Franchise Flashback – Mission: Impossible 2 (2000)

EXT. AUSTRALIAN FARM. A helicopter lands, and LUTHER STICKELL disembarks. Walking a few paces, he steps in feces.

LUTHER: Shit.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout and its predecessor Rogue Nation are so good, watching them is like going to your happy place. For all the tension they generate, they’re extraordinarily pleasant to watch. In stark contrast, Mission: Impossible 2 is the black sheep of the franchise for good reason, most often embarrassing rather than entertaining. I mean, this is a movie in which (see above) Luther steps in shit and says, “Shit”.

The Name’s Hunt… Ethan Hunt

The film takes quite a bit from the James Bond playbook, but in the most warmed-over, reheated way. There’s a romance of the week (atypical for the Ethan character), scenes highlighting local international festivities (Seville), and Hunt as not so much a skilled asset but a one-man army. There’s a sexy car chase that passes for 95-mph flirting –GoldenEye much? Nyah Nordoff-Hall (Thandie Newton) is a character with a lot of potential but becomes slightly edgy Bond girl eye candy. Because the central romance has to be established, the plot starts twice and walks the audience through stuff they’ve already seen after the movie’s done faffing around for the moment.

Ethan Hunt Nyah Nordoff-Hall

Romantic spinning of wheels aside, Mission 2 is a pretty inept spy movie. Rogue Nation and Fallout director Christopher McQuarrie has a rule that the maximum number of mask gags you can get away with in one movie is two. There are at least five here, which gets tedious fast. There’s even a five-minute stretch with two mask reveals! (As an interesting aside, the first two Mission movies show the complete unmasking gag in a single shot, while later films almost always cut at a transition point between the actors’ faces.)

Mask Gag

But I can’t deny the goofy entertainment to be had at the climax. Take the amazing moment when Ethan and villain Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott) play chicken with motorcycles, then jump off and collide midair. A ridiculous one-on-one fight ensues, with each move more flamboyant than the last. That’s complete with slow motion flying kicks like this is Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. It’s bonkers; it’s entertaining; it’s not strictly speaking good. At least director John Woo gets his slow motion white dove in there! Even though in its grand entrance it’s made of painful CGI!

Ethan Hunt CGI Dove

Try Hard with a Vengeance

In the opening moments of the movie, we hear the scientist Nekhorvich (Rade Šerbedžija) explain that every hero needs a great villain, in the context of a cure (Bellerophon) for a virus (Chimera). But the subtext is clear; the film itself is announcing a strong villain for Ethan Hunt. It introduces Sean Ambrose wearing a mask of Ethan, a tactic repeated later in the movie. Ambrose is former IMF, and in fact we witness his defection after the spy agency actually orders Ambrose to impersonate Ethan. Clearly Ambrose is intended as a classic foil, but for all of Dougray Scott’s predatory Scottish scenery chewing, Ambrose comes across as a damp squib.

Sean Ambrose

There’s a built-in conflict in the backstory between Ethan and Ambrose, but the film does next to nothing with their former antagonism. John Woo’s movies often excel at depicting duos of driven, strong-willed, totemic men, so when they square off, horizontal in the air, each with guns pointed at the other, there are personal stakes. Ah Jong and Li Ying in The Killer, Tequila and Alan in Hard Boiled, Riley Hale and Vick Deakins in Broken Arrow, and Sean Archer and Castor Troy in Face/Off all fit this pattern. Ethan and Ambrose only stack up in the most perfunctory way. There’s no spark, no fire. And it doesn’t matter how many times the Nekhorvich clip is played (it’s a lot). Repeating the point doesn’t help your case.

(Side note: Mission 2 is famous for being the movie that cost Dougray Scott the role of Wolverine in X-Men. Scott was cast, but Mission overran and on top of that he was injured in a motorbike stunt. And Hugh Jackman became a star. What might have been.)

But the most garish element of Mission 2 is that this is such a bro-y movie, filled with baffling toxic masculinity. As Ambrose’s henchmen are scanning Nyah for bugs, one says, “She’s clean”, and the response is, “All cats are.” What in the living hell does that even mean??? Ethan’s team consists of himself, Luther (Ving Rhames), and pilot Billy Baird (John Polson). Billy, who sticks “mate” at the end of every sentence so you know he’s Australian, makes a leering joke about the emotionally abusive Ambrose’s kiss-first-and-ask-questions-later policy. IMF secretary Swanbeck (Anthony Hopkins) makes a sexist comment about women’s skills at lying. But the most utterly bizarre sequence comes between Ambrose and right-hand man Hugh Stamp (Richard Roxburgh). It’s a standard setup of the villain punishing his henchman. But then Ambrose gets Stamp in a vice grip and starts breathily monologuing about how “some of us have the burden of sex”, and at the moment of climax Ambrose says he’s “absolutely gagging for it” as he cuts off Stamp’s finger! I guess they were aiming for Frank Booth but they’ve landed on a fourteen-year-old’s idea of edgy sexuality.

Hugh Stamp Sean Ambrose

When Nyah arrives at Ambrose’s house, she walks toward him in a dragged-out scene partially in slow motion, to the point where the viewer wonders out loud, “Will she ever get there?” The viewer can also wonder, “Will this movie ever get anywhere?”

The Silver Lining in the Sophomore Slump

The most spectacular part of the film is certainly the Utah free-climbing sequence. It’s quite a statement for the introduction for Ethan Hunt, even if the incongruous techno soundtrack doesn’t help. Above the sheer cliff face, an IMF helicopter shoots the mission (recorded on a sweet pair of shades) to Ethan in a rocket, then he throws the exploding sunglasses at the camera leading into the title sequence. That’s the type of self-conscious “cool” that I can get on the wavelength of.

