John Wick 2 (****1/2): You’re always that guy…

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John Wick Chapter 2 – 2017

Director Chad Stahelski
Screenplay Derek Kolstad
Starring Keanu Reeves, Common, Laurence Fishburne, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ruby Rose, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, Claudia Gerini

If it takes away your peace, it’s too expensive. That’s what some wise people say. Even wiser it is to take those taking away your peace with a head-shot or 70. This time they missed the dog with the grenade. But they took out pretty much the whole rest of the house.  And all those pictures of him and his not as recently deceased wife.  And he’d just buried his guns under concrete again…

The most powerful thing about John Wick the character is that he is actually quite convincing as a world-weary and just plain beaten down warrior. Sure, he’s always being brought back for “one more job” but he’s going to be shot, beaten and stabbed along the way, sometimes in the middle of a concert.  And he doesn’t miss. My word does he make sure he hits the target over and over. He is hit enough himself, but bullets that hit his vest just add to the extreme agony. They don’t take away his fire to survive, but they can very much affect his fighting style.

The job brings him to Rome this time, where he has to kill literally dozens of people just to take down one target. Then he gets into a prolonged fight or two. Reeves has been at this game a long time. Seeing him hit by cars, thrown down stars and through windows is remarkable. His dedication to realism is astounding. He is not a young man, but he doesn’t fight like an old one. Just one worn down by experience. He deserves an Oscar nomination for the most believable action star in the last decade…or two.

Meanwhile the bodies pile up. And up. And up.  It’s the highest one man death count I have seen outside of A Better Tomorrow II. The director Stahelski has a remarkable dedication to the art of action. He is growing by leaps and bounds as the trajectory between this film and the last will attest. The confidence is shows in one beautiful set up after another. Every scene is meticulously choreographed, advancing the very basic story as if it were way more complex than it really is. Take away this expertise and this is any of the Liam Neeson films of his recent heyday. Not exactly a put down, to be sure, but you know what I mean.

The last act of the film has an incredible premise that starts with 7 bullets and is as much a puzzling quest for more as it is a hunt for “vengeance.” The ferocity of the jujitsu employed is an agonized symmetry in which everyone’s body weight is carefully applied to make each fight believable.

What is this world of ancient coins and hit men and women waiting on every corner? It the same bullshit we’ve seen for years. There is no secret to this secret society. The key to the whole thing is feeling like Reeves himself believes. And you can see each scratch, cut and gut shot. That says nothing about what you see when you look in his tired, but still resolved eyes. It’s a younger version of what one sees when they look in the eyes of McShane.

(****1/2 out of *****)

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Passengers (***) starts off as a nice trip

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Passengers – 2016

Director Morten Tyldum
Screenplay Jon Spaihts
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Laurence Fishburne, Andy Garcia, Michael Sheen

Passengers is the kind of ride that would have been more interesting if it had been made in a time that didn’t require clean resolutions to its stories. The story starts with the moral philosophy question of what would one do if facing the prospect of a Desert Island existence when given the prospect of expanding their misery to someone else in order to split the difference together. From there it makes a choice and the viewer gets to see the evolution of its consequences. Just when it begins to get interesting, we are reminded that test audiences want to see point A go to point B rather than drifting off into infinity.

Jim Preston (Pratt) is an engineer whose hibernation ends prematurely on a near 130 year journey across the galaxy to a new planet. Why does this happen to him and no one else? We get a character who is at least as curious as we are, until we get to see him turn into Tandy from The Last Man on Earth, space version. He grows a horrible prop beard – so distracting it made one wonder what kind of beast it originally grew on. He has only limited means to live on until he starts getting creative. Jim has a relationship with an android bartender, off which to bounce ideas and with which he attempts to reason.

It’s not enough though.

The performance is a gentle expansion of range for Pratt, and for the most part he hits it. Jennifer Lawrence acts at about 3/4 speed, making sure she hits all of her marks in the most obvious way possible. Not saying she does anything wrong, rather it’s clear this script was written by someone who has less experience being a woman than she does. The name she is assigned – Aurora Lane – should have been the first indication of a struggle to understand.

Martin Sheen’s android Arthur is interesting as much for what he doesn’t offer as for what he does. The film ultimately misses a major opportunity making him closer to a toaster than to K2SO.

