Tom Cruise

Valkyrie (2008, Bryan Singer)

For Valkyrie to work, Bryan Singer needs to get–give or take–five minutes when the viewer isn’t entirely sure Adolf Hitler wasn’t assassinated. The entire premise of watching a film, a historically-based film, where the conclusion is well-known and suspending disbelief… he needs five minutes. Maybe the trick is casting Tom Cruise as a German. By the time the story gets around to needing the viewer to question whether or not Hitler is dead, he or she has already accepted Cruise. The biggest hurdle is over (who knows what Welles could have gotten away with in Touch of Evil, after everyone is buying Charlton Heston as a Mexican).

Valkyrie arrives following months of internet-fueled derision–from Singer as director to Cruise as German–and it does away with both concerns in the first scene. The language transition from German to English isn’t the best ever, but it’s fine. It acknowledges the situation of having an English language film about a bunch of German speakers. Cruise is solid from the open. As for Singer–he keeps out of the way. Singer’s direction is unobtrusive and perfectly measured–when he needs to emphasize an actor, he emphasizes the actor, same thing when he needs to emphasize a story development. At its core, both story-wise and star-wise, Valkyrie is one of those 1970s pictures with a lot of recognizable, good actors and a lead who maybe has seen better days. Charting Cruise’s career, it’s either a good sign or a bad sign in terms of his bankability, but it shows he’s still capable of doing a fine movie star turn.

The script–from Singer’s Usual Suspects writer McQuarrie and some other guy–does have a lot of twists and turns. It’s kind of like watching a chess game and knowing who’s going to win in advance. At some point, knowing the winner isn’t as interesting as seeing how the game is played. Valkyrie‘s not one of the best World War II films, but it gets a lot of mileage out of emulating them–I half expected an end credits actor showcase like The Great Escape. The only thing I couldn’t figure out about the script was the presence of Carice von Houten as Cruise’s wife. Sure, it’s historically accurate, but Cruise is the protagonist because of his role in the conspiracy, not because he’s necessarily the most interesting character.

It doesn’t hurt the film’s technically superior. Singer’s usual crew, cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, editor and composer John Ottman, these guys usually turn in good work.

Similarly, the all-star cast is excellent, particularly Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson and Terence Stamp. Kenneth Branagh and Eddie Izzard are fine in glorified cameos. Jamie Parker’s good as Cruise’s sidekick. All of the aforementioned anti-Hitler conspirators are played by Brits. The hero’s American. Given a point of Valkyrie is to identify some Germans as different from Hitler following stooges–the reality of a postwar Germany, excellently discussed in Tony Judt’s Postwar for example, reveals a far more depressing truth than a Hollywood movie would ever want to present–it’s kind of strange Singer casts a very German guy as a very big Nazi. You’d think he’d at least go for one major good guy. There’s one good guy played by a German, but he doesn’t come into the movie until real late.

Valkyrie‘s a solid, watchable thriller. Maybe even a little bit better than it should be. Singer has a couple excellent moments as a director, maybe the best stuff he’s done since The Usual Suspects. He actually gets sublime.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Bryan Singer; written by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander; director of photography, Newton Thomas Sigel; edited by John Ottman; music by Ottman; production designers, Lilly Kilvert, Patrick Lumb and Tom Meyer; produced by Singer, McQuarrie and Gilbert Adler; released by United Artists.

Starring Tom Cruise (Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg), Kenneth Branagh (Major-General Henning von Tresckow), Bill Nighy (General Friedrich Olbricht), Tom Wilkinson (General Friedrich Fromm), Carice van Houten (Nina von Stauffenberg), Thomas Kretschmann (Major Otto Ernst Remer), Terence Stamp (Ludwig Beck), Eddie Izzard (General Erich Fellgiebel), Kevin McNally (Dr. Carl Goerdeler), Christian Berkel (Colonel Mertz von Quirnheim) and Jamie Parker (Lieutenant Werner von Haeften).


Tropic Thunder (2008, Ben Stiller)

Tropic Thunder is one of those nice movies where most of the cast is phenomenal–here, while Nick Nolte and Steve Coogan are less than amazing, they’re both good. Only Ben Stiller lacks. The script’s full of good one-liners and some knowing Hollywood references. When, for the third act, there’s an attempt at honest characterization, it stumbles. Instead of amping up the absurdity, the movie strangely sidesteps it. The last couple scenes totally ignore that sidestep, going for an ending one half Soapdish, the other Austin Powers. It’s a weak move, but it’s hard to get too upset–the Austin Powers half is Tom Cruise in a fat suit and a bald cap dancing to hip hop.

