‘Oblivion’ is Familiar, and Yet Visually Unique

Oblivion movie poster

On one hand, I feel like I should be punishing “Oblivion” for its lack of originality as the story will easily remind viewers of other science fiction movies like “Total Recall” (the original, not the remake), “Moon,” “The Matrix” and “Logan’s Run.” On the other, I found Joseph Kosinski’s film to be a compelling piece of entertainment, and I liked how he took various elements from those sci-fi movies and put them together to create something which feels more original than I expected it to. The look of “Oblivion” is incredible, and the film benefits from a very strong cast, great visuals, and a truly awesome music score.

Like many science fiction movies, this one takes place in a distant future. The year is 2077, and sixty years earlier an alien invasion destroyed the Moon, which in turn decimated Earth and left it in shambles. Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) is one of the last human beings left, and he and his communications officer Victoria Olsen (Andrea Riseborough) spend their days helping to harvest what’s left of the planet’s natural resources and repairing drones which help protect it from further alien invasions. They are due to leave Earth in two weeks so they can rejoin the rest of humanity which has long since relocated to another planet. Of course, we all know what happens when people say they only have a few weeks before they leave Earth; they don’t.

Talking about “Oblivion” from here gets complicated because I don’t want to give away the story’s twists and turns and have it seem like a plot summary stolen from Wikipedia, but I’ll do my best. One day, a spaceship crashes on Earth which carries a number of capsules with astronauts sleeping inside them. One survivor is astronaut Julia Rusakova (Olga Kurylenko) who, once awoken from her deep sleep, she makes Jack see he has a past which has long since been denied to him.

This is all I’m going to say about the plot as telling you more would be spoiling the fun. Granted, I have seen many science fiction movies, so when the plots twists and turns came here, I wasn’t surprised. At the same, I was very much enthralled by what was going on. Even if I had a pretty good idea of what was coming next, I was still glued to my seat and eager to see what direction the film was going to head in next.

Much of the success with “Oblivion” comes from its distinct visuals which are very striking, and a lot of the credit for this goes not just to Kosinski but also his director of photography Claudio Miranda. I’ve lost count of how many post-apocalyptic movies which show Earth obliterated beyond all repair to where everything is dark, grey and gloomy. Many famous landmarks like the Empire State Building are shown to be either barely standing or covered up with a lot of dirt in “Oblivion,” but this is the first movie of its kind I can remember which takes place mostly in the daylight. While Earth isn’t in one piece in “Oblivion,” there is still a unique beauty to how it looks here. Those snowy mountains still look worth skiing on, and I found it rather comforting to see plants, grass and trees still growing even after an alien invasion, and this gives the movie an uplifting feel.

The other thing I really liked about “Oblivion” was the architecture of the buildings and the design of the spaceships. The Sky Tower which Jack and Victoria live in is beautiful, and I would love to live in it. This tower looks like the world’s most unique condominium, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it before. Also, it has the coolest swimming pool ever, and it makes me more excited about swimming pools than I have been in ages. Plus, I doubt I will see a cooler looking spaceship than the Bubbleship Cruise flies all over the place.

This is only Kosinski’s second movie as a director, but here he seems to have found his filmmaking voice this time around. His first film was “Tron: Legacy,” and like many eagerly awaited science fiction events, it was greeted with an obscene amount of hype and a lot of fan indifference. With “Oblivion,” however, he is not restricted to staying within certain boundaries dictated by a previous film or a long-running franchise, and he also has a stronger story (based on the graphic novel of the same name by him and Arvid Nelson) to work with as well.

Kosinski also benefits greatly from having M83 and Joseph Trapanese as his music composers here. Their score to “Oblivion” is much like what Daft Punk’s was to “Tron: Legacy:” a beautiful combination of electronic and orchestral music which sounds far more original than any other film score I have listened to recently, and it adds so much to the striking visuals of “Oblivion” as well as the emotion inherent in the story.

Much has been said about Cruise as a person these past few years, but I’m still happy to defend him as an actor. His work as Jack Harper is actually quite understated, and he never descends into the state of “grinning like an idiot every fifteen minutes” (as Dougray Scott described him in “Mission: Impossible II”) for too long. That grin does come along from time to time, but not in a way which ends up annoying half the audience. Along with his strong performance in “Jack Reacher,” his work in “Oblivion” proves he’s still a better actor than people tend to give him credit for.

