Crazy Rich Asians is a frothy mix of familiar 90s romantic comedy cliches and tropes but now with an all-Asian cast and Asian culture given a dignified spotlight. Thanks to the strides in representation, it makes the familiar feel fresh again. This is a very Pretty Woman princess fantasy story of an ordinary woman, Rachel Chu (the great Constance Wu) falling in love with a rich man who then whisks her away to his rich family home out of country and introduces her to the world of the cloistered elites, ex-girlfriends, and hangers-on and their disapproval. Much of the conflict hinges on her feeling accepted by her man’s scowling, scary mother played by the formidable Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). The two-hour running time mostly consists of a lot of blandly nice people. I think enough of these supporting characters could have been consolidated or eliminated to give more space to characters that matter. The film reminded me, in some regards, of the 50 Shades series where we jump from scene to scene to celebrate the extravagance of an elite lifestyle of luxury. It’s intended to alienate Rachel and contrast with her humble, hard-working, honest sensibilities, but after two or three of these, I don’t think it’s quite having that effect. Wu (TV’s Fresh Off the Boat) is a charming, loveable lead, and the film has fun, colorful characters played by Awkwafina (Ocean’s 8) and Ken Jeong (The Hangover trilogy), who amazingly doesn’t overstay his welcome. The production design and costumes are sensational and might even get some Oscar attention. Crazy Rich Asians is a fairly formulaic but pleasant enough movie, and the fact that an all-Asian cast rom-com is slotted as a summer movie is a positive sign. The end results are a fizzy fantasy repackaged but still entertaining and without a sense of pandering.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Ever since Steven Spielberg’s Jaws cemented the concept of a Hollywood blockbuster, sharks have been synonymous with the summer movie season. Just last year a small-scale indie thriller, 47 Meters Down, was a breakout hit with a planned sequel on the way (they ignored my obviously brilliant suggestion of naming it 48 Meters Down, thus proving each additional entry would move the depths a measurable increment of peril). People love them some killer shark movies and the bigger the better. Well it doesn’t get much bigger than The Meg, a movie with a monstrous prehistoric Megalodon shark approaching 75 feet long (that’s one half of 47 Meters Down, if you think about it). The Meg has enough awareness, payoffs, and fun to stay afloat and be a better B-movie.
Deep under the Mariana Trench, a team of deep-sea scientists has discovered a new habitat previously cut off by man. From here emerges the Megalodon, a ferocious predator that has no earthly competition. The team seeks out the help of Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham), a one-man rescue squad who had a run-in with The Meg in his tragic past. The science team must rescue its trapped members, track and evaluate the shark, and prevent the ancient beast from feasting on the locals in the South China Sea.
This is a big stupid shark movie about a big stupid shark, and The Meg provides enough fun to at least warrant one trip out into the water. It’s a monster movie that follows a well-worn formula of discovery, containment, escalation, and then all-out large-scale disaster. I appreciated that the succession of events followed enough of a logistical cause/effect relationship that allows the audience to better suspend disbelief and stay within the movie’s agreeable wavelength of campy thrills. This is the kind of movie that introduces a family of whales only to mercilessly kill them off screen as passing shark food. It’s the kind of movie that knows we want to watch Statham punch sharks in the face. There’s genuinely more shark action than I was expecting and the action sequences have been given consideration to maximize their popcorn thrills. I am used to recent shark movies that hinge on the threat of the shark as an aquatic Boogeyman, on the peripheral and always threatening to return. With The Meg, once the shark is loose it’s a constant presence and persistent problem. There is one moment where our hero has to shoot a tracking device into its dorsal fin. He has to get close while also not disturbing the water and calling attention to himself. It’s a well-engineered and developed suspense sequence that takes advantage of the fun possibilities at play. There are more moments like this that exemplify a degree of thinking and development than sloppy, slapdash CGI mayhem.
This is a major co-production with China and it’s easy to tell. It’s a $130 million Hollywood hybrid with an inclusive cast, global danger, and the havoc wrought on the human population this time are Chinese beach dwellers running in panic. The co-lead is Chinese star Bingbing Li (Transformers: Age of Extinction) who is set up by literally every character to be the romantic interest to the dashing Statham. Even the man’s ex-wife is on the same mission, trying to hook these two up. Statham banging this single mom is the key to bridging these two market forces together, apparently.
Speaking of the man in question, Statham (The Fate and the Furious) is dependable and irony-proof no matter the absurd film scenario. He provides the audience a reliable anchor amidst the genre silliness, plus gratuitous shirtless beefcake shots. He can say the most ridiculous lines of dialogue with a straight face and make you believe it. He’s also great with children. Some of his best moments are his interactions with little Meiying (Shuya Sophia Cai), the young daughter of Li’s character. Statham is so charming and natural around children, and he’s able to coax instant chemistry with a child actor. Why hasn’t somebody given Statham a Rock-style family vehicle where he acts alongside a precocious group of kids? What if he’s an over-the-hill action star helping a group of kids make their own amateur movie? What if he’s an ex-special forces agent-turned-birthday party magician trying to fish out a hidden target? What if he’s a retired movie star trying to coach a pair of kids how to get their parents back together? I never knew I wanted this.
There’s enough of a knowing awareness that let me know the filmmakers understood the goofy kind of movie they were making. It’s not exactly turning to the camera and winking but it feels like it’s nodding at you, asking you to play along. This is exemplified in Rainn Wilson’s (TV’s The Office) character Morris, the outspoken billionaire who founded the whole science station. He’s general comic relief in a movie about a giant shark because The Meg doesn’t treat the shark as comic. After discovering the creature, the science team is ready to take things slowly and cautiously, and Morris flatly screams that we have no time for slow here. When Jonas jumps into the water to take on the shark, it’s Morris exclaiming how awesome it is. The best example is when one of the lead scientists takes a moment to bemoan the overreach of science in a “what have we done?” speech, and Morris just throws up his hands and walks away grumbling, disinterested in listening to any self-serious yammering. Morris kept amusing me because we were repeatedly alike in our commentary and requests for this film experience.
