August Movie Reviews

By Steve Warren

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - FALLOUT (PG-13)
***
After nine years and 206 episodes on television and now six feature films, how do they keep coming up with plots for Mission: Impossible? My theory, at least for the movies, is that they plan the stunt-packed action scenes first, then have a contest in a third-grade class to write material connecting them. I'm kidding, of course, although the average third-grader would have no trouble finding holes in this plot; while someone with a PhD in literature would be unable to keep track of who's on whose side and why as the story unfolds. But none of that matters, once the vehicles start racing, the fists and bullets start flying, and the clock starts ticking on the longest 15 minutes in screen history as Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and friends (Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg) try to prevent a double-barreled nuclear explosion. Because Ethan has a heart, the CIA (Angela Bassett) has sent a heartless assassin (Henry Cavill) to help with the dirty work. In play are three plutonium cores capable of weaponizing nukes, and the founder of an anarchist organization, the Apostles, who's been imprisoned in the U.S. He's operating on a sort of Big Bang Theory, that it will take a major disruption to bring the world to its senses. Women from previous films (Rebecca Ferguson, Michelle Monaghan) reappear in this one, one for mystery and one for grounding. Christopher McQuarrie, who co-wrote the script, becomes the first to direct more than one M:I film, and proves deserving of the honor - okay, the paycheck. Having walked the streets of Paris, I enjoyed revisiting the scenery, this time at high speed. I can't imagine Fallout competing for Oscars, unless they add a Logistics category; but if you enjoy a spy thriller, you won't find one that's much more entertaining.

TEEN TITANS GO! TO THE MOVIES (PG)
**1/2
Not having seen Teen Titans GO! on the Cartoon Network, I find myself in the awkward position of not fully understanding a movie intended for viewers a tiny fraction of my age. I don't know what the five super-ish heroes of the title do on TV, but here their main battle is to get a movie made about themselves. The lack is especially bothersome for their leader, Robin (Scott Menville). Sure, he's been in most of the Batman movies, but only as a sidekick; and he's chagrined to learn the Batmobile will be getting its own movie before he does. Robin says it's "every superhero's dream - to have your own movie." The other four haven't been in movies at all: Beast Boy (Greg Cipes), Cyborg (Khary Payton), Raven (Tara Strong) and Starfire (Hynden Walch); so they go along with Robin to Hollywood to try to get their due. Besides running into Stan Lee, doing a cameo or two in the wrong comic universe, they meet Jade Wilson (Kristen Bell), the greatest superhero movie director, who considers their proposal. They find they need an arch-nemesis, and there happens to be one available in Slade (Will Arnett), who looks a lot like Deadpool. Of course our heroes eventually get a chance to save the world, onscreen and/or off. I suppose this movie will introduce some children to the concept of satire, as Mad magazine did me at an impressionable age. Others will ignore that and just laugh at the fart and poop jokes, of which there are many. The drawing style is crude enough that it took me a few minutes to realize the animation that moves the drawings is really good. I wouldn't rank Teen Titans GO! over The Lego Batman Movie, but if it's not super, it's certainly not bad.

MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN (PG-13)
***
This is the first movie I've ever considered for placement on both my Ten Best and Ten Worst lists at the end of the year. It's cinematic cotton candy, with an irresistible flavor and zero nutritional benefit. Having used all of ABBA's greatest hits in the first film, they repeat a few indispensables and augment them with songs from the bottom of the ABBArrel. The story bounces - no, often glide - between 1979 and the present, requiring double-casting for most major roles and keeping the audience alert during a movie that should allow - no, require - them to check their brains at the boxoffice. In the first few minutes the transitions are amazingly skillful, sometimes moving between periods with a pan of the camera in the same setting. It's gimmicky but impressive. After that director Ol Parker relies on simple cuts, still with great editing. Donna (Meryl Streep) is dead. (Pardon the spoiler, but Streep will show up in something besides old photos before the movie's over.) Her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is preparing for the grand reopening of her hotel on a Greek island. Donna's best friends (Christine Baranski, Julie Walters) are there, but of the three men (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard) who may have been Sophie's father, two can't attend. Neither can Sophie's boyfriend (Dominic Cooper), who's been seduced by a job in New York that will keep them apart. And Sophie's grandmother (Cher) hasn't been invited. (Don't worry - they'll all show up.) That's just the present. In the past we see how young Donna (Lily James) met and mated with Sophie's potential fathers (Josh Dylan, Jeremy Irvine, Hugh Skinner). That's a lot of plot - and I haven't mentioned Andy Garcia - for such a silly movie that has time for a dozen or so musical numbers. In the pre-digital days this movie would have been dismissed as a waste of celluloid, but I enjoyed every minute of it.

