Friday, October 17, 2014

Fury


FURY: Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LeBeouf, Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal, directed by David Ayer (135 min.)

War pictures are typically only as strong as their ensemble.  The best war films throughout the years have a diverse and compelling cast of soldiers, grunts, men from different backgrounds who come together in the face of hell.  Saving Private Ryan was brilliant mostly because of the characterizations of Tom Hanks' troop.  Think about Platoon, and the two different factions at the center of the story.

Fury, the new World War II film from writer/director David Ayer, who directed the excellent police thriller End Of Watch back in 2012, has a much smaller, much tighter-knit group of soldiers who occupy a tank on the muddy German countryside.  This team is well constructed by Ayer's screenplay, and keeps the stakes high enough to care about what is happening on the screen.  The film takes place in 1945, as the Americans and their allies made their way through Germany in the final months of WW2.  Despite their progress, the Americans were outmatched by the German tank technologies, and are outnumbered in general.

Brad Pitt plays Don "Wardaddy" Collier, the commander of Fury, one of the few remaining tanks in the American front.  Collier is a firm leader who has conformed to the violence of war over the years, and Pitt keeps his emotions appropriately under wraps.  His team consists of a fanatically religious solider, Boyd (Shia LeBeouf), an even-keel Hispanic soldier named "Gordo" (Michael Pena), and a brash Southern dimwit named "Coon-Ass" who speaks his mind.  As the film opens, Collier and his team are saddled with a green military kid, a new tank driver named Norman (Logan Lerman).  Norman is the typical newbie to a group of war-hardened soldiers, an open-faced kid who fears killing and is still clouded by the morality of the real world.  Collier and his team have no time for passiveness.

The film follows Collier as he takes his troops from one German city to the next in an attempt to overthrow the Nazis.  He is intent on killing each and every last SS soldier, and the events that unfold are unflinching and relentlessly violent.  Bodies are blown apart, heads explode, and the proceedings become more and more grim and unsettling.  The violence in Fury is disturbing, even for a war film, but there are some virtuoso action sequences.  The most thrilling moment comes when Collier's tank squares off against a superior German tank, firing off round after round within thirty feet of each other.  The ferocity of the tanks is often on display in the picture, as these tanks and their artillery are capable of cutting a building in half in mere seconds.

Fury takes a surprising left turn in the second act, when Collier and Norman stumble upon two German women hiding out in an apartment in one of the cities they conquer.  The peaceful aside is an interesting diversion in a film primarily focused on death and destruction.  I found the scene strange, but telling and a bold stroke.

The look of Ayer's film is striking, gray and steep in mud and muck.  As we reach the conclusion, there are certain aspects of the story that are telegraphed thanks to a long cinematic history of war films.  We know, almost from the beginning, the fate of each character and probably the order of their demise.  And the final showdown comes complete with the fearless leader standing his ground in the face of insurmountable odds, and his brethren dismissing the opportunity to leave in order to make one final stand with their commander.  There are few surprises in the plot, but the performances keep things elevated.  Pitt is stern and, as always, a compelling lead.  LeBeouf's scripture spouting solider has been done before, but not in this way, and Logan Lerman's evolution is at least interesting along the way.

Fury lands somewhere in the middle of the War genre.  It is not one of the best, but most definitely not the worst.  And credit must be given to the interesting aside Ayer writes into his second act, it is easily the strongest portion of the picture.

B
 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Gone Girl



GONE GIRL: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon, Tyler Perry, Kim Dickens, Neil Patrick Harris, directed by David Fincher (149 min.)

I must tread lightly here.

Gone Girl is a film which relies and flourishes on twists and turns, so virtually any attempt to lay out plot beyond a certain point in the story would be to ruin the entire thing.  I read Gillian Flynn's novel this summer, so I knew everything that was coming.  And yet, with all of the information stored away in my brain, I still found myself staring aghast at the screen as the wildly outlandish story unfolded.  That is a testament to the direction of the great David Fincher and to everyone in the cast.  Perhaps Gone Girl isn't the best of Fincher, perhaps it is, I don't really know.  What I do know is that everyone, yes everyone, should see this film simply to gaze upon the insanity.  And if you don't see it, you will be missing out on what will undoubtedly be the most talked about film of 2014.

The adaptation remains urgently faithful to Flynn's novel.  Ben Affleck stars as Nick Dunne, an aloof Midwestern hunk who moves to New York to be a writer for a men's magazine.  This is where he meets Amy, played by the open-faced Rosamund Pike.  Amy is a trust-fund baby who's parents made a boatload of cash selling out her childhood in the form of children's books, a series known as the "Amazing Amy" series.  Amy is sophisticated, beautiful, and Nick is smitten from the start.  Their romance is told through flashbacks of Amy's diary entries which detail the rise and fall of their marriage.

In the present, Nick and Amy have moved back to Nick's hometown in Missouri.  Both laid off from their writing jobs in the midst of the recession, the couple live in a rented mini-mansion in a town that is crippled by job loss.  Nick teaches at a local community college and runs a bar where his twin sister, Margot (Carrie Coon), tends.  It is the morning of Nick and Amy's fifth anniversary when she mysteriously disappears.  There are signs of a struggle inside the house, albeit suspicious signs.  Nick calls the police and they begin their investigation.  Detective Rhonda Boney, played wonderfully by Kim Dickens, wants to believe Nick had nothing to do with Amy's disappearance.  Officer Jim Gilpin, played by an all-grown-up Patrick Fugit from Almost Famous, wants to throw the book at Nick, especially once the evidence begins mounting to increasingly incriminating degrees.

Nick seems detached from the events, and Affleck's wooden acting is purposeful and effective.  Certain elements arise and place the blame at his feet over and over; but still, no body and no murder weapon are recovered.  The plot thickens, and thickens, and thickens some more, and the media sinks their claws into this in disturbingly realistic ways in our modern news culture.  Nick is vilified on a Nancy Grace type news program, and he makes mistakes along the way.  The mystery remains impenetrable and curious, and the toxicity of the media becomes a focal point in what Fincher is trying to exploit with his story.

This is where I must abandon any storytelling, because what ends up happening is a fascinating twist that Flynn should be most proud of as a writer.  While the plot is simple, the twists are outlandish, and Fincher recognizes this.  The tone of his picture shifts from ominous and threatening to take on an offbeat and sardonic pitch.  Believe it or not, there are some amusing moments along the way, even though the events are sometimes horrific when considered.  And, once again, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have supplied the score for a Fincher film, having already done the score for The Social Network and The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo.  This time around, they have topped their own work.

Fans of the novel version of Gone Girl should not shy away from this screen adaptation.  Despite knowing all the moves that are coming, Fincher's direction is masterful in keeping tension, humor, and fascination at the forefront.  Affleck is perfect in the lead role, and Carrie Coon, who plays his spitfire twin sister Margot (Go) is worthy of a supporting actress nomination.  Rosamund Pike has never impressed me until now, as her wide-eyed gaze fits the role of Amazing Amy.  Tyler Perry is a great twist to the casting as Nick's hotshot New York attorney, Tanner Bolt, and Neil Patrick Harris is chillingly effective as a rich former boyfriend of Amy.

