Thursday, September 18, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow

Director: Doug Liman
Starring: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Brendan Gleeson, Noah Taylor, Kick Gurry, Dragomir Mrsic, Charlotte Riley, Jonas Armstrong
Running Time: 113 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★) 

"Live. Die. Repeat." That's the catchy tagline for Edge of Tomorrow, and it's hard to accuse the studio of false advertising. But for the first half of its running time, the film feels like it's going to aspire for more than that, only to take a promising premise and one of the more interesting protagonists Tom Cruise has played, and instead settle into a routine action vehicle indistinguishable from his other recent offerings. And the set-up really is great, casting the actor in his familiar alpha male power position, only to pull the rug out and expose the character as kind of a bumbling fool, ill-equipped for the situation he's been thrust into. Initially, it could be described as Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers meets Metal Gear Solid, as everything surprisingly fires on all cylinders for a while. At least until a key reveal that causes the movie to go on autopilot.

When a race of alien Mimics take over Europe, public affairs officer Major William Cage (Cruise) is unexpectedly ordered by United Defense Force head General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) onto the beaches of France to suit up for combat. As a high ranking official whose position is limited to a desk job motivating those in battle, rather than engaging in it, the terrified Cage objects to the assignment, even threatening to use his media clout to blackmail Brigham. Instead, he awakens in handcuffs at Heathrow Airport, discovering he's been labeled a deserter and is now being prepped for combat under the gruff Sergeant Farrell (Bill Paxton).

It's a losing battle, not just for the inexperienced Cage, but all the humans involved in the invasion. Only he's the one who has to continually repeat it, waking up each previous morning after dying in combat, hoping to eventually gain enough experience and information to defeat the Mimics. His ally is Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), who agrees to train him, immediately recognizing the rare phenomenon he's experiencing and how they can use it to claim victory.

Right away it's apparent that the film is bucking more than a few trends and at least attempting to deliver something a little different than we've come to expect from the current onslaught of overblown action spectacles. When we meet the protagonist he isn't very likable at all. In fact, he's smarmy and egotistical, fully deserving of the "transfer" he's about to receive. That he also almost wets his pants at the thought of battle is just icing on the cake. Think of it as an extended feature length episode of Undercover Boss in battle, if the supervisor in question is forced not only to do the grunt work, but demoted against his will. None of these soldiers know who this guy is and at first glance understandably find him to be a real idiot.

What's surprising here is how good Cruise is at playing against type, excelling even when not cast as the smartest, most physical guy in the room. Through this Groundhog Day scenario, Cage is suddenly given more than enough opportunities to gather information and figure out how to defeat the alien race, with the script effectively exploiting every one of them. That Emily Blunt's Rita isn't a sidekick or love interest, but a fierce warrior guiding Cage every step of the way and training him for battle. They lose a bit of that heading down the final stretch, but Blunt's believability in the role never wavers and is easily the film's most valuable asset.

To say a movie looks and feels like a video game would in most cases be disparaging, but director Doug Liman invites complimentary comparisons to that medium for a change with some excitingly choreographed action sequences. And while slugging around a heavy, armored metal suit wouldn't seem to lend itself to the most practical or mobile means of combat, it manages to look a lot less silly on screen than you'd picture it described. More importantly, it's fun, and despite doubling as a virtual advertisement for Hollywood's over-reliance on CGI, the technology at least looks good this time, making it easy to get pulled in, even while watching on the small screen.

The eventual disappointment is only that much greater when the overexplanatory reveal kicks in and Liman hits the default button, making clear his intentions to cruise (sorry) along to the finish. Really the whole last 45 minutes or so are mind-numbing, as the characters go through the requisite motions of blowing things up and getting killed over an over again to take us to the thoughtless place we feared we were going before the opening credits started rolling. While it's unfair to necessarily expect deep introspection from an action spectacle, teasing us with it, only to then cop out, is a far worse offense. The blame could lie at the feet of the source material, author Hiroshi Sakurazaka's Japanese young adult novel, All You Need is Kill, which was the film's working title before common sense (and maybe fear of a possible Beatles lawsuit) prevailed. But is calling it something as bland and forgettable as Edge of Tomorrow really that much of an improvement?

