Mid-Day Mini ~ Cold in July

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When a protective father meets a murderous ex-con, both need to deviate from the path they are on as they soon find themselves entangled in a downwards spiral of lies and violence while having to confront their own inner psyche.

Stars: Michael C. Hall, Don Johnson, Sam Shepard, Vinessa Shaw, Nick Damici, Wyatt Russell

Director: Jim Mickle

Rated: R

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  The first preview I saw of director Jim Mickle’s adaptation of Joe R. Landsdale’s grim noir novel gave me flashes of Blood Simple, the masterful 1984 debut film of Joel and Ethan Cohen (Inside Llewyn Davis).  With good reason too.  Both films are set in Texas and both have moments of shocking violence that come out of left field.  While Blood Simple would win in any battle royale between the two films, don’t let Cold in July fall off your radar because it’s a seething film with plenty of twists and turns…culminating in a finale that amps up the tension and takes no prisoners.

Mickle is a filmmaker to watch and while I haven’t yet published my review of We Are What We Are, his creepily effective cannibal film from 2013, I can tell you now that he’s batting 1000 in my book.  With Michael C. Hall and Sam Shepard (Mud) as two fathers brought together by a murder that turns into something more sinister and Don Johnson (The Other Woman) nearly stealing the show as a man with no scruples the stage is set for a dark crime drama that, though familiar on paper, entertains nonetheless.

The Silver Bullet ~ Ping Pong Summer

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Synopsis: A family vacation during the summer of 1985 changes everything for a teenage boy obsessed with ping pong.

Release Date:  June 6, 2014

Thoughts: Though it looks like it could be a terribly cloying affair, Ping Pong Summer does have two (okay maybe three) things going for it that has caught my interest.  The first is a tonal similarity to the best film I saw in 2013, The Way Way Back with a teen coming into his own during his time at a summer beach house.  The second is star and real life ping pong aficionado Susan Sarandon (Jeff, Who Lives at Home, Robot & Frank) who seems to make every film better with her wry delivery and eternal MILF-iness.  I love a good retro cinematic set-up so the mid 80s locale could also be a plus if it isn’t all neon shirts and Reagan-era wink-wink dialogue.

Movie Review ~ Edge of Tomorrow

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An officer finds himself caught in a time loop in a war with an alien race. His skills increase as he faces the same brutal combat scenarios, and his union with a Special Forces warrior gets him closer and closer to defeating the enemy.

Stars: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Noah Taylor, Kick Gurry, Dragomir Mrsic, Charlotte Riley, Jonas Armstrong, Franz Drameh, Masayoshi Haneda, Tony Way

Director: Doug Liman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 113 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I was discussing Tom Cruise with a casual acquaintance in a group setting the other day and when I mentioned how much I like his films, she responded with “Yeah, but he’ll always be that crazy couch jumper.”  It’s hard to believe that nearly a decade since the couch jump heard ‘round the world people still can’t let that one go…not that Cruise has helped his case by taking a critical stance against anti-depressants and being the poster boy for Scientology in the intervening years.

As a critic, though, you have to be able to put all that aside and look at the work…and when you look at the almost thirty years of Cruise’s Hollywood ventures you’ll see a portfolio filled with major blockbusters (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol), guilty pleasures (Cocktail), old-fashioned epics (Far and Away), under-appreciated misfires (Oblivion, Jack Reacher), and miscalculated bombs like Rock of Ages that Cruise managed to emerge victorious from.  Put plainly…the man knows how to deliver the goods and that’s something that no amount of religious discussion or questionably hyper antics can sully.

Cruise is back in summer 2014 with the unexpectedly fun sci-fi action film Edge of Tomorrow, adapted from the graphic novel All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka.  Already being described by critics as Groundhog Day with guns, the script from Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth rises above the simple ‘Live Die Repeat’ tagline to be a genuinely interesting mind-bender that plays by the rules (mostly) and keeps you on the edge of your seat after taking off like a rocket.

An alien race has arrived on Earth via comet and is lying waste to much of Europe.  In the battle to conquer these invaders, the army has developed specialized metal suits (think Sigourney Weaver in the final battle of Aliens) as armor against some very sneaky creatures that look like Medusa heads and strike with fatal precision.  Playing Cage, a cowardly lion of a military man, Cruise unwillingly finds himself moving from the face of the war recruitment effort into the front lines after running afoul of a general (Brendan Gleeson, Albert Nobbs, The Company You Keep) unimpressed with his spinelessness.

Without any training or real life knowledge of the enemies he’s fighting, Cage is dispatched to a military base where he’ll be one of the first troops to deploy on a deadly mission that plays out like the battle on Omaha Beach. Disoriented and seeing his platoon fall around him, he comes face to face with a Big Nasty Alien and dies.

Only that’s not the end, that’s just the first 20 minutes of director Doug Liman’s smashing freight train of a film.  See, when Cage dies the day starts over again, back when he arrives at the base.  Initially not believing it’s a convenient case déjà vu, when he continues to die in different ways only to wake up in the same spot he begins to figure out a way to change his fate and the fate of those around him.

