Skylar Astin on Being the Moral Compass in ’21 & Over’

WRITER’S NOTE: This interview took place back in 2013.

Skylar Astin has had the privilege of entertaining us onstage in the Tony Award-winning musical “Spring Awakening” and onscreen in movies like “Hamlet 2” where he sang the song “Raped in the Face” and “Pitch Perfect” in which he appeared opposite Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson. Now he’s starring in “21 and Over,” the comedy which marks the directorial debut of “The Hangover” screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore. Astin plays Casey who quickly proves to be the moral compass the other main characters need to survive the mess they end up getting caught in.

I got to catch up with Astin while at the “21 and Over” press conference held at the Saddle Ranch Chop House off of Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. Now when it comes to college comedies like this one, most actors would prefer to play the character who is wild and crazy and comes across as the life of the party. Casey, however, is exactly the opposite of that even though he gets into as much trouble as his friends do. Still, Astin saw the benefits of playing such a level headed and grounded character in this film.

Skylar Astin: “You’ve got to have a moral compass of the movie and you got to like steer the ship a little. It’s cool that we all got our opportunity to be funny though.”

One pivotal scene in “21 and Over” has Astin and his co-star Miles Teller walking around campus wearing nothing but a tube sock over their privates. Now this could not have been a very comfortable scene to do, especially when you have a lot of people on set looking at you and wondering how much time you spent at the gym. Astin talked in detail about he approached this scene in the film which was filmed in Seattle, Washington.

Skylar Astin: “Funny enough, it was supposed to be approached very delicately. We were told that it was going to be a closed set and that it was gonna be the warmest day of the shoot. It turns out that it’s freezing, everyone’s there, and actually at our first costume fitting they just had a sock and a little underneath sock to keep everything in place and they’re like ‘here’s your fitting!’ At first, we had a moment of where it was like fight or flight, and I think I was just like ‘let’s just do it man. We have to do it eventually.’ I just de-robed and was like this is everything I got. I don’t think I was like proud, but I just had to play the role of being okay with it. I had the idea of making the whole crew where just socks and they didn’t oblige, especially the women, but it worked out thankfully.”

In the film, Astin and Teller take their best friend from high school, Jeff Chang (played by Justin Chon), to celebrate his 21st birthday in an appropriately drunken style. Now the really good actors are able to draw on their own experiences when playing the role, and we couldn’t help but wonder if Astin has been through similar nights in his own life. It was actually a bit surprising to hear the similarities he shares with Casey.

Skylar Astin: “Personally for me, my younger brother is my best friend and my partner in crime and I’ve definitely had several nights that had the spirit of this movie. I’ve always been the one that has a good time, but at the end of the bender it’s like ‘both of our phones are dead and we both have to call our parents and tell them we’re alive.’ That’s kind of always been my responsibility so I can relate to the feeling of just being a little irritable on those nights but also letting loose and have a good time. There is a little bit of Casey in me, but I don’t think I’m as much of an over thinker though. I always try to draw from personal experiences and my own personality whenever I play a role, and it’s not hard to play a role that close to my age, close to home and in a movie that I would go see if I wasn’t in it.”

Working with two different directors on the same film must seem challenging as this is typically a one-person job. What if one director tells you to do one thing and the other director instructs you to do the exact opposite? Where do you draw the line? Astin, however, said both Lucas and Moore were on the same page as they had written the screenplay together and have been friends for many years. As a result, there was never any conflict between either of them.

Skylar Astin: “What they have in common is that they are both the writers so it comes directly from one vessel. That’s always really great as an actor to have that wealth of knowledge coming from two voices. For me, I loved the different kinds of conversations that I would have with each one. Since I had a love story on top of the funny moments, there were different kind of conversations like the leading man type of thing I would have with Moore and to be more sincere in certain moments, and then Lucas was great because he was giving me jokes every five minutes. So, I had this well-rounded voice coming from two different people. They worked together so well, and they almost know this age better than I do and I’m closer to it. It’s kind of crazy.”

For a film filled with such drunken debauchery as “21 and Over,” Skylar Astin proves to be the most well-rounded person these characters need to get them through the night. It is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

‘Burn After Reading’ – Another Darkly Comedic Film From the Coen Brothers

WRITER’S NOTE: Ralph Garman selected this as his Video Vault pick on the August 14, 2020 episode of “The Ralph Report.” It was an excellent selection on his part.

WOW! That was quick! Following Joel and Ethan Coen’s Oscar-winning masterpiece “No Country for Old Men” in 2007, they gave us their follow-up of “Burn After Reading” a short later. Some filmmakers take their sweet time following up a cinematic triumph of theirs, but the Coens did not want to waste any time. This film follows the tradition of them making a movie which is the polar opposite of what they previously gave us. Most reviews at the time mentioned of how the Coens went from making “Fargo” to giving us “The Big Lebowski,” and how they went from “The Man Who Wasn’t There” to “Intolerable Cruelty.” With these brothers, it is always important to expect the unexpected because they are never out to do the same thing twice.

I’m not going to bother comparing “Burn After Reading” to “No Country for Old Men” because the only thing these two have in common is they were made by the same people. It’s like comparing the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup” to Lars Von Trier’s “Breaking the Waves,” and this threatens to say more about the critic than it does about the films themselves. This particular one is more of a lightweight effort you could ever expect from the Coens, and it is a reminder of how hysterically dark their comedy can get.

“Burn After Reading” is a crazy movie to say the least, and it does not really have a plot as much as it does a plethora of characters who are unleashed on us through a selfish act of utter stupidity. As a result, there is no rug of any kind which can tie this room of a movie together. The main drive of the action comes from Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) who discovers a disk at the gym he works at which contains classified information from a former CIA operative, Osborne Cox (John Malkovich). Along with his fellow co-worker, Linda Litzke (the always fantastic Frances McDormand), they both connive to act as “good Samaritans” and give the disk back to Osborne, providing he pays them several thousands of dollars as a reward. Naturally, this plan, which was not given much thought to begin with, goes awry and involves many others in this scheme, all of whom are never entirely sure of what they have gotten themselves into, or of whom they can trust.

