Friday, June 15, 2018

Movie Review: Incredibles 2

Let's start by addressing the wrong question: Is this as good as the first one?

The answer is not really, but it doesn't try to be. And that's important because, had it attempted to be as good as the original movie, it wouldn't have been as much fun as its predecessor. And Incredibles 2 actually does manage to pull off that feat. Hell, it might even be more fun.

The first installment was as good as it was largely due to the sense of wonder we experienced watching Dash and Violet discover their powers. But that's done - if this tried rehashing that, it would have been a mess. Wisely, it goes in a very different direction. No, wait - that's not quite accurate. Incredibles 2 goes in two different directions.

Most of the characters are tied up in a super-powered family comedy that feels like a 1960's sitcom bathed in radiation. It's weird, crazy, and hilarious. By now, you'll probably have heard that Jack Jack is a concentrated ball of awesome. True, though seeing everyone else interact and attempt to adapt to that is where the real fun comes in.

Meanwhile, the other half of the movie follows the revamped Elastigirl on her new job, which...

Okay, you know how we spent the last fourteen years repeating the mantra that the original was the closest we were ever going to get to a real Fantastic Four movie? Yeah, well, this might be the closest we ever get to watching a Batman story play out on the big screen. You'll see what I mean - this is some of the best superhero action/adventure ever made. Executives at Warner Bros. may want to bring along a notepad and something to write with.

While Incredibles 2 absolutely feels like two separate movies playing out side-by-side, there's a point to this. The stories are tied together not by forced story connections but by the ways characters are impacted. The movie is pulled apart by the conflicting plots, but it's supposed to be. That's the idea - the theme is built on that dynamic.

There's a lot to love here, and I'm barely scratching the surface. The new heroes are great, and the new villain is even better. Yeah, you'll have a pretty good idea where this is headed 25 miles in advance, but that won't spoil the fun.

I'll give you a head's up about the tone: this isn't the original. There's still exhilarating adventure and danger, but nothing remotely as dark and scary as we saw last time.* This may have been a studio mandate, but - honestly - it works surprisingly well as a commentary on where the genre has drifted. The first Incredibles movie asked us to take superheroes seriously, but that was a long time ago. In a post-Batman v Superman world, it's nice to get a reminder this genre can also be optimistic.

This might change after I see it a few more times, but Incredibles 2 is currently my favorite superhero movie of 2018. And, in case anyone's forgotten, that's high praise this year.

If you don't already have tickets, what in the world are you waiting for?

*Caveat. There was nothing all that dark in Incredibles 2, but parents of young children should be warned I heard the kid next to me BAWLING during the pre-movie short. This will make a lot more sense when you see it.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Mission Rewatchable, Part Rogue

After realizing I hadn't seen most since their theatrical runs, I'm rewatching and reevaluating the Mission: Impossible film series in preparation for Fallout.

This one just came out a few years ago, so I'm not even going to joke about the *SPOILER WARNING* - if you haven't seen Rogue Nation yet, watch it before reading. It actually matters this time.

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015)

When I wrote about Ghost Protocol, I mentioned that I found its 93% Freshness Rating baffling, because I found it far higher than I thought the movie deserved. By coincidence, Rogue Nation has the exact same score on Rotten Tomatoes, and once again, I find it baffling. Only this time, it's because 93% feels absurdly low.

Watching through Rogue Nation for a second time, I found myself engrossed in every scene, despite the fact I remembered what happened fairly well (it's only been a few years, after all). I think there's an argument to be made - in fact, I'll be making this argument in a moment - that this is as close to a perfect movie as this sub-genre has ever produced. I'll be clearer: in one sense, I think this is a better movie than any of the Bond installments.

Though in a different, less fair sense, it isn't.

Rogue Nation is a fantastic film, easily the best in this series and one of the best genre movies in recent years. However, there's one area where it falls a little flat. It's not all that memorable. The issue is the same that's plagued this series since Mission: Impossible II, the movie that made Ethan Hunt into a generic lead. This movie is clearly evoking Bond, but Hunt is no substitute for 007. In the first MI installment, Hunt was at least different. He had his own set of skills and didn't rely on Bond's techniques. But, again, MI2 threw all that out, and in doing so essentially established a ceiling for how good this series could possibly be. Rogue Nation, to its credit, hits that ceiling in the cold opening and never drops an inch.

