Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Mission Impossible Series - Ranking

I had an absolute blast re-watching the previous five films in the Mission Impossible series leading up to Fallout – all of which made it easier to see which really was the best. I am more convinced than ever now that this is the best action series going – and really, one of the best we have ever seen.
6. Mission: Impossible III (2006) – Yes, Philip Seymour Hoffman is the best ever villain this series has ever had – and it has less overt problems than Mission Impossible II – but I’ll take flawed but going for it over less flawed, but less inventive.
5. Mission: Impossible II (2000) – This film goes for it, and yes, it’s all over the map, and wildly over the top, and the villain is bland – but Thandie Newton is terrific, and the action sequences in the back half are as good as they possibly could be. I don’t care if I’m the only one in the world who doesn’t rank this as the weakest entry, I’m still right.
4. Mission: Impossible (1996) – It’s really kind of insane that a major studio gave Brian DePalma the reigns for a blockbuster like this in 1996 – and basically allowed him to make a film that at the very least is visually very much a Brian DePalma film. It’s probably too confusing, and the love interest doesn’t work, but I loved it way more than I remembered loving it when I watched again. Not only is the Langley robbery sequence Riffifi level genius, the reveal of what really happened is Hitchcock worthy. Still, nowhere near DePalma’s best – but this is great just the same.
3. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015) – This probably has my favorite set piece of any of the films – the Vienna opera house attempted assassination, and I absolute adore Rebecca Ferguson more than any other love interest, apart from Thandie Newton. I think it ranks below Ghost Protocol simply because it isn’t quite as jaw dropping – or have quite as much fun. But it’s so close, who cares?
2. Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011) – The visual imagination on display from Brad Bird here really makes the film spectacular. This is as close to live action animation as you can get, but also has elements of silent cinema as well. And the whole thing is just so damn much fun. Truly one of the great action movies ever – and even if this series continues to be great.
1.Mission Impossible – Fallout (2018)
After re-watching all five previous films in the series leading up to Fallout, I wonder if the series could really top itself – or if perhaps I would be a little sick of this series. It was, and I wasn’t – as Mission Impossible Fallout really is the best of the series – the most viscerally exciting from beginning to end, with the best performances, and the film that makes you care about these characters – at least as much you need to for a film like this. One of the great action films ever made.

Mission Impossible Series: Mission Impossible Fallout (2018)

Mission: Impossible – Fallout **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Christopher McQuarrie.
Written by: Christopher McQuarrie based on the television series created by Bruce Geller.
Starring: Tom Cruise (Ethan Hunt), Henry Cavill (August Walker), Rebecca Ferguson (Ilsa Faust), Simon Pegg (Benji Dunn), Ving Rhames (Luther Stickell), Vanessa Kirby (White Widow), Michelle Monaghan (Julia Meade-Hunt), Angela Bassett (Erica Sloan), Alec Baldwin (Alan Hunley), Wes Bentley (Patrick), Sean Harris (Solomon Lane).
I have stopped being surprised by just how good the Mission Impossible movies are. Preparing for this, the sixth installment in the 22-year-old series, I went back and watched the other five films – and there isn’t a bad one in the bunch. Every time you think you have the series figured out, it throws another curveball at you. With Fallout, that curveball may just be that for the first time, they have essentially made a direct sequel to the last film – and it brings back other plot elements from the previous films as well. That doesn’t mean you have to know a whole lot about those other films to get this one – you can walk in cold if you want, and you will still be knocked out by the action in the film. That is really what this series has always been about, and Fallout delivers some of the best action sequences of the series. It also has a plot that movies a mile a minute, and some genuinely good performances. This movie runs nearly two and half hours, but doesn’t feel long at all. This is the new high point in what was already the best action series going.
The plot is simple enough to describe – a group known as The Apostles want to get their hands on nuclear weapons, because their theory is that peace will only come from pain – the greatest the pain, the greater the peace. Their leader is Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), the villain from the last film that Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and his team captured instead of killed. Since then, he has been shunted from one government to the next for interrogation purposes. Hunt and his team had a chance to secure the nuclear material the Apostles need early in the film – but Hunt chose to save his teammates rather than the material, which has now fallen into the wrong hands – so now they need to get it back. Hunt is joined by Benji and Luther (Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames) who have been around for a while now, and Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson) who joined last film. They are also saddled with August Walker (Henry Cavill), a CIA agent they don’t really want. As Sloan (Angela Bassett), the head of the CIA says early in the film, Hunt is a scalpel, Walker is a hammer.
From there, it’s one great action set piece after another – and one double cross after another. I will fully admit that when I found out that McQuarrie was doing the fifth installment, I wasn’t sure if he’d be able to maintain the high level of action the series had always had – and he proved me wrong with Rogue Nation. With Fallout, he proves he is one of the best directors of action working in the world right now. The sheer volume of action sequences in Mission Impossible Fallout is amazing. The fact that they are so varied and different from each other is even more so. There are hand-to-hand combat scenes, a car/motorbike chase, shootouts, perhaps the best sequence of Tom Cruise running ever captured on film (and THAT is saying something), and of course the helicopter climax. The action direction here is clear and clean. This series has never relied on shaky cameras or rapid fire editing to goose the tension, nor has it relied on too much obvious CGI. The only special effects this series has ever needed is Tom Cruise. I half expect that he’s going to kill himself one day working on these films, because he really seems to be throwing himself into these roles. While I really do wish he would take on more roles than just action movies – he isn’t the best actor in the world, but his performances in films like Eyes Wide Shut and Magnolia are as good as they get – but I’m still grateful he goes for it each and every time in these films. In a way, he’s the only one who could pull these roles off – so perhaps it’s good he concentrates on them.
The supporting cast is also great. Sean Harris was a decent bad guy in Rogue Nation – he’s far better this time around, as he’s got more to work with. Ferguson has become my favorite leading lady in this series so far – she matches Cruise’s intensity, and works well with him. Best of all is probably Henry Cavill, who is perfectly cast as a hammer.
Mission Impossible Fallout joins the ranks of the best action films of the 21st Century so far – alongside films like Mad Max Fury Road, and both Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation. As pure entertainment, these films are tough to beat. This is one of the best films of the year – action or otherwise.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Movie Review: Teen Titans Go! to the Movie

