‘Mission: Impossible – Fallout’ is a Thrilling Spectacle From Start to Finish

Mission Impossible Fallout poster

This is never supposed to be the case. Movie franchises are not supposed to improve with each sequel. We all expect them to get worse and worse to where you wonder why the filmmakers even bother making them anymore. But with the “Mission: Impossible” movie franchise, actor and producer Tom Cruise continues to work closely with gifted filmmakers to create motion pictures which defy expectations as he is intent on topping what came before. “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” is the sixth film in a series which began back in 1996, and it proves to be the most thrilling installment yet. I cannot wait to see it again, and I am determined to see it in a IMAX theater as this sequel demands to be seen on the biggest screen in town.

The plot of “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” is a bit convoluted, but I will give you the gist of it. The terrorist group from “Rogue Nation” known as The Syndicate has since reformed into The Apostles, and Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is tasked with intercepting the sale of three plutonium cores to them. But despite the presence of team members Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Benjamin “Benji” Dunn (Simon Pegg), the mission is thwarted and the plutonium is stolen right out from under them. From there, they are determined to get the cores back, and their latest impossible mission has them meeting up with characters old and new to where alliances and methods are questioned endlessly. It all reminded me of what Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio told Willem Dafoe in “White Sands:”

“You’re honest, even when you’re lying.”

Does everything we see here make perfect sense? No, but I really didn’t care. Even at 147 minutes, “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” never drags, and it is a movie I am happy to describe as exhaustively thrilling as it kept me on the edge of my seat throughout. Just when you think it’s over, we are pulled back into another astonishing action set piece which leaves us out of breath.

Let’s talk about the stunts, shall we? Among the first is the HALO (high altitude, low opening) jump which is a skydive from a seriously insane height. We all know how Cruise is a stickler for doing his own stunts, and while the average skydive is done from 7,000 to 9,000 feet, a HALO jump is often done from 15,000 feet and with the aid of oxygen. Taking this all into account makes this particular sequence all the more thrilling as it is done in what seems like an unbroken shot which would make even Alejandro Inarritu stare at the screen in awe.

There’s also a motorcycle chase through the streets of Paris, and I kept waiting for the characters to get seriously injured or killed as no one can navigate traffic like that in real life. And yes, it is indeed Cruise jumping from one building to another. Everything culminates in a thrilling helicopter chase which outdoes the ones I loved watching in “Blue Thunder,” and it is in this sequence where Cruise and company attempt to complete the most impossible mission of all as what they are tasked with doing has a higher probability of failure than success.

Cruise is now 56 years old, and he shows no signs of slowing down. While many be telling him to act his age, a term which has now lost all its meaning to me, he continues to defy the odds and show just how far he is willing to go to make an action movie which is anything but average. The scenes of him “grinning like an idiot every 15 minutes” are few and far between this time around as we instead see him playing mind games with actors who are playing characters not entirely trustworhty. And yes, there is the obligatory scene of him sprinting at warp speed, and I hope I am able to run like he does when I reach his age.

“Fallout” almost marks the return of writer and director Christopher McQuarrie, making him the first filmmaker to direct more than one “Mission: Impossible” movie. “Rogue Nation” was terrific entertainment, but he really outdoes himself this time out. His screenplay is full of endless plot twists and enigmatic characters to where I was quickly reminded of he was the same man who wrote the screenplay for “The Usual Suspects.” Seeing him balance various plot threads makes me admire him as a director even more as he brings everything together for a furious climax which is just staggering.

Simon Pegg has been great fun in the “Mission: Impossible” movies, but in “Fallout” we see his character of Benji Dunn evolve a bit. Granted, Benji has always served as the comic relief, but we see him become a better field agent to where, even when he whines about the things he doesn’t want to do, he can hold his own with Ethan to where he doesn’t have to perform a HALO jump to make this clear. Pegg has always been a great comedic talent, but he’s also a better actor than people give him credit for.

Ving Rhames continues to make Luther Stickell the uber cool IMF agent, and Luther has evolved to where he is not as concerned about his expensive taste in clothes anymore. Rebecca Ferguson, who all but stole “Rogue Nation” as Ilsa Faust, once again makes her character wonderfully enigmatic to where I was desperate to get at the secrets inside Ilsa’s brain. Alec Baldwin has more fun this time around as Alan Hunley, Sean Harris makes “Rogue Nation” baddie Solomon Lake even more sadistic than ever before, and Michelle Monaghan once again provides this franchise with a warm human presence as Ethan’s ex-wife, Julia.

We also get introduced to some new characters including Erica Sloane, the new CIA director played by Angela Bassett. Although we don’t get to see much of Bassett here, she reminds us of how badass she remains after all these years. It has been 25 years since she broke through as Tina Turner in “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” and she hasn’t let us down since.

Acclaimed stage actress Vanessa Kirby makes her American film debut as White Widow, a black-market arms dealer. Kirby makes this character such an alluring presence as she keeps her cool even as her life is constantly being threatened and as she dangles a plutonium core right in front of Ethan’s eyes, knowing full well just how much he wants it.

And, of course, we have Henry Cavill who gets to take some time off from his day job playing Superman to portray CIA assassin August Walker. Cavill is a bit stiff in some early scenes to where he threatens to get upstaged by his mustache, the same one he was unable to shave off for “Justice League” reshoots. For a time, I kept waiting for him to say, “It’s just you, me, and my mustache” as such a big deal was made about it having to be digitally removed. But as “Fallout” goes on, Cavill makes August into an especially dangerous character who is never to be trifled with. And while he may not be playing the Man of Steel here, he throws punches which had me thinking his arms were made of steel.

