by Steve Habrat
It’s been five long years since megastar Tom Cruise shouldered the weight of a massive summer blockbuster, leaving many filmgoers to wonder if the controversial action hero still had his box office mojo. In between 2010’s forgettable Knight and Day and last spring’s Oblivion, Cruise starred in two holiday blockbusters (2011’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and 2012’s Jack Reacher), and turned up in a bit part in 2012’s Rock of Ages, a messy summer musical that didn’t give Cruise top billing even though he stole the movie away from the teeny-bopper stars headliners and seasoned veterans. While off-screen antics and tabloid rumors have certainly soured Cruise’s reputation, the actor’s newest film answers the question of whether or not Cruise could still hold his own in a season that now belongs to Marvel superheroes and computerized Transformers. Behold Edge of Tomorrow, a nimble and clever sci-fi blockbuster that finds Cruise once again punching and shooting his way through an army of rampaging aliens. Based upon the graphic novel All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, Edge of Tomorrow passes up the brooding tone that many summer blockbusters have been opting for over the years, and instead works with a bubbly, old-fashioned formula of comedy and thrills that leaves you stumbling out to the parking lot with an invigorating rush and proudly declaring to your buddies or your date that you’d gladly take that ride all over again.
Edge of Tomorrow begins by explaining that mankind is locked in a brutal war with aliens called Mimics, which arrived on Earth in a fiery asteroid several years earlier. With nearly all of Europe conquered by the Mimics, the United Defense Forces issues an exoskeleton called “Jackets” to each and every solider, which gives the humans a fighting chance against the savage enemy. Hope is also found in Rita Vrataski (played by Emily Blunt), a fierce warrior who led the humans to victory at the battle of Verdun. Confidence is kept high by UDF spokesman Major William Cage (played by Tom Cruise), who has been talking up Operation Downfall, a massive campaign that will launch thousands of soldiers into Europe to topple the Mimic menace. Much to his surprise, Cage is summoned by General Bringham (played by Brendan Gleeson), who informs Cage that he will be jumping into the fight and storming into Europe. Terrified, Cage attempts to resist the order, which leads to him being arrested by Military Police and forced to the front lines. Unable to work one of the “Jackets” and squeamish at the sight of blood, Cage stumbles his way into battle behind Master Sergeant Farell (played by Bill Paxton) and a slew of colorful soldiers. The UDF is stunned to learn that the Mimics were aware of the invasion and are waiting for the soldiers as they approach. In the thick of the battle, Cage manages to kill a Mimic, but just as he is about to die, he gets covered in alien blood, which gives him the ability to keep reliving the battle over and over again.
In the hands of director Doug Liman, Edge of Tomorrow delivers plenty of epic but not overly showy action sequences that are sure to dazzle sci-fi diehards. The scenes of “Jacket”-clad soldiers storming onto a bombed-out European beaches present themselves like a futuristic WWII, with drop ships decorated with sneering faces and pin-up girls spinning out of the sky in blazing balls of fire, and soldiers struggling to get their bearings as they stumble through sheets of sand and soot. It’s a gritty and unique combo that gives the opening stretch of Edge of Tomorrow a pulpy sting. While Liman knows how to throw you into the intensities of war, he certainly never allows the CGI mayhem to eclipse the film’s impressive characters or its welcome sense of humor. There are more than a few moments that are downright hilarious, from Cage sweating and panting as he attempts to hang with battle-tested soldiers that hoot and holler their way into the alien lines, to some amusing death scenes that barrel straight out of left field. Most of the humor emerges in the scenes between the “Full Metal Bitch” (Rita) and Cage, as she attempts to whip the fidgety Major into fighting shape. What’s even more impressive is the way that Liman lingers on the human interactions, allowing raw emotion to overpower some of the film’s best action sequences. You’re given plenty of time to care for these characters, and what’s even more exciting is that you take them with you past the end credits.
While Cruise’s personal life may have left many groaning, no one can deny that the man hasn’t continuously churned out memorable performances over the past few years. Edge of Tomorrow is no different, as Cruise gets kicks around with a smile stretching from ear to ear. He seems right at home in the skin of Cage, and it’s a nice switch-up when we learn that his character can’t even stand the sight of a paper cut. He’s undoubtedly spirited, and he continues to hone the comedic chops he’s been fiddling with since 2008’s Tropic Thunder. Cruise also finds plenty of chemistry with the beautiful Blunt, who brings her icy disposition to Rita, Cage’s fierce ally who understands just what is happening with Cage. Naturally, the two form a romance fit for a popcorn movie, but it’s welcome as it melts Rita’s frosty exterior to reveal a haunted interior. Another surprise is Bill Paxton, who has kept a low profile over the past several years. He emerges with a thick southern accent and a fast tongue, strutting his way through the role of Farell with such smug confidence that you’ll keep wondering just where the heck this guy has been all these years. And then there is Gleeson, who stands firm as General Bringham, a stone-faced general who refuses to allow Cage to weasel his way out of combat.
While Edge or Tomorrow brims with excitement, the film does wander off a bit into conventional territory. The epic climax—while fun—grows increasingly formulaic and predictable as it unfolds before our eyes, and the whole exoskeleton thing looses a bit of its cool factor as it trails in the wake of Neill Blomkamp’s blazing Elysium. Some of the background characters, specifically the ragtag unit that Cage is assigned to, are eccentric but also a bit cliché. As far as the aliens go, Liman and his team think up a parasitic enemy that is difficult to comprehend as it burrows deep into the sand and then attacks with a sudden fury that shakes you out of your seat. Liman never lets them stand still for very long in the frame, allowing the audience blood-curdling glimpses that make the aliens all the more terrifying. Overall, while the climax fizzles out, Edge of Tomorrow exceeds all expectations with surefire direction, an entertaining script, a playful sense of humor, gritty action, and sincere performances that keep the project grounded even as nasty extraterrestrials threaten to wipe out humanity. Yet what Edge of Tomorrow ultimately proves is that Cruise is still dependable as an all-American action hero. He’s still got it, folks, and it sure is nice to see him back in the thick of the summer movie season.
by Steve Habrat
Since its debut in 2000, the X-Men series has been a bit of a rocky superhero franchise. 2000’s X-Men was a likeable enough effort that emerged just a year before Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man ignited superhero fever at the box office. Three years later, X2: X-Men United would be hailed by both comic book fanboys and critics as one of the best superhero films ever made, but that praise would fizzle when they laid eyes on 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, which was a hollowed out finale that sent a wave of disappointment through X-Men nation. Things didn’t improve in 2009 with the release of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a tacky solo outing for the franchise’s most popular character. Just when everyone thought all hope was lost, along came X-Men: First Class, a Cold War epic that thrilled moviegoers with a fresh cast and a clever script. Last year, the momentum created by X-Men: First Class slowed a bit with The Wolverine, a second solo outing that was marginally better than the Origins. So as you can see, X-Men fans always have a reason to be concerned whenever a new installment in the franchise is announced. As it turns out, X-Men: Days of Future Past is just as thrilling and exciting as X2: X-Men United and X-Men: First Class. With Bryan Singer (X-Men and X2: X-Men United) back in the director’s chair, this time-travelling adventure creates fireworks by smashing together the young talent of X-Men: First Class with the veteran cast of the original films.
X-Men: Days of Future Past picks up in post-apocalyptic 2023, with humans and mutants hunted and exterminated by hulking robots called Sentinels, which were originally designed to exclusively hunt and exterminate mutants. A small band of mutants including Professor X (played by Patrick Stewart), Magneto (played by Ian McKellen), Wolverine (played by Hugh Jackman), and Storm (played by Halle Berry) hatch a plan to use the time traveling abilities of young mutant Kitty Pryde (played by Ellen Page) to attempt to travel back to 1973 and prevent the creation of the Sentinels. The volunteer for this dangerous mission is Wolverine, who is tasked with stopping the shape-shifting Mystique (played by Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating pint-sized scientist Bolivar Trask (played by Peter Dinklage), the creator behind the Sentinels. As the Sentinels bear down on the mutants in the future, Wolverine must mend the friendship between a young Professor X (played by James McAvoy) and a young Magneto (played by Michael Fassbender) so that they can join forces and stop Trask together. This proves extremely difficult as Magneto once again attempts to break off from the group and embark on his own villainous path.
