Oblivion


 

Morgan Freeman doesn't want Tom Cruise jumping on the couch.

Morgan Freeman doesn’t want Tom Cruise jumping on the couch.

(2013) Science Fiction (Universal) Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Melissa Leo, Zoe Bell, Abigail Lowe, Isabelle Lowe, David Madison, Fileena Bahris, Lindsay Clift, Joanne Bahris, Booch O’Connell, Julie Hardin, Jaylen Moore, Jeremy Sande, Jay Oliver. Directed by Joseph Kosinski   

One wonders why professional critics, who seem to be fairly intelligent and knowledgeable about movies, suddenly seem compelled to spend entire reviews of a movie bashing Tom Cruise and lamenting about his age, his off-screen drama, his acting ability or all of the above.

This movie isn’t about Tom Cruise, it merely stars him. He plays Jack Harper, a glorified repair technician. It’s 2077 and the Earth is essentially a dead planet. Aliens, called Scavs, had invaded the planet some decades earlier and while we won the war we lost the planet. The Scavs blew up the moon, causing massive tidal waves and earthquakes which essentially wiped out a huge chunk of the human race. We in turn launched our nuclear arsenal, destroying the majority of the Scav invading force but rendering most of the planet uninhabitable.

Now the surviving humans live on Titan, with a few still remaining on Earth repairing drones that monitor the planet for the remaining Scavs. Huge intake tanks are pulling up seawater necessary for fusion reactors that mean our survival on Titan. Some live on the Tet (short for Tetrahedron, which is its shape) but others. like Jack, live in cantilevered homes above the clouds; they travel on bubble ships which resemble dragonflies or old-style Bell Helicopters.

Jack and his navigator (who remains in their home and monitors him on a computer console from there) Victoria (Riseborough) have only two weeks left in their tour of duty. Victoria can’t wait to head to Titan but Jack…Jack has misgivings. Jack has doubts. Jack has strange memories of the observation deck at the Empire State Building that he can’t explain, particularly since the Empire State was, like all of New York, wiped out well before Jack was born.

Jack also shouldn’t have memories – his memory, like Victoria’s, was wiped five years ago before his mission started so that important information couldn’t get into the hands of the Scavs. He’s fine with that – duty and honor are big with Jack – but he has nagging questions that he can’t really answer and Sally (Leo) his mission control supervisor in the Tet, isn’t prone to answering them. Jack has found an isolated little valley where there is still water and grass and trees, and a cabin he built there with what trinkets and artifacts he can scavenge which he will miss on Titan most of all. But nothing can prepare Jack for the immense lie he has come to believe and what the truth of what is really out there is. Now Jack is fighting for his planet, along with a mysterious woman (Kurylenko) with connections to his past and a wise leader (Freeman) of a group of survivors who have already figured out the truth – and must convince Jack of that truth or else humanity will fade into the mists of time.

Kosinski’s follow-up to TRON: Legacy is another sci-fi epic. Universal hedged its bets a bit, placing this in an April slot that would shield it from competition with the big summer sci-fi epics which I think was a smart move. There’s plenty of eye candy here from the bubble ships which are hella cool, to the landscapes of ruined Earth which is a clever mixture of desolate Icelandic landscapes and familiar cityscapes from the big Apple.

Cruise does what he needs to do here, and that’s mainly act puzzled. Harper is one of those sorts who was born and bred to be heroic; like the original Mercury 7 or the guys in The Right Stuff his instincts are to do the right thing. That’s right in the wheelhouse of Tom Cruise; few guys can be as charismatic and heroic as he can as he’s proven in films like Jerry Maguire, The Firm and Legend. He has to carry this movie pretty much as he is in virtually every scene so as goes Tom Cruise so goes Oblivion.

He has a pretty decent support cast. Riseborough is a beautiful and talented actress who doesn’t get enough credit from mainstream Hollywood just yet. Freeman and Leo are both proven stars, both Oscar-winning performers who can be counted on to deliver sterling work.

There are a couple of major plot twists here but frankly, you are going to see both of them coming a mile away. The movie really needed a slam-bang ending  but doesn’t get one; it’s more of a fizzle and that’s one of Hollywood’s most grievous sins of late – the inability to write a good ending to a movie.

The gee-whiz factor is up there and with Cruise onscreen most of the time, they get the benefit of having one of Hollywood’s most charismatic stars keeping the audience’s attention riveted where the filmmakers want it. This is a solid movie that will keep your eye candy craving satisfied at least until the summer begins.

REASONS TO GO: Cruise is, whatever else he might be, a compelling star. Pretty cool gadgets and visual effects.

