Sunday, July 29, 2018

"Mission: Impossible - Fallout" is Great Summer Fun, Just Nothing New

My dear mother, who has never seen any of the films in the Mission: Impossible series, asked me the day before I went to see Mission: Impossible - Fallout if I thought she’d like any of the earlier movies.  I told her that, at the risk of jinxing the new film, I’d say that the M:I series was possibly the only more-than-three film franchise of which I could think in which each new movie was better than the one that came before it.  Fast forward to the next evening, and as I’m sitting in a theater waiting for Fallout to begin, that word “jinx” creeps back into my mind. I wonder if, without realizing it, I’ve just placed an undeserved burden on the movie I’m about to see.  Nah, I think to myself - it’ll be great. Well...

Mission: Impossible - Fallout is a pretty darn good action movie.  That much is easy for me to tell you without any him-hawing. Every few years, you may see Tom Cruise’s Energizer-Bunny-like media blitz on all the talk shows leading up to one of these movies, and get jazzed up to go eat popcorn and slurp on an Icee and be taken on a wild cinematic ride, and once again, he and his production team deliver on that bargain.  However, I have to admit that, after running the experience through my mind for about a day and a half after seeing it, the jinx about which I was worried definitely materialized on this one.

The story (if you care about that sort of thing)?  Cruise’s IMF uber-agent Ethan Hunt and his usual band of cohorts are now pursuing some stolen plutonium cores that are in the possession of an anarchist terrorist group bent on making their own nukes.  Hunt’s team loses a chance to recover them and are saddled with CIA overseer August Walker, played by mustachioed Superman himself, Henry Cavill, as they continue trying to recover the goods. Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames are still on the team, Alec Baldwin in back as “The Secretary” (y’know, the guy who will disavow all knowledge, blah, blah, blah…), and not one, but TWO of Hunt’s previous lady-interests return - British spy Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) from the last film and Hunt’s ex-wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) from the third movie.  Hell, even Rogue Nation’s main bad guy Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) is out of Supermax/Gitmo spy-prison and causing more trouble!

As with all the movies in this series, not everyone is who they initially seem to be, and some of them may (or may not?) be working one side, or the other side, or both sides of the game.  There are rubber-mask tricks, burly hand-to-hand brawls, and multiple government agencies out to get our heroes. There’s also ultra-high skydiving into Paris, a helicopter battle through the mountains of Nepal, car chases and motorcycle crashes - all things you’d expect in one of these movies, and writer/director Christopher McQuarrie stages them all spectacularly well.  His camera work for the chase scenes throughout Paris affects the audience’s equilibrium in a way to be almost roller coaster-esque, and Cruise continues to be able to defy Father Time and convince me that he’s not REALLY fifty-five years old while doing all of this.

Yet I kept waiting for the set piece that each of these films has, a stunt or process that Hunt must perform that almost feels sci-fi-ish.  Fallout didn’t have one of those - no hacking computers while suspended from wires in silence, or infiltrating underwater centrifuges without breathing gear, or suction-cup climbing the world’s tallest building.  Just a hanging from a helicopter… Yawn…

I’m also not sure if it’s just my imagination or if there’s something actually to it, but after just the one viewing of Fallout, I find myself wondering if Tom Cruise’s agelessness is finally fading away.  I couldn't decide if the almost-blank stare he displayed on a few occasions during the film was an acting choice or merely a sign of the plastic surgery finally preventing him from emoting as he’d like.  Eh, I could be wrong.

McQuarrie is now the first director to make more than one of these movies (he wrote and directed Rogue Nation as well), and as such, Fallout becomes what is probably the first “direct” sequel in the series.  All of the previous entries in the franchise have been pretty much free-standing, not necessarily requiring any familiarity with previous entries to be able to enjoy the newest film. This one, however, is so dependent on the events of Rogue Nation that I can’t imagine being able to feel the stakes as strongly as you would without having seen the previous picture.  Some of the fun of these movies is that newness in each film, and while the story here becomes richer and deeper for having the setup of Rogue Nation, some intangible level of… oh, what’s the word I want here?... “freshness” is missing.

