Sunday, June 22, 2014

TOP FLIGHT: a review of "How To Train Your Dragon 2"

Based upon the How To Train Your Dragon book series by Cressida Cowell
Written and Directed by Dean DeBlois
**** (four stars)

If you are going to do a sequel then this is how you do it!!

"How To Train Your Dragon 2," the sequel to the outstanding original 2010 film, is flat-out sensational! Writer/Director Dean DeBlois, who also co-helmed the first film, has not only completely created the best animated film of the year (so far), he has also fully trumped the creatively ailing Pixar as well as created an antidote to the assembly line nature of product being released to our theaters. Yes, it has truly been four years since the first installment and frankly, if DeBlois felt that he need those four full years to craft a film of such enormously high quality, than let us all be thankful that he took that precious time instead of rush releasing something that would quite possibly have been sub-par.

"How To Train Your Dragon 2" is indeed one of those rare sequels that expands upon everything that has come before, widening its cinematic universe, broadening its themes and even darkening the journey, making for a more propulsive experience and at times, one that reached operatic heights. And yet, DeBlois wisely realizes that just being bigger is not necessarily better as the film's primary themes and relationships firmly remain the film's urgently emotional core. With an eye popping visual sheen, thrilling adventure, and a luxurious friendship between young man and young dragon at the center, "How To Train Your Dragon 2" is an extraordinary feature that exists as so much more than a sequel to the original film. It is an equal to the original film.

"How To Train Your Dragon 2" picks up the adventures of Hiccup (again expertly voiced by Jay Baruchel) and his dragon Toothless the Night Fury five years after the events of the first film. Their Viking homeland of Berk now exists in harmonious balance as humans and dragons co-exist in rambunctious peacefulness as well as continuous wonder as the Vikings are now able to explore the wider world in greater detail and distance, which Hiccup and Toothless joyously seek and discover daily. Ever the restless spirit, Hiccup (who is possibly now 20 years old) also continues on his journey of self-discovery as his Father, Stoick The Vast (Gerald Butler), gradually prepares him to become the Chieftain, a position Hiccup fears that he is just not ready for, if he even wants the responsibility in the first place.  

While on one of their aerial travels, Hiccup and Toothless, accompanied by Hiccup's lady love, the adventurous Astrid (voiced by America Ferrera), come upon a dilapidated fort encased in ice as well as the presence of Eret the dragon trapper (Kit Harington). This meeting soon uncovers a nefarious plot undertaken by the madman Drago Bludvist (voiced with ferocious menace by Djimon Hounsou), a dragon hunter hell bent upon capturing every single dragon in order to build a dragon army and enact ultimate domination. While Stoick and the warriors of Berk prepare for the inevitable battle with Drago, Hiccup impulsively decides to face Drago himself, hoping to convince him of the dragons' nobility, grace and innate kindness and to potentially curtail any possible violence and war.

Unfortunately, one cannot reason with madness and Hiccup and Toothless' journey forces their bond to grow tighter even as escalating danger threatens to tear them apart. And then, there is the matter of Hiccup's reunion with his long-lost Mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett), a woman he has never known but one he may have to align himself with in order to save all of the dragons and the Viking homeland from war and destruction.

"How To Train Your Dragon 2" is artful entertainment of the highest exuberance. As with the original film, I truly loved how all of the dragons were richly created and realized with such magnificent detail and character, making creatures who clearly stood out from each other through their respective powers, skills and personalities. These creatures have been created with such a loving sense of awe and discovery that again they almost had me believing that these mythical beats once indeed roamed and flew around the Earth. All manner of surprises are continued to be found with the dragons, including the film's truly monstrous Alpha beast, the ice breathing Bewilderbeast, the one to whom all dragons answer and the one who supplies a tremendous source of conflict between Hiccup and Toothless.

I am not ashamed to admit to you that the fullness of my heart goes out to Toothless, the star dragon of this series. With his feline eyes, sleek black skin, wide mouth that possesses his trademark retractable teeth, he is a dragon to behold just like any other. But it is through his sense of loyalty, humor, friendship and devotion to Hiccup that continues to give this film series its soul. DeBlois again, and masterfully, finds that inexplicable bond between humans and animals and translates the intimacy and unconditional love that is shared in such wondrous detail and emotion. As I watched, there was absolutely no way that I could not think about my two cats, especially my little Jada, herself a sleek and speedy black cat with large emphatic eyes, a mischievously playful spirit and one who has constantly displayed her unending loyalty. I know that this may sound more than a little silly to some of you dear readers, especially as Toothless is indeed a character who clearly embodies the world of fantasy. Despite the fact that he is a computer generated dragon of all things, whenever he experienced joy, I felt it as well. When he was in danger or within situations where I feared for his safety, I just wanted to reach through the screen and claim him for my own. If that is not the utmost example of how movies can become magical, then I do not know what else could accomplish that feat.

