Thursday, June 26, 2014

Another 'Transformers' stomps into theaters

There's a new cast, but the approach is still metal-on-metal.
No point blaming director Michael Bay for trying to retool his Transformers franchise with a new cast, a ton of blurry action and a carload of unimaginative plotting.

And let's give some credit where it's due: Bay is master when it comes to creating imagery of destruction or utilizing CGI technology to transform his Autobots from cars into mega-robots. A shot of vast spacecraft hovering over Hong Kong like a giant, dark-winged bird shivers with menace.

That's right. Give Bay props for unashamed bravado and a reasonably astute understanding of his audience.

Which brings me to my point: It's not Bay we should fret over, but an audience that's willing to forgive narrative lapses, silly stories, action sequences in which it's not always possible to tell who's fighting whom and a tendency to equate loud noise with drama.

In this helping -- set two years after Transformers: Dark of the Moon -- Bay continues in customary fashion: He doesn't so much build toward a climax as leap into it, something like an eager kid cannonballing into a swimming pool. And when he does cook up a great image, he tends to repeat it.

Transformers: Age of Extinction jettisons Shia LaBeouf, and brings a new cast on-line.

No stranger to big-screen combat, Mark Wahlberg plays Cade Yaeger, a Texas widower and inventor who lives with his teen-age daughter (Nicola Peltz). Dad's not having much success as an inventor, but don't worry: Father and daughter quickly are caught up in trying to help robot Optimus Prime reassert himself after being severely damaged and winding up in Cade's workshop.

Jack Reynor joins this chaotic mission. He plays Cade's daughter's boyfriend, a character who gives Wahlberg an opportunity to deliver cliched fatherly dialogue about his daughter's budding womanhood.

Stanley Tucci turns up as the head of a company that's trying to manufacture its own Autobots, and a depressed-looking Kelsey Grammer plays a CIA agent, a character who helps make government an easy target of audience mistrust and scorn.

Bingbing Li portrays one of Tucci's employees when the story shifts to Beijing en route to Hong Kong, where it concludes and concludes and then concludes some more.

But who really cares about the actors or even about the fate of humanity? The Transformer series belongs to the giant alien robots, who are beginning to make discoveries about themselves and who, it's suggested, might take over the entire story should another sequel follow.

No point rattling on. I saw the movie in IMAX and 3-D, which certainly aided Bay's efforts to present everything on a gargantuan scale.

As for Bay? He seems to hellbent not only on giving audiences what they want but on giving them so much of what they want, they'll be reduced to insensibility. Many people evidently consider this fun.

Simple surface, deep undercurrents

The subject of conditions in post-World War II Poland remains fraught with practical and moral issues that are difficult to sort through much less encapsulate in a single story.

By the 1960s, when the new movie Ida takes place, most of the small number of Jews who survived the Holocaust had left Poland. Some who remained had been raised by Catholic families, and didn't even know they were Jewish.

Other Jews tended to see the Soviet occupiers as allies because of Russian opposition to Hitler and because of what they deemed Polish silence in the face of the murderous Nazi onslaught.

Director Pawel Pawlikowski, who was born in Poland, educated in Britain and who now resides in Paris, wades into this morass with a simply presented movie that harbors many complexities.

Pawlikowski (Last Resort and My Summer of Love) tells the story of Ida, an 18-year-old novitiate at an austere Polish convent. Just before Ida is about to take her final vows, her mother superior tells her that she must visit an aunt she didn't know she had.

The aunt, a disaffected judge, tells young Ida who her parents were, and that she's actually Jewish. The drama unfolds from there.

Artful black and white images served up by cinematographers Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski, an old-fashioned aspect ratio that squares those images and carefully considered compositions make Ida one of the least casual movies of the year. Nothing in Ida seems idly expressed.

The movie has been compared to the work of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman and French director Robert Bresson, but reminded me of some of the work that was coming out of the National Film School in Lodz in the 1960s.

Like Roman Polanski, who trained at Lodz, Pawlikowski tries to advance his story visually, minimizing dialogue and narrative beats: His compositional sense is commanding and slightly off-kilter: He places subjects on the edge or bottom of the frame, often surrounding them with space that practically swallows them.

Young Ida, played by newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska, is a wide-eyed girl who knows nothing of the world. She was sent to the convent as an infant, has no real knowledge of how she got there and has been on track to become a nun for as long as she can remember. She's evidently deeply faithful.

Trzebuchowska has the kind of face that seems open but reveals little. I suppose Pawlikowski wants us to wonder what's happening to Ida internally as she confronts a series of difficult truths.

