Thursday, July 26, 2018

Most Impossible: "Mission: Impossible - Fallout" keeps upping the ante with every riveting action set-piece

Mission: Impossible - Fallout (2018)
147 min., rated PG-13.

“Mission: Impossible,” the comparatively quaint 1966-1973 TV show, seems like a distant memory at this point. For over twenty-two years, the reliably muscular “Mission: Impossible” film series has wisely kept doubling down on the globe-trotting and daring stunt work that one can’t wait to see Tom Cruise in the tenth installment when he’s in his sixties, still powering through if fatigue hasn’t yet set in. Stylistically different from one to the fifth, each entry has had one key sequence everyone remembers it by—2011’s “Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol” had Cruise scaling Dubai’s Burj Khalifa with only a pair of thermo gloves and 2015’s “Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation” had Cruise holding onto a cargo plane, a catwalk scuffle above the stage at the Vienna Opera, as well as an anxiety-inducing underwater mission—and this time, returning writer-director Christopher McQuarrie delivers a plethora of death-defying, white-knuckle doozies. Surprisingly, somehow, the sixth time is the charm with the sixth installment, “Mission: Impossible - Fallout."

With the knowledge that captured anarchist Soloman Lane (Sean Harris) has had a group known as “The Apostles” doing his bidding of global terrorism, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his Impossible Mission Force team, including Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames), meet in Berlin to collect three balls of plutonium that are being planned to be turned into nuclear bombs. Losing sight of the plutonium, Ethan—who, mind you, is already having nightmares of losing wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan), whose death was faked for protection—makes the risky choice of saving his team over his mission of stopping an unprecedented threat that will destroy millions of lives. From there, CIA Director Erica Sloane (Angela Bassett) steps in, instructing Special Activities operative Agent August Walker (Henry Cavill) to lead the mission in retrieving the plutonium. En route to Paris, Ethan and Walker are off in search of an enigmatic weapons dealer, going by alias “John Lark,” and then a broker named the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby). Meanwhile, British Intelligence operative Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) shows up with her own secret mission.

More of a direct sequel to “Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation” than a stand-alone mission episode, “Mission: Impossible - Fallout” is electrifying for all 147 minutes with little letup. By now, these films essentially exist to prove how much of a daredevil stuntman Tom Cruise can be. The plot is absorbing enough as these things go, and helmed with a fluid propulsion, it works as a solid base on which to build action set-pieces that set this series apart from any other action spy picture. Parceled out evenly as to not feel front or back-loaded, said set-pieces are all riveting and stupendously devised. There’s a harrowing HALO jump from 25,000 feet into Paris during a lightning storm and then landing on the Grand Palais; a brutal, cohesively edited brawl in a men’s restroom; a motorcycle chase through the streets of Paris against oncoming traffic without a helmet; and Ethan’s thrilling pursuit of a baddie in an on-foot chase that leads to a rooftop jump. The climactic detonation countdown in a Kashmir medical camp, complete with the cutting of a red wire, even ups the ante, cross-cutting between three different locations with time-sensitive suspense. One-upping all action movies that use aerial fights, there is a spectacular sequence involving dueling helicopters above the snow-covered mountains, followed by a cliff-hanging homage to 2000’s “Mission: Impossible II” with Ethan doing a little rock-climbing and not recreationally.

The constant of every “Mission: Impossible” film, Tom Cruise is forever up to the task of taking on a new mission in a film, much like Ethan Hunt, and will do anything to nail a derring-do. It’s apropos that not much is ever learned about Ethan’s personal life beyond his moved-on wife, Julia (Michelle Monaghan), who does make a comeback this time. Rebecca Ferguson all but stole “Rogue Nation” from Tom Cruise, and once again, she is a force to be reckoned with as Ilsa Faust but also empathetic to the reality of Ethan’s previous relationship. Additions to the series, Vanessa Kirby (Netflix’s “The Crown”) is a bewitching specimen as White Widow, and Henry Cavill, now paying off that notorious mustache that distracted from most of his Superman scenes in “Justice League,” is a magnetic foil as Agent Walker. All of the supporting players get something worthwhile to do, including Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, and Alec Baldwin, respectively, as Benji, Luther, and IMF boss Alan Hunley. 

There are a series of deus of machina that occasionally lessen the life-or-death stakes, but the film also has the sense to rag on itself when Erica Sloane derides the IMF for their use of masks, comparing them to “grown men in rubber masks playing trick-or-treat.” In terms of crackerjack action filmmaking, writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, Tom Cruise, and everyone involved make the sixth installment in a twenty-two-year-old series more invigorating than it should be. Not only is Lalo Schifrin’s classic theme still here, but Lorne Balf’s excellent score is more evident than ever with the tones of a political thriller. “Mission: Impossible - Fallout” still isn’t a deep picture, although it does close on an emotionally satisfying note, and for adrenaline junkies, it will play like gangbusters. All of the remaining summer tentpoles might as well pack their bags.

