REVIEW: “Oblivion”

Oblivion Poster

Since his questionable comments and ill advised sofasaults on Oprah, Tom Cruise has become an actor that many people love to hate. But those things are in the past and as wacky as they were they still didn’t effect the level of his onscreen work. He’s a talented actor who throughout his career has tackled a wide variety of roles in iconic 80’s cheesefests, stirring and emotional dramas, big budgeted franchises, and even sci-fi thrillers. Now he returns to the science fiction genre in “Oblivion”, a much more direct and vast sci-fi picture than Cruise’s other efforts.

“Oblivion” is co-written and directed by Joseph Kosinski, the man behind Disney’s $400 million money maker “Tron: Legacy”. Disney originally purchased the rights to “Oblivion” in hopes of repeating Tron’s success but later relinquished the rights. It was quickly gobbled up by Universal Studios with Tom Cruise and Jessica Chastain set to star in the picture. Chastain would eventually drop out for “Zero Dark Thirty” with Olga Kurylenko replacing her. The movie is based on Kosinski’s unpublished graphic novel and was given an ambitious $120 million budget.

I have to say I was really excited for “Oblivion”even though the studio was very cryptic in regards to the film’s details. That’s a good approach to take because I found that the less you know going in the more effective the story will be. And for me it was quite effective. “Oblivion” doesn’t fall into the category of a science fiction masterpiece but thanks to its visionary conception, stunning effects, and some strong committed performances it doesn’t miss by much.


Now there have been three main criticisms hurled at “Oblivion”. Some have complained about its thin plot. Others took off points for its lack of originality. And yet others have had problems with the lack of any meaningful character development. I certainly don’t flippantly dismiss any of these gripes but I don’t necessarily agree with them either. There’s a lot going on in “Oblivion” and while it does borrow from several other sci-fi pictures, the same could be said for most science fiction. As for the lack of character development, that may be true but I found there to be a good and needed reason for it.

Like I said the less you know the better so I’m not going to spoil anything by divulging any significant details. The film is set in 2077 during the aftermath of a war with an alien species known as the Scavengers. The Scavs (as they’re affectionally called) destroyed our moon which sent Earth into a series of natural and environmental convulsions. A full invasion of Earth followed. The humans won the war but the planet was left ravaged and in disrepair. The surviving population now inhabit one of Saturn’s moons called Titan. Now if a sci-fi movie wants to score points with me just give me a futuristic world that’s not only visually impressive but that I can get lost in. That certainly happened here and even if you do have issues with the story, no one can say this isn’t an expressive setting.

Cruise plays Jack Harper one of the last people left on the planet. He works as a technician who does security and repair work as humanity tries to salvage the last bit of resources from the planet. His lone co-worker is Victoria (Andrea Riseborough). She oversees Jack’s work and reports back to their commanding officer Sally (Melissa Leo). Jack and Victoria have only two weeks left before they get to join the others on Titan, something she’s very excited about. Naturally things can’t go without a hitch. A series of events triggered by the appearance of a mysterious woman named Julia (Olga Kurylenko) catapult the story into some fun and rather exciting directions.


I can honestly say I completely bought into this premise. For the most part it’s a well conceived storyline that undeniably takes from several other familiar sci-fi films. But it works for me mainly because of how intelligently it took all of these components and put them together to form what I think is a very competent and compelling science fiction piece. The story itself grabbed me and pulled me into this visual spectacle and I never found myself wanting to check out.

The movie also managed to surprise me. I knew there were twists involved and I had my eyes open for that. For the most part it kept me off balance and had me looking in every direction trying to guess where things were going. While I did eventually figure some things out before they were revealed on screen, it didn’t hurt my experience whatsoever. I also appreciate how this wasn’t a movie of wall-to-wall action. Don’t misunderstand me, there is action, some of it spectacular. But to my surprise the movie spent more time deliberately peeling off layers to the story. Now it may move too glacially for some but I really responded to this approach.


