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Sunday, November 11, 2018

Outlaw King

OUTLAW KING

** SPOILERS **

Outlaw King is a lot like Braveheart but is missing Braveheart's gross historical inaccuracies. It's also missing that thing Braveheart had that enraptures your emotions, that rousing, uplifting feeling it gives you while William Wallace is being drawn, quartered, and dismembered - but still urging "FREEEDOOOOMMM!!!" Speaking of William Wallace and his members, parts of him do make a cameo in Outlaw King. His severed arm makes an early and pivotal appearance in the first act, which incites the Scottish people to riot against England once again, and in turn makes Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine) decide maybe he should press his claim to become King of Scots, after all, never mind the fealty he swore to King Edward I (Stephen Dillane). William Wallace's severed head (but not Mel Gibson's) also appears; it's mounted on a pike at London Bridge. Good to see you, old friend!

Essentially, Outlaw King is about the end of Mel Gibson's narration that closed out Braveheart: "They fought like warrior-poets... and won their freedom." Except Outlaw King isn't quite as rosy; Robert the Bruce's rise to lead Scotland begins with cold-blooded mur-diddly-urder when he kills the guy who also has claim to the Scottish throne, John Comyn (Callan Mulvey). In the Bruce's defense, Comyn was totally gonna rat Robert out to Edward. From there, Robert becomes King of Scots and everything works out for him, except for the humiliating defeats he suffers in battle, how his army is ambushed in the middle of the night and again as they flee, and how his brothers are executed and his wife Elizabeth (Florence Pugh) and daughter Marjorie are imprisoned in England. But all of that just means Robert the Bruce can mount a brave, heroic comeback and emerge victorious in the end.

As King Edward, Dillane isn't as ostentatiously evil as Patrick McGoohan was when he played "King Longshanks" in Braveheart, but he sure does love Greek fire (almost as much as Stannis Baratheon liked wildfire). The ostentatious evil is delivered by his son, Edward, Prince of Wales (Billy Howle), a scheming weakling who fancies himself a military strongman and ruthless conqueror. The Prince of Wales seems to only exist because he wants to duel Robert the Bruce; after their opening act 'friendly contest' is disrupted, Edward II finally gets his rematch at the climactic Battle of Loudoun Hill. The Prince totally blows it and scuttles off in a pukey panic. Good times. 

As Robert, Pine is mournful and contemplative rather than dynamic. The real Bruce was said to be more of a politician and schemer, but Pine plays him as almost reluctant to do all the things he has to do to lead a united Scotland. As Elizabeth, Pugh is loyal, intelligent, and far more interesting, but she's relegated to a supporting role as she has no place on the battlefield. As James "The Black" Douglas, an almost-unrecognizable Aaron Taylor-Johnson is a powderkeg. The battle scenes are visceral and bloody but the film only sporadically feels epic. Returning to the unavoidable Braveheart comparison, thanks to Mel Gibson's Oscar-winning myth-making, William Wallace remains the grander movie presence. Outlaw King, while truer to history, still doesn't elevate Robert the Bruce to an equal stature.

For the history of what happened after Outlaw King's ending and how Scotland won their independence, I wrote about it at Screen Rant.

For that scene involving Chris Pine's pine cone, click here.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

The Girl in the Spider's Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story

THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB: A NEW DRAGON TATTOO STORY

** SPOILERS **

The Girl in the Spider's Web would like to know: Have you seen David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? You have? Great. How well do you remember it? Not that well? Even better. A few more questions, if you wouldn't mind: Do you remember Skyfall? Yes, the James Bond one. You liked Skyfall? Good. What about Jason Bourne? Of course, you do. Excellent. Okay, before you go and watch the new movie, how much do you like bleak, colorless, snowy shots of Stockholm that invoke foreboding and dread? You're good with that. Well, terrific, that about wraps it up. You should have a pretty good time at Girl in the Spider's Web, then. Wait, one last question: You're not one of those 'critical' types who like to think too much about the movie you're watching, are you? Hmm, well, just try to enjoy it anyway. Okay, off you go. Roll the picture.

