2015

Jurassic World (2015, Colin Trevorrow)

If I had to describe a feature of Jurassic World as saddest… I might find myself hard-pressed. There aren’t a lot of possibilities—worst, dumbest, cheapest, silliest, probably some others… but saddest is something different. When the film takes a pointless detour through the original visitor center from Jurassic Park, aged some twenty years and run over with quite a bit of vine growth and so on and I definitely don’t think anyone involved with World has read Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, which discusses how long it will take for nature to reclaim in layperson’s terms. Though production designer Ed Verreaux’s never impresses. Not when it’s the nostalgia trip, not when it’s the amusement park, not when it’s the control center. Of course, Verreaux can’t help with director Trevorrow’s chronic impatience or wanting composition, just like editor Kevin Stitt can’t do anything about Trevorrow’s utter lack of coverage.

Jurassic World is only occasionally bad-looking—Chris Pratt riding on the motorcycle with the velociraptors has some truly embarrassing composites (John Schwartzman’s photography is middling at best)—but it’s never good looking. Not once. Not even when it’s desperately using the original John Williams music. Though the music’s much better when composer Michael Giacchino is just using the Williams because when Giacchino does it himself? There’s better music on almost every television show. It’s terrible music.

But still not the saddest thing about Jurassic World. The saddest thing about Jurassic World is annoying kids Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson aren’t ever going to die. They’re visiting aunt Bryce Dallas Howard, who runs the park and works for owner Irrfan Khan, who only partially owns it and an evil shadow corporation really runs it. A slumming Vincent D'Onofrio (I really hope he bought something nice with the paycheck on this one) is the bad company guy. I got off track. Back to Simpkins and Robinson’s narrative immortality.

They’re visiting the park to give their parents (Judy Greer and Andy Buckley) time to work on their divorce, which younger Simpkins has figured out is incoming thanks to Googling their attorneys’ names while Robinson is just concentrating on getting off to college in a couple years. They both give terrible performances, but it’s not their fault. The writing on their fraternal relationship is truly godawful. Trevorrow’s “direction” of the actors is also godawful, but not worse than the script. The script is really rough on Simpkins and Robinson. But it’s still sad they’re never going to die. They spend… a mildly significant portion of the film running from the dinosaurs and they’re never in any danger whatsoever and it’s obvious.

Actually, Jurassic World is always obvious about its victims. Save Katie McGrath’s torturous death sequence, played for laughs because McGrath’s character is supposed to be so terrible (Jurassic World has some issues with how it characterizes its female characters… like a lot of them for a 2015 movie)–that sequence is a vapid, albeit brutal choice from Trevorrow. He makes very few directorial gestures with the film, anything suggesting a pulse stands out a bit. He and editor Stitt take an hour until they can gin up any actual suspense in the film. The third act’s actually pretty solid with it, but the resolution’s so dumb it erases whatever ground the film’s made back up.

The end involves Trevorrow’s attempts at directing Chris Pratt like he’s Harrison Ford or something. It seems more like Ben Affleck playing Harrison Ford only not unlikable like Affleck would play it. Pratt’s not exactly good, but he’s effective and he’s affable. He’s enthusiastic and it successfully impacts his scenes. If Howard’s ever enthusiastic, either the script or Trevorrow’s direction ruins it. Howard’s never fails but she never succeeds. She’d be a good metaphor for Jurassic World if it weren’t so poorly executed, if Simpkins and Robinson weren’t so pointless, if it didn’t always look just a little too cheap. Trevorrow’s got no idea how to show the money onscreen. As a dinosaur movie, it’s completely indifferent to the dinosaurs, which is a bummer.

Lauren Lapkus and Jake Johnson initially seem like they’re going to be good as the control room flunkies who watch everything go to crap when the genetically modified I-Rex gets loose and starts eating dinosaurs and guests, but their arc sputters, then ends badly. Trevorrow mocks Johnson, while extolling Pratt. It’s very weird how manly Pratt’s supposed to be in the film. They should’ve named him Super-Chad.

Though he’s basically got an early nineties Steven Seagal part, which sounds like an amazing movie.

The special effects are fine. Rarely are the dinosaurs around long enough to admire any sort of creative artistry and there are often bad composite lighting messing things up so why bother looking too much.

Omar Sy’s in it so no one can say there’s not a Black guy. Simpkins and Robinson are the most annoying little White boys too. They’re so bland. BD Wong—the only cast member from the original film returning—is awesome. Shame he’s only in it for four minutes max.

Jurassic World’s much worse than I expected. Though I didn’t dislike Chris Pratt in it, which seems like a whole lot.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Colin Trevorrow; screenplay by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Trevorrow, and Derek Connolly, based on a story by Jaffa and Silver and characters created by Michael Crichton; director of photography, John Schwartzman; edited by Kevin Stitt; music by Michael Giacchino; production designer, Ed Verreaux; costume designers, April Ferry and Daniel Orlandi; produced by Frank Marshall and Patrick Crowley; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Ty Simpkins (Gray), Nick Robinson (Zach), Bryce Dallas Howard (Claire), Chris Pratt (Owen), Vincent D’Onofrio (Hoskins), Irrfan Khan (Masrani), BD Wong (Dr. Henry Wu), Omar Sy (Barry), Lauren Lapkus (Vivian), Jake Johnson (Lowery), Katie McGrath (Zara), Andy Buckley (Scott), and Judy Greer (Karen).