Grade: B +

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Middle School Sucks: "Eighth Grade" a lived-in, very funny, painfully honest zits-and-all slice-of-life

Eighth Grade (2018)
93 min., rated R.

One of the more successful YouTubers to make a valuable name for himself, 27-year-old multi-hyphenate (singer, songwriter, musician, stand-up comedian) Bo Burnham makes a most rewarding writing-directing debut with “Eighth Grade.” Surviving middle school was rough enough, and one can’t even imagine reliving it now in 2018 (not to date oneself), but the universal ways in which Burnham explores that agonizing stage in one socially awkward teenage girl’s life—self-doubt and insecurities, social anxiety and the approval one seeks from the popular crowd, all magnified by social media eternally at one’s fingertips—are painfully honest, bittersweet, and often quite funny. What will seem low-stakes to an adult viewer is rendered as a sensitive, life-or-death snapshot of the here and now in “Eighth Grade,” and it is a special, momentous achievement for all to see.

In front of the camera when making a series of YouTube topic videos, 13-year-old Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) encourages others to be themselves and comfortable in one’s own skin, even if she doesn’t know what that fully means. She doesn’t consider herself to be shy or quiet, but on the last week of eighth grade before summer vacation, Class Superlatives are announced at an assembly and beg to differ, honoring Kayla as “Most Quiet.” Encouraged by loving father Mark (Josh Hamilton) to put herself out there, Kayla reluctantly agrees to a birthday pool party invite by the mother of popular girl Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere), who clearly wants nothing to do with her. At the party, she tries inserting herself into a group photo and loses all ability to speak when running into class crush Aiden (Luke Prael). Things begin to look up a little when Kayla shadows high school junior Olivia (Emily Robinson), who immediately finds Kayla to be adorable and cool, and realizes high school will undoubtedly get better. Suffering through a week that comes with ups and downs, Kayla will persevere before entering a new chapter in her life.

A lived-in, zits-and-all slice-of-slice that amounts to small victories and a traceable, fully earned arc for Kayla, “Eighth Grade” keenly observes its wallflower protagonist clamber through social situations until she finds her voice and confidence. A number of times—when Kayla attends the pool party and feels invisible, when she gets invited to the mall by her high school shadowee, when she plays truth or dare with a high school boy in the backseat of his car, when she finally talks to her crush during a school shooting drill, and when she looks up tips on YouTube on how to practice oral sex on a banana—the film could easily go in hackneyed or severely dramatic directions but surprises each time without a false note. Writer-director Bo Burnham never turns his film into an “After School Special,” his insight and chops as a new filmmaker making one believe he could have been a thirteen-year-old girl in a previous life. Set today, with social media clearly filling the lives of everyone, the film could have been a judgmental commentary of technological consumption, but Burnham gracefully uses it as another nuance to his story of awkward adolescence, demonstrating how communication on social media does not always translate to face-to-face communication. Cued to Enya’s “Sail Away,” Burnham’s camera lingers on Kayla's face, brightened by the glow of her phone as she scrolls away on Instagram in bed.

Aside from voice credits in the “Despicable Me” films as Agnes, Elsie Fisher turns in a remarkable breakthrough performance of vulnerability and all-around relatability as Kayla Day. As if she is never acting in front of a camera, she is a true discovery, tackling vanity-free naturalism at such a young age with a face of acne, and makes Kayla an endearing, sympathetic protagonist worth rooting for every step of the way. Also, in a refreshing change of pace, Kayla is never as perfectly articulate as most movie characters tend to be (here’s looking at you, Juno MacGuff) and authentically litters her speech with “ums,” “likes,” and “whatevers.” Character actor Josh Hamilton is immensely sweet and touching in an understated way as Kayla’s single father Mark through the ways he tries patiently communicating with his always-preoccupied daughter. When Kayla decides to burn her shoebox time capsule she made in sixth grade with her dad by her side, it is a beautifully cathartic and warmly felt breakthrough for their relationship.

“Eighth Grade” is not a documentary, but it is so accurate and identifiable that it might as well be one, as viewers will cringe and wish he or she were watching through a pin hole in a shoebox. Writer-director Burnham knows how to wring hold-your-breath discomfort out of situations, and he is kind to Kayla but still lets her make mistakes and feel embarrassment, or else, how would she grow and learn anything? Where the viewer finds Kayla by the end of the film, she is a little wiser and a little more outgoing, and now with more experience under her belt, she’s actually able to give real advice all eighth graders today should listen to, like “You can’t be brave without being scared.” The viewer loves spending time with Kayla and wants to break down the barrier of the screen to tell her that middle school is the worst, but yes, it does get better. Gucci!

Grade: A - 

Friday, July 20, 2018

My Big Fat ABBA Sequel: "Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again" unnecessary, sure, but an airy, eager-to-please good time

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018) 
114 min., rated PG-13.