Seriously, “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” is the best movie yet in this franchise, and it may very well be the best action movie of summer 2018. Just when I thought nothing could top the sight of Cruise climbing the Burj Khalifa tower in “Ghost Protocol,” we are given some of the most amazing stunts, and they are coupled with characters busy playing mental chess games with one another as what the eyes reveal can be even more threatening than a bullet to the head. “Fallout” is a thrilling spectacle, and it makes me wonder if Cruise and company can possibly top what they have accomplished here.

Cruise had a tough time in 2017 as “The Mummy” reboot proved to be a critical and commercial bomb, and the biographical crime film “American Made” underperformed at the box office. It’s a good thing he still has “Mission: Impossible” to fall back on as he always pushes himself to outdo what he did previously as an actor and producer. Just when I thought his career would self-destruct in 5 seconds, he manages to come back with a vengeance.

* * * * out of * * * *

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‘Eighth Grade’ Never Shies From the Terrors of Being a Teenager

Eighth Grade movie poster

I remember eighth grade very well. It started with me running cross country and being elected Treasurer to the student council. I stole a line from Chevy Chase as I told my fellow students, “Hi, I am Ben, and you’re not.” They laughed hysterically and cheered me loudly, and I lived for this kind of reaction back then. I felt like I was on top of the world, but then things changed to where I felt completely out of place and unsure of how to talk or act around people my age. I became socially awkward and felt very isolated from everyone around me, and the year ended on what seemed like a disastrous note as I became the center of attention in a negative way, something I hoped and prayed would never happen.

Those memories were brought right back to the surface as I watched “Eighth Grade” which stars Elsie Fisher as Kayla Day, a teenage girl on the verge of graduating from junior high school. When we first meet her, she is making her latest YouTube video in which she is telling her audience about the importance of being yourself, and she comes off looking very confident. But then we see her in the real world and discover she is a deeply introverted young woman who is socially awkward and introverted. Her class ends up voting her “Most Quiet,” and the look on her face when she is told this says so much as even she cannot deny this being true.

Granted, Kayla is growing in a time where social media is everywhere, and she is addicted to her cell phone as much as the next person. But while I did not grow up in a time of cell phone addiction, social media oversaturation, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter among other things, the feelings she experiences as she navigates the cruel realm of middle school feel very real, and I relate to them more than I ever could have expected to after all these years.

Eighth Grade” has many moments which speaks volumes. The scene where the mother of Kennedy, the most popular girl at school, invites Kayla to her daughter’s birthday party is one of the most emotionally piercing. As the mother speaks, the camera has her face out of focus and instead offers a closeup on Kennedy who refuses to even look at Kayla, her face full of disgust to where she looks like she wants to say to her mom “do we have to invite her?” Being on the receiving end of a face like this when you were a teenager always felt really brutal, as our emotions at that age always felt epic to where dejection felt more common than happiness.

This is followed up by the movie’s most horrifying scene: a pool party. Just seeing Kayla stare out a window at the kids laughing and having fun in the pool as if she were a prisoner behind bars proves to be as unsettling as watching Dawn Weiner look for place to sit in the school cafeteria in “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” Kayla suffers a panic attack as she puts on her swimsuit, and when she does go into the pool, I kept waiting for her to have a Dustin Hoffman “Graduate” moment when she finds solace underwater. Kayla, however, can only stay underwater for so long as the noise in her head proves to be louder than everything going on outside of her.

Kayla does get a reprieve when she attends a high school shadow program and meets a really nice young woman named Olivia (Emily Robinson) who is very eager to introduce Kayla to the new school she will soon attend. Watching Kayla interact with Olivia reminded me of how I got along better with kids older than me than I did with those my own age. Her newfound friendship, however, hits a major snag when one of Olivia’s friends invites Kayla to play a game of truth or dare. I kept praying Kayla would not say the word “dare,” and when she does…

While watching “Eighth Grade,” I was reminded of the following exchange of dialogue from Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides:”

“What are you doing here, honey? You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets.”

“Obviously, Doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl.”

Writer and director Bo Burnham, one of the first performers to become a star on YouTube, has brilliantly captured all the angst, horror and awkwardness of these crazy years we would rather put behind us. Clearly, he was never a teenage girl himself, but this quickly becomes irrelevant as anyone who has ever felt left out or at the bottom of the social ladder can easily relate to what Kayla experiences from start to finish. His screenplay feels very true to life, and not once does this movie feel like an average episode of “Saved by the Bell” or “Beverly Hills 90210.”

As Kayla, Elsie Fisher has such a winning presence to where you root for her right from the start. Her face, which has evidence of pimples, is not the kind we see in Clearasil commercials, and I applaud her for not trying to cover this up. In moments where she has no dialogue, Fisher shows us exactly what is going through Kayla’s mind as she is unable to hide the confusion and uncertainty of how to act around others. It’s a wonderful performance which feels true to life, and Fisher makes her final moments in “Eighth Grade” count for so much as she prepares to start the next stage of her life with newfound confidence.

The other performance I loved was from Josh Hamilton who plays Kayla’s father, Mark Day. At first, it looked like he is portraying a hapless dad who is simply here for comedic effect, but Hamilton gives this character dimensions which truly surprised me. Mark could have been like any other father we often in see in movies, but Hamilton digs deep to find the bruised heart of one who is just trying to do the best he can. It all leads to a wonderfully acted scene where Mark tells Kayla how she can never make him sad, and it is one of the more original moments I have seen between a parent and their child in recent years, and I am certain I will never forget it.

It gives me great pleasure to add “Eighth Grade” to my list of the best and most realistic motion pictures ever made about teenagers. Movies like “Pump Up the Volume” proved to be a godsend for me as they dealt with real teenagers going through problems I could actually relate to, and kids today need these movies as a healthy alternative to the more flaccid and shallow portrayals of their age set which do not reflect their reality. While much of what I saw was unnerving to where I was instantly reminded of far too many embarrassing moments from my junior high school days, it is always refreshing to get a movie from a filmmaker who takes the time to listen to teenagers instead of talking down to them. John Hughes may be gone, but there are other filmmakers more than willing to carry his torch for another generation.

