Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)

★★★

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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

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

★★★★

Avengers Age of Ultron PosterDirector: Joss Whedon

Release Date: April 23rd, 2015 (UK); May 1st, 2015 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science-fiction

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo

When Marvel rolls into town, you can absolutely expect two things: sarcastic humour and blistering action. The first phase of Kevin Feige’s super-cinema initiative had both of these in abundance. Iron Man brought the wit, Thor the hoopla and while Hulk mainly sulked, Captain America struck a balance between fun and funny. Phase Two, especially since The Winter Soldier, has provided something even more. Sure, those characteristics are still plentiful but now that the franchise’s myriad of characters have had time to flex their muscles — or branches — storytelling has the stage.

In a way, Avengers: Age of Ultron is the perfect amalgamation of everything MCU-related up until now. It is formulaic in the sense that you know the narrative structure before the lights go down: early energetic sequences designed to engross, a meatier, more reserved middle section, and finally a ball-busting finale. That’s not just superhero cinema, that’s action cinema. The antithesis of formulaic, however, is how director Joss Whedon almost manages to divulge equal spotlight to the most star-studded cast on the silver screen.

We re-rendezvous with the Spandexed Six during a battle in the frosty forests of Eastern Europe, where ardent anti-swearer Steve Rodgers (Chris Evans) is calling the shots. The raid is a success, thankfully, with the Avengers managing to obtain Loki’s sceptre. It’s an opening scene worthy of closing many a superhero jaunt, packed with effervescent camera work and some fist-pumping teamwork: Cap and Thor’s shield-hammer double team manoeuvre is a particular highlight. The Asgardian receives the least amount of screen time, certainly it feels that way, which is a shame as Chris Hemsworth’s gallant personification has become a wholesome source of entertainment.

As it turns out, Loki’s magic stick is the final piece Tony Stark needs to initiate his Ultron program, a system designed to defend the world from extraterrestrial threat. Stark’s unfiltered approach, driven by his insistence on protecting others and living up to expectations, ends in disaster when the artificially intelligent Ultron (James Spader) embarks on a violent purge of humankind.

The film fragments its characters when they’re not in the process of resisting their machine-bodied, prescient enemy. Hawkeye finally gets his chance to shine as a result, and Jeremy Renner hits the mark when it comes to emotional beats and wry comedy. A scene towards the end is one of the funniest of the entire franchise, this down as much to the actor as the writing. It pits Hawkeye, bow in hand, directing murmured threats towards a companion (“Nobody would know”). Nobody would.

The bowman has largely been ignored up until this point because he is just that, a supremely skilled man with bow. By inconspicuously embracing this notion, Whedon and company essentially break the third wall. Under the guidance of many others, playing the ‘normal guy challenging adversity’ card might have come across as cheesy and cheap, but Renner’s earnestness encourages us to believe in the character.

Draped in American patriotism and outdated chivalry, Captain America once could have flailed in the same situation — embodying an unrealistic symbol of humanity. Fortunately, since his initiation back in 2011 Chris Evans has injected palpable authenticity into Cap, and here we watch Evans evolve into a true leader with stature and assuredness. Even the egotistic Stark quips, “Actually, he’s the boss”. The piece is littered with Civil War previews built upon the duo’s clashing ideologies, paving the way for another Captain America instalment currently brimming with potential.

Age of Ultron, despite the customary destructiveness, is actually at its most compelling when it hones in on the people involved. It’s basically a quarter of a billion dollar psych evaluation, with relationships tightened or, as above, hollowed. Mark Ruffalo maintains his best-Hulk-yet aura, often sharing solid romantic screen time with Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are the latest lover-to-sibling converts, following on from Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort. The Godzilla co-stars play Wanda and Pietro Maximoff respectively, both welcome additions despite some shaky accent work.

As the main villain, James Spader has stumbled into an almost impossible task. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki managed to eclipse convention by being devious and charismatic in equal measure. Computer generated Ultron is a bad entity, plain and simple, and Spader’s croaky voice is packed full of calm menace, which works really well. But comparison, perhaps unfairly so, is inevitable and the character isn’t as enticing on screen as Loki.

The main problem abound throughout Age of Ultron is a familiar one: in handling so many characters, Whedon must oversee the lighting of touchpaper for multiple story arcs. You can feel the film seeping at the seams on occasion, with so much being rammed into such a short window (though, ironically, two and a half hours is normally an overindulgent runtime). Resultantly, some of the goings-on are left underfed. Hot off heels of Alex Garland’s probing science-fiction parable Ex Machina, the AI story told between Ultron and the Vision here isn’t quite as fascinating as recent evidence suggests it could have been.

Not consigned to resting on its opening sequence laurels, the piece ups the ante even more during a blistering, if somewhat disorienting, conclusion. You do get the sense that the stakes are shuffling their way up a notch the longer the clash between our Avengers and Ultron’s robot army goes on. By the time Brian Tyler and Danny Elfman’s booming score coalesces with Ben Davis’ now signature circular shot, goosebumps are flourishing. We’ve seen it before, and yet it carries no less weight this time around.

This is a Marvel film first and foremost, and a properly pulsating one at that. We live in a cynical world when it comes to big budget blockbuster movies, and at $300 million this is a very big budget blockbuster movie. But it’s one that doesn’t discriminate against proper storytelling and intelligent character development in favour of the extra exploding vehicle. Prompted by a build-up where hype levels usurped dollar bills, Age of Ultron matches expectations — at least, for my money.

Avengers Age of Ultron - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios

American Hustle (2014)

★★★★

Director: David O. Russell

Release Date: December 20th, 2013 (US); January 1st, 2014 (UK)

Genre: Crime; Drama

Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner

“Some of this actually happened.”

