by Philip Price
In 2008 I was really beginning to dig into all kinds of films, exploring more of the independent material that was coming to light than ever before. I remember 2008 mainly for the remarkable summer at the theater that it was, but I also find it easy to recall a small film from a pair of brothers that was making waves. It was a little film called “The Square” that was co-written by a guy named Joel Edgerton and directed by his brother Nash. As far as I'd heard, it was a solid contemporary example of film noir and concerned itself with betrayal, revenge and cheating couples. It was a film that I felt somewhat more interesting for checking out simply because I was willing to go out on a limb and see what this buzzed about Australian production had to offer and indeed it was a well-executed thriller. I came to recognize Joel for his work over the next few years in “Animal Kingdom” and what could be considered his break-out American film in “Warrior” that led the way to him starring in more major Hollywood productions. It seems after building some solid ground beneath him in the industry though, Edgerton has returned to the thriller genre to write and direct for the first time. With “The Gift,” Edgerton has delivered a tense and slow-boiling psychological drama that stems from a thesis of how an idea can take hold of a person and tear them down. From the moment we meet Edgerton's Gordon Mosley we can sense that there is something slightly off about the guy, but having Edgerton play his own creation lends the perfect tone to what could have otherwise been an over-the-top showing that would lessen the effect of the final act in the film. That is all to say this product feels like the result of a singular vision, a focused and finely tuned story with specific characters and even more labored over depictions that come to show the audience how both credibly and expertly such genre pieces can be pulled off with the right amount of skill and vision. Edgerton feels at the top of his game here and with this technically being his feature directorial debut, I can't wait to see what he does next.
We first meet Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) as they are looking at new houses to buy and quickly move in to. They are from Chicago, but have relocated to California due largely to Simon scoring a job at an up and coming security company. There are also hints of Robyn's past that include depression and popping pills that make their move feel like a much needed new beginning. The couple move into a nice neighborhood with a home that is pleasant without being lavish. It features an architecture style where the living room is largely made up of windows and thus the perfect opportunity for Gordon to make his random visits all the creepier. Simon and Robyn run into Gordon while out shopping for amenities for their new home. It is somewhat strange that Simon doesn't recognize Gordon as the kid he knew from high school, only eliciting a curiosity for how much Gordon might have changed over the years, but also how and why, given what comes to light further down the road, Simon is able to act so normal in response to him. Given that Simon responds so openly though, he clearly gives the impression to Gordon that whatever happened in the past between them is dead and buried. In light of this pleasant reciprocation to his approach, Gordon begins to try harder to formulate a relationship with Simon and Robyn. Dropping by what I assume to be several times over the next several weeks to see Simon (or so he says) Gordon gets to know Robyn all the more as she is too nice to turn him away. In truth, Gordon seems to be picking up on her weaknesses, learning the couple's schedule and digging to see if people truly can change. By the half hour mark we are just beginning to see glimpses of the manipulation at play from Gordon's end. An hour in we reach a breaking point between the two men where more questions are produced leaving the last 40 minutes to spiral out of control. As Edgerton's script pulls back the layers of both Gordon and Simon more of what happened between them in the past comes to light and Robyn is forced to question how well she really knows her husband.
Everything about Edgerton's Gordon is vague. When we talk about performances in films we typically concern ourselves with the leads, but every so often the supporting character becomes the more fascinating aspect and thus is the case of Edgerton's performance here. Not only does Gordon present himself as something of an enigma, but his appearance suggests layers upon layers of trying to disguise who he really is. I couldn't tell if we were supposed to think Gordon simply had dark eyes or if we were supposed to take away that he was wearing contacts, but Edgerton clearly is and it makes his beady stares all the more menacing. On top of this he wears earrings as if trying to be cool without really knowing what trends to follow or trust. It also seems obvious that Gordon has changed the color of his hair multiple times. It's as if he's trying to take on this persona of a typical, masculine male that people initially find appealing due solely to appearance so as to mask the awkwardness that inherently inhabits his conversation abilities. This all proves effective when we begin to understand Gordon's motivations and his frame of mind. As “The Gift” is more about the results of poisoning others minds with ideas, what we're watching the whole time, whether we realize it or not, is the rebuilding of what Simon once tore down and the ramifications of these actions as we come to see Simon might not be the stand-up, average dude that he likes to present himself as. As Simon, Bateman is playing on a level we haven't quite seen him before. Everyone is accustomed to the “Arrested Development” actor more or less playing the same, laid-back but cruelly sarcastic suburbanite in every role, but here it is necessary he have a little more edge to him. What works so well about Bateman's slow-burn performance is that it escalates precisely on scale with the unveiling of his past and the unraveling of his current life. Between these two opposing forces is Hall's Robyn who is a fractured spirit trying to mend herself. As if being able to trust her husband less and less wasn't bad enough she develops something of a compassion for Gordon despite Simon's clear distaste for him being a part of their lives.
For much of the methodically paced first hour I couldn't help but to think that this was going nowhere but the expected corner it seemed to be painting itself into. I was disappointed as I was rooting for the film despite the trailers looking rather generic and silly. "Gordo the Weirdo"...really? It felt like one of those late summer releases that was dropped in the doldrums of August against last-ditch summer blockbusters to be intended as alternative programming, but that not much was actually expected of. Instead, “The Gift” is a solid genre exercise that gave me two legitimate scares and another moment near the end of the film where I literally put a hand to my head at the realization of what was taking place. It's not often one has those kinds of experiences in a movie anymore, especially considering how many movies I see a year, but this one got me and I was so thrilled that it did. Edgerton, who may or may not have really defined his own directorial style yet, is more finely tuned in creating an atmosphere. With this film we can feel the claustrophobic sets and the confined worlds these people live in. Only two or three times do we step outside of a house to get a breath of fresh air in Simon's corporate America office or to a local store that seem to be as much a relief to the characters as they are for the audience; a coming up for air if you will from the bogged down responsibilities of life waiting for us back at the house. The barely lived-in atmosphere of Simon and Robyn's house lacks the comforting ease of a home and feels all the more cold for it. Edgerton uses these environmental influences to cue what he prefers to emphasize in each of the characters and what they bring to the storyline. With his rather subtle writing style that helped make “The Rover” one of my favorite films of last year, Edgerton takes his time in the first two acts to pull off a culmination of all the layers he's put into play. This naturally works in the film’s favor as it allows the film to be able to creep up on the audience so that when the climactic moment finally does arrive where everything comes together it is completely earned.
by Philip Price
Just to give some perspective on where this particular review is coming from, I was born in 1987. By this time the likes of Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, MC Ren and DJ Yella were already beginning to make waves in their home town of Compton, Calif. In just a little over a year’s time these five individuals, collectively known as N.W.A, would release their seminal record that shares its title with the group’s new biopic, “Straight Outta Compton.” Naturally, I wouldn't come to be familiar with either N.W.A or what impact they had on popular culture until much later despite my dad schooling me and my siblings on his favorite old school hip hop records in the early ‘90s. As I turned into a teenager at the turn of the millennium if I had any connection to Ice Cube it was more for his movie career than anything else while Dr. Dre was having his resurgence (at least from where I was sitting) with 2001 and the discovery that was Eminem. It wasn't until I matured a little further that it became more vital for me to understand a wider range of musical knowledge that would help me comprehend what informed the music I was currently enjoying. Attending a middle school and junior high at the time that contained as many black students as it did white kids like myself, there was an interesting mix of cultures to be observed. One could never hope to comprehend the full extent of other people’s lives due to the circumstances into which they were born at that age, but listening to the same type of music didn't hurt in attempting to at least glean a surface-level understanding of where others were coming from. As myself and my brothers would come to have an increased level of interest in music (especially the funk of the ‘70s that our mom would listen to) the world became a clearer place where it was easier to figure out where you might fit into the grand scheme of things. Going through what had come before my birth date one inevitably comes across N.W.A and through their lyrics alone is able to gather not only where they were coming from at the time of their emergence, but what influence they've had since. And so, I come at “Straight Outta Compton” as an individual who wasn't able to experience the initial impact of this group, but who finally is able to bear witness to it through the magic of the movies.
