Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Film Review: Mission-Impossible Fallout

Sexuality/Nudity Acceptable
Violence Mature
Vulgarity Mature
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Mature

I said in my review of Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation that Ethan Hunt was the American James Bond.  After watching the latest installment in the series, I would say that modern James Bond should hope to be the British Ethan Hunt.

Mission: Impossible - Fallout is the sixth installment in a series that began 22 years ago.  And amazingly, at a time when most franchises should be on their last legs, Fallout is the best film in the series.

This is the first time this film franchise has brought back the same director twice.  Christopher McQuarrie gave us the previous series best in Rogue Nation.  Now he returns with Fallout.  This new film feels much more like a continuation of a story than any of the previous films.  While some characters and plot lines spill over from movie to movie, the plot of this film directly depends on the characters and events of Rogue Nation.  In addition, there are callbacks to people like the villainess Max that go all the way back to the first Mission: Impossible.  Rather than being a drag on the story, McQuarrie know when to use this a background texture and when to use it as a solid foundation to build the narrative.

Fallout begins two years after the events of Rogue Nation.  The villain from that film, Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) is in custody, but the remnants of the Syndicate (the eponymous "Rogue Nation") have become more radicalized, calling themselves "The Apostles."  These bad guys try to get ahold of three plutonium cores to build three nuclear bombs.  Ethan (Tom Cruise) is tasked with retrieving them along with assistance from series stalwarts Luther (Ving Rhames) and Benji (Simon Pegg).  But things go wrong because of a choice Ethan makes.  Secretary Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) tasks Hunt to clean up his mess.  But CIA chief Erica Sloan (Angela Bassett) intervenes and forces her top assassin August Walker (Henry Cavill) to join the mission.  Along the way they encounter MI6 operative Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who has her own agenda.

I can understand why McQuarrie was brought back for this film.  While Brad Bird's Ghost Protocol had the best M:I sequence at the Dubai tower, the rest of that film couldn't live up to that scene.  McQuarrie knows how to space out the action sequences and ratchet them up to the proper crescendo from the beginning until the end.  When you have the added layer of knowing how most of the stunts were not CGI (like the Halo jump in the first act) and how Cruise puts his body on the line for the entertainment, each jump and fall carry with it a blood-rush of visceral thrill.  The sequences are exciting and creative.

Sometime that this movie gets right is showing how to show our heroes overcome conflict.  These are incredibly smart and skilled individuals who come up with ingenious plans and then execute them.  But what makes the movie more exciting is when in the middle of their plans, everything goes wrong.  One of the big problems with Ocean's 8 was that nothing really went wrong with their plan.  The characters were shown to be so capable that every obstacle was side-stepped.  For the heroes in Fallout, every possible obstacle comes crashing down on them to ruin their plans and they are forced to improvise an impossible (pun intended) solution on the spot.  Like a good magic show, we keep waiting for them to pull a rabbit from the hat, but only if it feels earned and not as a cheat.

There is better acting in this film than in most Oscar-nominated dramas.  Cruise has lost none of his charisma and intensity.  His chemistry with Cavill is one of my favorite things in the film as they have to become a kind of espionage "Odd Couple."  In the film Ethan is called a "scalpel" and Walker is a "hammer."  This plays out perfectly in their performances.  I loved how there was always silent conflict between the two but they didn't have to talk to be in sync on action, like taking down a bad guy or kicking out a front windshield of a truck.  Rhames is the emotional heart of the movie, where he can be the one who gives insight into the heart of the stoic Ethan.  Pegg always does his comedic best but does not detract.  Even Alec Baldwin doesn't phone in his performance but you can see flashes of his Jack Ryan from The Hunt for Red October.  Ferguson continues to do the amazing job of matching Cruise's screen presence.  Their attraction is constantly held back by the fact that Ethan is still married to Julia from Mission: Impossible III.

I do have some issues with how that marriage is treated in the movie.  But what I really liked was that the movie takes this marriage seriously.  Often sequels, especially in the Bond franchise, dismiss former love interests down the memory hole.  But Ethan and Julia got married and that is not a serious bond that cannot be brushed aside.  This is especially the case when there is no indication that these two characters ever stopped loving each other.  It makes for an painfully interesting conflict regarding how Ilsa relates to Ethan without resorting to melodrama.  This is a Mission: Impossible  movie after all.