The brilliant Polish actress Agata Kulesza portrays Ida's aunt Wanda, a Jewish woman who drinks, chain smokes and proves entirely dissolute when it comes to men. Wanda's clearly trying to numb her senses because there's nothing in her life but pain.

Wanda lost her young son during the war, probably to Polish murderers who hid some of her family and then turned on them. She participated in postwar trials that sent anti-socialists to their deaths and earned her the nickname "Red Wanda."

She still has some Communist Party juice, which she's not afraid to use, but if Wanda ever believed in anything, the foundation of those beliefs long ago turned to ash.

The bulk of the movie involves a road trip taken by Ida and Wanda. The duo searches for the spot where Wanda's sister and Ida's parents were buried. Their mission brings them into contact with a farmer who now occupies the rural home that once belonged to Ida's family.

At a nearby hotel, Ida and Wanda also meet a young saxophone player (Dawid Ogrodnik) who's enamored with John Coltrane and who seems as if he dropped in from another movie. That may be the point: His presence underscores the insularity of Ida's world.

The film reaches one resolution and then continues carrying its burden toward a second set of conclusions. It's just here that Pawlikowski began to lose me in a rash of second guesses and doubts about the behavior of both Ida and Wanda.

As much control as Pawlikowski has over his images, I'm not sure he has an equal amount of sway over the developments that provide the movie with its final act.

To me, Ida seems more like a compelling starting point for consideration of the complex issues Pawlikowski raises than a fully realized drama about those issues. Applications for that job still are being accepted.

A look at the higher-ed crisis

Is American higher education failing, a victim of ridiculously high costs and an inability to educate students in ways that justify increasingly obscene outlays of money? Director Andrew Rossi tries to cover the entire waterfront of higher education in his documentary The Ivory Tower, a film that functions as a primer on the troubled state of American higher education. A large canvas leaves Rossi's film feeling a bit diffuse. At the same time, Rossi probably spends too much time on Cooper Union, the esteemed free college in New York City that recently began charging tuition. (The story of Cooper Union could have been a documentary all its own.) Still, Rossi hammers home the main points involving what justifiably can be called a higher-ed crisis. The movie's most stunning fact: The total amount of U.S. student debt has topped $1 trillion. Rossi hints that the proliferation of technologically-based education may hold some promise, but I got the impression that the entire system is headed for collapse. Will the fate of universities mirror that of newspapers, meaning that a few major institutions will survive while many others fall by the wayside? Will on-line education help lower costs? I didn't come away with many answers, but my heart broke for parents who must find ways to keep their kids running on the education treadmill.

A cold-blooded Nazi in hiding

Watching the Argentine thriller The German Doctor gave me a sick feeling -- which is precisely what a film such as this should do. In adapting her novel Wakolda, director Lucia Puenzo tells a fictionalized story about Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. Auschwitz's Angel of Death fled to South America after the war and managed to elude those who sought to bring him to justice. No need recounting Mengele's crimes, which are skillfully implied by Puenza. The story begins when Helmut Gregor (Alex Brendemuhl), a doctor, takes up residence at a seaside hotel run by a husband and wife team (Diego Peretti and Natalia Oreiro). The couple's daughter Lilith (Forencia Bado) isn't growing at a normal rate. The myserious Gregor offers to help the girl, quickly revealing that his interest has a frighteningly sinister edge. As it happens, the family has located in a part of Patagonia where German influences prevail. Desperate to see her daughter progress, mom accepts Gregor's help: Dad is more suspicious. The story is made creepier by the fact that we know Gregor's true identity long before either Lilth's mother or father. The German Doctor is a speculative story that gets under your skin. It's weirdly chilling.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Eastwood slows down 'Jersey Boys'

The popular musical about Fankie Valli and The Four Seasons reaches the screen
You can look at director Clint Eastwood's version of Jersey Boys in a couple of ways. You can lament the fact that Eastwood's movie misses some of the irrepressible energy that marked the musical's many stage productions.

Looked at another way, it's possible to argue that Eastwood -- not the most likely choice to bring a popular musical to the screen -- does a workman-like job of balancing drama, comedy and musical numbers in telling the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, the '60s group responsible for such hits as Sherry, Big Girls Don't Cry, Dawn, Walk Like a Man and many more.

For a reviewer, it's frustrating to acknowledge that there's legitimacy in both points of view, but I've seen the stage version and appreciated the fact that Eastwood isn't interested in building his movie around in-your-face energy.

Eastwood begins with the backstory of how the group formed and how Valli -- actually Francesco Castelluccio -- came to provide its signature voice, a famous falsetto that helped create the Four Seasons' trademark sound.