With all that praise being said, I did think the film flirted with convention a bit too much in the final act. It’s not that it’s terrible and poorly done but for me it didn’t really fit with the way the movie had progressed up to that point. I’m being pretty vague but let’s just say things are a little too on the nose. And while I do think the three main characters aren’t fully developed for good reasons, there are some characters and a particularly important plot point that felt terribly underwritten. This effected a rather important turn that the film takes later on. I’ll also add that there was one big special effects money shot at the end that I felt was a pretty humdrum. Considering the dazzling effects we had been given up till then, I was expecting a bigger payoff. I’ll leave it at that.

Those are my only gripes and even though they do restrain “Oblivion” from being one of the great science fiction pictures, they didn’t kill my experience. In fact I like the film a great deal. Cruise gives another strong lead performance and he’s helped by solid work from Kurylenko and Riseborough. The eye-popping visuals help create a futuristic wonder and the Iceland locations give a perfect sense of desolation. And I haven’t even mentioned the marvelous sound design and the soundtrack from M83 which I found to be a really nice fit. There’s just so much I liked about “Oblivion”. And while I can’t just completely overlook its handful of flaws, they’re easy to get past especially when you were as intrigued and glued to the screen as I was.


REVIEW: “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Thieves”

OSS 117 Poster

It may surprise some but the Oscar-winning juggernaut “The Artist” wasn’t the first collaboration between director Michel Hazanavicius and stars Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo. In 2006 the three came together to make the spy thriller spoof “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies”. These two films couldn’t be any more different yet there is an interesting similarity. “The Artist” was a silent movie that paid tribute to an often forgotten era of moviemaking. “OSS 117” is a parody of the old 1950s and 1960s spy pictures particularly the early James Bond films. While quite different in production and intent, both have sharp eyes when it comes to the era of filmmaking they take place in.

Jean Dujardin plays OSS 117, a French secret agent who is a cross between Bond and Inspector Clouseau. He’s sent to Egypt to investigation the death and disappearance of fellow agent and friend Jack Jefferson, to stop all fighting between the Americans and Russians, and bring complete and total peace to the Middle East. To this ridiculously unreasonable task he simply replies “No problem”. In the first few scenes you get a good idea what kind of movie this is and what kind of character OSS 117 is. He has the suave and debonaire looks of Bond but the intelligence and deductive skills of Clouseau. As he was getting his assignment from his superior, I couldn’t figure out who the film was spoofing more, a nitwit secret agent or the French government for actually sending this guy. Perhaps a little of both I think.

oss 117

He lands in Egypt and meets with his contact, a beautiful local named Larmina (Bejo). It doesn’t take him any time to show her and us his utter stupidity as he tries to impress with his incorrect knowledge of the country and his offensive comments about it. That gets to one of my favorite things about this movie – it’s definitely politically incorrect. OSS 117 manages to unknowingly yet repeatedly put down the country, its people, and even its religion. Some of these scenes are hysterical and this is when his buffoonery stands out the most. We also quickly learn that he couldn’t recognize a clue if it were parked right behind him. There are so many leads and bits of evidence in plain sight that anyone other than our bumbling protagonist could see.

There are also several other hilarious running gags the go on throughout the film. There is his infatuation with a light switch and the effects it has in a chicken house (I’ll leave it at that), a reappearing spy who constantly calls in 117’s locations, and one gag that specifically focuses on 117’s always perfect hair. All of these worked for me. But there are scenes where the film goes a little over the top. For example, there’s an intense shootout later in the movie but not with guns and bullets. The weapons of choice? Chickens! Now I’ll be honest, I did chuckle a bit at that, but overall it felt a little too outlandish.

With the exception of the parody, this film looks and feels like it could have been made by the filmmakers of the late 1950s. It’s set in 1955 and Hazanavicius goes to great lengths to recreate that. He does so not just with the cars, clothing, and interior designs, but also by using the same style of special effects. I particular loved the driving sequences with the obvious rolling video screen behind them. There are also a couple of fight sequences that feel yanked right out of that period.

OSS 117 (2)

Another highlight was Dujardin. He really impressed me with his sharp sense for comedy. He’s completely believable and brings out the silly shallowness of this character who’s more interested in opportunities to wear his tuxedo and learning to smoke cigarettes. Dujardin’s wacky array of postures and facial expressions work perfectly and Bejo is a wonderful compliment. There are also several other side characters that bring in some really good laughs.

