(On Cable TV, June 2018) Interesting things happen when directors and superstar develop working relationships. I’m not sure that we would have American Made with Tom Cruise had it not been directed by Doug Liman, and if both of them hadn’t worked together on Edge of Tomorrow. No matter how we got here, American Made features Tom Cruise as a pilot who (he says) gets hired by the CIA to do dodgy things such as run drug shipments, liaise with drug lords and generally do what the CIA was suspected of doing in the 1980s. There’s a lot of “allegedly” here, but much of it does fit with what we know of CIA operations at the time. Under Liman’s direction, the story becomes a wild ride with quite a bit of colour correction as the protagonist escapes day-to-day drudgery to run an exciting double life as a covert agent. There’s quite a bit of flight romance here—don’t be surprised to want to learn to fly a small plane after seeing what they do here. (Although the crash sequence is a cautionary moment.) The film works generally well, even with its inevitable grim finale and the numerous deviations from the real event that (allegedly) inspired the movie. Cruise’s innate charm are a good fit for the roguish character portrayed here (and only loosely based on inspiration Barry Seal), giving further sympathy and energy to the film. There have been many 1980s biopics lately, but American Made does have a few good action sequences to it, some comedy and a few links to recent history. It’s not a great movie, but it is good enough.
(Netflix Streaming, March 2018) What annoys me about Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is that the series of novels upon which the films are based, Lee Child’s “Reacher” cycle, is special. They’re above-average thrillers in which the true shape of the plot is often hidden from view until late in the story. Reacher is an extraordinary character, and Child has honed his writing ability to deliver exactly what a modern adventure series should provide. Sit down with a Reacher book, and you’ll be guaranteed (at one or two exceptions) a solid entertainment experience well above the norm for the genre. Alas, the film adaptation, and particularly this second instalment, has been the definition of average … if not even below average. Plus, as has been endlessly rehashed, Tom Cruise is all wrong for the part. If the first Jack Reacher film managed to be a decent thriller, Never Go Back starts off promisingly, but then becomes less and less interesting until it becomes a bog-standard arms-dealing film, executed limply. It’s actually hard to care for most of what’s happening in the second half of the film given that it feels like so many other similar movies. Cruise is bland in the role, and saddling the story with a potential-paternity subplot does little to humanize the character or give him a personal stake. All told, Never Go Back is a dud—and it should pretty much ensure that a so-so series remains dead for the foreseeable future. That’s not exactly bad news for Reacher fans—at least the books are still coming out every year.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) There’s something … off about this newest edition of The Mummy that exemplifies the worst in modern blockbuster movies. It’s not even worth comparing to the already classic 1999 film that perfectly blended comedy with adventure and introduced us to Rachel Weisz. It’s clunky enough on its own terms. Part of the problem is pitching the film as the first in the “Dark Universe” (nice logo!), an acknowledged copycatting of the MCU that is up to its third attempt to launch a shared universe of movies: We get glimpses of intriguing things, but the film keeps its best shots in reserve in anticipation of something else. Part of the problem is Tom Cruise, increasingly too old and too proud to play the same roles in the same way. Part of the problem is a script that doesn’t quite know what to do with itself, and suffers from a dull premise that can’t manage to tie everything together. It’s shorter to list the things that aren’t a problem: Sofia Boutella is (as usual) fantastic and alluring in her role as the villain mummy Ahmanet—sufficiently so, in fact, that she practically becomes the sympathetic protagonist to cheer for. Russell Crowe is enjoyable as Dr. Jekyll—the film can’t figure out what to do with the character, but Crowe’s hulking bulk is used to good effect. The plane crash sequence (as a few other scenes here and there) is well executed. Bits and pieces of the shared universe are admittedly cool—having classic Universal monsters interact and a secret organization to keep track of them isn’t a bad idea, even though The Mummy isn’t the best showcase for such a crossover event. Alas, there is so much boring stuff in the film that it struggles to keep our interest whenever Ahmanet isn’t on-screen—Annabelle Wallis is dull as the nominal heroine, and the various shenanigans regarding Cruise’s character and his relationship to death are really far less interesting than they should have been. And then there’s the ugly side of the script (a plane crash next to THE church required for the next plot point! Sandstorm in London?) and a hero we don’t really care for. Still, this is a big-budget action fantasy film, and there’s enough stuff in here to be worth a forgiving watch. I wouldn’t necessarily mind another Dark Universe film—The Mummy, after all, is better than Dracula Untold and I, Frankenstein. But after three false starts, wouldn’t it be time to put the idea to rest?
