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3 Movies Launch the Summer Season

1 blockbuster, 2 small films — each with its own charms

Summer is nearly upon us — and with it a big movie season, led by the lavish Disney fantasy Tomorrowland making a big splash this weekend. But there's still plenty of room in the pool for a charming romance starring Blythe Danner and Sam Elliott, plus a beach-themed comedy featuring Helen Hunt (who also wrote, produced and directed).

'Tomorrowland' Movie Trailer: A former boy-genius (George Clooney) and a gifted teenager (Britt Robertson) set out on a dangerous mission to unearth the secrets of "Tomorrowland," an enigmatic location caught between time and space.

Tomorrowland: Dazzling yet Dumb

Rated: PG

Run Time: 2 hours 10 minutes

Stars: George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, Britt Robertson

Director: Brad Bird

As sheer spectacle, Tomorrowland delivers. Cowriter-director Brad Bird's vision of a utopian city of the future is undeniably thrilling. The screen pops with Tomorrowland's elevated walkways, its seemingly perfect environmental balance, its swooping hovercraft and thundering rockets. Most significantly, the place appears to have eradicated prejudice and nationalism.

But movies need stories, and it's here that Bird — the consummate storyteller of The Incredibles and Ratatouille — stumbles uncharacteristically.

Tomorrowland is the story of Frank, a young boy who, on a visit to the 1964-65 World's Fair, happens upon a gateway to a future city called Tomorrowland, a place that looks an awful lot like the utopian dream famously predicted by that fair. Tomorrowland is also about Casey (Britt Robertson), a young woman of the present day who is distinguished primarily for her eternal optimism about the future. She meets up with Frank (a grizzly George Clooney), now all grown up and cynical. Drawing upon his experience as a scientific genius and some dark knowledge he's brought back from Tomorrowland, Frank expects the world to end, literally, any day now. Together they journey back to that future world to try to reverse Earth's steady slog toward oblivion. With his cache of technical know-how and her endless font of perkiness, how could they fail?

Tomorrowland's central conceit is intriguing: When did our society stop anticipating the future and begin to dread it? And is there any way to recapture that old-time optimism? Bird feels passionate enough about the theme to bring the action to an occasional screeching halt so Clooney and the film's antagonist (deliciously played by Hugh Laurie) can deliver speeches designed to fire us up about caring for our planet's future. Instead, they have the unintended impact of half-baked high-school graduation addresses.

Generally, I'm OK with sci-fi movie speechifying. (2001: A Space Odyssey shunned them, obscuring its meaning.) But Tomorrowland's chief sin is its muddled storytelling. Bird has concocted a Rube Goldberg tale that takes place chronologically in the past, present and future, and geographically in two different dimensions. The viewer is asked to juggle a subplot about Casey's father losing his job at NASA; another about a robot girl whom Frank had a crush on as a kid; another about killer robots on the trail of Casey and Frank; and yet one more about an ill-defined doomsday device that Frank designed during his sojourn inTomorrowland.

We're also left with nagging questions about how this whole Tomorrowland thing was supposed to work. It's a city created in another dimension by Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, see, as a way to attract humanity's most creative, humanitarian and technically brilliant people. That's peachy for the folks who live in Tomorrowland, but what about the rest of us poor slobs left behind? No wonder our planet's going to hell in a hovercraft.

In its final shot, thousands of people stand in a sun-dappled wheat field, their eyes shining bright with fervor for a great big beautiful tomorrow. As the sound-track music swells, older viewers may be excused if it invokes another tune from another time (but a nearly identical setting): "I'd like to teach the world to sing …"

Tomorrowland, despite having its great big beautiful heart in the right place, offers little more than the empty calories of a classic Coke commercial. —B.N.

'Ride' Movie Trailer: A mother travels cross-country to California to be with her son after he decides to drop out of school and become a surfer.

Surf Diva

Helen Hunt celebrates her 'Big 5-Oh!' by taking the 'Ride' of her life

Rating: R

Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes

Stars: Helen Hunt, Brandon Thwaites, Luke Wilson, David Zayas

Director: Helen Hunt

It's not easy turning 50 in Hollywood, especially if you're a woman. The best strategy may be to grab a surfboard and Make a Bold Statement, as Oscar-winning actress Helen Hunt does in her new comedy, Ride.

Not only does Hunt ride her own waves in the film, she served as its writer-producer-director-star: She wrote the script for Ride in the two years leading up to her 50th birthday on June 15, 2013, then shot the movie just after celebrating that milestone.

