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Critical Distance: Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol

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Critical Distance: Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol

As commercial cinema goes, animation and live action are seen as divergent modes of filmmaking sharing the mutual goal of aesthetic cohesiveness; they only achieve it by different means. While Avatar and The Adventures of Tintin achieve a melding of live-action and animation techniques, other examples suggest that the sensibilities of animation and live action are more disparate and incompatible. If the static shots and deadened rhythms of the big-budget fantasy films John Carter and the first two Chronicles of Narnia entries are any indication, the qualities of animation may not so easily translate to live action. These films were directed by animation veterans—Andrew Stanton and Andrew Adamson, respectively—whose authorial voices evaporated under the conditions of live-action filmmaking.

Given the standing casualties, it would be reasonable to expect that Brad Bird, the venerable and considerably gifted director of Pixar greats Ratatouille and The Incredibles, would encounter similar difficulties working in live action as did Adamson and Stanton. Bird’s first project in the non-animated realm would pose a more considerable test than those of his predecessors, both of whom were essentially handed the reins of a new film franchise. If the translation from animation to live action weren’t already revealed as problematic by the previous examples, the challenge of making a fourth entry in the moribund Mission: Impossible franchise would be potentially as significant. Yet, despite these (and forgive me for saying) impossible conditions, Bird makes Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol work. It succeeds not only as the resurrection of a franchise but also as an exercise in the rarified practice of artful action filmmaking. Whether the story makes a bit of sense is hard for me to say, as I certainly can’t recount it very well. More importantly, this fourth Mission: Impossible makes visual sense.

The script is fairly basic, but the screenwriters are savvy enough to acknowledge that audiences (no doubt with assistance from Jason Bourne) have moved on from Ethan Hunt and the IMF. Thus, the fancily titled Ghost Protocol isn’t framed as the next inevitable mission, as was John Woo’s forgettable second film. Nor does it fall into the trap of grounding its conflict in the personal life of its protagonist. (Because, as recent Pulitzer Prize-winner Wesley Morris notes, Tom Cruise’s screen presence is decidedly asexual.) No, the screenwriters instead opt for a “dismantle and disavow” approach, with an opening that sees fellow IMF-ers busting Ethan out of a Serbian prison. Immediately following the breakout, Hunt is framed for the destruction of the Kremlin and along with his fellow agents must go on the run. And run he does. In Moscow, Dubai, and Mumbai. He runs into, on top of, and between cars. He runs down buildings, in front of monuments, and through sandstorms. But I’ll be damned if Cruise’s sprinting isn’t put to great use here, as he chases a villain bent on a nuclear leveling of the entire planet. The origins and motives for this villain, played by Michael Nyqvist, could certainly have used a bit more development, as could have those of the female sub-villain played by Léa Seydoux. Ghost Protocol rather focuses squarely on Cruise and his new protégé, played with icy joy by Jeremy Renner, cashing in on the intensity of his standout performance in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. Cruise and Renner together is a surprisingly good match, particularly since the film is patient to reveal each character’s ultimate motivations and keeps them both in pure business mode. While Cruise is the de facto leader and gets the lion’s share of screen time, Bird and company smartly project Ethan Hunt as a guiding paternal figure. The other members of the team, including Simon Pegg (returning from the last film) and Paula Patton, each have a function and serve it well, both in contrast to and in cooperation with Cruise’s holy sprinter’s status.

Despite serving up a buffet of your standard spy ingredients, Ghost Protocol aces the formal test. Bird goes to painstaking degrees to ensure that the action on screen, though busy, is visually coherent. Given its clarity, the film’s action may can be interpreted as a rebuke of the current chaos aesthetic that characterizes many recent action blockbusters. (And in case you missed them last year, be sure to watch Matthias Stork’s video essays on chaos cinema.) But Bird isn’t a rigid classicist in his approach to action or even simpler scenes of dialogue. He maintains the urgent, at times frenetic tone that J.J. Abrams brought to the franchise in the previous film, Mission: Impossible III. Abrams is a producer on Ghost Protocol, and his artisan touch is evident throughout. Honoring this approach but shifting its emphasis, Bird crafts each sequence with stunning attention to how each shot connects to the next. Where Abrams sees a series of shots serving the purpose of a single shot and idea, Bird makes each shot matter. Despite this being his first live-action effort, Bird operates like a veteran of action moviemaking. More importantly, the seamlessness of the motion between shots fashions a sense of dimension and space for a given setting, scene, or composition. By contrast, Bird’s contemporaries—Abrams, Christopher Nolan, et al.— have failed at this consistently. (I can’t help but imagine what Super 8 or Inception might have looked like with a helmer like Bird, who would certainly not have rendered their visual palettes so flat and unimaginative.)

