“EDGE OF TOMORROW” (2014) Review

 

“EDGE OF TOMORROW” (2014) Review

I have seen my share of alien invasion and/or post-apocalypse movie and television productions. And yet . . . there seemed to be deluge of these productions in the past two years or so. One of these productions happened to be the recent science-fiction movie,“EDGE OF TOMORROW”.

Based upon Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s 2004 novel called “All You Need Is Kill”, “EDGE OF TOMORROW” tells the story of an American-born military officer who finds himself caught in a time loop during a war with invading aliens who have taken over regions of the world, including continental Europe. The movie begins in the near future in which Major William Cage, an American military Public Relations officer is summoned in London to meet General Brigham, commander of the NATO-led United Defense Forces (UDF). Brigham reveals UDF’s intention to launch Operation Downfall against the aliens, who are called the Mimics. When Brigham orders Cage, who lacks combat experience, to cover the UDF’s landing on the beaches of Normandy in France, the latter objects to the dangerous assignment and threatens to portray the General in an unfavorable light. Brigham retaliates by having Cage arrested and knocked out. The latter regains consciousness at a forward operating base at Heathrow Airport for the UDF forces, with a note from Brigham stating that he is actually a private and a deserter falsely claiming to be an officer. Master Sergeant Farell assigns Cage to a squad of rejects known as J Squad. A frightened Cage is forced to land on one of the Normandy beaches with J Squad. Despite being disoriented and frightened, he manages to kill a Mimic – a large “Alpha” Mimic – before being killed.

Much to Cage’s surprise, he awakens at the Heathrow Airport base on the previous morning. Over and over again, he participates in the Normandy landing and is killed. And over again, he finds himself back at the airport base on the previous day. During one loop, Cage saves war heroineaka “Full Metal Bitch” and “Angel of Verdun”. When she realizes that he has been experiencing time loops, she orders him to seek her out. Cage eventually learns from Vrataski that she had also been caught in a time loop after killing an “Alpha” Mimic. She not only points out that he needs to build his fighting skills, go after the Mimics’ leader and finally kill it in order to end the latter’s invasion.

I am usually a major fan of time travel stories in movies and television – including those that deal with time loops. But my last encounter with time travel fiction – “X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST” – nearly left me feeling slightly leery of the genre. Despite this brief disappointment, I went ahead and watched “EDGE OF TOMORROW”. I cannot say that I felt the same disappointment that I did for the X-MEN film. But I do believe that “EDGE OF TOMORROW” had its shares of flaws. After all, just about every movie I have seen do. In the case of “EDGE OF TOMORROW”, I had . . . perhaps two problems with this film. One, I had a problem with how Cage, a major in the military, ended up being railroaded as a private with an infantry squad. The entire situation smacked of realism that no science-fiction or fantasy genre could explain. The main protagonist in Sakurazaka’s novel was a young recruit. Which meant there was no need for the Keiji Kiriya character to be railroaded into an infantry squad as a private in such an unrealistic manner. My other problem with “EDGE OF TOMORROW” happened to be the movie’s finale. I was not truly disappointed with the finale. But I found it rather confusing. I wish I could spell it out in details, but for me to do so would spoil the story.

Despite these disappointments, I must admit that I enjoyed “EDGE OF TOMORROW” very much. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that it has become not only one of my top favorite movies of the summer, but also of this year. I certainly had no problems with the technical aspects of “EDGE OF TOMORROW”. Doug Liman had worked in the science-fiction genre before and I could easily see that he had no problems with the crew to create a dazzling science-fiction background for the film. But he is not the only one who deserves credit. Oliver Scholl’s production designs did an excellent job in creating the movie’s setting of Western Europe in a half-state of destruction in the wake of an alien invasion. Scholl’s work was ably supported by the art direction team, Elli Griff’s set decorations and Kate Hawley’s costume designs. Speaking of the latter, I noticed that the officer’s uniform that Tom Cruise wore in the movie’s early scenes resembled that worn by those in the U.S. Marine Corps. And yet . . . I saw no signs of any Marine symbols on his jacket. This reminded me of a prediction that my father had once made about how all of the U.S. military branches would eventually morph into one service. Also, looking at the field . . . uh, uniforms that Cruise, Emily Blunt and other cast members wore struck me as very uncomfortable. I found myself wondering if future military units will end up wearing it. But I was really impressed by the special effects team that created the visual style of the Mimics. Although the aliens reminded me octopi, I found them rather scary. Words could not describe how my reaction to Dion Beebe’s cinematography. Perhaps the following images can:

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The use of time loops as a fictional device may not be that original. However, for “EDGE OF TOMORROW”, I have to give credit to Sakurazaka and the movie’s screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth for avoiding the usual literary premise of allowing a protagonist to be caught in a time loop without any real explanation – like 1993’s“GROUNDHOG DAY”. Both Sakurazaka’s novel and the movie’s screenplay made it clear to audiences how the protagonists got caught in a time loop, thank goodness. It is also rare to come across an alien invasion film that begins with the invasion already happening. Not only do I commend Sakurazaka for beginning his story in this fashion, but also the screenwriters and filmmakers for adhering to it and not taking the trouble to patch on a scene depicting the beginning of the Mimics’ invasion.

“EDGE OF TOMORROW” did an excellent job in developing its major characters – especially three of them. The character of William Cage begins as a smarmy public relations man who tries to resort to desperate measures – namely threating to portray the UDF’s commander in an unfavorable light in the press – in order to avoid combat. As circumstances forces Gage to take his combat skills seriously, the screenwriters effectively developed his character into a hardened combat fighter who becomes resigned to his situation. By the end of the movie, his smarminess has disappeared. I was also impressed by the development of the Rita Vrataski character, who begins her story as a combat hardened veteran, who has emotionally distanced herself from her fellow soldiers. As the story progresses and Gage becomes more familiar with her, audiences are allowed more peeks into her real emotions and the reason behind her hard and stoic façade. I was especially surprised by the writers’ handling of the Master Sergeant Farell character. I had expected his character to remain consistent throughout the film – the tough and battle hardened sergeant who maintains a firm grip on his squad. In a way, the Farell character remained in this state throughout the film. But . . . I was pleasantly surprised at how he seemed to react with increasing confusion and surprise in his encounters with the developing Cage.

I certainly had no complaints regarding the performances in “EDGE OF TOMORROW”. I did find the portrayals of the J Squad soldiers somewhat one-dimensional, with the exception of two characters – Ford and Griff. Franz Drameh injected a bit of an edge to Ford’s character in a scene that revealed his financial assistance to the family of a dead colleague. And Kick Gurry, whom I last saw in the 2008 movie “SPEED RACER”, did an excellent job of developing the Griff character from a mindless grunt to a determined defender in the movie’s last action sequence. Although the General Brigham character remained consistent throughout, I have to compliment Brendan Gleeson for giving a masterful and more importantly, subtle portrayal of a rather ruthless and vindictive character. Bill Paxton, who seemed to been very busy these past two years, did an excellent job of conveying the screenplay’s different aspects of the Master Sergeant Farell character. I have now seen Emily Blunt in three science-fiction movies in the past three years. Sooner or later, someone in the media might end up dubbing her “Queen of Sci-Fi”. However, I feel that of the three roles I have seen her portray, my favorite just might be her excellent take on the Rita Vrataski role. Honestly, she was superb. I have to say the same about Tom Cruise, who portrayed the leading character, William Cage. He had the difficult task of developing Cage from a smarmy and somewhat cowardly Public Relations man to an experienced warrior, wearied by the combat violence and constant time loops. And being the exceptional actor that he is, Cruise managed to do his job with flying aces.