Regardless of its R rating, I hope those who are in the eighth grade or have just graduated from junior high school get to check this movie out as I believe they will benefit greatly from watching it. I also have to say if adults are intent on saying the word “lit” in videos aimed at teenagers, they need to understand how kids use this word. Trust me, kids see through your façade, and your attempts to look cool to them will make you appear far too desperate for their approval.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Let the Right One In’ is Not Your Average Vampire Movie

Let The Right One In movie poster

This is one of those movies which made me want to be a film critic. I love to tell you what movies I really like and flat out hate, and this is even though I never expect to change your mind over what you want to see. But there are certain movies which I really want to see get the audience they deserve, preferably in a movie theater. “Let the Right One In” is a Swedish movie which absolutely deserves a loyal following as it is one of the most beautifully atmospheric movies to be released in 2008.

“Let the Right One In” follows young Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) who is an overlooked kid bullied by kids at school that have somehow managed to recite lines of dialogue from “Deliverance.” This is a kid who clearly doesn’t have a lot of friends and, like many, is a child of divorce. One night, while he is in the snowy courtyard outside his home, he is met suddenly by a girl named Eli (Lina Leandersson) who has just moved in to the same apartment complex he lives in. Eli quickly tells Oskar she cannot be his friend, but soon enough, they bond over a Rubik’s Cube. Their friendship builds throughout the film and serves to strengthen them as people to where they deal more effectively with the struggles they are forced to endure.

There is one catch though, and it is clear to the audience from the start: Eli is a vampire. An older man believed to be her father ends up blocking the windows with cardboard and other forms of paper to keep their apartment dark. We see this same man going out in the freezing dead of night to kill total strangers and drain them of their blood. Why? He’s got another mouth to feed. When he screws up and doesn’t come through, she shows just how vicious she can be in her displeasure. But despite who she is, you can see why she is cozy with Oskar. They are both outcasts in a world which does not appear to have much use for them.

What I really loved about “Let the Right One In” is how it takes the vampire genre and makes it fresh by combining it with the things we remember from our childhoods: bullies, sucking at sports, parents not understanding what we are going through, etc. We always hope for that one person who understands us and can relate to what we are going through. Some of us are lucky enough to have such a person in our lives, but others are not so fortunate. You could say Oskar becoming friends with a vampire would not be in his best interest, but these are two people who need each other at this fragile point in their lives.

We see Oskar getting whipped at school by the bullies who pick on those they feel are beneath them, and they call him piggy among other things. We later see Oskar fantasizing about getting revenge on those bullies as if he is Robert De Niro in “Taxi Driver.” With Eli, he finally gains the confidence to get back at them. In turn, Eli’s growing friendship with Oskar provides her with an escape from her eternally lonely existence. The real question between them is, can Eli trust herself enough to keep herself from making Oskar another victim? And if she reveals herself to him as who she really is, will he still accept her as his friend? Despite the bloody acts we see Eli committing, deep down we don’t want to see these two separated.

“Let the Right One In” was directed by Tomas Alfredson, and he does a brilliant job of opening the movie in silence as he slowly introduces us to the snowy suburb these characters inhabit. The frozen landscape mirrors the dreary and repressed nature of everyone who lives there, and it feels as cold as upstate New York felt in “Frozen River.” Of course, were the movie to be sunnier, it would require certain characters to die a fiery death. The vampires here perish the way vampires do in other movies, and if you are a vampire, it should go without saying how you appreciate the nighttime more than others.

But the wonderfully surprising thing about “Let the Right One In” is how tender it is. While it looks to be marketed as a horror movie, it is really a love story. While it is at times a violent and bloody movie, what really wins out is the bond these Oskar and Eli share throughout. It is a chaste relationship (they are both 12 after all) built on need and loneliness. There is a moment where they both lie together in bed which is really lovely, and it reminds one of how lonely it can be to sleep by yourself.

There is not a weak performance to be found here, but the real credit goes to the two young kids who have to carry this movie almost entirely on their shoulders. Kare Hedebrant is exceptional as the young Oskar, and there is never a moment in his performance which feels fake or forced. Hedebrant is a natural in front of the camera, and he acts from the heart. This is not your typical nerdy school outcast we see in so many movies made in America, but instead an intelligent boy who never quite fits in the way we all wanted to when we were his age.

Lina Leandersson, who plays the vampire Eli, has the toughest role in as she has to portray different emotions without actually showing them. Throughout the movie, her face is a mask of coldness and detachment, but in her eyes, she shows how much she likes being in this unexpected relationship with Oskar. Leandersson’s performance is truly remarkable as she makes you care about this person even after she commits abhorrent acts against others. This is not your typical vampire drunk on power like Lestat in “Interview with The Vampire,” but one who was born into this life without any choice. Eli does not drink the blood of others because she wants to, but because she needs to in order to survive. Lina’s drive is one of survival, not dominance.

Looking back at 2008, there were a lot of really good movies released, but not many great ones. Maybe I hold things to a higher level than I should, but “Let the Right One In” is a true masterpiece in this or any other year. It is both frightening and tender at the same time, and I don’t know of many other movies which have managed this balance ever so effortlessly.

* * * * out of * * * *

All-Time Favorite Trailers: ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 – Dream Warriors’

Back when this particular horror sequel was released, Freddy Krueger was still a very frightening character. The burnt serial killer had yet to devolve into a stand-up comic, and just the thought of him hiding in the shadows of your dreams waiting to strike was enough to leave you unnerved. It’s a shame we have not yet seen a scene in any of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies where a teenager goes up to someone suffering from insomnia and tells them, “I envy you.”