Cruise’s performance, which I thought was more a cameo, says a lot about where Tropic Thunder works well. It gives the opportunity for good actors to essay crazy roles in the “real” world. There is a certain air of unreality about the movie, if only because it’s a movie made about “Access Hollywood” type reporting using “Access Hollywood” as a narrative tool. There’s a certain conflict of interest, particularly given Cruise’s presence.

Of the three leads–and calling Jack Black one of the leads is a courtesy, Black’s absolutely fantastic, but he’s not one of the leads–Black is the only one without a recognizable real life analog. Even though Robert Downey Jr. picked his character’s nationality (Australian)–a change from the original Irish–the result, a multi-Academy Award winner who does Oscar bait, results in rather obvious Russell Crowe comparisons. Stiller’s playing a combination of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Cruise. Imagine Cruise’s career downturn but without the prestige projects and a lot of dumb, Arnold-sounding action movies. It makes Cruise’s appearance all the more amusing, but it feels–like the “Access Hollywood”–not like punches are being pulled… but they aren’t connecting.

The result is a measured success. Tropic Thunder is really funny, but never genuinely witty or intelligent. There’s a pretense it is witty and intelligent, which just makes it a little sad. Thank goodness for that Tom Cruise dance number.

As far as the acting goes… Downey is–technically–the most amazing. Until he has to play it straight, it’s just fantastic. But Jay Baruchel and Brandon T. Jackson, as the non-superstar supporting cast members in the movie’s movie, steal it in terms of actual human performances. These characters exist to remind the viewer the main characters are unbelievably loopy, which really cuts into the reality factor. Baruchel has more to do in the plot, more people to interact with (Jackson basically gets scenes–good scenes–with Downey).

In much too small roles, both Danny R. McBride and Matthew McConaughey are good.

Stiller’s direction is nearly as passive as his performance. There’s some funny references to war movies–Baruchel starts the picture in glasses in what I’m hoping is a silent Full Metal Jacket reference–but in terms of actual craft, Stiller comes up empty. The movie’s strength are in the script’s dialogue and its characters (certainly not its plot) and the actors. And Stiller seems aware of it.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ben Stiller; screenplay by Stiller, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, based on a story by Stiller and Theroux; director of photography, John Toll; edited by Greg Hayden; music by Theodore Shapiro; production designer, Jeff Mann; produced by Stuart Cornfeld, Eric McLeod and Stiller; released by DreamWorks Pictures.

Starring Ben Stiller (Tugg Speedman), Jack Black (Jeff Portnoy), Robert Downey Jr. (Kirk Lazarus), Brandon T. Jackson (Alpa Chino), Jay Baruchel (Kevin Sandusky), Danny McBride (Cody), Steve Coogan (Damien Cockburn), Bill Hader (Rob Slolom), Nick Nolte (Four Leaf Tayback), Brandon Soo Hoo (Tran), Reggie Lee (Byong) with Matthew McConaughey (Rick Peck) and Tom Cruise (Les Grossman).


Risky Business (1983, Paul Brickman), the director’s cut

There are three things I want to discuss about Risky Business (there isn’t room to cover the fourth, why Tom Cruise is so excellent in this film then mostly terrible for the next twelve years). The subjects are director’s cuts, teen movies and this film’s portrayal of women. All three are somewhat interconnected and maybe the director’s cut of the film is the best place to start.

Risky Business has no official director’s cut. One would have to make it for him or herself. It’s worth figuring out how to do. The original version of Risky Business, for those who don’t know, ends with Tom Cruise–an upper-middle class, three point one GPA white high school student–getting into Princeton because he’s running a brothel when the admissions interviewer shows up. It’s a slam dunk for American capitalism and, famously, not the ending director Paul Brickman originally went with. I think Leonard Maltin even mentions it in his capsule review….

I sat waiting for it, having heard about it for eleven plus years, knowing what was coming next… only for it never to arrive. Something else happens instead, something wonderful.

