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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The Dark Knight Rises


 

The Dark Knight Rises

Bane and Batman work on their ballroom dancing skills.

(2012) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Morgan Freeman, Matthew Modine, Cillian Murphy, Alon Moni Aboutboul, Burn Gorman, Ben Mendelsohn, Nestor Carbonell, Chris Ellis, Reggie Lee. Directed by Christopher Nolan

 

The world needs heroes. We latch onto them whether or not they deserve our admiration or not – and some of them do. However, heroes are often shaped by the perception given us by the media and by the powers that be. One man’s hero, in other words, is another man’s villain – and vice versa.

Eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne (Bale) a.k.a. Batman sits in isolation in Wayne Manor. Injured in his final fight with the Joker and with Harvey Dent, the Batman has been branded an outlaw for his role in the events of that film. Wayne is in a deep depression and despite the efforts of his faithful butler Alfred (Caine) remains so. There is no need for Batman, as legislation enacted in the aftermath of those events has helped the new police commissioner Jim Gordon (Oldman) clean  the city up. Gordon is assisted by Detective John Blake (Gordon-Levitt), a cop who believes in Batman and thinks that something stinks about his current outlaw status. Gotham is at peace and looking to the future at last.

However for figures like the Batman, the world has a way of preventing them from remaining on the sidelines for too long. A sexy catburglar named Selena Kyle (Hathaway) – who goes by the name of Catwoman – has robbed Wayne Manor of the string of pearls Bruce’s mother was wearing the night she was murdered, along with something more subtle – and dangerous to Bruce and those around him. Arriving in Gotham as well is Bane (Hardy), a masked terrorist of terrifying strength and an agenda that makes it sound like the French Revolution is coming to Gotham.

Bruce is struggling to keep his company out of the hands of the rapacious venture capitalist Daggett (Mendelsohn) who is after some technology developed by Lucius Fox (Freeman) that might prove devastating in the wrong hands. On his side is Miranda Tate (Cotillard), a European CEO who is on the same page as Bruce and Lucius. However, the attacks on Gotham and Wayne Enterprises are linked with each other and both have their roots sunk deeply into Bruce Wayne’s past. Bane is much more malevolent than even this and what he has in store for Gotham is nothing less than a full measure of reckoning.  Could this be the end of Batman?

Well, it certainly is the end of this phase of Batman. Nolan has made it clear that this will be the last Batman movie under his stewardship and there’s no doubt that Warner Brothers and DC aren’t thrilled about his departure. Nolan revived the character as a viable franchise

Of course, that isn’t all Nolan’s doing. Bale will go down in history as the definitive Batman much as Sean Connery is the definitive Bond. Bale captures the brooding nature of the character (which none of the other screen versions had fully been able to portray) while reminding us of his brilliance at figuring things out. Batman is the ultimate superhero strategist and we see that side of him here.

Some have criticized Bane as being too one-dimensional but I disagree. Bane is a very complicated character not unlike a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces you don’t have until the very end. It takes a bit of patience but once you kind of get him you realize Hardy is doing a tremendous job with him, considering he is mostly acting with his eyes as his face is masked and his voice distorted. Those who can’t see anything deeper aren’t looking hard enough.

There are those who will look at this as a social commentary of some sort and to be honest, Nolan’s movies often are. Bane might be thought of as the sort of epitome of the Occupy movement, blaring one solipsism  after another proclaiming the rights of the people over the evil powers that be. However, that would be a simplistic interpretation. Quite frankly, the movie is our worst nightmares about the economy come to pass; a morality play about how easily economic chaos can lead to physical chaos. It’s certainly a cautionary tale.

For me, the heart and soul of this particular movie isn’t so much Batman as it is Alfred. I was a little surprised Caine took the part initially and this movie might well be one of the crowning achievements of his distinguished career; it’s not a large part but it’s the soul of the film and Caine delivers one of the most emotional performances I can ever remember. I just hope the Academy remembers him when the nominations start to come out next year.

If the question is whether or not this measures up to The Dark Knight, then the answer is a resounding yes. If the question is whether the movie is as good or an improvement on The Dark Knight, then I’d say that it is close but not quite as good. Hardy is terrific as Bane and Hathaway makes a sexy but savvy Catwoman but neither of them delivers the good quite as well as the late Heath Ledger did as The Joker. Batman needs an opponent at least as clever as he is and Bane isn’t quite to that level.

This is as good a summer movie as you’re likely to find out there, one which takes the gauntlet thrown down by The Avengers and answers the call. We are quite fortunate to have a summer in which the superhero movies have been as uniformly excellent as this year has been; hopefully that will set the bar for summers to come.

REASONS TO GO: A fitting end to a great movie trilogy that sets the bar high for future superhero movies. Well-orchestrated plot. Hardy and Hathaway make terrific villains; Bale is the definitive Batman and Caine gives an Oscar-worthy performance.

REASONS TO STAY: Very dark in nature, maybe the darkest superhero film ever which might be too much for younger audiences.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of comic book violence, some of it a little bit more realistic. There is a bit of simulated and implied sex, and a few bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Christian Bale becomes the first actor to play Batman in three live action films (Kevin Conroy has played the role seven times but all in animated features).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/28/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100. The reviews are strongly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spider-Man 2

FOOTBALL LOVERS: The football sequence was filmed at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. The kick returner was played by real life NFL star Hines Ward, who in the movie plays for the Gotham Rogues.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: An Unreasonable Man

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps


Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Shia LaBeouf tells Michael Douglas that Indiana Jones was a better adventure hero than Jack Colton.

(20th Century Fox) Michael Douglas, Shia LaBeouf, Josh Brolin, Carey Mulligan, Susan Sarandon, Eli Wallach, Frank Langella, Austin Pendleton, John Bedford Lloyd, Vanessa Ferlito, John Buffalo Mailer, Sylvia Miles, Charlie Sheen, Ron Insana.  Directed by Oliver Stone

Filmmaker Oliver Stone has long had the reputation as a cinematic gadfly. Throughout the 1980s his movies took run after run against the establishment; movies like JFK, Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July all of which were Oscar bait in their time. However, many consider his 1987 film Wall Street to be his magnum opus. Michael Douglas would win an Oscar as the Machiavellian Gordon Gekko, a Wall Street financier whose mantra “Greed is Good” would become a catchphrase and, ironically enough, a spur for many of today’s brokers to enter the business. Still, that was 23 years ago; has Stone mellowed with age?

Some say yes. The movie opens with Gekko (Douglas, reprising the role from the original) being released from prison after doing eight years for insider trading. He leaves the facility with a mobile phone the size of a loaf of bread and a gold watch. There is, however, nobody to meet him; even the rapper/thug has a limo awaiting him.

Seven years later, his daughter Winnie (Mulligan) still hasn’t spoken to him in more than a decade. She blames him for the overdose death of her brother. She has a different life now anyway; she runs what is self-described as a “lefty website” and she’s living with Jake Moore (LaBeouf), who works as an investment banker for the established firm of Keller Zabel (said to be a fictional version of Bear Stearns) as an alternative energy specialist. Even though he’s essentially part of the system she despises, he’s still idealistic enough to give her reason to overlook it.

Their life is far from ideal, however. Keller Zabel is in trouble, the victim of rumors of insolvency based on bad debt (rumors which turn out to be partially true). Senior partner Louis Zabel (Langella), who is also Jake’s mentor, goes to the Federal Reserve, hat in hand, but is turned down, mainly due to the poisonous words of Bretton James (Brolin), the CEO of Churchill Schwartz (the fictional counterpart of Goldman Sachs) who had an axe to grind with Zabel.

When Keller Zabel fails, Jake decides to take in a lecture by Gekko who is promoting his book “Is Greed Good?” that, among other things, predicts the economic meltdown that would take place later that year (the movie is set in 2008). He manages to get Gekko’s ear by telling him that he’s getting ready to marry his daughter, which he is. Gekko agrees to talk to him.

Gekko agrees to get some information about who initiated the rumors about Keller Zabel in exchange for Jake helping to reunite him with his daughter. Jake arranges dinner with the three of them but Winnie walks out, unable to be in the same room with the man whom she blames for destroying her family. Jake stays in contact with her dad behind her back, however; Gekko responds by telling Jake that it was Bretton James behind the rumors that sunk Keller Zabel. Jake decides to initiate some rumors of his own. James is in turn impressed by the passion and smarts of young Jake and hires him. This lasts only as long as it takes for Jake to find out he’s being used.

Things really begin to fall apart then. Just as Winnie is beginning to move towards reconciliation with her father, Gekko reverts to his true colors and the revelation that Jake has been in contact with him behind her back threatens to submarine the relationship. Can someone like Gordon Gekko find redemption in this world, and more to the point, does he deserve it?

I asked earlier if Oliver Stone had mellowed with age, and I tend to agree with some of those who think that he has. Stone’s best works, including the original Wall Street, all carry a degree of anger to them. They are strident, opinionated and abrasive in some ways. He carries the courage of his convictions whether you agree with them or not, and in all honesty there is little ambiguity about his cinematic work.

That’s not as true here. Gekko at one point says, “I was small time compared to these crooks” referring to the Lords of Wall Street circa 2008, but he is in many ways as corrupting an influence as ever, although he isn’t even the villain of this piece – Bretton James is. While Brolin is a great actor in his own right and he does a magnificent job as the unrepentantly corrupt and greedy James, the movie could have used less of him and more of Michael Douglas.

Douglas, as I mentioned earlier, won an Oscar for the first Wall Street and it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that he could win another for the same role 23 years on, although I would probably characterize it as more of a supporting role. Gekko is sleek, seductive and completely amoral; he is super-competitive and will pay any price in order to win on his own terms. It’s a fascinating role as much of the movie the lion has no teeth or claws, only to reveal that he had them all along about two thirds of the way through. Douglas is the reason to see this movie, first and foremost.

He has some company, however. Langella, who has been delivering terrific performances every time out of late, does so again here. His role is small but crucial, and he imbues it with dignity and honesty. Louis Zabel is a man who finds that his business has changed into something unrecognizable and something he doesn’t much like. He’s lost in this world that he helped shape, and the irony isn’t lost on him. Sarandon also has a brief role as Jake’s real estate selling mom, who is constantly in need of funds to keep her house of cards from collapsing.

This might have gotten a better rating, but unfortunately the movie is torpedoed by its ending, which I found literally preposterous. The characters turn completely on their own internal logic and act completely out of character. It’s about as jarring as ordering a pizza delivery and receiving liver and onions instead, especially if you hate liver and onions.

Having been employed by a financial institution my own self, I can tell you that the world created here is pretty much accurate; the hypocrisy and arrogance truly exists particularly the closer to the executive suite that you get. Of course, that’s pretty much true for any industry these days; it’s just that the financial industry has been in the spotlight more because of the sub-prime shenanigans.

There are a number of documentaries out there that examine the financial meltdown and its causes that are more likely to give you insight into just what happened. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps isn’t really a good substitute for them, since it really relegates much of the reasons behind the collapse to the periphery of the film, preferring to concentrate on the characters of Jake, Winnie and Bretton and to a lesser extent, Gordon Gekko. It does make for fine entertainment, but I suspect it will seem a bit dated 23 years after the fact and doesn’t have the advantage of prescience that the original Wall Street had. It’s more a rehash of current events, and it may be fair to say that you could have gotten the same insights by watching MSNBC.

REASONS TO GO: Langella, Douglas and Brolin do some pretty impressive work. The character of Gordon Gekko is as relevant today as he was back in 1987.

REASONS TO STAY: The ending is absolutely preposterous. Some of the direction is a bit self-indulgent.  

FAMILY VALUES: The language can be a little rough and some of the concepts are on the confusing side, but the average teenager should be able to follow it and maybe even appreciate it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A scene in which Donald Trump made a cameo appearance as himself was left on the cutting room floor.

HOME OR THEATER: While some of the New York City vistas look far more majestic on the big screen, the movie is nonetheless perfectly adequate when seen at home.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Leaves of Grass