Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation – review

Mission Impossible Rogue Nation Cruise on motorcycle posterI don’t know whether you know this or not, but Tom Cruise is the most awesome guy on the planet. Not having met Cruise personally, I know this only because that’s what the plots of all his movies are about. This plot comes in two variations. The first one is straight-forward: Tom Cruise is totally awesome! The second variation is a little less direct: People don’t appreciate how awesome Tom Cruise is! (Think of Jerry Maguire, in which his girlfriend dumps him and he loses his job, just to prove that even though he’s totally awesome, we should still sympathize with him because the world treats him so unfairly.) The interesting thing about Cruise’s latest effort, insofar as there is anything interesting about Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, is that it conflates these two strains into a single if somewhat uncomfortable hybrid.
In Phase One of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Cruise plays the super-awesome Ethan Hunt once again, who hangs off airplanes when he’s not out-fighting, out-running, and out-maneuvering everyone else in the film. In Phase Two of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, the CIA (in the person of Alan Hunley, played by Alec Baldwin) wants to kill Hunt because, in a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black, Hunley doesn’t  like the Impossible Mission Force’s carte blanche to engage in unsupervised covert ops. Consequently, while Hunt is busy trying to save the world yet again, his own ungrateful country is trying to terminate him with extreme prejudice.
It’s really not fair for such an awesome dude to be treated this way, but the plot plays well for viewers who think that America should kick-ass on the rest of the world, and that any sort of restraint is the result of scheming forces that want to undermine the good guys.
Unfortunately, this amalgam, instead of being more than the sum of its parts, turns out to be somewhat less, because the two phases, like musical notes out of phase with each other, tend to cancel out rather than combine. The filmmakers can’t spend half the movie showing us how awesome Cruise is and then expect the audience to worry that the CIA might actually catch and execute him. Likewise, when the filmmakers spend the other half of the movie showing Cruise easily evading the entire CIA, they can’t expect us to have any doubts that he will have any trouble defeating the villain du jour.
Which is rather unfortunate, because Phase One of the film is supposedly built around the concept that Hunt may have finally met his match, which would have been interesting if we had believed it. Of course, we don’t – the two-phase approach makes it impossible to even pretend to believe it, and it certainly doesn’t help that the fiendish mastermind is too blind to notice (or at least do anything about) the rather obvious double-agent he is employing. But at the end of the day, none of this really matters, because the movie’s only message is: even when Hunt meets his match, he still wins, because no one can match Cruise’s awesomeness!
Before I forget, let me mention that the plot mechanics are constructed around a MacGuffin that Hunt must steal from a super-duper high-security facility. There is an explanation for what this MacGuffin is and how it got into the facility, which makes a kind of movie sense at least; however, the MacGuffin actually turns out to be something completely different from what we were told (you need twists in this kind of spy thriller),. This raises a question the film never bothers to address: if the explanation of the MacGuffin’s identify was false, does the explanation for how it got into the facility make sense anymore?
I suppose one could dismiss all of this as mere pretext, the necessary plot elements to justify exciting set-piece, of which there are several. Unfortunately, the best one comes up front, with Cruise hanging off the side of a plane taking off from the runway. It’s a bold, can-we-top-this? gambit that overshadows the rest of the film; the following fight scenes, suspense scenes, and chase scenes (including a pretty nifty one on a motorcycle) are all good – but not that good.
With Cruise’s awesomeness blazing throughout the film, there is not much room for anyone else to shine. It’s nice to see Ving Rhames again, but I’ve already forgotten what if anything he contributed. Jeremy Renner cements his position as Hollywood’s top also-ran, treading water while waiting for the producers to spin him off into a Bourne-like sequel. Rebecca Ferguson is supposed to be amazing, but she’s just okay – good enough to play second fiddle, but no threat to the star. Alec Baldwin somehow manages to make his CIA prick fun to watch even before his change of heart (he’s basically Ralph Fiennes from SKYFALL).
In spite of my qualms I did find Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation reasonably diverting, and the ending even managed to build up a fair share of tension (though why I should have doubted that Cruise’s awesomeness would prevail, I don’t know). Maybe my expectations were too high. Its predecessor,  Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, supplied some actual thrills (for once, the danger seemed real rather than pretend), and I was expecting more of the same – an expectation seemingly confirmed by wildly enthusiastic reviews (93% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes).
Sadly, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation winds up seeming a bit like someone who tells you he’s funny instead of telling you a joke. The film insistently harps on Cruise’s awesomeness, without fully achieving awesomeness itself.
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (July 31, 2015). Directed by Christopher McQuarrie. Screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie, from a story by McQuarrie and Drew Pearce, based on the television series by Bruce Geller. With: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Simon McBurney, Jingchu Zhang, Tom Hollander, Jens Hulten, Alec Bladwin.  In IMAX 3D. PG-13. 131 mins.