It’s hard to pick an adjective to describe the film’s portrayal of women–particularly Rebecca De Mornay’s late teens call girl (it’s always implied she’s only a little bit older than Cruise’s high school senior). The film objectifies her initially, then defames her as a con artist. Neither are really positive. The first makes sense for a movie about a teenager who ends up running a brothel with his classmates as customers. The second moves the story along. Where Risky Business is singular among the popular teen movies of the 1980s (it’s telling Business came just before the onslaught of John Hughes’s pictures, which demolished the genre in its infancy) is in the contradiction. That first sense, the objectification sense, it’s a sham. De Mornay’s character is slowly revealed to be a vulnerable, intelligent, frightened young woman. Cruise discovers these things at the same rate the viewer does and the film’s perspective changes as he does. Risky Business has lots of narration and Cruise has to sell it all. He succeeds.

The film takes responsibility for its characters and their complex relationships–both implied and on screen–with their peers and their parents. It’s never cheap, which is what sets it so far apart from the decade’s subsequent teen films. I’m not sure if I can think, past Risky Business and Rebel Without a Cause of a “teen” picture so maturely told. But the director’s cut is what puts Business in this too small class.

IMDb sort of spoils the director’s cut ending for anyone interested, but only slightly. It’s impossible to communicate the scene and the effect in words, if only because Brickman–for a first time director–not only knows how to compose a shot and how to direct actors, he also knows how to pick music. The Tangerine Dream score in Risky Business does much of the film’s stylistic heavy lifting. Brickman does a handful of a snazzy moves–some with editing, some with the narration, some with lighting and slowing down the film (nothing ostentatious, but certainly a little different from the rest of his approach)–and the score tempers it. The snazzy moves seem more natural because the score’s already come in and prepared the viewer. It’s a beautiful fit.

The acting–not just Cruise and De Mornay, who are both fantastic and have a great chemistry (even though her career’s had a far different trajectory than his, they really ought to do another film together)–is great. Brickman assembles an amazing supporting cast. Joe Pantaliano has one of the flashier roles as Guido the Killer Pimp, who enjoys honey in his tea (Brickman’s deft touches are another joy). Bronson Pinchot’s actually really good, as is Curtis Armstrong (but less surprise with him). Bruce A. Young and Nicholas Pryor are also great in small roles.

I first saw Risky Business about twelve years ago. It impressed the hell out of me. I’ve seen it in between then and now and the last time, it didn’t. I’m not sure how the theatrical version would sit with me today–it’s hard to believe I’d think much less of it, given that amazing sequence (both filmmaking and acting) when Cruise heads into the city to find De Mornay–but the director’s cut is sublime.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Paul Brickman; directors of photography, Bruce Surtees and Reynaldo Villalobos; edited by Richard Chew; music by Tangerine Dream; production designer, William J. Cassidy; produced by Jon Avnet and Steve Tisch; released by the Geffen Company.

Starring Tom Cruise (Joel Goodsen), Rebecca De Mornay (Lana), Joe Pantoliano (Guido), Richard Masur (Rutherford), Bronson Pinchot (Barry), Curtis Armstrong (Miles), Nicholas Pryor (Joel’s Father), Janet Carroll (Joel’s Mother), Shera Danese (Vicki), Raphael Sbarge (Glenn) and Bruce A. Young (Jackie).


Lions for Lambs (2007, Robert Redford)

Hopefully, Lions for Lambs will be the most topical film ever made. Hopefully. In fifteen years, hopefully it won’t make any sense. It probably will.

As a dramatic narrative, it’s pretty limp. Most of the scenes with the big three are dialogue scenes, written by someone not incompetent but without much gift for it. It’s a play from a non-playwright. As a singularly directed play, the film would make sense. As a film, it really doesn’t. It might be Redford’s direction, which suffers from bad editing (Joe Hutshing does a terrible job with the back and forth, each edit more jarring than the last), but it might also be the lack of distinction. Had Redford done something crazy–something von Trier crazy–it might have worked. Because there’s nothing to Lions for Lambs if one tells it straight. It’s three stories–professor Redford talking to a student (basically about not sitting idly by while Britney Spears passes for news), GOP senator Tom Cruise trying to sell a new Afghanistan strategy to a cable news exec–sorry, reporter–Meryl Streep, and that strategy failing two of Redford’s former students, Michael Peña and Derek Luke on the ground.

The film opens with a broad, forceful propagandist hammer. It’s the kind of thing they should have gotten Noam Chomsky to consult on… if Noam Chomsky consulted on movies and if the producers had an iota of forethought. It slowly and carefully reveals layers and inconsistencies… Army Lieutenant Colonel Peter Berg might believe calculated lies about Iran but he does care about his troops. Berg’s acting in the film, watching Peña and Luke under fire is fantastic–a performance I never thought he’d be capable of performing.

