Summer Short Takes: ‘Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation,’ ‘The End of the Tour,’ ‘The Gift’

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

Rogue NationMission Impossible: Rogue Nation is all business. Whereas Ghost Protocol took time to pay homage to the series’ legacy (a literal lighting-of-a-fuse segues us into the franchise’s indelible musical theme), the latest entry, while not lacking in nods to earlier Mission Impossible staples, assumes we’ve seen the previous installments and guns ahead. There are gadgets and spy intrigue and stunts galore, but they are rattled off with ease and not too much exposition, allowing the magnetic muscle man Tom Cruise to work his magic for as much time as possible. At 53, the star is aging, but incredibly, he seems to have more elan than ever, proving himself to be one of the most versatile physical performers working today. His feats in Rogue Nation include clinging to the side of a plane past take-off, holding his breath for six minutes, and motorcycling down a freeway at 100 mph without a helmet. We know Cruise makes it out alive, but the alternative continues to lurk in our disbelief, translating into massive spikes of adrenaline.

Staying out of Cruise’s way was director Christopher McQuarrie’s greatest judgment call. In an interview with Film Comment, he revealed that his two primary concerns when filming MI5 was clarity and geography – that is, the audience should be able to tell who is doing what and where at all times. This lucidity was key to the triumph of Mad Max: Fury Road, and Rogue Nation succeeds in the same vein through McQuarrie’s decision to maximize widescreen cinematography and abolish shaky cam and rack zooms (he mentions all this and much else in the interview, which can be found here). In other words, he lets the action speak for itself. One highlight is the now-famous underwater sequence, which uses long takes to generate tension in real-time à la Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity.

This does not mean McQuarrie is entirely hands-off, however. The elaborateness of the set pieces speaks of shrewd direction, as in a breathtaking sequence in an opera house where Cruise’s Ethan Hunt faces off against two snipers of uncertain loyalties. There, the editing renders simultaneous planes of action coherent, and the accompanying arias scale the events up to the level of an epic. Indeed, Rogue Nation demonstrates style alongside the substance of Cruise, that athletic marvel who, for five films, has taken us to the physical extremes of action cinema and pushes farther with each additional entry. In awe, we can’t help but follow him into the beyond. Grade: A-

The End of the Tour

 End of the TourTwo people talk over the course of five days in James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour. One speaker is David Foster Wallace, the late writer who in 1996 published his 1079-page opus, Infinite Jest, to wide acclaim; the other is David Lipsky, a Rolling Stones journalist who soon thereafter interviewed Wallace while the writer was on tour for his literary sensation. The transcript became Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace and is the basis for The End of the Tour, but the film’s true backbone is Jason Segel as Wallace. In his towering performance, we sense a man ill at ease with his stardom and the feeling of his own skin, a genius who wishes he wasn’t one.

The movie has the feel of a Richard Linklater talkie, peripatetic and periphrastic in ways that mimic the darting, wandering minds of these two writers, as well as the more general, unstructured quality of everyday conversation. But this isn’t just everyday conversation. Wallace and Lipsky, thinkers and wordsmiths that they are, talk in ways that are pleasing to mind and ear alike, and the interview format, though true to reality, enables as a narrative device candid discussion of topics that don’t normally surface in small talk between strangers. Niceties are discarded in favor of more challenging subjects like marriage, depression, and maintaining authenticity in the limelight. Just as Jesse and Celine from Linklater’s Before Sunrise found grounds for frank dialogue in the special circumstances of their trip to Vienna and their shared penchant for waxing philosophical, so Lipsky and Wallace make riveting conversation thanks to the framework of the interview and their shared identity as writers.

Indeed, it is easy to lose oneself in listening to brilliant minds at work, but ultimately, Ponsoldt cares more about people than ideas. In The End of the Tour, he is not so much interested in the chatter of intelligentsia as the deep vulnerability it belies; less in abstract existence than concrete humanity. This is embodied in the character of Wallace, who reveals how crushed he feels by the weight of his own neurosis. The self-diagnoses he provides Lipsky are not fascinating because they are conceptually erudite, undeniably thought-provoking though they are. They are powerful because they describe mental afflictions that happen to real people and involve real pain.

Lipsky called his five days with Wallace “the best conversation [he’s] ever had.” From the standpoint of conversations in film, The End of the Tour ranks up there. Over the course of one business trip – and may the simplicity of the plot be a lesson to screenwriters everywhere – egos clash, souls are bared, and, with the exception of a coda that’s a bit too on-the-nose, Wallace’s life and career are tactfully honored without being sentimentally eulogized. The result is a bolt of truth, a near-masterpiece of compassion and introspection. Grade: A

The Gift

GiftIt’s unfortunate that this promising debut from actor-turned-director Joel Edgerton bears so much resemblance to Michel Haneke’s Caché, one of my all-time favorite films. In both, a bourgeois couple receives ominous “gifts” on their doorstep, resulting in profound disquietude and, eventually, a rift in the couple’s marriage as shady dealings in the husband’s past come to the fore. Haneke’s film is a masterpiece of slow-burn tension and so much more: a commentary on the troubled history of Franco-Algerian relations, cinematic spectatorship, and the material differences between film and video, and these are probably just scratching the surface. Edgerton’s film unsurprisingly pales in comparison, as do most movies, but its shortcomings are thrown in bolder relief because of its narrative similarity to Caché. A moralist fable told in broad strokes, The Gift is a much more straightforward picture, taking atmospheric cues from David Fincher’s Gone Girl and Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects without the former’s political subversiveness or the latter’s unorthodox narrative structure.

Still, the whole package is taut with suspense thanks to a satisfying sense of pace (the film doesn’t rush into the meaty plot twists, it takes its time); strong performances by Rebecca Hall and Jason Bateman as the couple, Joel Edgerton as the unwelcome gift-giver; and other elements that rise above the occasion of the seasonal genre-movie workout. On this last point, we have scenes of subtle class critique in which idle talk among the rich and the powerful is depicted as glib and cruel, as well as the ingeniously window-filled architecture of the couple’s home that doubles as a voyeurism magnet, leaving the characters sitting ducks and us utterly terrified. Sure the film reverts to jump scares from time-to-time, and the nature of the rug-pulling finale makes us hyper-aware of the film’s constructedness; we realize The Gift was contrived to thrill but not to resonate very far beyond that. As far as summer thrillers go, however, this one may be worth renting once it leaves theaters. Grade: B

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