Even with scaled-down expectations, The Meg is still a monster movie that probably needed to be campier or more frightening to be a better movie (I gave the same diagnosis to Krampus). It’s a fun film that understands what a genre audience wants, though it could have pushed further and found ways to subvert those expectations or given us more mayhem. This isn’t a tiresome so-bad-it’s-good-but-it’s-still-bad genre wankfest like the tacky Sharknado movies. It’s also not the delightful, campy, gory B-movie that is Deep Blue Sea. It’s a monster movie that has a sense of amusement and doesn’t waste time pretending to be too serious even when the professorial characters are given to lament. It achieves a middle zone that satisfies enough of your cravings but not fully hitting them.
Not quite as enjoyably dumb as the earlier Rampage, The Meg is still a relatively silly, splashy monster movie with solid thrills, action development, and a good sense of what its core audience demands and how to go about fulfilling that promise. Statham and company plow ahead through the genre shenanigans and make it out the other end bloody yet unscathed. My biggest criticism is that I wanted more; more camp, more carnage, more knowing nods, the kind I got in abundance in last year’s gloriously entertaining Kong: Skull Island. It gave me enough of a tantalizing preview of the better movie it could have become. Still, The Meg is a slice of summer escapism that gave me enough thrills, laughs, and satisfaction to leave me wanting more but mostly content with what I ultimately got.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Two African-American filmmakers, one making his debut and another in his fourth decade of popular storytelling, have produced two of the most uncompromising, entertaining, provocative, and exacting and relevant movies of this year. Boots Riley’s absurdly comic indie Sorry to Bother You was a festival smash, and Spike Lee’s BlackkKlansman is being positioned as a summer breakout. Audiences have often looked to the movies as an escape from the woes of our world, and when the news is non-stop catastrophic woe, that’s even more apparent. However, both of these movies, while enormously entertaining and charged with fresh relevancy, are a reminder of the very social ills many may actively try to avoid. Both films, and their respective filmmakers, make cases why ignorance is a privilege we cannot afford. Also, did I mention that the movies are outstanding, daring, and hilarious?
It’s the early 1970s, and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first black officer on the Colorado Springs police force. He wants to be a detective and taken seriously, and one day he calls the leader of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan pretending to be a white nationalist. He builds a relationship over the phone with the Klan but he can’t meet them in person. Enter fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) who stands in as the public Ron Stallworth, avowed white supremacist. Problem is Flip is Jewish, a group the Klan isn’t much more favorable with. The two officers must work together to gather enough actionable evidence to stop the Klan before they kill.
This is Lee’s best film since 2000’s Bamboozled and he feels jolted awake by the material. He doesn’t shy away from the film’s relevance and potent power but also knows how to faithfully execute the suspense sequences and police procedural aspects of the story by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Lee himself, based upon Stallworth’s book. The story alone is the film’s greatest selling point. It feels like a bizarre recreation of that Dave Chapelle sketch about the blind, and black, Klansman. It’s a story inviting irony and bafflement, and it’s ribald and funny for long stretches, buoyed by Washington’s charismatic and forceful performance (close your eyes and he sounds just like his dad, Denzel). The story is so fascinating that you just want to see where it goes. Stallworth is fighting for respect in a still-racist police force, and he’s pushing Zimmerman to feel more invested in their operation from his own maligned status. “I never thought much about being Jewish,” he shares with Ron, “But I’ve been thinking a lot about it recently.” Theirs is a partnership we root for, and each new accomplishment bonds them together and increases their credibility with a wary police chief. It’s a movie that has a steady supply of payoffs and complications, leaving you satisfied by the end but also more than a bit rattled at the uneasy connections to contemporary news.
This is a character-driven suspense film that does so much so well, drawing in thrills and laughs without making either feel cheaper by their inclusion. This is an undercover operation so every scene with the Klan has the electric uncertainty of whether or not Flip will be caught and our heroes doomed. Because you have two Ron Stallworths, we already have a complicated ruse to keep up (though why Flip couldn’t simply also be the voice on the phone is likely just how it happened in real life). Each new piece of information, each new meeting, takes our characters deeper into the Klan infrastructure, including a guided visit from none other than Grand Wizard (a.k.a. head honcho) David Duke (Topher Grace in an outstanding performance). The risk escalates from being caught to thwarting a planned bombing that could kill innocent minority protestors. The movie does a great job of finding new ways to remind you what is at stake, and while the Klansman are set up to be laughed at and ridiculed, they are still seen as dangerous. They still have the direct intent to physically harm others, not just harass and intimidate.
Because of the undercover operation, you’d be right to assume that Stallworth’s personal life and blossoming romance with a collegiate activist, Patrice (Laura Harrier), would be the least interesting part of the movie. It’s not poorly written or acted by any means. She serves as a reminder of Stallworth’s split loyalties, working for the police, which many in his community see as a tool of oppression from racists with a badge (and we too see this in action). He is always hiding some part of himself, be it his racial identity, his personal affiliation, or even what he really feels about his corrupt colleagues. Even with her, he cannot relax completely. It shows the more personal side of the Stallworth character and provides something real for him to lose, especially once the local Klan targets Patrice. I understand the role she serves in the larger story but I’d lying if I wasn’t eager to get out of every one of her scenes and back into the action. That’s the problem when you have one superior storyline; the others begin to feel like filler you’d rather leave behind to get back to the good stuff.
BlackkKlansman also can’t help itself with the political parallels to our troublesome 45th president, but I loved every one of them. A superior officer warns Stallworth about his dealings with Duke, specifically that he might make good on the promise to retire as Grand Wizard and go for political office. “Come on, America would never elect a man like David Duke as president,” he says with thinly veiled incredulity. The characters might as well turn and wink to the camera and say, “We’re talking about Trump,” but I laughed all the same. At one Klan dinner, the participants chant, “America first,” which is a Trumpian campaign slogan, if you didn’t know dear reader, derived from the Klan (Trump’s own father was arrested attending a 1927 Klan rally). These parallels are destined to turn off some viewers, though I think the subject matter and Lee’s name should be enough to know exactly what kind of movie you’re electing to watch. Nobody goes to a Lars von Trier film expecting to be uplifted about the state of humanity.