The last 1/3 of the film is a mess. Going from the social conundrum to a full fledged connect the dots action film. Who’s going where and why literally amounts to a search through a large warehouse for stuff that may or may not be working. This warehouse is made less interesting for the fact that they take all of about 30 seconds searching.

Sure, one could watch this on a Sunday afternoon and hope against hope that our protagonists unite and maybe start a colony of their own. What they do is unexplainable, half because by the end it’s jumpy, screamy and fiery to an obnoxious degree. How much you like this film should translate to exactly how much you desire formula.

(*** out of *****)

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (**) – Why build a miracle at all?

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Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – 2016

Director Zack Snyder
Screenplay Chris Terrio, David S. Goyer
Starring Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, Gal Gadot

“What goes up must come down.
What must rise must fall…
And what goes on in your life
Is writing on the wall!
If all things must fall,
Why build a miracle at all?…”

Alan Parsons Project, 1978

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is not the colossal failure everyone wants to proclaim. It’s about as cumbersome as Batman’s suit during their second meeting with the weight of its self-importance. It forgets that there are two characters in the title. In terms of story, it unwinds like more a math problem. It feels like they tried to set up D.C.’s version of The Avengers in one big bloated carcass of a movie. Still, with all of that going against it, I believe it squeaks by as a film that is a passable, if not all that likable building block to a franchise. If this is The Phantom Menace, let’s hope The Justice League is not Attack of the Clones.

The thing about Zack Snyder is that I generally enjoy his view on the cinematic world. His movies are usually visual masterpieces that, while not perfect, are at least memorable. The Watchmen, still his best work, actually improved upon the comic for me by making the ending an existential question. His version of Dawn of the Dead is still the best zombie movie I have ever seen. Man of Steel is, until the last act, perhaps the best Superman film. Somehow he forgot that Kal El is supposed to lead the carnage away from civilization…and that smile on Clark Kent’s face just doesn’t jibe with so many people dead.

They barely let the credits roll when the decision was made to contort the sequel into this grab bag of scenes and pulpy carnage in Snyder’s estimation of the modern version of a D.C. story line. They conscientiously moved away from the reliable but admittedly routine chuckle a minute Marvel formula. They also moved away from moments of wonder that are best fed in moderation.

After yet another young Bruce Wayne tragic awakening scene, we get a segue into the climax of Man of Steel, with the big ship falling into the sky and Superman (Cavill) working over Zod’s soon to be corpse in the background. Bruce Wayne (Affleck) has decided to fly into Metropolis as…Bruce Wayne. In a helicopter. Even with those means, he lands the copter several blocks away and drives in, until the roads are, soon enough, impassible. Then he runs. Again, as Bruce Wayne. Why does he do this?  Because Batman might have gotten there and actually helped more people maybe?  Well probably not. The Earth itself is knocked all to hell. How is Batman going to do anything about that?  Don’t think too hard about it. They didn’t.

So Bruce Wayne lost some employees and one friend we never really get to know. That’s alright for this story, though. We lose Jimmy Olsen a few minutes later when he’s going undercover during a Lois Lane interview with a bad guy.  Superman kills the bad guy after he holds Lane hostage, but back in Gotham/Metropolis, Bruce/Batman is stewing. The world has mixed feelings about Batman, who has been operating for years. He’s taken to branding his victims lately. They also don’t know what to make of Superman. This means the two heroes find one another on the opposite side of the justice spectrum.

The writers go to some lengths to establish these feelings, but the inclusion of Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor makes a jumble of it. Luthor likely knows the identity of both when he brings them together at a party. Also at this party is Diana Prince (Gadot). We know who she is, but Bruce and Clark will not until they need her, later in the film.

Anyone who has seen even the second commercial knows what happens from this point, which made seeing it somewhat redundant. There are angles that work (Batman), some that are forced (Luthor) and some that rely too much on Lois being an investigator and not enough on her boyfriend.

For what is supposed to be a sequel, it feels more like Batman with a bunch of Superman’s supporting cast. The reason for them to battle (even in the comic) has always been a little too counter-intuitive to their supposed intelligence. Still, the fact that we do not spend more than a few frames contemplating alternate identities is a plus.

As before, Snyder puts way too much into the last act. They make some overt attempts to intimate that the battles are taking place away from populated areas, but…come on. These folks do more damage than Godzilla meeting King Kong. In the midst of this, we do get a nice, somewhat nuanced subplot with Wonder Woman that makes her upcoming movie feel more interesting than Captain America’s.

