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Anomalisa – Charlie Kaufman

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This is not how I am;  I have become comfortably numb

Roger Waters, 1979

Charlie Kaufman‘s latest film, Anomalisa, is an understated piece from the award winning screen writer.  In his second role as director, Kaufman is joined by Duke Johnson to produce this heavy stop-motion feature based on a 2005 play of the same name.

The film is set almost entirely over the course of one evening spent in a hotel room Cincinnati hotel where the protagonist, Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), a famous self-help author seeks to find human connection in a world where everybody else looks the same.  This is until he meets a sweet and unconfident young woman, Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), who unlike all the other characters has a unique face, voice and a sky childish honesty.  Stone is immediately drawn to her as an escape from the familiarity of everyone that he meets that seems to be causing his feelings of isolation.  In Lisa, Stone sees an escape from his tired routine, and a reason for hope and joy.

Michael Stone: I think you’re extraordinary.
Lisa: Why?
Michael Stone: I don’t know yet, it’s just obvious to me that you are.

Despite the serious themes, the film is consistently funny, with plenty of dry-wit and dark humor.  It is through the tired eyes of the educated traveler that the all-so-familiar rituals of a bland work trip interstate are poked fun at through Stone’s frustration.  However, his desire to be left alone in peace and quiet from the hospitality staff is ironically contrasted with his need for simple human connection that he spends the whole evening and day-thereafter seeking.

Charlie Kaufman

Charlie Kaufman

In scale, Anomalisa is juxtaposed to Kaufman’s previous work – Synechdoche New York (2008) – which follows the drawn-out life and death of the protagonist: Caden Cotard.  Cotard’s desire for his life to be made significant through his work is echoed by his never ceasing attempts at grandeur and honesty in an all encompassing theater piece.  He is never content with the simple small human connections in and of themselves, instead, Cotard seeks something big and bold often at the expense of true human interaction with his family and closest friends. Anomalisa’s Michael Stone by contrast seems to have given up on the grand, and is desperate for connection, a hug – and some..

Anomalisa - Scene

That stop-motion sex scene

In a 2015 interview, Kaufman and Johnston explain how the most difficult part of the production was filming the sex scene that took over six-months.   The challenge was made even harder by trying to avoid connections to that oh-so famous Team America: World Police (2004) montage.  Too often intimate scenes in films are forced to be either funny or passionately erotic; however, here, a simple tone is carefully presented where a basic human connection is shown by balancing their genuine affection for each other with the sadness of the situation, including Stone’s adultery.  The use of stop-motion figurines paradoxically enables the directors to present somewhat ‘universal’ characters that the viewer is able to connect to without the distraction of a human actor.

The theme of not being able to being able to distinguish between faces is based on a real condition – Prosopagnosia – famously suffered from by portrait artist Chuck Close.  However, the viewer is asked to question whether in-fact everybody is actually the same, or whether Stone cannot determine the differences in their faces – perhaps due to his

Chuck Close

Chuck Close – Self portrait

disengagement from others’ lives.  Or perhaps even more so, that Stone is the only person in this fictional world that is truly alive in seeing that everyone else is the same.  Or finally, is it that Stone asks too much of the world and others?

The film ends with his wife reminding a disengaged Stone, “Don’t you realize we all love you“.  To which we are forced to question whether asking for something new, exciting and different is genuinely as important as simply loving others and being loved in return.

Perhaps the final irony of this film is that despite Stone seeing everybody as the same, this movie is distinctive in its quiet ability to capture both a person’s disconnection with the world and their desire for human’s connection.


 

Kaufman’s Filmography:

Being John MBeing John Malkovich (1999) – Disturbingly entertaining and more than entertainingly disturbing.

 

Human NatureHuman Nature (2001) – Far better than it looked; but unfortunately it watched no better than it looked.

 

 

NicCageAdaptationAdaptation (2002) – If you can tell me what it all means – you are a liar; if you can tell me you didn’t enjoy being taken on a trip down the garden path – you too are a liar.

 

CDMConfession of a Dangerous Mind (2002) – Such a perfectly unbelievable true-story, even with Clooney‘s directorial debut as a Coen brothers disciple he couldn’t do any true harm to Kaufman’s modified script.