It’s at its very end where the film reminds you just how sadly relevant it still is today (minor spoilers but I don’t think they will ruin anything for you). While Stallworth has bested the local chapter of the KKK, there’s another late night with a sudden alarming noise, Stallworth on his guard, and a cross is burning out in the distance. Just because our characters have foiled a band of racists doesn’t mean racism has been eradicated. Instead, as the film suggests, it evolves, and Lee concludes with an impactful montage of news footage of the Charlottesville white supremacist rally and President Trump contorting to find fault on “both sides” when clearly one side was murderous and racist. You even see real-life David Duke on the premises spewing his re-branded style of hate. The evolution of white supremacy demagoguery has become political, and it has found cover under the guise of a president eager to stoke racial resentments and divisions to his advantage. He’s normalized the abhorrent behavior and given it mainstream cover. It’s a powerful and lasting conclusion (much in the same way as the montage of Hollywood’s harmful depiction of black people in Bamboozled — including the Klan hero worship in Birth of a Nation, also featured here prominently) that should remind people that the threats of racism and Nazis and the KKK are not a thing of the past. It is very much a staple of the present, and how much it is allowed to remain a staple is up to the moral outrage of voters.
Sorry to Bother You is also sharply cutting and topical about being black in America. In present-day Oakland, Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is struggling to make ends meet, move out of his uncle’s garage, and do right by his girlfriend and performance artist, Detroit (Tessa Thompson). He gets a job at a telemarketer and discovers a new talent when he turns on his “white voice” (voiced by David Cross) and becomes a power caller, crushing his competition. He moves his way up the chain, losing touch with his base of working-class friends looking to strike to unionize. Once at the top, Cash draws the attention of the CEO, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), who has big plans for a man with Cash’s gifts and seeming flexibility when it comes to corporate moral relativism.
Sorry to Bother You is a wild, hilarious movie bursting with things to say with its shotgun approach to satire, or as my pal Ben Bailey termed, a blunderbuss approach, messy and all over the place and, sometimes, maybe missing its intended mark. I thought the movie was simply going to be about the modern-day struggles of being black and poor in America, and the movie covers those aspects with aplomb. It’s also sized up ample room to satirize consumer culture, labor exploitation and worker rights, male and female relationships, art and media, cultural appropriation, and even memes. Because of all the topics, the movie could run the danger of feeling unfocused, but thanks to the remarkably assured vision and handling of writer/director Boots Riley, it all feels connected by its unique voice operating at a risky but exhilarating level.
There are a lot of bizarre dips into the absurd that had me howling and on the edge of my seat wondering where we would go next. The most popular TV show is just watching a person get the stuffing beaten out of them, and it adopts a pretty simplistic name to go along with this transparency. A very Google or Amazon-esque company is offering “lifetime jobs” for employees to live in their factories and have all their cares taken for by a corporate slaver, I mean kindly overlord. There’s an art show that consists of hurling cell phones at a woman’s body. There’s a corporate video with a female caveman narrator where she is, 1) stop-motion animated, and, 2) topless the entire time, complete with animated swinging breasts. There’s an ongoing thread that seems to trace the life cycle of a meme. A woman throws a Coke can at Cash in protest. She gets plucked form obscurity, gains a talk show, gets an endorsement from Coke and her own video complete with dramatic re-enactment and chirpy jingle, and Cash getting hit becomes its own Halloween costume for white people. There are throwaway lines in this movie that any other major comedy would die for. This is a movie that is impossible to fall asleep to because every moment could be different and you won’t want to miss one of them.
There are moments that strike beyond the immediacy of the onscreen absurdity. One of those moments was when Cash was invited to join the big corporate after party. He’s out of his element, surrounded by rich, relatively young privileged white people. They assume, being black, that Cash will instinctively know how to rap, and they insist that he perform a free-style rap for the assorted group. This ignorant assumption is just the start for Riley, because Cash gets up there and struggles to perform, barely able to scrap together the most elementary of rhyme, and the illusion has become dashed with the crowd. He notices they’re losing their interest with him, so in a desperate ploy, he just shouts two words over and over into the microphone with enthusiasm: the N-word and a profanity. He does this for like a minute, and the crowd of privileged white people shouts it back at him, seemingly lying in wait for some tacit permission by “popular music” for them to likewise use the N-word. It was an indictment that went beyond that scene. Another is ultimately what happens to the big bad corporation by the film’s end. It literally made me guffaw because it felt completely in place with the tone of the movie.
All of this zany and funny stuff would feel passing if there weren’t at least some characters worth our time. Cash is an engaging young man trying to get his life on track. He discovers he has a gift when it comes to coding, to blending into a white-majority community in a comfortable and acceptable manner. It’s a survival technique many African-Americans have had to perfect on a daily basis, and soon to be featured in the upcoming adaptation of the best-selling YA novel, The Hate U Give. Even amidst its more bizarre moments and asides, the movie is about a black man trying to get by with limited opportunities in a society that too often devalues him.
Stanfield (Get Out) has been a strong acting presence for some time, first in the remarkably powerful Short Term 12 and most recently on Donald Glover’s Atlanta. He grabs your attention and Stanfield has a gift for comedy, particularly a nervous energy that draws you closer rather than pushing you away. His character goes on the rise-and-fall path, so we still need to be pulling for him to turn away from his newfound egotism, and Stanfield keeps us rooted. Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok) is Cash’s conscience and her wardrobe and accessories are amazing, from her declarative “The Future is Female Ejaculation” T-shirt to her large earring messages. Hammer (Call Me By Your Name) is confidently smooth and sleazy as a coked-out, venal CEO that is so blasé about his wrongdoing that it doesn’t even register for him as wrong. I appreciated that even with all the wackiness of this cracked-mirror version of our universe, Riley puts in the time and effort to make the characters count rather than be expendable to the satirical aims.
