Tuesday, July 1, 2014


The soldier that Tom Cruise plays in “Edge of Tomorrow” (*** OUT OF ****) gets his butt kicked all over creation.  “Bourne Identity” director Doug Limon’s supercharged, imaginative, science fiction time-loop thriller synthesizes elements of “Starship Troopers” and “Source Code.”  Surpassing Cruise’s earlier desolation Earth outing “Oblivion,” “Edge of Tomorrow” differs chiefly in terms of story and setting.  Although “Oblivion” occurred on post-apocalyptic planet Earth, “Edge of Tomorrow” takes place before the apocalypse, with mankind desperately pitted against aggressive extraterrestrials with no compassion.  Lightning-fast, squid-like creatures called ‘Mimics’ have invaded Earth.  These invincible whirling dervishes with tentacles have been on the warpath now for the last five years, blitzing their way across the European continent, and advancing toward England without any sign of slowing down.  Predictably, Cruise lands on his feet in the middle of this catastrophic, life and death mayhem.  He doesn’t play the usual heroic character that he played in “Top Gun.”  This represents the first time Cruise has portrayed a yellow-livered skunk.  He goes from being a coward to a hero in an arc that is as entertaining as the film is exciting.  You can differentiate Tom Cruise movies by how often he gets his butt kicked.  Remember “The Last Samurai?”  Cruise had to grovel in that splendid fish-out-of-water spectacle set in Japan.  Usually Cruise doesn’t grovel.  His groveling, however, makes his subsequent acts of heroism all the more convincing.  Mind you, “Edge of Tomorrow” would still qualify as a good, solid movie even if Cruise weren’t getting kicked all over creation.  Mankind is poised on the brink of extinction as these insatiable aliens decimate populations.  The futuristic, 80-pound, exoskeleton combat suits that the soldiers wear looks as cool as the aliens are imitating.  Everything about “Edge of Tomorrow” looks great.  This isn’t a shiny, chrome-plated, sci-fi epic, but a tarnished, grungy-looking one.  Some of the performances stand out.  As Master Sergeant Farrell, Bill Paxton steals every scene that he has with his Southern-fried drawl, while Brendan Gleeson makes a curt supreme army commander and reminded me of Norman Schwarzkopf.  Last but not least, lean-muscled Emily Blunt is pretty hard-nosed and business-like as the pugnacious ‘Angel of Verdun.’  Alongside these fine performers, Cruise holds his own as a disgraced officer who redeems himself in the crucible of combat.

Oscar winning “Usual Suspects” scenarist Christopher McQuarrie and “Fair Game” co-scribes Jez and John-Henry Butterworth have adapted Japanese author Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s novel “All You Need is Kill,” which came out in December 2004.  As a military public relations officer for the United Defense Force, Major William Cage (Tom Cruise of “War of the Worlds”) has never fired a shot in combat, but he does a commendable job as long as he is stationed far behind the lines.  Imagine Cage’s horror when UDF General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson of “Braveheart”) decides to embed him with ground troops as they storm the French beaches in a last ditch effort to thwart the Mimics.  Cage flatly refuses Brigham’s orders to follow the troops into battle.  Not only does Brigham order Cage arrested and demoted to buck private, but he also assigns him to join a first wave combat unit.  Although “Edge of Tomorrow” is a sci-fi saga, the beachhead scenes where Cage and his unit are flown into action against the Mimics is reminiscent of Spielberg’s classic “Saving Private Ryan.”  Like “Starship Troopers,” the soldiers are flown into combat and dropped from helicopter-style planes.  Once on the ground, the troops rely on their heavily armed battle suits to shred the Mimics with fusillades of gunfire.  The Mimics are slaughtering soldiers left and right until one of them smashes headlong into Cage.  Our terrified protagonist uses a mine to kill one.  When Cage kills a large ‘Alpha’ Mimic, the slimy critter douses him with its blood.  Incredibly enough, despite dying from the Mimic’s blood, Cage discovers that he gets another chance to live and fight again!  Essentially, like the Jake Gyllenhaal character in “Source Code,” Cage relives the first day over and over until he encounters another soldier, Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt of “Loopers”), who experienced the same sensation when a large ‘Alpha’ Mimic killed her.  Before he meets Rita, Cage is killed several times in combat.  Meantime, each time that he dies, Cage awakens just as suddenly to find himself back at Camp Heathrow alive and well.  Director Doug Limon displays quite a bit of flair in handling the same scene over and over again.  Each time that Cage reawakens from his death, he devises new ways to contend with the Mimics.  Sergeant Rita explains to Cage that the same thing occurred to her at Verdun until she received a blood transfusion.  Eventually, as he relives the same day over and over again ad nauseam, Cage becomes so familiar with the turbulent events of that day that he can anticipate when and where the  Mimics will strike.  Before long, Rita trains Cage so that they become a dynamic duo, and they discover that the Mimics have a secret that makes them invincible.  When they try to convince their superiors, especially General Brigham, that they can destroy the Mimics, they are treated as deserters.
Although it boasts some fascinating as well as formidable alien adversaries, “Edge of Tomorrow” doesn’t emphasize horror so much as tension and suspense.  Meaning, you can watch it and not worry about leaving your lights on when you sleep for fear of nightmares.  Basically, it boils down to a crackerjack mission movie with Cruise and Blunt assembling up their own crew of misfits to destroy the aliens and save the day.  Director Doug Limon and his writers steer clear of romance in any way, shape, or form.  The single drawback to this otherwise atmospheric, first-rate actioneer is that the filmmakers don’t provide enough details about the invaders from space.  Nevertheless, watching Tom Cruise get killed dozens of times until he knows what to do is as stimulating as it is amusing.


