Magnolia

In the San Fernando Valley, a selection seemingly disconnected group of people are going through some fairly heavy moments in their live. Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) is dying in bed, being cared for by his nurse Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is tasked with finding Earl’s estranged son. Earl’s much-younger trophy wife, Linda (Julianne Moore), is struggling to deal with the imminent death of her husband. Officer Jim (John C. Reilly) is called to investigate a disturbance, which leads to a potential murder case. Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) is a genius child contestant on the TV Game Show What Do Kids Know?, and is just a few days away from breaking that show’s record of most consecutive wins. Jimmy Gator hosts the show, and has done for decades, but has just been diagnosed with cancer, with just months to live. Jimmy’s daughter, Claudia (Melora Walters), has a difficult relationship with her father, as well as a cocaine habit and various other issues in her life, whilst Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), a former child star contestant on the aforementioned TV show, has seen his fame squandered and life thrown in turmoil when he loses his job at an electronics store. Finally, Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise) runs a self-help seminar on men who wish to be more successful with ladies. Mid-show, he gives an interview to a reporter (April Grace) that doesn’t necessarily go as he plans. All these stories, and more besides, will become interwoven over the course of the film’s next 24 hours.
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Top Gun

There are some films out there that seem to be universally adored, so much so that were someone to come along and start slagging them off they’d automatically be written off as hipsterring, pretending not to like something incredibly popular to appear cool or ironic. Now, I’m fairly sure I’m not a hipster, even though I ride a bike and own a scarf (that I very rarely wear, and even then when its freezing), but I just can’t get behind Top Gun, a film that as far as I can tell everyone else seems to generally love.
It does have some very enjoyable aspects, most notably the score, with Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone being a clear favourite, the script is full of zingers (“Your ego is writing cheques your body can’t cash.”) and a brilliant cast all on top form, but it can’t get around just how boring most of the film is. Now, this may have something to do with my opinion on aircraft. Every year for at least the past four years, Bournemouth (the town I live in) has held an air festival down on the beach. I live less than ten minutes walk away from said beach, yet I do not join the literally thousands of people who flock to this event on an annual basis. That doesn’t sound too surprising, until you discover that other patrons to this event include many of my close friends, colleagues, and of course my parents. This year was the second time I’ve actually headed away from the city during the long weekend, just to escape the planes and their incessant noise. I’m fine flying in planes, and generally find the flights to be one of the more enjoyable aspects of holidays (I get to sit and watch films for six hours straight!?!?!?!), but I really don’t care about watching planes fly, how they work, what model they are etc. And unfortunately, that plays a large part in Top Gun, a film about the top 1% of Navy pilots being trained to be the best that they can be.
It’s clear during the making of the film that two different markets were established – men and women – and a very broad sense of their tastes was estimated. Two different films were then thrown together to attempt to please both groups, and so it is that we have a film about jet fighter pilots in which half the time is spent on an insipid romance plot between Tom Cruise’s cocky pilot Lt. Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell and one of his civilian teachers, Kelly McGillis’ Charlie. It doesn’t really help that both halves of the film don’t fit together well, and are for the most part dull. The flying scenes, especially the training exercises, are devoid of either tension or excitement, and the romance is surprisingly more cheesey than the half-naked, oiled up volleyball scene set to Playing With The Boys. Each scene type goes on far too long as well. I can’t imagine the plane-heads remaining fully engaged through the love scenes, and likewise the romance junkies are unlikely to really care about the flying bits.

So why does it have such a reputation? Well, there’s enough to keep your attention on a Friday night post-pub outing, full of kebabs and an impending hangover, and of course there’s Tom Cruise. After sliding across the floor in a shirt and socks in Risky Business, this is probably the early defining movie for Cruise, and none more so than his seducing of Charlie by serenading her, with the help of an entire bar, to The Righteous Brothers’ You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling. I’ve always questioned the choice of this song, as it’s supposed to be a song everyone in the bar knows the words to, yet I’ve never heard it outside of this film. Maybe it’s more popular in the States. This could also be the film that turned a lot of the public opinion against Cruise (not me personally, I’ve got no issues with the guy), as Maverick is an immensely arrogant, cocky dick, but he plays it so well. Anthony Edwards is also great as Maverick’s married-with-kids partner Goose (he’s married to Meg Ryan?!?), but the film is completely stolen by Val Kilmer, who manages to out-cockiness Cruise as rival pilot Iceman.

This is one of the few films that I think could be possibly improved with the use of 3D, normally something I’m deeply opposed to, but I think an added sense of depth perception could help clarify and enliven the aerial combat scenes, which otherwise feel flat and lifeless. I hate to say it, but this feels almost more like a Michael Bay film than a Tony Scott one, and if it wasn’t for the acting and the soundtrack, there’d be no reason to watch it whatsoever.

