Hello and welcome to the movie blog of author John DeFrank - FilmZ and Guy Sobriquet Malone - Researcher

Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace review by FilmZ

Director Debra Granik has made only three feature films in her 21-year career, which is unfortunate because she has a unique voice and eye, and she is a true feminist filmmaker.  Her tone is naturalistic, not quite documentarian, but her films elicit the sense that lives are unfolding before our eyes.  We are omniscient observers, close-up voyeurs, witnessing young female protagonists, dirt-poor and on the fringes of American society, as they strive to overcome existential threats.  They are in sink or swim situations, but where most modern films create viscerally satisfying fight scenes or bombastic verbal confrontations, Granik avoids such cheap externalized thrills.  Her heroines' tensions and turmoils are internal; they don't talk a lot; they don't act tough; they don't rush into danger with fists flying or guns blazing.  Granik's heroines sidle forward slowly but inexorably; as their challenges grow so do they, and they have grit and determination, quietly refusing to lose.

In Leave No Trace, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) is a 13-year-old living with her father Will (Ben Foster) in a public forest on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon.  They live in a tent for two, foraging for food, and scrimping pennies--they use a flint to start kindling to cook their meals instead of wasting precious propane.  They only walk into town when necessary, they move campsites frequently, and they practice evasion and concealment drills in case rangers show.  We learn that Tom's mother is no longer around, but back story is not what LNT is about; in fact, we only learn gradually that Will suffers from PTSD--a nightmare of a helicopter, strained reveries in private moments, selling his meds for the cash they need, and, of course, his withdrawal from society.

Then one day they are caught, and the two are separated as police and social workers try to sort out the situation.  Tom is questioned and tested by Jean (Dana Millican), a caring social worker who discovers that the youngster is intelligent and well-cared for by a loving father.  Meanwhile, Will, is undergoing a grueling battery of questions meant to assess his stability and parental adequacy.  At this point, the obvious plot move would be to have the system try to take Tom from Will, but LNT is not the obvious film.  Here, Jean sets up a job for Will, public schooling for Tom, and a pre-fab home.  Tom naturally takes to socialization, even meeting a boy, (Isaiah Stone) and going to a 4-H meeting; at the same time, Will's internal struggles deepen.  Forced interpersonal relationships and work responsibilities are bad enough, but his trauma reaches the tipping point when he is handed a stack of legal documents that will bind him and Tom to their new society.  After work one day, Will packs up and informs a reluctant Tom that they are fleeing back to the wilderness.  It is here where their paths begin to diverge.

In her directorial debut, Granik headed a team of writers and directed Down to the Bone.  That film gained recognition at Sundance and with the Film Independent Spirit Awards and brought then 29-year old Vera Farmiga to prominence.  Her performance caught the eye of Martin Scorsese, who cast Farmiga in The Departed.  It was six more years before Granik directed and adapted the screenplay with Anne Rosselini for Winter's Bone, which did even better on the awards circuit and was nominated for four Academy Awards--Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (John Hawkes), and it catapulted Best Actress nominee Jennifer Lawrence to stardom.

It follows that, in just two films, Debra Granik became known as something of an actress whisperer.  So, it should come as no surprise that comparison are drawn between McKenzie, an 18-year old New Zealander, and her predecessors. Comparisons may be unfair at this juncture, but the quiet intensity of her performance is certainly places her somewhere on the continuum with them.  But Granik pulls quality performances from all of her actors.  She is known to use non-actors to fill minor roles that bring texture and realism to her films, and she does the same here for scenes about beekeeping, and Christmas tree cutting.  She also brings along Dale Dickey an old hand from Winter's Bone to play Dale.  And in a combination of the two, Granik pulled Isaiah Stone, an Ozark local who played a part in Winter's Bone to play Isaiah here (Granik likes to call people by their names).  We've been saying for a couple of years now that Ben Foster risks typecasting as the hair-trigger crazy man, so teaming with Granik was a smart move.  Foster's Will is a man quietly being eaten from the inside out.  The only thing Will has in life is Tom, but as she grows, his protectiveness becomes a millstone to her, and he knows it.  Thus lies the crux of Leave No Trace.  As a film, it falls a little short of the rural noir classic Winter's Bone, but that's no insult.
8.0 out of 10 on an Artistic Scale

Mission: Impossible - Fallout, an Essay

Mission: Impossible - Fallout, an Essay by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

We have written this before, but it has never been more valid: regardless of what you think of Tom Cruise as an individual, the guy makes hellaciously entertaining action movies.  Mission: Impossible - Fallout is one of the best action films you will see this year, and it is arguably the best of the M:I series.  But before we talk about his latest hit, let's take a moment to talk about spy movies as a genre and provide you with an entertaining and informative link.

