Friday, 7 November 2014

V for Vendetta

V for Vendetta (2005)

Starring Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving

Directed by James McTeigue

Despite being disowned by author of the original (graphic) novel, the perennially grumpy Alan Moore ("Watchmen"), weirdly bearded and shaggy-haired inhabitant of the metropolis of Northampton, it has to be said that this film is really rather good.  It tells the story of Evey (ee-vee) a young woman living in an oppressive dystopian future Britain (like Orwell on steroids), whom one night whilst breaking the government-imposed curfew meets the combat-skilled vigilante known only as "V", a masked avenger seemingly keen on destruction of the status quo, who rescues her from a pair of assailants. Having saved her from grievous assault, and gradually befriends her, eventually taking her into his home, protecting her when anarchic terrorist attacks hit the capital.  Masked and gloved, which he claims essential due to prior injury, we never see his face or eyes or hands.  His smiling "Guido Fawlkes" mask has since become the icon of rebellious hacker group "Anonymous", and indeed more broadly the generally disgruntled, as witnessed at the recent protests in Central London).  Life imitating art?  Nevertheless.  The Government here is terrifying, oppressive, intrusive and violent.  Their control of the media is total, There's a High Chancellor, in place of a Prime Minister, who seems to rule all without censor, and who proves to be viciously vindictive. The connection between Evey and V is cemented, and not just through their names.

"V for Vendetta"'s depiction of the way in which society is gradually inching is terrifying.   It's slowly recognisable, but tweaked to 11 on the nastiness scale so that it's impossible to switch ones brain off whilst watching this film and just settle down for a dumb action-movie. This is a wake-up call for the brain-dead: Look Around You.  The 13 year old, fruitless "war on terror" impinges on our freedoms at every turn, takes the lives of our young men and women, and seems to have done little to reduce Jihadist plots here in the UK, recently - tragically - France, and elsewhere in "the West". The affordability to think for ones-self seems to diminish daily, whilst the chance to voice trivial bullsh!t on Facebook seems to increase, and increase in priority, by the moment.  Where is it going?  The rage expressed by this film, already provocative,  ratchets up.  The plot takes a gigantic turn when Evey is arrested by the state, and forced to undergo months of torture.  Will her spirit survive?  Is the price of dignity death?  It plays out fascinatingly, and the twist at the end (I don't think it's much of a spoiler to say that there's a twist - I just won't tell you what it is) is fantastic.  There's also a genuinely shocking scene in which a character is dragged from bed by armed state-run goons in the middle of the night, which only becomes tragic when the shock has died down.  The crime that sees them sentenced to death?  Owning an antique Koran.

This film, although lacking the stylistic flair of the "Matrix" films, has the Wachowski's fingerprints all over it.  Director James McTeigue has been an assistant on several of their films, as well as "Star Wars: Episode 2" and Alex Proyas' rather magical "Dark City" from back in the 90s.  It barrels along rather nicely, and future-London looks just enough like a matte painting to be ethereal and beautiful, but not too computer-generated.  The Cinematography by veteran Adrian Biddle ("Aliens", "The Princess Bride", "Thelma & Louise") is flawless; it perfectly evokes the slightly artificial feel of a graphic novel (ie a grown-up comic book) with a realistic street-level view of future London.

Portman is simply fantastic as Evey.  Easily rivaling her performance in the role of the emotional wreck she played in "Black Swan", here she plays a different kind of victim... or should that be survivor, or champion?  The imprisonment and torture she undergoes are horrific, and I have nothing but respect for her for the physical lengths to which she went to play this role, including shaving her hair off.  There's a hugely affecting subplot in which she communicates with a fellow prisoner via scratched-out notes pushed through tiny holes in the walls between their cells.  This fellow inmates sole "crime" is to be a lesbian.  It's sickening, but only because it's not implausible.  The whole cast are wonderful too.  Hugo gives what I can only think of as the best performance ever of an actor not showing his face (although the jury is out on exactly where Andy Serkis fits in here, exacted).  John Hurt is fantastic as Chancellor Sutler, and one can't help but think of the irony of him having played Winston Smith in the film of "1984".  Steven Rea is good too, as the cop on V's trail, as is Rupert Graves as his subordinate.

The film climaxes with something I found to be truly unexpected.  It was an act of iconoclasm so extreme I never thought I'd see it in play.   Yet, for this movie, it works perfectly.  It's the only logical conclusion to the story.  There's no way the main character could have gone through what she goes through without this type of emotional payoff.  It feels hideous, and wrong to see onscreen, but also deeply satisfying, in a guilty pleasure type way.  This is a film packed with impacting, iconic and memorable images.

Most importantly, this is a film which asks the viewer to think whilst, or just after, being entertained.  There are action sequences, sure; V proves quite handy in that department in some nifty fights.  But it's the fight within the mind which drives the movie.  Not only in Evey's fight against her mental and physical torture and perpetual fear, but also in the depicted society's intolerant totalitarian conservatism, ultra Christian religious stance, the implicit bias of that, a hideous but credible scenario.  On initial viewing I thought the film was good, entertaining, and intelligent.  But on repeated visits (it's one of those where if I turn the tv on but it's half way through, I'll still watch to the end!) my estimate has ramped up. Love this.  See it, and think.

Remember remember... The fifth of November.


Sunday, 2 November 2014


Once (2006)

Starring Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová

Written and directed by John Carney

Every so often, a little film comes out of left field, and blows this viewer to pieces.  "Once" was one of those such films 8 years ago.  It's a modest, tiny story, about a guitar-playing Dublin busker in his early thirties (listed only in the credits as "Guy", played by Glen Hansard, of rock & roll band The Frames, and not an actor, although he had appeared in Alan Parker's 1991 soul music comedy "The Commitments") striking up a friendship with an immigrant Czech flower-seller (credits: "Girl"  played by first-timer Markéta Irglová) who admires his songs and harbours her own modest ambitions in that area - she's a piano player, but can't afford to buy an upright over in Ireland.  He plays popular songs by day, and his own compositions by night.  No one seems to listen to him much, except the passing heroin addict (in a hysterical early scene) and "Girl", who is seemingly transfixed.  The songs are raw and emotional, several delivered in crescendos to shoutiness which really shouldn't work, but which somehow do.  One lunchtime the pair visit a musical instrument store of which "Guy" is friendly with the proprietor.  They seemingly improvise a version of one of his songs which he teaches her, the insanely beautiful and gentle "Falling Slowly" - track which incidentally would go on to win numerous awards including the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 2008.

