July 2023 Roundup
Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One
Paramount Pictures // Directed by Christopher McQuarrie // Starring Tom Cruise, Hayley Atwell, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Pom Klementieff, Henry Czerny
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to buckle up and get ready for the seventh installment in the Mission: Impossible franchise - Dead Reckoning Part One (such a long title…) and it’s a mission you should seriously consider accepting. 2018’s Fallout was a sensational action movie that continued the series’ upwards trajectory, as well as Tom Cruise’s insistence on pushing the boundaries of stuntwork and spectacle, and Dead Reckoning wasn’t about to put the brakes on the momentum. Now, Dead Reckoning doesn’t quite top Fallout, however, it’s still an energy-fuelled romp that feels big in every way - except the frustratingly rudimental dialogue throughout. Whilst the story itself is fairly standard, Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is tasked with hunting down a MacGuffin to prevent it falling into the wrong hands - which, in this case, is pretty much everyone's - and he embarks on a worldwide adventure with the help of old allies and new, frostier ones - but an old enemy resurfaces to haunt Hunt once again. Dead Reckoning indeed feels grand in scope and packs a selection of excellent, pulse-thumping setpieces, but it doesn’t feel as focused as its predecessor. Certain sequences feel elongated and lack Fallout’s tight editing, which, despite the kinetic energy of what was unfolding, sometimes led to a want to simply move things along. That, combined with the incessant need to remind everybody that this mission was CRUCIAL, VITAL, and CANNOT FAIL became slightly wearisome by the end of the movie. That said, the majority of the major setpieces are fantastically choreographed and presented - from train heists to city chases, airport infiltration, and more - and McQuarrie does a solid job of creating atmosphere and mystery as the narrative unfolds around the precious item that the entire world seems to be after. Of course, the stuntwork is exemplary, with Cruise once again providing he is the man to deliver death-defying stunts for the entertainment of moviegoers the world over - I just wish the movie’s jaw-dropping major stunt had been kept under wraps to accentuate its awesomeness. Alas, marketing. As Ethan Hunt, Cruise is again assured and delivers screen presence and charisma to a level that not many others can, and his fellow cast members are mostly up to the challenge with him. Hayley Atwell matches Cruise throughout, both providing delicious chemistry with each other, whilst Pegg, Klementieff, and Ferguson are strong in their respective, and varied roles - no performance feels groundbreaking but they all feel right, it’s just a shame that they are fed weak, expository dialogue that exists simply to spoonfeed audiences that this is IMPORTANT. Whilst falling short of Fallout’s brilliance, Dead Reckoning Part One is still another strong entry into a franchise that shows no sign of abating as we roll confidently into 2024’s Dead Reckoning Part Two.
Lionsgate // Directed by Adele Lim // Starring Ashley Park, Sherry Cola, Stephanie Hsu, Sabrina Wu
Are raunchy comedies on the rise once more? Adele Lim’s Joy Ride certainly makes a case for the return of the subgenre that has been painfully lacking in output in recent years, or certainly strong efforts. Joy Ride follows four Asian-American friends, all at different stages of their lives, as they head to Asia in order for one of the squad to close a significant business deal and also to search for her birth mother, but it just isn’t going to be that easy along the way. With a majority Asian-led cast, Joy Ride is an important step forward for diversity and representation, but, alongside that, is a great comedy in its own right. In the tradition of adult comedies, Joy Ride is brash and in your face at times, and whilst the jokes don’t always hit, the performance of the ensemble elevates the movie even in its slower moments. As Audrey, Lolo, Kat, ad Deadeye, the chemistry and bond between Park, Cola, Hsu, and Wu fizzles with an authentic intensity as they flit between friendship, jealousy, camaraderie, deceit, and acceptance. Whilst Park stands out, all four are fabulous individually and help in papering over some of the movie's flaws, narratively and in its writing. I found a lot of joy in the quieter, less showy gags than the more ostentatious sequences, though there are two big sequences in particular that hit perfectly, but as with all movies like this, your tolerance and mileage may vary the wilder it gets. In amongst the chaos, Lim attempts to inject an emotional undercurrent into the girl's friendships, but more so into the search for Audrey’s birth mother, a mother that has not been present for the entirety of her life. Joy Ride does not paint Audrey’s mother as a villain or a bad person for putting her daughter up for adoption, instead using it as an emotional tide pulsing below the surface, and when it pays off, it really is quite emotional and allows Joy Ride to be more than just sex jokes and debauchery, though it thrives in those circles for the most part. It may not be perfect, but Joy Ride is a naughty little morsel that’s big on laughs and, surprisingly, emotion too.
