Film reviews: Edge of Tomorrow | Maleficent

FOR months wags have been dubbing Tom Cruise’s new blockbuster “Groundhog Day-meets-Starship Troopers” thanks to a concept that finds Cruise playing a somewhat ignoble protagonist forced to repeat the period of time while an alien invasion threatens Europe.

Emily Blunt and Tom Cruise star in Edge of Tomorrow. Picture: PA
Emily Blunt and Tom Cruise star in Edge of Tomorrow. Picture: PA

Edge of Tomorrow (12A)

Directed: Doug Liman

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Starring: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Brendan Gleeson, Noah Taylor

* * * *

Really, though, Edge of Tomorrow more accurately reflects the fight/die/repeat/improve machinations of a video game, something director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity) turns to the film’s advantage by initially using the conceit as a subversive blockbuster comment on the way government bureaucrats too easily make real-world combat decisions far away from the chaotic consequences they subsequently have on the ground.

This idea is made flesh by Cruise’s character, Major William Cage, a UK-based American military PR strategist for the UN-like United Defence Force.

Cast as a slime-ball with a slick salesman’s ability to spin any and all media to the government’s advantage, Cruise does a brilliant job of dismantling his own laser-focused sincerity to let us see Cage’s lack of integrity as he sells global conflict against a spider-like race of aliens to the masses in order to convince hundreds of thousands to sign up to be cannon fodder.

Needless to say, he’s the sort of snivelling turncoat who’ll do anything to avoid active service, but that changes when he’s suddenly demoted and forced to confront imminent death as part of Operation Devastation – a D-Day landings-style push to eradicate the so-called “Mimic scourge” (the aliens are known as Mimics) before it brings its kill-crazy, city-razing rampage to Britain.

With zero combat training, Cage is soon suited-and-booted in heavy-duty exoskeleton battle gear and deployed to fight the Mimic threat on the beaches of Normandy, where he’s promptly obliterated and – thanks to the manner in which he’s killed – doomed to repeat this scenario until he gets good enough to survive and progress to the next level.

Liman and Cruise have a lot of fun with this. The unacknowledged irony of having a protagonist who is a master of spin stuck in a cycle outwith his control is a nice narrative touch, as is the clever way Liman makes the time-looping plot device chime thematically with the film’s political subtext by having Cruise’s character intensify the chaotic ripple effect of the situation in unexpected ways each time he does something different.

This is a film that feels fully in command of its high concept and credit for this must also go to the film’s editors, and the unusually witty and deft script, a joint effort by Cruise’s Jack Reacher writer/director Christopher McQuarrie, and Brit siblings Jez and John-Henry Butterworth. Adapting the story from Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s more interestingly titled novel, All You Need is Kill, they’ve peppered the film with wry observations, sly time travel gags, and nods here and there to the film’s many influences and forebears, which include the aforementioned Groundhog Day and Starship Troopers, as well as the likes of Saving Private Ryan, Minority Report, War of the Worlds and Aliens.

With regards to the last of these, the appearance of Bill Paxton as Cage’s commanding officer is a nifty call back not just to his freaked-out grunt in James Cameron’s Alien sequel, but to the way in which that character and his turns of phrase (especially his much quoted “Game over, man”) were subsequently co-opted by the video gaming world. There’s also an inevitable hint of Ripley in Emily Blunt’s character, a tough war hero called Rita, which, granted, might also be another little nod to Groundhog Day (Rita being the name of Andie MacDowell’s character), but given that she’s also known as Full Metal Bitch, she’s hardly the simpering wallflower type.

Inevitably Rita and Cage share a special connection that gradually comes to the fore as the film progresses. This also allows Liman to broaden the scope of the film in interesting and unexpected ways. As he keeps the momentum hurtling forward – albeit incrementally – he cannily uses the repetitive structure to refresh the action while deepening the characters. There are surprisingly poignant moments, for instance, between Cruise and Blunt as Rita starts to question just how many times Cage has played out a specific scenario with her.

Cruise, too, is good at conveying the existential weariness of having to live life on endless repeat and this, alongside his work on Jack Reacher, proves that when matched to the right material and paired up with a strong director, he’s still a compelling and commanding above-the-title star.

But what ultimately differentiates this from the kind of spectacle-leaden blockbusters that have dominated summers in recent years is the smart way it uses its conceit to subtly mimic the participatory nature of gaming in order to keep us invested in the fates of the characters. What could easily have been another “game over” message for originality in the multiplex is instead, quite unexpectedly, a sign of renewal.

Maleficent (PG)

Directed by: Robert Stromberg

Starring: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley

* *

Disney has been on a bit of a roll of late, what with its animation division outstripping partner studio Pixar creatively and financially thanks to Frozen, and its live-action arm displaying a willingness to be playful with its own image, courtesy of Saving Mr Banks. So it’s disappointing to report that Maleficent, a lavish live-action take on the studio’s classic 1959 animated Sleeping Beauty, should prove so wanting.