 

 

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless MindEternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind (2004) – Not your average rom-com – as the greater the plot twists, the tighter the knots of love and loss.

 

synecdoche new yorkSynecdoche, New York (2008) – Directorial debut and epic navel-gazing true horror film about dying without living in the quest for greatness and meaning.

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Vietnam – With a Mission (WAM)

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Hoi An, Vietnam

 Dĩ hoà vi quý – Making peace is treasured

Vietnamese Proverb: Minh. Gọi nắng xuân về. Nhàsách Quang Minh. p. 116.

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Apartment life – Kuala Lumpur

Over the recent end-of-year holidays I was very fortunate to visit both Malaysia and Vietnam for three weeks.  My one week trip to Malaysia was a holiday in the true sense – visiting the land where my father was born.  His parents, or my grand-parents, were working in Penang, Malaya as it was previously called when a British Colony between 1949 to the mid-nineteen-sixties.  Penang is a very multi-cultural city with plenty of hustle and bustle.  One of the most encouraging aspects about this city was how the different cultures and religions were able to live peacefully amongst each other.  On the main street was a: large protestant church, Muslim mosque, Buddhist temple, and Hindu stores selling incense and idols.  Trips through Ipoh and Kuala Lumpur revealed a more Muslim nation with great food and welcoming people.

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Our boat driver and local houses     Mei Kong Delta

However, my trip to Vietnam was of a somewhat different nature.  Choosing to study and work as an engineering was a decision I made some years ago to hopefully help those less fortunate in practical ways.  After a brief presentation from one of members from the Kew Baptist Vietnamese congregation’s outreach group With A Mission (WAM) at an evening service I was encouraged to join the team for the one week mission and exposure trip.  As part of the trip we were to assist with the construction of some houses for local poor people, who, although owning land were often unable to construct or afford a decent house due to being widowed or elderly.  We were also to assist with a medical program that the church regularly runs.  Fundraising for this church and its activities was conducted prior to leaving.

We travelled to Kien Giang Vietnam, south of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).  This area was quite remote from tourists as I was the only ‘white’ person that I saw for about six or so days.  In this region we partnered with an amazing local church that is part of a broader network of churches involved with Socio-Medical Committee of the Vietnamese Evangelical Church of South Vietnam, SOMEDCO.  I would like to share three primary reflections in this piece:

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Newly built house and its owner

Firstly, I was shocked with how these very poor Vietnamese people lived and interacted with the rivers and water.  Each day we took a boat for over an hour (each way) along the Mei Kong delta.  In this tiny boat I saw how the river was used for washing people and food, and for drinking, however, it was also used as a rubbish dump for plastics and human effluent.  Regularly our boat’s motor propeller had to be taken from the water to remove tangled plastic bags that were stopping it from working – however, the driver would simply then throw these removed pieces of plastic back into the river before continuing forward.  Internationally, sanitation and poor access to clean water are among some of the largest reasons for infant death, and place a great drain on the communities where people may regularly become ill.

Secondly, I was amazed by the vibrancy and work of the local church.  Prior to leaving we had been fundraising for the work of a partner church in the region.  While we were there: over four houses were being constructed; their main church building was finishing its construction; their church manse was knocked down prior to building a new one; another smaller-church building was about to begin construction for a new congregation; and a medical program was run where many Christian doctors from Saigon visit the region seeing over 500 patients.  These Christians are a minority amongst their Communists and the Buddhists neighbours – however, they are well respected for their generous work by the local people.  Due to their poverty and most not having any formal ‘weekend’, except for schooling, it seemed that in these poorer regions that only the Christians had a day of the week that differed from any other of the week – trying to make ends meet.

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Vietnamese Refugee Boat, circa 1970s

Thirdly, I was humbled by the stories told by our Vietnamese team members.  I distinctly remember one morning at breakfast where Pastor Khoi was speaking about his escape from Communist Vietnam as a 14 y.o. boy on a refugee boat with his aunt.  He then proceeded to go around the table of primarily Australian-Born-Vietnamese (ABV) team members and tell how each of their respective parents had each risked similar trips.  The only two people at the table who did not share this same history was a local Vietnamese Christian worker and I.  Over 1 million Vietnamese asylum seekers died at sea between 1975 and 1995.

