Short takes: Support the Girls, Madeline’s Madeline, Mission: Impossible- Fallout & Searching

Support the Girls — Director Andrew Bujalski finds the perfect encapsulation of his vision of modern American capitalism in Double Whammies, the Hooters knockoff sports bar where much of his latest film, Support the Girls, takes place. The restaurant operates on bizarrely specific codes built on the unspoken transaction between its jean shorts and tight t-shirt wearing female wait staff and its horny (mostly) male clientele. Bujalski and his ensemble are astute observers of workplace behavior, notably the glimpses of personality that bleed through the faces the characters try to wear at work. Professionalism at Double Whammies means a constant smile, and a tiptoe up to a sexual boundary with customers that becomes awkward and uncomfortable very quickly.

That’s where Lisa (Regina Hall) comes in. Lisa is a compassionate, intuitive general manager, tasked with passing down the vision of the restaurant owner to the staff while also mediating conflicts between them and the sometimes insulting, sometimes worse customers. One of the many pleasures of Support the Girls is in how Bujalski and Hall show the toll patrolling that managerial tightrope takes on Lisa. Much of the movie is focused on a single day, following her on a series of menial tasks that she nevertheless executes with great purpose. Her job is a lonely one; she has to be friendly but not too friendly, stern but not too stern with her staff and customers. The exhaustion seems to be catching up to her, as evidenced by the way it washes over Hall’s face before she snaps out of it and onto the next task. Double Whammies doesn’t deserve someone like Lisa; in fact Bujalski suggests the restaurant and its customers don’t deserve many of its employees, either. Support the Girls finds its humor and quite a bit of emotional resonance in the matter-of-fact exploration of the everyday disconnect between how the employees interact with each other, and how they are trained to interact with customers. Grade: B+ 

Madeline’s Madeline– A swirling fever dream about the alchemy of performance, Madeline’s Madeline is both a stunning display of director Josephine Decker’s collaborative process as well as a disruptive interrogation of it. Decker and her lead actress, the newcomer Helena Howard, thrust viewers into the head of Madeline, a teenager battling mental illness who is also part of an experimental theater troupe. Pushed by the on-screen director Evangeline (Molly Parker, a self-lacerating on-screen surrogate) to incorporate her turbulent relationship with her mother Regina (Miranda July) into a production, the lines of her reality start to blur.

Decker (who also serves as one of the movie’s editors) and cinematographer Ashley Connor craft a frenetic visual design around Howard’s incredible lead performance, sometimes blurring and contorting the frame around her and other times observing her with a squirm-inducing clarity. The chaos of Madeline’s world leeches into her everyday home life (watch the fear in July’s face in a scene where Madeline’s brother taunts her at the dinner table) and more and more into her theater class. At first, it’s something Evangeline wants to bottle like lightning; she tells Madeline no one understands her work like her, and asks to use the teen’s dream of attacking her mother with an iron in a show. This sets up a series of increasingly intense power struggles, between director and star, mother and daughter, and most importantly the one within Madeline herself.  By the end she uses the trappings of theater to wrest control of her personal experiences away from everyone who tries to impose a narrative on them. In the process she performs a scene in character as her mother that shows just how much she has wounded her. It’s one of the most harrowing and heartbreaking scenes I’ve seen in a movie this year. Grade: A-

Searching– Searching is a desktop thriller that trusts its audience way less than the Unfriended films, opting to highlight its many plot twists multiple times to increasingly annoying effect. The story centers on David Kim (John Cho), a widowed father searching for his missing teenage daughter Margot (Michelle La). At first Searching seems a good fit for the laptop storytelling device, as he’s tasked by the lead detective on the case (Debra Messing) to search for clues about Margot’s recent activity through her social media presence. He ends up taking an unexpectedly deep dive into her digital life, uncovering a series of deceptions that panics and confuses him more than he already is.

Where Searching goes crucially wrong is in how it fails to fully utilize its computer conceit. Unlike Unfriended, which combines different video aesthetics on a static desktop display, director Aneesh Chaganty often cuts to a close-up of the portion of the computer screen where he wants you to focus. This skids the narrative momentum to a crawl and leads to annoyingly repetitive moments, such as showing a photo of two characters who should not know each other in a full computer screen view, then cutting to a close-up of the picture, then cutting to where we’ve seen a character in the movie previously. The premise itself is an entertaining  enough mystery, and Cho and Messing give engaging if fairly standard performances, but Searching can’t decide how much it wants to embrace its own concept.  Grade: C-

 

Mission: Impossible- Fallout — There’s a look that flashes across Tom Cruise’s face during one of several show-stopping action scenes in his sixth outing as secret agent Ethan Hunt. Hunched on a bathroom floor after a brutal throwdown, Hunt looks up at his target. His backup agent was just disabled, and he has to take them on on his own. In this moment the entire 20-plus year history of this character and the masochistic physical labor of bringing the increasingly elaborate spy games of the Mission: Impossible franchise to life briefly comes to the surface. Then, he charges.

On its own, Fallout is a well-oiled, delightfully absurd espionage tale, and director Christopher McQuarie ups the ante of his last M:I film, 2015’s Rogue Nation. The action sequences are some of the series’ best, notably a prisoner breakout in Paris that includes fleeing and eluding by motorcycle, car and boat. McQuarie’s practical use of effects, and his star’s cinematic death drive, lend the movie an urgency that I miss in many modern summer action blockbusters.

Though Cruise’s weary but determined agent is front and center, Fallout also features some deliciously memorable character work. Vanessa Kirby is a scene-stealer as an enigmatic power broker who is directly descended from another scene-stealing Vanessa in the first Mission: Impossible. Angela Bassett also has a brief but memorably acidic turn as a CIA head fed up with the IMF’s bombastic tactics. It’s she who insists that Hunt and his team are skating by on luck in the face of nuclear annihilation. Is she wrong? What gives the movie added resonance is that it doesn’t seem to know how many more times he can really save the day. Will we know before it’s too late? Grade: B 

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