Mini-reviews of five new releases

This week's new DVDs include a sci-fi movie starring Tom Cruise and the long-awaited adaptation of a counterculture classic. Here are my mini-reviews of five new releases:

“Oblivion” – The ads claim it's like nothing you've ever seen, but the opposite is true: “Oblivion” is a hodgepodge of just about every science-fiction movie you can think of, from the Russian classic “Solaris” to Pixar's “WALL-E”. Cruise plays a “drone repairman” (talk about a marketable job skill!) living in a future where Earth has almost been destroyed by alien invaders and nuclear weapons. As in Joseph Kosinski's previous effort, “Tron: Legacy”, there isn't so much a story as there is a scenario that gives the director license to pile on pretty visuals. Cruise is just as game as he was in his two previous sci-fi outings, “Minority Report” and “War of the Worlds”, but Kosinski is no Steven Spielberg. The score by dream pop band M83 ups the cool factor considerably, while the age difference between Cruise and the actress playing his love interest, Olga Kurylenko, proves distracting.

“To the Wonder” – A radiant performer, Kuylenko also appears in Terrence Malick's new film, which is only the sixth one he's made in 40 years. Since 1998's “The Thin Red Line”, the legendary director has shown a preference for very little dialogue (we often don't find out his characters' names until the end credits), poetic voice-overs and lots (and I do mean lots) of scenes of nature. In that sense, “To the Wonder” is his most extreme film, the purest expression of his art, and viewers hoping for a traditional romance like “The Notebook” (the DVD cover art seems to promise as much) are bound to be frustrated by the film's long silences and experimental style. I was frustrated myself – in addition to being transfixed, though I'll admit to having an incurable pro-Malick bias. Fascinatingly, the story takes place entirely in the present day (it was shot primarily in Bartlesville, Oklahoma), making this the first Malick movie that isn't a historical drama or 1950s period piece. Familiar faces include Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams as lovers and Javier Bardem as a priest, whose final prayer moved me to tears.

“The Place Beyond the Pines” – For me, this got off to a shaky start. I just don't buy Ryan Gosling as a working-class tough guy. Fortunately, he plays just one of several major characters in the film. What's striking about “The Place Beyond the Pines” (the second feature by Derek Cianfrance, who did “Blue Valentine”) is that at first it seems to be the story of a criminal (Gosling), then it becomes the story of a cop (Bradley Cooper), and after that it becomes the story of their sons, Jason (Dane DeHaan) and A.J. (Emory Cohen). The movie's pass-the-baton narrative structure will likely baffle some viewers (a friend I saw it with was shocked by the death of a major character in the first hour), but those who stick around for the long haul will be rewarded by Cianfrance's overall vision, which has to do with the sins of the past coming back to haunt the present. That theme is visualized most spectacularly in a very powerful shot of Jason riding a bike (it echoes the first section of the film, in which his father is seen riding a motorcycle). The shot is made is all the more powerful by one of the year's most haunting film scores.

Also out this week:

“Mud” – Jeff Nichols' coming-of-age drama, featuring a wonderful performance by Matthew McConaughey as the larger-than-life title character, remains the best American movie so far this year.

“On the Road” – Notable for “Twilight” star Kristen Stewart's wildest, most uninhibited role to date, Walter Salles' dreamily filmed but plot-free adaptation of Jack Kerouac's counterculture classic is a long slog to nowhere.

Stephen is an AHS graduate who studied film and journalism in college. He lives in Wichita.