Darkness at Dawn

If ever there was a movie series that has reaped the benefit of modern technology, it’s Planet of the Apes. While the makeup in the original 1968 move was quite impressive for its day, you never forgot that you were watching actors in heavy latex prosthetics. The movie’s theme and its killer twist overcame the prosthetics – and allowed the film to become a five-movie series. There were some makeup improvements in the Tim Burton reboot, but the rest of the film was such a mess you hardly noticed them, and it looked like the series was dead. But then came 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, using motion capture technology and the genius of Andy Serkis’ embodiment of Caesar. For the first time, the intelligence-enhanced apes were believable, and fascinating. The success of Rise led to the newest film, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

The end of Rise foreshadowed a nasty plague caused by the Gen-Sys anti-Alzheimer’s drug ALZ 113, the treatment that gave Caesar (Serkis) and the other apes their intelligence. In a simple but effective sequence, the plague – called the Simian Flu because of its tie to ape testing – is tracked to its final devastation of mankind. Ten years have passed since Caesar led his apes north of San Francisco to Muir Woods where they set up their own society. During a hunt for food, Caesar and another of the original tribe, Koba (Toby Kebbell) must save Caesar’s son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) from a rampaging bear. They return to the settlement where Caesar’s wife Cornelia (Judy Greer) presents him with a new child. Cornelia, though, shows signs of illness.

Later while walking through the woods, Blue Eyes and a friend come face to face with a human. The man’s both armed and paranoid about apes, and he shoots Blue Eyes’ friend out of fear. The man is part of a small group under the leadership of Malcolm (Jason Clarke) that wants to find and restore a hydro power plant to give electricity to an outpost of humans still living in San Francisco. Caesar at first refuses the request, forcefully telling the leader of the outpost, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) to forget the plan. But Malcolm, along with his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and his partner Ellie (Keri Russell), return to the forest and are able to change Caesar’s mind. While they make progress toward peaceful co-existence, both Dreyfus and Koba prepare for war.

Jason Clarke has a wonderful ability to communicate both physical strength as well as sensitive intelligence. His role as Dan, the CIA agent in charge of enhanced interrogations in Zero Dark Thirty, played up how quietly imposing he can be, while in Dawn he is the hope for understanding, following in the footsteps of James Franco’s role in Rise. Oldman is effective as always as the less-than-trusting Dreyfus, while Russell and Smit-McPhee provide good support for the story.

Toby Kebbell’s Koba rises almost to the level of Shakespeare’s Iago or Richard III. He’s fearsome, and the physical manifestation is truly frightening, yet he’ll pull on a mask and act the fool when he must. The moment when he drops the mask, though, is starkly powerful. A strong antagonist is needed to make a story memorable, and Kebbell provides that strength.

Caesar remains the central character, a leader trying to balance power and mercy. While the embodiment is incredible, what sets it apart is when the camera focuses on Serkis’ eyes and you read his thoughts. While he’ll never be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar – the prejudice against technology is too strong – in both Rise and Dawn Serkis does Oscar-caliber work. Serkis continues to be busy, with Avengers: Age of Ultron coming next year to be followed by a new Tintin movie as well as Star Wars 7.

Director Matt Reeves had worked in television (including several episodes of “Felicity” with Keri Russell) before moving to the big screen with Cloverfield and Let Me In. While those movies were a solid start, with Dawn he reaches blockbuster success. He’s assisted by production designer James Chinlund (The Avengers) who creates a post-human world where nature has taken charge again. Also, one particular kudo to the movie for not destroying the Golden Gate Bridge as a cheap post-apocalyptic visual. It’s become so common (Godzilla destroyed it two months ago) that leaving the bridge intact stands out.

With Rise and now Dawn, screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, assisted by Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard, Unstoppable) on the new film, have not just rebooted the series but have completely reimagined it, adding depth and emotional heart that was absent in the original movies. Dawn made more in its initial weekend than Rise, and it has topped the weekend box office for two weeks straight. According to IMDb, another movie is in the works with Reeves directing as well as collaborating on the script with Bomback. I’m looking forward to seeing it.

