Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Tom Cruise might be insane. And I'm not talking about the "couch-jumping scientologist" brand of insane, I mean that if Mission: Impossible - Fallout is any indication, I'm not entirely sure that the man has any regard for life and limb. Cruise has become known for personally performing death-defying stunts without a double in the Mission: Impossible films, and he once again outdoes himself in the series' sixth entry, Fallout, which finds him skydiving and dangling from helicopters as he seeks to save the world from a nuclear holocaust.

The film deals directly with the, ahem, fallout from the last film, Rogue Nation, bringing back international terrorist Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) as the catalyst for a plot to bring down the global world order and reshape society as we know it. The splintered remnants of Lane's group, now known as The Apostles, intends to obtain stolen Russian plutonium in order to detonate two nuclear weapons at unknown locations, and Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is called in to stop him. This time, however, he is joined by CIA operative, August Walker (Henry Cavill), who is assigned to keep an eye on him after a mission goes wrong. As they get closer to their target, however, the lines between who is a friend and who is a foe become increasingly blurred, and it isn't long before no one can be trusted.

Fallout marks the second film in the series directed by Christopher McQuarrie, who is now the only filmmaker to helm more than one Mission: Impossible film. Yet it is clear that he and Cruise work well together, and in continuing the story from Rogue Nation, it allows both actor and filmmaker to deepen the story they started in 2015. And what a story it is - the amount of sustained tension that McQuarrie is able to create is stunning, just when you think that the film must be reaching its climax, it hits you with yet another escalation, and it does so without sacrificing pacing or character. McQuarrie, along with cinematographer Rob Hardy (Annihilation), allow the camera to explore the space within the frame in spectacular ways, each shot and each cut seemingly precision crafted for maximum suspense.

Cruise's stunt work is also every bit as jaw-dropping as advertised, and it adds a level of authenticity to the film that sets Fallout apart from the over reliance on CGI that plagues much of its action movie brethren. It is Cruise's dedication, and McQuarrie's sharp eye for visual storytelling, that make the film such a resounding success. For a franchise that is now 22 years old and on its 6th film (with a seemingly ageless action star now approaching 60), Mission: Impossible is showing no signs of slowing down or slipping into irrelevance. This is top-tier action filmmaking, the kind of no-holds-barred, balls-to-the-wall extravaganza that manages to root its spectacle in actual human emotion, justifying its excesses by fully committing to their high stakes.

We've come along way since the more cerebral spy movie roots of Brian De Palma's original Mission: Impossible (1996), but McQuarrie and Cruise have continued to build upon a successful formula in ways that deliver real summer movie thrills that prove you don't have to sacrifice soul to keep an audience on the edge of its seat.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - FALLOUT | Directed by Christopher McQuarrie | Stars Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Rebecca Ferguson, Sean Harris, Alec Baldwin, Angela Bassett, Vanessa Kirby, Frederick Schmidt, Kristoffer Joner, Michelle Monaghan, Wes Bentley | Rated PG-13 for violence and intense sequences of action, and for brief strong language | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Under Capricorn is likely not the first film that comes to mind when one thinks of Alfred Hitchcock, yet it says something about the man's talent when a film this good is among his worst films. I use the term "worst" in comparison with the rest of his stellar filmography, because Under Capricorn is by no means a bad film, but it doesn't quite measure up to the master's greatest triumphs.

It often feels like Hitchcock on autopilot, perhaps due to the similarity of its plot to the director's own Rebecca from 9 years earlier, the only Hitchcock film to ever win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Set in Australia in 1831, Under Capricorn stars Ingrid Bergman as Lady Henrietta Flusky, the wife of a former convict turned wealthy landowner named Sam (Joseph Cotten) who begins to fall for Charles Adare (Michael Wilding), charming Irishman who has immigrated to the continent to begin a new life in the territory governed by his uncle. Charles is instantly drawn to the enigmatic Henrietta, but her alcoholism hides a dark secret, jealously guarded by her jealous housekeeper, Milly (Margaret Leighton) who may or may not harbor feelings of her own for Sam.