Gone Girl is a testament to the media world we live in now, full of tension and humor and great performances.  Everyone should at least take a look, so they won't be left out of the conversations by the water cooler.

A-

Thursday, October 2, 2014

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Narc (2002)

Joe Carnahan's career has ebbed and flowed from serious, heavy action dramas to outlandish, ultra-violent action satires, but when he is on his game there is hardly an action director that can match his intensity and skill.  His theatrical debut, Narc, is unmatched on a number of levels.  A police procedural on the surface, Narc dives into darker avenues of the streets and ends with a twist that compromises the morality that has been set throughout the film.  It is often a gruesome street film, empowered by its lead performances and a direction from Carnahan that refuses to look the other way.

The protagonist is Nick Tellis, an undercover narcotics officer played by the undervalued Jason Patric.  The opening scene, shot out of a cannon, features Tellis making a split decision and shooting a drug-addicted maniac who has taken a pregnant woman hostage.  One of his bullets strikes the woman, killing her and her unborn child along with the criminal.  As Tellis has fallen to drug addiction during his undercover work, he is suspended and sent home.  Fast forward roughly a year and another undercover officer is found murdered.  Tellis is brought on to investigate, given his street connections.  He is also teamed up with a known hothead detective, Henry Oak, played by a heavy and intimidating Ray Liotta.  But, when is Liotta not intimidating?

Tellis and Oak comb the streets to try and find the cop killer, which sends them into some of the dirtiest and most unseemly areas of an impoverished Detroit.  The characters are authentic, but the city itself is perhaps the most vital player.  Painted in desperate blues and grays, in the middle of a deathly winter, Detroit is unforgiving as these officers try and figure out what happened and who is responsible.  Oak and Tellis develop a pragmatic working relationship, and Tellis struggles to keep the short fuse of Oak under wraps as they interrogate drug dealers and work murder scenes.  Oak's short fuse is due in part to his significant relationship with the murdered officer.

Tellis begins to investigate the death on his own, and uncovers more and more curious details.  All the while, he must contend with his wife, who wants him to have a desk.  The investigation takes Tellis and Oak into a confrontation with two low-level gun and drug dealers and Oak's fury takes over.  The final reveal is delivered at the last minute, after an initial twist occurs.  From one twist to another, the morality play grows more convoluted all the way to the final shot.

Narc is the very definition of a gritty crime drama.  Carnahan pulls no punches with his portrayal of an intense police investigation and gruesome detail.  Ray Liotta's performance is worthy of an Oscar nomination, and Jason Patric shows that he is such an underused, under appreciated actor.  He has the depth and emotion in a simple stare that some of the finest actors are able to convey.  Both actors have a past to contend with in the picture, and I cannot think of better actors to display damage and sadness while soldiering on in the name of plot.

Joe Carnahan's direction is proof of his strong talent behind the camera.  After Narc, he would direct the gonzo action comedy Smokin' Aces and the poor adaptation of The A-Team.  But then he would return with a vengeance with The Grey, Liam Neeson's best film in a decade.  Regardless of his career trajectory, Narc is a searing and unforgettable start.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

FOREIGN CORNER: City of God (2002)

Somewhere between Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone (the good version), there is Fernando Meirelles and his searing and immediate film, City of God.  That is not to say Meirelles' film is not unique, but visual and narrative threads connect with these directors and their better pictures.  City of God is a film that is told with urgency and violence, but one with flair, panache, and a tone that is fresh and vibrant in the face of despair.  It tells the story of poverty breeding crime in the slums of Rio De Janeiro, but with a love for its characters which creates sincere emotional connections.

Much like Scorsese's Goodfellas, City of God is told through the eyes of a narrator in the midst of violent street crime.  His name is Rocket, played by Alexandre Rodrigues, and he and his brother occupy the dusty streets of a shanty town outside Rio De Janeiro where the privileged isolate the impoverished.  It is called the City of God, a place where God has overlooked the desperate.  Rocket tells the story of his youth in the sixties in the city where he avoids the criminal life while his brother, Shaggy, falls headlong into robberies and heists.  He tells us of the Tender Trio, a group of pre-teen hoodlums who rob propane trucks and brothels, and grow up to battle for power in the slums.  The trio merely lays out a culture of crime and violence, where everyone carries a pistol.  The film moves seamlessly from the sixties into the seventies, where one of the slum's children has grown into a psychopathic, power-hungry drug lord.

Once Li'l Dice as a child, Dice has grown into a hong man and re-named himself Li'l Z (Leandro Firmino).  Z is a cold-blooded killer, using force and murder to gain control of the City of God.  His partner, Benny (Phellipe Haagensen), is a much nicer, more diplomatic drug dealer.  He doesn't kill, he bargains and becomes friends with everyone in the slums.  But Li'l Z has a thirst for control that is unmatched in cinema, and he vows to take over the final neighborhood in the slum, run by Benny's friend, Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaele).  The way these stories and events weave in and out of each other grows hypnotizing, told through the eyes of Rocket's objective narration.  The film is based on a novel from Paulo Lins, who based the story on his time growing up in the City of God, lending even more to the steadi-cam, documentary feel.

Rocket, all the while, struggles with the everyday issues of being a teenager.  He likes a girl, but fails at losing his virginity.  He tries crime, but everyone he and his friend decide to rob is too nice to hurt.  Rocket loves photography, and lucks into a job as a photographer of the local newspaper thanks to his exclusive access to these criminals.  Certain events unfold, there is a rape and a murder, and war breaks out in the City of God between the two gangs.

The plot is complex, yet easy to follow thanks to the names and bright characterizations of every person on the screen.  Characters named Knockout Ned, Clipper, Stringy, and Melonhead all occupy their own place on the screen and are all painted with vivid energy.  The vibrancy of the direction helps to counter balance the despair, the violence, and the moments which are hard to watch.  There are children in danger any number of times, but the story earns such tough scenes.  And despite the violence, Meirelles picks and chooses what to show and what not to dwell on in order to create the most optimal impact on the screen.

City of God is a visceral picture, hard to watch but impossible to turn away from, told with wonderful fervor.  Aside from the visual mastery at play, there is true tragedy at the core, a story about poverty breeding crime.  The story may take place in the slums of Rio, but there is something universal to the tragic nature of these children, and how they will, more than likely, dissolve into death within the impoverished walls of the City of God.  Rocket's story is a rarity, to say the least.      

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Drop



THE DROP: Tom Hardy, James Gandolfini, Noomi Rapace, directed by Michael R. Roskam (106 min.)

