Friday, December 18, 2015

THE SIGNAL (2015)

Originally published in Cinema Knife Fight, December 18, 2015


When I saw the original teaser for William Eubank’s science fiction film THE SIGNAL (2014), it looked like a fast-paced, slightly artsy story, enough to file away on my mental to-be-watched list. However, on seeing an extended trailer (I’m not normally one to watch subsequent trailers for a movie I plan to see, to avoid spoilers, but this time I did), I decided, eh, maybe not. As you probably know from reading my past reviews, I enjoy the occasional bizarre science fiction flick, but the full trailer for THE SIGNAL made it seem too over the top and avant garde. It dropped way down on my list of movies to someday see.

Until the other day, when I decided to stream it late one night on HBO. My plan was to start it, then if it truly was as odd as the trailer made it seem, I would stop it and go to bed. An hour and a half later the credits were rolling and I turned in for the night much later than I had planned, but having enjoyed the movie quite a lot. THE SIGNAL is not weird. It’s mysterious and keeps you wondering what’s going to happen, but it plays out in a fairly straight-forward and clever manner. Co-writer and director Eubank also did my previously-reviewed science fiction film LOVE (2011), which was quite well done, itself, though with a hard-to-grasp meaning behind much of it. I’ve decided that he’s a talented filmmaker, especially after seeing his newest foray into the genre.

Though THE SIGNAL is not in any way a found footage film, it begins with that kind of feel. It is, in fact, a story with two distinct acts. In the first, three friends are driving cross-country to bring Haley (Olivia Cooke, ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL, 2015) to California for a year away in college. Her boyfriend, Nic (Brenton Thwaites, THE GIVER, 2014, MALEFICENT, 2014), is bringing her along with their mutual best friend Jonah (Beau Knapp SUPER 8, 2011, THE GIFT, 2015). Nic’s an interesting protagonist because he apparently has Cerebral Palsy, or perhaps ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). The condition’s never stated outright but he walks with the aid of crutches enhanced with arm braces. He and Haley are both despondent during the trip. She feels he’s letting her move across country for a year to set her free, of him, expecting his condition to worsen (this reason implies he may have ALS rather than CP). And she’s probably right, since he admits he doesn’t want to tie her down, she didn’t sign up for caring for him the rest of her life, etcetera. This sub-plot is primary in the first act of the film. The acting from these three relative newcomers is quite strong and they are able to carry the story with a natural ease.

Meanwhile, Nic and Jonah, quasi-genius MIT students, have been battling online with a hacker named NOMAD who has been relentlessly taunting them, breaking into their laptops and wreaking havoc for no other reason than to get them riled up. It’s a chess game between them. Jonah has tracked the hacker’s signal to somewhere deep in the Nevada desert. Since they’re driving across country to deliver Haley anyway, the three friends decide to win this battle of wits once and for all, and confront NOMAD.

So they track his signal and end up on a deserted, desert road in the middle of the night. To make things worse, it is an old, abandoned shack. This scene is where the found-footage feel of Act One becomes prominent, and is quite creepy, especially given the fact that our characters don’t seem too frightened by the situation at all. Something major happens to them there, which I’ll leave for the viewer to experience, and Act One comes to a close.

Act Two opens with Nic in a hospital room, recovering from what occurred in the desert (of which, he cannot recall). He quickly learns that he is not a patient in a normal medical facility. It is, in fact, a high security location controlled by the government. Or at least, government-slash-military-looking people, all of whom are dressed in full contamination gear. Whatever Nic (that’s how the credits spell his name; I’ve been finding the spelling a little annoying as I proof-read this review) is now suffering from after the incident in Act One, the people in charge are quite certain it’s contagious. The head of this facility, a man named Damon, is played with his usual quiet intensity by Laurence Fishburne (THE MATRIX, 1999, EVENT HORIZON, 1997). He offers Nic no information aside from what the young man manages to worm out of him over a few heated contests of will. Even then, one doesn’t quite trust the answers given. The main point Damon pushes home to him is this: he’s been exposed to an alien life form and he and his people are concerned about possible contagions.

