MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION** Mission Tedium


tom-cruise-mi5

SOMETIMES IT REALLY doesn’t matter how much talent you have at your disposal. If a story, any story for that matter, fails to offer up people with whom we can connect…care enough to root for or hiss at, then all we have is a plot without a center; action without purpose, sound and fury without meaning.

Tom Cruise’s latest, and we can but hope, last outing, as the bland character-less Ethan Hunt, is another overwrought restaging of Mission Impossible; an exercise in headache-inducing tedium.

For some reason, the IMF has been disbanded (sadly not Christine Lagarde’s IMF) by Alec Baldwin, sleeping through his role as CIA director Alan Hurley. Hunt must go on the run. He’s discovered that there’s a covert version of the Force who’s been destabilizing nations for the last several years (downing aircraft, blowing up factories, killing off politicians etc). But no-one believes him. So, with the help of a mysterious MI6 spy (Rebecca Ferguson… the stand out presence in this farrago) and his loyal team of IMF-fers, he must go it alone and save the world.

mission_impossible_rogue_nation_image_desktop

He runs and jumps, holds his breath for hours, hangs on to an airborne ‘plane, dodges machine gun bullets, mows down swarms of menacing motorcyclists, narrowly avoids getting kissed by a woman (whew!), kidnaps the British PM and tries everything he can possibly do to make us give a damn.

Sadly it’s an impossible mission.

But why?

“Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation” has a tremendous collection of talent. Christopher McQuarrie who directed, was one of the writers who gave us “The Usual Suspects”. Certainly his set piece action scenes, especially a long motorcycle chase, is grippingly well done. JJ Abrams of “Lost”, the charming “Super 8”, the nicely re-booted “Star Trek” and the only fun “Mission Impossible”: Ghost Protocol, is Hollywood’s latest whizz kid producer/director. Lalo Schifrin’s heart-thumping original score is beautifully enhanced by Joe Kramer. And the cast (Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Alec Baldwin) is, at least, solid.

The problem is partly the story, which never exhales long enough to invite us to relate to either the characters or the situation they’re in. It’s as though the producers weren’t confident enough that there was something worth engaging with, so they simply took the default route of piling on the action.

But that’s putting it nicely.

At its core, the problem is Tom, who try as he might, never ever convinces that he’s a real person. And I don’t mean his character, Ethan Hunt, I mean Tom himself. Since Tom Cruise became TOM CRUISE, the only convincing role he’s had has been that of Vincent, the cold, inhuman hit man of Michael Mann’s “Collateral”. Mann needed someone as soullessly robotic as Cameron’s Terminator; and he found it in Tom.

Director Christopher McQuarrie (who also directed Cruise in the failed “Jack Reacher”) seemed happy to go with the flow and voila! “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation”, a movie as soullessly robotic as its lead actor

INSIDE OUT**** Wildly Inventive


imgres

We’ve come to expect nothing less than brilliance from Pixar (“Toy Story” etc); and its new production, “Inside Out” delivers in spades.

Written (mostly) and directed by Peter Docter (“Up”, “Monsters Inc” and as writer, “Wall.E” and “Toy Story 2”) this is a hugely inventive movie. It manages to offer a simple enough idea: “sadness is OK” via a journey through the complex issues of identity, personality, memory and angst, all wrapped up in a charming, funny, thoroughly engaging action adventure.

The movie presents a world from inside the heads of its key character, an eleven-year old girl, Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias). Were introduced to her as a tiny newborn with two characters banging around in her head: joy and sadness. Joy (Amy Poelhr) is a chirpy Tinker Bell-like creature that trails happiness in her wake; sadness (Phyllis Smith from “the Office”) is, naturally, blue and is a worried, bespectacled, shoulder-slumped, librarian type soul. At a tiny Star Trek-type console, they shape little Riley’s moods and memories.

Things change as Riley begins to grow up. Her life evolves from the simple toddler’s world to the more complex one of the young pre-teen, with its growing conflicts and worries. In story terms, her world shifts (symbolically) from the bright carefree open skies of Minnesota to the darker, more threatening, more claustrophobic world of inner city living (San Francisco). Dad, once the center of her life, becomes more distant because of his needs to travel. And so, to Joy and Sadness and the mental worlds they created of Family, Honesty, Friendship, Hockey and Goofball Fun comes Anger (a towering Lewis Black who you may remember from “John Stewart”), Fear (“Bill Hader from “Trainwreck) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling)

The happy toddler, saddened by her loss of the old neighborhood, grows into a lonely, moody, angry little girl. At the outside level, that’s because she’s overwhelmed by all the changes in her life. But really it’s because Joy and Sadness have been zapped through a suction tube, into the dark world of long term memory. Riley’s moods are now in the hands only of Anger, Fear and Disgust. She snaps at her parents, storms out of her hockey matches and needs to escape back to the innocence of Minnesota. Those core elements of her personality (Family, Honesty etc) begin to crumble.

imgres-1

Joy and Sadness must combine forces along with a half remembered imaginary friend and engage on an epic journey through the Stygian swamp of long-term memory, via the subconscious, past creatures such as The Forgetters, who dump memories they deem unimportant (they’re very active in my head) and across the dehumanizing plains of abstract thought. The only way back to master control is by hitching a ride on the Train of Thought (which of course powers down once Riley is asleep) through Imagination Land…

Pixar Post - Inside Out Spanish Trailer 03

And on and on.

And this is a child’s movie? The kids there ‘got it’ all, and had a ball (even as the adults in the cinema next door were grappling with the more intellectually challenging worlds of “Ant-Man” and “Jurassic World”)

Hmm.

Once again, Pixar: 1; the rest of Summer Blockbusters: 0

 

ANT-MAN** Small Guy Meets Big Laffs


AntmanArt_article_story_large

It appears that superheroes now come in two basic molds: the dark, brooding, angst-ridden mold (Batman, Spider-Man, Wolverine) and the wise-ass funny guy mold (Iron Man, Peter Quill – “Guardians of the Galaxy” – and now, the latest addition, Scott Lang, aka, Ant-Man)
“Ant-Man” is a great comedy routine in search of a story.

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is a burglar with a heart of gold and a daughter he longs to be worthy of. When we meet him, he’s now leaving prison, intent on going straight. Clearly, that’s never going to happen. And for reasons that defy logic, he’s recruited by Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a highly principled scientist who’s invented a suit which can shrink its wearer to the size (and relative power) of an ant. He’s also, handily developed a means of communicating with and controlling ants. Hank wants Lang to break into a highly guarded facility to steal a similar shrink-to-fit suit developed by one of Dr. Pym’s assistants, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll from “House of Cards”). Cross has fewer scruples than Dr Pym and has sold the technology to a league of bad guys (all of whom look like bankers. I can only assume this was coincidental).

As an arch nemesis, Corey Stoll is dull and unconvincing. In terms of real bad guys (think Ultron), two men the size of ants wrecking a child’s play room somehow lacks the drama of the usual full scale destruction of cities we’re accustomed to.

And as the mastermind of the invention, Michael Douglas seems to have wandered in from another movie, emoting boorishly about a dead wife. For some reason, Dr. Pym has sought to lie about the reason for her death to his daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly, still “Lost”). This is a sub plot that seems to have been sliced into the story to add some sort of emotional centre to the movie.

It doesn’t

Hope’s role (she mainly has to react to everything that’s going on around her) is part of the new trend in ‘love interest babes’. Whereas once these eye candy objects of romance simply screamed and looked vulnerable and fragile (Kristin Dunst as Spiderman’s girl), now, since this cliché probably isn’t doing well with focus groups, the new love interest type is the powerful boss bitch type (Bryce Dallas Howard of “Jurassic World”) who finally melts into the arms of the superhero.

