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: Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Robert Duvall
Directed by: Christopher McQuarrie (“The Way of the Gun”)
Written by: Christopher McQuarrie (“Valkyrie”)
As the year comes to a close, the patterns at the box office are typically the same. To capitalize on family outings at the movie theater, late December is usually reserved for broad, family-based comedies, tent-pole franchise films, and those films that are waiting to make their Oscar push. Every now and then, however, you get a film that doesn’t fit neatly into any of those categories.
Based on the popular novel “One Shot” by Lee Child, “Jack Reacher” stars Tom Cruise as the title character, an ex-Army cop investigating the deaths of five random people at the hands of a sniper. Along the way, a conspiracy unfolds as Reacher and the shooter’s defense attorney Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike) try to uncover the truth while determining who they can trust.
This is the kind of movie that Cruise was built for. He continues to be one of the most charismatic actors in Hollywood and it is no different here. Though his much-maligned but profoundly awesome running style is sadly absent from most of this film, Cruise displays plenty of action-star quality physicality with hand-to-hand combat. For her role, Pike plays it pretty decently, but the supporting cast gets lost behind Cruise. Other smaller roles include Werner Herzog playing a terribly unoriginal villain and Robert Duvall turning in one of the best parts of the film.
Still, “Jack Reacher” is hampered by an inconsistent tone. While the film never quite shoots for comedy, so to speak, there are misplaced scenes and lines that act more as a confusing distraction than effective comic relief. There is a scene, for example, where Cruise’s character fights several men in a bathroom that feels as if it belongs in a Three Stooges movie instead a first-rate action movie. The script of the film is also a weak point, with cheesy dialogue and only about half of Reacher’s one-liners truly hitting their mark. The narrative of the film, while enough to keep it chugging along, is pretty generic and very difficult to fully invested in. This is complicated by the fact that much is made of Reacher’s mysterious and nomadic background but it is never truly explored.
The film never quite takes off and ascends above typical crime thriller material. There are plenty of car chases, scenes of violent, and plot twists, but most of the latter are done quite clumsily. What makes “Jack Reacher” successful, however, is the sheer entertainment value of an on-screen personality like Cruise. If you can last through the entire two-hour runtime, “Jack Reacher” is a decent way to waste time, but not much else.
Starring: Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta, Tom Cruise
Directed by: Adam Shankman (“Hairspray”)
Written by: Chris D’Arienzo (“Barry Munday”), Justin Theroux (“Tropic Thunder”), Allan Loeb (“Just Go With It”)
Isn’t 80s music the best? Sure, the songs can be kinda cheesy, but the catchy melodies, powerful vocals and wailing guitar solos gave birth to not only some of the most popular drunken karaoke songs around, but some truly enduring classics. So, fans of 80s hair metal, imagine all of your favorite songs turned into show stopping song and dance numbers, how awesome would that be? Wait..where are you going? Come back! That’s right, if you’ve ever wanted to hear Twisted Sister’s rebellious anthem “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and Starship’s universally mocked “We Built This City” mashed together for alternating battle cries in a fight between fans of a rock club and an angry mob of moms against rock, you are in for a treat. If you think that sounds absolutely awful, that’s because it is.
The film opens with a “small town girl” named Sherrie (Julianne Hough) stepping off a bus in LA where she hopes to make it as a singer. Shortly after stepping out and singing a few songs, Sherrie gets mugged and has her precious records stolen. There to help her out is a “city boy” (GET IT?!?) Drew (Deigo Boneta) who works at The Bourbon Room, a famous local rock club. After Drew gets Sherrie a job at The Bourbon Room, they browse around a record store, where Drew reveals that he is a singer that desperately wants to be a big star. Of course, he doesn’t just say this, he grabs a random hanging guitar, jumps on top of a shelf and belts out a rendition of Foreigner’s “Jukebox Hero” as almost a mini-concert, complete with a spotlight being shined on him and shoppers going nuts. When that settles, Drew reveals to Sherrie that he can’t be the star he wants because he has stage fright. That’s right. The guy who just made love to a Tower Records during business hours crumbles at the prospect of performing in front of a more traditional audience. Enter Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), an over-the-top rock star caricature who is either the most successful cover artist of all time or a rock and roll enigma who is responsible for classic hits like “(Wanted) Dead or Alive” and “Pour Some Sugar On Me.” To be fair, Cruise gives 100 percent to the sexually-charged and alcohol-fueled role, but that gimmick, combined with overplayed rock-star quirks like Cruise’s ever-present pet monkey, undercuts the character’s impact.
A major part of why “Rock of Ages” fails so completely is that the script is truly bad. Not only is it ridden with clichés and very unimaginative jokes, but nearly every line in the film serves as an uncomfortable, clumsy segue into another song. I actually let out an audible “ugh…” when, while explaining a potential job to Hough, Mary J. Blige tells her that she can have it “ANYWAY YOU WANT IT, THAT’S THE WAY YOU NEED IT.” It’s clear that cast members like Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand are having fun with their roles. It’s a shame that they are given such uninspiring material to work with. Another major problem with “Rock of Ages” is that it does a disservice to the music it borrows. Nearly everyone in the cast sounds like they were taken straight from a Broadway stage. Boneta, for example, is by no means a bad singer. But no matter what song he performs in the film, he does not sound anything like a singer from the 80s. In fact, the only member of the cast who captures anything resembling an accurate reproduction of the film’s songs is Cruise.