(On DVD, September 2017) Every so often, Tom Cruise’s superstar stature and kooky personal peculiarities can make everyone forget that he can act. Fortunately, there are plenty of counterexamples throughout his career, few as hard-hitting as his performance in Born on the Fourth of July, as he goes from naïve high-schooler to disillusioned Vietnam veteran. Ably written and directed by Oliver Stone, this is a film that, in many ways, stands as a definitive statement on the experience of many Vietnam veterans—lured into service by idealism, wounded in combat, ostracized by American society. It’s not an easy film to watch, but Cruise is really good in the lead role and the movie acts as a witness to an inglorious period in American history that shouldn’t be forgotten. It’s a long movie, but then again it spans more than a decade in a young man’s life, and part of Cruise’s challenge is to portray both a naïve high-schooler and a grizzled veteran. Willem Defoe also shows up in a pivotal role. Born on the Fourth of July acts as a spiritual sequel of sorts to Platoon, and definitely ranks in the upper third of Stone movies.
(Second viewing, On TV, December 2016) I’ve been re-watching a fair amount of eighties movies lately, and I’m struck by what ages well and what doesn’t. Re-watching Top Gun, I’m most struck by its absence of subtlety. The macho ego is in naked display here, whether it’s flying planes or wooing women, the characters do it without the semblance of sophistication. The entire movie is like this: straight to the point, unimpeded by complexity. The producers (celebrated duo Jerry Bruckheimer & Don Simpson) clearly aimed for that result. The typically American glorification of the military is never far below the surface, and the anti-foreign jingoism isn’t either. Watching Top Gun, it seems almost absurd that it would have worked as well as it did … but it did, and continues to do so today. To be fair, Tom Cruise is a lot of fun in full alpha male mode, and while his banter with Val Kilmer may be on-the-nose, it does feel of a kind with the rest of the film. Kelly McGillis isn’t bad either, and while her character is a prize, she’s somewhat more complex than she could have been. The scene starring the airplanes are nice (although hampered by the production constraints of the time—a Top Gun shot today would feature far more CGI, even if used invisibly) and there are some intriguing real-world details in the depiction of flight officer school. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that I enjoyed Top Gun: Its bluntness hasn’t aged well, and seems to belong to an entirely different culture. But it’s certainly a striking film even today, and it has the advantages of its weaknesses. I, on the other hand, will watch Hot Shots! as an antidote.
(Second Viewing, On TV, December 2016) Movies that age well usually manage to have timeless themes while being set at a precise time and place. So it is that Rain Man still manages to be endearing, largely because it tackles a difficult subject honestly while definitely remains a product of the mid-eighties. Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman truly star as the mismatched brothers at the heart of the story: The film would be a much lesser piece of work without Cruise’s yuppie chic and Hoffman’s now-iconic mannerisms. The transformation of the film into a road movie is good for a few chuckles, but it also literalizes a long journey of self-discovery for the lead character. Obvious stuff, but capably executed. Where Rain Man doesn’t work so well any more is in its uniqueness and its treatment of autism: At a time when TV shows are dominated by high-functioning autists being presented as superheroes (and I say this as a confirmed fan of both Sherlock and Elementary), the grab bag of idiot savant mannerisms being presented as typical markers of autists is disingenuous—most severely autistic people are nowhere near as charismatic or skillful as Hoffman’s character … but that’s Hollywood for you. Thirty years later, Rain Man remains a joy to watch, and a striking film in part due to its willingness to give the most reasonable ending to everyone involved.
