Sunday, July 29, 2018

Cruise Control: The Highly Entertaining “Mission: Impossible-Fallout” Has All the Right Moves

Impossible indeed. The “Mission Impossible” films, paradoxically, just get better with each progressive entry. Sure, the films sometimes take a more dense script route, weaving in death-defying stunts with talky scenes of spy jargon and exposition but the plot is just an excuse for truly magnificent camera work. It’s part 6 people, we basically want to see Tom Cruise ride a rocket to the moon. Like ON the actual rocket. Taking a cue from the big budget, practical stunts of Christopher Nolan’s best work and the recent James Bond entries, “Mission: Impossible-Fallout” tries to outdo itself by featuring some truly jaw-dropping set pieces that have to be seen to be believed. Let's not forget the almost unbearable tension as we watch the actors who are really there, hanging off helicopters and cliffs, selling the crap out of it. And I’m buying it.  

This sixth entry in the increasingly insane spy thriller series, take a cue from real life and as it’s title suggests introduces NUCLEAR WEAPONS. Plutonium is such a hot commodity in films after all it’s what gave the DeLorean power in “Back to the Future.” So obviously, the leftover terrorists from the dismantled, evil “Syndicate” from “Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation”, want their hands on the stuff. These “Apostles” as they’re referred to are the prime targets for our hero Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his IMF team of Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames). Returning from the fifth film is former MI6 agent Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson). There’s a new director at the CIA played by new-to-the-franchise Angela Bassett. Of topic, does Angela Bassett ever age? But I digress. She instructs a member of the CIA’s Special Activities Division to follow along with Hunt and his team. He’s Henry Cavill, and even though the guy doesn’t have the most charisma in the world, he has found a nice role opposite the 100-wattage bulb that is Tom Cruise.

But enough about plot and stuff. This movie has enough car chases and helicopter chases, and HALO jump scenes, and bathroom fist fights to fill an entire action franchise. It’s shot and edited with precision. Director Christopher McQuarrie (who also scripted) returns from his first time up at bat with “Rogue Nation” and it’s a sheer delight to see what crazy stuff he’s able to pull off this time. He captures the action brilliantly; how cinematographer Rob Hardy was able to capture what he did (using a mix of digital and actual film) is simply crazy. The final act of the film, which I will not discuss whatsoever, is also an example of perfectly calibrated suspense. You don’t really believe for a minute that anything horrible is going to happy to any of our heroes and yet the nail-biting finale is so utterly intense you may need to have your cardiologist on standby. Lorne Balfe’s pulse-pounding score is not unlike Hans Zimmer’s Dark Knight music and it really works here; it’s not surprising that the two composers have collaborated on several occasions.

“Mission: Impossible-Fallout” is an outstanding thriller from beginning to end, not to mention suave and cool. Even if the story feels a bit dense, you can easily enjoy the action set pieces without much prior knowledge of the earlier entries and there’s plenty of good stuff for those who have been sticking around since the 90s. Cruise is as likable as ever—the entire cast is—and you won’t be able to take your eyes off the screen or release your hands from the arm rest. Bring on lucky entry number seven.  GRADE: A

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Greece Lightning: Fun Follow-up “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” Will Be Your Mom’s Favorite Movie of the Year

Since finally winning her elusive third Oscar Meryl Streep probably had enough of Mamma Mia! Yes, a majority of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Ago is, in fact, Streepless but it’s ok because the new cast is really game for a campy fun time. The first “Mamma Mia!” was a fun and silly jukebox musical about a girl trying to find the identity of her father before her fairytale Greek isle wedding. Everyone saw it because they love either love ABBA music and enjoyed the Broadway musical, or just because looked fun and silly. Released almost ten years to the day as the first film, “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” is a surprisingly well-made musical that features more impressively staged musical numbers, better singing, and thankfully lacks the sappy corniness that zapped the first film of pure greatness. Sure, this Godfather Part II-like prequel/sequel isn’t precisely necessary and its story is yet again strung around (even more) obscure ABBA songs but the cast is uniformly strong and everyone seems to be having a fun time. And then there’s Cher who looks like she just stopped by to pick up a paycheck.

Odds are you know whether or not you’re going to like “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.” It does offer everything you enjoyed about the first film but this time there’s a new person at the helm. That would be director Ol Parker who imbues the film with a cinematic quality that was severely lacking the first time around. The first film was clunky, corny, and offered cringe-worthy directorial choices that were better left for the stage. This time the world of Mamma Mia is opened up and feels more like a film than the stagey original.

