A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 360 – The Island

The Island – February 23rd, 2011

Back when this movie was coming out in theaters I remember seeing ads for it. And at first I wasn’t sure, but the more and more I saw, the more and more convinced I was that this was a remake of a movie I am ridiculously familiar with. We make no attempt to hide our MST3K fan status (I know my info club member number by heart and my card is signed by Joel), so I feel no shame in admitting that we’ve seen the episode Parts: The Clonus Horror many many many times. And this looked bizarrely similar. So we looked it up and no, it didn’t seem to have any connection. Eventually we heard there’d been a suit filed and settled out of court for a sum of money. And I’ve got to say, I’m not surprised they settled. Cause this? This is so very similar to Clonus.

I wouldn’t say it’s exactly the same movie, but it does have the same premise and the same basic plot arc. We’re shown a vast and idyllic facility where a large number of people are living what seem like fairly boring but not unpleasant lives. They have menial but not taxing jobs. They eat bland but not bad food. They all wear white workout gear and keep fit. And they all participate in the Lottery. No, not the Shirley Jackson sort, but close. The folks in the facility all think that winning the Lottery means they get to go to the Island. They believe they’re the only survivors of a horrible contagion that’s wiped out most of humanity and the Island is the only uncontaminated place left. Winners are sent there to start rebuilding the world’s population. But of course it’s all a lie and the winners are actually killed (see, Shirley Jackson, but without the motivation in the story) because they’re clones of people outside in the real world and have been created to allow their “sponsors” to live for as long as possible. Creepy, huh?

Clonus, by the way? Same premise. Exactly. Replace “The Island” with “America” and the vast underground bunker with a college-type campus in the middle of the desert and add in a lot more product placement and you’ve got it. Identical workout gear, unaware of the outside world, chosen to “leave” when their real world counterpart needs a new whatever? Yup, pretty much. And eventually two of the clones, a man and a woman, find out what’s going on and escape into the world to try and track down the people they were made from. The big differences are in the level of creepy (which I will get into), the explosions (since this is directed by Michael Bay) and the ending, which is brutal in an entirely different way from Clonus. And you know what? I cannot find it in myself to be upset over this. It’s a good little “tampered in god’s domain” sort of plot and let’s face it, Clonus got picked for MST3K. We’re not talking Academy Award stuff here. It’s fun and all, but I don’t mind in the least that an updated version was made, with better acting and effects and sets.

Of course, this movie has plenty of flaws itself. A lot of the dialogue is ridiculous (especially the whole “I can tell you’re lying by your eyes” bit that Scarlett Johansson’s character, Jordan Two Delta, says to Ewan MacGregor’s, Lincoln Six Echo) and some of the plot points are vague and unnecessary. It’s a whole lot of big deal made and then the actual creepiness that’s alluded to and flat out shown gets tossed aside in favor of fast car chases on hover-motorcycles and impossible falls off buildings in giant signage (I can’t explain it better, I’m sorry). Every time I thought there’d be more interesting stuff with Lincoln’s “sponsor” and his skeeviness or Jordan’s “sponsor” and her on-the-brink-of-deathness, no. More explosions and shootouts and chases. And that makes me sad.

There’s a lot of potential in the world that this movie is based in. It could have gone so much deeper into the creepy dystopia aspects and instead it goes with the action. We see a young woman give birth only to be killed and her baby given to her “sponsor” couple. We see a man wake up mid-operation and claw at the floor. The ending for Lincoln and his source is predictable, but interesting and has some potentially nasty implications. It’s very clear that this is a nasty place full of unkind people. People who don’t see the clones as human. And then there’s a whole subplot with four of the newest generations of clones starting to develop curiosity about their world and somehow regain the memories of their sources without ever having met them and it’s all just a tool. It’s not delved into. It’s not explored. Because the movie already clocks in at a good bit over two hours and if we explored that we’d have to cut a few seconds of car chase or something. It’s an action movie that could have been so much more.

February 23, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

The Island

February 23, 2011

The Island

I bought this movie because it was based on a movie featured in a Mystery Science Theater episode. Or at least it is based on the same story as Parts: The Clonus Horror. Only it has a much bigger budget, a different ending, and explosions care of Michael Bay. I also felt as I watched tonight that this movie was missing the same element that the Mission Impossible movies lacked: Peter Graves.

The core plot of this film is exactly the same as Parts. Our hero Lincoln Six Echo is living in an idyllic Utopian society with uniforms provided by a shoe company (Puma this time and not Adidas.) All the track-suited residents of this society believe that they are the last survivors of an apocalyptic disaster that rendered the surface of the planit inhospitable to life. They all long to win a lottery which will allow them to go to “The Island,” which is the last uncontaminated place on Earth. They live in a extremely controlled environment under constant surveillance and surrounded by handlers and security. (I got strong THX-1138 vibes for a lot of the film – so I suppose Michael Bay was “influenced” by more than one movie in making this.)