While balancing the action, the movie does a good job of reminding us that morality cannot be reduced to a utilitarian cost/benefit analysis that we would see Jack Bauer do constantly on 24.  Ethan understands that there is a greater good, but he never forgets that each individual innocent life is important.  That isn't to say that there aren't consequences to saving the life in front of you over the many down the road.  The spectre of that destruction looms heavy over Ethan.  But the movie also shows us what happens to the soul when innocent human lives are reduced to numbers on a balance sheet.  Moving the morals of human life from the abstract to the personal is a wonderfully Catholic insight.

The only other complaint I have for the film is that in a movie with several clever twists throughout, one of the biggest ones is so clearly telegraphed that the reveal almost feels like a let down.  If the expected twist didn't occur, that would be the real twist.  I apologize for being vague but any more specific detail would be too much of a spoiler.

If you like your summer movies to be pulse-pounding roller coasters of action and spectacle, then go see Mission: Impossible - Fallout.

image by Yasir72.multan

Monday, July 30, 2018

Film Review: Equalizer 2

Sexuality/Nudity Mature
Violence Mature
Vulgarity Mature
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Mature

"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth." Matthew 5:9

Perhaps this is an odd way to begin a film review for a bloody, violent action film.  But this passage kept coming back to me as I watched Equalizer 2.

This film takes place some time after the first Equalizer.  Most of the supporting cast has been jettisoned, and that is a good thing.  We follow the life of our seemingly meek hero Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) as he drives around in his Lyft car, having gentle conversations with his passengers.  But when he sees an injustice, he kicks into high gear using his deadly set of skills.  This becomes pushed to the limit when one of his only real friends Susan (Melissa Leo) is murdered.  Robert, who has been presumed dead, must go to his old partner and mutual friend Dave (Pedro Pascal) and enter a deadly world of assassination.

Washington is 64, but I would not believe it.  It isn't that he shows off his physique the way Tom Cruise does in order to show his vigor.  But Washington still commands all of the power and strength of his younger days, but now with a judgmental eye of experience.  When he looks at a situation, you can see the balance of thought in his look and the unmovable sense of right.  There was a moment in the film where I turned to my wife and said, "I would never want Denzel to ever look at me like THAT!"  It was a look of barely contained rage mixed with disappointment and sadness.

But above all what Washington brought to the role is meekness.  I learned recently that "meekness" does not mean simple shyness or cowardice.  Instead, "meekness" is when you have the power to act violently and decisively, but instead restrain yourself and act with gentleness.  There is a lurking tiger in every scene with Denzel.  Sometimes he lets that tiger loose to ferocious effect.  Sometimes the tiger is caged.  But that tiger is always present in Washington's performance.  The other cast members do a fine job keeping up, though Bill Pullman is horribly underused.  But make no mistake, this is Washington's film.

Director Antoine Fuqua teams up with Washington for the fourth time and their chemistry works.  Fuqua knows just how to film Washington in his wildly disparate scenes.  He knows how to ratchet up the tension before the action scenes begin so that we are on the edge of our seats prior to the bullets flying.  And his prolonged use of tension draws you in.  This film feels more confident than the last one, allowing for more visual storytelling without as much exposition.  This works so well because not only does it reduce clunky dialogue, but Fuqua gets us into Robert's head and we see the world through his eyes.  However, the final act action sequence goes on a bit too long.

The movie is incredibly violent, but all of the violence is earned.  When Robert picks up young lady who he figures out has been horribly sexually assaulted, you burn with a desire for justice that is satisfyied by the subsequent violence.  When Susan is killed, it isn't a simple moment.  It is a brutal fight where she gives everything she has to bloody up her attackers.  You want Robert to come and set things right.

And yet the movie wants to say that violence is something to be glorified while glorifying it.  When asked if he deserves to die for his sins, Robert says, "A hundred times over."  Here, I assume, he is speaking about his life as a government assassin before he became "The Equalizer."  But there is a mark of pain on his soul.  In the movie there is a subplot where Robert is trying to mentor a teenage boy named Miles (Ashton Sanders) who is being recruited by the drug gangs.  Robert yells at the teenager and says "Man isn't spelled G-U-N."  A movie like Logan did a better job of slowly making the audience weary of the violence.  Equalizer 2, being primarily and action film, cannot afford to do that.

The biggest downside to the film are all of the subplots.  This is odd since they also have some of the movie's best moments.  There is an incredibly emotion story about a holocaust survivor (Orson Bean) trying to find a lost painting.  There are even smaller scenes where an alcoholic (Gerry Pucci) prays the serenity prayer and Robert silently removes his hat in respect or soldier (Miguel Nascimento) is being deployed to Iraq and Robert tells him he'll be there to pick him up when he returns.  But the best subplot is the one with Miles.  You can see how Robert, who has cut himself off from the world after his wife's death, is trying to reconnect.  The scene where he confronts Miles in the drug den is the best in the movie.

