Edge of Tomorrow(6/14/2014)

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Let’s talk about Tom Cruise.  Do you like him?  A lot of people don’t.  Well, if box office is any indication people used to like him a whole lot, but his stock seems to have fallen precipitously in the last ten years or so.  At least some of his lack of popularity probably does have at least a little bit to do with some of his erratic public behavior a while back and his vocal adherence to scientology.  I never got on board with that backlash, I’ve continued to enjoy movies made by people who have done much worse things than jump on Oprah’s sofa, and frankly I think that most people would have gotten over that a long time ago if they had been given a reason to.  No, Cruise’s problems of late go a lot deeper than either him or his movies; it’s rooted in a larger trend away from star driven movies and toward franchise driven tentpoles.  It’s no coincidence that his last real box office triumph was Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, which is part of the one franchise in his otherwise sequel-averse career.  Cruise’s desire to avoid the sequels, prequels, side-quels, and reboots of modern Hollywood would seem to be admirable, but unfortunately the original blockbusters that he’s lent his name to have often been lackluster affairs like Valkarie, Knight & Day, and Oblivion.  His latest film, Edge of Tomorrow may well be his last chance to bring the star-driven-blockbuster-sci-fi movie thing work, so a lot is on the line.

Edge of Tomorrow is ostensibly based on a Japanese novel called “All You Need is Kill” by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, but it might be more descriptive to say it’s a cross between Starship Troopers and Groundhog Day.  The film is set in the future after humanity have been at war with an alien race called The Mimics for years and it looks like they may finally have a shot to win the war with one final push after having contained them in Europe.  On the eve of this decisive battle a military PR man named Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) is placed on the front lines over his own serious objections.  When the battle finally starts the whole army finds that the enemy is much tougher than they expected and they’re quickly overwhelmed.  Cage doesn’t fight very well but his is able to kill a big blue mimic before he’s killed.  And then he suddenly wakes up 24 hours earlier.  He has a full memory of his death on the battlefield, but it hasn’t happened yet and he suddenly finds himself reliving the day over again, and over again, and over again.  He has no idea what he’s going through until he runs into a legendarily brave soldier on the field named Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) who recognizes Cage’s inexplicable knowledge of the battlefield and somehow knows to tell him to find her and talk to her “the next time he wakes up.”

Though it does eventually recover, Edge of Tomorrow gets off to a really rough start.  In fact I might go so far as to call the first thirty minutes or so of the movie downright moronic.  For the film to work as planned screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth had to contrive some reason for an untrained soldier to be on the battlefield during a decisive battle.  The solution they came to was to make Cage a cowardly non-combat officer who is ordered to go to the battle for no specified reason, and after protesting and attempting to blackmail his way out of the battle is put in handcuffs and handed over to a commanding officer who believes him to be a deserter and compulsive liar who was never an officer to begin with.  This plan somehow works even though it had just minutes earlier been established that the character had been a well-known PR man for the army who had been on numerous television interviews.  Why no one on the base seems to recognize form these TV appearances is never explained, and given the looping nature of time in the movie we have to keep on coming back to this contrived beginning over and over again. In the real world deserters aren’t forced back to the front lines, they’re court-martialed, and for good reason because the last thing you want on the front lines during a critical battle is an untrustworthy fool (especially one with no combat training) who could easily get someone killed through cowardice or incompetence.

There are other problems here as well, mainly Tom Cruise.  Cruise was a very reliable movie star for a while, but I think he’s been in something of a rut lately.  He still desperately wants to be the likeable and energetic movie star who can carry a movie on sheer charisma, but I think that might work against him here.  His character is supposed to be something of a weasel at the beginning of the movie and evolve over the course of his ordeal, but Cruise is never quite able to convey that arc and plays most of the movie at his usual action star register.  I also question director Doug Liman’s qualifications to be making a science fiction epic.  Liman is certainly a capable director and he did a great job of launching the Bourne series, but his isn’t a master of special effects and not really an auteur for that matter.  He gives the film a relatively bland look, at least by the standards of modern Hollywood, and he peppers the film with some moments of levity that just aren’t as funny as he probably thinks they are.

