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.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The Informant!

The Informant! (2009)

Starring Matt Damon and Scott Bakula

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

So it's another collaboration between Matt Damon and Steven Soderbergh.  With a script by Soderbergh regular Scott Z Burns, based on the book by Kurt Eichenwald "The Informant! A True Story", it's the omission of that second part which very much colours the audience's expectation coming into this film.  I haven't read the book or searched for news articles yet so I have no idea how closely it sticks to the "True Story" but after seeing the film I will definitely do so.  I've read elsewhere that the real-life protagonist has said that the film is "very accurate".  Certainly it's a story which takes so many twists and turns, going in so many directions all at once, that if you didn't know it was based on events which actually transpired, you'd think the writer was just crazy. 

Another Soderbergh regular, Matt Damon, plays Mark Whitacre, a high level executive at ADM, a chemical company based in Decator, Illinois.  ADM produces lysine, a corn-based additive, which as he explains at the start of the film, turns up in almost everything we eat.  ADM is encountering production problems and suffering financially as a result.  Whitacre tells his superiors that the plant is being sabotaged by a contact he met briefly in Japan, and claims he has been called with a $10,000,000 blackmail demand.  The FBI, in the shape of Agents Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) and Bob Herndon (Joel McHale) are called in to tap Mark's phone, so as to capture any future calls.  But Mark subsequently retracts his initial claim and says the whole thing is part of a price-fixing conspiracy among competing international lysine producers and that the phone was tapped by ADM itself.  Thus begins a jet-setting adventure in which Mark, having agreed to become an informant, travels the world attempting to record or otherwise gain evidence of the conspiracy, which seemingly involves American, French, and Asian firms amongst others.  Along the line he changes his story once more, saying that the meetings are about controlling volume levels rather than price fixing.  There are further twists and turns to Whitacre's version of the story along the way, a period of more than two years, which is increasingly frustrating for the agents.  Each time they have to confront Mark and ask if he's told them everything, and pleading with him to keep his mouth shut, you can see their doubts grow. As the case progresses, and Whitacre leaks the fact of an impending raid on ADM, it comes to light that he's been taking kickbacks to the tune of millions...

The film is essentially touted as a whacky, knockabout comedy.  There are certainly many incidences of off-kilter humour, most notably in the "jet set" scenes, in which Mark seems to think of himself as a James Bond type figure; "Mark Whitacre, secret agent 0014"  "Why 0014??"  "Cause I'm twice as smart as 007"!  Also, the voiceovers are priceless.  In the opening scenes, he explains - somewhat manically - about the links between corn, corn syrup, lysine, and the food we eat every day.  This is all good, because it's relevant to the main thrust of the movie.  But as it goes on, they get more and more random.  "I like my hands" he muses.  "That metric system never panned out".  "There should be a TV show about a guy who calls homeone day, and he's there, he answers, he's talking to himself, only he's someone else." !!!  Some of them are just so left-field that they're hysterical.  Over all, there's a dry, wry sense of humour threaded throughout the film.  I can understand why broader audiences wouldn't "get it", but if you can plug into the tone, it's fantastic.  But things are essentially much, much darker.

Amongst the main themes of the film are Corporate / White Collar crime, lying and deception, fraud,  betrayal, self-delusion, illegal surveillance, and ultimately, mental illness.  It's to his immense credit, and evidence of his masterful skills of direction, that Soderbergh manages to balance such grim elements with light comedy.  The film's score is notably up-beat and jaunty, as if purposefully to counteract the brooding subject matter.  It's almost fit for a cartoon.  But I never found it jarring.  It certainly does a huge amount to affect the film's tone and mood.  Underlying the whole of the proceedings is sense of the utterly absurd.  The conspiracy, whether it be price fixing, volume fixing, something else, or even if there's a conspiracy anywhere other than Whitacre's mind is absurd.  Mark's erratic behaviour and skittish mindset are almost past the threshold of credibility.  Yet it happened.

