American Made is a movie that floats by on the sheer enjoyment of Tom Cruise’s charismatic, devil-may-care performance as Barry Seal, a man who flew secret missions for the CIA, Colombian drug cartels, and Nicaraguan contras. It’s an appealing story with fun anecdotes of a scoundrel playing all sides against each other. Seal is unrepentantly without introspection and is simply having the time of his life. Under Doug Liman’s direction and Cruise’s sly performance, the movie flies by on good vibes until its inevitable crash once Seal cannot get out of the mess he’s made for himself. The film doesn’t have much in the way of depth or commentary on Seal’s actions or the CIA’s. Domnhall Gleeson (The Revenant) plays the enigmatic CIA handler who brings Seal into action and plots behind the scenes, and I wish he had a larger presence in the film. His character is the closest the film approaches legitimate satire. Other supporting characters leave little impression or have such limited roles, from Sarah Wright’s complicit wife, to Caleb Landry Jones’ bizarre screw-up of a brother-in-law, to Jesse Plemons as a small-town sheriff, to Jayma Mays as a frazzled prosecutor who can’t take down Seal. The near-escapes and comical skirting of legal consequences provide enough interest without making the film seem episodic. I’m even struggling to say more about the film because that’s how quickly it evaporates from memory. American Made isn’t going to make much more than a fleeting impression, but it’s fun while it lasts and a reminder about how entertaining movies can be when paired with a magnetic actor cutting loose.
Nate’s Grade: B
In my many years as a film critic, it’s always interesting to discover when I veer from the critical herd, whether liking a movie others do not or having issues with a movie that others lionize like La La Land. After seeing an avalanche of bad reviews, I was fully prepared to dismiss Tom Cruise’s The Mummy as another example of Hollywood hubris, but as the movie continued I found myself enjoying the proceedings. I left the theater completely dumbfounded why my critical brethren disliked it so vehemently. One critic even said this was Tom Cruise’s worst movie of his career. I can’t understand the hate for what is essentially a fun B-movie, so my review is going to be a little different. I’ve read through a bevy of bad reviews and lifted the major criticisms leveled at the film. I’ll be addressing them one-by-one and why I disagree or think the broadsides are overblown.
Here’s a quick plot synopsis for some general context. Thousands of years ago, Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) was next in line for the Egyptian throne, and then her pharaoh father had a son. Rather than be sidelined, Ahmanet made a deal with the god Set to kill her family with a magic knife and become an all-powerful being. She was thwarted in the middle of the human-sacrifice ritual and she’s sentenced to being buried alive. She was buried thousands of miles away and the magic jewel, needed to complete the magic knife, was buried in England in a Crusader’s crypt. In present-day Iraq, Nick Morton (Tom Cruise), his sidekick (Jake Johnson), and his love interest (Annabelle Wallis) stumble upon the tomb of Ahmanet. They’re transporting her sarcophagus back to England when a cloud of crows attacks their Army plane. The plane crashes, with Nick on it, but he awakens unscathed on a morgue slab. Apparently Nick is marked by Ahmanet as her chosen vessel.
This is the number one indictment in all the critiques but it feels more like critics just used The Mummy as a jumping off point to add to a thesis statement on the dearth of originality in a franchise-obsessed Hollywood. I get it. In the wake of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s unparalleled run of success, it’s not just about franchises now but also about a series of inter-connected franchises forming a universe of stories. There is also DC’s failed efforts to try their own universe, a possible Hasbro Universe (Transformers, G.I. Joe), the ongoing and morphing X-Men universe, and now the emergence of the Dark Universe, a studio’s attempt to repackage the classic monster properties of old. When done poorly, the cinematic universes reek of nakedly obvious crass commercialism. However, just being opposed to these cinematic universes on principle alone feels misguided. It’s presumptuous. It all depends on whether or not the stories can exist on their own. Batman vs. Superman and Suicide Squad didn’t crash and burn merely because they were overextended by tie-ins to other movies. They failed because they were bad stories and were terribly executed, and yes being overextended was a component but not the only one by far. Movies still need to be good.
The Mummy only gives a sense of a larger universe through the appearances of Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe) the leader of Prodigium, a S.H.I.E.L.D.-esque agency tasked with monitoring the world of “gods and monsters.” That’s about it, a preview of a larger world of monsters with some visual Easter eggs scattered here and there. The character of Jekyll is a learned scientist that can unload a larger picture, and his institution also provides a setup for false security. He is organically placed into the narrative and Prodigium actually supplies a credible reason why they don’t just smash the key crystal that Ahmanet needs for her resurrection purposes. Crowe (The Nice Guys) is one of the best parts of the movie, and when he gets to slip into Hyde mode the movie allows him to have a malicious sense of fun. I don’t think the visual element of Hyde quite works but it doesn’t sabotage the scenes. Not all of Crowe’s exposition is necessary, especially the opening sequence finding the buried Crusaders, but he provides a stable presence, until he also presents Prodigium as a pragmatic threat. This is why I think that the most critics are condemning the idea of the Dark Universe and what it stands for in broader terms and not on the actual merits of how it set up its larger universe.
I’m a fan of Cruise as an actor and especially as the lead in action movies. The man is a natural movie star and he gives his all with every performance. As a paying moviegoer, I respect that work ethic. Having Cruise play a rakish surveyor of antiquities seems like a good fit for his abilities. He’s played charming, dangerous rogues before. Here’s the thing that critics don’t seem to be processing: Cruise’s character is meant to be a jerk. He’s self-centered and prone to making impulsive decisions, like shooting a rope keeping a sarcophagus suspended in liquid mercury. Plus if you don’t like Cruise as a person or an actor he’s routinely beaten up in the movie to fine comic results. His character arc is about him becoming the kind of person who’s willing to think about others and a greater good. It’s simple but it works. I do think The Mummy goes too far in trying to explain the signposts of his character arc. Occasionally they undercut the moment to great effect. There’s a scene where Wallis (Annabelle) tries to encourage Norton that she knows there’s a good man inside him. After all, he gave her the only parachute as the plane went down. He then sheepishly says, “I thought… there was another one.” I laughed out loud so hard. The movie does work a little too hard to announce Nick’s swaggering Lothario ways (“Me thinks the lady doth protest too much”), and there’s a 25-year age gap between Wallis and Cruise, but these aren’t faults invented by only this movie. Cruise was an enjoyable lead for me and his ease with comedy, action, and drama prevailed.