This wants desperately to be a Bond movie. Even the music occasionally nods to the more famous franchise. And, of course, its premise is outright stolen. Yes, there was a version of "The Syndicate" on the original television series, but the Syndicate presented here is clearly a spin on Spectre. It feels trivial to say it's a far better spin than the movie Spectre managed, so I'll take this a step further: this is a more interesting version of Spectre than the Connery Bond movies employed.

It's not a better Blofeld, though. I mean, it's better than the "Bond's lost adopted brother" garbage they employed in Spectre, but the same can be said of Doctor Claw from the live-action 90's Inspector Gadget movie. The villain at the core of Rogue Nation's Syndicate is, like Hunt, a generic facsimile. He's a really good facsimile, but there's no mistaking him for the genuine article.

There are actually some advantages to being generic versions of iconic figures. For one, Ethan Hunt isn't obligated to sleep with every woman he comes across. Only the second movie imposes a cliched romance - the third did have Ethan in a relationship, but it subverted almost every spy movie trope in the best way possible. Rogue Nation introduces Rebecca Ferguson's Ilsa Faust, who is mercifully never paired romantically with Cruise.

It does falter around at least one unfortunate trope, though. Early on, we get a fairly classic fridging. The character killed is a new one, and her death is explicitly there to motivate the lead (or at least that's the villain's intent). It works in the context of the movie, but I wanted to mention it due to this series's history. One of the few constant character traits Hunt has is that he gets angry when young women die. It was established in the first movie, and it keeps coming up. I suppose it's better than if he didn't care all that much (i.e.: the current incarnation of Bond), but it's unfortunate this series has become such an easy go-to example for the trope.

Rogue Nation moves at an absolutely breathtaking pace, shifting effortlessly from location to location as the characters chase the McGuffin, which we actually care about for once. The reason we care is because the mystery behind the McGuffin is directly tied to one we actually have a reason to be invested in - Ilsa Faust, a double (triple? Quadruple? I honestly lose track) agent whose loyalties, background, and future are bound to the magical digital mystery box everyone's chasing. We care because she's intriguing, and we can't understand her without understanding what she's after.

In Ghost Protocol, they were ostensibly fighting over a McGuffin that could bring about nuclear Armageddon. This time, they're after money, and somehow the stakes feel far higher.

The action sequences in this movie are staged and executed beautifully. We get a opera sequence evocative of the one from Living Daylights, only here it's escalated by several orders of magnitude. We get an exhilarating chase sequence that uses comic relief to build tension - seriously, this thing is a work of genius. Ferguson is used heavily - Ilsa's is about a hair away from getting equal screen time to Cruise. This is much appreciated, since both her character and fighting style are far more interesting.

Ultimately, this is a movie that's somehow better than it can possibly be. It's essentially the perfect encapsulation of what this genre is capable of, a virtually flawless execution that, by all rights, should be celebrated by genre fans the way The Avengers or The Dark Knight are. The difference isn't due to quality; it's due to cultural significance, the one ingredient Rogue Nation - and the Mission: Impossible series in general - lacks.

All that being said, I'll be really interested to see if Mission: Impossible - Fallout can prove me wrong and maybe find a way for this series to distinguish itself. I'm skeptical it's possible at this point, but after rewatching Rogue Nation, I'm hesitant to bet against McQuarrie. This movie really is incredible.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Mission Rewatchable, Part Ghost

After realizing I hadn't seen most since their theatrical runs, I'm rewatching and reevaluating the Mission: Impossible film series in preparation for Fallout.

This is where the *SPOILER WARNING* goes, though - honestly - it barely matters for this one.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011)

This one's awkward. Up until this point, my opinions have vaguely trended with critical consensus, but that changes here. Ghost Protocol is tied with Rogue Nation on Rotten Tomatoes with a stunning 93% fresh. And I just don't get it.