Let’s look at the characters, shall we? Chad is a personal trainer at the Hardbodies gym who is, to put it mildly, rather dense and not playing with a full deck. His manager, Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins) doesn’t want to get involved in this blackmail plan, but he simultaneously has a huge unrequited crush on Linda, and she is upset because her insurance won’t cover the various forms of plastic surgery she wants to get. In the meantime, she is going through the motions of internet dating and ends up meeting Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney). Harry is actually married and in the midst of an affair with Osborne’s wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), and she herself is planning to divorce her husband who is now in the midst of writing his memoirs. In the midst of all this, CIA Officer Palmer DeBakey Smith (David Rasche) reports to his superior (the priceless J.K. Simmons) of the goings on, and of the ways they are going to keep this all under wraps.

Are you with me so far? Clearly, this is a movie which will benefit from more than one viewing to keep up with everything. Like I said, there is no real plot to speak of, other than the blackmail of Osborne Cox. While in some movies this would be an Achilles heel, it works for the Coens as it allows you to keep guessing as to what will happen next. Just when you think you know where things are going, it has another surprise up its sleeve. There were moments both funny and shocking, and I was eager to see what would happen next.

“Burn After Reading” combines a lot of actors the Coen brothers have worked with over the years like George Clooney and Frances McDormand, and they also got to add newcomers to their strange cinematic universe like John Malkovich and Brad Pitt. It’s a kick to see all these actors let their hair down in a film which was never meant to be taken seriously by anyone.

The most inspired performance in this movie comes from Pitt. Clean shaven, thin, buff, and an avid bicycle rider, his character is a hilarious creation of a physically fit moron who has no clear idea of just how in over his head he is. It was funniest performance since his ultimate stoner of a character, Floyd, in “True Romance.”

Another one who is a huge kick to watch here is Clooney as he blows away just every bit of coolness in his system to play an increasingly neurotic philanderer who is always on the verge of anaphylactic shock as he keeps warning everyone he hangs out with about his life-threatening allergies. To see Clooney let loose here is a reminder of how he constantly tries in real life to not take himself too seriously. It also makes you wonder if he and Swinton will ever be in a movie together where they play characters who have a healthy relationship with one another. Keep in mind, they previously appeared together in “Michael Clayton.”

It’s actually a shock to realize this is the first time Malkovich has ever worked with the Coen brothers. He lets it all out here as a CIA operative who quits his job after being demoted in part because of his drinking problem. To see this actor go completely nuts at all the complete idiots he has to deal with is such a hoot. Not many actors can play a character who is quick to absorb the situation they are in and yet still remain in the dark when it comes to the truth of the matter. Malkovich may prefer the stage to the silver screen, but it is always great to see him do something like this.

Frances McDormand gives this movie one of its most lovable characters, in a manner of speaking, as she makes Linda into someone who wants to be free of the ravages of getting older. Seriously, give McDormand the smallest role in a movie, and she always succeeds in making it one of the most unforgettable. If you would like further proof of this, check her out in John Sayles’ “Lonestar.”

Richard Jenkins ends up giving us perhaps the saddest character here, and it is one we hope we don’t end up being. You know, that one person who is forever punished eternally with the pangs of unrequited love. Throughout, Jenkins shows you in his eyes of how much he wants to be with Linda, and he reminds us of how he remains one of the most dependable character actors working in movies.

And I loved the scenes between Rasche and Simmons in the offices of the CIA and how flippant they seemed about the situations which occurred here. I have yet to see another movie where you have CIA members seeming rather laid back in the decisions they make. It never comes down to doing what is best for their country, but of how to make this strange chain of events not get too overwhelming or hectic. Their inconvenience is the biggest problem because it involves secrets getting out, and of more responsibility and paperwork. Seriously, who wants that?

“Burn After Reading” may not be on the same comedic level of brilliance like “The Big Lebowski” or “Raising Arizona,” but it sure is a lot of fun and filled with more daring and originality than many movies which came out in 2008. Many have described it as a “trifle” from the Coens, but you have to admire what they accomplished here as it never fails to entertain from start to finish. We can also take comfort in the fact that these brothers continue to entertain and enthrall us from one film to the next, and their artistic brilliance never lets us down.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: ‘MacGruber’ – The Best SNL Movie in Years

MacGruber movie poster final high resolution

When I went to see “MacGruber” at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood back in 2010, I actually saw Jason Sudeikis while standing in line to buy a ticket. His impersonation of Joe Biden is a still a big hit with fans of the show, and he seemed like a very down to earth guy as he blended in with the crowd and talked with others.

Anyway, enough about him. Let’s get on with my review of this particular SNL sketch turned movie called “MacGruber.” About a decade before this one, movies from the long running comedy show were being released all the time, and many proved to be nowhere as funny as the sketches which inspired them. “The Ladies Man,” “Superstar,” or “A Night at the Roxbury” appeared to underwhelm audiences, and I wondered why none of them could come close to matching up with “Wayne’s World” or “The Blues Brothers.”

Now keep in mind, those movies were based on sketches which lasted 3 to 5 minutes on the average SNL episode. With “MacGruber,” we have a movie based on a sketch which typically lasts for a minute at most. We all know from watching this obvious spoof of “MacGyver” that they all end in the same way, with MacGruber failing to diffuse the bomb and it going off, blowing him and his whole team to smithereens. So therein lies the fascination of this movie; Can MacGruber keep himself from blowing up and killing everyone around him for more than a minute? Can he sustain a full-length motion picture when he can barely sustain himself in every control room known to man?

