Month: June 2014

Film Review- ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ (***1/2)

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"These online RPG things are getting a little equipment-heavy, don't you think?"
“These online RPG things are getting a little equipment-heavy, don’t you think?”

 

“Edge of Tomorrow”  ***1/2 (out of 5)

Starring: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Brendan Gleeson, Noah Taylor

Written by: Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, & John-Henry Butterworth (screenplay), based on the novel All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka

Directed by: Doug Liman

 

 **POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**

Gamers around the world, rejoice.  The gaming culture has so permeated pop culture that a summer tent pole is calling itself a ‘science fiction’ film to mask what it actually is- a video game masquerading as a movie.  Never before have I seen anything that so closely parallels the video game experience like “Edge of Tomorrow”.  Even the poster, with the appropriate tagline of “Live. Die. Repeat” perfectly encapsulates the maddeningly disposable experience and challenge of completing a video game.  Does that mean the film is maddeningly disposable and challenging ?  Not necessarily- this is a very self-aware, fun film, with major action set pieces that have been wonderfully constructed.  Just don’t fool yourself into thinking this film is in any way a science fiction milestone, or a bastion of ‘new’ material.  It is what it is, and by that measure, accomplishes everything it sets out to be.

Tom Cruise stars as Major Tom Cruise (not a typo), a man with a pretend title for the United Defense Force (or something futuristic), as he has no interest in being a part of the ‘battle’ he is promoting.  His character is the familiar used car salesman behind the scenes of war, convincing the wealthy to write checks or buy war bonds, but never holding a rifle.  In a twist of fate, the general of the United Defense Force, Hamish from “Braveheart” (Brendan Gleeson), wants him to actually be a part of the battle against a race of nasty fluorescent alien octopi.  After all, he needs every able-bodied person he can find.  His strategy is like many military leaders before him- with great quantity comes great victory.  We know better as a trained film audience- the front lines are the sacrificial lambs, for which Tom Cruise is designated.

We also know as an audience that you can’t send Tom Cruise to the front lines, but General Hamish has not seen his movies.  Therefore, he sends Tom Cruise into battle, under the charge of Master Sergeant Bill Paxton and a rag-tag bunch of misfits.  He’s cursed at, made fun of, all of the things you wouldn’t expect to happen to Tom Cruise.  He is completely unfit for battle, but they throw him out there anyway, and he’s promptly annihilated by the enemy (more on them later).  The twist?  Despite his apparent death, he wakes up in the same spot, handcuffed and brought to attention by Master Sergeant Bill Paxton.

Have we seen this film before?  Certainly- it’s basically the same trick used by “Groundhog Day”, and it’s wonderful.  “Edge of Tomorrow” replaces Puxatawney, PA with the sandy beaches of France, and the sounds of Sonny & Cher with the barking of a drill sergeant.  Understand that this is not on purpose- this isn’t literally a re-envisioning of the Bill Murray classic, it just plays similarly.  I understood the idea of making Bill Murray’s character replay the same day over and over, but here, I’m confused.  The alien enemy (straight out of a ‘Metroid’ game), has ‘fused’ with Tom Cruise’s mind as a result of their “goo” mixing with his “goo”, causing him to repeat back to the same moment in front of the drill sergeant.

Why that particular moment?  We’re supposed to accept this without explanation or reason, but I’m neither sold on the logic, nor do I appreciate the lack of science behind the logic.  If they’re able to repeat a certain period of time, how much?  What are their limits?  Why do they have limits?  Why not just repeat the entire war?  These are questions a science fiction film would explore to create a further understanding, but this is not a science fiction film.

Again, that’s ok- for as I stated earlier, “Edge of Tomorrow” is simply a great deal of fun.  Tom Cruise even allows his Tom Cruise character to be out-Tom Cruise’d by Emily Blunt, who stars opposite him as ‘war hero’ Rita Vrataski.  Yes, Emily Blunt is an action figure here, conveniently sharing the same name as Andie MacDowell’s character in “Groundhog Day”.  She’s also in the same boat as Tom Cruise, having experienced something similar to his ‘repeat’ ability once before, and thus was able to turn the tide of a different battle.  Now she’s the symbol for victory, and Tom Cruise must convince her of what he’s experiencing every day so they might together find a loophole and defeat the alien octopus queen lotus (that’s the best way I can describe the ‘boss level’ creature).

Blunt, while hard to buy as a ‘leader’ in the traditional sense, certainly adds a level of sophistication to the role, which is basically written as a live action Lara Croft-type (I don’t know my video games as well as some of you, so fill in the blank, please).  As you can imagine, Tom Cruise begins to fancy Rita Vrataski as time passes, and makes decisions based on keeping her from harm.  It’s a sweet, if unnecessary sidebar to the film’s kinetic sensibility.