And since everyone cares about the plot of an ABBA jukebox musical here it is. This time around Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is getting ready for the grand re-opening of the Greek hotel she took over from her mother Donna. It turns out Streep’s character has previously passed away the year before. The real drama comes in the form of events in the past where we follow a young Donna in 1979 through her Big Fat European Vacation. It is here where she meets Harry, Sam, and Bill who are all Sophie’s possible fathers.

There’s not really much more to say and there’s hardly any real tension but the songs are performed with enthusiasm and that’s really what matters. The younger actors are generally pretty sensational in capturing the youthful versions of the cast members we’ve come to know so well. Lily James really captures Streep’s character’s essence and has an outstanding voice; she makes for an extremely likable lead. The same can be said for her best friends Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn) and Rosie (Alexa Davies) who are fantastic stand-ins for Christine Baranski and Julie Walters respectively. The casting team also work wonders with the hunky threesome known as Harry (Hugh Skinner), Bill (Josh Dylan), and Sam (Jeremey Irvine).

In conclusion, the songs here are good; they even reuse some of the more popular tracks from the first film. After all you can’t have a movie called Mamma Mia and not sing the title tune. Even the lesser known songs will likely become earworms after several spins on the soundtrack. You can’t fight the power of ABBA’s absolutely catchy discography. The film is overall tighter and more confident than its predecessor taking on an “ambitious” dual plot structure even if the present day scenes take on a more melancholy tone than the more fun flashback sequences. The script from Parker (and Catherine Johnson and Richard Curtis who have story credits) works well enough if somewhat less focused this time around.

Oh wait how could I not mention Cher? The fact that she’s practically shoe-horned in at the end is unsurprising since her casting feels like a complete stunt to begin with. Let’s forget the fact that Cher is only 3 years older than Streep in real life and she’s playing her mother, but her rendition of Fernando is great even if her sound doesn’t quite fit in with everything we’ve heard previously. I guess ten minutes of Cher is supposed to make up for a practically Streepless film but at least the film has an ambitious quality that is completely charming. Bottom line? Your mom is gonna love this thing.  GRADE: B+

In lieu of the underwhelming trailer, here's the first musical number from the film, "When I Kissed the Teacher:"

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

American Horror Story: “The First Purge” Probably Won’t Be the Last

Horror films are usually a lot smarter than most people give them credit for. And the really good ones reflect the time they were made. If I’ve learned anything from the widely popular Purge franchise, is that this country is seriously messed up. The Purge series get an upgrade in the form of Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei which makes me wonder what bet she lost to end up here. That’s no knock at the “My Cousin Vinny” and “Spider-Man: Homecoming” actress– she’s fine here – but she’s not given much to do except glare at computer monitors. Otherwise the generally unknown cast is good; the acting is above average for this genre. The film, like its predecessors, isn’t so much horror as it is some kind of dystopian action thriller with the third act basically functioning as a siege film. The real horror comes from the realization that maybe our country is headed in the direction that these films present.

The Purge films are enjoyable for what they are. The problem is the premise is so goddamned smart but the films aren’t necessarily as smart as they think they are. I believe in writer/director James DeMonaco who serves on as screenwriter on this fourth entry. Stepping into the director’s chair is Gerald McMurray and some fresh blood is welcome. He doesn’t do much different from what DeMonaco has already established and the film’s script is as on-the-nose-political as it ever has been. Everyone by now knows that the annual Purge is basically a way for rich Americans to help get rid of the poor population. Rich people can afford to either barricade themselves indoors or can even afford to buy poor people to murder. 

“The First Purge” gives us a little glimpse into how this controversial, essentially racist American tradition came to be. Though it only really skims the surface and that’s where it’s a tad disappointing. A politician from a new political party not unlike say, the “Tea Party,” is elected president and someone gets the idea to let Americans let out their frustrations for one night during a 12 hour period in which all crime is legal. Staten Island is chosen for the experiment, which at this point, doesn’t actually have a name. Residents are free to leave during the experiment but those who choose to stay will be tracked and given $5,000 as compensation. Overseeing things are New Founding Fathers of America members Dr. May Updale (Tomei) and Chief of Staff Arlo Sabian (Patch Darragh). Meanwhile residents of the city include various minorities and low income individuals including a sister and brother and his drug lord.