Teen Titans Go! To the Movies **** / *****
Directed by: Aaron Horvath and Peter Rida Michail.
Written by: Aaron Horvath & Michael Jelenic based on characters created by Bob Haney and Bruno Premiani and Arnold Drake & Bob Brown and Marv Wolfman & George Pérez and Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster and William Moulton Marston and Aaron Horvath & Michael Jelenic.
 Starring: Nicolas Cage (Superman), Kristen Bell (Jade Wilson), Will Arnett (Slade), Tara Strong (Raven), Khary Payton (Cyborg), Halsey (Wonder Woman), Greg Cipes (Beast Boy), Greg Davies (Balloon Man), Hynden Walch (Starfire), Scott Menville (Robin), Jimmy Kimmel (Batman), Dana Snyder (Atom), Lil Yachty (Green Lantern).
I am forever grateful to my seven year old daughter for falling in love with the goofy TV series Teen Titans Go a while back, and plowing through countless episodes on Netflix. The series, still going strong after 200+ episodes, are short, 11 minute blasts of superhero irreverence about a team of teenage superheroes who very rarely do anything remotely heroic. Their longest standing battle in the show is against Santa Claus. The show is an ingenious mix of the type of humor any seven year old would love – there are A LOT of fart/poop jokes in it, and the type of humor that I kind of love – as often following up those fart jokes are old movie references, etc. The fact that it also contains easily the best, most interesting version of Robin, best known as Batman’s sidekick (and, on this show, bitter about that fact) is an added bonus. I have very little interest in the new show – Titans – a live action show about this same team, which has decided to go the tiresome “dark and gritty” reboot route (Robin drops a F-bomb in the trailer) because that’s just about the least original thing they could have done. Besides, with Teen Titans Go – this team has been perfected.
Now, taking what works as a television series – especially ones where the episodes are so short – and expanding it into a movie is a trick that ultimately undoes most of the talented people who try it. Not so with Teen Titans Go to the Movie – which is easily the funniest superhero movie of the year (I am tempted to say ever, as it clearly outdoes both Deadpool movies AND The Lego Batman Movie, but I’m sure I’m forgetting something) – and if this year hadn’t contained Black Panther, it would be the best superhero movie of the year as well. It’s a fast paced, 90 minute comedy with approximately 6 jokes a minute, which land at a surprisingly good ratio that is also smart about why we love superhero movies, while admitting that for the most part, they’re all also incredibly stupid. In addition, it only serves to heighten my love for its version of the Boy Wonder. My god is this movie fun.
The basic setup for the movie is that poor, insecure Robin is upset that every superhero has had a movie made about them, except for him and his team. When they attend the new Batman film they see previews for movies about Alfred, the Batmobile and the Bat Utility Belt, but still no Robin. He and the rest of the Teen Titans – Beast Boy, Cyborg, Starfire and Raven – determine the best way to get a movie is to get themselves an arch-enemy. So, they set their sights on Slade (voiced by Will Arnett) and try to make him their nemesis. If they can defeat him, they will get the glory – and more important, the movie made about them.
If we’re being honest though, the main thrust of the plot is just an excuse – a way to string together a bunch of hilarious, interconnected jokes about superheroes. The film knows its superhero movies inside and out – it knows that Deadpool was after something similar, but with more R-rated content, and comments directly on that (I’ll say this – the jokes in this movie are more sophisticated and smart than anything in either Deadpool movie – even though I liked both – probably in part because this film cannot depend on explicit violence or a bunch of f bombs).
Because the movie mostly a joke delivery system, I won’t spoil any of them (okay, maybe one – the best sequence in the film is a play on Back to the Future, where the Teen Titans eliminate all the other superheroes tragic backstories – with horrible results). What I will say is that smart superhero fans will love the film – and even those who has grown more than a little tired of the genre. It works best though the way I saw it – sitting next to a seven year old. That way you can appreciate all the ways this movie nails its humor.

Movie Review: Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts

Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts *** / *****
Directed by: Mouly Surya.
Written by: Rama Adi and Garin Nugroho and Mouly Surya.
Starring: Marsha Timothy (Marlina), Egy Fedly (Markus), Dea Panendra (Novi), Yoga Pratama (Franz), Haydar Salishz (Niko).
Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts is a feminist revenge Western from Indonesia, which combines elements from Tarantino and Jarmusch and Leone into a strange little film. Much of the film is a journey where not a lot happens – on the dusty backroads in Indonesia. The gender wars are playing out here in a very different environment than the one we are normally see play out. It is a strange film, well-made throughout, but it is perhaps a little too slight for even its 93 minute runtime.
The film opens with Markus (Egy Fedly), an older man with flowing hair, arriving at the report house owned by Marlina (Marsha Timothy) – a recently widowed young woman. Markus makes no attempt to disguise his reasons for coming – his gang of six more men will be arriving shortly, and they will take everything from here – all of her livestock – and leave her with nothing. “If we have time, we’ll sleep with you” he tells her – a matter of fact of telling her she is going to be gang raped. Sure enough, the other men do arrive – two of the men do leave with all her livestock, and Markus orders Marlina to feed the rest of his men – which she does with chicken soup that she has poisoned, so they keel over dead. Markus is in the bedroom though, and Marlina cannot get him to eat the soup – at least not until after he has raped her – a decision that leads to him being decapitated.
That is act one – The Robbery. What follows is three other acts – The Journey, The Confession and The Birth. The second act is no real mystery – Marlina, travelling with Markus’ head, sets off to get to town to report the robbery and the rape to the police. She meets up with Novi (Dea Panendra) – a woman who is currently nine months pregnant – who is also on the road, looking for her husband – who thinks that because she has gone past her due date, that it is a sign of infidelity (he’s also convinced it will be a breach birth, which to him, would be incontrovertible truth that she has cheated on him). Marlina is fighting her justice in her way – and Novi is fighting a different sort of gender war. Both will essentially realize they are on their own throughout the course of the film. Not only did Marlina have to fend off her attackers as best she could, the cops don’t seem too interested in helping even when she does report it.
The film is directed by Mouly Surya, making her third feature (the other two are ones I missed). She is assured behind the camera, making a film that takes elements from other directors, and turning them into something different. Much of the film feels like a Jarmusch study of isolation and solitude. The score is something out of Leone however, the flashes of violence bring to mind Tarantino, the elements of travelling with a head brings to mind Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. And yet, despite all of the references and influences, this film is uniquely itself – and not just because it is a female director, taking the mostly masculine influences, and turning them into something more feminine.
Yet, I do have to say that the story, as much as there is one, is too slight to fully support a feature. After the robbery that opens the film, there is a lot of walking, a lot of the same thing happening again and again, in slight variations. This very well may be the point – that no matter where Marlina turns, she’s confronted with yet another idiot man standing in her way. It does hurt the flow though.
Still, the skill on display makes me very interested to see what Surya does here. You sometimes see foreign films, and wonder if they are made for Western audiences, more than homegrown ones. This feels like that more than a little – and while I liked much of what I saw, I think there is something more here to be explored and exploited. I liked Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts – but I hope to love whatever Surya does next.

