This week I saw two different American movies. One a big-budget sci-fi action movie with a major Hollywood star that is earning many millions at the box office. The other a small, dark drama from a not-yet-well-known director that may disappear quickly from theaters. Guess which one I liked better.
First, the sci-fi movie: "Oblivion" takes place after the Earth has been attacked by aliens and most of it destroyed by nuclear blasts. The surviving population have been shipped off to some inhabitable moon, leaving only poor Tom Cruise and a female companion to maintain and protect the water-mining operation that continues on Earth from marauding mutants/aliens. After a ship crash lands on Earth containing a woman that Tom has been dreaming about, he begins to suspect that Things Are Not What They Seem.
Unfortunately, the audience has figured this out after about five minutes, which means a lot of waiting to see what else is going to happen. The answer is, not much. At least not much that is not totally predictable. The film looks good and the actors, especially Andrea Riseborough as Tom's companion, Victoria, do what they can to make it emotionally compelling. But I couldn't help feeling the film was bloated and boring and would've been much better if it were a smaller, more intimate film.
Then I realized that it was a smaller, more intimate film. It was British, came out in 2009 and was called "Moon." "Moon" stars Sam Rockwell as the lone worker on a lunar mining station who is having strange dreams about a woman and begins to suspect Things Are Not What They Seem. Unlike "Oblivion", a lot of unexpected things happen after that, which I'm not going to give away here. Suffice to say that several of "Moon's" important plot points turn up in "Oblivion", which may be a total coincidence. But if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, let's just say that "Moon's" writer-director Duncan Jones should be verrrry flattered.
The second film I saw this week was "The Place Beyond the Pines", writer/director Derek Cianfrance's follow-up to "Blue Valentine", which got a lot of critical acclaim and I have unfortunately not yet seen. But I plan to, because this guy is clearly a major talent to watch out for. "The Place Beyond the Pines" is a complex story, or rather a trio of inter-connected stories about fathers and sons. The first part of the movie follows Ryan Gosling as Luke, an itinerant motorcycle stunt-rider who discovers that Romina (Eva Mendes), a woman he hooked up with a year ago gave birth to a son, Jason. Rather than splitting town, like his father apparently did, Luke decides to stick around and try to provide for his family (no matter that Romina is actually living with a very decent guy who considers himself Jason' father).
As in all film noir, Luke's desire to do the right thing leads him down the wrong path, namely robbing banks. This does not end well. (And if you don't want to hear any more about the plot, skip the next few paragraphs). A robbery goes bad and Luke is cornered and shot by an idealistic, but inexperienced cop named Avery. The story then unexpectedly switches to follow Avery, played by Bradley Cooper.
Avery is trying to differentiate himself from his powerful judge father by being a man of the streets, but soon discovers he's not really cut out for the violence and corruption in the police force. In addition, Avery has a boy the same age as Jason and he is haunted by the fact that he left Jason fatherless. Eventually, Avery has to choose between his loyalty to the police and his own future. After finally turning to his father for help, he opts for the latter.
The film then cuts ahead 15 years. Both Jason and Avery's son, Troy, wind up a the same school. Jason is a bit of loner, a bit of a stoner, but basically a decent kid with a loving family. Unfortunately, Troy, who has been neglected by Avery most of his life, is a grade-A asshole who walks and talks like a Jersey-shore reject and pulls Jason into his partying, drug-fueled lifestyle. I won't go into more detail about where the story goes from there. Suffice to say, that all the skeletons come flying out of the closet, leading to an extremely tense, heart-wrenching conclusion.
"The Place Beyond the Pines" is an unusually dense story, one that is rare to see in cinema unless based on a book. Are there a few too many coincidences? Is the theme underlined a bit too much? Maybe. But the film's exploration of the influence fathers have on their sons, either by their presence or by their absence, is never simplified or feels false. In addition, the actors, from the leading roles to the smallest supporting parts, are all outstanding (come on, Ryan Gosling, giving up acting now would just be cruel). The film is also stylishly directed by Cianfrance, who really knows how to use the camera to bring us into the inner world of his characters.
I guess there's no point in lamenting the fact that "Oblivion" will probably make eleventy-gazillion dollars while smaller films like "The Place Beyond the Pines" and "Moon", as critically acclaimed as they may be, will be lucky to break even. After all, I thought the "Oblivion" trailer looked great and bought a ticket the day after it opened.
But I do believe there's a place in the world for both kinds of films and I sincerely hope that anyone reading this will be at least curious enough to check out either of these smaller films. By paying to download/stream them, you will help the directors finance their next projects more easily. But more importantly, you will get to see two kick-ass films that will stay with you long after "Oblivion" fades into you-know-what.