The Purge: Election Year

'The Purge - Election Year' movie poster

Release: Friday, July 1, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: James DeMonaco

Directed by: James DeMonaco

I am convinced the French marketing for the third Purge film (see above) is the most responsible form of it we have. The Purge: Election Year manages to be as inane as it looks and here is a movie poster that pulls no punches when it comes to revealing the truth. Cheap-looking and tacky the movie may not be, but it is unconvincing. Often hilariously so.

Though there are no Donald Trump masks involved (surprising, given writer-director James DeMonaco’s affinity for being overt) there is no doubt that the third Purge is intended as his own State of the Union address as it applies to a country being torn apart from the inside by mass shootings, gang and race-related violence and other forms of 21st-Century-friendly terms like ‘terrorism.’ Election Year is now, it is eminent and it is, supposedly, urgent. And so the French movie title starts feeling apropos.

Previous installments — one which took place entirely within the confines of an upper-middle class suburban abode and the other upon the streets of Los Angeles — worked tirelessly in addressing the growing divide between the have’s (the one-percenters of this fine country) and the have-not’s (everyone else in comparison) by creatively demonstrating the rage that festers within a 12-hour period one night out of the year. We’ve come to understand that purge night, rather than being a means for the American people to cleanse themselves of any sort of violence, is just the government’s way of shedding the nation of its burdens: the weak and the poor. A third installment hypothetically could add depth to this bleak, dystopian portrait of government-sponsored terror but what eventuates are just echoes of the themes it has hastily carted out on a dolly since the first round.

Once again we’re set in the near-future and purge night is upon us. Wait, let me back up a little bit. We first witness the events that inspire a young Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) to become a Senator for good. Eighteen years after watching her entire family get murdered at the hands of a lunatic purger, she’s campaigning for the Presidency, vowing to eliminate this terrible night once and for all. Such a devastating loss drives the woman’s powerful but dangerous idealism. She has to win the election and wrestle control of the country away from the New Founding Fathers, but she also refuses to use murder as her path to victory as that wouldn’t make her any different from those who purge.

Frank Grillo returns as former police sergeant Leo Barnes. Once he’s in the picture, the film picks up in both the excitement and intensity departments. After surviving the horrendous events of Anarchy, Barnes has signed on as part of Senator Roan’s security detail and finds himself this time protecting a highly valuable asset as the New Founding Fathers have decided to take a firmer stance against opponents of the purge. They do so by revoking high-level official’s security Level 9 million-whatever clearance, a.k.a. their immunity to the lawlessness of the night. The Senator of course would prefer to wait the night out in her own home. Leo doesn’t think that’s a smart idea; it’s not. Soon we’re back out on the streets after a betrayal. Ya know, the usual.

Leo once again is surrounded by a group of citizens of indeterminate firearm-wielding skill and whose political leanings essentially boil down to “F**k whoever believes in the purge.” Meanwhile, a resistance group is forming somewhere in downtown Washington and there begins to breed a new kind of morality to the violence. But Leo’s gang ain’t like that; they’re comprised of proud deli owner Joe (Mykelti Williamson), his assistant and Mexican immigrant Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria), and a tough-as-nails EMT named Laney played by a fun Betty Gabriel — she’s arguably the film’s best offering beyond Grillo.

Election Year finds the city center of Ridiculous soon enough. We’re slowly pulled into the world of anti-purgers gathering in secrecy at some undisclosed (even in this review) location, preparing to wage war against the NFFA, namely Executive Douchebag Caleb Warren (Raymond J. Barry), the ring leader whose vileness must be measured by how many nasty words he can fit into one monologue. That’s the kind of lazy writing that has become a frustrating pattern in this franchise. DeMonaco’s creation has this fascinating psycho-social science dynamic that routinely gets left behind in favor of tired genre tropes and subpar acting (and directing).

The major offense here though is that three provides entirely too much déjà vu. DeMonaco attempts to expand the scope of the narrative by including a terribly ill-advised subplot in which ‘murder tourism’ has become a thing. Apparently it’s not enough that everyone in America is out in the streets killing each other to death; now we have an influx of South Africans (sorry Zoe; Natasha . . . ) coming stateside just to kill people. Don’t laugh (it’s okay, I almost did). The fact that the purge has caught on internationally and is now being marketed as a tourist package is just silliness defined.

