Review: Mission Impossible: Fallout is a Masterstroke in Action Filmmaking

The Mission Impossible franchise is a bit of an oddball compared to it’s peers. It places emphasis on practical stunt-work rather than cgi-effects for it’s action set pieces and it shows little regard to it’s own continuity beyond some reoccurring elements. Yet with Fallout, returning Director Christopher McQuarrie and Lead Tom Cruise have delivered a statement as to why it’s oddities make the films under it’s brand a joy to watch, and in doing so made what could be considered their best film yet.

The plot, as expected, is standard fare for this series. Ethan Hunt and his IMF team are once again attempting to save the world by recovering three cases of plutonium from the  straw-man anarchist organization, The Apostles, who desire to make use of nuclear bombs with said plutonium. Like the other plots in the series, it only serves facilitate the action scenes and character interactions. And it is the latter that especially rises to the occasion, with Simon Pegg’s Benji providing some wonderful comedic moments as his tech-savvy is stressed under the action around him and Ving Rhames Luther delivering a heart-warming demeanor. This dynamic between these is best highlighted by a classical spy-movie double cross scene towards the midpoint and a bomb diffusion scene near the end, the latter which deftly balancing moments of light banter with the tension inherent to the situation. The returning Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust also equips herself well as the feminine counterpart of Ethan Hunt and newcomer Henry Cavill’s Walker also instills a great feeling of intimidation.

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Of course, all these actors efforts goes to facilitating the actions of Tom Cruises famous role, Ethan Hunt. The movie revolves around him, and it is in this focus that Christopher McQuarrie continues his exploration of Ethan Hunt’s character. In Rogue Nation, Hunt’s obsessiveness towards his job and the harm it brings others and himself was on full display. Fallout however concludes that the reason Ethan continues to do this is a sense of grandiose responsibility towards others given his abilities, exemplified in the film by repeatedly refusing to sacrifice a teammate or innocent to accomplish his goals. This makes his rivalry with Walker much more poignant while also giving the audience reassurance of Ethan’s inherent goodness.

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This reassurance invites the audience to be swept up in the marvelous action on screen, which is the film’s primary concern. This film contains Cruise’s best stunt work to date, including such sequences as a H.A.L.O jump, free running through the rooftops of Paris, and hanging off of a helicopter in flight. Being an actor, Cruise is once again able to give these sequences a sense of stress and emotion, allowing the cinematographers to capturing his emoting face. When accompanied by Christopher McQuarrie tendencies towards cinematic realism, it grounds the action scenes and makes the intense acts on screen seem all the more remarkable.

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Strung together by excellent pacing and light character banter, MI:Fallout distinctly understands the core appeal of an action film; it’s potential to sweep an audience into it’s cinematic flow and awe them with death-defying acts of heroism thats sates our internal desires towards grandiosity. It’s may be a simple aim, but it doesn’t make it any less masterful when it is done well. MI:Fallout is such an accomplishment, making it a mission you should choose to accept.

Rating: 5 / 5

 

Review: Sorry to Bother You is a Poignant Satire of Capitalism

As the house lights turned back on and I exited my local theatre into the bright night sky, my mind kept lingering on one question.

“How in god’s name does this film exist?”

Taken literally, the answer is quite easy to find. Prolific rapper Boots Riley finished the screenplay for this passion project in 2012 and after searching for the means of production, began filming in June 2017. But when I ask this question, I mean it more figuratively. For what we have in Sorry to Bother You is a film that is unabashedly anti-capitalist, anti-racist, and ultimately leftist; something more often seen in the indie scene rather than a mainline Hollywood production with a wide release.

Broadly speaking, the film is a sci-fi satire set in a dystopian Oakland, California which sees a down on his luck Cassius Green, played by Lakeith Stanfield, move up the Regalview company ladder after discovering his elusive ‘white voice’ which makes him the company’s premier telemarketer. Yet his rags-to-riches fantasy is interrupted as he is tasked to sell weaponry and modern day slavery rebranded as ‘uber for labor’ for the company WorryFree, run by the delectably evil Steve Lift, played by Armie Hammer. This puts Cassius at odds with his union organizing friends at Regalview, his artist girlfriend Detroit, played by the wonderful Tessa Thompson, and his own conscience.

