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.
As its title suggests Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes is intended to lay the foundation for a new franchise of sci-fi flicks in which humans and super-intelligent apes battle for earthly supremacy. Its duty then is to explain within the span of two hours and with a modicum of credulity how exactly our simian friends might come to supplant us atop the animal kingdom. The scenario was at least partially addressed in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes the fourth entry in the original series’ convoluted and time-warped canon and while Wyatt's film draws inspiration from Conquest it is by no means a remake. Nor for that matter is related in any way to Tim Burton’s underwhelming 2001 entry. (And thank goodness for that.)
The titular rise begins as with many of the world’s great catastrophes with the actions of one highly irresponsible man. Will Rodman (James Franco) is a genetic scientist of prodigious talent and questionable ethics who works at a fancy San Francisco biotech firm called Gen-Sys (subtle!). His effort at producing a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease carries an ulterior motive: His father (John Lithgow) suffers from it and is close to entering its final stages. Will is close to a breakthrough when one of his chimpanzee test subjects goes well apesh*t causing his company’s suitably callous CEO Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo gamely spewing lines like “I run a business not a petting zoo!") to order the research facility’s entire chimp population liquidated.
Will is busy carrying out the grim mandate when he discovers that one of the test chimps has borne an offspring one he can’t bring himself to euthanize. Instead he and his primatologist girlfriend Caroline (Frieda Pinto gorgeous and superfluous) partners in appallingly bad decision-making decide to raise the infant chimp as their own naming it Caesar. Having inherited his mother’s gene modifications he shows signs of advanced intelligence and quickly develops a close bond with his adoptive human parents. But Caesar soon outgrows his domestic habitat and eventually must be shipped off to a simian “sanctuary” that is in reality anything but.
At this point we’re halfway through the film – and miles away from erudite apes and enslaved humans. To get us on track director Wyatt executes a rather audacious tonal shift transitioning abruptly from what was heretofore a fairly sober Project Nim dramatization into the balls-out apes-gone-wild summer action flick promised by the film’s trailers. His efforts are aided tremendously by his screenwriters Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa whose clever absorbing script offers just enough plausibility in the first half to make its increasingly loony second half not just palatable but downright enjoyable. Wyatt strikes a delicate thematic balance respecting the subject matter while acknowledging its inherent silliness. (Scattered throughout the film are sly nods to previous Planet of the Apes films as well as a glimpse of Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments.)
The silliness accelerates seemingly by the frame in Rise’s latter half as Caesar mounts a conspiracy to escape his Dickensian squalor exact revenge upon his cartoonishly malevolent captors and take his simian revolution to the streets. And it only gets crazier from there – the third act is basically a PETA wet dream. As far as cautionary tales go Rise is about as cautionary as they come.
Andy Serkis who performed all of the performance-capture work for Caesar is a marvel in the role though the question remains as to how the credit should be divvied up between him and the technicians at WETA digital who “painted” the character’s CG features. And make no mistake Caesar is very much a character – as well-rounded and fully-formed and convincing as they come and easily more compelling than any of his non-digital counterparts. Franco for his part is credible enough as a scientist who in spite of his academic credentials is a bit of a dolt (and perhaps a tad disturbed) and Lithgow tackles a relatively thankless role with grace. But the real stars are all those damn dirty apes.
Kids' movies may be the most difficult cinematic mountains to climb. The filmmakers must cater to two perspectives at constant odds with one another: young ones who find amusement in simplistic stories and broadly painted humor and their parents who need enough of a grounded hook emotional core and clever jokes to keep them from nodding off. Not an easy task.
To see this winning combination pulled off by a 3-D animation/live-action hybrid adaptation of a rather irritatingly sweet cartoon from the '80s…well it's both a shocking and welcome surprise. The Smurfs transcends recent property-grabs like Garfield Alvin and the Chipmunks and Marmaduke by embracing the cartooniness relishing in the fact that it can get away with anything with the help of adorable little blue people.
Smurfs takes the model employed by 2007's Enchanted kicking things off in the colorful fantasy world of Smurf Village and quickly bringing its cheery clueless characters to the terrifying metropolis of New York. After Clumsy Smurf accidentally leads the Smurf-obsessive Gargamel (Hank Azaria) to the hidden mushroom haven of his brethren the bumbling black sheep of the Smurf family finds himself and a few clan members Papa Brainy Grumpy Gutsy Smurfette at the wrong end of a Blue Moon-induced worm hole. The group (along with Gargamel and his cat) find themselves face-planted in NYC's Central Park where they meet Patrick Winslow (Neil Patrick Harris) yes man to the cosmetic titan Odile. This sets the race in motion—the Smurfs enlisting the help of Patrick to find a way back home Patrick seeking the perfect ad campaign for Odile's new make-up line and Gargamel questing hungrily for a few drops of Smurf essence.
If Smurfs was simply a barrage of fart jokes and pop culture references the movie wouldn't click but by giving each of his characters something to do (seems obvious no?) director Raja Gosnell injects the film with a helpful dose of heart. Along with Clumsy's quest to be more than his name insists Harris' Patrick also has his own problems to overcome. Namely preparing to be a Papa Smurf to the kid he's about to have with his wife Grace (Glee's Jayma Mays). Harris and Mays take their roles here seriously going all out when they need to chase the adventurous Smurfs around town in one slapsticky sequence after another but they put just as much into their smaller scenes. One moment where Papa Smurf sits Patrick down for a "Dad talk" even has weight—a near impossible task for a "kids" movie.
But let's not get too sappy: the movie is funny plain and simple. Azaria makes a living bringing cartoon characters to life—he's a reason why The Simpsons has been on for more than 20 years—and his goofy Gargamel antics are inspired. A recurring gag where the evil wizard continually steps through ventilation steam grates probably read fine on paper but Azaria knows how to play big and doesn't allow any moment of physical comedy to lazily fall through the cracks. On the flip side Harris nails the straight man role and acknowledges that hanging out with Smurfs is just as bizarre as you'd imagine. Think The Brady Bunch Movie for the world of animation.
With solid kids' flicks becoming a rare occurrence Smurfs is a breath of fresh air a film that believes in its own simple message while simultaneously being self-aware of its cartoonish heritage. The movie's a smurfy good time but it takes a particularly smurfy Smurf to let go of cynical baggage and smurf it.
Oh where to begin the insanity? Let’s start with a serial killer breaking into two young women’s apartment killing one of them but getting scared off before he can finish off the other one. At the trial of Jon Forster (Neal McDonough) the possible serial killer testimony from celebrated forensic psychiatrist Dr. Jack Gramm (Al Pacino) sends the guy to the gas chamber--even though the lone witness didn’t get a clear look and all the other evidence is circumstantial. Jump to nine years later when Gramm is still celebrated--mostly by the females in his life including a few of his college students (Alicia Witt Leelee Sobieski) the dean of the college (Deborah Kara Unger) and especially his loyal assistant (Amy Brenneman). But Gramm’s cushy life is turned upside down when a woman he knows is found murdered by what looks to be the same serial killer Gramm thought he put away. Did the wrong man get accused? Oh and Gramm also receives a phone call that he has 88 minutes to live. Bad day for Gramm. Bad movie-going experience for us all. Al buddy what were you thinking? At least the over-the-top Pacino plays it to the hilt as only he can. His requisite screaming scene for example has his Gramm trying to “get into the head” of Forster (played by McDonough with all the malevolence he can muster) by yelling all his dialogue at him so the convict will crack. Right. The real kicker is Gramm describing his little sister’s murder years ago his voice cracking with emotion. It doesn’t even come close to sincerity. Pacino is also supported by a bevy of recognizable actresses who probably took the job just to work with the actor but who shouldn’t count this one on their resumes. Witt is reduced to playing wide-eyed terror as she follows Pacino around on his quest to find out who’s threatening him while Sobieski mostly moons over the professor. The usually good Brenneman’s super-assistant delivers all of Gramm’s CRAZY requests with much calm and precision. But all these women seem to have some kind of ulterior motive so which one has it in for the good doctor? I won’t tell. Director Jon Avnet whose best known for helming Fried Green Tomatoes and Red Corner does a fair enough job. There are enough jumps and starts to at the very least keep the action going. No truly the most laughable part of the film is the script by Gary Scott Thompson (The Fast and the Furious). From the moment Gramm gets the threatening phone call to how the killer can find him anywhere anytime with any communication device--none of it makes sense. You can’t even suspend disbelief just for a moment. And the dialogue? Wow. Thompson must have pilfered from all the bad thriller/cop/serial killer movies ever made. Rumor has it 88 Minutes was slated to go directly to DVD but somehow got the green light for a theatrical release. Let’s hope Al Pacino didn’t push for it--that would just be sad.