Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)

★★★

Mission Impossible - Rogue Nation PosterDirector: Christopher McQuarrie

Release Date: 30th July, 2015 (UK); 31st July, 2015 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Thriller

Starring: Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner

The Mission: Impossible films, in general, are good because the franchise knows exactly what it wants to be, and subsequently what it is. Rogue Nation, which once again pairs Tom Cruise with his Jack Reacher director Christopher McQuarrie, understands its place in the action-thriller lexicon just as well as its four predecessors. The film opens with an exhilarating sequence familiar to those who have seen the trailer: IMF agent Ethan Hunt attempting to clamber inside a gigantic cargo plane as it takes off.

When he eventually boards, the spy-cum-trapeze artist aims a sly shrug at the camera and a shocked bad guy, before parachuting out of the plane with tonnes of nerve gas in tow. The moment reaffirms Cruise’s insanity whilst also ushering in an infectious tongue-in-cheek vibe that thrives indefinitely. “I’ve heard stories, they can’t all be true,” says an Impossible Missions Force operative to Hunt in the calmer scene that follows. They’re definitely all true.

This story centres on the IMF’s unauthorised motion to take down a terrorist organisation reeking global havoc, known as the Syndicate. It’s righteousness versus evil. Mission: Impossible knows it isn’t as gritty as Bourne or as intelligent as Bond, and Rogue Nation’s high-concept plot somewhat reflects that. McQuarrie’s movie is not in any way mindless though — quite the opposite. It purveys a frothy exuberance that relentlessly breathes life into the screenplay and a coyness reflected in said screenplay’s playful genre jabs.

The film constantly pokes fun at itself, reaching out and nudging viewers amid all of the high intensity nonsense and popcorn silliness. “Nessun Dorma” chimes out as Hunt and a big baddie perform combat acrobatics on a lighting rig above an opera performance. The higher the note, the more absurd it gets. But it’s entertaining, one of a few tremendous action set pieces. An underwater spectacle conveys the same technical merit as Gravity and is probably the best of the bunch, highlighting some really intuitive camera work from Robert Elswit — his shots manoeuvre with the stunts and become part of the slick show. We shouldn’t be surprised given his portfolio (There Will Be Blood, Nightcrawler), and here Elswit introduces a cheery energy that those films didn’t have.

At one point Hunt ponders the location of a MacGuffin. Morocco apparently. Cue Lalo Schifrin’s mischievous theme and an ironic Cruise smile (not another sunny location!). He and Simon Pegg are fun to watch as odd buddies whose friendship you genuinely buy into. They meet up with Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust who, in an earlier scene, promptly turns Hunt’s condescending, “You should go before it gets ugly,” into something more appreciative (she rescues him by beating up a ragtag band of tough guys as he struggles to unlock his handcuffs). The character is a super addition and Ferguson nails it. She is tough like Emily Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow, but a great deal more emotionally receptive than Rita Vrataski.

Back to Morocco, where Faust outlines a seemingly impossible mission. Wink, wink. Her five minute spiel detailing the most difficult heist in history is delivered with such credible nonchalance that we actually believe the group can pull it off. They do. The conclusion of said heist signals a lengthy stretch during which the film loses steam. Like many overexuberant blockbusters, at almost two and a half hours Rogue Nation is too long, which means we get unnecessary gap-filling acts where characters speed around in fast vehicles with very little at stake.

McQuarrie tries to inject ambiguity into an otherwise conventional narrative by contemplating the trust-related pitfalls faced by agents (“There are no allies in statecraft, only common interests”). A fleeting Cold War-esque paranoia infects the air and sort of muddies various characters’ credibility. The aforementioned opera scene includes a three way shootout embodying this uncertainty. Is Faust a double, or triple, agent? Is Jeremy Renner’s — whose brilliantly snarky performance warrants much more screen time — William Brandt secretly liaising with Alec Baldwin’s CIA director? The suspicion mantle is overworked, demeaning characters’ decision-making and suggesting their motives lack focus.