Well, it turns out he can and for around 99 minutes. Before it was released, “MacGruber” was bursting all over with reviews calling it the best SNL movie since “Wayne’s World.” I find this praise to be completely justified as it is consistently hilarious and filled with moments which had me laughing harder than anything I saw in the remake of “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” and that was supposed to be horrific and serious. But while the jinx on SNL movies finally came to an end with “MacGruber,” this same jinx has unfortunately not been broken at the box office. It ended up grossing only $9.3 million worldwide against a budget of $10 million, but it has since become a cult classic. Trust me, “MacGruber” is great fun and contains many gut-busting laughs, and it deserved a much bigger audience than it initially got back in 2010.

Like “Hot Shots Part Deux,” the movie opens with MacGruber (Will Forte) living a post-Rambo type existence in a monastery where he finds peace from all things explosive. But Col. Jim Faith (the late Powers Boothe) brings him back into service when it is discovered his old nemesis, Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer gone wild), has acquired the X-5 nuclear missile and threatens to use it on a highly valuable target primed for utter destruction. Dieter also turns out to be the same man responsible for killing MacGruber’s fiancé, Casey (Maya Rudolph). To say this is all personal for MacGruber is pointing out the obvious. But seriously, what doesn’t this Inspector Clouseau of bomb experts not take personally? If you piss him off, please make sure he doesn’t memorize your license plate.

Forte never does quite convinces us that MacGruber is this great war hero, but that is part of the joke. He does, however, more than make us believe this character he has won more than a dozen purple hearts (how he earned all those is another story). No longer constricted by the dreaded FCC on network television, Forte really lets it loose here, getting away with stuff which would have had NBC and Lorne Michaels drop kicking him out of 30 Rockefeller Plaza if he pulled this off on live television. He also co-wrote the script, and he takes advantage of every opportunity for his character to make a supreme ass of himself while still remaining one you want to root for.

Plus, Forte does sex scenes here like no one else does in movies today, and I am certain no one has tried to match his acting in bed ever since.

Ryan Phillippe co-stars as MacGruber’s right hand man, Lt. Dixon Piper, a dedicated soldier who is of course infinitely brighter than him, and this causes a lot of violent resentment between the two of them. Phillippe does great work in playing the straight man to Forte’s idiotic lunatic. Had he tried to outdo Forte in terms of getting laughs, this pairing never would have worked. Lord knows MacGruber needs a partner, but he would never admit this unless he became incredibly desperate (and he does, so watch out). He also perfects that stony stare you get from some NFL star turned actor, and his funniest moments come when he reacts honestly to just how stupid this Miata-driving explosive expert truly is. Other actors would have overplayed this role, but Phillippe doesn’t thank goodness.

Kristin Wiig reprises her role as MacGruber’s assistant, Vicki St. Elmo. She is great as always, and MacGruber keeps stupidly putting her in such thoughtless situations where her life is in constant mortal danger. The scene in the coffee shop where she is disguised as MacGruber is nothing short of hilarious as she shivers in utter terror, having no clue what to do if things go bad. Still, you want to see Vicki get together with this clueless idiot because giving up this line of work for her music doesn’t make much sense, and this is especially the case when you listen to the songs she wrote.

Then you have Val Kilmer on board as the evil Dieter Von Cunth , and he gets to act all unhinged and crazy in a way he has not for some time. We know the only way MacGruber can defeat Cunth is through sheer luck, and Kilmer’s rubs in his character’s smug intelligence which he has in spades over this heroic douche bag. This represented a comeback for the actor, but it was sadly cut short due to his continuing battle against throat cancer.

“MacGruber” was directed by Jorma Taccone, one third of the Lonely Island comedy troupe which is responsible for all the “SNL Digital Shorts.” I was also surprised to learn he is actually the son of Tony Taccone, the former Artistic Director of Berkeley Repertory Theater. If you are ever in Northern California, be sure to check out a show there as they continue to challenge their audiences as much as entertain them. Anyway, Jorma keeps the proceedings going at a good pace, and he never lets the movie drag during its running time. While he doesn’t do anything groundbreaking with this movie or its formula driven plot, he does succeed in making this kind of satire feel fresh again. This genre has been so burnt out that we’re lucky if anything works as well as it does here.

The audience I saw “MacGruber” with at Grauman’s Chinese treated the whole thing like a rock concert, cheering when the title character first appeared on screen. It was a great crowd to experience this movie with, so it was surprising and depressing it got such a lackluster reception during its opening weekend. Even with competition from “Robin Hood,” “Iron Man 2,” and even “Shrek Forever After,” I figured it would still make a sizable dent at the box office. Still, it did eventually find its audience years later.

“MacGruber” is by no means a classic, and it is far from original, but it is certainly above average for this kind of movie. Saying it is the best SNL movie in years is faint praise. If you’re looking for a terrific comedy which emanated from the classic late-night show, then this is one you should check out. Even if you never laughed much at the skit on SNL, this movie will give you several belly laughs which we all live for. Just be sure not to eat any celery before you see it.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Beyond The Lights is Not Your Average Showbiz Movie

I walked into “Beyond the Lights” expecting it to be some sort of manipulative soap opera which aimed to be “The Bodyguard” for a new generation. What I got instead was a showbiz story which felt surprisingly genuine in its emotions and intentions. It does have that familiar ring of two people from opposite walks of life coming together, but the way their relationship evolves throughout proves to be very entertaining to watch.

When we first meet Noni Jean, she’s a little girl performing in a talent competition and singing Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” which leaves the audience in a state of awe. However, when the judges award her a runner up prize, her mother Macy (Minnie Driver) angrily takes her out of the auditorium and orders her to “chuck” her trophy in defiance. The way Macy sees it, being second best counts for nothing in a world where you need to be number one.

We then move to years later when Noni, now played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, is on the verge of stardom after having won a Billboard Award even though she hasn’t released an album yet. But after retreating to her hotel room, we come to see how much the pressures of fame are bearing down on Noni as she sits on a balcony ready to jump. Coming to her rescue is police officer Kaz Nicols (Nate Parker) who pulls her back from the edge, literally and figuratively speaking, and two quickly get lost in each other’s eyes. What happens from there is easy to guess.

