Movie Review: Edge of Tomorrow

EdgeOfTomorrowby Michael D. Pederson

 

Edge of Tomorrow
Director: Doug Liman
Warner Bros. Pictures

There were a lot of reasons for me not to enjoy Edge of Tomorrow. I find Tom Cruise to be overrated, the movie underwent several script changes and didn’t have a finished script when they started shooting, and the director required several reshoots. Any one of these things could ruin a movie and all of them together sounded like a recipe for disaster. And yet…

Sometimes high concept pays off big.

If you haven’t seen the movie already, you’ve at least heard the pitch description: Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers. An intriguing concept with an untold number of ways to go wrong.

However, EoT proved to be the action movie of the summer (well, pre-summer; release dates have gotten weird). Turns out, the final script revision was done by Christopher McQuarrie who contributed his usual trademark blend of suspense, action, and humor that made The Usual Suspects an instant classic.

In a nutshell… Cruise plays William Cage, a military PR expert; he’s a former ad executive that volunteered his services to avoid fighting in a war against invading aliens, known as Mimics—a coward. When he refuses to cover an invasion from the front lines he’s branded a deserter and sent into combat against aliens that have proven nearly unstoppable where he dies on his first day and (through some complicated plot trickery) gains the ability to restart the day every time he dies. On one of his early loops, he saves the life of Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a celebrated soldier who also had the looping ability until she lost it after receiving a blood transfusion. She tells Cage to find her when he wakes up. He does and they begin training, turning him into the ultimate weapon.

After the screenplay, the second thing the studio did right was casting. Cruise gives a self-aware performance that comes close to parodying his image but works brilliantly; Cruise is always at his best when he’s playing against type (see: Tropic Thunder). Blunt is hard-edged, smart, and fierce and turns an under-developed character into a memorable heroine. Bill Paxton plays the Master Sergeant for the platoon that Cage is assigned to and gives a performance that is somehow emotionally believable and over-the-top scene stealing at the same time. And Brendan Gleeson gives a very grounded performance as the General in charge of the war effort, the man who sends Cage to certain death.

The Mimic’s relentless spread across Europe, the line being held at England, and a science fiction invasion of Normandy draw clear but not invasive parallels to the Second World War, a move that further helps to ground a fairly crazy concept in an added layer of believability.

That’s not to say that the movie isn’t without it’s flaws and most of those flaws come right at the end. The movie desperately rewrites the rules on time travel that they had so carefully established early on in the film for no other reason than to give us a happy ending. That’s weak and, frankly, it compromised the sacrifices that several of the characters had made. There’s also an uncomfortable attempt at adding a romance angle at the end as well. Since Cage is the only character that has been reliving the same day, he may know Rita inside and out, but she’s only known him for a day. It’s just uncomfortable.

Edge of Tomorrow is definitely worth buying when it becomes available. More importantly, it’s a movie that makes me want to go out and read the book it was based on—All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka.

 

Movie Review: A Dance With Andrea

ADanceWithAndreaby KT Pinto

 

From the minds of award-winning director Lance J. Reha and screenwriter Christopher Mancuso, who created such thrillers as Bullet and Between Floors, comes A Dance with Andrea, a paranormal romance short (29 minutes) that made its world premiere at the Garden State Film Festival in 2012.

The movie is about Victor (played by Frank Albanese from The Sopranos), a man who for over sixty years has lamented the loss of his true love, and he finally makes a decision to get rid of the pain. Does a supernatural visit help him ease his suffering?

A Dance with Andrea takes you on a roller coaster of emotions using very little dialog and a lot of visual impact to drive the story home. Those who live in New York City will notice some familiar locations throughout the movie, but you don’t have to be from the area to appreciate the great characters and emotionally charged story. Definitely a must see!

You can preview the trailer on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/lakefilms.

 

Movie Review: The Wolverine

TheWolverineby Michael D. Pederson

 

It pains me to no end that some of Marvel’s biggest titles are still owned by other studios: Twentieth Century Fox has The Fantastic Four and The X-Men, and Sony has Spider-Man. Marvel’s single-universe continuity was always my favorite aspect of the comics and I’m enjoying the way that they’ve made that continuity work for them (so far) in the new Marvel Cinematic Universe, I just really wish they had all of their characters to play with. In the last year we’ve seen Punisher, Daredevil, and Blade all revert back to Marvel, so there’s hope that one day all the kids will return home (having big Disney cash and lawyers on hand will also help).