The plot, what there is of it, could be written on the back of a postage stamp (that is, if postage stamps these days weren't all self-adhesive, and probably can't be written on, but I digress).  "Guy" and "Girl" meet in the street around Dublin a few times.  His day job is working in a vacuum cleaner repair shop with his elderly Father, to which she promptly brings her busted Hoover.  We find out that he is coming off the back of a long-term relationship, and that his ex has left him and moved to London.  He toys with the idea of making the move himself.  His clearly deep affection for "Girl" is borne as much from rebound as it is from respect for her talent; he makes an inappropriate and badly-timed advance, which offends her.  They patch things up soon enough, but he is shocked to discover that she is married, and has a child living with her in Dublin, although her estranged husband is still living back in the Czech Republic; apparently things weren't easy, but she is still committed to the marriage.  She's also alarmingly blunt with him, possibly not quite aware of the social niceties as a result of the linguistic difference.  Although she says to "Guy" at one point, in Czech, "Miluju tebe", which I understand means "I love you" or something along those lines.  But it seems it's not to be between them.  There's much to be said for simply being friends..  They embark on a partnership of musical collaboration, platonic friendship, and unrequited love but produce musical nectar along the way.  Enlisting the help of three other local musicians - Gerard Hendrick, Alastair Foley and Hugh Walsh (as Timmy the drummer - the cast letting their love of "South Park" be known there, through one of the only characters actually to be given a name) - they miraculously secure a bank loan, and hire a recording studio in beautiful surroundings South of Dublin on the East Coast, where they lay down enough tracks to create a demo CD.  Enough for "Guy" to take to London with him to try to make it big.

The film drips with naturalism, and is so much stronger for it.  The camerawork, much of it hand-held, is realistic - call it "documentary style" or what you will, it adds to the feeling that we're genuinely peeking in on the lives of these people.  There's a fantastic moment during the first recording session, when the studio engineer cues the band up, starts recording and leans back in his chair, bored, reading a magazine.  As the song progresses and builds, we see him gradually start to perk up, and actually listen to the song.  He's clearly impressed, and in the space of three and a half minutes he has gone from treating this group of musicians with disdain, a bunch of talentless dreamers wasting their time and money, to musicians he regards with respect, capable of creating great tunes.  As the song concludes, he simply remarks "That was nice", but with visible appreciation, it's a lovely moment.  "Guy" and band react with touching humility, as if surprised that anyone outside their ranks could appreciate their music.  There are some wonderful, tender moments as "Guy" coaxes "Girl" into playing some of her own songs; she breaks down one night in a darkened side-studio, and opens up to him.

Director John Carney gave us the Keira Knightley / James Corden / Mark Ruffalo musical flick  "Begin Again" earlier this year, which I have not yet seen but by all accounts is slightly cuter and less effective than "Once".  Still, it's nice to see his obvious talent being recognised.  What's heartening about this film is that the mood is so realistic and the characters are so credible.  From "Guy's" pain at his breakup and furtive longing to "Girl's" ambition and thwarted affection, these are real people it seems, on a genuine emotional arc.  The ending is bittersweet.  One wants the couple to get together, but we're also reminded that real-life isn't always that simple.  Some have asked why it is so titled.  But "Once" is beautifully ambiguous.  It could refer to the one time you meet a person who's perfect for you, the one time things click into place with your ambitions and your achievements.   I was never really a great fan of Musicals.  Save for "Singin' in the Rain" and the "Blues Brothers", and unless "Amadeus" counts, I don't really have much time for a film's characters randomly breaking into song and dance; they just don't work for me, although I accept they have their place.  "Once" isn't a Musical in the traditional sense of the word, rather, it's a film about people who play and sing songs.  So many of the songs here are truly fantastic; from the Oscar-winning "Falling Slowly" to the amazing "When Your Mind's Made Up" by way of the beautiful "If You Want Me", sung by "Girl" on a walk back to her flat from the convenience store where she has had to buy batteries for her Discman, so she could listen to "Guy's" music and lay her words down on top (it's a brilliant handheld shot-in-motion).  This isn't even my kind of music - there's no four-to-the-floor beat, or synths!  But the songs are utterly wonderful, and many of them are performed in full by the artists concerned.  One honestly feels like you're watching real musicians - and you are.

The movie has recently been turned into a West End / Broadway stage production, which I haven't seen and can't yet quite figure out how would work.  But the film, to say this upfront, is so sweet and touching, it really hits me in the heart; dare I say it, it's a masterpiece.  I've read that it spent longer in the US box office top 30 than "Spiderman 3" and "Shrek the Third" (and it certainly cost a hell of a lot less then those to produce).  No less than Steven Spielberg allegedly said of it "a little movie called "Once" gave me enough strength to last the rest of the year".  High praise indeed.  Hansard and Irglová dated for a few years, and performed on stage after the film, opened for Bob Dylan on a tour, and the chemistry together is certainly palpable.  They're incredibly watchable.  Apparently shot in just 17 days, it's affectingly ultra-realistic.  And it's packed with human charm.  For sure, it's bittersweet at the end.  We want these two to get together, but we understand why they can't.  Life's not always like that.  "Once" is a wonderful, low-key, charmer of a film, and whether you like the songs or not, it's got so much humanity, humour and heart that it's well worth the 100 minutes of your time it would take to check it out.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Gone Girl

Gone Girl (2014)

Starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike

Directed by David Fincher

WARNING!  Here there be spoilers.  Please only read on if you've seen the film, read the book, or want to know what happens.  More time is spent describing the plot than usual - for a reason.

Unless you've been hiding under a rock for the last few years, you will have heard of Gillian Flynn's novel "Gone Girl".  The film adaptation, directed by David Fincher, has recently been released, and has garnered a huge amount of coverage in the mainstream media, in which its addressing of issues of gender, marriage, and the media itself have been thoroughly dissected and discussed. It's the story of a seemingly happily married couple, Nick and Amy Dunne who have recently moved from New York City to Nick's home town of North Carthage, Missouri to care for Nick's Mother, who had cancer; she has since passed away, but Nick and Amy have remained in the town.  Nick co-owns a bar with his sister Margo, bought for them by Amy, daughter of wealthy parents, one of whom a successful author of a raft of cutely-illustrated children's books in a series called "Amazing Amy".  On that score, at one point Amy comments that her Mother didn't really write them about her, because the fictional Amy always does better than the real-life version.  "I love having strangers pick at my scabs" she acerbically remarks.  These are the first hints of real people being misrepresented in public, a recurring theme.

The story opens on the morning of the couple's fifth wedding anniversary.  Nick leaves the house to visit his sister at their bar (imaginatively called The Bar), but when he returns home, his wife is missing, and there are signs of a violent struggle in the living room.  He calls the police, and whilst being very concerned, appears open and honest with Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens - Joanie from "Deadwood") and Officer Jim Gilpin.  A search of the house reveals a small splatter of blood in the kitchen.  Boney, scarcely seen without a coffee in her hand, is still friendly and professional; Gilpin, however, immediately becomes suspicious and takes a dislike to Nick.  Events in the present timeline are interspersed with flashbacks - enacted in the form of a voiceover by Amy reading from the pages of her diary - to the couple's meeting, blossoming relationship, and early marital period.  This cross-cutting structure is extremely well handled, as it invites the viewer to bring their feelings about the events of one narrative strand and transpose them onto the other.  We see Nick, the frantic husband desperate to find his wife, just as we see Nick the charmer and seducer, half of a dream couple.  Simultaneously we see Amy seeking comfort in marriage as an escape, just as we don't see Amy at all any more, because she has gone; escaped?  Through these flashbacks we learn that on each of their wedding anniversaries previously, Amy had staged a "treasure hunt", leaving a series of clues for Nick to lead them to his anniversary present.  Initially assuming her absence to be part of this game, Nick's concern begins to mount, along with the public's.  The "Find Amy" website and hotline spring up overnight, and "Missing" flyers plaster every wall and lamp post in town.  Then the detectives find an envelope marked "Clue One" and the treasure hunt is on...

Things take a turn, though, when the flashback timeline shows cracks beginning to appear in the marriage.  Both lose their jobs during the financial downturn, and they start to encounter monetary difficulties;  Nick plays videogames when he should be concerned about Amy's problems, arguments become more frequent.  In the present day timeline, some fumbles on Nick's part lead gradually to suspicion and whispers.  The whispers grow louder.  Could Nick really have murdered Amy?  He's still a sympathetic character at this point, worried but trying to stay composed, to please the people who are helping in the search for Amy, and ultimately just in the worst possible conflicted state.  The storm really breaks when  it emerges that Nick had been having an affair.  The townsfolk, media, and public across the country turn fully against him and make up their minds that his displays of grief are not quite genuine enough.  One talk show host in particular seems to take up a crusade against him, picking on tiny moments and placing them out of context to falsify perceptions.  People don't seem to understand that marriage is a two-way street, and that the affair could have been born of a reason other than simply him being a bastard.  It's a biting comment on the cynical nature of opinion in the age of 24 hour news channels and social media.  Nick enlists the services of celebrity lawyer Tanner Bolt, the excellent Tyler Perry, to mount his defence; that defence is as much about fighting the PR war as it would be about fighting a court case.  As facts come to light, Bolt says "You two are most of the fucked up people I've ever met, and I deal with fucked up people for a living!"   Amy's body hasn't been found, so it's unlikely that Nick would be convicted, though if he were he could face the death penalty.  As they begin to investigate Amy's past - and past relationships - they begin to understand what has happened.  We then start to see Amy's side of the story, and an explanation of why events have played out as they have.

Details of her scheme are intricately mapped out, and depicted in riveting fashion.  At this point the story certainly loses its ambiguity, as the viewer now knows for sure that Amy isn't dead, and that Nick is guilty of not much more than adultery.  But despite the sharp left turn it remains totally gripping, because things are unfolding in such a bizarre way that it's virtually impossible to predict how it all will end.  The introduction of a character from Amy's past complicates things further and the shocking implications of her actions, both back home and further afield, come into focus.  Neil Patrick Harris, as her High School flame Desi Collings, is billed third, so his (late) appearance is anticipated, but his behaviour is odd and unexpected.  Amy's eventual inevitable return home gives rise to a moment which perfectly embodies the film's sardonic take on marriage; as the couple pose and beam for cameras, seemingly euphorically relieved to be reunited, Nick, having twigged to the ramifications of Amy's nefarious plan, leans in close and whispers in her ear "You fucking bitch".    Till death do us part, indeed.

Many have commented that Affleck is a fitting choice to portray Nick, as he knows only too well what it's like to come under the judgmental spotlight of an indifferently subjective media.  He performs superbly here, skillfully walking the fine line between likable, average Joe and  sly guy with a secret.  Rosamund Pike has a similarly tricky dual part to play but does so convincingly, so much so that the sociopathic schemer of the latter stages is so jarring, because the sexy, intelligent and loving Amy of the former stages is so attractive (in many senses of the word).  Films like this probably won't fall into the Oscar basket, but I would have them both up for acting gongs. The supporting cast are all good too.  The screenplay, adapted by Gillian Flynn from her own novel, is tight, smart, and bitterly funny.  It's not too often that authors adapt their own novels for the screen; maybe it's too hard to step away from the original creation.  But from what others have said, it's been ideal in this instance, as the diary structure had to be remixed, and certain elements had to be left out  to work for cinema.  Jeff (son of Jordan) Cronenweth's cinematography is nigh-on perfect.  It contrasts the heat of the beautiful wide open Missouri landscapes, with Nick's loneliness in the increasingly oppressive empty house as the case goes on, opening out and brightening when Amy "frees" herself and goes on the road.  The brooding electronic score, by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor, in their third collaborative work on Fincher movies, is minimal, menacing, and subliminally effective.  There's a free stream of it here which is well worth checking out, if you're interested.

Given the close attention to detail invested in Amy's plot, it's surprising then, that there are a couple of plot holes big enough to drive a truck through.  She uses her credit card to buy a stream of products to back up her story about Nick's spending addiction, but how are they delivered without need for a signature?  And how does she get them into Margo's shed without anyone noticing?  And how come Margo never looks in there?  When she gets "abducted" by Desi Collings, she's shocked to realise that he has security cameras covering every corner of the house, to which she plays up when she feigns abuse.  They would be digitally stored, so not erased every few days as in the good old days of videotape surveillance.  She admits this fact to the cops and FBI when interviewed, so surely they would eventually get access to the footage to find out when she first arrived, and they'd see that she walked in calmly, unlike someone who'd been kidnapped and tied up, and not at any time soon after her disappearance?  And they'd see the wine bottle incident.  I know these are minor points and they only sink in after the fact, but still, it slightly lets the film down.  In many ways, this is reminiscent of Fincher's earlier "The Game".  That film was utterly engrossing up until the final twist, which totally let down what had gone before.

That being said, this is still a really good movie.  David Fincher's direction is beyond question; he's one of the most consistently solid directors working today ("Alien 3" wasn't his fault).  It's a genuine mystery, unpredictable, interesting, it throws up a range of thought-provoking questions, it's challenging, surprisingly funny in points, the dialogue is razor sharp ("We caused each other pain" says Nick at one point, "That's marriage" replies Amy) and is worth seeing much more than most other films out there at the moment.  And it has the best-behaved cat in the history of cinema.

Just don't see it with your spouse.


Wednesday, 22 October 2014


Transcendence (2014) 

Starring Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall
Directed by Wally Pfister

Seldom does a film arrive with so much baggage.  The directorial debut of Wally Pfister, maestro cinematographer of titles such as "The Italian Job" remake, "Moneyball", and the Christopher Nolan directed "The Prestige", "Inception", and the "Dark Knight" trilogy, brings with it a significant deal of expectation.  It seems like everyone expected this to be Nolan-calibre; expectations, it's fair to say, were high.  I hate mentioning it, but it's impossible to avoid.  As if to add fuel to the fire, calling a movie "Transcendence" practically screams out "I am deep, I am important".  So here we have a big, *serious* science fiction film, tackling mind-bending concepts, and looking scintillating.   How does it play?

Johnny Depp stars as Will Caster, a scientist, Artificial Intelligence developer, and a man seeking to create the ultimate sentient machine, combining logical intelligence with human thoughts, feelings, and emotions (an electronic Mr Spock?).  He becomes the target of a group of activists fighting against such "un-natural" progression, and falls victim to a radioactive-laced assassination attempt.  When it becomes apparent that he will soon die from radiation poisoning, his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and friend and colleague Max (Paul Bettany) embark on the completion of an experiment on which Will had been working - the uploading of thought patterns and electrical brain-waves into a physical mainframe.  Can a human "exist" in such a set-up?  Would the artificial Will really be him, or would it be a pale reflection, driven by the computer? So far, so tantalising, so mind-stretching.  The experiment works, and Will exists no longer in a physical body, but in computerized, virtual form.  Theoretical physicist and general all-round thinker Michio Kaku (please look him up and read his books) is one of many who have questioned what it is to be conscious, and human, and then to ask if consciousness could be transferred to an alternate host.  And the popular consensus is that it could be possible. Could.  So the science here in this science fiction is not quite so outlandish as it sounds.  “Transcendence” embraces this concept with earnestness and aspiration.

There are many positives outside of the intriguing concept.  As one would expect, the film looks fantastic.  It's great to see Cinematographer Jess Hall graduating from the likes of the great "Hot Fuzz" to a big Hollywood production like this.  The score by Mychael Damma ("Life of Pi") is fittingly pounding and Zimmer-esque.  And of course there's the cast.  Johnny Depp might be a little subdued in the main role, mumbling his way through a keynote speech at the start of the film, and hamming it up no-end when he becomes an omnipotent AI construct later in the movie.  Rebecca Hall and Paul Bettany are their usual dependable superb selves, and ever so watchable.  Morgan Freeman does the "Basil Exposition" role as only he can, no surprises there.  Cillian Murphy is fine as the FBI cyber-cop, but his role is cut down to its bare bones, and feels shoved to one side.  Overall things look and play very well, making this a very easy watch.

Narratively, however, there are significant problems.  In the second half of the film, events move with frightening pace.  The whole thing feels un-necessarily rushed.  One minute Max is plugging Will into the machine and happy with the idea, barely two minutes later he's thrown his hand in with R.I.F.T, the quasi-terrorist group opposed to the whole human-technology movement.  Another minute Evelyn is overjoyed to have her husband "back", the next, she's terrified when Will goes all "Lawnmower Man" on her.  Things go from good to bad to worse in the blink of an eye.  Rather than an exploration of the initial ideas, we move to a secondary plot about nano-technology and manipulation of the environment, a plot thread which seems to come out of left field.  I haven't read much about the production, but the fact that there are listed 14 producers, co-producers, or exec producers might have something to do with it.

First timer Jack Paglen's script is smart, and brimming with ideas and questions, and although the movie is rabidly uneven, I would love to see the full original screenplay.  I would also love to see a three-hour cut of this film, as I feel that in its current format it misses out huge chunks of what would have been vital to the unfolding story.  "Transcendence" is not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but it's not great, and what is most frustrating is that it seems like it should have been.  I'm confident that Pfister will go on to make many fine films better than this.  Ultimately, if you offered me "Transcendence" or "Transformers", I'd take the former over Michael Bay's brain-vacuum crash-bang  nonsense any day.  Give me a film with ideas.  This movie isn't perfect, but it does at least have some of those, and is worth a watch for that reason alone.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

Starring Chris Pine and Kenneth Branagh; co-starring Keira Knightley and Kevin Costner
Directed by Kenneth Branagh

A particular favourite read of my teenage years was the Jack Ryan series of novels by the late, great Tom Clancy.  Beginning with the supremely taut "The Hunt for Red October" and making their way through the preposterous-but-page-turner of a prequel "Patriot Games" and continuing with the excellent "Cardinal of the Kremlin" and "Clear and Present Danger", by way of another prequel "Red Rabbit", and a fleeting cameo in "Without Remorse" (itself about covert operative John Clark),  the books eventually saw the History Doctor turned CIA Analyst turned Politician become - somewhat fancifully, but by that stage who was arguing? - President of the USA.  The series was a mainstay of airport bookshops and propped-open doors for over 20 years, entering the popular language and earning a name-check from the Fun Lovin' Criminals en route.  Key to their success was the aura of credibility - particularly in the military / technical sphere - with which Clancy imbued his increasingly fantastic plots (Clancy also penned several factual books on various aspects of the military world).  Their length, around a good 700 pages each allowed for dense plots and intricate characterization (because we had to know exactly which High School that US Army General had attended), and lent them a certain gravitas.  They could not be dismissed as mere "airport fiction"; a Reaganite wet-dream, perhaps, but not that.

Clearly here was a goldmine to be exploited on the big screen.  Adaptations of such lengthy tomes might have been better suited to a television mini-series perhaps - or even an ongoing series - but the grand scope of the novels demanded a Hollywood-sized budget.  The cinematic life of Ryan got off to an impressive start in 1990 with "The Hunt for Red October".  Directed by John McTiernan (of "Die Hard" and "Predator" fame), the film saw Alec Baldwin take on the role of the young Dr Ryan, drawn into the CIA due to his theories on whether a Soviet submarine captain (Sean Connery - in full "all nations' accents are Scottish accents" mode) plans to defect to the US in his shiny new state of the art boat or not.  The movie did an admirable job of boiling down Clancy's novel to a manageable couple of hours, with only a few significant deviations from the book's plot; the climax, I believe, was actually better handled on-screen.

The story goes that the role of Ryan was originally offered to the era's golden boy, Kevin Costner, sizzlingly  hot off the back of "No Way Out", "Bull Durham", and "Field of Dreams".  Apparently he turned it down in order to make "Dances With Wolves", one of the dwindling number of genuine modern epics, for which Costner netted a Best Director and Best Film Academy Award in 1991; so he can't have been too upset.  But more of him later.  The role of Ryan passed to the significantly older Harrison Ford for the sequel (which really should have been a prequel) "Patriot Games", which sucked the out most exciting parts of the ridiculous novel and left us with a fairly routine revenge story, shackled with a hopelessly muddled take on The Troubles in Northern Ireland (there are "good" IRA guys, and "bad" IRA guys, don't you know?).  Ford was frankly wrong for the role, and although inverting the chronology of the novels disappointed this fan in particular, I still felt the film, on other counts, was pretty lacklustre in its own right.  Much more impressive was the post-Escobar war-on-drugs follow up, "Clear and Present Danger", a few years later.  Although I still had problems with Ford as Ryan, it was much more engaging and complex than its immediate predecessor, and still holds up pretty well these days, despite those archaic mid 1990s VDUs on show.  There's a certain synergy to the whole Jack Ryan becomes POTUS arc of the novels in light of Ford's appearance in the brainless actioner "Air Force One", as the President, no less, kicking terrorist Gary Oldman off his personal aircraft.  

With seven or so years passing before the production of the next in the series, terrorist nuclear attack thriller "The Sum of All Fears", starring Ben Affleck as Ryan, Ford rightly chose to step aside.  The film's release was understandably delayed due to the 9/11 atrocities, featuring as it does, a major terrorist attack on US soil.  Whereas the Ford films had retained some of the same actors in the roles of supporting characters, such as James Earl Jones as Ryan's mentor Admiral James Greer, this time round it was a whole new ballgame.  At the time it was a little edgy, and obviously during those years perceptions and opinions significantly changed.  I don't believe it was that well received, hence the lack of an immediate follow-up.  But it's actually not that bad a film.  There's a certain clunkiness creeping into the series perhaps, with the nuclear show down with Russia forming the climax; in the words of John Conner in "Terminator 2", "Aren't they our friends now?".  But it was well enough done, and I'd love to have seen what Liev Schrieber could have made of the role of Clark if they'd chosen to adapt one of those novels too.  I also liked Affleck as young Ryan, and never really felt the opprobrium afforded him during the wilderness years prior to the "Argo" triumph was valid.  Nevertheless, it seemed Ryan was done.  On the page he was the man in charge of the land of the Free.  On screen, well, he'd gone up in smoke with that nuke in Baltimore.

So we come to 2014, and a second attempted re-boot with "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit".  Clearly the character still has legs and cultural currency, so is worth resurrecting once more.  This time round we have Kenneth Branagh in the director's chair, as well as taking on acting duties as principal antagonist Victor Cherevin.  Chris Pine plays Ryan, young once more, and being recruited into the CIA again, with Kevin Costner becoming Ryan's mentor Commander Thomas Harper, replacing James Earl-Jones' unforgettable Admiral James Greer.  Keira Knightley does a surprisingly great job, and American accent, as Ryan's fiancée Cathy.  Plot-wise, we're in unfamiliar territory, as the script isn't based directly on a Clancy novel (although contrarians might argue it's not the first time).  But we are in a pseudo-familiar and deeply unsettling no-man's-land of one foot in the past cold war Clancyism, combined with new Hollywood war on terror age must make this work.  The Russians, still, are the Baddies - at time of watching, it seemed archaic and irrelevant, but in light of recent events, maybe not so much.  Frighteningly so, maybe. 

In this instance, Ryan is cherry-picked to join the CIA as a Finance Anaylst, because in the post-Lehman Brothers and (what do they call it?) "GFC" world, the biggest threat in the world is economic collapse.  "The second Great Depression", as Ryan refers to it.  His military record is preserved from the books, but his near-debilitating injury in a helicopter crash is transposed to the war in Afghanistan (Jeffrey Deaver similarly re-imagined James Bond's military career in that conflict in his novel "Carte Blanche").  Before you know it, Wall Street hotshot Ryan uncovers a plot by sneaky Russians to prop up T-Bonds but then stage an attack in America and dump them all just before the inevitable crash occurs, thus reaping a huge profit whilst crippling the US market.  So far so old-school, but yet so very new.  A trip to Moscow (which we all know and love now due to "Mission Impossible 4" and "A (not so) Good Day to Die Hard") unfolds with a combination of spy-movie staples (sneaking into the villain's office) with modern day action scenes of the highest calibre - a  brutal fight in Ryan's hotel room and a thrilling car chase being the highlights.  The inevitable race to stop the bomb back in New York feels a little familiar, but is injected with enough vigour by director Branagh that it's still pretty nerve-jangling.  At the heart of the story are two big issues.  One is Ryan being forced to do something which he never anticipated, that is going out into the field and being more than an analyst, and actually having to kill people.  The second is the necessity for secrecy which keeps him from being totally honest with the woman he wants to marry.  Both are played out convincingly.

Pine is a capable, indeed credible action hero.  Any worries about doubling up in the iconic role arena are quickly dispelled; if Henry Cavill can do Kal-El and Napoleon Solo, Ben Affleck can be Daredevil (hmm) and Batman, and indeed Harrison Ford can do Han Solo, Indiana Jones and Jack Ryan, why shouldn't Chris Pine play Captain Kirk and Jack Ryan too?  This feels like more of an ensemble cast than at most times before in this series, which serves to underline Ryan's greenness.   It is a fine cast - "fine" as in great, in some cases, "fine" as in "perfectly fine" in others. It's a nice touch that the Russian characters, when conversing with each other, do so in Russian.  Although having said that, Branagh's Russian-accented dialogue in English does seem a little pantomimey from time to time.  But the "beautiful beautiful "(*tm Dr. Gareth Higgins) Elena Velinkanova makes up for that in her brief role!

