Monday, December 19, 2011

Capsule reviews: Ghost Protocol, Groundhog Day

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011, Brad Bird)

Brad Bird leaves Pixar (temporarily I imagine) to film the next live action Mission Impossible spectacle. Tom Cruise returns as agent Ethan Hunt, although his is in something of a predicament at the start of the film, prisoner in a Russian penitentiary. The rest of the IMF team (Simon Pegg and Paula Patton) help him evade and are afterwards immediately tasked with infiltrating the Kremlin to retrieve some valuable missile launch codes which might be the apple of a terrorist's (Michael Nyqvist) eye. The mission is an utter disaster (see trailer), leaving IMF, now including Jeremy Renner, to go out on their own to stop the terrorist before, well, uses the codes to blow cities up. Crazy stuff in Mumbai and Dubai ensue.

Between the Seats shall never tell a lie: the Mission Impossible series, while absolutely blessed with moments of brilliance in each of its entries, is not a franchise we really love. It feels like James Bond but with the filmmakers adamant that everything has to be even more outrageous than in the world of 007, thus somehow proving that their series is better. Sorry, we're not biting. I think what the series lacks, with the exception of the very first film, are great villains. Michael Nyqvist (of Swedish Girl With the Dragon Tattoo fame) is a solid actor who knows how to have some fun with his role as the terrorist Cobalt, but honestly, stolen Russian nuclear missiles? Are we not past that sort of plot line? Wasn't that the sort of event that propelled early 1990s action movies when the current Russian era was young and terrorists were taking advantage of the new, uncertain geopolitical status? This is 2011...We also don't see much of Cobalt, so for the most part he feels like an after thought. In fact, the whole plot feels like an afterthought for the truth of the matter is, a mere 4 days after seeing this movie, I don't remember why the IMF team went to the various exotic locations their mission took them. Maybe it wasn't even important, I don't know.

All that being said, the film still manages to go a good action movie, if mostly for, a) the action, and b) the cast playing the protagonists. Director Bird utilizes the IMAX format to the fullest extent possible. There are moments that inspire awe for how impressively massive they are. It isn't just a matter of the picture being larger than in regular cinema, it is what Bird chooses to put into the frame and how he moves his camera that makes the moments fantastic. The sequence that makes the trailer so cool, the one when Hunt has to climb a building in Dubai from the outside? It lives up to expectations. The second aspect is the cast of heroes, which is good. Cruise can say whatever batshit crazy things he wants to in interviews, he has incredible charisma on screen. Pegg provides some welcome comedic moments, Paula Patton, an actress I wasn't at all familiar with, gives a nice performance (her character is given an okay back story) and Jeremy Renner is as good as he usual is, which is very. The film goes for some emotional moments near the end, and unfortunately they don't mesh well with the tone of everything that precedes them, but all in all Ghost Protocol is a fun time. Just don't expect to remember much a few days afterwards. 

Groundhog Day (1993, Harold Ramis)

This was playing on MPIX HD (yes, there was an upgrade at my home recently) on Saturday morning and, having not seen the film in some years, I decided to sit through most of it. Bill Murray plays Phil, terribly grumpy, self aggrandizing weather man for a Pittsburgh news station who is sent out with his small crew to cover the groundhog day festivals in a small town outside of the big city. Neither his camera man (Chris Elliot) or editor (Andie MacDowell) find their star to be least bit pleasant. In fact, they are often the target of his snide remarks. However, Phil is about to receive a lesson in humility when, for unexplained reasons, he keeps living the same groundhog day over, and over, and over, and over...

There are at least a few great things about this Harold Ramis and Bill Murray 90s classic. The most obvious one is the actor at the center of it all. There was a time when Bill Murray could carry a comedy with an uncanny effortlessness, almost in a literal sense. There is a relaxed nature to his vintage performances that have never been replicated since. What's more, his character were often sarcastic and snarky, which made the performance all the better, because of playing it up, he'd actually play it down. It is as if he is not putting that much effort into it, and that is exactly why he is such a memorable comedic actor. It also makes the moments when he does play things up even funnier (such as the second time he engages in the snowball fight with the local kids and yells out how much he wants to be a dad and adopt them) The other terrific aspect to Groundhog Day is of course the structure of the story. While it might appear clear as daylight to anyone why Phil is condemned to relive the same day over and over again, there is something to be said about the fact that the director never explicitly provides the answer. In essence, it is up to both Bill Murray and the viewer to find out what's going on and how he can how he can escape his fate, which is a very smart move on the part of the filmmakers. The journey itself is plenty of fun, filled with the right touches of comedy but also heartfelt moments. After a while, Phil does begin to change his ways in a genuine manner, but not enough to escape this bizarre vortex, which leads to a really, really touching scene with Andie MacDowell. Definitely a must for Murray fans who might have overlooked this one.

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