Although the film was based on a novel by Helen Simpson, which was then adapted into a play by John Colton and Margaret Linden, the jealous housekeeper subplot feels like reheated leftovers from the superior Rebecca. That doesn't stop Bergman delivering a fiery performance as a woman saddled with a lifetime of guilt whose only release is through a bottle. Under Capricorn is also one of Hitchcock's most beautiful films, mostly due to the work of legendary cinematographer, Jack Cardiff (The Red Shoes). Cardiff's trademark Technicolor brilliance paints the screen with vibrant colors, stunningly rendered in the 4K restoration featured on the new Blu-Ray edition from Kino Lorber, which at last rescues the film from bleary obscurity.

Cardiff, perhaps the greatest cinematographer of all time, who brought such breathtaking life to the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, seems a perfect fit for Hitchcock's period aesthetic, as the two explore more of the single-take shots that defined Rope just one year prior. This style ultimately proved too difficult for the world of Under Capricorn, but the film does feature some striking tracking shots  that pull us seamlessly into the world of 19th century Australia, when the veneer of high society barely masked the young nation's troubled roots, whose citizens seek an escape from their reputation as a nation of criminals.

There's certainly a lot to admire here. While the film was marketed as yet another Hitchcock murder mystery, Hitch himself envisioned it as a drama, and constantly pulls the focus toward the inner life of his characters. In the end, it was yet another box office failure for the master of suspense in a string of flops, but part of that can be attributed to the film's misleading marketing. Hitchcock was trying something new here, a melodrama where the terror comes from within, from the rot created by burying secrets, both for Henrietta and for the nation of Australia as a whole. But despite its sumptuous stylistic departure, it never quite escapes the feeling that we've seen Hitchcock tackle similar themes in superior ways, and Under Capricorn deservedly takes a back seat to some of his more well known masterpieces.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

UNDER CAPRICORN | Directed by Alfred Hitchcock | Stars Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, Michael Wilding, Margaret Leighton, Cecil Parker, Denis O'Dea | Not Rated | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Despite having been released in 1958, William Wyler's epic western, The Big Country, feels like a very modern rebuke of toxic masculinity. Gregory Peck stars as James McKay, a former ship captain who moves out west at the end of the Civil War, bringing with him a very different way of life to a foreign and unfamiliar territory.

It is immediately that he does not fit in, making enemies of a suspicious ranch hand (Charlton Heston), and finding himself drawn into a bitter land dispute by his fiancee, Pat (Carroll Baker), whose father, Major Henry Terrill (Burl Ives), is a wealthy cattle baron. McKay's peaceful ways and his family loyalties are soon put to the test as the Terrills go to war over their land, leading to a violent confrontation that will change them all.

Few actors have ever embodied quiet masculine dignity quite like Gregory Peck. Like his iconic Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, McKay is a man looking for an alternate path, a calm, clear-headed man of principle who refuses to be swayed by the lawlessness of his environment. William Wyler directs the film with an appropriate sweep and grandeur, in keeping with the western standards of the day. And yet, Wyler has something else on his mind besides mere spectacle. It is a big country indeed, and it often dwarfs the figures Wyler places in the frame. Wyler subverts the western archetype of the lone gunslinger by making the lone gunslinger figure a pacifist. And although he does get into a few scuffles (including one memorable knock-down, drag-out brawl with Charlton Heston), it is ultimately his philosophy that wins the day in the face of violence and hatred.

The Big Country is perhaps one of the finest Hollywood westerns of the period. Wyler explores themes of violence, pacifism, and the ripple effects of both, asking whether or not violence has any purpose in a modern, civilized world.  The film looks especially good on the new Blu-Ray release from Kino Lorber, which does justice to the scope of Franz Planer's breathtaking cinematography, making it an easy purchase to recommend. Here, Wyler showcases our own big country by demonstrating just how very small we are in comparison, the violent struggles of a few mere blips on the face of the sprawling landscape.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE BIG COUNTRY | Directed by William Wyler | Stars Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker, Charlton Heston, Burl Ives, Charles Bickford, Alfonso Bedoya, Chuck Connors | Not Rated | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The problem with jukebox musicals like Mamma Mia! and by extension, its new sequel, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, is that rather than flowing naturally from the story, the songs often feel shoe-horned in, as if the story is there to serve them rather than the other way around. Naturally, the draw of the Mamma Mia! films are the songs by Swedish pop group, ABBA. If that's the main draw bringing you to Here We Go Again, then you likely won't be disappointed, as it combines songs from the musical with other ABBA songs not previously heard in the original film.

