Tomorrowland ***|****

George Clooney and Britt Robertson in Tomorrowland

In the middle of a particularly rushed sequence of Tomorrowland, the new live-action Disney film by Brad Bird, George Clooney’s character asks “do I have to explain everything? Can’t you just be amazed and move on?” A line like this undoubtedly hints at a self-awareness on the part of the screenwriters, as it accurately sums of the spirit of this movie’s pace and passion. Though it does have some jumbled storytelling and a stout run time, Tomorrowland overcomes its flaws with a sophisticated and original narrative backed with top-rate visuals and an infectious sense of imagination and wonder.

The movie follows peppy teenager Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), the daughter of a NASA engineer who is arrested for disabling explosives at a shuttle demolition site. When she collects her personal items after being bailed out of jail, she finds a pin with a “T” insignia that transports her to a futuristic world upon contact. This leads her on an adventure to uncover the mystery of this new found universe with the help of inventor and previous resident of Tomorrowland Frank Walker (George Clooney), who is also looking for a way back to the high-tech, seemingly utopian city.

The first glimpses of the cutting edge metropolis that is Tomorrowland are the most rewarding, with a crisp retro-future style and a dazzling attention to detail. Jetpacks are a common point of reference for the effects sequences, which is a clever way of bringing together old ideas of what the future might look like with modern ideas of the practicality of such a device. But this movie also offers up its own fun concepts of possible future development, including a multi-level take on the current “infinity pool” and free floating automations that erect skyscapers in minutes.

These fresh ideas coincide with the central message of the film, which encourages the dreamers and thinkers of the world to shun the world’s pervading notions of pessimism and continue on the path of progress instead. Especially for a Disney film, this is a genuinely uplifting and surprisingly old-fashioned conceit that deserves praise for being about as wholesome as a summer blockbuster will allow for these days. Even though the movie’s points do get heavy-handed down the stretch, especially in a third act monologue by Hugh Laurie’s character, I appreciated the fact that it didn’t dumb down its content just to appeal to the typical “family adventure” crowd.

Even on a more surface level, there’s also plenty to enjoy beyond the story as well. Both Clooney and Robertson give heartfelt and inspired performances, while also showcasing a playful chemistry that thankfully steers clear of creepiness. Bird favorite Michael Giacchino conjures up another winning musical score that gives the jetpack flying scenes an extra zing. All within the package of a modern family entertainment, Tomorrowland takes the futuristic ideas of the past and the hopes for the future and puts them all on display with an original sense of reverence and wonder.

Mad Max: Fury Road **½|****

Tom Hardy in Mad Max: Fury Road
Tom Hardy in Mad Max: Fury Road

There is a moment in Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth George Miller-directed installment in the franchise, that encapsulates the entire experience of viewing the film very succinctly. Two cars rip along a desert wasteland: one with our hero Max and the other with the primary antagonists. Desperate for more power, members of each car crawl along their respective hoods and take turns literally spitting gasoline into their growling engine blocks as flames shoot vigorously from either side. This movie isn’t a matter of loud and louder; it’s a matter of loudest and louderest.

We are re-introduced to Mad Max (Tom Hardy), still inhabiting the post-apocalyptic setting of the previous films, as he is captured by pale creatures called the War Boys and strung up like a human IV to be used as a universal blood donor. When a gasoline collecting  cavalcade led by Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) veers off course, the War Boys are instructed by their leader Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) to pursue the convoy at all costs. With Max in tow, the War Boys and Furiosa engage in long stretches of highway warfare filled with insane antics and limitless explosions.

My chief critique of Mad Max: Fury Road is an admittedly simple one: it’s too much. Good action movies will typically have one or two climactic setpieces that put the main characters in peril for an appropriate amount of time. The extended car chase from last year’s Nightcrawler is a great example: it’s grounded, it’s thrilling and it has a real sense of unpredictability to it. Alternately, Mad Max feels like a ten-minute chase sequence that has been blown out to a two-hour feature. It’s an exhausting proposition, one that eventually lead me to ask myself “do I really need to watch another car crash and explode?”

Thankfully, bits of respite are interspersed throughout the film in the form of moderately interesting backstories and bouts of character development. Even in these moments, the overdone score is pumped up louder than necessary but at least the actors have a chance to show off their chops. The most notable among them is Charlize Theron, who has always been a very reliable actress and she brings forth a unique sense of loss and resiliency to her character. Tom Hardy, taking over for Mel Gibson in the Mad Max role, doesn’t have very much dialogue but provides yet another credible performance of commanding physicality and ferocity.

Indeed, the fight scenes that include Hardy stand as the most well choreographed portions of the movie. From a visual perspective, there’s plenty to admire about the universe that George Miller has created here and I certainly respect his proclivity towards practical stunts over computer generated effects. There are even unexpected moments of dark slapstick humor that crop up from time to time. Unfortunately, Miller has crafted a movie that I found to be bombastic beyond belief and one that left my ears ringing as opposed to my adrenaline pumping.