In Spider's Web, Claire Foy steps into the iconic (Sony hopes) role of Lisbeth Salander, taking over for Rooney Mara, who took over for Noomi Rapace in the Swedish-made Dragon Tattoo trilogy. Three Lisbeth Salanders in five movies in under ten years - even James Bond or Batman can't touch that recasting feat. Speaking of the Batman, that's essentially who this soft rebooted Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is when she's reintroduced in Spider's Web - she's Stockholm's silent guardian and watchful protector, specifically "the woman who hurts men who hurt women" (and in the late Steig Larsson's universe of books and films, Lisbeth is perpetually busy and business is always booming because Swedes are a nasty, abusive, misogynistic piece of work). 

'Implausible' is the word that comes to mind when watching The Girl in the Spider's Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story. Lisbeth was always a gifted hacker, driven, relentless, and not one for idle chitchat or human interaction (besides needing regular sex), but Spider's Web refashions her as a little Swedish Terminator. Now a full-fledged action hero who can ride her motorcycle across a frozen lake, Lisbeth takes multiple beatings and keeps on ticking. She's also apparently clairvoyant: her ability to, say, walk into a crowded airport, know where to leave luggage, and know the exact time airport security will pick it up and bring it to the back, which happens to be the same room as an imprisoned NSA hacker (LaKeith Stanfield) whose help she needs is waiting so that the cell phone she planted in the bag can cybernetically take over the security system and free Stanfield so that he'll walk by the exact garbage bin at the exact moment she calls him so he can be at her location two minutes later to punch out the cop who has her cornered holds up not at all to any logical dissection. But Lisbeth can do all of that. She knows how to control a bridge to raise it and thus escape from the bad guys pursuing her. She knows everything all the time. And if she's momentarily surprised, she's then instantly and suddenly five steps ahead of the people who just surprised her. 

To her credit, Foy is all-in as Salander and while this mostly involves her looking deer-in-headlights alarmed, she digs into Lisbeth's internal life to try to convey the complexity of this character - but it really helps if you've seen the other Dragon Tattoo film(s) to fill in the blanks as to why Lisbeth does anything she does - or  why she even cares. Instead of a dense, character piece like Fincher's film, the new movie is interested in propulsive, violent action above all else; it doles out backstory and subtext in a perfunctory manner, and this especially holds true for the villain of the story: Camilla Salander (Sylvia Hoeks), the sister Lisbeth left behind to be raped and abused "for 16 years!" (so nice, she says it twice) by their crime lord father when she ran away from home. Hoeks was so charismatic and frightening as Luv, the evilest Replicant in Blade Runner 2049 - here, she provides what menace she can with what little she's given. 

This is where all the Skyfall comes into play. You remember Skyfall, right? Girl in the Spider's Web sure does! Skyfall made Sony a billion dollars - let's do it again! Like Bond and Silva (Javier Bardem), Lisbeth meets a twisted, evil version of herself who now runs a shadowy criminal organization bent on cyber terrorism - Camilla wants "Sky -" sorry, "Firefall", a program that allows an individual to control the world's nuclear arsenal. This whole sordid plot is deeply rooted in Lisbeth's origin and the violent, guns-blazing climax of Spider's Web even takes place at Skyfall - or rather, the dilapidated Salander family mansion - in the middle of winter, which Lisbeth makes sure is blown up by the end. If that doesn't hammer it home enough, Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason), Lisbeth's journalist ex-lover, even goes to meet with a guy to get info, and the guy peels off his nose to reveal he's missing parts of his face - just like Silva showed Bond when MI-6 captured him. It's enough to make you wonder why Adele isn't crooning Lisbeth Salander's theme.

Finally, let's talk about Mikael Blomkvist- why is he even in the movie? Dragon Tattoo was about Blomkvist and Lisbeth learning to work together and trust each other to uncover the sordid truth behind Harriet Vanger's disappearance. That film was an equal partnership. In Spider's Web, Blomkvist is wholly unnecessary - even the tiny thing Lisbeth asks him to investigate she could have easily done herself along with the dozen other implausible things she was handling solo. It's not even like this is the character Dragon Tattoo fans might remember - he isn't! He's Mikael Blomkvist in name only; he's now inexplicably younger than Daniel Craig's version, Gudnason barely has any scenes and no chemistry with Foy, and Blomkvist doesn't even publish the story about "The Girl in the Spider's Web" in his magazine Millennium. This is probably because there's no Mikhail Blomkvist in Skyfall, so the filmmakers really had nothing for him to copy in Spider's Web but they still felt they had to include him. One thing's for sure: the guy who will eventually replace Daniel Craig as James Bond won't be Sverrir Gudnason. (Or Lisbeth Salander for that matter - but they sure are trying.)