Choose life 5/10

Born on the Fourth of July

Does anyone else find it funny that Tom Cruise, whose birthday is the third of July, starred in a film called Born on the Fourth of July? No? Just me then.
Olive Stone is one of those film makers that I don’t really get. I’m not that much of a Platoon fan, nor can I say I have any affiliation with Wall Street. Natural Born Killers has it’s moments, and I can’t remember a single scene of Any Given Sunday, though I saw it less than 2 years ago. Other than that, I haven’t seen anything he’s made, though my hopes are up for JFK, whenever I eventually get around to seeing it. Born on the Fourth of July seems like a typical Stone movie, in that it comes deeply ingrained with a message (war is hell and will mess you up), and though at first glance it may seem patriotic, if you look a little deeper it’s really a chance for Stone to voice his own personal feelings about his country.
Tom Cruise is Ron Kovic,who growing up in 1950’s Long Island idolised the war heroes in the Independence Day parades. He looked past the wheelchair, crutches and missing limbs, seeing only the glory and patriotism of being a hero. Kovic spent his school years working hard and being committed to being the best, and after his wrestling attempts didn’t quite work out, he responded positively to a presentation from the US Marine Corps, and signs up with a few buddies, including Stephen Baldwin.The scenes of Kovic’s childhood are shot with a hazy, wholesome, rose-tinted nostalgia, and his family, especially his mother, are all very supportive of Ron’s decision to head to Vietnam and fight for his country, and die there if he has to. The era is well realised – particularly though the soundtrack, as Ron’s brother learns Bob Dylan on the guitar – and the TV broadcasts, with Kennedy’s “What you can do” speech seemingly speaking directly to Kovic.

After signing up and heading to war, the action skips straight over boot camp and the green-horn period – Stone covered all that in Platoon three years earlier – and drops us straight into the now Sergeant Kovic’s Second tour of Vietnam in 1967. These sequences are atmospheric and well-realised, but they’re less impressive than almost any other war film. It’s a good thing then that this film isn’t really aiming to show an accurate, visceral depiction of warfare, instead focusing on the disillusionment of volunteers, the effects that warfare can have on those who fight it, and the disconnect between the soldiers and the families they’ve left behind. For when Ron is discharged – in a wheelchair, with the promise that he’ll never use his legs again (though his main concern is being able to use what is between those legs) – he discovers that his brother doesn’t believe in the war, and his friends that stayed home became prosperous and affluent, whilst he had everything taken away from him.

The cats is full of familiar faces from anyone who’s watched Platoon – alongside Tom Berenger’s Marine recruiter is Willem Dafoe’s similarly paralysed veteran, and John C. McGinley turns up for a very small role (as do Wayne Knight and Tom Sizemore).

The film takes a very long time (145 minutes) to put across some fairly simple ideas. The first 90 minutes are thoroughly predictable, and there were very few surprises in the last hour either. Tom Cruise isn’t bad in the role, but as ever he always does better when he isn’t front and centre (Magnolia, Tropic Thunder), and I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was desperately pursuing an Oscar. Though he was nominated, it’s no surprise that it went instead to Daniel Day-Lewis for My Left Foot, and I’d still have been happy had it gone to fellow nominees Robin Williams or Morgan Freeman, for Dead Poet’s Society or Driving Miss Daisy, instead of Cruise.

It’s worth watching if you’re a Stone or Cruise completist, but there’s little new here, and what there is still won’t surprise, or impress you.

Choose life 5/10

Collateral

Michael Mann takes a break from shootouts and dogged cops hunting master criminals in favour of a more laidback, narrative-driven movie about Jamie Foxx’s ambitious yet stunted taxi driver Max carries his fares around the neon-lit streets of L.A. That is, until he picks up Tom Cruise’s hitman Vincent, and Max’s night, and his dreams, are thrown into turmoil as the body count rises.
Cruise seems like an odd choice to play a fairly villainous guys, but he proves spot-on, retaining his usual casual charm but with a steely glint and wolfish menace to go with his salt and pepper hair, leaving Foxx to submit lie in his shadow.
The script relies too much on luck and coincidence, and leaves some pretty gaping plot holes you could drive a cab through, plus those paying attention should see that there’s really only one way the film can end, with a last act twist clearly signposted in seemingly throwaway lines. The writer even resorts to a low cell phone signal and battery as a means of moving the plot along; generally the laziest idea anyone could use.
The film evokes memories of much better films – Leon’s hitman, Taxi Driver, The French Connection’s subway stand-off, every buddy movie ever made – reminding you that there’s little original here. So whilst it’s watchable, it’s by no means worthy of a place on the list, and was wisely cut from the 1001 book some years ago.
Choose life 5/10

Rain Man

Rain Man usually, and justifiably, receives plaudits for Dustin Hoffman’s performance as the autistic Raymond Babbitt, a role for which Hoffman won his second Oscar (after Kramer vs. Kramer), but it is the performance of Charlie Babbitt by Tom Cruise that should receive accolades too. His Charlie is wound up a little too tightly by the wishes of his recently deceased father to leave his fortune to Charlie’s brother Raymond, a brother Charlie didn’t know he had. He’s angry at his father, angry at his brother, and everyone around him as he struggles to come to terms with the aftermath of his father’s death. I don’t mean to underrate Hoffman’s performance at all, his is the stronger of the two, and it is the little moments that make it so, such as the moment of childlike confusion on the escalator.

Choose film 6/10