Friday, July 31, 2015

Review: Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation

Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Runtime: 111 minutes

It's extremely rare that film franchises get better with age, yet Tom Cruise's 19 year-old Mission: Impossible series continues to see significant improvements. Four years after Brad Bird's Ghost Protocol, Ethan Hunt is back and shows no signs of given into fatigue. Screenwriter-turned-director Christopher McQuarrie has taken control of the fifth Impossible film, and despite some missed opportunities, he's created a stellar spy adventure that keeps Cruise and co. gleefully on track. 

Despite the presence of a new director and new screenwriters, the latest installment - subtitled Rogue Nation - has quite a bit in common with its predecessor. Like Ghost Protocol, Rogue Nation begins with the IMF (Impossible Mission Force) becoming compromised, albeit under different circumstances. Despite the nuclear disaster averted at the end of Ghost Protocol, the IMF has drawn the ire of Senator Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), who convinces the Senate to disband the cover ops organization. While agents like William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) begrudgingly go with the flow, Hunt goes MIA. He's convinced that there's an organization known as The Syndicate, the sole purpose of which is to instigate acts of terrorism across the globe. 

While Hunt and his co-workers have faced various obstacles before, Rogue Nation gets great mileage by introducing the less tangible roadblock of uncertainty. Is The Syndicate real? Is Ethan Hunt going out of his mind after years working for the US government? Some of these questions have easy answers that aren't worth pondering, but their inclusion does highlight an effort on McQuarrie's part to bring something new to this outlandish adventure series. 

Yet the biggest and best question mark comes not in the form of an existential dilemma, but a person. Specifically, Rebecca Ferguson's Ilsa Faust, whose allegiance seems to change on a whim. The series has made good use of female characters in the past, but none have felt as complete as Ilsa. Frankly, by the end of Rogue Nation, I was ready for an entire movie dedicated solely to her exploits. Obviously no one's out to win awards here, but the actress does make quite an impression as woman who's equal parts Bond girl and Ingrid Bergman. 

In fact, despite Ethan Hunt's lone wolf status through the first chunk of the film, the film fares best when it works to incorporate as much of the supporting cast as possible. Cruise can play this role in his sleep and still be convincing, which leaves quite a bit of room for the rest of the cast to really make their mark. Of the returning cast, Pegg is easily the most enjoyable of the lot, playing the frenzied sidekick to Cruise's laser-focused leading man while still remaining grounded. Renner's role has much less to do this time around, but the actor manages to land a few solid quips, especially in his scenes opposite Baldwin. 

This being a Mission: Impossible film, however, the real question is: but what about the stunts?? Even though Mr. McQuarrie's experience behind the camera is limited, he and his technical collaborators have done an excellent job of providing Rogue Nation's required spectacle. If anything, McQuarrie overloads the film's first half with excellent set pieces, the crown jewel of which involves an assassination attempt set in the rafters of an opera house. The film's marketing has made a big deal of Cruise actually hanging off of the side of a plane, but by the film's end, that oddly weightless bit of stunt work is a distant memory.

The downside of overloading the film's first half is that McQuarrie compensates by padding the second half. The second hour takes far too long to reshuffle the deck, and McQuarrie's exception handle on the pacing goes too slack for what's supposed to be an high stakes adventure. There are also narrative developments (or rather, lack thereof) that mar Rogue Nation's ambitions. Overall, The Syndicate doesn't feel like much of a major threat (other than as some vague, amorphous "evil" entity). McQuarrie's concept of his villains far outstrips his execution, which struggles to move beyond square one. Ghost Protocol built to a definitive struggle to thwart a specific plot, while Rogue Nation's climax involves trying to get the bad guy because, well, he's probably planning on doing something the next few months (????).

Second act misgivings aside, McQuarrie deserves a lot of credit for taking the reigns of such a big action movie franchise and making a mostly seamless transition to the director's chair. Despite a few dramatic outbursts between characters, this is breezy, lightweight material that has been expertly assembled. From the opera sequence to a climactic chase that has visual nods to the finale of The Third Man, Rogue Nation is a well-oiled machine that knows how to deliver. McQuarrie knows he isn't reinventing the wheel, but at least he's trying his hardest to make the best damn wheel he can. If the result is a film like Rogue Nation, then he's more than accomplished his goal. 

Grade: B

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Review: "Phoenix"

Director: Christian Petzold
Runtime: 98 minutes

Despite seasoned careers, director Christian Petzold and actress Nina Hoss have precious little name recognition in the US, outside of the festival circuit. That will hopefully change with this weekend's release of Phoenix, the third collaboration between the two. This Vertigo-esque drama, which wowed crowds at last year's Toronto Film Festival, has its flaws - most notably in the pacing - but is still a rewarding slice of German cinema. If nothing else, it deserves attention for Hoss' beautifully understated central performance that reaches its height in a gorgeously executed finale. 

