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Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation

July 31, 2015
Mission: Impossible -- Rogue Nation

I’m as surprised as anyone: I honestly liked a Mission: Impossible movie. What’s more, it was Rogue Nation, the one co-written and directed Christopher McQuarrie, whose work since The Usual Suspects has always been more miss than hit for me. But McQuarrie and Iron Man 3 co-writer Drew Pearce hew closer than ever before to the bones of the classic television show, and they come up with a thoroughly entertaining spy romp.

It starts right from the beginning, after a cold start that reintroduces us to the core of the Impossible Missions Force: Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), and William Brandt (Jeremy Renner). As the opening credits roll, they’re shot through with stills and split-second clips lifted from later on in the movie — a device instantly recognizable to any fan of the TV series. This bodes well.

Right after that we get a reference to “The Syndicate”, the shadowy international organization Hunt has been tracking lately, but also a reference to the criminal network that featured heavily in the final season of the series’ run. His latest self-destructing message turns out to be a fake they’ve planted. A mysterious man (Sean Harris) shows up and Hunt is captured. But before Hunt can be tortured by someone he recognizes as “The Bone Doctor” (Jens Hultén), a mysterious woman (Rebecca Ferguson) frees him despite seeming to work for his captors. It’s all very mysterious.

At the same time, the incoming CIA chief Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) gets a congressional committee to shut down the IMF over Brandt’s objections. Luther retires, but Brandt ends up working for Hunley and Benji gets stuck in a room playing video games and subjected to weekly polygraphs in an attempt to locate Hunt, who has gone to ground in search of the Syndicate on his own.

From here, yeah, it’s basically a chase after one MacGuffin after another. But only some of the chase is an action stuntfest. Most of it is oriented around a heist, a con, and an old-fashioned psychological stare-down. And that’s what the series was always supposed to be about anyway, with fights and chases as last resorts for when things went downhill fast.

Now, that’s not to say that these are the best heists, cons, and stare-downs I’ve seen in movies. The plotting is a little too convoluted, while at the same time the twists are all but transparent to real caper fans. It’s like taking an old, familiar mechanism and slapping some extra gears on it that don’t really do much but you hope they look kind of cool. That all said, it’s still pretty fun to watch the power shift until things play out neatly the way you’d guessed.

On the other hand, if you come to Mission: Impossible movies for the action, you’ll probably be underwhelmed. The big chase through and outside Casablanca has a couple stunning shots, and Cruise can fall off a motorcycle like nobody’s business, but that’s about the peak for the film. The fights we get are few and far between, and McQuarrie and Kingsman editor Eddie Hamilton cut them in a way that suggests they’re covering for Hultén or Ferguson being weak on the choreography.

Rogue Nation is far from a perfect movie, but it seems that on the fifth time the series has finally gotten back to the tone that made Mission: Impossible such a cultural touchstone half a century ago.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

Samba

July 31, 2015
Samba

After such an incredible run with Intouchables, it seems natural that filmmakers Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano would head back to the same well for their followup. Again Omar Sy stars as another French immigrant, but where Driss was based on the real life Algerian Abdel Sellou, the Senegalese Samba Cissé was pulled from the pages of Delphine Coulin’s novel Samba pour la France. Unfortunately — and maybe ironically — Nakache and Toledano can’t quite touch their former greatness with Samba.

Which is not to say the story is without its charms. Samba is a big sweetheart who’s been living in France for ten years with his fully-documented uncle Lamouna (Youngar Fall). But it seems his application for residency was rejected — Samba claims he never received the letter — and he’s arrested when he tries to apply for a better position than his current under-the-table job as a dishwasher in a fancy hotel’s kitchen. He isn’t quite deported, but he leaves detention under an “OQTF”: which requires him to leave French territory. Of course he heads straight back to his uncle’s room.

At a social services association for immigrants, Samba meets Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who is volunteering while recovering from a slight nervous breakdown at her high-powered executive job. Against the advice of her mentor, Manu (Izïa Higelin), Alice gives Samba her number, and they begin to help each other get their lives back on track.

