Thursday, June 27, 2013


Directed by Joseph Kosinski. Written by Karl Gajdusek (screenplay), Michael Arndt (screenplay) and Kosinski (graphics novel original story). Starring Tom Cruise (Jack), Morgan Freeman (Beech), Olga Kurylenko (Julia), Andrea Riseborough (Victoria).

Bottom line: Pretty average sci-fi action movie starring Tom Cruise; nothing really new, pretty graphics and Tom Cruise make this a pleasant enough movie but one that can be missed.

Oblivion is about Jack Harper, a man who lives and works in the post-apocalyptic future. Aliens came and warred with Mankind. We used nukes and defeated the enemy but scorched the Earth so the survivors were shipped to a Saturn moon. Jack and his wife, Victoria (Riseborough), are part of a clean-up team in charge of repairing attack drones (how politically relevant!) which hunt down any remaining aliens. One day, Jack sees a space capsule filled with cryogenically frozen men and women crash land. As Jack lands to investigate, drones start killing the humans. He manages to save one, a beautiful woman about whom he has dreamt and brings her back to his home. Before long, Jack is captured a man named Beech (Freeman) and his motley crew of humans. Who are they? Who is the mysterious woman?

Jack Reacher premiered just a few months before Oblivion and in my review for that terrible movie I wondered why? Why release a Tom Cruise so close to another? Why release Jack Reacher before Oblivion in that order and not the other way around? Was it so we get into a Tom Cruise mood and want more of him or could it be that we are meant to leave Oblivion saying, 'Well, it was better than Jack Reacher,'? After watching both of these movies, I can attest that both possibilities are accurate.

As I said in my review for Jack Reacher, I am something of a fan of Tom Cruise or, rather I should say, Tom Cruise has a special place in my heart. Whenever I see him, I get the vibe that he knows (or thinks) he is on a mission to bring a life changing cinematic experience to the audience. I really appreciate how seriously he takes his roles. He and his movies are consistent. Morgan Freeman, on the other hand and to my surprise, doesn't help this movie. I don't know why he was there. There doesn't seem to be any effort to get us emotional invested in his character other than the fact that it is played by Morgan Freeman. Were you unsatisfied by Michael Caine’s role in Dark Knight Rises? It was that feeling but with Morgan Freeman.

Going into this movie, I expected to see pretty computer graphics, explosions, patriotism and generic thematic material. I was not disappointed. The futuristic Apple-like design is lovely and the computer graphics are easy on the eyes. The director was also responsible for Tron: Legacy and you can see a similar energy spent on making the futuristic technology appealing. Tom Cruise is busy being Tom Cruise but he is less offensive here than other movies. I wasn't the biggest fan of the music. It was as if the film was trying to get us to think, "This is epic!" by bashing our ears with dramatic music.

Overall, Oblivion is an okay Tom Cruise sci-fi action movie. In terms of its plot twists, it doesn't really discuss anything new and the ending is emotionally confusing. It’s like the movie is trying to make a happy ending but it isn’t really well thought out and, as a result, it doesn’t work. I will discuss it more shortly, but with some spoilers. If you haven't seen this, don't worry about it. You can see better action elsewhere and better sci-fi elsewhere. If it is on TV and you have nothing else to do, there are worse ways to spend two hours. It has the same vibe as Speed; everybody has seen at least some of it because it has been on TV so often and, even if you haven’t, you get the idea of the movie. From here on out, I will take a closer look at the movie, so mind yourself of spoilers.

Let me note, that when I say ‘aliens’ I am just mimicking the word choice of the movie. The aliens are called “scabs” but, in reality, ‘they’ are just a single robot core. Now, Jack eventually realizes that the woman who came in the capsule is actually his wife not the woman he has been living with. He had been dreaming about her and those dreams turned out to be repressed memories. Total Recall, anyone? Plot twist! Tom Cruise is not Jack, he is a clone called Tech 49. 'That's ok though', the wife says,' your memories are still yours and, thus, you are still my husband'. This is what bothers me about this movie. The realization that you are a clone, that you have no individual identity would be crushing. Oblivion looks at it, dismisses and says, “Let’s kill those alien monsters!” To make things more dramatic, when Tom Cruise (Tech 49) meets a clone (Tech 52) they have a big fight scene. But wait, if he is a clone that means…plot twist! The aliens actually won the war and are now using the clones to kill the remaining humans. What is the solution? Have Tech 49 and Morgan Freeman fly a nuke into the alien mother-ship in a suicide mission. You would think this is going to be a sad ending, right? Jack's wife is now alone raising their newly conceived child. Fortunately, Tech 52, who escaped from the earlier fight, shows up with the rest of the human survivors. Using the same logic as before, Tech 52 is the same person as Tech 49 (the one who sacrificed himself for humanity). Is this happy? I don’t think so and, if you think about it, it gets worse. If the one clone was named Tech 49 and another is Tech 52 that means there are at least 50 more Tom Cruises running around who don't know anything about what is going on. What happens when they meet? A fight to the death? Will the wife collect them and have one Tom Cruise per room? I wonder if they dismissed the issues of cloning because it didn’t lend itself to be an action movie.