3) “Tone issues abound.”
Critics are lambasting the film for being too many things with too many tones, but much like cinematic universes, it all comes down to execution. The Mummy has elements of action, horror, especially its zombie-mummies, dark comedy, like Johnson showing back up as zombie comic relief a la An American Werewolf in London, and even some inspired slapstick. When Nick is fighting a batch of zombie-mummies, he thrusts his fist through one skull and hangs another sideways against a wall, and both keep on fighting. The different elements added to my entertainment rather than detracting from it. I enjoyed that the movie could be suspenseful or silly depending upon the scene. The action sequences are serviceable to good, the highlight being the zero gravity plummet within the body of the plane. Alex Kurtzman (a writer responsible for Star Trek, Transformers, and other big studio pictures) makes an adequate director without any distinguishing sense of style. I feel like the more memorable aspects of the action are from Kurtzman thinking as a writer. Take for instance a scene where Nick is swimming underwater and we watch subterranean tombs open. The zombie-mummy Crusaders then start swimming after Nick, providing a terrific visual. The action sequences vary and develop and make good use of their geography. I also appreciated that the third act does not fall into the superhero standard of CGI monster slugfest that loses perspective and scale (even Wonder Woman suffers from this). Also, apparently in the time since Stephen Sommers’ campy 1999 Mummy film, everyone championing that movie seems to have forgotten that it was a mess of tones as well. The Brendan Frasier mummy movies were a fun, spirited, winking big-budget B-movies with style and personality. I don’t think Cruise’s Mummy film reaches those same heights but there are enough positive similarities.
4) “Underwritten female characters.”
This is a legitimate criticism when discussing Wallis’ character. She offers very little to the overall story except to verbally explain exposition or character beats. The fact that she needs rescuing is a given. It’s an underwritten role and clearly just an excuse for a good-looking actress to be at Cruise’s side during moments of peril and derring-do. However, this accusation overlooks Boutella’s character, Princess Ahmanet. Her very back-story involves a woman striking back against a patriarchy that wouldn’t value her unless it had no alternative. She’s a killer but she has her reasons, but more importantly she’s an interesting antagonist even if her overall goal is basic world conquering. Boutella (Star Trek Beyond) has a magnetic presence on screen and seems to enjoy stretching herself with different physicalities from an alien to a mummy to a blade-legged henchwoman. She enjoys playing kickass women who lead by example, and Ahmanet is no exception. I was pleased that Ahmanet was not going to be reserved as a strictly Act Three villain. She’s prominent throughout the narrative and burrowed inside her marked man’s head, leading to dessert flashbacks and a general repetition of Boutella’s partial nude scene. The filmmakers are getting the most out of one shadow-draped PG-13 nude scene.
Suffice to say, in my view The Mummy does not deserve its savaging by the critical community. I think too many critics are assailing larger points (Tom Cruise as a person, cinematic universes) and losing sight of the actual movie itself. The Mummy is not a perfect film by any stretch but it’s a movie that has a strong sense of its identity and how to meet its goals. The Mummy is a modest B-movie with a sense of fun that offers enough surprises, suspense and action sequences, and clever visuals to entertain. If this is the start to the Dark Universe then I feel optimistic about where else the newest creature features will lead. I recommend giving this one a chance once the dust settles. You may be just as surprised.
Nate’s Grade: B
Not as outlandishly crazy as the Fast and the Furious series, not as beholden to tradition as the Bond series, the Mission: Impossible series doesn’t get the same notoriety but I’d declare it the most consistent and best action franchise going today. Each new film is a distillation of their director’s strengths, keeping things fresh, and the mainstay is Tom Cruise in prime action hero mode and risking his life like a madman. While not as dizzyingly entertaining as 2011’s Ghost Protocol, Rogue Nation is another fun and action-packed spy thriller with terrific and memorable set pieces. The plot involves Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his team on the run, again, as their agency is shut down for its reckless methods. A rival agency known as The Syndicate is plotting political assassinations, so Hunt and his team (Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, Ving Rhames) must work along the fringes to save the day. The newest addition is Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson as a mysterious ally and antagonist for Hunt. She’s smart, formidable, and not treated as a romantic interest or overly sexualized (progress). After Alicia Vikander’s superb performance in Ex Machina, and now Ferguson’s steely turn, it’s quite a booming year for Swedish imports. The series’ star is still Cruise and his cavalier treatment of his 50-year-old body in the pursuit of the daredevil stunts. The opening with Cruise attached to the outside of an ascending cargo plane is a stunning image jolted by the charge of realism. An underwater vault break-in is wonderfully developed. The snazzy car chases, motorcycle chases, and foot chases all benefit from Cruise being front and center. Say what you will about the man but he’s a movie star. The biggest problem with Rogue Nation is much like Ghost Protocol in that it peaks in the middle. The last act takes place entirely in London and it just can’t compare with what came earlier, which leaves the movie lumbering to a close with its rather substandard villain. Even with a less than stellar conclusion, Rogue Nation is another entertaining, fun, and thrilling action movie that would be the best the summer has to offer if it weren’t for the highs of Mad Max. Nate’s Grade: B+
I’ve always been one able to separate the art from the artist, so while Tom Cruise may annoy people in real life because he jumped on a couch one summer, that doesn’t halt my enjoyment of the man’s movies. It seems with every new Cruise vehicle that under-performs at the box-office that I must be in the minority. Cruise hasn’t had a hit to his name since 2011’s suitably awesome Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Both Oblivion and Jack Reacher, perfectly solid action movies, failed to make over $100 million domestically, further calling into question the drawing power of Tom Terrific. It seems that his latest, Edge of Tomorrow, is going to suffer a similar fate. This is a shame. As my critical colleague Ben Bailey said in his own review for the film: “Edge of Tomorrow might just be the most critically acclaimed box-office bomb of 2014.”
