Memorial Day weekend signals the onslaught of summer blockbuster hopefuls. Some will be huge audience favs; others, even some that are highly anticipated, won’t exactly cause the earth to quake — the way it’ll quake this weekend with the opening of San Andreas, (Warner Bros./Village Roadshow), when pumped up Dwayne Johnson and that massive quake hits L.A. in 3-D this weekend.
But this year summer began quite a bit earlier with blockbusters Furious 7, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Mad Max: Fury Road.
Kicking off the official start of summer were Tomorrowland, the remake of Poltergeist, and the earthquake thriller San Andreas.
The aptly-named futuristic adventure Tomorrowland (Disney) features Oscar and Golden Globe winner and longtime heart-throb George Clooney as you’d never expect him – playing Frank Fisher, an unkempt, grouch of a disillusioned scientist of a certain age, in Damon Lindelof (writer, co-creator, TV’s Lost) and two-time Oscar-winning director (animated feature films The Incredibles and Ratatouille) Brad Bird’s tall tale of a danger-filled mission to unearth the secrets of an enigmatic utopia somewhere in time and space. It bears no resemblance to the technology and science of Tomorrowland at Disneyland, which, as it turns out, is celebrating its 60th anniversary.
There’s a run time of just over two hours, and right away you foresee a problem. We get a quick snap of Fisher spouting about Earth’s perils – and then don’t see him again for an hour. During those 60 minutes, we’re taken on a thrill ride of nonstop adventure that has only been dreamed of.
Britt Robertson, as Casey, a bright, optimistic teen bursting with scientific curiosity and a bent on sneaking past security at Cape Canaveral to sabotage space flights, which gets her into Deep Six trouble. She finds a magic pin that spins her through various dimensions and emerges in a stunning landscape of wheat fields with a soaring metropolis of swooping highways of airborne autos and towering crystal spires.
Back from tomorrow to today, youngster Thomas Robinson is the young Frank, fixed on flying into space as Rocket Man. At Disneyland to enter a scientific competition he meets charming Athena (Raffey Cassidy), a beyond-intelligent youngster with a secret (no spoiler here) with a deep knowledge of the future. Her mission is to recruit dreamers energized enough to create a better world. He follows her into the It’s a Small World attraction, hitching a ride on a gondola which suddenly drops through the water and zooms him into space and a journey of discovery into an incredible (CGI) metropolis.
There are many distractions as we segue from future fantasy to current reality and the hunt by men-in-black after Fisher and Casey’s secrets. With the lavish CGI dreamscapes of tomorrow, you certainly see where the estimated $280-million went. The performances are absolutely engaging; and the cinematography by Chilean Claudio Miranda (Oscar winner, Life of Pi; nominee for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) is breathtaking. Younger audiences may eventually lose interest as the plot, which certainly isn’t threadbare, thickens. There may be a lot of explaining to do, so you adults really should pay close attention. One might wonder why Tomorrowland wasn’t shot in real or converted to 3-D. It cries out for it.
Also opening and raking in almost $23-million was producer Sam Rami and director Gil Kenan’s reimagining of the much-loved 1982 “haunted house in the suburbs” teen-aimed thriller Poltergeist (20th Century Fox/M-G-M; 3-D)
The original was directed by Tobe Hooper, co-written by Stephen Spielberg and was nominated for three Oscars: Jerry Goldsmith’s edgy score, sound editing, and special effects. Worth a visit because of good casting (Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jared Harris, young Kennedi Clements) and screenplay by Pulitzer Prize winner and Tony nominee David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole; also Shrek – The Musical, Kimberly Akimbo, Fuddy Meers), but scare off the original which delivered the goods with subtly and more substance.
Early Starters Out the Gate for Box Office Bucks:
April 3 saw the long-awaited arrival of Furious 7 (Universal), in the capable hands of director James Wan, who started with a bang and ended with a bang. Returning for what is one of the best in this speed demon series were Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, Dwayne Johnson, and Ludacris, and a helluva villain in Jason Statham. It lived up beyond expectations. You could actually make sense of it most of the time. 8 is now in pre-production (expected in 2017). Sadly, we said goodbye to Walker in 7 — and in a classy and poignant way (with magical CGI and his brothers Caleb and Cody as stand-ins). It’s estimated the production cost $190-million. Gross to date, as it still speeds along: almost $345-million.