For a while there, this really looked like this was actually going someplace intriguing. It's difficult when a film has a great concept but the writing feels forced to over-explain it, causing considerable disappointment. What the approach does provide is a definitive end point with numerous explosions along the way, and despite an opening that wisely teased the opposite, an opportunity for Cruise to further extend his decades-long run as a kick-ass action star. At least this time he's spreading the wealth with a co-star capable of matching him in an arena he usually dominates. Liman probably accomplishes all he can with the material he's working with, and as far as big action blockbusters go, you could definitely do worse. Far worse.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Labor Day

Director: Jason Reitman
Starring: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Tobey Maguire, Dylan Minnette, Clark Gregg, Brooke Smith, James Van Der Beek, JK Simmons, Alexie Gilmore, Brighid Fleming
Running Time: 111 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ (out of ★★★★) 

There are two scenes in Jason Reitman's stab at an Oscar-friendly period piece, Labor Day, that had me howling with laughter. No, it's not the infamous peach pie scene, in which Josh Brolin's escaped convict romantically teaches Kate Winslet's single mom how to make a peach pie. It's ridiculous for sure, but what  beats it is a long soliloquy from a manipulative teen girl that's one of the more hysterically out of place and overwritten speeches in recent cinematic memory. To say dialogue like this wouldn't come from the mouth of a girl that age isn't even doing it justice. It wouldn't come out of the mouth of any human being on the planet. Even in 1987. The boy listening to it has this dumbfounded look on his face the whole time and who can blame him? He'll later have a dream about her that's the second most ridiculous scene in the film and an embarrassingly bizarre depiction of an adolescent's first stirrings of sexuality.

Give Reitman credit for going way out of his comfort zone in adapting a Joyce Maynard novel, even if it's a place I hope he never goes again. And that's coming from someone who thought his last film, Young Adult, qualified as a darkly comic masterpiece. Apparently, enough people disagreed for him to attempt this mishmash of tones, which starts promisingly as a lurid crime drama before evolving slowly and painfully into what feels like a lightweight Nicholas Sparks adaptation. While featuring a pair of strong performances, it contains holes in logic large enough to drive a truck through, which is odd considering just how dull and formulaic the story ends up being. If this came from any other director it would probably be considered a decent if middling effort, but from a talent like Reitman, it's an unwelcome departure and an even bigger disappointment. If nothing else, we should at least give him credit for admitting it. The faster he puts this behind him, the better.

Adele Wheeler (Winslet) is a depressed single mom raising her 13-year-old son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) in a Boston suburb in 1987. After husband Gerald (Clark Gregg) left her for his secretary, it been difficult for Adele to even leave house, with young Henry stepping up to assume the responsibilities of the household. As luck would have it, the one time a month the agoraphobic Adele can bring herself to the store, bloodied fugitive and convicted murderer Frank Chambers (Brolin) takes her and Henry hostage, formulating a plan to evade police while hiding out in their home. But he gets a little too comfortable, and so do they, with Frank becoming a sort of surrogate father to Henry and the husband Adele wishes she always had. After a while, the word "hostages" hardly applies as the stoic fugitive warms up to the idea of a new family even as he's haunted by a troubled past. But police are closing in, forcing him to decide whether his freedom is worth the potential  harm that can come to this woman and her son.

The story is narrated by an adult Henry (a miscast Tobey Maguire) and is in a way presented as a coming-of-age tale centered around his journey and memories of that Labor Day weekend in 1987. Ultimately though, that portion is where the film falls shortest, taking a backseat to the dopey romance. At the risk of dating myself, there's little in the film that gives us any real sense it's taking place in 1987, or was part of anyone's childhood, save for maybe the period cars. There's also little in the way of establishing the setting which we're lead to infer is a Massachusetts suburb primarily because of Frank's Red Sox cap and little else. After the standoff start one would expect from a fugitive taking hostages, he settles into the role of cook, handyman, electrician, dance instructor, husband and father. For Henry he's a more than suitable replacement for the dad who walked out on him while Adele's sees as a potential lover rather than a dangerous criminal almost right from the start.