Ride follows Then She Found Me, Hunt's 2007 debut as a "Hollywood hyphenate" (she wrote, directed, produced and starred in that film, too), which told the story of an adoptee whose birth mother comes along just as she discovers she's pregnant. That it took eight years for Hunt to deliver her second movie to audiences is par for the course in male-dominated Hollywood — and a testament to her trademark tenacity.

With Ride, Hunt once again explores how multiple crises can cause a life to spin right off its axis. She plays Jackie, a single mother and hard-driving editor at the New Yorker. Her handsome young son, Angelo (the terrific Brandon Thwaites), is just about to leave the nest and head off to college a few blocks away, at NYU, to study writing. That carefully laid plan explodes when Angelo decides to ditch school and experience the world instead: He grabs his surfboard and lights out for California to live with his father (and his father's much-younger new family).

The tightly wound Jackie is having none of that. Spouting aspersions about the West Coast in general and Angelenos in particular, she grabs her black clothes and stilettos and jumps on a plane to track Angelo down. But as Jackie struggles to reconnect with her son (and walk in those heels on the sand), the California sun, sea and surf begin to pull her in.

Determined to learn to surf simply to disprove her son's challenge that she can't, Jackie weathers a midlife crisis that requires shedding her pride (she's not exactly a surfing natural) and prejudices: There's a wide world beyond the narrow New York City streets and society that have defined her life, she discovers. The surfboard becomes a vehicle for Hunt the filmmaker to surface Jackie's evolving relationship with Angelo, as well as the emotional sea changes happening inside her heart as she rides the waves.

It doesn't hurt that she encounters Luke Wilson along the way; he's at his most affable and attractive as a surfing instructor who falls for Jackie, who's so out of her element that she seems determined to drown during their lessons. David Zayas also lends his considerable charisma to this amusing, slightly wry movie; he plays Jackie's Town Car chauffeur — and local guide to all the laid-back charms that Los Angeles has to offer.

Ride is a sometimes serious, sometimes funny, always engaging film about a phase in life that every grownup enters sooner or later — that time of change when we look at what our lives have been and start wondering if where we've been is still right for our future. It's a convergence that reminds us just how messy the process of self-discovery can be. —J.P.

'I'll See You in My Dreams' Movie Trailer: A widow (Blythe Danner) and former songstress discovers that life can begin anew at any age.

'Dreams' of Life, Death and Something in Between

Blythe Danner starts all over again — at 70 — in this bittersweet comic drama

Rating: PG-13

Run Time: 1 hour 32 minutes

Stars: Malin Akerman, Blythe Danner, Sam Elliott, Rhea Perlman, Mary Kay Place, Martin Starr, June Squibb

Director: Brett Haley

At what moment does life begin again after a loss? If I'll See You in My Dreams is any guide, it could take two decades to find that spark again.

Blythe Danner stars as Carol, a longtime widow whose life revolves around her dog, her garden and her three best friends — played with verve by Rhea PerlmanMary Kay Place and June Squibb. All are well-off country club types, playing cards and hitting the links now and then.

But for Carol, there's something missing — this despite her belief that her late husband was her one true love. Her daughter (Malin Akerman) lives far away, and she has no grandchildren to spoil. So when Carol's boon companion, Hazel the golden retriever, goes to that Kennel in the Sky, the death snaps her out of complacency: She begins an odd yet strangely satisfying friendship with her 20-something pool guy and sings live in a nightclub again for the first time in decades. Carol even tries a speed dating session at the club, with funny (and mostly calamitous) results.

The country club is likewise the venue for her encounter with Bill (sexy Sam Elliott), and after 20 years Carol lets love in again. You can tell it's a movie romance when the man is not only single, available and intensely interested, but handsome, wealthy and basically perfect. What single older woman wouldn't want to head out on his boat (as Carol does) and into his bed (ditto)? Thankfully, the film moves in a somewhat unexpected direction in the third act, making it much more than just a prime-of-life pipe dream.

Danner has always brought a sexy sophistication to the screen, and I'll See You in My Dreams showcases that beautifully; at 72 she flaunts a vivacious spark that makes her a delight to watch. Danner is a widow of 13 years herself — her 34-year marriage to director Bruce Paltrow ended with his death at 58 in 2002 — and she recently revealed she hadn't tried to find a new partner in the ensuing years. As Squibb's character says in the movie, "When you've had the best, the heck with the rest."

Could that be why this script held such appeal for Danner? No matter; this heartfelt movie and her winning performance resonate with realistic charm. Carol endures the loneliness of growing older, does her best to age gracefully and fervently desires romance and companionship. Those threads intertwine in a story that will leave you rooting for Carol to make the most of what her future holds. —J.P.

Bill Newcott is a writer, editor and movie critic for AARP Media; Jenny Peters is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist.