Sunday, March 23, 2014

Gravity (2013) [PG-13] *****

A film review by Rex Reed for the NY Observer, October 1, 2013

Science fiction flicks about NASA pioneers lost in outer space are a dime a dozen. But cool special effects, applause-milking technical bravura and advance film-festival raves make Gravity more highly anticipated than usual. For the most part, it lives up to the hoopla. It’s a thrill ride in an amusement park for kids and eggheads alike. Think Epcot with a touch of the Coney Island Cyclone. The ride takes just a beat or two more than an hour and a half, and you get your money’s worth. But forget about words tossed around by critics with hyperthyroid gush like brilliant, visionary and groundbreaking. It is none of those things. Gravity is nothing more than a classy work of 3-D entertainment and, since everything moves in slow motion, not a very lively one at that.

The setting is an American space station floating around the planets like a ball of cotton. No oxygen. No sound. No one can hear you scream. The view is great, and the silence is relaxing. But terror awaits. When astronaut George Clooney transmits the message, Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission, you better believe him. Suddenly, the shuttle is assaulted by flying debris from a Russian spy satellite traveling faster than a high-speed Internet connection, and the U.S. mission is totally aborted. State-of-the-art scientific equipment worth billions of dollars is destroyed. Communications in Houston face a blackout. Worst of all, the entire crew is tragically killed except for two astronauts—the veteran mission commander (Mr. Clooney) and a lady research scientist with only the most basic skills (Sandra Bullock)—who are left stranded together in the cosmos, trying to get back to Mother Earth. Initially antagonistic, the wisecracking chauvinist flirt who hums pop tunes from inside his space helmet and the no-nonsense lady pragmatist who finds him unbearably annoying must learn to depend on each other for shared knowledge, trust and moral support. Only one will survive. Three guesses which one—and the first two don’t count.

So there you have it—the entire plot of a formulaic disaster movie with two stars who communicate from space suits that cover everything but their faces. They only have one scene together as the Bullock-Clooney team, and it takes place in a dream sequence. Still, they manage an uncanny rapport through words. The action is restricted to clinging to the sides of a spaceship, and the dialogue consists largely of stuff like, Prepare airlock for arrival, Report your status—give me a reading! and Explorer, do you copy?

Gravity nevertheless keeps you hooked. This is not a movie about acting, but the co-stars are in fine form. Ms. Bullock’s usual unruffled demeanor is perfectly suited for the doctor she plays here, and Mr. Clooney exudes his usual mischievous charm, even stuffed into a cushioned space suit that looks like an oversize oven mitt.

Mexico’s Alfonso Cuarón, who directed both Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and gruesome futuristic thriller Children of Men, uses his vast experience with nail-biting 3-D effects to create sequences that are scary and delightful at the same time. The long opening section where the junk hits the space station is first-rate, and the wafting, weightless shots of bodies in space really convey the feeling of what it must be like drifting in the cosmos. When Mr. Clooney reaches out to catch a floating lug nut, you cower in fear that he’s going to grab you by the throat. It’s the humor that makes this movie rock, not a lot of pretentious gumbo about the mysteries of outer space or the philosophical pandering Stanley Kubrick was famous for. The critics who compare it to 2001: A Space Odyssey are delusional.

Accept Gravity as pure, popcorn-munching show business fun and nothing else, and you won’t go away disappointed. Leave logic at the concession stand. After Mr. Clooney cuts himself loose to save his partner in a gesture so noble you don’t know if it’s heroic or insane, what began as a two-hander in Flash Gordon costumes turns into a one-woman monologue, and Ms. Bullock is left alone to spend the rest of the movie talking to herself, locating a Chinese spaceship with controls that might get her home (how would she know, since the voices and instructions are all in Mandarin?), climbing through explosions and fires inside the space craft, manually expanding her dwindling oxygen supply and reaching mission control in a foreign vessel with nobody to instruct her in English. For a medical engineer on her very first shuttle mission, she’s just the kind of gal you want playing around with your broken telescope. The preposterous miracles she performs in the script, written by Mr. Cuarón and his son, Jonas Cuarón, are not even peripherally believable, but Gravity is, as Bullock says, one helluva ride.

Labels: drama, sci-fi, thriller

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Touchy Feely (2013) [R] ***

A film review by Peter Debruge, Chief International Film Critic for, January 20, 2013.

Trading her improv-based filmmaking style for a more traditional screenplay-grounded model, Lynn Shelton delivers an uneven mix of half-formed conflicts in Touchy Feely. Set in her hometown of Seattle, this mystifying dramedy involves a masseuse who develops an unexplained repulsion toward human skin, a fuddy-duddy dentist spontaneously granted the healing touch, and a handful of others affected by a sudden energy shift in their lives. It’s not much to go on, but the promise of Shelton’s previous features, Humpday and Your Sister’s Sister, should draw optimistic audiences, just as it did this higher-caliber cast.

Peculiar in the way it expects audiences to figure out the basics — characters, settings, situations — Touchy Feely takes the time to establish Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt) as a successful massage therapist, then cuts to a family kitchen where she and three others make small talk. The awkward older fellow is her brother, Paul (Josh Pais); the casual young woman is his daughter, Jenny (Ellen Page); and the scruffy third wheel is Abby’s boyfriend Jesse (Scoot McNairy) — though it’ll take audiences rather more detective work than it should to sort out these connections, likely a carryover from Shelton’s unscripted earlier work, where exposition is often delivered on the run.

The figure-it-out-as-you-go approach proves too oblique here, as the film fumbles for strands worth following. Jesse invites Abby to move in with him, which could potentially lead somewhere, but doesn’t. Later, while sitting on the toilet, Abby picks at her knee, and notices that skin — which she touches daily in her line of work — is kinda gross (especially when filmed with a hi-def macro lens). This discovery implies the need for either a career change or a cure for her sudden aversion, neither of which is provided in the haphazard script. Likewise, the picture attracted such eclectic collaborators as Allison Janney and Page, but gives them too little to do.

Whether by coincidence or some sort of greater karmic design, at virtually the same moment Abby finds physical contact revolting, her dentist brother Paul gains the miraculous ability to heal pain, particularly as it manifests in the jaw. Virtually overnight, patients begin flooding his previously deserted office like pilgrims to a shrine. The two siblings couldn’t be more different in their personalities or beliefs, which seems to be the point: Though their appearance and acting styles essentially belong in separate movies, they represent a yin-yang dynamic, and when the balance shifts for one character, it upsets the other.

On the sensitive end of the spectrum, DeWitt’s screen presence is open-minded, deeply empathetic and intuitive. Her every look draws audiences into her character’s unusual personal conundrum; Pais, by contrast, is a gifted physical comedian who amuses with routines that verge on the vaudevillian, but hint at little emotion. His skeptical visit to Abby’s spiritual adviser is funny, but he doesn't seem to live in the same world as his co-stars.

Considering the film’s interest in holistic hocus-pocus, this world defies traditional storytelling logic, presenting receiving-end challenges compounded by Shelton’s awkwardness as editor in conveying location or time. At certain points, the film lingers on a scenic shot of Seattle for half a minute, implying what seems like a great passage of time, only to cut to a scene later the same day. Elsewhere, the film withholds exteriors, causing inadvertent confusion, as in an orphan scene between DeWitt and real-life hubby Ron Livingston set heaven-knows-where, or the unintentionally alarming reveal of nice-guy Jesse’s house, which looks like a crack den.

Labels: drama

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Great Gatsby (2013) [PG-13] ****

A film review by Claudia Puig, USA TODAY, May 8, 2013.

Jazzy visuals drown out the subtlety of the classic American novel.

Frenzied and overwrought, Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby is a glitz-filled folly. The director has fashioned a gaudy long-form music video — all kaleidoscopic spectacle and little substance — rather than a radiant new take on an American literary classic. F. Scott Fitzgerald's epic tragedy is lost amid the lavish excess. So much effort seems to have gone into the eye-popping production design, swooping camera work and anachronistic musical score that the result is hyper-active cacophony rather than enthralling entertainment.

For those who don't remember their high school English classes, The Great Gatsby is the tale of the mysterious self-made millionaire Jay Gatsby, as seen through the eyes of his next-door neighbor Nick Carraway.

Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) has bought an impossibly luxurious mansion on Long Island for one purpose: to grab the attention of Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), the socialite he has obsessively loved since they courted five years before. He throws outlandishly sumptuous parties in the hopes that one day she will stop by. 

Daisy is married to Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) and lives across the water from Gatsby. Nick (Tobey Maguire) is her distant cousin. When Gatsby learns of their connection, he persuades Nick to invite Daisy to tea, intent on rekindling her affections. For a while their passion flares, but things end badly for this party-hearty bunch.

Luhrmann is drawn to tales of impossible love — see his William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! So Gatsby would seem to be in his wheelhouse. But while his version is undeniably resplendent, the story's emotional beats fall flat.

In the novel, when no one shows up for Gatsby's final gathering, it's a poignant moment. But in the movie that scene is almost glanced over.

The performances are generally lackluster. DiCaprio has some of the haunted qualities of Gatsby, but also comes off as dully aloof. He and Mulligan lack chemistry. Edgerton plays the role of Tom as if twirling a villain's mustache. Maguire is serviceable, but bland.

Luhrmann's 3-D visual flourishes feel superfluous: Occasionally, words pop out across the screen as Nick feverishly writes Gatsby's tale, and feathers, confetti and streamers fly toward the audience during Gatsby's orgiastic soirees. None of it contributes to a sense of immersion.

The mélange of hip hop, pop and jazz might have worked if the rest of the film hadn't been bent on overkill. Interspersing the music of Jay-Z, Beyoncé and Lana Del Rey makes commercial sense for attracting young audiences. But it feels more calculated than artfully integrated.

The film conveys the decadence of a moneyed crowd in the Roaring '20s. But nothing about the story is moving, or remotely subtle. While it can be argued that Fitzgerald employed rather overt symbolism, his words were also marked by nuance, which Luhrmann essentially obliterates.

A key scene stands out for its significance: Gatsby takes Daisy on a tour of his estate. Elated to have her in his house and conscious of his vast wealth, he goes into his bedroom, pulls out dozens of custom-made tailored shirts and throws them on the bed. Daisy buries her face in the shirts and sobs at their beauty.

It's as if Luhrmann used that scene for his template. His version of The Great Gatsby is stylish, colorful material piled on in excess and tinged with overheated melodrama.

Labels: drama, romance

Admission (2013) [PG-13] ***

A film review by James Berardinelli, March 21, 2013.

Admission is a serviceable, sporadically entertaining motion picture that has been aggressively developed for mainstream consumption. Infused with an almost relentless blandness, it's defined by soft comedy (a few laughs here and there), flaccid drama, and likeable actors. Director Paul Weitz gamely tries to recapture something of the flavor of About a Boy but falls short of the target. Admission is the kind of disposable entertainment that won't generate sufficient passion to result in either overt pans or raves.

For me, it's easy to identify why Admission doesn't work: I didn't buy the situation. The characters are cut from the whole cloth of cinematic stereotypes but their familiarity isn't the problem. It's that director Weitz, working from a screenplay credited to Karen Croner (which, in turn, is adapted from the novel by Jean Hanff Koreliltz), fails to sell the scenario. A lot of what shows up on screen during the course of Admission's nearly two hour running time feels stale and artificial.

It's hard to determine whether Admission is a commercial for Princeton University or a condemnation of some of its admission practices. Perhaps a little of both. Certainly, the university appears to have been on board in some capacity since it was filmed in part on location. The story focuses on 16-year veteran admissions officer Portia Nathan (Tina Fey) who finds her neatly ordered life in turmoil when she learns that an applicant, Jeremiah Balakian (Nat Wolff), might be the son she gave up for adoption eighteen years ago. Although Jeremiah has terrible grades, his SATs are nearly perfect and he has aced eight AP exams, making his candidacy abnormal. As Portia investigates him, she becomes enmeshed in a romantic liaison with his mentor, John Pressman (Paul Rudd). Meanwhile, she's dealing with fallout from the breakup of her relationship with a Princeton professor and is vying with a co-worker (Gloria Reuben) for the position of Dean of Admissions when the current holder of that title (Wallace Shawn) retires.

One area of interest offered during the course of Admission is a peek behind the curtain at the factors that go into establishing whether or not an applicant is worthy of being brought up for a vote by the entire board. These fly on the wall sequences are more intriguing than the tired family drama and wacky comedy sequences. It often feels there's a really good, offbeat story in here that has been marginalized by the need to be a crowd-pleaser. After all, audiences are probably more interested in stories about relationships between parents and children than how the byzantine college admissions process really works.

Tina Fey is without a doubt one of the wittiest and charismatic performers working today but the screenplay of Admission fails to allow her to shine. Her humor is muted and the she's never really given an opportunity to display any genuine dramatic chops. She's caught in the middle, trapped in the molasses of the motion picture equivalent of Lite FM. I guess Admission wants us to laugh and cry but it doesn't do a very good job of promoting either emotion. One wishes Fey might have been given some input into the script.

