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Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)

Coming down from the surging adrenaline rush, I was trying to determine when was the last time an action movie made me feel the immersive, delirious highs that Mission: Impossible – Fallout offers in spades, and what I came up with 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road. Simply put, this is the best straightforward action movie in three years. It’s the best Mission: Impossible movie in the series, which, if it hadn’t already, has assumed the peak position of the most consistent, most entertaining, and best action franchise in Hollywood. Allow me to explain how returning writer/director Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher) makes an action movie that demolishes the competition.

Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) has been pulled back into spy action thanks to the lingering fallout (eh, eh?) of the capture of Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), whose followers, nicknamed The Apostles, have stolen three plutonium cores. It’s Ethan Hunt’s fault the nuclear cores got loose, and so he and his team, Luther (Ving Rhames) and Benji (Simon Pegg), must clean up after their mess. The CIA sends its own asset, the burly August Walker (Henry Cavill), to help oversee the mission and specifically Ethan Hunt, who must pose as a shadowy terrorist broker to maintain appearances with important figures in the criminal underworld. In order to get the nuclear parts, Ethan Hunt has to retrieve Solomon Lane and release him back into the open. Complicating matters further is Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who needs Solomon dead to clear her own spy debts.

Every action movie lives or dies depending upon its unique set pieces, often the first thing constructed by a studio and then the plot mechanics are ladled on merely as the barest of connecting tissue. They need to have stakes, they need to have purpose, they need to be memorable, and they need to be understood and develop organically. Mission: Impossible – Fallout could be taught in filmmaking schools about how to properly build action set pieces. They are brilliant. McQuarrie finds interesting ways to set them up, complicate them, and just keep the escalation going in a manner that still maintains the believability of the moment. Take for instance a foot chase where Ethan Hunt is trying to nab a bad guy through downtown London. Where McQuarrie pushes into the extraordinary is by having that foot chase on a multi-level terrain. Ethan Hunt has to chase after his target but multiple stories above the ground, and so he’s leaping out windows, jumping over rooftops simply to keep up. It’s a simple twist that takes what we’re familiar with and, literally, elevates it to new heights. Or take for instance the mission in Paris to capture Solomon Lane. At first it’s capture, then it’s flee police, then it’s flee another assassin. There are multiple stages to this sequence, each with a new goal, each with new complications, and each with new eye-popping stunts and escapes. The action finds natural points to progress, making smart use of the geography, and keeping different elements at play to come in and out to add more problems. This is how you do action right. As soon as the half-hour mark settles in with the arrival of Walker, the movie is practically nonstop in its set pieces until the very end. At a steep 147 minutes, this is the longest Mission: Impossible movie yet but it’s breathless in its execution.

Amazing set pieces that are cleverly designed is one aspect of a great action movie, but if you can’t tell what’s going on, what’s the point of all that cleverness? Fortunately, McQuarrie understands this and adheres to a visceral depiction of the action that creates gloriously immersive and pulse-pounding sequences. The set pieces are terrific, so it stands to reason the stuntwork should be terrific, and to make sure you appreciate the stuntwork, McQuarrie makes sure the photography highlights the verisimilitude. It’s a symbiotic (or as the Venom trailer tells me, “sym-BI-oat-ic”) relationship but when done correctly, as evidenced in this film, it’s the key to truly kinetic action sequences. Take for instance a parachute jump that marks the start of the second act. McQuarrie films it as a sustained long take, and as the camera plummets to the ground chasing after the two men, our brains can tell us that there is some special effects trickery to mitigate the dangers, but our senses are overwhelmed with the sustained illusion of tension. The fight choreography is equally up to the challenge. A bathroom brawl with Ethan Hunt and Walker and another man becomes a lesson in how many things can be smashed and what can be used as a weapon. A high-speed motorcycle chase through Parisian streets gets even more frantic when Ethan Hunt drives against traffic, and the scene becomes even more exciting when McQuarrie’s lens allows us to see the danger in all its glory.

The Mission: Impossible franchise has been notable for its insane stuntwork but also, chiefly after the second installment, its edict to practical effects and maintaining the believability of its reality. It’s still movie spy shenanigans and globetrotting adventures, yes, but the moment-to-moment thrills feel like they’re really happening. The Fast and Furious franchise has gained great acclaim for the bombast of its physics-defying spectacle, and the Mission: Impossible franchise seems to have gone purposely in the opposite direction. It’s real Tom Cruise jumping off that building, it’s real Tom Cruise riding through traffic on a motorcycle, and it’s real Tom Cruise falling and climbing up a speeding helicopter during the thrilling finale. Cruise has had a death wish when it comes to throwing himself into the high-wire stunts of his franchise, but even at 56 years old he’s still at it, essentially trying to commit suicide on film for all of our amusement. Cruise is one of the few remaining movie stars and his commitment is without question.

