Mission Impossible: Fallout

When I mentioned at one point that this was the film I was most looking forward too this summer, I received some verbal shrugs of the shoulder from a few fellow bloggers. An attitude that I simply cannot fathom. This series has been consistently excellent in my point of view, and the fact that Tom Cruise is the driving force behind the production seems to irritate some people. The internet is full or terrible things but most of the film sites I visit have rational people offering reasons for their love or hate of a particular film. So it was a surprise to me to see this comment on one of the blog posts I visited this week,

”  I have no interest in watching some aging dinosaur doing stupid stunts just to prove that he’s still got it. If he wants to impress me, why doesn’t he just jump off of a f#@king cliff and f#@king die?”

Does that seem a little harsh to you? It did to me. There is apparently a lot of Tom Cruise hate out there, not too far under the surface.

So before I begin my discussion of the film, let me make a brief defense of Mr. Cruise. Regardless of his personal life, he has always been a professional. He works hard at putting on screen, those things that he thinks will make a film better for the audience. To use the vernacular of the author of this note, I’d rather see an aging star who gives a damn about the quality of his film, perform a practical stunt, than watch a pretty boy flavor of the month, dangle in front of a green screen, trying to sell something that they look down on in the first place.

As a producer on these films, Cruise has been responsible for employing thousands of behind the scenes technical crafts people. The creative types from cinematographers, writers, stunt coordinators and directors, have all been given an amazing canvas to work on. Maybe the results are not always pretty to everyone. That is your prerogative and taste. I do think however dismissing it as “stupid” and assuming that the star is trying to impress you may be off target a bit. What is completely off target however is wishing death to someone because of your petulant views. OK, end of rant.

“Fallout” is the sixth film in this franchise, and I think you will find that most objective viewers will say that since the second film, they have gotten steadily better. A couple of things that help make that true are the continuing inclusions of new characters that allow conflict, humor or more emotional spark in the film. Since Simon Pegg came on board in “MI:III “, he has become more than just the comic relief and his character is more integral to the teams mission. Jeremy Renner, who made two appearances in the series, but is sadly missing here, also added some gravitas to the proceedings while providing a completely different form of humor.

The two most recent additions from the previous film to this one are Rebecca Ferguson as MI:6 operative Ilsa Faust, who provides a counterpart to Cruise for  skill, action and wits. In addition, there is a nice hint of romance that is not oversold like it is a Bond film. In this movie she represents the B plotline that is at odds with Ethan Hunt’s objective for the story. Because her character is capable, it makes the action and events seem more interesting and complicated. Anthony Hopkins, Laurence Fishburne and Tom Wilkinson all made one off appearances in the series, so it was nice to get some payoff from having Alec Baldwin return for a second episode. As a reluctant and judgmental ally and Superior to Hunt’s IMF group, Baldwin gets a chance to play both sides a bit and ultimately be played as well. I sort of enjoy the coincidence in Angela Bassett as the new C.I.A. chief, it’s as if Tina Turner is stepping into Ike’s shoes with Fishburne out of the picture. It is likely that if there are future installments in this franchise, she will return.

The plot is as complicated as these things usually get. A dangerous macguffin is out in the open and must be recovered by the team. Of course no path is straight and this plot develops an interesting twist by requiring that a previous villain be exchanged for the missing “dangerous item in a suitcase”. This puts Ethan and the team in an awkward position that ultimately creates a very ironic twist to the story.

To get though all of this, we get several incredible action sequences. There is a terrific, over the top hand to hand combat fight in a glittering white bathroom. Ethan and his team have to improvise a heist in the middle of the picture, so that he can sleep at night. The screenwriter/director Christopher McQuarrie injects some morality issues into this spy shoot em up, through a couple of nightmare sequences that visualize for us the qualms Ethan has about the choices he makes. The Tom Cruise haters will point to several chase scenes as proof that it is all about Tom as he rides a motorcycle like a bat out of hell or jumps from one building to another while doing the traditional Tom Cruise running. Those actions are not just to make Cruise look good, every spy film has chases and acts of derring do which put us in with the hero.

Henry Cavill and his mustache, take a break from the D.C. Universe to play a mysterious C.I.A. enforcer, foisted on the mission by the new DCIA. He looks good in a fight and not much effort was made to hide the fact that he is substantially taller than the star. His addition to the team suggests that not all the competent field agents have the temper for some of the delicate work that has to be done. The helicopter chase and battle that are the climax of the picture go a long way in showing that no one here is really a Superman, they all are vulnerable to a lot more than kryptonite. Ethan Hunt may have tried to bury his weakness, but it does get exploited well at the climax of the film.

