8/6/13: Oblivion, Mud, Eddie the Sleepwalking Cannibal, The Silence, The Place Beyond the Pines, Antiviral, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, On the Road

Oblivion (PG-13, 2013, Universal)
When an alien force known as Scavs invaded Earth, humanity ultimately drove them away. But the cost — a planet completely ravaged by global nuclear strikes and the moon’s destruction — was incalculable. Sixty years later, Earth is nearly abandoned, with only scattered crews (Tom Cruise as Jack, Andrea Riseborough as Vic) hanging back to harvest resources for an off-planet colony of survivors. Jack in particular accepts (if not actually understands) his present condition, but dreams he cannot explain of a pre-war Earth haunt him with suspicious regularity. So what do they mean? You can probably lob a few guesses, and if you’ve digested enough post-apocalyptic science fiction lately, there’s a good chance some of those guesses will hit. But a confidently unique delivery makes all the difference for “Oblivion,” which takes some faintly familiar concepts, a few extremely familiar ones and a bevy of small but important details designed around its own world and arranges them into a story that’s more gratifying than the sum of its parts and far more full of surprises than its outline gives it any right to be. As “Oblivion” gives clarity to the shape of its world, little doubt remains that any marginally savvy viewer will see a few of its twists coming well before they arrive. Those wise enough to do that will likely also take some degree of issue with the feasibility of certain events up to and possibly including the events that bring it home. But for every wide turn you can spot miles ahead, “Oblivion” has a handful of zigs in the road — story quirks, character details, setting details, an emotion or reaction that’s as in character here as it might be out of character elsewhere in this genre — that make the journey a ton of fun regardless. Morgan Freeman and Olga Kurylenko also star.
Extras: Cruise/director commentary, deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features.

Mud (PG-13, 2013, Lions Gate)
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about “Mud” is that its main character — its namesake, no less — could fully not even exist and this still could easily be a great movie. And that isn’t a slam against Mud (Matthew McConaughey), whom two boys (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland as Ellis and Neckbone, respectively) discover plundering and hiding inside an abandoned boat they groundlessly believed was their boat alone to plunder. Mud isn’t hiding by accident. But there’s a reason he can’t just run away, and that reason’s name is Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). There’s more to it than that, but it’s a messy predicament overall, and perhaps it’s justifiably messy. But to a point, all we know about Mud is the story as he chooses to tell it, and “Mud” deftly blurs every moral line on the paper in such a way that it’s perfectly acceptable to take it on faith that he’s telling it straight (or at least straight enough). In part, that’s because this feels like a story about Neckbone and especially Ellis more than it is a story about Mud. Though “Mud” doesn’t play its audience for fools, it still is through Ellis’s eyes that the movie shapes its narrative. And while our titular might-be hero is the movie’a most charismatic force, it’s the kid who buys into that charisma — and all the stories about him that “Mud” weaves through this main thread — that ultimately make this one special.
Extras: Director commentary, four behind-the-scenes features.

Eddie the Sleepwalking Cannibal (NR, 2013, Doppelgänger Releasing)
Lars (Thure Lindhardt) was an artist on the rise before his career hit a wall 10 years ago, which is why he’s now starting over as an art teacher at a small school in the middle of nowhere. His most peculiar student? Eddie (Dylan Smith), a grown man amongst children who never speaks and whose gentle nature belies a pretty big secret. Yes, as the title indicates, Eddie has a sleepwalking problem. And unfortunately, as Lars discovers while watching him one night, he develops a ravenous appetite for living flesh when his sleepwalking tendencies kick in. Naturally, Lars discovers that carnage is the muse he’s needed to reignite his art career, and suddenly it isn’t quite so clear who the most damaged member of “Eddie the Sleepwalking Cannibal’s” cast actually is. If there’s any doubt about “Eddie’s” aspirations as an absolutely deranged dark comedy, that doubt immediately dissipates during an opening scene that sets a dually frightful and silly tone before Eddie even appears and kicks things into the stratosphere. It’s merely too bad “Cannibal” can’t close as strongly as it opens. Lars and Eddie’s story reaches an apex of crazy roughly two-thirds through, and “Cannibal” saves some more deranged gold for its closing moments, but in between, the film struggles to give its bizarre premise a satisfying place to ultimately go. It isn’t so damaging as to undo all the craziness that surrounds it, but the middling wastes a lot of time that could have transformed “Cannibal” from a great lark into a cult classic.
Extras: Director interview, behind-the-scenes feature.

