Now Playing — The Spy Who Dumped Me

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If the main problem with modern studio comedies is a tendency towards unwieldy narrative sprawl in the name of cramming in every mildly amusing aside captured on set, director Susanna Fogel should first be credited for her uncommon discipline with The Spy Who Dumped Me. Although it runs to nearly two hours, the film rarely feels as if it’s swamped with the flotsam of improvisational collisions. It’s tempting to attribute the bolstered focus to the presumed requirement to adhere to the storytelling rigor of the espionage-driven action thrillers gently spoofed by the film, but that didn’t make a whit of difference with Paul Fieg’s Spy. Instead, Rogel simply understands that jokes are funnier when they emanate from coherent story and consistent characterizations.

The jilted lover of the title is Audrey (Mila Kunis), a woman whose glum celebration of her thirtieth birthday is preface to a shocking discovery about the strapping fellow (Justin Theroux) who recently broke up with her via text message. He is a government agent engaged in bombastic missions, and a chintzy trophy he left in her possession hides secrets that fiercely feuding factions are anxious to attain. With the barest of instructions and a distinct lack of skills — especially in the necessary task of spinning convincing lies — Audrey is off to Europe to try and get this newfound spy material into the right hands. Luckily, she has help, in the form of her roommate and bestie, an aspiring actor named Morgan (Kate McKinnon).

Fogel handles the film’s many action sequences — including shootouts and car chases — with solid craft, bringing a clarity that eludes supposed masters of the form. (This is where I type out the name Michael Bay, affix a hyperlink in the appropriate place, and then shudder.) Her real strength, though, is in the more basic moments. She provides the space for Kunis and McKinnon to develop a real rapport, effectively depicting the rhythm of well-worn friendship. As usual, Kunis is natural and charming, with a crack comic timing that never pushes into eager jokiness. And McKinnon is something else entirely. Vividly alert to every moment, her words are like mercury, shifting and melding in ways simultaneously unpredictable and logical, making nearly every line reading a little discovery.

There might not be a lot of layers to The Spy Who Dumped Me, despite some stabs at an lesson in empowerment. The surface of it is still satisfying, all polished and bright. Dumped is a keeper.

Now Playing — Mission: Impossible — Fallout

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Since launching as a fairly conventional action series with a couple gimmicky elements primarily included as a nod to its original network television source material, the Mission: Impossible series of films have progressed as an escalating dare. Over six films, the scenarios have grown increasingly preposterous, drifting further away from logic and plausibility. Simultaneously, the aging movie star at the center of the franchise combats the AARP solicitations that are starting to hit his mailbox by putting himself in greater danger for the amusement of the masses, proving his perpetual virility by banging himself off of solid objects and hanging perilously from various ropes and pulleys.

The latest outing, Mission: Impossible — Fallout, is blissful nonsense. The plot unravels at the gentlest scrutiny, and yet it is delivered with such verve and conviction that the problems don’t matter a whit. The plot turns are rarely, yet the ride doesn’t slow enough to allow for even a single discontented eye roll. As usual, there are sleeper agents and nuclear threats and a vast conspiracy network of secret bad guys intent on demolishing the world for some wobbly concept of a greater good. The Impossible Missions Force — or at least a small subset of the organization that Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) trusts in this moment of heightened threat — darts all over to globe to retrieve three orbs of plutonium, bring down terrorist zealot Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), and generally engage in spirited action mayhem, preferably with a countdown clock ticking away.

Christopher McQuarrie becomes the first director to return to the film series for an encore engagement, after taking his first turn with the dandy Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation. He’s also the sole credited screenwriter, and the film clicks along with the confident assurance of a filmmaker who completely understands the task before them, and carries that solid sensibility over to the characters. With each spectacular set piece — and they are truly all wonders in their own right — the stakes are laid out clearly, as are the major impediments that must be overcome. That the espionage efforts proceed with an energy and internal logic closer to a Chuck Jones Road Runner cartoon than the solemn spycraft of John le Carré is precisely what makes Mission: Impossible — Fallout a consistent pleasure.

