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

Shaun of the Dead (2004)

★★★★

Director: Edgar Wright

Release Date: April 9th, 2004 (UK); September 24th, 2004 (US)

Genre: Comedy; Horror

Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost

It has been almost 10 years since we first met the instantly relatable yet spatially anarchic Pegg, Frost and Wright trio. Since 2004, their fumes of hilarity have glazed earlobes the world over, excellence exhaled from the likes of Hot Fuzz. But before Pegg and Frost had an unruly, conspiring cultist town to deal with, the duo wielded shovels and cricket bats in a war against zombies. The epitome of wholesome comedy-horror, Shaun of the Dead wittingly embraces society’s increasing individuality and detachment — a hapless trait infused even more in today’s world — before sending it spiralling in a zombie rage. The zombie adage it apt too, a smart comparison that evokes humour because the notion cuts so close to the bone. Perhaps a few characters are too incidental to warrant their on screen presence, but part one of the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy is damn tasty regardless.

Working in an electronics shop where he commands disrespect, and still living with his overweight, uninspired room-mate Ed (Nick Frost), Shaun (Simon Pegg) is pitifully meandering through life, unwilling to commit and unable to justify. His girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) bemoans Shaun’s discrepancies, in particular a monotonous infatuation with the local pub, the Winchester. As Shaun spends many a day lethargic amongst the comatose masses, juggling fractious relations between Ed and another house guest, and failing to win over the love of his life, he must be pretty certain that it cannot get any worse. Only, it can. Zombie worse.

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost front this raucous outing, and their gag-full chemistry is one of the prevailing positives. As down-on-his-luck lead man Shaun, Pegg exudes the everyday. His demeanour is casual, occasionally showing the slightest hint of enthusiasm, only to be shot down by an ungrateful colleague or a disappointed friend. Even Shaun’s motivational methods leave a lot to be desired (“There’s no ‘I’ in team, but there is an ‘I’ in meat pie”). You can see part of yourself in Shaun; well-meaning but gobbled up by a generically infectious culture, and Pegg’s bedraggled showing is suitably so. Though when the going gets heroic, Pegg is just as believable. His camaraderie with Nick Frost acts as the driving force behind the film’s intelligent wit. Frost portrays Ed, who’s a bit of a git. Ed is sort of like Shaun, only a lot further along the waster-scale. Rude and lazy, he seemingly exists only as the semi-loveable pain in Shaun’s backside, though he does emit a semblance of smarts every so often. The duo bounce comedic mouthfuls off each other for the duration, and they never get stuck in a rut. If the key to comedy is timing, these two have the art of early arrival down to a T.

At the forefront of Shaun of the Dead — which often harks knowingly back to zombie classics such as George A. Romero’s Dead series and Sam Raimi’s maniacal Evil Dead — is this concept of reviewing society as a failed collective unit. Although the zombie undead are the primary antagonists throughout, the narrative is really about the zombie alive — us humans. Director Edgar Wright, who also co-wrote the clever script with Pegg, smartly highlights numerous zombie-esque characteristics of the modern being: from waking up still tired after a late night, to ambling around streets unaware of anything other than oneself, to sitting slumped and mouth-gaping in tune with the other morsels on public transport. And each of these distastes are depicted before any actual zombie shows up. Wright’s almost satirical outlook on our isolated existence is smart, and is actually the most horrifying realisation that comes to fruition during the film, as opposed to the limb-deprived monsters. “The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation,” proclaims Shaun, an admission boasting more truth than realistic application.

Unlike the slow zombies afoot, Shaun of the Dead advances at a brisk pace and never threatens to dwell on a gag for longer than necessary. In fact, many of the funniest lines are quipped as humorous sound bites, again playing off the excellent chemistry between the front pair. Moreover, lengthy jokes interspersed throughout the zom-com tend to work (for example, a certain rifle in a pub) meaning each pay-off feels validated. There aren’t many things more frustrating than a film-long gag that loses steam before reaching the station, or worse, breaks down on arrival. The meaningful pace adopted by the filmmakers ensures proceedings are camp, as the people involved don’t take the goings-on super seriously, generating a healthy spirit throughout. Of course, there’s a genuine societal pondering going on as aforementioned, but encasing this sincerity is a plethora of over-the-top gut removals and blood splattering. Perhaps the most outrageous scene of the lot involves three humans, as many pool cues, a zombie and an oddly beat-by-beat consistent rendition of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now”. Why outrageous? Because we’re having such a good time.

The tremendous Bill Nighy appears inconsistently as Shaun’s apparently disapproving step-dad, but should have a bigger role. Nighy’s lack of connection with Shaun acts as an embodiment of the film’s appraisal of civilisation, whilst at the same time provides the funniest moments external to those involving Pegg and Frost. His lack of sufficient screen time rankles even more so in the presence of peripheral characters Diane and David, played by Lucy Davis and Dylan Moran respectively. Both Davis and Moran are fine in their roles, but Moran’s spiteful, bitter David is unlikeable and therefore not worth investing in. His constant appearance coincides with hardly any character development, and therefore acts as a regular surplus to requirements reminder. Generic isn’t necessarily bad, especially considering the film’s self-awareness. However irrelevance is bad, and both David and Diane are just that. Kate Ashfield remains appealing as Liz even when denying Shaun, which is a testament to her solid performance. Peter Serafinowicz partakes in a small role as the grumpy room-mate, relinquishing more than one hilarious and angry diatribe.

Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead delivers on two levels: as an accessible cautionary tale denouncing a cultural phenomenon of zombie-like monotony in society, and as a camp, witty and downright amusing banterfest with a splurge of chopping, ripping and cutting. Imperfections are not absent, but nor are they wholly adverse, and the excellent script maintains a rollicking pace throughout. Anyone for a Cornetto?

The World’s End (Out July 19th, 2013)

Having just watched it I feel obliged to point you in the direction of the brand new trailer for the latest and final part of Edgar Wright’s Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy, The World’s End.

Starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who previously worked together with Wright on the hilarious rom-zom-com Shaun of the Dead (2004) and wonderfully outlandish action-comedy Hot Fuzz (2007), The World’s End welcomes four new faces to complete a stellar cast: Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine and Eddie Marsan join Pegg and Frost’s characters in a reunion and quest around their old hometown to once again attempt the legendary pub-crawl which ends, coincidentally, with The World’s End pub. Also along for the ride is the terrific Rosamund Pike, who recently starred alongside Tom Cruise in the film adaptation of Lee Child’s 2005 novel One Shot — Jack Reacher.

“Britain’s next new boy-band? There’s only ‘one direction’ we’re going boys — the pub.”

The trailer gives off the same vibes as Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, ensuring that we are in for another treat at the hands of the magnificent Wright, Pegg and Frost. Witty dialogue, intriguing drama, engrossing action, effortless chemistry: it certainly sounds like the customary formula which has produced two great films in the past at the hands of the aforementioned trio.

Hitting cinemas in the UK on July 19th, 2013, The World’s End is a must-see in my opinion, and it looks and sounds like it promises to be another hit for Edgar Wright and the two comical geniuses, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.

Below is the recently released trailer, enjoy!

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

★★★★★

Director: J.J. Abrams

Release Date: May 9th, 2013 (UK); May 16th, 2013 (US)

Genre: Science fiction; Action

Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zoe Saldana

Following on from Abrams’ 2009 reboot of the Star Trek franchise, Star Trek Into Darkness follows the exploits of Captain James Kirk (Pine) and his crew on the USS Enterprise as they find themselves in a battle to prevent terror from being unleashed by a powerful fellow Starfleet agent who has recently defected, John Harrison (Cumberbatch). With Spock (Quinto) and Uhura (Saldana) having troubles, a domineering Admiral (Peter Weller) monitoring Kirk’s every move, and the biggest threat to Starfleet to date brooding, a seemingly inexperienced Kirk must regain the control and retain the trust of his crew and journey into dangerous territory in order to put an end to the violence.

I think it is safe to say J.J. Abrams is on a role at the moment. Without getting into his television portfolio (which includes the worldwide TV hit Lost), Abrams’ four directorial outputs have ranged from solid to sensational. Beginning with Mission Impossible III — incidentally, Tom Cruise phoned Abrams while the latter was in the middle of shooting one of the final scenes of Lost season one to offer him the job — Abrams served up an action-packed Cruise-fest which was fairly well received financially and in terms of enjoyment.

“I told you guys I was good at musical chairs.”

Up next was his take on Star Trek, a franchise that Abrams has often said he never showed any interest in as a child whereas all of his friends did. Perhaps that benefited the film, as it romped through the Box Office and reinvigorated moviegoers’ love for it. Working with Steven Spielberg had always been a dream for Abrams, and that dream was realised through making the wonderful Super 8 in 2011, another goldmine of adventure and reminiscence.

And now Star Trek Into Darkness. The first thing to say about Into Darkness is that this is a film created not just for long-time Star Trek fans, but also for new admirers (like me). By simultaneously directing an origin story retaining all that has already happened and establishing a brand new ‘parallel timeline’ in the previous instalment, Abrams has given himself and his audience a whole universe to explore vicariously through the crew of the Enterprise. We are thrust into the action straight away this time around (who has time to wait around?) in a riveting and enjoyable sequence full of danger, awesome visuals and witty dialogue — and these characteristics are maintained throughout the whole two hours and seven minutes.

“Hey Zach, look. JJ is doing the dance again.”

Admittedly, having not been a Star Trek fan (or ‘Trekkie’) before Abrams took the reins I am not well versed in the franchise and nor do I wish to pretend that I am (for fear of getting something wrong, mainly). Therefore I did not know of the significance of the different otherworldly beings that the crew encounter or the varying levels of ship on the Admiral’s desk — but the beauty of Abrams filmmaking here is that I did not need to know these things. All that I had to do was pay attention, sit back and enjoy picture. By no means am I saying that Into Darkness is merely a ‘dumb film’ focusing on big thrills and CGI effects to generate income, rather I’m saying the opposite: it is a smart film because it focuses on thrilling the audience and concocting characters to care about. The majority of thinking required from the viewer was required in the first film of the reboot — which Abrams handled supremely well — and this time around the focus seemed to be all about putting on a show for Star Trek fans old and new. And, of course, to successfully further the story of the Enterprise crew while retaining a degree of loyalty to the past.

