REVIEW: “Mission: Impossible – Fallout”

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What started as a successful but slightly schizophrenic pet project has evolved into one of my very favorite movie franchises. Aside from the common thread of their high-profile star, the first three “Mission Impossible” installments couldn’t feel more different. It was mainly due to having three very different directors, each with their own unique stamp. While I enjoyed each of them to varying degrees, it was still tough to put a finger on what the series wanted to be.

That started to change with “Ghost Protocol” from director #4 Brad Bird. It put pieces in place and set the table for director #5 Christopher McQuarrie and what would be the best “MI” movie to date. “Rogue Nation” not only felt connected to its predecessor beyond Tom Cruise’s presence, but it was incredibly well made and left audiences with a much clearer vision of what the franchise is shooting for.

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Fans of “Rogue Nation” rejoice. Christopher McQuarrie breaks the revolving director trend and returns for “Fallout”, a movie that ups the ante in terms of breathtaking action yet still tells a thrilling story that well serves its fabulous band of characters.

McQuarrie has been working towards “Fallout”, building its framework for several films now. He did uncredited rewrites for “Ghost Protocol”, co-wrote “Rogue Nation”, and handles the entire script for “Fallout”. This is his baby and he knocks it out of the park. Of course Cruise returns along with mainstays Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg. Also back is Rebecca Ferguson who debuted and stole the show in “Rogue Nation”.

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In a prologue 56-year-old (but far from looking it) Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is informed that three plutonium cores have been stolen by a terrorist group calling themselves The Apostles. They are an offshoot of the Syndicate (see “Rogue Nation”) ran by a mystery man named John Lark. Ethan calls in his IMF cohorts, the neurotic Benji (Pegg) and easy-going Luther (Rhames), to help regain the cores, but the mission goes awry and the plutonium heads to the black market.

Ethan is able to track the plutonium to Paris where a transaction is set to take place near the Grand Palais. Before he can head that way freshly christened CIA Director Sloane (Angela Bassett) orders him to take along Agent Walker (Henry Cavill), a CIA ‘observer’ and Sloane’s own personal “hammer”. Basically he’s sent to make sure the mission succeeds whatever the cost. As Cavill says in his wriest and driest voice “That’s the job.”

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If you follow the series you know the story can’t possible stay in one location. In addition to Paris we make stops in Belfast, London, even Kashmir (played by Norway). Along the way we get a white-knuckled motorcycle chase around the Arc de Triomphe, a foot race across London rooftops (which actually resulted in Cruise breaking his ankle), a mind-blowing helicopter duel through the snow-capped mountains of Kashmir, just to name a few. The action sequences are nothing short of exhilarating, mostly done through traditional stunt work and practical effects. The touches of CGI make a handful of scenes even more breathtaking. And what’s best is McQuarrie shoots them with visual coherence. No indecipherable shaky cams and quick cuts. It’s something to behold.

But “Fallout” is more that credits-to-credits action. McQuarrie threads these sequences together with a classic-style spy story full of twists, double-crosses, intersecting plotlines and of course one big nuclear threat. In the middle of it all is returning “Rogue Nation” baddie Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), an anarchist with a personal axe to grind with the current world order and with Ethan Hunt. His two-headed mantra “The greater the suffering, the greater the peace” is just as much directed at Ethan as to the world system. Adding another kink is the resurfacing of Ilsa Faust (Ferguson), once out of the game but now back in and with her own mysterious agenda.

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McQuarrie moves us through his wonderfully knotty plot at a crackling pace, tossing us enough twists and turns to ensure there is no downtime for measuring if every piece lines up perfectly. But it’s smart enough to keep us locked in and constantly guessing. And Cruise remains the heart of the franchise. His insane physicality and daredevil willingness to risk life and limb for every shot has never been more evident. But it’s the character-centric moments that speak volumes. He’s still a vulnerable hero, even a bit naĂŻve. And more than any other “M:I” installment, “Fallout” centralizes his unshakable moral code as key component of not just this film but the entire series.

