FRESH POUR: Edge of Tomorrow (2014) / Maleficent (2014)

Clint takes a look at one or two new releases that come out each week –just a short look at what’s being released in theaters, along with some drinking rules for your own perusal.

Edge of Tomorrow Edge of Tomorrow
Dir. Doug Liman

Warner Bros. Pictures

Starship Troopers meets Groundhog Day – that’s the best way I can describe this sci-fi actioner, the latest in Tom Cruise’s semi-recent fad of starring in slightly gimmicky alien invasion thrillers (Oblivion). In this film, based on a Japanese novella entitled All You Need is Kill (a much better title), slimy aliens have invaded – as they are wont to do– and it is up to humanity to make a last-ditch Normandy-esque strike on the shores of France. However, in the course of the battle, Tom Cruise kills the right kind of alien, and through movie alien space blood magic he gets the ability to ‘reset the day’ every time he dies. Whenever he gets killed, he resets to the evening before the assault, carrying with him the knowledge of all the previous resets. With the help of a war hero who has experience with this time-reset phenomenon (Emily Blunt), the two set off to end the alien invasion, with all the time in the world to spare.

What sets this film apart from its very obvious influences, as well as other Cruise actioners, is that Cruise’s character is decidedly not a hero at the outset. Cruise’s William Cage is a PR stooge, a military recruiter who goes on talk shows and cons people into joining the armed forces (where they are given Elysium-like mech suits called ‘Jackets’, which have a wonderful industrial personality to them, even though they make everyone walk around like they’re in poopypants). Cruise’s particular charisma works well for this kind of fast-talking weasel, throwing a little Jerry Maguire in there at times when he needs to schmooze someone into doing what he needs.

I’ve always been a fan of Cruise as an actor, or at least a performer, and he manages to find roles that suit that kind of dead-behind-the-eyes movie star attitude. Cage is a wonderful subversion of that, and while it doesn’t ask him to do anything particularly new, it’s incredibly entertaining to watch. The film takes great joy in killing Cruise in increasingly creative and pathetic ways, and Cruise seems all too game to help sell the joke.People who think Cruise doesn’t have comedic chops should watch Tropic Thunder, then this.

Doug Liman’s film is filled with this kind of sense of humor; the Groundhog Day-esque montages, where Cruise trains to be a better fighter, or navigates Blunt’s resolute soldier Rita Verdansky (isn’t it funny that both Blunt and Andie MacDowell in Groundhog Day’s characters are both named Rita?) through all the steps she needs to take during the battle to avoid death. The big battle centering the film almost becomes like a video game – every time you die you reset to the beginning of the level, so you know when to duck this guy or that thing or this falling dropship, etc.

Despite the zippy comedic energy of the middle act (where the film and its gimmick truly shine), Doug Liman and crew aren’t afraid to explore a bit of the pathos that comes with this kind of time-skipping. The most interesting aspect of that is Cruise and Blunt’s relationship, which always ‘resets’ to strangerhood whenever Cruise dies, making the deficit in their knowledge of each other even wider each time.

The romance angle isn’t played up too much, and it almost comes off as a natural offshoot of wartime camaraderie. Even the big kiss at the end is fascinatingly businesslike; after all, they might die in a second, and they’ve got a job to do. Blunt doesn’t overextend herself here, but her strength and independence, even after starting to pair off with Cruise, is very nice to see – her justifiable discomfort at realizing that Cruise has repeatedly been taking her on dates on an abandoned house in the country to escape the battle recalls Rita’s discomfort at Bill Murray’s knowledge of her in Groundhog Day.

Edge of Tomorrow isn’t without its problems, and some of them are major enough that I can’t say I ‘loved’it. Essentially, apart from the time travel gimmick and Cruise and Blunt’s confident performances, there’s not really much else to the film. The supporting cast takes a distant third to the two leads, leaving them insufficiently developed by the time they really must come into play. Of note is Cruise’s J-squad, the ‘misfit’ team made up of various ragtag personalities (Aliens-style space marines), but they choose to simply differentiate them aesthetically instead of making them different characters other than “fat British guy” and “wiry Southern chick.” The aliens themselves, while providing the vehicle for the time-travel conceit (Cruise inadvertently steals their time-travel ability from them in his first fight) are your typical tentacled baddies that are there as cannon fodder. The ending climax at the abandoned Louvre is also disappointingly conventional, especially since they no longer fall back on the ‘reset’ gag and they continually drop the ball on the marine characters.

Despite these gaffes, though, the strength of the time-travel gimmick, and the amount of fun Liman and the screenwriters are willing to have with it, really elevate the watchability of this material. It doesn’t hurt that Cruise and Blunt play fantastically off each other, and Cruise finally gets a bit more unconventional material to sink his teeth into. The action itself is frenetic without being too chaotic, and Liman has already proven he knows how to shoot diverse, involving action scenes without making them seem too big in scale. All in all, I’d say check out Edge of Tomorrow.