So, instead of looking directly at cloning, what did it examine? My first thought was to say “Technology vs. Nature” or that humanity runs the risk of becoming slaves to technology. A lot of sci-fi movies do that. Twice the movie claims that the nuclear weapons destroyed the aliens but at the cost nuclear fallout. The radiation in some areas is so bad there if a person crossed that is called the 'radiation perimeter' a person would die in moments. I didn’t get the feeling that the movie was criticizing the use of nukes but saying that they were a necessary evil to defend the Earth. After all, a nuclear bomb is used to finally destroy the aliens. Furthermore, the ‘radiation perimeter’ turns out to be a myth propagated by the aliens to control the clones. Nuclear weapons are powerful and destructive but they are okay because humans are the ones in charge. Let’s disregard the assumption that only responsible humans have nuclear weapons. I suppose an irresponsible human is better than a cold machine. We can also consider the use of the attack drones which are used to hunt the remaining humans.

An interesting scene comes when Jack is reprogramming a drone to attack the mother-ship. He turns on the chained down machine, it makes a roar-like sound and he says to the crowd of onlookers, ‘Give it some space, it isn’t happy’. The sound and his statement animalize the machine.

But after thinking about talking about this movie for a while, this isn’t that interesting. I mentioned above that the director, Joseph Kosinski, as directed Tron: Legacy. I was reading an article by one of the guys in charge of the art direction. A lot of energy was spent on the graphics and user interfaces for the systems so they would actually be reasonably realistic. It was a very interesting read. Knowing this, we can and should look at the use of interfaces in Oblivion. People are constantly looking through things: the plane’s HUD, a sniper rifle scope, the attack drone’s camera, the alien’s satellite, the 'ancient armor' used by the human survivors. The movie could be commenting on how interfaces inherently distort reality and the danger of this is our dependence on such interfaces.

To what extent can we discern a person's emotional state from a tweet or a status update? This distillation of information under the veil of efficiency can be dangerous when unchecked or under control by a nefarious party. Recall Newspeak from "1984" by George Orwell, which is a new, condensed form of English used by the State for control. In Oblivion, the definition of 'enemy' is determined by the robot. The robot uses Tech 49 as simply a tool who trusts his tools. At one point, Morgan Freeman's character is about to kill Tech 49 but then hesitates and looks at his with his own eyes at which point he knows that Tech 49 is now aware of the situation. There is much to be said about this subject but I hesitate to delve much further. I am currently reading "The Language of New Media" by Lev Manovich which discusses interfaces with the rise of the Internet, computers and also with respect to cinema.

Overall, I found Oblivion pleasant enough to recommend: the graphics are pretty, Tom Cruise is being Tom Cruise, and the subject matter is fascinating. It may not be the best movie ever but it is good enough. It could be fun to watch and discuss with some friends.

Monday, June 24, 2013

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Directed by Richard Lester. Written by Melvin Frank (screenplay), Michael Pertwee (screenplay), Burt Shevelove (book), Larry Gelbart (book) and Titus Maccius Plautus (based on a play by). Starring Zero Mostel (Pseudolus), Phil Silvers (Marcus Lycus), Buster Keaton (Erronius).

Bottom line: Bawdy. Really Bawdy. It made me laugh here and there so what more do I want from a 60's comedy?

Just the other day, I was watching Bridesmaids with my fiancée. We were both not only disappointed but our thirst for comedy was not quenched. I spoke to my mom later on the phone and she suggested A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. She had seen the Broadway adaptation Nathan Lane. Granted, this was starring Buster Keaton but she said the play was funny albeit bawdy. 'Bawdy' is an understatement. That should be this movie's tagline but this was the sixties, after all, so you can let it pass.

It begins with a musical establishment of the main players with a chorus of “tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight.” The story largely follows Erronius, 'the worst slave in the world'. His owner's son, Hero (Crawford), promises Erronius freedom if the beautiful slave girl next door can be brought (or bought) to marry Hero. To give you an idea of this movie, the slave girl, Phillia (Andre) sings, "I cannot read or write...I am just lovely..." and it is A-Okay with the movie. It is the type of situation and movie that makes me laugh because it is so bad. But that’s the idea…right?

In fact, there isn't too too much more I have to say about it. I mean, it made me laugh. It was crude, rude and vulgar but it achieved what it set out to do. I am more a fan of Nathan Lane than Buster Keaton, largely thanks to The Birdcage, and perhaps, because I have not seen that much Buster Keaton. They have a similar style: fast, glib and provocative.

Would I recommend this? Sure. It is good for a quick, cheap laugh on a late weekend night.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Darjeeling Limited

Directed Wes Anderson. Written by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman. Starring Owen Wilson (Francis), Adrien Brody (Peter), Jason Schwartzman (Jack).

Bottom line: The Darjeeling Limited looks at Anderson's usual themes of abandonment, family and death from a darker, grittier tone but not at the expense of humor and style so I would recommend this as a weekend rental.

If you happened to read my review of Serpico, you will know that I am a fan of movies that prompt introspection. The Darjeeling Limited is one such movie. I am not making a claim about what The Darjeeling Limited is saying but suggesting that movies can provide one with a different perspective on life. Now, this is a Wes Anderson movie so you can expect the usual Anderson themes: abandonment, breakdown of the family, loss. I don't relate to these. I grew up with a mom, dad, a wonderful older sister and two little white dogs in a little white house on a small street in suburbia. Yet, this movie struck a chord me. It entered my life at a rather tumultuous time and somehow stuck with me. So this post is not so much a review but, rather, a discussion about how a movie can hold a place one's heart (specifically this movie and with my heart).

Let us begin with the opening sequence of The Darjeeling Limited. A crane shot zooms in on a taxi zipping through busy Indian streets. Fast-paced sitar plays as a bewildered Bill Murray hangs on in the back seat. They eventually come to an abrupt halt in front of a train station. Murray bails out without paying the fare. He cuts the long ticket line and tells the employee that the departing train is his. Cut to the departing train, The Darjeeling Limited. Murray holds his two suitcases as he yells 'Wait!' fruitlessly at the departing train. He and the train are moving at the same pace. Suddenly, Adrian Brody appears beside Murray running for the same train. In slow motion, as The Kinks' This Time Tomorrow begins playing, the two exchange glances. Cut to a long shot of Brody pulling ahead and jumping on the train. He lifts his sunglasses, smirks and watches Murray slow down to a dejected trot. He puts his sunglasses back on and enters the train.

Let me now explain my world when I first saw this movie. I was graduating from school with a major I wasn't too keen on and I had just started a new consulting job. I was lonely and working in the middle of nowhere with no direction and worse, because of corporate bureaucracy, I wasn't actually doing anything. I felt like Bill Murray. I felt as if my train was departing and I was missing it even, even worse, I could almost see it leaving. Much like Murray, I was running towards the train at the same pace as it was departing. Up until recently, I listened to This Time Tomorrow with sad ears because I linked it to this scene. Unlike Adrian Brody, I didn't see myself as going on a journey. I was stagnant.

Shortly after watching The Darjeeling Limited, I began this blog. About a year has passed since that point. Last night, I re-watched The Darjeeling Limited to realize how much I have changed and how much my relationship with the movie has changed. Instead of seeing myself as Bill Murray, I now saw myself as Adrian Brody. I finally felt like I was moving. I didn't miss my train. The similarity does end there. Let me explain a little more of the story.

Francis (Wilson), Peter (Brody) and Jack (Schwartzman) are brothers. A year previous to the start of the movie, the three met to attend their father's funeral. Their meeting was a traumatic experience such that the brothers have not been in much contact since. Francis hatched a plan for the brothers to meet and bond through a spiritual journey. Francis is suicidal, Jack is in an abusive relationship and Peter goes on the trip out of fear of parenthood without telling his very pregnant wife. As Brody boards the train, he is using his dead father's luggage and wearing his dead father's prescription sunglasses that give him terrible migraines. I am not saying that just because I am on the train, the story ends; this is very much the beginning.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, I am not making any claims about the meaning of The Darjeeling Limited. Specifically, I wanted to point out how a movie viewing experience can change over time. Between the first and latest viewing of this movie, I felt that the character to which I could relate allegorically or symbolically shifted. My feeling of stagnation gave way to a sense of direction. Granted, I don't think I am moving very fast but at least I am ready to move. Moreover, I wonder if anyone ever feels like he or she is moving fast enough.

