Monday, June 16, 2014

Michael J. Tresca gave 4 stars to: Edge of Tomorrow (Blu-ray)

Michael J. Tresca reviewed:

Edge of Tomorrow (Blu-ray) Blu-ray ~ Tom Cruise

4.0 out of 5 stars Game Over. And Over. And Over..., June 16, 2014

The conceit behind "Edge of Tomorrow" is grounded in American's increasingly foggy memories of D-Day. In short, the Allies stormed the beaches of Normandy by sending thousands of young men into the meat grinder of the heavily fortified Atlantic Wall in which it was a triumph simply to remain standing. Dumped into a churning surf, facing withering gunfire, grunts were lucky to survive the first minute of the invasion. "Edge of Tomorrow" works overtime to ensure we keenly feel those stomach-churning moments by playing them over and over and over again.

But to reproduce a modern D-Day requires a few alternations to the modern timeline. The aliens, known as mimics for some reason, have landed in an asteroid strike in the center of Europe (not an unheard-of possibility these days). The aliens spread out and it's up to our heroes, led by steely-eyed heroine Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), to hack her way through the enemy line in a counteroffensive. There's just one problem: the allied invasion can't possibly succeed.

The error in judgment begins with technology. The troops are outfitted with "jackets," inspired by the GE Hardiman project (a suit my father swears he saw in action on a carrier once when he was in the Navy). Overconfidence in the modern jacket's abilities leads to the very wrong assumption that minimal training is necessary. This proves all too deadly on the battlefield -- the mimics are insanely fast swirling balls of tentacles. Engaging them in any hand-to-hand combat is obviously unthinkable, but very few people actually know what it's like to fight one. Enter Major William Cage (Tom Cruise).

As it turns out, the reason she is such a vaunted hero is because Vrataski slaughtered a dozen mimics in one battle; her victory was possible only due to a very set of plot-stretching circumstances, and it's not until Cage appears that the allied forces get another shot at replicating it.

And replicating it he does. Cruise plays Cage as a coward, a personality affectation noteworthy only because it's Cruise playing against type. In typical "Choose Your Own Adventure" fashion, Cage is in a situation where no matter what he does, he's going to war. He learns to eventually game the system, and he and Vrataski share a secret with just one day to make a difference.

Two themes run throughout the film: heroism is a team effort, and love is about shared experiences. The grunts that go into battle with Cage eventually become a key part of saving the world. And the center of the film is as much about the relationship between Cage and Vrataski as it is about winning the war. To Cruise's credit, he conveys Cage's emotional states more with his eyes than his words, from steely-eyed determination to murderous rage to tender affection. For a film about war, "Edge of Tomorrow" finds its heart in those quiet moments when Cage struggles mightily to keep Vrataski alive despite the knowledge she will die a hundred times over.

By the time Bill Paxton shows up, it truly is "game over." Only in this game you can save first. A fascinating film marred slightly by its tidy ending.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Michael J. Tresca gave 5 stars to: X-Men

Michael J. Tresca reviewed:

X-Men: Days of Future Past Amazon Instant Video ~ Michael Fassbender

5.0 out of 5 stars A welcome course correction, June 5, 2014

I had my doubts about “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” For one, it’s the seventh installment in the series (yes, really, counting the Wolverine movie). For another, it’s a mash-up between 2006’s retro “X-Men: First Class” and “X-Men: The Last Stand.” In a fashion similar to the Star Trek franchise reboot, “Days of Future Past” is an entire retcon of the events of “The Last Stand” – an opportunity to forge a new path with younger actors that isn’t beholden to the main storyline. Fed up with the many nonsensical plotlines of “The Last Stand?” Loved the ruthlessness of “First Class”? Then you’re in luck, true believers!

“Days of Future Past” features a dystopian future in which mutants are hunted by Mark II Sentinels, capable of instantly copying any superpower they encounter. Their directive: protect humans from mutants at all costs. Unfortunately, the definition of a mutant rapidly expands to include those with the potential to have mutant offspring, and it’s not long before the shapeshifters are killing off most of humanity. Desperate, Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian Mckellen) team up with Storm (Halle Berry), to use Kitty Pryde’s (Ellen Page) powers to send Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) consciousness back in time to 1973. It’s all to stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating the creator of the Sentinels, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), which sets off the chain of events leading to Sentinel apocalypse.

This leads to a fun series of acting exercises in which young Xavier (James McAvoy) and young Magneto (Michael Fassbender) must be convinced by taciturn Wolverine (still Hugh Jackman) to work together. There’s just a few problems: Xavier’s a drug addict and Magneto is in a super prison. And oh yeah, they hate each other’s guts. Enter Peter Maxmioff AKA Quicksilver (Evan Peters), who is like the Flash with worse hair. It’s also the best part of the film.

The fun of a retconning film like this is that all bets are off. Older characters can die without permanently damaging the franchise, new characters can forge their own paths, and everything that was old feels new again. Although there are always plot holes in a time traveling film, it’s easy to forgive them as director Bryan Singer repairs the wreckage he left behind when he fled the helm of “X-Men: The Last Stand” to lead the dreadful “Superman Returns” and left it to Brett Ratner to pick up the pieces. I’m not sure this film is enough for fans to forgive Singer, but it’s a much improved course correction to the franchise.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Michael J. Tresca gave 5 stars to: Captain America

Michael J. Tresca reviewed:

Captain America: The Winter Soldier Amazon Instant Video ~ Chris Evans

5.0 out of 5 stars Where will we fight injustice?, June 2, 2014

It’s hard to make a guardian government agency these days without someone believing that, no matter how well-intentioned the individual agents are, there’s something fundamentally corrupt about it. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” a franchise deeply rooted in American jingoism, takes this cynicism head on with its titular hero in a way that feels surprisingly modern.

Our hero, Steve Rogers AKA Captain America (Chris Evans) does what good soldiers should: he follows orders. So when he discovers that his companion Natasha Romanoff AKA Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) has an ulterior motive during a standard counter-terrorism mission, Rogers suspects something is up. This dichotomy -- Captain America forthright and public, Black Widow secretive and in the shadows – is a theme that runs throughout the film that parallels the challenge of the modern whistleblower: should we fight the creation of these privacy-invading organizations in public or release secrets illegally like Edward Snowden?

Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) prefers the latter, and he uses Black widow as a tool to get to the truth. When he gets too close, the truth attempts to rub him out in a thrilling car chase sequence with a hovercraft mode that conveniently won’t kick in when it’s needed most. With Fury presumed dead, Cap and Black Widow track down the contents of a mysterious flash drive, where they discover that when a global event threatens the authority of the world’s superpowers (the alien invasion from “The Avengers”) it reasserts itself with terrible force in a way reminiscent of fascism…the kind of fascism Captain America fought in World War II. His idealism has never felt more relevant.

And that’s what makes “The Winter Soldier” so great. What could easily be a dated concept feels fresh because the issues Captain America grapples with have changed names, countries, and titles, but are still lurking in the shadowy corners of our beloved institutions. Just don’t watch Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. first – the concurrent episodes give away the entire plot.