on itself: Nobody who actually understood
science or technology or science fiction had any decision-making power on this
Bad science abounded, but it wasn't any worse than in, say, Gravity, which
broke all the laws of motion and thermodynamics. Newton's body achieved
escape velocity in his grave on that one.
Even when Tomorrowland was making up magical stuff, they couldn't
follow their own rules. When we first see a kid go to Tomorrowland, he's
simply dropped into it from the Small World ride at the New York World's Fair.
And he's really there.
But then a later kid touches a special souvenir ring and is transported there
instantly, no physical transportation. However, though she sees Tomorrowland
all around her, she's physically still inside a building, so when she walks
around she bumps into furniture and walls that she can't see.
Then, a third time, they open a "portal" to the "other dimension" where
Tomorrowland resides -- and it's a big technological deal to get there,
requiring massive machinery.
They call the souvenir-ring method a sort of ad or come-on, so apparently it
wasn't real (so you could easily drown or fall off a cliff while walking around
inside the hallucination). But the other two trips were radically different, the
one requiring only an offramp in a carnival ride, the other a spaceship-like
I know it's a fantasy -- in fact, exactly the kind of fantasy that Star Wars is, full
of lots of wishing-makes-it-so masquerading as future technology. But Star
Wars tries for, and sometimes achieves, internal consistency.
Tomorrowland never comes close.
They try to do something and suddenly bad guys are there; the bad guys seem
all-powerful and all-knowing until the plot needs them to be stupid and easily
But if it had been a simple adventure movie -- like the upcoming Pixels,
dumb fun with cool old-fashioned visuals -- we probably would have forgiven
all the deep stupidity in the plotting.
Alas, however, this is a movie with a Message. Apparently, the human race is
about to destroy itself, and the people in Tomorrowland have an incredibly
precise countdown running to the precise moment of our self-destruction.
What will destroy us? Everything at once. War. Famine. Disease. And, of
course, the devastating curse of global warming.
But which of these is the countdown counting down to? And if one of the
characters introduces hope (as the movie asserts), exactly what will she do to
change things in order to avert that pinpoint date?
Global warming has no pinpoint date; even if it's really being caused by human
CO2 emissions, for which there is still zero evidence, the worst-case scenario
is that a lot of people have to move away from low-lying coastlands. Not
the end of the world.
What, then? Nuclear war? That's still pretty much the only life-ending toolkit
in our possession, unless somebody weaponizes a new plague. So now the
question is: What will this teenage girl do that will prevent the unspecified end-of-civilization event?
All we are ever told is that she will keep hope alive. Apparently, the detonator
for nuclear war is universal despair, and so because of her hope the bombs
won't explode. Or the plague won't spread.
It's just so ... stupid. We've spent the whole movie being preached at, but the
solution they offer would embarrass even the most faith-based religion. That's
your method of salvation? It's even dumber than The Force.
So ... good filmmakers couldn't overcome one of the stupidest magic-based sci-fi plots ever invented. Tomorrowland will not be worth watching even on cable.
Aloha, though: How could it be so bad as to rate only a 10% on Rotten
Tomatoes? It has Bradley Cooper and Emma Stone and Rachel McAdams
and John Krasinski and even character roles played by Bill Murray and Alec
And it was written and directed by Cameron Crowe, who wrote Fast Times at
Ridgemont High and wrote and directed Say Anything, then went on to create
Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire, Vanilla Sky ...
Well, Aloha is getting treated like his flops: Elizabethtown and We Bought a Zoo
-- and the question now is, are the critics right?
Yes and no. The maguffin is so stupid that the movie itself barely notices
that it's there. Rich guy Bill Murray is preparing to launch a satellite that
probably doesn't contain weapons. It's apparently Really Bad to put weapons
in space, though we aren't told why -- or whether any terrorist or hegemonist
nations are preparing to launch weapons of their own. We just know it's
Wrong and must be prevented.
That's because the established religion of the Elitists (i.e., the Saved -- the
same people who know global warming is going to end life on Earth) knows that
you don't have to explain or justify any Bad Things. Once they have declared
something to be Evil, no more questions are allowed: Anybody with a
different opinion is evil and will destroy the world.
