Ben Stiller Wishes He Could Be Like the Cool Kids: A Review of Noah Baumbach’s ‘While We’re Young’

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There are many reasons why While We’re Young, the latest from director Noah Baumbach is one of my favorite movies of the year so far, but the most important is that it seems the director has found a way to revitalize his career by experimenting with format. I was a little bit surprised when his Frances Ha ended up conjuring the anarchic freedom of the french new wave is more ways than just its black and white photography, and if While We’re Young is any indication, Baumbach is not done experimenting with riffing on styles of the past. This is fine with me, because he is doing a terrific job.

The biggest difference between While We’re Young and previous Baumbach movies is that it has a clearly defined plot. Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts star as a fortysomething couple who find themselves at a crossroads. Their best friends just had a baby, while they seem to be stuck at a pleasant but uneventful stage in their relationship. Stiller in particular. He is a once promising documentarian who has been struggling to finish his second movie for ten years. The inciting incident comes in the form of a young couple: aspiring documentarian Adam Driver and his wife Amanda Seyfried. After hanging out with them for a little while, our main couple is enchanted by their young-New-York-hipster ways.

This is a comedy, especially in its first half, which derives surprising amounts of humor out of the generational clash of the two couples. I know this may sound like something you have seen before, but Baumbach -who also wrote the movie- seem to have a well of clever -and funny- things to say about losing touch with youth culture. “Their apartment is full of things we threw out years ago, but it looks so nice the way they have it”, says Naomi Watts’s character at one point. And there is undoubtedly some sense of trying to go back to more authentic times it this younger couple. While Watts skims Netflix looking for a movie, and Stiller plays around with his iPhone, Driver watches a VHS copy of The Howling and Seyfried spends her time making artisanal ice cream.

The couples start a symbiotic relationship. Stiller’s character clearly gets off on the cool apparent authenticity of the younger couple. “They’re all about process” he says to his wife not too long he starts wearing a fedora. Meanwhile, Driver seems to be looking for the same thing in Stiller. He claims to be a fan of his work, and wants to have him as a mentor. As you might expect, the final conflict in the movie builds itself out of this relationship, and the realization that the benefits might not be equal for both parties. This is especially once we realize that Naomi Watts’s character’s father is a famous documentary filmmaker (played by the great Charles Grodin).

According to Baumbach, the inspirations for While We’re Young are a number of smart comedies from the eighties like Broadcast News and Working Girl. Being set in New York City, one can also see traces of Woody Allen’s eighties work, especially Crimes and Misdemeanorswhich also features a documentarian protagonist. Also like Crimes and Misdemeanors, this movie shapes itself into a little bit of thriller, especially in the third act. However, the brilliance of While We’re Young comes in the form of a fascinating anti-climax.   

Talking about the details of While We’re Young‘s third act would be unfair to those who haven’t seen the movie yet, so I’ll just say that despite its uncharacteristic “plotiness”, the lack of a satisfying payoff makes the movie fit comfortably in Baumbach’s filmography. Turns out that While We’re Young was, after all, a character study. And following into Baumbach’s recent experimentation with style, it becomes a story about life being inherently different to storytelling. There is no bombastic climax or tight plots to life. In a way, Baumbach is arguing for the type of cinema that he makes.

But talking about While We’re Young in those terms might be too meta-filmic. The strength of this movie is in the way Baumbach treats his characters. A lot is said about authors either loving or hating their characters too much. Baumbach seems to be merciless in his objectivity. He will spend an enormous amount of time and energy making Stiller’s character look like a misguided doofus, but when the shit hits the fan, his reactions and emotions are real. He acts and reacts like a human being, and that is what makes me connect to While We’re Young. It’s a movie without big triumphs, and without clear defeats. It is a story, above all, about people having more than one opinion at a time. When Stiller comes marching in with a big revelation at the end of the third act, he is met with a shrug. He might be onto something, but at the end of the day, no one really cares that much.

I wouldn’t want to end this review without singling out how important the acting is to While We’re Young‘s success. Everyone in the ensemble does a terrific job. Seyfried and Grodin do great work with what they’re given, and Adam Driver is obviously a tremendously funny guy who can do wonders playing at being a bit of a douchebag. The real heart of the movie are, of course, Stiller and Watts. Somewhat surprising, and certainly gratifying, is the fact that it’s Stiller that gets the most effective dramatic moments, while Watts shines as a fantastic comedienne. She turns smoking a cigarette into the funniest thing I’ve seen all year.

