The Little Stranger(9/3/2018)

One of the most oddly sad things that movie studios find themselves doing is the “dumping” of certain movies.  This happens when studios fund certain movies and let them get made, but then start to have cold feet about them after they’re done.  Sometimes the completed film is simply bad but sometimes they just prove to be less commercial than the studio expected and it’s determined that it will be a harder sell with the public than they thought it would be.  Sometimes they’ll respond to this by putting out some sort of misleading advertising campaign, sometimes they’ll scale back the release and hope the movie catches on, but all too often what they do is the minimum possible to fulfil their contracts and cut their losses.  They’ll put the movies out in months like January or August or September when there’s the least competition and they’ll do the absolute minimum required in marketing.  They won’t bother putting the films in festivals to generate early buzz they might screen the movie for critics but even if they get good reviews they probably won’t capitalize on it.  Basically they’ll do everything in their power to make sure the film just kind of comes and goes in cinema and hope that interest picks up on DVD or something.  One of the more interesting and perhaps disappointing victims of “dumping” as of late is probably the latest film from Room director Lenny Abrahamson entitled The Little Stranger.

Set sometime after the Second World War, The Little Stranger focuses in on a country doctor named Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) whose mother once worked for a rural estate of the “Downton Abbey” variety called Hundreds Hall as a maid.  One day he’s called to Hundreds Hall because the current maid there named Betty (Liv Hill) has taken sick.  While there he sees that the place is a shell of its former self and is in a state of complete disrepair.  The family’s matriarch Angela Ayres (Charlotte Rampling) is still around but has seemingly little influence and her son Roderick (Will Poulter) hasn’t been much of a “man of the house” since receiving extensive burn injuries during the war.  The brightest spot of the house appears to be his sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson), who seems a bit more sensible and capable of moving on than her family members.  It soon becomes apparent that the downfall of this house seems to have been precipitated by the death of the family’s eldest daughter Susan (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) as a child.  Despite the state of the house Faraday still has an affection for the place and makes a point to keep visiting it to try an experimental treatment for Roderick’s burns and becomes more and more a friend of the family despite some very strange things happening in Hundreds Hall.

I think a big part of why this movie was “dumped” but the studio has less to do with its actual quality than with the simple fact that it kind of impossible to market.  The movie is about 75% “Masterpiece Theater” style British period piece and 25% a horror movie and will probably not give the audiences for either of those things exactly what they’re looking for.  The people looking for a Merchant Ivory movie out of something like this will probably not be thrilled with the ghost story elements and the typical horror audience will certainly not be happy with the dearth of scares to be found in the film (it makes The Witch look like The Conjuring by comparison).  Now, being an unconventional genre blend isn’t inherently a bad thing or commercial suicide.  That Nicole Kidman film The Others had a similar period piece to scares ratio as this does and it managed to be a hit, albeit almost twenty years ago.  But it you’re going to do something unexpected and unconventional you do sort of need to work extra hard in order to make people interested and I’m not so sure that The Little Stranger does.

The film was based on a novel by a woman named Sarah Waters, who is a contemporary British author who’s known to write novels in the same milieus that the likes of Charles Dickens and Emily Bronte used to specialize in but to look at them with a modern eye and to tackle issues that would have been taboo when the acknowledged masters were writing.  Film buffs would probably know her best as the author of the book “Fingersmith,” which was the basis for Park Chan-Wook’s excellent 2016 film The Handmaiden.  I was expecting that The Little Stranger would do a bit more to subvert its own genre in a similar way but it instead feels more like a fairly faithful replication of the traditional haunted house story like “The House of the Seven Gables” or “The Turn of the Screw” but I’m not really sure it’s doing anything that Henry James couldn’t have done if he wanted to.  But even as a bare bones gothic horror story this seems to be missing some elements.  For one thing, Charlotte Rampling proves to be rather dull as a matriarch driven mad by guilt.  Granted they were probably trying to avoid the cliché of the batty old rich lady but the alternative they came up with was a little boring and Rampling feels a bit wasted as a result.  They also don’t do a great job of establishing the backstory for Caroline’s deceased sister and why her ghost is so hellbent on revenge.  You keep expecting there to be some revelation about that but it never really comes.  Beyond that the film just never really breaks out cinematically.  It’s consistently competent, the performances are pretty good, it’s shot well but given that this is Abrahamson’s the follow-up to something as winning as Room you certainly expect something a lot more impressive than what we’re given.  It’s ultimately kind of a hard movie to really judge because at the end of the day it certainly isn’t “bad” so much as it’s underwhelming.

