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

Top 10 Films of 2014

Have you guys seen that new Star Wars trailer? Or the Jurassic Park one? How crazy was Arrow’s mid-season finale? Better than what Agents of SHIELD had to offer? Or The Flash’s showing? The Walking Dead killed more people! Dave Bautista and Léa Seydoux are in Bond 24, and it’s called Spectre – spooky! Idris Elba might be in Bond 25 – funny!

Disney and Warner Bros are releasing around seventy-one Marvel and DC films over the next decade! Unless Pete has another Middle-earth itch, The Hobbit saga finally finished! Jennifer Lawrence is the year’s highest grossing actor! And those damn North Koreans cancelled The Newsroom… at least I think that’s what happened.

Phew. Now that we’ve caught up on all of the most important things to have happened in life over the last two months, let’s take a look at the year as a whole. In July, I posted my top ten films of 2014 up until then. (You can read that here). The final whistle is about to go on the second half of the year. What, if anything, will make the cut? Oh, drama!

I’ll be sticking to UK release dates – the likes of Birdman, Foxcatcher and Selma aren’t out over here yet. I also haven’t seen Boyhood, but I reckon that’s the only significant omission. Click on any film title to read my review.

EDIT: I have now seen Boyhood. If you read my review, you’ll probably be able to guess where it would end up on this list.

10. Edge of Tomorrow

Edge of Tomorrow is the only film I’ve seen twice at the cinema this year. And for good reason; it’s an intelligent and engaging piece that could’ve easily gone awry. Director Doug Liman takes a chance by plucking Tom Cruise from the top of Hollywood’s good guy pile and dropping him face first on set as the slippery Major William Cage. Of course, Cruise resorts to his heroic norm soon enough, but not before the brilliant Emily Blunt gives him a few kickings.

Edge of Tomorrow - Cruise and Blunt 2

9. The Guest

Speaking of iffy characters, this year Dan Stevens’ soldier is the pick of the bunch. The Guest is Adam Wingard’s best film to date and that is in no small part down to Stevens’ magnificent work as a mysterious visitor who somewhat miraculously charms his way into the Peterson household without much in the way of credentials. Stevens and fellow star Maika Monroe are fairly new to the big screen, and on the evidence of this retro-thriller we’ll be seeing a lot more of them both.

The Guest = Stevens

8. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Steve Rodgers does his best James Bond impression in The Winter Soldier, the first Marvel film to truly break away from a standard that might’ve been becoming generic. Its influence can be traced back to films based around Cold War politics and the aforementioned espionage range, but that’s not to say The Winter Solider loses its superhero drive. In his third credited appearance Chris Evans nails it as the red, white and blue shield-tosser. (As in thrower of protective instrument and not, well… you know).

Captain America: The Winter Soldier - Chris Evans

7. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Matt Reeves’ sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes looks incredible, even by the lofty standards set in our technology age. But this is more than simply a visual wonderment, it’s also genuinely moving. Though Andy Serkis’ performance as Caesar is unlikely to earn him a golden statuette – in truth, those early rumblings were probably unfairly devoid of much foundation – the actor cements his position as peerless when it comes to motion capture acting. He deserves recognition, as does Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as one of the year’s best blockbusters.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - Caesar

6. 12 Years a Slave

Critically-speaking, this is probably the most important film of 2014. Steve McQueen’s movie is an eternally tough watch because we are an eternally flawed species. You’ll do well to find any flaws throughout this offering though, for 12 Years a Slave is an unyielding masterstroke. It rightly won Best Picture back in March and, in truth, wouldn’t look out of place far higher on this list.

5. Gone Girl

We never really know where David Fincher is about to take us during Gone Girl, and as much as our minds are racing attempting to put those pieces together, we never really want to know either. It’s all just so creepy and insane. The director pulls no punches and lives up to his obsessive nature – everything looks pristine, adding to the unsettling aura. Rosamund Pike delivers the best performance of the year and Ben Affleck is quite exceptional too.

