Looper (2012)

Written and directed by: Rian Johnson

Looper_poster               When I saw the trailer for Looper it didn’t seem like the kind of thing I would watch. I saw Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis running around with guns. Some people are into that kind of thing. I’m not. But then I saw the film was written and directed by Rian Johnson. Johnson does not put out a tonne of content, but thanks to Star Wars The Last Jedi (love it or hate, I love it), he’s started to make a bit of a name for himself. Johnson showed with his contribution to Star Wars that he’s not afraid to experiment with time-honoured formulas. While admittedly with Looper, his original story, he has less to mess with, his work nonetheless produced an action-thriller that truly has the potential to appeal to those unimpressed by gunshots.

Looper is set in a fictional-“present”: well it’s a present where the future already exist, since its central character Joe works as a “looper” for a crime syndicate from the future (scratch that the movie is supposedly set in 2044, but the point is it feels like its in the present). Loopers work as assassins, shooting people sent to the present from the future. It’s a lucrative job, but one that has a cost: loopers are eventually sent back to the past and shot themselves since they are deemed to know too much.

If there is one question regarding the film’s logic that goes under-explored it’s the question of why people become loopers in the first place. This question applies somewhat to Joe who is at least moral enough to pass as a likeable protagonist, and more so to his friend Seth, who is as timid and unthreatening (as one would expect given that Paul Dano plays him). But while this question may weigh on some viewers, it’s not a major problem: who says you have to answer all of life’s mysteries just to examine some of them?

The appeal of Looper comes down to two narrative qualities. One is, to use a word now well associated with Johnson, that it subverts expectations. The film does not have conventional villains, and it resolves its moral problem in a way that’s close to, but not exactly what audiences are lead to expect. I think Looper’s most notable strength, however, is its economy of characters. My perception has been that gun-filled movies are often populated by disposable and/or generic characters. While admittedly I should rewatch it, my memory of Inception is that, despite it being a cerebral action movie, it nonetheless isn’t particularly inspired in all of its character choices (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, to use an ironic example, does not feel like a major character so much as a major placeholder, in that work). Looper by contrasts has very few characters, both in and out of its action scenes. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s self-actualizing criminal; Bruce Willis’ dogged, cold, romantic, Emily Blunt’s brave-faced but self-doubting single-mother, and Pierce Gagnon’s heartbroken wizkid are the key ones. While the film’s few other characters are slightly more typical of the genre, they too are cast fairly economically and play their parts well.

Time travel is a subject rife with paradox, and I admittedly was not able to keep up with all of Looper’s internal logic. But don’t worry. While it’s first act might give you the impression you’re watching something aimed at fans of details and bullets, Looper speaks to a paradox far more universal and intelligible than those created by time travel. Looper looks at what it means to act morally, when it feels no decision one can make is without huge moral costs. That coupled with the film’s twists, a memorable child-actor performance on Gagnon’s part, and fable-like structure, ensures that Looper is absolutely worth the watch.

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A Rubric for Marvel: My Thoughts Going into Avengers: Endgame

My review of Avengers: Infinity War was not glowing. That troubles me. One does not have to like every movie, but I fear my reasons for not liking last summer’s release are, if I can say this, invalid. One of those reasons is simple frustration. I see superheroes as an omni-present part of our culture: as figures that much of the population probably has some degree of positive associations with. Growing up, for instance, I loved the idea of drawing and reading comics, playing with Batman, Superman and Spiderman action figures, and watching the cartoon depictions of their associated villains.  Therefore, as one example of a person who exists on the continuum of superhero fandom without being an all-out fan, I had hoped that I could enjoy the all-star fest that was Infinity War without having religiously seen most of the previous Marvel films.

I was wrong. The film relied on the ability of fans to recall secondary details (such as the presence of the tesseract and infinity stones) set up in previous movies. Furthermore, had I seen the previous films I would have better appreciated the subtle personality difference between the various comedic-cocky-heroes (Thor, Iron Man, Star Lord, etc) as well as the less subtle difference between them and Captain America. I also would have been less distracted by the presence of less recognizable Avengers like Black Widow, Scarlet Witch and Vision.