What ultimately made X-Men: First Class such a standout was the way that director Matthew Vaughn cleverly inserted familiar X-Men characters into the nuclear drama of the Cold War. It was the creative breath of fresh air that the franchise was in dire need of. Returning director Singer took note of this and catapults audiences back to the early ‘70s, during the last days of the Vietnam War. While the gunmetal action is certainly smooth and zippy in the future (the opening battle is one for the ages), what makes X-Men; Days of Future Past such a delectable treat is the way Singer mirrors Vaughn and seamlessly weaves these characters into American history. Throughout the course of the film, we hop over to Vietnam to meet a few grotesque mutants that have been fighting in the jungles of Saigon, and take a trip to the center of the Pentagon where Magneto is being held for the death of JFK. We also get to meet a pre-Watergate Richard Nixon, who hunches over his desk in the Oval Office and gruffly agrees that Trask’s Sentinel program is essential after witnessing mutants savagely show off their powers in Paris during a negotiation between the Americans and Vietnamese. It’s true that the ‘70s material overshadows the futuristic stuff every step of the way (even the Sentinels look much cooler in the past), but the gloomy apocalyptic destruction that Singer shows off does leave viewers curious about this perpetually dark dystopian future. Maybe he will dive in further down the line?
By now you are well aware of what makes this X-Men film particularly special for comic books fans. Singer has recruited nearly every single actor or actress that has appeared in previous X-Men films, and boy, do they seem tickled to be back. While you could fill a book with the cast list, it would be criminal not mention some of the performances here. McAvoy once again reminds us that he is a silent talent in Hollywood, as it’s nearly impossible to take your eyes of his shaggy-haired hippie take on Professor X. Coming off his vile turn in 12 Years a Salve, Fassbender remains in villain mode as Magneto, a shaky ally in the quest to track down Mystique and stop her assassination attempt. Hugh Jackman’s enthusiasm for Wolverine remains in tact, seeming as cool and calm as ever while chomping on those cigars and waving around pre-metal claws. Jennifer Lawrence is all sexy confidence as Mystique, the deadly shape shifter who tirelessly fights for her fallen mutant brothers and sisters. Nicholas Hoult’s nebbish Beast still snarls and chomps with blue fury, and Evan Peters steals the entire movie as the speed demon Quicksilver. Every fan that made such a stink over the look of his character is going to instantly eat their complaints after they watch him dart playfully around the inside of the Pentagon. It’s the film’s best moment.
As far as veterans Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart go, both seem to be floating on cloud nine to be back in their respective roles. Stewart’s Professor X continues to give the series the emotional charge that he brought to the original three films, and McKellen remains as unpredictable as the master of metal, Magneto. The small-but-mighty Peter Dinklage proves to be a formidable foe for the X-Men, always using his commanding voice to give him an intimidating authority. With eyes that scream exasperation, he warns Congress of the mutant threat, and he watches grainy newsreel footage of Mystique with cold intrigue, desperate to get his hands on her blood, brain tissue, and spinal cord fluid to convert his devastating Sentinels into killing machines that can adapt to any threat. The ever-welcome Ellen Page returns to big budget blockbusters as Kitty Pryde, the girl who possesses the power to make this entire mission possible. Though she is given limited screen time, she makes the most of what she has. This limited screen time carries over to multiple other mutants, including Halle Berry’s Storm, who is basically handed an extended cameo to conjure up a wicked lightning storm. Berry is just one of the many familiar faces that pop in to say hello. I won’t spoil any of cameos here, but believe me when I say fans will walk out beaming with delight.