Taking all of that into consideration, going into a film like “Straight Outta Compton” and how much you enjoy what it has to offer will largely be due to where you're coming at it from. If you know nothing about the rap super group then you will likely get lost a few times here and there given the film doesn't take the time to slow down and explain it's many players, but more or less expects you to know who these people are. Truth is, if you buy a ticket for “Straight Outta Compton” you probably already know much of this story if not at least being familiar with the music and characters at play. Directed by F. Gary Gray the film opens up by introducing us to the major trio that would come to found N.W.A. First up is Eazy-E or Eric Wright (Jason Mitchell) who we meet in 1986 and who is attempting to collect some drug money he is owed. The dope house he enters is quickly infiltrated by a S.W.A.T. team with a tank and battering ram that is so perfectly documented with its hazy, smoke-filled aesthetic and heavy yellow lighting that we are immediately dropped not only into the time period, but the kind of world this guy existed in. We move onto Andre Young aka Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) who, at 21, is still living with his mom, but also has a girlfriend and a daughter (which in real-life is a son) to take care of. His mother is pushing him to get a job, but Dre protests he already has one DJ-ing at a local club that earns him a few bucks. Then there is O'Shea Jackson aka Ice Cube (played in the film by Cube's real-life son O'Shea Jackson Jr.) who we meet as he sits on a school bus staring out at his rather suburban-seeming high school. The bus eventually delivers him back to Compton where he kicks it with Dre and throws out a few of his poems over what Dre is experimenting with now that he's staying with Antoine Carrabin or DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.). It isn't until Dre prompts Eazy with doing something substantial with "this music shit" that Eazy decides to back a recording session with his drug money and brings in Lorenzo Patterson aka MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) to complete the group.
“Straight Outta Compton” is full of energy, at least for the majority of its two and a half hour runtime. It is a film that grabs you right from the beginning, throwing the audience into the midst of what this generation was facing and experiencing as far as prejudice and pop culture is concerned. Though the film offers little context as to where N.W.A fit into the larger rap landscape it is insinuated that "reality rap" isn't necessarily what's topping the charts and that Dre and his gang intend to change that, making their name by doing something different, something real. What the film does to capture this reality is what allows it to transcend the bio-pic conventions it has to sometimes yield to in order to convey all of the story the movie looks to tell. We are given the facts (used loosely, but meaning scenes that exemplify) of what would eventually become trademark lyrics in the film’s early moments. This is probably best summed up by the infuriating and genuinely effective scene where the boys are working on the Straight Outta Compton album and are forced to the ground and searched by a couple of Torrance cops, including one black cop, simply for looking the way they do. From here, things only continue to escalate, building from the track this incident inspired through to a Detroit concert where Ice Cube puts his money where his mouth is and defiantly performs, "Fuck the Police," to a crowd littered with cops. Of course, there is the obvious correlation of these events to the sad fact the same things are still occurring in this country today, more than 25 years after the titular album was released. Given this is a film review, I'm not going to go further into the politics of who is right and who is wrong or how much of a gray area there is in these dealings, but the topics and issues this film inherently deals with inevitably make it all the more poignant and timely given the circumstances the world is in at the time it's being released.
As mentioned above, the film runs for nearly two and a half hours and because of its decade spanning timeline and the depths of which it covers the people involved in creating this music and the events that inspired them it feels like something of an epic. Epic in the vein of narrating the deeds of these now historical figures and rap heroes that explains the caveats of the history of south Los Angeles County. What causes some hesitance with the biopic is that it was produced by both Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. This leads one to wonder how much they might have influenced the direction of the screenplay. It becomes clear from the beginning that Eazy is the central figure in that without him, none of this would have been possible in the first place. It also makes it clear Eazy was never the actual talent of the group. Eazy oozed charisma and that makes it through to the screen via the wonderful performance of Mitchell, but by alienating Cube and Dre through N.W.A's manager, Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), he drove himself out of the prosperity his contemporaries would go on to enjoy. Eazy was never the best rapper and he didn't write his own lyrics, but as the film unfolds you can feel the narrative making him an audience favorite by way of his abundant charisma. It is once the film collapses into the break-up of N.W.A over disagreements with money and contracts that the pace also begins to stutter slightly. The film never sputters out as it remains consistently engaging due simply to the swagger and bravado of the characters and the more than solid performances on screen, but one can definitely feel a change of pace in the second half of the film once the characters have achieved their success and the forward velocity of the rising star arc has been told. That said, one has to be curious how the facts compare to the rather favorable interpretations given to Dre and Cube and how things might have looked were they not listed as producers on the film.
Given the fact this film probably wouldn't have been made without the involvement of N.W.A's two biggest success stories and that they pride themselves on being legit it's easier to swallow much of what this movie is feeding us. Overall, the film is simply put: really, really good. There are several scenes that stand out as instant classics such as those when Dre is trying to teach Eazy how to rap on, "Boyz N The Hood," or when Ice Cube has left the group and the remainder of them are listening to his rebuttal, "No Vaseline," after N.W.A starts a diss war between the two of them. Brown Jr.'s reaction to his first listen to the track is comedy gold. It is almost eerie how much Jackson Jr. looks like his father in certain shots, but more than this it is how well he embodies the style of Ice Cube and the way he carries himself, the way he stares you down and the way he so effortlessly articulates smart ass soliloquies at the drop of a hat that really make his performance feel exceptional. Jackson Jr.'s stage presence is electrifying in itself, but when combined with the natural charisma Mitchell elicits as Eazy and the brooding, overlord quality that Hawkins (a graduate of Julliard) embodies as Dr. Dre it is a lethal combination that sets ”Straight Outta Compton” up not only as a great music biopic, but a great film in general. Sure, it has its issues in trying to contain its sprawling epicness (apparently the first cut of the film was nearly four hours), but I can't help but feel that on repeat viewings (and trust me, there will be many of them) I will only come to love and enjoy this movie more and more.
by Julian Spivey
Recently I was on Twitter and came across a Variety headline about movie theaters hiring extra security for the release of “Straight Outta Compton,” the biopic of influential late ‘80s hip hop group N.W.A, which opens this weekend.
Movie theaters wanting to hire extra security is certainly a good thing, we’ve seen two movie theater shootings in the last month out of Louisiana, where two women were killed, and Tennessee, where thankfully nobody was killed. This is also just three years after psychopath James Holmes killed 12 people and injured another 70 in a mass shooting at a theater in Aurora, Colo.
It’s hard to argue against extra movie theater security. And, it’s something I’m 100 percent for … except for this instance.
Many movie theaters across the country are hiring extra security for this weekend’s release of “Straight Outta Compton,” and this fact and that Universal Pictures is actually reimbursing theaters for doing so, is blatant racism.
It’s not that movie theaters are scared there’s going to be violence based on the recent movie theater shootings in Louisiana and Tennessee or the terrible tragedy three years ago in Colorado.
If that were the case you would see movie theaters bulking up security during massively popular summer blockbusters like “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” “Jurassic World,” “Ant-Man” or even last week’s opening of “Fantastic Four” – all of which likely will have drawn bigger first weekend crowds than “Straight Outta Compton.”
These movie theaters are hiring extra security because they simply do not trust large groups of African-Americans viewers, which is the population that will predominantly rush out to see a biopic about N.W.A. on opening weekend. That’s an obvious case of blatant racism. And, I don’t think there’s any other excuse you could make for it.
This is just another example in this country on how the establishment treats African-Americans as lesser human beings than Caucasians. Movie theater owners and staff all around this country trust white filmgoers to buy movie tickets in droves without the threat of violence, despite the fact that all three theater shootings in the last three years have been done by white men. But, let a film come along that’s attractive to a largely African-American audience and that trust is out the window. It’s really an eye opening moment, especially for those who might have previously been blind to the racism still prevalent in this country in one way or another.
Despite Universal’s decision to reimburse movie theaters for hiring extra security the company has also released the statement that “Straight Outta Compton” has been seen by thousands of people already at hundreds of screenings around the country without a single incident reported.