REASONS TO STAY: The twists aren’t particularly hard to figure out. Sputters towards the end.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence, a bit of nudity and sexuality and some harsh language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The painting used in the film is “Christina’s World” by Andrew Wyeth.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/4/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100; about as mixed a reception as you can get.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Star Trek: The Motion Picture

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Company We Keep

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King Kong (1933)


King Kong

Fay Wray is all dressed up with nowhere to go.

(1933) Horror (RKO) Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Frank Reicher, Sam Hardy, Noble Johnson, Steve Clemente, James Flavin, Merian C. Cooper, James Adamson, Van Alder, Victor Wong, Ed Allen, Everett Brown, Frank Angel, Sandra Shaw. Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack

 

Few movies have had the kind of impact on the future of cinema as this one. Not only did it reportedly save RKO Studios from bankruptcy, it changed the way horror movies were perceived and essentially kick-started the entire genre. It is a classic from it’s way-ahead-of-its time special effects and for the amount of terrifying scenes of violence and sex that were displayed.

While later re-releases toned down both elements (a scene featuring Kong undressing Fay Wray was excised as well as scenes featuring Kong chowing down on people), it still remains a standard for fear-inducing films even today. Kong is an iconic figure in both horror and popular culture.

Most of us have seen this at least a few times but for those who haven’t this is kind of the basic story. A Depression-era filmmaker named Carl Denham (Armstrong) convinces a starving unemployed actress named Ann Darrow (Wray) to accompany him to Indonesia to make a film. Having nothing to lose, she agrees.

It is only while en route on the tramp steamer Venture that the real destination is Skull Island in the South Pacific, an uncharted island hidden by mysterious mists. It is also en route that rough and tumble first mate Jack Driscoll (Cabot), who at first sneers at the idea of a woman aboard ship, falls in love with the blonde bombshell Darrow. But Driscoll insists he has no time for dames, which amuses Denham no end.

Once they get there the natives are keen to have Darrow as a bride (read: sacrifice) for Kong, their local deity but Denham politely declines. The natives, not ones for taking no for an answer, stealthily board the ship and steal Darrow away. Driscoll leads a party of crew members to go get her back but by that time Ann has already been taken by Kong – a gigantic ape.

The crew follows Kong and Ann into the interior of Skull Island which they discover to their horror that the island is populated by carnivorous dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures. Many of the crew are lost, being eaten by giant spiders, brontosaurs (which must have come to a shock to the scientists who thought they were herbivores) and other creatures.

Finally, Driscoll manages to rescue Ann and carry her back to the native village with Kong in hot pursuit. Fortunately, Denham is waiting for them there with gas bombs which takes down the creature. Denham hits upon the idea of taking Kong back to New York and showing him as the ultimate sideshow attraction. However things go awry and Kong escapes for a date with destiny on the Empire State Building.

I’m not sure what writers Ruth Rose and James Ashmore Creelman had in mind when they wrote the screenplay but this is as layered an allegory as movies get, particularly these days. The beauty and the beast allegory is just one layer; while some looked at it as a modern retelling of that particular fairy tale, there is also subtexts of greed, the rape of the natural world and of the male-female dynamic. Of course, some of those go in there with the benefit of almost 80 years of hindsight behind them which does change the perspective.

But there is a lot of titillation here when you think about it, from the blonde being taken by a gigantic black ape (which played into racial fears of the period) to the nearly sexual disrobing of Ann by Kong. Wray gives one of the most compelling performances in the history of horror movies, from her signature screams to her playful flirtation with Driscoll. Yes, she’s very much a damsel in distress in certain way but by the same token it is more her movie than Armstrong’s or Cabot’s.

The stop motion animation special effects may look primitive by today’s standards but they were startling for their time. Sure the continuity is pretty lackadaisical (see Trivial Pursuits) and sometimes Kong’s movements look choppy but O’Brien did legendary work here that influenced special effects for generations that followed it.

This is epic in scope and yet the personal story of Ann Darrow still resonates. This is as classic as horror movies get, maybe the most important one ever. It paved the way for all the creature features that made all our Halloween’s creepier and that much more frightening.

WHY RENT THIS: An undoubted classic. Fay Wray the best movie screamer in history. For its time awfully high on the terror quotient.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Awfully dated.

FAMILY VALUES:  While reasonably tame by modern standards, some of the scenes might get to the most sensitive members of your household.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: King Kong’s height varies throughout the film. On Skull Island, he is 18 feet tall and throughout most of the New York theater sequence he’s 24 feet tall. When ascending the Empire State Building he’s 50 feet tall and when Fay Wray is in his hand he’s 70 feet tall.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The lost spider sequence, cut from the film because it was too upsetting to 1933 audiences, was restored by Peter Jackson for the 2005 two-disc DVD release that came out concurrently with the release of Jackson’s remake; although the footage itself has been lost permanently by all accounts, Jackson re-created the scene from the original script and storyboards and it is indeed terrifying. The Blu-Ray includes this as well as a feature on director/producer Cooper. In addition, on both editions there is a commentary track which includes archival comments from Cooper and Wray, as well as a making-of featurette that is longer than the actual film itself.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.9M on a $672,000 production budget; this was considered a massive hit at the time (when theater admissions were only a nickel) when the promotional budget was far less a percentage of the production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mighty Joe Young

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: Seven Psychopaths

An Affair to Remember


An Affair to Remember
Dressed to impress!