A big-screen adaptation of Broadway jukebox musical smash, 2008’s “Mamma Mia!” didn’t make the smoothest transition from stage to screen, but its committed cast and their karaoke-like vocal stylings of instantly hummable songs by Swedish pop group ABBA gave it a scrappy, charmingly goofy exuberance. Released exactly a decade ago, that airy, toe-tapping, eager-to-please lark earned a part-sequel, part-prequel, “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again!” It’s just as frothy and sometimes downright irresistible, eagerly wanting to give you a good time, even if the wispy connective tissue in between the jukebox musical numbers is a flashback-ridden rehash and even flimsier than it was before. “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again!” is as unnecessary as sequels get, but there are marked improvements over the first film, being easier on the eyes and the ears. Besides, how can you resist this?

The free-spirited, overall-rocking Donna Sheridan (Meryl Streep) might have died a year ago, but on the Greek island of Kalokairi, daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is preparing to re-open her mother’s inn, now calling it the Hotel Bella Donna in her honor. Sophie has enough on her plate, but she and husband Sky (Dominic Cooper) have hit a rough patch, with him being in New York and contemplating taking a hotel managing position. When Donna’s closest friends and former musical Dynamos, Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters), arrive to the island to support Sophie, they reminisce back to when Donna was an Oxford University graduate in 1979. In flashbacks, Donna (Lily James) sets out on a spontaneous adventure, which takes her to Paris, where she meets British virgin Harry (Hugh Skinner), and then Greece, where she meets Swedish sailor Bill (Josh Dylan) and Irish-American architect Sam (Jeremy Irvine). Back in the present, Sophie’s one father, Sam (Pierce Brosnan), is already on the island, helping her with the grand opening, while her other fathers, Harry (Colin Firth) and Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), are on their way because they wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Just hearing a collection of ABBA songs and surrendering to their energy is the “name of the game,” but because “Mamma Mia!” already covered the Swedes' catchiest and most recognizable hits, that leaves “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” to run through a lot of second-tier, B-side tracks. There are easy standouts, like young Donna breaking out into the lively “When I Kissed the Teacher” with her two pals on the graduation stage and “Angeleyes,” as older Tanya and Rosie lead Sophie in the number in the hotel courtyard. While some of the deep-cut covers (“One of Us” and “Why Did It Have To Be Me?”) are only passable and sometimes even insipid, the placement of the songs don't feel as shoehorned into the narrative as some did in the first film and serve more of a purpose to the context of the story. “Waterloo,” performed in a Napoleon-themed French restaurant by young Harry and Donna, is a big delight, and it’s no surprise that the most infectious earworms are reprises of the title song, this time with Donna performing on a rinky-dink stage at a Greek tavern with her Dynamos, and “Dancing Queen,” an unabashedly crowd-pleasing sing-along and dance party down to the dock to greet some incoming ships. Taking over for theater director Phyllida Lloyd from the first film, writer-director Ol Parker (2006’s “Imagine Me & You”) brings more flair to the musical numbers, relying less on actors hyperactively mugging in front of the camera and awkwardly singing and dancing in front of the camera, cutting only when necessary and having a more polished sense of blocking, choreography, and placement of the camera. There are also several rather clever transitions from scene to scene, seamlessly bouncing back and forth in time from 1979 to present-day 2005.

The core cast goes at it again, having the time of their lives, Amanda Seyfried lovely and radiant as ever as Sophie, though struggling to keep her flailing relationship with Dominic Cooper's Sky emotionally involving, and Christine Baranski and Julie Walters are such pros and get to be hoots again as Donna’s gal pals, especially when they set their eyes on the handsome hotel manager (Andy Garcia). Thanklessly, Pierce Brosnan doesn’t get to embarrass himself this time, even if he does get a light retry of “S.O.S.” when remembering the late Donna, while Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgård are still game. The cast has been expanded, making room for the younger counterparts in the extended flashbacks. Lily James is a winsome ray of sunshine with a spring in her step, diving right into playing a younger Donna and, in a way, a younger Meryl Streep; moreover, she can actually carry a tune. Of the other newbies to the cast, Jessica Keenan Wynn (in her feature film debut) lends the most spark, a dead ringer for Christine Baranski as the man-loving Tanya. Hugh Skinner, Josh Dylan, and Jeremy Irvine as the younger counterparts to Firth, Skarsgård, and Brosnan are handsome and mimic surface-level mannerisms but make little impression. Though the marketing materials make it seem like Meryl Streep gets more screen time than she really does, when Streep does return, if very briefly, to sing “My Love, My Life,” it is a poignant tribute to Donna. If one can set aside the mathematical fact that the musical diva is only three years older than Meryl Streep, Cher makes an 11th-hour entrance as Sophie’s estranged grandmother Ruby and delivers her serenade “Fernando” with show-stopping gusto, complete with fireworks.

