MISSION: IMPOSSILE – FALLOUT (2018, Christopher McQuarrie)
“Fate whispered to the soldier: ‘A storm is coming.’ The soldier whispered back, ‘I am the storm.'” So goes the passcode conversation in the opening minutes of FALLOUT, confirming Ethan Hunt’s identity so he can accept his next mission. And if Ethan is the soldier in question, the rest of the movie attempts to show quite concretely that he is indeed the storm. If Hunt had been reacting to chaos in earlier M:I installments (and avoiding confrontation at all costs — as in the silent Langley break-in), here he is creating it — he’s the one leaping into the fray, starting fights, and ramming trucks into the Seine. He’s an unstoppable bullet-train for justice, as much a superhero as ever.
This means the movie must support it, and it does so by ramping up the action setpieces to absurd heights. To its credit, those sequences are electrifying — from the HALO jump to the motorcycle chase to the helicopter dogfight, McQuarrie has crafted an expert fusion of stunts, effects, and visual geography. The camera is always in the right place and there’s consistent texture to the shots (the dirt, metal, and debris all feel real, not CG). But as the action hops from setpiece to setpiece, so does the script — more than any other M:I film, this one feels like a story contrived to get from point A to point G, and no amount of hand-wringing over Ethan’s character can justify its sillier aspects (not to mention its dull, over-explanatory exposition).
The MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE franchise is my favorite among all Hollywood sequel machines (you’ll find it on my top ten lists from 1996, 2011, and 2015) so I hold it to high standards, but there was always a palpable sense of paranoia that’s missing here. Where the earlier films felt extraordinary, this one is little more than its impressive craft. A telling line is Luther asking “How close were we?” and Ethan responding, “The usual.”
EIGHTH GRADE (2018, Bo Burnham)
Hits its target cleanly, but this isn’t some 200-yard bullseye in high winds. It’s a softball aiming at a mattress. At some point it needs to stop seeming profound when it’s pointed out to us that teenagers struggle with their identities and with peer pressure and friends and school, and that the world feels overwhelming to their complicated developing emotions. Yes, that’s true. But revealing that kids actually have acne isn’t some historical wisdom unearthed from the writings of Lao Tze or anything. We get it, we’ve all been there.
It’s nice when a movie subverts the even worse tropes of clichéd one-dimensional teen props, and recognizes the nuances of their lives. But is that our standard now? Just being better than the worst aspects of bad movies? Burnham’s feature debut never rises too far above that goal, even though it nicely explores how phony teens are when they present to social media the personalities they wish they had. In so many other respects it’s just like many other EDGE-OF-SEVENTEEN-type coming-of-age indies, maturely reckoning with uncomfortable subject matter and being overly proud of its young cast.
Josh Hamilton (who annoyingly seems to have barely aged in the 25 years since I first saw him in ALIVE) shines as Kayla’s dad, and he gets that emotional father-daughter fireside chat scene to elevate the movie, even though I couldn’t help but wish it was part of a stronger film. He and Fisher do a good job. (Hamilton has a line reading to her, which is nothing but the word “Yes,” that’s so funny it deserves an Oscar on its own). But the cinematography is barely functional, often flattened out and poorly composed. It magnifies the worst aspects of its digital cameras. Burnham’s brilliant stage act highlights clever writing and stinging meta-humor. This script, while funny in its own right, doesn’t play to his strengths. He may one day be a very good director, but this heralded start doesn’t play as much more than an easy mediocrity.
SORRY TO BOTHER YOU (2018, Boots Riley)
Pulses with the energy of a first-time filmmaker, but also with the experience of someone who’s been making political art for a lifetime. Movies like this often reek of a hurried attempt to desperately shout all the writer’s rebellious thoughts at once, resulting in a preachy, unentertaining screed. But SORRY TO BOTHER YOU is very much a movie, not a PSA, and somehow manages to wrangle its protagonist’s Kafkaesque nightmare, existential crisis, and activist journey into one fluid narrative that ends in a very different place than it began, yet it’s consistently witty, surprising, and sharp.