Ex Machina ***|****

Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina
Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina

Screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go) takes over for the first time as director in the science fiction thriller Ex Machina, an atmospheric and engaging take on the future of artificial intelligence and man’s place in the ongoing advancement of technology. It tells an intimate story, mainly involving three characters, that appropriately finds a chilling balance between humanity and inhumanity. The film also breaches heavy concepts like mortality and collective consciousness without getting too heavy-handed or over-explaining, instead trusting the audience to think for themselves and dwell on the themes at hand.

We begin at fictional search engine company Bluebook, a dual homage to both Google and Facebook, where a young programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is selected to meet with the company’s reclusive CEO Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) for a week-long research project. When Caleb arrives, he is shocked to find that Nathan has developed a near-fully functioning form of artificial intelligence that is being carried out through a humanoid robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander). For the next seven days, Caleb puts Ava through an intense psychological Turing test in order to push the technology further and create the most sophisticated AI in history.

Thematically, the film’s most innovative material comes from its view of gender and the misogynistic undertones that permeate Caleb and Nathan’s relationship with Ava. Though they are both clearly brilliant men, they seem to both possess a weakening ability to deal with women or more specifically, their own manifestation of a woman. From Nathan’s seemingly casual abuse of the female-like robots to Caleb’s initial patronizing treatment of Ava during their interactions, it’s ironic that Ava seems to display a higher degree of emotional intelligence than either of the men with whom she interacts.

More than anything, Ex Machina does a stunning job of reminding us what is means to truly be a human being. We learn late in the film that Ava’s brain is actually a composite of the billions of search queries submitted through Bluebook, along with other illegally obtained personal data like text messages and cell phone videos. This creates surprisingly effective results and is a fresh approach to building an AI but even with all of this stimuli of human interaction and experience, there is still a component of humanity that Ava struggles to recreate.

All of this is carried out with a crisp production design and seamless computer generated effects that are integrated with careful detail and nuance. The chilly score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury also adds an extra layer of depth without drawing too much attention to itself. The performances, especially from Vikander, are well-realized and full of believability, although I still don’t fully find myself on the Domhnall Gleeson bandwagon as of yet. Ex Machina intelligently handles the typical themes found in science fiction films and has enough new ideas to make it a worthy addition.

Avengers: Age of Ultron ***|****

Chris Hemsworth, Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans in Avengers: Age of Ultron
Chris Hemsworth, Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans in Avengers: Age of Ultron

From Marvel Studios, a production company who in seven years time has transformed from a middling presence to a unstoppable behemoth, comes the follow-up to their 2012 mega-hit The Avengers. In true sequel fashion, Marvel ups the ante this time with more superheroes, more action, more subplots…more of just about everything. Avengers: Age of Ultron does suffer in comparison to its predecessor, mainly due to the lack of surprise factor that comes along with seeing these characters together for the first time, but it also brings enough of the original film’s frenetic energy and self-aware humor to make it worth recommending.

The story hinges on Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) discovery of a new form of artificial intelligence within one of the coveted Infinity Stones, which he secretly utilizes to advance his Ultron defense program. Because he has apparently never seen a science fiction movie, he is surprised when the newly born technology becomes sentient and threatens to eliminate the human race from the planet. The Avengers must once again overcome their personal differences to defeat Ultron’s massive robot army along with the new mutant villains Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen).

Inevitably, this conflict leads up to a gigantic setpiece that overtakes the final 45 minutes of the movie in similar fashion to the first film but in total, the action comes across as more frenzied and sometimes confused in Age of Ultron. Both clearly make ample use of computer generated effects but something about this outing feels a bit more artificial. Still, there’s no lack of crowd pleasing fight scenes here, the most memorable including an extended showdown between a mind-altered Hulk and a heavily armored Iron Man that should prove to be immensely satisfying for comic book fans and casual fans alike.

The Evil Plot is not terribly original here but as the primary villain, James Spader does bring a great deal of gleeful menace to Ultron. Most specifically, I was especially impressed with the facial detail that was implemented for his character. Hallmarks of Spader’s past performances, like the intimidating stare and even the pursing of the lips, are somehow translated on the face of this hulking automaton. While it might not make much logical sense that Ultron would have such a killer sense of humor, it does stay consistent with the witty atmosphere that director Joss Whedon has established in his Avengers universe.

The humor and personality that Whedon has brought to these movies remain their most worthy attributes. We can watch cars explode and civilians scream in just about any superhero movie but the interplay between these legendary characters is bracingly unique to this series. Whether its a running joke about Captain America’s distaste for profanity or Robert Downey Jr.’s hilarious line reading during the discovery of a secret passageway, Age of Ultron has no shortage of unexpected laughs. Here’s hoping that the Russo Brothers can stay on the right track when they take over the Avengers series in 2018.