Rogue One, the first standalone Star Wars film, is in many ways not a standalone at all. It is a direct prequel to the original movie from 1977, and features scores of deep-cut references, allusions and easter eggs that only hardcore fans will appreciate. So Rogue One is big-budget fanservice. But crucially, it’s more than that. It’s fanservice that also happens to have great original characters and takes a lot of risks. The trick of Rogue One is that it’s a love letter to Star Wars (and works as such; the ending made me cry), but it also fundamentally changes its texture.
The Empire rules the galaxy with an iron fist, and seeks to solidify its reign by constructing a planet-killing superweapon. To complete work on the Death Star, Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) coerces the scientific genius Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), father of Jyn (Felicity Jones), into service. When Galen sends a secret message to the reeling Rebellion tipping them off to a structural weakness in the Death Star, a scrappy guerilla team must steal the Death Star plans. The team: Jyn; lethal Rebel intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna); sarcastic tactician droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk); desperate Imperial defector Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed); blind warrior-monk Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen); and his cynical companion Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen). But in this war, can any hope survive in the grime of Imperial domination?
In the lead-up to the movie, the talking points were obvious. “Puts the Wars in Star Wars.” “The gritty side of the universe”, blah blah blah. It’s one thing to hear the sound bites, but to see this saga taken out of the good vs. evil fairy tale realm so elegantly is something else entirely. That tale is great, it has its place, but Rogue One complicates it. There’s ethical compromise in the Rebellion, represented by Cassian. There’s a pecking order in the Empire, an elitist element that Krennic must constantly prove himself to. There are extremists on both sides. Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker)’s methods are disavowed by the Rebel establishment, while his opposite number, Darth Vader, plays enforcer for an unstable galaxy. Star Wars has always worked best as an underdog story (witness how The Force Awakens recreates the Empire vs. Rebellion conflict by another name), but the main characters here are underdogs even within the Rebellion. And Krennic, the villain they face, is an underdog even within the Empire.
None of this thematic stuff would click if the character work wasn’t there, and thankfully it is. All the characters resonate, but standouts include comic relief monstrosity K-2SO (think C-3PO with a two-by-four in place of an etiquette program), and apathetic loner to inspirational leader Jyn Erso. But my favorite character is Cassian Andor, who embodies what makes Rogue One work so well. The co-leading hero in the film, Cassian is exciting because he’s tainted. Pretty much the first thing you see him do is shoot an unarmed ally in the back because he would be a liability! (And you thought Han shot first?) He personifies the risks that the film is willing to take, introducing a Rebel officer as a morally compromised hero. The main characters are allowed to be impure or damaged, and Krennic, while ruthless, has to deal with bureaucratic and browbeating BS from superiors more evil than he. The idea is that the Rebellion’s purest heroes and the Empire’s purest villains are more background players, and we get to spend time with relatively complex characters.
Rogue One manages to stuff a lot of character into what is perhaps too compressed an amount of time. This does have downsides. Jyn’s character arc is good, but feels like it has a middle and an end while missing part of the beginning – we’re told Jyn’s rap sheet but we don’t see her struggles fending for herself brought to life. The first act has a lot of quick planet-hopping setup and so probably works better on a rewatch. Conversely, while the action in the third act is alternately breathtaking, tense, and emotionally powerful, it still feels like a little paring down might have made it pop even more.
But flaws aside, the storytelling always has something up its sleeve. This is a surprisingly emotional movie, largely owing to how the light contrasts all the more against the desperate circumstances. Chirrut’s reverence of the Force becomes poignant precisely because the Jedi have passed into myth. Put Obi-Wan Kenobi on the team and the everyman quality to the group crumbles. In a stroke of genius, the first test of the Death Star’s awesome destructive power is made intimate and personal. The pacing and atmosphere is far removed from the propulsive, almost manic The Force Awakens (which is great in that context). It’s Star Wars sung in a different key in a different time signature, and I ate it up.
Technically speaking, Rogue One has much to commend it. I love how the CGI Star Destroyers as near as damn them look exactly like physical models. The cinematography, and vaguely documentarian aesthetic courtesy of director Gareth Edwards make the action and emotion hit home. And considering composer Michael Giacchino only had a couple months to score the film after replacing Alexandre Desplat, his score contains some solid motifs.
Rogue One commits to its war movie aesthetic brilliantly. The acting ensemble is outstanding; even tertiary characters like the leery General Draven feel rich. This is a smart, weird, exciting, occasionally sloppy, and surprisingly emotional blockbuster, which enriches Star Wars in a two-hour salvo. It will be remembered for playing with what the franchise can do, while also blowing stuff up real good. 9/10. — If you’re a fan of the saga, there’s a good chance you’ll get emotional at the last scene. But after certain recent events… it might wreck you.
P.S.: *SPOILER-FILLED STRAY NERDY OBSERVATIONS*
So this is a mainstream blockbuster where every main character dies. With a sweeping gesture out of Shakespearean tragedy, the board is cleared and only characters on the fringes live to carry on. Disney will sugarcoat anything.
Darth Vader. Giving him an imposing evil tower immediately casts him in the same company as Sauron (with lava planet Mustafar standing in for Mordor). It codifies his status as an iconic villain. But it’s worth noting that a castle for Vader isn’t a new idea; it was proposed in concept art for the original trilogy and was even considered for inclusion in The Force Awakens. Vader’s first scene with Krennic perhaps isn’t everything it could have been. It ends with what I call “stand-up comedy Vader”, but even though it feels a bit weird in the moment, it’s not too far off from his “Apology accepted, Captain Needa” brand of humor. Vader’s other scene is just terrific. Add the hint of his vulnerability and his weird Riff Raff-esque butler, and Rogue One does some interesting things with this Dark Lord of the Sith.
When the Empire puts up the shield in orbit of Scarif, an X-Wing can’t pull up and crashes into it. Which is exactly what should have happened in Return of the Jedi when the Rebel fighters are flying to the second Death Star thinking the shield is down.