This trip was a wake-up-call and a reminder of both the realities of poverty in our world and the opportunities for Christians, among all people, to love those less fortunate.

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Dragon Bridge – Da Nang

Dragon Bridge, Da NangAfter the mission trip I was able to holiday with some of my new friends through: Saigon – a busy, dirty and changing city; to Nha Trang – where I discovered many Russian tourists and proportionally very few other international visitors; Hoi An – a city with a beautiful UNESCO world heritage protected zone that was heavily influenced by the Chinese; and finally, to Da Nang – arguably Vietnam’s most modern city, featuring many large bridges, including the now famous Dragon Bridge that breaths fire during public displays.

If you are interested in any part of the mission trip and or would be interested in participating or donating please visit: www.facebook.com/withamission


This post is the first of a series of posts about my travel experiences between March 2015 – March 2016 to New Zealand, Malaysia and Vietnam.

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Seinfeld – 25 Year Tribute

Meme

Sometimes the road less traveled, is less traveled for a reason.

Jerry Seinfeld

TV giant Seinfeld turns twenty-five this year—which is exactly the sort of round number that justifies Farrago publishing a nostalgic puff piece in recognition of the show.

While growing up, I watched the ends of an uncountable number of Seinfeld episodes while waiting for The Simpsons to begin at 7:30pm on Channel 10. As dictated by the norms of our generation, however, you can’t really say you’ve seen a TV show until you’ve mastered it in complete box-set form, ensuring you haven’t missed one episode, punch line or running gag.Jerry-Seinfeld-and-Larry-David

I’ve been working my way through the collection for the past eighteen months, and still find myself just over half-way through the series. Rounding out at 180 episodes, the magnum opus of comedians Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld is equal parts brilliant and equal parts banality.

The more I watch the show, the more impressed I am with how easily the talented screenwriters turn everyday life experiences into memorable twenty-something-minute mini-masterpieces, of worldly observations and kooky character studies. The representations are so strong that George, Elaine, Kramer and Jerry almost don’t need a plot line for the jokes to come hard and fast—hence Seinfeld being dubbed the “show about nothing”.

These thirty-something New Yorkers are somewhat drifting though their existential life with no overarching purpose while pulling gags over first world problems.  From a post-‘something’ generation, the characters are depicted with some life-goals—such as George’s search for relational satisfaction or Elaine’s career progression—but ultimately the events of their lives seem pretty trivial.  And the more their aspirations for satisfaction fail, the more we find the characters human and endearing.

George CostanzaPerhaps this is why we find George so amusing, with his insecurities about his weight, hair, height and phallic endowment. Who can forget when George goes for a swim in the cold pool while on a couplesey summer holiday to the Hamptons, and is walked in on afterwards while changing his clothes by Jerry’s then-girlfriend? When she sees Mr Costanzo in his birthday suit, he feels short changed about his mini main-sail, bemoaning later, “What does a woman know about shrinkage?”

The Seinfeld four are shown to be happy with being somewhat unhappy about life. Much like the 2006 film Little Miss Sunshine we are told that real happiness in life comes from enjoying the little moments of joy for what they are.

Consider The Parking Garage episode, where the awesome foursome meander through a ubiquitous car park, unable to locate each other, nor their car. Almost like an allegory for the entire show, or wandering around in the dessert for forty years, they cleverly weave a cutesy little story and punchy one liners into the dialogue.

Seinfeld is often a tragedy of miscommunication or lack of modern technology. Much like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Julietwhere all would have been well for the star-crossed lovers if only Friar Laurence and his donkey had delivered that all-important letter in time—the conflict in about half of the episodes could have been avoided if the characters just owned a cell-phone.

The Kramer - PaintingFor a show that had only one recurring catch phrase—“Hello Newman”—it had an uncanny knack for producing some of the most quoted television lines of all time, each being more absurd than the other: from “no soup for you”; “these pretzels are making me thirsty”; to Elaine yelling “Stella!”