Through Samba, and also his Brazilian friend Wilson (Tahar Rahim), we get a glimpse of what a less-than-fully-documented immigrant has to go through to make ends meet. They scrape together whatever can pass for a work permit, and do any job that comes their way. If someone needs window washers, it doesn’t matter if Samba has a fear of heights. A position opens up sorting garbage? get used to the smell.

Through Alice, we get a smaller glimpse of what these people go through to get to France, and how impossible a task it is to get them the help they need. The association seems to have no translators on staff, so they end up going through other immigrants in the room who might happen to share a language. And when they do communicate, every one of them has their own story of poverty, violence, and misery.

But honest, it’s a comedy. Most turns are played for laughs — and there are plenty of them — which makes it all the more jarring when the filmmakers try to go darker for a scene or two. And when you’re talking about immigration, there’s a lot of darkness out there, as films like Dirty Pretty Things have shown us.

Coulin’s novel digs deep into that vein of human misery, but Nakache and Toledano can’t bring themselves to truly engage with that side of the immigrant experience. There’s no hint of, say, structural racism, or dishonest employers screwing over workers who can’t go to the authorities. All the trauma is back in those foreign places where mostly darker-skinned people live; certainly nobody is trafficking immigrants as actual slaves in the slums of Paris. The worst thing that happens around Samba, other than the fear of a raid by the police, is one guy sleeping with a woman another guy has a crush on.

And while it’s clear that Alice and Samba are supposed to be the new version of Philippe and Driss saving each other, it’s never very clear how Alice needs saving. Yes, she’s coming out of a bad place, but she’d go back to work even if she’d never met Samba. All she gets from him is a boost in confidence that could have come from anyone, while his entire life in France hangs on her intercessions. The duality that really brought Intouchables home never materializes here.

So Samba can’t quite deliver the insights into the French immigrant experience that it wants to, but it does at least serve well as a crowd-pleaser. If, like me, your biggest disappointment with Jurassic World was “not enough Omar Sy”, you’ve got plenty here. Rahim gets a chance at comedy for once and does a fairly good job of it. We even get to see Gainsbourg in a much lighter role than her usual fare with Lars von Trier. But as entertaining as Samba can be, that’s about all it can be.

Worth It: yes, as a pleasant diversion.
Bechdel Test: pass.
This review also appears at Punch Drunk Critics.

Vacation

July 29, 2015
Vacation

We’ve had a lot of long-delayed movie sequels in the last couple years, and many writers complain about them as the next evolution in the lack of original content in mainstream cinema. There’s something to that, but there’s also a hidden benefit: making a related movie after such a long delay can make it clearer than ever how the landscape has changed in the meantime. The Farrelly brothers, for instance have traced a steady gradient over their twenty-year career, but placing Dumb and Dumber and Dumb and Dumber To as bookends around it throws into sharp relief just how much meaner they’ve gotten.

But it’s not just them; the whole field of soft-R comedy has gotten mean, and we can see it in the new Vacation. Writers John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein — the team behind Horrible Bosses — take their turn in the director’s chair to pay homage to John Hughes and Harold Ramis’ classic with a movie that’s somewhere between a remake and yet another sequel.

The common ground between the two is Rusty Griswold, and it’s also the first stumbling block. In Hughes’ original Vacation script, Rusty was a stand-in for Hughes’ memories of himself on his own family’s trip to Disneyland, so he was much sharper than his old man Clark, and that carried over to all the other movies in the series. Until now, that is, when Ed Helms plays Rusty as every bit the buffoon his father was. Except that Chevy Chase gave Clark a real selfish streak that made him the cause of his own undoings, while Rusty is the same incredibly earnest pushover Helms tends to play over and over again. And while that was super-awesome in Cedar Rapids, it just makes him one of the filmmakers’ punching bags here.

