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.


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.


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.


Pompeii (2014)

I’m not sure how Jon Snow got to the fighting pits of Meereen, but this was one damn good episode of Game of Thrones. The film’s opening scene shows Milo (Kit Harrington) watch as his family and really his whole society is slaughtered at the command of General Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland), and a classic revenge story is born. As fate would have it, Milo, known as a gladiator as The Celt is shipped off to fight in Pompeii just as Corvus, now a Roman Senator, is headed there to exert power and generally scheme. While on the path to Pompeii, Cassia (Emily Browning), the daughter of the most influential man of Pompeii is taken with Milo’s gentleness with a struggling horse and a classic star-crossed lovers story.

I’ve already mentioned two classic stories, and no, this isn’t an original story and unlike Game of Thrones it doesn’t have those moments of shock or of violence that will leave you buzzing…it is a decidedly PG-13 venture. Yet classic stories are classic for a reason. We want to cheer for Milo and fellow gladiator Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) show gladiatorial honor and fight against the powerful and deceptive Romans with all their petty political games. We want to see a consensual, loving relationship bloom in the face of attempts to force matches of political convenience.

If Game of Thrones has succeeded in part because it so often cuts against the conventional storytelling that rewards virtue and honor above all else, Pompeii offers the perfect response in the looming presence of Mt. Vesuvius. Reality may not care about virtue, but mother nature doesn’t care about any human concerns. Game of Thrones contrives intrigue asking how and when and why various people will die, mother nature knows that ultimately everyone will. And in that knowledge, how one lives or how one faces death becomes paramount, and that makes for a rewarding exploration. While solidly enough acted, Pompeii may lack the polish of Game of Thrones, but it also lacks the nasty aftertaste.


Foxfire (2012)

Admittedly it has been a long time since I watched the 90s adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates novel from that same decade, but while there are a few shared elements, this new version, which apparently runs closer to the novel, surprised me a bit in where it went. First off, though this is from French director Laurent Cantet and seems to have been largely produced by the French, it is in English, set in rural New York in the 1950s. Going back to a period setting allows it to capture some themes that the modernized 90s version cut out.

Both films largely start with the same galvanizing event, the decision to shame an abusive teacher. This brings them together as an activist/vigilante feminist group seeking out those men that harm women. At this point it lives a bit in the shadow of Lisbeth Salander, though as things develop it gets a bit SCUM Manifesto. Even as the film gets your sympathy for the girls, led by Legs (Raven Adamson), pushing back against the forces that subjugate women: men, capitalism, religion, the rigidly structured utopic community is subject to human weakness and we see the Foxfire gang spin out of control. Of course, if one wants to make Soviet comparisons, keep in mind that these are teenager girls who remain on the margin of society, not a ruling body that became a global superpower.

Overall, it just feels a lot more biting politically than the 90s version’s more Lifetime movies level narrative. In this case, bringing in a French director, from a country that often enough elects Socialists, might give him the boldness not to cut out those aspects that still remain taboo in American culture. Perhaps curiously, this is perhaps the chaster film, at least it doesn’t contrive an excuse for “teenage” girls to get topless. Ultimately the film is carried by Adamson, in the role played by Angelina Jolie in the earlier adaptation. She conveys the force of personality and political fire to make you believe how far people come to follow in that path.


The Dead (1987)

The power of a short story is that it can capture just a moment, without feeling compelled to speak of all the moments that surround it as larger works often feel compelled to do. Adapted from James Joyce’s novella-length work, The Dead assembles a group of family and associates for a holiday party. While it only encompasses a few hours of story time, in less than 90 minutes of film time, in a way it still speaks to all of the moments that surround it.

There is a stark contrast between the setting of a party and the largely melancholic mood. There is a lot of talk about the music that once was, the country that was, the traditions that were and love that was. The way a modern party might involve a host of people distracted by social media on their phones, so the attention of those in attendance is distracted by their past. As filmmaking goes, this thematic element leads toward a film full of understated acting, which is to my preference. Only the alcoholic Freddy can be described as a truly big character, and even he is tame compared to how most films treat that kind of character.

That it is both elegant and literary is both boon and burden as while I appreciated the art of it, I didn’t feel overwhelmingly drawn in. At least on first viewing I felt more of an invisible observer than an invitee with an emotional bond to the characters. That is what keeps it from greatness for me but I can easily see how it would reach that place for others.


Merchants of Doubt (2014)

Pretty snazzy construction and dissection of the machinery and tactics behind corporate movements to contradict scientific claims of health dangers tied to their businesses. Starting with the long battle over the dangers of cigarettes, with a few other stops along the way, the real emphasis here is on climate change denialism. I do like the metaphor of magic tricks (sorry Gob, illusions), especially the notion that once the manner of the trick is revealed that you will spot it from then on is a hopeful notion. It certainly makes the film seem important as it is claiming to be the revelation of the trick. If we could get everyone to watch it, would they become immune to this sales job? No, probably not.

Perhaps the most interesting section for me was the interview with a writer for Skeptic Magazine, who draws a line from environmental scares of the 70s (Ehrlich’s population bomb) that were busts, and how that led him to be skeptical of climate change claims…until the reality was simply undeniable for him. To some degree there doesn’t seem to be enough of this talk about the counterpoint myths. Things like cigarettes and climate change fit a comfortable narrative of science versus industry. But what of current issues like GMOs or vaccine refusal where science largely lines up with industry and the merchants of doubt in that case tend to be more liberal, though I suppose less influential. Bill Maher or Robert F. Kennedy Jr. are names and have platforms, but they don’t have the concerted power of the Koch Brothers’ billions. The other important difference is in one case the science stands against the status quo while on the other it stands with the status quo. In a system where it is hard to change, having the status quo on your side is a great benefit to the merchants of doubt this film covers.

Even if it doesn’t cover everything to the degree I’d like, it ultimately is a very useful film to understand how things work. It importantly doesn’t lay the blame directly at the feet of lobbyists and campaign contributions, instead being much more focused on media coverage and public outreach. It is by playing the voters that they ultimately are able to then go in and influence the politicians.



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