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Queen of Earth (Alex Ross Perry, 2015)

Fresh off the heels of her father’s passing and debilitating breakup, Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) deems it appropriate to retreat to best friend Virginia’s (Katherine Waterston) lakeside abode for rehabilitative purposes. Remaining noticeably shaken upon parting from these prominent masculine figures, Catherine’s repressed feelings of resentment and a repeat uninvited guest threaten to unhinge her entirely. With bitter exchanges between her and Virginia yielding the opposite of diminishing returns, only time will tell when Catherine’s psyche shatters completely.

Last year’s Listen Up Philip unquestionably solidified Alex Ross Perry as a talent that unknowingly panders to nearly every nook of my cinematic tastes. Without getting into detail, the unveiling of Queen of Earth as a psychological thriller set against something comparably character-driven was an exciting initial tidbit. In admirably exploiting Perry’s penchant for wry wit and incisiveness, the finished product is a near perfect cross between the familiarly slow-burning and wildly subversive as an impeccable, aptly eerie aesthetic amplifies Catherine’s compelling downward spiral.

From the get-go, Moss’ general post-tragedy disposition remains effortless in its conveyance of grief and uncertainty. She exudes a manic, frequently uncomfortable energy telling of distress in a way that comes naturally to her, of which is appropriate and speaks volumes about the quality of her performance here. While not entirely likable, it’s hard to root against Catherine as a character given the corresponding intensity with which she’s portrayed as well as afflicted and unable to pry herself free from this psychological bear trap. She irrevocably stands in her own way, and frankly, Virginia’s sustained inability to console her best friend packs on the dread in a manner atypical of contemporary genre fare.

Whether or not you sympathize with Catherine’s plight, her disconcerting increase in mood swings yield some agreeably chilling results, the lot of which peaks with an excellent latter-act monologue that rivals some of the best scenes in any film I’ve seen this year. Queen of Earth thrives thanks to Perry’s corresponding penchant for dialogue, the unconventional subjects that speak it and steadfastness of scope, all of which are bolstered by a simplicity of premise that could yield literally any possible outcome. It thrives on atmosphere and uniqueness of concept, and I for one applaud Perry’s deft adherence to his obvious strengths as a filmmaker that’s intrinsically unable to conform to rote industry standards.

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Cop Car (Jon Watts, 2015)

In a fundamental sense, Cop Car more or less exemplifies contemporary independent filmmaking. Reminiscent of 2013’s Blue Ruin by way of modest scale yielding the utmost impact, soon-to-be Marvel upstart Jon Watts’ second directorial outing is a lean telling of two youngsters’ fateful joyride. In a manner one would expect, the runaway boys’ naive exuberance and general lack of worldly knowledge lead them down a road of seedy uncertainty paved by a shady smalltown sheriff (Kevin Bacon). As the plot thickens, our protagonists’ fate becomes increasingly uncertain when they’re forced to face the facts and hone up to their unfortunate misdeed.

It becomes apparent early on that Watts and co-writer Christopher D. Ford have aptly sidestepped the hurdles of budgetary restrictions via basal incisiveness and intelligence. Kids will be kids time and again, and Cop Car admirably takes the time to hammer across the gleefully unseasoned mentality of Travis and Harrison with a convincing recital of every known curse word in the former’s arsenal. From here a darkly comedic mean streak ensues, even when Bacon’s Sheriff Kretzer is shoving a lifeless body into a hole prior to the front-and-center fiasco.

As with comparably small-scale efforts, Cop Car largely succeeds thanks to a sense of situational awareness that covers all of it bases. Barring the intended authenticity of the youthful ignorance on display, moments involving the sheriff’s apparent desperation and subsequent actions are concise, convincing and engaging as such. Whether its a matter of avoiding recognition or merely stealing a car with the help of a shoelace, the script remains entirely resourceful in wringing the most out of itself.