Come to think of it, much of this franchise has been just that. Take a look at any number of those peculiar seance scenes in which small groups of well-dressed caucasians gather and either make a sacrifice or just repeat the phrase “purge and purify” ad nauseam (actually, it’s usually both). I look to those moments for an encapsulation of everything The Purge has been: pure nonsense and half-hearted attempts at profundity. Excuse me while I go purge all of my disappointment from memory.

Frank Grillo and Elizabeth Mitchell in The Purge - Election Year

Recommendation: Gee, I wonder what the director’s stance on gun control is. The amount of mileage you get out of The Purge: Election Year (or as I prefer, American Nightmare 3: Elections) will depend on how much you enjoy just being stuck in this particularly dark universe. There’s no doubt DeMonaco and his cinematographer have crafted a unique visual identity but in terms of story they simply never even try to attain the heights their unusual, intriguing premise(s) suggest. You can always count on Frank Grillo though and paired up with Elizabeth Mitchell’s Senator he is better than ever. The rest though leaves a lot to be desired and I don’t know if I want to sit through more.

Rated: R

Running Time: 105 mins.

Quoted: “Good night, blue cheese!” 

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Run All Night

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Release: Friday, March 13, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Brad Ingelsby

Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra

Emotionally resonant, impressively acted and frenetically paced to a fault, the latest demonstration of Neeson’s physical and intellectual stamina may suffer from a case of ‘been there, done that’ but that’s more in reference to the general direction this new release takes and less to its personality. There’s no shame in repeating a formula . . . if it works. What’s that adage — if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it? Well Liam isn’t broken yet as this film proves; he’s got plenty left in the tank.

The 62-year-old Irishman crawls under the skin of what may be his most apparent antihero yet, Jimmy Conlon, a former hit-man with more ties to the mob than to his own family. When a thug, the son of one of Jimmy’s only remaining friends Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris) makes a sloppy attempt at disposing of unwanted evidence in the wake of a botched murder by tracking down an escaped ‘victim’ to Jimmy’s son’s home and attempts to clean house, Jimmy is awoken from a particularly brutal drunken stupor in an effort to save his son’s life. Michael (Joel Kinnaman, finally coming to life) hasn’t seen his father in five years since the death of his mother and finds the timing a little odd to say the least. Knowing full well what the consequences of his latest kill are going to be, Jimmy makes a strong case for Michael to trust his trigger-finger and gut instinct for just one night.

It’s clear we won’t be dropping the baggage of old age manifesting in bottomless drinks and endless cigarettes this time around: Neeson’s character once more gets to tout his miserable existence on this mortal coil as experience no one around him ought to share in, but within this fragile father-son dynamic the pain caused by his rejection from society — or those who haven’t committed murder for a living anyway — not only registers with the audience but it’s a burden that feels earned. If it’s not a better life Jimmy wants for his son and his family, which includes a regrettably disposable Genesis Rodriguez as his gorgeous wife, then it’s certainly anything but what the next 24 hours are going to offer.

As for those aforementioned consequences, Harris’ ruthless Shawn, whose previous claims of running a legit operation these days belie the monster dormant behind cold, blue eyes, stabs a man in the back no less than ten times with a large blade during a shocking sequence of mafia-related retribution. It’s not quite like Matthew 5:38 (“an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”), but the allegory, even if as subtle as a backstabbing, works to heighten the tension. Every move Jimmy makes to protect his son Shawn mimics out of desperation — desperation with which we can actually empathize. Credit Harris’ gift for powerful acting. Credit screenwriter Brad Ingelsby for setting up the stakes sufficiently, as the fall-out between the two men culminates in a surprisingly emotional showdown.