This “invalid” reason for disliking Infinity War is not entirely misplaced: it just would make for a better critique of the Marvel Cinematic Universe approach to filmmaking as a whole, rather than as a critique of an isolated film.

My other reason for disliking Infinity War, however, feels worthier of discussion: my general dislike for action movies. It feels foolish to go into superhero movies only to critique them for containing too much action; for being what they are. I will nonetheless continue to attend superhero movies for the reasons describe above. As such, I would like to sharpen my analysis and learn to critique them in a way that is not simply dismissive of their defining logic.

Over the past few weeks I have been catching up on the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies I haven’t seen. Below are criteria I’ve established for differentiating what I like from what I don’t. While I don’t wish to close my mind I hope this will help give me a vocabulary for evaluating Infinity War’s sequel End Game.

 

Does Every Character Feel Like They’re There for a Reason?

Marvel’s The Avengers was not my favourite of their films. None of its funny moments really stuck with me, nor did its aesthetic. Nonetheless, it made for a fairly enjoyable viewing experience since it gave each member of its ensemble cast ample screen-time and substantially different personalities. This quality was less true of Avengers: Age of Ultron, however. In addition to throwing in Iron Man and Captain America’s sidekicks War Machine and Falcon, Age of Ultron also brings the Maximoff twins and Vision into the fold. While Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch has the potential to be an interesting character, her being thrown into a chaotic plot (alongside her less relevant brother) makes her someone we have to consciously realize we are invested in: that investment is not drawn out naturally.

 

How Good is the Humor and is it There for its Own Sake?

Humor is not just about its content, but also how it is delivered. I regularly hear Guardians of the Galaxy described as one of the M.C.U.’s funnier products. While indeed it stars an eclectic set of wisecracking characters, much of the film’s humor is delivered in the context of its parade of action scenes. The effect of this is that the jokes don’t feel like jokes,  but just another weapon in the fighters’ arsenals. I only embraced Guardians in its final moments when a security official played by John C. Reilly has a friendly-awkward exchange with Drax and Rocket. By contrast, I quite enjoyed Guardians Volume 2 . That film is also rife with character-eccentricity driven humor, but unlike with its predecessor (save for the John C. Reilly scene) that humor comes out through relationships: particularly those between Drax and Mantis, Rocket and Yondu, and Groot and everyone. Its humor is about heart, not mere sass-battles.

 

How Intimate is the Action?

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Tom Hiddleston and Chris Hemsworth as Loki and Thor in The Avengers (Source: https://images.app.goo.gl/M7Z2Tj1ChAj1TkpF6)

Perhaps this is simply the bias that stems from what I was raised with (and what I wasn’t), but my disinterest in action sequences isn’t all encompassing. I enjoy watching Star Wars fight sequences, for instance, particularly those with light-sabres. Another example that comes to mind is Pokémon battles. The reason I find these fights are more enjoyable than the typical Marvel sequence is two-fold. One is that these fights resemble games. As children at play, one can harmlessly recreate the idea of clashing sabres or giving orders to magical creatures. The same is not true of hyper-powerful people viciously throwing each other at concrete and setting off explosions. Therefore, fighters such as those in Star Wars connect more intimately with their audiences, than do fighters in Marvel. The intimacy of these fights, however, is also between the characters themselves. Star Wars light sabre battles are the products of great will and training and bring enmities to their climax. While perhaps there is no equivalent one-on-one battle in the M.C.U. to Anakin vs. Obi-Wan or Vader vs. Luke, Thor and Loki’s brief clash in Avengers easily struck me as more entertaining than the film’s many more-violent, big-budget encounters.

 

Is there a Disproportionate Amount of Action?

This is the criteria I admittedly feel shakiest about applying since “too much action” for me, is probably too low a threshold to reasonably hold superhero movies to. That said, there are undeniably some Marvel movies where the inevitable presence of action is used in place of storytelling. Age of Ultron for instance opens with a fight scene, and has many more along the way. In a film rife with characters (including major new ones), these fights offer a poor replacement for character development

 

 How Good is the Film as a Standalone Movie?

The fact that Marvel films exist in a shared universe isn’t all bad. Black Widow’s presence as a freelance sidekick is not unjustified in Iron Man 2 and is very effective in Captain America: Winter Soldier. Still, while watching Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers: Age of Ultron I couldn’t help but feel the inclusion of references to Thanos and infinity stones (setting up Infinity War) would have either confused me or been details I dismissed entirely had I not gone into them knowing the Infinity War story. This is particularly true of Guardians of the Galaxy where no one villain (a group that includes Ronan, Thanos, Nebula, the Collector and Yondu) gets consistent screen-time.

Admittedly, some movies deserve to be critiqued on these grounds more than others. Guardians of the Galaxy and Age of Ultron really should have been standalone movies, whereas the undeniable raison d’être of Infinity War and End Game is bringing worlds together. Still, if Endgame aspires to feel like a classic movie, and not just a resolution to a series, it should strive to have a memorable opening and conclusion and a logically satisfying bridge between those two. If that basic quality is compromised in favour of making speedy references to other elements of the M.C.U., I shall be disappointed.

 

  Does the Film have a Memorable Villain?

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Michael B. Jordan as Erik Killmonger in Black Panther, Source

I regularly find myself counting villains amongst my favourite characters in Marvel movies: Loki (particularly in the underrated Thord: Dark World), Killmonger, Yondu, etc. Because villains have done such wrongs, they are inevitably more complicated and thus more compelling than heroes. Of course, for such complexity to come out it has to be allowed to come out. Too often Marvel cloaks its villains in black and gives them a forgettable objective. Thanos so far is one of Marvel’s deeper villains, but its certainly possible that since his motives came out in Infinity War his function in End Game might end up being more generically-action oriented.

 

Does it Make an Interesting Philosophical Point

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Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlet Johanson) discover not just a villain, but a systemic injustice in Captain America: The Winter Soldier 

                  This last quality is less of a requirement than a bonus. That said, as someone who has recently taken to writing about Marvel in terms of its political thought (as well as its tendency to retreat from the ideas it raises), I have no doubt that End Game will at least in some tangential way be worth analyzing in this regard: its villain after all is a violent Malthusian. So far my favourite Marvel movies have been Black Panther and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, both of which offer political ideas well beyond what is required for the construction of a superhero movie. Based on this precedent, I hope End Game will not disappoint.

Captain Marvel (2019)

Directed by: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

Written by: Boden, Fleck and Geneva Robertson-Dworet

Captain_Marvel_poster                  I sit in a place of ignorance as to whom Marvel expects its average viewer to be: comic book nerds well-versed in details? “ordinary” film-goers? or some demographic in between: nerds whose nerd-dom was born with the company’s cinematic universe? I can’t say I identify with any of these demographics, but when it came to watching Captain Marvel perhaps that was a good thing. I knew nothing of the character going in and as such my first impression of the film was simply that it was very mysterious.

The film’s opening moments involve protagonists Vers (Brie Larson) engaged in some jedi-esque training with her commanding officer (Jude Law) to fight for the extra-terrestrial Kree people. As part of her training she also communicates with a personalized-semi-imagine-spirit-adviser (Annette Bening). This training leads her and her fellow Kree to a battle with shape-shifting Skrulls, a fight which in turn leads her to end up on earth.

I didn’t love these opening moments: there was a bit to must action for disinterested me. Still, I was intrigued. Given that superhero films tend to be origin stories, I was impressed that Captain Marvel seemed to be doing something different: throwing viewers in its established world and asking us to understand it.