That kind of gets to what I’m talking about when I say that Vacation is mean. Early on their own road trip from Chicago to Walley World, Rusty’s family passes through Memphis, where Debbie (Christina Applegate) went to college. They go by her old sorority house, where they find the same charity stunt she invented when she was known as “Debbie Do-Anything”. In story terms, this manages to set up the fact that she had a past Rusty didn’t know about, but that doesn’t make much of a scene. So they contrive an excuse to put Debbie through the stunt: she chugs a pitcher of beer and then runs through a giant inflatable obstacle course, with predictable results.

And there’s no real reason to subject Debbie to this sort of thing. It doesn’t pay off later in any way, and it’s not her comeuppance for anything. It’s just about pointing and laughing as someone is hurt and humiliated. The only possible justification — that we’ve been told she was once a “bad” woman — is even meaner and creepier. And that’s pretty much the tone for most of the crap that Daley and Goldstein put the Griswolds through: pain and humiliation for no real purpose besides the entertainment of a presumably sadistic audience.

There are some bits that don’t fit that pattern, at least. Four cops arguing jurisdiction over Four Corners largely works, as does Charlie Day’s cameo as a typically chipper whitewater rafting guide on the worst day of his life. Rusty’s sister, Audrey (Leslie Mann), shows up, and she and her husband Stone (Chris Hemsworth) are awkward in a subtle way — well, compared with the rest of the movie — that pays off later. There’s even some nice character growth for Rusty’s kids (Skyler Gisondo and Steele Stebbins), and of course for Rusty himself.

But for the most part it’s just Rusty and his equally hapless family getting beaten up for our amusement. The short time we do get to spend in a couple scenes with Clark just reminds us how much better the original Vacation was than this imitation, even if the kids today don’t remember it.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

Dark Was the Night

July 24, 2015
Dark Was the Night

Sometimes, the old ways are best. Take an isolated town, add some weird happenings and rumors of something dangerous behind them, garnish with a troubled sheriff trying to maintain order, shake it all up and enjoy. That was the recipe that landed Tyler Hisel’s script, The Woods, on the “blacklist” of unproduced screenplays in 2009. And it’s what got director Jack Heller to turn that script into the simple but effective Dark Was the Night.

The core idea comes from an unexplained event in southwest England in 1855. The small town of Topsham woke up one February morning to find hoofprints in the night’s fresh snowfall. It wouldn’t be such a big deal, except they seemed to be walking on two legs. Weird; eerie.

Hisel transplants this to a modern small town in the rural areas of the American northeast. Maiden Woods seems to be in New York or Pennsylvania or something like that. It’s late in the winter, getting near to spring. The hunters are out for the end of a disappointing deer season, and the forest rangers are recommending evacuation in advance of a heavy late-season storm. Oh, and a team of lumberjacks just went missing from the logging operation up north that just started up recently.

In charge of this sleepy hamlet is Sheriff Paul (Kevin Durand), with the assistance of his deputy Donny (Lukas Haas), who has just arrived in town from serving on New York City’s much more stressful police force. Maiden Woods is quieter; a typical day means responding to Ron (Billy Paterson) and his complaints that someone stole one of his horses when he obviously just left the gate open. Hunters say there are no deer in the woods, and they’ve seen tracks they can’t identify. Two of them show up dead. And then a local like Earl (Nick Damici) tells Donny old stories from his “full-blood Shawnee grandmother” — Paul is less confident in Earl’s bloodlines — about things that live in the woods that the White Man doesn’t live in harmony with.

All of which is a longwinded way of saying yeah, of course there’s a creature out there that had enough sense to hide from people until the loggers came in and drove it south towards the town with nowhere to go beyond that. And now it’s in Maiden Woods at the worst possible time, when the storm is about to cut the town off even more than it already is, and when Paul’s relationships with his wife, Susan (Bianca Kajlich), and son, Adam (Ethan Khusidman), are already at the breaking point over his inability to save his other son from a tragic accident.