So, this movie has a whole lot stacked against it, but once it finally gets over the hump it actually does start to work.  We’ve obviously seen the “live the same day over” thing before in movies like Groundhog Day, Source Code, and various stunt episodes of TV shows but there is still novelty value to it and this one plays with the idea in some particularly amusing ways and incorporates some very sharp editing.  I also really love what Emily Blunt is doing in the movie in her role as a haunted but still badass soldier who carries around a sword.  The whole movie reminded me a lot of this anime series I used to watch called Blue Gender, which also had a tough as nails soldier escorting a slightly clueless man through a post-apocalyptic warzone.  Toward the end you really do begin to feel how all these futile attempts to save the world have started to wear on these characters (maybe a little too much in the case of the Emily Blunt character, who isn’t supposed to remember each new day) and there are moments that feel genuinely affecting.  It’s when the movie is doing cool stuff like that that I really wanted to support it, but then I’d remember that idiotic set-up and some of the other flaws and kind of cringe a little.  Ultimately this is an effective blockbuster that’s easy to recommend to someone looking for a momentary diversion, but it’s not one that I think will stay with anyone for long.

*** out of Four

Ida(5/31/2014)

5-31-2014Ida

There are many things that go into a movie showing up on my radar.  Sometimes I’ll be interested in a movie solely because I’m already a fan of the director, sometimes it will be because it has a concept that jumps out at me, sometimes it will be because I’ve heard buzz about it from the festival circuit or in reviews, sometimes it will be a movie that has everyone on the internet talking, and sometimes it’s simply a matter of heavy studio publicity.  In the case of the movie Ida it was none of these things.  I’d never really heard of director Paweł Pawlikowski, whose previous films don’t seem to have made much of a splash stateside, and most of its festival buzz seemed to escape me.  I finally got hip to it exactly one week before seeing it when I happened to see its trailer and was immediately intrigued by its visual style and was soon thereafter inspired to look it up on Metacritic, at which point I decided it was definitely a must see.

Set in Soviet controlled Poland during the 1960s, Ida tells the story of a young woman named Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) who has been living in a convent since she was orphaned at a young age.  Having been orphaned at a young age, this is basically the only life she’s ever known.  Before she takes her final vows, her superiors suggest that she find her surviving family members and get a better idea of what she’s leaving behind.  The only surviving relative of Anna’s that they can point her to is her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a hard drinking unmarried judge.  Wanda reveals to Anna that her given name is actually Ida Lebenstein, that she’s ethnically Jewish, and that her parents and brother were killed during the course of the Second World War.  Anna still has questions about her past, so she and Wanda decide to drive out to the village where Anna was born to get some more answers about the circumstances of her family’s killing.

The thing that first attracted me to Ida was its visual style, so I guess I start by talking about that.  Pawlikowski clearly makes two anachronistic choices right away with his visual style by filming the movie both in Black and White and in the Academy Ratio.  The choice of filming without color should seem rather obvious given the film’s subject matter and the era that it’s trying to capture, but I think it’s the way it uses that 1.33:1 ratio that really sets it apart.  Using this narrow frame has become something of a trend recently.  Some filmmakers like Wes Anderson and Michel Hazanavicius have used it for reasons that are purely nostalgic while others like Andrea Arnold, Gus Van Sant, and Kelly Reichardt have used it to give their films a sense of confinement that mirrors what their characters are going through.  Here I think Pawlikowski’s use of the ratio skews closer to the first camp’s than the second camp’s, but he uses the frame in ways that are a little more clever than both.  Rather than seemingly cutting out information, he uses the square frame as an excuse to back his camera up a lot and have his subjects fill up relatively small portions of the frame, leaving a lot more negative space than we usually see films.  Tom Hooper has been doing similar things with his off-center framings, but there seems to be a bit more poetry to it here than there was in, say, Les Misérables.