Despite derailing itself with a decidedly dark string of conclusive happenings, Jon Watts’ sophomore directorial outing is one of considerable note in the realm of the increasingly rare indie genre effort. In wringing considerable engagement out of its blend of dreadful uncertainty and black humor, Cop Car isn’t so much a pinnacle of excellence as it is a competently realized slice of storytelling within an expanding cinematic niche. In a roundabout way, the film speaks to Watts’ resourcefulness as a burgeoning talent to behold and – if MCU fatigue hasn’t fully set in on your part as it has mine – it’ll be interesting to see what a monetary well of possibility will steer him toward creatively in his handling of Spider-Man.

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6 Years (Hannah Fidell, 2015)

Although there’s something inherently admirable about Hannah Fidell’s semi-improvisational approach, 6 Years still feels highly derivative despite intended emotional authenticity and resonance. The film’s title refers to length of Dan (Ben Rosenfield) and Mel’s (Taissa Farmiga) relationship that, while once a model of romantic excellence, begins to spiral downward as the two drift unceremoniously apart. As the two struggle to reconcile amid instances of violence, temptation and impending career paths as burgeoning adults, the harsh realities of the fateful impermanence of love become more and more oppressive as time passes.

I’ve been known to laud the empathetic qualities of the so-called anti-romantic drama. I find the appeal of said films (i.e. Blue Valentine, Like Crazy) to be a byproduct of commendable realism in a sea of conventionally-rendered romcoms, most of which end with the guy getting the girl or visa versa. This isn’t a surprise to those that share my affinity for the subgenre, however Hannah Fidell’s contribution is wrought with overblown contrivances that detract from some agreeably excellent chemistry between two strong performers.

As said interplay remains far-and-away 6 Years‘ primary strength, the script’s spotlighting of its core relationship as a dire life necessity is its ultimate downfall. On one side of the spectrum it’s easy to gravitate toward this steadfastness of approach for involvement’s sake, what with Dan and Mel’s questionable future as a couple being the primary narrative impetus, but the fact that these individuals have nothing but each other is an ostensible falsehood. These individuals in fact have a lot going for each other, and frankly, if they just stopped leaving each other half-drunk and alone at parties the film wouldn’t really have a conflictual leg to stand on.

From what I experienced, 6 Years is hard-hitting but manipulative throughout its familiarly structured illustration of fleeting long-term romance. Its two leads are more than game and exhibit some of the best chemistry present within the growing annals of the anti-romantic drama, however the proceedings suffer from repeated instances of contrived conflict that could be easily avoided. When nearly every blowup is a result of conscious over-imbibing, you can’t help but expect the worst as the narrative falls into a pattern of endearing sweetness abruptly soured by what happens next.

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The End of the Tour (James Ponsoldt, 2015)

Effortlessly alluring as a humanely authentic adaptation of the David Lipsky novel that inspired it, The End of the Tour shares with us the days-long interview Lipsky conducted with author David Foster Wallace during the titular twilight of his Infinite Jest promotional tour. Through continued conversation and the inevitable clashing of egos, the increasingly candid nature of the experience sheds light on the existential grappling Wallace often struggled to come to terms with throughout his career. Framed by the writer’s suicide in 2008, the film’s sensitive adherence to Wallace’s points of view help paint the portrait of a man that was never comfortable in the spotlight but rightfully famous on account of his singular and widely lauded body of work.

From a purely cinematic viewpoint, I don’t consider The End of the Tour to fit or surpass any standard of excellence. It’s ostensibly a dissection of the two individuals on display that flaunts Wallace’s astute existentialist ruminations as its strongest suit, pulling very few punches along the way. In the vein of his previous work, director Ponsoldt overcomes slightness of narrative with an adherence to authentic humanism and – given the tortured genius of his latest subject – finds added support in complexity of character and the layered incisiveness peppering its exchanges.

