Thursday, May 31, 2012

Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol

Director: Brad Bird
Starring: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Paula Patton, Michael Nyqvist, Anil Kapoor, Lea Seydoux, Josh Holloway, Tom Wilkinson
Running Time: 135 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

The fourth film in the Mission: Impossible series and highest grossing movie of Tom Cruise's career, Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol, is by far the strongest installment in the franchise. And by a wide margin. Had I seen it in a packed theater on opening weekend with an enthusiastic audience and in all its IMAX glory, it's likely I would have been even more taken with it. Watching an action spectacle like this in the comfort of your home for a lesser, but more relaxing and cheaper experience. It's also a reminder that at the end of the day it's still a Mission: Impossible movie. But boy is it a good one. It's relentless, with non-stop action crisply presented by director Brad Bird in a manner that makes sense and engages you in the fate of all the characters, many of whom are actually interesting this time.

Holding everything together is the underrated Cruise, who pulls out all the stops and should be commended for doing things few actors any age who aren't trained stuntmen would even consider attempting. The media can call him crazy, but they'd a much tougher time arguing he doesn't care about his work or that he's ever phoning it in. After the dreadful Knight and Day, everyone was ready to write him off for about the tenth time in his career. But he keeps coming back. Why? Because he's really good at what he does. Now he's resurrecting a franchise that went on autopilot a while ago with a fourth film where nothing's on autopilot. It's definitely on Cruise control, and the results are surprisingly satisfying this time.

Cruise returns as IMF agent Ethan Hunt, successfully freed from a Moscow prison by agents Jane Carter (Paula Patton) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) in an extremely inventive opening prison break sequence. Their assignment is to infiltrate the Kremlin and locate files linking a mysterious Swede code-named "Cobalt" (Michael Nyqvist) to the intended detonation of a nuclear bomb. But when the Kremlin is attacked and Ethan and his team are suspected, the President activates "Ghost Protocol," which officially disavows the IMF. Unofficially, the mission to stop and find Cobalt continues with the help of seemingly inexperienced intelligence expert William Brandt (Jeremy Renner). The team now must obtain the nuclear activation codes in order to stop an attack on the U.S., assuming the authorities don't get to Ethan first.

Like all M:I movies the plot is rather complicated, but beside the point. For the first time though that seems like a good thing since there are so many impressive action sequences and set pieces there's hardly time to catch your breath and remember there is a plot, mainly because director Brad Bird invisibly advances it with each thrilling scene. Obviously, the big sequence everyone's been talking and the selling point for the entire film is Cruise's scaling of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, which due to the camera work, is almost as vertigo-inducing for the audience as it likely was for the actor. It's rare a film stunt is so daring and visually impressive that an entire movie is sold on it, but in this case it's more than justified. It really does look as amazing as you've heard, and that's coming from someone who only saw it on the small screen. What been overlooked are the circumstances that get Hunt up there and the story surrounding it, which doesn't all feel like merely an excuse to include a showy scene. There's a clever reason for it, as could be argued for all the action sequences, which never let up and serve specific functions for the story. A sand storm chase, a hotel room brawl between Patton's character and a deadly French assassin (Lea Seydoux), and a climactic showdown over the launch device in an automated parking garage. Unlike most other mainstream action films, none of this is hard to follow and whatever CGI is used adds rather than distracts from what's happening. Watching, you'd never be able to tell that The Incredibles and Ratatouille director Brad Bird hadn't ever released a live action film prior to this. It turns out he's really great at it . 

They really found the perfect team to support Cruise this time, as I have problems even remembering who Hunt's IMF team members were in the previous two films aside from Ving Rhames (who briefly cameos here). There's no such issue this time around as this group has real chemistry together. Simon Pegg provides the comic relief while Paula Patton is given the most purposeful female role yet in an M:I film, knocking it out of the park as a tough-as-nails agent who isn't relegated to being just arm candy for her co-star. Jeremy Renner has the least challenging role of the four as the intelligence expert who may not be exactly who he seems, but he's excellent in it. A sub-plot with a twist involving he and Cruise's character has a surprising payoff that deepens the backstory considerably without feeling thrown in. Any Lost fans hoping to see a meaty big screen supporting part for Josh Holloway will be disappointed since the role's far smaller than you'd expect, though a (weak) argument could be made that it's important. At least he's on screen a bit longer than Tom Wilkinson, who makes more of a mark with his limited time as the panicked IMF Secretary. Slumdog Millionaire's Anil Kapoor delivers an entertainingly sleazy turn as a rich Indian playboy not too far removed from his sleazy game show host in that film, but played for laughs.

Supposedly, upcoming Bourne Legacy star Jeremy Renner is being primed to take over the M:I franchise from Cruise whenever he decides it's time to hang it up but based on the evidence here, no one should be in a hurry to do that. Even pushing fifty there's no reason Cruise can't continue doing this for a little while longer and as strong as Renner was in a supporting role, his character isn't really established enough to be the main draw yet. Cruise's charisma and willingness to go all out is a huge reason why this installment ended up as such a success, even if the public seems unwilling to give him credit for it. Or at least ADMIT that they're giving him credit for it, since box office numbers don't lie.  While I agree he should probably be channeling his energy toward more character-driven, age-appropriate material at this point, if he continues along the action route we can only hope the movies remain as smart and entertaining as this one. This isn't a game-changer or worth frequently revisiting, but the over 2 hour running time felt more like 10 minutes, which is exactly what every mainstream action movie should aim for. If a filmmaker found a way to somehow harness the elements of this, Haywire and X-Men: First Class into one feature they'd have the perfect James Bond movie. Ghost Protocol actually seems like it needed to be seen in theaters to be fully appreciated. And anyone who did probably got their money's worth, which in this day and age, isn't faint praise.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Breaking Bad (Seasons 1-4)

Creator: Vince Gilligan
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte, Bob Odenkirk, Giancarlo Esposito, Jonathan Banks 
Original Airdate: 2008-2011

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

There's a moment that arrives toward the end of Breaking Bad's fourth season when underachieving high school chemistry teacher turned crystal meth cook Walter H. White (Bryan Cranston) receives devastating news. The news is so bad, the person delivering it so clueless, and its ramifications so potentially catastrophic, it almost seems like a cruel joke. Basically every character on the show, including him, could die because of it and we don't hesitate for a second thinking the writers would do that without even blinking to service the story. Wherever rock bottom is he's officially hit way below that. Laying helpless and defeated on the floor in a fetal position, he starts crying. Only he's not crying. He's laughing. And that totally makes sense. There's nothing else left to do. It's the defining moment, and every piece of the puzzle and plot twist and turn the series has taken since the pilot episode aired in 2008 has been leading up to it.

Opening title card
Even the most successful series have creative peaks and valleys. AMC's Breaking Bad is just one huge peak with each season gaining momentum and the stakes growing higher. 46 episodes and not a stinker to be found, or a single minute that feels false or insignificant. We keep hearing we're in a golden age of television with just the past few years bringing us acclaimed dramas such as The Wire, Mad Men, Lost, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, Homeland, The Walking Dead and Dexter. Going back further to what kick started it all you could include The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The X-Files and Twin Peaks. The list goes on and on. I've seen most, but not all. It's definitely been a fruitful 25 years for television, but this takes its much deserved spot atop that list. Creator Vince Gilligan has really crafted a modern classic here, confirming rumors that TV has indeed surpassed movies. But I didn't believe it until watching this, which pushes the medium to places it's never been. Mind-blowing from start to finish, it's one of the greatest television dramas of all-time.  

Faced with a terminal lung cancer diagnosis, mild-mannered science teacher Walter White tags along with his DEA agent brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) on a meth lab bust, leading to an encounter with former student and drug addict Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). Soon Walt and Jesse team up with Walt realizing that cooking and selling crystal meth will financially provide for his pregnant wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and disabled teenage son Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte) after he's gone. By only description, the thought of a normal, middle-class Albuquerque suburbanite dealing drugs might sound like something from Weeds. Or a man with a dark secret he must hide to avoid capture from a relative in law enforcement could easily recall Dexter. None of it does. And then there's the ticking time bomb of cancer giving the series its sense of urgency early on, but even that (if just temporarily) becomes a non-factor. The show could have easily been defined by all this but that it isn't and amounts to much more than merely the sum of its parts is a testament to its depth. It's when all these factors go away that the narrative truly begins to take shape, transforming into a entirely different series than when it began.

Star Bryan Cranston and creator Vince Gilligan
Far exceeding the point where providing for his family financially works as a valid excuse for doing this, Walt continues to cook anyway as if the cancer has afforded a newer, more exciting life he couldn't have considered before the diagnosis. Operating under the criminal alias of "Heisenberg," Walt cooks the purest meth in the Southwest and attracts the attention of the Mexican cartel.  After a while, it starts to become indefensible to state that Walt is leading a double life at all. Now he is "Heisenberg," accepting all the collateral damage that comes with it and putting everyone close to him in harm's way, especially brother-in-law Hank. Most of Walt's problems stem from the fact that he and Jesse haven't a clue what they're doing. Jesse's a delinquent hothead prone to rash decisions while Walt's expertise lies in the chemistry, but little else. Calling them friends wouldn't exactly be accurate, and at times it's difficult to even consider them business partners. Whether they're trying to kill each other or saving each others lives, there's a strange but gripping dynamic that develops between the two that's at the core of the show, often more closely resembling father-son than teacher-student. But the most intriguing angle of their relationship is how their roles reverse over the course of the four seasons with Jesse becoming more level-head than the out-of-control Walt, who slowly becomes more of an addict than he was, but in a different sense.

In one of television's greatest performances, 3-time Emmy winner Bryan Cranston sells this complicated evolution from wimpy science geek to criminal bad ass like nobody's business. And the beauty of it is how he never forgets that Walt is as much surprised by his own actions as we are until his pride and thrill of accomplishment take over, making him numb to it and nearly as bad and those hunting him. It's scary to think that after Malcolm in the Middle Cranston could have faded into obscurity and we would have never discovered the full range of his talent. Then again, material like this never comes around so matching the right performer with such a rare project is a feat in itself. If this were a movie he'd have 4 Oscars on his shelf already.

Jesse Pinkman and girlfriend Jane Margolis
Emmy winner Aaron Paul's matches Cranston step-for-step in versatility. Jesse is linked to two major tragedies over the course of the series that end up altering the character's entire existence. One involving his heroin addict girlfriend Jane (an unforgettable Krysten Ritter) and another heinous action that at the end of the third season that psychologically eats away at him. There's always this glimmer of hope that Jesse could eventually get his act together only to have another catastrophe occur that prevents it. Laying behind all the character's false bravado is Paul's sympathetic performance of a good kid from middle class family who only wants the approval that been denied to him his entire life. Similarly, it's often denied to him by Walt. Just as as Walt and Jesse can't seem to survive without each other, the same statement could easily be applied to the actors portraying them. Because of their work and some really brilliant writing, it's completely believable they'd go from wanting to kill one another one episode to saving each others lives the next. And as crazy as it sounds, the original plan actually called for the character of Jesse Pinkman to die in the first season.

After a Season 2 finale that feels almost Lost-like in terms of its karmic significance, there's a brief moment at the start of the third to catch your breath before the writers hit the reset button, changing the game completely. It's then when you realize Walt and Jesse's actions from even as far back as the pilot set in motion a domino effect that lands them in the fast food chicken restaurant, "Los Pollos Hermanos," face-to-face with the owner and new employer, Gustavo "Gus" Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). Using his chicken chain as a front for meth distribution and an industrial laundromat as headquarters for a super lab, Gus comes off as a calm, soft spoken cross between Colonel Sanders and Barack Obama. But he's really a psychopath hiding in plain sight, keeping his cool even as he commits the most cold-blooded atrocities to protect his business. 

Giancarlo Esposito as Gustavo "Gus" Fring
Esposito's remarkably composed performance makes Gus one of the most terrifying villains to ever appear on the big or small screen. When we finally get a flashback showing how this monster was created, it was more than worth the wait. As feared, he and Walt are more alike than either would be willing to admit. Working for the bone-chilling Gus insures far less safety than going at it alone as the imminent threat that he could off them at any time hangs over them. The seeds of mistrust are planted by this master manipulator who places them in the crosshairs of his bitter feud with the cartel, pitting the duo against each other and culminating in a graphic Season 4 shocker that features the most indelibly horrifying scene in the series.

Breaking Bad has the deepest acting roster on TV but the most under-appreciated is Dean Norris as agent Hank Schrader. Providing comic relief, he plays him as a smart man who's often excellent at his job but always seems to remain one step behind his brother-in-law because his pride gets in the way and Walt's just a half a step ahead. When an event occurs that compromises him he's forced to become a better, even more cerebral agent. and the scenes he shares with wife Marie (Betsy Brandt) preceding and following his tragedy are among the most emotionally charged in the series. Anna Gunn has the thankless task is playing the show's most unlikable character in Skyler, but that's not at all a negative. Her relationship with Walt changes drastically over time and she often does things to Walt that make you wish they'd just her kill her off, but I believe that's intentional and speaks to the effectiveness of Gunn's work. Her actions frustrate you, but Gunn makes them understandable and the performance never rings false. That we find ourselves frequently siding with her meth cooking, murderer husband who put her in this position to begin with is not only an interesting statement of how we view female characters on TV, but the an example of just how challenging the show's dynamic is.

