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‘Mission: Impossible – Fallout’ Is One of Action Cinema’s Greatest Peaks




Despite all the talk of immersive cinema, new technologies that are meant to make film more immediate and grand, perhaps no movie franchise is more immersive than the Mission: Impossible films. The newest, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, is the strongest and most exhilarating entry in a series that is remarkable for its level of quality. You can see it on a giant screen (as you should), or you could go to one of those silly theaters where the chairs shake like some disappointing theme park ride, or you could project it in completely unnecessary 3D — no matter the circumstances, once Fallout gets going, it takes control of your adrenaline and pumps it mercilessly. The comedown, that feeling of exhausted calm that occurs at the conclusion of the film’s most intense set pieces, is so intense that you’ll almost feel like you were the one hanging off the edge of a cliff.

Thanks to a mostly talented crew of writers and directors, plus the presence of a lead actor who seems to have no limits to what he’s willing to do for the camera, the Mission: Impossible franchise found a sweet spot between the hammy fun of old James Bond movies and the breakneck thrills of the best suspense films. Instead of Bond’s casual sexism and womanizing, gadgetry and masks take the fore. Cruise, seemingly one of the most fearless actors ever, tempers the series’ silliness with his commitment to stunt work. By doing so many of his own stunts, the camera is able to follow him intimately. We see the (possibly real) look of fear on his face as he accomplishes these feats, and it’s hard not to feel like we’re right there with him. While watching Fallout, I had the thought in the back of my mind that everything would work out, because of course it always does in these films. The great strength of Fallout is that telling this to yourself doesn’t ease the tension even one bit.

Mission Impossible 6 Fallout

Aside from its quality, Fallout is unique among the M:I films — it’s the only one that serves as a direct sequel to the previous entry, Rogue Nation (2015). There has always been a limited amount of carryover, mainly in the presence of Ving Rhames (the only actor to appear in each film besides Cruise), but the recent films have begun to toy with a greater sense of continuity and cast members that appear in multiple films for further character development. Since Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol (2011), all seem to be of a part; this separates the earlier films from the later, more organic entries.

Like most entries in the franchise, a McGuffin sets the story in motion. Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is on the trail of three orbs of plutonium being sought out by a quasi-religious doomsday cult known as The Apostles. Their story is one of the few disappointing parts of Fallout, a capitulation to the current popularity of plots about villains who wish to reinvent the world by first destroying it. It’s an understandable choice for writers to make — by giving your villain the false sense that they’re actually saving the world, it helps to humanize them. But this trope has worn itself out now, reaching its logical extension in this year’s Avengers: Infinity War. It’s time for film writers to reexamine their villains. Bad guys don’t need to be understandable to be compelling, nor do they need to be motivated by false nobility. People commit horrible crimes every day for far less grandiose reasons.

It’s a movie that is so successful that it calls the future of the franchise into question. Where can they go from here? How can they top this?

Luckily, The Apostles want to free Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), a far more intriguing evil doer introduced in the previous film. Cruise, along with most of the returning cast, must try to capture Lane and the plutonium, even as they’re pulled in separate directions. Making matters more complicated is the presence of the CIA. The agency’s director (played with detached cool by Angela Bassett) has sent the ridiculously named August Walker (Henry Cavill) to ensure that Hunt stays on task. Cavill is a woefully wooden actor (sometimes he makes Superman seem downright relatable), yet his imposing figure is put to great use in the action sequences.

Mission Impossible 6 Fallout

Christopher McQuarrie, who both writes and directs, has taken a different tack from Rogue Nation, which he also helmed. There’s a greater focus on Hunt’s inner life and his feelings for his wife, Julia (Michelle Monaghan), as well as Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), the assassin who fascinates him. There are multiple dream sequences that delve into Hunt’s feelings, and Cruise displays a tenderer version of the character than we’ve ever seen. McQuarrie and cinematographer Rob Hardy also favor a darker palette, even more so than the previous film (shot by the great Robert Elswit). It’s reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s remake of the Batman series. McQuarrie and Cruise don’t go so far as to make Hunt a brooding figure obsessed with the past, but they at least inject a bit of emotional depth where previously there was none.

