Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011) Review

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011) Director: Brad Bird

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Typically, Hollywood sequels tend to rapidly decline in quality with each new iteration, but the Mission Impossible franchise has somehow managed to buck this trend. Ghost Protocol is an all-around fantastic action film, it is unpretentious, engaging, simple, and fun (a sorely lacking experience in much of our action blockbusters these days). Here, both the style and design are surprisingly compelling.

In this wild thriller, the Impossible Missions Force (IMF) has been disbanded and “ghost protocol” has been enacted as a terrorist has gotten his hands on dangerous nuclear codes. The opening scene shows a dramatic theft sequence in which a secret agent character played by Josh Holloway (of Lost repute) steals a file containing nuclear launch codes in a train station in Budapest, but just as he is set to escape he is assassinated in an alley by Sabine Moreau (Léa Seydoux). It is a great hook for the film. Next, we catch-up with Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) as he is broken out of a Russian prison by the Impossible Missions Force (IMF) and whisked off on a quest to recover the nuclear codes.

However, the IMF has lost its credibility as the President has invoked “Ghost Protocol.” Ethan goes rogue yet again with a group (Jeremy Renner, Simin Pegg, Paula Patton) and we see him battling his way through three key situations in Moscow, Dubai, and Mumbai –with each involving a unique heist conundrum. In Russia, Ethan dons a military uniform and invades a government building using a fake digital projection screen, and in Dubai the most memorable scene of the movie showcases Tom Cruise suspended by ropes and magnets along the side of the world’s tallest building, and the whole scene is well-constructed, the tension is brutal, only to be followed by a disorienting sandstorm chase scene through the murky streets of Dubai. Scenes like these have cemented Tom Cruise as the great action figure actor of our era, despite his strange public persona. He has built a newfound reputation of himself as slightly insane, perhaps just enough to perform his own stunts –hanging out of airplanes, leaping across rooftops, and dangling off the tallest building in the world.

The gritty sense of realism in this film is buttressed by the fact that the IMF’s technology keeps breaking down –from the wall magnets, to the 3-D projection screen, and finally to the laser. It gives us the sense that they are not an all-powerful spy ring. It is yet another touch which makes this franchise gripping, though I generally agree with the critical consensus that the villain in this film is mostly forgettable (Michael Nyqvist as Kurt Hendricks or “Cobalt”) but it is still a terrific action film which surprisingly begs for rewatching.

Fargo (1996) Review

Fargo (1996) Directors: The Coen Brothers

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Hollywood rarely seems to tread forth into the slick icy north, however in one of the most celebrated genre-blending combinations of comedy-western and regional-nihilism, The Coen Brothers take us on a fearless journey upward to Minnesota and North Dakota for a murder mystery. Ethan and Joel Coen actually grew up in Minneapolis and they shot Fargo in places they once knew. The success and uniqueness of the film has since led to a Fargo television series which is still running to this day.

Loosely based on a true story, Frances McDormand plays Marge Gunderson, a seven months pregnant chief of police investigating the brutal murder of two citizens and a state trooper. It all starts with the greed of one man: a frustratingly pathetic weasel-of-a-car salesman named Jerry Lundegaard (William H Macy). Jerry is on the verge of bankruptcy and hires a pair of buffoonish crooks (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to stage his wife’s kidnapping in the hopes that it will urge her wealthy father ((Harve Presnell) to cough up the $1M ransom. Jerry is driven by fear and resentment while in search of “easy” money. The bulk of the film displays one uncomfortable scene after another as the scheme goes off the rails, more people die, and yet Jerry still attempts to maintain the facade.

Fargo shows the wanton nature of evil: feeble men with anxieties about falling out of the middle class, and what happens when those fears transcend loyalty to family. We watch as grand plans fall apart, and brutal slaughter is a mere inconvenience for some. The blinding white snow conceals a great deal of evil, however it can also reveal things like footprints leading to the scene of a crime. Perhaps the greatest cover of all is the thin veneer of polite midwestern society, masked in friendly Scandinavian-American colloquialisms like “Eh” and “Don’tcha know,” but at the same this polite society refuses to acknowledge a hideous darkness lurking out there in the icy tundra. All it has room for is friendly conversation with warm people, and thus it remains vulnerable to threat. This theme of truly dark, chaotic evil is carried into numerous other Coen Brothers films, especially No Country For Old Men. It is a bleak lens that which we see through a glass darkly.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) Review

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) Director: Wes Anderson

Rating: 5 out of 5.

In taking much inspiration from Orson Welles’s wonderful The Magnificent Ambersons, Wes Anderson’s breakthrough essential New York film is a terrific entre par excellence for everyone’s favorite master of quirky indie movie-making. I thought this panorama of an old New York aristocratic family was brilliant in that the city plays as much a role as in other great New York films like Woody Allen’s Manhattan.

Alec Baldwin serves as narrator in a J.D. Salinger-esque manner. The prestige of the Tenenbaum family lies in their big, opulent New York home, and inside we are treated to a whimsical glimpse of each family member. Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) is the patriarch who has left home and is living in a hotel, though he never actually divorced his wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston). All three of their adult children are eccentrics and neurotics: Chas (Ben Stiller) is the financier and real estate magnate, Richie (Luke Wilson) was once a tennis champion, and Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) is the jaded and emotionally distant adopted daughter who not-so-secretly smokes cigarettes. We also meet a circus of extent characters like Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray), Margot’s distant and pretentious husband, Eli Cash (Owen Wilson, co-writer of the film with Wes Anderson), a neighbor who ironically writes unsuccessful Western novels, Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), an accountant who falls in love with Etheline, and a myriad of Wes Anderson’s usual cast of actors.

The central plot concerns the fate of Royal as he is kicked out of his hotel and fakes a bout with cancer in order to become closer with his family. However, in doing so, he must learn to let them go while recognizing that he cannot make up for lost time. He gives his blessing for Henry and Etheline to married in order for her to be happy, he saves Chas’s sons while Eli comes crashing into the side of the building while high on mescaline, and he helps Chas release himself from such tight control over his sons, he encourages Margot to publish a play about the family, supports Eli checking into rehab, watches as Richie starts teaching junior tennis –and in the end, Royal dies of a heart attack. Only now, he is a beloved head of family. His epitaph reads: “Died tragically rescuing his family from the wreckage of a destroyed sinking battleship.”

What is it that holds a family together? Is a family merely a legal classification? Or is there something deeper which operates by means of push and pull between growth, distance, proximity, and love? What does it mean to lead a group of loved ones? How do we find true reconciliation for past mishaps?

What is redemptive about The Royal Tenebaums is that Royal, despite years of moral failings, decides at the end of his life that it is never too late to start setting his family straight. His heart is truly in the right place, even though he is not a textbook, picture-perfect hero. And perhaps we can all see a bit of Royal Tenenbaum in ourselves. While the weight of our culture has all-too often been degraded by the effects of globalized mass culture, Wes Anderson helps us to slow down and see vague traces of what might have once been called beautiful still waiting to be discovered out there. His well-orchestrated, self-conscious method of story-telling stands in stark contrast to the oft bleak and despairing mood that has captured contemporary movie-making. While as of this date The Grand Budapest Hotel remains my personal favorite Wes Anderson film, The Royal Tenenbaums is also simply superb.

Mission: Impossible III (2006) Review

Mission: Impossible III (2006) Director: J.J. Abrams

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Following a six year hiatus after the disappointment that was Mission: Impossible 2, the third installment finally arrived and it was without a doubt a shot of adrenaline from J.J. Abrams (his first feature film). Mission: Impossible III brings back a familiar flare for flash and action to audiences which were starved in the second film. However, M:I 3’s production was also apparently a mess –it cycled through directors like David Lynch, as well as actors like Kenneth Branagh, Carrie-Anne Moss, Scarlett Johansson, and Thandie Newton. Eventually, Tom Cruise phoned up J.J. Abrams to helm this chaotic ship after binge-watching Alias.

In the film, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is retired and getting married to Julia Meade (Michelle Monaghan) but he has kept his profession a secret. It is a classic case of dramatic irony for the super hero everyman. Philip Seymour Hoffman delivers a perfect performance as Davian –an understated, calculating, a-moral villain who has stolen a mysterious weapon known as a “Rabbit’s Foot.” We open with a torture sequence as Ethan’s wife is shot in the head, and this scene informs the remainder of the movie, but as the adventure leads onward we learn that the situation is more complex, despite the fact that the plot is extraordinarily difficult to follow –one minute we are running through the streets of Berlin, the next we are hopping across rooftops in Shanghai, and then a heist and boat chase sequence in the Vatican. This is all standard fare for a break-neck paced J.J. Abrams movie. Yet this is also a more personalized story than either of the last two films in this series. At the halfway point, Ethan and Julia are married in an impromptu ceremony and in the end they honeymoon together after the “Rabbit’s Foot” has been recovered (though it is never fully explicated what the “Rabbit’s Foot” actually is). Only in the end does Ethan reveal his true employment via the impossible Missions Force (IMF) to Julia.

While this is mostly a vapid action movie, I can still appreciate it for being escapist entertainment. My favorite scene includes the extensive capture sequence of Davian, followed by his in-flight interrogation, and subsequent recapture in a dramatic shootout on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Of course, there are also many terrific scenes of Tom Cruise escaping custody, taking on a new disguise, leaping off buildings, scaling walls, and so on. However, this was also the era when Tom Cruise’s personal reputation took quite a hit from which it has only recently somewhat recovered. Nevertheless, Mission: Impossible III deserves much praise for resurrecting this franchise without knowing that the best was still to come.