Review: “Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation”

No school like the old school.

Much has been written about Tom Cruise’s stunt work in “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.”  Hell, if you’ve caught the trailer or poster — or any piece of marketing, really — you’ve seen him hanging off an airplane during takeoff.  And that’s how the film opens!

Rogue poster

Director and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie’s packs the fifth entry in the “Mission: Impossible” series with old school touches.  Beginning with the plane stunt and continuing to Joe Kraemer’s delicious big band score.  It sounds as though he took a page from John Barry’s Bond music from the 60s.  And maybe the “Mission: Impossible” TV series.  (Though aside from the main theme, I’m not especially familiar with the music for the show.)  

The movie’s standout setpiece, in a Vienna Opera House, is a loving nod to Alfred Hitchcock and “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”  I love how our understanding of the players, their motivations and allegiances develop throughout the sequence.  The power dynamics — who’s on top, who knows what —  are constantly in flux.  And it only benefits from the ongoing performance, the operatic music underscoring the action while our heroes and villains struggle to remain quiet.  It’s a marvel of suspense filmmaking.

Now you might be saying, “Okay, the action’s great, but how’s the plot?”

Well, you’ll notice I haven’t given a plot summary, and that’s because it follows a pretty well-trodden path — Ethan is looking to put a stop to an elusive criminal organization known as the Syndicate.  There are enough twists and turns (and yes, convolutions) to keep things interesting.

“And the characters?  Are they enough to sustain a full feature?”

They are.  Just enough.

Ethan is as doggedly determined as ever, which is not to say the character is without fear.  This is a critical element that gets us invested in his success.  Just because he can navigate these life threatening situations, doesn’t mean he wants to.  Simon Pegg’s Benji, an analyst, has a bit more zeal this time, as he wants to contribute beyond sitting at a desk and punching some buttons.  

simon pegg

But the MVP is newcomer Rebecca Ferguson.  She plays Ilsa Faust, an agent who might be working with the Syndicate.  Or maybe not.  Her motivations and whose side she’s on generate a lot of the movie’s non-setpiece pleasures.  And she handles the action and fights scenes with aplomb, doing a lot of her own stunts.

Seriously, if this woman isn’t the break out star of the year, I’ll strap myself to the outside of an airplane.

rebecca ferguson

A few have criticized the last act of “Rogue Nation,” calling it out for being not quite up to snuff.  When you open as spectacularly as this movie does, where do you go from there?  It’s a complaint I’m certainly sensitive to, I just don’t think it applies here.  Yes, the spectacle in the third act is dramatically reduced, but the emotional stakes are amplified. The character threads, specifically concerning Benji and Ilsa, come into play in spectacular fashion.

This film has something for all action fans.  Setpieces with enormous scale, intimate fights and riveting chases.  It’s absolutely a film to be appreciated on the big screen.  McQuarrie’s quick cutting communicates maximum velocity without ever sacrificing geography.  The stunt work, largely performed by our main cast, injects the film with authenticity and makes us root all the more for our characters. 

“Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation” is in theaters now.  Have you seen it?  What did you think?  Comment below.

Lists: Top 10 Horror Movies (Part 1 of 2)

With Halloween around the corner, I thought I would count down my top 10 favorite horror movies.  I’ve chosen to exclude “Jaws”, since it would just be too obvious a choice.  Truth be told, you’re gonna see a lot of horror’s usual suspects here, but hopefully there’ll be some surprises as well.  I should stress that these aren’t necessarily the scariest movies I’ve seen, just my favorites from the genre.

Fair warning: spoilers are known to haunt this post.

10.) “The Orphanage”

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“The Orphanage” doesn’t exactly re-invent the wheel.  It’s about a mother who returns to the facility that cared for her in her youth.  She and her husband plan to reopen it to help disabled children.  A ghostly wrench is thrown in their plans when their ill son goes missing.  There are a lot of familiar elements: a large and gloomy estate, imaginary friends that are so much more, and creepy, unsettling kids.  It functions just fine as a family drama — Belen Rueda is really strong as the mother who will stop at nothing — but it makes this list because it’s frankly one of the most frightening films I’ve seen.  Director J.A. Bayona constructs sequences that are all-timers.  It has two of the best jump scares: one involving a woman crossing the street and another the immediate aftermath.  Later, a medium wanders the orphanage at night, her committed performance is bolstered by glowing green eyes (thanks to infrared cameras) and eerie sound design.  Finally, a game of one-two-three-knock-on-the-wall is distressingly suspenseful as the camera leisurely shows us what we want (or don’t want) to see.

9.) “The Sixth Sense”

Sixth sense

With movies like “The Happening” and “The Last Airbender,” it’s easy to forget how strong a filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan once was.  I like “Unbreakable” and “Signs,” but it’s hardly controversial to say “The Sixth Sense” remains his masterpiece.  Everyone remembers the ending — and it’s wonderfully constructed — but this is so much more than a twist film.  We’ve got two compelling central characters: a young boy who sees ghosts and a child psychologist looking to make good after a traumatic event.  Shyamalan finds ways to visually tell the story, such as a series of P.O.V. shots as the boy moves to and from his psychologist during a game.  Then there’s that ending — turns out Bruce Willis’s traumatic event was fatal. The twist works on a number of levels.  First and foremost, it holds together.  The ending adheres to the rules that the movie laid out (convenient though they may be).  As opposed to other films with similarly slippery endings (“I’ve been dead the whole time,” “I made all these people up,” “It was all a dream”), our protagonist’s actions have real-world consequences.  Finally, it concludes his arc.  Having helped a child in need, he can peacefully depart.

8.) “The Exorcist”

exorcist

Everyone knows the story of “The Exorcist” — a young girl is possessed by the devil.  But actually I don’t find William Friedkin’s film to be that scary.  Sure, there are some chilling moments.  A priest’s vision of his deceased mother on the girl’s bed still gives me goosebumps, but the film succeeds as a character-based drama.  We learn early on that Father Karras, the priest charged with performing the exorcism, is suffering a crisis of faith.  And when he’s confronted with the devil…well, that’s the stuff of drama.  Actor Jason Miller is the heart of the movie, wearing Karras’s anger, sadness, and confusion in the lines on his face.  It’s a testament to the film that its third act is so compelling.  At face value, there’s nothing particularly spectacular about it:  one set, three actors, lots of yelling.  But thanks to the great character work, we’re completely invested.

7.) “Shaun of the Dead”

shaun_of_the_dead

The first feature-length collaboration between Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost is still the best.  Though I enjoy the hell out of “Hot Fuzz” and “The World’s End,” neither of those films manage as stunning a blend of comedy, drama and genre.  In “Shaun of the Dead,” the titular character is a young man stuck between adolescence and adulthood — the former embodied by his endearing yet childish roommate, Ed.  Amidst turmoil with his girlfriend, who would like Shaun to do something with his life, a zombie outbreak erupts.  The film is stunning in the way it has you laughing one minute and on the edge of your seat the next.  Check out a scene where Shaun’s stepfather turns into a zombie.  Shaun tells his mother, voice brimming with emotion, “There’s nothing left of the man you loved!”  His stepfather then promptly mutes a loud car stereo.  While the writing is tight and the performances are excellent, Wright has carefully crafted his story for the silver screen.  There’s an amusing cut of sorts where a drunk Shaun scribbles on his refrigerator then falls asleep in the kitchen.  The camera remains stationary, but through a quick lighting change — Boom! — it’s the next morning and Shaun hasn’t moved.

6.) “The Thing”

the-thing3

John Carpenter’s masterpiece — sorry “Halloween” fans — was not viewed particularly favorably upon its release.  Audiences in 1982 were looking for a close encounter of a warmer and fuzzier kind.  Paging “E.T.”  “The Thing” tells the story of a group of researchers in the Antarctic who stumble upon a shape-shifting alien with a penchant for assimilation.  There’s plenty of splatter here, thanks to Rob Bottin’s still stunning practical effects, but the real draw is the dread and paranoia that ensues from the creature’s arrival.  One great bit of tension comes from our protagonist, played by Kurt Russell, implementing a blood test to identify the creature.  Appropriately, the novella the film is based on is called “Who Goes There?”  So many of the film’s thrills come from our characters not knowing who to trust, and this may never be more potent than the film’s haunting final moments.

Stay tuned this Friday, Halloween, for my top 5 horror movies.  Comment below with some of your favorites!