Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

A few months back, Tom Cruise starred in Oblivion, which was a collection of science fiction ideas arranged precariously in a single plot alongside beautiful production design.  I liked it a lot but it seems to have left a lukewarm impression on most viewers. Undeterred, Tom now appears in Edge of Tomorrow, which is a collection of science fiction ideas arranged precariously in a single plot alongside beautiful production design. If this proves anything, it’s that Tom Cruise isn’t afraid of repeating himself in a bid to get things exactly right.

Corporal Hudson lives

Corporal Hudson lives

In a not-at-all contrived way, that brings me to the plot of Edge of Tomorrow. Our hero is a smug Army PR man who is forced by an unlikely bit of logic to join an assault on the Normandy beaches to fight off alien tentacled hordes.  (The movie was released on D-Day in the UK, and surely I can’t be alone in wondering if this oddball tribute might be viewed as a bit tasteless by the few remaining veterans of that day?) Regardless, this is Hollywood, so Tom concentrates vainly on trying to weasel out, before being given one day to train. This wouldn’t be too bad if he was getting used to a firing a gun, but the weapon of choice is a full-body armoured suit with rocket launchers and lots of heavy bits attached. To add to his pain, Bill Paxton plays the sergeant responsible for knocking him into shape. Now this is a really smart bit of casting, not only echoing Paxton’s legendary scenes in Aliens, but also undercutting the military jargon and gung-ho attitude taken as de-facto these days. Paxton seems to be having a bit of a career renaissance and this part plays to his strengths perfectly, going from bull-headed wisecracks to complete puzzlement and adding some much-needed humour to the movie.

After training, Cruise is pitched into a Saving Private Ryan type calamity alongside a bunch of stereotypes of assorted nationalities, and is summarily killed, before waking up in a Groundhog Day situation, repeating the same disaster over and over again until he learns from his experiences, drops the smooth veneer and figures out a way to kills the Boss Alien.

You’ll have noticed two things: first, that Tom is playing a smug jerk (and does it really well), thus preempting the often-heard criticism from people who can’t tell reality from fiction. Second, the movie is choosing its influences from a wider range of genres than Oblivion, giving it a chance to appeal to more mainstream audiences. The movie’s also clever enouugh to style itself as a video game, and this gives a warm glow to anyone under 55 who is used to returning to the last saved game with monotonous regularity.

ALL YOU NEED IS KILL

Do you come here often?

The whole first half of the movie is as entertaining as anything you’ll see this year, keeping the plot flying along and sanitising the slightly morbid central idea with clever dialogue and black humour. Emily Blunt also appears as a battlefield heroine and the only person who believes Tom mainly because she’s had the same experience. I’ve never really like her before but she’s terrific here, which is just as well as the whole love story aspect could have killed the movie off.  And I was dreading being stuck in an other time loop with an acrtress as wooden as Andie MacDowell.

The only mis-step the movie takes is trying to give Cruise an ultimate aim, and dressing it up in some gibberish about Alpha aliens and Omega aliens. The exposition just leads to a lot of head-scratching and nice visual effects before you get the ending you might have been expecting anyway. Especially if you notice Doug Liman is directing,  as the end titles are a clone of his Bourne Identity ones.

postit Liman’s other previous excursions into action movies have left me cold (especially Mr. and Mrs . Smith and Jumper), but here he has the sense to keep it moving along before anyone has time to say ‘wait a minute…’.  Christopher McQuarrie turns out his best script since The Usual Suspects.

Apart from the slightly formulaic last 20 minutes, and the twisted London geography,  my only other complaint is that there really should be more gore in a movie with this much death.  I don’t think it was omitted to keep the whole thing light and breezy, so presumably the commercially necessary 12A certificate is the foreseeable future of big-budget action movies.

Mild Peril Rating: ★★★★☆

 

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Moon (2009)

Sam Rockwell, for years a favourite character actor, finally gets to step into the spotlight in this clever and carefully made throwback to SF’s golden age.  Or at least my idea of its golden age – Moon would have been right at home in the time of Silent Running and Soylent Green.  Like those movies, it belies its low budget by clever production design and a focus on character and story. (Yes, I am blaming George Lucas for spoiling it all)

There's only one Sam Rockwell

There’s only one Sam Rockwell

Rockwell seizes the opportunity and gets to show an unsuspected range of acting ability, anchoring the plot in reality just when it looks like floating away.  He plays Sam Bell, an astronaut separated from his family and on a 3-year solo lunar mission to send energy supplies back to Earth.  Funny how the last bit of that sentence seems the most unlikely bit but it seemed to work at the time. Rockwell’s only companion is the moonbase computer voiced by Kevin Spacey in a suitably reassuring way that can’t help appearing a bit sinister.

postit After setting the scene well, and just when we start to share in Sam’s boredom, there’s an accident and all his assumptions, and ours, are ruined. It’s a clever plot twist that also adds a lot of depth to Rockwell’s performance, and you’ll just have to see it to find out what I’m trying to avoid spoiling. IT also gives us an emotional final act that’s a bit unexpected given the deliberate pacing of the movie up to then.