Haley and Jonah are also in the facility, but none of the threesome is given access to the other two. When Nic discovers what it is about him that so concerns the staff at the facility, he panics and decides to rescue his friends, then break out. One criticism here I will offer is that it took the character far too long to discover what happened to him, considering the nature of his “affliction.” This point brought me out of the story for a moment, but I recovered quickly enough. The movie moved quickly at that point to distract me from this minor glitch in plot.

Act Two has a more-fixed camera look to it, and is loaded with action. Nic is highly intelligent, and tries to use this to find a way of escape. I won’t go into much detail about the rest of the movie because it has enough surprises to keep one entertained throughout. Like his earlier film, LOVE, writer/director Eubank uses the musical score to accentuate both action and isolation. It adds much to the film. The supporting cast also includes Lin Shaye (INSIDIOUS, 2010, INSIDIOUS 3, 2015), who, in her previous film credits, has always played someone on the brink of madness—she portrays the friendly medium in the INSIDIOUS films—gets to put on her full-steam crazy here as Mirabelle.

The connection between the hacker Nic and Jonah are pursuing in Act One, and the nature of the facility they find themselves trapped in in Act Two, is obvious early on and I wasn’t surprised at its reveal, but that doesn’t take away any of the enjoyment from this clever science fiction film. The ending, thankfully, is not one of those vague, you decide what this means, sort, but comes across clearly and, I think, cleverly. They probably spent a good deal of their effects budget on the final few scenes as well. Some of the oddities the characters experience throughout, are sometimes left open-ended. If I put a little more gray matter to it, I might have been able to answer most of these questions. But it’s fun leaving a few strings dangling, I think.

Overall, THE SIGNAL is a polished, original science fiction movie which will appeal to those who enjoy their fare a little left of center, and straight-line science fiction fans who prefer their stories spelled out, at least by the ending. I’m glad I finally got around to seeing this one.

© Copyright 2015 by Daniel G. Keohane

Thursday, September 17, 2015

MR. PEABODY & SHERMAN (2014)

Originally published in Cinema Knife Fight, September 18, 2015



What’s this, a kids’ movie? Hey, why not…. As long as a movie can be designated as Science Fiction or Horror, now and then I might cover those fun kid flicks that we’re forced to watch with the little ones. Sometimes, they’re actually pretty good!

As is the case this time around. MR. PEABODY & SHERMAN (2014) is more than good. In fact, I’ll start this review with a risky statement: it’s FROZEN (2013) for boys.

That’s right. This movie is custom made for boys, complete with violence, farts, and the hero saving the day in the end. Watch any little girl watching the tale of Elsa the Snow Queen, and you’ll see how utterly captivated they are. This is rare for girls, who don’t have the absolute-focus gene we boys have with movies. MR. PEABODY & SHERMAN (which I’ll refer to as MP&S) has this same effect on boys (your mileage may vary, of course). For a few months this year my wife and I had the pleasure of taking care of a 2-year-old boy named Jacob. He had the attention span of most 2-year-olds, which is pretty limited. Unless this movie was put on. I’ve never seen anyone so rapt by a movie before, or since (barring, perhaps, me). Needless to say, Linda and I also had to watch the movie, in fact about 45 times over the course of three months. Thankfully, it is a funny, clever and downright fun movie.

MP&S got some bad press when it was released, not because it was bad, but because people simply didn’t go to see it. It never recouped its monstrous budget at the box office. I hope it eventually does, via rentals and streaming. They made a few bucks from us, that’s for sure.

If you’re younger than, say, thirty-five, you might not know the original exploits of Mr. Peabody and young Sherman. It was one of the cartoon shorts comprising THE ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE SHOW (1959–1964), Rocky being a flying squirrel and Bullwinkle J. Moose his lovably dopey friend. Like many of its ilk at the time, the show consisted of multiple cartoons, anchored by Rocky and Bullwinkle’s. Primarily, we got goofy versions of old fairy tales (called, aptly, “Fractured Fairy Tales“) and “Peabody and Sherman.” There might have been others that I no longer remember. The cartoons were all spastically-edited (I’m guessing to retain kids’ attention spans, since the animation was subpar, even for its time), pretty funny and surprisingly intelligent with their humor. “Peabody and Sherman” was my favorite. A genius dog (I think he’s a fox terrier, but have never been certain) and his young human assistant travel to the past to learn lessons from history using a machine called the “Way Back.”  When I saw the preview for a movie version finally coming out, I was excited to see it. Granted, I ended up being one of the many who never made it to the theaters to see it, to my loss (would have been awesome in 3D).