Ethan Hunt Utah

And occasionally the high operatics of the film do take flight. During the showdown in Biocyte, composer Hans Zimmer thinks he’s scoring Gladiator. Similar beats in the score and more vocals by Lisa Gerrard help to elevate the material, at least for a few moments. Other than these fleeting strengths (plus the goofy entertainment value of the climax), it’s tough to pick out positive aspects of the movie. I guess it’s fun to see Cruise’s brother, William Mapother, as a henchman?

Should We Choose to Accept this?

In this sequel, the mission doesn’t seem very impossible. This feeling arises from a dull story. Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga of all people (writers of the rushed Star Trek Generations and the excellent Star Trek: First Contact) contributed a story that was scrapped when Woo joined the project; on the evidence of the final product, maybe their services should have been retained. Mission 2, with its overblown villain, hacky screenplay, bizarre sexual subtext, and flat pacing, is as dry as the Australian outback. It fits with the trend of 2000s blockbusters filmed in that country, like Superman Returns or Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones, and is of similar quality. Let’s just say that when the Mission: Impossible theme plays in this movie, it’s Limp Bizkit performing it. Do with that what you will.

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Blade Runner 2049 (2017) Film Review

In Blade Runner 2049, what could be the runtime of a whole other movie passes before original lead Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) comes into the story. Replicant blade runner K (Ryan Gosling) explores a petrified Las Vegas, and there Ford is, hanging out with his loyal dog just as in another 30+-years-on sequel. This isn’t a delaying tactic; 2049 doesn’t actually require knowledge of the original film to stand. There are callbacks and reprised characters, but the world created here is independently arresting. Denis Villeneuve’s direction, Roger Deakins’ cinematography, and Dennis Gassner’s production design make for a visually mesmeric movie. The leisurely but loaded pace gives time to appreciate the sheer craftsmanship on display. This is art installation as dystopian mystery film.

Las Vegas

After a widespread technological “Blackout” is mitigated by the innovations of industrialist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), newer replicant (read: android) models made by Wallace are designed to have less free will than older models. Obedient newer replicant K (Gosling) is a blade runner, ordered by his superiors to retire (read: kill) older models. But after evidence is found of a paradigm-shifting miracle in the form of biological replicant reproduction, what it means to be human is challenged.

Joi K

For such a designed movie, 2049 gets a lot of mileage from the careful application of character. There are likable or at least engaging personalities even in this miserable and hazy future. Leading “man” K is ironically one of the least interesting, a bit of a cipher. His holographic girlfriend Joi, on the other hand, benefits from terrific pathos and a warm movie star performance from Ana de Armas. A standout scene finds Joi initiating “surrogate sex” with K, which takes a similar sequence from Spike Jonze’s her to a new level. As a hologram, Joi represents a science fiction construct and a vehicle to question consciousness, sentience, and the like, but it’s never done schematically. It’s all filtered through sympathy for this being. Similarly, K and Ana Stelline (Carla Juri) share a scene that’s essentially worldbuilding exposition, but it’s performed and written as tenderly human.

Luv

My favorite character has got to be Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), Wallace’s replicant enforcer/secretary. A weird, terrifying, sympathetic terminator, she’s exquisitely and precisely performed by Hoeks. Luv is a magnetic villain, murdering another character in an amazing moment of emotional brutality. The only strike against her is her association with boss Niander Wallace. A part written for David Bowie, Wallace is instead brought to life in an airless performance by Jared Leto. Leto has exactly one great line reading (“You do not know what pain is yet. You will learn.”). The rest of the character is space-case bullshit.

K

K is given the name Joe by Joi. K/Joe, where you going with that gun in your hand?

Apart from creepy CEOs, there are a lot of great supporting bits. Lennie James is bleakly funny, Robin Wright is a good hard-boiled presence (if quite mannered), Dave Bautista is nicely world-weary, the aforementioned Juri quietly impresses, and Edward James Olmos gets a cool cameo connecting to the first movie. Also returning, of course, is Harrison Ford as Deckard. (It’s quite the parlor trick, keeping Deckard’s status as either human or replicant ambiguous even at movie’s end.) Ford brings the emotion and intensity, but in no way does it feel like he’s playing the same character he did in the original Blade Runner. This is no reflection on Ford; there’s just nothing there in the original characterization.

Rick Deckard

The visuals are constantly gobsmacking, beautiful in their own smoggy way. Over and over, new flourishes get a reaction, whether it’s the vertiginous cityscape, the crazy shadows in Wallace’s pyramid, or the endless protein farms enveloping California’s fields. Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer’s score is striking, taking its synth-heavy cues from Vangelis’ original soundscape. The action cue “Sea Wall” is particularly pointed, as well as the poignant re-use of Vangelis’ “Tears in the Rain”, for another replicant’s soft expiration. However, the music is too high in the sometimes-smothering mix. What’s with the Oscar nomination for Sound Mixing?

Atari

Something the film isn’t getting any awards for is gender optics. The urban landscapes are strewn with projections and statues of naked women (slight shades of The NeverEnding Story), so clearly, this type of exploitation continues and evolves in 2049. You can see the thought process here; this is a dystopia, depiction ≠ endorsement, etc. But when replicants are your world’s second-class citizens, you don’t need another layer of that, and in fact, it only muddles the thematic point you’re making. If you still want the attack of the 50-foot women, fine – just have some artfully nude male holograms too. (And not to mention, one of Wallace’s scenes features a loaded moment that goes pretty darn far.)

Joi Ad

My second viewing of Blade Runner 2049 has raised the film in my estimation. Like Avengers: Infinity War, there’s something to the idea of rewatching two-and-a-half hour movies on home video. 2049 is visually stunning with an (almost entirely) excellent cast. It also compares favorably to its legendary predecessor, with this late-coming follow-up more Children of Men than 2001: A Space Odyssey. 2049 is deliberately paced, which superficially might suggest iciness, but the film has a warm humanistic core fighting for heartbeats. Replicants do not have hearts, per se, but Blade Runner 2049 makes you wonder. A weak 9/10.

