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DC DVD movie reviews: JUSTICE LEAGUE: WAR, SON OF BATMAN, JLA TRAPPED IN TIME (Spoilers)

Lately, since James Tucker replaced Bruce Timm as the producer of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies DVD line, the series has begun adapting storylines from the current “New 52″ comics continuity, as opposed to the classic adaptations and original stories they’d been doing before (although there are still original movies in other continuities on the upcoming slate — the next movie, for instance, is a new story in the universe of the Arkham Asylum computer games). Here are my reviews of the first two, Justice League: War (based on the introductory JL story in the New 52) and Son of Batman (based on Grant Morrison’s Damien Wayne storyline which I think began before the New 52 but was folded into it).

Justice League: War (review reposted from The TrekBBS)

I finally saw this… and I wish I hadn’t. It was pretty bad. Mostly nonstop action without a lot of characterization. It had a few nice moments, but they were outnumbered by the weak or stupid moments.

Superman, who should be the heart of the team, was barely even there as a character, just a big dumb overconfident lug who punched things and flirted with Diana. Wonder Woman herself was far worse, a caricature who claimed to be a “warrior” but was shallow, impulsive, and reckless without a trace of discipline. Come on, no “warrior” is going to casually swing her sword around and point it at people merely as a form of address. A warrior would have more respect for her weapon and its danger.

Didn’t think much of how the other characters were handled either, but the worst was probably Darkseid. He’s supposed to be a monarch, a commanding figure who rarely needs to dirty his hands with actual combat because he has so many underlings to do it for him. The threat he poses is generally more psychological, in the way he manipulates and corrupts and bends people to his will. So when he does strike physically, it has a real impact from a story point of view. But this Darkseid was a barely literate, grunting thug. They pretty much turned him into Doomsday, a threat that’s all brute force and no personality or intelligence. I wondered why they even bothered to call him Darkseid.

Some of the voices were fairly good, but they didn’t have much to work with. Even Alan Tudyk wasn’t all that much of a standout, since he was given such a shallow, one-note Superman to portray. The one real standout was Marjorie Monaghan as Wonder Woman, who stood out for how terrible she was — although I think the blame there lies more with how the character was written.

If this is going to be the DCU movies’ primary continuity from now on, I’m not optimistic about what lies ahead.

Son of Batman

This one started out problematically, with a battle scene in which mercenaries led by Deathstroke launched an attack on the League of Assassins led by Ra’s al Ghul, with tons of bloodshed. The movie is full of the most graphic violence I’ve seen in the DCU line, to the point that I’m surprised it got away with merely a PG-13 rating. And a lot of it was gratuitous and badly handled. In the climactic fight between the boy Damien Wayne and Deathstroke, Damien sustains some very serious and graphic stab wounds in his arms, yet they do nothing to impede his fighting ability afterward, at a time when he should be unable to use his arms at all and passing out from shock and blood loss. If they’re going to put in so much gore, it should at least be relevant. Otherwise it’s purely a gratuitous indulgence.

Still, there is some merit to the story, scripted by Joe R. Lansdale from a story by James Robinson based on the Grant Morrison/Andy Kubert comics, and directed by Avatar: The Last Airbender‘s Ethan Spaulding. My favorite part is the portrayal of Alfred as he meets Damien’s imperious condescension with scathing sarcasm. And there’s some decent character interaction between Batman, his son, and his surrogate son Nightwing. As for the animation, it’s kind of stiff without a lot of expressiveness to the characters, but the design work by Phil Bourassa is reasonably good.

But there is just so much that doesn’t work. For one thing, the film’s treatment of women is poor. Pretty much every female character in the film, of which there are only a few, is there to be either a wife, lover, daughter, mother, or hostage to a male character — the one exception being a member of a gaggle of Wayne Industries execs talking business with Bruce Wayne. Even Talia al Ghul, the only major female role, is there mainly as a love interest, mother, and hostage, and the times when she’s portrayed as a warrior are undermined by the fact that she’s showing off an enormous amount of cleavage in every single scene she’s in. But the creepiest part by far is when it’s pretty much stated outright that she gave Batman a roofie in order to put him in the amorous mood that led to Damien’s conception. In other words, she raped him. But because a woman did it to a man, the blatant double standard of so much fiction is entirely in force here, with Batman being pretty much okay with it and saying it wasn’t that bad. That’s just sick and wrong. And it’s so unnecessary to the story. Couldn’t they have just said that Batman had a moment of weakness that he later regretted? Or even that he actually just cared for Talia and their son’s conception was an act of love, however doomed and forbidden? Did they have to send the viewers such distorted, outdated messages about gender and consent?

And speaking of distorted messages, the ending of the movie is awful on that count. Throughout the movie, Batman is trying to teach Damien, who was raised as an assassin, that there’s a better way than killing, and of course in the climax Damien chooses not to take lethal revenge on Deathstroke. Fine, all well and good. But then Batman and Damien blithely leave the injured, immobile Deathstroke lying there in a flooding undersea base! How completely hypocritical is it to have Batman spend the movie arguing that killing is wrong and then unhesitatingly leave a wounded man to die? How is that supposed to be different? It’s a corruption of everything Batman stands for, and it ruins a story that had been going relatively well up to that point.

The casting is mixed but reasonably good. Jason O’Mara returns from JL: War as Batman, and though his voice is unusual for Batman, he gives a pretty good, nuanced performance with the emotional stuff here. Stuart Allan is reasonably good as Damien, allowing for the low expectations I’d generally have for a preteen actor. David McCallum is awesome as Alfred (a role he previously played in the Gotham Knight DVD anthology that was more or less set in the Nolan films’ universe). Sean Maher is an interesting and very effective choice for Nightwing/Dick Grayson, and his Firefly co-star Morena Baccarin (whose voice work I’ve found rather mixed in the past) is reasonably good as Talia. Giancarlo Esposito does a fairly good job in a brief role as Ra’s al Ghul, and Xander Berkeley does well enough as Langstrom. But Thomas Gibson is utterly awful as Deathstroke, giving a broad, forced, cartoon-villain performance with no nuance or sincerity. It does almost as much to undermine the story as the other problems I’ve mentioned.

It’s becoming increasingly evident to me that these movies are being targeted to an audience that no longer includes me. That seems to be the direction DC’s going in general these days; what I’ve glimpsed of the New 52 comics is just as self-consciously grimdark and gory, and Warner Bros. seems committed to making DC-based movies that are all as dark and somber as they can be. I’ve seen DC’s current attitude compared to that of a teenager self-consciously acting all adult and serious in an effort to prove their maturity, which is an intrinsically juvenile view of maturity. Those who are really mature aren’t afraid to have fun and be a little childish sometimes. Which is why I’m so much looking forward to the CW’s The Flash series, since — even though it spins off from the somber and Nolanesque Arrow — it looks like it’s going to be embracing a much lighter, more upbeat tone, something that we rarely see being done with DC characters anymore.

Which reminds me, I should also talk about the other DC animated movie I’ve recently seen, the younger-skewing JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time. This was originally a Target exclusive (now more widely available, including on Netflix) that was released with little fanfare compared to the increasingly kid-unfriendly DC Universe line, but in a lot of ways it’s a more satisfying adventure — a bit simple, but willing to have fun with its idea and its characters. It’s directed by Giancarlo Volpe of Avatar: The Last Airbender and Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and it’s basically an updated, more sophisticated Super Friends type of story, with the Justice League fighting the Legion of Doom, and both operating out of their Super Friends-style headquarters (including the Hall of Justice based on my favorite Art Deco building, Cincinnati’s Union Terminal). When Lex Luthor (Fred Tatasciore) is frozen in Arctic ice and apparently killed, he’s then thawed out a thousand years later and uses time travel to go back and erase Superman and the League from existence, and the only people who can stop him are a pair of wannabe Legion of Super Heroes members, Karate Kid (Avatar‘s Dante Basco) and Dawnstar (Laura Bailey), who have to learn to have faith in their abilities and correct their mistakes that led to the situation in the first place. The temporal physics make no sense whatsoever, but then, they rarely do in any time-travel story. The danger in the climax is also very unclear and arbitrary. Sure, it’s a little simple, but it doesn’t have the disturbing elements or gratuitous excesses of the so-called “adult-oriented” movies.

Peter Jessop (the Vision from The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes) is a decent but unremarkable Superman. Diedrich Bader reprises Batman from Batman: The Brave and the Bold, and the endlessly versatile Grey DeLisle Griffin (Avatar‘s Azula) does an effective Wonder Woman (her debut in the role, though she’s played Wonder Girl in the Super Best Friends Forever shorts). Kevin Michael Richardson reprises Black Manta from TB&TB as well as playing Solomon Grundy, and Jason Spisak, Young Justice‘s Kid Flash/Wally West, plays the Flash (which may or may not be a reprise, but it seems more like Wally in the suit than Barry Allen). Volpe brings another A:TLA veteran, Jack DeSena, in to play Robin, though it’s an unusual portrayal, as if Robin is still new and trying to prove himself to Batman. Corey Burton (Clone Wars‘ Count Dooku, among many other roles) plays the Time Trapper, the time-manipulating entity that’s basically the genie in the lamp for Luthor — until he gets out of Luthor’s control.

As for the decision to focus on Dawnstar and Karate Kid, I can’t blame the filmmakers for wanting to focus on just about the only two LSH characters who aren’t white — after all, the kids watching this movie are sure to be a diverse group and they all deserve inclusion — but I’d be happier if they weren’t both such blatant stereotypes in conception, the Asian guy defined by knowing martial arts and the Native American defined by tracking abilities and psionic “arrows.” Unfortunately that’s the problem with using decades-old characters, no matter how much the current storytellers try to downplay the stereotypes. (Although apparently the psi arrows were an invention of the movie, so maybe they weren’t downplaying the stereotypes as much as I thought. She was also given some kind of shamanistic spiritual powers.)

So pretty much all we have to choose from in DC animation these days are the really adult-skewing, grim and violent and female-unfriendly stuff and the kid-skewing, light and silly stuff. Anything that aspires to the middle ground between those, like Young Justice or Beware the Batman, has a short lifespan because WB and Cartoon Network don’t perceive a market for it anymore. And that’s a shame, because it was in that middle ground that Batman: TAS and the DC Animated Universe were created and thrived, setting the stage for the animation boom that followed. But even though the kid stuff isn’t entirely satisfying to me, I know I found Trapped in Time more watchable than the PG-13 movies.

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Thoughts on GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (Spoilers)

Yup, for once I get a review out in a movie’s first week of release. I figured I should see it before I got spoiled any further by the Internet.

So, yeah, it’s a pretty good movie for what it is, an effective space-opera action comedy with some heartfelt character stuff. I did like the story of the rogues and scoundrels and loners discovering what they could gain from one another as friends and choosing to embrace a nobler, more selfless purpose. This is the second team-oriented movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but in some ways it uses the team idea better than The Avengers. The Avengers may have had personality conflicts they had to overcome to work together, but they’d all more or less chosen already to adopt heroic roles. Here, it’s only as a team that these guys are able to amount to anything at all, and that’s driven home explicitly in the climax, when their combined strength lets them survive the effects of the Infinity Stone when none of them could alone.

And the cast was pretty good. I found Chris Pratt rather annoying in the trailers, just something about his snarky attitude seeming obnoxious to me, but he was definitely more sympathetic here. The rest of the cast did okay, though there were no real standouts for me — except for Karen Gillan, who did a terrific job with the limited amount she was given, and whose makeup design was striking and weirdly beautiful. It’s a great-looking film; the Xandarian capital city looks like a place I’d like to live, very Federationy (in fact, it does a much better job of feeling like Star Trek‘s Federation than the Bad Robot version of San Francisco has done). And while the other locations weren’t as liveable, they were well-designed. (I should note that a lot of the design work was done by Stephan Martiniere, who did the cover to my novel The Buried Age, as well as the ST:TNG anthology The Sky’s the Limit, which includes a story of mine.) The exceptions were the Kree ships and interiors, which didn’t work that well for me.

But it wasn’t perfect by a long shot. Although I enjoyed the story of redemption, I started to realize after a while that I could see the writers at work, the almost mechanical way in which every Guardian was given some personal limitation that he or she later grew beyond to demonstrate their growth under their friends’ influence — e.g. Drax couldn’t use metaphors and then he did, Groot only knew three words until the climactic moment, etc. It worked, but it was a bit calculated and not very deep. Really, the movie was just so cluttered with characters and ideas that it was hard to develop any part of it with any real depth. The moment when I started to realize it had too much going on was when we suddenly got this whole new subplot with the Collector’s assistant (Carina, apparently) coming out of nowhere. This is the problem with basing movies on long-running comics continuities. There’s a lot of material to draw on, sure, but there’s a risk of trying to cram in too many characters and references and plot threads. Green Lantern had that problem and it collapsed under the weight of all the continuity porn. This film has somehow managed to avoid that, perhaps because it has a stronger core story, but it could’ve been better if it hadn’t had quite so many characters and subplots.

In particular, the villains are practically non-entities. Ronan the Accuser is, I gather, a fairly complex and ambiguous figure in the comics, but this version of Ronan has got to be the most superficial, zero-dimensional villain in any MCU film to date. Who was this guy? What were his motives? What was his point of view? Where were his nuances? All we learned about him was that he was a fanatic who hated Xandarians, but we don’t know why. And Thanos was equally one-note, just some big guy who wants to destroy stuff for no clear reason. Yes, comics fans know the reason, I know the reason, but movies need to be able to stand on their own and be comprehensible to the majority of viewers who aren’t familiar with the source. Within this movie itself, we don’t know what Thanos wants or why he loaned his daughters to Ronan or why he even has (adopted?) daughters. And I’m sorry, Marvel fans, but translating the visual of Thanos literally to (simulated) live action, complete with the exaggerated body proportions and the rocket throne thingy, just looked silly. Too much fidelity to the source is often a bad thing.

In fact, I’m not crazy about the CGI character work overall here. Groot was fine, but Rocket looked like a computer-animated character, not nearly as convincing as the ultra-lifelike apes in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. And spoiler alert: That was a totally hideous, crude bit of CG animation on a certain duck in the post-credits scene. Not to mention how pointless the post-credits scene was overall. For once, I was in a theater where the majority of the audience knew they should stick around to the end of the credits, but this time they weren’t given anything that was worth their patience.

Indeed, this film was startlingly devoid of references to the rest of the MCU, compared to its predecessors. Understandable given its cosmic setting, but there really was very little. Sure, the Collector showed up at the end of Thor: The Dark World, but that was that movie making a reference to this one, not the other way around. And this film’s exposition of the Infinity Stones didn’t reference the prior ones much, although we did see an image of the Tesseract in the Collector’s light show. I guess the main thing is the return appearance of Alexis Denisof as Thanos’s lieutenant, The Other — but we’ve obviously seen the last of him.

Oh, that reminds me — one of my other problems with the script was the overabundance of exposition. So many characters just spouted big chunks of exposition at the drop of a hat. The Collector had no good reason to give Quill and the others this big expository multimedia show about the Infinity Stones, except that it was necessary to fill things in for the audience. Similarly, Rocket was far more garrulous about his past and his origins than seemed reasonable for a character as bitter and closed-off as he is. It’s another artifact of cramming so much into the story — not only was there too much that needed to be explained, but there was too little time to get to the exposition subtly or organically, so characters just had to spout whatever information the audience needed as soon as they arrived.

It bugs me a bit that the Xandarians and so many other aliens were so much like 21st-century American humans in their appearance, speech, culture, and the like. The slang and profanity in particular were the hardest to buy — usually there’s at least a token effort to have English-speaking, human-appearing aliens have their own distinct idioms, or at least speak more formally. Here, Drax was like that, but every other alien in the galaxy seemed totally conversant with 21st-century American slang and cussing. (Or could that be because we’re hearing it interpreted through Quill’s translator implant, as mentioned in the graphics in his “lineup” scene? Of course, a lot of it was in scenes where he wasn’t present.) These days there seems to be a perception that space operas have to be populated with characters who are as ordinary and familiar to contemporary audiences as possible, for fear that those audiences won’t identify with anyone more exotic. But I like exotic. That’s what draws me to science fiction, the chance to see things — and people — that are new and alien and unfamiliar. As pleasant a place as Xandar Prime appeared to be, it still felt too much like an idealized Earth setting.

One thing I loved, though: The movie had an actual main titles sequence! Credits at the start of the film instead of the end! I love that! Of course, it was probably part of the whole Raiders of the Lost Ark homage they were going for in that opening sequence. (Edited to add: By the way, the other day I said that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was probably the first film that billed its unseen performance-capture actors equally with the on-camera actors. Well, this film does something similar, because Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper were billed right up there as the fourth and fifth names in the opening credits. Except that those two weren’t the main performance-capture artists; the director’s brother Sean Gunn was “On Set Rocket” and Krystian Godlewski was “On Set Groot.” But both those actors are listed pretty high in the supporting cast credits. So there’s definitely a move toward more egalitarian billing between seen and unseen actors.)

So, all in all, a fun adventure movie, but too cluttered and needing better-drawn villains. Hopefully, now that the huge torrent of exposition is out of the way, the sequel will have more room to breathe and develop things.

Shore Leave: Over already? I just got there!

Wow, where did the weekend go? This year’s Shore Leave was a whirlwind, over so fast it hardly had time to sink in. Maybe it’s because I flew there this time. Not only did I get in later than usual on Friday and leave early on Sunday, making for a total of only about 48 hours spent in the hotel (c. 2 PM Friday to c. 2 PM Sunday), but maybe the quicker travel time made the whole thing feel more abrupt somehow.

But let’s see what I can extract from the sensory blur in my memories.

The flight out from Cincinnati to Baltimore went fairly well. I seemed to get through the airport amazingly quickly, in part because I got randomly assigned to the expedited TSA check which is simply a walk through a metal detector (along with everyone else around me — making it seem like an implicit admission that all the security theater of the past few years doesn’t really make much difference after all). I took a quick flight to Philadelphia on a medium-sized plane and then a short hop to Baltimore on a small turboprop — the first propeller plane I think I’ve ever been on, and the first plane where the cabin has been under the wing, so I could actually see the landing gear from my window. A little scary at first, but I reminded myself that if it weren’t a proven and reliable technology, it wouldn’t still be in use after a century. And the props were clearly made of carbon composite, which was reassuringly modern.

Then came the long ride on the Light Rail, literally from the very start to the very end of the route. But it didn’t feel like it took too long, even though I gave up trying to listen to music on my phone because the train was too noisy. (Maybe I should’ve brought my other earbuds, which block sound better. Plus they don’t get tangled as easily, I think because one earbud is on a shorter cord than the other so there’s less there to tangle.) The one hitch was that I got a sandwich at the airport planning to eat it on the train — and then saw that eating on the train is prohibited. So since I’m an extremely law-abiding sort, I had to wait another hour and a half to eat my lunch. I had half the sandwich while walking from the light rail station to the hotel, and the other half once I got into my room (which was quick and easy because I arrived late enough that it was already prepared).

When I visited the vendors’ area, I was pleased to run into Sally Malcolm and her husband, the founders of Fandemonium Books, the British company that publishes Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis tie-in novels. They were there along with New York writer Diana Dru Botsford, who’s done a number of SG novels for Fandemonium as well as having written for ST:TNG on television. I was glad that this year they were able to come to Shore Leave and bring the two tie-in franchises together, as it were. And now I know who to contact if and when I have a Stargate novel pitch… ;)

At dinnertime, I ran into Greg Cox and some other folks at the hotel’s little cafe/lounge place, which is now open for business again since the hotel came under new management. We had a nice talk there, and later we were seated together at Meet the Pros, though we had less time to talk there since it was really well-attended and busy — another reason it seemed to go by so fast. I signed a lot of copies of Tower of Babel. Unfortunately only one guest bought a copy of Only Superhuman for me to sign, since the book vendor only had it in hardcover. The dearth of mass-market paperbacks of OS continues to bewilder and frustrate me. (It’s still available by print-on-demand, but getting paperbacks in stores is better for getting casual readers interested. Or would have been…)

I also finally got to meet Australian uberfan Ian McLean, aka Therin of Andor, who’s probably the one person who loves Star Trek: The Motion Picture more than I do, and after whom I named an Andorian character in Ex Machina, a character who’s been picked up on by other authors and taken on a life of his own. He brought me an awesome gift, an Australian edition of the ST:TMP novelization from Futura Books, with a lovely photo insert section and a few bits of additional description in the text. He even got it autographed by Billy Van Zandt, the actor who played the Rhaandarite “alien ensign” in TMP, whom I made into a major character, Vaylin Zaand, in ExM. It is a cool thing to have.

