Edge of Tomorrow
Directed by Doug Liman
“Edge of Tomorrow” is a very well executed movie about a man who gets caught in the middle of an alien invasion, and who acquires a “Groundhog Day”-like ability to re-live events and improve his performance between iterations. That may sound a little (or a lot) far-fetched, and it certainly is, but it’s really great fun and especially perfect for a generation raised on video games in which characters die and have to restart the entire level armed with one extra piece of knowledge about the previous failure.
Tom Cruise plays Cage – a Major in the (now generic) U.S. military who’s an expert at public relations and he primarily has that rank in order to look impressive while being interviewed about military operations on cable news programs. But he’s no fighting man and “Edge of Tomorrow” actually has a nice vibe to it, with Cage as the classic reluctant hero – the pragmatist who’s doing what he needs to do to get through the day (many times) rather than being somebody motivated by heroism or some grand desire to do the right thing.
A couple of weeks ago, I complained about the time travel storyline in “X-Men: Days of Future Past” because it quite obviously served the purpose of rebooting the original cast of characters by venturing backwards, before various people died. Here the premise works much better, as it’s the whole point of the story and not just a device.
There’s enough explanation along the way for everything to stay on track but this is also a film that’s likely to cause significant debate afterwards. It’s hard to decide in some instances whether we’re faced with plot holes or simply incomplete reasoning – and the outcome, for those who aren’t inclined to just sit back and let it all speed by in an unquestioned manner, is a need to reconcile the internal logic of what the script tells us. After all, in this scenario, it’s not exactly like a video gamer who resets after having learned a lesson in death – in this instance the opponents are also capable of doing the same thing.
Cruise is at the top of his game here. His Cage is smarmy and conniving, before being curious, resourceful, adventurous, and resigned to his fate. It’s a performance that’s really very good and tonally excellent in relation to what the character is going through – at times it’s high stakes jeopardy and at other times it’s extremely comedic in the repetitiveness of his actions. He’s well aided in this enterprise by Emily Blunt, who has to hit most of those same notes along the way. And Bill Paxton is especially neat in a supporting role as a Master Sergeant who has the misfortune to encounter this guy who keeps ending his sentences and predicting his moves ahead of time.
It’s well directed by Doug Liman, probably best known for “The Bourne Identity,” and the pace is well managed throughout – especially for a story that needs to keep reminding us of repeat events without making the mistake of inundating us with every possible iteration (which would be impossible anyway). This is a winning combination for fans of action, comedy, sci-fi, and/or the lead actors – it may have that summer popcorn blockbuster feel, but this is gourmet kettle corn with just the right balance of saltiness and sweetness.
The Fault in Our Stars
Directed by Josh Boone
In one of the starkest examples of counter-programming for a big movie opening weekend, while Tom Cruise is looping through time to fight wriggly invading aliens, Shailene Woodley is finding romance with her “Divergent” co-star Ansel Elgort in a support group for young people who have or have had cancer.
That may sound bleak but this is an uplifting and quite beautiful story of young love under some of the worst of circumstances. There’s a line in which Elgort’s Gus describes Woodley’s Hazel Grace as being “funny without ever being mean” – as though that’s a remarkable achievement, at least in his eyes. And to some extent it captured the essence of the film for me, or in an analogous way, in that “The Fault in Our Stars” is sad without ever really being unhappy.
Sure, there are some weepy moments and I watched this in an audience largely comprised of teenage girls, many of whom had obviously read the book and some of whom arrived carrying boxes of Kleenex. But this is a story about love not death – and how love can survive and even thrive in the unluckiest moments.
Woodley and Elgort are both good in their roles and, although its Woodley’s lead performance, Elgort has more of the scene stealing moments – and book author John Green has described the role of Gus as being the hardest to cast because of the range of the character. Gus starts out on the borderline of delightful and insufferable and eventually has to become the character who drives Hazel’s story.
Most other characters are fairly thinly written, in the film version at least. Laura Dern plays Hazel’s mother Frannie, who has been coping with her daughter’s disease for years. But she’s written as the primary parental role, to the point that the father is almost disappearingly bland – and Gus’s parents are barely present at all. The other noteworthy performances are by Nat Wolff as Gus’s friend Isaac who is facing blindness from retinal cancer and Willem Dafoe as an author Hazel idolizes but who largely fails to live up to her hopes.
“The Fault in Our Stars” is a neat film and while this may be a battle of the wills for younger demographic date nights, both of the big opening movies this week are winners.
Words and Pictures
Directed by Fred Schepisi
Also opening this week, in the Sacramento market, is “Words and Pictures” – another good story in a positive week.
Clive Owen plays Jack Marcus, an English teacher at a private day school. He’s a barely functioning alcoholic, past his prime as both a teacher and a writer – he’s certainly not the archetypal teacher for a movie about inspiring students. But “Words and Pictures” differs from the typical “inspirational teacher” films by being les about the students’ success and more about the teachers’.
Jack’s essentially the faculty big man on campus, in his own mind at least. He was the rising literary star, hired to give the school an edge and to publish a school magazine. But he’s reduced to playing word games with reluctant colleagues in the faculty lounge and handing out poorly conceived assignments that he’ll never grade to students who aren’t much more engaged than he is.
Into this small pond comes another big fish in the form of Dina Delsanto, played by Juliette Binoche, another person with a reputation. Delsanto, as Jack calls her, has earned her reputation as a painter but is battling degenerative arthritis and can barely hold a paint brush.
What ensues is a battle of the wills as the two teachers spar over which discipline is more important. And while the students around them are inspired by the fray, they are almost like the positive version of collateral damage in Jack’s mission.
“Words and Pictures” works as both a dual character study and as a study of disease (alcoholism) and disability (rheumatoid arthritis). Especially in the manner in which it depicts an artist’s coming to terms with a disability that limits her ability to express herself, where expression is also a form of identity. For some, who become what they do, there’s an inherent risk in losing that ability to do, that threatens the sense of self – and Binoche captures that frustration and anger very well.
It’s a good week at the movies!