Initially, Kaz feels somewhat betrayed when Macy pays him off to publicly say Noni did not try to commit suicide, but Noni warms up to him quickly as she can tell he sees something in her others do not.

While they may come from different worlds, Kaz and Noni are going through similar issues. Her mother Macy has been grooming her for stardom ever since she was little, and she has helped turn Noni into the kind of woman every man wants or at least fantasizes about. As for Kaz, his police captain father David (Danny Glover) is grooming him for public office, something he does in fact have ambitions for. However, when you look into Kaz’s eyes, you wonder just how serious he is about politics or if he really wants a different path in life.

Basically, Kaz and Noni are trying to fulfill the desires of their parents, and we have caught up with them as they have long since played a role they feel society wants them to play. In the process, they have lost touch with what they really want out of life, and we follow them as they go through a much-needed period of self-discovery. Watching these two evolve and change from start to finish is deeply involving and, even if the conclusion is never in doubt, we revel in their personal triumphs.

I am not at all familiar with Mbatha-Raw or her work as an actress, and she gives an extraordinary performance here. She is mesmerizing to watch as Noni begins to shed the public persona which has been foisted upon her, and it allows the frightened child inside of her to come out into the open. Also, she has a show stopping moment where she sings “Blackbird” by herself onstage, and you cannot take your eyes off of her for a single second.

Parker also puts in a strong performance as a well-meaning man who respects the law, wants to help people and who has, as his shirtless scenes will attest, spent a lot of time in the gym like any cop should. Looking at the actor’s past which had him involved in political activism, charitable work and working as a wrestling coach, you get the sense he was born to play Kaz. As he wades deeper into Noni’s world of fame, Parker shows Kaz to be someone who keeps his head above water and is not easily seduced by the closed-off world of show business. But there’s also no doubt that the chemistry between him and Mbatha-Raw is very palpable.

Kudos also goes out to Minnie Driver who takes what could have been a one-dimensional stage mother from hell and turns her into a complex character who is far more vulnerable than she lets on. We come to see how Macy has never had it easy, and she is eager for Noni to have everything she never had. But as much as she cares for her daughter, Macy also comes to realize her determination to make Noni a star speaks more about her ambitions than anyone else’s. Driver is a powerhouse as she lets us see how Macy has been wounded by others who had no faith in her when she was young, and it becomes understandable why Macy wants to beat everyone at their own game.

“Beyond the Lights” was written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood whose previous films include “Love & Basketball,” “Disappearing Acts” and “The Secret Life of Bees.” I regret to say I haven’t seen those films, but I am certainly willing to see them now based on the work she has done here. Prince-Bythewood succeeds in giving us a showbiz tale which actually feels grounded in reality. The atmosphere at the award shows and parties Noni attends feel authentic, and they never seem like a spectacle to be easily laughed at. She also gives us a number of complex characters who struggle to survive the high pressure world of fame and fortune where people have everything and nothing at the same time.

I also have to applaud Prince-Bythewood for sticking by Mbatha-Raw when studios were insistent on getting a bigger name cast in the role of Noni. Perhaps a music star would have done a good job here, but they also would have brought an enormous amount of baggage with them which would have had an unintentionally negative effect on this movie. Mbatha-Raw has the advantage right now of not having this baggage, and that makes her performance all the more enthralling as a result.

Sure, there are some soap opera dramatics here and there and certain moments do not ring true, but “Beyond the Lights” really did prove to be one of the big cinematic surprises of 2014. It is also another film to add to the list of worthwhile romantic movies. Just as this particular genre looked to be burning out, the movies coming from it are getting so much better. I’m starting to like these kinds of movies again. What’s wrong with me anyway?

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Click here to check out the video interviews I did with Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker which I did for the website We Got This Covered.

Funny People – A Flawed But Fascinating Look at a Tortured Stand-Up Comedian

I always figured comedians were the best kind of people to hang out with as a kid. Hearing them tell funny stories, making joke after joke, happiness always seemed served up to them on a silver platter. But as time went on, I came to see while they were clowns on the outside, they were crying an endless river of tears inside. Comedy from these people comes from a deep pain and sadness in their lives, or out of a deep-seated anger they have at the world around them.

Look at Richard Pryor, need I say more? He had all the money, women, cars and drugs you could ever ask for. For “Superman III,” he ended up paid more than Christopher Reeve. Still, I remember reading an interview in which he said the last truly happy moment he remembers in his life was when he was jumping around in the dirt while pretending to be a cowboy at the age of 10, and he was in his 40’s when this interview was conducted. Comedy was his constant weapon against pain, and he never held anything back in his routines.

Funny People” understands very well this gloomy realm many comedians live in, and is written and directed by a filmmaker who still performs from time to time as a standup comedian, Judd Apatow. But unlike “The 40-Year Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” this film has a darker edge to it and doesn’t hide away from the inherent viciousness of its characters. “Funny People” has been advertised as a comedy drama, but the balance often veers more to the dramatic. There are many laughs to be had here, but this movie clearly came from a rather dark place.

Adam Sandler stars as George Simmons, a comedian turned movie star whose career looks a lot like Sander’s own. George became famous with movies like “Merman” where he played a male mermaid, and “Re-do” in which he plays a character whose body has transformed into that of an infant. Seeing George’s head digitally inserted onto a baby’s body at once gives us a great sight gag, but it also seems like the kind of silly comedy Sandler himself has made once too often. Besides, I have more than my fill of talking babies.