Of course Lincoln soon discovers that his entire world is a lie. He, and all his friends are actually vat grown clones raised as spare parts for people living out in the real world. Except that the people of the outside world, even the millionaire clients who have commissioned clones, don’t know that the clones are awake and aware. They’ve been told that the clones are dormant, vegetative, unaware meat to be harvested. So when Lincoln and his best friend Jordan Two Delta escape from the facility the director hires a squad of deadly mercenaries to hunt the two of them down before his secret can get out.

I can’t help comparing this movie to Parts and finding The Island wanting. Parts has a grittier, more realistic feel to it. The clones in Parts are mostly lobotomised to keep them placid, which is far more creepy than the just inexperienced clones in this movie. Also, Parts takes place in the current day (well the seventies because that is when it was made, but it was contemporary at the time) and it feels like something that could actually be going on. This movie is far more fantastical, with hover bikes and floating trains and all kinds of futuristic technology. It’s very much a brainless action film – being as it is directed by Michael Bay – and doesn’t have the edge of Parts.

It doesn’t help that there is a lot of sloppy and not very realistic writing here. There were at least two major “I call no way” moments in the film, neither of which are necessary to the overall plot. First was when Dr. Merrick stated that the clones were raised to be the same age as their prospective recipients. If you have the ability to create your clones at any age you’d think that it would be optimal to make them all in their twenties so they’re in perfect health. I know that if I was an eighty year old billionaire who needed a new heart I’d be pretty pissed off if it was eighty years old too. (In Parts it’s clear that the clones are raised until they reach a state of peak physical shape before being chosen to go to “America” when they are frozen to be harvested when the need arises.) Then there’s a whole bit where the clones have started getting memories from their sponsors somehow. It’s never explained by the movie and doesn’t make any sense to me.

I suppose it’s silly of me to expect sense from a Michael Bay movie. It’s got some fun chase scenes, some cool bits where Ewan McGregor plays both Lincoln Six Echo and his sponsor Thomas Lincoln. (The special effects of this kind have sure come a long way since Doc Brown talked to himself in Back to the Future II.) And of course there are plenty of explosions.

Another advantage to having the bottomless pockets and Hollywood cred of Michael Bay involved in the movie is that just about every role in the movie is filled by an accomplished and respected big name actor. Just look at this cast! Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson, Sean Bean, Djimon Hounsou, Steve Buscemi, Michael Clarke Duncan, Ethan Phillips… all in the same movie. I had not realized all these familiar faces were going to be in this movie and as the opening credits rolled I found myself getting excited to see what they were all going to be doing.

I don’t want to give the impression that this is a bad movie. It has some good action, some cool sci-fi tech, and if I were not familiar with the movie it was based on I might have even said that it has a creepy and cool premise. It just doesn’t live up to the potential shown by its forbearer. Where Parts is thought provoking and unsettling this movie is just a fun adventure flick that borrows its central plot from Bob Sullivan’s story, Ron Smith’s screenplay, and Myrl Schreibman and Robert Fiveson’s adaptation twenty six years before this movie came out. (Credit where credit is due.)

February 23, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 359 – Lucky Number Slevin

Lucky Number Slevin – February 22nd, 2011

There is a trick with noir-type thrillers and mysteries where even when you know what sort of movie they are you still don’t know precisely how they will twist and turn and set everything up. And so reviewing them becomes difficult, because the fun in the movie is in the discovery. Now, for me, that discovery often takes place when I read a synopsis or spoilers. See, I don’t mind spoilers. At all. Andy hates them and I can understand why, but there’s a part of me that’s been so annoyed with so many “twist” endings in the past that I like to know what I’m getting into. If it sounds good, I stick with it. If it sounds bad I check out. Saves me emotional investment in something that will piss me off.

So I read a bit about this movie and while it gave me the cold hard facts, it didn’t really tell me how everything would go down. The plot points, yes. The performances, no. And the plot points sounded interesting enough that I wanted to see how the performances sold them and I would like to state for the record that the performances sold them very well indeed. This is a story of mob bosses and crime and bookies and assassinations and mistaken identity and vengeance. It’s all very cleverly done without much slight of hand at all, really. There’s something important missing for most of the movie, but otherwise it’s all there, plain to see. I like that.