“Straight Outta Compton” is anticipated to have a huge opening weekend at the box office and is projected to be the weekend’s most watched film. According to Deadline.com, 70 percent of advanced tickets sales on Fandango for the weekend have been for “Straight Outta Compton,” which is opening in almost 3,000 theaters across the country.
by Philip Price
It was something of a surprise this new sequel in the ‘Vacation’ series that also intends to serve as something of a reboot or re-make, but isn't really, included the line from the trailer about how this vacation will indeed stand on its own. It seemed a piece of dialogue specifically designed for the marketing campaign so as to let audiences know the movie itself was aware of what it represented and the pressures it might face in convincing audiences it was worthy of the challenge. This line, when given in the trailer, almost made the film more endearing (hey, it knows it has a lot of work to do), but the fact they included it in the final product gave an entirely different impression-one of desperation even. Maybe desperation is the wrong word, maybe a lack of confidence is a better way to put it. The statement itself wants to impose a sense of confidence though, a bold statement of this particular film being its own thing and being successful on its own terms whether there was an original or not. Of course, if this were a world where the original “Vacation” didn't exist we would have (a slightly altered) “We're the Millers” and that would be it. Instead, as brand recognition and nostalgia are at an all-time high thanks to social media and our heightened sense of self-awareness it would be wrong to not try and capitalize on every big brand of generations past. And thus, we have what is essentially a remake (but it's a sequel!) of/to the original film where Stu from the ‘Hangover’ movies plays a grown-up Rusty with call backs aplenty just in case you didn't get that this was in the same timeline as the 1983 film, but that it's still supposed to stand on its own. These call-backs are of course intended to make audiences familiar with the 1983 version recognize the correlation and laugh while those who aren't will hopefully just laugh because...the comedy is timeless? All of these particulars don't really matter though as this is little more than a 90-minute comedy intended to make audiences chuckle. When taken on such simple terms, it does its job well enough. My qualm is why couldn't we do something with these actors/directors/writers that maybe didn't rely on tapping into nostalgia? If we keep re-making and re-visiting old properties what are future generations going to reboot or re-make? Or even worse, be able to call their own?
We are re-introduced to Rusty (Ed Helms) who is now an airline pilot for a smaller company that is apparently working to earn back its customers’ trust after what could be one of many timely incidents that occurred that the script is commenting on. We should talk about the rather insignificant Colin Hanks cameo as well, but there's no time or space or even reason to really do so other than to wonder if that guy is this hard up for work these days? After Ron Livingston makes it clear Rusty is a man keen on taking the less confrontational route we glimpse one of the actual differences in this iteration as compared to the original. As a grown-up Rusty, Helms is no mirror image of the irreverent Clark (Chevy Chase) that took the wheel of the original, but is rather a misconfigured mess of insecurities and seeming naiveté as he can describe a glory hole to his spawn, but not a rim job. It is a wonder how Rusty was able to grow-up and grab a chick like Debbie (Christina Applegate) given her seeming normality when it comes to handling life's common situations, but even that character trait is upended for a laugh when we learn of Debbie's past. Then there are the kids. Going back to the aforementioned statement around which the opening paragraph centers, this “Vacation” is different and will stand on its own if not for anything else, but because this “Vacation” features two boys and not a boy and a girl. Skyler Gisondo plays older brother James whose seeming sensibilities make him far more mature than anyone else around him while Steele Stebbins is the younger brother, Kevin, who is a complete and total asshole. While Rusty is determined to get his family out of their current slump by recreating his childhood vacation to Walley World, no one else seems to be interested. Still, the adventure begins and we are along for a ride that probably should have been reconsidered before it even began.
It is always fun to laugh at others’ misfortunes. Hell, it's even fun to laugh at your own with a little time put between you and the unexpected, but what differentiates this new “Vacation” from the original is largely the style of humor in which they each operate. The original gave us sly bits of observational humor everyone who'd been stuck in a car with their family for an extended period of time could relate to while this sequel/reboot/re-make goes consistently for the outlandish. This isn't necessarily a mark against it, but more it feels like a mark of the times rather than a conscious decision. Directors John Francis Daley (who you might recognize from “Freaks & Geeks”) and Jonathan M. Goldstein wrote both ‘Horrible Bosses’ films (both of which I really enjoy) as well as several others that are hit or miss with “Vacation” being their major directorial effort though, they throw a lot at the wall and for the most part, things stick, but it isn't hard to see what they're going for. I realize comedy is the most subjective genre and always will be which will always make them the more difficult films to try and step back and look at fairly. Still, amounts of stupidity and gross out gags aside, I had a good time watching what Daley and Goldstein rolled out for the audience. When the end goal is taken into consideration, how much do you try to make something your own while still clearly paying homage to what has come before? It is a fine line to walk and I realize I've been rather harsh on this aspect so far in this review, but I also realize it is not an enviable task. For all of the obvious jokes including the weird foreign car Rusty inexplicably rents before planning the titular event in a matter of minutes to the whole hot springs bit that was spoiled in the trailers there are equal moments of genuine hilarity that had me appreciating the potential of re-evaluating this material in a modern setting. Whether it be a bit including the Four Corners Monument and some fun cameos that deliver in their moment or the water rafting segment featuring Charlie Day that is absolutely hysterical for Day's character alone, there is plenty of promise to outweigh the transparent.
In essence, “Vacation” 2015 is harmless if not fun and ultimately somewhat forgettable. I like Helms well enough and he is at least committed to eliciting as many laughs as possible here. His Rusty is something of a question mark though despite the fact he's clearly trying and desperately dedicated why Helms decided to make Rusty a bit of a clueless dork seems to only be so that he might be ignorant enough to think a trip to Walley World would be enough to fix his relationships with his children as well as his fractured marriage. Applegate's Debbie has seemingly lost all interest in the suburban life she's built for herself and with Kevin constantly trying to be the break-out character by yelling expletives at those around him James is the closest we have to anything actually relatable. What are little more than glorified cameos for Chase and Beverly D'Angelo only serve to solidify what a bitch time can be given the pair hardly resemble who they once were. If anyone comes away as a winner rather than simply unscathed it is Chris Hemsworth. As the most popular weatherman in Plano, Texas Stone Crandall is an outright conservative who herds cattle and then feeds them ribs before heading to the station. Helms gets a nice drive-thru joke out of an experience trying to fit in with Stone, but Hemsworth steals every scene he's in by flexing all of his acting muscles. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for Leslie Mann who, as the grown-up Audrey, doesn't get a laugh to save her life that is due mainly to Daley and Goldstein's script not really knowing what to do with her. Keegan-Michael Key and Regina Hall also make appearances early in the film and deliver solid bits, but they ultimately feel more like an obligatory inclusion to show diversity among the cast rather than as an integral part of the story. Oh well, I got a "it's funny because it's true" moment out of Hall and the combination of pit-stops featuring Hemsworth and Day are worth the price of admission alone so I wouldn't necessarily label this a disappointment, but rather a pretty standard comedy despite it striving for eccentric and shocking the majority of the time.
by Philip Price
Origin stories have become something of such trite exercises that when we are given something slightly different we're not sure what to do with it. That isn't to say director Josh Trank's approach to his “Fantastic Four” reboot is necessarily a strong or even distinct one, but it is something. It certainly isn't what people would necessarily want or expect (that will be saved for the sequel if they're granted the opportunity to make one) given this film is more of a prelude than anything else, but there is much to appreciate. At a brisk hour and 40 minutes I like that Trank's “Fantastic Four” doesn't take itself too seriously while consistently trying to remain as logical as possible. There is a sense of experimentation to the proceedings, a sense that tells us even the makers of the movie don't necessarily place too much importance on the going-ons of the plot, but are instead more interested in putting a few players on a certain kind of board and seeing what works and what doesn't. In coming at Marvel's first family of superheroes in this fashion it is obvious that Trank and his uber-talented and charismatic cast aren't actively trying to make something bad or even obligatory, but rather it's fairly clear they want the opposite. Things may not have turned out as well as they'd hoped in this initial run, but I have a sincere hope they get another shot to work out the kinks and to test their experiment again given it will contain more of the elements audiences want/expect from their superhero movies. I'm not going to completely trash “Fantastic Four” for trying to do something different with a story we saw on screen 10 years ago. This is a story the board at 20th Century Fox likely insisted on Trank and screenwriter Simon Kinberg telling purely for the sake of retaining their rights to the characters and no doubt interlocking with their ‘X-Men’ franchise at some point down the road. And I'm not looking for anyone to blame for the shortcomings of the final product because while there certainly could have been a more clear, precise vision for the film I kind of dug what we have here in terms of tone and character dynamic and only hope they have a chance to develop each further.