This is a supremely unusual, but deeply memorable film.  Distinct in tone and content, I found it successful on almost every level.  But I can see how another viewer might find it impenetrable, abstract, or just too odd.  The balance of humour and drama is incredibly delicate, and whilst I think Soderbergh pulls it off with aplomb, others might feel one fatally outweighs the other.  Damon is predictably strong in the central role, capturing the instability - and mania - of the increasingly deluded protagonist.  Scott Bakula too is sterling in support as the sadly resigned G-man, who comes to realise that the prize he thought he had won isn't there.  There's a wide-ranging supporting cast, containing many unfamiliar faces, but a few familiar ones, such as "30 Rock"'s Scott Adsit, Melanie Lynsky ("Heavenly Creatures"), Clancy Brown, Patton Oswalt, and Biff Tannen himself, Tom Wilson.  One really has to think, however, that the film belongs to the real-life Mark Whitacre.  A poignant coda shows him 10 years down the line, balding, physically degraded but still deluded.  It's a fitting conclusion to a unique and notable story.


Saturday, 19 April 2014


Rush (2013)

Starring Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl

Directed by Ron Howard

Ron Howard is an odd film-maker. On the one hand he can put out films which are breath-takingly good, of which I count this one, "Apollo 13" another, and so on. Yet he can also churn out stuff that is groaningly bad, say the "DaVinci Code" and its sequel, or "The Dilemma". This film falls squarely into the former category, his direction being solid, unflashy and unobtrusive.  He tells the extraordinary true story of the 1976 Formula 1 racing season, one of the closest in history; in particular it focuses on the relationship between the two best drivers of the time, Austrian Niki Lauda, and Britain's James Hunt.  Both men were risk-takers who raced hard, but that's just about where  the similarity ends.  Lauda is shown to be serious and stern off the track, working brilliantly with his teams' engineers to heighten the speed and performance of the cars.  Hunt, on the other hand was a total playboy, partying it up as hard as he raced, living it up to a lifestyle of booze and birds.

Don't be put off if you're not a fan of, or know nothing about Formula 1, because like the recent documentary "Senna", this is a story of humans and emotions.  Written by Peter Morgan (who seems to specialize in two-handed human drama, having "The Queen", "Frost / Nixon" etc under his belt) the writing is solid and evokes the passion, even if sometimes a little "Basil Exposition", for the uninitiated. The racing sequences are superb nonetheless - brilliantly shot by Anthony dod Mantle ("Slumdog Millionaire") and edited by Bafta winning Dan Hanley and Mike Hill (Howard regulars). They're nail-bitingly exciting, well choreographed and staged, in one instance absolutely terrifying, truly a reminder of how dangerous racing was back then.  In one scene Lauda matter-of-factly accepts this, saying "Yes, I know, I could die every time I get in my car".  He undergoes a terrible trauma during the season, interestingly after a pre-race drivers meeting in which the drivers debate whether the weather conditions make it safe to race.  Hunt goads him into letting the race go ahead, and the worst happens.  Lauda shows his physical and mental strength to fight his way back into the car - some of this is painful to watch, certainly not for the squeamish.  But it sets up a remarkably tense and tight finish to the season (I won't spoil it for you)

In their roles as, respectively Hunt and Lauda, Chris Hemsworth (he of "Thor" fame) and Daniel Bruhl ("Inglorious Basterds") are both superb.  It's a shame that there have been so many impressive performances this year as I'm sure at any other time they both would have been certainties for awards.  Their physical resemblances to the real life man is a bonus, but it's just good casting.  It's down to the actors themselves to deliver, and here they certainly do.  Also notable in smaller roles are Olivia Wilde as Hunt's wife Suzy Miller and Alexandra Maria Lara as Marlene Lauda.  And it was amusing to see Stephen Mangan crop up in a cameo as a nechanic.  Furthermore there's one other character worth mentioning: the sound.  In the racing scenes the sound of the powerful engines pumping and speeding away, rolling through the gears brings the film to life in a quite remarkable manner.

So this is powerful stuff, exciting, emotional, technically flawless and expertly played.  Arguably a period piece, the sense of time and place are well and truly evoked.  I really enjoyed it and found it to be one of the best films of the year.  I saw it on a double-bill with "Gravity".  What a strange experience that was!