Ghost Protocol makes no attempt to push the boundaries of a genre and type of filmmaking whose boundaries are resistant to shifting. It offers something much more straightforward, especially in the context of commercial action filmmaking. The term “action movie,” seems archaic today. To put it simply, action movies are less relevant. That’s not to say they were particularly significant in their heyday of the 1980s and early 1990s; nevertheless, their simplicity both in visual and thematic terms spoke to audiences. On the other hand, the contemporary action picture and its subdivisions—notably the spy thriller—has been realigned according to the fractured chaos aesthetic. Moreover, in an age in which audiences’ tastes are increasingly influenced by the more sophisticated sensibilities of television drama (which demand patience for story and character development over chunks of time), an efficient, effective, and, coherent actioner such as Ghost Protocol is a nice break from the complexities and confusions of other contemporary fare. Perhaps this is where Bird’s background in animation proved to be such an asset. Unlike a majority of his colleagues, many of whom pay lip service to the smaller details in favor of creating big, “blockbuster-y” moments, Bird is concerned about what each shot contributes, how it communicates, and how it does a job within the context of story and the craft of a scene. Even in the film’s standout sequence, when Cruise is dangling from the Burj Khalifa building, Bird maintains balance and lets his attuned visual senses carry the proceedings to a tense, exciting effect. This is the kind of thing a filmmaker is forced to learn in animation—where every composition matters—and it lends beautifully to live action, provided that director understands what powers a film.

Ghost Protocol is fairly standard material given the best treatment, which alone qualifies it as one of the more noteworthy movies released last year. It’s a fine-tuned machine, and as such stands as a moniker of the simple pleasures of seeing compact movement on screen. This, after all, is the universal quality that bounds and defines cinema—live-action or animated.

Ted Pigeon is author of the blog The Cinematic Art.

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Awards

Oscars 2019: Who Will Win? Who Should Win? Our Final Predictions

No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them.

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Roma
Photo: Netflix

No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them. Cut out the montages, bring back honorary award presentations, give stunt performers their own category, let ranked-choice voting determine every category and not just best picture, overhaul the membership ranks, hold the event before the guilds spoil the surprise, find a host with the magic demographic-spanning mojo necessary to double the show’s recent audience pools, nominate bigger hits, nominate only hits. Across the last 24 days, Ed Gonzalez and I have mulled over the academy’s existential crisis and how it’s polluted this year’s Oscar race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again. We’re spent, and while we don’t know if we have it in us to do this next year, we just might give it another go if Oscar proves us wrong on Sunday in more than just one category.

Below are our final Oscar predictions. Want more? Click on the individual articles for our justifications and more, including who we think should win in all 24 categories.

Picture: Green Book
Director: Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Actor: Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
Actress: Glenn Close, The Wife
Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Supporting Actress: Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Original Screenplay: Green Book
Adapted Screenplay: BlacKkKlansman
Foreign Language: Roma
Documentary Feature: RBG
Animated Feature Film: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Documentary Short: Period. End of Sentence
Animated Short: Weekends
Live Action Short: Skin
Film Editing: Bohemian Rhapsody
Production Design: The Favourite
Cinematography: Cold War
Costume Design: The Favourite
Makeup and Hairstyling: Vice
Score: If Beale Street Could Talk
Song: “Shallow,” A Star Is Born
Sound Editing: First Man
Sound Mixing: Bohemian Rhapsody
Visual Effects: First Man

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Picture

The industry’s existential crisis has polluted this race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again.