Paul Rudd plays the likeable schlub at which he has become typecast. Is there really much difference between John and Pete in This is 40 or George in Wanderlust? It has become increasingly difficult to see Rudd as anyone other than Rudd. Perhaps he plays the character too well. His chemistry with Tina Fey is more of the buddy variety than the romantic one. Their (admittedly tame) sex scenes don't generate much in the way of heat.

Admission will almost certainly do well at the box office because Fey is a legitimate draw and the film practices strict avoidance of anything that might alienate any large segment of the movie-going population. My evaluation is to wait-list Admission, and catch it when it reaches the less demanding platform of home video. And if you're a college applicant hoping to get a few tips for skating through the admissions process, here is what the film has to say about what the secret is: You'll have to find that out yourself. Don't bother looking for it, or much else, here.

Labels: college, comedy, drama, romance

Gasland Part II (2013) [NR] ****

A film review by Eric Kohn (, July 8, 2013.

Josh Fox's 2010 Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland compellingly exposed the damaging impact of a form of natural gas drilling called hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as fracking, on small town America. Framed by Fox's wry perspective, the movie clearly demonstrated how fracking and the oil companies responsible for it endanger the safety of anyone living within its vicinity. Gasland contained damning evidence -- but apparently not enough to instigate much change, because now Fox has completed Gasland Part II, which ably demonstrates the deleterious environmental ramifications of fracking on a much larger scale. Although overly dense and at times unfocused, Gasland Part II successfully continues Fox's crusade against the ill effects of natural gas.

The director returns to the personal stakes of the previous film by discussing the endangerment of his family home in Milanville, Pennsylvania, where water has been frequently contaminated by the arrival of countless drilling sites adjacent to their property. This time, however, Fox uses that investment in the issue as a jumping-off point for exploring much broader issues associated with gas companies' dominion over the planet's ecological future. Fox's exposition is a cluttered, scattershot affair that shifts from one location and case study to another with little narrative fluidity, but the collage holds together mainly due to his dark wit, snappy editing and musical cues that give the message an added kick.

A smirking banjo player whose drive to disturb the progress of greater corporate powers lends him the appeal of a chic Michael Moore, Fox repeats many of the complaints from the previous installment with a new series of faces and a larger canvas. This time, he's seemingly aware that no small victory can stop the forces at work. As we know, in sequels, he says in a monotonous, Shatner-like voiceover, the empire strikes back.

Early on, Gasland Part II takes the issues of the previous feature to a global level. An early bit finds the director visiting the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on July 4, 2010, flying in a helicopter at low altitudes that reveal the extent of the damage. He soon learns that the company has been using chemicals to sink the oil rather than mollify its effect on the environment. We've lost the Gulf of Mexico as an ecosystem, a chemist points out in a fleeting interview, but not as a source of fuel.

That first indication of neglect for long-term environmental health reverberates throughout the movie, as Fox explores the export boom in natural gas obtainment that has turned fracking into a bigger issue than ever before. His travels take him as far as Queensland, Australia, where he discovers flammable water not unlike the resources found at U.S. fracking sites. He also explores the unlikely presence of fracking in the middle of Los Angeles and other instances of its debilitating impact, including earthquakes in Arkansas.

The pileup of examples is unsettling, exhausting and not always cohesive, though Fox certainly makes a good case against the future perils of fracking around the world: A study shows that some 50% of oil and gas well are likely to leak their damaging chemicals into water supplies over the course of three decades. Even the supposedly valiant efforts of the Environment Protection Agency to monitor fracking has been stymied by the influence of oil companies on how their sites are monitored, as one revealing phone call to Fox makes clear.

The director's activism naturally stirs up trouble, and while most of Gasland Part II lets its countless subjects lead the way, the story eventually returns to his personal antics: The finale involves a well-documented 2012 incident in which the filmmaker was arrested on Capitol Hill after attempting to film a congressional hearing on fracking; he handles the situation well, but ultimately gains nothing except another illustration of how much his hands are tied -- by getting them cuffed. In this David versus Goliath tale, Goliath still has the upper hand. Gasland Part II runs longer than the earlier installment, but ultimately it has less to say. Fox sounds the same alarm with a bizarre mixture of confidence in the message and an awareness of the vanity involved in delivering it.

Labels: documentary, environment
Internet Movie Database
Metacritic NA/100
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=NA, viewers=76)

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Blue Jasmine (2013) [PG-13] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli for on August 9, 2013.

It's all about Cate. Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen's latest, is a loose reworking of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. It's narratively uneven but the occasional lapses of focus are rescued by Cate Blanchett's riveting lead performance. The actress' work here is so good that it effectively launches the 2014 Oscar nomination season. It's hard to imagine Blanchett not being acknowledged by the Academy for her work here, especially considering AMPAS' fondness for the writer/director.