On the other hand, the film’s modern day socio-economic terrorism angle isn’t explored enough. Sean Harris’ Solomon Lane is an underwhelming villain. He relentlessly places misguided trust in Faust, which only serves to undermine his intellect. Lane is not a hulking enemy — a guy called the ‘Bone Doctor’ fulfils our hard-hitting desires — which is fine, but because we don’t comprehend his savvy as much as we should he never feels like much of a threat.

This sticks its tongue out until the very end and earns the right to be whimsical. There aren’t any attempts to sit at tables already reserved by other action staples. The film resultantly doesn’t have a sharp bite, which might be for the best given the flippant nature of its only moderately engaging thematic endeavours. Rogue Nation is still probably the IMF’s best outing to date though.

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation - Cruise & Ferguson

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collier

Images copyright (©): Paramount Pictures

Blue Jasmine (2013)

★★★

Director: Woody Allen

Release Date: August 23, 2013 (US); September 27th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Drama

Starring: Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin, Peter Sarsgaard

Upon its release Blue Jasmine received rave reviews from viewers and, after a few months hovering around cinema screens and iffy online streams, is variably considered a return to form from the eccentric Woody Allen. I’m not extensively versed in Allen-lore, not nearly as much as i ought to be considering his lofty status in Hollywood and abroad. That being said, whilst his newest offering brims with scintillating performances (two Oscar nominated deliveries stand out in particular) the content, narrative and direction all add up to something a bit… bland. It’s a difficult story to consume and a tricky one tell, a story that shouldn’t insist on generating humour as often as it tries, particularly when there’s non to be shared. It’s possible that I just don’t get it; that the quirky, erudite versus blue-collar joust is something not entirely compatible with this 20-year-old. More than that though, Allen seems to be trying overly hard as he attempts to deliver on one too many fronts, leaving the intended humour absent and the compulsory drama simmering. But only just simmering.

Jasmine (that’s Jasmine, not Jeannette) Francis is an upper-class socialite from New York who finds herself mentally, physically and financially drained following separation from her unashamed husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin). She isn’t used to earning, to maintaining herself and her life outwith superficial externals such as high-brow struts and an aristocratic ambience. Only it’s not an ambience, it’s an annoyance. An annoyance that has haunted her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) ever since childhood, when their foster parents favoured Jasmine’s superior “genes”. In her time of need, Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) moves to San Francisco to live and survive by Ginger who remains frustrated over a misshaped business deal proposed by Hal, amongst a number of other issues related to her now spiralling sister.

Evidently there’s a lot going on, yet too often the happenings are overly trivial — discussions reigned in on antiques for example — and therefore aren’t substantial enough to fully engage the viewer. Perhaps that’s the point, that Jasmine is such a one-dimensional and flawed character, therefore the film should be too. This approach doesn’t catch on though as Jasmine and many of the other people on screen are very difficult to relate to. At one point Ginger points out the obvious: “When Jasmine don’t wanna know something, she gotta habit of looking the other way.” In a sense the narrative follows this mantra too — just when there’s a glimmer of something intriguing on the horizon the road suddenly detours back to stagnant repetitiveness.

And it certainly is repetitive. As their lives together progress and various agents enter and exit (boyfriends mainly), Jasmine constantly scalds Ginger for her poor taste in unworthy men. First it’s Augie, a working-class and slightly optimistic guy held down by the harsh realities of life. Chili follows, a mechanic who unlike Augie treats Ginger with respect even if at times his exuberance gets the better of him. Jasmine relentlessly disapproves, neglecting her own prior misdemeanours when it comes to settling with the right partner. In fact, her wrongful rejection of Chili is probably the only time Jasmine is not thinking about herself: she often reminisces about sailing around San Tropez in front of her less fortunate sister who has hardly travelled America never mind the world; she flies first class on her way to Ginger, even though she has no money, which is the main reason for her relocation; in fact Jasmine removes herself from all tasks unbecoming of her (“I never pay attention to house business affairs”). Combined, this makes it incredibly difficult for the viewer to like or even sympathise with Jasmine, which is essentially the downfall of the film as the camera stalks her every move and not much else.

