Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Edge of Tomorrow (2014) ****

A few months ago, I watched another sci-fi movie starring Tom Cruise where he helps save the earth from aliens. That movie was 2013's "Oblivion," and at the time, I totally had it confused with “Edge of Tomorrow.” As it happens, both movies are excellent, and Cruise is excellent in both. In fact, I have really come to appreciate Cruise as a solid actor who is at his best doing fast-paced action. He really classes up any project he appears in.

In “Edge of Tomorrow,” Cruise plays Major Cage, a military public relations guy with no real soldiering experience. Earth is in the midst of an alien invasion, and Cage is a spokesperson, appearing on the news to laud the heroic soldiers fighting the beasts, and to drum up new volunteers. Cage balks, though, when he is ordered to actually accompany troops on a second Normandy invasion to retake France from the aliens. He winds up on the front lines anyway, in the midst of a bloody battle, and he gets killed. At the moment of his death, though, he wakes up again the previous day, and finds himself re-living all the events leading up to his presence on that battlefield. He gets killed again, and the cycle repeats, over and over. Why this is happening to him, and what he does to deal with the situation, well, that's all part of the fun!

And this movie is fun! It's so nice to see an action movie that doesn't make me loathe myself for watching. Tom Cruise really commits to this role of a cowardly pretty-boy who has to man up, and he is blessed with a tight supporting cast. Emily Blunt is impressively badass as a fellow soldier who helps Cage. Bill Paxton hams it up in a small role as a field sergeant. Kudos also go to the screenwriters for a well-crafted story that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

It would be easy to glibly describe “Edge of Tomorrow” as a sci-fi “Groundhog Day,” but this movie is something completely different. “Groundhog Day” was all about Bill Murray's character learning to accept his situation and to be at peace with his endlessly-repeating day. “Edge of Tomorrow” is constantly moving the action forward. As Cage relives his day, he is constantly changing his strategy as he unlocks different aspects of the situation. In some ways, the story is like a video game, where you keep starting over at the beginning every time your character gets killed, and you get further along each time. “Edge of Tomorrow” doesn't have any of the lameness of a video game movie though. This is a tightly-crafted, well-paced story that won't make you groan with exasperation. It's true that the time travel aspects don't make any more sense than they do in any time-travel movie. Once you suspend your disbelief for the basic premise, though, the characters' actions make sense. “Edge of Tomorrow” isn't going to change your view of the universe, or anything. It's just good, solid action entertainment. Watch it yesterday!

4 stars out of 5

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Urban Cowboy (1980) ***1/2

It's easy to get lost in the mythology of this movie, the way it was said to take Country music and western wear mainstream, and the way it turned a beer joint on the outskirts of Houston called Gilley's into a nightlife mecca. The movie also revived the career of Country star Mickey Gilley, and it added considerably to the stardom of John Travolta, who was already a big deal after “Saturday Night Fever.” Lost in all that mythology is the fact that “Urban Cowboy” is a pretty good movie that holds up well to multiple viewings.

John Travolta plays Bud, a country boy who moves to the Houston area to work in the oil fields. His Uncle Bob (Barry Corbin) hooks him up with a job and introduces him to Gilleys, the local country bar, where Bud fits right in. It's there that he meets Sissy (Debra Winger), and each of them is dumber, more inexperienced, and more good-hearted than the other. They rush into marriage and set up house in a little trailer, where it quickly becomes apparent that neither has a clue how to take care of themselves, let alone a partner. Things go okay, however, until Gilley's introduces a mechanical bull, along with a rodeo veteran and ex-con named Wes Hightower (Scott Glenn) to run it. Bud finds that riding that bull is his calling, but his chauvinism makes him forbid Sissy from trying it. Sissy gets revenge by flirting with Wes, and everything falls apart. Sissy winds up living behind the bar with Wes, who turns out to be a pretty rough customer, While Bud takes up with Pam, a rich girl who likes to slum it with cowboys. It takes a big mechanical bull contest to get everything sorted out.

