Movie Review: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)

July 30, 2015 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

rogue nation

We all know he is crazy. But when it comes to making crazy action blockbusters, there’s no superstar in the world equipped with more charisma and intensity to do the job than Mr Tom Cruise.

Despite having hit the big Five-O since Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, the surprising smash hit that turned out to be the best in the franchise yet, Cruise returns in fine form for Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, the first film financed by Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba. It’s a slick, wild, fun and funny experience, a fantastic popcorn movie that appears to have taken a page out of the Fast & Furious franchise by building on the success and familiarity of the predecessor with even crazier action stunts you’ve never seen before.

Cruise returns as IMF agent Ethan Hunt, who finds himself going head-to-head with his most formidable nemesis yet, Solomon Lane, the head of the mysterious Syndicate terrorist group, played by Sean Harris (who looks like Mason Verger from Hannibal even though he has no facial injuries). Returning are his comedy relief sidekick Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), last entry’s William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and good old Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames). New to the cast are Alec Baldwin, head of the CIA, and Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson (who earned a Golden Globe nomination for The White Queen in 2013), in my opinion a true superstar in the making.

Directed by Christopher McQuarrie, who previously collaborated with Cruise on the underrated Jack Reacher and was also a writer on the excellent Edge of TomorrowMI5 kicks off with a spectacular opening sequence that is basically declaring to its audience that they are in for a treat. And from there, the film takes us on a heart-thumping ride around the world, filled with cool gadgets, technology you never knew existed, fast cars and loads of stunts to push action — and credulity — to the edge.

Not everything makes perfect sense and people never seem to get hurt — or even scratched — despite the most brutal of crashes, falls and collisions, but as is the case with the last few Fast & Furious flicks, MI5 embraces its insanity and outrageousness to the fullest, and in doing so becomes a form of surreal enjoyment that few films of the genre can match.

There are admittedly some pacing issues as there are times when the film slows down too much for my liking, though the set action pieces — in particular one involving an underwater sequence and another involving a motorcycle chase — are absolutely fantastic and rank right up there as the best of the franchise.

Tom Cruise, say what you will about him, can still get it done as Ethan Hunt. It’s no different to the type of intense performance we’ve seen countless times, and despite turning 53 this month, Cruises hasn’t lost a step. Equalling his impressiveness is Rebecca Ferguson, who isn’t necessarily a knockout beauty but is shockingly convincing as Ilsa Faust, a British agent/terrorist. The 31-year-old actress exudes an air of confidence and vulnerability that makes Faust a fascinating character you’re not sure if you can trust, and manages to keep all the difficult action scenes authentic because she makes you believe she is capable of possessing those skills.

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Tom Cruise and Rebecca Ferguson

Simon Pegg gets a very meaty role this time, both in terms of screen time and humour, though sadly neither Jeremy Renner nor Ving Rhames get to show much of what they can do as they are largely confined to operational logistics. Alec Baldwin, on the other hand, is a welcome addition who makes CIA chief Alan Huntley a much more interesting character than he otherwise would have been.

Full credit too to Alibaba, basically China’s version of eBay, for keeping MI5 essentially free of “Chinese characteristics.” In recent years, most high-profile films involving Chinese investment always force in some cheesy Chinese elements or actors, but in this film you almost forget that. They don’t go to China, there’s no mention of China, and the only Chinese actress in it — played by Zhang Jinchu, basically a less famous Zhang Zhiyi — has a tiny role that you barely even notice.

I do have a bit of a complaint about some of the close-range combat sequences because the use of quick cuts get a little too liberal to be coherent at times, but apart from that Rogue Nation is an exceptional action film I had a blast with. It’s not quite on the level of Ghost Protocol, a surprising revelation no one expected to be that good, though that could also be because expectations this time around are might higher. Nonetheless, it’s easily the second best entry in the MI franchise and I hope they keep making more as long as they are this awesome.

4 stars out of 5

PS: Yes, they apparently do plan to make a sixth film.

Movie Review: Spy (2015)

July 10, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

spy-poster

I won’t lie. I initially had zero interest in Spy, the new comedy directed by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat) and starring his favourite collaborator Melissa McCarthy. The poster just made it look generic and lame, and I always thought Feig’s earlier films were overrated.

Just shows we shouldn’t judge a movie by its poster or preconceived notions based on the past. Because Spy is really funny. Hilarious stuff. Laugh-out-loud gags with a progressive slant. In my opinion it’s easily the best film either Feig or McCarthy have been involved in.

It doesn’t have a mindblowing plot — McCarthy plays a former teacher-turned-CIA-agent who acts as the eyes and ears of the agency’s top spy, played by Jude Law. She’s meek and awkward and disappointed with how her career change has turned out.

