The End of the Tour ***|****

The End of the Tour
Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel in The End of the Tour
Director James Ponsoldt follows up the tender and thoughtful The Spectacular Now with another intimate and insightful look at a relationship between two characters searching for a sense of meaning in one another. This time around, those roles are filled by Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) and acclaimed author David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel), who tragically took his own life in the summer of 2008. Covering a five day period during Wallace’s 1996 book tour for his gargantuan novel Infinite Jest, The End of the Tour focuses on the real life encounter between the two men as they discuss a myriad range of topics including the nature of fame, the sting of loneliness and the ever elusive metric of American achievement.

In this way, this film can really be thought of as one large conversation and on those terms, it succeeds quite well. The screenplay, adapted from Lipsky’s novel Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, is able to draw directly from the most notable exchanges between the two without feeling like it’s ticking off boxes on a thematic checklist in the process. The dialogue between Lipsky and Wallace is appropriately brainy, as it’s meant to highlight their  shared intellectual prowess, but it’s also grounded in the world of these characters and still comes off as sounding natural without being overly clever.

The two lead actors also do a fantastic job of adding layers of subtlety in their performances to keep the writing fresh and to keep viewers on their toes as well. Together, Eisenberg and Segel conjure up a competitive chemistry that is never quite made explicit but rather resides as a source of underlying tension between the two characters. There’s all sorts of insecurity and bitterness that frequently threatens to crop up mid-conversation but they’re both very deft at sublimating these impulses into something more meaningful or productive instead.

Lipsky and Wallace do participate in psychic and verbal sparring from time to time but ultimately, these two have quite a bit of respect and admiration built up between one another. They bond on superficial topics like fast food and popular music but they also relate on a more philosophical and spiritual level, discussing concepts of self-expression and modern entertainment with vigor and passion. Had they met under different circumstances, where the roles of interviewer and subject weren’t so clearly defined, it’s easy to imagine these two becoming close friends.

Nevertheless, the journalistic perspective is always in the forefront of this film. The tape recorder that Lipsky utilizes almost serves as the primary antagonist of the film, its red eye constantly surveilling their most intimate moments of conversation. It’s made clear that both men are doing their jobs: Lipsky is trying to find any new angle on Wallace that will give him an edge and Wallace is desperately attempting to conceal his bruised ego while assuming the role of a “normal guy” who just happens to be a brilliant writer. They never stop performing for one another, which makes their talks all the more riveting to encounter for the first time.

The Tribe **|****

The Tribe
The Tribe
“This film is in sign language. There is no dialogue, subtitles, or voice-over.” The opening text of the new Ukrainian film The Tribe reads as more of an ominous word of warning than a friendly footnote. It also turns out to be completely accurate: not only are the ensuing two hours devoid of any spoken word but the only audio present in the film is diegetic, meaning that there is also no musical score (music of any kind, really) or sound effects. It’s a punishing conceit, one that made for one of the most challenging movie-going experiences that I’ve ever had.

My analysis of the plot is entirely conjecture but I feel confident enough to relay a few basic plot points. We meet a young man named Sergey (whose name I caught in the end credits) during his first day of admittance into a run down boarding school for the deaf. He is swiftly initiated into what seems to be a pervasive crime ring made up of young men and women in the area, who spend their time assaulting strangers and looting from nearby homes. Eventually Sergey’s loyalty to the organization is called into question when he falls in love with a girl who sees him as a ticket out from their mutual life of corruption.

Director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s central thesis here is that film itself is a universal language and that by depriving the audience of characters that can speak openly, we are forced to desperately pick up any other visual cues in order to follow the narrative. Not only is that an exhausting proposition but it also presumes that the characters on-screen are compelling enough in their actions alone to warrant our attention. With no introduction, backstory or even names being offered, how much empathy can we really be expected to have for these kids?

It doesn’t even seem like Slaboshpytskiy has much concern for the characters or their disability either. With both the criminals and their victims being characterized as deaf, it’s hard to even read this as a metaphor for a power struggle between disadvantaged vs. advantaged parties. Devoid of context, their increasingly hostile behavior fails to justify itself and pushes the film’s already dark subject matter to intolerable bleakness.

All the more saddening is the cinematic skill that went into making such a dreary piece of work. The long takes helmed by cinematographer Valentyn Vasyanovych are frequently stunning in their composition and orchestration, while the acting from the cast of rookie actors is credible enough to carry an entire story that relies solely on their body language. It’s just not enough to make this depressing cinematic experiment much more than a sadistic curiosity.