The plot, interestingly enough, takes its cues from The Godfather Part II, juxtaposing the journey of Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) with that of her mother, Donna (Meryl Streep), as a young woman (Lily James). Donna, you see, has passed away since we last saw her, and Sophie is attempting to complete her mother's dream of renovating her Grecian hotel in her memory. As Donna's best friends (Julie Walters, Christine Baranski) and Sophie's three fathers (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård) descend on the island to celebrate Donna's life, the film flashes back to tell the story of how Donna met all three men, and came to be in possession of the building in the first place.

The film drags for most of its nearly 2-hour running time, getting bogged down in a story that we already pretty much know the ending of. It is admittedly better directed than the original Mamma Mia!, which lacked both personality and visual panache, but what Here We Go Again has in technical prowess it lacks in storytelling and writing. The songs don't seem to fit the narrative at all, and what tenuous connections they do share with the plot seem forced. Its lack of Meryl Streep is also one of its major weaknesses, although when she finally does show up at the end of the film, the film wisely makes the most of her limited screen time. The film is really only worth watching for Cher as Sophie's long-lost grandmother, who doesn't even show up until the film is almost over.

In fact, it isn't until Cher's arrival on the island that the film becomes the kooky, campy free-for-all that it always should have been. One has to commend director Ol Parker (Imagine Me & You) for attempting to keep the film grounded in something resembling real emotion, but it is only when he lets the film veer into spectacularly gaudy musical mayhem in its final 15 minutes that it really begins to soar. Watching Cher belt out ABBA tunes surrounded by fireworks and glitter is easily the highlight of the film, and she proves that even at 72 years old she's still got presence and charisma to spare.

If only the film had managed to muster up that kind of energy in the previous hour-and-a-half. Here We Go Again may not be as insufferably bubbly as its predecessor, but it also never really justifies a reason for existing, either. It mostly feels like a greatest hits album from Mamma Mia! minus Meryl and plus Cher, although Cher isn't in it nearly enough to save the film. Fans of the original may find something to love here, but otherwise it's just a tidied-up version of something we've seen before. "Here we go again," indeed.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN | Directed by Ol Parker | Stars Amanda Seyfried, Lily James, Julie Walters, Christine Baranski, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård, Dominic Cooper, Cher, Meryl Streep | Rated PG-13 for some suggestive material | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Ant-Man and the Wasp, the third Marvel film to be released this year, is something of a light-hearted breather for the studio after the gravity of Black Panther and the apocalyptic destruction of Avengers: Infinity War. By contrast, Ant-Man and the Wasp is an agreeably small-scale heist movie that shies away from the weighty themes of 2018's other Marvel films.

It's also, almost by its very nature, the lesser of the three films. 2015's Ant-Man was something of a surprise, and fun and funny romp that remains one of Marvel's best. Ant-Man and the Wasp doesn't quite reach those heights, that doesn't mean it isn't without its particular charms. Picking up in the aftermath of 2016's Captain America: Civil War, the film finds Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) under house arrest for the destructive events that happened in Germany during Civil War. His mentor, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), and his daughter, Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), are both in hiding from the authorities, working on a new project to save Hank's wife (and Hope's mother), Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfieffer) from the Quantum Realm, where she was trapped 30 years before after shrinking down too far.

But someone else is also seeking the same technology sought by Pym and Van Dyne - someone who has been phasing in and out of the Quantum Realm since childhood, and will do anything it takes to steam Pym's inventions and stop them from rescuing Janet in order to save her own life. So Scott gets called back into action as Ant-Man once again, but his adventure could cost him his freedom, and possibly even more.