So what is my point? Consider how you watch a movie. I beseech you not to watch it absentmindedly because it is 'purely for entertainment'. I don't think movies are for ‘transporting us to another world’ because that implies too much of a difference between this world and the movie world. At the same time, I also don't mean that you should try to figure out what the movie is trying to say. Instead, the next time you watch a movie, think about the way it makes you feel and why. That is, you can use the movie as a metaphorical point of discussion in your own life. Take the movie with a grain of salt, of course. For example, if you somehow are pumped up while watching Birth of a Nation, don’t forget that it was about the birth of the KKK.

You might ask, independently, how is The Darjeeling Limited? Although I liked it a lot, I am not going to say it is the perfect movie. I suppose it largely comes down to whether or not you like Wes Anderson. I do, even though it seems like his movies are usually the same. With respect to his other movies, I would put this in the top three. I like Rushmore and Royal Tenenbaums a little more. Whenever you have the British or Americans in India, my imperialistic senses start tingling. Lines like, "these people are so beautiful" just have to be problematic on some level. That all said, I'd recommend this for a weekend rental if you are game for a Wes Anderson flick.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Children of the Corn

Directed by Fritz Kiersch. Written by Stephen King (short story) and George Goldsmith (screenplay). Starring Peter Horton (Burt), Linda Hamilton (Vicky), John Fanklin (Isaac), Courtney Gains (Malachai), Robby Kiger (Job).

Bottom line: Wasn't the worst movie of all time but, for a scary movie, it wasn't scary. The graphics didn't age well and the story felt underdeveloped.

This fall, my fiancée is beginning her PhD studies in Nebraska. I don't know about you, but I didn't know anything about Nebraska other than it was really flat. As we have spent some time in Pittsburgh (Dark Knight Rises), Rochester (some of The Amazing Spiderman 2) and Chicago (countless movies), the next question is what movies were filmed in or set in Nebraska?

After a quick Google search, what do I find? Children of the Corn (1984), Children of the Corn (2009), Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice, Children of the Corn IV: The Gathering, Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror, Children of the Corn: Revelation and, don't forget, Children of the Corn 666: Isaac's Return. Children of the Corn it is!
This is based off a Steven King short story of the same name. In the fictional town of Gatlin, Nebraska, a demon known as "He Who Walks Behind The Rows" has taken control of the town. Using the preacher's son, Isaac (Franklin), as a mouthpiece, the demon has commanded the ritual sacrifice of anyone over the age of eighteen. In one mass killing, the adults are purged from the town leaving Isaac and his strong first in command Malachai (Gains) in charge. We are introduced to a couple: Vicky (Hamilton) and her boyfriend Burt (Horton). Burt has recently finished medical school and the two are driving through the Midwest to the hospital where he is stationed. She wants to get married and he is hesitant. (A point of contention the movie never addresses). In classic, predictable horror movie fashion, the two find themselves in Gatlin. Three years have passed since the children took over the town. They have to fight the children and the demon for survival.

This is a horror movie, mind you, and, if you have read any of my previous reviews, you will know that I hate horror movies. One horror-movie-defense tactic I have been practicing is to formulate why the movie would not or could not affect me. Have I built or bought a house that was built over a Native American burial ground? Nope. Have I murdered anyone or stolen any cursed icons? Negative. In the case of Children of the Corn, if I just shave and get a haircut, I could probably pass for an eighteen year old (I would just tell them that I forgot my ID). Boom. There. Done. Now I can watch the movie.

Another thing that you may recall if you read my previous reviews, is that I dislike children in movies. I do not find them cute, funny or endearing. If anything, I find them annoying. Children of the Corn wasn't able to present the children in a constructive way; they are awkward and it lessens the movie’s overall impact. I suppose the idea that the children are forming a cult-like group is creepy in and of itself but it isn't quite enough to do it for me.

The 1980's graphics used to show the demon didn't age well. Now, don't get me wrong. I get it. This is the early 80's, but the monster looks like a Tron computer virus! The Exorcist came out a decade earlier and still looks better.

I read a little about this movie and there were two versions of the script. The producers decided to go with the one that had more violence and a more conventional plot. It shows. The story is predictable and it doesn't create a thrilling sense of urgency. I didn't particularly like the characters either. Burt is a jerk but he lives and saves everyone. I would have liked it more, or at least it would have had more of an emotional impact if he and/or his girlfriend died. They die in the short story, from what I understand. Overall, I would pass on this movie. I saw it in the early afternoon but I don't foresee any difficulties sleeping tonight. It wasn't particularly fun to watch either.