Now, there is a significant turn in the third act that veers the movie into territory that will test how far audiences are willing to go along with Riley’s raucous ride. I won’t spoil what happens but for several of my friends it was simply a bridge too far. For a select few, they even said this turn ruined the movie for them. It worked for me because it felt like an escalation in the dastardly labor practices of the corporation and was finally a visceral reminder of their cruelty. Beforehand, Cash has been making moral compromises to keep his ascending career, excusing the after effects of his success even when it’s selling weapons to foreign countries. That stuff is over the phone, part of his coded performance, and easier to keep out of mind. This escalation finally is too much to pretend to ignore. It’s too much to excuse his own culpability working for the enemy. It’s what pushes Cash back to his circle of friends he had left behind for the corporate ladder, it’s the thing that politically activates him, and it’s what pushes him to make a difference. I can understand, given the somewhat goofy nature of the plot turn, that several viewers will feel like Riley gave up his artistic high ground to self-indulgence. However, I would counter that the line between self-indulgence and an assured vision can be tenuous. The movie is so alive, so vibrant, and so weird, so having another weird detour felt agreeable.
BlackkKlansman and Sorry to Bother You are each unique and fun but with larger messages to say about the black experience and other fissures within our volatile society. You’ll be thoroughly entertained by either film and you’ll walk away with something to ponder and discuss with friends and family and maybe that one racist uncle at Thanksgiving, the one who uses the term “false flag operation” a little too liberally. BlackkKlansman tells a fascinating, comic, and thrilling story about racism of the past, drawing parallels to the trials of today, in particular under the era of Trump. Sorry to Bother You has many targets, many points, and much to say, exploding with thoughts and cracked comedy. Riley is holding up a mirror to the shortcomings and inanities of our own society and the ease we can all feel to turn a blind eye to the difficult realities of systemic racism, capitalism, and worker rights. Lee is a known firebrand and his polemic doesn’t shy from its political relevancy, but it tells a highly engaging story first and foremost, with top acting performances from its cast. In a summer of studios afraid to take chances, here are two excellent movies that take crazy chances and provide bountiful rewards.
Sorry to Bother You: A-
Disarmingly and impressively empathetic, writer/director Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade is brimming with heart and authenticity in every frame. It’s a simple story of Kayla (the wonderful Elsie Fisher) who is weeks away from completing her middle school years and entering the summer before high school. She’s terribly introverted and awkward, only able to find her voice when recording her YouTube pep talk videos. Because of the protagonist’s shy nature, Burnham smartly uses the YouTube videos often as voice over to offer better insight into the kind of person Kayla would like to present herself, sometimes contrasting with the real-life version struggling to find her place and sense of self. This is an observant film that rings with authenticity with the trials and tribulations of modern teenagers in the information age, where small screens are an escape, a crutch, but also a gateway to self-discovery. Fisher is a terrific lead, perfectly capturing the understated sense of a real average teenager (acne included). Because of the introverted and ordinary nature of her, it does take a while to fully embrace her as a character. This is the one real aspect that holds back Burnham’s film. You’ll feel for Kayla, oh you’ll feel a lot of things, but it isn’t until later that you’ll engage with her. Like its heroine, this is a powerfully awkward movie with several cringe-inducing moments both comic and scary. It’s hard to watch at times but it feels completely relatable even with the new-fangled gadgets of the kids these days. I’m just glad I didn’t grow up in the age of ever-present recording devices. It’s a generous movie without an excess of quirk. In fact the movie is pretty restrained with its vision of teenage uncertainty. I did enjoy the synth wave leitmotif that would pound whenever Kayla caught sight of the boy she was crushing on, communicating the beating of her heart in a cool, modern style. The climax involves a heart-to-heart with Kayla’s dad (Josh Hamilton), a man struggling to navigate the changes in his daughter and respect her privacy and curiosity. It brought tears to my eyes and, in my opinion, wipes the floor with the much-ballyhooed paternal advice from Call Me By Your Name. Burnham acquits himself nicely as a director quite well. His choices are determined by his story, and he draws out completely natural performances from his troupe of talented actors. I never would have thought this would be the kind of story a comic drenched in irony would tackle. Eighth Grade is a sincere, deeply heartfelt, and awkward movie about an awkward time most of us would like to skip. Don’t skip Eighth Grade.
Nate’s Grade: B+
The Equalizer 2 is lucky that the threshold for entertainment is just low enough to cover even middling affairs where Denzel Washington dishes out righteous justice to the cocky criminals and ne’er-do-wells of the world. This is very much a strict formulaic second entry for 2015’s original movie, based on the TV series. It’s lesser in just about every regard although it returns Washington, director Antoine Fuqua, and writer Richard Wenk. It’s hard not to feel like a paycheck venture where everyone went on some autopilot. The plot takes a bit long to get into gear and it’s desperately missing the first movie’s lead mob investigator to create an enticing game of cat and mouse. I miss the gradual escalation, as Washington’s character gets in worse and worse trouble as he moves up the ranks of the Russian mafia. I would actually say Equalizer 2 is a movie that peaks in its first act (my favorite moment was an episodic dishes of violent retribution with a group of arrogant sexual assaulters). There just isn’t anything truly memorable here. The action can often feel murky with how it’s been photographed, and there is the occasional questionable quirk that would take me out rather than fully engage (baking flour is combustible now?). There is a satisfying storyline where Washington reaches out to an at-risk youth to dissuade him from joining a gang. It has some nicely drawn character moments that feel meaningful, but then it’s back to the grind of whatever an Equalizer movie means in the twenty-first century. I enjoyed the first Equalizer as a modern-day Canon action vehicle with some pretty sickly entertaining deaths and taut action/suspense sequences. It was a movie that made its presence felt beyond Washington’s cool charisma. With the sequel, all we’re left with is Washington’s charisma performing the heavy lifting.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Coming down from the surging adrenaline rush, I was trying to determine when was the last time an action movie made me feel the immersive, delirious highs that Mission: Impossible – Fallout offers in spades, and what I came up with 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road. Simply put, this is the best straightforward action movie in three years. It’s the best Mission: Impossible movie in the series, which, if it hadn’t already, has assumed the peak position of the most consistent, most entertaining, and best action franchise in Hollywood. Allow me to explain how returning writer/director Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher) makes an action movie that demolishes the competition.
Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) has been pulled back into spy action thanks to the lingering fallout (eh, eh?) of the capture of Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), whose followers, nicknamed The Apostles, have stolen three plutonium cores. It’s Ethan Hunt’s fault the nuclear cores got loose, and so he and his team, Luther (Ving Rhames) and Benji (Simon Pegg), must clean up after their mess. The CIA sends its own asset, the burly August Walker (Henry Cavill), to help oversee the mission and specifically Ethan Hunt, who must pose as a shadowy terrorist broker to maintain appearances with important figures in the criminal underworld. In order to get the nuclear parts, Ethan Hunt has to retrieve Solomon Lane and release him back into the open. Complicating matters further is Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who needs Solomon dead to clear her own spy debts.
Every action movie lives or dies depending upon its unique set pieces, often the first thing constructed by a studio and then the plot mechanics are ladled on merely as the barest of connecting tissue. They need to have stakes, they need to have purpose, they need to be memorable, and they need to be understood and develop organically. Mission: Impossible – Fallout could be taught in filmmaking schools about how to properly build action set pieces. They are brilliant. McQuarrie finds interesting ways to set them up, complicate them, and just keep the escalation going in a manner that still maintains the believability of the moment. Take for instance a foot chase where Ethan Hunt is trying to nab a bad guy through downtown London. Where McQuarrie pushes into the extraordinary is by having that foot chase on a multi-level terrain. Ethan Hunt has to chase after his target but multiple stories above the ground, and so he’s leaping out windows, jumping over rooftops simply to keep up. It’s a simple twist that takes what we’re familiar with and, literally, elevates it to new heights. Or take for instance the mission in Paris to capture Solomon Lane. At first it’s capture, then it’s flee police, then it’s flee another assassin. There are multiple stages to this sequence, each with a new goal, each with new complications, and each with new eye-popping stunts and escapes. The action finds natural points to progress, making smart use of the geography, and keeping different elements at play to come in and out to add more problems. This is how you do action right. As soon as the half-hour mark settles in with the arrival of Walker, the movie is practically nonstop in its set pieces until the very end. At a steep 147 minutes, this is the longest Mission: Impossible movie yet but it’s breathless in its execution.
Amazing set pieces that are cleverly designed is one aspect of a great action movie, but if you can’t tell what’s going on, what’s the point of all that cleverness? Fortunately, McQuarrie understands this and adheres to a visceral depiction of the action that creates gloriously immersive and pulse-pounding sequences. The set pieces are terrific, so it stands to reason the stuntwork should be terrific, and to make sure you appreciate the stuntwork, McQuarrie makes sure the photography highlights the verisimilitude. It’s a symbiotic (or as the Venom trailer tells me, “sym-BI-oat-ic”) relationship but when done correctly, as evidenced in this film, it’s the key to truly kinetic action sequences. Take for instance a parachute jump that marks the start of the second act. McQuarrie films it as a sustained long take, and as the camera plummets to the ground chasing after the two men, our brains can tell us that there is some special effects trickery to mitigate the dangers, but our senses are overwhelmed with the sustained illusion of tension. The fight choreography is equally up to the challenge. A bathroom brawl with Ethan Hunt and Walker and another man becomes a lesson in how many things can be smashed and what can be used as a weapon. A high-speed motorcycle chase through Parisian streets gets even more frantic when Ethan Hunt drives against traffic, and the scene becomes even more exciting when McQuarrie’s lens allows us to see the danger in all its glory.
The Mission: Impossible franchise has been notable for its insane stuntwork but also, chiefly after the second installment, its edict to practical effects and maintaining the believability of its reality. It’s still movie spy shenanigans and globetrotting adventures, yes, but the moment-to-moment thrills feel like they’re really happening. The Fast and Furious franchise has gained great acclaim for the bombast of its physics-defying spectacle, and the Mission: Impossible franchise seems to have gone purposely in the opposite direction. It’s real Tom Cruise jumping off that building, it’s real Tom Cruise riding through traffic on a motorcycle, and it’s real Tom Cruise falling and climbing up a speeding helicopter during the thrilling finale. Cruise has had a death wish when it comes to throwing himself into the high-wire stunts of his franchise, but even at 56 years old he’s still at it, essentially trying to commit suicide on film for all of our amusement. Cruise is one of the few remaining movie stars and his commitment is without question.
This is also the first Mission: Impossible film that feels like the characters matter. It’s a direct continuation from the previous film, 2015’s Rogue Nation, bringing back the (somewhat lackluster) villain, the newest spy counterpart/potential love interest, the CIA and IMF brass, and the essential supporting team members from prior engagements. Because of this it feels more like what happened previously was establishment for a new story building upon that foundation. Rather than starting all over, the characters find ways to deepen their relationships, and the film opens up Ethan Hunt as a character and the toll his duty takes on those closest to him. There are some nice quiet moments that examine these characters as actual people. Several complications are as a direct result of personal character decisions, some good and some bad. I was joking with my pal Ben Bailey beforehand about wondering whether they’d find a way for Ving Rhames to matter, since he hasn’t been much more than “a guy in the van” for four movies, and by God they make him matter. They make each team member matter, finding moments to give them, mini-goals they’re entrusted with. During the dizzying helicopter chase in the finale, supporting players are left with their own task. Luther has to defuse a bomb but doesn’t have enough hands. Benji has to find something valuable in a very needle-haystack situation designed to torment and waste precious time. Ilsa is at cross-purposes for most of the film, not wanting to harm her fellow allies but also being given her own orders to prove her loyalty and protect her future. All of this comes to a head and it makes the parts feel as important as the whole. That’s great storytelling.