The Gift **½|****

Joel Edgerton, Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall in The Gift
Joel Edgerton, Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall in The Gift

Australian actor Joel Edgerton makes his directorial debut with the slow-burn, psychological thriller The Gift, a film that builds up quite a case for itself until its clumsy climax manages to tarnish the memory of its well-devised setup. The script, also penned by Edgerton, does include an appealing level of ambiguity not often showcased in modern American movies but it also doesn’t do much to sidestep genre clichés that crop up periodically in the story. In some ways, it is a mature film with worthy themes but it also feels like it’s trying very hard to be a movie “for adults”, often delving into oppressive levels of self-seriousness just to keep a straight face.

We meet LA newcomers Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) as they move into their luxurious new home with the intention of starting a new life and with hope, a new family as well. While out running errands, a man named Gordo (Edgerton, again) introduces himself to Simon as an old classmate from his high school years ago and the two awkwardly exchange contact information. What started as an “accidental” run-in develops quickly into a one-sided relationship when Gordo continually drops by for unannounced visits and sneaks unexpected gifts onto their doorstep. Eventually put off by the “friendly” displays, Simon insists on Gordo vacating their personal lives but it becomes clear that the two have unresolved issues that Gordo intends to rectify by any means necessary.

The story and the film’s marketing hinge on this central mystery, the event(s) in the buried past of these two men that will ultimately lead to a climatic showdown. Edgerton does an admirable job in pacing the first half that leads to this moment and although the reveal is thankfully not done through blurry flashbacks or overwrought voiceover, its delivery is instead so underwhelming that I initially thought I missed out on all of the key information. It turns out that I didn’t; I was just expecting a revelation that matched the impact of its build up.

Despite struggles with the story, the performances by the three leads are excellently rendered and contribute to the near-success of this movie. Bateman turns in his finest dramatic work here, oddly enough by using similar notes from his type-A, straight man persona in comedic works to reveal depths of desperation and disrepair hidden right under the surface. Edgerton creates a character who is steeped in creeping menace but is still not beyond fleeting moments of pity, while the always reliable Hall lends a conflicted sense of emotional intelligence that raises the dramatic stakes early on.

It’s a shame that the second half and specifically the final 15-20 minutes are mishandled because there’s a strong foundation present here. If only Edgerton had stayed true to the characters instead of trying to contrive an ending intended to be shocking rather than haunting. I look forward to seeing what he does next but a few rookie mistakes kept me from graciously receiving The Gift.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation ****|****

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

For almost 20 years now, the Mission: Impossible series has distinguished itself by involving various high-profile directors for each entry, all of whom bring their own unique set of sensibilities to the table. From the non-stop cliffhanger approach of JJ Abrams to the cartoon-inspired setpieces of Brad Bird, each film feels like a director’s self-contained argument on how to create the perfect action movie. Christopher McQuarrie, of Usual Suspects fame, steps up for the fifth entry in the franchise and makes the strongest case yet by creating the most outrageously entertaining and consistently enjoyable M:I movie in the series.

We rejoin IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) as he finds himself at odds with the Syndicate, a shadow organization comprised of ex-operatives from intelligence divisions across the world. One of its members, Ilsa Faust (newcomer Rebecca Ferguson), is a perpetually elusive femme fatale type who forms a makeshift alliance with Hunt based on mutual interests. Along with returning IMF recruits Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames), Hunt must stay one step ahead of the Syndicate’s head Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) as he attempts to create a new world order, one violent act at a time.

As is typical, the plot is an elaborate excuse on which to hang extended action setpieces that move the story along at a reasonable pace. While there’s nothing in this movie that quite equals the masterful, series-best Burj Khalifa sequence of its predecessor, it does contain about 4 or 5 exquisitely well-crafted action scenes that come very close to besting it. Advertising of the film has focused on the opening sequence, which literally has its star Tom Cruise hanging off the side of an airplane mid-flight, but the most pleasant surprise is that none of the other sequences feel like a letdown by comparison.

It should go without saying at this point that Tom Cruise gives everything that he has to these movies. At 53, he’s pulling off stunt work that actors half of his age would be proud to accomplish. His dedication and commitment to the increasingly ludicrous demands of the M:I movies is not only admirable but it also goes a long way in selling his performances each time out. When we know that it’s truly Cruise holding his breath underwater for minutes at a time or careening through highway traffic helmet-less at top speeds on a motorcycle, it creates a thrilling sense of peril that just can’t be matched.

I should note that I also saw this film in both digital IMAX and “true” 70 mm IMAX formats and I would highly encourage readers to seek it out in either form. Not only is the visual experience vastly expanded but the sonic quality is much more sophisticated and powerful than what the common movie theater offers. No matter which way you choose to see it, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is top-notch entertainment, proof that an action movie made at the highest level can be a true work of art.