They Cloned Tyrone
Netflix // Directed by Juel Taylor // Starring John Boyega, Jamie Foxx, Teyonah Parris
For his directorial debut, Juel Taylor decided to forego the easy route, instead opting to create a mash-up of science-fiction, mystery, comedy, and 1970s Blaxploitation to create a recipe that really shouldn’t work. However, it’s been seen before that sometimes something excellent can be conjured out of the unexpected and that can certainly be said for Netflix’s They Cloned Tyrone - an ambitious and riotous ride that combines social commentary and a good time to boot. The sharp narrative follows drug dealer Fontaine (Boyega) who runs into a spot of trouble after confronting local pimp Slick Charles (Foxx) in an attempt to recoup monies owed. Following a later unconnected altercation, Slick enlists the help of working girl Yo-Yo (Parris) to confirm that Fontaine is, well, actually Fontaine off the heels of a strangely familiar interaction between the two men. In their attempts to unravel the bizarreness of the night, the trio finds themselves embroiled in something much bigger and more nefarious than they could imagine. What occurs shouldn’t work, tonally and narratively, yet Taylor and screenwriter Rettenmeier have crafted a razor-sharp, incisive yet still unique commentary on oppression, whitewashing, and mass product marketing (to name a few…) presented in a grounded reality and conveyed with three excellent performances. The chemistry between Boyega, Foxx, and Parris is electric, and Boyega really is just so damn good here, a genuine superstar of the British acting scene. Of course, they are aided by a great script full of snappy one-liners, zinging retorts, and strong gags to nestle along the thematic elements and the more bonkers angle the movie takes the more it unravels - an angle that if you sit back and get on board with, you’ll have a blast with. Now, the movie arguably takes a little too long to reach its destination, but it's never a dull ride and when the final scene hits, it provides a terrifically satisfying (and smart) finale. Production-wise, the movie looks and feels stylish, however, the grainy filter used throughout was a bit much in this instance. Combining action, commentary, mystery, and three fabulous performances - led by Boyega - They Cloned Tyrone is an unexpectedly incisive and entertaining ride, one that should be a real win for Netflix and act as a strong calling card for Juel Taylor’s talents going forward.
Netflix // Directed by Johannes Hartmann // Starring Alice Lucy, Max Rüdlinger, Casper Van Dien, David Schofield, Kel Matsena, Almar G. Sato, Pascal Ulli, Katja Kolm, Rebecca Dyson-Smith
Swissploitation is the new exploitation! Maybe not, but Johannes Hartmann’s madcap satire Mad Heidi certainly makes a bold statement. The film begins by telling the viewer what they’re about to see was made possible by Crowdfunding, which may elicit worry in some, but by the time the credits had rolled, I still couldn’t believe this was crowdfunded, such was the high level of quality in relation to visual effects and the overall look of the film. It’s clear this was a project Hartmann felt a real passion for. The story is set in dystopian Switzerland, a country now governed by President Melli (van Dien), a fascist oppressor and owner of Melli Cheese, now the country’s only cheese supplier. When her boyfriend is executed for producing and selling black-market cheese, Heidi (Lucy) undergoes a transformation from a quiet village girl to a kick-ass warrior in order to free her country from its brutal enslavement. It’s clear to all that Alice Lucy is having a blast in the role, a role she is very good in, and the same can be said for the rest of the cast, especially Casper van Dien, that man chewed up every bit of the scenery and more. If the performances are OTT, the story and action become truly wild the further down the rabbit hole we go - it’s an exploitation film, so expect buckets of blood, nudity, dismemberment, and…cheese-related death. Honestly, there is more cheese in this film than you could throw a block of Schabziger at, and, admittedly, the cheese puns and one-liners do eventually begin to wear thin yet they remain faithful to the bonkers tone of Mad Heidi overall. Coming in at a cool ninety minutes, crucially the film does not outstay its welcome, despite cramming an awful lot into its short runtime though there were one or two noticeable lulls in the otherwise energetic pacing. Mad Heidi is a crazy film that deserves to garner a cult following, it’s bonkers, it's big, it's brash, and it’s definitely not perfect but it is a lot of fun (and who doesn’t like seeing the fascists get their comeuppance?)