This is also the first Mission: Impossible film that feels like the characters matter. It’s a direct continuation from the previous film, 2015’s Rogue Nation, bringing back the (somewhat lackluster) villain, the newest spy counterpart/potential love interest, the CIA and IMF brass, and the essential supporting team members from prior engagements. Because of this it feels more like what happened previously was establishment for a new story building upon that foundation. Rather than starting all over, the characters find ways to deepen their relationships, and the film opens up Ethan Hunt as a character and the toll his duty takes on those closest to him. There are some nice quiet moments that examine these characters as actual people. Several complications are as a direct result of personal character decisions, some good and some bad. I was joking with my pal Ben Bailey beforehand about wondering whether they’d find a way for Ving Rhames to matter, since he hasn’t been much more than “a guy in the van” for four movies, and by God they make him matter. They make each team member matter, finding moments to give them, mini-goals they’re entrusted with. During the dizzying helicopter chase in the finale, supporting players are left with their own task. Luther has to defuse a bomb but doesn’t have enough hands. Benji has to find something valuable in a very needle-haystack situation designed to torment and waste precious time. Ilsa is at cross-purposes for most of the film, not wanting to harm her fellow allies but also being given her own orders to prove her loyalty and protect her future. All of this comes to a head and it makes the parts feel as important as the whole. That’s great storytelling.

Let’s talk about that million-dollar mustache of Cavill’s. It was a year ago that Justice League re-shoots required Cavill and the Mission: Impossible team refused to allow their actor to shave his mustache, thus leading to that unsettling fake baby lip Superman was sporting in a majority of his scenes in the haphazard Justice League film. I just read an AV Club interview with McQuarrie where he for the first time discusses the whole mustache brouhaha and apparently Paramount estimated that it would have cost them three million for the effects to uphold Cavill’s upper lip continuity. Warner Brothers refused to pay up and so went down that ill-fated CGI mustache-removing route. It was shortly afterwards that Cruise shattered his ankle in a roof-leaping stunt (that is in the finished film and advertisements) and the production had to shut down for a month. If only Warner Brothers had waited, perhaps we all could have avoided this mustache mess.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout is a new highpoint for the best action franchise going in movies today (I’m still waiting for a third Raid film, Gareth Evans). The set pieces are memorable and unique, leading from one into the next with exquisite precision and thought. The action sequences are stunning and shot with stunning photography, highlighting the stunning stuntwork by the best death-defying professionals. It’s the first Mission: Impossible movie that doesn’t climax at its middle; in fact there’s a pretty obvious reveal that feels like it was going to be a late Act Three twist, but McQuarrie recognizes the audience thinking ahead, and there’s like a whole other exciting 45 minutes after. The stakes are better felt because the characters matter and are integrated in meaningful ways. This is the most I’ve enjoyed Henry Cavill in a movie (with possible exception of another spy movie, Man From U.N.C.L.E.), and you know what, his mustache works too. While the vertigo-inducing Burj Khalifa sequence is the best set piece in the franchise, Fallout has everything else beat at every level. Mission: Impossible – Fallout is a reminder that there are few things in the world of cinema better than a properly orchestrated, properly filmed, and properly developed action movie operating at full throttle. This is one of the reasons why we go to the movies, folks. See it in IMAX if possible. Soak it up.

Nate’s Grade: A

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Star Trek Beyond (2016)

star-trek-beyond-poster-internationalWith J. J. Abrams’ departure from the franchise for the greener space pastures of Star Wars, there was a creative void to fill, and in stepped director Justin Lin (Fast and Furious series) and co-writer/star Simon Pegg, acclimating to the established new movie universe and providing a Trek movie that proves to be the most “recognizably Trek” in the series thus far. The crew of the Enterprise is stranded on an alien world after being attacked by a hive-like armada of ships. It’s a somewhat familiar formula, a distress call that ends up being a trap, from an unknown entity that is harboring vengeance against the Federation. This allows for several dispirit storylines to explore the surroundings but also the enjoyable character dynamics of the crew; the casting department hit the jackpot with this franchise, and it’s just satisfying to watch the actors deliver solid, satisfying character moments. The new character Jaylah (Kingmen’s blade-legged Sofia Boutella) is interesting, kickass, and a source of deadpan comedy conflicts with others. There’s a genuine sense of discovery that’s patiently paced, not so much the set-piece-every-ten-minutes of the Abrams films. Idris Elba (The Jungle Book) makes for an intimidating villain and I’m happy to report he doesn’t get lost under gobs of makeup. He becomes more Elba as it goes, and he’s given a credible motivation and back-story to explain his actions. The action is a bit less exciting than I was hoping for from Lin, whose special blend of crazy has been somewhat dampened as he adopts the house visual style of the franchise. Pegg and co-writer Doug Jung have steered the franchise into safer territory but also put the focus on the crew and their bonds, which is the secret weapon of Trek. You sense that Pegg and Jung are fans, and they even provide greater context and justification for the new Trek elements that drew earlier complaints, like the use of the Beastie Boys song which now becomes a fun moment of fist-pumping triumph. Star Trek Beyond (no colons necessary, apparently) doesn’t quite hit the same highs as the previous two films, but it’s a solid movie overall and might be the best movie for the most ardent fans of classic Trek. My last piece of advice: go into space construction in the future. The way they go through starships, you’ll always have a job.