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How Boots Riley depicts Cassius Green journey is quite well thought-out in terms of cinematography. The director chooses, wisely, to depict Cassius rugged beginnings, his friends at Regalview, and their interpersonal interactions in the lens of cinematic realism. The camera tends to linger during dialogue, sets lack extravagance, and there are an abundance of wide shots. Yet as Cassius Green ascends up the hierarchy and walks the halls of avarice, the cinematography matches the transition with more formalistic qualities. Sets and costumes become more extravagent, the camera loses the wide shots in favor of close-ups and particular angles, and the more sci-fi dystopian elements of this setting take center stage. As these formalistic elements are injected into the film and encroach on it’s more realistic beginnings, they might appear to some as jarring, perhaps even threatening. But this deliberate, as the engulfing of realism by formalism mirrors how the logic of capitalism threatens to consume Cassius Green and others.

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And what a destructive logic it turns out to be. Though the efforts of Steve Lift and others try to mask it under a veil of voluntarism, this is ultimately revealed to be a facade. Cassius uncle, played by Terry Crews, only considers WorryFree’s labor program under the threat of homelessness, while others characters make choices to sell or atomize themselves under similar threats of structural violence. These choices in the film are accompanied by devastating consequences to both the characters and their relationships to their loved ones. This is exemplified best by Cassius’s arc, who by climbing the corporate ladder privatizes himself from others. Yet as Cassius is welcomed into the arms of the rich and powerful, as portrayed by scenes set at Steve Lift’s party, he quickly realizes that all his efforts have meant to his bosses was to communicate that he was a useful tool, or even, in the film’s most race-sensitive moment where Cassius is forced to rap in front of all the party’s attendees, a source of amusement. An entertainment to be enjoyed by the white, capitalist class alongside the pain of those who struggle against them. What this dressing down of capitalism the film performs then is the revelation of the cognitive dissonance required for man to claim to offer a voluntary choice while holding a gun.

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Yet because of Sorry to Bother You‘s grand ambitions, the film can at times stumble under the weight of it all. While the dubbed in ‘white voice’ is suppose to be jarring to some degree, it occasionally fails to match the actor’s body language in such a way as to be distracting. In addition, while Detroit is played well by Tessa Thompson and she bounces off of Lakeith Stanfield wonderfully as Cassius’s voice of reason, her side plot is a source of confusion. It seems that Boots Riley is trying to explore with Detroit’s character whether or not art can serve as an critique of capitalism when it is supported by it, with Tessa Thompson imitating a ‘white voice’ via a British accent and offering herself up to public harassment as part of her radical art exhibit casting doubt. However the arc never comes to a resolution in a way that feels satisfying, which makes me suspect that scenes related to Detroit’s side-plot were edited out during post production. As the only significant feminine perspective in the movie, the lack of resolution for her own side-plot is unfortunate.

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Yet try as I might, I can’t hold the film’s flaws against it in a significant way; a result of clear passion the cast and crew put into it. It’s like Boots Riley and company snuck into Hollywood to make a film under everyone noses, knowing that they’ll never get to do this again and endeavoring to throw everything into it. While the end product is occasionally messy, it is also incredibly funny and offers a perspective rarely seen in a mainline Hollywood production. Thus I encourage you to go to your closest theatre and let this film bother you like it did me. You won’t regret it!

Rating: 4 / 5

 

 

 

 

Review: Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom is a Mediocre Set-Up Banking on a More Interesting Future.