And yet, almost despite itself, “Ant-Man” is quite fun. Paul Rudd is a charming, self-effacing, thoroughly unlikely superhero. Between his smartass repartee and the flamboyant storytelling of his excitable Latino friend Luis (Michael Peña of “Fury” and “American Hustle”), much of this movie is laugh out loud, funny. There are some very clever lines and superb visual gags. It’s as though the director (Peyton Reid who was shoe-horned into the role when the original director was fired) really wanted to shoot a comedy but had to pay lip service to a few superhero tropes.

More than this, some of the special effects (in particular, one sequence when Ant-Man shrinks to a sub atomic scale and enters a quantum universe) are imaginative and beautifully executed (much more interesting than the much lauded accuracy of the “Interstellar” black hole sequences)

And so, once again, with it $58M opening week-end, the Marvel hit machine seems to have turned an ant into its latest franchise giant.

 

 

LOVE AND MERCY****. Good Vibrations


LOVE-MERCY-6

THERE’S A FINE and often unclear line that divides the ephemera of pop music and pop culture – with its single-minded drive for popularity and profit – from the timelessness of art. Equally fine is the line that divides what pop culture would label as madness (autism? eccentricity? uniqueness? individuality?) and artistic genius.
“Love and Mercy” is an engaging, wonderfully well acted exploration of the boundaries of this line.

Beach Boys’ leader Brian Wilson, whose life is the subject of the movie, is one of those grand masters, whose music, breaking free from the straitjacket of the pop music status quo, crossed the line. The movie offers us the clear divide between the Beach Boys (“we just need to follow the formula and get another hit”) and Brain Wilson (blow up the formula. Experiment or die).

We enter into the story just as the fame of the Beach Boys is surging. But Brian wants out of touring and performing and simply wants to retreat to the safe sanctuary of the studio to experiment with sounds and lyrics, with results that perplex and anger his fellow band members

Like the issue of pop v art, the movie is constructed in two interlocked halves.

love-and-mercy-oren-moverman-on-making-a-cinematic-brian-williams-biopic

Paul Dano (“Twelve Years a Slave”, “Prisoners”) is the young Brain Wilson: a shy, soft-spoken musical visionary. He was an introspective, battered kid, emotionally and physically abused by a stern, controlling, unappreciative father (Bill Camp; “Birdman”, “Lincoln”). This is the father who listens to Wilson’s “God Only Knows” and deems it crap.

As an adult, past his peak, past the adulation of Beach Boy fame (an equally compelling John Cusak), he’s equally abused by another father figure -a controlling menacing charlatan, Dr. Eugene Landy (a deliciously, hissably, villainously evil, and always watchable Paul Giamatti in a bad wig).

In biographical terms we might just as well be watching a bio of Michael Jackson with is own abusive father and dubious medical advice.

Director Pohlad and lead writer Oren Moverman (“The Messenger” and the Dylan bio-pic, “I’m not There”) makes it clear that Brian (pardon the pun) is listening to a different beat from that of his brothers. After the disingenuous success of the Beach Boys’ surfer sounds (brilliant harmonies, crooning about a world they never lived), the band just wants more of same (fame and fortune and bubble gum lyrics). But Brian, demonized, by the abuse, which becomes a debilitating aural cacophony, has to use his music not as a pathway to profit, but as an escape route from his head. Like any artist, he has to find a pattern in chaos, a meaning in the madness.

Pohlad brings us into the studio. This is Brain’s world: one cut off from the outside; one where he is absolutely in control and speaking a language – code really – only his studio musicians can understand. Like building blocks of sound, we follow the flow as Wilson’s rich, nuanced music takes shape. The result is a collection (“Pet Sounds”) that was an unique, intimate, musically complex departure from the status quo of simple-minded pop. It’s where, like his reference point, The Beatles, pop became art.

The critics loved it; the adoring public didn’t.