The film opens with Mr. Peabody narrating the story of his vast intelligence (he’s not a humble terrier-ish) and how it isolated him from other dogs as a puppy so he had to turn to books and learning instead. In this movie, he’s more than just smart, Peabody is an expert at pretty much everything. It’s a funny and cute opening scene, ending with the introduction of his son, Sherman (and answering the decades-old, and decidedly low-priority, question as to what the relationship was between these two!). A couple of times in the movie the line, “It’s an adoptive relationship,” is used when anyone wonders why the boy’s father is a dog. A later series of flashbacks, to the tune of John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy,” tell the story of how they came to be a family. All these trips into the past using the newly-spelled WABAC Machine, are done to teach Sherman’s history and life lessons.

Of course, every time they do this in the film, they nearly get themselves killed or seriously maimed.

Ty Burrell (Phil from the MODERN FAMILY TV series) has Mr. Peabody’s voice and inflections down pat (no pun intended). Max Charles (young Peter Parker in THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, 2012) is the perfect Sherman, voice-wise. The two actors have great timing and chemistry together.

The premise of the film is this: on his first day of school Sherman is picked on by the popular girl of first grade, Penny (Ariel Winter, Alex from the MODERN FAMILY TV series). She calls him a dog, because his dad is a dog. Sherman eventually bites her. In comes a DCF social worker named Mrs. Grunion, who begins efforts to remove Sherman from Mr. Peabody’s home because she never believed a dog should have been able to adopt a boy in the first place. At a dinner party that night to smooth things over with Penny and her parents, a few complications arise at their penthouse apartment (the dog is also fabulously wealthy, did I mention that?), including, but not limited to, unplanned trips to Ancient Egypt, Renaissance Italy and Ancient Troy, and of course a rip in the space-time continuum.

When I first watched this movie, I did not realize Allison Janney (THE WEST WING TV series and movies like JUNO, 2007), does the voice of Mrs. Grunion. It’s that different from her normal voice. Most of the big-name stars who play characters have altered their voices enough so that you might have a hard time recognizing them (aside from Burrell, whose voice is already quite distinctive), and Patrick Warburton (FAMILY GUY TV series) as the Trojan soldier Agamemnon—Warburton has a cool voice for this type of character anyway, and is quite funny in this role. There are a lot of star names—probably why the budget for MP&S was over-the-top —from the above names, to Stephen Colbert, Leslie Mann, Stanley Tucci and even a cameo by Mel Brooks.

Even with this cast, the movie is carried by the talent and good humor of Burrell and Charles as the title characters. Their interplay is non-stop throughout, as father and son geniuses who both never quite realize how much trouble they’re about to get themselves into until they’re almost in over their heads. They get into a lot of trouble, too. The screenplay is quick, funny and, like its predecessor, at times quite intelligent (something for all ages, in other words).

Back to the idea that this is the perfect little boy movie. There is quite a lot of violence, but the stylized kind you get in cartoons where the laws of physics go out the window and the good guy always finds a way out of the predicament. The filmmakers make Mr. Peabody such a genius and expert at everything, little kids watching should never become too frightened. After all, the dog never is. His confidence in his own ability to get them out of deadly peril is so firm, the kiddies can be excited as they watch without breaking down in terrified sobs. There are also plenty of well-timed (and sometimes subtle) fart jokes to send any boy falling over his chair (an example of the more subtle kind, which always makes me laugh: when P&S are running through the sewers of 18th century France escaping revolutionaries who want to chop their heads off, Peabody says, “Sherman, do you smell that?” to which the boy replies, “It wasn’t me, Mr. Peabody.” Maybe it’s just me, but that’s funny.)

