‘Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol’ Leaves You Hanging From Dizzying Heights

Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol poster

Writer’s note: This review was written back in 2011.

The “Mission: Impossible” movie franchise keeps getting better and better which each successive sequel, something few other franchises can ever lay claim to. The first one directed by Brian De Palma had a confusing storyline but spectacular action set pieces. The second one had a plot which was easier to follow and the signature ballet action sequences we’ve come to love and expect from John Woo. Part three gave us the directorial debut of J.J. Abrams, had a stronger plot, a very effective villain in Phillip Seymour Hoffman and ended up remembering what made the original television series work so well. Each movie in this series has its own unique identity which allowed this franchise to have a longevity we didn’t expect it to have. Of course, with Tom Cruise’s antics upstaging “Mission: Impossible III,” it started to seem his time as Ethan Hunt had run its course.

But Cruise is back for more, and “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” turns out to be the best of one yet as it features some of the most ingenious action scenes I’ve seen in a movie for quite some time. It also has the added benefit of having been filmed in part with IMAX cameras which gives certain scenes a highly realistic look and feel to where you are right in the center of the action. Just when I thought this franchise had ran out of steam, Cruise and director Brad Bird (making his live action debut) thrill us in a highly unexpected way.

It appears Hunt’s retirement from the IMF after “Mission: Impossible III” didn’t last long, and we find him at this movie’s beginning in a Moscow prison throwing a rock at the wall like he’s Steve McQueen in “The Great Escape.” But he is soon sprung from his cell with the help of Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and agent Jane Carter (Paula Patton), and we find out he was imprisoned for a mission gone wrong, and he has since become estranged from his wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) for mysterious reasons. Just like Jack Bauer in “24,” Hunt can’t stay away from what he does best when danger rears its ugly head.

After their great escape, Hunt and Dunn infiltrate the Kremlin in an effort to locate files of a nemesis with the code name of Cobalt. This mission, however, goes horribly wrong when the Kremlin is blown to smithereens, and the entire IMF is disavowed as a result. Hunt and his team are forced to take blame for the attack, but they are allowed to escape in order to locate Cobalt and stop a nuclear war. This time, Hunt and company have no support to rely on as they forced to work on their own.

As with the previous entry, Cruise lets the other actors shine as he has realized Hunt doesn’t need to do everything himself. Seeing Benji get upgraded from techno nerd to field agent is great fun, and Pegg is a real treat to watch here as he becomes much more than just comic relief. Paula Patton embodies her agent character of Jane Carter convincingly and gets to kick some serious ass in various scenes, one of which has her taking on a female assassin in something more than just your average catfight.

The best addition, however, to this “Mission: Impossible” movie is Jeremy Renner who plays William Brandt, a chief analyst for the IMF. Renner, whose career has been on a major upswing thanks to his performances in “The Hurt Locker” and “The Town,” is a great addition to this franchise, and he even gets a big action set piece as William proves to know far more than he lets on. His secrets threaten to be devastating if revealed, and Renner does excellent work in showing the turmoil Brandt endures as he is faced with a whole other kind of impossible mission.

The main antagonist this time out is Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist from the original “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) who is bent on starting a nuclear war so he can bring about the next evolution of the human race. Nyqvist brings a strong villainy to this role which makes you sneer at his presence whenever he’s onscreen. However, he’s upstaged by Léa Seydoux who portrays French assassin Sabine Moreau. Her cold glare penetrates your inner defenses with little difficulty, and you have to put on your best poker face in her presence to stay alive (and that may not even be enough).

But the real star of “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” is director Brad Bird himself. You’d think stepping outside the world of animation where he made “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille” and “The Iron Giant” would leave him at a spectacular disadvantage as what you can get away with in that realm of filmmaking does not necessarily translate as well to live action. But it’s clear Bird allows nothing to stand in his way in terms of what can be accomplished, and he comes up with one amazing action sequence after another.

The one sequence which needs to be acknowledged above others is when Cruise scales the outside of the Burj Khalifa tower, the tallest building in the world. The IMAX cameras give this moment a reality like no other, and that feeling of intense vertigo is hard to ignore. Seriously, I felt like I was outside of that building with Cruise as he climbed up it with nothing but suction gloves. If there is a more intense action sequence with a character hanging on for dear life from one of the world’s tallest buildings, it certainly didn’t come to mind while I watched this movie. I had trouble getting to sleep afterwards because that crazy stunt was still on my mind and would not let me be.

There’s about a half hour or so of footage shot in IMAX, and Bird makes use of this format to great effect. Aside from Cruise scaling the world’s tallest building, there’s a scene of the Kremlin exploding which literally takes your breath away. While many still complain of IMAX feeling like a rip off with its high ticket prices, it’s worth the extra money in a way 3D could only dream of being at this point.

“Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” is a big surprise as this franchise looked like it had already hit its peak to where another sequel seemed needless. But Cruise and company successfully revive it by giving us characters to care about and root for, and they outdo themselves with stunts even more amazing than what we saw previously. Regardless of what you may think of Cruise as a person these days (many of my friends can’t stand him), he still puts on a good show even as he grows visibly older. Just when you thought he was out, he pulls himself back in!

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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‘Ratatouille’ Awakens Your Taste Buds Like Few Movies Can

Ratatouille movie poster

Ratatouille” was written and directed by Brad Bird who also directed another Pixar movie, “The Incredibles,” which was one of the few movies made which actually lived up to its name. With this “Ratatouille,” we follow the story of Remy, a rat who ends up getting separated from his family and is washed away to where he ends up in Paris. The moment where he arrives and sees Paris is a truly brilliant scene of amazing imagery, and Pixar continues to outdo themselves in terms of this. The look of Paris is astonishing, and it had me wondering how the hell they managed to put this together. The wonder of movies still exists after all these years of cynical blockbusters, and I am ever so thankful for that!

Anyway, Remy ends up sneaking into a restaurant named after a famous cook, Auguste Gusteau (voiced by Brad Garrett), who has written a book entitled “Anybody Can Cook.” From there, he befriends a new employee named Linguini (voiced by Lou Ramano) who cannot cook to save his life. Through Linguini, Remy creates a system where he can make him cook the way he wants by pulling at his hair like he is a marionette while remaining hidden inside his hat.

Along the way, he infuriates the head chef of the restaurant who is busy selling off Gusteau’s name and likeness through frozen burritos which offers him the promise of becoming very wealthy. Linguini also meets Colette, the only female chef in the restaurant who makes it clear she is here to stay. All the other rats help Remy in a way which, if the restaurant patrons realized, would have had them running out of there at a relentless pace.

“Ratatouille” is filled with wonderful vocal characterizations which did not immediately have me thinking about the people who did them. At the time this movie was release, I was not familiar with either Patton Oswalt or Lou Romano who voiced Remy and Linguini. Both are very memorable characters who stand out among many others in animated movies. Remy himself is a genius creation who just might make you think twice about rat traps and poison. I am very tempted to go out right now and get a stuffed animal version of the character, and this is in large part thanks to Oswalt’s very enthusiastic performance.

For a while, I thought that Remy’s father Django was voiced by Jason Alexander. However, it turns out Brian Dennehy voiced this character, and he is wonderful in giving Django different layers and realizations to work with. The biggest surprise for me though was learning who voiced Colette Tatou, the restaurant’s only female chef – Janeane Garofalo. I didn’t even recognize Garofalo’s voice and thought it was Elizabeth Pena doing it with a very realistic French accent! Collette does look a bit like the character Pena voiced in “The Incredibles.” All the same, Garofalo does terrific work here, and it is so nice to see her doing something other than joking about her period.

The one voice I did recognize was Peter O’Toole’s who plays perhaps the harshest restaurant critic ever to walk the face of the earth, Anton Ego (a very symbolic name actually). His character becomes quite pivotal to the movie’s climax as the restaurant is forced to come up with a spectacular dish which will keep Mr. Ego from savaging the restaurant and its staff in a review.

Pixar continues their winning streak of great movies. Even if you were disappointed by “Cars” which really wasn’t bad, it was proof how even their weakest movies put so many other Hollywood movies to shame. They are to me what the Jim Henson’s Muppets were to me when I was a kid, creators of projects which appealed simultaneously to children and adults.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Tomorrowland’ is Imaginative, But it Also Feels Incomplete

Tomorrowland movie poster

Tomorrowland” is to Brad Bird as “Interstellar” was to Christopher Nolan, an opportunity for a well-regarded filmmaker to wear their heart on their sleeve and give us a motion picture which aims to inspire and lift us up from the cynical worldview we have grown accustomed to for far too long. But whereas Nolan found success with “Interstellar,” Bird comes up short with “Tomorrowland” as his love letter to all the dreamers out there becomes undone by a thin plot lacking in narrative drive.

Britt Robertson stars as Casey Newton, a highly optimistic and tech savvy teenager who lives in Cape Canaveral, Florida and gets into trouble while trying to save a launch pad from being demolished. In the process, she comes into contact with a “T” pin which takes her to a futuristic place where imagination is infinite and possibilities for a better world are endless. When the pin suddenly loses the power to take her to that place, she seeks out Frank Walker (George Clooney), an inventor who showed a lot of promise while living in Tomorrowland but was later banished from there when his work started to frighten people off. Together, they find their way back to this wondrous place and work to save it before it is forever destroyed.

Now I love how Bird has made a movie which encourages all the dreamers out there to keep on dreaming. Despite how dark the world can seem at times, his encouragement to those who want to use their imagination to make it a better place is commendable. Many will snicker at this optimism, but their snickering will end up saying more about them than it will Bird.

Having said that, “Tomorrowland” isn’t entirely sure of what it wants to say or how to say it, and it takes forever for the movie to get to where it needs to go. By the time we do make it back to the futuristic place, the movie has devolved into a typical good versus evil plot which robs it of any uniqueness it could ever hope to have. In this kind of movie, we know good will triumph over evil, so the stakes never feel very high as a result.

It’s a real shame because Bird gets things off to a fantastic start with the movie’s prologue which introduces us to Frank Waller when he was a young boy who gets invited into the magical world of Tomorrowland, and our imaginations are quickly aroused by what we see. Watching Frank discover a place that exceeded his wildest dreams had me thinking about when I was a child and where my imagination often took me, and it was a time where anything seemed possible. Now while we find ourselves trading fantasy for reality as we get older, I like to think I have not lost any childlike innocence after all these years and watching this part of “Tomorrowland” made me realize I have not.

But after the prologue is over, “Tomorrowland quickly becomes a film unsure of what tone it wants to set, and it devolves into a typical story of an optimistic teenager trying to get a broken-down adult to reignite their potential before everything goes to hell. Furthermore, we are introduced to a number of evil robots who aim to take Casey out with extreme prejudice, but it feels like they belong in a different movie. In the process of trying to balance out the darker elements with the lighter ones, “Tomorrowland” becomes a total mess.

I felt sorry for Clooney as he is forced to play a character who has long since become embittered about the sour lemons life has handed him. As a result, he gives one of his weakest performances to date as he is forced to take Frank Walker from a state of disbelief to one of true belief in a very unbelievable way. Clooney remains one of the most dependable actors working in movies, and if he can’t make a character like this work on the big screen then no one can.

“Tomorrowland” also has a scene with Clooney and other actors travelling to another dimension in a rocket, and this is bound to bring back bad memories “Batman & Robin” which had the Oscar-winning actor in a similar situation. I guess some bad movie memories can never be permanently erased.

Robertson makes for an appealing heroine as Casey, and she is one of the reasons why “Tomorrowland” works to a certain extent. Even as the movie suffers through its various flaws, she keeps us engaged as we root for her character to triumph over those who are far too quick to crush the wonder she has about life. Without her, this movie could have been worse.

When we do get to the end of “Tomorrowland,” the whole venture ends up feeling incomplete as the writers appear to be uncertain as to how to tie everything up. You could say the ending gives hope to all the dreamers out there, but it frustrates more than anything else as “Tomorrowland” feels like it ended sooner than it should have. Judging from this movie’s opening box office weekend, the odds of it getting a sequel are pretty bad.

It really sucks to give a movie like this a bad review. “Tomorrowland” has its heart in the right place and has some wonderful images, but its story seems stuck in stasis and lacks the imagination to really inspire us. Bird remains a gifted filmmaker and has directed a number of highly entertaining movies like “The Iron Giant,” “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille” and “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.” “Tomorrowland” marks his first directorial misfire, but I have no doubt he will be back on top before we know it. It’s just a shame he made a movie about wide-eyed optimism which was constructed in a half-hearted way.

I would also like to add this movie’s commercial failure made Disney cancel a third “Tron” movie. Blasphemy!

* * out of * * * *

‘Incredibles 2’ Was Well Worth the Wait

Incredibles 2 movie poster

I was beginning to think Pixar had made one too many sequels to their biggest hits, but now we have “Incredibles 2” which brings writer and director Brad Bird back into the Pixar fold as he continues the fantastic adventures of Bob and Helen Parr who try to balance out their crime-fighting ways with raising three kids, each who has their own unique super powers they are ever so eager to use. It is no surprise how this sequel is not as fresh or as inventive as its predecessor, but I am thrilled to say “Incredibles 2” proves to be just as much fun as the original, and it is a blast from start to finish.

It has been 14 years since “The Incredibles” was unleashed on us, but “Incredibles 2” begins just mere seconds after it ended with the Parr family doing battle with the Underminer who lays waste to their town while robbing the Metroville bank. They manage to thwart the Underminer’s dastardly plans, but in the process they leave a tremendous amount of damage in their path. Despite their goodwill in preventing many citizens from getting hurt, the police do not even try to contain their fury at these supers to where they flat out tell them it would have been better to let the bad guy get away as the bank are insured. Hmm, it kind of makes you think how the story might just reflect the state of our society today…

While attempting to do the right thing, the Parrs forgot that, in spite of their victories, supers are still illegal and have long since been forced to adhere to their secret identities. With this latest incident, the family has been forced to say at a motel as their home was destroyed, and they are informed by government agent and friend Rick Dicker (Jonathan Banks) that the “Super Relocation” program is being shut down permanently. Bob and Helen now have two weeks to figure out what they can do to support their family before they find themselves homeless and out on the street.

Their savior comes in the form of Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), a telecommunications tycoon who has been a big fan of superheroes since he was a child. Winston is intent on changing the public’s perception of supers with the help of his tech savvy sister Evelyn Deavor (Catherine Keener), and he chooses Helen to revive her superhero alter-ego of Elastigirl to make this happen. However, this leaves Bob, better known as Mr. Incredible, at a loss as he feels he should be the one to start things off, but Winston feels Elastigirl is a better choice as she does not leave the same path of destruction Mr. Incredible does on a regular basis. This ended up reminding me of what Al Powell told John McClane in “Die Hard 2” after McClane said he had a feeling about something:

“Ouch! When you get those feelings insurance companies start to go bankrupt!”

Seeing Helen/Elastigirl take center stage as the main superhero in “Incredibles 2” is a wonderful twist on the original when Bob/Mr. Incredible did his superhero thing while Helen stayed at home to look after the kids. With “Wonder Woman” having been a critical and commercial smash hit, lord knows we have been long overdue for female superheroes to take charge as this genre can no longer be considered a male dominated club. Holly Hunter returns to her role with great relish as she makes Helen/Elastigirl into a wonderfully realized human being who runs the gamut of emotions throughout, and the action sequences she is featured in puts those in so many live action movies rendered in this past year to utter shame.

It’s also great to have Craig T. Nelson back voicing Bob/Mr. Incredible, and hearing him here reminded me of the welcome presence he gave us in movies like “Poltergeist,” “All the Right Moves” and on the television series “Parenthood.” He does great work in making Bob’s heroic efforts in caring for his children by himself all the more palpable as he experiences sleep exhaustion any parent can relate to. Whether its desperately trying to understand how Dash’s teachers want him to do math in a completely different way from what he as taught or dealing with Violet’s descent into adolescence, Bob has more to deal with than any parent could ever expect, and having to handle so many real-life obstacles on your own has to be admired more than criticized.

This is Brad Bird’s first movie since “Tomorrowland” which proved to be a critical and commercial disappointment. After his phenomenal success with “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille” and “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” “Tomorrowland” was greeted with a lot of criticism to where it seemed like Bird lost his mojo, but every director has their failures, and we are always eager to see them make a comeback. With “Incredibles 2,” Bird shows us how quickly a filmmaker can recover from a cinematic failure as he raises the bar for the other movies to be released in the summer of 2018. When “The Incredibles” was released, the superhero genre was not at the same level of popularity it is at now, and this created challenges for any sequel destined to follow it. But Bird more than rose to the occasion as he has given us a sequel which is gloriously entertaining and full of heart.

I also have to say Jack Jack steals every scene he’s in here. Whereas we saw some of what Jack Jack was capable of in the first movie, his parents are only now discovering he has many superpowers. This makes Bob’s role as a parent more challenging as Jack Jack won’t stay still, refuses to fall asleep, and turns himself into an angry beast at the most inconvenient of moments. Even Lucius Best/Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) cannot maintain his cool self once he sees how this baby boy can make himself invisible and not easily detectable.

And yes, Bird reprises his brilliant character of Edna Mode, fashion designer to the supers who, in her first appearance, reveals herself to be infinitely perturbed to learn Elastigirl is wearing a suit not designed by her. Still, she becomes Bob’s savior when upon agreeing to babysit Jack Jack so he can for once get a decent night’s sleep. The bond she forms with this baby boy is a hilarious sight to take in as he is quick to mimic Edna’s every move, and it makes her appearance all the more delightful to take in.

I got to see “Incredibles 2” with a nearly sold out audience, and it reminded me of how much fun it is to watch a movie with so many enthusiastic people. You could complain at length about how this sequel doesn’t have the freshness of the original, but it would just take away from the fun it contains. I had a great deal of fun watching this long-awaited motion picture, and the rest of the audience clearly felt the same all the way through the end credits. Pixar still succeeds in making movies for audiences young and old, and I eagerly await an “Incredibles 3.” Of course, it would be nice to see it come out in less than 14 years.

* * * ½ out of * * * *