“Mission: Impossible” continues to be the rare film franchise that actually gets better with age. “Fallout” makes no attempt to reinvent the wheel. Instead it takes the best elements of its predecessors and then cranks the dial past 10. Cruise and company’s ability to consistently up their game has culminated in this action movie masterclass that earns every ounce of acclaim it’s getting. Knowing their history I’m definitely onboard for more. But if the next movie’s mission, should they choose to accept it, is to top “Fallout” it could truly prove to be impossible.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

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5star

Retro Review: “Mission: Impossible” (1996)

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Paramount Pictures had repeatedly tried and failed to adapt the “Mission Impossible” television series to the big screen. Tom Cruise loved the show as a kid and began working on his vision for it. He believed so strongly in the project that he made it the first film developed under the banner of his fledgling production company. The two came together and in 1996 this unique interpretation hit theaters.

The first signal that “Mission Impossible” aimed to be different came with the signing of director Brian De Palma. Though not unfamiliar with studio blockbusters, De Palma came to the film with his own peculiar sensibilities. You see it on the technical side with his extreme closeups and fascinating camera perspectives. But also through his deconstruction of the popular long-running TV series and its characters. That’s what prompted the biggest response from fans of the show.

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Obviously “M:I” launched Cruise’s upstanding Ethan Hunt character, less sexualized than James Bond but with the same unflinching moral code. The film begins with Ethan as the frontman for a covert IMF (Impossible Missions Force) mission in Prague. A very good Jon Voight takes over for Peter Graves as John Phelps, the team leader who sends his team to nab a top secret list of undercover IMF agents from the U.S. Embassy before it falls into the wrong hands.

Things go terribly wrong, a mole is unearthed and Ethan finds himself in the crosshairs of IMF director Kittridge (Henry Czerny) who brands him Public Enemy No. 1. He seeks out the help of fellow disavowed agents Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Franz Krieger (Jean Reno) to root out the mole and clear his name. The wonderful Vanessa Redgrave plays a crafty arms dealer, Emmanuelle Béart plays a mysterious IMF agent, and even Emilio Estevez pops up as a not-so-superhacker.

It was interesting to rewatch “M:I” in light of how we routinely see these types of movies today. It’s a blockbuster uninterested in franchise blueprints, shared universes, or other big budget considerations. Those things weren’t as prevelant at the time which allowed for De Palma to play with his Hitchcockian and genre thriller influences.

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I still remember the initial reactions from people I knew who didn’t quite know what to make of it. The big finale aside, “Mission Impossible” subverted the blockbuster at nearly every turn. Now keep in mind it was 1996. It shared a big chunk of the summer box office with “Independence Day”, a movie all about fast-paced action and large-scale destruction. “M:I” had a much different idea. Build quiet and focused sequences where a simple bead of sweat can create white-knuckled tension. Of course the famous train sequence showed De Palma could also go big and the scene was a unknowing prophecy of what the franchise would become famous for.

Over time I’ve grown to appreciate this movie more and more. Of course the irony of it all is that this weekend the sixth installment in the “Mission: Impossible” series hits theaters. A subversive first film that went out of its way to break the blockbuster mold birthed a multi-billion dollar franchise. But just like the original, the series has consistently differentiated itself from most other big properties and it has only gotten better. Much of that is due to a perceptive Tom Cruise and he certainly got things started on the right foot.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

Blind Spot Review: “My Night at Maud’s”

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“My Night at Maud’s” is technically the third installment in Éric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales series even though it was the fourth film made. Due to a required Christmas time shoot and prior commitments, lead actor Jean-Louis Trintignant wasn’t available until the following year. That little nugget aside, the film became Rohmer’s first big critical and commercial success both in France and in the United States.