THE EQUALIZER 2 (R)
***
While it's not his action movies Denzel Washington will be remembered for a hundred years from now - at least one hopes not - he's made some good ones with director Antoine Fuqua. Teamed for the fourth time, they deliver the first sequel of Denzel's career. Out to prove he can still kick ass in his mid-60s, he again plays Robert McCall, a former government operative turned vigilante. He does more good deeds than a troop of Boy Scouts, many of them involving brutal beatings and killings of bad guys for whom he's served as judge and jury. While the movie is largely a collection of effectively vicious action scenes, the star adds class with his portrayal. He's also given a chance to be benign, steering a neighborhood youth (Ashton Sanders) away from gangs and into more positive pursuits. Melissa Leo is killed off too soon in order to give McCall a major case to work on, an international affair that makes no more sense than most of the screenplay. It culminates in a shootout in a little town on the Massachusetts coast during a hurricane. Cinematographer Oliver Wood deserves credit not only for making everything look so good but for finding odd angles and unexpected camera movements that give a freshness to scenes we've seen a thousand times before. Not a great movie by any means, The Equalizer 2 has enough above-average elements to make it worth recommending to fans of ultra-violence with a heart.

PUZZLE (R)
***
"Real men" won't want their wives to see Puzzle. The sadness of Agnes' (Kelly Macdonald) life is conveyed quickly by a twist in the opening sequence, which also reveals her interest in jigsaw puzzles as she obsesses over a missing piece of a broken plate. Agnes cares less about a new iPhone than a 1000-piece map of the Western Hemisphere. The downtrodden housewife lives to serve her blue-collar husband Louie (David Denman) and their grown sons, Ziggy (Bubba Weiler) and Gabe (Austin Abrams). They take her for granted but they love her, in their way. After 40-plus years of living by the old rules, how much can a woman change in response to new opportunities? On a rare trip to New York from her Bridgeport home, Agnes discovers a new world of competitive puzzling that may let her rearrange the pieces of her life. She's recruited as a "puzzle partner" by Robert (Irrfan Khan), whose previous partner (and wife) recently left him. Can Agnes resist a man who appreciates her for her suppressed inner self and wasted potential? The answer is neither as simple nor as obvious as it seems, in a brilliant screenplay based on a 2009 film from Argentina. Her lead performance should bring overdue recognition to Kelly Macdonald, whose career, which began with the original Trainspotting, makes her the acting equivalent of Agnes' underappreciated housewife.

SUPPORT THE GIRLS (R)
***

If you want to see scantily-clad women serving beer and burgers without hearing about their problems, go to a real sports bar. If you don't mind a little dramedy with your beef and brew, try Double Whammies, the Texas setting of Andrew Bujalski's new film. Just as the bar provides skin and flirtatiousness while remaining family-friendly, Bujalski makes sure the drama doesn't get too heavy and the comedy doesn't get too light. It's a rough day for Lisa (ever-reliable Regina Hall), the general manager. She comes in early to interview waitress applicants and finds a would-be thief stuck in the vent, the TV cable out and a couple of people who need firing. Oh, and a national chain opening across the highway to steal their customers. Meanwhile Lisa's trying to help her depressed husband find an apartment to move to and holding a car wash for one of her "girls" who was arrested for fighting back against her abusive lover. She takes care of her girls like the house mothers in Pose and they love her for it, but the restaurant's owner (James Le Gros) doesn't appreciate Lisa and this could be her last day on the job. This may all sound soapy but the only soap comes during the car wash. It's like Claws without the camp or criminal element. Bujalski serves the plot in mostly manageable chunks that don't give you time to get bored. Haley Lu Richardson and Shayna McHayle excel as Lisa's lieutenants. Besides the film's other balancing acts, the women manage to appear natural while acting up a storm.

