Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A Million Ways to Die Every Day

Love him or hate him, you have to grudgingly concede that Tom Cruise still got it.  The 51-year old actor not only remains a top draw as Ethan Hunt in the ‘Mission: Impossible’ franchise 25 years after ‘Top Gun’ but starred in slick sci-fi blockbusters such as ‘Minority Report,’ ‘War of the Worlds’ and ‘Oblivion.’  His latest offering, the grungy near-future military sci-fi actioner ‘Edge of Tomorrow,’ demonstrated once again that Cruise is in good form, even if the critically acclaimed movie falls short at the box office behind tear-jerkers like ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ and family fare like ‘Maleficent.’ 
Adapted from Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s awesomely titled 2004 story ‘All You Need is Kill,’ about a green recruit of the United Defense Force fighting against an alien invasion who dies repeatedly but finds that he has the ability to rewind back to the day before in a time-loop and fight again like a character in a video game, the ‘Groundhog Day’ concept underlying the movie’s premise is certainly not new.  But as in the case of Jake Gyllenhaal’s ‘Source Code,’ ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ somehow managed to put a fresh spin on this well used cliché and pull it off.
Set in the near future, ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ possesses the realism and grittiness which bring to mind ‘Battle: Los Angeles,’ but the film’s chaotic, shifting battle scenes and low-angle camerawork have more in common with the opening beach assault scene in ‘Saving Private Ryan.’  Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt complemented each other well as the movie’s two leads, Major William Cage and Sergeant Rita Vrataski (aka ‘Full Metal Bitch'), and the set design and visual effects are all top notch.  The minimalist exo-suits worn by Cage, Vrataski and the UDF grunts are near future enough to be believable and resemble the one worn by Matt Damon in 'Elysium.'  The multi-tentacled alien ‘Mimics’ are fast and very deadly, drawing a few humorous attempts to characterize them here:
The first half of director Doug Liman’s (The Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith) movie deals with the war and Cruise’s attempts to grapple with his preposterous situation and is often spiced with dark humor.  The recurring scene in which he first sees Rita is also rather memorable, as a sweaty and grease-stained Emily Blunt in a tight tank-top just completed a set of push-ups and arched her back to get up.  The second half becomes more of a post-apocalyptic thriller when Cage and Vrataski trek cross-country in their mission to find and destroy the key to the ‘Mimic’ menace.  Alas, the only thing that prevented me from giving ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ a perfect grade is the underwhelming Hollywood happy ending.

Grade: A-
In the grim darkness of the near future there is only war.... 
 photo EoT_IntheGrimDarknessoftheNearFutureThereisOnlyWar_zps949c996e.jpg Grade: A-


Monday, June 9, 2014

Once Upon a Time

Disney’s classic 1959 animated feature ‘Sleeping Beauty’ gets rewritten in ‘Maleficent’ starring Angelina Jolie.  In the original version, Princess Aurora was cursed by the evil sorceress Maleficent (she even has devil’s horns in case you’re not convinced of her pure evilness) because the latter was not invited by her father, the 'benevolent' King Stefan, to her christening.  Aurora then fell into a deep coma after pricking her finger with a spindle on her 16th birthday from which she cannot awaken unless she’s kissed by her true love Prince Phillip.  The Malevolent Maleficent did everything she could to stand between them, even transforming herself into a fire-breathing dragon to prevent Phillip from kissing his beloved Aurora.  Needless to say, the story had a happy ending but it has now been exposed to be a lie.
Darkly enchanting and deliciously imaginative, ‘Maleficent’ tells the story of what really transpired in ‘Sleeping Beauty.’  It is a sweet and touching story about the friendship between an innocent young forest fairy and a poor peasant boy named Stefan which later turned tragically into one of betrayal and redemption.  In ‘Maleficent’ we come to see that she’s not the evil witch we’ve been led to believe all along.  Rather, Maleficent is a fascinating, complex and sympathetic fairy who became the victim in the story and whose actions and motivations were in fact good.
Purists may balk at such blatant revisionism of their beloved classic, but ‘Maleficent’ works in large part due to the ageless Angelina Jolie, who imparted her character with so much charisma, humanity and emotional depth that it is all but impossible not to root for her.  With her perfectly chiseled cheekbones, jade green eyes and luscious red lips, ‘Maleficent’ possesses an exotic beauty, grace and presence that can only be described as mesmerizing.  'Maleficent' is a welcome retelling of a familiar tale that's gone rather stale with age. 
Grade: B+
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A Million Ways to Die Laughing

Seth MacFarlane scores big again in his comedy western ‘A Million Ways to Die in the West.’  Framed with sweeping vistas of great plains and the sandstone buttes of Monument Valley, AMWTDITW brings to mind 1950’s Technicolor westerns such as John Ford’s ‘The Searchers,’ but rather than romanticizing the simplicity and nostalgia of frontier life in the latter part of the 19th century, the movie lampoons the Wild West through the cynical observations of timid sheep farmer Albert (Seth MacFarlane), who from start to finish disabuses us of our misconceived notions of the Old West by describing life in the frontier as a “disgusting, awful cesspool of despair” in which there are literally and figuratively 'a million ways to die' (including by flatulence).  Like all the good western comedies such as 'Blazing Saddles,' 'Maverick' and 'Django Unchained,' the sensibilities of AMWTDITW are decidedly contemporary even if the setting is not.
Like an extended episode of ‘Family Guy’ with real actors in a western setting, AMWTDITW piles on the gross humor we've come to expect from MacFarlane while satirizing John Ford and Sergio Leone in equal measure.  MacFarlane’s Albert is a sheep farmer, not the sheriff, outlaw, gunfighter or cattle rancher which typified the alpha male in westerns.  Unlike his skills with a six-shooter, Albert’s whip-smart and biting commentaries throughout the movie are right on target and often quite humorous.  As in his previous movie ‘Ted,’ what makes AMWTDITW funny are the colorful characters and situations, like Albert trying to back out of a gun duel or Ruth's (Sarah Silverman) insistence on maintaining her chastity until her wedding night with Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) when she’s a prostitute at the local saloon averaging 10 to 15 clients per day.  The lovely Charlize Theron was great as Annie, a mysterious woman who came into town, and Liam Neeson filled the role of the movie's villain admirably, but it was recent Tony Award winner Neil Patrick Harris who shined as Foy, the dastardly mustache shop owner who stole Albert’s beloved Louise (Amanda Seyfried).
MacFarlane loves to throw in cameos and references in his movies.  Without giving away too much, there’s a non sequitur from a popular 80’s sci-fi comedy movie starring Michael J. Fox and a cameo by Jamie Foxx as Django.  Ryan Reynolds also made a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance, but that exasperated look on his face right before Liam Neeson dispatched him was priceless.
Grade: A-
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