In actuality, this feels less like a Woody Allen film than anything the director has made since Match Point. It's another case of Allen diversifying both geographically and stylistically. Although the screenplay contains elements of dark comedy and is good for a few (uneasy) laughs, it's far more serious and less whimsical than Allen's usual fare. He's not on autopilot here. And, although the main character has what could euphemistically be called mental issues, she doesn't evidence the usual Allen angst/neuroses. She's too far off the deep end for that. While Allen's hometown represents the setting for flashbacks that consume nearly 50% of the running time, the main story transpires in San Francisco, making this the first instance since the 1970s when the filmmaker's first-unit production has taken place in a U.S. location outside the New York City metro area.

Destitute and disillusioned, Blanchett's Jasmine arrives in San Francisco to move in with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins). As houseguests go, it's hard to think of someone worse than Jasmine. After disparaging Ginger's apartment due to its size and décor, she makes unflattering remarks about her sister's current boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale), who, in her opinion, is only a small improvement over her abusive ex-husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay).

Facing reality is hard for Jasmine. Once the pampered wife of Wall Street wizard Hal (Alec Baldwin), she has seen her entire life crumble around her. Hal, caught by the FBI for illegal activities, hanged himself rather than face a life prison term, and the government confiscated everything, leaving Jasmine without a home or money. Her only option was to move in with Ginger in a place where she knows no one and in a situation she believes to be beneath her. Circumstances also demand she get a job - something she's unfamiliar with. Trophy wife to a crook isn't a qualification many employers are in search of.

Jasmine is a brilliantly multi-layered character. Although she's not an anti-hero in the traditional sense, she does harm wherever she goes, sometimes through ignorance and sometimes because she's too shallow to care. But she's a deeply tragic person and we often see this. She's subject to panic attacks and resembles a drowning woman clutching at straws. The façade she shows to others is brittle and easily shattered; beneath it is a sad and desperate woman.

Allen has surrounded Blanchett with a group of expert supporting players: the always-reliable Sally Hawkins who, like the star, has adopted an American accent; Peter Sarsgaard playing a potential suitor who's unaware of Jasmine's past; and Alec Baldwin comfortably essaying the smooth operator, whose conniving and infidelity pave the path to his downfall. If there's a surprise, however, it's Andrew Dice Clay. Making his first motion picture appearance in more than a decade, the once bad-boy comedian shows both acting chops and screen presence as one half of the role that was Stanley in Streetcar.

The way Allen has chosen to restructure Williams' play considerably reduces the most memorable aspect of Streetcar: the Blanche/Stanley dynamic. Here, with Stanley split in two (Clay is Ginger's ex-husband and Bobby Cannavale is her current boyfriend), there's not much juice in that interaction, and no sexual tension whatsoever. By default, this becomes Blanche/Jasmine's movie and the narrative drifts aimlessly along with her. Blue Jasmine is an exercise in examining the lead character's mental degeneration. The end result, a performance-driven character study, offers an experience more akin to what one might expect from the late John Cassavetes than from the still very much alive Woody Allen.

Labels: comedy, drama

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Oblivion (2013) [PG-13] ****

A film review by Richard Corliss, April 19, 2013.

Earth, 2077. Sixty years earlier, alien invaders had blown up our moon, and an intergalactic battle ensued. We won the war but lost the planet, says Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), a kind of grease-monkey pilot whose job is to repair the drones that monitor desolate Earth while the rest of humanity lives in a remote space station. His coworker and assigned girlfriend Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) directs Jack’s flying sorties over the wreckage of Manhattan, which may literally be a no-man’s land. Yet as he lies in bed with Victoria, Jack has visions of another, mysterious woman (Olga Kurylenko), from his fantasies or his past. I know you, but we’ve never met. I’m with you and I don’t know your name. I know I’m dreaming, but it feels like more that. It feels like a memory. How can that be?

And how is it that science-fiction films imagine the worst for our future while steeped in love-loss for our past? Perhaps because the genre blossomed, as literature and then cinema, in the late 1940s — the time of the Cold War and the first nuclear age — when our world’s two great powers played a deadly game of mutually assured destruction, and when fearing the prospect of human extinction was not paranoia, just common sense. It’s no wonder that any time before the Bomb seemed Edenic to sci-fi writers, readers and moviegoers; any time after might spell The End.