Both “Mamma Mia!” and “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” exist somewhere between fun and campy, but they both play out like painless two-hour vacations from the real world, and that’s a very good thing. It’s not a deal-breaker that the low-stakes narrative is as light as a Galatopita custard tart because the buoyant song-and-dance performances make the film click more than not. As most musicals end with a big final number, “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” culminates in the final credits with the ensemble’s curtain call, all of them performing “Super Trouper” in glittery ABBA-inspired outfits, and it’s a joyous high note to leave on. For a decade-later sequel that’s mainly an excuse to see actors having a good time warbling, it’s impossible not to smile and gyrate along with them. “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” is more of a sunny, likable escapism than a movie musical all-timer, however, sometimes, free-wheeling enthusiasm is all you really need.

Grade: B - 

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Beware of the Internet: "Unfriended: Dark Web" an effective if pointlessly cruel in-name-only sequel

Unfriended: Dark Web (2018)
88 min., rated R.

2015’s Skype nightmare “Unfriended” might have sounded like a ludicrous conceit—the invincible specter of a bullied teen who committed suicide gets revenge on her peers in a Skype chatroom—but it was riveting, smartly executed, and destined to open up a conversation about the real-life, of-the-moment horrors of cyberbullying. It was only a matter of time before a sequel would be greenlit, and now there’s “Unfriended: Dark Web,” an in-name-only sequel with only one connection to its predecessor: it unfolds entirely on someone’s laptop screen via a Skype session. To vary the execution a bit, debuting director Stephen Susco (writer of 2004's "The Grudge") ditches the supernatural angle and stinging comment on the cyberbullying culture for a more plausible, real-world approach. The end game, though, is a mixed bag: it’s effectively disturbing on a momentary level, but also increasingly preposterous and more simplistic.

Matias (Colin Woodell) finds a laptop from a cyber cafe’s lost-and-found, using it to perfect an American Sign Language translation software he’s been working on to communicate better and make up with his deaf ex-girlfriend, Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras). When Amaya won’t accept his apology, Matias signs on to Skype with his group of friends—British techie Damon (Andrew Lees), disc jockey Lexx (Savira Windyani), conspiracy theorist AJ (Connor Del Rio), and recently engaged couple Nari (Betty Gabriel) and Serena (Rebecca Rittenhouse)—for a game of Cards Against Humanity. Amidst Matias’ multitasking, he logs into the Facebook account of the laptop’s former owner, “Norah C. IV,” and begins receiving instant messages from “Erica,” who at first claims to be Norah’s friend and then admits to being Norah herself. Matias soon realizes that the so-called Norah wants her laptop back, but then uncovers a cache of files that are essentially snuff videos of young women being tortured and chained up in industrial warehouses. As Matias enters the dark web, he dooms himself, his five friends and an unsuspecting Amaya, and makes anyone else around them collateral damage.

Because the cyber killing is more random and yet so elaborately engineered, “Unfriended: Dark Web” packs less of a punch than the personal revenge and every teen’s culpability of the first film. The narcissistic teens of “Unfriended” got what was coming to them, while these young adults just get pulled into a nightmare because of a foolish mistake Matias makes. Opening with an amusing password hack, the film still demonstrates the clever format of watching everything the protagonist does on his screen, and the incoming messages still hold a sinister threat once Matias gets more than he bargained for with the stolen laptop. The existence of a deaf character is a fresh addition, and in the film’s most emotionally raw moment, one of the friends is also faced with the choice of choosing between two loved ones, including their mother who’s on life support. The performances are all more than competent, Betty Gabriel (2017's "Get Out") and Rebecca Rittenhouse (TV's "The Mindy Project") particularly standing out as a recently engaged couple.

“Unfriended: Dark Web” is yet another cautionary reminder that the web can be a dangerous place. It’s fairly involving for the remainder of its running time and may be ostensibly more probable than its predecessor, but the filmmakers still insist the viewer takes quite a few leaps of faith as far as how seamless the inner-workings of a global dark-web conspiracy go. While there are several reveals, writer-director Stephen Susco doesn’t quite know how to stick the landing, ending with such a whimper that the immediate reaction might be, “Is that it?” A horror film should shock and rattle, but this follow-up is little more than a misery generator. Without much else to say beyond the obvious, “Unfriended: Dark Web” is pointlessly mean, nasty and cruel with no hope for anyone, except for the murderous cult of all-seeing, all-knowing hackers who will likely strike again.

Grade: C +

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Tower Rescue: "Skyscraper" throws out plausibility for vertigo-inducing excitement

Skyscraper (2018)
102 min., rated PG-13.

“Skyscraper” is bound to be compared to 1988’s first-rate Bruce Willis-starrer “Die Hard,” and it’s not hard to see why, but it’s more comfortably familiar than an outright rip-off. Like Willis' John McClane, Dwayne Johnson plays a man trying to save his family out of a high-rise populated by terrorists, only this time he’s an amputee and the titular skyscraper is a towering inferno. There’s never any doubt that the brawny protagonist and his family will get out of this sticky (and fiery) situation alive, and that CGI/green screen gives a vast assist, but the getting-there is full of perilously overblown situations that are mounted with palm-sweating, vertigo-inducing excitement and seamless stunt work. Lest anyone is buying a ticket for a crowd-pleasing B-movie to think real hard or to not hear a lot of expository dialogue, “Skyscraper” is a purely entertaining Dwayne Johnson vehicle tailor-made for the summer movie season; it isn't aiming to be rocket science or a documentary. Its greatest ambition is to thrill, and it quite skillfully delivers on that count in spades.