Nate’s Grade: B

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

latestMay 19,1999 is a day that lives in infamy for legions of Star Wars fans. The day hoped died. I remember trying to convince myself that The Phantom Menace was good but a second viewing confirmed my earlier fears. These movies were not going to be the same as the original trilogy, and George Lucas confirmed that with each successive release. I’ve had debates with teenagers who swear that the prequels are better films. They aren’t. This isn’t a matter of opinion; this is fact. After Revenge of the Sith was released in 2005, you could sense that Lucas was burned out and had no desire to further awaken the ire of the fandom. Then in 2012 he surprised everyone by selling the Star Wars empire, along with other properties like Indiana Jones, to Disney for four billion dollars. Immediately Disney let it be known that they wanted to get new Star Wars movies into production ASAP. They tapped J.J. Abrams to spearhead the first steps in a new direction. No other movie has felt the weight of hype and expectation like Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Fans don’t want to be hurt once more by someone they loved. For millions of fans that grew up on the original trilogy, The Force Awakens will be the Star Wars movie they have long been waiting for. It erases the bad feelings of the prequels and re-calibrates the franchise. However, it is also flawed and seems too indebted to nostalgia. It’s certainly good but I cannot put away my nagging reservations (far, far less than what I felt with the prequels).

Thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi, the First Order has risen in place of the evil Empire. The First Order is lead by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and aspiring sith lord Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). They’re searching for the droid BB-8 and its owner, Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). The droid has a map that leads to the whereabouts of the last known Jedi – Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil). A Stormtrooper who adopts the name of Finn (John Boyega) runs away from his mission and joins forces with Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger waiting for her family to return to her world. The duo finds BB-8 and seeks to return the droid to the Resistance. They run into Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and a few other familiar faces on their journey to the Resistance base and to escape the reach of the First Order.

11875118_1007880092596925_2204135516599208531_oAbrams has captured the essential magic of what made the original trilogy so enjoyable and timeless. The prequels carried the burden of setting up characters we had come to love, and so as we watched younger versions of them or characters integral to their development, it was hard to ignore just how little we cared. It didn’t feel like Lucas himself cared that much, more content to direct his green screens than his actors. The special effects had improved but for much of the three prequels it felt like watching disinterested actors recite poorly written lines while they run around fake environments with no semblance of reality. The details that Lucas emphasized were ones that were unnecessary, like treaties and trade tariffs and the notorious midichlorians, which made the force into a blood disorder. The prequels harmed the legacy of the franchise. It takes only seconds for you to feel like you’re in better hands when you read the opening text crawl. No trade disputes. No galactic senate. It sets up its central chase and the important players in three brief paragraphs. And then we’re off and the movie rarely lets up.

We pass the torch to a new generation of characters and it’s here that Force Awakens is able to leave the large shadow of the original trilogy. The characters are great. Finn gives the viewer an entry point into a world we’ve never explored onscreen in any real depth, the life of a Stormtrooper, the cannon fodder of the series. He has moral crises and goes AWOL from the duties he has been raised to do. He doesn’t want to be a mindless killing-machine and forges his own destiny. Watching him embrace a sense of individuality is entertaining. He’s charming and excitable but also fearful of what may catch up to him. Then there’s the hero’s journey with Rey, a plucky heroine who comes of age over the course of the movie’s 135 minutes. Ridley has the presence and poise reminiscent of Keira Knightley, and the screen just adores her. It also helps when her character is easy to root for. Boyega (Attack the Block) and Ridley are terrific and even better paired together. They have a great chemistry and much of the humor is born from the characters rather than lame visual gags like in the prequels. It’s fun to hear characters verbally spar with actual good dialogue. Driver was the first actor hired and it’s easy to see why. If you’ve been watching the man on HBO’s Girls, you’ll know that he has a magnetic presence that separates him from the herd. He plays a villain that so badly wants to follow in Vader’s footsteps but the thing that holds him back is the “temptation of the light.” In one moment, a badass and imposing villain with super force powers had now also become an interesting character wrestling with his influences. Isaac (Ex Machina) is suave and cocksure as an ace pilot. His affection for the other characters is touching, particularly the robot BB-8. This little guy is going to be the toy that every child on Earth demands for the holidays. BB-8 is adorable from its first moment on screen and made me forget about R2D2. The big worry with Force Awakens was that its new characters would be compelling on their own. After one movie I’m looking forward to more adventures with the new kids on the block.

the-force-awakensAbrams has restored the sense of fun and awe that resonated from the original trilogy and the biggest compliment is that Episode VII feels like a Star Wars movie (more on which below). The action sequences are quick and filled with great visuals and shot arrangements. For those worried about Abrams’ penchant for lens flairs in the Star Trek reboots, they are completely absent in Force Awakens (Fun fact: for Star Trek Into Darkness, computer effects had to go in and take out lens flairs because Abrams later admitted he had gone a bit overboard). There are some beautifully orchestrated shots and sequences all around here. The first 40-minutes is the best part of the movie, before the older stars come back for their due. The rest of the film is enjoyable, no doubt, but I was more pleased with the original material. The technical expertise has never been higher. Like Mad Max: Fury Road, there’s a joy with watching characters interact with a real world of practical effects. Watching the characters run around real environments and real sets rather than immense green screens just makes it feel more real and vital. I enjoyed how worn and weathered the technology in this world comes across. The special effects are judiciously utilized and are excellent as anticipated. It’s easy to sense the reverence that Abrams and others have for the series as well as their determination to not repeat the mistakes of the prequels. The first mission for Episode VII is to reset the course, to wash away the bad taste of the prequels that haunt many. Abrams has gone back to what works with these movies and recreated the playbook. It’s a movie that will satisfy the hardcore fans and reawaken their love for the series.