It's no secret this film has been under tight scrutiny from the beginning, whether it be for Trank's reported bad behavior on and off set or the large deviations from the source material. There's been a wave of bad press surrounding the film and thus affecting the thoughts of those waiting to see if this thought to be "unadaptable" material could be made right in the hands of a contemporary storyteller. Beginning in 2007, we meet 12 year old versions of Reed Richards and Ben Grimm. Reed is an aspiring scientist hell bent on cracking teleportation while Grimm is his best friend and the muscle that looks out for him. After moving into the present day we learn the two friends have continued to work on their passion project and have successfully accomplished transporting small inanimate objects to and from somewhere, though they're not sure where that somewhere is. Approached by Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) at their high school science fair (yes, Miles Teller and Jamie Bell are expected to be high school age) Reed is offered a scholarship to continue his education and work for Dr. Storm. This work consists of trying to perfect his invention to the point they can send humans to and from this new dimension Reed has somehow connected to. Dr. Storm brings in his daughter Sue (Kate Mara) whose expertise lies in detecting patterns as well as his son, Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), a mechanic of sorts who can build anything. There is also Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), who began this project with Dr. Storm when he was a youngster and who comes to dictate the way things are done. With the hope of traveling to this new dimension themselves, these young scientists rebel when those hopes are put on hold by head honcho Dr. Allen (Tim Blake Nelson). Victor, Johnny and Reed decide to take things into their own hands, with Reed pulling Ben into the fold where things go inevitably wrong resulting in each of the travelers (and Sue, who is attempting to return them to their own dimension) gaining distinct abilities.
There is plenty to like here. I want to make that abundantly clear. First and foremost is the fact that Kinberg's script (no matter how much it's been tinkered with) is opposed to following the template of your typical origin story. What could have essentially been explained in an opening credits montage (and some will undoubtedly argue that it should have been) is fleshed out to feature length with a story that doesn't give us the beats of this happens and then this happens and now they're superheroes. No, rather than the standard convoluted explanation for putting our heroes in an obvious situation where they get their powers and then are tormented with their gifts that are actually curses for the next hour and a half “Fantastic Four” decides to spend the majority of its time developing the dynamics between the team and putting real world stopping blocks in the way of the stories more fantastical elements. This not only gives the characters time to focus on why they're doing what they're doing, but if their ultimate goal (to provide new resources for our planet from this alternate dimension) is worth the trouble if the men running the world are only running it into the ground. "What will they do but the same things with this new world?" Victor asks at one point, thus establishing his mentality and motivation for his inevitable turn to the dark side. Of course, it's more complicated than that. Victor is more your misunderstood genius than outright evil villain, but regardless he is always something of an outsider. In setting up the inherent camaraderie between Reed, Johnny and Sue as they work to craft Reed's machine there is a clear distance between Victor and the rest of them. I actually appreciated that Ben was never brought into the lab with the poor excuse of Reed not being able to work without him or something along those lines. Instead, Ben isn't introduced until Reed is a little tipsy and going to do something he wouldn't typically take a chance on in his right mind. This alternative dynamic between Reed and Ben adds another layer to the more detailed arcs of Reed, Johnny and Sue. This type of pacing and approach also gives way for our heroes having to overcome obstacles that aren't just a bad guy trying to destroy the world which, for me anyway, is far more interesting at this point.
Now for the bad stuff. Remember that thing I said about not focusing on a bad guy trying to destroy the world? Well, that eventually happens, but is literally crammed into the last fifteen minutes of the film. For the record, a time jump happens about halfway through the film that I again was into because it presented something unexpected. Not just because the jump was a surprise itself, but because it continued to push the dynamics of the group further by distancing their supposed leader from the rest of the team while giving time for Sue and Johnny to come to know Ben, the one member they hardly met prior to their transformations. In light of the undocumented time that passes Reed is also granted the ability to plant a firm motivator in the ground that also makes room for the logical/dark/gritty/realistic aspects of this version to breathe. It is once the inherently goofy powers of each individual come into play that the film becomes less of an interesting science experiment and more of a by the numbers action flick. I think every action shot in the film was used in some form in the marketing as there isn't a lot to choose from. Of course, if this proves anything about the Fantastic Four it is that it may in fact be that "unadaptable" material so many claim. The relationships between the actors become interesting given their age and energy to do something life-changing, but it is once they become the titular heroes that things become more routine and handled in such a sloppy manner it gives the impression the whole thing was a bad idea. Like I said in my opening paragraph, I'd still like to see what Trank and Co. might do given the opportunity to follow this up (Fox has already dated the sequel for June 9, 2017, but we'll see if that holds) despite knowing that it will be what the climax of this film attempts, but for the whole movie. It could turn out just as horrible and put the kibosh on Fox trying to adapt this material, but it could also turn out to be something interesting were the filmmaker able to see his vision through with an approach that didn't have to adhere to any template. The effects budget could also be improved, because that certainly doesn't help with the already wacky powers.
To its credit, the solid early portions of the film allow the first and only moment the four heroes are together to feel earned in the final minutes. It should also be noted that, as far as superhero movies go, the most cliché thing in the film is the beam of blue light into the sky. This is naturally a part of Doom's plan to destroy our world, but what doesn't make this arbitrary plot device feel as vapid as it is is the motivation behind it that was established earlier. There is an Einstein quote spoken in the film that goes something like, "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough." and this seems to apply to Trank's approach as well. He clearly knows he wants to tell an interesting and rather alternative superhero story, but he doesn't seem to have the inspiration or the knowledge of how to do so without succumbing to the vision of what he (or the studio) thinks audiences want to see. Superhero films are more complex than ever given there are so many of them these days and each feels the need to try and stand out. “Fantastic Four” is Marvel's original and longest-running superhero team though, so the only way to make it work completely might be to take a simple approach and little more. Let the characters and team dynamics breathe and the rest will fall into place. Here's to hoping Trank gets one more shot with these guys no matter how unlikely that may seem at the moment.
by Philip Price
Over at Marcelo Zuniga's YouTube channel one can find many “Star Wars” clips, but earlier this year he posted a four-video series comparing the changes to the original trilogy over the years. The most infamous of these changes came when George Lucas decided to re-release the original trilogy in theaters on the 20th anniversary of ‘A New Hope’ in 1997. It is reported that Lucas spent $10 million to rework his original 1977 film, which was roughly what it cost to make the film originally. $3 million of that budget was spent on the audio track for the re-worked special edition alone. Lucas also spent $2.5 million each on the changes made to ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ and ‘Return of the Jedi.’ I came across these videos while skimming through the news on Collider.com and couldn't help but to take a minute (or an hour) to watch them. The fascinating insight they provide growing with each video was expectedly entrancing. As I was allowed a glimpse at not only the added CGI scenes and digital effects that would amp up the scope of many shots it became the detail with which Lucas clearly approached these special editions that became most striking. There was much he couldn't accomplish in 1977 and so in 1997, with the advancements in technology his vision could be rendered proper. It also didn't hurt to renew the movies in the minds of both older and the younger audiences to prepare them for the release of “Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace” in 1999. While we all know Lucas got a bit too carried away with the advancements of special effects in his prequel trilogy and despite him likely being frustrated by not being able to create his original vision in 1977, he must be thankful for being born when he was and making the original “Star Wars” when he did. For, if the technology he so desperately craved was as common as it is now in the ’70s, “Star Wars” would not have been the watershed moment in film history it is considered.