Movie Review: Love, Simon

Love, Simon *** / *****
Directed by: Greg Berlanti.
Written by: Elizabeth Berger & Isaac Aptaker based on the novel by Becky Albertalli.
Starring: Nick Robinson (Simon), Jennifer Garner (Emily), Josh Duhamel (Jack), Katherine Langford (Leah), Alexandra Shipp (Abby), Logan Miller (Martin), Keiynan Lonsdale (Bram), Jorge Lendeborg Jr. (Nick), Talitha Eliana Bateman (Nora), Tony Hale (Mr. Worth), Natasha Rothwell (Ms. Albright), Miles Heizer (Cal), Joey Pollari (Lyle), Clark Moore (Ethan), Drew Starkey (Garrett), Mackenzie Lintz (Taylor), Cassady McClincy (Jackie).
It’s hard to hate a film like Love, Simon – which is so big hearted and warm, full of characters who you can immediately like and recognize to the point that even the “bad guys” in the films aren’t really that bad – just hurt and lashing out in ways they don’t entirely think through until it’s too late. But it’s also hard to love a film like Love, Simon, because the film is so bland in many ways, and lacking in any real conflict – even the ones it does have seem more manufactured than real. It is an important film in one way – it finally gives gay kids the kind of romantic comedy that we straight kids have had for decades. Yes, it lacks any real sense of sexuality – but that’s kind of true of these types of comedies in general. Yes, it’s overly white – but, again, that’s kind of par for the course. The danger would be if Love, Simon was seen as an endpoint for this type of mainstream film, rather than a starting point. Hollywood has finally made this film – now it’s time to make something better.
In the film, Nick Robinson stars as Simon – a high school senior, who knows that he is gay, but isn’t out to anyone. He doesn’t really worry that he will be rejected – his parents (Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel) are open and supportive, his little sister is as well. He has every reason to think that his three best friends – Leah (Katherine Langford), Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) and Abby (Alexandra Shipp) would accept him immediately. He wouldn’t even be the first openly gay kid in his school – there is another one, more “stereotypically” gay who is out, and other than a couple of assholes, everyone accepts them. But Simon doesn’t want things to change – not yet – so for now, he’s staying in the closet.
Things start to change when there is an anonymous post of what appears to be the school’s gossip website, where anyone can post their secrets without revealing their name. This is another student – calling himself Blue – who admits he is gay – and leaves an email address. Simon starts emailing Blue – who responds back. The two start to bond – and then something more develops. Neither knows how the other person is – but they’re still falling in love.
Of course, the movie has to have some conflict – some obstacles to overcome, and Love, Simon has some. Another student, Martin (Logan Miller) finds out that Simon is gay when he finds his emails on a school computer – and uses this knowledge to blackmail Simon into helping him woo Abby, who he has a crush on. Simon knows that Abby and Nick like each other, so he invents some stories to keep them apart. Simon is also more than a little clueless about Leah’s true feelings, which will result in heartbreak. Of course, all this explodes over Christmas break into a giant mess.
Love, Simon is a sweet film more than anything. It’s kind of adorable how it uses the same basic plot outline of any number of teenage movies, but does so in the service of a story about a gay kid struggling with when to come out. The movie is very purposefully not trying to reinvent the wheel here – but make pretty much the exact same film that we’ve seen hundreds of times, but with a different protagonist at its center.
The cast knows this, and goes along for the ride. Robinson has an open and natural screen presence, and kind of just goes along for the ride. As his parents, Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel are playing fantasy versions of parents – the type that any gay kid would love – because he doesn’t have to worry about all the horrible things that happen in real life – where kids are still thrown out of their house for being gay. Most of the other high schoolers are more than a little forgettable – even Katherine Langford, who was very memorable in season 1 of 13 Reasons Why (I didn’t watch season 2) doesn’t have much of a role to play here. The exception is Shipp as Abby – who is a charmer, and even if it’s lazy writing that pretty much every boy in the film is in love with her, you can of believe it here.
In general, the film is sweet, warm and funny – and also kind of bland and forgettable. It does precisely the job it sets out to do. Now it’s time for someone to set the bar higher for this type of film. Love, Simon shows that it can work (which should have been obvious). Now, we just need someone more daring to do it better.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Mission Impossible Series: Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011)

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011)
Directed by: Brad Bird.
Written by: Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec based on the television series by Bruce Geller.
Starring: Tom Cruise (Ethan Hunt), Jeremy Renner (William Brandt), Simon Pegg (Benjamin "Benji" Dunn), Paula Patton (Jane Carter), Michael Nyqvist (Kurt Hendricks), Anil Kapoor (Brij Nath), Léa Seydoux (Sabine Moreau), Vladimir Mashkov (Anatoly Sidorov), Samuli Edelmann (Marius Wistrom), Ivan Shvedoff (Leonid Lisenker), Josh Holloway (Trevor Hanaway), Pavel Kříž (Marek Stefanski), Miraj Grbić (Bogdan), Ilia Volok (The Fog), Tom Wilkinson (IMF Secretary), Ving Rhames (Luther Stickell).
I’m not quite sure I fully appreciated exactly what a massive accomplishment Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol was back in 2011 when it came out – even if I certainly did think at the time that it was far and away the best in the series. Part of that comes from the fact that they released the film during Oscar season – a welcome bit of counter programming to be sure, but it sometimes makes films like this released around that time seem inconsequential. Yet, seven years later, I have to admit that this film has lasted – and stuck with me – a lot more than most of those Oscar films have. It truly is one of the best action films of the 21st Century – the easily the best Mission Impossible made up to that point.
For the fourth time in a row, the series changed directors from the last installment –and yet again, it works. Brad Bird was coming from animation – three triumphs in a row with The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille – and seemed to want to prove he could work wonders in live action as well. He proves it, and then some, in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.
The film pretty immediately jettisons much of what JJ Abrams brought to the third film – which tried to ground the emotions of Hunt into the series, and does what this series does best – jump from insane action sequence to tense set piece to insane action sequence and back again, without pausing to waste times with things like emotion or character development. The film opens with Hunt in a Russian prison, but he is broken out with the help of Benji (Simon Pegg, returning for comic relief) and Carter (Paula Patton). The sequence is wonderfully entertaining – set to Dean Martin’s Ain’t That a Kick in the Head – with much of taking place on security cameras, the scene becomes chaotic, with dozens of people fighting, but Bird keeps everything clear. The plot gets a little more complicated from there – as the team has to break into the Kremlin – which, of course, doesn’t go according to plan. They pick up another team member – Brandt (Jeremy Renner) – and head to Dubai.
The Dubai sequence truly is spectacular, as it piles one great sequence on top of each other, and yet all of them are different, unique accomplishments. The defining image of the movie is, of course, Tom Cruise on the outside of the tallest building in the world - Burj Khalifa – which is thrilling in one way. From there, the team has to conduct two simultaneously meetings – one with the assassin (Lea Seydoux) with nuclear launch codes, and the other with the men who want to buy them. These are brilliantly intense thriller set pieces, full of tension and sleight of hand. From there, it has to go immediately into a chase sequence during a sandstorm. All three of these set pieces would be a highlight in most movies – but stacked on top of each other like they are makes them even better.
It also does, admittedly, make the climax look a little weak by comparison. I loved everything with Paula Patton and Indian billionaire, but as Bird tries to crosscut it with Renner’s big action sequence involving a giant fan and magnets, it just isn’t quite as thrilling as we’ve seen before. And like all of the Mission Impossible films save for III, the villain here is kind of generic, Eastern European madman.
Still, Ghost Protocol truly is a remarkable achievement for Brad Bird – and the series itself. It has the most memorable action sequences, which truly is all that is required of this series. I do think Abrams contribution to the series – to make it more grounded – helped a little bit, because it allowed it to go bigger and better than ever before with the fourth installment. A truly great action film – that brought this series to an entirely new level.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Mission Impossible Series: Mission Impossible III (2006)