Of course a big part of why the visual style works is that it doesn’t distract from the story, which is a pretty interesting exploration of Jewish identity and the lasting effects of war and tragedy.  Ida is, at its core, a movie about the Holocaust even if it happens to take place after the end of that particular atrocity and doesn’t depict it on screen.  Instead it views that tragedy (and the rest of World War II) as a lingering wound that continues to haunt even those people who only just learn that they were victims of it after the fact.  That the film is set in a Poland which has become a proxy state of Russia with a repressive communist government as a result of that war is part of this, and another part of it is the lingering pain, guilt, and/or paranoia felt by most of the film’s characters because of this previous trauma.  That these themes are set against a very personal story of a young woman at a crossroads who’s trying to figure out exactly who she is and what she wants to become makes it all the more fascinating.

So Ida has all the ingredients of a great film and yet I don’t quite think it fully achieves greatness.  I think its undoing is perhaps that it’s a little too sparse for its own good.  At a scant 80 minutes the film really kind of ends just when it’s really picking up steam and in some ways it kind of feels like an incomplete experience.  Critics who make a habit of labeling everything over 100 minutes as “too long” (a concern usually only shared by other people for whom movie going has become a job rather than a passion) would probably balk at such a sentiment, but I really think that an extra sub-plot or character arc would have gone a long way towards making this feel like a more substantial feature.  Despite that, I think this is definitely a strong movie that should be seen by many, though I’ll admit that the grouping of people who are going to be interested is probably… rather limited.  You can’t really get much more arthouse than a black and white Polish movie about a nun finding herself during an identity crisis.  But if you look past the film’s intimidating exterior and it’s actually more accessible than you’d think and certainly one that fans of world cinema should strongly consider.

***1/2 out of Four

X-Men: Days of Future Past(5/31/2014)

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As ubiquitous as the superhero genre has become in the last fifteen years, it’s interesting that we’ve come to a point where that first wave of comic book movies has mostly been usurped.  Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies have been replaced by the Marc Webb’s, Christopher Nolan’s Batman series has run its course and will soon be replaced by a new Batman played by Ben Affleck, and the various one-offs like Daredevil, Hulk, The Fantastic Four and Superman Returns have all been replaced or forgotten as well.  Pretty much the one and only franchise from the early 2000s that’s still going strong is the one that started it all: Bryan Singer’s X-Men series.

That’s not to say that it’s always been smooth sailing for the X-films.  On the contrary, the series was almost completely derailed by a pair of god-awful movies (2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand and 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and last year’s The Wolverine wasn’t all that great either. Fortunately, things really started to turn around in 2011 with the release of a great prequel installment called X-Men: First Class, which managed to refresh the series while still respecting the existing continuity.  At that point it was clear what the common link between the quality X-men films was: Bryan Singer, who directed the stellar first two installments and produced X-Men: First Class.  Singer has certainly made some questionable stuff of the years, but for whatever reason he’s uniquely suited to this franchise, and that made it doubly exciting that he would be back behind the director’s chair for the series’ latest installment: X-Men: Days of Future Past.

X-Men: Days of Future Past begins in the future, not an overly distant future if the actor’s ages are to be believed, but certainly a dystopian one.  The sky is black and there are killer transforming robots called sentinels hunting down mutants.  For all intents and purposes, the forces of evil have won and the surviving X-Men have all assembled to hatch one last ditch effort to save the world.  It’s been discovered that this horrible future is rooted in a moment in 1973 when Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) murdered a mutant hating scientist named Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) but is captured on the scene, and it was from experiments conducted on this captured mutant that the forces of evil were able to invent the killer sentinels in the future.  Determined to stop this from happening, Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) work together on a scheme to use a newfound power of Kitty Pryde’s (Ellen Page) to send someone’s consciousness back to 1973 and stop this fateful meeting from happening.  It’s determined that the only person from that era who can survive such a transference is Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), because of his healing powers.  As such, the modern Wolverine’s knowledge is sent to the 1973 Wolverine’s body, and he’s sent on a mission to find the young Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and save the future.

