Movie Reviews - 2018 postsTuesday August 14, 2018
Movie Review: Mission: Impossible - Fallout (2018)
I was bored.
I know: 97% RT rating, good word-of-mouth, “greatest action movie ever.” People I know and respect liked it.
Was it the sense of déjà vu? The fact that no one seems to remember the previous movies so they get repeated, again and again, world without end? It’s the same roller coaster ride, people:
- Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and IMF begin the movie under suspicion
- Introduce new IMF/CIA agent played by handsome B-lister (Dougray Scott, Billy Cruddup, Henry Cavill), who is the real traitor
- Introduce crazy man and his crazy terrorist plans
- Crazy man makes it personal with Ethan
- Include scene of Ethan running through foreign city in his super upright, arm slicing motion
- Include crazy stunt everyone will talk about: outside skyscraper, outside airplane, in helicopter
- Don’t worry about making sense
It’s the “under suspicion” thing that bugs me most. In every movie, Ethan saves the world, and every new movie begins with him back at square one. At some point, Ethan should wonder if it’s all worth it. He should get drunk at a bar and just ramble.
I saved you ... and you and you. And you didn’t even know it. You don’t know shit. I saved you from Chimera, I saved you from Rabbit’s Foot, I saved you from the Syndicate and the Apostles. I stopped San Francisco from getting nuked, motherfucker. That was me. And what did I get for it? Did I get a medal? Do you see any medals on me? Helloooo, medals! No. I got blamed. They blamed me. I went blam blam blam and they went blame blame blame.
I’d pay to see that. Maybe I'd be less bored.
Needs of the many
In the past, Ethan was distrusted for being reckless—blowing up the Kremlin, etc.—but here he’s too caring. In a bit of a “Star Trek: Wrath of Khan” ripoff, he’d rather spare the life of one member of his team, the useless Luther (Ving Rhames), even if it means plutonium getting into the hands of terrorists and risking billions. Me, I would’ve taken the plutonium and run. Sorry, Luther, but you were only on the team anyway because “M:I” was made a year after your big splash in “Pulp Fiction.” You’re doing straight-to-video piranha movies now. Time to cut you loose.
I'd forgotten a lot of the last movie. I’d forgotten that the new CIA director, Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), subsumed IMF into his org. Now he’s such an Ethan fan he’s demoted himself to director of IMF. Except, oops, the new CIA chief, Erika Sloane (Angela Bassett), like all new CIA directors, doesn’t trust Ethan and IMF, so she crashes their party with her own heavy hitter, Walker (Cavill). Ethan is the scalpel, she says, and Walker is the hammer. He’s the real man. He’s the Superman.
He’s also the traitor. The mustache is a dead giveaway.
Last movie’s villain, Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), all whispering brogue, is back, too. His organization, The Syndicate, has morphed into “the Apostles,” and there’s another dude, John Lark, who’s trying to acquire plutonium from an arms dealer, the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby, Princess Margaret on “The Crown”). Ethan gets all this intel in the usual tape-recorded message that self-destructs in five seconds. What made me laugh? Lark and the 12 apostles are all represented by blank avatars. U.S. intelligence knows there’s 13 guys, knows their codenames, and can’t get one decent photo? Not even a blurry Bigfoot shot?
As writer-director Christopher McQuarrie moves the pieces around the board, from Belfast to Berlin to Paris to London to Kashmir, I kept losing the thread. Like why did Ethan and Walker need to parachute into that Paris party rather than, you know, walk in the front door? IMF can fake faces but not invites? And how odd was that Eiffel Tower meeting between Walker and Sloane? It’s just kinda stuck there. And what was the White Widow’s game anyway? Just money? She’s giving plutonium to fundamentalist terrorists without a second thought? Does she wind up in prison? Shouldn’t she? Where’s the accountability?
Speaking of: Let’s talk about the movie’s 11th-hour save of Sloane. As CIA director, she forces her right-hand man onto IMF’s search for a terrorist ... when he’s the terrorist. Then after IMF tricks him into confessing that he’s the terrorist, she still insists on sending in her agents ... except half are Apostles, Walker escapes and Hunley is killed. Imagine that. She’s responsible for the death of the former director of the CIA. Her right-hand man is a terrorist ready to kill billions. Yet because she sends a helicopter for Ethan in the end, we’re supposed to forgive and forget?
