Tom Cruise Proves Once Again That “Real” Spectacle is King

Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Rated: PG-13
Runtime: 2 hours 27 minutes
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Starring: Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, and Rebecca Ferguson


The Mission: Impossible franchise has been making waves in the realm of action tentpoles since its fourth film, Ghost Protocol, hit theaters back in 2011. Ever since the now-iconic Burj Khalifa, Dubai building stunt in the 2011 sequel, each successive Mission: Impossible film has essentially been an implicit showcase of Tom Cruise’s real-life, death-defying stunts. This year’s Mission: Impossible sequel (Fallout) keeps the tradition going with an incredibly well-executed crowd-pleaser filled with insane action set-pieces and discernible stakes, but while it may put its contemporaries to shame in the action department, the new film isn’t quite bold enough to usurp the title of franchise-best, or even the year’s best.

henry cavill
August Walker (Cavill) is the latest newcomer to the ‘Mission: Impossible” family

Mission: Impossible – Fallout is the sixth film in the series and is the first direct-sequel (to 2016’s Rogue Nation) in the franchise’s history. The film opens with a mission tasking Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) with retrieving three weapon-ready plutonium cores from an arms dealer before the Apostles, a remnant faction of the evil spy organization the Syndicate that was thwarted in the previous film, can obtain the cores and carry out nuclear attacks around the world. When things don’t go as planned and Ethan is forced to choose between his team’s survival and securing the objective, Ethan decides to save his friends and the nuclear material is lost to the bad guys. With active nukes now out in the world, Ethan must race against the clock to avert an impending attack. But with his initial failure looming, the CIA inserts an operative of their own, August Walker (Henry Cavill), into Ethan’s team to ensure that when the opportunity arises again, the plutonium will not escape their grasp again.

There’s been a lot of hoopla surrounding Mission: Impossible newcomer Henry Cavill, or more precisely, his facial hair. The Justice League saboteur – Cavill’s modestly burly stache – makes his highly-anticipated debut in Fallout as agent Augustus Walker, the wild card element and rival-to-Ethan Hunt in the film. Cavill brings a certain angry gravitas to his spy character, serving as a literal foil to Cruise’s character, who in this film is under a microscope as the story explores his character’s moral code in the context of the violence he’s often times threatened to commit in the name of preserving life. Cavill’s Walker exists in that ethical struggle, with his character being aptly introduced as the “hammer” to Hunt’s “scalpel.” Or at least this is what the film initially lets on to. While Mission: Impossible – Fallout is an amazing film, we can’t forget that it is still a Hollywood blockbuster; and while the recent behemoth Avengers: Infinity War was a bonafide blockbuster with the guts to subvert its own wheel-house in very bold ways, most blockbusters refuse to divert too far from the standard genre plot, something Fallout unfortunately suffers from.

As most viewers accustomed to the action/spy genre could probably predict, Cavill’s August Walker is not who he seems to be, and he ends up being who you likely predicted he would end up being. Usually when the typical action movie pulls this twist, the movie itself isn’t that great to begin with so it’s a lot easier to accept such a cliche narrative crutch. In a movie like Fallout however, such a twist does nothing but undermine the confidence of the underlying work as a whole. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) is another recent example of what I mean. In that film, Colin Farrell’s intriguing villain character turns out to be Johnny Depp using a face-morphing potion to conceal his true identity, cuing millions of eye rolls and disappointing sighs, because the character being played straight was interesting enough as he was. Henry Cavill as a righteous antagonist foil to Tom Cruise as he tries to thwart a nuclear attack is infinitely more interesting than what Fallout insists by the time the final act comes around. Once the film shows its hand and settles into a familiar mold, the only thing left to look forward to is the final act’s practically-done set piece, which is worth the price of admission alone.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout is undeniably a tonal and technical master class in Western-action cinema, with the likes of The Dark Knight (2008) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), but a few too many frustratingly unnecessary narrative gimmicks ultimately diminish the film’s potential as a true modern masterpiece. Ghost Protocol is still the best Mission: Impossible, but Fallout is definitely must-see summer fare.