Gone Girl - Pike

4. Blue Ruin

I viewed Blue Ruin in a sparsely populated screening room, having entered carrying a brain filled less with critical expectation than a need for sleep. I didn’t sleep. Instead, I intently watched the tautest 90 minutes of the year play out, headlined by a manically normal Macon Blair. This revenge tale harkens back to Hitchcockian cinema; simple, frenetic and nail-biting.

Blue Ruin - Blair

3. Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis placed third in my January-July top ten, behind Blue Ruin and 12 Years a Slave. Now that the last twelve months have collectively drawn to a close, and without the benefit of having re-watched any of the three, Inside Llewyn Davis has won out as the film that continues to reverberate in my mind with the most fondness. It must be down to Oscar Isaacs’ enchanting tones. Or the Coen brothers’ musky setting. This film is also the least bleak of the trio. Hurray for holiday spirit!

2. Guardians of the Galaxy

If The Winter Soldier bucked the generic Marvel trend, Guardians of the Galaxy entered another universe. James Gunn is given the most energetic and interactive cast of the year to work with, so he has them dancing in plant pots and making jokes about Kevin Bacon. Wouldn’t you? The film is packed full of witty gags, but is not without a touching underbelly. After only one outing, the Guardians might’ve even gained more favour than those Avengers. Thor needs to pray more.

Guardians of the Galaxy - Cast

1. Interstellar

Interstellar isn’t perfect. The piece wobbles under the weight of its scientific load occasionally, and champions an ending that might exceed the justifiably grounded expectations of some. But it’s pure cinema. It’s inspiring and uplifting. Heart-breaking and mesmerising. Christopher Nolan pits the plausibility of science against the will of humanity, incorporating an effective cast and a thrilling technical palette in the process, and he subsequently conceives the best film of 2014.

Interstellar - MM

I hope you’re all having a tip-top holiday!

Images credit: Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros, Picturehouse, Walt Disney Studios, 20th Century Fox, Fox Searchlight Pictures, CBS Films

Top 10 Films of 2014 (January-July)

Apart from serving as a stark and somewhat worrying reminder about university work that I’ve not yet completed but absolutely should have, August is also the last month of summer blockbuster season. I’ve no idea why that’s relevant. Here are my top 10 films of the calendar year thus far. UK release dates. It’s about a month late.

We all love lists though, so I hope you fine folks’ll forgive me.

10. X-Men: Days of Future Past

Bryan Singer guides the X-Men franchise back to form with a rip-roaring circus act made up of mind bending time travel, slow motion wall-running and Wolverine being Wolverine. Days of Future Past manages its cast supremely well – even the underused Evan Peters is magnetic. Though, not Magneto. He could be. That joke wasn’t even planned.

DoFP - McAvoy

9. Calvary

Brendan Gleeson both runs and steals the show as Father James Lavelle in a film that plays its cards from the get-go, before promoting a townsfolk guessing game as darkly entertaining and intriguing as any before. The screenplay evolves as characters unravel and, through Father James, we become an integral part of it all.

Calvary - Gleeson and Reilly

8. The Lego Movie

Everything is awesome! And hilarious. And energetic. And utterly batty. A flick that proudly flaunts something for everyone, The Lego Movie is non-stop from start until finish; the incessant stream of laughter that spills from our mouths makes it difficult to regain control of breathing. The film ain’t perfect but when things are this gleefully mental, it doesn’t need to be.

The Lego Movie - Icons

7. Locke

For 85 minutes we sit in a car with Tom Hardy and for 85 minutes Tom Hardy magnificently transforms into an ordinary guy bearing a portfolio of problems, each one weightier than the previous. Locke is a moment in time driven by authentic normality that’s incredibly hard to come by on film.

Locke - Hardy in Car

6. Edge of Tomorrow

Doug Liman’s sci-fi extravaganza is even more than that: it’s startlingly funny, unconditionally engaging and the only film I’ve seen twice at the cinema this year. Tom Cruise flips perception on its head, but Emily Blunt is the one who kicks most ass. Edge of Tomorrow is summer popcorn cinema done intelligently. The correct way.

Edge of Tomorrow - Blunt

5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Hailed as more than simply one of Marvel’s superhero jaunts, The Winter Soldier captures a variety of interests. There’s both a political tinge and an espionage strand to go along with the familiar genre narrative, and these additions work. Chris Evans unveils his best performance as the Cap’n in a film that is considered by many to be the best Marvel output to date. Honestly.

Captain America The Winter Soldier - Captain

4. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn grabs the impressive progress made in Rise and swings to new, greater heights. The tone is more wrought and the outlook is increasingly bleak but, from acting to visuality, the execution is wholly sublime. To simplify Matt Reeves’ flick as the best looking film in a generation would be to do it a disservice. It is, but Dawn also boasts a fulfilling and rewarding foundation.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - Caesar and Mate

3. Inside Llewyn Davis

From smoky bars to icy streets, there’s no escaping the genuine purity of the Coen brothers’ folk piece. Its screenplay is morbidly delightful, and Oscar Isaac is a walking manifestation of just that. Llewyn is a bit of an ass yet we root for him. Peculiarly, and perhaps it’s just me, despite his downtrodden unluckiness we want to be him. Then again, it might simply be the allure of this latest Coen tale.

Inside Llewyn Davis - Oscar Isaac Guitar

2. 12 Years a Slave

Formally recognised as 2013’s best film, 12 Years a Slave hit UK cinemas in January of this year. It’s inarguably the toughest piece on this particular list, and is certainly one of the most gruelling watches in recent memory. Not only is Steve McQueen’s retelling of the harrowing slave trade important, but it’s also incredibly well delivered. People should see this because it depicts a vile chapter that ought to be bookmarked as a warning to humanity.

12 Years a Slave - Ejiofor

1. Blue Ruin

Though it’s not as heavy as 12 Years a Slave, or as furnished as Inside Llewyn Davis, or as visually striking as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Blue Ruin comes nail-bitingly close each time. This is simple storytelling relayed with a restrained confidence and wholesome purpose, and there’s even a tremendous lead performance from Macon Blair to cap it all off. It’s just brilliant.

Blue Ruin - Blair Distance

I’m off to read about the geopolitics of Hollywood.

Images credit: Collider

Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox, Entertainment One, Warner Bros, A24, Walt Disney Studios, CBS Films

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

★★★★

Edge of Tomorrow PosterDirector: Doug Liman

Release Date: May 30th, 2014 (UK); June 6th, 2014 (US)

Genre: Action; Science-fiction

Starring: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt

The key to any film baring a looped narrative is the provision of compelling characters. Or, at the very least, engaging performances. Bill Murray in Groundhog Day and Jake Gyllenhaal in Source Code, for instance. Two aptly mentioned films each of which share an obvious connection with Edge of Tomorrow, Doug Liman’s newest creation that sees the former’s witty humour and the latter’s pulsating mystery combine with a Vantage Point-esque tactical retreading to devise a two hour thrill ride. Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt energetically shepherd proceedings through any potentially damaging plot miscues, coming out the other side battle-worn but not out-battled. The jigsaw doesn’t quite fit together with uniform perfection but assembling it is pretty damn fun. In fact, this might be Tom Cruise’s best outing in a decade.

Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) awakens in familiar surroundings: an army barracks at Heathrow Airport, the word “maggot” ringing in his ear. It’s the near future and Earth is under attack. Aliens known as ‘Mimics’ — experts in adapting to combat human strategy — lead the invasion, and Cage’s interaction with one of the beasts has sent him spiralling into a time loop. A glorified military advertiser, the Major must train both body and mind with the aid of war machine Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) in order to quell the fighting and save humankind.