**1/2 out of Five

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Madeline’s Madeline(9/1/2018)

If there’s one thing I don’t tend to spend a lot of time talking about in my reviews, proportionally, it’s probably acting.  This is perhaps something a lot of film aficionados downplay given that the rest of the culture gives so much attention to movie stars and we like to give more attention to all the other elements that go into the making of a film.  Still, acting is a huge part of what goes into the making of a film so it’s worth knowing about, the problem is that the “process” can be pretty malleable and hard to describe.  In theory it’s a skill that can be learned, or at least there are a whole lot of people who claim that they’re able to teach it for a price, but it also seems to be a talent: something you’ve either got or haven’t got.  Historically actors have been trained using a sort of trade that can be learned with a great deal of practice and trial and error, but more recently it’s been taken over by a system created by Konstantin Stanislavski resulting in “the method.”  The Method has been in vogue since at least the 1950s and is today probably most associated with people who take it a bit too far and do crazy stuff on set to stay in character, but often it’s employed in more subtle ways where people tap into their own personal memories in order to evoke emotions.  Of course plunging into your own emotions as part of your job like that feels like something that would be rather fraught, and that is part of the plot of the new independent film Madeline’s Madeline.

The main character of Madeline’s Madeline, Madeline (Helena Howard), is a sixteen year old girl who lives with her mother Regina (Miranda July) in New York and suffers some sort of mental illness which I don’t think is named in the film.  It’s not terribly clear what Madeline’s school life is like (I think the movie is set in the summer) but she’s usually fighting with her mother, both for normal teenager reasons and also because her mother is a bit flighty and isn’t great at communicating with her.  Madeline’s one respite seems to be the theater class/group that she’s attending which is run by a woman named Evangeline (Molly Parker).  This is the kind of acting class where they have you pretend to be bacon frying or have you imitate a cat and they seem to be putting together some sort of experimental performance that seems to shift its focus frequently.  As the film goes along Madeline increasingly becomes the centerpiece of this theater piece and the deeper she’s challenged to probe her inner feelings the more intense her various problems start to seem.

One of the lingering questions I had leaving Madeline’s Madeline was whether or not the people making it were under the impression that the play at the film’s center was ever going to be any good because to my eyes this theater troupe seemed really weird.  The play that they were working on (was there supposed to be an actual play?) does not seem to have had a script and they seemed to be making it up as they went on in rehearsal.  I suppose that Mike Leigh comes up with stories in a similar way, but most of the acting exercises they’re doing seem so abstract and weird that it’s hard to tell what form it would take.  It’s also a bit curious that this isn’t an acting class for teenagers and some of the cast members are fully grown hippies, but that is bit by design as it’s one of the things about this experience that is stressing her out and getting her in a bit over her head.  At its heart this movie is a character study (the fact that the protagonist’s name is in the title twice might have been the first clue) and it seeks to explore how Madeline’s mental illness affects her life and the movie probes to some extent how appropriate it is for an acting instructor to be probing into the mind of a sixteen year old with that kind of background given that this acting coach is not exactly a trained therapist.