Let’s see, panels… Before Meet the Pros, I was on a panel about comedy science fiction, in which I got to talk about my Hub stories, though my comedy contributions are fairly limited in comparison to fellow panelist Peter David — though he demurred that most of his overt comedy writing is fantasy rather than SF. Also in attendance were Aaron Rosenberg, co-founder of Crazy 8 Press, and two authors who’ve had comedies published by Crazy 8, Lorraine Anderson and Russ Colchamiro.

But the rest of my panels were on Saturday, so I was kept pretty busy that day. First was the panel on writing movie-era Trek, which was intended to focus on the original series’ movie era, but ended up being broadened to include TNG movie-era books. Greg and I were on that along with Peter David and Dayton Ward (who did In the Name of Honor in the post-ST V era as well as A Time to Sow/A Time to Reap with Kevin Dilmore in the TNG movie era). Greg pitched his upcoming Foul Deeds Will Rise, set in the post-ST V era, and I just talked about ExM.

Then came “60 Years of Godzilla,” with Greg again (since he novelized the recent movie) as well as Jeffrey Lang and Andrew Gaska. I got to do my spiel summarizing the history of the franchise, based on my posts on this blog, but I think I went a little too much in-depth, since people were walking out by the end. I was afraid that would happen.

I got a burger and fries for lunch in the cafe, where I’d previously gotten a breakfast of cereal, milk, orange juice, and a banana. Both meals cost me 9 dollars. Each. Hotels are so expensive! I also attended a “Writing Stargate” panel by the Fandemonium bunch, and learned some more about their approach and interests. Apparently they’ve been trying to convince MGM to let them do a post-finale series of SG-1 as they’re already doing for SGA, but with no luck as yet; and they don’t have a Stargate Universe license, which is too bad, since I woul’dve liked to write for that one. They explained that the new movie reboot that’s being developed has nothing to do with the show’s continuity and doesn’t affect the books. (I can’t understand MGM’s decision to let Devlin and Emmerich resume their vastly inferior version of Stargate rather than continuing the TV universe.) I also sat in the audience for a panel called “The Villain’s Journey,” with quite a few people including Kathleen David (Peter’s wife), David Mack, and Marco Palmieri exploring the question of whether there was a Villain’s Journey model to complement the standard Campbellian Hero’s Journey. An interesting talk, but it got a bit too philosophical for me at times.

And then I was a member of two more consecutive panels. First was “Writing Action Scenes,” with Dave Mack, Kirsten Beyer, Keith R.A. DeCandido, and a couple of others I didn’t know. I felt a little out of place there, since my approach to action is a little more understated and less based on experience than that of some of the other panelists. But it was informative; Keith’s experience with karate brought some useful insights into the experience of being in a fight, which hopefully can be useful to me in future writing.

Finally was “Series in the Sandbox” with Dave, Kirsten, Dayton, and Kevin, focusing on ongoing single-author or single-team series in Trek (since SG author Jo Graham couldn’t make it). This was supposed to be my big chance to promote what I’m doing in Rise of the Federation, but I can’t remember whether I really talked about it much. By that point I was so frazzled that I wasn’t really sure what was going on.

But fortunately a bunch of us went out to dinner at that really good barbecue place near the hotel, Andy Nelson’s Barbecue Restaurant. It’s the second time I’ve been taken there, and I think I had the same thing I had the first time: a pulled turkey BBQ sandwich, cornbread, and cole slaw, along with a much-needed iced tea. I generally don’t like either cornbread or cole slaw that much, but both were excellent here. It was nice to get to hang out with the group, but the problem with being in such a large group at such a long table — especially since I was sitting at one end — is that you don’t really get to talk to everyone. I was hoping to get to talk more with Kirsten Beyer this weekend, for instance, just to catch up, but we only got to talk briefly a couple of times. (Usually, these past few years, Meet the Pros has died down early enough that the writers have had more time to wander the hall and socialize, but this year we were kept pretty busy throughout.)

I just went back to my room after that, since I needed the peace and quiet after that long, long day. By the time I got up Sunday morning, it was almost time for the author breakfast in the hotel bar. After that I attended the memorial service for the late Ann (A.C.) Crispin, though I’m not sure I really belonged there, since it turned out to be more of a private gathering for her friends, and I was never more than passingly acquainted with her. But I wanted to show my respects. It was a nice service, and the stories her friends told made me regret that I didn’t get to know her better.

I don’t remember what I did for the next hour — probably just went back to my room — but then I went to a panel about Orphan Black that Marco was on along with… oh, man, I totally don’t remember. I think Aaron Rosenberg was there? It was a fun panel, though. After that, I went to a presentation by artist Rob Caswell, whose art inspired the Star Trek: Seekers novel series that Dave, Dayton, and Kevin have just debuted. But halfway through that, I realized I’d been so caught up in panel after panel that I’d totally forgotten to go down to the book vendors’ table and do my stint in the author chimney, the little recessed space between brick columns where we authors sit for an hour or so to sign autographs. And I’d arranged to get a ride to the mall (where I could get lunch and wait for the light rail) right after that panel ended, so I was only able to give the book folks half an hour, during which it was almost totally dead because it was the afternoon of the last day and everyone had already spent whatever they had to spend. I regret that I let this slip my mind until it was almost too late.

So I got a good lunch at the mall, which Marco very nicely picked up the tab for, and then my light rail trip began. And this is where the fun ended. I got mixed messages about whether the train I caught was going to the airport, and it turned out not to be, so I realized I’d have to transfer. Although it became evident that if I’d waited 2-3 more minutes, I would’ve caught the airport train. And halfway through the trip on the train I was on, it got overloaded with Orioles fans who I guess were going home from a game, and it was hellishly noisy and crowded, and I wasn’t comfortable about being on the wrong train. I mean, logically I knew that the right train was behind this one on the same track so I couldn’t possibly miss it, but neurotically, all I knew was Oh my gawd I’m on the wrong train!!  And I was fatigued enough that neurosis won out over logic. I could’ve transferred much earlier, but I checked the MTA website and there was a travel advisory about a power outage on the tracks and the need to take a bus from a certain station, so I wanted to wait to transfer at that station just in case the problem was still around. And once the gaggle of fans boarded, I had to wait until the crowd thinned anyway. But once I finally got on the right train, it was so very empty compared to the one I’d been on. Oh, if only I’d waited those 2-3 minutes more! To add insult to injury, midway through the ride I discovered that I could access a tracking page on my smartphone which showed me exactly where the trains were. If I’d looked into that before my trip, I could’ve determined in advance which train I wanted.

And then I had to wait in a long line at the airport and do the whole rigmarole of taking everything out of my pockets and storing it in my bags and jacket — only to end up in the expedited line at the end of the process and learn too late that none of that had been necessary at all. You couldn’t have told us sooner, guys? By this point I was tired of spending extravagant prices on food, and my late lunch had been satisfying, so my “supper” consisted of a protein bar I bought at BWI and a smoothie I later bought at the Philly airport. The flight to Philly was uneventful but the taxiing took forever. For some reason, they used a huge plane for such a short hop (although it was going on to Dallas afterward) — it probably seated more people than both my Friday flights combined. The flight from Philly to CVG also took forever to get takeoff clearance, and we hit some bad weather along the way and there were some scary moments of turbulence. I was struck when I looked out the window and realized the flashing wing lights were illuminating a spray of raindrops streaking backward relative to the jet. No, I didn’t see a gremlin on the wing, but there was a moment there when I wouldn’t have been surprised to.

The weather delayed us just enough that I missed the last bus from CVG to downtown Cincy, and I learned that a taxi ride home would cost 42 bucks. So I caught an executive shuttle van for only 22 bucks to get to the bus stop downtown — only to learn at the last moment that I could have arranged a ride all the way home for a few bucks more, but that the driver couldn’t accept any additional payment at that point. Argh. And then it looked like I’d missed the bus I wanted and would have to wait 40 minutes, but then the bus came late, which was a relief. It didn’t get me as close to home as the later bus would’ve, though, so I had to walk a few blocks at night in what isn’t the best neighborhood, which wasn’t fun. By the time I finally got home well after midnight, I was too tired to do anything but shower off the travel sweat and go right to bed.

I decided to fly because I didn’t want to go through the long slog of spending 2 days driving each way and not getting any sleep at motels, and risking drives through terrible weather. But after all this, driving is looking a lot better. At least it’s a lot quieter, giving me a lot of time to think. Which can get boring, but it’s not as harrowing as all this. Maybe I’d have a better memory of the con this year if the trip home hadn’t been so hectic. Also — between buses, planes, and trains, my outgoing trip took over seven hours from home to hotel, and my return trip took over nine hours the other way. The drive to or from Shore Leave is 10-11 hours split over 2 days. So maybe I don’t save so much time by flying after all.

I don’t mean to sound negative. Shore Leave itself was great, and I got a lot out of it this year. It just went by so fast. Maybe next year I should use more restraint in volunteering for panels, so I have more downtime. Although I guess that wouldn’t rule out having most of my panels scheduled on one day.

And who knows? Maybe next year I’ll have more new work to promote and talk about. I certainly hope I will. To that end, though, I should probably get back to work…

PS — Shore Leave schedule now up

The schedule’s now up at the Shore Leave site:

http://www.shore-leave.com/schedule/

And there are no evident changes from what I reported last night.

By the way, I’ve just realized: This will be my 10th Shore Leave. I first went to Shore Leave 27 in 2005, and I’ve gone every year since.

Shore Leave 2014 tentative schedule

The official Shore Leave schedule hasn’t gone up on the site yet, but here’s a list of the panels I expect to be on:

FRIDAY 8/1

Comedy of Sci-Fi — 8 PM, Hunt Ballroom

I don’t know if I’m officially on this panel, but I’ve requested it as a chance to talk about my Hub series of comedy novelettes in Analog. Also featuring Aaron Rosenberg, Russ Colchamiro, Peter David, and Lorraine Anderson.

Tor Books : The Year Ahead — 9 PM, Hunt Ballroom

I don’t think I’ll actually be on this panel this time, since I don’t have anything new for Tor yet, but I figure I should mention it anyway, since I’ll at least be around for it. Tor editors Marco Palmieri and Greg Cox will give what’s become their regular preview of next year’s SF/fantasy slate from Tor, which I really wish I were on, but I’m not. Well, maybe next year.

Meet the Pros — 10 PM, Hunt/Valley Corridor

The annual 2-hour mass signing event where all the author guests will be available to autograph whatever you bring or buy.

SATURDAY 8/2

Star Trek Novels: Writing in the Movie Era — 10 AM, Derby Room

Pretty self-explanatory.  I’ll be the only one representing the post-TMP era of Ex Machina, The Darkness Drops Again, and Forgotten History, while the other panelists all represent the post-Final Frontier period: Dayton Ward (In the Name of Honor), Peter David (The Rift), and Greg Cox (the upcoming Foul Deeds Will Rise).

Sixty Years of Godzilla — 11 AM, Hunt Ballroom

Also self-explanatory, and also featuring Greg Cox and myself along with Jeffrey Lang, Andrew Gaska, Bob Greenberger, and Richard C. White. Greg, of course, wrote the novelization of the recent Godzilla movie, while Bob wrote a 2005 nonfiction book about the franchise. I’m there just because I’ve seen and reviewed most of the films within the past couple of years, as Written Worlds followers are aware.

Writing Action Scenes — 4 PM, Concierge Lounge

Something I have some experience with, particularly through Only Superhuman. With myself, Keith R.A. DeCandido, Kirsten Beyer, David Mack, Danielle Ackley-McPhail, and Eric Bakutis.

Series in the Sandbox — 5 PM, Derby Room

This one’s a little harder to explain. It’s basically devoted to single-author or single-team ongoing series in Trek and tie-in literature, with myself (representing Rise of the Federation), Kirsten Beyer (Voyager), the Vanguard/Seekers trio of David Mack, Dayton Ward, and Kevin Dilmore, and Stargate: SG-1/Atlantis novelist Jo Graham.

SUNDAY 8/3

Unfortunately, both the Sunday panels I wanted to be on are too late for me to attend, since I’m flying in and out this year for the first time, and I need to leave in mid-afternoon to get to the airport in time. So I probably won’t be on any panels on Sunday. But I’ll be generally around, and I’ll try to spend an hour in the Author Chimney at the book vendor’s table down below the escalators, so folks can drop by and find me.

And no, I’m not doing a personal Q&A panel this year. I don’t have enough going on this year to justify it, and the couple I did before were not well-attended. But I’ve tried to get on panels that will let me discuss my various works, so those would be the places to ask questions or just generally lavish praise upon me.

If any of this information is changed once the official schedule goes up, I’ll update this article. But there’s not much time to go!

This is my first Shore Leave with a smartphone, and I’m finding it useful for entering my schedule and important notes into. I’ve even entered my panels into the calendar app. It should also help me keep up with e-mail and Internet during the con, and to look up information if I need to (I’ve already got the Shore Leave page and the Baltimore Light Rail schedule bookmarked). And I’m remembering to bring my backup charger pack.

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES Review (Spoilers)

Three years ago, Rise of the Planet of the Apes showed us the dawn of a new species of intelligent ape. Now, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes shows us their rise to — wait, something’s not right there… Better start over.

Ahem. Well, I finally saw this movie, and it’s pretty awesome. The first thing I noted was how extraordinarily realistic the CGI was — that first close-up shot on Caesar’s face looked utterly real and convincing, and I was thinking, “Wow, we’ve really arrived now; there’s no longer any discernible difference between good CGI and reality.” But then the bear attacked and didn’t move like a convincing bear, and I realized that while the technology has fully arrived, it’s still only as good as the way it’s used. Don’t get me wrong, most of the CG work here was fantastic, but it occasionally had enough imperfections to remind us that it’s still a human creation. And maybe that’s for the best. Later on, during the no doubt digitally created shots of the abandoned, decaying San Francisco, I found myself idly missing the days when matte paintings were clearly identifiable as paintings — convincing enough that you were willing to buy into them, but still recognizably the work of talented human hands. Of course, the CG in this film was the work of many, many talented human hands, but not so recognizable as such, and not as easily credited to any one artist, like, say, an Albert Whitlock matte painting in a Hitchcock film would’ve been. (Or Emil Kosa, Jr.’s painting of the Statue of Liberty at the end of the original Planet of the Apes, for that matter.)

I found the apes far more convincing than the bear, though, and that owes a lot to the human performers underlying the animation (although it should be understood that the performances we saw were no doubt mediated heavily by the animators, as in all performance-capture work). One of the last things I noticed, but by far one of the most important things for the film industry as a whole, is that this is probably the first motion picture in which performance-captured actors whose faces never appeared on camera were assigned billing no differently than the on-camera actors were — meaning that Andy Serkis finally, finally got the honest-to-goodness no-kidding star billing that he should’ve gotten in the first film. And it’s not just Serkis’s clout that achieved this, since other ape actors like Toby Kebbel (Koba) and Nick Thurston (Blue Eyes) had their credits mixed in with the “human” actors like Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, and Kirk Acevedo. It was really good to see, because they really deserved it. This is at least as much the apes’ movie as the humans’. Come to think of it, the original series went through a similar progression; the first two movies, the ones with Charlton Heston, were from the perspective of human protagonists, but the later three elevated Roddy McDowall to the starring role; he was the viewpoint character, as both Cornelius and the original Caesar, and the humans were the exotic creatures he had to contend with, or the sticking point in a conflict between him and a rival ape faction. Whereas the previous film was a loose reworking of the premise of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, this one has clear similarities to Battle for…, the final film in the original series.

But while Battle was probably the weakest installment in its series, this film is probably better than its predecessor, even though — or perhaps because — most of its running time is devoted to nonhuman leads who only occasionally speak aloud. The apes have a lot of personality and an interesting society, and I like the hybrid of natural ape behavior (like the outstretched hand as an appeasement gesture), taught sign language, and human cultural elements appropriated knowingly or accidentally. Caesar is the same intelligent, well-intentioned, but psychologically scarred character he was at the end of the first film, but more seasoned and tempered by being a family, err, ape  and a tribal leader/community alpha male. He’s brilliantly played by Serkis, although I profoundly doubt the Oscars will have the good sense to nominate Serkis for lead actor. Koba, Caesar’s main antagonist and the leading warmonger in the film, is something of a caricature, a bit one-note in his hatred and self-serving hunger for power, and unfortunately coded according to “ugly = evil” screen conventions (although his design is left over from the previous film), but he’s an engaging and cunning villain; I love the way he uses the facade of humor and friendliness to get his human foes off their guard. And Maurice (Karin Konoval), the orangutan Lawgiver (essentially), is a lot more charming than his, err, namesake Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans, of course, from the original film) — a bit of a one-dimensional character, but still memorable.

I’m not sure I found the human cast quite as rich. There’s the friendly, understanding hero (Clarke) who’s pretty much explicitly described as a stand-in for James Franco from the first film. There’s his kind, compassionate wife (Russell) who wants to help, and the son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who’s having trouble getting over his mother, and the hardass authority figure (Oldman) whose blind bigotry leads him to violence, and the hair-trigger angry guy (Kirk Acevedo) who’s a secondary source of conflict. Not much more than one dimension to any of these guys. And I couldn’t help being bothered that the story of human survival was carried almost entirely by white characters. There were a couple of black people, but they were just there to be supporting players, and the closest we got to an Asian face was Acevedo, who’s Puerto Rican/Chinese (although he’s never been cast as Asian) and was stuck playing an irrationally violent, cowardly, and doomed supporting character. Demographically speaking, that doesn’t make sense; assuming these survivors came from the San Francisco area, then maybe one in three should be Asian and only two in five should be non-Hispanic Caucasians. The first film did better in this regard, giving us Freida Pinto and David Oyelowo in key roles. (Oh, and if the intent was that white people were somehow more genetically predisposed to immunity, that’s disturbing in its own way — and hard to buy, given that the first two victims of the disease in the first film were both white.)

And while this was a potent and often tragic tale of how hate and intolerance lead to war, and while the battle scenes were effectively un-glamorous and brutal and un-sensationalized, I found myself taken out of the film by one thing: Bottomless Magazines. The way Koba and the others were firing those automatic rifles, they should’ve been out of bullets in five seconds. They clearly didn’t have the training to show any kind of firing discipline. Yet they were able to keep firing in full auto mode throughout the entire battle without ever running dry. Ditto for the humans at Fort Point who were “testing” the surviving artillery by blasting away endlessly. These supplies are finite and they have no idea how numerous the enemy is — should they be wasting so many bullets on “testing” that’s clearly more about macho self-indulgence? Well, I could buy that as the civilians not really knowing what they were doing when it came to firearms, but in the context of the endless ammo throughout the rest of the movie, it feels like part of the larger problem. (There’s also the fact that you can’t just pick up a gun and expect to be able to use it effectively in battle if you’ve never handled one before, if you don’t know how to clean or strip or prime or do whatever to the thing that you need to do. Look, I don’t know guns, I don’t ever want to be in the same room as one, but I read an article a while back debunking this particular myth and talking about how much training it takes to be able to use a firearm effectively and safely. Add on the fact that the guns were designed for human rather than chimpanzee or gorilla hands, and the apes should’ve been doing more damage to each other with those guns than to the humans.)

But those were the three main things I had issues with. Everything else worked well. Michael Giacchino’s score was excellent; he has a knack for evoking the sound and flavor of vintage scores from the ’60s or ’70s, and this score felt like it was a cousin of Jerry Goldsmith’s and Leonard Rosenman’s scores for the original films. (Oddly, Giacchino doesn’t seem to use that knack in his Star Trek film scores, which are the only scores of his that I don’t particularly enjoy.)

So that’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which came after Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Come back in a few years for the third film, Prelude to the Planet of the Apes. Or something. It’s a madhouse! A madhouse!

Home page apparently fixed, and other stuff

I just checked my homepage, and it loaded without a malware warning, so I guess it’s clean now. I apologize for the delay, but apparently it takes a couple of days for a review to go through. Actually Google still has a caution up for the site on its search results, so the request must still be in process, but the site is accessible now and I’m pretty sure it’s safe. Although I’m a little concerned that this is the second time my site has been hacked in the past few months. The first time, it was just the main page and it was simple to upload a clean copy — so simple I didn’t think to report it or change my password. Hopefully the password change will protect it, but if this becomes a problem again, I may need to consider moving my site to a different host.