Let me be honest right up front; the Jurassic Park sequels, despite some thrilling moments, are bad. The original, which represented the coming together of the Spielberg who directed Close Encounters and the Spielberg who directed Jaws, struck such unique balance between beauty and horror that is rarely seen. It’s why the film is remembered as a classic of the 90s, but it is also why it’s sequels fail. The momentary awe an audience can experience upon seeing such a vivid image of a dinosaur on-screen only works once. Without the beauty, all the sequels were left to work with was the horror. A horror that was compromised by both vain attempts to capture the awe of the original as well as forcing returns to the island which made the characters who willingly went there and knew about what transpired in the original seem dense to the point of harming the audiences empathy towards them.

With this in mind, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom might just be the best of sequels, despite that statement not exactly being high-praise. The film, which sees the return of the Jurassic world’s Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Howard), takes strides in moving the series into more interesting pastures. Yet despite the shift in status-quo toward the end, the movie that preceded it is still rather dull elevated only by fantastic cinematography.

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I do not make that praise lightly, the film is shot well. Director J.A. Bayona, known for his work on The Orphanage and A Monster Calls, really brings a vibrant intensity to all of the scenes. The epitome of this is a moment after the Isla Nublar volcano erupts and two of the main party are trapped in a sinking spherical transport. The scene is shot in what appears to be one take, allowing the focus to linger on the characters entrapment as water slowly fills the sphere. It evokes a horrifying sense of claustrophobia, a feeling that is echoed through-out the film. The more dramatic scenes also benefit from this direction, with J.A. Bayona delivering scenes where the characters are shot depicting visible signs of emotional vulnerability that were lacking in the original Jurassic World. With shots depicting taller characters getting down to eye-level and shifting from confrontational stances to more open ones, the Bayona-directed sequel attempts something the original Jurassic World lacked the courage to try; make its thinly veiled archetypes appear human.

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Yet solid direction can not cover the problems of the script. While Chris Pratt, Bryce Howard, the new Isabella Sermon, and the rest of the cast perform well with what is given to them, what was given to them was another Colin Trevorrow script that plays to his worst tendencies as a writer. The characters are archetypical to the point of shallowness; more befitting a parody of an action blockbuster rather than a sincere attempt. The dinosaurs, much like the first Jurassic world, are muddled in their representation. The film can’t decide whether their representations of natures indifference and human folly or misunderstood gentle giants deserving of protection and sympathy. Are they friend, foe, or indifferent? The film doesn’t know and this leads to inconsistency that muddles the attempted catharsis toward its conclusion.

Speaking of that conclusion, with the shift in status-quo it brings, it makes me wish this movie, rather than show the shift, left it to back story and progressed from the new, more interesting, status-quo. Perhaps there was a perceived need from the writers to explain this shift in cinematic detail, but I frankly don’t recognize that concern’s validity. Better to work with the new premise than to restrain yourself to a tired one, that has proven itself as a failure, under obligation.  Merely banking on a more interesting future doesn’t disguise the faults of the present, of Fallen Kingdom, as promises are a dime a dozen. All Fallen Kingdom accomplishes in of itself is a betrayal of its finer elements, enslaving them to the failures of the past sequels.

Rating: 2 / 5

Review: Mario Tennis Aces lives up to it’s subtitle

The chief difficulty in translating any physical sport to the half-real experience of video games lies in what is lost. Physical sports require dexterity, the muscle memory to perform necessary actions consistently, and the stamina to keep up with the pace of the game. Their video game adaptations demand the arduous task of fiddling with an analog stick, memorizing the actions associated with a given button, and the stamina to press it. In the case of any tennis adaptation, the question for any developer is how to make a deep and interesting gameplay experience that facilitates player skill growth when stokes, such as the topspin, slice, lob, and drop shot, that can take years to reliably preform are just a button press away. Mario Tennis Aces answer to this, to put simply, is to add more mechanics that could only be implemented in the medium of games to facilitate interesting gameplay choices unique to it alone.

Ignoring it’s additions, Mario Tennis Aces plays like a simplified adaptation of the sport where strokes are a button press away and the ball in motion is clearly visible thanks to the colored speed streaks that tail behind it. Beyond it’s inheritance however lies features unique to it alone. The before mentioned colors that visualize the ball also represents the shot used during the return. If the player fails to match the shot with the appropriate counter it gives their opponent a zone star opportunity at their side of the court. These zone stars tell explicitly where the ball can most easily be returned and when making a return from this location the ball is shot at a higher speed which causes more pushback on the player trying to return it, giving the other player more court control. Hitting the ball from a zone star also fills the player meter more than with regular or charged shots.