ALONG WITH THE GODS: THE LAST 49 DAYS (NR)
**
I almost recused myself from reviewing this Korean fantasy because I didn't see the first part, AWTG: The Two Worlds; but the second part spends much of its time filling in the backstories of characters introduced in the first, so what could go wrong? (Famous last words.) Overstuffed with story and effects, both sometimes cheesy, it's a mashup of the plots of: a historical battle epic set 1000 years ago; a courtroom drama; a faith-based tale of sin and redemption; the Seven Labors of Hercules performed in the circles of Hell from Dante's Inferno; a story of a servant who runs the household, including financial investments; and a Shakespearean drama that combines the plots of five of his other dramas. At stake is the afterlife of Kim Ja-hong, who died in Part One. Three guardians, who died a millennium ago, are trying to win him reincarnation (even though he doesn't care about it) rather than eternal damnation. The guardians' own fates are at stake, even though one lived a selfless life and should never have been in limbo. The story's too complex for kids, who will need a month of Sunday school to recover from it, and too inane for adults, who will be disappointed if they just go anticipating spectacle.

CUSTODY (NR)
**1/2
Xavier Legrand opens his first feature with more exposition than the average Wikipedia page. It might not be so bad if you're fluent in French and don't have to read it in subtitles. At a hearing before a female judge, two female attorneys argue a custody case between Antoine (Denis Menochet) and Miriam (Lea Drucker), who separated a year ago. She's kept their children - Julien, 11, and Josephine, who's about to turn 18 - living with her parents some distance from Antoine; but he's taken a job in the same city and is suing for joint custody of Julien. Miriam's attorney reads a statement from the boy saying he doesn't want to see his father. Josephine, who's old enough to decide for herself, claims Antoine abused her physically years ago. His lawyer paints a different picture. We naturally tend to sympathize with the mother, but Miriam is so quiet throughout the film it's hard to get a sense of who she is. Antoine is more outspoken and volatile. Julien lies to both parents (and deletes his mother from his phone) so it's unclear who traumatized him. Neither would win a medal in the Parenting Olympics. As if to compensate for the verbose opening, several long scenes later have little or no dialogue. That makes sense in the suspenseful climax, but why do we spend two minutes watching Josephine's feet from outside a toilet stall? And why not kill the sound later when she sings a terrible version of "Proud Mary"? Has Miriam poisoned the kids' minds against their father or do they have reason to fear him? Are we supposed to wonder or take her side all along? I may have had the wrong expectations from reading that Legrand's inspirations were Kramer vs. Kramer, The Shining and The Night of the Hunter. He certainly hasn't equaled any of them.

GENERATION WEALTH (R)
**1/2
If you're so rich, why are you reading a free newspaper? Lauren Greenfield, maker of The Queen of Versailles, becomes The Queen of Recycling with this autobiographical documentary that looks back on and sometimes updates her 25 years as a photographer and filmmaker. She also got a book and an exhibition out of the material. The title is explained by the idea that in the Reagan years Americans went from working hard for what they wanted to rampant consumerism, doing anything to acquire stuff and buying on credit when they couldn't afford it. "Consumerism spread like a virus," we're told, to Europe and more recently to Russia and China. Author Chris Hedges offers the most sensible comments while also serving as a voice of doom: "Societies accrue their greatest wealth at the moment they face death." Economic theory is but one thread in a web of subplots, as some people are less concerned with acquiring things than youth, beauty, children or fame; so we hear about eating disorders, cosmetic surgery, financial scams, pageants, Vegas strippers, surrogacy and such. In the end most of the people we follow find more happiness in their families than material goods - although some are living quite well. Still recovering from being a middle-class teen in an elite private school, Greenfield acknowledges the workaholic tendencies passed on by her mother, whom she has apparently forgiven for making her feel abandoned as a child. Her social critique is self-critical too, but the common threads she sees in her earlier work are less obvious to the average viewer. We see several stories, many of them interesting, but lacking a wealth of connections.

