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Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One (2023) Review

Bravura stunt work fails to mitigate the shortcomings in plot and dialogue that cause MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – DEAD RECKONING PART ONE to self-destruct.

With Daniel Craig’s Bond having abdicated the long-held action crown in a Quixotic quest for prestige picture legitimacy, Tom Cruise has deftly manoeuvred and manipulated his one enduring franchise onto the vacant throne, skilfully reframing an ensemble-led IP into a one-man show and fending off an unexpectedly strong and strongly unexpected challenge from erstwhile street-racing franchise THE FAST & THE FURIOUS by meeting outrageous and extravagant CGI set-pieces with authentic stunt work.

The clearest sign of this ascendancy to the action throne was there as I looked around the cinema as I waited for MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – DEAD RECKONING PART ONE to begin. In a busy auditorium – busy for an early evening showing at any time and positively bustling in the current lacklustre box office period – the prized cross-generational appeal of these movies was apparent. From kids to young adults to seniors and everyone in between, they’d all showed up for the latest instalment of Tom Cruise’s increasingly plaintive mid-life crisis movies (because make no mistake: it’s him they’re here to see, not Ethan Hunt).

But with great box office power comes great box office responsibility and, having hyped the audience up to almost unprecedented levels, can Cruise and his captive co-creator Chris McQuarrie deliver? The answer, it turns out, is no, not really.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – DEAD RECKONING PART ONE opens with a HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER redux but, thrilling as the submarine drama is, it’s merely a scene setter for the convoluted cavalcade which follows. Despite the number of returning characters, there’s a real sense of disconnection from where FALLOUT ended and this film begins, almost like there’s a missing movie between them. There’s also an egregious attempt to retcon the deep lore of the franchise, turning Ethan Hunt and his cohorts into a group of pardoned criminals and refashioning the IMF as some kind of ersatz SUICIDE SQUAD, all to introduce that most reliable of action movie tropes: someone from the hero’s past coming back to haunt the present.

There’s something profoundly indecisive about MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – DEAD RECKONING and there are times when it feels like it was assembled stunts and set-pieces first and then the rest of the movie filled in around and between them using the exact kind of generative AI that the movie – looking to rip its McGuffin straight from today’s hyperbolic headlines – sets up as both antagonist and McGuffin without offering anything insightful about the subject whatsoever.

The stunts and set pieces are as polished as you’d expect them to be – they are what the movie is really about after all – but a quirk of release schedules has robbed them of much of their glamour. A desert-set chase scene and neon-drenched nightclub brawl echo JOHN WICK 4, while a chase through the streets of Rome somehow manages to evoke both FAST X and FOR YOUR EYES ONLY, the latter being a film that’s having quite a moment this year between its nod in INDIANA JONES AND THE DIAL OF DESTINY and now this; even Simon Pegg’s hair seems to be homaging Roger Moore’s mid-eighties coiffure in this outing.

Promoted beyond mere comic relief, Benji is now something of a square Pegg in a round comedy hole, kept around because his character is still alive even if his established background (as a deskbound analyst reluctantly dragged into the field) explicitly contradicts the new orthodoxy that all IMF agents were offered a choice at their lowest point. The scene where this is discussed is one of the examples of where this film could have significantly trimmed its bloated runtime if McQuarrie could have resisted so much tautological dialogue. There’s so little confidence in the narrative, and the audience’s ability to follow the story, that scene after scene, character after character finds themselves repeating the same conversations over and over again, subtly reinforcing the sense that what you’re watching is a creation of generative machine learning tasked with creating the optimum action movie output for today’s discerning cinemagoer.

Action sequences likewise go on to long and fall into replicative repetition, even when ticking off the hallmarks of the franchise. There’s running, of course, but this time there’s running on rooftops, running through alleyway, running through and on top of trains. There is, thankfully, a genuine plot-driven reason for riding a motorcycle off a cliff but it’s deeply, deeply contrived and ultimately still comes across as an empty exercise in vanity and machismo.