And yet it almost feels like Force Awakens is a swing too far in the other direction, an overcorrection to the prequels that turns a reboot into a loving homage that approaches facsimile. I was amazed at just how closely Episode VII follows the plot beats of A New Hope (mild spoilers to follow – for real, if you don’t want to be spoiled in the slightest, and I’m no monster and won’t dare include anything that would substantially deter your viewing, skip to the spoiler safe area). Here goes: once again we start with an escape from an evil starfleet ship, only to land on a desert planet. The hunt is for a droid with valuable information. Our dispirit band of characters collect on the desert planet and flee, only to be eventually pulled back to the evil base of operations, which once again is a giant floating orb that specializes in planet destruction and this orb seems to have the same pesky design flaw that plagued Death Star 1.0 and 2.0. How does this one design flaw still exist? Are there not backups and redundancies? It would be like Titanic 3.0 going down by hitting another iceberg. There are more parallels involving the characters and personal revelations that mirror Episode IV but I won’t go into detail on those (end of spoilers). Suffice to say, it felt like I was watching a cover act remind me how much I enjoyed the first Star Wars release. Perhaps Abrams felt his rabid audience needed to go backwards before going forward, pay homage to what had been built by practically reliving its plot in a galaxy not so long ago as it once was (it still is likely the same distance: far far away). It’s a movie that cannot escape the nostalgia of its predecessors, and so it indulges it instead. In deferring to fan demands, Force Awakens has moments that waver into the dangerous territory of fan service. This will harm its overall staying power once the glow wears off from audiences overcome with relief.

HT_star_wars_force_awakens_trailer_05_jef_150416_16x9_992Thankfully, the new main characters are compelling and I’ll be happy to follow their continuing adventures with Episodes VIII and IX and who knows. Abrams and company have set up the next generation of fan favorites that have the chance to grow out of the sizable shadow of the original cast. However, not all elements are given that same nurturing care. The Force Awakens is so briskly paced that it rarely has time to establish the new history of its universe. We get character relationships and reunions but I couldn’t help but feel that the larger plot they inhabited felt rushed. The First Order seems rather vague and their rise to power needed at least some explanation. Instead we’re dropped right into a timeline with an Empire knockoff. It’s just easy fascism placeholder. Why are the Republic and the Resistance two separate entities? The villains with the exception of Kylo Ren are pretty one-note and also callbacks to the bad guy types from Episode IV. Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) is in the movie for a lousy three minutes. I’m also not a fan of either of the two motion-capture performances courtesy of Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) and mo-cap pioneer Andy Serkis (Rise of the Planet of the Apes). I hated Nyong’o’s character and her performance. The character design for both of these creatures is rather weak and weirdly unimaginative. There’s also a habit of characters being naturals at things that would ordinarily require expertise. The worlds we visit and the creatures we encounter are all a bit too similar to earlier sources and distinctly unmemorable. We don’t learn much via our locations and geography and so it feels a tad interchangeable and meaningless, which is a shame.

The Force Awakens is a mostly exciting return to the rich world of Star Wars with characters we care about, old and new, lively action that feels substantial and real, and a sense of fun that isn’t at the expense of your full brainpower. Abrams had two missions: 1) eliminate the disappointment over the prequels, and 2) set up new characters and stories for future installments. Both have been accomplished. Abrams may have been the perfect candidate to restart the Star Wars series as he has a history of making films as loving homage to his cinematic influences. Super 8 was Abrams’ homage to Spielberg, and Episode VII is very much homage to Episode IV. The well-trod story allows for the series to reset comfortably while setting up its new characters to take a greater storytelling burden from here on out. I hope future installments give us more development to make the worlds and the history matter just as much as Rey, Finn, Kylo, Poe, and BB-8. This may be an unpopular opinion but I feel that Abrams’ rollicking 2009 Star Trek reboot is a better Star Wars movie than The Force Awakens. Abrams and company prove you can make a new and good Star Wars movie. Now my own new hope is that writer/director Rian Johnson (Looper) will be able to steer the franchise into a fresher direction with Episode VIII. In the meantime, fans can sleep well once again.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation (2015)