The weird thing is, I usually like the director. Strike that - I usually love Brad Bird's movies. I even found Tomorrowland compelling and beautiful, and that's below 50% on Rotten Tomatoes. But Ghost Protocol leaves me underwhelmed.

While I don't like it, I don't hate it, either. The action is solid, the comedic bits are funny, and there's a twist at the end I really dig. But overall, the movie feels completely devoid of substance. Aside from the first, every movie in this series is kind of forgettable, but most have something about them I feel is deserving of being remembered. But Ghost Protocol is just... there's very little here aside from a disjointed series of action beats.

The movie pretends there's more, of course. It introduces a pair of new agents, each with a brief backstory/motivation that interferes with the mission. The first, played by Paula Patton, wants revenge against the hired assassin who killed her boyfriend. I actually appreciate that her arc is mirroring Hunt's from early movies (i.e.: she held her lover as he died, and she's driven by a desire for justice). But all this makes up a fairly minor portion of the film, and it's all just so silly. Given her profession, you'd think she'd have some sympathy for the hired killer and maybe be more interested in the mastermind who ordered the hit.

The backstory given to Jeremy Renner's character is a little more interesting. He was tasked with protecting Ethan and Julia in an off-screen mission which resulted in Julia's death. Ethan has no idea he was in charge of his wife's security, which promises drama that's never delivered (for good reason, in my opinion - the reveal at the end is more in keeping with the franchise's commitment to misdirection and illusion).

All of this results in a lot of squabbling when the mission goes south in the second act, but it gets hand-waved so fast, it comes off feeling trivial. When the team fights each other, they fail. When they work together, they win. In other words: cooperation is good, knowing is half the battle, enjoy your breakfast cereal.

That's all you get in terms of theme, and it's got jack to do with the actual plot, which centers around a madman trying to start a nuclear war. Though "plot" may be a generous descriptor, since there's very little connective tissue. You can connect the dots (i.e. they went to place 'x' because of clue 'y') if you want to, but it's pretty obvious everything that's introduced is present to justify either a set piece, a new location, or a joke. Nothing feels organic or satisfying.

The villain is barely in the movie - we are literally told instead of shown his paper-thin motivation, and we're never told why, exactly, an academic is able to go head-to-head with the world's best spy in a fistfight. If he has a personality, we never see it. At the end of the movie, the only things I really know about him are he's a nihilist, and he's willing to die to bring about World War 3. That's not a lot to hang a movie off of.

This movie has no backbone, nothing holding it together. There are some good action scenes (the Russian prison escape, Hunt scaling the world's tallest building, the fight in the automated parking garage, etc.), along with some clever gags, but that's all. There's no interesting tale of espionage, no inner conflict, and no unique tone. Just one zany thing after another, punctuated with a moral that feels ripped from an 80's Saturday morning cartoon.

All of that being said, this is far superior to MI2. Ghost Protocol is lacking substance, but the sequences are far more interesting and far less offensive. I appreciate how it subverts the trend towards fridging that permeates the first and third movies. It actually subverts it twice by having a male character die to motivate a woman, and again with the fake-out around Hunt's wife: everyone assumes he's driven by losing her, but he secretly knows she's fine.

Plus, this comes closest to getting back to the team dynamic missing from this franchise since it moved to the big screen. It can't quite pull it off, because the cornerstone of a cinematic team is specialization, and three fourths of this group are interchangeable super spies. But of course that's an issue inherited from the second installment - I'm not sure there's a good fix at this point, short of removing Cruise from the series and rebooting with a more balanced team.

At the end of the day, this doesn't strike me as an awful film, but it certainly doesn't feel like a great (or even good) one. It's watchable, but instantly forgettable. There's nothing about the characters to make them interesting, the villain is as boring as they come, and the plot is so thin it's almost nonexistent.