“Urban Cowboy” is completely predictable, but it's an honest enough tale to be fun despite that. Travolta is rather over-earnest as an actor, but that plays perfectly in the character of the callow, self-serious Bud. Scott Glenn is perfect, playing Wes with a dangerous, creepy sexuality and a prison-toughness that fascinates Sissy. For my money, however, Debra Winger is the real star of “Urban Cowboy.” Her Sissy is immature, but fiercely independent. She has a feminist streak, but in the setting she's in, she has no idea what to do with it. She knows she wants more out of life than to be slapped around by some beery cowboy, but she's still figuring out what that is. She's also smoking hot, if you dig a tight-bodied, flat-chested babe with curly hair.

It would be easy to take a feminist view of the film and wonder why Sissy doesn't just get the hell out of this working-class, cultural backwater, but that misses the point. Sissy IS working class, she just doesn't accept all the assumptions about gender roles that predominate in that world. It turns out that Bud, for all his mistakes, is capable of learning from experience, and he is finally able to put aside some of his chauvinism and appreciate Sissy's independent streak. I just think the movie should have been called “Urban Cowgirl.”

3.5 stars out of 5

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Bamboozled (2000) **

I must have read somewhere that this was an underrated gem or something, because it wound up on my Netflix DVD queue, only to sit there forever with a “very long wait.” Then suddenly it had moved up my list, and then one day it arrived. After all that buildup, I suppose I had some expectations, but they were quickly dashed.

Damon Wayans plays Pierre Delacroix, a TV writer. He is the only black writer at the network, and he is very non-street, speaking proper English with a clipped accent that is some kind of bizarre mix of British and Robot. His ideas for shows about middle-class black families keep getting shot down in favor of shows that play into America's ghetto-based perceptions of black people. Frustrated, he decides to get himself fired by proposing a show based on the ultimate stereotype, blackface. Shockingly, the network loves his idea for a show about a “couple of real coons” in an Alabama watermelon patch. The show is a hit, and black and white fans alike start wearing blackface.

To say that “Bamboozled” is bad probably misses the point. The film isn't meant as comforting entertainment. Like most of Spike Lee's work, it's meant as a sharp satire on race relations in America. It is discomfiting to see whites and blacks laughing uproariously at blackface humor, based on a portrayal of blacks as ignorant and foolhardy. It doesn't matter that there have been white comedies with equally stupid characters (think “Laurel and Hardy” or “The Honeymooners”), because in the case of blackface, the stupidity is explicitly linked to the characters' race. When you think about it, though, much of rap music isn't different in spirit from blackface, peddling images of black thugs in low-riders and gold chains drinking Crystal champagne, to the delight of white, teenage audiences. Many of our hip-hop artists are actually educated, middle-class, young black men and women, but they have to put on this “blackface” in order to sell records. Then you get a white artist like Iggy Azalea, who raps with a ghetto-black-sounding voice which is completely different from her speaking voice. Is that any different from white entertainers who performed in blackface?

It's interesting to watch the audience as they see Delacroix's minstrel show for the first time. They are stunned, and the white audience members look nervously at the black people in the audience. As the show goes on, and turns out to actually be kind of funny, the black audience members start to laugh, which relaxes the white folks, and soon everyone is enjoying a good time at the expense of those silly coons. I think that Lee was trying to point out how white people look to black people to see how they respond to the portrayal of blacks in entertainment. If black people seem to be enjoying gangsta-rappers using the N-word, then white people figure this must be acceptable.

“Bamboozled” succeeds to the extent that it gets you thinking about these issues, but the movie could have been much better. Some reviewers, like Roger Ebert, have posited that the blackface itself ruins the film, that any message is drowned out by the sheer offensiveness of the blackface. I think this is an overly prissy attitude, though. Blackface perfectly depicts the cultural hypocrisy that “Bamboozled” clumsily tries to expose, and this could have been a smart, cult classic if it were better executed. Unfortunately, Damon Wayans is ill-cast in this role. His bizarre, constantly-shifting accent and uptight demeanor make Delacroix look like a buffoon himself, which sort of goes against the message of the entire movie. Jada Pinkett Smith, on the other hand, refuses to get into character at all. The movie is also filmed with a digital camera that makes it look distractingly awful. Still, it is mostly Wayans's performance that ruins what, with a more talented actor, could have been a legendarily sharp satire.