Despite the sincere effort by all concerned, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – DEAD RECKONING PART ONE feels a world away from the tight, tension-driven tour-de-force of FALLOUT and despite the fact the character body count is higher (one legacy character is brazenly replaced before the corpse has even had time to cool) and the threat is extinction-level in its implication, the stakes don’t ever really feel urgent and vital. The enemy is too diffuse, the progress from one pot point to the other is too clunky and the overall impression is of a classic band reluctantly getting back together to run through their greatest hits once more. PART TWO sure has a lot of work to do to salvage this mission.

Top Gun: Maverick (2022) Review

Top Gun: Maverick has a need, but it’s not necessarily for speed

While the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to be the punchbag of choice of cinephiles and gatekeepers, to quote Yoda, “there is another” – a phantom menace which, while undeniably delivering the bums on seats that various factions either embrace or dismiss depending on their agenda, poses just as much of an existential threat to the vitality and diversity of cinema as an artform as Disney’s seemingly unstoppable comic book based juggernaut: the legacy sequel. Awkwardly straddling the old and the new, the likes of GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE, THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS seek to fuse weaponized nostalgia and IP recognition with enough of a spark of the new to please both existing fans and ensnare a whole new audience. STAR WARS has, of late – on the big screen at least – struggled to keep its increasingly fractious fan coalition together, and very few franchises have truly achieved that breakthrough balance of delighting moviegoers old and new. TOP GUN: MAVERICK is that breakthrough film – a deserved success that will nevertheless, for better or worse, embolden other studios and filmmakers to dust off their eighties and nineties back catalogues and fire the afterburners on the “requel” production line.

TOP GUN: MAVERICK finds our hero Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) exactly where we’d expect to find him some three and half decades after we left him. Still the cocky, hot-shot pilot pushing limits and his superiors’ boundaries as he pursues his unquenchable need for speed. But when his hypersonic flight programme is shut down by an administration that sees unmanned drone warfare as the future, he finds himself reassigned back to the Top Gun academy to train a new generation of the best of the best for an urgent and extremely challenging objective; an impossible mission, if you will.

One of the touchstones of the legacy sequel is the deliberate repetition of story and character beats – George Lucas’ oft-maligned “poetry” – and after the bravura opening, TOP GUN: MAVERICK initially appears content to settle comfortably into revisiting its old stomping grounds. Director Joseph Kosinski brings a modern and stylish polish to the visuals, honouring yet enhancing the legacy aesthetic of Tony Scott’s proto-Michael Bay hues and although the incessant and impatient needle drops of Harold Harold Faltermeyer and Glenn Frey occasionally push the nostalgia into the danger zone of cliché, the film never quite crashes and burns thanks to Cruise himself, turning his undeniable star power up to the maximum.

TOP GUN: MAVERICK may come to be known as the peak of Tom Cruise’s mid-life crisis period (2011-to date) because as well as being the most impressive example of his admirable if narcissistic neo-method approach to stunts and filmmaking but it’s also the first one to really acknowledge the passage of time, an inevitability that even a level eight Operating Thetan must eventually concede to, an acknowledgement that lends real emotional stakes to Maverick’s story.

Infamously, of course, there’s a new “old” love interest for Maverick in the form of Jennifer Connelly, but she’s essentially there to provide the necessary emotional nudges to keep Maverick on course for a finale which thrillingly recreates the finale of the original before utterly transcending it in some of the finest aerial combat scenes ever committed to film. Before we get there, though, the film focuses on picking up two lingering threads from 1986’s TOP GUN, both of which require Maverick to examine and confront his legacy, and brings them to a satisfying conclusion. One is Iceman (Val Kilmer) confronting his own mortality, adding an edge to Maverick’s own sense of a ticking clock and the other is the ghost of Goose, ever-present in both Maverick’s thoughts and the presence of his son (Miles Teller).