But, as I said, the movie pays almost no attention to this silly plot. Nor does it
care all that much about the second maguffin: Bradley Cooper's assignment to
persuade the self-proclaimed King of Hawaii to bless the burial ground that
will be crossed by a pedestrian bridge that apparently could not be built
anywhere else. The launch of the satellite depends on this, for some reason.
The movie isn't about that, either, though this plot at least has some fun
The real story -- and the one that made Aloha worth watching -- is the double
romantic triangle. Bradley Cooper's character, Brian, flies back to Hawaii with
Woody, a pilot and friend who has long been married to Brian's one-time
sweetheart, Tracy (Rachel McAdams). They have a daughter and son.
We learn why Brian and Tracy broke up in the first place (Brian's refusal to
obey Tracy's vacation ultimatum: Come on this vacation or our relationship is
over). We also learn why Woody's and Tracy's marriage is in trouble: Woody
just doesn't talk about stuff.
Meanwhile, Emma Stone plays Allison Ng, the military liaison who is supposed
to shadow the notoriously unreliable Brian. Her character is impossible, of
course, because a Holly Golightly-style "free spirit" character would not
have risen to a position of any rank or trust in any branch of any military
Her character is also impossible because Emma Stone is extremely Caucasian,
and Ng is supposed to be 1/4 Chinese and 1/4 Hawaiian. There has been
some outcry about this -- but I've sat in on casting discussions and I know
exactly why she was cast.
Everybody's heard of Emma Stone, and nobody has heard of whatever part-Chinese, part-Hawaiian actress they would have cast if they cared about
ethnically correct casting.
I mean, in a world where half-Indian Ben Kingsley is cast as a half-Maori
character, you know that racism and stupidity rule. Somehow Emma Stone's
big round Bette-Davis eyes could emerge from a part-Chinese ancestry. Right.
But forget that (because Hollywood routinely does). Emma Stone is a star
because she's a very good actress, and so she is able to make her free-spirit
character not only kind of believable but also extremely endearing.
Allison and Brian fall in love. Or at least into bed. But we know that when
Brian makes the launch of an evil weapon system possible, he will lose her.
The movie spends a few minutes making him sacrifice his career in order to
impress the girl. Cool. But then he nobly declares that ... oh, something or
other that makes him give her up.
The story that matters is the Brian-Tracy-Woody triangle, and this is the one
place where Aloha achieves true brilliance, though only for a few moments of
When Woody comes home from an assignment and finds his wife's ex-lover,
Brian, in his house, he says nothing. But Brian translates all the gestures and
grunts so that Tracy can understand what Woody was really "saying."
That lays the groundwork so that the next time there's a wordless exchange,
the movie offers hilariously explicit subtitles to the gestures and grunts. And
then, the third time, we don't need any translation.
This is Cameron Crowe, so even when the movie is at its stupidest, the
dialogue is pretty good; and the acting is excellent, except (as always) Bill
Murray -- but his part is a cartoon character anyway. The result is that Aloha
is quite watchable, as long as you turn down your brain's crapmeter to its
Hey, there were moments dealing with the family relationships that brought
tears to my eyes.
So here's a suggestion to Cameron Crowe: You're at your best when you're
writing about real people in the real world. Don't try sci-fi or thriller adventure
plots again. Really. You're very bad at it because you don't know how that
stuff works (when it works), while you do know human relationships.
I forgive you for "Show me the money," Mr. Crowe. The subtitled nonverbal
manliness redeems it completely.
I don't regret spending money to see Aloha in the theater. You might prefer
catching it on cable, when it comes around. It has some wonderful moments
-- way more than most movies have.
Then my wife and I decided, on a Monday night, to go see another low-reviewed
movie: San Andreas.
OK, we know what this is, don't we? Dwayne Johnson is the big star. Ioan
Gruffudd, Archie Panjabi, and Paul Giamatti play supporting roles. So it's a
disaster movie, and the actual storyline doesn't matter, right? All that counts
is the same thing that mattered with Titanic: Do we get really cool visuals of
people dying in scary ways?