Considering the absence of good quality comedies, “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies” was a great find. I have to admit that Hazanavicius, Dujardin, and Bejo became known to me through “The Artist”. But because of the impression they made, I was immediately interested in this film just by seeing their names attached. It didn’t let me down. Now obviously this isn’t the type of comedy that everybody will respond to. But I loved the mix of subtle humor and over the top absurdity. And now I find out that Hazanavicius and Dujardin did a sequel? Sign me up!


“Side Effects” – 3 STARS


Steven Soderbergh has always been a hit or miss filmmaker in my book. He has an impressive resume but the two movies of his that I truly love are more recent efforts, “The Informant” from 2009 and “Contagion” from 2011. His new film “Side Effects” looked like the new “Contagion”, that is if you went by the trailers and TV spots. But other than the small medical connection, these two films couldn’t be more different. At its core “Side Effects” is a straight up modern day thriller. It’s the first of two Soderbergh movies in 2013 which will lead into what the director is calling his filmmaking “sabbatical”.

“Side Effects” is really broken into two halves. The first half of the movie focuses on a young woman named Emily (Rooney Mara). Her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) is released from prison after serving a 4-year sentence for insider trading. It seems like it would be a good time for the couple but Emily begins showing signs of depression. Martin tries to help her but things only seem to get worse leading to her attempting suicide by driving her speeding car into a wall. At the hospital she is examined by a psychiatrist named Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). She convinces him to let her go home as long as she agrees to regular counseling sessions with him.

Side Effects 2

The movie moves along like a clinical procedural throughout the first half. We watch Emily’s struggles with depression and we sit in on her meetings with Jonathan. We watch as he prescribes numerous medications, none of which work for her. We find out she has a history with depression and once saw another doctor named Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Jonathan meets with Victoria who recommends a drug called Ablixa. Jonathan finally agrees to give it a try and prescribes it for Emily. Things seem to get better for her except for the one side effect – sleepwalking. It’s during one of her sleepwalking episodes that she takes a knife and commits a shocking murder.

The second half of the film focuses more on Jonathan and the fallout from the murder and the court case that followed. It takes a heavy toll on Jonathan’s career and home life so he sets out to clear his name. It’s here where the movie finally starts to feel like a thriller. Soderbergh starts leading us in several different directions and causes us to question and reflect back on things we’ve already seen. At some point you’ll have suspicions of every character and their motivations. These are all things that you want and expect from a good thriller.

So considering all of these things, why didn’t I have a stronger response to “Side Effects”? It’s certainly not the acting. Everyone gives strong performances even the usually stone-faced Channing Tatum. Rooney Mara certainly answered my question of whether she could handle the lead role. But I thought it was Jude Law who was the real standout. He’s really, really good here. It’s also not the visual presentation that’s the problem. Soderbergh knows how to shoot a picture and his particular visual style of camera cuts and closeups works nicely here.


I think my problems lie in the way the story itself is structured. As I hinted at, this never feels like a thriller until well over halfway through the film. It’s only then that different threads of plot begin to branch out. But by that time the movie has but a little time to put all the pieces together. Soderbergh certainly manages to do this competently. I don’t remember there being any gaping plot holes or oversights. But I also don’t feel his ending is all that satisfying and the catalyst behind the big twist feels a little out-of-the-blue. For me the best thrillers are able to put the truth out there while causing the audience to look at it in a different and wrong way. At the end of “Side Effects” I didn’t feel it accomplished that at all.

I don’t want to be too hard on the movie because it’s a good watchable film that’s easy to digest. The performances are strong and Soderbergh has a visual style that perfectly fits this type of film. But underneath the veneer of clinical depression, pharmaceutical lingo, and legal proceedings lies a movie that never reaches its full potential. Its buildup is slow, its surprises feel arbitrary, and overall it’s underwhelming. It’s unfortunate and I still feel that somewhere offscreen lies an ending with more power and punch than the one we’re given – an ending that would give me the satisfaction I hoped for from “Side Effects”.