William Cage (Cruise) is chiefly an Armed Forces PR flak. He goes on TV to push the talking points of the United States military, which is in a heap of trouble. Aliens have landed in central Europe and spread quickly, proving to be nearly unstoppable. There was one soldier who was able to lead a successful counter attack. The “Angel of Verdun” is Rita (Emily Blunt), a soldier Cage proudly chirps only spent a day in her mechanical fighting suit beforehand yet proved to be so deadly. After vaguely threatening a high-ranking official rather than report for a doomed counter assault, Cage is shipped to the frontlines as a deserter. In hours he and a motley crew of ground forces are flown to the beaches of France, where the aliens will slaughter them. In the firefight, Cage is covered with alien blood and gains their special power. The reason the aliens have won every battle, save one, is because they have the power to reset time. They learn from their errors, which is why they always anticipate humanity’s attacks. Now Cage has this power. Every time he dies, the day resets and he starts over, trying once again to survive. The only person who understands him is Rita, who once had the same power. Together, with some extensive training, they may be able to thwart the alien invaders for good.
Edge of Tomorrow is the ultimate video game movie, and while I would normally mean this in a pejorative sense, it is actually a compliment. With every death, Cage gets to start over, looking for a way to complete the next stage of the next level, learning from his costly mistakes and hoping to get to the boss battle that usually closes the level. From a structure standpoint, it’s a pure video game, albeit an older sidescroller (remember those, kids?). The visuals and mechanical battle suits also further support the video game comparisons. But really, Edge of Tomorrow is Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers but brilliantly executed. There is something deeply satisfying about the Groundhog Day formula, namely getting seemingly endless chances to fix one’s mistakes, to try out new paths. It’s also inherently satisfying as an audience member because you watch your hero fail time and after time but they’re still active, they’re still trying to achieve a goal, or a new goal, and thus when they do succeed it’s even more triumphant and gratifying. We get to learn alongside our protagonist. Also, it allows the narrative to explore new material without going stale. In most stories we have one set path, but in films like this one with a time loop, it’s like we get to see all the wheels-within-wheels, the stories just offscreen happening simultaneously. It opens up the world in more interesting and playful ways, providing more payoffs than just one set narrative destination. We get assorted answers to our “what if”’s. Plus we get more screen time with Bill Paxton (2 Guns) as a comically hardass master sergeant. Edge of Tomorrow mines all these areas expertly. This is a movie that embraces the possibility of its sci-fi premise. It’s constantly clever, fast-paced, lively, and expects its audience to keep up with the pace.
It’s great to see director Doug Liman flex his action-thriller abilities again, ineffective or dormant since 2005’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith. The man has an innate ability to orchestrate action without losing sight of character. The beach invasion sequences have plenty going on, enough so that you won’t be bored after multiple trips, and unlike last summer’s disappointing Elysium, this is one movie that knows how to make proper use of a mech suit. These suits don’t look that impressive but they pack some mighty firepower. It’s rather cool when Cage, after a litany of failed trips, has the beats of combat to memory, knowing to shoot in this direction at the right second. It’s like watching a man harness the omniscient power of God (“I said I was a god. Not THE God.”). Under Liman’s guidance, the action is big and exciting and fun, more so than any other Hollywood action movie I’ve seen this year (The Raid 2 is still in a class its own).
The action sequences and special effects are all relatively good, but it’s just the sheer fun of the movie that makes it special for a summer would-be blockbuster. It’s like you get multiple movies smattered together but the eye is always forward to the goal, taking out the alien brain/host. The structure is almost foolproof: by the end of Act 1 he gets the time-tripping powers, and by the end of Act 2, he loses them and the heroics to close the movie have to count for real. I wish the final boss battle didn’t happen to take place in the bowels of a famous landmark/destination, but I suppose Liman and company needed a change of pace from all the beach activity. While the movie covers plenty of ground repeatedly it never feels old or directionless; while it has its share of sticky exposition and silly plot mechanics, it never overwhelms the story or the entertainment factor. The basics of who the aliens are, how they attack, what their magic blood does, what the rules are for utilizing said alien time-repeating power, you would imagine that they would be too silly or bog things down, but they don’t. Except for the very end (the concluding two minutes), the movie plays within its own system of rules. That also means no unrealistic romantic entanglement. Sure we expect movie stars to fall for one another, especially in peril, but for Rita, every day is the first day she’s ever met Cage. He develops feelings for her but she credibly keeps thoughts of romance at bay.
It’s also a mordantly mirthful movie. Cage can only reset when he dies; if he is just wounded and passes out, he’ll lose his special reset power. So every insurmountable roadblock, wrong choice, or crippling injury must be met with one conclusion, namely Cage being snuffed out. Rita carries out most of the executions in the second half, with a blasé sense of routine duty, like a plumber fixing a clog. It doesn’t really get old and Liman utilizes montage well to give the comedy an extra punch. It lightens a movie more or less centered on human annihilation and mortality. And for the legions of Tom Cruise haters, there’s got to be some degree of entertainment value in watching the man die again and again and again and, well you get the point.
Cruise ably shows again that he is more than capable of carrying an action film (he’s over 50 now too). The man still has enough energy and physical stamina of an action hero in his 30s, and his charisma is still there in spades. It’s also interesting to watch Cruise play a cowardly character. I should have expected it considering that Cage’s arc has to start somewhere before he becomes the super soldier. However, the movie would never have been as good if Cruise didn’t have a strong leading lady, and the surprisingly buff Blunt (Looper) is an excellent match for her costar. She’s tough and can beat the snot out of you. Just her very walk exudes confidence and determination (is it too late for her to be Wonder Woman in the next Superman film?). Having walked in Cage’s shoes before with the time-replay power, she has an extra weariness to her, a certain devil-may-care attitude, especially in battle. The two actors make a winning team and Cage’s recruitment of Rita is another mission with another worthy payoff.
