Starring: Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko
Directed by: Joseph Kosinski (“TRON: Legacy”)
Written by: Joseph Kosinski (debut), Karl Gajdusek (“Trespass”), Michael Arndt (“Toy Story 3”)
Just like in his last film, the CGI-rich albeit hollow-to-the-core sequel “TRON: Legacy,” filmmaker Joseph Kosinski captures an exciting setting in his second movie “Oblivion.” In this Tom Cruise-vehicle, Kosinski’s idea of a futuristic, post-war Earth is vast and dreary. High-tech drones blaze through the sky with purpose. The planet is lifeless, but Kosinski’s vision isn’t. It’s not until characters actually speak and a plot is brought to the forefront when “Oblivion” becomes just another dull sci-fi genre flash in the pan.
Cruise, who is no stranger to substantial science fiction like “Minority Report” and “War of the Worlds,” tries his best to keep the drama high as the director maintains the fascinating world around him. He stars as Jack Harper, a security expert whose mission is to monitor drones on Earth. Along with his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), the duo is only two weeks away from clocking out and joining their fellow humans who have been transported to another planet after a nuclear war ravaged the world uninhabitable. Hanging out in the shadows of Earth are aliens called “scavs” who are hellbent on attacking machines built to harvest the Earth’s remaining ocean water.
If that read like a jumbled up narrative, that’s because it is. In fact, we haven’t even started to explain why Jack is seeing a mysterious woman (Olga Kurylenko) in his dreams or why an annoyingly southern-accented Melissa Leo is giving him the runaround via video transmission or why the heck Morgan Freeman shows up wearing shades and smoking a cigar. Besides not wanting to ruin some of the surprises “Oblivion” has in store, we also don’t want to dilute the synopsis as much as screenwriters here do with the script. “Oblivion” is a sprawling mess filled with big, muddy ideas. It’s a perfect example of a sci-fi movie that over-thinks its mythology and ends up forcing the viewer right out of the story.
It’s also not very mindful of other recent sci-fi movies that share some of its major twists. Sure, there are plenty of movies out there that cover the same themes and a few of the scenarios seen in “Oblivion,” but it boggles the mind to understand how a couple of them didn’t set off the copycat alarms. And no, we’re not talking about Cruise reliving his fighter-pilot days in “Top Gun.” Here he’s impressive behind the controls of a high-speed spacecraft. Too bad the year is 2077 and not 1986.
Off his Oscar win for the gorgeously shot “Life of Pi,” the work of cinematographer Claudio Miranda is easily the film’s forte. From a shootout inside an abandoned library to the eye-melting landscapes and skyscapes, the images in “Oblivion” coincide with its $120-million price tag. Producers should’ve skimped on a few CGI drones, however, and transferred some of those funds to someone who could’ve tightened up the screenplay with a vise.
Starring: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman
Directed by: Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”)
Written by: Creighton Rothenberger (debut) and Katrin Benedikt (debut)
Yes! Yes, Gerard Butler, “Olympus Has Fallen” is exactly the kind of film you should be making nonstop! Enough with the horrible romantic comedies. They absolutely do not work with you in the lead, and society is general is worse off for having to experience them. Stick to action and we’ll all be golden, okay? Even if the screenplay is utter crap. We can deal with that as long as there are some cool explosions and fistfights and such.
In “Olympus Has Fallen,” Butler stars as Mike Banning, a dedicated Secret Service agent tasked with protecting President Asher (Aaron Eckhart), First Lady Margaret Asher (Ashley Judd), and their young son Connor (Finley Jacobsen). After a terrible accident leaves Banning disgraced, he is moved from the President’s detail and reassigned to a desk job at the U.S. Treasury. Eighteen months later, when a rogue C-130 gunship soars over Washington, DC, mowing down citizens and law enforcement alike in a hail of bullets, Banning springs into action. The target is the White House (code named Olympus). When the building is taken by foreign terrorists, Banning slips inside and becomes the last hope for saving President Asher–and the nation itself.