Friday, October 5, 2018

Venom

VENOM

** SPOILERS **

"You're a loser, Eddie," the black, goopy, alien symbiote calling himself Venom tells Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy). And we agree. Then the symbiote adds, "On my planet, I'm a loser too." And we're like, "Huh? That's... weird." Then again, this is a movie where Eddie is placed in an MRI machine, which is torture to Venom, and the doctor asks "Eddie, are you okay? Are you okay, Eddie?" He's been hit by, he's been hit by a smooth symbiote.

In director Ruben Fleischer's Venom, weird works and that in and of itself is weird. Venom is a bizarro buddy comedy crossed with a superhero movie crossed with a body horror alien invasion movie. As Eddie Brock, Hardy plays a swarthy, unethical San Francisco TV journalist who betrays his lawyer fiancee Michelle Williams in order to humiliate and expose sinister billionaire Carleton Drake (Riz Ahmed), head of the sinister Life Foundation. Instead, Eddie is exposed, loses his job, his fiancee, and six months later, he becomes even more swarthy while basically remaining the same amount of unethical. And then, this down-and-out loser meets Venom, a down-and-out loser symbiote from outer space. It's the worst thing that ever happened to Eddie. Or the best? Not sure, jury's out. But let's see these two best buds make a go of it, shall we?

Eddie was right to suspect Carleton Drake, though. Drake is a little like Adrian Veidt in Watchmen; he's a very rich, smart man who has a terrible plan to save the world. Trouble is, Drake hates humanity, though we can kind of see his point; just like in Shane Black's The Predator, the real enemy in Venom is climate change. The Predator estimated the Earth was two generations away from becoming uninhabitable. Venom moves that timetable up to one generation and Drake puts all the blame for this squarely on people. But his solution to our extinction ain't great: his space shuttle (piloted by astronaut John Jameson, hero son of Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson), finds a comet containing alien life forms and brings four of the symbiotes back to Earth. One escaped during re-entry and crashed the ship in Malaysia. The Life Foundation recovers three of the symbiotes and brings them back to their labs right next to the Golden Gate Bridge. The fourth symbiote murders and body-snatches Malaysian women until it finds its way onto an airplane to SF. 

Meanwhile, Life Foundation scientist Jenny Slate (who did ADR so that she pronounces "symbiote" properly, unlike in the trailer) has serious ethical qualms about how her boss kidnaps homeless people and exposes them to the symbiotes. The aliens try to bond with the human guinea pigs but quickly eat up their organs and murder them. One of the vagrants killed is Melora Walters, who has fallen on really hard times in the 20 years since Magnolia. Slate betrays Drake by clueing Eddie Brock in on the murders happening at Life, but Eddie being Eddie, he goes where he shouldn't go and has a meet-cute with Venom. They end up bonding in all the worst ways. Or best ways? Not sure, jury's out.

Eddie-Venom is a new kind of Odd Couple. Their banter is the highlight of the movie and man, is it weird. Hardy performs as Eddie being possessed by Venom and he portrays Venom's voice, talking to him in his head and sometimes manifesting physically as a black, jacked-up, toothy-faced monster. And for a homicidal alien freakshow, Venom sure is sensitive. He gets upset every time Eddie refers to him as a "parasite" and the first time he climbs to the top of a skyscraper like Spider-Man and looks out over San Francisco Bay, he decides Earth isn't so terrible and wants to stay. Venom also wants to reunite Eddie with his ex-fiancee; the alien monster playing Dr. Phil, giving Eddie romantic advice, and urging him to apologize to her is the weirdest part of the movie. No wait, Eddie sitting in a lobster tank at a fancy restaurant and eating a live lobster is the weirdest part. No no, hang on, Venom possessing Michelle Williams' body, turning her into She-Venom, and then making out with Eddie as he oozes back into Eddie's body is the weirdest. 

Of course, the fourth symbiote makes it to San Francisco and bonds with Carleton Drake. It calls itself Riot, and that's weird too. So wait, their names were Venom and Riot before they came to Earth? Riot's plan is to fly a new Life Foundation spaceship back into space, fetch a bunch more symbiotes, and then come back to invade and conquer Earth. Venom decides this isn't a good deal for him or his new human friend so he and Eddie go off to stop Riot. The battle between two disgusting, monster-faced, alien goopballs is brief but gross, but fortunately for Earth, good(?) triumphs over evil and Eddie/Venom kill Carleton/Riot.