Veracity (2015, Seith Mann)

Veracity is exceedingly impressive, in its parts and how they make up the whole. On their own, the filmmaking, the writing, and KiKi Layne’s performance are enough for the short to impress. Each has a different, perfectly suited strength. Mann’s direction flows, moving the camera to catching the actors’ performances; the actors aren’t performing their scenes for the camera. Veracity always feels bigger than its story, which the film even addresses—there’s a wider world around, Layne and her friends are just a part of it. Mann’s direction and Janaya Greene’s script imply that world. Amanda Brinton’s production design is also very important for it, ditto Christopher Dillon’s editing. Mann wouldn’t have the same flow without Dillon’s infinitely graceful cuts between angles and scenes.

The short takes place mostly at Layne’s high school—though, again, there’s this implied, larger setting to it all—as Layne meets new girl Shea Vaughan-Gabor and tries to befriend her. Vaughan-Gabor’s polite and pleasant, though not overly enthusiastic about making a new friend. When Layne lets friend Christina D. Harper drag her to a party, which Layne wants to avoid because of creep ex-boyfriend Denzel Irby (who’s throwing the party), things get weird, wonderful, and then awful. Vaughan-Gabor is Irby’s cousin, who’s moved in with him to go to the high school. Layne and Vaughan-Gabor kiss, only to be interrupted by Irby, leading to Vaughan-Gabor not wanting to talk to Layne and Layne all of a sudden ostracized at school.

The personal turmoil weighs on Layne, knocking her down. If the second act ends when things are direst for the hero, Veracity manages to have two ends of second acts, but only one third act resolution. Greene was a high school senior when she wrote the script, which doesn’t matter exactly, but does just impress more. There’s so many moving layers, influencing each other at different points throughout and at different intensities. The script’s just so good.

As is Mann’s direction. As is Layne’s performance. They all work together so perfectly. Veracity is steady and assured, but also nimble and inventive. Sometimes it’s in Mann’s direction, sometimes in Greene’s script, sometimes in Layne’s performance. Vaughan-Gabor’s really good (all the acting is really good, Harper and Irby too and Aubrey Marquez in a single scene), but no one else has as many opportunities as Layne and she takes them all. Such a good lead performance.

Veracity is exceptional.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Seith Mann; written by Janaya Greene; director of photography, Tommy Maddox-Upshaw; edited by Christopher Dillon; music by Albert Chang; production designer, Amanda Brinton; produced by Rob York for Scenarios USA.

Starring KiKi Layne (Olivia), Shea Vaughan-Gabor (Imani), Christina D. Harper (Karolyn), Denzel Irby (James), Dominica Strong (Sage), Tai Davis (Ms. Gillian), and Aubrey Marquez (Joseph).


My Scientology Movie (2015, John Dower)

My Scientology Movie almost ought to be called Our Scientology Movie as much of the film plays like a buddy movie between documentary filmmaker Louis Theroux and ex-Scientology chief enforcer Marty Rathbun. Theroux doesn’t want to make a buddy movie with Rathbun, he wants to go and tour the Scientology campus and interview Scientology head man David Miscavige. Who’s also Tom Cruise’s BFF. But more on Tom Cruise later.

Only Miscavige doesn’t give interviews and Theroux can’t tour the campus. So then he starts talking to the only people he can—ex-Scientologists. He meets up with an actor, Steven Mango, who used to be a member and gives Theroux some of the scoop. Rathbun comes in once Theroux comes up with a plan to make the documentary without interviews of any active Scientologists. He’s going to take existing interview footage of Miscavige (along with leaked, wacky, kind of scary really promotional videos from inside the Church) and hire actors to do scenes as Miscavige. Rathbun’s going to be there to help cast the part, since he was that aforementioned chief enforcer. He got things done for Miscavige. Like hiring private investigators to stalk people. After Rathbun fell out with Miscavige, he left the Church and wrote some tell-alls and pissed them off for years. Including during the filming of this movie. They show up to harass him, which gets to be one of the wackier ways the Church responds to the documentary. On one hand, whenever they’re dealing with Theroux without Rathbun, they threaten Theroux with made-up laws and promises to drop a dime so the cops can come out, read Theroux’s permit, leave the scene. Watching Theroux address the never-identified as Church employees Church employees is fairly disquieting, as the Church employees come off like they’re Bond henchmen. Only Blofeld never shows up. Oddjob never even shows up. Theroux’s biggest back and forth is with a woman hired to pretend to be producing a documentary about “people” and film Rathbun and Theroux from across the street.

Most of the interactions Theroux has with the Scientologists come off like candid camera moments. Not the ones Rathbun has with them—like I said, they’re chill with Theroux with Rathbun, but when Rathbun’s all alone, they go wild. Theroux’s got a reserved take on Rathbun—it’s not a functional buddies buddy flick—but Rathbun comes off really sincere. All of the ex-Scientologists do, especially when they’re trying to show Theroux how stoic they can appear (thanks to all their Church trainings).

