Edge of Tomorrow

All you need is [to] kill [your script]

bluntedgeIs it still a ripoff of Source Code if it’s based on a Japanese light novel?  I’ll leave that to experts on things that don’t matter.  What Edge of Tomorrow does well is the blending of self-conscious humor into a run-of-the-mill doom/gloom alien invasion movie, complete with the characters becoming exhausted at the very mechanics of the sci-fi world they inhabit.  What’s exhausting to the audience, however, is its way of simply taking names of things from a book with a rich background, then providing none of that background, centering on two protagonists who should be starring in their own very different movies, and balling it all up with generic American military values and expecting everyone to care.  When Bill Paxton’s jokey, mustachioed Sergeant Farell character pontificates that “battle is the great redeemer” for the hundredth time, I start to suspect that the filmmakers and I have different thoughts on what constitutes parody.

An alien race known as Mimics (a name never explained in the film) are taking over Europe, and an incredibly badass soldier named Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), has had recent success in battling them.  Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) is ordered by British General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) to cover Operation Downfall, supposedly the humans’ endgame against the Mimics, on the beaches of France, to which Cage declines, citing no real combat experience.  Brigham, however, has Cage railroaded, and he awakens on an operating base at Heathrow Airport.  There, he is pressed into service with “J Squad,” a group of rejects that makes egregious use of the No Girls Allowed Clause.  He’s introduced as a deserter, and J Squad plans to make him their resident redshirt.  However, once the assault begins, it becomes apparent that the Mimics knew about the attack, and the entire force is decimated, including Cage after he attacks an abnormal “Alpha Mimic.”  But the movie can’t end after twenty minutes.  Cage wakes up back at Heathrow, and the day repeats exactly the same way.  We start to think maybe we should have paid attention to little things that happened the first time around.

From here, the film takes on the structure of a video game, from the constant “respawning” whenever Cage dies, to the “leveling up” he must do while learning to operate his futuristic mobile suit.  On the second loop, the version of Rita on the battlefield instructs Cage to “Find [her] when [he] wakes up,” and the next time the day begins, he approaches Rita herself, something everyone else knows better than to attempt.  But she knows exactly what’s happening to Cage, because up until recently, it was happening to her.  She and brainiac Carter (Noah Taylor) have spent plenty of time studying the Mimics, and have learned that the aliens obey the Omega Mimic, a gigantic Charybdis-like creature that hides underwater and has the power to restart the day whenever it wants to, explaining how the Mimics just happen to have the jump on the humans every time.  Due to the Law of the Inevitable Coincidence that governs most movies like this, the Omega has inadvertently passed this power on to Rita and Cage, and is hunting for them.

You know the plot from here.  The heroes figure out how to defeat the aliens, the plan doesn’t go exactly right, Cage loses the gift at a critical moment, and they improvise a solution.  There are predictably sweet/funny/gooey moments in between.  The only thing setting Edge apart from anything else Tom Cruise has done is characterization: at the outset, the female character is the renowned warrior, and Cruise’s character is a coward and a greenhorn.  A great start, but the film’s issues lie within that very characterization.

If this were a movie about a respected female warrior guiding a reluctant male sidekick along, that would be admirable, especially for a pre-summer blockbuster.  However, Cage is the main character, and Rita is not so much the star of her own story as she is an exotic creature whose job is to move Cage through the motions until he learns to become the hero (and thus achieve the male wish fulfillment that catalyzes virtually every single dude-centric action movie ever made).  On top of that, she’s the only female character in the movie (aside from Nance, a member of J-Squad, played by Charlotte Riley with an enormous hole in her sock).  She’s known in the military as the “Angel of Verdun” and the “Full Metal Bitch,” both gender-centric nicknames, neither of which are very complimentary.  And even her heroics at Verdun are essentially taken away from her upon the revelation that the Mimics have simply allowed the human military their biggest victories so that they’ll let their guard down in France.  Perhaps the most unsettling moment is one wherein Cage and Rita are stuck in an abandoned house, planning their next move.  Cage somehow knows how many sugars Rita takes in her coffee and that there is a dry shirt nearby in her exact size.  Rita gradually realizes that this means they’ve not only lived this day countless times, but that on at least one occasion, things became intimate, and she has no memory of it, while Cage does, and discusses it rather casually.  Maybe it’s supposed to be romantic, but it’s uncomfortable, and may be one of the more bizarre ways female characters have been stripped of agency on film this year.  That leads me to a question: if you had sex with someone, and you don’t remember it happening (not even the circumstances under which it happened, and even whether you consented), but the other person remembers everything, where does the situation fall as far as agency?

It’s a shame, because Emily Blunt is an actress who thrives at playing layered characters, and deserves more than one extreme or the other (or, in this case, as with Looper, one extreme and the other, which is also nonsense).  As a whole, Edge of Tomorrow is relatively harmless, but is full of missed opportunities, and tastes particularly sour when one considers all of the fascinating elements of the novel that go unexplored in favor of reliable formula.  O, what could have been.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014); based on the light novel All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka; written by Christopher McQuarrie; directed by Doug Liman; starring Emily Blunt and Tom Cruise.

 

 

 

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Time and tide wait for no man…or woman

Emily Blunt and Amr WakedSheikh Muhammad (Amr Waked) tells us, about two-thirds of the way through Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, “I wanted them to understand that this wasn’t about fishing.”  In writing, this is what I might call a “thematic passage” – the character is speaking in context, but also telling the audience how to read the story.  Indeed, Lasse Hallström’s film, based upon a new-ish novel by Paul Torday, is anything but a movie about fishing.  It is primarily about patience, but also about love and different kinds of faith (the most interesting kinds being non-religious).

The story begins with financial adviser Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) typing an email to widely respected fisheries expert Alfred “Fred” Jones (Ewan McGregor), seeking advice for a project that will involve bringing (you guessed it) salmon fishing to the Yemen.  These scenes feature a charming technique: the typed words pop into the air alongside the face of the character typing them, allowing for intimate closeups of the character in place of a still shot of their email inbox.  Fred considers the project ridiculous and impossible (his exact words in the email are “fundamentally unfeasible”), even after being bullied and blackmailed by his boss, Bernard (Conleth Hill, whose fans are probably not used to seeing him with a full head of hair) into supporting it.  This leads to an immediate conflict between Harriet and Fred, and the wordplay between them (Fred being overly formal and unfeeling to the point that Harriet accuses him of having Asperger’s, and Harriet keeping the tone light while simultaneously housing a superior knowledge of the Yemen region that she only wields when Fred thinks he has the upper hand) is adeptly written and delightful to watch.  Meanwhile, Patricia Maxwell (Kristen Scott Thomas), the British Prime Minister’s hot-tempered and impulsive press secretary, comes upon the salmon fishing project while trying to find a puff piece that will keep Anglo-Arab relations supposedly friendly in the eye of the public, even after a recent mosque bombing in Afghanistan.  However convenient this might be to the story, it ties together in more than one way: Harriet’s new boyfriend, Robert (Tom Mison), is posted to Afghanistan on military assignment, and after the Meet Cute we recently witnessed between Harriet and Fred, we must suspect that Robert will not be coming back.  Additionally, Fred’s apparent issues with his wife, Mary (Rachael Stirling) are showcased, which also bodes well for a potential relationship between the two main parties.

The problems between the two couples, however, are handled better than they would be in a garden-variety romcom.  Take, for instance, the fact that neither Robert nor Mary fit the Spiteful Sleaze archetype.  Both are good, sympathetic people who deserve to be happy; they just can’t seem to work things out with their partners.

Fred, as he must, comes around to the potential of the project after visiting the sheikh’s estate, fishing with him, and learning that the well-water in the area is cold enough to support salmon.  The trick now is obtaining salmon that will “run” (swim upstream), but since the British media has run a smear campaign on everyone involved due to the inevitable failure of another of Bernard’s blackmail attempts, the only option is to use farm-raised salmon who have never run in their lives, and have faith in the fact that swimming upstream is their natural instinct.  Despite the sheikh’s earlier polemic concerning Fred’s lack of faith, the former is risking his reputation and life (including enduring assassination attempts) in order to see this project realized, and does not approve.

What follows is a story about trust.  The characters must trust each other to survive, to attain love (not just any love, but the kind they all feel they deserve), and to see their hard work pay off.  The audience must trust the filmmakers (and original author) to convince us of the unlikely, the impossible, and even the absurd.  McGregor and Blunt play their characters with complete commitment and seriousness, which has led to a Golden Globe nomination for each of them this year.  Thomas’s Patricia is hilarious, well-used, and has a few greatly inspired scenes featuring Instant-Message sessions with the Prime Minister, who only ever appears as a still image and delivers some delicious political humor; as well as a scene with her family, which not only fully deepens her character’s personality as an alpha female and overzealous worker, but is such a gem of comedy that a viewer like me wishes for some deleted scenes (in the scene, Patricia tells her son, who refuses to put his cool-looking hood down and act like an adult, “Don’t you suck your teeth at me, young man.  I’m not one of your bitches from the Baltimorlow Rises, you feel me?  I’m your fucking mother”).    Waked, an Egyptian actor known mostly for playing villains, creates a handsome, excitable, and absorbing shiekh, snatching a victory from what could have been a stereotype.  His inherent mysticism, which would be grating in real life (he occasionally says things like “You will know when the time comes”) is key to understanding the film’s depth: suspend your disbelief, he seems to say, and the ensuing magic will not seem so ridiculous.

The film, in the public eye, seems to follow that old Shakespearean-age rule that any story with a happy ending is considered a “comedy,” regardless of content.  Despite my protests about this film being pure comedy, I’ll concede if the Globe nominations accrue more viewers for one of 2012’s most genuinely heartfelt, and, I must say, “nice,” films.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2012); screenplay by Simon Beaufoy; based upon the novel by Paul Torday; directed by Lasse Hallström; starring Emily Blunt, Ewan McGregor, Amr Waked, and Kristen Scott Thomas.

 

Looper

Counting the paradoxes may cause a paradox

As Oscar-winning screenwriter Jim Rash once said (albeit while playing the role of Dean Pelton on NBC’s Community), “Time travel is really hard to write about.”  The fatal flaw in time travel films is often in the explanation of the time travel science itself – a problem wisely sidestepped in the recent Safety Not Guaranteed, which relied on character depth and development to forward the action.  The science problem tends to drag down films that are desperate to appear brainy – Primer and Donnie Darko come to mind.  In Looper, the third film by Rian Johnson (director of the subversive Hammett-esque high-school crime drama Brick), the exact science is sidestepped in a rather ingenious way: it hasn’t been invented until thirty years after the main story takes place, and even in that time, it’s so illegal that barely anyone knows it’s being used.  The main characters have no idea how it works; it just happens to provide them with an income.

The story centers around Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt in his 4th or 5th leading role this year, and it won’t be his last), an assassin known as a Looper.  His job does not involve stealth or theatrics, however: he simply receives a time and location, arrives there, and waits for a hooded prisoner to materialize out of thin air.  When that happens, he immediately pulls the trigger of his “blunderbuss” (a futuristic shotgun) and collects his payment (bars of silver).  The prisoners, whose faces are always shrouded, are targets of a crime syndicate thirty years in the future, who send their marks back in time to be disposed of without a trace.  Not a bad profession if you can stomach it; the pay is fantastic.  There’s one catch, however: when your contract runs out, the syndicate sends the future version of yourself back in time, and you execute yourself.  This is known as “closing the loop.”  Forget how many paradoxes this would cause in accordance with popular time travel theory (in movies, leastways); it’s an effective device.  In addition to Loopers, there are people called TKs – folks who can use telekinetic powers, but most of them can do nothing but float coins around in silly attempts to impress women, so they’re not taken seriously.

The trouble begins when Joe notices how many of his coworkers are suddenly closing their own loops.  Someone in the future is seemingly shutting down the Looper program. The reactions of the other Loopers is perhaps what’s so shocking about this: they’re all happy.  They receive a glorious payload (bars of gold this time) and drink up their paychecks with buddies before retiring and living lavishly for the next thirty years (at which point, we can safely assume, they are seized and sent back in time to have a hole blown in them).  This seems to be a commentary on the culture of immediacy we currently live in.  Is no one thinking about the future?  Are we only concerned with what we want right this second?  It’s an effective allegory for our times, and doesn’t try to borrow from George Orwell, like so many of these stories are tempted to.

One Looper, however, recognizes the voice of his future self and cannot pull the trigger.  This is Seth (Paul Dano), a good friend of Joe.  Having failed to complete his contract and close his own loop, Seth knows he will be hunted down by the incredibly efficient enforcers of the Looper program.  How do they operate so well?  Because they’re headed by Abe (Jeff Daniels), a man sent from the future to manage the Loopers and make sure everything resembles clockwork for the next thirty years.  Abe, despite Daniels’ vintage fuzziness, can be intimidating at times, and he convinces Joe to sell out Seth, which is immediately followed (as we know it must be) by Joe’s own loop being closed.  However, Old Joe (Bruce Willis) appears without a hood, and Young Joe has no chance to react before the former knocks him cold with a Magic Movie Punch and vanishes.

And so a double man-hunt begins: Young Joe is searching for Old Joe, because if he doesn’t kill him, his fate will be the same as Seth’s.  Abe’s right-hand man, Kid Blue (Noah Segan) would love nothing more than to see Joe dead as payback for an earlier insult, so tension is high.  Old Joe, on the other hand, is searching for someone else: in a diner conversation with his younger counterpart, he reveals a piece of information mentioned by Seth’s older self earlier – that in the future, a man called the Rainmaker has taken control of everything in a Fidel Castro-style takeover (apparently after seeing his own mother die), and is closing all of the loops for unknown reasons.  Old Joe has returned to the past in order to kill the Rainmaker before he can put his future plan into effect, thus ending this cycle and bringing his wife (Qing Xu) back to life.  Young Joe doesn’t care.  He wants to live his own life now.

On the run from Abe’s thugs, Young Joe happens upon a farm owned by Sara (the wonderful Emily Blunt).  In spite of her trepidations, she takes him in, helps him through drug withdrawal, and agrees to let him stay for a few days under the condition that he stay away from her son, Cid (Pierce Gagnon).  We soon learn, however, that Cid, a powerful TK, may be the future Rainmaker, which means that not only is Sara in danger, but both Old Joe and Kid Blue’s posse will soon descend upon the farm.  The film makes use of effective and clear flashforwards in order to illustrate what might happen if certain conditions are (or aren’t) met, including which decisions on Young Joe’s part will either cause or prevent the rise of the Rainmaker, and the action ends with a The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly triangle-style shootout.  The action, though, doesn’t cap the film – we’re always encouraged to care about the characters before the sci-fi backdrop, which is an incredibly fresh change from inspired-but-flawed sci-fi installments such as the recent Total Recall remake.

Emily Blunt puts her heart into every role, and Sara is no exception.  I’m still on the fence about her character, however – per usual, there’s only one principle female character (the only other woman with lines is a prostitute played by Piper Perabo), and despite being tough as nails, Sara’s entire existence revolves around motherhood.  If nothing else, she overcomes the sci-fi trope of the women being either nonexistent or uber-dependent damsels who can find their way around a bedroom but not a gun, and it’s clear that Sara is an independent woman who holds all sorts of cards over Joe.  Bruce Willis essentially plays his Die Hard counterpart here, delivering tough-guy dialogue and mowing down legions of enemies while shouting “motherfuckers!”  Paul Dano is underused as Seth – did Johnson forget that Dano appeared in all sorts of Best and Almost Best pictures?  Jeff Daniels is great as Abe, which seems almost like a comeback role for him, and he successfully plays against type here.  Abe is also funny – when Joe talks about possibly moving to France, Abe says, very deadpan, “I’m from the future.  Go to China.” Unfortunately, his comeuppance is depicted off-screen, which is not only a wasted opportunity (Daniels vs. Willis!), but a lack of payoff from a film that promises an action finale (and as you know, I’m not one to pander for action).  Finally, Gordon-Levitt is made up to look like Bruce Willis, which I worried may be distracting and hokey (see DiCaprio’s makeup in J. Edgar), but it’s seamlessly done.  His character, a sci-fi leading man, is predictably one-note, but with more compassion than you might expect, and the performance is strong.

Looper is one of the better sci-fi thrillers to come out in a long time.  It handles its characters well, and never quite allows its material to get away from it or become too complex.  The most complex thing involved may be Bruce Willis’s feelings about playing a character called Old Joe.

Looper (2012); written and directed by Rian Johnson; starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, and Jeff Daniels. 

The Adjustment Bureau

The hats aren’t just for show

There’s a scene in The Adjustment Bureau in which Anthony Mackie tells Matt Damon, “You know the Chairman by other names.”  I wondered, for one meteoric instant, whether this wasn’t the next Narnia film.

George Nolfi’s new flick features Matt Damon as David Norris (of no relation to Chuck, I assume, considering his political stances), a United States congressman in the running for Senator.  After losing the race due to some dirt dug up by the New York Post, he meets a barefoot wedding crasher named Elise (Emily Blunt) in the men’s restroom of a hotel.  They have a traditional Meet Cute and a premature kiss, to which Matt Damon responds in the same way I did: “Holy shit.”  Since we know this movie will eventually evolve into sci-fi thriller, it’s okay that our suspension of disbelief is tested here – perhaps even more so by the fact that we’re led to believe the New York Post has any bearing on popular thought.  They’re practically on the same level as Weekly World News these days, aren’t they?

Norris has a respectable goal: get young people to care about politics.  The opening features some interesting work with montage and visuals, including repeat appearances from Jon Stewart (as himself), who interviews Damon (as Norris) on his own show.  This is a great touch, and a good attempt at keeping things current.  In this way, we’re told at the outset that this story takes place now (at least, in 2011, it appears that way).

Soon, after another chance meeting with Elise, Norris is accosted by suited, one-note agent types, all wearing silly fedoras.  They introduce themselves as case workers for someone called the Chairman, who has written a plan for everyone’s lives.  Norris has begun to diverge from his plan, as he was never supposed to meet Elise again, and under pain of being lobotomized, he must agree never to see her again nor tell anyone about his meeting with these men.  Richardson (John Slattery) and Harry (Anthony Mackie) are assigned to keep an eye on Norris and make sure he follows these orders.

Norris, however, is already too far gone after only two meetings with Elise.  Richardson, though, is able to keep Norris away from Elise for three years, during which Norris’ political career and Elise’s dancing career have both rocketed.  They meet again by chance, and Norris somehow BS’s his way out of why he didn’t contact her for three years.  (“I was mugged” – not exactly a lie).  The Adjustment team confronts Norris again, and we soon realize Richardson and Harry are relatively low on the Adjustment food chain.  Having used up their Adjustment limits (which seems like a plot cop-out, but presumably instated to avoid severely messing up so many “plans” that there would be too much of a mess to clean up), Richardson is taken off the case and replaced by Thompson (Terence Stamp, of course), a grizzled Adjustment member whose methods are legendarily ruthless.  Harry, however, meets with Norris privately, seemingly desiring to help.

The film, as with most recent thrillers, raises more questions than it answers.  The Chairman (clearly a “God” allegory) has a plan for everyone on Earth, yet his agents operate like low-end office workers and express human emotions.  They work in small teams and have limited powers.  Norris asks, “Are you angels?”  Harry replies, “We’ve been called that.”  He also reveals that their powers revolve, in large part, around the hats (halos?) they wear.  Yeah?  God is unable to “make” more agents, unable to make them more effective, and unable to give them powers beyond funny hats and digital printouts of “plans” that resemble a complex GPS?  Kitsch aside, the story progresses in engaging ways, especially when Thompson reveals that Norris will become President and Elise a famous choreographer if the two stay away from each other.  The film focuses on their relationship, not the backfill, which is a good writing choice, but at the same time, their relationship is not deeply developed (they actually don’t spend that much time getting to know one another).

In the surprisingly exciting climax, Norris is given an Adjustment hat and granted the transportation abilities of the Chairman’s agents in order to stop Elise from marrying a generic sleazeball.  After finding her in the bathroom of the courthouse in which she is to be married, Norris blurts out the existence of the Adjustment team, and is once again hunted by Thompson, who is now accompanied by the lobotomy people.  Elise agrees to come with him on one last challenge: enter the Adjustment Bureau itself and meet the Chairman face to face in hopes of having the “plan” rewritten.

What I like about the film is that it sticks close to its characters, despite the slight lack of relationship development (I guess we’re just supposed to accept love at first sight and leave it at that).  Even when it makes the transition from political drama/romance to sci-fi thriller, we’re not beaten over the head with superpowers, cheesy technology (other than the hats) and CG battles.  In fact, violence is almost completely absent in the film.  The tip of the climax is not a fight, but a conversation.  We’re allowed to root for the Adjustment team as much as we’re nudged to root for Norris and Elise.  A few observations, however: here we have yet another film in which the woman exists merely as the object of the man’s desire – yes, her “dreams” of being a dancer are mentioned, but she’s never depicted doing anything that doesn’t involve him.  Even the Adjustment team (all male) get their own scenes and inner conflicts (and they’re not even human, for pete’s sake).  Additionally, what are we supposed to think about Elise as a person?  She’s separated from her fiancee’ and started seeing Norris.  Fine.  When he abandons her, she’s back with the other guy (generic sleazeball) after less than a year, and once again engaged to him.  Norris shows up again, and she willingly returns to him, abandoning the other guy at the altar, and doesn’t mention him again.  You have three choices: she’s either fickle and heartless,  hopelessly dependent, or all of the above.  Considering what a cool customer and independent personality she seems to be when we first meet her, this is a bit baffling.

Another question: why does Harry want to help?  Why is he so “human” compared to the other team members?  It’s (sort of) explained in that he witnessed the collapse of Norris’ father and he believes that the Chairman’s ultimate plan is for humans to become responsible enough to have free will, but I’m a bit put off by the fact that he’s the only black member of the Adjustment team, and is portrayed as somewhat lazy and incredibly rebellious.  He’s ultimately the “nice guy,” yes, but why would the Chairman allow a team member the ability to subvert his own plans so thoroughly?  These aren’t normal guys he hired for temp jobs on CapitalAreaHelpWanted; they’re angels, man!  We also don’t get answers to what happens later: the future ends up blank when love overcomes the plan, but whether Norris and Elise’s respective careers fall to pieces due to their relationship, we never find out.

Ultimately, it’s a feel-good movie, and despite its sci-fi elements, it’s a good date flick.  It’s barely worth mentioning that it’s based on a Phillip K. Dick story, because there are almost no similarities (par for the course with something in the public domain).  I’ve heard it described as a “love story,” but I’m more inclined to call it a “sci-fi story about love.”  Note the differences.  The performances are strong, Terence Stamp retains his usual typecasting, and the film manages to go from Real to Fantastic without abandoning its original story or overwhelming us with sci-fi nonsense.  If nothing else, it will make you look twice at people in funny hats.

The Adjustment Bureau (2011); written and directed by George Nolfi (based upon Phillip K. Dick’s short story, Adjustment Team); starring Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, John Slattery and Terence stamp.

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