Yes, “EDGE OF TOMORROW” has its flaws. As I have stated many times in previous review, I have yet to see a movie that does not have any. But the writing, production values, the excellent performances by a cast led by Tom Cruise and outstanding direction by Doug Liman made “EDGE OF TOMORROW” one of the best movies I have seen this summer. Even if the summer of 2014 had not been so dismal, I still would have viewed this film as one of the best I have seen.

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“LOOPER” (2012) Review

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“LOOPER” (2012) Review

Time travel can be a tricky topic for a fictional story. Some writers can do wonders with a story featuring time traveling. Some writers start out well end up creating a mass of confusion. And other writers . . . well, they end up simply creating a bad story. When I first learned about the premise for the new science-fiction movie, “LOOPER”, I feared I was about to see a time travel movie with a bad plot. 

According to writer/director Rian Johnson’s tale, the United States is in a state of economic collapse in the year 2044. There is social decay, a high rise in crime and a mutation has developed within a small number of the Earth’s population that gives them a telekinetic ability. Thirty years later, time travel has been invented, but immediately outlawed. Tracking technology has made it impossible for criminals to dispose of bodies. Crime bosses use illicit time travel to send their victims back in time, where they are killed by assassins called “loopers”. These assassins are paid with silver bars strapped to the back of their targets. When the crime bosses want to end a looper’s contract, they send his older self back to be killed by his younger self, paying the latter with gold bars as a last payoff. Failure to kill the older self is punishable by death.

Joe Simmons is a looper in 2044 Kansas, whose boss – a time traveler named Abe – is sent back to the past to supervise him and his fellow loopers in the area. Best friend and fellow looper Seth tells Joe that he failed to kill his old self and that the latter informed him of a criminal mastermind named the Rainmaker, who is closing down all loops. Joe eventually betrays Seth in order to maintain his secret stash of silver. Joe’s older self eventually arrives from the past and Joe first kills him. But due to a tragic incident thirty years in the future, Old Joe changes time by escaping to the past on his own. He escapes and Joe tracks him down to a diner, where he tells Joe that the Rainmaker sent him back to be killed, and that Old Joe’s wife was killed during his capture. Old Joe killed his captors and traveled back to kill the Rainmaker as a child. Joe attempts to kill Old Joe and fulfill his contract, but both of them flee when they are attacked by Abe’s hit men or “Gat Men”. Due to a piece of a map in Old Joe’s possession, Joe finds a string of digits that leads him to farm owned by a woman named Sara, who lives with her son, Cid. Meanwhile, Old Joe uses the remaining digits on the map to track down the location of three candidates who might turn out to be the Rainmaker as a child. Old Joe intends to kill all three to prevent his future wife’s death.

Sounds complicated? Trust me, that was only the beginning. For reasons that escape me, Rian Johnson, along with Kimberly Amacker and the rest of the movie’s makeup team decided to use prosthetic makeup to ensure that Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who portrayed the younger Joe Simmons, bear some resemblance to Bruce Willis. They hired Kazuhiro Tsuji for the job. Tsuji did his best in altering Gordon-Levitt’s looks, but in the end, it all depended more on the actor’s performance to make the transformation work. A part of me feels that his prosthetic makeup was not really necessary.

Also, complicated time travel stories such as the one for “LOOPER” tend to turn me off. Dealing with the subject of time travel is bad enough. But I tend to view complicated plot twists, such as the ones found in “LOOPER” as impossible to follow. But thanks to Rian Johnson’s direction and script, I found the movie surprisingly easy to follow . . . aside from one particular scene. I might as well talk about the latter. The sequence featuring Old Joe’s first escape from death at the hands of Joe ended with the latter falling out of the window of his apartment. The movie never made it clear whether he lived or died. But the next scene featured Old Joe’s reappearance at the fatal cornfield again. This time, Joe killed Old Joe, leaving me somewhat confused. Was there a time reset of some kind? It finally occurred to me that Johnson simply revealed that Old Joe had escaped death, left his fate a mystery . . . and then went back to how this scenario came to be. In other words, following Old Joe’s second appearance in the cornfield, audiences learn of the circumstances that led to that moment – Joe’s murder of Old Joe, his retirement as a looper, his years in China as a hired killer, his marriage and eventually, his wife’s death. The latter drove Old Joe over the edge and he set out time travel on his own, prevent his younger self from killing him and kill the younger self of the Rainmaker, before the latter can grow and cause the death of his wife. Now, I understood.