So Theroux and Rathbun first do a casting call for Miscavige, eventually going with the utterly fantastic Andrew Perez. Theroux runs a pretty chill in-movie movie production where the actors don’t really seem to worry about much except having a good time; only Perez is always on. He’s always intense. You get to watch him prepare for this performance and then give it. His brief Miscavige “moments” are the tapioca balls in the film’s boba. They’re just so good. It’s immaterial to the film whether or not Perez nails not just “the scene” but his process leading up to it, but he always does. So good.

But even though Theroux’s getting the Church’s attention, it’s not getting him anywhere getting on campus much less an interview with Miscavige. He and Rathbun are just going to have to keep going with their reenactment production. They want a Tom Cruise, because there’s this disturbing promotional video Cruise did for the Church and it’s like couch-jumping then stopping to rip the couch apart with your bare hands and maybe bite a cushion just to be sure. Rob Alter is the Tom Cruise. He’s good too.

And Theroux’s interviewing other ex-Scientologists. One (Marc Headley) takes Theroux (and Movie) on some road trips, which then become a regular occurrence because Theroux really pisses them off whenever he shows up at the movie production company compound.

Like, it’s a Roger Moore James Bond movie. It’s like if they’d done Diamonds Are Forever with Moore. It’s goofy. Then you remember it’s real and it starts getting really scary. Because the Scientologists aren’t out to destroy the world or turn it into a giant diamond or whatever, they’re trying to save it from itself. Movie knows it has to frequently remind it’s real life. It’s not fantasy. At all.

Lawyers get involved, sending Theroux what amounts to a high school trash talk note about his new friend Rathbun. So Theroux tries to respond to the letter and can’t get anyone to take it. So the Church’s lawyers want to send trash talk notes but not receive presumably lawyerly responses?

So maybe it’s like a conspiracy movie spoof and a seventies James Bond movie.

And Theroux—despite having a lot of dry laughs—isn’t out to do a hit piece. Not an exceptional one. He doesn’t get into any rumors, any conspiracy theories, blackmail theories. There’s nothing about how Battlefield Earth is just a thin fictionalization of Church history. Theroux’s really interested in how Church founder L. Ron Hubbard saw himself as a big-time movie director because he directed the Church’s inspirational movies. Theroux’s looking for a Hollywood connection, especially since the “clearing” procedures the film shows (advised by Rathbun) often seem like acting class exercises. Theroux can’t quite get there, but when he can’t make it, it’s not like he falls back to easy targets. He does it straight and… ahem… clear. He tried to make this movie, he couldn’t for these reasons, here’s what he did.

My Scientology Movie raises a whole lot of questions and provides very few answers. Theroux, director (and co-writer) Dower, editor Paul Carlin, cinematographer Will Pugh, they make a great picture. Awesome music from Dan Jones too. Jones never takes anything too seriously and the “sci-fi movie” motif he brings back time and again is more endearing than a dig.

It’s superb.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Dower; written by Dower and Louis Theroux; director of photography, Will Pugh; edited by Paul Carlin; music by Dan Jones; production designer, Alessandro Marvelli; produced by Simon Chinn; released by Altitude Film Distribution.

Starring Andrew Perez (David Miscavige) and Rob Alter (Tom Cruise); presented by Louis Theroux.


Room (2015, Lenny Abrahamson)

Room is the story of a woman (Brie Larson) and her son (Jacob Tremblay) who, after seven years in captivity by rapist Sean Bridgers (Tremblay being born as a result of one of those rapes), escape and have to adjust to the outside world. The film is from Tremblay’s perspective, with some occasional narration. Though never when the film actually needs narration. Screenwriter Emma Donoghue adapted her own novel, which kind of explains why the perspective is so unchanging, even when it’s not working on film. There are these scenes with Tremblay without narration where his behavior begs explanation. Instead, Donoghue and director Abrahamson just let the audience ponder. Abrahamson actually ignores the presence of the narration because he’s concentrating on Larson. Room wants to be both through Tremblay’s perspective but really be Larson’s movie.

It doesn’t work out in either department. Larson gets this amazing character and character arc, but then when the movie needs her to go away, she’s gone. Only the movie then sticks with Tremblay, which makes sense if it’s a first person novel, but not the movie because just because child Tremblay doesn’t understand what’s going on, the audience does. It’s a dodge. But then the film doesn’t really go deep on Tremblay, instead it just shifts that perspective to Joan Allen and William H. Macy as the grandparents. Of the two, Allen gets the better part but Macy gets the better scenes. There’s never enough with Larson and either of them, since it’s all got to be tethered to Tremblay.

However, outside its problems with perspective—both in the direction and on a fundamental level with the screenwriting–Room is outstanding. Abrahamson and editor Nathan Nugent work up this harrowing pace for the captivity sequence. Again, there are the nitpicky perspective things, but the film effectively and immediately drops the audience into this extraordinarily confined existence with Larson and Tremblay. The opening present action isn’t too long. The film starts on or just before Tremblay’s fifth birthday. The rest of the action plays out in the next week. For that section. The second half’s present action appears to take months but doesn’t really matter once Larson’s no longer narratively relevant.

