Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Sound of Freedom

It's always complicated when a work's value expected to be judged on more standards than entertainment and artistry. This movie is activism; made to shine a harsh light on the realities of child sex trafficking. I think that's a good goal, but good motivation doesn't ensure quality of the product, and I want to judge movies on artistic scales, not moral ones.

So I'm conflicted. Some was really good. And some felt more like a sermon than art.

And with that reservation, I went into this movie already closed off to it. Whether that's fair or not, that's the lens through which I write this. Aware that the goal was raised awareness and not entertainment, I found the opening scenes exploitative and uncomfortable in ways that made me angry at the movie itself, for showing young kids in sexualized situations. That's what the movie wanted; to make me angry, not to entertain. But the story, viewed outside of the movie's framing of it, isn't just about horrors and evil in the world, but about hope, and justice, and the good that fights that evil. 

I'm not usually one for true stories but this ticks the right boxes to work for me. It features a regular guy, just doing his job to the best of his ability—but far beyond what's expected of him, or what others in his position would have done. The plot is self-contained enough that it has a clear point where the goal is accomplished, and all the right places for the ups and downs, tension and release that storytelling is—but the feeling the movie evokes conflicts with all that. It shows but doesn't embody what's on paper. It effectively made me feel sick. It effectively built tension. But then when the goal was accomplished, there was no emotional effectiveness. No release. No relief. Did they mean for those moments to carry catharsis? Or was the lack an intentional choice? 

I enjoyed seeing Jim Caviezel again. I wish they'd found a more creative way of showing Tim's deeper emotions than having him monologue while misty-eyed, though.

Filmmaking 101 says that your opening shot and your closing shot are mirrors of one another. Viewing them side by side, you should be able to see what changed over the course of the story. So, Sound of Freedom opens with the little girl who is will be kidnapped, sitting on her bed, alone in a dim room, playing a drum. And in the ending, after she's rescued, she's in the same room, on the same bed, with the same lighting, playing the same drum. Except... what? There is only one change. And if you're paying attention maybe you're thinking, "she's not alone in the final shot. She's saved and restored to her family, so they're there, gathered around her and they're all happy and free." Nice idea. But no. She's alone at the end, too. The only change is that the camera pans inward at the opening, and outward at the end. And for some reason I can't move past that.

There's a lot of things I could spend time here going over. Things like writing, and performances, and production quality—but all that's sticking with me is this irresolvable question. Why? Why didn't they show her with her family at the end? Why did they make the ending just as bleak as the beginning if the story was supposed to be uplifting? And the only thing I can think of is that they thought if they made the conclusion too happy—if they released their audience and gave them their reward of catharsis—that wouldn't spark as much real-world change as they wanted, because the audience would have a sense of resolution as they left the theater. So they didn't. 

Even the tender moments have this underlying ominous dread. It's just so relentlessly heavy.

They left it focused on the darkness, even though hope was right there on the page, bleeding over from the true story in real life. The reward was there for the taking, but they sacrificed it on moral grounds. For a call to action. And no matter what good intentions they had behind that, I can't like it. It was good in a filmmaking sense. The cast was good. The characters were great. It forced me into the world it built, and it successfully accomplished its goal. But I hated watching it.

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One

Fortunately, I can still say I don't hate any of the Mission: Impossible movies, and say that there's a certain amount of merit to all of them. Unfortunately, Dead Reckoning's merit isn't as prominent as the series has achieved; and more unfortunately, it doesn't have the fallback that Mission: Impossible 2 takes advantage of, where you can call the melodramatic silliness "fun" (if so inclined) and "different" (to point out that the movie certainly does try its own thing.)

It's nice when a movie can slip and still be enjoyable. But right now, a movie that doesn't slip at all is worth its weight in gold.

