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

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

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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: Still Alice (2014)

February 23, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Note: Getting this review in just before they announce Best Actress at the Oscars!

I was in the mood to be depressed, so I went head and watched Still Alice, a sobering drama about a renowned linguistics professor’s battle with early onset Alzheimer’s.

It’s a respectable take on the illness that doesn’t go the whole way in capturing the worst the disease, preferring to leave its titular character with her dignity in tact. In that sense, Still Alice isn’t as quite as heartbreaking as I braced myself for (I had the Kleenex ready and everything), though the film surprised me with its gripping depiction of Alice’s family members and the way each of them reacts to the devastating news.

Based on the novel of the same name by Lisa Genova, Still Alice begins with Dr Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) celebrating her 50th birthday. With a successful career, a loving husband and three fully grown children, there’s not much more she could ask for.

But of course, the signs of the illness soon begin to manifest, randomly, sporadically, and with varying degrees of seriousness. Co-sreenwriters and directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland — along with Moore in perhaps the best performance of her stellar career — do a solid job of conveying the initial shock and confusion from the onset of the symptoms. From a forgotten word here or a misplaced item there and getting gradually shittier at Words with Friends (I enjoyed this especially), to getting lost in what should be a familiar place, the trio manage to capture the angst as well as the physical disorientation through the use of camera panning and blurred backgrounds.

Moore’s deteriorating appearance is also used to match her crumbling mind. In the beginning I remarked on how amazing she looks for a 50 year old (54 in real life), though as the film progressed she grew increasingly lined and disheveled — though let’s face it, still pretty good for a 5o-year-old Academic who squeezed out three children.

It was a clever idea to make the subject of the illness a top linguistics professor who appeared to have everything, allowing the contrast ensuing from her illness to be even more stark. It’s bad enough for ordinary people, but for someone for whom words and language are her pride and define who she is, the blow must be incomprehensible. I know some will whine about how lucky Alice is to have money and family support compared to others suffering the disease, though it’s not the movie’s fault that it can only focus on one story.

I knew Moore was in it and is a favourite for Best Actress at this year’s Oscars, but I had no idea there were so many big stars in it. Alec Baldwin delivers a controlled, layered performance as Alice’s husband John, a brilliant researcher in his own right who struggles to deal with not only his wife’s deteriorating mental capacity but also the impact on his own career. The way he deals with losing he woman he has loved for so long, especially her losing perhaps the biggest reason for his love — her sharp mind and fierce career ambitions — is truly heart wrenching in more ways than one.

Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish (from Weeds) play Alice’s three children, each of whom reacts differently to the diagnosis. Stewart, who gets the meatiest role of the three, is especially good, displaying a tenderness and non-constipated demeanour I thought I would never see again after “The Saga”. But to her credit, she has proven that there is life after Twilight.

The main complaint I can make against the movie is that it plays out too conventionally, pretty much the way I anticipated a movie about Alzheimer’s to go. The film alludes to how bad things will eventually get, but spares us the pain of actually seeing it. Maintaining the dignity of sufferers and reminding us that she is “still Alice” no matter what, appears to be a priority. Some will applaud the sensitivity of the approach, while others will say it sanitises reality. Everyone will have an opinion on how it affects the film, though it is undeniable that it would could have been edgier had it dared to venture a little further from expectations.

And for all the great depiction of Alice’s family, the film did very little to look at how her relationship evolved with her friends. In fact, I don’t even remember her having any friends at all.

It is not an easy movie to watch, and it’s hard to call it an enjoyable experience. If it’s superb performances and depressingly gripping drama you’re after, however, it’s hard to go past Still Alice. The script is perhaps too conventional for the film to be something truly special, but Moore’s performance elevates it far above what it would otherwise have been.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Blue Jasmine (2013)

January 16, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I don’t think much of Woody Allen as a husband or father, but I still get excited whenever I hear that he has a new film out. Despite a mixed bag in recent years, I loved Match Point and thought Midnight in Paris was one of the best movies of 2011. His latest, Blue Jasmine, starring Cate Blanchett in possibly a career-defining performance, is definitely right up there as one of his better projects over the past decade.

In tradition with Allen’s unique style, Blue Jasmine is a small, chatty, neurotic character movie, this time about a woman who had everything coping (or not coping) with losing everything. Blanchett plays the titular Jasmine, a New York socialite who once had wealthy husband (Alec Baldwin) and all the branded handbags and shoes a woman could want, but begins the film travelling to live with her not-so-well-off sister and her two sons in San Francisco. There are reasons for her downfall and breakdown, and we find this out gradually, piece by piece, through a series of well-designed exposition and flashbacks.

It’s clear from the very first scene, a one-sided conversation aboard her flight, that Jasmine is not a likable protagonist, someone who cannot let go of her elitist attitude and high and mighty behaviour despite no longer having the status or bank balance to back it up. Much of the fun is watching this very self-centered, pompous and cluelessly tactless woman trying to “put up” with people she thinks are inferior to her, though at the same time there is a certain poignancy to Jasmine’s ordeal because she is fighting so hard to not crumble under her depression. Despite all the obnoxious and insufferable things she says and does, it’s no easy hating Jasmine because she’s so laughably pitiful.