Following this sequel, he ceased to be scary and became more of a cut-up than anything else, and we had to wait for “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” to see him as a truly threatening presence once again. But I never forgot what a haunting character Freddy was back in the 1980’s, and what I love about this teaser trailer for “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors” is it seizes on how fearful we were of him to where we didn’t even need to see his face to know he was just around the corner. Just hearing that little girl singing “1, 2, Freddy’s coming for you” was enough to make your hairs stand on end. And once we got a look at the model of Nancy Thompson’s old house which resides on Genesee Avenue on Los Angeles, my eyes went wide upon the realization this was indeed a trailer for another “Nightmare on Elm Street” movie. And then the hand with the claws burst out of the model, and I wanted to hide my eyes from the screen…

This teaser trailer for “Dream Warriors” remains one of my favorite trailers as it proved to be one of the scariest ever, and it piqued my interest in a character I would become more intrigued with as I got older.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 Dream Warriors poster

‘Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol’ Leaves You Hanging From Dizzying Heights

Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol poster

Writer’s note: This review was written back in 2011.

The “Mission: Impossible” movie franchise keeps getting better and better which each successive sequel, something few other franchises can ever lay claim to. The first one directed by Brian De Palma had a confusing storyline but spectacular action set pieces. The second one had a plot which was easier to follow and the signature ballet action sequences we’ve come to love and expect from John Woo. Part three gave us the directorial debut of J.J. Abrams, had a stronger plot, a very effective villain in Phillip Seymour Hoffman and ended up remembering what made the original television series work so well. Each movie in this series has its own unique identity which allowed this franchise to have a longevity we didn’t expect it to have. Of course, with Tom Cruise’s antics upstaging “Mission: Impossible III,” it started to seem his time as Ethan Hunt had run its course.

But Cruise is back for more, and “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” turns out to be the best of one yet as it features some of the most ingenious action scenes I’ve seen in a movie for quite some time. It also has the added benefit of having been filmed in part with IMAX cameras which gives certain scenes a highly realistic look and feel to where you are right in the center of the action. Just when I thought this franchise had ran out of steam, Cruise and director Brad Bird (making his live action debut) thrill us in a highly unexpected way.

It appears Hunt’s retirement from the IMF after “Mission: Impossible III” didn’t last long, and we find him at this movie’s beginning in a Moscow prison throwing a rock at the wall like he’s Steve McQueen in “The Great Escape.” But he is soon sprung from his cell with the help of Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and agent Jane Carter (Paula Patton), and we find out he was imprisoned for a mission gone wrong, and he has since become estranged from his wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) for mysterious reasons. Just like Jack Bauer in “24,” Hunt can’t stay away from what he does best when danger rears its ugly head.

After their great escape, Hunt and Dunn infiltrate the Kremlin in an effort to locate files of a nemesis with the code name of Cobalt. This mission, however, goes horribly wrong when the Kremlin is blown to smithereens, and the entire IMF is disavowed as a result. Hunt and his team are forced to take blame for the attack, but they are allowed to escape in order to locate Cobalt and stop a nuclear war. This time, Hunt and company have no support to rely on as they forced to work on their own.

As with the previous entry, Cruise lets the other actors shine as he has realized Hunt doesn’t need to do everything himself. Seeing Benji get upgraded from techno nerd to field agent is great fun, and Pegg is a real treat to watch here as he becomes much more than just comic relief. Paula Patton embodies her agent character of Jane Carter convincingly and gets to kick some serious ass in various scenes, one of which has her taking on a female assassin in something more than just your average catfight.

The best addition, however, to this “Mission: Impossible” movie is Jeremy Renner who plays William Brandt, a chief analyst for the IMF. Renner, whose career has been on a major upswing thanks to his performances in “The Hurt Locker” and “The Town,” is a great addition to this franchise, and he even gets a big action set piece as William proves to know far more than he lets on. His secrets threaten to be devastating if revealed, and Renner does excellent work in showing the turmoil Brandt endures as he is faced with a whole other kind of impossible mission.

The main antagonist this time out is Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist from the original “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) who is bent on starting a nuclear war so he can bring about the next evolution of the human race. Nyqvist brings a strong villainy to this role which makes you sneer at his presence whenever he’s onscreen. However, he’s upstaged by Léa Seydoux who portrays French assassin Sabine Moreau. Her cold glare penetrates your inner defenses with little difficulty, and you have to put on your best poker face in her presence to stay alive (and that may not even be enough).

But the real star of “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” is director Brad Bird himself. You’d think stepping outside the world of animation where he made “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille” and “The Iron Giant” would leave him at a spectacular disadvantage as what you can get away with in that realm of filmmaking does not necessarily translate as well to live action. But it’s clear Bird allows nothing to stand in his way in terms of what can be accomplished, and he comes up with one amazing action sequence after another.

The one sequence which needs to be acknowledged above others is when Cruise scales the outside of the Burj Khalifa tower, the tallest building in the world. The IMAX cameras give this moment a reality like no other, and that feeling of intense vertigo is hard to ignore. Seriously, I felt like I was outside of that building with Cruise as he climbed up it with nothing but suction gloves. If there is a more intense action sequence with a character hanging on for dear life from one of the world’s tallest buildings, it certainly didn’t come to mind while I watched this movie. I had trouble getting to sleep afterwards because that crazy stunt was still on my mind and would not let me be.

There’s about a half hour or so of footage shot in IMAX, and Bird makes use of this format to great effect. Aside from Cruise scaling the world’s tallest building, there’s a scene of the Kremlin exploding which literally takes your breath away. While many still complain of IMAX feeling like a rip off with its high ticket prices, it’s worth the extra money in a way 3D could only dream of being at this point.

“Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” is a big surprise as this franchise looked like it had already hit its peak to where another sequel seemed needless. But Cruise and company successfully revive it by giving us characters to care about and root for, and they outdo themselves with stunts even more amazing than what we saw previously. Regardless of what you may think of Cruise as a person these days (many of my friends can’t stand him), he still puts on a good show even as he grows visibly older. Just when you thought he was out, he pulls himself back in!

* * * ½ out of * * * *

First ‘Aquaman’ Trailer Promises a Big Rebound For the DC Extended Universe

Aquaman teaser poster

While the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) continues to thrive with one successful motion picture after another, the DC Comics Extended Universe (DCEU) keeps experiencing hits and misses. The latter failed miserably with “Suicide Squad,” then they redeemed themselves and hit a tremendous home run with “Wonder Woman.” But next we got “Justice League” which was their answer to “The Avengers,” and it did not live up to the fans’ expectations. While Marvel took its precious time setting up its cinematic universe, DC could only play catch up constantly to where they had to offer its biggest movie much sooner than they should have.

But one of the best things about “Justice League” was Jason Momoa who portrayed Arthur Curry, better known to us as Aquaman. Since then, I have been looking forward to a solo movie for this character, and news of its making has only heightened my anticipation. At Comic-Con this past weekend, the first trailer for “Aquaman” was finally unveiled, and it looks awesome.

“Aquaman” is being directed by James Wan who had worked on the indie horror franchises “Saw” and “Insidious,” and he has since graduated to bigger projects like “The Conjuring” and “Furious 7,” one of the very best “Fast & Furious” movies. From this trailer, he appears to have given “Aquaman” some truly amazing special effects, and he looks to keep the human element of this superhero film in balance with them. In addition, you have Amber Heard co-starring as Mera, Aquaman’s love interest who possesses hydrokinetic and telepathic powers, and she looks dazzling with all that red hair.

The moments I loved in this trailer include when Arthur is getting picked on by the school bullies while on a field trip at an aquarium, and all the fishes, a shark in particular, come to his defense. It really is nice to have Jaws on your side, isn’t it? I also liked how Aquaman and his fellow people are able to speak and move around in water as easily as they do on land. Everyone involved in this film’s making have made this seem very believable.

Of course, we learn in this trailer how Aquaman is reluctant to become king of the underwater nation Atlantis, and I fear this may be another one of those “no I can’t be the one” movies where the hero spends way too much time denying the destiny we know he or she will eventually embrace. A lot of these movies have the hero finally embracing the role society begs him to play in the last third, but by then they can seem like wasted opportunities. Hopefully this DC film will not be one of them.

“Aquaman” is set to be released on December 21, 2018. Please check out the trailer below.

‘Glass’ Trailer Sees M. Night Shyamalan Completing a Superhero Trilogy

Glass teaser poster

Night Shyamalan has had a rather crazy career as a filmmaker as he has reached the heights of cinematic glory with “The Sixth Sense” and “Signs” and also traveled to its unforgiving depths with “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth.” In between those films was “Unbreakable,” his superhero thriller from the year 2000 in which Bruce Willis starred as a security guard who is the sole survivor of a horrific train crash, and Samuel L. Jackson as Elijah Price, a comic book art dealer who suffers from a rare disease which makes his bones extremely fragile and prone to fracture. I initially dismissed “Unbreakable” as the kind of lame effort from a filmmaker who pulled off one of the greatest twist endings in cinematic history. But in retrospect, it is truly one of his best films and perhaps even one of the best superhero movies ever.

Little did we know that with “Unbreakable,” Shyamalan had created his own cinematic universe. It continued with “Split” in which James McAvoy plays Kevin Wendell Crumb, a man suffering from dissociative identity disorder who has 23 personalities inside of him. And now, we have the first trailer for “Glass,” the third movie in Shyamalan’s superhero series which unites Willis, Jackson and McAvoy together in a way which looks very exciting and highly promising.

The first image from this “Glass” trailer is of Dr. Ellie Staple who is played by Sarah Paulson. Ever since her appearance in the HBO movie “Game Change,” she has become one of my favorite actresses, and it is enthralling to watch her talk with these three men. Her face is a study in both fascination and terror as she is eager to talk with these men even though she is clearly scared of all they are capable of doing.

Then we get a look at these three men in the same frame, and it likes an “Avengers” movie you didn’t know was coming. For McAvoy, this represents a return to playing a character much like the one Sally Field played in “Sybil.” For Willis, it presents another opportunity to escape the direct to video realm as the “Death Wish” remake didn’t quite do it for him. And for Jackson, he gets to reprise one of his best and most unusual roles as this “bad ass motherfucker” has an infinitely high IQ but an ever so fragile body which fails him far too often.

Seriously, this is the first M. Night Shyamalan film I have looked forward to seeing in over a decade, and I say this even though “Glass” is coming out in January 2019. January is typically the month where Hollywood dumps its cinematic garbage on us as they have no idea where else to put it. Still, this cannot be any worse than “The Last Airbender.”

Check out the trailer below.

 

‘Generation Wealth’ Finds Hope Outside of the Corrupted American Dream

Generation Wealth poster

In 1988, John Carpenter made “They Live,” a science fiction horror film about a drifter who discovers the ruling class are actually aliens who have managed to conceal their existence and manipulate the human race into spending money and to “obey” them through subliminal messages in mass media. Years later, when Carpenter was attending a screening at the Egyptian Theatre, he described “They Live” as being his response to his horror at the Ronald Reagan years and his distaste at the increased commercialization of politics and popular culture in the 1980’s. When I was at a screening of “Big Trouble in Little China,” and I got to ask Carpenter the following question:

“You have said ‘They Live’ was your response to your horror at the Reagan years. With George W. Bush currently wreaking havoc around the globe, don’t you think this is the perfect time for a sequel?”