Dead Reckoning. Part one. One complement I can get out of the way is, even though it's a "Part One," it doesn't leave us hanging as far as feeling like we've seen a complete movie. We know there's more to see, but the movie does fulfill everything it sets out to accomplish. Director Christopher McQuarrie and Tom Cruise have now done three of these movies together, and it's unlikely they'd take an obvious misstep. No; instead, what they should have been worried about was that the groove they established in the series with Rogue Nation would too quickly become a rut. Fallout didn't pack the thematic/character punch that Rogue Nation did, but the stunts and visual entertainment was so stunning that I was willing to brush it off as a natural ebb and flow of quality. The next movie would right it.

But it didn't. And, I'm sorry to say, the action element has dropped off now, too. First, thematically, the movie is about the kind of honorable duty involved in taking a job in a secret agency that will disavow you the second you get into trouble—while sending you off to get in trouble as your job. Ethan and Co. meet up with and befriend Hayley Atwell as Grace, a highly skilled thief, and through friendship and loyalty, tempt her over to the good side. The idea is nice. "If you're going to risk your life for something, risk it for your friends and the good of the world." But while that's a simplistic enough idea, it still doesn't come through the plot so much as it is told to us (and Grace) outright through dialogue. And in so doing, it's implied that every MIF agent used to do high-skill illegal activities, got caught for it, and joined the MIF after a subsequent offer. 

Little comedy is attempted in favor of drama—which fails to land, and yet is so benign that it neither moved nor irritated me.

This series has undone the choices of past movies before, but this, I'd call ret-conning. And unnecessary. It's a small thing, maybe, and ignorable. But I like the characters here, and find the implications annoyingly simplistic, verging on outright stupidity. Anyone who's seen M:I3 knows newbie Benji lacked the constitution for illegal activity! And from the start Ethan has always been the boy scout type. It's just doesn't ring true, and you don't need them all to be ex-criminals to make joining the IMF "the right choice." In fact, it lessens Grace's character, who was unique for being a lone wolf and amoral. If all of them made the switch, why should we wonder whether she will or not? So, if the plot had been constructed to better show Grace's conversion, they could've stayed away from that regrettable "backstory." 

But the plot has its own issues to deal with in a less than ideal manner. It's crafted more to implement action set pieces and struggles to find a dynamic way toward the goal. It's a McGuffin plot, which, I admit, I don't mind at all. The action was my favorite parts, but there's no denying it's a step down from the feats this series has pulled off in the past. Tom Cruise does his thing and hurls himself off a cliff on a motorcycle, but what isn't in-camera looks faker than I've ever seen M:I look. The "ramp" he takes the motorcycle off for one; and the set piece of the falling train also has some digital elements that dampen the relentless thrill that scene is meant to impart. A few liberties with physics are taken (which must be bad if I notice it!) and a handful of other head-scratching choices. 

It's like joining the M:I movies is the movie star version of going to summer camp or something. Try something new; get out of your comfort zone for a while. (I dunno, I never went to a summer camp.)

At home, when senseless things happen in silly movies and people ask why, I like to jokingly point out that the movie needed them to so the next thing could happen. Unfortunately, that thought occurred to me a few too many times here, too. It's just not inspired; the creative juices didn't flow, and so now the story doesn't either. As a whole, it's a mess, but in small bites of compartmentalized sequences, it can be fun. Ethan and Grace's car chase sticks out as a highlight because it does what I've come to like uniquely about McQuarrie's installments: playing action and character interaction off each other. Atwell pairs well with Cruise and seems game with the stunts. And while the car chase they tag team in gets a little Buster Keaton, that's part of the charm for me. 

I could happily see a movie every three years that is exactly that—fun, sometimes silly action performed in-camera by characters who are saving the world because their friends live in it. But that's not to say there isn't better and worse ways to do it. Dead Reckoning isn't the worst ever, but there's nothing better about it, either.

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Back to the Future

"Marty! You gotta come back with me!" "Where?"