Tom Hardy can play just about any type of character, and play it well.  I enjoy him as an actor.  But he might be most effective when he is understated, and in The Drop, Hardy is the most understated, unassuming protagonist to ever occupy a crime drama.  He is Bob, our narrator, who tells us in a voiceover about the "drop bars" in a New York neighborhood where low-rent mobs store and move money around town at night.  He tells us about the criminal element that exists in his neighborhood, an serving as a sort of tapestry for the common citizens.  And Bob?  Well, he "just tends the bar," or so he tells us.  He carries himself with a limp, acts slow on the draw.  But there is something up with this guy, and the majority of the film involves trying to break through the simple-minded exterior of this slump-shouldered bartender.

Bob runs the bar of his cousin, Cousin Marv, a washed up gangster wannabe played by the late James Gandolfini in his final role.  Well, it used to be Marv's bar; despite the sign outside, more prominent criminal figures own the establishment.  Marv tried to run the neighborhood a few years ago, but was muscled into submission by a foreign faction of gangsters who are much slicker and more menacing.  Bob is his right-hand man.  He speaks simply, softly, and stays in the shadows of his own life.  Cousin Marv's bar is one of the many drop bars in town, and one night when it is robbed by two masked men, the police begin snooping around and the real, foreign owners come calling.

But this screenplay, written by Dennis Lehane (who wrote Shutter Island and Gone Baby, Gone), does not take the typical approach to a crime drama.  Rather than amp up the violence, The Drop takes a side road with Bob.  One night on his way home, Bob hears a puppy whimpering in a nearby trash can.  He retrieves the Pit Bull puppy, bloody and abandoned, and is confronted by the homeowner, a skittish woman named Nadia (Noomi Rapace) who takes some time to warm to Bob.  She had nothing to do with the dog being abandoned.  Bob doesn't know a thing about dogs, but Nadia implores him to take ownership, and the couple bond over the puppy.  It is an interesting branch to a familiar story.  Before long, the owner of the dog appears, and is a menacing former boyfriend of Nadia.  He presses Bob to return the dog to him, but why?  Some motivations remain unclear in the film, which is a drawback in the end.  But I admire the effort to expand upon a traditional story.

The former boyfriend, Eric (Matthias Schoenaerts), becomes a larger player as the story unfolds, and his menace creates great tension.  The plot is occasionally too obtuse for its own good, but The Drop is less about plot and more about these broken lives of neighborhood folks who were once much happier people.  As we begin to learn more about Nadia and, eventually, Marv, Bob remains a mystery until the final moments.  The screenplay lets us into these lives, and allows us to feel sympathy for Bob, all the while keeping him at arm's length for very deliberate purposes.  

In the end, perception has changed for just about everyone involved.  The Drop was a film I was not expecting.  While the directing is unremarkable in the end, and the narrative too convoluted at times, the performances are sublime and unique to the performer.  Noomi Rapace, with an open face and dark eyes, hides sadness well.  And it is still a little odd seeing Gandolfini in film roles this long after his passing.  Nevertheless, he brings comfort to a crime drama like this, playing yet another photo negative to his powerful and egomaniacal Tony Soprano character.  But this is a film where Tom Hardy captivates from the opening scene.  He can do so many things with his voice and, like the best actors around, can say so much without so much as raising an eyebrow.

The Drop may ultimately be unremarkable as a whole, but I found certain elements fascinating, and I respect the writing for attempting to approach a crime drama from a fresh perspective.

B

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Thief (1981)

He carries it all in his shoulders, the weight and pressure of the criminal life, the years behind bars.  He expresses his confidence in his strut.  Frank is a loner, but he is not alone.  He has a woman in his life whom he loves and wants to spend the rest of his life with.  But what is the rest of his life, the life of a career criminal?  Frank is trying to rectify the impending doom of his occupation when we meet him; but, of course, the allure of the life and dangers of outside influence won't allow swift exodus.  Frank is the perfect protagonist in Michael Mann's debut feature, the electric crime thriller Thief.  We all know the films of Michael Mann, and what he has become in a long and brilliant career, and some of his finer work is an echo of Thief in one way or another.  Mann is fascinated with crime, practically sexualizing the act of thievery in some of his works (Thief included), and from the very beginning it was clear his ability to harmonize the thrill of criminal behavior with a world that is fully realized, enveloping, and beautiful.

Frank is played by James Caan, a master of angst, confidence, and ferocity at the right moments.  He is an expert safe cracker who works independently with his own crew he can trust.  The story is a familiar one these days, the introvert criminal looking for one final score before he can ride off into the sunset.  But, as I have always said about cliches and genres, it is only a cliche if the execution is poor.  A film can have the most predictable plot outline, but the developments and the style can define it as something unique despite convention.

Thief is a living, breathing city noir, where Chicago as a backdrop absorbs the players as if they were on in the same.  Consider the opening shot, a sheet of rain backlit by green streetlights which we follow down an alley framed with fire escapes, to Frank a few moments before a heist.  Frank was borne of the city.  He keeps his circle small with his friend and partner, Barry (James Belushi in his debut performance), and his love, Jessie, played by Tuesday Weld.  Frank visits his mentor, Okla (Willie Nelson) in prison, maybe to spend time with Okla, probably to remind himself he never wants to be back in prison.  Frank wants to get up enough money so he can skip town, leave the life behind, and live the rest of his life in peace with Jessie.  But then a wise guy comes calling for his services.

Robert Prosky plays Leo, an underworld boss who convinces Frank to work for him on one big score.  That, of course, doesn't turn out to be the case.  The one score turns into another, and when Frank tries to get out, things don't go as he had planned.  The thefts are a backdrop to the struggles of Frank as he gets his life in order.  This is a character study about a thief, not an action film charged and driven by pure plot devices.  One of the finest moments in the whole picture is a monologue from Caan in a diner booth, telling Jessie a story about his time behind bars.  In the end there is a double cross, a revelation for Frank, and a thrilling climax, all of which belong in a crime drama and devices noir fans recognize.  But, remember, it's the execution that sets genre films apart, and Michael Mann is better than just about anyone at technical execution and its marriage to style and panache.

Mann is known for his research and his attention to technical details, as well as his unique collaborations.  In Thief, Mann employed an actual safe cracker for technical support, and that safe cracker, John Santucci, would go on to play a detective in the film.  Conversely, the late Dennis Farina, who was a retired policeman, played a hood for Prosky's mob.  The materials used in the safe-cracking scenes were actual tools of the trade.  Thief was also the beginning of Mann's eccentric musical choices to pair up with his films.  Sometimes his music has worked wonders, other times it has not.  Thief is completely scored by the techno pop band Tangerine Dream, and the acidic musical notes almost bring more energy to the picture, or pull the seething tension to the forefront in some brilliant ways.