Kurylenko, since her performance as a Bond woman in “Quantum of Solace,” has proven to be far more than a pretty face. This should have been made clear after we saw her in Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder,” but there’s no mistaking her talent in “Oblivion” as she creates a complex portrait of someone who knows more than she lets on. I also very much enjoyed Riseborough’s performance as Victoria which was sweet and yet somewhat devious, and I look forward to seeing more of her work in the future.

Then there’s the great Melissa Leo who plays Sally, the mission control commander with a thick accent who oversees Jack and Victoria’s work from afar. Just like in “Flight,” she gives her character a sweet voice tinged with serious intentions which leaves the viewers on edge. As nice as she sounds, you can tell there’s some evil plot lurking behind her eyes. Some may see the role of Sally as a small one, but in Leo’s hands, no role can ever seem small when she plays it.

Oh yeah, Morgan Freeman shows up as well as Malcolm Beech. To say more about his character would further give away certain plot points, but I can confirm he gives the usual strong performance we always come to expect from him. Also, it was really cool to see him shooting a heavy-duty pair of fifty caliber machine guns as I’m not sure I have seen him do so before.

“Oblivion” may seem overly derivative, but then again, most movies released these days are far from original. What matters to me is that a filmmaker can take elements from the movies which inspired him/her and make them their own, and Kosinski has succeeded in doing so here. I very much enjoyed how “Oblivion” took me down the rabbit hole films often do, and I absolutely loved the visual look of it. It also benefits from a number of strong performances and a fantastic film score which sounds epic in a way other scores can only aspire to. When all is said and done, this film is quite a cinematic accomplishment.

If you can, see it in IMAX.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Birdman movie poster

Will there be a more perfectly executed movie in 2014 than “Birdman?” It’s hard to believe there will as director Alejandro González Iñárritu succeeds in giving us a truly brilliant movie going experience which combines amazing technical aspects with a strong story and actors who give some of the best performances of their career. Your eyes will remain glued to the screen from start to finish as “Birdman” takes you on a cinematic journey we seldom go on, and you will leave the theater feeling mesmerized and in awe of what everyone managed to accomplish with a budget which is a mere fraction of today’s average blockbuster.

I’m always happy to see Michael Keaton in any movie he appears in, and he is crazy brilliant as Riggan Thomson, an actor who became a star after playing the superhero Birdman in a movie trilogy. As we catch up with him, he is now a washed-up actor whose glory days have long since passed him by. In an effort to restart his career and achieve true greatness as an actor, he decides to mount his own production of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” a play which is based on the short stories of Raymond Carver. Riggan has put everything he has into this project and has even mortgaged his home to put up the capital for it. It’s hard not to sense his desperation as this play which he adapted to the stage, produced, directed and stars in threatens to become a total disaster.

Suffice to say, things are not going well as one of the cast members gets seriously injured before previews are set to begin, Riggan is trying to repair his relationship with his family while having an affair with one of the actresses, his daughter has just gotten out of rehab and is working as his assistant, and he has just cast a new actor whose ego is every bit as big as his talent. As his stress level increases, he begins to lose touch with reality and soon finds himself haunted by his most famous character who constantly urges him to take matters into his own hands.

Now many are calling “Birdman” Keaton’s comeback movie, but this is not entirely fair. Keaton never disappeared from the limelight, and while his career may not be as hot as it once was when he appeared in Tim Burton’s “Batman” movies, he remains a standout in each film he appears in whether it’s “The Other Guys” or “Toy Story 3.” But with “Birdman,” Keaton gets a role which is more than worthy of his talents, and he makes the most of this opportunity and then some. As unlikable as Riggan may be when it comes to how he treats others, Keaton makes you empathize with him as he tries to do right by himself as the play’s premiere comes at him sooner than he thinks. It’s a tour de force performance, and hopefully it will bring Keaton the Oscar nomination he should have gotten years ago for “Clean & Sober.”