I could have done without David Cross and Patton Oswalt dubbing the “white voices,” even though the observation that blacks need to sublimate their culture and voices to the whites who simultaneously loathe and appropriate it is keenly disturbing. It just felt beneath a movie whose heart is in a true anti-capitalist message that — agree with it or not — works logically within the fantastical elements of its plot. The third-act horror show is a natural extension of the themes, somehow calling to mind great black-directed social statements like WATERMELON MAN, BAMBOOZLED, and GET OUT. Like Van Peebles’s satire, it shows there’s no going back. Like Lee’s minstrel show, the self-defeating dehumanization is a choice made by its victims. And like Peele’s thriller, it sows the seeds of violent revolt.
Riley edits this like a hazy fever dream, displacing Cassius Green (a name whose pun tells the audience right away how allegorical and theatrical this experience will be) throughout his life, fracturing his psyche the more he gives in to the system. And as Green, Lakeith Stanfield lives up to all the promise he’s shown in everything from ATLANTA and GET OUT to DEATH NOTE. Tessa Thompson is also a highlight, playing Detroit as a sex-positive performance artist eager for human connection (notice how physical her movements towards others are at all times) because of its importance to her community ideals. And Armie Hammer is in full-on SOCIAL NETWORK mode, laying waste to the stiffness and somberness he went for in CALL ME BY YOUR NAME — with this he’s having a ball and commands attention.
FIRST REFORMED (2018, Paul Schrader)
I saw this 11 days ago and have been chewing on it ever since. It feels like a roulette ball tossed around the wheel without being able to settle down into a number. Nevertheless, as it spins, my personal life has involved a confrontation with death so I’ll jot down a few thoughts about human suffering and this movie, even though the ball keeps whirring through space.
The rigid 4:3 aspect ratio is being rightly praised, as it does everything IDA tried and failed to do. That film was so self-consciously composed and left so much headroom (for God?) that rarely a shot went by that didn’t call attention to itself; Schrader’s more confident work, on the other hand, is more subtle in its boxing-in of the characters, and uses spare camera movement to great emotional effect. Also, as a meditation on faith and the inability of organized religion to appropriately deal with the Camusian sickness of the human condition, it blows IDA out of the water — the characters here are on a collision course with a day of reckoning, and only time can get in the way of the inevitable.
Hawke plays his Ernst Toller with a passion and conviction matched only by Schrader himself, and that sincerity, single-mindedness, and devotion goes a long way towards pacifying the inherent flaws in the narrative and basic unease of the milieu. It’s never slow, always moves, but goes nowhere good. And it says a lot about the formal design and the acting talent that this is an easy sit despite its weighty, lugubrious subject matter. Hell may be other people, according to Sartre, but being alone is no picnic either.
HEREDITARY (2018, Ari Aster)
After some brief obituary text, it opens on a shot of a dollhouse and moves in to fuse live action into one of the bedrooms. That artificiality seeps into the rest of the movie and the result is a thrice-removed distance so impenetrable that even the upsetting, creepy horror imagery fails to land. Even if you love a good scare or Mike Flanagan-style unsettling dread (OCULUS wipes the floor with this), you’ll be disappointed by just how inert this becomes.
Heavily burdened by its own philosophy about free will vs. inherited traits (an early classroom scene spells it out in painfully obvious terms), Aster’s film debut is an obnoxiously showy piece of theater, despite some clever ideas. Take the dollhouse metaphors (Collette is an artist specializing in turning her own trauma into gallery-ready miniatures) and ladle it with ostentatious pans and tilts demonstrating Camerawork, added to characters who are mostly chess pieces, and you have a work that is constantly shouting at you that it’s a Movie, and as such it’s impossible to lose yourself in the story and become involved in its satanic supernatural horror.
