Friday 30 May 2014

Battles of the sexes: "Edge of Tomorrow" and "Maleficent" (ST 01/06/14)

Edge of Tomorrow (12A) 113 mins ***
Maleficent (PG) 95 mins ***

The week’s widest releases suggest how, even in 2014, Hollywood continues to gender audiences. In the blue corner, we find man’s-man Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow, a well-tempered sci-fi item that welds the military hardware of Starship Troopers, Avatar and the Terminator movies, a streak of WW2 scholarship, and the irresistible be-kind-rewind conceit of 2011’s Source Code. If that sounds a lot of referents, well, that’s Doug Liman’s film in a titanium-plated nutshell: it’s déjà vu all over again, but that doesn’t stop it from making a virtue of it for some of its duration.

Cruise’s Major William Cage is a slick Army spokesperson whose TV appearances recruit expendable fodder for an ongoing war against some rooty-looking aliens known as Mimics. After angering warmonger-in-chief Brendan Gleeson, Cage receives a nasty shock: demoted to private status, he’s shipped off to fight exactly that fight he’s been schilling for. Call it payback for Top Gun. Dropped into Verdun – in a sequence engineered as a self-conscious upgrade of Saving Private Ryan’s opening assault – the guileless Cage is instantly killed. At which point, he’s revived several days prior, to fight once more. And die. And fight. And die. You get the idea.

The credited source is Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s novel “All You Need is Kill”, but one could add to that any number of videogames: its constituent missions – will Tom time his roll under that jeep right this time? – offer the pleasure of experiencing a character (and film) getting smarter with each pass. It’s a conceit that works almost as well for a soldier scrabbling for intel as it did for Bill Murray’s lovelorn weatherman in Groundhog Day: Cage has his own Andie MacDowell in Emily Blunt as the Army postergirl he drops alongside, and here an entertaining if inherently derivative entertainment touches upon something novel, possibly even progressive.

Major Cage’s ultimate calling, it proves, is as driver-cum-wingman for Blunt’s mission to take down the big boss, and it’s amusing to watch Cruise – at his least buff – ceding some of his usual control to his co-star: Liman makes a wry comic point of having Blunt off several provisional Toms once it’s established her timeline has no further use for them. Onlooking wives and girlfriends might just wish such string theory was more widely applicable – and in inspiring such potent role-reversal fantasies, Edge of Tomorrow gestures towards a vision of the sexes at least as supple and striking as its myriad tenticular lifeforms.

Elsewhere, you sense women and children being ushered towards Maleficent, Disney’s live-action rethink of the Sleeping Beauty tale. Given that this narrative has already attracted the attentions of such avowedly feminist filmmakers as Catherine Breillat and Julia Leigh, one might wonder what there is to gain from seeing it further Disneyfied, but a semi-commendable otherness swirls around at least its opening acts; set against the Broadway-ready blandness of the corporation’s recent Frozen, it’s practically Angela Carter.

The thrust of Robert Stromberg’s film – adapted by Mouse House favourite Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King) – is that before succumbing to nominative determinism, curse-issuing fairy Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) lived a perfectly happy existence talking to the trees; that she turned to the dark side only after her sweetheart returned from a neighbouring patriarchy and, while she was sleeping, removed her of her wings. Aha, you cry: symbolism.

Woolverton’s boldest idea is to reimagine the original’s villainess as a vampish single mum, raising her despoiler’s firstborn Aurora (Elle Fanning) deep in Mother Nature’s bosom while daddy (Sharlto Copley) is away sabre-rattling. Even if it only involves flicking Aurora off a cliff, it’s Maleficent who’s left playing with this child; in her considered disdain, Woolverton proposes, there might be seen a form of parental love. Thus can the film hold a flattering mirror up to its audience: it makes a heroine of a careworn woman who just wants her little princess to sleep through.

There are competing influences here, and whenever it starts going somewhere interesting, some unseen committee intervenes to nudge everyone back towards the centre ground. As in Frozen, the men are such underwritten saps that the girls’ triumph feels a thin one, and the third act follows a template laid down by far boysier films in having its better ideas superceded by castle-smashing spectacle. Jolie, ever-arch, carries it so far: it functions on a par with 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman in offering okayish diversion without ever being as witty, radical or lasting as it might. A light sleeper, if you will.

Edge of Tomorrow and Maleficent are in cinemas nationwide.

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