I think it is fair to say that the world of original science fiction is often disappointing, because I think it is the genre we are hardest on. We think that a film has to be somehow better than 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner together to be worth our time. Even the smallest foible justifies the label DISAPPOINTING.
There have been lots of haters on the Joseph Kosinski movie Oblivion starring Tom Cruise, out last week. They say it is just a ripoff of The Matrix or Inception or even WALL*e. I urge you to pay no mind, because Oblivion is one of the best entries of original sci-fi I've seen in a long time. It is entertaining and provocative and totally self-contained, and the version of Tom we have here is the version we like.
Oblivion tells the story of humans after an alien race has destroyed most of the earth. Mankind won, but at a terrible nuclear price. We have all gone to Titan, a moon of Saturn, to start over, leaving a few to maintain and extract what resources are left. One of these, Jack Harper (Cruise), feels a longing for the old earth he never knew, and near the end of his tour of duty makes the discovery that he isn't entirely alone.
I don't want to talk too much about plot, but I think that should ground us. There is a LOT of story in this movie. The exposition takes a half-hour. But it is all water-tight and necessary, and it doesn't lag. It absorbs you immediately. This is the science-fiction I admire: something that will take you somewhere new and explain enough of the rules for you to be able to get around. From frame one there is also room for questioning, and this propels the viewer to finish the thing out. Aliens aside, it is really a story about people and their relationships, which in a situation like this yields to examination easier than some relationship drama might.
The photography is wonderful, really very stunning. It is some of the best digital photography I've seen. Even the computer-generated stuff looks really brilliant, so kudos there. I saw some images from Kosinski's unpublished graphic novel which Oblivion is taken from, and the images on the screen are very faithful to his original vision.
There is nothing really special about any of the performances (which for Cruise I suppose might be a good thing). To be honest, he was the only qualm I had going in, which thankfully proved to be unjustified. But the characters themselves are complicated enough to forgive ordinary acting, so no demerits.
On final analysis, Oblivion isn't going to change anybody's life or introduce a new paradigm in science fiction, and it doesn't and shouldn't have to. It is a fine story told well. It leaves a little to think about after it is over, and it is entertaining to see while it is in progress. So I say, see it.
One I won't be seeing is Iron Man 3. Call me a hater if you must, but I don't see any sense in fueling a franchise I have never liked. So we'll see what comes up next.
1932's Grand Hotel came to embody classic Hollywood glamour for decades to come. It is stacked with the brightest stars of the time, including Greta Garbo, John Barrymore and Joan Crawford. The film itself a little forgettable, but it does encapsulate the golden age of of early Hollywood.
The film takes place in Berlin's plush Grand Hotel and follows the intertwined stories of some of its guests. There is the lonely Russian dancer (Garbo), the disgraced gentleman of means (Barrymore), the pressured factory owner (Wallace Beery), and the ordinary stenographer he falls for (Crawford).
The strongest reason to watch Grand Hotel is to see this cast together. In fact, that is why it was made at all, and probably why it won Best Picture. It remains the only film to win in no other categories. This is not to say that it isn't a good movie; it stands up on its own, and remains quite entertaining. However, it lacks a little depth at final count, and for such a stellar ensemble the acting isn't all that wonderful. The best performance is by then-newcomer Joan Crawford, who is infinitely more watchable (and considerably more beautiful, if you ask me) than studio darling Greta Garbo. The rest of the cast seem to be stuck in convention.
The other reason to watch this movie is for the history it portrays. It was produced at the beginning of the Depression, and it is just the kind of escapist cinema people wanted to see. Glamour wasn't pretentious, it was just glamourous. It is a glimpse into a past most of us have no connection to, where people dress finely and meet in far-off hotels. The men still wear morning suits and dinner jackets, and people dance to respectable music instead of the primal throb of jazz. It is the last hoorah of the old aristocratic system, even as it gives way to populism. One character, a lowly worker in a factory, has saved his money for years just to spend a few days at the Grand and live like his bosses do. Here, of course, he and the stenographer are the only ones to find some level of contentment amid the luxury. The film's message (if you look for it) is one for the people.
There is also some impressive cinematography highlighting the stunning art-deco interiors, a continuation of the film's modern tone amid classic surroundings. It is an enjoyable film, if not an influential one. Hollywood still favors a wide assemblage of stars to draw people out to the movies, and while there is nothing wrong with this, it certainly tastes better as an eighty-year vintage.
