Paramount Pictures’ Mission: Impossible franchise is a rare phenomenon. Few film series based on properties as old as it is have retained such relevance in the modern movie market and few take as long a break in between installments making each new entry a highly anticipated event. Such is the case with Ghost Protocol the fourth in fifteen years starring Tom Cruise as super-agent Ethan Hunt. Adding to the hoopla surrounding the holiday release is the fact that it marks the live-action directorial debut of Brad Bird the Pixar wunderkind responsible for Oscar-winning hits The Incredibles and Ratatouille. Unfortunately I feel that the animation auteur had too much to prove in his first physical outing and tried a bit too hard to thrill resulting in a film that plays more like John Woo’s over-the-top M:I:II than Brian de Palma’s suspenseful original.
The plot essentially kicks off when a bomb blasts a hole the size of a football field in the Kremlin (Russia’s most important government facility) while Hunt and his team of IMF agents (Paula Patton and Simon Pegg) attempt to extract a nuclear detonation device from the fortress before a mysterious figure known only as Cobalt can get to it first. The problem: Cobalt has gotten to it first and frames Hunt and company for the bombing causing the U.S. President to enact "Ghost Protocol " which disbands the IMF and disavows its soldiers. Knowing that the theft of the device and a batch of codes that enable it to be used prior to this event means that Cobalt surely intends to start World War III the agents go rogue to retrieve the components and bring the terrorist to justice.
Like the fore mentioned bomb blast Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec’s script is devastating leaving scattered pieces of information all over the place and making it hard for the story to truly find its footing. Expository plot points are dropped in way after they’re needed or wanted messing with the pace of the movie on more than one occasion. Perhaps their biggest crime is crafting a lame villain with little presence in the picture. After the intensity that Phillip Seymour Hoffman brought to his antagonist in M:I:III Michael Nyqvist’s quiet and composed Hendricks just isn’t convincing enough as a true threat. On the other hand Bird’s direction is anything but composed.
While his use of IMAX cameras is quite breathtaking when filming the much-publicized Burj Khalifa climb and other notable set pieces as stated before his approach to the material seemed to be “let’s make every action sequence as ludicrous as we can.” I realize that MIGP is a holiday blockbuster designed to get audiences blood pumping but I’ve always found that action films work best when they operate (mostly) within the confines of reality. That’s clearly not the case here where Hunt drives perfectly through a blinding sandstorm without causing much collateral damage and nosedives a Volkswagen off of a 30-foot drop and lives to save the day.
Still it’s all in the name of fun and he does manage to create an entertaining dynamic between his IMF agents. Patton is totally passable as Jane Carter an agent seeking revenge for the murder of her cohort and apparent beau Hanaway (Josh Holloway) while Pegg returning as Benji the tech-geek from the preceding film has been promoted to field agent and is without question the movie’s saving grace. Though his comic relief is relied heavily upon it’s absolutely welcomed. The biggest surprise is Jeremy Renner who was supposedly brought in to take the reigns of the franchise but is pretty stale as Brandt. He never elevates his character to the level of coolness that Cruise has maintained throughout the years and doesn’t provide anything significant other than assistance. Given the talent that we all know he possesses his negligible contribution was a bigger let down than the film itself.
Clay Beresford (Hayden Christensen) has it all: wealth power good looks and a gorgeous fiancée Sam (Jessica Alba). Unfortunately he’s also got a weak heart and it’s only a matter of time before circumstances compel him to go under the knife. Although given anesthesia during the operation Clay is still able to feel pain and hear the doctors around him a situation made infinitely worse when he comes to realize that he is the victim of a nefarious conspiracy to bilk him of his fortune. He’s worth much more dead than alive but to whom? Clay’s (semi-)out-of-body experience allows him--and the film--to travel backwards in time as he tries to piece together clues to the conspiracy that now holds him in its power. The medical aspects of the story are dicey at best but the intent of this sort of film is to try and fool the audience with each plot twist. It’s essentially a whodunit in reverse. Awake’s got a great cast with everyone (except Christensen) occupying the role of red herring at one time or another--and clearly having a good time chewing up the scenery. Christensen’s the straight man here a role he fills with a relaxed charisma and a good amount of empathy. Alba looking absolutely dynamite is the sort of fiancée that any red-blooded male would risk a coronary for. If looks could kill Alba would knock ‘em dead--which just might be a hint or still another red herring. The surgical team includes such reliable stalwarts as Terrence Howard Fisher Stevens (also an executive producer of the film) and Christopher McDonald--many of whom have played heavies before all the better to try and fool the viewer. Lena Olin no slouch in the beauty department herself is cast to type as Clay’s over-protective mother. It’s a role she could play in her sleep but Olin’s far too resourceful an actress not to bring a little something extra to the party. Awake marks the feature debut of writer/director Joby Harold who overreaches from time to time with the twists but who’s always in there swinging. Awake may be far-fetched sometimes to the point of absurdity but it’s not a lazy film. Harold also has the added bonus of Oscar-winning cinematographer Russell Carpenter on his team who brings a great visual sense to the film. The hospital scenes filmed at Bellevue are appropriately clammy and creepy--which really lend suspense to the proceedings as silly as they sometimes are. It’ll be interesting to see what Harold next has up his sleeve. Awake is very reminiscent of the B-movies of yesteryear preying on a common fear--in this case surgery--and attempting to milk it to maximum effect. It doesn’t add up to a whole lot but it’s not bad.
As the fifth year at Hogwarts begins most of the wizardry world is having a hard time believing Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has returned further propagated by the Ministry of Magic who refuses to recognize anything evil is brewing and blames all the hullabaloo on Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). The Ministry even interferes with Hogwarts business by making Ministry employee Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor whose outwardly sweet demeanor hides a sadistic streak a mile wide. She thinks the children should only learn about the Dark Arts “theoretically” and tortures all those who disagree. But the Voldemort threat is a reality and Dumbledore has re-formed the Order of the Phoenix a group of witches and wizards that prepares to battle the Dark Lord. Harry is unfortunately being kept in the dark for his protection of course even as his connection to Voldemort grows stronger and he’s royally peeved at being ignored. Urged on by Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) he forms his own order of Hogwarts students called Dumbledore’s Army to teach them what defenses against the Dark Arts he has already learned. Oh yeah Harry also shares his first kiss but make no bones about it—love is the furthest thing on Harry’s mind when the crap hits the fan. War is imminent. Everyone steps up their game in Order of the Phoenix. Radcliffe Watson and Grint have shed their adolescent whininess and aw-shucks goofiness to give their characters the greatest depth so far. They are forced to grow up pretty quickly in Order with little time for any playfulness and the three actors handle the seriousness with aplomb. Of course both Radcliffe and Grint have already ventured out of the Potter world—Radcliffe shed more than just adolescence on stage in a production of Equus while Grint lost his virginity in the indie Driving Lessons--and their extra experience shows in Order. Also good are Matthew Lewis as the usually clumsy Neville Longbottom who shows his mettle in more ways than one and newcomer Evanna Lynch as the slightly off-kilter Luna Lovegood who proves to be a loyal member of Dumbledore’s Army. But the kids have to keep up with the talented adult cast especially Oscar-nominated Staunton (Vera Drake) as Umbridge. The veteran actress’ interpretation of one of J.K. Rowling’s nastiest characters so far in the Potter lore is spot-on down to the pink wool suits and irritating twitter “ahem” she uses when she wants your undivided attention. Helena Bonham Carter also makes an impression however over the top it is as the evil Voldemort follower Bellatrix Lestrange. Does she ever want to look pretty onscreen? Then there’s the laundry list of Brits whose time onscreen may be short but is nonetheless memorable including Alan Rickman as the sneering Prof. Snape; Gambon as the wise but flawed Dumbledore; Gary Oldman as the kindly Sirius Black Harry’s only real family; and of course Fiennes as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. His late-in-the-game appearance once again throws you for a loop. It stands to reason that at five movies in moviegoers would have a favorite Harry Potter flick by now. Those who love those Triwizard Tournament special effects might feel The Goblet of Fire was the best; or Prisoner of Azkaban for its time-bending action. Yet The Order of the Phoenix may be the one movie that speaks directly to the fans of the books. Without as much wide-eyed wonderment or wizardry flash the story is still chockfull of compelling details that are absolutely pivotal to the continuing Harry Potter saga. Screenwriter Michael Goldenberg (Peter Pan) and director David Yates (HBO’s The Girl in the Café) manage to wade through this volume of information and cut successfully to the chase with great effect. Yates who has signed on to do the sixth movie Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince even shows an affinity for action in the final dramatic confrontation between good witches and wizards and bad ones. But overall Order of the Phoenix may leave audiences not as well-versed in the novels a little itchy for some good old-fashioned wand-waving and Disney special effects. Thing is it’s just going to keep getting darker and darker for Harry and his crew. The days of happy fun playtime are over.
Maid in Manhattan is yet another take on the Cinderella story. There are very few surprises but the film is still somewhat enjoyable despite its predictable setup. Cinderella aka Marisa Ventura (Jennifer Lopez) is a hardworking no-nonsense single mom who loves her son Ty (Tyler Posey) and dreams of breaking out of her job as a maid at a five-star hotel in Manhattan. Her Fairy Godmother aka co-worker Stephanie (Marissa Matrone) unwittingly gives her that chance when she convinces Marisa to try on some expensive clothes left in a suite by the Evil Stepsister aka spoiled socialite Caroline Lane (Natasha Richardson) while they're cleaning. In walks Prince Charming aka Christopher Marshall (Ralph Fiennes) an incredibly handsome U.S. senator candidate and the city's most eligible bachelor and Boom! sparks fly. Chris thinks Marisa is the expensive suite's occupant--and she's too overwhelmed by the domino effect that happens to tell him different. Ah what a tangled web love at first sight can weave. Marisa spends the rest of the movie trying to cover up her error in judgment while also becoming increasingly drawn to her prince. Will he find out who she really is? Of course. Will it matter in the end? Of course not.
This may have been created as another vehicle to help further propel the career of actress/singer/designer/fiancee to Ben Affleck J. Lo but unexpectedly someone else comes out of the film looking better--Fiennes. It's little hard even for Jenny on the Block to outshine an Oscar-nominated actor. He elevates the formulaic subject matter and portrays a pretty down-to-earth Prince Charming without us ever seeing a forced move. I'm curious as to why such a high-caliber actor would choose such a run-of-the-mill project like this but whatever the reason he makes it work--at least for his part. Lopez doesn't do anything out of the ordinary. In fact it looks like she may have simply cloned the same expressions she put on in her other successful romantic comedy The Wedding Planner. And unfortunately Lopez and Fiennes don't share the same kind of heat she shared in that film with Matthew McConaughey or even George Clooney in Out of Sight (still her best performance to date). Yet they manage to convey a fair amount of good feelings to make the movie palatable. Richardson has a blast playing the rich bitch Caroline while Matrone making her film debut just comes off as annoying and pushy even if she thinks she's doing the right thing. Thank goodness she is because if things had turned out badly it would be in Marisa's best interest to go out and shoot her. Stanley Tucci as Christopher's watchdog campaign manager and Bob Hoskins as a senior-level butler at the hotel both do the best they can with silly parts.
Maid in Manhattan relies so heavily on the been-there-done-that Cinderella formula it becomes one of those romantic comedies you'll end up waiting to watch on cable one Saturday night rather than paying to see in a movie theater. It's really a shame because director Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club) had some interesting elements to play with and lots of acting talent to back it up. Perhaps Lopez could have played Marisa more wacky than so serious maybe try to show some comic ability. It would be a nice change of pace to think out of the box for once--what if the lovestruck pair didn't get together in the end? (I know the film would have fallen flat on its face.) But instead Maid wallows in predictability and implausibility. Christopher falls a little too hard and a little too fast for reality. Also it's hard to believe a maid would have access to all the hotel's amenities as Marisa does--borrowing a Harry Winston diamond necklace from the hotel jewelry store for the gala event? Unlikely to say the least. The only aspect of the film that stands out is the sneak peek you get into the inner workings of a top-notch hotel. It's definitely a world you don't get to see very often.