Friday, April 26, 2013

Oblivion: A Spring Sci-Fi Surprise

     At first, Oblivion--the second film directed by Joseph Kosinski after 2010's beautiful but shallow sequel to Tron--seems like it's a paint-by-numbers collage of all the major sci-fi ideas of the past few decades. It's a giant, simmering stew of the major tropes from The Matrix, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dark City, Moon (I could go on and on). But as the film progressed, that feeling of familiarity started to become innocuous. The script's nothing special (to be kind) either--its stuffed full with stereotypes and plot questions that plague the science fiction genre. But that detriment started to not matter as well. It's due to a few reasons: Tom Cruise's solid performance as Jack Harper, which ranks among his best in recent years, M83's driving and thumping score that helps keep every major scene exciting, and Joseph Kosinski's incredible use of realistic CGI and ability to stage action scenes that completely help serve the story instead of being the main draw of the film (ala any Transformers turd).
      The beginning is the weakest part of Oblivion, but luckily the opening voice over doesn't continue into the main meat of the film. The year is 2077. Sixty years ago, the earth was ravaged and the moon destroyed and chaos with a group of beings called "Scavs" (I thought it was "Scabs" until reading about the film after the fact) has left the Earth in an uninhabitable nuclear wasteland. Cruise's Jack Harper is a technician, one of the few humans tasked with working on the barren Earth. The rest of the human population have migrated to giant space station called the "Tet" and are working their way to colonizing Saturn's moon, Titan.
      Harper and his work partner/lover Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) live in a glass station above the clouds, and every morning they check in with Sally (Melissa Leo, speaking in a stereotypical southern delivery), the mission control supervisor on the Tet, and Cruise jets down to Earth's surface, seemingly as routine as clocking in at the mill. He quickly moves around and repairs the drones that monitor the area, circular balls armed with powerful machine guns that shoot any creature that comes close to the "resource extraction machines", these massive triangular buildings that suck up the remainders of Earth's seawater for certain minerals and valuable substances. Back at the sleek, future IKEA-furnished glass tower, Victoria communicates back to the Tet about how well the mission is going.
    When watching the trailer for Oblivion, it seemingly depicts too much of the story, showing Cruise getting captured and tied up in front of a scuzzy Morgan Freeman. But luckily it's a bit misleading: Oblivion holds plenty of surprises, and although none of them are particularly original to the science fiction genre, they still pack an enthralling punch in the film. When taking the engineer job, much of Jack's memory had to be erased, so when certain places or feelings start to become familiar, Harper has some serious deja vu that starts impeding on his ability to perform his job at an "effective" level. I will say that one actor's presence put a smile to my face, just because it's nice for him to gain some notoriety: Game Of Thrones' Jaime Lannister himself (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). But Cruise is a tough actor to judge: he's become such a star, such an entity above himself, that it's amazingly difficult to see him as a character in a specific movie instead of "Tom Cruise", one of the most famous actors of all time. But he performs admirably here. Though his story is familiar, Cruise portrays Harper with enough wonder and excitement to feel for Jack Reac...I mean Harper.
     Two other important things: Oblivion looks and sounds wonderful. Kosinski's Tron: Legacy didn't really hold my attention, but that was due more to a story that I couldn't have cared less about than Kosinski's direction. In fact, it was impressive: his ability to insert visual effects into the story fares much better than many modern directors. It helps having an Oscar-winning cinematographer in Claudio Miranda (whose shots in last year's gorgeous Life of Pi were breathtaking) for this film. Every action scene is clear, concise and completely hold your attention. M83--a musical artist that I've never been too interested in--also provides a pulsing score that takes some of the best aspects of other pivotal composers (much like Oblivion takes from important sci-fi allegories) and mashes them into an ear-titillating sci-fi-actioneer soundtrack.
     Yeah, it's a lot of praise. But let's not get too ahead of ourselves. The detriments of Oblivion do detract from the experience, but not enough to keep you from liking it. The story (and specifically the script)--as stated previously--doesn't contain much in the way or originality or ingenuity. Some of the dialogue is laughable (specifically one situation, where Cruise remembers the last Super Bowl with a fake, cheering crowd) and I could have done without the voice-overs. But the spectacle and excitement of the film is surprising. Earth as a wasteland has been done before, and it will be done more this summer in the not-so-good-looking After Earth (starring Will Smith and his son) and the incredibly-good-looking Elysium (starring Matt Damon). But Oblivion stands tall in its own right, with stellar visuals and plenty of exciting situations that plant you on the edge of your seat.     (B+)