On occasion, Mann's technical obsessiveness has gotten in the way of his final product, and the humanity of some films suffer.  Ali starts like a rocket and fizzles out as Mann gets caught up in the politics of the story.  Public Enemies looks fantastic, feels authentic, but is lifeless.  However, Mann's better films - a list which outweighs his misfires tenfold - manage to capture both the authenticity as well as the human angle.  Think about Heat, or The Insider, his greatest achievements, and their ability to .  Those films, in their own separate ways, belong as the offspring of Mann's first film, which just so happens to be his first truly great film, Thief.          

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams: 1951-2014


One of life's cruelest contradictions has always been the sadness which lies within so many of the people who make us all laugh.  John Belushi and Chris Farley always spring to mind as lovable comedians whose depression and substance abuse took them from this world too soon.  And now, it is Robin Williams, who is dead at the age of 63 from an apparent suicide.  While this news came as a shock to me, I strangely wasn't surprised.  Williams had always dealt with substance abuse, had been a lonely child, and I always sensed darkness lying beneath his constant energy, wit, and desire to deflect attention from his personal life by creating a character we all know and love.  Like everyone has already said ad nauseum, Williams effected all of our lives.  With a decades-long career spanning all genres and mediums, Robin Williams is beloved, and will be missed.

From stand-up, to the small screen, to the silver screen, and eventually finding his way on Broadway, Robin Williams was more than the maniacal improv genius he is so well know for.  I enjoyed Williams when he was "on," when he was hijacking Letterman, doing wild stand up routines, lighting up the screen in his funniest roles.  But his dramatic roles mustn't be overlooked.  His best work was his ability to combine the two in some memorable performances.  In the early 2000s, Williams delved deep into his dark side, personifying what now appear to be real demons in some villainous roles in Insomnia and One Hour Photo.  It was quite a transformation for Williams, who pushed his range further than ever before.  Williams was an institution, the uncle to us all.  We all know about his performances and his awards so let's not retread.

I am deeply saddened by Williams' suicide, but not because he was a close personal friend.  I am upset because suicide is an epidemic in this country and the death of Williams should point us in the direction of this disturbing trend.  I am sure it will for a while, but I doubt it will sustain.  More people die in America from suicide than car accidents today.  Think about that.  There is deep, dark sadness all around every one of us, and no matter how outwardly entertaining, funny, or happy someone may seem they could be suffering in ways most of us cannot comprehend.  I have had suicide in my extended family, I have had my own bouts of sadness, but nothing even close to the depression one must feel in order to take their own life away from so many people who love them.  Williams is survived by his wife and three children.  Three children.  That would be enough for me to survive, but then again I wasn't in pain like Robin Williams. 

Suicide is pain, exposed in the most permanent and disturbing way imaginable.  I am sad today, not because Robin Williams is gone so much as his family has to stay without him.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Boyhood

 
BOYHOOD - Ellar Coltraine, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater, directed by Richard Linklater (165 min.)

Boyhood restores my faith in the power of film as an art form.  Amid the dog days of summer movie garbage, here is the best film of the year, a transcendent piece of storytelling that is compelling, moving, true, and unforgettable.  Everyone knows the back story about director Richard Linklater shooting segments of the story over a 12 year period with the same cast, but this is not a gimmick picture.  Linklater's daring move (the list of what could have gone wrong with production is endless, and filled mostly with death preponderances) pays off not in trickery, but in seamless storytelling that comes together in concert through emotional honesty.  It is Linklater's masterpiece.

The story focuses on the life and times of Mason, played by Ellar Coltraine from a seven year old to a college freshman.  Mason has a sister, Samantha, played by Linklater's own daughter Lorelei.  Their mother is a determined woman (Patricia Arquette) who struggles to make a better life for her children and ends up making mistakes in love over the years.  The dad is Ethan Hawke, who at first is an earnest young man with a GTO and dreams of being a musician, but eventually turns into a responsible adult.  Dad is there for the fun weekends, and it is mom who fights to keep her head above water.  All of these characters float like satellites around Mason as he works his way through some of the toughest years we all have,  There are ups and downs, simple moments and moments of confusion, loves and losses, the struggle to understand.  Linklater taps into his characters with an honest eye.

The power of Boyhood lies in its details.  Sure, there are big moments in the story as there are big moments in all our lives.  Mason's mother marries her professor who turns out to be a frightening man.  She hooks up with a student of her own once she becomes a college professor down the road, and things go south once again.  But what sticks with me about the beginnings of these relationships is the way Linklater frames Mason's perspective of these gentlemen callers.  It is a small, cockeyed glance, a look of curiosity and confusion as he witnesses another man moving into his life.  A small detail, but an important one, something that still lingers.

There are moments that will reach any viewer, be it divorce, step parents, adjustments and understanding, or the simple times of happiness.  As a son and now a father, I found the scenes with Mason and his father to be the most personal, and the next person in the audience may connect with something else.  Regardless of the connection, this is a life unfolding in front of our eyes.  As Ellar Coltraine becomes a man, so does Mason.  He grows from a quiet young boy to a quiet, introverted teenager searching for himself.  From trying to understand the world, Mason becomes a young man trying to understand his own existence.  And there are no sweeping moments of epiphany, the music doesn't swell and characters don't change their world through unreasonable circumstances.  Even when the mother's second husband turns out to be a dangerous threat, the situation is not resolved with theatrics, but in a very matter of fact way that reality dictates more often than not.  He is simply... dealt with.

And the screenplay from Linklater is simple and conversational, a sublime work of ease and intelligence.  It never outreaches its characters or goes for a big payoff, it simply exists, just like all of us in the end. 

The transitions between years are done expertly, with music and current events shaping the year.  At almost three hours long, I didn't want it to end.  I could have watched this story all day long.  Richard Linklater has pulled off quite a feat and created a magical movie going experience.  I plan on seeing it again very soon because I know the experience will only enrich the early moments.  It is rare that a film makes me want to go back almost immediately, but Boyhood begs for such a thing.  I will not soon forget this.

A     

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Guardians of The Galaxy


GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY - Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper (v), Vin Diesel (v), directed by James Gunn (121 min.)

I knew from the outset I was going to have fun with Guardians of The Galaxy.  Something seemed just right from the opening credits, and the film that followed only solidified my initial reaction.  Guardians of The Galaxy is the most fun anyone could have at the movies this summer.  That may be faint praise with such a lackluster summer blockbuster season, but this movie would be a blast no matter what the situation.  It is an exercise in tonal perfection, often times hilarious, sometimes exciting, always engaging. 

The story is familiar, if only to make the wildly diverse characters and space opera adventure easy enough to follow.  A brief prologue shows our hero, Peter Quill, at the bedside of his dying mother.  This opening scene blindsides with an emotional punch as Quill's mother dies, he flees the hospital and is promptly scooped up by a spacecraft.  Fast forward twenty years and Peter Quill has become a "junker," an adventurous pawnbroker of sorts, or a low-end Indiana Jones.  He also likes to call himself Star-Lord, although nobody really jumps on board with his nickname.  Quill gets his hands on an orb, the Macguffin of the film which both the good guys and the bad guys want to get their hands on.  Turns out it is a planet-destroying weapon, but it doesn't matter much. 