mission-impossible-5-teaser-posterNot as outlandishly crazy as the Fast and the Furious series, not as beholden to tradition as the Bond series, the Mission: Impossible series doesn’t get the same notoriety but I’d declare it the most consistent and best action franchise going today. Each new film is a distillation of their director’s strengths, keeping things fresh, and the mainstay is Tom Cruise in prime action hero mode and risking his life like a madman. While not as dizzyingly entertaining as 2011’s Ghost Protocol, Rogue Nation is another fun and action-packed spy thriller with terrific and memorable set pieces. The plot involves Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his team on the run, again, as their agency is shut down for its reckless methods. A rival agency known as The Syndicate is plotting political assassinations, so Hunt and his team (Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, Ving Rhames) must work along the fringes to save the day. The newest addition is Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson as a mysterious ally and antagonist for Hunt. She’s smart, formidable, and not treated as a romantic interest or overly sexualized (progress). After Alicia Vikander’s superb performance in Ex Machina, and now Ferguson’s steely turn, it’s quite a booming year for Swedish imports. The series’ star is still Cruise and his cavalier treatment of his 50-year-old body in the pursuit of the daredevil stunts. The opening with Cruise attached to the outside of an ascending cargo plane is a stunning image jolted by the charge of realism. An underwater vault break-in is wonderfully developed. The snazzy car chases, motorcycle chases, and foot chases all benefit from Cruise being front and center. Say what you will about the man but he’s a movie star. The biggest problem with Rogue Nation is much like Ghost Protocol in that it peaks in the middle. The last act takes place entirely in London and it just can’t compare with what came earlier, which leaves the movie lumbering to a close with its rather substandard villain. Even with a less than stellar conclusion, Rogue Nation is another entertaining, fun, and thrilling action movie that would be the best the summer has to offer if it weren’t for the highs of Mad Max. Nate’s Grade: B+

The World’s End (2013)

worlds-end-poster-250x350The third in the Cornetto trilogy, the series of loving homages to genre films that end up transforming into those films, written by star Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), is so self-assured, so witty, and so stylish, but it’s also the best film Wright has done. While my heart will always bleed for 2004’s Shaun of the Dead, it’s something of a revelation how everything comes together so magically in The World’s End. Every joke, every sight gag, every offhand reference, it somehow is all tied up together or has some greater narrative connection, like the names of the 12 pubs on a pub crawl reunion that discovers an alien invasion. The dialogue is packed with layered humor, with choice bon mots like, “That’s why I drink out of a crazy straw. Not so crazy now, huh?” and, “Or selective memory like that one guy… who? Oh yeah. Me.” Given the previous films, Shaun and 2007’s Hot Fuzz, I knew this would be a funny movie, but I was unprepared for how emotionally adept it is. The characters are given surprising depth and pain and anger, mostly stemming from Pegg’s screw-up alcoholic character desperately trying to relive the good times. The writing is so textured that the characters come across like actual people, and the twists and turns, while entertaining, are far more emotionally grounded than in any previous Wright movie. There is real pain and atonement for these fallible characters, which makes us root for them even more against the robot invaders. Pegg and Nick Frost are terrific again. The action is frenetic and inventive, the laughs are frequent, and the characters are so fully realized that The World’s End isn’t just the best film in a stellar, pop-culture savvy trilogy, it’s also one of the best movies you’ll see this year.

Nate’s Grade: A

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

J.J. Abrams’StarTrekIntoDarknessEnterprisePoster return to the final frontier had me extremely excited for what the sequel to 2009’s smash Star Trek would be. It’s a different sort of Trek, a more rough-and-tumble, popcorn entertainment with the recognizable flavor of that other famous space opera that Abrams is steering into theaters come 2015. Having seen Star Trek Into Darkness twice, certain things became very clear to me. First, this is about everything you could ask for in a summer popcorn action movie. The set pieces are thrilling (my fave may be a human bullet shoot through a field of debris), there’s something new and dangerous going on just about every fifteen minutes, the stakes are constantly changing, and there are a bevy of well plotted character arcs for a deep and well acted ensemble. It’s about everything you’d want in a Star Trek movie… if you were a big fan of the 2009 film. If you’re a lifelong fan, you may have some reservations, notably the inclusion of a famous villain that shouldn’t be too hard to guess. The second half references to Trek cannon, especially Star Trek 2, feel weird for a film that broke away into a parallel universe so that it could chart its own course rather than relive the old stories. There’s homage and then there’s just subservience. Still, there are plenty of resonant themes, like friendship, sacrifice, and family, that are given adequate attention, amidst all the big-budget escapist thrills. There are even some surprisingly poignant moments that the actors ace. Benedict Cumberbatch (TV’s Sherlock) is incredible as the villain, a terrorist with a menacing, velvety voice that I could listen to all day. The vast majority of Into Darkness is tremendously entertaining, with a great pulse and sense of scene construction. The Abrams team knows how to make blockbusters in the old Spielberg variety, spectacle with humanity and humor and sweep. If this is what he can do with the Trek universe, just wait until Episode VII people.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011)

In the span of three months, two Pixar vets will be making their live-action filmmaking debuts. Andrew Stanton (WALL-E, Finding Nemo) is directing Disney’s big-budget John Carter of Mars adaptation, which will be released this March. But first is the awkwardly punctuated, colon-hoarding Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol (henceforth referred to as M:I 4), directed by Brad Bird. Any fan of The Incredibles (and who isn’t) knows that Bird is a terrific visual stylist who can compose remarkably exciting action without overlooking characterization. If anyone was ready for the leap into live-action, surely it was this man. Bird is the real star of the movie, and he aces his debut. I think he’s finally living up to the potential he showed with TV’s Family Dog (please note the tongue firmly planted in cheek here).

Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his IMF squad are on the run. They’ve been framed for an explosion that took out the Kremlin. The president has invoked “ghost protocol” meaning that the IMF no longer exists, and every member is cut loose. That means Ethan and his newest team, techno wizard Benji (Simon Pegg), feisty Jane (Paula Patton), and the mysterious Brandt (Jeremy Renner), have no backup. They are considered rogue agents and Russian’s own special police force is hunting them down as well. Hunt and his team must track down and stop an international terrorist, Hendricks (Micheal Nyqvist, the Swedish Girl with Dragon Tattoo series), who sees the global benefit of nuclear catastrophe (I suppose surviving would be the catch). Hendricks has gotten hold of Russian nuclear launch codes and now is looking to put the final pieces together to initiate a war between the United States and Russia, plunging the world into disaster. Hunt’s team travels around the globe to stop this bad man and his bad plan.

Bird delivers in a major way in his live-action film debut. The man behind two of the best animated films of all time and Ratatouille, has shown that his keen skills of directing animation have easily translated to real people and real-ish explosions. Bird is a mad genius when it comes to staging elaborate action sequences; he teases out his action with organic consequences and his camera makes adept use of space and geography, and best of all you can easily follow what’s going on in the frame. So when we have an action sequence that takes place in the tallest skyscraper in the world, you know Bird is going to make fine use of this fact to accentuate his action. And the man does so in spades. The Dubai sequence is probably the how-did-they-do-that? standout that people will be most talking about. Hunt has to climb the outside of the aforementioned tallest building in the world using nothing but some special sticky gloves that don’t always work right. He has to climb several stories up, and then there’s the matter of going back down without them. But M:I 4 doesn’t rest on its laurels, because immediately after this sequence we have a feast of thrills. We segue right into a meeting between two parties where Hunt’s team has to pose as each member of this sit-down, orchestrating two separate simultaneous false meetings with the real bad guys. The two meetings dovetail one another as far their needs, making for a blissful parallel of escalating suspense. And then even after this, we get a foot chase into a sandstorm, which then becomes a dangerous car chase into a sand storm. And there are even more great stunts and spectacular action to come, notably a fight in a futuristic car park where the cars tumble from level to level.

Bird has such a firm command of his action, exercising his inspired imagination and all the tools in the special effects paint box. The screenwriters deserve recognition as well, Josh Applebaum and Andre Nemec, both of whom honed their writing chops on J.J. Abram’s sublime spy show, Alias. Their opening sequence, an escape from a Russian prison, sets the stage with Bird’s smart execution; setting up a problem and then letting the situation play out in surprising yet logical and clever ways. It may not have the epic scope of a Michael Bay flick, but Bird’s action is cool without having to be exhausting or noxious. The frenetic pacing rarely lets room for breathing. One of the film’s quiet moments ended in such a jarring fashion that it startled me and I kicked the patron sitting in front of me. I must also credit Applebaum and Nemec for producing the only Mission: Impossible movie that did not involve a turncoat. I was starting to think that IMF’s Human Resources department was in needing of a good housecleaning. Bird, and the screenwriters, has delivered a Mission: Impossible movie so good, with such kinetic and rewarding action sequences, logically utilized gadgets, sexy cars, sexy gals, and exotic locales. They’ve basically made the best Bond movie not to bear 007’s likeness.

Like the previous Mission: Impossible flick, this one emphasizes the team aspect, which makes a more fulfilling and interesting set of missions. M:I 2 became the “Ethan Hunt kicks people in the face for two hours movie,” which Chuck Norris might approve but otherwise was lacking. When J.J. Abrams got on board in 2006, the brand finally got back to its roots. And a team working together with individual strengths makes for a much more satisfying mission that also allows for multiple points of action. Simply out, if you have three people that need to do stuff in synchronicity, it plays out much better than watching Cruise kick people in the face. Choreography is always better when you have more dancing partners. Anyway, with  M:I 4 we get some terrific teamwork that can be just as thrilling as the action sequences. Besides the breathless Dubai sequence, there’s a great sequence where the team has to infiltrate a sleazy Indian businessman’s (Anil Kapoor, the TV host from Slumdog Millionaire) cocktail party to get some special satellite codes. Jane is tasked with seducing the sleazy guy, Benji is left to operate a mechanical rover with a powerful magnet that will levitate Brandt, in a metal suit, across the system’s super hot inner mainframe, and Hunt is trying to lose his Russian pursuers. It’s a great sequence where all the pieces come together for maximum effect.