George has it all: a beautiful mansion overlooking the sea, a swimming pool he does laps in on a regular basis, great cars, women who don’t hesitate to sleep with him even if they have boyfriends, and all the money one could hope to live off of to the end of time. But in his eyes, we see he is a sad man who has come to truly despise himself for what he has become. All the wealth he has amassed only serves to isolate him from the rest of the world, and it makes him defensive around total strangers who are unable to see him as ever resembling a regular person. But now, his doctor has diagnosed him with a terminal disease and has only months left to live. George reacts to this news as if someone drained his blood while he wasn’t looking, and it makes him realize how much self-hatred he has. From there, he becomes to make every last minute of his life count, but this may not alter his antagonistic personality from where it currently resides.

As George Simmons, Adam Sandler gives one of his best performances to date, and its right up there with his brilliant turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch Drunk Love.” Not once does he back down from how George is a hard man to like. Throughout “Funny People,” George is dismissive to many around him, and he ends up being thoughtlessly mean to those who look up to him. Regardless, Sandler still manages to make you sympathize with this character and of the terminable diagnosis which he did not see coming. It’s the moments where Sandler lets it show through his eyes just how full of regret Simmons is, and it serves as proof of how this former “Saturday Night Live” performer is more talented than he thinks.

Along with this famous comedian on his cynical farewell tour is Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), an aspiring young comic who is not entirely confident with his stand-up act. George catches Ira’s act one night after he makes a surprise appearance at a comedy club, and while he is hurt when Ira discusses how he bombed onstage just moments before, George thinks this kid has got talent and offers to pay him some money to write up some jokes for an upcoming benefit show. From there, George hires Ira as his personal assistant, an employment opportunity which involves more work than the average 9 to 5 job which never pays enough.

Remember all those nasty horror stories from people who were assistants to the stars and certain sociopathic studio executives? Well, Ira may have gotten off easy compared to those people, but we fear his soul will be forever crushed the longer he stays with George.

In a lot of ways, Ira is they typical kind of character Rogen has played over and over again in movies, and not just the ones he does with Apatow. While I would love to see him take on riskier roles like the one he played in “Observe and Report,” he is the perfect match for Sandler’s endlessly cynical misanthrope of George. By the movie’s end, Rogen his performance proves to be the most underrated in the film, and he believably takes Ira from someone lacking in confidence to one who finds his voice with each standup routine he does to where he shows a strength he did not know he had. Rogen makes this transition feel seamless to where he had a stand out moment when he faces down Simmons and tries to make him see how his terminal disease has not come close to changing his outlook on life.

But the one person who almost steals “Funny People” is Apatow’s wife, Leslie Mann. Having already proved what a comedy dynamo she was in her husband’s previous films, there should be no more talk from those who believe she has only gotten this far as an actress because of nepotism.

Mann plays Laura, and George describes her to Ira as “the one that got away.” Laura was and still is George’s one true love, and he finds she still yearns for him even though their relationship came to a heartbreaking end when he cheated on her. This is a moment George appears to regret more than any other, and he becomes eager to make up for it as soon as he can. Laura never tries to hide her character’s undying affection for this man who is lonelier than most, and she is willing to end her marriage to an Australian soccer nut (Eric Bana, who is hilarious) who may be cheating on her as well. As Laura, Mann succeeds in making you fall for this character even while she selfishly tries to redirect her life without realizing the consequences of her actions.

There are a lot of strong elements working in favor for “Funny People,” but it doesn’t change the fact it is a deeply flawed movie. While it is good and worth watching, it will most likely be seen as one of Apatow’s weakest movies. I do like how he dared to go in a slightly different direction with this movie compared to what he has given us previously, but the balance between comedy and drama is off kilter most of the time. For many, I don’t think it will be entirely clear as to whether they are watching something comic or very serious.

Plus, at over two hours long, this movie really could have been shorter. I’m usually cool with long movies, but only if they can justify their length. It is way too easy to come off as self-indulgent when making a three-hour epic. “Funny People’s” length does cut deeply into its comic momentum, and there are spots where it things really dragged. It does pick up towards the end, but the story still could have used a bit more tightening.

Still, I really did like “Funny People” because it shows how Apatow still succeeds in giving us characters and situations which feel very real on an emotional level. With him taking his established formulas in a different direction, it is clear his work will continue to grow with each successive project he takes on.

I also love the brilliant cameos he manages to extract from big celebrities in his films. One scene in “Funny People” has George meeting up with a lot of famous comedians like Norm McDonald, Andy Dick (wow), Charles Fleischer, Collin Quinn and Sarah Silverman who has one of the movie’s funniest scenes. But the biggest surprise cameo to be found here is Eminem’s as I never expected to see him in any movie, let alone one directed by Apatow. Seeing him dissing Ray Romano provides us with an unforgettable moment where Ira ends up saying to Ray, “I thought everybody loved you.”

One perception about “Funny People” which needs to be cleared up is that it is not what many would call a “disease movie.” It is really to Apatow’s credit here that he never gets all mushy on us like many others would have when it comes to films about people who think they are facing certain death. George’s arc here is much like the character Michael Keaton played in “Clean and Sober.” In the process of trying to improve themselves and become better people, they end up fooling themselves to where they think they are changing for the better, but are instead acting more selfishly than they realize. Their attempts to help those in desperate situations reveal just how self-involved they are, and it just gets worse for them from there. It is not until the climax which has them at a place where they realize what they truly need to do to move on from a fractured past.

“Funny People” is definitely worth seeing. Just don’t go in with the normal set of expectations you have for the average Apatow production because things are a little different here. It definitely has some hilarious moments and dramatic ones, and Sandler makes it clear to us he can be a great actor when given the right material. It is also an intimate look at the fame and success one person experiences, and of how damaging and isolating it can be.

This project was really a long time coming for both Apatow and Sandler because they did share an apartment when they first moved out to Los Angeles. “Funny People” actually starts off with home video footage of them making prank phone calls which has them laughing in hysterics. It is meant to be a look of innocence which fame forever changes, but at least we can see how in real life these two funny men have their families to keep their egos in balance. George Simmons is simply the person each of them would have become if they weren’t careful.