I just do not know how, and yet completely enthralled by how DeBlois and his team were able to mirror real world relationships between humans and animals so effectively, and that sense of purity just made "How To Train Your Dragon 2" soar through the clouds, even when Hiccup and Toothless are standing firmly upon the ground. I deeply appreciate how DeBlois crafted his sequel to not simply exist as a series of dragon showdowns and hyper-kinetic CGI imagery, something he could have easily made and just as easily have had released. By ensuring that the entire film hinges upon this central relationship between Hiccup and Toothless and also designing Toothless to function as a real creature with real emotions as as well as his own story arc, "How To Train Your Dragon 2" is a deeper and even more powerful experience than one might expect for it to be.

I also deeply appreciated how DeBlois also ensured that all of the human characters existed as fully as possible, making the humor and the drama succeed grandly. I was indeed surprised by the deep emotional heft that was housed within "How To Train Your Dragon 2" as Hiccup's relationship with his Father remained loving yet conflicted and even builds to a sequence of stunning depth. The addition, and therefore return of Hiccup's Mother was indeed a masterstroke. The reunion between herself and Stoick, the husband she abandoned, possessed an unexpected romance filled with history, regret, passion and mutual admiration and respect, despite their differences. I especially loved how Valka was essentially the Viking world equivalent of a figure like Dian Fossey or Jane Goodall, as she is a dragon conservationist, advocate and protector. Additionally, we are able to view a sense of Hiccup's personality existing within his own lineage as he struggles to determine exactly what kind of a life he wishes to lead.

How Valka's life path influences Hiccup's while Stoick simultaneously grooms him for a life he is unsure that he is fit to lead, also provides "How To Train Your Dragon 2" with a profound exploration of how the realms of free will and destiny may actually influence each other instead of working in conflict against each other. How you may be able to travel down roads of your own making but somehow end up exactly where you were meant to be. Hiccup and Toothless reach new stages in their respective evolutions through the course of this film and it was exciting to witness if the two would compromise themselves in order to attain their goals or will they stick to their paths of love and loyalty and still achieve the greater good. Certainly, you will be able to know the answer to that question. Yet, the joy lies in witnessing their collective journey, especially as "How To Train Your Dragon 2" possesses a formidable villain, darker themes, and even great tragedy for our heroes to shoulder.
And then there is the sensation that occurs when "How To Train Your Dragon 2" takes to the skies. As with the first film, DeBlois has such a clear, clean visual palate during the movie's many flying sequences that you know the complete trajectory of any dragon at any time, especially within the extraordinary battle sequences with hundreds of dragons of various shapes and sizes all zooming around. DeBlois has once again masterfully utilized the techniques of movement, pacing, editing and cinematic velocity to exceedingly give you the sensation of flight even as your are seated in your theater chair and the result is so stupendously exhilarating that you will wish that you had a dragon of your very own to take you for a ride after leaving the movie theater.

Dean DeBlois' "How To Train Your Dragon 2" is a superlative film that proudly displays its fierce commitment to storytelling and to chasing the art and not the dollar. I cannot express to you enough how important it was to me to see how DeBlois and his team served the characters first, making the story and situations feel as real as possible that they ultimately extend themselves far beyond just being commercial cash-ins, something the team at Pixar has either sadly forgotten or has chosen to ignore. With "How To Train Your Dragon 3" currently in production and scheduled for a 2016 release, I am hoping that DeBlois, who is writing and directing again, will be able to deliver on what he has already presented to us in such tremendous and heartfelt fashion. But for now, we have even one more terrific movie for you to head out and see this summer, a sequel of rare confidence, style, emotion and boundless imagination.

"How To Train Your Dragon 2" is without question one of my favorite films of 2014.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

DEAD HALT: a review of "Non-Stop"

Story by John W. Richardson & Chris Roach
Screenplay Written by John W. Richardson & Chris Roach and Ryan Engle
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
* 1/2 (one and a half stars) 

Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later. "Non-Stop," our annual Liam Neeson action film is one of the year's worst films and while I certainly was not expecting to see any sense of greatness, I was indeed surprised to witness just how lazy, stupid and downright mercenary the thing actually was.