But as the exercise of working through the box set seems to last forever, I am disappointed at how the characters often work so very hard to try to make ‘nothing’ into ‘something’ entertaining. Not only are much of the mobile-phone-less common experiences outdated, but also the pop-culture references and not-so-understated product placements. Although we love the characters for their antics and pet-hates, they are essentially quite selfish and hollow—only caring for their tiny circle of friends at best of times. And after 100 or so episodes I find Jerry Seinfeld’s stand-up interludes causing me to yell at the screen, “What’s the deal with all the “What’s the deal with?” observations?”.

Watching Seinfeld in 2014 makes me both laugh and cringe at how blatantly un-PC this sitcom could be, with its mildly homophobic, xenophobic and sexist undertones present throughout all nine seasons of this primarily male-dominated show.

StellaOf course looking back the funniest thing about the show now is the characters’ fashion sense: from Elaine’s early 90s shoulder pads, velvet dresses and perms, to George’s wide checks, to Kramer’s freewheeling shirts. Though nothing quite beats Jerry’s denim jeans and runners combination, or junners for short, a fashion faux pas that even the most mod hipsters of Brunswick are too afraid to claim back ironically.

The biggest joke is on us, however, as Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David end up getting away with making an insightful and reliable show about nothing, with vacuous but loveable characters having a laugh at both themselves and life.

 


This article was published in The University of Melbourne magazine – Farrago – Edition Six 2014

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Helvetica

Helvetica_font_inspiration_by_RuiRaposo

I’m obviously a typeomaniac, which is an incurable if not mortal disease. I can’t explain it. I just love, I just like looking at type. I just get a total kick out of it: they are my friends. Other people look at bottles of wine or whatever, or, you know, girls’ bottoms. I get kicks out of looking at type. It’s a little worrying, I admit, but it’s a very nerdish thing to do.

Erik SpiekermannHelvetica

Who would have thought that a documentary about a font would be so engaging?   But in an age where the message is less important than the image, it makes sense we should care about how we write our sweet nothings.

Helvetica-film

This film length doco by Garry Hustwit opens our eyes to the subtle world of graphic design through the case study of Helvetica.  Educating the audience on what differentiates one type-face from another, it slowly unveils a new way of looking at the world around us.  We discover that Helvetica is ubiquitous – appearing on magazines; signs; web-pages; billboards; logos; to fast food wrapping.

Helvetica, we learn, was loved and loved to death by designers in the years after its popular release   It is even described as a ‘perfect font’, where any changes to it are only detrimental.  Apparently Apple bought the rights to use Helvetica on their early printers and computers while Microsoft chose not to pay the rights, and instead had another font – Arial – designed as a copy; where minor angles and spacings were altered to avoid copyright – but resulted in a ‘lesser font’.  And hence, Arial, has become a bit of a ‘dirty’ font in the design community.

Perhaps this is all not too dis-similar from the old joke, “Times New Roman, Arial and Palentino walk into a bar and ask for a drink.  The bar keeper says – ‘Sorry, we don’t serve your type here.’ “

Being used as a default font on many Apples products, Helvetica’s use became prolific.  So much so, that during the grunge movement of the 90s, many designers rejected the Swiss Modernist font for more messy abstract typography and wording arrangements – now made possible through the advent of the computer.  A few years ago you were ‘hot stuff’ if you could casually drop the words “I prefer a sans serif font” in conversation.   But now, the discussion has moved far beyond that to raging online forums between fans of different fonts professing more neutrality, or conversely, emotion.

For weeks after seeing the film, I became mildly obsessed in trying to discern between different fonts on signs, posters and nasty blogs, where you have to pay extra for the freedom to use certain typefaces – a la, this one!  It is fascinating to learn how many organsiations use Helvetica.  The company I work for has an official ‘Style Guide’ that all documents have to adhere to.  This requires the use of only pre-specified fonts, colours, and demands two spaces between sentences – to assist the ease of reading.

Pick-A-Bad-Photo-Apply-A-Vintage-Effect-And-Use-Helvetica

Because we spend too much time in front of screens we have become somewhat obsessive about the minor details.  I believe that because modern life is so hectic and because we ‘undergo information’ overload daily, that we have really do appreciate clear, simple design.  Just consider the popularity of the white spaced Google home page compared to the Yahoo hyperlink/underlined/italicized everything overload.  Moreover, consider the shear appeal of sleek Apple products.  However we have been spoon-fed to believe that clean design and simple fonts are the best – partly because of Apple brilliantly marketing its products. 

