American Made (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
Executed with great style and energy by director Doug Liman, “American Made” becomes all the more baffling with each passing second as it tells the story of an airline pilot named Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) who is recruited by a CIA case officer (Domhnall Gleeson) to take pictures of enemy camps over South America. A quirky premise, one loosely based on a true story, quickly evolves into an entertaining dramatic thriller with both real stakes and enough nuanced comedic touches designed to release our astonishment only to build up again as increasingly tricky situations present themselves. It is for the curious viewer for the material demands the viewer to pay attention and have fun, too.
Cruise fits the role like a glove, banking in on his dependable charm to make the portrayal appear effortless or easy. But imagine a different performer in the role and realize that waking in Seal’s shoes is to traverse a minefield of traps; one wrong note is certain to disrupt the suspense of disbelief that the ace screenplay by Gary Spinelli establishes right from the get-go. While some may cite the fact that Cruise has played similar roles in the past, I argue that it is necessary to have such experiences because the role requires specificity, without leaning on well-worn clichés, in order to come across as believable.
I enjoyed that there is minimal character development. In a way, the story being told does not require it since it is meant to show a risky lifestyle or occupation, one that is not solely motivated by money or luxury but rather excitement and danger. Notice Seal’s reactions when he is about to get caught by authorities. The fear is there—but it is marginal. The realization that it is over and the growing disappointment inch toward the forefront. It is these moments that we get to see Seal not as a smuggler, or a husband, or a father but as a person with an addiction for thrill. Cruise delivers an intelligent performance.
The weakness of the picture, as colorful as it is, both in tone and how it looks, is its lack of willingness to dig more deeply in its supporting characters. For instance, Sarah Wright plays Seal’s wife who knows something is up, Jesse Plemons plays the observant sheriff in a small town in Arkansas, and Caleb Landry Jones plays Seal’s brother-in-law. As the picture goes on, it becomes apparent that any of these three could have done more with their potentially interesting characters. During dramatic moments, Wright appears to have the emotional range to go head-to-head against Cruise. Plemons can give half a suspicious look and it communicates paragraphs. And Jones is such a wildcard that a slight change in body language can turn into a threat. While the material is indeed Seal’s story, it could have been more intriguing had there been more detail regarding the people who surround him.
I found it fresh that at times the film dares to invoke the look and feeling of a music video—certain to alienate viewers who expect a more mainstream way to digest a biographical crime film. Instead, the filmmakers choose to embody the thrilling but dangerous lifestyle of the subject rather than forcing an elegant or restrained tone that is so common within the sub-genre. This gamble pays off because while the content is not especially memorable, its sense of style, its levity, has a good chance of lingering on the mind.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The sixth “Mission: Impossible” film, “Fallout,” written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, plays out like a Greatest Hits collection, making numerous references from previous entries, particularly serving as a direct sequel to “Rogue Nation” in terms of plot and recurring characters. And yet it never comes across as a lazy, last-minute compilation. On the contrary, it strives to entertain the audience by making sure that nearly every element looks bigger and increasingly more impressive as it goes on, especially its jaw-dropping action sequences and practical stunts. I was impressed with its willingness to put the viewers in the middle of the action and provide a specific experience filled with sudden left turns. We know they’re coming—because that is the nature of the franchise—but we’re surprised anyway.
Although the plot is as generic as it comes—a potential weapon of mass destruction is lost to those who wish to use it and the item must be acquired before millions are killed—there is a freshness laid on top of it because the characters who are pushed by the plot are played by performers who are veterans in exuding a certain effortless cool, from familiar faces like Tom Cruise as the moral government agent/main protagonist Ethan Hunt and Simon Pegg as the bumbling but charming tech guy to new additions like Henry Cavill as a formidable assassin assigned to ensure that Hunt follows protocol for once and Angela Bassett as the CIA director who wishes to keep Hunt on a very short leash. These actors sell their roles with convincing authority, colored by a balance of tension and humor that is perfect for summer blockbusters. I could watch these characters simply sitting in a room and conversing. Intense and knowing pauses are required.