Durand is one of his generation’s most underrated character actors, and his performance lifts Sheriff Paul above what could have been a mere stock figure. Watching him work his way through both the evidence and his depression keeps us hooked through the film’s slow burn leading up to the eventual confrontation. It’s a long, tense ride, and the payoff at the end is as somber and muted as cinematographer Ryan Samul’s desaturated color palette.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.
This review also appears on Punch Drunk Critics.

Southpaw

July 24, 2015
Southpaw

I don’t think there’s any disagreement that Jake Gyllenhaal and Forest Whitaker are two of our most talented actors. They immerse themselves in every performance, particularly Gyllenhaal of late, and it’s a privilege to watch either of these two men at the top of their form. And yet, when it comes to Southpaw, we must ask what ends these talents serve. For all the work these actors put in, the characters and the story they live fall short.

Originally constructed as a follow-on for Eminem’s 8 Mile, he wisely stepped aside to focus on his music career; Gyllenhaal certainly elevates the material from what it could have been. And yet the script refuses to give him much to work with as a brawling boxer who falls from grace and must struggle to redeem himself.

We start out with Billy “The Great” Hope (Gyllenhaal) winning the WBA’s light heavyweight belt, and we establish his two main strengths: he can take a beating long enough for his temper to kick in and knock the other guy’s block off. And we also set up his nemesis: Miguel “Magic” Escobar (Miguel Gomez), who starts taunting Billy for his own fight during the post-match press conference.

Billy got his temper and his start on boxing growing up as an orphan in Hell’s Kitchen. Yes, just like Daredevil. Billy’s wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams) did too, and they’ve come a long way their estate outside the city. Maureen wants Billy to retire before he gets even more seriously hurt, so he can be with her and their daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence). But when Billy’s temper gets the best of him and he takes a swing in response to Miguel’s taunting it’s Maureen who gets hurt; she takes a bullet from an unknown gun in the ensuing mêlée.

With Maureen dead, Billy sinks into his depression and rage. He flames out spectacularly in his next bout, all his stuff is repossessed, his manager (50 Cent) leaves to handle Miguel’s career, and he loses custody of Leila, who for some reason has to go into the same inner-city foster system Billy came from. Billy turns up at the gym of Tick Wills (Whitaker), desperate for a job and the training to get his life back together.

And here we come to the most glaring flaw in the story. Still filled with anger — and, by the way, there is little more boring than white machismo being petulant at not getting everything it wants — Billy can’t answer when Tick asks what he did to end up where he is. He says someone shot his wife, but Tick presses him: what did he do. Unable to take responsibility for his own part in his downfall, Billy upends a bar stool and storms off.

Taken on its own, this is actually a great centerpiece for a boxing film. As Billy trains towards the eventual matchup with Miguel, the improvement in his form can reflect his personal growth. And yet, having come this far, the script never makes Billy actually confront his own responsibility for his own life. He puts it off on other people, saying how Maureen always made the decisions, but he never actually faces himself and admits fault for escalating the fight that led to her death, let alone everything he did on the way down from there. As far as this movie is concerned, the only thing he really needs to do to recover is to punch more skillfully.

And this sort of shallow hypermasculinity isn’t exactly surprising coming from The Shield and Sons of Anarchy writer Kurt Sutter and Olympus Has Fallen and The Equalizer director Antoine Fuqua. There’s a lot about redirecting and focusing anger, but there’s never a question that maybe punching things to death isn’t exactly a great problem-solving technique. Billy is even ordered into anger-management by the family court judge, and then we never see it because it simply does not matter to the filmmakers; empty words from a cold, distant bureaucrat.

This is all layered on top of some pretty ugly race and class undertones. Billy is the only white boxer we see, making him literally “‘The Great’ [White] Hope” — a term that arose a century ago, in a racist and segregated America that wanted nothing more from boxing than for a white heavyweight to end Jack Johnson’s reign as world champion. And when Billy goes looking for Miguel’s friends, the only place he checks is a drug-ruined apartment in the Marcy Projects. Of course, there’s also the fact that Billy is from the wrong kind of white people, and even when he was on top he was living so beyond his means that it was only a matter of time before he fell back into “his place” in the gutter.