The original title was All You Need is Kill, based on a Japanese graphic novel, and I can’t help but think how much of a better, striking title that is to describe this movie. It’s a wonderfully entertaining movie, with its action spectacle tempered with an intelligence rare for a summer blockbuster that doesn’t have Christopher Nolan’s name attached as director. Here is a playful sci-fi movie that doesn’t downplay its sci-fi, doesn’t dumb down its plot, and explores the richness of its world one dead Cruise at a time. It’s clever and satisfying and brings all the visual fireworks you’d demand. It’s a rotten shame that Edge of Tomorrow appears destined for the cinematic scrapheap. We need more movies like this one. Reverse the tide people and see this movie on the big screen while you can. It’s everything we want in a summer blockbuster fully realized.
Nate’s Grade: A-
It’s late in the twenty-first century, decades after humanity battled an alien species in a war for the planet, and while humanity won the war Earth is desolate. The moon destroyed. The remaining members of humanity live on a starship around Saturn’s moon, Titan, and the oceans of Earth provide the energy resource. Jack (Tom Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are the team stationed with repairing drones, the flying machines that protect the energy plants. There are still pockets of alien scavengers that need to be dealt with. Jack and Victoria make a great team, and dip into romantic companionship, until Jack meets a mysterious woman (Olga Kurylenko) professing to be his wife. Jack begins to doubt the purpose of his mission and wonder if the alien scavengers are the enemy.
If you’ve been keeping up with sci-fi cinema in the last couple decades, you’ll likely recognize more than a few elements with Oblivion. From its themes to its plot points to its revelations, there’s little here to designate as original. So the real question remains how derivative can we take? I think when the execution is nimble then it’s one of the easiest sins to remember. Especially in the realm of sci-fi cinema, it’s hard to put together a new story, let alone one set up as a Hollywood star vehicle, without borrowing from other established movies. This in itself is not an issue. Tarantino is a master borrower but he always recontextualizes his artistic influences into something new and different, and while we critics lament his less original career path of late, the man’s box-office profits have never been better in his career. I think when we feel like we’re getting a good story we don’t care when that story has been told before in other manners. Star Wars, after all, has many cultural fathers, but it was a rollicking good time with characters we cared about, so nobody seemed to mind. Likewise, Oblivion has many forbearers from Independence Day to I Am Legend to 2001 to an indie film from a few years ago I shall refrain from mentioning because even the very mention will spoil key plot points. Some will decry the film as a rip-off of superior, headier fare, but I never minded. I was having too good of a time and found the movie too satisfying to quibble.
I won’t say the movie is smart per se but it’s far more measured than I would have expected. The advertising makes it look like Cruise fights a bunch of aliens and robots, and while there is that aspect, it’s almost an afterthought to a slow-burning mystery that patiently parcels out its revelations, even to the very end of the film. I’m trying to be cagey about certain plot points to avoid spoilers. It’s a film that has more on its mind than explosions, but when it goes into explosion mode, director Joseph Kosinski (TRON: Legacy) makes it count. The larger action elements are well staged and polished with some above average special effects. The sight of the moon dashed across the sky is definitely an evocative image. I love the overall look of the film, Kosinki’s clean, spare, bubbly Apple-esque aesthetics. The drones themselves manage to have personality even with a limited, streamlined design and some choice sound design. The man knows how to hold onto an image and when to keep pushing. The action is suitably thrilling and the drama suitably suspenseful. Actually, better than suitably. I enjoyed the details of this world. It’s probably the spiffiest post-apocalyptic landscape you’ll ever see. This is an entertaining movie that finds nice ways to satisfy, and given the particulars of its sci-fi plot, finds a way to have its cake and eat it too. As a result, Oblivion is a sci-fi flick that offers enough to engage the mind and audience demands for big effects and big thrills.
I’ve never been a Cruise hater. I even thought the man tried his damndest to make a movie like Rock of Ages worth watching (a valiant effort but not enough). His character is pretty affable at first and we get to watch as everything he knows comes undone. It’s a role that would lead to overacting, but Cruise underplays the part, more alarmed naïf than flinty action hero. I’m not expecting Oscar-caliber performances in every role but Cruise does a fine job of anchoring the audience and selling his character’s journey. He also has good chemistry with not one but two ladies. Kurylenko (Seven Psychopaths, To the Wonder) is an actress of great beauty and questionable talent, but perhaps being paired up with a genuine star like Cruise brings out the best in her. They’re good together, though my preference was for Riseborough (W.E., Never Let Me Go), an actress who brings a tremulous vulnerability to an otherwise underwritten and confused character that’s more a plot device. Riseborough makes the character so much more than she is on the page. She’s still a relatively new actress so I look forward to her future performances. There are other familiar faces, like Morgan Freeman and an especially unsettling Melissa Leo, but it’s really a three-person acting exercise.
Oblivion is a visually alluring sci-fi thriller that also manages to have enough heart and smarts to leave a satisfying impression. The pacing is more deliberate but offers plenty rewards, doling out revelations up until the end, unpacking its mystery with finesse. The first twenty minutes or so, establishing the particulars of this world and the routine of our protagonists, is downright exceptional. The rest of the film doesn’t quite live up to that start but it continues to be an engaging and entertaining movie with some top-notch visuals. The musical score by electronic band M83 also provides a stirring counterpoint to the glossy, clean visuals (the band’s song “Outro” was also very effectively used in that lovely five-minute trailer for Cloud Atlas). You may figure things out as you watch, but you won’t mind, at least I didn’t. The more I step away the more I think back with renewed enthusiasm for the film. It’s smarter, slicker, and just a more satisfying film than we’re accustomed to with this kind of budget and from Hollywood.
