Mission Impossible–Rogue Nation

If they awarded Oscars for best stunt work—and by the way, that’s not a bad idea—Mission Impossible—Rogue Nation would be the favorite at this point. This has been a series built around images and eye-popping stunts from the beginning. Tom Cruise suspended from the ceiling is an image that has entered the popular imagination, copied and parodied endlessly. It has always been more about style than substance.
You don’t really need to know the plot do you? Oh, very well. The IMF is disbanded at the request of CIA director Alan Hunley, played by Alec Baldwin, who is tired of their cowboy approach to operations, even though they get results. Ethan Hunt, played by Tom Cruise, is after a secretive organization called “The Syndicate.” It is made up of ex-operatives from the international espionage community and they are all every bit as well trained as Hunt’s crew and there are hundreds of them. Unfortunately, nobody in the CIA believes the Syndicate exists and Hunt becomes a wanted man.
As mentioned the stunt work is top notch and that’s almost enough to make the movie worth it. The problem is that they don’t really build. When you start with Tom Cruise hanging off a plane as it takes off, there’s not a whole lot that can top that. Also the action isn’t clear or clean. There’s a scene where he has to replace a chip in a computer that’s under water. He gets the chips mixed up and they never tell us how he knows which is which. Maybe he just guessed but that wasn’t clear.
There are also classic MI images of operations where Hunt is infiltrating a building and relying on a guy with a computer hidden somewhere opening doors and giving him intel. But you don’t get the feeling that they’ve meticulously planned these operations. They’re so good at this point they can do it by the seats of their pants? Half the fun in these things is knowing that the IMF will out think and out plan its enemies, not just beat them through sheer guts.
The acting is fine but let’s face it these are not challenging roles. Nobody really went beyond the cliché tropes found in hundreds of other movies of this type. And with this script there’s really no reason to.
Christopher McQuarrie both wrote and directed this movie. He tries so hard to make it complicated and subtle, but it winds up being convoluted and somewhat off-putting. All the plot machinations drive out any opportunity for characterization.
When you’re not giving your star and co-producer enough to do, it’s probably time to re-think your approach.
Mission Impossible—Rogue Nation is the first serious misstep in this franchise. Hopefully they’ll get back on track next time.

Ant-Man

Ant-Man is Marvel’s second entry into its mega-continuity this summer. The first was The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Now as fans of the comics know there are two Ant-Men. The first is Hank Pym, played by Michael Douglas, who invented the technology that allows people and things to shrink down to insect size, while retaining their full size strength. He is also able to control ants. Back in the ‘80s, Pym and his wife Janet Van Dyne would run missions for S.H.I.E.L.D. until Janet was lost. Pym never got over this and retreated from life withdrawing from everyone, including his daughter, Hope. Then he lost control of his company and the new board of directors sought to weaponize the tech. Pym resigned, taking the secret of his technology with him.
Now Pym’s old assistant, Darren Cross, played by Corey Stoll, is running the company and is on the verge of rediscovering the shrinking tech. What’s more he wants to sell it to HYDRA. Pym must stop him. He has an ally in his daughter, Hope, played by Evangeline Lilly, who is Cross’s assistant and has recognized the danger in what Cross is trying to do. Pym also recruits Scott Lang, played by Paul Rudd, a small time burglar who eschews violence and only picks deserving targets, companies that cheat poor people or pollute, for his crimes. Lang wears the shrinking suit.
So Ant-Man becomes a heist movie. I think they were trying for a light-hearted tone closer to Guardians of the Galaxy than the latest Avengers or Captain America entries. Unfortunately they don’t quite succeed. This film had a troubled production history, originally having been the idea of Edgar Wright, a British director who specializes in comedies. He still gets top screenwriting credit on the film. He left, citing “creative differences” before principle photography began and Peyton Reed took over. The assumption is that Wright chafed under Marvel’s insistence that the film fit into the larger universe of its superhero franchise. It is difficult not to wonder what the film would have been like had Wright stayed. As it is the tone is somewhat uneven. The pace flags, especially at the beginning where it takes forever for the main story to get going. Scott’s entry into Hank Pym’s world is way too complicated.
That being said Paul Rudd is a gifted comic actor who has tons of charisma. It’s almost impossible not to like him.
The script isn’t bad, except for the aforementioned pacing problems. It makes the shrinking technology, which is from one of the sillier sections of Marvel’s manual of comic book science, almost believable. The characters are drawn well enough with proper and sympathetic motivations. Some of the nods to the Marvel universe feel tacked on, however.
I think I’ve spotted a pattern in these things. The first film in the series, like Captain America or The Avengers, is lighter in tone and then things get more serious in the sequels. If this happens with Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and Ant-Man 2, I think it will be confirmed.
In the meantime, Ant-Man is a decent summer film, although probably a lesser entry into the Marvel movie universe.