And I now feel compelled to circle back to Cruise. Whatever commitment to deeper acting he was approaching around the time of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia is long gone by now, replacing by a genial willingness to trade on his own slightly unhinged public persona. No matter how much time the film expends on the anguished personal compromises Ethan has made over the years, there’s barely a character there. Instead, Ethan has become a mere personification of Cruise’s lunatic bravado, and in that Cruise has finally found the perfect role. Other performance in the film are effective, either because they’re good (Vanessa Kirby, as a sly, seductive broker of villainous trade) or bad in a useful way (Henry Cavill, notoriously mustachioed as a lumbering CIA agent coupled to the IMF squad). Cruise’s work is invaluable while careening off the spectrum of thespian acumen altogether. More than ever before, he comes across in Mission: Impossible — Fallout as the last movie star, getting by on pure personality and a compulsion to entertain which the broader movie landscape shifts to game performers buried under CGI super-suits. He’s Errol Flynn with a death wish, and I find myself oddly grateful for his headlong service to a frivolous cause. As the saying goes, not all heroes wear capes.

Now Playing — Sorry to Bother You

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Boots Riley could have given himself an easier task for a first feature film. Sorry to Bother You is first and foremost a satire, and few other comedic forms are more perilous onscreen. The deployment of pure absurdity might seem freeing — the wildest ideas can be pursued without much worry over plausibility — but the trickiest of balancing acts is required to make a finished product satisfying. Go too far in any direction, and the biting raucousness can grow strained and tedious in a finger snap. Trafficking in the form has felled the mightiest of filmmakers. Sorry to Bother You isn’t perfect, but the difficulty of the program Riley has undertaken deserves to factor in. He’s made a movie that’s dense with ideas and brimming with energy.

In an especially messy version of the modern moment, Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is barely scraping by when he lands a telemarketing job where the directive “Stick to the Script” is sacrosanct. His time among the dismal cubicles is a struggle until a seasoned coworker (Danny Glover) offers the suggestion that he should be using his white voice, which is as much a projection of ease as any manipulation of tone or tenor (although the “white voices” are provided by other actors, including David Cross for Cassius). Once Cassius does his impersonation of comfortable assimilation, his star starts to rise at the company, concurrent to a brimming labor revolution. And that’s when the socio-comic throwing stars are pitched with viciously effective aim.

Sorry to Bother You is about race and labor and art and media and the shaky truth of mass distributed information. It’s about exploitation of the working class and the ways in which people hoping to succeed in the world need to subsume their real selves in favor of toxic preconceptions. In what might very well be its most scathingly insightful detail, it’s about the huge difficulty in getting the broader citizenry to care about abominable abuse exacted on their fellow humans. That Riley keeps this multilayered commentary flowing this while maintaining a cunning visual sense and uniformly guiding the actors to grounded yet inventive performances is an astonishing feat. Sorry to Bother You breaks dozens of rules. More impressively, it makes the rules seem immaterial. Confines are for suckers.

Now Playing — Ant-Man and the Wasp

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As the superhero comic book publisher with the firmest commitment to continuity, Marvel occasionally felt obligated to start an issue with a clarifying caption that placed the story therein on the vast fictional timeline. Something on the page that’s not quite synching up with other titanic tales currently filling the spinner rack? That’s easy to explain, true believer: Events in the periodical in question take place before Captain America #180, so that’s why Steve Rogers is still donned in red, white, and blue. For example.

With that in mind, it seems important to note that Ant Man and the Wasp — which is essentially Marvel Cinematic Universe Part XX — takes place before Avengers: Infinity War, its immediate predecessor on the studio’s release schedule. Some other cinematic effort will be charged with picking up the pieces scattered by Thanos and his special bejeweled glove. Tonally, that’s not really where the movies featuring the practitioners of Pym Particles are at. This is the frothier corner of the Marvel Universe, where the charming absurdity of superhero science is met with a grin and a wisecrack.

As the film opens, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is under house arrest, a repercussion of his excursion to tangle with other costumed do-gooders on foreign soil. He’s also fallen out of touch with Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), but he initiates contact again after experiencing a strange vision associated with his previous excursion into the microscopic quantum realm. That sparks the adventure to life, and the stuffed script (credited to five writers, including Rudd) brings in a supervillain called Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), a quest to find Hope’s long-lost mother (Michelle Pfeiffer) in the quantum realm, evasions of governmental authorities led by FBI agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), and nefarious thugs (led by Walton Goggins, speaking with full Boyd Crowder loquaciousness) who want to steal Pym’s technology.