 

A Soaring Sequel

Dreamworks Animation was Disney Lite for many years. They had the Shrek and Madagascar series, and stand alones like Monsters vs. Aliens and Megamind – decent movies, all of them, but they didn’t reach the emotional depth of the Toy Story series, or Beauty and the Beast, or Up. That changed in 2010 with How to Train Your Dragon. Based on the series of books by Cressida Crowell, Dragon was wonderfully funny yet it had an emotional resonance with the conflict between Hiccup and his father Stoick, the chief of the Viking village plagued by dragons. The movie also did a service for all the soldiers who have returned home from recent wars with lost limbs when Hiccup lost a foot in the climatic battle while heroically saving the warriors of the village. It gave children a way to understand when that happened to people they knew – perhaps their own mothers and fathers. In How to Train Your Dragon 2, screenwriter/director Dean DeBlois builds on what he accomplished in the first movie.

A couple of years have passed since the first movie, and the dragons have become completely incorporated into the village. Hiccup’s friends Astrid (voice by America Ferrera), Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and the twins Tuffnut and Ruffnut (TJ Miller and Kristen Wiig) are well into their teenaged years now, and with that change have come romantic feelings. Both Snotlout and Fishlegs are pining for Ruffnut, who isn’t impressed with either of them, while Astrid’s feelings for Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) have deepened. Hiccup and Toothless spend their days soaring far from the village, mapping the surrounding world. They come upon a group of dragon hunters led by Eret (Kit Harrington) who are gathering the beasts for the dragon army of Drago (Djimon Hounsou). The hunters had recently been hunted themselves by another dragon rider who has a dragon that can spit ice.

Stoick (Gerard Butler) has had experience with Drago and begins to prepare for war, but Hiccup wants to try to reason with Drago. Hiccup sets off to find him, but instead he discovers someone he never thought he’d ever see – his mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett), who has become a dragon rider herself and the protector of a nest of dragons.

Dragon 2 keeps the comedic tone of the first movie intact, especially with the interplay between Hiccup’s friends. The embodiment of Valka is fascinating, as her time among the dragons has led to almost feral movements. The vocal talents of all the actors are excellent, so that during the movie you don’t picture them as they are in real life, but only as the characters. DeBlois and his illustrators match the beauty of the first film with the rich, deep illustrations. The flying and battle sequences in both Dragon movies justify the use of 3D technology, as they capture the joy of flight.

But it goes beyond the first movie to emotionally raw places as it develops the theme of facing maturity and the responsibilities that come with it. It’s a movie about growing up, similar to The Lion King and Bambi, and just like those movies there is a devastating sequence of loss and sadness on the road to maturity.

There is one complaint about Dragon 2, and that is the racefail presentation of Drago as a black, dreadlocked character. It goes back to the worse stereotypes, as well as being jarring amid the Viking world. DeBlois and his team have filled this world with vibrant characters, but Drago feels like an afterthought, and doesn’t match the reality of the others. Djimon Hounsou’s voice does carry the malevolence of the role, but the image is a failure.

But that is the only complaint. The other aspects of the movie are top-notch, and it is a satisfying experience. If Dreamworks can produce other projects that match the quality of the Dragon films, they can challenge Disney/Pixar for supremacy in the field of animated movies.

A Giant Parable

Brad Bird is one of a handful of directors to find success in both animation and live action films. Working with Pixar, he did both The Incredibles and Ratatouille, and he helmed Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, which is the best movie in that series. But before those successes, he made his feature debut with the classically animated film, The Iron Giant.

The movie is based on a 1968 children’s book, “The Iron Man” by Ted Hughes. When the book was published in the US, the name was changed to avoid confusion with Marvel Comic’s character. Hughes was known for his poetry and was Poet Laureate of England from 1984 until his death in 1998. (Today he’s also remembered in connection to his first wife, poet and novelist Sylvia Plath, author of “The Bell Jar.”) Bird adapted the story along with screenwriter Tim McCanlies (Second Hand Lions, “Smallville”). They move the story from England to coastal Maine in 1957, at the height of the Red Menace fears. Instead of the intergalactic threat to peace in the original, The Iron Giant has an all-too-human villain who is motivated by fear and paranoia.

The giant (voiced by Vin Diesel) crashes to earth just off the coastal town of Rockwell, Maine. He accidentally sinks a fishing boat, though the fisherman survives. Rockwell is the home to 9-year-old Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal) and his mother Annie (Jennifer Aniston), who’s a waitress at the town’s diner. Hogarth meets the local junkyard man and aspiring artist, Dean McCoppin (Harry Connick Jr.), when the squirrel he wants to keep as a pet gets loose at the diner.