And, for a change, could the shadowy villain not be one of the five people in the room? There’s seven billion people on the planet. Spread the wealth.
Meet your second wife
This is McQuarrie’s second “M:I” movie. No “M:I” director has ever done that:
- I: Brian De Palma
- II: John Woo
- III: J.J. Abrams
- Ghost Protocol: Brad Bird
- Rogue Nation: McQuarrie
- Fallout: McQuarrie
BTW: What a shame they didn’t stick with the numerals. This one could’ve been called “MI6” rather than subtitled “Fallout,” which is a little flaccid and forgettable.
Cruise? He gives it his all, and he looks great for 56, but his face is getting oddly puffy. An injury? Bad plastic surgery? Age? Is it time for him to hang up Ethan? He won‘t, of course, it’s his only true moneymaker these days, but maybe he should. Consider what Ethan's “Fallout” love interests and nemeses were doing when the first “M:I” was released back in '96:
- Michelle Monaghan was studying college journalism
- Henry Cavill was 13
- Rebecca Ferguson was 13
- Vanessa Kirby was 8
Movie Review: The King (2018)
The fact that I left a screening of “The King” happy and ready to sing its praises should probably be taken with a grain of salt—or two beers, since that’s what I drank during the show. I’d ordered one (pilsner), the concession guy opened the wrong one (IPA), so he offered both. I looked at the bottles on the counter and thought, “Why the fuck not?” It was another shitty day in Trump’s America—the week Justice Kennedy announced his retirement—and I was dispirited. Ninety minutes later, I felt great. I felt ready to fight again. Was it the doc or the beer? Or some combo?
The doc, by the way, isn't exactly uplifting. But it does discuss, on an intelligent, macro level, much of what I feel is wrong with the country. So I felt less alone afterwards.
During the summer of 2016—the run-up to the Clinton-Trump election—director Eugene Jarecki (“The Trials of Henry Kissinger,” “Why We Fight,”) drove Elvis Presley’s 1964 Rolls Royce through the towns and cities that made Elvis who he was. Chronologically:
- New York
- Las Vegas
Jarecki lets different folks into the backseat to play, sing, or just talk about Elvis and the state of the country. Basically, Elvis is seen as a metaphor for America. We took over the world with a sneer and a shake of our hips and without really knowing what we were doing. Then we grew addicted and overweight and addled. We forgot the words. Trump is our late-stage Vegas period. He's our fried peanut butter and banana sandwich. The toilet isn’t far away.
Give Jarecki credit. Not many filmmakers would let a supporting player, two-thirds of the way through the movie, say, in effect, “Your metaphor is all wrong.”
David Simon, creator of “The Wire,” gets to say just that. He gives Jarecki shit for the Rolls. He says he should’ve been driving one of the many American-made Cadillacs Elvis gave away to friends and family over the years. Emmylou Harris echoes a bit of this, too: “I thought he only drove American cars,” she says. In effect, Simon wants to continue the argument from “The Wire”’s second season: “We used to make shit in this country, build shit,” Baltimore dock worker Frank Sobotka says. “Now we just put our hand in the next guy’s pocket.” But it’s not Simon’s movie. And maybe the opulence of the Rolls is a better metaphor anyway.
Based on the trailer, I was worried the doc would be too much Elvis-bashing in terms of race: that he stole black music and made a fortune on it; that the various country and gospel influences in Elvis’ background didn’t factor in at all. Simon, of all people, is the one who brings up the other influences.
As for “stole,” well, you can argue Elvis was simply playing the music he liked. At Sun Records, he was recording stuff he assumed would be popular—ballads and ‘50s pop—and that just didn’t click for Sam Phillips. It was only between sessions, goofing around, that he launched into an old blues number, “That’s All Right, Mama,” which caused Phillips to perk up and ask him what he was doing. Elvis’ inclination was to apologize. Phillips knew, Elvis did not.
