Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)

Rogue NationHaving been on their tail for months, Impossible Mission Force agent Ethan Hunt thinks he finally has sufficient evidence to prove the existence of the mysterious Syndicate. Before he can report his findings, however, Hunt is kidnapped in London by Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) and interrogated by Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a disavowed MI6 agent of dubious loyalty, who nevertheless helps him escape, remaining behind so that she might purportedly protect her cover. Back in America, IMF agent William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) is defending the organisation against CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), but ultimately finds himself presiding over its dissolution as the government steps in to close it down. As a result, former agents Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) must commit treason to assist their old boss.

While Marvel’s Cinematic Universe goes to great pains to protect its continuity, burning bridges with auteurs and making concessions to other characters in order to create a comprehensive shared universe and integrate its various multimedia spin-offs, other studios seem to be taking a more laissez-faire approach to their own ongoing franchises. Films like Star Trek, Terminator Genisys and X-Men: Days of Future Past have all overtly addressed the issue of continuity by explicitly underwriting old timelines to keep their brands viable for continuation and accessible to new audiences, while the likes of Prometheus, Superman Returns and Casino Royale simply ignored the events of previous instalments to satisfy the whims of filmmakers. It’s a worrying trend that risks disenfranchising fans who have stuck with franchises from the very beginning, and undermines engagement in general as audiences don’t need to keep up with developments.

Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation may not directly contradict its own continuity, but like every other film in the series it feels more like a standalone movie than a continuation of a series — another film about a threat to the IMF, only this time directed by someone else. The IMF’s roster of agents, meanwhile, continues to rotate without comment, while Hunt’s wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) — featured prominently in Mission: Impossible III before being reduced to a mere cameo in Ghost Protocol — doesn’t feature at all. It seems strange then, given the number of characters who have been dropped over the years, that Rogue Nation brings back the actors that it does: Simon Pegg and Jeremy Renner may be bigger names than Jonathan Rhys Meyers or Paula Patton but they aren’t any more memorable or compelling (Pegg being almost unbearable at times) — though it’s admittedly good to see Ving Rhames back in action. J.J. Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III is arguably the best film in the series; the key to its success being the introduction of real emotion and high stakes into a saga that had previously been more concerned with surface style and gimmickry. (But then an actor like Philip Seymour Hoffman can do that for a film.) It’s disappointing to see the series slide back into inconsequence.

Enjoyed simply as the spy genre’s answer to Doctor Who — a silly nonsense in which nothing really matters and the most mundane of objects are imbued ludicrous new importance (a fingerprint activated vinyl, for instance) — however, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is perfectly entertaining, perhaps even more so than Ghost Protocol. While that film is mostly remembered for the Dubai sequence, in which Cruise scaled the tallest tower in the world, the sequel boasts a handful of memorable moments including the heavily trailed Airbus sequence, but also a lung-busting underwater dive and a protracted chase through Casablanca that ends in a genuinely thrilling motorcycle ride through the Moroccan dessert. It also has a better mystery at its heart, though this has little to do with Sean Harris’ largely redundant role as villain, and the England-set finale featuring Tom Hollander as the British Prime Minister could conceivably fit within the framework of a more serious spy flick. Well, aside from the liberal use of digitally printed prosthesis. Rebecca Ferguson is another fine addition to the franchise, and hopefully her Ilsa Faust won’t be quite so unceremoniously dropped next time around.

With both Bond and Bourne now back in play, it’s reassuring to see Hunt raising his game again — and while the characters’ films might lag behind the best of the rest there’s no denying that Cruise himself is a force to be reckoned with, perhaps even more so than Daniel Craig and Matt Damon. If the franchise is really going to compete with 007 and Treadstone, however, it urgently needs to address its two biggest weaknesses: its forgettable villains and apparent disregard for emotional investment. Mission: Impossible VI should be a sequel to Mission: Impossible V.

3.5-Stars

Advertisements

Avengers: Age Of Ultron (2015)

AvengersWhile attempting to retrieve Loki’s sceptre from a Hydra stronghold, The Avengers encounter a pair of superpowered siblings (Elizabeth Olsen; Aaron Taylor-Johnson) seeking revenge on Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jnr) for the role his company inadvertently played in the death of their parents. Wanda — a woman with unusual influence over the minds of others — undermines Stark’s already fragile mental state, and compromised he returns to New York concerned that he has not yet done enough to secure the safety of all mankind. Together with Dr Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) he uses the sceptre and the mystical gem it contains to unlock the secrets of consciousness with the aim of improving the effectiveness of his drone army, inadvertently leading one of his suits to become self-aware. Named Ultron (James Spader), the nascent AI declares war on its creators, along with Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) and the rest of humanity.