But the real stars of “Birdman” are Iñárritu and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki who brilliantly succeed in making this movie look as if it was all shot in one take. They make us feel like we are floating along into these characters’ lives as they struggle to make this play the best anyone in New York has ever seen. Even if you think you can spot where and when Iñárritu cuts from one scene to another, the movie still feels remarkably seamless from start to finish. Some filmmakers value the visual aspects of a movie over the acting or vice versa, but Iñárritu manages to balance out both to brilliant effect, and it makes for one heck of a cinematic experience. Heck, you can’t even help but wonder about what the cast and crew went through while making “Birdman” because there’s no way this could have been a walk in the park for anybody.

It’s impossible to think of an actor other than Edward Norton who could play the infinitely egotistical actor Mike Shiner so perfectly. Director Brett Ratner once described Norton as being someone whose mission it was to save a movie and of how this can be your best asset or your worst nightmare. I couldn’t help but think about what Ratner said as I watched Norton burst onto the scene and insinuate his character into a play about to be previewed to an audience. When it comes to method actors, they can take things too literally and Norton shows just how ridiculously far one can go. It’s one of his best performances to date.

I also loved watching Emma Stone who plays Riggan’s daughter, Sam. Stone has been a fiery actress ever since we first saw her, and you can’t take your eyes off of her whenever she’s onscreen. Stone makes Sam into a wonderfully realized character who is trying to stay one step ahead of what has brought her down in the past, and she gives a riveting performance which shows just how far her range as an actress can stretch. While she may not have been able to save “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” (in all fairness, no one could), she is a truly unforgettable presence here.

Other great performances in “Birdman” come from Naomi Watts who plays the amazingly insecure actress Lesley, and I have yet to see her suck in any movie she appears in. Andrea Riseborough, who stole a number of scenes from Tom Cruise in “Oblivion,” is wonderful as Laura, the actress Riggan may or may not have gotten pregnant. Zach Galifianakis takes on an unusual role for him as Riggan’s best friend and producer, Jake, who goes through hell in order to get this play off the ground. And then there’s Amy Ryan who plays Riggan’s ex-wife Sylvia who still has feelings for him even as he continues to do her wrong. Ryan never disappoints, and I love how she finds the good in Riggan when no one else can.

“Birdman” is the kind of movie which makes seeing movies on the big screen a sheer necessity. It challenges the realm of cinema to show what can be accomplished, and it gives us quite the kind of ride movies should be taking us on in a much more frequent way. In a year overwhelmed with tent pole franchises and a barrage of superhero franchises, this movie stands out as brilliantly unique and impossible to dismiss or forget.

* * * * out of * * * *

Nocturnal Animals

nocturnal-animals-poster

Nocturnal Animals” is a movie which will stay with me long after I have seen it. Based on Austin Wright’s novel “Tony and Susan,” it follows a non-linear path and combines stories which deal with the real world and a fictional one to where, after a while, it’s almost hard to tell the two apart. Either that or you will leave wondering which story is the most emotionally exhausting. Judging from the movie’s first images of an art exhibit created to challenge our perceptions of what is beautiful or acceptable, director Tom Ford is quick to take us on a cinematic ride, and the kind we are not often accustomed to taking.

We meet Los Angeles art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) who appears to have it all: a handsome husband, a fabulous house and an income we would all envy. But we can tell from the start she is a lonely soul wandering through the superficial world she inhabits, and it doesn’t help that her husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) has been distant and may very well be cheating on her. Clearly, we are about to see why she is the damaged individual she is, and it will not be a pleasant trip whether it’s through reality or fiction.

One day, Susan receives a manuscript of a novel written by her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) named “Nocturnal Animals,” a nickname he gave her upon realizing she stays up late at night because she has trouble sleeping. Edward has dedicated his novel to her, and it tells a very bleak tale of love and tragedy as we watch Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal) suffer the utter humiliation of seeing his wife and daughter kidnapped by three troublemakers who later kill them. From there, Tony teams up with Texas Detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) to bring the three men to justice, but the justice these two seek may not be one which is altogether legal.

Ford has the movie weaving in and out of its real world and fictional storylines to where you can’t quite tell where things are heading, and he does it in a way which is quite inspired. A story like this can be tricky to pull off as you can jump from one storyline to another at the worst possible moment to where we are desperate to see the movie get back to where it once was. But Ford has managed to weave all these storylines seamlessly to where everything feels in balance and not out of place.