Before long everyone is trying to get their hands on this orb for money or power, and the pursuit brings Quill together with a ragtag group of misfits with their own agendas.  Zoe Saldana plays Gamora, a green-skinned daughter of the galactic villain Thanos, and she wants the orb to get vengeance on Thanos for killing her real family.  Bradley Cooper voices Rocket, a hot-headed racoon who has been genetically altered and embittered over the years.  Rocket's sidekick is Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a humanoid tree that says only one phrase.  Then there is Drax, a slate-green brute with red designs on his skin.  Drax and his people do not grasp the concept of speaking in metaphors, which makes for some great comedy throughout.

This band of misfits team up to defeat Thanos' disciple, Ronan, played with booming bass by Lee Pace.  The plot is mechanical, merely a set up to deliver what turns out to be the funniest movie of the year in my estimation.  This is a star-making turn for Pratt as the cocksure Quill, a mix of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo.  Cooper's Rocket brings the snark, Groot the lovability, and Drax the dim-witted target.  The quintet works in concert perfectly from one situation to the next, and the tone is always perfect.  There is humor all throughout, but the picture never feels campy or like a spoof.  And there are some rich cameos from John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, and Benicio Del Toro, all of whom keep the film effervescent with their own comedic timing. 

The universe on display feels a bit like a cobbled together version of a dozen other space adventure films, which I feel is partly the idea.  The action isn't nearly as engaging as the story.  We get a prison break, a number of chase scenes, and a peaceful planet on the verge of destruction, none of which are particularly original.  The logistics of the plot aren't nearly as realized as the characters, which is a good thing if one has to suffer over the other.  Where the CGI and the story might suffer, the inventiveness of the creatures occupying this world is enough to get this film a makeup Oscar.  And on top of it all, the five central characters are all misfits in their own way, all have lost something in their past, adding weight to their budding friendships.

Guardians of The Galaxy is a wacky, wild entertainment.  The freshness of the characters without any predestined baggage makes the story a treat as it unfolds without expectation.  In yet another summer of mediocrity, here is one that would stand out in any hot season.

B+

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Lucy


LUCY - Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi, Amr Waked, directed by Luc Besson (89 min.)

Humans only access about 15% of our brain's capacity on average, so naturally the idea of using more is an interesting idea for science fiction, or in this case, action.  Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro starred in Limitless a few years back, where Cooper's character took a drug which opened up more avenues of his cerebellum and allowed him to finish novels, dominate the stock market, and become rich and powerful.  It was a slight film, but entertaining and edgy in its execution.  Which brings me to Lucy, another "what if" film about the human brain.  Only this movie doesn't much care about any philosophical implications or logical steps when dealing with a person whose brain suddenly increases to 100% capacity; we're here for the action.

Scarlett Johansson gives it her all in the title character, a ditzy American partying in Taiwan with a shady cowboy.  When that shady cowboy handcuffs a briefcase to her hand and forces her to deliver the case to some Asian gangsters in a hotel, you know things aren't going to go well for her in the long run.  The gang is led by Mr. Jang, played by Min-sik Choi, the talented Korean actor made famous in Oldboy.  Jang is evil and all those sorts of things in a very one-dimensional, uninteresting way.  After a harrowing reveal of what's in the case, the plot jumps off its cliff of absurdity.  Inside the case are four bags full of blue granules, drugs which apparently make its customers wildly unhinged when taken in small doses.  It is called CPH4, and has the ability to open up avenues in the brain while apparently killing its human host ever so slightly each time.

Lucy, along with three other saps, is knocked out cold and one of the bags is sewn into her stomach.  She is forced to mule this drug to the States, but before she can even get out of Taiwan she is attacked when in custody, kicked right in the stomach where the bag is (who are these fools?), and the bag hurts open.  The granules flood into her system in some hyper-stylized moments of computer animation.  Next thing you know, Lucy's brain capacity goes from 15 to 20%, then 30%, and so on.  There are a handful of interesting things Lucy can do now, like see cellphone traces into the sky, hear from long distances, access computers, and even control objects through the manipulation of matter.  Too bad the film wants to be about her exacting revenge for the most part.

Lucy turns into a badass fighting machine.  She can't feel pain because that's just a blocking impulse in your brain and, well, there's nothing blocking anything anymore.  Interwoven in the plight of Lucy is Professor Norman, played by Morgan Freeman who must have some sort of agreement to star in no less than fifty movies a year.  Professor Norman has written books about the human brain, and Lucy seeks him out for his help.  For what, I'm never quite sure.  The action scenes pop up and dissipate while Norman is giving a speech in Paris, and eventually the two stories meet.  But I couldn't muster the energy to keep paying attention by that point.

I didn't expect Lucy to be some sort of film neurologists would show their students in the future, but I expected it to be fun and fresh.  By the third act, reality in any way, shape or form has abandoned the story.  Lucy has basically turned into a combination of all the X-Men with her ability to change her hair in seconds and pin gangsters up against the ceiling with her brain.  At the end, once Lucy reaches full brain capacity, she turns herself into some sort of computer and figures out ways to travel through time and space.  I was lost.  All the while a shootout occupies the lobby of the building where she is becoming a computer, a shootout with no point or consequence when it comes down to it because, well, Lucy is everything and everywhere?  I'm not sure, because I was ready to get out of the theater.

C-

Friday, July 11, 2014

Dawn of The Planet of The Apes



DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES: Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, Gary Oldman, Andy Serkis, directed by Matt Reeves (130 min.)

Dawn of The Planet of The Apes is not only a sequel that enhances and improves upon the origin story from 2011, it is one of the best films of 2014.  That seems silly to say about a film revolving around CGI Simians and their fight against desperate humans, and it very well could have been that way.  That is the magic of the film, the way it manages to counter what could be a campy premise and could easily devolve into corny farce with real, raw emotion, great performances (both human and ape, though the latter dominates here), compelling narrative threads, and thrilling action in perfect harmony with moments of important and patient development.  I was blown away.

The “first” film in this series, Rise of The Planet of The Apes, was a prequel set up to bridge the gap between what happened in the present day and what Charlton Heston found in the true first film in the franchise, the 1968 classic.  The success and quality of that picture leads us to Dawn, and ten years after the apes stormed the Golden Gate Bridge and disappeared into the forests of Northern California.  In this near future, a virus – labeled the “Simian Flu” – has spread among the humans, nearly wiping them off the planet except for a few pockets of desperate survivors immune to the disease.  Meanwhile, the ape society that fled into the Redwoods has evolved even further, speaking more, thinking more, developing into a primitive tribal society in the foothills of the region.  They have a caste system reminiscent of the original Planet of The Apes where the Gorillas are the muscle, the chimpanzees common society, and the Orangutans the educators and philosophers. 