If you aren’t the kind of moviegoer who can sit back and let the testosterone and jingoism of a political action film just wash over you, then “Olympus Has Fallen” makes an easy target for scorn. The script from first-timers Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt is overflowing with action movie cliches and is unashamedly aping “Die Hard.” Butler delivers another meathead performance, complete with an American accent as shoddy as the special effects on display. And Morgan Freeman (as the Speaker of the House pushed into action when both the President and Vice-President are held captive) is clearly phoning it in after having played roles like this seemingly dozens of times. Throw in unstoppable super-weapons, genius computer hackers, and a sneering foreign villain along with everything else and you’ve got the recipe for Generic Action Movie #876, right?
Well, yeah. But in spite of it all, it still works. The “what if?” scenario of the White House succumbing to a terrorist assault is juicy stuff, and it’s hard to get tired of Butler tossing out curse-laden one liners while stabbing bad guys in the brain. And as the Secretary of Defense, Melissa Leo is having a blast as she gets to spit foul-mouthed venom in the face of her captors. When she’s dragged down a hallway screaming the Pledge of Allegiance (as corny as it may be), it’s hard to not be on the edge of your seat waiting for Butler to come to her rescue and put a bullet in someone’s face.
Starring: Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy
Directed by: Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight”)
Written by: Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight”) and Jonathan Nolan (“The Dark Knight”)
In full scope, “The Dark Knight Rises,” the third and final installment of director Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, feels epic. From its majestic production value to its incredible IMAX-worthy set pieces, Gotham City has never looked so grandiose. Look beyond the technical and artistic achievements of this inevitable summer blockbuster and there are flaws. Despite the narrative’s overall maturation over the last seven years, Nolan has lost sight of just how 2005′s “Batman Begins” and 2008′s “The Dark Knight” successfully redefined the comic-book movie through intelligent design. Here, the bloated 165-minute superhero marathon is frustrating, especially with a script embracing a diluted story about the current financial crisis instead of actually entertaining moviegoers.
Picking up eight years after the last film ended, billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has gone into exile after the death of Harvey Dent. Wayne’s retirement, however, is only temporary and Batman reemerges when a hulky mercenary known as Bane (Tom Hardy) marches into Gotham with plans to sever the city’s economic lifeline, thus causing civil unrest. As Bane, Hardy joins the cast with big clown shoes to fill after Heath Ledger won an Oscar posthumously for his role as the rageful Joker. Sadly, Bane is better suited for a pro-wrestling ring than as a substantial villain with real purpose. New to the franchise are Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman, although the name never comes up), a saucy jewel thief who fights alongside the caped crusader, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt who plays rookie cop John Blake, the most interesting character of the DC Comics lot.
Where the Batman franchise goes post-Nolan remains to be seen, but whoever takes the reigns has a tough act to follow — even if this final chapter doesn’t necessarily reach its full potential.
Starring: Nathan Gamble, Harry Connick, Jr., Cozi Zuehlsdorff
Directed by: Charles Martin Smith (“Air Bud”)
Written by: Karen Janszen (“Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home”) and Noam Dromi (debut)
Suspected to be among the planet’s most intelligent animals, dolphins offer humans the opportunity to interact with what is essentially a wild animal that can actually understand us. While we don’t share a language or opposable thumbs, things like the concept of compassion seem to be a common trait. That notion is at the center of “Dolphin Tale,” loosely based on the true story of Winter, a bottlenose dolphin found trapped in a crab net off the coast of Florida. The ordeal results in an injury to her tail so severe that amputation was the only option.
After rehabilitation at a local aquarium, Winter is fitted with a custom-made prosthetic tail, enabling her to swim in proper dolphin fashion once again. While the bones of that story remain in place, the movie piles on the fiction in an effort to craft a family-friendly inspirational film.