Am I missing something here? I feel like I must be, given how much critics (and fans) loved this. If anyone has a different take, I'd love to know why this is as popular as it is. I just don't see it.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Mission: Rewatchable, Part III

On rewatch, I found I loved part one and hated part two, so we're tied. Or we would be if we were keeping score.

We'll see how #3 fares right after this obligatory *SPOILER WARNING*

Mission: Impossible III (2006)

J.J. Abrams doesn't get nearly enough credit for being the guy you call to salvage fallen franchises. Think about it a minute: he's been hired to direct a new installment in three franchises that were more or less dead, and in each case, he delivered a film that revitalized the series with a fresh take. Sure, he's had missteps (though I kind of think history has been a tad harsh in how it's remembered Into Darkness), but he brought back Star Wars, Star Trek, and Mission: Impossible. I feel like that should be a bigger deal.

At any rate, my opinion of this movie hasn't really changed since I last saw it in 2006. It does a wonderful job recapturing the suspense of the first without rehashing the story. Abrams ingeniously gives Ethan a fiance and a civilian life, then builds the movie around his attempts to balance these with his secret identity. The tension is established from the opening, which seemingly shows his fiance executed in front of him. The movie then rewinds and shows us the lead up to this inevitable tragedy...

Which (spoiler alert for a twelve year-old movie?) isn't all it seems. There actually is a fairly textbook fridging in the movie, but it's not her. Honestly, I think the fridging (a fellow spy Ethan trained who dies early on) is justified by the narrative, but it's still more than a little troubling how often this trope pops up in this series.

Regardless, the movie's main antagonist is Owen Davian, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Davian is easily the most memorable villain this series has had, and I certainly wouldn't be the first to suggest he inspired aspects of both The Dark Knight's Joker and Skyfall's Silva. He's frightening without being inhumanly powerful, he's brilliant but prone to human weaknesses, and he's evil without being cartoonish: he's an absolutely fantastic nemesis for Hunt. And, in the end, he does manage to kill Ethan (sort of - it obviously doesn't stick).

The script is tense and well constructed. The story rearranges the standard elements you'd expect from the series in a way that's surprising and fascinating. There's a touch of humor, but it doesn't detract from the suspense in the least.

I should mention Abrams's infamous "mystery box" makes a somewhat literal appearance in this movie. The villain's motivation is to get his hands on a mysterious object the IMF wants kept safe, and the film goes out of its way to dangle the fact they're not going to tell you what's inside. I liked this in the context of the movie - the resolution implies it doesn't matter, and that the whole thing is silly, which is really the best way to wrap up a mystery box. It does leave you wondering if Abrams realized that would be the takeaway, or if he actually thought we'd be interested in the McGuffin. But ultimately his motivations will remain a mystery box, as well.

The action isn't quite as consistent as I'd like. There are definitely some cool sequences and some wonderful fights, but the large-scale set pieces sometimes feel forced. Even then, Abrams does a decent job giving you something interesting to see, even if it's by skipping a sequence entirely to follow the team waiting in the van instead.

It holds up well and manages to recover the franchise after the mess that was Mission: Impossible II. All that said, I don't find it quite as compelling as the first in the series. I think a lot of that is due to the fact that, despite the novel conceit of having Hunt struggle with balancing his home life with his work, this still feels like a fairly conventional (though good) action flick, while part one felt bizarre and quirky. It probably would have helped if MI2 hadn't reduced Hunt to a generic, gun toting super-spy, but that genie would have been hard to put back in the bottle.

This isn't revolutionary, but it's still a great flick that's worth revisiting.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Mission: Rewatchable, Part II

Last time, I looked at the first film in the series and found it held up nicely. Let's see how the second installment fares...

But first: *SPOILER WARNING* I'll be talking about the plot, so if you haven't seen this movie yet, be warned there is astonishingly little to talk about.

Mission: Impossible II (2000)

While I liked the first Mission: Impossible movie both when it came out and on rewatch, I remember being incredibly disappointed in part two. I hoped I'd have a different experience seeing it again eighteen years later, but if anything, I came away feeling like my memory had been generous.