Normally I wouldn't cross the street for a disaster movie. I saw Towering
Inferno and Poseidon Adventure (three times, always with subtitles, because
my missionary companion had a thing for it in Brazil back in 1973; thanks,
Ferron Sonderegger). I saw the execrable Volcano (1997). I'm done with all
Except. The other choice that night was Pitch Perfect 2 and I decided that
instead of watching an overblown sequel to a modest hit, I'd rather make fun of
a bad disaster movie.
Only we didn't make fun of it. Well, not much. Because it's actually pretty
What do I mean by "pretty good"? A thousand times better than any of
the Hobbit movies. Adequate special effects. An engaging set of family and
There was dumb stuff. But the movie made me care. And the ending was not
You know what I mean. "Embarrassing" was the ending of Volcano, where
volcanic ash has made all the people grey-colored, thereby showing that racism
shouldn't exist because we're all grey under the volcano. Didn't we all groan or
laugh aloud at the pathetic preachiness? And at the sheer stupid arrogance of
Hollywood elitists who think most Americans need little "morals" at the end of
Or the horrible moment where the old woman throws the jewel over the side in
Titanic, along with the absurd meeting of the dead lovers along with the ghosts
of all the ship's passengers, who are apparently all deeply invested in hanging
around the place where they died until one particularly lucky survivor comes
back for her dead boyfriend. I don't know of any religion's version of the
afterlife where this would make sense.
If there was any moral at the end of San Andreas, I missed it. And we don't
have any ghosts meeting up. Only living people are alive at the end.
Screenwriter Carlton Cuse was partially responsible for Lost -- one of the
great wasted opportunities in the history of screenwriting (almost as bad as The
Matrix series). But remember that Lost had a lot of wonderful moments. So
does San Andreas.
The movie follows all the formulas -- because this is the kind of movie those
formulas were invented for. We start by seeing Ray (Dwayne Johnson) as the
competent hero, rescuing a driver so stupid she doesn't actually deserve to live.
His helicopter is damaged and needs repair. But when he's on his way to get it
serviced, a huge earthquake strikes, and he has to rush to rescue his wife from
an LA skyscraper.
Will the chopper break down at some crucial moment? Duh.
Meanwhile, Paul Giamatti plays Lawrence, a seismologist whose team has
devised a way to predict earthquakes. They're investigating a series of tiny
quakes at Hoover Dam (because earthquake guys always go down inside dams
when earthquakes are happening) and they find that a series of tiny magnetic
spikes are an accurate predictor of a coming earthquake.
The problem is that when they see those spikes, the earthquake comes, like,
three seconds later. Personally, I think a three-second warning is not really
what we mean by "accurate earthquake prediction." A half-hour's warning is
prediction. Three seconds is not.
Fortunately, part of the nonsense science is that all the later magnetic spikes
come longer and longer before the actual quake. So they actually give some
meaningful prep time. Cool.
Meanwhile, we learn that Ray's wife Emma (Carla Gugino) is in the final
stages of divorcing him -- and is about to set up housekeeping with her
boyfriend, architect Daniel Riddick (Ioan Gruffudd). The divorce began with
the death of one of Ray's and Emma's two daughters, who drowned on a rafting
trip, when Ray was unable to save her.
Naturally, they will be reconciled before the movie's over -- and not only will
Daniel be revealed as unreliable and unworthy, but even his catty sister will
also be killed. I mean, in this movie, people pay hard for their sins. (Except
for that careless texting driver from the opening.)
But what matters is that Ray's and Emma's surviving daughter, Blake
(Alexandra Daddario) is saved from certain death in a parking garage by a
young Englishman, Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt), and his little brother, Ollie
(Art Parkinson), and then she saves and leads them in turn.
Yes, the sequence of extravagant coincidences always lead to things getting
worse just when it seems that they can't possibly -- while the heroes also
happen to just be missed by total-death events that squish, burn, drop, or
drown everyone around them.