Ten years after an explosive hostage situation that lost him his left leg below the knee, Will Sawyer (Dwayne Johnson) is a Marine and FBI agent turned security consultant with a prosthetic leg. His latest job has taken him and wife Sarah (Neve Campbell), the Naval surgeon who saved his life, along with their twins Henry (Noah Cottrell) and Georgia (McKenna Roberts), to Hong Kong, thanks to a referral by former FBI Hostage Team member Ben (Pablo Schreiber). Before its residential opening, Will must analyze The Pearl, a gleaming, technologically advanced skyscraper, created by billionaire tech magnet Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han) that stands 225 stories tall like its own vertical city. On that same day, the tablet controlling The Pearl’s mainframe and its anti-fire systems is stolen from Will, while a crew of terrorists, led by the vengeful Kores Botha (Roland Møller), unleash flammable chemicals inside the building. When the 96th floor is engulfed in flames, it is directly below the residential suite, trapping the Sawyer family and leaving Will as the one-man army to go and save them.

Writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber (2016’s “Central Intelligence”) knows “Skyscraper” is a check-your-brain-at-the-door action picture that’s larger-than-life, over-the-top and unable to ace a plausibility test. There aren’t many surprises, either, but in the name of derring-do, Thurber finds an easy thrill in dangling his star from high places and having him leap across precarious chasms, and it’s effective every time. Even though Dwayne Johnson isn’t actually climbing a crane elevator 2,000 feet from the ground, scaling a narrow ledge to reach a control panel behind a turbine, or hanging upside down only by his prosthetic leg, audiences will get an adrenaline rush, clenching their armrests anyway, while acrophobics will try hard not to look away. It’s about as hairy as Tom Cruise scaling Dubai’s Burj Khalifa building in “Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol,” only stretched across several set-pieces.

Coinciding with “San Andreas” and “Rampage” before this, Dwayne Johnson stands firmly in disaster-movie savior mode here without getting the chance to play up his charming, funny persona too much. Even as Will Sawyer, he's a believable family man, doing what he does well and still having charisma for days. The most vulnerability Will has comes from his prosthetic leg, which the filmmakers at least have the sense to have Will use it to beat someone and to hold open a closing door. Working in TV but not seen on screen in a high-profile project since 2011’s “Scream 4,” Neve Campbell makes a game comeback in not playing wife Sarah Sawyer as a passive, helpless victim who stands back and waits for her muscle-bound knight. It could be a thankless role, but Campbell makes Sarah resourceful, intelligent, assertive and proactive, and as it should be, she gets much more to do (by speaking Chinese, Sarah can understand the Hong Kong police discussing their suspicions that Will might be involved with the starting of the fire) and enough badass moments of her own. 

Taking itself seriously enough but handled with dabs of humor that don't displace the stakes, “Skyscraper” efficiently runs through its plot mechanics and double-crossing twists before getting to the set-pieces. What the bad guys want is an afterthought of a McGuffin, and where the film needed a Hans Gruber, the bad guys here are either generically bad as can be or generic turncoats. There is, however, a tightly edited and well-choreographed hand-to-hand fight in a kitchen before Will even gets to the skyscraper, and there are amusing payoffs to setups involving Will rebooting Sarah’s iPhone and The Pearl’s house-of-mirrors holodeck-like dome. Those who call “preposterous” as soon as Will takes the jump from a crane to a broken window above the fireline in the burning skyscraper will miss out on the fun that “Skyscraper” has to offer. Credibility might not always be its strong suit, but then again, just in April, Dwayne Johnson played an ex-Special Forces turned primatologist battling genetically enhanced, havoc-wreaking animals, and that was fun, too.

Grade: B - 

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Selling Out to the Man: Radically fresh, subversive "Sorry to Bother You" never takes the path of least resistance

Sorry to Bother You (2018)
105 min., rated R.

Rap artist Boots Riley’s directorial debut could be described as the cinematic love child spawned by Spike Lee, Charlie Kaufman, and Mike Judge, but even that reductive pitch wouldn't do justice to a film that dares to swing for the fences and defy categorization. Introducing a brazenly original voice in Riley with a very specific energy, in-your-face rage and readiness to shake everything up, “Sorry to Bother You” is something else, a pointed workplace satire about capitalism, cultural assimilation, code-switching, and labor relations. As a first-time effort, it is shaggy around the edges and bursting with perhaps more ideas in its head than it needs, but it’s also impressive how much Riley is able to get his arms around. A game-changer of surreal, anarchic audacity that mainstream audiences won't know what hit them, "Sorry to Bother You" is too radically fresh, subversive, and provocative to be sorry. 

