Tomorrowland (Brad Bird, 2015). There’s nobility in Brad Bird’s oft-stated aspiration to use Tomorrowland to reanimate the futuristic optimism of his youth, countering the long meander into an endless procession of sci-fi dystopias. Intent is one thing. Execution is quite another. Bird’s second outing as a director of live-action features is a muddled, overbearing squawk of condescending nonsense that too often barrels headlong into disastrous inane storytelling choices. As a grizzled, grumpy outcast of a once-proud secret nation of innovators, George Clooney is in the mode of hammy, insistent twitches that rightly earned him derision when he made his initial attempt at leveraging ER stardom into a big, impressive movie career. Bird aims for Spielbergian wonder and gentle, approachable quirk (a scene featuring Kathryn Hahn and Keegan-Michael Key as proprietors of a deceptive nostalgia shop smacks of the colorful busyness that defined eighties films under the broader Spielberg brand), but only winds up illustrating how difficult it is to pull off.
Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made (Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen, 2015). Years ago, Jim Windolf wrote an article for Vanity Fair that is a pure delight. It detailed the quest of a few boys, middle schoolers at first, to craft a shot-for-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark. A documentary on the same subject should be a natural, with the amateur footage providing its own argument about the thrill of creation. Instead, it winds up a fitfully effective entertainment, mostly because co-directors Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen choose to frame their documentary around an attempt by the now grown-up fledgling filmmakers shoot the one sequence that sat too far beyond their youthful reach. Kids banging around their basement to replicate a Hollywood blockbuster is fun. A middle-aged guy having an agonizing phone conversation with his fuming boss to take one more half-day off of work for a vanity project is far less so. Raiders! is best when it keeps its focus firmly retrospective.
The Misfits (John Huston, 1961). Best known as the final completed film for both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe (and essentially the last significant screen work by Montgomery Clift), The Misfits is more than a mere curiosity. Written by Arthur Miller (married to Monroe at the time, though the relationship was splintering), the film delivers the agonizing, downtrodden lives of people who can’t find their footing in mid-twentieth-century America, as mores were rapidly changing and whole ways of life were drifting away like clouds of desert dust. Miller’s writing has a aching poignancy and brutish honestly to it, and director John Huston handles the material with characteristic empathy and clarity, even though his senses were notoriously dulled by the ample opportunities for decadent excess available in Nevada. All the actors are very strong, with Thelma Ritter delivers an especially jagged and enjoyable performance as a longtime Las Vegas resident who has taken Monroe’s divorcing beauty under her wounded wing.
The Visitor (Giulio Paradisi, 1979). This is the sort of wild-eyed science fiction-horror hybrid that could only burble to life in the feverish incubator of the late nineteen-seventies. Adopting the more approachable and yet ridiculous billing of Michael J. Paradise to not unduly jar U.S. audiences, director Giulio Paradisi works here with the ever-nutty Egyptian filmmaker Ovidio G. Assonitis (who’d take co-writing and co-directing credits a couple years later on Piranha II: The Spawning, James Cameron’s directorial debut). The Visitor delves into bizarre mythologies involving outer space forces that occasionally plant a demonic being on planet Earth to wreak havoc. In this instance, it’s a little girl named Katy, (Paige Connor) introduced in the film by exploding a basketball hoop during a close game involving the fictional Atlanta Rebels, owned by a man (Lance Henriksen) who’s evidently cultivating the powers of the girl for a boardroom of shadowy executives in exchange for NBA glory. That’s only the beginning of loopy invention, with Katy increasingly terrorizing her mother (Joanne Nail) and snarling at the blowsy housekeeper (two-time Academy Award winner Shelley Winters) with a keen eye for the devilry afoot. Still, I need to admit the movie is packed full of things I’ve never quite seen before, like a car crash that leaves the occupant trapped instead the flaming vehicle because it got burrito-wrapped in the chain link fence when it went careening off the road.
Tale of Tales (Matteo Garrone, 2015). All right, so full-on narrative craziness can take hold around thirty-five years later, too. Matteo Garrone delivers his first English language film with this adaptation of fairy tales written by Giambattista Basile. Interspersed with each other, the different stories land with varying degrees of success, depending in part of the skill levels of the players Garrone has recruited. “The Two Old Women,” for example, might rush to a satisfyingly gruesome punchline, but the wholly characteristic drowsiness of Vincent Cassel in a key role is bound to blunt the story’s progression. In contrast, Garrone judged wisely with “The Flea,” as Toby Jones is perfectly equipped to highlight the ickiness and pathos that both reside there. Tale of Tales may be something of a mess, but it’s an admirably fearless mess.