This raw societal dynamic is still led by Caesar, the focal point of the first film who has grown into a strong and respected leader of the apes.  Caesar is, by virtue of the testing from Rise, the most evolved and thoughtful of the apes and is also a family man with a… wife?... a young impressionable son and a new baby boy.  Caesar still has some fond memories of the humans while his second in command, the scarred and bitter Koba, holds nothing but hatred.  None of these apes, who communicate through sign language and sparse dialogue, have seen a human in two years.  So when a ragtag group of explorers pop up on the outskirts of their village, the society is upset and becomes somewhat divided.


The humans come from downtown San Francisco where a few hundred survivors have collected.  This broken society is led by Dreyfus, played sparingly by Gary Oldman.  The explorers who stumble upon the ape village are simply trying to get to a nearby dam to see if they can use its power to restore downtown Frisco.  The de facto leader of this group is Malcolm, played with fantastic gravitas by Zero Dark Thirty’s Jason Clarke.  He, along with his son and his girlfriend (both lost their significant others in the plague), Ellie (Keri Russell),  and a few more humans must talk their way through Caesar’s society in order to get the power they need.  The relationship works, tentatively, at first.  Caesar and Malcolm develop trust with one another, and learn about each other.  But there is distrust and dissention among the ranks in both the human and Simian camp, and soon a double cross leads to an all out war between the two sides.

It is amazing to me the way director Matt Reeves and the screenwriters and effects crew are able to construct this film to work on so many levels.  Not once are the apes farcical or goofy, they are completely believable.  And not only that, even though the human actors are wonderful in their roles, there is an honest and undeniable emotional attachment to these apes.  Caesar and his family are paramount to this incredibly engaging journey.  There are deep philosophical elements to the story about trust and even xenophobia, and stories about friendship and what it means to lead.  The action is paced perfectly, with enough time in between the big set pieces and shootouts to truly engage with characters both human and CGI.  There are moments here, and shots from cinematographer Michael Seresin, which invoke the awe and wonder of early Spielberg fantasy films, especially a lovely musical moment in the forest at an abandoned gas station lit up among the greenery.

As good as Rise of The Planet of The Apes was, Dawn of The Planet of The Apes is that much better, in virtually every way.  The characters are smart and soulful, and there are sequences that engage us more than any summer blockbuster should do.  This is an example of perfect balance in a film that is bigger than most, and could have suffered from the bloat and noise and annoyances of a certain robot franchise.  Naturally these prequel films will be, at the least, a trilogy, and the set up is in place for a third entry.  Bring on Battle of The Planet of The Apes.

A    

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Snowpiercer


SNOWPIERCER: Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Kang-ho Song, Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris, directed by Joon-ho Bong (126 min.)

Just when the postapocalyptic sci-fi landscape in film has started showing rust and staleness, along comes Snowpiercer, a wild and unhinged action thriller with a crazy setting and even crazier characters filling the screen.  The premise is intriguing, if not a little silly when you sit and think about it.  But that's the thing, don't think about it.  Director Joon-ho Bong has achieved what many sic-fi directors cannot these days: he has created a world so unique and so Gonzo that one cannot help get caught up in the plight of these characters, no matter how much reality eludes the story.  Snowpiercer is a one of a kind film I did not expect to see when the lights went down.

The setting is 2031 seventeen years after the world, for all intents and purposes, has ended.  In 2014 the governments of the world, in an attempt to bring down the planet's temperature, released a chemical compound into the atmosphere.  This never goes well.  In no short time the temperature of the planet falls through the floor and the world is frozen solid.  Nearly everything and everyone dies, except those lucky (or unlucky) enough to board a train which rockets around the earth on a vast track crossing all continents.  The train is long and whisks over the tracks and through the frozen landscape, run by a never-ending mysterious engine invented by the leader, or God, of the new world, Wilford (Ed Harris).  For seventeen years this train has been circling the earth, and the path takes a calendar year which is a handy tool to mark off time.

Within the train, a harsh class system has evolved between the haves and the have nots.  Those kept in the tail of the train are poor and crowded, dirty and disheveled, fed only gelatin-like protein bars for every meal.  This lower class are guarded heavily from getting to the front of the train, where the rich live in lush cabins and spend their time drinking and dining and enjoying nightclubs and free dental work.  Occasionally, Mason (Tilda Swinton) makes a trip to the impoverished to dole out disturbing and creative punishment and set the rules straight once again.  Swinton wonderfully chews scenery like she never has before, embellishing some nice idiosyncrasies in the Mason character which would fit well in a Terry Gilliam movie.   This very divided system is the New World, but of course with such a divided system, revolution is never far away.

The de-facto leader of the tail society is Curtis, played by Chris Evans in a brilliant performance.  Curtis has a plan to move his people through the security and fight through the guards to get to the front.  With the help of his sidekick, Edgar (Jamie Bell) and the wisdom of the old man, Gilliam (the great John Hurt), Curtis scratches and claws his way through the security and the journey begins to reach the upper crust and confront Wilford.  But this is a long train with many important life-sustaining cars, and there are several stops and detours for our hero along the way, including picking up a couple of interesting prisoners to assist the efforts.  I could go on, but let's keep the plot specifics a secret because the things which unfold I never expected.

No matter how bizarre or violent Snowpiercer gets, it never dumbs itself down to appease audiences.  Things are unclear for a long time, explained only as they would organically happen in conversation.  There is no outsider standing in for the audience to get the whole story, so attention is necessary.  And this world aboard the train and the increasingly wacky circumstances and situations build and build and deepen the film with every car.  There are clever and electric action sequences, but I found myself more involved with the kooky story between these violent outbursts.  These characters grow more important the closer they get to their goal, and each and every member aboard this train is compelling in their own right.

The supporting cast of Harris, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, and John Hurt are wonderful.  Kang-ho Song as a drug addled prisoner who also happens to be a former security engineer is intense and soulful, perhaps the second most important character in the core.  But this is a Chris Evans film, and there are moments from him that help support a little theory I have been rattling around in my own head for a while.  There is something more to Chris Evans than meets the eye.  He deserves all the credit in the world for turning Captain America into one of the better superhero franchises to date, but here Evans is given more opportunity to show range I have seen only in glimpses in lesser films.  There is a confession from Curtis near the end of the film that is the pinnacle of Evans' acting career to this point.  He is brilliant.

Snowpiercer is not a film for everyone, only a certain faction of sci-fi fans looking for a fresh take on a stale premise.  I wasn't sure what to expect going into the picture, but what I saw was most certainly not on my radar.  It is a pleasant surprise in every weird and oddball way imaginable.

A

Friday, June 27, 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction


TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION: Mark Wahlberg, Nicola Peltz, Jack Reynor, Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer, directed by Michael Bay (157 min.)