Look, I kinda have to give it to Liam Neeson for somehow stumbling upon a personal niche, essentially an entire film genre that is entirely built around himself. Who knew that when that nasty action film "Taken" (2008) was released that it would not only become a gargantuan box office smash hit but one that somehow touched a societal nerve made increasingly jittery by post 9/11 fear politics?

In a way, an actor of Neeson's specialized brand of gravitas actually made that film more than worth watching but ever since, he has found himself in one film after another that essentially exploits the same theme: Liam Neeson finds himself trapped in a series of precarious and escalating circumstances and is pushed to the breaking point where he is then forced to fight his way out....and Lord have mercy for anyone who stands in his way. More power to him for taking a role so unlikely and milking it for all that it is worth, from films like "Unknown" (2011), "The Grey" (2012), "Taken 2" (2012), next year's inevitable "Taken 3" as well as a bunch of films from "The A Team" (2010) to "Battleship" (2012) that he certainly must be ashamed of. I hate to be so harsh, especially for a wonderful actor that I have loved for so long, but who also knew that after the release of "Taken," Liam Neeson would essentially stop being an actor? If you disagree with that assessment, then look no further than "Non-Stop."

Let's not use any more time than necessary shall we? Liam Neeson stars as alcoholic U.S. Federal Air Marshall Bill Marks, previously discharged from the police force, who embarks upon a non-stop transatlantic flight from New York to London to find himself trapped within an aerial mystery. While en route, Marks suddenly begins receiving a series of text messages demanding that he wire 150 million dollars to an account or else one passenger will die every 20 minutes. As Marks races against time to try and find the terrorist and suspicions move from passenger to passenger, bodies begin to pile upwards, making him appear to be the terrorist himself.

Now, for a halfway decent pulpy thriller concept with an Agatha Christie styled plotline, one would think that "Non-Stop" would make for a tight little adventure or at the very least, a fun diversion. Yet, if you are going to title the film "Non-Stop," certainly describing the flight as depicted in the film but also utilized as a double meaning to suggest the non-stop action and intensity of the story, then why was this film so pokey? Honestly, watching Liam Neeson type and read a series of text messages does not suggest anything speedy, let alone intense no matter how well Neeson glowers at the screen.

But furthermore, in order for a film like this to work, the plot needs to be air-tight and with "Non-Stop," there are more than enough lapses in logic and plot holes large enough to fly a plane through. For instance, and truly on a most basic level, I just found it odd (as well as quite unintentionally funny) that for a flight with supposedly over 150 passengers that only two flight attendants (played by a completely underutilized Lupito Nyong'o and Michelle Dockery from "Downton Abbey") seemed to be employed. Budget cuts, I guess.

But, hey, I am not an air traveler so perhaps, I will let that one slide. But onto the film's main plot, I just have to say that "Non-Stop" is the type of film where there is absolutely, positively no conceivable way for Liam Neeson's character to trust anyone on the plane, let alone the lovely Julianne Moore (clearly just cashing a paycheck) who begins as Neeson's seatmate and then ascends to become his closest companion to unravel the terrorist plot. In fact, when Moore's character actually is looked at sideways by Neeson's character as being a potential suspect, she just ends up embarking upon a rapid fire, wholly ridiculous and completely unconvincing explanation as to why she enjoys being seated by the window...which then somehow convinces Neeson's character of her innocence...and then he offers her a nice stiff drink. Say what????

"Non-Stop" is also one of those types of movies that features not one but three screenwriters, and yet, all they seemed to come up with in their meeting of their so-called creative minds was nothing more than the most perfunctory dialogue, characters that are less then cardboard cut-outs but that would be an insult to cardboard cut-outs, events and actions that occur simply because the script dictates that they must happen or else th emovie would simply end, and finally, a mountain of cliches that went out of fashion after the team of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker eviscerated them all in "Airplane!" (1980).

And yet, for a film this generic and under-thought, "Non-Stop" somehow found ways to include more than its share of purely bad taste. First of all the film's director is Jaume Collet-Serra, who also helmed Neeson's "Unknown," as well as the disturbingly effective but truly tasteless demon seed thriller "Orphan" (2009), a film that almost seemed to take sheer delight in placing that film's children in all manner of cruel, grisly jeopardy, nearly always a cheap cinematic trick. Well, Collet-Serra is at it again in "Non-Stop" with the cliched inclusion of a tender little moppet, nervously boarding her very first flight and who, of course, reminds Liam Neeson's character of his own daughter who passed away from cancer. While this child is all but forgotten during the majority of "Non-Stop," she's front and center of the film's wild climax which finds the poor child almost entirely sucked through a hole in the rapidly descending plane. Yup...that's entertainment!