Many of the film's problems stem from Frank being such a great guy that there's basically no conflict at all, aside from some really nosy neighbors. Everyone in town is bothering this kid about his mom, and not of out concern for her mental health, but because they're annoying and invasive. A supermarket clerk cross examines him about his items. Townsfolk show up at their door unannounced, and in some cases, even walk right in. And yet, Frank's been cleaning gutters and fixing cars in broad daylight without anyone noticing. Ironically enough, the one time everyone should have known something was up was when Adele and Henry are first abducted at the store, and none too subtly either. You couldn't imagine two more obviously petrified people not wearing shirts that read "HOSTAGES." But there is one rewarding sequence involving the unexpected visit of a handicapped child that does create some genuine tension and suspense with Frank's identity threatened to be accidentally revealed in a surprising manner.

Interspersed with the present-day action are flashbacks to Frank's past and the murder that landed him in prison. These sequences work and are some of the more visually impressive, but we know from the start Frank is no coldblooded killer, so while the scenes are engaging, nothing about them feel revelatory. Winslet and Brolin are fine in their roles, with Brolin the clear standout. But you could probably name half a dozen or more of their performances that are better, if only because the material was. Gattlin Griffith is strong too, except when he's dragged down in scenes with the aforementioned girl (played by Brighid Fleming), which force him to react to the unreactable.

Everything completely collapses in the third act when a character figures out information they couldn't possibly know and what started as a fugitive on the run story recalling A Perfect World or The Fugitive deteriorates into The Notebook. James Van Der Beek appears as a cop, and maybe the only smart character. Too bad even he's wasted when we realize Reitman was more interested in settling into a weepie love story. Maynard's source material is just too stilted and reserved for a filmmaker of his type. He needs that contemporary humor and a satiric edge to really excel. Here, he's handcuffed, dishing out a traditional period piece as is, without the benefit of being able to explore. Labor Day starts as something important with accelerating tension but by the end it's almost completely neutered, fizzling out as it approaches its final lap. It's one of those movies that seem enjoyable enough while you're watching only to discover afterward just how much better it could have been.            

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars

Director: Josh Boone
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Willem Dafoe, Lotte Verbeek, Mike Bibiglia
Running Time: 126 min.

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

There's an affliction that exists in movies often mockingly referred to as "Beautiful Girl Doomed with Cancer" Syndrome. We've seen it enough over the years that it's almost become a running gag. In The Fault in Our Stars, adapted from John Green's bestselling YA novel, Shailene Woodley gives what just might be the best "Beautiful Girl Doomed With Cancer" performance of all-time. And that's not meant sarcastically or as some kind of backhanded compliment. She's wonderful precisely because she so naturally makes us feels like we're never watching one of those. And yet it delivers exactly what the trailers and commercials promised and its book's tween girl fanbase were clamoring for. It's definitely a teen romance through and through. But what's shocking is how this isn't a deal-breaker or even necessarily bad news since it proudly owns that designation while reaching for something more. The movie honestly wears its heart on its sleeve, completely committing to what it wants to do without any fear of coming off sappy or ridiculous.

According to doctors, 16 year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster (Woodley) is on borrowed time. She has been for a while now, suffering from Stage 4 thyroid cancer that's spread to her lungs. While an experimental drug has temporarily improved her quality of life, the simplest of daily activities are difficult. But with a sarcastic sense of humor and a realistic outlook on her condition, she sees herself as anything but a victim. When her mother Frannie (Laura Dern) suggests she attends a cancer patient's support group at a local church to make friends, she meets the charismatic Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort) a former high school jock whose ongoing battle with osteosarcoma resulted in the loss of his leg.

The two start spending a lot of time together bonding over their favorite books, but despite Augustus' persistence and charms, it's a relationship she insists on keeping platonic, describing herself as a "grenade" ready to go off and destroy anyone who gets too close. But that stance is seriously tested when he provides her with the opportunity to fly to Amsterdam to meet reclusive author Peter van Houten (Willem Dafoe), who wrote her favorite novel, An Imperial Affliction, which centers around a young girl battling cancer. Whether she'll be well enough to even survive the trip and what eventually happens during it defines the relationship between Hazel and Augustus, which is rapidly evolving in ways neither expected.

For much of its first half the film follows a trajectory that would probably be familiar to not just anyone who read the book, but those who have seen any movie about a young person in love battling a terminal illness. But the difference here is that Hazel is unusually well-written and intelligent for a character of this type. She talks openly, humorously and sometimes even sarcastically about how horrible her condition is while maintaining a positive enough outlook that falls on the side of realistic rather than saintly. That's all Woodley's performance. Augustus isn't quite as deeply drawn and could easily be considered a "Manic Pixie Dream Boy," showing up seemingly out of nowhere to sweep Hazel off her feet by saying all the impossibly right things. But Elgort's so likable and the two actors share such incredible chemistry it's difficult for even that to be bothersome.

