The week in film: ‘Edge of Tomorrow,’ ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ and more

June 5, 2014

edge

When you consider that Tom Cruise has been a major movie star for more than three decades, it’s surprising how few out-and-out stinkers he’s made (can Tom Hanks say the same thing?) and how much of himself he can still hold in reserve, with which to surprise us in a performance.

So it is with “Edge of Tomorrow,” which looks like “Robocop” meets “Groundhog Day” at Omaha Beach. But this Doug Liman film is fast, exciting, surprisingly witty and just plain satisfying. The script, by Oscar-winner Christopher McQuarrie and brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, gives this film an emotional honesty that keeps the action grounded. Which is terrific in a movie that also keeps you guessing, always a good thing.

Set in a not-too-distant future, “Edge of Tomorrow” begins with one of those cable-news “if you’ve just joined us” recaps, detailing an extraterrestrial invasion of Europe by aliens called Mimics. (One of the film’s few shortcomings: It never explains why they’re called that, given that they look like weird giant versions of balls of live wires.) They landed somewhere in the middle of the continent and have now taken over most of Europe, with an eye toward hopping the English Channel.

The focus of some of the clips is an American public-relations officer, Maj. William Gage – Cruise at his most winning. But Cage discovers that he is, in fact, the biggest loser, when the general commander of the human forces in England (Brendan Gleeson) informs him that he’ll be the defense forces’ human face when he serves as part of the invasion force the next day. Tased into unconsciousness when he resists, Cage wakes up to find himself the property of a drill sergeant (Bill Paxton), who is supposed to get him combat-ready by the time he and his platoon drop into the war zone.

Not even close – and Cage finds himself stumbling around the beach in France, eventually dying when one of the aliens is blasted into goo right on top of him.

Except that he wakes up almost instantly, and finds himself back at the moment when he met the drill sergeant. And then he invades France and dies again. And again.

You get the idea. But on one of those early missions, he also meets the humans’ biggest hero, Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a Mimic-slayer par excellence who has become a propaganda symbol. She speaks to Cage near the end of one of his incarnations, telling him to find her the next time he dies. She, too, has the ability to recycle – or had it – and now they have to figure out how to educate themselves to beat the Mimics on that fateful day, before they lose the power to live the moment over.

Cruise pulls out a variety of affects here, from cocky to cowardly, wise to witty, giving each of them just enough of an edge to make you take notice and say, “What’s different here?” Bill Murray played it for soulful laughs in “Groundhog Day”; Cruise uses his reincarnations to hone and chisel this character down to its diamond-hard core. Blunt and Paxton (and Gleeson) offers great support, but this is Cruise’s show – and Liman’s.

Which makes it the first really exciting movie of the summer: the most original, the most invigorating and the most entertaining.

fault

“The Fault in Our Stars,” in case you didn’t know, is based on a hit novel, a best-seller that promises more than a few tear-soaked hankies. So does the movie. But it earns them.

Directed by Josh Boone, who made the overlooked “Stuck in Love” in 2012, the film stars the radiant Shailene Woodley, who has a lovely kind of everyday quality, as a teen named Hazel who, at 17, has been living with cancer since she was 13. Her lungs have been weakened by the ordeal, forcing her to wheel around an oxygen tank, to which she is tethered by thin tubing. Though she resists, she ultimately gives in to urging by her parents (Laura Dern, Sam Trammell) and joins a teen-cancer-survivor support group at her church, led by a well-meaning buffoon (nicely underplayed by Mike Birbiglia for uncomfortable laughs).

At the group, however, she meets Gus Waters (Ansel Elgort), a one-time star basketball player who lost part of a leg to cancer, but still has the good-natured swagger of the happy jock. He zeroes in on her, bathing her in the kind of impassioned attention only a teen-age boy could. Though she’s walled herself off, Hazel can’t resist; this is something Hazel assumed she’d never get the chance to experience.

The story, based on John Green’s book, includes Hazel’s fixation on a novel about cancer and Gus’ effort to help Hazel connect with its author. That idee fixe, the romantic quest, forms the most cliched part of this tale, up to and including a trip to Amsterdam to meet the writer (a sour Willem Dafoe) that features a visit to the Anne Frank museum.

Still, Woodley is a luminous presence: bright, angry, and emotionally exposed. She has a nice sense of comic timing, filtered through teen petulance that springs in part from the very dire evidence of her own mortality. Elgort is her match: sunny, open, letting enough fear show to give this determinedly optimistic character some depth.

Some critics place no value on a movie that uses the death of a young person to bring tears. I’m not even going to say spoiler alert because the dying-young trope goes back to the beginning of drama. It’s the essence of tragedy: the death of a young person before their life has really begun.