“I’m in a glass case of emotion.”

Talking about entertaining audiences, Benedict Cumberbatch is cast impeccably well as the evil John Harrison and is the stand out performer. Even though he is used to playing ‘good guys’ like Sherlock Holmes in the self-titled BBC drama, Cumberbatch thrives in this new role, utilising everything from piercingly devilish facial expressions to a demonic-yet-educated voice level to create a tremendous villain to go up against Starfleet. Chris Pine is just as charismatic as he was in the previous film, though a little more serious and contained at the appropriate moments. Zachary Quinto can do no wrong as Spock who he was born to portray, and the likes of Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg and Karl Urban are all effective in their roles, maximising their screen time to create a connection with the audience (when I say “the audience” I really just mean me as I can only speak for myself).

Normally at this point I would give my views on specific parts of the film and write about spoilers, but I really do not think I need to for Star Trek Into Darkness. There was nothing that I significantly disliked about the film and I think all of the main plot points were handled excellently. Moreover, I would genuinely rather not spoil any part of the film because it does not deserve to be spoiled.

I will end by saying that, regardless if you are a Star Trek fan or a science fiction geek or neither of the two, you should see Abrams’ latest offering. Star Trek Into Darkness is a film for all movie lovers who just want to go the cinema and be engrossed in a tremendous spectacle. It is a testament to J.J. Abrams’ ability in filmmaking that myself who, just like Abrams, was never really into Star Trek before, is now a big fan.

The Summer of Sci-Fi

Okay, I will admit it: only fairly recently have I jumped on the sci-fi bandwagon. I have always enjoyed the odd science fiction film, but I used to be much more of a drama or comedy guy. Not anymore. Over the past two years, I have really begun to develop an admiration — through intrigue and awe — for science fiction. I think it started around the time Ridley Scott’s Prometheus was announced. Having never watched the Alien films (I have now) I was surprised that Prometheus had grabbed my attention as much as it did. The plot sounded interesting, the poster looked ominous, the actors lined up were of a very high calibre. Then the trailer arrived and I was completely sold. The mood set in the trailer was outstanding — total atmospheric eeriness. In terms of the film itself, I went to the cinema to see the day it came out and, in my opinion, it lived up to the hype. Perhaps having not seen any of the Alien films beforehand I went in with a different mindset to those who had seen them — I was not expecting a lot of Alien-related content because I didn’t really know what Alien-related content would look like.

But I digress. This summer — and beyond — we have the pleasure of being offered a significant number of science fiction films in cinemas. Having just finished my exams at university, I have only been afforded the chance to go to the cinema once in the last few weeks and that was to see Iron Man 3. But now that I am off university and free to do what I like for five months, the cinema beckons along with the upcoming sci-fi films. Up first, at the end of March The Host was released in cinemas, starring Saoirse Ronan, and having been panned more or less by critics — holding a 9% rating on Rotten Tomatoes — it has performed pretty well at the box office. Up next, the highly anticipated Oblivion, starring Tom Cruise. I regret not seeing this film in cinema as, at least for an hour, it harps back to classic sci-fi films like Silent Running and Total Recall according to Mark Kermode of Mayo and Kermode’s Film Reviews on BBC 5 Live. Other reviews have been moderate to favourable and the film has grossed over $200 million dollars. Of course, the biggest and most looked forward to science fiction film of the summer has to be Star Trek: Into Darkness (which I plan to do a blog post on soon, watch this space).

Following that are films such as The Purge (2013) starring Lena Heady and This Is the End (2013) with an ensemble of comedy stars. In July, Pacific Rim hits cinemas — perhaps literally going by the trailers. Billed as Giant robots vs. Giant monsters, Pacific Rim has a tough job in ensuring it does not just become a film where, well, giant robots hit giant monsters. The well-publicised Elysium begins screening towards the end of August — a futuristic take on current political issues, helmed by Matt Damon and Jodie Foster. Before the summer ends, The World’s End (hopefully not) will complete Edgar Wright’s “Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy” and again it boasts the funny duo of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Even after summer, the science fiction fountain keeps flowing with the likes of Riddick, Ender’s Game and the second part of The Hunger Games franchise — Catching Fire.

I guess the reasoning behind this blog post is to not only give you an insight into how I got into science fiction, but also encapsulate how much the genre dominates our cinemas. Back in the 1970s and 80s — when I was not alive — sci-fi films were at the forefront of cinema: films like Blade Runner, Silent Running, The Terminator, and even before then Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Perhaps now, in 2013, science fiction is on a parabolic rise and hitting a return to form. Or maybe not. Perhaps it is simply an easier way for filmmakers to grab an audience’s attention with awesome visuals. But why can’t it be both? I for one am very much looking forward to this summer and am excited to get stuck into some sci-fi — are you?