Let’s talk about that million-dollar mustache of Cavill’s. It was a year ago that Justice League re-shoots required Cavill and the Mission: Impossible team refused to allow their actor to shave his mustache, thus leading to that unsettling fake baby lip Superman was sporting in a majority of his scenes in the haphazard Justice League film. I just read an AV Club interview with McQuarrie where he for the first time discusses the whole mustache brouhaha and apparently Paramount estimated that it would have cost them three million for the effects to uphold Cavill’s upper lip continuity. Warner Brothers refused to pay up and so went down that ill-fated CGI mustache-removing route. It was shortly afterwards that Cruise shattered his ankle in a roof-leaping stunt (that is in the finished film and advertisements) and the production had to shut down for a month. If only Warner Brothers had waited, perhaps we all could have avoided this mustache mess.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout is a new highpoint for the best action franchise going in movies today (I’m still waiting for a third Raid film, Gareth Evans). The set pieces are memorable and unique, leading from one into the next with exquisite precision and thought. The action sequences are stunning and shot with stunning photography, highlighting the stunning stuntwork by the best death-defying professionals. It’s the first Mission: Impossible movie that doesn’t climax at its middle; in fact there’s a pretty obvious reveal that feels like it was going to be a late Act Three twist, but McQuarrie recognizes the audience thinking ahead, and there’s like a whole other exciting 45 minutes after. The stakes are better felt because the characters matter and are integrated in meaningful ways. This is the most I’ve enjoyed Henry Cavill in a movie (with possible exception of another spy movie, Man From U.N.C.L.E.), and you know what, his mustache works too. While the vertigo-inducing Burj Khalifa sequence is the best set piece in the franchise, Fallout has everything else beat at every level. Mission: Impossible – Fallout is a reminder that there are few things in the world of cinema better than a properly orchestrated, properly filmed, and properly developed action movie operating at full throttle. This is one of the reasons why we go to the movies, folks. See it in IMAX if possible. Soak it up.
Nate’s Grade: A
This review is weeks late after having sat down and watched American Animals, and it’s stuck with me in a powerful way. It’s a movie that pulls back the disparity between crime in the movies, so stylized and slick and carefree, and crime in real life, often traumatic, dehumanizing, and with lifelong complications for both victim and perpetrator. It’s a movie that examines a youthful sense of ennui that their lives are missing out on something extraordinary, and a step too far over a very clear moral line thanks to a fantasy given shape by escapist movies and other media. It’s also a slippery I, Tonya-style look at memory and contradiction but this time from the real-life people involved. It’s an entertaining dark comedy, an unexpected true-crime caper, and most resonating of all, a nerve-wracking thriller that left me morally queasy and unwell, but in a good way. In short, American Animals is one of the best films I have seen so far in 2018.
In 2004, at a small Kentucky liberal arts university, four young men are planning their own version of the “perfect crime.” The school has a rare books section including an original copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species and a large and valuable edition of John James Audobon’s The Birds of America. The books are appraised at $12 million dollars. Spencer (Barry Keoghan), an art student, teams up with Warren (Evan Peters), Erik (Jared Abrahamson), and Chas (Blake Jenner) to plot a daring heist. The men feel like their lives are missing something exciting and a heist is just the ticket. They just have to break in, steal the books, and subdue a librarian (Ann Dowd). Easy stuff, right?
For the first half of the movie, American Animals plays out like a dark comedy. I had no prior knowledge that we were going to get the real-life subjects appearing as themselves in interviews cut throughout the film (their family members are still actors though). The film even plays around with this narrative hook for a few laughs, making quick cuts for punchlines and trying to square conflicting accounts, like having one scene alternate between two locations in dispute of its telling. It also helps set one of the major themes going forward in a nimble fashion, namely the difference between the reality of events and the whimsical, fantasy movie version of what an excursion into crime would be like. Having been bred on cinema’s glorified depictions of heists, the guys come to assume that a heist is sexy and fun and something that doesn’t end up hurting anyone. There’s a charming quality to the fact that Spencer uses his art skills to create models of the rare books room. There’s a laughable ingenuity to the fact that they’re planning on holding the heist in the middle of their class exams, since who would suspect students during that important time? There’s a bemused naiveté about the power of their disguises when they dress as a shuffling group of old men in powdered faces. We’re set up for a funny story about bumbling students falling all over themselves at attempted criminal shenanigans.
I was expecting a relatively light movie just from the plot particulars. It’s a heist film and the goal is to steal a bunch of books. It seemed small-scale in scope and anodyne. What trouble could a group of students get into attempting to steal books? Writer/director Bart Layton (The Imposter) seems to know this, lulling the audience into a false sense of security. He even teases the movie version of what the heist might be like, with our characters suavely stepping into their parts with practiced precision, all while music reminiscent of the Ocean’s Eleven franchise hums in the background. This is the cool-movie version, the version the characters have fantasized over in their minds, and the version that the audience is more attuned to expect. What we actually get is something very different. The heist itself plays out in excruciating detail and it runs counter to their planning. The reality of subduing the librarian is upsetting. It’s supposed to be so simple, after all, but the reality is anything but. The characters almost avoid this whole scenario, aborting their heist only to return back to it the next day. You feel the anguish of how close they were to turning away at several steps, the moments this ordeal could have been avoided, and yet fate barrels onward, energized by a misplaced sense of purpose. American Animals doesn’t let you or its characters off the hook either. I was fidgeting and sweating nervously throughout the heist and its subsequent fallout. Again, this is all about a bunch of stolen books, and I was beside myself with anxiety.
It’s only afterwards and looking back that you realize how masterfully Layton has built up his scenes and the necessary information to make you squirm. With every heist, the particulars of the setting, the challenges and tight window need to be established, and once that occurs, we’re hoping for unexpected complications. But in order for those unexpected consequences to really hit hard, we have to be trained with what Plan A was going to be, and American Animals does this superbly. People have their designated roles and areas they refuse to partake in, like Eric makes it clearly known he will not be responsible for subduing the librarian in any way. Of course, you can expect what will eventually happen, pushing his character to an even more uncomfortable place. I was very appreciative that there’s an extended resolution after the heist, where the guys try to unload the books to a seller, and the further complications. You really feel the screws being tightened and the overwhelming feeling of dread. It’s another confirmation for me that I’m just not cut out for a life of crime. The day-to-day anxiety is just too much.