Saturday, April 13, 2013

A Tale of Three Movies: The Place Beyond the Pines

     I was loving The Place Beyond the Pines (the second major film directed by Derek Cianfrance, after 2010's awesomely depressing Blue Valentine)...until I was worried it was going to suck. But then it didn't: it slowly built up steam anew, and I was really liking it again...until another event happens that made me think the rest of the movie would suck. But again: it didn't. The Place Beyond the Pines is an epic and awesome and fault-filled film that is bursting with ebbs and flows and frustrating changes of pace. It's a film that spans almost two decades, two different families, and two men who may have more similarities than either would admit. Sometimes the film feels like it's grasping at straws, trying to make connections where none need to be: but can you fault over-ambition--with all of its annoyances--when some of the performances are this good and the film's style is so full of tension?
     The Place Beyond the Pines is a movie told in three distinct acts, and that's what makes it so peculiar. Not that I'll spoil anything major, because it's best to go into this sprawling film with no idea of the plot or situations. We first meet Luke (Ryan Gosling) in a tracking shot as he walks to perform one of his death-defying motorcycle stunts. Covered in tattoos and showing his typical intense stare, one might think that this is Drive 2.0, with Gosling playing a man of few words but capable of ferocious violence. Pines is more complex than that, though. Luke strikes up a one-night-stand with Romina (Eva Mendes), and when his traveling carnival comes back into town a year later, he learns that he has an infant son. So he quits his job and becomes friends with Robin (Ben Mendelsohn, who was so great in last year's Killing Them Softly), a local mechanic who convinces Luke that a good way to provide for his new family would be to rob local banks, skillfully speeding away on his bike at 100 miles an hour. Gosling's performance is another great one. He's the spark in almost any film that he acts in, and even more so in Pines: he's the catalyst that keeps your eyes glued to the screen.
     Soon enough, Luke--drawing attention from his bank robberies--crosses paths with rookie cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), and it's here that the film shifts its focus to its second distinct act. Bradley Cooper does a fine job with Cross, a timid cop who realizes that he's the middle of mass corruption and double-crossing in the police department. Ray Liotta pops up with his usual thuggish and grimy officer of the law (that's not a detriment; this man is always entertaining). The Place Beyond the Pines was actually filmed a few months before Bradley Copper's Oscar-nominated performance in The Silver Linings Playbook, and it's not hard to see. He does an admirable job here, but he looks younger and has less confidence than in last year's wonderful film.
     The third act takes place years in the future, and it involves parallels and coincidences that tie into the stories of the two main men. It's also the act of the film that is the most unintentionally funny, as some connections seem like they were drawn with a crayon instead of screenwriter's professional pen. Take a movie like Paul Thomas Anderson's magnificent Magnolia: now that's a film where the threads of time are weaved throughout all of the characters and they all have unknowable intimate connections with each other that come to fruition by the end of its run time. In fact, Derek Cianfrance--who is clearly a director to keep an eye on, as he'd made two very thoughtful films--is similar to Paul Thomas Anderson in a lot of good ways: his use of very interesting tracking shots, his ability to coax out some incredible performances, and his choice of score, which really adds tension to nearly every single scene. In the collection of Anderson's films, though, The Place Beyond the Pines is most like Boogie Nights--not Magnolia. It's over ambitious, spans numerous years, and it's filled with plenty of ups and downs that take a viewer through a sometime-slow-sometimes-fast cinematic experience that is always worthwhile.
      The Place Beyond the Pines is a big jumble: it has many aspects that brings goosebumps to your skin and a few that make you roll your eyes and check the time. It's a film that is 140 minutes long that at times feels too short and at times feels too long. It also begs the question of whether or not its chronological order of scenes wouldn't have been more interesting mixed up, ala Pulp Fiction or something of similar fashion. But still, the question arises again: can you fault Derek Cianfrance's over-ambitiousness in this film about fathers and sons and life's connections? The answer is No. The Place Beyond the Pines is a totally admirable attempt at an epic story, one with plenty of faults that are mild annoyances instead of major displeasure.    (B+)