Even worse is when the identity of the terrorist is revealed and the reasons for this whole mid-air escapade are brought to light. Without delving into any spoilers, let's just say for a film this dopey, I just found it to be more than disingenuous and downright disrespectful to invoke nothing less than...September 11th. Yes, dear readers, the filmmakers actually went there, and unapologetically so. Look, this isn't a documentary by any means. Hell, this isn't even "Zero Dark Thirty" (2012)! "Non-Stop" is nothing more than a B movie with A list actors and production values and I'm sorry, that does not give you the right or reason to suddenly proclaim yourself as being something more serious in the final moments. Yes, "Non-Stop" is essentially an exploitation movie, but did it really have to become an exploitation movie in order to just try and be entertaining?!

I am not against Liam Neeson having fun while making movies and I am certainly not begrudging him for making action movies. But, just like the current status in the respective careers of Robert De Niro and good Lord, Bruce Willis, there is something to be said about quality control. There is absolutely no rhyme or reason for someone of Liam Neeson's caliber to openly make cinematic crap, no matter how highly he is obviously being paid. And frankly, for every moment in "Non-Stop" where his character retires to an airplane bathroom to have an illicit drag on a cigarette, the weariness on Neeson's face doesn't seem to reflect the inner "turmoil" of his heroic figure but more likely the internal anguish he is consumed by (plus the anger at his agent) for taking even one more role in yet another stupid movie like this one.

Even though "Non-Stop" was yet another box office hit early this year, there is no need to give it anymore attention. In fact, as yu are scrolling through titles, either in your local video store or through your streaming services, I highly recommend that you head non-stop past this title onwards to something much, MUCH better.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

PAIN DEMANDS TO BE FELT: a review of "The Fault In Our Stars"

Based upon the novel by John Green
Screenplay Written by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber 
Directed by Josh Boone
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

The "tear-jerker" is not a genre that I particularly enjoy or even find myself even wanting to attempt as the emotional manipulation typically feels to be so manufactured and prefabricated that I tend to find myself rejecting the material altogether. Easy sentiment tends to produce easy tears and for the most part none of those tears are remotely deserved. In the case of The Fault In Our Stars, the blockbuster young adult themed novel written by author John Green, here was a case where what could have easily existed as a phony "tear-jerker" became a work of tremendous poignancy, urgency and real heartache by existing as a work that was decidedly un-sentimental, as well as sardonic, sarcastic, caustic, and even prickly. That literary masterstroke is what gave the novel's love story and tragedy its honest weight as it seemed to dig under the surface of those treacly notions and maudlin viewpoints stories like this one tend to take.

Now that the inevitable film adaptation has arrived, I was worried that the filmmakers would be unable to hold onto the novel's darker and more cynical tone for fear of alienating mass audiences, even those who adored the book, for favor of something more overtly sentimental like "The Notebook" (2004). Thankfully, Director Josh Boone has delivered the goods with a near perfect adaptation of the novel, one that does mine a wellspring of sadness, and honestly so, but also holds tightly onto the novel's sharp tongued soul. As one who typically avoids "tear-jerkers" and typically does not find much to emotionally sway him in regards to most movie love stories, "The Fault In Our Stars" is a soulfully magnetic and quietly powerful achievement.  

As with the original novel, "The Fault In Our Stars" is centered around the star-crossed romance between 16-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster (beautifully portrayed by Shailene Woodley), who suffers from Stage IV thyroid cancer hat has metastasized to her lungs and 18-year-old Augustus "Gus" Waters (also extremely well played by Ansel Elgort), whose own cancer, now in remission, led to the amputation of his leg.

Hazel is introduced to Gus through the support group meetings her parents (played by Laura Dern and Sam Trammell) have forced her to attend as they fear that she is suffering from depression, a byproduct of cancer, a condition to which she sharply corrects, "is a byproduct of dying." Regardless, the twosome begin to forge a slow connection and eventual romance fueled both by their respective terminal illnesses and also through Hazel's treasured novel, An Imperial Affliction, written by her hero, the reclusive author Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe).