On the one hand this is a deeply old-fashioned film.  At one point Ryan meets a fellow covert operative in a cinema screening of an old film to exchange vital documents, a moment dripping with Cold War Cloak and Dagger trappings.   Yet on the other it feels almost desperately trying  to proclaim its relevance to the present day environment, with all its talk of crashing financial markets, tracking down the villains using Twitter and Facebook and every other social media outlet one would care to name, and a 9/11-evoking "catch the bomber in New York" climax.  Maybe when it was written it might have seen odd to cast the Russians as villains, but in the wake of the sickening events in the Ukraine and the shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines plane, it seems chillingly appropriate.  I really wanted to like it but have to admit to being a tiny bit underwhelmed.  That's not to say it a bad film by any means, it was an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours.  If they made a sequel I'd definitely go to see it, but I'm not convinced the box office numbers have been quite good enough to greenlight any such script.  It sounds mean-spirited to say that it feels like the sort of thing one would happily watch on a plane and be entertained, but not necessarily one you'd go out of your way to see.  A solid 7, I feel.  Better luck next time Jack, if it comes.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Crimson Tide

Crimson Tide (1995)

Starring Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman
Directed by Tony Scott

In the wake (pardon the pun) of the critical and box office success of "The Hunt for Red October", it seemed that submarine films might be making a comeback. So we come to "Crimson Tide", a big-budget, star-powered, "event movie" extravaganza.  Denzel Washington and the Great Gene Hackman - what could possibly go wrong?  Well, sadly, a heck of a lot.  The plot, for what of it there is, kicks off with a new Executive Officer (XO - Washington) joining the Nuclear Submarine USS Alabama under Captain Ramsey (Hackman) as they attempt to protect the Free World from the threat of Russian (Soviet?) militant Radichenko, who has seized a few nuclear missile bases and a few submarines to boot.  Who in Hollywood doesn't love a Russian militant? 

Alabama, obviously, sails to intercept, when the situation in Russia escalates (how, you ask? Madman with control of nukes - fine, Madman threatening to use them, that's a bit of a problem.)  There follows a completely unconvincing, not to mention uninvolving scenario, in which a crucial drill occurs at the exact moment that three crewmembers are killed in a fire below decks.  XO and Captain clash in private about the appropriate action of holding a drill when the fire was breaking out.  Then, an order is received, seemingly ordering the Alabama to launch on the rebel Russian's base - but the message is incomplete, as the antenna is busted.  There is some pointless infighting amongst the crewmembers - allegedly script-doctored by a certain Q. Tarantino (an idea borne out by jarring comic-book and Star Trek references) - and all hell apparently breaks loose on the finest boat in the fleet.

After a tedious standoff between Hackman and Washington's characters.  One is arrested and confined to quarters, then half of the crew have a change of mind, and the other is.  The launch order, it seems, is incomplete, so the two men responsible for a launch cannot agree.  There is only one way this is going to turn out.  To ratchet up the melodrama a notch, the heroes' sub is in danger of being attacked by one of the hi-jacked "enemy" subs too... just what you don't need when you're having a barney with your most trusted subordinate.  Phew, though!  It was all a false alarm!  The baddies boat is easily dispatched, the antenna is repaired, and it turns out that the order to initiate Armageddon has been withdrawn.

Tony Scott, RIP, was an odd character.  At once capable of turning out excellent, off-beat comic thrillers ("True Romance", "Enemy of the State"), down-the-line, ball busting actioners ("Unstoppable", "Spy Game") utter bilge ("Beverley Hills Cop 2", "Domino") and those films that simply defied belief or classification ("Top Gun", "Deja Vu" - the latter of which I really like, despite its time-travel inconsistencies!)  Although I don't think he made anything earth-shattering or revolutionary, I certainly enjoyed a number of his movies (even "Man on Fire").  His "G.I. Jane" is a guilty pleasure... oh, hang on, that was Ridley, doing a Tony impersonation.  Certainly he waved a flag for a certain style of easy-on-the-eye, glossy, Hollywood thriller, which paved the way for a host of Bruckheimer yes men such as Simon West and - alas for the future of cinema - Michael Bay.  He may have employed a near-criminal use of lens filters.  Nevertheless I can honestly say he'll be missed.

On a recent episode of the excellent The Film Talk podcast (of which no words can speak highly enough), co-host Gareth Higgins, a critic for whom I have a lot of time, commented that when it comes to opinions on film, something along the lines of "tell me what you don't like, and I'll respect what you do like".  I understand completely what he's saying,  So far for this blog I've chosen only films for which I have an affection.  But it could be time to heed the Doctor's advice, and talk about a film which I think is really terrible.  "Crimson Tide" is really terrible; and, given the pedigree of those employed, and the dream set-up, it's bitterly disappointing.  The main problem is that we are clearly supposed to root for the idealistic Hunter (Washington) rather than the dyed-in-the-wool Ramsey (Hackman).  In the film, Ramsey has a clear order, and is tasked, and determined, to carry it out.  This seems honourable - ours is not to reason why, etc.  Hunter has a random hunch, and generates chaos to see his will done.  Don't get me wrong, Denzel is THE MAN, a fantastic actor and mesmeric screen presence, but in this film he didn't win my sympathy at all.  I thought Ramsey was right all along and that orders should have been followed.  If I can't sympathise with the character I'm supposed to, I can't get into the movie as much as I should...  It's possibly worth a look if it comes on television late one night, but really not worth actively seeking out.

See instead (borrowed feature!): "The Hunt for Red October", "K19: The Widowmaker", "Phantom")


Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Talk Radio

Talk Radio (1988)

Starring Eric Bogosian and Alec Baldwin
(Written and) directed by Oliver Stone

Based on lead actor Eric Bogosian's Pulitzer-nominated play, the film is a small, low budget affair, made in a short period of down-time in between Stone's blustering behemoths "Wall Street" and "Born on the Fourth of July".  It's taut and claustrophobic, taking place largely within one location, a radio studio; a dark dark environment, with pools of light dotted around, much like the central character.  Bogosian plays the aggressive, abrasive late night talk radio host Barry Champlain, a ranting, opinionated broadcaster (one might nowadays call him a "shock-jock").  To a quiet but utterly haunting score by Stewart Copeland (ex of The Police) the camera glides around the studio, as Champlain debates the state of the nation, AIDS, and race, with a procession of red-necked hicks, showing us studio execs Dan (Alec Baldwin), Deitz (John Pankow), engineer Stew (the great John C Reilly, go to man for supporting actors such as this!), and producer Laura (Leslie Hope), who is in a romantic relationship with Champlain.