The result, despite the redemption of “Good Vibrations” (always and forever on every Boomer’s play list): three years in bed. For three years, unable to turn the noises in his head into music, Wilson retreated to his bed – a recurring visual motif in the film (the place of sleep, sex and safety)

01-love-and-mercy.w529.h352.2x

The older, drug-controlled Wilson that we meet in a Cadillac sales room many years later, unnervingly focused on trying to buy a car, is too ga-ga even for the liberating release of music. Here love, more than music (and maybe director Pohlad is suggesting that love and art have interchangeable values) becomes the escape route. It’s a route mapped by the woman who would become his liberator and the centre of his life. Elizabeth Banks (“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1”, “Pitch Perfect 2”) is Melinda Ledbetter, his (present) wife. Hers is a more subtle, low-keyed performance which refuses to be upstaged by the hysteria of Cusak’s mind-blown Wilson. She is the uber frau: sexy, caring, brassy and protective.

And like the session musicians in his early years who ‘got’ it, who understood and appreciated the complex musicianship banging around in his head, Melinda intuits how to appreciate and channel the talent, even as she loves the man, hidden somewhere below the fog of drugs.

Love, art, drugs, escapism and madness.

Perhaps art in the end is no more, or no less than a kind of good vibrations’ Star Trek translation device. An app that enables a few gifted souls a means of making the esoteric (the world of private demons and longings) public; and as Kant might suggest, a viewing portal for us mere mortals, into the illuminating intimacy of another mind.

The movie ends, as the credits roll, charmingly on a video of the real Brian Wilson, now a septuagenarian, still performing, happily his latest masterpiece, “Love and Mercy”. It’s lyrics seem entirely apt: “I just wasn’t made for these times”
 

JURASSIC WORLD*** Blockbustersaurus Rex


rs_1024x759-140613064427-1024.Chris-Pratt-Jurassic-World-JR-61314

WHY DO WE never learn? If you try to pen in herds of artificially grown pre-historic animals and show them off to thousands of trusting people, all in search of a bigger, better thrill, shit’s gonna happen.

And so it does in “Jurassic World” the enormously entertaining, thrillingly made re-boot (sort of) of Stephen Spielberg’s Jurassic juggernaut. Spielberg didn’t direct this one, that was left to Colin Trevorrow who, like Spielberg made his first short movie when he was twelve. But, as the producer, all his trademark touches are there: For one thing, near the start of the movie we encounter a huge Easter Egg (that’s the term used to refer to an inside joke). Masses of Isla Nublar’s guests are in a Sea World type aquarium, gathered to see the feeding time of a vast aquatic dinosaur. He’s being fed a shark, which he gulps down on one mouthful. That’s Spielberg stating that “Jurassic World’s” going to eat up “Jaws” in one smooth gulp.

Beyond this insider joke, Trevorrow delivers Spielberg’s trademark ‘gentle ordinariness’. It’s summertime in suburbia and we meet Spielberg’s idea of the typical American family (i.e they’re White. Hispanics and people of color never really enter Spielberg’s world unless they’re noble slaves nobly struggling to unshackle their chains). We meet two young boys (Ty Simpkins from “Iron Man 3” and Nick Robinson) off to visit their spinster aunt, Claire (Bryce Dallas from “the Help”) who, lucky for them, just happens to run Jurassic World.

Jurassic-World-Robinson-Simpkins2

Still located in Isla Nublar off the coast of Costa Rica (but really, Hawaii), it’s the theme park to end all theme parks.

This time, not content with cloning raptors and other dinosaurs, the sly, cunning head of gene sciences at JW (B.D Wong from Will Smith’s miss-hit, “Focus”) has concocted his own dinosaur, the Indominus Rex. It’s guaranteed to amp up both audience thrills and (more importantly), profits for the park. It’s a skyscraper-tall, brain-enhanced beast that’s part animal, part monster that, like the monster in “Predator” has learned to hide in plain sight.

Jurassic

Part of the thrill of a movie like this is we’ve been trained to anticipate what’s going to come next. Young – unprotected- kids, vast crowds, a man-made monster and the arrogance of people thinking they’re in control of nature. At what point will all hell break loose? Or, respecting the science of the franchise, at what point will chaos descend?

And when it does descend, run!

Director Trevorrow (ably assisted by veteran Spielberg producer Frank Marshall of “Raiders…” and the other Indiana Jones movies, Patrick Crowley of the Bourne franchise movies and John Jashni of “Pacific Rim” ) skillfully reprises all those familiar tropes: the shuddering trees, the panicked animals, the thundering footsteps and the bellowing roars of approaching death and destruction.