8.6/10

‘Sorry to Bother You’ Could be Refined Better, but Ultimately Succeeds in Telling a Bold and Eccentric Tale of Late-Stage Capitalism

Sorry to Bother You
Rated: R
Runtime: 1 hour 45 minutes
Director: Boots Riley
Starring: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Jermaine Fowler, Steven Yeun, and Armie Hammer


Black high-art has been making a huge splash in pop-culture as of late. Evident with movies like Dope (2015), Moonlight (2016), and Get Out (2017), and TV shows like Atlanta (2016-) and Insecure (2016-), Black filmmakers and their unique artistry are becoming more and more “mainstream.” This year that heightened buzz centers around rapper and political activist Boots Riley’s freshman feature film Sorry to Bother You, and while my experience with the film was not as starry-eyed as it’s critical reception would suggest, the film’s moments of genuine wisdom and bold subversions are so well conceptualized that I can painlessly forgive it where it falters.

Sorry to Bother You follows Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a down-on-his-luck, quirky Black man struggling to earn an income for him and his eccentric girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson). Living in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage with Detroit, Cassius takes on an entry-level telemarketing position at RegalView, a subsidiary of a nefarious company WorryFree, that has recently announced a new class of employment that ultimately brings slavery into the present day. Cassius struggles to make any sells until a fellow coworker suggests he use his “white voice” (voiced by David Cross). Cassius’ “white voice” is so effective at making sells, that he quickly rises the ranks into the coveted position of “Power Caller,” where the real money is made. All the while, Detroit and Cassius’ fellow RegalView co-workers are attempting to unionize and express themselves in defiance and dissatisfaction of the status quo. Cassius must choose between his newly-earned economic status and the dignity of having his lover’s and his friends’ backs. As you can probably tell, the allegory that the plot establishes is topical to say the least, but don’t be mistaken into assuming Sorry to Bother You offers little nuance in its discussion of Capitalism’s woes.

sorry_to_bother_you_STBY_20170722__H7A1002_R_rgb.0
Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) forfeits almost everything in his life to become a “Power Caller”

I’m not familiar with director Boots Riley’s prior artistic endeavors, but Sorry to Bother You definitely proves that he’s cut from the same cloth as a Donald Glover or a Barry Jenkins, if not only in his thematic confidence. Lakeith Stanfield, who has been making waves for his supporting roles for years, brings his now-trademark down-to-Earth quirkiness to the role of Cassius Green, proving that he is capable of carrying his own movie, the right story notwithstanding. Tessa Thompson’s been everywhere lately and she’s been good everywhere; her performance here as Detroit is no different. Thompson’s character often comes off haphazard or random, and normally it would come off as pompous and obnoxious, but Riley enacts enough restraint with her character to keep her from ever becoming a gimmick and instead uses her to signify perhaps the film’s most scathing commentary on artistic assimilation in the modern age. Armie Hammer steals the show as Steve Lift, the charismatic CEO of WorryFree with a hidden agenda that’s equal parts bizarre and horrific. Lift isn’t in the film very much until near the third act or so, but when he does show up and the film’s twist is revealed, the film takes a disturbing turn not so much because of the twist itself, but because something just like it could plausibly happen in our society in the not-so-distant future if we see the current trajectory of complacency in exploitation to completion. While I appreciate the parable on display, Sorry to Bother You suffers from some noticeable pacing and editing issues. Often times scenes will begin and end awkwardly in such a way that it sometimes undercuts the narrative momentum that was built just before; however, since this is Boots Riley’s first feature, it’s expected that such a film would have some cosmetic unpleasantries here and there.

Sorry to Bother You isn’t the masterpiece the trailers made it out to be, but a compelling social commentary and entertaining ensemble work well enough together to warrant a viewing from any open-minded movie-goer who isn’t turned off by the film’s pronounced weirdness.

8.0/10

 

‘Fallen Kingdom’ Dares to Subvert Expectations, and Just Barely Clears the Bar

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
Rated: PG-13
Runtime: 2 hours 8 minutes
Director: J.A. Bayona
Starring: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Rafe Spall, Justice Smith, and Daniella Pineda


Star Wars isn’t the only internally disgraced legacy franchise to put out a new film this summer. The Jurassic Park franchise is back once again after 2015’s impressively average Jurassic World with a follow-up to the creatively safe box-office behemoth, this time with a tried-and-true auteur in the director’s chair. But in a post-Last Jedi fan-scape, how well does the latest highly-anticipated legacy blockbuster fare? Perhaps I’m conflating my enjoyment of AMC Dolby theater I saw it in with my enjoyment of the movie a bit, but I have to say, it fares well enough.

jurassic-world-2-lava-dino
Claire (Howard) and Franklin (Smith) have an unlucky dinosaur encounter during a volcanic eruption

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is directed by sleeper auteur J.A. Bayona, known for The Orphanage (2007), The Impossible (2012), and most recently A Monster Calls (2016). Three years have past since the collapse of the Jurassic World theme park after a highly aggressive, experimental dinosaur, the Indominus rex, wrecked havoc on a fully populated park. Since then, the dinosaurs of Jurassic World have been living freely on the abandoned park estate; however, with the island’s volcano on the verge of eruption, the US government contemplates authorizing a rescue operation to save the last dinosaurs from another extinction. When they ultimately decide against the rescue op, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), Jurassic World’s old operations manager turned dinosaur activist, connects with John Hammond’s former business partner, Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), to organize a privately-financed dinosaur extraction from the doomed island. Before leaving for the mission, Claire must recruit former velociraptor trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), from the previous film, to help her track down Blue, the last living velociraptor and the number one priority for the extraction effort. Once on the island, Claire and Owen race against the clock to locate Blue and rescue as many dinosaurs as possible before the island explodes. Fallen Kingdom is not a “good” movie in most senses of the word; but what it lacks in originality and narrative risk is more than made up for in theatrical presence.

Bayona is no stranger to cinematic spectacle (made apparent in his last two features), and here he makes a handful of effective creative choices – a surprisingly poignant sequence centered around a doomed brachiosaurus (long-neck dinosaur) being the most notable of them. The way he depicts the dinosaurs as empathetic creatures worthy of the emotions that the film wants us to feel does so much to enhance the engaged suspense in the film, enough for me to personally overlook a lot of the annoyingly trite tropes littered throughout the  screenplay – and there sure are a lot of them.

jurassic world
As absurd as it can be at times, Fallen Kingdom makes an admirable attempt at having something to say

Claire (Howard) and Owen (Pratt) are as serviceable here as they were in the first Jurassic World, but the new supporting cast is especially lousy. Almost every character is a trite archetype you’ve seen in a thousand other blockbusters before: the evil business man who shamelessly compromises ethics for profit, the backstabbing mercenary guy just looking for the next job, and the snarky punk chick with a conveniently useful skill set. However, while the characters are shamelessly cookie cutter and their decisions just as predictable, the central question of whether or not the final surviving dinosaurs should be spared or left to die was surprisingly handled with some genuine nuance, drawing some poignant existential parallels to the current ethical crisis at the US-Mexico border.

At the end of the day, Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom is not quite as creatively mute as its predecessor, and while it suffers greatly from “generic script”-itis, Bayona’s grand sense of spectacle and ability to pull some nuggets of real emotional resonance from the otherwise lifeless material ends up making for a perfectly enjoyable summer blockbuster with a little bit of something to say.

6.8/10

Family Trauma Is the Scariest Fright in A24’s Latest Midnight Masterpiece

Hereditary
Rated: R
Runtime: 2 hours 7 minutes
Director: Ari Aster
Starring: Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Gabriel Byrne, and Milly Shapiro


Equal parts The Exorcist (1973), Manchester by the Sea (2016), and Kill List (2011), Hereditary is the latest horror offering from acclaimed, independent studio A24. After wowing critics and disillusioning general audiences with It Comes at Night (2017) and The Witch (2015), A24 has returned to theaters with a new psychological thriller/horror film that more-or-less enjoys (suffers?) the same fate as its two predecessors despite being substantially more mainstream than either.

Hereditary is about a repressed family whose collective fate descends into a nightmarish reality after the passing of the family matriarch: Annie’s (Toni Collette) mother. Annie, her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), and her two children Charlie (Milly Shapiro) and Peter (Alex Wolff) all begin to unravel as they are forced to cope with the consequences of the deceased grandmother’s secretive past. What more can be said about this film without undercutting its first-viewing impact? Well, without delving into specifics, I would add that this movie is ultimately about agency; or better yet, the tragedy of its absence.

alex-wolff-peter-hereditary
Despite what the trailers would make it seem, Peter (Alex Wolff) is integral to Hereditary

It goes without saying that, like all A24 selections, this film is impeccably shot, scored, and edited; however, where it surpasses The Witch and It Comes at Night is in the performances. Toni Collette’s performance as Annie is easily the centerpiece of the film. There’s a handful of extended scenes with Collette that are hypnotically authentic, but it’s her dinner table monologue about halfway through of the second act that almost singlehandedly puts her in the Oscar conversation. Similarly with Casey Affleck’s incredible performance in Manchester by the Sea (2016) and the Best Actor Oscar that year, I left Hereditary convinced that Collette will take home Best Actress for this film come the next Oscars. She isn’t the only one flexing their acting chops here; her in-film son Peter (Wolff) does a phenomenal job portraying the subtle nuances of a carefree, introverted teenager suddenly thrust into deeply traumatic situations. In fact, Hereditary‘s promotional material positions Peter’s sister Charlie (Shapiro) as the parallel protagonist with Annie, and while that rings true, it’s actually Peter who’s the emotional conduit for the audience.

Director Ari Aster brilliantly utilizes Wolff’s reflective performance to convey the film’s real horror: fear of family. This is where I find a prime similarity between Manchester by the Sea (my favorite film of 2016) and Hereditary. Both films share a particular resonant intensity centered around blame, grief, and mourning. Like ManchesterHereditary isn’t afraid to go to some very dark places; places that most people have probably been through in some way, shape, or form in their own families. In fact, while there are undeniable horror tropes in it (primarily in the final 15-20 minutes of the film), the majority of the film is just this family dealing with loss and trying to cope with the fallout of that loss, which the film accomplishes with an aptly patient and introspective temperament, or to put it bluntly, a slow thematic pace, albeit with bursts of insanity throughout.

I’m starting to see a trend in movie-going culture with films like mother! (2017), Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), Annihilation (2018), somewhat with Avengers: Infinity War (2018), and now with Hereditary, that point towards a universal rejection of creative subversion. Each of these films, while all enjoying their fair share of passionate fans (some more than others), have been heavily scrutinized by their detractors predominately on the basis or off a measure of how much they subvert some arbitrary preconceived expectation. mother! does not follow a conventional storytelling structure, which for a significant amount of people makes enjoying that film impossible. The Last Jedi is so vehemently hated by a very vocal faction of Star Wars fandom because the film holds no loyalties to traditional Star Wars tropes. Annihilation subverted its own marketing and as a consequence misled general audiences into seeing a film with a lot more difficult content than initially let on, so they dismissed it. After 17 MCU films that more or less stuck to a familiar formula with the heroes coming out on top at the end, Infinity War rubbed a lot general audience the wrong way with its untypically dark content and bleak ending – my family hates the film for that reason. To the average moviegoer, Hereditary is just another out-of-touch and mismarketed indie film disguised as a crowd-pleaser, which is apparent by the film’s D+ Cinemascore rating. However as a fan of A24’s previous horror outings, I have to say that Hereditary has lot more to offer the casual movie-goer than an It Comes at Night.

Keeping in mind how harsh audiences have been towards Hereditary, I feel that I should qualify my 10/10 score. If slow burn indie horror has been your thing or you’re open to new genre experiences, you will find that Hereditary successfully has its cake and eats it too. But if you’re uninitiated to this brand of dramatic horror and are looking for a Conjuring clone, which is perfectly fair, then this one probably isn’t for you.