Monday, 14 April 2014

Ice Cold in Alex

Ice Cold in Alex (1958)

Starring John Mills, Anthony Quayle, Sylvia Simms and Harry Andrews

Directed by J. Lee Thompson

Set in 1943 in North Africa at the height of the Second World War, and based on the novel by Christopher Landon, the film follows the crew of an Ambulance, nick-named Katy, heading from Tobruk towards the hospital in Alexandria, carrying a pair of nurses.  Led by Captain Anson, played with typically dependable stoicism by the great John Mills, the crew faces a variety of tribulations on their journey.  Anson is a recovering alcoholic, and clearly under huge pressure.  Mills' performance is  a triumph, as he struggles to keep a lid on his internal turmoil.  The title refers to a cold beer he has promised himself when they eventually reach Alexandria.  The crew is rounded out by Sylvia Simms as nurse Sister Diana Murdoch, Anthony Quayle as South African officer Captain van der Poel, and the ever-reliable Harry Andrews as M.S.M Tom Pugh.  This is a very tight and striking four hander; it's a cast to die for, and the performances are uniformly strong.  It's the first time I've included more than two stars at the header for this piece, because it really is impossible to separate the four of them.  One of the best ensemble casts - albeit a small one - ever.  


The plot is by its very nature episodic, but it's engaging and exciting.  It's stirring stuff.  Incidents along the way include frequent mechanical problems with the old ambulance, a perilous trip through a soft-sanded region, a desperate attempt to make it up a steep slope of a sandy hill, attacks by Stuka dive-bombers, a nerve-jangling minefield crossing, and encounters with German troops in the region - van der Poel is a German speaker and twice manages to secure the crew's freedom to press onwards.  He's very macho, somewhat aloof, but big and strong, and proves to save the team on several occasions.  But midway through the film, the rest of the crew begin to have suspicions that something is amiss, and that he's not entirely what he claims to be.  But they need to stick together to stay alive, even though the seeds of discord have been sown.  It means that they need to place their faith in him despite their doubts.  It adds to the power that makes this film more than just an adventure story, but a brilliant human drama.  There's a hint of romance between Simms and Mills, but it's never over-played.  There's one moment, and only one, where Mills explodes with rage and frustration.  It's brilliantly played, utterly believable, and only serves to highlight the control and leadership he otherwise shows.

Technically, the film is second to none, particularly given when it was produced, and the type of pictures which proliferated at the time.  Shot in stark black and white, the cinematography is outstanding, crisp and clear.  The directing choices are memorable too.  In particular, Thompson deploys a technique whereby he contrasts the stark desert landscapes in wide, wide shots, the ambulance appearing as a tiny creature in the wilderness, with tight, claustrophobic moments in the back of the ambulance, featuring an abundance of close-ups.  Pace-wise, the film is not typical of the average WW2 drama / adventure.  Whilst the plot constantly feels like it's moving forward, some scenes are incredibly drawn out for reasons of tension - in particular the minefield cross, and the sandy hill climb.  This makes the film stand out from many others in the same genre.  The score is full of bombastic Military march style music very reminiscent of the period, but another thing to make the film memorable is that for long periods it is soundless, perhaps in reference to the desolate nature of the surroundings.  Characters will simply interact without speaking, or, for instance, a dying character will whisper so softly that we can't hear anything, and the soundtrack doesn't offer up sweeping emotional music.

At the climax, for which I don't feel obliged to say this a spoiler, the crew arrive in Alexandria and head to the bar to partake in the aforementioned ice cold beer.  Anson orders the barman to line them up, and there follows a fantastic moment of silent reflection, as he stares at the glass, with an almost sexual lustre.  After everything they've been through, they made it, and this is his prize.  He contemplates the glass, and traces his finger down its condensated side.  It's one of the many moments that make this film iconic, in the truest sense of the word.  I believe it was even used as a beer advert in the 1980s!  There's a brilliant, tense moment in this scene involving van der Poel's dog-tags, but I'll let you see the movie for yourself and enjoy the moment - not exactly a "twist", but close to one.