Edge of Tomorrow presents an often pondered scenario, then repeats until fluency reigns. If you were to throw a pebble into a river, would the water change course forever or eventually restore its old pathway? In this case, we swap pebble for soldier and water for war. There’s no grand idea to ponder, at least not a new one, but sometimes sticking with a winning formula ushers forth success and Liman’s film proves that. What the director does infuse, if not originality, is vitality; a freshness that cleanses with bounce and intrigue upon repetition. We watch as Cage lives out the same day countless times over, yet there’s never a sense that what we’re seeing is merely bland duplication. Quite the opposite actually. For every familiar bellow from Master Sergeant Farrell there’s a modicum of change. A card game hidden under bedsheets, for instance. Smartly, sameness becomes a weapon for both Cage and the viewer: he, attempting to win a war, and us, trying to put the puzzle pieces together. Every time he dies, we start over. Undeniably, there’s a method to the litany. (“An enemy that knows the future can’t lose.”)

The way the narrative plays out is akin to that of a video game. There’s a peculiar humour that comes with the frustration of being unable to bypass a certain stage, a mental headache that, once you finally advance to the next level, beckons in excitement. What’ll happen next? This is the sort of mind-jogging that Christopher McQuarrie’s screenplay dazzles with, and it’s sort of infectious. “What do we do now?” asks Rita. “I don’t know, we never got this far,” replies Cage with sparkling glee, the audience almost expecting him to follow up with a knowing wink in the camera’s direction.

The pair driving proceedings are having as good a time as any, which helps. Both Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt get stuck in, be it whilst careering through a mass of monstrous treachery or delivering gags with precise timing and just as much effort. The camera stalks Cruise throughout the entire film yet we never tire of seeing his face — admittedly, it is rather amusing watching the Hollywood star’s reactions as he perishes in a variety of ways. Blunt chalks in another talent-affirming performance as the ironclad Full Metal Bitch, getting the better of her co-star more often than not. It’s also worth noting Bill Paxton’s hammed up turn as the aforementioned Farrell, his numerous communications with Cruise increasing in hilarity as time progresses.

Quite surprisingly, Edge of Tomorrow detours down comedy alley a whole lot, hitting more than its fair share of home-runs. There are a number of intense battle scenes that are harsher in meaning than actual visual depiction, but these are balanced out by smatterings of light relief. James Herbert and Laura Jenning’s rapid editorial input comes in handy here, ensuring that there are never any lulls: while we’ve only just let out a guffaw at Cage’s prophetic qualities, the film is on to the next optical spectacle or witty bantering. Cruise and Blunt conjure up a dynamic that not only feels authentic, but that also sparks with comic prowess. The whole thing is quite ridiculous in a way and the film acknowledges so. Since it doesn’t take itself too seriously, we can relax and let the occasional disbelief slide. Playfulness supersedes sternness, and it’s for the best.

That’s not to say Edge of Tomorrow is bulletproof, because it ain’t. The plot teeters along a knife edge at times, hampered by its mass and volume. There’s a lot to take in and not all of it immediately makes sense, such as how easy it is to become encased within a time loop. (Not to mention Rita’s relationship with the concept — she could re-enter the groundhog procedure at any point, surely.) State of the art combat suits are developed to give humans a greater fighting chance against the aliens, yet these technologically superior battle weapons are juiced by batteries. There must not be any electric motor charging sockets around future London. Finger out, Boris.

Doug Liman’s track record since The Bourne Identity is sketchy at best, but this offering is a sure-fire career reviver. His direction is more or less spot on, striving for humour rather than overbearing solemnity. The film’s leading duo deliver on numerous fronts, injecting a fresh lease of life when necessary. The periphery can be a tad rough at times but Edge of Tomorrow will most certainly claim a lofty spot atop a vast amount of summer success lists, at least for the foreseeable future.

Edge of Tomorrow - Cruise and Blunt

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros.