Monthly Archives: August 2015

Cop Car — 7/10

COP CAR (2015, Jon Watts)

Clean, simple, and effective, COP CAR is the kind of old school programmer that used to show up more often in theaters, but is now relegated to occasional indie and day-and-date VOD release. Still, it’s the kind of intelligent mini-thriller that BLUE RUIN wanted to be: it’s memorable and engrossing, if imperfect nonetheless.

The kids at the center don’t really come to life in the ways the best child actors can — often they’re overly directed and a little stiff on camera. Their dialogue, which attempts to both unite them as realistic friends with common boys-will-be-boys banter and separate them into the distinct categories of alpha and subordinate, is forced and lacks wit. But once Kevin Bacon (riveting in his best performance since DEATH SENTENCE) goes on the warpath, the film shifts into a better gear. And even the early establishing scenes, though clumsy, benefit from gorgeous cinematography. Not a surprise when you look at the pedigree: Lance Acord (veteran DP for Spike Jonze and Sofia Coppola) is an executive producer, and the two credited DPs are Matthew J. Lloyd (who shot the entire first season of Netflix’s beautifully dark series “Daredevil”) and Larkin Seiple (a music video cinematographer who did the incredible “Turn Down For What“).

But what really shines in the second half is the script’s impressive economy — I think only five faces are ever on camera: the boys, Bacon, Shea Whigham (perhaps my favorite “That Guy!” in movies and TV today), and Camryn Manheim. Everyone else you either see from the neck down, from behind, or just hear over the radio (like Bacon’s wife Kyra Sedgwick, who plays the police dispatcher). And only using those five characters, Watts tells you just enough to follow the narrative but not too much as to overcomplicate things and stuff the story with exposition. Everything planted in the first act (cows, driving speed, coat pockets, etc.) pays off in the third, and there’s a nice little subtext about gun control. Like the best short stories, Watts doesn’t bite off more than he can chew — he lets Kevin Bacon do all the chewing.

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Mistress America — 7/10

MISTRESS AMERICA (2015, Noah Baumbach)

Like a child of divorced parents, spending the week with its cool mom FRANCES HA and the weekend with its dorky dad WHILE WE’RE YOUNG, MISTRESS AMERICA has qualities of both and almost finds a way to express its own identity (most notably in its struggle to become a French farce in the second half). Just when it’s cruising on sharp-tongued comedy, well-defined characters, and unpredictable whimsy, it bogs itself down — for seemingly no reason at all — with forced conflict yet again involving intellectual property, the blurring of lines between fiction and non-fiction, and betrayal between friends of unbalanced ages.

Baumbach has been playing with these themes and characters for years in different variations – including the writer and professor in THE SQUID & THE WHALE, the tentative college grads in KICKING & SCREAMING, the mismatched couple in GREENBERG. But with Gerwig as his co-writer, star, and muse in this film and FRANCES HA, a more playful and less acerbic Baumbach comes forward, letting the camera relax and observe its stars rather than confine them.

Kirke and Gerwig benefit greatly from this style, and both deliver strong, fully realized performances — though it’s Gerwig who comes out the best, not just because of her talent, but because her character is a rocketship: she’s Gatsby to Kirke’s Nick, the Dickie to her Tom, the Mozart to her Salieri. Tracy is a sympathetic character, but sees just how grounded she is compared to the marrow-gnawing Brooke, whose flaws are evident, but whose charms are electrifying — and that’s what Tracy comes to narrate in the film’s devastatingly effective final scene. That the film seems to bury Brooke before ultimately praising her is a testament to the fact that Baumbach sees himself as a Tracy: he won’t make those mistakes, but he will never be such a romantic.

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Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation — 9/10

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION (2015, Christopher McQuarrie)

This franchise is to me what STAR WARS is to many of my peers. And it’s no secret I think Tom Cruise is one of the best actors alive, and that McQuarrie is pretty high on my list of idols, so adjust this grade down if you have no interest in this franchise, Cruise, or CMcQ. But I do, and even with such high expectations, this unstoppable cannonball of an action movie exceeded them.

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, still my favorite film of the year to date, almost single-handedly restored my faith in Western action cinema. It had sequences that had me holding my breath like I hadn’t since I was a kid, or at least since I saw some sort of Johnnie To movie like VENGEANCE or DRUG WAR. What a treat, then, that the summer of ’15 has given us a second English-language actioner that made my jaw drop. Paced like a Ramones song, ROGUE NATION has Ethan Hunt hanging outside the door of a soaring airplane within three minutes and never lets up. It quickly leads us to the film’s early peak, which is set to a Puccini opera at a Viennese theater. That nearly dialogue-free, white-knuckle setpiece owes as much to De Palma’s original film as it does to the finer moments of Eugenio Mira’s GRAND PIANO. McQuarrie, so gifted with his pen, lets the camera do the talking, punctuating his edits with opera and telling a complex narrative with nothing but glances and glancing blows.

From there, the tempo doesn’t let up — unlike the cool but stilted FURIOUS SEVEN, this isn’t a loosely connected series of action sequences: it’s a smartly constructed spy thriller that exhibits the franchise’s key themes of mistrust, corruption, and morality-blurring with newfound strength of character. In one of his best performances of the series, Cruise plays Hunt as the wild card he’s often described by here — a gambler coasting on luck, increasingly frayed at the edges. A man like that is easy to blame, and blame becomes another central theme. These intelligent and layered moments of character- and relationship-building make the moments between car chases sizzle, thanks in no small part to supporting players Rebecca Ferguson and Sean Harris, the latter of whom sports a voice so snake-like and filthy that his mere presence makes him one of the series’s best villains.

I don’t think there’s ever been a film franchise with at least four movies, let alone five now, where every entry is at least good if not great (yes, I even like the John Woo installment a lot). Credit goes to producer Cruise (and J.J. Abrams, recently) for letting it stay a director’s franchise, while reliably providing serialized touches like the masks, the silent heists, and peerless stunt work. This is how you make an action movie: you don’t turn your brain off, and you don’t let the audience turn off theirs.

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