Director Peyton Reed juggles the abundance of material admirably. Not everything has the same zing and a couple major dilemmas are solved with suspicious ease, but the film builds energy as it moves along. As the title promises, Hope has donned the Wasp suit presented to her at the end of Ant-Man, and Lilly remains the true standout in the series. Invariably, the performers can start to feel like mere cogs in the machine in the Marvel movies, but Lilly imbues Hope with an unyielding sense of purpose. Others can feel like they’re tumbling in for movie moments, but Lilly is grounded. She lives in this world and reacts to its outlandishness accordingly.

At a time when the characters from the various Marvel movies are romping freely across the boundaries of individual films, Ant-Man and the Wasp is blessedly self-contained. It’s clear that Scott, Hope, and the gang will be roped into the greater cataclysm soon enough. For now, though, it’s satisfying to see them doing their own thing, racing around the streets of San Francisco and dealing with challenges a little more modest than threats to the very fabric of the universe. Staying on brand, Ant-Man and the Wasp succeeds in part because of its attention to the small stuff.

Now Playing — Incredibles 2

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Incredibles 2 essentially begins at the precise point its exemplary predecessor ends. The Parr family, super-powered individuals who have largely refrained from costumed heroism because of legal prohibitions, spring into action against the villainous Underminer (voiced by John Ratzenberger), who has burrowed up from beneath the street, in a manner reminiscent of the Mole Man. The close of The Incredibles implied that vigilantes were allowed to once again do their thing, but that’s emphatically not the case, and the opening of the sequel suggests why that may be the case. The battle in the heart of Metroville leaves a lot of destruction behind with little to show for it. The bad guy got away, and, as the authorities explain to the sullen superheroes, the bank the Underminer robbed was fully insured. The do-gooders’ intervention compounded the mayhem and exacted no justice.

As in our world, though, superheroes have fans. One of them is wealthy industrialist Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), who believes a strong PR campaign can bring superheroes back into the good graces of the law. He enlists Helen Parr, a.k.a. Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), to suit up again, equipped with a body camera created by his sister, electronics whiz Evelyn Deavor (Catherine Keener), believing that Elastigirl’s heroics will be better appreciated by the citizenry if they can see the adventures literally from her point of view. That leaves Bob Parr, a.k.a. Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), at home with the offspring, Violet (Sara Vowell), Dash (Huckleberry Milner), and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile), whose cornucopia of unpredictable powers are just starting to manifest. Helen gets the spotlight, and Bob faces his own challenges as Mr. Mom, from Violet’s boyfriend woes to Dash’s new math homework to Jack-Jack’s tussles with wildlife.

Writer-director Brad Bird returns for Incredibles 2, his first animated effort since Ratatouille, released in 2007. Although Pixar has gotten into the franchise biz and had incentive to revisit the Incredibles characters no matter what, rendering this computer world without Bird’s involvement is inconceivable. It is such a clear, boisterously vivid expression of Bird’s fascinations, including society’s chronic undervaluing of excellence and the unique brand of nostalgic futurism that swirled like gnats around his 2015 bomb, Tomorrowland. Presumably anyone could have dropped these figures into a suitably imaginative tale and had a shot at creating an entertaining diversion (and, in truth, Bird’s primary plot is a little uninspired, especially in a revelation of villainy so predictable, I suspect even a good chunk of youthful target audience will see it coming). But Bird brings to Incredibles 2 its soul, resounding with charm and sincerity.

Just as importantly, Bird demonstrates an enviable command of the pure mechanics of cinema. His well-established deftness with action sequences in solidly in place, but he elevates it further with a stunning visual sense. The infinite pliability of computer animation leads to Bird washing the screen in lush, rich colors, as if the entirety of the film takes place during a perfect sunset. In collaboration with cinematographer Mahyar Abousaeedi (a Pixar veteran), Bird gives Incredibles 2 a look unseen outside of Roger Deakins’s dreams. The music by Michael Giacchino is a constant reward, and the voice cast is exceptional, especially Hunter and Nelson. Sequel or not, animation or not, Bird is not coasting, and his team is equally committed.