Before I get into why I disliked this, I want to take a moment and touch on a few details I think this does well. To date, this is the only movie in the series where the main character is given a mission, assembles a team to complete that mission, and is never disavowed, branded a traitor, and/or hunted by his government. In other words, it's the only one that actually delivers on the premise of the franchise.

I'll also admit the twist in the cold opening was cool. Essentially, we see the same setup where an IMF team pulls off an impossible mission, only this time it's a renegade team using their skills for evil. Granted, the whole premise of the movie is lifted from GoldenEye, but it's still an interesting direction for this franchise.

Pity the movie squanders that premise. The villain may have been a good idea, but the execution is abysmal. The bad guy epitomizes every cartoonish cliche imaginable. He's at once overly effective and laughably idiotic, leaving no plausible explanation for how he's as successful as he is. Likewise, despite having had previous interactions with Hunt, the two have no relationship or arc together. They were never friends, they're not really presented as rivals (aside from working at cross purposes), and their opinions about each other don't change over the course of the movie. We're supposed to view them as each others' nemeses, but there's no depth or reason to care.

Likewise, the movie conveys none of the suspense delivered by part one. John Woo manages to deliver some pretty shots, but there's nothing beyond the imagery. There are points this almost feels like a Michael Bay movie - visually impressive, but void of feeling or substance.

This is most obvious when it relates to Hunt. In the first movie, he was always shaken, always in danger. He spent the entire movie on edge, and I felt that while watching it. In the sequel, he seems impervious. Villains unload machine guns in his direction, and he barely breaks a sweat. I understand the impulse to sell your hero as cool under pressure, but there's a fine line between making a character badass and just killing the stakes. To put it another way, it's as though the franchise went from Die Hard part one to Die Hard part five in a single movie.

And of course everything else interesting about Ethan Hunt is either dropped completely or watered down to get a cheap laugh. He's still good at acrobatics, but he's equally good at hand-to-hand combat, motorcycle riding, and slow-motion gun fights. There's a throwaway line about him preferring stunts to body counts, but it's primarily there as a joke. Meanwhile, everything setting him apart from being just another generic super-spy is gone. Cast a British actor and change his name, and this script could literally be a Bond movie - and not a particularly good one. Hell, they even have Anthony Hopkins phone in a generic version of 'M'. And, of course, there's a Bond-girl.

To be fair, Thandie Newton was a good pick for the role. She brings some presence to the part and deserves far better than this script, which introduces her as a capable expert before immediately relegating her to an object for the men to stress over. I mean, Jesus, the central conflict in the movie concerns her being asked to sleep with her ex so Hunt can spy on him. All so we can wallow in Hunt's distress at being forced to put her in this position, of course. The movie does take pains to give her a little agency, but it never comes close to justifying the trashy premise.

The other two members of Hunt's IMF team are bit parts - they're basically sidekicks. It's a shame the one movie in this franchise to adhere to the basic structure of the source material wound up being the worst. I'm convinced this is part of the reason every other installment veered closer to part one's structure (which is probably the least impressive aspect of the first movie).

Mission: Impossible II started with an interesting premise, but instead of following through, all we got was a generic action movie surrounding an even more generic love story. We wound up with a Bond movie, minus the style that makes even a bad Bond movie watchable. In the end, all this really did was establish that Ethan Hunt was good with a gun, removing what could have been a distinguishing trait from the character.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Mission: Rewatchable, Part 1

So, the sixth Mission: Impossible movie is coming out this year, and I haven't seen most of the others since they were in theaters. Well... turns out the box set containing the first five movies was absurdly cheap on Amazon, so...

You get the idea.

Oh, and before you ask in the comments: of course, I thought of doing a "your mission is to re-watch these movies" gag for the intro, but I decided against it because that would be stupid and obvious.

So... nothing's self-destructing, no one's getting disavowed, and nothing at all hinges on whether or not you read this. However, I do have one dramatic thing to say:

*SPOILER WARNING* This movie came out in 1996, if you haven't seen it... you are probably under the age of 20. Regardless, I'll be talking about the plot, so... consider yourself warned.

