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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- ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’ (****)

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Ladies and gentlemen, Earth, Wind, & Fire
Ladies and gentlemen, Earth, Wind, & Fire

“X-Men: Days of Future Past”  **** (out of 5)

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Ellen Page, Nicholas Hoult, Halle Berry, Shawn Ashmore, Daniel Cudmore, Omar Sy, Evan Peters, Peter Dinklage, Booboo Stewart, Fan Bingbing with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart 

Written by: Simon Kinberg (screenplay), Jane Goldman, Kinberg, & Matthew Vaughn (story); based on the Marvel comic created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

Directed by: Bryan Singer

**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**

The ‘X-Men’ films, in their own special way, are my cinematic ‘Tantalus’.  All of them have piqued my interest right up to the point of fully enjoying them.  As a result, I’ve been ‘tantalized’, hoping for a ‘X-Men’ romp that isn’t too drunk with continuity errors, bogged down with characters, or lacking a resounding emotional center.  Being of sound mind and body, I had a timely epiphany shortly before the showing for “X-Men: Days of Future Past”- if this were to fail in completely satisfying me, I would finally stop grasping for that cinematic fruit dangling above me.  Alas, this pairing of retro and future casts breaks through that frustrating creative logjam with this film.  “Days of Future Past” is an immensely enjoyable blockbuster- structured, paced, and edited brilliantly, with a knowing sense of itself and the saga before it.

In the not-too-distant future, the remaining X-Men face extinction battling shape-shifting ‘sentinel’ robots.  These are menacing, relentless creations that appear to be the demon spawn of the ‘Destroyer’ from “Thor” and a T-800 from the ‘Terminator’ saga.  Weary-looking but finally aligned, Professor X (Stewart) and Magneto (McKellen) discern that the only way to stop them is to break the rules and time travel back to the moment that inspired their creation.  If it weren’t for Jennifer Lawrence’s massive popularity, I’d have bet the farm that the instigator would be someone other than the blue-skinned Mystique.  Lo and behold, she is- the film quickly reveals the murder of Bolivar Trask (Dinklage), the scientist behind the sentinels, which sets a pathway for the eventual mutant eradication.  Dinklage is perfect for this role- a brilliant underdog of a man with a sinister chip on his shoulder.  It’s prescient that the name ‘Oppenheimer’ came up during the film, for that’s precisely the name I thought of when observing Trask.

Luckily for this rag-tag bunch of mutants, they actually have someone who can ‘phase’, or time travel, in Kitty Pryde (Page), and luckily she’s the one person they need that has survived the genocide.  I suppose we don’t really have a movie unless Kitty survives, or a new mutant shows up; it’s convenient to be sure.  This ‘phasing’ power she has can tear apart the brain- good thing they have a mutant available that can constantly repair himself  in Wolverine (Jackman).  All of this time travel business is done in the simplest, most logical of ways, which is the correct way to do it.  In no way should a Marvel superhero movie be tackling the sublime science behind portals and time-matter displacement, lest we remind ourselves that this is a movie about mutated humans.  We should allow ourselves to suspend disbelief for this film, for the errors in time-space logic don’t completely disband the thread they’ve created.  I am normally eager to pull the string on time travel logic, but I enjoyed this film so much that it barely bothered me.

Wolverine’s monumental task is to arrive in the early 70’s and get adversaries Charles Xavier (McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Fassbender) to come together again, so that they might find the wayward Mystique and prevent her murderous ways.  Here the real fun begins.  Charles is drunk and lost, his school finished, and his powers subdued.  Magneto/Lensherr is in a concrete prison under the Pentagon.  Logan/Wolverine’s method of getting this to work may seem short, but I think it’s quite ingenious and sensible, showing that he’s not all brawn.  The film’s, and perhaps the entire saga’s best scene follows shortly thereafter involving new mission recruit Quicksilver.  To put it bluntly, the rival Quicksilver of Marvel’s “Age of Ultron” certainly has big shoes to fill.  The remainder of the film’s events are woven neatly between past and future events, culminating with an ending that is incredibly satisfying, especially for those of us who’ve invested so much in the saga.

In essence, “Days of Future Past” delivers what the previous films never quite executed- bringing a specific gravity to the screen, or providing an emotional pull appropriate enough for stories centered around themes of extreme prejudice.  I tired of hearing Magneto pontificate about some ‘war’ brewing in the first few films, only to see said ‘war’ last for twenty odd minutes on Alcatraz Island. Then, we were promised the ‘real’ story behind Wolverine’s past, only to see the film boggle our minds with retroactive continuity flubs and a milquetoast love story.  I actually came to appreciate “First Class” for the performances, but it isn’t a home run of a film.  For that matter, neither was “The Wolverine”, although it improved for me with a repeat viewing.  This film gets it right- the apocalyptic tone matches the depth of emotion portrayed.  The limitations of the original cast’s talents are bolstered by the likes of McAvoy, Lawrence, and Fassbender.  Honestly, this film has the same expository language as the others, but the setting and consequences to make those lines mean something.  Each character’s arc means more with the stakes at hand and the urgency of the plot.  It also bears mentioning how visually striking the film is in both time periods, but at this point, shouldn’t that be the rule rather than the exception for this type of fare?

The draw of the X-Men seems to have always come from identifying with the outsider or loner culture, or perhaps the injustices of prejudice.  Maybe it has all been a result of the uber-popular Wolverine/Hugh Jackman pairing.  Whatever the case may be, nothing has been quite as satisfying as “Days of Future Past”.  I enjoyed nearly every moment of this film, which feels like a reward for having been put through the inadequacies of the others.  This film finally delivered on character arcs that began 14 years ago.  There exists a wonderful blend of talents, characters, and heaviness to this plot that’s overdue and welcome.  Despite the crowded cast listing this movie never feels crowded, no matter the wealth of powers on display and the quantity of personalities.  Even Wolverine seems more like a tertiary character here despite his importance to the plot.  Even the ending, which to some might appear as a slap in the face, is ingenious to me.  All possibilities for futures exist in this world, and we as an audience can run with that idea and not feel cheated. After all, that’s what comics do- reinvent themselves over time in interesting (sometimes not so interesting) ways.  I’m not sure I can blame a film series based on a comic for the same reason.  I applaud Bryan Singer for coming back to this franchise and sending it in an exciting, new direction.

*Note- You’ll want to stay through the end credits for this one.  Trust me- even if you don’t understand it, look it up somewhere on the interwebs and enjoy the thought of what’s coming.