Action films are no stranger in showcasing international destinations. Usually, the rule is the more locations are visited, the grander the story being told. However, only a handful, the true standouts, strive to utilize exotic locales as characters in and of themselves. Notice how the first three “Bourne” films manage to stand the test of time. In this picture, for example, Paris is used so thoroughly that its labyrinthine streets and alleyways command personality… and sometimes the personality is dependent upon the district. Narrow walls and cars passing by within speed limit are as dangerous as flying bullets. In other words, its action sequences are never boring exactly because there is more than one way to cripple an enemy. The violence is not reliant upon throwing punches or using guns or assault weapons.
But when it does go back to basics and employ hand-to-hand combat, it remains thrilling. There is a wonderful ballet of kicks and punches early in the picture that involves Hunt and Walker (Cavill) having to face a highly trained assassin (Liang Yang) in the bathroom of the Grand Palais. The goal is to knock the man unconscious so they can make a scan of his face and create a mask… but the men glued by a tenuous partnership get more than they bargained for. Our expectations are played with because we assume Hunt and Walker to have the advantage since it is the first time they are on assignment together. Surely the scene is setting them up to be a surprisingly effective duo. The screenplay’s willingness to forge one step ahead of the audience is perhaps its greatest asset.
It is quite a feat for an action picture to run for one hundred fifty minutes and not for a minute does it wear out its welcome. Whether the action is unfolding in the busy streets of Paris under broad daylight, within the darkness of claustrophobic warehouses, in the grubby sewers, or hundreds of feet up in the air, “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” maintains its high energy, visual acrobatics, and tension-filled encounters. It is a popcorn movie of the highest caliber.
Mummy, The (2017)
★ / ★★★★
In an attempt to establish roots of a potential franchise, those in charge of “The Mummy,” directed by Alex Kurtzman, neglected to create a picture that stands strong on its own first and foremost. What results, for the most part, is an underwritten near-disaster, devoid of entertainment value beyond marginally impressive special and visual effects. Mere CGI should not satiate anybody. Take a look at Stephen Sommers’ 1999 interpretation of “The Mummy.” At the time, it boasts striking use of computer graphic imagery but at the same time effort is put into its characters and storytelling. Sommers’ picture is entertaining in all ways that Kurtzman’s film is not.
I would even go as far as to say that the leads are miscast entirely. Tom Cruise and Annabelle Wallis play a former military officer turned treasure hunter who sells stolen artifacts on the Black Market and an archeologist working for a man named Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe), respectively. While Cruise excels, as expected, during the more kinetic action pieces, notice a significant lack of magnetism and effusive energy when his character, Nick Morton, is required to make a romantic connection with his co-star. Wallis, on the other hand, might as well have been played by a plank with one facial expression drawn on it because she is deathly one-note. Whether it be discovering the find of the century or running away from ghouls, Wallis fails to emote as a regular person would in such situations. We fail to identify with these characters.
The attempts at humor are misguided and misplaced. Perhaps this is due to the the lack of ability to balance conflicting tones. Instead, it relies on a person yelling constantly during action sequences (I found Jake Johnson as the motormouth sidekick to be especially annoying) and employing awkward pauses after punchlines are supposedly delivered. But in order for something to be even mildly amusing, there must be convincing energy behind its efforts. Here, it comes across as though the would-be comical situations and so-called jokes have been plastered on as opposed to something that might occur naturally in this universe.
While the picture has an eye for how an action scene should unfold, dialogues that come before and after are mind-numbingly dull, one-dimensional, almost soporific. We are supposed to be watching characters who have travelled all over the world, who are educated, who have met all sorts of people, experienced or at least have been exposed to different lifestyles. And yet notice how they speak, exchange, and challenge ideas. It were as if they’ve never left the vanilla town they were born and raised in.
Perhaps the most important crime this “Mummy” commits is not showcasing exotic locales. Because Sommers’ films “The Mummy” and “The Mummy Returns” are retroactively beloved, especially the former, people are likely to come in to this picture expecting to see deserts, camels, pyramids, outdoor markets, people from faraway lands, cultures entirely different compared to their own. Instead, the majority of the film takes place either at night, indoors, or underground. It has this dark studio look about it—as if it’s something to boast about. There is really little to no fun to be had here. Notice how I didn’t even provide a synopsis of the plot because it’s entirely trivial.
Jack Reacher (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★
From several hundred yards away, six shots are fired and five people—four women and one man—drop dead. Everyone believes it is an act of random shooting by someone who has gone insane. The investigators, led by Detective Emerson (David Oyelowo), are in luck to have found a fingerprint on a quarter inside a parking meter closest to where they believe the sniper aimed for his targets. It belongs to James Barr (Joseph Sikora) who has conveniently fallen into a coma after fellow inmates almost beat him to death. Lucky for him, his request for a man named Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) reaches Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), the District Attorney’s daughter intent on making sure Barr gets a fair trial, and Reacher pays close attention to the news.
Based on the screenplay and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, “Jack Reacher” is a slick and intelligent thriller that is bold enough to break its razor sharp tension from time to time and allow humor to seep through when it is least expected. What results is a thriller with a gravitational pull; one that is capable of smirking at its audience but it never gives the impression that it is above them.
The opening scene that involves the shooting and the resulting investigation are executed with confidence. Since not one line of dialogue is uttered, just sounds of the gun and images of people running away from danger, horror and curiosity are amplified. It allows us to ask questions not only about the shooter and his motivations, but also those performing the investigation. With the latter, smooth and consistent cuts are utilized. Since no one speaks a word, we do not get the feel of who they are and their methods. We see only the pieces of evidence that must be bagged. There is an immediate red flag. In good thrillers, finding straight-cut answers are almost never that easy.
Cruise employs his usual balance of charm and cold calculation, but this does not mean his techniques are tired. On the contrary, they are appropriate for his character, someone who has had extensive military experience, a ghost in a crowd of faces. Although the plot involves a mystery, Reacher is a curiosity, too. He is quick to put things together and even quicker on his feet. There is a discussion later on involving people who appear smart because they are so specialized in a task or field. Upon closer examination, they are not really. Their response times are just faster than everyone else because, in short, their minds function mostly through familiar patterns. Having not read the novels by Lee Child, I was genuinely interested in figuring out if Reacher was that type of person.
Humor takes center stage when Reacher interacts with ordinary folks, from guys who pick a fight in a bar to an old but spirited man (Robert Duvall) who owns a shooting range. I was tickled by the fact that they tend to underestimate Reacher, whether it has to do with his physicality or ability to logically sort through misinformation, until, of course, it is too late. I probably would have, too, given that the man wears the same shirt every day.
The sexual tension between Reacher and Rodin is uncomfortable but not in an enjoyable way. The manner in which the characters inch toward one another and then having to pull away feels too silly, tonally off, something from a bad romantic comedy. I would rather have seen them have a go at each other and later apply their complete focus and attention on the investigation. Because of this, the final third is disappointing. There is confusion: is Reacher determined to rescue Rodin because he has romantic feelings for her or is his drive mostly due to the remaining guilt from having failed to save someone else?
And then there is the mastermind of it all. This person gives a powerful speech about being a survivor, but we are not given a sufficient answer as to what exactly he or she hopes to benefit from the shooting. A line or two offers an explanation but it is almost too generic for someone who has gone through all the trouble.
★★ / ★★★★
Jack (Tom Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are stationed on war-ravaged Earth to repair drones and they have two more weeks until they can return to Titan, one of Saturn’s moons where the rest of the humans reside. But when Jack investigates a crash site, he opens a hibernation pod containing the body of a woman (Olga Kurylenko) that has somehow made it into his dreams and memories. It has been five years since the mandatory memory wipe.
For a movie set in the future with a lot of history involving a war between humans and an alien race called Scavs (short for “scavengers”), “Oblivion,” based on the screenplay by Joseph Kosinski, Karl Gajdusek, and Michael Arndt, is surprisingly thin in story—not at all one that we can get into and get our hands dirty. Instead, it is taped up with amazing visuals and wacko twists. Neither is good enough to pull off an enveloping experience.
The look of the picture is worth admiring. Seeing American landmarks demolished, surrounded by water, or almost completely covered in sand urged me to look closer at the screen. Because the images are seemingly without fault, it is easy to buy into the reality that there really was a nuclear war many years ago, along with catastrophic events incited by the destruction of the moon, and the repercussions of the attempted invasion linger.
Cruise’s performance stands out each time the camera is on him while he is surrounded by a vast nothingness. During those scenes, even though his character is not interacting with someone face-to-face, Cruise puts a story in his eyes. I believed the yearning and confusion in Jack’s fragmented memories. When the action scenes arrive, we care about what happens to him even though we do not completely forget that we are watching Cruise the movie star. Later, we are asked to evaluate who Jack really is.
This is where the problem lies. While the surprises remain connected to the story, there is a lack of a believable weight behind the revelations. Without revealing too much, I was not convinced that the writers thought about them completely especially how such information would impact the psychology of the characters. Not enough time is given to them—and us—to absorb what is really going on and what they might imply. Yes, the twists took me by surprise but I was not emotionally invested. On the contrary, I found them laughable at times. To me, the final scene is a complete misfire, straddling the line between convenience and manipulation.
Directed by Joseph Kosinski, there is no denying that “Oblivion” is easy on the eyes, but it is not written with enough intelligent and subversive layers, qualities that separate merely passable and truly memorable science fiction films, so that we are entertained on a sensory level and are inspired to really think about the emotional and psychological challenges the protagonist must go through after his discoveries. It is unremarkable.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★
Parallel to the discovery that the IMF had been a pawn by an international terrorist group called The Syndicate, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his fellow IMF agents (Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, Ving Rhames) have been dissolved thanks to the CIA director’s (Alec Baldwin) insistence to the Senate committee that the group is a liability. He argues that Hunt and his crew often go off-track from established protocols and although they are able to deliver favorable results, these are almost always accomplished through sheer luck. Meanwhile, Hunt attempts to locate the leader of The Syndicate (Sean Harris) but it proves especially difficult because the man is often already three steps ahead.
Based on the screenplay and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” is another fine addition to a series that had seemingly lost its way during the second installment but it has since, like a phoenix, risen from the ashes during its third outing and has only gotten better since. Perhaps a critical factor of the series’ success is, aside from Cruise’s magnetic presence as well as willingness to perform his own outrageous stunts, the decision to hire directors with the required vision and efficiency to frame and execute highly effective action sequences.
The picture reaches its peak when Hunt engages in a mission in Casablanca. It involves an underwater sequence so complicated and exciting that I found myself squirming in my seat because there came a point where I could not come up with ways how he could possibly extricate himself from increasingly impossible situations. A powerful statement is made when the audience already knows it is all going to turn out all right eventually and yet the material still manages to surprise. And despite the dangers the characters go through, the script is able to sneak in a handful of bona fide laughs.
Rebecca Ferguson plays Ilsa Faust, a woman whose allegiance is, for the most part, remains rather gray. In a lot of ways, the actor is perfectly cast. She is very beautiful —which is very necessary if we were to believe that Hunt would be drawn to her—and yet it is difficult to trust that beauty. For instance, time and again the character seemingly has a tendency toward betrayal but because she is written as someone who has a distinct set of circumstances, we root for her to make the right choices not only for herself but also for those who set up the chess pieces just so in order to allow her to execute more moves during the game. I enjoyed watching Faust because there is intrigue behind the character. This makes her a cut above many recent kick-ass female characters in action pictures released in the past ten years—within and outside of this series.
Movies in this genre is almost always defined by its villain. Solomon Lane, the leader of The Syndicate, is smart and can be genuinely intimidating at times—especially Harris’ voice and manner of phrasing threats—but we do not come to know very much about him. This is a weakness because even though we know his endgame, the nook and cranny of his motivation is left in the mist.
“Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” commands effervescent chase scenes, whether vehicles are involved or old-fashioned running toward a target. Notice the level of danger mounting when the score goes silent and all we hear are the footsteps and their echoes. It takes elements typically found in thrillers and sandwiches them between moments of catharsis, from knife fights to eyebrow-raising surprises.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
★★★★ / ★★★★
After the death of a patient, Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) walks around New York City and enters a jazz club where one of his former classmates, who dropped out of medical school, is supposed to play the piano. Nick Nightingale (Todd Field) tells Bill that he has another gig later that night—one that is particularly strange because he is required to play blindfolded. In addition, the event’s location is held at a different place every time and he is told only an hour prior where it will take place. Piqued with curiosity, Bill insists that he goes with Nick to the party but, clearly, it is not open to guests. One needs to provide the password at the gate and the attendee to be costumed and masked.
“Eyes Wide Shut,” Stanley Kubrick’s final work, is a film that functions on several planes. On one hand, it works as an exploration of marriage and the roles spouses play in order to stay married. On the other, it is a descent into a nightmarish dreamworld which involves a thriving secret society that is willing to do whatever it takes to keep its business hidden. It is a beautiful-looking film from top to bottom, but the aesthetic enhances the experience of us getting to know Bill as a husband and as a man, which at times are mutually exclusive spheres.
What it is not is a simplistic skin flick meant to titillate but offering little substance. The dialogue is rich with passion, guilt, and frustration—particularly memorable is the scene where Bill’s wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman), confesses to her partner of nine years that just a summer ago, she contemplated of having an affair with a young Naval officer. The scene is one that constantly evolves. It begins with a level of sensuality. As the argument heats up, amusing elements are introduced and we are left to wonder whether the space between the lovers will dissolve or grow. It is exciting that it is entirely possible to go either way. Finally, the scene ends with a catharsis and sadness, followed by a phone call that brings terrible news.
Cruise and Kidman’s performances are colorful and engaging. Kidman is particularly entertaining in playing a character who is under the influence, whether it be of one too many alcoholic beverages or marijuana. Though Kidman’s screen time is about a third of her co-star, she hits the nail on the head in every one of them. Notice the way she plays Alice, who is a little bit drunk at a Christmas party, when a man named Sandor Szavost (Sky du Mont) expresses his interest to take her upstairs to, supposedly, show her some art. What could have been a tacky scene turns into an elegant power play. Admittedly, I wanted to see her commit an act of infidelity. I suspected that she also wanted to but her senses are not yet numb to the ring on her finger.
On the other side of the spectrum, Cruise plays Bill almost stoic most of the time but he is never boring. His curiosity tends to lead to one close call after another, whether it be of getting caught by his wife as he considers being physically intimate with another woman or being physically hurt by members of a secret society after they discover his trespasses. As the picture goes on, we are all the more convinced that he is out of his depth. There is suspense when his hundred dollar bills and the title in front of his name are no longer able to save him from what must happen.
Some argue that the set is never a convincing stand-in for New York City. They miss the point completely. I believe the exterior shots are not meant to look real, just as outer appearances of the characters do not accurately provide a real representation of themselves. The interior shots, on the other hand, are entirely different. These are very detailed—from the paintings on walls, books on shelves, bottles and glasses of wine on tables, to textures of carpets and rugs in every room. We get a sense of how they live, what they like, where their interests lie.
Based on the screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Frederic Raphael, “Eyes Wide Shut” challenges the mind and the senses. Some may even find it to be a physical trial due to its running time of two and a half hours. But one thing cannot be denied: A dark artistry is at work here and once one has adapted to its rhythm, one will not want to look away.
Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★
Five years since the invasion of extraterrestrial beings called Mimics comes hope that these formidable creatures can be eradicated once and for all. To claim surefire victory, General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) spearheads Operation Downfall which involves troops being airdropped on a beach in France, closing out the west side of Europe as the Chinese and Russians do the same from the east.
Brigham assigns Major Cage (Tom Cruise) to be with the troops, as a symbol of support and as additional hand in the defining battle, but Cage insists that he is not at all combat-ready. He urges that he remains only as a spokesman for the United Defense Forces. The next day, Cage wakes up at Heathrow Airport, stripped off his title, while final preparations for the crucial attack are made.
Confident in execution and proudly wearing its inspirations on its sleeve, “Edge of Tomorrow,” based on the screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, is a rousing, funny, entertaining sci-fi action with enough brains and visual spectacles to satisfy a spectrum of audiences. Note, however, that it is neither the most thoughtful movie about mortality nor an allegory of facing the so-called Other, but it impresses on multiple facets, mainly on the level of a summer blockbuster flick—and that is not a backhanded compliment.
Cruise shows that he is a seasoned actor not because he does his own stunts and capable of delivering lines in a very intense way when absolutely necessary—although these are impressive on their own—but because he is aware that in order for his character come across as a believable protagonist, he must act as he if he were in a dramatic picture even though the genre is clearly science fiction. Notice the subtle transition of cowardly Cage to someone who commands a fiery will to protect a woman he has fallen in love with (Emily Blunt) and win against the alien invaders. Subtlety in acting is uncommon when it comes to movies that, in Roger Ebert’s immortal words, blow stuff up real good.
The plot is a mixture of the opening scene of Steven Spielberg’s excellent “Saving Private Ryan” and Harold Ramis’ highly amusing “Groundhog Day.” Cage gains the ability to reset the dreaded day over and over as long as he dies—by accident, by being killed, or by his own hand. He is a smart character and able to learn quickly from his mistakes. The drawback is that he is stubborn and he tends to lose track of the bigger picture when his love interest is involved. I enjoyed that the screenplay is aware that believable heroes have both internal and external flaws. Imperfections keep the audience watching.
Admittedly, the conceit of resetting the day began to wear me down eventually. Although I knew it was necessary to the plot and the story, I wished that the writers had found a way to change the rules of the game halfway through instead of pushing it until the final quarter. Yes, the picture changes gears eventually.
I wanted to know details about the invaders. For example, what do the aliens want from Earth exactly? We never learn for sure. There is one line of speculation during the first ten minutes of the film and the rest is thrown out the window. Are there many others out there with Cage’s ability? There is talk of the person with the reset ability being psychically linked to the aliens, but given that there are other humans out there with the same or similar ability, can they connect with each other’s thoughts?
Perhaps these are not questions I should be asking. But my point is this: It would not have hurt the film if it had been more ambitious. It gets the look exactly right, from the so-called strength-amplifying jackets that soldiers must wear to fight against Mimics to the bare ruins of once beautiful cities that tourists from all over the world once relished, but the scope of its universe feels very limited. Great science fiction films are unafraid to take risks and go beyond what the audience expects.
Directed by Doug Liman, “Edge of Tomorrow” is nonetheless a movie worth seeing because it is fun, energetic, visually striking, and has a sense of humor. One word of warning: If one goes into this looking for plot holes (it must be terrible being a cynic), one would likely see them and inevitably be disappointed. But if one goes into it just hoping to be entertained, one would likely get exactly what he or she wants. Sometimes that is more than enough.
Rock of Ages (2012)
★ / ★★★★
Sherrie (Julianne Hough) leaves Oklahoma for Hollywood to pursue her dream of becoming a singer. Her romantic view of the city, however, is tarnished as soon as she arrived when her suitcase full of favorite rock records is stolen. Drew (Diego Boneta), who works for The Bourbon Room located on Sunset Strip, witnesses the whole thing and informs the country girl that there might be a waitressing job for her given that someone had just quit her post. Meanwhile, Mike Whitmore (Bryan Cranston), recently voted mayor, and his wife, Patricia (Catherine Zeta-Jones), plan to implement the “Clean Up the Strip” movement, eliminating the purported negative influence of so-called satanic rock n’ roll, starting with The Bourbon.