Josh Boone's "The Fault In Our Stars" is a supremely faithful film adaptation, a trait that should satisfy the novel's legion of fans. While not a visual stylist, Boone's unfussy yet elegant approach to the material gave the film a sense of dignity it otherwise may not have had in other, and more commercially driven hands. We can see that Boone cares for these characters nearly as much as John Green did when he wrote them and that attention to the emotional details of living, loving and dying make the material rise and soar tenderly.

I loved how Boone allowed many silences to occur throughout the film, allowing scenes to flow and breathe naturally, and allowing emotions to rise organically. Boone was wise enough to realize that there was no need to dress up material that already contained so much inherent drama and tragedy, and that respect for the source material and the characters contained therein was palpable.

That very same respect was firmly in place for the audience as well as "The Fault In Our Stars" is yet another film designed for and aimed at a teen-aged audience, and one that is long post John Hughes' classic films, that is determined to provide entertainment that is artful as well as entertaining. I have championed films like Director Will Gluck's "Easy A" (2010), Director Stephen Chbosky's "The Perks Of Being A Wallflower" (2012) and Director James Ponsoldt's "The Spectacular Now" (2013) as being the very types of films that are of shameful rarity, especially for an industry that caters to the dollars of the youthful audience.

"The Fault In Our Stars" stands proudly shoulder to shoulder with all of those films as it features intelligent, verbose, highly empathetic characters, who also value romance over sexual gratification, all attempting to figure out their place in the world and with each other. It is a film and story where language and the written word can work as seduction, where intelligence is a virtue and shallowness is rightfully scorned, especially when dealing with matters of life and death. Boone also smartly explores and captures the ache of love and the nature of understanding what it means to love as well as the exquisite pain of being loved, especially when your life is bound to end so unfairly soon. In doing so, Hazel, Gus, their friend Isaac (well played by Nat Wolff), who loses both of his eyes to cancer, and their respective parents all are forced to ask the most difficult questions of themselves when it comes to the relationships that mean the most to each of them, again a tactic that gives the film a necessary weight that felt real and not manufactured for the audience to instinctively reach for the Kleenex.

Shailene Woodley is tremendous and as far as I am concerned has been fully liberated from the hysterical idiocy that was her starring role on the television teenage soap opera "The Secret Life Of The American Teenager." If you only knew of her through that program, you would be very hard pressed to realize what a gifted and disarmingly natural actress she happens to be. And now, after being featured so beautifully in Director Alexander Payne's "The Descendants" (2011) as well as the aforementioned "The Spectacular Now," with "The Fault In Our Stars," Woodley has proven herself to be one of her generation's strongest actresses. She never oversells any moment as Hazel as she allows her character's natural intelligence, wit, rage, pain, romance and sorrow seep through her pores, making her a teenage cinematic heroine to root for and most importantly, understand and view as a full three-dimensional figure.

In some ways, Shailene Woodley often reminded me of none other than Molly Ringwald (who played Woodley's Mother on "The Secret Life Of The American Teenager") from her now iconic performances in three of John Hughes' works. In "Sixteen Candles" (1984), "The Breakfast Club" (1985) and especially in "Pretty In Pink" (1986), Ringwald became a cinematic figure that I admired so deeply not because of her unusual attractiveness but because of the integrity and strength she always possessed in her roles. She never played dumb, she never catered to any pre-conceived notions of what a teen-aged girl should or shouldn't be. Molly Ringwald was individualistic and idiosyncratic to the best degree and Shailene Woodey is now displaying that exact same skill with seemingly effortless ease and makes for an on-screen figure that you wish to follow anywhere. This quality also fuels Woodley's excellent chemistry with Ansel Elgort, a chemistry which is unforced, relaxed and again, undeniably natural and houses an emotional "opposites attracts" charm that creates some justifiable romantic tension as Hazel is pragmatic and Gus is a heart-on-sleeve romantic.    

In dealing with the film's romantic themes, it was also a wise decision of Boone (also fueled by the source material) to diffuse all of the conventions of the movie love story while simultaneously upholding them. It is a movie and story filled with characters who are purposefully more than a little self-aware and the roles that they play within this particular story, making them characters who are commenting upon pop culture while also existing as members of pop culture as well as characters who are more true to real life. Boone gives us a "Meet Cute" set-up for Hazel's introduction to Gus, their dialogue is filled with the exact heightened witty banter we could only wish we would utilize in real life and for one of the characters, we are also given a full view of their "Last Good Day" before the inevitable tragedy strikes. And yet, nothing ever felt like a cliche, because so much heart, soul and smarts were invested into making these characters exist as people, that when it is time for the pain of the story to show its demands to be felt, it does. Man it does.

