Thursday, December 29, 2011

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011)

"Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol movie poster"

It is rare in the Mission: Impossible franchise for Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) to be assigned an agency tasked mission and enjoy support both from his home office and regular team members who he has worked with in the past.  In fact, this has only happened once, in Mission: Impossible II.  In the other three films, including the latest, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, Ethan and/or the entire IMF are accused of disloyalty, treason, and rogue operations while try attempt to thwart global villains.  Taking down the bad guy is always much harder while being pursued by your own government.  In the first and third films, Ethan was personally labeled a traitor, now, the entire IMF organization are disavowed because both the American and Russian governments are going to blame them for blowing up the Kremlin.  How is that for having the backing of your boss?
The man responsible for blowing up the Kremlin and framing the IMF is also the franchise’s most far-reaching, intellectual, and dangerous villain yet – a sort of nuclear philosopher who believes that only global nuclear annihilation will evolve the human race.  Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist) appears just as capable as Ethan Hunt at pulling off intricately detailed capers, breaking into impossible to break in buildings, and being especially useful in lightning fast car chases, fist fights, and any other form of covert espionage.  He leads Ethan and his team to some extremely exotic locales including Budapest, Moscow, Dubai, and Mumbai.  If there is one asset of chasing a wily villain focused on blowing up the world, he will give you a thorough tour first.
The hodgepodge IMF team this time around features the girl (Paula Patton), the geeky tech guy (Simon Pegg), and the unknown variable with a hidden past (Jeremy Renner).  They also bring along the most cutting-edge technology which, in theory, should help them infiltrate, evade, and assert control over any situation.  What makes this iteration of the franchise so fascinating is that time and time again, technology lets them down.  Masks, a staple of these films, fail to come together, climbing equipment fails when it is needed the most, and even car chases in the world’s most advanced automobiles are slowed down by pedestrian traffic jams.  It is refreshing to see action heroes have to reset and troubleshoot technical glitches just like the regular folk do.    
I highly recommend you spend the extra surcharge and experience Ghost Protocol in its intended IMAX setting.  The large screen is the perfect fit for the outrageous stunts being performed almost every minute and the surround sound truly has an impact on the theater’s audience.  The Kremlin explosion and the acrobatic scenes performed in and on the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, should be appreciated with state of the art film technology.  I realize after seeing it in IMAX that watching it on my home entertainment system would noticeably diminish the impact of the film’s stunts and artistry.
I have yet to decide where Ghost Protocol ranks in relation to the other Mission: Impossible films, but it is far from the least of them.  The script is detailed and well thought out, the action scenes are stunningly captivating, and the tension felt as the villain moves step by step towards his goal is real.  The team sidekicks are not to the level of the first Mission: Impossible film, remember Ving Rhames and Jean Reno, and the set-up with false accusations and treasonous allegations are a plot device which is growing ever staler as they use it once again to make the spy team perspire that much more. 
However, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is worth the time and money to experience what felt like a very pleasurable movie going experience.  It is never dull, does not get too carried away with itself, and carries on a fine franchise tradition; Ethan Hunt will perform the craziest and gut-churning stunts to stop the bad guy. 

The Descendants (2011)


There is something going on in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants which makes me not care too much about its characters or plot.  I cared about his earlier creations in Election and Sideways, but the family in this film feels stale and wooden.  Just like his past films, the central character here, Matt King (George Clooney), is facing some tough problems, but this time they are not even of his design but are thrust upon him.  Matt is even much more likeable than the Broderick in Election or Giamatti in Sideways, but that does not make him any more interesting to watch. 
Matt is a lawyer on Oahu and is very well off.  He is the sole decision-maker in a trust set up by his ancestors, Hawaiian royalty, in a large and undeveloped tract of land which hotel magnates and golf course developers are just aching to pay him a very large amount of money to take off of his hands.  The majority of the other trustees are eager to sell as well, but Matt is holding all of the cards on the deal.  The land issue is more background though because Matt’s wife Elizabeth is in a coma.  She hit her head while in a boat race and the doctors do not know if she will wake up or not.
This leaves Matt, self-described in a monologue as the ‘back-up parent’, to deal with his two daughters.  Since problems rarely come along one at a time, Matt also finds out at this point that Elizabeth was cheating on him with a local real estate tycoon, Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard).  With his wife in a coma and an extremely significant land deal on the horizon, Matt makes the most obvious choice any Alexander Payne character would choose, he takes off to Kauai with his daughters and an imbecile surfer dude, Sid (Nick Krause), to spy on Brian Speer and possibly confront him.
This road-trip, similar in respect to the trip to the vineyards in Sideways, lumps together an odd assortment of characters and then sits back to watch them as they place far too much emphasis on trivial events which are manifested into needless drama.  Sideways was quirky, meandering in a pleasant way, and intellectual.  The Descendants is more on par with Election; you do not particularly like the protagonists and instead of quirky, it feels more like plodding.
However, just like Sideways, The Descendants has a definite sense of place.  Present day Hawaii comes across as stifling not only in the city, but also on the beach while you are attempting to spy on the guy who made you a cuckold.  Perhaps it is island fever impacting the actions of Matt and infecting the musty moods of the rest of the cast. 
The script does not rise to the level it set up for itself.  Clooney and his elder daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley) are angry and on a quest, but the writing is flat and the pacing is off.  There are one-dimensional and tiring extended breaks between plot points which may have achieved a deeper emotional impact if they tried a bit harder or if the daughters were not so snotty.  They are crass and relentlessly bitter to the point of distraction.  Matt has the most right to be angry and spiteful, but thankfully he does not hang it blatantly around his neck and choose to be a one note character ala Alex.
I do not know why most of the rest of the film going public is raving about The Descendants.  Alexander Payne has been great in the past, but he has misfired here.  I have no doubt he will back with another enjoyable movie in the future, but I recommend you sit this one out or if you have not seen it, go back and enjoy Sideways.  Leave The Descendants where they are, stewing in Hawaii.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)


Even though there are now two films in Guy Ritchie’s version of Sherlock Holmes, I am still getting accustomed to the athletic, street fighting Holmes as opposed to the merely cerebral genius who used to chase suspects by horse and buggy rather than bash their brains out in back alleys. In Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, the villain is more formidable, the action consumes more screen time, and the jokes are more cringe inducing. Sherlock (Robert Downey Jr.) has noticeably upped his drug habit with side references to cocaine and routinely drinks embalming fluid rather than boring old brandy. 

Why the sudden surge for uppers? First, Sherlock is matching wits with Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris). Moriarty appears to match Holmes man to man intellectually; however, he has follows no moral code or displays any hint of empathy whatsoever. This makes his the most dangerous man in Europe. I will not divulge any plot points concerning his evil deeds because that is half the fun of a Sherlock story, following the trail as he discovers clues which lead him to the next location. Second, Dr. Watson (Jude Law) insists on going through with his marriage, a prospect Sherlock frequently reminds him will destroy his manhood and shatter his well-being. 

Sherlock’s interactions with these two characters, Moriarty and Watson, define the high and low ends of this film. When Sherlock and Moriarty share the same room, real tension emanates from the screen. Their verbal sword play is a credit to the writing and the actors who joust for tactical advantage just by using metaphors. Two scenes between these men jump to mind. Early on, Sherlock analyzes Moriarty’s handwriting while Moriarty warns Sherlock of the dangerous path he is following. I will not describe a later scene between the two gentlemen, but it is the most effective in the film as they mentally assail one another. 

The low and tedious end is Sherlock’s interactions with Watson. The relentless double entendres about their ‘relationship’ lead the audience to question whether or not Sherlock is homosexual. For a wisecrack or two, this would provide levity and amusement. Unfortunately, the script persistently wails against this dead horse of a joke. A homoerotic double meaning pops up about every 30 seconds when Sherlock and Watson share the screen. It soon grows dreary and began to test my patience, especially during an extended sequence with Sherlock in drag. 

What always ends up bringing the script back on track is what Sherlock is known for, his fascinating method of deductive reasoning. Before he makes a move, the script may flash forward as he meticulously plans his next position in a street brawl or it may flash a few minutes back in time to show the audience just how he set up the bad guys to fail. Sherlock is always one step behind Moriarty who regularly seems to be the smarter of the two; however, if you are the individual planning the executing the scheme, those following you will always appear to be lagging behind you. 

I slightly recommend this new Sherlock mainly for the enjoyment of the Sherlock vs. Moriarty moments and the fascinating moments when Sherlock pauses to explain the situation to someone (usually the audience) as to what and why he is taking a particular course of action. I hesitate to strongly recommend this film because of the awful dialogue between Sherlock and Watson and because of the standard Guy Ritchie cinematography style. Guy Ritchie is known for inventive and momentum shifting action scenes. Sometimes bullets fly faster than the speed of light and then shift to ‘Matrix’ time so the audience can watch it pierce someone’s clothing. Shifting between fast and slow motion in action sequences is helpful to determine the placement of good and bad guys, but after a particular amount of time, these shifts become significantly noticeable where instead they should be only slightly perceptible. When the third or fourth action sequence began, I was prepared and expected the momentum shifts which instead of drawing me into the scene actually had the opposite effect and took me out of it. 

There are certain expectations and pitfalls a second film in a series runs into. Will it have the same mood and presence as the first film? Is it just there to take up space to make it a trilogy? In A Game of Shadows, Sherlock’s character is a bit more interesting because of the drug habit and especially because of the villain; however, Watson is beginning to draw eye rolls instead of applause as the sidekick.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Shame (2011)

Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) has an addiction.  He does not struggle against it, seek therapy to cure it, or deny its existence; he learns to cope with it and attempts to shape his life around it to create routine and give it space.  Brandon is addicted to sex but appears to be a bit more OCD about it than the regular sex addict looking to score at the club on a weekend.  He has a handle on his issue enough to know specifically what he wants.  This specificity is most likely his limiting factor when it comes to real life relationships and intimacy, but Brandon’s life seems mostly manageable with the boundaries he sets for himself and the rigid schedule he follows.
This routine is shattered when a person whose phone messages he has been ignoring suddenly shows up in his apartment, his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan).  There is a hospital bracelet around her wrist but the audience does not know why.  It appears Sissy has interrupted Brandon’s life before but the audience is unaware of that as well.  There is a lot the audience is not let in on.  Shame is set strictly in the present.  There are no flashbacks, no conversations discussing the past, and only vague references to any events ever occurring from a day earlier than yesterday.
Brandon has a job, goes to the office every day, seems successful, but we do not know what it is he does.  His preferred M.O. is to get through the day, perhaps enjoy a drink after work, and then settle in front of his laptop for a night full of pornography to watch.  Sometimes he ends up with a bar conquest engaging in sex underneath a bridge or pressed up against a window facing the world, but usually it is the laptop sequence at night.
Sissy throws a wrench into this entire schedule.  Since she is around, Brandon’s boundaries, self-imposed limitations, and routine are altered which in turn alters his judgment and decision making skills.  Brandon has some self destructive tendencies which Sissy does not intentionally trigger, but she certainly does not dampen them either. 
Unfortunately, the pacing and movement of Shame stutters throughout the film.  Think of a pebble skipping across the water.  When it strikes the water, something happens and the water ripples away from the impact.  In Shame, this takes the form of a long conversation between Brandon and Sissy, his boss, or an awkward first date.  However, when the pebble is airborne between water strikes, nothing happens.  There are extended sequences and tracking shots following Brandon jog the streets of Manhattan, stare at a screen, stare out the window, or just walk around and ponder. 
Shame is not expressly about Brandon’s addiction, but more about his lifestyle, how Sissy affects it, and how he responds to his sister in her extended hour of need.  The film suffers a bit from those segments between conversations scenes where the camera just follows Brandon around as he accomplishes inconsequential tasks.  The only reason Shame has the buzz it does in the public sphere is because of its NC-17 rating.
There are numerous and explicit sex scenes, frequent shots of Fassbender in the altogether, and direct discussions of everything in between.  It is refreshing to see a film which reflects reality as well as Shame does concerning sex, but just because this is a rare occurrence, does not make it automatically superior to an R-rated film which hides and sneaks around these matters.  I do not recommend Shame precisely because it is quite dull in those long portions between dialogue; however, if you are looking for real situations which standard PG-13 and R-rate films gloss over, Shame is a fine way to experience it.

Friday, December 2, 2011

My Week With Marilyn (2011)


The vast majority of film characters who are addicted to pills and alcohol should not be the main characters in movie scripts.  These characters are frequently one dimensional and are only required to slur words, stumble over steps, and make a nuisance of themselves.  There are exceptions (Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas) as there are to any rule of thumb, but usually one does not want to rest a movie on a pill-head’s shoulders. 
My Week with Marilyn does not rely on Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) as the central character, but she is not just a supporting role either.  The star of the movie with ‘Marilyn’ in the title is actually Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), the young third assistant director on Sir Laurence Olivier’s production of The Prince and the Showgirl.  Through amusing perseverance, Colin has wormed his way into his first real job and onto his first real movie set.  He fetches coffee, shuffles script copies, and routinely asks the talent what he can do to make them more comfortable.
The script chose to follow Colin’s one week on the set with Marilyn Monroe and their brief flirtation/affair which itself is memorialized in his autobiography devoted to that week.  However, through a few factors which may not be apparent from the script’s pages, neither Colin nor Marilyn is the most interesting character in the movie.  This credit belongs solely to Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh).  It is 1956 and Olivier confides to Colin that he no longer feels young and decided to cast Marilyn in his film to recapture some of his lost youth and maybe even engage in his own affair with her.
Olivier and Branagh have a lot in common.  They are Shakespeare addicts, are widely acknowledged to be seminal actors in their respective generations, and I like to think that if their births were reversed, it would be Olivier playing Branagh in a film.  Branagh gives a truly convincing performance as an aging Olivier who begins amused with Marilyn’s quirks before settling with disgust at her pathetic work ethic and ridiculous attempt to define herself as a true acting talent. 
On set, Marilyn was never on time, held up the rest of the cast for hours, was spoon fed her lines and delivery method from her acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker), and sometimes stayed in bed for an entire day because of her pill and alcohol problems.  The film blames these problems both on Paula and Marilyn’s agent Milton Greene (Dominic Cooper) as her sycophantic pill-pushers.  Colin brushes aside his own worries about Marilyn’s physical and mental health because he has severe love blinders on.  When a person is so smitten and in lust as Colin is, the object of their desire can do no wrong.
Aside from Michelle Williams, the supporting cast is quite strong.  Co-starring with Marilyn is Dame Sybil Thorndike (Dame Judi Dench) who appears just as smitten as Colin sometimes and Olivier’s wife Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond) gives a brief but telling performance.  Dominic Cooper plays a standard high-tension agent protective of his star and makes me question why he still shows up in such minor roles after his fantastic turn as Uday Hussein in this year’s The Devil’s Double.
Most of the critical response to My Week with Marilyn focuses on Michelle Williams and fawns about her most certain Oscar nomination.  I disagree.  Williams looks nothing like Monroe and I was painfully aware of the fake blonde wig and fake teeth.  For most of the movie, and especially in the first half, I was watching Michelle Williams play Marilyn Monroe instead of forgetting that and just watching Marilyn.  Director Simon Curtis made a mistake in casting a well known actress to play Marilyn; he would have been much better off casting an unknown actress which would have decreased the inevitable distraction.
I encourage you to take the time to see My Week with Marilyn for the critically overlooked Branagh performance as Olivier and an overall enjoyable movie.  Try and look past the Williams performance and enjoy a 1950’s English period piece.