The movie’s story centers on an introverted 11-year-old named Sawyer (Nathan Gamble), a lonely boy who retreats into gadgets and Game Boys instead of making friends or taking part in his cousin’s send off to the military. A bike ride to summer school results in the discovery of a beached dolphin. Sawyer cuts her free before a team from a local aquarium, led by Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick, Jr.) and his young daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), arrives to whisk the injured cetacean away for emergency care. His curiosity piqued, Sawyer sneaks into the aquarium to check on the dolphin, now christened “Winter” by Hazel. Initially turned away by Dr. Haskett, Sawyer is ultimately allowed to stay after Winter seems to react positively to his presence.
The first half of the film makes for decent if typical family film fodder, even if it features a mugging pelican you’ll want to punch in the beak. But then you realize you’re almost an hour into a movie you’re supposed to see with restless children and you haven’t met Morgan Freeman’s character yet or seen a single prosthetic tail. Yikes.
The second half of the movie slows to a crawl, stretching the story and the audience’s patience with a hurricane, a combat injury, and a lengthy series of artificial fluke beta-testing sessions. Like the similarly-themed “Soul Surfer,” the movie takes an intriguing real-life story of inspiration and smothers it in schmaltz.
Starring: Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren
Directed by: Robert Schwentke (“The Time Traveler’s Wife”)
Written by: Jon Hoeber (“Whiteout”) and Eric Hoeber (“Whiteout”)
Never mind the swift hand-to-hand combat skills Zoe Saldaña shows off in “The Losers” or the way Angelina Jolie leaps off highways and onto the tops of big rigs in “Salt;” nothing says sexy CIA spy like Dame Helen Mirren playing shoot-’em-up behind a semi-automatic.
In “Red,” an action-comedy adapted from a limited DC Comics series short for “retired, extremely dangerous,” gray hair proves to have a correlation not only with experience and ingenuity, but also an itchy trigger finger when a team of former black-op CIA agents reunite for one last cross-country firearms romp before their Social Security kicks in.
Playing a tough old dude again (most recently in a forgettable “Expendables” cameo), Bruce Willis has a little fight left in him as Frank Moses, the youngest of the retirees who has been spending his free time watching his avocado plant sprout two measly leaves and making excuses to phone flirt with Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), the woman who cuts his pension checks.
When Frank becomes the target of a group of hit men, he kidnaps Sarah to ensure her safety (worst way to get a date ever) and rallies his squad of former colleagues, including retirement home resident Joe (Morgan Freeman), paranoid spook Marvin (John Malkovich), and hobbyist/freelance contract killer Victoria (Mirren), to break into CIA headquarters and expose a major political cover-up.
The mission isn’t all that challenging for director Robert Schwentke (“The Time Traveler’s Wife”) and screenwriters Jon and Erich Hoeber (“Whiteout”), who allow the geezers to come and go as they please with tons of firepower but precious little explanation. More importantly, the script maintains a playful tone and rarely takes any shortcuts by harping on the obvious, like in 2000’s “Space Cowboys,” meaning no jokes about MediCare, wrinkly asses, and drinking Ensure.
Instead, “Red” relies on its talented cast to deliver the shrewd sarcasm and a few far-fetched action sequences that make most of the film so enjoyable. While Freeman and Parker are underutilized for the most part, Malkovich is able to chew up scenery effortlessly (grenade baseball should be an Olympic sport), and Willis gives Die Hard fans reason to expect more yippee-ki-yaying before it’s all said and done.
Sure, comic-book-inspired movies don’t necessarily get better with age, but just because our heroes are on the wrong side of the half-century mark doesn’t mean things have to go downhill fast. With “Red,” it feels good to pump the brakes a bit and revel in the ridiculousness of it all.
