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.
Between its heralded US release in September last year and its arrival in a (very) limited number of New Zealand cinemas this weekend, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master seems to have been transformed from masterpiece and annointed Best Picture contender to also-ran, disappointing scores of local PTA fans in the process, many of whom were crushed that we weren’t going to see the film in the director’s preferred 70mm format. Turns out it was touch and go whether we were going to see it on the big screen at all.
Anderson’s previous film, There Will Be Blood, was a close-run second to No Country For Old Men in my 2007 pick of the year, and his back catalogue is as rich as anyone else of his generation — Boogie Nights, Magnolia and even Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love. Like Blood, The Master is painted on a big canvas. Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, an alcoholic and self-hating WWII veteran, stumbling between misadventures when he stows away on the San Francisco yacht commanded by academic, author and mystic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd combines rudimentary psychotherapy with hypnosis to persuade gullible followers that their past lives can be used to transform their disappointing present.
This week Philip Seymour Hoffman features in two new American sports movies, one about their most venerable — if not impenetrable — pastime of baseball and the other on the modern-day equivalent of bear-baiting, the presidential primaries. In Moneyball, Hoffman plays Art, team manager of the Oakland Athletics, left behind when his boss — Brad Pitt — decides to throw away decades of baseball tradition and use sophisticated statistical analysis and a schlubby Yale economics graduate (Jonah Hill) to pick cheap but effective players.
Hoffman steals every scene he is in but disappears from the story too early. Having said that, Pitt and Hill do great work underplaying recognisably real people and all are well-supported by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin’s script which has scene after scene of great moments, even if some of them lead nowhere (like poor Art’s arc). Moneyball might start out a sports movie but it’s actually a business textbook. If the place you work at clings to received wisdom, experience and intuition over “facts” then organise an outing to Moneyball as fast as you can.
This past week may have been the most consistently satisfying week of cinema-going since I started this journey with you back in 2006: seven very different films, all with something to offer. And no turkeys this week, so I’ll have to put the acid away until next week.
In completely arbitrary order (of viewing in fact), let’s take a look at them. In The Invention of Lying British comic Ricky Gervais directs his first big screen film (working without the creative support of usual partner Stephen Merchant) and it turns out to be a little bit more ambitious than most Hollywood rom-coms. In a world where no one has any conception of “untruth”, where the entire population makes each other miserable by saying exactly how they feel all the time and where there is no storytelling or fiction to give people an escape, Gervais’ character discovers he has the ability to say things that aren’t true and is treated as a Messiah-figure as a result. Everything he says, no matter how outlandish, is believed but he still can’t win the love of the beautiful Jennifer Garner.
Gervais is solidly funny throughout, and demonstrates even more of the depth as an actor that he hinted at in Ghost Town last year, but the direction is uneven – perhaps because both Gervais and co-writer-director Matthew Robinson are first-timers.
It’s a little known fact in the movie industry that most cinema releases serve no greater purpose than to provide some advance publicity for an inevitable DVD release. This week seven new films were released into the Wellington market and barely more than a couple of them justified taking up space and time on a big movie screen.
First up, I Love You, Man — another in the endless parade of cash-ins on the formula literally coined by Judd Apatow with 40-year-old Virgin and Knocked Up. In this version usual side-kick Paul Rudd takes centre-stage as mild-mannered real estate agent Peter Klaven, engaged to be married but with no Best Man. All his friends are women, you see, and hijinks ensue as he attempts to generate some heterosexual male friendships and get some bro-mance in his life.
The key thing to point out here is that I love You, Man isn’t very funny and is very slow, but it will trot out the door of the video shop when the time comes, thanks to people like me giving it the oxygen of publicity. Dash it, sucked in again.