There are also plenty of bad puns, though this is deliberate and a requirement. The original cartoon always ended in Peabody giving the moral of the story in the form of a pun. This movie is no exception. In fact, Peabody spends the entire film throwing puns at Sherman, who never quite gets the jokes.

This is an animated film, of course, a smooth blending of true animation with CGI to add depth and a (warped) sense of reality to the scenes. This was released in 3D at the cinema. If it came back to the theaters, even after seeing it on the small screen so many times, I’d probably sneak out to see it. Mr. Peabody and his son Sherman look nearly identical to their original cartoon incarnations, only better. The expressions, especially on Sherman’s face, sometimes say more than the dialogue. And the WABAC, instead of simply a door they step through, is a round ball with wings which soars through wormholes in space time (“Drop your sword and step away from the futuristic orb,” is the line you might remember from the trailer). All in all, it’s very impressive, visually.

Yes, yes, I know it’s a kids’ movie, but it can still have impressive visual effects. Remember, I’ve seen this more times than the original STAR WARS (1977) at this point. I have to love it, or I’ll go mad. Needless to say, the science behind anything you see in MR. PEABODY & SHERMAN is, simply, wrong. All of it. Not a whit will help Junior pass his MCAS tests.

Who cares?

The animation and voice acting is top-notch, but I should give director Bob Minkoff (THE LION KING, 1994, and STUART LITTLE, 1999) credit for the overall experience, including the pacing, which is non-stop, and overall warm feel of the film. Honestly, when it comes to animation, I’m a little fuzzy what the director actually does. He/she works with the animation team and the editors more often, I suppose, since there aren’t any “location” shots.

If you’re a fan of the original cartoon, this movie will delight you. I promise. Watch it, even if you’re over forty (which you probably are if you’re a fan of the original). It’s a modernized, but wonderful homage to a now-obscure entertainment morsel. If you’ve never heard of the cartoon, doesn’t matter. You’ll love it just the same.

Unless you’re a girl. Even with little Penny in most of the scenes, FROZEN will probably still be more your cup of tea. But if there’s a little boy in your home, or the little boy inside you needs some entertaining, give this fun, family movie a watch.

I give it 4 knives. If you’re a boy.

(PS: I labored for a couple of hours trying to find a cute pun to end this review with. No luck. Watch the movie, there’ll be plenty in there to deal with. If you think of one I could’ve used, let me know in the comments section.)

© Copyright 2015 by Daniel G. Keohane

Friday, August 28, 2015

LOVE (2011)


Originally published in Cinema Knife Fight, August 28, 2015 

When I see the terms “science fiction” and “independent” lumped together as a film’s category, I usually make time to watch it. When I discovered the movie, LOVE (2011), on Netflix, its categories were “drama” and “independent,” but the cover image showed Earth from orbit, and an astronaut sitting on a park bench in full space-gear, so I knew it was sci-fi. I also expected (and this is critical foreknowledge for most independent science fiction films) LOVE to be very weird. Trippy. A mind-[bad word that means lovemaking].

It was.

I’ll just point this out now and be done with it: if you see this on Netflix, don’t read the short description of the film. It’s not only wrong, it’ll set your expectations in the wrong direction when you sit down to watch it. It did for me. It’s not about time travel. He doesn’t time travel. I don’t think he does. No, of course he doesn’t. Probably. No, there’s nothing like that in the film. Read on and you’ll see.

Of course, I could be wrong. I might be. Probably not. Definitely… ah hell. Let’s start at the beginning:

Captain Lee Miller is an astronaut, recruited as the first person to return to the International Space Station (ISS) after an extended period where it was abandoned. The space program apparently found some extra money in a sock drawer and thought it was time to go back up. Captain Miller is played with quiet intensity by Gunner Wright (J. EDGAR, 2011, DEAD SPACE video game). To be honest, I thought he was Ryan Reynolds for the first part of the film. He’s not. Ryan Reynolds is, in fact, not in this movie. Nevertheless I was very impressed with Wright’s performance, especially considering that he was the only character in the film (for the most part) and spent eighty percent of the time alone in the bowels of the ISS.