Carpenter’s response stays with me to this day:

“The 80’s never left us.”

Looking back, he was absolutely right. While I am a child of the 80’s and have a great love for that decade, it marked the start of America becoming an infinitely greedy nation as we strove to become very rich, deficits began to explode, and politicians began selling us on trickle down economics which promised that tax cuts on the rich would benefit the middle and lower classes. This proved to be a big lie, and yet politicians still try to sell Americans on it.

All of this went through my head as I watched Lauren Greenfield’s “Generation Wealth.” This documentary comes to us in 2018, and it proves once again how the 80’s still live on as we watch individuals try to become wealthy or at least gain the appearance of being rich. What results is a look at how the American Dream has been corrupted, the cost of greed, and the chance for redemption.

Greenfield is an acclaimed photographer and filmmaker, and “Generation Wealth” starts off with her narrating how through her 25 years of work, she discovers her work has pointed to one uniting phenomenon: wealth culture. From there, she investigates the various pathologies which created the richest society in the world, and she interviews several people who look to increase their bank accounts or change the way they look to where society will view them as sexy.

We meet Florian Homm, a former hedge-fund manager who at one time had a net worth of $800 million and ended up fleeing the United States to avoid getting arrested by the FBI. Watching him sit back on a couch while smoking a cigar with glee makes him look the modern-day version of Tony Montana from “Scarface.” Homm is never shy about just how much he loves money, and he laughingly admits how Harvard Business School didn’t train him to be an ethical businessman but instead to be “fine-tuned to rule the world.”

We also get introduced to Cathy, a bus driver from Virginia who travels to Brazil to get extensive plastic surgery which she charges to a credit card, the successful porn star Kacey who gained notoriety after Charlie Sheen paid her $30,000 for a days long party and drug binge, a young beauty queen who looks like a combination of Honey Boo Boo and JonBenet Ramsey, and former rapper Cliff (G-Mo) who we first celebrating the hip-hop version of the American Dream. They all want the best-looking bodies as well as all the money in the world, but as Greenfield says at one point, those who have everything never feel like they have enough.

I found myself getting sickened by the subjects Greenfield photographed and interviewed as it felt they were doing more damage to themselves than good to where they appeared, if not soulless, very empty on the inside. It proved to be a relief when someone like Chris Hedges shows up to put some much-needed perspective on what we are seeing as he compares America’s obsession with wealth to the end of Rome. At one point he even says, “Societies accrue the most wealth as they face death.” Can America be close to suffering the same fate? It certainly feels like it.

Greenfield doesn’t break new ground with “Generation Wealth” as Michael Moore already compared Rome’s fall with America in “Capitalism: A Love Story,” and “The Big Short” was an entertaining and sobering look at the 2007-2008 financial crisis. Do we need to go through how greed has wrecked America in yet another movie? Oh yes, we do! This country threatens to make the same mistakes yet again as politicians still insist on selling its citizens on trickle-down economics.

One key character from the 1980’s whom Greenfield highlights is Gordon Gekko, the fictional and unscrupulous corporate raider Michael Douglas played in Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street.” But while Stone intended for “Wall Street” to be a cautionary tale about the downside of unchecked greed, Gekko proved to be such a charismatic character to where he became a huge inspiration for those desperate to make it big on Wall Street. It didn’t matter how Gekko set a terrible example for them, these wannabes still looked up to him, and there is a good deal of him in many of the people Greenfield interviews here.

Greenfield to her credit she never judges any of the people featured here. She presents their stories objectively and never tries to manipulate us into thinking about them in one way or another. Whether you are intrigued or repulsed by the things they do, there is a sense of empathy I had for them as they become more and more human as the documentary reaches its final act.

When it comes to “Generation Wealth’s” final act, we see the results and repercussions of the actions everyone has made as they reach a plateau in their quest for money. Greenfield aligns their journey with the catastrophic financial crash of 2008 which left much damage in its wake. Seeing these people on the other side of it has them finding something absolutely priceless while others find tragedy and financial ruin. This proves to be both inspiring and devastating all at the same time.

“Generation Wealth” does lose some of its focus as Greenfield awkwardly inserts herself into her documentary. Is she also interested in being rich and wealthy? Is she well off thanks to her photography? It’s hard to say what she is saying about herself, but it does lead to some very amusing moments as one of her sons admits he knows the name of each Kardashian but not those of his neighbors, and her other little boy ends up inserting a sign in front of her camera as she films everything and anything. I don’t want to spoil the moment for you as it had me laughing endlessly.

Watching “Generation Wealth” kind of reminded of when I first saw “Doc Hollywood” which starred Michael J. Fox as a doctor intent on making tons of money as a plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills, and who later finds a more meaningful life for himself in Grady, South Carolina. But that was a fictional movie, and this one deals with real life, and I came out of it with more hope for the human race than when I went in. This documentary also shows how life is about the journey rather than the final destination. While I wanted to sit some of these characters down and force them to pay close attention to the lyrics of Digital Underground’s “No Nose Job,” it is worth watching their journey as, like them, we come to see what matters most in life.

With that, I leave you with the words Harold Perrineau uttered as Augustus Hill on the HBO series “Oz:”

“We think we know what we need. We spend our time figuring out how to get what we want, who can help us, who’s in the way. We make our moves and sometimes we get lucky. We get exactly what we want. And life gets worse. Simple truth #22, be careful what you wish for, brother. Be very, very careful.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Mamma Mia!’ – Maybe You’ll Like It, Maybe You Won’t

Mamma Mia movie poster

I never got to see the musical of “Mamma Mia” when it was onstage, but I’m not really surprised it became a big hit. The musical tells the story of a young girl on the verge of getting married and of how she ends up secretly inviting three of her mom’s previous boyfriends to her wedding. The catch is one of these men may actually be her father, and she would like whoever it is to give her away at her wedding. But when her mother realizes these three men have arrived, it makes her weep for the past she thought she had forever lost, and all of this is done to the tune of ABBA’s greatest hits which include “Dancing Queen,” “Take A Chance on Me,” and “S.O.S.” among others.