Rohmer was the oldest of the French New Wave pioneers, nearly ten years the senior of his contemporaries. He was also known for being stylistically reserved compared to Godard, Truffaut and the like. But that doesn’t mean his films weren’t bucking trends. Quite the opposite. Just watch a Rohmer film and you can’t help but see the La Nouvelle Vague sensibility.

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His Six Moral Tales basically follow the same narrative framework. They feature individuals who find their own moral code challenged in one way or another. More specifically, they are men who are in love with a woman but find themselves tempted by another. A big part of the focus is on how each of their personal moral codes lead them through their crisis.

In “My Night at Maud’s” we have a devout Catholic named Jean-Louis (Trintignant). He is firm in his beliefs and in the practice of his faith. He’s fallen for a young blonde parishioner (Marie-Christine Barrault) from a church he attends even though he has never spoken with her. But it’s not for lack of trying. He follows her out of church or down the tight city streets only to lose her around a corner.

One evening Jean-Louis bumps into an old childhood friend Vidal (Antoine Vitez), a brash opinionated fellow who rather enjoys the chance to needle and poke. Vidal convinces Jean-Louis to accompany him on a late night visit to a recently divorced friend named Maud (played by the captivating Françoise Fabian). The three share an evening of conversations about love, marriage, Christianity, and the writings of Blaise Pascal. After Vidal leaves Maud encourages Jean-Louis to stay. What follows is a seductive game of cat-and-mouse versus a deeply-held set of moral convictions.

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Rohmer’s audacious middle act is filled with long talky takes mostly between Jean-Louis and Maud and that’s not a knock on it. Just the opposite. The natural flow of the dialogue and the subtle movements of NĂ©stor Almendros’ camera completely sells it and keeps us locked onto these two characters. We also get a good sense of Jean-Louis and Maud’s fascinations with each other and their differing perspectives on practically everything. Plus seeds are planted throughout the conversations that surface in the last act.

Over the years the chatty middle act is what “My Night at Maud’s” has become known for. The title itself contributes to that perception. But there is more to Rohmer’s film than that both before and after the signature scene. As with all French New Wave films, this one still feels fresh and unique. Nearly fifty years after its release you still see it bucking trends and plowing new ground. That alone is a remarkable accomplishment.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “mother!”

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Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” opens with Javier Bardem sifting through the ashes of a burnt out farmhouse and finding a large jewel. He places it on a mantle and within seconds the house is restored. The charred remains give way to a house of color and life. But what does it all mean? Suffice it to say it’s the first of many bits of imagery that makes this more than a routine thriller.

Seemingly divisive by design, “mother!” is unquestionably an Aronofsky movie. I usually find that to be a cause for hesitation, but “mother!” managed to get its hooks in me unlike any of his past films. And it may not be the smoothest ride from start to finish but it does offer plenty to sink your teeth into and ponder afterwards.

It doesn’t take long to notice that “mother!” places symbolism and allegory ahead of plot and character. It quickly becomes an exercise in interpreting Aronofsky’s code instead of following a particular story. For Aronofsky it was an idea birthed from personal rage and his movie allows him to explore it through biblical and environmental metaphors galore. When the pieces fit it makes for some clever yet not always effective messaging.

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Bardem’s character, listed only as ‘Him’ in the credits, is a poet with a severe case of writer’s block while Jennifer Lawrence plays ‘Mother’, his wife and muse. From the moment Lawrence’s Mother gets out of bed in the opening moments the camera never leaves her side. It follows her around the house using close-ups, over-the-shoulder shots, or shooting her point of view. And other than a couple of brief stops on the front porch, the entire film takes place within their remote Victorian country house.

The film starts with an illusion of normalcy but it slowly unravels beginning with the appearance of Ed Harris. He plays a sickly orthopedic surgeon new to the area. His wife pops up shortly after. She’s played by a wonderfully toxic-tongued Michelle Pfeiffer. The once brooding poet who spent his days staring at a blank page is reinvigorated by their attention and invites the couple to stay. Mother is frustrated by the intrusion and equally upset at her husband’s apathy towards her wishes.