Warner Bros. // Directed by Greta Gerwig // Starring Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, America Ferrera, Kate McKinnon, Issa Rae, Rhea Perlman, Will Ferrell
It’s the best day ever! Kicking off the now-legendary Barbenheimer weekend of cinema, Greta Gerwig’s much-anticipated Barbie is here, dripping with pink pomp, sparkles, and dreams. Right away, my screening was packed with people ready to gleefully absorb the experience, and Kenergy levels were high - certainly, the busiest I’ve seen a theatre since COVID times. Beginning in Barbieland, where everything is seemingly perfect, Barbie (Robbie) is whisked to the real world to repair her bond with the person who owns her doll after she begins to experience existential thoughts of death, only to find out that the real world maybe isn’t all its cracked up to be. But don’t worry, Ken (Gosling) is there for the ride, and to truly find out about the ‘wonders’ of the patriarchy. If any of that doesn’t appeal to you, switch off now as the film as a whole WILL NOT be for you. Alongside Noah Baumbach, Gerwig’s narrative focuses keenly on what it is to be a woman in society - the challenges, the pitfalls, the struggles in the face of the patriarchy - and together they have crafted a sharp screenplay that fizzles with (k)energy and emotion. Though, speaking honestly, whilst wonderfully crafted, at times the messages felt stated rather than presented as discussion pieces, and maybe too much social commentary permeated the film without drilling deeper than it could have. Whether that’s the case, Barbie is riotously entertaining and speeds along like Barbie’s pink convertible itself, the two-hour runtime feels like a breeze thanks to a constant stream of solid gags (including plenty at the expense of Mattel), well-placed musical numbers, and smart pacing - even if the final stretch did seem to be just that, a little stretched. The film does start off on rockier ground in terms of its overall humour but quickly finds its footing as we flit between Barbieland and the real world focusing on our two stars, both of whom are so so good. Margot Robbie is the perfect Barbie, and the film humorously nods to this at times, but Gosling’s Ken really steals the show with his exuberance and comic timing, the two together are electric to watch and make for some genuinely fun moments. Additionally, Kate McKinnon, Simu Liu, Michael Cera, and America Ferrera all provide delightful supporting turns, with the latter given some meaty monologues to deliver, though I was disappointed with the scenes involving Will Ferrell, an actor I generally enjoy, but felt his scenes to be the weakest throughout. In the least surprising comment here, the production design of Barbie is stunning, the attention to detail in the sets and practical work is excellent, and setpieces pop off the screen with real vibrance - as do the banging musical segments. Sometimes, musical pieces can disrupt the flow of a film, but not here. Each segment worked to elevate the sequences whilst helping to bridge to the next section of the film, each filled with great songs and smile-inducing choreography - especially the ace “I’m Just Ken”. When I think of a Barbie movie, I can say that this was not what I had in mind, but I’m pleased to have been blindsided. Gerwig’s script speaks of empowerment and independence and is a rallying call to all watching but it also provides strong humour and more than a smattering of self-awareness. The tonal and narrative balance is handled incredibly well throughout, and, whilst Barbie can’t claim to be perfect and certainly won’t appease everyone, I thought it was a blast and my Kenergy levels were satisfied. Life in plastic really is fantastic, clearly.
