Leverage

It has been said that we are living in the “golden age of television,” which is just a fancy way of saying that there is a lot of good stuff on TV. As much as I like “prestige” shows like Mad Men, and the grim and gritty action of Sons of Anarchy, I cannot live by “serious” drama alone. I know this is starting to sound like a Marvel vs DC debate, but it’s not.

Sometimes I wan a bit of fun from the programs I watch. It’s nice to sit back, relax, and have a good time in front of the TV. For five seasons, I got a lot of enjoyment from Leverage, which is more than I can about a lot of “better” shows.

Leverage was a throwback to shows like Mission: Impossible, The Rockford Files, and The Saint; with a bit of The A-Team thrown into the mix. The series has been desribed as being about a team of “high tech Robin Hoods,” but there’s more to it than that.

The Leverage team lineup consists of a Hitter, a Hacker, a Grifter, a Thief, and the Mastermind. Timothy Hutton played Nathan Ford “The Mastermind.” Nathan’s previous job was as an investigator at an insurance company. His life has been turned upside down for reasons I won’t get into, and in the first episode, “The Nigerian Job,” he is hired to retrieve stolen blueprints for a new airplane. He recruits some criminals he used to chase around the globe to help him with the job; which goes well, until it doesn’t. Anyway, stuff happens, and the the team ends up being the good guys. They like the idea so much that they decide to help others in need of… Leverage.

When I heard about the premise for Leverage, I was intrigued. It also helped that I am a fan of Timothy Hutton, especially the film Beautiful Girls. I gave the show a chance and it was love at first viewing.

The only other cast member I was familiar with was Gina Bellman who played Sophie Devereaux, “The Grifter.” I really liked her on Coupling–the original BBC series, not that abomination that was on NBC.

Rounding out the cast were: Aldis Hodge, (“Hacker” Alec Hardison) Christian Kane, (“Hitter” Eliot Spencer) and Beth Riesgraf (“Thief” Parker).

As I said, the series was a lot of fun. Like most shows, some episodes were better than others, but it had a very high batting average, and it was never boring. Besides, how could I not love a show with so many Doctor Who references? The thing is, they were doing this back in 2008, a few years before Doctor Who became a cultural phenomenon in the US.
Yes, I am aware that the first Doctor Who reference on Leverage was in “The Mile High Job,” which was broadcast on TNT on January 20, 2009; but it was filmed in 2008. So there.

Mission: Impossible Film Series

The first Mission: Impossible film, directed by Brian De Palma, may or may not be the best of the series, but there is no denying its influence. The Pentagon break in scene, with Tom Cruise suspended on wires, is one of the the most copied/parodied scenes of the past two decades; another being the laser grid scene in Entrapment. Never mind the fact that the break-in-by-wire idea is pretty much a direct lift from Topkapi.

The thing is: where do you go from there? In terms of shear tension, no subsequent M:I film has matched that scene. The Burj Khalifa scene in Ghost Protocol, and the cargo plane scene in Rogue Nation are thrilling, yet there is a sense of humor that is missing from the first film.

Speaking of humor, one of the best additions to the M:I series is Simon Pegg, who plays technical boffin turned field agent, Benji Dunn. The great thing about Benji is that he is not merely comic relief; his funny lines are character based, and never take away from the scene, but add to it.

Jeremy Renner who plays William Brandt is also a source of humor, especially in Ghost Protocol. He is the team’s resident worry wart, who gave a countdown while Ethan was scaling a hotel. It didn’t help. And who knew that Renner was such a physical comedian? No matter how many times I watch Ghost Protocol, his warm up routine never fails to crack me up. He really needs to do a comedy film. Someone should get on that.

One of the most refreshing elements of the past two M:I films is the humor that Tom Cruise has brought to the role of Ethan Hunt. Hunt was a very intense character in the first and third films, but that is what the script called for. As for the second movie, I have mostly forgotten about it, yet I feel the need to rewatch it. Maybe next year.

Cruise is a very funny guy who is not afraid to go for it; as seen in Tropic Thunder. In films like Knight and Day, and Edge of Tomorrow, Cruise somewhat subverted his image as an action hero. It’s nice to see Ethan lighten up a bit, while never undermining the overall tone of the M:I films. There is a fine line there, and Cruise walks it like a pro.

The original remit of the M:I series was to bring in a different director for each movie. That way, every entry would have its own distinctive look and feel. Mission: Impossible was definately a Brian De Palma film, with his trademark nods to Alfred Hitchcock. M:I-2 was… Let’s just say it wasn’t John Woo’s best day at the office and leave it there.

It was six years between M:I-2 and M:I-3; so long that I was fearful that the franchise was dead. There had been discussions with David Fincher to direct, but unfortunately that never happened. Then Joe Carnahan left the project due to the catch all term, “creative differences.” Having seen Smokin’ Aces, I would have liked to have seen what Carnahan had in mind.

After binge watching a couple of seasons of Alias, Cruise gave J.J. Abrams a call, despite the fact that Abrams had never directed a feature film. I wonder what ever happened to that guy.

I for one was looking forward to an Abrams directed M:I film, since I knew it would be the closest I’d ever come to seeing Alias on the big screen. I was not disappointed. Maybe the plot overly relied on the MacGuffin; so what? Owen Davian, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, was a great, intense villain, and that is something that far too often overlooked by filmmakers.

Starting with M:I-3, Bad Robot has been a producing partner, or whatever you call it. I don’t know how much influence they have, but the films have consistantcy and continuity; which is nice. That’s more than I can say about another film franchise.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (Discussion with Spoilers)

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is a confident movie, and Paramount had a lot of confidence in it. The original release date was Christmas, but when Star Wars: The Force Awakens moved off the traditional Memorial Day weekend date to the 18th of December, Paramount could have pushed Rogue Nation back to February of next year. Instead, they pushed it forward to late July. It looks like it was a smart move.

If you have seen any of the trailers for Rogue Nation, the set piece that stands out is the one where Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is hanging on to the side of a cargo plane. Well, that is the pre-credits scene. Whoa. That is a brilliant move that could have backfired if the rest of the film failed to deliver.

It didn’t.

Many reviewers have pointed out the similarities between the Vienna opera house scene in Rogue Nation and the climactic scene in The Man Who Knew Too Much. Yes, it is a fair comparison, but the catwalks that kept moving up and down is also slightly reminiscent of the parking garage scene in Ghost Protocol. In fact, there are any number of scenes in Rogue Nation that recall moments from previous M:I films. So what? It worked.

Since the first Mission: Impossible movie, one of the trademarks is a scene or scenes with little to no dialogue. In Rogue Nation it’s the motorcycle chase. Backing up to the previous scene where Ethan and Benji (Simon Pegg) were in the BMW, there was no musical score. Or was there? Maybe It seemed to me that when the bad guys on motorcycles were going down the steps, the bikes were making noises that sounded an awful lot like the Mission: Impossible theme. The same goes for the car flip at the end. Maybe it’s just me.

Another thing a lot of people brought up was the final shootout/battle in which Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) took the lead while Ethan was a human shield. That was clever. It also points out the team dynamic, as opposed to Ethan being the center of all the action. A similar thing happened in Ghost Protocol when William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) had to go into the underground server room. Then again, Ethan had to break into the Burj Khalifa server room… From the outside. And in Rogue Nation, Ethan had to infiltrate the underwater computer thingy. Still, it’s nice to see others doing stuff.

There is also a trend in Mission: Impossible films where Ethan has to prove to someone that they are on the same side. In Rogue Nation it’s CIA chief Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin). Now that Hunley is the Secretary of the IMF, I hope we get to see more of him in the series.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

There are those who say that Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is the best film in the series, and I cannot argue with them. You could choose any of the Mission: Impossible movies, barring M:I-2, as your favorite, and you would be correct. I love the M:I films, and look forward to each installment.

I think Rogue Nation has the best stunt/action scenes of the M:I series, which is saying a lot. It’s hard to top the Pentagon break in from the first film in terms of pure tension, but there are a couple of scenes in Rogue Nation that come close.

The sense of humor from Ghost Protocol is still apparent in Rogue Nation. Thankfully. Simon Pegg’s character, Benji Dunn, is there to provide a tad of comic relief. He is not a joke machine; all his quips are character based and keep the film from taking itself too seriously.

Jeremy Renner returns as William Brant. I really like Renner in M:I films, since he gets to show not only his action chops, but his comedy chops as well. Until I saw Ghost Protocol, I never knew he was so funny. Brandt is also the character usually gets stuck with lines like “So, what you’re saying is…” but he pulls it off flawlessly.
I am going to save spoilers for a future post, so no need to worry. Also, I am not going to say a lot about the plot of the movie, except to say that there is a bad guy who wants something, and the Impossibe Missions Force is trying to stop him from getting it. It’s pretty much your bog standard Mission: Impossible plot, but I. Don’t. Care. When the movies are this well made, it really doesn’t matter.

The bad guy in Rogue Nation is Solomon Lane, played to creepy perfection by Sean Harris. Every baddie needs a henchman, and Lane has “The Bone Doctor” (Jens Hulten). Yeah, he sounds a bit like someone from an old Bond movie, but just go with it, because it works.

The breakout star of Rogue Nation is Rebecca Ferguson, who plays Ilsa Faust.
In a film series that features a number of kick ass women, Ferguson kicks the most ass. Or should I say, the script allows her to kick more ass than other women who have appeared in the M:I franchise.

Faust’s loyalties change, or seemingly change, from scene to scene. So much so, I am not sure she even knows whose side she’s on. In a lesser movie, this would get tiresome quickly. Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie is no stranger to twists and turns, having written The Usual Suspects. This is the fourth time McQuarrie has written or co-written a Tom Cruise film. The other three are Valkyrie, Edge of Tomorrow, and Jack Reacher; the last of which, McQuarrie also directed. Those three films are all underrated, which is something you cannot say about Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. I think it would be impossible to rate it highly enough.
Yeah, that was corny.

Now You See Me

The last time I checked, Now You See Me was at 50% on both Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. I have no influence on either of those scores… Yet. Not that anyone pays attention to me, but I would like to say that I enjoyed the movie.

Now You See Me is a heist movie with a twist: It’s an illusion! Or is it? Four magicians played by Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco, and Woody Harrelson receive invitations to New York City. Once they arrive at the address on the invite, they realize that the person who requested their appearance has something their sleeve.

One year later, they are going by the name “The Four Horseman.” With the help of their benevolent benefactor Arthur Tressler, (Michael Caine) they are performing at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. For the grand finale, they magically transport a member of the audience to a bank vault in Paris, then proceed to steal the money. Pretty neat trick, if you can get away with it.

Of course this stunt attracts the attention of the G men. Much to his chagrin, Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) is assigned the case. And since it was an international crime, Interpol sends Agent Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent) to investigate. In the course of the investigation, the two agents make the acquaintance of Thaddeus Bradley, (Morgan Freeman) a former magician who now makes his money by exposing the secrets of illusionists.

Along the way, the Four Horsemen’s illusions/heists get more daring. At one point, there is a pretty good car chase through the streets of NYC. Director Louis Leterrier is no stranger to car chases having worked on the Transporter movies. He also directed The Incredible Hulk, and I liked that film too.

Just saying.

With most heist films, the audience roots for the robbers, and Now You See Me is no different. One thing of the good things about the movie is that the “white hats” are just so darn likable. Seriously, who doesn’t like Mark Ruffalo? Melanie Laurent looked like she was having fun with all the absurdity going on around her, which is more than I can say about her performance in The Concert; but I have already discussed that film.

Sure, Now You See Me may not be as fun as Ocean’s 11, and it’s not as intense as Heat, but is that a bad thing? I’m not saying it’s the greatest movie ever, but it’s not the worst either.

Did It Suddenly Get Dark In Here?

In film trilogies, the trend is for the second movie to be kind of dark. Or end on a cliffhanger. Sometimes both. There are those that complain when a part two is really part one of a two part story. If that makes any sense.