From there things go bananas as the movie gives itself completely to its allegories. It all culminates in a psychotic fever dream of a final act that sees Aronofsky unleashing every ounce of his tortuous fury on Lawrence and her character. In what plays like a relentless symbolic montage of worldly horror and human suffering, the camera still never leaves Mother’s side. It’s an intensely demanding performance and a heavy load Lawrence is asked to carry. And she received a Razzie nomination for it? Give me a break.

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Production designer Phil Messina is tasked with visualizing another of the film’s key characters – the house. Like Lawrence, the large country farmhouse is represented in every shot and had to be designed with that in mind. The narratively essential home was constructed in Montreal, Canada, partially on a set in a field and the rest on a stage. It was meticulously crafted with mood and movement in mind and was shot by Aronofsky regular Matthew Libatique.

You’ll find clever little touches with symbolic meaning everywhere in the movie. For instance there are several surreal moments where Mother places her hands on the walls checking the heartbeat of the home. Also, mysterious wounds begin to appear around the house. Not all of it makes sense (what is that urine colored Alka-Seltzer she drinks from time to time?) and the final 20 minutes dances dangerously close to unbearable. But that’s kind of the point.

Once movies leave their creators’ hands they often become their own thing. “mother!” benefits from that truth. While Aronofsky has a pointed personal meaning behind it, what you bring to the film will help define it for you. That is its coolest strength and it’s what kept me glued to the screen. Sure, it’s a bit self-indulgent and esoteric to a fault. But it’s also a rare slice of Aronofsky that I found surprisingly satisfying.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “Molly’s Game”

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Jessica Chastain already had one knockout 2017 performance under her belt with the World War 2 drama “The Zookeeper’s Wife”. Now you can make it two with her latest film, the biographical crime drama “Molly’s Game”. It’s an adaptation of the 2014 memoir of Molly Bloom, once an Olympic hopeful in freestyle skiing but later the runner of exclusive underground poker games.

Chastain plays Molly Bloom and is given an incredibly meaty role by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. This also marks Sorkin’s feature film directorial debut. Much like his Oscar-winning script for “The Social Network”, “Molly’s Game” slickly weaves together a current day legal drama with flashbacks that tell of Molly’s rise and decade-long run as the “poker princess” which eventually leads to her arrest by the FBI.

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Sorkin’s signature dense, fast-paced dialogue zips us through the backstory with the help of Molly’s narration. It comes in spurts and covers a lot of ground – her time at home with her hard-nosed father/coach (another fine supporting turn by Kevin Costner), her move to Los Angeles after a horrible skiing accident, and her high-stakes poker games that start in LA and end in New York.

Throughout these flashbacks we meet an interesting lot of characters. Take Michael Cera who plays a movie star simply known as Player X. In Molly’s memoir she named several A-listers who frequented her games – movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Ben Affleck, rapper Nelly, and baseball star Alex Rodriguez to name a few. Many believe Cera’s smarmy Player X is an amalgam of these big named celebrities who helped draw billionaires to Molly’s games. But it seems Player X represents one particular movie star who the book paints as particularly reprehensible – Tobey Maquire.

The dialogue also shines in the current day scenes with Molly and her lawyer Charlie Jaffey. He’s played by Idris Elba, so perfect in tone and intensity. Delivering Sorkin’s words can’t be easy. It demands a quick tongue and even quicker wit. Elba’s delivery is smooth as silk and he shares a well tuned chemistry with Chastain. At times there is a fierce energy between the two but there are also quieter moments which offer a unexpected amount of warmth and levity.

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All of it is kept in sync through Sorkin’s impressive direction. He deftly manages his mile-a-minute language and structural hopscotch while giving his performers plenty of space to work. The film also packs a surprising visual punch that matches the spirit and vigor of the dialogue. It’s nothing eye-popping but it’s as sharp and snappy as it’s lead character. And most importantly Sorkin keeps himself out of the way, trusting his material and his actors.