The Silence (NR, 2010, Music Box Films)
Twenty three years is a long time to keep a secret, especially if the only other person keeping it has vanished. But if Timo (Wotan Wilke Möhring) thought simply disappearing was enough to break the unwanted bond he shares with former friend Peer (Ulrich Thomsen) after watching him fatally sexually assault a teenage girl while he stood by and did nothing to prevent it, the news of an abduction in nearly the same place and under eerily similar circumstances is enough to shake that delusion. So is it a coincidence, or is Peer sending a message only Timo can understand? And what compels Timo — now successful and married with children in Denmark — to return to Germany and face old demons he at least physically fled two decades prior? All will be answered in time, and “The Silence” gets points for providing messy answers and shaking up, right up to the end, what easily could have plateaued into a respectable but unremarkable police procedural. But it becomes apparent almost immediately, as a younger Timo stares frozenly ahead while his inner demons manifest as a gruesome crime, that the revelation of answers isn’t the main reason to seek this out. The pain in “The Silence” isn’t Timo’s alone to bear — it belongs as well to the missing girl’s parents, the silently-grieving mother of the original victim, the wife Timo leaves in the dark and even the detectives struggling to do police work amid crises of their own. “The Silence’s” graceful portrayals of all that anguish is the antithesis of overbearing, but it’s plenty haunting enough to sneak under your skin and take you by surprise when it gets there. In German with English subtitles.
Extras: Two additional films (short film “Quietsch” and the 60-minute “Under the Sun”) by writer/director Baran Bo Odar, cast/crew interviews.

The Place Beyond the Pines (R, 2013, Focus Features)
Upon discovering he has a newborn son from a short-lived fling, small-time motorcycle daredevil Luke (Ryan Gosling) decides he wants to be in his and his mother’s (Eva Mendes) lives. And after one thing leads to another and Luke’s old ways converge with his present condition, he turns to robbing banks as the solution to his problems. That, without spoiling too much, is where a rookie cop (Bradley Cooper) enters the intersection of all three lives and a few more — a wife (Rose Byrne), an infant son of his own and a superior (Ray Liotta) who isn’t completely on the level — he brings into it with him. This, by the way, is only the beginning. And that may or may not be a problem for “The Place Beyond the Pines,” which endeavors to tell an epic story that spans several years and 140 minutes of screen time, succeeds at doing so, but feels strangely stuck in a single gear nearly the entire time. Specifying exactly how that happens would constitute a foul, because the sensation of feeling stuck is most potent during a dubious third act that’s wholly a product of some surprise developments which themselves are reliant on yet more developments that are best left unspoiled. “Pines” is dense with storytelling about a relatively small circle of characters, and it’s a gifted enough storyteller to earn the courtesy of remaining largely unspoiled. But most of its gifts shine primarily at the surface level — an intriguing timeline full of whats, hows and what’s nexts, but with far less to offer in terms of why, what it means and even who these people truly are beneath what we see them do and say.
Extras: Director/co-writer commentary, deleted/extended scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