A lot has changed since the release of Marvel’s Avengers Assemble in 2012; and although much of that change has been orchestrated on purpose some of the repercussions have proven to be beyond even Marvel’s (now Disney’s, of course) considerable control. Now eleven films into its unprecedented, pioneering and as yet unparalleled mega-franchise — the no longer burgeoning but rather burdened MCU — and five films on from the Battle of New York, the studio has issued returning director and overseer Joss Whedon with a very different task indeed. Already assembled, the titular super-team must now be developed, redeployed and ultimately divided ahead of the next cinematic season — a tertiary series of instalments known as Phase Three, and already set to kick off next year with Captain America: Civil War. Whereas once the idea of merging four individual franchises was audacious enough, the MCU has now grown to such a size — Marvel’s television division included — that with hindsight it suddenly seems like the simplest thing in the world.

Remarkably, Whedon once again pulls it off — using his experience on the previous film in addition to his time as showrunner on programmes such as Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Firefly to duly focus on the monster-of-the-year while simultaneously furthering the overarching arcs of his various heroes — albeit without quite the same sense of enthusiasm or effortlessness. While offscreen the director has been lamenting the shoot, talking at length about how the process has not just exhausted but damn near ended him too, onscreen the spectacle has lost some of its box-fresh sparkle. The intention was always to go deeper rather than larger, but while Iron Man and co. are indeed subjected to increased scrutiny the stakes have arguably never been higher. Since Tom Hiddlestone’s Loki’s failed bid for world domination, Miami, London, Washington and the planet of Xandar have all gone the way of New York, leaving audiences fatigued and Age Of Ultron with fewer places in the known (or even unknown) universe left to blow up. The relationships have never been more compelling, the characters never more engaging and the witticisms never more entertaining, but the set pieces aren’t what they once were. A battle between Hulk and Hulkbuster is as interminable as it is unnecessary, while the finale is simply a variation on an overly familiar theme.

That Marvel’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron is underwhelming, however, is inevitable — in many ways it’s a victim of its own success. Phase Two has never quite lived up to Phase One, with each film struggling to find its place in Marvel’s ever-expanding cinematic and televisual universe. Some like Iron Man 3 have pushed for auteurial autonomy over studio synergy at the expense of a comprehensive experience, while Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Solider have taken a more utilitarian and cohesive approach to storytelling, leaving Agents of SHIELD to fill in the gaps. Already on uneven footing, Whedon was never going to replicate his previous success with its firmer foundations and novel ambitions, but it’s to the director’s credit that he at least succeeds in expanding on it. New additions Vision, Wanda and Pietro steal the show, as does Ultron, the saga’s best villain by far, while expanded roles for supporting characters such as Black Widow, Hawkeye and War Machine are very welcome indeed — Don Cheadle in particular is a delight. It’s an unexpected inversion; the key question coming out of Avengers Assemble was whether anyone would be interested in the composite series after the first crossover, so it’s a little surprising that secondary or even tertiary characters should be missed in the latest team-up. Nevertheless, you still find yourself asking what Pepper Potts, Darcy Lewis or Daredevil‘s Wilson Fisk might be making of Ultron’s actions.

Although it may seem that every successful film is spawning a shared universe these days, the truth is that the MCU remains unique — and as such the usual rules don’t really apply. As with much of Phase Two Marvel’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron is a flawed film, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is part of a failed experiment. Regardless of what becomes of Ultron or any of the other characters, the story is not over yet, and it may well be that with repeated viewings or subsequent instalments audiences’ perceptions of Age Of Ultron may change. For now, though, the disappointment is undeniable, if perfectly understandable.

3-Stars

American Hustle (2013)

American HustleDespite owning a chain of dry cleaning stores in New York City, businessman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) makes most of his money flogging fake paintings on the side. When he meets stripper Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) at a party in 1978, the two become partners with Sydney adopting the guise of British aristocrat Lady Edith Greensly in an attempt to ensnare investors. They attract more than just clients, however, and are soon under investigation by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), though he has bigger fish to fry; in exchange for their freedom Irving and Sydney must help to implicate four other criminals. Suddenly, they, along with Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), become embroiled in a plot involving seemingly corrupt politician Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) and mob boss Victor Tellegio (Robert De Niro).

Like some strange composite of last year’s awards contenders, recycling the cast of David O. Russell’s own Silver Linings Playbook‘s and recalling both the setting and tone of Ben Affleck’s Argo, American Hustle struts into cinemas just in time for 2014’s Golden Globes. The whole thing stinks of award bait, from method actor Christian Bale’s continued yo-yo diet to cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s preoccupation with the production’s extensive hair and make-up. Watching Russell’s latest it’s hard not to mentally compose your own “For Your Consideration” montage, even for the most technical of categories.

That’s not to say that American Hustle isn’t good — there is undoubtedly much to admire in its 138 minute running time, as there should be — just that it’s often more concerned with being worthy than either engaging or enjoyable. For what feels like much of the movie’s first act, dialogue is often eschewed in favour of lengthy voice-over, giving the film a detached quality that is perfect for explanatory soundbites but perhaps less conducive to immersive storytelling. This uninterrupted stream of exposition is necessary, however, as unlike Affleck’s Oscar winner Russell’s film doesn’t simplify events so much as complicate them. The introduction of the Arab Sheik should have been funny in its absurdity, but unless you’ve been keeping notes you’ll be too busy waiting for him to explain his purpose to get the joke.

It’s a shame because when the jokes do hit their mark they’re often very funny indeed. Cooper, though recently revealed to be a capable dramatic actor, is first and foremost a gifted comedian, and his passive-aggressive relationship with his boss Stoddard Thorsen (played beautifully by Louis C.K.) — a mentor figure who keeps trying and failing to impart wisdom through a fishing anecdote — is a joy to behold. Lawrence also shines in her capacity as unstable housewife and accidental arsonist Rosalyn Rosenfeld, and she — along with Stoddard — may be the closest the film comes to sympathetic characters. Bale and Adams aren’t anywhere near as much fun, though the latter still manages to impress thanks to a note-perfect English accent and an irrepressible innate charm.

Impressive and occasionally entertaining, American Hustle is decent enough comedy-drama — more admirable perhaps than Anchorman 2 but nowhere near as enjoyable. Strong performances and even stronger production values guarantee that there is always something to look at, but once the credits have finally rolled you’re unlikely to recall more than Bale’s comb-over, Adams’ cleavage and Cooper’s curls. At least until awards night, when the montages start.

3-Stars

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)

Hansel and Gretel Witch HuntersAbandoned in the woods as children, Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) had little choice but to shelter in a remote cottage built from candy. Attacked by the witch in residence, the siblings somehow find themselves immune to her magic and are able to overcome and kill their would-be captor. Years later, the two are making a living as witch hunters, ridding the land of evil whenever and wherever they find it. Arriving in Augsburg days before the Blood Moon, however, they find themselves up against their mightiest foe yet (Famke Janssen). Read more of this post

The Bourne Legacy (2012)

While Jason Bourne hunts down answers in Europe, one secret CIA operative at a time, Alex Cross (Jeremy Renner) is camped out in the Alaskan tundra on a training mission. Pretending to have lost his medication in the wilderness, Cross uses a meeting with a fellow Outcome asset to replenish his supplies, shortly before a military drone opens fire on their lodgings and leaves the pair for dead. Returning to America just in time to save his medical examiner (Rachel Weisz) from a hit team, Cross deduces that the CIA is trying to shut down Operation Outcome and sets off for Manila so that Dr. Marta Shearing can eliminate his need for the drugs by making their effects – increased strength and intelligence – permenant. Eager to avoid another crisis akin to Treadstone or Blackbriar, Eric Byer (Edward Norton) unleashes a next generation supersoldier (Louis Ozawa Changchien) to tie up the remaining loose ends. Read more of this post

Avengers Assemble (2012)


Saved from oblivion by a race of aliens craving dominion, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) arrives on Earth in search of The Tesseract: an item of unlimited power that currently lies with S.H.I.E.L.D. When it is stolen and the world endangered, Director Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) revive the Avengers Initiative in the hope of uniting Earth’s mightiest heroes. As they reach out to Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), however, it quickly becomes clear that a vengeful former Asgardian and an army of extraterrestrial warriors might be the least of their worries.