Helping him out is Emily Blunt (Looper, The Five-Year Engagement) playing hard-ass Rita dubbed the Angel of Verdun for her impressive skills in alien extermination.  Cage soon finds that he has more in common with Rita than he’d ever imagined…and soon both are working together to turn the tables on an enemy always one step ahead of them.  Though the previews for Edge of Tomorrow seem to show a lot, there’s a nice hunk of story left that hasn’t been spoiled by the marketing department and certainly won’t be spoiled by me here.

Cruise is in top form (my date for the evening was heard saying several times “He’s 50!  The man is 50! How does he still look like that?” in the darkened theater) and is more than happy to let Blunt get her moment in the sunshine as well.  A movie star through and through, Cruise has fun playing a man of avarice humbled by his new found curse of living a bad day over and over and over.  Blunt steps up to the plate in a big way, proving to be a formidable co-star and giving the impression she’s just as tough as her leading man and any of the grizzled grunts that populate the film.

Liman keeps the action going strong without muddying the waters.  Originally I was a bit overwhelmed by the onslaught of explosions and battle sequences but it’s all in service to how the script refines what we’re seeing as the film progresses.  The musical score by Christophe Beck (Muppets Most Wanted, Endless Love) is appropriately juggernaut-y and the special effects blend seamlessly with the large scale set pieces necessary to tell the tale.

Movies are often compared to video games and in the case of Edge of Tomorrow that’s a fair comparison.  In video games, when you die you get to repeat the level and do your best to try and avoid past mistakes.  It’s a gimmick the film uses well and even if it bends the rules ever so slightly to get to an ending that was probably unavoidable, it’s a small nitpick for a summer blockbuster that more than gets the job done.  Well worth a watch.

Movie Review ~ The Fault in Our Stars

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Hazel and Gus are two teenagers who share an acerbic wit, a disdain for the conventional, and a love that sweeps them on a journey.

Stars: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Willem Dafoe, Nat Wolff, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Mike Birbiglia, Lotte Verbeek, Emily Peachey 

Director: Josh Boone

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 125 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: After reading several early rapturous reviews of John Green’s 2012 novel The Fault in Our Stars I, like all my good bandwagon hopping peers, snapped up a hardcover copy to say I owned it and then let it sit on the shelf where it gained a fine layer of dust.  When it was announced in 2013 that the film version of the novel was hitting theaters in 2014 I dusted off the book and carried it around with me with the best of reading intentions…only to see it make its way back onto the shelf, unread.

Suddenly, it’s 2014, I’m seeing the film in a week, and my guilty procrastinating personality kicks into high gear and I finally crack open the book.  The rest is history…the kind of superior reading experience that maybe I was always destined to have.  Green’s novel, told from the matter-of-fact perspective of a girl dying of lung cancer, was a humorous, heart-string tugger that never felt sorry for itself or resorted to cliché to keep its audience tearing through the pages.  In the novel, love is found between protagonist Hazel and charming Augustus at the very worst time…when death is standing at the door.

Too many films adapted from popular novels suffer by comparison because they either fail to capture what made the action on the page so special or change too much so the product is unrecognizable to fans.  That’s not the case here, thankfully, so while it does retain some of the more problematic passages that made the novel perfectly imperfect, its devotion to being faithful made me respect it even more.

I can’t say for sure, but had I not known while reading that Shailene Woodley (The Descendants, The Spectacular Now) was playing the lead I think I would have always imagined her in the role. As it is, after seeing Woodley’s sensitive take on the character I can’t imagine any actress out there today could have done the role justice as well as she does here.  As in the novel, Woodley’s Hazel is strong yet vulnerable, direct but caring, and wise well beyond her young years.  When she meets Augustus (Ansel Elgort, last seen playing Woodley’s brother in Divergent) in a cancer support group, she finds a kindred spirit that shows her she’s got a lot of living left to do…and wants to live it with her.

Director Josh Boone teams with screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber in bringing this sentimental tear-jerker to audiences without letting the film with such a melancholy subject feel too heavy.  The beats are all in the right place and the film enjoys a good hour of splendid magic before veering (like the novel) into a subplot that (like the novel) just didn’t work for me.  To say what this tangent is would be to betray what happens later in the film so I’ll merely say home is where the heart is.

As far as differences between the novel and the film, most are too small to report back on.  Even though the flash-forward opening moments of the movie had me on edge, it wasn’t the deal breaker it could have been in less devoted hands and thankfully, Boone and co. have figured out a way to smooth over (not change) the ending to be more cinematically sound.  As Hazel’s dad, Sam Trammell isn’t as weepy as the novel implies, bringing a welcome stoicism absent on the page that makes him more equal partners with his wife and daughter.  It’s hard to believe there was a time I wasn’t a fan of Laura Dern, never really warming to her performances.  However Dern (Smooth Talk, The Master, Jurassic Park) delivers moving work here as Hazel’s mom, further cementing my admiration for her talent.

Woodley and Elgort have chemistry for days, something the movie would have been D.O.A. without.  Largely thanks to Woodley’s earthy presentation of a dying girl and Elgort’s laid-back approach to a devil may care boy The Fault in Our Stars becomes more than a disease of the week three hanky weeper.  A well made film crafted by people who obviously cared about the book quite a lot, there’s little fault to be found here.  A nice bit of counter-programming for audiences already weary with effects heavy blockbusters.