Grade: 8 out of 10

2005 Project Batch 3: The New World, Batman Begins, and Broken Flowers

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Like I said in the previous post, I’ve been watching movies from 2005 and writing about some of them on my Letterboxd page. I’ve also been copying those thoughts and posting them in the blog. Just to clarify, these are not full-fledged reviews, but rather some quick thoughts (I’ll be watching so many movies that I couldn’t possibly write full-length reviews for all them).

Here’s the third batch.

TheNewWorldPosterThe New World (Directed by Terrence Malick)

I am not a Malick fanatic. I have only seen three of his movies, and of those, I would say ‘The New World’ is far and away the best one. Partly, because it has the clearest idea of them all: it is, essentially, the love story between John Smith and Pocahontas.

The Romance of it all gives the movie a strong base to stand on, and from there, it can become as profound and touching as Malick wants it to be. It could be read as another new age-y idea of man wanting to renounce civilization after being captivated by the power of living in harmony with nature, except it is not. It is something far more tragic. It engages head-on with the futility of the “civilized” man trying to return to nature. The second half of the movie, the one that focuses on Pocahontas, makes clear what the toll of this enterprise is.

It is also particularly interesting to watch ‘The New World’ just after watching ‘Grizzly Man’. They make for very interesting companion films. Aren’t both, after all, talking about man’s relationship to nature? While Herzog argues that searching for nature will kill man, Malick argues that man will kill nature by searching for it.

I don’t know. Am I onto something here? In any case, both are pretty amazing movies.

batmanbeginsposterBatman Begins (Directed by Christopher Nolan)

By now we know that you shouldn’t ask too many questions when watching a Christopher Nolan movie. You’re not supposed to ask “why”, but just give in to the thrill-ride of watching a filmmaker who is always driving forward. If you do this, I’m pretty sure you’ll have a good time with ‘Batman Begins’, especially in its first half, where the forward momentum is held together by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s propulsive score.

Once things settle down, the film starts to lose gas. It is never fully dead, but its latter half suffer from a unnecessarily complicated, and thus messy, plot. Many people point out to the confusing villain as one of the film’s biggest flaws, and I agree. This is a case where the exciting nature of the filmmaking does a lot for what is an otherwise not fully cooked screenplay. I like the movie’s core idea, of positioning Batman as a legendary figure in modern society, but I am not thrilled by the story around it.

brokenflowersposterBroken Flowers (Directed by Jim Jarmusch)

I first watched this when it first came out in DVD. I was thirteen, and I remember thinking that this was a movie in which “nothing happened”. And I didn’t even mean it in a pejorative way. My brain wasn’t ready to engage with a movie as apparently uneventful as this one. Ten years later, I have engaged with lots of movies that has far less going on in them than ‘Broken Flowers’.

Reading reviews of the time, the movie seems to have been mostly dismissed as another entry in the Bill Murray Midlife Crisis canon (this came out right after Lost In Translation and The Life Aquatic). I don’t think this is the best of those films, but it’s certainly the saddest, and it makes it worth look at the three as a very touching and genuine trilogy about emptiness.

The most effective element in ‘Broken Flowers’ is how committed it is to the emptiness at the center of the main character’s life. There is no Scarlett Johansson, or Owen Wilson, or Jaguar Shark here. Don Johnston’s life is completely mundane and absolutely meaningless. Thus, despite being often amusing, the movie ends up being a very painful tragedy. If nothing else, I absolutely love the movie’s ending.

As Arid and Pointless as a Desert: A Review of Lisandro Alonso’s ‘Jauja’

Jauja

Jauja, the latest film by Argentine filmmaker Lisandro Alonso has been somewhat of a festival success, playing to largely positive reviews at Cannes and the New York Film Festival last year. It opened in limited release last Friday, and was met with a mostly positive response from critics. Most of them made it sound like an immersive and surreal experience. I went to see it a couple of days ago, and must admit that I was completely immune to the movie’s supposed charms.