At its heart, I think “Nocturnal Animals” is about the transformative power of art more than anything else. Whether it’s Susan’s art gallery or Edward’s novel, both of these characters use their individual artistry to channel emotions they couldn’t quite get to the surface in their relationship. The fact it takes Edwards years to reach this artistic jump in his writing abilities through his tragic novel shows how artists are not so much born as they are molded through years of life experiences.

Amy Adams gives her second great performance in 2016, her other being in Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival.” She makes Susan a sympathetically tragic character as we watch her go from youthful promise to insomniac surrender as her life has become defined by isolation from everyone and anyone around her. Even when she has too much eyeliner makeup on, and her makeup is a distraction at times, Adams delves deep into her character’s complexity to deliver a performance of piercing sensitivity.

Gyllenhaal is riveting as both Edward and Tony, characters who suffer the indignities of life and love to where all that’s left is revenge. While the actor still seems a bit young to play the father of a teenage daughter, he is fearless in exploring a character who suffers a fate worse than death. Kudos also goes out to Isla Fisher who plays Tony’s wife, Laura, as she has to reach an emotional fever pitch and keep it high whenever she appears onscreen.

This movie is also proof of how there are no small roles, only small actors, and no actor here should be mistaken as small. Andrea Riseborough, completely unrecognizable here, steals some scenes as Alessia Holt, a person who has found happiness in a space filled with obliviousness and fake promises. Michael Sheen also shows up as Alessia’s husband, Carlos, who is actually gay, and she gives Susan some advice worth following. Ellie Bamber gives us a convincingly down to earth teenager in India Hastings who ends up coming face to face with her worse fears. Laura Linney has some strong moments as Susan’s mother, Anne, whose words hang over Susan throughout the rest of the movie. Karl Glusman and Robert Aramayo portray two gang members whose intimidation knows no bounds, and even the audience has yet to see how far they will go. And it’s always great to see Jena Malone, and she gives a wonderfully quirky performance as art gallery worker and new mother Sage Ross.

But there are two performances in “Nocturnal Animals” which stood out to me in particular. The first is Michael Shannon’s as Bobby Andes, a man of the law who looks to play it by the book, but who is slowly losing his moral bearings along with his body to the cancer eating away at it. Shannon doesn’t act but instead inhabits his character to where we don’t see him performing but becoming this sheriff, and he becomes increasingly frightening to where the anticipation of him letting go of a bullet is almost too much to bear. Seeing him bear down on a suspect with his piercing eyes and gruff voice makes him even scarier, and you have to admire the person who doesn’t need to do much to instill dread into another with such relative ease.

Then there’s Aaron Taylor-Johnson, a long way from his “Kick-Ass” days, as Ray Marcus, a lethal and disgusting bully of a character who revels in emasculating and humiliating Tony in front of his wife and daughter. Johnson’s performance reminds of you of those people in life who robbed you of your worth and self-respect and didn’t show the least bit of remorse about it. You want to smack Johnson in the face after watching him in “Nocturnal Animals,” and that is a compliment.

This is only Ford’s second movie as a director, his first being “A Single Man” with Colin Firth, a movie my parents are still begging me to watch. He is primarily known as a fashion designer whose clothes have made some of the most beautiful celebrities look even more beautiful. With “Nocturnal Animals,” he proves to be as gifted behind the camera as he is with clothes, and he gives this movie a striking look with the help of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey. This could have been a movie dominated by style more than anything else, but Ford gets terrific performances out of his infinitely talented cast, showing his attention is on the story and characters more than anything else.

It should also be noted how Ford has not put anything from his own clothing line on display here, so this movie should in no way be mistaken as a commercial for his fashions. He wisely removed this conflict of interest from “Nocturnal Animals,” so those hoping for a glimpse at his latest fashion line will have to look elsewhere.

“Nocturnal Animals” ends on an ambiguous note regarding Susan and Edward. This will probably annoy some viewers who demand concrete answers to their relationship or the state of their lives and where they will go from here. But Ford is wise to know this is a question he cannot answer himself as the fate of these characters has to be open up to interpretation. Some relationships are meant to be repaired, others are better left broken. When it comes to Susan and Edward, we can only wonder if they can or even should rediscover what made their love spark so passionately.

“Nocturnal Animals” is a movie meant to stay with you for a long time after the end credits have finished, and boy does it ever.

* * * * out of * * * *