Sunday, December 18, 2011

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (IMAX)

There are a few actors that I will go to see in a movie, regardless of what the movie is. While Tom Cruise might be one of the other ones, the guy on screen that made me think this was Simon Pegg.

Simon Pegg has a wonderful, comic quality about him. He may be playing the same guy in most of his movies (and this too may be true of Tom Cruise) but I find Pegg a treat to watch on the screen.

So what a wonderful decision, for me a least, that the minor character he played in the last MI movie has been promoted in this one. "I passed the field agent test!" Pegg's character exclaims. Ethan Hunt reacts with a look of disbelief but, wisely for the sake of the plot, does not pursue the subject further.

"Ghost Protocol" has been invoked by the President of the United States following a particularly nasty occurance that has, understandably, pissed off the Russians. It seems the IMF is to blame. As a reult of the President's invocation, we get:
a) one of the one of the worst film titles of the year, and
b) the complete disavowal of the IMF agency by the United States Government.

"Disavow" is a favourite word in the Mission Impossible lexicon. It's seems like it's the worst thing that can happen to an individual agent but in this movie, the entire organization has been disavowed.

But does this really change anything? I mean, isn't every IMF team disavowed from the get-go? Isn't that what they're told right of the bat: Should you or any member of your team be caught or killed ... etc and etc?

Being disavowed then is merely table stakes for Ethan and his team. We need more. Also for this movie, less.

"Less" because not only does Ethan receive the standard "no government support", he must complete this impossible mission with a substandard team comprised of the affformentioned Benji Dunn (Pegg) and William Brandt (Jeremey Renner) who comes aboard almost by accident. Brandt is not a field agent, he's an analyst, and a good one, but what good will he be in the field? There are interesting answers to this question. Rounding out the team is Jane Carter (Paula Patton), the only other apparently competent field agent, the kick-ass chick with the wounded heart. Finally, to complete all those zany stunts in their respective futures, they are going to have to scrounge whatever gear they can find from a passing boxcar (but what a boxcar!). Oh, and lets make the gear sorta like the agents: often unreliable.

The "more" part of Ethan's mission, should he choose to accept it, is to prevent global thermonuclear war.

At the risk of being all spoilerish, let me tell you about a couple of trends I've noticed from the last three Mission Impossible movies. First, you know that whole, "Your mission, should you choose to accept it," part? They always do. Second, every single one of these missions has proved to be not so impossible after all.

The job of the movie's director, then, is to employ whatever slight of hand techniques he can to provide as much "wow" as he can on the way to the IMF saving the world.

Who better, then, than the guy who gave us The Incredibles and The Iron Giant (if you haven't seen that one, GET IT). Brad Bird adapts elements of French farce to the action genre and layers it with several coats of IMAX. The movie opens with an IMAX flyover of Mumbai and it recalled for me the opening sequence of The Dark Knight, which also had parts of it filmed in IMAX.

Let me clarify: I am not predisposed to paying the extrta money to see an IMAX adaptation of a movie filmed in some more standard format. What I will pay extra money for is a movie filmed with an IMAX camera. So, when I heard that sections of The Dark Knight were filmed with the IMAX camera, I went to see it in IMAX. And I loved it. Here too in Mission Impossible, select scenes have been rendered with the IMAX camera.

And ... wow.

One of the strength of this format would seem to be how it really gives a sense of height. In this movie are dizzying scenes as the IMAX camera first flies over the top of Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the tallest building in the world and then later, from 130 stories up in that same building, the camera exits the window along with Ethan Hunt. And also your stomach. The ground looks just like it is in real life: a LONG WAY DOWN.

I learn afterward that all the exterior stunts were done without CGI so when you see Tom Cruise at 130 stories up, clinging and swinging along the side of the building, what you're really seeing is Tom Cruise, a mile up in the air, clinging and swinging along the side of the building. Opinion is divided as to whether Mr. Cruise, just shy of his 50th birthday, is committed or ought to be.

I was reminded of a key staple of French farce as I watched other key action sequences that were built on the frantic opening and closing of doors, first in a prison compound, then a hotel and finally in a super-high-tech parking garage - which has no doors, but when you see it, you'll know what I mean.

Being a movie geek, I couldn't help notice a seeming collection of tributes sprinkled throughout the movie. There is, of course, Tom Cruise running. In every Tom Cruise movie, there must be a straight-on shot of Tom Cruise running. The number 47 appears very conspicously at least twice (look it up). The disembodied voice relaying that self-destructing message is the same guy who did the comuter voice from Nomanisan Island in The Incredibles. The title sequence seemed to be a nod to Space 1999 and the re-imagined Battlestar Gallactica, sprinkling scenes from the upcoming action throughout the opening credits. Tom Wilkinson provides a call back to the movie The Hurt Locker as that movie's star, Jermey Renner, sits right next to him (if you don't know what I mean, ask me after you've seen the movies). I also noticed a couple of very clear references to video games, either intended or not. Brad Bird lifts a swinging-on-a-rope stunt straight out of Uncharted: Drake's Fortune (or perhaps it's an hommage), and Ethan grabs an accidental hoodie causing him to resemble the main character from Assassin's Creed, a look Ethan liked so much he does it on purpose for the end of the movie.

Ah, yes. The end of the movie.

The hallmark of a Brad Bird movie has been its strength of relationships. The Incredibles was about superheroes who found their super strength in the bonds of their family. Rattatouille was about a relationship between a boy and a rat transcending the most severe of social mores, not to mention the Public Health Department. The Iron Giant was about how a robot became so much more than what it had been designed for.

I was ready for something like this from Ghost Protocol. After all the action and excitement have died down, there is a series of scenes tacked on that gives the characters something to be human about. It is the Brad Bird touch, finally. It is a good scene but it feels just that: tacked on. What could have been done differently? I'm not sure. The world must be saved first, after all. The clock is ticking and dammit, there's no time to explore relationships when the missiles are in the air.

The first goal of a Mission Impossible movie is to thrill, and this one? Success! On many occassions, as the chartacters were hurled out to teeter over the very knife edge of calamity, I was gasping and flinching and recoiling in my own seat, so great seemed their peril.

Three straws.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Arthur Christmas

The movie "Arthur Christmas" explains almost everything you didn't know about what really goes on just before the dawn of Christmas Day. How does Santa deliver all those presents? (He doesn't, it's elves, maybe as many as a billion of them.) Why can't I find Santa's Workshop when I look at the North Pole on Google Earth? (It's under the ice.) How can Santa fly all the way around the world in only one night? (Well, actually there's a high-tech way and a low-tech way).

In the big scheme of Christmas though, this is all routine stuff to the Clauses who've been running Christmas Day since somewhere around the middle of the last millennium, according to all the Santa pictures on the wall. Santa, you see, is quite like a king or CEO of a family business, handing off the mantle of "Santa" to the next generation when they retire. Malcolm Claus is the current Santa (splendidly voiced by one of my favourite actors, Jim Broadbent). He is mostly a benign figurehead and not overly competent in his job, but this is OK since the current operation is actually managed by his son Steve (Hugh Laurie). Under Steve's watch, Christmas operations have taken a huge leap into the future, from the updated, uh, sleigh, to the GPS-enabled communication tablets which are sure to be on my son's Christmas list this year. Steve, who is as barrel-chested as his father is fat and jolly and who has a Christmas Tree shaped goatee that closely matches the sergeant's stripes on his uniform, oversees the entire Christmas Night operation with a precision that Operation Overlord could only have dreamed of. Yes, the North Pole is a paramilitary operation, the Clauses even have medals on their tunics. This begs a question of nationality. Many hints point to British.

Arthur is Steve's little brother.

Arthur's job is to answer the mail with assurances to all the little boys and girls that Santa is real and to believe in his MAGIC (he has a special, felt-tip purple pen to write the word "MAGIC" in sparkles). Arthur seems to have inherited his father's incompetence and to that he has added clumsy. His appearance in Mission Control mid-operation results in some chaos and calamity.

(At some point it occurred to me that if you take the "CHRIST" out of Christmas - and this movie does - you're left with MAS from which you get Malcolm, Arthur and Steve. Coincidence? Maybe not.)

It becomes evident that having run it like a business for so long, Christmas at the North Pole has become too much like ... a business. Even Grandsanta (Bill Nighy), who sneaks out of retirement to help Arthur, has ulterior motives. The subsequent plot makes connections to two different Georges: W. Bush and the VIth of England.

It may seem as if I've taken you through the whole movie, but really, we're only several minutes in. This is about when I asked myself, "How are they going to fill up the rest of the movie?" The solution, once Grandsanta and Arthur were on their way, seemed pretty straightforward. But nothing proves as simple as it should be. Grandsanta is old, Arthur is completely out of his element, Bryony the Elf is only a wrapping elf, the reindeer are several generations removed from the originals and are on their very first flight, and Eve is the old sleigh back from when technology was all knobs and levers and big canisters of magic.

I hadn't many complaints, watching this movie. One minor quibble was the voice of Arthur (James McAvoy) which more than occasionally got very high and screechy. The worst infraction came before the movie started when someone decided it would be a good idea to run the Justin Beiber video. First of all, you know, JUSTIN BEIBER. Second of all, why show clips from a movie that you're just about to see? I put this solidly in the category of DUMB IDEA. Yesterday the Muppets movie was preceded by a Pixar short, a much better decision. For the Beiber abomination, I spent the time looking away from the screen and at my son. Much better.

There was that moment early in the movie when I found myself asking "What now?" but the film answered with many delights which, frankly, have been difficult to keep to myself.

Three Straws.

Ian's P.O.V. of Arthur Christmas
The plot of Arthur Christmas is just about a kid named Gwen (voiced by Ramona Marquez) who gets missed by Santa. A very small plot for a one and a half hour movie. It's one and a half hours because it's being very detailed just from going to point A to point B, and also there is too many mistakes and too many pointless parts in the movie. For example, Arthur all the time forgets to close the door and everyone says that it will get too cold but think about it, IT'S THE NORTH POLE, it's going to be cold and if you can't brave the cold, buy walls, floor and a heater so the ice floor and walls won't melt!!!!

There's a lot more examples I can give but that would give the story away.

The good thing about the movie is that everything that does not have to do with the plot is good and also there's a mild joke here and there to make it better but that's all.

I know it's not a lot but there's not much more I can say. I don't like it.

Two Straws.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Muppets

One of my earliest memories is seeing the first ever episode of Sesame Street which my teacher graciously played for us in our Grade One class. The bit I remember was when Ernie asked Bert to throw the soap into his bathtub, Rosie.

"Ernie, why do you call your bathtub Rosie?"

"Because Bert. Every time I have a bath, I leave a ring around Rosie." And Ernie laughs that laugh.

I remember my ambivalence when The Muppet Show came on TV because, geez, there was no Grover or Cookie Monster and no Bert and Ernie, but there was Kermit and a whole bunch of new Muppets (Sweetums!!) and it was somehow so grown up, The Muppets being on TV in the night time.

Of the movies, I really only remember the first one. I had the record and could sing all the songs. To this day I can't spin off a bottle top without quoting Steve Martin's cameo: "Do you wish to smell the cap?"

Ian and I drove into the movie parking lot last night and it's as full as I've seen. Ian thinks it's because of Twilight. "Why do so many people come to see bad movies?" he asks. I tell him about subjectivity and the difference between entertainment and art, how the Transformers can entertain with 'splosions and noise and how it can be roundly panned by critics because there's no craft, no heart.

So let me tell you why there's been all this preamble.

The Muppets is about heart.

