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

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The Boxtrolls (2014)

The Boxtrolls 3DIn the years since the mysterious disappearance of the Trubshaw child, the subterranean boxtrolls of Cheesebridge have been held responsible for his death and Archibald Snatcher tasked with their immediate extermination. Little do the townspeople know that the boy is alive and well, now renamed Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) and living happily beneath their feet in what he believes to be his rightful place. Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), along with henchmen Mr. Trout (Nick Frost), Mr. Pickels (Richard Ayoade) and Mr. Gristle (Tracy Morgan), is making progress, however, and before long Eggs is watching his makeshift family dwindle into single digits. Determined to help them defend themselves, he dresses as a human and sets out for the surface where he encounters Winnie (Elle Fanning), daughter of the town’s mayor, Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), the leader of the White Hats tasting rooms of which Snatcher aspires to become a member.

Timeless isn’t a word you get to use very often in the world of animation. Even the so-called classics — Disney’s Golden Age or Pixar’s early years — are rooted in the moment, doomed to antiquity as audiences move on from one technique to the next, be it hand-drawn, computer-generated or motion-capture animation. Yet the term applies to Coraline, to ParaNorman, and now to The Boxtrolls. LAIKA is different to other animation studios; as Disney, DreamWorks and Pixar pursue pixel perfection, designing and then redesigning their technologies to produce ever-more realistic snowflakes, raindrops and blades of grass, LAIKA has side-stepped obsolescence completely by taking itself out of the race. Even Aardman and Ghibli look harried and try-hard next to LAIKA.

The studio’s films have always been more thoughtful, patient and subversive that its competitors’. There are no musical numbers, pop-culture references or flights of surrealist fantasy designed to pander to or placate the more impatient members of the audience, but rather a shared understanding that the filmmakers will share something special with those willing or able to wait. The Boxtrolls is perhaps LAIKA’s funniest film to date, but that doesn’t mean that it’s any less scary, thought-provoking or emotionally intelligent. In fact, you are often invited to question the comedy; after all, should you really be laughing at a little girl’s blood-lust, a father’s negligence, or a henchman’s crisis of identity? Talking dogs and racing snails this ain’t.

Just as ParaNorman wasn’t really a film about zombies, The Boxtrolls has precious little to do with its titular tricksters. This is a film about ignorance, impotence and demonising the lower classes; the boxtrolls might not be human, but it is the townsfolk who are truly inhuman. Lord Portley-Rind can’t see passed his tasting room, to the detriment of his family and the town itself; Mr. Trout and Mr. Pickles spend so much time contemplating their culpability that they overlook their own redemption; and Archibald Snatcher is so obsessed with breaking into high society that he refuses to accept his own allergy to cheese. Below ground things are no different; Eggs is trapped by his own identity while his adopted family have mistaken cowardice for survival instinct. Evil isn’t the issue; weakness is.

There is as ever much to admire on the surface too. The animation is as exquisite as ever, with LAIKA’s trademark characterisation again proving that characters don’t always have to be cute to be beautiful. There is perhaps too much prologue, spent in the company of speechless boxtrolls and a babbling baby, but there is never a shortage of things to marvel at. Eggs is a delight, just as Coraline and Norman were before him, but in many ways Winnie is the more interesting character. She is the perfect juxtaposition of outer prettiness and inner perversion, and many of the biggest laughs come from her inappropriate obsession with the macabre. This time, however, the most memorable characters rank among the villains: Ben Kingsley channels Robert Helpmann to make Snatcher the 21st Century’s Child Catcher (now prone to cross-dressing and lactose intolerance), while Frost and Ayoade are an utter joy as Trout and Pickles (“I’m agreeing so as not to upset you”; “I’m still seventy percent sure that we’re the good guys”). And don’t even get me started on Tracy Morgan (“Leeches!”).