McQUEEN (NR)
**
Alexander McQueen, not Steve. The less fashion-conscious may know him as the designer of the white dress Tiffany Haddish has worn to several award shows, and may not know he's been dead more than eight years. He designed fashion shows around such dark themes as Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims and The Highland Rape, but his own story is rather dark as well. It could - and probably will - be told much better than it is in this documentary by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, but at least you can learn the basics from it. London-born in 1969, Lee Alexander McQueen dropped his first name professionally because his middle name "sounded more posh"; but most acquaintances still call him "Lee." A poor student, he apprenticed at a Saville Row shop that looks like the set of the Kingsman movies. More teasing than comprehensive, this film leaves you with many timeline questions: how long McQueen designed for Givenchy while also launching his own line; how long he battled an addiction to drugs and when or if he conquered it; how long was his long term relationship with a boyfriend whose name escapes me (there are 26 "contributors" listed in the credits, most of whom are identified once, briefly, while they're speaking); and what were the "four stages" of their relationship he mentions without elaboration? Aside from new talking-head interviews, much footage is of poor home video quality. Surely better images exist of the major fashion shows. (Apparently it would have been a "wardrobe malfunction" at a McQueen show if a model's breasts were both covered.) The soundtrack is a tower of babble in a variety of accents, only rarely translated by subtitles. I've no doubt the life of Alexander McQueen will inspire an awesome film one day. This isn't it.

SKATE KITCHEN (R)
**1/2
You expect skateboarders to make some sharp turns so it shouldn't be a surprise when a movie about them does the same. Skate Kitchen begins as the exploration of a subculture and devolves into a young adult soap opera. Actually it begins like The Rider, with a young athlete being deprived of the activity they live for. Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) has an accident in which her board hits her in the crotch. (Skateboarders have a name for it, we learn later: credit-carding.) Her mother (Elizabeth Rodriguez) tells Camille she can't skateboard anymore, but the 18-year-old starts commuting secretly from their modest Long Island home into Manhattan, where she joins Skate Kitchen (the name barely glimpsed on Instagram messages), a group of like-minded young women (all playing versions of themselves). Their no-boys-allowed conversations taught me more about tampons than skateboards. Although only one of the girls (Nina Moran as Kurt) is a declared lesbian, when the chicks and dudes meet at a skate park they act like the Sharks and Jets toward each other. Camille starts crashing with Janay (Dede Lovelace) and her family, and moves in after another run-in with her mother. Then she gets interested in Devon (Jaden Smith), a co-worker at the bargain store where she takes a job, and things get complicated. Vinberg is believable as plain, repressed Camille, but lacks star quality - visually and personality-wise - that would let her continue in an acting career. (Comments like this have come back to bite me in the past.) There are some impressive stunts here but also a surprising number of falls, which led me to wonder if it's a coincidence that the popularity of skateboarding has coincided with the rise of for-profit hospitals. But that's a subject for another movie.

THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST (NR)
***
While Boy Erased is being primed for Award Season, this female version, which could have been called Girl Erased, is getting a lower-profile release. The title should come with a spoiler alert, not that anyone would go to see it without knowing which side of the "conversion therapy" issue it's on. Directed and co-written by Desiree Akhavan, whose Appropriate Behavior was a highlight of the Out on Film festival four years ago, it's set in 1993, before 15 states and dozens of cities passed laws against trying to change a minor's sexual orientation. Caught having sex with a girl in a car during a school dance, Cameron (Chloe Grace Moretz) is sent to a conversion center called God's Promise. Located in a remote area, it's run by "Rev. Rick" (John Gallagher Jr.) and his sister, "Dr. Marsh" (Jennifer Ehle). We can't be sure how valid their titles are, but Rick claims the distinction of having been "saved" from the homosexual lifestyle so he feels qualified to help those who are "struggling with SSA (Same-Sex Attraction)." There are about a dozen "disciples" held virtual prisoner there, and it's unclear if any are drinking the Kool-Aid or if all just tell the leaders what they want to hear. Cam quickly buddies up with the cool kids, Jane (Sasha Lane) and Adam (Forrest Goodluck), a couple of stoners. There's a lot of humor, though not as much as in the similar But I'm a Cheerleader a generation ago; but it's also made clear that the therapy is damaging its targets. Moretz is up to having the camera look into her soul through much of the film, and Ehle is frightening as her tormentor. But is it supposed to be ironic that Cam's favorite band is the Breeders?

DARK MONEY (NR)
**1/2
If you've been saving up to buy a politician, this movie shows you how it's done - and how some people are trying to stop it. This is an old-school documentary, the kind that was common before people like Errol Morris and Michael Moore started adding pizzazz to what were basically glorified term papers. Director Kimberly Reed throws a lot of information at you hoping some of it will stick. Because the topic could be overwhelming, she cleverly uses Montana as a microcosm of the country; and it's surprising how much has gone on there and how the fight against it has been somewhat bipartisan. At the dawn of the 20th century Anaconda Copper controlled the state, with press and politicians doing their bidding. The result is shown in a polluted lake by a mine where thousands of geese have died. In 1912 Montana passed a Corrupt Practices Act to keep corporations out of politics. Twenty-three other states passed similar laws, which remained in effect until the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling in 2010. That opened the floodgates, and corporations can donate incognito through Political Action Campaigns, so only the politicians know who they're beholden to. The Federal Elections Commission is supposed to keep an eye on things but their former chair, Ann Ravel, says she quit in disgust last year because they were totally ineffective. Who needs Russia when we can rig our own elections? The closest thing the film has to a narrator is investigative journalist John Adams, who focused on dark money until he was fired because the chain he wrote for did away with the State Bureau he headed; and you can guess why. He'd seem more authoritative if he didn't keep changing his appearance like he was in witness protection.

DETECTIVE DEE: THE FOUR HEAVENLY KINGS (NR)
***
If you have any LSD left over from the psychedelic era, this is the movie you've been waiting for! Prolific Chinese action director Tsui Hark fills the screen with nonstop trippy visuals. The only thing that spoiled it for me was trying to make sense of it so I could explain it to you. The third in a series of historical fantasies, it's about an Empress (Carina Lau) who, on behalf of - or under the spell of - an ancient Indian cult, the Wind Warriors, tries to wrest power from her husband by gaining control of the ultimate weapon, the dragon-taming mace. It's been entrusted to Dee (Mark Chao), head of the Bureau of Investigation; but the Empress essentially says "F B.I." when she orders Dee's friend Yuchi (Feng Shaofeng) to steal the mace, with the help of the Mystic Clan of magician-sorcerers. There's not much in the way of martial arts, more CGI projectile weapons; and no one can actually fly but they jump around a lot. There's also a giant ape, a golden dragon and other things that may be hallucinations. The red and gold sets in the palace are lavish enough to trigger a redecoration of the White House. There's even a romcom subplot between Yuchi's sidekick Sha Tuo and Water Moon, a female member of the Clan. It's a Chinese marvel, if not a Chinese Marvel, with plenty of extra scenes during the credits; but it's not as patient as Black Panther about explaining its foreign mythology. If this makes any sense to you, believe me it won't when it's flashing before your eyes at more than twice the speed of sound filmmaking; but it could be the most fun you'll have at the movies this year. If this sounds like your idea of a good time, see it before somebody slaps a tariff on it.

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