#262. Tom Cruise

Say what you will about his personal life, be it the tabloid headline-inducing relationships or his involvement with Scientology, but Tom Cruise has been in a lot of movies. But what seems to be the unique element to his prolific career is the fact that most of his films were recognized as “Tom Cruise films” (i.e., films that star Tom Cruise). While his early career has had a few minor roles, and his later career also includes the occasional bit part (via cameo), most of Tom Cruise’s roles have been in the leading capacity for the majority of his career. Perhaps the genius of his unique personal life frequently making the headlines of grocery store checkout lines is how we are often reminded that he is starring in a new film sometime soon. This week’s two films highlight some of the varied work Tom Cruise has done on the big screen.

                                         Mission Impossible: Ghost ProtocolMission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
Year: 2011
Rating: PG-13
Length: 133 minutes / 2.22 hours

Perhaps what has given Tom Cruise his success is two-fold: being cast by a lot of legendary directors and a knack for action films. Quite early in his career, he worked with Francis Ford Coppola on The Outsiders (1983), which no doubt opened the door for him working with Martin Scorsese (The Color of Money (1986)), Rob Reiner (A Few Good Men (1992)), Stanley Kubrick (Eyes Wide Shut (1999)), Steven Spielberg (Minority Report (2002) and War of the Worlds (2005)), and J.J. Abrams (Mission: Impossible III (2006)). While there are plenty of other directors who have tied Cruise into their movies, the theme that is often seen in a fair number of his roles is that he excels at action. One of his franchises that epitomizes this is the Mission: Impossible series. With five films under his belt as Ethan Hunt, this 20+ year franchise helped to get him where he is today.

Because of a semi-botched mission to extract some information from the Kremlin that resulted in the famous Russian building being destroyed, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his IMF team have been disavowed from the United States via the “Ghost Protocol.” Now it is up to them to find the perpetrator of the Kremlin bombing, a mysterious man who goes by the name of “Cobalt.” In their pursuit, the team finds that Cobalt is attempting to strike up a global war between the United States and Russia since his new target is to obtain Russian launch codes for their nuclear missiles. Intercepting the codes in Dubai, all the members of the IMF team are prepared to do what it takes to stop Cobalt. Unfortunately, as their plans begin to fail, it’s down to the wire to stop an incoming nuclear missile from detonating on San Francisco.

Rain ManRain Man
Year: 1988
Rating: R
Length: 133 minutes / 2.22 hours

While Cruise has proven he can go the distance for action films, he has also shown he can excel in dramas as well. In fact, his three nominations for an acting Oscar have been from dramas. Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire (1996), and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999) gave him nominations from the Academy, but none of them earned him the coveted gold statue. That’s not to say these (and other) films haven’t won big at the Oscars. For instance, Rain Man (1988) ended up being the Best Picture for that year. Of course, once again the mark of famous directors is at play here, as many of Tom Cruise’s more dramatic roles have been in the films guided by the experienced hands of a skilled director. It’s no wonder Rain Man also won an Oscar for Best Director, Barry Levinson.

Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) is one of those fast-talking, deeply-in-debt scumbags who is always trying to break it big by dealing in less-than-exemplary deals. His recent deal quickly falling through places him many tens of thousands of dollars in debt, which is why he is pleased to hear his rich and estranged father has died. Unfortunately, none of the money of the estate is bequeathed to him. Instead, this money is willed to a mental institution where Charlie finds he has a heretofore unknown older brother, Raymond (Dustin Hoffman). Raymond is severely autistic, but also has the qualities of a savant that Charlie tries to exploit to make money in Las Vegas counting cards. While Raymond’s strict routines stress the brothers’ relationship, they eventually grow close enough that Charlie no longer cares about the money and would rather have a brother than be rich.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 classic Cruise roles

Bacon #: 1 (A Few Good Men / Kevin Bacon)

#149. Jack Nicholson

It’s easy to name off the most-nominated actress, as Meryl Streep has the most Oscar nominations in film history, even more than the actors. However, one would be challenged to know who the most nominated actor is. This is probably due to Streep continuing to be nominated regularly, receiving an acting nomination every two to three years since 1978. Of course, if you haven’t figured it out by now (via the title of this post), the most-nominated actor in film history is Jack Nicholson. Similar to Meryl Streep, Nicholson has won three times for acting, making him part of a handful of people who have completed this feat (only 6 people have won three or more Oscars). This week, we’ll look at two of Nicholson’s films, one of which even earned him one of his 12 Oscar nominations for acting.

The ShiningThe Shining
Year: 1980
Rating: R
Length: 146 minutes / 2.43 hours

Even though he wasn’t nominated for his performance in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), Jack Nicholson truly helped make this film into the iconic piece of popular culture we know today. I mean, who hasn’t seen his grinning face peeking through the axe-chopped hole of the bathroom door as he delivers the line, “Here’s Johnny!” This role is just one of a few that Nicholson seemed to excel in: the role of a crazy person. Just consider his performance as the Joker in the 1989 film, Batman, and you can start to see the parallels. What’s almost ironic is that he actually won one of his Best Actor Oscars for his role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), where he portrays a criminal in a mental institution who is probably the sanest person there. At any rate, even if the Academy overlooked his performance in The Shining, the American Film Institute named Jack Torrance the 25th best villain in film history.