Star Wars isn’t known for romance. It has a few, but they’re either dreadfully stilted community theater (Anakin and Padmé) or a whirlwind flirtation carried by bickering and banter (Han and Leia). So am I alone in thinking that Rogue One contains the hottest moment in all of Star Wars? When Jyn and Cassian are in close quarters in the elevator, and it’s filmed like they might kiss, and they don’t?
If Rogue One came out when I was in junior high, it would have been the biggest deal in the world that Garven Dreis and Dr. Evazan are in the movie. Now, it’s just really cool. But in junior high, I wouldn’t have caught the significance of Chirrut and Baze being Guardians of the Whills, which is a reference to George Lucas’ original title for his Star Wars screenplay: The Adventures of Luke Starkiller as Taken from the Journal of the Whills, Saga 1.
2015 was the year of the spy. No less than five major studio films operated in the high-stakes field of the spy-action genre: the subversive Kingsman: The Secret Service; the comedic Spy; the thrill ride Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation; the 1960s throwback The Man from U.N.C.L.E.; and the latest installment in the venerable James Bond franchise, Spectre. (I’m not including Bridge of Spies, as my focus here is on the action side of spy stories.) So how does each take on the genre fare? And who will take pole position in this game of cinematic espionage? Spoilers for this quintet of movies follow, but after all the work of spies is to discover secrets…
Out of the five films, two pairs can be created based on the movies’ agendas relative to the genre and similar themes. This leaves an odd duck out, so let’s deal with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. first. A movie in passionate love with the idea of capturing 60s cool, U.N.C.L.E. is all flash and style with little substance. This wouldn’t be an issue, though, if it didn’t keep building up villains who turn out to be nothing-characters, or had the action chops to back up its sense of groovy fun. The film is a likable enough romp that gets by on the chemistry of its leading actors, but its slavish devotion to the tropes of the spy genre isn’t matched with the ingenuity to justify its swagger. This is spy movie as schematic, but dressed up in conspicuous fashion. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a fun time with good elements to recommend it, but it’s like gravy with no meal to put it on – and so it is not the best spy film of 2015.
The first pair we deal with balances love for the genre with the wits to amplify, undercut, and poke fun at it as well; both Kingsman and Spy play with the iconography of spy movies (and particularly Bond movies) in really cool ways. Co-writers Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman make sure Kingsman is doing a hell of a lot thematically. Just to scratch the surface: the posh and familiar title disguises a strident satire of class politics, presenting heads of state and the 1% as monstrous and selfish hypocrites. The titular agency uses codenames out of Knights of the Round Table, but this picture of British upper crust stateliness is revealed through Michael Caine’s “Arthur” character to go beyond elitism into true corruption. The working-class hoodlum Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is the one to see through the B.S. and save the organization from itself. As Eggsy emerges for the third act dressed in a bespoke suit, the film re-appropriates the idea of the gentleman spy as something open to all. As for the Bond nods, Kingsman takes several of the series’ standbys (the supervillain’s plan, the lethally equipped henchman, the idea of a sexual reward for Bond at the end) and dials them up to 11, lifting the veil from them. So as the film celebrates spy tradition, it also challenges it constantly. Kingsman: The Secret Service is thematically rich, imbued with bold comic book-y sensibilities, and bolstered by great action – but it is not the best spy film of 2015.
Writer-director Paul Feig’s Spy, meanwhile, takes the Bondian archetype and lampoons him in the form of Jude Law’s bumbling but lucky agent Bradley Fine. In this comedy, Melissa McCarthy’s Susan Cooper is a competent agent constantly underestimated and disrespected by her peers and supervisors because of her appearance and gender. The arc of the film brings the put-upon Susan into the field on a technicality, and as she saves the day in place of the gentleman spy parody Bradley Fine (not to mention in place of Jason Statham’s tough-as-nails action hero parody Rick Ford), the film deftly juggles the basics of the genre while having fun doing it. And from another angle, by championing Susan after the more conventionally attractive female agent (Morena Baccarin) has been revealed as traitorous, Spy once again subverts the genre, this time its desire to flaunt exotic and beautiful women. Spy is a solid action-comedy, showcasing Paul Feig’s reliable ability to both get laughs and craft memorable characters to deliver them – but it is not the best spy film of 2015.
And then there were two. They feature certain elements in common… a rogue shadowy organization creating international chaos, an effort on the part of the establishment to shutter the good guys’ antiquated intelligence agencies which forces the hero to go rogue to get the job done, and a crucial trip to Morocco. Spectre has a couple good setpieces and a handful of effective moments, but is crippled by major storytelling problems. An irrelevant personal connection between Bond (Daniel Craig) and the villain, a weak and uninspired finale, limp action sequences such as the remarkably boring car chase in Rome, an unconvincing romance, hollow piggybacking of plot points from previous films, and an M-defends-MI6-from-bureaucrats subplot recycled without passion from its much better treatment in the prior installment Skyfall. Spectre coasts on the James Bond name when it should be blazing its own trail, going through the motions despite being one of the most expensive films ever made – and it is not the best spy film of 2015.
I’ll tell you what is, though, and that’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. Every element of this thing sings. (And in fact, my original review really didn’t give it the credit it deserves.) Clockwork plot and structure, consistently excellent action setpieces (go to the opera!), warm but brittle character dynamics amongst the IMF team, airtight control of tone and tension. Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie’s pulpy epic feels like a perfectly pulled off mission in itself. And then there’s Ilsa Faust.
Played with precision by Rebecca Ferguson, Ilsa is the key to it all. When Ilsa is introduced and helps breaks Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) out of the Syndicate’s clutches, she feels like a plot device, a spy defined by McQuarrie’s scripted web of triple-crosses. But we later see that this scene comes wholeheartedly from character. Ilsa is a ruthlessly competent specialist, who also has this crazy idea that spies of allied countries have a responsibility toward each other. Her statuesque beauty paired with her matter-of-fact moral conviction makes Ilsa an incredibly magnetic character. In the year of Mad Max: Fury Road, Creed, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Ilsa Faust surpasses Imperator Furiosa, Adonis Creed, Finn, and Rey as the breakout action hero of 2015.
