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.

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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.

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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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The Raven

The Raven is not a very good movie. This is because John Cusack, while making a game effort, is not convincing and the plot is pretty much unappealingly repackaged suspense film tropes.

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The deets:

Released April 27, 2012

Written by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare

Directed by James McTeigue

Starring Alice Eve, Pam Ferris, John Cusack, Luke Evans, Brendan Gleeson, Kevin McNally, and Oliver Jackson-Cohen

Rated: R

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Boston police detective Fields (Evans), notices that a grisly murder reminds him of a story written by local poet/story writer Edgar Allen Poe (Cusack). Poe is not the murderer, but when another murder occurs, also matching the writings of Poe, Fields asks Poe to join the investigation. Poe is currently experiencing severe writer’s block, possibly due to the steady stream of chemicals he is ingesting and also possibly due to the girl he has his heart set on being kept out of reach by her father.

The girl is Emily (Eve) and her father is police captain Charles Hamilton (Gleeson). Hamilton sees that Poe will only bring heartache to his daughter and is justified in keeping the two separate. However, Emily is in love with Poe, and love is as love does. (Why she loves the intemperate alcoholic is the biggest mystery of the film.)

The murderer is brutal and seemingly has limitless resources to recreate the dark murders of Poe’s stories, and we get to seem some pretty gruesome homicides in the course of the film.

Soon after Poe is looped into the case, he finds his writer’s block cured and he gets fully invested in the investigation. Which, you guessed it, endangers the woman he loves.

All of this story takes place over just a few days, the true history of which, in Poe’s life, are still a mystery. We know that Poe was found dead on a park bench in real history, but what preceded that death is unknown. This film does its best to shoehorn the story into known and unknown history.

Critique

The Raven has some very strong points, mostly from Luke Evans’ acting job, some fairly tense scenes and pacing, and Alice Eve’s remarkable ability to elevate every scene she is in. She makes her run of the mill, hard to understand love interest character strong and interesting.

What’s more, the premise of the film is pretty good and it is executed with some interesting development.

The main problem is that, although Cusack does nail some of the more intense scenes, in most of the film he is essentially a goatee’d John Cusack, in all of his mouth-breathing glory. The secondary problem is that we see most of the twists coming and the actual murderer is out of the blue, like an Agatha Christie culprit. Seriously. The murderer should have been someone we knew and who seemed murky in some way.

Not so much.

So this is a pretty good, somewhat too-gruesome film whose lead is hard to really like, whose love story is a bit hard to believe, and whose resolution is a little hard to swallow.

Content warnings: Some salty language, plenty of gruesome images.

Writing: 3.5          Acting: 3.5          Overall: 3

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The Eagle

The Eagle seems to be billed as an action-packed near-thriller. Instead, it is a fairly slow-moving look at how a young man’s idea of honor is tempered by the realities of the world around him. And it’s pretty good, too.

Here’s a trailer:

The deets:

Released February 11, 2011

Written by Jeremy Brock, based on the novel by Rosemary Sutcliff

Directed by Kevin Macdonald

Starring Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Donald Sutherland, Mark Strong, and Denis O’Hare

Rated: PG-13

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Marcus Flavius Aquila (Tatum) is determined to win back the honor lost by his father. His father was the leader of the Ninth legion of the Roman Empire, whose standard was a golden eagle, and which legion was completely lost/destroyed somewhere north of Hadrian’s wall.

That’s right: the year is 140 AD and Rome runs most of the world.

So Marcus has risen in the ranks of centurions and has just received a new commission in Britain, where he is in charge of a garrison and its fort. He leads his men in an impressive rout of attacking natives, being badly injured in the process. Due to the injury, Marcus has the opportunity to travel north and find the lost eagle standard, whereupon he would win back the honor to his family name. He convinces his uncle (Sutherland) to let him go, and that his slave, Esca (Bell), will not stab him on the journey.

So Marcus and Esca head north, with Esca having pledged his honor to Marcus due to a debt Esca feels he owes. Adventures ensue as Marcus has his ideas about honor challenged and he starts to find reason to break from the Roman party line regarding how honor is won. At the same time, the relationship between Esca and Marcus is explored as duty gives way to respect and friendship.

Critique

The Eagle is, again, not an action-packed thrill ride. It’s also not too concerned with accents, accuracy, and geography. But this film gets a few things right.

First off, the writing and direction allows for extended, character-building scenes, wherein multiple conflicts help the audience see what the characters are truly made of. Furthermore, there are some solid surprises that come from characters’ decisions and there are plenty of opportunities for characters to redeem themselves.

Secondly, the movie is well cast. Given that the film is not really a dramatic actioner but is instead a sometimes dramatic, sometimes stolid, sometimes tense, exploration of friendship and honor and loyalty, it is nice that the actors are young and can convincingly demonstrate a real arc. This arc shows the young men going from somewhat naive to a more grounded outlook on life.

The film is also beautifully shot and very well paced. The Eagle might not satisfy action film fans’ bloodlust and desire for colorful explosions, but it delivers an almost gentle resolution for Marcus, wherein he realizes his life is his own to live and honor is an every day thing.

Issues that don’t allow The Eagle to truly take off include a somewhat stolid pace and not quite enough effort from Tatum. It’s kind of slow at times and Tatum is very serious here. It might have been nice to explore a little more humor.

Content warnings: Some somewhat bloody violence.  

Writing: 4          Acting: 3.5          Overall: 3.5

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