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

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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+ 

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Short takes: Straight Outta Compton, The Gift, Mission: Impossible 5 & more

Straight Outta Compton

Straight Outta Compton – F. Gary Gray’s N.W.A. biopic is an occasionally thrilling chronicle of the rise of the West Coast hip hop group that sadly devolves into brand management.  That’s to be expected when the film’s producers, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, are also two of its subjects.  Straight Outta Compton is a wonderful showcase for its three core actors (Corey Hawkins as Dre, O’Shea Jackson Jr. as his father Ice Cube and especially Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E), but it could have been so much more.

Compton’s focus on police brutality is incredibly relevant, and the early scenes where the artists are subjected to violent, unwarranted stops by law enforcement are among its most powerful.  N.W.A.’s concert in Detroit, where they perform “Fuck tha Police” after being intimidated by officers before taking the stage, is filmed with undeniable urgency and energy, as is the follow-up where undercover officers charge the stage and arrest the group.

Like the other concert performance scenes, the energy of the crowd is contagious, and the movie’s biggest shortcoming is in its failure to address the female half of those excited crowds. N.W.A.’s misogyny is largely unconfronted, as is Dr. Dre’s abusive history with women.  This  has already been written about at length by people with more authority on the subject than me, but the watered down history of the movie’s second half is noticeable and hurts it.  Gray’s direction is beautiful and powerful in equal measure, and the sweeping images of ’80s and ’90s Compton — dirt bikes cruising down the street in the sunset, decked-out old cars bumping to music in the neon-colored streets, gangs uniting against police violence.  I can’t help but think there was more to tell here, though; that an unrestrained history, or even a 5-hour miniseries, would have done the story more justice.  Grade: C+

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Short Takes: Edge of Tomorrow, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Only Lovers Left Alive & More

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Edge of Tomorrow- This Tom Cruise action vehicle, directed by Doug Liman, is an occasionally thrilling summer spectacle.  Cruise plays Cage, a military talking head who is thrust into a world of combat that he isn’t prepared for.  The movie utilizes Normandy invasion imagery to ground its sci-fi trappings.  Cage is a man doomed to repeat the same beach invasion every time he is killed in combat.  He and Rita (a terrific Emily Blunt) are tasked with stopping the aliens from massacring everyone on Earth, restarting their mission every time Cage dies.

Liman keeps Cage’s repeating day varied, but occasionally indulges in redundant beach combat sequences.  The movie doesn’t develop its romance subplot well enough to create a satisfying payoff at the end, but Cruise and Blunt are reliably strong screen presences so it still sort of works.  Grade: C

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REVIEW: Oblivion

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Oblivion
Directed by: Joseph Kosinski
Written by: Joseph Kosinski, Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt (screenplay), Joseph Kosinski and Arvid Nelson (comic book)
Starring: Tom Cruise, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough and Morgan Freeman

Machines are typically a main enemy in science fiction narratives, often stand-ins for the mechanical processes of fascism or bureaucracy .  This is true both in front of and behind the camera in Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion, a dull, overdone futuristic movie that tries amicably to be more than the Tom Cruise vehicle it ultimately is.  It is so bogged down by needless special effects excess that its fine polish glosses over any semblance of life.

Set in 2077, Oblivion at first follows Jack (Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), two engineers who repair drones that guard resource mining operations on what’s left of Earth.  Of course the drones turn out to be evil, and Jack is forced to choose between helping those he once helped destroy (a pack of human survivors led by Morgan Freeman) or stay the course.  It isn’t really much of a choice, and neither the script nor the camera captures any rebellious spirit or sense of urgency.  There are a some well done firefights and amusing exchanges between Cruise and Freeman, but Kosinksi sacrifices all major opportunities for political commentary to indulge in them.

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REVIEW: Jack Reacher

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Jack Reacher
Directed by: Christopher McQuarrie
Written by: Christopher McQuarrie (screenplay), Lee Child (novel)
Starring: Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins and Werner Herzog

Tom Cruise, despite his kooky off-screen shenanigans, is a reliably lively screen presence.  He is a relentlessly physical actor, which is why franchises like Mission: Impossible have become his bread and butter.  With Jack Reacher he attempts, with varying degrees of success, to heighten his on-screen persona into that of a morally vague vigilante.

Reacher is a solid R-rated (or at least it should be) detective story based on a popular series by Lee Child.  Christopher McQuarrie, who adapted the script as well as directed, has some nice action set pieces to work with, but the movie is mostly built around making the star look good.  Action stars like Cruise, like the many cars his character here drives, are fast becoming vintage in the CGI era.  Here he is a blunt, no-nonsense “drifter,” a man who comes to the aid of those who need him and deals out justice how he sees fit.

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Debatable: Do most moviegoers dislike art movies?

Debatable, one of our newest series piloted earlier this year with a discussion on video-on-the-go, pins CyniCritics contributors together to tackle big picture movie-related topics through back-and-forth dialogue. The latest prompt asks editors if general movie audiences dislike art movies and if so, why.

Matt: I don’t think the “general public” is opposed to art movies in general. It’s mostly about distribution and marketing. The biggest marketing tool for successful art movies is the Academy Awards. However, the taste of Oscar voters leaves out many films that don’t fit into a specific mold or go too far away from narrative convention. That taste then translates to the public, who has limited choice and is more likely to look for stars or be influenced by a memorable trailer.

Luke: I think you bring up an interesting point with the Academy Awards as a marketing tool. There are countless art movies released in the year that find little commercial success until the holiday and awards season. Once the Academy, critics and marketing push a handful of “must-see” films, they start making a lot of money at the theaters because audiences feel these are good films they shouldn’t miss out on. No one would have seen Slumdog Millionaire without the buzz. Nominations and such also translate into good DVD rentals, which explains why Netflix’s top 10 rented movies are mostly Best Picture nominated films. Before then, people just don’t know what is good or don’t know how to find what is good and are too afraid to take a chance. This might explain why it’s easier to go see Mission: Impossible over Hugo. Continue reading

REVIEW: Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol

Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol
Directed by: Brad Bird
Written by: Josh Applebaum & André Nemec (screenplay)
Starring: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton and Simon Pegg

Tom Cruise commits his body completely to a role, often at the expense of character.  Many of his most iconic performances, including this long-running gig as Ethan Hunt in the Mission: Impossible series, have him performing all the major action hero duties at a break neck pace.

In this latest installment, tacked with “Ghost Protocol” instead of the number 4, Cruise performs the biggest stunts of the series yet.  Brad Bird, director of Pixar films like The Incredibles and Ratatouille as well as lesser known ones like The Iron Giant, makes his live action debut and is tasked with controlling this chaos.

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