OBLIVION. The Tom Cruise conundrum: wherein the biggest movie star in the world gives winning performances in humdrum Hollywood hogwash. Over the past nine years (with the debatable exception of 2011's Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol) Cruise has gone out for big, relatively undemanding parts in distinctly middle-of-the-road movies. He's done solid work. The guy's got the goods; that much is undeniable. But gone are the days of the excellent and complex work of his mid-career hot streak, which included Stanley Kubrick's contentious but compelling Eyes Wide Shut, Michael Mann's Collateral and a revelatory performance in Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia.
Why the shift? That's not for me to guess. But the upshot is that this talented, hard-working leading man has painted himself into a corner. Going to see one of his movies these days means anticipating a buzzkill. So it went with Oblivion: I figured I'd enjoy Cruise in yet another mediocre Tom Cruise movie.
This one, by director Joseph Kosinski (TRON: Legacy), working from an adaptation of his own graphic novel, raises Cruise's plummeting average slightly, and it may be the most frustrating example of his recent work for that very reason. This post-apocalyptic, Earth-as-poison-wasteland sci-fantasy has some positive attributes. Lavishly styled and dressed, the movie is lit and shot with originality and intention, and it glides along with grace and confidence.
Cruise plays Jack Harper, a technician tasked with maintaining armed drones that defend giant generators fueled by seawater. He and communications officer/lover Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are, to the best of their knowledge, the last humans on Earth, a clean-up crew that will soon turn off the lights, lock the door and join the rest of humanity on the Jupiter moon Titan. But something keeps sabotaging the drones, and Jack's impulse to investigate (along with nostalgia for an Earth he doesn't really remember) leads him toward a troubling discovery.
It's a promising premise, and the movie finds a rhythm early on. Sumptuous visuals, carried on a throbbing, atmospheric score, work toward elevating Oblivion beyond my expectations. But the opening and closing are painfully bridled by unnecessary voice-over, and the big second act plot twist can be spotted a mile away. From there the story gets derivative and simplistic.
When the plot's nuts and bolts are required to support some weight, everything starts coming apart. I left the theater feeling conflicted over an ultimately silly movie. There's a glimmer of something much better, maybe even great, in Oblivion, but its strengths cannot overcome its weaknesses. PG13. 126m.
THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES. Last week, Ryan Burns teased this movie, referring to writer/director Derek Cianfrance's last one, Blue Valentine, as an emotional wrecking ball. I think Blue Valentine is more like an emotional smart-bomb, or maybe the vivisection of a marriage. With surgical precision, Cianfrance and his actors (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, both completely natural, broken and riveting) lay open a relationship, exposing raw nerves and vessels that can carry both nourishing life-blood and virulent infection.
They capture the tiny expressions that speak to oceanic emotions, the devastating physical shorthand of people in love hurting each other -- in other words, the truth of an intimate relationship unraveling. That story came from honesty, and it's joyful and heartbreaking at the same time. As my wife said, "I love it and I hate it."
With The Place Beyond the Pines, Cianfrance (again collaborating with Gosling) turns his acute focus on a bigger subject, with exciting if occasionally mixed results. Gosling's Luke Glanton is a motorcycle daredevil traveling with a carnival. He blows into town one summer and encounters Romina (Eva Mendes), with whom he shared a few nights the year before. When he learns that their time together produced a son, Luke decides to quit his job and stick around awhile.
After trying and failing to rekindle something with Romina and get to know his baby, he soon takes drastic, criminal measures to provide for them. That situation comes to a head quickly, culminating in a confrontation with over-educated rookie cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper). From there the plot turns to follow Avery as he attempts to find justice inside a deeply corrupt police department.
Place has a bold, novelistic structure, and it almost always works. Only as the third act unfolds does its ambition outstrip the execution a little, and the framework sways noticeably. But that's a minor weakness in the face of all the great filmmaking going on. The cinematography, resplendent with saturated color, combines dizzying handheld camerawork and more traditional shots to mesmerizing effect. The clean, seamless editing and a haunting soundtrack (by local boy done good Mike Patton) interplay achingly well with the cast's exceptional performances. And the themes -- of fathers and sons, absence, personal responsibility and consequences echoing across generations -- resonate profoundly. R. 140m.
-- John J. Bennett
THE BIG WEDDING. I try not to judge movies by their trailers, but damn: This. Looks. Awful. Maybe I'm wrong. Divorced parents (Robert De Niro and Diane Keaton) pretend they're still married for the benefit of their future son-in-law's Catholic mom. The all-star cast includes Susan Sarandon, Robin Williams, Katherine Heigl and Amanda Seyfried. R. 90m.
PAIN & GAIN. Big-budget schlock-maestro Michael Bay (Bad Boys, Transformers) directs this action comedy starring Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie as weightlifting criminals. Like bathing in testosterone. R. 129m.
On Sunday, the Arcata Theatre Lounge will show Dreamworks' 2005 animated comedy Madagascar. PG. 86m. 6 p.m. Turn May Day into "mayday!" with 20 Million Miles to Earth, a 1957 sci-fi flick about a giant creature from Venus running amok in Rome. It's the creature feature for next week's Sci-Fi Pint and Pizza Night at the ATL. Doors at 6 p.m.
The Humboldt County Library's Based-on-the-Book series "Shadows and Fog: San Francisco Noir" wraps up next Tuesday with Thieves' Highway (aka Thieves' Market), a 1949 melodrama from director Jules Dassin.
42. This Hollywood biopic about baseball color-barrier-breaker Jackie Robinson is so glossy it all but glosses over the issue of racism. PG13. 128m.
THE CROODS. A prehistoric family must look for a new cave in this likeable animated comedy featuring the voices of Nic Cage and Emma Stone. PG. 96m.
EVIL DEAD. This gory remake of the 1980s camp-horror classic about a group of young'uns, a cabin in the woods and a supernatural skin-bound book has less camp, more viscera. R. 91m.
G.I. JOE: RETALIATION. Bruce Willis, "The Rock" and Channing Tatum play guys with big muscles and guns. They shoot stuff. PG13. 99m.
JURASSIC PARK 3D. That 3D T-Rex made me spill my Diet Coke! PG13. 127m.
OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN. White House action-thriller with a Secret Service agent (Gerard Butler) protecting the president (Aaron Eckhart) from evil Koreans. Yawn. R. 100m.
OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL. James Franco stars as the young wizard-to-be in this visually rich but ultimately hollow prequel. PG. 130m.
SCARY MOVIE 5. What's scary is how many people pay money -- genuine U.S. currency! -- to watch this stuff. PG13. 85m.
-- Ryan Burns