Based on the screenplay by Justin Thereoux, Chris D’Arienzo, and Allan Loeb, “Rock of Ages” is a toothless musical with great classic rock songs under its belt but held back by underwhelming renditions, a boring central couple so devoid of inspiration and chemistry that they might as well have been taken right out of a television show doomed for cancellation in five episodes or less, and subplots that tease but never actually deliver.
It seems as though the writing is built around the cover songs which is almost never a good idea. Instead of engaging us in a flow as the story follows a clear path while learning surprising discoveries about people who consider rock music as their religion, the pacing is distractingly episodic and often desultory. The script gives neither time nor room for the characters to grow in a natural and believable way which makes every important change that they must eventually undergo feel like a sham.
While Hough and Boneta is a physically attractive couple on screen, I had no idea why the writers thought it was a good idea to have teenagers sing these songs other than the fact that they wished to appeal to the 12-21 demographic. The pair looks foolish singing the songs because their characters are supposed to radiate cotton candy youthful verve but the songs they sing often have a certain mature angst coursing through them. Because of the polarity between characterization and song choices, it isn’t convincing that they really know what they are singing about. Instead, they come off too cutesy and trying too hard.
The same assessment can be applied to the characters who treat rock n’ roll as a disease that must be expunged. If they consider rock music evil, then why are they expressing their anger and frustration through the genre they claim to abhor? It doesn’t make sense. This could have been circumvented if the writers have been less lazy, eliminating the “good versus bad” mentality altogether, and construct a story worth telling and thinking about. The classic songs that the picture attempts to tackle have lasted through the years for a reason. While most of them are supremely catchy, they are memorable because there’s something about the songs that people across generations find relatable.
The film is at its best when it isn’t afraid to get down and dirty. I loved (and feared) Stacee Jaxx because he is a specific character played to devilish perfection by Tom Cruise. It is difficult to read the man underneath the rock god persona because he is either drowning in alcohol or blinded by the possibility of having sex with women. And yet, once or twice he is given a chance to express that maybe he’s smarter and more caring than he lets on. In this instance, the contradiction works because not only is the actor given the material and time to develop his character, he is willing to take risks in order to challenge our expectations. Hence, when he sings soulful and angry songs, he doesn’t look like a fool: he is able to transport us to the film’s 1987 milieu.
Directed by Adam Shankman, “Rock of Ages” suffers greatly from a lack of ambition by the casting agents and writers. What’s supposed to be celebratory material feels like a dirge that lasts for over two hours.
