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Friday, 31 July 2015

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

(M) ½

Director: Christopher McQuarrie.

Cast: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Alec Baldwin, Simon McBurney.

Buying tickets is for chumps.
In case you missed it, the Mission: Impossible film series is America's answer to James Bond.

The gadgets, the action, the women; these things are part of the likeness, but perhaps the biggest similarity is in how we remember the films – we tend to remember the Bond and M:I movies not by their plots, but by their stunts and/or villains.

In the case of the first Mission: Impossible, we remember the now legendary roof drop sequence. The second one had the mountain climbing opening. The third one had Philip Seymour Hoffman. The fourth one had the impressive Burj Khalifa stunt and the dust storm chase.

Continuing this theme, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (the fifth in the series) will be remembered for Tom Cruise hanging off the side of a plane as it takes off and doing a heart-stopping free dive into a water-cooled computer chamber, and Sean Harris’ Solomon Lane, who looks like an evil cross between Tintin and Dobby the House Elf.

Everything in between is the usual blur of encrypted files and crosses and double crosses you’ll struggle to remember in years to come when trying to discern the difference between the films.

The actual plot involves the Impossible Mission Force (IMF) being shut down (which seems to happen in every M:I movie) and Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt going rogue to track down The Syndicate – a group that Simon Pegg’s agent Benji Dunn helpfully describes as “an anti-IMF”.

It’s one of those plots where you shouldn’t think too hard about the fact it relies on chance or particular characters doing exactly what it was hoped they’d do, but it’s a serviceable plot all the same.

The film is front-loaded with its best stuff so the finale feels strangely low-key, yet somehow the whole is still satisfying.

That probably comes down to Cruise. His off-screen eccentricities are hard to ignore, and it's been at least a decade since his last truly great performance, but he still churns out highly watchable fare on a regular basis thanks to having a likeable on-screen persona.

But what we really forget is he is a seriously impressive old-school action star in an age where CG trickery has largely made that role somewhat redundant. Sure, there are digitally erased safety lines when he's hanging from a plane and digitally added cars when he's riding a motorbike flat out, but that's really Cruise, putting himself out there and in danger, and it's still seriously impressive.

The most welcome addition to M:I5 is an increased amount of Simon Pegg. He’s mostly just comic relief (although he does get one brief fight scene) but it’s good comic relief.

Ferguson is also a welcome addition, providing solid support as a kind of female Ethan Hunt, while Rhames and Renner are reduced to sidemen, which seems to be their lot in life. Harris also gives good villain.

Overall M:I5 is enjoyable, occasionally impressive, deftly paced, and smarter than most actioners, but not beyond the odd moment of idiocy. Lalo Schifrin's memorable theme gets a good workout – almost as much as Cruise’s 53-year-old body.

In other words, it’s everything you’d expect from a Mission: Impossible, if you choose to accept it.

Thursday, 16 July 2015


(M) ★★★½

Director: Peyton Reed.

Cast: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Corey Stoll, Bobby Cannavale, Michael Peña.

The latest Psycho remake was weird.
MARVEL is getting cocky with its cinematic universe these days.

While comic book rivals DC are throwing all their big guns – Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman – into one film in a desperate attempt to catch-up, Marvel are doing whatever the hell they feel like.

Case in point is Ant-Man, the debut appearance of a character who, despite being one of the original comic book Avengers, is laughably named, oddly talented (he can control ants!) and weirdly antiquated in this day and age.

But Marvel are going to have their cake and eat it too, which is part of what makes this film so fun. They know it’s ridiculous so they make jokes about its ridiculousness. The script is acutely aware of how absurd the entire premise is but enthusiastically embraces the absurdity.

Dr Hank Pym (Douglas) is a brilliant professor and the original 1960s Ant-Man – a secret government weapon whose super-powered suit allowed him to shrink to the size of a bug and marshal an army of ants.

But when his former student Darren Cross (Stoll) gets close to cracking the secret of the Ant-Man costume and threatens to sell it to the bad guys, the long-retired Pym goes in search of a new hero to take up the miniature mantle and stop the villains.

Enter Scott Lang (Rudd), fresh out of prison and boasting a particular set of skills that Pym needs to save the day.

What’s different about this origin tale is that it comes in halfway through the telling – Ant-Man has already saved the world and hung up his helmet by the time our new protagonist Lang comes on the scene. It’s as if this is Ant-Man: The Next Generation, but in a practical sense it adds to the rich history in the increasingly complicated tapestry that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or MCU as the fanboys and fangirls call it).

Thematically, it’s covering some old Marvel ground. It’s about being worthy of what is presented to you (Thor), that technology is not inherently bad or good (Iron Man, Avengers: Age Of Ultron), the need for redemption and second chances (Iron Man again and anything with Black Widow in it), and the importance of family (Guardians Of The Galaxy).

But the strength lies in its fleshed-out characters. Lang is a little bit straight-up-and-down, but Pym, his daughter Hope (Lilly), and Cross are all well nuanced. Pym in particular is an interestingly flawed protagonist, with Douglas’ gravitas giving the science-babble weight and delivering the emotional needs of the story with aplomb.

What’s surprising is the film is not quite as funny or off-the-wall as anticipated. There are still plenty of laughs and Rudd is solid but he is largely restrained, which is confounding for someone with a reputation as a comedic actor. Also you can’t help but feel that writer and ex-director Edgar Wright was pushing for this to be funnier and even more off-the-wall, but that the version we’re seeing is Marvel’s dialed-down take.

If that’s the case, it’s a little bit of a shame. The best moments are the humourous ones and Ant-Man really excels when it’s taking the mickey out of itself and its pint-sized action, which is fleshed out with some novel-looking and wonderfully executed special effects. A fight between Ant-Man and an Avenger is a highlight, as is the climatic showdown which takes place primarily in a child’s bedroom.

While this is not quite on the MCU top shelf alongside Iron Man, Guardians Of The Galaxy, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and The Avengers, it’s not far below them. It’s also further proof of Marvel’s self-confidence and ability to make sure each film works yet bears a distinct feel (this is basically a heist film) and look.

With its small-scale action and tongue-in-cheek irreverence, Ant-Man is a welcome relief from the large-scale destruction and save-the-universe shenanigans of recent superhero movies.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Magic Mike XXL


Director: Gregory Jacobs.

Cast: Channing Tatum, Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer, Kevin Nash, Adam Rodríguez, Gabriel Iglesias, Andie MacDowell, Amber Heard, Donald Glover, Jada Pinkett Smith, Elizabeth Banks.

The film's budget did not extend to shirts.
ON the surface, Magic Mike was billed as a ladies-only adventure that was all about Channing Tatum’s abs and Matthew McConaughey’s butt cheeks.

The surprising thing is that it was something more. Yes, it was predictable and a little thin and packed with men tearing off their clothes, but it was also funny, wonderfully shot, and featured a collection of interesting characters, with Tatum and McConaughey turning in career-best performances (which they have since surpassed).

Second time around, the story is even thinner – it’s barely an L, let alone an XXL. Dallas and The Kid have taken up a business offer in Macau (an excuse to write McConaughey and Alex Pettyfer out because they didn’t want to do a sequel), leaving the remainder of The Kings Of Tampa strippers high and dry.

Mike (Tatum), who has been out of the stripping game for a few years, reconnects with the Kings and decides to join them on one last road trip to a strippers’ convention before they all hang up their leopard-print g-strings for good.

Despite the slightness of story, Magic Mike XXL works as a fun road-trip movie because the characters are good value and the naturalistic dialogue carries plenty of laughs.

The film recaptures the upbeat vibe of the previous one’s best bits, dispensing with the “drugs are bad, stripping is bad” moralising that darkened it and focusing on keeping it light – no punches are packed, and no messages are driven home.

Each of the characters has their moment and their issues, mostly based around what to do with their lives after stripping, but it’s never heavy and just ensures the film is engaging. Without characters to empathise and laugh with (and at), Magic Mike XXL would be a total waste of time.

It’s the laughs that are key though. The finale routines are pretty funny, and Manganiello’s Richie gets a larger role, which helps fill the void left by McConaughey’s absence. A sequence where he attempts to get a service station attendant to smile is a hilarious highlight.

The choreography is excellent once again, and the addition of Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino is welcome, plus Tatum’s chemistry with Amber Heard is a million times better than what he shared with Cody Horn in the first film.

The biggest flaw lies in the length – maybe Magic Mike XL would have sufficed. A detour through a club Mike used to dance in drags on and on, packing in a lot of “male entertainment” routines and slowing proceedings down considerably.

Matched with the general thinness of the story, such delays are frustrating. The road trip’s goal of reaching a stripper’s convention of Myrtle Beach seems to take forever and then is dealt with fleetingly.

Fans of the original will come for the stripping, but stay for the laughs in this solid sequel.