We get to see a a video collection of other “Meta humans” who have been tracked down in a method convenient to the Justice League plot, but nowhere near any sort of canon. Even more, the titular battle is halted for a reason that makes no sense. Perhaps though it is commonplace in the dark D.C. Universe for people to refer to a parent by their first name.

The film is dark. Oh Lord is it dark. It feels like we have a giant boot to the neck for most of the 2.5 hour running time. If they were going for serious, the settled for constant heart attack inducing stress. Why do we have to make this world so dark?  It’s okay to see amazing things without seeing several caskets roll by throughout the film.

Who do we blame?  Most of it belongs to Charles Roven and Team Snyder. This whole format is in their guiding hands for now. The story provided by Goyer and altered by Terrio feels piecemeal. Goyer is on the hook for the two Justice League films. The franchise feels like a deeper hole than even they were anticipating. Word has it that there are a series of re-shoots even this late in the game to Suicide Squad in order to brighten the tone, even just a little.

It’s not that I hate this film. It’s got some good, albeit disconnected moments. The task of entering the DC Universe mid-step means it will necessarily be different than the origin story heavy Marvel Universe. A used universe is fine with this reviewer. It just shouldn’t have to require one to watch Blade Runner to lighten the mood afterword.

(** out of *****)

Ride Along is what you call a vehicle

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Ride Along – 2014

Director Tim Story
Starring Ice Cube, Kevin Hart, John Leguizamo, Bruce McGill, Tika Sumpter, Laurence Fishburne
Screenplay Greg Coolidge, Jason Mantzoukas, Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi

Ice Cube is one of the most likable stars out there.  It must be the permanent scowl.  Ever since the movie BarberShop, the secret’s been out, though.  The director of BarberShop, Tim Story, has had a consistent career.  Almost every one of his films has made money, well except for Hurricane Season, but that was a high school sports drama.  Story’s valiant (and financially if not artistically successful) attempts at The Fantastic Four notwithstanding, he’s had a winning career.  He’s even directed a few of the Kevin Hart comedy specials.

Kevin Hart has been in a ton of films.  Most of us wouldn’t know it, unless we saw him once more in those films.  That’s what one sees in an aspiring career.  So now, we get to see what Hart can do with a little help from an established star like Cube.  The result is nothing you haven’t seen in 50 better and, say 1000 worse films.  I honestly cannot imagine why it took 4 writers to craft this plot, when most of the laughs seem to be spontaneous reactions by Hart.

The story is about aspiring police officer, Ben Barber (Hart) who is dating the sister (Sumpter) of a hard as nails Atlanta Police detective James Peyton (Cube).  Trying to win a spot on the police force and the approval of his potential Brother In Law, he agrees to go on a Ride Along with Peyton.  He gets to experience a series of 126 (nuisance) calls.  When Barber gets a whiff of what is going on, he calls Peyton’s bluff at exactly the wrong time.

The point to Ride Along is not to give an original, or in any way a harrowing story.  It’s easy to see what’s going to happen from the first scene.  The point to this movie, like any buddy cop movie, is to see the chemistry between the duo.  After taking a while to warm up, Cube and Hart show that they have it.  Somehow, we get to see Barber’s gaming skills actually help to solve crucial parts of the case.  This assumes that the video game makers work harder than the scriptwriters to achieve authenticity.

Ride Along is not an ambitious film, but it succeeds at what it sets out to accomplish.  The career of Kevin Hart has officially achieved overdrive.  How long it stays there depends on  a few things, like who he works with.  He’s done pretty well so far.  Let’s hope he’s smart enough to continue to dance with who brung him.

(***1/2 out of *****)

Bearing the weight of the Man of Steel

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Man of Steel – 2013

Director Zack Snyder
Starring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne, Diane Lane, Christopher Meloni, Ayelet Zurer
Screenplay David S. Goyer

Well documented are the difficulties of making a movie about a man with no weaknesses.  As good a Superman as Christopher Reeve was, there was really nothing for him to do after he beat Terrance Stamp’s General Zod way back in Superman II.  It took 2 more movies before they realized it.  The beautiful but flawed Superman Returns showed that, even with better special effects and an extreme emphasis on character development, they had nothing to fall back on but a literal sea of Kryptonite.  Now, with the help of Christopher Nolan, savior of the Batman franchise, the push was towards darkness and the weight of morality.  It is a bold decision, and one that nearly succeeds.  This Man of Steel has more death and destruction than any super hero film I have ever seen.  Yes, that includes The Avengers and the third Transformers film…combined.