The hook for me in overcoming the story’s laissez-faire science is watching Tom Cruise deconstructed to the point where he becomes….US.  In a literal sense, he needs to die, over and over again, to memorize a battle, specific movements, and improve to perfection as a soldier the exact way we as gamers would play as his character.  Remember the lost days learning the ins and outs of up/up/down/down/left/right/left/right/b/a/start- and envision a film where Tom Cruise does this in a literal sense.  Tom Cruise becomes a walking, talking strategy guide.  Someone smarter than I (not difficult to do) should reference something philosophical and ‘meta’ in regards to this film.  It’s brilliant in that sense perhaps without intending to be.

Tom Cruise continues to make interesting, if not bold film choices.  From 2011’s vibrant franchise reinvention with “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” to the immensely enjoyable “Jack Reacher” and now with “Edge of Tomorrow”, he deserves credit for not allowing a specific perception of him to define his career.  Tom Cruise played Tom Cruise in video game.  Fantastic.  What’s next, a period romance?  I wouldn’t be surprised, nor would I anticipate failure.

Film Review- ‘Transformers’ (2007) (*1/2)

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For a moment, the characters in "Transformers" were not being thrown about, running for their lives, or talking a thousand miles a minute.
For a moment, the characters in “Transformers” were not being thrown about, running for their lives, or talking a thousand miles a minute.

“Transformers” (2007)  *1/2 (out of 5)

Starring: Shia LeBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, John Turturro, Jon Voight, and Anthony Anderson

Written by: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, John Rogers (story), Orci & Kurtzman (screenplay).  Based on the Hasbro toy line.

Directed by: Michael Bay

 

*NOTE- This review was completed in 2007 and submitted to a site called IndiePulp.com, which is still up and running.  This was the only review I did for them*

While watching Transformers, I was reminded of a scene from Spaceballs in which Dark Helmet orders Colonel Sandurz to skip ‘light speed’ and ‘ridiculous speed’ and go straight to ‘ludicrous speed’.  Transformers takes it up a notch further.  If Dark Helmet’s ship went ‘plaid’, then maybe Transformers runs argyle or something. It never stops to breathe, not even for talking scenes, since the dialogue is delivered as if every actor had to pee like a race horse. That reason among others makes what could have been an interesting sci-fi fantasy parable that lifted the Transformers tale to another level ends up being a dumb, superficial film that many will forget about five minutes after leaving the theater.

Audiences with half a brain should know by now what they’re getting into with a Michael Bay film. The occasional crude joke is thrown in the mix, important people will frequently conglomerate and say ‘Oh my God’, and love interests will forego the whole relationship thing and move right into soul mate status, all amongst the backdrop of ‘splosions’ (explosions) and swift editing.  People usually love or hate his films (I admit to owning four of them); there are scant few undecided’s. His last film, 2005’s The Island, wasn’t epic by any means, but was slightly more mature than previous efforts. At the helm of Transformers, he is in charge of subject material that already has a faithful following and meaningful history, a film that did not need Bay-isms to be enjoyable.  Bay takes a step back here, seemingly content to make another music video-like film.  At least the look of the ‘roboaliens’ (I came up with that all by myself) turned out well. It’s the lone highlight of the film.

Having seen Transformers, I am now quite positive that every actor who works with Michael Bay is contracted to slam a case of Red Bull before each take. They talk so rapidly, react quickly without questioning, and blow by logic so hastily that a heavy dose of stimulant is the only explanation. I just might have been able to forgive the movie all ills had one character stopped and wondered aloud ‘Seriously, what the hell is happening here? Alien robots?!?!?!’ Every time humans interacted, I was reminded of how jumpy I used to get after a two-liter of the now defunct Surge beverage, forgoing all normal conversation. Maybe if my car had been an alien robot, my actions would’ve seemed normal.

As a side note, I’m wondering just how much executive producer Steven Spielberg was involved in the project. If he left his scent on it at all, I sure didn’t catch a whiff. (That’s a bad thing).  Other critics might praise the film for not taking itself seriously. I wonder, though, if we shouldn’t start holding these alleged popcorn films to a higher standard. After all, films like Batman & Robin were critically panned for purposely hamming it up. Why is Transformers any different? For that matter, why do we need more ‘popcorn’ films? Will popcorn cease to exist without them? Why do most fantasy or comic-to-film adaptations insist on being just fantasy or comic book movies? I suppose there is money to be made. Me, I’ll just pop in my Batman Begins DVD and hope the genre will see better days ahead.

Film Review- ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ (**)

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The Flying Dutchman has never been so well represented on-screen.
The Flying Dutchman has never been so well represented on-screen.