Part of that is Allen’s masterful writing, but most of the credit should go to Blanchett’s performance, which has already won her a Golden Globe and makes her a favourite heading into the Oscars. She is simply perfect as Jasmine, exuding an elegance and presence that is tailor made for the role. Everything, from her posture to the way she seems to start every sentence with a heavy sigh, tells you the kind of horrible character she is, and yet you understand why men are drawn to her. And most of all, she is incredibly funny, in an endearing Larry David/George Costanza kind of way.

Backing Blanchett up is a strong cast that includes Sally Hawkins as her “far too nice” sister, Bobby Cannavale as the sister’s middle-class boyfriend, and Peter Sarsgaard as a potential new love interest. Rounding out the effective ensemble are Alec Baldwin as the sleazy husband (another wonderful bit of casting), Louis CK as the sister’s new potential love interest, and Michael Stuhlbarg as a creepy dentist.

Blue Jasmine is an unusual, quietly brilliant movie because it doesn’t follow Hollywood’s typical “character journey” plot. Some of the subplots were a little on the predictable side — you just knew Woddy was setting certain relationships up for a dramatic moment — but by the end I was pleasantly surprised with its unconventional, and probably more realistic, conclusion. The film does lose momentum and become more serious and less funny as it progresses, but with a crafty pace and a compact 98-minute running time, Blue Jasmine is a pure delight that doesn’t come around very often, even for Woody Allen.

4.25 stars out of 5

And here’s Cate winning her Golden Globe!

Thoughts on the crappy 2010 Oscars

March 8, 2010 in Entertainment

Ben Stiller's Navi impersonation was one of only a small handful of good moments at this year's Oscar ceremony

I watched the 2010 Academy Awards at a fellow unemployed friend’s place.  I’ve always loved the Oscars – not so much the ceremony itself, but the concept of crowning the best in cinema.

Anyway, this year’s Oscars ceremony was crap.  Too safe, too boring, too cheap, not entertaining enough.  Everyone seemed unnecessarily serious and uptight for some reason.

I was happy with most of the results.  Even though I predicted that Avatar would win Best Picture and Director (and failed on both accounts – see full list of predictions here), I was rooting for Bigelow by the end of the show.  I’m glad a female director won, and I’m glad that an independent film won.  And I’m very glad James Cameron didn’t win.

Here are some random thoughts.

(Click on ‘more…’ to continue!)

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Movie Review: It’s Complicated (2009)

February 24, 2010 in Movie Reviews

It’s Complicated is actually relatively simple: a woman, her ex-husband, and the new guy in her life.

It’s directed by Nancy Meyers (Something’s Gotta Give, The Holiday and What Women Want), so you have a fair idea of what to expect (don’t worry, I almost vomited too).  Mature, romantic, lightly comedic and more seriously dramatic than it should be.  Ultimately, a decent film but not a great one.

What makes It’s Complicated better than I expected is the excellent cast.  People are going to have their opinions on Meryl Streep, but I think the woman is capable of anything.  Seriously, she could probably play Neo better than Keanu in The Matrix, or the Wolf better than Jason Bateman in Teen Wolf Too.  She’s that good, and her performance as Jane is no exception.

Interestingly, Jane is also a fantastic cook.  Streep already played Julia Child in Julie & Julia, and now she gives us more food porn to make us hungry in It’s Complicated.  Not that I am complaining.  The delightful food is definitely more enticing than the old people sex that we have to put up with.  Though to Meyer’s (and Streep’s) credit, that aspect of the film was nowhere near as bad as I imagined it would be.

Alec Baldwin is also terrific as the ex-husband.  He surprised me, actually, because although Jake should be a hated character, Baldwin’s charm manages to make him endearing.  The best actor of the Baldwin brothers, for sure.

Steve Martin, on the other hand, looked…weird.  Is he getting botox injections or plugs or both?  I wouldn’t let someone that looks like that (with a creepy smile to boot) near my kids (in the event that I ever have any).  But apart from that, he was great.  A subtle, controlled performance as Adam, the other guy.

It was also good to see Hunter Parrish (Silas from Weeds) in there, even though he played the pansy son who didn’t really do anything.  Oh, and John Krasinski (from the American version of The Office) as Harley, the future son-in-law, provided the best laughs.

Speaking of laughs, there weren’t that many.  That’s my main gripe with It’s Complicated.  There were plenty of amusing lines, but few were laugh-out-loud funny.  In addition, most of the best jokes were already spoiled by the advertisements which I accidentally came across (at a time I didn’t think I’d end up seeing the film).  Don’t you hate it when that happens?

When all said and done, It’s Complicated was kind of enjoyable.  Interesting premise, amusing, and both lighthearted and serious, but nothing special.  I can see young people struggling with this one given how “adult” it is, but the oldies should love it.

3 stars out of 5