It's about heart in the way the new Muppet, Walter, is the most expressive character in the movie. Even the human actors are "playing" their parts, mostly because it's in keeping with the sly style of the show: the self-awareness, the songs and the dances, its deliberate old-fashionedness (the vintage bus is numbered "1949"), the breaking of the fourth wall, Mickey Rooney.

There's a lot of earnestness in the movie but the most honesty comes from Walter. It's no small feat by the film-makers that they have created in this unassuming new Muppet such a range of expression and emotion. Some of it is done by the performance of the puppeteer and some comes by swapping out a different set of eyes or a particular set to his mouth but where in the Muppet Lab is the box that's full not of eyes or noses but of soul? Walter has a lot.

The feel of this movie in an otherwise tech-heavy world of cinema is very organic. Muppets walk and dance and karate kick, but the movie feels like it was made by hand - or slight of hand - and not by computer. This deliberate retro-feel is the source of both the films greatest strengths and weakness.

For me, an adult, watching and remembering all those Sesame Streets and Muppet Shows of yore, the best bits were evocative of things past. The movie hits one of its strongest beats when the gang runs The Opening for the Muppet Show. I found shivers going up my back at all the recalled beats: Zoot blows that single note on his sax, the full-size monster Muppets stomp on for their entrance, and OH MY GOD I forgot about Gonzo's trumpet gag at the end! Gonzo's not-quite-right fanfare is where I laughed hardest.

Later, as the Muppets Show Telethon draw ever closer to their 10 million dollar goal, (raise the money or lose the studio to an evil oil tychoon named, of course, Richman), Kermit and Miss Piggy do a duet of "Rainbow Connection". It's the best song of the whole movie.

And therein lies the rub.

There are some fine moments in the other numbers, the best where Walter's human counterpart appears, but as good as the movie is, its superpower comes from previous work. The new story contains a lot of back and forth plot beats. Can we do it? If we all pull together, yes! Oh gee, something happens and no we can't. Well wait, yes we can! And so on. Insert some heartfelt monologue. As an adult, I patiently floated through these bits but found that Nostalgia was the nuclear core that powered the whole rest of the movie. Ian didn't know The Muppet Show, so later, as we talked about the movie, I had to explain why I found that bit with Gonzo and his trumpet so delightful. The worst part of the Muppets is that there isn't anything new in this movie that's better than many of the best bits of the old movie. It makes me wonder how successful any future Muppet sequel might be.

But I loved this one. For me, the best element of the movie that did not draw on past glories was, of course, Walter. Walter who is called on to save the day. Walter the reluctant hero, performing ... something; he is charged to find his hidden talent and what that might be was obvious neither to him nor to me in the audience. Where so many movies would have used so many different cheats, The Muppets finds a resolution that is wonderful, charming, elegant and - most of all - honest.

When we got home, Ian and I spent a lovely time looking through Muppets clips on YouTube, which is to say: the movie left us wanting more.

Ian's P.O.V. of the Muppets 2011

When I was little kid I only knew of Sesame Street and Kermit the Frog as one thing and I did not know that Kermit was not a part of Sesame Street and a part of a different group called the Muppets. I learned that like 2 or 3 years ago so me seeing the Muppets only knowing Kermit and maybe Ms. Piggy, I've learned a lot of more about the Muppets and the big sensation they were and seeing their guests like Peter Sellers and Steve Martin after the movie was prety cool.

So I guess my dad sums it up, it's a great movie, and what really was a surprise was that i did not know how many stars there were in the movie. I'm 12 and a little bit of a movie guy but I named 6 movie stars (Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Jack Black, Justin Timberlake, Selena Gomez and Neil Patrick Harris) also lots of funny jokes with the age group being 7 years old, 12 year old or 47 years old, the Muppets is a very funny movie and a great family movie.

The only bad thing about the Muppets for me is that it's "all over the place." They do this, then this, then this, oh we can't do this, oh we did it, know we got to do this, and then this, and it it's really boring and that's the only downside to the movie and it's very unnoticeable but no movie is perfect. Right?

Three Straws.