Naturally, an opportunity arises in which she is thrust into dangerous undercover field work, and this brings out the hidden beast in her as she tries to track down a lethal nuclear weapon.

All the kudos in the world for having McCarthy as the undisputed female lead and a kickass spy, an absolute rarity in sexist, beauty- and weight-obsessed Hollywood, but none of that would have mattered if Spy turned out to be a stinker.

Fortunately, Spy smashes the six-laugh quota for a decent comedy with ease thanks to a variety of factors. First and foremost, McCarthy, who gets the opportunity to show her range by playing essentially two personalities — the meek, and the snarky one we’re used to seeing from Bridesmaids and The Heat. 

In the former, she’s funny in the hesitant, awkward manner she’s very capable of pulling off. However, she’s at her ripping best in the latter, firing off quick-witted, sharp, acidic one-liners and well-placed profanity to elicit the chuckles. I always found this crude version of McCarthy funny, but too much of it felt grating and exhausting. Feig’s decision to give us half a film of it ended up being perfect; just the right amount of familiar McCarthy.

Rose Byrne, who seems to be in absolutely everything these days, once again displays her  ample comedic chops as the stuck-up villain with the posh accent. She’s not afraid to make fun of herself and go head-to-head wih McCarthy in the profanity stakes; I believe this could be as funny as she has ever been.

Jude Law, who has been out of the limelight in recent years, returns as a James Bond spoof of sorts, probably a nod to the fact that he was almost picked to be the iconic spy years ago. He’s clearly aged and appears to have gotten some plugs, though the charisma is still there. He gets to joke around the least as the tongue-in-cheek straight-man of the comedy but takes the role in stride.

Up to this point, Spy is already a fairly decent comedy. What takes it to the next level, however, is the presence of Jason Statham. As the most bankable martial arts action star of today, Statham has only been on the fringes of comedy, and by that I mean wisecracks and one-liners in between beating people up on screen. He finally gets to show off his incredible self-awareness and untapped comedic timing in Spy as a disgruntled rogue agent who steals just about every scene he’s in.

Statham’s character is British, but he’s also crass, profane, arrogant, mysognistic and hyperbolic. He reminds of a hardened version of Kurt Russell from Big Trouble in Little China. His hilarity is undeniable, and it adds an edge to the film I doubt anyone else could have offered.

I thought after Kingsman: The Secret Service the year’s best action-comedy had been set in stone, but now I’m not so sure. Spy isn’t nearly as stylish or visually impressive, but it’s much more of a pure comedy in that it generates bigger and more frequent belly laughs. I had an unexpectedly good time.

4.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

May 31, 2015 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

Mad Max

It’s kinda shocking that I’ve never seen any of the original Mad Max films with Mel Gibson. Too campy? Too 80s? Too Aussie? (All baseless assumptions, by the way). Whatever it is, I’ve never really felt the urge to watch them. And so I wasn’t all that hyped up when I heard the the franchise was receiving a reboot 30 years later, surprisingly with original director George Miller returning and the super likable Tom Hardy replacing the now-super unlikable Gibson.

But rave reviews and strong word of mouth got me thinking that, against all odds, Mad Max: Fury Road might actually be a good film.

Well, I was wrong. Because Mad Max: Fury Road is a bloody modern masterpiece. In my memory it will surely go down as one of the best movies of 2015, one of the best action movies of the decade, one of the best Aussie movies of all-time and one of the most visionary post-apocalyptic movies ever.

You don’t need to know anything about the previous films; you don’t even have to know the premise or who Mad Max is. That’s the first fantastic thing about the movie — almost everything about the world in which the story is set is revealed by showing as opposed to telling. There’s no narrator, no scrolling introductory text — and yet from the very first scene it manages to immerse you into this strange and terrifying new future. The opening sequence introducing us to Mad Max is insanely tense and horrific, but it’s also a slick lesson in world-building and storytelling.

And so I won’t say much about the plot except to note that the narrative focuses on three main characters. There’s Max Rockstansky (Tom Hardy), a loner constantly battling inner demons and fighting for survival. There’s Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a warrior on a deadly mission of redemption. And there’s Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a pale-skinned “War Boy” brainwashed into worshipping a ruthless dictator (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who apparently played a different character in the original trilogy).

In an era when most action movies are predictably conventional and follow familiar arcs — whether it’s superheroes, long-running franchises or Taken/Bourne imitations — Mad Max: Fury Road stands out for being something completely different. The film is essentially a long, exhilarating car chase with one jaw-dropping action sequence after another. That said, don’t be mistaken in thinking it is anything like the Fast and Furious franchise, which relies on a mix of old and new star power and having to constantly one-up itself in the crazy stunt stakes. Fury Road is more raw, more strangely grounded despite its over-the-topness, more brutal, more unabashedly bizarre, and far more creative. Frankly, I’d never seen anything like it, and the film’s combination of thrills, suspense and horror blew me away.

That said, Fury Road also turned out to be a lot more emotionally involving than I had expected. Granted, it’s still predominantly style over substance, but there’s something about it — whether it is the strong characters, the brilliant performers or the construction of the narrative — that elevates its dramatic elements above your average action flick.

Speaking of performers, George Miller hit the jackpot with the trio of Hardy, Theron and Hoult. Max is a man of few words and spends a good portion of the movie in a face-blocking mask, making Hardy’s performance even more impressive. To be fair, he has had some mask experience after playing Bane, but it’s the quiet magnetism and emotions he exudes that turns Max into a hero you can easily root for.

As good as Hardy is, Max is actually more of a sidekick to Theron’s Furiosa, who absolutely owns the movie. Apart from sporting the best shaved head since Sinead O’Connor, the Oscar winner turns Furiosa into the heart and soul of the movie, a badass whose quest for redemption drives everything that happens.

And if you thought Theron had uglied herself up for Monster, then you ought to see Hoult as Nux — powdery skin, bald head, skeletal features and perpetually chapped lips. Amazingly, he still looks better than most people, though the sacrifice for his art is impressive. Without giving too much away, Hoult’s charm and willingness to do whatever it takes makes Nux an unusual and intriguing supporting character that might not have been nearly as interesting without his jittery, frantic performance.

As for the rest of the cast, the physically imposing Keays-Byrne leads a cast of grotesque villains, and balancing them out is a group of hot models led by Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Zoe Kravitz. It’s good to see other Aussies such as Nathan Jones, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton and Megan Gale getting some burn. I like that Miller just let everyone speak in their native accents (maybe no one can do the Aussie accent properly), and yet the diverse mix of pronunciations is never jarring or feels out of place.

In all, Mad Max: Fury Road is a revelation. It’s one of the most visually stunning films I’ve seen in a long time, from the sandy Australian landscape to the visceral violence and the uncomfortable characters to the gritty machinery. While I’m sure there are plenty of special effects involved, the CGI never overwhelms like it does for many action films these days. The performances are top notch, and the story is simple but effective. At exactly two hours, the length is close to perfect for a film of this kind, though there were times when I felt a little burned out from the endless sand and moving parts. Minor quibbles aside, this is an unexpected masterpiece. It’s hard to see how the planned sequels could top this experience or provide something fresh to prevent familiarity fatigue, but after what I’ve just witnessed it’ll be hard to bet against George Miller again.

5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

May 3, 2015 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

International-Avengers-Age-of-Ultron-Poster

The Avengers was an ambitious experiment that surprisingly succeeded despite the naysayers and the weight of expectations. The idea that you could create an ensemble superhero feature by taking a bunch of characters with their own franchises was risky, but thanks to the genius of Joss Whedon it turned out to be one of best superhero films of all time.

And so I was excited about the inevitable sequel, Avengers: Age of Ultron, but I was also wary of unreasonable expectations. After all, what else could they do to improve on what was essentially a near-perfect formula?

As it turns out, not a whole lot. Joss Whedon tried a few new things and did all he could lift the bar again on the coolness and wow factors, though when you boil it down, Avengers 2 is basically the same movie as its predecessor. For a lot of people, that’s good enough.

You have the same superstar cast with a few notable new additions, some fresh faces and some familiar faces from existing franchises (I won’t spoil it, but suffice it to say there were will be surprises unless you’ve been following the production closely). You have eye-popping special effects that turn the screen into a beautiful and coordinated mess of flying bodies, projectiles and explosions. You have an intelligent villain who controls an army of fairly useless robots and appears to have a bunch of mysterious schemes, but all he really wants to do is what all supervillains want to do: destroy Earth. And of course tensions will flare between our heroes and all will seem bleak, but in the end they realise — yet again — that unity is their greatest strength.

Running alongside this proven formula is all the stuff the comic book geeks want. Most of it will likely go right over he heads of regular viewers, but from what I understand there were plenty of well-placed leads into other characters and comics in the Marvel universe that set up the future direction of the franchise as a whole (you can read up on all that in your spare time if you can be bothered).

Despite not doing a whole lot different, Avengers 2 is still an entertaining blast fans of the first film will no doubt enjoy. Whedon finds creative ways to pit different members of the Avengers against each other and show off cool new powers and gadgets, while also giving existing characters opportunities to develop and evolve. Much of it is fairly shallow but I suppose it’s better than not trying at all.