Here we go again.  Michael Bay lives in a world of adolescence, making movies for teenagers, but does that mean he has to make them unwatchable?  I am all for popcorn flicks with big action and CGI, they surely have a place in this world.  What I am not a fan of is overt sexism, ignorant racism, one-dimensional characters due to pure laziness, action scenes that don't know when to quit, and unnecessary excess upon excess.  Transformers: Age of Extinction is more of the same, a lot more, too much more in almost every way.  It's all the same stuff we have all seen in the first three Transformers films, only this one clocks in at over two and a half hours, the longest of the series.  Despite it being about thirty minutes too long, not that trimming this down would make things better.  It would have just made the overall experience less arduous.

At least we don't have Shia LeBeouf to deal with this time.  It is Mark Wahlberg, who plays Cade Yaeger, an amateur inventor in rural Texas whose inventions never seem to work out.  He is a single father to Tessa (Nicola Peltz), an under-dressed, oversexed teenage daughter who does nothing more than pose in skimpy outfits for Bay.  But, of course, Cade is overprotective of his sexy daughter to the point that the conversations about her not kissing boys or dating boys or looking at boys is literally the only conversations they have the entire film.  Nearly three hours of Cade making empty threats is tiresome, especially when Tessa's boyfriend, Shane, pops onto the scene to help save the day.  Luckily, Shane is a Rally Car racer with corporate sponsorship and everything.  Who isn't?  And lest we forget a stock character, T,J. Miller fills the role of wisecracking sidekick Lucas, a surfer dude who, no matter how intense the situation, has time to add snarky sarcasm.

The time is five years after the destruction of Chicago in the previous film, and all transformers are being rounded up and wiped out by shady government operatives, led by Kelsey Grammer's stereotypically wicked Harold Attinger.  Turns out, however, Attinger is working in concert with the Decepticons, the bad ones, and a bounty hunter transformer we've never seen before.  There is an entire subplot involving a big corporation in Chicago led by Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci) who is creating his own transformers with their technology, but it doesn't matter.

Cade stumbles upon an old truck that turns out to be Optimus Prime, and one acton scene leads to another, and another, and another, and even one more, but then one more.  Then, maybe one or two or ten more, and they're all the same.  The bad guys come after the good guys, and one precarious situation unfolds after another.  Perhaps they all make sense in the teenage mind of Michael Bay, but the plot points are brushed past at such a rapid pace in order to get to the next loud action sequence, none of it has any real consequence.  The action takes us to Chicago which is mildly destroyed now, about $400 million I suppose.  Then we go to Beijing, where a bomb is going to be detonated to do some stuff and some things.  Who cares?!  Let's get to the CGI!

Look, I completely understand what is going on here, and I know what to expect with a Michael Bay film.  But does that mean the film itself has to be complete garbage?  Remember way back six years ago when the origin Transformers came out, and was an entertaining summer action flick for the most part.  We have come a long way from there, and gone way down on the quality scale.  Make big loud action films, fine, but at least make them worth seeing.  Bay's typical sexism is on display, with every woman used merely as an object.  And the racism is in tact as well; the only black character is a big, loud, sassy black woman with attitude.  He can get away with making trash movies, but how does Bay get by with such overt sexism and racism time and time again.

Transformers 4 is an assault on the senses and sensibilities.  The film goes on and on to the point where I started thinking about other things.  The loud metal-on-metal destruction blurs into white noise, and after two hours and ten… fifteen… twenty… I was leaning forward in my seat ready to bolt.  By the time the Dinobots, dinosaur transformers, finally appeared out of seemingly nowhere, I was spent.  The actors are barely acting.  Wahlberg has done better, not in a while, but what about Tucci?  His performance is brutal and uneven as he hops from stoic and stern to what amounts to a nervous breakdown of silliness and wacky one liners.  The snark is lazy and the script is everywhere.  My message to everyone is to skip this one, and skip the next one, and maybe we will finally be finished with this Bay franchise.

F

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Rover


THE ROVER: Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson, directed by David Michod (103 min.)

There is nothing cheery about The Rover, director David Michod's follow up to his searing Aussie crime drama Animal KingdomThe Rover is bleak, depressing, violent, and altogether captivating thanks to two intensely focused performances from Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson.  Australian crime thrillers like The Rover rarely come with brightness or hope, and this picture carries misery in spades.  This may not be the most glowing picture to paint for a film, as most of us go to be entertained and enjoy escapist thrills, but there is a place for the dark and dreary in cinema.  For those able to find enjoyment in morally desolate filmmaking, here is a film that captivates.

As the title card explains at the outset, The Rover takes place in Australia ten years after "the collapse."  Society has crumbled to a point of barely hanging on, at least in the Outback where things surely weren't bustling beforehand.  This may be somewhere around 2030, but it may as well be the Old West.  Eric (Pearce) is a hardened loner, a personification of the harsh landscape surrounding him.  Disheveled, bearded and dirty, Eric wants no company, has no friends, desires almost nothing.  But his car is stolen by three ne'er do wells who crash their own truck outside a dilapidated bar where he is having a drink.  The three men are fleeing the scene of a shootout, or something along those lines, none of which is fully explained.  Eric manages to get their truck up and running and pursues the men.  All he wants is his car back, but the trio refuse to return it.  They knock him out cold and leave him on the side of the road, but Eric will not stop until his car is returned and vengeance is taken.

Along his pursuit, Eric runs into Rey (Pattinson), a dim-witted American who is brothers with one of the three men and was shot and left for dead in the unexplained altercation.  Eric gets Rey to a doctor so he can have his wound cleaned and dressed, but not because he cares at all for Rey.  He simply needs Rey to take him to his brother.  The rest of the film is the journey of these two men, where horrible things unfold and very little is made in the way of forward progress regarding their relationship.  Eric is practically soulless, his eyes containing nothing more than rage and sadness, and no matter how much Rey tries to create companionship between them in his simple-minded conversations, Eric refuses to succumb. 

The plot is thin and nothing more than a device to showcase two more important aspects of the film: The World and the performances.  This universe of societal collapse is unsettling, and the people who God has left behind here seem to have let the despair get the better of them.  There is a distinct Asian influence to the population. In the search for his car, Eric also runs across a strange and disturbing house where an old woman speaks obtusely while offering up young boys to Eric.  The ruin of the world has subsequently ruined the minds and hearts of the people remaining. 

Guy Pearce's performance is spare and captivating, a work more of eyes and cold stares than words.  His single-minded determination is the dark, polar opposite to Pattinson's simplistic and warm characterization of Rey.  I have enjoyed watching Robert Pattinson continue to shed his glamour doll image form the Twilight films by tackling roles in films like this.  He is a talented actor and his role his is unlike anything I have seen from him thus far. 

The Rover is also shockingly violent at times to match the bleak nature of the landscape, but for the right audience there is plenty to enjoy here.  It isn't for everyone, but it is most certainly a captivating picture rife with performances that create tension and make for a harrowing story.

