★★★ / ★★★★
Robert Zemeckis’ “Allied” wears the spirit of a 1940s picture, so beautifully detailed in nearly every aspect. With its ability and willingness to unfold slowly, it dares us to appreciate the minutiae, from the material of clothing and how it matches with or contrasts against walls or sides of buildings to the subtle interior changes a character goes through upon learning information that might lead to a reassessment of a relationship. Here is a film that has an intriguing story to tell where no easy solution is offered. Had screenwriter Steven Knight been less ambitious, it would have turned out to be just another spy thriller and a hunt for a mole.
Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard portray an intelligence officer and a French Resistance fighter in World War II, Max Vatan and Marianne Beauséjour, who are assigned in Casablanca to assassinate a Nazi ambassador. It is apparent that the two experienced dramatic performers enjoy their roles for they infuse a high level of energy behind every body language and between exchange of words. And coating their enthusiasm for the roles is a frisky elegance, so joyous to watch and think about because these are characters who at times do not say exactly what they mean. They come across as real individuals who just so happen to belong in a world of secrets and lies where differences could mean life or death.
The first half of the film comes across as an extended exposition. Although it may bother or annoy less patient viewers who crave action from the get-go, I was completely enraptured by its rhythm, long silences, and knowing glances. The material provides a realistic situation of how people may act around one another when handling a top-secret government assignment. Equally important during this hypnotic first hour, we get to a chance to ascertain who is the better tactician depending on the occasion. Max and Marianne’s respective approaches to complete a task differ greatly sometimes. And through their differences we recognize specific reasons why are attracted to one another eventually.
Although still intriguing, the second half is less strong by comparison. With the story moving away from exotic Casablanca to London, the locales are not as exciting visually. Perhaps the intention is to shift our focus from environment to increasing internal struggles, particularly of Max receiving news that his wife is possibly a German spy, but there is a way to pull off such a strategy. One way is perhaps to amplify the human drama. Instead, the dramatic core, while able to offer surprising details at times with its elegant screenplay, it remains as subtle as a flickering ember rather than a full-on blaze.
The suspense is embedded in how much we have grown to care for the characters. This is a challenge because we go in with the assumption that it is going to trick us somehow, or try to at the very least, since, after all, it is an espionage picture. But because those behind and in front of the camera choose to treat the material seriously and with respect, genuinely committing to a sub-genre that is not foreign to a spice of melodrama, it works somehow. Those who jump in with an open mind will be pleasantly surprised.
★★★ / ★★★★
With her mentor killed in action and the rest of the CIA’s active agents’ identities compromised, Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy), a computer analyst, volunteers to go on a field assignment to track a nuclear weapons buyer (Bobby Cannavale) and report directly to her superior (Allison Janney)—emphasis on track and report. But once actually in the field, starting in Paris, circumstances compel Susan to engage in more than what she has been assigned. Susan’s best friend at work, Nancy (Miranda Hart), backs her up through her mission via an earpiece.
Written and directed by Paul Feig, “Spy” is infectious fun because of its energy, a willingness to take risks both on a physical comedy level and witty banters, and the action offers fresh surprises missing too often in action-comedies. But perhaps what I enjoyed most about the picture is that the script does not rely solely on fat jokes to be funny. Every character is the butt of a joke at one point or another whether it be in terms of their looks, personality, or position of power. It is a comedy with a good spirit.
McCarthy proves once again that she is a star—not a chameleon but a performer who commands powerful magnetism when she is on screen. Her character is required to wear the most ridiculous disguises but McCarthy’s personality and inner-light is so strong, she does not get lost in the unflattering wig and hideous clothes. This is a story of a likable underdog who is underestimated at times because of the way she looks. And yet there is no lesson in the end about loving oneself or something cheesy like that. McCarthy makes the story, even though it is a spy comedy, more grounded, relatable.
Although the material offers a consistent ebb and flow of action and comedy, it does run a little long. The last few scenes, once the twist is revealed, are not as interesting even though the material is still able to deliver a forward momentum. I suppose the whole situation involving a deal going awry during the final act has been done so many times that maybe removing it altogether would have been the best decision. Still, even though the final fifteen minutes offers nothing new, it is watchable and has a few jokes worth sitting through.
