REVIEW: ‚ÄúMission: Impossible – Fallout‚ÄĚ

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What started as a successful but slightly schizophrenic pet project has evolved into one of my very favorite movie franchises. Aside from the common thread of their high-profile star, the first three “Mission Impossible” installments couldn’t feel more different.¬†It was mainly due to having three¬†very different directors, each with their own unique stamp. While I enjoyed each of them to varying degrees, it was still tough to put a finger on what the series wanted to be.

That started to change with “Ghost Protocol” from director #4 Brad Bird. It put pieces in place and set the table for director #5 Christopher McQuarrie and what would be the best “MI” movie to date.¬†“Rogue Nation” not only felt connected to its predecessor beyond Tom Cruise’s presence, but it was incredibly well made and left audiences with a much clearer vision of what the franchise is shooting for.

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Fans of “Rogue Nation” rejoice. Christopher McQuarrie breaks the¬†revolving director trend and returns for “Fallout”, a movie that ups the ante in terms of breathtaking action yet still tells a thrilling story that well serves its fabulous band of characters.

McQuarrie has been working towards “Fallout”, building¬†its framework for several films now. He did uncredited rewrites for “Ghost Protocol”, co-wrote “Rogue Nation”, and handles the entire script for “Fallout”. This is his baby and he knocks it out of the park. Of course Cruise returns along with mainstays Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg. Also¬†back is Rebecca Ferguson who debuted and stole the show in “Rogue Nation”.

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In a prologue 56-year-old (but far from looking it) Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is informed that three plutonium cores have been stolen by a terrorist group calling themselves The Apostles. They are an offshoot of the Syndicate (see “Rogue Nation”) ran by a mystery man named John Lark. Ethan calls in his IMF cohorts, the neurotic Benji (Pegg) and easy-going Luther (Rhames), to help regain the cores, but the mission goes awry and the plutonium heads to the black market.

Ethan is able to track the plutonium to Paris where a transaction is set to take place near the Grand Palais. Before he can head that way freshly christened CIA Director Sloane (Angela Bassett) orders him to take along Agent Walker (Henry Cavill), a CIA ‘observer’ and Sloane’s own personal “hammer”. Basically he’s¬†sent to make sure the mission succeeds whatever the cost. As Cavill says in his wriest and driest voice “That’s the job.”

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If you follow the series you know the story can’t possible stay in one location. In addition to Paris we make stops in Belfast, London, even Kashmir (played by Norway). Along the way we get a white-knuckled motorcycle chase around the Arc de Triomphe, a foot race across London rooftops (which actually resulted in Cruise breaking his ankle), a mind-blowing helicopter duel through the snow-capped mountains of Kashmir, just to name a few. The action sequences are nothing short of exhilarating, mostly done through traditional stunt work and practical effects. The touches of CGI make a handful of scenes even more breathtaking. And what’s best is McQuarrie shoots them with visual coherence. No indecipherable shaky cams and quick cuts. It’s something to behold.

But “Fallout” is more that credits-to-credits action. McQuarrie threads these sequences together with a classic-style spy story full of twists, double-crosses, intersecting plotlines and of course¬†one big nuclear threat. In the middle of it all is returning¬†“Rogue Nation” baddie Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), an anarchist with a¬†personal axe to grind with the¬†current world order and with Ethan Hunt. His two-headed mantra “The greater the suffering, the greater the peace”¬†is just as much directed at¬†Ethan as to the world system. Adding another kink¬†is the resurfacing of Ilsa Faust (Ferguson), once out of the game but now back in and with her own mysterious agenda.

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McQuarrie moves us through his wonderfully knotty plot at a crackling pace, tossing us¬†enough twists and turns to ensure¬†there is no¬†downtime¬†for¬†measuring if every piece lines up perfectly. But it’s smart enough to keep us locked in and constantly guessing. And Cruise remains the heart of the franchise. His¬†insane physicality and¬†daredevil willingness to risk life and limb for every shot has never been more evident. But it’s the¬†character-centric moments that speak volumes. He’s still a vulnerable hero, even a bit na√Įve. And more than any other “M:I” installment, “Fallout”¬†centralizes his unshakable moral code as key component of not just this film but the entire series.

“Mission: Impossible” continues to be¬†the rare film franchise that actually gets better with age. “Fallout” makes no attempt to reinvent the wheel. Instead it takes the best elements of its predecessors and then cranks the dial past 10.¬†Cruise and company’s¬†ability to consistently up¬†their game has culminated in this action movie masterclass that earns every ounce of acclaim it’s getting. Knowing their history I’m definitely onboard for more. But¬†if the next movie’s mission, should they choose to accept it, is to top “Fallout” it could truly prove to be impossible.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

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5star

REVIEW: “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”

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After a couple of shaky early installments the “Mission Impossible” franchise seems to have found its stride. Personally I’ve never considered any of the films bad, but a couple definitely showed a dip in quality. But 2011’s “Ghost Protocol” gave the series a new and stable identity. It was an action-packed blockbuster anchored by an entertaining story and an almost self-deprecating sense of humor. Now we have the fifth film “Rogue Nation” which embraces everything right about its predecessor and then elevates it.

Say what you want about Tom Cruise but he is an actor who has redefined himself and he remains successful because he knows who he is at this stage of his career. His Ethan Hunt character in “Rogue Nation” perfectly encapsulates his current state. Gone are the cheesy “Top Gun” grins, the “Risky Business” dances, and the “Jerry Maguire” flamboyance. In this film Ethan is still an IMF super agent, but he is also overmatched, fragile, and often dependent on others. It’s a refreshing approach that makes Ethan less of a superhero and more of a human being.

The story begins with two separate battles taking place. The first is before a Senate oversight committee. CIA Director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) is seeking to shut down IMF due to their reckless and damaging tactics (see the Kremlin from the last film as an example). Agent Brandt (Jeremy Renner) defends the group but to no avail. IMF is shut down and all field agents are to be placed under CIA control.

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But Ethan Hunt is involved in another battle – a covert operation intended to expose a global crime consortium known as¬†the Syndicate. Ethan is lured into a trap and captured¬†by the Syndicate’s mysterious leader Solomon Lane (deviously played by Sean Harris). But an equally mysterious British operative named Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson) helps Ethan escape without revealing her reasons or motives. Convinced more than ever that the Syndicate must be stopped, Ethan sets out to stop Lane while avoiding the hounding CIA and determining which side Ilsa is fighting for.

Cruise has a lot of input into these films and he wisely surrounds himself with quality filmmakers. Christopher McQuarrie directed, wrote the screenplay, and is a regular collaborator with¬†Cruise. You may remember he won an Oscar for writing the brilliantly verbose¬†“The Usual Suspects”. Here his script features the adrenaline-fueled action sequences, but it also services its characters with good dialogue and smart humor. Then there is the wonderful cinematographer Robert Elswit, an Oscar winner for his work on “There Will Be Blood”. His camera never frames a bad shot and it never lands in a bad place. His action scenes may be the biggest treat particularly an exhilarating¬†car and motorcycle chase through the streets of Casablanca.

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Getting back to the story and particularly Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, I can’t say enough about how refreshing it is to see this type of lead character in this type of movie be so dependent on others. So many cliches and overused tropes are tossed aside to give us a more human Ethan Hunt even amid his crazy stunts and top-notch spy work. We repeatedly see him being rescued or him relying on the strength and wisdom of others.

This is mostly seen in his relationship with Ilsa. So often she bests him and at other times she saves his life. He’s no knight in shining armor. Actually I think it could easily be said that Ilsa is the toughest character in the film. Cruise’s performance often highlights her strengths. Plus it helps to have such a great performance from Rebecca Ferguson. What’s best about their relationship is that McQuarrie and Cruise don’t force a run-of-the-mill¬†romance on us. I kept waiting for the movie to strike that all-too-familiar note. After all this is Tom Cruise, right? Instead the film deviates from yet another overused story development which was so satisfying.