Walter White examines the symbolic pink teddy bear
As innocent, breakfast-loving Walt Jr., RJ Mitte acts as the eyes and ears of the audience, articulating exactly what anyone watching must be thinking about his two crazy parents. But you know Walt and Jesse have it bad when the only person they can completely trust is ambulance chasing criminal attorney Saul Goodman, who's played with hilariously sarcastic, over-the-top glee by Saturday Night Live vet Bob Odenkirk. And by "criminal attorney" I mean a criminal who's an attorney. It's a real credit to the show that even he's written smartly, complete with a bag of legal and illegal tricks to capable of navigating them through any treacherous situation. Because Odenkirk's so funny and makes such a likable sleaze it's easy to forget he's saved each of their lives about half a dozen times with his schemes. Character actor Jonathan Banks plays an increasingly important role as the series wears on as brutish hitman and clean-up expert Mike who makes it a point to not let feelings in any way influence the proficiency of his work. And with the ringing of his iconic bell and heavy breathing, the wheelchair-bound patriarch of the Mexican drug cartel, Hector Salamanca, is given a sad and terrifying presence by Mark Margolis.   

It's kind of a shock to find out the brains behind the development of this series was a writer and producer on The X-Files. While that show definitely displayed flashes of brilliance from time to time, you wouldn't think anything in it suggested Vince Gilligan could be responsible for something as wildly different and groundbreaking. There is some overlap in terms of technical approach but this series does some things in that department we've never seen before on TV, specifically the use of its visually stunning Southwest desert photography and crazy POV shots. The polarizing third season single location episode, "Fly" (directed by Brick's Rian Johnson) is emblematic of the latter and indicative of the many tricks this series has up its sleeve. One of the few shows shot on 35 mm film, it looks and feels more cinematic than most movies, especially in when viewed in High Def. The cold open of each episode can't be missed, sometimes revealing essential flashback information.

Walt and Jesse cooking in the "super lab"
With only one season left, Gilligan's pitching a perfect game. Four flawless seasons with each one better than the last and the rare opportunity to go out on top. You have to wonder how he's planning to close it out since so much was wrapped up at the end of the fourth season. But there are plenty of loose ends and as anyone following the show knows, the tiniest loose ends often become explosive season-long story arcs. The fourth season finale's closing revelation suggests Walt's been corrupted beyond repair and there's now no turning back.  It seems almost inevitable that the show must end with his death and Jesse's redemption but even that isn't a guarantee. Nothing on this show is. If Gilligan says there's more left then there's more left. The writers are constantly painting themselves into corners and using their ingenuity to find a way out. But nothing I write could possibly do justice to experiencing this show for the first time. Art and entertainment has never converged quite like this. The only drawback to watching Breaking Bad is that anything you watch after it will seem a lot worse.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Footloose (2011)

Director: Craig Brewer
Starring: Kenny Wormald, Julianne Hough, Dennis Quaid, Andie McDowell, Miles Teller, Patrick Flueger, Ray McKinnon, Kim Dickens
Running Time: 112 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

When the remake of Footloose was released last year I remember reading an interview with director Craig Brewer about how after initial reservations he was inspired to take on the project after viewing 2010's The Karate Kid remake with a cheering audience of 13-year-olds. He said that reaction put all his doubts aside and thought it would be arrogant for him to tell them the original is better and that they should be watching Ralph Maccio instead. And I can totally see his point.  I would never wish a child to have a bad time at the movies or try to tell him or her what they should or shouldn't be watching. I hope every kid who saw that remake loved it. After all, it was only made for them anyway. But that still won't change the fact I thought it was horrible and a blatant cash grab. So it's strange how his Footloose remake is the exact opposite of that, having more in common with both 1984 originals. It's actually for everyone. Yet they'll still be those who refuse to see it on the grounds that it shouldn't be happening at all and I respect that. Except this is really good, at points equaling (if not flat-out surpassing) the original. Of course it helps I don't hold the original film in such high esteem and could care less that they rebooted it, but a win's a win. Musicals just might be my least favorite genre so what a compliment it is that I never once felt I was watching a musical, but a story powered by the spirit of music its effect on the townspeople's lives.