It’s strange how things work out sometimes, as I would never have thought that the latest James Bond film, coming off the heels of the hypnotically great Skyfall, would be my least favorite spy movie of 2015. But even so, it fills a corner of the genre. Spectre is spy film as portentous drama. Kingsman: The Secret Service is spy film as anarchic statement. Spy is spy film as wacky satire. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is spy film as rosy-eyed throwback. And Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is spy film as immaculate time bomb. Light the fuse…
The name Steven Spielberg instantly commands attention, as a director who has consistently demonstrated mastery of his craft. If he directed The Teletubbies, I’d watch it, because his capacity for visual storytelling is that finely tuned. But more than in a technical sense, he has certain sentimental themes he likes to return to, and the remarkable true-life story of Bridge of Spies is a triumph of humanism that Spielberg brings to the screen fluently. It’s no wonder that German Chancellor Angela Merkel observed the filming on the titular Glienicke Bridge (which used to connect domestically-held West and Soviet-controlled East Germany); Bridge of Spies represents a confluence of artistic talent and historical relevance.
In 1957, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested in Brooklyn and tried for Soviet espionage, and insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is asked to handle Abel’s defense. Even as Abel is found guilty, Donovan goes beyond the expected call of duty and succeeds in securing his client a sentence of 30 years imprisonment rather than execution. One salient argument of his: that Abel may be useful as a bargaining chip in the future. Cut to 1960, when U2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is captured by the USSR, and Donovan is tapped to handle the exchange of Abel for Powers. But when the Berlin Wall is erected the following year and American student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) is arrested by the East German Stasi, Donovan feels he must go against everything his CIA allies are telling him and not accept Powers without Pryor as well. It’s the right thing to do, but the chances for it to backfire are real…
Donovan is a man in the eye of the storm of a potential international incident, and Hanks plays him as a beacon of decency. As a historical dramatization, the story sort of writes itself; there is a symmetry to real events that lends itself to a script, and it all revolves on the axis of Donovan’s determination to do the right thing. Hanks’ role is familiar performance ground for him, and is not showy as a more ambiguous character might lend itself to be, but he knocks it out of the park all the same. And Donovan’s bit about what makes an American is a quick and understated beat, but still enough to make me want to cheer.
Matching him (though with a lot less screen time) is Rylance as the accused Soviet spy. He’s fantastic in a largely internalized role, magnetic despite coming across as having the mildest of manners. In a sense both Rylance and Hanks are underplaying their roles, but getting more out of them that way, doing a lot with a little while seemingly effortlessly drawing the audience in. The rest of the cast are effective in proportion to their function but mostly incidental. The female characters in particular (intentionally?) don’t make an impression and are underwritten. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the time period?
The world of Bridge of Spies at first blush looks profoundly unwelcoming, with lots of greys and metallic colors. But with Spielberg as our guide, the richness of the world shines through. His trademark “oners” take us over either side of the under-construction Berlin Wall, around and inside a car beset by incipient snow, and following bicycle couriers in an administrative building. Each extended take involves us in the setting. And there is a wealth of visual parallelism between the USA and USSR’s deployment of espionage being in many ways exactly the same.
Spielberg has often talked about his existential fear of atomic apocalypse, so the “duck and cover” material is in there as well. The other harsh realities of the time period are present but not in your face. I love how the public vilification of Donovan is there, accomplished by compact visual storytelling and not dwelt upon hamfistedly. The script (by Matt Charman and punched up by the Coen brothers) avoids melodrama and remains sharp and taut throughout.
And it all culminates in the Glienicke Bridge scene, which is really an ideal Spielbergian climax. It’s got his familiar background spotlights illuminated our characters. It’s got inherent tension, and it centers around the moral accomplishment of one man’s need to secure the safety of not one but two people. Consider it the Cold War’s own Close Encounters visitation sequence.
Bridge of Spies is a great, unshowy movie that is the product of a bunch of talented people firing on all cylinders. Hanks and Rylance play off each other subtly but memorably, the script is on point, and Spielberg hits the visual and emotional beats like clockwork. Not that the film feels artificial! It’s just, what else can I expect from probably the world’s greatest living filmmaker? Bridge of Spies is an understated but fiendishly well-constructed piece. It quietly rocks. 9/10.
We find James Bond (Daniel Craig) moving across three continents in pursuit of the truth behind a shadowy criminal organization known as SPECTRE. Along the way he discovers Italian assassins, a dying familiar nemesis, and new and creative ways to crash vehicles into each other. And all the while on the homefront, ambitious bureaucrat Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott) works to fold MI6 into MI5, scrap the 00 program, and generally annoy MI6 head M (Ralph Fiennes), his assistant Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), Chief of Staff Tanner (Rory Kinnear), and quartermaster Q (Ben Whishaw). What does psychologist Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) know of SPECTRE? And is a face from Bond’s childhood, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), truly alive and running the show?
Over the course of the past year I’ve become a big fan of the James Bond films. Not only that, the recent Skyfall is my favorite film of 2012 and in my opinion the best Bond movie; my anticipation for Spectre was naturally very strong. So I’m sorry to report that I think Spectre is the worst the series has been since Tomorrow Never Dies in 1997. Spectre is less a concrete action movie and more a collection of uninspired setpieces, less an entertaining Bond story and more a pseudo-fanservice-drenched house of mirrors.
I know I’ve rather showed my hand, but let’s talk good stuff first! Spectre should silence critics of Craig’s Bond who peg him as too dour. He’s got that twinkle in his eyes, a sense of sharp humor that brings some welcome levity. I love Q in this, his relationship with the frustrating 00 agent in his charge, and the general use of the MI6 cast. The two highlights of the movie are the big, legitimately creepy SPECTRE meeting; and the pre-titles Mexico City sequence, which needs only a helicopter to deliver the best action scene of the film. The Día de Muertos bursts with life, and the powerhouse filmmaking from director Sam Mendes and crew is apparent from the beginning; the film begins with a long oner tracking shot that sets a great first impression. Too bad the impression doesn’t last.
Now, ever since the first trailer, we’ve known that Franz Oberhauser (now, of course, head of SPECTRE) is the son of the man who took in James after the Bonds died, making Oberhauser Bond’s long-lost foster brother. This is presented to us as a big deal, but the film does nothing with it. The one time the script does touch it, Oberhauser’s dialogue addressing the matter is so quickly brushed over and so nonsensical that I can’t believe this is the final draft. Supervillain wants to kill superspy; superspy wants to kill supervillain. There. That’s the same as what we get here. If you removed all references to Bond’s foster-brother and just proceeded with a no-frills, traditional supervillain characterization, nothing. Would. Change. If this was the screenwriters’ attempt to “make it personal” between hero and villain, it failed miserably.
And the script has the gall to build up Oberhauser in the most insipid way possible: through fanservice. You see, Oberhauser is the head of SPECTRE, and the villains of the previous Daniel Craig Bond movies all turn out to be working for that umbrella organization all along. So Oberhauser actually says stuff along the lines of, “Le Chiffre, Green, Silva – it was me all along,” and “Your precious M was killed – that was me”. NO, IT WASN’T YOU. IT WAS BETTER, MORE INTERESTING VILLAINS, IN BETTER, MORE INTERESTING MOVIES. Since the film dares to bring him up, look at Raoul Silva in Skyfall, a great example of a Bond villain who makes it personal in a compelling way. His axe to grind with M is integral to his character and to the overall story, and he’s a fascinating foil for Bond because they have crucial similarities as well as obvious differences. Oberhauser is barely a character. He’s full of hot air. Does it add anything that he’s Bond’s foster brother? Why does Oberhauser allude to backstory regarding his relationship with his father without elaborating on any iota of context? Why has he done anything he’s done? Why should we credit him as anything other than a jack in the box? I guess you could maybe say Waltz is kinda fun in the “role”, but he’s building a sand castle and the high tide’s coming in.
The problem of continuity fetishism persists throughout the film. Spectre folds in references to the three previous films with such persistence I don’t know whether to be frustrated or amused. Seeing the images of Le Chiffre, Vesper Lynd, Dominic Green, Raoul Silva etc is cool the first time, but the film just keeps beating the dead horse, serving only to remind me of other, better Bond movies. It’s an ouroboros snake of sorta-fanservice, devouring its own tail and sucking the story of Spectre of any meat on its own bones. It’s insular, it’s navel-gazing, it’s self-defeating.
As I’ve said, I think the film blows its best action setpiece before the title sequence; with the partial exception of a fight in a train car, the remaining action is largely uninspired with little in the way of dynamics. Oh, the vehicular stunts look great in and of themselves. Practical vehicles clash in many configurations of conflagrations, and seeing it in person must have been impressive. But I’m not reviewing the job of the special effects team, I’m reviewing the movie, and from where I’m sitting, the vehicle chases are not anything to get the blood pumping. And worst of all is the shockingly flat third act, which is a genuinely poor and uninventive anticlimax more likely to induce a roll of the eyes than a pump of the fist.
There are plenty more baffling and varied flaws. Andrew Scott’s slimy Londonbound antagonist is dubbed “C” by Bond early on… for some reason. And then every other character starts calling him C in all seriousness from then on… for some reason. I don’t get it. Why C? But more importantly regarding his character, M is forced to defend MI6, the 00 program, and “old-fashioned” espionage again, after the ground was covered much more effectively and poignantly in Skyfall! (More on that, and the whole Oberhauser thing, in the spoiler-y P.P.S.) Most glaring of all, at a certain point, it becomes apparent that we’re supposed to believe Bond and female lead Dr. Swann are supposed to actually be falling for each other (they deployed the “l” word!). It escalates way too quickly; I just don’t buy that the connection goes all the way to love in the course of the film, no way no how. Hey, the script says these two love each other, so it must be true.
Spectre is a great-looking mess with largely unexciting action, baffling story and character choices, and a genuinely bad third act. It’s a disappointment whose main strengths are of the superficial, as everything looks pristine and well-tailored. It’s just that what’s being tailored lacks punch and interest. In the end devoted more to weaving in continuity than being a good movie on its own, Spectre has its head up its own franchised arse. 4/10.
P.S.: Sing-along time! Or, you know, not; your choice. Time to talk about Sam Smith’s Spectre song “Writing’s on the Wall”. Overall it’s… all right. An all right song is an undeniable comedown after Adele’s world-beating “Skyfall”, but Smith’s over-crooned ballad has admittedly grown on me a bit after my first listen. The verse vocal melody is solid, and I even like the falsetto chorus as it’s distinctive and catchy. (The reference in the chorus to the speaker wanting love to “run through [his] blood” reminds me of the speaker of Casino Royale‘s “You Know My Name” stating, “The coldest blood runs through my veins.”) But the song refuses to truly gel, in part because of the vocal flavor; plus, it doesn’t help when Smith comes out with stuff like “I never shoot… to MESS!” (But in case anyone thinks male cod-operatic vocals are without precedent in James Bond songs, I refer you to Morten Harket of a-ha in “The Living Daylights”.) So I like certain discrete elements of “Writing’s on the Wall” in and of themselves, but it’s overall a very mopey experience for a Bond song, whose one attempt to gain a more proactive, rousing quality (“If I risk it a-a-all…”) falls flat for me. And the ending of it just fizzles into nothing. So the song’s a real mixed bag. But it’s leagues better than “Die Another Day”, *shiver*. Okay, I’ve rambled enough about this. If you didn’t notice, I love talking about James Bond theme songs.
P.P.S.: SPOILERS FOLLOW. So Franz Oberhauser lets his fluffy white cat get snuggly with Bond, basically says, “Boo, I’m Blofeld”, and proceeds to monologue. Huh. I must ask what the point is of making Blofeld the equivalent of Bond’s secret brother if it has absolutely no coherent bearing on the character dynamics. What is this guff about Blofeld becoming convinced his father “had to die”??? It isn’t explored at all; it just sits there in the air and never lands with any impact, because we can’t even begin to understand the context. I say again, if the script had gone with a traditional Blofeld characterization, the only difference would be a semantic one. Secret brothers, indeed! When Blofeld showed up with his iconic facial scar, I said under my breath, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” It’s empty iconography with the pretense of piercing characterization, which is worse than embracing simplicity. Next time, make sure you write an intelligible character instead of leaving the heavy-lifting to how he looks and dresses. And another thing: what is up with the scene where Bond is so insistent for Dr. Swann not to be shown the video of her father’s suicide? Is it because he doesn’t want her to face the pain of seeing her father die? I get that, but the way it’s contextualized, it’s framed more like Oberhauser saying, “Observe the real James Bond”. The scene changes nothing in the characters despite being intensely melodramatic, and its obscurity of purpose just serves to make it baffling.