Spy movies come in two flavors: "Action" and "Cerebral."  Both can be excellent, but moviegoers need to be prepared beforehand for what they are about to see, especially "action" fans who show up at a "cerebral" spy film.  It's like walking into an arena, psyched to see the Warriors, and finding Bobby Fischer methodically working a chess board.   Suddenly, one must forego the expected adrenaline rush and engage patience, concentration, and "mind" in order to get the reward.  Some undeservedly well-placed film critics seem only capable of handling action type films, and they grade them on a much more lenient scale than they do a cerebral film--unless informed beforehand that said cerebral film is based on a classic book--and for reasons we've discussed in other essays, a critical mass of the filmgoing public turns off a movie if it requires them to turn on their brains.  One of the rarest creatures is a film that succeeds on both action and cerebral levels; the Matt Damon Bourne trilogy comes to mind.  Excellent films that have skewed toward the cerebral, like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; A Most Wanted Man; and Red Sparrow have suffered at the domestic box office--although it should be mentioned that all three of those films were highly successful overseas.  Draw your own conclusions.  In fact, all domestic top-grossing spy movies have been action-oriented.  Among that group are, naturally, the Bond, the Mission: Impossible, and the aforementioned Bourne films, most deservedly so, but ranked at number four on that list is the awful, The Fate of the Furious, whose $226 million doubled the combined domestic gross of the three cerebral films mentioned above.  Collider has compiled their rating of the best spy movies of the 21st Century so rar.  Follow the link below and then return for more about Mission: Impossible - Fallout:

All right, we're back.  Mission: Impossible - Fallout is most decidedly an action-type spy movie.  Christopher McQuarrie (who also wrote the screenplay) is the first director to return for an encore engagement in the M:I series after helming Rogue Nation.  In another series first, Fallout is a direct sequel to that film.  This is good news.  Fallout brings back Alec Baldwin as Alan Hunley, now Ethan's boss as head of the IMF, and Sean Harris as turncoat British Agent now terrorist Solomon Lane; even better, Rebecca Ferguson reprises her role as MI-6 operative Ilsa Faust, who provides both kickass counterpoint to Cruise's Ethan Hunt and also adds sexual tension to the mix.  They join in the fun with Ethan's core team, now winnowed down to two: Benji (Simon Pegg) a geeky tech expert, and Luther (Ving Rhames), a gruff tech expert.  Still around but pushed to the background is Ethan's erstwhile wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan), whose presence provides our protagonist's inner conflict, angst, and grounding.

Since Rogue Nation ended with Solomon Lane in custody, worldwide law enforcement and intelligence agencies have depleted the numbers of his Syndicate.  What's left is a hardcore group that calls itself the Apostles and has adopted the catchy slogan, "The greater the suffering, the greater the peace."  Three plutonium cores have gone missing, and the fear is that the Apostles want to bring that slogan to fruition, prompting the "mission, should you decide to accept it" tape to Ethan.  As the IMF swings into action, they are halted by the CIA Director (Angela Bassett), who informs them that her top assassin, August Walker (Henry Cavill) will be joining them.  And so they're off, Ethan and Walker--equal parts animosity and distrust between them--jump out of a plane at 30,000 feet into a thunderstorm, dropping in on a Paris fundraiser hosted by part-time arms dealer, full-time vamp, White Widow (Vanessa Kirby).  But first, they have to dispatch the guy that's supposed to make the plutonium swap with her, John Lark (terrific stunt man Liang Yang), in the process getting their butts handed to them in the best bathroom brawl this side of Bourne. Complicating matters, Ilsa shows up, refusing to tell Ethan why she's involved and refusing to tell Walker anything at all.

All of the chess pieces are now on the board and the plot is laid out, so we can continue in a series of crosses, double-crosses, IMF-patented false identities, good guys who are bad, bad guys who are good, and tracking devices.  Everything unfolds at a breakneck pace: car and motorcycle races the wrong way on one-way streets--is there any other way--through Paris, chases across rooftops in London, dogfights in helicopters between the mountain peaks of Kashmir.  Meanwhile, Ilsa saves Ethan's bacon while simultaneously attempting to fry it, Walker skulks nefariously, White Widow confounds, and Luther and Benji display their whiz-bang technology and problem-solve acumen, various law enforcement agencies are props, and if it weren't for the White Widow's stoogish brother Zola (Frederick Schmidt) we wouldn't be able to differentiate between her associates and the Apostles.  But that doesn't matter any more than the logic behind the solutions Benji and Luther come up with or how, after a series of random events--including a vehicle accident--Ethan can fall into his partners' waiting laps.

We don't have time to reflect on all of that, though; as soon as we get through one roller coaster loop we're banking into another.  We buy it because we want to buy it, because it is ingenious trickery, because so many cool and/or beautiful people are performing insanely fun stunts with such good-nature, but mostly because Ethan Hunt is the can-do iteration of Tom Cruise, who puts his 56-year old body through impressive tortures just to give us two hours and twenty-seven minutes of enjoyment.  He doesn't do it alone, of course.  His supporting cast is talented, and somehow, whether they have been around for a while or are new, all seem to develop chemistry with the star.  Off-camera, Eddie Hamilton's smash-cut Editing never misses a beat.  Rob Hardy's Cinematography captures both interior and exterior settings of Paris and London that travelogues either miss or overlook for their off-kilter beauty, and the outdoor location photography from Norway, New Zealand, and Kashmir make this a must see on the big screen.  Most impressive, though, are the filming of the parachuting plummet and the helicopter chase; those scenes had to be as dangerous to film as they looked.  The cherry on top is the pulsing Lalo Schifrin score that takes us back decades even as it immediately immerses us in matters at hand.  Finally, as the Czarina observed, be sure to check out the Fellowship of the Ring-type ending.
8.5 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale

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