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Column Fri Apr 19 2013

Oblivion, To the Wonder, No Place on Earth & Antiviral

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Oblivion

The latest Tom Cruise science-fiction epic features a pair of fairly major plot twists, neither of which I'll reveal here, but one I found fairly predictable and the other took me by complete surprise. And I like those percentages, since usually I figure this crap out pretty early on. Oblivion feels like a beautiful quilt, made up of squares from so many different science fiction stories that you feel like you're playing a "Guess That Reference" game as you're watching it. But there's no denying the film is a stunning visual achievement (I highly recommend seeing this in IMAX; it's not in 3-D, thankfully) with a story that is both derivative but still capable of being smart and entertaining.

I particularly liked the setup. Cruise plays Jack, one of only a few humans who still works on the surface of Earth. According to Jack, most humans live on the Jupiter moon Titan, while a few inhabit a space station above the earth, which keeps track of the surface. The future story is that Earth was invaded by alien "Scavs." We managed to drive them out, but the planet was so utterly laid to waste (due in large part to the aliens destroying our moon) that it had to be evacuated. Giant syphons are pulling the earth's water supply off the planet for fuel, and those machines are being guarded by automated drones that are under constant attack from stray aliens that Jack must take out as he makes sure the drones are in good working order.

While Jack heads to the surface every day searching for marauders and fixing drones, his off-world partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) guides him on his mission with instructions from Sally (Melissa Leo), a commanding officer on the space station. Victoria and Jack are, I believe, married or at least paired because they work and live well together in their outer-atmosphere spacious apartment/work environment. But that doesn't stop him from having intense dreams about another woman he keeps seeing himself meeting at the top of what used to be the Empire State Building.

One day, Jack witness a spacecraft crash on Earth, and what he finds are human survivors in suspended animation chambers, but the space station immediately deploys drones to destroy these survivors. Jack is able to save one, a woman named Julia (Olga Kurylenko, who is also in To the Wonder this week, and was seen in the James Bond film Quantum of Solace), who looks strikingly like the woman in Jack's dreams. He takes her with him, but before long, Jack is taken captive by what he believes are the roaming aliens, but are in fact other humans, led by Morgan Freeman's Beech (others in this group include "Game of Thrones" star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Death Proof's Zoe Bell, who I'm pretty sure never utters a word in Oblivion).

One of the smart things the film does is not spell out every twist and turns as it's happening. While there is a great deal of dialogue, most of it is uttered in the name of character development. Amen. For example, rather than over explain what is really going on on Earth, Beech sets Jack on a mission to find out for himself, letting the discovery and mind-blowing reality be Jack's secret to uncover.

Directed by Jospeh Kosinski (Tron: Legacy), Oblivion is a technical achievement that doesn't forget to allow the humanity of the characters and situation to come the foreground. It's fascinating watching Cruise play a character that is actively worried about doing a good job for his overlords. He's been told his job is done in about two weeks, and he gets to join his fellow humans on Titan. In many ways, the film is about re-acquiring ones humanity. Jack is a proud earthling, who hates the idea of leaving his planet. "We won the war. Why do we have to leave?" he wonders. He's even built a little cabin stocked with found objects from his many surface missions, including stacks of books, clothing, and other memorabilia of what it meant to be an Earth dweller.

Some might think that Oblivion's final act reaches too much, and maybe it does, but it never really bothered me. The film has a classic b-movie mentality, and if it had been made 40 years ago, Charlton Heston might have played Jack. But Cruise actually dials back the heroics substantially, and the film is better for it. And as she does in To the Wonder, Kurylenko really impresses me with her depth. Hell, I believed Tom Cruise's longing for her far more than I did Ben Affleck's in Malick's movie. Oblivion's flaws are mostly issues of pacing, but the more deliberate flow of the film actually worked to help us understand the world these people live in. I wouldn't call the film the warmest of experiences in recent memory, but I don't need a film to be my best friend; I just need it to compel and provoke, and I think this film does both in small but noticeable doses.