Jersey Boys works as a typical rise-and-fall story: The group struggles, becomes phenomenally successful and eventually falls apart amid arguments over money and control.

John Lloyd Young, the actor who originated the role on Broadway, plays Valli, a kid from Belleville, N.J. who is portrayed as never having mastered the ruthless side of the music business. Throughout, Frankie remains faithful to a romanticized Jersey ethos of loyalty, friendship and neighborhood ties, even when his values cost him dearly.

The movie also introduces us to Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), a young man who already had written a hit song (Short Shorts) when he joined the Four Seasons and who wrote most of the songs that put the group on the map.

Vincent Piazza portrays Tommy DeVito, the guy who formed the group and who also squandered a lot of its money. Michael Lomenda plays bassist Nick Massi, who mostly seems content to hover in the background.

The story makes room for other characters, as well. Christopher Walken appears as Angelo "Gyp" DeCarlo, a mobster who takes a liking to Frankie. Mike Doyle plays Bob Crewe, a gay record producer who helped put the Seasons on the map and who, in many scenes, provides comic relief. He's from Jersey, but functions as the movie's anti-Jersey Boy. And Joseph Russo plays Joe Pesci, the edgy actor who, in his early years, introduced Gaudio to the group.

An almost charming Walken provides the glue that holds a pivotal scene together. Somehow, the group must deal with the fact that Tommy owes $162,000 to a loan shark. Gyp negotiates the deal that saves Tommy's life.

Eastwood takes an unhurried approach to the screenplay by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, who also wrote the book for the musical. He follows the basic format of the play, which finds each character narrating segments of the movie in what appears to be an effort to add Rashamon-like complexity to a story that really doesn't really need it.

The portrayal of the movie's Italian-American milieu dips into caricature that doesn't really let up until the latter going, when Valli begins to face a host of personal and career problems.

Perhaps because he was looking for a way to make the material his own, Eastwood brings an element of wistful reflection to a story that's usually presented in more upbeat fashion.

Eastwood may have made a mistake in not doing more to showcase the musical numbers, the main reason anyone would want to sit through a story about these four New Jersey guys.

There are other miscalculations, as well. When Valli sings My Eyes Adored You as a lullaby to his young daughter, the moment feels weird: The lovelorn lyrics ("Though I never laid a hand on you") don't match the tender fatherly sentiment for which Eastwood must have been aiming.

The main tension involves Tommy's reluctance to admit that he's not in control of the group. He can't acknowledge that without Valli and Gaudio, there really is no group. A volatile Piazza plays Tommy as if he's in a perpetual audition for a small part in Goodfellas.

I wouldn't say that Young has the makings of a terrific screen actor. He doesn't have the kind of face that turns close-ups into intriguing explorations of character. But Eastwood needed someone who could replicate Valli's voice and Young obviously knows how to do that. The songs weren't lip-synched, but were recorded live.

By the end, it finally becomes clear what Eastwood found admirable about the Four Seasons, the clarity of their tone when they were just four guys harmonizing under a lamp post in a Newark suburb. It's a long time coming, but Eastwood gets there.

'Obvious Child': a different kind of romcom

Jenny Slate stars in a movie about an aspiring comic who isn't ready for motherhood.
Obvious Child deserves credit for dealing with abortion in an entirely credible way -- presuming you're talking about the abortion of a privileged New York woman who lives in trendy Brooklyn and is trying to make her way into the competitive world of stand-up comedy.

Director Gillian Robespierre makes her debut with a romantic comedy built around an aspiring comedian you'll either find funny or annoying. I leaned toward the latter view, which undoubtedly colored my opinion about this widely praised indie.

Jenny Slate's Donna Stern works at a bookstore that's going out of business and performs her personalized comic routines in a low-grade nightspot.

On stage, Donna talks about herself in ways that mix self-deprecation and hostility. She's one of those comics who giggles at her own jokes, which, as I've said, didn't do much to move the needle on my laugh meter.

And that would have been fine had the movie recognized that Donna may be marking time before she gets on with her "real" life. I'm not sure it does.

Slate (familiar from TV's Bob's Burgers, Parks and Recreation and Kroll Show) doesn't do much to take her character beneath the surface. Donna's a self-absorbed young woman with divorced parents: an artsy-fartsy, puppeteer father (Richard Kind) and a strictly business mom (Polly Draper).

Early on, Donna is dumped by her boyfriend (Paul Briganti). He's put off by the fact that she discusses their relationship on stage, suggesting an under-explored and interesting subject: What happens when someone uses someone else's life as material?