Though X-Men: Days of Future Past arrives in theaters with a budget of $200 million, the film remains surprisingly modest for a good majority of the runtime. The scenes set in 2023 are breathtaking and the fight scenes are buffed up with the expected CGI. The action set in the ‘70s seems plausible and practical, only really getting flashy during the final battle outside the White House. Much like the confrontation at the end of X-Men: First Class, the confrontation between good and evil has a slow burn approach. There is quite a bit of dramatic conversations and pleas, which proves to be just as thrilling as the fistfights and explosions. Just to add an extra layer of excitement, Fassbender’s Magneto shakes RFK stadium from its foundation and drops it over the White House, enclosing all the characters inside for colossal showdown. Another moment you’ll be talking about on the way home is Quicksilver’s giddy Pentagon infiltration, which wields a wicked sense of humor as he dodges bullets and dares to dip his finger in a pot of soup. Overall, X-Men: Days of Future Past is teeming with delights—it’s got the dramatic pull that the fans demand, it’s got the rollicking action that gets your gets your heart racing, and it’s fueled by stunning A-list cast that plays off of each other beautifully. While other challengers lay in waiting, X-Men: Days of Future Past is positioned to be the best superhero film of the summer.
by Steve Habrat
The same year that Toho Co.’s Godzilla stomped all over Japanese cinemas, American drive-ins were attacked by the giant irradiated ants of Them! Released in the summer of 1954, Them! sounds like an absolutely absurd sci-fi chiller that would have been right at home on the pages of an EC Comic book . Who would be scared by a bunch of giant ants mutated by invisible clouds of drifting atomic radiation? It turns out that many drive-in audience members were shaken up by Them!, and many critics and genre aficionados have taken notice of the affection audiences have for this creature feature. Regarded as the first “giant bug” movie, Them! is another product of the Atomic Age—a well-spoken B-movie that shivers and shakes at atomic bombs, mushroom clouds, and drifting radiation that was quietly wrecking havoc on nature. Directed by Gordon Douglas, Them! takes its subject very seriously, and the film slowly gains intensity through a disciplined pace, chilling set pieces that never fail to impress, rock-solid performances from a hugely talented cast, and a slew of beasts that are sure to scare the pants off of first time viewers.
Them! begins in the New Mexico desert, with two police officers, Ben (played by James Whitmore) and Ed (played by Chris Drake), stumbling upon a little girl wandering around in a state of shock. As Ben and Ed try to find the little girl’s home, they discover a wrecked trailer and a destroyed general store. While exploring the general store, Ed is suddenly attacked and killed by a towering unknown assailant. Ed’s death proves even more suspicious after the coroner discovers large amounts of formic acid in his system. With more disappearances being reported and a strange animal print found in the sand, the FBI dispatches agent Robert Graham (played by James Arness), renowned scientist Dr. Harold Medford (played by Edmund Gwenn), and his lovely daughter, Dr. Pat Medford (played by Joan Weldon), to investigate. While the trio explores the windy plains of the desert, they begin hearing eerie high-pitched calls from an unknown location. Their investigation really takes a turn when they come face-to-face with a giant ant that proceeds to attack Pat. The military soon tracks down the ants’ nest and launches an attack to wipe out whatever is inside, but Harold discovers evidence that suggests two queen ants have escaped the attack. Desperate to keep the giant ants a secret and away from heavily populated areas, the military races to track down and destroy what is left of the ants. However, the military’s worst fears are slowly confirmed as reports of ant sightings start popping up around San Francisco.
Like all great creature features, Them! isn’t in any particular hurry to show off its mutated monsters. It starts off slow, allowing the unsettling isolation of the New Mexico desert to set in before Douglas starts exploring the mysterious ruins of a trailer and a general store. As winds howl and the police scratch their scalps in confusion, that high-pitched screeching noise kicks in and pushes the suspense to the brink. About a half-hour in, Douglas sends his team in to get to the bottom of what occurred out in the desert, and it is here that he allows us our first glimpse of one those mutated ants. Of course this first glimpse is only a tease, the beast slowly and silently working it’s way over a hill before emitting its grim song and charging at its lunch. It’s a fantastic sequence that offers a jolt of terror that takes the viewer by storm. While our first glimpse of the ants reveals a severely dated monster, the way that Douglas reveals the creature and the ominous build-up that preceded the encounter maximizes the monster’s impact. If you were left unimpressed by this first encounter, wait until our protagonists find the nest, which offers another startling look at these mutated monstrosities. As helicopters circle above, an ant emerges from a massive hole still gnawing on one victim’s rib cage. After sucking the meat clean, the bones drop into a heaping pile of skulls, tattered clothing, and more. As the ant wanders away from the festering pile of death, Pat gravely observes that they have found all the individuals that have been reported missing over the past weeks. Now THAT is creepy.
After the attack on the nest and the discovery of the escaped queens, Them! reverts back to being a character-driven picture. Douglas allows the terror to trickle in as reports are made of demolished trains, ravaged freighters, and creepy reports of ant-shaped UFOs swooping in and attacking small planes. Along the way, Douglas elevates some of the tension by executing some wonderful moments of comedy, specifically from Gwenn’s Dr. Harold Medford, who can’t seem to figure out how to properly use a helicopter radio. And there is also the drunk-tank sequence, where a belligerent drunk named Jensen bargains that he will share information about the ants if he is made “a sergeant in charge of the booze.” Of course, Douglas is offering us a breather before his final burst of horror and action. The climax gets rolling as authorities issue martial law throughout the streets of San Francisco, warning citizens to take shelter in the comfort of their homes. With the ants nestled deep under the city, and reports of two small boys having suddenly disappeared, the pressure is on to send troops down into the shadows of the city’s storm drains. It is at this show-stopping climax that Douglas really lets his ants do some damage. As flamethrowers roar, machine-guns snarl, and ants screech, Them! lets loose a searing fury of violence that concludes with a warning that mankind has entered a terrifying new world—an unknown world that may crawl with horrors we never could have predicted.
Further adding to the strength of Them! are the spirited performances, specifically from Whitmore, Arness, Gwenn, and Weldon. Arness is a man of authority as Graham, an FBI agent swiftly trying to track down the ants before they invade the streets of San Francisco. Whitmore gets to play action hero as Ben, a flame-thrower packing, machine-gun toting cop who mows the ants down with teeth gritted. Gwenn steals nearly every scene he is in as the bumbling-but-wise Dr. Harold Medford, the levelheaded scientist who fumbles and sighs at helicopter radios and crooked goggles. Weldon finds a pleasant middle ground as Pat, Harold’s brilliant daughter who proves to be a strong-voiced ally in the race to stop the ants. She is naturally thrust into several scenes that require her to be the damsel-in-distress, but when the chips are down, she bravely treks through those threatening storm drains right along with the male protagonists. Overall, a far throw from some of the other chintzy sci-fi guilty pleasures of the era, Them! remains an ingenious and wildly frightening look at man’s radioactive entrance into the Atomic Age. It creeps and crawls with fidgeting paranoia and crackling action, and it’s guided by assured direction and straight-faced performances. Them! fully deserves its place as a Cold War classic.
by Steve Habrat
In the wake of director Roland Emmerich’s reviled 1998 Godzilla remake, the giant monster movie kept a very low profile for many years. The holiday season of 2005 saw the release of director Peter Jackson’s divisive King Kong remake—a three-hour epic that either thrilled fans of classic monster movies or sent them into a deep slumber. It would be another three years before anyone even remotely thought about another giant monster movie. That all changed in early 2008 with Cloverfield, a ferociously intense “found footage” thriller that preyed upon our post-9/11 paranoia. Directed by Matt Reeves and produced by J.J. Abrams, Cloverfield re-ignited a bit of interest in creature features—specifically Toho Co.’s “Kaiju” films from the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s—and dared to give the subgenre a bit of its bite back. While certainly not perfect, Reeves and Abrams are able to orchestrate quite a bit of urban destruction on a tiny budget of only $25 million. The special effects are absolutely fantastic, and when briefly glimpsed in the glow of gun and cannon fire, the giant extraterrestrial wrecking havoc in the Big Apple will undoubtedly nab a shiver or two. However, the downfall of Cloverfield are the unlikeable characters we are forced to brave this warzone with, and a painfully slow opening sequence made all the more unbearable through some shaky attempts by the actors to seem natural.
Cloverfield begins with a surprise going-away party for Rob (played by Michael Stahl-David), who is preparing to move to Japan to start a new job. The party—which has been organized by Rob’s brother, Jason (played by Mike Vogel), Jason’s girlfriend, Lily (played by Jessica Lucas), and Rob’s best friend, Hud (played by T.J. Miller), who is tasked with filming testimonials from party guests—gets off to a pleasant start, but things take a turn when Rob’s friend Beth (played by Odette Yustman), who he recently slept with, brings another date to the party. The drama between Rob and Beth is interrupted when a large tremor shakes New York City and plunges the city into a blackout. The party guests dash to the roof, where they witness a large explosion that sends debris raining down upon their heads. The party spills out onto the streets, where the terrified citizens quickly learn that an unidentified creature is terrorizing the city. The military quickly begins trying to evacuate the confused citizens, but Rob refuses to leave without Beth, who is trapped in her apartment building in Time Warner Center. Desperate to reach the one he loves, Rob, Hud, Lily, and Hud’s crush, Marlena (played by Lizzy Caplan), attempt a rescue mission, but their journey grows even more dangerous as they encounter parasitic creatures shed by the massive monster, and they learn of the military’s shocking plot to destroy the creature.
Despite a brief runtime of only eighty-five minutes, Cloverfield gets off to a relatively slow start. Reeves, Abrams, and screenwriter Drew Goddard force the audience to spend the first twenty minutes of the film with a handful of characters that we never truly grow to like. They are one-dimensional and, frankly, kind of annoying as they bob around their hip soirée and force themselves to act natural. Lucky for us, just when we’ve about had our fill of their high school squabbling, the filmmakers shake the earth, blow up some buildings, and kick the action into high gear. It begins with shaky shots of New York citizens congregating in the street as buildings collapse in the distance and the Statue of Liberty’s head goes crashing down the street. From there, Reeves and Abrams lay waste to familiar sights all around the Big Apple, each one more terrifying than the next. Woven between the scenes of destruction are evocative little moments that call to mind the horrors of September 11th, 2001—a catastrophic event that was still fresh in the mind of many audience members and documented in a similar manner. We get scenes of characters diving into small little shops as rolling clouds of dust creep by the storefront windows, dusty and dazed citizens emerge from twisted piles of wreckage, and people dash away from collapsing skyscrapers, all of which are captured on a tiny little handheld camera.
While the destruction retains a disquieting tone, Reeves and Abrams don’t entirely forget they are making a monster movie. With the “found footage” technique, the filmmakers are able to mask the tight budget, and more importantly, conceal the creature flailing around between the crumbling buildings. For a good portion of the film, the monster is only briefly glimpsed in blurred shots as our protagonists sprint between advancing military men. These moments are wildly intimidating, as deafening gunfire rages from one side and the snapping jaws of the towering beast snarling on the other. Credit should go to the sound department, who crank the noise up so loud that you would swear you left your seat and joined the combat on screen. The creature action gets even creepier when our protagonists flee the war-torn streets and retreat to the abandoned subways underneath the city. It’s here that Reeves and Abrams allow us an up-close glimpse of the parasitic beasts that the main monster has shedding. Through a night-vision filter, the spider-like critters spring around the darkness and chomp at our blind heroes until they are a bloody mess. It’s probably the scariest moment of the entire film, and it sets up a gruesome plot twist that smartly lacks much exposition. Reeves and Abram understand the power behind the less you know and the more you see, but they botch it in the end by providing audiences a clear glimpse of the monster that wipes away any fear you had previously. It’s a grave mistake that leaves Cloverfield falling flat on its face.
Perhaps the worst aspect of Cloverfield is the acting, which is painfully forced and amateurish. Stahl-David is flat-out horrid as Rob, a big baby who is constantly complaining or whining about trying to find Beth. Miller’s oafish cameraman Hud makes clumsy swipes at dimwitted humor and consistently acts like a brain-dead idiot. It’s downright impossible to believe that Rob would consider him a best friend. Yustman’s Beth just whimpers and clings to Rob, while Lucas’s Lily essentially begs Rob to reconsider his hysteric rescue mission. The only actress who really registers is Caplan, who frowns her way through Marlena, a snobby hipster who rolls her eyes as Hud tries desperately to flirt with her. Together, none of them really have any chemistry, and all you can do is roll your eyes as they try to sell the audience tired drunken dramatics. Overall, the characters may get on your last nerve and the finale may spoil a monster that was better left in the shadows, but Cloverfield turns out to be a surprisingly tolerable “found footage” thriller with more than a few flashes of creature-feature brilliance. Much like the classic monster movies that acted as the inspiration, it reflects upon current paranoia, and it does it while respectfully tipping its hat.