As you can tell from that summery, there is a LOT going on in this movie.  Conventional wisdom in the post-Joel Schumacher era has been to keep your superhero movies as stripped down as possible in order to keep things under control, but this movie proudly says “fuck that” and fills itself with well over twelve name actors with speaking roles.  It should be noted however, that most of the actors from the original X-Men cast other than Hugh Jackman (including Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, Ellen Page, and Anna Paquin) are largely relegated to the future sections of the film, which are essentially a limited framing story.  Many of the newly introduced mutants like Bishop, Blink, Warpath, and to some extent Quicksilver also have limited screen time and don’t really get a full showcase.  For the most part this should probably be viewed more as a sequel to X-Men: First Class albeit one with a continuity altering twist that is somewhat reminiscent of the 2009 Star Trek.  The focus is mainly on Wolverine and the younger iterations of Magneto, Xavier, Beast, and Mystique.

To fit all this stuff into a modest 131 minute runtime X-Men: Days of Future Past really needs to run at a breakneck pace.  Indeed, it goes from one action scene to the next while weaving in all sorts of continuity twists and mythology all while occasionally finding time to cut back to the drama going on in the dystopian future timeline.  I can’t imagine someone going into this movie without already being pretty well versed in the previous X-Men films, because it wastes zero time recapping or reestablishing characters.  Given all the stuff that the movie needs to work around, it does a pretty commendable job overall, but there most certainly are elements that have been retconned without explanation (such as how Patrick Stewart’s Charles Xavier has been resurrected, why Kitty Pryde suddenly has time travel powers, or how the coda from The Wolverine fits into the timeline).

The film’s dense plotting and fast pace are in this regard its best friend because it never really stops anywhere long enough to allow its audience to really ask questions like “just what are the rules of time travel here?” or “how can the existence of mutants still not be public knowledge at this point?” or “Why is Mystique still obsessively going after this one target?”  Deep down, I have a sinking suspicion that this is a movie that’s going to get torn to pieces once the professional nitpickers of the internet like the “Honest Trailers” and “Everything Wrong With…” crews get their hands on it.  Then again maybe this holds together beautifully (or at least as well as it possibly could) and I’m getting worried over nothing.  I don’t think I’ll know for sure until I give it another look or two.  Still I feel like, given how cluttered the film is, I’m not entirely to blame for being a little suspicious.  I think I may actually prefer the cleaner and more streamlined X-Men: First Class to its busier follow-up, but that isn’t to say I didn’t really enjoy my time with X-Men: Days of Future Past.  I really like this franchise and this latest installment is something of a celebration of everything that’s gone right for it while also paving a promising future for the franchise.

***1/2 out of Four

The Immigrant(5/26/2014)

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Generally speaking I hate going to movies made by established auteurs when I don’t already have a working familiarity with said directors.  Whenever I’m in that position it always leaves me feeling like I’m showing up to class without having done my homework and it gives me this nervous feeling that I’m going to have to wing it during class discussion and hope I don’t end up sounding like an idiot.  Anyway I had that feeling when I went to see The Immigrant having not seen any of director James Gray’s other four films.  In my defense, I’m probably not alone in that regard.  Almost all of Gray’s films have seemed to fall into some weird cinematic equivalent of “the friend zone” in which they earn generally positive reviews and earn enough money to not be considered abject failures but without ever really taking off in a big way with either critics or audiences.  For some reason Gray, like Jerry Lewis before him, has actually pulled off the trick of becoming a lot more popular in Europe where he routinely gets prestigious festival slots and much more enthusiastic reviews.  Now seems to be as good a time as any to see if the French are onto something with their support of Gray because his newest film, The Immigrant, appears to be his most ambitious work yet and I didn’t want to miss it.