But wait, this is not the beginning. Let me back up to the actual opening scene.

Captain Lee Miller is a soldier in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War, pinned down with the rest of General McClain’s regiment as they wait to be flattened by the Union Army. Things look bad, and McClain orders Miller to travel to some other location where a special discovery had recently been made. He asks him to tell the story of it, and of his experiences with McClain’s men. Miller leaves on horseback. Not long after, McClain’s regiment is decimated in one of the bloodiest battles in the war. I think it was. Seemed like the bloodiest battle.

These opening scenes are amazing. Well filmed, dark and moody yet the images are hyper-clear. I know, that’s not an actual filmmaking term. How do I explain this? Sharp focus… no. Never mind. I can’t explain it, except: With so much despair and misery the men in the regiment are enduring, amplified by a narration from Captain Miller, it’s a stunningly beautiful scene to watch. However they filmed this, technically, it’s a visual treat. Granted, there is also much use of the hyper-slow-motion effect I first saw (at least noticed), in MELANCHOLIA  (2011).

After leaving his regiment, Miller eventually reaches a small cadre of soldiers who are guarding something out of frame over the ridge. He steps to the edge of the cliff and looks over. But we, the viewers, don’t see what it is. You might be able guess, I think, but not right away. And it doesn’t matter, anyway, because it has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. Not really. Sort of.

Because then we meet Captain Lee Miller, the astronaut circa 2047 or so, boarding the ISS and doing a series of diagnostics and experiments, floating alone in high Earth orbit. He gets occasional messages from Cambridge, England and Mission Control as he passes over their respective hemispheres, and watches a video from his brother telling him he’s going to be an uncle soon. The days pass.

Until Mission Control tells him something bad was going down on Earth-side, but there is no time to explain. He simply needs to hold on and they’ll be in contact soon.

Miller waits for the follow-up. And waits. And waits.

He’s alone in a metal tube, floating over the Earth with no idea what might be happening back home. This all happens in the early moments of the film, and most of the remaining time is spent with Miller dealing as best he can with the growing isolation, with being cut off from every human being in God’s creation.

I was riveted by this film (always keeping in the back of my mind, however, that the ending would likely be weird and not tell me much about what I just watched—I was right, though it wasn’t quite as cryptic as I feared… oh, yes it was, who am I trying to kid? I get ahead of myself, however).

Written and Directed by William Eubank (THE SIGNAL, 2014), LOVE was entirely funded, interestingly enough, by the band Angels & Airwaves (the members of the band also produced the movie). Did they do it to get their name out there, or promote their songs through film? Maybe. If so, it worked for me. I loved the music. Like many of the films which have left a lasting impression on me (one big example being INK, 2009), music was integral to the mood and overall feel of LOVE. It ran through every scene, with a few breaks of dead silence to make the viewer take a breath. The sound was unique without being overbearing. This worked alongside some interesting editing choices—when panic would set in, we sense the emotion through choppy, staccato cuts in the scene, sudden close-ups transitioning to extended long shots, desperate chords banging on the walls of the soundtrack (yes, my sentences get like this when reviewing artsy films)—to build the internal world of our protagonist.

Another clever bit of directing—or maybe it’s a cinematography decision, I’ll need to ask my daughter the budding filmmaker—was the implication of weightlessness in the station without showing it. I imagine that shooting every scene in simulated zero-gee would be tricky and expensive. Angels & Airwaves probably didn’t have that kind of dough. Instead, director Eubank chose not to do it at all. Captain Miller moves through the ship, reaching and controlling his motions as if in zero-gee, but obviously he’s not. No slow-motion pretend weightlessness, either. If the astronaut drops something, it falls to his feet. Even so, you know he’s floating. Because that’s how he’s behaving. Camera angles also play into this notion, showing him sitting, for example, while filming the scene sideways, or upside down. So Miller is sitting on the wall, or the ceiling. Sounds cheesy, but it works.