The story starts out on the doomed planet of Krypton.  We get extensive back story that explains (for the most part) the reason for the planet’s demise and the actual sins of General Zod, which are closer to an insane nobility than unchecked arrogance as presented in the Reeve franchise.  Crowe, Shannon and Zurer are all exceptional here, as is the variety of living beings present.  It starts to make sense.

Once on earth, we are presented with a story for Kal-El in the same winding and flashback fashion that we got to see in Batman Begins.  It’s at this point that Man of Steel is at its most daring.  We get to see what makes him the son of Jonathan and Martha Kent (Costner and Lane) in contrast to what it means to be the son of Jor-El (Crowe) and Laura (Zurer).  The contrast is interesting, and it really encourages an interest in his development.  All of this dovetails very nicely with the introduction of Amy Adams as Lois Lane.  Thankfully, she avoids the playful pluckiness of Kidder, who had made the character her own opposite Reeve.  Instead, we get a mostly believable journalist who ruled as much by her conscience as her desire for the story.

From here, the film takes its most jarring turns.  Shannon is every bit the equal of Stamp in the role of the antagonist.  His vitriol, mixed with an unexpected intelligence, creates a worthy adversary for Superman.  There is a leap into megalomania which would seem inconsistent with all but the most irrational beings and it wreaks havoc on the rest of the film.  The result is a mixture of destruction and exposition that is curiously ill-fitting.  What we see is breathtakingly horrific, and decisive.  The very next moment, we hear its reasoning verbalized.  The explanations seem more the “just in case you don’t follow” variety.  That aside, Shannon is riveting and worth every moment on-screen.  He is hands down the best actor around now.

Superman is the hero that started everything.  He is also the end of all heroes.  There is no DC Universe without him.  There is just Batman, and a bunch of one offs.  Cavill does a great job here, working well with all he is given, and my God what a winning smile.  There could not be a better director for visual effects, save Del Toro or Jackson.  Even so, it’s a barrage of destruction that comes close to overwhelming everything else that the story is attempting to build.  For this I have to blame the writer.  We see decision foisted upon the hero answered with such a casual quip it’s quite shocking.  One can’t imagine that I could make such a decision.  Then there is the ending.  It’s impossible to imagine anyone could smile after all that happens.  But then, there still is hope.  We do have Superman.

(**** out of *****)

CPE, Em and El: Forgotten Gem – Akeelah and the Bee is bravely facing a new world

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Akeelah and the Bee – 2006

Written & Directed by Doug Atichison
Starring Keke Palmer, Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Curtis Armstrong, J.R. Villareal, Sean Michael Afable, Erica Hubbard, Lee Thompson Young, Julito McCullum

Akeelah:  Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. (quoting Marianne Williamson)
Dr. Larabee: Does that mean anything to you?
Akeelah: I don’t know.
Dr. Larabee: It’s written in plain English. What does it mean?
Akeelah: That I’m not supposed to be afraid?
Dr. Larabee: Afraid of what?
Akeelah: Afraid of… me?

Akeelah and the Bee is an accomplishment beyond measure,.  It is a fearless endeavor into a life worth living.  It is a smart film about trying to be brilliant.  That brilliance comes from within a person’s desire, and from working beyond all of the fears one has about success, as well as failure.  Of all the roadblocks that one can see in the film, none are so big as those our protagonist has placed within herself.

Developed over many years by Atchison after seeing the Scripps Spelling Bee, he had a tough time getting a green light until the release of Spellbound.  Having the makings of an ABC afterschool special, it rises above this by its honesty, natural flow and its purpose.  The strength of this film is the way the script, pace and acting work together.   Each of the elements are superb.  The fear of success the weight of failure are intricately woven with each scene.  It carries a load but never buckles from the load.

A big reason for this is the performance of Akeelah Anderson by Keke Palmer.  She is as beautiful as she is vulnerable.  She walks the line with every step of the way and her face shares every emotion on that journey.  We see the world getting larger before her eyes, and we are drawn into it with her.  She is a relatively successful actress now, but she has the talent to be as good as the woman who plays her mother in the film.

“You know Akeelah, you ain’t short on people who want to help you.”

Angela Bassett has been one of the best actresses on film since her breakthrough Boyz n The Hood.  Here she treads familiar ground, but that’s the point.  When you need a clean up hitter, you get someone who can knock it out of the park. She is the epitome of someone carrying a burden with eyes nearly closed to the world.  Seeing how her eyes are opened is anything but a routine scene.  One can see the frustration turn to thought, and the thought processed into acceptance and a pride that any parent can feel.  There are no short cuts to any of these points.  The viewer goes on a real journey.

Laurence Fishburne, as Akeelah’s coach, Dr. Larabee, was opposite Bassett in Boyz…,and he is a counter of sorts here.  At least at first.  His coach is like many of his best characters: someone who gives and demands respect.  The love in his character is intricately weaved behind the lessons that he shares with Akeelah.  It’s a beautiful, multi-layered portrayal and one of the best of his career.

The ending of the movie, especially the spelling of the last word is so well expressed, it brings tears of joy.  It’s a reward for taking every step with Akeelah, and realizing that it is love, not learning by rote, that pushes one to true intelligence.  That is the true “manifest glory of God” we all are gifted with.

My daughters, upon seeing the credits begin to roll, immediately sought out dictionaries and started writing down words.  Then they started sharing them with us.  There is joy in their hearts with a love for learning.  My wife and I are grateful to be able to give some of that back.

(***** out *****)

Em’s review:

CPE: So, did you like this movie?
Em: I give it a 4 and 1/2 out of 5.  Some of the scenes had bad words in it, like b-i-t-c-h.  And Dad, I am trying to study.

CPE: Do you think that those words might have been put in there to prove a point?
Em: No.

CPE: No?  What do you mean?
Em: Dad, I am trying to study my words!

CPE: So who is your favorite character?
Em: I’m studying!
CPE: Come on!  Tell me!
Em: My favorite character was Akeelah.  She is sweet and she never gave up on her dreams.  She almost did, though.

Em took this moment to go off and continue writing words down out of the dictionary, something that El was doing too.

El’s review:

CPE: El, did you like this movie?
El: Yeah, I liked that Dr. Larabee started teaching her again.

CPE: Was the Dr. your favorite character?
El: Mmm: Akeelah and the Doctor.

CPE: Did you like how the Mother started helping her daughter?
El: Mmmhm.  Did I tell you I like the Mother too?
CPE: No, but do you?
El: Yep.

CPE: Was this a sad movie?
El: Kind of.
CPE: What made the movie happier?
El: She got happy.
Mrs. CPE: How did she get happier?
El: By hugging the doctor.
Mrs. CPE: Do we get happier by hugging our doctor?
El: Only a spelling doctor.

At this point, El went on about her business, writing down words out of the dictionary, too.  They are like herding cats when they are spelling, too.

Contagion: Elizabeth Bennet prevents the people of the world from becoming a bunch of zombies

Contagion – 2011

Directed by Steven Soderburgh
Starring
Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law, Bryan Cranston, Sanaa Lathan, Elliot Gould, Chin Han, John Hawkes, Demetri Martin
Written by  
Scott Z. Burns

It’s been a long time since I had given a second thought about Jennifer Ehle.  After seeing her in the classic 1995 BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, I read up on her, found out that she had done some film work, a lot of Theater work, had a relationship with Colin Firth, and they both moved on.  She lost me at “Theater.”  Too bad for me. About 30 minutes into Contagion, with the stars passing through the screen with an ease that few directors could manage, my wife asked me who it was playing CDC scientist, Dr. Ally Hextall.  So far she had stolen each scene she was in as a straightforward, yet unrestrained problem solver.  This is not an easy task, when you factor in Laurence Fishburne, Elliot Gould and comedian Demetri Martin as her primary counterparts.  It was not a surprise that she noticed her first, as Pride and Prejudice is one of her all time favorite adaptations.  Given that most of what she watches is what I watch, she was as happy as I was to find out the good doctor was none other than the prototype for all women who read more than they shop, Elizabeth Bennet.

Ehle clearly stands out from a remarkable cast

The command she displays on the screen causes one to wonder why she hasn’t become a major star.  It’s hard not to think that she will have something relevant to offer to the resolution early on.  Thing is, she is featured not at all in the commercials or advertising for the film, nor has she been mentioned in any of the reviews.  Maybe this is not so much of a surprise, as Soderbergh’s ability to meld all the name characters into real people who are professionals, antagonists and normal folks.  Other than Ehle’s superlative demonstration, the acting here is so unanimously good, that no one performance stands out from any of the others.  Wonderful as it is, the acting isn’t even the best part of the film.

Contagion is the best overall film about a viral outbreak ever produced.  The reason for this is simple.  Most movies dealing with the subject make the easy mistake of adding artificial drama to the situation.  To wit, in the average film, Outbreak, I never cared that Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo used to be an item.  It is a hackneyed cliché and means nothing to the dangers faced in the real world, and it just yanks any credibility out of the film.  Instead of falling into this trap, Soderbergh and Burns stay on task and keep the science in the forefront.

To this end, two factors stand out as particularly effective:

1)  The demonstrated need grow a virus long enough to create an antivirus has never been broached on film, from what I have seen.  Here we learn that this is very hard to do when the virus destroys everything it comes across so quickly.  Just getting to see the lengths scientists go through just to grow cultures in a lab brought a sense of pressure that was very easy to understand and feel.

2)  There is an intelligent  investigation of how the virus evolved and, essentially, tracing it to where it came from.  Cotillard’s character, Dr. Leonora Orantes, as a representative of the World Health Organization, shows how difficult it is to not only trace the physical evidence, but to deal with the political aspects of going to a country and letting it’s citizens know that all clues point to them.

Unfortunately, this storyline is sidetracked with a subplot that adds little to the overall scheme, while cancelling out the effectiveness of Cotillard’s performance.

I love seeing her like this, but it doesn't last long

Another questionable aspect to the film is the emphasis of blogging as a source of medical information, or intrigue, as it were.  I know that my wife, who has a degree in Medical Anthropology after studying to become a nurse in college, will consult certain sites for information when one of the girls is sick.  It’s worked pretty well, so far.  The line is drawn for us, though, once the sites approach the edge of medical science.  Law’s character, as conspiracy theorist and general agitator Alan Krumwiede, stands to the side, barking constantly.  As one who might theorize as to the potency of the coming virus and investigate deaths that go unreported or swept under the rug, I can buy his character.  What is harder to conceive is that same guy making himself a guinea pig for an alternative medicine which catches fire through the country and less likely, gives him press time with the CDC scientist Dr. Ellis Cheever (Fishburne).

Not talking to or touching anyone else

These complaints are almost trivial, though, when compared to what Soderbergh and Burns get right.  The human element, dispensing relief and supplies months into the outbreak rings true.  This is mainly because the riots seem random, yet reasonable and eventually, society balances it out.

For these scenes Damon, playing as anonymously as possible, gives one of the most solid performances of his incredible career.  There is a deep resonance in his relationship with his daughter, and the way they cut themselves out of society, while trying to keep up civility with each other and the people they meet endures throughout the movie.  In particular, a scene at night, viewed from his sleeping daughter’s bed, is chilling in the deepest way to anyone who has ever been a guardian of a child.  It’s like a more reasonable precursor to The Road.

Similarly, Kate Winslet, as CDC Coordinator Beth Emhoff, handles an unwinnable situation valiantly and with much grace.  Her character is representative of a cast willing to give uptheir chance to be the subject of the movie for the sake of the story.  One wonders if Angelina Jolie or even Julia Roberts could do the same.

Which brings me back to Jennifer Ehle’s Hextall.   Working in an apparent bubble for much of the film, we get a chance to see a more human side of her character, just about the time we start to lose hope.  This scene gives credence to what everything she does, instead of pushing her principles awkwardly aside in desperation.  Fishburne’s, Cheever, makes a few similar choices, but instead of being breaking character, these actions add to the already established traits.  One can understand why these choices are made, and with only a small amount of trepidation, accept them.

Contagion sets the standard for how to handle large casts as well as a complex subject without trips into sentiment or excessive histrionics.  The missteps are few, and, as a result, the natural tension is palpable.  Soderbergh has reestablished himself as one of the great directors after a generally successful, but somewhat spotty decade.