Nate’s Grade: B
The Jack Reacher of the best-selling novels is a hulking, blonde haired, blue-eyed, 6’4” man of flinty justice. The Jack Reacher of the film of the same name is played by Tom Cruise, an actor who fits none of those descriptions. He is a movie star, however, and those are in short supply. The character is a former MP who operates like a drifter, leaving little trace, and inserting himself as needed to dispense his own sense of justice. The plot of the movie involves Reacher looking for a sniper responsible for a massacre, and hey is that German filmmaker Werner Herzog as the arch villain? Why yes it is. It’s a pretty standard mystery/investigation, complete with crooked cops and inept crooks. What elevates the movie is Cruise’s lone wolf intensity and writer/director Christopher McQuarie’s (The Way of the Gun) ingenuity with clichés. You’ve probably seen this sort of movie before, but McQuarie finds creative and clever ways to stand out, delivering a nifty car chase and a nifty escape as well. It’s just fun watching Cruise outfox his adversaries, via his wits or his fists. Where the movie becomes annoying is how it consistently has to remind you just how badass Jack Reacher is. At every turn, someone will say what kind of exceptional man he is, how he follows his own rules, etc. Reacher even gets the requisite “I’m not a hero so be afraid” speech. After a while, it just feels like the movie is overcompensating, trying to quell the irate fans of Lee Child’s novels who probably envisioned The Rock in Reacher’s shoes. Unlike Reacher the character, Jack Reacher the movie is not the best at what it does, but with a charismatic Cruise in control, it’s at least good enough to see once.
Nate’s Grade: B-
I have no qualms with my heterosexual nature to make the following statement: I love a good musical. Why shouldn’t I? None other than Martin Scorsese said any true film lover is a fan of horror movies and musicals, two genres uniquely suited to the visual flourishes of cinema. My tastes tend to run toward the more offbeat, like Avenue Q and Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Sweeney Todd and Dancer in the Dark. My favorite movie musical of all time is 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain, but that’s probably because I’m a movie lover first and foremost. A well-done movie musical can sweep you off your feet. The polarizing Moulin Rouge! is still my favorite film of 2001; I love every messy, ambitious, transporting second of it. And that’s what the best musicals and, in general, best films achieve: they transport us to another realm. Since the success of 2002’s Chicago, there’s been a run of hit-or-miss movie musicals proliferating the big screen. It’s hard to think of any longstanding Broadway hits that have yet to make the leap (you’ll get your turn, Book of Mormon). Of course it also works the other way, with plenty of movies being adapted into Broadway musicals, like Shrek, Elf, Ghost, Catch Me if You Can, Newsies, A Christmas Story, Sister Act, Legally Blonde, Bring it On, and Tony-winner for Best Musical, Once. Then you get movies turned into musicals and back into movie musicals, like The Producers and Hairspray. It seems like Broadway and Hollywood are stuck in a loop, feeding off one another’s spoils.
In 2012, two high-profile musicals got the big screen treatment: Rock of Ages and Les Miserables. The former is from 2009 whereas the latter is one of the most successful Broadway shows of all time, beginning in 1980 and spanning continents. Rock of Ages was savaged by critics and bombed at the box-office, whereas Les Miz is soaring this holiday season and is seen as a major Oscar contender. Of course one of these films is about the outrage of the lower classes being exploited by an unfair system that benefits the rich, and the other has Tom Cruise and a monkey named “Hey Man.” Having seen both films recently, and Les Miserables more than once, I think they present an interesting discussion on the pitfalls of adapting a popular theatrical show to film. You won’t have to wait long to figure out which movie succeeds and which falters badly.
Les Miserables, based on Victor Hugo’s novel, is set in early 19th century France. Prisoner Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is nearing the end of his twenty-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) is convinced Valjean will never reform and go back to a life of crime. After help from a kindly bishop, Valjean flees his parole and sets up a new life as a businessman. Fantine (Anne Hathaway), one of Valjean’s workers, gets thrown out and tumbles down a chain of regrettable circumstances. She becomes a prostitute to support her young daughter, Cosette. Valjean recognizes poor Fantine on the street and, horrified at his own neglect leading her to this path, takes it upon himself to care for her and her daughter. Years later, the teenaged Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) has fallen for the young revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne). Marius enlists his good friend Eponine (Samantha Barks) to help find out who Cosette is, all the while ignorant that Eponine is clearly in love with him. The young people of France are riled up about class abuses and exploitation, and the spirit of revolution is in the air. Javert is also becoming suspicious of Valjean’s true identity, so Valjean feels the need to flee once again. However, Cosette’s love and the bravery of the young revolutionaries makes Valjean decide to stop running from his past.
Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) made the ballsy but ultimately brilliant decision to have his performers sing live. Every line, every note, every performance is captured in the moment; there is nary a second of lip-synching. I cannot overstate how blessed this decision was. It places the emphasis on the performances, and that’s exactly what something as big and deeply felt as Les Miserables required for the big screen. Look, Hollywood actors are never going to be able to outdo trained and professional theatrical singers. What I expect from movie stars is movie-star level performances, and Hooper understands this. These actors aren’t playing to the cheap seats, belting the tunes with power and over exaggerated dramatics (note: there is absolutely nothing wrong with this style given the theatrical setting). In many ways, this is a more intimate Les Miserables, and it still maintains its charms and magic. There is no choreography, short of perhaps the more jovial “Master of the House” number, and Hooper puts us right in the muck of life in a 19th century impoverished slum. This is one dirty movie with lots of grimy period details, creating a reality that can only be implied on stage. The more visceral version of Les Miserables demands performances that are more naturalistic and less bombastic, to a degree. I am a cinephile first but I genuinely prefer my musicals with trained actors to trained singers. A great actor can add so much inflection and personality through the prism of song, whereas a great singer is concentrating on the notes first and foremost. I value performance over nailing the mechanics, and more movie musicals should follow Hooper’s path. This, ladies and gentlemen, is how to do the movie musical experience right.
I don’t know if Hooper was exactly the right man for the job but he certainly does the beloved stage show justice. Hooper’s visual tics are still present. The man loves to film in close-ups and at all sorts of tilted Dutch angles; he also loves filming a conversation between two people where neither one will be in the same shot. It’s a peculiarity that I never really warmed up to. However, Hooper generally has the best interests of his movie at stake, capitalizing on the large outpouring of feeling. This is a Big Musical with big emotions, and it’s easy to be swept up in its exuberant earnestness and humanism. It even has a famous concluding line, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” It’s the kind of stuff you roll your eyes at under lesser circumstances. Now, thinking back, you’ll realize that many of these people were simply painfully naïve and that there was a slew of death for no good reason. Purists may chafe at some altered lyrics and truncated songs, but really this is pretty much the closest version of the famous stage show you’ll ever see adapted. Not one of the songs has been cut (in fact a new one was written for the film by the original composers), and at a lengthy 157 minutes, it’s practically as long as the stage show, and just about sung through every moment. There are probably ten total lines that are merely spoken. I predict hardcore Les Miz fans will lap up every second.
Les Miserables also boasts some fortuitous casting (Taylor Swift at one point was rumored to be up for a role… shudder), none more than Anne Hathaway (The Dark Knight Rises). She is nothing less than perfect as Fantine. There isn’t a false note during any of her acting. Her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” is so powerful, so breathtaking, so intensely felt, that it ranks up there with some of the best moments in all of 2012 movies. And oh can this woman sing her ass off too. You feel every flicker of anger and devastation, the grain in her voice, on the verge of tears and fury. This woman deserves every accolade they can come up with this year. This woman is a total lock for Best Supporting Actress. She’s wonderful during every moment of her screen time and the lengths and emotional ferocity of her performance, and subsequent pitfalls the character endures, left me reaching for the tissues at several points.
The other standout amidst a pretty stellar cast is Barks. This is her first film work though she has plenty of experience with her character, portraying Eponine in the 25th anniversary run of Les Miserables. Her singing is terrific, as you’d imagine, but her acting is just as strong. Her rendition of “On My Own” is a showstopper of a number. Barks naturally transitions to the demands of film. I was completely on Team Eponine and found her to be an infinitely better catch than Cosette. After people get a glimpse of this woman, she is going to get plenty more acting offers, and a few concerned inquiries into the size of her waist, which at times looks like it might be the size of The Rock’s neck. Hooper also has the good sense to film both “I Dreamed a Dream” and “On My Own” in unbroken takes; focus tightly pinned on our outstanding actresses, letting the skill of their performances sell the big emotions.
Of course the crux of the tale rests on two men, Valjean and Javert, and the rest of the cast does kind of get saddled in underdeveloped roles made more apparent as a movie. It seems blasphemous to say I was a little disappointed with both lead actors. Crowe (Robin Hood) is easily the weakest singer of the cast but that doesn’t mean he’s bad. He has a lower register and sings his parts like a rock musician rather than a Broadway player. Fans of the stage show will have to adjust their expectations for a more subdued Javert. Still, having an actor of Crowe’s talents is definitely a plus even if his singing is adequate. Jackman (Real Steel) is a Tony-winning thespian, so I held him to a higher standard. He’s got a lot of heavy lifting to do as Jean Valjean, and Jackman does an admittedly fine job with the bigger emotional parts. I just expected more from his vocal abilities but it’s not a major detraction. As my mother noted, it’s not too difficult to spot the classically trained singers in the cast. Also, for eagle-eyed Les Miz fans, look for the original Jean Valjean, Colm Wilkinson, as the Bishop in this movie.
There is the tricky nature of translating a Broadway production into some variance of period reality. There’s plenty of relevance with the class struggle illustrated in the second half of the movie (Bane would approve). It’s an obvious statement but film is a different medium than the theater and affords different opportunities. The depressing reality of lower class life and the vultures that preyed on others is striking, yes, but sort of conflicts with the comic relief characters represented by the scheming Thenadiers (Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter). When the seriousness of the period is inflated, they feel like they sort of belong in a different movie. Then there’s just the conflict between stage reality and film reality. On the stage we’ll accept Marius falling madly in love with Cosette at first sight. When it’s on film, the guy comes across as a callous chump, oblivious to Eponine’s pining. He ignores the friend he’s had for years for some blonde in a bonnet. And the final number, reuniting all the dead cast members, works better as a curtain call than a finale to a film. These are just the quirks of theater one must just accept. I wouldn’t say the songs and music is in the same category as Sondheim or Webber, but there are definitely some hummable tunes here made all the more swooning. You’ll have a fine pick of songs to get stuck in your head for days (mine: “Look Down”).
Earlier this year, Rock of Ages came and quickly left the box-office, failing to make a splash with the American public despite a healthy enough run on Broadway and touring the country. The stage show is a jukebox musical set to the head-banging tunes of 1980s hair metal. Adam Shankman, the director behind the bouncy and thoroughly entertaining 2007 Hairspray movie musical, was tasked with bringing Rock of Ages to the screen with the same finesse. Cherie (Julianne Hough) a hopeful singer just off the bus from Oklahoma, meets up with Drew (Diego Boneta), a nice kid who gets her a job at The Bourbon Room, a rock club running afoul with the mayor (Bryan Cranston) and his moral crusading wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The club owners (Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand) are relying on fickle, burned-out, taciturn, and overall mysterious rock legend Stacy Jaxx (Tom Cruise) to save their club from financial ruin. Along the way, Cherie and Drew look for their big breaks, fall in love, get pulled apart, and reunite in time for one final sendoff to leave the audience tapping their toes.