I did mention that this is a formulaic disaster movie, didn't I? But the script
and the director (Brad Peyton) give us a surprising number of Good Moments,
and we come away from the movie actually liking and caring about the main
Ben and Ollie are especially engaging, and we really like Paul Giamatti's and
Archie Panjabi's characters. But let's give Dwayne Johnson his due. There
are moments when it actually seems as though he might be feeling an emotion.
This is an acting breakthrough for him.
This doesn't mean that they don't play fast and loose with actual earthquake
information. For instance, tsunamis can sweep far inland -- but the water
starts receding immediately. But the plot required that San Francisco stay
under water -- a lot of water -- for hours. So ... in this movie, water does not
flow downhill. Instead the Pacific seems to have risen a hundred feet and
keeps on rising. Extraordinary.
And completely forgivable. Saying "it's just a movie" doesn't excuse stupidity,
but certain genres have such low standards that we overlook mere stupidity,
grateful that there were so few offenses against logic and believability.
One thing is true: There will be a massive earthquake along the San
Andreas fault someday. It's also true that earthquakes can crop up
anywhere, because tectonic tension does not always find relief in the expected
So if you think you might enjoy a better-than-mindless disaster movie, San
Andreas is better than the bad ones and nearly as good as the best ones.
Worth watching in the theaters.
The best movie I saw this week was a repeat of an HBO original: Taking
Chance. This movie dates from 2009, and I missed it the first time around,
mostly because I assumed that an HBO movie about a Marine lieutenant
colonel (Kevin Bacon) accompanying the remains of a dead Marine back home
to his family would be an anti-war diatribe.
I couldn't have been more wrong. This movie could not have been more fair,
honest, real, and moving.
It moves slowly, showing us every small step along the way. We watch how
Marine LtCol Michael Strobl supervises every aspect of the coffin's transfer. We
see how the baggage handlers, the crew and flight attendants, and the other
passengers join him in showing respect to the fallen Marine.
It is deeply moving to watch Strobl's slow salute as the white box is loaded
and unloaded; and just as moving to see how many passengers voluntarily stop
to watch with respect.
Along the way, we are given very brief bits of information about the life of the
Marine, Chance Phelps. How he died. How he lived. What he meant to the
tiny rural community in Wyoming where he grew up, and to the family he left
We also get just a glimpse of Strobl's personal ambivalence. He served with
great distinction in the Gulf War, but now he holds down a desk job from
which he comes home to his family every night. So this journey is complicated
by his own survivor's guilt, especially because he knows so many other
Marines from the Gulf War who are back in combat.
But an old veteran calls him to account: "You are his witness," he says to
Strobl, assuring him that this service is also worthy, and that it's not wrong for
Strobl, who already laid everything on the line, to be with his family this time
Taking Chance doesn't hate anybody. It doesn't show the standard leftwing
disdain for the kind of people who volunteer for military service, and it also
doesn't show any hint of being gung-ho for military service. Nor does it ever
seek an unearned tear-jerking moment.
The script was co-written by the real Michael Strobl, drawing upon his
journal, and director Ross Katz. Together, they have created what may be
the most perfect tribute to those who give their lives to the service of their
What Taking Chance is about is simple enough: Respect and honor. These
are virtues that seem to have faded in many segments of our society. This
movie rekindles them in everyone who watches it with an open heart and mind.
Perfect as the writing and direction are, and lovely as the performances of the
actors are, the towering presence in this film is Kevin Bacon, giving the
performance of a lifetime. I would measure him against Spencer Tracy in The
Old Man and the Sea, or Gary Cooper in High Noon, or James Stewart in It's a
This film and Bacon's performance are every bit as iconic and memorable. It
might have been made for TV, but that's actually a good thing. This movie is
too intimate for big screens, and too sacred for popcorn-eating, pop-drinking
Taking Chance is not a snob hit, not an action extravaganza. It's not for
children. Instead it's a great work of public art, and it would be hard to
imagine a better film to watch, alone or with people you love, for Flag Day
(June 14th) or Independence Day.