In the end, all's well that ends well. Eddie and Venom settle into their new relationship, somehow Eddie is a reporter again, he and Michelle Williams are cool again, and Venom gets to stay on Earth but he can only murder certain kinds of people. So, great? What about climate change, are we doing anything about that? Nah, that's not really Venom's problem, so it's fine. In the end, we walk out of Venom hoping E&V can make it together in this crazy old world. Venom is a good time superhero movie if you can get on board with the movie's Looney Tunes-logic and Tom Hardy's gonzo Jim Carrey-in-The Mask performance. But like Gretchen Weiners trying to make "fetch" happen, Venom makes a serious case for replacing "So bad, it's good" and making "So Venom, it's good" happen.


Sunday, September 9, 2018

How The Fist Has Turned

IRON FIST SEASON 2

 ** SPOILERS **

Iron Fist season 2 is one of the great Marvel comeback stories. It's the Marvel TV equivalent of how Thor: Ragnarok successfully reinvigorated the Thor franchise. There's really no need to rehash the problems with Iron Fist season 1, but the season 2 turnaround is simply remarkable for all the ways new showrunner M. Raven Metzner wildly improved the show he inherited. Season 2 accentuated the positives, eliminated all of the negatives and baggage (this is the really amazing part), and changed the paradigm of Iron Fist, which will in turn reverberate across the Netflix Marvel Universe. 

Most importantly, Iron Fist 2 was a great deal of fun that took a hard look at its characters, worked out how they think and feel, and then set them all on better paths (except maybe Joy. Poor Joy is in a bad spot, but that's what you get for being the bad guy). Here are the big hits Iron Fist 2 struck - the five fingers of the Fist, if you will - that really turned the entire franchise around:

The Ballad of Danny Rand. Season 2 considered the man at the heart of the series, Danny Rand himself, asked the hard questions about him and came to the proper conclusions: he's just not good enough. Yet. He could be, but he's not there. Kudos to Finn Jones (who was always better than the material he'd been previously given) for how he took on the challenge of actually taking a back seat as the lead of his own series. Danny loses the Iron Fist in episode 4 and incredibly, he doesn't get it back until the final moments of the season, in a denouement set 'months later.' 

Danny was a problem child who, at long last, chose to address his biggest problem - himself. He asked for help from the right people, he admitted his limitations, and he chose the harder path - to grow and better himself. It's not often in a superhero series that the hero realizes he's not the person he ought to be and surrenders his powers to someone who could use them better than he does. This was a bold choice and it felt very right.

Colleen Wing is the Immortal Iron Fist. What a fantastic switcheroo - one that the show really had the balls to follow through on! The truth is Colleen was always the better character. She is smarter, more worldly, more mature, knows herself, and it never made sense that she was second fiddle (and 'the girlfriend') to Danny Rand. Not that she wasn't a great girlfriend and partner, but Colleen could be a lot more. Amazingly, Iron Fist 2 came to that same logical conclusion and empowered Colleen as the co-lead of the series. She's now the Iron Fist, and she deserves to be. Colleen absolutely deserves to stand alongside the other Defenders as a marquee superhero.

What was incredibly rewarding about season 2 was how well the seeds of Colleen's ascension were planted throughout. She was the calm and rational one, the peacemaker in a room full of Triad bosses and Danny Rand, the trustworthy one who did the right things for the right reasons. The absolute best thing about season 2 was how they finally utilized Jessica Henwick to her utmost; of course, she played Colleen as a badass, but Henwick also got to smile, laugh, crack jokes, and even host a dinner party (maybe the best moment in the series) where Colleen cut right to the heart of the tension at the table. Colleen is the real hero NYC needs; she's the most balanced, intelligent, and least damaged Defender. With Colleen wielding the Iron Fist, the future looks as bright as her glowing hand and her katana.

The Daughters of the Dragon stole the show. Bringing in Misty Knight paid off dividends. Simone Missick is simply fantastic and Misty has grown into the unsung hero of the Marvel Netflix shows. She's the true adult in the room who brings credibility and heart to every moment she's in. The Daughters of the Dragon mini-show within Iron Fist 2 was one of the best things ever in a Marvel Netflix show; not only is it great to see two female heroes take on missions together, but they brought out the best in each other. Colleen and Misty are every bit as funny, cool, and effective together as you'd hoped. And, as they each pointed out, they don't even really know each other but they're each other's mutual best relationship. The Daughters of the Dragon delivered an amazing proof of concept for their own spinoff series and hopefully, they'll get it.