Let's get started.

Mission: Impossible (1996)

I was kind of shocked to realize this is the only movie in the franchise I didn't originally see on the big screen. I did see it on VHS a few times (side note: it's also the only one in the series I'd seen more than once before last week), but it's been at least fifteen years since I last watched it. And while I remembered liking it, I really didn't expect it to hold up. Not a lot of action movies from the 90's age well.

I'm pleased to report this one doesn't just hold up; it may have improved over time. The cool stuff remains cool, and some of the more awkward elements come off as charming. Yes, a large number of the sets are obviously on sound stages, but the movie infuses these with an astonishing amount of suspense. Moreover, it manages to use this to create a world that feels unreal but believable. Even the ridiculous CG helicopter sequence at the end seems like it belongs.

Of course, not quite everything holds up. The movie is a little too eager to kill off female characters in order to show Ethan Hunt's horror and rage at their deaths. If memory serves, we'll be revisiting this issue in later installments - I seem to remember this franchise having an addiction to fridging characters. That said, it's worth noting there's another side to this here - they may not last long, but the team at the start of Mission: Impossible is split 50/50 male to female. I think that's the only time the series pulled that off.

Speaking of the team not lasting...

Another complaint many people have - or at least had - with this film was its decision to do away with the team dynamic and focus instead on a single action hero. I'll admit it still bugs me a bit. The concept behind the series was for a team of specialists to carry out an elaborate mission making use of their talents. Essentially, it was a perfect blend of the espionage and heist genres. Dropping that idea basically reduces the premise to a Bond knock-off.

But there are a few mediating factors in the movie's favor. First, it's hard to stay disappointed in something like this for two decades. It may have felt like a dramatic departure in the 90's, but by now, it's just kind of a background fact.

More than that, I love how, despite being pushed into the role of a lead, Hunt remains a specialist throughout the film. I'd love this more if the movie didn't downplay it - they actively identify him as the team's "point man." But - and this is to the movie's credit - he's not the point man. He's their gymnast. Aside from throwing on a disguise every now and then, there's not much Hunt does in the film that deviates from this skillset. The scene where he breaks into the Langley server room is of course the most iconic example, but this is true of the train fight and aquarium escape, as well. Even the brief sequences where he fights hand-to-hand rely mostly on kicks and acrobatics. The one time he tries using brute strength, he gets knocked on his ass by a man twice his age. Likewise, Hunt never once fires a gun. He threatens someone with one, but there's never a point where he has to pull the trigger. Hell, for all we know, he's a terrible shot.

My impression is that was intentional: Hunt wasn't a super spy with an infinite catalog of skills to draw on. Sure, he's clever, driven, and resourceful, but at the end of the day, he's a specialist used to relying on a team who's now being forced to go it alone. Obviously, they throw out any limitations (along with his aversion to firearms) in the next movie, but we'll get to that in time. In this installment, he's about as far from the Bond-esque uber-spy as 90's action movies allowed.

This also subverts action movie conventions in a manner that shouldn't be (but sadly is) highly unusual: this film actually seems to treat human life as something with value. I'm not adverse to films with dark tones, but I do have a pet peeve when movies amass huge body counts without consequences. It's typically in there for shock, and it pulls me out of the story when dozens of civilians die without a believable response. This was more or less the default for 90's action, but Mission: Impossible shows admirable restraint. By my count, exactly eight people died over the course of the movie, and all were current or former agents. And if anything, it made the deaths occurring on screen all the more shocking.

I've seen people complain about this movie's plot, but I've never agreed with that. Yes, it's complicated, but that's all part of the fun. If you don't want to follow along, there's nothing stopping you from zoning out and just enjoying the action/adventure elements, but if you're willing to tune in, there's a fun little mystery going on. I'll admit they tipped their hand a little early by giving away the twists through voice-overs and flashbacks, but this didn't really bother me on rewatch.

Mission: Impossible honestly still felt like an exciting, engaging action movie. It's not quite the best of its decade (that title's taken), but it's definitely worth seeing again.