* * * out of * * * *

Elisabeth Shue on Arriving at the ‘House at the End of the Street’

House at the End of the Street Shue Lawrence

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written back in 2012.

Do not worry about actress Elisabeth Shue because she is doing just fine. To say she has been making a comeback would not be altogether fair as she has never really stopped working. While it has been some time since her heyday in the original “Karate Kid” and her brilliant Oscar-nominated turn in “Leaving Las Vegas,” she has been keeping busy with “CSI” and movies like “Piranha 3D” and “Hamlet 2” among others. But now she gets the opportunity to act opposite one of the hottest movie stars at this moment, Jennifer Lawrence, in Mark Tonderai’s horror movie “House at the End of the Street.

Shue stars as Sarah, a recent divorcee who has just moved with her daughter Elissa (Lawrence) into a new home which they later find has a ghastly history. What makes the dynamic between Shue’s and Lawrence’s characters especially interesting is how they keep trying to figure out who the mother is in this relationship. Shue described Sarah as being a “rock-and-roll groupie type” who is more of a child than Elissa.

“Mark was really wonderful. We worked on the script to create a mother who’s a little more complicated than what was originally on the page,” Shue said.

Having already acted in horror movies, Shue is no novice to this endlessly popular genre. The actress also makes it clear she “definitely likes to be scared” and counts “The Silence of the Lambs” as one of her all-time favorite movies. She also likes how her role in “House at the End of the Street” contrasts to the horror films she previously appeared in.

“Hopefully, this is a bit more real,” says Shue. “I really like the tension in the film, and the way the characters are allowed to live and breathe, so things aren’t jumping out at you all the time.”

Working with Lawrence proved to be a great experience for Shue as she found the “Hunger Games” star to be “incredibly grown up for her age.” This was certainly made clear to the world when Lawrence made a tremendous breakthrough in “Winter’s Bone” in which her character has to take care of her siblings when her parents prove to have more serious problems of their own. Shue has gone on to describe Lawrence as being “much more mature” than she was at her age.

“We didn’t get too much time together before we started filming, but we had some dinners and hung out,” Shue said. “I think we both share those long years of just being a normal person before getting into this business and I think that’s helpful. She never seemed insecure or needy or someone who wasn’t just very, very confident in herself. At that age, I wasn’t that way.”

It is always great to hear when Elisabeth Shue is doing another movie or television show. Those memories we have of her from “Adventures in Babysitting” and “The Karate Kid” have never gone away, and she continues to entertain us today in whatever she does. I think it is safe to say we can be sure will be seeing plenty more of her in the near future.

SOURCES:

Olivia Allin, “Elisabeth Shue on working with Jennifer Lawrence in ‘HATES,’” On The Red Carpet, September 22, 2012.

Nisha Gopalan, “Elisabeth Shue on ‘House at the End of the Street,’ Jennifer Lawrence, and ‘Savvy’ Starlets,” Vulture, September 20, 2012.

Mark Worgan, “Elizabeth Shue Interview: Jennifer Lawrence Was Always Headed To The Top,” Entertainment Wise, September 27, 2012.

Bob Thompson, “Elisabeth Shue is the comeback kid,” Dose, September 20, 2012.

Olga Kurylenko on Playing a Lost Astronaut in ‘Oblivion’

Olga Kurylenko Oblivion photo

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written in 2013.

Ever since her breakthrough turn as Bond woman Camille Montes in “Quantum of Solace,” French actress Olga Kurylenko has left quite the impression on us. In her latest film, “Oblivion,” she stars opposite Tom Cruise as Julia Rusakova, an astronaut who literally drops out of the sky and reveals to him the truth of his existence which has long since been denied to him. It’s a movie with many twists and turns, and talking about is tricky because nobody wants to give any important plot points away, but Kurylenko did her best to talk about “Oblivion” without spoiling anything for us at the movie’s press conference held at the Universal Studios backlot.

I was lucky enough to attend this press conference, and Kurylenko proved to be as beautiful off screen as she is on it. The role of Julia was one she put a lot of thought into, and she explained how the character appears onscreen was the result of her own research as well as working with the movie’s director Joseph Kosinski, who previously directed “Tron: Legacy,” and Cruise. The way she sees it, the creation of Julia as a character was the result of a lot of team work.

Olga Kurylenko: Basically, I spoke a lot, with him (Kosinski) and with Tom. Also, the three of us would have meetings to discuss our characters and our characters’ backstory. We rehearsed. I watched videos of astronaut trainings. I watched some old romantic movies as a preparation and inspiration. It’s a work in process. You grow together.

One has to wonder how difficult it was for Kurylenko to play Julia because there is only so much she can reveal about this character in “Oblivion.” How does one go about playing a character without accidentally unlocking their secrets sooner than later? A simple look or a line of dialogue can easily unravel a character’s mystery because these days audiences are always trying to stay one step ahead of the filmmakers, and keeping secrets from them is damn near impossible. However, it was the secrets of Julia that really made Kurylenko want to do this movie.

OK: What I found very interesting was the fact that there was this mystery to Julia, that I couldn’t reveal everything right away about her after her very first appearance on screen, and that she had to unravel and uncover her story during the whole film. She’s a completely different thing in the end than what we see her as in the beginning. All that mystery was interesting to work on.

Of course, one question on all of our minds was of what it was like for her to work with Tom Cruise. So many things have been said about Cruise over the years, both good and bad, but Kurylenko had nothing but the kindest things to say about him. In fact, she even said how stunned she was at how much he was willing to give as an actor during filming.

OK: He’s a big star and he’s a wonderful actor. We know that, but only his partners and other actors know how much he gives to the other. He gives so much. He’s such a generous partner, and that’s not always the case. I’ve never seen him sit in his trailer. He’ll always be there. If the camera was on me, even if he was far away, just for my eye line, he would prefer to be there. He would never leave the set, even if I told him seriously, I don’t need you, he would still be there because he is involved one hundred percent. That’s a wonderful thing.