A distraught Donna tries to rebound with a drunken one-night stand. She sleeps with Max (Jake Lacy), a WASPy guy who happens to find her funny and engaging, and who's also consistently nice.

A night that might have fizzled into memory persists when Donna discovers that she's pregnant. She's smart enough to know that she's not ready for motherhood, and never wavers in her desire to have an abortion.

That's not to say that she's callous about it: Donna understands that she's making a big decision, and she eventually has a conversation with her mother about it.

Mom knows what life was like before Roe vs. Wade. It's the opposite with Donna. We're talking about a young woman who has grown up with abortion and accepts it -- although she probably never thought she'd find herself in a position where she needed one.

Meanwhile, Lacy's Max persists in his pursuit of Donna. He doesn't know she's pregnant, and sees a possibility for a deeper relationship.

There's not much supporting cast here. Gaby Hoffmann has a nice turn as Donna's best friend; and Gabe Leiderman plays a gay comic who's also one of Donna's pals.

Obvious Child is bound to connect with lots of young women: For me, the movie would have worked better had Donna been something other than mediocre stand-up comic. Many of her routines are sprinkled, Louie-like throughout the movie, a ploy that, for me, just didn't work.

Obvious Child does, however, lower the volume of talk about abortion, allowing a female character to treat it as a part of life -- not a happy one, but one that is not necessarily ruinous or soul-shattering, either.

That statement deserved a more substantial movie.

A little town that needs saving

It's difficult to imagine that the makers of The Grand Seduction -- a comedy set in the tiny Newfoundland town of Tickle Cove -- could have created a more predictable movie if they tried. With the fishing industry dead, Tickle Cove finds itself badly in need of an economic boost. Bearish Murray French (Brendan Gleeson) decides he'll try to succeed where others have failed: He takes on the job of bringing a petrochemical recycling plant to Tickle Cove, a development that could restore the town's viability. To seal the deal, Tickle Cove needs a full-time doctor. Through a totally improbable plot twist involving cocaine, a young plastic surgeon (Taylor Kitsch) is coerced into spending a month among the supposedly colorful locals. For its part, the town creates a faux welcoming environment to persuade the poor doctor to sign on as a full-time resident. The townsfolk love hockey: Kitsch's character is a cricket enthusiast. Obligingly, the men of the town feign an interest in cricket, even forming a team. Everyone caters to the young doctor. Gleeson seems a whale among minnows. Kitsch supplies good looks, charm and amiability. There's enough humor here to give The Grand Seduction crowd-pleasing appeal, but this remake of the Quebec-based comedy Seducing Dr. Lewis (2003) makes the colorful and peculiar seem entirely formulaic.

When in doubt, form a band

In We Are the Best!, Swedish director Lukas Moodysson adapts his wife Coco's graphic novel to tell the story of three alienated Stockholm teen-agers during the 1980s. The movie introduces us to Bobo (Mira Barkhammer) and Klara (Mira Grosin), best friends in middle school, which (of course) they hate. Why? Because Bobo and Klara are dedicated oddballs who insist on being repulsed by their peers. Despite a discernible lack of talent, Bobo and Klara decide to form a punk band. Klara, the more adventurous of the two, seems to believe that a strong will is all that's needed to accomplish their musical goal. Klara will play bass; Bobo is assigned to be the band's drummer. Eventually, the girls recruit an unlikely ally, the strait-laced Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), a girl who knows how to play guitar, but who's also a serious Christian. The adults, of course, are mostly clueless. Bobo's single mom (Anna Rydgren) seems typical: She's no ogre, but she's caught up in the problems of an apparently futile love life. If you're looking for a story full of momentus drama, look elsewhere. The kids in this movie do what kids do: They hang out, argue about bands, try to party above their weight class and act as if nothing could be more important than their own predilections. Eliciting entirely credible performances from his young cast, Moodyson (Show Me Love, Lilya 4-Ever, and Together) gives both the '80s and unfocused teen rebellion an enjoyable sense of life.

Another brutal, unforgiving world

Director David Michod made a striking debut with Animal Kingdom (2010), an uncompromising look at a family of low-level Melbourne criminals.

Now comes Michod's second movie, The Rover, a grim journey through a trashed-out world that has emerged after an economic catastrophe rendered the outback (and perhaps the rest of the globe) lawless.

With actor Robert Pattinson trying hard to put Twilight behind him and Guy Pearce doing his best to feign numbed indifference in the face of unrestrained violence, Michod's grit-laden march across the outback becomes a movie that's all dressed down with no place to go. The Rover itself can seem like an exercise in futility.

