Reel Critics: 'Oblivion' a thinking man's thriller

Big-budget science-fiction movies are often vehicles for selling toys to kids and merchandise to adult fans. But there was a time when these films offered compelling visions of a strange future far beyond conventional thinking. "Forbidden Planet" in 1956, Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" in 1968 and "Blade Runner" in 1982 broke new ground in the genre.

"Oblivion" may not fully belong in that grand company. But it's created in the mold of those old-school classics. Tom Cruise plays Jack Harper, patrolling a post-apocalyptic Earth 60 years after alien invaders devastate the planet. His latest mission comes after he undergoes a "mandatory memory wipe." It leaves him with perplexing black-and-white dreams that include a mysterious woman.

The plot begins with a simple premise that gets much more complex as the story unfolds. By the time Morgan Freeman shows up in a key role, it seems you're watching a "Twilight Zone" episode on steroids. Production values are first-rate. The stunning cinematography is by Oscar-winner Claudio Miranda ("Life of Pi"). Ultra-modern special effects provide a dynamic thrill ride for the audience. Overall, it's a thoughtful effort that's a cut above many others in the category.


'Disconnect' connects

Online technology links us like never before, while keeping real life impersonal.

This is the theme of "Disconnect," which intertwines stories a la the Oscar-winning "Crash" and with fine ensemble acting.

A high-powered lawyer (Jason Bateman, never better) texts nonstop during family dinners, oblivious that his son (Jonah Bobo) is a target of cyber-bullying.

A grieving mother (Paula Patton) can't talk to her husband (Alexander Skarsgard) about their loss, yet pours her heart out in a chat room.

An ambitious TV reporter (Andrea Riseborough) teases a story out of a young man (Max Thieriot) who engages in sexy online pay chats, no matter the consequences.

"Disconnect" is full of anguished "don't do that!" moments and earned my respect for leaving everything unresolved at the end, like in real life.


'Place' piles on too much

"The Place Beyond the Pines" is an ambitious drama with some great ideas and strong performances. It's like an all-you-can-eat buffet — everything is so good, but afterward, you realize it was too much for one sitting.

The first of three segments involves Luke (Ryan Gosling) a motorcycle stunt rider who breezes into town to learn that his one-time fling with Romina (Eva Mendes) produced a son. Desperate to make a better life for them, Luke turns to bank robbery.

The second segment focuses on Avery (Bradley Cooper) a small-town policeman with a law degree who also has an infant son. The third is about these two baby boys, 15 years later, highlighting the sins of the fathers.

"Pines" is exciting action, tragedy, heroism, innocence and innocence lost. Gosling and Cooper once again show the depths of their acting talents in winning our sympathies for their unlikable characters.

In spite of its overlong intensity, I wouldn't have missed it.

JOHN DEPKO is a retired senior investigator for the Orange County public defender's office. He lives in Costa Mesa and works as a licensed private investigator. SUSANNE PEREZ lives in Costa Mesa and is an executive assistant for a company in Irvine.

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