Edge of Tomorrow review

It’s probably too late to rescue Tom Cruise’s latest film from box office oblivion, but I would like to go on record saying that the financial failure of EDGE OF TOMORROW represents the greatest inverse relationship between quality and ticket sales since TWILIGHT sent breathless teen girls storming into theatres.* Easily surpassing the summer’s successful action-oriented science fiction (the incoherent THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2; the over-rated X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PASSED), EDGE OF TOMORROW  defies low expectations set by the coming attractions trailers, which promised little more than a standard-issue futuristic battle movie. Though loaded with special effects, military hardware, and alien invaders, EDGE OF TOMORROW actually explores a clever conceit in an imaginative way, engaging viewers’ Sense of Wonder, along with their appetite for adrenalin-soaked thrills. Though the end result is not all it could have been, EDGE OF TOMOROW is about as close to sophisticated science fiction as we are likely to see this season.
Cruise plays Major William Cage, a public relations flack whose job is to boost morale back home while our soldiers duke it out with aliens in Europe. The latest gizmo in the war is the “Jacket,” an exo-skeleton that supposedly enables even neophyte soldiers to go head-to-head with the invaders, after only minimal training, laying the groundwork for a D-Day type invasion. Unfortunately for Cage, General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) wants him to cover the invasion live, from the front lines. In a beautifully wrought scene that immediately tells us we are in for something different, Cage attempts to decline the order, at first demurring, then hinting blackmail, and finally fleeing. Captured and stripped of his rank, Cage is sent to the front lines anyway – but as canon fodder rather than as a journalist. Knowing him for a deserter, Cage’s squad mates do little to train or help him, and somewhat predictably he dies in the first wave of the assault. And that’s when things get interesting…
Unfortunately, the central surprise of the story is already given away in the promotional campaign: whenever Cage dies, he jumps back in time to the moment when he woke up to find himself in his new squad. Though this sounds a bit like the comedic GROUND HOG DAY, it works more like a videogame: Cage is not simply repeating the same 24-hour cycle over and over; he goes on for as long as he survives – hours, days, maybe weeks – before death hits the proverbial Restart button for him. Along the way, he teams up with Rita (Emily Blunt), a soldier who believes his incredible story because she previously possessed the same ability. She trains him (over and over and over), hoping to reach a level where he will be skilled enough to get off the beach where Earth’s counter-invasion was (is, will be) slaughtered.
Eventually we learn that time-travel is a power possessed by the aliens, who used it to be ready for counter-attack. Cage, like Rita before him, inherited the ability when he killed one of the aliens, its blood pouring over him. Rita lost the ability when she received a blood transfusion, so the joke becomes that Cage cannot risk mere injury: he must succeed or die; every time he is merely wounded, Rita kills him to send him back to the beginning. As the old saying goes, practice makes perfect: eventually Cage and Rita learn what they need to know to defeat the aliens, but as fate would have it, Cage loses his ace-in-the-hole, forcing a final assault with no hope of a second chance…
By its very nature, EDGE OF TOMORROW has a great deal of repetition built into the story line. Fortunately, Screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (working from a draft by Jez Butterowrth and John-Henry Butterworth, which took its central idea from Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s novel All You Need Is Kill) includes numerous clever variations during the re-runs, and eventually the editing becomes more elliptical, omitting scenes we have watched before and skipping ahead to the new material, as Cage gets a little farther in his quest each time. The strategy does not totally work: as we move into the second act, there is a sense of approaching tedium; fortunately, the third act moves in a new direction, removing the Rest button and creating a more conventional suspense scenario.
Until then, however, EDGE OF TOMORROW works in very interesting ways. Starting Cage off as a coward and a deserter, the film is obviously setting up his transition to warrior-hero, but that transition does not play out as expected. Cage never becomes a gung-ho Top Gun-type hotshot. By the time he has learned the skills he needs to survive on the battlefield, he has been through the battle so many times that it seems like old news; he moves through the carnage by rote, following his practiced moves and anticipating every attack, almost bored by the action.
Instead, the suspense turns on an emotional hinge: Cage knows that, when he finally succeeds, he will lose his alien-inherited ability and, with it, loose any chance to reset the clock and resurrect those who died beside, including Rita. In one fine scene, we see Cage reluctant to proceed, ostensibly from a fear of flying, but Rita soon deduces that his hesitation stems from having played the scenario out multiple times without finding a way to keep Rita alive.
Edge of Tomorrow 2014 Tom Cruise
Little touches like this hint at an even more sophisticated film than the (very entertaining) one that we have. At first, Cage’s ability seems like a gift – which it is, to the extent that it allows him to defeat the enemy. However, on a personal level, it inevitably results in days, weeks, perhaps months of repeated actions; the chance to go back and fix mistakes leads to frustration, even boredom, as Cage goes through what must feel like a lifetime of re-experience the same few days and hours again and again. There are hints regarding the psychic toll this takes, but by necessity those suggestions remain in the background, overshadowed by the action-adventure scenario.
Fortunately, director Doug Liman (THE BOURNE IDENTIFY) delivers action as exciting and fast-paced as anything in a Michael Bay film, but he grounds the action in the drama and builds gradually to a climax that doesn’t seem like just more of the same, after two hours of previous bullets and bombs.
Liman also knows how to milk the inherent black humor in the situation. After it comes clear the Cage will die multiple deaths over the course of the film – to the point where the thought of dying becomes a typical, almost daily experience – Liman litters the frames with potentially lethal hardware, as when Cage visits Rita in a training room equipped with some nasty looking razor-edged hardware, meant to simulate attacking aliens. We’re safely in SOUTH PARK territory (“Oh my god, they killed Kenny!”); even a simple dialogue scene becomes fraught with tension, as we wonder whether a stray alien-simulator will take Cage out in mid-sentence.
As is apparently obligatory for all action-packed movies, EDGE OF TOMORROW is presented in 3D. As far as live-action movies go, the third dimension works tolerably well, enhancing some of the battle sequences and adding an extra layer of creepiness to the aliens. Liman has always been good at rendering comprehensible action scenes: sure, they seem to zip by, but they’re not simply a blur of images and quick cutting – you can tell what is happening, and all the more so in 3D.
Performances are strong all around. Emily Blunt is fine as Rita; though I’m not sure I buy her as a super soldier, her passionate commitment to the cause contrasts nicely with Cage’s personal concerns. Brendan Gleeson is good as the general who sends Cage into battle, and Bill Paxton absolutely relishes his turn as a master sergeant, eager to haze the new recruit – an officer busted down to enlisted man for desertion.
Cruise himself gives one of his best performances ever. His early scenes of fatuous confidence, predicting victory during a series of media appearances, contrasts wonderfully with the unpleasant surprise he registers when General Brigham assigns him to cover the war up close. Cruise makes Cage believable even as the character is attempting the unbelievable – turning down an order from a superior officer; you really see the wheels going round inside the guy’s head as he imagines that if he plays this right, he will walk away. And of course it’s hysterically funny to see “Maverick” Mitchell run like a coward when he realizes that nothing he says will get him out of the situation.
Unlike X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PASSED, which used its time-travel plot as little more than a gimmick to get the new and the old X-Men cast into the same movie, EDGE OF TOMORROW makes at least an effort toward exploring the ramifications of its premise, and does so without  adopting an aura of pretentious seriousitude. To some extent, the film sells out with a contrived ending, but I’m willing to cut the filmmakers some slack. No, it’s not the science fiction masterpiece  it could have been, but EDGE OF TOMORROW is great entertainment, with a good idea or two. It proves that summer flicks do not have to be dumb to deliver the goods (though apparently they do need to be dumb to become blockbusters).