Hogarth is home alone that night, watching a forbidden sci-fi horror flick on the TV, when the picture turns to static. When he checks on the antenna, he finds it’s gone, and he sees a trail leading off into the forest. Armed with his BB gun and wearing a plastic Army helmet, Hogarth investigates, and comes across the Giant. The Giant has a ravenous appetite for metal, and when he tries to eat a power substation, he gets hung up in the high-tension wires. Hogarth saves him by cutting the power. Hogarth runs from the scene, only to be found by Annie, who’s searching for him after finding the house empty. Later the next day, he returns and finds the Giant who, because of a blow to his head, is like a very large child himself. He introduces the Giant to McCoppin, so the junkman can help satiate the Giant’s hunger for metal.

The report by the fisherman and the blackout cause at the substation has raised the suspicions of a government operative, Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald). He’s at first dismissive of the assignment, but that changes when he finds his car half-eaten by the Giant. When he finds the remains of Hogarth’s BB gun at the substation, he suspects he has a way to find the Giant.

Along with the actors noted above, others who supply their vocal talents to the movie include Cloris Leachman, John Mahoney and M. Emmett Walsh. The animation, done by Warner Brothers, is on par with later Disney films such as The Fox and the Hound, though in style the film is more complex, closer to live-action movies. Its closest spiritual cousins are The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming and The Day The Earth Stood Still (the original, not the Keanu Reeves mess), both of which were comments on the paranoia of the 1950’s and 1960’s.

While it’s an animated movie and can be enjoyed in that way, it also works well for adults, especially those who remember what it was like to be a child in the middle of the last century. It draws you back to that more innocent time of friendship and imagination, and it grabs your heart strings and plays them shamelessly with its theme of sacrificial love. That’s a good thing, for as long as our hearts can still be reached with a message of love and understanding, there’s hope for us yet.

For the Love of Films

Italy has had a love affair with movies for as long as images have flickered on the screen. In the mid-1950s, there were over 17,000 cinemas in the country, and it is the land that produced Federico Fellini, Roberto Rossellini, Sergio Leone, Franco Zeffirelli, and Vittorio de Sica. But, as with the US and other countries, after that high water mark in the ‘50s the number of cinemas contracted as their audience was lured away by television. In 1988, writer/director Guiseppe Tornatore created a nostalgic and bittersweet love letter to those bygone days with the movie Cinema Paradiso.

The movie begins in the present day, with the mother of a successful film director trying to reach her son in Rome to tell him his childhood friend Alfredo has passed away in their home town in Sicily. When the director, Salvatore Di Vita (Jacques Perrin), arrives home late, his live-in lover passes on the message. He brushes it off, but as he lays in his bed, his eyes are sad and haunted by memories. There’s no sleep that night as he drifts back to his childhood when he was known as “Toto” and to his friendship with Alfredo.

At the end of WWII, Toto (Salvatore Cascio) is a eight-year-old obsessed with movies who is constantly pestering Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), the projectionist at the Cinema Paradiso, to show him how to work the projector. He follows the village priest into the theater after mass one day and watches as the priest previews a new movie for unsuitable content. The priest makes Alfredo cut out anything sexual, beginning with kisses. (As a patron moans while watching a movie, “In twenty years, I’ve never seen a woman kiss on the screen.’) Toto gets Alfredo to give him some of the cut footage, which Alfredo does to get rid of him. Toto stores it in a can under his sister’s bed, but it’s too close to a heater and the silver nitrate film almost burns down their house. Toto’s mother Maria (Antonella Attili) prohibits Toto from going into the projection booth again.

Toto is devastated, but fate gives him another chance. The illiterate Alfredo has been attending night school, but it’s not going well for him. He asks Toto for help, but Toto demands Alfredo teach him how to run the projector in exchange for his tutoring. Soon the two become close friends as they work together. It’s an idyllic time, until a horrifying accident costs Alfredo his sight. Toto continues on as projectionist into his late teens. By then, Toto (now played by Marco Leonardi) is experimenting with his own 8mm movies. He also experiences the highs and lows of first love when he falls hard for Elena Mendola (Agnese Nano), the blue-eyed banker’s daughter.

After his military service, Toto is pushed by Alfredo to pursue his dream of working in the film industry. Alfredo tells Toto that only after he has been away for a long time will he have a chance to return home and find what he left behind. After 30 years away, the adult Toto returns for Alfredo’s funeral – and finds his friend has left him a very special gift.

The delight of Cinema Paradiso is in Tornatore’s eye for detail. The audience in the theater is a microcosm of the village, captured in beautiful detail over the course of the years. Along with the love of movies and Toto’s love of Elena, there’s a powerful familial love story between Toto, who lost his father in the war, and Alfredo, who has no children.

Helping the movie’s impact is a gorgeous score by Ennio Morricone that is equal parts haunting and romantic, echoing the great themes of the golden age of movies. Blasco Giurato’s cinematography is particularly beautiful in capturing the village in the evening.

The movie was an Italian/French coproduction, and drew its cast from both countries. Philippe Noiret was a well-known actor in French cinema who did over 150 films, but he didn’t speak Italian. During filming, he spoke all of his lines in French, and then they were dubbed in Italian afterward. When the film was released in France with the language dubbed, they used Noiret’s regular voice. Noiret passed away in 2006, at the age of 76.

There are three versions of this movie. The original cut ran 155 minutes, but Tornatore also did an expanded version that was just short of 3 hours. There’s also a shorter version (124 minutes) that was released internationally. That shorter version won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at the 1990 Academy Awards. It also won Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globes that year, and was nominated for 11 BAFTAs (winning 5) along with numerous other awards.

Tornatore has gone on to write and/or direct over a dozen more movies to date, including Malena, The Legend of 1900, and Everybody’s Fine, with Marcello Mastroianni. The last picture was remade in English in 2009 with Robert De Niro in the main role. Cinema Paradiso counts, though, as his masterwork, and a love letter to cinema lovers throughout the world, and throughout time.

Winging It

Maleficent is the latest example of taking a well-known story and looking at it from a different perspective. Drew Barrymore did it in 1998 with Ever After, a realistic take on Cinderella, while the musical Wicked puts a different spin on Frank L. Baum’s Oz stories in live theaters all over the world now. Last year’s Oz, The Great and Powerful did that as well. With Maleficent, the different perspective is based in motivation.

In the 1959 Disney animation classic, the only motivation given for Maleficent’s cursing of Princess Aurora is that she wasn’t invited to the party – definitely a case of anger management issues. Audiences accepted it unquestioningly, mostly because of the way Maleficent was drawn. She looked so evil it was understandable – even expected. The horns, the black gown, the cheekbones that could cut paper; it plays upon the audience’s visual prejudices so they know she’s B-A-D. As Jessica Rabbit said, “I’m not bad; I’m just drawn that way.”

Screenwriter Linda Woolverton knows about animation, having written both Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Scar in The Lion King could be an uncle of the animated Maleficent with the way he looks and his smooth voice. For Maleficent, though, Woolverton draws on  the lesson of Beauty and the Beast – looks are deceiving. She creates a full backstory that begins during Maleficent’s childhood. There are two lands that exist side by side but who are in conflict – one the land of men, the other one called the Moors, the province of wondrous creatures. It works as a metaphor as well as a geographical description. In the Moors, the young fairy Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy) is a benevolent protector of the realm. When Stefan (Michael Higgins), a young boy from the kingdom, trespasses in the Moors looking for treasure, Maleficent forgives him and the two become close friends for years. He awakens feelings of love within the teenaged Maleficent, but then Stephan returns to the world of men.

Years later the adult Stephan (Sharlto Copley) is a page for the king when the sovereign decides to invade the Moor and gain control of its wealth. He marches his army up to the border, but there the adult Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) and an army of Moor creatures make their stand and rout the army. Maleficent soars through the battle on her wings and personally defeats the king. When the injured king offers his crown to whoever will destroy Maleficent, Stephan returns to the woods. While he can’t kill her, he does maim her, and then collects his reward, including the hand of the King’s daughter.

From the christening scene on, the film almost recreates scenes from the ’59 version, even the green haze during enchantments. You have the trio of pixies who raise Princess Aurora (played by Imelda Staunton, Leslie Manville and Juno Temple), and the handsome prince (Brenton Thwaites) who finds Aurora in the woods shortly before her 16th birthday. But Woolverton makes Maleficent an active player who watches over Aurora as she grows from baby to toddler (played by Vivienne Jolie-Pitt) to beautiful teenager (Elle Fanning). She also gives Maleficent’s crow Diaval a human version (played by Sam Riley).

Jolie handles “evil” side of her character with a light touch that’s wonderful to behold, but her interplay with Fanning is beautiful in the depth of conflicted emotion. Fanning has stepped out of big sister Dakota’s shadow and is now a powerhouse performer in her own right. This movie passes the Bechdel test on gender bias with flying colors. (The test is that a work must have two women who talk to each other about something besides a man; in the course of a year there aren’t many major movies that pass it.)

It’s hard to tell that this is the first directing assignment for Robert Stromberg, although he’s done over 90 films in the visual effects department and has won two Oscars for art direction (for Avatar and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland). The visuals for the film are stunning, but they serve the story rather than overwhelming it.

During the end credits there’s a melancholic version of “Once Upon A Dream” from the animated movie, performed by Lana Del Ray. The video combines footage from both films and provides an interesting comparison of the styles.

Over the course of its history, Disney has done much to perpetuate the idea of romantic “true love” as the goal for young women, which has skewed many a person’s understanding of love. Now they appear to be correcting the perception, both earlier this year with Frozen and now with Maleficent. It’s good to see this trend developing, and hopefully it will continue.

Okay

In the voiceover narration at the beginning of The Fault In Our Stars, Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) explains there are two ways to tell her story. One is the sugar-coated version, where everything can be worked out by playing a Peter Gabriel song, and the other is the messy truth. There isn’t a single Peter Gabriel song in this movie’s soundtrack, but there is plenty of messy truth.

Hazel has been living with cancer for years, and almost died when she a pre-teen. A drug trial miraculously extended her life, but she knows that she is terminal. An oxygen tank to support her compromised lungs is Hazel’s constant companion, and minor exertions can wipe her out. Her mother Frannie (Laura Dern) worries that she’s depressed because she keeps reading the same book, “An Imperial Affliction” by Peter Van Houten. To Hazel, the book is simply the one novel that treats cancer honestly. At the behest of Frannie and her father, Michael (Sam Trammell), Hazel attends a cancer support group for teens and twenty-somethings.

Hazel isn’t impressed with the group, but then she runs into (physically) Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort). Augustus is a cancer survivor who lost one of his legs to the disease. His cancer’s in remission; he’s come to the group to support his friend Isaac (Nat Wolff) who’s lost one eye already and is facing upcoming surgery that will take the other one. Augustus faces life with a joie de vive that is the polar opposite of Hazel’s realism, but they both feel the attraction between them. Hazel gives him a copy of “An Imperial Affliction” to read and, seeing her love of the book, he offers to give her a special gift.

If you haven’t read the book, you might think you know where the movie is going after the above two paragraphs. Instead it keeps veering off into messy truth. John Green’s book became a bestseller because it’s not the sentimental Pablum we’ve seen before, such as in the disease-of-the-week movies on television.

Director Josh Boone had only made one feature before doing Fault, but he handles the cast and story beautifully. The novel was adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber, who wrote the exceptional (500) Days of Summer and also adapted last year’s The Spectacular Now (which also starred Woodley). It was a help that Green was on the set for most of the shoot, ready to give input as needed.

This is a movie that sits on the shoulders of its two leads. The good news is that both Woodley and Elgort are up to the task, giving luminous performances. While they played siblings in Divergent earlier this year, there’s a definite chemistry between the two of them on film. Woodley demonstrated her strength three years ago by going toe-to-toe with George Clooney in The Descendants and holding her own. It’s a pleasure watching her embody Hazel. Elgort hasn’t as large a body of work as Woodley; his first movie was last year’s remake of Carrie, in which he was about the only improvement on the original film. He is an actor to watch in the years to come.

Laura Dern is excellent as Frannie, a mother who’s not only dealing with a teenager but also is aware she could lose her daughter at any time. Willem Dafoe and Lotte Verbeek have small but pivotal roles as author Peter Van Houten and his wife Lidewij. Special kudos to Nat Wolff; it’s delightful to see him get a shattering form of revenge (you might say) on a girl who dumps him because of his illness.

While this is a raw, emotionally wrenching movie, do not ignore it because the subject matter appears to be a “downer.” It mines a deep and rich vein of humor of the gray rather than black variety. It is also a powerful, life-affirming story that, while it falls into the Young Adult genre, speaks to truths that are universal and ageless. All generations will revel in the power of this movie. See it.