The ageing warrior returning for one last mission is something of a mythic trope and it’s used cleverly here to give texture and substance to what could have, in less capable hands, have been a formulaic and banal re-tread of the original. In some ways, TOP GUN: MAVERICK flirts with the same themes as the early STAR TREK movies namely, how does a legendary warrior deal with growing older and the pressure or expectation for them to vacate the seat where they can make a difference? Like Kirk, Maverick has little interest in rising up the ranks, preferring to remain where the action is and where he truly belongs and the same is true, I suppose, of Cruise himself. There’s a need in Maverick to still matter, to still be the best and to prove that the human factor still makes a difference and Cruise – along with Kosinski – rises to this thematic challenge by judiciously using CGI enhancement to create a movie rooted in augmented reality, filming real aircraft carrying out real manoeuvres, oft-times with the cast inside them. It brings an authenticity to the action that’s breath-taking and likely the driving force behind the rapturous – and mostly justified – reception this otherwise rather formulaic movie has received.

War Of The Worlds (2005) Review

Dakota Fanning brings the raw emotional terror of alien invasion to life in Steven Spielberg’s visually stunning but narratively stunted War Of The Worlds

I’ve always had a love for H G Wells’ “The War Of The Worlds”, borne out of many a childhood listen to Jeff Wayne’s musical version. While I enjoy the contemporary 1950s version and even the pre-MAGA patriotic fever dream of “Independence Day” (less so its dumber than dumb cousin “Battleship”), I’ve always kind of yearned for an authentic adaptation of the novel, set in the proper time period and exploring the alien invasion from an authentically Victorian – and British – perspective. When Spielberg’s adaptation of the story was first announced, I hoped that this would be the one I had been waiting for, but alas it was not to be. Still, as we find ourselves on the eve of the BBC finally bringing a period-set version of the tale to the small screen, I decided to revisit the 2005 offering.

“War Of The Worlds” is unlikely to top anyone’s list of Spielberg’s cinematic masterpieces and while it may be ‘lesser’ Spielberg to some, that still gives it a fighting chance of being in the upper echelons of movies in general. Aware of how many previous adaptations there have been, Spielberg wisely brings his focus tight around the fractured family of Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) – a surrogate for the evidently splintered and factional human race and in doing so makes this a story less about alien invasion and more about how fragile and vulnerable society itself is when faced with disruption and crisis.

Unfortunately, at times, the relentless focus on the family conflict sometimes bogs the film down in soapy melodrama especially in relation to the Ray’s eldest child Robbie (Justin Chatwin), who’s badly underwritten, evidenced by how much the film picks up once he’s rather unceremoniously written.

Ultimately, like the invading Martian death machines, the film stands on its own tripod: three factors, two of which propel it towards greatness and one which holds it back. The first firm footing the film has is in its Director. Spielberg’s visual genius, and the cinematography of Janusz Kaminski, suffuse nearly every frame with bleak yet beautiful imagery. Yes, some of the visual flourishes are just indulgences, the wow factor overriding logic, such as the floating clothes of Martian victims which make for a macabre and memorable visual but a weapon which incinerates flesh but leaves clothes untouched makes zero sense, especially to an invading force which seeks to use humans as a food source. It’s undeniably cool looking, though.

Spielberg certainly doesn’t hold back the darkness in this film, though, and he delivers a plane crash aftermath which tops the one “Lost” delivered a year before while the train on fire and the attack on the ferry are similarly standout sequences. There’s some real darkness on offer too, arguably darker than anything Speilberg has embraced before – in one of his action-adventure movies that is – such as the family drowning in the cars falling off the ferry and, especially, the river of corpses which take Rachel (Dakota Fanning) by surprise during one of the movie’s deceptively peaceful moments.

Dakota Fanning is the second factor which gives “War Of The Worlds” its power. Her performance is simply astonishing and she absolutely should have been in the running for Best Supporting Actress, at the very least. Time and time again, she absolutely nails the emotional intensity of a world gone awry from a child’s point of view and provides a chilling evocation of the very real, present day horror of having to raise a child into an increasingly violent, dangerous and unpleasant world.