That’s especially so given that it has such a rich title character as its focal point: Maleficent was, after all, the horned, child-cursing fairy, invented for the film and terrifyingly voiced by Eleanor Audley, that made the animated version so memorable.

Alas, in filling out her back-story as a good fairy who breaks bad after having her wings clipped, the film succeeds only in neutering her with a disjointed story that doesn’t effectively capitalise on the rich psychological possibilities this approach offers. That’s too bad because as Maleficent, Angelina Jolie looks and sounds perfect.

Decked out in cheekbone-sculpting make-up and curlicuing horns, and delivering her lines with delicious Joan Collins-esque diction, she imbues Maleficent with a seductive playfulness that enables her to segue from frightening to funny in a heartbeat, while also bringing an authoritative Joan of Arc quality to the early scenes depicting Maleficent as a sort of warrior fairy, charged with protecting the enchanted moors in which she dwells from the rapacious rulers of the neighbouring kingdom.

But as the film starts subverting its source material by having the destined-to-be-comatose Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) bond with Maleficent, the film loses all sense of threat. Aurora’s father, King Stefan (Sharlto Copley), instead becomes the main villain and although Copley’s bizarre Scottish accent suggests he’s intended to be a cross between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, his journey from a callow youth who betrays Maleficent to ascend the throne never meshes in a satisfactory way with the main narrative.

The stakes never feel high enough and, consequently, you never fear for the misunderstood Maleficent or the girl for whom she’s unexpectedly come to care. It doesn’t help either that Frozen has already trumped its play on the “true love’s kiss” trope or that director Robert Stromberg visually borrows so heavily from Avatar and Pan’s Labyrinth without putting much of a stamp on proceedings.

An ability to merge the fantastical with the dramatic is what’s missing. Jolie’s up to the task; it’s a shame her director and the film don’t appear to be.

Venus in Fur (15)

Directed by: Roman Polanski

Starring: Emmanuelle Seigner, Mathieu Amalric

* *

Roman Polanski has a tendency to rub our faces in his dubious past and he does so again with this theatrical two-hander about the shifting power plays that erupt between an actress and a director during auditions for a stage adaptation of Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novel Venus in Furs.

Making blatant references to child abuse, and scorning the way in which critics and audiences make psychological inferences about an artist from the work they produce, the film’s smugness is enhanced by Polanski’s decision to cast his wife, Emmanuelle Seigner (below), as the actress, and have Mathieu Amalric’s director adopt the look (or should that be looks?) Polanski himself sported in The Tenant.

The film itself is built around the notion of its characters’ lives increasingly paralleling those in the novel they’re adapting. But in Polanski’s hands, such meta-textual intrigue proves tedious when it becomes clear that the proto-masochistic relationship birthed in the original text becomes, via the film, a metaphor for the relationship between Polanski and anyone trying to justify his ongoing relevance.

Looking for Light: Jane Bown (15)

Directed by: Luke Dodd, Michael Whyte

* * *

Best known for her striking, minimalist shot of Samuel Beckett – begrudgingly posing against a wall, horrible light casting his craggy features into blackness – Jane Bown made a career (and a home) for herself at the Observer as a portrait photographer, her images generous, humane and, above all, revealing without being intrusive. The directors adopt a similar approach here, gently prodding the 89-year-old about her life and career in the hope that illumination will follow. It doesn’t really, perhaps because her technique of “finding pictures”, as opposed to taking them, is more artful than the film’s equivalent efforts to construct a compelling narrative of her life. Yet in a nice conceit, the filmmakers punctuate the interviews with single shots of her work, unaccompanied by music or commentary, as if to prove the old maxim that a picture really is worth a thousand words.

Beyond the Edge (PG)

Directed by: Leanne Pooley

* * *

Sadly, the title of this documentary about Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s 1953 ascent of Mount Everest doesn’t apply to the filmmaking. Director Leanne Pooley mixes interviews and reconstructions in the manner of Kevin Macdonald’s Touching the Void or James Marsh’s Man on Wire, but the drama those films brought to their subjects is missing here.

Indeed, Beyond the Edge is slow-going at times, never finding a way to convey the physical demands of the feat at hand – namely, the race to become the first to reach the top of the world’s highest peak at a time when no-one knew if survival was possible at 29,000ft. On the plus side, it clearly contextualises the climbers’ achievements as part of an expedition designed as an almost literal last gasp of the British Empire.

Jimmy’s Hall (15)

Directed by: Ken Loach

Starring: Barry Ward, Simone Kirby, Andrew Scott, Jim Norton

* *

Ken Loach’s collaborations with screenwriter Paul Laverty have become wearying and simplistic points-of-order of late. Full of condescending stereotypes, they’re a long way from the politically resonant cinema with which Loach made his name.

His latest continues this descent into soapbox sermonising, with Laverty’s didactic script detailing with blunt force the 1930s-set story of Irish communist firebrand Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward) and his struggles against the “masters and pastors” of the Irish state as they tried to halt the spread of his godless gospel of universal education, fairness and fun.