Allen juxtaposes the past and present as life events interchange; from detailing the breakdown of Jasmine and Hal’s marriage to the breakdown of Jasmine herself. Occasionally happenings on screen are tough to watch, but it is often the case that these demanding moments are followed by attempts at humour thrown in as the embodiment of a panicky life-jacket, almost as if the film is fearful of advancing that extra step into Jasmine’s oblivion (which would’ve worked better than the half black comedy, half drama on show). For example, after a tortuous altercation pitting Ginger and Jasmine against an enraged Chili, Jasmine is seen quickly shaking off any resultant cobwebs as she searches for her ringing phone in a nonchalant manner. This woman has recently lost the love of her life in onerous circumstances — wouldn’t she be affected more by this attack with potentially mirroring connotations on her sister?

There is success emitted from Allen’s alternating timeline approach though, as the method distinctly displays the degree of culture clash between Jasmine and Ginger. Jasmine has had everything handed to her on a silver platter. Now that life has crumbled, her anxiety over what’s next conveys exactly how behind she is in the experience of every day normality: she wants to return to school (to study what?); will study fashion or interior design (can’t use a computer); takes computer classes (has no money to afford); accepts the “medial” job that she never wanted, the job that the vast majority of those around her do on a daily basis.

As average as the film is, there’s absolutely no denying the power and sheer struggle evoked by Cate Blanchett as Jasmine. It’s not even a case of the film’s downfalls making her performance glow even brighter, no, Blanchett’s display would stand out in any offering. Even though you don’t really like the character, it’s impossible not to be drawn in by Blanchett’s depiction of painful demise as Jasmine slowly loses all sense of wherewithal and dignity. The portrayal is uncomfortable to watch at times and it should be that way. Without Blanchett at the helm, the film might have teetered worryingly close to Diana territory.

Sally Hawkins also deserves plaudits for her starkly contrasting role as the less fortuitous sister; likeable and empathetic as she establishes and maintains a strong sense of empowerment throughout the film’s progression. In an abnormal role from his usual work, Peter Sarsgaard is astute and pompously slick as the yin to Jasmine’s yang. Their first meeting is actually one of the film’s better moments, where the pair enter a self-congratulatory word-off as they divulge many an “I” and “my husband and myself”. It’s arrogant and self-absorbed nonsense, and it completely works because these characters come across as utterly undesirable just as they are supposed to in that moment.

Blue Jasmine is a film where nobody really seems to be listening to each other (“Pay attention Augie”), where characters are solely focused on getting their two — or 20 — cents in, meaning proceedings feel too feeble. The darkly comic moments don’t really fit in, and the emotionally wrought sections seldom have the desired effect. It’s no surprise that that actors are receiving awards nominations left right and centre as opposed to the film itself. While it is far from terrible, there’s a lot of onus on Cate Blanchett to make the picture worthwhile. Thankfully, in doing her worst, she does her absolute best.

Seduced and Abandoned (2013)

★★

Director: James Toback

Release Date: November 8th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Documentary

Relaxing in royalty. Swapping stories with A-list film stars. Soaking in the baking sunshine of Cannes. All in a decent days work for director James Toback and his cohort Alec Baldwin. Yet, the subject matter of Seduced and Abandoned (as the title may hint at) is the harshness of the film industry.

Don’t call me Shirley.

