Oblivion

Oblivion is, so far, the surprise of the year. Very well written and surprisingly well delivered by Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough, most lovers of sci-fi and action will really get into this film. It’s also stupendously shot.

Here’s a trailer:

The deets:

Released April 19, 2013

Written by Karl Gajdusek, Michael Arndt, and Joseph Kosinski

Directed by Joseph Kosinski

Starring Andrea Riseborough, Olga Kurylenko, Melissa Leo, Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Zoe Bell, and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau

Rated: PG-13

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Jack Harper (Cruise) is half of the Earth’s clean-up crew. He and his partner Victoria (Riseborough) are stationed in Tower 49, a rather spectacular, futuristic glass home that is high above the earth, from which they base their operations as drone maintenance. Sixty years previous, the Scavs invaded and humanity ended up using nukes to win the war. This made Earth uninhabitable, so humanity moved first to the Tet, a massive space station in orbit above the Earth, then later to a moon of Jupiter.

But humanity’s need for energy remains, so there are reactors on Earth that suck up ocean water and convert it to energy, which will be used to send the Tet and the last of humanity forever away from Earth to the moon of Jupiter. There are also still Scavs that wander, so the drones patrol to keep the Scavs from the reactors, and Jack and Victoria keep the drones functioning. They check in daily with mission command, a woman named Sally who it would seem is on the Tet.

Jack and Victoria are due to finish their tour in two weeks. They are eager to join the rest of humanity. They have also had their memories wiped in order to guard against the Scavs capturing them and learning where humanity has gone.

Jack patrols the land, fixing drones and such while Victoria runs things from the tower. She worries about Jack and is very protective of him. And Jack is curious, so he regularly finds objects that hold some kind of allure for him and he gathers them in a private, quiet valley. Also, Jack has dreams about some woman he’s never met

Then an object crash-lands, strewing its cargo all over the crash site and Jack investigates, although mission control tells him not to. He finds cryogenically frozen humans. And the drones show up and start blowing them up.

When Jack protects one of the humans, he discovers its the woman he’s been seeing in his dreams. This sets him on a path of discovery, where everything he believes is challenged and he discovers that it is a truth that the victors write the history books.

The final act of the film is a breathless series of reveals that deliver on all kinds of promises made early in the movie.

Critique

First off, the filming and production value of Oblivion is just marvelous. Great set design, especially of Tower 49, and pretty much flawless world creation. This attention to detail in the production value is reflected in excellent writing, acting, and pacing as well.

Oblivion provides surprise after surprise after it sets up the world and conflict. These surprises are not out of the blue or unsupported by the story– they are excellent and fun. The truth of what is happening is wonderfully simple and the story line is exceedingly satisfying. Great heroic arcs, excellent conflicts, very solid dialogue– The writing is great. Just great.

The acting is also truly wonderful. Sure, Tom Cruise is playing his stoic, hard-nosed character that we’ve seen before, but there’s some unusual nuance to his work here that is very nice. Olga Kurylenko and Morgan Freeman deliver good characters, albeit somewhat underused, that we have no trouble believing. But it is Andrea Riseborough that gives the film an emotional center, providing much needed emotional conflict. With her wide eyes and totally accessible motivations, she does a great job.

Oblivion is a great movie. Go see it.

Content warnings: A scene of sensuality, some language, plenty of sci-fi violence.

Writing: 5          Acting: 4.5          Overall: 5

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Paul

Paul gets a few things right, a few things wrong, and is overall somewhat enjoyable because it knows how to mine a single joke for all of its humor.

Here’s a trailer:

The deets:

Released March 18, 2011

Written by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost

Directed by Greg Mottola

Starring Kristen Wiig, Sigourney Weaver, Mia Stallard, Jane Lynch, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Jason Bateman, Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio, David Koechner, Jesse Plemons, Jeffrey Tambor, and Seth Rogen’s voice

Rated: R

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Paul opens with a scene of a girl (Stallard) with her dog having a close encounter. Then we fast forward many years and find Graeme (Pegg) and Clive (Frost) on tour in America. They’re British bachelors who love science fiction and they have attended a great conference in Las Vegas and are now driving a rented RV around the west, visiting all the important sites involved in alien visitations.

Graeme and Clive encounter some bullies (Koechner and Plemons), and then encounter Paul (Rogen), an alien who has escaped from the government after some 50 years of custody. Paul knows more about American culture than do these Britons and he has assimilated into American culture and language well, despite being obviously an alien.

So Graeme and Clive go on the run with Paul, and are chased by Zoil (Bateman), who appears to be a stone-cold killer and his underlings Haggard (Hader) and O’Reilly (Truglio). But that’s not all. Graeme and Clive meet a born again religionist named Ruth (Wiig), who is blind in one eye and whose religious doctrine precludes any chance at extra-terrestrial life.

Now all are on the madcap, sometimes droll, sometimes actually entertaining journey of their lives.

Critique

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost know how to set up a joke and deliver multiple punchlines for it. There is plenty of that going on, although some of the jokes strain the audience’s tolerance, particularly in the area of Ruth, whose extreme ‘Christianity’ is made fun of at length. This particularly line of jokes is intermittently funny, but too often the humor feels like commentary of some sort, and the jokes are going after easy, lame targets.

The twist with Paul’s character is that while he is an alien, he is crass, has a healthy libido, and is totally irreverent– and is thus not very ‘alien.’ This results in quite a few funny moments, but also gets a little old, until the movie starts allowing Paul to have an arc along with arc his new chauffeurs/companions experience.

One of the major winners for this movie is the pacing and the presence of a wide array of fun characters. Hader is particularly a joy as Haggard, the underling with ambition and who might just end up being too smart for anyone’s good– especially his.

We get treated to Sigourney Weaver’s voice, as she is the boss running Zoil’s efforts to track down Paul. We also get treated to David Koechner’s great comedic timing, as well as Wiig’s remarkable fearlessness.

So, setting aside some of the too-easy targets for humor and a bit too much crass humor, Paul mostly delivers a good time. Pegg and Frost have great chemistry and the effects are totally non-distracting. It’s a pretty good movie, but it won’t appeal to a very wide audience. To enjoy it, you’d have to be a fan of Pegg and Frost, as well as a bit of a science fiction geek.

Content warnings: Lots of very salty language, some sexual references and the like.

Writing: 4          Acting: 4          Overall: 3.5

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Jack the Giant Slayer

Jack the Giant Slayer seems like a stretch, a bit too much expected from an old fairy tale. Luckily, the film delivers a lot of fun action and some surprisingly interesting characterizations, thus making it a fun time at the movies.

Sadly, the too-rampant CGI decreases that fun.

Here’s a trailer:

The deets:

Released March 1, 2013

Written by Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie, Dan Studney, and David Dobkin

Directed by Bryan Singer

Starring Eleanor Tomlinson, Nicholas Hoult, Ewan McGregor, Ian McShane, Stanley Tucci, Eddie Marsan, Ewen Bremner, and Warwick Davis

Rated: PG-13

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Jack (Hoult) grew up hearing legends about giants that live far up in the clouds, but that they were repelled generations ago after they ruled humans for a time. When Roderick (Tucci), the chief adviser to King Brahmwell (McShane) hatches a plan to use a powerful magical item that will enable him to control the giants and use them to rule the world, Jack gets caught up in the plan through a mixture of naive bravery and chance.

Part of the chance is that Princess Isabelle (Tomlinson) craves exposure to the outside world and she runs away, coming upon Jack’s home. Another part of the chance is that Jack, not long before, recently encountered a monk who was trying to keep another magical item, some beans, from being used by evil powers. Yet another part of that chance is that it’s raining this night.

Jack’s courage came during his first inadvertent encounter with the princess, when he stands up to some people threatening her before being outshone by the king’s chief guard Elmont (McGregor).

Through a series of events, the beans sprout, carrying the princess to the land beyond the clouds to the domain of the giants. Roderick is pleased and does his best to get control of them, while at the same time Elmont ends up with Roderick and Jack and two others, Crawe (Marsan) and Wicke (Bremner), at the top of the beanstalk to try to find the princess.

There they encounter the entirely CGI giants and things hit the fan. This movie is not afraid to kill people off, which works entirely in its favor.

Much heroism is required and most of the characters have a surprising arc, some of which require extreme bravery and determination. All of this leads to at least two major showdowns, the first of which provides an opportunity for an unexpected twist.

Critique

Jack the Giant Slayer has a lot going for it. First off, the large cadre of writers showed no fear in trying some risky plot turns, killing of major characters in order to reveal other, more important characters behind them. Secondly, the dialogue is very nicely crafted, helping these fantastical characters have a grounding in reality and offering a lot of very clever humor. Ewan McGregor particularly seems to enjoy his apparently foppish but altogether surprising role. The fact is that Roderick is almost the primary hero of this story.

A second major thing going for Jack the Giant Slayer is that it is surprisingly well cast, for the most part. Nick Hoult as the lead is great. This kid delivers in every moment: comedy, heartfelt emotion, intensity– he’s very good. Tomlinson as the princess also does a nice job, although doesn’t hit it out of the park in any way. McGregor takes great joy in his role, finding ways to expand on his character’s vanity while remaining an overall good person who wants to save his kingdom. Tucci chews scenery and could have tried a little harder.