Mission Impossible III (2006)
Directed by: J. J. Abrams.
Written by: Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci and J. J. Abrams based on the television series by Bruce Geller.
Starring: Tom Cruise (Ethan Hunt), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Owen Davian), Ving Rhames (Luther Stickell), Billy Crudup (John Musgrave), Michelle Monaghan (Julia Meade), Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Declan Gormley), Keri Russell (Lindsey Farris), Maggie Q (Zhen Lei), Simon Pegg (Benjamin "Benji" Dunn), Eddie Marsan (Brownway), Laurence Fishburne (Theodore Brassel), Bahar Soomekh (Davian's Translator), Aaron Paul (Rick Meade).
In retrospect, Mission Impossible III represents what would become pattern for director JJ Abrams. This was his first feature as a director, and since then he has gone on to direct the first (and second) films of the rebooted Star Trek and the first film in the reboot of Star Wars. Abrams, it seems, is the director you bring into a seemingly dormant franchise to make a solid, respectful reboot of the franchise to gets fans interested again – before handing the reins to someone who is going to take the franchise to greater heights. It took six years – the longest gap in the Mission Impossible series – to make this third film, and its clear from the start that Abrams goals are much more modest than either of the films that came before it. The film pretty much jettisons the overly complicated plot of the first film, and the operatic excess of the second film. It tries to ground the film in a more relatable emotional register than the previous films, and also return the series to more of the team style rather than it being the Ethan Hunt show – which is basically what the second film was. The film is solid and entertaining from beginning to end – it also has the most memorable villain of any of the Mission Impossible films. And yet, looking back at it 12 years later, I do have to wonder if anyone would remember the film all that fondly had it not been a part of this franchise – and if that franchise had not achieved the heights it did with the subsequent films. In a way, Mission Impossible III feels kind of like those filler episodes in serialized television – necessary to get where you’re going, without being the best the series has to offer.
When this film opens, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt has not retired from the IMF – but he’s no longer on active duty. His job is now to train the agents before they head out into the field. He’s engaged to a nurse – Julia (Michelle Monaghan) and wants to settle down. But he’s called back in because one of the agents he trained – Lindsey Ferris (Keri Russell) has gone missing in Brazil – they think she has been taken by the man they assigned her to monitor, arms dealer Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) – and she is their only connection to him. They want her back – and because Hunt loves Lindsey like a little sister, he agrees to come back. And once he’s back, he’s back all the way – Owen wouldn’t let him walk away if he wanted to.
In many ways, the plot of Mission Impossible III is the simplest of any of the movies. Owen wants something called the Rabbit’s Foot – and will do anything to get it, including of course kidnapping Julia to force Ethan to get him what he wants. What is the Rabbit’s Foot? Well, it’s basically a McGuffin – the movie never even bothers to explain what it is, what it will do, or why anyone would want it. It doesn’t matter – everyone wants it, so it’s important. Abrams jettisons the rest, keeping things relatively simple – which works. What doesn’t work as well (spoiler alert, although I’ll try to be vague) is that the film essentially repeats what happened in the first film in terms of Hunt’s superiors (in this case Laurence Fishburne and Billy Crudup), trying to shock you by revealing which one is really the bad guy – and this time it doesn’t much work. It also would have helped a little bit more if the film had taken time to do something more with Monaghan’s Julia instead of making her yet another wife/girlfriend of the male protagonist whose role is to be put in jeopardy to motivate the hero. It’s a rather tired plot trope in action movies in general – and in no way is Monaghan given the same level of action to do as Thandie Newton had in Mission Impossible II (nor is her chemistry with Cruise anywhere near as good – although that could be a function of how little time they spend together.
Still though, all that feels like nitpicking a movie that in general is highly enjoyable. Hoffman is a huge upgrade over every other Mission Impossible villain to this point in the series – he exudes menace and malevolence, and seems to be having a great time in the role. Perhaps this was a merely a paycheque role for him – lord knows he did enough stage work and indie film work to merit taking a big payday once in a while – but it certainly doesn’t seem like it. I also appreciated that he didn’t seem to have a big complicated goal here – he wanted it because he could sell it and make a lot of money.
Besides, this series has always been at its best in the action sequences – and this film has some great ones – from the raid to try and rescue Lindsay, to the bridge action sequence, to – of course – the big break-in in Shanghai to steal the Rabbit’s Foot, Abrams generally does a good job with them. I’m not sure any are as jaw dropping as the best in this series – but all are technically proficient, and a hell of a lot of fun.
Overall, like Mission Impossible II, I think Mission Impossible III is a notch below the other films in this series. It’s good, it’s fun, it well made, it features Cruise at his determined best, and Hoffman as the series best villain. But it isn’t particularly memorable. It’s a fun, good action movie – and not a lot else.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Movie Review: The Equalizer 2