Everything is about timing. Lucas introduced us to a galaxy far, far away almost 40 years ago now and it is easy to wonder if “Star Wars” would even be a hit were it released today or even further, would it even get made? It is hard for original properties to get financed these days as even “Star Wars” itself has been mined by Disney to continue making money with a new trilogy that kicks off this December and numerous spin-off films that will fill out the timelines in between each of the core trilogies. Having watched a number of documentaries and behind the scenes bonus materials it has always been clear that Lucas was shooting for a vision no one had been able to capture on film up until that point in time. That the prequel trilogy made his weaknesses as a writer and director all the more apparent might take away from the now-dated original trilogy if not for the haze of nostalgia that washes over every frame of those films for most viewers.
Many consider (myself included) ‘Empire’ the best of the series, but is that because it holds up the best due to Irvin Kershner's direction or because of the impressive look of the effects for 1980? It certainly doesn't seem to be due in any regard to the contributions of Lucas besides the glaring fact the creation of these worlds is solely because of him. That's the thing: Lucas has interesting ideas, clearly, but he needs many people just as, if not more, creative than him to execute them in a way that isn't ‘Attack of the Clones.’ In taking a look at these comparison videos it is clear what the original trilogy might have been were Lucas an upstart director in the ’90s. While they may have thrived in that decade to a certain extent, it's really hard to think if a studio would even give his script a second look these days. For those who love “Star Wars” and see it as an integral part of their childhood, let's just be thankful Lucas was born into the time he was and nurtured by the influences that drove him to create his legacy at that point in time and not a moment later. Now, if someone can just convince him to release the original versions in HD the world might be a happier place ...
To an extent, I understand why Lucas hasn't released the original versions though. The ’77, ’80 and ’83 films were the extent of what could be accomplished at that point in time, but as Lucas has been able to update and enhance his original films to better match his original vision he wants that to be the version the vast majority of viewers see. It is hard to fight with that reasoning if not for the selfish fact people want the version that reminds them most of why they initially fell in love with these movies. There was something magic about the inability to make concrete all that one could imagine-probably the fact it left more to the imagination rather than presenting a disappointing interpretation and so Lucas has been deemed a destroyer of dreams for the reason of making his own imagination and interpretations into concrete realities. It's his world, I can't fault him for choosing to do with it as he wishes, but what I've always found fascinating is how he came to put these worlds together in the first place — where he drew his inspiration from.
In a video essay by Michael Heilemann that has been labeled a "Kitbashed" or technique used to build a detailed custom model from off-the-shelf model kits we get a cut of “Star Wars” that highlights the many threads of influence that had to come together in order to form the groundbreaking film with a rather simple story about a boy who was looking to make his own path. Any avid “Star Wars” fan will be able to cite Joseph Campbell's "The Heroes With A Thousand Faces," Akira Kurosawa's “The Hidden Forteress” or the “Flash Gordon” serials as the most obvious influences on Lucas's “Star Wars” films, but Heilemann goes steps and steps further to really expose how every aspect of ‘A New Hope’ derives from some kind of cultural reference that no doubt brought the young writer/director to terms with his own hodge-podge of ideas that resulted in one of the most influential trilogies of all time.
Heilemann still calls this a work-in-progress, but also promises an “exhaustive analysis of the sources of inspiration that led to the creation of “Star Wars,” covering everything from Lucas's earliest student films, European cinema of the time, westerns (American and Italian), samurai films, war films, comic books, artists, composers and so on and so forth, up to and including the release of the film that changed the world." Fair warning: the video is over two hours long, but if you're a fan of “Star Wars” in any capacity, it is a beyond fascinating watch.
by Philip Price
With the release of “Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation” I decided to go back and catch-up on the previous four films in the series. To be honest with you, I've never before sat down and watched the original “Mission: Impossible” all the way through. I'd seen bits and pieces and tried multiple times over the years to make it all the way through, but it never happened for one reason or another. So, in sitting down to watch the 1996 film that started it all I was surprised to find out there wasn't actually too much I hadn't seen. Basically, I hadn't made it around to the climactic action sequence on the train and that was about it — otherwise I'd seen the major set pieces and had enough to go on that I knew the gist of the plot. This isn't just a look at the first film though, as it's probably been the full 15 years since ‘M:I-2’ came out that I've actually sat down to watch it again. I can remember going to the theater to see it as I'd just turned 13 the month prior to its release and it was one of the first legit PG-13 films I saw on the big screen. I'll obviously get into more detail around it later, but to summarize, it holds up better than I expected and though it is definitely the least of the series it still isn't what I would necessarily label as bad. It was also nice to return to J.J. Abrams third installment that I remember really enjoying when I saw it at the early Thursday night show in the summer of ’06 and I've re-watched ‘Ghost Protocol’ so many times since its release four years ago there was hardly any reason to return to it other than the fact it's ridiculously entertaining. When it was announced in January that the fifth ‘Mission’ film would be shifting from its planned Christmas release to the summer movie season in an attempt to clear the way for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” it could seemingly only mean good things for the latest installment. I've been anxious to see where Tom Cruise and producing partner Paula Wagner would take the series ever since the conclusion of ‘Ghost Protocol’ and so to celebrate the newly released ‘Rogue Nation,’ let's take a look back at the adventures that have brought us to this point.
“Mission: Impossible” - In 1996, Tom Cruise was coming off a year long break from the public eye after both “Interview With the Vampire” and “The Firm” were solid hits. ‘Vampire’ fed off the controversy of Cruise being cast in the Anne Rice adaptation while “The Firm” was a John Grisham adaptation directed by Sydney Pollack that only took twenty-three days to make $100 million at the box office. He would also have Cameron Crowe's “Jerry Maguire” coming out later in the year after ‘Mission’ became a summer hit. “Mission: Impossible” was also the first film produced by Cruise and the only film he has ever made a sequel to (that “Top Gun 2” chatter seems as if it's been happening for years while Cruise talking of a sequel idea for “Edge of Tomorrow” on the ‘Rogue Nation’ press tour seems to be just that — talk).
Now that we have the context out of the way, let's talk about the film itself. In the film Cruise's Impossible Missions Force agent, Ethan Hunt, comes under false suspicion of disloyalty and is forced to both discover and expose the real spy without the help of his organization. It is funny there is already such a heavy talk of agents being disavowed as the tension level this immediately brings throughout each of the films has always been present. Given the film is nearly 20 years old, it is truly impressive how well it holds up even if the technology doesn't. This is expected though, and in a cool way serves as something of a time capsule, a reminder of what it took to break a case in that day and age as opposed to the advancements made as well as the new threats that have been created. The Brian De Palma film is fast-paced and effortlessly intriguing while setting in motion the idea of being structured around three action set pieces. While the stunts have certainly become grander over the years, the then 32-year-old Cruise blew up a huge aquarium, infiltrated CIA headquarters and hung off the side of a speeding train. Even if these aren't the biggest stunts and the special effects are a bit shoddy in the finale, Cruise is so committed you could hardly tell. Also, remember that one time when Emilio Estevez was Simon Pegg?
“M:I-2” - After largely being out of the public eye for three years after the one-two punch of “Mission: Impossible” and “Jerry Maguire,” Cruise returned to making movies in 1999 with two R-rated, adult-skewing films made by master filmmakers. “Eyes Wide Shut” was an R-rated erotic drama from Stanley Kubrick while “Magnolia” was a 3-hour opus courtesy of Paul Thomas Anderson with Cruise in a supporting role that netted him his third Oscar nomination. Neither of these were ever going to be smash hits or cultural milestones in the way his two prior films turned out to be, but Cruise would return to that territory the very next year with his first sequel ever. At the age of 38, Cruise stepped back into the role of Ethan Hunt and enlisted legendary action director John Woo to take the reins of the second entry in the series.
Largely considered the worst in the series and even the one that almost killed the franchise entirely, Woo's two-hour action extravaganza is as over-the-top as it is relentlessly entertaining. Everything about the film could be considered ridiculous, from the opening scene on the airplane where we're introduced to Dougray Scott's villain Sean Ambrose and prepped for the fact there would be a lot of facial exchanges to the rock climbing sequence that may as well have plastered "Remeber How Sexy Tom Cruise Is?" across the shot rather than the title of the film. There are the doves, the car chase through the mountains with Thandie Newton with an obscene amount of slo-mo and another stunts where Hunt drops through the top of a building only for him to engage in a gun fight before parachuting out that is all topped off by the extended motorcycle chase. Both Woo and Cruise seem to have given little thought to what restraint might mean before going with the shooting script from Robert Towne, but they keep a very serious tone on its toes by allowing Scott's Ambrose to be somewhat self-aware. It should also be noted that Ving Rhames was the only returning cast member here besides Cruise and that seems to always be pretty damn sweaty. Another interesting aspect to the film is the choice to base the action solely in Australia whereas the third and fourth films would become more renowned for their globe-trotting aspects.