But the problem is, as great as these moments are, they diverge too much from the overall plot.  If the movie was simply Robert moving into different vignettes of action, this wouldn't be an issue.  But there is through-line to this story and as well-done as these scenes are, they feel like the movie is putting on brakes until it gets back on the main road.  The Miles story is integrated a little better in the third act, but it is a little late by then.

That critique aside, this series feels as though it is picking up steam, unlike Liam Neeson's Taken trilogy which petered out in the second film.

Equalizer 2 has me excited to see Equalizer 3.

image by Yasir72.multan

Film Flash: Teen Titans Go To The Movies

15 words or less film review (full review to follow soon)

DC animated PG-rated Deadpool. An Easter Egg Basket for DC fans.
image by Yasir72.multan

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Film Flash: Mission Impossible - Fallout

15 words or less film review (full review to follow soon)

Best of the series, better than most modern Bond films.  Edge-of-your-seat action.

image by Yasir72.multan

Friday, July 27, 2018

Film Review: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Sexuality/Nudity Mature
Violence No Objection
Vulgarity Acceptable
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Mature

I was not a fan of the first film.  And this second film feels like they are wringing as much good will as they can out of that already dry rag.

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again takes place about five years after the first movie.  Donna (Meryl Streep) is dead.  Her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is opening up the Greek isle hotel to honor her mother's dream.  Her mother's friends Tanya (Christine Boranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters) and Donna's widowed husband Sam (Pierce Brosnan) try to bolster her up as she deals with the pressures of the opening and marital strife with her husband Sky (Dominic Cooper).  Her other "dads" Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) and Harry (Colin Firth) are busy and cannot come.  While dealing with all of this, we are given flashbacks of young Donna (Lily James) as she travels to Greece and meets young Harry (Hugh Skinner), young Bill (Josh Dylan), and young Sam (Jeremy Irvine) along with young Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn) and young Rosie (Alexa Davies).

The first thing you are going to notice is how the filmmakers are scraping the bottom of the ABBA barrel.  The opening song has young Donna give a valedictory speech that turns into a song and dance number of "When I Kissed the Teacher."  Not only is this an ABBA song I've never heard before, but in the #MeToo era it comes off as more uncomfortable than funny.

To be fair, this film does a much better job with the choreography than the last one, which was incredibly lazy in its dancing.  A lot more effort has been made hear, which is apparent by the cute rendition of "Waterloo" in a French restaurant.  But, like the last movie, it feels like the songs were shoehorned into the story to make them fit.  At one point we are introduced to an elderly hotel manager is introduced played by the great Andy Garcia.  I turned to my wife and asked "How much do you want to bet his name is 'Fernando?'"  The script has little wit or imagination.  Nearly everything feels like a retread.

The first half of the movie is a bit on the distasteful side as young Donna bed hops to three different men in rapid succession: one out of pity, one out of desire, and one as a rebound.  I'm sure this is meant to show her as an empowered woman who takes control of her sexuality.  But it instead makes the sexual act feel cheap.

However, as the movie progresses, there is an odd maturing process.  The older characters find more meaning in marital fidelity.  And others come to grasp the importance of family above all other things.  The movie wants to have it's moral cake and eat it too.  It wants to enjoy the amoral freedom of youthful pleasure-seeking and then have the mature fulfillment of faithful and loving relationships.

The performances are actually better than this movie deserves.  From the trailers I thought that the younger versions of the characters were going to be pale imitations of some already uninspired performances.  But these actors not only captured the spirit of their older counterparts but gave them a lot of life and energy.  I was particularly impressed with Dylan as young Bill who was able to effortlessly effuse charm and showed some very nice dancing talent.  It made me wish that the material was better so that these actors could shine more.  Cher shows up towards the end.  And her vocal talent is such that it puts most of the cast to shame.

As we approach the last act, the film throws all logic and rationality to the wind and embraces a completely festive tone.  It is actually a bit admirable the way the movie basically says, "We are just going to have a lot of silly fun and if you don't like it, then that's your problem!"  There is a boat sequence set to "Dancing Queen" that pushes the movie into a full-throttle musical cheese-fest, but without any apologies or winking at the camera.  This is your middle-aged uncle dancing with abandon on the dance floor at the wedding, and he doesn't care because he's having a great time.

And now, if you will indulge me, I need be a little more personal here.