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Green Book
Photo: Universal Pictures

“I’m hyperventilating a little. If I fall over pick me up because I’ve got something to say,” deadpanned Frances McDormand upon winning her best actress Oscar last year. From her lips to Hollywood’s ears. No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them. Cut out the montages, bring back honorary award presentations, give stunt performers their own category, let ranked-choice voting determine every category and not just best picture, overhaul the membership ranks, hold the event before the guilds spoil the surprise, find a host with the magic demographic-spanning mojo necessary to double the show’s recent audience pools, nominate bigger hits, nominate only hits.

But first, as McDormand herself called for during her speech, “a moment of perspective.” A crop of articles have popped up over the last two weeks looking back at the brutal showdown between Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare In Love at the 1999 Academy Awards, when Harvey Weinstein was at the height of his nefarious powers. Every retrospective piece accepts as common wisdom that it was probably the most obnoxious awards season in history, one that indeed set the stage for every grinding assault we’ve paid witness to ever since. But did anyone two decades ago have to endure dozens of weekly Oscar podcasters and hundreds of underpaid web writers musing, “What do the Academy Awards want to be moving forward, exactly? Who should voters represent in this fractured media environment, exactly?” How much whiskey we can safely use to wash down our Lexapro, exactly?

Amid the fox-in-a-henhouse milieu of ceaseless moral outrage serving as this awards season’s backdrop, and amid the self-obsessed entertainers now wrestling with the idea that they now have to be “content providers,” all anyone seems concerned about is what an Oscar means in the future, and whether next year’s versions of Black Panther and Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody have a seat at the table. What everyone’s forgetting is what the Oscars have always been. In other words, the industry’s existential crisis has polluted this race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again, and Oscar’s clearly splintered voting blocs may become ground zero for a Make the Academy Great Again watershed.

In 1956, the Oscars took a turn toward small, quotidian, neo-realish movies, awarding Marty the top prize. The correction was swift and sure the following year, with a full slate of elephantine epics underlining the movie industry’s intimidation at the new threat of television. Moonlight’s shocking triumph two years ago was similarly answered by the safe, whimsical The Shape of Water, a choice that reaffirmed the academy’s commitment to politically innocuous liberalism in artistically conservative digs. Call us cynical, but we know which of the last couple go-arounds feels like the real academy. Which is why so many are banking on the formally dazzling humanism of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and so few on the vital, merciless fury of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman.

And even if we give the benefit of the doubt to the academy’s new members, there’s that righteous, reactionary fervor in the air against those attempting to “cancel” Green Book. Those attacking the film from every conceivable angle have also ignored the one that matters to most people: the pleasure principle. Can anyone blame Hollywood for getting its back up on behalf of a laughably old-fashioned but seamlessly mounted road movie-cum-buddy pic that reassures people that the world they’re leaving is better than the one they found? That’s, as they say, the future that liberals and Oscar want.

Will Win: Green Book

Could Win: Roma or BlacKkKlansman

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Adapted Screenplay

After walking back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing here.

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BlacKkKlansman
Photo: Focus Features

Eric and I have done a good job this year of only selectively stealing each other’s behind-the-scenes jokes. We have, though, not been polite about stepping on each other’s toes in other ways. Okay, maybe just Eric, who in his impeccable take on the original screenplay free-for-all detailed how the guilds this year have almost willfully gone out of their way to “not tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film.” Case in point: Can You Ever Forgive Me? winning the WGA’s adapted screenplay trophy over presumed Oscar frontrunner BlacKkKlansman. A glitch in the matrix? We think so. Eric and I are still in agreement that the race for best picture this year is pretty wide open, though maybe a little less so in the wake of what seemed like an easy win for the Spike Lee joint. Nevertheless, we all know that there’s no Oscar narrative more powerful than “it’s about goddamn time,” and it was so powerful this year that even the diversity-challenged BAFTAs got the memo, giving their adapted screenplay prize to Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott. To bamboozle Lee at this point would, admittedly, be so very 2019, but given that it’s walked back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing.

Will Win: BlacKkKlansman

Could Win: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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