Read more of this post

FILM NEWS: “I Still Believe In Heroes”

For those of you who, like me, struggle to tell one sport from another, this weekend marks America’s Super Bowl. Other than being a massive basketball baseball football event in its own right, the Super Bowl is notable for the time and expense put into the programmed ad breaks.

Along with such other upcoming cinematic heavy-hitters as The Hunger Games, Battleship and John Carter, 2012’s ceremony also featured our most detailed looks yet at Marvel’s hugely anticipated The Avengers, a film which unites four major film franchises in what promises to be the superhero movie to end all superhero movies.

The footage didn’t disappoint. Culminating in a group shot which could pimple Goose-man, the TV spot really is quite something. And it can be viewed below.

Directed by Joss Whedon, The Avengers will see Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jnr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) assemble under the watchful eye of S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Joined by Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), the Avengers must put their many differences aside and work together if they are to stop Thor’s vengeful brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston).

Now though, back to the court field stadium for some more running…

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)

Freshly sprung from a high-security Russian prison, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is no sooner accepting impossible missions than he is once again running for his life. When a Kremlin-set mission goes explosively awry, Ethan and his makeshift team find themselves disavowed and alone in stopping a plot to begin nuclear war. With Benji (Simon Pegg) eager to prove himself in the field, Jane (Paula Patton) looking to settle an old score and Brandt (Jeremy Renner) harbouring agendas of his own, Cruise must learn unite his new team-mates if they are to stand any chance of preventing Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist) from effectively rebooting the human race. But only after he’s climbed the largest building in the world.

“Mission: Impossible 4”, I hear you ask, confused, “why the fuck would I want to watch Mission: Impossible 4?” Two reasons, actually, and they’re both rather convincing. Firstly, while it might once have been acceptable simply to dismiss the latest Ethan Hunt (come on, his surname doesn’t even begin with a B!) adventure out of hand, the franchise has since made quite a name for itself, with J. J. Abrams taking the series by the premise and shaking some good old-fashioned Philip Seymour Hoffman into it. Abrams’ third instalment was both anti-Bond and anti-Bourne, an action movie that was as fantastical as it was frenetic, and which introduced the cinemagoing world to the still-glorious sideways explosion.

Secondly, taking over the reins for M:I4 is none other than Brad Bird: Pixar extraordinaire. Having directed the likes of The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, if the release of Bird’s first ever live-action movie isn’t enough to tempt bums onto seats then it is unlikely that anything ever will. With three arguable masterpieces to his name, it is not exactly inconceivable that he might produce a film every bit the match of Abrams’ own.

Alas, it was not to be. While I fervently argue that you see this movie – it is event cinema at its most eventful, after all – it is nevertheless one of the most disappointing cinematic experiences of 2011. Dropping everything that set Mission: Impossible 3 apart from the previous instalments – a handle on the zanier aspects, a winning group dynamic and the aforementioned sideways explosion – Bird takes an unfortunate step backwards by effectively resetting the story (Simon Pegg returns but everyone else is essentially written out of the film ) and returning it to its distractingly OTT roots.

That said, while Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is almost entirely unremarkable, it is at least entertaining. Bird, unsurprisingly, has a great proclivity for comedy, and makes full use of it throughout in a bid to laugh off the more unbelievable aspects of the plot. Pegg is an absolute joy as the film’s comic relief (Jeremy Renner less so in his misjudged attempts to play against type), the character responsible for a number of laugh out loud gags that ensure that while rarely amazed, you are constantly amused. Sadly, the rest of the cast fail to make much of an impression, with Paula Patton’s incidentally attractive special agent and Michael Nyqvist’s rent-a-villain treading water while Cruise disappears for a quick lengthy frolic in the sand. It is only in the few scenes utilising the desperately under-used Josh Holloway (in what essentially amounts to a cameo) that you are able to glimpse the movie that could have been.

Fun, loud, but ultimately forgettable, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is little more than the latest entry in the Mission: Impossible series. With my largest issue with Brad Bird’s fourth instalment addressed in the final few minutes, however, M:I4 is simply a harmless, a missed opportunity to pick up where Abrams’ left off, and a disappointingly imperfect live-action début from an otherwise acclaimed directorial talent.