In an ad-break, a bombshell is dropped; the show is being picked up by Metrowave Broadcasting, and will be syndicated nationally, from the following week. Champlain is angry at having been kept in the dark about the whole deal.  He sees it as "his" show, and clear seethes at the corporate machinations going on behind the scenes, and his not having been even consulted. It's not just the listeners and callers who bear the brunt of his annoyance, but also the station employees, several of whom are his close personal friends.  We take a break from the studio over the weekend, where it's illustrated what a divisive personality he has, when he and Laura attend a basketball game where he is to be the "star guest" but is cheered and booed by the crowd in equal measure.  He is clearly shocked, but tries to smile through it, without much conviction.  Underlying the stream of adoring callers, he has been getting death threats from Neo-Nazi groups, with many of whom he argues on air, more often than not ending with him delivering a dismissive put-down before cutting the caller off.

Barry's ex-wife flies to Dallas from Chicago, whee she now lives having remarried; she wants to be present for his big national debut.  In flashback we're shown the germination of their relationship and how Barry got his big break in radio.  Also, sadly, how the seeds of their separation and divorce were sown.  Needless to say it's Barry's responsibility.  The second half ot the film is different in, if not tone, then texture.  It feels very circular (one wonders if, in the theatre it was produced in the round!). the increasingly agitated Barry paces around his studio console in circles again and again.  In one fantastic shot the camera follows him around, spinning, with each circuit he makes.  The suggestion is that he's mixed up, and in a state of unease, with everything going round and around in his mind.  It has a dizzying effect on the viewer too, as we lose any point of reference other than Barry's words.  The photography, by (justifiably Oscar decorated) Stone regular Robert Richardson, is nothing short of spectacular.  The use of reflection; screen characters are seen seen bouncing their reflected light (and personalities) against the cold glass environment of the studio; often as Barry is addressing a caller, the viewer's attention will be drawn to the unheard characters seen only in the distance or via their light off the studio's reflective surface. The studio vies with the darkness of night outside and throws up a myriad of views of each character and situation.  Given that this originated from a stage play, this is a hugely effective way of opening up the stage.


Things come to an explosive head when a call come in from a young, crazy stoner named Kent, who had called previously, claiming that his girlfriend had over-dosed on heroin.  Barry, despite the vigourous protestations of Dan, invites the kid into the studio, where he proves to be out to be a lunatic.  The more Champlain abuses him of being a moronic, depressing pointer to the future of the USA, the more manically laughs.  He seems to think it's all a joke.  He's a mulleted blond, denim-clad, Axl Rose wannabe Grade A moron. It's a fascinating experience for the viewer - we've got to know something of Champlain's personality.  Where is his balance between deliberate provocation and rudeness, and where does his belief truly lie?  The film asks that question as it's not even clear that he knows himself. These later scenes are shot in such a way so as that they move towards him close and closer physically and into the character and several shots are just extreme close ups of Barry's face close to the microphone as he talks.  There's an extraordinary, explosively emotional climax which I won't spoil for you - just SEE THIS FILM.

This is easily one of Stone's best films.  He's a director I admire with consummate sincerity.  I know some films have worked better than others, but I geuinely think this is one of his utmost best - not just within his portfolio but in cinema in general. Everything works.  Bogosian is a powerhouse.  The "Barry Speeches" are mesmerising, and he has created a character who is at once cocksure and dismissive of almost everyone but at the same time with his eyes, frequent laughter, and body language conveys a man infected by the deep insecurity we all feel.  At one pivotal point a hand is held out to him and he's told "You don't know how to love", but he smacks it away and chooses to be angry, because that's what he has to do.  To support such a whirlwind performance much be hugely difficultly so enormous credit has to go the supporting cast.  Baldwin, in particular, is fantastic.  There's a scene coming to mind where's behind glass outside the studio trying to convey his authority to Barry but can't be heard, despite his obvious frustration, which is clearly illustrated. Pankow is quiet, calm, and doesn't have a lot to do besides look non-judgmental but he carries it admirably,  All in all this is a tight, arguably disturbingly straight-forward, but inarguably thought provoking, well-performed, well scripted and directed, deeply atmospheric film, and is well worth checking if you want to think about some of the major isues of the day, as now as in the late 1980s.


Wednesday, 7 May 2014

A Matter of Life and Death

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

Starring David Niven and Kim Hunter (although Roger Livesey is given higher billing) 

Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressubrger

In that quaint old way you used to see / hear, this film begins with a voiceover, but it's an unusual one.  A written message also scrolls across the screen: "This is the story of two worlds and another which exists only in the mind of a young airman whose life and imagination have been violently shaped by war."  Any correspondence to any world, real or imagined, is purely coincidental..." Starting with a shot of planets and stars, the voice intones: "This is the universe.  Big, isn't it?".We get a short astronomy lesson before the film itself begins. The central idea of he film, as hinted here, is that life, death and the afterlife are way beyond our current comprehension, and played out as part of a grander scheme of things.  As a 7 year old, seeing this for the first time, how could I not be arrested by this notion?  A historical film, set firmly in the real world, but with a supernatural - dare I say it metaphysical (not that I'd have known that word at 7!) - bent.  It's one of the films which made me fall in love with cinema.  

The story is that of a British airman, Squadron Leader Peter Carter, whose Lancaster bomber is crippled and shot down a few days shy of the end of the Second World War.  Believing he must surely die, he nevertheless makes radio contact with Britain, and talks briefly with an American radio operator named June.  His plane crashes, but miraculously, he seems to remain alive. Making his way back to his base and unit, he eventually meets up with June, and they soon fall in love.  This is the point at which Fate (with a capital F) intervenes, and the meaning of the mysterious Cosmic prologue becomes clear.  Peter is visited by an ethereal visitor, "Conductor 71" (Marius Goring), a corporeal spirit whose role is to guide (conduct) souls to the afterlife.  The thing is, Peter should have died when his plane was shot down, but due to an "administrative error" he remained alive.  Now, the Conductor, and Heaven, want to balance their books.  But Peter and June are in love now, and this occurred after Heaven's error.  So they argue that Peter should be left to live.  Thus begins something of a battle of the fates, between human and post-human life.  An unearthly trial occurs in "Heaven" to determine Peter's future, whilst Doctors back on Earth fight to save his life.  The outcome is truly in the balance in a markedly tense sequence of scenes.