All the negatives eliminated. The season 2 writers room must have asked the right question - What was dragging Iron Fist down? - and then they made a list and systematically crossed the cons right out of the show. The Hand? Gone gone gone. No time was spent in Rand Enterprises dealing with boring corporate shenanigans. No resurrections of old villains like Madame Gao or Harold Meachum no one wanted to see again. And the bad fight scenes? Completely turned around. The action in season 2 was top-drawer, especially all the moments (like Colleen and Misty fighting the Crane Sisters in episode 6) where you could see the actors were really performing the fights. Jones, Henwick, Missick, Sacha Dhawan as Davos all committed fully to the action and the results are right there on the screen. 

Down Ward, Up Ward. I dunno about you, but Ward Meachum is my favorite character in this whole series, just slightly outpacing Colleen. This poor guy suffers from his own demons and falls off the wagon constantly, but he's trying, man. No matter in what bad way Ward finds himself in, Tom Pelphrey plays him with a twinkle in his eye where you root for him and hope Ward somehow pulls it together. Just as entertaining as the Daughters of the Dragon are, Pelphrey and Finn Jones are magical in their many scenes together. They're brothers who both know they're just not quite good enough for the spots they found themselves in, but they take solace in each other with wry in-jokes and oddly touching personal revelations. For their part, Jessica Stroup had a bit more of a thankless task as a villain but never lost touch with the humanity in Joy Meachum, while Alice Eve created an intriguingly complex villain in Mary Walker, who is poised to reveal even more layers to herself.

Even at a shortened 10 episodes, the season still felt a bit too long for the story they were telling and maybe could have best been consolidated into 8 episodes, but despite that and a few other minor issues, Iron Fist 2 is a win, pure and simple. It's a remarkable feeling to walk away from Iron Fist dying to see more. 

Where's the place to be in Marvel NYC? Harlem? Hell's Kitchen? Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.


Friday, August 24, 2018

Crazy Rich Asians

CRAZY RICH ASIANS

** SPOILERS **

The reactions of Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) and her best friend Goh Peik Lin (Awkwafina) in the photo above are apt for Crazy Rich Asians. Directed by Jon M. Chu and based on the bestseller by Kevin Kwan, the first Hollywood film in 25 years starring an all-Asian cast is an exuberant, funny, insightful, and eye-popping look at how the rest of the world lives. By rest of the world, I mean the insanely wealthy Chinese who practically own all of Singapore. Addressing themes of family, identity, self-worth, and tons of romance set in the luxurious backdrop of South Asia, Crazy Rich Asians is a stunning and joyous crowd-pleaser that is dominated by lovely performances by an outstanding cast, especially all of the women in the film, and earns its multitude of fireworks popping throughout.

The plot is simple: Rachel, an NYC-based Chinese American economics professor, is invited by her handsome and dashing boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) to be his date to his best friend's wedding in Singapore. Rachel would, of course, have to meet Nick's family. Nick is like the Bruce Wayne of Singapore - his every movement is tracked on social media by a cadre of female admirers - and like Mr. Wayne, Nick has been keeping a secret. He doesn't run around in a Batsuit at night, but he is fabulously wealthy. Nick is a bit suspect in his behavior throughout the film; he likes keeping things from Rachel (like his plan to propose to her), and he claims he wants nothing to do with being the Golden Child and heir to his family's vast fortune, but it's not that simple. Nick is very much devoted to his stern mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) and even more so to his grandmother (Lisa Lu), the matriarch and true power behind the family. Still, for every questionable decision Nick makes, the film bends over backward to reaffirm that he's really a good man and his heart and devotion to Rachel are true.

For Rachel, the trip has highs and lows. Anyone's jaw would drop at the sprawling mansions, exotic island getaways, and limitless food and privilege she's exposed to, but all of that comes at a price: most of the crazy rich Asians Nick grew up with are, unsurprisingly, total assholes. There are some exceptions: Nick's gorgeous cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan) is elegant and kind but stuck in a bad marriage, and the couple about to wed, Colin (Chris Pang) and Araminta (Sonoya Mizono), are lovely people inside and out. Still, Rachel is subjected to hazing and treated like an outcast for being a crazy not-rich Asian who has the gall to be dating Nick Young. Luckily, Rachel has her friend Goh to take solace with. Goh may not be crazy rich, but her weird-ass family (her father is played by Ken Jeong in total Asian clown mode) is still rich enough to take Rachel on a Pretty Woman-inspired shopping spree to find a dress suitable for the wedding. And what a wedding it is; an opulent, mermaid-inspired affair that may well be the most magical nuptials ever captured on film.