Oakland slacker Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) lives in the garage of the house owned by his uncle (Terry Crews) with sign-twirler/performance-art activist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson). Four months late on his rent, he’s so desperate for a job that he brings a fake “Employee of the Month” plaque and trophies to an interview. To his surprise, Cassius gets hired the commission-based position as a telemarketer at RegalView, where he must live by the motto STTS (Stick To The Script). It’s mundane at first and Cassius repeatedly gets hung up on, but when he takes the advice of his co-worker (Danny Glover) in the next cubicle, he starts using his “white voice” (the voice of David Cross). Cassius becomes so successful that he catapults to the top of the corporate ladder, being promoted as a “power caller” and getting in with Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), the coked-out CEO of WorryFree, a company offering people food and shelter in return for free labor. Meanwhile, an uproar brews, as Cassius’ former friends and telemarketing co-workers, Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) and Squeeze (Steven Yeun), go on strike and form a union, and that’s only scratching the surface of what happens from there.

“Sorry to Bother You” is scathingly funny but also delirious, outrageously bonkers and unpredictable without ever taking the path of least resistance. On the most basic level, this is a morality tale about selling out to The Man, but never in the way one is expecting. The code-switching element—Cassius being encouraged to use his “white voice”—is just the tip of the iceberg. Existing in a heightened "Twilight Zone" version of a recognizable reality, the film is alternately observant, dizzyingly absurd, and often hilarious, especially in its first half, and then it enters the batshit realm of science fiction. In one of the many witty, askew touches, when Cassius takes his junker to get gas, he asks to put in “40 on 4,” sliding the gas station clerk forty cents. Then, as Cassius makes cold calls in his cubicle, he literally drops into the kitchens and living rooms of his callers. When Cassius becomes a designated “power caller” and gets to ride the shiny elevator to the top floor, telemarketing manager (Kate Berlant) enters the longest passcode. At Steve Lift’s party, the CEO, himself, pressures Cassius into performing a freestyle rap that is shockingly hilarious that white audiences might look around to make sure it’s acceptable to laugh. There’s also a popular game show, “I Got the S#*@ Kicked Out of Me!”—being exactly what it sounds like, contestants get punched in the face—in this version of the real world, recalling the lowest-common-denominator universe in Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy.”

Having made impressions in several supporting roles in 2013’s “Short Term 12” and 2017’s “Get Out,” Lakeith Stanfield is spectacular stepping into the lead as Cassius Green. He makes for an accessible everyman, grounding the film even when the narrative becomes outlandish. Tessa Thompson (2018's "Annihilation") is dynamite as Cassius’ feminist girlfriend, who even dips her toe into using her “white voice” (the voice of Lily James) when it comes to one of her provocative art performances and gets to sport inspired costume design, like a pair of earrings that spell out "MURDER MURDER MURDER" on one side and "KILL KILL KILL" on the other. With no sign of Oliver from “Call Me by Your Name” to be found, Armie Hammer is insanely smarmy and dangerous yet still charismatic as the black-souled Steve Lift.

Ambitious and messy, raw and ultimately unsettling, “Sorry to Bother You” is a singularly bold first film. It may overreach and never sobers out after a wildly weird turn, though without it, the finished product wouldn't be what filmmaker Boots Riley intended. As is, the film has no use for much subtlety in the name of satire and unleashes its own blistering vision in commenting on the zeitgeist of 2018. Besides, a film that provokes and goes for broke as a $3.2-million undertaking is always preferable over a film taking zero chances with an even bigger budget. If anyone wants to debate that art can’t be political, get a load of “Sorry to Bother You.” One needs to see it just to believe that it exists.


Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Birth of a Holiday: "First Purge" ballsy but too on-the-nose to make saga great again

The First Purge (2018)
97 min., rated R.

Looking back five years ago, it's hard to believe that 2013's "The Purge" could still be considered the slyest and most restrained in the franchise, doubling as a home-invasion genre picture and a societal allegory centered around a classically complicated moral conundrum. By the time “The Purge” saga hit its third (and best) installment with 2016’s “The Purge: Election Year” before our commander in chief was elected, it was prescient and all-too-real. There was no more sign of satire or allegory, and the politics were less than subtle without needing to be. Now, just in time for Independence Day comes “The First Purge,” a prequel retroactively taking a look at the birth of the annual holiday where crime is legalized for twelve hours. For the fourth go-round, James DeMonaco wrote the script but stands down as director, handing the reins to director Gerard McMurray. While this is decidedly the ballsiest and most blatantly politically charged entry of them all, “The First Purge” lacks the sick novelty of its predecessors and finds no new avenues into a skewed version of reality that it might as well be a guerrilla documentary of the times we live in.