It’s a confident and accomplished first feature from Duncan Jones, proving that anyone can make it in our brave new egalitarian world. 

Mild Peril Rating: ★★★½☆

 

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The Paperboy (2012)

Wow. Sometimes you see a movie and it’s hard to know where to start.  There are several scenes which would normally only be seen in low-budget exploitation movies, and here those scenes are given the full commitment of the likes of Nicole Kidman, Jolhn Cusack and Matthew McConaughey.  Normally I’d be fully behind this sort of lapse of judgment, but the problem is that they do it in support of such a terrible film.

The remake of Basic Instinct wasn't going well

The remake of Basic Instinct wasn’t going well

The plot, as far as it can be called that, revolves around two brothers playd by McConaughey and Zac Efron – I’m reliably informed he’s a pinup for teenage girls, and he’s actually pretty good here, despite having to spend a lot of time walking around half-clothed. They have horrible parents, played by Scott Glenn (who looks like he wishes he had his agent’s number to hand) and some old boot with a clichéd line in racism. Then there’s a Death Row convict played by John Cusack who could have just chewed his way through the bars, Nicole Kidman as Cusack’s obsessed penfriend trying to gain his release, Macy Gray as the maid (more later) and David Oleyowo as McConaughey’s writer friend, playing an American imitating an Englishman (the opposite of real life).

Now I know that just listing a bunch of characters and giving them assorted secrets and neuroses doesn’t constitute a plot, I just wish that someone had told writer Pete Dexter and director Lee Daniels. To be fair, they must have suspected that the ‘story’ needed a little help, as they drag in Macy Gray to do a voice-over, presumably cos she’s the mumbliest actress they could find. This voiceover starts with her talking to a reporter, and ends up with her telling him things he must already know, and in the middle she starts talking directly to the audience. None of this helps in clearing anything up or providing any momentum to the story.

Given that storytelling is a foreign concept to Daniels, you would hope the visuals might compensate, but this seems to have been shot in 16mm, presumably in a bid to give it a grindhouse sheen. There’s a nice depth of focus to some shots, but as everything is in medium close-up, it has the visual appeal of a particularly sweaty episode of Magnum PI. The Floridian settings might be nice, but we only get to see them in the last few seconds. Added to this, there are some very odd bits of editing, including cross-cutting a sex scene with images of animals.

The big question you’ll be asking is: do the offensive scenes make this worth watching in even a prurient way? Well, Kidman looks terrific – too terrific, as she’s meant to be playing mutton dressed as lamb,  but still looks too good to be the slightest bit slutty. And the budget obviously didn’t stretch to any nudity. On the other hand, if this is your sort of thing, you’ll never get to see her urinating on Zac Efron again.

Mild Peril Rating: ½☆☆☆☆

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Frozen (2010)

Frozen is a surprisingly effective thriller from director Adam Green, previously responsible for more goofy horror outings such as Hatchet .

The premise here is that three students on a ski-ing holiday try to fit in one last ride at the end of the day, and end up marooned on a ski-lift with no-one around. Right away you’ll have noticed a similarity with The Blair Witch Project, the success of which must have been playing on the mind of many low-budget film-makers. Green even invites further comparisons by making his trio an initially unloveable bunch, and by gradually invoking an atmosphere of hopelessness to force his characters to abandon their smugness and win the audience’s sympathy.

Bell, Zegers and Ashmore

For those of you who run for the hills at the first mention of BWP, relax. While this is a low-budget movie, it manages to make a fair stab at glossy production values, has an excellent low-key score from Andy Garfield and has a relatively slick and conventional visual style courtesy of d.p. Will Barratt. The three leads are also a little more viewer-friendly, and both Bell and Ashmore have turned in impressive performances in major TV series (The Walking Dead and Fringe respectively).

What Frozen really has going for it, though, is the terrific central idea, which immediately has you asking what you would do in these circumstances,  which is always a good sign in a horror thriller. I must admit to thinking of one possible solution long before the characters in the movie, then again I was sitting in a comfy chair with a large popcorn and not freezing my bits off 50 feet in the air.

Finally, Frozen doesn’t take any easy options or give the characters an easy way out; it’s one of the better examples of an emerging genre where you’re sure there’s no deus ex machina lurking round the corner (see also BWP or The Ruins, and avoid Hostel and the like). I’m not sure what it says that audiences go for this sort of thing, it’s probably a reaction to the glut of soft-centred romcoms dominating multiplexes or to the winking ironic approach to horror.

Frozen is not for the squeamish, but thankfully doesn’t resort to cheap shocks or gore like so many of its contemporaries. There’s very little chance of me going skiing, but if I did, Frozen would keep me off the slopes, and the chairlift in particular.

Mild Peril Rating: ★★★½☆

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Pitch Perfect (2012)

This could be a whole new direction for the site, reviewing rom-coms and frothy comedies…

Pitch Perfect was the inaugural movie of a new workplace cultural society, and as such deserves treating with a bit of respect. So the good points first: Elizabeth Banks. OK, she’s on auto-pilot throughout and you could remove all but one of her scenes without affecting the plot at all. Her Greek Chorus role is very reminiscent of the one she played in The Hunger Games, though thankfully with less make-up, and she just about got me through to the end of the movie.

The bad points: everything else. OK, the movie has a relentlessly cheerful attitude which might be infectious if you watch it out of your head, but it’s so lazy that it doesn’t earn our charity. The heroine is a spoilt brat who maybe got her college place due to her father being a lecturer, and once she gets over her initial autumn term sulk, she finds herself surrounded by a hideous cabal of unlikable minority stereotypes. We’re supposed to love them cos they’re all quirky and are victims of being bullied into conformity by The Man. Or in this case, the uptight girl who runs their a capella singing group.

(At this point I thought ‘Really? They’ve made a movie based on a capella’? Well, not only that, it’s based on a book. A book about an a capella girl group. Just think about that)

The girls’ other saving grace is that the other a capella groups at the college are more unpleasant than they are, and are male, and haven’t even got the advantage of being carefully diverse. Actually, our girls’ diversity is a bit of a cheat as the black girl is also the token lesbian, and although she’s a bit porky, she misses out on the part of the Official Fat One only because there’s a bigger girl who’s also playing an Australian. Both Asian girls are a bit odd, and there’s a black kid who turns out… it might be best not to think about the racial politics of the movie too much so I won’t.

Anyway our girls end up at the A Capella Cup Final where our heroine gets her way and injects some modernity into the boring old classics. (I also find that singing Beyoncé over Mozart improves it no end..) And maybe they learn to love themselves and each other, warts and all.  And maybe acknowledge that The Breakfast Club is an all-time classic movie, which shows better than anything the poverty of aspiration of this movie.

Mild Peril Rating: ★½☆☆☆

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True Grit (2010)

Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld takes the central role of Mattie in the Coens’ new adaptation of the classic Charles Portis novel True Grit, as a young girl searching for her father’s killers.  Jeff Bridges gets the eye-catching role (ouch) of Reuben ‘Rooster’ Cogburn, aged gun-hand, and Matt Damon plays the dandy  Texas Ranger LaBeouf, dragged along with Rooster in Maddie’s quest.

True Grit

"I'm a foolish old man who's been drawn into a wild goose chase by a harpie in trousers and a nincompoop"

Despite the brilliance of the novel, most people will be viewing the movie in light of the 1969 Henry Hathaway adaptation which won  John Wayne his only Oscar, and seeing how Bridges measures up. (To be honest, I feel that John Wayne has done more damage than good to the reputation of the western. This is a little unfair, as Wayne was perfect for as lot of his roles, defining an entire era of the genre, and later on using his archetype to make deliberate contrasting points. However the two became so closely aligned that his  limitations have become viewed as those of the entire genre).

The good news is that Bridges makes the part his own by staying close to the novel’s original description, and in fact this is the path taken by the Coens for the movie as a whole. Steinfeld is essential to the movie’s success, and thankfully she seem to be a real discovery, easily out-acting Kim Darby in the original. Similarly, Matt Damon turns in one of his best performances, and isn’t afraid to send himself up as a man with an inflated view of his own achievements.

As with all movies by the Coen brothers, True Grit treads a fine line between making a serious genre movie, and parodying that genre of movie. Here they retain a lot of the novel’s sly and witty dialogue, which was lost a bit in the broader humour of the earlier adapatation, and their love of wordplay is perfectly aligned with Portis’ sensibilities. The Victorian-era dialogue is used not just for comic effect but to remind us of the precise era in history, in a similar way to Deadwood or The Assassination of Jesse James (which shares cinematographer Roger Deakins with this movie).

postit What really makes this movie great is the sincerity and sense of history, the characters feel like real people and we feel for them, in a way that doesn’t always happen in the Coens other movies. Even the bad guys, led by an under-used Josh Brolin, have the necessary menace unrelieved by any comedy traits. Barry Pepper turns in a great performance as Ned Pepper (easy casting there), even managing to outdo Robert Duvall’s performance in the original. Over the length of the movie, Bridges manages to turn a slapstick caricature into a heroic figure, and Steinfeld plays Mattie without any irony, giving a sense of how tough she has to be to survive in such a harsh world. You believe her when she says “You must pay for everything in this world, one way and another. There is nothing free except the grace of God”, and the movie takes this line as its motto. The last word goes to Carter Burwell, who has turned out marvellous scores for the Coens right back to Blood Simple, and once again comes up with the goods.

So forget the 1969 version and enjoy this as a great version of a great novel.

Mild Peril Rating: ★★★★☆

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Chopping Mall (1986)

All you need to know

All you need to know

Chopping Mall appeared during the home video boom of the mid-80s, and I have fond memories of this movie and lots of its contemporaries. All those articles in Fangoria and Starburst were suddenly given life by the availability of the movies in your own home, and drinking several pints of beer before watching didn’t do the movies any harm either.

Well at the risk of sounding like a country song, some things are better as a memory. It’s painful to see not only how much the presentation of movies has improved technically, but just how badly put together  the stories were, how clumsy the dialogue was and how the audience was patronised by the over-eager acceptance of these low standards.

Chopping Mall is a prime example of all of these things. The cast includes assorted genre favourites like Dick Miller, Barbara Crampton, Paul Bartel and Kelli Maroney, who put in a variety of bad performances with no sign of  commitment or effort, but presumably are there to confer some sort of credibility on this movie solely by their presence. The movie takes a similar stance on plot, ticking all the required boxes – high-tech which now looks laughable, occasional topless shots, cheap synth music and unsubtle references to much better movies in the names of characters and shops.

The story involves some annoying yuppies, nerds and bimbos who end up trapped overnight in a mall, and find themselves pursued by a handful of unconvincing homicidal robots. This sounds like fun, but due to the sloppiness of the execution, the one memorable moment is that old 80’s staple the exploding head, and while it’s not bad for a zero budget movie, it’s hardly  a rival to Scanners or Dawn of the Dead. And the other welcome thing is the mercifully short running time of 77 minutes.

Mild Peril Rating: ★★☆☆☆

 

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The Hunting Party (1971)

There are very few movies with a reputation as bad as that of The Hunting Party. It’s mean-spirited, gory and not afraid to offend its audience, and those are just the positive things…

It starts with cattle baron Gene Hackman mistreating his wife Candice Bergen, possibly as compensation for his failure in bed (although this was unclear, maybe due to the jumpy editing, as this interlude is inter-cut in the UK with some non-BBFC-friendly animal slaughter).  It’s nothing personal, as he swiftly moves on to stubbing out his cigar on prostitutes in a clunky metaphorical way.  It’s an early prototype for Hackman’s Western Villain character (see Unforgiven and The Quick and the Dead), and he’s immediately right at home, leading a bunch of equally odious rich friends on a hunting trip using new-fangled rifles which can drop a target at 800 yards.  At this point, ranch hand Oliver Reed makes the bone-headed decision to kidnap schoolteacher Bergen, as he wants to learn to read (?) The rest of the film follows them as Hackman changes the purpose of his trip and pursues Reed,  Bergen and their gang across the desert – as was common at the time, Almeria stands in for the desert areas of the US.

“Look, forget the rape, how about some peaches?”

Reed is more sympathetic than usual, despite playing his typical unshaven thug, and Bergen looks pretty, in much the same way as she did in Soldier Blue a couple of years earlier  – she must have tired of atrocity-based westerns after this.  I suspect her rough treatment and subsequent acquiescence/ Stockholm Syndrome is the thing that offended critics the most  – she seems willing to tolerate rape and kidnap once she’s given a few peaches by Reed, in the single worst-judged comic interlude I can remember.

While most critics dismiss The Hunting Party as nothing more than a mean-spirited excuse to cash in on Spanish tax breaks and the permissive attitude to violence ushered in by The Wild Bunch a few years earlier, it’s actually a tense and reasonably intelligent depiction of obsession and its damaging effects. It’s certainly a better movie than the compromised and dull Shalako, which really looks like a multi-national attempt to make a western.

TV veteran Don Medford handles things more competently than most of his low-budget contemporaries, progressing the story at just the right speed and getting fine performances out of the multi-national cast. There’s also a terrific melodic score in the Morricone vein by Italian composer Riz Ortolani, only stumbling in the aforementioned ‘peaches’ scene. There’s nothing worse than broad European comedy underscored by plucked strings, though that didn’t stop most spaghetti westerns from attempting it. Even Leone was unable to avoid embarrassment in this type of scene.

“This back projection will make me look ridiculous!”

As for the much-criticised gore, if anything the movie underplays the effects of being shot with a rifle from 800 yards, and is nowhere near the Savini-style splatter-fest that you might be led to expect. Given the era, you also get any number of unsubtle Vietnam metaphors, unavoidable with hindsight but also coherently handled in a western context.

All the cast play villains in one way or another, although some have doubts about the increasing headcount, leading to a continuous reassessment of the audience’s loyalties. It’s admittedly a harsh and unforgiving story, but that’s exactly the point, and Medford has the integrity to carry the story through to its only logical conclusion.

It’s not for all the family, but for western completists, it’s one of the more interesting movies of the early ’70s boom.

Mild Peril Rating: ★★★½☆

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Vanishing on 7th Street (2010)

Vanishing on 7th Street is the latest movie from Brad Anderson, who has had a mixed career since his breakthrough with Session 9. It’s a Twilight Zone-style story, also owing a bit to the old Stephen King novella The Langoliers (filmed indifferently for TV by Tom Holland in 1995). A few random characters are isolated by darkness encroaching on their everyday environments in Detroit. When I say darkness, that’s literally what it is, creeping in at the edge of the screen and removing any unfortunate bystanders from existence, and forcing our heroes to keep themselves well-lit and hold back the night.

John Leguizamo in Vanishing on 7th Street

You’ll probably know already if you’re likely to enjoy this set-up, and Anderson tries the patience of even the most committed Rod Serling fan in the movie’s early stages, while our less than admirable hero (Haydn Christensen) takes his time to meet up with the always-irritating Thandie Newton in a bar. Fortunately for us, the other two main characters are played by newcomer Jacob Latimore, as the son of the missing bar owner, and John Leguizamo as a movie theater projectionist. AMC get prominent product placement due to this, which makes the movie’s non-existent theatrical run even more of  a mystery.

The budget is very low, the effects are just about passable, and its not a movie to watch if you’re waiting for a pat explanation of the  events, but there are enough weird and scary moments to keep you entertained if you’re willing to go along with the premise. And if you don’t ask why the main characters don’t set the whole city on fire rather than gather round one generator with a limited fuel supply. It’s great to see Leguizamo playing a sympathetic character for a change, and he takes the chance to act everyone else off screen.

Anderson eventually comes up with a graceful ending, if not any sort of logical resolution, and I suspect it’s the lack of an easy answer that accounts for the negative reviews. While it’s not earth-shattering,  Vanishing on 7th Street is quirky and memorable and is worth your time.

Mild Peril Rating: ★★★☆☆

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Winter’s Bone (2010)

A downbeat and atmospheric adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s bestseller, Winter’s Bone stars Jennifer Lawrence as a girl searching for her father in the bleak setting of the Ozark mountains.  As she risks losing her home and custody of her younger siblings, she ventures into unsafe territory and puts her own life at risk in an attempt to uncover the truth.

Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes

Director Deborah Granik keeps the mood sombre, making the winter in Missouri look particularly uninviting, all blues and greys and broken landscapes. In fact she overdoes it a bit, deliberately stacking the cards by neglecting the natural beauty of the area. Similarly, there’s one interlude of live bluegrass performance, the least you could expect in this setting, but the spare acoustic soundtrack is largely designed to unnerve the audience, lending thriller atmospherics to scenes that otherwise don’t earn them.

To reinforce this approach, the cast members have been chosen for their haggard and weather-beaten qualities. Lawrence is the exception, and is so good in the central performance that she hardly appears to be acting at all. There are a couple more familiar faces: Garrett Dillahunt plays the shifty local sheriff, and John Hawkes takes the honours with a performance that gradually wins your sympathy against the odds.

In the end it’s hard to recommend Winter’s Bone to a mainstream audience as its single-mindedness and meticulously created atmosphere spills over into a relentless downbeat mood, with only a couple of sly jokes to alleviate the grimness. If that’s your thing, then  you’ll find it rewards your patience fully.

Mild Peril Rating: ★★★★☆

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