THE BLOG
06/05/2014 09:26 am ET | Updated Aug 05, 2014

Week in Film: Edge of Tomorrow, The Fault in Our Stars and More

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When you consider that Tom Cruise has been a major movie star for more than three decades, it's surprising how few out-and-out stinkers he's made (can Tom Hanks say the same thing?) and how much of himself he can still hold in reserve, with which to surprise us in a performance.

So it is with Edge of Tomorrow, which looks like Robocop meets Groundhog Day at Omaha Beach. But this Doug Liman film is fast, exciting, surprisingly witty and just plain satisfying. The script, by Oscar-winner Christopher McQuarrie and brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, gives this film an emotional honesty that keeps the action grounded. Which is terrific in a movie that also keeps you guessing, always a good thing.

Set in a not-too-distant future, Edge of Tomorrow begins with one of those cable-news "if you've just joined us" recaps, detailing an extraterrestrial invasion of Europe by aliens called Mimics. (One of the film's few shortcomings: It never explains why they're called that, given that they look like weird giant versions of balls of live wires.) They landed somewhere in the middle of the continent and have now taken over most of Europe, with an eye toward hopping the English Channel.

The focus of some of the clips is an American public-relations officer, Maj. William Gage -- Cruise at his most winning. But Cage discovers that he is, in fact, the biggest loser, when the general commander of the human forces in England (Brendan Gleeson) informs him that he'll be the defense forces' human face when he serves as part of the invasion force the next day. Tased into unconsciousness when he resists, Cage wakes up to find himself the property of a drill sergeant (Bill Paxton), who is supposed to get him combat-ready by the time he and his platoon drop into the war zone.

Not even close -- and Cage finds himself stumbling around the beach in France, eventually dying when one of the aliens is blasted into goo right on top of him.

Except that he wakes up almost instantly, and finds himself back at the moment when he met the drill sergeant. And then he invades France and dies again. And again.

You get the idea. But on one of those early missions, he also meets the humans' biggest hero, Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a Mimic-slayer par excellence who has become a propaganda symbol. She speaks to Cage near the end of one of his incarnations, telling him to find her the next time he dies. She, too, has the ability to recycle -- or had it -- and now they have to figure out how to educate themselves to beat the Mimics on that fateful day, before they lose the power to live the moment over.

Cruise pulls out a variety of affects here, from cocky to cowardly, wise to witty, giving each of them just enough of an edge to make you take notice and say, "What's different here?" Bill Murray played it for soulful laughs in "Groundhog Day"; Cruise uses his reincarnations to hone and chisel this character down to its diamond-hard core. Blunt and Paxton (and Gleeson) offers great support, but this is Cruise's show -- and Liman's.

Which makes it the first really exciting movie of the summer: the most original, the most invigorating and the most entertaining.

The Fault in Our Stars, in case you didn't know, is based on a hit novel, a best-seller that promises more than a few tear-soaked hankies. So does the movie. But it earns them.

Directed by Josh Boone, who made the overlooked Stuck in Love in 2012, the film stars the radiant Shailene Woodley, who has a lovely kind of everyday quality, as a teen named Hazel who, at 17, has been living with cancer since she was 13. Her lungs have been weakened by the ordeal, forcing her to wheel around an oxygen tank, to which she is tethered by thin tubing. Though she resists, she ultimately gives in to urging by her parents (Laura Dern, Sam Trammell) and joins a teen cancer-survivor support group at her church, led by a well-meaning buffoon (nicely underplayed by Mike Birbiglia for uncomfortable laughs).

At the group, however, she meets Gus Waters (Ansel Elgort), a one-time star basketball player who lost part of a leg to cancer, but still has the good-natured swagger of the happy jock. He zeroes in on her, bathing her in the kind of impassioned attention only a teen-age boy could. Though she's walled herself off, Hazel can't resist; this is something Hazel assumed she'd never get the chance to experience.

The story, based on John Green's book, includes Hazel's fixation on a novel about cancer and Gus' effort to help Hazel connect with its author. That idee fixe, the romantic quest, forms the most cliched part of this tale, up to and including a trip to Amsterdam to meet the writer (a sour Willem Dafoe) that features a visit to the Anne Frank museum.

This review continues on my website.