Now, all of that being said, I have always expressed to you that books are books and movies are movies and that as movies, filmmakers have to discover a way to make the cinematic work stand independently of the written work. Yes, the film is extremely faithful, as I have already stated. In fact, there were several elements that felt as if Boone had somehow walked into my brain and picked out how I saw Gus' basement room in his home, for instance, and magically placed it upon the screen. No easy feat and definitely one to be commended. But I did think that "The Fault In Our Stars" was perhaps a tad too reverential to the source material for maybe its first third, which I guess that I can understand because Boone has to show a sign of good faith to the audience of the novel's fans and if he cannot convince that audience that he won't screw up this enterprise, then the whole film would unravel.

Even so, I have to say that I think the film began to find its wings during the extended sequence set in Amsterdam, when Hazel and Gus track down the reclusive author. I have to admit when I read that section, I was not entirely convinced of its placement initially and I had to warm to it. Yet, on screen, the entire sequence, especially their turbulent meeting with the embittered, alcoholic Van Houten and their eventual visit to the Anne Frank House, Boone slowly began to give his film some firm legs to stand upon and soon, I was less concerned with how faithful tot he novel the film was and fund myself immersed in the story just as it was being presented to me on screen.

Before I sent this posting out into the world, I wish to share with you a memory from the summer of 1981, the summer of Steven Spielberg's "Raiders Of The Lost Ark" and Richard Lester's "Superman II" to name just two. It was during that summer when the late, great Gene Siskel, film critic of the Chicago Tribune and notoriously difficult to please, gave positive reviews to over 10 films in a row, something so unprecedented that I could not believe what I was reading each Friday when a new release would arrive in the movie theaters. There was just something in the air that year and I feel something similar is in the air right now in 2014. As of yet, I have not seen even one film that I can say that I have had a truly negative reaction towards and I am so excited and pleased to be able to go to the movies during a time like this.

Yes, Hollywood has seemingly lost all sense of risk taking and ingenuity in favor of sequels, re-boots, and costumed heroes but I have been so excited with the diversity of good to great films that are somehow still being made. Josh Boone's "The Fault In Our Stars" is indeed one of of the year's better films, one that fully deserves the acclaim and hefty box office that it has already received due to its purity of heart, commitment to its characters and the depth of its soul.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

DIE TO FIGHT ANOTHER DAY: a review of "Edge Of Tomorrow"

Based upon the novel All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka
Screenplay Written by Christopher McQuarrie and Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth
Directed by Doug Liman
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

And the winning streak continues!!

Lately, I have been bemoaning the overwhelming presence of the mega budgeted, CGI special effects driven movies that populate our cinemas, certainly during the summer months and the winter holiday seasons, but over the years their presence has only been increased to a distressing degree.

Despite my feelings, please allow me to re-emphasize that I have nothing inherently against those types of movies, especially as so many of those types of movies happen to be some of my most favorite movies. But when those types of movies arrive and are being made at a rate that functions at the expense of seemingly any other types of movies being made, that's when I have a problem. As for the mega budgeted, CGI special effects driven films themselves, well...I do think that the spectacle of those movies have long overshadowed the actual quality of what is being released. In too many cases these days, it feels as if those movies are being made just to have a collection of "WOW!" moments to run in the trailers and to test the limits of the movie theater's sound systems. After seeing these types of movies for so much of my life, the prospect of seeing even one more explosion does fill me with an internal fatigue. I mean--if you're going to have explosions, fine but please give those explosions a story and characters I give a whit about.

Director Doug Liman's "Edge Of Tomorrow" could not have arrived at a better time as I could have easily used a cinematic escape but was not willing to pay those theater prices for more superheroes and city destroying monsters as I have just seen it all before. And yet, with "Edge Of Tomorrow," there is an enormous amount of familiarity contained within this latest Tom Cruise starring science-fiction thriller but that very familiarity worked splendidly to its advantage. Miraculously, Liman has helmed an experience that is not only breathless, imaginative, dizzying, propulsive as well as one to shake the theater walls and more than satisfy those of you looking for those CGI driven special effects to blow you away, but he has also delivered something that almost might make us feel as if we have not quite seen anything like it before.