Franchise Flashback – Star Wars (1977)

What more can be said about the original Star Wars? It’s a film so influential and beloved that the film industry and film fandom are still feeling the shockwave from its May 25, 1977 release. The first paragraph of its opening crawl has been adapted into a 2-hour-plus movie. Halfway glimpsed background characters have been turned into sought-after action figures. George Lucas’ tale of underdog rebels battling the evil Empire has spawned an empire of its own, but let’s return to the beginning.

“You Can Type this Shit, George, but You Can’t Say it”

I say beginning, but this is a movie that starts in the middle of a pitched space chase. No one-and-a-half-hour buildup to action; we are dropped in medias res into a star war. The situation is sketched quickly and efficiently. The Empire is an overwhelming dominant force; the Rebellion is skittering away on a little blockade runner.

Tantive IV Star Destroyer

Lucas has often dismissed the importance of dialogue in favor of visuals, and the film plays into that thesis at many points. When Darth Vader barks orders at his subordinates (“I want them alive!”), John Williams’ score violently crescendos, in the style of a silent movie. During the prison block escape, the dialogue is buried in the sound mix. Two of the most iconic scenes in the movie, the binary sunset and the throne room medal ceremony, lead with visuals and don’t bother with words. When the Imperial Star Destroyers chase the Millennium Falcon near Tatooine, the danger has already been set up by the opening shot.

Luke Skywalker Binary Sunset

Lucas’ framing is mostly classical, but filled with visual interest. On the flashier cinematic side of things, my favorite shot in the film is when the camera follows Princess Leia’s cell door closing down to the floor, tracks with an officer’s foot, and adjusts back to eye level.

Lucas Dynamic Camera Movement

While there is certainly some excellent dialogue in Lucas’ screenplay, sometimes his words do let the movie down. The most egregious example is his decision to add the Jabba the Hutt scene into the Special Edition, which tediously re-covers the ground from the previous Han/Greedo scene, occasionally using the same phrasing to make the same points (not to mention the awful visual gag of Han stepping on Jabba’s tail).

Chewbacca Han Solo Jabba Bad CGI

John Williams’ landmark score constantly complements the words and visuals, telling the story with a punchy, magical soundscape that oddly also sounds excitingly DIY. The magisterial main theme opens the curtains; the ambling Jawa theme fits their silly design perfectly; the Force theme is instantly iconic; the perhaps underused Leia theme provides contrast to all the bombast; the “TIE Fighter Attack” cue remains thrilling; the “Battle of Yavin” music is some of the best action film music ever; and “The Throne Room” is a perfect triumphant dénouement. And: “Binary Sunset”, end of.

“You Think a Princess and a Guy Like Me…?”

The cast of characters is painted in broad strokes, as archetypes. There is very little psychological complexity to them yet. But this works for the movie because of the spirit of universal adventure it embodies. Luke is the earnest underdog hero; Leia is the brash and savvy politician of action; Han is the insouciant scoundrel; Obi-Wan is the wise mentor; Vader is the black cloud of evil. Maybe the most complex characters are the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-esque droids C-3PO and R2-D2, who show a whole range of cowardice, bravery, affection, and irritancy.

R2-D2 C-3PO

Vader and Tarkin are an excellent villainous double-act (which one is the film’s main villain…?), with an interesting dynamic between them. Peter Cushing brings a lot of smarm and charm to the role, with his delivery of “you’re far too trusting” being a particular classic. At the time, Lucas even felt that Vader was a weak villain without a Tarkin-type figure to play off of.

Wilhuff Tarkin Vader

Another iconic double-act is Han and Chewbacca. Chewbacca takes the idea of the loyal dog to a fantastical extreme, where he becomes an equal partner. But how much is this true in-universe? After hiding in the smuggling compartments, Han playfully fuzzes up Chewbacca’s head; in a deleted cantina scene, Han strokes Chewbacca under the chin exactly in the manner of a dog. Later films would never literalize the Chewbacca-as-dog dynamic like this again, an indication of this film very much in the process of figuring things out.

Leia Organa Luke Skywalker

Not to mention the crazy-in-retrospect, right there on screen love triangle element between Luke, Leia, and Han, which course-corrects later. Lucas not only categorically saw Luke and Leia as love interest characters at this point, he’s also on record saying that he wanted Leia to “run off with” Chewbacca and that he “wouldn’t mind” killing Leia off. That course correction couldn’t come too soon.

Approaching Tosche Station

A key element of Star Wars, and especially this first movie, is silliness. That’s both intentional screwball humor, and unintentional kitsch. Why do these Imperial officers keep baiting and egging on Vader when he can choke them with his mind? What did Luke hope to accomplish by firing on the sheer face of the Death Star? And most pressing of all, is the VT-16 really quite a thing to see?

Han Solo Chewbacca Fine Now

“We’re all fine here now, thank you. How are you?”

Given the controlled chaos of the production (at one point, the Sandcrawler was mistaken for a new type of tank and the movie almost started an international incident), the number of continuity errors is understandable. Greedo is seen walking around after he’s already been killed. A lot of the ADR on the Imperial officers is painfully obvious. At one point Vader’s dialogue and gestures are out of sync. There’s the amazing moment of the stormtrooper bumping his head. You can see David Prowse’s eye a couple times when Vader’s in his TIE Advanced.

Stormtrooper Bump Head

But really striking in retrospect are the anachronisms. Luke says there’s nothing C-3PO can do for him “unless you can alter time, speed up the harvest, or teleport me off this rock.” Right there you have references to time travel and teleportation, two ideas that have never made it into the Star Wars mythology (Rebels’ World Between Worlds notwithstanding). If Luke has a concept of them, does the galaxy have its own version of science fiction?

World Between Worlds

The closest Star Wars has come to time “travel”.