Aaron Sorkin has shown a fascination in self-made success stories as evident by his last four movies. “The Social Network”, “Moneyball”, “Steve Jobs”, and now “Molly’s Game” all tell of individuals who bucked systems and against all probability propelled themselves to success. “Molly’s Game” may be the best of the bunch. It’s one part invigorating character study and one part stunning expose. It features a trifecta of top-notch performances from Elba, Costner, and especially Chastain. It does feel long at 140 minutes yet it’s never dull nor does it run out of gas. Sorkin has too much to say to ever allow that to happen.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Maudie”

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The heart-wrenching yet inspirational true story of folk artist Maud Lewis seems tailor-made for the movie biopic treatment. At the same time it’s a type of story that demands a sensitive and sure-handed approach. There are several examples of films that lost themselves in sentimentality and showiness when attempting to work with similar material.

Aisling Walsh’s “Maudie” falls for none of those trappings. The Irish director’s deftly handled portrait resembles one of Maud’s paintings in that it keeps things simple. At the same time Walsh never compromises the genuine emotion inextricably linked to Maud’s life and she utilizes two phenomenal performances to fill in the details.

Sherry White’s patient, poignant script features a clear-eyed focus on Maud’s unique relationship with a local fish peddler named Everett Lewis . White and Walsh want us in the role of observer, not so much on any extensive plotting, but on these two characters and their fascinating relationship which emotionally ranges from heart-crushing to uplifting.

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Sally Hawkins takes on the title role and gives a performance that should light up the eyes of Academy voters. Hawkins vanishes into her character and fearlessly tackles the challenges of portraying Maud’s frail body, soft voice, and irrepressible positive spirit. Hawkins captures both the debilitating nature of Maud’s rheumatoid arthritis and well as the her wide-eyed optimism and ability to see the good in the harsh world surrounding her.

We first see Maud cast off by her brother to live with her curmudgeon of an aunt in 1930s small town Nova Scotia. She sees a means of escape when Everett Lewis, a local fish peddler and jack of all trades, places a “Help Wanted” advertisement for a housekeeper. He’s played with a wheelbarrow load of grumbling temperamental snarl by Ethan Hawke. It’s another great performance from Hawke who continues to extend himself as an actor.

He eventually hires Maud as the live-in maid for his tiny one-room shack (minus the tinier loft upstairs). Everett is a tough nut to crack – a socially dysfuctional recluse who is terrified at the very idea of loving. This leads to some moments of uncomfortable cruelty often spawned from his “King of my Castle” mentality (In one particularly cruel scene Everett berates Maud letting her know she falls below his dogs and chickens in the house pecking order). But it also comes from Everett’s own awkwardness and osctracism – a bond he shares with Maud.

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As their unconventional relationship takes a new form Maud begins to express herself through painting – on postcards, on wood planks, even on the walls of their shack. After an art-loving New Yorker (Kari Matchett) takes a liking to her paintings word quickly spreads and soon people from all over are travelling to see the little house and Maud’s artwork.

Regardless of how it may sound, this isn’t a rags-to-riches story. In fact, despite making money from her paintings, Maud and Everett lived for in their “Little House” for over 30 years. It now sits on display in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Instead this is a quirky but uplifting love story ripe with inspiring life lessons – that beauty lies in the simplest of things; that genuine contentment can often lead to genuine happiness; that true love can be found in the most unexpected places – just to name a few.

Simply put “Maudie” is a delight. It is a life-affirming movie that feels both tragic and beautiful. Guy Godfree’s cinematography is superb framing shot after shot as if they were settled on a canvas. The Michael Timmins score is simple, fitting, and never manipulative. And of course White’s script and Walsh’s direction. But it all comes back to the two lead performers particularly Sally Hawkins. She brings this lovely soul to life with such heart and vivid detail. It’s a performance certain to leave an impression on any viewer and I can guarantee that by the end you will want to know more about Maud Lewis.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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