The sour cherry on top of the lackluster ending is the baffling way Spectre leaves Bond and the 00 program. What, the 00s are just shut down? What about the forthcoming movies? Is Bond actually retiring with this woman he never had any real grounds to fall in love with? Considering Bond and Dr. Swann’s onscreen relationship I think it would be more than appropriate for her to amicably part with Bond exactly as she tried to before Bond and the gang drove to MI6. (And that way, she wouldn’t have to be in the damsel-in-distress climax, either!!) I understand that plenty of Bond movies end with him in the embrace of the female lead as they figuratively go off into the sunset, but there was always an MI6 to come back to, a job to do, and the women were always gone come the next story. Will the next film give M the burden of advocating for 00 agents again, after already doing so and succeeding in Skyfall, and doing so and failing in Spectre?!? And don’t tell me how this ending is designed to give closure to Daniel Craig’s version of the character, because James Bond is not a goddamn code name!
In an alternative version of 1985, time travel technology exists and its surgical use to prevent certain past disasters is overseen by the Temporal Bureau. A time agent (Ethan Hawke) receives an assignment to catch a terrorist in the 1970s, and while undercover as a bartender, hears the remarkable story of a woman named Jane who needed gender re-assignment surgery to survive as John (Sarah Snook in both roles). With the involved story told, time jumps and lots of heady twists ensue, and the world-building of the alt-1985 ends up taking a backseat to the mother of all ontological paradoxes. Watch out Looper and 12 Monkeys, Predestination is in town and it’s got time travel shenanigans to spare.
This is one killer time travel thriller, with a cast committed to its insane premise. While Hawke is good as a hardened time traveller, he is not the highlight here. Sarah Snook gives an astonishingly good performance in a double role, as both strident pre-surgery Jane and world-weary “present day” John. Snook brings such a distinct energy to each role (as John, helped by the wonders of make-up to boot) that it takes a very long to sink in that the same actor is playing both parts, even when the audience knows off the bat that Jane and John are the same character. She really is a revelation here, steely and brittle and broken by turns. It’s almost needless to say that she walks away with the movie. (And with Tom Hardy coming out with his own double act in Legend, he’s going to have to knock it out of the park to even match Sarah Snook in this.)
The film is loosely based on a Robert Heinlein short story, and indeed, the construction of the narrative feels like a clever method of adaptation. And very admirably, the film is really interested in presenting a dark underbelly to the 1950s, gee-whiz space travel sci-fi that Heinlein could be so fond of in stories like “The Man Who Sold the Moon”. The gender issues played with create a strong sense of place in the ’50s and ’60s-set scenes.
Early on there’s a fair bit of certain characters trying to coax information out of other characters, and you could cynically read that as reflecting an audience member coaxing coherence out of an opaque film. I say Predestination is not obtuse, but rather assured and whip-smart. Granted, some of the dialogue can get very on-the-nose when the themes reach their payoffs in the third act, but it’s a minor point. And it’s all in the service of a finale in which the twists come fast and furious, each stacking on each other with such audacity you can’t help but go with it.
It’s a dazzling showcase for Sarah Snook, it’s a heady yet thrilling tale of time travel El Mariachi style, it’s a mind-bender, it’s a science fiction gem. Predestination retains its dignity even as it shamelessly fires twists at the viewer, each one a cannonball. And I can almost guarantee this is a more interesting film involving gender re-assignment surgery than the upcoming The Danish Girl. A strong 8/10.
What We Do in the Shadows
There’s an exchange in the show Monk that goes like this: “[He’s] the Prince of Darkness!” “No, he’s not the Prince of Darkness. I’ve seen him vacuuming the ceiling. You wouldn’t see the Prince of Darkness doing that.” What We Do in the Shadows reminds me of that quote, because this hilarious mockumentary is preoccupied with depicting a multigenerational vampire flat, where the bloodsuckers argue over who has to do the dishes, hold flat meetings to iron out issues, and for that matter, iron out their shirts. It’s got lots of domestic comedy, it’s just that the domestics here happen to be able to levitate and cast no reflection. And that’s the other side of what this film accomplishes: it shows with flippant but clever (and at times gut-busting) humor what it might really be like to be a vampire. Does the Prince of Darkness vacuum the ceiling? Well, as you can see in the picture below, vampires do indeed vacuum the walls…
Our tenants are Byronic softie Viago (Taika Waititi, also co-writing and co-directing), 379 years of age; intense and no-nonsense Vladislav (Jemaine Clement, ditto), 862 years of age; insouciant and callous Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), 183 years of age; and most ghoulish of all, ancient Petyr (Ben Fransham), 8000 years of age. Petyr looks like full-on Nosferatu due to advanced age, while the others are free to walk out in the world, provided, of course, the sun has set. The ages are fairly important, because they indicate a generational difference among the vampires – you have bloodsuckers from the dawn of man, the Dark Ages, and the 17th and 18th Centuries living together and conversing just like regular humans.
But through the naturalistic lens of these characters, lots and lots of vampire mythology gets put through the mockumentary wringer, making for some great matter-of-fact comedy. And at certain point the scale is cleverly dialed up, which translates to charmingly low-budget action setpieces that end up being damn memorable. (Look out for a hallway fight straight out of Inception!) So the laid-back production pays off, and seeing the boom mic in frame isn’t a low-budget gaffe, but a part of the film’s conceit of documentation. I should mention, the doc conceit of the movie doesn’t really make sense, and some pedantic viewers might be bothered by that. But the fact that the film lampshades this at several points makes it work comedically if not logically.
And that’s the ambition of What We Do in the Shadows. To craft a really clever comedy but not to get too hung up on a few of the details. The film is a haven for puns, satire, and even a couple scares, all involving endearing and insecure characters who we see deal in the mundane aspects of being vampires. It’s a gem. A strong 8/10.
P.S.: Taika Waititi is in final negotiations to direct Thor: Ragnarok for Marvel. It’ll be really fascinating to see his vision if he stays with the project.
Desk-based and terminally under-appreciated CIA agent Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) guides her field specialist partner Bradley Fine (Jude Law) on missions far and wide, until one day Fine lands into some serious trouble with notorious terrorist Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne). With a nuclear missile in play and all known field agents’ identities compromised, Cooper is very reluctantly sent on a mission to stop the deployment of the nuke. Can a woman all but ignored by her superiors for years get the job done when the stakes are so high? And can comedic writer-director Paul Feig do for spy movies what he did for buddy cop films in The Heat?
The humor of Spy is a bit scattered and random at times, but it hits the mark often enough. As the film begins, there are very obvious Bond pastiches (Theodore Shapiro’s John Barry-esque main theme, the title sequence), but all kinds of broad physical humor as well as off-center banter find their way into the mix. Some of it doesn’t work, most of it does; it’s really a function of keeping the jokes coming on a conveyor belt, as it’s almost inevitable that there are misses in there.
What does work unequivocally is the thematic framework on which the jokes are hung. Susan Cooper is super-competent at her job, but people constantly underestimate, judge and treat her based only on her appearance. So while the jokes are flying, something deeper is being portrayed. It’s only reinforced further when you see that the villain has under-appreciated grunts/employees as well, making for lots of gags that also work thematically. The whole situation is also like a reflection of Melissa McCarthy’s rise in Hollywood, with the hotshot star agent roles taken up by men and one token conventionally beautiful woman (Morena Baccarin), before the situation arises for McCarthy/Cooper to shine.
The supporting cast all commit admirably to their parts. Law has a lot of fun adopting an exaggerated American accent and portraying the false bluster of an agent who appears invincible but is in reality useless when relying on his own senses. Allison Janney, Byrne and others also heighten their performances well, but the entire supporting cast is overshadowed by Jason Statham’s fucking hilarious parody of his usual type of action-badass role. He’s a consistent comedic highlight, especially when he rattles off various over-the-top episodes from his spy career (think the Most Interesting Spy in the World) with bug-eyed conviction.
The film has flaws other than its joke hit rate. There’s some confused geography in the action; I think Feig can keep the jokes coming but I don’t know about his visual style. There’s also slightly shaky editing at times, and the third act gets too plotty for its own good; we have to care a bit about who’s doing what, but not that much.
In any case, Spy does what it sets out to do and more. It’s a funny spy genre romp/take-off (in a year littered with spy films), but its real triumph are the themes that its surface-level jokes illuminate around its central character. McCarthy and Statham own the film, and while Spy isn’t the funniest nor the most well-made comedy around, it’s good at its job. A weak 7/10.
With vintage brand recognition and the mandate to close summer movie season with the light touch of a romp, comes The Man from U.N.C.L.E., based on the 1960s TV show of the same name. It’s director Guy Ritchie’s latest stab at starting a buddy-action franchise (2009’s Sherlock Holmes), so expect plenty of style-as-substance fun. But in a year stuffed with spy films, can this one stand out?
As far as plot matters in this type of film, here it is. In 1963, the CIA’s Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) extracts mechanic and daughter of a former Nazi Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) from East Berlin, despite the best efforts of KGB killing machine Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer). After the dust settles, the gravity of an international threat looming from Victoria Vinciguerra’s (Elizabeth Debicki) plan to use Gaby’s father to build a nuclear warhead convinces the CIA and KGB to partner Solo and Kuryakin to neutralize this existential threat. But each agent is tasked by his respective government to betray his partner. Much distrust, and arguing about fashion choices, ensues between the two agents.
In this film, the buck kind of stops at the quality of the three leads, and their chemistry as a unit – luckily, this most important aspect of the film works a charm. In the Napoleon role, Cavill curates a heightened charm that fits into the overall splashy tone. Cavill is having a hell of a lot of fun, quite a contrast to the more stoic qualities Hollywood has brought out of him in the past (Immortals, Man of Steel). Bristling against Napoleon’s roguish charm is Armie Hammer’s flustered hardass Illya.
Illya is from a certain point of view portrayed as a stock character, all wounded Russian pride, and indeed at times it feels like he’s the butt of a screenplay-long joke. But hey, it’s a joke that works, and Hammer is game to have fun playing a straight man. It’s as if the screenplay leans into the cliché of Illya’s character by giving him psychotic episodes whenever his pride is punctured, and after it’s clumsily set up, these episodes shockingly work too, when used as a demonstrable ratcheting up of dramatic tension while Illya is undercover.
Five films into her stunning nine scheduled for release this year, Alicia Vikander is proving that she can do pretty much anything… including blending into the 1960s as if she belongs! Her Gaby is a mechanic, a fun but underutilized trait, and more or less an equal partner in the story. Unfortunately she’s a bit shoved to one side toward the end even as a reveal brings her onto a more level playing field with the male leads. So that’s another way Gaby fits into the 1960s: she’s a competent woman who’s sidelined…
The script is written by director Ritchie along with Lionel Wigram, a producer given his first screenplay credit. Ritchie would tinker with the script even while the pages were being shot, and encouraged ad-libs from his actors. This is a technique that fits the laid-back aesthetic of the film and one that does benefit the core trio of actors, but the consequence is that what plotty stuff does get translated on screen remains dense and non-involving. Now granted, at least some of the exposition is punched up by Ritchie’s trademark aerobic editing, courtesy of six-time Ritchie collaborative editor James Herbert (even though the briefing on Napoleon gave me severe déjà vu of their previous film, Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows). And the entire film is enlivened by Daniel Pemberton’s brash swinging music, which at times blurs the line between soundtrack and score – when you’re not sure whether the composer’s hand is in play or whether the instrumental track is ripped right from the 60s, he’s doing a bang-up job. There are times when the music is so forthright that it straddles the ridiculous, but I wouldn’t sacrifice the score for dignity at this point.
In short, the stylistic flourish of The Man of U.N.C.L.E. is there, with cast chemistry, savvy editing and a delightful score being the best elements on show. My favorite scene is a deftly crosscut sequence at a racetrack that uses editing and the plot device of Illya’s psychosis as fuel for its engine. Another really cool editing moment: the live-action segment behind the opening credits is cut exactly like a 1960s spy TV show (presumably like the show The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – I’ve not seen any episodes, though I understand the splitscreen technique used here is from the show). There is a lot of “callback” editing on show (cutting back in time to show a detail you missed when it actually happened), which comes across as self-satisfied in its own cleverness, but that’s not such a bad thing here.
Well, it’s sure a good thing that Ritchie is able to oversee editing, because he can’t direct action in this movie. There are numerous action beats swallowed into a bit of a vortex, but it’s not a complete picture of failure – the vehicular action is good, and Ritchie is assisted by the aforementioned splitscreen and other editing tricks that cover for him. More explicit in the film’s story, however, is the villain problem.
We are told multiple times that Victoria Vinciguerra is a force to be reckoned with, but when she shows up it would be a real stretch to say she lives up to the build-up, and she’s really abruptly dispatched. Show, don’t tell. Or at least tell, as well as show! There’s a wider problem with the layering of the villains, because beyond Victoria there are three other layers of “big bads” to peel through, and one in particular is also super-aggrandized before his swift fall. So we have this film that on a certain level doesn’t want you to care so much about its story because it lives and dies by other things (which is absolutely appropriate for a splashy franchise debut; don’t have a super-strong villain out the gate; style > substance; *nods in agreement*)… then persists in building up its lame-duck villains as if they’re more than they really are!
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. personifies 60s cool, with three dynamite super-likable leads, a great rollicking score, some smoothly effective editing, and did I mention those leads? I stand by the problems I have with the film, but I also acknowledge these are no dealbreakers. It’s fun! There is just something missing here, in addition to the problems I can articulate, that prevent me from giving this romp any more than: A strong 6/10.
P.S.: It’s ironic when Illya uses the nickname “cowboy” for his partner Napoleon, since Armie Hammer played The Lone Ranger in 2013!
Five Mission: Impossible films across 19 years, five different directors, each man solid in their own way, though John Woo was simply not a good fit for the franchise. The idea is to keep the series fresh and re-invigorate it with each installment, and it has worked like gangbusters; the fourth and now the fifth films find the series at the top of its game and better than ever before. Rogue Nation director and writer Christopher McQuarrie already proved himself an exceptional visual storyteller in Jack Reacher, and he delivers a barn-burning yet elegantly-made action film that keeps the Mission: Impossible franchise on cloud nine.
The plot: The Impossible Mission Force (IMF) is embattled on two fronts. They are being shut down by the influence of CIA head Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), and they are frustrated by their attempts to combat the shadowy terrorist organization known as the Syndicate and its enigmatic killing machine Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson). IMF specialist Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), tech support/comic relief Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), and CIA liaison William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) must bring down the Syndicate and convince Hunley of their relevance – both tasks seem equally impossible.
Audiences have been conditioned to go into a Mission: Impossible film expecting not only good action, but setpieces that stretch the limits of practical stunt work. Cruise set the bar literally as high as human architecture has risen when he scaled and ran down the side of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa in a watershed sequence in previous installment Ghost Protocol. How do you follow that up? Rogue Nation makes the brash decision to open on its answer: strapping Cruise onto the side of a plane as it takes to the sky. (For those interested in the logistics, Cruise hung on for eight complete ascending-to-landing takes of 45 minutes each!) Students of film discuss an opening scene as establishing a contract between a film and the audience – this intro promises a film worthy of such a show-stopping cold open… and it delivers. The action throughout is beautiful, always creative, and at times pleasingly elegant – my favorite action scene is the opera house sequence, which masterfully uses geography and editing for maximum tension and payoff.
The setpieces are there, and thankfully so is the supporting cast. The team dynamic that carries this franchise is utilized very well here, but the centerpiece of the ensemble is Ferguson as Ilsa Faust. Her character is a specialist like Ethan, and the pair establish a relationship of true equals; each ultra-competent agent complements the other, while neither lose touch of the humanity at the heart of their characters. And satisfyingly, there is not a hint of romantic tension between them – in fact, Ethan Hunt has not been portrayed as sexually available since Mission: Impossible 2. And finally, as the film’s villain, Sean Harris does a lot with relatively little screen time, solidifying my theory that only the odd-numbered films in the franchise feature effective villains.
All these potent elements are in service of a film that is very interested in engaging with why and how this franchise works. The missions are supposed to be impossible, right? And yet they’re accomplished every time because the team have a secret weapon: they’re the heroes in an action movie. When Benji reacts to exposition of a daunting task requiring the utmost precision to carry out, he blathers, “Well, that doesn’t sound impossible”. The line works on a couple levels: Benji is using humor to deflect the mission’s difficulty while still clearly uncomfortable with what the team has to do; and we as the audience are cued to the fact that there is no impossible mission the writers can throw at the IMF. Given his role in the films, Ethan Hunt is unkillable, unstoppable (but that doesn’t mean he can’t be battered like a rag doll time and time again). And Rogue Nation plays with Ethan’s status as the action hero in very fun ways throughout.
The film bears out these larger themes while always focusing on its own identity. And of course there is no clearer mechanism to defend the Mission: Impossible franchise in its venerability than including a subplot of the CIA shutting the IMF down. This film takes the over-familiar tropes of the franchise and consistently deploys them in fresh ways – it feels like a celebration but injected with new energy. And it all culminates beautifully in the most triumphant moment in the series.
I did have a small issue with the excessive twists and turns of the plot. This is the most complicated plot in the series since 1996’s debut installment, and in a couple instances I was at sea. But then again, part of the appeal of the franchise is how seriously it takes itself, and a labyrinthine plot fits right into that. Also, it might be argued that since techie/comic relief duty is split between Benji and Luther that each gets a little less to do.
Five films in, the series and its ageless star show no signs of slowing down. The setpieces in Rogue Nation are show-stoppers that deserve to be seen on the big screen. And even when the series’ main theme doesn’t accompany the action, it sort of feels like it is because the score is so big and brash – this is a confident film. Pyrotechnically and thematically alive, bolstered by the formidable Ilsa Faust and the evergreen Ethan Hunt, Rogue Nation makes the case to be possibly the best Mission: Impossible yet. 9/10.
Director/co-writer Matthew Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman adapt a Mark Millar graphic novel that riffs on an action sub genre. In 2010, this would have described the superhero riff Kick-Ass. In 2015, it describes the spy riff Kingsman: The Secret Service. But I can’t stress this enough: the most important thing about these two K-films is that while they are anarchic and subversive, they are not deconstructions or parodies of their genres; they understand what makes their genres tick, and what lies at the heart of their appeal. Elements that seem parodic are merely functions of taking certain tropes a couple steps further than other foundational genre texts ever did.
But let’s get down to the details of the film. Unbeknownst to working-class Londoner “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton), his late father was a Kingsman agent, involved in top secret intelligence and espionage. When technology mogul and cartoony villain Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) engineers the death of another Kingsman, veteran agent Harry Hart (Colin Firth) sets out to recruit Eggsy and open the young man’s eyes to a legacy he didn’t know he was a part of. The pressing goal of the day? To stop Valentine’s evil scheme of mass extermination on a global scale.
In a lot of ways Kingsman is infused with the sensibilities of a vintage Bond film, melding over-the-top and “classy” spy action with a modern setting more than any of the actual 21st Century Bond films have ever set out to. Indeed, Kingsman name-checks Ian Fleming’s spy often, and mentor figure Harry Hart has a classic type of spy name that fits on a shelf right next to such others as Emma Peel, John Steed, and of course James Bond. It’s all part of a balance that is always struck well; the film is playful in the extreme (especially when it comes to its glorious expressions of violence, aided by a wide variety of gadgets), while also playing straight what it needs to.
One such straightforwardly presented thing is the central relationship between Firth’s mentor Hart, and Egerton’s protagonist Eggsy, which shines through with both heart and good humor. Firth brings something very much of Roger Moore to his role as a smooth and assured gentleman spy, while Egerton’s rough-around-the-edges streetwise presence complements him well. About halfway through the film, Hart quotes Ernest Hemingway to Eggsy in a thesis central to the definition of a Kingsman: ‘There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self’. The point is well implemented in the screenplay, and gives the audience just enough of a solid underlying theme to give the action a foundation of legitimacy, and no more.
Kingsman is an extremely English film, full of its colorful dialects and the culture of the island. But one of its triumphs is in its continuity of “Britishness”. The various Kingsman agents have code names such as Galahad or Lancelot, bringing home the thread the film establishes as tying together everything from the uniquely British Arthurian legends, right to the modern expression of a parkouring, sarcastic working-class council estate denizen. Kingsman integrates both English archetypes, using that Hemingway quote for a precision-strike class-conscious message to bring some weight to the film.
That idea of continuity also extends to how the striking action sequences are shot. Vaughn and the editors use dynamic speeding effects, but they also get creative with cut-up sequences of frames. In other words, they remove certain frames to bring a punchy immediacy to the impact of the hits; everything hits faster and harder because the odd frame here and there has been removed. It’s a filmmaking technique that goes all the way back to the 1930s and 40s, used many a time for such manic sequences as saloon brawls. In this way Vaughn’s 2015 film takes some cues from an earlier and simpler time. Speaking of the action, I must also mention Bradley James Allen’s stunt coordination/action choreography; he also contributed to Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, The World’s End and others, so his talents are finding some pretty great venues.
Let’s get more into things that specifically happen in the film. So Sam Jackson’s lisping villain Valentine hatches a scheme relating to behavior-altering signals carried on mobile phone networks, which were all enticingly free to the consumer. It’s global misanthropy disguised as global philanthropy. The time at which everything hits the fan is codenamed V-Day, which is a totally subversive detail. When Valentine’s plan gets going, that’s when we get to a true dealbreaker of a scene; if you’ve seen the film, you only need to hear the words “church scene”.
What I love about this sequence is also what might be a sticking point for some. Kingsman overall is a bit subversive, a bit rude and lewd, but not to the extent that Vaughn’s previous Kick-Ass was. Kingsman‘s crazier elements are a bit more subdued and softened; while an off-the-wall opening scene does establish a contract with the audience, the anarchic element has moved more to the middle. So that’s what makes something as outrageous as the church sequence come out of nowhere. But that is a big part of what I treasure about the scene: it comes out of left field, and flips over all the tables.
Your mileage may also vary with the final joke before the credits, relating to a sexual reward for our hero Eggsy. It’s been a source of minor controversy, but I think it fits with what the film is doing: it’s another illustration of Kingsman taking something that’s omnipresent in the canon of James Bond, and taking it a step further. The joke sees the endings of The Spy Who Loved Me, For Your Eyes Only, The World is Not Enough and others… and raises them an R rating. Just like Valentine’s perpetration is like an extension of Hugo Drax’ detached international mayhem from Moonraker, and badass henchwoman Gazelle’s prosthetic leg blades are like Rosa Klebb’s footwear blade of From Russia with Love on steroids (in fact, the Kingsman arsenal scene features exact replicas of that shoe blade, making the connection clear). The ending joke even incorporates voyeurism like in the two Roger Moore Bonds I listed, so the joke is firmly a product of Kingsman‘s fascination with expanding on spy movie tradition.
Kingsman: The Secret Service is a fun ride, and a refreshing action film crafted with passion. The cast is exemplary, with Taron Egerton carrying the film as a promising newcomer, and he joins Dane De Haan as two up-and-coming actors who really remind me of a young Leonardo Di Caprio. Imagine if the three of them ever appeared in a film together… But I digress! If an R-rated spy adventure with equal streaks of refinement and smarminess, and a selection of beautifully shot violence appeals to you, don’t hesitate to check Kingsman out. A strong 8/10.