It helps the movie that the main character, Slevin, is played by Josh Hartnett with an affable demeanor that you can’t help smiling at. He comes off as just the unluckiest guy ever and while yes, it fazes him a little, mostly he just seems resigned to it. After all, what the hell can he do, right? He has no ID and two rival gangs think he’s this other guy, Nick, and Nick owes them both a good deal of money. He can’t prove he’s not Nick, and Nick is nowhere to be found. Meanwhile, there’s a mysterious hitman named Goodkat who seems to have his fingers in both pies. Clearly, it’s a set-up. So when the Boss, leader of one gang, tells Slevin to do him a favor and he’ll count Nick’s debt paid off, Slevin reluctantly agrees. And he’s so calm about it, you know he’s got a trick up his sleeve because the favor is to kill the Boss’s rival’s son in retaliation for his own son’s death, which he believes his rival had a hand in. And the rival, the Rabbi? He’s been talking to Slevin too. He wants his money.

And the whole time Slevin is in Nick’s apartment, because he thought he was going to be staying with Nick but clearly Nick isn’t there and the only person who is there is Nick’s neighbor, Lindsey. And Lindsey seems to be a regular Nancy Drew and is hot on the case of Nick’s disappearance. Slevin and Lindsey get friendly and Slevin explains to her what’s going on and he’s just so very blown away by it. After all, what a coincidence! What a horrible coincidence. The two of them give this movie the tone it has. Because when you’re in the penthouses with the Boss (Morgan Freeman) and the Rabbi (Ben Kingsley) or the surveillance van where detective Brikowski (Stanley Tucci) is keeping an eye on all? When you’re seeing Goodkat (Bruce Willis) idly snap the neck of someone he’s talking to? This is a very dark movie indeed with very bad stuff happening. But when you’re watching Slevin and Lucy Liu as Lindsey chat in Nick’s apartment, trying to work through what’s going on and just how Slevin’s going to get out of it? It takes on a decidedly different tone of very dark but very funny humor. Their interactions are fun and full of chemistry. They banter, which is fantastic, and you get a good feel for both of them.

Now, if I was going to spoil the movie and go into the specifics of how it’s all worked out, I could probably do some armchair analysis of a couple of characters’ psyches and go into my one quibble with the movie. But I’m not going to. The synopsis is out there. I found it easily enough. What I will say is that there’s a particular plot point near the end which I felt cheapened things a bit, but having read about the alternative, I agree it would have been too dark. It would have been nice if there had been some middle ground, but there wasn’t. But it doesn’t take away from the cleverness or the wit or the humor or the crime or the vengeance. Because even with that bit, the performances still sell it.

February 22, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Lucky Number Slevin

February 22, 2011

Lucky Number Slevin

It had been many years since I last watched this movie, and the circumstances of my first viewing were such that I didn’t really trust my memory of the film. I watched this movie back when I was managing the North Quincy Blockbuster location over the course of four lunch breaks. It was something I used to do to kill the time while eating lunch – I’d pick out a recent release and watch it in segments. It’s not a recommended way to view a film, and as a result I wasn’t sure just how well this movie worked as a whole. See, the film has three segments and I watched each on a different day so I didn’t know how well it fit together. There’s the hook, where we get a grizzly crime story in the opening that sets up the world of the movie. Then there’s the main body of the movie where we see an unfortunate individual struggling to stay afloat in this nasty world. And finally there’s the reveal, which explains how the two stories fit together and just what exactly has been going on the whole time.

After finally seeing the whole movie in a single sitting tonight I can happily say that it works wonderfully. The story of Sleven, an unlucky schlub who through a case of mistaken identity finds himself caught up in a deadly rivalry between two crime lords, is compelling and fascinating. From the opening story, narrated by a very mysterious Bruce Willis before he kills some random guy in a bus stop, we know just how bloody and dangerous this world is. We know that an innocent family man can be brutally murdered and his entire family as well if he makes the mistake of backing the wrong horse. So we know just how perilous things are for Slevin, which adds a lot of tension to the movie. That tension works in strange contrast to the majority of the film because Slevin is played by Josh Hartnett with a sly wit, and most of the movie is played for comedic effect.

Slevin is caught between a mob boss called “The Boss” and a Jewish crime lord called “The Rabbi” (because he’s a rabbi of course.) There’s a sinister hit man called Goodkat involved as well and a detective named Brikowski trying desperately to make sense of it all. There’s also the mystery of Slevin’s missing friend Nick Fisher, who owes vast sums of money to both mob bosses and for whom Slevin has been mistaken. Trying to figure everything out with Slevin is the neighbor from across the hall from Nick’s apartment, Lindsey, who is a free wheeling adventurous soul who enjoys trying to solve a mystery.

