John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum

Release: Friday, May 17, 2019

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Written by: Derek Kolstad; Shay Hatten; Chris Collins; Marc Abrams

Directed by: Chad Stahelski

Actions have consequences, as we are quite explicitly shown (and told, too!) in the ultra-violent third installment of the brawn-over-brains John Wick franchise. Literally footsteps removed from the mayhem of 2017’s Chapter 2, John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum beats the audience silly down a two-hour gauntlet of unrelenting, bloody comeuppance that sees an entire city of potential assassins descending upon the one they call Baba Yaga. It’s open season on John Wick, part-time killer, full-time puppy lover.

Rules. Order. Something called ‘fealty.’ These are boundaries and amusingly old-school — almost Feudal — principles John Wick (Keanu Reeves) ignored when he murdered a man on the consecrated grounds of the Continental Hotel (as seen in Chapter 2). Exceptions aren’t made for acts of self-defense; John acted against the established order set by the vaguely defined society known as the High Table, and now as a consequence he’s been excommunicated by hotel manager Winston (Ian McShane), leaving him without the friendly services of the Hotel and with a $14 million bounty on his head.

Director/former stunt coordinator Chad Stahelski returns with a palpable confidence, albeit he’s still sticking to the rules he himself established with 2014’s surprise hit John Wick. His latest expands the jurisdiction of the High Table to an international stage, so if you’re thinking this was just a New York problem, think again. Rest assured though, he triples down on the things you’ve come here for: exquisitely choreographed, close-quarter combat with all kinds of brutal weaponry and creative kills — you’ll never look at hardcover books the same way again — a ridiculous body count, Laurence Fishburne as The King of the Homeless People, and Keanu “Monosyllabic” Reeves dressed to the frikkin’ nines. Like previous outings it does this all while sparing you of the hassle and inconvenience of sitting through talky scenes.

John Wick has always been a one-note franchise, but I now come full circle to admit awkwardly that it’s not a dumb one. I have increasingly enjoyed each successive installment, increasingly embraced the in-joke that the guy can’t really be killed (it’s the most obvious signpost ever, there can’t be a franchise bigger cash cow without John Wick). Now, getting shot point-blank, off a rooftop, smacking two staircases and a dumpster on your way to the ground 40 feet below and not dying is just plain silly, but John Wick on the whole is at least smart enough to recognize that the killing of a grieving man’s puppy is kind of the ultimate in earning audience sympathy in a timely manner. Clearly this is about more than just a dog now, but vengeance has been the driving force behind it all. This time the writing team raises the stakes notably by not only increasing the number tenfold, but also empowering Wick’s opposition with that same passion. In reinforcing its themes of consequence and retribution Chapter 3 installs some new key pieces like Asia Kate Dillon’s Adjudicator, sent by the High Table as a reckoning for all who have aided Wick along the way, and her own loyal minions in sushi chef-by-day, butcher-of-men-by-night Zero (a memorable Mark Decascos) and his knife-wielding buddies.

Indeed Wick is a man with an increasingly large cult “following” and a shrinking list of trusted sources, much less anything in the way of friends. He turns to his last few bargaining chips in other series newcomers like The Director (Anjelica Huston), who runs a school that John attended as a boy (really, it’s a front for something darker, natch), and Sofia (Halle Berry), a former ally and a ruthless killer in her own right who now runs the Moroccan branch of the Continental, along with her equally capable and fiercely loyal dogs. I swear, more crotches get mauled in this Casablanca-set scene than have been in the entire history of film up to this point. It’s a stunning, visceral and damn savage sequence that puts the hurt on everyone, even you in the cheap seats. (Ditto that to the movie as a whole, actually. Death by horse hoof, ouch.)

If the intense crowd interaction in the Thursday night screening I attended is any indication, Chapter 3 is poised to become the standard against which all future 2019 action reels are to be judged. The film dethroned Avengers: Endgame at the box office (after three weeks of domination). It’s being described as one of the greatest action franchises of all time. I wouldn’t go anywhere near that far; John Wick is presented in his most ruthless, most capable form yet — where is the threat, exactly? Given his immunity to death I suppose I should just settle like everyone else, being entertained up to my eyeballs with all the different ways the hapless attempt to be the one to take out the Boogeyman. Still, that leaves me with the question that if those efforts require this degree of violence, what happens next? Will we be treading water in the forthcoming Chapter 4 (slated for a 2021 release)? Probably not. It’ll be more like treading blood. Call it a consequence of modern audience expectation.