The same warm ache of nostalgia envelops the Jack of 2077, the hero of Joseph Kosinski’s oh-so-serious Oblivion, for the pre-invasion Earth of 2017. He stands at the top of the Empire State Building, most of it covered in sand and rubble, wanders through the caverns of the New York Public Library on 42nd Street (only eight blocks away from King Kong’s final perch but miraculously not buried) and patrols Yankee Stadium, scene of the very last World Series. He saves old books, a catcher’s mitt and baseball and some LPs from the 1960s and ’70s; Procol Harum keeps playing on his internal iTunes. Fixating on the 1948 Andrew Wyeth painting Christina’s World, and on his dream girl, Jack finds a verdant interior life in this wasteland by mixing memory and desire. His poetic guide, though, is not Eliot but Macaulay, whose famous couplet in The Lays of Ancient RomeAnd how can man die better than facing fearful odds, / For the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his Gods… — haunts Jack like a long-ago pop tune or a distant battle cry.

Oblivion must be the only science-fiction film that borrows substantially from I Am Legend, WALL-E and Sleepless in Seattle — itself a remake of 1957′s An Affair to Remember, which was a remake of 1939′s Love Affair. In fact, everything in this movie keeps looking backward. Victoria warns Jack that Our job is to not remember. Remember? That’s the cue for this company man with a rebellious streak to find his future in the past, to decide if he’s fishing for memory or waking up inside of a dream. Jack must attend to the dual meaning of oblivion: nothing and forgetfulness. If we’ve misplaced our memories, we’ve lost ourselves.

The movie’s trailer and poster have alerted viewers that Jack and Victoria are not alone on Earth. Morgan Freeman briefly emerges from the underworld as a Zeus-Hades insurgent, sporting sunglasses and chomping on a cigar. (Where’d he find that — in a subterranean smoke shop?) Melissa Leo, with a fake-syrupy Southern accent, is seen on Riseborough’s screen as a mid-level operative back at Mission Control. And Kurylenko, also in theaters now as Ben Affleck’s whirling wife in Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, eventually shows up in person when Jack rescues her from a shot-down spaceship on which she had taken a long cryogenic nap. (No surprise: she looks great.) But Oblivion is still so under-populated that. when Jack requires a suitable rival for a bare-knuckles fight, it’s a clone of himself.

Kosinski, the 3-D graphics whiz who has a Master’s degree in architecture from Columbia University, made his feature-film debut with the 2010 Tron: Legacy (a sequel-remake that also hop-scotches through time). Oblivion shows that Kosinski certainly has an eye for spiffy shapes — the sleek watchtower, the collapsible metallic grandeur of Jack’s aircraft, the platoon of drones with one glowering red eye and the frowning face of a Pac-man goblin— amid a ravishingly barren landscape. Indeed, the juggling of opposites is this director’s game: to make an artistic statement while indulging his star’s need to be a Top Gun aerial ace, a moto-bike demon and an old-fashioned romantic swain.

Cruise nearly carries it off. At 50, with a few becoming facial creases but also looking cryogenically preserved, he is still the boyish action star, a perpetual-motion machine who’s been told No so many times he’s stopped listening and leaped into the enthralling unknown. The extreme close-ups that find only generic worry in Riseborough’s face are kind to Cruise; he instinctively knows how to communicate to an audience through a possibly thoughtful stare. (We haven’t seen the old-young smiling Tom on the big screen for ages; he’s taken Will Smith’s lead and traded in his trademark grin for a world-weary grimace.) After playing the desiccated Stacee Jaxx in Rock of Ages, and the hobo sleuth in Jack Reacher, Cruise completes his Jack trilogy as Harper, spelunking inside the crevices of his memory or fantasy.

The exigencies of Cruise’s participation demand fights and flights. We get one pretty cool space dogfight, as Jack plays bumper cars with a flotilla of enemy aircraft, and one lame one that’s way too reminiscent of, and less thrilling than, the climactic chase in the original Star Wars. Rule for sci-fi directors: No more aerial Indy 500-style battles in narrow canyons.

But the biggest collision in Oblivion — one Kosinski may not have intended — is between the feverish action scenes and the slowness, we might say torpor, of the rest of the film. For all the shouting and swooning, characters don’t connect; and by the end, when all the clones and drones are accounted for, science-fiction entropy has given way to audience ennui. Six minutes or 60 years after seeing the movie, viewers are unlikely to remember it.

In space, Jack hopes, someone may hear you dream. But in a movie theater, no one will see you yawn.

Labels: action, adventure, alien-invasion, mystery, sci-fi