It is a tumultuous time as unemployment is rising across the country. As NRA-backed political party New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA) ascends to power, a social experiment called The Purge is designed for citizens to get every aggressive impulse out of their systems and put to the test on Staten Island, populated by minorities and the socioeconomically impoverished. Two days before the one-night-only free-for-all, citizens who agree to stay in the New York borough are promised a $5,000 incentive and even more if they participate with a tracking device in the form of contact lenses to have their crimes monitored. Headstrong activist Nya (Lex Scott Davis) and her brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade) live in the low-come housing projects, and while they plan to hole themselves up in a Brooklyn church as a safe haven, Isaiah has other plans to exact revenge on feral junkie Skeleton (Rotimi Paul), who slashed his neck while dealing drugs earlier in the day. Meanwhile, local drug lord Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), Nya’s ex, puts him and his crew on lockdown, only to realize a close ally wants him dead to seize his throne. Monitoring the experiment is behavioral scientist Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei), who proposed the idea for The Purge, but as the night starts out disappointingly quiet, participants choosing vandalism over murder, corrupt NFAA chief of staff Arlo Sabian (Patch Darragh) will do anything to make sure the results are successful—and to thin the population.

“The First Purge” still proves to work effectively as a provocative, politically loaded horror film on a humble budget, but given its attempt to be even more fiery and socially woke with real-life parallels specifically concerning race, it feels far more exploitative in a way, pandering to those angry and fearful over the current political climate that has divided the nation. While it’s no coincidence that the film has included a Make America Great Again hat in its marketing materials, art explicitly imitates life in the actual film when a sewer-dwelling pervert gropes a female, who responds back with, “Pussy-grabbing motherfucker!” The use of this throwaway line is certainly topical and pointed but also gratuitous, a microcosm of a film that no longer wants to deal with subtext when text gets the point across loud and clear. Director Gerard McMurray and writer James DeMonaco are daring in their axe-to-grind agenda—a character’s spoken worry for the future is telling—but still, nothing fresh is brought to the table by turning the clock back to the origins of The Purge, or at least by what was executed on screen. Without a scene to track how such a severe social experiment was actually passed, the film goes on to be just more of the same, purgers attacking around street corners and from under sewer grates, and too many last-second rescues. Some of the carnage is even erratically staged, particularly a near-ménage à trois turned deadly cross-cut with a block party turning into a slashing spree. As the film deviates from horror to a blaxploitation action pic and culminates in an apartment building siege, the level of dread does appreciably get revved up as a group of mercenaries dressed in leather Nazi gear and black face go door to door, while our heroes lie in wait.

The batch of characters who must survive the night are sympathetic by default, but no one makes as much of an impression as characters in previous “Purge” entries. Given the circumstances, the actors all acquit themselves solidly, particularly Lex Scott Davis (2018’s “SuperFly”) and Y’lan Noel (HBO’s “Insecure”), as Nya and Dmitri, who both have enough screen presence to bring some rooting interest to their plight. Mugga (Netflix's "Orange Is the New Black") also adds a welcome source of levity as Nya’s opinionated, church-going neighbor Dolores. As a key purger, Rotimi Paul fully disappears into the one-note role of Skeletor, a rotten-toothed, hyped-up junkie and psychopath, and makes him scary even on an over-the-top level. Unfortunately, Marisa Tomei is underutilized as Dr. Updale; while the actress imbues the small part with the feeling that her social experiment is for the greater good, she doesn’t have much else to do than look at surveillance monitors before being rushed off screen. And what is another major talent like Melonie Diaz (2016’s “The Belko Experiment”) doing here? She is introduced as an interviewed participant in The Purge and then never heard from again.

If "The First Purge" is rather clunky in not just wearing its politics on its sleeve but hammering them home and screaming from the rooftops with a megaphone, director Gerard McMurray makes sure to pepper the film with punchy, incendiary nightmare imagery that this series has thrived on. Two older women attaching explosive devices to stuffed animals is a demented touch, but even more frightening is a gang of white-hooded Klansmen seen leaving a church massacre and white police officers closing in on an unarmed black man on a baseball field as "America the Beautiful" plays. For a series whose concept has hinged on catharsis, there’s something more depressingly on-the-nose this time around than thrilling or thoughtful insomuch that if “The First Purge” signals to be the end, no one would protest.

Grade: C +

Monday, July 2, 2018

Double Stingers: "Ant-Man and the Wasp" spins wheels a bit but nearly matches fun of predecessor

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
118 min., rated PG-13.

2015’s “Ant-Man” was something of an anomaly in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with its own loose, breezy rhythm, and that’s what made it such a delightful breath of fresh air. It took itself seriously enough, while mostly remaining in the now and not putting too fine a point on setting the table for future Marvel movies, and wasn’t above having fun and laughing at itself as an exceedingly likable, visually inventive, smaller-can-be-better entertainment. “It’s about damn time,” Hope Van Dyne remarked at the end of the film when she got a sneak peek at a prototype suit she would don as The Wasp, and the prospect of a sequel was inevitable and necessary for the MCU to finally recognize a fierce, fully capable woman in the title. The twentieth installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is the follow-through of that post-credits scene, and while the film is heavily plotted, the level of smile-inducing fun has not shrunk in size and the goofy but earnest tone is still appealing.