Maybe I fell hook-line and sinker for that one. Captain Marvel doesn’t end up as some genre-transforming superhero movie. Still, it offers plenty to enjoy along its way. As Infinity War made plain, the typical Marvel hero is a cocky, and often slightly-funny man who has to overcome ego issues on the way to becoming a hero. As the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first (central) female hero, Vers breaks that trope as well. As a highly trained alien combatant sent to Earth, her persona resembles that of Arthur Weasley: she is politely fascinated by the “primitive” culture she arrives in and acts somewhat naively as a result. Vers’ naïve-power is nicely complimented by the (previously established Marvel) character who comes to be her sidekick: he too is funny, but in a more vulnerable way than that set by Marvel’s established model.

Captain Marvel has its flaws of course: its ending seemingly takes believe-in-yourself logic to an absurd extreme, and none of its lines or characters particularly resonated in my memory (maybe the cat, a little bit). Most interesting amongst its shortcomings are its politics. In my otherwise positive review of Mission Impossible VI, I noted that it was a work that both had and lacked ideological analysis, in what I could only assume was a move to appeal to several audience-types in one. While I can’t explain the contradiction in Captain Marvel without spoiling the movie, you’ll notice it in the bit in which Vers redesigns the colors of her suit. While Vers’ brand of heroism (powerfully demonstrated in her display of mercy near the film’s end), is all around an endearing one, I am nonetheless left with questions about whether the likeable character we see in the film squares up with what we are told about her previous career choice.

If you’re completely shut off to the idea of liking superhero films, Captain Marvel is probably not the work to change your mind. Otherwise however, I suspect many will find this canonically important edition to the Marvel story arc an enjoyable cinematic outing.

Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

Directed by: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman Written by: Phil Lord and Rothman

spider-man_into_the_spider-verse_(2018_poster)When I went to see Into the Spider-verse I didn’t realize that it was produced in part by The Lego Movie creators Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. But when the names rolled at the film’s end, I was not surprised. Superhero movies, for the most part, have a certain tone to them: its hard to describe, because while the word serious doesn’t feel quite right (many have wisecracking protagonists and rely on varying degrees of physical humor), Into the Spider-verse undoubtedly exposed that there was an element of fun lacking in today’s live-action, standard fare. In the tradition of The Lego Movie, Into the Spider-Verse found this fun, but it managed to do so while never feeling out of place in the world of superhero films. Also, unlike the fellow convention-breaking work Deadpool, Into the Spider-verse pokes fun at the tone of superhero films, while still being a work that can be enjoyed by superhero fans of all ages.

The film is largely the story of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore). Morales debuted in Marvel comics only a few years, making waves as the first person of color to be a Spider-Man alter ego. When I first heard of his creation I had mixed feelings about the idea. On the one hand, having an Afro-Latin Spiderman did feel like an important piece of the representation. On the other hand, Peter Parker was already Spiderman, and doing representation via an already established figure felt like a dead end (at the time I figured it would be a better idea to hire a black actor to play Peter Parker in future film iterations). Into the Spider-Verse, however, solves that problem, and the fact that chose to solve that problem is part of what makes it a good movie. Unlike Peter, who, despite supposedly being a geek, quickly had to take on the burden of embodying one of the most iconic superheroes ever, Miles is given the chance to have a more natural coming of age story. When he is first introduced we see that he feels awkward about going to an “elitist” school, awkward about being academically successful and awkward about having a cop (Brian Tyree Henry) for a father (details that go under-examined: perhaps because they are too radical to fit into the film’s primarily plot direction). When he does acquire powers, he struggles to figure out how to use them, thus allowing the film to get a richer blend of an action and comedy than do some other superhero flicks. While, unfortunately, Miles does eventually master his (perhaps too-strong-skillset), for much of the film he is an engaging protagonist because his weakness is his greatest strength.

Another contrast between Into the Spider-Verse and other superhero films is its non-preoccupation with villain origin stories. While generally I would view this as a negative (I don’t like the idea of presenting people as “good” or “evil”), this approach allows Into the Spider-Verse to reinvigorate the humor of cartoon superhero-supervillain fights that are lost in live action films. Into the Spider-Verse’s  scenes with Doctor Octopus are particularly amusing.