But more than anything, what makes Fallout so compelling is its elegant structure. McQuarrie’s writing features some real clunkers (as it did on the last film), but his sense of structure has only gotten stronger. Every action set piece has to be larger and more momentous than the previous one — not just in terms of the action, but also the stakes. Somehow the film finds all the right moments to ramp up the tension, yet it also knows just when to cool things down and give us a breather. It’s worth comparing Fallout to J.J. Abrams’ misbegotten Mission: Impossible III, which actually contracted during the final action sequences, ending with a whimper. Here, Cruise performs one of the most astounding sequences of his career to cap the film off.


With Fallout, it’s clearer than ever that the Mission: Impossible films now fall into two distinct epochs: the auteur films and the journeyman films. The first three are all inextricably tied to their directors — Brian De Palma, John Woo, and Abrams. De Palma’s gonzo paranoia, Woo’s balletic fight scenes, and Abrams’ inexplicably shaky camera are all unmistakable signatures. The three films are the work of three different directors trying to make their mark. The latter three films are more anonymous, but also more tightly controlled. Bird is a director with a distinguishable style, but he casts it aside for the very well made Ghost Protocol. McQuarrie does similar work with his two entries. There’s no obvious visual or auditory clue in the films that they’re directed by McQuarrie, but his sense of timing and build-up is so impeccable that it doesn’t really matter. Still, it’s hard not to wonder what the future of the franchise might be if they let a real auteur back into the fold, one who not only has their own distinctive style, but also has a commanding understanding of action and tension. Imagine what might happen if Steven Soderbergh were to take over, a director with style to spare, and a keen understanding of both experimental and commercial cinema.

But that’s a film that doesn’t exist, whereas Mission: Impossible – Fallout is quite real. It’s a movie that is so successful that it calls the future of the franchise into question. Where can they go from here? How can they top this? For the time being, though, let’s just celebrate this ode to the power of adrenaline.

Brian Marks is Sordid Cinema's Lead Film Critic. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, LA Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and Ampersand. He's a graduate of USC's master's program in Specialized Arts Journalism. You can find more of his writing at Best film experience: driving halfway across the the country for a screening of Jean-Luc Godard's "King Lear." Totally worth it.

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Let’s Remember Why ‘Tremors’ is Still So Good

The monster movie that breaks new ground.



Tremors Movie Review

Tremors, 30 Years Later

Thirty years ago, this week, one of the best Hollywood films of 1990 was released.

Tremors didn’t make a big splash in theaters. The film ended up grossing $16,667,084 at the domestic box office, which while making a profit due to its $11 million budget, was still below projected numbers. To be fair, this was a film about carnivorous subterranean worms— and it didn’t help that it was dumped in the cold of winter during what is arguably the slowest time of the year for the box office. Thankfully, however, Tremors found a second life on VHS where it became one of home video’s biggest success stories. More importantly, Tremors become a beloved cult hit.

The Script

Much has been said about the cast of Tremors which I’ll get to shortly, but what stood out the most watching it again, is the screenplay from S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock, who both previously penned Short Circuit and Batteries Not Included. Sure, Tremors is a B movie, but it also boasts a tightly-knit script in which every scene; every action; every story beat; and every line of dialogue sets up a chain of events that gives every character a motive and reason to react the way they do. And despite one poorly executed sequence (I’m referring to the pole-vaulting montage), Tremors is a lean, mean movie without an ounce of fat to be found anywhere else.

Tremors Pole Vaulting Scene

The plot isn’t complex per se, but there’s something oddly comforting in the simplicity of it all. Tremors takes place in the Nevada desert near a small town called Perfection with a population of only 14 residents who are left to defend themselves against the deadly subterranean creatures. It’s the perfect setting for a monster film since the town itself is isolated. And with only one road leading to civilization, the openness of the desert landscape enhances the desolation of it all. And since the town of Perfection is so far removed from the rest of society, it soon becomes clear that nobody will ever come and save them. Instead, the townsfolk must work together; overcome the odds, and destroy the creatures. And when that fails, they must attempt to scale the rocky mountaintop where the worms are unable to travel underground. It’s getting there that becomes the problem.