While not particularly dense, the conversations between Lipsky and Wallace are lengthy, thoughtful and comparably thought-provoking when they’re not coming to blows over their growing resentment of one another. Frequently touching upon Wallace’s professed loneliness and distaste for the cult of celebrity, The End of the Tour‘s sustained thematic oomph is agreeably engaging throughout his and Lipsky’s many tonally disparate exchanges. Although bittersweet and mostly melancholic given the writer’s suicide as an impetus for Lipsky’s reflection, the film manages to sidestep melodrama via a simply tasteful recreation of the source material.

With a deservedly praiseworthy performance from Segel aiding to excellently convey Wallace’s complex and tortured persona, The End of the Tour is easily one of the better character studies to come around in recent memory. In tastefully examining the author’s palpable vulnerability through a series of intelligent conversations, Ponsoldt’s latest thrives as a truly humanistic portrait of a writer in the throes of longstanding existential turmoil. Through chemistry and deft adherence to subjectivity and scope, The End of the Tour is an entirely affecting chronicle of a fascinating individual and the man who brought the intricacies of his personality to light through a bond formed and shared.

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Fantastic Four (Josh Trank, 2015)

While I’ve been able to successfully distance myself from superfluous behind-the-scenes nonsense, the production timeline for Fox’s latest attempt to reboot the Marvel staple was unfathomably spotty and downright laughable at times. With rumors running amok regarding writer/director Trank’s actual stamp on the film, sketchy last-minute re-shoots and an increasingly listless cast, this trainwreck seemed to epitomize everything unprofessional in the proverbial Hollywood machine that yielded the abortion of an end result we have before us. Yes, Fantastic Four is as bad as you’ve heard, and to be honest, its oppressive lack of quality does more than merely confirm suspicions.

I first aired my grievances about origins stories back when Man of Steel failed to reinvent the wheel that invariably kick-started the impending DC cinematic universe. The Fantastic Four – being just as long in the tooth as the Kryptonian himself – need not be subjected to the tragic re-imagining on display, no matter how earnest Trank was in his initial efforts to properly reboot the franchise. Everything laid out before us is mostly a lazy, subtly tweaked regurgitation of the team’s ill-acquired superpowers that exists in tandem with characterizations that run parallel to glaringly listless performances.

Even young Reed Richards, playing the typically misunderstood child prodigy, fails to sound interested in the pseudo-scientific nonsense he’s spouting off at regular intervals until VOILA! Comparably misunderstood teenage Reed (Miles Teller) and soft-spoken BFF Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) find salvation at a science fair of all places. Undying faith is bestowed upon Reed, drawn-out exposition ensues and inexcusable drunken dimension-hopping lands three-quarters (as in the gang’s NOT all here) of the team in hot water. Don’t worry, the Fantastic Fourth is still part of the picture, they’re just an unfortunate victim of stupidity-induced collateral damage.

For the squad’s inception a la booze-addled debauchery to even exist is insulting in its own right, however the proceedings exude an omnipresent dullness that irredeemably infects everything on display. Poor chemistry serves as an obvious detriment to the familial bond the four are famous for upholding, and the fact that all of the key players phone in their respective performances doesn’t help matters any. A discernible lack of clever or even marginally engaging dialogue and exchanges is even worse still, what with a palpable lack of general excitement failing to inject the slightest semblance of life into such a continuously floundering slog.

Words escape me as I consciously try to avoid malicious hyperbole, yet Fantastic Four deserves to be chided for how insultingly lackluster it is from start to finish. For Marvel to unceremoniously pull the comic from shelves adds the utmost insult to injury given the disaster we have before to us serving as the last rendition of the superheroes’ (now tarnished) legacy. Whether the planned sequel is or isn’t out of the question, the fact of the matter is – oppressive studio intervention aside – the powers-that-be need to do much more than merely reinvigorate this already spotty sect of the Fox-piloted Marvel canon. As a sloppy, unenthusiastic and entirely vapid trudge through the muck and mire that is all-encompassing cinematic lethargy, Fantastic Four is an especially poor excuse for a film of its type in an era of increasingly sink-or-swim uncertainty regarding the Marvel brand.