This review originally ran in the San Antonio Current Oct. 13, 2010
Starring: Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, Tony Kgoroge
Directed by: Clint Eastwood (“Gran Torino”)
Written by: Anthony Peckham (“Don’t Say a Word”)
Rather than give us a straightforward biopic about Nelson Mandela, two-time Oscar winning director Clint Eastwood (“Million Dollar Baby”) takes the spirit of the former President of South Africa and captures the essence of his political achievement and activism in the affecting film “Invictus.” More than an inspiring story, it enhances the definition of “inspirational sports drama.”
Starring Oscar-winner Morgan Freeman (“Million Dollar Baby”) as Mandela, “Invictus,” which is based on the John Carlin book “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation,” tells the story of how the former President used the sport of rugby to help unite a nation split by anger and resentment.
The film begins with the release of Mandela from prison in 1990. Mandela, who had been incarcerated for 28 years for crimes committed as an anti-apartheid activist, returned to the political spotlight soon after his release and was elected the country’s first black President four years later. After 46 years of apartheid, South Africa was at a turning point and Mandela was at the forefront of managing civil unrest.
To impede the racial power struggle in his homeland, Mandela, who recognized the passion his fellow countrymen had for rugby, recruits rugby captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), to lead the national team to victory. Mandela’s theory was that their success on the field would bring a sense of pride to South Africa everyone could share together as a unified country.
Mandela, however, didn’t want the team, which was known at the Springbok, to simply improve. He wanted them to win the 1995 World Cup. Doing this would not only pose a challenge for the fairly average rugby team. Mandela would have to sell his idea to black South Africans, who preferred soccer and viewed the almos all-white Springbok as a sad reminder of their segregated past.
In a classic and low-key performance, Freeman encapsulates Mandela with conviction although screenwriter Anthony Peckham doesn’t explore multiple layers that make up the iconic leader. Instead, “Invictus” plays more symbolically especially when Freeman’s Mandela uses respect and kindheartedness in attempt to realize to his political aspirations.
There might be a bit of an emotional disconnection since Eastwood and Peckham don’t explain much of anything when it comes to apartheid (study up before you come to the theater to understand the historical significance), but overall “Invictus” is all about precision and heart both on and off the rugby field.
Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart
Directed by: Christopher Nolan (“Batman Begins”)
Written by: Christopher Nolan (“Memento”), Jonathan Nolan (“The Prestige”)
Is it possible for a film so saturated in hype to be blinding even to the most objective of viewers? With “The Dark Knight” sure to break a few box office records this weekend, it’s no surprise that a visionary director like Christopher Nolan can create such an immensely dim and entertaining crime drama masked as a superhero movie. It’s easily the best comic-book movie of the summer, but to call it more than that is the overstatement of the year.
The accolades, of course, start with the late Heath Ledger’s fiendish and amazing performance at Batman’s nemesis the Joker. Ledger is right on cue as the soulless clown who robs banks alongside his gang of criminals. It’s a completely different portrayal than that of Jack Nicholson from the 1989 version. It’s not better or worse, but it is distinctive and memorable.
Christian Bale returns to form as the most ruthless Batman of any that came before him. Torn between his responsibility as a vigilante crime fighter in Gotham City and settling down with Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who is now more interested the newly elected district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart, who is later burned to become Two-Face) than billionaire businessman Bruce Wayne.
As in “Batman Begins,” Nolan has recreated the denseness of a city on the brink of chaos in “The Dark Knight” and it permeates through the entire film. It’s a real-world story with comic-book tendencies and Nolan is the one that is able to mold the two genres together to produce a sort of hybrid crime thriller.
There are moments in “The Dark Knight” where the screenplay has some opportunities to really sideswipe the audience, but chooses some easy way outs of a few intense situations. Where the film could have ended up becoming macabre and transformed the Joker into an incarnate of evil, it bows out and leaves him on a level of likability.
Overall, “The Dark Knight” wowed, but didn’t have a lasting effect despite it’s full-package delivery. That’s usually what happens with summer blockbusters, even when there as impressive as this.