Val and Earl - Tremors

Val and Earl

At the heart, and at the center of the eccentric cast of characters is Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward playing Valentine McKee and Earl Bass, a pair of modern-day cowboys working as handymen who become would-be heroes when they stumble upon the shock-sensitive killer worms. Over the years, the two actors have become less renowned for their comedic roles, but Tremors if anything, showcases their talent and range. And while Kevin Bacon with his sexy smile and pretty boy looks is by far the biggest star; it’s their irresistible chemistry that brings their characters to life. They make such a great comedic team and if you replaced Ward with any other actor at the time, there’s no guarantee that Tremors would have been this much fun to watch.

In fact, the two actors work so well together that Fred Ward provides a much better foil for Kevin Bacon than Finn Carter’s Rhonda, a.k.a. the underwritten love interest who is assigned to travel to the town and monitor the seismology readings in the desert. Not long after Rhonda arrives, the people in the town start disappearing – or worse, they end up dead, leaving very little time to establish any chemistry between her and Val— thus making the big kiss, in the end, feel a little out-of-place. But don’t blame the screenplay writers— the original ending of Tremors featured Val and Earl riding off into the sunset, with no hint at any potential romance between Val and Rhonda. Unfortunately, test audiences were not pleased and somehow the producers convinced the filmmakers to quickly reshoot the final scene— just another one of many examples of why studios should not rely on any focus group to provide feedback. In the end, the love interest feels somewhat lost in the shuffle.

Tremors Kevin Bacon and Finn Carter

The Gummer Family

It doesn’t take long before it becomes apparent that there’s something unnatural roaming the desert and feeding on human flesh. Once Rhonda checks her readings and determines that the threat is coming from underground, Tremors begins to slowly open up and introduce us to the supporting cast which includes Reba McEntire and Michael Gross as the Gummer family, a pair of overzealous, gun-crazy survivalists. McEntire and Gross are so good here, they essentially steal the spotlight from the rest of the cast. In one of their most memorable scenes, the two are forced to take shelter in their basement and defend themselves against one of the giant man-eating worms— and just when it looks like they are going to run out of ammunition, the camera pans left to reveal the bunker holds enough guns and firepower to accommodate a small army. It’s just one of many examples of how Tremors takes a simple concept and maximizes it for full effect.

As much as Tremors is remembered today for the performances of Bacon and Ward, it’s the work of the entire cast that brings the movie to life. It really is great casting considering the small budget, and everyone pulls their weight, serving up the quick-witted dialogue in a way that makes it all feel more natural– and yes that even includes Robert Jayne as the annoying teenage brat, Melvin Plug. I especially like the performance by Victor Wong, a character actor who had roles in films like 3 Ninjas and Big Trouble in Little China. Here he plays the ill-fated Walter Chang who is killed in a scene that features some of the film’s best special effects.

Director Ron Underwood

Tremors was the first movie Ron Underwood directed and by far his best. Now known as a go-to director for many successful TV shows, Underwood keeps things moving briskly and finds new clever ways to draw out tension with impressive camera work, especially the shots that show the point of view of the creatures as they stalk their victims. Along with Cinematographer Alexander Gruszynski, Underwood frames his exterior shots in a way that constantly reminds viewers how small the town is and how isolated it is. It’s also worth noting how difficult it is to shoot a horror movie outside in the middle of the desert where you can never truly escape the sunlight, and yet director Ron Underwood uses the setting to his advantage and frames his actors in such a manner that the landscape emits a general feeling of emptiness, which both mirrors the town’s small population and the people themselves who are desperate for a change.

Tremors evokes the populist spirit of ‘50s and ’60s B-movies without ever resorting to parody, nor does it ever feel familiar. Instead, Underwood reinvigorates its genre tropes with a finely balanced combination of horror and humor— and despite its tongue-in-cheek script, Underwood never allows it to venture into full-on camp. There is tension and suspense in every one of the action scenes and like many classics that came before it, Tremors focuses less on its oversized monsters and more on their victims and how these people react to attacks by these giant creatures. Even in the bright daylight, Tremors manages to create enough suspense to keep viewers at the edge of their seats.