10/10
Horror Scale: 9.5/10

‘Revenge’ Is a Dish Best Served Sun-Baked and Bloodied

Revenge
Rated: R
Runtime: 1 hour 48 minutes
Director: Coralie Fargeat
Starring: Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz, Kevin Janssens, Vincent Colombe, and Guillaume Bouchède


Revenge is the latest in a string of extreme French horror films, i.e. Irreversible (2003), Martyrs (2008), and more recently Raw (2016), as well as a spiritual call back to the rape-revenge exploitation flicks that riddled the 70s (The Last House on the Left (1972), I Spit on Your Grave (1978)). Yet, while its contemporaries are seldom accessible to the typical viewer due their disturbing content and distressing imagery, Revenge manages to transcend the off-putting nature of its inciting violence to make for a stylish, highly entertaining (and bloody) action thriller that even casual audiences can sit through, assuming they aren’t too squeamish to begin with.

Director Coralie Fargeat’s first foray into feature film follows Jen (Matilda Lutz), a young, attractive American mistress to French millionaire Richard (Kevin Janessens), as she accompanies her secret boyfriend on a weekend getaway to his vacation home in the middle of the desert, where he has also planned to meet his two friends, Stanley (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchède) to embark on their annual hunting trip once Jen returns home from their retreat. But when Stanley and Dimitri decide to surprise their friend Richard by showing up at his isolated estate a day early, a scantly-clad Jen draws their predatory eye. Relations seem cordial at first, but tensions quickly rise when Richard steps away for a morning, and Jen is raped by one of the friends. Anxious of the legal (and familial) troubles to come from the transpired sexual assault, Richard, Stan, and Dimitri, attempt to silence Jen and chase her to the edge of a desert ledge before Richard unceremoniously pushes her off the cliff to her supposed death. Now left-for-dead, Jen struggles to evade her ex-lover and his band of hunters with her near-vital injuries and quickly takes to the offensive to exact her revenge on the audacious bunch.

What separates Revenge from those earlier exploitation flicks is the subtle, yet transformative ways it brings the dated sub-genre into the 21st century where widely accepted notions of feminism and and gender politics have been muddled to the point of ideological regression. But before I get into the content of the film, I want to briefly touch on its technical merit.

Revenge1
Kevin Janssens puts in a perfectly repulsive performance as Richard, the primary target of Jen’s (Matilda Lutz) wrath

Stylistically speaking, exploitation cinema is notoriously known for its poor production value and its sheer ugliness (partly due to technical limitations of the time, but mostly just to be provocative and edgy), which does not make for an enjoyable viewing experience. Revenge circumvents the genre trait with a vibrant and energetic aesthetic that enhances the sense of setting while continuing to evoke that same provocative, exploitation feel. While Fargeat’s kinetic visual style is impressive in and of itself, it’s through her narrative decisions that the film shines.

In today’s social landscape, a film like Revenge could very easily fall in the same reformist feminist hole that actively undermines the majority of mainstream feminist discourse. However, instead of perpetuating a wide-stroke, anti-male fallacy by having the heroine be assaulted by random, faceless men, Fargeat elects to have the rapists be people whom the victim has put trust in, something that tends to be the case in real-life rape cases. She even goes a step further by making the villains men of power in their everyday lives as well. Richard and his two friends are all wealthy CEO’s with families and employees for whom they have dominion over, and through their treatment of the protagonist they quite literally exemplify the problematic dynamics of classism – a social dilemma the French have historically contended with. Ultimately what this means is that the violence that transpires in the film is able to refrain from becoming gratuitous in the wrong ways, all because the underlying politics at work is valid.

Extreme French cinema has cornered the hardcore horror market for so long and has been particularly effective at stirring intense emotions in viewers not just by having the most brutal imagery onscreen (although they often times do), but by bringing a powerful contextual awareness to that violence. This isn’t to say that exploitation films like The Last House on the Left (1972) are not too concerned with the incident politics of their content, but it is undeniable that there is a subtle, meta-contextual difference between a straight-up torture-porn flick like Hostel (2005) and a psychological torture-porn flick like Martyrs (2008), both of which depict extreme violence against undeserving victims. Revenge is that rare deep-cut horror/thriller that is confident enough to deliver the gore expected with the genre without compromising its moral center. And for this reason, Revenge is the perfect toe-dip into the world of extreme cinema for those who are curious and aren’t afraid of a few gallons of blood.

8.3/10
Horror Scale: 8.5/10