Friday, 17 August 2018

IN THEATRES: Mission: Impossible - Fallout

Following the events of Rogue Nation, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his IMF team are on the hunt for the remnants of the Syndicate, a group of unaffiliated intelligence agents hellbent on sowing chaos around the world.

After Hunt puts the safety of his team above completing a mission to take possession of two rogue nukes, the CIA take over the operation, pairing Hunt with bagman August Walker (Henry Cavill). As Hunt goes on the hunt for the anonymous cabal of 'Apostles' before they can unleash these weapons on the world...

It is still unbelievable now this series has progressed. For the first three entries, it felt like a franchise built on star-power, whatever was popular at the time, and whatever the particular interests of the filmmaker are. With Ghost Protocol, the filmmakers started to actually do some world-building.

Cruise's Ethan Hunt has been a placeholder hero with no real history or personality. The first attempt to add backstory, Mission: Impossible III, signalled a shift with the addition of a serious love interest, but its sequel is where Hunt begins to exhibit something resembling a human personality.

Whereas M:I I-III's Hunt is ready to jump into action at a moment's notice, with Ghost Protocol he becomes more weary of what he is getting into. As the veteran of the team - with a history of dare-devilry - his teammates expect him to handle the most physically daunting tasks, no matter what his feelings are. The best example of this is Benji (Simon Pegg) taking Hunt's lung-power for granted when coming up with the aquatic heist in Rogue Nation.

This gives the films' signature stunts a level suspense and drama that they have previously lacked, beyond the thrill of seeing the star in real danger. Unlike previous directors, Chris McQuarrie has made this feature of the character, and uses it as the basis for delving into Ethan's psyche: why is he so willing to risk his life for others?

McQuarrie's Hunt is the first iteration of the character who feels like a part of the team - he is the squad leader, the team captain. He wants to get the job done, and he does not want to lose any of his team-mates in the process. This Hunt does not see people as expendable, and is driven to make sure that this is never the case. The brilliance of this shading is that McQuarrie does not offer some cod explanation or backstory - instead it ties in perfectly with Hunt's ridiculous actions from the previous movies.

Rebecca Ferguson's Ilsa Faust returns, and kudos again to McQuarrie for bringing back an interesting character and not negating what makes them interesting - thankfully, her relationship with Hunt does not turn romantic. It never feels like she is being wedged in, and the film gives a neat resolution to her (and Hunt's) running battle with the villain of Rogue Nation, Solomon Lane.

This is also the first movie where Henry Cavill fits in. As a leading man, he never shows the charisma or weight to hold attention. But as the defacto second lead (and - spoilers - antagonist), he is really good. Without the need to shoulder the movie, and as a counterweight to Cruise, he fits. Even his character, August Walker, feels like an inversion of Cruise. He does not care about the destruction and deaths he will cause.

McQuarrie does great job of marrying the con-focused spy craft of the original TV show with the more action-based hijinks of the film series. The action here is clever, funny and immersive.

McQuarrie has a great facility for pilling the pressures on Hunt and his team.

The fight between Hunt, Walker and 'Mr Lark' in the bathroom is wonderful. Playing out in sustained wide shots, it is paced like a great dance scene or pratfall, with plenty of reversals as the IMF agents struggle to figure each other out while also trying to get a hold of their opponent.

The other highlight is the third act, which involves three different scenarios in three different locations. It is truly jaw-dropping, above and beyond Cruise's commitment to doing his own stunts. The finale throws in so many spinning plates so deftly it deserves to be studied as an example of maintaining and building tension.

As far as pure enjoyment goes, I don't know if this one hits the same highs as its predecessor, but it is a great movie regardless. Fallout has thrown down a gauntlet for action movies going forward. From star vehicles that cribbed from other movies, Mission: Impossible has moved to the front of the pack.

But what is the pack? The landscape is awash with superhero properties. The closest competition are Fast and Furious and James Bond, but even those examples don't fit. F&F is past parody now, and Bond is stuck in the same perpetual loop of reaction to itself that the franchise has been in for decades.

Fallout reaffirms indisputably that Mission: Impossible really stands alone as the best action spectacle franchise of the last decade.  

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Mumble noir: Aaron Katz's Gemini (2017)

Jill (Lola Kirke) works as the personal assistant/confidant to starlet Heather (Zoe Kravitz), curbing her excesses and keeping her career on track. After breaking up with her boyfriend and dropping out of a big project, Heather is starting to spiral.

Before Jill can get a handle on what is troubling her friend/employer, she finds Heather shot to death.

As the last person to see Heather, Jill quickly comes under suspicion from police. In an effort to clear her name, Jill goes off the grid to figure out who killed her friend.

I was a big fan of director Aaron Katz's last genre effort, Cold Weather. That movie married a fairly simple detective plot to the subtle untangling of a sibling relationship. It was a wonderfully compact little movie that found a way to re-contextualise a genre within the frame of an indie-dramedy.

Eight years later, Katz has returned to genre cinema with Gemini, a noir-tinged murder mystery that feels like an attempt to expand upon Cold Weather's modest canvas, with a more ambitious aesthetic and big name actors (Lola Kirke and Zoe Kravitz).

Though it has many qualities to recommend it, Gemini does not quite have the same lo-fi thrill as his earlier film. While its pacing is measured, and there are no generic plot conventions (e.g. a villain, a chase, an (onscreen) murder) to make it predictable, there is something weirdly rote and shambolic about the story that makes it somewhat frustrating.

Gemini feels like an aesthetic exercise in search of a strong cinematic idea: by that I don't specifically mean narrative, but the movie does not add up to anything. It is disappointing because for about the first hour I was digging the characters and the overall vibe.

I enjoyed the time Katz took to build the rapport between Jill and her self-involved employer, Heather (Kravitz). The actresses have a neat dynamic where each character has power over the other in a series of overlapping relationships: employer-employee; friends; mother-daughter; big-little sister.

Frankly, if the movie had been about their relationship rather than a mystery it might have worked as a small character piece about a spoilt movie star and her assistant/confidant trying to navigate the cesspits of LA.

Visually, Katz does not try to recreate classic noir - his approach vaguely reminded me of Soderbergh, in that he did not go for visual or aural cues that provoke an emotional response. The camerawork is pretty restrained - there are many scenes which take place in extended wide shots, with few high or low angles that would betray an obvious affinity with classic noir.

The most interesting part of the movie from a visual standpoint is the use of colour - Katz makes subtle use of chiaroscuro and splashes of neon that cast LA as a flashy, empty wasteland of broken dreams. It is a great visual evocation of Heather's desensitised reaction to her life and career.

The real standout element is Keegan DeWitt's (Heart Beats Loud) score, a contemporary riff on mid-century noir that combines trap-like beats to a lonely saxophone. It is so atmospheric and mournful, while avoiding obvious emotional cues, that it gives the movie a cohesion and pathos that it would otherwise lack.

With its focus on building the relationship between its leads, this movie is the definition of a slow-burn. The movie takes its time, and the two actresses - particularly Kirke as the no-nonsense Jill - make it worth watching.

In the early going, the mystery is kind of interesting. There is the kernel of an interesting idea in Jill's (Kirke) sleuthing, as she follows Heather's various associates, trying to figure out which one is the guilty party. The fact that she is effectively on the run from the cops adds an additional layer of danger that makes the middle section of the movie rather engrossing.

But when - spoilers - it turns out that Heather is not dead, the movie falls off a cliff. With a movie like this, slow burn tension is great  if it has a payoff.

To be honest, the final twist is easy to catch, but the way the movie resolves is such a non-event that it  retroactively lowered my enjoyment of the movie until that point. The main problem is that after the reveal, we get a basic confession of motive, and then cut to some time later, with heather being interviewed by Ricki Lake (not playing herself) about her disappearance.

While Gemini  has included some narrative ellipses up to this point, the choice to cut away with no real explanation comes off as a cheat (especially considering Heather technically killed somebody who looked like herself), and the disconnect between the story and the style becomes detrimental to the movie: after creating all this chaos for our protagonist, to have it all swept away in an edit does not come off like an attempt to re-work dramatic resolution, but an easy way to get around having to figure out how our heroines sort out the legal and personal fallout of their actions (well, it's really Heather's fault, but still).

The movie ends up feeling incredibly silly and unsatisfying.

BUT, and this might sound strange, despite its failings, I will admit that I was really taken in by the first two thirds of this movie. The combination of noir and mumblecore makes sense here, with the fatalism of the former blending with the latter's struggle for purpose. It is an odd marriage that - in the end - does not go the distance, but as an attempt to bring a genre into contemporary times, both literally and stylistically, Gemini is an intriguing watch.


Cold Weather

Sunday, 5 August 2018


A look at the life of superstar singer-actress Whitney Houston (1963-2012), Whitney is directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Kevin MacDonald.

The official counterpoint to last year's Can I Be Me, this documentary adds more voices and context, but still leaves its subject in shadow.

Once again, the big omission is Houston's best friend/offsider/potential lover(?) Robyn Crawford looms over the story but is not present to offer her story. Like Whitney, she is compiled from the recollections of other people. Considering the place she had in the first half of Houston's life and career, her non-appearance here immediately hobbles the claim in the film's tagline that this story is 'untold'.

The one big reveal is the alleged child abuse that the movie points to as the catalyst that defined Houston's behaviour for the rest of her life. It is the movie's trump card, and it adds a layer of shading to the speculations of the other documentary - whether that adds to our understanding Houston the woman, is another story.

While it is interesting, and MacDonald avoids making Houston (and the supporting players in her life) look squeaky clean, there is something light and superficial about it.

While it is rougher, Nick Broomfield's documentary was built on the bones of an unfinished concert documentary. That limitation ended up being a benefit, as it forced Broomfield into focusing on a specific point in Houston's life, which - whatever its fidelity to the subject - made it feel like a stronger portrait of the singer at a point in time.

MacDonald goes the full biographical route, which results in a vague lack of focus.

Bracketed by montages of pivotal world events during Houston's life, there are great sequences scattered throughout the movie - the breakdown of her Star Spangled Banner performance is a standout - but cumulatively, there is a sense of over-simplification. Maybe this is an effect of comparing Whitney to its unofficial predecessor, but the abundance of content seems to work against creating a coherent, focused portrait of its subject.

When the Broomfield documentary ended, the question marks surrounding Houston felt like parts of the text. Here the sense of incompleteness feels like a flaw.

Every now and then the film hits a critical point - like the Dee Dee Warwick revelations - that feels like the filmmakers hitting a dramatic turn that solidifies their portrait of Houston, and her motivations. But these moments do not stick because - once again - the filmmakers lack the input of its subject.

Like Can I Be Me, there are aspects of Houston's emotional life that are compiled from the assumptions of other people. And while that is not in itself bad (it's hard to avoid here), the way the filmmakers present it gives it a weight that these testimonies should not have to take. For the filmmakers to be so definitive when the key players - Houston, Warwick or Robyn Crawford - are absent (either in-person or on the record), feels sloppy and works against the film's presentation as the 'true story.' It feels like a sliver of truth built on assumption and conjecture.

After watching the two documentaries, I am still left wondering about who she was. To compress anyone's whole life into a movie's runtime feels simplistic and reductive.

Is Whitney worth watching?

For a relative neophyte like me, it is interesting, and MacDonald does provide some emotional punches - the tours of Houston's homes, intercut with home views of Houston in the same spaces - is powerful. However, overall it feels scattershot in focus, and fails to craft a portrait of its subject that feels true to the person, or her talent as a musician.


Whitney: Can I Be Me