The film’s third factor, the one that works against it, is its star, Tom Cruise. His performance is actually pretty good but he’s badly miscast as the blue-collar asshole divorced selfish asshole who’s not really interested in his kids but finds himself stuck with them during the crisis. He feels far too clean-cut, square-jawed and heroic to really deliver the necessary grittiness of the role and it works against the film and the family story Spielberg’s trying to tell and so it’s no surprise when most of that dynamic fades quickly from the performances even as the script tries to continue fanning the flames of the conflict. Ironically, it might have worked much better if Tim Robbins and Tom Cruise had swapped roles. Robbins would have been more believable and layered as the deadbeat dad while anyone who’s seen Cruise’s Oprah’s couch moment can attest to how convincing he is as a delusional maniac.

The finale feels very abrupt but it’s mostly down to the breakneck pacing of the film up to that point and actually, it doesn’t really end so much as just kind of stop. It’s something of a misstep for the rescue from the basket of the tripod to be the defacto action finale set-piece which should probably have been reserved for a better showdown between the dregs of the US Army and the afflicted invaders than we get to see. It’s a nice nod the fifties version of the story to give Gene Barry and Ann Robinson cameos at the very end, but it’s also here that the movie makes its most egregious mistake by bringing back Robbie, alive and well, undermining everything the audience has just seen the other characters endure.

It’s a polished sci-fi disaster epic that with a few casting changes could have been something really special and, while it’s never not nice to hear the dulcet tones of Morgan Freeman’s voice, his opening and closing narrations feel a little unnecessary.

I suspect the forthcoming Bond film will wish it could self-destruct in five seconds after seeing Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)

The unstoppable Tom Cruise, Movie StarTM is back in 2018’s best action movie bar none. “Fallout” completes a “Fast & Furious”-style transformation of the franchise and leaves its famously diminutive leading man head and shoulders above the rest of the action competition.

When a mission to recover three stolen uranium cores is interrupted by the radicalised remnants of The Syndicate, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his IMF team are forced to partner up with CIA agent August Walker (Henry Cavill) to root out the devoted acolytes of former Syndicate head Solomon Kane (Sean Harris). But there are plans within plans at work and Ethan must be careful who to trust as he navigates the overlapping and intertwining schemes of the IMF, CIA, The Syndicate and MI6.

Writer/ Director Christopher McQuarrie, the only director to date to helm more than one entry in the series, has said one of the reasons he signed on again was that he knew the director of “Rogue Nation” could have done better and he decided he wanted to show him how. In that ambition, he has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Bigger, bolder, tauter than before, “Fallout” takes every aspect, every story thread, every iconic, aesthetic flourish of “Rogue Nation” and takes it to the next level or, in many cases, the level after that.

Yes, it still relies on the same mix of occasionally baffling incompetence and convenient dumb luck from Hunt and the IMF (there’s an eyeroll-worthy moment of breathtakingly obvious stupidity very early in the pre-credits sequence) to fuel the story but its done with such style, renewed verve and confidence that it hardly seems like it matters. Indeed, McQuarrie’s script takes that incongruous moment and spins it in an unexpectedly insightful take on Hunt’s fundamental character and what sets him apart from his rivals. Engrossingly complex, McQuarrie keeps things from getting convoluted and although most of the big twist reveals are easily guessable miles in advance, it never once detracts from the entertainment value of what’s unfolding on screen. Visually, it’s a huge leap up from the already impressive “Rogue Nation”, with cinematographer Rob Hardy ensuring London and, especially, Paris photograph beautifully (you may think Paris is a simple point-and-shoot city for stunning cinematography but it’s not, as “Bastille Day” amply demonstrated). It’s not just the picture-postcard settings that really pop-out on screen, there’s a visceral, kinetic clarity to the action and fight scenes that rivals anything yet brought to the screen and I even had to stifle the urge to clap at some of the exquisitely realised transitions.

Although still very much Cruise-centric in its storytelling, the supporting cast is better balanced and handled here, with the essential return of Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) – absolutely deserving her own spin-off adventure by the way – seemingly crowding Jeremy Renner’s William Brandt out of the picture (having now been conspicuous by his absence in two of 2018’s best action adventure movies, Jeremy Renner’s agent may have the real mission: impossible in keeping his job) bringing an ambiguous loyalty to the team alongside trustworthy stalwarts Benji (Simon Pegg), Luther (Ving Rhames) and IMF Director Hunley (Alec Baldwin). Angela Bassett brings a steely, coldly logical pragmatism to the role of CIA Director Erica Sloane, a woman who prefers to use a hammer instead of a scalpel, that hammer being embodied in the brooding hulk of Henry Cavill.

There’s a palpable sense of energy and commitment here and Cruise particularly delivers his best work, certainly of the franchise and possibly of his career. At 56, Cruise is the same age as Roger Moore was when “Octopussy” was released, and the Bond comparison is a particularly apposite one as, over the course of, now, six movies, the character of Ethan Hunt has very much become the modern-day equivalent of James Bond. Rewatching “Rogue Nation” in advance of this latest instalment, the comparison was irresistible and undeniably favourable for Hunt. Both this movie and the previous Mission: Impossible instalment have set out to tell a similar kind of story about its lead character as the venerable Bond franchise did with “Skyfall” and then “SPECTRE”. The problem is, by every criterion, and with apologies to Carly Simon, M:I does it better.

In years past, the Bond series was the gold standard for action movies. They innovated in terms of gadgets, stunts, action, adventure and excitement. Where they boldly led, other studios and franchises scrambled to follow. That’s no longer the case and recent Bond movies have, with an increasing lack of confidence and coherence, found themselves trailing after the genre. Bourne sucker-punched them at the turn of the century and they responded admirably but since then, the series has seemed sluggish and unresponsive to the rise of a new generation of high-concept spy action, from the transformed “Fast & Furious” franchise to an increasingly bold and ambitious M:I series. The real impossible mission is for any other action franchise to follow “Fallout”.

10/10 

American Made (2017) Review

If you thought off-the-books, quasi-legal internecine government shenanigans were a practice brought to the White House by a tangerine reality TV buffoon, wait until you get a load of AMERICAN MADE and find out what was going on the last time a former celebrity became commander in chief.

Telling the mostly true story of Barry Seal, a former TWA pilot who became a smuggler for the CIA, the Medellin Cartel and the White House through the late seventies and early eighties, Doug Liman’s breezy and brazen biopic is as coked-out as the cargo hold of Barry’s plane. Fizzing with manic, restless energy, the film barrels along thanks to an energetic performance from Cruise, who looks like he’s having fun for the first time in years. While’s he’s not always entirely convincing as the sleazy, selfish and morally unrestrained pilot/ smuggler/ gun runner, he seems genuinely invested in the role, bringing something other than a remix of ‘Ethan Hunt’ to the screen. The film likewise benefits from the absence of Cruise’s recent hallmark of ego-boosting, age-defying stunt work in favour of a more down to earth, grubbier kind of action-comedy.

Unfortunately, AMERICAN MADE is so agog at the sheer fantastical bravado of its subject that it doesn’t really have time to get under the skin of its subject in any great details and there’s precious little character development for any of the supporting cast who drift in and out of Barry’s life without real context, making the story feel a little bit lightweight despite its heavy subject matter. Tonally it’s got a lot in common with THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, if that film were heavily edited down to fit an arbitrary broadcast slot and while both offer the illicit buzz of an anti-hero gaming the system to a nearly impossible to believe degree, the high from AMERICAN MADE doesn’t last nearly as long.

7/10 

The Mummy (2017) Review

It’ll take more than a few bandages to fix what ails The Mummy

Released in the UK the same day another leader saw plans to increase her power and turn the world to her will falter, “The Mummy” suggests Universal’s “Dark Universe” gambit will meet a similarly ignominious fate. Again.

When solider-of-fortune Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) stumbles across an Egyptian tomb after an airstrike, he unwittingly releases the vengeful undead spirit of Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) who seeks to be reunited with a magical gemstone, a gemstone which has just been uncovered by Crossrail tunnel workers in London.

Straight out of the gate, “The Mummy” has but one objective and it’s not to tell a compelling story about a creepy monster raised from an ancient Egyptian tomb. Burdened with resurrecting the ‘Dark Universe’ again after their previous attempt – “Dracula: Untold” – staked itself at the box office – it’s so busy doing that it utterly fails to do anything interesting whatsoever with its title character. There’s little dramatic tension in her relatively untroubled quest to get hold of a dagger and the mystical gemstone she needs and the role ultimately wastes the talents of Sofia Boutella.