Then came the latest entry about Earth’s mightiest heroes, The Avengers: Age of Ultron (Disney/Marvel) with reliable Tony Stark/Robert Downey Jr. Bruce Banner (Captain America)/Chris Evans Thor/Chris Hemsworth, Black Widow/the very game Scarlet Johansson, the Hulk/Mark Ruffalo, and backup from their motley crew attempting to jump-start a dormant peacekeeping program. Of course, things go horribly wrong when the villainous Ultron/James Spader spars with them. But, with the fate of the planet at stake, alliances are formed to fight the good fight. At nearly two-and-a-half hours, much too long, it was no match for the 2012 original: too many heroes to keep up with and tons of insider jokes. That didn’t affect the ka-ching at the box office: $405-million — almost double the film’s budget – and they’re still out there fighting the global fight.
Not far behind was Mad Max: Fury Road (Warner Bros./Village Roadshow), director George Miller’s valiant return to the franchise he started with Mel Gibson in the late 70s — with Tom Hardy stepping into more than fill the shoes of the cynical drifter who only instinct is to survive. Who would’ve thought you’d find beautiful Oscar winner Charlize Theron playing way against type as Furiosa, fleeing from cult leader Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his army of armored tanker trucks. If you want plot, forget about it. If you want bloody, maddening, pounding, mind-boggling, jaw-dropping, edge-of-seat 3-D action on a vast scale on a stark desert landscape, you’ll get your fill as these weary rebels try to restore order in a post-nuclear war world gone mad. The film was an out-of-competition hit at Cannes. Box office take: In excess of $88-million and they’re still speeding down the road.
In between these, however came a huge embarrassment – as far as taste and prestige go: Get Hard (Warner Bros.), which was supposed to be a comedy (it actually had a fun premise) but ended up being a gross out. If you eliminated all the F, M-F, N words and sexual and racial stereotyping, the 100 minute run time would probably be about 20 minutes. A segment of audience, perhaps, those who’ll go see anything, didn’t seem to mind. It has grossed an estimated $90-million — which, sad to say, means there’ll be a sequel.
But balance that piece of trash with a slew of prestige films ton on the art-house circuit:
Effie Gray (Adopt Films), about a Victorian England scandal about a loveless marriage, directed by Dame Emma Thompson and starring Dakota Fanning delivering the dramatic goods; Dame Emma as her high-society stalwart supporter; the stalwart Julie Waters, playing totally against type; a smashing Derek Jacobi, and cameos by Robbie Coltrane and the legendary Claudia Cardinale. It was one of those films you didn’t want to end. We were deprived of the outcome, and you wanted to be there for the come-uppance. That could have been accomplished by snipping away at Fanning’s long-suffering. American composer Paul Cantelon (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) who segued from violinist to concert pianist to the eclectic rock band, Wild Colonials has written a score that expresses the film’s emotional depth (Lakeshore Records).
Dame Helen Mirren (currently Tony and Drama Desk-nominated for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in The Audience) proves in Woman in Gold (Weinstein Company, BBC, and Origin Films) she can just do no wrong. Directed by Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) and adapted by Alexi Kaye Campbell from the life stories of Maria Altmann and Randol Schoenberg, it’s a heart-tugging Jewess vs. Goliath tale with superb co-starring chemistry between Dame Helen and Ryan Reynolds. She’s a Jewish refugee from Austria who fled for a life in Los Angeles, where she pursues a decade-long vendetta against her homeland with a young attorney to recover a family heirloom plundered by the Nazis: Klimt’s painting “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” posed by her aunt. The leads display admirable pluck with many moments of levity. Ravishing Tatiana Maslany is young Maria and Max Irons is her husband in flashbacks. Jonathan Pryce appears as William Rehnquist, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Available in Starz Digital HD on June 26 and Blu-ray and DVD (Anchor Bay Entertainment) and On Demand July 7.
Art houses always have room for a romantic classic, and the remake of Joseph Hardy’s 1874 feminist novel Far from the Madding Crowd (Fox Searchlight, BBC Films) is a perfect fit. The story of headstrong Bathsheba, played in top form by Carey Mulligan [Oscar-nominee for An Education; and Tony and Drama Desk nominations in hand currently transfixing Broadway audiences opposite fellow Tony nominee Bill Nighy (so delightful in the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel franchises), in the revival of David Hare’s Skylight, battling conventions in male-dominated Victorian England, passes by a strong, smitten sheep farmer, portrayed by Belgium hunk Matthias Schoenaerts, and an equally smitten land owner (Michael Sheen) for a sleekly handsome, wealthy but brutish Army sergeant. In spite of energetic performances, the movie plods along at the pace of sheep. The film boasts a stirring score by Craig Armstrong and breathtaking Buckinghamshire cinematography of Denmark’s Charlotte Bruus Christensen.
Ellis Nassour is an Ole Miss alum and noted arts journalist and author who recently donated an ever-growing exhibition of performing arts history to the University of Mississippi. He is the author of the best-selling Patsy Cline biography, Honky Tonk Angel, as well as the hit musical revue, Always, Patsy Cline.