I can’t decide what I like more about this movie: the snappy, quick and clever script by Jason Smilovic or the amazing and brilliant cast. It’s a tragedy that this is Smilovic’s only feature film writing credit, because the script is pure brilliance. The dialog is fast, filled with pop culture references, and delivers both tension and humor in equal parts. That script in turn is brought to brilliant life by the group of ultra-high-caliber actors that make up the cast. Morgan Freeman is as always fantastic – full of gravitas and a slow burning fury as The Boss. His rival, The Rabbi, is played by Ben Kingsley as a caricature, but a sinister one. Kingsley can express so much with just a little gesture or exclemation. He takes a role that was written almost exclusively as parody and gives him an anguished soul. Bruce Willis plays the deadly killer Goodkat with his usual flare. The real stars, though, and the pair that give the most fun and life to the movie, are Josh Hartnett and Lucy Liu. The repartee between Slevin and Lindsey is so spontaneous, so entertaining, and so incongruous in a movie filled with brutal and deadly mob bosses that it wonderfully brings the whole movie to life.

I’m so glad that I own this movie. I’m glad we decided to put it in tonight, and I’m glad that I was able to share it with Amanda. We have so many glaring omissions in our collection (The Big Hit and Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Out of Sight and Get Shorty all leap to mind) that it’s good to know the mob-caper-comedy genre is still in some way represented by a couple movies we own. I could watch Slevin and Lindsey together any day of the week.

February 22, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 358 – Mission: Impossible III

Mission: Impossible III – February 21st, 2011

After last night’s mixed bag of a movie I was hesitant going into this one. Same franchise, but new writers and a new director, and a director I like. Still, the previous two movies had issues. And then we discovered we own the pan and scan version of this movie, which is so very sad. We have thoughts on pan and scan and they are not complimentary. So yes, hesitation here. And I’m happy to say that I found this movie to be the most enjoyable of the bunch. But still, I have some quibbles.

First of all, let’s address the plot, which is convoluted and full of twists, as expected. Of course there are double crosses and disguises and people aren’t who or what they seem to be at first. That’s par for the course in these movies. The masks are deployed several times, as is the voice changing tech. The specific storyline here involves a villain named Davian and his attempts to get his hands on something top secret. It also involves another rogue agent setting up Ethan and his friends/colleagues. And I do not think it is too much to ask that the IMF start screening their people better. I’m not going to bother going too far into detail because if I do I’ll be here all night. Suffice it to say that the bad guy kidnaps Ethan’s wife to force him to steal this top secret whatever (it’s a macguffin, we know it’s got biohazard tags and that’s about it) and Ethan’s got to do it in 48 hours or she dies and his superiors aren’t cooperating so he’s working on his own and he and his team do all sorts of wild stuff to get the job done.

I think I just described the last movie too, but really, this one does it better. A lot better. For one, I have absolutely no complaints about the treatment of the female leads. Sure, Ethan’s wife gets kidnapped and is a damsel in distress and all, but she also kicks a good deal of ass and never once did I feel that Ethan or his true allies were using her. Same goes for Zhen, one of his team, and Lindsey, his protege who shows up at the beginning. They are competent and bad-assed. In fact, aside from the damsel stuff, which is par for the course and I’m going to just cope and move on, this movie does a really nice job of treating all the characters as effective players in the plot and I really really like that. I like the current team, with Ving Rhames reprising his role as Luther and Maggie Q and Jonathan Rhys Myers as Zhen and Declan, his other two teammates. Also, there’s Simon Pegg as Benji, a techie who helps them out a few times. And I do so love Simon Pegg. Billy Crudup as Ethan’s immediate superior, Musgrave, and Laurence Fishburne as the higher up Brassel are both fantastic, and then there’s Philip Seymour Hoffman as the incredibly disconcerting villain, Davian. It’s a nice cast and I felt like really only Zhen and Declan got shorted a bit and mostly that’s an issue of there not being enough time to give them much more than basic roles. Still, they’re all treated with respect.

The plot itself is more than ridiculous. It’s all an excuse for lots of action and determined looks from Ethan. It’s certainly a lot more serious than the other two movies were, but the level of over-the-top action is the same. And I like the serious tone here. The movie starts out with a scene where our baddie is threatening a woman we will later find out is Ethan’s wife, while Ethan watches. He demands and answer and Ethan gives it to him again and again, to no avail. Those are high stakes and the movie then spends the rest of its time building you back to that point. Showing you how Ethan and Julia got there and what’s going on. It’s brutal. It’s meant to be like that. There’s no winking at convention here. There’s no smug grin. There’s just the mission and the twists and turns that it takes and Ethan’s determination to get it done. And that is my kind of spy movie. If you’re going to have movies where the bad guys kill people and fuck shit up, then go for it. Don’t tiptoe around it.