It’s a dour, unsatisfying story dripping with testosterone and endorsing the worst assumptions about every man it sees so it’s easier to just accept Billy punching his way through all of his problems. But at the same time it’s another fantastic lead performance by Gyllenhaal and a solid supporting role for Whitaker. I just wish I could see them deliver this work in a better movie.

Worth It: yes, for Gyllenhaal’s and Whitaker’s performances.
Bechdel Test: fail.

Pixels

July 24, 2015
Pixels

Wiser critics than I have counseled to never hate a movie. It can be hard at times, but I think that they’re right, at least in that hating is a waste of emotional energy better spent on loving better movies. But even if you don’t hate Pixels, rest assured: Pixels hates you.

The original short film by Patrick Jean is charming and whimsical, and shows a real love of the blocky aesthetic of classic video games. It shows off the virtuosity of the filmmakers at One More Production as they insert the pixelated attackers into handheld footage of New York, and zap various features of the cityscape into multicolored blocks. The big-budget, feature-length version takes all of this as more grist for Adam Sandler’s mill.

Again we’ve got the attack by classic video game characters, but now there’s a back-story: they’re coming because they misinterpreted some video game footage from 1982 included in a cultural space capsule as a declaration of war. Because, as usual, a civilization that has weaponry and interstellar travel technology like this is clearly as stupid as the audience has to be to find this funny. Anyway, they’re challenging the Earth to a best three-of-five video game tournament, though we don’t get serious about fighting back until both Guam and the Taj Mahal have been pixelated and the aliens have taken two Earthlings as “trophies”.

In order to fight back, a DARPA researcher (Michelle Monaghan) comes up with light guns that can hurt the attackers, but the Navy SEALS aren’t very effective at using them. Luckily president Will Cooper (Kevin James. I know…) grew up hanging out in arcades with the very same guys who recorded the footage at the 1982 video game world championships that started this whole mess in the first place. Sam Brenner (Sandler) came in second to douchebag Eddie “Fireblaster” Plant (Peter Dinklage), and now he’s installing audiovisual gear for a living while Eddie’s in jail. And there’s also Ludlow Lamonsoff “The Wonder Kid” (Josh Gad), a conspiracy theorist who lives in his grandmother’s basement and nurses a creepy childhood obsession with the protagonist of a game created for the movie. Yes, the character setup really is that messy, and mostly serves as an excuse to get this sector of Sandler’s crew into the central roles.

The script was written by Sandler regulars Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling, and it’s every bit as stupid and lazy as we’ve come to expect. There’s no actual humor here; just a mass of stereotypes and pop culture references, the latter mostly heavy on the ’80s and video games but hardly limited to them either. These are people who think the biggest problem with the Hollywood cliché of the trophy wife is that she isn’t literally awarded as a prize.

Literally nothing in the story makes sense. The attackers are the bad guys in most of the games, but then they’re Pac-Man while Sandler and company play the ghosts in tricked-out Mini Coopers — side note: this is not the segment that takes place in London — because, well no reason the story gives a damn about. There’s a big presidential soirée in the team’s honor, but it’s on the night before the tiebreaker match when the tension should be nearing its peak. There’s a twist involving “cheat codes” with no concern about how they’re supposed to work, for a game that didn’t even have such things, just because “hey, cheat codes are a thing gamer nerds talk about, right?” And the only thing more racist than the selfie-obsessed Indian guy is the audience’s squealing “that’s really him!” when Pac-Man creator Iwatani Tōru shows up, except it’s really Denis Akiyama with a really bad accent. But all Japanese guys are basically interchangeable, right?