Kurylenko also described Cruise as being especially supportive in their scenes aboard the Bubbleship, a spaceship which Cruise’s character, Jack Harper, flies all over what’s left of planet Earth. Those scenes were shot in a gimbal on a soundstage, and there is some behind the scenes footage which shows the two of them spinning all over the place and going upside down which quickly reminded me of a certain amusement park ride I went on as a kid. Being that Cruise is also a licensed pilot, this allowed Kurylenko to put her complete trust in him.

OK: He talked me through it. He knows how it works. It’s very reassuring to have a partner like that. He’s not just an actor who’s there who has no idea. He technically knows how things work. You feel safe with him. I threw up in the beginning when I came out of the (gimbal), so that was done, but I don’t get sick from motion. Thank God. I don’t care. I can be on a boat and everything. It’s rather that I don’t like it psychologically, being thrown around. I don’t enjoy rollercoasters. That was like being in a rollercoaster and a washing machine at the same time because it was spinning all the time. I usually don’t like to go into washing machines when I have a choice, but here I didn’t have a choice. Tom looked at me and said, “You don’t have a choice.” In a way, it’s all these great memories. Today, they sound very funny, so it’s great to remember. It was funny how I slowly adjusted to that machine, because in the end, I was fine. But, in the beginning, it was tough.

Olga Kurylenko continues to give memorable performances which will eventually have you remembering her for a body of work instead of just one single performance. Other actresses like Jane Seymour, Famke Janssen and Diana Rigg have become known for more than being a Bond woman, and the same is certain for Kurylenko as she moves on to her next project which is Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder.”

‘Hellboy II: The Golden Army’ Has Del Toro and Perlman Up To Their Old Tricks

Hellboy II The Golden Army movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2008.

Darn it, I was not able to get around to seeing the original “Hellboy” before checking out its sequel, so I hope I am not missing much. When all is said and done, however, I was able to follow along with “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” and its characters with little, if any, confusion. I would like to know how the fish character, Abraham, breathes outside of the water, but I guess I’ll have to watch the original to find this out. With this sequel, we do get some back story of how the title character came to be, so the uninitiated shouldn’t feel too alienated from what is going on here.

Hellboy II,” like its predecessor, comes to us from the infinitely inspired cinematic mind of Guillermo Del Toro whose work here proves to be endlessly imaginative on a visual level. In the last few years, he has proven to be one of the most original and creative directors working in movies, and his 2006 film “Pan’s Labyrinth” was one of the very best of that year. While this sequel doesn’t reach the creative brilliance of that movie, it doesn’t matter much because this time around Del Toro is just out to give us a fun time. “Hellboy II” is definitely a lot of fun, and there is plenty of creativity on display here which you don’t see from your average movie studio looking to cut down overall budgets wherever and whenever they can.

Hellboy himself is played by Ron Perlman, and there is no one else who could have inhabited this demonic superhero anywhere as effectively. Seriously, I can’t think of one. Perlman previously worked with Del Toro in “Blade II” which was another great sequel, and he is also best known for his roles in “The City of Lost Children” and the television series “Beauty and the Beast.” His imposing height and rough demeanor fit perfectly with this comic book character who has a lot of Casper the friendly ghost inside of him as he wants to get along with people instead of them fearing and hating him. Hellboy is kind of like Snake Plissken from “Escape From New York,” except he does care about more than himself than just staying alive.

The prologue lets those who haven’t seen the original know how Hellboy was actually created by the Nazis, but he was soon rescued by the Army and raised to be one of the good guys instead of becoming a villain. On Christmas Eve, he is told a bedtime story by his surrogate father, Professor Trevor ‘Broom’ Bruttenholm (John Hurt). This allows Del Toro to set up the story of the Golden Army and of how they waged a war against humanity to rule the earth. The truce between the mythical world and humanity, however, is about to be broken as Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) seeks to restore the rule back to the mythical world.

The world of “Hellboy” is much like the one we saw in the “X-Men” movies as it deals with characters rejected by society for being different. Hellboy, while being hurt by the rejection of the humans, seems to have a strong sense of humor about the whole situation. While doing his duty against his and the world’s enemies, he always finds the time to drink a couple 6-packs of imported beer and take care of an unusually high number of cats (how does he keep track of them all?). The other characters around him are just as alienated from humanity, and this is mainly because the majority of them look anything but human. One of the other main characters, Abe Sapien (played by Doug Jones), is a fishlike character who has to wear a special breathing apparatus filled with water wherever he goes. One of the other ingeniously created characters in this movie is Johann Krauss, an ectoplasmic being who lives in a containment suit. While the characters of the “X-Men” movies may stand a chance of having seemingly normal lives, the ones in the “Hellboy” franchise don’t look to be as lucky.

I enjoyed some of the music choices Del Toro made here, and I’m not just talking about Danny Elfman’s score which is the same kind of score he gives to Tim Burton movies. There is one point where the song “Beautiful Freak” by the Eels (one of my favorite alternative bands) is used to help illustrate the strong relationship Hellboy and his girlfriend Liz (Selma Blair) have. No one can love Hellboy the way Liz does, and it certainly not a perfect love to put it mildly. There is also a funny and strangely touching moment between Hellboy and Abe where they start singing to a Barry Manilow song as they seek to find the elusive magic of love.

Selma Blair proves to be terrific as Liz, and she gives her character a don’t mess with me attitude as well as a vulnerability which makes us care about her all the more. You never doubt that she is ready and willing to risk her life and even the fate of humanity to save Hellboy for reasons which are made abundantly clear at this sequel’s start.

I also really admired the character of the Johann Krauss and of how he was created. There is also a hilarious fight scene between him and Hellboy where he ends up fighting the hornless devil boy in the least expected way possible. That scene was one of my favorites, and it also helps that Johann is voiced by Seth MacFarlane, the creator of “Family Guy.”