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Ani-Monday: Redline (Takeshi Koike, 2009)

Rarely ceasing to captivate on account of masterful aesthetic hyperbole, Redline takes its title from the titular twice-a-decade racing event reserved for the galaxy’s elite professionals. When the latest iteration of the Redline sets its sights on the monarchical Roboworld as its next venue, obdurate opposition threatens to upend the proceedings by decidedly (predictably) violent means. With fortunate alternate contestant and purveyor of tall hair “Sweet” JP eyeing the prize following a disappointing outing at the qualifying Yellowline, our man aims to simultaneously beat the odds and court childhood sweetheart Sonoshee – the defending Yellowline champion, no less – whilst dodging military efforts to quell the main event.

Redline epitomizes the age-old “style over substance” argument with its continued handwaving of weighty exposition helping to exploit its agreeably batshit gusto. The film’s style – purposefully bombastic as it is – is so singular in its meticulous attention to visceral integrity that perversity and a lack of thematic oomph suits its ostensible intentions with ease. With enigmatic if predictably viable plot components consisting of “hyper-disintegrator” cannons and a gargantuan (biologically engineered) neon fetus named “Funky Boy,” the film strives to constantly one-up itself because, frankly, it needs to. Something this particularly one-dimensional needs such gradation to survive its duration, and survive Redline certainly does to varying degrees of goofiness.

Putting aside the superficiality that serves as the sole impetus for each and every key player, the rote alluring glory in question pales in comparison to the event those involved (literally) live for. With a latter act that boasts a stunning helping of genre-bending insanity, Redline is a decidedly sparse endeavor made captivating by way of an obvious uniqueness of vision and corresponding technical expertise. Picture an adrenaline junkie’s fever dream laced with sci-fi trappings and stimuli to spare.

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Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (Christopher McQuarrie, 2015)

When broken down to their basest elements, the past three Mission: Impossible films have effectively capitalized on a steadfast exploitation of formula. Grand in scale and pseudo-intelligent in scope, the mold epitomized by the long-standing brand largely excels thanks solely to the sheer inventiveness of the set pieces bookended by explanatory exposition. Rogue Nation capitalizes on this breezily involving framework as it pits Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and the recently disbanded IMF against the Syndicate: a terrorist organization intent on scrubbing them from the Planet Earth altogether. With time running out and little to motivate outside of Ethan’s sheer resilience and a world-saving streak of luck, the gang – in tandem with the enigmatic Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) – must pool their sparse remaining resolve and resources to prevent the Syndicate’s next move.

As Ghost Protocol more or less exemplified, the contemporary action sequel need not reinvent the wheel in terms of conventional storytelling. While an inherent sense of engagement via scenario is a base necessity, the who, what, where and why are arbitrarily implemented as a means of justifying the next instance of wanton chaos. Rogue Nation easily benefits from this omnipresent strength as McQuarrie’s one-two punch as writer and director imbues the proceedings with a ceaseless forward momentum that handwaves what minor flaws the film harbors.

From scene to scene, the tension corresponding with endlessly mounting stakes is easily sustained thanks to a sense of sheer restlessness. Deftly belying the aforementioned simplicity of overarching narrative threads and themes, the palpable grandiosity of key sequences is pretty remarkable despite their predictable one-up progression. Both our leads’ laudable physicality and consistently superb staging of what’s on display are to thank for this appeal, and honestly, each individualized chunk of action is almost worth the price of admission alone.

It doesn’t quite surpass its immediate predecessor due to it being somewhat of an apt regurgitation of ideals, however McQuarrie’s effortless emulation of the most successful bits of the franchise formula makes Rogue Nation an exceptional if unavoidably one-note piece of action cinema. You’ll be hard-pressed to find an imitator quite like this slice of real deal genre filmmaking going forward, and thanks to Cruise’s unfailing devotion to his craft, Ethan’s gusto as the IMF’s cornerstone will (hopefully) continue to maintain the set standard. Here’s hoping the recently announced sixth installment continues to capitalize on the nigh-endless possibilities suggested by the appealingly concise one-off nature of these films.