“M:I:III” - In the longest break between ‘Mission’ films, “M:I:III” came six years after the release of “M:I-2” (and the first since the release of two Jason Bourne films). Part three also came at a critical point in Cruise's career. Some of you may remember the couch-jumping incident of 2005 when Cruise was on the press tour for “War of the Worlds” (his biggest U.S. grosser to date still). After this, the whole backlash of Cruise being a complete wacko happened and unfortunately, has permanently changed his career trajectory ever since. In an effort to both recover his public image by starring in a surefire hit as well as making him come off as much like a normal human being as possible (Ethan Hunt gets married!), Cruise returned to the world of the IMF after somewhat seeming to have no interest in doing so prior. Between the huge success of “M:I-2” and the somewhat underwhelming performance of “M:I:III” Cruise re-teamed with Cameron Crowe on “Vanilla Sky,” collaborated with Steven Spielberg for the first time on “Minority Report” (one of my personal all-time favorites) as well as spearheading the production of “The Last Samurai” with director Edward Zwick and then teaming up with Michael Mann on “Collateral” before reuniting with Spielberg on ‘War.’ In short, Cruise was bigger than ever and on a damn fine roll both commercially and quality-wise before his public persona went south and his sole franchise was called on to be his savior.
While the box office returns on “M:I:III” might not have been what Cruise and company hoped for, it was still a hit and arguably the best film in the franchise so far. As the feature directing debut of a little known TV-guy named J.J. Abrams, it had been so long since the previous installment that there was a lot of room to move in terms of story. As Cruise was trying to fix his public image Abrams recruited his team of writers including Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci to craft a narrative around Hunt coming face to face with a sadistic arms dealer while trying to keep his identity secret in order to protect his girlfriend (Michelle Monaghan). Ving Rhames would again return and this is the installment that would also add Simon Pegg to the line-up. When we meet Hunt this time around the guy has essentially retired from active duty to strictly training new IMF agents, but of course gets pulled back into the fray as the threat of Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) grows greater. Hoffman was coming off his Academy Award winning performance in “Capote” and he absolutely kills it in what is easily the best villain the ‘Mission’ series has seen and will likely ever see. Abrams, like his predecessors, keeps things brisk and the action at the forefront, but what this third film did was to add more to the actual character of Ethan Hunt. There was no progression of who Hunt was and what he'd become between the first two films, but here we see this guy as a man just trying to find some normalcy rather than a super spy who we view as indestructible.
“MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - Ghost Protocol” - Five years later, after the franchise was again assumed to be something of a relic of time gone by, Cruise returned to the world of impossible missions for his best one yet. Outside of the franchise Cruise was having little luck getting anything to stick as “Lions for Lambs” was forgotten as soon as it was released, “Valkyrie” being largely perceived as a flop despite being a more than solid WWII drama as well as making $200m on a $75m budget and “Knight and Day” being the actors first out and out flop that featured him in a starring role. I rather enjoyed “Knight and Day,” but the only relief Cruise saw during this period of his career was the glorified cameo he did in Ben Stiller's “Tropic Thunder.” While his appearance as Les Grossman was minor, it was a game-changer. To be able to show the public he could not only poke fun at himself, but his industry showed there was some kind of self-awareness going on in that thought-to-be-crazy head of his. It was self-deprecating, it was outlandish (Tom Cruise in a fat suit?!?! Cursing?!?! Dancing?!?!?!), but most of all it was hilarious and it put the one-time biggest movie star on the planet back in public favor.
With that, Cruise saddled back into the role of Ethan Hunt, this time bringing in director Brad Bird (“The Iron Giant,” “The Incredibles”) for his first live-action film and going bigger, being more fun and enlisting more of an ensemble than ever before (this is the only ‘Mission’ to not feature Rhames Luther Stickell, but it did keep Pegg's Benji on tap) as the likes of Paula Patton and Jeremy Renner were added to the ranks. There is something about the movie-going experience of the “Mission: Impossible” movies where I find them to be more than genre exercises, but fresh and exciting adventures. I say this because I distinctly remember sitting and experiencing “M:I-2” as the kind of film that made me feel in awe of its scope and then looking over at my then 14-year-old brother’s face during ‘Ghost Protocol’ and seeing that same sense of wonderment. When Cruise as Hunt scaled Dubai's Burj Khalifa (and especially if you were lucky enough to see the film in IMAX) it was a moment of pure insanity. It was as if you were watching a man truly test his mortality as he trusts a single piece of technology to hold him to the side of the building. In a way, I guess you could say Cruise was doing just that as no one expected much from a fourth ‘Mission’ movie. Instead, ‘Ghost Protocol’ has become something of an instant action classic with its Dubai sequence being a piece of filmmaking that's marveled at not only for the risks it involved, but for the thrills it achieved. It's what the movies are all about and Tom Cruise has been working for 30- plus years (20 now as Hunt alone) to bring us that kind of entertainment, those kinds of thrills and the kinds of experiences that allow us to be swept away by spectacle.
by Philip Price
Within the first minute of the latest “Mission: Impossible” film, Tom Cruise is sprinting across the screen. Within the first two minutes, Cruise is walking across the top of an airplane. By the time 125 minutes have passed Cruise has done so many unbelievable things and taken so many insane chances as Ethan Hunt that it's a wonder he's alive and ready to go on any more missions at all (is that a spoiler? Please). Currently, Cruise is a mere four years younger than Jon Voight was when the first “Mission: Impossible” was released almost twenty years ago. Cruise realizes his time as international super spy and man of mystery is running out (why do you think he's so eager to get a jump on the next installment as he's indicated in the press rounds for this film?). Cruise knows his body won't be able to continue doing outlandish stunt work forever and he knows that the time is coming where watching him run, jump and shoot would be more funny than thrilling were he still to be relying on this franchise into his sixties. Cruise has maybe two more ‘Mission’ films left in him and that's if they're more prompt than they've ever been with these movies. This perspective isn't brought up to be a downer or to make audiences more aware of the fragility of time, but simply to say that we won't always have the opportunity to walk into our multiplex and see a Tom Cruise action picture. Cherish this. That Cruise himself clearly pours so much effort and heart into making these movies and that he continues to choose directors who want to make them as authentically as possible while bringing their own unique style to the proceedings is also reason to be appreciative. While there have been, are and always will be movie franchises similar to “Mission: Impossible,” what makes Ethan Hunt different from James Bond or even Jason Bourne is his ability to grow. Hunt is wholly Cruise's character whereas Bond has a roster of representatives and Bourne has to deal with not really knowing who he is himself. Hunt, through the arc of Cruise needing this franchise just as much as it needs him, has come to represent our most intimate connection with Cruise, the actor, given it's the only character he's portrayed repeatedly. Under these circumstances, Hunt's arc from young upstart agent to desperate family man eager to escape his fate to a man who's now accepted what he's meant to be only makes each new installment all the more interesting — and ‘Rogue Nation’ is no exception.
Like “Fast & Furious,” a franchise that was also once thought to be dead and done with and also received a shot of pure adrenaline in 2011, “Mission: Impossible” only continues to mature in ways we never imagined. Seeming fully rejuvenated, Ethan Hunt and his now more solidified and less exchangeable crew once again find themselves in the difficult position of being at odds with their organization. While this seems to be the case with each new ‘Mission’ film (sans John Woo's second installment from 2000) the threat is more real than ever as director of the CIA Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) has taken to the U.S. Senate to argue the IMF should be disbanded and absorbed by the CIA immediately. While Jeremy Renner's William Brandt is stuck defending the need for the IMF in Langley, Ethan Hunt is on the run as Hunley has called for his capture. After attempting to report to an IMF station in London to receive his next orders Hunt is instead captured by a creepy blonde man in glasses (Sean Harris). Hunt is convinced there is a Syndicate of criminals, an anti-IMF if you will, and he intends to track them down. Hunt barely escapes his captors and a near torture session with the help of the very skilled, but very mysterious Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson). After being on the run for six months and attempting to piece together any clue he can about the Syndicate, Hunt brings Benji (Simon Pegg) out of his desk job at the CIA to Vienna for something of a covert mission. Hunt is keen on trying to figure out who the creepy guy in the glasses is, how he's organized such an expansive list of employees and where he is getting his funding from. More than ever, ‘Rogue Nation’ makes it clear how much institutions such as these (the CIA, the IMF, the Syndicate), while created in order to protect national security, become vicious circles of their own by creating individuals who have just as much a possibility of coming to resent the reasons for them personally sacrificing so much as those who come to find pride in it. While the plotting of ‘Rogue Nation’ can sometimes be confusing, the ideas are solid and the execution is so simplistic and straight-forward it never feels overwrought.
Like each of the films in the series prior, ‘Rogue Nation’ is structured on its set pieces. That the stunt of Cruise being strapped to the side of the airplane has been the focus of the promotional campaign is all good and well, but that this moment occurs immediately once the movie begins is all the more refreshing. We know to expect it and so once it happens and is out of the way, we're ready for the unknown and possibly what might even top this insane sequence. Needless to say, the airplane stunt isn't the best set piece in the movie as there are plenty more to devour and plenty more that push you closer to the edge of your seat. Even if one has paid close attention to the marketing, we don't really know what we're in for come the second and third acts of the film and I really enjoyed that element of surprise. What is even more fascinating about the screenplay from director Christopher McQuarrie (“The Usual Suspects,” “Jack Reacher”) is that while he still keeps the set pieces in line, he doesn't follow the typical beats of a movie of this genre. Rather than having our protagonist go on a mission to retrieve a macguffin, become entangled in the web of lies and emotions of those involved in that plot to steal and utilize the macguffin while enlisting a dangerous love interest along the way and ultimately outsmarting the bad guy after being kicked down a few more times than the audience expected, ‘Rogue Nation’ would rather explore the psychology of why these kinds of people feel the need to do the things they do. Why they feel the urge to place themselves in such situations and their livelihood in such uncertain circumstances. Sure, there is still a macguffin present in the form of some information on a flash drive, but this is more explicitly used as a macguffin without trying to place any real importance on whatever information it may hold. Rather, the mission is in fact the people behind the plans and their motivations to disrupt the thought process and perceived safety of people all over the world with the double crosses, opera house brawls, the (limited) masks and extended car chases serving as well-executed wrapping on a thoughtful gift.
That there is effort on this behalf is again something to appreciate as it's rather clear people don't go to “Mission: Impossible” movies for their stories. Instead, it is the element of seeing Cruise perform his signature death-defying stunts while paired with the commitment of his performance. Having harped on the importance of Cruise's role in these adventures what comes to mind more than ever in ‘Rogue Nation’ is Ethan Hunt's addiction to the chase. The third film in the series made it clear his need to rectify would always outweigh his yearning to relegate himself to something more in the range of normal. What Ghost Protocol made infinitely clear was that there was still room for Hunt to grow and learn through the camaraderie he found in those like him. ‘Rogue Nation’ pushes this one step further with the introduction of Ferguson's Faust. As this female super sleuth Ferguson brings the sleekness and allure of any actor who has ever played a Bond girl, but combines it with the suave, effortless ability to make the most complex disarming techniques look effortless. It also doesn't hurt that we never know whether we can fully trust Faust or not. She never becomes something as simple as a love interest, but more a mirror for Hunt to see himself in, a counterpart that suggests normal life might not have ever worked out, but in finding someone with similar sensibilities there could be something of an unconventional happiness for him in the end. The one thing ‘Rogue Nation’ doesn't utilize as much as it's immediate predecessor is the dynamic between Hunt and his team. Renner is largely relegated to walking and talking while Ving Rhames returns as Luther Stickell after sitting the last round out, to serve as Hunt's confidant and right hand man during a time his sanity and loyalties are brought into question. Pegg, on the other hand, makes large strides in terms of where he began and where he is now. Benji is as much a counterpart for Ethan as Stickell is at this point and the energy between Pegg and Cruise make this all the more fun to see play out. While the villains are typically little more than afterthoughts in these films, Harris does well to make as big an impression as he can by being largely subtle in his approach.
Being that we're largely here for the action though, “Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation” does not disappoint. From the inventive hand-to-hand combat fights that take place above Turandot at the Vienna State Opera House to the literal breathtaking scenes that place Hunt underwater for six-plus minutes and over to the car chase that evolves into a stunning motorcycle race through Casablanca, this is top notch stuff deserved of a movie screen. McQuarrie approaches each action scene with a certain precision, a certain rawness that never allows for it to feel less than genuine. We believe Cruise as Hunt is willing to do whatever it takes to make seeming wrongs right again and that this adrenaline junkie can't help himself when it comes to joining the aforementioned motorcycle chase after crawling out of a wrecked BMW. Just like our protagonist's mentality, the action is relentless and keeps the brisk pace of the film intact where it could have easily become bogged down in plotting. McQuarrie keeps things on track and ensures that above all, his entry in the ‘Mission’ canon is one that abides by the pure popcorn action mantra of the franchise as a whole while adding just the right amount of depth and intrigue to keep us coming back for more.
by Preston Tolliver
Marvel's ventures to the big screen since releasing “Iron Man” seven years ago have caught fire quicker than Johnny Storm when he yells "Flame on!," yet if stills released by Entertainment Weekly earlier this month from the set of “X-Men: Apocalypse” are any indication, one of Marvel's franchise teams will remain stagnant under 20th Century Fox.
Since Robert Downey, Jr., donned his Iron Man suit in 2008, Marvel Studios has raked in literally billions of dollars – in fact, through the 11 ‘Avengers’-related titles and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Marvel Studios alone has pulled in around $8.78 billion worldwide. Even “Ant-Man,” which lags behind the rest of Marvel Studios' movies, has led the box office the last two weeks, making $226 million worldwide, proving Marvel has found its niche in going big with even the smallest of characters. Meanwhile, the movies made under 20th Century Fox's helm – comprised of two ‘Fantastic 4’ films (and a third to hit theaters next weekend) and seven ‘X-Men’ movies (with an eighth on its way, as well as separate Gambit and Deadpool films) – have paled in comparison, making a comparatively meager $3.671 billion. The ‘Spider-Man’ franchise, however, has grossed more in five films than Fox has in nine, with ‘Spider-Man 1-3’ and ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 1 & 2’ pulling in $3.959 billion. But even still, Sony's and Fox's efforts are still outweighed by Marvel Studios': if you're keeping count, Marvel Studios has made $1.15 billion more with 12 films than Sony and Fox's combined 14.
A few more number breakdowns:
• The top three grossing Marvel comic movies were produced by Marvel Studios: ‘The Avengers 1 & 2’ and “Iron Man 3.” ‘Spider-Man 1-3’ ranked fourth through sixth, followed by “Guardians of the Galaxy” -- Marvel Studios' dark horse that developed an entirely new fan base out of a previously under-appreciated team.
• “Iron Man 3,” Marvel Studios' third-leading seller, made more money (about $585 million) than the first three ‘X-Men’ movies combined.
• Twentieth Century Fox doesn't make the cut until the ninth slot, with “X-Men: Days of Future Past” pulling in about $748,000, making nearly $35,000 more than “Captain America: Winter Soldier.”
• Of the 36 films we're discussing here, the lowest-rated on Rotten Tomatoes is “Fantastic Four,” with a 26 percent approval rate. If we're going by IMDB, the lowest is “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.” Is it too late for Fox to cancel the next one and let Marvel take it from here?
• Fox's nine ‘X-Men’/’Fantastic Four’ films netted an average approval rating of 63.77 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and a 6.93 on IMDB; Sony scored a 74 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and a 6.94 on IMDB; and Marvel Studios leads with 79.91 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and a 7.5 on IMDB. This doesn't include the Netflix original “Daredevil,” which scored a 98 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and a 9.0 on IMDB.
Let's look at that first point: How is it that “Guardians of the Galaxy” – a film that built up little anticipation among comic fans (though it turned out to be an instant favorite) brought more customers to the theaters than the highest-grossing ‘X-Men’ movie? How did Marvel build a success story out of a team most moviegoers had never heard of and beat out a movie about Marvel's arguably second most-infamous troupe? (To be fair, on both Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB, the two were dead even, each grabbing a 91 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and and 8.1 on IMDB; however, money talks.)
I have a few theories (obviously): First, ‘Guardians’ was a refreshing boost to an industry that was beginning to feel redundant. While Marvel could release a film showing nothing but grass growing and make probably upward of $50 million in the opening weekend, their movies were beginning to feel tired. We were given so many ‘Avengers,’ it had begun to feel like eating a big meal on your lunch break only to find yourself fighting sleep midway through your work shift. ‘Guardians’ was the cup of coffee we needed; the five-hour energy drink Marvel needed to give us to keep our attention.
That's a lesson that's evidently been lost with Fox. Sure, ‘First Class’ was a new take on a franchise that had begun to draw the ire of even the feeblest of comic fans, but it didn't take long for it to feel like the same story being told in a different voice (it took about an hour, really). While Marvel's ‘Avengers’ films became known for their continuity and near-perfect casting of key characters, ‘X-Men’ tried the opposite: They got too creative with the best stories of the Uncanny era, and strayed unforgivably while trying to make a few extra bucks from the popularity of Hugh Jackman's Wolverine. In the ‘Avengers’ films, we saw the staple heroes battling together, and have gotten a full experience of what the movies' titles indicate: “The Avengers.” Inversely, each new ‘X-Men’ movie has begun to feel more and more like additional ‘Wolverine’ movies (to the point of ‘Days of Future Past’ being rewritten to cast Wolverine as the lead, opposed to the less-popular Kitty Pryde). Finally, where Marvel Studios has included substance to its stories, Fox is insistent on only throwing in new characters, a sort of tease in which fan-favorites such as Bishop and Warpath are treated more as cameos than substantial characters toward a collaborative. The storytelling has become predictable and sub-par at best; at its worst, repugnant and barren.
The reason comic book fans get excited when a new film is announced is because, as growing up around comics has proven, the possibilities are limitless, yet Fox has kept its films on one singular track -- even after developing two ‘Fantastic Four’ films that could make even Benjamin Grimm blush, previews for the upcoming film already point toward it being the same story with different (and way, way younger) actors. Marvel Studios knew when it adopted the orphaned Peter Parker back from Sony earlier this year that its fan base was tired of origins stories – all the while Fox was getting ready to introduce us to yet another one.
This isn't to say Marvel Studios has abandoned its origin stories; obviously, with “Black Panther” and “Doctor Strange” slated for releases in the next few years, they're unavoidable, but at least they're on new characters. Fox is catching on – a “Deadpool” film is in the works (one that I'm sure comic fans, myself included, would pay $10 to see even if it shows nothing more than Wade Wilson bopping his head to Gwen Stefani songs); and a Gambit film has been announced (though Channing Tatum, who had been cast as the ragin' Cajun, announced Wednesday that he was exiting plans for the film). And after releasing stills that show X-Men's most nefarious villain looking like a rich man's Ivan Ooze, those films may be the last gasp for air for a franchise having trouble measuring up to its Marvel Studios counterparts.
by Julian Spivey
Turner Classic Movies’ annual August tradition of “Summer Under the Stars” is underway. Every August Turner Classic Movies (TCM) selects 30 actors, one for every day of the month, and airs nothing but films featuring that movie star on their day. The television channel dedicated to classic movies doesn’t just choose the biggest stars of acting every year, but also likes to give days to talented character actors like Warren Oates and Lee J. Cobb, who are both featured this year.
Here are the 10 days you should definitely mark on your calendar for this year’s Summer Under the Stars lineup:
Katharine Hepburn (Friday, Aug. 7)
Friday, August 7 features films all day long starring the all-time winningest best actress Oscar winner Katharine Hepburn, considered by many to be the greatest actress in film history. Be sure to catch one of Hepburn’s four Oscar-winning performances in “The Lion in Winter” (1968) at 9 p.m.
Robert Mitchum (Wednesday, Aug. 12)
Wednesday, August 12 features a day of films featuring Robert Mitchum, one of the most masculine actors in film history. Mitchum’s Summer Under the Stars slate unfortunately doesn’t include his greatest performance as Rev. Harry Powell in “The Night of the Hunter” (1955), but be sure to catch him as a fast-driving moonshine runner in “Thunder Road” (1958) at 9:45 p.m.
Groucho Marx (Friday, August 14)
Friday, August 14 features a day filled with movies from one of the funniest men to ever grace the big screen, Groucho Marx. It’s interesting that Groucho is the featured star of the day and not the entire Marx Brothers trio, including Harpo and Chico. If you like witty and sarcastic humor you’d better not miss out on this. Be sure to check out Groucho’s best performance in “Duck Soup” (1933) at 9:45 p.m.
Patricia Neal (Sunday, August 16)
Sunday, August 16 features a slate full of movies featuring Patricia Neal, who is likely one of the most underrated leading women in film history. Neal can be seen in quite the trifecta of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951), her Oscar-winning performance in “Hud” (1963) and perhaps her greatest performance in “A Face in the Crowd” (1957) starting at 7 p.m.
Lee J. Cobb (Monday, August 17)
Monday, August 17 features films starring Lee J. Cobb, who if you were to make a list of the greatest supporting or character actors in the history of cinema would probably be near the very top. Cobb was particularly adept at portraying film baddies and can be seen doing so back-to-back in the stellar “12 Angry Men” (1957) and “On the Waterfront” (1954) starting at 8:45 p.m.
John Wayne (Wednesday, August 19)
Wednesday, August 19 features a day filled with films from John Wayne, the man who perhaps is the most iconic and larger than life star in all of cinema history. Many of The Duke’s most memorable roles are on the schedule for his Summer Under the Stars date, but the recommendation has to be his greatest role in John Ford’s “The Searchers” (1956) at 9:15 p.m.
Warren Oates (Monday, August 24)
Monday, August 24 is filled with films featuring a man that some novice movie watchers may not know by heart, but absolutely should and that’s Warren Oates. Oates is one of the greatest character actors in film history and one of the great things about TCM’s Summer Under the Stars is its able to bring an entire day of films from a lesser known, but terrific actor like Oates to the forefront. It’s unfortunate his great performance in Monte Hellman’s “Two-Lane Blacktop” (1971) isn’t on the schedule, but be sure to catch him in Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch,” considered one of the greatest Westerns of all-time, at midnight, August 25.
Ingrid Bergman (Friday, August 28)
Friday, August 28 features a day filled with performances from one of the greatest actress of all time and one who’s also somewhat underrated in the stunningly beautiful Ingrid Bergman. Only one of the three-time Oscar winners performances is on the schedule for this day: “Gaslight” (1944), but you should be sure to catch what’s likely her most memorable performance as Ilsa in “Casablanca” (1942).
George C. Scott (Saturday, August 29)
Saturday, August 29 features a day full of George C. Scott movies. George C. Scott was the consummate actor who was at home perfectly in either a larger than life leading role like his Oscar-winning turn in the biopic “Patton” (1970) or as a supporting actor in films like “The Hustler” (1961) and “Anatomy of a Murder” (1959” – all which are featured on his day.
Gary Cooper (Sunday, August 30)
Sunday, August 30 features an entire day of films starring American acting legend Gary Cooper, who always seemed to play endearing heroes on the big screen. Cooper was a two-time best actor Oscar winner, but unfortunately only one of those performances is featured on his day: “Sergeant York” (1941), with perhaps his greatest movie performance as Marshall Will Kane in “High Noon” (1952) being absent. The one film you should be sure to check out on Cooper’s day is his star-making turn in Frank Capra’s fascinating “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” (1936).