“Mission Impossible: Fallout” owes most of it’s success to producer and star Tom Cruise. The film is not perfect, after all there are some plot-holes and lucky coincidences, but you never really care about that. This is a film that wants to keep you on the edge of your seat and it manages that nicely for all the two and a half hours of it’s running time. OK, maybe Cruise should be sure to send part of his profit participation to Lalo Schifrin, who created the iconic theme that sells this movie in the trailer, the titles and the end credits. I’d be willing to defend a proposition that it is the single greatest piece of theme music ever.

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Jaws In Concert: Part 2 of the 2018 Jaws Posts

Every year we manage to cross paths with some special screening of our favorite film, the Spielberg Masterpiece “Jaws”.  I’ve managed to see this movie on the big screen dozens of times and I never tire of it. Last night was another example of finding a special way to celebrate the film. This was “Jaws in Concert”, but not only are we getting a live orchestral accompaniment, we are getting it in the most beautiful setting imaginable, The Hollywood Bowl on a summer night.

Since this is primarily a concert, it seems right to focus on this “Jaws” related post, on the music of John Williams as used in the film. The shark them is famously simple and even more famously iconic. In two notes, people know the film reference and they are looking around for a fin. Surprisingly, the theme is used almost as sparingly as the shots of the mechanical shark. After the initial attack on Chrissie during her moonlight swim, we hear it once more when Alex Kintner is attacked, and then moodily substituting as the two inept fisherman go trolling with the holiday roast.

The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra had some long on stage breaks because the first half of the film is filled with ambient noise, things like ; kids playing on a beach, radios on baseball or top forty stations, or motorboats speeding across the ocean, trying to cutoff another motorboat chumming for the shark.

There are other themes in the film of course, but they are often forgotten when people think of this movie. As The Orca sails off to her destiny there is a slightly ominous movement. When she is chasing down the shark, there is a joyful exuberance in the music as we follow the vessel and the three excited men who think they are getting the upper-hand.  As Quint is laying out the tragedy of the USS Indianapolis, at first there is silence and mere ambient ocean background. As the story builds, the music is layered in very subtlety and the story is darker as a result. You are probably aware that the film is two hours long and never had an intermission. A concert experience is different however. the crowd needs a chance to stand up after picnicking and listening to the first hour plus of the movie and the orchestra needs to break as well.

The start of the final act where we pick up after the break, involves Chief Brody chumming off the back of the boat. The first up-close sighting of the shark comes a few minutes later and Williams has a great jump scare chord ready for us. The two big jumps scares in the film continue to work to this day, even when people know they are coming. I still saw 12,000 people bounce out of their seats when poor Ben Gardner makes his final appearance, and Brody utters the one swear word in the movie and before we can laugh, the collective breath of 12,000 people could be heard being sucked in.

The whole evening was a spectacle at times. Early on, Jaws related clothing was rare, but as the amphitheater filled in, more and more indicators of fandom could be observed.

Here early and dressed for the occassion
The Number One Fan of this Movie
Just before the national Anthem
This is why you let Polly do the printing.

This event ran two nights, which means about 30,000 people came out to see a 43 year old film and paid top dollar to hear the fantastic music played by a live orchestra. That is all the proof you will need to show that “Jaws” is a true classic.

I hope all of you get an opportunity to see a movie you love, in a setting like this, with the special extra that we got. Until then, you can remain a little jealous.

A little extra flourish to send you on your way.

The Equalizer II / EQ2

Let’s face it, the review for this is simple. Denzel is at his stone cold best killing people who deserve to die. If you want that, here it is.  That’s it.

OK, as much as I want to leave it with the above couple of sentences, there really is more to the movie and it is worth talking about. If all you are looking for is a recommendation, see above. Mr. Washington is back as former government operative Robert McCall. He is a man with deadly skills who is putting them to use in the most productive ways he can think of. The 2014 film was something of an origin story, if like this film, you can see this character as a superhero. In my original review of that film, I suggested that this is an inversion of a horror story, but I think the superhero metaphor is apt if a little too on the nose.

There are several episodic sections of the film where we get a chance to see the hero/monster McCall in action. He rescues a stolen child, avenges an abused woman and draws a line for a local drug network. We also see him engaging with people on a superficial but empathetic level. The TV show used classified ads in a newspaper to find people who needed help. At the end of the last film, it sounded like we were going to connect with the downtrodden on line. Those approaches disappear in this film. Mr. McCall is working as a Lyft driver and he seems to happen onto the people who need help. Maybe it is an interesting twist, maybe it sheds the string that held the tv series together, neither matters. What happens in this story is a trip to the past for the character. The one friend that he kept from his time as a government asset, gets involved in s plot which we never quite know anything about, and trouble ensues.

Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo return as the one set of friends Mac has, and they are knee deep in some kind of nefarious activity that is not authorized by the agency but does turn out to have some connections. Pedro Pascal is introduced as Robert’s former partner, who provides some assistance in investigating the events that turn McCall loose. No other characters from the first film return but there is another mentor relationship in the film that gives Denzel a chance to be the kind of father he wasn’t in “Fences”. Two or three other people are going to benefit from his largess as well. So like Robin Hood, McCall is taking from some to give to others. It is not profitable, but it seems to sooth his guilty soul from time to time.

Duplicity is inherent in films like this. The one thing that makes the betrayal in this story tolerable is that we get a chance to see a bit of the life of the betrayer. Another film would ignore this aspect of a story, or try to turn it into a subplot in some way. Here it is presented as a casual piece of character development that makes you wish even more that the reality of the backstabbing were not true.  Usually, all we get is the bad guy’s rationalization for his or her actions. The unique part of this story is the mundane way of life the villain seems to lead. You might even feel sorry for the character as you empathize with those who will be hurt by what has to happen. Director Antoine Fuqua and writer Richard Wenk have added a bit of character to the film that makes it step up from the shoot’em up that this really is.

Sometimes the plot is murky. There are characters that get taken out pretty quickly, and maybe before we really get a sense of what is going on. It may not matter that we don’t quite understand how the dominoes started falling in the plot mechanism, but it felt noticeable to me.  It doesn’t really matter however because plenty of people die at Denzel’s hands and he knows how to convey cold-hearted justice. He is smart, brutal and efficient, just like this movie.

Skyscraper

Do you all remember when action films were being described as a variation of “Die Hard”? You know, “Speed is “Die Hard” on a bus, and “Under Siege” is “Die Hard” on a boat, or the ultimate variation, “Die Hard” on Air Force One. Well it would be redundant to describe this as “Die Hard” in a building, that’s what “Die Hard” was all by itself. Instead, lets call this “Die Hard” in the “Towering Inferno” because that is a lot more specific. Don’t think that the film makers didn’t realize what they were doing either, because they clearly intended us to call back to those other films.

So do you see any resemblance in the marketing of these films?  The key art folks who created the posters certainly did.

This is a bone rattling, eye popping, eardrum shattering popcorn film that should meet the needs of all the adrenaline junkies looking for their next fix.   It is a well put together piece of nonsense that doesn’t have to make any sense, it just has to fulfill the expectations for this genre of film. In case you are wondering, here is a partial list of tropes that make this sort of film a “Die Hard” experience:

1. Right Man in the Wrong Place

2. A Family endangered

3. A Violent Crime occurring during the disaster

4. A Loathsome Villain

5. Duplicitous Character

6. Skeptical Police

7. Over the Top Action Sequences

8. A satisfying comeuppance for the bad guys

9. Faith Restored in the Hero

When you have Dwayne Johnson in your film, you are pretty certain to have the right man. “The Rock” as he continues to be referred to, delivers the charisma in big chunks and he gets to be a better actor with each film he makes. When that brief cameo of Arnold showed up in “The Rundown”, it really did serve as a passing of the torch to a new generation of action hero. The Rock has lived up to his part of the bargain, choosing roles that fit him for the most part, with occasional comedy misfires like “Baywatch“. I’ve not yet seen this years “Rampage”, with the giant animals, but I suspect it fits into the same category as this.

The endangered family include Neve Campbell. I don’t think I’ve seen her in anything since “Scream 4”, although I’m sure she works regularly somewhere. I thought she was a nice fit as Johnson’s wife, a Doctor with a military background. She doesn’t have to do too much that would require her background include SEAL training, for the most part she is a competent mother. caring for her kids in a desperate situation. The kids have a little personality but they are not an annoying focal point as you see too often in these film,s.

The fire in the building is created as a way to get access to a macguffin, which turns out to be a flash drive with important information on it [It doesn’t matter so don’t worry what it is].  The building itself is described more than it is shown in the lead up to the events that form the spine of the story. We get enough to be impressed with the imagination and engineering, but it might have been more interesting to get a tour of more of the building before disaster arrives.

The bad guy is less satisfying than he ought to be. That is not the fault of the actor Roland Moller. He has one scene where he can inject a little bit of performance, but mostly he has to snarl through the film. There is not any trading of quips as if he is Hans Gruber, he is just another Germanic thug with an agenda. We also get two characters who are not what they seem. You will not have any trouble spotting them early on. The telltale hesitations and the insistent advise they provide gives away their secret agenda to the audience without much work on our part.

The cops in this Asian city are like cops in NY or LA. They are quick to make assumptions, and late to the party. They also require the assistance of both the hero and his spouse.