To the Wonder

If I wanted to see the backs of women's heads as they twirled in fields of gold and glanced back into the camera just to get a little face time, I'll just watch director Terrence Malick's last film, Tree of Life, a film that elegantly ties together to idea of familial bonds to the birth of the known universe. But with his latest film, To the Wonder, about love and how you break it, Malick's patented style is applied clumsily and doesn't mesh with the appeal of the actors he's chosen, save one. Hell, even the army of Malcik defenders/apologists admit this film is primarily a fans-only experience, and I consider myself a fan. But I couldn't get past the filmmaker's absolute refusal to allow us to connect with any of his handsome cast members in an attempt to form an emotional bond that I'd willingly allow to be trampled on by this master of the cinema.

All of that being said, To the Wonder isn't a terrible film at all, and there are elements and moments worth fawning over. First and foremost, there is actor Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace, Seven Psychopaths) playing Marina, a single mother living in Paris who meets American tourist Neil (Ben Affleck), who convinces her and her daughter to move back to Oklahoma with him. Seeming to put all of the blame on Neil's inability to commit fully (i.e. marry Marina), the film tracks their relationship from passionate and new to a disintegrating mess of fights and throwing things. While we are clearly meant to see this from Marina's perspective, Malick utterly short changes Neil by making him a soulless head and shoulders, seen primarily in a series of shots that only show the back of Affleck's head.

I'm not going to sit here and debate the merits of Affleck as either a great actor or handsome man, but he has been known to do solid work in the right hands (mostly his own, in films like The Town and Argo). But in To the Wonder, his eyes are dead, he mood sullen, and he trounces around this film like an angry bull. Unlike Kurylenko, who is fleshed out and is given moments with her daughter to show that she's a fully formed human being who doesn't enjoy being dragged halfway around the world only to be rejected. Rightfully so, she leaves Neil for a period to head back to France.

The film features two supporting characters with odd connections to the main story. The always-compelling Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men, Skyfall) appears as a priest who crosses paths with Marina, but quickly goes off on this own, unconnected side story about giving last rights to prisoners on death row and visiting the poor. Through the film's most eloquent narrations (all of the main characters get to reveal their inner thoughts in voiceover), the priest makes it clear that he's losing his faith, and it shows on his haggard face. Although the priest's story barely grazes the main love story, it was one of my favorite elements of the film.

In addition, Rachel McAdams (The Notebook, Midnight In Paris) plays Jane, a childhood girlfriend of Neil's, who comes back into his life at this point, and the two start a brief but passionate relationship that serves to only remind Neil how much he misses Marina. Once again, McAdams is mostly seen twirling and spinning around in front of the camera, in the same style that Jessica Chastain perfected in Tree of Life — the difference being that Chastain's mother character was twirling as a means to entertain her kids and display a bit of instability. McAdams is doing so to make sure she gets her face on camera. She doesn't last long, and soon Neil convinces Marina to come back. Wisely, she doesn't drag her daughter with her until she figures out where she stands with this tough-to-pin-down man.

To the Wonder is one of the more beautifully shot films you're likely to see this year, and if the pure image is what you love more than anything, you can't go wrong with Malick. And while I know that definitions of conventions storytelling and character development don't apply in his works, and that's perfectly OK. His constructions are usually things of great style and grace that evoke pure emotion in conjunction with a simple plot. But something is sadly missing from To the Wonder. Maybe Affleck is in over his head, but I think it has more to do with stripping away so much of his performance that all that's left behind is a hunky shell. It's frustrating to have to deflate such a reliable filmmaker, but this one is perhaps his weakest entry. But with two more films already coming down the chute, Malick will hopefully have more opportunities to impress us. Still, if you're a die-hard admirer of his work, you should have no trouble digesting this one and finding sections to fall for. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

No Place on Earth

There have been countless filmed accounts — both feature films and documentaries — about Jews who hid somewhere in the recesses of Europe at some point during World War II, when they were targeted for extermination. But the new doc No Place on Earth might be one of the strangest and most fascinating accounts I've ever heard, and we may never have heard this collection of stories without a caving enthusiast named Chris Nicola who traveled to the Ukraine and found the Priest's Grotto caves in Verteba.

Nicola had been spelunking when he entered a cave that showed signs that people had been living in them recently. He set himself a mission to investigate just who these people might have been and why they had ever taken up residence in these caves. What he learned — and what we discover through interviews with survivors and reenactments of the incidents — is that 38 Ukrainian Jews hid out in the caves for an unbelievable 18 months (we're told this is the longest-running sustained underground survival in recorded history) until the Russians came in and found them.