Set in an undetermined future, Earth has spent five full years engaged in war with an alien species known as Mimics, ferocious creatures of blinding velocity that appear to become sort of hybrid between a spider, an octopus, any manner of hungry four legged predator and something metallic. Over the course of the war, NATO has established the United Defense Forces (UDF), and despite the creation of fully armed and mechanized exoskeletons for soldiers to operate in battle as well as one clear victory against the Mimics in Verdun, both Germany and France have been eviscerated leaving London as the next potential target.

Tom Cruise stars as Major William Cage, a UDF spokesman and member of the Army Reserves who is ordered by General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) to accompany the troops straight to the front lines the next day as part of Operation Downfall, an order to which Cage declines as he protests that he is not a soldier. Regardless, and after attempting to blackmail the General, Cage is arrested, stripped of his rank and reluctantly ends up under the command of Master Sergeant Farrell (Bill Paxton) at Heathrow Airport.

Cage, with no combat training, no knowledge of how his weaponry operates and no way out, ends up on the battleground only to find himself killed within minutes.

And then he awakens back at Heathrow Airport as if everything was a nightmare, only to discover that he is indeed trapped within a time loop, repeatedly forced to enter battle against the Mimics and die only to re-awaken and die all over again. That is, unless he is able to figure out a way to defeat the Mimics, utilizing the skills and invaluable teamwork of super soldier Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) in the process.

Doug Liman's "Edge Of Tomorrow" (a lousy title that sounds like the name of a long cancelled television soap opera), itself an adaptation of Hiroshi Sarkurazaka's novel All You Need Is Kill (much better title), is precisely the very type of big budget, special effects driven summer movie that I would easily line up outside of the movie theater to see on its opening day. It is indeed a spectacle, containing an astounding visual sheen that completely enveloped me as I watched, especially during the opening sequences created a feverish tension and terror as Cage is unwillingly placed on the front lines in a battle sequence that could stand in the same war torn vicinity of sequences from Oliver Stone's "Platoon" (1986) and Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" (1998), although with considerably less graphic violence.

And I think that very sense of terror is hat makes "Edge Of Tomorrow" stand out among all of the other CGI wastelands that populate our theater screens, as Liman focuses much attention upon the human cost and even the futility of combat. While not exactly standing as some sort of an anti-war film, Liman very slyly makes a pointed statement against those with the power to send the young to fight and die when they would otherwise not go into battle themselves. As William Cage, Tom Cruise gives face to the plastic armchair warriors who will go on television to speak about battle in PR terms without having any knowledge whatsoever about the brutality of the battlefield. Yet, once he is strapped into his exoskeleton suit, fearing for his life, Liman's sharp satire comes into focus and what teeth it has!

But aside from the satire, I must take time to return to that sense of familiarity I had while watching "Edge Of Tomorrow." Yes, from the plot description, you could gather that this film is sort of like a cross between Harold Ramis' existential comedy "Groundhog Day" (1993) and Duncan Jones' science-fiction thriller "Source Code" (2011), and you would be very correct in that assumption as through the act of dying over and over again, Cage is able to actually become a better soldier, transforming himself from coward to hero.

Additionally, you are also bound to see elements of Paul Verhoven's "Robocop" (1987), "Total Recall" (1990) and "Starship Troopers" (1997)  as well as other time travel themed science fiction films like Terry Gilliam's "Twelve Monkeys" (1995), or even the existential chase movie, Tom Tykwer's "Run Lola Run" (1998), for instance. But unlike last year's "Oblivion" (also starring Tom Cruise), which I rated as being one of the worst films of 2013 due to its level of cinematic plagiarism, what Liman and his screenwriters have achieved is something truly clever as they fully utilize our knowledge of those movies, plus our knowledge of summer action films as a genre, to fuel the plot and play with the conventions of the genre as a whole, thus making for an film that is constantly surprising even when we should always know what is coming next.

Just think about every action film you have ever seen where the hero miraculously and impossibly survives all manner of insurmountable dangers, only to save the day and return in a series of sequels where they are bound to perform the same miraculous and impossible feats again. With "Edge Of Tomorrow," that entire convention is nearly tossed out of the window as Liman utilizes essentially a video game aesthetic to depict how William Cage dies more times than I was able to keep up with, and sometimes in surprisingly hilarious fashions, giving the film an unexpected sharp dose of comedy.