There are plenty of action scenes in the movie, including a solid fight sequence and some car chases. The criminals shoot everyone, so obviously there is violence but the amount of blood is sparse. What is not hard to come by in this movie is fire. Johnson has so many scenes running through, jumping over and being chased by fire and explosions, that he is lucky he did not singe his beard to go with the shaved head. The highlight is of course the leap from a crane, into the burning title character. While it is visually spectacular, they over do some of the fingertip moments so that they lose a little tension sometimes.

We of course are spoiler free on this site, so I won’t do anything with the resolution except say that it is not a surprise, and it minimally meets our wants for this kind of film. This movie will probably not end up a go to film for anyone, but it won’t be something you turn off if you run across it on your TV or cable channel. As for streaming, it’s had to say what demand there will be for it, but if you are a fan of “The Rock”, it will sit nicely between “San Andreas” and any of the “Fast and Furious” movies.

 

Mama Mia! Here We Go Again

Maybe it’s because I am a child of the Seventies, or that I have always loved movies with singing, or just that it is Summer-time, but I thoroughly enjoyed “Mama Mia !”, and now I will repeat that experience with the totally unnecessary but still fun sequel. “Mama Mia! Here We Go Again” has no depth, it is frequently campy beyond description and there are some songs that just don’t do much for you. So What? It is also visually inventive and gorgeous to look at, it has a two to one ratio of good ABBA songs to mediocre ABBA songs, and it is full of pretty people who all look like they are having a blast making fools of themselves.

The  marketing department that choose to release this in the middle of the summer, probably will re responsible for half the take at the box office. This is a movie that works because it is so light and insubstantial that your head will not hurt from trying to think about plot lines or what dialogue you should be paying attention to. Like a revue show on the Vegas stage, or an RKO or MGM musical from the golden age, this film story makes little sense and doesn’t matter. What you really want is to hear the songs and see the choreography. There are a few repeats from the first film of musical selections but the staging is all new and there were plenty of ABBA songs to fill out a second film, although some of them are justifiably obscure.

Once again the setting is primarily in the seas off of Croatia, and the landscape is spectacular. Anyone who has every taken a vacation somewhere and asked themselves when they were leaving the location, “How could I live here, what can I do to make that happen?, knows how the beauty of a place can transfix you. On film, you can also control the lighting and angles to make it even more attractive, and so this production does. Now to insure that people will really like what they are seeing, you fill the movie with lovely young women, who have romantic crushes and flings with handsome young men. When you race forward to present day, the young women and men are now old but they are vibrant and handsome in their advanced states.  Lily James and Amanda Seyfried are glowing, longhaired blonde pixie dream girls. They may lack the requisite mania to make the characters the stock issue in other films, but their smiles and enthusiastic singing are the stuff of summer romances. The young men who are cast as the youthful counterparts to Pierce Brosnon, Stellan Starsgard and Colin Firth, are effectively familiar and they carry most of the load when it comes to singing, so we only get snatches from their less tuneful older versions.

Director Ol Parker makes the film flow smoothly with inventive staging that frequently suggests his theatrical roots. As we bounce back and forth from 1979 to today, there are transitions using back to back walls, images appearing in mirrors and actions that begin with one set of characters but finish with the other set. Maybe they are not completely new inventions but they work well at moving things along and keeping the energy of the story from lagging too much. Anthony Van Laast put the dance sequences together in a vigorous manner that may lack the grace of a Busby Berkley extravaganza, but is compensated for by the diverse chorus of dancers who are not all 20 something models. Even the geezers in the cast look like they can dance a little, and if not, they look like they are having fun trying.

Meryl Streep who crooned her way through the starring role in the original film, appears in only one number near the end and then in the end credits. Lily James does the heavy lifting as the young version of the slightly promiscuous Donna. It is a bit of a leap when Meryl does come in because her Donna is definitely a different version of the character she and Lily are playing. Andy Garcia has become a go to older romantic lead, following his earlier turn this year in “Book Club“, another film to appeal to the geriatric set. Finally, Cher shows up and makes a movie star sort of impression with a minimal amount of screen time. She has one song that she chers [shares, ha ha] with Garcia and then sings in the ensemble closing credits.

If you were seeing this as a revue on stage, you would clap along and sing the chorus and when the finale shows up you’d stand up and boogie in place. The demographics on this film will definitely skew over thirty and female. At an 11am screening on a Friday, the theater was packed…with walkers, wheel chairs and canes. Forget your age, and your dignity. Don’t pay any attention to the usual standards that you might apply to a movie. This is a little like the song lyric from the 1990s, “Disco lemonade”. Have a cool drink on a warm summer day and dream of “sex and candy”.