Sepia tones and Instagram effects are a natural response to the overly slick design elements that we see in our everyday life.  People try to reject the ‘point and shoot’ camera where both the foreground and the background are in focus; people are choosing to wash their high resolution image with a particular effect – emulating the imperfections of previous technology such as over exposure –  to make their images feel more authentic.  And less commercial / squeaky clean.  (I wonder whether the orange date-stamp will ever come back in?)

It is as if we are caught between two extremes: on one hand the simplicity and clarity of sleek, clear design – including Helveitca and sans serif fonts; and, on the other hand, the warmth of and genuine nature of imperfection, textured styles, and type characters with character.

As Garry Hustwit’s first installment of his Design Trilogy Helvetica stands as his finest piece.  Objectified – his second film looks at industrial design; and Urbanized, his third, focuses on Architecture.  Both are engaging but lack the intrigue of his opener –  a must watch for anybody who uses a computer or reads – basically, just see it.

Typography is the new calligraphy.  So sorry Mum, but a ClipArt picture of a stick man and a light bulb teamed up with a rainbow coloured heading from WordArt no longer cut it.

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Bill Cunningham New York

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The best fashion show is definitely on the street – always has been and always will be.

Bill Cunningham

How excited about fashion can a twenty-something Australian engineer get about street fashion in New York when friends mine say to me, “You dress so poor!” – and not in an ironic sort of way?

However, I recently watched Richard Press‘ delightful documentary – Bill Cunningham New York – after a tip from a menopausal middle-manager came good.

Perhaps because the doco is only partly about fashion, or perhaps it is not about fashion at all.  Nevertheless, the film follows octogenarian street fashion photograph Bill Cunningham around the sidewalks of New York, to the high-society parties for the (oh so) rich and famous, to the catwalks of Paris – where Bill shoots for the New York Times.

Bill waits on street corners “It’s always the hope that you’ll see some marvelous exotic bird of paradise, meaning a very elegant stunning woman or someone wearing something terrific” and then it may be some shoes, or a hat, or matching pairs – but he quick snaps his manual film camera and he’s captured it – a moment, an image!  Probably only because of his age, and trademark blue jacket he doesn’t get assaulted for taking snaps without permission.  But the fashionistas seem to relish the attention lauding the praise of his eyes.

Bill shooting on bike

Just a regular day at the office

Saying things like: “I don’t know how to work, I only know how to have fun everyday”; and “If we all went out looking like a slob like me, it would be a pretty dreary world” – it is hard not to like Bill.  Energetic, honest, excitable, gifted and level headed, his passion for beauty is engaging.  Unlike other pretentious artists, Bill seems to enjoy his simple bike, blue cardigan and his humble, pokey little apartment – sleeping on the floor next to filing-case after filing case filled with a lifetimes’ worth of film.

Press shoots the film with both an energy and an honesty.  Alternating between shots of Bill at work; shots of Bill’s work; and interviews from upper crust celebrities including flamboyant author and socialite Tom Wolfe.

However one particular scene is unique – Bill is asked two questions – one about his personal relationships; and the other about religion.  Attending church every week, Bill is perhaps much like many of the older US generation, and yet it is the only time in the rollicking 83 minutes of footage that he is lost for words.  Struggling, after a substantial pause, and looking away from the camera, “It is something I need”.  Bill gives the impression that he values his Catholic faith in a deep and personal way; and yet, humbly does not want this to distance him from his friends and colleagues – from progressive NYers that may not hold such regard for Christianity.  A man of opposites, Bill straddles the fence – mingling with the Bold and the Beautiful, while not being seduced to compromise his beautiful spirit and love for the NY – “It’s hard to play a straight game in this city”.

In my workplace where us engineers ironically look more similar on casual Fridays than weekdays when the good old’e check shirts come out. Yet, I now feel somewhat inspired to be a little bit more flamboyant with my ‘fashion’, as Bill quips near the end of the film – “Lots of people have taste; but few have enough courage”.