In terms of standout supporting performances, it is a toss-up between Jason Statham, playing a very enthusiastic spy (to say the least), and Rose Byrne, portraying a femme fatale with the hopes of selling nuclear weapons. Statham is so intense that it feels as though his character came from a completely different movie—maybe from a pure action flick or a high-end action-thriller. Just about every moment he is on screen, he is making fun of his previous roles involving men with a certain talent for violence and a knack for extrication from trickiest situations. Byrne, on the other hand, is beautiful, as expected, but she has a lot of fun with the role. She oozes sex appeal but mixed with a bit of menace. When her character signals her bodyguards to punish those who have wronged her, it can be chilling especially when the violence happens off-screen.
“Spy” does not change the landscape of action-comedies in any way, but it does offer a good time. Although the template is composed of standard material we expect from the sub-genre, there is enough inspiration here that delivers creativity and intelligence, coupled with amusing performances across the board without the screenplay necessarily relying only on caricatures to make the gags work.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
A relatively simple retrieval turned excessively complicated when three IMF agents failed to realize that there was another group interested in acquiring the same documents they were after. One of them ended up dead (Josh Holloway) so it was up to the other two to rescue Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) from a Berlin prison. While the prison break was successful, Hunt, Benji (Simon Pegg), and Jane (Paula Patton) were blamed for the bombing of The Kremlin which meant, in the least, a breach of international relations between Russia and the United States. As a result, the president issued Ghost Protocol: a disavowal of all IMF agents and their activities, which implied they were now rogue agents and, if captured, to be treated as terrorists. It was up to Hunt and company to exonerate the IMF from unjust blame and to prevent the real terrorists from starting a nuclear war. “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” written by Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec, was the expected fast-paced and globe-trotting action-adventure escapism with a myriad of twists to spare, proof that the franchise is worth continuing given that it has a strong script and is led by a director with a keen eye for detail and a solid grasp between thrill and suspense. Excellence was prevalent in the first hour and a half. The scene inside the Kremlin where serious Hunt and hilarious Benji had to set up an optical illusion in the hallway using advanced gadgetry, making them invisible to the guard as they broke into a vault, was genius. The scene was done without any dialogue and almost no sound but it garnered so much nerve-wracking tension, a beep on the computer or a silent opening of a door felt as threatening as watching someone put a gun on another person’s head, pulling the trigger, but no bullet comes out. Just a deafening click. Another scene I found myself very engaged in was when Ethan chased a terrorist through a sandstorm in the magnificently urban Dubai. Talk about using the environment as an inspiration for an action sequence. It was a typical cat-and-mouse chase but, like the first scene, made exponentially complicated when sand and wind were raging all over the streets which made our protagonist blind to potential threats like cars swooshing by. However, the film wasn’t without important missing pieces. I would’ve liked to have gotten to know more about the villains. Sabine Moreau (Léa Seydoux), a diamond collector, killed Jane’s partner in the field. While it was very exciting to watch them duke it out in a posh Dubai–and extremely, vomit-inducingly high–hotel room, if we had known Sabine’s background a bit more, either she was painted as more ruthless and cunning or, more interestingly, slightly more sympathetic, then it just wouldn’t be about Jane wanting revenge for someone she lost which, by the way, grew tired as the movie went on. Sentimentality was not this installment’s forté. I was more interested in the relationship between Hunt and Brandt (Jeremy Renner), an analyst bearing a heavy personal secret, who may or may not be a double agent. Furthermore, Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), the leading terrorist, ultimately felt like a henchman. It was odd that didn’t we get to see Hendricks and Hunt speak to each other. Not one word. Regardless, “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” directed by Brad Bird, had enough highs that gave me chills with how good it was. And guess what? It made me laugh, too.
Mission: Impossible II (2000)
★ / ★★★★
Dr. Nekhorvich (Rade Serbedzija) was on the plane to the United States after he discovered a virus named Chimera, fatal to its host within twenty hours of contact. However, the only way to transport the virus safely was to inject it inside a living person. The plane never made it to its destination. Meanwhile, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) was assigned by his superior (Anthony Hopkins) to recruit Nyah (Thandie Newton), a professional thief, so that she could reconnect with Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), former beau and rising international terrorist. Incidentally, Ambrose used to double for Hunt during missions back when he was still an IMF agent. He’d gone rogue and he planned to profit from the virus by forcing a pharmaceutical company CEO (Brendan Gleeson) to surrender his company. Based on the screenplay by Robert Towne and directed by John Woo, “Mission: Impossible II” was everything Brian De Palma’s “Mission: Impossible” was not: gone were the atmospheric paranoia that kept the characters from fully trusting each other, the heart-pounding scenes in which silence was successfully executed to attain the highest levels of suspense, and the thrilling possibility that anyone could drop dead at any time. Instead, we were subjected to more hand-to-hand combat, slow motions that featured Cruise’ well-shampooed and well-conditioned hair, and forceful, supposedly meaningful, glances between Hunt and Nyah, both of whom shared no chemistry. I wouldn’t have a problem with the direction the filmmakers wanted to take if more thought was put into it. The elements of great drama, a bridge to a solid action movie with a heart, were certainly there. Nyah was trapped between two men, obviously attracted to her, who used to work for the same team. But how were Ethan, not as Hunt the IMF agent, and Sean, not as Ambrose the criminal, different and similar to each other? The closest we got to getting to know them was toward the end when they tried to kill each other from their motorcycles. Ambrose knew how Ethan worked and processed information given that they went through the same training. There should have been more scenes when Ambrose took advantage of the fact that he knew who he was up against. Ethan, on the other hand, didn’t know much about Ambrose. He saw the man as just his double. It would make sense if he took a while to get accustomed to his adversary. Furthermore, there was a duality involving Greek mythology: Chimera, a monster with a head of a lion and a tail of a serpent’s head, and Bellerophon, a hero most famous for slaying Chimera. Incidentally, Chimera was the name of the virus and Bellerophon was the name of the cure. But how was Chimera and Bellerophon related to Ambrose and Hunt, respectively? The film missed another opportunity to further explore its characters independent of blazing guns and egregious slow motion montages. What bothered me most was the script seemed desperate to turn Ethan Hunt into James Bond. Doing something different for a sequel does not mean it’s acceptable to be disloyal to the original character. It means giving us something unexpected but still hanging onto his core, the reason why we rooted for him in the first place.
Mission: Impossible (1996)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Phelps (Jon Voight) and his American spies (Tom Cruise, Emmanuelle Béart, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Emilio Estevez) were assigned in Prague to intercept a disk from a terrorist before a trade was made. The disk contained the aliases of undercover agents in Europe. If coupled with another disk, bearing the real of names of the IMF agents, important long-term missions would be compromised. But something went wrong in Prague. Phelps and his agents ended up dead with the exception of Ethan Hunt (Cruise). Kittridge (Henry Czerny), an IMF operative, was suspicious and believed that Hunt was a double agent. Like a pest inside a controlled system, he was to be captured and exterminated. Based on a television series by Bruce Geller, “Mission: Impossible,” directed by Brian De Palma, was a tense and atmospheric spy film but it wasn’t afraid to jump into cheekiness when it came to the dialogue and physically demanding stunts. As a result, coupled with a handful of creative twists and turns, it was very entertaining to watch. The best scene involved Hunt breaking into the CIA vault with the help of disavowed agents (Ving Rhames, Jean Reno). The way the trio handled complicated hurdles in order to prevent triggering the pesky alarm was suspenseful because it turned the viewers’ expectations upside down then turning it right back up just when we think we had it all figured out. I was particularly impressed with the small details. Hunt and Krieger had to crawl in the vents before getting into the room of interest. When Hunt slowly descended in the room, his arms were actually covered with dust and grime throughout the entire relentless, breathless, soundless mission. Even though there was something silly about the way it all unfolded, like the CIA analyst (Rolf Saxon) having to go in and out of the restroom while Hunt and his team extracted information from a computer, that level of attention to detail was a small but important reminder that the filmmakers respected the project as well as their audiences. Another scene that stood out, for a different reason, was the train sequence. The way the score was piled on top of one another as danger increased then capping them off with the movie’s main theme as the tension reached a peak was executed elegantly. It’s impossible not to feel roused when that classic theme blasts through the speakers. The film’s main criticism was it got confusing due to a combination of its tech talk, spy vocabulary, and plot twists. If a person takes a bathroom break while the movie runs, he ends up having no idea what’s happening when he returns. But that’s what I loved about it because it opted to challenge instead of allowing us to passively sit and fall asleep. Sitting through it was like examining a detailed chain and to understand the big picture required a bit of autonomy, to think and weigh the possibilities that maybe the person we trusted initially was a dire mistake. Since it was involving not merely on a superficial level, we could still feel the endorphins working even after the big explosions.
★ / ★★★★
An uptight woman (Katherine Heigl) who recently got out of a relationship decided to go on vacation with her parents (Catherine O’Hara, Tom Selleck) in Nice, France and luckily met her future husband (Ashton Kutcher). He seemed to have it all: he’s charming, has a sense of humor, a great body and he genuinely wanted her despite her geekiness and flaws. He just happened to be a contract killer who worked for the government. I really wanted to like “Killers,” directed by Robert Luketic, because I have a penchant for stories involving spies and sleeper agents. Unfortunately, the picture needed to trim a lot of fat, especially the very unfunny first thirty minutes. It had a chance to establish the characters before diving into the action scenes but the dialogue was so flat, so empty, and so one-dimensional. I found that our conversations in real life were more interesting to listen to than the two characters having a dinner date by the sea. Their conversations didn’t pull me into their relationship because there were far too many giggly, awkward moments instead of two people sharing a real connection. I think this would have been far more effective if the first half was a romantic comedy and second half was a predominantly serious but occassionally funny thriller. The elements were certainly there: the close-knit suburban community which reminded me of “Desperate Housewives” with perfect picket fences and all, the quirky and sometimes annoying neighbors, the parents who were too involved with their daughter’s marriage, and the husband harboring a secret that he couldn’t hide forever. I thought it had a very difficult time juggling comedy and action so it managed to excel at neither of them. As for the sleeper agents, like the lead characters, they would have had more impact in the story if we got to know them a little bit. The battle scenes would have been more interesting if each of them had a specialty and a different style of assassination. Because let’s face it: gunning someone down with fragments of glass flying everywhere can get old pretty quickly. “Killers” desperately needed a lot of substance and a lot of edge in order to be a killer film. Heigl and Kutcher were easy on the eyes but that was about it. Be warned: there is a vast difference between the trailer and the movie–like having a crush on someone from afar because of their looks but when you really try to get to know them, it’s very disappointing because they turn out to be quite empty. Rewatch “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” instead because “Killers” was just no fun.
★★★ / ★★★★
A Russian defective (Daniel Olbrychski) arrived at a CIA facility accusing of Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) of being a Russian sleeper agent whose role was to assassinate key political figures in order to spark a war between the United States and Russia. CIA officers (Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor) wanted to take precautions by detaining Salt but she attempted to break out of the facility to try to get to her husband (August Diehl) and prove her innocence. I liked that this movie actually went beyond the trailer’s question about whether or not Salt really was a mole. At times even I was unsure whether we were observing a good guy or a bad guy but I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen because Jolie played her character with such gravity and conviction. Although the film did not have anything particularly new to offer the action-thriller genre involving spies and mistaken identities, its willingness to entertain by delivering high adrenaline, often nail-biting, fast-paced action sequences was enough to take the material to an above average action flick. However, its technique of constantly throwing plot points and twists was ultimately its downfall. In the middle of the picture, I wanted it to take a couple of minutes and just breathe. In the end, I was not quite sure who Salt really was other than she was really good at jumping on and off trucks and essentially an effective killer. A little bit of character development and exploring her relationship with her superiors and husband would have gone a long way. Another problem I had was its weak ending. I’m not sure if its aim was to leave the door open in hopes of starting a franchise–a femme version of the “Bourne” saga considering both are about finding out about the main character’s true identity. It did not quite work because it left me wanting more in a negative way. When the screen cut to black, I felt like I was still in the middle of an action sequence and I felt a bit cheated for its lack of falling action and resolution. Even if the filmmakers were trying to make a franchise, like “The Bourne Identity,” it should have been able to stand on its own by having a completely satisfying story arc. Written by Kurt Wimmer and directed by Phillip Noyce, “Salt” was at its best when building tension and releasing it by having Jolie’s character construct her own way out of very tricky situations. Watching it was not brain surgery but I wished it had more complexity in terms of the relationships between the characters and what it felt like to have your country turn on you when you’ve dedicated your life trying to protect it.
Laberinto del fauno, El (2006)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“El laberinto del fauno” or “Pan’s Labyrinth,” written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, is one of the most compelling pictures I’ve ever seen about the power of imagination. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) used her mind as an escape from several events that she could not fully understand and deal with: moving into a new home in a countryside surrounded by the Spanish guerilla, her mother’s (Ariadna Gil) decision to be with a cruel army captain (Sergi López), her mother’s illness along with having a new sibling and the war that was driving everyone around her into a state of conflict and madness. In her fantasy world, she was an underground princess trapped in a human body. In order to get back to her royal family, a faun (Doug Jones) informed her that she must complete three dangerous tasks. What I admired most about this movie was del Toro’s ability to show us a story seen through a child’s eyes but at the same time keeping the reality at an arm’s length. Although fantastic elements are abound, this film is definitely not for children due to the intense violence and sometimes unbearable emotional suffering. I couldn’t help but be impressed with the way the director weaved in and out and through the reality and fantasy of the story. Even though we get drastic changes of scenery with each mission that Ofelia decided to take part in, tension was something we could not escape. I loved the spy/mother-figure played by Maribel Verdú. She just had this strength that radiated from within which made her a key figure in Ofelia’s life because her bed-ridden mother could not protect her. Verdú’s scenes with the smart and venomous captain gave me the creeps; the looks he so often gave her made me believe that he knew what she was up to all along. Ever since it’s release, “Pan’s Labyrinth” gained great approval from both critics and audiences and deservingly so. A lot of people consider the film as a dark fairytale. While it is that, I believe it only highlights one dimension of this amazing work. (The words “dark fairytale” sounds more like a fantasy.) A large portion of this picture was about how Ofelia looked inwards in a time of need and turned things that she could not control into something she could. That is, the more the main character was forced to grow up due to the circumstances around her, the more she gained an internal locus of control. When fantasy and reality finally collided during a key scene in the end, it was very depressing yet magical–and that was when del Toro’s vision finally came full circle.
★★★ / ★★★★
Writer-director Tony Gilroy’s spy film “Duplicity” greatly benefits from the two very charismatic leads, Julia Roberts and Clive Owen. The two met four years ago when both were on a mission in Dubai. Unknowing Owen, an MI6 agent at the time, hits on Roberts whose mission was to steal some documents for the CIA. After a one-night stand, Roberts leaves and the film shows the two of them meeting again in New York four years later in very amusing circumstances. This is not the kind of spy movie where objects blow up and people end up dying. The target audience of this picture are those who are into astute and often confusing storytelling that eventually makes more and more sense toward the end. I mentioned that this was confusing but I meant it in a very good way. It managed to keep me guessing from beginning to end because it kept pulling the rug from under my feet. I was invested in the two lead characters because I constantly had to reevaluate who was trying to trick who and up to what point they start to trust each other (or if it’s ever possible). After all, the two are in a relationship and trust is a requisite in order for such a thing to be successful. I liked the suppporting characters, mainly Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti as two rival major pharmaceutical executives. Their intense performances were so ridiculous to the point where I ended up chuckling or laughing out loud whenever they were on screen. While the picture did have its slow moments, such scenes were a nice break from the constant one-upmanship between the timeless Roberts and suave Owen. There were times where I almost preferred watching them banter in the bedroom instead of being on the outside playing professionals. As for its ending, I thought it was wonderful; there was something very comical about the whole thing for two reasons: I didn’t see it coming and it was very ironic. Overall, the film had a nice flow to it because it had a nice balance of light thrills and genuine dramatic weight. I very much enjoyed Owen and Roberts in “Closer” as well as in this film. Hopefully, in the near future, they’ll team up again to spice up the screen.