There is very little plot to the movie, so let’s get the description out of the way. Viggo Mortensen stars as a Danish military officer who seems to have embarked in some sort of business enterprise in the Argentinian desert. It all kind of goes to shit, however, when his young daughter Ingebort (Viilbjørk Malling Agger) goes missing, and he decides to venture -alone- into the wilderness to find her.

Jauja is a very slow-moving film. I am usually not the type of person who lashes out against slow cinema, but I think things are getting our of control. I understand if a filmmaker feels like the story they are trying to tell is better served by a measured pace, but both filmmakers and critics have to understand that something being slow and inaccessible doesn’t mean it’s good. Are we intimidated by the obtuse nature of these movies? Do we feel like we would be perceived as not sophisticated enough if we don’t like them? You know what, in this case, I am not afraid of being perceived as a low-class simpleton. Jauja is just plain boring.

Which is not to say that the movie is without merit, or that the people behind it are talentless hacks. Quite the contrary, actually. After watching Jauja there is no doubt in my mind that Alonso is a very talented man. The same goes for cinematographer Timo Salminen. The two work together to make Jauja one of the most beautiful looking movies in a long time. Either Alonso or Salminen (if not both) have an outstanding eye for framing. Filmed in 35mm film, the cinematography in this movie is a true delight. In terms of both lighting and composition, I’d be hard pressed to find a better looking movie this year.

I could extend the same kind of praise to Mortensen and his performance in the lead role. Despite the movie being almost exclusively focused on his character, he gets relatively little to do. But boy does he milk whatever he is given to some pretty fantastic extremes. Mortensen is fluent in Spanish, but like I said he plays a Danish man, and so, he speaks with an infinitely amusing accent. I guess this will probably go unnoticed by most American audiences, but Mortensen’s accent work here kind of fills me up with joy.

The more I write about the movie, the easier it is to remember the things I liked, and believe me, there are some pretty outstanding and amusing things in the movie. At the same time, it becomes all the more infuriating that Alonso didn’t seem to mind the fact that they were being lost in his insistence of making the movie as much of a slog as possible. There is so much dead time, as the director clings to an uneventful frame. Trying to remain engaged by Jauja becomes a battle of the wills.

I must admit that I lost the battle. Jauja gave me so little to work with that my mind was constantly wandering off into completely unrelated thoughts. Was this the director’s intention? I doubt it. A development in the third act snapped me back to pay attention, but it didn’t really clarify any of the intensions behind the movie, nor did it offer a clue into how one should engage with it. Reports from last year’s Cannes Film Festival say that, when asked what the movie meant, Alonso responded that it didn’t matter. I believe him, and I think that’s the problem.

Grade: 5 out of 10.

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963)

Screen shot 2015-03-23 at 10.18.38 p.m.This week in Hit Me With Your Best Shot, Nathaniel introduced me to Vittorio De Sica’s Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. I’m not gonna lie and pretend that I’m not a little annoyed by the lack of an oxford comma in the movie’s English title, but otherwise, this is an incredibly lovely movie. A comedic triptych of Italian relationships portrayed by every cinephile’s favorite Italians: Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni.

Now, this week is a little different than usual, as Nathaniel has asked us to pick a scene from each of the movie’s three sections. Let’s begin with the story of Adelina from Napoli, which might be my favorite of the three. It’s strange, because for a story about a woman who is trying to avoid going to jail, the stakes turn out to be relatively low. Similarly, the plot doesn’t evolve in what I would call a traditionally satisfying manner (coincidences, unexplained solutions), and the character’s actions aren’t always believable. But all these apparent flaws make the story all the more charming.

The segment’s tone can’t exactly be described as “magic realism”, but it’s not far from it. It’s a romantic story between Marcello and Sophia’s characters, but also a Romantic story about the beauty and solidarity of community and neighborhood. Despite being set in contemporary Italy, it plays like an old folk-tale set in a time when everybody -even the antagonists- wanted the best thing for each other (I think of the way the policeman smiles when Adelina presents him with her pregnancy certificate).

