Wednesday, December 17, 2014

If you missed EDGE OF TOMORROW back in June, like a lot of America, don't fret. It's on video now, and you should see it. Seriously.

I usually blame trailers for divulging the plot, but by NOT doing so, EDGE's publicists probably locked out their target audience! And your best memory of it is probably a loud, aggressive preview to which your numbed reaction was, "Oh. Tom Cruise and aliens again. Pass."

Except here's the thing: it is so much more than that. It's both those things, yes, but here's what the previews omitted: it's also GROUNDHOG DAY. Dipped in WAR OF THE WORLDS and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. Plus all the humor that implies. Director Doug Liman began with indie darlings like SWINGERS and GO before going big time with BOURNE and MR. & MRS. SMITH, but his wry sense of humor pervades his career.

Cruise plays Cage, a slick but cowardly Media Relations military officer who is in London on the eve of a major counterattack against an invincible Alien force that has already conquered much of continental Europe. A gruff, crusty General of a multinational United Military Force (Brendan Gleeson) attempts to thrust Cage into the front lines to promote it to the media, but when Cage balks, eventually resorting to blackmail, the General punishes Cage by stripping him of his rank, branding him a deserter, and pushing him into the front lines as a mere Grunt, almost certainly condemning him to death.

The next day's battle on the beaches of France (evoking strong parallels to D-Day at Normandy) is even more disastrous than Cage expected: his new Squadmates (led by smirking, sardonic Master Sergeant Bill Paxton) are all slaughtered almost immediately. Even super-badass legend, "Full Metal Bitch" Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) is slain, and Cage himself perishes violently while blowing up a rare variation of the Alien Race, an "Alpha", which oozes goo onto him in his final moments–

–before Cage wakes up screaming, exactly where he was on the British military base one day prior. He's back to the exact moment he woke up after being tasered by the General's guards and railroaded into combat duty. He goes through the whole thing again, trying to warn all that it will be a slaughter, to no avail. He tries playing things slightly differently, but not for long, as he dies again. Boom, he wakes up on the base. Or as the film's original title stated, "Live. Die. Repeat." (Which would have been a much better title, too.)

You might think the above formula would be a recipe for repetitive doldrums, but the film never slows down enough for that. In fact, it does the opposite– once the film knows its audience is following, it rockets off at full speed and never condescends. It knows we don't have to see EVERY loop, every death, every variation. Sometimes we witness Cage attempt something the first time, other times it's revealed that this is his 50th. The too-clever-by-half screenplay has 3 names on it, which is usually a recipe for a hack job, but the opposite seems to have occurred here to result in a brilliant Mindmeld of ideas.

The movie picks up speed when Emily Blunt becomes a key player. Ms. Blunt has really impressed me this year, between her endearing musical performance in INTO THE WOODS, and this tough-as-nails-but-heart-of-gold warrior in EDGE. She's surprisingly physically toned and agile here, a side of her I hadn't seen before. Rita & Cage become a rocky duo for awhile, and Cage's secret ability/curse is of particular interest to her for reasons explained later. There is of course some sexual tension/flirting, but the film wisely plays it close to the vest. 

Tom Cruise is more or less perfect as Cage, proving once again that he gives 100% in every performance, and disproving the claim that he's just another Action-Star Pretty Boy. His beats are played perfectly for humor, pathos, or tragedy when the story calls for it, and his chemistry with  Blunt is believable and moving. Of course we watch Cruise transform from self-serving coward to self-sacrificing hero, but it always feels organic and true, and the film makes clear that Cage has gone through A LOT to get there– we often feel the exhaustion of this man's failures.

Overall, a smart, fast-paced, brassy, fun, sci-fi/action/military/comedy. Cruise & Blunt bring their A game, and the effects are great too, including the slightly futuristic military weaponry. A-.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

UNBROKEN edges out FURY as WWII Drama

If you see only one WWII movie this season, I recommend UNBROKEN over FURY.

Fury had some really compelling scenes, great acting, intense battle sequences, and occasional moral questions, but I had the same problem with it that I had with the director's previous movie (END OF WATCH): It feels like a "Bro" movie. It feels like the Frat Boy with a degree in History, who really liked SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, decided to make a WWII film. It almost touches greatness, but every time it almost gets there, it takes a douchey turn. Brad Pitt essentially plays the "serious" version of Lt. Aldo Raine from BASTERDS– in other words, if FURY had been released first, Raine would be the satirical version of Pitt's serious performance here (that's not a bad thing; Pitt is excellent, as are ALL the cast).

UNBROKEN, OTOH, has the advantage of actually being a True Story, stars virtually all unknown but seriously talented Actors, and lets you actually empathize with the characters in a way you can't with the FURY crew. Set in the Pacific Theater of the War, the air combat scenes are unrivaled by any I've seen in recent film. Both the elation over survival and the sorrow of losing comrades are given equal due, and while sentimental, it's never preachy. The flashback sequences to the hero's youth are a bit on the nose, but essential and vital. This film will probably make its lead, Jack O'Connell, a movie star. And director Angelina Jolie with her 2nd feature is starting to (believe it or not) take up the mantle of Clint Eastwood as the next great actor-turned-director. If you're worried that this somehow feminizes it, you're wrong. The cast is almost exclusively male, and they are just as macho as men should be, but unlike the soldiers in FURY, they still understand the concept of dignity and honor even under the most painful and degrading of conditions.  See it.

P.S. The 2 women to my right at this Academy screening were much more shocked at the heroes killing birds and fish to SURVIVE while adrift at sea for weeks with no other food, than they were at the many human deaths and suffering. Ain't people funny? :)