On the plus side, though, Fox has clearly learned a lesson from the way that Marvel Studios is handling the Avengers franchise. The X-Men started off strong out of the gate with two fantastic Bryan Singer-directed X-films and then fell on their face with X3 and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. And you could see them start to put the pieces together with X-Men: First Class. With this summer’s The Wolverine it’s clear that Fox is trying to establish an X-Universe that’s as solid as Marvel’s Avengers films. And they seem to be succeeding.

The Wolverine uses the Chris Claremont/Frank Miller 1982 mini-series for it’s source material; a comic that many still consider to be the definitive Wolverine story. Wisely, they stay pretty close to the original, deviating only to update the story and to fit it into the movie continuity (i.e. since Fox doesn’t own Daredevil, they were unable to use the Hand as villains).

The movie starts with Logan living a solitary lifestyle in the Yukon, still haunted (literally) by his actions in the last X-Men film. When he’s summoned to Japan as the dying wish of a man whose life he saved in Nagaski at the end of WWII, Logan is offered the chance to give up his immortality. Thus begins the rollercoaster ride of ninja battles, street chases, an amazingly cool fight on a moving bullet train, and the inevitable CGI-heavy climax with an adamantium-clad Silver Samurai. The story arc begins with Logan giving up on the idea of being a hero and proceeds to ask the questions necessary to bring him back to that world. It’s neatly done and ties up with a teaser for the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past (another lesson learned from The Avengers).

Of the new characters added for this movie… Yukio: Japanese mutant who acts as Wolverine’s self-appointed bodyguard; an excellent performance and great chemistry with Hugh Jackman, I will be deeply disappointed if we don’t see more of her in future films. Mariko: Strong-willed and independent; a believable enough love-interest, however the actress seemed overshadowed by the other performers at times. Viper: Sinister, sexy, and creepy all at once; an excellent addition to the Rogues Gallery.

True believers will have already seen this movie, but if you’re just a casual fan I’m sure you’ll enjoy it as well; the bullet train sequence alone makes it worth watching on the big screen.

 

Movie Review: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

girl_with_the_dragon_tattooby Michael D. Pederson

 

Every once in a while you luck out and get the perfect marriage of artist and material. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as directed by David Fincher is that perfect marriage. Fincher has made a career out of dark subject matter (Zodiac, Fight Club, Se7en, Alien3) and things don’t get much darker than Stieg Larsson’s novel that the movie was based on.

At it’s heart, Dragon Tattoo is a classic locked-door mystery—a girl disappears from an island that has been closed off from the mainland, setting off a forty-year search for her murderer. Investigating the murder is disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (a very solid Daniel Craig) with the help of the socially dysfunctional Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara).

Almost immediately the investigation hurls the viewer into a whirlwind of Nazis, rape, abuse of power, corruption, incest, torture and murder; it plays like a David Fincher greatest hits album. In addition to his dark materials, Fincher has a reputation for drawing strong, intense performances from some of Hollywood’s best actors. Mara’s performance as Salander should put her on the short list for an Academy Award this season. She is nothing short of electrifying and totally owns the screen every time she’s on.

Go see it in the theaters and then buy it as soon as it hits video, you won’t regret it.

 

Movie Review: Contagion

Contagionby Michael D. Pederson

 

I have two guilty pleasures that I will confess to: medical thriller novels and disaster movies. So, Contagion is a bit of a perfect storm for me. Especially when you add in the quality of the people involved with making it… Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Solaris); Oscar-winning actresses Gwynyth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, and Marion Cotillard; and Oscar-nominated actors Matt Damon, Lawrence Fishburne, Jude Law, and Elliot Gould.

I won’t dwell on the actors, with a cast like this it goes without saying that everyone gives a fantastic performance. I will say though, that no one actor steals the show. It is a true ensemble piece. The real credit should go to Soderbergh’s directing and a tight, economical script from Scott Z. Burns. It’s all too easy to let a disaster movie get bogged down in melodrama but Soderbergh and Burns let the reality of the situation shine through in every scene.

Perhaps, most impressive is what’s not in this movie. No inept scientists causing further mayhem, no opportunistic military trying to use the virus for their own ends, and (most impressive) no last-minute cure that keeps the virus in check. The action of the film covers several months and is the most realistic dramatization of a global pandemic that has yet been filmed. Contagion may be the scariest movie of the year.

 

Movie Review: Kick-Ass

kickassby Lucy Arnold

 

Taking Shit Seriously (or Taking Shit, Seriously)

In the vein of Watchmen and other “dark” superhero movies, Kick-Ass presents us with our very own flawed modern world and the flawed hero necessary to save it.