Now I’ll advise you, Dear Reader, to go see Fallout.  It’s Tom Cruise doing the thing he’s done so superbly for more than twenty years, and it’s the best non-superhero/non-spaceship action movie of the summer.  After I finish this essay, however, I’ll call my mom and ask her if she’s watched the first Mission: Impossible film yet. Knowing her as I do, she probably has, and is probably eager to plow through the rest of them.  I think I’m going to advise her to take her time going through the other five films, though, saving the (slight) letdown of this one for last. While Fallout was well-made action movie fun, and I certainly enjoyed it, I just wish it felt as new as all the other ones did.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

"Ant-Man and the Wasp" Stands Just Tall Enough

When the original Ant-Man debuted three years ago, many believed Marvel Studios must have been running out of worthy material if this character was the best they could come up with after the dead-seriousness of Avengers: Age of Ultron.  It turned out the hokey-jokey, techno-babble, pseudo-heist film was just the palate cleanser the audience of Marvel’s films needed, getting us all more grounded in our expectations so things could build back up over the course of several more films to the awesomeness and heartbreak of Avengers: Infinity War.  Not to mention it was just dang fun, too. Well, here they go again. Ant-Man and the Wasp takes the same place in a Marvel release schedule its predecessor did, serves much the same purpose as its predecessor did, and delivers results just as impressively.

Paul Rudd’s style and personality are used so perfectly in this role that it’s become one of those instances where you can’t imagine anyone else doing it.  His Scott Lang may be a superhero, but everything he does right is so heavily qualified — mostly because he never manages to save the day without alienating his friends and loved ones — that his sense of self-worth is constantly reduced to human scale.  His character-defining shortcomings are on display throughout the new film every time he tries to puff out his chest. You know, he helped Captain America that one time, but only after he stole a super-suit from his mentor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas, who is still the master of convincing an audience that he’s suppressing an angry outburst).  Yeah, he saved the world in Captain America: Civil War… or helped to, anyway, but without consulting his training (and romantic) partner Hope van Dyne (played with an air of self-confidence by Evangeline Lilly that in itself almost seems like a superpower). Sure, he's behaving now and starting his own security business in San Francisco, but he’s still under heavily-monitored house arrest.  Lang is such a loveable loser because he’s the relatable, well-meaning small fry who tries, and often fails, to live up to expectations.

Director Peyton Reed did such a wonderful job with the first film that it was a no-brainer for him to helm the sequel, and among the many things he did right with both movies is how we see the consequences of our hero’s actions on his everyday life.  Reed and his (FIVE) screenwriters craft a story of how all of these characters overcome their ego-driven tendencies long enough to work together as a raggedy team. Supporting characters — like smug weapons dealer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), mysterious super-villain Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), clueless FBI agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), and Pym's estranged former colleague Dr. Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne) — frequently throw Lang and Pym off their best-laid plans, particularly their shared goal of securing the equipment that Pym needs to rescue his long-missing wife Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) from the trippy, sub-atomic (and very dangerous) Quantum Realm.

But the tangent-filled nature of Lang's story is the most charming aspect of both Ant-Man films.  Lang's narrative is a revolving door of well-meaning outsiders — his ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer) and her amiable wet blanket husband Paxton (Bobby Cannavale), along with Lang’s eager-to-please daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) — and neurotic colleagues, like Lang’s "X-Con" security crew team of Kurt (David Dastmalchian), Dave (T.I.), and Luis (Michael Peña, again stealing every scene he's in).  Many of these characters are also struggling to suppress their own habitual catastrophizing: if Ghost doesn’t steal and fire up Pym’s equipment now, she will die; if Pym doesn’t get Lang’s help in recovering his equipment, his wife will vanish; and if Lang doesn’t get back to his house before the FBI returns to check up on him, his new post-“Ant-Man” life is over.

Thankfully, Reed capably (though not always gracefully) juggles these various plot points.  Speaking of personality: the first half of Ant-Man and the Wasp — the part that’s most reliant on plot-pushing expository dialogue — definitely feels like it was cobbled together by a creative committee that includes the five credited writers and Heaven-only-knows how many uncredited ones.  This minor shortcoming is why I spent much of this review praising the film’s characters and ideas, but not its brick-and-mortar storytelling. Like many films produced by Marvel Studios, this one sometimes feels “Paint-Superhero-Movie-by-Numbers,” marred by uninspired cinematography (by no less than Dante Spinotti, who has done stunning work on Michael Mann’s films over the years), and over-edited set pieces… but only sometimes.

Ant-Man and the Wasp really takes off once it stops setting up the plot and starts showing how the better story ideas lead into dynamic car chases, fight scenes, and comedic routines (I especially love the bit where Lang, after being knocked out and tied up, asks his kidnapper to help him video-chat with Cassie).  For most of two hours, Peyton Reed and his colleagues take super-fans on a long, strange trip with some of the most sympathetic cinematic crime-fighters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Taken in its entirety, Ant-Man and the Wasp may not be the best of anything, but like it’s perpetually challenged hero, it’s plenty good enough at what we want it to be.