Last time we saw Tom Cruise he was known as Jack Reacher. Now, in Oblivion, his name is Jack Harper. What range! What diversity! You’d hardly recognise him. Harper is a maintenance guy, repairing the drones that protect giant machines that suck Earth’s oceans up to an enormous space station orbiting above us, a space station that is going to take the few remaining survivors of our pyrrhic victory over invading aliens on a final journey away from a devastated planet to a new life on Titan.
Assisting Mr. Cruise with his mechanical defence duties is Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), life and work partner, keeping him in contact with the supervisors floating above them and keeping an eye on the straggling remnants of the aliens who tried to conquer us. Traditional gender roles are very much still intact in the future — even though the Moon isn’t — and Ms. Riseborough’s character seems content to never leave the spotless modern kitchen while Cruise gets his hands dirty on the surface. Neither of them seem too bothered by the fact that they had their memories wiped six years previously, although he has been having some strange dreams recently.
Oblivion has several strengths, notably Joseph (Tron) Kosinski’s execution of the post-apocalyptic look of the thing — try as I might I never got the sense that all of this was being performed in front of giant green screens. Morgan Freeman is always good value — though you can almost see him counting his pay packet behind his mirror shades — and Riseborough is a proper actor as we know from little British films like Brighton Rock and Shadow Dancer.
For filmgoers of a certain age, though, the main weaknesses of Oblivion are that we have seen it all before. Imagine if you took some blank index cards, wrote a memorable sci-fi element on each one — “open the pod bay door HAL”; ruined NYC landmarks buried in sand; lone maintenance guy collecting memorabilia of a past epoch; big black alien creatures with what look like dreadlocks; canyon dogfights — and threw them all in the air, the ones that land face up might make you a cool film. When they all land face up, you get Oblivion.
But, as I’ve said before in a different context, every generation needs its own Jane Eyre. You can’t make the kids watch classic old movies but you can tempt them to a glossy rehash like this. It’s the economy, stupid. It’s just not very interesting.
Big lesson from this weekend’s movie-going is that FM-friendly 70s rock vinyl will make a big comeback after the apocalypse. Cruise’s collection features A Whiter Shade of Pale (1967) and teenage zombie “R” (Nicholas Hoult) in Warm Bodies grooves to scavenged Dylan and Springsteen LPs. If Mr. Bieber and Ms. Perry really want some longevity in their careers, vinyl would appear to be the way to go.
I’m quite a fan of the original novel that Warm Bodies is based on and can report that the film maintains the offbeat voice of the narrator. Also, thankfully, it returns the zombie movie to the world of allegory and metaphor and the anticipated violence and gore is toned down so far it might as well be switched off entirely. Hoult’s long dead “R” discovers some flickerings of a heartbeat when he meets — and then rescues — pretty Julie (Teresa Palmer) but not before he devours her boyfriend. Is it possible that a hint of romance might get his curse reversed? It’s a satisfying film that shows writer/director Jonathan Levine (The Wackness, 50/50) to be a name worth looking out for.
Christian Petzold’s Barbara is oft-compared with another great film about life in East Germany, The Lives of Others, but deserves to stand on its own two feet. Nina Hoss plays the title character, a doctor sent to the provinces as punishment for mixing with the wrong crowd. Wary of informers everywhere, she keeps herself to herself but can’t help being drawn in to the human dramas around her — risking her own freedom and the resistance she supports. As a showcase for the brilliant Hoss, it can’t be faulted.
Several years ago I went to a string quartet concert featuring the legendary Pinchas Zukerman. A-maz-ing. New favourite thing. After I raved for a bit, the publicist said to me, “it’s not all as good as that, you know.” And I haven’t been back. Performance (aka A Late Quartet) reminded me of that gig — the strangeness and formality of the environment, the concentration, the detail.
In Yaron Zilberman’s film, novices like myself can get a sense of the focus and dedication required to maintain a classical music career at the highest level as the fictional Fugue Quartet deals with the impending retirement of cellist Christopher Walken and the relationship difficulties of the 2nd violinist and cellist — played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener respectively.
This is a film about how difficult it is to remain in harmony, even when harmony is your profession. The strands of love that bind us together — parents and children, husbands and wives, teachers and students — are continually knotting and unravelling, tripping us up. It’s also nice to be reminded how beautiful a man Walken is when he’s not playing kooks and weirdos.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger isn’t so much a serious Woody Allen film as a funny one without any jokes. An ensemble of fine actors (including Anthony Hopkins, Naomi Watts and Antonio Banderas) stumble through a series of scenes with only a tenuous connection to each other. The greatest achievement from all of this amazing talent is that — for the most part — they remember all the words. Better that we never talk of it again, pretend you don’t see it when you’re browsing IMDb.
I’ve almost immediately erased Scary Movie 5 from my own memory so those scars should heal reasonably well, but when the worst movie franchise in the world is parodied by the second worst, where can I hide? Desperately unfunny from beginning to end — and chooses oddly antique films to parody like Inception and Black Swan — SM5 made me nostalgic for Identity Thief. That bad.
It looks like The Croods will have the school holiday animated family movie slot to itself and should do good business. It’s from the Kung Fu Panda/Madagascar stable rather than Pixar but none the worse for that. Nicolas Cage is a neanderthal father trying to protect his brood from the dangers of a stone age world. Daughter Emma Stone wants independence and finds it when she meets Ryan Reynolds’ Guy on an unlicensed expedition out of the cave. In evolutionary terms he’s the next big thing and he introduces the whole family to the dangers and excitement of “outside”.
I’ve chosen to mention the cast by actor rather than character name as their work throughout is exemplary. The Croods delivers fun to all audience segments and kept the mob I was with entertained throughout — no matter what age they started out as.