Madeline’s Madeline has been labeled an “experimental” film, in part because it is very willing to disorient its audience.  It drops us into the story without explaining the situation right away and it often uses unconventional close-ups and edits in order to sort of reflect the haziness in its protagonists mind.  Helena Howard proves to be quite the discovery in the film and manages to both sensitively portray the character’s mental illness and also does a pretty good job of doing “acting within acting” during the theater troupe scenes.  Of course given that the character is a complete unknown and that she, like the character, is an actress one is pretty much invited to speculate as to how different she is from Madeline and how much art is imitating life as the director in the film tries to put together a story around her.  Looking up interviews and articles about the making of the film suggest that Howard is really not that much like Madeline and certainly doesn’t share her struggles with mental illness and that the making of the film was a much healthier collaboration than the making of the play in the film, but just the same I do think there’s supposed to be a parallel there that the audience is supposed to speculate on.  To some extent I found that interesting, but I was not a fan of the way that the film ends, which could be viewed as an admission that you can’t tell someone’s story if you haven’t walked in their shoes but could also be viewed as a cop out where they never really tried.

*** out of Five

The Miseducation of Cameron Post(8/18/2018)

Sometimes you see movies because the trailer looks promising, but that’s not the reason I went to see The Miseducation of Cameron Post.  In fact I don’t think I ever saw the trailer playing in front of anything at any point.  Sometimes you see a movie because you’re familiar with the director’s work and want to see more, but director Desiree Akhavan has only made one film before and I’d never even heard of it.  Sometimes you see a movie because there are a wave of critical acclaim, and there is some acclaim out there for this movie but it’s not rapturous to the point where critical acclaim alone is going to make me interested.  No, this is actually one of the few times I’ve felt the need to go out and see something because I’m eventually going to have to compare it to another movie.  That movie is called Boy Erased, it’s also a movie about a teenager who’s sent to a gay conversion therapy camp, it’s scheduled to come out later this year, and a lot of people are predicting that it will have a lot of Oscar buzz.   Since both movies have roughly the same subject matter and are coming out the same year they will inevitably be compared to one another and Miseducation of Cameron Post star Chloë Grace Moretz has already thrown some shade at that upcoming movie sight unseen.  So, in order to get ahead of the great debates that will surely ensue and given that there wasn’t anything else out this week I decided I’d give this a shot.

The film is set in the 90s in the Pacific Northwest and focuses on a girl of about seventeen named Cameron Post (Chloë Grace Moretz).  Post’s parents died years earlier and her new guardians are apparently members of an Evangelical community as they’ve sent Post to a camp called God’s Promise after she’s caught having a tryst with another girl.  God’s Promise is a gay conversion therapy center, one of those places that seeks to “pray away the gay” of anyone who’s forced to go there.  Post doesn’t seems to be much of a true believer in this form of Christianity but doesn’t openly rebel against the camp either.  Instead she finds herself hanging out with some of the other offbeat teens in attendance like a biracial girl named Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane) and a boy of Native American ancestry named Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck).

While we’ve come to learn in recent years that we maybe haven’t made as much progress as we’ve hoped on certain issues than we’ve thought, I do think it’s safe to say that it doesn’t take a whole lot of courage to be against gay conversion therapy in 2018.  These centers are the product of the kookiest of right wing fringes and even super mainstream products like Deadpool 2 can make them into stock villains without too much trouble.  Still one could say it’s just as easy to make fun of Nazis and Klansman and yet there’s still value to be found in looking at how people like that walk among us and to acknowledge the suffering they’ve caused.  That said, The Miseducation of Cameron Post does not necessarily look at these places in an overly heavy handed way and tries to be more of a character study than an “issue movie.”  Cameron Post is clearly someone who’s a bit out of place in a camp like this.  She wears her hair short, listens to The Breeders and 4 Non Blondes, hangs out with the minorities in the camp, and enjoys smoking weed and rebelling behind the counselors backs.  In other words she’s one of the cool kids and that makes her something of a good audience surrogate.