On the one hand, the movie is curiously engaging, particularly scenes including Nicolas Cage and Chloë Grace Moretz (who hands-down steals the movie). Hit Girl is an intriguing character, one who could have made the movie all on her own, challenging as she does audience preconceptions about superheroes, little girls, and violence. Simultaneously thrilling and disturbing as it is to watch her pump lead into the brains of various villains, Moretz is absolutely believable. As her equally disturbing father, Nic Cage is brilliant. And their relationship raises questions about parenting outside of crime fighting. To what extent do all parents raise their kids with requisite baggage, churning out new generations of dysfunctional psychoses? All within the context of love.

In the mirror relationship, Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is desperate to engage in his father’s criminal business, even though Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong) is loathe to see his son’s potential. But compared to the understandable and compelling family bond portrayed by Moretz and Cage, this father-son drama falls flat. Far worse for the movie, the villainy exercised by the D’Amicos just doesn’t have that old-fashioned evil feeling. Neither fully businesslike or intensely scary, the bad guys were always doomed to fall at the hands of Hit Girl and Kick-Ass. Or maybe we’re just living out post-Dark Knight villain depression.

The heart and title of the movie is Kick-Ass (Aaron Johnson), though, it is with him that the movie ultimately fails for us.

Bad shit happens all the time. A lot of those times people are perfectly aware of said bad shit, and often they do nothing. Certainly there are those rare occasions when ordinary people stand up against the madness and say, “This far and no farther.” That’s real-life heroism. Then there are those fictional occasions when exceptional people stand up against the forces of darkness. That’s superheroism.

But in real life, if you decide to be a rogue superhero, what’s stopping any given person with a gun from shooting you? Which leads us to the real question: if you suck at being a superhero but you keep right on doing it anyway, you’re really just a crazy person, right? For just such an example, consider the Batman copycatters in Dark Knight… the lucky ones were tied up and sent to prison, the unlucky ones died horribly.

And that, in a nutshell, is Kick-Ass. He’s just a lame-ass kid with no assets or principles. He just wants to get a girl into bed. The stuff he does isn’t heroic. It’s dumb. And devastatingly, it’s not compelling to watch, just painful.

Here’s to Kick-Ass 2 being renamed Hit Girl.

 

Movie Review: Surrogates

Layout 1by Lucy Arnold

 

Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda

One thing that would be cool about the events of the movie Surrogates coming true is that I would have sent my surrogate to endure that too-long eighty-eight minutes instead of me. Meanwhile, I could have engaged in any number of meaningful activities, including but not limited to sock drawer reorganization and fingernail clipping. But, alas, here we are in 2009 with our paltry attempts at surrogates in Second Life and World of Warcraft

And on that note, if you can manage to keep your brain tied up in the social message of Surrogates, you might be okay. It does, in fact, offer an intriguing take on computer avatars and how our identities are constructed online. In one of the first scenes, it is revealed that a hot chick surrogate is actually being operated by a fat man. Speaking as a long-time MMORPG fan, I can attest to the reality of this sort of gender-swapping. I really liked how the movie asked me to challenge my thinking about online worlds. When I’m interacting with a hot female night elf druid in WoW, intellectually I know that that the odds are 10:1 that she’s a man in real life. But how often do I interact with online women as though they are women and online men as though they are men? And what difference would it make anyway? Since WoW introduced their new voice technology for grouping, I’ve been surprised many times by the type of voice I hear once the group is formed, often a players’ voice has nothing in common with the virtual avatar, whether they are men playing female toons or adolescent boys playing football player-sized avatars. For surfacing these kinds of questions, I was initially captivated with the film. The movie challenges the audience with these sorts of questions: how does the prospect of perfection impact our identities? How are gender and sexuality construed online? To what extent is “living” online just escapism? Who are you when you can be anything?

Unfortunately, the movie does not take even one of these questions and pursue it. Instead, Surrogates quickly devolves into another in a long line of “science-as-monster” fiction, warning against scientific progress because it will only come at the expense of man’s essential “humanity.” Whatever, whatever. This movie is a missed opportunity in that it could have been a really interesting exploration of the anesthetization of human beings in an online world but instead decides to paint the world with unrealistic swatches of “good” and “evil.”

The result is that we get The Matrix Lite. It’s got the same sort of beautiful perfection versus people who haven’t shaved or applied make-up (though with fewer dowdy sweaters). It also suffers from the same hero complex, with the fate of the world resting on one person; think everything that was wrong with The Matrix’s sequels and you’ll kind of get the picture.