Once I realized what was going on, I was able to enjoy “LOOPER” a lot more. Not only did Johnson create a fascinating tale in which time travel played a heavy role, he created some fascinating characters – especially the leading one, Joe Simmons. Johnson did an excellent job in showing how the time traveling not only affected Joe Simmons’ character, but was also responsible for the creation of the Rainmaker. I was amazed at how Johnson’s story revealed the ugly consequences of time travel in a way no other writer or filmmaker has done before. His story also developed from the typical science-fiction action thriller into a poignant, character-driven tale about the consequences of grief and revenge. By the time I left the movie theater, I realized that I had seen one of the most original science-fiction thrillers in recent years.

“LOOPER” also had the good luck to have some first-rate performers to grace its cast. The movie featured interesting performances from the likes of Paul Dano, who gave an emotional performance as the looper Seth, who set things in motion by warning Joe about the Rainmaker. I also enjoyed the performances of Noah Segan, who gave a colorful performance as Abe’s main “Gat Man”, Kid Blue, who is eager to earn his boss’ respect by going after Joe; Piper Perabo’s sexy take on showgirl Suzy; Qing Xu, who projected the perfect air of sensibility and calm for Old Joe; and Garret Dillahunt, who oozed intelligence and danger as another “Gat Man”, who manages to track down Joe to the Kansas farmhouse.

But there were performances that really impressed me. One of them came from Jeff Daniels, who was an absolute delight as the sharp-tongued crime boss Abe. His advice to Joe about relocating to China upon retirement turned out to be one of the movie’s highlights. Emily Blunt acquired an impressive American accent for her role as Sara, the practical farm owner that gave Joe shelter. Not only was I impressed by her different accent, but also her performance and strong screen presence. I cannot say enough about Pierce Gagnon, the child actor who portrayed Sara’s son, Cid. Gagnon gave one of the best child performances I have seen in years . . . and one of the creepiest. Of the entire cast, Joseph Gordon-Levitt had the most difficult role. Not only did he have to capture many aspects of Bruce Willis’ portrayal of the older Joe, but also the older actor’s speech pattern, body language and screen persona. And too my surprise, he stood up to the plate and knocked it out of the ballpark. I can also say the same Bruce Willis’ performance as Old Joe. Sure, his usual wise ass screen persona was there . . . somewhat. But he also took his character beyond the usual persona and to greater heights by portraying Old Joe as a man caught up in his grief over a dead wife and obsessed with vengeance and determination to change time.

I would not say that “LOOPER” was perfect. Instead of writing a clear and straight narrative that a story of this complexity needed, director-writer Rian Johnson tried to be a little clever in explaining Old Joe’s arrival in the past. And I feel that the prosthetic makeup for Joseph Gordon-Levitt was unnecessary. But despite these quibbles, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this movie. Johnson, along with an excellent cast led by Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, delivered one of the most original movies I have seen in years.

“THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU” (2011) Review

 

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“THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU” (2011) Review

Matt Damon made his second (or perhaps third) foray into the science-fiction/fantasy genre, when he starred in his latest film called “THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU”. The movie turned out to be a loose adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1954 short story,“Adjustment Team”

Adapted and directed by George Nolfi, “THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU” is about an aspiring politician named David Norris, whose encounter with a talented modern dancer sparks a romance between the two. However, members of a mysterious force called the Adjustment Bureau keep interfering with their romance, explaining that Norris’ political career would be affected by his romance with Elise Sellas, the young dancer. They also explained that Elise’s future as a famous dancer would also be affected. At first, David agrees to stay away from Elise, when Richardson (one of the “angels” of the Adjustment Bureau) tells him that he will be “reset” or lobotomized, if he tells anyone about the Bureau. But three to four years later, David finds it difficult to forget Elise. And with the help from Harry Mitchell, the Bureau “angel” that has been overseeing his life, David sets out to fight the Bureau’s abilities to control his choices and form a permanent relationship with Elise.

“THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU” struck me as one of those pleasant and whimsical movies that I usually find mildly interesting. Both Matt Damon and Emily Blunt gave believable performances as the politician and dancer who find themselves attracted to one another. If I must be honest, the two had a very strong screen chemistry. The movie also gave moviegoers an interesting glimpse into the possibility of a supernatural force that determined the paths of all individuals. And the movie presented this premise in an interesting way that perfectly balanced reality with fantasy. An interesting aspect of the movie’s plot is that the Adjustment Bureau “angels” used doorways to instantly teleport from one location to another. And in order for them to accomplish this, each “angel” has to be wearing the Bureau’s signature fedora hat.

However, I had some problems with the movie. I never understood how both David and Elise managed to remember each other after three years. At the beginning of the movie, they had briefly met inside the men’s bathroom at a local hotel. The following morning, they met again aboard a public bus and spoke for a few minutes. Three years passed before they laid eyes upon each other again . . . and they clearly remembered one another. Why do I find that implausible? And the Bureau’s decision to finally let David and Elise alone, because; a) they somehow “discovered” that the two were always meant to be together struck me as a bit saccharine, and b) they fought so hard to stay together struck me as rather saccharine. Every time I think of that final scene, flashes of the movie, “STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN” enters my mind. In fact, I am beginning to suspect that “THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU” might be a slight remake of the 1945 movie. But at least “STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN”had more of a punch than “THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU”. And that is my final complaint about the movie. It simply lacked punch. It failed to blow my mind. It was a nice movie that I would have enjoyed more, watching on my television screen.

The performances in the movie were pleasant, but did not strike me as particularly memorable. Well . . . I take that back. I was impressed by two performances. One came from Anthony Mackie, who portrayed David Norris’ personal Bureau “angel”, Harry Mitchell. With very few lines, Mackie did a first rate job in conveying Harry’s increasing disenchantment with the Bureau’s policy of controlling the choices of others with an intensity that struck me as perfectly balanced. I was also impressed by Terence Stamp’s portrayal of Thompson, one of the senior members of the Bureau, who is called to deal with David, when the latter proves to be troublesome. Stamp was commanding, intimidating, slightly ruthless and very convincing in his character’s arguments to keep David and Elise apart. As I had stated earlier, both Matt Damon and Emily Blunt gave charming performances as the two protagonists. During the scenes in which Damon’s David Norris flirted with Blunt’s Elise Sallas, I was struck by the similarities in Damon’s flirtations with Vera Farmiga in “THE DEPARTED” and Minnie Driver in “GOOD WILL HUNTING”. And I began to wonder if Damon had a standardized method for on-screen romances. I also enjoyed John Slattery’s performance as another one of the Bureau’s “angels”, Richardson. But if I must be honest, his character struck me as another variation on his Roger Sterling character from “MAD MEN”. It would be nice to see him in another kind of role.

“THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU” is a charming and clever movie. It benefitted from solid performances from a first-rate cast and a solid adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story by George Nolfi. But in the end, I found it slightly disappointing. It failed to pack a punch that this kind of story would have the potential to deliver.