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You wouldn’t steal a TV – at least not that TV

Stealing

There is only one sin, only one. And that is theft. Every other sin is a variation of theft….When you kill a man, you steal a life. You steal his wife’s right to a husband, rob his children of a father. When you tell a lie, you steal someone’s right to the truth. When you cheat, you steal the right to fairness.

Khaled Hosseini – The Kite Runner

It is a queer irony that people love to hate the evil in others; and then use that evil as a justification for their own behaviour.  As I have recently discovered this sort of mentality to be true close to home with quite a number of my friends who apply this to their everyday life regarding online piracy.

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“Corporations are evil”, they say.  They are big and ugly and unethical and faceless and soul-less.  Hiding behind limited liability, they let individuals do all sorts of horrible things to the public and the defenselessness    And as “the rich get richer, the poor get the picture” – Peter Garret’s catch cry – using their colossal market power to muscle out competitors.  And because these firms are so horrible – it is OK ethically to steal or commit fraud against them, or so the argument goes.  “We are not taking from people – individuals – therefore it is hurting no one.  Only effecting this massive organisation, that is so big, my actions have no effect.”

These themes are explored in Joel Bakan’s film-documentary The Corporation (2003), that overtly shows the danger of organisation who’s actions are left un-checked across international boarders.  When companies gain massive lobbying power that they government is willing to pay them out billions of dollars in hard times (a la General Motors in the US).

However here in lies the rub: because these corporations use limited-liability to be bullies in the playground; we can therefore justify theft.  In the West we believe it is Our Right to have what we want now, and not have to pay for it.  So would people stop stealing from these corporations if they were not so big, successful, powerful and ‘evil’?  Somehow I doubt it…

One could say this is a hypothetical that could never exist.  That companies so big could never act justly because their primary concern is their shareholders’ financial growth.  However, in recent times, with more transparency being introduced into the commercial markets, increases in the speed of media communication, and more products being purchased based on image instead of functionality for the task intended – bad company image is bad business.  This means that boycotting of products, such as Cadbury’s chocolate before being transitioned to Fare Trade certification, can be highly effective.

Shoplifter - Barcode

Deep down, I feel that many people that loath these corporations, secretly don’t really want them to change.  Because if they did, it would take away the justification used to explain away their theft.  And it s theft – because people make products, not merely companies.  Many people, perhaps unknowns, would rather have a company doing global harm – so as to justify their small theft.  Ironic huh.

It is comforting, that people only take stuff they want.  And so I can sleep easy knowing that nobody will be pinching my intellectual property on this here blog…Just like that anti-piracy advertisement at the beginning of DVDs where it states  “You wouldn’t steal a hand bag; you wouldn’t steal a car; you wouldn’t steal a TV” – to which I reply – “I wouldn’t steal that TV”  

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Tom Cruise – Guilty Pleasure of the West

Tom Cruise - Oblivion

I go without sleep, I just go hard – Tom Cruise

Intensely looking down; serious; contemplative; packing heat; with the Empire States Building in the background – we can’t be serious can we? Its another Tom Cruise film – tastefully titled no less than ‘Oblivion’ with the not so understated tag line “Earth is a memory worth fighting for”. In cinemas soon, apparently.

Tom Cruise is the biggest guilty pleasure of the west. We love to hate him, and yet we secretly love to love him too.

If I had a dollar for every time someone made a Tom Cruise joke, I’d be richer than The Church of Scientology, Tom, Katie, and Nicole put together.  There is plenty of ammunition when making a less than creative wise crack from “Its hard to look up to a short man”, and “I can’t just keep looking down on Tom Cruise”; to “Q: Why is Tom Cruise so upset? Ans: Because he is Holmes-less”.

Tom-Cruise-Magnolia

But, we keep on rolling up to see his films – Tom seems no longer to need to act, playing the same character – Tom Cruise – in all his films.  Jack Reacher, Jerry Maguire, Ray Ferrier (War of the Worlds); Captain John Anderton (Minority Report); Ethan Hunt (Mission Impossible) – what difference does a name make?

For as much as everyone seems to pay out on poor old Tom – we love him like a ‘frenemy’.  He’s our western Hollywood guilty little pleasure.  And fair enough, he makes some pretty decent films – at least don’t let anyone know I said that.  

And so all we keep on coming back for more… 

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