Cruise has done plenty in the last five years to destroy audience good will, so it’ll be interesting to see if audiences warm back up to the man with the million-dollar smile. Cruise has always been an actor of ebullient energy and charisma, and this has always aided him in action settings and M:I 4 is no different. He’s still a credible action hero and a born movie star, whatever audiences think about his increasingly polarizing personal activities. Lessening Cruise’s load is a smart move, and Pegg (Paul) can provide needed comic relief while Patton (Precious) supplies the sizzle. My goodness can this woman fill out a dress in marvelous ways. Not to be completely sexist, she does a fair amount of ass-kicking too. Her fight with the French femme fatale agent (Lea Seydoux) was all kinds of awesome. Renner (The Town) seems groomed as a potential heir apparent for the franchise. His character is given a small amount of depth to work with, the guilt of a mission gone wrong that has a very personal connection to Hunt. At this point, Renner can do no wrong as an actor in my book. Although there’s only a nine year age difference between Cruise and Renner, so I don’t know how much more mileage that gives you as a franchise. Regardless, Renner is an actor of great conviction and intensity even when he’s silent.

In terms of the franchise, I’d say this fourth installment is just as good as Abrams’ M:I 3, though Abrams had a much better villain and the added emotional urgency of hunt’s wife in distress. Seriously, this is one really boring and completely interchangeable villain. For a movie about the world being on the brink of thermonuclear Armageddon, why do the stakes feel so low? It’s probably because the movie has deliciously orchestrated and eye-popping set pieces but very little urgency. World War III has never felt so ho-hum. Still, it’s hard to fault an action movie when it delivers such high amounts of adrenaline, perfectly packaged in well-developed action beats. This is a high-flying popcorn spectacle of the top order, a grandiose piece of Hollywood escapism. Mission: Impossible 4 is pretty much everything you’d want in a summer blockbuster, only shuttled to winter. I think Bird’s future is limitless, in animation and live-action, and I think the Broccoli family would do us all a favor by tapping Bird to direct a Bond movie. M:I 4 is a pretty good resume for the gig. That would be one mission to die for.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Paul (2011)

This sci-fi comedy by the guys behind Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, though absent director Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim came a callin’), is an irreverently fun flick that lovingly sends up just about everyone in its sights. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost play a pair of British sci-fi geeks road tripping through the American southwest when they come across Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), an alien on the run. Together they outrun various pursuers, from government agents to angry rednecks, and Paul transforms into a delightful road comedy with the different characters ping-ponging back and forth, narrowly missing but still in the hunt. It’s a cheeky even rollicking action comedy in the vein of a Midnight Run, though with way more stoner jokes. The plot nicely weaves these various elements and characters together, creating a satisfying escalation in suspense and comedy. The characters are pretty familiar and some of the gags are below the caliber of talent onscreen (really, more “people think we’re gay” jokes?), but the final product is unabashedly fun and it’s easy to feel Pegg and Frost’s enthusiasm. Paul is a light-hearted, funny, even tender sci-fi comedy that borrows from better movies but still manages to charm.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Star Trek (2009)

Star Trek has a hold on geek culture like no other franchise. It’s lasted over forty years, sustained five television series, and ten feature films (about four of them good), and let’s not forget the plethora of fanatical merchandise that includes everything from Trek cologne to Trek coffins. Star Wars has all the box office clout, but Trek has followers so devoted that they will create and learn a separate language, Klingon, that almost assuredly will never be spoken by anyone else outside of the festival circuit (you will never see a written Klingon exam that asks you “Where the library is?”). The Star Trek fans have been a foundation of geek culture for over four decades. People take this stuff very seriously. Trek has always been a headier brand of sci-fi, more devoted to ideas and moral dilemmas than shoot-outs and space chases, though Captain Kirk did teach the universe how to love, one green-skinned buxom alien babe at a time. 2002’s abominable Star Trek: Nemesis was meant to open up the franchise to a wider audience, but the film was the low-point for a franchise that also included William Shatner writing and directing the fifth flick (Nemesis also broke the odd/even movie curse).

When director J.J. Abrams approached Star Trek with the purpose of reinvigorating the flagging film series, you would think the man would wade into such a storied franchise with trepidation. Nope. He openly said he was making a “Star Trek movie for people who weren’t fans of Star Trek.” He was even going to change Trek canon. I imagine Trekkies (and no, I will never use the preferred nomenclature “Trekkers”) were nervous about an outsider, the author of the cinematic classic Gone Fishin’, meddling with hallowed ground. As I suspected, these fears were unfounded. The newest Star Trek does more than put a new coat of paint on an old franchise. This movie boldly goes where none of the Trek movies have gone before — turning reverent geek culture into a grand populist entertainment smash.

This new incarnation looks backwards, explaining how the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise came together. The movie shows the path of Jim Kirk (Chris Pine), from troubled youth to eventual starship captain. Kirk’s father captained a starship for about 10 minutes, but he managed to save 800 lives under attack, including the birth of his son. Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) recruits Kirk to Starfleet Academy with the promise of doing something more with life. We also witness the boyhood of Spock (Zachary Quinto), who is teased for being half-Vulcan and half-human. His human mother (Winona Ryder) encouraged Spock to embrace his human emotions instead of cutting them off, Vulcan-style. Kirk and Spock clash at the Academy, and then an emergency requires all the recruits to saddle up for their first mission in space. Nero (Eric Bana) is a dastardly Romulan who has traveled back in time. In the future, he blames an older Spock (Leonard Nimoy) for the destruction of his home planet and the deaths of billions of Romulans. To ensure this does not happen, Nero is going to eradicate Starfleet home planets, starting with Vulcan and then Earth.

J.J. Abrams is a geek’s best friend. He understands geek culture, and yet the man is able to take genre concepts and make them easily accessible to the unconverted while still making a finished product that is respectful, playful, and awesome. Abrams is an expert on the pop culture catalogue, and he knows how to make genuinely entertaining productions that succeed on brains as well as brawn. He brought tired spy conventions into the twenty-first century with the cool, twisty Alias and Mission: Impossible III, which was really an extravagant two-hour episode of Alias, and I mean this in the best way. He has an innate understanding of action sequences and knows well enough that an audience needs to be engaged emotionally, so he makes the action as character-based as much as possible. Abrams has a terrific imagination behind the camera, and he reminds me of a young Steven Spielberg in his ability to marry artistic integrity with big-budget crowd pleasers. Abrams and his screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (Transformers, TV’s Fringe) have crafted a stellar Trek that will appeal to die-hards and those who couldn’t tell a Romulan from a Vulcan (I fall somewhere in between).

The time travel storyline could have used more juice, however, it serves its purpose by establishing a parallel Trek universe to work with. Beforehand, Trek had established so many previous stories that it hamstrung writing new stories because they had to be extensively researched to make sure they did not conflict with 40 years of canon. Abrams and company wrestled free from the grip of the established history and can now play around unencumbered to a degree. I mean, fans don’t want to see something radically inauthentic, but Uhura and Spock as a couple? Sure, why not? The fan favorite character catch-phrases (“She’s givin’ it all she’s got,” “Dammit Jim, I’m a doctor?,” etc.) are organically worked into the story so that they don’t become falling anvils.

Star Trek‘s pacing can be whiplash inducing. It speeds through two hours of action and setup while still maintaining an emotional connection to the characters involved. The movie has a boyish enthusiasm for adventure and it’s fun watching well-known characters assemble and amble into new and interesting directions. The action is routinely thrilling and I enjoyed Abram’s small touches, like watching a crew member get sucked out into space and cutting all sound to illustrate the cold, empty vacuum. The amount of humor injected into the movie can be distracting at times, not because it isn’t funny but because of the brisk tone breaking. One second it’s a life-or-death scenario and the next Kirk is running around with giant goofy hands. Still, it’s good to see some humor in the Trek universe that isn’t related to alien culture clashes.

The young ensemble is amazingly well cast. I didn’t think a younger generation of actors would be able to step right in and play such lived-in characters, but they pull it off. The hardest shoes to fill are unquestionably Kirk’s, and Pine (Smokin’ Aces, Just My Luck) carries that same cocksure bravado without stooping to a stilted Shatner impersonation. His performance feels at times like Han Solo and Luke Skywalker rolled into one, and he’s an appealing presence that captures the essence of a dashing and rebellious scrapper. This Kirk is still an adventure-seeking, skirt-chasing 1960s kid at play. Quinto (TV’s Heroes) is blessed to look remarkably similar to Nimoy, but the actor also gets to explore the human side of Spock. He feels compelled to harness emotion, like all Vulcans, yet it’s intriguing when certain emotions slip out and build a bigger picture about what’s going inside the mind of a being dominated by logic. Quinto has less to work with by design and yet the man finds interesting ways to ensure Spock can be recognizable. Each of the supporting actors has their moment, but my biggest surprise was Karl Urban as Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy. Urban has mostly been confined to lame action movies as of late, like Doom and Pathfinder. But he’s really funny and his performance captures DeForest Kelly’s mannerisms down without turning into a caricature.

If there is a main weakness to Abrams’ Trek outing it’s that it feels far more like the opening act of a larger movie. Nero is a fairly weak villain, though Bana gives him a nicely polished glower. The villain is really just a tie-in for the time travel storyline, which is also a narrative quirk to secure an open field for further stories. Meaning, that much of the movie can be seen as assembling the pieces to simply move forward on their own. It’s an expensive set-up movie, and Abrams makes sure that the audience sees every dollar of the splashy visuals onscreen. Personally, I was also getting tired of the cinematography decision to fill the screen with as many light flares as possible. It seemed like every other moment had a blast of light beam in from some direction. After a while it sort of felt like an eye exam where the optometrist shines a flashlight back and forth. And it takes far too long for Scotty (Simon Pegg) to appear in the movie.

J.J. Abrams does more than hit the restart button. He has made a Star Trek that manages to be respectfully reverent but at the same time plays along to the mainstream visual sensibilities of modern cinema. It’s fun without being campy, reverent without being slavish, and this Trek never forgets to entertain from the opening assault on a starship to the Michale Giacchino’s closing credits score. This is an enjoyable rush of sci-fi escapism. The Star Trek series was always deeply hopeful and humanistic, believing in the best for humanity and that man, in cooperation, could achieve greatness. I think further escapades with this cast and Abrams at the helm could reach greatness. For now, I’ll be happy with this rollicking first entry into a franchise that seemed adrift in space. Bring on more of the green-skinned women.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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