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Mission: Impossible – A Retrospective, Should You Choose to Read It

Unlike a bulk of the present deluge of similarly bloated franchises, the Mission: Impossible films have slowly but surely epitomized the trend through evolution of formula throughout nearly two decades. Finding comfort in Tom Cruise as its ageless and unfailingly charismatic centerpiece, each film simultaneously exudes a directorial singularity that many have noted noticeably differentiates them from one another. This has become increasingly appropriate given the semi-meticulous one-off nature of the lot, what with the titular word “Mission” in conjunction with the newer subtitles suggests an almost serialized, episodic nature. No matter which (if any) of them is your preferred series high mark, Mission: Impossible is a rarity in the sense every installment isn’t without its own unique merits in the realms of presentation and scenario.

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Brian De Palma’s inaugural 1996 effort is, needless to say, a far cry from the grandiose set piece-driven mold succeeding it. It’s in essence a by-the-books spy thriller benchmarked by De Palma’s recurring motifs both thematic and visual. Subtler if convoluted exposition segues breezily into the bigger picture quickly enough: IMF dynamo Ethan Hunt – reeling from the tragic loss of his team after a mission gone awry – is framed as part of a mole hunt conducted to sniff out the possessor of the coveted NOC List. Given the immense threat of exposing the identities of the operatives detailed within, a high stakes cat-and-mouse caper ensues as Ethan confides in fellow disavowed ex-IMF agents to uncover the truth.

Although agreeably convoluted in its occasionally noirish execution of many a twist and turn, M:I doesn’t opt for easy answers as a surefire resolution remains appropriately and appealingly out of reach for viewers. Predictability takes a backseat to muddy character allegiances and general tide-turning tendencies, all of which are effective despite the formulaic skeleton that lies beneath the surface. Some of the aforementioned twists are genuinely disorienting, thus solidifying the film as something of a successful and palpably unconventional blockbuster.

Thus brings us to the pivotal, Langley, Virginia-set break-in scene executed entirely in total silence. It’s essentially a masterclass is sustained tension, each moment laced with what could essentially be the ultimate minute misstep whether it’s a sweat droplet on the corner of Ethan’s eyeglasses or a pulled rope’s frequently audible friction. The film’s entire latter third that culminates with a comparably noteworthy train sequence is particularly impressive, and although its particularly ’90s flourishes remain a bit more obviously oppressive in this day and age, Mission: Impossible is still a fine initial foray into what was then a hopeful answer to Pierce Brosnan’s first stint as James Bond the year prior.

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M:I-2 is far and away the least revered or even liked of the franchise, and for good reason. Despite John Woo being of particular renown throughout the realm of Hong Kong action cinema, his English-language track record is spotty and arguably peaked with 1997’s Face/Off, which may or may not be saying a lot depending on who you ask. In the case of M:I-2, the proceedings’ immediate playfulness, bizarre love triangle-as-impetus subplot and especially slow-burning first half don’t play much to Woo’s strengths as a man of literal action in the industry.

While it again employs a rogue ex-operative’s acquisition of a touchy thing for personal gain angle, everything just feels petty, slight as such and not particularly involving outside of the Chimera virus’ effects on the populace should it be weaponized or whatever. It’s when Woo gets to play with his toys during Hunt and the gang’s attempted eradication of said virus that M:I-2 shines via his tangible trademarks. The latter fifty-plus minutes excellently exemplify these strengths, from balletic, clip-emptying gunplay to disarming and knocking an adversary unconscious with a single acrobatic maneuver, not to mention the entirely stellar motorcycle segment to follow that constantly ups itself throughout its duration. This aside, the film as a whole is still considerably weaker than its predecessor and is easily overshadowed by the more modern affectations of Abrams and Bird’s follow-ups.