I’m not sure I am the right person to be reviewing this movie because I don’t fit into its demographic, and I have never been a big fan of musicals. I don’t despise them, they just never really appealed to me as much as they do to my friends. There are a few musicals like “Evita” and “West Side Story” which appeal greatly to me, and the film adaptation of the “Hairspray” musical provided me with one of the most entertaining times I had at the movies in 2007. But “Mamma Mia” is not in the same league as “Hairspray” or even “Moulin Rouge.” Maybe it’s because those movies brought us into their musical world so deeply while we watched them and did things others in this genre dare not do.

“Mamma Mia” on the other hand, didn’t draw me in as much, and this is regardless of the boundless energy that all the actors had when onscreen. You come out of it thinking that they must have had the time of their lives while making it. I certainly don’t want to take away from the effort put into the movie by everyone involved, but instead of feeling excited by all that was going on, I instead felt alienated from the whole venture. There was this cloying feeling I kept feeling throughout which made me believe this movie was less than genuine in its emotions.

The other big issue I had with “Mamma Mia” is the fact it is basically a musical founded upon a gimmick: centering an old-fashioned love story around a number of ABBA songs which people all over the world have listened to over and over again. Plus, seeing other actors sing ABBA songs feels a bit off putting as it reminds me of how infectiously good the original versions are. The actors certainly do their best, and Meryl Streep belts out a tremendous version of “The Winner Takes It All” which reminds us again of the great singing voice she has. We should have never forgotten this fact, but it has been a long time since we saw Streep go country in “Postcards from The Edge.”

The one thing that I really did admire about “Mamma Mia” is it shows without a doubt how actresses over 40 do have a place in today’s Hollywood, and that their experience is invaluable to movies like these. Hollywood is ruthlessly notorious for going after the youngest of actresses to star in movies, but many of these actresses have no real-life experience to draw on as of yet. The actresses in “Mamma Mia,” however, end up stealing every single scene they are in. Whatever you think about the movie as a whole, the elder actresses (if you really want to call them that) are the best reason to check it out.

Streep continues to make us all aware of the fact she is one of the best actresses, period. She brings a strong life force to her role of a woman working alone on an island with her daughter, feeling she is past her prime in life while her two sisters convince her nothing could be further from the truth.

Two of my favorite performances in come from Christine Baranski and Julie Walters, and they are a gas to watch throughout. Baranski has basically been a professional scene stealer ever since she co-starred as Cybil Sheppard’s best friend on “Cybil.” Since then, she has stolen scene after scene in movies like “Bulworth” and “Bowfinger” among others. Her performance as Tanya, the often-divorced sister of Streep’s character is a hoot, and there is no doubt she had a blast playing this role.

Julie Walters is probably best known to today’s audiences as Ron Weasley’s mother in the “Harry Potter” movies, but never forget she can be a hell of an actress when you give her the right part. Watching her shamelessly trying to seduce Stellan Skarsgard’s character to the tune of “Take A Chance on Me” is a highlight, and she plays her role with no inhibitions whatsoever. I hope we see her in movies which use her for more than just a supporting role.

The role of the bride to be, Sophie Sheridan, is played by Amanda Seyfried. She is very fetching here and she has a wonderful voice to boot. She also has the wonderful privilege of working with Meryl Streep, and they play off of each other wonderfully.

The three potential fathers of Sophie are played by Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard, and Pierce Brosnan. Colin’s effortless charm has never faded in the slightest ever since he played Mr. Darcy on the BBC miniseries “Pride & Prejudice.” As for Skarsgard, it is great to see him in a role where he is acting ever so serious like he did in “Insomnia” (the original) or “The Hunt for Red October.” This brings me to Pierce Brosnan, and while he is always a good actor, I need to be honest and say the man cannot sing. He just can’t! After watching him sing “S.O.S.,” I got that cringe inducing feeling as did the rest of my family while we were all watching this movie. As a result, we watched the rest of the movie in fear of him singing yet again. Did he sing again? Oh yes! Brosnan has had a long and celebrated career which included playing James Bond, but please, please, please don’t let him sing in the future! PLEASE!

In spite of all the strong elements “Mamma Mia” has, I still felt indifferent to it. In the end, I don’t think I fit its target audience. If you like musicals, then I would not stand in your way of watching it, but I can see why I didn’t bother with the film while it was in theaters. I certainly don’t hate “Mamma Mia” as there is a lot about it to admire, but it didn’t affect me in the same way as “Hairspray” or “Moulin Rouge” did. I enjoy the music of ABBA as much as the next person but listening to it here does not leave me with the same musical exhilaration. Perhaps you will feel differently.

* * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Equalizer 2’ is More of the Same, and That’s Just Fine With Me

The Equalizer 2 movie poster

It’s amazing how Denzel Washington has gone through his career without ever having made a sequel. Then again, do many of his films cry out for one? “Glory” and “Training Day,” didn’t leave much room for follow-ups as the characters he played met a very violent end. Last I checked, William Shakespeare never penned a sequel to “Much Ado About Nothing.” “The Pelican Brief,” “Philadelphia,” “Courage Under Fire” and “Crimson Tide” tell self-contained stories which are perfectly resolved at their conclusions. “Unstoppable” came to a full stop at the end to where a continuation would have insultingly involved another runaway train. As for “Remember the Titans,” we still remember them 18 years later, so there’s no need for a sequel to remind us of what we never forgot about in the first place. And regardless of what its title may imply, “Malcolm X” is not a sequel to anything.