There is a lot of good acting in the film. Streep’s solid, of course. Cruise’s performance will probably go forever unnoticed, but it’s phenomenal. It should have gotten more notice–and would have if only the film had some better direction. Both Peña and Luke are good as well, with Peña turning in yet another of his character performance as lead auditions.

Redford’s pretty lame, but most of the problem is with his “acting” collaborator. Whoever casted Andrew Garfield committed almost as great a film crime as whoever kept Mark Isham’s lousy score. Garfield’s real, real, real bad. His dialogue’s bad too, but his delivery is incompetent. He couldn’t sell teen hair products.

The cast is small, there are only a handful of settings… it should have been a play. A play can be topical and still be a phenomenon. A film has to account for some of the time spent–the time spent making it, the time spent watching it. Lions for Lambs feels like screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan got pissed while watching some bullshit CNN newscast, wrote an easy ninety-minute movie (turning Peña and Luke’s story into an entire feature would have been work) and just happened to be in the right place at the right time (Cruise taking over United Artists) to get it made.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Redford; written by Matthew Michael Carnahan; director of photography, Philippe Rousselot; edited by Joe Hutshing; music by Mark Isham; production designer, Jan Roelfs; produced by Redford, Carnahan, Andrew Hauptman and Tracy Falco; released by United Artists.

Starring Robert Redford (Professor Stephen Malley), Meryl Streep (Janine Roth), Tom Cruise (Senator Jasper Irving), Michael Peña (Ernest Rodriguez), Andrew Garfield (Todd Hayes), Peter Berg (Lieutenant Colonel Falco), Kevin Dunn (ANX Editor) and Derek Luke (Arian Finch).


Collateral (2004, Michael Mann)

I actually had to go do some IMDb research (that bastion of scholarly data) before I started this post, because I had to know if Michael Mann intentionally made a movie starring Tom Cruise, with a reasonable Hollywood budget, and intentionally shot it to look like an episode of “Cops.” And he did. He wanted to make DV look like crap instead of like film. It’s interesting, all the things DV doesn’t work with–acting, for example. It’s particularly noticeable with Jamie Foxx, who doesn’t exactly give a crack performance, but he’s not terrible and there are these things he does with his expression the DV picks up, things film wouldn’t have picked up. Acting tells. Cruise probably has them too, but the DV makes his makeup look like he’s about to turn from Larry Talbot into the Wolf Man (a nickel to whoever gets that particular Pynchon reference). I kept expecting his eyebrows to fall off.

Mann’s handling of DV was far superior in Miami Vice–maybe it was technological, maybe it was understanding what kinds of scenes work in DV. A lot of Collateral is well-written. Probably the first hour and ten minutes, before Jamie Foxx starts to turn into an action hero. There’s some great dialogue at the beginning and a nice romantic scene, which Mann is always good with. But after a while, it ceases to be interesting. The story wraps up in a predictable manner and it’s rather limp.

It’s probably the wrong project for Mann… the characters are enigmatic, which he doesn’t do. His characters may be insane or something, but they’re always the protagonists. The closest thing Collateral has as a protagonist is the viewer–Cruise is the villain, Foxx is the pawn. Mark Ruffalo’s got some good scenes as a cop, but his pursuit of Cruise is ludicrous and hard to take serious (and who thought Ruffalo looked good with slicked back hair and a pierced ear?).

I could list the other ways Collateral fails–the music, specifically the soundtrack choices–but it’s all in the execution. It’s a sixty-five million dollar Hollywood movie… if it weren’t in DV and it had a less experimental director, it might have been a fun, empty suspense picture. But Mann’s use of that crappy DV and the presence of Cruise (in his most ineffectual performance in a while–he’s not bad, he just doesn’t have a character to play) suggests it’s supposed to be something more and it isn’t.

Thank goodness for the Panavision Genesis camera, which is gaining popularity. I never thought I’d see Michael Mann pretending he was making the Blair Witch Project. Worse… at least Blair Witch matched its story and its presentation. Collateral is kind of like… I can’t even think of a belittling simile. It’s embarrassing (not my figurative failure, but Mann’s actual one–especially given how strong the first hour is, when the DV was just a severe irritation).