Before this review comes off sounding overly critical, there were a few moments that I really enjoyed. I liked the overweight system operator who refuses to use an Avatar. I connected for long moments at a time with Bruce Willis’s actual human being, forced out into the world when his avatar is destroyed. Willis is nothing if not good at playing the slightly-perplexed-but-good-hearted-everyman. And Ving Rhames was fabulous.

The two chase scenes were both well shot and effectively showed off the advantages of police avatars versus plain old human beings. But for me, the movie lost its focus during the first chase; with lingering shots on the fearful expression of the human being chased by Willis’s avatar, I felt my sympathy conflicted. I was hopeful that this was a conscious move on the part of the filmmakers who planned to complicate the story, but this hope did not pan out. Rather than complicating the moral message of the story, the filmmakers led us a wild goose chase of a plot, winding up where we all could have predicted we were going from the beginning but figured it would be too obvious.

I wanted to like Surrogates substantially more than I actually liked it in the end. Too many missed opportunities for my taste.

 

Movie Review: G.I. Joe

Layout 1by Lucy Arnold

 

G.I. Joe as a Uni-cultural Fantasy

When I went to see G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra with my boyfriend, I did not have high expectations. But like most other people, I don’t mind occasionally vegging out by watching a mindless, violent romp with cool CGI, myriad chase scenes, and lots of inexplicable cleavage.

Ironically, in the areas of CGI, chase scenes, and boobs, G.I. Joe receives high marks. Unfortunately, in terms of just enjoying the ride, it fails miserably. I was so overcome by the anti-diversity subtext of the film that I just couldn’t enjoy the other stuff.

From a female perspective, this movie was downright disappointing. Both female characters began with really interesting potential: the Baroness is a bad-ass bad chick, and Scarlett is a science-brained kick-ass commando. But then… Scarlett cries after a fight. Really? Was Duke crying? Snake Eyes? (To be fair, he could have been weeping throughout the film, since we never got to see his face… but his mask wasn’t wet at any rate.) The only female on the team? Uh huh… Then she has to be rescued, physically cradled in the arms of the Big, Strong Man™. By the end of the movie, she disavows her scientific stance with the worst line in the movie, “I feel… emotional.”

The Baroness gets it even worse. First of all, I had been assuming throughout the movie that she knew Dr. Bald Guy was her brother, which is why she began working for Cobra. But no. We also discover that when she was “good” she was also blonde. Of course, she had to dye her hair darker to connote evil. Oh stereotypes, do you ever become tiresome? Then she starts cutting eyes at Duke (Isn’t he dreamy?). Her betrayal of the bad guys was imminent and would have been bad enough for her character. But this movie, to its credit I guess, decided to go whole-assed in the anti-woman arena. Because it turns out that the Baroness, well, she was being mind-controlled all along! She didn’t really want to do bad things! She wanted to be—blonde! And, just like that, the strongest female character in the whole movie never did a single thing of her own volition. Except love Duke. I feel nauseated.

Don’t worry, women, you were not the sole target of this movie’s ghastly subtext. The Snake Eyes vs. Storm Shadow battle also managed to highlight the superiority of white males over Asians. The backstory of these “brothers” is that Snake Eyes, a child of European descent, probably British or American, shows up somewhere in Asia and kicks the martial arts asses of a passel of Asian fighters, including Storm Shadow. Why this should be is never explored. The archetypal imagery of their final battle pits brother against brother, and, of course, who is the victor but the one of European descent.

But wait. There’s more. Who is the comic relief in this movie, cutting the fool with jokes, physical hijinks, and complete stupidity throughout the movie? The black guy, Rip Cord, apparently developed straight out of a 1930’s black male stereotype. I could also add a point about the required heterosexuality of the film; the women ended up paired with good guy-type males, both redeemed from their faulty thinking (Cobra and science). And all of the other guys were essentially asexual but totally masculine. Whew, homosexuality averted.

Before you begin shaking your head at me and saying that I failed to appreciate this movie for what it was trying to be: a brainless popcorn movie, let me step back a bit. As I tried to intimate at the beginning of this review, I love brainless popcorn movies. But this movie is insidious in its attempt to paint a picture of an America that is not only untrue but isn’t worth idealizing. I’m left reading this movie like it’s a white male American fantasy. Is this someone’s ideal America, ruled by tough guys, filled with compliant women and defeated or subverted minorities? I sure hope not.

Give me a popcorn movie, sure. But do I have to choke on it?