But with “The Equalizer’s” Robert McCall, Washington has found a character whose story can last beyond one movie, and this was made clear in the final scene where he replied to someone’s plea for help over the internet. Now we have “The Equalizer 2” which reteams Washington with director Antoine Fuqua for another round of brutal retribution against those foolish enough to cross McCall’s path. While not much is different this time out, this sequel still proves to be as entertaining and thrilling as its predecessor.

We catch up with McCall who still resides in Boston, Massachusetts but now works as a driver for Lyft. This particular job allows McCall to befriend people like Sam Rubinstein (Orson Bean), a Holocaust survivor who is still trying to come to grips with what he has lost. Rubinstein also gives McCall an invaluable piece of advice which rings ever so true:

“Be nice to anyone who has access to your toothbrush.”

Among McCall’s victims this time around are a group of men who have kidnapped a little girl, and a bunch of young men afflicted with white privilege that have taken advantage of a female intern. Once again, these characters think they have McCall figured out and consider him as someone way past his prime, but we all know he is going to leave them in a world of pain because that’s why we paid money to see this sequel. The question is, will he take them out in 15 seconds or 29? Either way, McCall has found a very effective method to obtain a five-star rating from a Lyft passenger. Whether he gets a tip on top of that remains to be seen.

Things, however, get very personal for McCall when he learns his dear friend Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo) has been murdered while on assignment in Brussels, Belgium. The attack on Susan is especially brutal, but it’s nice to see her get a few punches in. With “The Equalizer 2,” Leo gets to remind us how she once portrayed one of television’s most unforgettable female police detectives, Sgt. Kay Howard, on “Homicide: Life on the Street” as she inflicts painful scars on her attackers. While at the press screening I wanted to yell out “Kay Howard lives!” But knowing from the trailers how Susan was going to meet a tragic end left me with anxiety and some despair as her fate was clearly sealed.

As you can expect, McCall goes on a mission of revenge which leads him to meet up and work with a former partner of his from the CIA, Dave York (Pedro Pascal). What he discovers is a complex web of corruption in which loose ends are being tied up to where the perpetrators are higher up the government ladder than he realized. Watching certain characters get eliminated in ways they do not see coming reminded me of what Captain James T. Kirk said in “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country:”

“First rule of assassination, kill the assassins.”

Denzel is simply the best, and he return to the role of Robert McCall as if he just made the original film yesterday. Is it even possible for this Oscar-winning actor to disappoint us? Well, anything is possible, but seeing him in the scene where he takes young Miles (Ashton Sanders), an aspiring artist, aside and gives him a strong lecture about the dangers of gang life reminds us why he is one of the best actors working. We have seen this scene of an older man telling a young one not to join a gang many, many times before, but Denzel brings a raw emotional power to this one which makes it feel as visceral as when Laurence Fishburne demanded Cuba Gooding Jr. give him back his gun in “Boyz n the Hood.”

Ashton Sanders proves to be a strong addition to “The Equalizer” franchise as he portrays Miles as someone clearly caught between two worlds and unsure how to navigate either of them. We learn his brother was senselessly murdered, and he looks to be on the hustle when it comes to painting buildings and apartments, something McCall sees right through. Ashton also figures in one of this movie’s most suspenseful scenes when Miles is trapped in McCall’s apartment as a couple of assassins break in. Fuqua wrings all the suspense out of this scene to excellent effect, and it left me pinned to my seat as I began to feel as unsafe as Miles did.

Fuqua has since proven to be a top-notch action film director as he takes average set pieces in formulaic motion pictures and gives them a jolt of energy and tension. Right from the opening sequence on a train in Istanbul, Fuqua shows once again how he and Denzel mean business, and he gives us a number of thrilling moments throughout like when McCall fights a knife-wielding Lyft passenger while trying to avoid oncoming traffic, or when he faces off against a trio of bad guys whom he promises to terminate with extreme prejudice.

“The Equalizer 2” culminates in an action set piece much like the one in the first film as McCall leads his pursuers into territory he is far more familiar with than they are. Last time it was in a hardware store, and this time it’s at seaside town which is getting battered by severe winds and heavy rainfall. But whereas those Russian gangsters were too late to discover how out of their league they were, McCall now finds himself hunted by those with the same military training. As a result, the odds are even and this makes the sequel’s climax especially thrilling.

Also returning for this sequel is screenwriter Richard Wenk who infuses scenes with subversive jabs I could not ignore. When one military character talks about how he was essentially cut off by the government to where he was forced to do things he never would have done otherwise, I was reminded of how politicians kept telling us to support our troops during wartime and then would later cut their veteran benefits. Wenk is certainly not out to bash us over the head with any political statements, but it is little moments like those which provoke my consciousness to a strong extent.

And Wenk once again has McCall reading a number of classic books among which, quite appropriately, is Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.”

Like I said, “The Equalizer 2” is basically more of the same, but I was fine with that as Washington and Fuqua are simply out to give us an action-packed thriller, and they have succeeded once again. If there is to be a third “Equalizer” movie with these two on board, I would certainly welcome it.

Looking back, it’s almost a shame they didn’t make McCall an Uber driver. Just imagine how he would have reacted to his earnings statement as Uber is known for taking a ridiculously high percentage from their drivers. This could have resulted in a terrific climax in which McCall visits the company’s corporate headquarters and tells the CEO, “I understand you pay more attention to your profit motive than to the safety of your drivers.” If there is anyone who could punish Uber for this and make them update their policies for the drivers’ benefit, it would definitely be McCall!

* * * out of * * * *