This is clear in my pick for best shot, which comes after the segment’s first sequence. A man has come to Adelina’s house to settle a debt. She owes him an amount of money that she simply doesn’t have. The man threatens to take away her furniture, except she is so poor that she doesn’t have any, and he has to go away. During this whole thing, the whole neighborhood has come out to take a peek at what is going on. A symptom, I though, of small-town gossip. But when the man leaves, all neighbors celebrate, and it is revealed that they’d been hiding Adelina’s furniture so it couldn’t be taken away. Here is the surprising and cheerful shot:Screen shot 2015-03-23 at 10.22.42 p.m.

The second segment takes us to Ana from Milan, a socialite married to a rich man. This time, Sophia and Marcello are having an affair. He isn’t nearly as rich as her husband, and isn’t sure the affair is a good idea. They drive around, and they fight a lot. There’s a lot of bickering in this segment, which makes us wonder why are these two together? Well, the answer is because they are Sophia and Marcello, how can they resist each other? And if you don’t accept that explanation, then you have this shot where Sophia climbs over Marcello to get to the passenger seatScreen shot 2015-03-23 at 11.37.28 p.m..

Our final segment takes the form of a farce, as Mara from Rome, a high-end prostitute, experiences somewhat of an identity crisis after her young neighbor -a soon-to-be priest- falls in love with her. In the middle of the tension between Mara, neighbor, and the neighbor’s grandma, stands Marcello, a businessman from Bologna who just wants to get it on with the lovely Mara. There are many beautiful images in this section. I particularly like the moment when the young neighbor finally packs his luggage before leaving for seminar, and the amazing shot of Sophia holding a cat with the Roman twilight in the background. But if we’re going to start talking about cats, well, then I only have one possible shot, which is not only cute and awesome, but encapsulates the comedic talent of Mastroianni, because it’s really his and Loren’s commitment that make Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow as good as it is.Screen shot 2015-03-24 at 12.28.35 a.m.

2005 Project Batch 2: Munich, The 40 Year-Old Virgin, and Grizzly Man

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Like I said in the previous post, I’ve been watching movies from 2005 and writing about some of them on my Letterboxd page. I’ve also been copying those thoughts and posting them in the blog. Just to clarify, these are not full-fledged reviews, but rather some quick thoughts (I’ll be watching so many movies that I couldn’t possibly write full-length reviews for all them).

Here’s the second batch.

munich posterMunich (Directed by Steven Spielberg)

“There is no peace at the end of this”

Easily Spielberg’s best since ‘Schindler’s List’, and comfortably among his best period. I’m not a huge fan of the famous sex scene towards the end, but otherwise a sober and rather daring take on an incredibly delicate topic. You wouldn’t expect Spielberg to be as neutral as he is here, but he proves to be a deeply humanist filmmaker.

He is also a master of his craft, and it shows in the way he constructs the tensest scenes. I know comparing movies is not always the best policy, but this is the kind of nuanced perspective that I would’ve loved to see from something like ‘American Sniper’. Tortured heroes are tortured for a reason, and compromising means you have to lose something in the process. And not just anything, but something that really hurts.

I don’t like to get too political, but I’m firmly against the idea of “nations”. This feels like a movie for me.

40yearoldvirgin posterThe 40 Year-Old Virgin (Directed by Judd Apatow)

The least indulgent, and thus best, of Apatow’s filmography. Probably the most immediately influential comedy of the new millennium. It started the trend of overrelying on improv that not even Apatow seems to be able to control anymore, but works rather wonderfully here. When Jane Lynch tells Steve Carell about the Guatemalan man who took her virginity and proceeds to sing in Spanish, that’s the kind of improv that I welcome in my movies.

Ten years after the fact, there is a lot of bro-ish and LGBT-phobic humor that hasn’t aged well. The laughs of the first half of the movie seem particularly lazy, but once the Catherine Keener enters the picture and the movie becomes more of a romantic comedy, we get moments of true emotion that elevate the film.

The most valuable player of this movie is its star. Almost everything Carell does here is fantastic. It’s one of the funniest, and also the most touching performances of his career. Proof os this is the closing dance sequence, where Carell commits to letting the ridiculous nature of the moment and not his actions drive the comedy, while Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd fail to produce any laughs with their mugging.

grizzlymanGrizzly Man (Directed by Wener Herzog)

This is it. This is where our current notion of who is (and how we parody) Werner Herzog comes from.