Part of the remarkable nature of the story told in No Place on Earth is the system the group had for retrieving food, getting supplies, and living under such conditions while trying to maintain some level of civility and humanity. Filmmaker Janet Tobias even managers to bring a few of the survivors (who were only children at the time of their cave living) back to Verteba to climb into their former cramped, dark quarters. One woman who lived there as a child said that being in the cave again calmed her completely; it was clearly an emotional experience for all involved.

I have mixed feelings about the reenactments in the film; they seem a bit on the amateurish side. However, without them, the film would have been about half its length, and they give us something to look at while the survivors tell their absolutely necessary tales of the most unbelievable endurance test these people will ever face. The story might be better than the film, but that stands to reason; this is a story that no film — documentary or feature — could ever fully capture, but No Place on Earth makes a good run at it. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Antiviral

One of the more ambitious feature film debuts I've seen in quite some time is Antiviral, the brainchild of writer-director Brandon Cronenberg, son of David but clearly a talent in his own right, for reasons that are both similar and dissimilar to his father. Both men seem obsessed with perversions of the flesh, both in terms science and sexuality. But Brandon's take on the future of celebrity worship goes into areas that are borderline genius.

The focal point of Antiviral is Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones, who played Banshee in X-Men: First Class), who works for a company in the apparently near future that will literally sell you a disease (everything from a cold to STDs to god knows what else) that was harvested legally from ailing celebrities — the target market being people who just want to be a little closer to their favorite stars. We see from news broadcasts in the background of many scenes that the tools of the paparazzi have advanced. Infrared cameras can now show us what lies beneath the clothes. Celebrities makes a mint selling skin samples that can be regenerated and sold as patches that people can wear on their arms, or fatty tissues can be grown to make a steak-like substance sold in butcher shops. Even through the practice appears to be commonplace, Syd still wonders how this isn't cannibalism.

In one early scene, Syd sells a strain of herpes from one of the biggest stars on the planet, Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon, scene primarily in billboards and commercials for most of the film) to an obsessed fan, played by Douglas Smith. Syd is a master salesman, but it's the look on Smith's face as Syd talks him into getting the injection in his mouth because that's where Hannah would have given it to him had she actually kissed him is priceless.

Syd is also something of a criminal. He injects many of these celebrity viruses into himself, allows them to make him sick, then sells his blood to a black market dealer. One of the strangest aspect to Antiviral is that Jones spends about 75 percent of the movie in a perpetual state of illness. He's hunched over at various angles or just flat out on his back going through whatever disease of the week he might be transporting, and he plays sick so convincingly, you'd be afraid to go near the actor if you ever ran into him.

One day Syd is called upon to do something he's never done before — personally extract a sickly Hannah Geist for a new virus strain that will be worth a fortune for his company. The encounter is a little underwhelming (she has a sleep mask on and doesn't even wake up when he takes her blood), but as soon as he's done, he gives himself a small bit of her blood, knowing he'll make enough money from the black-market sale to retire. But not long after the extraction, Hannah dies and suddenly Syd's life and future don't look so good as he races to find a cure for whatever is ailing him. But nothing is quite that simple, as he finds out while trying to figure out exactly what killed the superstar, who is being mourned like a world leader.

Cronenberg's visual palette is exceptional, especialy in the scenes where Syd is especially sick to the point where he's delusional or having fever dreams about his own body being warped by an outside force. But I also love the way that the corporation that sells these viruses is shown as cold and soul draining. Some things haven't changed in the future.

In a not-so-strange way, Antiviral is also a love story between Syd and Hannah, even though they share just a little screen time together. Does he see himself as her protector, or is he just another fan (as one person asks him)? There's no getting around the fact that the way he lovingly inserts the needle into her arm to draw blood (thanks for the close up of that and the dozen or so other injection closeups throughout the film, Mr. Cronenberg) is presented in true needle-porn fashion. Antiviral is the work of a budding visionary, whose best work, I expect, is yet to come. But for the time being, his current work is full of inventive and effective artistry. The film opens today exclusively at the Patio Theater.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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