It’s this mechanic, the meter, that forms the crux of Mario Tennis Aces gameplay. With it, the player gains access to two moves, one offensive and one defensive. While at the zone star with enough meter the player can perform a zone shot, where they can then aim the ball’s trajectory at a specific point on the court and return it at high speeds. The opposing player may try to return the shot, but unless his timing is impeccable this will likely result in his racket taking damage. A single racket can only take 3 of these shots before breaking and the player is limited in the number of rackets available to them. Once they run out its game, set, match. Fortunately, such a predicament can be alleviated to a degree by making use of zone speed, which slows down the ball making it easier for the player to return a zone shot or reach the ball heading to the other side of their half court. Both maneuvers consume meter, but this can be replenished by maintaining the rally with regular, charged, or the new trick shot. Once a player’s meter fills to the brim, they can preform of a special shot whenever the ball is on their side of the court. These special shots are functionally similar to zone shots but differ in terms of the amount of damage done upon a failed block attempt. Rather than merely damage the racket, a special shot will destroy it out right.

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What all these mechanics allow for is the hallmark of any good gameplay experience, interesting choices. Do I maintain the rally safely with regular strokes or go for the risky trick shot to build more meter and give me an advantage? Do I try to block a special or zone shot at the risk of my racquet or let my opponent score so I could then come back with a meter advantage. Such a series of discrete choices is what elevates Mario Tennis Aces from a simplified sports sim to a complex experience further compounded by the quirks of each character on the roster.

The modes available help facilitate the experience even further. There are your standard offerings for such a game: local and online multiplayer, cups varying in cpu difficulty  and length. However, the highlight of these modes is the new single-player adventure mode. In a slight riff on the classic marvel infinity war, the titular Mario is tasked with collecting the 5 power stones in order to stop the long-sealed Lucien, a possessed tennis racket, from returning to full power after he takes control of several tennis players, including the classic player 2 Luigi. The story is absurd, but delightfully so. The mere concept of game of tennis being elevated to the position of deciding the fate of the world is infinitely humorous, and the game plays with it in a comedic way. Don’t have a ticket for a ship? Play for entry via tennis. Haunted mansion has you trapped? Grab your racket to solve some puzzles. Etherial horror with the power to control the minds of everyone you know and love threatening just that? Beat him at tennis, that’ll set him straight. And such a comedic yarn is facilitated by engaging challenges. There are of course the expected tennis matches, but also puzzles, rallies, and dexterity challenges that test a player’s knowledge about the games mechanics and their ability to make use of them. In a genre often lacking such offerings, Mario Tennis Aces inclusion of such a mode is a plus.

Mario Tennis Aces isn’t without its blemishes however, some minor and some major. The rpg-esque leveling system the adventure mode implements never really translates into meaningful game feel differences as you progress up the ranks. More damning however is the decision, outside of cpu battles, to have local and online multiplayer be restricted to a best 2 out of 3 games of 1 set format as opposed to the multi-set format of 3, 4, 5, even 6 sets seen in physical tennis. While decision to structure the online multiplayer around the streamlined format to facilitate speedy online matchmaking is understandable, the lack of custom format options for the local multiplayer is baffling. I do stand by the statement that the new additions made in this game give the gameplay experience depth that it would otherwise lack, for tennis aficionados it might appear to be a significant detriment as it prevents the long and hard battles on the court with great comebacks and lengthy mental warfare from appearing a much as it does in real life.

Yet Mario Tennis Aces still succeeds as a sport adaptation despite these flaws. By making tactile additions to the simplified tennis framework, the game delivers an ace gameplay experience that should be enjoyable to anyone who has an inkling to pick it up.

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Rating: 4 / 5