Naturally, there are even more anachronisms at a script and draft level, but it’s amusing to look back on them. Vader threatens Leia with, “You will come to know such suffering as only the Master of the Bogan Force can provide…” And check out this little speech from Obi-Wan about Leia:

She’s part of the royal family. They won’t get any information from her… She knows the art of mind control… She’s a swan sensana.

That died a death on the way to the screen, but this description of her mental power does remind me of the bene gesserit from Frank Herbert’s Dune. All the references to spice must also be allusions to Dune, and the concept of a messiah from that novel also finds its way to Lucas’ epigraph on the script: “… and in the time of greatest despair, there shall come a savior, and he shall be known as The Son of the Suns. – Journal of the Whills, 3:127”. Suffice to say, we could have had a very different Star Wars saga.

The First Step into a Larger World

George Lucas did revise well, and came out with a screenplay packed with amazing (and funny) lines. “I find your lack of faith disturbing.” “I’ll be careful.” “You’ll be dead!” For all that the power of the binary sunset scene is wordless, the last time I watched the movie, Owen and Beru’s buildup to it (“he has too much of his father in him”) made me cry while the sunset itself did not. The film, like many first installments, is a marvel of scope if not scale. The Empire Strikes Back probably beats it on a scene-to-scene basis, but the original Star Wars wins out through structural purity. Watching the film now, in light of everything that’s happened with the franchise in the forty-one years since, there’s the sense that Star Wars has outgrown this. The simplicity of the film is pure, but also singular, and not sustainable for an evolving series. But no matter what, the franchise will never stop honoring it. The original Star Wars truly was the first step into a larger world.

Throne Room

Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018) Film Review

For an actor, “business” in the scene gives the performer something physical to do to complement their acting, whether verbal or nonverbal. For most people, this is something like fiddling with a water bottle, or shuffling through papers. For Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible – Fallout, he has to act as Ethan Hunt while also… for real, solo flying a helicopter. As you do. It’s a fitting act for this lead character, as in the two latest Mission movies writer-director Christopher McQuarrie has weaponized Hunt’s “main character powers” as a key element of the story. Hunt’s success is textually and metatextually inevitable, but a great strength of Fallout is that it constantly generates incredible suspense for this impossible hero. Accomplishing this unlikely task, Fallout is another exceptional entry in perhaps our greatest modern action series.

Luther Stickell Benji Dunn Ethan Hunt Ilsa Faust

When “the Apostles” of incarcerated anarchist Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) threaten the world with nuclear attack, Ethan Hunt and his IMF crew (Ving Rhames’ Luther Stickell and Simon Pegg’s Benji Dunn) must prevent catastrophe. But with the CIA insisting on the imposing agent August Walker’s (Henry Cavill) involvement, and Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) still in the spy game, the chessboard is harder than ever to master.

August Walker

To keep things fresh, Fallout trades in a variety of action scenes, from vehicular chases to foot chases to brawls. There’s a fantastic standout fight in a bathroom that has shades of The Raid, and features what others have referred to as Walker reloading his arms for a round of punches. But there are two stunning IMAX-format showstopper sequences that steal the spotlight: the HALO jump, and the helicopter chase.

Ethan Hunt HALO Jump

The HALO jump required Cruise to perform it nearly 100 times, reaching speeds of 200 mph. After scaling the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Ghost Protocol, Cruise here jumps out of a plane that’s over 100 times higher. (In the film the jump is above Paris, but it was filmed in Abu Dhabi; you can see the original ground-level location in the trailer.) The level of verisimilitude and pure human-in-the-void unease is only comparable to the space walk sequences from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but of course filmed with palpable realism. The helicopter sequence required Cruise to, you know, learn how to fly one, and to hairpin specifications. Visually, the scene resembles Go Pro footage; it’s that immersively real.

Ethan Hunt Helicopter

Even apart from these Buster-Keaton-on-a-mission accomplishments, Cruise gives a movie star performance. There are scenes where Ethan is acting, and Cruise’s intensity is enough to fool even the audience. There’s even a classic Jerry Maguire-esque moment of total befuddlement, plus an amusing showcase for the famous “Tom Cruise run”. And yes, the stunt that broke Cruise’s ankle is in the finished film.

Ethan Hunt Jump Buildings

“Ouch.”

Plot-wise, McQuarrie weaves a tangled web of standard spy movie material as a framework. But on a moment-to-moment basis, he and editor Eddie Hamilton generate a huge amount of tension. The buildup is just as precious to the movie as the relief of tension, whether it’s a flash of brutal violence or an aggressive kiss. The film delights in reversals. Not the expected espionage story double-crosses, but just smart cinematic storytelling. Scenes are set up a certain way, then subverted and flipped in a different direction (one early example really had me convinced it was steering the film in a certain direction then pulls the rug out). Moments from the trailer that you take at face value are given unexpected twists in the film. McQuarrie just knows the alchemy of movies; he speaks the language.

Ilsa Faust

A while back, when Tom Cruise was attached to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. as Napoleon Solo, Henry Cavill auditioned for Ilya Kuryakin and didn’t get the job because he looked too much like Cruise. Now, Cruise and Cavill are an electric double-act in Fallout, with Walker as a brick-muscled foil for Hunt. Ilsa Faust’s wild card status is preserved, while still respecting the character (though she’s maybe underused). Luther and Benji are excellent sidekicks, Solomon Lane works as a villain on the back foot, and Vanessa Kirby as “the White Widow” brings an amused-by-it-all quality to her scoundrel character, along with a connection going back to the first Mission: Impossible. The only real off moment for me comes in an emotional scene between Luther and Ilsa, which starts off great, but ends up slightly baffling.

Ethan Hunt Tom Cruise Run

The Tom Cruise Run™.