The thing is, Cameron Post’s coolness as a character is something of a double edged sword.  I think the film particularly errored in making Post basically a non-believer in the camp’s religion and a skeptic in their mission.  This makes our main protagonist more or less immune from the worst manipulations of the people at hand. As such, what should be a movie about spiritual and mental torture instead feels like it’s merely a movie where a cool kid is forced to endure time at a really lame summer camp run by nerds.  I’m sure there are some people who experience gay conversion therapy camps in this way but I’m not sure that was necessarily the most interesting way to get to the heart of the issue.  We do get some of the worse aspects of this experience through some of the other campers, albeit in a rather cliché way. For them it’s sort of a Dead Poet’s Society where the teacher is the square and students are better off not learning for him.  But for the Cameron Post character I think they’re trying to make something along the lines of a Cool Hand Luke or an Unbroken where the main character sees past the suppressive prison warden and manages to keep their spirit intact despite the hell they’re put through… except that that hell doesn’t seem very hellish because the bad guys are kind of incompetent at being bad guys, which is interesting in its own way but isn’t terribly conducive to the point they’re trying to make.  I don’t want to come down too hard on the movie as it’s a well-paced movie with some decent performances and has some details here and there that are of interest, but it feels like it actively avoids some of the real dramatic potential of this setting and probably should have been thinking more along the lines of First Reformed for teenagers rather than the movie about mild rebellion against authority that we get.

**1/2 out of Five

Blackkklansman(8/12/2018)

Warning: Review Contains Some Spoilers

More than any other filmmaker I can think of Spike Lee is a guy you want to see tackle as many issues as possible to the point where his filmography becomes a sort of unified exploration of every debate about the black experience in America (along with some side conversations about New York).  He’s often talked about as a filmmaker who rails against white racism, and that’s certainly something he does, but if you just look at his first six movies and you’ll see statements about historically black universities (School Daze), jazz (Mo Better Blues), interracial relationships (Jungle Fever), and drug use (Jungle Fever again) alongside movies about more conventional race relations both in the past (Malcolm X) and in contemporary times (Do the Right Thing).  One aspect of American racial strife that he has not up to now spent a lot of time looking into up to now are the actions of organized hate groups of the neo-nazi and Ku Klux Klan variety.  His reasons for not focusing on groups like this are many.  For one thing, these groups have often been seen as something of an easy target.  They were viewed as a small group of extremists that the intellectual whites who go to Spike Lee movies aren’t going to see a lot of themselves in.  Additionally movies about hate groups like American History X and This is England tend to be in the rather queasy position of being movies told largely from the perspective of white people about an issue that ultimately causes a lot of black pain.  Of course in the era of Trump these groups are as relevant as ever and far more powerful than they’ve been in decades and Lee has found the perfect solution for telling the story of an all-white group from a black perspective through the true story told in his new movie Blackkklansman.

The film is set in the 70s and begins with a young black man named Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) joining the Colorado Springs Police Department as their first black officer.  Officially his hiring is applauded and encouraged by the department but it’s never quite clear where the police chief (Robert John Burke) stands and he occasionally needs to deal with sneers from other officers.  Stallworth is not exactly a black power rebel however, despite his rather large afro, and even volunteers to go undercover at a speech by former Black Panther Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) where he meets a woman named Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) who is very decidedly “down with the cause.”  With that assignment complete Stallworth is given a more permanent position as an undercover narcotics cop.  While in that assignment Stallworth comes up with the idea of using these same undercover tactics to go after the Ku Klux Klan after he sees a recruitment ad for them in the newspaper.  Stallworth calls the number in the ad and begins to infiltrate them over the phone and then convinces his superiors to hatch an undercover operation in which a white cop named Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) will assume the cover and meet them in person to find out if they’re hatching any plots.

Ron Stallworth is a bit of a curious character to put at the center of a film like this.  He, like the real police officer he’s based on, is a black man who is more or less proud of his association with the police department and shows a degree of ambivalence about the black power movement and is even willing to wear a wire to the Ture speech even if only to advance his career.  The movie does not, however, dismiss Stallworth as some sort of “Uncle Tom.”  Stallworth proudly wears a large afro (a decision that I doubt Lee made casually), he fights back in his own ways against fellow officers who are abusive or racist, and of course he spends most of the movie trying to bring down the Klan.  His girlfriend in the film is in some ways supposed to stand in as a voice for a more radical approach to the issues in the film and she occasionally sort of acts as his conscience as a black man, though I must say that she at times feels a bit too much like a symbol for certain themes rather than a true character and her relationship with Stallworth occasionally feels like a setup for one of those clichéd rom-com “you lied to me!” twists in the second act.