Tremors 1990

Creature Design

Apart from taking inspiration from classic monster movies, Tremors owes a lot to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws— so much so, that the original title for Tremors was actually Land Sharks. Much like how the shark in Jaws travels underwater while stalking its prey, in Tremors, the 30-foot-long carnivorous worms known as Graboids, travel underground. And like Jaws (arguably the quintessential B movie), the creatures in Tremors are rarely seen. Instead, the largely invisible creatures can burrow fast enough to devour the entire town if given the opportunity— making them deadly and genuinely menacing.

Another clever inclusion by the screenplay writers was the idea to have these Graboids respond to seismic vibrations. While blind and unable to track their prey’s scent, they do have acute hearing, which means any slight movement or sound can cost you your life. In arguably the best scene of the entire film, Kevin Bacon’s Val is left to stand completely still and silent while the worm-like creatures who circle his feet reveal their razor-sharp fangs as they desperately search for their next victim.

Tremors 1990 Michael Gross

It’s a credit to the creature design that I never once questioned the reality of the Graboids. Along with a team of over 50 visual effects wizards, the filmmakers were able to bring their creations to life with a mix of old school prosthetics, animatronics, and computer-generated imagery. Tremors may be at times funny, but this isn’t the sort of film that has viewers pointing at the screen and laughing at obviously cheesy effects. Make no mistake about it: the monster effects by Tom Woodruff and Alec Gillis (who previously worked on Alien and The Terminator) is truly impressive, especially given the limited budget they had to work with.

Tremors Creature Design


The one and only aspect of Tremors that I’ve never liked was the music heard at the start and at the end of the film. To my surprise, I later learned that composer Ernest Troaost’s musical score for the film went mostly unused since the studio didn’t like it and, later they hired composer Robert Folk to write a new score. Only a few of Troost’s country-themed songs made it into the final cut and sure enough, they are the songs I dislike. That said, Folk’s compositions perfectly match the visuals and heighten the suspense during the film’s most action-packed scenes.

Tremors 1990


Tremors wasn’t in any way groundbreaking since it borrowed liberally from many other monster movies, yet somehow the film became such a hit, that it spawned four direct-to-video sequels (Tremors 2: Aftershocks, Tremors 3: Back to Perfection, Tremors 5: Bloodlines and Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell)— a direct-to-video prequel (Tremors 4: The Legend Begins), and even a television series. More so, the success of Tremors resulted in many copycats but none of them (save for James Gunn’s Slither) have been able to perfectly match the potent mixture of sharp dialogue, deadpan humour, and horror.

It’s easy to see why Tremors ultimately became a success and why it remains a fun and engaging experience, decades later. The plot is fully realized constantly keeping things exciting. It has plenty of spectacular set-pieces, thrilling action scenes, and plenty of quotable throwaway dialogue. Along with the charismatic cast, superb direction, great script and terrifyingly real effects, Tremors stands the test of time. Many have tried to match Tremors but most have ultimately come up short. Movies like this come around once every few years.

  • Ricky D
Tremors Movie Anniversary
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The Career of Tony Scott and His Influence on the Film Industry



The Career of Tony Scott

In the late 1970s and 1980s, composer Giorgio Moroder was often accused of trying to replace the orchestral movie soundtrack with high-energy, synthesizer-heavy disco-pop laid on with a trowel in movies like Thank God It’s Friday (1978), Flashdance (1983), Scarface (1983), and Top Gun (1986). I remember a magazine story on Moroder which quoted one of his many critics as saying, “The day the music died, Giorgio Moroder was brought in for questioning.”

I think some people had the same opinion about movies and Tony Scott. Full disclosure: I’m one of them. But it would be greatly unfair to Scott, who died in 2012, not to admit that, for good or for ill, his 1980s feature work had an enormous impact on commercial filmmaking.