In other news, my jacket arrived intact. And I finished that plotline from Uncertain Logic, though I still have a way to go on the other main ones, and just over a month to deadline. The problem is that it turned out way too long, but now I’m going through and looking for stuff I don’t need, things I explained twice, etc. Unfortunately I’m under the weather today and haven’t been able to do as much work as I’d hoped. I’d also been planning to go see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes at last today, but I just wasn’t up to it.

Oh, and I decided to take one more look at air fares for flying to Shore Leave, and I’m glad I did, because I was able to find a decently priced flight to Baltimore that only goes a little bit out of the way (layover in Philadelphia) and works out reasonably well timing-wise. So for the first time, I’ll be flying to Shore Leave instead of going by bus or car. I’m so glad I don’t have to take another pair of really long drives, especially since it frees up an extra couple of days for writing. And I’ll get a chance to use my new smartphone’s “airplane mode.” (Which makes it sound like it should sprout wings and fly around. Heck, it can do almost everything else.)

Site malware update

Okay, the webmaster told me the site seems clean and instructed me on how to contact Google for a rescan of the site. I’ve done that, and also changed my password. It may take a day or so for Google to clear the warning, but I’m pretty sure the site is clean now, I hope.

Oh, these past few days… I’m into the climax of one of the main plotlines of Uncertain Logic, but things keep happening to distract me from writing. On Tuesday morning, the first chilly morning we’ve had in weeks, I discovered I couldn’t find my jacket and searched everywhere for it; it ultimately turned out I left it in Aunt Shirley’s hall closet in Detroit, so she’s mailing it back to me. Then my fridge light bulb burned out and I had to notify the apartment manager. Then I had an ophthalmologist appointment that afternoon and couldn’t see clearly enough to write until the evening. And then yesterday this malware thing happened and I’ve been dealing with that. I guess I should be proud of myself for maintaining enough focus to get any work done at all.

Caution: Possible malware issue on my home page

Folks, a fan just notified me of getting a malware warning when trying to access my home page. I found the files had been altered yesterday and uploaded clean copies from my computer, but I’m still getting the warnings on my laptop browsers, although I get through fine on my smartphone. I’ve contacted the webmaster to find out more, and I’ll keep you posted.

Categories: Uncategorized

TrekMovie posts blurb to UNCERTAIN LOGIC (and other upcoming Trek Lit)

TrekMovie.com has posted a bunch of blurbs for upcoming Star Trek novels scheduled over the next year, including my own Rise of the Federation: Uncertain Logic, the third volume in the ROTF series, due in April 2015. The article is here:

Preview Of Star Trek Novels and E-book Novellas For Rest of 2014 + 2015

And here’s the Blurb for ROTF:UL:

Years ago, Jonathan Archer and T’Pol helped unearth the true writings of Vulcan’s great philosopher Surak, bringing forth a new era of peaceful reform on Vulcan. But when their discovery is seemingly proven to be a fraud, the scandal threatens to undo a decade of progress and return power to the old, warlike regime. Admiral Archer, Captain T’Pol, and the crew of the U.S.S. Endeavour investigate with help from their Vulcan allies, but none of them suspect the identity of the real mastermind behind the conspiracy to reconquer Vulcan—or the price they will have to pay to discover the truth.

Meanwhile, when a long-forgotten technological threat re-emerges beyond the Federation’s borders, Captain Malcolm Reed of the U.S.S. Pioneer attempts to track down its origins with help from his old friend “Trip” Tucker. But they discover that other civilizations are eager to exploit this dangerous power for their own benefit, even if the Federation must pay the price!

No cover has been released yet, but I’ve been allowed a glimpse at the not-final solicitation cover, which I think is pretty interesting and hopefully will be released soon, though I have no idea if it’ll be anything like the final cover.

(And it occurs to me that “ROTF:UL” is kind of an unfortunate acronym. I assure you the book is not full of rot. Oh, well, at least I didn’t call it Rise of the Federation: Logic, Mayhem, and Outrage.)

Plenty of other interesting book blurbs are at the link!

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1988-2011): Full series overview, Part 2

I debated with myself whether to edit my original “Full series overview” post to add the revival, but I think it would be easier just to link to it and add a second post, mainly covering the 1988-90 revival series and the feature film series, but also updating some of the bits from the first post. So here’s the link:

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1966-73): Full series overview (Part 1)

The revival TV series added 35 episodes to the tally from the original, for a total of 206 episodes and 197 distinct adventures — or maybe 193, since four of the revival episodes were fairly close remakes. Highlights:

1988-9 Season

Regulars: Reactivated government agent Jim Phelps (Peter Graves), electronics engineer Grant Collier (Phil Morris), theater professor Nicholas Black (Thaao Penghlis), all-around tough guy Max Harte (Tony Hamilton), fashion designer Casey Randall (Terry Markwell). Randall dies midseason, replaced with journalist/singer/Secret Service agent Shannon Reed (Jane Badler).

Initially remakes of original-series episodes, soon giving way to new episodes and loose reuses of original premises in different ways. A surprisingly direct continuation from what had come before, with a mix of international intrigue and crime-busting cases; after an initial emphasis on capers that go off-plan and create jeopardy for the team, the season settled into routine, clockwork capers with very little character exploration, much like the original. A high percentage of episodes featured supernatural-themed capers exploiting villains’ superstitions, usually through holography.

Production in Australia allowed more striking and exotic location work and more international flavor, unfortunately leading to worse ethnic stereotyping than the original generally had. In departure from original, most episodes were set in real countries.

Beginning of the fleshing out of the IMF as an organization, establishing other agents, a research lab, and the like. First steps toward a more action-oriented focus.

Cold opens used in every episode. Tape-scene briefings replaced with video minidiscs in special players, and ending in freeze-frame title card/music sting like that in the original’s dossier sequences. No off-book missions, so disc scenes used in every episode. Video dossier scene used only in pilot. Team briefings occasionally took place on site rather than in Jim’s apartment, and were often more preliminary and straightforwardly expository than in the original, with little of the gadget/trick demonstration common in the original.

Main title theme modernized, electronic/guitar arrangement. Preview clips in titles replaced with generic title sequence. End titles initially over “IMF” logo, later over stills from episode.

  • Best episodes: “The Pawn” and “The Fortune,” followed by “The Legacy.” Best remake: “The Legacy,” whose final act improved upon the original’s weak ending.
  • Worst episodes: “The Devils” is worse than anything from the original series. “The Haunting” is also quite bad, and “Submarine” isn’t much better. Worst remake: “Submarine,” a hugely inferior reworking of the original’s finest episode, though it’s only a loose remake.

1989-90 Season

Regulars: Jim Phelps, Grant Collier, Nicholas Black, Max Harte, Shannon Reed. Only season besides S6 where the same regular cast appears in every episode. Only season in franchise where the team has no supplemental members.

Entirely new episodes, though a couple were loosely inspired by original-series premises. First season since S4 to include a 2-parter. The first half-season broke formula much as S5 did, having more capers go wrong and delving more into the characters. The characters spent more time as themselves (rather than playing assumed roles) than in any previous season. The second half largely dropped the caper formula in favor of more conventional action storytelling where the characters were searching and improvising more often than enacting preplanned strategies.

Unique in having no purely crime-focused episodes; every criminal case had an international/geopolitical aspect. Resumes original series’ practice of using largely fictitious countries, though with several real locations (or caricatures thereof) used. Increased emphasis on action, solving problems with force or gunplay rather than deception and stratagems. The opening 2-parter was essentially an over-the-top action movie, almost a trial run for the feature films. Increasing shift toward fanciful or exaggerated scenarios, and continued emphasis on supernatural cons.

No change in initial formula: Cold open, disc briefing, team briefing usually in Jim’s apartment but occasionally at on-site command post.

  • Best episodes: “Countdown,” “The Fuehrer’s Children,” “For Art’s Sake,” and “The Princess.”
  • Worst episodes: “Cargo Cult” is the worst episode in the entire franchise. “Banshee” and “The Assassin” are both dreadful.

So how would I rank these seasons relative to the whole? Remember, my rankings for the original series were:

  1. Season 5
  2. Season 1
  3. Season 3
  4. Season 4
  5. Season 7
  6. Season 6
  7. Season 2

The 1988 season — call it season 8 — was generally routine and mediocre in storytelling, about on the same level as S2, but weakened by less interesting music and by the disappointing presence of Terry Markwell in the first 2/3 of the season. I’d pretty much have to rate it below S2, then. The ’89 season — call it season 9 — is trickier to rate, since it started out so strong but sank so low. In that respect, it’s close to season 6, which had a number of strong episodes offset by a number of poor ones. But the worst episodes of S9 are below the quality of anything in the original series, so I’d have to put it below S6, though it has enough interesting ones to put it above the generally bland S2. So the new ranking would be:

  1. Season 5
  2. Season 1
  3. Season 3
  4. Season 4
  5. Season 7
  6. Season 6
  7. Season 9
  8. Season 2
  9. Season 8

Movies

Regulars: Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is the only true regular. Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) appears in all four films but is only a team member in three. Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) is effectively a regular starting with the third film. No one else appears in more than one film.

A remarkably inconsistent film series, with each film reflecting its own director’s style and sensibilities. The first two films and the subsquent J.J. Abrams-produced series can be seen as three separate, highly distinct attempts to adapt M:I to film, sharing only a leadactor and a few recurring tropes. Unlike the TV franchise’s team focus, the films are focused on Ethan Hunt as a lone hero and romantic lead, with only Ghost Protocol having an ensemble approach (and eschewing a romantic subplot, for the most part); but Hunt does not emerge as a well-drawn character until the third film. Only the third and fourth films have any shared continuity besides the return of Hunt and Stickell. What the films have in common is a shift toward a greater emphasis on action and on tales of intrigue and treachery. All of the first three films involve traitors in the IMF, and all but the second involve Ethan Hunt being accused of treason and going on the run. The intricate capers that characterized the original series are generally reduced to set pieces within the films’ plots.

The IMF is fleshed out into a division of the CIA, based in Langley, VA. Every film features either senior IMF officials or “the Secretary” himself, though with different officials in each film. The first three films have the briefing videos narrated by the agent’s superior in the IMF, and the fourth has the Secretary deliver “your mission, should you choose to accept it” in person (along with other mission briefings by an anonymous, possibly computerized voice). The method of the briefing delivery is different in every movie. Dossier videos are incorporated into the briefings in films 1, 3, and 4, and as part of a visual montage in film 2. Teams are usually selected by the superior rather than the team leader. Team members are now career IMF agents rather than civilians, although the premise that they are deniable, non-official agents without the protection of their government in the event of discovery is retained — and utilized far more heavily than in the series.

All films take place in real locations and are generally filmed in them. All plots focus on large-scale espionage or on the terrorist acquisition of WMDs.

Every film has a cold open, though the subject matter varies. Every film uses the Schifrin main title theme, but only the first and fourth have full-length title sequences based on the format of the original series. Only the third and fourth films use “The Plot” in full, though the first uses snippets; the second film is unique in the franchise in eschewing the melody altogether.

  • Best films: M:i:III, M:I — Ghost Protocol.
  • Worst films: M:I-2 is clearly the worst, but the first M:I isn’t much better.

Ranking the movies is pretty easy:

1) Ghost Protocol: Very well-directed and fun, with the greatest focus on classic M:I-style capers and schemes and the only really ensemble-driven story in the film franchise. Very close in quality to its predecessor, but the greater fidelity to M:I and the superior music put it over the top.

2) M:i:III: Just as well-done in its own way, but more serious. Terrific, rich character work and effective action, and by far the best use of a female lead in the franchise. The first film to give Ethan Hunt an actual personality. The only drawbacks are an insufficient focus on the ensemble (though they do get a few nice moments here and there) and relatively little use of classic capers, with the Vatican sequence being essentially the only one.

3) M:I: A fairly tepid conspiracy thriller with mediocre acting and a key plot point that makes no sense whatsoever (the Bible “clue” that proves nothing at all), not to mention a climax that defies physics more ridiculously than most action movies do. Further marred by the character assassination of “Jim Phelps.” Still, it’s redeemed somewhat by the effective and iconic set piece of the Langley heist, and by making more use of series-style capers and tropes than any other film in the series save GP.

4) M:I-2: A cartoony, over-the-top, Hong Kong-style action movie, which is something that might be fun as a separate entity, but that doesn’t work as something calling itself Mission: Impossible. An aggressively mindless exercise in style over substance, dominated by insanely overdone action and a deeply superficial excuse for a romance between Hunt and the film’s one and only female character, a travesty next to the moving relationship he has with Julia in the subsequent films. Barely even feels like M:I, barely uses a team, and the villains use more IMF-style tactics than the heroes. The best that can be said about it is that it succeeds in its goal of being a dumb, shallow action cartoon, unlike its predecessor, which fails in its goal of being a smart conspiracy thriller.

Musically, the revival series was less interesting than its predecessor, featuring only three composers in the first dozen episodes and only one for the remainder of the series. The three scores each contributed by Lalo Schifrin and Ron Jones were of mixed quality, though each had one really interesting one, one reasonably good one, and one mediocre one. The remaining 23 scores by John E. Davis (assisted by Neil Argo in season 2?) were generally uninteresting. However, the changes in US union rules requiring new scores in every episode mean that Davis is second only to Schifrin in the total number of M:I episodes scored.

The films have used three different composers, Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer, and Michael Giacchino, with only Giacchino being used twice. Elfman’s score was reasonably good and Giacchino’s were both excellent, with the Ghost Protocol score being particularly impressive. Zimmer’s score for the second film was mediocre, and the only one geared more toward rock sounds than orchestral scoring.

The updated list:

  • Lalo Schifrin: 26 credited scores, seasons 1-8, plus themes used in 4 films
  • John E. Davis: 23 credited scores, seasons 8-9
  • Richard Markowitz: 9 scores, S3-4
  • Robert Drasnin: c. 7 scores (8 credited), S2-3, 5-6
  • Gerald Fried: 6 scores, S1-4
  • Jerry Fielding: 6 scores, S2-4
  • Ron Jones: 6 scores, S8
  • Walter Scharf: 5 scores, S1-2
  • Benny Golson: 4 scores, S5-6
  • Richard Hazard: 3 scores, S4-5 (+1 credited, S6)
  • Robert Prince: 2 scores, S5-6
  • Michael Giacchino: 2 scores, films 3-4
  • Jacques Urbont: 1 score, S1
  • Don Ellis: 1 score, S1
  • Harry Geller: 1 score, S5
  • Hugo Montenegro: 1 score, S5
  • George Romanis: 1 score, S6
  • Duane Tatro: 1 score, S7
  • Danny Elfman: 1 score, film 1
  • Hans Zimmer: 1 score, film 2

The list of composers who have worked on M:I and Star Trek has grown, now including Fried, Fielding, Romanis, Jones, and Giacchino.

Here’s the updated list of regular and recurring IMF team members by number of appearances, incorporating the entire franchise. This includes everyone who was a team member more than once, so it leaves out most of the movie characters. This time I am incorporating Barney and Lisa Casey’s return appearances in the revival despite their not being formal team members, since they did actually participate in the teams’ endeavors, something I didn’t recall when I made the original list.

  • Jim Phelps: 178 (not counting presumed impostor in first movie)
  • Barney Collier: 169 (plus at least 1 offscreen assist)
  • Willy Armitage: 147
  • Rollin Hand: 76
  • Cinnamon Carter: 71
  • The Great Paris: 49
  • (Lisa) Casey: 35 (plus 6 offscreen assists)
  • Grant Collier: 35
  • Nicholas Black: 35
  • Max Harte: 35
  • Dan Briggs: 27 (only on mission in 20)
  • Shannon Reed: 24
  • Dana Lambert: 23
  • Doug Robert: 13
  • Casey Randall: 12 (mostly minor contributions)
  • Mimi Davis: 7
  • Tracey: 6 (4 distinct missions)
  • Ethan Hunt: 4
  • Luther Stickell: 3
  • Dr. Green (Allen Joseph): 2 (plus 1 offscreen assist)
  • Dave (Walker Edmiston): 2
  • Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg): 2 (only 1 as formal team member)

Note that Jim has now surpassed Barney as the most frequently appearing character in the franchise.

Bob Johnson (Voice on Tape/Disc) is heard in 192 episodes (all but 14), with 9 being recaps in multiparters, coming out to 183 distinct briefings. Johnson is in none of the movies, having died three years before the first film’s release.

Revised comparisons:

Best Team Leader: Previous winner: Jim Phelps. New candidates: Evil Impostor Jim Phelps, Ethan Hunt.

Is there even a contest? Well, we can rule out Jon Voight’s Evil Jim right off the bat; assassinating your own team is kind of a disqualifier. And Ethan is too much of a lone wolf and grandstander, plus he has a hard time holding onto a team. No change here — the original Jim Phelps, accept no substitutes, still wins by a mile.

Best Second-in-Command: Previous winner: Barney Collier. New candidates: Grant Collier, Ethan Hunt.

I’m counting Ethan because he was Evil Jim’s second-in-command in the first film, and Grant because he generally seemed to be the first one Jim briefed before the others. Ethan didn’t give a very good showing in the role, allowing virtually his entire team to be killed by their team leader, so he’s out of the running (no pun intended) again. And Grant was never really given the chance to take the lead in Jim’s absence, so while I have the feeling he would’ve done a great job, he never got to prove it. No change here: Barney still wins.

Best Master of Disguise: Previous winner: Rollin Hand. New candidates: Nicholas Black, Ethan Hunt.

Man, that Hunt guy sure gets around. But his full-mask impersonations are too dependent on high technology, including synthetic voice chips, which seems like cheating. His less extreme makeup jobs using his own face and voice aren’t bad, but they don’t display as much range as Rollin’s did. And Nicholas had even less versatility; though theoretically he could do a perfect job mimicking anyone so long as the actor’s voice was dubbed over his, in practice the actor was unconvincing in the role. So again, no change: Rollin still wins.

Best Tech Guy: Previous winner: Barney Collier by default. New candidates: Grant Collier, Jack Harmon (Emilio Estevez), Luther Stickell, Benji Dunn.

Let’s start with the movie guys. Jack Harmon’s main accomplishments, as seen in the first film, are watching stuff on a monitor, being out-hacked by his own boss, and getting killed by a truly ridiculous deathtrap. Not impressive. Luther’s good with the hacking and with monitoring the team operations, but he’s not as hands-on as his predecessors. And Benji, while enthusiastic as anything, is a bit of a bumbler. The only real contender for Barney is his own son. And I’m tempted to give Grant the win. All things considered, he’s a more versatile IMF agent than his father, skilled not only in the tech stuff but in roleplay and physical combat as well. True, Barney expanded into those fields when necessary, particularly in seasons 6 & 7, but Grant did them better. However, this category is specifically for best tech guy, not best all-around agent. And tech-wise, while Grant had more advanced gadgets than his father, it seemed that his activities involved a higher ratio of typing on keyboards to doing hands-on gadget/mechanical stuff. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he accomplished less, but it does feel like his tech work was less versatile, more in the direction of Luther’s one-note hacking and monitoring. Still, he did a fair amount of field work and gadgeteering as well. It’s a very close contest, and I’m tempted to call it a tie. But here’s the thing: Grant owed his skills to what he learned or inherited from Barney. So if anything, Grant’s achievements only add to Barney’s legacy. So again, the original verdict stands.

Best Regular/Recurring Female Agent: Previous winner: Cinnamon Carter. New candidates: Casey Randall, Shannon Reed.

For once we have no candidates from the movies, since no female agents have made repeat appearances. That leaves the two women from the revival series. Casey Randall was by far the weakest regular agent of either sex, rarely given anything significant to do and limited in range when she was. She was certainly the weakest seductress of them all, despite being relatively beautiful. But Shannon Reed was very impressive — strong, smart, charming, sexy, reasonably versatile as a roleplayer, and a pretty good singer too. Her main drawback was a tendency to be made a damsel in distress, but despite this, she never felt weak or helpless, and indeed it sometimes gave her the chance to be even more heroic. It’s another close contest — indeed, the contest between the original series’ three main female leads was also quite close — but I think we have our first upset, with Shannon now getting my vote for the best female agent, by a narrow margin.

Best One-Shot Female Agent: Previous winner: Crystal Walker (Mary Ann Mobley) from “Odd Man Out.” New candidates: Every female agent in the movies.

Again, I won’t list all the candidates by name, but my favorite of the movies’ female agents was Zhen Lei (Maggie Q). Jane Carter (Paula Patton) got more to do, but she felt uncomfortable and out of place in the IMF’s roleplaying gambits, being more a blunt instrument who struggled to fulfill her responsibilities. Still, I don’t think Zhen quite upsets Crystal, although it’s very close.

Best Strongman: I’m changing this category from Best “Other Guy” because now we have more than one candidate in the strongman category. Previous winner: Willy Armitage. New candidate: Max Harte.

For once, we have a clear upset. Willy was pleasant enough and good with the physical stuff, but limited as a roleplayer. Max was less a strongman per se and more an all-around tough guy and fighter, but he was also a much more capable roleplayer, pilot, stunt rider, and the like. He was a great asset to the team and wins my vote easily.

Best One-Shot Male Agent: Previous winner: Joseph Baresh (Albert Paulsen) from “Memory.” New candidates: Jack Harmon, Franz Krieger, Billy Baird, Declan Gormey, William Brandt.

Okay, Brandt is the only one on the list who made much of an impression at all, aside from Krieger, who was a villain. But since he’s allegedly attached to the upcoming fifth movie, I’m not sure he qualifies for the one-shot category. Let’s leave this undecided.

So there we are — nine seasons and four movies. Please don’t ask me to redo this whole thing again when M:I-5 comes out, or this reviewer may self-destruct. Until then — “Mission… accomplished!”

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE — GHOST PROTOCOL (2011) Movie Review (spoilers)

Now adding a more detailed overview of the most recent Mission: Impossible film, which I offered initial thoughts on back in 2012M:I — Ghost Protocol was the live-action directorial debut of Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille), with a script by Alias writer-producers André Nemec and Josh Appelbaum. J.J. Abrams produced the film, providing some continuity with its predecessor, a first in the M:I feature film “series.”

Bird establishes his strong visual sense right away with sweeping, dynamic overhead shots of Budapest, closing in on Josh Holloway as he flees from pursuers, casually leaping off a roof — after tossing down a cartridge that inflates into an airbag to catch him. He thinks he’s home free, but a dainty-featured blonde beauty (Lea Seydoux) assassinates him before he has a chance to react, hugging him close and kissing his cheek as she shoots him a few more times, then stealing the package he’s carrying.

Cut to a Moscow prison, where a small IMF team consisting of returning character Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and newcomer Jane Carter (Paula Patton), no known relation to Cinnamon Carter. Benji is controlling the prison doors to let out a certain person they’re trying to spring, who turns out to be Ethan Hunt, again with longer hair (this is becoming a pattern, short-l0ng-short-long). Benji plays Dean Martin’s “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” over the prison PA so Ethan can time his escape (during a prison riot, hence the song selection), a trick evocative of the use of carnival music to time a prison break in season 1’s “Old Man Out.” But Ethan won’t go without rescuing another prisoner, Bogdan (Miraj Grbić), who gave him intel and would be killed for it if he were left behind. Once they get out through a hole Carter blows in the cellar floor, she introduces herself to Ethan and he tells her to “light the fuse,” very cleverly incorporating the opening of the main titles into the action, and leading into a title sequence like a Pixarized version of the original series (or first movie) titles, with the CGI fuse burning through not just clips from the movie to come, but shots showing moments from the film from entirely different angles. It’s a bravura sequence, and Michael Giacchino scores it with an even bolder, brassier rendering of the Schifrin theme than he used last time. It ends with the fuse detonating a charge that I now realize must’ve been intended to bring down the tunnel and prevent pursuit, though that was only implied, since…

We cut right to Ethan, Benji, Carter, and Bogdan fleeing in a van — until they deftly transfer Bogdan to another IMF van. Benji explains he passed the field agent’s test, and Carter explains that Josh Holloway was her partner (and lover) and was killed trying to prevent Russian nuclear launch codes from falling into the wrong hands, which they now have — those hands belonging to the girlish assassin from before, Sabine Moreau, who intends to deliver them to a terrorist called Cobalt. The van stops by an old public phone which opens to reveal an IMF computer thingy that gives Ethan his mission — the first time in the film franchise that the briefing voice is anonymous rather than Ethan’s (or Phelps’s) boss. The gig is to infiltrate the Kremlin and get the files identifying Cobalt before he can destroy them. The “self-destruct in five seconds” bit is comically subverted when Ethan has to go back and smack it to set it off. Meanwhile, Benji mentions to Carter that Ethan’s marriage with Julia didn’t work out — disappointing, since she was so important to him in the third film.

Giacchino gives us a taste of “The Plot” when the briefing voice informs Ethan that he’s been assigned Benji and Carter as his team to save time. The agents hardly ever get to pick their own teams in the movies! He then gives us a bit more of “The Plot” as Bird’s camera swoops over the Kremlin — and then modulates into a similar-sounding melody in a bombastic Russian-marching-song idiom, one of my favorite pieces of music from the score. Carter uses a remote-controlled toy balloon to drop a hacking transmitter down a chimney so that when Ethan and Benji enter disguised as a Russian general and his aide, their clearance shows up on the computer. Then Ethan and Benji set up an elaborate projection-screen system in the hallway that tracks the eyes of the desk guard (ubiquitous Vancouver actor Mike Dopud) and shows him an image of the hall behind it. As I remarked in my initial review, this is a fancier version of a gambit seen in “The Falcon, Part 3,” but it’s exercised with a lot more comic flair. But things get serious when Ethan finds the records already expunged and then hears a voice cutting in on their frequency, announcing to the “team leader” that the detonator has been set. The Kremlin guards also pick this up and are alerted to the infiltration. Ethan aborts the mission and gets out, but then the building he was in blows up, and even the Patented Tom Cruise Run isn’t fast enough to get him away unscathed. He awakens in the hospital, under arrest and blamed for the bombing, as he learns from Russian intelligence man Sidorov (Vladimir Mashkov), who’s determined to punish him for his alleged crime. Ethan makes a break onto the window ledge but has second thoughts about jumping shirtless and barefoot into a dumpster full of medical waste, and there’s a humorous bit of interplay with Sidorov, who’s watching him amusedly from the window. But then Ethan manages to slide down a wire onto a passing van’s roof and get away, swiping some poor guy’s cell phone to call for retrieval.

He’s picked up by no less than The Secretary (Tom Wilkinson), who happened to be in Moscow but has been recalled in disgrace. He tells Ethan the entire IMF has been disavowed and shut down, but lets him know he intends for Ethan to escape and mount a rogue operation using an “overlooked” equipment cache. He also introduces Ethan to William Brandt (The Avengers‘ Jeremy Renner), an IMF analyst. Ethan realizes he passed Cobalt in the Kremlin and sketches the face on his hand to show to Brandt, who recognizes him as Kurt Hendricks, a nuclear strategist with an apocalypse obsession and a belief that global cataclysm is a necessary step in evolution. He stole a missile-controlling briefcase from the Kremlin and blew it up so they wouldn’t find out, as well as to put the blame on the US and heighten tensions.

The Secretary personally delivers “your mission, should you choose to accept it” on a flash drive, but just as he’s telling Ethan what a friend he is, the car is attacked and the Secretary and driver killed, and as the limo overturns, Bird cleverly shoots the entire sequence from inside the back seat, until it crashes into the river. Ethan concocts a diversion to get himself and Brandt away from the firing guards, and afterward Brandt is confused about how Ethan knew it would work. Ethan explains it was more a matter of instinct, both his and the wildly firing guards’, than rational thought.

The equipment cache is in a train car that happens to be moving when they find it, leading to some slapstick as they try to gain access. Inside they find Jane and Benji, and Ethan briefs them on the mission to intercept Hendricks’s henchman Wistrom (Samuli Edelmann) when he buys the launch codes from Moreau, then follow him back to Hendricks. He insists that both Moreau and Wistrom are assets that need to be kept alive until they find Hendricks, which angers Carter, who wants revenge on Moreau for killing Sawyer from Lost. But Ethan’s adamant: revenge must wait.

The movie series’s skyscraper fetish now reaches its greatest height, literally, for the meeting is at the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Another of Bird’s swooping chopper shots introduces it magnificently, and Giacchino gives the tower its own lush Arabian motif, my other favorite theme from the film. The gambit is one used on the original series, to intercept both parties in a meeting and make each one think they’re meeting the other, with Jane meeting Wistrom as Moreau and Ethan meeting Moreau as Wistrom. But they have to hack the building’s security servers to control the elevators, and of course the only way to get to them is via our climactic installment of “Ethan Hunt Climbs Things.” I doubt I need to summarize the most famous sequence from the movie, but Ethan’s free climb of the glass exterior of the Burj showcases a lot more of Bird’s flair, wit, and comic timing, as well as Cruise’s impressive commitment to his work and insistence on doing his own stunts.

Ethan barely survives the climb and return, but then more things start to go wrong. The mask machine breaks down, so Ethan and Carter have to pull off the impersonations without masks and pray that Moreau and Wistrom have never met. Then Wistrom shows up with a Russian code expert he’s kidnapped to verify the codes, so the plan to replace them with fakes and track the paper to Hendricks needs revision — the copies (scanned by a special contact lens and printed inside a special briefcase) have to have authentic codes. (But the paper still has to be fake since it’s impregnated with a tracer they can track.) Brandt balks at handing over the real codes, but Ethan convinces him there’s no other way. The team manages to pull off the deception long enough for Wistrom to leave with the traceable codes, but then Moreau gets wise to Brandt’s contact lens and attacks him. Carter captures her and takes her back to the team’s room, handing Benji the gun since she knows she’ll kill Moreau if she has a gun on her. Moreau gets the drop on Benji, and Carter ends up having to kick Moreau out the still-open window a hundred-odd stories up. It’s unclear whether she even had a choice, but she’s screwed up.

After encountering Sidorov again and eluding him, Ethan breaks out the Patented Tom Cruise Run and chases Wistrom through a sandstorm, and I like how Bird uses the blinding conditions as a contrast to the wide-open action of the Burj Khalifa climb, mixing it up and keeping it interesting. But here’s where things didn’t quite work for me, since the idea was to trail Wistrom back to Hendricks, but Ethan ends up chasing him openly and then trying to catch him, even crashing a car into his to stop him, but he gets away and removes a mask revealing that he was Hendricks all along. Huh? Why? That doesn’t seem to make sense. Was it just something they inserted because there had to be at least one impossibly convincing mask impersonation in the film?

Later, the team is torn up with mutual recriminations, and Ethan confronts Brandt about the mad fighting skills he showed in the Burj Khalifa, asking why such a capable field agent would be just an analyst. On getting no answer, Ethan seems to abandon the team and goes off alone. Carter confronts Brandt, and he tells her and Benji what he wouldn’t tell Ethan: That he was responsible for protecting Ethan and Julia without their knowledge, but he failed and Julia got killed — much to the shock of Benji, who thought she’d simply left Ethan. Hunt was in the Russian jail for killing the Serbian assassins.

Ethan goes to meet with a Russian arms dealer, a relative of his old friend Bogdan. I think the sewed-up ski mask used to blindfold Ethan is the same ugly-muppet one from the first film. He tells the dealer about the nuclear threat and asks where Hendricks could get a satellite able to relay the control signal to a missile, learning there’s one that was sold to a Mumbai media mogul. But he won’t be able to hack it alone. So he has to mend fences with the team, and they fly off to plan the mission. There’s some fun banter between Brandt and Benji as the former is skeptical of the latter’s plan to get him past the deadly cooling fan into the massive server for controlling the satellite.

At the party held by the mogul, Nath (Anij Kapoor), Carter’s job is to be the seductress, getting Nath alone and getting the satellite control codes from him however she can. She’s in a sexy turquoise dress that tries to be as impressive as Maggie Q’s little red number from the last film, and comes reasonably close (though Paula Patton’s own physique helps enormously). But Jane is totally clumsy at playing the seductress, and only gets away with it because Nath doesn’t mind the dominatrix type. Once Brandt hesitantly takes the leap, gets into the server control, and gives Benji access, Benji finds that Hendricks has already taken control of the satellite. Carter gets the codes by force, but it’s too late. The only option is to get to the transmission site before missile launch, but even Ethan and Jane’s fancy sportscar can’t get through the Mumbai crowds in time. Now their last chance is to abort the launched missile in the few minutes before impact. Ethan spots Hendricks leaving and gives chase while Jane, Brandt, and Benji deal with Wistrom, who’s trying to damage the transmission equipment, which they have to repair while also contending with Wistrom and his gun (and Jane has to keep going despite being shot). Benji ultimately saves Brandt from Wistrom.

Meanwhile, Ethan chases Hendricks to an automated car-park tower (a full-size, working one constructed specifically for the film), and they battle for the case among the moving platforms, the logic of the sequence playing out not unlike that Popeye cartoon about chasing a baby through a construction site. It’s very clever and funny. Although it takes a serious turn when Hendricks, a true fanatic believing the apocalypse will save humanity, jumps to the ground and kills himself to keep Ethan from getting to the case in time. Ethan drives a car off its platform and relies on its seatbelt and airbag to save him (they do), then crows “Mission accomplished!” as he hits the abort button on the missile control — which doesn’t work until Brandt, freshly saved from Wistrom, turns the transmitter back on, neutralizing the missile. Sidorov, whom Ethan had the arms dealer contact, shows up just after the nick of time and realizes that Ethan wasn’t the bad guy.

Later, in San Francisco, Ethan is hanging out with Luther Stickell in a cameo scene when he meets with the others, tells them they made a good team, and offers them new missions. Benji and Jane accept, but Brandt resists, confessing that he let Julia die. But Ethan’s timed the meeting to show him that Julia is still alive, that Ethan faked her death and got her into witness protection to spare her. Michelle Monaghan gets only a wordless cameo, but it’s nice that she’s still potentially in play for the future. All’s well, and Ethan gets an assignment to go after a terrorist group called “the Syndicate,” an in-joke reference to the name always used for the mob in the original series. He vanishes into the mist, leading into an end-credit sequence scored, for once, not by a pop tune but by a suite of Giacchino’s (and Schifrin’s) themes for the film.

As my original review made clear, this is my favorite M:I film and the one that I think comes closest to the original series. But I have to revise what I said before, that the first three directors made movies very much in their own characteristic styles while Bird made more of a faithful M:I movie. Actually, Bird makes this movie his own just as much as the others did. It uses a lot of the tropes and trappings of M:I, but subverts them comically (along with many action-movie tropes as well), and it’s the intricately plotted visual and character humor that make it a Brad Bird film. The movie is much more fun and snarky than its predecessors and more so than the original series. It’s got the same kind of character focus that Abrams’s M:i:III had, but with a different tone and pace. It’s also unique among the M:I films in being an ensemble piece: All three supporting team members have their own arcs and stories, rather than just being there to back up Ethan. (Which may be because there was a tentative plan to phase out Cruise in favor of Renner as the franchise lead, although that plan was abandoned.)

Giacchino’s score here is my favorite of the series as well, even richer and more gorgeous than his score for the previous film, and one of my favorite Giacchino scores overall, the other being The Incredibles. I do wish he’d used “The Plot” for more than just the Kremlin sequence, though. It would’ve been interesting to hear an Indian-styled rendering of it in the Mumbai sequence, although we do hear a bit of the main title in that idiom.

Mission: Impossible 5 is currently in pre-production, with Christopher McQuarrie (writer of The Usual Suspects, Valkyrie, and Edge of Tomorrow) as director and a script by Iron Man 3‘s Drew Pearce. Abrams is still producing, but this franchise just can’t hold onto a director for more than one film. We’ll have to see what fresh flavor McQuarrie brings. For now, though, this is the end of my review series — although I do have one more franchise-overview post to come.

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III (2006) Movie Review (spoilers)

With this film, the M:I series returned after a 6-year gap, with Paramount bringing aboard Alias creator J.J. Abrams to relaunch the series — which he did so successfully that Paramount entrusted him not only with the ongoing M:I franchise, but with its sister franchise Star Trek as well. But that’s later. For now, M:i:III, as it was styled on posters, was directed by Abrams and written by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Abrams.

The cold open this time is a flashforward in which Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt awakens in captivity and is told by Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) that he has a bomb in his brain. Davian grills him about the location of something called the Rabbit’s Foot, which Hunt believes he’s already given Davian. Davian threatens the life of a woman who’s clearly dear to Ethan, counting down relentlessly from ten, and Ethan runs the gamut from pleading to bargaining to threatening to reasoning to begging. Ethan Hunt shows far more characterization, and Tom Cruise shows far more acting range, in the first four minutes of this film than in the previous four hours of the franchise. It’s a brilliant, stunning opening and deeply refreshing after the tepid films that preceded it.

Once the countdown ends, we hear an ominous shot, and cut to a brief title sequence, with Abrams’s regular composer Michael Giacchino giving us a big, brassy orchestral variation on Schifrin’s theme. Cut to the woman we just saw threatened, and it’s Michelle Monaghan as Julia Meade, who’s throwing an engagement party with her fiancee, Ethan Hunt, whom she believes to be an employee of the Virginia Department of Transportation. It’s another marvelous scene rich with everyday texture, and it humanizes Ethan and grounds the film in a way that M:I has never been grounded before. This is the first time ever that we’ve been given a reason to identify with Ethan Hunt on an emotional, human level — and it only took ten years for it to happen. At last, our wooden action hero has become a real live boy.

But Ethan gets a call that Giacchino accompanies with Schifrinesque bongos, hinting at intrigue ahead. The call draws him to a 7-Eleven where he’s met by IMF Operations Director John Musgrave (Billy Crudup), offering him a shot at rescuing a trainee of his, Lindsey (Keri Russell, star of Abrams’s Felicity), who’s been taken captive. Ethan resists, since he’s given up field work to become an instructor training new recruits; but Musgrave suggests he buy a disposable camera, which contains the mission briefing, delivered by Musgrave himself (the first time the narrator’s face has ever appeared in a briefing recording). Lindsey was taken in Berlin while searching for arms dealer Davian, and Musgrave has already assigned a team — the second time in the film franchise that we’ve seen the team selected by the director rather than the team leader. The team consists of recurring character Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and newcomers Zhen Lei (Maggie Q) and Declan Gormley (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, future title character of the 2014 Dracula TV series). For some reason, Zhen’s name is pronounced “Zen.” A nickname?

When we see the team’s faces in the briefing video, Giacchino introduces a leitmotif he’ll be using throughout the film, reminiscent of Schifrin’s “The Plot” but more Giacchino-esque. But then Ethan tells Julia that he’s going out of town for a transportation conference, and once he rendezvouses with the rest of the team, I’m delighted to say that Giacchino gives us the first full statement of “The Plot” in the film series to date, and indeed its first full use since the revival episode “For Art’s Sake” 17 years earlier. It’s glorious. The motif is used again in the mission that follows, but it’s a very, very un-IMF-style mission, going in with guns and bombs to break out Lindsey and retrieve Davian’s laptops (which are damaged in an explosion). The team members even have military-style code names for the op: Ethan is “Raider One,” Luther is “Observer,” Zhen is “Groundhog” (since she breaks in from underneath), and Declan is “Phoenix” because he’s the chopper pilot. How come movie-era IMF teams always have chopper pilots? Anyway, Lindsey tries to tell Ethan something for his ears only but doesn’t get the chance due to all the bangs and booms. They get to da choppa but are chased by another choppa through a wind-vane farm, and Lindsey suffers severe pain, and Ethan finds out she has a bomb in her head and tries to fry it by zapping her with a defibrillator, which will stop her heart, but then he plans to zap her again to restart it. Which isn’t actually how defibrillators work (they stop fibrillating hearts but don’t restart stopped ones, despite 99.99999% of their portrayals in fiction), but he doesn’t get the chance to do it anyway, because the action of the chopper chase delays him until she dies (the charge being small enough to be entirely internal but still fatal).

So he’s all bummed out about that, and even worse, he can’t confide in his beloved Julia about his grief. Not to mention that he and Musgrave are raked over the coals by Director Brassel (Laurence Fishburne), who’s something of a blowhard fond of labored and colorful turns of phrase, but he still comes off as a strong authority figure by virtue of being Laurence Fishburne. Anyway, at Lindsey’s funeral, and after some flashbacks to her IMF training (which is all firearms and fighting, not a trace of the deceptions and gadgets and roleplay that are supposed to be the IMF’s bread and butter), he gets a call from a package service that Lindsey sent something to a mailbox she kept for him. It’s a postcard with a microdot, but Luther can’t read the dot without special equipment.

Meanwhile, Simon Pegg makes his debut as Benji Dunn, a colorful IMF technician who’s deciphered enough from Davian’s hard drives to know that he’s planning to steal and sell a valuable weapon called the Rabbit’s Foot, though Benji has no idea what that is, aside from a rambling speculation about high-tech end-of-the-world superweapons. He’ll be in the Vatican soon to meet a buyer, so now the team knows where he’ll be and when. He goes to tell Julia he’ll be away again, and she senses he’s hiding something and asks when he’ll let her in. He responds by convincing her to get married right there and then, which is at once very romantic and very evasive.

We finally get something resembling an apartment scene as Ethan briefs the team on the operation to kidnap Davian. The Vatican sequence is the closest thing in the film to a classic M:I gambit. Ethan and Declan stage a delivery-truck breakdown by the Vatican wall to give Ethan a chance to infiltrate via our next installment of “Ethan Hunt Climbs Things,” this time combined with the Patented Tom Cruise Run as he PTCRs up the wall on a retracting cable. Now, I’m not even going to try to keep track of all the PTCRs in this film; there’s barely a major action sequence here without one. Not since Lee Majors has an action star gotten so much mileage (so to speak) out of his run. Anyway, Ethan spoofs a security camera, then changes to a priest disguise to get in, while Declan gets in as the delivery guy and then changes to a guard’s uniform so he can let in Zhen as a party guest in a fancy sportscar. While Ethan helps Luther break in by vandalizing a wall with artwork painted on it, Zhen enters the party wearing the most amazing red dress I’ve ever seen, and uses a compact to take reference photos of Davian for Luther’s mask-making machine. Yes, the movie’s following the precedent of the revival series in using computer-aided, photo-based technology to manufacture masks, though the specific mechanism is more elaborate. Meanwhile, Luther lectures Ethan about how long-term relationships can’t last in their line of work, until Ethan breaks down and tells him he’s already married Julia. Luther also benefits from the film’s innovative use of actual characterization for its characters, giving Ving Rhames more to work with than he had in the previous film, and making Luther’s friendship with Ethan feel more substantial than it did in the first two.

Zhen then spills a drink on Davian’s shirt so he’ll have to retreat to the bathroom, where Ethan in Davian disguise tackles him and forces him at gunpoint to read from a card so they’ll get enough phonemes for the voice-altering throat gizmo (returning from the previous film) to mimic his voice accurately. I think this is a really clever new touch, a nice bit of comedy that actually makes technical sense. They smuggle Davian out through the ducts while Ethan-Davian lets Zhen pick him up and drive off in her car, which they exit via a sewer cover underneath just before blowing up the car to fake Davian’s death.

On a plane back, Ethan quizzes Davian about the Rabbit’s Foot, but Davian only threatens to find his loved ones and make them suffer and die. He boasts about killing Lindsey for fun in order to provoke Ethan to threaten his life, so that Luther calling his name to stop him will reveal his name to Davian, getting him one step closer to revenge. Although he only gets the first name, so his ability to find out the rest so quickly is a subtle clue that he has help inside the IMF. As is the fact that he’s promptly freed by an attack on the IMF convoy crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, which is a nice sequence because we see Ethan and his team trying to protect and help the civilians endangered by the attack. That’s very refreshing after the last film, where Ethan was insanely reckless about civilian safety in his car and motorcycle chases, even the “playful” one with Thandie Newton in the first act. But no sooner is Davian out that he calls Ethan and threatens to kill Julia unless Ethan steals the Rabbit’s Foot for him, so Ethan has to flee the scene in the first car he can steal (which happens to be a high-end Mercedes — what are the odds?) and race to the hospital where she works. But Davian’s man gets her first, and Ethan is confronted by an IMF team sent to arrest him. Even the PTCR can’t save him from a tasering. At HQ, he’s all trussed up and gagged as Brassel bloviates over him, revealing that he’s suspected of being the mole who helped spring Davian because he fled the scene. It’s the second time in three movies that Ethan’s been accused of treason. But Musgrave helps him escape after clandestinely letting him know that the Rabbit’s Foot is in China. (I like how this is done. In the party scene earlier, we saw a bit of Ethan using his lip-reading skills to answer a question Julia was asking in the next room, to set up this later scene where Musgrave mouths his secret message for Ethan to lip-read. Yet it was established very subtly and organically, well-disguised as just a bit of character interplay.)

So Ethan goes to downtown Shanghai — how come superweapon labs are never in boring, non-photogenic locations? — and finds his team has been sent by Musgrave to help him. He devises a plan to get to the skyscraper housing the lab by rappelling across from another building, just what we’d expect from Ethan — but then he starts writing math equations on the window to plot his trajectory, which is not what we would’ve expected from the hotheaded daredevil of the first two films, and is another touch that nicely grounds the film in a less cartoony reality than its predecessor and fleshes out Ethan as an individual. Anyway, we then see him swinging across and breaking in, but we only see the reactions of the other team members waiting outside and having a character moment or two, before the action kicks in again and Ethan makes an abortive and near-lethal BASE jump to get out and then has to contend with Shanghai traffic and weak cell signals before telling Davian he has the RF, just in time to spare Julia’s life. Then he sends the rest of the team home and gets picked up by Davian, and we end up in the scene we saw in the cold open, with Ethan getting the bomb injected into his head. After it appears that Julia’s been killed, Musgrave shows up! He says “It’s complicated,” then tears off “Julia”‘s mask to reveal the face of the translator/security chief (Bahar Soomekh) who failed to protect Davian at the Vatican. Musgrave explains that he’s cultivated Davian as a resource in defiance of Brassel’s orders because he thinks it can do more good to control his arms sales so the IMF/CIA can track down bigger fish through him and take them out. Which sounds like the kind of strategy the intelligence community might actually use, tolerating the little fish as informants to get the big ones, so it’s not that clear why he has to do this in secret. But now it’s personal for Ethan. He gets Musgrave to call the people who have Julia so he can hear her voice, then takes out Musgrave while still shackled to a chair, breaks out, and calls Benji on Musgrave’s phone, getting him to trace the location of the last call.

And this leads to the apotheosis of the Patented Tom Cruise Run as he dashes through the streets of old Shanghai, including a single unbroken shot that must be 30 seconds long. Eventually he finds Julia held captive in a small clinic, but Davian shows up, activates the bomb in Ethan’s head, and fights with him, eventually losing. Ethan frees Julia and gets through her fear and confusion to persuade her to shock him temporarily dead to short out the bomb — after giving her a lightning-quick lesson in firearms. And then, while he’s out of action — I love this part. This part is amazing. Julia gets into a firefight with Musgrave’s men, then takes out Musgrave by chance when he shows up with the Rabbit’s Foot. Then she CPRs and cardiac-thumps Ethan until he revives — so fortunately we never did see a defibrillator being unrealistically used to start a stopped heart. (I wondered why she didn’t find a shot of adrenaline for his heart in the clinic, but maybe she couldn’t read the Chinese labels.) So after being in the conventional role of the love interest and the damsel in distress for most of the film, Julia ends up being the one who single-handedly beats the main villain, retrieves the McGuffin, and saves the hero’s life. It’s an awesome subversion of action-movie gender roles, and particularly refreshing after the last film did so poorly with gender balance. And it suggests that Tom Cruise’s ego is perhaps not as inflated as people tend to think — because he was willing to have himself rendered ineffectual in the climax of the film so that someone else could save the day.

Afterward, Ethan tells Julia the truth about his job, and then, once Brassel clears and thanks him, we see that he’s brought in Julia to meet his team, letting her fully into his life. The story ends back in the everyday, character-oriented place where it began, and reinforces that Julia is Ethan’s equal and his partner, not just his lust object.

I love this film. Okay, granted, it’s no more faithful to the M:I formula than its predecessors, much more a big spy-action movie than a caper movie. It’s also like the previous two films in its reuse of tropes like a traitor in the IMF, Ethan being on the run from the IMF, Ethan being lowered into places on ropes, etc. It’s a blend of the conspiracy-thriller elements of the DePalma film and the over-the-top action elements of the Woo film. And it’s still “The Adventures of Ethan Hunt and His Backup” rather than a full ensemble piece, at least until the climax where Julia becomes the heroine. The Vatican sequence feels like a faster-paced version of a classic M:I operation, but it’s a small portion of the film. I realize now that the first film actually had more classic M:I-style material (the Kiev opening, the Prague operation, the Langley heist) than this one did. So this film is nearly tied with the Woo film for being the least Mission: Impossible-like installment in the franchise. But Abrams, Kurtzman, and Orci took what had been a tepid, shallow action series to this point and brought humanity, thoughtfulness, and wit to it even while maintaining a similarly exaggerated level of action. This is what Abrams did effectively in Alias at its best, balancing larger-than-life spy-fantasy action with everyday, human relationships and emotions, and that human touch makes it easier to enjoy the crazy action because there’s a reason for emotional investment in what’s going on. The film also makes much better use of Tom Cruise as an actor, and makes Ethan Hunt a person at last rather than just an action figure.

As I’ve said before, M:i:III is more like Alias: The Movie than Mission: Impossible. But it’s the first Ethan Hunt movie that’s actually good.

I already gave my thoughts on the fourth film, Ghost Protocol, when it came out. But I’m going to do what I suggested I would and post a fuller analysis to complete my review series. Maybe seeing it in the wake of all three predecessors will offer new insights.

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE II (2000) Movie Review (Spoilers)

The second Ethan Hunt film, styled in posters and promotions as M:I-2, was directed by John Woo. The script was by Robert Towne from a story (and first draft, I gather) by the Star Trek: The Next Generation writing team of Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga. This is the only non-Trek production the two writers worked on as a team, and I can only surmise that they got the job due to their work on the earlier Paramount features Star Trek Generations and Star Trek: First Contact. That makes this the first M:I feature film to have a connection to Star Trek, which was the sister show of the original M:I series.

The film follows the precedent of the last five television seasons (counting both series) by commencing with a cold open establishing the crisis. A scientist named Nekhorvich has arranged with the IMF to deliver a secret called Chimera, and is shepherded on a jet by the only man he trusts, Ethan Hunt — and Tom Cruise’s hair is considerably longer than it was the last time. But then Ethan, the pilot, and several others contrive to knock out the crew and passengers of the jet and steal the package the scientist was delivering. Has Ethan gone evil? No, he rips off his Ethan mask to reveal Dougray Scott, and peels off a new innovation, a throat patch that alters his voice — and once it’s gone his accent is suddenly Scottish. He and his men point the jet at a mountain and bail out before it crashes. Smash cut to Moab, Utah, where we get the series’s first installment of “Ethan Hunt Climbs Things,” in this case an insanely dangerous free climb of a really high, thin mesa, which Cruise did without a net (but with a harness). Once he’s at the top, a helicopter flies in and fires a projectile which Hunt opens to find a pair of sunglasses that play the mission briefing for him in the dulcet tones of Anthony Hopkins — a vast improvement over the previous film’s Henry Czerny. Hopkins’s spiel goes directly from “Good morning, Mr. Hunt” to “Your mission, should you choose to accept it” without any initial exposition, and the mission described is simply to retrieve the stolen Chimera, no more explanation. Already we’re getting a sense of the relative emphasis on exposition vs. action in this film. Ethan’s told he can pick two team members of his choosing, but must also recruit Nyah Nordoff-Hall (Thandie Newton), a master thief. Hopkins’s voice adds that Hunt should meet him in Seville in 48 hours, and appends a note that the next time Hunt goes on vacation, he should let the IMF know where he’s going. Ethan tosses the glasses aside as they self-destruct in a fiery explosion right in front of the camera, leading into a totally incoherent barrage of images under the titles. Oh, is this a John Woo film? Hans Zimmer provides a rock score that at this point only approximates the main title theme, using the ostinato and the chord structure but not the main melody.

In Seville, Hunt has a “Some Enchanted Evening” moment with Nyah (i.e. “see a stranger across a crowded room”) as they gaze at each other in slow motion across a stage where flamenco dancers are performing. The dancers, by the way, are essentially the only women in the film other than Nyah; this film fails the Bechdel Test on every possible level. Ethan interrupts Nyah as she breaks into a safe by a bathtub, and she pulls this man she’s just met into the bathtub into a sexually suggestive position as they hide from someone, and they continue to flirt blatantly as he lets her open the safe, but then he trips the alarm and gets her out of the jam by selling the pretense that she’s his assistant in a security test of the alarm system, making her return the necklace to its owners first. He tries to recruit her for IMFery, but she’s not buying. So the movie gets even more self-indulgent as he calls her on her car phone the next morning while chasing after her in another sportscar, and they engage in a stupidly dangerous car chase that risks the lives of innocent passersby as well as each other, and there’s this totally dumb moment where he crashes his car into hers to keep her from going off a cliff and they spin out together in slow motion while exchanging a romantic look, and once she almost goes over another cliff and he pulls her to safety, that’s somehow all the courtship they need to end up in bed together. I’m not sure that’s what the phrase “whirlwind courtship” is supposed to mean.

(Oh, by the way, “Nyah” rhymes with “Maya” or “Gaia.” It’s not like “nyah, nyah, nyahhh.”)

So then Ethan meets with Hopkins, who went uncredited in the film but whose name in the script was “Mission Commander Swanbeck.” Swanbeck explains that, since Nekhorvich would only meet with Hunt and Hunt wasn’t available, the IMF sent in Sean Ambrose (Scott), who’s served as Hunt’s double on a couple of missions. But Ambrose went rogue to steal the Chimera, whatever it is. Ethan is shocked to learn that Nyah was recruited because she’s Ambrose’s old flame whom he desperately wants back — so her job is to rekindle their romance. Ethan’s dismay at this might be more convincing if there were more to their relationship than one meet-cute, several counts of reckless driving, and a one-night stand. Swanbeck also gets in a sexist line about how just being a woman qualifies her to sleep with a man and lie to him. Ethan doesn’t want to make her do it, but apparently that whole “should you decide to accept it” thing doesn’t mean much anymore. He insists it would be difficult, but Swanbeck says “This isn’t Mission: Difficult, it’s Mission: Impossible.” Ouch — too meta. Would’ve worked better if he’d said, “This isn’t the Difficult Missions Force, it’s the Impossible Missions Force.” Because that’s what they actually call it in-universe, guys! (But then, Moore and Braga are the same duo who had Zefram Cochrane say “You’re astronauts on some kind of star trek.”)

Anyway, Nyah is reluctant, but Hunt convinces her to go in, promising to have her back. She says it’ll only be convincing if she’s in trouble that only Ambrose can get her out of, so they arrange for her publicized arrest so he’ll come and bail her out. He takes her to his compound located in Sydney Harbour, the second time a movie-length M:I installment has used that location. Finally, more than half an hour into the film, we hear a rock version of the Schifrin main theme over a brief montage introducing the two supporting team members: Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), the master hacker returning from the first film, and Billy Baird (John Polson), who’s basically just the pilot and the comic relief. He’s sort of an Australian prototype for Simon Pegg’s Benji from the following films, but with less personality or screentime. Their command post is a small house in the outback, for some reason. Luther has the only computer that can track or detect the chip implanted in Nyah, so they can follow her via satellite. Yup, not only is she the only woman in the film, but they’ve got her Lojacked. And Ambrose is rather forceful about getting her in bed once they’re reunited. Ambrose is also quite upset at his sidekick Hugh (Richard Roxburgh) for making the entirely reasonable suggestion that Nyah might be a plant.

Later at the horse-racing track (I didn’t notice if it was the same racetrack used in a couple of the revival’s episodes, but I wouldn’t be surprised), Ethan and Billy make contact with Nyah while Ambrose meets with McCloy (Brendan Gleeson), the head of Biocyte Pharmaceuticals, and shows him data on a digital camera’s memory card. Ethan has Nyah pickpocket the card and deliver it to him so Luther can view and copy it. The data reveals that Chimera is a deadly virus, sort of a superflu created to test a universal flu antidote called Bellerophon. Ambrose has the cure, and is taking bids from terrorists and rogue states, but he lacks the disease, which he wants. Ethan tells Nyah he’ll get her out, then sends her to return the disc to Ambrose’s jacket — but she gets agitated and puts it in the wrong pocket, which he notices.

Later, she’s met by Ethan, who tells her she has to stay inside and do everything Ambrose says. At the same time, we cut to McCloy being abducted and met by what appears to be the late Nekhorvich, who makes him think he’s been infected with Chimera and goads him into a rather stilted confession that he deliberately created the supervirus as an incentive to market his supercure, as well as deliberately exposing and killing one of his scientists to test it. “Nekhorvich” knocks him out again and takes off his mask, revealing Ethan. But then we’re back to the continuation of the scene with Ethan and Nyah at Ambrose’s compound. Was what we just saw a flashback? Nope. Once Nyah leaves, we find that Ambrose was impersonating Ethan again, and now knows Nyah’s a spy. He also knows Ethan plans to raid Biocyte to destroy the virus, and knows him well enough to anticipate his plan. The movie rather blatantly imitates its predecessor by requiring Ethan to drop on a cable down a very high shaft in order to get to the virus lab without anyone knowing. Then he breaks in and sets to destroying Chimera during a window when some kind of generator is active so comms are down, and I guess alarms are off or something. I wasn’t clear on that part. But Ambrose breaks in another way — with Nyah, allowing Luther to track them — but Luther can’t warn Ethan, plus he almost gets blown up by the baddies. For some reason, the Chimera is in several handy injector guns, and just before Ethan can destroy the last one, the bad guys arrive and there’s a reallllly long firefight before the injector falls on the floor and Ambrose gives a hold fire order so it doesn’t break open. He sends Nyah to retrieve it as a hostage for Ethan’s cooperation, and Ethan has finally figured out that Nekhorvich injected Chimera into his own blood and Ambrose’s love of killing kept him from retrieving a sample the first time. This serves little narrative purpose except to inspire Nyah to inject herself with the virus so Ambrose won’t kill her. (Umm, why would that work? He doesn’t need her alive to retrieve a sample of her blood.) Ethan has to leave her behind when he blows out the wall and escapes via parachute (did I mention the lab was on the 42nd floor?) — I guess his chute couldn’t handle the extra weight. He’s got 20 hours to save her before it’s incurable.

Ambrose meets with McCloy for his payoff for the Bellerophon, but demands not only money but stock options. He’s released Nyah into downtown Sydney as a Typhoid Mary, planning to start an epidemic that will create great demand for the Bellerophon cure and make Biocyte stock invaluable. It’s actually a rather clever plan, except for their total and crashingly stupid failure to place Nyah under any kind of supervision — more on that in a bit. We get “Ethan Hunt Climbing Things” Part 2 as he climbs up to their island meeting place, then he breaks in and deals with the guards in the corridors of the compound, and there’s a moment where he does a Patented Tom Cruise Run in slow motion through a flock of doves that are there because John Woo. He blows the door of the meeting room and gets Hugh’s attention, and Hugh comes after him and he releases a grenade and there’s a kaboom, and then Hugh drags a mute Ethan (allegedly with a broken jaw) before Ambrose, who shoots him dead, but then he realizes he killed Hugh in an Ethan mask with his mouth duct-taped underneath, and Ethan in a Hugh mask has absconded with the Bellerophon and Chimera vials, and also there are doves in the hallway. Which leads to an absurdly long chase with cars and motorcycles that endangers a lot more innocent motorists before gradually getting pared down to Ethan and Ambrose dueling on motorcycles and then charging at each other and leaping off their bikes which spontaneously explode at exactly the same time for no clear reason, and then having a huge martial-arts fight, and at this point I finally realized this was supposed to be an over-the-top, cartoony Hong Kong action flick and just kinda tried going with it. Still pretty stupid, but Cruise does his own stunts pretty impressively, although I could’ve appreciated the stunt work better without all the slow motion. Meanwhile, Nyah has wandered off to a cliff that she plans to throw herself off of rather than infect the city. Gee, I guess it didn’t occur to Ambrose that she might have functional legs and a will of her own and should be guarded. I mean, having her stay in downtown Sydney was only the linchpin of his entire plan, after all.  But Luther and Billy intercept her just before she cliff-dives and bring her to Ethan, but they have to pause for the final shootout between Ethan and Ambrose because he stupidly got into another slugfest with Ambrose after getting a decisive edge over him, because Ambrose insulted Nyah. But it doesn’t do much more than prolong the already extremely prolonged action, since Nyah gets the shot in time, and then Ethan lies to Anthony Hopkins about the “accidental” destruction of the last Chimera sample he was supposed to retrieve intact, and then he and Nyah walk off in a park by Sydney Harbour, and we get an end-title song by “Limp Bizkit,” whatever that is, that incorporates the Schifrin theme into it.

This movie didn’t have that much plot, I guess, since so much of it was long action set pieces and slow motion. I guess if you like style over substance, and like that particular style, that might be okay, but I found it mostly a rather ludicrous exercise, especially the cartoony excuse for a courtship between Ethan and Nyah and the insanely over-the-top bike stunts in the climactic chase. (Really — those bikes endure an impossible amount of strenuous riding and being shot at, but then spontaneously explode when the combatants leap off them?) And it doesn’t feel much like Mission: Impossible at all. It’s more of a solo mission for Ethan Hunt, with Luther and Billy being secondary supporting players. There’s hardly any role-playing or elaborate gambits, except at the racetrack and when they capture McCloy. It’s also the only M:I installment ever that makes no use of Schifrin’s “The Plot” at all, not even in brief snippets. Hans Zimmer’s score is in a driving hard-rock sort of idiom that doesn’t do much for me. Zimmer’s a composer I have a mixed response to. He’s very chameleonic, good at doing what a director wants from him, so whether I like his scores is often contingent on what director he’s working for. Anything he does for a film directed or produced by Christopher Nolan is just a bunch of blaring, droning, nigh-atonal chords that I find generally annoying and tedious, while conversely I’ve found his work on Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films and Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 to be just the opposite, extremely rich and creative and melodic and fascinating. This score wasn’t as ponderous and unpleasant as his Nolan scores, but it didn’t do anything for me.

I’ll give the film this, though: It’s the only one of the four movies to date that doesn’t involve Ethan being suspected of treason and on the run from his own agency. He’s got full IMF support and a sanctioned team throughout. So it’s odd that we see so little of that team. If anything, it’s the villain Ambrose who seems to make more use of familiar IMF tactics than Hunt does, devising elaborate deceptions and strategies to pursue his goals and working with his own team.

Cast-wise, Cruise gives a better, more relaxed and confident performance this time around, even though he has less to work with. Ethan Hunt still doesn’t have much of a personality; he gets to be a full-fledged romantic lead for the first time (rather than just kind of borderline-cheating with another man’s wife who turns out to be evil), but the romance is so superficial and absurdly developed that it establishes more about Hunt’s driving skills than his emotional life. Thandie Newton is effective as Nyah; her basic role is to be lovely and desirable, and she pulls that off splendidly, but she also manages to give Nyah a fair amount of attitude and strength that are better than the material she has to work with. Anthony Hopkins is, well, Anthony Hopkins, though he pretty much phones it in. The other cast members are okay but nothing exceptional. This wasn’t really a movie about character drama, it was a movie about car crashes and explosions and fights and a sexy token female and the odd flock of doves. And climbing. Lots of climbing.

On reflection, I’m unsure whether we should take this as an actual IMF mission or as a fantasy story Ethan Hunt wrote in his diary in spy school. It’s just so very silly and shallow and self-indulgent. And it’s an enormous departure from its namesake franchise. I guess it’s more successful at being what it wants to be than the first movie was, but what it wants to be is not what a Mission: Impossible fan is likely to be looking for. Fortunately this film would not define the future direction for the film series. Indeed, the gap between this film and its sequel would be the longest in the franchise’s history to date — paving the way for yet another, much more effective reinvention.

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1996) Movie Review (Spoilers)

And now I begin the home stretch of my M:I review series with the debut of the Tom Cruise movie series. Mission: Impossible (1996) was directed by Brian DePalma, from a story by David Koepp and Steven Zaillian and a screenplay by Koepp and Robert Towne.

We open in the middle of a caper in progress in Kiev, with Jack Harmon (Emilio Estevez, uncredited for some reason) watching a screen on which an older moustachioed man is grilling another man in Russian. The man thinks he’s killed the woman lying on the bed, and the older man is demanding the name of his contact in exchange for helping him out of the mess. The scene is scored by Danny Elfman with a few hints of the melody of “The Plot” peeking out here and there. Harmon is concerned that the woman has been under too long. The Russian finally gives a name, whereupon a maid gives him a drink with knockout drops. The older man rips off his mask (via a digital effect) to reveal an astonishingly young Tom Cruise, who orders that the man be disposed of while his team begins striking the set of the hotel room. He injects the woman (Emmannuelle Beart) and there’s clearly a thing between them as he strokes her face once she revives. “We got him,” he confirms…

And we cut to a match head being struck, and a title sequence that’s a flashier version of the original, with very brief, split-second clips from the movie ahead, and occasional shots of an actual fuse burning rather than the animated one from the TV titles. Like the ’88 revival’s titles, it includes a few shots of gadgetry, passport photos, and the like as well as action clips. Elfman gives us a really rich, gorgeous arrangement of Schifrin’s theme. Only Cruise gets his name given over the title sequence. The rest of the credits are shown over the next scene in a jet, where a flight attendant offers a movie on tape to Jon Voight, whom she addresses as Mr. Phelps. For the moment, let’s stipulate that this individual is Jim Phelps, though we’ll explore this idea more later on. The tape scene that follows is in the familiar pattern, except it isn’t Bob Johnson giving the narration. The mission is to intercept Golitsyn, a traitor who’s stolen half of a list of US agents’ non-official covers (the NOC list) and stop him from stealing the other half which reveals their true identities. (Apparently, in real life, NOC agents are spies that have no official government status and are disavowed by their employing government if caught — which means that all IMF agents are NOC agents.) A dossier sequence is incorporated into the spiel, with the narrator saying he’s taken the liberty of selecting agents from Phelps’s usual team, and redundantly telling Phelps what his own usual team members’ jobs are, a really awkward bit of “As You Know, Bob” exposition. The significant ones are Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, the point man “as usual,” and Beart’s Claire Phelps, Jim’s wife (and Jim apparently needs to be reminded of this by the tape as well), who’s in charge of “transport.” There’s also Jack as the hacker, Sarah Davies (Kristin Scott Thomas) already embedded in an undercover role, and a minor female team member named Hannah on surveillance.  Phelps lights a cigarette to cover the smoke from the self-destructing tape. So far, aside from a few stylistic touches and the cast changes, this feels like the M:I we know. So far.

In Prague, the team meets in a safe house to plan the mission — reminiscent of the revival series’ frequent use of on-site “command post” briefings. Voight’s Phelps is a sterner boss than Graves’s version, giving curt, fast-paced orders with plenty of CIA-style operational jargon; if anything, he reminds me more of Dan Briggs. But then Ethan asks an impertinent question and the tone softens, with the group joking around like old friends, though Phelps still seems at a remove from the rest. The banter makes a point of referencing a Chicago hotel where Jim stayed during his absence on the Kiev mission. In another echo of Briggs, Phelps doesn’t participate directly in the mission but monitors from the safe house. Since it’s 1996, every team member now has a hidden camera and earwig radio, so Phelps can see everything that’s going on. He’s also able to override Jack’s hacking of the elevator when Jack is too slow, something that I’m sure won’t be at all significant later. Ethan goes to the US embassy in Prague disguised as a US senator who’s basically Cruise in age makeup doing an impression of George Bush, Sr., and Sarah helps him get into the secure area so that he can plant his video glasses to get a shot of Golitsyn when he arrives shortly thereafter to steal the NOC list from the computer.

The plan is to follow Golitsyn to his contact, but something goes wrong — Jack loses control of the elevator that he’s sitting on the roof of, and it sends him up to the top of the shaft, which for some reason is equipped with deadly spikes that drop down and impale him. Phelps says he’s lost control of the system and comes to rendezvous with the team, but then reports he’s being tailed. Ethan goes to him while sending Sarah to tail Golitsyn. Then Ethan hears shots and arrives in time to see a bloodied Phelps falling off a bridge into the river. The car that Claire and Hannah are apparently in blows up, and Ethan finds Sarah and Golitsyn stabbed, the list gone. The cops come after him and he rabbits. Getting to a phone and inserting a security gadget, he contacts IMF director Kittredge (Henry Czerny) for help, and Kittredge, who’s surprisingly in Prague already, arranges to meet him at an aquarium-themed restaurant. Czerny is apparently the voice we heard giving Phelps’s briefing at the beginning. The idea of the briefing coming from the IMF director himself never occurred to me; I always figured the Voice on Tape/Disc was some support staffer relaying instructions from on high. But it makes sense — if the IMF was originally this small, deniable, garage-band operation as I like to think, it wouldn’t have had much of a permanent staff. So maybe Bob Johnson was playing the actual head of the IMF all those years, or at least someone very senior.

Anyway, Czerny gives a twitchy, smarmy, unsubtle performance as Kittredge grills Ethan, and Cruise’s performance isn’t much better, his reaction to the death of all his friends consisting mostly of shouting. I need to make something clear here: Although Tom Cruise gets a lot of guff for his personal eccentricities, I think that should be kept separate from his work as an actor, and I’ve long been very impressed by his total commitment and professionalism in his film work. So don’t expect any habit of Cruise-bashing in the reviews to follow. However, he’s really not that good in this one — which is interesting given that he would be nominated for an Oscar for his work in the same year’s Jerry Maguire, after previously getting an Oscar nomination for Born on the Fourth of July and a Golden Globe nomination for A Few Good Men. Since Czerny does a pretty bad job too, maybe the fault lay with Brian DePalma.

Ethan recognizes that the restaurant patrons around him were at the party and on the streets in various roles before — they’re a second IMF team! Kittredge reveals that the Golitsyn mission was bait to catch a mole inside the IMF with a fake NOC list — and since Ethan’s the only survivor from his team, that suggests it’s him. Realizing he’s in trouble, Ethan palms a chewing-gum explosive from his pocket, a final legacy from Jack, and tosses it against an aquarium wall, producing one of the more famous action scenes from the film as the glass breaks and all the water pours out, even from the aquaria overhead. (One guy is blown clear through the front windows even though the charge isn’t much more than firecracker-sized. Huh?) Ethan breaks into a Patented Tom Cruise Run to get away.

For some reason, he then decides that the best place to hide from his own agency is the very safe house his own team leader set up. Not to worry, though — he shatters glass from a light bulb across the hallway so he’ll hear if anyone comes. He remembers Kittredge’s exposition about the buyer for the NOC list being an arms dealer named Max, who referred to the deal as “Job 314.” Hunt attempts a rather implausible Usenet search in which terms like “Max” and “Job” produce, not a useless overabundance of hits as you’d expect, but no hits whatsoever. Then he happens to notice a Bible on the bookshelf and thinks of Job 3:14. He finds Usenet forums about that chapter and verse and sends e-mails to Max, warning that the stolen list is a fake. Later, weary, he has a rather ridiculous dream of a bloody Phelps accusing him of failure, only to wake up and find it’s actually Claire, whom he holds at gunpoint since he can’t believe she’s alive. The whole scene is kind of incoherent, and kind of uncomfortably rapey as he forces her onto the bed at gunpoint while she insists it’s really her. But just reminding him over and over again of their plan to return to the safe house at 4 AM, 0400, four o’clock, when the big hand’s on the four, eight bells, etc., is enough to convince him.

Later, Ethan gets a hit from Max and arranges a meeting, which involves blindfolding him with a stocking cap that makes him look like the world’s most badly assembled Muppet. Max turns out to be Vanessa Redgrave (you were expecting maybe Tony Hamilton?), who flirts with him shamelessly. He warns her the list is a fake and has a homing device (somehow), but the only way to prove it is to let her activate it and then flee just before Kittredge’s team arrives. In order to get the true identity of the mole called Job, Ethan arranges with Max to steal the actual NOC list. So… basically his plan to clear his name of a crime is to commit the actual crime he’s accused of. Oh, that makes perfect sense. Claire agrees to go along to avenge her husband, and they need to recruit help from the “Disavowed List.”

Okay, now, I commented back in my review of “The Fortune” that it doesn’t make much sense for the IMF to keep a computer record of agents it’s disavowed and denied any knowledge of. Isn’t that rather counterproductive? Also, wouldn’t most disavowed agents be either dead or imprisoned in foreign countries for their crimes? But the movie, despite using the familiar phrase in the briefing scene — and despite building the whole story around the real-life NOC phenomenon that’s the closest equivalent to M:I-style disavowal — suddenly decides to reinterpret disavowed agents as ones who’ve simply gone rogue. It’s never really explained, though, since we cut right to Ethan and Claire’s first meeting with the “disavowed” duo. Ethan’s pick was Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), a master hacker, while Claire has brought in Franz Krieger (Jean Reno), an “exfiltration” man, i.e. getaway chopper pilot. They break into CIA headquarters in Langley, VA to steal the list, and I’m not sure I need to recap the most famous sequence in the franchise. It’s really very clever, a set piece worthy of the best of M:I (and drawing on the Topkapi heist scene that was part of the inspiration for the entire franchise). They have to break into a vaultlike security room with pressure sensors in the floor, heat sensors, and audio sensors, and it’s very clever the way they circumvent them as Krieger lowers Ethan down on a cable from a grille in the ceiling, with Luther hacking in from outside and Claire slipping an emetic to the vault’s lone staffer so he’ll be out of the room for a while. (Although their crawling around through metal air conditioning ducts without making a huge amount of noise is quite implausible.) I love DePalma’s use of silence, something that so few action movies appreciate how to use. It really adds a layer of suspense (no pun intended) to the scene. Anyway, Ethan almost has the data when Krieger is startled by a rat and lets the rope slip, leading to the famous and well-executed moment where Ethan is stuck just a couple of inches above the floor and forced to flail around in two dimensions, which must’ve been very difficult for Cruise. It highlights the physical skills that Cruise will use to impressive effect in this film series. They’re almost out scot-free when Krieger drops his knife into the room, tipping the clerk off on his return. The team makes its escape, but Kittredge knows what they’ve taken.

The team goes to London, where Ethan and Krieger have a falling out and Krieger leaves. Hunt notices that the Bible he’s been drawing verses from for his communications with Max comes from the same hotel where Phelps mentioned staying earlier. After learning that Kittredge has arrested his parents on trumped-up drug charges, Ethan calls Kittredge from a public place to confront him, making sure to hang up before he can be traced. He’s shocked to find Jim Phelps standing next to him. Phelps tells him that Kittredge is the mole, and Ethan plays along, but we see his thoughts as he reconstructs what really happened: Phelps himself faked his death and killed the team. Though Ethan backs away from the suspicion that Claire helped him kill the others. He also realizes that Krieger’s knife was the one that killed Sarah and Golinsky. He asks why Kittredge (read: Phelps) would do what he did, and Phelps spins some vague excuse about the Cold War being over and not having a purpose and the President running the country without his permission or something. At this point it’s very clear that this is not the Jim Phelps we knew. (This is probably the point where Greg Morris stormed out of the theater when he saw the film.)

Hunt arranges to meet Max on the bullet train to Paris, and makes sure Kittredge gets tickets. He gets the list to Max, but has Luther nearby jamming her laptop signal so she can’t transmit it. We don’t see him at this point, only hear his voice as he stage-manages things, and seeing what looks like Jim Phelps assembling a gun. Once Max reveals the location of the money, Claire goes back to the baggage compartment and confronts Phelps, letting on that she’s in cahoots with him and telling him they can get away with the money. “Phelps” pulls off his face digitally to reveal a disappointed Ethan. But then the, err, real Phelps (for the sake of argument) comes out and holds him at gunpoint. He asks how Ethan figured out that he was the mole, and Ethan tells him about the Bible from the hotel room.

Except… that makes absolutely no sense. Okay, so the Bible was from a hotel he knew Phelps had stayed at — but he found the Bible in the safe house that Phelps himself had set up!!! The only thing it proves is a connection between Phelps and Phelps’s own safe house. Ethan only used that Bible to figure out the Job clue and contact Max because it happened to be the copy of the Bible that was on the shelf where he already was when he had the idea, so he had no reason in the world to associate that particular copy of the Bible with Max herself. The chain of reasoning absolutely does not work. It’s an enormous, enormous plot hole that’s bugged me about this film for years, and no matter how many times I see the film I just can’t see any way to make sense of it.

If anything, the person Ethan should have suspected was Claire. She’s the one who brought Krieger aboard, so once Ethan recognized Krieger’s knife as the murder weapon, he should’ve concluded that Claire was the mole, and recruited Phelps to help him expose her. He had a legitimate chain of evidence leading to her involvement, something he absolutely did not have for Phelps. Although, granted, he did suspect Claire in his “here’s what really happened” flashbacks earlier, but backed away from that suspicion because he was in love with her. So he could’ve been blinded to Claire’s involvement here too. But that still doesn’t give him any actual reason to suspect Phelps.

But Phelps, existing within the movie, goes along with the totally invalid premise that the Bible somehow proves his guilt, yet reminds Ethan that nobody else has seen he’s alive. Until Ethan puts on his video-glasses and sends the signal to the video-watch he left for Kittredge, thereby video-proving that Phelps was the mole. It’s not at all clear what Hunt planned to do next, because he just dodges and Phelps randomly shoots Claire by mistake, and then Phelps escapes through the roof hatch and Ethan follows and fights the ferocious winds, and Krieger shows up in a chopper to pick up Phelps, but Hunt grabs the cable and hooks the chopper to the train, so Krieger has to fly it into the Chunnel behind the train. Is that even possible? Somebody call the Mythbusters, I want to know if it’s possible for a helicopter to fly inside a train tunnel. Is there enough air in there to hold it up? Anyway, Phelps jumps onto one runner, then Ethan jumps onto the other, and he somehow still happens to have a stick of Jack’s plastique gum on him, and he uses it to blow up the chopper, and the force of the blast blows him back onto the train and somehow doesn’t liquefy his organs in the process, and the chopper blades are right up against his throat when the train abruptly… stops?

Wait a minute…

It stops. Abruptly.

This vehicle massing thousands of tons was traveling at 300 mph one moment… and is suddenly at a complete stop seconds later? How the hell did that happen? More to the point, why? Even if we stipulate to the fantasy premise that a bullet train could brake as quickly as an automobile, why would they choose to stop the train when a fiery crashing helicopter was coming right at them from behind?!!! I’m sorry, this makes as little sense as the Bible non-clue.

So anyway, Kittredge annoying turns out not to be the bad guy, and he arrests Max, who flirts with him too, proving she has no standards. And Ethan and Luther are pardoned, but Ethan doesn’t see much point to the work anymore and plans to leave. But he gets an offer of a mission from a flight attendant just like Phelps did at the start, and that’s when the movie ends, with the end titles giving us a modernized version of the Schifrin theme courtesy of a couple of members of U2.

This is a very, very flawed movie. There are parts of it that work. The teaser, main titles, and briefing scene feel authentic, and while the Prague caper is a little off and the initial team rather nondescript (and lacking in racial diversity), it’s fairly well-handled. And the Langley set piece is really nifty, the highlight of the film. And Elfman’s music is pretty good, a lively action-movie score that quotes or paraphrases snippets of “The Plot” at key moments (though never uses the whole melody, continuing the trend established by John E. Davis in the revival) and occasionally breaks into big statements of the main title theme. But a lot of the rest doesn’t work well, or just plain doesn’t make a damn bit of sense. There are enormous plot holes and implausibilities, as I’ve described. The characters lack depth and clear motivation and don’t give us much reason to care about them. Some directorial touches are interesting but not successful; for instance, there are a couple of sequences that are shot from Ethan’s POV without showing his face, as if to create suspense about what face he’s wearing, but in the first case it’s a face we’ve already been shown (in video footage of the senator as Ethan practiced mimicking him) and in the second it’s just his own face. And the actors are directed too broadly. Like Cruise, Ving Rhames seems lesser here than he’s been elsewhere, including later in this franchise. Emmanuelle Beart is stunningly lovely and waifish, but just okay as an actress. Jon Voight is actually a pretty good choice as a replacement for Peter Graves, bearing a certain resemblance in his features and his manner, at least until he’s revealed as the baddie.

But that’s the elephant in the room, isn’t it? Jim Phelps a traitor? How do we cope with that?

