Lords of Salem
April 25, 2013
Oblivion (** ½)
I was reminded just how much I miss Tom Cruise, the actor, about a month ago. I had decided to revisit Oliver Stone’s 1989 Oscar winner Born on the Fourth of July, in which the actor portrayed Vietnam War vet turned activist, Ron Kovick. My teenaged daughter, who was watching the film with me for the first time, marveled at the revelation of seeing Cruise actually putting the craft of acting into practice. This, of course, after having seen the actor in too many films where he plays virtually the same caricature, as opposed to showing depth or anything resembling real emotion. Perhaps Cruise has gotten too comfortable or just lazy, I’m not sure.
I suppose all that needs to be said is that the character of Jack in his latest film, Oblivion, is so interchangeable that it could be Ethan Hunt from Mission: Impossible the title character in his last picture, Jack Reacher. It doesn’t matter. Once again it’s up to Cruise’s character to save the world and the audience yawns once again as they experience yet another round of cinematic deja-vu.
Oblivion isn’t the worst thing Cruise has done of late but that may be faint praise. It’s a stunningly well-photographed picture and has all the technical wizardry that money can buy. The trouble is that it suffers from an overly complicated plot that the actors are still explaining one hour and thirty minutes into the thing, which for me is always a sign of a problem. There’s no reason why the film should feel so clunky and yet it does. Obviously, the behind the scenes talent of Oblivion didn’t feel the need to embrace the ‘less is more’ approach. With a nearly $200 million budget you really can’t blame them.
It is set in the year 2077 where we learn in an opening prologue that the moon was destroyed by alien invaders and we, in turn, destroyed the aliens by nuking them, which now has cost us the ability to live on our own planet. Earth is now patrolled by drones which keep future alien attacks from transpiring before our population can evacuate the planet and move somewhere more habitable. Jack (Cruise), a former astronaut and his assistant, Vica (Andrea Riseborough), are here only to service the drones and are preparing to leave earth shortly. When Jack, who is troubled by memories of a past life, stumbles upon a capsule containing a Russian astronaut looking suspiciously like the woman in his memories, Jack begins to realize he may not be who he thinks he is. Vica isn’t too happy either when Jack makes the decision to bring the astronaut back to the command post that they share as a couple, which leads to jealousy and anger. Things get even trickier when Jack discovers a group of underground survivors who have plans of their own, led by Morgan Freeman, who has too little precious screen time. It all leads to an ending that seems okay at first but quickly reveals itself as implausible once one stops long enough to think about it.
The film is directed by Joseph Kosinski. This is Kosinski’s second film after having directed the 2010 sequel Tron: Legacy. Kosinski shows a distinctive flair for staging action sequences but doesn’t seem to possess a sense of knowing when to move things. Tightening the film up most likely would have aided things immeasurably. It’s only one of the problems that keep Oblivion from being the solid home run that I would have liked.
Lords of Salem (* ½)
After exiting the theater having finished the experience of writer-director Rob Zombie’s latest horror opus Lords of Salem, I stopped by the men’s room. A bit later, as I made my way to the exit door, that’s when I heard him. A man, dressed in black jeans and t-shirt and looking like your run of the mill horror film fanatic, ranting and raving in the hallway outside of the theater. ‘It was worse than a parking lot full of whale vomit,’ he was heard to say. I couldn’t help but ask if the film in question was the same one I had just sat through, explaining that I was a curious film critic and had noticed two women who exited the film at its halfway mark. ‘Yeah, I’m talking about Lords of Salem and you can print my remarks for all I care.’ I suppose in our brief moment of bonding we realized we had more in common than I could have realized.
Lords of Salem is indeed a really bad film. Full confession: The only reason I’m giving it one star and a half is that it is a stylishly filmed affair with Zombie successfully establishing a sense of doom and tension in its opening half hour. Zombie really has a knack for capturing the gritty look and feel of those landmark, low-budget horror films of the early 1970s as evidenced in his 2005 film The Devil’s Rejects, the only film he’s made that one can even come close to sitting through. I would say it’s probably his only strength as a filmmaker. That sense of style goes a long way in keeping one’s interest in Lords of Salem going for as long as it does. Eventually, the film just goes so far off the track that nothing can save it, not even some nice cameos by some of my favorite actors from decades gone by which include Dee Wallace, Andrew Prine, Sid Haig, Bruce Davison and Meg Foster, to name a few.
The problem, as with most of Zombie’s output, is that he has no sense of story and it’s more evident here than ever. The low-rent plot rent involves Salem Massachusetts radio DJ, Heidi Hawthorne (Sherri Moon Zombie, the director’s wife) receiving a shabby wooden box containing a record that, when played, resurrects the spirits of the Salem witches who were burned at the stake all those centuries ago. Those spirits, of course, inevitably come to possess Heidi. As an aside, I’ll say that I kept wondering how the witches were able to secure time in a recording studio, let alone master recording techniques in the 1700s, but that’s another discussion for another day. At any rate, it isn’t long before Heidi finds out that she’s actually a descendant of the witches. It also doesn’t help matters that her landlord, along with the landlord’s two sisters, still practices witchcraft on a regular basis.
The film really goes off the track during its final half when Zombie just ceases all attempts for any coherency at all. There are endless scenes, looking like footage from an avant garde NYU student film from the 1960s and set in some sort of performance hall, where the witches appear onstage and Heidi appears in the audience for no discernible reason. Eventually she gets onstage and does a dance with a creepy looking midget who, I suppose, is meant to be Satan himself. I don’t really know and I don’t really care. I doubt anyone reading this will either. And then there’s Zombie’s annoying habit of repeatedly staging something creepy only to reveal that it’s a dream, which, for me, is the cheapest trick in any film director’s book. Long story short, Lords of Salem is a film to avoid at all costs. After Zombie’s godawful Halloween films I didn’t think he could do any worse. If Lords of Salem isn’t worse it certainly comes close.
Lords is playing in Charlotte. Oblivion is in theaters everywhere.
Tom Cruise’s Oblivion topped the box office last week
Questions or comments? - email Adam Long at firstname.lastname@example.org