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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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: “Star Trek Into Darkness”

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One of the most talked about films of the 2013 summer movie season is undoubtedly the J.J. Abrams blockbuster-to-be “Star Trek Into Darkness”. It’s the sequel to the wildly popular 2009 semi-reboot of the beloved sci-fi franchise which won over casual movie fans and Star Trek faithfuls alike. It’s definitely no surprise that we get a sequel. The first film of this new series insured that by raking in just under $400 million. Paramount pictures is certainly expecting to exceed that with this new installment.

I’ve had a pretty rocky relationship with the first film from Abrams (you can find that review HERE). After seeing it for the first time, I left the theater with a lukewarm reaction. A second viewing confirmed some key problems I had with the movie and my overall opinion of it dropped. But in preparation for “Into Darkness” I gave the first film a third and fourth viewing. The issues I had were still there, but my overall experience was more enjoyable and I found myself more and more excited for the sequel. But that excitement came with caution. Would Abrams tone down on the popcorn movie modernizations and give us something that feels like a Star Trek movie? Also, could “Into Darkness” avoid the common sequel traps that we’ve seen over the years? Those were my biggest questions.

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One of the best things about the first movie was the amazing opening. It was pretty basic tablesetting but it was done so incredibly well and it instantly pulled the audience in. I can’t say the “Into Darkness” opening offers that same pizazz. The movie begins on an the Class M planet of Nibiru. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Bones (Karl Urban) are being pursued by indigenous undeveloped natives while Spock (Zachary Quinto) is lowered into an active volcano whose eruption threatens to destroy the planet. It’s a loud and bombastic sequence which comes across as a little clunky. It wasn’t terrible but it didn’t feel like a Star Trek scene and the visuals went from jaw-dropping to glaringly obvious CGI. I instantly began to worry.

Yet while I found the opening a little sluggish, as the movie progressed I noticed the important little nuggets nestled in those opening scenes which ended up playing big parts in the plot. It’s also here where we see that Kirk is still cocky and careless as evident by his numerous rule violations during the Nibiru mission. After breaking the Prime Directive and attempting to lie about it, Kirk loses his captain’s chair on the Enterprise. We also witness a series of violent terroristic events centered around a mysterious member of Starfleet known as John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). Kirk finds himself desperate to get in the fight as Starfleet Admiral Marcus ( Peter Weller) begins the hunt to bring Harrison to justice.

“Into Darkness” still has some of the same problems as the first film. The Spock and Uhuru (Zoe Saldana) romance still feels bland and tacked on. Some of the big fight sequences feel like anything but Star Trek. And Abrams again tries to modernize things with some gags that land with a thud and a smattering of pointless profanity. But here’s the big part I’ve been anxious to get to. While these issues are there, the movie really gets its legs after the first act and the story takes off in what I found to be a brilliant direction. Fears relieved, worries extinguished!

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Abrams gets back to what makes Star Trek such a beloved property. It’s the characters, their relationships, and their interactions. It’s the Enterprise, not just as a ship but as a vital character to the story. It’s the strategizing and trial-and-error planning. Abrams gives us doses of enthralling drama without the need of big action sequences, something Star Trek is famous for. But don’t worry, there’s still plenty of action and it’s truly spectacular especially during the last 20 minutes. There was a head-scratching question or two during the finale and it was a bit jarring to see one character act a certain way, but I was able to backburner that due to the tension-soaked high stakes and the stunning special effects. I was on the edge of my seat and the whole time I was thinking “This is the kind of Star Trek I can latch onto”.

It also helps when you have Cumberbatch playing such an interesting villain. Or is he a villain? He’s such an enigma and we’re trying to figure him out right along with Kirk and his crew. Cumberbatch is fantastic with his surprising physicality and deep, menacing voice. I have to admit, I wasn’t that familiar with his body of work but he certainly grabbed my attention here. I also think Chris Pine gives a better performance this time around. He seems to have a stronger grasp of his character and he’s spared some of the nonsense he had to do in the first film. Quinto is still the embodiment of Spock. Abrams knows the relationship between Kirk and Spock is principal and he gives them plenty of screen time together. It’s smart because the two provide us with some of the movie’s best scenes.

I also enjoyed seeing Karl Urban’s role expanded. He’s still there for comic relief but his character is actually treated with more respect this time. I also thought John Cho was given better material here and he nailed it. And I enjoyed seeing Bruce Greenwood return as Christopher Pike. Simon Pegg’s Scotty was also given a bigger role but for me it was a ‘take it or leave it’ performance. Alice Eve is another newcomer whose character is mainly there to serve a key plot point and to allow Abrams to show a woman in her underwear. Other than that she was pretty disposable.

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“Into Darkness” is an improvement over the first film and it sets a very interesting landscape for the films to come. There are clever and pleasing little tips of the hat to the old series scattered all through the movie. Whether it’s a specific sound only Trek fans would recognize or a particular fluffy little creature that we briefly see, I caught myself smiling at all the cool stuff I recognized. But there’s a lot more here than just nostalgia. Unlike so many sequels, this movie goes in a sharply original direction while at the same time tinkering with certain classic story arcs. This not only makes for a convincing alternate reality within the film, but it provides some top-notch science fiction entertainment.

“Into Darkness” is ‘Star Trek for the masses’ and it still hasn’t completely cured all its ailments, but it¬†was a huge step forward in my book. I’ve talked about the solid performances, the amazing special effects, and the classic Star Trek flavor. But I could go further. I could talk about the strong score, the brilliant cinematography, the tighter script, and the near perfect editing. This film gets it right on so many levels. 15 minutes into this movie I was thinking I was in for a long, grinding ride. 15 minutes after the movie I was dying to see it again. I just love it when a movie catches me by surprise and then blows me away. Such was the case here.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Star Trek” (2009)

Star Trek PosterThe summer movie season is off and running and one of the year’s most talked about releases is due out in a few days. I’m talking about “Star Trek Into Darkness”, the J.J. Abrams sequel to his 2009 reboot of the franchise. With so much hype and anticipation swirling around the new movie I thought it would be a good time to go back and revisit the first installment, a much loved film that I had pretty mixed feelings about. Would a second viewing give me a better appreciation for what Abrams and company were able to accomplish or would it simply reaffirm my initial frustrations with the movie?

First off, attempting to relaunch or reboot the Star Trek franchise is a pretty hefty and gutsy task. Perhaps only Star Wars’ fan base eclipses the passion and devotion of the group affectionately known as “Trekkies”. Tinkering with and altering the beloved universe first created by the late great Gene Roddenberry would be the equivalent to playing with fire and one would assume this was high on the list of the filmmakers’ considerations. Well I’m no Trekkie and I’m not as well versed in Star Trek lore as many, but I have say I’m surprised that more diehard fans didn’t have issues with the liberties and modernizations we see here. More on that later.

“Star Trek” is constructed as a completely new franchise launcher. It creates its own world beginning with the origin stories of the popular Star Trek characters Captain Kirk and Spock and telling how they and the crew came together through Starfleet. The film actually begins with a bang. A flashback shows the federation starship USS Kelvin investigating a lightning storm anomaly when it encounters a huge Romulan mining vessel converted to a warship. A battle breaks out forcing the Kelvin’s first officer (Chris Hemsworth) to evacuate everyone from the ship including his pregnant wife. He then manually flies the Kelvin into the mammoth enemy vessel causing a distraction so the escape pods can get away. This hero’s name was George Samuel Kirk.

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The USS Enterprise

The movie then fast-forwards and puts the spotlight on his son James T. Kirk (Chris Pine). He’s grown up to be a rebellious and rambunctious sort who is challenged to enter Starfleet by Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), the Captain of the USS Enterprise who served with his father. While at the academy he befriends Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban), flirts with Uhuru (Zoe Saldana), and gets off on the wrong foot with Spock (Zachary Quinto). But in a familiar story turn that we’ve seen in everything from “Top Gun” to “Starship Troopers”, the cadets are forced into action when a distress call is made from Spock’s home planet of Vulcan. Through this we’re introduced to other familiar characters including Sulu (John Cho), Scotty (Simon Pegg), and Chekov (Anton Yelchin).

Eric Bana plays the rogue Romulan Nero who we see in the opening and who pops up later to serve as the main antagonist. He has a serious bone to pick with Spock and his revenge-fueled presence poses a major threat. Aside from the normal franchise origin stuff, this tiff between Nero and Spock is a big part of the story. There’s also the story of Jim’s evolution from an immature, self-centered hothead into a responsible, heroic member of Starfleet. All of these strands are woven together pretty nicely and the film moves through them with better pacing than I originally remembered. There are also some fantastic special effects and a cool new Enterprise with an impressive modernized bridge that I thought looked great.

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The USS Enterprise crew

But there were some issues I originally had with “Star Trek” that unfortunately didn’t go away with a fresh viewing. First, I know this is a relaunching of the Star Trek franchise and some of it is aimed at the action-starved audiences of today. But to me there were times where this didn’t feel anything like a Star Trek movie. There were certain scenes that felt so jarringly out of place yet perfectly in tune with the film industries affection for ‘Hollywoodizing’ their big movies. Again, I understand that Abrams and company are showing their new vision but I wish they would have trusted or cared more for the Star Trek formula. But honestly, while it’s still an issue, it didn’t seem to bother me as much during this viewing.

Another issue I still have is with the handling and redefining of some of the characters. I don’t know if it’s just an attempt to force in a fairly underwhelming romance or if it’s simply political correctness, but I wasn’t crazy about Uhuru as a bigger character while McCoy, an important character in the original series, is reserved for comic relief. Maybe it’s because the romance between Uhuru and a certain crew member feels shallow and tacked on. There’s nothing wrong with Saldana’s performance but her role is pretty flimsy. Karl Urban does some great work channelling his best DeForrest Kelley. Even though ‘Bones’ is written almost exclusively for humor, Urban is fantastic and it’s a shame he was given something meatier to work with.