As an author myself, I know how useful it is to become isolated in order to write. In The Shining, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) does just that by taking on a job as a winter caretaker in the Overlook Hotel. While he and his family watch over the empty building, he finally has the chance to get writing. Unfortunately, being an isolated writer only works if you’re productive. After a long time of being stuck with writer’s block, Jack is soon affected by the madness of the Hotel brought about by its placement on top of an Indian burial ground. Both Jack and his son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), have connections with the building, known as “shining,” which show them the gruesome past that has occurred due to the induced madness of the place. Jack fully succumbs to the madness, eventually chasing after his family into the icy winter outside.

Year: 1974
Rating: PG-13
Length: 130 minutes / 2.17 hours

While about one-third of Nicholson’s Oscar nominations were for Best Supporting Actor, the other two-thirds were for the award of Best Actor. Chinatown (1974) was just such a nomination for him, in between his 1973 nomination for The Last Detail and his aforementioned win for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. What’s nice to see about the nominations he’s received is that at least a few of them were for comedies, partly due to his partnership with director James L. Brooks. With his trademark smile and laugh, these nominations just make sense. However, even though Nicholson played a clever character in Chinatown, this film is by no means a comedy. In fact, it was probably this role that helped him to continue to be nominated for acting awards for the next three decades, stringing his streak of nominations across 50 years.

In Chinatown, Jack Nicholson portrays J.J. “Jake” Gittes, a private investigator who specializes in exposing cheating wives and husbands. Unfortunately, when he’s tasked to keep an eye on the chief engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, not only does he eventually find out that he was set up, he soon enters into a huge conspiracy involving Los Angeles’ water rights. Working with the real wife of the engineer, Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), Jack soon finds himself up to his nose in gangsters and government officials trying to make a profit off the limited water supply to the city. As the obituaries pile up, Jake finds himself falling for Evelyn, which causes him to delve deeper into her past in an attempt to figure out what her relationship is with her “sister.” When all the pieces fall into place, Jake is powerless to stop it, simply being told, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 notable Nicholson performances

Bacon #: 1 (A Few Good Men / Kevin Bacon)

#052. Rob Reiner

If there’s one aspect that the films of Rob Reiner exhibit, it’s that of being self-aware. While the majority of his work is in comedy, he does it in such a way as to poke fun at the genres his movies reside in (much like Mel Brooks does). He pulls apart the genre and looks at its roots so that he can create a story that will show how ridiculous some of the trappings of particular genres really are. Take his work, When Harry Met Sally . . . (1989) for instance. On its surface, it shows all the elements of a modern romantic comedy. And yet, how Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan interact is something more realistic than a story that is coincidental, cliche, and hackneyed, like many romantic comedies tend to be. He was aware of the limitations of the genre and found a way to fix one of its significant flaws. This week’s two movies highlight two more of Rob Reiner’s genre-aware films.

The Princess BrideThe Princess Bride
Year: 1987
Rating: PG
Length: 98 minutes / 1.63 hours

First up is the fantasy genre. Usually set in far off lands with strange beings and pre-renaissance structures, fantasy stories can go one of two ways. First, it can be the adventure story of a man on a mission. Secondly, it can be a story of true love. The Princess Bride (1987) is definitely the latter, but with elements of the first (since there are no defined boundaries in this genre). What really makes The Princess Bride self-aware is its dialogue. The characters act and speak in such a way that is comedic, but still within the confines of a fantasy film. Perhaps this is why much of the movie’s dialogue is quoted, even today. At any rate, a storybook story like this really shines with the final piece of the puzzle: framing. With framing, the story can exist in its own world, but with a link back to reality.

The framing of The Princess Bride is that of a grandfather (Peter Falk) reading a “kissing story” to his sick grandson (Fred Savage). On a farm in the land of Florin, Buttercup (Robin Wright) falls in love with the farmhand, Westley (Cary Elwes). However, when Westley is rumored to have been killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts, Buttercup resigns herself to marrying Prince Humperdink (Chris Sarandon). Yet, before she can get married, she is kidnapped by some outlaws, only to be rescued by a man in a black mask: the Dread Pirate Roberts. Buttercup is enraged that she was saved by the man who killed her true love, but once she learns his true identity, she willingly returns to Prince Humperdink in order to protect him. Now, can the Dread Pirate Roberts make it to the wedding in time to stop Buttercup from marrying the prince?

This is Spinal TapThis is Spinal Tap
Year: 1984
Rating: R
Length: 82 minutes / 1.37 hours

With the success of the television show, The Office, the “fake documentary” has really reached the forefront of popular culture. Even with its American adaptation (which has been more successful than its British predecessor) and the somewhat spin-off of Parks and Recreation, the genre of the documentary is used to tell a story by blatantly breaking the fourth wall. And yet, decades before the fake documentary (or mockumentary, for short), Rob Reiner created a film that really defined the mockumentary genre that we know today. By using the structure and styling of a documentary on a fake subject, Reiner created something that was aware that it was a documentary, without actually being a documentary about anything that existed.

This is Spinal Tap (1984) follows the hair metal band known as Spinal Tap as they try and make a comeback by staging an American tour of their music. Following them along with camera in tow is Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner) who is their biggest fan, and is ready to document their tour for posterity. Unfortunately, the documentary camera is non-discriminatory as it shows quite a few failures that cause the band to start to unravel. With amplifiers that go all the way to 11, miniature sets of Stonehenge, and black-on-black album covers, the loudest band in existence is on a downward spiral during a trip that was supposed to garner them more groupies than they would know what to do with. Even though DiBergi wanted his film to be a rockumentary, it inevitably captures the band’s demise.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 unorthodox examinations of genre

Bacon #: 2 (Sleepless in Seattle / Tom Hanks -> Beyond all Boundaries / Kevin Bacon)