So far, this is sounding like a pretty awesome science fiction film. In many ways, when you speak of craft, and acting, it is. However, like I said earlier, this film is a bit of a brain twister. If you get through the Civil War opening without too much confusion (there is a connection later in the film with a book the astronaut discovers which might explain it, or you can try hard to believe that explanation because it’s wrong, because later on things get very, I don’t know… sorry. Need to breathe. Got heightened for a moment. Movies that make brain-cereal in my head tend to do that).

Interspersed throughout the film are sudden, almost jolting cuts to people being interviewed. They’re talking about life, love, dealing with isolation, pushing past the curve balls of life and moving on the best one can. These people are not, in any way, related to our main character, but their words are a secondary narrative for what he’s going through. They’re short, and interesting, so I listened, nodded internally, and wasn’t surprised when these scenes ended and we were back to Captain Lee Miller trapped in the ISS.

Gunner Wright was very believable as a man trapped for a long time with only himself and memories of past lovers for company. The images he conjures of one woman in particular begins to speak to him, and he answers, all the while knowing she isn’t real. But he needs some kind of company, as he staves on insanity. As with many Indy films, I had to use subtitles to catch a lot of the dialogue. Movies that strive for realism seem to think it’s okay for everyone to mumble and whisper their lines. Maybe they couldn’t afford more than one gaffer. Maybe I’m just getting old.

I won’t get into the ending, but I will say there was an ending, sort of, and the filmmakers obviously wanted to pay homage to Stanley Kubrick’s closing scenes in 2001: A SPACE ODDYSEY (1968). All through these final, oh, fifteen or twenty minutes I was like—is this David Bowman reincarnated?…. Oh, hey maybe that’s what it all meant. No, wait, no couldn’t be, because of that part. And that.

Hmm. Sorry. Ignore that. No, I didn’t give anything away. Watch the film (and I think you should) and the above-tangent will make sense. Anyway, for those of you sci-fi buffs out there, the fact that I made a comparison to ODDYSEY‘s ending should tell you all you need to know. It gets very weird. Weird, yet things are happening. Some explanations even cover what was over the ridge back in the Civil War days, if you watch closely. And over the past couple of days some ideas as to the meaning of the ending have come to me. But… but, but.

I love films (usually) that do this to me. I’d better stop, otherwise this review will be just as cryptic and You Figure It Out-ish as LOVE. No, the title doesn’t really make sense. If anything, it relates more to the interviews which crop up throughout the film more than what is happening in the big floating space tube. But for a film on a budget, the effects were well done and clever, and did not try to do more than was reasonable. The acting was true to the characters and at times very intense. Not to mention, if you like Ryan Reynolds then you have the Hydrox version here, so it’s almost as good. (Kidding—Gunner, I was quite impressed with your performance and Reynolds wouldn’t have done half the job you did here—make more movies, please.).

Just go in expecting your cerebrum to be milk-shaked and you’ll be fine. Because of the ending, like most independent films, LOVE is pretentious, but LOVE is also kind and does not seem to boast much.

I give it Three Independent Film Awards out of Five – if you go for this kind of thing. If not, watch GRAVITY (2013) instead. Your brain will thank you.

—Dan

Monday, August 3, 2015

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - ROUGUE NATION (2015)



Originally published in Cinema Knife Fight August 3, 2015

To start this review, I was going to play a cassette tape and have a cute, “Your mission if you choose to accept it…” But no, I won’t do that. And telling you I was going to do it but didn’t is not the same as doing it.

I’ve been a fan of the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE series since the beginning. Granted, some were better than others, for example the original (1996) was great. It was an awesome homage to the original 1966 television series which riveted my parents to the TV set each week (I was too young to stay up that late, being only 3…). The follow-up, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE II (2000) was weaker than the original, with a climactic fistfight that went on way too long. I remember taking a long time to get around to watching MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III (2006) but when I did, I was very pleasantly surprised. It far exceeded the previous two.

