Friday February 3rd, 2012 21:45 Mission:Impossible – Ghost Protocol

Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol poster

No number.

I thought there were two separate Tom Cruise movies at first – the Mission:Impossible sequel and Ghost Protocol, because there are now so many sequels in the franchise that they’ve started to dispense with the numbering for fear of putting people off.

The franchise is showing signs of becoming long in the tooth, but Ghost Protocol is still the best of the sequels. Director Brad Bird (yes, he of The Iron Giant and Pixar fame) put a stop to trying to be a James Bond wannabe and delivered a fast and frenetic action flick that doesn’t take the super agent/secret spy thing too seriously.

The premise: a misanthropic idealist nutter Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist) thinks that blowing up the entire world with the stockpiles of nuclear weapons accumulated by the Americans and Russians will rid the Earth of the scourge of humanity, allowing the planet to start anew. (Nevermind that the radioactive half-life will basically make the planet uninhabitable for thousands, if not millions of years.)

Meanwhile an IMF team are attempting to track down and identify a mysterious terrorist codenamed “Cobalt”. After the assassination of one of their agents, they extract Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) from a Russian jail to help. He leads them in an audacious raid on the Kremlin for information, but things go awry and the good guys are implicated in a simultaneous terrorist attack on the building by Hendricks, which causes the Russians to assume that the Americans have declared war and forcing the United States government to put the eponymous Ghost Protocol into effect, disavowing any knowledge of the IMF and cutting off support.

I found it strange that the scriptwriters found it necessary to spell out to the audience exactly why the odds are stacked against Hunt and co. at this point, because you know there’s no chance of them failing. The ideal of an M:I story should be more about showing a situation where we gasp and think to ourselves “how the hell are they going to get out of this?!” instead of being told right from the beginning “it’s impossible, but if you fail the world will end OMFGBBQ!” It takes all tension out of the overarching plot, and relies purely on the visceral thrills to deliver.

Speaking of thrills, there wasn’t much “Impossible” in the movie – all of the gadgets and gizmos showcased are pretty old hat (or at least would be if you stay abreast of science and technology news like me):

  • Microsoft Surface
  • Gecko Gloves
  • Hi-res 3D screens with eye tracking
  • Passenger avoidance HUD
  • etc.

All of these have been talked about in scientific journals and technology news sites for a while now, so I found myself feeling very “meh” rather than amazed about the whole thing.

But those criticisms aside, the movie feels “comfortable”. It could very well be the rehashing of the old Cold War trope of Russians vs. Americans (has the Middle-East-as-bad-guy finally fallen out of favour?) and the spectre of nuclear war, bringing the M:I back to the era where it originated from. And at the end of the day that’s the point of a franchise, isn’t it?

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Saturday January 7th, 2012 20:44 Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang

Stories of Your Life and Others

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I purchased Stories of Your Life and Others based on a recommendation on a discussion forum, which in hindsight was an odd thing for me to do since I’ve been burned by random internet recommendations before. However, that recommendation came from Amazon.com reviews; this one came from the geeks on the Ars Technica OpenForum, and I should know better than to doubt those guys.

Stories is an amazing compilation of Ted Chiang’s work. He’s probably the most famous science fiction author you’ve never heard of – well, I’d never heard of him before anyway. He only writes short stories, and since his first was published in 1990, he has only written 13 in total (spread out quite evenly across two-and-a-bit decades). The man has won more awards than the number of pieces he’s written, and not just crappy unknown ones either – Hugo and Nebula awards.

Although it’s pitched as sci-fi, it fits uncomfortably with the popular notion of the genre as stories about technology and/or the future. The short stories in this book would be more accurately described as “high-level dreaming” (Wikipedia puts them into the rather unhelpful category of “speculative fiction”).

Themes range from the religious (buidling the biblical Tower of Babel) through socio-political (a drug that allows people to “turn off” the part of the brain that perceives and creates bias towards beauty), to things that people do normally associate with SF (aliens, maths, automata), but his treatment of these topics is unlike anything I’ve ever read before.

Two things that I greatly admire about Chiang are:

  • how very far he goes in imagining the worlds that creates, often taking your breath away with the dizzying heights of his imagination, and
  • the brevity of words – he writes extremely lucidly and communicates complex topics with an efficiency of words and depth of emotion that reminds me of Ursula Le Guin.

Stories of Your Life and Others is both the last book I finished in 2011 and also the best one, and I hope that through this first GeekReads book review of 2012, more people will be introduced to this great author.

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Monday January 2nd, 2012 09:34 Contagion

Drat. Thanks to a lazy week spent in the sweltering heat of Adelaide in between Christmas and New Year, I failed to complete all my 2011 reviews. Oh well, doesn’t mean that I’m going to let them lapse though – will keep chugging along in 2012. Last year was fairly flat as far as good movies go (not that there weren’t exceptions) but this year looks to be a ripper.

Contagion poster

Some of these cities aren't in the movie, but why let that get in the way of a good acrostic eh?

Back to the review: Contagion is one of those ensemble dramas a la Crash featuring a host of big names in several simultaneous but separate plot threads. First we have Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon), whose wife Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) contracted the disease while on a business trip to Hong Kong, and seems to be the main carrier for the disease. Beth dies and Mitch – who is immune to the disease – finds himself dealing simultaneously with grief, caring for their daughter, and protecting themselves from the madness of civilised society collapsing around him in the panic caused by the outbreak.

Next is Dr. Ellis Cheever (Lawrence Fishburn) as the head of the US Center for Disease Control (CDC), and his field agent Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet). Her role is to investigate and contain outbreaks of the disease in the US, with the difficult task of motivating action in the face of apathy and government bureacracy.

Third is the agent dispatched by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to investigate the source of the virus, Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard). In Hong Kong, she gets involved with a few members of the local police force who are fanatical about protecting their relatives in a small rural village.

Lastly we have Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) – who comes up with these names!? – as a cariacature of the “citizen journalist”, a crackpot who believes that the whole thing is a dramatic conspiracy by the drug companies to improve their share price.

The glue holding them all together here is the threat of a global disease epidemic – tracing the paths of the very many activities that happen in such a scenario. It’s a surprisingly robust cinematic exploration of what would happen in the event of a major outbreak of a severity equal to or greater than that of the SARS “bird flu” outbreak or the more recent H1N1 variant. I have it on good authority (one of Jenny’s medico friends) that the portrayal of the medical profession at least is quite accurate.

The movie portrays many different perspectives on the story from a purely neutral perspective, not deifying or demonising any particular side. Even the odious government bureacrat doesn’t get her well-deserved comeuppance, as one would expect, and characters that don’t deserve to die, do. Overall, a very interesting intellectual diversion from the usual movie-going fare.

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Tuesday December 13th, 2011 20:38 War Horse

War Horse

Ooh, a low angle shot with the sky in the background. It's a drama then eh?

Steven Spielberg’s latest, War Horse, is based on a play (which in turn is based on a book). Considering the central character is a horse, I’d be curious to see how they pull that off on stage – do they use a real horse? The story is a pastiche of human events intertwined with the life of Joey, the horse of the movie’s title.

Spielberg’s adaption feels like a faithful recreation of a play. That is, there’s a very clear delineation between each of the movie’s sections, and like some stage-to-screen adaptations (e.g. Chicago), the main difference is that the backgrounds and props are real instead of stage contrivances.

Not being a history buff, I found the movie’s depiction of certain aspects of World War I odd – why did the English charge the Germans on horseback with swords, when guns clearly existed (and were used enthusiastically throughout the rest of the movie)? But being primarily a horse biography rather than a war flick (which I don’t normally like), I quite enjoyed it.

The themes were often quite depressing – the movie endeavours to show that the war was hard on people on both sides – but there were times when attempts to lighten the mood seriously threatened the film’s credibility. One scene featuring a pesky goose wandered dangerously close to Babe territory, and you almost expect the animals to start talking.

There’s also a very close resemblence to the 2005 foreign film Joyeux Noël, but I won’t spoil the particulars of that for you.

If you like horses, there’s probably no question that you’ll like this movie and should go see it. Likewise if you enjoy dramas. For everyone else, this is probably a DVD rental.

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Saturday December 10th, 2011 21:11 Horrible Bosses

The end of the year is coming up fast, and if I have any hope of clearing out my backlog of reviews then I’d better get cracking – there’s still a few to go. I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned this, but it was one of my writing goals for this year to review every movie that I watch in the cinema, and every book I read. The odd video game or other thing would stick its head in here and there, on rare occasions when the writing bug would take hold.

Horrible Bosses

The missing text for the bottom three pictures are "Weeny", "Whiney" and "Schmoe"

Onto the review. Horrible Bossees doesn’t so much have a plot as a framework on which a number of jokes are hung. These range from mildly annoying to genuinely amusing. My guess is that the movie was a contrivance allowing the screenplay writers to give themselves carte blanche to have a bunch of suburban middle-class white men to make inappropriate social comments.

The three eponymous bosses are extreme cariacatures of treacherousness, libidinousness, and nepotistic…ness. Each is paired up with one of our hapless heroes: Nick (Jason Bateman), Dale (Charlie Day) and Kurt (Jason Sudeikis). In a style reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz – lacks a certain je ne sais qua that would allow him to escape his situation. It’s in these dire straits that the trio half-jokingly formulate a plan to assassinate their superiors, and the movie takes a turn for the better.

Enter Jamie Foxx as a shady hitman. The scenes with him in it almost justifies the existence this movie (to say nothing of Jennifer Aniston’s, um… appearances – whatever you choose to read into that word).

What makes the movie border on intolerable is the way that Dave’s whiney voice increases in pitch throughout the whole movie until by the end his screechings give Chris Rock a run for his money.

Kevin Spacey, as Nick’s boss Dave Harken, did well with what he was given; he plays the snarky bad guy with ease. Colin Farrell’s talents were completely wasted (har har) in the role of drug addled Bobby Pellitt, Kurt’s nemesis, and Aniston tries desperately to reinvent herself as a sexy middle-aged woman, although she has obviously had herself cosmetically altered to have the body of someone much younger. Still, her acting was as unmoving as her gravity defying bosoms, and as wooden as the nether regions of those who watched this for its smut potential.

Watch this one if you’ll be happy for 15 minutes of genuine belly laughs to justify the other hour-and-a-half of crude, lewd, “dude” humour.

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