Into-the-Spiderverse does admittedly include one particularly morally ambiguous character, and the absence of screentime devoted to this character’s origin story is frustrating. Nonetheless, I found the writing around this character clever as well. The film sets viewers up to anticipate a plot-twist in which this character is revealed as a villain. The trick is really on the viewers, however, because this supposed “plot-twist” is revealed quite early on in the film, setting up a more subtle twist: that this character will be the equivalent of an iconic figure from Peter Parker’s life.

If there’s a downside to Into the Spider-Verse, it’s that its selling-point itself (the inclusion of many incarnations of Spiderman) is not that great. While the Miles Morales-Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) relationship is well done, the film doesn’t quite know what to do with the other Spideys. This is largely because three of them are comedic, radical-re-imagining of the character: meaning they can’t be major players, despite being too essential to the film’s construction to be thrown in-and-out as quick gags. Lord noted in an interview that at one point he felt the film needed ten more versions of Spiderman, but ultimately decided that would be too ambitious. Perhaps he’s right. Still, I would have found Spiderman-Noir (Nicolas Cage), Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn)and Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) (who, no, unfortunately, is not a reference to The Simpson’s Movie) far funnier if they had appeared only after long sequences featuring more subtle variances on the Spiderman personality (also, I think the idea that there’s both an Amazing Spiderman and Ultimate Spiderman is far worthier of parody than the idea that there are some comic adaptations of the character out there). Finally, after The Lego Movie and even Deadpool 2, the gag of including an absurd collection of heroes in a single movie isn’t as funny as it once was (and it doesn’t fit as well in this film as it did in The Lego Movie, as the earlier piece is not a mere story but a celebration of the idea of free-play).

Into-the Spider-Verse offers a lot of things for a lot of people. For those weary of action it is a well paced coming of age story. For those who like cartoons and comics it is marks a rebirth for the two mediums. And for Spiderman film and comic nerds, the film is supposedly rife with references, some of which I didn’t appreciate. As for all other viewers, its harder to pinpoint exactly what’s great about Into the Spider-Verse, but there’s clearly something in its pacing, story and-or-sense of humor that pushes it over the edge. So give it a try, and don’t get fooled as I did by the gosh-darned movie theater turning the lights on: there supposedly is some great after-credits material as well!

 

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018)

Directed by: David Yates Written by: J.K. Rowling

Fantastic_Beasts_-_The_Crimes_of_Grindelwald_PosterI recently found myself puzzling through a “moral” dilemma. As an aspiring critic, it troubles me that whether I praise films or not seems to be based on whether I enjoy them and not some higher, more refined criteria. I had this anxiety assuage a little when I watched Fantastic Beast: The Crimes of Grindelwald.

I undoubtedly enjoyed the film due to a combination of my identification with protagonist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), its use of familiar faces (ie Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), and the way in which magic adds a playful element to action scenes, making them more enjoyable for this non-action-fan. Yet alongside this enjoyment I also felt dissatisfaction. I liked the process of watching the film, yet felt completely underwhelmed as it ended.

While giving away as little as possible, I must say that the ending of The Crimes of Grindelwald feels like an underwhelming return to where Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them left viewers off. Literally, this isn’t true. Some key facts about the characters change, and we go from knowing nothing to knowing the basics about Grindelwald. But facts changing does not a narrative make. In her first attempt at sequel writing, J.K. Rowling produced Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets  a tale in which protagonist Harry learns a new mythology, is exposed to bigotry, encounters both a new arch-villain and new anti-hero, and also gains a deeper understanding of the previously introduced characters Hagrid and Ginny. By contrast in The Crimes of Grindelwald protagonist Newt Scamander runs around as part of a middle-of-the-road mission, another major character also runs around trying to figure out his identity, yet another character faces a horribly rushed moral dilemma and Grindelwald gives a speech and shoots some flames from his wand.