The Equalizer 2 *** / *****
Directed by: Antoine Fuqua.
Written by: Richard Wenk based on characters created by Richard Lindheim and Michael Sloan.
Starring: Denzel Washington (Robert McCall), Pedro Pascal (Dave York), Bill Pullman (Brian Plummer), Melissa Leo (Susan Plummer), Jonathan Scarfe (Resnick), Orson Bean (Sam Rubinstein),
Sakina Jaffrey (Fatima), Caroline Day (Amy), Ashton Sanders (Miles), Abigail Marlowe (Jana Calbert), Rhys Olivia Cote (Anna).
It probably should be possible that Denzel Washington has been a movie star since the 1980s, and yet had never made a sequel until The Equalizer 2. There is certainly enough generic action movies on his resume that you think at some point, someone would have dangled enough money in front of him to get him to come back. Sadly, there were two talked about sequels that never happened, that I would have loved to see – a follow-up to Carl Franklin’s Devil in a Blue Dress (there is certainly more than enough Walter Mosley novels about Easy Rawlins to choose from) and a sequel to Spike Lee’s Inside Man – with Lee returning to direct – that also didn’t happen for some reason. So instead, the first sequel of Denzel’s career is a follow-up to the largely forgettable 2014 film The Equalizer. I was lukewarm on the first film when I saw it back in 2014, and was lukewarm on it again when I revisited it last week leading up to the release of the sequel. And to be honest, I’m lukewarm on the sequel as well – which never rises past of the level of entertaining time waster. Its biggest asset is Washington himself – who the more I think about it, the more I may well argue is the best actor in the world right now. Sure, not every film is a monster performance like Daniel Day-Lewis – but Day-Lewis works once every five years, and only for great directors. Washington can take practically any movie and make it something watchable and entertaining. You may well forget much of The Equalizer 2 by the time you reach your car, but while it plays, it works – and Washington is either incapable of phoning in a performance, or at least able to disguise it when he does.
If you forgot the first film, it starred Washington as Robert McCall, an ex-CIA operative with a special set of skills, hiding in plain sight working at Home Depot. When he decides to break his promise to his late wife – and use his skills again – it’s for a good cause – rescuing a young, Russian prostitute (Chloe Grace Mortez) from the violent thugs who smuggled her into the country, and are now pimping her out. When he takes down a room for Russian mobsters though – he ends up in bigger trouble, as more come out of the woodwork, accompanied by corrupt cops. McCall, of course, must kill them all.
In the new film, he’s got a new apartment and a new job – as a Lyft driver – but he’s more than willing to use his special set of skills to help people who need it – like a little girl kidnapped by her abusive father, or a young woman who fell victim to some Wall Street bro types. It actually takes a surprising amount of time for the actual main plot of The Equalizer 2 to kick in – as Robert’s only friend, Susan (Melissa Leo), another CIA operative, is sent to Belgium to investigate an apparent bloody murder/suicide of a CIA asset – and winds up dead herself. You don’t kill Robert McCall’s friends – as those responsible soon find out.
The film was directed by Antoine Fuqua, who has directed Washington several times now – most memorably in Training Day (2001), which won Washington his second Oscar. Most of their collaborations are more like this though – Fuqua directed the first film as well – B-action movies, the best of which is probably the very entertaining remake of The Magnificent Seven from a couple of years ago. Fuqua knows how to direct action, and he does it very well in this film – in particular, the climax set in a deserted small town, during a torrential downpour, which has some elements of an old school Western showdown anyway.
Washington knows what’s expected of him as well – and he does it. Whether he’s lecturing a young black kid from his neighborhood – trying to get to concentrate on his art, and not dealing drugs, or his very specific way of dealing with people who don’t know what they’re getting when they try and attack him, this isn’t a role that’s going to really tax Washington’s considerable abilities – but he’s still going to give it his all anyway.
So no, The Equalizer and now The Equalizer 2 are not going to be the films Washington is remembered for – they’re not pushing the likes of Malcolm X, Training Day or Fences off the mantel of the best Denzel performances ever. But there’s something to be said for an actor who take a mean, nasty little movie like The Equalizer and its sequel and make it work as well as it does. Washington is way better in this film than he needs to be – and that’s what’s makes the film worth seeing.

Movie Review: The Devil & Father Amorth

The Devil & Father Amorth ** / *****
Directed by: William Friedkin.
Written by: William Friedkin & Mark Kermode 
The great William Friedkin is now in his early 80s, and hasn’t made a feature film since 2011’s Killer Joe – but I wouldn’t count out another great film from him before his time is up. He is, after all, a director who many have written off several times, only to rise again with another gem of a film. The Devil & Father Amorth though is not that film. It is a small and slight film – it runs barely over an hour, and feels padded at that. Friedkin is still enough of a showman that he wants to give the audience their monies worth, and yet the film kind of feels like a couple half-baked ideas crammed together when neither was enough on their own.
The film is a documentary about Father Gabriel Amorth – a Catholic Priest in Rome, who died a few years ago at the age of 93. For decades, he was the Church’s chief Exorcist in Italy – apparently performing thousands of exorcisms himself, which sounds like a lot until you realize two things – apparently 50,000 people a year in Italy seek out exorcists, and priests often have to perform one exorcism after another after another on the same people. The big hook that Friedkin tries very hard to sell the audience on in this film that for the first time, Father Amorth will let him film an actual exorcism.
Before we get there though, Friedkin spends some time with his own history of exorcisms – visiting the locations of his infamous 1973 classic The Exorcist, shows interview clips with the late William Peter Blatty talking about the real life case that inspired the novel, etc. We then meet Father Amorth – who Friedkin says is the “most spiritual man he ever knew” – yet that doesn’t come across very well in the film - he’s very quiet, and we don’t get much of a sense of anything about him. We actually learn more from his assistant than we do from Father Amorth himself.
Anyway, eventually we get to the main attraction – the ninth exorcism of an Italian woman named Cristina. Friedkin makes a big deal about Father Amorth would only let Friedkin himself – no crew, no lights – into record the exorcism, but that’s an odd request considering that the room is full of at least a dozen of Cristina’s friends and families there to help – including several (male) family members who hold her down at Father Amorth recites his prayers. Cristina certainly does appear to have something deeply wrong with her – whether it’s demonic possession or mental illness, who can say for sure? Friedkin interviews some medical experts after the exorcism to get their take, and they seem extremely careful not to completely dismiss the idea of demons – but they don’t embrace it either. Their explanation runs something like this – even if we cannot explain it now, doesn’t mean there isn’t a scientific explanation for it – we just haven’t discovered what it is.
The exorcism in the film is strangely anti-climactic. I didn’t really expect something out of Friedkin’s other Exorcist film – I didn’t expect to see levitating, head spinning, vomiting or masturbating with crucifixes, but there really isn’t anything too dramatic here (perhaps this is why Friedkin padded the movie to even get it to its 69 minute runtime – the footage itself isn’t that great). I do wish Friedkin had addressed the sounds she was making during the exorcism – they sound, quite frankly, fake – not in that she is putting on a performance, but more like the sound that talented sound department people come up with.
The biggest single flaw in the movie though comes at the end. Up until then, I think Friedkin had mainly played fair – and was willing to question the validity of these things. For example, he knows that growing up in a culture like Italy – where demonic possession is something many believe in, means you’re much more likely to be diagnosed with that than if you were in, say, America. But in the final moments of the film, Friedkin expects the audience to believe that he and his producer drove two hours, to a small town in Italy, to meet once again with Cristina – who isn’t in the field Friedkin thought they were supposed to meet in, but rather, inside the church. When they go inside the church, Friedkin says they see things he cannot explain – and Cristina threatens his life while possessed. Why is Friedkin telling us this, instead of showing us? Because he wants us to believe he forgot to bring his camera into the church.
I mean, come on – Friedkin’s putting us on here right? I don’t know how much of the film is a put on, and how much Friedkin really believes, but this last twist is too much for me to believe almost anything in the film. As a documentary, then, the film fails. And as entertainment, it fails as well- it just isn’t all that interesting. Nice try though Friedkin.