First of all, Herzog is a masterful documentarian. Outright embracing the notion that no film can ever be objective, he comes out with a very strong point of view, but doesn’t let his thinking overwhelm the film.

It’s because this movie is a dialogue between Treadwell’s footage (acquired over many summers living with the bears), and Herzog’s manipulation of the recordings. And so, we have a fascinating story about a fascinatingly disturbed character, who ends up being the perfect protagonist for a Herzog movie.

Fitzcarraldo defied nature by pulling a ship up a mountain, and Treadwell does the same, by daring to live among the bears. But Treadwell’s obsession is driven by a certain kind of madness, and the sense of being an outcast in what he perceives as the “human world”. At the end, Treadwell can’t fight nature. In real life, no one can.

There really isn’t that much for me to say. It’s all there in the film. I can just point out the genius of putting together such different minds to tell this story about the ultimate dramatic irony.

The Minnesotan Dream: A Review of David Zellner’s ‘Kumiko the Treasure Hunter’

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Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, the lastest film by brothers David and Nathan Zellner, was inspired by the urban legend of a Japanese woman who traveled to Minnesota looking for the briefcase full of money that Steve Buscemi’s character buries in the middle of nowhere in the movie FargoDespite the brotherly duo connections between the two movies, I find that Kumiko shares more similarities -at least thematically- with another nineties movie: Thelma and Louise

Thelma and Louise is awesome. It is, of course, one of the two truly good movies in the career of director Ridley Scott. It has also, however, been the subject of critics who condemn the movie’s ending. Spoiler alertbut a lot of people don’t like the fact that Thelma and Louise die at the end of the movie. They see this development patriarchal punishment on part of the study that wouldn’t allow us to have two female heroes who stand up for themselves and live to tell the tale. Now, I don’t know where it came from, but I would argue that the patriarchal punishment is precisely what makes Thelma and Louise such a powerful movie. I mean, if Thelma and Louise lived, wouldn’t the whole movie be a silly fantasy instead of a truthful tragedy?

Now, I don’t want to go too much into spoilers for Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, but it strikes me as very thematically similar to Thelma and Louise. Our protagonist is Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi). She is 29 years old, and very depressed. She works as an “office lady”, which means she is basically a servant to a older male superior. At the same time, she is constantly reminded by her co-workers, boss, and family of the fact that she hasn’t married yet. Kumiko is trapped in an oppressive world, but finds solace in an old and worn-out copy of the Coen brothers’ Fargo, and the thought that untold riches will be awaiting when she, like a Spanish Conquistador, travels to the Americas.

I probably don’t need to tell you that this is a futile quest. Kumiko’s big journey takes her to Minesota, and exotic locales such as a shoe store and a chinese restaurant. You can see the irony there, and yes, the Zellners find a lot of comedy in this ridiculous premise. Most importantly, that comedy never comes at Kumiko’s expense. Based on the facts, one could only conclude that Kumiko is either crazy, or simply dumb, for believing in the existence of the buried briefcase, but who could blame her for giving into such a fantasy when her world is as absurd, banal and bland as it is presented to us by the Zellners.

It is true that if the themes behind Kumiko are a little familiar, the Zellner brothers do a fantastic job of putting them in an exciting new package. Their approach is to turn the movie into a sensorial experience. Thus, you have the cinematography by Sean Porter, that turns Minnesota into a wide-screen tundra, and the eery score by The Octopus Project, which paired with a fantastic work of sound mixing, present us with unique vignettes.

Among the dreamy sequences, and the absurdity, the Zellners show a beating heart, and a deep interest in human feeling. This is evident in the section of the movie in which Kumiko meets a deputy chief of police played by David Zellner, who is wonderfully confused and earnest in his intentions. And while we’re in the subject of performance, I must praise Kikuchi, who shows amazing comedic timing, and the ability to make her face interesting enough as to practically carry a whole movie. The internal and external demands of the performance are almost opposite, and Kikuchi excels at both.