Set just after the end of World War II, Phoenix begins with Nelly Lenz (Hoss) on her way to a secluded hospital. Stopped by American soldiers at a checkpoint, Nelly is eventually forced to reveal why she has obscured her face: brutal scars incurred in a concentration camp. Though her eventual surgery does wonders for her injuries, Nelly is understandably shellshocked. She looks quite a bit like her old self, yet shows no joy at the prospect of reuniting with her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). The reason (well, other than the horrific trauma)? She's ambivalent about the idea that dear Johnny may have had a role in her capture by the Nazis. 

Yet even though Phoenix's story positions the narrative to function as a psychological mystery, Petzold's screenplay fares best when sticking with the simpler ideas. The introductory act chronicling Nelly's physical recovery is given just the right amount of distance. Petzold avoids sensationalizing Nelly's grief or the gruesome details behind her injuries, in favor of beautiful and solemn imagery capturing the turmoil from afar. These also happen to be the scenes that require the least from Hoss, which is where the film's eventual fumbles arise. 

When Nelly reunites with Johnny, he doesn't recognize her, and takes her under his wing at his nightclub (from which the film derives its title). There's an understandable reserve in Hoss' work here that isn't immediately impressive, but builds slowly and surely. Zehrfeld is quite good as well, and avoids making Johnny either overtly sinister or suspiciously saintly. The two actors are a great match for each other, especially given their respective roles. 

And that's why it's frustrating that so much of Phoenix's middle comes off as repetitions of a single scene. Nelly is withdrawn and downtrodden, while Johnny is opportunistic and brusque. It's a testament to both actors that Phoenix is always watchable, because at this point Petzold's screenplay starts moving the story forward only centimeters at a time. It's one thing to have variations of a certain scene throughout a screenplay, but here it often feels like Petzold decided to just Copy+Paste a handful of conversations while only changing one or two details. 

Even so, it's hard to deny what Petzold pulls off once he gets the pacing back on track. With Johnny's intentions finally out in the open, the film's amorphous middle takes shape. The truth begins to masquerade as lies, and turns this seemingly simple case of mistaken identity into an unsettling web of moral ambiguities. Just when you think Petzold has let his focus slip too far, he pulls it all together just in time before segueing into the conclusion. 

Words like "shocking" and "devastating" have been thrown around a lot when discussing the final scene of Phoenix, and not without reason. Yet, in stressing these descriptors, one risks inflating a sequence that is very purposefully executed on a small scale. Phoenix's ending isn't exactly the sort of scene one can "spoil." It's not a revelation that changes one's perception of all that came before. Instead, it's a painful and beautiful moment of honesty, handled with delicacy and precision. Phoenix's middle is certainly a bit flabby, but Petzold's ending is cut as if by an X-acto knife. There are so many questions left unanswered as the credits roll over the film's open-ended emotional devastation. Yet given how hauntingly Petzold, Hoss, and Zehrfeld execute this story, the endpoint makes sense. In the wake of such raw pain, asking for more answers only seems cruel. 

Grade: B+

Review: "Southpaw"

Director: Antoine Fuqua
Runtime: 125 minutes

Coming just one week after Trainwreck, Antoine Fuqua's Southpaw serves as a grim reminder of what happens a formulaic plot meets formulaic execution. Whereas the Apatow-Schumer collaboration created a typical rom-com executed with with humor and heart, Fuqua's work with Sons of Anarchy creator/writer Kurt Sutter is emotionally stunted. You've seen this story of an athlete seeking redemption, and you've seen it done so much better that this latest iteration isn't worth your time.

Not even Jake Gyllenhaal, coming off of a winning streak that peaked with Nightcrawler, can do much to elevate the material. From a physical standpoint, the role is every bit as transformative as the one the actor played in Dan Gilroy's thriller, albeit on the opposite end of the spectrum. Gyllenhaal gain between 20 and 30 pounds of muscle to play boxer Billy Hope. Yet the external transformation is the most impressive aspect of Gyllenhaal's work. Of all of his recent projects, Southpaw gives Gyllenhaal the most traditionally Leading Man role, and the actor sells every minute.

But underneath the muscles and the screaming and cursing, Southpaw's protagonist rings hollow. The blame shouldn't be laid at Gyllenhaal's feet, but rather at Sutter and Fuqua, who have hardly fleshed out the character beyond the most obvious and blunt surface details. With such a textbook protagonist, it's even more difficult to care about the mechanical storytelling. A man is on top of his respective profession, then tragedy sends him into free fall. What is he to do in his hour of woe? Why, revisit his roots, get help from an elderly black mentor (Forest Whitaker), and work his way toward a boxing match that could serve as his redemption. Southpaw is Raging Bull filtered through the aesthetic of 8 Mile, but without the raw intensity of either.

Fuqua has never been a particularly nuanced director, and Mr. Sutter doesn't do much to help. As the architect behind one of TV's most suffocatingly MACHO prestige dramas, Mr. Sutter is an ideal fit on paper. But vapid bluntness multiplied by faux-gritty vapid bluntness only leads to...well, you get the idea. It's not enough to offer audiences a Damaged Male Protagonist and expect a connection, and it hasn't been that way for a while (and as for the way the film uses its female characters...yikes). 

All of this reinforces the notion that Southpaw is, from a pop culture standpoint, a bit of an unintentional relic. Even from a technical standpoint, it's a surprisingly flat piece of work. Fuqua's images are a mix of the glossy and the grimy, and both sides are equally artless. The fight scenes effectively communicate the brute force of taking a punch to the face, but they never heighten the story's drama. Every story beat is so obvious that's no room to be engaged in the moment. A story of blood, sweat, and tears shouldn't feel so rote, yet here we are.  

Grade: C-

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Review: "Trainwreck"

Director: Judd Apatow
Runtime: 125 minutes

Though by no means as sharp as her sketch show, Amy Schumer's leap to the big screen couldn't have come at a better time. Having finished up a third season of her acclaimed Comedy Central series (which featured an award-worthy 12 Angry Men send up), Schumer is one of the most talked about people on the comedy scene. Rightfully so, as her first feature Trainwreck (which she wrote and stars in), proves. Despite the softening around the edges that was perhaps inevitable in the leap to the big studio system, Schumer's voice has landed into the mainstream remarkably intact and genuine.

Billed as a subversion of the romantic comedy, Trainwreck isn't quite the radical comedy promised by the marketing, but that's not entirely a bad thing. Instead of firmly skewering the rom-com, Schumer and director Judd Apatow (Knocked Up) have simply applied the former's voice to a traditional comedy, and made a funny and sweet film in the process. 

In fact, the only truly rebellious aspect of Trainwreck's screenplay is that it does a bit of gender-swapping in its main roles. This time, it's a woman takes on the cinematic responsibilities of being highly promiscuous all while harboring an ingrained fear of intimacy and commitment. That woman is Amy Townsend (Schumer, obviously) a Manhattanite working at a GQ-esque men's magazine who's no stranger to boozy one night stands. Amy has followed in the footsteps of her rakish father (Colin Quinn), whose mantra is, "monogamy isn't realistic" (drilled in during the hilarious opening scene). Amy's feelings are challenged, however, when her boss Dianna (a spray-tanned Tilda Swinton) assigns her an article about a surgeon (Bill Hader) who cares for A-list athletes. 

To be blunt, the rest of the film doesn't exactly contain surprises. Whether judging by Apatow's other films or by rom-coms in general, there's nothing in the structure of Trainwreck that's designed to surprise. Where the film's success comes from is that it remains (relatively speaking) grounded in reality, offering scenes that are either very funny or quite touching (or both). Though Schumer's comedy often blends vulgarity with cutting commentary, Trainwreck demonstrates that she can create genuine moments of drama as well. With Apatow in the director's chair, the shifts in tone are surprisingly smooth. When Schumer and co. take a minute to really get "serious," the end result feels realistic and sincere, without becoming pretentious. This is not the next great American dramedy, but it is a winning mix of sass and heart often missing from studio comedies. 

The second biggest surprise of the film is that, in addition to its sincerity, much of the drama falls on Schumer's shoulders. Backed up by an excellent cast, Schumer does what Jenny Slate did in last year's Obvious Child, and shows off her skills as a comedian and as a convincing dramatic actress. Amy's Amy is, depending on the scene, either the goofball or the straight (wo)man, and she handles both roles effortlessly. Whether making drunken commentary during a movie or tolerating backhanded compliments from Swinton, Schumer is a consistently winning presence whose charm is only magnified on the big screen. 

Likewise, the supporting cast is full of effective performances, starting with Hader's love interest. The SNL alum steps up to the plate as a romantic lead, and delivers convincing and heartfelt performance. His rapport with Schumer is delightful, which only makes the weightier scenes register more deeply as well. Brie Larson, playing a role modeled on Schumer's actual sister, does lovely work too. As different as the two actresses look, Larson and Schumer have a believable chemistry as siblings who are bonded by love but separated by their drastically different outlooks on life. Swinton, meanwhile, is a delight in her too-brief role as Dianna, while a whole host of Schumer's comedian friends (Vanessa Bayer, Jon Glaser, etc...) fill out additional roles, each with solid contributions to their scenes. LeBron James (as himself) and John Cena offer riotously funny performances as well, using their limited screen time to maximum effect. 

So no, Trainwreck isn't the game changing rom-com that Amy Schumer easily could have concocted. And no, it doesn't have the stinging feminist commentary that Schumer's best sketches possess. But that doesn't stop Trainwreck from working as a highly-enjoyable means of pitching Schumer to the mainstream movie-going public. The studio system has a habit of squeezing the life out of distinctive voices. Thankfully, in Schumer's cast, the voice has remained intact. Under Apatow's guidance (or perhaps protection), Schumer has leapt to the big leagues not by compromising her voice, but by adapting to her surroundings. With this first step now out of the way, the door should be wide open for the comedian to really make her mark. And even if that means getting a few more Trainwrecks along the way, well, that's hardly a bad thing. 

Grade: B

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Review: "Strangerland"

Director: Kim Farrant
Runtime: 111 minutes

"Kids go missing out here; it's the land," says an elderly Aboriginal woman. "What does that mean?" replies a panicky Catherine Parker (Nicole Kidman). If you're trying to sum up Kim Farrant's Strangerland, that exchange is the most efficient means. Farrant's missing kids drama is mysterious and unsettling, but also frustratingly opaque. Though headlined by compelling actors and featuring some moody visuals, Farrant's debut doesn't have the complexity to lift its premise above the ordinary.

The above observations are all the more irritating to express, given that Strangerland comes loaded with so much promise. Like an Outback version of Prisoners, the film centers on the aftermath of the disappearing of two children. Parents Catherine and Matthew (Joseph Fiennes) are left reeling, and the ensuing investigation only pushes them further to the emotional brink. Local detective David Rae (Hugo Weaving) does what he can, but he, like everyone else in Strangerland, pales in comparison to the overwhelming force of nature that is the Australian desert. The Outback is not just a setting in Farrant's film, but also an important character. The problem is, by the film's end, the Outback emerges as the most consistent and developed member of the cast.

The issues stem mostly from Farrant's work as a writer, which often undercuts the promising strengths of her direction. Her characters are scattershot at best. Farrant's script teases any number of angles for both characters and plot, yet never has the guts to make a commitment. Even the consistent traits manifest in clunky, unsatisfying ways. The writing is most noticeably a hindrance for Kidman, for whom Strangerland should have provided a total knockout of a role. Instead, Farrant limits her star to playing the same few notes of repressed anguish until the last half hour, when it's time for the histrionics. Kidman does her best to breathe life into the role, but she's ultimately powerless against Farrant's wishy-washy material. Scenes in which Catherine acts out by trying to seduce men have potential on paper, but are clumsily interjected into the narrative. Just when Strangerland looks like it's finding a solid tempo, a left field misstep comes along and everything gets reset. 

The script is, somehow, even less generous to Fiennes and Weaving. Fiennes' Matthew suffers from the same repression as Catherine, only with fewer instances to go below the character's surface. Though at least Fiennes' role has something going on that's more than skin deep. Weaving, despite a natural presence in his role, is utterly wasted. Det. Rae has his own life, but the table scraps he's afforded feel like afterthoughts. They're the sort of details one adds at the last second so as to not fully give away that a major character is mostly a plot device. 

At complete odds with all of this is that some of Farrant's direction is quite solid, and at times even inspired. The film's opening sequence beautifully sets the tone, especially thanks to PJ Dillon's photography and Keefus Ciancia's score. Farrant's command of atmosphere is where Strangerland makes its mark, and it's disheartening to see said atmosphere be used to prop up characters that are badly in need of reworking. 

The ambition here is admirable, but Farrant's attempts to craft a probing, existential look at trauma and tragedy come off as simplistic and repetitive. In the right circumstances, film can turn emotional bleakness into something beautiful and transfixing. Strangerland, sadly, just isn't up to the task. Farrant doesn't need to explain what the Outback does to people, but she does need to provide more than ponderous questions and then leave literally everything else up to the viewer. Strangerland looks and sounds the part, to be sure, and in isolated moments it mesmerizes. But by the time the final shot of Kidman and Fiennes unspools, we're left in the same position as Catherine and Matthew: staring off into the harsh and ruggedly beautiful distance, wondering what the hell any of this means. The Outback didn't stop at swallowing up the Parkers' kids. It went and devoured the whole plot as well. 

Grade: C+