 

Movie Review: Just Like Heaven

JustLikeHeavenby Pamela K. Kinney

 

David (Mark Ruffalo) has just moved into a small apartment in San Francisco when a woman named Elizabeth (Reese Witherspoon) appears, demanding to know why he is in her apartment. Then, as suddenly as she appeared, she vanishes.

Eventually discovering that she is a spirit, Elizabeth and David search for the truth of who she is and how she came to be in her present state, their relationship deepening into love. Unfortunately, there’s very little time before any prospects for a future together permanently fade away.

Mark Waters, the director of Mean Girls and Freaky Friday, has a new romantic paranormal comedy that is refreshing among many comedies today. Here the movie itself—without the need for bodily functions or other gross-out humor that modern comedies use these days—allows timing and the way the characters interact with each other emotionally to draw out the laughter from the audience.

The actors, especially Mr. Ruffalo and Ms. Witherspoon, were wonderful in their roles, but the one who stuck most in my mind after I left the theater was Jon Heder as Darryl, the psychic owner of the paranormal book store. His combination of valley boy and savvy medium was a great piece of acting.

If you’re looking for a ghost story to frighten the wits out of you, then Just Like Heaven isn’t for you. But if you like a film that’s not only a great date movie, but one that parents can even bring their kids to, then try Just Like Heaven and I promise you won’t be disappointed.

 

Movie Review: Gothika

Gothikaby Michael D. Pederson

 

The name Gothika refers to absolutely nothing in the movie. It’s a meaningless title that is only there to establish a mood. Yep, it’s another “I see dead people” movie. This time around it is the remarkably stunning Halle Berry that is seeing ghosts everywhere she turns.

Berry plays Dr. Miranda Grey, a psychologist working at the Woodward Institute for Women, a prison for the criminally insane. She’s the Strong Female Lead that may or may not be losing her mind. And, of course, all of the other cliched characters are here as well… Charles S. Dutton (Alien 3) plays Miranda’s likeable boss and husband that you know won’t make it through the first reel, Penelope Cruz (Vanilla Sky) is the vaguely spooky inmate that keeps steering the hero in the right direction, Robert Downey Jr. is the creepy co-worker that has a crush on Miranda, Bernard Hill (Lord of the Rings, Titanic) is the sensible co-worker whose only purpose is to deliver exposition, and John Carroll Lynch (The Drew Carey Show) plays the small-town sheriff who is also the murder victim’s best friend.

Driving home one rainy night, Dr. Grey runs her car off the road to avoid hitting a teenage girl standing in the middle of a bridge. When Miranda rushes out to help the girl, she blacks out and wakes up three days later as a patient in the Institute where she is being held for the murder of her husband. Miranda has no memory of the murder and begins to doubt her own sanity when the girl from the bridge keeps appearing to her. When she discovers that the girl, Rachel, is the dead daughter of her co-worker, Dr. Parsons (Bernard Hill), Miranda begins to look into how she was killed. Along the way, she becomes convinced that her former patient—now fellow inmate—Chloe is being raped by the same man that killed Rachel.

There is very little original thought in this movie. But it’s a horror/thriller, originality doesn’t matter quite as much as style and mood. And Gothika has plenty of both. Directed by French actor/director Mathieu Kassovitz, this film moves quickly and keeps the audience guessing at what will happen next. With such a small cast, it’s hard to keep the audience from picking out the murderer/rapist in the first ten minutes but I didn’t find any of the big surprises to be predictable more than a scene or two in advance.

What really makes this movie work though is the stellar cast. Oscar-winner Halle Berry is convincing as a rational therapist thrust into the maddening world of the paranormal—Berry’s mother was a psychiatric nurse, which must have helped. Miranda’s psychological journey is the centerpiece of the film; Berry is in pretty much every scene. Her role is emotionally and physically (she broke her arm during filming) intense and she dominates the screen. Robert Downey Jr.’s performance is just creepy enough that you have to suspect him only to find yourself second-guessing your own judgement. John Carroll Lynch has two major scenes opposite Berry that are absolutely riveting. Kathleen Mackey, as the ghost of Rachel Parsons, embodies everything that The Ring wanted to be. But the strongest performance in the film comes from Penelope Cruz. Chloe isn’t a large part but it is an important one. She is the emotional core of the movie and her performance turns from sinister to childlike in the blink of an eye. She steals every scene she is in. Bernard Hill is, unfortunately, underused. His character would have benefitted from more development and screen time.

In my opinion, Gothika is a well-acted, sharply directed movie with no significant plot holes and beautiful set design. If you’re a suspense fan then this is easily worth eight dollars. Gothika is rated R for violence, language, and brief nudity.