People are eaten, cars and trucks tossed aside like toys, buildings bludgeoned and profits shattered as the Indominus Rex runs amok.

And against this background of noisy destruction, there’s a gentler storyline about the sanctity of relationships. This is what links the multiple stories that play out, and lifts the movie to provide an (emotional) appeal beyond its obvious visceral thrills. The two young brothers bond in their flight to survive, hunky trainer Owen (Chris Pratt) wins the unlikely trust of four raptors, which proves to be a life saver, estranged sisters (Judy Greer from “Tomorrowland” is Claire’s sister) come together and the cold, all the business all the time, park manager, Claire finally warms to the muscular charms of her savior.

The muscular savior is Chris Pratt, who you may remember from the surprisingly good “Guardians of the Galaxy” (as well as “Parks and Recreation”) exudes the kind of relaxed warmth and sly wit that makes him much more endearingly charismatic than simply a badass with a big gun.

As his love interest, it’s great fun to observe the transformation of Claire in her unsullied all white power suit and her brusque corporate coldness strip off to rediscover beneath the make-up and the manicure, her buried humanity.

Jurassic

What’s just barely buried though is the movie’s deeper environmental message: if a hubristic corporate world continues to think they can mess with and control nature for their own profit margins, think again.

That way lies only disaster.

Jurassic World; director: Colin Trevorrow; with Chris Pratt, Bryde Dallas, Ty Simpkins, Judy Greer, Vincent D’Onofrio, Irrfan Khan and Nick Robinson Dir of photography: John Schwartzman (“Saving Mr.Banks”); Production Director: Ed Verreaux (“Looper”);

SPY***. May the farce be with you


Melissa_McCarthy-SPY-040115

SPY IS A pleasant enough diversion, with a few smiles, a couple of laughs, and some clever digs at everything from movie-imagined spying to romance. Melissa McCarthy (as CIA Agent Susan Cooper) and her charming, deliberately understated accomplice in the story, Miranda Hart (Agent Nancy B) are to be celebrated for being at the forefront of this brave new expanding world of female comedians (after the glass ceiling was cracked by Lucille Ball and Mary Tyler Moore and finally shattered by the likes of Sandra Bullock, Julia Dreyfuss, Tina Fey and Sarah Silverman) Melissa’s now well-known, quasi-branded take-no-shit, potty mouthed (she calls one ‘baddie’, “thundercunt”), tough-gal shtick is the driving force of the movie.

Director Paul Feig has had the good grace and wisdom to hang his often derivative spy spoof  (Ever since “Our Man Flint” we’ve been paying a high price for the pleasures of 007) around Melissa’s exuberantly charismatic comedic character and, understandably, around a theme of female empowerment. Indeed, the whole movie turns the tired convention upside down: it’s not about good guys against bad guys, but good girls against bad girls (usually the movie domaine of bitchy teenagers in High School).

The story centers around a frantic pelt around the world to find and stop the sale of a nuclear device. Key agents Bradley Fine (Jude Law) who is being controlled remotely by desk operative Agent Cooper as if he were some sort of human drone, and Agent Forde (Jason Stratham, brilliantly channelling his inner idiot) have been outed. So it’s up to those other by-passed, overlooked (because they’re women) Agents, Cooper and Nancy B to man-up.

As it were.

Once in the field, Cooper morphs from mousy Bridesmaid to Kick-Ass; stud-muffins Fine and Forde become mere background distractions; and nancy B lands her first kill. She also lands 50 Cent. Yes, that 50 Cent, who does as convincing a comedic turn as Jude and Jason. Rose Byrne (“The Place Beyond the Pines”) is the femme fatale who, despite an on-going gag about her extravagantly coiffured hair, is the movie’s weakest link. She seems to have wandered in from some other (much more serious) movie. Or maybe she’s just having a bad hair film.