Unshaven and scuzzy looking, Pearce plays Eric, a brooding loner who sets out to capture three gun-toting felons who have stolen his car. As he travels from one arid location to the next, Eric comes across the wounded Rey (Pattinson), a dim-witted fellow who happens to be the brother of one of the men who stole the sought-after car.

Rey was left behind in whatever skirmish the trio had engaged in before taking flight.

Speaking with a southern accent that adds to the movie's hodgepodge of types (blacks, Asians and whites), Pattinson creates a character of skittish energy, a kid with traces of innocence clinging to him like the Australian dirt. Pattinson has been de-prettified for the role, complete with teeth in bad need of dentistry.

Believing that Rey can help him track the felonious trio, Eric saves the wounded man's life, and then brings him along as a guide and for some quiet scenes in which Eric parcels out a bit of background.

The movie becomes an exercise in brutal minimalism, but one that's drained of the kind of thematic vitality that would have redeemed its barren tone. It's also a little too eager to prove how awful life has become.

At one point -- for example -- Eric needlessly kills a dwarf from whom he's attempting to purchse a revolver. Oh well, what's a guy to do when someone tries to overcharge for a weapon and there's no Better Business Bureau in sight?

Michod includes some memorable touches. Most notable among them: The image of an upside down vehicle skimming across the surface of a road, as seen through the window of a bar in which the obviously worn-out Eric sits.

Part of the mystery, to the extent that there is any, has to do with why Eric would expend so much energy to retrieve his vehicle, particularly when one destination seems no different from the next.

Fashionably devoid of hope, The Rover isn't subtle about taking us into an anarchic world where decency has been forgotten, a theme that's reinforced by Antony Partos's weirdly pounding score, the aural equivalent of body blows.

Despite the talent that's on display here, The Rover becomes a been-there, done-that exercise in atmospherics that reminds us how quickly life can be reduced to a quest for brute survival.

A cogent reading of reality?

Nah, just one more plunge into the rot of one more big-screen dystopia.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

'22 Jump Street' -- more of the same

... and that's precisely what fans seem to want.
What to say about 22 Jump Street, a movie that has no business existing?

22 Jump Street, of course, is a sequel to 21 Jump Street, another movie that had no reason to exist -- but managed to be funny in a silly sort of way.

Maybe I've answered my own question: The movie exists so that a talented group of filmmakers can have some fun with an idea that has virtually no reason for being, other than to cash in on fondness for the first edition.

In its blatantly rowdy second helping, this Jump Street comedy provides another showcase for the ever-shlubby Jonah Hill and the ever-hunky Channing Tatum. They give us another round of mismatched cops in the middle of a bromance that flirts -- for comic effect -- with possible gayness in their buddy bonding.

Here, in fragmented form, is what I have to say about the whole thing:

-- I didn't find 22 Jump Street consistently hilarious, but audiences probably will. Look for the movie to kick box-office butt, even though its major innovation involves little more than promoting our hapless undercover cops from high school to college.

-- The movie's level of self-mockery extends through the closing credits. 22 Jump Street continuously lets us know that it's aware that it has no business existing, other than to repeat the formula that made the first movie successful.

At times, the characters even say their new adventure will be exactly like the previous one. It is: Our less-than-dynamic duo tries to catch drug dealers who operate on a college campus.

-- Tatum is funnier than Hill. As the dumber of this unlikely duo, Tatum proves more reliably amusing than Hill, who tends to be whiney and, at times, (heaven help us) sincere.

-- Directors Christopher Miller and Phil Lord, who did the original and who also directed the extremely popular Lego Movie, seem to believe that they can make the movie work with the kind of raunchy humor they brought to the first installment. Many will agree with this approach.

-- The MacGuffin here is a new drug called WhyPhy, but the plot is too preposterous even to recount.

-- Ice Cube again proves that an entire career can be constructed around a scowl. He plays the exasperated boss of the underground unit in which Hill's Schmidt and Tatum's Jenko work.

-- The supporting cast adds little, aside from the under-used Keith and Kenny Yang, real-life twins who do a great job of speaking in unison.

As for the rest: Amber Stevens plays an art major who's impressed by Schmidt's willingness to participate in a poetry slam. Wyatt Russell portrays Zook, the school quarterback who becomes best friends with Jenko, who fits surprisingly well into both football and frat life.

-- Yes, it's the old sitcom ploy of reversing a defining element from the first edition. Last time, Hill proved unexpectedly popular in high school: This time, Tatum finds himself surprisingly attuned to college life, presuming, of course, that your idea of college life centers on never opening a book.