But a well-made movie such as “The Fault in Our Stars” earns its tears with strong performances and a restraint that help you invest in characters whose departure you will feel.

A few more movies, in brief:

dormant

“Dormant Beauty”: Filmmaker Marco Bellocchio uses a real-life Italian case – about a brain-dead woman whose family wanted to remove her from life-support – as the catalyst for a trio of looks at moral choices, in this slow-moving, talky film. The right-to-die-vs.-right-to-life battle is barely discussed; instead, it’s the instigating event that forces several different people to come to terms with something serious in their own lives. But a senator (Toni Servillo) who is at odds with his right-to-life daughter (and his party) doesn’t have anything more to tell us than a haughty, self-martyring actress (Isabelle Huppert) whose own daughter is in a similar coma. Then there’s the ER doctor trying to help a self-destructive drug addict. But, like Bellocchio’s draggy, overrated “Vincere,” this movie wants us to believe in its depth, while mostly just skimming the surface. This isn’t an insignificant issue; just as Italian lawmakers actually convened to vote on whether to let the girl die, American lawmakers did the same thing a few years ago with the late Terri Schiavo. Bellocchio, however, uses the larger issue (whose life is it, anyway?) as an excuse for a series of interior dramas that just aren’t that interesting. The characters seem like sketches and their struggle is never three-dimensional. He might as well have simply placed a static camera on the headboard of the dying woman’s bed, for all the difference it would have made.

willow

“Willow Creek”: Bobcat Goldthwait remains one of my favorite filmmakers, bushwhacking his way through the indy-film jungle to carve out his uniquely acidic satires of contemporary society. With this film, he offers his version of a found-footage horror movie, with his own twist. His take involves Bigfoot and two people who really, really hope to find him. They’re filming a doc about a trip to northern California, where that famous footage of the supposed sasquatch was shot decades ago on a home movie camera. So they head for the spot itself, stopping in the closest town to interview (and, in a sense, mock) the people who have made a living exploiting interest in the big guy. Then they get out into the woods – and the final 20 minutes of the film proves once again that what you can’t see is infinitely more frightening than what you can. Is Goldthwait sincere – or just seeing how many of the audience’s buttons he can push with editing and camera angles? Is this homage or send-up of “Blair Witch Project”? But here’s the real question: If a movie leaves you as goosey and tense as this one does, will any of that other stuff matter?

obvious

“Obvious Child”: Jenny Slate is a comic force of nature, a young woman who can smile sweetly even as her own insecurity pushes her to utter all the harsh thoughts she’s thinking. In this film, she plays Donna Stern, a struggling comedian whose world crumbles when her boyfriend dumps her and she loses her dayjob – and then she discovers that she’s pregnant after an alcohol-fueled hookup with an actual nice guy (Jake Lacy). Slate and filmmaker Gillian Robespierre boldly make Donna someone who can push the audience away in the same way that her one-liners serve as a kind of personal armor against intimacy. Yet Slate, with eyes that flash from wisdom to desperation in the space of seconds, pulls the viewer in by showing the vulnerability beneath the tough crust. She captures the daring of a comic making big creative leaps in front of an audience, even as she hunkers down inside her own life. Lacy (“The Office”) is just right as the guy who wants to break through that reflexive defense mechanism of cutting jokes, but isn’t willing to be her punching bag. Polly Draper and Richard Kind also shine as Donna’s self-involved parents, whose divorce is understandable once you spend a couple of scenes with them. It’s a small film but should provide a big launch for Slate. Now I want to see her in a comedy with Kathryn Hahn.

trust me

“Trust Me”: Clark Gregg wrote, directed and starred in this caustic show-biz comedy and the question is: After his deliciously dark filmmaking debut with “Choke,” what took him so long? Gregg plays the lead: Howard, a former child actor who is now an agent for other child actors and who’s just barely making ends meet. His problem is that, just as he builds a client up to the moment when his career is about to take off, Howard’s chief rival, Aldo (Sam Rockwell), snakes the future star for his own stable. But Howard has found a sure thing: a young actress with all the tools, but with a rocky personal life including what may be an abusive father. Gregg occasionally burdens the film with surrealistic touches that are meant as foreshadowing; they seem corny and obvious right up until he takes them one step farther – and it all comes together. Rockwell is wonderfully slithery as the unctuous Aldo and Saxon Sharbino has the kind of magic that an agent would respond to. But this is Gregg’s film and he brings the right blend of salesmanship, anger and flop-sweat desperation to the role.

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