Film review – Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)

13 December 2011
Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol: Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise)

Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise)

Like the original film in the Mission: Impossible franchise, part four focuses more on the group dynamic of the Impossible Missions Force agents rather than solely on the Ethan Hunt character, played once more by Tom Cruise. Hunt is joined by fellow agents Jane Carte (Paula Patton) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), who previously appeared in the third film, and analyst William Brandt (Jeremy Renner). Forced to operate without any official support, the team have to stop the codes for a nuclear device falling into the wrong hands while on the run after being falsely accused of committing an act of terrorism.

This time the director is Brad Bird, continuing the franchise’s tradition of bringing in new directors to give each film a unique look and feel. Bird is making his live action directorial début after an extremely impressive background in animation, having worked on The Simpsons and then directing films such as The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille. Bird knows how to handle cinematic space, making full use of the film’s impressive IMAX sequences during scenes set in Budapest, Moscow and Mumbai. The middle section of the film takes place in Dubai, where the film truly excels, culminating in an exhilarating foot and then car chase through a sand storm. As perhaps a nod to Bird’s animation background, there is an early scenario that utilises a high tech version of the fake wall gag that Wile E Coyote often used to try to trick Road Runner.

The use of elaborate technology in the series somewhat functions in the way that superpowers or magic functions in fantasy films. Characters can achieve the unbelievable with the use of a super computer or some other extraordinary device, which in the real world seems absurd, but in the world of the film is part of the internal logic. Bird successfully inhabits the film with such technology with the right amount of tech speak to make the audience accept what is being seen without getting bogged down in the details. It also helps that most of the devices do have some grounding in the real world.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol: Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise)

Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise)

Most interesting about this latest Mission: Impossible film is the frequency in which technology fails at the critical moment. Far from being a lazy plot device, there is a strong theme of fallibility and unreliability of technology throughout the film allowing the action sequences to be inventive and surprising. This extends to the human characters who all have moments of hesitation and nervousness, and occasionally allow emotions to get in the way of their work. Even Hunt is less than enthusiastic when he realises he is going to have to scale the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. This results in a high level of improvisation by the characters throughout the film, making a much more engaging narrative than in the previous films.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is the best film in the franchise so far. The characters are likeable and developed, the scenarios are complex without feeling ridiculous and the action is engaging. This film will benefit from being seen in an IMAX cinema where some of the bigger set pieces will most effectively provoke gasps, especially during the Burj Khalifa scenes from anybody with even a mild degree of vertigo. The whole cast are excellent, especially Renner and also Pegg, who plays a character who has only recently begun fieldwork. Pegg effectively articulate the audiences’ wonder, excitement and delight over the film’s elaborate scenarios and gadgets. Cruise is still the star of the film, but much more part of an overall ensemble than previously, which may make him more palatable to non-fans. Regardless, he looks great running in a suit.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Paul (2011)

25 April 2011
Paul: Graeme Willy (Simon Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Nick Frost)

Graeme Willy (Simon Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Nick Frost)

Two English comic book fans on a UFO-sighting tour in America pick-up a smart-ass alien named Paul. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (who both also wrote the script) play the fans, Seth Rogen voices Paul and Greg Mottola (Superbad) directs. With so much reliable talent involved in this film it is extremely disappointing that it is only a mildly amusing comedy with a smattering of reasonably fun science-fiction references.

To be fair there are several supporting actors who provide some great moments to rise above the anal probe and ‘we’re not gay not that there’s anything wrong with that’ gags. Jason Bateman as a mysterious government agent and Kristen Wiig as a fundamentalist Christian discovering the joys of swearing are especially enjoyable.

The final act is reasonably strong but it’s too little too late. The film is overly reliant on Pegg’s, Frost’s and Rogen’s personas for laughs with none of them doing anything we haven’t seen before. There are some fun cameos and inspired moments suggesting how popular culture has been shaped by Paul’s presence on Earth, but this is overall a very average film.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 378, 2011

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)

2 December 2010

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn TreaderThe third film in The Chronicles of Narnia franchise, based on the 1950s children’s novel series by CS Lewis, continues the combination of Christian allegory with the childhood fantasy of escaping reality to a magical land where the child protagonists are heroic kings and queens. This time the characters are out at sea onboard the Dawn Treader and searching for lost lords, magical swords, townsfolk sold into slavery and an evil green mist.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader has let go of the less interesting older children characters, who can no longer enter Narnia, to make Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley) centre stage. As Edmund is now more mature and cooperative, he and Lucy’s cousin Eustace (Will Poulter) now joins them to take the role of the annoying and disruptive character who, like Edmund in the previous films, is potentially a liability. Unfortunately, Eustace is not only annoying for the other characters but his obnoxious young-Tory-in-the-making behaviour makes him pretty annoying for the audience too. However, as his character evolves he does form a touching friendship with the gallant mouse Reepicheep (voiced by Simon Pegg, taking over from Eddie Izzard) who is the film’s heart and soul.

Lewis’s notorious Christian subtext makes its most pronounced appearance at the end of the film when Aslan (Liam Neeson) the mystical lion pops up to remind us all that he is an all seeing entity that we know by another name in the real world. There is also a lot of discussion about the importance of belief and when Eustace is depicted as an object for contempt, he is aligned closely with intellectualism and pacifism – two traits that are rarely popular with conservative religious doctrine.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: Reepicheep (voiced by Simon Pegg) and Eustace (Will Poulter)

Reepicheep (voiced by Simon Pegg) and Eustace (Will Poulter)

While Lucy overcoming her jealously of her older sister’s good looks is briefly dealt with and then brushed aside, the most interesting element of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is how it deals with Edmund’s coming-of-age story. Psychoanalysts could have a field day reading into the way this film explores Edmund’s anxieties towards both his absent older brother and Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes), both alpha male rivals, and the ongoing threat posed by his subconscious desire for the White Witch (Tilda Swinton), a classic seductive/dangerous monstrous feminine if ever there was one. When Edmund’s worst fears are conjured up and made physical, the self-loathing and repressed results will delight Freudian theorists everywhere (hint: it’s not a marshmallow man). However, nothing compares to the way Eustace describes the transformation that delivers him into maturity: “It sort of hurt but it was a good pain”. Wow.

English director Michael Apted has taken over from New Zealand director Andrew Adamson to deliver a film that rattles along at a much more satisfying pace than Prince Caspian (2008) but still falls far short of the promise the franchise displayed in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005). The Voyage of the Dawn Treader feels firmly aimed at young audiences but that’s no excuse for including so much awkward dialogue that overstates the obvious. The action is decent and the film mostly looks impressive but the end result is a film that is merely serviceable in its ability to deliver an entertaining experience.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – Star Trek (2009)

27 April 2009
Spock (Zachary Quinto) and James T. Kirk (Chris Pine)

Spock (Zachary Quinto) and James T. Kirk (Chris Pine)

The plainly titled Star Trek is the eleventh film that has spun from the much loved science-fiction television series franchise. This new film depicts the origins of the original crew of the starship USS Enterprise who featured in the original 1966-1969 series and starred in the first 6 films. Resurrecting these characters was a risky venture as the original Star Trek series does come with the baggage of its questionable colonist politics, very questionable gender politics and an aesthetic that seems very kitsch by today’s standards. The good news is that this new film manages to keep a slightly retro look, which is more cool than camp, while combining it with an edgier visual style. The production design and handheld cinematography seems to owe much to the look of the recent Battlestar Galactica series, although it is not nearly as visually or thematically dark. The better news is that this new film has enough nods to the original series and films to keep the casual fans happy without compromising the degree in which non-fans will be able to enjoy it. Judging from the reaction of people dressed in Star Trek uniforms during the advance screening, there also seems to be a number of in-jokes and references to really delight the hardcore fans. Finally, the best news of all is that this new film is a wonderfully entertaining blend of melodrama, comedy, action and science fiction.

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Film review – Run Fatboy Run (2007)

25 March 2008

A comedy co-written and starring Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) and co-starring Dylan Moran (television’s Black Books) and Hank Azaria (various voices on The Simpsons) really should be a lot funnier than the disappointing Run Fat Boy Run. Pegg plays Dennis, an underachieving loser who ran off on his pregnant fiancée (Thandie Newton from The Pursuit of Happyness and Crash) on their wedding day. 5 years later he decides she is the love of his life and tries to win her back from her new fiancée (Azaria) by running the London marathon to prove his ability to commit to something.

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