“Spy” just manages (by a whisker) to edge away from being just another cynical, blockbuster, money-making “vehicle”. Director Feig sticks to the kind of physical, slapstick comedy that I guess plays better globally (where the nuance of sharp writing can well be lost in translation). And having had massive successes with his past few outings (“The Heat”, “Bridesmaids”, “The Office”) has clearly been handed an (almost) blank cheque.

This is a slick, glossy, expensively made movie (for about $65M; with a gross so far in the US of about $45M) that at times comes so creepily close to some of the ‘straight’ spy films (Mission Impossible and Bond) that it makes you appreciate just how close to farce the entire genre is.

And it is this element of farce that, I think, Guy Ritchie brings in his up-coming release of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E”

Can’t wait

SAN ANDREAS** Rock. And roll.


san-andreas6

ONE OF THE reasons “Titanic” did so well at both box office and award ceremonies is that director James Cameron managed to find the magic touch. He combined edge of the seat disaster-movie action with a wonderful, brilliantly acted love story that movingly illustrated the pernicious class divisions of the time. The movie has endured. Don’t look for anything like this in “San Andreas”. What Director Brad Peyton (who worked with Dwayne Johnson before in “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island”) offers us is pure, cholesterol clogging, artery fattening, energy sapping, deliciously tasting, finger licking cinematic junk food.

It does what it says on the can: it’s an old fashioned, Towering Inferno, Poseidon Adventure-esque disaster movie without too much fluff about character development and, ahem, thinking, to bog things down.

And from that first moment when the earth shudders, and a pretty young thing gets trapped in her car, perilously perched halfway down a limitlessly deep gorge, the breathtaking action does not stop. Buildings fall, the earth heaves like a breathing beast, bridges sway and tip over sending traffic jams of cars into swirling rivers, fires rip through skyscrapers lighting up the skies, fleeing, panicked pedestrians are flung into steaming fissures or pummelled by mountainous slabs of falling concrete and a huge ocean liner propelled by the mother of all tsunamis, rockets into the crumbling city

And that’s just the first ten minutes.

At a time like this, who you gonna call?

Dwayne, the Rock, Johnson.

Dwayne, much, much larger than life is Chief Raymond –Ray- Gaines, an LA Fire department helicopter rescue pilot, whose private life (oh so cleverly… so you don’t need too much explanation) channels that of John McLane (that other hero from “Die Hard”): divorced, still with a flame for the ex and with a young, hot resourceful daughter (Alexandra Daddario of “True Detective” and “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters”) in danger (naturally) and falling for a nerdy but steadfast love interest, Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt). Coincidentally Ben’s smart-talking younger brother is Art Parkinson, aka Rickon Stark of “Game of Thrones”

san-andreas

Captain Ray must get to where his daughter is (trapped, as you’d expect) in a collapsing skyscraper that’s rapidly sinking beneath the pounding waves of that thunderous tsunami. And nothing stands in his way. By helicopter, light aircraft, parachute, boat and truck, he defies all that a malignant and vengeful, sundering San Andreas can throw at him. Screw San Andreas. Wasn’t his fault. The counterpart to this sleek, Hercules of a man is the short, fat, bespectacled Caltech professor, Lawrence (Paul Giamatti slumming it). The brain to Ray’s brawn. He’d warned them; he’d predicted it; they didn’t listen. He was right. And now, well, they’re all mainly dead. He’s probably looking at tenure.

At a time like this, as the real disaster movie of the world plays out in slow motion (a drying up LA, a spreading ISIS, a widening income gap, a growing refugee crisis, a saber rattling Putin, David Cameron) we need the catharsis of massive disaster that hits hard and is over with in a day (well, maybe not the Nepalese) … with a towering hero to come to the rescue.

And you’ve got to give credit to Dwayne Johnson. He only has two expressions (smiling and stoic). But no matter. His “trust me, I’m coming to rescue you” appeal is so extraordinary that this year alone, between this movie (so far, $300M in box office revenues and counting) and “Furious Seven” ($1.5B, yes billion), this man’s the most bankable movie star ever.

Forget real estate, forget the stock market, forget Clooney. Put your money on the Rock.