Someone’s overdue . . . for an ass-whooping.

Recommendation: So here we are with a third installment that is most interested in just how much John Wick can physically withstand. It’s essentially a videogame replete even with a “Boss Level” showdown, and it’s unequivocally the most violent episode yet. And yet we take it because the devastating dance between Wick and his hungry would-be killers is the gift that just keeps on giving — at least for fans who are as loyal to the character as his pups have been.

Rated: hard R

Running Time: 130 mins.

Quoted: “After this, we are less than even.”

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

#OscarsQuiteUnpredictable

oscars-snafu

Steve Harvey reaching out to Warren Beatty after he was involved in what has got to be the most embarrassing SNAFU in Oscars history — and possibly of the actor’s career — strikes me as humorous for some reason. I know it isn’t funny, but what if there really is some support group for this sort of thing? Victims of Award Ceremony Gaffes Anonymous, does that exist?

Look, I’m not here to point fingers and perpetuate the blame game because, well, I feel as though a sufficient pall has been cast over Barry Jenkins’ legitimate victory and Jimmy Kimmel’s first Oscars hosting gig. Poor guy. It’s not like he was the greatest host ever — the highlight of his night is without a doubt his manipulating the pit orchestra in order to rush Matt Damon off stage as he was presenting, which was amusing but not good enough to make me stop missing Billy Crystal.

But Kimmel’s night was going really well and for it to end in such a bizarre and awkward way, it’s hard not to feel bad for the guy. Or just assume that M. Night Shyamalan had played a part. And we all know that while it was probably the decent thing to do to try and divert the awkwardness away from the presenters (does anyone know what country Faye Dunaway is now living in by the way?) and towards himself, we also know this was not his fault. A scheme like this would be too complex for Jimmy Kimmel to mastermind, anyway. Besides, I don’t feel bad for the talk show host in the way I feel bad for La La Land.

ryan-gosling-snubbedI suppose the good that came out of this “custody battle” — besides the fact that one of the most deserving films in recent memory actually took home top honors — was that we got to know a little bit more about La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz. It’s almost unreasonable how composed he was. How gracious in defeat he was. How sincerely his congratulations were offered to his competitors. I think there’s something we can all learn from the way he (and others) handled their situation.

I rated the two films differently but truth be told, and given everything that happened on Sunday, I think I would have been alright if the honor were shared between both films. That’s where the Academy really screwed things up. (Okay, I guess I am going to have to do a little scapegoating here.) Sure, PwC has taken the heat and rightfully so, but even if there were not enough trophies to go around on stage, I don’t know how you can allow for something like this to happen.

And it’s not like ties haven’t happened before, because they have. Six times actually. Six times a producer or director or cast member was spared the humiliation of being cut-off mid-acceptance speech because they hadn’t, in fact, any right to be making it. Of course, the way the 89th Academy Awards ended feels like a first. This wasn’t an example of indecision or voter fraud. This was an unprecedented production fiasco that unfolded in real time. To further troll the Academy and PwC, I’m really not sure if there could have been any protocol for this. And I really doubt there will be a ‘next time,’ so there probably never will be.

With the elephant in the room having been addressed, allow me to breakdown the categories that I featured in my preview post:

Best Picture (Winner: Moonlight) 

What I predicted: La La Land

If I had it my way: Moonlight

Well, the cast and crew of La La Land certainly went skipping up on stage because for a fleeting moment, as I had predicted, life for them was but a dream. But oh man, how fleeting that feeling was . . .

On the bright side, Moonlight becomes just the second LGBTQ-related film ever, behind Midnight Cowboy in 1970, to win Best Picture. And it is the first time in Oscars history a film with an all-black cast has won the award. Just let that sink in for a second.

Directing (Winner: Damien Chazelle, La La Land)

What I predicted: Damien Chazelle

If I had it my way: Jeff Nichols, Midnight Special

No real surprise here. The art that lives within the 32-year-old director is undoubtedly unique and profound. For him to go from directing a film like Whiplash to La La Land in the span of three years is, well, the guys at Consequence of Sound said it best: it’s just baffling.

Actor in a Leading Role (Winner: Casey Affleck, Manchester By the Sea)

What I predicted: Casey Affleck

If I had it my way: Casey Affleck

Amazing. To go from being the architect of your own potential destruction to Oscar-winner in the span of a few months is about as crazy as #EnvelopeGate. When a sexual harassment scandal reared its ugly head once again in the lead-up the Oscars, it seemed Ben Affleck’s younger, smaller and generally awkward brother had the odds stacked against him. Not to trivialize the troubling story that has been following the actor for some time, but his work in Manchester By the Sea deserved the win. It is almost enough to make us forget that hey, Oscar winners ain’t saints. I said ‘almost.’

Actress in a Leading Role (Winner: Emma Stone, La La Land)

What I predicted: Emma Stone

If I had it my way: Amy Adams, Arrival

Emma Stone, you need not worry if I’m doubting the legitimacy of your win. Your work in the movie speaks for itself. Your ‘Audition’ scene took my breath away, and I never quite got it back. I’m so glad Leo didn’t have any trouble with his presentation, because the Oscar absolutely went to the right person this year. Emma Stone has further cemented herself as one of the most meteoric stars of her generation. Jennifer Lawrence, watch your back.

Actor in a Supporting Role (Winner: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight)

What I predicted: Mahershala Ali

If I had it my way: Daniel Radcliffe, Swiss Army Man

I love that in an era where Muslims are feeling more and more persecuted and marginalized in this country, one has just taken home Oscar gold. It feels something close to poetic justice, even if other artists this year have indeed suffered the effects of an unprecedented travel ban. I was introduced to Mahershalalhashbaz Ali as Remy Danton in Netflix’s brilliant political drama House of Cards. I was impressed right away. In Moonlight, his turn as an empathetic drug dealer who exerts major influence on the young Chiron early in the narrative, is enough to break your heart. But in ways you might not expect. It’s a stunning supporting turn, and a big part of the reason I thought Moonlight was able to reach some other psychic level that La La Land just couldn’t.

stinkeye

Actress in a Supporting Role (Winner: Viola Davis, Fences)

What I predicted: Viola Davis

If I had it my way: Viola Davis

Viola Davis was one of the only true locks for the evening, the other being the winner of Best Documentary Feature (congratulations to Ezra Edelman and O.J.: Made in America for a well-deserved but, yes, very inevitable win). So while I didn’t exactly jump for joy when Davis won, I was nonetheless psyched for the woman. The Oscar win identifies her as the first black actress to complete the Triple Crown of Acting. She has officially taken home an Oscar, an Emmy and a Tony Award for her scintillating work as beleaguered housewife Rose Maxson.

Animated Feature (Winner: Zootopia

What I predicted: Zootopia

If I had it my way: Moana

Blah. Zootopia was good I guess, but this is becoming one of those movies where, the more I hear about it, the more I’m feeling disdain for it. Studio animations have this unprecedented burden of becoming message movies these days, so I guess that’s what the Academy was looking for this year. How many heavy, controversial issues can you jam into one colorful little narrative? That’s the competition. Me, personally? I would have taken anything over the contrived kumbaya of this Disney “classic.” Even The Red Turtle, whatever the hell that is.

Cinematography (Winner: Linus Sandgren, La La Land)

What I predicted: Linus Sandgren

If I had it my way: Emmanuel Lubezki, Knight of Cups

So you could look at the Best Picture fiasco two different ways. You could feel terrible that La La Land lost in the manner that they did, or you could look at them as being a production that simply missed out on lucky #7. Yeah, they were involved in one of the most egregious mix-ups in an event of this magnitude but they also walked away with SIX OTHER TROPHIES. Inarguably one of the categories they absolutely had in the bag was this one. Linus Sandgren’s ability to capture Los Angeles in a classically romantic, old-fashioned way while reminding the viewer that they are experiencing events in the present tense is truly astonishing. La La Land is a technicolor dream sequence executed to perfection. The iconic Griffith Observatory has rarely looked so good before.

Costume Design (Winner: Colleen Atwood, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them)

What I predicted: Colleen Atwood

If I had it my way: Timothy Everest and Sammy Sheldon Differ, Assassin’s Creed

For a film that I actually never bothered to see I was really pleased with the final result. Though I really didn’t see any of the other nominees challenging the fantastic (sorry) and ornate wardrobe drummed up by the costume designer of such classics as The Silence of the Lambs and Edward Scissorhands.

Production Design (Winner: David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco, La La Land)

What I predicted: David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco

If I had it my way: Patrice Vermette and Paul Hotte, Arrival

I conclude my wrap-up with another fairly predictable result and La La Land‘s first Oscar win of the night. I could make the case for Arrival‘s ability to craft iconic imagery out of simpler elements being more impressive than what the Wascos (a husband-and-wife duo who worked on such films as Inglourious Basterds and Pulp Fiction) were able to achieve. After all, the latter were afforded the unique and historic architecture and landscape of metropolitan L.A., while Arrival‘s production design team were tasked with making the rural pastures of Montana seem eerie. But, call it what it is: La La Land is a gorgeously rendered production whose heart and soul is owed to more than just the infectious lead performances and a few jazz numbers.


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Passengers

passengers-movie-poster

Release: Wednesday, December 21, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Jon Spaihts

Directed by: Morten Tyldum

Morten Tyldum is a Norwegian director who has been on the fast-track to success ever since bursting on to the world stage in 2011 with his critically acclaimed Headhunters, an action thriller based upon a novel by Norwegian author Jo Nesbø and featuring a Scandinavian cast. He’s never looked back since. From there he made a movie based upon the life and achievements of British mathematician Alan Turing, the 2014 Oscar-nominated The Imitation Game in which Benedict Cumberbatch portrayed the father of what we recognize today as artificial intelligence. Two years later Tyldum finds himself collaborating with two of the world’s most box office-friendly stars in Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence on a romantic/science fiction adventure called Passengers.

With each subsequent venture behind the camera, Tyldum has increasingly found himself surrounded by luxuries filmmakers the world over could only dream of one day having for themselves, if only just for one project. He has a knack for attracting big names and turning profits. There’s little doubt Tyldum has been privileged — so much so that it’s difficult to gauge how deserving he is of his status. His big-budget blueprints are going to endure, despite them lacking personality or any sense of novelty, unlike something produced by the likes of, say, Christopher Nolan, a household name who routinely challenges his audiences to, god forbid, use their brains while rummaging through buckets of popcorn. By comparison, Tyldum’s meteoric rise feels less justified.

Mainstream filmmaking at its most indistinguishable is the best way I know how to describe his oeuvre, and Passengers all but confirms the director has no intention of suppressing the urge to pander to the masses, especially when it is to the tune of $130 million in global receipts in less than three weeks. His new film is essentially Titanic set in space, but with a moral twist (or is that, a twisted sense of morality?) — the only element that differentiates this interstellar adventure from a plethora of other doomed-vessel melodramas. Tyldum’s latest posits that people need people, that we have not been created to exist alone. It’s a theme well worth exploring, but once again I found the same generic, unexciting direction that robbed The Imitation Game of its potential similarly blunting the cutting edges of Passengers‘ would-be high-brow narrative. What could have been thought-provoking is instead estimated as “something audiences should really go for.”

The story is about a mechanical engineer named Jim Preston (Pratt) who wakes up 30 years into a 120-year voyage between Earth and a colonial planet in a distant galaxy. He is among the 5,000 passengers board the starship Avalon, blissfully sleeping away the years until they reach Homestead II, along with another some 200 crew members. A computer glitch causes Jim to awaken from suspended animation and when he realizes what has happened he sets about trying to solve the problem rationally rather than panicking or wallowing in despair, with the faintest aroma of Ridley Scott’s The Martian arising in the opening stanza. A year passes and Jim is unsuccessful in getting back to sleep, although he strikes up a “friendship” with a cyborg bartender named Arthur (Michael Sheen). Unable to share an authentic human relationship with Arthur, Jim starts to slip into the despair he has spent a long time trying to avoid.

That is until he comes across a pod containing an Aurora Lane (Lawrence), whom he learns about via a digital portfolio explaining her background as a writer in New York City. He even becomes familiar with her personality from his investigations. He visits her pod frequently, reading about her and imagining what it would be like to have someone else to share in what will in all likelihood be the remainder of his life on board the Avalon. He struggles mightily with the decision to wake her up, which would necessarily and similarly doom her to a premature death.

The morality play is made fascinating because of the star power Tyldum has been afforded. The leads prove why they are paid what they’re paid as they breathe life into a robotic screenplay. The establishing first third sets the stakes high and Pratt makes it easy for us to buy that Jim really doesn’t want to use his engineering prowess to effectively murder a fellow passenger. And it’s kind of a brave new world watching Pratt embody a character who ultimately isn’t very likable. Lawrence isn’t at her best as Aurora, yet it’s something of a miracle she turns a snobby, self-aggrandizing writer who values prestige over anything else into a person we end up wanting to actually succeed. But for my money, the underrated Michael Sheen makes the most compelling argument for what makes us human, playing the part of some futuristic vision of The Overlook Hotel barkeep in whom a steadily unraveling Jack Torrence frequently confided. Arthur hasn’t been wired to keep secrets. He doesn’t know how to lie or judge. The android offers a contrast that imbues Passengers with the humanity its poorly written flesh-and-blood characters, or at least Jim’s troubling actions, do not.

Unfortunately it’s those sorts of stereotypes and broad statements that could come to define Tyldum as the most recent example of a foreign director making one too many compromises. Six films deep into a directorial career with only a third of them being English-language features, he’s already ‘gone Hollywood.’ He has no distinctive voice. No masterful, inventive way of presenting his Big Movies’ Big Themes. Nor does he frame his stories in ways we have never experienced before. Passengers only gets weaker and more familiar as it plods onward to a thoroughly disappointing action-packed finale, when the Avalon’s technical malfunctions become more frequent and more serious and as Jim and Aurora put aside their differences in order to work to find a solution together.

The destination, such as it is, is so underwhelming (and so expected) it begs the question as to whether the film needed to dive into the morality play at all. Aurora stays mad at Jim for a long time, perhaps even an appropriate amount of time, but the film seems to equate a broken tether with a broken heart. The denouement is not only lazy, it’s disingenuous. It made me long for the pure innocence and the schmaltz of Jack and Rose’s forbidden love. The melodramatics are as damaging to the intellectual constitution of the story as the asteroid is to the ship’s computers and reactors.

Debating the merits of the finale is pointless really because it’s clear Tyldum isn’t in this for the art of storytelling. The Avalon is one of the more visually pleasing spacecraft we’ve seen in some time and the thick ribbons of stars across a canvas of black has rarely looked so beautiful and yet so terrifying. I could write love letters to Passengers‘ production design. There’s a sleekness that cannot be overlooked, that only a film built on this kind of money can provide. The more cynical side of me, the part that enjoys thinking while watching, can’t help but feel Tyldum is making a bid for becoming the most Hollywood-friendly foreign-born director in history. Honestly, that’s not the worst thing in the world. There’s nothing amoral about making a lot of money doing something you love.

Recommendation: I think it says something that the most interesting ‘character’ in the film is the spaceship Avalon. The luxury space liner is a thing of beauty. Passengers is a senses-stimulating film, aggressively so when it comes to the visual elements. It’s a gorgeously rendered production, but it lacks the soul and conviction needed to carry the weight the story deserves. And while I’m not as upset about the implications of the way Jim’s actions are basically excused by film’s end as others have been, I understand where the anger is coming from. This is like Titanic set in space, with Rose suffering from Stockholm Syndrome and instead of Jack being a swell fella, he’s actually a selfish jerk. If you just read that one line and that’s all you knew about the film, then Passengers sounds pretty interesting. And maybe it will be to those who have a stronger tolerance for formulaic blockbusters.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “A drowning man will always try to drag you down with him.”

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

Jane Got a Gun

'Jane Got a Gun' movie poster

Release: Friday, January 29, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Brian Duffield; Anthony Tambakis; Joel Edgerton

Directed by: Gavin O’Connor

Call it a troubled production but don’t call it a complete misfire. Though it may be a few shoot-outs short of a memorable western, Jane Got a Gun still gots a job to do and it does it rather well all things considered.

It’s a film that has seen a revolving door of cast and crew come and go, with Warrior director Gavin O’Connor squeaking in at the last second after the original helmer dropped out on day one of shooting. Joel Edgerton was supposed to be playing a villainous role but Ewan McGregor got it instead, filling in for Brad Cooper who was filling in for Jude Law . . . who was filling in for Michael Fassbender. Cinematographers were also replaced.

Some part of my appreciation for this movie‘s inextricably linked to my sympathy toward Natalie Portman here. Playing a game of musical chairs with the actors you’re potentially going to share a screen with can’t be much fun. Indeed if you look close enough in a few scenes you can almost feel if not confusion, then the frustration that the actress is clearly experiencing out of character. And if it’s not Portman being underwhelming then surely it’s the script; its heart wasn’t really in this either.

At film’s open we’re staring down the barrel of a fairly standard revenge western. Jane is a strong and capable frontierswoman who finds herself nursing her husband Bill (Noah Emmerich) back to health after he returns home one afternoon bloodied and riddled with bullets. Bill warns her that the notorious Bishop brothers are coming after them, prompting Jane to take their young daughter to a faraway homestead to which she promises to return once this situation has been ‘handled.’ (It’s not quite Clint Eastwood promising/threatening justice/revenge, but Portman’s confidence doesn’t go unnoticed.)

McGregor is almost unrecognizable as the bloodthirsty John Bishop. He too is a product of a watered-down script, a cartoonish villain as if by design. McGregor is smarmy and he has his moments but this is more Kenneth Branagh as Arliss Loveless  than a man we should really take seriously. Boyd Holbrook plays younger brother Vic. He’s kind of just there. With such a cultivated physical appearance, I was sort of surprised to see what a bunch of lame-o’s Bishop’s entourage really was.

Joel Edgerton digs his hands into the dirt sportingly as Jane’s ex-husband Dan Frost, a gunslinger who enlisted in the Civil War and left it only to find his wife had moved on. Now she seeks him out for extra protection from the incoming attack(s) and, although bitterness isn’t very becoming, it somehow suits Edgerton and he all but confirms the technique will never disappear. That’d be okay if it’s used more subtly than it is in this movie. Dan’s easier to pull for when he inevitably returns to the frame because . . . well, when Edgerton plays a good guy, how can you not root for him?

So Portman isn’t the only one fighting an uphill battle, saddled with an underdeveloped character as well as an unambitious screenplay. The trio of Portman, Edgerton and McGregor fair the best and each of them succeed in overcoming the dryness aridness of the writing. As Jane, Portman is one of the year’s first strong female leads and her intensity in the final scenes certainly sets an impressive benchmark.

It’s her persistent toughness and intermittent vulnerability that gets us through a deliberately (bordering on tediously) paced two acts before bullets truly start flying in the much-anticipated, chillingly shot climax. (Interestingly, the most consistent aspect of the production is undoubtedly Mandy Walker’s warm, vibrant photography.) By and large the film is beautiful to look at and on a visual level it succeeds in evoking the classics. Jane Got a Gun does show signs of a lot of wear and tear, the story isn’t as focused as it ought to be and many edits are questionable but even given all of its faults this one’s difficult not to like. Not pity, but actually like.

Natalie Portman and Joel Edgerton in 'Jane Got a Gun'

Recommendation: The film won’t really ‘wow’ anyone, yet there’s enough here to more than recommend a watching at home (it’s heading out of theaters so quickly the wait won’t be long) with popcorn and your caffeinated beverage of choice. Portman, Edgerton and McGregor are great reasons to see this movie. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 98 mins.

Quoted: “My life’s worth isn’t your concern. Hasn’t been for years.”

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

Oblivion

oblivion-Imax-poster-4-9

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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