I left this movie feeling a strange mixture of jubilation and sadness, still reeling from the expertly developed and executed moral tension. The technical skills are just as strong, each working in succinct harmonious sequence to bring about Layton’s vision to startling effect. The editing is extremely tightly constructed. The smooth cinematography by Ole Bratt Birkeland frames the tension and comedy expertly, and the ominous music by Anne Nikitin kept me on the edge of my seat. It’s almost like a full-blown David Fincher film by the end. The acting is another strong point, with each actor initially relegated into a stock role (“The Muscle,” “The Wheelman,” etc.) we’ve come to associate with these kinds of movies. The film nicely pushes the characters beyond a casual, cursory understanding, blurring the lines of who they are as they blur lines of their own. A surprise standout is Blake Jenner (unrelated to the Kardashians/Jenner clan) who joins the team the latest, seems like a stereotypical rich jock lunkhead, but when he breaks down and articulates why the team is as screwed as they are, his clarity can catch you off guard. He’s the first to realize they’ve trashed their lives and are doomed and for nothing. Also deserving of praise is the always-wonderful Ann Dowd (The Handmaid’s Tale); your heart hurts for this poor woman who is confused, scared, and undeserving of her harrowing ordeal.
American Animals hasn’t been able to leave my thoughts for weeks, which is usually the sign of a pretty good movie. It upset me. It rattled me. It entertained me. Most of all, it made me think, about the lines people cross in the name of missing out on some vague sense of grand experience, of the differences between the reality of crime and our appealing fantasy versions of crime, and why those stories appeal to us in general. I kept thinking about the pain these four men had caused themselves and others and their regrets. I kept thinking about how smartly Layton utilizes documentary storytelling techniques to enhance his film as well as better examine the disconnect of reality-versus-movies. It’s a movie that could have been told as a documentary but excels best as a hybrid of the two, one that challenges our conception. I’m shocked it wasn’t credited to a book or news article as its source material, meaning Layton compiled all of this impressively on his own. This is a movie that got under my skin, that made me uncomfortable, but also thrilled me and entertained me from its first minute until its very last. I highly advise looking for American Animals once it becomes readily available.
Nate’s Grade: A
Dwayne Johnson has fought giant monsters, earthquakes, armies, drug cartels, race-enthusiast criminals, and video game villains, so now, as we run out of opponents, enjoy Dwayne Johnson versus… a building. Skyscraper is much more Towering Inferno than Die Hard, as Johnson plays a security specialist fighting to break into a burning building in order to rescue his family from a group of armed criminals. It’s a movie that struggles to keep pace with schlock throughout its relatively brisk running time. There are some definite detriments, like a team of uninteresting villains with a pretty haphazard plan (in order to flush out a rich guy, they… set a building on fire?). Some of the sequences are just goofy in conception, like an access panel placed right under a spinning turbine, or a top floor architectural design that makes no sense except to provide a requisite location for a “hall of mirrors” finale. However, it’s a perfectly serviceable action thriller, with a better handle on the material than I would have thought for the director of ribald comedies We’re the Millers and Central Intelligence. Johnson is a perfectly magnetic leading man and the plot has a satisfying A-to-B-to-C progression of obstacles and practical solutions. Neve Campbell plays Johnson’s wife and she is actually given important things to do rather than being a damsel in distress. She even saves the day. Skyscraper won’t be a movie you’ll remember long after having seen it, but it’s got enough charm and decently structured set pieces to serve as disposable entertainment.
Nate’s Grade: B-
This is the first Purge movie to exist in the era of President Donald J. Trump, and that has made the films more political and even more oddly relevant. The movies have been pretty upfront about the political machinations of the Purge events from the start, the rich elites (read: white males) using the annual occasion to sweep the world of undesirables (read: poor, minorities). The fourth film, The First Purge, goes back to the origins and it’s even more bluntly political with its commentary. However, when we see children being held in cages in our daily headlines, it’s an affirmation that we may live in blunt times and perhaps we need blunt instruments of dark social satire to get the message across.
The residents of Staten Island have been selected for a social experiment from the governing party of the New Founding Fathers (NFF). For twelve hours, all crime will be legal. Dmitri (Y’lan Noel) is a local gang leader with his eye on his community, making sure his people will be taken care of and protected. His ex-girlfriend Nya (Lex Scott Davis) rejects his outreach, and little brother Isaiah (Jovian Wade) is looking for vengeance against a psychopathic loner in the neighborhood. The creator of the Purge, social scientist Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei), only wants to see where the data leads. The NFF, on the other hand, have their own motives and will make sure the experiment succeeds at all costs.
Never has the Purge universe felt closer to our own than with this new movie, and that’s a testament to the film franchise finding new ways to spin its stories, but it’s also an indictment on our own modern times. When we have a president who on a whim, as recently reported, asked why we can’t just invade Venezuela or why we can’t just use nuclear weapons, it doesn’t seem too far away that he might, without a moment’s notice or hesitation, champion a real Purge program. The new movie reflects this reality with even more explicit relevance. The figures of oppression and white supremacy are preying upon vulnerable black and brown Americans. We have militiamen dressed in Klansmen garb, shiny Nazi outfits, police uniforms, and even masks that evoke blackface. These same creatures of hatred have been given a new platform of legitimacy from a president who has trouble saying anything bad about his fans, thus ennobling and enabling the fringe elements into renewed visibility. This is a movie where the citizens of a poor neighborhood have to fight back against the racist elements set to kill them and empowered by the government. If that doesn’t sound eerily relevant today, you haven’t been keeping up with the omnipresent news cycle of outrageous offenses.