-- Oops. I forgot to mention that Jillian Bell does good work as an offensively prudish student.

A movie such as 22 Jump Street can be judged in two ways: Against some defensible standard of humor and wit or against the standard that the movie's audience wants to see upheld.

By the second measure, 22 Jump Street delivers. Because nothing but the movie's overblown gunplay drove me crazy, I'm willing to leave it at that.

A suspensful drama about eco-terrorism

To appreciate Night Moves -- the story of three Oregon-based eco-terrorists intent on blowing up a dam -- you have to be willing to accept a bucket full of unsettling and sometimes unsatisfying ambiguities. Director Kelly Reichardt casts Jessie Eisenberg as an uneasy environmentalist who's committed enough to pursue a destructive form of protest, but doesn't come off as an ideologue. Eisenberg's Josh joins forces with two others: a former marine (Peter Sarsgaard), who has planned the operation and a disaffected young woman (Dakota Fanning). Fanning's Dena may have been recruited because she's considered a good bet for convincing an agricultural supplier to sell enough ammonia-drenched fertilizer to make a bomb. The cause makes sense: The dam provides water for unbridled development, but the characters and their actions don't always add up. Sarsgaard's Harmon lives in a trailer; Eisenberg's character works on a cooperative farm; and Dena has found employment at an upscale health spa. Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy) may want to define the characters by showing how they react to the evolving situation. That means we don't get much background. Reichardt generates a fair amount of tension when it comes to blowing up the dam, but minimizes anything by way of cogent explanation. Josh -- in particular -- remains mysterious, a loner whose motivations may stem as much from confusion as conviction. It's not easy to tell what he wants, probably because he doesn't know himself.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Over and over, war is hell

Tom Cruise gets caught in a time loop in action-packed Edge of Tomorrow.
Tom Cruise answers another call to arms in Edge of Tomorrow, a blockbuster-sized helping of sci-fi involving Groundhog Day-like time loops, ultra-intense combat sequences and a plot that allows director Douglas Liman (The Bourne Identity) to load up on action.

The challenge with a movie such as Edge of Tomorrow involves telling a story based on repetition without making it feel repetitive. Liman mostly succeeds, even if the plot occasionally baffles.

Cruise plays Maj. William Cage, an officer who has been recruited into the military because he was a skilled ad man in civilian life. At war with an alien race called Mimics, the military evidently needs men who know how to manipulate public opinion.

No one is more surprised than the glad-handing Cage when a general (Brendan Gleeson) tells him that he's being shipped to the front to be part of the first wave of a desperate invasion.

Why? Maybe because he's Tom Cruise and he has to somehow be thrown into the fray.

Cage tries to wangle his way out of the assignment, but the general has him arrested and dumped him into the middle of a unit of hardened combat vets.

With little time to adjust, the untrained Cage finds himself on a beachhead fighting creatures that spring into action with whiplash-like fury. They look like toys designed by a sadist who hates kids, part Slinky, part razor-blades.

In Edge of Tomorrow, soldiers don't make amphibious landings: They're dropped from crafts that hover over the water in pulse-quickening sequences designed to rattle the nerves.

The battle scenes -- presented in Saving Private Ryan style -- are chaotic and convincing, so much so that the invasion costs Cage and fellow combatant (Emily Blunt) their lives.

But wait.

No sooner is Cage killed than he wakes up back at a command post, confused and apparently caught up in a never-ending cycle in which he's doomed to repeat the landing, each time getting a bit further toward the objective of destroying the source -- it's called the Omega -- that controls the creatures that are destroying the Earth.

We later learn that Blunt's Rita Vratask once had the same ability to relive her last day that Cage now possesses. Rita, affectionately known to her fellow troopers as Full Metal Bitch, is a seasoned warrior who has become a poster-girl for the military.

Cruise wisely has found a role that allows him to retain his action-movie standing in reasonably credible fashion. He makes a convincing transition from a smiling media man to a hardened warrior, keeping his smile under control and sometimes playing second fiddle to Blunt, whose character eventually agrees to give Cage some training.

Adapted from a 2004 novel by Hiroshi Sakurazaka (All You Need is Kill) by a trio of credited writers, Edge of Tomorrow doesn't feature much by way of a supporting cast, although Bill Paxton does stand-out work as a smug, by-the-book noncom who pushes Cage into battle, after having been told that he's a deserter.

Tough to say whether there's a ton of deeper meaning here, but the consistely excting Edge of Tomorrow -- which resists the mournful ending that would have greatly ennobled it -- feels like it's about something more than action. Neat trick.