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Mann; written by Stuart Beattie; directors of photography, Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron; edited by Jim Miller and Paul Rubell; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, David Wasco; produced by Mann and Julie Richardson; released by DreamWorks Pictures.

Starring Tom Cruise (Vincent), Jamie Foxx (Max), Jada Pinkett Smith (Annie), Mark Ruffalo (Fanning), Peter Berg (Richard Weidner) and Bruce McGill (Pedrosa).


Born on the Fourth of July (1989, Oliver Stone)

In the last ten years, Tom Cruise has turned in a number of excellent performances (well, four… four is a number) and a bunch of decent ones. He’s only been bad once (of the films I’ve seen). So, Born on the Fourth of July was a jarring reminder to the early period of Cruise’s acting career (before his wingnut career), when he was staggeringly awful. Cruise is so bad for most on Fourth of July, I actually had to look up a good adjective to use to describe that awful acting. Of course, Cruise’s inability fits Stone, maybe even more than Charlie Sheen’s inability fit him. Stone’s shot composition in Fourth of July is beautiful, but absolutely useless for a narrative. It’s slick and colorful, that neo-Technicolor Bruckheimer-produced films use. To get the film to move, since the shots don’t do it, Stone uses a lot of quick editing in Fourth of July, the same quick editing Bruckheimer appropriated a few years later. Maybe it was immediately (I never saw Days of Thunder).

Stone makes Fourth of July as melodramatic as possible, then bumps it up a notch. For a film based on a true story (I’ve read the actual book and a lot of the movie was a surprise to me), it’s beyond any reasonable license. Only at the end, in the last ten minutes, when the character finally gets to be a real person, does Cruise’s acting rise to being near-poor. It’s when the true story becomes somewhat worthwhile… but the film skips the character’s major personal development. There’s nothing about him becoming active in the anti-war movement. One minute he isn’t, the next he is, then the movie ends. Since it’s shed everything else we’ve had to sit through (his family, his girl, his relationship with other vets), Fourth of July hits a reset button and all of a sudden Cruise is a guy in a wig, not the guy who started the movie without the wig, then got it inexplicably later on. Still, it’s ten minutes and it’s laden with Stone’s idea of nuance, so it doesn’t help. It just gets better.

I was going to make note of all the people who starred in Fourth of July and went on to bigger things. Jake Weber even shows up for a shot. Then, I realized Stone used all three of the non-Alec Baldwin brothers and I decided against giving him any credit for casting discoveries. However, a handful of the performances are good. Raymond J. Barry is good as the father and Frank Whaley and Jerry Levine (Stiles from Teen Wolf–I recognized him but didn’t know who it was until I looked it up) are both good as Cruise’s friends. There’s a whole period where Cruise and these guys play their characters in high school and all of them look about ten years too old.

I keep trying to remember other things–the timeline goofs were obvious to me and I was born twenty years after the era depicted–but, in the end, I think I’m sad Oliver Stone doesn’t get to make his movies anymore. He still works, he still writes, but he doesn’t get to do this kind of film anymore and–good or bad–Born on the Fourth of July was a socially relevant piece. During the scenes in the awful veteran’s hospital, my fiancée turned and asked me what I thought vet hospitals looked like today. Stone had a real audience until Natural Born Killers and, while he did manipulate them, he did it for a good cause. I’m not sure there’s been any manipulative filmmaker since who’s been able to reach such a broad audience and actually had something good to say….

Those last few sentences are an observation, not a defense of or recommendation to see Born on the Fourth of July, though I do suppose John Williams’s hideous score needs to be heard to be believed. Oh, and I can’t forget this one. Stone rips off Coppola’s fan as helicopter blade metaphor from Apocalypse Now, but I guess it’s all right, since Spielberg went on to steal a flag shot from Fourth of July for Saving Private Ryan.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Oliver Stone; screenplay by Stone and Ron Kovic, based on the book by Kovic; director of photography, Robert Richardson; edited by David Brenner; music by John Williams; production designer, Bruno Rubeo; produced by A. Kitman Ho and Stone; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Tom Cruise (Ron Kovic), Kyra Sedgwick (Donna), Raymond J. Barry (Mr. Kovic), Caroline Kava (Mrs. Kovic), Jerry Levine (Steve Boyer), Frank Whaley (Timmy), Willem Dafoe (Charlie), Josh Evans (Tommy Kovic) and Jamie Talisman (Jimmy Kovic).


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