Starring: James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman
Directed by: Timur Bekmambetov (“Day Watch”)
Written by: Michael Brandt (“3:10 to Yuma”), Derek Haas (“3:10 to Yuma”), Chris Morgan (“The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift”)
A fast-paced and mostly ridiculous adrenaline rush through the streets of Chicago, “Wanted” tells the story of a bored-out-of-his-mind account manager who finds out that his life is about to get a little more exciting because of his bloodline.
Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy) hates his job and his vicious boss, hates his nagging girlfriend for cheating on him with his best friend, and hates the fact that when he Googles his name, the Web site produces “No Results,” which basically tells him he hasn’t done anything with his life.
But when Wesley meets an assassin named Fox (Angelina Jolie) and discovers he was born to follow in his father’s footsteps as hired killer, he says goodbye to his 9 to 5 job and joins an underground fraternity where he is assigned to execute the man who ended his father’s life.
Reminiscent of the sharp narration of “Fight Club” in the film’s early scenes, “Wanted” is visual escapism at its most hyperactive. Beside aerodynamic sports cars and assassin maneuvers that defy the laws of gravity, which can be fun when they’re not too frenetic, a thin plot is what keeps “Wanted” stuck in neutral.
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Morgan Freeman, Sean Hayes
Directed by: Rob Reiner (“Rumor Has It…”)
Written by: Justin Zackham (“Going Greek”)
Not even cinematic cornerstones like Jack Nicholson (“As Good as It Gets”) and Morgan Freeman (“Million Dollar Baby”) can save a film without enough substance. Between both of them, they hold four Oscar wins and 16 nominations, yet their illustrious careers are no match for first-time screenwriter Justin Zackham’s syrupy and ultimately empty movie “The Bucket List.”
As a lonely billionaire hospital owner who recently finds out he has cancer, Edward Cole (Nicholson) is frustrated when he is placed in the same room as cancer patient Carter Chambers (Freeman), a family-man who has spent his entire life providing for his children and wife by working as a mechanic.
You would think in his own hospital Edward could get a private room, but with a stringent “two beds to a room, no exceptions” policy preached by himself before he becomes sick, his personal assistant Thomas (Sean Hayes of “Will and Grace” fame) thinks it would be PR suicide if he was not following his own rules. Thus, he is stuck with a roommate.
Although their personality clash from the onset, Edward and Carter begin a friendship between card games, chemotherapy, and Carter’s history lessons, which Edward seems to get used to after a while.
When both find out they only have a year or less to live, their bond becomes stronger and the two decide they are not going to spend their final months in a hospital bed waiting to die. Instead, they create what Edward refers to as a “bucket list,” a list of things they want to do before they “kick the bucket.”
Soon, we’re on a road trip with Edward and Carter through the countries of France, Egypt and India looking at majestic backdrops and pushing their physical limits to the extreme. Also on their list are skydiving, getting a tattoo, and driving a racecar. As the two cherish their final moments, Carter suggests Edward make amends with his estranged daughter. All the while, Carter’s wife Virginia (Beverly Todd) worries about her husband, who has never done anything spontaneous like this in his life.
There in lies one of the many problems with “Bucket List.” The trip never feels like a conjoined effort for both men. Despite the duo sharing a few life stories with each other, there is really no connection or chemistry between them. Blame Zackham’s inability to tie scenes together accurately on that. Most of the dialogue while they’re on their journey is from Carter, who cannot experience anything without verbalizing how much he knows on the topic. His cleverness – although harmless – wears on the nerves after a while.
Directed by Rob Reiner, whose career high points happened between 1986-1992 (“Stand by Me,” “The Princess Bride,” “When Harry Met Sally,” “Misery” and “A Few Good Men”), “The Bucket List” has the occasional smile-inducing scene but falls short of anything more than a collection of pleasantries. It is the film equivalent of a pat on the back when what you are really looking for is one of those embraces that last forever.