Universal Pictures // Directed by Christopher Nolan // Starring Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr., Matt Damon, Florence Pugh, Emily Blunt
Christopher Nolan is back. That statement alone is enough to whip the internet into a frenzy of lust and desire, which (in a weird way) is understandable given the man's track record - except you Tenet, and The Dark Knight Rises - but the allure of a Nolan film is near-undeniable. Oppenheimer presents possibly his most straightforward narrative outside of his Batman trilogy, that’s not to say it's linear and suddenly conventional, because it isn’t, but this biopic of J. Robert Oppenheimer is fairly faithful to what is known of the man - alongside some subjectivity, of course. Oppenheimer, the creator of death and the destroyer of worlds, the man behind the creation of the atomic bomb, but what of the man himself? This is the story Oppenheimer strives to tell - what was his life like? What was the creative process behind the bomb? What were the ramifications on Oppenheimer pre and post-World War II? The film strides headfirst into the mind of Oppenheimer (Murphy) to deliver a superb drama diving into the psyche of the man who provided the world with the weapon needed to destroy itself. Now, the film is three hours long, that’s a long time on anybody’s watch, and, admittedly it took me a while to get into Oppenheimer, the first third covered his life and romances mostly outside of the scope of the Manhattan Project which, whilst interesting, carried little emotional weight. Once he was recruited as Project Director of Manhattan by General Groves (Damon), the film went off. The ticking clock technique created real tension, despite the audience knowing the outcome, and Nolan crafts some terrifically tense scenes during the creation process, and later some truly abhorrent scenes involving politicians and their inhumane indifference to the ramifications of their actions. This story is interweaved with black-and-white footage focusing more on Robert Downey Jr’s Lewis Strauss - a Senior Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) member who holds ill will towards Oppenheimer for perceived slights across the years - in his attempts to gain a coveted seat on the US Senate and tarnish Oppenheimer’s legacy simultaneously through rigged hearings (Nolan has since stated that the scenes in colour represent subjectivity, and the black-and-white scenes represent objectivity). These methodical scenes are powered by intense political maneuverings and fabulous performances from all involved, which can be said for the film overall. Cillian Murphy is simply excellent in the lead role, exuding calm, sheer anxiety, charm, and menace all at once in his portrayal of Oppenheimer, and the same can also be said for Downey Jr. who delivers his finest performance since Zodiac. These two superb performances nestle alongside a list of excellent supporting performances including Blunt, Damon, Hartnett, and Ehrenreich - though the who’s who cast all bring their finest to the table. The problem with such a stacked cast is that means lots of characters that you NEED to memorise. Outside of Oppy and Strauss, many of the characters were lacking in depth and emotion - despite the performances - leaving it hard at times to recall just who was who and what they meant to the story overall. This felt most prominent after the Physicist Avengers had been assembled and there was never a shortage of characters on screen contributing at any point. The film, also, is dialogue heavy, and dialogue has often been used as a stick to beat Nolan with, but there are no issues with the screenplay here, it’s the audio mix that again plagues proceedings. Some of the dialogue is incomprehensible at times which is unforgivable in a film of this stature, especially given the sound FX throughout resonates and booms with such clarity and Ludwig Göransson’s layered score soars majestically amongst the mix. It’s not an aspect that will necessarily kill the experience but it does impact it somewhat. That, alongside the weighty dialogue and long runtime, may turn off the casual audience, but honestly, the runtime wasn’t an issue aside from the opening forty-five minutes or so, the film is paced extremely well and the sharp editing really helps to ensure that the conjured energy remains. Though rewatchability may not be as fervent as some of his previous works, Oppenheimer will stand amongst Nolan’s greatest achievements - a powerful and profound film that looks beyond the bomb and at the man behind it. A man who couldn’t bring himself to watch the outcome of the destruction caused by his creation, a man racked with guilt, and a man tossed aside by a rotting government - but, ultimately one of the most important people to ever walk the Earth.