The action itself is also varied and clever so that it’s not just a rehash or imitation of what has been done before. As usual, it’s all heavily reliant on CGI, though it’s done seamlessly enough that it allows you to be immersed in the action. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s an upgrade from the original, but it’s at least different enough so you realise you’re not watching the same film.

The cast is of course spectacular, with Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye (also known as the shittier members of the Avengers) getting upgraded roles to get equal screen time — at least — with the main leads of Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo and Chris Evans. Of the four, it felt like only Chris Evans did not display noticeable signs of character fatigue. Downey Jr, in particular, simply looks like he’s fed up with playing the same character over and over, and he’s pretty much said as much interviews about the future of Iron Man.

The two new characters introduced are Soviet twins the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor Johnson) — who coincidentally played wife and husband in Godzilla last year. The former has mind control powers and what appears to be a similar power to The Force, while the latter has the ability to move extremely fast. Both were kind of disappointing, to be honest, partly because of the strained Russian accents and partly because they don’t get much time to develop, especially Quicksilver, who pales in comparison to the version of the character in X-Men: Days of Future Past played by Evan Peters.

The titular villain, Ultron, voiced by James Spader, received a lot of attention throughout the production but ultimately wasn’t as impressive as I thought he would be. He’s formidable and intelligent, much like Loki was in The Avengers, but he didn’t add as much to the table as I had wanted. Spader’s voice is great, but never did I feel like he was truly capable of defeating the Avengers.

On the whole, Avengers: Age of Ultron isn’t as fun as The Avengers, but Joss Whedon fuels it with just enough enthusiasm and excitement for me to rate the experience as on par with its predecessor. As a piece of popcorn entertainment there’s not much I can complain about. He took the “why fix it if it ain’t broke” approach, upped the ante on the action and special effects, took the characters to the next level in their natural progressions, added some faces he knew fans would like to see, created new branches for future storylines, and even threw in a few nice little surprises.  It is of course not as fresh as the original, and it’s also not as funny, though all things considered the film takes the Avengers formula about as far as it can go. From here, it’s clear that Marvel has even bigger things planned for the future, and while the Avengers could very well return in future films, their presence and involvement will have to be very different to what it has been.

4 stars out of 5

PS: There’s a short mid-credits scene this time, but don’t bother sticking around until the end because there’s nothing there.

Movie Review: Tracers (2015)

April 18, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Tracers-Poster

A strange thing has happened to the perception that starring in popular film series ruin the careers of young actors. Ever since the world bestowed upon us the Twilight Saga, Kristen Stewart has been in a bunch of movies. Robert Pattinson has been in a bunch of movies. Most of them have been fairly high-profile, well-received movies too. That leaves Taylor Lautner, the third angle in the love triangle, who hasn’t been tearing up the screens since he stopped tearing up his shirt in Twilight for no apparent reason.

Apart from the poorly conceived star vehicle Abduction from 2011, Lautner hasn’t been a top biller for a film since the third Twilight film, and it now appears that his career is heading in the wrong direction with Tracers, a niche-market film about a bunch of young Parkour enthusiasts caught up in a crime ring.

Parkour is exciting to watch, which is why there have been a few movies made about the phenomenon in recent years. I never watched Brick Mansions or the French film it was based on, District 13, though I did catch a little-known film called Run (review here) last year. Tracers is basically a better and more expensive version of Run, mixed with that Joseph Gordon Levitt bike messenger movie Premium Rush.

In fact, Lautner (Cam) actually plays a struggling bike messenger who starts using his athleticism and well-proportioned body for parkour so he can get to know a pretty girl played by the up-and-coming Marie Avgeropoulos. But the girl and her brother are in a gang headed by a criminal who uses parkour to evade police capture, and Cam must find a way out by taking advantage of both his skills and smarts. And yes, Lautner does take off his shirt in this film, but the dim lighting could disappoint those looking for clear shots of his abs.

Tracers is a small film made for just US$11 million, and it shows. It’s a fairly pedestrian script with the familiar dialogue and attempts and character development, and you can pretty much guess what is going to happen next as the story predictably hits the designated checkpoints. The greyish tints and dilapidated settings also mean that the film is not pretty to look at, though to the credit of Daniel Benmayor the parkour scenes are at least done stylishly and with flair. I don’t know how realistic they are, but the running and climbing and jumping all over the place is undeniably thrilling. But that’s about all there is, unless you count the obligatory romance between Lautner and Avgeropoulos which I’m sure his fans are itching to see.

At the end of the day, Tracers is what it is — a low-budget, formulaic action film riding on the popularity of parkour that would have been straight-to-DVD without Lautner’s name attached to it. While it has its moments, you could probably get the same excitement from watching parkour highlights on YouTube.

2.25 stars out of 5

 
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