  • Though in the case of TWILIGHT, the imbalanced weighed in favor of box office over quality.

EDGE OF TOMORROW (Warner Brothers Pictures: June 6, 2014). Directed by Doug Liman. Screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie and Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, based on the book All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka. PG-13. 113 mins. Cast: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Brendan Gleeson, Jonas Armstrong, Tony Way.


CG giants threaten humanity in JACK THE GIANT SLAYER.
CG giants threaten humanity in JACK THE GIANT SLAYER.

Once again, America has taken a look at the latest revisionist fairy tale and sighed a collective, “Why?” JACK THE GIANT SLAYER flopped at the box-office in its opening weekend, despite a mammoth budget, attractive leads, and director Bryan Singer expanding the story of a humble peasant vs. a ravenous giant into something that incorporates a plucky princess, an enchanted crown, a sardonic soldier, a war between giants and humanity, and much, (maybe too) much more. But is the audience’s resounding apathy deserved? Come join Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons as they discuss this 3D attempt to do bigger better and weigh whether this version distinguishes itself from the revisionist lot, or is just more fee-fi-fo-fum.
Plus: Steve gives his capsule review of THE LAST EXORCISM PART II, and what’s coming to theaters next week. [NOTE: the podcast capsule is spoiler free. For a more in-depth look at what’s wrong – and almost right – about the ending, check out the review posted here.]


Jack the Giant Slayer: Review

Jack-the-Giant-Slayer-Poster-439x650There’s no magic in this beanstalk, and viewers foolish enough to spend money on tickets are likely to feel as cheated as Jack when told he’s been swindled out of a horse and cart for a few worthless beans. The root of the problem lies in a fatal uncertainty about exactly what JACK THE GIANT SLAYER is supposed to be: a grim fairy tale, a light-hearted adventured, or an epic LORD OF THE RINGS knock-off. Whatever the intent, with its British flavor and oddball mix of humor and horror applied to a fanciful childhood tale, the film recalls JABBERWOCKY (1977). The misbegotten result would seem to suggest that only Terry Gilliam should direct Terry Gilliam films. (After all, if he couldn’t get it right, why should we expect anyone else to?)
The jumbled screenplay (credited to four different writers) mixes in bits of “Jack the Giant Killer,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and the “King Incognito” plot device (in which a royal personage takes on the guise of a peasant in order to get a street-level view of the kingdom). There is also a love story and a villain plotting to overthrow a kingdom, and needless to say, there is a third-act ogre battle.
If this sounds like more than enough to fill up an entertaining movie, then I am not doing my job, because JACK THE GIANT SLAYER feels empty – of warmth, romance, humor, and most especially wonder. The exposition plods; the jokes fall flat; the adventure stalls; and the love story withers on the … beanstalk, I guess.
Director Bryan Singer is undoubtedly talented, but he does not have the required deft touch for this sort of thing, nor does his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie. The opening prologue is a cut-rate version of THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS, telling us what we need to know without making us care. The “clever” cross cutting between Isabelle the Princess and Jack the farm boy foreshadows their eventual union, but the parallels are ridiculously exact and leave the end result in absolutely no doubt, so that the love story feels over before it begins.

Two heads are not better than one for this giant
Two heads are not better than one for this giant

Unable to install a Sense of Wonder into the proceedings, Singer and McQuarrie eventually resort to visceral  shocks. Giants (whose visages are impressively detailed if not cleverly designed or particularly expressive) munch and crunch their victims, both animal and human, which seems a bit daring (though not explicit, thanks to the PG-13 rating), but in the end it amounts to little more than gratuitous titillation, something seen and then forgotten in time for the happy ending.
In a way, this points up the difficult of transferring fairy tales to the screen. The strength of the original lies in its simplicity and in its literary form: terrible things happen – as when, for example, the Big Bad Wolf devours the first two of the Three Little Pigs – but those deaths are abstract and symbolic on the page, a warning that bad behavior leads to bad ends, while the audience identification figure survives by doing the right thing. The characters are archetypal, without distinguishing details to bring them to life in a way that would make them mourn their demise. Children can enjoy these stories without being traumatized, enjoying the thrill of fear and the cathartic satisfaction when their hero triumphs, often by exactly a grizzly retribution on the villain – a safe, simple morality tale that works precisely because there is no gray area to cloud the issue. Movies, which usually at least attempt to create individual characters have it a lot tougher; the visceral impact is stronger, eclipsing the moral point, which in any case is usually not profound enough to warrant being expanded beyond a few pages.
JACK THE GIANT SLAYER certainly has little to say that would suffice to justify the running time. Unless you think it is profound wisdom to opine people of lowly station may aspire to something bigger. Or that a princess should get to know her kingdom. Or that her father shouldn’t marry her off to a scoundrel. Strangely, for all its attempts to build Eleanor up as a strong female lead, her role remains that of a damsel in distress; her appearance in armor is just another form of bling, not indicating that she is actually going to do anything.
Ewan McGregor
Ewan McGregor