Their initial courtship is the film's strongest claim to "chick flick" territory with scenes that come off as somewhat cutesy in the moment until the full story later comes into view and they feel completely earned. The turning point is the Amsterdam trip and even some of the events leading up to that regarding Hazel's health. A lesser film would have just glided over the dangers and pitfalls of flying a Stage 4 terminal cancer patient on oxygen overseas. But the screenplay actually spends some time with her parents and doctors examining all the drawbacks, before coming to a reasonable resolution. We know the trip is technically a bad idea and likely impossible, but at least the characters are smart enough to understand that also.

Revealing anything about the jaw-dropping encounter Hazel and Augustus eventually have with her literary hero is giving away too much, but when a successful author's a recluse there's usually a reason why. And most of the time it's bad. Paraphrasing Hazel, Willem Dafoe ends up being the real "grenade" of the story, shifting things in an entirely different direction. The whole van Houten sequence is a legitimate shocker in how uncomfortable and angry it makes the viewer. I was literally squirming in my seat. If that's not enough, it's followed by another surprise that proves to be just as emotionally devastating, but equally well handled. In a rarity, the over two hour run time adds a bit of weight and heft to what could have seemed like a less substantial effort without the breathing room, even if it probably has one more ending than it should.

Woodley's simply a revelation in the role and try as the script might to sometimes take her into syrupy territory, she's having none of it, bringing a realistic vulnerability and toughness to Hazel that sidesteps as many cancer patient movie cliches as it can. With each passing scene she only pulls us in further, likely winning over any cynics who thought she was possibly too old for the role or didn't have the moxy to pull it off. She deserves much more than an MTV Award. Elgort is almost equally strong and in a way he had to overcome more in being thrust into the more obviously "written" part. He not only overcomes it, but creates doubt that Woodley couldn't have done this opposite just anyone else, effectively portraying this young man who isn't as sure of himself as he'd have everyone believe. An actor playing an actor, the only thing we know for sure is that his feelings for Hazel are very real.

It's easy to complain Laura Dern is being relegated to the mother role, but at least it's written and performed in such a way that it never feels like are noses are being rubbed in it. Walking the line between wanting Hazel to have a life and friends but aware of the precautions that need to be taken with her daughter's health, Dern makes her almost impossibly cool and normal without ignoring the emotional pain of the situation. Sam Trammell gets less time in as her dad, Michael, but he's portrayed and performed just as believably. Nat Wolff kind of feels hung out to dry as Augustus' blind best friend, more there as a wisecracking sidekick to provide comic relief amidst the gloom and doom. And it's already established that Dafoe steals the movie in his few, but monumentally pivotal scenes, bringing his trademark creepiness to the last movie you'd expect to find it in.

Indistinctly but efficiently adapted to the screen by relative newcomer Josh Boone, he may have just cashed in his directorial lottery ticket by simply not screwing this up. It's a victory that shouldn't be undersold since the number of ways a disease melodrama can go wrong are endless. Written by the duo of Scott Neustader and Michael H.Weber, this effort comes in a distant third behind their work in (500) Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now, but there's little shame in that considering those were two of the best scripts written about young love while this is somewhat handcuffed by the trappings of a super-popular YA adaptation. But remarkably, that same observational quality about relationships from those films is still very present.     
The Fault in Our Stars doesn't exactly go where you'd expect, or at least in the way you'd suspect it to. But it also kind of does. And still, nothing about it really seems juvenile or cloying, even if by every right it should. With a somewhat bizarre structure and a wordless scene near the end that will have you choking back tears, it still has its faults, but even a few of those are converted to strengths thanks to some smart choices and two performers that make everything feel real. They're worth every penny the studio paid them, as it's impossible imagining a similarly successful result with different actors in the roles.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Blue Ruin

Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Starring: Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves, Kevin Kolack, Eved Plumb, David W. Thompson
Running Time:  90 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

There's a scene in the revenge thriller Blue Ruin where the petrified protagonist attempts to remove an arrow from his leg. He can't do it. And when you really stop to think about it, there's absolutely no reason why he should succeed. We take it for granted that movie characters can just do things like that on a whim. The entire sequence represents everything that's right with writer/director Jeremy Saulnier's Kickstarter-funded film, taking a common sense approach to logical storytelling.