Love and cancer in a YA package

Based on an extraordinarily popular young-adult novel, The Fault in Our Stars jerks tears -- without sacrificing intelligence.

Before a preview screening of the new movie The Fault in Our Stars, I noticed that each of the two people seated directly in front of me held a full box of tissues. It turns out they were mother and son.

The young man -- evidently brave enough to venture beyond Fault's predominantly female demographic -- had read the novel on which the movie is based. His mother hadn't. She'd been prepped, though, and was ready for the disturbingly sad parts of a teen romance about two kids with cancer.

I'd read about John Green's mega-bestseller, but hadn't read the book, so I let mother and her son serve as a kind of early warning system for me: I don't know if they each used an entire box of tissues, but they were smart to be ready.

The Fault in Our Stars is what my late mother's generation used to call a three-handkerchief movie, a description that needs no further elaboration.

But -- and it's a big but -- The Fault in Our Stars deserves credit for something it isn't; i.e., dumb and condescending.

Yes, these cancer suffers -- played by Ansel Elgort and Shailene Woodley -- are physically attractive. Yes, they're bright. And, yes, they seem to have been glamorized by director Josh Boone, who makes sure the love story powers the sometimes melancholy proceedings.

But The Fault in Our Stars earns the lump it puts in your throat, and it preserves what appear to be the more ambitious aims of Green's novel: Wondering about what happens after death (possibly nothing), maintaining a healthy skepticism about confessional behavior in a support group, acknowledging that there's no way around feeling some kinds of pain and admitting that we'll all be lucky if one or two people remember us when we're gone.

Woodley gives the movie its soul. Her character -- 16-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster -- narrates the story, thus preserving some of the novel's tone and voice.

Woodley, who also appeared in Fault screenwriters' Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber's The Spectacular Now, brings intellignce and wit to Hazel Grace, who's learned not to be swept away by anyone's hollow bromides.

Elgort, who appeared with Woodley in Divergent, tends toward hunkiness: His character is less complex than Hazel Grace. His Augustus Waters is a former high school basketball star whose cancer cost him a leg, but who can seem far too good-spirited to be true.

Most of what transpires keeps close to teen realities - except possibly for a trip to Amsterdam engineered by Elgort's Augustus. The point of the travel: to visit Peter Van Houton (Willem Dafoe), the author of An Imperial Affliction, Hazel Grace's favorite novel.

Hazel Grace wants to ask deep questions about the ending of Van Houton's novel, but the author turns out to be a bitter drunk, a character who exists mostly to raise a cautionary point for young readers: Best not to confuse wisdom on the page with the character of the author.

Dafoe doesn't hold back when it comes to portraying Van Houton's cruelty, but the trip to Amsterdam makes room for other developments, including an unfortunate visit to the Anne Frank home, accompanied by voice-over readings from Frank's famous diary.

Frank died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945. She was 15. Bringing up Frank's story -- perhaps to amplify a point about embracing life amid abundant suffering -- seems too hard a tug at the heart strings, a needless exclamation point in a story that has plenty of its own emotional juice.

The story belongs to Woodley and Elgort, but the supporting cast adds flavor. Nat Wolff has a nice turn as August's friend Isaac, a teen-ager who has lost one eye to cancer and is about to lose another.

Laura Dern and Sam Trammel don't have a lot to do as Hazel Grace's parents, but the movie doesn't make buffoons out of them: They can't control a situation that's devastating for them.

Look, these cancer patients probably look a little too good for sick people, but one mustn't forget that The Fault in Our Stars makes no bones about being a Hollywood movie, and it will be seen by many who would shun a more aggressively realistic film.

Did the extended ending constitute a form of emotional piling on? Probably. Did I cry? No.

But here's the thing: I respect the tears of those who did -- and that's saying something.

Two from the indie side


A widowed working-class father tries to raise two boys while coping (or failing to do so) with the death of his wife in Hellion, a drama set in Galveston, Texas. Dad (Aaron Paul) clearly lacks the skills to handle his sons, and the older boy (Josh Wiggins) is in the midst of a prolonged rebellion that lands him in trouble with the law. Director Kat Candler has hold of a strong subject, but her movie tends to dawdle as it searches for a way to bring its many issues to a dramatic boil. Wiggins' Jacob is a motocross enthusiast, but Hellion isn't really about a kid's fascination with motocross: It's a look at the impact of a father with lmiited parenting skills on his two sons, the younger of them played by Deke Garner. At one point, Garner's Wes is sent to live with his aunt (Juliette Lewis), a woman who believes that her brother-in-law is obviously deficient when it comes to assuming responsibility. Paul does a nice job portraying a man who as trouble admitting that he doesn't know how to control his sons, but who wants to keep custody of them. Wiggins, who provides the movie with its center, does a fine job portraying a basically decent kid whose future is uncertain. Eventually, atmosphere and situation must give way to drama. Unfortunately, Candler's high-powered finale doesn't quite ring true.