There are so many other things I could say about “Rogue Nation”. I could talk about the beautiful locations and the global feel. I could talk about the rest of the supporting cast and the strong work they do. I could talk more about the story and its aversion to cliches while still being a big budget blockbuster. Instead I’ll just say “Rogue Nation” is a very good movie from a franchise that doesn’t always get the credit it deserves. It definitely rises about most of the other summer tent pole pictures we’ve seen. Now bring on MI:6.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Blue Jasmine”

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Each year has its share of certainties: we grow a year older, we have to pay our taxes, my sports teams disappoint me, and Woody Allen puts out a new movie. Now that doesn’t mean that every one of Allen’s films are masterpieces (ala “Midnight in Paris”). In fact some of them are just dreadful (ala last year’s “To Rome with Love”). But one thing about the bad ones, you always know the next film is only a year away. And maybe, just maybe, Allen will land one of the real gems he’s capable of making.

Here’s the good news – “Blue Jasmine” is one of the good ones. This character study touches on a number of subjects from business ethics to family troubles to rabid consumerism. At the center of it all is a captivating performance by Cate Blanchett. She plays Jasmine Francis, a New York socialite whose posh lifestyle collapses when her crooked husband is arrested and loses their fortune. Penniless and without a place to go, Jasmine flies to San Francisco and moves in with her estranged working-class sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). It’s here that she must learn to start a new chapter of her life or drown in her despair of leaving the affluent upper crust.

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To go further, Jasmine is a wreck. She’s coming off of a nervous breakdown, she pops anxiety pills like candy, and she has an affinity for heavy drinking. She still carries her spoiled and privileged attitude which clashes with her new destitute reality. And all of this is brought on by her lousy husband. We see the events leading to Jasmine’s fall from luxury through several cleverly incorporated flashbacks. We watch her husband Hal (Alec Bladwin) and his penchant for women and shady business deals while she lives in a diamond-studded state of na√Įvet√©. She’s content with living high on the hog while asking no questions whatsoever. That proves to be a costly mistake, both mentally and monetarily.

Jasmine’s snooty ego doesn’t fit well with the circle of people she is introduced to in San Francisco. This class clash is the prominent focus for most of the film. This is also where we meet the film’s fantastic assortment of side characters. Hawkins is great as Jasmine’s kindhearted sister and I really liked Bobby Cannavele as her blue-collar beau hunk boyfriend. We get Michael Stuhlbarg as a lovestruck dentist and Peter Sarsgaard pops up as a wealthy businessman with political aspirations. But the biggest treat was Andrew Dice Clay. Yes you heard me, Andrew Dice Clay. Gone is the loud obnoxious standup routine. Here he plays a humble, hard-working fellow that you can’t help but sympathize with. And it’s all because of the unbelievable turn from Dice Clay. He was completely natural and restrained. Brilliant work.

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But the true star is Cate Blanchett who undoubtedly gives one of the year’s finest performances. There are bits of subtle humor that are sprinkled in throughout her story. But she’s more of a sad, self-destructive woman who has no sense of direction or belonging. Blanchett visualizes her struggles through every fidget, every bead of sweat, and every outburst. She’s not a likable character by any stretch but she’s simply mesmerizing. Blanchett gives a performance that is getting some Oscar hype. Personally I think it demands an Oscar nomination.

It’s clear that “Blue Jasmine” was influenced by other films. For example if you listen closely you can hear “A Streetcar Named Desire” passing in the distance. But Woody Allen has always been a filmmaker who treasures inspiration and when he is on his game he can truly deliver. This is really good material handled by an excellent cast including a surprise performance from Andrew Dice Clay and some of the best work of Cate Blanchett’s career. “Blue Jasmine” may not stay with you for a long time nor be considered among Allen’s very best by the bigger fans of his work. For me it really worked and it’s definitely good Woody Allen.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

“TO ROME WITH LOVE” – 2 STARS

I’ve never been a big Woody Allen fan. But my appreciation for his filmmaking grew with last year’s amazing “Midnight in Paris”, a¬†fantastic film that was wonderfully written, genuinely funny, and purely magical. Allen’s European tour continue’s with “To Rome With Love” yet another romantic comedy taking place in one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. “To Rome With Love” is a collage of individual stories about a number of different people and their relationships, their predicaments, and their quirks. It starts by capturing some of that same magic that made “Midnight in Paris” such a strong film but the second half of the¬†movie¬†runs off the rails and the result is an uneven and ultimately disappointing result.

The different unconnected stories battle for screen time and all start on the right track. In one, Haley (Allison Pill), an American tourist visiting Rome meets, falls in love with, and is soon engaged to a local hunk named Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti). After her parents fly over to meet his parents, her father (Woody Allen), who compares his recent retirement to a premature death, thinks his career is rejuvenated¬†after discovering Michelangelo’s shower singing father (Fabio Armiliato). In another story, Roberto Benigni¬†plays a mundane and predictable husband and father who suddenly becomes the object of immense fame and notoriety over nothing more than what type of underwear he wears and how he likes his toast.

In yet another story Alec Baldwin plays John, a middle-aged architect back in Rome visiting the neighborhood where he once lived as a young man. He bumps into Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), a young architect living in Rome with his girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig). Their relationship is strained when her best friend Monica (Ellen Paige) flies in to visit from the states. John follows Jack around everywhere sounding off warnings about his budding relationship with the flakey Monica. And then there are the reserved small-town newlyweds (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi) who arrive in Rome where the husband hopes to get a job from his wealthy family. Through several off-the-wall events, the two are separated in the city and each find their love for the other challenged by the people they meet including a  prostitute played by Penelope Cruz. This was easily the weakest story of the four.

These four storylines stay within their own individual walls and they never intersect with each other. As I mentioned they each start strong and Allen packs a lot of good laughs particularly the first half of the movie. At first I really thought Allen was doing something clever and crafty with the four stories. The film addresses an interesting array of issues and the characters are actually quite¬†intriguing up to a point. But things begin to slowly turn sour and not only does Allen’s story¬†fly wildly out of control but many of his characters become pretty pathetic individuals¬†who depict the movie’s warped and cynical view of love, devotion, and relationships. Several of the characters are faced with sexual temptations and ultimately fall prey¬†to them, some with almost no meaningful struggle of conscience. Other storylines become preposterous which is ok if you’re going somewhere with it.¬†And while¬†I definitely laughed at some of the over-the-top gags, keeping my loosely attached interest intact ¬†hinged on the idea that Woody was doing more with these self-indulgent characters and outlandish situations than what we were seeing. As it turns out he really wasn’t.

As I’m sure you noticed, Allen still has a knack for attaching great talent to his productions. There’s not a bad performance in the entire film and the actors almost pull it off even when the material goes south. Woody Allen himself delivers some of the film’s biggest laughs while portraying the same neurotic and pessimistic character as in his other roles. Speaking of neurotic, but on a much smaller scale, I also really enjoyed Eisenberg’s performance as well. But the biggest star of the film may be the city of Rome itself. Allen truly has an affection for Rome and he goes to great lengths to show its history, beauty, and romantic charm. While Rome certainly doesn’t take on main character¬†status as Paris did in “Midnight in Paris”, it’s¬†still¬†a key ingredient in giving the movie the romantic vibe its shooting for. In fact, for me the movie loses most of its sense of romance with the exception of the charming city that’s present in almost every scene. Even when I was growing detached from the stories, Allen’s camera would capture a location in Paris that sucked me back in.

“To Rome With Love” is truly a story of two halves. The first half of the movie was an absolute blast even though some of the four stories were more interesting than others. But in the second half of the movie I sat in the theater noticing that I hadn’t laughed in some time. As I slowly lost interest in the characters I began noticing that Allen really wasn’t going anywhere with the film. There’s no clever or memorable twist. It spits and sputters to its finale and by the end I was asking myself how Allen could have made two halves so totally different. I also wasn’t all that interested in Allen’s seemingly loose ideas of love, fidelity,¬†and trustworthiness and in this case it hollowed out his characters with the exception of those in Haley and Michelangelo’s story. For some, the spectacular location and the number of funny moments will be enough to carry the picture. But for me it was terribly uneven and it ends up tearing down everything it itself creates. In fact, “To Rome With Love” feels like a film that needed another year of writing and production. The rushed results were nothing short of disappointing.