Mission Impossible Series: Mission Impossible II (2000)

Mission: Impossible II (2000) 
Directed by: John Woo.
Written by: Robert Towne and Ronald D. Moore & Brannon Braga based on the series created by Bruce Geller.
Starring: Tom Cruise (Ethan Hunt), Dougray Scott (Sean Ambrose), Thandie Newton (Nyah Hall), Ving Rhames (Luther Strickell), Richard Roxburgh (Hugh Stamp), John Polson (Billy Baird), Brendan Gleeson (McCloy), Rade Serbedzija (Dr. Nekhorvich), William Mapother (Wallis), Dominic Purcell (Ulrich), Mathew Wilkinson (Michael).
Even as the reputation for the Mission Impossible films have taken an upswing in recent years, the only film that really gets left behind is John Woo’s over-the-top, operatic Mission Impossible II. In a way, it’s easy to see why. Even by the standards of these movies, the plot is completely ridiculous and even silly. The film overuses the whole masks devices to absurd degrees. The villain is just plain boring. And Woo himself almost seems to be doing self-parody at times in the film – as if he read a bunch of reviews that mention the doves in his film, and decided to double down on them – even hinging on action sequence on a reveal that is caused by the doves themselves. Yet, in spite of all of this, I have a soft spot for this film. It isn’t great – it probably is the weakest of the series – and yet it’s still very entertaining, full of insane action sequence in which Woo tries to outdo himself. It’s also one of the only times I can remember that Tom Cruise has real live chemistry with his onscreen love interest in an action film – played by then newcomer Thandie Newton, who is so great it’s a real shame they didn’t use her again in this series. In retrospect, it was also the beginning of the end of John Woo as an Hollywood filmmaker – he’d make just two films in Hollywood after this one – Windtalkers and Paycheque – neither were very well received, and then returned to Hong Kong, where he hasn’t made a lot – and has mainly tried to do different types of films, up until this year’s Manhunt anyway. In short, Mission Impossible II is completely and totally ridiculous – but knows this, and fully embraces the ridiculousness at its core.
The plot this time involves Cruise’s Ethan Hunt being called in from his vacation to tackle another impossible mission. A Russian doctor invented both a horrible disease and the cure for that disease (why, I never really did figure out) – but as he was transporting it to America, he is double crossed by IMF Agent Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), who had disguised himself as Hunt, in order to steal the cure for the illness – as the first step in a very long, complicated scheme to become a pharmaceutical billionaire. Hunt’s first step is to recruit Ambrose’s ex-girlfriend Nyah Hall (Newton) – a master thief – to use as bait, and then build the rest of his team to get the cure back from Ambrose, before he can also get his hands on the illness, which would be catastrophic.
The screenplay to the movie is by the great Robert Towne, and you have to kind of assume it was a paycheque gig for the Chinatown master. His challenge was amplified by the fact that Woo already had in mind the action sequences he wanted to do, so Towne had to work a screenplay around those. In a way, the film reminded me of the Hitchcock classic Notorious (1946) – where the hero (Cary Grant) convinces the woman he supposedly loves (Ingrid Bergman) to get back together with the Nazi criminal who loved her (Claude Rains) so that they can get information about his network. Mission Impossible II doesn’t go as far as Notorious did – which makes the hero into an asshole, and the Nazi into a sympathetic character - but it shares some of the same elements.
One thing that Mission Impossible II certainly did establish, which has become a franchise mainstay, is the prospect of Tom Cruise doing insanely dangerous stunts for our amusement. The biggest one is certainly the first one, where he goes rock climbing without a rope – a sequence that admittedly has nothing to do with anything else in the movie, except that it looked cool, and showed Tom Cruise was willing to risk his life for us. The other action sequences in the film seem to mainly be designed to be bigger than the ones in the previous film. The standout sequence in DePalma’s original was the Langley sequence, with Cruise dropping down from the ceiling on a rope to hack a computer. Woo seemed to take that as a personal challenge, and designed a bigger sequence that also required Cruise to drop down – but to do so in a much bigger way. The sequence cannot touch the mastery of DePalma’s – which was more about suspense than action – but it’s still spectacular in that John Woo kind of way. The film also heavily uses guns this time around – which the previous film didn’t, but is a hallmark of Woo’s, and while it cannot rival the best work in say Hardboiled, it’s still significantly better than most people can do. Is it all ridiculous? Of course, but in a way only John Woo can pull off.
What I think makes Mission Impossible II more than just a series of crazy, over-the-top action sequences really is Thandie Newton as Nyah Hall. From the first time we see her – trying to rob a necklace from a billionaire – she is captivating. That sequence also establishes her chemistry with Cruise as they have to hide in a bathtub on top of each other – and then gives way to a lengthy foreplay sequence as they chase each other in very expensive cars. In Cruise action movies, there is almost always a love interest – but they are rarely very interesting – take poor Emmanuelle Béart in the first Mission Impossible film for example. Here, Newton more than holds her own, and actually becomes the emotional centerpiece of the movie. To a certain extent, she is a damsel in distress, but she is more than that – not a helpless victim, but an active participant. It’s odd, because Woo isn’t really known for that in his films (there’s more homoerotic subtext in his films, than heterosexual text, but it works here – and helps the film a great deal.
I’m not trying to say that Mission Impossible II is a misunderstand masterpiece. It isn’t. But it’s a misunderstood fine action film from a master of the form, who has been given a lot of money to do what he does on a large scale. Yes, it’s still probably the least of the series – but it’s still a hell of a lot of stupid fun.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Movie Review: Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace **** / *****
Directed by: Debra Granik.
Written by: Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini based on the novel by Peter Rock.
Starring: Thomasin Harourt McKenzie (Tom), Ben Foster (Will), Jeffery Rifflard (Vet at VA), Michael Draper (Runner), Derek John Drescher (Larry), Peter Simpson (Police Officer), Erik McGlothlin (K-9 Officer), Dana Millican (Jean), Alyssa Lynn (Valerie), Ryan Joiner (Tiffany), Michael J. Prosser (James), Jeff Kober (Mr. Walters), Spencer S. Hanley (Pastor), Tamera Westlake ( Devotional Dancer), Bob Werfelman (Bob), Isaiah Stone (Isaiah), Jacob Johnson (4H Coach), Art Hickman (Truck Driver), Derek Carmon (Detective), Zoë Dotson (Teen Girl Traveler), Dale Dickey (Dale), David Pittman (Blane), Susan Chernik (Susan).
It’s been eight years since Debra Granik’s debut feature - Winter’s Bone – a stunning movie about a teenage girl living in the Ozarks, trying to keep her family from coming apart at the seams after her drug dealing father disappeared. That film made a star out of Jennifer Lawrence – earning her the first Oscar nomination of her career (and, arguably, it’s a performance she still hasn’t topped, despite how good she is). In all that time, Granik has only directed one other film – a documentary, Stray Dog (unseen by me). She is finally back with Leave No Trace that has some superficial similarities to Winter’s Bone, but is a quieter, more naturalistic film. It stars Ben Foster as Will, a troubled army vet with PTSD, who lives out in the woods by his wits – along with his 13-year old daughter, Tom (Thomasin Harourt McKenzie). The pair of them get on well together out there – they barely need to talk to each other. They have most of what they need out there as the forage and support themselves. Occasionally, the pair venture into town to get what they need – making some extra money by Will selling his prescription meds to other vets – also living off the grid in the woods.
Of course, they won’t be able to live out there forever – and sure enough, Tom is spotted by a hiker in the woods, and soon their camp has been raided – and the pair separated and taken into custody – now at the mercy of the government bureaucracy they wanted no part of. That bureaucracy though isn’t as heartless and cruel as you may think – everyone there is well-meaning, and try to do their best to help both Will and Tom. They care about them – and even find a creative solution to keep them together. They’re given a small, isolated house – and Will is given work by the owner of that house, who runs a Christmas tree farm. Yet, that can only last so long. While Tom seems to flourish – she makes a friend, gets interested in the wider world, Will cannot cope. The noise of the farm – the helicopters in particular – seem to rattle him. The walls of the house are too confining. He is only going to last so long.
Leave No Trace is a quiet movie – one that doesn’t beat you over the head with its messages, nor force the characters into some kind of phony dramatics. At the heart of it, is the bond between father and daughter – and the two central performances are magnificent, as they get that bond precisely. Foster can overact at times in films (usually, to great affect), but here he dials way down. He doesn’t talk about what happened to him – what he saw, or what made him this way. He doesn’t need to – Tom understands in her own way. The pair of them support each other – get each other through. And yet, as strong as that bond is, it will only last so long. Tom is getting older – becoming an adult. Does she really want to spend her life in the woods, a prisoner of her father’s issues that he cannot overcome?
As the film comes to a close, these question come to the foreground, but even then, Granik doesn’t goose them with phony dramatics or a big fight. Tom stands up for herself in a way that is both quiet and assertive. Will doesn’t verbally respond at all. It’s a quietly devastating scene because it makes clear that sometimes even a bond this strong cannot survive – cannot last. These two love each other more than anyone or anything else in the world – but it’s still not enough.
The film is beautiful – shot mostly in the woods by cinematographer Michael McDonough – in ways that often dwarf the characters. It’s a film that makes critiques of the modern world, of the way America treats their wounded vets and other political points – but does so in an understated way, never losing sight of the characters. By the end, the film is devastating in its effect. This is a quiet film that never the less is intense, beautiful and heartbreaking. It’s one that expands in your mind after it’s over.