Fallout resoundingly closes another chapter in this storied action franchise. Through smart filmmaking that stokes both suspense and payoff, a likable ensemble, and another obstacle course for the human ragdoll Ethan Hunt, the sixth Mission: Impossible (M:I 6, which does factor in the agency MI6) chooses to accept its mission and delivers the goods. One wonders how long Thomas Cruise Mapother IV, now 56 years of ago, can continue topping himself. But for now, you will leave the theater exhilarated, exhausted, exquisitely tense, and extremely impressed. A strong 9/10.

Thoroughbreds (2018) Mini-Review

Thoroughbreds

Is a sociopath a showy role? Maybe if you’re Benedict Cumberbatch playing Sherlock Holmes it is, but on the other hand it implies the lack of emotion. In writer-director Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds, Olivia Cooke gives an excellent sociopath performance, and shows that lack of emotion does not equate to lack of expressiveness or lack of engagement. Importantly, Finley’s screenplay never gives the character an off-key note. This tale of two affluent but alienated high school “friends” makes for a solid debut for first-time filmmaker Cory Finley.

The film concerns two young women who bring out unexpected things in each other. Lily Reynolds (Anya Taylor-Joy) is an uptight student who offers to tutor former childhood friend Amanda (Cooke) for the SAT, after certain acts have made Amanda a social pariah in addition to being a “weirdo”. Each character learns from the other’s worldview and a modest criminal proposal comes out of their partnership. So Thoroughbreds finds good company with female-friends-in-a-bubble movies (Heavenly Creatures) and teenage black comedies (Heathers) while skewing less comedic and methodically charting its own course.

Both actresses bring the sparring character dynamics vividly to life, but Cooke steals the whole movie. After setting up the incident that has made Amanda somewhat infamous, we get the scene where she lays out her perspective. It’s her Jaime Lannister moment, where the backstory is recontextualized. Because Cooke does not play the scene for sympathy, but rather with a matter-of-fact delivery, sympathy comes naturally. On top of navigating the dramatic side of things, she also has to deal with the actorly business of playing a passable oversized chess game against herself! As great as her scene partners are, it feels like they’re just feeding the beast that is Olivia Cooke.

While this performance is magnetic, the film hums along on a solid wavelength without achieving true flight. Finley’s dialogue is sharp, but the wider satirical point being made is only developed with vague brushstrokes. This is primarily an issue because it ties in directly with the in your face, suburban-crime-story driving force of the plot. The film has been compared with the aforementioned Heathers, but that Winona Ryder vehicle is operatic while Thoroughbreds is intimate. Slight qualms aside, it owns its space well.

Perhaps the film’s greatest success is the talent it showcases. In the past, Olivia Cooke has been the best thing about a bad movie (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), impressed in a pixelated Spielberg flick (Ready Player One) and lit up the screen in The Limehouse Golem. This is her best showcase yet, and there’s more to come. Anya Taylor-Joy is similarly an actress at the start of what should be a standout career. Thoroughbreds is indeed the final screen appearance of Anton Yelchin. With his open face and shakey voice, he will be missed.

Finley’s assured debut is recommended for anyone who enjoys high school-age movies with bite, and look for it to likely be remembered for Best Actress come awards time (by this blog, not the Academy). In an early scene, Amanda teaches Lily “the Technique” for fake crying. I played along with the instructions, as you do, and by George, it works!

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018) Film Review

Many action movie plots revolve around a McGuffin that everyone’s chasing after. It can be a hard drive (who can forget the NOC List?) or a precious stone. Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man and the Wasp gives the old trope an upgrade; everyone’s playing hot potato with Hank Pym’s (Michael Douglas) shrunken office building, conveniently wheeled like a suitcase. It’s one of many amusing sight gags in this heartfelt superhero romp starring Marvel’s most variably sized heroes.

McGuffin Lab

Between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, Scott Lang/Ant-Man’s (Paul Rudd) successful sojourn to the subatomic Quantum Realm gives Hank and newly-Wasp-costumed daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), well, hope that Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), mother of Hope, may be alive there. But as a rescue mission is prepped, working around Scott’s house arrest in the wake of Civil War, the “ghostly” Ava Starr (Hannah John-Kamen) has other designs on the Quantum Realm.

Hello Kitty Pez

Now that the shrinking and enlarging premise has been established, the filmmakers constantly play with scale, to delightful effect. This visual inventiveness carries Ant-Man and the Wasp a long way, and past its predecessor (which is solid but at least visually, more on the TV movie end of the MCU scale). Incongruous items are enlarged, vehicles are carried in pants pockets, and a buggy suit gives Scott some height issues (Deadpool 2 also has a bit that mines comedy out of the hero being the size of a toddler). The 3D is also excellent, right at home with the shrinking gimmick and Ava’s phasing abilities.

Ava Starr

All this flashiness is in service of a basic plot: Save Janet. A bunch of subplots and character arcs orbit around it, but that’s the spine of the story. So both Ant-Man movies are about reconstructing family units. Not saving the world, but building and rebuilding relationships. These are unique stakes for a superhero movie, which is not to say there isn’t room for plenty of antics and action. The film does a better job than most of “faction plotting”; a lot of groups with conflicting agendas crash and separate and dovetail well (Scott, Scott’s family, Luis’ (Michael Peña) X-CON security agency, Hope and Hank, Ava, Sonny Burch’s (Walton Goggins) criminals, Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) and the FBI). Even so, room to breathe is hard to come by. It’s very busy, but with the jokes flying, one doesn’t mind so much. In particular, there’s a killer payoff for a joke about part of a car.

Hope van Dyne Scott Lang

The film has you from the beginning. One of the opening scenes shows Scott and daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) on a Marvel meets Michel Gondry DIY adventure, fueled by cardboard and imagination. This is the movie establishing a contract with the audience; we’re in safe hands. Scott and Cassie’s bond is immediately strong, the resourcefully tactile production design is pleasing, and the film will have a lot of fun with Scott’s house arrest. Warm, charming, and deftly entertaining.

Cassie Lang Scott Lang

The cast is a deep bench of talent, so much so that I wonder if Judy Greer and Bobby Cannavale shot their parts in one day (two tops). Rudd and Lilly hold the screen as likable leads, Hannah John-Kamen impresses in a tough part that calls for intimidation and desperation, Park is endearing, returning player David Dastmalchian gets unexpected laughs, and Goggins has fun with his slimy black market profiteer. But it’s Michael Peña who’s still the comedic MVP, and just wait for him to be let loose.

Luis

Composer Christophe Beck’s earworm fist-pumping Ant-Man theme is back, both in the movie and in my head. It’s the centerpiece of a retro jazzy caper score, now with new emotional cues, and a blunt-force Wasp theme. Perhaps his standout work in this sequel is the electrifying car chase music, which helps to make that already deliriously amusing sequence sing.

Car Chase

Ant-Man and the Wasp is a frothy and fun confection. Because of the density of incident, watching it is a bit like being enmeshed in cotton candy, but in a good way. The Ant-Man franchise continues to be a good place to visit after a world-shattering Avengers movie, with themes of family and whimsical visual jazz carrying our heroes to victory and the audience out of the movie on a high. Not to mention, this is the first MCU movie where a female superhero gets billing in the title. As Hope says, it’s about damn time. But next time, maybe give Michelle Pfeiffer more to do. A weak 8/10.

 

P.S.: *SPOILERS* The mid-credits scene is effectively shocking (Hope, Janet, and Hank are all snapped out of existence by Thanos), but it’s also undeniably deflating after watching a whole movie about saving Janet. The movie earns the construction of this family, but a three-minute scene doesn’t have time to earn its deconstruction. I guess it’s a case of everyone reacting differently. I think this scene requires specific compartmentalization from the audience, to see the movie they just watched, and this scene, as two separate entities.

P.P.S.: As Scott, Hope, and Hank decide to hide out at X-CON, how in the world did Luis hear about Ava stealing Hank’s lab before they told him?

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018) Film Review

In your typical Jurassic movie, the first sighting of a brachiosaurus is a moment of pure wonder. In Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, this moment is framed differently. On Isla Nublar, in the ruins of Jurassic World, Dr. Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda) jumps out of a jeep to observe this majestic herbivore, and the whole moment is minor key, both in terms of Michael Giacchino’s score with its sorrowful motifs and the backdrop of an island in natural chaos; we’re then shooed along to the next scene by another character. The uncharitable reading of the scene is that it’s an obligatory reference to past films in the series, presented with a confused tone, trying to invoke a sense of wonder and subverting it at the same time, and rushed through anyways, so what’s the point? You don’t know which thread to hang onto. Fallen Kingdom is a movie that struggles to cohere its ideas together, even as it remains competently entertaining in the moment.

Brachiosaurus

When Isla Nublar’s now-active volcano threatens all dinosaur life on the island, Jurassic World executive turned committed dino preservationist Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) is recruited by Eli Mills (Rafe Spall, doing his best Ryan Reynolds impression) to help get the dinosaurs to a stable ecosystem. But darker plans, and GMOs (genetically modified organisms), are afoot.

Isla Nublar Eruption

Dinosaurs are great (and the film puts them through the wringer, to an extent that will make some viewers uncomfortable), but we need a connection to human characters to fully engage with these movies. The characters given to us from screenwriters Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow are difficult to invest in, both in this film and previous entry Jurassic World. The biggest problem for the returning players is that it seems like almost everyone’s character has been retconned.

In World, Claire sees the dinosaurs only as “assets”, then learns to respect them as animals. That’s a character arc. In Fallen Kingdom, Claire recalls the first time she ever saw a dinosaur, recalls it as a miracle, and says she “still believes that”. So the writers frame her as retroactively being a dinosaur lover from the beginning. Connolly and Trevorrow, you wrote this character. This isn’t going to fly. Owen Grady’s (Chris Pratt) personal connection with the velociraptors is key, and mined for emotion, but at the top of the movie, he acts like he couldn’t care less about the dinosaurs (seemingly for the sake of a half-baked tough-guy arc). The late John Hammond (the late Richard Attenborough) is quoted as saying, “these creatures need our absence”. This is consistent with his characterization in The Lost World, after seeing his theme park/glorified zoo turn disastrous. But according to corporate heir Simon Masrani in World, Hammond’s dying wish was that the park be finally open and thriving. So when Connolly and Trevorrow need Hammond to give imaginary weight to the idea of the theme park in full swing, it’s one thing. And when they need Hammond to give imaginary weight to the idea of dinosaur rights, it’s another.

Claire Dearing

Something I have to give the writers credit for is not forgetting that it’s Claire, not Owen, who is the lead of these movies. But then again, there’s so little character real estate for either of them, it’s almost arbitrary at this point. New supporting characters don’t improve the ensemble much either. Franklin Webb (Justice Smith) is tech support comic relief, grating more often than amusing. Zia fares better; but the whole scared man and cool, calm, collected woman in the wild double-act felt obvious even earlier this year when it showed up in Dwayne Johnson vehicle Rampage.

Owen Grady Franklin Hall Claire Dearing Zia Rodriguez

When the good guys are such ciphers, once again I gravitate to the scoundrel: Vincent D’Onofrio in World, now Ted Levine’s Ken Wheatley in Fallen Kingdom. Levine is a lot of fun to watch, albeit playing a supremely clichéd mercenary character, and doing a better job twirling his mustache than the other villains of the piece. But the writers have to spoil the fun of his villainy by giving him an obvious President You-Know-Who line. Now I can’t even enjoy him being bad! Character is not this movie’s strong suit.