Another interesting turn of events is that this might be the first Purge movie that is hopeful about the human race. For three movies, the Purge has celebrated our darker natures, positing that mankind when stripped of responsibility for its actions would inevitably trend toward brutish violence because they could. The core belief of the Purge is that people need a release of the evil inside them, as if there was a finite level. We’ve watched crazy people do wantonly destructive and murderous acts for three movies. The First Purge offers a completely different perspective. Once the event happens, the majority of the “participants” will elect not to engage in casual mayhem and murder. There will be the occasional few acts of vandalism and theft, and an outlying psycho or so (more of that dude later), but the majority of State Island residents just stay indoors, find refuge in their church, or simply attend a block party. They actively disengage. It’s then that the NFF fret that the social experiment they’ve bet so much political capital on will not turn out with the preferred results they need. They need Americans to be afraid, and it also helps eliminate the minority voting bases for their rival political parties. This reality is not to their liking, so they will simply repackage the news to their liking. That’s when the NFF push the reactionary elements (paramilitary white supremacists) to infiltrate and instigate mass death to ensure the Purge experiment is successful. The numbers are skewed, and paying people based upon their level of violent participation may start the process skewed to begin with. In an unexpected bout of optimism,The First Purge argues for the morality of humanity.
Because of this very purposeful perspective, it also means that the movie is a bit slow and dull for the first hour. The First Purge has the same flaws as the other films, notably an over reliance on jump scares and less-than-interesting peripheral characters. One female supporting player (Mugga) is meant to be comic relief but I found her to be exceptionally grating, like she had been ported in from the sitcom version of the Purge (There is a TV show headed for USA and a commercial for it in the end credits, the first I’ve ever seen that happen). The glowing iris contact lenses of the participants created an eerie mood in place of larger set pieces. Some of the run-ins are actually rather lame, like an armed holdup where the gun is revealed to be… a water pistol. Who is running around pranking people with a toy when actual murder, with actual murder-capable guns, is sanctioned? That’s just beyond stupid. Likewise there’s a crew of people waiting in the sewers to… sexually assault women by grabbing their crotches. It’s a bit odd considering all of the uncomfortable waiting they must endure. I did find the lead character Dmitri to be quietly compelling as he tries to protect his neighborhood. When the final act comes, and Dmitri becomes a one-man wrecking crew taking down murderers in Nazi regalia, that’s when the movie transitions into the action spectacle we’ve been craving. The final fight is righteous and satisfying, and it even brings back a wildcard character you may have forgotten. By its conclusion, The First Purge has packed its best, most exciting stuff, but until then it’s a somewhat somber, somewhat restrained experience that may rankle the blood-lusting audience that had grown familiar with the series’ depravity.
And now we have to talk about the best character in the whole movie, and maybe second best after Frank Grillo’s grizzled badass hero. Skeletor (Rotimi Paul) is a local criminal who seems pretty unstable, prone to violent outbursts and self-aggrandizing talk. Whenever he talks it feels like you need a spittle guard as protection. He either has facial implants of scars running along his exterior, though I’d bet they were self-induced scars. He is, as my friend Ben Bailey attributed, the human equivalent of Roberto from Futurama, a psychopathic stabby robot that would mumble to himself and, very often, stab repeatedly. That is Skeletor, who is so brazenly crazy that he circles around from threat to figure of entertainment, like some 80s slasher villain elevated by personality and execution (not literally). When he reappeared I would chuckle to myself and say, “Oh, what’s that Skeletor going to get up to next?”
The First Purge is the latest in an unsubtle sci-fi thriller franchise, though this is the first Purge movie to separate itself from its grisly ilk in interesting and thematically relevant ways. It rejects the core pessimistic belief system that human beings, when given the freedom to be violent, will exercise that opportunity. This is the first questionably (naively?) optimistic Purge movie, even though we know what comes after. It’s a bit slow and still beholden to the overall staid formula of the franchise, but this is a Purge film with enough sharp contrasts and a streamlined thematic perspective that it stands out. I won’t say it hits the peak of 2014’s Purge: Anarchy, but I would easily call this the second best entry in the franchise. In Trump America, it’s scary how relevant these movies have become and it’s refreshing they haven’t shrunk from that unexpected relevance.
Nate’s Grade: B
The John Gotti biopic has become somewhat notorious because of its 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, not that this is the first film to hit that dubious mark. It is bad, though not quite 0% bad. The biggest crime of this movie is that it at no point solidifies a reason why we should find John Gotti interesting. As played by John Travolta, he’s a ruthless leader who beat so many prosecutors that he was nicknamed the “Teflon Don.” He’s also really really boring, spouting stereotypical bromides about the importance of family, never giving an inch, never turning on your family (both capital F and lowercase f). It’s a cock-eyed worldview I’d expect, however, at the very end of the movie, the movie itself adopts this cock-eyed justifications, presenting the federal government as the real villains and inserting interview footage of real people eulogizing Gotti, saying he made their streets clean and cared about his community and was, essentially, a hero. It’s amazingly misguided, like director Kevin Connolly (“E” fro HBO’s Entourage) has suffered Stockholm syndrome from his lunk-headed, murderous criminals. That same sense of misjudgment is never more adamant than in the musical score by pop star Pitbull. Read that again. There’s a sequence where Gotti goes out on furlough and is escorted to kill an associate, and the musical score is jaunty and uptempo. There were several moments where the score just took my breath away, so tonally disjointed was this mostly modern-day musical score. The movie is structured as an ongoing series of interviews between Gotti Sr. (Travolta) and his adult son, with choice flashbacks interspersed. We don’t even get a rise-and-fall sort of formula. It never provides sufficient evidence why Gotti was interesting at all and worth a big screen biopic. The dialogue feels like it was written with all exclamation points. Nothing is subtle or left to the imagination here, and that extends into the scenery-chewing acting as well from a bunch of unmemorable stock roles. There is also a 1996 TV movie about John Gotti starring Armand Assante. Sight unseen, it must almost assuredly be the better movie and more worth two hours of your precious time.
Nate’s Grade: D+