Run All Night is of course not without its own missteps. Its many action-packed (read: very violent) scenes are spliced together with an energy that takes some effort keeping up with, even for director Jaume Collet-Serra. A dizzying blend of awkward camera zooms that whisk us from one section of the metropolitan maze that is Manhattan to the other and close-ups of characters at rest nearly results in nausea and does result in frequent detachment from the movie. Not to mention this story, though much more attentive to character development and emotional gravitas than the latter Taken installments, merely adds padding to Neeson’s post-Ra’s Al Ghul résumé. Run All Night is neither as poorly titled as Non-Stop nor as ill-advised as extending the legacy of Bryan Mills, yet it won’t survive the year in most moviegoer’s memory.

That doesn’t mean this isn’t a film worth checking out though. It packs a punch and has strong performances peppered throughout, unsurprisingly from its head honchos and even Joel Kinnaman. Yes, I do realize how much that sounds like hyperbole . . . but for once on this blog I feel like I’m underselling something.

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3-0Recommendation: Run All Night could have gone either way, but Neeson once again delivers, with dramatic heft and some interesting relationship developments backing him up. At his age this could easily have been Walk All Night, or Hobble All Night. Or Talk on the Phone Menacingly All Night. But this character feels a little more three-dimensional as does the narrative. May I suggest this one to the more devoted fans of the rugged and imposing Liam Neeson and some other big-named actors who offer solid work.

Rated: R

Running Time: 114 mins.

Quoted: “Tell everyone to get ready. Jimmy’s coming . . . “

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American Sniper

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Release: Friday, January 16, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Jason Hall

Directed by: Clint Eastwood

In Dirty Harry’s return to slightly more confident filmmaking, Bradley Cooper is one bad man. I mean, his Chris Kyle is a good man, but a bad . . . ah, never mind.

The Odessa, Texas native is the center of attention in a biopic entrusted to one of the biggest names in the business, but somehow the math just doesn’t add up. Cooper may never have been better, Eastwood never more patriotic, yet American Sniper is a slog and somewhat this. Somehow, following along with Chris as he leaves his family on four separate occasions to go fight against insurgents in Iraq between 1999 and 2008 feels less inspired as it does repetitive. Eastwood’s style here may suit the subject but perhaps it’s the subject that doesn’t really lend itself to major blockbuster filmmaking. Why do I smell a missed opportunity for a heartbreaking documentary here?

There’s another issue at play, one that isn’t necessarily the film’s fault, but absolutely is worth mentioning. American Sniper falls victim to its trailer, a tense two minutes that can’t help but fess up to Eastwood’s most sincere depictions of the kind of pressure that rides on snipers as they determine whether or not to take that shot. I do understand it’s not really fair to judge the film proper on a particularly revealing piece of marketing; after all, one could theoretically ruin their Interstellar experience by watching those clips of Gargantua too many times. But it’s so easy to do just that here, even if there aren’t any black holes in the Middle East. Far be it from me to tell you how to consume your entertainment but if you’ve watched the trailer for American Sniper then you are privy to virtually as much information as those slapping down $10-12 for tickets at the box office.

Eastwood’s directorial touch doesn’t help matters as he provides only a cursory look into the domestic life of an increasingly despondent soldier. A thoroughly masculine figure to begin with, Chris’s former life as a cowboy is halted abruptly by his interest in contributing muscle to the American cause after seeing a story about recent terrorist activity in the Middle East on T.V. He is motivated to the point of signing up for the Navy SEALs, though he is initially rejected. Some indeterminate time later he comes across a gorgeous brunette at a bar. Jason Hall’s script affords a modicum of humanity to this soon-to-be relationship, a level that is somewhat respectable. Sienna Miller would be compelling as housewife Taya but the switching back and forth between Chris’s duties in Iraq and her location in sunny Texas leaves a lot to be desired.

What’s more concerning is that Eastwood’s lazy construction makes mundane the soldier’s return(s) to Iraq. Aside from what’s easily observable — the escalation of violence during each subsequent visit, and the fact that a bounty is put on the head of the most deadly sniper in American history — Tour One looks just like Tour Four. Perhaps that’s how it really is. I have never served; I cannot talk at any great length about that. And I want to be careful in describing how I feel about these sequences as I don’t want to give the impression I don’t respect what multiple tours mean to those who have undergone them. From strictly a creative standpoint, American Sniper wears out its welcome and begins firing blanks much too soon.