The 80's were a great time for movies. But as far as 80's movies that fall solidly under the category of "Fun" and follow a teenaged lead, it's hard to find something truly remarkable. Movies like The Last Starfighter or Adventures in Babysitting may have a winning concept or teen appeal, but then the plots seem to spin their wheels for an hour or so without going anywhere, while the runtime is filled with character antics that grate on your nerves, fluffy, nonstarter side plots, and boring car chases. John Hughes had unique characters and romance, but what about adventure? Danger? High stakes? Back to the Future ticks every box. And it fulfills each category better than its competitors often can even fill one. 

It's easy for me to take things about it for granted. Like Marty, to start. He was established in my brain as that archetype from childhood. 80's teen. Main character. Running around, getting in and out of trouble for our enjoyment. He's the standard I hold others of the kind up to—and yet I've barely considered that's what I'm doing because I knew who and what Marty was before I knew how to define it. He seems so simple and straightforward; but watching this movie and paying attention to his characterization, it's astonishing how many moments are made to serve him. It's a plot movie. Marty is made to have an every-kid feel on purpose. But he's still so established. His life, personal dreams, girlfriend, that almost have no relevance to the time-traveling adventure. And yet, if he were never in a band, we'd never have the show-stopping Johnny B. Goode performance. And that's the best dang scene in the whole movie!

Then give it all to Michael J. Fox to play and I have to check my taking-things-for-granted tendency again. To me, they're one and the same person. And even if Fox is essentially playing himself, his balance of traits is calculated. He's goofy. But, pretty cool, actually. Charming, but with an accidental feel. He can win a beautiful girl, but he hangs out with an eccentric inventor. He's not the popular guy in school, but neither does he have to deal with bullies—unless you count the principal! We easily believe both his dumb, bumbling reactions to events, and his ability to jump into action with confident competence. The likes of Tom Holland have probably lost long hours of sleep over this characterization and how balanced and blended it all is. I think Fox has a lot to do with it. But also the writing can't be ignored. It gives him so much to work with for such a tonally light character. 

And all that being said, my favorite character has long been Crispin Glover's George McFly. What's a transformation! What awful oily hair! What sincere, aching blue eyes! Watching Marty work to gift his parents with a happier, more fulfilled life has always been the highlight of the movie for me. The time travel is the fun part—that allows us to go through the extreme ups and downs of the family drama. George and Lorraine both seem hopeless losers, but all that can turn around in one immaculately set-up, powerful moment—and then seal it with a song, a kiss, and a song—as only a true 80's movie can. After how beautifully and satisfyingly that thread concludes, I often forget that Marty still has to, you know, get back to the future and all that.

The movie really has to go to work on the third act wrapping up because of how many threads it has going. And having each one conclude in ways you don't quite expect (but that make perfect sense because the set-up was there but not projected) really makes the whole last third of the movie feel like a rollercoaster of thrills and heartwarming victory—where the highs are high and the lows are high, too. Even when we're finally allowed to settle, after all the good news is out, it's not long before they're off again, promising more and more in the next movie. Even if you don't go right into the sequel (which I rarely do) the euphoric feeling sticks. How do they do it? How do they make every subplot feel vital—and each payoff feel inevitable and also like beating the odds?

Such an interesting love story because it's not about who loves who, will-they-won't-they, but it comes from a very honest perspective: "These two HAVE to end up together. Here's how." 

All I can figure is that when every detail and facet of your story is important and useful and built upon each other, it hides which ones will be used for the next payoff. Or maybe it's all so extraordinarily entertaining that you look past the moments of set up. Because even if they weren't used to set something up, they were still good moments that elevate, deepen, and give momentum to the story. Not a second wasted. Not a moment falling short. All as a fun 80's scifi teen adventure, with all the life-or-death situations, romance, and chase sequences you could ask for. That, and Doc's wide-eyed crazy expressions, too. I love this movie; and that's one thing about it I could never take for granted.