It's fair to say that this is a bona fide classic in just about every sense of the word.  It's one of the best Second World War films ever made, it's one of the best adventure / "guys on a mission" films ever made, it's one of the most hauntingly beautiful films ever made, and one of the best character pieces ever done.  Little details stand out... such as the beads of sweat on Sylvia Simms' cheeks in one scene, or indeed a moment when she will just look at another character and offer up a wistful smile.  Whether you're interested in the adventure or the characters, "Ice Cold in Alex" will prove to be one of the most rewarding and memorable filmic experiences you have.  Expertly directed by J. Lee Thompson, who did the original "Cape Fear" with Robert Mitchum, and a couple of "Planet of the Apes" movies, the film is remarkably solid and enjoyable.  Cannot rate highly enough.



Her (2013)

Starring Joaquin Pheonix and (the voice of) Scarlett Johansson

Directed  by Spike Jonze

This is such an unusual film, but I suppose you couldn't expect anything else from Spike Jonze, perpetrator of the insanely bonkers "Being John Malkovich" ("Loved you in that jewel thief movie" !)

Joaquin Pheonix stars as Theodore Twombly, an impending divorcee who specialises in working for a website for which he writes letters for people who can't channel their feelings adequately.  In a sense, he's a filter for other peoples' emotions and as such at the start of the film, he's rather blank, despite going through an intense emotional experience with his divorce. Purchasing a new Operating System for his computer and phone, a talking Artificial Intelligence named Samantha, Theodore's perception of feeling and love is gradually turned upside down. Rarely has an actor or actress so thoroughly carried a film on their own.  Pheonix appears in virtually every scene (maybe every one), and gives a frankly brilliant performance.  There are multiple versions of the poster internationally.  Most consist of an extreme close up of Joaquin's face, sporting a manly moustache, however the one included above, possibly does more to convey Theodore's sense isolation as depicted in the movie.  Crucially, Theodore develops as a character, going from rather an emotional cypher, to a person who has learned something about himself, love, relationships and the world.  To use the cliché, he's been on "a journey", something essential to all drama. 

 Essentially this is a two-hander, although there are others in the supporting cast notably Amy Adams in another good showing after "American Hustle", so it's vital that the actress giving voice to Samantha is up to the task, and Scarlett Johansson certainly is that.  It's a performance which blends equal measures of curious, sensual, and robotic flatness.  It must be difficult to present an articulate performance without being able to employ physicality; think, for instance, about how much actors such as Al Pacino rely on their body language to portray their characters.  Spare a thought, though, for Samantha Morton - herself a fantastic actress - who voiced the character during filming, but was subsequently replaced.

This is by far one of Jonze's two best films (Malkovich being the other and not including music videos for the likes of R.E.M, The Chemical Brothers, and  The Beastie Boys); it's certainly streets ahead of uneven fare such as "Where the Wild Things Are" - which was interesting but inconsistent.  In addition to the strong performances from the actors, the Production Design is wondrous and the Cinematography, by Swiss D-P Hoyte van Hoytema (how's that for a name?!), who also shot "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy", "The Fighter" and "Let the Right One In", is stylish and graceful, as one would expect given the look of the aforementioned films.  There's an almost permanent air of twilight (not "Twilight"!) and deep haunting.  The script, written by Jonze, is smart and subtle.  Many themes abound; primarily love, lonliness and the need for companionship, emotional intelligence, artificial intelligence, and more.  Without wishing to drop a spoiler (Sweetie!), there's a revelation towards the climax which evokes matter-of-fact coldness from one of the protagonists and crushing devastation for the other.

Furthermore, Jonze's Direction is measured; the movie is much more level-headed than some of his previous work, perfectly paced and utterly absorbing throughout.  And I had no idea exactly where it was going, so it was a pleasant surprise to find out.  The premise could arguably deemed "Science Fitction"; certainly the concept of AI raises that spectre.  Ultimately though, it's just an off-beat, intriguing, brilliantly made, highly original movie.  I love cinema, and am generally well-disposed towards a picture and keen to enjoy it.  That doesn't always happen, of course, but in this instance, I think "Her" is a truly great film, and I'm sure that when I come back to it in future I'll find deeper and deeper levels.  It's been a great year for Cinema, with the likes of "Rush", "Gravity", "The Wolf of Wall Street", "American Hustle", "Walter Mitty", so on and so forth, I can heartily endorse "Her" as being right up there with the best of them.