Having been sentenced to a two-year house arrest for partaking in the Avengers’ airport tarmac battle in Germany (see 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War”), former burglar Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) tries to keep up his good behavior as he’s only days away from the end of his probation. Going stir-crazy when he’s not playing drums, tearfully reading “The Fault in Our Stars,” and entertaining daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) in an indoor cardboard maze, he tries reaching out to Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Hope (Evangeline Lilly), who have gone into hiding. Once he receives a message of sorts from Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), Hank’s wife and Hope’s mother, in his head through “quantum entanglement,” Scott is enlisted by Hank and Hope to rescue Janet, the original Wasp who’s been lost in the so-called Quantum Realm for 30 years after stopping a missile attack. Having built a quantum tunnel, the father-and-daughter team now has the technology to return Janet from subatomic size. Their mission runs into a few snags when black marketeer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) and the stealthy, intangible Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) separately want a component of Hank’s technology, while Scott tries evading the feds and S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), who think he’s still home wearing his ankle monitor.

Nimbly directed again by Peyton Reed and co-scribed by a quintet of screenwriters—Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers (2017’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming”) and Paul Rudd & Andrew Barrer (2014’s “Haunt”) & Gabriel Ferrari—“Ant-Man and the Wasp” recaptures everything that “Ant-Man” did so well without merely going through the motions and still keeping the stakes more personal and earth-bound. Whereas the first film felt zippier and more focused, this one does admittedly meander and spin its wheels at times, as “the component”—really, it’s just a McGuffin—keeps turning into a keep-away game of hot potato with so many ancillary characters. In the grand scheme of things, however, director Reed finds a sweet spot along the way with an irresistible sense of humor, a sincere heart, and imaginative action.

Paul Rudd still makes for an amiable and identifiable everyman hero, two qualities in Rudd’s reliable wheelhouse as Scott Lang/Ant-Man. When Hank and Hope speak convoluted scientific jargon, Scott is the audience surrogate, asking, “Do you guys just put ‘quantum’ in front of everything?” Rudd’s scenes with Abby Ryder Fortson, as daughter Cassie, are sweet, and it’s refreshing to find a friendly relationship between Scott and his ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer) and her husband Paxton (Bobby Cannavale). A very funny sight gag involves Scott shrinking down to the size of a kid at an elementary school due to a malfunction with his new suit and getting caught by a teacher, and Rudd also handles more physical comedy well when Janet overtakes Scott’s body, like a one-sided “Freaky Friday” moment. Receiving equal billing as Hope/The Wasp, Evangeline Lilly solidifies herself as a radiant, eye-catching star with a coolness and charm. She is a badass in and out of her costume, getting to do much more of the fighting and rescuing this time, and there is a certain amount of emotional heft in Hope wanting to reunite with her mother after all this time. 

Michael Douglas is as enjoyable to watch as he was before as Hank Pym, stubborn but also warm, and Michael Peña is a burst of scene-stealing energy each time he comes on screen as ex-con sidekick Luis; his breathless recap during an interrogation, told again like a “Drunk History” episode, is enormously funny. T.I. and David Dastmalchian, as Luis’ X-Con security business co-workers Dave and Kurt, return, adding to the comic relief, particularly when they’re given a “truth serum,” and Randall Park is hilarious as Agent Jimmy Woo who’s tasked with keeping tabs on Scott. That Michelle Pfeiffer doesn’t get as much screen time playing Janet van Dyne as she deserves is a disappointment, but when she’s on screen, she hits the emotional marks. Hannah John-Kamen (2018’s “Ready Player One”), as the mysterious Ava/Ghost, is compelling without necessarily being a villain; although she has support in Hank's old colleague Dr. Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne), she wants to inflict pain upon others because she's tired of feeling pain herself. Finally, it seems like lazy casting for Walton Goggins to play another baddie, but he at least doesn’t seem bored here with a glint in his eye as Sonny Burch.

In spite of needless overplotting, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is still a fair amount of high-spirited fun, carrying over the good will of its predecessor. Without the fate of the world at stake, it feels like a lighthearted snack and side adventure after the grim consequences of “Avengers: Infinity War” (though it is set before that film). The literally small-scale effects are still inspired, including a running gag where Hank makes his laboratory building portable and shrinks it down to a suitcase on wheels. A kitchen-set melee between the Wasp and Sonny Burch’s henchmen is thrillingly staged, as she dodges a large butcher knife in small size and blocks the door with an enlarged salt shaker. A climactic car chase is also anything but standard, involving a giant PEZ dispenser, cars shrinking to Hot Wheel size, San Francisco’s winding Lombard Street, and a flatbed truck being used as a scooter by a big Ant-Man. Marvel fans will already know to stay in their seats until the final credits are done rolling, and rest assured, the stinger is worth the wait as connective tissue to “Avengers 4.” Luckily, it’s not the only reason to see “Ant-Man and the Wasp" when just two of the main selling points are in the title.

Grade: B -