(On Cable TV, October 2016) I’ve complained about this before, so feel free to tune out as I once again complain about the disappearance of the bid-budget realistic thriller in today’s spectacle-driven cinema. A movie like The Firm, adapted from John Grisham’s best-selling novel, focusing on realistic elements and featuring a bunch of well-known actors would be a much tougher sell twenty years later. And that’s too bad, because there’s a lot more to like here than in an umpteenth dull fantasy movie going over the same plot points. While I don’t claim that The Firm is a work of genius, it’s a solid thriller aimed at post-teenage audiences. It did pretty well at the box office, and it’s not hard to understand why in-between good actors such as Tom Cruise, Gene Hackman, a bald Ed Harris, Jeanne Tripplehorn and Holly Hunter working at their peak (with surprising appearances by pre-Saw Tobin Bell as an assassin and Wilford Brimley as a notably evil character) and a story that needles both organized crime and government. The thrills may not feel pulse-pounding by today’s standard, but the film makes up for it through semi-clever plotting, a good handle on the revelations of its material and protagonists sympathetic enough that we’re invested in them rather than the action itself. If I sound like a cranky old critic bemoaning the state of current cinema, it’s largely because The Firm is both an exemplary piece of early-nineties filmmaking and a contrast to today’s similarly budgeted films. It’s got this particular pre-digital patina, a serious intent and actors being asked to actually act throughout the film. I’m not as pessimistic about 2016 cinema as you may guess from this review, but I could certainly stand a few more of those movies today.
(On TV, July 2016) Nearly everyone can quote Jack Nicholson’s furious “You can’t handle the truth!” but watching A Few Good Men highlights how that line works best as a culmination rather than a standalone quote. A somewhat sombre judicial drama in which a hotshot lawyer (Tom Cruise, remarkably good) takes on the US Marines establishment in an effort to discover what happened to a dead soldier, A Few Good Men is the kind of slick mainstream drama that has almost disappeared from the box-office top-ten. Slickly made with a roster of good actors, it has the means to present its story as effectively as possible. The result is a good comfortable film, handled with old-school care. It may not be all that efficient (the opening act is notably slow, and missteps in initially focusing on a character who’s not the real protagonist) but it’s competent and slowly makes its way to a conclusion heavy on shouting and courtroom excitement. Jack Nicholson is good in a surprisingly small role (it looks as if he showed up for a few days of work), Kiefer Sutherland pops up as a soldier, while Demi Moore doesn’t impress all that much in a fairly conventional role that leaves far too much glory to Tom Cruise’s character.
(Video on Demand, March 2016) It’s a minor miracle that the Mission: Impossible series is still going strong after five instalments, but after the near-death-by-ridiculousness of the second movie, the series has managed to hit upon a winning formula that still keeps it going nearly twenty years later. The formula is getting a bit repetitive (can we stand another of those “Ethan Hunt must operate without official support!” plot point?) but nearly everyone understands that plotting in this series is really about getting from one action set-piece to the next, and in this regard Rogue Nation is as good as any other instalment in the series. Tom Cruise’s ridiculously effective charisma helps, and so does the work of the series’ usual supporting players, but this time around the film can count upon a fully fleshed action heroine played by Rebecca Ferguson (too bad she won’t show up for the next instalment, as is custom), straightforward action direction by Christopher McQuarrie, and a pretty enjoyable supporting performance by Alec Baldwin, making the most out of a villainous persona. Good action set pieces include a complex opera house sequence and a frantic car chase in which the pursuer isn’t completely back from the dead. On the flip side, the computer break-in sequence is piled-up nonsense that borrows a bit too much from the first movie, and the final act of the film doesn’t have a strong action sequence as a send-off. The fantasy version of the espionage craft displayed by the series also cuts both ways, either as an escapist bonus, or as a regrettable absurdity when a bit more plotting realism would help anchor the delirious action sequences. This being said, Rogue Nation has the benefit of meticulously planned sequences and a controlled tone throughout—making it stand a bit above most of the other spy movies of 2015’s anno furtivus—yes, even better than Spectre, with which it shared a striking number of plot points. What’s left to do but anticipate the next instalment?