After 2006, the franchise fizzled for a time, until M:I III‘s writer, J.J. Abrams (EVERYTHING THAT IS GOOD AND AWESOME ON ANY SIZED SCREEN), and his merry band at Bad Robot Productions took the helm. Abrams took the producer’s office for MISSION: IMPOSSIBLEGHOST PROTOCOL (2011) and reignited what would become a fun, visually-stunning couple of films with a lead actor who would willingly expose himself to the vacuum of space if it meant being allowed to do his own stunts (sorry, getting ahead of myself, back to that point soon). GHOST PROTOCOL was a wild, fun, breathtaking film, and I left the theater four years ago hoping it was not a one-time deal.

It wasn’t.

Yes, I’m actually going to talk about the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLEROGUE NATION (2015) now.

The short version, in case you’re already tired of reading this review: it is one of the most enjoyable, action-packed spy movies you’re probably going to see this half decade. Goofy at times, yes, but a lot of fun. SPECTRE (2015) is coming out in November, and I’m uber-looking forward to this new Bond film, but even that might pale on the fun-meter compared to the movie we’re reviewing right now. (PS: For those of you leaving at the end of this paragraph, I’m going to give M:IRN four knives at the end, but shhh, don’t say anything, so the people hanging around for the whole review will be surprised). OK, short-attention span readers, you may leave.

The “Rogue Nation” of the title is disenfranchised British agent Solomon Lane (played with quiet, Bond-ish menace by Sean Harris, also in PROMETHEUS, 2012)) aiming to unhinge Western Civilization (why do so many bad guys in spy movies hate Western Civilization?). His schemes are so well-planned and executed, one begins to suspect any eventuality that comes his way is part of his overall Master Plan. This is what our hero, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise (JACK REACHER, 2012, and all previous M:I films), begins to fear as he races across the world trying to apprehend him.

One major problem, however: after the explosive events of the previous movie, the head of the CIA, Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin, 30 ROCK TV Series, BEETLEJUICE, 1988) has brought the IMF before a Senate committee and successfully disbanded the organization (FYI, IMF is the acronym for Hunt’s group: Impossible Mission Force), merging them with the CIA and forcing Ethan Hunt to go rogue rather than come back in from the field. So, yes, the IMF itself becomes a “rogue nation,” in a way, and this is where I have one minor problem with the film. The idea of the IMF having to go underground because the US government won’t support them—and in fact wants to apprehend them, especially Ethan—has been done before—in the previous film and the very first M:I movie. Granted, things are more interesting when everyone wants a piece of the good guy and no one supports him (except his crew), but find another way. Fortunately, this repetitive plot device diminishes the enjoyment of the film not a whit.
 
The pre-credits opening scene (the one talked about quite a lot in the web-o-sphere lately) sets the tone for the movie. Ethan and his crew try to stop a cargo plan from taking off with some seriously bad weaponry. In the end, the plane takes off, with Ethan Hunt desperately holding on to the outside of the plane. Yes, that is, in fact, Tom Cruise hanging on to the outside of an actual cargo plane which is actually taking off. It’s a fun, visually arresting scene that ends with a good laugh before we are brought into the opening credits. I’ll get back to Cruise and his stunts in a moment, because I’d like to take a second to celebrate the music.

The original 1966 TV show always began with a catchy opening scene, followed by the familiar sight of a fuse being lit as the theme song, written by Lalo Schifrin, kicks into full throttle. This is one of the best TV theme songs out there.  In ROGUE NATION, composer Joe Kraemer’s score intersperses Schifrin’s song throughout the film, and at just the right moments. Not overbearing, but it never fails to induce excitement in this writer’s head.