Let me start off by saying that I went into “The Five-Year Engagement” at a slight disadvantage. Unlike many people today, I’m not a fan of Judd Apatow, his films, or most of his usual collaborators. Apatow frequently works with the same casts including Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill – two actors that I instantly avoid, as well Will Ferrell who I feel is terribly overrated. This particular Apatow production stars another favorite of his, Jason Segel who’s nowhere near as annoying as Rogen and Hill, but has never really blown me away either. But I was encouraged to give the movie a try after seeing Emily Blunt’s named attached. I think she’s a fabulous and underrated actress who also has a knack for humor. Unfortunately, despite her wonderful performance and occasional hilarity, “The Five-Year Engagement” is a sluggish and often times erratic romantic comedy that had me checking my watch numerous times.

The film was directed by Nicholas Stoller who also co-wrote the story along with Segel. At it’s core it’s a fairly basic rom-com but with genuine promise. Segel plays Tom Solomon a chef at a fancy San Francisco restaurant. Those familiar with Segel will recognize this character from several of his other pictures. Tom is a dorky but easygoing guy. After a year together, Tom proposes to his girlfriend Violet (Blunt), a psychology graduate who is desperately hoping to be accepted by Berkley for doctoral studies. It doesn’t take us long to see where the story is going. The two begin planning their wedding but soon Violet receives a letter saying she has been accepted by the University of Michigan. The two push back their wedding and Tom sacrifices a chance to be the head chef at a new restaurant to relocate to Michigan.

While in Michigan Violet’s career takes off while Tom grows more and more disenchanted with his job at a sandwich shop. A wedge (that you can see coming a mile away) forms in their relationship and soon her career desires and his hatred for living in Michigan leave them questioning whether they were ever meant to be. Blunt and Segel have a nice chemistry even though there were a few scenes where I couldn’t help but question the authenticity of their relationship. Segel gives a solid performance all while hitting the same notes over and over. Blunt is fantastic and her character has more depth and range than any other in the film. There are several times where their jovial playfulness cracked me up. There are also some more serious scenes where the two work off each other exceptionally well. Then there are the few instances where their relationship feels completely manufactured. This can be attributed to what I think is the biggest problem with this film – the writing.

Segel and Stoller’s story runs into a wall at about the 80 minute mark. With a running time of over two hours, “The Five-Year Engagement” lumbers along to the point where I was taking the movie’s “5 Year” title seriously. Segel and Stoller cram way too much into the film, dragging things out and apparently leaving nothing on the cutting room floor. They take the basic plot points and draw them out well beyond what’s necessary. There were several times where I was so ready for them to move on to the next part of the story. They also stray off into some fairly weird directions. For example, in a dark comedy turn of sorts, Tom becomes this deranged mountain man type. It happens out of the blue and is over before you know it. Overall, the plodding pace and unneeded deviations end up squashing whatever charm and affection the movie builds up.

I also struggled with the erratic use and styles of humor. Now don’t get me wrong, there were instances where I laughed pretty hard. Many of these instances were due to some quirky, out-of-the-blue moment that hit just right. But there’s no real flow to the comedy and many of the gags fall flat. I mentioned the dark comedy turns, but there are also dashes of slapstick and the unfortunate and unfunny raunchy gutter humor that Apatow productions just can’t seem to steer away from. I can think of several of these scenes that added nothing to the movie and that could have been sacrificed for a tighter and more concise story.

“The Five-Year Engagement” has the premise for a smart and entertaining romantic comedy but the overindulged writing and poor execution causes it to fall short. It’s a shame because Blunt is wonderful and her performance feels wasted. But I did find some laughs and our couple do have some good moments on-screen. There are also some good supporting roles that help the movie along as well as some rehashed roles that we’ve all seen before. But in the end it’s the writing that lets the movie down and that may surprise those people who are big fans of these guys.


It’s automatically hard to take a movie titled “Tucker and Dale vs. Evil” seriously. But to be perfectly honest, that’s a good thing. With a budget of under $5 million dollars and almost no studio support, “Tucker and Dale vs. Evil” made a strong impression at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. It finally got a very limited theatrical release in September of 2011 and now it’s available on DVD. It’s an unfortunate example of a good film that was shunned by the studios but that deserves an audience.