Now, the obvious answer is to say the movies are a reboot, out of continuity with the series. After all, there are no characters in common beyond Phelps, and this Phelps is unlike the one we know — more like Dan Briggs, as I said, and that’s before he goes all smarmy and evil. So maybe we just treat this as a separate reality. After all, it’s not like the previous series had any real continuity to speak of, particularly since the revival series even remade episodes of the original. I’ve even said before that the original series may not all take place in a single reality.

But just as a thought exercise, let’s examine the question of whether this can be reconciled with the shows. Could Jim Phelps have gone rogue? Consider the final season of the revival, which I recently completed reviewing. For whatever reason, in the latter part of that season and to a lesser extent earlier on, the standard caper/heist formula of M:I gave way to a more conventional spy formula; instead of orchestrating master stratagems worked out a dozen moves in advance, Jim was just sending in his team undercover with no clear mission but to find out some information so they could then improvise a way of dealing with it. Could it be that Jim was losing his edge, growing sloppy? Maybe he got some of his team members killed (statistically speaking, Shannon Reed is the most likely candidate, given how routinely she was placed in danger), and it turned him bitter, filled him with doubts about whether he could go on. Maybe that’s why he stepped back to supervising missions remotely rather than participating directly. And maybe he  grew disillusioned with the spy game and decided to get out while he could and get rich doing it.

But no… no, I really don’t think that works. Voight-Phelps’s meandering explanation about losing purpose when the Cold War ended didn’t really fit, because Jim’s IMF team took on many missions that weren’t Cold War-related, tackling organized crime and international terrorists and the like. Graves’s Jim Phelps would’ve still seen a purpose to his work with or without the Cold War. So I just can’t see it happening that way.

But of course the M:I universe gives us another alternative, because it’s full of impersonators. Voight-Phelps could be a foreign agent who took the real Phelps’s place — perhaps using a plastic-surgery dodge like Nicholas Black used in “Deadly Harvest.” Maybe this happened once Kittredge took over as IMF director from the former head (the Voice?); he didn’t know Jim well and is pretty much a lousy director anyway, so he could’ve been fooled. This creates the unpleasant possibility that the real Jim was murdered. But maybe he escaped and laid low, or maybe the enemy was holding him captive to get information from him. It’s pleasant to imagine that the mission Ethan Hunt was offered at the end of the film was the rescue of the real Jim Phelps.

Still, one way or the other, the story of Jim Phelps is over now. From here on out, this series is about the adventures of Ethan Hunt. Although this wasn’t a particularly impressive introduction to Hunt as a character. I can’t say much about his personality except that he gets really ticked off when his teammates get killed and he isn’t above flirting with his boss’s wife. I know he gets better later on, but this is not an impressive beginning. Frankly I’m surprised this movie even got a sequel. But it did, so there’s more to come.

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Search engine terms of note

This is interesting… In checking my blog’s statistics page, I see that on the list of search engine terms that led online searchers here to Written Worlds,  there were two hits for “fan art for only superhuman.” I was intrigued to think that two people might be looking for Only Superhuman fan art, but I realized it was probably a single search that led to two different pages here, most likely the posts containing my sketches of Emerald Blair and Psyche Thorne. Still, it’s nice to know that someone out there is interested in OS fan art. Unfortunately, I did the same search myself and found nothing that fit the description. That’s a pity, since I’d love it if there were fan artists out there invested enough in the Green Blaze’s world to undertake some artwork. (Feel free to consider that an invitation.)

On the other hand, one of the search terms on today’s list is “only superhuman torrent.” I’m disappointed in you, whoever you are. I made little enough profit from this book as it is — I need whatever I can get.

The overwhelmingly dominant search terms that people use to find WW are things like “doctor who last words,” “first words of new doctor,” “last words of the [nth] doctor,” and so on, all leading to what I thought was a fairly random, frivolous compilation of The Doctor’s first and last lines, but which has turned out to be by far the most popular post in the history of my blog. I also get surprisingly many search terms leading folks to my “How to dismember a recliner chair” post, which is really not an advice column of any sort. But aside from the Doctor Who post, the most frequent category of searches leading here are those pertaining to Mission: Impossible. I’ve even come across the occasional searches like “mission impossible christopher bennett review [episode title]” — there are people out there actively searching for my M:I reviews by name. That’s gratifying. (And yes, I’ll be completing that series with my reviews of the movies in the days ahead.) And people sometimes search for Written Worlds by name, which is also nice.

Here are some more unusual ones I find in the list:

“re-atomizing human body by medbeds” — Hm. Must be a reference to my Elysium review, in which I did mention the term “medbed,” which is the term I use in the Only Superhuman universe for what Larry Niven called an autodoc. I’m surprised someone else would search for it by that term. Maybe a fan of my work? Or is the term in more general use than I’m aware of?

“anamated cartoon hot hensei girls in bikinis showing their bodies” — Ummm. Oh…kay, I have no idea how that led someone to my blog. “Hot composition girls?” That’s what “hensei” means. Kind of hard to search for Japanese cartoon porn if you don’t even know how to spell it.

“dune books in chronological order” — I don’t think I ever talked about those books here.

“karolina wydra eye” and “karolina wydra eye pupil” — I seem to have gotten things like this a few times that I know of, no doubt connecting to my Europa Report review. Not sure who’s so fascinated by her eye, though.

“how was your drive home” — Err, thanks for asking, but who would ask that of Google?

“teacher at aloha johnson” — No idea.

“acts 6:2 why does the holman use financial rather than wait on tables” — Did a human being type that?

“lesbian scene from massion impossible” — If only, man. If only.

Getting back from travel

Okay, I’m back home from Detroit. I didn’t post during my trip since something was wrong with my aunt and uncle’s wifi, and I was occupied with other stuff anyway. I guess I could’ve posted from my smartphone, but it didn’t occur to me as something I needed to do.

I had a nice visit with Aunt Shirley and Cousin Cynthia, though Uncle Harry was away with my other cousins because of health issues delaying his return home. I wish him a speedy recovery. Thanks to Shirley’s vegetarian cooking, I tried my first Thai food, rice noodles with satay (peanut and coconut) sauce, and found it fairly interesting. I generally don’t care for Asian cuisine because I’m not fond of soy sauce or sweet-and-sour sauce, and I’d heard that Thai food was very spicy so I wasn’t tempted to try it, but I like peanuts and coconuts, so this was agreeable. The other favorite home-prepared thing I had was some sweet-potato gnocchi that we had along with spinach and onion omelets (another thing I usually don’t eat — I’m not an egg person, generally). And on my last full day, we got a nice “spinach supreme” pizza from a local place, and I got to take a few pieces with me for lunch on the drive home and dinner when I got back.

One evening I went on a bike ride with Shirley and Uncle Clarence (who lives nearby), and it’s fortunate it was a slow ride; I didn’t bring my own bike, and the only one available was a rather unusually structured one that wasn’t quite recumbent but had a seat with a back you could lean against. I don’t remember the brand name of it — something that started with Re-.  (Edit: Cynthia tells me it’s a Revive.) It took a little getting used to, particularly since I’m out of practice at bike-riding anyway (I’ll avoid the obvious joke), but I did okay for the relatively brief duration of the ride.

And I finally got a chance to look through what we call “The Grampa Book,” a Bennett family genealogy that was compiled some decades ago, but that my father never got a copy of because he wasn’t very family-oriented. I do recall getting to see it at least once before, but that was many years ago, and in my more recent family interactions, it wasn’t until now that we actually tracked it down for me to look at. I learned a number of things I hadn’t known before, even about my own branch of the family. I never knew, for instance, that my maternal grandmother had the same first name as my sister. I lost touch with that side of the family after we lost my mother, and I was very young when that happened, so I only knew my maternal grandmother as “Grandmama.” (Which was how I distinguished her from my other grandmother, “Grandma.”) But I learned some other things too. For instance, a couple of my ancestors testified at the only colonial witch trial held outside of Massachusetts, a 1692 trial in Fairfield, Connecticut of an alleged witch named Mercy Disbrow or Disborough. Unfortunately they testified on the wrong side, against her. She was convicted, but spared due to a technicality. (Cousin Cynthia once just randomly discovered that an acquaintance of hers was descended from Mercy Disbrow, a rather astonishing coincidence.)

Also, it turns out that some of my paternal ancestors were a lot more religious than my grandfather and his progeny — his older siblings included some people with unusual Biblical names, like Philander Bennett (it originally meant “lover of men,” as in a philanthropist, but it seems to have gotten confused to mean “a loving man” at some point) and Zadok Alonzo Bennett. I think I’m going to swipe “Zadok” as a Vulcan name in my current novel.

And I finally found out where the Bennetts came from. I’ve known since my first, long-ago glimpse of The Grampa Book that my ancestors have been in the US since colonial times, but I was never clear on where they came from before that. It turns out that the first Bennett in the New World, James Bennett, was born in County Kent, England around 1616. He may have been the son of a tailor named Jacobus Bennett of Appledore (who’s listed in the Canterbury marriage licenses, 1609), but there’s no proof of that. He sailed in December 1634  aboard a ship called the Hercules of Sandwich, which sounds like a slogan for a fast-food offering. He was one of seven servants of a yeoman (i.e. landowning farmer or minor nobleman) named Nathaniel Tilden, the former mayor of Tenterden in Kent and the most prominent passenger aboard the Hercules. They settled in the colony of Scituate, Massachusetts, where Tilden became ruling elder of its first church. I find a number of online sites about the Hercules and its passengers, but poor James B. tends to get lumped anonymously under “servants” in the manifests. Most of my other paternal ancestors seem to be English, mainly from the home counties (i.e. southeast England around London) but some from around Yorkshire or Hereford as well as one from Scotland. Although apparently my paternal grandmother’s ancestry was largely German.

Unfortunately the family genealogy doesn’t go back beyond the first generation of colonists in the 1600s, since the compiler never got the chance to visit England and continue his research there. Still, it’s nice to know this much. I’ve always been an Anglophile, so it’s cool to know I have roots over there.  And I’m rather pleased to find I’m descended from a commoner rather than a nobleman.

(I’m afraid I don’t know much about my maternal ancestors, but doing a web search now for my mother’s rather uncommon maiden name suggests that they were originally from Scotland, part of a wave of Scots and Irish settlers who came to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia in the 1770s — and apparently never left, since that’s where my mother was from.)

Well, my smartphone did prove useful on my trip. I was able to use a weather radar app I downloaded to warn me when a rainstorm was approaching, which let me sit it out at a rest area while it passed, and I was able to pass the time websurfing on my phone. Although that kind of backfired, since I then ran straight into a severe traffic jam, and by the time I finally got up to Michigan over an hour behind schedule, I ran into the afternoon rain I’d been hoping to avoid, as well as rush hour traffic. Oh, and having unlimited texting was really helpful, because it let me text ahead and let the folks know when to expect me, including updates on my delays. I also used a gas price app to find the least expensive fuel along the route (in the Toledo area), and GPS to get directions to that station and then back to I-75, and then for the final leg to my aunt’s house — although I think I misunderstood an instruction and took the wrong turn, but that just put me on the route I usually take anyway and the phone GPS adapted. However, I found that GPS use really drained the battery, so I had to plug in the backup battery pack that Cousin Mark got me last Christmas. I’d been thinking of getting a car lighter to USB adapter, but I thought I’d try going without one this time to assess the need. The verdict is that next time I really should have one.

Still, as cool as the GPS navigator is, it’s the sort of thing that would work best if I had a passenger to monitor the phone for me so I could keep my eye on the road. Although I suppose they probably make some kind of bracket for placing the phone on top of the dashboard, so I wouldn’t have to glance down at the phone in the cupholder.

The GPS was of mixed use on the trip home. It was helpful for directing me from my aunt’s house to I-75 (a route I’d taken before and brought along printed instructions for, but it was handy to have the directions read aloud to me), and then I didn’t think I’d need it anymore. But I hit rush-hour traffic getting into Greater Cincinnati, so I decided to take an early exit and make my way to a familiar road. But at first I wasn’t sure whether the computer was trying to direct me back to the interstate or not, so I had to pull into a parking lot and pull up the list of directions to make sure it was directing me to the route I wanted. It was, and it even corrected me when I took a wrong turn shortly thereafter (since I was coming at a familiar intersection from a new direction and got confused). But then I realized that it was, indeed, trying to direct me to the next I-75 on-ramp. Fortunately, by that point I already knew the rest of the way home, so I could turn it off. Otherwise, my drive home was uneventful, except for hitting a brief, fierce rainstorm not far out from home. Although I guess most rain is fierce when you’re driving through it at highway speeds.

I managed to get some writing done on the trip; on the drive up, I was able to work out how to proceed with the scene I’d begun before I left, and I got it finished by Saturday evening. Also, Cynthia (who’s from the Bay Area) was able to give me some insights into San Francisco for some material set around Starfleet Headquarters in my novel, so that was helpful. But then I let my mind wander to other things, so now I need to get back to work. The vacation is over.

Getting ready to travel

I’ve been gearing up for a trip to Detroit to visit my aunt and uncle. It’s a trip I’ve been hoping to make for months, but I wanted to wait until my cousin Cynthia was in town to visit them too, and she had bought a “standby” (?) plane ticket whose date kept getting bumped back because of all the flight delays caused by the winter storms this past season. But she’s finally there, so I’m going to drive up tomorrow and stay the weekend.  This is a good time to go on a trip up north, since it’s oppressively hot and humid in Cincinnati right now.

One reason I got my smartphone last month was so that I’d be able to use it to assist me with travel — I now have GPS navigation, a weather radar app to track storms, and a gas-price app to help me find low gas prices (which would be particularly helpful at the moment). Unsurprisingly, the weather forecast for tomorrow has gotten rainier with each passing day, so I may have been wise to get that radar app.

It’ll also be good to be able to check my e-mail and use the Internet while on the road, assuming I stay where I can get a good signal (which shouldn’t be much of an issue along the major interstates, I gather). For some reason, the e-mail program I use on my laptop has trouble sending out e-mail from locations other than my home — I’ve never quite figured out why that is — but now I can just reply from my phone if I need to.

Also, within the past week or so I’ve finally gotten around to copying all my CD collection onto my computer and then saving most of it onto the new 16GB microSD card I got for my phone, so now I have plenty of music to choose from. I’d probably prefer to use my car CD player while I’m actually driving, but it’s good to have the option of listening to whatever music I want at other times during my trip, or just in general. (Unfortunately my car stereo is old enough that it has no input for an MP3 player or an SD card or anything other than CDs inserted in the slot and radio through the antenna.)

I have to admit, after I put all that music onto my phone, I found myself expecting it to be heavier. Really, it’s amazing that that tiny little shard of plastic and metal, smaller even than my little fingernail, can hold as much music as the whole shelf full of CDs in my living room, and still be less than half full. Truly we live in the future.

And it’s a good thing I remembered to copy the photos and other files from my old, 2GB microSD card onto the new one. Fortunately I have two different microSD adaptors, one for a standard SD slot and one for a USB port, so I was able to plug both cards into different ports on my laptop and just copy directly from one to the other, which was handy. (The one thing I still haven’t gotten to work is the software that’s supposed to let you sync media files between a laptop and the phone. I tried downloading two different versions of it and neither one seems able to recognize my phone. So any file transfers, for now, have to be done by removing the SD card from the phone, which is harder to do than with my old phone because I have to take off the whole back rather than just open a slot on the side.)

Oh, and this trip may be an opportunity to make use of that backup phone charger pack my cousin Mark got me last Christmas. My phone does seem to need charging on a daily basis, and I intend to top it off before I leave tomorrow, but it’ll be good to have a reserve power supply on the road in case I need it. I was thinking of buying a car lighter-to-USB adapter, but I don’t think this trip will be long enough for me to need it, given that I already have the battery pack. (After all, I won’t need GPS just to remember “keep going north on I-75.” If I need it, it’ll only be for the last leg of the trip.)

So anyway, I think I’m all ready except for the packing, and I’m glad this trip is finally about to happen.

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 1989 Season Overview

While the first season of the Mission: Impossible revival felt surprisingly like a typical season of the original series — mostly following the classic formula with only a little more flexibility or innovation than the original generally had — the second season experimented and departed more. In the first half or so of the season, this worked pretty well, giving us a run of mostly solid episodes with a good amount of legitimate suspense and personal stakes for the team members. In some ways I was reminded of my favorite season, year 5 of the original, in terms of the frequency with which Jim’s plans hit snags and dangers and the team was forced to improvise.

But then, in the latter portion of the season, things began to fall apart. In four of the last five episodes, the intricate advance stratagems that had always been the trademark of M:I vanished, and the team’s strategies were mainly reduced to going into an unclear situation, trying to find stuff out, getting in trouble that they weren’t prepared for, and having to improvise solutions. (This also happened in “Target Earth” in the first half of the season.) Maybe this was at network request to create more of a sense of suspense and danger — something that, admittedly, the original series generally lacked when the team’s plans usually played out like clockwork — but it was a fundamental change in the premise and character of the series. As I’ve remarked multiple times, Mission: Impossible wasn’t really a spy series at heart; it was a caper series in the spirit of Topkapi or The Sting, or the more recent Leverage. The spy stuff was just an excuse to make the heroes’ con games and elaborate thefts and other crimes seem patriotic and heroic. What defined M:I was the intricacy of the team’s stratagems and cons; it was a show about people who triumphed with their wits and their skill rather than their fists or their guns. But this season increasingly departed from that approach in favor of a more conventional action formula where the heroes were reactive and unprepared, making things up one step at a time rather than plotting out a whole game in advance. It made the show feel simpler, less intelligent. The writers didn’t have to work as hard to come up with intricate strategies while concealing their specifics from the audience. It seemed that the writers got lazier, and that made it feel like Jim Phelps was losing his touch. Although that didn’t explain the rest of the team losing their basic competence in episodes like “The Assassin” where they broke cover right under the watching villain’s nose. And it wasn’t just the plotting that got lazier. A lot of the episodes in the back half of the season are extremely dumb and poorly thought out, often inconsistently plotted, and tending toward lazy stereotypes of other cultures just as badly as the previous season, and perhaps even worse.

As a result, the season feels split in two. The first half is stronger overall than the previous season, with only one episode I’d rate below average (“Command Performance”). But of the final eight episodes, only one was excellent, three were decent, and the other four were weak to horrible. So while I’d call the first half of the 1989 season one of the strongest runs in the franchise, the second half was, overall, the weakest in the television franchise’s history. It’s an unfortunate way for the series to go out, especially after such a promising start.

Despite the writers’ strike being long over, this season has two stories that seem loosely inspired by original episodes, borrowing their setups if not their details: “Command Performance” has a similar premise to the 1966 season’s “Old Man Out,” while “The Assassin” has nearly the same setup as season 6’s “Mindbend.” There are no actual remakes this year, though.

The strongest episodes this year were “Countdown” and “The Fuehrer’s Children,” both of which created a strong sense of danger and had effective stories. These were followed closely by “For Art’s Sake” and “The Princess,” both solid capers, if imperfect ones. “The Gunslinger” is almost as effective, if a bit sillier in premise. “The Golden Serpent” and “Target Earth” were pretty entertaining, albeit more as action thrillers than standard M:I capers; “The Golden Serpent” in particular feels like an over-the-top ’80s action movie that occasionally pays lip service to being M:I, and is enjoyable largely for its extravagance, which is unmatched by the rest of the season. In a lot of ways, it feels like a test run for the feature films (particularly since the second film was also shot in and around Sydney and made extensive use of its scenery). “War Games,” “Deadly Harvest,” and “Church Bells in Bogota” are reasonably entertaining if unremarkable. “Command Performance” is mediocre and pales in comparison to the original episode it resembles, and “The Sands of Seth” is not exactly awful, but quite fanciful and ridiculous in premise, feeling like the kind of story you’d see in a Saturday morning cartoon version of M:I. “Banshee” and “The Assassin” are badly written and incoherent, and “Cargo Cult” is a disaster, nonsensical and deeply racist, probably the worst episode in the entire franchise.

Cast-wise, Phil Morris continued to be the breakout star, showing great talent, charisma, and versatility. In a more ideal, colorblind Hollywood, I could’ve easily seen Morris taking over the lead role if the series had continued long enough for Graves to retire from it — or even becoming the lead of the movie franchise. Jane Badler was pretty impressive too, charming and sexy and confident, conveying a lot of strength and competence despite the producers’ insistence on putting her through the Perils of Pauline on an ongoing basis. (But then, Pauline in the original 1914 silent serial was a pretty competent action heroine herself, not the helpless damsel we’ve subsequently come to associate with the name.) Peter Graves was his usual stalwart, avuncular self, playing up his kinder side as the emphasis on team bonding increased, and took the occasional opportunity to show off his skills in horse riding, quick drawing, and the like. Tony Hamilton didn’t seem to have as much to do this season, but continued to be effective when he did. And Thaao Penghlis was consistently adequate, managing to do a few more accents this season than last, though American still eluded him. Still, he remains perhaps the least versatile “master of disguise” I’ve ever seen.