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In effectively employing one of the better cold opens I’ve seen, Mission: Impossible III – to me – earned bonus points for the sense of stark immediacy lacing its grittiness. It again abides by the series’ one-off mantra in the sense that Mr. Hunt has (attempted to) settle down and quietly exit the game following the acquisition of the love of his life. Although conceptually jarring given the purposefully impersonal touch of the first two films, I happen to appreciate a bit of palpable humanism in my genre efforts if only because I’m a sucker. It further excels in transforming the IMF into a larger tangible entity complete with requisite higher-ups and means for sustaining an appealingly twist-heavy nature.

As the series’ third director, J.J. Abrams at least partially introduces us to what would become his stylistic quirks lacing not one but two franchise reboots and an in-between Spielberg homage/ripoff. Say what you will about his chops, but Abrams’ adherence to frenetic, shaky cam-enhanced bombast aids in producing some seriously excellent action. While a bulk of viewers can do without the potential motion sickness, there’s no denying the appeal of wanton destruction and an increasingly fallible protagonist being bounced around like a plaything during his quest to ensure mere safety of a loved one. Corny, I know, but not without its base-level emotional appeal.

Whereas M:I-2 was more or less a segue between what the franchise began as and what it would become, M:I-3 is both a refining of scope and logical evolution of formula. In employing what’s most accessible to viewers in terms of straitlaced, big-budgeted but non-pandering entertainment, Abrams and his frequent collaborators Alex Kurtzmann and Roberto Orci delivered what was ostensibly the assurance of the franchise’s elongated lifespan. It marked the official and modern adherence to what Ghost Protocol exemplified, and frankly, the hokey unevenness brought about by the involvement of Hunt’s female counterpart is forgivable thanks to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s turn as a better-than-average villain and excellently prioritized narrative intricacies.

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The emergence of 2011’s Ghost Protocol wasn’t as much earth-shattering as it was peculiar given a five-year absence and palpable lack of demand for the series’ continuation. With The Iron Giant and Pixar darling Brad Bird attached to direct, a promising marketing campaign couldn’t quite stifle audience skepticism. Thanks to Cruise’s ability to age backwards and the finesse of the finished product however, the film in question is the undisputed high watermark pre-Rogue Nation, should I be as enamored of it as I assume I will be.

At this point, it’s become apparent that Ethan Hunt has attained his final form as a full-fledged superhero imbued with unparalleled physical dexterity and situational expertise. Even still, he and his team are subjected to many a drawback exacerbated by the details strewn throughout Ghost Protocol‘s ceaselessly arresting set pieces. The narrative formula the film employs to exploit this strong suit is forgivable on account of franchise trappings, what with the Fast & Furious films doing the same to differing degrees of fan service a la cars instead of hi-tech doodads. Brief expository ramblings precede what’s predictably tense but unpredictably executed on account of the film’s apt genre framework, and frankly, convolution is rendered a complete afterthought given how fast and loose key details and players are implemented.

The most glaring flaw Ghost Protocol sports is its entirely non-dynamic central villain. Despite Michael Nyqvist’s Hendricks being the sole impetus driving the (once again) disavowed IMF gang’s cat-and-mouse caper, his screen time is limited and actual presence unintimidating. Herein lies the qualm I have with the film’s long-winded narrative that belies the punchy steadfastness of its crowning attributes, what with the team’s mere inability to simply catch this guy being the driving force behind Ghost Protocol‘s appeal as its duration exceeds the two-hour mark.

A bit of fat could’ve been trimmed in retrospect, however Brad Bird’s first foray into live-action territory possesses enough sheer inventiveness and visceral integrity to combat a majority of negative reception. Ghost Protocol as a whole is a fine example of how to persevere in the face of adversity brought about by sequel overload, and here’s hoping the franchise’s continued adherence to its one-off business model will yield favorable results going forward. The current state of Mission: Impossible‘s values are a far cry from its roots but have ensured longevity through a competent evolution of the formula its nearly perfected in the realm of big-budgeted genre filmmaking.