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Mission: Impossible – Fallout (Christopher McQuarrie, 2018)
Who would have thought over two decades after its initial film inception that Mission: Impossible would still be going strong with a sixth installment? Fueled primarily by Tom Cruise–a man who continues to put himself in real danger for our pleasure–the Mission: Impossible series has shifted slowly toward showcasing stunt after stunt and ditching any self-seriousness to its benefit. With Fallout, the series continues to be as light as it is heavy. Yes, the fate of the world is at stake. No, that doesn’t mean we’re not going to crack jokes, put on masks, and have helicopter fights.

It’s a Cruise showcase from the get-go, though that isn’t to say that supporting members like a marvelous Henry Cavill don’t get their shining moments. But Fallout sidesteps any genuine interest in character for the sake of action. It’s there where the scripting relies a little too heavily on audiences having seen and remembered past installments, assuming we care as much about characters and plot points long past to fuel the narrative. But when it drops all pretense of caring about the plot, director Christopher McQuarrie brings nothing but gold.

There’s magic in the way McQuarrie sets up and executes every set piece in the film, whether that’s jumping out of a plane from 25,000 feet (caught with an IMAX camera strapped to a photographer’s body), an extended hand-to-hand fight scene in a pristine bathroom, or an extended battle between two men on two separate helicopters traversing mountains with a machine gun. Paired with small-scale fights and riveting chase scenes, Fallout rarely features a lull in its storytelling. Though it’s not quite the permanent rush from start to finish that Mad Max: Fury Road is, its few moments of exposition and manifesto readings aren’t enough to slow down a film as truly exciting as this one.

The Square (Ruben Östlund, 2017)
Force Majeure, Ruben Östlund delivered a comedy about fragile masculinity and its impact on a relationship. The Square, then, doubles down on that humor, creating a world of absurdity out of the mundane in a way that would have delighted Luis Buñuel. As a film entirely dedicated to finding levity in the banality of being in the art world, The Square is often dripping with second-hand embarrassment for the privileged protagonist at its core. The handsome Claes Bang plays museum director Christian as the perfect clueless man, an individual who doesn’t pick up on how his decisions and his general lack of awareness impact those around him.

Östlund navigates a string of absurdities–from having a performance art piece go wrong to awkward sexual encounters to blowing up a homeless child for media attention–without ever betraying the realism of this world. He’s a filmmaker who understands that humor and tension can go hand in hand, and The Square proves utterly nightmarish at times. It could easily be argued that, much like Force Majeure, the film doesn’t quite know how to end, but it makes the two hours and change leading up to the end an absolute treat.

Beach Rats (Eliza Hittman, 2017)
Much like
It Felt Like Love, Eliza Hittman lets her camera gaze into the world of a young adult trying to figure themselves out in Beach Rats. Rather than a young woman, this time it’s a young man with internalized homophobia. Frankie (Harris Dickinson) is a queer boy who spends his days hanging with a collection of New Jersey fuckboys who vape and loiter, and his nights cruising cam sites for older men. The camera lingers over bodies and faces, Dickinson’s sad blue eyes and soft lips never hardening even though he’s dealing with mountains. Hittman frames him as full of remorse for all of his actions, particularly misleading men and women alike, as well as himself.

New Jersey is depicted as a world that’s beautiful and dangerous, where characters aimlessly wander through without much purpose. Themes of coming of age, sexual danger, and familial hardship feel less concisely explored here than they did in It Felt Like Love. Strands of development between Frankie and the women in his life (played by Madeline Weinstein and Kate Hodge) could have easily been expanded upon in lieu of aimless fucking around. Hittman understands queerness enough to nail certain aspects, though. The importance of touch, of gazing, of obscuring oneself, and of how much of life is performative is all there, but it feels like the film doesn’t have much to say other than performative heteronormativity is bad.

The film was also preceded by an animated short film, New Balls Please, about tennis players who toss their hair, remove their shirts, and fellate bananas to one-up each other. It has nothing to say outside of using queerness to emphasize male competitiveness and aims for laughs, but isn’t particularly funny. 

Thor: Ragnarok (Taika Waititi, 2017)
Thor: Ragnarok is a film built on the ashes of its past; a film surprisingly unique considering it requires the viewer to have seen every installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date due to constant self-reference. It’s director Taika Waititi’s humor that does the film its greatest favor, at times playing out like a sitcom about a family at odds, indulging in the soap opera of the gods and all their dirty secrets. At its best, Ragnarok leans in hard on this, milking every bit of humor out of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), as well as the family Thor has created for himself with others, including Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). As good as the trio is at physical comedy, it’s the supporting cast (from Tessa Thompson to Jeff Goldblum to Cate Blanchett) who steal the show.

Ragnarok stumbles in the development of its villain and any characters on the fringe of The Protagonist. This is less a complaint specifically aimed at Ragnarok (though its waste of an enjoyable Blanchett performance is especially aggravating), and more aimed at the MCU as a whole. Every time the film remembers there’s a plot to service, it betrays all the casual world building it’s done. To say it’s a film bursting with color and life isn’t a stretch, with an aesthetic that feels like what a kid in the 80s would have designed his future to look like. And it works.