“DEATH ON THE NILE” (2004) Review

“DEATH ON THE NILE” (2004) Review

This 2004 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel, ”Death on the Nile”, was the second to be adapted for the screen. In the case of this movie, it aired as a 90-minute presentation on the long-running television series, ”Agatha Christie’s POIROT”

Like the novel and the 1978 movie, ”DEATH ON THE NILE” centered around Hercule Poirot’s investigation of the murder of an Anglo-American heiress named Linnet Ridgeway. Linnet had stolen the affections of her best friend’s fiancé and married him. When the newly married couple vacationed in Egypt, the best friend – one Jacqueline de Bellefort – stalked and harassed them during their honeymoon. Yet, when Linnet and her new husband, Simon Doyle, boarded the S.S. Karnak for a steamboat cruise down the Nile River, the heiress discovered she had other enemies that included the offspring of a man whom her father had financially ruined, her embezzling attorney who required her signature on a paper or her death to hide his crimes, a kleptomaniac American socialite and a professional thief who was after her pearls. Unfortunately for the killer, a vacationing Hercule Poirot and his friend, Colonel Race, are on hand to solve Linnet’s murder.

There were aspects of this adaptation of ”DEATH ON THE NILE” that I found admirable. The movie’s set designs for the S.S. Karnak seemed bigger and slightly more luxuriant that what was shown in the 1978 movie. Production designer Michael Pickwoad did a first-rate job in creating the luxurious atmosphere for the 1930s upper class. Actor J.J. Feild gave a solid performance as Simon Doyle, the man who came between Linnet Ridgeway and Jacqueline de Bellefort. However, I do not think he managed to capture the literary Simon Doyle’s boyish simplicity and lack of intelligence. I also enjoyed Frances La Tour’s portrayal of the alcoholic novelist, Salome Otterbourne. She gave her performance a slight twist in which her character seemed to be a little hot under the collar as she makes sexual advances toward Poirot in a subtle, yet comic manner. And the movie’s one true bright spot was, of course, David Suchet as Hercule Poirot. As usual, he gave an exceptional performance. However, I noticed that he was never able to form any real chemistry with James Fox’s Colonel Race or Emma Griffiths Malin, who portrayed Jacqueline de Bellefort; as Peter Ustinov had done with David Niven and Mia Farrow, respectively.

I wish I could harbor a high opinion of ”DEATH ON THE NILE”. But I cannot. There were too many aspects of this production that rubbed me the wrong way. I noticed that this version adhered very closely to Christie’s novel. Unfortunately, the screenplay’s close adaptation did not help the movie very much. It still failed to be superior or just as good as the 1978 version. So much for the argument that a movie has to closely follow its literary source in order for it to be any good. A closer adaptation of Christie’s novel meant that characters missing from the 1978 version – Cornelia Robson, Marie Van Schuyler’s clumsy young cousin; society jewel thief Tim Allerton; the ladylike Mrs. Allerton and the Allertons’ cousin, Joanna Southwood – appeared in this movie. Only the Italian archeologist, Mr. Richetti and Jim Fanthorp, the British attorney were missing. And honestly, the presence of the Allertons, Cornelia Robson and Joanna Southwood added nothing to the story as far as I am concerned. Aside from a few members of the cast, the acting in this movie struck me as very unexceptional and a little hammy at times. You know . . . the kind of hamminess that makes one wince, instead of chuckle with amusement.

But the movie’s real atrocities came from the hairstyles and makeup created for the younger actresses in the cast. Most of the hairstyles seemed like sloppy re-creations of those from the mid-1930s, the worst offenders being the cheap-looking blond wig worn by Emily Blunt (Linnet Ridgeway Doyle), the butch hairstyle worn by actress Zoe Telford (Rosalie Otterbourne); and the gaudy makeup worn by all of the younger actresses. Only Daisy Donovan, who portrayed Cornelia Robson was spared from resembling a kewpie doll. Instead, she wore a sloppy bun that served as a metaphor for her insecure personality – a theatrical maneuver that I found unnecessary.

I hate to say this but despite David Suchet’s performance as Poirot and Michael Pokewoad’s production designs, I came away feeling less than impressed by this version of ”DEATH ON THE NILE”. Not only did I find it inferior to the 1978 version, but also to many other adaptations of Agatha Christie’s novels and stories.