The undercover operation in the film is a bit odd.  The plan in the film is to have Stallworth talk on the phone with the KKK members and set up meetings and for Zimmerman then show up in person.  I’ve looked up the fact checking articles and this does appear to be how the operation was conducted in real life but it still isn’t clear to me why.  Would it not be easier to just have Zimmerman maintain his cover both on the phone and in the field?  Wouldn’t that ensure that the voices match and that the two would never find themselves contradicting each other?  In the long run this is probably a quibble that just needs to be set aside, especially given that it’s apparently accurate and it goes to the whole “black klansman” concept, but it was still a bit odd.  Much of the investigation into this local branch of the klan is disturbing as you might expect but also comical in how stupid these guys seem to be.  The main white klansman we spend time with sort of represent different strains of hatred: there’s a guy who seems to be just filled with uncontrolled rage, another guy who seems to blame others for his failures in life, and one guy who’s just stupid to the point where you half expect him to forget to breathe.

The fact that this is set in the 70s is also a bit curious as that was probably the decade when the Ku Klux Klan was at its absolute lowest point.  It had already lost the civil rights clashes of the 60s and hadn’t yet reinvented itself through the use of the internet yet or found a sympathetic president either.  We do get introduced to David Duke who is played here by Topher Grace and comes off as a kind of Ned Flanders from hell.  Today Duke is a well-known boogieman whose name is supposed to be synonymous with the worst kinds of racism but the movie explains that his ultimate goal was to make hatred mainstream through politics and to replace cross burnings with rhetoric about “white rights” and the like.  Here though that is not explored too deeply as the klan members we spend most of the time with are rednecks who do not seem to have gotten the memo about dog whistling.  Instead the film ends with them engaging in a pretty traditional KKK hate crime and with our heroes chasing them down to stop them in a finale that cleverly mirrors D.W. Griffith’s infamous classic The Birth of a Nation but which also feels rushed and a bit too easy.  In the true story this was based on there was no bombing incident that the police could easily stop and arrest people for.  The film’s final shot before its postscript does at least acknowledge that hate can’t be so easily stamped out but there are still places here where this feels like a slightly more conventional thriller that’s been seasoned by Spike Lee rather than the undiluted goods.

Overall though I think Blackkklansman is a pretty good romp even if it’s a bit messy around the edges and isn’t quite able to tie up all its loose ends by the end.  In some ways I do think seeing the Spike Lee name on it and viewing the film within his body of work helps the movie.  The film finds a solid means of exploring some really rough territory in a way that feels accessible, almost fun in a way, and manages to connect it to some of the more disturbing aspects of our modern times.  It’s hard not to like that even if I think there are an abundance of rough edges that Lee maybe didn’t have the time to sand out in his rush to get the product out in time.

**** out of Five

Blindspotting(8/7/2018)

With increasingly becoming America’s “second city” it is perhaps interesting that their Harlem, Oakland, has been going through something of a renaissance of African American filmmaking in the last few years.  This perhaps goes as far back as the 2008 film Medicine for Melancholy, an early Barry Jenkins effort about two African Americans living in neighboring San Francisco who spend a great deal of time talking about gentrification in the bay area.  But the tread really seems to have taken off with Ryan Coogler’s 2013 film Fruitvale Station, about a real life case of police violence that occurred on a BART station in Oakland.  By necessity Coogler’s follow-up films (Creed and Black Panther) have been primarily set in Philadelphia and Africa respectively but given that he went out of his way to set parts of Black Panther in Oakland I think it’s fair to say that his roots still grow strong in the East Bay.  This year has perhaps where we have gotten our three points to make a trend because within a span of a couple of months we’ve gotten two movies that make a point of being set in Bump City.  One was Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, which is admittedly a film so strange that it’s setting somewhat secondary, but it was nonetheless largely shot on location in Oakland.  The next and latest film set in that city is even more vocally about its setting, the new film covering both police violence and gentrification called Blindspotting.