The shenanigans are far more silly, and the pandemonium far more preposterous in the farcical “21 Jump Street” parody sequel “22 Jump Street” (*** OUT OF ****) co-starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum.  Several actors from the original opus reprise their roles in this side-splitting sequel.  Mind you, even Rob Riggle, who played dastardly Mr. Walters, the H.F.S. drug dealer whose penis got shot off, shows up with David Franco as his cell mate in a prison scene.  Schmidt’s mother and father turn up, too.  Of course, since original TV “Jump Street” headliner Johnny Depp suffered multiple gunshot wounds in “21 Jump Street,” he doesn’t come back.  Rarely does a remake have the nerve to liquidate the leads from the show that spawned the remake.  Nevertheless, comedy is a genre that evolves with each generation.  Meantime, “21 Jump Street” co-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller do their level best to bring audiences up to speed after a two-year hiatus.  They rely on the television rehash convention where a narrator informs us what ‘previously’ happened.  Audiences are treated to a condensed version of “21 Jump Street.”  When they aren’t delivering funnier jokes and staging bigger Keystone Cops action set-pieces, Lord and Miller ridicule the formulaic conventions of sequels in general as well as “22 Jump Street” in particular.   Lord and Miller also explore the bromantic relationship between the two protagonists in greater depth.   Indeed, while “22 Jump Street” adheres to the blue-print plot of its predecessors, our heroes’ new college-oriented assignment, the beefed-up, $50-million budget, and the clever end credits constitute some of the most imaginative comedy you’ll ever see.  One of the most outrageous gags features “Neighbors”comic Seth Rogen in a droll cameo near the end of this crackerjack comedy of errors.
Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum) are not actually attending a traditional college when “22 Jump Street” opens.  Indeed, Captain Dickson (Ice Cube of “Friday”) told them at the end of “21 Jump Street” that they were going to college because they had grown too old to pass as teenagers in high school. Instead, they have been assigned to monitor internet communication at an on-line university.  Specifically, they must listen for either suspicious keywords or phrases that might serve as code words for potential crimes.  Our heroes learn about a meeting time and location at the docks.  Remember, Schmidt and Jenko are not brainiacs.  The professor states the location in no uncertain terms during his lecture.  Like they did in “21 Jump Street,” Schmidt and Jenko find themselves outnumbered by the opposition.  Schmidt masquerades as a laughable Mexican. The Ghost (Peter Stormare of “Armageddon”) and his henchman have a tractor-trailer load of contraband exotic animals.  Predictably, Schmidt tangles with a large pink squid.  This idiotic moment makes you want to laugh because comedian Jonah Hill is clearly doing all the work with his ersatz squid.  If you’ve seen horror icon Bela Lugosi wrestling with an obviously bogus rubber octopus in Ed Wood, Jr.’s “Bride of the Monster” (1956), you can truly appreciate what makes this scene such a howler!  Afterward, our heroes struggle to stop The Ghost,” but this wily opponent eludes them with ease.  The truck stunts in this scene get “22 Jump Street” off to an adrenaline-laced start.  Naturally, Schmidt and Jenko make big buffoons of themselves, while Ghost escapes. 
Our heroes wind up in Deputy Chief Hardy’s office to face the music.  Hardy (Nick Offerman of “We’re the Millers”) assigns them to 22 Jump Street, and they find themselves reunited with the profane Captain Dickson.  The new office is located across the street from a church with a Korean Jesus.  Schmidt and Jenko must find the villains behind a new synthetic drug called WhyPhy.  According to Dickson, WhyPhy is a mixture of Adderall and Ecstasy with something else.  You focus for the first couple of hours and then you party like never before and then you die. The only clue that they have is a photo of the student who bought the drug and later died using it.  Schmidt and Jenko start hanging out with likely suspects.  Jenko acquaints himself with two football players, Zook (Wyatt Russell of “Cowboys & Aliens”) and Rooster (Jimmy Tatro of “Grown Ups 2”), who belong to a fraternity.  Meantime, the athletically challenged Schmidt attracts the attention of an art major, Maya (Amber Stevens of “The Amazing Spider-Man”), when he performs slam poetry.  Gradually, Schmidt and Jenko fall out of touch with each other, and this creates friction between them.  Jenko has taken up big time with Zook and joins the college football team.  These two are literally wired into each other because Jenko is always where he is supposed to be to catch Zook’s passes!  Eventually, our frustrated heroes consult Mr. Walters (Rob Ripple) about the best strategy for ferreting out the WhyPhy suppliers.
Happily, “22 Jump Street” never takes itself seriously and never loses sight of its origins as a sequel.  “21 Jump Street” should be best remembered as the first buddy cop movie to address the relationship dynamics between male partners.  “22 Jump Street” pokes fun at Schmidt and Jenko, and our heroes have to endure a droll counseling session with a shrink. The African-American twins Keith & Kenny Yang (The Lucas Brothers) who live across the hall from them in the dorm will keep you in stitches with their antics.  Similarly, Mr. Walters’ prison scenes are hysterical.  Our heroes experience some changes themselves, particularly Schmidt.  Schmidt loses his virginity, and the real surprise is the identity of the girl’s father.  Jenko indulges in malapropisms. He says ‘anals’ when he means ‘annuals.’  Instead of saying carte blanche, he says “Cate Blanchett,” He also uses Parkour to shimmy up any edifice.  I didn’t laugh as often at “21 Jump Street” so “22 Jump Street” took me by surprise.  Not only does it live up to its predecessor with its goofy “Saturday Night Live” sketch-type humor, but “22 Jump Street” also surpasses the original.  


