Film Review: Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation (dir by Christopher McQuarrie)


Rebecca FergusonEarlier tonight, Jeff and I saw Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation and now I’m pretty sure that I’m developing huge girl crush on actress Rebecca Ferguson.

She plays Ilsa Faust, a former operative for M.I.6. who is now somehow involved with a shadowy terrorist organization known as The Syndicate.  And while Ilsa may only be a supporting character (because, after all, this is a Mission Impossible film and therefore, Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is unquestionably the star), she dominates every scene that she’s in.  Whether she’s escape the scene of an attempted assassination while wearing a dress that is simply to die for or rescuing Ethan Hunt from certain death, Ilsa Faust is a woman who kicks ass, takes no prisoners, and looks great while she’s doing it.  As much as I love Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff, Ilsa Faust is my new espionage role model.

The movie attempts to suggest that there’s some sexual chemistry between Ilsa and Ethan.  Oddly enough, there’s not.  Tom Cruise looks good and he gives a confident and likable performance but, as a character, Ethan comes across as being almost asexual.  He seems to be attracted to only intrigue and danger.  And yet, that lack of authentic romantic chemistry actually works to the film’s advantage.  Ilsa is never reduced to merely being a love interest.  Instead, she’s an equal to Ethan throughout the entire film.

Of course, Ilsa has secrets of her own.  Everyone in Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation has a secret.  The film opens with the IMF being disbanded and its operatives being absorbed into the CIA.  When the CIA director (Alec Baldwin, in full jerk mode) orders Ethan to stop investigating the Syndicate, Ethan goes underground and continues his activities in secret.  His allies (Jeremy Renner, Ving Rhames, and the great Simon Pegg) can only help him in secret.  The origins of the Syndicate turn out to be the biggest secret of all.  There are so many secrets in Rogue Nation that it’s sometimes hard to keep track of them all but, again, that works to the film’s advantage.  It keeps the audience off-balance.  You never know when someone’s going to suddenly pull out a gun and start shooting or rip off a mask and reveal themselves to be someone else.

Rogue Nation is an entertaining action film.  The stunts are spectacular and the set pieces are exciting and enjoyably over the top.  (There’s a scene where Ethan Hunt has to change out a security card while holding his breath underwater and I literally watched it through my fingers.)  I wouldn’t suggest trying to read too much into the film and yet, at the same time, Rogue Nation does capture the paranoid times in which we live. The film manages to both condemn the excesses of government while celebrating the toys that make those excesses possible.  The average film goer may not be able to do all of the things that Ilsa and Ethan can do but we all know what it’s like not to trust authority.

That’s what makes Solomon Lane, the main villain played by Sean Harris, such an interesting character.  I know that some reviewers have complained that Lane’s role was underwritten but I have to disagree.  Lane may not be as verbose as the typical spy movie villain but I appreciated the fact that he remained somewhat enigmatic up to the conclusion of the film.  He never made the mistake of over explaining his evil plan and accidentally giving the IMF team extra time in which to defeat him.  (Solomon Lane obviously learned his lesson from watching countless would-be world conquerors accidentally allow James Bond to get the better of them.)  Lane may be ruthless and evil but he’s also a revolutionary who is outraged by some of the same things that the rest of us are outraged by.  This brings a welcome hint of ambiguity to the film.

Though it never quite reaches the lunatic highs of either Kingsman or Furious Seven, Rogue Nation is still an enjoyable and effective action movie.  Undoubtedly, Ethan and the IMF team will return in another installment.  Here’s hoping that Ilsa Faust gets a spin-off of her very own.

 

 

That’s Blaxploitaion!: BLACK BELT JONES (Warners 1974)


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Here’s the recipe for the quintessential 70s flick: Take a huge hunk of blaxpolitation, add equal parts kung-fu action, throw in some Mafia type villains. Stick em all in a blender with some generic funk music, and you’ve got BLACK BELT JONES. This movie was made to cash in on all three crazes, and to make a star out of Jim ‘The Dragon’ Kelly, who appeared in director Robert Clouse’s previous kung-fu extravaganza ENTER THE DRAGON, starring the immortal Bruce Lee.  Kelly looked good onscreen, and had all the right martial art moves. Unfortunately, he couldn’t act his way out of a Chinese take-out box. Nobody can in this film except gorgeous Gloria Hendry, who plays Kelly’s kung-fu partner/love interest Sydney.

The plot’s basically just there to hang the action scenes on: Mafia chief Don Stefano tries to grab some land the city of Los Angeles wants for a new civic center. He sends Pinky, the local black gangleader, to…

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Lisa Watches An Oscar Winner: Mrs. Miniver (dir by William Wyler)


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Mrs. Miniver, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1942, is often treated somewhat dismissively by film historians.  The film tells the story of the Minivers, an upper middle class British family whose peaceful lives are changed forever by the start of World War II.  When the film initially went into production, the U.S. was still a neutral country.  As shooting commenced, the U.S. edged closer and closer to entering the war and, as a result, the script was continually rewritten to make Mrs. Miniver even more pro-British and anti-German than before.  The finished film was released four months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, by which point Mrs. Miniver had gone from being domestic drama to being both a celebration of British resilience and the Allied war effort.  “If the Minivers can do it,” the film told audiences, “why can’t you?”  As a result, Mrs. Miniver is often described as being merely effective propaganda.

Well, Mrs. Miniver may indeed be propaganda but it’s amazingly effective propaganda.  I recently DVRed it off of TCM and I have to admit that, as a result of those previously mentioned film historians, I wasn’t expecting much.  But I was in tears by the end of the film.  Yes, World War II has long since ended.  And yes, I could watch the movie and see all of the tricks and the heavy-handed manipulations that were employed to get the desired emotional response from the audience but it didn’t matter.  The film is so effective and so well-acted that you’re willing to be manipulated.

(Of course, it helps that there’s not much nuance to World War II.  As far as wars go, WWII was as close to a fight between good and evil as you can get.  If you can’t celebrate propaganda that was designed to defeat the Nazis, then what can you celebrate?)

As for the film itself, Greer Garson plays Kay Miniver, matriarch of the Miniver Family.  Her husband, Clem (Walter Pidgeon) is a successful architect.  When we first meet Kay and Clem, the only thing that they have to worry about is the annual village rose show.  (Henry Travers — who everyone should love because he played Clarence in It’s A Wonderful Life — plays the eccentric stationmaster who is determined to win with his rose.)  However, that all changes when they go to church and the vicar (Henry Wilcoxin) announces that Great Britain has declared war on Germany.

Life changes.  Soon, Kay must hold her family together while bombs are falling from the sky.  When Clem is away, helping out with the Dunkirk evacuation, Kay comes across a wounded German flyer (Helmut Dantine) in her garden.  The flyer demands that Kay give him food and when she does, he snarls that the Third Reich will be victorious.  He then passes out from his injuries, allowing Kay to take his gun and call the police.  (Reportedly, this scene was rewritten and reshot several times, with the German becoming progressively more hateful with each new version.)

Kay’s son, Vincent (Richard Ney), joins the Royal Air Force.  He also falls in love with Carol Beldon (Theresa Wright), the daughter of the aristocratic Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty).  Over the concerns of Lady Beldon, Carol marries Vincent and she becomes the second Mrs. Miniver.  They do so, despite knowing that Vincent will probably be killed before the war ends.

Of course, there is tragedy.  People who we have come to love are lost, victims of the German onslaught.  Throughout it all, the Minivers (and, by extension, the rest of Great Britain) refuse to give into despair or to lose hope.  The film ends with them singing a hymn in a church that no longer has a roof and listening as the vicar tells them why they will continue to fight.

And yes, it’s all very manipulative but it’s also very effective.  I did cry and the film earned those tears.  In many ways, Mrs. Miniver is perhaps most valuable as a time capsule.  It’s a film about World War II that was actually made during the war and, as such, it provides a window into the attitudes and culture of the time.  But, if the film is valuable as history, it’s also just as valuable as a well-made melodrama.

I’m not sure if I would say that Mrs. Miniver deserved to defeat Kings Row for best picture of 1942.  But it’s still an undeniably good film.