Ground War Day

I was ambivalent about seeing the new sci-fi film Edge of Tomorrow, mostly because I thought it would suffer in comparison to the ultimate repeated day movie, Groundhog Day. Also, after Rock of Ages and Jack Reacher (not to mention Oblivion – really, please don’t mention Oblivion), my trust of Tom Cruise was about nil. But after hearing some early positive feedback, I decided to check it out. I’m glad I did.

In the near future, Earth has been invaded by a race of octopus-like creatures called Mimics who have taken over almost all of Europe. They seemed unstoppable until the battle of Verdun, in which a warrior emerged who killed hundreds of Mimics. English Sgt. Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) is a modern-day Boadicea, using an exo-skeleton battle suit instead of a chariot, though she supplements her modern weaponry with a broadsword. She’s become the face of the war, a walking recruiting poster.

As the world’s forces gear up for a major counterattack, US Army Major William Cage arrives in London, where he’s been assigned to help General Bingham (Brendan Gleeson). Cage is a PR flack, with no combat training, and when Bingham tells him he’ll be embedded with the troops making the initial landings in France, Cage is horrorstricken. He tries to blackmail the general to keep away from the front, but instead the general calls for his arrest. When Cage resists he’s knocked out by a Taser (more on that later).

Cage wakes up at a staging base, handcuffed and stripped of his rank. He’s taken by Master Sergeant Farrell (Bill Paxton) and assigned to a platoon for the invasion that’s 24 hours away. When the troops hit the beach, it’s a slaughter. Cage sees most of the platoon killed, and he briefly sees Sgt. Vrataski before she dies in an explosion. When a large, blue Mimic comes at Cage, he explodes a mine. He’s bathed in the Mimic’s blood just before he dies – and then he wakes up at the staging base again, 24 hours earlier. He comes to discover he’s hijacked the Mimic’s power – they’ve won the war because they can reset time and change the outcome of their battles. He also finds he’s not the first one to hijack their power.

Director Doug Liman had caused a seismic shift in thrillers when he directed The Bourne Identity in 2002, but he’d lost control of that series after having problems finishing the movie. He stayed with the thriller format with Mr. & Mrs. Smith – the movie that united Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, in more ways than one. It had its good parts, but was handicapped by a weak ending. For his next film he went with recent history, directing Fair Game about the outing of Valerie Plame as a CIA agent. With Edge of Tomorrow, Liman shows a much surer hand than at any time since his start in independent films. The movie has a wicked sense of humor as well as being a pedal-to-the-metal thriller.

The screenplay is effective, balancing both dark humor and a deep poignancy. It’s based on a 2004 Japanese science fiction novel called “All You Need Is Kill,” and was adapted for the screen by Christopher McQuarrie and the team of Jez and John-Henry Butterworth. The Butterworths wrote Fair Game, while McQuarrie wrote the modern classic The Usual Suspects. However, McQuarrie’s last three films were underwhelming: The Tourist, Jack Reacher, and Jack the Giant Slayer. Here, though, the synergy of the source material and the screenwriters has created a much better story than one would expect. I will nitpick because they used a Taser wrong – it doesn’t knock you out for an extended period of time – but I’ll forgive the writers that shortcut because of the rest of the movie.

Cruise actually acts this time out – something he manage to avoid in his last three films – and does a credible job of it. It’s fun to see when he first tries to warn Farrell and the others of what will happen on the beach, only to have the movie cut to them going into battle with Cage’s mouth duct-taped shut. Once he makes contact with Vrataski, the movie shifts to a higher gear. Blunt was on the edge of the action in The Adjustment Bureau and Looper, but here she steps center stage and is mesmerizing. She and Cruise play off each other beautifully. One criticism I had of Jack Reacher was that Rosamund Pike’s role was simply as a damsel in distress for Cruise to rescue. That’s not the case here.

Kudos to production designer Oliver Scholl as well as the Art Department and Special Effects crew for developing a look for the film that puts it firmly in the future, but only by a step or two. Combat exo-skeletons such as those featured in the film are actually being developed, and the craft used for invasion look like the next generation of the V-22 Osprey.

This is a better-than-average thriller, with enough twists and turns in the plot to keep it from being a clone of Groundhog Day. It’s worth checking out.