So, back to Tom Cruise. Say what you will about the man’s off-screen antics, he is one of the best action stars around. A big statement, you say? Aside from still being one of the (if not the) best-looking actors on any screen (suspiciously so, because how does anyone look that good for this many decades?), he knows how to act. Cruise takes his job seriously, no matter what film he’s in, so much so that he does his own stunts. Yes, that’s not just a rumor going around about the plane thing. In every action scene in this film, you’re seeing Tom Cruise—hanging onto a plane (not to worry, he was also strapped securely to the side), racing along the highways of Morocco on a motorcycle, trying to do something “impossible” while underwater in a tank and holding his breath for an absurd amount of time (in that scene, he actually held his breath for six minutes, twice as long as the character had to, to the point where the director stopped filming because he thought he was going to drown). The guy’s a machine. If you think about it, this is one major reason the action sequences in his films are so realistic. Without a stunt double, there is no need to keep the camera away from close-ups. Because of this and some stellar directing by writer and director Christopher McQuarrie (JACK REACHER, 2012), the action scenes in this movie are way above average with very little CGI used. One of these days Tom Cruise will probably die while filming a movie, maybe (as I mentioned above) after he insists on being sucked out into space, just so a scene has maximum realism. Maybe this is why he’s never starred in a movie that takes place outside of our atmosphere. No one wants to be responsible for killing such a profitable leading man.

M:I has always been borderline sci-fi, considering the technology the characters often use to get the job done. One does wonder how they manage to build such elaborate… let’s just say “devices” to avoid spoilers… when they’re basically cut off from any outside support. Granted, they do have oodles of cash stowed away in various hidey-holes. A certain amount of willing disbelief-suspension is required now and then. The filmmakers, however, imbued the film with such realism in their bigger-than-life situations and effects to make me willing, at least.

The cinematography was quite stunning. From an opera house in Vienna to the streets of Casablanca, Morocco, every scene is shot big, in digital perfection. Especially the Vienna scenes, and a jaw-dropping motorcycle chase later in the film. The shots are from varying angles, all to enhance a feeling of exotic awe with the beauty of the places we are brought into. I’m reminded of Robert Ludlum’s books, where he would choose some of the most exotic and beautiful locales for his stories. This is a big reason I strongly recommend seeing MISSION: IMPOSSIBLEROGUE NATION at the theatres, while you can. Not because the CGI looks better in the theaters, since there’s very little of that, but because the actual footage of real people doing nutty things for our entertainment looks better on the big screen. At least this one does.

What makes this series of films, especially the latter three Abrams-inspired productions so appealing? Look back at the early James Bond films, specifically with Sean Connery and Roger Moore. The Connery films took the exploits of agent 007 seriously, much like the recent Daniel Craig forays into Bond’s world. There was some humor, but the mission (and the women, we’re talking Sean Connery here, after all) were the primary focus. When Roger Moore came onboard, the filmmakers put far too much emphasis on gadgets and bad puns, to the detriment of the franchise (in my opinion, other’s may vary). I lost interest in the Bond films near the end of the Moore era. The exploits of Ethan Hunt in the M:I films feel like the perfect blend of serious action and humor. Simon Pegg (SHAUN OF THE DEAD, 2004, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, 2013) was obviously brought in to help with the humor, though Pegg’s Benji Dunn has his serious moments throughout. I enjoyed Pegg’s performance a lot in this film. He knows when to be comical and when not to (yea, yea, as do the director and writers, I know).

Another dynamite supporting cast member was Rebecca Ferguson (THE RED TENT, 2014, HERCULES, 2014) as Ilsa Faust, an agent working for bad guy Solomon, or is she? This question goes back and forth throughout the film. Though I’m guessing she doesn’t do her own stunts like co-star Cruise, she has a great presence and her action scenes were very well done. Quick kudos also to Jens Hulten (SKYFALL, 2012) as henchman Janik Vinter, aka the Bone Cutter (or something like that). He doesn’t have a lot of lines, but held the screen with an abundance of quiet menace.

Finally, there were a couple of scenes near the latter part of the film which I found a refreshing twist on the way Hollywood usually deals with plot roles for the distinct sexes. That’s all I’ll say, but it was nice to see the We’ve Always Done It This Way model tossed out the window more than once.

As you can tell, I enjoyed MISSION: IMPOSSIBLEROGUE NATION quite a lot. If you’re one to search out thrillers with real-life action and fight scenes that aren’t over-edited to the point of triggering seizures, check this out soon. As the short-attention-span folks already learned, I give this movie Four Knives for one of the most fun, over-the-top thrill-rides in recent movie memory.

© Copyright 2015 by Daniel G. Keohane