While like the other films, the premise is fascinating, the execution leaves something to be desired. It’s hard to care about most of these people since we don’t really know them. Lex Scott Davis is good as the sympathetic Nya and Y’lan Noel is good as Dmitiri the drug lord with the heart of gold. But most of these actors don’t have much to do except run around and look scared. Which leads to the other main problem, the film isn’t very scary. The premise is scarier than anything actually seen on screen. The film sort of won me over in its final act in which Dmitri must rescue those we’ve come to somewhat know in their apartment building.

Who knows where this franchise can really go from here. Except to television of course, which the film features in its closing credits. It makes sense because really these films feel like lost episodes of “Black Mirror” that aren’t executed quite as smoothly. “The First Purge” is fine for fans of the franchise but I don’t know how many new fans will rally behind this fourth entry. It’s fun to see the origins of the Purge but offers little in the way of surprises, suspense, or interesting characters.  GRADE: B-

Sunday, July 08, 2018

A Bug’s Wife: “Ant-Man & the Wasp” Continues the Lighthearted Fun of Its Predecessor

It turns out “Ant-Man” was exactly what the Marvel Cinematic Universe needed: an enjoyable lighthearted heaping of fun. It was first MCU film released after “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and it was a refreshing palette cleanser. It turns out, its own sequel “Ant-Man & the Wasp” functions in much the same way after the truly astonishing but intense experience that was “Avengers: Infinity War.” Comedy is always the best medicine and there’s no better proof of that than the hilariously charming antics of Paul Rudd as Ant-Man. Set after the events of “Captain America: Civil War,” this sequel finds our hero Scott Lang under house arrest. Of course that won’t stop him from helping rescue Hank Pym’s wife from the “quantum realm.” It’s all lighthearted fun and the perfect antidote to the ten years of MCU films that continue to be entertaining if emotionally draining.

“Ant-Man” was a comedic heist film essentially. “Ant-Man & the Wasp” isn’t quite as cut and dry; I’d more of a rescue mission film but not quite as focused story-wise as its predecessor. Our hapless hero Scott Lang (Rudd) having attempted to leave his life of crime behind him, finds himself with an ankle bracelet for violating the Sokovia Accords in “Civil War.” At least now his daughter and ex-wife have forgiven him so there’s no family drama there. The family drama this time consists of Hank Pym (Michael Douglass) experimenting with the possibility of entering into the subatomic “quantum realm” to rescue his wife Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) who went subatomic decades earlier and was assumed dead. But since Scott went subatomic and returned unharmed it seems likely that Janet could possibly still be alive. Is it preposterous? Oh my yes. Is it entertaining as hell? You bet.

And let’s not forget Scott’s new partner “The Wasp” played by Evangeline Lilly in one of her most charming performances yet. As Hank’s daughter Hope, Lilly imbues the film with warmth and emotion that has somewhat eluded the actress up to this point. She shares incredible chemistry with Rudd and her onscreen father as well. These people are so likable that their charm really carries the film. And I haven’t even mentioned Michael Peña as Scott’s former prison buddy who has some really great comedic moments here. The comedy works so well in these films because director Peyton Reed made films like “Yes Man” and “Bring It On.” Sure, not exactly comedy treasures, but the guy knows what he’s doing. The action scenes are gripping, the shrinking and growing mechanics are clever, and the humor is funny.

Of course we all know a super hero movie is nothing without a decent villain. Here we get a mysterious figure in a white costume not unlike Lang’s shrinking Ant-Man getup, who is molecularly instable and can walk through objects, including walls. This “Ghost” (played by “Ready Player One’s” Hannah John-Kamen) adds a fun mystery to proceedings and the character’s story arch is unpredictable and interesting. There are other appearances from Laurence Fishburne and Walton Goggins that don’t add too much to the proceedings.

“Ant-Man & the Wasp” feels almost borderline insignificant compared to the other strong MCU efforts this year “Black Panther” and “Avengers: Infinity War” but it’s no less enjoyable or well-made. You can easily watch the Ant-Man films without the baggage of ten years of films to wade through and be just as entertained. And the whimsical music themes from Christophe Beck is among the MCU’s most memorable. These films really remind me of how fun the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films were to watch when they first came out. Bright, colorful, fun and oozing with charm and humor.  GRADE: B+