And yet none of these very basic appeals to sensible story structure — or even simple human decency — matter to Pixels. As far as Sandler and company are concerned, you’ll eat this up and ask for more. Anyone outside Sandler’s own fratboy circle is a target for them to point and laugh at. And in particular they think the “nerds” that serve as the apparent target audience are so starved for attention that just referencing a bunch of old games will be enough to satisfy them. The depressing thing is, they’re probably right enough to make millions off of this lazy, pandering swill; the people who actually like these games are a tiny minority that Sandler is free to insult and dismiss along with all the others he abuses, and there’s plenty audience left that’s dumb enough to go along for the ride.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

Trainwreck

July 17, 2015
Trainwreck

Amy Schumer is on a roll lately, largely based on the success of her show Inside Amy Schumer on Comedy Central. And, in what seems to be the latest sign that a comedian has made it, she’s been the subject of speculation that she’s actually a terrible person who should be pilloried and never listened to again (spoiler alert: maybe?). As iffy as she can be on race, Schumer’s feminism game is on point, and so she was bound to find a home in the recent spate of female-driven R-rated comedies that was kicked off by Bridesmaids.

Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy have dominated that field for the last few years, including last month’s underappreciated Spy, but Bridesmaids was produced by Judd Apatow, who gave Feig’s career its real kickstart in Freaks and Geeks. With Apatow directing Trainwreck and Schumer providing the script, the result is hilarious.

It’s also probably the most straightforward inversion of the usual Apatow manchild-romcom. Amy (Schumer) has refused to grow into responsible adulthood; her version of “not drinking” is stopping at four, and her walk of shame in the opening sequence involves the Staten Island Ferry. She gets this from her father (Colin Quinn), who stressed to nine-year-old Amy and her five-year-old sister Kim that “monogamy is not realistic”. And while that might be debatable in terms of open and honest communication between partners, Amy has grown up to abhor any real relationship longer than a one-night stand.

Amy’s sister, on the other hand, has run the other way; she has married Tom (Mike Birbiglia) and adopted his son Allister. Amy finds them both cloying as hell, and they reinforce her policy of halfheartedly dating the obviously closeted Steven (John Cena) and sleeping around on the side.

I don’t mean to suggest that she’s an awful person, though it’s interesting to notice the constellation of assumptions that pop up the moment we start describing a female version of the overgrown boys that populate so many of our comedies. She’s warm and friendly to the local homeless guy (Dave Attell) and her friend Nikki (Vanessa Bayer) from her job at the lads’ mag “S’nuff”. And she’s more than just her party-loving ways; her hard-driving, Anna Wintour-style boss in Dianna (an almost unrecognizable Tilda Swinton) assigns her another writer’s pitch to cover Amar’e Stoudemire’s upcoming knee operation despite the fact that Amy is bored to death by all things sports.

But then she meets the doctor who’s going to perform the surgery, Aaron (Bill Hader). Not only is he a rising star in sports medicine and best friends with LeBron James, he’s going to be honored for his work with Doctors Without Borders. And soon dating doesn’t seem so bad.

Hader and James do excellent work in the roles usually occupied by the leading woman and her friend, and James is the surprise breakout comedy star of the movie. True, he’s playing a fictionalized version of himself, but he’s a more believable actor than any NBA star I’ve seen since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and he sells his gags with a deadpan delivery worthy of Leslie Nielsen. For that matter, Cena is pretty fantastic himself as he upends the character he’s been playing on WWE for the last decade or so.

Besides getting a boatload of actors and celebrities to chip in, even just for a cameo, Apatow does his best job of directing since The 40-Year-Old Virgin. The script is clearly inspired by the kind of movies Apatow has become known for producing over the years, but this is Schumer’s show and he’s content to just coax it into shape rather than stamp his own personal brand on it. And Schumer, for her part, generously offers up the spotlight to the rest of the cast rather than claiming every good joke for herself.

The one place the movie really falls down is when they decide to go a little darker and more introspective for a moment. Yes, it’s during the inevitable breakup section, when Amy needs something to reset her priorities and give her a kick in the pants towards the script’s version of redemption. Still, thoughtful moments really aren’t Schumer’s strong suit here.

That awkward stretch aside, Trainwreck delivers consistent laughs from start to finish. I can only hope that, out of all the R-rated comedies I’ve enjoyed this summer, this is the one that actually makes inroads at the box office.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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