B+

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Edge Of Tomorrow



EDGE OF TOMORROW: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Brendan Gleeson, directed by Doug Liman (113 min.)

Edge of Tomorrow is a furiously energetic and thrilling summer action spectacle.  From the very beginning it pushes the pedal to the floor and it never lets up.  And even though most elements of the sci-fi story are familiar at their core, this is a truly original, inventive film.  There is also quite a bit of humor and a connection with the characters that keep the story engaging, mostly due to the dedication of its leads, Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt.  The mechanics of the plot may outsmart the film in the end, but by the time the climax rolled around I was too busy catching my breath to nitpick what was an enjoyable and fresh experience.

The set up for Edge of Tomorrow takes place in a media montage to open the film.  Alien organisms have invaded Europe and are quickly making work of our forces and annihilating the human race.  Eventually, military minds create metal frame contraptions to fit around soldiers and the playing field evens.  The human race's military efforts appear to be making a dent in the alien assault, and an assault on a stronghold in France is planned.  Enter William Cage, a talking head representing the military in soundbites on CNN, discussing the prowess of these new machines and also talking up the growing legend of Rita.  Played by Emily Blunt, Rita is a super soldier leading the charge against these aliens, Mimics as they are called.  Rita is the poster girl for the human effort; Cage, on the other hand, wants nothing to do with military action, hates the sight of blood, and when he is forced into frontline action by a stubborn General (Brendan Gleeson) he tries his damnedest to get out of it.  It is refreshing to see Tom Cruise eschewing his typical Cruise character who is awesome at everything.  This time around, his character starts off as a coward.

Cage is thrown into action in one of these metal suits and, in a panic, kills one of the Mimics before it eventually kills him.  And just like that, he wakes up back at the military base, starting the entire day over again, thoroughly confused. Despite his confusion and his attempts at an explanation, Cage is thrown back into the fray, is killed, and starts the day over yet again.  This pattern continues until he gets a little better each day.  Then during one of these trips into battle he meets Rita on the beach and walks her through a few daring misses.  Rita seems confused by Cage's psychic abilities, but it turns out she knows what is happening to him.

I won't say more about the why or how of Cage's condition because anything can spoil the clever twists and turns.  Cage repeats the day and the battle, employing Rita's help and the duo get a little further towards their ultimate goal each time around.  Director Doug Liman is having fun with this Groundhog Day structure, as Cage trains every day and when he breaks a bone, Rita shoots him and they start the day over.  There is some real humor from Cruise in this second act until the plot gets ramped up and the stakes get pushed higher.  The action in Edge of Tomorrow is breathtaking, and it gets better with each restarted day.  There is quite a bit of CGI necessary to make the suits and the aliens function properly, but it is seamless and never distracting.  The opening scenes, where Bill Paxton - playing an Army Sergeant - does that Bill Paxton thing and chews scenery like a champ, sets a classic, militant tone in a futuristic world.  I can't imagine invading a beach in France was a coincidence.

It is refreshing to see Cruise play basically the opposite of his typical character, and Emily Blunt has really found a niche playing headstrong and athletic women in sic-fi films.  And just when the repeated days might get redundant, Liman and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (along with a team of writers) mix up the action with some car chases and scenery switches at just the right time.  The balance of the action is key in the film functioning from start to finish.  And as I said earlier, maybe the mechanics of the plot, in the end, outsmart the finale.  I can't quite make sense of the way things ended up in those final moments, but honestly it didn't detract from my nearly euphoric enjoyment.

A-

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Godzilla


GODZILLA:  Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olson, Ken Watanabe, directed by Gareth Edwards (123 min.)

It's hard to believe a summer blockbuster could pull off what the new Godzilla pulls off.  Here is a large summer monster movie that is surprising from start to finish in so many ways, that is patient, that is slow burning, and an action tentpole picture that earns its thrills when they do come.  It is too easy to throw scene after scene of destruction on the screen and assault audiences with noise and fireballs, and director Gareth Edwards had the perfect vehicle for such a noisy barrage.  However, Edwards, along with screenwriters Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham, decided restraint was the proper way to approach this rebirth of the King of Monsters.  The result of their calm, calculated re-imagining is a breath of fresh air.

2014 is the sixtieth birthday of Godzilla, and his makeover comes with a new story and new life.  The film opens in the Phillipines in 1999 where a mining dig has uncovered strange fossils.  Something has escaped, crossed the island, and disappeared into the sea.  This all much to the chagrin of Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe).  Meanwhile, in a small Japanese village surrounding a nuclear power plant, we meet Joe and Sandra Brody, married scientists played by Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche.  Joe and Sandra live near the plant with their young son, Ford, and there seems to be some dangerous tremors causing a disturbance at the plant.  There is a horrible tragedy, and the film jumps forward to the present day.

The Japanese village has been shut off, quarantined, deemed uninhabitable due to the radiation from the disaster.  Ford has grown up to be a Naval Officer and is married to Elle (Elizabeth Olson).  Meanwhile, Joe Brody has never been able to move past the disaster in 1999 and swears government conspiracy.  Ford gets a call at his home in San Francisco informing him that Joe has been arrested sneaking back into the Japanese village to try and get some important disks from his old home.  Reluctantly, Ford flies to Japan to free his dad and is subsequently pulled headfirst into the plot, which unfolds at a deliberate pace.  Joe's cries for justice reach the ears of Dr. Serizawa, who believes Joe might have some important information about what actually destroyed the power plant in '99.  Turns out, as well all knew, Joe's conspiracies were correct.  The disaster wasn't an earthquake, but it wasn't Godzilla either.

I won't spoil any more plot points but I will say Godzilla is a surprising thriller in several areas.  The appearance of the King of Monsters is more than an hour into this two-hour film, but the anticipation has been earned.  There is mystery at the core of the picture, and it builds upon dread and impending doom so that when we first see Godzilla it is not just another CGI money shot, but a well-earned, awe-inspiring moment.  Edwards understands the effectiveness of patience and the power of making audiences wait to see what they've come to see.  He is borrowing straight from the Jaws playbook, and it works.  Even when Godzilla flashes his destructive brilliance in Frisco - in surprising ways - the battle scenes are not long and loud and they don't move a million miles per hour.  They are all encompassing, but brief, and this addition by subtraction makes the whole thing feel satisfying.  These scenes in the film's climax, where we really get the first extended looks at Godzilla, are the antithesis of the climactic moments in Man of Steel.

The performances here all feel like performances that don't belong in a Godzilla film, where hokey dialogue and bad acting became status quo.  Cranston delivers a dedicated, weighty performance as Joe, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson's stiffness seems to work well with his Ford character.  Olsen and Watanabe serve their purpose to the picture, but Godzilla revolves around the work of father and son.  Godzilla is a solid summer blockbuster, but not really in any ways I expected.  The cinematography is elegant, the screenplay is smart, the direction sound, and the monster himself is given a fresh rebirth on his sixtieth birthday.

A-