That said, Chuck D has a point, too. Whether Elvis “stole,” “appropriated” or was simply “influenced by” black music, he never repaid the debt. A lot of white stars, without such a debt, participated in civil rights marches and the emblematic 1963 March on Washington, including Paul Newman (born and raised in Shaker Heights, Ohio), Marlon Brando (Nebraska) and even Charlton Heston (Illinois/Michigan). Elvis stayed silent. He didn’t get involved in any of it. He doubled down on “good ol' boy.”
You could probably do a doc just on “Hound Dog” alone. Most know Elvis made a hit of it in’56; a few know Big Mama Thornton had a hit earlier; fewer still know it was written by a couple of Jewish kids, Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, who got so screwed from Thornton’s recording they started their own label in 1953. The hand-wringers claim Elvis stole the song from Thornton, but she recorded her version back in ’52, when it was a rhythm-and-blues hit. It went as far as it could under the circumstances. His take is different. It races. It rocks and rolls. You can blame racism for why her version didn't hit bigger. Elvis was just singing a song.
“You have no idea how hard he hit American culture,” James Carville reminds us, and it’s because of what he was bringing into white living rooms: race and sex, the forbidden duo. The white power structure—both South and North—went crazy. Elvis was condemned, mocked, viewed as a freak. He was viewed as low class. Eventually they just drafted him away. When he returned he was tamed: maybe by age, or the Army, or Hollywood, or maybe just by the need to fit in; to not be a freak in the eyes of people whose approval he wanted.
Maybe he was tamed by money? That’s something Ethan Hawke, sitting in the front seat, with a dumbass toothpick in his mouth, mentions. Every chance Elvis had between money and art, he went with the money. But this could also be about his need to fit in; to win over his detractors. Sadly, as he was mollifying one group, others, off his flank, were rising. One mocked him as a thief; another made him irrelevant. Mike Myers tells a great story—probably apocryphal—about Elvis’ early Hollywood days. At the studio gates, girls gathered, hoping for a glimpse and a chance to scream. So Col. Tom Parker had them put a blanket over Elvis in the back seat, and he sailed through. Then when the Beatles broke, the girls went away but the blanket stayed. Before it was to hide Elvis so he wouldn’t cause a frenzy; after, it was to hide from Elvis the fact that he was no longer causing one.
We get a little on Elvis’ early days: the dead twin; how his dad went to prison for a few months. I could’ve used more of this. That background is so sketchy. I’ve read several biographies of the Beatles but none on Elvis. Maybe I should get on that. But what can I say? Their music is more interesting and they’re more interesting.
The doc includes some great music I haven’t heard before: Emi Sunshine & The Rain; Immortal Technique. My favorite backseat drivers are Carville, Simon, Immortal Technique and Van Jones. I'd love to hear them get together and just talk. John Hiatt, meanwhile, gets in the backseat and cries. You think it’s because he's sitting where Elvis sat, and the power of that thought, but it’s the opposite. He sits there and senses just how trapped Elvis was.
Saddest moment? Alec Baldwin in New York talking politics. He makes a prediction about the 2016 election. He's wrong.
Movie Review: Skyscraper (2018)
The people who made “Skyscraper” seemed to say to themselves, “OK, whatever ‘Die Hard’ did, let’s double it!”
So in “Die Hard,” John McClane loses his shoes. In “Skyscraper,” Will Sawyer (Dwayne Johnson) has a prosthetic leg. In “Die Hard,” Nakatomi Tower is pretty tall. In “Skyscraper,” The Pearl is the tallest building in the world. McClane’s estranged wife is a hostage in the building; for Sawyer it’s his entire family.
McClane is a cop, Sawyer is ex-FBI. McClane is buff, Sawyer is The Rock.
Of course, it doesn’t work. In fact, it's just awful.
Why don’t we give a shit about any of it? Why is “Die Hard” so much better? Because McClane has personality? Because he seems like an average joe? He complains in the air duct: “Come to the coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs.” He references pop culture: “Ehhh! Sorry, Hans, wrong guess. Would you like to go for Double Jeopardy where the scores can really change?” He's the smartass in the back row. He doesn’t want to be the hero, he’s just trapped in the building and has to make do until the cavalry arrives; but then he finds outs, no, he’s the cavalry. Half his lines are classics: “Make fists with your toes.” “Welcome to the party, pal.” “Yippee-kai-yay, motherfucker.”
(For more on why “Die Hard” rocks, see here.)
Will Sawyer doesn’t have any memorable lines. He doesn’t have a memorable personality. He’s a bland nice guy whose sole mission is to save his family. Even his name is bland: “Will Sawyer” C‘mon, people, it’s The Rock. Give the man at least one hard consonant.
Plus you more-or-less buy what happens in “Die Hard.” You buy that Bruce Willis is a cop, you buy Bonnie Bedilia as his estranged wife and up-and-coming executive. The building seems real, the terrorists seem splashy but kinda real. Most of what McClane does—even the crazy outside-the-building stuff—seems vaguely plausible.
Do I buy The Rock as a security executive? Neve Campbell as a surgeon? Do I believe the size and shape of The Pearl in Hong Kong: 3500 feet, 240 stories, with outside turbines forever spinning? Do I believe that Sawyer, who must weight 250 and has a prosthetic leg, can climb a building crane, swing it close to the Pearl, and leap from the crane’s top into an open window on the Pearl 150 stories above the ground? No, no, no. None of it. The one thing they get right is the duct tape. It’s the best part of the film. It’s the John McClane part of the film.
When the movie begins, the Pearl is nearing completion, and its designer, Zhao Jong Li (Ng Chin Han), has looked at different security experts; but based on the advice of his—I guess—assistant, Ben (Pablo Schreiber of “The Wire” and “Orange if the New Black”), he chooses Sawyer, who is an ex-FBI buddy of Ben’s. Plus Sawyer’s done his homework or whatever. He’s even kind of memorized a Chinese phrase his wife taught him: 很高兴认识你: “Nice to know you.” It’s in Mandarin, but later we hear her speak Cantonese to a Hong Kong police officer. So does she know both languages? And she’s a surgeon? And she looks like Neve Campbell? 好棒啊!
Getting Zhao to hire Sawyer is part of the bad guys’ plot, by the way. Imagine that. They need a patsy, and who better than 250-pounds of solid ex-FBI muscle? Ben is in on the plot, of course, which you can tell by the way he fidgets and because he's played by Pornstache Mendez. Pierce, the accountant (Noah Taylor), is a traitor, too, which you can tell by the way he glowers and the fact that he’s played by Locke from “Game of Thrones.” Everything is telegraphed here. None of it is a surprise.
Oh, to have been a fly on the wall when Pablo told his friends about his new role:
Yeah, and I get into a fight with the Rock!
Well, I’m ex-FBI.
So how long does it last—a second?
No, but he doesn’t expect it.
C'mon, I could totally take him out.
For ice cream?
Here’s the scheme. An international mob organization, run, as usual, by a Scandinavian (Roland Møller, playing Kores Botha), shakes down Zhang halfway through construction, demanding kickbacks sent to encrypted bank accounts. Except Zhang is Chinese and shit, so he un-encrypts it all and gets all their real names, and he keeps this info in a safe in his penthouse on the 240th floor. That’s why they start a fire on the 90th floor and turn off all fire-safety protocol; to get this info. Which I’m sure is backed up nowhere.
The bad guys then get Ben to get Zhang to hire Sawyer because all security measures will be on one tablet, and how hard can it be to steal one tablet away from the Rock? But they do it, Sawyer is blamed by the media, but he eludes the cops, climbs the crane, leaps into the burning building to save his family—all to the cheers of Chinese onlookers. Mother and son get out first but then daughter is held hostage on the rooftop. Sawyer and Zhang have to work together to get her free and beat the bad guys. They do. But even then they’re about to be burnt to a crisp.
Thankfully, back on the ground, Dr. Sarah has already defeated the bitchy Chinese chick with the mod haircut (Hannah Quinlivan), taken back the tablet, and promptly puts the fire protocol back online to save husband and child. Is there nothing Neve can’t do?
We were so much older then
Afterwards, in the helicopter transporting them to safety, Sawyer asks Zhang “What next?” and Zhang contemplates for a second before replying, “We rebuild.” The Rock smiles. Oh, that indomitable human spirit.
Compare this with the end of another obvious predecessor, “The Towering Inferno,” which was released in December 1974, a few months after Nixon resigned in the wake of the Watergate scandal, and a more cynical time generally. Its architect, played by Paul Newman, surveys the charred wreckage of his building and says:
I don’t know. Maybe they just oughta leave it the way it is. Kind of a shrine to all the bullshit in the world.
I miss those days.
Movie Review: Three Identical Strangers (2018)
I had two main thoughts by the end: one deadly serious, one less so.
Here’s the deadly serious thought: Surely the filmmakers were wary their doc might be continuing the experiment. Surely they knew that by making a film about how these boys, now men, had been in essence turned into lab rats, and then finding new evidence about why this had happened, and showing it to them and filming their response in real time, surely they knew that this wasn’t far removed from what the scientists themselves had done. Here you go. Here’s what this one lab tech had to say about your adopted parents. How does that make you FEEL? The filmmakers must have had these conversations deep into the night, right? Conversations about the ethics of it all? Surely?
The other, less serious thought was this: If only the Eddie Murphy comedy “Trading Places” had existed in the late 1950s. This whole thing might never have happened.
Nature vs. nurture
Here’s the trailer.
Pretty amazing stuff. Twins separated at birth, then reunited. Wait, not twins: triplets. They found each other in New York in 1980, and they were all tall, good-looking and fun. They were Jewish but seemed Italian, and became minor celebrities. They went on Today and Phil Donahue. They had a cameo in “Desperately Seeking Susan,” smiling at Madonna in the early morning light.
What’s amazing, and not commented upon enough, is how much joy being reunited brings them. I think if I were in college and found a long-lost twin—someone who looked, talked and thought like me—I’d throw up. I wouldn’t want to hang with them. I certainly wouldn’t want to dress like them. I’d see it as an affront to my individuality. At least I suspect I would. But maybe this is because I don’t have a long-lost twin. I was alone in the uterus, they weren’t. And maybe this accounts for their special joy. It’s an ur-reunification. They feel it in their bones.
Or maybe they’re just joyful people.
Are they interesting people? That’s an issue a third of the way through. In the ’80s, they hang with each other, go to clubs, drink, etc. Do they have jobs? We don’t know. All we’re told is that after years of partying they open a restaurant, Triplets, in the Soho district. I expected disaster but it does well. First year, they clear a million. They each get married; they start families.
Then David breaks away.
Do we get the why of that? Or just the consequences? It happens suddenly, doesn’t it, and then we’re into Eddy’s fall. But we expected that one. We hear and see David and Bobby, today, in their 50s, talking directly to the camera, and we’re painfully aware there’s no Eddy. So that hangs over our viewing: What happened to Eddy?
Apparently he had trouble with David leaving; he had trouble with the group splitting up. He was most likely manic-depressive—outgoing, loving, beloved—and then the opposite of that. During one of his opposites, in 1995, he took his own life.
Did this wreck the relationship between Bobby and David, or was that already wrecked? When we see them today, greeting each other on camera, it feels awkward, like they haven’t seen each other in a while. They were the extremes, classwise. Part of the experiment involved placing the boys in different economic strata: upper class (David), middle (Eddy), working (Bobby). Bobby’s dad was the most gregarious, Eddy’s the biggest disciplinarian, David’s (a doctor) the most absent.
The experiment, started by renowned psychologist Peter Neubauer—who fled the Nazis and should’ve known better than to experiment with people, with children—was apparently the old nature vs. nurture argument. What’s bred into us? What do we learn? Much of the early media surrounding the boys focused on their superficial similarities. They all wrestled, smoked the same cigs, dressed similarly even before they did it on purpose. Over and over again. The boys, back then, played this up. The doc does, too.
The differences turned out to be a matter of life and death. All suffered depression but it was Eddy who took his own life. Why?
The doc places the blame on Eddy’s martinet father, now in his 90s. He’s a talking head early in the doc so there’s a dramatic “butler did it” quality to the accusation. So it was him all along! But this turnabout made me uneasy. We’re blaming an old man for the death of his son based on ... dime-store psychology? A desperation to show nurture matters? I’m not sure. It feels facile.