 

“The Fault in Our Stars”  ** (out of 5)

Starring: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Mike Birbiglia, and Willem Dafoe

Written by: Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber (screenplay), based on the novel by John Green

Directed by: Josh Boone

 

When the credits rolled and the darkness lifted following “The Fault in Our Stars”, something fascinating took place.  The sound of hordes of tweeners sobbing created what I can only describe as a palpable, awkward tension in the room.  It was as if we’d all just witnessed cinematic history, or perhaps the ritual sacrifice of puppies.  Either hypothetical event would have been sufficient for the influx of tears, but neither took place.  This audience, the perfect prey for the predator that is this movie, was game.  Game for a soulless, Mola Ram-like filmmaker to forcibly remove the heart from every teenage girl and strum their chordae tendinae like a concert cellist.  Far be it from me to cheapen someone’s real emotion, oddly misplaced as it may be- but this is a film rank with the stench of insincerity, failing to capture our minds, as it is so clearly preoccupied with manipulating our hearts.

Extreme hyperbole aside, this wasn’t an entirely awful experience, so I’ll explain. Shailene Woodley of “Divergent” fame stars as Hazel, a young lady with terminal cancer and little in the way of positive life experiences.  Due to the relative success of an experimental drug, Hazel’s life has been extended, but as she puts it, she’s on borrowed time.  Her mother (Dern) nudges her into joining a support group, where she meets Isaac (Wolff) and Augustus, or Gus (Elgort).  Gus is a cancer patient in remission at this point, and is there to support his buddy Isaac.  Lo and behold, Gus takes a shine to Hazel, warts and all, and the two begin something akin to a relationship, centered around a fictional novel that she uses to make sense of her life.  Woodley and Elgort are fine if not awkward in their roles, in spite of a script that doesn’t play to the best of their abilities (see “The Descendants” for what Woodley is capable of).

Theirs is a different courtship- a pairing for the ages if you believe the hype, but is it?  We know she is doomed, and the film tells us as much.  There cannot be a happily ever after, nor can we have the typical meet-cute followed by a whirlwind romance.  Ergo, they fit the very definition of ‘star-crossed lovers’, which cinemagoers have seen countless times.  Is there anything unique about Hazel and Gus?  Sure, they have both been touched as youngsters by the cruelest of diseases, which should bring a gravity and suddenness to their romance.    Unfortunately, this script cheapens their relationship by creating a seemingly endless series of climactic, tear-jerking scenes that stand to simply leave one exhausted and confused.

A glaring example of said confusion is the film’s desire to show these late teens (he’s 18, she’s 17) as ‘adult’ figures, waxing poetic about the philosophy behind pain and death, attending community college and the like, but then treating their feelings as if they were children.  There is nothing more odd and off-putting in this film than the portrayal of a strong, mature connection between Hazel and Gus, then the perplexing decision to purposely, and without explanation, keep them away from each other at their most vulnerable moments.  One can understand overprotective parents (this film never makes it seem like that is the case) or a desire to ‘keep it in the family’.  It does seem clear, however, that both Hazel and Gus simply want to be with each other, and the film blatantly ignores both reason and explanation in this regard.  If, as a youngster I saw this film, I would understand that A) it is ok to run the gamut of adult emotions, ranging from love, intimacy, and death, but B) when the clock strikes midnight, my voice would be stifled, my desires ignored, my confidant kept away. Someone will likely tell me that the novel explains these oddities, and I will respond in kind by saying “that’s nice”.

Director Josh Boone’s film is at its’ strongest when the realities of cancer permeated the forced emotion.  Cold as that may sound, it’s true.  Watching these characters endure pain washes the sheen of ‘teenage wasteland’ from the film, even if but for a short while.  The unlucky couple’s brief moments of understanding about death and their illnesses also brought a needed poignancy to the film. Another scene consisting of a conversation about the parent’s plans after Hazel’s imminent death was particularly moving- I imagine such talks, while unpleasant, are necessary for both parties to accept the realities of life.

I’ve heard the hype behind this movie, and the completely unquotable quotables this offers (Okay, Okay is simply a lazier “You had me at hello”).  If this is the quintessential romance for the younger generation, then pardon me while I walk into traffic.  This film (I stress the term film to ensure I don’t invite the wrath of the novel’s legions), while competently shot, put together, and performed, seems to exist primarily as an excuse for the young adult crowd to cry in public amongst friends for two hours.  At best, it gives something of a voice to children with cancer, and could inspire to make the most of an awful situation.  At worst, it fails to reconcile the odd coupling of adult feelings with children’s lives, and inserts far too many climactic emotional scenes to the point of overkill- more than any film I can remember.  There is the possibility of something better here, like other, stronger films before it involving the same audience (“The Lovely Bones” comes to mind).   “The Fault in Our Stars” isn’t a completely silly, manipulative experience, but it most certainly is on the verge.

*note- I don’t quite understand the film’s (and by proxy the novel’s) title.  In a literal sense, I assume that author John Green was attempting to draw a parallel between ‘our’ constellations and the emotions we pin to them versus the realities of life, but that may be a reach.  The film itself, despite frequent stellar imagery, did not appear to broach the subject either.  It is fitting, in a way.  The title, much like the content of the film, grasps at straws.