So while Abrahamson never wows for thriller sequences or sublime ones, he also never tries for a wow only to miss. His direction is confident and deliberate, which the film does need. Room has so many ways it could go wrong and can’t really afford any missteps because they’d mess up the momentum of Larson’s performance. Because even though Tremblay has the bigger adjustment—she been telling him the real world was just something on the TV until the middle of the first act—Larson’s got a lot more repercussions. Though, again, both Larson and Tremblay get cheated out of dealing with those repercussions on screen.

Basically there needs to be a dramatic stylistic shift somewhere in the second half and there isn’t. Abrahamson never gives the impression of guiding the film. He’s always sticking to the script and doing well directing it, getting some amazing moments from his entire cast, but Room never quite feels organic. It feels raw—though the occasionally too smooth digital video hurts that impression rather than helping it. Oh. And the wide Panavision aspect ratio, which… just… no.

Larson’s performance is spectacular. She’s got a lot of big, dramatic moments and she nails them all. Even when the script doesn’t stick with her. In fact, Larson sort of sums of the problem with Room. Abrahamson knows the movie needs to be all about Larson’s performance and how her character arc affects Tremblay. Meanwhile, Room is actually from the perspective of Tremblay. The script doesn’t care what Abrahamson or Larson come up with.

But the script’s also excellent. It’s just… got a perspective problem.

Tremblay’s quite good. It’s impossible to imagine Room without Tremblay, but it’s also impossible to imagine a Room where Tremblay’s the protagonist and not the erstwhile subject of the picture. Because it’s not his movie, his part has nowhere near the possibility of Larson’s.

Allen’s good, Macy’s good. Tom McCamus is good. Bridgers is terrifying. Amanda Brugel has a great scene as a cop (with Joe Pingue as her “holy shit, men are useless” partner).

Stephen Rennicks’s music is effective.

Room’s story is bold. Not ostentatious, just bold. It’s a bold story, with a bold performance from Larson. It’s just not a bold film. It’s not a boldly produced film. It’s safe. It’s quite good, often spectacular, but it’s way too safe.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson; screenplay by Emma Donoghue, based on her novel; director of photography, Danny Cohen; edited by Nathan Nugent; music by Stephen Rennicks; production designer, Ethan Tobman; produced by David Gross and Ed Guiney; released by A24.

Starring Brie Larson (Joy), Jacob Tremblay (Jack), Joan Allen (Nancy), Tom McCamus (Leo), William H. Macy (Robert), Amanda Brugel (Officer Parker), Joe Pingue (Officer Grabowski), and Sean Bridgers (Old Nick).


The Witch (2015, Robert Eggers)

The Witch is very creepy. It has to be. There’s a lot of scary music, done to scary effect. Cuts to black and the like. Ominous forest. Cut to black. Very creepy.

Whether or not it’s scary is another matter. It’s somewhat disturbing. But it’s set in the seventeenth century and it’s serious. So it’s not like the characters have much happiness ahead of them anyway. There’s nothing idealized. Their religiosity, the production design, the costumes, director Eggers creates a fantastic verisimilitude.

It’s based on actual witch trial court records and contemporary accounts.

Of course, it presupposes witches. I mean, there are some very subtle hints at another explanation, but there’s a witch like five minutes in. There’s a demon rabbit. There’s all sorts of stuff, even before the film hits the third act when it becomes a series of responsibly budgeted supernatural set pieces. So it’s about witches. Well, it’s about this impoverished seventeenth century farming family who has witches interfere with them.

For the most part, the film’s pretty good. Eggers is a fine director. Craig Lathrop’s production design is great. Everything looks and smells miserable. Jarin Blaschke’s photography is good. Mark Korven’s music–scary or not–is effective. Not ambitious, but neither is anything else in the film. Eggers is always very concerned with his adherence to historical reality–or his recreation of it–the film’s tightly wound.

Occasionally, it seems like the film’s going to break free of its many constraints–there’s a lot of talk about taking lead Anya Taylor-Joy–teenage daughter in the family–off to town to become a servant for another family. The promise of town–just seeing something besides the family’s house and, occasionally, the dense forest–works to open the film up for a while. It seems bigger. But it’s not bigger. It’s still just as constrained. The implication is another responsibly budgeted device from Eggers. He does a fine job making this film.

Lots of good acting. Taylor-Joy’s quite good until the somewhere in the second act, around the time father Ralph Ineson starts accusing her of being a witch. At that point, everything Taylor-Joy does becomes suspect, because–since there’s nowhere to go–eventually everyone (except Ineson) becomes a witch suspect. The film doesn’t move through the suspects and clear them, it bunches them all up at once and then puts them aside–physically in some cases–while Ineson continues his breakdown.

Ineson’s breakdown is one of the bigger disappointments in the film. He’s very good at being the suffering father, who can’t get on the right side of God no matter what he does. Though the family ended up on the farm in the first place because Ineson couldn’t stop telling the other Puritans about the right side of God. It kind of matters, but really doesn’t. The Witch’s real history is nowhere near as compelling as the implied history.

The witch stuff–the possibility of a witch targeting the family–comes in real early. Early enough there’s not any actual character development, which is another of the film’s efficiencies. Setting a film in the seventeenth century and not having to worry about character development? Makes things easier.

Kate Dickie’s okay as the mother. She gets a bad role. At some point she just becomes hysterical, which is no doubt realistic but… so what. You’ve got demon rabbits. You can have the mother character not become hysterical to the point of caricature. Beautifully lighted, realistically costumed caricature.

But the best performances are from the twin toddlers–Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson–who cause such trouble around the farm. But also might be agents of the dark one. Eggers is subtlest with the toddlers. Tween Harvey Scrimshaw is becoming a man, which apparently meant perving on your sister (Taylor-Joy) in the seventeenth century, and Eggers uses it to ominous effect. But the toddlers are just obnoxious toddlers. Obnoxious toddlers just happens to be almost no different from demonic ones. It’s Eggers’s deftest move in the script, which sorely needs some deft moves.

The movie only runs ninety minutes and Eggers keeps it moving–until the third act, which still moves just off the eye-roll cliff–but he keeps it moving by keeping it lean and manipulative. He doesn’t have creative solutions to narrative problems because he doesn’t bother with narrative problems. It’s reductively told, which becomes obvious just over halfway through but the production values are so strong you don’t want to think Eggers is going to aim so low.

The film never wastes its actors because it never gives them anything more than exactly what it needs to succeed, so it doesn’t fail anyone. Sure, Ineson could’ve had better scenes but so could Taylor-Joy, so could Dickie. But they didn’t need to have better scenes; not for where Eggers was going.

It does move well. At least until the third act, when Eggers just gives up on the idea of protagonists, leads, or points of view and goes all in on the manipulative. But, by then, who cares. The Witch isn’t disappointing or frustrating or even tedious (until the last thirty minutes). It’s just… eh.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Robert Eggers; director of photography, Jarin Blaschke; edited by Louise Ford; music by Mark Korven; production designer, Craig Lathrop; produced by Daniel Bekerman, Lars Knudsen, Jodi Redmond, Rodrigo Teixeira, and Jay Van Hoy; released by A24.

Starring Anya Taylor-Joy (Thomasin), Ralph Ineson (William), Kate Dickie (Katherine), Harvey Scrimshaw (Caleb), Ellie Grainger (Mercy), and Lucas Dawson (Jonas).


Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015, Christopher McQuarrie)

While Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation doesn’t deliver much in the way of plot twists, it instead delivers a lot of easy smiles and a handful of good laughs. The easy smiles aren’t just for the action sequences, which often focus on characters’ reactions to them–sometimes relief, sometimes awe at Tom Cruise’s derring-do–but also for the chemistry. There’s not much in the way of character development in Rogue Nation (what does Ving Rhames do in his six months of retirement?), but the actors have a great time onscreen churning out the (relatively light) exposition and going through the espionage motions.

Rogue Nation opens with its biggest set piece–Cruise jumping on a cargo plane, which then takes off. Director (and writer) McQuarrie plays it for a nice combination of laughs and spectacle. Cruise’s sidekicks are all commenting on it, albeit sometimes from thousands of miles away. For the film’s first hour, McQuarrie relies on Simon Pegg for humor. Pegg doesn’t disappoint. After the first scene, it takes a while for Rhames to reappear, while Jeremy Renner (as the team’s permissive straight man) is a constant. First as the chiding presence, then as Cruise and company’s defender once CIA suit Alec Baldwin dismantles the IMF, making Cruise a fugitive.

Cruise is too busy hunting down an unknown villain–Sean Harris–who kidnapped him. Woman of mystery and ostensible Harris lackey Rebecca Ferguson helps free Cruise, just before he has to go on the run from Baldwin. Ferguson and Cruise’s scene, complete with complementary butt-kicking of Harris’s thugs, oozes with chemistry. It takes a while for Ferguson to return to the action; McQuarrie smartly doesn’t focus too much on Cruise–rather Pegg’s angle–because Cruise is… well… a little on snooze when Ferguson’s not present.

Eventually Cruise gets the band back together and travels from Vienna to Morocco to London while pursuing Harris and Ferguson. Baldwin’s after them (sort of) and Ferguson’s disavowed British agent subplot figures in as well. There’s a big car chase in Morocco, a shootout in the Vienna opera house, an underwater heist, and some attempts at plot twists in the U.K. McQuarrie’s set pieces for the third act are all a lot smaller than the ones before. He’s trying to wrap up the film with narrative not action, which is fine, but far from exciting. Particularly because, like I mentioned before… his plot twists aren’t particularly surprising. If they aren’t predictable, they’re entirely inconsequential. Rogue Nation constantly amuses, but never surprises.

It also leaves a couple big questions unanswered, just because they don’t matter once the plot points they’re supporting are resolved. McQuarrie can’t be bothered with anything even hinting at character development. Sometimes he just avoids it by cutting away from a scene and changing the narrative distance–Cruise will take over after a Ferguson solo scene, so her resolution in her own scene becomes a plot point in his new one. Or McQuarrie just forgets about something. It’s more frustrating when he forgets about it, because then it’s clear it never mattered in the first place.