The wedding isn't so great for Rachel, though. Eleanor's obvious disapproval leads her to investigate Rachel's family and reveals some buried secrets about her mother and her past. The film seems to set up a fitting breakup between Nick and Rachel, with Rachel scoring her important moral victory by getting one over on Eleanor. That should have been enough and would have been a nice, bittersweet ending, but Crazy Rich Asians isn't in the market for bittersweet. Instead, Nick rises to the occasion and makes a final romantic bid to marry Rachel. It doesn't quite jive with the way Rachel asserted herself and her self-worth in the third act, but this is a Hollywood romantic comedy and there was plenty of money left in the fireworks budget, so we are delighted to put our quibbles aside to see Rachel and Nick get their happy ending and become Crazy Rich Man and Wife. Rachel probably should have asked for a little space to think things through, but fuck it, let's all leave the theater feeling good, why not? Rachel does marry into Nick's incredible wealth, but she learns the real treasure are the Crazy Rich Asians we met along the way.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Meg

THE MEG

** SPOILERS **

The Meg is 33% decent and 67% shameless and, for a Jason Statham vs a giant shark movie, these turn out to be surprisingly winning statistics. This is a film where the actors take on everything with total earnestness while the screenplay by Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber, and Erich Hoeber and the direction by Jon Turteltaub throw in things like a tiny dog swimming in the middle of the ocean and coming face to face with a giant shark and a Chinese woman yelling "Pa! Pa!" whom they felt the need to subtitle "Dad! Dad!" The finale of The Meg is like Crazy Rich Asians at the beach, except dozens of them are being ripped apart by a Megalodon. Also, soldiers sent to kill the Meg with dynamite can't tell the difference between a shark and a whale. This is that kind of movie. But for a 2018 summer film about a prehistoric beast, it's way more ridiculously entertaining than Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Bite me.

And yet, the actors 100% believe nothing happening is ridiculous, which helps a whole lot. Jason Statham is a deep-sea rescue diver who unwittingly encountered the Meg five years prior. When an attempt to explore the Marianas Trench deep, deep in the ocean unwittingly reveals the existence of a Megalodon shark, long thought extinct, Statham is brought back to rescue his ex-wife Jessica McNamee, who is in command of the lost sub. Statham saves the day but the rescue ends up unleashing the Megalodon, which swims up to the surface and decides all of these humans on the deep sea research station owned by skeezy billionaire Rainn Wilson are its mortal enemies. 

Statham and the multinational cadre of actors like Li Bingbing (whom he has the hots for and vice versa), Cliff Curtis, Ruby Rose, and Page Kennedy, declare war on the Meg right back. Off they go a-huntin' for the giant shark, only to find out there's a second, even bigger Meg! "Nobody said there were two of them!" Kennedy yells, echoing the audience's thoughts at the movie's marketing. Despite their best efforts, the Meg(s) destroy every single boat the humans are on, their shark cages, most of their submarines, and the sharks ruin a fun beach holiday off the coast of China to boot. 

The Megs themselves are not sharks to remember. They're drab, brownish, CGI monstrosities that lack the presence and character of Spielberg's shark in Jaws. But no matter. This is a movie where Statham pilots a one-man sub against the Meg and then goes into hand-to-hand combat with it for good measure. But while Statham's gruff, macho skills are put to the test against the sharks, the real action is between him and Li. Sparks fly between the two, and her 8-year-old daughter Shuya Sophia Cai is all for her mommy moving on with this heroic, macho, bald Englishman with the magic lips that resuscitated her when she drowned. We end up rooting for them to get together as much as we root for them to beat the Meg. In the end, we're glad they all end up chums.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Mission: Impossible - Fallout

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - FALLOUT

** SPOILERS **

"Hope is not a strategy," August Walker (Henry Cavill) says to Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise). Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) quips back, "You must be new." Indeed, if you think about it, we never really see Ethan Hunt eat or drink, so he must be fueled purely by hope as he does impossible things to save the world.