The film is funny, thrilling, smart, and warm. It lacks the snap of invention that made the first outing with the Parr clan a clear Pixar peak, but that’s to be expected. The excitable readings of its embedded politics impose more weight on Incredibles 2 than is actually there. In way that mirrors the Marvel movies that exploded betwixt its two installments, Bird’s new film has little agenda beyond entertaining. In fulfilling that mission, it is indeed super.

Now Playing — Hereditary

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There are plenty of gruesome elements to go around in Hereditary, the feature film debut of writer-director Ari Aster. As the title implies, though, the most unsettling portions of the film center on the way family can weigh on a person. That’s true of long histories — the sort of heavy ancestry that gets passed down through the generations — but it’s even more present in the small (or not so small) slights and interpersonal infractions that accumulate over time, constructing a wall of wounded emotions that is all but impenetrable.

Toni Collette plays Annie Graham, an artist who specializes in miniatures. She’s busily preparing for an upcoming exhibition when her mother dies, seemingly ending one chapter of family history that included deep resentments, mental illness, and other resonant tragedies. A glumness permeates the house, and Aster does a skillful job of depicting how the foreboding and the mundane often run together. The Graham family lives in a sprawling house in the woods, but the shadows across their psyches are far deeper than those in the corner of rooms encased in dark wood.

Unsurprisingly, Collette is marvelous in the leading role, ferociously commanding a character whose inner troubles manifest in a hard-edged nervousness. As supernatural manipulations began to infiltrate her existence, it’s wholly understandable that she’d grow a little jumpy. In a beautiful morsel of insight, Collette’s Annie is also jittery and unnerved by a chance encounter with an acquaintance in an art store parking lot or even interactions with her immediate family members. Aster’s film adheres politely to many horror film conventions, but it builds uncertainty in detailed characterizations that leave motivations and other undercurrents more difficult to discern. Hereditary feels like it can zing off in any direction at any moment, even as its storytelling is tightly controlled.

Playing Annie’s teenaged son, Peter, Alex Wolff takes roughly the opposite tack as Collette, often withdrawing into tense stillness, making the few explosive moments all the more effective. The film’s most powerful scene belongs to him, due to Aster staging the immediate aftermath of a pivotal, horrific incident with daring restraint. The fierce understatement inherent to that scene carries over to much of the film, and it’s easily the greatest strength of Hereditary. It’s minor missteps come more often when it pushes into the floridly broad, seeking a fevered quality that isn’t needed. (There are exceptions, such as the very ending, which earns its sternly measured bacchanal quality.) The smaller Aster keeps the film, the better it is. Bombast makes an impression, but the more insidious erosion of safe reality can haunt the soul.

Now Playing — Solo: A Star Wars Story

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Back when I first started penning movie reviews — not just as a personal hobby, but to foist upon Central Wisconsin radio listeners — I made an effort to approach each cinematic offering purely as its own entity, doing the best I could to jettison preconceptions as the auditorium lights went down and the trailers started to unspool. It was an era of sequels, though not really franchises. There was still a vague conception that films with a number affixed at the end of the title still needed to convey a cogent story to a eager newcomer. Assessing the film entirely on the basis of what appeared within its procession of frames seemed the right thing to do.

It’s an open question in my mind as to whether the goal is still viable, or indeed laudable, at least when it comes to major studio efforts that are as much about extending a brand as telling a story. If the films themselves are built with the greatest priority given to outcomes largely detached for achieving singular entertainment experiences, maybe it’s fitting to meet them as business ventures more than earnest art. Why would I try to judge the loveliness of one jigsaw piece when it’s the whole puzzle that counts?

Implausible as it may be, there are surely some people who come at Solo: A Star Wars Story with only the vaguest conception of the character who gives the film its title. I’m not one of them. Although I’m far from obsessive about the mythos created by George Lucas and nurtured by countless others since (more and more, I’m pleased to remain apart from that particular subset of fandom as it’s overrun by fragile crybaby bullies with terrible taste), I carry with me volumes of information about the Millennium Falcon’s roguish pilot. I smile with recognition when the Kessel Run is mentioned. I know the correct spelling of Wookiee.