The younger brother of Ridley Scott by seven years, he was gifted – like his brother – with an outrageously good eye; a taste for the visual strong enough to earn him his master’s degree from London’s Royal College of Art (which he’d attended on scholarship no less). But painting didn’t pay well, so he joined with his brother in Ridley Scott Associates where, from the 1970s into the 1980s, he applied that eye to moving pictures, directing thousands of commercials, some of them still-talked-about all-time classics in the U.K.

His first feature was the visually sumptuous, dramatically wispy attempt at erotic vampirica, The Hunger (1983), and it was such a lambasted flop it’s a surprise Scott’s feature career didn’t end right there. But three years later, producer Jerry Bruckheimer tapped him to direct Top Gun and movies would never be the same.

It was a perfect marriage of sensibilities (along with Michael Bay, Scott would remain one of Bruckheimer’s go-to directors). Bruckheimer, whose youthful interest in photography had led him to his own career in commercials before turning to movies, had the same affinity for striking imagery as Scott.

The timing of the union was just right, too. MTV was only five years old, and the non-stop near-abstract visuals of music video were not only still hypnotically novel, but on their way to becoming the defining visual sensibility for a new movie-going generation. With Giorgio Moroder (another ideal wedding of sensibilities) supplying a Pop’s Top Ten-nish soundtrack, Scott put together montages that were, essentially, music videos woven into the narrative of the film (some critics carped that the whole movie was little more than an extended music video).

Top Gun 1986

Striking visuals, a pulsing, toe-tapping score, and a super-patriotic story that made a hero of a young, cocky, mouthy, go-my-own-way fighter jock made for a flick which hit a big, fat sweet spot with MTV’s first generation of ticket-buyers: Top Gun scored a whopping $176.7 million domestic. I did the math: at today’s ticket prices, that would translate to almost $390 million. Love it or hate it, you have to respect that kind of box office muscle.

Top Gun set the template for Scott: high-octane visuals, rapid-fire editing (often at the hands of Chris Lebenzon), an MTV-friendly soundtrack, and a story simple enough to absorb without having to pay too much attention.

It also set the template for so many of the box office winners of the next few decades, movies that moved fast, piled on the action, featured characters who were often little more than catchphrases with biceps, offered music video fodder (at least back when MTV still played music videos), and where plausibility – even under Hollywood’s extremely elastic definition of the concept – was irrelevant. Think Lethal Weapon, Speed (1994), Twister (1996), and anything by Michael Bay.

The Career of Tony Scott

Though his brother Ridley often took the same rap of favoring looks over substance, their styles, though both highly visual, were strikingly different.

Ridley’s films — good and bad – play out like classical music: stately, elegant, unrushed, somber.

Tony’s movies are rock ‘n’ roll: fast, loud, exhausting, sometimes painfully bright.

It’s hard to imagine Tony doing something as subdued as Ridley’s Napoleonic-era The Duelists (1977), or even pulling off the brooding sci-fi Gothicism of Alien (1979). By the same token, Ridley would have seemed a poor fit for Top Gun or all the running back and forth in Crimson Tide (1995).

Despite being regularly slammed for his storytelling, Scott did care about plot and character. Explaining the failure of Days of Thunder (1990) – Top Gun cloned to the NASCAR circuit – Scott diagnosed the problem as having started production without a finished script. “(You) always have to get a story,” he said, “and you’ve got to get character first…”

Tony Scott's Days of Thunder

But it wasn’t a sentiment that quite squared with his execution. In an Entertainment Weekly story about a trending flimsiness in big-screen storytelling, The Fan (1996) screenwriter Phoef Sutton told the story of shooting the movie’s climactic baseball game in a torrential downpour. Sutton and others tried to argue Scott out of it pointing out that baseball games are called on account of such weather. The rain stayed. Said Sutton: “…I don’t think Tony cared about the plausibility of it.”

In his later years, he seemed to be trying to reach for the kind of substance his early films were often accused of lacking, but he remained better at taking a good picture than giving it meaning. Enemy of the State (1998) was entertaining enough, but it was like Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) with the poetry removed and replaced with explosions and chases; Spy Game (2001) was an anemic John LeCarre wannabe; The Taking of Pelham 123 replaced the local color which had made the original so memorable with a needlessly busy yet flavorless plot.