The thing is, this is most likely all just a part of the act. Toback and Baldwin probably aren’t really being serious here. And if that’s the case, then Seduced and Abandoned is a pretty entertaining, but wholly depth-deprived traipse around the world of cinema (and more). However if the duo are being genuine in their plight to finance an exotic thriller; in their quest to unearth the financial backing difficulties; in their attempts to convey film as a purely short-term industry — all of this as a means towards highlighting their own battles against adversity — then the duo themselves have a problem. And that problem has nothing to do with money-men or hesitant co-stars.

The documentary follows director James Toback and actor Alex Baldwin around the 2012 Cannes Film Festival as they simultaneously attempt to successfully pitch a far-fetched film idea at a variety of industry heads, whilst also using said time with their colleagues to discuss the trials and tribulations of the business (and just about anything else really). Less than a minute into proceedings and we’re already swimming around the less-than-serious territory as the pair talk about divorce while a scene from The Getaway blares in the foreground. Ho Ho Ho. This is astutely followed by a bout of reverent back-patting as the words “I trust you” ring out several times. I certainly hope Neve Campbell doesn’t trust them — the duo’s proclamation not to exclude her from their potential film in the heat of pressure from higher-ups (or “throw her under the bus”) wanes fairly quickly. In all fairness, they don’t Tippex her out completely, and being downgraded from a major to a minor role isn’t all that bad really, is it? Well done for avoiding that bus Neve. Hey, wait! Watch out for that… car.

It’s obvious early on that Toback and Baldwin aren’t totally sincere in their attempts to make this all-promising film. The numerous interviews asking script-readers about scripts, money-men about money and actors about acting as part of their exotic-romance-fantasy project are all probably genuine in an informative sense; in attempting to uncover the structures in place and barriers surrounding film-making. However, the meetings which play out on screen are most certainly not whole-hearted and true in a ‘coming soon to a screen near you’ notion. There’s nothing plausible about them. Toback wears sunglasses indoors and in the presence of greats such as Bernardo Bertolucci for goodness sake: who would take the guy seriously? In a semi-satirical context therefore, the film is quite entertaining, albeit devoid of any stinging backbone.

Having said that, although primarily ironic in its presentation, Seduced and Abandoned does raise one or two thought-provoking idiosyncrasies. During their discussions with big movie stars and important head-honchos — people like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Ryan Gosling and Jessica Chastain are featured — an interesting ‘big film vs. small film’ sentiment develops. This holds an even greater degree of reverence in the backdrop of the Cannes Film Festival, as festivals are renowned for generally hailing the more microscopic, art-house, independent and often international productions. Cannes itself, for instance, has awarded its highest honour to films such as Blue is the Warmest Colour (France), Amour (Austria) and The Tree of Life (USA) recently. None of these films were massive box-office draws and two are courtesy of European cinema rather than American or British, yet they all gained the Cannes Palme d’Or. Toback and Baldwin explore the issue of marketability versus story as they speak to investors (what will make us the most money as opposed to what will engage the audience?) and examine an ever evolving audience demand to see a cast of stars instead of just one during cinema trips. It is in these conversations that the documentary delivers, although deliveries are too few and far between.

Toback and Baldwin spend a portion of the film laughing and joking with Ryan Gosling who tells a number of hardship-filled stories about moving to Los Angeles as an inexperienced actor, and the difficulties in getting ahead of everyone else who had the same aspirations as he did. Bearing in mind Gosling is arguably the biggest movie star on the planet at the moment, his recollections tread on hallowed turf for the most part, essentially compounding the hypothetical, humorous approach taken by Toback and Baldwin over a serious one. That being said, Gosling is actually very funny.

While the grandiose music trumpets through the credits, you are left in no doubt regarding Seduced and Abandoned‘s intentions, instead wondering just how much the film really has to say about the industry it may or may not thrive in. It’s quite entertaining and occasionally thought-provoking, but in all honesty it doesn’t say an awful lot. The big versus small comparison is intriguing, however Francis Ford Coppola’s words ring true when it comes to everything else: “The other stuff isn’t important.”