2 stars out of 5  

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015) ***

If you have kids, then you are going to have to take them to the movies once in a while, and you could do a lot worse than “Shaun the Sheep Movie.” While it isn't exactly “Wall-E” level, this animated film is funny and cute, and it won't make you groan.

The “Shaun the Sheep” clay-mation TV show is a “Wallace & Gromit” spinoff, featuring the same style of stop-motion animation. It's been around on the BBC since 2007, chronicling the antics of a clueless farmer and his farm animals. There's the faithful dog, always trying to keep the barnyard orderly, a trio of villainous pigs, and of course, the herd of sheep. Shaun is the de facto leader of the herd due to his penchant for cooking up crazy schemes, usually aimed at getting a delicious treat or at getting back at those pigs for something. The cool thing about the show is that there is no dialogue. Everything is told via action, and at most the characters produce the occasional unintelligible grunt.

It turns out these characters hold up reasonably well to a full-length feature. In “Shaun the Sheep Movie,” the animals find themselves getting tired of their daily farm routine, so Shaun hatches a plan to get them a day off. When the scheme goes awry, the farmer winds up in the Big City with amnesia, and the animals have to navigate the concrete jungle to get him back home.

I won't lie. There where times when I got a little bored, but I was never downright disgusted by the movie. The one baby sheep is perhaps a bit cutesy, and there are a couple of fart jokes to keep the kids happy, but the movie never stoops to the level of kid-pandering that you get in, say, an “Alvin and the Chipmunks” movie. They never break out into a hip-hop dance number, as has become standard in most cartoons. Shaun the sheep is mostly delightful, with his sideways grin and double-thumbs-up. Also, I like the way the story is told without dialogue, like an old silent film. Do kids like it? Of course they do. They like everything.

3 stars out of 5

Sunday, August 02, 2015

While We're Young (2014) ***1/2

Josh (Ben Stiller) is a documentary filmmaker with a great debut who has now spent the last 10 years working on a second documentary that is going nowhere. He and his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are a couple of mostly happy New Yorkers in their mid-forties. They have some regrets about being childless, but as they watch their friends deal with a new baby, they congratulate themselves on how free they still are, although truth be told, they live a pretty routine life.

Then Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) enter their lives. Josh meets the young couple while giving a lecture on film-making. Jamie is an aspiring documentarian and a fan of Josh's one film. Jamie and Darby are classic Hipsters, modern-day Bohemians who live with a hot roommate and a chicken, collect vinyl records, and hike the empty subway tracks at night. Everything about them seems to scream freedom and spontaneity, and their life is very seductive to Josh and Cornelia. As the friendship progresses, Josh starts to help Jamie with his own documentary. Soon, however, it becomes apparent that much of Jamie's charm is a facade, and he is all about using Josh's connections to further his own career.

Despite a strong performance from Adam Driver, the Jamie storyline ends up being a weak point in “While We're Young.” I did like how it deconstructs the way every generation has to try to re-invent life but mostly ends up doing all the things they despised their elders for doing. Jamie tells Josh, “Hey man, success is YOUR thing.”, but Jamie ends up being willing to do just about anything to achieve success. In a poignant summation of this storyline, Darby says, “Jamie and I would always wonder about how we would grow old. It turns out we'll do it just like everybody else.” This plot-line is uneven, however, and writer/director Noah Baumbach does not wrap it up very well.

The much stronger theme in this film is about what it's like to be in your mid-forties. By definition, that is “middle-aged,” but that term has connotations of over-and-done-ness that clearly do not apply to Josh and Cornelia. They are both good-looking and healthy. Sure, they get a few more aches and pains than they once did, but the life-style ossification they suffer is based purely on perception. Josh says, “I'm 44 years old, and there are things I will never do, things I will never have. What's the opposite of 'The world is my oyster?'” While their friendship with Jamie and Darby ends up being a disappointment, it helps break loose their rusty parts and shows them they can still start something new. The title, “While We're Young” ends up being very appropriate, as their flirtation with younger people helps Josh and Cornelia see that they still have a lot of life left in them.

3.5 stars out of 5