The movie also looks very good, with one very serious exception. The set pieces are great and the action is all kinds of fun. The problem is the giants. They are entirely CGI. What this means is that the animators built digital skeletons, overlaid digital muscle and skin, and then did their best to approximate humanoid expression and movement. But it falls a little short, meaning that the movement of the giants is exaggerated and their expressions are a little odd and they just aren’t convincing.

Why did the filmmakers decide to use humans for the giants? Certainly CGI is good enough to make that look good, as we saw in Lord of the Rings.

But despite the jarring giants, Jack the Giant Slayer provides a couple of hours of lighthearted, heroic entertainment. It’s a summer blockbuster that came out before summer, which was probably good since it had more time to gain an audience. This is a good movie.

Content warnings: Only a little salty language, all kinds of imaginative but fantastical action and some violence. Suggested dismemberment.

Writing: 4.5          Acting: 4.5          Overall: 4

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A Good Day to Die Hard

A Good Day to Die Hard is a good movie. It’s not great or all kinds of fun. It’s not fresh and sharp like the first three, or even the 4th. It’s not surprising and it’s not particularly well acted.

But it’s a good movie and provides some perfectly fine entertainment for about 90 minutes.

Here’s a trailer:

The deets:

Released February 14, 2013

Written by Skip Woods and Roderick Thorpe

Directed by John Moore

Starring Bruce Willis, Jai Courtney, Sebastian Koch, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Yuliya Snigir, Amaury Nolasco, and Cole Hauser. 

Rated: R

*     *     *     *      *

Story

John McClane (Willis), still a cop but definitely showing his age, is worried about his grown son, Jack (Courtney). We see McClane as he fires off a tight grouping in what would appear to be the NYPD’s firing range, where he is quickly joined by Murphy (Nolasco– and while we’re on the subject of Murphy– this guy is Latin. He calls McClane ‘papi’. And his name is Murphy? Seriously?) Murphy has tracked down McClane’s son, finding him in a Moscow jail, where he awaits trial for murder.

McClane gets a ride to the airport from his daughter Lucy (Winstead), who abjures her dad to not make a mess of things. It’s clear that McClane has no intention of getting into a fight; he just wants to see if he can help his boy.

All of this setup comes to pass against the backdrop of political unrest and betrayal in Russia. A wealthy scientist named Komarov (Koch) has been unjustly imprisoned and now waits to be put through a trial– all because the Russian defense secretary has a vendetta against him and is trying to get something the scientist has– a file of some kind.

But on the day McClane arrives in Moscow at the courthouse where his son is going to be, Jack breaks out with Komarov in quite an explosive fashion. McClane provides just enough of an obstacle to Jack that Jack misses his evacuation window– and it turns out Jack is probably CIA.

So a rather destructive car chase ensues, during which McClane saves Jack’s skin and the two end up together, both working to reunite Komarov with his daughter and get the file which can be used to stop a potentially awful Russian regime.

Of course, there are a couple of twists which most audience members will see coming from quite a long way off. But there are plenty of explosions and there is a high body count, along with some super-slow-motion scenes in which McClane and Jack take the kind of beating that a superhero could take.

In case you’re wondering, McClane’s signature line of “Yippi-ki-yay…” is said, but is wasted and is far too easy to miss.

Critique

The movie starts strong. McClane is old and shows it in his tired gait and somewhat drawn face. We wonder why this guy is still just a basic cop after all the heroics he’s performed over the years, but he’s clearly mellowed in his later years. A few scenes are allowed to take their time to develop– allowing a bit of access to otherwise fairly standard characters.

But character development, wry and somewhat vulnerable humor, and pretty much all the enjoyment of the older movies take a back–waaaaaay back– seat as some very impressively choreographed and executed action set pieces unfold. The action is ambitious, loud, and furious. But it’s not invested with the connection we had with the previous movies, particularly in the first Die Hard.

I wonder if John McTiernan could fix this franchise?

In any case, a perfect moment that sums up everything this movie has to offer is the first punch that McClane throws. It’s louder than a gunshot and echoes off the theater walls, sounding as if a kraken has just snapped a mountain in two. It’s so far over the top that it couldn’t see the top with the Hubble. It strains credulity so much, and is followed by sprained credulity, that the movie falls pretty flat. It’s still watchable, because, well… Bruce Willis, but it doesn’t satisfy the Die Hard need.

Yes, the two wind up with a variety of bumps and scrapes, but that glass scene in the first Die Hard is so perfect because this is a mortal– but totally relentless and driven– hero. We just don’t see this in A Good Day to Die Hard.

I want John McClane to have his heroic ride into the sunset. I predict that with the next, and hopefully last, Die Hard film, he will get this ride and he will be with his grown children. This series deserves a worthy send-off, and A Good Day to Die Hard is not that worthy send-off.

Content warnings: Loads of action violence and salty language. 

Writing: 2.5          Acting: 3          Overall: 3

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