Even moreso, Tom Cruise, giving a typically committed performance, plays along beautifully as he completely mines his own filmography and our knowledge of his roles to inform what we see in "Edge Of Tomorrow." From his roles in films like Tony Scott's "Top Gun" (1986), Rob Reiner's "A Few Good Men" (1992), his "Mission: Impossible" series to Christopher McQuarrie's "Jack Reacher" (2012), we have seen Cruise's unstoppable can-do attitude over and again. And while he has elicited darker shades and has played around with his film persona at times (and magnificently) in films like Oliver Stone's "Born On The Fourth Of July" (1989) and even Cameron Crowe's "Jerry Maguire" (1996), "Edge Of Tomorrow" gives him an opportunity to play a full on coward and he is clearly having a great time sending up himself. Liman also employs a most clever bit of casting in Noah Taylor as this actor essentially serves the exact same function as he performed as the sinister yet expository Tech Support to Cruise's existentially trapped character in Cameron Crowe's "Vanilla Sky" (2001), an element that made me smile broadly even as I was completely involved in the actual story line, the characters and their collective fates.   

Now before I left my home for the theater this afternoon, I read a story posted on Variety that showed how "Edge Of Tomorrow" actually opened this weekend to relatively poor box office numbers when compared to "The Fault In Our Stars" (which I hope to see next weekend) and other recent releases. The article went on to proclaim that the movie business has quite possibly reached a point when even really strong films like "Edge Of Tomorrow" have slight chances for striking box office gold when we live during a period when movies based on toys, comic books or otherwise something that already possesses a built in audience have taken the entire playing field.

Such a shame as there is truly no conceivable reason for "Edge Of Tomorrow" to not be a smash hit at the box office as it truly is a high quality summer escapist movie to see. You will definitely get much bang for your hard earned buck plus a sumptuous visual sheen, clever writing, strong performances from the entire cast, thrills, spills, chills as well as a healthy dose of heart, soul and brains. All you will not receive is the ready made appeal of characters that you already know and love and why should that deter you at all? Trust me, dear readers, it shouldn't!

Doug Liman's "Edge Of Tomorrow" is terrific entertainment and yet another strong release in a very surprising cinematic year of 2014.

Sunday, June 1, 2014


I cannot help but to wonder if any of you dear readers out there have been wondering if I have gone a bit soft due to the amount of high ratings that I have been awarding to the movies I have seen this year.

To that possible perception, I can understand the sentiment because really, could it possibly be that all of these movies that I have seen so far in 2014 have been of such high quality for so long? Surely, I have seen something that has not been a positive experience, couldn't I have? To answer that question, I honestly offer you a dual "Yes" and "No."

Yes, I firmly stick by all of my reviews for this is explicitly how all of the films that I have seen this year have made me feel. You have all read precisely how I have responded to them and I am so pleased to express to you that I have been a truly excited movie-goer so far as the quality of the movies that I have chosen to see, all very diverse films, have really been stronger than the batch that I saw at this same time one year ago.

But, please allow me to impress upon you that while it may seem that I am an easy "four star review" film enthusiast, I truly am not and also, and despite my high ratings, I really haven't seen that many films this year based upon how many films have actually been released and how many that I have purposefully avoided to boot--some films that may have just slipped through the cracks, some I feel that I will wait for video to keep my personal costs down (because if I am going to pay those theater prices, even matinee prices, it has better be good!) and of course, some films that I am not interested in seeing at all. (Which means, that the latest "Transformers" movie will not be screened at any point--not that you ever thought I would subject myself to that kind of torture...)

And now, we arrive at the sixth month of the year and the new releases are starting to pile up at a rate at which that I am hopefully able to keep pace with including...

1. "The Fault In Our Stars," the highly anticipated adaptation of the justly celebrated John Green novel. I am anxious to see this film but am just curious if it will retain the novel's smart decision to remain decidedly unsentimental or will this just be an updated version of something like "The Notebook'? We'll just have to see...

2. Director Doug Liman's sci-fi/time travel/existential thriller "Edge Of Tomorrow" is one of the few big budget, special effects fueled films that I have been anxious to see and I am hoping, based upon the tenor of early reviews, that this will be a special event!

3. Also, there is "How To Train Your Dragon 2," the sequel to the 2010 wonderment, and another film where the tenor of the early reviews have been very strong.

4. Then, there's the screen adaptation of the smash hit Broadway play "Jersey Boys" as directed by Clint Eastwood. Despite Eastwood's formidable creative presence, I have to say that I really wasn't that interested in this film until I saw the trailer, which did quickly hook my attention. So, if I have the time this month, maybe I will add this one to my docket.

As I hope to continue my good movie streak, all of this sounds like more than enough material to keep me occupied for the month. So, as always, keep your fingers crossed, wish me well...

...and I'll see you when the house lights go down!!