“Three Identical Strangers” is still worth seeing. It’s an amazing, crazy, awful story. I just hope British documentarian Tim Wardle wanted me to feel uneasy afterwards. I hope his ethics discussions went deep into the night.
Movie Review: Eighth Grade (2018)
I spent more time covering my eyes during this movie than I do during most horror movies. That’s a testament to the accuracy writer-director Bo Burnham and star Elsie Fisher bring to the project. Anyone who’s been through it knows: eighth grade is like a horror movie.
Fisher plays Kayla, a girl living in two worlds: the hallways of junior high, through which she slinks, hoping no one will talk to her, praying someone will; and the online/social media world, where she acts confident and posts self-help videos to not-many followers. In her videos, she gives advice such as be yourself, which she clarifies as “Like, not changing yourself to impress someone else.” Then she spends much of the rest of the movie not following her own advice.
There’s not a false note in Fisher’s performance. She’s amazing and heartbreaking.
It’s the last week of eighth grade, and Kayla’s view of her real-world self is upended—or her worst fears realized—when during auditorium it’s announced that she’s been voted “quietest.” She’s mortified (quietly), but becomes determined to upend that image. She makes an effort. That’s part of the horror: the earnest effort to put herself out there. Most of us know where earnest efforts—particularly in junior high—lead.
Is the pool party first? The mom of the cool girl in school invites her to the cool girl’s pool party, and Elsie decides to make her determined stand in this most awkward of situations: in a green bathing suit. It’s an indelible scene. She arrives late, changes inside, then makes her slow, slouched, painful way through the happy throngs playing in the sun. We’re relieved when she finally makes it all the way into the water. There’s almost a collective sigh from the audience. Even better: a goofy kid, Gabe (Jake Ryan), begins to talk to her, so she’s not alone. But of course she’s not interested in the goofy kid. She’s interested in Aiden (Luke Prael), who has sleek eyes, tousled hair, and a cool demeanor that’s probably hiding not much.
We get an endearing scene. At night, in bed with her smartphone, she visits Aiden’s Instagram page, closes her eyes and kisses one of his selfies. At this point, Dad (Josh Hamilton), walks into the bedroom and in a panic she tosses the smartphone across the room, then yells at him. When she recovers it, the screen is cracked. It’s like a girl version of a Portnoy scene.
We also get an icy scene. During a classroom test, Kayla sneaks over to Aiden—literally crawling on the ground—to deliver a message, and flirt, and pretend to be more experienced sexually than she is. She winds up bragging about things she doesn’t know about. His eyes light up. We want to shout at the screen: RUN!
Thankfully, that goes nowhere. Much of the movie goes nowhere. It’s episodic. The movement forward is in starts and stops. We, and she, anticipate disasters that never happen. At the pool party, she sings karaoke, but it seems to go fine. She’s given a high school mentor, like all the eighth graders, and hers isn’t an awful person—like, say, Parker Posey in “Dazed & Confused”—but nice and nurturing. The girl’s one mistake—after a meet-up at the mall with other high schoolers—is getting dropped off before Kayla. That allows a high school boy to get weirdly creepy. Thankfully, that goes nowhere, too.
Burnham, who made his name via YouTube, has an overt message in the movie: get off social media; go offline. But his subtler message is the better one. Every scene has the potential for disaster, but it never arrives. You put yourself out there, disasters generally don’t befall you. Hell, most people don’t notice or care. Which, in eighth grade, can be a huge positive.
Some of the jokes are OK but seem like retread “Fast Times” and/or “Simpsons” bits. Kayla looks around at her peers and sees dudes sniffing markers, girls dealing with retainers. The cool girls are vapid. Instead of “Fuzzy Bunny,” the narrator for the hip-new sex-ed video says, “It’s gonna be lit.” The vice-principal dabs, but he seems self-aware doing it. He’s the older dude doing it as a joke on himself. He was on screen for seconds and I liked him immediately.
Throughout, there’s small victories. By the end, Kayla is beginning to find her voice, beginning to find her peers—including Gabe—and beginning to think the self-help videos aren’t helping her self much. It’s a great slice-of-life. Kudos to Burnham for making it.