When thinking about “Rock of Ages,” its difficult to determine who the intended audience for this film is. Most diehard fans of classic rock and hair metal will hate hearing their favorite songs from the 80’s bastardized and turned into Broadway tunes. Perhaps fans of musicals will be charmed, but since it makes use of pre-existing songs of a specific genre, does there need to be some sort of overlap? When the film closes with a big stage production of the Journey song “Don’t Stop Believin’,” (SPOILER WARNING) I couldn’t help but laugh to myself when one of the cast members, without a hint of irony, delivers the line “the movie never ends it goes on, and on, and on and on…” Clocking in at just a shade over two hours, I couldn’t agree more. Those looking for a fun, nostalgic trip are better off spending their money on a Foreigner greatest hits album, cranking it up and singing along with their friends.
Starring: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg
Directed by: Brad Bird (“The Incredibles”)
Written by: Andre Nemec (TV’s “Alias”) and Josh Applebaum (TV’s “Alias”)
The “Mission: Impossible” franchise is an odd one. As the only, “Hey, let’s update an old TV show!” film series to make it out of the ’90s alive (“Lost in Space,” anyone?), the movies have been a mishmash of styles, each film having little to nothing to do with the one that preceded it aside from the character of Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise).
The first one, released 15 years ago and directed by Brian De Palma, was Tom Cruise’s answer to James Bond with elements from the TV show, like fantastic disguises and self-destructing messages, grafted onto the plot for name recognition alone. “M:I- 2” in 2000 was a balletic John Woo-directed fever dream that featured things like a motorcycle fight and slow-motion doves. In 2006, “Mission: Impossible III,” directed by J.J. Abrams, brought a lens-flared grittiness to the series. Hunt took a beating after finally being held accountable to the laws of physics, and the franchise was given new life, as if a tiny explosive device had been shot up its nose.
“Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” directed with ease by animation veteran Brad Bird (“The Incredibles”) ends up being the first true sequel in the series. Continuing the tone set by Abrams (credited here as a producer) “Ghost Protocol” opens to find Hunt locked away in a Russian prison. With the help of agent Jane Carter (Paula Patton), recently-promoted agent Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Dean Martin’s “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head,” Hunt manages to stage an elaborate escape. The IMF needs Hunt, because it seems the recent murder of IMF agent Trevor Hanaway (Josh Holloway) has resulted in the loss of Russian nuclear launch codes that could bring about the end of the world. After a mission to infiltrate the Kremiln and obtain a launch device goes awry, resulting in the IMF being branded as terrorists and disavowed, it’s up to Hunt, Carter, Dunn, and analyst-turned-agent Brandt (Jeremy Renner) to stop global nuclear war.
While you can’t deny the slickness of the presentation, it’s the mechanics of the plot that dampen the enjoyment. The film’s big action set piece, featuring Cruise sprinting vertically down the side of the world’s tallest skyscraper, ends up being the end result of an incredibly robust network firewall, of all things (not to mention that his stealth is undone by running on the outside of building on actual windows), and the back story of Renner’s character (rumored to be a replacement for Cruise in future missions) is unceremoniously defanged by the time the credits roll. The gadgets range from innovative and fun, like an iPad-powered cloaking device, to complex and contrived, like a magnetic hover suit/robot combo. As villains go, Michael Nyqvist’s Kurt Hendricks is a disappointing bore, especially following Philip Seymour Hoffman’s brilliantly psychotic turn as Owen Davian in “M:I-3.” While Cruise’s Hunt remains a cipher, Renner and Pegg combine for some welcome bursts of humor, and the chemistry of the pairing is reassuring for the day Cruise decides to step away.
The stakes have never been higher and the spectacle has never been greater, but the plotting has never felt more episodic. After raising the bar with the third movie, you can’t help but feel a little let down that Cruise, Abrams, and Bird merely maintained the status quo.
Starring: Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Wilkinson
Directed by: Bryan Singer (“Superman Returns”)
Written by: Christopher McQuarrie (“The Usual Suspects”) and Nathan Alexander (debut)
Tom Cruise has been on some major public relations detail over the last year. When the release of United Artists’ first film under his watchful eye “Lions for Lambs” didn’t do as well at the box office last year as the studio would have liked, Cruise probably realized his stock had plummeted into uncharted territory.
What happened next?
Cruise joined the cast of “Tropic Thunder” to lighten things up (and was hilarious), zipped his lips about anything having to do with Scientology, and admitted that some of the philosophical messages carelessly blurted from his mouth were, to say the least, arrogant.
Now, with “Valkyrie,” the second film under his United Artists umbrella, Cruise is attempting to reintroduce himself to an audience on a clean slate. While it still might be a hard sell to his most diehard haters, Cruise has made a fairly entertaining thriller worthy of look especially from history buffs. The film follows one of the many assassination attempts on Nazi leader Adolf Hilter during WWII.
Cruise plays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, a German solider who has been recruited by his peers to help assemble a team to overthrow Hilter’s government. While the plan itself may take a while to understand completely – they want to use one of Hilter’s own military procedures against him – screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander write the accounts with such precision, it’s easy to get back on track if you’ve lost your way for a few moments.
The real challenge for director Bryan Singer (“X-Men”) is to drive the suspense throughout the film even when the audience (unless they failed World History class) knows the end result. Singer succeeds not because he has his head wrapped around the material entirely, but because he pushes the story forward the way he should: as a suitable action thriller with political undertones and not vice versa. You might know how the story ends, but it’s still intriguing to watch it all unfold.
Forget whether or not Cruise is using the correct accent (isn’t it funny that if he did use a German accent we’d be hearing from the same critics how fake the accent sounds?), the man can still command a screen. He, along with actors Kenneth Branagh and Bill Nighy, do a fine job making us empathize for the “good-guy” Nazis and have us still keep our distance. Singer also does a great job by never over-vilifying the soldiers in the Third Reich we actually want to see dead. The whole thing plays out like a football game on Sunday afternoon between two teams you don’t like. You really don’t have anything invested in the players, but it’ll be entertaining to watch them compete…at least until halftime.