(On Cable TV, September 2015) Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney takes on the church of Scientology in Going Clear, and the result is as fascinating as any of his other movies. Adapted from Lawrence Wright’s book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, it’s a highly critical look at the inner workings of Scientology, featuring a number of disillusioned former high-ranking members of the organization. After a look at the colorful life of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, Going Clear spends time detailing the recent and current activities of the organization and the reasons why several of its former members have left it. Along the way, the relationship between Scientology and its star members John Travolta and Tom Cruise is detailed in ways to make us understand how they all benefit from the association. It’s a slick documentary, although the “dramatic recreation” segments meant to illustrate some of the material is overdone: the interview alone are compelling enough. Going Clear is builds to a highly critical portrait of Scientology, packaging together a lot of material that has been available for years but seldom presented in such a self-contained form. Read the film’s Wikipedia article for more details on the ensuing controversy.
(On Cable TV, February 2015) As a director, Doug Liman’s been hit-and-miss, but Edge of Tomorrow is a definite hit. You could crudely summarize the film as “sci-fi Groundhog Day” (even though it’s adapted from a Japanese Science-Fiction novel) and grind your teeth at the dumb setup in which humans are somehow stuck fighting aliens in a European ground war. But once the mechanics of the time-loop premise are laid out and the complications begin piling up for our protagonist, Edge of Tomorrow gains a strong forward narrative drive. Tom Cruise is pretty good as a back-room officer thrust into bloody combat, especially when he has to relive the same events over and over again until he gets it right. You can dig a bit into the film and come away with strong commentary on video-game playing and the consequences of choice, but it’s just as easy to be swept along by the fast-paced action and dark humor. Emily Blunt has a terrific role as a battle-hardened veteran, and she sells it perfectly. (Although I would have liked an older female actress in the role, just to lower the age difference between her and Cruise) Edge of Tomorrow definitely hits its stride in its middle third as time-loop possibilities are ingeniously exploited, and the film’s editing is taught-tight. It’s a bit unfortunate that the film’s third act seems so flaccid after such high notes: The night-time Paris sequence seem suddenly interminable and visually bleak, although I’m sucker enough for a happy ending that I won’t begrudge the sudden changes in the film’s rules in time for the coda. Edge of Tomorrow is just different and playful enough to distinguish itself from other run-of-the-mill SF action films, although it’s flawed enough to make anyone wish for a few further tweaks. Still: Not bad at all.
(Video on Demand, September 2013) For all of the nice things I have to say about Oblivion, there’s something just… off in the way it comes together. The first few minutes don’t quite establish the required suspension of disbelief required for it to work smoothly: The visuals it presents don’t make a lot of sense and the pandering to modern lowest-denominator audiences seems blatant (let’s see: Yankees cap, Football stadium, dog, motorcycle and a cabin in the woods. Yup, just one regular guy, no wacky sci-fi to see here…) For viewers used to prose science-fiction Oblivion seems to pivot entirely on a familiar cognitive breakthrough structure, and the way it self-importantly reveals its secrets is a bit annoying, as if it expected audience’s minds to be blown apart by fairly obvious reveals. The plot doesn’t quite seem to hold together the longer you look at it, and the visuals it shows (combining a ruined New York with what looks like epochal landscape alteration) are so nonsensical as to make anyone’s head hurt. But let’s focus on the positive for a moment: It’s a science-fiction film that’s not explicitly based on existing intellectual properties, it features relatively original imagery (the “house in the clouds” is particularly nice) and it has the willingness to combine familiar tropes into a somewhat cohesive whole. For writer/director Joseph Kosinski, it’s certainly a step up from the pretty-but-vapid Tron: Legacy. Tom Cruise is overbearingly Tom Cruise-ish in the lead role (see “Yankees cap, football, motorcycle” above), but the supporting performances by Morgan Freeman, Andrea Riseborough and Olga Kurylenko bring a bit of balance in the film. While there’s little that’s objectionably wrong in Oblivion, it doesn’t click either, and that’s a more crucial problem in SF movies than in other genres due to the required suspension of disbelief. While it certainly looks nice and feels more original than yet another sequel of a comic-book movie adaptation, it doesn’t seem to have enough heft to it, and given the nature of the film’s revelation it’s hard imagining watching this a second time for fun.