Sympathy for the Devil
RLJE Films // Directed by Yuval Adler // Starring Nicolas Cage, Joel Kinnaman
In Yuval Adler’s fourth directorial effort Sympathy for the Devil, we see Nicolas Cage with red hair in a fabulous red blazer. That’s what I am here for. Cage-craving aside, the film sees Cage’s unnamed but dangerous stranger essentially hijack a car driven by David (Kinnaman) - who is en route to be with his wife as she gives birth - for unknown reasons, but reasons that will be revealed as the mystery unfolds. Playing similarly to 2004’s Collateral, Sympathy for the Devil is ostensibly a two-piece between Cage’s madcap passenger (AKA The Passenger) and Kinnaman’s reserved David, the majority of the film takes place in David’s car as they drive to an unspecified destination, and the two engage in menace-tinged discussion with The Passenger entranced in the belief they are connected in some way whilst David frantically looks for ways out of his situation. The tête-à-tête between the two is intriguing, unfortunately, a problem lies in that the reason why The Passenger chose David specifically is built up as the crux of the movie, however, it’s fairly apparent early on just why David was chosen as the dialogue lays it on pretty thick. It’s a shame as when the reveal later occurs, it feels underwhelming especially given the journey to get there does include some fantastic sequences - a scene in a diner is packed full of great and nefarious moments (plus a lot of talk about cheddar cheese…). It’s these moments where Cage explodes into life, sometimes too much as he is prone to doing, but he is effortlessly watchable in these moments as he charms, threatens, shoots, and dances his way through the scene. Kinnaman, on the other hand, is solid in a role that requires much less bombast and more subtlety and whilst the performance overall isn’t as strong, it serves its purpose well in the overall narrative. Visually, the film lends itself to a more grounded look, with Cage’s flamboyant appearance standing out against the film’s otherwise muted look, though it still retains a stylish aesthetic. Overall, Sympathy for the Devil is a satisfying watch that will please both Cage and genre fans, it's a very decent thriller that contains enough to remain gripping without ever threatening to break new ground.
Talk to Me
A24 // Directed by Daniel and Michael Philippou // Starring Sophie Wilde, Alexandra Jensen, Joe Bird, Otis Dhanji, Miranda Otto, Zoe Terakes, Chris Alosio, Marcus Johnson, Alexandria Steffensen
Daniel and Michael Philippou, creators of the YouTube channel RackaRacka, are best known for their comedy-drenched horror videos online, so it came as somewhat of a surprise that their debut feature Talk to Me was anything but a laugh-a-minute comedy-horror. Instead, the film dives into how grief and trauma can act as an all-too-tempting calling card for malevolent forces, or in this case, demonic forces. Mia (Wilde) is struggling with the loss of her mother and finds solace in her friends Jade (Jensen), Jade’s brother Riley (Bird), and boyfriend Daniel (Dhanji), so when one night they decide to participate in a seance involving a creepy embalmed hand, Mia unwittingly opens the door to real evil. Now, the premise sounds like one that has been seen time and time again, and, whilst its true that Talk to Me isn’t particularly original, it strips back the premise to its rawest form to focus on characters and some genuinely chilling scares and setpieces - sometimes simpler is better (in the most positive sense). The young cast all turn up to provide good performances, Mia Wilde carries the film confidently on her young and talented shoulders, having to switch between simply being a teen, anxiety, grief, fear, and more whilst Joe Bird is creepy as hell as Riley, who bears the brunt of the evil spirits' rage. Now, to the scares. The Philippou’s know how to craft atmosphere from a scene and use all the tricks in the box - except the god-awful ear-piercing music shrieks - to eke out a nasty tone pretty much from the get-go. The seance scenes carry real menace and images that will linger long after the credits, whereas the ‘possession’ scenes too just feel sinister, there’s less camp and silliness from the demon and more violent head-smashing, skull bashing, and blood licking - the visual horrors and practical effects are delivered excellently to achieve an unnerving tone throughout the breakneck ninety-minute runtime (a runtime that maybe could have been extended by a short period to allow for further exploration or for certain scenes in the latter half to breathe). The tone becomes so unnerving that I began to worry for the safety of the characters as if the events were genuinely unfolding on screen, such was the successfully grounded approach the film adopts and the fact that the filmmakers weren’t afraid to take certain…steps along the way. I do think certain aspects could have been developed further, but crucially the film isn’t interested in becoming bogged down with exposition regarding the infamous embalmed hand or its history, it just wants to scare you - a few nitpicks aside, I enjoyed this a lot. Talk to Me represents another fabulously grimy and effective horror from Down Under - it’s creepy, it’s nasty, and it’s bloody good.