When my mom went into the hospital last year, she became very understandably depressed by her prognosis.  We would visit, but there would often be a pallor of sadness that hovered over her.  When this happened, there were only three times I saw her light up and the shadow fade.  The first was when I brought my wife to visit her in the ICU.  The second was when I brought her grandchildren to see her after chemotherapy.  And the third was when we were flipping stations and Mamma Mia! was on.  On that third one, she smiled and her feet moved along with the music.

When my wife and I went to the theater on Friday, we bought a ticket for each of us and for my dearly departed mother.  The whole time we imagined her sitting next to us.  When the "Dancing Queen" number began, I couldn't help but smile because no matter how flat the movie had been up until that point, that number was full of fun.  I could almost see my mom sitting next to me, feet moving to the music, singing at the top of her lungs in the theater and not caring because she would be having a great time.  And I began to weep openly at the thought of it.

Sometimes things don't have to be good to enjoy them.  They can simply touch our hearts in a special way.  I can't say Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again is a good movie.  But, for reasons that are personal, it moved me.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Great Comic Book Week

Anyone who is a weekly comic book collector knows how over the months and years you collect certain books that have lost their creative power and are almost a chore to read.  Or perhaps you pick up a new series and try to figure out when its time to tap out.  And the more you put it off, the more that unread stack of comics feels like homework.

This week was so refreshing, because I kept reading comic after comic that was a delight to read.  I kept waiting for the next comic to break the streak, but so many of them were just purely entertaining.

Doomsday Clock #6
Image result for doomsday clock #6
This story gets into the background of new characters Mime and Marionette.  Once again, Geoff Johns goes darker than he normally does as these two characters accompany the Joker to a clandestine meeting of villains.  The best part of the writing were the character moments where Johns helps define the villains' relationships to each other.  I particularly love Riddler's inferiority complex about the Joker.  Gary Frank's art is still gorgeous to look at, even when his characters are doing horrific things.

The Flash #51
Image result for cover flash #51
This the aftermath of the "Flash War" storyline.  I was very worried that with the conclusion of that story, Wally West would be written off as unimportant to the overall DCU.  But this was a loving tribute to the character.  There have been a lot of rumors that they are going to kill him off in the upcoming "Heroes in Crisis" story, but that would be a terribly betrayal to the fan base.   Josh Williamson does a great job of showing how both Barry and Wally are equals as the Flash and both bring something different to the table.  As the issue states, for an entire generation, Wally West was their Flash.

Hal Jordan and the Green Lantern Corps #49

We are at the penultimate issue of the war between the Green Lantern Corps and the DarkStars.  Venditti has done an amazing job as the successor to Geoff Johns.  I would place some of his stories at the same level as the Johns era.  The build of unlikely allies in this story, from Hector Hammond to General Zod, has paid off wonderfully in this big-action epic fight.  Great read.

Action Comics #1001
Image result for action comics 10001
A number of critics I respect absolutely hate Brian Michael Bendis' work so far on Superman.  But I have to say that the writing is fresh and interesting.  Watching Superman interact with "normal" criminals is wonderfully comic.  And the intrigue of the story kept drawing me in as we got into the mindset of those bad guys who have to outthink the Man of Steel because they know they can't outfight him.

The Terrifics #6
Image result for Terrifics #6
This is one of the best Fantastic Four comics in years that isn't even a Fantastic Four comic.  Our quartet of heroes is separated and have to fight off a Metamorphoesque threat.  Writers Jeff Lemire and Joe Bennet do some incredibly clever panel work.  While all of them are separated, each page is divided into four sections for each hero.  As they come together, the number of panels decreases until we have splash pages overflowing with action.  Incredibly fun.

Justice League Dark #1
I am an unapologetic super fan of Detective Chimp.  He wears his cynicism like armor to hide his heroic and vulnerable nature.  James Tynion IV knows how to use this character in the best possible way.  While Wonder Woman is the nominal leader, this is Detective Chimp's show.  Throw in Man-Bat, Zatanna, and Swamp Thing, and this series has potential to be amazing.

Marvel Two-in-One #8

The one Marvel book on my list, writer Chip Zdarsky brings the drama to a head as Ben Grimm and Johnny Storm are hiding out anonymously and powerless in an alien dimension.  And the secret Ben has been keeping finally comes to a dramatic head.  Zdarsky does a good job of balancing big action and personal drama.  This issue is almost all personal drama but I didn't feel the absence of the big action.

Teen Titans #21
Image result for teen titans #20
This book introduces Damien Wayne's new team.  It wasn't the best of the reads this week, but it was a solid introduction to some novel characters.  But it was the last page that I really liked and set the tone for this new direction.  I will definitely be buying the next issue.