This effectively constructed package houses a touching movie. An honest portrayal of depression, and a fantastical dream about escaping and finding new horizons. This is not so much a meta-filmic narrative about the power of film, as it is about art as a tool for escape, and a literal dream factory. It is a story about the mind as a beautiful tool for survival in the context of a deadly environment. Kumiko the Treasure Hunter is a welcomed addition to a recent trend of movies that, like The Tale of the Princes Kaguya and Girlhood, are complex and satisfying portrayals of young women refusing to be defined by the world around them.

Grade: 8 out of 10

2005 Project Batch 1: A History of Violence, War of the Worlds, Me and You and Everyone We Know

A History of Violence Cover

In recent years, a side project of mine has become trying to figure out what is the best film of my lifetime. I know it’s a ridiculous thing to try to accomplish, but for a list-obsessive like me, it’s the equivalent of spending every day at Disneyland. I approach this task on a year-by-year basis, trying to watch as many movies from a specific year as possible, then deciding what the best movies of said year were. I did it last year with 1992 (the year I was born). Right now I’m doing 2005. I’ve been writing about some of the movies I’ve seen on my Letterboxd page, but I will also be copying those thoughts and posting them in the blog. Just to clarify, these are not full-fledged reviews, but rather some quick thoughts (I’ll be watching so many movies that I couldn’t possibly write full-length reviews for all them).

Anyway, here’s the first batch:

meandyouandeveryoneweknowMe and You and Everyone We Know (Directed by Miranda July)

I didn’t see this movie when it came out, but 2005 was just one year after ‘Garden State’, and you might pretend you were the exception, but y’all loved ‘Garden State’ back then. Ten years later, however, the “quirky indie” thing has been done to death, the well has been poisoned, and it’s now incredibly hard for me to love a movie like this one.

Which is a shame, because I think if ever there was a person for whom quirk is an essential part of their being, and not just an act put upon to be cute and attract a hip audience, that person is probably Miranda July. You can tell because of how the movie commits to the awkwardness and anxiety that come with human interaction.

There are some pretty touching moments in this movie -having John Hawkes as your lead character certainly helps- but my taste and the culture around me have evolved in a way that I can’t look past some of the more obvious choices (meaning the moments that read as wanting to be touching instead of just being).

historyofviolenceA History of Violence (Directed by David Cronenberg)

It’s the first time I see this since 2005. I loved it back then, but I was 13.

I still think it’s a really solid movie. I like that the script if very focused on the things that we want to see. I was nervous about where the son’s storyline was going to go, for example, but there are no unnecessary side-dramatics here. It’s all about answering the question of Tom Stall’s identity and what it means to him.

I’m not quite sure what this is trying to say about America, or guns, or violence. I don’t even know if it has something to say at all, but so many critics and fans of the movie make it seem like it does. I’ll keep thinking about it. In the meantime, I’ll be gladly accepting the movie is a mighty fine piece of filmmaking.

One last question: I come back and forth of whether Viggo Mortensen was the right actor for this role. I like him in general, and I think there’s a lot of pathos to this performance, but he doesn’t seem like an ‘all-American average Joe’. To me, he reads too exotic (is it because I know he’s fluent in Spanish? Or is it his smooth way of talking/accent?). Or maybe that’s the point, and we’re supposed to think Tom is a little off from the start? I’ll gladly debate with whomever is interested in having this argument.

WaroftheworldsWar of the Worlds (Steven Spielberg)

I never saw this when it came out. Partially because people didn’t seem to like it, partially cause I, like most of the world, was a little turned off by the whole Tom Cruise craziness of 2005. Having finally seen this, I’m starting to think people who didn’t like this were affected more by the incidents that took place on Orpah’s couch and not so much by the movie itself.

Sure, the movie has a pretty unsatisfying ending, but then again, when hasn’t this been the case with late-career Spielberg? The important thing to keep in mind here is that Spielberg is a master of the mise en scene, and of audience manipulation. ‘War of the Worlds’, thus, becomes an amazingly effective representation of the fears of humanity (and especially America) at the time when the movie was made.

The imagery calls back to 9/11 and the Holocaust, and rightfully so. ‘War of the Worlds’ is trying to give take the modern signifiers of horrific inhumanity and deliver them to us in a blockbuster package. It’s a simple plot (Cruise and his children try to get to Boston), and so, the emphasis is on an episodic journey made out of outstanding set pieces and magnificent suspense.