Monday, April 8, 2013

Evil Dead (1981) + Bloody Gore - Humor = Evil Dead (2013)

     The original Evil Dead film, the one directed by Sam Raimi (before he resorted to the Spiderman films and this year's Oz, The Great and Powerful), is rightly considered a cult classic--it also spawned dozens of knockoffs and homages. Just think of how many films deal with decrepit and dangerous cabins far out in the wilderness away from civilization. It has basically reached a breaking point, where horror films (like last year's Cabin in the Woods) are dismantling the genre conventions, not unlike the Scream films did for slasher flicks in the late 1990's. And now comes the inevitable Hollywood remake of a coveted horror film, a seems-like-cash-grab with a new director and new actors and no trace of the crazy humor and low-budget special effects of the original film. Somehow, it sort of works with this trip to the cursed cabin: every laugh from the original Evil Dead has been switched with a brutal geyser of blood, a nail shot through soft flesh, a chainsaw directly to the open mouth. The poster to the right states that it's "The most terrifying film you will ever experience." It's not remotely close. But no doubt it's one of the goriest and most brutally violent mainstream films in a long time.
     The studios were smart to release this film at festivals before the actual wide release: it built up a word of mouth about the no-holds-barred barf-worthy moments so horror geeks around the country were well aware  and were willing to shell out the inflating price of a movie ticket (the shocking red-band trailer helped, too). But I can't help from feeling disappointed when expecting something shocking when it comes to American horror films. They never match their French counterparts (check out Martyrs or Inside if you want some real terrifying and cringe-worthy moments). But this film definitely tries its best. Huge needles in scenes with eyeballs, electric meat cutters slicing into forearms, projectile bloody puke coming out of many orifices--these are the tools that first-time director Fede Alvarez uses to create this disturbing world.
     The plot is similar to the original in the sense that five friends (two of them are siblings) travel to a remote cabin, where they discover an old book in the basement underneath the carcasses of dead and rotten house animals. I could go through the names of the characters, but it's not particularly necessary: most of the time, they are strictly the meat to be thrown into this movie's grinder. A few words of this ancient, human-skin bound book are uttered by one of five, and demonic forces begin to gather around the cabin, starting with a forest-vine rape that mimics the original.
     One of the problems with this Evil Dead is its seriousness. Sure, some lines could be classified as funny (though not to me) and other situations are so over-the-top and disgusting that it's tough not to chuckle. But the overall weirdness and laugh out loud funny moments are gone here, evaporated like the mists of blood. However, everything looks really damn good, so the film's humor might be on the back of your mind. Previously a commercial director, Alvarez has a clear eye for setting up sketchy and scary situations. There are not many "jump" scares in Evil Dead (like there are in most successful PG-13 horror films), but its filled with plenty of shocking moments that make you rethink that three-bean chili that you had for lunch. And Sam Raimi was one of the producers of this incarnation, so it's clear that Alvarez had the original director's blessing.
      After watching the red-band preview that was circulating the web for weeks in advance, I knew that Evil Dead would be pretty gruesome. But watching that two minute clip was a mistake: it gave away some of the more hideous set-ups of the film (for instance, the one in the picture above). I wish that I had never watched it. But there lies the problem with certain horror films, ones that are produced mainly to try and give you an upset stomach: once you're desensitized to its graphic depictions of a group of friends in a shanty-like cabin getting sliced and diced, you're left with bad acting and a story that was told better back in 1981.     (B-)