Movie Review: Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? **** / *****
Directed by: Morgan Neville.
I guess I need to admit this right off the top of this review – I never really watched Mr. Rogers as kid. I was, of course, aware of his work, but perhaps because in Canada we had the likes of Mr. Dressup or Fred Penner’s Place – two shows I remember a lot more than Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood – I didn’t watch as much of the latter as so many others did. I will say this though – that didn’t really matter when I finally watched Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor – his excellent documentary about Mister Rogers, and just how radical and important it was – and by implication, how much it is missed today. It is a film designed to make you cry – and unless you’re heartless, it will undeniably succeed – and yet unlike so many films designed the same way, you don’t feel guilty about it when the film is over – you don’t feel angry or manipulated by the film. You cry because you’ve just seen something undeniably good – that has undeniable value – and now it’s gone.
The film does an admirable job of telling the story of Mister Rogers – how the ordained Presbyterian Minister decided to dedicate his life to children’s television, precisely because everything else he saw on TV aimed at children was so loud and crass. A bullied kid (they called him Far Freddie), Mister Rogers always knew that children felt things very deeply, and that needed to be respected by adults – but often was not. The key to the success of the show is that Rogers never talked down to the children – he treated them with respect. His show tackled serious subject matter, and while he would reassure his audience of children – he didn’t sugarcoat things. He would talk about war, about death, about assassinations, about divorce, about racism, about insecurity and anger – and did it in a way that children understood. More than anything, he taught children that no matter what they were special – that they were worthy of being loved, and loving in return. Those who criticized him for ruining generations of kids by telling them all they were “special” are idiots who do not understand what Mister Rogers was doing.
In many wants, Won’t You Be My Neighbor is a simple documentary. The film has interviews with many of Rogers’ family members – who make it clear he wasn’t perfect, and give tiny glimpse into his eccentricities – and those who worked on the show with him for all those years. The overall verdict is basically that what you saw, is what you got – he was that way with everyone. This is backed up by the interviews we see with Rogers, or his testimony in front of the Senate, when they wanted to cut the funding of PBS – and he turned it around simply by reciting the words of one of the songs he sang to children. He believed in his mission – and he was stubborn about it. Like many great artists, he believed his way was the proper way. But unlike many of those great artist we idolize, and make excuses for their terrible behavior – as if they had to act that way in order to produce great art, Mister Rogers made it clear that you didn’t. He may have a little bit of King Friday the XIII in him – but he was kind to everyone.
The film was directed by Morgan Neville, who clearly has an interest in the history of television, and where it led us. His last film was the excellent Best of Enemies, which focused on the debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley at the 1968 conventions. Those debates were legendary and were done by two very smart people. What it led to is a current culture when every TV network puts chattering idiots on TV to yell at each other. Won’t You Be My Neighbor is a little less direct when addressing the present (it’s no accident that Neville does take some time showing us the first week of shows Rogers did – which included the King building a wall to keep others out because he was afraid of change) – and the film doesn’t answer the question of what Mister Rogers would make of today’s climate. Trump is never mentioned in the film, but he hangs over it just the same. As the movie states, it’s less important that we know what Mister Rogers would do today, and more important what you are going to do. If we were all a little bit more like Mister Rogers, then the world would be much better.

