Mission: Impossible

Tom Cruise is here doing what he does best: running around beating up bad guys. The troubled megastar plays a troubled secret ops bloke, Ethan Hunt, whose team gets wiped out by a job which turned out to be a trap. He has to get to the bottom of things, but who can he trust, and who is trying to frame him?

Mission: Impossible is riddled with spy movie clichés from start to finish, from self destructing tapes to entering a room on wires through the roof, via lasers and an on top of a train action sequence. But with the iconic music, anything less would feel inadequate.

Like most big budget 90s action films, this looks incredible. At the peak of pre-CGI special effects, nearly everything had to be done camera which, as good as CGI has become, is still hard to beat. The supporting cast is good, with Jon Voight of Anaconda and Ving Rhames of Piranha 3D, meaning this is neither of their careers’ low points.

The twisty, turny spy plot is often baffling, which is unusual for an action film. It doesn’t skimp at all on the plot side. Does this mean it’s uneven, making it hard to find your feet, or just that it delivers on both the action and the story? Personally I’m closer to the former. I want my popcorn entertainment with a little less crossing and double crossing. The silly action and gadgets, which border on the camp, feel at odds with the plot which is more like something from a John Le Carré novel.

It loses its way in the final act when both plot and action go beyond absurd. The final action sequence is nauseatingly dumb and the only time what we’re watching fails to look believable, as dodgy bluescreen work is employed. Ironically it’s far less tense than a scene earlier in the film where Tom Cruise has to get a disc from an ultra high security vault. This scene combines numerous elements to create a sequence which is edge-of-your-seat in its tension levels, and also fantastically well made. A finale which went for a similar tension would have been better than one that involved a helicopter flying through a tunnel.

Altogether this is a passable action film, and reminds us why Tom Cruise is so successful, in spite of being so thoroughly unhinged. Is it clichéd? Sure. But it turns the volume up to the full and delivers what it promises.

Gone With the Wind

The US Civil War era epic follows a young girl called Scarlett (Vivien Leigh), the daughter of wealthy plantation owners in the Old South. It opens with her and her companions pining after the local men in scenes which bear some resemblance to a Much Ado About Nothing style romantic drama, but when the war breaks out the men are sent away, forcing the women to face the end of their way of life. As defeat looms for the South, the war threatens to defeat the survivors in every possible way.

During the film’s opening minutes I was filled with dread. Posh people fussing over who fancies whom reminded me of what I assume Downton Abbey is like, which is why I’ve never watched it. “Four hours of this”, I thought, “damn”. But like all great epics it encompasses a huge range of genres and moods over a very long time period. Most of the film is pure Hollywood melodrama, of a sort that you’d never get away with these days. But it takes place against the backdrop of the civil war, so contains the horror of armed conflict, as well as a tale of survival in brutal circumstances, like Les Miserables, except they talk properly. With a strong female lead, this is in many respects a coming of age story, and in spite of its very old fashioned view of gender roles, manages to present an inspirational woman overcoming the odds in a difficult time.

That’s not to say the high school “who fancies who” stuff ever completely goes away, and the women’s obsession with pursuing particular men, with all the aplomb typical of this archaic view of sex and gender rolls, never completely stops being grating, but as the drama increases through the film and the rousing score comes in, it’s impossible not to get swept along, and ultimately blown away by it.

One slight problem I had was with the film’s taking the side of rich, white slave owners in the South. Again this is something that bothered me more towards the beginning, but it certainly shows the Southerners as the victims throughout. At one point Scarlett shouts at, threatens to whip and then hits a young slave girl in a very uncomfortable scene, and while she is supposed to be a flawed character, her attitude to slaves is never presented as one of her flaws. It can’t even use the Zulu excuse of just wanting to depict historical events without judgement, as this film is an open love letter to the Old South. Here are the words onscreen at its opening:

There was a land of Cavaliers and
Cotton Fields called the Old South. . . .

Here in this patrician world the
Age of Chivalry took its last bow. . . .

Here was the last ever to be seen
of Knights and their Ladies Fair,
of Master and of Slave. . . .

Look for it only in books, for it
is no more than a dream remembered,
a Civilization gone with the wind. . . .

Ahh yes. Remember the good old days of slavery?

It’s testament to how good this film is that it’s brilliant in spite of its insanely rose-tinted view of a brutal and unpleasant time in history. Compare it to Civil War era Westerns like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which are far from yearning for the good old days, and you see just how committed it is to glorifying the time period.

But it’s from this love of the setting that such a rich and fully realised world is put to screen. The costumes, for example, are outstanding, and it enjoys one of the best scores in movie history. There’s also some stunning, and often brilliantly innovative cinematography to match the drama.

At four hours long, Gone With the Wind certainly isn’t a breeze, but it’s so epic, so dramatic and so vast in its reach that it will take your breath away.

In the Line of Fire

In The Line of Fire was made in 1993 but for some reason looks like it was made in the 70s. It’s about a secret service agent called Frank (Clint Eastwood) who’s singled out by a psychopath who plans to kill the new president. The killer taunts Frank with memories of his past, when he failed to prevent Kennedy’s assassination.

It’s akin in many ways to other cat and mouse films which involve a personal relationship developing between cop and killer, such as Catch Me If You Can, Hannibal, and Heat. It’s also quite similar to Vertigo, with an ageing cop facing his demons, and a rooftop chase sequence very similar to that film.

It’s a good cop drama/thriller with surly Eastwood mumbling his way through his lines like Patty and Selma, and pursuing a woman half his age. John Malkovich is great as the pyshco, resembling both Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs and Robert Webb, with shades of Kevin Spacey’s sinister John Doe of Se7en.

In The Line of Fire is an interesting if unexceptional thriller which is enjoyable even if it feels more dated than other films from the era. Eastwood is a throwback, which is kind of the point, but did they really need casual sexism that would look out of place in the 1960s?

X Men Origins: Wolverine

The “X Men Origins” prefix looks a little silly now it’s not been followed up with any other characters’ backstories, which is ironically the fault of this film and its dismal reputation. But while it’s certainly no masterpiece, Wolverine’s origin story gets a lot right, and is not worthy of its fanboy-driven derision.

 In-keeping with the original X Men trilogy, our supporting characters are rubbish here. But while those films at least had Xavier, Magneto and Wolverine to cling to, now we’re down to just one. After a very hasty flick through Wolvy’s past, via a superb opening credits sequence, our hero finds himself on bad guy Colonel Stryker’s (Danny Huston) crack team of mutants. The problem is that Wolverine’s life, from his childhood pre-Civil War, to his work in the mutant team post-Vietnam, takes up but a few minutes of the film, so we know absolutely nothing about the team of mutants he’s on.

This presents problems when Wolverine leaves the team and they start getting hunted down  and killed one by one (still in the first half an hour), as we still have no idea who they are. Similarly he has found a girlfriend. We don’t know where or how, she’s just there. The fact that everyone around him is as disposable as they are two dimensional makes it really hard to care about what’s going on.

The traumatic events in his past that led him to be the metal-skeletoned muscle man of the original movies are dealt with so briefly it’s a disappointment given their almost legendary status in the minds of fans. There’s no angst over whether or not to go through with the medical experiment. Motivated by revenge, Wolverine doesn’t stop to ask questions, so he can get to more fighting as quickly as possible.

But the fighting is one of the things this film gets right. It wasn’t till the X Men prequels that the people who make these films really started to take advantage of a world of characters with weird and interesting powers, and Origins does this more than any other film in the franchise. Almost every major character is a mutant, with numerous cool and exciting superpower-based scenes. This is the opposite of the more recent The Wolverine, which had hardly any mutants, and more of a focus on story.

The themes of exclusion and prejudice that gave X1 and 2 more substance than your average superhero movie are gone, which is a shame, but they’re replaced by Will.i.am, so who can really complain? This is good popcorn entertainment but is better only than The Last Stand in terms of overall quality. While Origins is certainly a worse film, there’s a lot of entertainment value, even in some of its more absurd moments.

Edward Scissorhands: Origins

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

With Transformers: Age of Extinction dominating the box office it could be easy to despair for the modern blockbuster. A spate of big movies that also made you think – the likes of Inception, Looper and District 9 – seems to have slowed in favour of Marvel sequels and dodgy remakes. Then, from the mist, comes an ape riding on a horse, to save the summer, as Rise did in 2011.

In this, the second part of the “of the…of the” franchise, we pick up a few years after we left off with Caesar (Andy Serkis) and the apes living in a well-established society  in the woods outside San Francisco. Caesar is the de facto ruler of the intelligent apes, who are happy to mind their own business in the forest while mankind wipes itself out with a pandemic it created. But some humans have survived and banded together under the leadership of Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke), who venture into the hills to kick start a power turbine at a dam. The only problem is that a several thousand strong colony of super smart apes are sitting on top of it, many of whom bear more than a slight grudge against their former human oppressors.

This film boldly makes the apes the main characters, once again achieving the perfect balance of animal and human characteristics that made the first movie strike a chord with so many people. The apes communicate largely in grunts, growls and sign language, but lose none of their humanity, for want of a better word. The use of motion capture in making non humans believable and relateable reaches over the very high watermark of Avatar, and surpasses that film with story and characterisation as well.

The choices faced by characters, human and ape alike, feel like genuine dilemmas. The tough choices presented mean there is conflict without comic book villainy, in this immersive and believable world. This is the best ape society since The Jungle Book, and I love The Jungle Book.

There are stellar performances from the motion capture cast, who are clearly not disheartened or perturbed by having to show up to work in a morph suit every day. Gary Oldman is also good as asshole human Dreyfus, although that may be because we all know what an asshole he is in real life now.

The aesthetic of the film has developed from part 1, looking more naturalistic. In the post-apocalyptic city scenes it is reminiscent of Children of Men, and overall the lighting conditions that are more favourable to the CGI primates than the original.

But most importantly, it’s really gripping. We care about the apes, so when they get hurt we feel their pain. Emotional engagement is essential to enjoy a film like this. If you add first rate special effects, expert cinematography and thrilling action you have a brilliant summer blockbuster. Hail Caesar.

Carrie (2013)

I recently watched the Carrie remake. I didn’t pay, I hasten to add. It just popped up on Netflix. While I could talk about how mediocre it was, how unconvincing it is having a Carrie that looks the same as the popular girls, or how the introduction of videophones really adds nothing to Stephen King’s tale, the most significant, overriding problem with this film is how utterly unnecessary it is. So, instead of a normal review, I have made a list of things less pointless than this Carrie remake:

Chopsticks with soup

Heavy metal reggae

Curved TVs

Hair extensions for Rapunzel

A gravel fondu

S. Darko

A hermit with a sense of humour

A 4×4 that runs on fear

Bank holiday Sunday

Ironing

An ice hotel in the Maldives

Vegan cheese

Putting a Rolf Harris painting on eBay

A North Korean election

The Flat Earth Society

Michelle Williams

Windows 8

Cold in July

By  virtue of being released around the month featured in its title, Cold in July has the edge over the likes of The Two Faces of January, The Hunt for Red October and March of the Penguins.

A008_C014_07319OI’d only just managed to stop referring to Michael C. Hall as “David from Six Feet Under” and finally moved on to “Dexter from Dexter”, and now I can’t even say that. Here he plays a Texan with bad hair, who shoots an intruder in his home and soon finds himself embroiled in something much worse than his mullet. This 1989-set thriller is pitched somewhere between this year’s Blue Ruin and David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, so plot-wise its familiar stuff. But its originality lies in its execution, playing with genre and shifting in style to exciting effect.

0Adapted by Jim Mickle and Nick Damici from Joe R. Lansdale’s novel, the film starts out as a neo-noir but breaks free of genre trappings in a way that’s surprisingly cohesive. It all feels part of the same piece, while changing direction with a gripping unpredictability. It’s pulpy, nasty and funny as and when the story requires, giving it an idiosyncratic edginess. One scene set in a video rental shop sees the camera knowingly move from the “Mystery” section to the “Action” section, winking at the audience as they enjoy a similar journey.

cij-still-281-lst141322The VHS store, drive-in and diners give Cold in July a strong sense of place, all shot with moody atmosphere by director Jim Mickle and cinematographer Ryan Samul. The violent underbelly of small-town America is explored with a pervasive sense of threat and darkly brooding tension. Interesting characters are expertly played, especially Michael C. Hall who brings the same quiet intensity that characterised David Fisher and Dexter Morgan. You actually forget it’s Dexter, which is impressive given his seven years inhabiting the role. He’s brilliantly supported by a very scary Sam Shepard and a very funny Don Johnson.

Despite the mystery element of the film being sadly neglected and the only female character being typically awful, Cold in July is an innovative hardboiled thriller, which stands out thanks to its genre-bending sensibilities. It’s interesting that Michael C. Hall’s character is a picture framer by profession, another allusion to the film’s constant pushing of borders and boundaries.