Allow me to elucidate on my main problem with the rise in jukebox musicals: I find them to be, with rare exception, exceedingly lazy. The musical number is meant to advance the narrative and give insights into character and situation, just like any other aspect of plot. You’ll find great original tunes that do this. When you’re dealing with pop songs that the public is well familiar with, then your job becomes even harder, and I find many are just not up to the task. Too often jukebox musicals are designed to merely string together a pre-packaged and time-tested number of hit songs, utilizing the faintest of narrative threads to get from one song to the next. The appeal of jukebox musicals lies not with the story or characters but waiting for the next recognizable song and wondering how it will, poorly, fit into this new context. You’ll notice that these jukebox musicals seem to have twice as many song numbers. They know their selling point, and more singing means less time spent developing characters and story. And so my impression of the jukebox musical is one of a cynical cash grab following the bare minimum of narratives to achieve the status of musical so it can be resold with low risk. I’m simplifying things in my ire, yes, but there’s a definite reason that jukebox musicals have sprouted like mad in the past few years. They don’t require as much work and the audience seems to hold them to a lesser standard. Much like the worst of Friedberg and Seltzer (Disaster Movie, Meet the Spartans), it seems just recognizing the familiar has become the core draw of entertainment.
And this is one of the main problems with Rock of Ages. I’ve never seen the stage show, but my God for something that purports to live the rock and roll lifestyle, it’s certainly so tame and scrubbed clean of anything dangerous. This feels like your grandparents’ idea of what “modern” rock music is. After a cursory search online, I’ve found that the movie makes some significant changes to convert a story about rock and roll hedonism into sanitized family friendly fare (spoilers to follow, theatergoers): apparently in the stage version, Cherie and Jaxx had sex, Jaxx remains a creep and flees the country on statutory rape charges, though before that he and Cherie share a lap dance/duet to “Rock Me Like a Hurricane,” the family values crusader characters were new inventions, the Rolling Stone reporter (Malin Akerman, the best singer in the film) is considerably beefed up to provide Jaxx his happy ending, and they don’t even use the song “Oh Cherie.” I’m not a stickler for adaptation changes, but clearly it feels like Rock of Ages had every edge carefully sanded down to reach out to the widest array of mainstream filmgoers (Shankman says he cut Cherie’s lap dance number because it tested poorly with mothers). The funny part is that the movie lambastes a slimy manager (Paul Giamatti) for playing to demo numbers, shooting for pandering mass appeal rather than the art, man. Feel the hypocrisy.
The first hour of Rock of Ages is mildly passable mostly because of the goofy supporting cast, but then the movie just keeps going, getting more and more tedious with every protracted minute. The second half involves Cherie and Drew apart and finding new lows; for him it’s selling his soul to join in a boy band, and for her it’s selling herself, working as a stripper. Let’s look back at that sentence. One of those life choices is not nearly as upsetting as the other. Nothing against the hard-working strippers in this country, but Cherie taking to the pole is definitely more of a moral compromise for the character than whatever the hell Drew endures. It’s this leaden second hour that made me lose faith that Rock of Ages would even provide a morsel of cheesy entertainment. It has the misfortune of two of the blandest leads I’ve ever seen in a musical. Hogue (Footloose) and Boneta (Mean Girls 2) are both physically blessed specimens of human genetics, but oh are these kids boring boring boring. Their love story is completely malnourished and you couldn’t scrape together one interesting thing about them combined. The fact that Rock of Ages further strips away any interesting personality from Cherie (see above) makes them even more disastrously boring. To be stuck with these two for another hour of vapid griping, only to magically get back together, is interminable. Thank God they pumped up the side characters because that is the only time when Rock of Ages even challenges for your attention. Cruise isn’t the best singer but he’s pretty good belting out 80s rock hits, and the man has his natural charisma and stage presence to spare.
So I guess where Rock of Ages goes wrong, and where Les Miserables succeeds, is thinking of how best to translate the experience of the stage to the medium of film. Shankman does a pitiful job staging his musical numbers, with lackluster choreography that rarely takes advantage of the sets and characters. Worse, Shankman feels like he strays from the tone and angle of the stage show, sanitizing the rock and roll lifestyle and looking for ways to squeeze in bland happy endings. In other words, he doesn’t capture enough of the essence of the original stage show to please neophytes and fans of the Broadway show. With Les Miserables, I think most fans of the stage show, and they are legion, will walk away feeling satisfied with the results, content that real artists treated the long-running musical with justice. Hooper opens up the world of the stage show, utilizing the parameters of film, and the emphasis on performance over singing mechanics maximizes the unique power of film. Les Miserables is a grand movie musical smartly adapted to the opportunities of film. Rock of Ages is a sloppy, neutered, criminally boring mess poorly developed and poorly translated to the silver screen. Let this be an educational resource for future generations. Take note, producers, and learn from the mistakes of Rock of Ages and the accomplishments of Les Miserables. Oh, and guys, if you see Les Miserables, it will get you super laid with your girlfriend (I have anecdotal evidence).
Les Miserables: B+
Rock of Ages: C-
In the span of three months, two Pixar vets will be making their live-action filmmaking debuts. Andrew Stanton (WALL-E, Finding Nemo) is directing Disney’s big-budget John Carter of Mars adaptation, which will be released this March. But first is the awkwardly punctuated, colon-hoarding Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol (henceforth referred to as M:I 4), directed by Brad Bird. Any fan of The Incredibles (and who isn’t) knows that Bird is a terrific visual stylist who can compose remarkably exciting action without overlooking characterization. If anyone was ready for the leap into live-action, surely it was this man. Bird is the real star of the movie, and he aces his debut. I think he’s finally living up to the potential he showed with TV’s Family Dog (please note the tongue firmly planted in cheek here).
Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his IMF squad are on the run. They’ve been framed for an explosion that took out the Kremlin. The president has invoked “ghost protocol” meaning that the IMF no longer exists, and every member is cut loose. That means Ethan and his newest team, techno wizard Benji (Simon Pegg), feisty Jane (Paula Patton), and the mysterious Brandt (Jeremy Renner), have no backup. They are considered rogue agents and Russian’s own special police force is hunting them down as well. Hunt and his team must track down and stop an international terrorist, Hendricks (Micheal Nyqvist, the Swedish Girl with Dragon Tattoo series), who sees the global benefit of nuclear catastrophe (I suppose surviving would be the catch). Hendricks has gotten hold of Russian nuclear launch codes and now is looking to put the final pieces together to initiate a war between the United States and Russia, plunging the world into disaster. Hunt’s team travels around the globe to stop this bad man and his bad plan.