Rather than simply expressing my disappointment with this film, I think it is worth considering the structural flaws that made it the way it is. One is that it has long been established there were to be five Fantastic Beasts movies, a total that was perhaps pitched with commercial rather than narrative considerations in mind.  The first Fantastic Beasts seems to have been written in such a way that if things didn’t pan out, it would work as a standalone movie: it ends with two of its major characters in being written out. Rather than finding a clever way to respond to this drama (ie finding an emotionally compelling manner to write the characters back in) The Crimes of Grindelwald acts as if the write-outs never happened and rushes the characters back into the story.

Another key structural problem for The Grimes of Grindelwald is that unlike Rowling’s previous Potter-universe series, it is not set in the structured environment of a school. Harry Potter’s story is set up to develop at a nice pace as each book/school year introduces Harry and company as slightly more educated and ready to engage new wonders, and recklessly take on new terrors. As a story of adults The Crimes of Grindelwald gives its characters no time to learn, engage in entertaining but petty conflicts, or develop false theories about their world. Instead they are thrown right into action.

Speaking of developing false theories, that’s a motif that worked very well in the Harry Potter stories (you know questions like who opened the chamber of secrets? Who was Voldemort’s sidekick, etc?) that is attempted in, but falls flat in The Crimes of Grindelwald. This is partially, because, the false theory is not sold to us through the minds of determined, but not-all-knowing children, partially because the truth that counters the false theory isn’t set up in any interesting way, and partially because the theory is inconsequential to the film’s action.While this underwhelming false theory is not solely the product of this film not being set at Hogwart’s story, it certainly didn’t help Rowling in this case that she was writing about action-ready adults as opposed to inquiring children.

The Crimes of Grindelwald is not without its merits. While not as prominent as the magical creatures in the series’ first incarnation, the beasts in this one are indeed fantastic. And while the film’s mediocre title isn’t exactly a good fit for its plot (the film is not the series of vignettes on Grindelwald’s exploits the title suggests), Grindelwald nonetheless establishes himself as a subtly solid villain.

As a kid reading Harry Potter works I remember being excited when I first read mention of the dark wizard called Grindelwald, thinking “finally! a villain other than Voldemort for once.” I was subsequently disappointed, however, when I learned that Grindelwald, like Voldemort was a pure-blood-supremacist. So in other words, he was a different villain from Voldemort, but not really. The Crimes of Grindelwald, however, finds a nice balance between conflating and differentiating Voldemort and Grindelwald. Voldemort is a blatant pure-blood supremacist: a straight-forward Nazi analogue. He and his followers mince no words in expressing their contempt for muggles and muggle-born wizards. The suit-donning Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), by contrast, bares more resemblance to Richard Spencer than Adolph Hitler, employing “separate-but-equal” rhetoric in place of outright supremacism. While from a political perspective I think it’s important to treat explicit and (barely)-non-explicit racist ideologies as one in the same, from a character development perspective the two ideologies play out differently, and Grindelwald indeed comes across as having a demeanor and brand of villainy unique from Voldemort’s.

I similarly found it enjoyable to see a young Dumbledore. Given that the character’s gentle-genius persona seems tied to his old age in the Harry Potter series, seeing him portrayed as more of a Remus Lupin figure is engaging, even if the difference is subtle. On the other hand, I feel the film failed to capitalize on the power of having Dumbledore as a character. One of the film’s key motifs is Dumbledore’s personal refusal to fight Grindelwald. For much of the film this seems a compelling source of moral tension rooted in love or perhaps a cautious pacifism. Alas, the film ends by offering another explanation for Dumbledore’s refusal to fight which is nowhere near as powerful.

The Crimes of Grindelwald is not dull: it’s as magical as it’s predecessors. But it taught me how it’s very possible to both enjoy and be deeply disappointed with a film. Harry Potter (and even the first Fantastic Beasts) stories always left me with favorite scenes, characters and lines. The Crimes of Grindelwald by contrast does little to make jaws drop, and little to sell its characters. As someone who will no doubt feel excited again when its sequel comes out, I can only hope this stories shortcomings are not predictive of what is to come and that Rowling can indeed work her magic again, even in the absence of the Hogwarts infrastructure.

Mission Impossible: Fallout (2018)

Written and directed by: Christopher McQuarrie

MI_–_Fallout.jpgOccasionally I push myself to challenge my biases and go see an action movie. Sometimes, maybe it’s a mood thing, I somehow find myself enjoying them. Mission Impossible: 6 was one such movie. I now find myself trying to figure out what was appealing about it. Part of it no doubt was that protagonist Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) was accompanied by two less macho sidekicks (Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg)), making it endearing in much the same way as Disney animated movies.

The sidekicks as individual characters, however, are not all that memorable. Dunn is a good-kind-of-misfit in the work and is part of a couple decent gags, but there’s not much to write home about him. Stickell meanwhile is charming and a subtler misfit, but again, he’s nothing to write home about. Luckily, these characters are not the be all and end all of the film’s comedic elements. Mission Impossible 6 is, of course, ridden with fight scenes. While many of these can be described as performances of traditional action ambition, I could not help but get a whiff of comedy out of some them. There is one scene in which Hunt and CIA Agent Walker (Henry Caville), fight an enemy target in a bathroom. The fight seems easy at first, but when it is disrupted by some immature, passerby men, the enemy suddenly regains form. What proceeds from there is an extended sequence in which a high stakes, high tech fight is somehow carried out with fists and a urinal pipe.

The subtle comedy of Mission Impossible 6 is complimented by its surprisingly high dialogue to action ration (at least in its first two thirds) as well as an absurd sequence in which plot twist after plot twist is thrown upon each other (eventually its gets absurd, but it’s largely an engaging moment). None of this is enough for me to describe Mission Impossible 6 as a comedy, but comedy is certainly an ingredient in the Mission Impossible stew.

And ingredients, are what I think makes this movie work. It’s a film that offers a little bit of something for everybody, and even if those somethings aren’t always top notch, they give the film an engaging enough texture to make is exiting for those who might be bored by other action flicks.

Mission Impossible 6’s little-bit-of-everything approach is largely effective, but it creates odd results as well. The film’s villains are described as anarchists, and in the opening scene, one rants at Hunt & crew with delirious, but moral conviction, insisting they share his manifesto with the world. The idea that these characters are idealists is repeated throughout the film, yet it’s never fully developed. Meanwhile, Hunt & co. ignore their ideals, treating and discussing them as purely evil beings. It is as if the film’s writer thought: a lot of viewers want to see complex and sympathetic villains, but a lot more viewers just want a tradition good-vs-evil smash-off. The result is that the film caters a bit to both crowds. As I said, this approach works: the supposed complexity of the villains no doubt left me a bit more engaged by the evil, even as the logical part of my brain was left frustrated by the fact that the villain’s motifs were never properly elaborated on or made truly sympathetic.

The character of Hunt is similarly written as complicated-but-not. An early tension in the film is that Hunt values the lives of his friends even when doing so could compromise his mission. This supposed idealism puts him at odds with the CIA. While this detail comes across as potentially interesting when raised at the beginning and end of the film, it also feels phoney as it never really describes Hunt’s character. He comes across as a largely generic, calmly calculated, cool-with-violence action hero.

Mission Impossible 6 is, in short, a bit fraudulent. I use that word as an observation not an insult. It is undoubtedly very good, but parts of its quality comes from the fact that it poses as a “smart movie.” It is not ,ideas wise at least, a deep work, but it goes to show that sometimes even hinting at having ideas can make your movie effective. At the same time, it leaves me longing for a Mission Impossible like movie that could be as ambitious about its themes as about its stunts.