Clint’s Verdict: Liked It

Edge of Tomorrow Drinking Game:
1) Drink whenever Tom Cruise ‘resets’
2) Drink every time Cruise spills personal information to prove he knows the future
3) Drink any time a character makes an impossible flip or spin move
Finish Your Drink When:
Cage (Cruise) says, “I wish I didn’t know you…but I do.”

Dir. Robert Stromberg
Walt Disney Pictures

The ‘gritty reimagining of a fairy tale from the villain’s perspective’ is something that’s seen some mileage in the past few years – there are things like Wicked, Once Upon a Time, every SyFy channel miniseries for the past decade, etc. I suppose it comes from our more self-reflexive, post-modern approaches to stories in recent years, where we wonder what things are like on the other side of the fairy tale conflicts we grew up enjoying as children. Maleficent is yet another of those stories, this time telling an altered tale of Sleeping Beauty from the witch’s point of view.

Here, she’s reborn as a badass queen of the forest (played with oddly sharpened cheekbones by Angelina Jolie), whose star-crossed romance with a human from the neighboring human kingdom, Stefan (Sharlto Copley) is returned by cutting her wings off to earn the favor of the dying king as his successor. Years later, Maleficent comes back to attend the Christening of Stefan’s child Aurora (the hero of Sleeping Beauty) in order to set upon her the curse that we’re all familiar with, a lifelong sleep on her 16th birthday unless ‘true love’s kiss’ is granted to her.

I almost feel bad for the film, because its one major thematic subversion of the original story – the existence or nature of ‘true love’ – was just done by a previous Disney film, Frozen. Here, as in Frozen, ‘true love’s kiss’ is set up as a romantic covenant between a man and a woman, only to be subverted for a more platonic, familial love between women. It’s a very nice message, and one we do need to see more of in film, but it can’t help but feel shopworn and used up in Maleficent. It’s tough to blame them, because the movies were produced and released so close to each other it’s not as though they could change it, but it’s still something that nags a bit.

The film’s biggest crime, though, is that it’s just flat out boring. It’s strange for me to say that, because the film only has about a 100-minute runtime, and I’m usually railing against movies being too long nowadays. That being said, by the time the prologue ends, the movie instills a sense of impatience in you – they take the stately, overwrought pace and majesty of the original fairy tale too far here, while still trying to bring in something new, and the pieces don’t mesh as well as they’d like. Between one act and the next, Jolie goes from wounded warrior to camp witch queen; it’s a fun mode to see her in, but I would have liked to have seen more transition. Some jarring elements from the original serve no purpose here, such as the three pixies who take care of Aurora (Elle Fanning) in her youth – instead of informing the characters around them, or actually having funny gags, they exist in a vacuum to bicker with each other like magical proto-Golden Girls.

For a film ostensibly about the agency of women being robbed – Maleficent’s wings are taken in a scene that carries the disturbing implications of date rape and/or female genital mutilation – peeks of the male-centric Lord of the Rings fantasy mentality still peek through. An early scene sees Mal conjuring up some Ent-like forest beasts to beat down on men in elegant silver armor. Maleficent’s power to turn into a dragon in the original Sleeping Beauty is transferred to her long-suffering crow henchman Theovald, making him literally fight her battles for her.

So much time is taken to make Maleficent a justifiably hurt young woman out for revenge, but not as much care is taken to update Aurora. Like in the original, she’s an innocent young china doll  who carries no personality of her own – she’s just the MacGuffin for this ideological custody battle between two embittered romantic partners (Maleficient and Stefan). While that actually sounds cool, they don’t really do much with it except have poor Copley gnash his teeth around a horrid Scottish accent as he gets grumpier and more obsessed with Maleficent. Their eventual confrontation is disappointing too, and is cut off too abruptly. The film tries to use this fantastical backdrop to tell these human stories, but not much works except some  of the CG and a few gorgeous wide shots. (First-time director Stromberg doesn’t have the people scenes down, though, as those look disappointingly flat and poorly blocked.)

I have no particular affinity for the old Disney princess stories and fairy tales, but I know that there’s more that could have come from this film. The script is at once too ambitious and too unwilling to let scenes breathe, substituting characterization for plot points. Jolie does some nice work with the material, but Maleficent isn’t asked to do much besides glower, playfully smirk and give epic pronouncements with a big-booming voice. In spite of some wonderful imagery at points, Maleficent just doesn’t bring enough new or innovative to the table to justify its existence.

Clint’s Verdict: Skip It

Maleficent Movie Drinking Game:
1) Drink whenever Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) does her green magic
2) Drink any time you hear the completely unnecessary narration
3) Drink every time someone says “Maleficent”
Finish Your Drink When:
One of the Pixies (Imelda Staunton) says, “She’s only sleeping!”

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About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound (where he is a Senior Staff Writer), Crooked Marquee, IndieWire and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.