Scenes built entirely out of fist-clenching tension, however, do not wear out theirs. And as a corollary, the violence Chris is perpetually surrounded by — and that which understandably upsets Taya the most — is an element Eastwood appears comfortable handling. I guess such is his duty. Reduced in intensity as they may be thanks to the trailers, the hair-raising shoot outs play a large part in defining Chris as a sniper, as a soldier, as a human being. More importantly it gives the film’s version of Chris an obstacle to get over, an enemy if there ever were one. Widely regarded as the “legend” of the Iraq War, his estimated 160 kills via sniping from obscure rooftops function in the film as not simply a plot device but this character’s responsibility to country and to his fellow soldiers. The film does a wonderful job of emphasizing the sniper’s compassion in a time and place where such a quality is rare if existent at all.

It’s the kind of reverence you can easily tie in with Eastwood’s emphasis on fatherhood and the paternal instinct, both evident in his prolific career as a filmmaker in both acting and directorial capacities. It doesn’t factor into American Sniper as much, though the opening scenes featuring Chris with his father together hunting deer in a forest tinged golden from the low angles of the sun’s rays suggest he is still concerned about constructing a layered character study. It’s yet another interesting angle overshadowed by the director’s predilection for predictable story structure.

There’s nothing offensive about the way Clint Eastwood, himself a legend, has put this story together. American Sniper is just not the most interesting version that could have been told, nor is it the most original. Like Sienna Miller in that black nightgown of hers, we wish we could have been shown more. The more testosterone-filled among us anyway.

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3-0Recommendation: Clint Eastwood wears his patriotism on his sleeves and Brad Cooper wears Extra-Large in American Sniper, a very average war film centered around a not-so-average American finding his life’s calling. Between Cooper’s dedication to his character and Eastwood’s devotion to exemplifying courage and obsession in equal measure, the film is not something you should miss if you have served any amount of time overseas (or at home — just not in prison, of course). For everyone else, this is going to be one of the best uses of Redbox/Netflix you’ll have in a while.

Rated: R

Running Time: 132 mins.

Quoted: “I’m ready. I’m ready to come home. I’m ready to come home, baby!”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Wolverine

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Release: Thursday, July 25, 2013

[Theater] 

Picking up more on where we left off after X Men: The Last Stand rather than following directly in line with the most recent release (X Men: Origins — Wolverine), James Mangold directs Hugh Jackman et al with supreme confidence in his knowledge and conviction of the essence of the comics, while also attempting to feed the masses with a broader, more blockbuster-esque appeal — ideally one that should have everyone talking fervently about it afterwards. To an extent this happened after the Thursday screening I attended, though I could sense a mixed atmosphere of excitement and quietened “that could have been better” sentiment.

Maybe it was the late hour at which this showing wrapped up, but I somehow doubt this was the real problem. There was a lack of a punch that I felt might be coming with this latest remodeling of our clawed hero. Or it might have just been one of those punches that comes in hard and then eases up just before greeting your stomach, letting you off the hook as far as taking some real pain is concerned. Mangold seemed to go this route with his directorial touch.

The Wolverine begins with a damn bang. Japan. World War II. The last days are laying waste to the Japanese landscape, and there amidst the chaos is Logan/Wolverine, who has managed to become the next P.O.W.; fortunately he uses his powers to save a camp worker (a man named Yashida) who is debating the merits of dying a noble death (by committing suicide) or letting the ensuing atom bomb devastation do the job. Wolverine intervenes, saves the guy and himself from the blast, and we then see that this has all been a flashback, and a thoroughly gripping one. A strong start to the film.

Unfortunately it was immediately after this where things took a turn to the familiar, and the resultant film pans out to be little more than a hodgepodge of the spirit of the comics — even if it is well-suited and recaptured here — and several nondescript kung fu films, only shot much better and with no funny spoken/translated overdubs. Indeed, there is a lot to like and be easily entertained by in the adventures Logan/Wolverine has when he’s one day summoned back to Japan in order to bid farewell to the ailing man he saved those many years ago. When a bar fight breaks out in an area where Logan is currently holding up in, he meets a young girl named Yukio (Rila Fukushima) who insists he go pay Yashida a visit. We are provided the initial hesitation at first, with Wolverine claiming his home is here, in Canada; but eventually he caves and yields the movie.

Of course, Yashida has more on his mind than just having a pleasant chat with Logan. The head of an international technology developer that specializes in medicinal research, the man whom Wolverine had saved finally tells him that he can “fix” Logan’s immortality. He knows of a way to introduce his amazing healing powers into another person; as if his inability to die is some sort of dormant genetic trait. Yashida gives him the chance to lead a normal, mortal life. Cue Wolverine’s polite “Thanks, but no thanks.”

During the brief time he stays with Yashida he meets his son, Shingen, and his granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto). After a few suspicious events transpire, Wolverine soon finds himself becoming Mariko’s protector, despite her requests to be left alone. No can do, apparently, as the strange but dangerous aura surrounding her keeps Logan intrigued. And even despite his constant struggle with his nightmares of Jean Grey and other events, he manages to keep focused on his mission to protect her and get to the bottom of her situation.

Along the way, he finds out that he’s in deeper than he thought; members of the Yakuza are quickly implicated as they take Makiro hostage during a funeral procession for Yashida, and in the process, Wolverine gets injured and realizes he isn’t so quick to heal now. It turns out the Yakuza certainly aren’t the only baddies to worry about here; no, a much more intimidating — is intimidating the right word? — villain remains at the center of our main conflict. Viper, chosen for whatever reason to be the villain in this edition of the X-Men franchise, single-handedly destroyed a lot of the momentum for me. Played by a terribly bland Svetlana Khodchenkova, this mutant is meant to be the true opponent to Wolverine, but she winds up doing more damage to the movie than to our clawed hero. Either the casting was a poor choice, or the intention was to make this villain seem as calm, cool and coldblooded as possible. Whatever it was, she just does not work here at all and from the moment she was introduced to the story, The Wolverine started losing credibility with me.

But perhaps that’s not fair to say. The movie doesn’t intend to win any Oscars, therefore I maybe shouldn’t take the movie so seriously. It’s meant to be an entertaining, light-hearted affair. Unfortunately, though, the previews and trailers released weeks and months prior were telling a very different story. I got the impression we were in for a darker, more brooding story. That is true of the character of Wolverine — he’s perpetually miserable in this movie, constantly awakening from horrible dreams and fearing for his life around many a corner. He’s been cursed with the ability to live forever, yet someone challenges him in the beginning to take on a life of mortality. These things do take their toll on the character, and that was interesting, yes. But the story simply crumbled around him in comparison.

And Hugh Jackman, of course, is as likable as always. I have no problem whatsoever with the work he turned in here in 2013, despite the fact he’s not doing anything radically different than from before. Additionally, I must give credit to the main girls following in Wolverine’s tracks: Yukio and Makiro both are intriguing characters and aren’t quite as cardboard as the Viper. Yukio is a brilliant girl who can “see” or “feel” what’s going to happen in the future and acts as a bodyguard to the temporarily ailing Wolverine, a relationship that allows a few jokes here and there. Makiro is convincing enough as the damsel in distress, and although its a cliched character arc, her situation managed to make me empathetic.

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2-5Recommendation: Most of my disappointment, it should be noted, could be traced back to the pre-release hysteria coming from the studio. “Wolverine fans, rejoice. This is the movie you’ve been waiting for. . .” Given the fact I am not the most devoted follower of the X-Men story to begin with, it might be easier for me to think this has turned out to be a bit of a lie. More passionate fans might find themselves enjoying this much more freely. There’s not much that distinguishes it from its downright corny predecessor. Lest I sound ignorant to what the spirit is all about in the superhero realm, it’s okay to be corny but it’s not okay to be unoriginal and lie about it being original.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 126 mins.

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Man of Steel, meet the Dark Knight. . . ?

Apparently, this was not the Comic Con to miss.

As things were getting wrapped up at the Warner Brothers booth at the 2013 edition of the big geek-fest (trust me, I’d go if I could afford to), they intentionally left some of the best/biggest news for last — that there will indeed be another movie starring Henry Cavill as the man of steel, as well as co-starring a Batman whose identity we will not know for a long while. Since Christian Bale has announced his definitive retirement from the iconic role, we will have a new actor donning the cape and the cowl.

I would be more stoked about this announcement of a follow-up to Man of Steel, never mind the fact that two immensely popular DC superheroes will be sharing screen time, but I am a little worried/irritated by the fact that we will yet again undergo changes in the world of Batman. I was initially taken aback by changing out actresses for Rachel Dawes (dropping Katie Holmes and replacing her with Maggie Gyllenhaal was more or less a seamless transition, but this change was still noticeable in places and still a distraction for the first couple of viewings). Make no mistake, switching actors in a role of this caliber means a hell of a lot more than that. (No offense, Katie or Maggie — both of you were great, but let’s be honest, you’re not the centerpiece of that trilogy.)

Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy really struck the ‘holy trinity’ of the movie/entertainment industry’s biggest concerns — all three films were critical, commercial, and financial successes. To me, no one has done Batman better. Nor will this level of complexity and darkness be approached for a long, long time (if ever again). Nolan created true cinematic magic, and if you were to change out one of the most significant pieces of that magic trick, I believe the show could fall apart. Case in point — who the hell exactly follows up Bale’s brooding, somber Bruce Wayne/Batman?

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And I know, it was pretty clear awhile ago that Batman wouldn’t ever be involving the charming Brit again — I’ve been prepared for a change for awhile. But I only assumed we’d have several, several years in between Bale’s departure and the Justice League film for all of us to kind of move on from that era.

I feel as if such an upcoming project were to reintroduce Batman to us, there would be some obvious issues. First of all, there’d be a whole new persona to get used to. We’ve spent nearly a decade gawking at how “accurate” Bale’s version was — I put that word in quotes because I believe he more or less redefined the character in his work. Second of all, a lot of complaints about how Man of Steel was tackled seemed to weigh on the side of either “too much” or “too little” exposition of its central steely character.

Those who thought the opening sequence was rushed ended up experiencing the rest of the story as far too bombastic and epic to really justify Cavill’s moodiness; those who thought there was a bit too much explanation as to who and why Superman is coming to be (on Earth, anyway) are probably going to have an even harder time coming to grips with what lengthy exposition is bound to be present in Man of Steel 2 (I’m going to call it that for now, who knows what this thing will actually be called in two years). In short, I just can’t see a situation that will not include some kind of background story for Batman as he gets into it with Supes.

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…aaand I’m out. Peace, Gotham.

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aw, dammit I wanted to meet Christian Bale, too!!! 😦

Look, please don’t get me wrong: I loved loved LOVED both franchises. I was among those who thought Snyder and Nolan really entreated Man of Steel with a power and grandeur that likely will go unappreciated until the sequel comes out. But hearing the news of introducing Batman NOW seems a little weird to me. I know talks of a Justice League movie are definitely occurring, and that’s exciting as all get-out. But I feel they are rushing this a little. But these are, obviously, just my initial and personal feelings. I want to hear from you.

What do you guys think? With Bale clearly out of the running for the Batman role again, how do you feel about someone else taking over? How do you think Superman and Batman will mesh in a movie (at least, this soon)? Do you think I’m just being a little too skeptical/critical too early? TOO SOON??? 😛

Whatever it is, I’d love to hear your thoughts!!!

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, no — it’s . . . . SuperBatman?? Wtf.. . . ?

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Oblivion

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Release: Friday, April 19, 2013

[Theater]

Honestly, this is the perfect movie for an actor who has (or according to some, had…) feet firmly planted in the Scientology belief system. For someone who believes in aliens, Tom Cruise managed to pick rather appropriate territory by signing up for Oblivion, the new sci-fi adventure from Joseph Kosinski.

Aside from his intellectual curiosity about all things extraterrestrial, Cruise’s role in Oblivion seems to be a throwback to his performance in another futuristic thriller, Minority Report — some decade ago now. . . . . .and this would be right before he began to lose serious credibility with me.