Set in 1921, the film begins on Ellis Island where a pair of sisters named Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and Magda Cybulski (Angela Sarafyan) have arrived from Poland looking for a new life.  However, things go bad pretty quickly when Magda is found to be sick and put into quarantine and Ewa is deemed to be a likely “drain on society” and put into a queue for deportation.  Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately) she is spotted by a man in a suit named Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), who bribes the guards to let her leave and proceeds to bring her to his home and offers to give her a job.  She gladly takes this offer, but quickly comes to regret it when it becomes clear that Weiss is not the gentleman he seems to be: he’s a pimp who runs burlesque shows and then hires out his dancers as prostitutes.  Desperate to pay for her sister’s care and without anywhere else to go in this new country, Ewa reluctantly joins Weiss’ enterprise, but soon begins to wonder what effect it will have on her soul.

Stories about early 20th Century European immigration used to be pretty common in Hollywood, but as those first-generation whites have died off so have their stories.  So, from the get-go, The Immigrant feels like something of a movie out of time.  That feeling doesn’t end there though, but cause much of what we see in the film feels oddly old-school in terms of scope, pacing, and execution.  I say this in part because The Immigrant is not in any way shape or form an “art film.”  It might seem like one if compared to, say, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 but it really isn’t.  This is simply a traditional Hollywood drama, or more specifically a period drama, that is told more or less straightforwardly.  It does not, however, feel obligated to move at some wildly fast pace or to fill itself with one-liners or artificial action.  Instead the focus is almost entirely on the characters, which mostly proves rewarding.

Ewa is certainly an interesting person to watch as she suffers through test after test.  I would have liked a little more nuance written into the character, as she stand she’s like some kind of cross between Job and Jean Valjean, but I’m sure her story does mirror quite a few real immigrant experiences just the same.  Weiss is also a fascinating villain, one who uses manipulation to achieve his selfish means, and the way he occasionally seems to be in denial about exactly what he’s doing also adds to the character.  It certainly doesn’t hurt that these characters are brought to life by actors as talented as Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix, who are both actors that have proven to be uniquely suited to period roles like this as evidenced by their work in Public Enemies and The Master respectively.  Cotillard in particular is given a real opportunity to shine here.  She handles the Polish accent perfectly and gets a ton of room to stretch as her character’s life becomes increasingly difficult.

James Gray has given both of these characters a very well realized world to inhabit, and to do so he seems to have performed some miracles on a relatively small budget.  The film is said to have been made for just 16 million dollars, which is hard to believe because it’s filled with period accurate costumes and sets, including city streets.  I suppose he’s accomplished this by keeping to a relatively limited set of locations and by not going for “money shots.”  The film may not quite have the visual grandeur of something like Road to Perdition but it’s certainly up there with, say, “Boardwalk Empire.”   The film also sports some gorgeous cinematography (shot on 35mm, of course) by Darius Khondji, whose brownish/amber lighting isn’t a million miles removed from how we’ve come to expect New York tenements to be lit post-The Godfather but it’s beautiful just the same.

Honestly one could say that about much of the film, it’s kind of the immigrant story we’ve seen before, but it’s so well executed that you don’t really mind.  It’s the kind of accessible movie made for adults that people claim they want more of, but then don’t bother to support when it’s finally given to them.  It’s a movie that’s old-fashioned in many ways; a throwback to a time when movies made at this budget-range didn’t have to be dumbed down but also didn’t need to completely break the mold in order to stand out.  I think these movies run into trouble because they don’t necessarily give the masses the simple thrills they demand but also don’t really innovate enough to impress some of the more jaded critics.  Indeed the movie could probably be accurately called “middlebrow,” but I don’t think that has to be a pejorative.  The movie does have its shortcomings, especially its ending, which involves a character turn that didn’t quite seem earned.  It’s a hard movie to really love, but one that’s impossible to not at least admire.  We need more movies like this and they shouldn’t just be ignored when they’re given to us.

***1/2 out of Four