Owen Grady Tyrannosaurus Rex Claire Dearing

If Fallen Kingdom has a strong suit, it lies in the visuals. I haven’t liked director Juan Antonio Bayona’s other films, but it’s not because they looked bad. World’s gunmetal blue visuals are blown out of the water here, and Bayona adds some flair to some of the money shots. Hands-down the best moment of the movie comes when the dinosaur evacuation is ending. From the dock, a lone brachiosaurus gazes at the retreating boat. The ravaging eruption at her back, smoke billows around her and takes on an orange tinge, suggesting the amber from which the dinosaur was created. Back to amber, dust to dust.

Back to Amber Dust to Dust

The finale at the Lockwood Estate offers a variety of action (in contrast to the uninspiring disaster movie material beforehand). The pleasingly grotesque auction; the stygimoloch rampage (tragically, the name of that dinosaur is never spoken on screen. Throw us a bone!); the most elaborate one-on-one fistfights of the series. Bayona’s flourishes come most into play here, playing up the surreal “haunted house” quality of a raptor on the loose in a domestic setting.

Ankylosaurus Auction

But it’s the missteps that stand out. The T-Rex card is played in the first scene, a sequence in which the stakes aren’t clear. A token animal rights story is more-or-less shelved early on, and I don’t know what central point the movie is trying to make. The “it was all a lie” moment from the trailer doesn’t land with the proper context or motivation. There’s a very dumb twist late in the game; the worst part is that it’s there just to facilitate one inane, facepalm moment. The ending is attention grabbing, but poorly thought-out, an epithet that applies to most of the screenplay.

Indoraptor Lockwood Estate

For all its sins, Jurassic World hangs together more than its sequel. Fallen Kingdom offers some decent visual styling and two likable leads (as a consequence of being smoothed out with a rolling pin), but is also hamstrung by a confused screenplay. While passably entertaining, the film is also no more than the sum of its genetically hybridized parts. After the previous installment slashed a swathe through filmgoers’ wallets the whole (Jurassic) world over, Universal spared no expense here. It was in service of a movie that’s just okay. A weak 5/10.

Incredibles 2 (2018) Film Review

In the fourteen-year span between The Incredibles and its sequel, Pixar has revved up three Cars movies.

While you’re thinking on that, consider how CG animation has improved by leaps and bounds in those fourteen years. Incredibles 2 looks, how shall I put it, incredible. A Pixar action movie is a rare beast, and watching the kinetic quality of the animation is a pleasure. Tending to character first and foremost, writer-director Brad Bird delivers a more than worthy installment in his saga of a super-powered family coming into their own, together.

The Parrs

After the Parr family foils a bank robbery but not without some collateral property damage, Incredibles matriarch Helen Parr/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) is recruited by a sibling-run corporation to be the face of superhero (or “super”) legalization. Meanwhile, her husband Bob/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) faces the daunting challenge of domestic duties, juggling responsibilities toward three powered kids. And while Elastigirl stretches out and gets positive press, the mysterious “Screenslaver” is reaching out with a much more invasive type of PR.

Spy-Fi Aesthetic

This sequel to The Incredibles feels more like a “traditional” superhero movie, and maybe with all that’s happened since 2004, that was inevitable. This franchise resembles 1960s spy-fi more than anything else (see the production design aesthetic and Michael Giacchino’s jazzy score). Incredibles 2 retains that context, but also deals heavily with the politics of supers and accords being drawn up (familiar territory both from Captain America: Civil War and Holly Hunter’s own role in Batman v Superman). In the first movie, this was there, but more a backdrop for super-sneaking around a supervillain’s lair built into (of course) a volcano.

Dashiell Parr Portal

That’s really a key difference between the two films overall. The first movie starts from a place of sadness and eases gradually out of a greyscale world. The sequel is then free to be more of a colorful romp. As Tony Stark once said, “You’ve been tip-toeing, big man. You need to strut.” So Incredibles 2 runs on a more traditional engine – action scene, emotional drama, politics, comic relief, rinse and repeat. Once the film is done building momentum, its pace is an asset; however, the climax doesn’t match the imagination on offer elsewhere. Also, my audience was doling out applause, but the climax rather rushes through these applause moments. On the whole, the movie gets right to the business of being good without reaching the stratosphere of being great.

Elastigirl Elasticycle

Character-wise, the film is a fantastic showcase for Elastigirl. Putting her center stage brings the character into focus, both the idealist and the cynic. Plus her stretching powers continue to be a great showcase for the animation. Her son Dash (Huckleberry Milner) gets short shrift, but that leaves more room for Violet’s (Sarah Vowell) delightful romantic subplot. The Deavor siblings (Bob Odenkirk and Catherine Keener) are a welcome addition to the cast, Odenkirk in his typical huckster mode and Keener taking on a particularly dynamic role.

Violet Parr Romantic Subplot

Funniest subplot in the movie!

The villain this time around is the Screenslaver, and it’s pretty frightening for a family movie, laying down a lengthy manifesto monologue as everyone looking at a screen is hypnotized. A legitimately unsettling one-on-one fight between Elastigirl and an avatar of the Screenslaver puts our heroine on the back foot. The villain also weaponizes a criticism of Brad Bird’s movies. Dozens of thinkpieces have gone looking for Randian themes in Bird’s work, specifically relating to the superior entitlement of “special” people over the mediocre masses. Here, the Screenslaver argues that relying on superheroes makes the rest of humanity weak and complacent. If the Screenslaver saw Tomorrowland, we’d hear some choice words.

Screenslaver

“There’s nothing virtuous about selfishness. Is creativity at all human cost rational?”