Terminator Genisys

When the first two Terminator films came out, I was expecting director James Cameron to make a nice three to four film series taking us in a time loop from 1984 to the destruction of Skynet in 2029. I envisioned it being something like the original run of Planet of the Apes movies. Unfortunately after T2, Cameron either lost interest or the rights–I’m too lazy to look up what happened right now–and less talented people took over the franchise. Keep in mind this was before Cameron forgot how to create interesting and sympathetic characters. The only series that I can think of that was more ill-served by a change in creative vision is Tim Burton’s Batman or maybe Aliens. And yet every time they make a new one I hope for a return to form.

Has anybody else noticed that the line between optimism and masochism can be very thin?

Terminator Genisys actually is similar to what I envisioned the last film in my original conception of the series was to be. It begins in 2029 with the defeat of Skynet. John Connor, played by Jason Clarke, is leading a strike force against a Skynet facility that houses their time machine. They get there too late and the original Terminator, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, is sent back to 1984 to kill John Connor’s mother Sarah, here played by Emilia Clarke. As in the first movie Kyle Reese, here played by Jai Courtney, is sent back to protect her. But as the time machine is sending him back, he sees John Connor attacked by a Terminator that had infiltrated their unit. When he arrives back in 1984, he finds Sarah already fully trained by a reprogrammed Terminator (Arnold again) who had saved her when she was nine. His biological outer skin has aged and he looks old and gray. Reese quickly realizes that his mission is now to fix the future and stop Skynet, now renamed Genisys, from going online in 2017. Trying to stop him is John Connor, now turned into a hybrid human/terminator. Yes they turned John Connor into the bad guy.

It’s a pretty film with good special effects and stunts. The script is moderately clever with some good twists, but there are some holes in the plot and much left to be explained in possible sequels. A lot of the feel of the Cameron directed Terminator films was in the music, those percussive low notes that vibrated your spine. That’s missing here.
The biggest flaw is the casting. Emilia Clarke is lovely to look at but her performance is a little wooden, which is perfect for the diffident and uncertain of herself Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones, but here she’s not going to make anyone forget Linda Hamilton. Likewise Jai Courtney is also a little bland, lacking the intensity that Michael Biehn brought to the role. Say what you want about Cameron, he does know how to cast a movie.
Having read some of the reviews, I gather that the biggest complaint people have is John Connor becoming a villain. I thought it would bother me too but it didn’t. I remember when T2 came out there were people who didn’t like Arnold’s robot being the good guy. This series contains time travel and anything can be fixed. If they keep making them I’m sure every character will spend some time on the wrong side.
What does bother me is that like a couple of other series entries this summer, the filmmakers are unwilling to expand their scope. Mad Max films seem to only be about people chasing each other across the desert; Jurassic Park films are only about dinosaurs getting out of their pens and eating people and Terminator films can only be about robots coming back from the future and creating mayhem. There are whole worlds to explore in those series but they cling to the old formulas.
But I suppose if they wanted to make something different and original, they wouldn’t be making sequels.

Inside Out

Early adolescence is a crucial time in the development of a child’s personality. It is a time of change and uncertainty when conflicting emotions rage inside the mind. The young person wants more independence and yet still craves the loving and secure parent-built cocoon that is all she has ever known. I suppose that all life changes have that dual nature of looking backward with nostalgia and forward with dread and excitement. But the results of the conflict between emotions in this particular period seem to have a permanent effect on the individual. It is one of life’s most vital transitions.
Okay, that’s a pretty heavy intro for a review of a cartoon, but I think this is what Inside Out is dealing with. The filmmakers are illustrating this internal conflict by personifying those emotions as they struggle to find their roles in the mind of one young girl. Riley voiced by Kaitlyn Dias, moves to San Francisco with her parents voiced by Kyle MacLachlan and Diane Lane. Coming from the Midwest, Riley is very much intimidated by the change in lifestyle and culture that she faces in a major city. Her internal emotions, Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling), are in turmoil. Up until now Joy has been Riley’s dominant emotion, but with the changes in her life, both from the move and from growing up, Joy’s decisions are not working as well as they used to. What’s more, Sadness is beginning to assert herself, although in a very passive aggressive way. None of the emotions seem to think that’s a good thing.
Inside Out is directed by Pete Doctor and Ronaldo Del Carmen. They also get “Story by” credits. This is Del Carmen’s first time directing a feature, after a career of laboring in the art departments for Pixar and other animation companies. Pete Doctor, however, is one of Pixar’s old hands. He directed Up, Monsters Inc., the first Toy Story and Wall-E, all first rate productions. And this time he has come up with another classic. Inside Out is a very inventive and touching story. Like the best of Pixar it goes for the emotions without becoming maudlin.
This may seem like an odd comment, but it is also very realistic. The bickering emotions who are learning how to work together through this new change, accurately reflect what goes on in a young person’s mind as she figures how she feels and how she should react. Also the crisis comes when Riley is about to make a very serious mistake. They pull no punches here.
Of course the technical elements are perfect as they always are even when Pixar stumbles. The film is pretty and well designed. The animation is flawless and inventive. They cast the parts well. Who else is going to play Anger other than Lewis Black? Richard Kind who plays Bing Bong, an old imaginary friend, deserves special mention.
I’m not a psychologist, so I have no idea how closely Inside Out reflects modern thinking about the development of adolescent minds, but it feels right. It is certainly touching and will remind you of the struggles you had at that age. And most importantly it is very entertaining.