Both of those films deal heavily in gadgetry, in human relations that have evolved (or devolved, take your pick) to the point of being robotic, and both are set well into the future. For both, the suspension of disbelief is a requisite. One major difference between Kosinski’s sci-try and Spielberg’s effort, is that Minority Report was rather successful in its mind-warping storytelling. And another: while many science fiction films do pay tribute to other films of the genre, Oblivion does this to a fault. Comparisons to other films run the gamut from Wall-E to Independence DayI, Robot to Inception. A lot of scenes throughout this post-apocalyptic-Earth story make up a collage of borrowed ideas that attempt to forge an original storyline that, ultimately, reverts to ripping off one of the aforementioned films (Independence Day) in a very obvious way.

But it’s hardly an original idea to argue how this film is not original. Again, the homages paid in many sci-fi “classics” can be obvious. Maybe the multitudes that are made do not surface all in one film as they do here, but hey whatever. What is more annoying and a bigger letdown is that it’s now 2013, and still we are being fed sci-fi soup with not a whole lot of flavor; and in particular, this one is very deflated in tone, and well-worn in its invention. Basically only the setting and its cast help distinguish the project.

Jack, along with Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), comprise a mop-up team that ensures that the technology humans have employed to retrieve valuable resources from Earth are functioning correctly. Now, most people are either living on Titan (apparently one of Saturn’s moons has been deemed a reasonable place for us to live these days) or they’re preparing to go there, and soon Jack and Victoria will join. They live in luxurious quarters established high above the clouds. Jack’s mode of transportation looks like a concept helicopter for the year 2077. It is with this rather sleek vehicle Jack makes his drone repair missions frequently and the vantage point we have for a good portion of the first half, in experiencing the aftermath of a war which ravaged the planet.

Harper fills us in a little on the situation during a brief narration in the very opening scene, informing us that while humans won this war, Scavs destroyed the moon along with half the planet. The resultant landscape is something akin to the Halo maps, fully-realized on an IMAX screen. When we are out wandering around with Jack, it’s all very stunning and strangely beautiful seeing a planet devoid of human life.

In fact, I’d argue most of Oblivion‘s issues arise from the production design being a seriously tough act to follow, if you’re the script. I don’t see this film suffering from a simple case of a weak script. There’s always a pecking order amongst direction, production, and editing departments, and it’s clear where it all broke down for this one. (Academy Award-winner Claudio Miranda has his way with this set. Thanks, buddy.)

We get to feast our imaginations on the unfamiliarity the new landscape brings, one that cements the Empire State Building in several thousand feet of ash; a floodplain the size of the Mississippi on top of — yes, on top of — Washington D.C.

What must this war have been like? — we might ask ourselves as the camera sweeps dramatically out again across the land.

We almost couldn’t care less about what Cruise represents here, that he’s actually a part of the actual story actually taking place in this proposed world. We’re so overwhelmed by what Oblivion has done better than The Day After Tomorrow that we forget about the fact we are going to face plot turns, consequences and all that stuff specific to this movie. . . . if only we could just stop comparing . . .

The fact that the plot and especially some of the dialogue feels like it took a backseat to production values is not damnable, by the way. It’s just impossible to ignore. Riseborough, in particular, is terrible in this film. Morgan Freeman, as Beech, was handed some pretty dull assignment as well. And that’s exactly how his role feels, too: an assignment. He’s not operating in full Morgan Freeman capacity here, particularly given what you know and what you will know by the time his character is fully revealed. Tom Cruise seems to handle his job fine enough, but this is not his greatest performance of all time either. Olga Kurylenko plays a very soporific Julia, a character development that is also not too thought-provoking. As uninspired as she comes across, her character is rather crucial to understanding the film’s final destination.

It’s a passable story, though, and its dressed up in beautiful style. Altogether, Oblivion sells as quite a handsome marketing pitch, and it’s a cool-feeling movie when everything is said and done. Need there be no more involvement than your gut reaction, Oblivion works as a perfectly serviceable new-age actioner featuring a revamped alien version of Tom Cruise.

His role in Scientology makes perfect sense.

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3-0Recommendation: It lacks the sophisticated premise that underlay some of the visually inferior works of Cruise’s early career, but style over substance might just do it for most people when standing on the edge of Oblivion.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 126 mins.

Quoted: “I can’t shake the feeling that Earth, in spite of all that’s happened, Earth is still my home.” 

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