The production design by Ralph Eggleston is outstanding, from the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired Parr house to the sleek Elasticycle. Giacchino’s score is spicy, but perhaps could have made more triumphant use of the main Incredibles theme. For most of the running time, the film cuts between Elastigirl’s action/political story, and Mr. Incredible’s amusing domestic story, and both engage the audience equally, in different ways. The baby Jack-Jack’s powers take advantage of the wild abandon of animation (and get the iconic Edna Mode into the story), while his mother faces an insidious but intriguing threat. The joke is that it’s been fourteen years since these characters last lit up a cinema screen, but it’s been more like fourteen seconds for them. Incredibles 2 bears that out. Everything is in its proper place in as solid a continuation by Pixar’s cape-free First Family as could have been hoped for. A strong 7/10.

Hotel Artemis (2018) Mini-Review

Hotel Artemis

“No water in L.A., but it’s raining assholes in here.” So says the Nurse (played by a whirlwind of Jodie Foster), head of the Artemis, an exclusive hospital for contract criminals. The film Hotel Artemis follows the Nurse, her earnest orderly (an on-point Dave Bautista), and her colorful clients, on one fateful 2028 night marked by blazing water riots on the streets of Los Angeles.

A members-only hotel for killers governed by a strict set of rules – so far, so (John) Wickensian. But Hotel Artemis carves its own identity (occasionally on a human neck). Writer-director Drew Pearce keeps things contained within the evocatively designed Hotel, making the movie a chamber piece that unfolds like a finely tuned play. In a play you need characters it’s a pleasure to watch bounce off of each other, and the film delivers. Sterling K. Brown is a likable, solid-as-a-rock heist mastermind, offering a humane bedrock among the clients. As an effortlessly magnetic French assassin, Sofia Boutella finds maybe her best role yet (and she has pretty good taste). Best of all is the Nurse, animated by a bravura performance from Foster. She injects world-weary humor into this ideal protagonist, forever shambolically running to fix up the next patient, put out the next fire.

Pearce’s screenplay overflows with punchy neo-noir dialogue, enhancing the feeling of Hotel Artemis as a writerly movie. (Another sort of stagey conceit is that all the characters are referred to by codenames; for instance, Bautista’s hulking health care professional is Everest.) Pearce’s near-future world-building is nicely on the fringes; lived-in technology at the Hotel, breadcrumbs of backstory, and the not-so-subtle setup of an L.A. heading for dystopia.

If there’s a hang-up with the film, it’s that the screenplay is a little too eager to call back to itself and pay off previous moments and lines of dialogue. (This is a weird complaint, like the movie… fits together too well?) Also, there sure are a lot of life-changing things coincidentally happening on this one night. In the end, it’s safe to call these nitpicks.

Hotel Artemis is a rare beast in that it’s one of those movies that simply radiates “cool”, but it’s also got a lot of storytelling meat on the bones as well as humanity. It’s hard to overstate how marvelous Jodie Foster is in the movie, and Drew Pearce’s script is sharp enough to draw blood. In Pearce’s career prior to checking into the Artemis, he’s been paired with marquee writing talent on excellent blockbusters (with Shane Black on Iron Man Three, with Christopher McQuarrie on Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation), and now his directorial debut establishes him as a significant talent in his own right. I highly recommend this hotel on Expedia, Yelp, or your booking site of choice.

Deadpool 2 (2018) Mini-Review

Deadpool 2

At one point in Deadpool 2, Ryan Reynolds’ titular fourth-wall-breaking superantihero jokes about the first film’s box office figures relative to The Passion of the Christ. Delightful! After Deadpool gets ripped in half by his favorite comic book character, his lower half’s, shall we say, juvenile development becomes the object of much disgust from the other characters. Also delightful. Deadpool 2’s brand of humor can be a virtue, but the film also desperately wants to move the audience to great depths of feeling, and these conflicting impulses don’t mesh in this case, resulting in an emotionally disorienting experience.

Deadpool’s ability to make meta jokes about movies and particularly the one he stars in is a license for great fun, but it’s a double-edged sword. When one particular cliché is deployed with lengthy, sobering ramifications, you keep waiting for Deadpool of all people to skewer it. But Deadpool plays it almost entirely straight, and he’s led along on an inelegant emotional arc with heart forced in, reverse Temple of Doom-style. Such moments of emotion feel schematic – “this is the scene with earnest character development”, “this is the scene with heart”, etc. The first Deadpool, for all its foibles, has a blessedly straightforward narrative thrust and a much more successfully beating heart. By framing itself as a Valentine’s Day movie, the preceding film uses its central romance as its spine, even as it invents wonderful new profane phrases like “shit-spackled muppet fart.”

Deadpool 2 is also visually unappealing, all chrome and greasy grey. The hiring of director David Leitch was a hopeful sign, because I love Atomic Blonde, but the action is unengaging. The exception is where it involves Zazie Beetz’ Domino. After her luck powers are called out as “not very cinematic”, they prove to be the most cinematic thing in the film. Though to be fair, the X-Force parachuting sequence directly prior is an undeniable highlight. Deadpool’s “hit it”, timed with the perfectly synced warning lights and AC/DC needle drop, gives the feeling of a theme park thrill ride.

Amongst the chaos, my favorite running gag is Deadpool repeatedly accusing Cable (Josh Brolin) of being racist. Of course it’s delightful when Deadpool jokes about MCU superheroes, the DC universe, and Brolin’s other role as Thanos (my audience cheered at that). The James Bond title sequence is good, but a little passé. The mid-credits scenes are hysterical (but where’s my Blade Trinity shout-out as a movie where Ryan Reynolds’ character might be just as horny and quippy as Deadpool?). However, a major development occurs with wide-ranging implications not only for future movies but the one you’ve just watched, and casual viewers who leave at the top of the credits will miss some mighty fine dessert, because that’s what we call having our cake and eating it too.

Deadpool 2’s uneasy balance of slobbering silliness and big swings for deep pathos ends up undercutting them both. I love the idea of these Deadpool movies more than the movies themselves, which don’t stick the “superhero landing” for me. But maybe the greatest Deadpool movie of all is an experiential one that happens all around us. The marketing campaigns are better than the films themselves.