Director Peyton Reed retains the light touch evident in the original, making Ant-Man and the Wasp a clever and breezy adventure. While nothing can top the climactic battle atop a Thomas the Tank Engine playset from the original film, the car chase near the end of the film featuring a giant Pez dispenser is a lot of fun. The problem is that it has quite a few pacing issues, cutting narrative corners in the name of storytelling economy but sacrificing a natural flow. Scenes often abruptly cut away from harrowing moments only to show the characters totally safe a split second later. It's often jarring, and makes the film feel strangely off-kilter.

On the other hand, Evangeline Lilly really comes into her own as The Wasp, actually becoming a more interesting hero than Ant-Man, and the film's villain joins Black Panther's Killmonger and Infinity War's Thanos as sympathetic villains with understandable, if misguided, goals. The now requisite end-credits stinger also explains where our heroes are during Thanos' purge at the end of Infinity War, and sets up some major questions for that film's as-yet-untitled sequel.

Marvel's 10th year has been a banner year for the studio. While Ant-Man and the Wasp  may not quite stack up to the rest of their 2018 output, it nevertheless offers a brief and entertaining respite from the seriousness that has dominated its more recent films. While it might not satisfy fans looking for more definitive clues as to the future of the franchise, it serves as a nice lighthearted breather before what promises to be an epic and potentially devastating finale for the most recent phase of films.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP | Directed by Peyton Reed | Stars Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, Michael Pena, Walton Goggins, Judy Greer, Hannah John-Kamen, Bobby Cannavale, Laurence Fishburne | Rated PG-13 for some sci-fi action violence | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

We live in volatile times. Everywhere you turn, it seems as if anger, hatred, and divisiveness are the order of the day, the art of kindness having seemingly been forgotten by the world at large. Morgan Neville's new documentary, Won't You Be My Neighbor boldly steps into this fraught political landscape as a film that almost seems defiantly out of step. Its subject? Fred Rogers - the iconic PBS television show host who headlined "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" from 1968-2001.

During the course of his more than 30 year run, Mr. Rogers was a constant, reassuring presence on public television, teaching children about everything from sharing and make believe to divorce and death. With his kindly demeanor and warm countenance, Mr. Rogers seemed to reach through the television set, comforting childhood fears and assuring us that we were just the way we were.

Won't You Be My Neighbor? traces the evolution of the show from its inauspicious debut in 1968 until Rogers' death in 2003. It presents the show as a quietly radical expression of childhood anxieties that went against the grain of most popular culture, eschewing the slapstick and fast pace of most children's programming. It also takes a look at Mr. Rogers the man,  who has for years been the subject of rumors about a shadowy past life as a deadly Navy SEAL who wore his trademarked sweaters to cover his many tattoos, was in fact the mild-mannered, kindhearted figure he played on television. Through interviews with friends, family, and colleagues, Neville presents a deeply moving portrait of a man for whom kindness wasn't just a virtue, it was a way of life - a man who loved generously and gave it unconditionally. Even near the end of the film, when conservative media turns on the ordained Presbyterian minister and lifelong Republican for teaching us all that we are special, Neville gently reminds us that Rogers' belief that we are all worthy of love is a deeply Christ-like teaching, that even though his show was not overtly religious, it showed how Mr. Rogers walked the walk rather than talking the talk.

Won't You Be My Neighbor? feels like much needed antidote to our uncivil times. This isn't a film just about being nice, it's a film about love, and the true value of showing love even to those we don't believe deserve it. While I'm under no illusions that this film will somehow fix all that ails us, one can't help but feel that if more people went to see this film, we'd all look at the world a little differently. This is a truly moving film, a work of profound beauty that exalts the best in all of us by examining the life of a man who truly embodied the best of what humanity could be. At a time where hate and animus are rampant, Won't You Be My Neighbor? is a tender reminder of just how lucky we are to have had a neighbor like Mr. Rogers.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR | Directed by Morgan Neville | Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and language | Now playing in select theaters.