Up there with the year’s best 3D animated movies (on a par with How To Train Your Dragon 2, if not quite as crowd-pleasing as The LEGO Movie), The Boxtrolls is another towering achievement for LAIKA. It may not dominate the box office, or change the way that animated movies are made forever (or at least the next few months), but as long as it finds an audience and facilitates a fourth movie then directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi have done their job beautifully. After all, everyone knows that slow and steady wins the race.

4-Stars

 

The World’s End (2013)

The World's EndHaving failed to complete an infamous pub-crawl in 1990, a twelve-pint extravaganza known locally as The Golden Mile, Gary King (Simon Pegg) convinces his friends to return to Newton Haven and give it another go more than twenty years later. While Andrew (Nick Frost), Steven (Paddy Considine), Peter (Eddie Marsan) and Oliver (Martin Freeman) reacquaint themselves after years apart, the self-mythologising Gary becomes convinced that all is not as it seems in his home town; why else would the populace no longer recognise him? Could it be that the town has been taken over by alien robots? Or is it just that Gary isn’t as unforgettable as he seems to believe?

The final instalment in the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy, an unofficial franchise directed by Edgar Wright and co-written by Simon Pegg, The World’s End this month followed Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz into cinemas. Having already celebrated — and parodied — the zombie horror and cop movie, the creative team here turn their attention to the alien invasion genre, most obviously War Of The Worlds and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers.

As before, Wright and Pegg have diligently done their research — read: watched a lot of movies — while Nick Frost has once again sat through the odd DVD in preparation. It shows, and just as the previous two films managed to tread the fine line between respect for conventions and subversion of cliche The World’s End too manages to have its cake and eat it. The second act in particular is astonishingly funny, but it also manages to be exciting, tense and interesting in its own right. You needn’t have seen the movies referenced to enjoy the film.

While Wright once again directs with gusto and flair, having really perfected his own style in 2010’s stand-alone Scott Pilgrim vs The World, it is the cast who prove the film’s biggest asset. Pegg commits entirely to the not always likeable — indeed, quasi-villainous — character of Gary King, and Freeman, Marsan and Rosamund Pike are clearly having a ball in their supporting roles. Paddy Considine, meanwhile, makes the most of the meatiest of the secondary characters, but it is Nick Frost’s who ultimately steals the show as sober lawyer turned berserker bar fighter Andrew.

Unfortunately, however, the film just doesn’t have the same instant classic feel of either Shaun Of The Dead or Hot Fuzz. Partly due to the fact that the alien invasion genre isn’t quite as formulaic as the other two, but also because The World’s End has too much else to say. The premise that it is actually the town that has changed, and not the people returning to it is a good one, and leads to some funny and surprisingly poignant beats, but the various relationships and disputes take too long to establish, and are too much work to resolve.

The World’s End is a very funny movie, but in many ways it’s a victim of the previous two movies’ successes. Over-familiarity with Wright’s foreshadowing techniques leave much of the film painfully predictable, while the punchy pacing of Scott Pilgrim leaves The World’s End feeling sluggish by comparison. It doesn’t help that Pegg is a little too successful at making King unlikeable, and it’s difficult to remain sympathetic once he has put his friends in jeopardy for the umpteenth time in one night.

3.5-Stars

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

Star Trek Into DarknessDemoted after an attempt to save an alien race results in the U.S.S. Enterprise breaking the Prime Directive, James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) finds himself playing First Officer to Christopher Pike’s (Bruce Greenwood) newly reinstated Captain. When Starfleet headquarters is attacked by a rogue officer called John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), The Enterprise is given the responsibility of tracking the terrorist to an uninhabited region of the Klingon homeworld and destroying him with a payload of special, long-range photon torpedoes. When Spock’s (Zachary Quinto) unease convinces the Captain to capture rather than kill Harrison, however, the very future of the Federation is thrown into jeopardy. Read more of this post

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.

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)

Spying a bargain and acquiring a model boat, roving reporter Tintin (Jamie Bell) immediately finds himself protecting his purchase from two other would-be customers. Warned by one that his life is now in danger, Tintin is left bewildered as his benefactor is shot and his model stolen. When the man responsible is unable to find what he is looking for, a small parchment that fell from the replica when Tintin’s dog Snowy broke it, he kidnaps the reporter and smuggles him aboard the Karaboudjan under the nose of the ship’s alcoholic captain. Escaping from his confines, Tintin befriends Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), who is himself being held in a sort of prison, and depart the ship on a life-boat. Setting sale for Morocco, the Karaboudjan‘s original destination, the two slowly unravel the mystery of the model ship’s worth, entering into a race to discover the whereabouts of Red Rackham’s (Daniel Craig) treasure.

I think my favourite thing about The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is how much fun it is; a pre-requisite for an action-adventure blockbuster, you’d have thought, but remarkable nonetheless. Gone are the staid childhood traumas, the trite sexual politics and the misplaced existential angst that needlessly riddle other such movies, replaced instead with an extra scattering of set pieces and a potent thirst for adventure. While there will be those who lament the lack of character development and bemoan the apparent absence of psychological complexity, there’s always We Need To Talk About Kevin, for everyone else Tintin has everything you could ever want from a Spielbergian popcorn movie.

For the very existence of Tintinology as a field of study indicates that there is more to our boy hero than might initially meet the eye. You don’t need a poorly written female foil or a soliloquy denoting inner turmoil to read complexity into a character, people can – and have been – drawing conclusions about Tintin for years. For everyone willing to take Hergé’s cypher at face value, however, little is lost; the character’s friendships, gusto and improbable luck proving suitably engaging without a Mrs. Tintin standing in the kitchen to be kidnapped for dramatic effect, undressed on cue or used to convince America’s Deep South that our hero, like, isn’t gay or anything.

While Spielberg has thankfully remained true to the characters (poor, poor Sherlock Holmes, what has Guy Richie done to you!?), he has inevitably been forced to cash in his creative licence on occasion, particularly when it comes to the film’s plot. Taking the book of the same name, shoehorning in large swathes of previous story The Crab With The Golden Claws, and largely ignoring the concluding instalment, Red Rackham’s Treasure, Spielberg’s adaptation is a veritable melting-pot of ideas taken from throughout the entire series. While this might disenfranchise less forgiving fans, and leave everyone with even a passing familiarity with the source material scratching their heads (I for one found the pacing off until I realised what was being left out and what was being kept in), it ultimately works beautifully. Taken on its own merits, as any successful adaptation should be, The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn is an absolute delight.

Opening with an absolutely inspired montage which highlights classic moments from both Tintin’s past and future, the sequence beautifully demonstrates not only the director’s embrace of his newfangled, motion-capture enabled freedom, but also gives John Williams the opportunity to showcase his truly accomplished score. Much like Edgar Wright’s work on Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Spielberg’s Tintin dances between scenes with utmost fluidity and imagination: whether cutting through a reflective bubble or alternating between delirium and reality – sand giving way to ocean – this really is the director’s most visually captivating film to date. Not only does he bring Hergé’s art to life with the utmost zeal, he uses his new medium to create the ultimate motion comic. Film.

It is clear that the director is having almost as much fun as his audience, with the film building up a truly astonishing momentum, particularly during one memorable set piece involving a motorbike, a bazooka and a beautifully realised city-slide. Referencing the comic’s mythology (take a bow, Bianca Castafiore) as often as he does his own body of work (one sequence harks back to the boulder-chase from Raiders of the Lost Ark, while another references Jaws), Tintin is a feast for the senses that will more than likely still have much to give through repeated viewings.

With Spielberg’s take on the narrative, however, there are inevitably scenes and characters missing in action: Thomson (Simon Pegg) and Thompson (Nick Frost – with a ‘p’, like in psychology) barely feature, Professor Calculus is absent altogether and the entire treasure hunt is scrapped in favour of a duel between warring cranes. That said, it is difficult to criticise a film for what it leaves out, and with Spielberg and second-unit director Peter Jackson drawing influences from the series as a whole it is likely that there sequences won’t be lost forever. A definite saving grace considering the comedy that could be mined from the scene in which the police officers attempt to chew tobacco or the professor’s hearing impairment.

While Hergé’s whimsical and ludicrous plotting may prove too contrived for some viewers (Tintin does spend an awful lot of time in exposition mode), the character’s transition to screen is otherwise a huge success. Exquisitely rendered and perfectly voiced (Andy Serkis, you ARE Captain Haddock), The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is a breathtaking, pulse-pounding and laugh-out-loud funny piece of cinema; an absolute blast from beginning to end. Gobs will be smacked.

Paul (2011)

Fresh from their long awaited geekgasm at the hands of Comic-Con, British tourists Graeme Willy (Simon Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Nick Frost) round off their American vacation with a road-trip around the country’s most famed UFO hotspots. Re-enacting their favourite scenes from Star Trek and unintentionally annoying the local hillbillies, the travellers are driven off-course when they pick up an Extra Terrestrial hitch-hiker named Paul. On the run from everybody (literally), Graeme and Clive must go on their own sci-fi adventure if they are ever going to help alien Paul phone home and catch a bit of the action they’ve been reading about all these years.

Rather than twiddle their thumbs as common collaborator Edgar Wright went off to make Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost endeavoured to write a love letter to Steven Spielberg in return for being cast in the legendary directors upcoming Tintin adaptation – even going as far as completing the film’s cross-country road trip themselves for inspiration. In this respect they have succeeded entirely, the film is a veritable smorgasbord of homages and obscure references to various geekdoms to deliriously giggle-worthy effect. But Paul is by no means the laugh-a-minute joyride I (and I am guessing you) were expecting as the lights went down and the title card flashed up, however, as a series of failings rob the film of greatness.

Paul‘s biggest problem is its focus – or resolute lack thereof, as the plot meanders gracelessly and the tone all but explodes in a disappointingly inconsequential attempt to be everything to everyone. While little references provoke knowing smiles, a much less enchanting portion of the comedy is unashamedly broad, a saddening blend of American stereotypes and bog-standard Seth Rogen stoner shtick that attempts to poke fun at Christianity with all the finesse of one of Michael Moore’s megaphones. As our heroes trail an ever expanding number of antagonists, stopping only to cavort with conveniently placed cameos and smoke weed, there is very little sense that the plot is going anywhere, other than from A is for Apple to B is for Banana. Unlike previous collaborations Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, the plot may go nowhere but the characters don’t either.

That is not to say that Paul is not entertaining. It is. And then some. It is just not as riotous as the premise appears to promise. Essentially a bromantic buddy-comedy road movie genre picture spoof, the potential for Paul is virtually endless, as the titular alien quickly proves the best -and most sympathetic – character Seth Rogen has ever played (as he did not, it turns out, voice Krumm in Aah! Real Monsters). Jane Lynch and Sigourney Weaver are wasted – as the immortal lampoon “get away from her, you bitch!” is squandered on the tongue of a throwaway last act character – and the running time is padded with smaltzy romance and contrived near-misses.

That said, Paul is still an absolute pleasure, made by geeks for geeks and gloriously self-indulgent in the process. Genuinely impressive CGI stands testament to the respect and good-will Pegg and Frost have built up during their time in the states, the movie’s Hollywood gloss outshadowing the majority of Britain’s necessarily less well rendered special effects and science fiction. I found myself lost in the character’s eyes, not only as he brought birds back to life and turned invisible, but also as he stood motionless and emoted with utter conviction.

Where Paul truly comes to life, however, is in its homages. Everything from Star Trek to Alien – Star Wars to E.T. – is honoured and lampooned, Paul‘s resident alien delightfully irreverent to humankind’s depiction of extra terrestrial life. Fulfilling their respects to the genre, Paul could unfortunately been a far more fulfilling experience with a few more drafts, a better controlled momentum and a little more originality.