(****1/2 out of *****)

Cool Papa E Reviews The Mission: Impossible series

Mission: Impossible – 1996
Directed by
 Brian De Palma
Starring
Tom Cruise, Emmanuelle Béart, Jon Voight, Kristin Scott Thomas, Emilio Estavez, Jean Reno, Ving Rhames, Vanessa Redgrave, Henry Czerny, Ingeborga Dapkūnaitė
Written by  
David Koepp, Robert Towne

Considered at the time to be a blasphemous departure to the original series is now seen as a pretty solid thriller.  That is saying something with De Palma at the helm.  Known for his inconsistent ability as well as his occasional genius, De Palma could have sunk this franchise before it started.  Sure, he had just gotten through with Carlito’s Way, but he could just as easily turned it into Snake Eyes , Mission to Mars or, worse, Black Dahlia.

Getting rid of the entire cast in the first mission and then spending the rest of the movie with solid replacements was a stroke of brilliance.  Having Henry Czerny play against cast was equally grand.  The best scene, by far, is breaking into the CIA. Old computers and all, it still works.   The train scene stretched credibility to the max.  The twists are plentiful, and the performances are solid.  As Ethan Hunt, Cruise delivers a performance intense enough and generic enough that he is able to grow into.  The reveal with a half hour left is a little early.  It was nice to see Jon Voight bite it, even if he was Jim Phelps at the time.

(***1/2 out of ******)

Mission: Impossible II
Directed by
John Woo
Starring Tom Cruise, Dougray Scott, Thandie Newton, Ving Rhames, Brendan Gleeson, Richard Roxborough, Anthony Hopkins (uncredited), William Mapother
Written by Robert Towne

Taking a calculated risk for the second movie in a row, Cruise inserts noted Hong Kong director John Woo.  Woo is a great choice, and he brings all of his bag of tricks to the show.  Problem is, he used about 3/4 of these tricks in earlier films.  The car wreck on the cliff, the gun standoff and the motorcycle stunts are all Woo standards.  Still there is something intriguing about having Cruise attack those stunts.  The color palate is immensely beautiful in Blue Ray, making the last 1/3 of the movie, duplicate scenes and all, remarkable as ever.

Cruise looks like he is having a ball through most of the events.  The bad guy (Scott) is kind of bland, with no lasting impact, unless you consider that he gave up being Wolverine for this role.  I had more of a feeling of danger with Anthony Hopkins as the head of IMF.  Or the blonde number 2 guy.  Thandie Newton is more than adequate as the damsel in distress.

Towne’s script presents a grim fatalism to everything.  One real weakness is any real discussion about how communicable the disease Chimera is.  There is a lot less tension in M:I:II than in most films involving virus outbreaks.  This one makes it seem like it can be solved with hands, feet, guns and grit.  Makes it feel a little insubstantial, which, of course, it is.

(**** out of *****)

Mission: Impossible III
Directed by J.J. Abrams
Starring
Tom Cruise, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Ving Rhames, Michelle Monaghan, Johnathon Rhys Meyers, Billy Crudup, Laurence Fishburne, Maggie Q, Simon Pegg, Keri Russell, Eddie Moran
Written by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Abrams

Far and away the best of the series, with no discernible flaws.  Taking many risks, including making Hoffman a bad guy, giving Hunt a fiancé and then marrying him all before the major mission kicks off, it succeeds in ratcheting up the tension, instead of making it goofy.  The rescue mission with Russell is as awesome is it is heartbreaking.  The kidnap in Rome, the double cross in the Florida Keys, the escape from the IMF, the building jump and the interrogation scene are all high-water marks for the series.

Hoffman’s belligerent diatribe as he sits there captured shows exactly what they got in this movie that the other two so desperately lacked: a credible nemesis.  Every moment counts, every detail matters, and every scene leads to something.  The same combination responsible for just about every classic series or movie over the last 8 years (Abrams, Orci, Kurtzman) is the driving force behind the success of the film.  Making Laurence Fishburne the boss and Crudup as his buddy in the office works in many ways.  Maggie Q, Rhys Meyers, Rhames and especially Pegg give Cruise the best supporting team yet.

The best thing about M:I:III is for the first time, the series feels vital.  The story gives Cruise a chance to flesh out the Hunt character unlike he has ever been before.  As a husband, he feels more human than he ever did as just an agent.  Like Jean Reno in Leon: The Professional, he has roots.  The sequels have been more a pleasant surprise to now.  With part 3, we now wait in breathless anticipation for the fourth entry.

(***** out of *****)