Like his brother, Tony also produced, and in those projects, one could sense an ambition to do something of substance. There were such laudable efforts as the HBO movie RKO 281 (1999) about Orson Welles’ fight to make Citizen Kane; The Gathering Storm (2002), another HBO feature, this about Churchill’s attempts to prep England for WW II; Gettysburg (2001), a cable documentary about one of the most pivotal battles of the Civil War; and the lovely, elegiac (if sadly little-seen) Western, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Though Scott would continue to turn out some respectable earners in his later years (Déjà vu [2006], The Taking of Pelham 123, Unstoppable [2010]), after the 1980s, he’d never hit Top Gun heights again, and, in fact, after Beverly Hills Cop II (1987) only ever crossed the $100 million domestic mark one more time with Enemy of the State (1998). Perhaps the problem was that Scott’s eye-tickling rat-a-tat-tat style had, by the 1990s, become so widely copied that his often dramatically weak films had little else to offer; the trendsetter had become just another member of the pack.

But give him this. Few filmmakers make a lasting impact. Most directors and most films come and go, cinematic mayflies fluttering around the box office for a few weeks before disappearing. The same can’t be said of Tony Scott. Love ‘im or hate ‘im, it’ll be a long time before anyone forgets him.

– Bill Mesce

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Sundance Film Festival

Sundance Film Festival 2020: Five Movies to Watch Out For



Sundance 2020: Shirley

The Sundance Film Festival released its impressive and imposing lineup of feature films for 2020 back in December. Unlike other festivals that cater primarily to art films or to major releases from established auteurs, Sundance’s lineup is comprised primarily of smaller independent films, especially American releases. In the past, the festival has been criticized for anointing middlebrow films with an almost messianic force; many of the movies that were labeled “Sundance sensations” are now forgotten, or their titles are spoken of with the derisive air of regret. Maybe it’s the altitude that makes critics particularly loopy.

Though there’s plenty of truth in those critiques of Sundance, they’re also somewhat misguided, as every year features dozens of stunning and adventurous films, even if they’re not the ones getting the most ink. With that in mind, I’ve selected five of the many upcoming features worth checking out at Sundance 2020.

Sundance 2020: Downhill


One of the best films of the past decade was Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure (which he followed with the equally brilliant but polarizing The Square). The pitch-black comedy followed the misadventures of a Swedish family vacation in the French Alps. Early on, when an avalanche heads toward the outdoor deck where the family is enjoying breakfast, the father bolts, leaving his wife and children in the avalanche’s path. Luckily for them, it doesn’t quite reach the lodge, but the couple are left to simmer in the knowledge of just how delicate their bond really is, and how easily it might be snapped.

Östlund’s film was equal parts disturbing and hilarious, and a new remake written and directed by Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (along with co-writer Jesse Armstrong) might just give the original a run for its money. Rash and Faxon previously co-wrote and co-directed The Way Way Back, and co-wrote The Descendants with Alexander Payne, so they’ve proved a mastery over satire and a detached yet humane style of comedy.

Still, it’s the cast that’s the biggest draw for Downhill. Will Ferrell is set to play the husband, and it will be fascinating to see whether he tries something different with a more reserved performance that mirrors the original, or something more wildly comedic. Julia-Louis Dreyfus’ work on Veep in recent years ensures that she’ll be hilarious and piercing as the wife, and the Silicon Valley scene-stealer Zach Woods also rounds out the cast. It may not top the original, but Downhill will still be one to pay attention to.

Sundance 2020: Kajillionaire


Miranda July’s first two features, Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) and The Future (2011), rank among my favorite films from the last two decades. Therefore, the promise of a new July film is cause for celebration as far as I’m concerned. July steps back and only writes and directs Kajillionaire, which stars Evan Rachel Wood, the great Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger, and Jane the Virgin’s Gina Rodriguez. Wood, Jenkins, and Winger play a family of grifters who allow a young woman (Rodriguez) to join their clan, only to set everything topsy-turvy.