Jurassic World

Jurassic Park was a movie that had to be made once special effects technology made it possible. The image of dinosaurs running around fighting other dinosaurs and eating people is so primal that it was bound to make a ton of money even if it was horrible. It wasn’t horrible but it also wasn’t the best that Speilberg could do either. I’ve always been vaguely disappointed in it. First of all there is the concept, which Michael Crichton stole from his own Westworld, about an amusement park gone wrong. It seems a little too obvious and pat. It’s also a way to put children into danger, which is a shortcut to sympathy and not always a fair one.
And now they are doing it again. Twenty-two years have gone by since the events in the first film. The park was renamed Jurassic World and reopened ten years earlier. Unfortunately, the novelty has worn off and attendance is beginning to drop. To combat this decline in interest, the leader of the Park, Clair played by Bryce Dallas Howard, has decided to genetically engineer a new deadly dinosaur species. Her nephews Gray played by Ty Simpkins, and Zach played by Nick Robinson, are visiting the park for a few days.
I don’t think I’m spoiling anything when I report that things go wrong.
It is almost exactly the same plot as the first movie and I suppose it deserves criticism for that, but darn it, the movie is exciting. The kid actors are pretty good. They bicker and bond as brothers believably and they’re not just victims; they are smart and get themselves out of a lot of jams. Bryce Dallas Howard is convincing as a workaholic who is concentrating on the bottom line. And Chris Pratt plays both the action hero and the Cassandra as he keeps telling people to take further precautions and they tells them “I told you so,” when they don’t. He’s not too annoying. The characterization isn’t deep but it is enough to make you care.
Jurassic World is a pretty film, of course. The dinos are seamlessly interwoven into the live action. I assume that it is a combination of CGI and practical effects. They do a good job of believably portraying what a massive tourist attraction like this must look and feel like, from the ferries between Costa Rica and Isla Nubar to the gift shops and hotels on the island.
It’s a journeyman-like script if not terribly original.
Jurassic World is a perfect summer movie much like Jurassic Park was. You should see it, even if it is essentially a remake.

Tomorrowland

In my review of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, I used the phrase, “This is your grandfather’s science fiction.” If that’s true then Tomorrowland is your dad’s. It is a tribute to 60’s SF, an optimistic time, influenced by Kennedy’s new frontier and the nascent space program. The horribleness of Vietnam and Watergate were still ahead of us and things like Star Trek delivered a bright vision of the future. Walt Disney was giving us animations of space stations and Werner Von Braun explained how this was all going to happen in a few short years. We still thought nuclear power was a good idea.
And then, of course, it all went wrong. Our future is now seen as more likely to be Mad Max than Star Trek. The current rage of dystopic novels and movies show that optimism is on the wane.
Brad Bird director and one of the screenwriters of Tomorrowland, examines this dichotomy. Casey Newton played by Britt Robinson, is a smart teenage girl, who’s curious about science and still optimistic despite the fact that they’re tearing down the launch pads on Cape Canaveral near where she lives, and putting her engineer father played by Tim McGraw, out of a job. Despite all this she still believes in the promise of science. One day she finds a pin with the Tomorrowland logo on it. When she touches it she is transported to a plain of wheat fields where she sees a city of towering spires in the distance. Curious, she investigates and eventually shows up on the front porch of Frank Walker played by George Clooney. Frank is a former boy genius, who was invited to Tomorrowland at the 1964 New York World’s Fair by an enigmatic girl named Athena played by Raffey Cassidy.
I would probably spoil it if I went into the nature of Tomorrowland. I’ll just say it was created to be a scientific utopia and something has gone wrong. Athena thinks that Casey can fix it.
Tomorrowland is a pretty movie. The art direction isn’t completely retro as I suspected it would be when I saw vacuum tubes in Frank’s work room. They did a good job of extrapolating the tech and design from the era when Tomorrowland split off from our world. The effects are seamless, although not groundbreaking.
The acting here is fine as well. It’s always fun to watch George Clooney in grumpy comedic mode. He’s not really stretching and the screenwriters didn’t give him much to work with but Clooney is one of those movie stars who can go a long way just on his charisma. Hugh Laurie is sufficiently disdainful and yet not entirely evil as the bad guy. The real revelation is Britt Robertson who turns in a marvelous performance as Casey. Her exasperation with the obstacles placed in front of her and her boundless optimism is believable and firmly rooted in her characterization.
The script has an odd structure. Casey is introduced as our viewpoint character but she really doesn’t know what the plot’s central conflict is until about two thirds of the way into the story. Up until then it’s all set up. And once we do know the plot, it’s a little simple and easily resolved. Fortunately, it’s a really interesting set up and so the movie almost works. The problem is that for all that effort, this world still feels incomplete. I don’t understand how it interfaces with ours, or how the society in Tomorrowland is arranged. And I’m curious. Also considering the secrecy and the large viral marketing campaign for this movie, I was expecting more of an event.
Basically, as one reviewer put it, this is like a live action Disney movie from the 60’s; it’s watchable, enjoyable even, but it has no ambition to be great. I can see what drew Brad Bird, the director of The Iron Giant and The Incredibles to this project. It would seem to right up his alley. But maybe he’s getting bored with retro SF. I’m a baby-boomer and I grew up on those Disney films so Tomorrowland did speak to me but I guess I was expecting more.

Mad Max Fury Road

Once there was no bigger SF movie series than Mad Max. The first film is a cheapie that rose from the Australian new wave cinema movement. It has technical and some pacing problems but the charisma of its star Mel Gibson, shines through and two years later, the sequel The Road Warrior, made him a huge movie star. The Road Warrior changed action cinema. It has very little characterization and almost no plot. Over half of it is one long chase scene. Sheer action and stunts replace all other narrative elements and it works. The next one Beyond Thunderdome, suffers from expectations and the intrusion of Hollywood sensibilities. It’s not bad but it lacks the pure adrenaline rush of the second one.
Then came a long hiatus. George Miller the writer and director of the series always seemed to be willing to continue with the story of Max Rockatansky’s wanderings across the wasted landscape of post-apocalyptic Australia. But Gibson was reluctant. He didn’t want this iconic character to define and trap him. He eventually came around but circumstances prevented the movie from going forward and then Gibson imploded his career with a drunken anti-Semitic rant given to police who were taking him in for a DWI.
It was hard to imagine anybody else in the role. Then Tom Hardy arrived on the scene. He has the same menacing physicality that Gibson brings to Max and is, if anything, more intense. There are probably people out there who object to the re-casting but I’m not one of them.
At the beginning of the film Max is being held captive by a warlord named Immortan Joe played by Hugh Keays-Byrne. Joe controls an aquifer under a stone mountain and metes out water in small doses to the thirsty masses who live at the foot of it. He keeps an army of fanatical warriors called war-boys who paint themselves white and believe that they will go to Valhalla if they die in Joe’s service. But Joe is aging and losing his physical strength. He goes to great lengths to hide this from the masses and especially from the war-boys.
It turns out that Max is a universal blood donor; his blood is compatible with anybody’s, so Joe and his war-boys keep him around for transfusions. When Imperator Furiosa played by Charlize Theron, steals Joe’s five wives and makes a run across the badlands, trying to find “the green place,” where she was born and was kidnapped from when she was a child, they strap Max to the front of a pursuit vehicle driven by war-boy Nux played by Nicholas Hoult, and chase her.
Miller has an eye for bizarre images, the vehicles are a mashup of cars, trucks and construction equipment all welded together in improbable ways. He casts people who are missing legs and arms or who have other handicaps and show them scampering across the blasted landscape, trying to scratch out a living. The sets are ingenious Rube Goldberg contraptions made of rusted gears and cobbled together contraptions. And of course the landscapes are a perfect example of beautiful desolation.
The acting is good, especially that of the two leads, Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron. Of course this film isn’t really about acting. The stunts were amazing.
I like the fact that Max is not portrayed as ultra-competent. He makes mistakes and is, in fact, captured in the first scene. He is struggling to survive in the present while burdened with the past just like everybody else.
Something about this film falls flat for me, however. It could be that I was a much younger man in 1982 and responded more to the pace and excitement of The Road Warrior. This kind of film was new then; it’s not now. But I think that it’s something else. The first Mad Max was 88 minutes long. The Road Warrior was 94 minutes. Miller got in, wowed us and then got out. Fury Road weighs in at 120 minutes. It pauses for conversations and weird dream sequences. These don’t seem overlong but they do give the audience time to reflect upon the unlikeliness of the situation. It could be that this series just is not conducive to emotional depth or heavy themes. Maybe there just aren’t that many stories to be told here.
Mad Max Fury Road is a good movie, but I was hoping for a great one like The Road Warrior, and perhaps that was too much to ask.


September 2015
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