(1957) Romance (20th Century Fox) Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr, Richard Denning, Neva Patterson, Cathleen Nesbitt, Robert Q. Lewis, Charles Watts, Fortunio Bonanova, Dorothy Adams, Richard Allen, Suzanne Ellers, Genevieve Aumont, Marni Nixon. Directed by Leo McCarey

 

Some movies withstand the test of time while others become hopelessly dated. Some remain classics because of their era-centricity.

An Affair to Remember is one of those movies that has had a charmed life. It began as a remake by McCarey of his own 1939 hit Love Affair which garnered six Oscar nominations, starred Irene Dunn and Charles Boyer and is a classic of the romance genre on its own. An Affair to Remember was a massive hit in its day, one of the first movies to take advantage of the Cinemascope process. It slumbered in the archives of Fox for years, occasionally surfacing on an afternoon movie program before Sleepless in Seattle referenced it as a romantic touchstone for the Meg Ryan character, sparking renewed interest in the film (more than two million video cassette tapes were sold of the film after Sleepless came out).

The plot has European playboy Nickie Ferrante (Grant) taking a transatlantic voyage aboard the U.S.S. Constitution to New York where he is to be married to his heiress girlfriend. On board he meets singer Terry McKay (Kerr) where in time-honored romantic tradition the two find each other not liking each other much but being the only single people on board constantly paired together.

It is only when the ship docks in Madeira and Terry meets Nickie’s charming grandmother (Nesbitt), seeing his tender and loving side that she falls in love with him and he with her. The two spend most of the rest of the voyage trying not to be seen as a couple together; as they dock in the Big Apple they agree to meet at the Empire State Building in six months time. However, fate throws a curveball in their direction that may irrevocably separate the lovers for good.

This remains one of Da Queen’s most beloved films. Her wedding dress and bridesmaid dresses were modeled after the dress Kerr one (depicted in the picture above) to give you an idea of what she thought of the movie. It certainly captures romance in a time and period where elegance and manners weren’t four letter words.

Grant is perhaps one of the most romantic leads ever in cinema. In his time he would have won the Sexiest Man Alive on multiple occasions had the award existed and there are plenty of women today who’d be quite happy to be swept off their collective feet by his ghost – and regularly are whenever they watch one of his films. This may well have been his most romantic.

Kerr is one of the most beautiful women ever in the movies and she was at the height of her beauty and allure here. What man wouldn’t fall in love with someone as strong, smart and lovely as her? She is of course a woman of her time and in many ways there are things about her character that modern feminists might take umbrage to, but that’s simply the norm for the times. For my money she is as modern a woman as most I’ve met running around the 21st century.

This is the way they used to do romance and in many ways, in this age of social networking, online romance, dating services and internet porn, they got it far more right than we do. I think that strikes a chord in a lot of us – wanting our romance to be simple, more elegant, more epic in scale. It isn’t much to ask.

So do yourself a favor – curl up on the couch, bring out the champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries, slip into something comfortable and put this on the DVD player. Guys, nothing may blow up or get shot  at nor will there be any bare breasts but trust me – your woman will thank you for it. In a very meaningful way.

WHY RENT THIS: A favorite of Da Queen and considered one of the best romantic movies ever made. Certainly it has all the right elements for a terrific couch cuddlefest.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Elements of it are dated and might not be relatable for younger audience members.

FAMILY VALUES:  Like most films of the era, there isn’t anything here that you’d find objectionable for your kids to see, other than the excessive smoking and drinking that was par for the course at the time.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie debuted aboard the U.S.S. Constitution where many of the shipboard scenes were filmed.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: This has received several home video incarnations; the original DVD release (2003) includes a commentary track from film historian Joseph McBride and singer Marni Nixon who dubbed Kerr’s voice in the film. There is also an episode of AMC’s “Backstory” devoted to the film, and a snippet from a newsreel showing the film’s premiere on board an ocean liner. The 50th Anniversary edition (2008) comes with postcard reproductions of the film’s original lobby cards, as well as segments devoted to the careers and lives of Grant, Kerr, McCarey and producer Jerry Wald. The Blu-Ray edition (2011) comes with everything in the 50th Anniversary edition sans the postcards.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.8M on an unreported production budget; the movie was a huge hit!

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Chronicle