But then too, that’s where I quibble. Because while I did enjoy this movie and I liked the characters and the action and the grit, I’m not sure what makes it a Mission: Impossible movie aside from the masks and the names and the music. I think this might be an issue for the franchise as a whole, but then I don’t know the original series, so I could be way off. Still, this movie isn’t quite like the second movie which wasn’t quite like the first movie. The first didn’t balance its camp and action. The second went a little overboard on the parody. And this one has no humor at all, aside from some good lines from Luther. There’s no tongue-in-cheek here. And I’m not sure how I feel about that. It feels like this franchise has an identity crisis with each installment and hasn’t quite settled on what it wants to be and how best to incorporate the show. I liked the movie, but I feel as though it could have been any spy/action movie. Take away the music and the superficial references like names and what does that leave you? I’m not sure.

February 21, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Mission: Impossible III

February 21, 2011

Mission: Impossible III

Another tale of daring do with Ethan Hunt of the IMF and another amazing director makes the movie his own. Tonight it’s J.J. Abrams taking over the reigns. His vision of Mission Impossible is dark, gritty, suspenseful and compelling. Right from the very start we know that this isn’t going to be a light-hearted action romp – it’s a high stakes movie where everything has the potential to go very, very wrong.

After the hook – what I recognize to be a very Abrams opening that grabs the audience and gets them invested in the movie – we join Ethan in his semi-retirement. He is no longer in the field – he trains agents now and is planning to get married to a woman named Julia that he met while skydiving. She is a civilian – a doctor – and not part of the spy world. He’s not part of that life any more. Until he gets a call at an engagement dinner he’s holding because one of the agents he trained is in trouble. So he has to come out of retirement for one last job.

Of course not everything goes to plan. We know it won’t because in the opening hook to the movie Hunt is tied up and forced to watch as the heartless arms dealer Owen Davian threatens to kill Julia right in front of him if he doesn’t deliver something called the “rabbit’s foot.” Most of this movie shows the events that lead up to this state of affairs.

I’m really enjoying how these movies are each so distinct. There’s no real effort to keep them consistent between films aside from having Tom Cruise and Ving Rhames and using the facial replacement trick. This movie pulls no punches. It delivers great action. It gives us some fun IMF spy action and some more hard hitting spy adventure that seems inspired by the Bourne movies. Gone is the grinning, cocky, annoying Ethan Hunt. Here he’s beaten, desperate and dangerous, which is actually far more interesting to watch I think.

My favorite bit in the whole film was when they showed the IMF team making one of their ubiquitous masks. We’ve seen the masks torn off multiple times in every one of these movies, but it was pretty cool actually seeing one manufactured and applied. It’s a lot of fun to see an IMF mission going off as planned with all the cool gadgets and split second timing.

I was also thrilled with the new acting talent Cruise and company brought in for this installment. We get Laurence Fishburne as the head of IMF, where he brings a lot of intensity and power, adding to the danger Ethan faces even at home. For comic relief we have Simon Pegg who is always fun for a laugh and would go on to work with Abrams again on the new Star Trek movie. (I kept seeing his tech-head character Benji here as a modern day Montgomery Scott.) Best of all we have Philip Seymour Hoffman as Davian. He is absolutely terrifying from the very start of the film. Hoffman is an unbelievable actor and this role is so sinister and deadly that it’s wonderful to watch him at work. You never doubt for an instant that he’s capable of the most heinous crime – that he’ll kill anybody with no emotion whatsoever. Terrifying.

These movies continue to amaze me. That an old spy adventure show from the sixties could give rise to such a collection of different movies, each with its own tone and feel, baffles me. None of them really capture the feel of the old show, but they’ve done something different. They’ve created a completely new and exciting franchise. I see that Brad Bird is directing the fourth instalment, which is due to hit theaters next year. I can’t wait to see what his live-action debut looks like.

February 21, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 357 – Mission: Impossible II

Mission Impossible II – February 20th, 2011

I am so very conflicted about this movie. On one hand I appreciate a lot of what it did with poking at the conventions introduced in the first movie and on the other hand I want to slap it so very hard for being full of crap. On one hand it doesn’t make the same mistakes the first movie did, but on the other hand it makes all sorts of new mistakes! On one hand I enjoyed the action and effects and on the other hand I just wanted that last fight scene to end because oh my god it felt like they’d been fighting for hours.

You know the original cut of this movie was over three hours long? It’s directed by John Woo (which is oh so obvious in a few scenes near the end) and apparently had a lot more action. Started out with an R rating and cut/softened the action to bring it down to a PG-13. Just the thought of there being longer action scenes makes me boggle a bit. They already feel like they take a year each. And while for some of them that’s fine – they’re fast-paced and move a lot – others just feel a little much. I don’t need my fight scenes to be in real time, okay? I get that John Woo does some gorgeous action, I just think maybe sometimes the slow motion causes said action to feel less actiony. Only slow-mo pads the film.

That being said, I do think this movie is largely a step up from the first one. Andy gave me a little insight into the television show formula this morning and having heard it, I can see where the first movie went wrong. It tried too hard to keep the basic formula while at the same time making everything more dangerous and serious and it just didn’t work out the way they needed it to. This movie seems to be a little less split, and if it doesn’t quite have the right formula or mood for the show, well, personally I’m willing to cope since it’s far more cohesive in terms of its tone. And while I did itch to slap Ethan a few times in the beginning, I found his anger and determination far more believable in this one. He smiles less, which is good because the grin doesn’t suit the majority of the movie’s scenes. And while he’s still somewhat cocky, he’s also down and dirty, so it’s balanced. I like his team (yay Ving Rhames!) and I like the plot too, even if it is full of holes.

The basic story is that a rogue agent (another rogue agent! don’t they vet these people?) has absconded with a top secret antidote to a super virus named Chimera, but he doesn’t have the virus, so he’s trying to get a hold of someone who does. In obtaining it he killed an associate of Ethan’s as well as a whole plane full of people. Ethan is called in to assemble a team and get the antidote back. Enter Nyah, a thief whom Ethan is told he must recruit onto his team. Turns out Nyah is the rogue’s ex-girlfriend and they’re going to use her as bait. And what follows is pretty much action scene after action scene as Ethan and the rogue (Sean) are pitted against each other not just in the fight for the virus and antidote and whatnot, but for Nyah. Now, I have some issues with the virus, since it apparently has an incubation period of 20 hours, during which it’s not communicable, but after those 20 hours apparently it is? It’s not entirely clear and while I suppose the doctor who created it and infected himself with it to carry it to the CDC in Atlanta, GA from Sydney, Australia could have dosed himself with the cure if, you know, the flight got delayed or heaven forbid had to circle while waiting for a gate, that seems a little, I don’t know, ridiculous. But that’s me bringing pesky reality to the table (Andy had some things to say about wire transfers, so really I think this whole movie is making some very low estimates about the amount of time things take).

My other major issue with the movie is the treatment of Nyah. So says Ethan’s boss when Ethan questions using an untrained civilian to infiltrate Sean’s gang: “To get into bed with a man and lie to him? She’s a woman, she’s got all the training she needs.” Um. Ow. That right there is a nasty little bit of writing. Womanhood reduced to sex and lies. That’s not insulting at all! It instantly made me hate the scriptwriter for this movie with a fiery passion. Andy got my hopes up by telling me the romantic interest in this movie was played by Thandie Newton. And I like Thandie Newton. And then the movie basically makes her bait and has her reduced to walking sex. Her role isn’t one of competence. It’s one of seduction. While the first movie had this too, it also had several very competent female agents who only got killed because one of their teammates set them up. And I appreciated that. And they teased me! She starts off so well, giving Ethan some attitude and kneeing him in the chest and getting her job done. All to be reduced to a sexy damsel in distress. Very disappointing.

There’s an awareness here of the problems in the movie. Ethan himself is incredulous and pissed off that he’s been set up by his superiors to recruit Nyah on false assumptions. He thought they needed her skills as a thief but no, she’s just there to be sex bait for the bad guy. And Ethan knows that’s total bullshit and he calls his superiors on it. And he goes through with it anyhow because it’s how he’s been set up to do the job but it’s clear that he hates it. And while the superior who set it up clearly thinks little of Nyah overall, otherwise the bad guys are the ones badmouthing her and treating her like crap. Ethan gets to be righteously angry and vengeful for the way Nyah’s treated. So, yeah. The movie seems to get that there’s a problem here. And yet it set the problem up in the first place and it doesn’t follow through on calling it out. Then again, the whole movie seems to be winking a little at the audience, from jokes about Ethan’s cocky smile to mentions of his penchant for wire work.

Like I said, I’m extremely conflicted. The nasty attitude towards Nyah made me cringe, but aside from that one hideous line from Ethan’s superior, it’s all Sean and his gang. The movie knows it’s setting its female lead up for a crap role. And it knows that its hero can stand to be prodded a bit. It’s still massively over-the-top, which is fun to a point, and it’s got some great effects and fights. The plot is full of holes and I can only imagine what the full length cut was like, but for all that, I’ve got to say I enjoyed it. Once I accepted that Nyah wasn’t going to be allowed to be a badass, that is. Still disappointed by that, but hey, she got to slap Sean, so that’s a point in the movie’s favor.

February 20, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Mission Impossible II

February 20, 2011

Mission Impossible 2

For the second Mission Impossible movie Cruise and company managed to get John Woo to direct. This astonished me, since I’m a fan of John Woo, but I’ve never really pictured him making somebody else’s movie. Why would he agree to make a sequel to a Brian De Palma film? The truth is that he doesn’t really. This is every bit a John Woo movie – filled with slow motion gunfights and over-the-top action. It just happens to star Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt and features some of the tricks familiar from the Mission Impossible universe. Indeed it is my favorite John Woo movie since he left China.

Today’s movie finds Ethan Hunt back in the good graces of the IM team. When a Russian geneticist tries to get in touch with him with an urgent plea that has to do with a virus called “Chimera” Ethan is the only one who can track down the rogue agent who has stolen the cure. Along the way he recruits an expert thief named Nyah who has some kind of sordid past with the rogue agent, Sean. In spite of the fact that Nyah and Ethan have fallen into desperate lust with each other Ethan is ordered by his handler (Sir Anthony Hopkins) to use her to get to Sean.

It’s a paper-thin plot which is draped over a bunch of completely silly action scenes. But John Woo has never really been known for deep plots. He’s been known for fantastic shoot-outs, explosions, and guys with deep grudges trying to kill each other. Once all the plot stuff is taken care of and we get into the action this movie delivers exactly what I expect from it. There is a lengthy gunfight in a secure biomed lab. There is a scene where Ethan takes out anonymous henchmen one by one while infiltrating a storage facility to try and steal back the virus and its cure. There’s a car chase where Ethan flees on a motorcycle and every car that dares pursue or block him implausibly explodes. It all culminates in motorcycle jousting and a lenghty martial arts throwdown between Ethan and Sean.

At times it seems like almost a self parody. There are so many trademark John Woo bits thrown in here. Ethan diving for cover while shooting two pistols simultaneously. The gunfight with a million bullets fired. The slow-mo dove that singles the final showdown. It’s as though all the action from The Killer, Hard Boiled, Hard Target, Face/Off and Broken Arrow have been distilled into their basic components for a single film.

This movie also pokes fun at both Mission Impossible tropes and at the first movie to an extent. Sean complains that it is difficult to impersonate Ethan because of his insipid grin (which I found so irritating in yesterday’s movie.) There’s a segment near the middle of the film where Ethan and his band need to extract some information from the head of a pharmaceutical company with which Sean has dealings and so they perform a sting which would have worked perfectly as a part of the classic Mission Impossible television show. I appreciated that. And the tear-away facial disguises used in the first movie are used several times here to great effect.

I really feel that this movie accomplishes everything it sets out to do. I find Tom Cruise much less irritating here than I did in the first movie. I enjoy the silly action and the fun Mission Impossible spy bits. I do wish that they had found more for Thandie Newton to do than be an imperiled damsel in distress because her character seems so self assured and confident at the start of the film, but that would be my only complaint. In general I find that I still enjoy this movie.

February 20, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Movie 356 – Mission: Impossible

Mission: Impossible – February 19th, 2011

The show this movie is based on was never really on my radar when I was younger. When it came to spy shows my family veered towards the British, with The Avengers (which did a parody episode late in its original run). My television viewing was severely limited for years, with only PBS and some vetted and parent-approved shows on VHS once we got our first VCR. So since my parents weren’t into it, I just never really got exposed to it early enough for it to be a formative thing. Still, it’s iconic even if you don’t know it. It’s one of those things, like James Bond. So even though I was essentially going into this blind, I still had some knowledge.

And no, I hadn’t seen this before. I never felt a pressing need to. I’m not a big Tom Cruise fan and it didn’t hold any nostalgia value for me. I watched the abomination that was the Avengers movie redo, of course, but why bother with this? No one was telling me it was too good to miss. Just that it was a fun action movie. There are lots of fun action movies. This one just stayed unwatched for me until tonight.

It was fun. In a lighthearted heist/spy/action sort of way. I think the tone was a little lighter than I prefer, but my impression is that the lightness to it is intentional. It’s supposed to be full of impossible tech and unbelievable action and go so far over the top that it’s obviously on purpose. But there’s still a good spy story going on here. It’s got double crossing and rogue agents and backstabbing and a good cast so I can’t complain there. I think the prolonged scene in the computer room with Ethan dangling like a worm on a hook was a little slow – I never really felt like there was any true risk of him setting off the alarms or that he’d be caught if he did. After all, If he was got caught it would be a different sort of movie. This isn’t a movie about Ethan being interrogated. It’s a movie about Ethan putting a rebel team together and pulling off an impossible job to get his life back.

Maybe it’s just that I’ve seen plenty of spy movies or maybe it’s that the movie wanted us to know, but I figured out the true mole early. Like, during the original job. And I thought for a bit that it would ruin the movie for me, but it didn’t. It’s still fun to watch Ethan work it all through himself and figure it out. And then the movie went and did the reveal well before the final action scene anyhow, which I found a little odd. Like it was just too good a secret and the movie had to tell! It felt like kind of a let-down, to be honest.