The central idea around which the movie revolves always seemed kind of silly on paper and should have proven to be even more of a creative hurdle to clear when you set the story in the present day.  After a tragic car accident claims the lives of five youths in Bomont, Georgia following a party, the father of one of the victims and town reverend, Shaw Moore (Dennis Quaid) convinces the city council to pass an injunction that bans unsupervised public dancing within the city limits. Brewer cleverly sidesteps a flawed premise by actually showing the accident in the prologue. It may seem like a tiny change and it's certainly not depicted in any kind of graphic detail, but putting it onscreen makes the ban seem less ridiculous. Stepping into the iconic Kevin Bacon role, Kenny Wormald is Ren, a Boston teen arriving in the town to live with his aunt and uncle after his mother's death. He befriends the somewhat goofy Willard (Miles Teller, great in this) and is almost immediately attracted to Rev. Moore's daughter, Ariel (Julianne Hough), a wild child still acting out after losing her brother in the accident and shacking up with brutish dirt race driver Chuck (Patrick Flueger). As Ren and Ariel grow closer through their love of dancing, the rift between the adults and kids of the town continues to widen because of the ban.

Other than actually showing the inciting accident and replacing tractors with buses in a pivotal race sequence, there isn't much that's different from the original, but in this case, that's fine. There also seems to be a more eclectic mix of music this time around while still managing to squeeze in Kenny Loggins' infamously catchy title song (covered rather lifelessly by Blake Shelton over the closing credits) and Deniece Williams "Let's Hear It for the Boy." What Brewer does really well is flesh out the setting and its small-town characters so that everything looks and feels like it belongs a small southern town in 2011. There's a sense of time and place that never feels like you're watching actors on a sound stage. It won't ever be confused with Brewer's previous feature Black Snake Moan in that no scantily clad actresses get chained up to radiators but I was surprised just how much grit the movie managed with its PG-13. It's not exactly edgy but it isn't High School Musical either. There's also at least some kind of attempt at depicting racial diversity within the cast, which probably isn't an attempt so much as a reflection of reality inexcusably absent in most mainstream films about young people.  If its content qualifies it as mainstream fluff at least it never feels that way, even during the musical numbers which are well-placed and choreographed, rarely overstaying their welcome.

As Ren, Kenny Wormald is no Kevin Bacon but he is Kenny Wormald and that seems to work out. Bacon plays bad and tough better but his modern-day counterpart is likable and charismatic without being too vanilla. But it doesn't really matter since the movie belongs to co-star Julianne Hough in much the same way Bacon owned the original. While it's common knowledge she's an incredible dancer and really easy on the eyes, she goes the extra mile in delivering a surprisingly effective dramatic performance as a grieving daughter torn between the right and wrong side of the tracks, and commanding the screen well enough to launch a career that could easily extend beyond musicals. I keep hearing her being compared to a young Jennifer Aniston which was probably intended as a compliment from those forgetting Aniston wouldn't at any point be able to pull this part off. I'd even go as far as to say the movie succeeds mostly because of Hough, who's so perfectly cast it's almost a joke. Dennis Quaid appears initially to be just collecting another paycheck as the strict preacher but at the story progresses and the character develops he finds his groove, even if one key confrontational scene involving him in the third act seems a bit over-the-top and out of left field. And sure, the courtroom-heavy finale more closely resembles a school production of a mock trial than the fun that precedes it, but that's a small complaint when examining the big picture.

A satisfying explanation for this film's success couldn't possibly be provided by me as it's summed up best by Indiewire's Gabe Toro who wrote upon its release that "it captures exactly what MTV used to represent before the laws of capitalism swallowed the network whole." What a perfect description. Ironically MTV Films produced this, which almost feels like some kind of an accident as it harkens back to an era they've gone out of their way to bury. Embracing its cliches with confidence and sincerely wearing its heart on its sleeve, Footloose is completely honest and fun, reminding us not only of the reasons the original worked, but recreating the feeling of actually watching it. With so much mainstream entertainment dumbed down to the point that they may as well be commercials, here's a rare example of smart mainstream entertainment that's actually entertaining, evoking memories of 80's originals rather than the inferior remakes they continue to spawn.