Bird delivers in a major way in his live-action film debut. The man behind two of the best animated films of all time and Ratatouille, has shown that his keen skills of directing animation have easily translated to real people and real-ish explosions. Bird is a mad genius when it comes to staging elaborate action sequences; he teases out his action with organic consequences and his camera makes adept use of space and geography, and best of all you can easily follow what’s going on in the frame. So when we have an action sequence that takes place in the tallest skyscraper in the world, you know Bird is going to make fine use of this fact to accentuate his action. And the man does so in spades. The Dubai sequence is probably the how-did-they-do-that? standout that people will be most talking about. Hunt has to climb the outside of the aforementioned tallest building in the world using nothing but some special sticky gloves that don’t always work right. He has to climb several stories up, and then there’s the matter of going back down without them. But M:I 4 doesn’t rest on its laurels, because immediately after this sequence we have a feast of thrills. We segue right into a meeting between two parties where Hunt’s team has to pose as each member of this sit-down, orchestrating two separate simultaneous false meetings with the real bad guys. The two meetings dovetail one another as far their needs, making for a blissful parallel of escalating suspense. And then even after this, we get a foot chase into a sandstorm, which then becomes a dangerous car chase into a sand storm. And there are even more great stunts and spectacular action to come, notably a fight in a futuristic car park where the cars tumble from level to level.
Bird has such a firm command of his action, exercising his inspired imagination and all the tools in the special effects paint box. The screenwriters deserve recognition as well, Josh Applebaum and Andre Nemec, both of whom honed their writing chops on J.J. Abram’s sublime spy show, Alias. Their opening sequence, an escape from a Russian prison, sets the stage with Bird’s smart execution; setting up a problem and then letting the situation play out in surprising yet logical and clever ways. It may not have the epic scope of a Michael Bay flick, but Bird’s action is cool without having to be exhausting or noxious. The frenetic pacing rarely lets room for breathing. One of the film’s quiet moments ended in such a jarring fashion that it startled me and I kicked the patron sitting in front of me. I must also credit Applebaum and Nemec for producing the only Mission: Impossible movie that did not involve a turncoat. I was starting to think that IMF’s Human Resources department was in needing of a good housecleaning. Bird, and the screenwriters, has delivered a Mission: Impossible movie so good, with such kinetic and rewarding action sequences, logically utilized gadgets, sexy cars, sexy gals, and exotic locales. They’ve basically made the best Bond movie not to bear 007’s likeness.
Like the previous Mission: Impossible flick, this one emphasizes the team aspect, which makes a more fulfilling and interesting set of missions. M:I 2 became the “Ethan Hunt kicks people in the face for two hours movie,” which Chuck Norris might approve but otherwise was lacking. When J.J. Abrams got on board in 2006, the brand finally got back to its roots. And a team working together with individual strengths makes for a much more satisfying mission that also allows for multiple points of action. Simply out, if you have three people that need to do stuff in synchronicity, it plays out much better than watching Cruise kick people in the face. Choreography is always better when you have more dancing partners. Anyway, with M:I 4 we get some terrific teamwork that can be just as thrilling as the action sequences. Besides the breathless Dubai sequence, there’s a great sequence where the team has to infiltrate a sleazy Indian businessman’s (Anil Kapoor, the TV host from Slumdog Millionaire) cocktail party to get some special satellite codes. Jane is tasked with seducing the sleazy guy, Benji is left to operate a mechanical rover with a powerful magnet that will levitate Brandt, in a metal suit, across the system’s super hot inner mainframe, and Hunt is trying to lose his Russian pursuers. It’s a great sequence where all the pieces come together for maximum effect.
Cruise has done plenty in the last five years to destroy audience good will, so it’ll be interesting to see if audiences warm back up to the man with the million-dollar smile. Cruise has always been an actor of ebullient energy and charisma, and this has always aided him in action settings and M:I 4 is no different. He’s still a credible action hero and a born movie star, whatever audiences think about his increasingly polarizing personal activities. Lessening Cruise’s load is a smart move, and Pegg (Paul) can provide needed comic relief while Patton (Precious) supplies the sizzle. My goodness can this woman fill out a dress in marvelous ways. Not to be completely sexist, she does a fair amount of ass-kicking too. Her fight with the French femme fatale agent (Lea Seydoux) was all kinds of awesome. Renner (The Town) seems groomed as a potential heir apparent for the franchise. His character is given a small amount of depth to work with, the guilt of a mission gone wrong that has a very personal connection to Hunt. At this point, Renner can do no wrong as an actor in my book. Although there’s only a nine year age difference between Cruise and Renner, so I don’t know how much more mileage that gives you as a franchise. Regardless, Renner is an actor of great conviction and intensity even when he’s silent.
In terms of the franchise, I’d say this fourth installment is just as good as Abrams’ M:I 3, though Abrams had a much better villain and the added emotional urgency of hunt’s wife in distress. Seriously, this is one really boring and completely interchangeable villain. For a movie about the world being on the brink of thermonuclear Armageddon, why do the stakes feel so low? It’s probably because the movie has deliciously orchestrated and eye-popping set pieces but very little urgency. World War III has never felt so ho-hum. Still, it’s hard to fault an action movie when it delivers such high amounts of adrenaline, perfectly packaged in well-developed action beats. This is a high-flying popcorn spectacle of the top order, a grandiose piece of Hollywood escapism. Mission: Impossible 4 is pretty much everything you’d want in a summer blockbuster, only shuttled to winter. I think Bird’s future is limitless, in animation and live-action, and I think the Broccoli family would do us all a favor by tapping Bird to direct a Bond movie. M:I 4 is a pretty good resume for the gig. That would be one mission to die for.
Nate’s Grade: A-