But really, I think I’ve been ruined for this sort of movie. There’s a point at the beginning, when Ethan Hunt realizes that he’s being set up and that the people he’s supposed to trust are plotting against him. And he gets a look of steely determination on his face and tells his boss that he’s never seen Ethan angry (you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry) and then Ethan blows up a fish tank and escapes. And I could think of nothing so much as Jason Bourne going rogue and scaring the shit out of his former handlers and well. Ethan Hunt just doesn’t inspire the same sort of glee at watching a professional go to work as Bourne does. But I’m not sure if he’s really supposed to. It’s supposed to be fun on some level, and it is. But the fun part is the over-the-top heist type stuff that goes on. And when we get to all of that? With Hunt on a wire above a weight-sensitive floor and all? I’m back to Matt Damon (and George Clooney and Brad Pitt and the rest of them) in the Ocean’s movies. Sure, both the Bourne movies and Ocean’s movies were made after this, but I feel like they took the cool parts of this movie and separated them out and then did them better.

Okay, the tech used is ridiculously out of date and silly even for when it was applicable. Search usenet for Max? max at job 3:15 as an email address? Oh, that’s just sad. But the tech isn’t the big problem for me. The problem for me is that for all the fun action and showcased badassery, I never really felt like there were high stakes. You’d think that several dead teammembers would be all I’d need for it, but even with all of that the point was more to see how Ethan would win rather than to see if he would. And I guess it just doesn’t do it quite well enough. It comes together, but it has to flat out tell us how it’s going to do that. So all in all, it’s fun, but I’ve had more fun with other movies.

February 19, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Mission: Impossible

February 19, 2011

Mission: Impossible

I loved the old Mission: Impossible shows as a kid. The were broadcast late at night on channel 38 (or was it 68?) That’s when I got most of my sixties spy show viewing done. The Saint. It Takes a Thief. That sort of thing. I even watched the new Mission Impossible that was on TV in the late eighties very briefly (during the same writer’s strike that caused the first season of Star Trek TNG so much trouble.) I didn’t see an awful lot of episodes, but I saw enough to understand the hook to the show. In every episode Mr. Phelps will be given a mission for his IMF team. If any of them are captured or killed the secretary will disavow any knowledge of their existence. They will have some complex plan to extract information from a foreign agent or some such and just when it seems that their plan has gone awry and everything is lost it will turn out that the disaster in the third act was part of the plan the whole time.

This movie pays homage to the show with a number of references, but it is really a completely different beast. I was delighted by the fact that there’s still a tape that self destructs and a Mr. Phelps and a complex plan. They even prominently feature the classic theme song. At the very start of the movie there’s sort of a quick episode of the TV series, or at least what feels like the conclusion of an episode as we get to see the IMF team accomplishing one of their missions. But very soon it becomes clear that these little nods at the start are all we’re getting of the old TV show – the movie is a more action oriented production. Something goes disastrously wrong with an IMF mission and this time it’s not actually part of the plan. Our hero is IMF team leader Ethan Hunt, one of the only survivors of the mission gone bad. He must find a way to use his super-spy skills to discover who betrayed his people.

Brian De Palma is more closely associated in my mind with gritty grime dramas (such as Scarface and The Untouchables) but he does a good job putting together a summer action flick here. My memories of the movie before I put it in to watch this evening had been distilled into the two big set-pieces. The hanging-from-the-ceiling break in at CIA headquarters in Langley where Ethan steals the crucial bait he needs to flush his enemies out, and the fight on the roof of a bullet train headed from England to France. The whole movie is an excuse to make these two scenes happen, and that’s okay with me because both of these iconic scenes are worth the price of admission.

I’m not overly fond of Tom Cruise in this movie though. He plays Ethan with a kind of manic energy that really gets on my nerves. It’s the crazed grin that bugs me most. I think it’s intended to show that he is not intimidated when facing dangerous situations but it makes him seem inappropriately happy and kills the tension in a couple scenes. The rest of the cast, however I have no complaints about. My favorites are Ving Rhames (who is in tomorrow’s movie as well) and Jean Reno. (For the second time in just a couple days I wish that we had Ronin to watch.)

What I like most about this movie, though, is that it launched a most unusual franchise. Every new movie in this series is a surprise to me. It’s like a strange sort of rite of passage for extraordinary directors, or perhaps an exclusive club of some sort. I never would have expected Brian De Palma to make a summer action movie starring Tom Cruise but here it is. And it was followed by John Woo, then by J. J. Abrams. There’s a fourth movie in production right now which will be the live-action debut of the inimitable Brad Bird. Unbelievable. I’ve seen the second movie in the series – the John Woo one – several times because it’s so silly, so over-the-top and so very John Woo. I can’t wait to watch it again tomorrow.

February 19, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews, Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment