Friday, January 20, 2012

Haywire, Joyful Noise, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol


American Gladiators mixed martial arts star Gina Carano is a force of nature in the assassin-for-hire thriller Haywire. Known as the “face of women’s mixed martial arts”, Carano is a lone wolf black ops super soldier and operative and a radical feminist making her way in the world with only one man she trusts – her father.  Otherwise, she is surrounded by powerful and cunning agents, all men, capable of carrying out their murderous agendas with the blessing of various governments and agencies without benefit of conscience.  She’s alone, answerable to no one and protected by no one and is entirely able to put her conscience on hold.  She’s a remarkable character in contemporary films as physical as any superstar spy/fighter.  Jason Bourne, Ethan Hunt, John McLane, you have been warned.

Seems the filmmakers may not have trusted her entirely to pull off the role of Mallory Cane because they’ve surrounded her with an inordinate number of male heavy hitters for a film like this – Antonio Banderas, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Tatum Channing, even Michael Douglas.  They needn’t have worried.  Carano is skilled, beautiful; she can act, kill it, bring it home and fry it for dinner.

Cane meets with someone she knows from some sort of dark past, someone she doesn’t trust, in an upstate New York diner. Within moments they’re thrashing the tar out of each other –quite skilfully.  She escapes, hijacking a young trucker and driving away as she tells the guy the incredible story of how she got there, via Barcelona, Dublin, Paris with dead bodies in her wake and danger on her tail.  She gives him a list of names and places to remember to tell her story later on.

It started with an assignment in Spain to free a hostage, a violent assignment she shares with Channing that offers quite the showcase of her awesome martial arts skills.  Skip to her home near San Diego where she’s unpacking and preparing for some time off, when one of her contractors, and former lover (McEwan) asks her to do a final two night assignment that would be pretty much a holiday.  She agrees.

She’s in Dublin and enters Michael Fassbender as an agent posing as her husband.  The second their door closes behind them, he savagely attacks her and she gives it right back, instinctively, no reaction time elapses. Thus begins the most dangerous cycle of the story and the sickening realisation that she has been betrayed by her former lover.

Carano’s physical might is quite breathtaking.  There’s a fantastic moment where she crawls up a wall backwards and leaps forward to disable an opponent – her speed, response, strength and quick witted execution is beyond the scope of a Bourne or Hunt.  They’re actors, fighting; she’s the real thing, acting.

Unfortunately, this niche will probably limit her acting opportunities, but as far as her performance goes, she’s got it.  I didn’t doubt her motivation or intention for a second and what she accomplished as a storyteller is dead on.

Kudos to Soderbergh for finding this feminist character to play in an iconic genre and to find this woman in particular, it’s the icing on the cake.  Carano’s so powerful; she demands our attention in every frame.  Soderberg’s direction is as stylish as ever, but not so stylised that it removes us from our lead.

Joyful Noise

One thing is certain - people are allergic to real or imagined religious themes in films, and this film will have its haters, sight unseen.   The trailer shows people in gowns singing spirituals and they’re in a church!   And that’s a shame – the doubters will miss rousing, spine tingling musical numbers sung by Queen Latifah, Dolly Parton and the film’s young stars, excellent singers and entertainers Keke Palmer and Jeremy Jordan.  Hip doesn’t have to mean narrow-minded, people.

The story’s set in a small Georgia town where the local church choir is building up its repertoire to compete in a national gospel competition in Los Angeles.  It’s led by the briefly glimpsed Kris Kristofferson, who is married to the self-important musical arranger and chief donor G.G. (Parton). He is taken ill during a performance and taps Vi Rose (Latifah) to take over for him. 

On his death, the local pastor (Courtney B. Vance) stirs an already simmering pot of contention between Vi Rose and G.G. by naming Vi Rose as choir leader.   That doesn’t sit well with G.G. who threatens to withdraw her financial support and soon its full steam ahead on the mutual hating. Things devolve into catfights, hair pulling and the throwing of food.  Worse still, Vi Rose’ daughter Olivia (Palmer) and G.G.’s grandson, the aptly named Randy (Jordan) are starting to feel their own thing simmering just below the surface.

Rose’ son who suffers from Asperger’s is being mentored by Randy even though Randy’s in Vi Rose bad books re: Olivia.  A choir member who hasn’t had any action for four years finally finds a fella and he dies in bed on her (“Tap me and die!”, she frets), G.G.’s mourning her late husband, Vi Rose is living as a single mother because her husband has asked for a second –go-round with the military, a bully makes his presence felt,  the local hardware is about to shut down due to hard times, the choir can’t decide whether to go traditional or wild, so much to consider !!  117 minutes can’t comfortably give space and air to so many subplots.

However, by the third act, things take a turn for the way better!  Obviously the choir will go to Los Angeles to compete, otherwise, there’s no story. No spoiler. The point is, the filmmakers found some of the best gospel talent around and put them in the movie as competitors and this is where they belong..  The power of all these wonderful voices and harmonies is magic and the film is suddenly foot-stompingly infectious.  Young Ivan Kelley Jr. kills it in a devastatingly uplifting and energetic performance as does real life gospel star Kirk Franklin.

Anyway, it’s all about tolerance, family values, the changing south, surviving hard times, music, love and more love.  As corny as it all sounds, its best to let the music do the talking and we’ll worry about the right wing religious meaning of it all some other time.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol IMAX

Tom Cruise is a force of nature in the franchise’ fourth outing; older and looking older, and as nimble as ever, Ethan Hunt represents the kind of movie spy with mass commercial appeal as well as he ever did.  Cruise in fine form as of days of yore, framed by a nicely meaty story and his outrageous signature MI stunts.

Take for instance rappelling on the 130th floor of a Dubai Hotel – I’ve seen the sequence twice now it’s as thrilling, mesmerising and brain challenging as any stunt Cruise has performed.  I’m told there were no body doubles used, that’s Cruise, and there’s no green screen.  It looks horrifyingly authentic enough, except for the approaching CGI sandstorm.  It defies belief but there you have it. Thrilling.

The film barrels along at a hell of a pace from one gob smacking stunt to another, from one exotic location to another, fists flying and gadgets humming. Check the world’s coolest parking garage.

We find Hunt in a Russian prison for allegedly murdering four Serbians.  But he manages to smash his way out during a riot, staged for him, as a fellow agent Benji (Simon Pegg) newly assigned to the field, controls the prison computer system.  Pegg isn’t asked to do much more than comment sarcastically, work the computer (always a thankless cinematic role) and add some comic nerd relief.  But he is charming against Cruise no nonsense attitude.

Hunt makes his escape, taking with him a valuable Russian “asset” who may be able to lead him to nuclear access codes via an international black market.  Someone wants to start a nuclear war and the first attack is about to be launched.   Hunt must get the bomb’s access code and stop it cold.

 A new agent Jane (Paula Patton) who recently lost her lover murdered by an elusive baby faced assassin (Léa Seydoux) joins Hunt in his quest to find the codes.  Patton brings an incredible physicality and authenticity as well as quick responses.  And being strikingly gorgeous, Jane is also asked to seduce those ever elusive codes from besotted marks. 

Hunt masquerades as a Russian officer to get past otherwise impenetrable Kremlin security to find the codes on his own.  There’s an amazing gizmo – a high tech curtain he positions in front of a security desk officer to replicate his view at the end of the hall.  That way he and Benji can move up on him hidden behind this virtual view.  The Kremlin explodes as they make their getaway, but they didn’t do it. 

Hunt’s impossible mission takes him to and his team from Russia to Dubai, and then Mumbai, to railroad cars, glitterati events where he can look damn fine in a tux and run tin into the eye of the sandstorm.  The destinations are photographed beautifully which totally adds to the films eye appeal.  The travelogue aspects of the MI outings are always welcome.   The world of MI:4 is seductive, brilliant and exotic.

The film is just a teeny bit longer than it should be but that’s small potatoes.  The film is engaging, thrilling, fun and eye popping and Cruise is just fine, thank you.   It cost $140M to make and from this critic’s point of view, its money well spent just for the escapism it offers.  It doesn’t pretend to be anything it isn’t and as mass appeal action adventure goes, its tops.

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