Movie Review: I Feel Pretty

I Feel Pretty ** / *****
Directed by: Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein.
Written by: Abby Kohn & Marc Silverstein.
Starring: Amy Schumer (Renee Bennett), Michelle Williams (Avery LeClaire), Tom Hopper (Grant Leclair), Rory Scovel (Ethan), Adrian Martinez (Mason), Emily Ratajkowski (Mallory), Aidy Bryant (Vivian), Busy Philipps (Jane), Lauren Hutton (Lilly Leclair), Sasheer Zamata (Tasha), Angela M. Davis (Luna), Caroline Day (Jenn), Anastagia Pierre (Claire), Gia Crovatin (Sasha), Olivia Culpo (Hope), Naomi Campbell (Helen), Kyle Grooms (Lyle). 
When I Feel Pretty came out in theaters a couple of months ago, there was a lot of talk about the film and its message – whether Amy Schumer was really the right actress to play the role of a woman who lacks confidence because of her looks – when there were so many women out there who would kill to look like Amy Schumer. Whether the talented, white and blonde actress should be in this role, when it’s so much harder for others – people who are not white, people who are disabled or transgender, etc. – who have it worse. Fair enough, I guess. Yet, when I sat down and actually watched I Feel Pretty this weekend, I noticed other, more serious problems – with the message of the movie, and the film itself. First of all, the message of the film seems to be completely at odds with itself – as if it wasn’t really thought through at all, and was just used to string together the fairy tale narrative of the film. And second of all, the film itself doesn’t really work because it’s just not very good – it’s not that smart, it’s not that funny, it has weird subplots that go nowhere, and doesn’t seem to know where it’s biggest assets are – shunting them to the side in favor of stuff that doesn’t work. It would be more interesting to pick apart the politics of I Feel Pretty if they felt like something the filmmakers actually believed in – or if anything else in the movie really worked.
In the film, Schumer stars as Renee Bennett – one of two people who work out of a Chinatown basement running the website of a high end cosmetics company (everyone else works on Fifth Avenue, in a gorgeous building, populated apparently only by gorgeous people). Renee is good at her job, has a pair of great friends – Vivian and Jane (Aidy Bryant and Busy Phillips – two of those strengths the movie doesn’t seem to realize it has), but she lacks confidence in herself. She has always dreamed of being pretty – like Mallory (Emily Ratajkowski) – a woman she meets at Soul Cycle, and expresses her own insecurities, which Renee cannot believe she has. But at that Soul Cycle class, something odd happens – Renee hits her head, hard, and when she wakes up, she looks in the mirror and suddenly thinks her dreams have come true – that she has become that devastatingly beautiful woman she always wanted to be. Suddenly, filled with confidence, everything starts going different for her. She meets a new guy – Ethan (Rory Scovel) – and they immediately hit it off. She also gets a job at the fifth avenue location of the company she works for – first as a receptionist, and then latter, she is drawn in to help them launch their new, lower-end product line by heiress Avery LeClaire (Michelle Williams) – who despite being rich, thin and beautiful, has her own doubts.
I do appreciate somethings about the film – mainly, that the filmmakers (Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein) don’t do anything to make Schumer looks different from the beginning of the film, to the point where she thinks she’s beautiful. There’s no Shallow Hal fat suit here, she isn’t replaced by thinner actress, etc. – it’s all Schumer, and she looks the same throughout. What changes is her confidence – how she carries herself. She carries herself differently, simply because now she is freed from all those self-doubts she has always had. This allows her to go for the job, to speak up in meetings to get promoted, to hit on Ethan at the dry cleaners, etc. As confused as the messaging in the film gets, this aspect actually works.
But the messaging really does get confused. If the film is selling the line of its’s inside that counts, I don’t quite know why they felt the need to sell out for what most have been some hefty Soul Cycle product placement money. Or why the big, climatic speech about being yourself really is all about makeup – and buying that one brand that just makes you feel better. That seems at odds with the message of the movie, doesn’t it? I’m also not quite sure what the movie is trying to say about Renee and her friendships with Vivian and Jane – since the one aspect where Renee seems to become a completely different person, a worse person, is when dealing with them – as she makes them feel small and valueless. Bryant and Phillips have such an easy chemistry with each other – and Schumer, at the beginning of the film – but they’re pretty much wasted. And the less said about Grant LeClair (Tom Hopper), the better – but for now, let’s just say I have no idea why he’s in the movie or what purpose he was supposed to serve.
If I wish the movie were better, it’s partly because I would like more people to see Michelle Williams in full on comedy mode as Avery LeClaire – it’s a perfect example of what happens when a great supporting performance falls victim to a bad movie. She is hilarious in the film – at first you think she’s doing a version of her Marilyn Monroe, but its different here. And it’s wonderful.
Ultimately though, I Feel Pretty is a pretty lame comedy with a confused message that seems at odds with itself. Nothing really works that well in the film. Perhaps this is further proof that while Hollywood wants Amy Schumer, they haven’t quite figured out what to do with her. It’s a tough spot for Schumer herself to be in – she became very big, very quickly (after a long time working) – but she’s a star in a different mold, that they haven’t figured out how to use. I hope they figure it out – and soon.