Continuing to stake out my place on the Venn diagram of Solo target audience members, I also felt no particular need to have the vaguer portions of the character’s history sketched in. Circling back to the Lucasfilm business plan, I find the continued clinging to established characters and scenarios to be a significant creative flaw, especially in spinoff features taking place a slightly longer time ago in that galaxy far, far away. I’ve long since hit my quota on Death Star plots, thanks.

And yet I have to admit the nostalgia elements of Solo largely worked for me, though not because of chummy winks to the audience. To the filmmakers’ credit, they largely avoid reliance on the style of revival filmmaker that offers cheap congratulations on mere recognition, like cinema is an ongoing pop quiz. The elements that excavate the acknowledged past of these characters and this universe — the first meetings, the adventures previously name-checked — work because they’re actually dramatized effectively. It never occurred to me that Han Solo’s very name might require an origin story, but the moment worked for me anyway, mostly due to Alden Ehrenreich’s emotional authenticity when it happens.

It is Ehrenreich who is charged and cursed with playing the title character. He’s all but doomed to failure with a broader public disinclined to accept in the role anyone other than Harrison Ford (who, it’s worth noting, is great in Star Wars and almost laughably indifferent in the other three films in which he donned the stylish space vest). Too bad for them. Ehrenreich is pretty great, charming and flinty, playing Solo with the bravado found in the other films, but before he had the experience to back it up. In particular, Ehrenreich taps into the moments of wonder of a young man escaping dire beginnings to take mighty strides across the universe. Of course, Ehrenreich also spends about half the film helplessly watching Donald Glover nimbly steal scenes as a young Lando Calrissian. But no one should be expected to achieve anything more than runner-up status with that level of competition.

The screenplay is co-credited to Lawrence Kasdan (scribe on two films in the original trilogy and then J.J. Abrams’s revival of the series) and his son, Jonathan Kasdan. There’s and old pro sturdiness to the storytelling, with setups and payoffs that are teeter between predictable and satisfying. The movie skews away from the fantasy-film-in-disguise that was Lucas’s inclination and to a Western with six shooters that fire lasers, an understandable pivot given Lawrence Kasdan’s history as the writer and director of Silverado and Wyatt Earp. It’s a nifty idea, but director Ron Howard can’t quite make it snap. The Star Wars universe version of a train heist in the early portion of the film is emblematic of the conceit’s lack of total realization.

Just as I once did my best to forget about preceding films, I always tried to set aside my background knowledge about production turmoil. The entertainment press was more limited before the internet cracked open a cavernous space forever needing new, excited content, but I took in as much of it as I could. As I sat in a theater, I often had a notion as to whether a set was blissful or fraught, if the studio felt they had an Oscar contender or a dreaded dud. The scuttlebutt was fair game in the eventual review, especially if it offered potential explanation for how a film went wrong or captured some elusive spark of ingenuity. In the viewing experience, though, I wanted to be guided by the art in front of me rather than the gossip about its creation.

Since the high drama of Star Wars film production is reported on with a breathless urgency exceeding that afforded breaking news on rampant government corruption, I know more than I care to about the troubled trek of Solo. In that context, Howard’s pedestrian assurance plays as a small miracle of filmmaking craft. Maybe the work of the preceding directing team Phil Lord and Chris Miller wasn’t as bad as the executives believed, but by at least one account Howard’s shooting efforts account for nearly three-quarters of the finished product. That’s no small matter, and it takes only a quick perusal of last year’s The Snowman to see how badly a salvage job can be botched. If that’s faint praise, it’s still praise.

There’s no way for me to see Solo while voiding out my experience and knowledge, and I’m sure that’s something I should want to do. What was my bygone attempt at moviegoing purity achieving, really? In ways small and large, all art builds on the art that came before. Just because a Star Wars movie is purely popular entertainment doesn’t automatically negate the validity of its drawing from the past and finding some extra charm in the familiar, if it accomplishes these tasks with a touch of inspiration and wit. Solo is no masterpiece, but I’d say it beat the odds.