Although he scrapped the original cast for a company of fresh faces, “Transformers” director Michael Bay has changed little else in this sci-fi, fantasy franchise about Hasbro’s enormous, shape-shifting, alien robots that exist to smash each other to smithereens.  Cast as an entirely different character from Shia LaBeouf’s twentysomething Sam Witwicky, Mark Wahlberg portrays a paranoid, single-parent father in the third sequel of Paramount’s “Transformers” franchise.  Wahlberg isn’t the only newbie.  Five-time Emmy winner Kelsey Grammer of “Cheers” skulks around as a sinister CIA spook, while chrome-domed Stanley Tucci behaves like a Victor Frankenstein-style inventor in league with the notorious Grammer.  For the record, I rank the original “Transformers” marginally above “Dark of the Moon,” followed by “Age of Extinction,” and then “Revenge of the Fallen.”  “Reindeer Games” scenarist Ehren Kruger, who penned the two previous “Transformers” tales, assigns everybody, Man and Transformers alike, with more than enough onerous tasks in this fourth installment to rival “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” with its colossal Windy City apocalypse. Inevitably, everything culminates in a larger-than-life smackdown between the Transformers with collateral damage galore.  Furthermore, Bay and Kruger have anted up some other surprises.  Not only do the Dinobots appear, but also mankind miraculously manages to manufacture Transformers in their research laboratories.  Naturally, you’ll have to channel your inner adolescence to appreciate the fanciful heroics and outlandish mayhem that this PG-13 blockbuster delivers with predictable regularity throughout its bladder challenging 165 minutes.  Whereas the previous “Transformers” outings were essentially screwball comedies about titanic toys using major cities as arenas for their pandemonium, “Transformers: Age of Extinction” (*** OUT OF *****) doesn’t consciously strive to be as absurd as its predecessors.  The hare-brained antics of Shia LaBeouf and his dysfunctional family were more amusing that anything Wahlberg and his teen daughter with her rally race car driver boyfriend dream up.  Indeed, the quirkiest character in “Age of Extinction” doesn’t survive the first hour.  Meaning, “Age of Extinction” isn’t a Looney Tunes extravaganza. 