You could say that The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi are really one long film. For better or worse, any number of filmmakers have followed the Star Wars strategy of making a stand alone film, followed by a two part finale. In the case of films like The Matrix, and Back to the Future, the other two movies were surplus to requirements. Say what you will about the Divergent series, but author Veronica Roth didn’t fall into that trap.

This is your spoiler warning.

If anything, the first film, Divergent, was the one that ended on a cliffhanger. There were a number of unanswered questions at the end, one being: What happens next? The ending of Insurgent has a bit of a finale feel to it. Yes, if it ended there, the audience would be left wondering about the Founders, and what will happen when they see what there experiment hath wrought. It might be an unsatisfying ending to some, but I think it would have been kind of cool, not to mention bold.

As I mentioned in my review of Insurgent, I did not see that final shot coming. No pun intended. I wrongly assumed that Janine (Kate Winslet) was the Big Bad of the series, much in the way President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is in the Hunger Games series. I guess that’s one advantage of not having read the books.

Another thing about The Divergent Series not being as high profile as The Hunger Games Series is that it has kind of flown under my radar, since it doesn’t get the same amount of media coverage. That is a good thing for me, since I had no idea that Octavia Spencer, Daniel Dae Kim, and Naomi Watts were even in Insurgent. Never mind the fact that Watts was cast as Four’s mother, Evelyn.

Speaking of things I didn’t see coming, what about when Four (Theo James) executed Eric (Jai Courtney)? I’m not saying he didn’t deserve it, but I did not see it going down that way. I figured Eric would die in a far more elaborate/convoluted way, much like a henchman in a Bond movie.

I keep comparing the Divergent series to Logan’s Run, and considering the ending of Insurgent, it seems like an apt comparison. No, I am not talking about when Evelyn shot Janine, but rather the part when the citizens discovered that there is life beyond the wall. In Logan’s Run, the film ends when the citizens discover that not only is there life outside the city, but that it possible to live beyond the age of thirty. It may not be much of a life, but it beats going to Carousel.

Insurgent

In my review of Divergent, I wrote about how I liked the movie and thought it had an excellent premise. My negatives are that the film felt a little paint-by-numbers at times, and some of the dialogue was a tad clunky. Whatever problems Divergent had, Insurgent avoided them. The pacing was good, for the most part, and it was about twenty minutes shorter than the previous installment.

Not that length matters.

Insurgent picks up the story a few days after Dauntless forces under the command of Erudite have wiped out Abnigation. That leaves only Candor and Amity; both of which get screen time this go ’round.

Tris, (Shailene Woodley) Four, (Theo James) and and the handful of survivors who hopped a train out of Dodge at the end of Divergent, are now holed up in Amity. The Amity faction leader, Johanna, (Octavia Spencer) has offered them sanctuary, as long as they help out and don’t act like a bunch of hooligans. My words, not hers. As I expected, Amity is pretty much a hippie commune. Peter (Miles Teller) likes to have fun at their expence, but it’s mostly harmless fun.

It isn’t long before Eric (Jai Courtney, who is a far better actor than some people say) and his band of thugs show up in search of Divergents. A mystery box that can only be opened by a Divergent was found in the home of Tris’ parents, and Janine (Kate Winslet) believes this box holds the answer to all her problems.

Tris, Four, and Caleb (Ansel Elgort) escape Amity by catching the train back into the city. Once there, they plan on killing Janine. A problem arises when they run into a group of Factionless stowaways on the train. Stuff happens, and eventually they meet up with the leader of the Factionless (Naomi Watts). An alliance is formed, and…

I’ll stop there for now. I don’t want to give too much away, and I have skipped over some of the details so that you won’t get too spoiled. Trust me, there are some things that happen that you don’t want to know about going in.

I mentioned the pacing earlier. The first hour goes along at a rapid clip but then it gets a little slow, but not in a bad way. I needed a bit of a breather, and it was welcome, since things pick back up again in the final act.

In my review of Divergent, I discussed how the film gave off a Logan’s Run kind of vibe. Well… I wasn’t wrong about those feelings, because they came back again in Insurgent.

I will end this post by saying this: I totally did not see that ending coming. Now I cannot wait to see how it all plays out in Allegient.