Blindspotting begins with a man named Colin Hoskins (Daveed Diggs) being released from prison after a short but painful sentence and then flashes forward to the last three days of his probation.  While Hoskins is living in a halfway home he has a job as a mover and works with his best friend from childhood Miles (Rafael Casal).  Miles is a white guy but he’s Oakland born and raised and talks in the black vernacular.  He could be described using a word that is a racial slur that has had an “N” replaced by a “W.”  Neither Colin nor Miles appear to have ever been professional criminals but they are streetwise and can hold their own in a fight.  As the film begins Hoskins has only a couple of days left on his probation when he suddenly finds himself the sole witness to a police shooting of a seemingly unarmed man.  In many cases that would be the setup to a thriller with Hoskins acting as a sort of Serpico who acts as a bold witness to bring down the killer cop, but that kind of heroism isn’t going to happen here.  When asked if he’s going to go to the police with this information he simply says something along the lines of “what am I going to do, report the police to themselves.”  The tension here is instead about how witnessing something like that effects Hoskins’ psyche as well as the various other conflicts in his life coming to a fore.

Blindspotting is a movie with a certain theatricality to it in that it’s the kind of story where a lifetime’s worth of tensions all come to a head over the course of three days’ worth of conversations and things all just kind of come together according to theme rather than conventional plausibility.  The film was written by its stars, making it something of a throwback to the era of independent films like Swingers and The Brothers McMullen where writers would make very personal projects and wear a lot of hats in getting them made.  The downside of this is that this is that the script written by first time screenwriters who began their work while they were in their 20s and at times this really shows.  The film wants to tackle a number of themes and it does so in a really on the nose fashion when it didn’t necessarily have to.  For example, the film is largely about gentrification, which it tackles by having its characters explicitly talking about the subject and occasionally run into situations that illustrate the theme right on cue.  The film also reaches something of a nadir in its climactic scene which is something so stupid that I thought (hoped) it would turn out to be a fantasy sequence, but no, it’s supposed to be real and the film had not done nearly enough to set a tone that would make such a moment work as some sort of surreal touch.

Having said that, there’s still a lot I like about Blindspotting.  For one thing I thought the two main performances in the movie were quite good.  Daveed Diggs is an actor who’s primarily known for his stage work (he was in the original cast of “Hamilton”) so I wasn’t terribly familiar with him but he does have screen presence and clearly connects a lot with this character he’s created for himself.  Rafael Casal on the other hand was a complete nobody before making this, to the point where he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, and yet he’s able to make this character who could have easily come off as a rather pathetic stereotype seem plausible and even understandable.  I also found myself rather liking the way the film shoots Oakland even though obsessions with local geography can often be a rather cringey aspect of indies like this.  Blindspotting is ultimately a pretty good little movie that’s bogged down a bit by a couple of misguided flights of fancy and a couple of moments that just seem really on the nose in a slightly sophomoric way.  Certainly worth checking out but not exactly one for the ages.

*** out of Five

Mission: Impossible – Fallout(7/28/2018)