The Prosecutor is an American Revolutionary, Farlan (Raymond Massey), who despises England and Britain arguing that Peter must stay in the afterlife.  Peter is allowed to call a counsel for his defence, and chooses his friend Dr. Reeves (Roger Livesey).  Truly, the trial becomes a matter of life and death - if Peter loses, he will have to remain in "heaven"; if he wins he can return to earth to be with June.  The plot itself is emotional and engrossing, compelling, I would say.  But what really makes the film work is the direction and cinematography.  Pressburger and Powell were the most formidable pair of directors of their age.  "Life and Death" is easily up there with "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp", "The Red Shoes", "Black Narcissus" and "Peeping Tom".  The photography, by the unmatched Jack Cardiff (check out the biography "Magic Hour", seriously) is superb, and lives long in the mind.  The scenes on Earth are in glorious Technicolour, but the scenes set in Heaven are, somewhat counter-intuitively, depicted in Black and White.  One would imagine it would be the other way round, but it's striking and extremely effective.  Thematically, it says that things in Heaven are simply black or white, right or wrong.  On Earth things things exist in bold technicolour, and are debatable. It sticks long in the memory. The two realms are linked by a giant, dramatic "stairway to Heaven".

Niven is predictably superb, as he always was, the stoic Brit, fighting his feelings and fighting for his feelings.  Newcomer Kim Hunter - later to play Dr. Zira in "Planet of the Apes" and its sequels, is remarkably sympathetic as June.  Roger Livesey offers up sterling support as June's friend, and Peter's Doctor, Reeves.  Particularly humourous and memorable is Marius Goring as the Conductor, a French Revolutionary in a former life.  There's even a cameo from a young (Sir) Richard Attenborough as a befuddled, deceased airman arriving in Heaven and being sent to "registry".  Aside from the already mentioned look of the film, and great performances, what deeply draws a viewer in is the emotion and unpredictability of the story.  The denouement is not only highly unpredictable but also sincerely emotional.  It's unique, and I can't think of a film to which it can be compared.  I try to shy away from the cliche of the word "masterpiece" but this truly is one.  It sparked my love of cinema (OK maybe "Star Wars" or "ET" did that, but this just cemented it.  See it if you get any chance to do so.


Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Mission: Impossible III

Mission: Impossible III (2006)

Starring Tom Cruise and Philip Seymour Hoffman

Directed by J.J. Abrams

Straight away it's worth saying that this is popcorn multiplex cinema at its purest.  Although it bears no resemblance to the TV series episodes, which week in and out consisted of complex con schemes, in which the team would use their array of disguises and tricks to sidetrack and confound their nemeses, the films have been primarily focused on action.  Of which, this episode delivers in spades. With J.J. Abrams being the talk of the town at present, having directed two "Star Trek" films, and with "Star Wars: Episode 7" on its way, I think it's worth re-visiting his directorial debut, another franchise-reviving effort.  Following the overly convoluted first installment (inexcusable that - Spoiler alert - they made Jim Phelps a villain) , and the overblown "M:I 2" this episode pumps a shot of adrenaline into the series.

Chiefly, "M:I 3" is superbly entertaining.  I liked Cruise at the start of his career; around the "Jerry McGuire" era, I started to find him extremely annoying, but around about the time of "Minority Report" (2002) he went on a really good run of films, and I gradually came to like him again.  He's certainly immensely charismatic in this movie.  Recently married (to Michelle Monaghan's character) Hunt genuinely has something to fight for, and to lose, and this gives the film an added punch. Michelle is great as the wife who slowly comes to realise that there is more to her husband than she first thought, and comes into genuine danger towards the film's climax (incidentally kicking some serious ass along the way - go girl!).  As one would expect from a film in this series, the globe is well and truly crossed, from Washington to Rome, eventually to a beautifully shot Shanghai (predating "Skyfall" but looking no less wonderful.).  I believe that this was the first Western production to be allowed to film in China.

Perhaps unlike previous installments, the rest of Hunt's "Impossible Missions Force" team are suitably likeable too.  Ving Rhames returns as Luther, Ethan's right-hand man, and a stalwart of the series.  The gorgeous Maggie Q ("Live Free or Die Hard") joins in the fun, and the team is rounded out by Jonathan Rhys-Myers (aka Henry VIII) as the team's helicopter pilot.  There's even a small role for Simon Pegg as Benji, an IT alayst at the IMF (not the International Monetary Fund!)  The antagonist, Owen Davian, is magnificently played by the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman.  He brings a chilling nastiness to the character, posing both a physical and mental threat to our hero, and is easily one of the best cinema villains of recent times.  Support is offered by Billy Crudup, Musgrave, and as the team's overall boss, Brassel, a snarling Laurence Fishburne.  The great Eddie Marsan also crops up as one of Davian's henchmen.  The plot revolves around Davian's attempts to obtain something called the"Rabbit's Foot".  This a Macguffin of the highest order, as it is never explained as to what it is; presumably it's some sort of virus or chemical weapon.  Along the way we get TV's "Felicity", kidnappings, daring rescue attempts, message-containing microdots, the obligatory self-destructing message, a  Lamborghini being blown up, Hunt using a mask to impersonate Davian, a traitor in the agency, our hero becoming a fugitive and, for good measure, a fair bit of fighting and explosive action.

It's all pretty standard stuff for a film like this in a genre like this, nothing new, in other words. It feels like something we've seen a hundred times before, but not quite. It's almost as if the set-pieces have been given a slight tweak, so they feel a little more original. For example, a helicopter chase takes place not just over, but also through a giant wind-farm, leading the audience to fear and / or expect one of the helicopters to be hit by a huge rotating propeller. A missile attack at one point takes place on what seems to be the longest bridge / causeway in the world - I presume it's the Florida Keys. Narratively we see from the very first scene Hunt, captured by Davian, tied to a chair and his wife with a gun to her head, so the film is essentially 85% flashback. We know where he ends up, but it's enjoyable finding out how he got there. Hunt seems more interesting this time round, probably due to his emotional involvement - in addition to his romantic situation, early in the film a character he's close to and trained up, is killed off, so he's trying to keep a lid on the grief from that.

Abrams' direction is impressive.  For sure there is a measure of "Shaky-cam", and quick cutting, but the action is always coherent.  Although he was an experienced operator in the TV world at the time, as a feature debut, charged with reviging a high-profile franchise, no less, this is strong work.  It's by a long chalk the best of the M:I films.  It's not a guilty pleasure, there's nothing about which to be guilty.  It's a well put together piece of fluffy entertainment, but does exactly what it sets out to do.  Mission: Accomplished.