Rather than a murderous vigilante on the loose hell-bent on revenge, we have someone who behaves as many of us would in the same situation. He has no plan. He's scared. He's in over his head. It's nice to see that not only acknowledged, but effectively dramatized to deliver a more compelling experience. This isn't an idiot plot and these aren't idiot characters making decisions only to fit the needs of the script. I believed almost everything that happened in this movie could have really occurred, to the point that you half-expect to discover it was actually inspired by true events.

Dwight Evans (Macon Blair) is a bearded, homeless drifter living out of his rusted blue Buick in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Scouring through trash cans and dumpsters to get by, his daily routine is interrupted by a local cop who gives him some troubling news. Wade Cleland, the man who murdered his parents, is set to be released from prison after serving over a decade. With vengeance on his mind, he follows the newly freed Wade and makes poor attempts to to procure a murder weapon, eventually finding success.

Despite lacking any kind of plan, he's able to sloppily take Wade out, but in such a way that it puts him in considerably more danger than if he'd left things alone. Now a fugitive the run from the remaining Cleland family members, he now must not only protect himself, but his sister Sam (Amy Hargreaves) and her two kids. And he'll have to rely on every resource he can find to withstand the seemingly insurmountable threat that's about to bare down, even if that means finding the courage to again strike first.     

While it completely subverts expectations, the actual act of revenge comes early enough that it's not a spoiler to reveal that's it's incompetently carried out by our nervous, panicked protagonist. Only it's the worst kind of revenge, providing no relief or satisfaction because Dwight will have the consequences of what he's done weighing over him, as well as the immediate danger he's put his own sister and her family in. Deliberate and methodically paced, there's a palpable sense of suspense bubbling under every scene since this guy has no idea what he's gotten himself into or how to get out.

Much like he's presumably gotten along up to this point, Dwight has to rely on only his resourcefulness to outsmart the Cleland family and Saulnier is clever in how he finds ways for his screenplay to do this that don't involve stretching credibility or relying on typical revenge movie tropes. Dwight won't be outmuscling or intimidating anyone, so he leans on whatever happens to be at his disposal. In one instance it's childhood friend William (David W. Thompson), who helps him out while still letting him know that this whole thing just seems wrong. And coming from someone who seems like they've been around this block before, it's a particularly unsettling statement.

Having an unknown Macon Blair cast as the lead helps immensely, further solidifying the everyman quality that makes us pull for Dwight's survival. When we first see him, his scruffy, Bonnaroo escapee appearance is off-putting, but there's still the sense of a kind, scared soul under that beard. And when he loses the facial hair out of necessity, our focus turns to Blair's face, whose giant, bewildered eyes convey the fear and desperation inside as he fights against becoming what he must in order to survive.

The entire situation has forced him to become someone he isn't, or was deep down without knowing it. And that revelation is scary. You get the sense that out of a moral obligation he's just trying to complete a job, albeit an ugly one. What Blair brings with his masterfully understated performance is the possibility that at a Dwight could reside in all of us if a similar set of circumstances lined up. In fact, you could argue the entire film is meant to hold up a mirror up and force us to examine what our actions would be. And through it all Dwight still can't seem to commit. Hesitation is his worst enemy.

It's debatable whether revealing key details concerning Dwight's murdered parents and the Clelands adds to the film or was unnecessary information better left alone. That said, I understand why Saulnier did it, showing that in situations like this there are sometimes two sides to the story and often no one is completely innocent. It's a lesson Dwight learns as continues on his journey, consciously choosing whether he should continue or end an already vicious cycle of violence. While the action escalates in the midst of all this, it never flies off the rails or feels like a revenge movie, maintaining its plausibility right up until the final scene.

Authenticity like this is rare since most thrillers of this sort are almost always drenched in over-the-top genre conventions, with acting, writing, and dialogue turned to eleven for maximum impact. This can be entertaining, but the truth is far more unsettling, as Saulnier ratchets up the tension with sheer, straight forward realism, opting for a bare bones treatment that glues our eyes to the screen when it becomes increasingly clear just how painfully relatable the seemingly unrelatable Dwight is. For him, revenge is only the beginning. It's the fallout from choosing it that's far worse.