Sorry if you were all psyched about Grand Hotel, but I thought I'd talk about one you might actually have seen. Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly is out on DVD now, and I thought I'd tell you what I thought of it.
First off, the movie has nothing to do with Roberta Flack. It is in some ways an update of The Godfather for the recession era. It is about Jackie (Brad Pitt), a hit man sent to deal with the disruption of an underground gambling ring in New Orleans. It isn't necessarily a gangster movie, though. It is a commentary on the feasibility of the American dream in hard times.
Right off, the film is very visually compelling. Dominik knows how to use his camera to tell the story. His is a very unique style, and it is present throughout. It is much less understated than his first film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (which you need to see if you haven't). It is all very stylized, but not distracting. One sequence involving a hit plays out like a dance in slow-motion and is among the more beautiful segments of the film.
The cohesive visual portion of the film is not necessarily matched by the narrative portion. The story arc is a little unconventional and is initially hard to follow. In fact, there isn't really a "main character" like one normally conceives of. Of course there is Jackie, but he doesn't enter the picture until 25 minutes in. There are also the poor guys he is sent to take care of for whom we feel more sympathy. This isn't to say that the film is poorly written. On the contrary, it is immediately real and each character is a palpable thing. But it does ask you to take it on its own terms.
I said before the film is an update of The Godfather, and I will explain why. In The Godfather, anyone can still make it. America rewards hard work, even if that work is crime. Of course later on the series that is questioned, but the Corleone family thrives on what America gives them, a solid hope in the future. Like in Assassination, Dominik breaks from the conventions of genre cinema. Here, that dream has become impossible. Even crime has become a corporation, and the corporation is the only machine that matters. More often than not it is a broken machine, as well. Rhetoric about Hope and America is empty talk. In that sense the movie is more about America, and America is the broken machine.
Of course this is more than just a protest film. Good "gangster" movies have always been good at showing us versions of ourselves that might be less-than-moral, characteristics we usually channel into acceptable activities like business. Killing Them Softly only shows us what we need to make it in the world that hope in the future built.
Since this year has been so slow, let me know if there is anything you want me to see and talk about. Leave a comment with your suggestion and you could win something! Like me watching the movie you want me to watch!
Well, we continue on with the Boringest Year of Movies Ever, so I continue with my focus on past Best Picture winners. Up today, Cimarron, produced in 1930 and directed by Wesley Ruggles. It is certainly one of the first of the epic westerns, if not the best executed. In fact it is often cited as being the 'worst' Best Picture.
Cimarron tells the story of Yancy Cravat (Richard Dix), a restless young man of the West. He and his family travel to the newly-organized Oklahoma Territory to make their fortunes and shape the last great American frontier. He establishes a printing press that will tell the tale of the territory. The film follows the Cravat's through to their old age when the West was only a memory.
To tell the truth, this movie isn't all that good. The best part about it by far is the cinematography. The opening scene depicts the beginning of the land rush when the territory was opened up, and it is magnificent in scope. Throughout the movie there are shots that are brilliantly staged, and the camera is moved around in ways uncommon for the time. So I guess watch it if you are into that kind of thing.
But the movie as a story doesn't work. It is based on a novel by Edna Ferber (author of Giant and Show Boat) and it is a work of tremendous scope. This isn't effectively translated to the screen. Many of the conflicts presented come off as trite because they have no depth. The characters are often inconsistent. I think kudos is to be given for the attempt at the adaptation, but it simply doesn't work.
The acting, too, suffers from period showiness. The movie features characters from nearly all the acknowledged minority groups of the time, and they are all caricatured stereotypes. Even the white man is shown to be more statue than person, and the film's message of progressivism is swallowed in a cloud of vaudeville.
As far as early cinema goes I don't think Cimarron is one of the best examples. It's cool technical aspects don't warrant a viewing on their own, and the story is not as complete or involving as lots of other films from the period. It was remade in 1960 by Anthony Mann, with Glenn Ford playing Cravat.
My next entry will likely be a look at Grand Hotel, Best Picture winner from 1932 featuring Greta Garbo and a young Joan Crawford. As for what's going on in the world of today, I suppose you could go see the 3D re-release of Jurassic Park, or just catch up on your Antiques Roadshow.
by Chase Harrison