Once a man named Tom Cruise had a dream.  He had a vision that he would produce and star in a series of spy films that would be a rival to and yet in some ways the opposite of the James Bond series.  Where the James Bond films have done everything they could to follow a formula and try to fit within the same template for decades at a time Cruise’s films would take the opposite approach and shake things up dramatically with every installment and in doing so they’d be able to explore every kind of action movie as the years went on.  This plan lasted for about three movies as it went from the Hitchcockian thrills of the De Palma directed original, to the hyper-kinetic action of the John Woo directed second film, to the snarky meta comedy of the J.J. Abrams directed third installment.  However, after that third movie Cruise put the brakes on the consistent inconsistency plan and started to use that third movie as a sort of starting point for a more traditional film franchise.  Characters like Simon Pegg’s Benjamin Dunn started returning in every movie, plot points like Hunt’s previous marriage began to be acknowledged movie to movie, and the directors they chose to take on installments had less distinctive styles.  There were some upsides to this, the last film Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is something of a series highlight, but I must say I mourn the loss of that original vision.  The most recent entry in the series, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, is perhaps the biggest break to the franchise ethos to date in that it has the director of that previous film (Christopher McQuarrie) has returned for a second film and has made what is more or less a direct sequel to it.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout picks up a few years after the previous movie and it appears that “The Syndicate” that Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) brought down in that movie has given birth to an anarchist collective of agents inspired by Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) known as “The Apostles.”  In the film’s opening scenes Hunt finds himself trying to intercept a black market deal that would have landed three plutonium cores in the hands of The Apostles but loses them to save his team.  IMF Secretary Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) still trusts Hunt after that but CIA director Erica Sloan (Angela Bassett) sees him as a liability so she insists that he be shadowed by one of her own agents, August Walker (Henry Cavill), during his mission to recover the plutonium cores.  That mission will of course be a high stakes globe-trotting ordeal that will require Hunt to risk life and limb at every stage.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout has come out amid a barrage of hype as some of the early reviews were beyond ecstatic.  It’s sitting at 97% on Rotten Tomatoes and some of the quotes about it have really been out there including an oft quoted tweet by the always excitable David Erlich which called it “easily the best action movie since [Mad Max:] Fury Road. Just god level stuff.”  Frankly I think this hyperbole has done the movie a bit of a disservice because I think my expectations going in were a bit skewed by it all.  This defiantly isn’t the best action movie since Mad Max: Fury Road, in fact it isn’t even the best action movie since Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.  That hype made the film’s first half particularly jarring, especially when the film first has Tom Cruise and Henry Cavill interacting with some really strained buddy cop dialogue.  There are also some moments that just do not hold up to scrutiny.  For example right after that aforementioned Cruise/Cavill argument the two of them do this big HALO jump from an altitude that requires them to wear oxygen tanks, which is a cool scene, but it’s all being done just to get into a Parisian building… a building which looks like it could have been much more easily infiltrated by simply buying a ticket to the giant rave that’s going on inside of it.

Around the one third point of the movie I accepted that the critics had overdone it and accepted that this was going to be less of a landmark action movie and more of a logical continuation of the long running series and started to sit back and enjoy myself. As expected the film delivers a lot of the gigantic action scenes and stunts.  That HALO jump I mentioned before is ruined slightly by context but it’s certainly an impressive bit of filming logistics and stunt work.  There’s also a climax involving Tom Cruise dangling from a helicopter that I’m sure was all kinds of difficult to make, and we all know about how he injured himself jumping between buildings in London.  Of course the incredibly high standards that this series has set for itself does become a bit of a problem.  For example, this movie has not one but two chase scenes involving motorcycles which would both be extremely impressive on their own but here they’re being compared to the iconic (if extremely silly) motorcycle chase from Mission: Impossible 2 and the also extremely impressive chase from Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, and while this chase might be a little better on paper it isn’t a giant leap that leaves those other chases in the dust.  Similarly the film never quite comes up with a stunt that’s as conceptually insane as the Burj Khalifa scene from Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol or the “dangle from an airplane mid takeoff” scene from Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.  I suppose there’s that helicopter scene but that just doesn’t have quite the same purity of concept.

I must say I also found the storytelling inbetween the action scenes to be serviceable but noticeably weaker than what we saw in the first and fifth films, which remain my favorite of the series.  There are twists and turns galore in the movie but a lot of them don’t feel entirely earned and they don’t flow as naturally as they tend to in better spy movies.  Ultimately I do think the choice to bring McQuarrie back instead of following the series usual “one movie per director rule” is a big part of the problem.  That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with McQarrie himself but, he’s clearly quite competent behind the camera, but he isn’t really trying to go at the film in a new way at all and he isn’t even really trying to recapture the magic of the last film either.  Rather this is possibly the first time that a Mission: Impossible is solely interested in being exactly what people expect from a Mission: Impossible movie and not much more.  Outside of the stunts it does next to nothing that previous installments hadn’t done better and neither Hunt nor his supporting characters have really gotten all that interesting over the years.  Now don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not suggesting anyone skip this movie.  A dude dangling from a helicopter payload is certainly something that’s worth seeing, but I feel like this could have been a lot better if they’d been a bit bolder with the style and put a little more serious thought into the script.

*** out of Five