Deadpool 2

Written by: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick and Ryan Reynolds. Directed by: David Leitch

Deadpool_2_poster     When I first saw Deadpool it struck me as one of the biggest compromises I’d ever seen: it broke enough rules to call itself experimental, while still meeting all expectations as a big-budget, crowd-pleasing action movie. I was pleasantly surprised by it, I’ll say that much.

I nonetheless did not think Deadpool 2 could be a good idea. Deadpool was interesting as a standalone work, but nothing it featured (fourth wall breaking, referentialism, self-deprecation, and excessive violence on the part of its protagonist) would be interesting when employed a second time around. My thoughts were all but confirmed in the film’s opening scenes in which Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) narrates his killings with Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” blaring in the background.

Then a plot twist happened. I won’t say what it is, and for your sake you probably shouldn’t search it (don’t spoil the future moment). What I will say is that twist changed my impression of what I was watching for the better.

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi succeeded because its writers asked the question “what kind of story should a sequel be?” and got the answer right. Rather than simply revisiting the gags and powers of its characters, it used them as an infrastructural base for telling a new kind of story: one that questions the nature of the Star Wars universe rather than simply continuing it. While I wouldn’t say Deadpool 2 challenges the nature of its predecessor, it also manages to be a significantly different kind of story, that nonetheless, uses the original film as a springboard for its success. Deadpool, as introduced in the original film, is an anti-hero. His motives rarely seem as pure as they should be, as he seems more driven by the prospect of annihilating his enemies than by the ideal of fighting for justice. Deadpool 2 gives us a character with those same traits, but one who has matured enough so that he is also ideal driven. Then the plot twist happens, temporarily shattering Deadpool’s sense of purpose. The result of this trauma is not Deadpool regressing back entirely to who he was at his worst. The shock does, however stimulate various elements of his persona including his hot-headedness and immaturity. In essence, Deadpool is a character created to entertain with his punches and foul mouth, yet he manages to come off as thoughtfully developed.

Deadpool 2 is also bolstered by its supporting cast. Josh Brolin plays an antagonist who is not stunningly original, but is made compelling via the emotional weight laid-bare on his rugged face. Karon Soni, whose character, Dopinder, appears in taxi-cab gags in the first movie, returns as a quasi-side kick in this film. Dopinder is not Deadpool’s only sidekick, however. At one point in fact, Deadpool recruits a whole team of them. While these characters come across as parodies of superheroes, many are in fact (loose) adaptations of Marvel comic characters.

Most prominent among the film’s side characters, however, is Russell Collins (Julian Dennison), an anti-hero in, ironically, a film about an anti-hero. Russel is a mistreated orphan with super powers, and his appearance essentially makes Deadpool Hunt for the Wilderpeople with a big budget. This superficial textual similarity, however, contributes to Deadpool’s originality and effectiveness as a piece of story telling. Hunt for the Wilderpeople tells the story of an orphan bonding with a curmudgeon over a prolonged period while they are chased by a comically, pathetic antagonist. Deadpool 2 challenges Deadpool and Russell to develop similar bonds, but in a very different context: one that is higher-stakes, much faster-paced.

Deadpool 2 is full of silly references, but as superhero films go, it manages to be thematically deep. This depth goes beyond the story of Deadpool and Russell. A prolonged portion of the film is set in a prison, a horrible place in which people’s pain is ignored and inter-inmate bullying goes unchecked. For a moment, it seems, the tough-on-crime logic of super hero movies is paused to critique the school-to-prison pipeline and prisons in general.

Of course, Deadpool 2 would not be a Deadpool movie if it was fully idealistic, and it ultimately maintains its protagonist’s commitment to gore. Even the relatively pacifistic Colossus (Stefan Kapičić (who repeatedly tries to teach Deadpool that killing is not the X-Man way) is implicated in the film’s violent ethos, at one point electrocuting a character in an unmentionable place. Whether this is a shortcoming or not is hard to say. Deadpool 2 ultimately comes across as a pretty strong superhero movie. Whether it could have been more, and whether it needed to be, is a question too abstract to answer.