In the relentlessly entertaining Mission: Impossible - Fallout (the 6th Mission in 22 years), Ethan is pushed to his absolute limits as he and the IMF, consisting of the hilarious Benji (Simon Pegg) and the ever-loyal Luther (Ving Rhames) - race around the world to stop two nuclear weapons from killing millions of innocent people. The genius of Fallout, directed once more by Christopher McQuarrie, is in how all of the dangers the IMF has ever faced has been balled up into the personal guilt of Ethan Hunt. He's responsible for all of us, and he knows it. "I'll figure it out!" is Ethan's response every time the IMF asks him what to do, though by then, Ethan has already taken off to perform some type of aerobatic insanity. Bless him, Ethan will go to absolutely any lengths to save us, because that's simply what Ethan Hunt does.

The last three Missions have been a more tightly-woven narrative than the original trilogy from 1996-2006. 2011's Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol introduced the Syndicate, a rogue nation of former government operatives led by an anarchist named Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). Ethan and the IMF captured Lane in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, but two years later, the remnants of the Syndicate have reorganized into a new terrorist network called the Apostles. They want their old leader back and they'll detonate three nukes to get him. Of course, the IMF mobilizes to stop them, this time led by Secretary Hunley (Alec Baldwin). Hunley was the IMF's greatest critic until he saw Ethan in action in Rogue Nation; like anyone who gets to see what Ethan Hunt can do, Hunley was instantly converted. Indeed, Hunley delivered an astonishing pro-Ethan speech in Rogue Nation where he called Mr. Hunt "the living manifestation of destiny." Now's he's Team Ethan all the way. However, the IMF always has to be disavowed in some way. New CIA head Angela Bassett thinks the IMF are a bunch of "grown men in Halloween masks" and sends her own man to oversee Ethan, August Walker. If Walker could twirl his infamous mustache, he would have.

The action in Fallout is typical for Mission: Impossible, which is to say it's deliriously breathtaking. With the 56-year-old Cruise once more performing the majority of his own stunts, Ethan soars higher and takes more risks than ever. Ethan and Walker HALO jump 25,000 feet into Paris just to crash a party where the mysterious Apostle leader named "John Lark" is set to meet a broker called the White Widow (the fetching Vanessa Kirby). If you think about it, was the HALO jump even necessary? It's Paris, not North Korea - there are a dozen safer ways to enter the City of Lights. Nevertheless, that sets the stage for a brutal men's room brawl and an incredible motorcycle and car chase sequence all over Paris as Ethan evades the police after capturing Solomon Lane yet again. Ethan then parkours and runs across the rooftops of London chasing after Walker, who is revealed to be the real John Lark, before it all culminates in an absolutely spectacular helicopter chase that concludes with a fight on a Kashmir mountaintop where Ethan is literally dangling off the mountain by his fingertips.

For her part, Kirby delivers a speech about her mother Max, which means she must be the daughter of the original broker of information Ethan encountered in his first Mission in 1996. And the White Widow is powerfully attracted to Ethan, so like mother, like daughter. Also attracted to Ethan is MI-6 agent Ilsa Faust, who was Ethan's partner and foil in Rogue Nation. Ilsa joins the IMF at last, though not after betraying Ethan again, which he naturally forgives because he knows she has "reasons." That's the spy game for you. The best callback of all, however, is the return of Ethan's wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan), who has been on the run for her own safety since Mission: Impossible III. She's a doctor without borders now, married to Wes Bentley of all people, but when Ethan comes back into her life once again, she knows it's because the world is at stake. She gets him. "I like her," Ilsa realizes, and we agree. Even while four action set pieces are going on at once, George Lucas-style, in one of the best roller coaster third acts ever in an action movie, we're stunned at the emotional punch Julia and Ethan's reunion packs.

Poor Ethan apologizes eight times in Fallout: once to a French police woman who finds herself in the wrong place in the wrong time, once to Alec Baldwin, twice when he runs into a funeral in a cathedral while being chased by the Apostles, and four times to Julia herself. But as Julia notes, Ethan has nothing to be sorry for. Ethan's guilt over the way his adventures have upended his wife's life is expunged and finally, he's free of the secret torment he harbors - the same torment Solomon Lane uses against him in his nightmares. Of course, Ethan Hunt can't ever stop trying to save the world, and the world desperately needs him. But by the end, with Ilsa and the IMF, his team - no, his friends - rallied around him in the hospital after he put it all on the line once more, we regard Ethan with the same admiration that they do. Rest up, Mr. Hunt, and get back out there. The world needs you in Mission: Impossible 7.

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