Wednesday, 2 April 2014

American Hustle

American Hustle (2013)

Starring Christian Bale and Amy Adams

Directed by David O. Russell

The film begins with an ironic title-card: "Some of this actually happened". Which in itself is much more honest than the oft-used "Inspired by true events" or suchlike, when one knows most of the script is made-up. Certainly the film is based on the Abscam operation carried out by the FBI in the late 70s, but one suspects a fair amount of dramatic license has been taken - after all "Argo" was full of factual inaccuracies which played up the drama. For the better.

Overall, this is an epic movie about HAIR. The opening scene shows Christian Bale's character (Irving Rosenfeld) painstakingly applying an outrageous toupee to his balding head. Bradley Cooper chips in with his Ruud Hullit style curly, greasy afro-curls. And there's Jennifer Lawrence's blonde dye-job. Leaving that aside there's a story about two con-artists, busted by the FBI, being forced into trying to take down a seemingly corrupt New Jersey Mayor - the suitably bouffanted Jeremy Renner, on top form as Carmine Polito (adding to the wild hair count). Hair and costume, and music (the soundtrack is excellent), play a huge part in setting the scene within period - for this is a period piece for sure. The film plays wildly with the audience's emotions; at different points in the story each character gains our sympathy, and at other moments loses it. The four leads - although Christian Bale and Amy Adams take the true lead roles, with Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence ("the Picasso of passive-aggressive Karate") in close support - all turn in superb performances, as evidenced by their Oscar nominations. The movie was unlucky to come away from the Academy Awards empty-handed. I found it a much more absorbing watch than the big winner "Twelve Years a Slave", which whilst extremely powerful - and horrific - may have benefited a vote or two from the worthiness of its subject matter rather than the quality of the finished film.  Still - horses for courses.

Set in New York City in 1978, Bale, as Irving, is a relatively small time con man, who teams with Adams' scheming Sydney, channeling Lady Penelope, who pretends to be a member of the British royalty with influential banking connections in London, to scam a string of clients desperate for cash, who will pay a down fee on a larger loan to pay off their debts, but who never receive their money. The plan to entrap Mayor Carmine involves bringing in a "fake Sheik" (they should have worked for The Sun) who promises to invest millions in the New Jersey economy to re-develop the Atlantic City casino strip, and enticing him to take bribes. But the viewer is conflicted, as Carmine clearly states that everything he does is for the benefit of his community, and he only has them at heart. Later in the film Irving clearly has doubts about selling out the man he has come to consider his friend, with whose family he has often socialised which further adds to the moral ambiguity of the picture. 

Cooper, as the increasingly obsessed FBI agent Richie DiMaso (there's a scene in which he assaults his boss!), is fast becoming one of my favourite actors following his work in "Limitless" and Russell's "Silver Linings Playbook". Having heard him interviewed a few times he seems like a really decent chap to boot. Amy Adams on a fine run of form - she was one of the best things about "Man of Steel", she's in type in "Her"; I have been a big fan of hers since seeing hers "Doubt" a few years back. The likes of Louis C.K fast bring up the rear of quality in this cast. As for Jennifer Lawrence, it's much more satisfying to see her taking on roles like this, "Silver Linings" or "Winter's Bone" rather than the "Hunger Games" roles, as she is a fantastic actress. Then again, there has been a long history of actors carrying and carrying out careers which span big-budget blockbuster nonsense one minute then smaller Indie pictures the next.  It can be done.

Oddly it brings to mind a modern day version of "The Sting". But it's so rooted in its era that it doesn't achieve the same timelessness of the older film. There's a lot thrown into the mix here and I can understand why some might think it messy.  In addition to the main scam plot and the main characters' distrust of each other, there's also a simmering sexual tension between the four, and their gradual unraveling, in particular the bitter and slightly left-field relationship between the two female leads as they compete for the affections of Irving.  What is it about him that attracts a woman like this? It seems he just has "it".  Confidence.  David O. Russell's films arguably aren't always the most accessible, but if you can buy into the tone this movie sets it's absorbing and rewarding.