There’s nothing truly original about the story of “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” but Del Toro still manages to make it feel original in a way only he can pull off. Right now, he is one of the few directors I can think of who has a really unique filmmaking style. Even if this sequel doesn’t prove to be one of his best works, it still has a wonderful level of creativity missing from many mainstream films.

In the end, “Hellboy II” proves to be a fun ride, and it does make me want to catch the original at some point in my lifetime. Better yet, I should also check out “The Devil’s Backbone,” “Cronos” and “Mimic.” I have a lot of catching up to do.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Mamma Mia!’ – Maybe You’ll Like It, Maybe You Won’t

Mamma Mia movie poster

I never got to see the musical of “Mamma Mia” when it was onstage, but I’m not really surprised it became a big hit. The musical tells the story of a young girl on the verge of getting married and of how she ends up secretly inviting three of her mom’s previous boyfriends to her wedding. The catch is one of these men may actually be her father, and she would like whoever it is to give her away at her wedding. But when her mother realizes these three men have arrived, it makes her weep for the past she thought she had forever lost, and all of this is done to the tune of ABBA’s greatest hits which include “Dancing Queen,” “Take A Chance on Me,” and “S.O.S.” among others.

I’m not sure I am the right person to be reviewing this movie because I don’t fit into its demographic, and I have never been a big fan of musicals. I don’t despise them, they just never really appealed to me as much as they do to my friends. There are a few musicals like “Evita” and “West Side Story” which appeal greatly to me, and the film adaptation of the “Hairspray” musical provided me with one of the most entertaining times I had at the movies in 2007. But “Mamma Mia” is not in the same league as “Hairspray” or even “Moulin Rouge.” Maybe it’s because those movies brought us into their musical world so deeply while we watched them and did things others in this genre dare not do.

“Mamma Mia” on the other hand, didn’t draw me in as much, and this is regardless of the boundless energy that all the actors had when onscreen. You come out of it thinking that they must have had the time of their lives while making it. I certainly don’t want to take away from the effort put into the movie by everyone involved, but instead of feeling excited by all that was going on, I instead felt alienated from the whole venture. There was this cloying feeling I kept feeling throughout which made me believe this movie was less than genuine in its emotions.

The other big issue I had with “Mamma Mia” is the fact it is basically a musical founded upon a gimmick: centering an old-fashioned love story around a number of ABBA songs which people all over the world have listened to over and over again. Plus, seeing other actors sing ABBA songs feels a bit off putting as it reminds me of how infectiously good the original versions are. The actors certainly do their best, and Meryl Streep belts out a tremendous version of “The Winner Takes It All” which reminds us again of the great singing voice she has. We should have never forgotten this fact, but it has been a long time since we saw Streep go country in “Postcards from The Edge.”

The one thing that I really did admire about “Mamma Mia” is it shows without a doubt how actresses over 40 do have a place in today’s Hollywood, and that their experience is invaluable to movies like these. Hollywood is ruthlessly notorious for going after the youngest of actresses to star in movies, but many of these actresses have no real-life experience to draw on as of yet. The actresses in “Mamma Mia,” however, end up stealing every single scene they are in. Whatever you think about the movie as a whole, the elder actresses (if you really want to call them that) are the best reason to check it out.

Streep continues to make us all aware of the fact she is one of the best actresses, period. She brings a strong life force to her role of a woman working alone on an island with her daughter, feeling she is past her prime in life while her two sisters convince her nothing could be further from the truth.

Two of my favorite performances in come from Christine Baranski and Julie Walters, and they are a gas to watch throughout. Baranski has basically been a professional scene stealer ever since she co-starred as Cybil Sheppard’s best friend on “Cybil.” Since then, she has stolen scene after scene in movies like “Bulworth” and “Bowfinger” among others. Her performance as Tanya, the often-divorced sister of Streep’s character is a hoot, and there is no doubt she had a blast playing this role.

Julie Walters is probably best known to today’s audiences as Ron Weasley’s mother in the “Harry Potter” movies, but never forget she can be a hell of an actress when you give her the right part. Watching her shamelessly trying to seduce Stellan Skarsgard’s character to the tune of “Take A Chance on Me” is a highlight, and she plays her role with no inhibitions whatsoever. I hope we see her in movies which use her for more than just a supporting role.

The role of the bride to be, Sophie Sheridan, is played by Amanda Seyfried. She is very fetching here and she has a wonderful voice to boot. She also has the wonderful privilege of working with Meryl Streep, and they play off of each other wonderfully.

The three potential fathers of Sophie are played by Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard, and Pierce Brosnan. Colin’s effortless charm has never faded in the slightest ever since he played Mr. Darcy on the BBC miniseries “Pride & Prejudice.” As for Skarsgard, it is great to see him in a role where he is acting ever so serious like he did in “Insomnia” (the original) or “The Hunt for Red October.” This brings me to Pierce Brosnan, and while he is always a good actor, I need to be honest and say the man cannot sing. He just can’t! After watching him sing “S.O.S.,” I got that cringe inducing feeling as did the rest of my family while we were all watching this movie. As a result, we watched the rest of the movie in fear of him singing yet again. Did he sing again? Oh yes! Brosnan has had a long and celebrated career which included playing James Bond, but please, please, please don’t let him sing in the future! PLEASE!

In spite of all the strong elements “Mamma Mia” has, I still felt indifferent to it. In the end, I don’t think I fit its target audience. If you like musicals, then I would not stand in your way of watching it, but I can see why I didn’t bother with the film while it was in theaters. I certainly don’t hate “Mamma Mia” as there is a lot about it to admire, but it didn’t affect me in the same way as “Hairspray” or “Moulin Rouge” did. I enjoy the music of ABBA as much as the next person but listening to it here does not leave me with the same musical exhilaration. Perhaps you will feel differently.

* * ½ out of * * * *

‘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 * * * *