Antiviral (NR, 2012, IFC Midnight)
In the near future, celebrity obsession has climbed yet another rung of crazy. Stars with any strain of deformity or disease can sell blood samples to companies that replicate and resell them to willing buyers who wish to forge a connection to their favorite celebrity by literally infecting themselves with their idol’s disease. And business is booming, with companies competing for exclusivity rights and creating copy protection algorithms to prevent piracy of the diseases. Naturally, a black market has sprung around the notion of cracking the copy protection and profiting under the table, and as both an employee of a major distributor and a black market profiteer, Syd (Caleb Landry Jones) has the best seat in the house when an A-list star (Sarah Gadon) acquires a disease that may be too dangerous to sell legitimately (term used loosely). There’s more to it than that, of course, and there’s more insane dystopian ingenuity where that came from, too. The sheer notion of commerce by way of disease is crazy enough to make “Antiviral” worth seeing, and the way it blends that science into a world not entirely foreign from ours makes it hard to stop watching. None of this, of course, means that what ultimately happens won’t let you down. Passing on a chance to mine its ideas for any kind of dark comedy whatsoever, “Antiviral” instead triples down on the creepiness of it all — antihero Syd included, and perhaps especially — and brute forces that atmosphere through a story chain that doesn’t always pay off on the ideas in play. It works insofar that things only gets weirder and more unsettling with each turn. But watching “Antiviral” struggle to apply a satisfying finish is enough to wonder if a little versatility would have gone a long way.
Extras: Director/cinematographer commentary, deleted scenes, making-of documentary, behind-the-scenes feature.

G.I. Joe: Retaliation (PG-13, 2013, Paramount)
Mr. President (Jonathan Pryce) isn’t quite acting like himself these days, and while the public so far approves of his newfound trigger happiness, the Joes (Dwayne Johnson, Channing Tatum and Adrianne Palicki, among others) suspect something is up. When a mission gone awry ends with the President vilifying the Joes and declaring them enemy combatants at around the same time Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey) somehow sees himself out of a demoralizingly secure prison, it’s as much a confirmation as a public relations nightmare. All of this payback is, of course, customary for the second movie in what inevitably is a trilogy that likely precedes a reboot that starts this whole saga over in another trilogy some 10 years from now. It’s easy to get cynical about “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” when it effectively serves that cynicism on ice by so willingly falling into predictable story formation. But the nice thing about “Retaliation” is that, though occasionally self-serious in ways that betray the child’s toy on which it’s based, it also wields a pretty good sense of humor. Even during the darkest hour, that little bit of levity does wonders for turning beloved action figures into likable movie characters. The lightness extends to the action, too: Special effects abound, of course, but “Retaliation” depends more on the wits and acrobatics of its supersoldiers than a bunch of overweight computer graphics and bloated set pieces doing all the work for them. None of this makes for a terribly special movie, because “Retaliation” doesn’t excel at anything in a way that makes any one aspect truly memorable. But it’s fun while it lasts and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Those are modest bragging points, but they’re points few movies of this ilk can trumpet these days.
Extras: Director/producer commentary, deleted scenes, eight behind-the-scenes features.

On the Road (R, 2012, IFC Films)
The stench of cliche is powerful and never easily dissipated, and once it ensnares “On the Road” into its clutches, all the pretty and thoughtful details in the world aren’t enough to set it as free as it wants its audience to believe it is. Based on the 1957 Jack Kerouac novel of the same name, “Road” is the story of Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), a writer whose life gets upended and turned into a cross-county journey of self-discovery with the help of some free-spirited new friends (Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Tom Sturridge, Danny Morgan) who just want to wring free every last drop of vitality and excitement the wet dish towel of life has to offer. “Road” makes no bones about this. Really, it cannot shut up about it as constantly hurtles its characters into speeches about how exciting the world is and how badly they want to experience it on their own terms and live life to the fullest. “Road’s” palpable, verbal yearning is so relentless early on that its characters often cease being characters and form instead into a Voltron-esque vessel for that yearning. The desire to be different and exciting is so overt that “Road” emerges as dull and derivative — yet another road trip/period piece/memoir that confuses tense and awkwardly positions its characters as nostalgic for a moment that hasn’t yet happened and may never happen. Emotions eventually level out and “Road” rallies with regard to character development and storytelling that better reconciles itself with the exciting world around it. But even then, “Road” wants to be profound in a way it simply hasn’t earned the wisdom and right to be. Amy Adams, Elisabeth Moss, Alice Braga and Viggo Mortensen, among others, also star.
Extra: Deleted scenes.