In Ping Pong Summer, director Michael Tully makes a return trip to youth. Ping Pong Summer tells the story of Rad Miracle (Marcello Conte), a teen-ager who goes on a seashore vacation with his mother (Lea Thompson), father (John Hannah) and sneering sister (Helena May Seabrook). Early on, Rad encounters the local bully (Joseph McCaughtry), who also happens to be an ace at Ping Pong. That gvies the movie the opportunity to build toward a final face-off at the Ping Pong table between McCaughtry's Lyle and Rad. Although Rad's beginning to take an interest in girls, he can't bring himself to express his fondness a local beauty (Emmi Shockley), even though she seems to like him. Set during the 1980s, the mildly diverting Ping Pong Summer proceeds as if we all might share a fondess for the Maryland shore where the Miracle family takes its vacation. Predictably, the film introduces an oddball woman (Susan Sarandon) who lives next door to the Miracles and who we know from the start will play a role in Rad's inevitable march toward self-confidence.

Where dreams and memory meet

Recently, the documentary Jodorowsky's Dune told us about an epic sci-fi film that Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky planned, but never was able to make, an adaptation of Frank Herbert's epic 1965 sci-fi novel.

Best known for cultish movies such as El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973), Jodorowsky hasn't directed a movie since 1990's The Rainbow Thief, which was barely seen in the U.S.

Always a bit of a surrealist, Jodorowsky returns to Earth with Dance of Reality, which -- for him -- means grounding a story full of fantasy and imagination in a matrix of historical and autobiographical memory.

Dance of Reality is a cinematic memoir, presuming that memoirs can be records of both dreams and reality -- or perhaps of realities that live on as dreams.

In Dance With Reality, Jodorowsky -- who occasionally appears in the film as himself -- tells the story of his relationship with his parents, but Jodorowsky's father (played by the director's son Brontis Jodorowsky) tends to dominate.

A Ukrainian Jew transplanted to Chile, Jamie Jodorowsky lives through a psychological and spiritual progression that begins when he tries to instill his young son (Jeremias Herskovits) with the trappings of manhood.

For young Alejandro, Jamie becomes a task master, a martinet who tries to teach his son courage by way of controlled emotion.

As a Jew, Jamie's an outsider in the tiny coastal village of Tocopilla, where much of the story takes place. He's never fully accepted -- even though he takes an active role as a Communist in opposition to real-life dictator Carlos Ibanez and as a volunteer fireman trying to keep his community safe.

Jamie's mother (Pamela Flores) connects her son with her lost father, a dancer who died in the Ukraine. She wants to keep young Alejandro in his childhood -- albeit as child with whom she has a flirtatious relationship. At one point, she dances nude with him.

A big busted woman of ample personality, Alejandro's mother approaches life as if it were an opera, so much so that Jodorowsky has her singing all of her dialogue -- some as arias, some as recitative.

Although the movie has a vigorous political life, Jodorowsky seems more interested in exploring symobolic portrayals of manly power and will: Why else would Jamie have a picture of Stalin hanging in his living room?

A segment in which Jamie goes to work as a groom for Ibanez seems strained, perhaps a way of exploring the morality of using force as a means of achieving justice.

Jamie initially accepts the job so that he can get close enough to the dictator to assassinate him. Will he have the stomach to go through with his plan? Should he?

Jamie's a man of intense contradiction, a purported champion of the poor whose ownership of a lingerie shop makes him part of the bourgeoisie, a man who may lack the rigidity necessary to be a true ideologue. He's not Stalin.

Because the movie has a narrative spine, Jodorowsky is free to introduce dream-like imagery -- some of it shocking (his mother reviving his ill father by urinating on him), some fanciful (an encounter with a character called the Theosophist) and some of it eerily compelling (the funeral of a drowned child).

Jodorowsky, who's 85, has made a movie that could well serve as his swan song. When we see him in the movie, he's usually embracing his younger self, providing assurance that the boy will find a path on which to live -- and that both man and boy ultimately will vanish into the encroaching mists of time.

Dance of Reality may not be entirely comprehensible, but its poetic allure makes it one of the more intriguing movie's of the year thus far, a work from someone who clearly regards cinema as art, but isn't so overwhelmed by the idea that he leaves the rest of us totally behind.