This is a movie that’s all about parody. It pokes fun at every splatter movie cliché and gimmick you can imagine while also packaging in a load of genuinely funny dialogue and hilarious gags. As I was watching the film, it offered me funny takes on so many movies including “Deliverance”, “Evil Dead”, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and several others. But while there is certainly a horror element to the movie, this is essentially a comedy and a very funny one. In fact, I would say that it offers more clever and well delivered humor than most of the stuff that comes from Hollywood’s comedy favorites.

The movie’s lead characters (as you probably can guess) are Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine), two simple-minded hillbillies heading up in the West Virginia hills to fix up an old rickety cabin (or as they call it, their new summer home). Also in the hills is a group of stereotypical slasher movie college kids who are on a camping trip. You’ve seen them all before. You have the beautiful shapely blonde, the full-of-himself preppie, the nerdy guy, the pot smoker, and your token kids who are mainly there to add to the body count. They act stupid, do ill-advised things, and leave you wondering how they could ever pass a college course. But co-writer and director Eli Craig has a lot of fun with them. He’s clearly spoofing them but he doesn’t overexaggerate. Instead he injects some really funny lines and gags into these basic, cookie cutter characters.

Tucker and Dale first meet the kids at a gas station and through a hilarious misunderstanding they don’t leave a good first impression. The misunderstandings mount up after they cross paths in the mountains and the kids conclude that Tucker and Dale are psychotic hillbilly killers. This results in a bloody and often times rollicking chain of events that’s so cleverly put together. The good-natured back and forth between Tucker and Dale, even in light of the horrific things happening around them, will leave you laughing and Tudyk and Labine are believable from the first moment you see them. They may not be big household names but they are very good here.

This certainly isn’t a movie for everyone. The blood and gore is gratuitous but intentionally so and it sometimes plays a big part in the parody. This may turn some people off but it’s easy to forgive considering how it’s used. The movie does stumble a bit at the end. There’s a big showdown at an old lumber mill that also gives us our big revelatory moment. It was pretty anti-climatic and didn’t work for me. Again, it was soaked in parody but it still felt a little too conventional, something that can’t be said about most of this film. “Tucker and Dale vs. Evil” isn’t a movie you can pigeonhole and that’s a real strong point. It’s bloody and hilarious and you may find yourself grimacing and laughing at the same scene. It’s truly that funny.

REVIEW: “The Red Balloon”

Classic Movie SpotlightRED BALLOON“The Red Balloon” is a 1956 short film written, produced, and directed by French filmmaker Albert Lamorisse. It was filmed in and takes place in the Belleville neighborhood in Paris and follows a little boy who discovers a bright red, helium filled balloon. The film is simple but it’s one of the most tender and enchanting pictures you’ll have the pleasure of watching. At only 34 minutes long, it manages to pack more heart and authenticity into it’s running time than most feature-length movies of today.

Young Pascal (played by Lamorisse’s son Pascal) discovers a beautiful red balloon on his way to school one morning. He proudly walks along the streets of Paris with his new balloon while encountering a wide assortment of people, some friendly and some not so friendly. But over time we begin to believe the balloon has a mind of its own and a wonderful relationship develops between it and Pascal. It’s hard to believe but Lamorisse manages to make the balloon a true character in the film and we have no problems investing in this little boy’s attraction to and love for his red balloon.

We the audience basically just sit back and watch this young boy. There is almost no dialogue throughout the film, only a beautiful and appropriate score used at just the right times. But dialogue isn’t needed. The visual narrative is perfectly structured and paced and there’s not one thing that more dialogue could add that would improve on what we’re given. Young Pascal’s expressions, the beauty of Paris – even in this working class area, the amazing handling of the balloon, and the incredible camera work all contribute to grabbing us and wrapping us up in the wonderfully visual story.

“The Red Balloon” has received a lot of praise and rightly so. In fact, it’s one of the few short films to ever win a major Academy Award category (Best Original Screenplay). I was completely engaged throughout this short picture. And even during the couple of times where I felt I was missing what Lamorisse was saying, I was still wrapped up. “The Red Balloon” is a magical meditation on the innocence of a child’s imagination meeting the harshness of reality. But there’s more to it than just that and for my money, it’s one of those rare movies that is impossible to dislike. If you haven’t seen it, take 34 minutes and experience it. It’s worth the time.