Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)

The weird thing is that this film’s most hyped stunt is both right at the start of the movie, and doesn’t deliver much beyond what you get in the trailer. Compare this to Ghost Protocol’s Dubai Tower scene which was certainly shown in the trailer but had so much else going to build it out. Thus we can say that as impressive a feat as hanging onto the side of a plane is, this film does not match the prior film’s middle sequence (or the first film’s climactic train sequence). And while making comparisons, the major heist sequence doesn’t live up to its counterpart from the first film. And yet, in many ways Rogue Nation feels the most successful since that first film.

The concept of the shadowy international organization isn’t new (I mean, the trailer for SPECTRE played in front of this), but they do hint at an interesting framing here, which basically notes that the intelligence operations of recognized powers are legitimated in many acts that would look malicious if not engaged by groups we ultimately trust. And yet, should we trust them, is the status quo they defend actually in our interest. If this offering is more interesting than the plot of any of the others, it isn’t actually capitalized on as any hint that the Syndicate might be using dubious tactics to some greater good is mostly abandoned so that we don’t question the film’s heroes TOO much.

Accepting that the film did go on a bit long and probably could have lost a twist and a set-piece along the way to tighten things up, what Rogue Nation does right is captured in the Morocco sequence at its center, complete with the heist plotting/execution, stunning car/motorcycle chases, Simon Pegg leading the way with greatly scripted/timed comedic relief and generally feeling comfort with our central foursome of characters. While I appreciate Rebecca Ferguson playing a woman who is equal to the men in combat and to some degree in playing the game, it isn’t exactly a rounded character and this film doesn’t even consider passing the Bechdel Test. Oh, and the editing gets a bit chaotic at times with the action. Warts and all though, this is still a better than average blockbuster.

B

Cub (2014)

Just the other day my father, a boy scout in his youth, was idly ruing that he never got me involved. For me, the thought of being in the boy scouts expands from the camp experience I did have, and generally my expectations of all settings where there is a significant all-male component. This is the horror scenario of testosterone run amok, complete with outward shows of machismo, often in the form of bullying of those who don’t measure up. It is from this mindset that I’d joke that Cub starts as a horror film and fades into fairy tale, though I reckon most would invert those two.

This scouting group is a form of hell for Sam, a bit of an outsider, as they go on a camping trip, with at least Sam put on edge by the story of a young werewolf boy being told by troop leaders Peter and Kris. It isn’t clear what is just ghost story, as the film opens with an attack on previous campers that is woven into the story, with the bizarre justification that it should be the boy scouts to head into and face off with this murderous threat. But I guess that does fit the insane male logic that presides in the group.

The early part of the film does set up an idle menace, from a pair of obnoxious locals to the information that the area has seen some conflict based on a factory that has shut down. It sets up a conflict between the local employment hardship versus these outsider’s recreational ventures, bridging class and national boundaries (these being the Flemish and the Walloons, two nations joined in one state, Belgium). At first there is a certain fantasy story aura as we are introduced to the alleged monster boy and find him more curious than deadly. Things do not remain so tranquil.

When things do descend into full-on horror, it starts with a fairly redemptive sense of revenge on those who seem most inclined to harass others, and we can indulge in some pretty clever kills. The film does ultimately feel like it runs off the rails in the name of shock and savagery. It accomplishes its main point but loses any moral high ground it might have tried for. This keeps it from a place of distinction, but not from being a fairly enjoyable film.

B-

To Sir, With Love (1967)

Everyone loves a bit of coincidence spotting. I’d put in this hold request earlier this week and then on Thursday it gets mentioned in Pop Culture Happy Hour’s discussion of music in movies as an example of movie theme songs. Sharing the same title, it makes sense that the song To Sir, With Love is from this movie, but having heard that song many times before, I hadn’t really conceived of it as such. It’s a pretty great song that stands on its own, and good it is great because you hear at least parts of it no less than four times during the film, only one with thematic relevance/potency.

At this point, the teacher trying to handle a troubled class is a well worn genre, with my favorite being The Class. There was one scene in To Sir, With Love that recalls one of the more substantial moments of The Class, where Mr. Thackeray (Sidney Poitier) loses his temper and uses certain terms in relation to his female students. In The Class, this leads to a professional crisis, facing external rebuke, but here it is only a personal crisis, with internal critique as the only punishment. I guess it truly is a different era. This being so tolerated sat at odds with me a bit more than other dates aspects like the overwhelming heteronormativity of his wide-ranging class discussions. The assumption of heterosexuality, along with more rigid gender typing is something that I forgave as accurate of its time.

If the genre has become well worn, Poitier never feels trite. He has the gravitas to make you believe his effectiveness. The moments with various members of the class where he manages to work over their initial resistance to make them see deeper messages about adulthood and responsibility are generally excellent and applicable not just to those coming of age. I expect, as some of the students point out, plenty of adults have a lot to learn from him as well. Perhaps most valuable though is what he learns from them, the need to see past their behaviors to their own very adult challenges and inner conflicts. Just a very rich film.

B+

White God (2014)

Rise of the Planet of the Apes was an impressive animal rights parable, taking advantage of cutting edge technology to make us empathize with the Apes. White God is probably even more impressive because getting an effective result on this scale working with live animals seems an even greater feat, especially if you trust those involved to have done it in a safe and humane manner. It would be an ironic and bitter tragedy if a film made to highlight the abuse of animals and in a sense go full-on Inglorious Basterds revenge fantasy did so on the back of abuse. The opening text of the film tries to reassure us, as apparently this production in practice was a massive adoption campaign.

The opening scene is actually a glimpse near the end, and it takes a surprising amount of time getting there. Providing context, Lili (Zsófia Psotta) is being dropped with her dad as her mother pursues career and seemingly a fling, but her dad is none to happy with her dog, due to cost him money as apparently purebreds are favored. This leads to a forced separation and Hagen (Luke/Body) is forced out onto the street and the various peril that presents for a dog. Like RotPotA, we get a few key scenes where we see Hagen may not be your average member of his species, and the two dogs filling the role do a great job conveying emotions. The action scenes throughout take on a Greengrass sense of kinetics. If Hagen’s encounters show the worst of humanity, Lili’s continued determination displays the best, and these two halves build well to the conclusion.

There is a certain hazard here in that while thematically it would cater well to those with activist streaks for animal rights, the content is so tough, even if one gives the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt (and they do often leave things off screen and rely on suggestion), that a good portion of the natural audience probably couldn’t stomach it. While it is most obviously about animal rights, much like Planet of the Apes does into Dawn, there is plenty to extend into human metaphor about race or tribe, what with the focus on Hagen’s “mutt” status. Combining solid performance, startling filmmaking and a powerful thematic message, this builds into a stunning work, one of the best of the year.

A-

Trainwreck (2015)

Thinking about the recently stoked debate about the usefulness of boring as a description, it occurred to me that Trainwreck is a perfect place where boring is a sound adjective. What can one say about a film that starts with a fairly inspired, if crude, analogy from a father (Colin Quinn) to his daughters using their dolls to illustrate the potential irrationality behind an assumption of monogamy and ends with an affirmation of a monogamous lifestyle but boringly conventional. The best the film can argue is that it places its female lead, Amy (Amy Schumer) in the role of the promiscuous cad and beefy men like John Cena and LeBron James as voices of romantic idealism. But while this hints at a certain expression of equality, it is equality along traditional terms.

Perhaps a problem is that Amy isn’t all that likable. She seems to be a poor journalist, certainly one with lacking ethics. More tellingly, she approaches promiscuity in an almost predatory way, with little regard for the men she brings into her bedroom and her life. Seemingly taking all her father’s bad traits, it is no wonder her life is a mess, but it isn’t her lack of monogamy that is the cause, however much the film might set the audience up to connect the two. That is why the move toward a monogamous happy ending feels boring.

Of course, running over two hours, there are plenty of scenes that feel either unnecessary or just carry on too long, so it can be a bit boring in the more mundane sense as well. There are a few laughs but they are pretty sparse relative to the length of the movie, so it doesn’t really work as comedy or drama. Riding a string of influential and incisive sketches from her TV show, this is a pretty complete disappointment.

C-

Amy (2015)

In many ways the existence of this film is a tragedy. Obviously the portrait it paints of mental illness and substance abuse getting the better of an otherwise upbeat and talented young woman is tragic, but that this film could be made, entirely out of existing footage is a tragedy of its own. While certain home video and clips from appearances at awards shows and on talk shows are generally innocent enough, a certain amount of what we see comes from tabloid or other media sources content to exploit her for both good or bad, whatever would get ratings. Even before watching this film, I might be inclined to paraphrase the classic joke “what do you call 100 tabloid photographers at the bottom of the sea? A good start,” but in a few places here they capture the chaos and claustrophobia of the tabloid culture. Combined with other things like a reality TV show her dad gets involved with display the media behaving in a way that would border on criminal negligence. Surely there are individual freedoms that stand against a free press and free speech.

And yet the bulk of our interaction with any of these figures is through this media and few of us can really plead innocent of demanding more from our stars (though I don’t know if I’d be willing, out of respect or maybe just anxiety, to go up to a famous person randomly to ask for a photo or something), or maybe having a laugh at the latest erratic behavior from a fallen star. The most popular blog post I’ve ever done was a post taking the media to task for body shaming famous people for getting old, but the reason it got the hits was because it had a tag/picture of Amy Winehouse and the thought that it might be more tolerable to highlight her appearance as an anti-drug message, certainly than pointing to a 40 year old actress for having cellulite. In the context of watching this film, even that relatively minor statement feels wildly inappropriate.

The film’s success is it kind of condemns society for the way it exploits people, but does safely manage to avoid feeling like it is trying to capitalize on her life. Aside from this aspect, the film does do a good job building context from Amy’s life to show how she converted things into song. As much as I respect her voice, I only really like two, maybe three of her songs, so to some degree the film felt drawn out in part because of an excess of songs, though it rarely repeats a song. Still, Asif Kapadia has now firmly established himself as a master of the archival documentary, though I’d probably still give Senna the edge. I just kind of hope he can find a project that doesn’t revolve around tragedy.

B

A Summer’s Tale (1996)

That mubi trial is already paying off. My first three Rohmer films a baseline interest in his style, without actually feeling distinctly drawn to any of the actual films. What caught me early in A Summer’s Tale was how the conversation between Gaspard and Margot recalled Before Sunset. While this film comes a year after that film, it’s probably fair to say that Linklater would be more inspired by Rohmer’s small-moment humanism than vice versa. In this case the two talk about their respective lovers that are out of the country and leaving them somewhat in doubt, and watching their easy chemistry one expects they might develop a romance, but quickly Margot deflects his interest to a friend of hers.

The key strength of this film is the familiarity of the situation. He has a current girlfriend who claims to be interested but seems to agonize him by remaining rather distant, he has Margot’s friend, who is rather keen but not necessarily sparking his interest, and then you have Margot who seems ideal, but isn’t letting him in. Because none hits that zone of mutual interest, he finds it hard to commit to any one and it leads to a bit of drama. This all is familiar to why attempts at dating usually end with me curled in the fetal position, there’s just so much social nuance.

Even though it is effectively hitting a point home, it is a bit of a problem for the film that Margot (Amanda Langlet) is so much more appealing than the others. I didn’t immediately recognize Langlet from playing the lead in Pauline at the Beach, though I’m sure I was crushing on her there, but here she encourages full-blown adoration (helped in that she’s more my age at this point). The contrast is such that scenes with the other women are a bit dull and start making the film feel stretched. Usually Rohmer shows good timing to not have her out of the picture for too long and ultimately delivers a masterful relationship drama.

A-

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