There’s not much more to go on than that, but if Kajillionaire is anything like July’s previous films, it’ll feature a healthy dose of near-surreal humor and achingly personal connections. It’s a shame that the director won’t be acting in this one, as she was so arresting in The Future and last year’s Madeline’s Madeline. The cast as assembled features an intriguing mix of actors, and July is likely to coax something profound out of them. Her first feature took off at Sundance, and it seems possible she might make a repeat performance.

Sundance 2020: The Last Thing He Wanted

The Last Thing He Wanted

Director Dee Rees is another former Sundance sensation, whose 2011 film Pariah won the Excellence in Cinematography award at the festival. Her previous film, 2017’s Mudbound, made its way to Netflix and netted the writer and director her best reviews to date. Her previous films have often dealt with intensely personal subjects of race and sexuality, but now Rees is branching out into something new: a political thriller based on the novel by the legendary writer of all trades, Joan Didion.

The Last Thing He Wanted stars Anne Hathaway as Elena McMahon, a political journalist assigned to cover the 1984 U.S. Presidential election. But her plans are ripped to shreds when she’s forced to put everything on hold to care for her dying father (Willem Dafoe). Along the way, she’s swept up into a world of intrigue and conspiracy as she takes over for her father as a Central American arms dealer. Ben Affleck also co-stars as Treat Morrison, a U.S. government official who becomes entangled with Elena in the course of his oversight.

The original novel isn’t as fondly remembered as Didion’s early novels (or any of her non-fiction work), but it seems particularly suited for the present day, when the U.S. has once again been accused of meddling in Latin American elections while American weapons fuel armed conflicts across the globe.

Sundance 2020: Shirley


After a very good 1960s adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House and a very bad ‘90s version, Shirley Jackson’s most famous novel got a Netflix series adaptation that had little to do with the book, and was great and abysmal in equal proportions. Though The Haunting and the short story collection The Lottery are among her most popular works, Jackson didn’t only write horror, and even when she was writing something darkly suspenseful, she seemed more interested in interrogating the malignancies festering with families.

Josephine Decker’s new film, Shirley, seems to focus on that broader view of Jackson’s writing. Elisabeth Moss stars as the writer, while Michael Stuhlbarg plays her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman. When a young couple moves in with Shirley and her husband, she begins to use drama created by their interactions as fodder for a new novel.

I didn’t love Decker’s rapturously received Madeline’s Madeline (2018) as much as others, though I consider Butter on the Latch (2013) and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014) among the decade’s best. Decker is a master at charting a mind’s unraveling, whether it belongs to a young woman obsessed with becoming an actor, or a farmhand pursued by a demented farmer’s daughter. The question with Shirley is whether it’s the eponymous writer doing the unraveling, or the young lovers unlucky enough to feel safe in her presence.

Sundance 2020: Possessor


Director Brandon Cronenberg is the son of that other famous Cronenberg, so perhaps it’s not surprising that he would also share an interest in questions of identity and the nature of our own bodies. His sophomore feature, a follow-up to 2012’s Antiviral, stars the chameleonic Andrea Riseborough as Tasya Vos, a corporate assassin of sorts who is able to temporarily implant her consciousness in the minds of regular citizens in order to get them to carry out assassinations for her. But when a mishap finds her stuck in the mind of a man (Girls’ Christopher Abbott), his mind threatens to swallow up her own.

Antiviral has become a cult horror classic of sorts in recent years, which makes Cronenberg’s second feature of great interest. And as long as his dad isn’t making movies, it might be the next best thing. But it’s the stellar casting of the film’s leads that is of most interest to me. Riseborough is never anything less than fascinating, even when she’s cast in bad movies. In the span of less than a year, she gave a hilarious turn as Stalin’s daughter in The Death of Stalin (2017), the doomed title character in Mandy (2018), and a disturbed woman posing as a couple’s missing daughter in Nancy (2018). Similar to Tilda Swinton, simple changes of clothing and hair can make her almost unrecognizable, which means every performance is imbued with a sense of discovery. Christopher Abbott has shown himself to be a mercurial presence on Girls, as well as in James White (2015) and It Comes at Night (2017), but he’s often stuck in smaller roles that don’t let him show off the extent of his talents. Any movie that can pair these two actors is worth checking out.

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