But wait, not all is lost. Although romantic leads Nicholas Hoult and Eleanor Tomlinson are undermined by the script insistence on keeping them bland (Hoult made a much better lover when he was a zombie in WARM BODIES), the supporting cast shine through. Ewan McGregor is dashing as the princess guard, Elmont; his confident smile hits just the right tone – almost tongue-in-cheek, but not quite. Ian McShane is an impressive king. Bill Nighy provides an intimidating voice for the lead giant, General Fallon.
Best of all is Stanley Tucci as the scheming Roderick. In fact, he is too good. He makes you hate him so much you want to see him dispatched with – well – dispatch, but if and when that happens, what else has the movie got?
Stanely Tucci steals the giant's throne - and the movie.
Stanely Tucci steals the giant's throne - and the movie.

Well, the film does have that colossal confrontation toward the conclusion, when the giants rain down on humanity like organic meteors. The siege is reasonably well done because it relies not only on visual flair (giants hurling burning trees over the castle walls) but also on at least halfway believable depictions of how a human army might attempt to hold off a horde of giants. Truthfully, a bit more could have been done with this (showcasing – for example – how leverage might be applied by a smaller adversary to topple a larger foe), but at least the screenplay pulls off an interesting variation on “Chekov’s Gun” (you know, the one that’s loaded in the first act and therefore must be fired in the third) – in this case, a leftover magic bean that Jack puts to good use at a crucial moment.
As is almost obligatory these days, JACK THE GIANT SLAYER is being presented in 3D engagements. Although officially not a post-production conversion, the film often looks like one. The early quiet scenes (of our lead characters as children, listening to bedtime stories) do provide a nice sense of depth, as the production design offers a genuine fairy tale ambiance. But once Jack and the Princess grow to young adulthood, and the action-adventure elements take over, Singer opts for camera angles and lens choices that create a resolutely flat look, with only a mild separation between the characters and the backgrounds. In a few cases, when we see human from the POV of giants looking down, the results are noticeably bizarre, with the human form stretched to ridiculous proportions, suggesting Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four.
Nicholas Hoult rides the beanstalk
Nicholas Hoult rides the beanstalk

JACK THE GIANT SLAYER is another sad example of a big-budget movie with all the production value Hollywood can offer (including a fine score by John Ottman) but little in the way of inspiration. If not for the spark of life provided by the cast, the film would be dead as a diver after leaping off the rocky cliffs of the giant’s land in the clouds. In striving to be big in execution, the film feels small in imagination – a fact strangely underlined in Singer’s occasional choice of downward camera angles that lend a diminutive-looking stature to the giants. Taking something meant to be large and making it look small is no great accomplishment. If, instead, Singer had taken Warwick Davis (who shows up in a bit part) and cast him as a giant – now, that would have shown at least a touch of wit.
JACK THE GIANT SLAYER (2013). Directed by Bryan Singer. Screenplay by Darren Lemke and Christopher McQuarrie and Dan Studney; story by Darren Lemke & David Dobkin. A production by Warner Brothers Pictures, New Line Entertainment, Legendary Pictures. Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Tomlinson, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Eddie Marsan, Ewen Bremner, Ian McShane, Warwick Davis, Bill Nighy.

McQuarrie Re-Writing Jack The Giant Killer

Christopher McQuarrie
Christopher McQuarrie

Bryan Singer (X-MEN, SUPERMAN RETURNS) has been planning his re-working of classic fairytale Jack and the Beanstalk for a while now but, according to The Hollywood Reporter, he has now asked long-time collaborator Chris McQuarrie (THE USUAL SUSPECTS, VALKYRIE) to re-write the script.

Singer’s interpretation of the story will follow a young farmer being charged with the mission of leading a group of men into the giants’ kingdom to stage a dangerous rescue. Sounds like quite a departure from the original fairytale and there’s no mention of magic beans or cows called Daisy but an unique twist on things rather than a literal transition of the story is probably exactly what this adaptation needs.
Singer has been back on the project ever since he rejected the offer to direct X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, the new X-MEN film which focuses on a younger group of mutants being trained at Xavier’s institute. The script for JACK THE GIANT KILLER has been already been attempted by both Mark Bomback and Darren Lemke but now that McQuarrie is on the case it seems like things are finally heating up.
Casting for the film is set to start soon as Singer is planning to shoot JACK THE GIANT KILLER in England this summer.