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Cruise Patrols Ruined ‘Oblivion’; ‘At Any Price’: Movies

Tom Cruise as Jack in
Tom Cruise as Jack in "Oblivion." The Universal Pictures film is playing across the U.S. Source: Universal Pictures via Bloomberg

April 20 (Bloomberg) -- Tom Cruise patrols a decimated future Earth and jets through the cold dystopia of “Oblivion.”

He pilots something called a Bubbleship. The flying machine is a gorgeously designed special effect, with the agility of a “Top Gun” Tomcat and the grace of a dragonfly, and it’s not even the film’s loveliest visual.

Cruise could sail it through any number of narrative sinkholes and logic vacuums that render “Oblivion” a sleek, ambitious head-scratcher.

Directed by Joseph Kosinski (“TRON: Legacy”) and based on his novel, “Oblivion” looks great, all beauteous annihilation. A blasted-to-pieces Moon, its rubble forming a Saturn-like ring, hovers.

And as Jack Harper, Cruise, at his wrinkle-free handsomest, fits perfectly into Kosinski’s worlds -- both the soulless universe of 2077 and the emotionally beige movie of 2013.

“We won the war but destroyed the planet,” says Harper, explaining the nuclear defense that fended off alien invaders and left Earth uninhabitable.

Hardy Survivors

“We did what we had to do,” he adds, suggesting that, at least in the screenplay by Karl Gajdusek and Michael DeBruyn, cliches, not cockroaches, are the hardiest survivors.

With the rest of humanity re-settled on a new globe, Jack and his navigator/lover Victoria Olsen (Andrea Riseborough) are in their final weeks as Earth’s stay-behind caretakers. Their job is to watch for marauding aliens and maintain the machines draining Earth of its diminishing resources.

The pace picks up with the arrival of Julia, a mysterious beauty (Olga Kurylenko, “To the Wonder”) who stirs flashes of memory -- among other things -- in Jack.

Morgan Freeman arrives well into the movie with his trademark Sage Guide persona.

“A lot’s changed in 60 years,” Veronica tells Julia as they dine with inexplicably large utensils. Some changes just aren’t enough.

“Oblivion,” from Universal Pictures, is playing across the U.S. Rating: **1/2 (Evans)

‘In the House’

Francois Ozon’s “In the House” doesn’t aim to be plausible -- it’s a parable. Yet, like the classroom assignments that 16-year-old Claude (Ernst Umhauer) hands to his teacher Germain (Fabrice Luchini), this squirm-inducing French comedy is irresistible.

Germain assures Claude that his writings will stay private, but he’s sharing them with his enthralled wife (Kristin Scott Thomas).

The stories detail, with increasing creepiness, how Claude is worming his way into the affections of a bourgeois family by befriending his dim classmate Rapha (Bastien Ughetto). His sights are on Rapha’s dissatisfied mom (Emmanuelle Seigner).

Germain morphs from unfulfilled teacher to eager editor to obsessed reader.

The film conjures 1960s and ’70s classics by Louis Malle, Francois Truffaut and Pasolini, not to mention “The Blue Angel.” Its real subject is literature (the boys attend the Lycee Gustave Flaubert) and the way, once stories get their claws into us, they won’t -- or we can’t -- let go.

“In the House,” from Cohen Media Group, is playing in New York and Los Angeles. Rating: ***1/2 (Seligman)

‘At Any Price’

Motor-mouthing and back-slapping his way through a crowd with a foot-wide grin, Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) embodies everything that makes people want to run from a determined salesman. He sells seeds to farmers in Iowa. His rural customers probably buy them just to get him off their porches.

“At Any Price,” directed and co-written by Ramin Bahrani, initially seems to be celebrating these country folk. Henry’s philandering and conniving stick out like a smokestack in the corn fields.

That his son Dean (Zac Efron), who races stock cars, can’t stand him seems to be a sign of decency. He must get that from his patient, disappointed mom (Kim Dickens).

Henry is exactly the kind of overbearing phony that filmmakers love to set up. From the start, his ruin glitters on the horizon.

The pileup of catastrophes gets Quaid to quiet down and start to act, and the movie becomes watchable, if ghastly. And those country virtues give way to an ugliness that the early scenes barely hint at.

When the characters turn out not to be what they’d seemed, “At Any Price” doesn’t grow more nuanced -- it merely shifts monochromes.

The seeds Henry sells come from a faceless concern whose genetically modified product has dire effects on traditional agriculture. They raise crop yields while forcing farmers to adopt the motto “Expand or Die,” crushing smaller players.

In the end, the film feels less like a critique of American values than an attack on them, as crude as propaganda.

“At Any Price,” from Sony Pictures Classics, opens Wednesday in New York and Los Angeles. Rating: ** (Seligman)

What the Stars Mean:
***** Fantastic
**** Excellent
*** Good
** So-So
* Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Greg Evans and Craig Seligman are critics for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are their own.)

Muse highlights include New York and London weekend guides, Lewis Lapham on history, Jeremy Gerard on New York theater and Martin Gayford on European art.

To contact the writers on the story: Greg Evans at gregeaevans@yahoo.com. and Craig Seligman at cseligman@mindspring.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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