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Eric Bana is Nero

My revisit also verified one thing and clarified another. Zachary Quinto as Spock is by far the best bit of casting in the movie while Chris Pine left a better impression this time around than before. Quinto nicely sells Spock through his tone, mannerisms, and pitch-perfect deliveries. Pine ends much better than he begins. In the first half of the film he’s pretty hard to digest but as his material gets better so does his performance. In fact, overall I found him to be better than I remembered. I can’t really say the same for Pegg’s Scotty or Yelchin’s Chekov, but both of their issues dealt more closely with how their characters were written.

So now the big question. Did my time away from “Star Trek” change my perception of the film? Did this fresh look at the movie provide a better experience? I would have to say yes but only slightly. “Star Trek” is still a film with a handful of flaws. At times it tries to be too hip, too cute, and too modern at the expense of those proven elements that make “Star Trek” great. On the flip side, I did find myself enjoying and embracing more of what Abrams and company were doing. This was a better experience and my anticipation for the next movie has grown. I just hope for a more focused script with less corn and a little better handling of its characters. If that happens “Star Trek Into Darkness” could be a real treat.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

“THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN” – 3 1/2 STARS

Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson’s “The Adventures of Tintin” has been in the works for close to 30 years. Spielberg first purchased the rights in 1983 but¬†the main filming didn’t actually begin until 2009. Jackson produced and Spielberg directed this animated motion capture film based on the immensely popular comic book series from Belgian artist Herge.¬†While the Tintin¬†character is most popular in Europe, Spielberg and Jackson hope the broader exposure will result in a least two more films. There’s certainly nothing in “The Adventures of Tintin” that¬†should discourage a sequel. But there’s also several things in the film that keep it from being as good as it could have been.

In many ways “The Adventures of Tintin” is an old-fashioned¬†adventure with a shiny modern coat of paint.¬†It’s a classic style, simple and straightforward adventure yarn that at times feels like an Indiana¬†Jones treasure hunt picture. But it’s the cutting-edge motion capture and CGI animation that instantly catches your eye. The¬†character’s gorgeous¬†three-dimensional renderings are incredibly realistic but with just a touch of cartoony style. The animation also¬†features an incredible level of detail. It’s seen¬†in everything from the¬†various¬†around-the-world locations¬†to the fantastic period recreation.¬†“Tintin” is a visual treat and there’s no doubt you’ll enjoy the steady barrage of eye candy found throughout the film.

I mentioned that¬†“Tintin” is simple and straightforward and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But I did have a few issues with the story. The movie starts with Tintin¬†purchasing a model ship from a vender at an outdoor market. There is practically no introduction whatsoever and it seems like the movie expects you to already be familiar with the character. As someone unfamiliar with Tintin, all I¬†learned¬†is that he’s¬†a journalist and adventurer and his best friend¬†is his white dog Snowy. After buying the ship¬†Tintin¬†is immediately approached by two individuals who try to take¬†it off of his hands. This leads to the discovery that¬†the model ship may hold a clue to the whereabouts of a lost treasure. Upon¬†seeing this, Tintin¬†and Snowy head off on a globe-trotting adventure to find the treasure before a shady character named Sakharine does.

From there the movie launches into a frantic and¬†almost hyperactive action romp. The¬†film seems to move from¬†one elaborate cinematic¬†set piece to another, each filled with that signature well-choreographed Spielbergian¬†action. There’s also just enough story to keep everything interesting. But I did feel the movie start to lag in the middle especially during a long series of flashback scenes intended¬†to tell the history behind the treasure and it’s connection to two of the characters. Speaking of characters, Tintin¬†teams up with Captain Haddock, a drunk who loses control of his ship to Sakharine. While Haddock has a few funny moments he’s also borderline annoying at times especially when he goes off on one of his ramblings. There are also a couple of instances where his attempts at humor seem to clash with the tone of the movie. While the movie hits a few speed bumps in the middle, it quickly picks back up on its way to a wide open ending that clearly points to a sequel.

Overall “The Adventures of Tintin” is a fun time that the entire family can enjoy together. From the start, the movie jumps right into the adventure but don’t expect much of an introduction to Tintin¬†or even any character development to speak of. And while the story is about as basic as you can get, it really only stumbles in a few places. But it’s the movie’s presentation that is the most impressive. The film looks amazing and features some of the most eye-popping CGI and visually stunning action sequences. The John Williams score¬†doesn’t hurt either. When it comes down to it, “The Adventures of Tintin” is like¬†several of Spielberg’s other pictures – light on story but heavy on appearance.¬†It’s not a perfect movie but there is still plenty to latch onto and once you get onboard it’s easy to stay with it all the way.