These are the first words you see on screen as American Hustle rolls along the runway in preparation for a turbulent take-off. The next thing, an obtuse, balding Christian Bale spends a good few minutes chained to mirror, meticulously attempting to glue hair to his head. And it’s brilliant. One minute the film is poking fun at itself, the next it’s indulging in extended Hollywood grooming. Whether or not you actually believe that any of what is to come actually happened is irrelevant. Batman is fat and bald. Only he’s not Batman, he’s the first of five characters who, placed in any other film, could easily be dismissed as unlovable. Yet these characters, these jaded and faulting human beings are the epitome of most things great in American Hustle — and trust me, most things are great.

After a string of loan scams gone right, con-man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are caught cheque-handed by exuberant FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Along with a reluctant Sydney, who is posing as a Brit with banking connections, Irving is manipulated into joining DiMaso in a plan to take down four potentially corrupt political figures, including the well-meaning New Jersey Mayor, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). If Irving does not oblige, he fears the loss of his adopted son from his marriage with an uncontrollable wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence).

First thing’s first: American Hustle serves up an abundance of heart to go along with bountiful amounts of razzmatazz and wild hair-pieces, and this is no small part down to David O. Russell’s focused direction, a direction particularly zoned in on his characters. Since making The Fighter in 2010, Russell has admitted that people are the most important elements of his films, that they infuse soul into his work, and this is certainly true here. At best the plot is slightly overloaded, but then it probably should be given the elaborate scam unfolding on screen. Russell deflects all attention away from these various narrative layers and strands though, and gives his characters the limelight. Unselfishly too — this character-based production style is something that doesn’t always necessarily invite directorial attention, rather the actors take most of the plaudits. However Russell’s passion for people, which is as much on display in both The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook as it is here, means he most likely doesn’t want all the plaudits no matter how much he deserves them.

It’s not often that a truly A-list cast amalgamates where each actor delivers a tip-top performance. Normally, either there’s not enough material to satisfy so many hungry egos, or a severe case of weary cheque-collecting goes on. This could not be further from the truth in American Hustle, as the five stars bring out the absolute best and most flamboyant in one another. As Irving Rosenfeld, Christian Bale is the centrepiece of events, the instigator of many of the crazy goings-on (whether he likes it or not). “He had this air about him.” Sydney is absolutely correct. At the beginning, you get the feeling Irving is growing tired of his surroundings, he’s let himself go but not so far as to come across as weak — what we see externally is carefully tended (the hair), what we don’t see is tucked away (the stomach). It’s not until the glamorous and vibrant Sydney Prosser glances over into his life that Irving experiences an ambience of regeneration. Adams embodies seduction; she mesmerises the viewer as much as she does Bale and it’s obvious her character Sydney (or is it Evelyn?) has had a lot of practice in hiding charmingly behind a veil of otherness.

Bradley Cooper, who put in a career-best performance in David O. Russell’s previous film, is astoundingly funny as Richie DiMaso. He has the 70s jumping off him: a curly perm, outlandish clothing and that wise-cracking demeanour, one which harks back to more serious crime outputs such as Goodfellas, and even Scarface. DiMaso manoeuvres in the opposite direction to that of Irving — he becomes too cocky, dragged into a world of madness. As American Hustle trumpets on, it becomes an electric game of one-upmanship between Irving, Sydney and DiMaso. Nobody really knows who is playing who. There’s an air of unpredictability about proceedings. All of this makes for more compelling viewing as the sentiment hanging-on-every-word becomes agreeably essential.

Irving’s estranged wife Rosalyn is another firecracker in this celebration of absurdity and Jennifer Lawrence throws herself at the character. She delivers many of the funniest lines very well (“Don’t put metal in the science oven”) yet still manages to evoke heartfelt sympathy. It’s clear Rosalyn is under appreciated, struggles with demons and craves some consistent attention from Irving, or anyone really. To be able to stand on, and subsequently pull off, both sides of fence — the staunchly comedic and starkly vulnerable — is a testament to Jennifer Lawrence’s ability as an actor and storyteller. Newcomer to the David O. Russell school of actors (perhaps the coolest club going in Hollywood) is Jeremy Renner, a welcome addition. As Mayor Polito, Renner is more likeable than ever in a very different role from those he has partaken in recently. His outrageous facial expressions during a sing-a-long with Bale is a standout moment.

Harking back to David O. Russell’s preferred filmmaking style, behind all of the madness, these characters still feel like real people (they listen to each other’s phone calls in the other room for heaven’s sake). None of them really want to be where they are. Perhaps they are wearily sucked in, or can’t seem to find a way out. Better lives, that’s all they’re after. They create attractively unattractive personas in order to acclimatise to the anarchy. Yet you still want to love them in the end. Unlike the plot, which arguably outstays its welcome, not one single character does.

The saying ‘never a dull moment’ has rarely been more fitting. Everything here is so over the top and brash. When names such as Carmine Polito and Victor Tellegio are sprayed around, it’s not hard to imagine the kind of entertainment on show. There absolutely is a sense of indulgence, but it’s more than simply self-indulgence, rather a communal kind between filmmaker and audience. A conversation about coriander and perfume smelling like “flowers, but with garbage” essentially sums up American Hustle: it sort of doesn’t make sense, but the circus-like pandemonium makes the film great because it allows people to thrive and evolve.

I left the cinema thinking American Hustle was a good film, and many hours later it is still growing on me. There is a good chance it will for a long time. It’s euphoria and desolation. Furious and funny. Organised chaos which descends (or ascends) into disorganised chaos. Somewhere along the way, Bradley Cooper, in his most vociferous New Yoik accent says, “You might even get sick of me!” He could be referring to the fabulous five on show (or six, if you include David O. Russell).

If so, honestly Bradley? Not in the slightest.