Technically, the film’s excellent. Fine editing from Eddie Hamilton, good photography from Robert Elswit (except in the finale, where it just seems a little too artificial), decent music from Joe Kraemer. A lot of Rogue Nation‘s technical competences are just competences; they’re perfunctory. The film’s strengths are in the performances and the actors’ chemistries. Not just Ferguson and Cruise, but Cruise and Pegg, Cruise and Rhames, Cruise and Renner. Even Rhames and Renner, who do this odd couple schtick for about three minutes spread over a half hour or so. There’s not a lot to their interplay, but it’s damned amusing when they’re onscreen together.

And Harris is good as the odious villain. Rogue Nation sets him up as this terrorist mastermind, but doesn’t show any of the terror (good thing Cruise is really affecting when he’s passionate enough to yell). But when Harris is scheming or terrorizing Ferguson? He’s good. Understated. Maybe the only understated thing in the entire film.

Of the supporting good guys, Pegg’s best. He’s got the most to do. He’s even got the start of a character arc. Renner and Rhames are both fine. No heavy lifting, just easy smiles.

Cruise and Ferguson get the most screen time, with Ferguson getting more of the heavy lifting acting. Cruise has a little, but nothing compared to her. Just more than everyone else. Except–maybe–Pegg. And Cruise gets to do some straight humor scenes, which is nice. Unfortunately, McQuarrie hurries through them.

Baldwin’s in a glorified cameo. It ought to be stunt casting, but it’s hard to identify why it’s much of a stunt.

Rogue Nation is constantly entertaining and never challenging, never ambitious. McQuarrie’s direction is even, he toggles more than adequately between the various elements–humor, action, thriller, exposition–he just doesn’t shine at any of them. Except maybe the humor, which he eschews in the second half for the most part. He’s able to get away with some sincerity, however, thanks to Cruise and company. The actors are able to sell it.

The film’s a fine diversion. But it’s clear from the end of the first act it’s never going to particularly excel overall.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Christopher McQuarrie; screenplay by McQuarrie, based on the television series created by Bruce Geller; director of photography, Robert Elswit; edited by Eddie Hamilton; music by Joe Kraemer; production designer, Jim Bissell; produced by Tom Cruise, J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Dana Goldberg, David Ellison, and Don Granger; released by Paramount Pictures

Starring Tom Cruise (Ethan Hunt), Rebecca Ferguson (Ilsa Faust), Sean Harris (Lane), Simon Pegg (Benji Dunn), Jeremy Renner (William Brandt), Ving Rhames (Luther Stickell), Jens Hultén (Vinter), Simon McBurney (Atlee), and Alec Baldwin (Hunley).


Magic Mike XXL (2015, Gregory Jacobs)

Every once and a while, Magic Mike XXL throws in some vague nod towards having character development. It doesn’t. And the movie knows it doesn’t need any, but it still pretends it does. All of the characters have the same arc, with the exception of “lead” Channing Tatum. He’s only the lead because he’s Magic Mike and because he’s got the biggest romance subplot; he keeps running into Amber Heard and they awkwardly flirt. Awkwardly but with chemistry. There’s no narrative purpose to them flirting and the script doesn’t pretend there’s enough material, but XXL’s scenes run… well, extra long and so instead of witty banter, there’s charismatic silences and pauses. It’s cute. Magic Mike XXL, when it’s not being raunchy (in an adorable way), is adorable in not raunchy ways.

Anyway. Tatum. He’s the wise man of a group of male entertainers–Joe Manganiello, Kevin Nash, Matt Bomer, and Adam Rodriguez. He’s the only one who’s gotten out of the male entertaining (stripper) life, while the rest of them are all immediately going to be getting out of it. They’ve got one more big stripping convention to attend and then they’re done. It’s never exactly clear why it’s their last weekend (though Bomer at least seems like he’s sticking with it). Manganiello is going into landscape architecture, but wants to come up with trendy products. Nash wants to be a painter. Rodriguez is going to run the frozen yogurt half of a frozen yogurt slash mobile block party van (Gabriel Iglesias is his partner and the group’s emcee). Bomer wants to be an actor. All of them are terrified of their futures, but Tatum is there to assure them they need to believe in themselves.

All that backstory is just to give them banter while the movie road trips. While Magic Mike XXL is, technically, a road movie, it’s more about where they stop. Where they stop and strip. Whether it’s a convenience store–when the guys are all tripping on ecstasy and Tatum is trying to convince them to strip to what they love, not what’s commercially viable–or Andie MacDowell’s living room, once the movie gets going, the road tripping is just to get them to one dancing engagement or another. Except when it’s Jada Pinkett Smith’s party house; there it’s usually other guys stripping (for a while) while Tatum and Pinkett Smith flirt.

There are narrative reasons for most of these things. Usually to enable the next move for the guys. They have some trouble on the road trip and need help. Along the way, they resolve their leftover issues with one another from the last movie and fret about their non-male entertaining futures.

It’s cute. And fun. And often really funny.

Tatum’s an appealing lead. He doesn’t have to do much, except dance. He can definitely dance. Only Nash and Rodriguez lack in the dancing department. Otherwise all the dancing is good; the choreography, depending on the guy dancing, can be excellent. But it’s not like Tatum’s got a character arc. He’s entirely altruistic and entirely divested. He’s not even really pursuing Heard, just trying to convince her to enjoy guys stripping in her proximity. The movie never wants to be taken too seriously; it often demands not to be, in fact.

Makes it even more likable.

Manganiello’s good. Heard’s fine. Bomer’s annoying. Nash is all right. Rodriguez makes little impression. Pinkett Smith goes–gloriously–all in, like she’s auditioning her character for a spin-off. MacDowell and Elizabeth Banks–both in extended and obvious cameos–are all right. XXL could do better with the cameos. It doesn’t have enough fun with them. Donald Glover seems rather lost, even if his singing contributions are solid.

Jacobs’s direction is okay. He’s got a Panavision frame but mostly just uses the center of the screen to showcase the dancing. He mixes it up a bit with the dialogue, which is a lot better. Executive producer, cinematographer, and editor Steven Soderbergh does entirely competent work in all his roles… but none of it’s particularly exciting. XXL doesn’t want to get ahead of itself and profess ambition. Other than being fun.

And it works out. Magic Mike XXL’s usually fun.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Gregory Jacobs; written by Reid Carolin; director of photography, Steven Soderbergh; edited by Soderbergh; production designer, Howard Cummings; produced by Carolin, Jacobs, Channing Tatum, and Nick Wechsler; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Channing Tatum (Mike), Joe Manganiello (Big Dick Richie), Matt Bomer (Ken), Kevin Nash (Tarzan), Adam Rodriguez (Tito), Amber Heard (Zoe), Jada Pinkett Smith (Rome), Gabriel Iglesias (Tobias), Donald Glover (Andre), Elizabeth Banks (Paris), and Andie MacDowell (Nancy Davidson).


Touched with Fire (2015, Paul Dalio)

Somewhere early in Touched with Fire’s third act, it becomes clear there’s not going to be any performance potential from leads Luke Kirby and Katie Holmes. The movie doesn’t really want to be about them. Director (and writer) Dalio skips all the character development, leaving Holmes dulled and Kirby perpetually in between a Zach Braff impression and a Casey Affleck one.

Same goes for “special guest stars”–but in the low budget sense, not the late seventies melodrama one–Bruce Altman, Griffin Dunne, and Christine Lahti. While Dalio’s script shafts them all, it’s unequal. Altman has the smallest part, which is kind of best given Dunne and Lahti don’t get any character development either. They get a lot of dramatic setup for character development; once again, Dalio’s not interested.

In fact, Dalio’s never interested in anything long enough in Touched With Fire for it to stick.

Holmes and Kirby are bipolar young adults who just happen to be in their mid-thirties. They look good for it, but they still clearly are too old to have so few life experiences. They live in New York City, both supported by their parents. Dunne is Kirby’s dad, Lahti and Altman are Holmes’s parents. The film introduces the principals (including Dunne and Lahti), then contrives a way to get Kirby and Holmes together. They’re both committed, Kirby because of criminal behavior, Holmes because the doctor cons her into it.

Maryann Urbano is great as the doctor. It’s also one of the better written roles in Dalio’s script; Urbano’s behavior and actions towards Kirby and Holmes are consistent. No one else is ever consistent. They sway with the changing winds of scene need.

So after not liking one another, Kirby and Holmes soon bond over poetry. Holmes is formerly successful (and published) poet–the timeline on when is unclear–and Kirby is a rap poet. Though Dalio never gets into what he means by rap poetry. It’s associative rhyming. When the film starts, Kirby is popular at his performances, Holmes is not.

Kirby thinks being bipolar informs his creativity, Holmes… well, actually, it’s never clear what Holmes thinks. Because–even though the film shows her writing poetry a lot–her feelings about it are never even acknowledged. Unless it’s one of the scenes where Kirby’s telling her how she doesn’t feel about it. Those scenes are in that ramshackle third act.

Anyway. Kirby and Holmes fall in love (while committed) but circumstances separate them. When they do get back together, determined to embrace the creative benefits of being bipolar, the film turns into a series of montages. It already had a bunch of montages while they were meeting in the middle of the night, but there was at least drama there. They poison an attendant. They battle Urbano. Their respective parents dismiss them. There’s drama.

Not in the later montages. In those montages, as the film has already shown the dangers of their mania, have some drama as they get closer and closer to the disaster, but not really. Because all the self-destructive character traits Kirby exhibited before meeting Holmes? Gone. Does Dalio explore the change? Nope. It doesn’t really matter for Holmes because she’s now entirely defined by her relationship with her parents. Even though Dunne’s always along to disappoint Kirby, the scenes anchor around Lahti and Altman.

There’s also the film itself. It’s entitled Touched with Fire because of a book called Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament by Kay Redfield Jamison. Who appears in the film as herself, for a rather disappointing sequence. But the book is about famous creatives through history who were manic-depressive. Byron, Van Gogh (lots of Starry Night references in the film too), and many others. Kirby sees himself in that lot, mostly in the first and third acts.

Only Touched with Fire, the movie, never explores the characters’ creativity. Holmes doesn’t grow as a poet because of her relationship with Kirby. In fact, he controls her work. Or he doesn’t. It’s unclear. Because Dalio isn’t interested. So it’s a film about being creative without anything to say about actual creativity. Montages of being silly in public don’t cover it.

Both leads are disappointing. More Kirby because he’s got the bigger part. Dalio doesn’t give it anywhere to go. Holmes has somewhere to go–three times–and Dalio stays as far away from her as he can during them. Dunne and Lahti are great. More Dunne because Lahti gets some of the worst inconsistent behavior scenes. Altman’s fine. He’s got absolutely nothing to do except be present and Bruce Altman.

Dalio’s strength as a director in his ability to execute the production on its limited budget. His composition’s never terrible but sometimes predictable and never exciting. It’s boring without being tedious. He doesn’t direct the actors, which is a problem. The leads both need it. His musical score’s damned good though.

Editing and cinematography are both thoroughly competent. Better editing might’ve done wonders.

Touched with Fire has all sorts of interesting places to go and goes none of them. It frequently pretends the opportunities aren’t even there. And there was no reason for it to fall apart in the third act.

Watching Touched with Fire, you keep wanting it to get better or be better or do the right thing. It rarely does. And never when it counts.

1/4

CREDITS

Written, edited, and directed by Paul Dalio; directors of photography, Kristina Nikolova Dalio and Alexander Stanishev; music by Dalio; production designer, Kay Lee; produced by Jeremy Alter, Nikolova Dalio, and Jason Sokoloff; released by Roadside Attractions.

Starring Luke Kirby (Marco), Katie Holmes (Carla), Christine Lahti (Sara), Griffin Dunne (George), Maryann Urbano (Dr. Strinsky), Bruce Altman (Donald), Daniel Gerroll (Dr. Lyon), and Kay Redfield Jamison (Kay Jamison).


De Palma (2015, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow)

De Palma is director Brian De Palma talking about his films. He’s talking to the directors, Baumbach and Paltrow, but without ever addressing them by name. De Palma’s filmmakers have zero presence in the film, until the epilogue. Matt Mayer and Lauren Minnerath’s editing is magnificent, especially how they’re usually able to keep De Palma from referencing being interviewed. Because when he’s just talking, De Palma’s a natural storyteller. When he’s being interviewed, he wants to converse. He unintentionally implies De Palma has some specific layers, only it doesn’t. Because De Palma didn’t make the film.

De Palma sits in a chair and talks. He’s usually shot from a low angle and his hands gesticulate with almost three-dimensional effect. Then De Palma cuts to film clips. The film clips are fantastic. They emphasize De Palma’s most startlingly composition as a director, then also looking at his Steadicam shots.

When the film starts and De Palma is covering his student days, he’ll talk trash about people he worked with. He talks trash about Orson Welles not wanting to learn his lines, which was also a problem with Robert De Niro on The Untouchables. Only De Palma trashes Welles while making De Niro’s identical action seem cute. But there are more stories–Cliff Robertson’s no fun, John Cassavetes hates special effects–and then they stop. No more trash talk. Except the “cute” De Niro story.

There’s more focus on the technical aspects of the films and less about how De Palma got them made. It’s cool stuff.

When De Palma talks about his films, he acknowledges his divisiveness but doesn’t elaborate. He’s telling the same stories he’s always told. He’s not searching for some great introspective eureka, he’s doing an interview. He’s proud of some movies, he’s not proud of some others. Bad movies are never his fault. Pauline Kael likes him, he can’t be misogynistic. He likes some excellent classic movies. He doesn’t understand why people don’t like his movies.

De Palma’s a neat introduction to Brian De Palma movies. It’s well-produced but otherwise simply a lengthy pitch reel for De Palma.

It’s also a little dishonest. Paltrow and Baumbach shot the interview in 2010. There are clips from a 2012 film, integrated like De Palma’s talking about it. And it changes how the epilogue plays.

As far as documentary filmmaking goes, De Palma is basically a “professional” YouTube video, which is fine. At least it’s not pretentious. And De Palma’s a fun interviewee.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow; edited by Matt Mayer and Lauren Minnerath; released by A24.

Starring Brian De Palma.


Off to the Vet (2015, Simon Tofield)

Off to the Vet is a longer “Simon’s Cat” cartoon. Eleven minutes instead of three. As always, creator Simon Tofield comes up with a series of annoying cat problems for the titular cat to cause. Here, the cat gets a bee sting on the paw and suffers until owner Simon has to take him to the vet.

There’s the preparation for getting the cat into the carrier, which takes up most of the run time. It’s kind of a battle of the wits, with the cat often winning.

Vet’s success lies in Tofield’s affable animation and his patience in setting up the jokes. Or just honest observations from cat ownership. They’re funny so long as they’re not happening to you. And no one can really get hurt in Off to the Vet, Tofield never lets the cats draw blood.

It’s a solid short. Precious in just the right ways.

However, it probably has zero appeal to non-cat owners (other than for its precious cuteness).

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Simon Tofield; written by Tofield and Emma Burch; music by Stuart Hancock; produced by Burch.


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