We’ve seen plenty of fright flicks focused on family, and many of them work — but this is a family incredibly difficult to identify with in any way. Collette and Byrne appear to have just met each other last Thursday (and she might be wondering why this 70 year-old has two teenage kids with her), and while she’s reliably great (often the case), he’s lifeless and annoyed. Then there’s Alex Wolff as Peter, forced to carry a huge load (a good chunk of this bloated 2-plus-hour runtime is spent on close-ups of Wolff’s aghast face) and can’t carry through. He’s a bad enough actor, and the character lacks enough of an interior, that the distance is even worse. You won’t care about him or anyone else in the family that much, so the effect of watching this is that of an entomologist staring at bugs crawling around in a jar. Plus, even the attempts at comedy (and there are a few big, intentional jokes) ring hollow because they’re shoehorned into such serious, weighty generational angst. This a morose, arrogant debut that isn’t devoid of isolated pleasures, but the sum of its parts is so phony that nothing will get under your skin.
SOLO (2018, Ron Howard)
An exhausted, hurried, ugly, half-assed shrug from a franchise that had finally come into its own with three of its four best entries released in a 2-year span. THE FORCE AWAKENS, ROGUE ONE, and THE LAST JEDI were all inspired and idiosyncratic. This creaky, cornball place-holder is the opposite: formulaic, clichéd, and carrying no distinguishing vision or creative idea.
You can’t help but wonder what the JUMP STREET guys would have done with full control of this material (for the 7 people left on Earth who don’t know, Lord & Miller were fired off the project and Howard was brought in like a company-man consultant to wipe the movie clean of personality and deliver a product on time and within budget). A few lines peek out from the smothering blanket of crap (“That’s a rock! And you were just making a clicking sound with your mouth!”) indicating that a funny, satirical Western was the initial intent, but most of the jokes that remain are grossly ancient and waft through the theater like a fart that won’t die.
Pre-production did its job — Ehrenreich, Harrelson, and Glover are all fine actors with the ability to make a stamp, but the only characters who come to life are, ironically, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s droid L3 and the always-reliable Chewbacca. Harrelson is particularly disappointing; he’s an actor who usually elevates material, whereas in this he couldn’t be less interested in anything going on. Hard to explain why he showed up for WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES but sleep-walked through this. Glover is likable but the script seems too concerned with winking Lando in-jokes and handcuffing him to a mythology. (Not to mention he’s the center of two annoyingly predictable poker [yes, I know it’s not poker, but it’s poker] scenes with all the requisite slowrolls, string raises, and cold-decks that are depressingly de rigueur).
If it isn’t going to be about anything (STAR WARS movies rarely are), at least make it entertaining and fun to look at. Bradford Young’s photography looks like dark grey toilet water covering old magazine photos. It’s so dark I had to ask the theater manager to confirm they didn’t leave the 3-D filter on the projector for this 2-D presentation (she said they didn’t). It’s a colorless slog, blurring out incoherent action and dimming any chance at seeing the forgettable monsters and aliens on display. The fight scenes are pre-determined and suspenseless. The plot is an entire act too long. It’s a sad and greedy reminder that, like with Marvel films, this franchise has a ceiling of goodness but a floor that can sink to PHANTOM MENACE-depths of garbage, embodying the soulless, quality-indifferent cynicism that Hollywood’s sharpest critics accuse the studio system of far-too-often succumbing to.
TULLY (2018, Jason Reitman)
Plenty of good one-liners (Cody has those down pat), but for some reason — maybe it’s the thematic gambit — it doesn’t land as emotionally as, for example, RICKI AND THE FLASH (not that anyone expects Reitman to ever exist in the same orbit as Demme). Perhaps one needs to actually be an aging parent to register what Marlo is going through: the loss of her youthful body and energy, the thanklessness of her efforts, etc. But I can grasp those things cerebrally and while I like what this ultimately does with its characters, including the Manic Pixie Dream Nanny (if you’ve seen it you know why I’m being obtuse), I’m not sure there’s much to unpack. That is, there wasn’t much cabin pressure to be lost in the first place.
One thing I’ll say is that it’s really weird to cast Ron Livingston and Mark Duplass in the same movie and have them NOT be related. They’re brothers… in-law! How do you mess that up? Also, this fact means Marlo chose to marry a man that looks exactly like her own brother, which is fucked up.