The season expands on some of the characteristic elements of the previous season. There’s a lot more of the team out of character, discussing plans and problems — often with the usual roleplay/scam elements diminished to near nothing. We see more of the team’s friendships and affinities, particularly all the men’s warm feelings for Shannon — which gets a little tired when the episodes constantly put Shannon in danger to create anxiety among her teammates. We also continue to get a number of episodes where the team skips Jim’s apartment and assembles at a “command post” on site — although it’s only five out of the fifteen distinct stories, fewer than I’d thought (“The Golden Serpent,” “Banshee,” “For Art’s Sake,” “The Assassin,” and “The Sands of Seth”). Four of those five are in the latter half of the season, though.

Last season, the focus was somewhat split between espionage and organized-crime missions, but here there’s a far stronger emphasis on international intrigue, terrorism, and politics. The criminal cases all involve greater international-scale threats: the international drug triad in “The Golden Serpent” includes the prince of a foreign nation, the arms dealers in “Banshee” threaten to reawaken a religious war, the art thief in “For Art’s Sake” is working to create an international incident, and the drug lord in “Church Bells in Bogota” threatens to overthrow the Colombian government. So essentially every episode has political stakes, making this perhaps the only M:I season without a purely crime-oriented caper. By contrast, the percentage of episodes featuring supernatural-themed cons is close to what it was in the previous season, though “War Games” only dabbles with playing on the villain’s astrological obsession, and “Cargo Cult” uses supernatural illusions to fool the “primitive villagers” and turn them against their exploiter rather than the usual trope of playing on the villains’ superstitions. “Banshee” is perhaps the crudest example of said trope, with a caricatured villain who goes into a cartoonish panic over any superstition, even one he’s never heard of before. And “The Sands of Seth,” like “Cargo Cult,” features a villain who is himself using supernatural deceptions, so it’s fighting fire with fire.

Beyond the opening 2-parter, which for the first time shows us a second IMF team operating independently of Jim’s, we get no further insights into the IMF as an organization. Indeed, the season is unique in having not a single episode in which the core team was joined from the start by a supplemental agent. The only episodes where anyone assisted the core team were the 2-parter “The Golden Serpent,” where Barney Collier worked with Jim’s team after having previously been assigned to another, unnamed IMF agent’s team, and “Command Performance,” where the rescued priest Father Thomas Vallis (Ivar Kants) assisted in his own rescue. So despite the variations in story structure, in some ways this is the most formulaic season ever: Essentially no variation in team composition, no off-book missions, no briefing discs without the “Secretary will disavow” line.

Location-wise, Europe was the site of five episodes and the teaser of a sixth, with most of the locations this season being fictional: the Monaco-like Valence in “The Princess,” a nameless Baltic state in “Command Performance,” the Eastern European lands of Sardavia and Bucaraine in “War Games,” and the fictional Irish town of Bally-na-Gragh in “Banshee.” The only real European locations were Hamburg (or nearby) in “The Fuehrer’s Children” and Geneva in the teaser of “The Assassin.” America was the focus in “For Art’s Sake” (NYC), “The Assassin” (Boston), and “The Gunfighter” (the fictional Pontiac, NV), though “Fuehrer’s” began in Oregon, “Deadly Harvest” was partly in Kansas, and “Target Earth” featured scenes at NORAD. Australia was the site of two stories, “The Golden Serpent” (Sydney) and “Target Earth” (the Outback), while “Cargo Cult” was on the fictional island of New Belgium in the Southwest Pacific. “Deadly Harvest” and “The Sands of Seth” were in the Mideast, the former in the fictitious terrorist state of Orambaq and the latter in some alternate-reality cartoon version of Cairo, Egypt. Only “Countdown” was set in Asia, in the fictional land of Kangji, and only “Church Bells in Bogota” was in Latin America — do I even need to say where? Oh, and “Target Earth” was the first and only M:I episode to take place partly in Earth orbit.

Musically, there is very little to say. Every episode was credited to John E. Davis, though IMDb lists Neil Argo as an uncredited additional composer throughout the season. The music was generally unremarkable and often cliched, nothing to write home (or blog) about. It’s quite a letdown from the original series, where music was so important. I wonder why the producers chose to go with the bland Davis over the more talented and interesting Lalo Schifrin and Ron Jones from the ’88 season. But then, a lot about the new series lacks the stylistic sophistication of the original, in terms of directing and cinematography, and in this season the plotting got a lot less sophisticated toward the end. Its visual effects were far more ambitious than the original’s, but usually quite crude in execution. The revival just didn’t quite have the class of the original. The one thing it consistently did better was location work, featuring lavish and varied locales in contrast to the backlot-bound feel the original generally had. But then, that’s one thing that Australian and New Zealand productions are known for — the lush, spectacular scenery.

In sum, the ninth and final season of Mission: Impossible started off strong and ambitious, improving on its predecessor and coming close to rivalling the best of the original — but toward the end, its weaknesses came to the fore and it became downright sloppy, stumbling its way toward what by that point was an inevitable cancellation. I wonder if the producers saw that cancellation coming well in advance and just stopped trying. If so, it’s a shame. If only they’d kept up the quality of the first half or so of this season and gotten at least one more year at that level, this revival could have been a really impressive addition to the franchise. As it is, I’d say it’s still worth checking out, even just for Phil Morris and Jane Badler, who are two of the best IMF team members we’ve ever had. And it’s still a legitimate continuation of the original — mixed in quality, but then, so was its predecessor. If nothing else, it gave us the continued adventures of Jim Phelps and the IMF as we knew it from the original… a last look at the familiar incarnation of M:I before it moved to the big screen and transformed into something radically different. Even several different somethings. But we’ll get to that.

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (’89) Reviews: “Church Bells in Bogota”/”The Sands of Seth” (spoilers)

And now, the final two:

“Church Bells in Bogota”: The second episode by Frank Abatemarco, who previously did “The Fuehrer’s Children.” After Esteban Magdalena (Henri Szeps), the “Godfather” of the Colombian drug cartel, assassinates a kidnapped federal judge by dropping him from the helicopter that’s supposed to be returning him to his family, Jim gets the mission at an auto racetrack: Bring Magdalena to justice before he overthrows the Colombian government. Jim’s cover is a disgruntled former government contractor with secrets to sell, Max is a mercenary, and Shannon, yet again, goes in as a singer for the nightclub Magdalena owns. A point is made about the ironclad cover story they’ve prepared for Shannon, and about Shannon apparently having a fear of small planes like the one she’ll be taking to Colombia from the Hollywood talent agency where she’ll be recruited.

At said agency, Shannon is hired by Magdalena’s nephew Luis (Tony Xauet), who doesn’t even audition her first, since he’s in a hurry to get back to Colombia, even though there’s a storm brewing. Maybe it’s also supposed to be because he’s attracted to her, but that doesn’t come across in the scene. They subsequently bond over her fear of flying, and of course the plane is struck by lightning and goes down. The plane/storm footage, while obviously miniature work, is a damn sight better than the usual amateurish video effects on this show, so I assume it’s stock footage from some other production. Mercenary Max (coming soon to a toy store near you), who’s training Magdalena’s men in the use of a rocket launcher and having no luck getting past his supervisor Sanchez (Michael Long) to meet Mags himself, hears that Luis and some singer went down in a plane crash and are in the hospital. Jim sneaks in to see her as a doctor, and she doesn’t recognize him as anything else. Gasp — she has… amnesia!

Before long, Luis pressures the real doctor into releasing Shannon into his care, so she’s taken into the Magdalenas’ fortress-like compound. Now the team has two objectives: get Mags and rescue Shannon. But as usual lately, they don’t have any advance plan in place for getting Mags — they’re just trying to track him down. Defense contractor Jim, hoping to get into the compound to find Shannon, instead gets taken to a run-down safehouse where he’s faced with a drug-lord version of To Tell the Truth with a panel of ski-masked men, one of whom is Magdalena — but unlike in the game show, he doesn’t get to pick out the real one. He makes his spiel and convinces Mags to let him install a heat-seeking missile defense system in the compound. Plan B is to get to Mags when he sneaks out to his nightclub, where Shannon surprises Luis by singing “Someone to Watch Over Me.” A watching Grant and Nicholas are surprised when the lights go out and Magdalena appears as if by magic, evidently through some secret passage. There’s no getting him out that way either. And they’re even more surprised to see the whirlwind romance blooming between Luis and the amnesiac Shannon.

Once Jim gets into the compound, he has Max create a diversion for Sanchez (arranging for the expensive launcher to jam) so Jim can slip into Shannon’s room as the doctor she remembers from the hospital. He’s brought along a couple of highly specialized gadgets Grant apparently just had lying around, the first of which is a remote medical sensor developed by NASA for diagnosing astronauts in space (perhaps on Mars missions, since Grant says it could diagnose them from “millions of miles away”). This lets Grant remotely determine that Shannon has classic soap-opera amnesia, with no brain damage, presumably from the psychological trauma of her fear of flying, though that’s a totally lame explanation. The second device is a pair of video goggles, sort of a proto-Oculus Rift, that plays home videos of the team celebrating her birthday in Jim’s apartment (though it’s unclear who shot the video). It only takes about 20 seconds of this for her complete memory to return, an implausibly easy fix, and she feels pretty bummed about falling in love with a drug kingpin’s heir — particularly since he’s already proposed to her! Jim realizes that a wedding would be the perfect way to lure Magdalena out of hiding, but then has second thoughts, concerned for Shannon’s feelings. But she agrees to go through with it because they’re awful people. (Umm, the drug lords, not the IMF team.)

So then Grant and Nicholas carjack a priest and steal his clothes. Better rethink that awful people thing. Okay, it’s not as awful as it sounds, since the priest seems to have a pretty good idea of who they’re after and blesses their endeavor. (In that case, why didn’t they just ask?) It’s implausibly easy for them to get past the compound’s security to get ready, and when Magdalena comes up to Shannon’s room prefatory to giving away the bride, priest Nick arrives and trank-darts him, and for some reason nobody is patrolling that side of the house at all as Grant lowers them all down a rope to the ground. And the gate guards are totally unconcerned when Jim and Grant drive out in a florist’s truck with the others and Mags in the back. Why is this compound so impenetrable again? But Luis has figured out that they’ve taken his girl and his uncle, so he calls out pursuit, but Max finally uses that rocket launcher on Mags’s helicopter, and thus the team is able to get to the airport and steal Mags’s inexplicably unguarded replacement Lear jet. Luis shows up just as they take off and screams for his lost love, and Shannon mopes about betraying the murderous drug lord she knew for two days and who totally took advantage of her at her most vulnerable.

Okay, so it’s an implausible scenario in a lot of ways, and it’s got a number of problems, but it’s not bad overall. I’m still not loving this looser investigate-then-improvise approach that seems to have replaced the intricate capers that used to define M:I as a series, but seeing the team humanized by concern for one of their own isn’t bad in principle, as long as it isn’t handled as ineptly as it was in “The Assassin.” At this point my expectations have been lowered, and this is an adequately entertaining story. Even the music’s a bit more interesting than usual, since John E. Davis uses more Latin sounds (which don’t sound as cliched to me as some of his other attempts at regional music like Irish and cowboy stuff) and more romantic-drama-style music than we usually get. Also Jane Badler performs two songs, “Someone to Watch Over Me” by George and Ira Gershwin and “Tangerine” by Victor Shertzinger and Johnny Mercer. (Apparently Badler pursued a professional singing career after this series ended.)

“The Sands of Seth”: The series finale, and the last M:I television episode to date, is written by executive producer Jeffrey M. Hayes. It opens in Cairo with an Egyptian museum director, Horus Selim (Tim Elliott — and IMDb misspells it as “Horace”), warning an Egyptian government official that the old ways will rise again and Egypt must return to its ancient greatness yada yada yada, which the official pooh-poohs. Then a mummy shows up and strangles him. It took this episode less than 90 seconds to evoke the first “Seriously?” from me.

Perhaps fittingly for the series finale, Jim goes to an animatronic dinosaur exhibit and trades code phrases about extinction with the latest and last of the improbably pretty women who keep getting these assignments this season. (She says the dinosaurs lived for over 200 million years, which is off by about 35 million unless you count birds as dinosaurs, which I totally do.) His mission is to find out if Selim is behind the murders of four prominent Egyptian officials whose deaths threaten to destabilize the tenuous Mideast peace process, and if so, to stop him. The team’s command post, seriously, is a tomb that’s just behind the Sphinx but that apparently was only discovered the year before.

Nicholas plays an Egyptian secret police officer who accosts Selim’s second-in-command and mummy-impersonating assassin, who is actually named Karnak (Gerard Kennedy, who was the main villain in “Holograms” in season 1). He offers Karnak a set of envelopes to hold to his forehead and divine the answers to the questions inside… no, sorry, that was Carnac. What he actually does is to hint that the authorities suspect Selim of the murders and offer Karnak a chance to break with him to save himself. But Karnak is loyal. Meanwhile, Shannon arranges to meet Selim at the museum and let him know that her archaeologist father (Jim) has unearthed a find related to Seth, the god of death that Selim worships and is obsessed with. That gets him out to the tomb, where they show him a fake Scroll of Seth and also set up Max as a not-very-gruntled employee of Jim’s. Selim really wants the scroll, but Jim won’t part with it, so when Max offers to bring it to him, he’s interested. At their arranged meeting at an outdoor cafe, a bunch of Selim’s cultists show up dressed in black and abduct Max, who doesn’t go without a fight. Somehow this does not attract the attention of any kind of police. Oh, did I mention that Selim has his own cultists? Yup, they gather in a secret underground tomb with a huge statue of Seth in it, and I don’t mean the guy from Robot Chicken. Basically their pillars of faith are “Kill, kill, chant a lot, and kill.”

So once Max hands over the scroll and lets on that he’s a Sethophile himself, he hears Selim order Karnak to deal with Jim and Shannon, but he can’t warn them because he lost his communicator in the fight. Shannon gets her requisite dose of distress for the week when Mummy Karnak almost strangles her, but it’s a lure to draw out Jim to be knocked out so they can both be trapped in the tomb, which the team has set up with fake Sethaphrenalia for Selim to plunder. Max can only watch helplessly — even though he’s the last guy to leave and could easily have just pulled the door back open a crack to give them some air. So Jim and Shannon are trapped there in this tomb with only a couple of hours of air, and can’t call out because the walls are too thick. Remember: they’re trapped in a room the team spent hours setting up. It didn’t occur to them to install some oxygen canisters, like the one we saw Grant put in the fake sarcophagus earlier? Or, like, an interior door handle?

In that fake sarcophagus is Nicholas as a mummy, who arises and terrifies Karnak, because Shannon mentioned earlier that there’s a curse on the tomb entailing the usual dead-rising stuff. Consider, Gentle Readers: Karnak has committed several murders while dressed as a mummy. Now a guy dressed as a mummy is coming after him, and Karnak accepts it as entirely real. I guess you can kid a kidder. Nick knocks Karnak out, and the henchman wakes up in the desert, where Grant is dressed as a Nubian shaman or whatever and intones that Karnak must renounce Seth and stop Selim’s planned mass murder of Egyptian officials if he wishes to save his soul. This is supported with mystical images holographically projected in a pool, images that are obviously from old movies but that Karnak, again, accepts as entirely real. It’s stupid as hell, but what saves it is Phil Morris’s performance, which lets him show off the superb, mellow voice he’s made such excellent use of in animation roles in the ensuing quarter-century. I’ve never heard him deepen his voice this much, almost into James Earl Jones territory, and it’s thrilling to listen to.

So Karnak tries to turn Selim’s followers, but just gets a garotting for his troubles and is dumped into the sand pit that swallows the cult’s victims. The team slipped a tracker onto Karnak to follow him to the temple, and find it by the expedient of Shannon falling through a buried skylight, whereupon they find themselves inside the head of the Seth statue. By the way, Nicholas has been captured and brought before the cult, but fortunately Selim assigns Max to kill him as his initiation, so they fake Nick’s death together. By an astonishing coincidence, the head of the statue contains a sun reflector, and now that the skylight is open, the morning sun (conveniently at the correct position in the sky) will shine beams through the eyes in just a few minutes, letting Jim time the payoff of the plan. The rigged scroll reveals a “faded” part of the text speaking of a curse, and then self-immolates. Nicholas magically springs back to life, restored by the rays from Seth’s eyes. Grant rigs his communicator to resonate with the stone columns of the buried temple and bring it all crashing down, once the cultists have turned on Selim and dumped him into the sand pit. The team climbs out and watches as the lost temple collapses and millions of archaeologists cry out in protest and are suddenly silenced.

And Peter Graves delivers his final words in the role of Jim Phelps: “Present-day evil has joined ancient evil. Both of them lost in the sands of time.” He deserved better. Although I guess it’s not as bad as what the character of Phelps has coming for him in the movie — but that’s for a later post.

Oh, wow, so many, many things wrong with this episode. First off, the portrayal of Egypt. The extent of Hayes’s research seemed to be watching some old movies. Okay, granted, the age of the pharaohs was pretty much the last time prior to the modern age when Egypt was an independent nation, rather than a portion of someone else’s empire (whether Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Ottoman, or British), so maybe it’s not completely out of the question that a rabid Egyptian nationalist would look back to those times for inspiration, rather than to Egypt’s more recent, 1400-year-long history as an Islamic society. But the three named characters, supposedly living in modern, majority-Arab Egypt, are named Horus, Serapis, and Karnak, after two ancient Egyptian gods and an ancient temple site. Hayes didn’t even bother to give them names that residents of present-day Egypt might actually have. And here’s a fun fact: The population of Egypt is about 90-91 percent Muslim and 9-10 percent Christian, mostly Coptic Orthodox. There’s also a smattering of Baha’ists and Jews. A nationalist looking to mobilize the Egyptian people to reclaim their greatness as a world power wouldn’t win a lot of support by invoking an ancient faith that pretty much nobody in Egypt actually follows anymore. Maybe one deluded museum director who got too buried in his work (no pun intended) might end up with such an obsession, but I doubt he’d be able to gather an army of Seth-worshipping murder cultists.

Also, painting Set/Seth as a “god of evil” and murder is just the usual propaganda that Christendom has used to demonize other religions. Set was a god associated with chaos, violence, and storms (also the desert and foreigners), but played an important positive role in Egyptian religion as well; though he had killed his brother Horus, that was part of the necessary cycle of death and resurrection, and both gods functioned as counterparts in a cosmic balance like the yin and yang. Now, I will grant that the episode ended with the team convincing the cultists that Selim’s portrayal of Seth as a murder god was slanted and incomplete. But that was just a ploy, and Jim was pretty adamant about Seth being pure evil. So I can’t really give the episode credit for that.

It’s not a completely awful episode, just a silly one with a lazy, cartoony view of a foreign culture. Like “The Gunslinger,” it seemed to be motivated by a desire to do a genre pastiche, this time of mummy movies and Indiana Jones ancient-cult stuff. That gave it a fanciful quality rather far removed from what we generally think of as Mission: Impossible. But I’ll give it this: It finally breaks the trend of episodes where the team has no advance plan beyond “get in and wander around trying to find stuff out.” Yes, the plan has a number of contrived setbacks and improvisations, but there’s also a strategy being played out from the beginning, with the fake tomb and the scroll and the roles the team adopts. Although it’s a little unclear what the original endgame was planned to be, and contrived that the team’s advanced preparations meshed so neatly with random happenstance. Oh, and Davis’s music is back to cliche, with the same old “Egyptian” sound we’ve heard in a thousand movies and cartoons.

The one last thing on the DVD box set, aside from promos for a few of the episodes, is a Holiday Promo. Santa Claus rides up to his North-Pole home in his sleigh and finds a disc-player box in his mail basket, or something. He opens it up without needing a thumbprint scan — well, he is Santa Claus, after all — and the screen displays an image of the team wishing the viewers a merry Christmas. Santa walks away, but the disc does not self-destruct. I guess Santa already knows what his mission is.

Overview to follow!

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