★★ / ★★★★
Cadet Brian Moreland (Timothy Hutton) had been recently promoted to major by General Harlan Bache (George C. Scott) who was in charge of Bunker Hill Military Academy. Moreland looked up to the general and wished to prove he was worthy of the promotion during the upcoming school year. But when General Bache announced that the school was in its final year because the land had been sold, Moreland and the other cadets seized the campus and wouldn’t stand down until their three demands were met. Based on the novel “Father Sky” by Devery Freeman and directed by Harold Becker, “Taps” aimed to explore rebellion in a military milieu but its arguments were too black and white for it to be more than superficially interesting. I paid special attention to Moreland because he defined honor as adopting a stance and seeing it through no matter what the cost. He was a good guy with friends like Cadet Captains Alex Dwyer (Sean Penn) and David Shawn (Tom Cruise), but his actions weren’t always practical. He believed he was doing the right thing by defending their school, which was essentially their home, but he wasn’t always sensitive to the needs of his fellowmen. He knew the concept of sacrifice but he didn’t fully understand how to implement such a concept wisely. He straddled the tricky stage between being a young civilian and a soldier. However, there were a plethora of missed opportunities for the main character’s beliefs to be challenged and ultimately make us think. There were a few awkward scenes when Moreland and Dwyer, roommates, would walk in on each other, give one another fierce looks but never speak. Perhaps their conversations didn’t make it past the cutting room floor. If so, it made me wonder why such head-scratching scenes made it to the final product. A meaningful conversation between two friends was exactly what the film required especially with the events that transpired in the film’s final five minutes. Even mundane conversations would have given their characters dimension. Both teenagers were smart and they respected each other. Having commonalities and eventually highlighting their differences would have provided extra tension aside from the fact that the real military was right outside the gates of the academy. Cruise’ bellicose character was not used efficiently. We were supposed to take him seriously but he was always present whenever the material needed comic relief. There was no evolution in his character so his actions toward the end felt too forced. “Taps” rested on conflict that we could see: the tanks and more experienced soldiers at the gate, the helicopters that hovered above, and the worried parents talking over the loudspeaker. The students’ rebellion was a personal matter, one even acknowledged the strike as their own war, but their inner turmoils weren’t fully explored. Like the military men on the other side of the gate, as audiences, we were kept mostly on the other side.
Vanilla Sky (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★
David Aames (Tom Cruise) seemed to have it all: he was rich, he could have any woman he wanted, he could be great at his job if he wanted to, and a very good friend, Brian (Jason Lee), was only a phone call away. But what David didn’t have was romantic stability. David and Julie (Cameron Diaz) would hook up and the two share great sex. However, Sofia (Penélope Cruz), Brian’s date, caught David’s eye during a party at his fancy loft. Suddenly, his affection was torn between the two women. Julie did not like it one bit. Based on Alejandro Amenábar’s film “Abre los ojos,” Cameron Crowe’s “Vanilla Sky” deceptively started off like a romance picture but it evolved into a mystery and changed once again into a curiosity. What I loved most about it was its audacity to dream big. Its tone and storytelling techniques always changed; the events felt like fragments of memories and they didn’t seem to fit. A question gave birth to other questions in an exponential rate. We were offered possible explanations but we had a choice not to accept them. I didn’t know what was going on some of the time but I found myself fascinated with what the movie was attempting to say. It was like sitting in front of someone who had been almost completely paralyzed and it tried to communicate with nothing but its eyes. I’ve seen Cruise embody plenty of roles but I believe David was one of his best. Two scenes stood out to me and they reminded me why was he was a movie star. David’s face had been horribly disfigured. He had a meeting with doctors and he expected that they had solutions to fix his face. After all, money was no issue because he commanded an empire. Unfortunately, the doctors had nothing but roundabout ways of saying there wasn’t anything they could do. In that scene, the way Cruise controlled his character from quietly hopeful to a monster full of rage stripped me of my defenses. I probably would have reacted the same way. David claimed it wasn’t about vanity. We should all know it was exactly about vanity but there was something more to it. Reclaiming his face was an act of getting his power back. Another strong scene was when David finally decided to show his scarred face to Sofia after months of hiding in his apartment. Cruise made David extremely vulnerable. He was ashamed of his ugliness and he felt even uglier because Sofia was so beautiful. David must have felt like he wasn’t worthy of being considered a person. It was like watching an exiled king, now a leper, begging to admitted back to his kingdom. Notice that I’m highlighting the emotions because I believe “Vanilla Sky” was, first and foremost, an emotional journey. The last thirty minutes asked us to take a giant leap of faith. Without being emotionally invested, we wouldn’t take that leap. I believe the reason why the film polarized audiences was because half didn’t feel emotionally connected to David. For those that did, half probably felt like they were constantly getting tricked by the push and pull forces of real and fantasy. In other words, they felt cheated. But I consider “Vanilla Sky” a wonderful entertainment because I felt like a homicide detective. In most homicide cases, not all the pieces fit exactly as we expect them to, despite what TV shows led us to believe, but those pieces that do are enough to provide a clear picture.