“Transformers: Age of Extinction” takes place four years after the monumental battle of Chicago in “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.”  Just as they suggested in the previous “Transformers” epic that NASA embarked on lunar exploration simply as a ruse to locate a crashed Cybertronian spacecraft on the moon before the Soviets, Bay and Kruger fantasize that the dinosaurs disappeared as a consequence of aliens exterminating the massive creatures with extreme prejudice.  Bay and Kruger waste no time introducing the Dinobots, and the scene in the Arctic where mankind has discovered a Dinobot fossil is eerie.  The next thing we know we’re in Texas.  The new protagonist in “Age of Extinction” is Cade Yeager.  A crackpot inventor who operates a fix-it service, Cade is a nice guy who wouldn’t swat a fly.  Cade and his partner Lucas Flannery (T.J. Miller of “Cloverfield”), a surfer dude out of water, are inspecting a movie theater that the owner wants to renovate when they spot a big-rig truck covered with debris.  Cade buys the rig with Lucas’ cash, and they haul it back to his barn.  Cade plans to strip it for spare parts.  Imagine Cade’s surprise when Optimus Prime (original “Transformers” voice-over artist Peter Cullen) changes his shape.  Cade is floored.  Not long afterward, a Top Secret commando outfit nicknamed ‘Cemetery Wind,’ that tracks and destroys Autobots and Decepticons alike, show up at his door.  Since the devastating battle of Chicago, the President has dismantled the combined Autobot & Pentagon operation to mop up stray Decepticons.  Furthermore, the administration has placed a bounty on all Transformers good or evil.  Lucas freaks out at Optimus Prime and alerts Cemetery Wind.  Sadly, Lucas is not prepared for the Storm Trooper tactics of James Savoy (Titus of Welliver “Mulholland Falls”) who resembles a shark in sunglasses and commands Cemetery Wind.  Savoy musters more villainy based on his menacing facade and this propensity for violence than his scheming boss, Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer), who belongs to the Central Intelligence Agency.  Attinger has recruited a brilliant inventor, Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci 0f “The Hunger Games”); to conduct experiments on Megatron’s severed head.  Attinger wants Joyce to create a man-made line of Transformers, and Joyce possesses the genius to make it happen.

My trifling objections with “Age of Extinction” lay with the new cast and the change of atmosphere.  Basically, I’ll watch Mark Wahlberg in just about anything.  He makes consistently interesting movies.  Moreover, Wahlberg radiates greater charisma than Shia LaBeouf.  Unfortunately, Wahlberg plays a largely colorless character.  He worries constantly about his teenage daughter, Tessa Yeager (Nicola Peltz), and struggles to keep her on a short leash.  Naturally, Tessa hates his micro-managing parental skills.  Imagine Cade’s surprise when he learns that Tessa has been dating an older fella!  Jail bait-looking Nicola Peltz makes a poor substitute for somebody as drop-dead sexy as Megan Fox.  Mind you, Fox is no Meryl Streep, but she was built for the “Transformers” franchise.  Tessa Yeager exists so Cade will fear for her welfare.  She serves as the resident damsel-in-distress.  As Tessa’s reckless boyfriend Shane, Jack Reynor brings little to the action aside from his driving skills that a stunt double performed.  The stunts that Shane’s daredevil character pulls are impressive, but little about Shane’s one-dimensional character is as impressive.  Neither Kelsey Grammer’s rather ho-hum villain nor Stanley Tucci’s deluded inventor overshadow the memory of the insane shenanigans of John Turturro’s Agent Simmons in the first three “Transformers.”  Nobody takes over the roles that Josh Duhamel as Captain Lennox and Tyrese Gibson as USAF Tech Sergeant Epps created.  Remember, the military is excluded from “Age of Extinction.” 

No, you need not have seen the earlier “Transformers” trilogy toplining Shia LaBeouf to appreciate this entertaining reboot.  The best “Transformers” movies boast a multiplicity of shape-shifting robots, and the fourth “Transformers” movie meets the quota and then raises the bar.  Happily, quiet moments are few and far between in “Age of Extinction,” and the battling robots make the third sequel worthwhile escapism.