(Video on Demand, May 2013) Let’s get something out in writing right away: As a confirmed fan of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, I still have issues in seeing Tom Cruise cast as Reacher. It doesn’t have to do with Cruise’s diminutive frame trying to occupy Reacher’s hulk of a character –it has to do with the way Cruise never plays less than a superstar, whereas my mental image of Reacher has always been about the way he tries to be inconspicuous in order to better do his job… at least until being conspicuous best serves his purpose. But you can safely ignore this kvetching as another in an infinite line of book fans moaning about movie adaptations, because taken on its own and not as an adaptation of Child’s One Shot, Jack Reacher is a fairly strong thriller, with better-than-average plotting, efficient dialogues, solid direction and an unobtrusive sense of style. As with the novel, it takes a while for the true nature of the plot to emerge, and there is a satisfying amount of complications along the way. Cruise is his usual mister-megawatt-smile self, gamely hoping that his charisma will forgive the series’ built-in lack of character development and launch another franchise under his name. Well, I, for one, hope it goes forward –I may not love Reacher as much on the screen as I do on the page, but I would certainly go see other films in the series.
(On-demand video, November 2012) I’m a forgiving fan of movie musicals and as such I’m pretty happy with Rock of Ages, which grabs eighties-rock songs and re-shapes them into a straightforward musical about finding love and success in 1987 Hollywood. Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta do well as the dull young couple anchoring the story, but the rest of the cast shines. Alec Baldwin is hilarious as an aging rock-will-never-die club owner, Paul Giamatti is perfect as a slimy impresario and Catherine Zeta-Jones is amusing as a socialite with a revealing past. Still, they’re not the best of what Rock of Ages has to offer: Russell Brand steals his scenes with lines that sound tailor-made for his personae but even he takes a step back whenever Tom Cruise chews the scenery as rock god Stacee Jaxx. Cruise-as-Jaxx transposes and perverts his movie-star status into a related realm, and if Cruise seems more accomplished than unleashed as a self-destructing icon, it’s still a great performance in a pivotal role. Music-wise, Rock of Ages will have you humming “I Wanna Rock”, “Wanted Dead or Alive” and “Don’t Stop Believin’” (among others) for days, even though the movie’s soundtrack may not compare to the original versions of the songs. I’m told that the movie’s plot is considerably happier and simpler than the original musical, (although it keeps the vexing two-act structure leading to a mid-movie lull) but director Adam Shankman’s adaptation is also able to weave song medleys around characters doing their own things separately –at best, it’s an exhilarating example of the creative freedom offered by well-produced cinema. While Rock of Ages may be a fluffy fantasy loosely connected to the anthem-rock era, it’s bouncy and fun and just as entertaining as it wants to be. But I did say that I’m a forgiving fan of movie musicals.
(In theaters, December 2011) The Mission: Impossible series has never been about realism, and this fourth entry continues to deliver the kind of spying-fantasy action that the franchise does so well. While it would be correct to bemoan the series’ lack of real-world themes or relevance, it’s also missing the point: Mission Impossible is about featuring visually dynamic action directors, giving Tom Cruise a rock-solid star vehicle, and having just enough plot to run through a series of action/heist set-pieces. It works pretty well: Brad Bird’s live-action debut as a director show his skill in handling complex sequences mixing together wide-screen locales around the world, high-tech equipment (which, hilariously enough, always seems to be failing), movie-slick stars and a good sense of rhythm. The series has been good at showcasing innovative action sequences and Ghost Protocol does well in setting a chase inside a sandstorm and then later on a fight in an automated parking garage. What’s somewhat new is a tenuous amount of continuity with the previous installment: just enough to give the actors something to do during the dialogue scenes, but also in terms of visual continuity, much stronger between the third and fourth film than any of the previous entries. While Ghost Protocol doesn’t have a villain as strong as Philip Seymour Hoffman in the third installment, it’s good enough to give a little bit more of what has been good about the series so far. While Cruise is now pushing credibility as an action hero (the next ten years are going to be tough for him as he’ll have to let go of his boyish grin), the Mission: Impossible series is still his most reliable, most audience-friendly franchise. Expect another installment within a few years… and expect it to be decent.