There’s absolutely none of the fun and swashbuckling adventure of the 1999 Mummy film to be found in this blue-washed, drab shamble through the streets of London. The Rachel Weisz/ Brendan Fraser movie is responsible for the only genuinely fun moment in the movie though, as Hamunaptra’s Book of the Dead makes a fleeting and concussive appearance (half the score I’m giving this film is down to that one reminder of fun times past).

Megastar Tom Cruise utterly overpowers the movie, warping it into a dull ‘Mummification: Impossible’ knock-off. Sure, it ticks all the usual cruise boxes: running, getting wet, mid-life crisis commitment to performing own stunts but never once feels interesting. He achieves zero chemistry with his leading lady, archaeologist Jennifer Halsey (Annabelle Willis) and can’t even spark off a grandstanding, scenery-chewing turn from Russell Crowe as Dr Jekyll/ Mr Hyde and head of the ‘mysterious’ Prodigium. Really only Jake Johnson emerges with any credit from this boring bluewashed mistake of a movie.

The script is possibly one of the worst ever turned into a summer blockbuster. It sounds like the rough draft was raced straight to production, the interactions and dialogue are awkward and clumsy and even manages to repeat itself during the five-minute opening monologue. The special effects are pretty decent, of course, but you’ve seen all the good set-pieces in the trailers and the rest director Alex Kurtzman seems to have lifted directly from Tobe Hooper’s “Lifeforce”. Going in a more horror-tinged direction and getting a slightly harder certificate is a mistake too. The film doesn’t benefit from it and the only effect is to shut out a sizeable tweenage portion of the audience who might actually have enjoyed this dreary shlock.

It’s clear Universal aren’t following the Marvel model of building a shared universe and they’re even managing to undershoot the Warners/ DC approach. With one false start already under its belt and “The Mummy” underwhelming in every way that matters, I think it’s pretty clear we can expect the Dark Universe to be re-relaunched with 2019’s “Bride Of Frankenstein” although I struggle to believe that will turn out to be their “Wonder Woman”. Despite its naked shared universe ambitions, “The Mummy” doesn’t have a post-credits teaser scene. By the end, though, you’ll be wishing it didn’t have most of the pre-credits scenes either.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016) Review

2012’s “Jack Reacher” was something of a pleasant surprise. Although on paper a mismatch for Lee Child’s burly protagonist, Cruise’s screen presence was enough to pull off the role of the muscular and relentless investigator. Unfortunately, “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” is just a ruthlessly efficient in justifying its own title.

Framed for a crime he didn’t commit, Reacher must unravel a conspiracy which reaches right to the heart of the Military Police and deal with a secret from his past which may change his life forever.

The film begins brightly enough, with the sequence in the roadside café shown in the trailers but its downhill from there. Cruise looks a little doughy and tired; much less invested than in “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”. He might be starting to show his age but that doesn’t stop him from putting in the running miles as usual. There’s a lot of running in this movie. A lot. But it doesn’t mean Cruise is afraid to change things up, oh no. This time, he spends a good fifth of the movie running to catch various busses. Whatever else the future holds for Jack Reacher, he’ll make good use of that senior citizen bus pass when he gets it.

The potential reveal that Reacher has a daughter he never knew brings a weird ‘dysfunctional family’ dynamic to the movie which sits awkwardly against the ‘I’m going to kill you’ bombast of both the heroes and the villains. The maybe/ maybe not daughter (played by Danika Yarosh) brings a devious and streetwise attitude to proceedings and would have made a more interesting focus for the movie, certainly more than Cobie Smulders’ thankless by-the-numbers tough (but categorically not tougher than Reacher) leading lady.

There’s an attempt to create a nemesis for Reacher in the form of Patrick Heusinger’s Hunter but the rivalry never feels real. The Hunter looks like “Suicide Squad”’s Captain Boomerang might have, before he lost interest in his career and let himself go and he’s just as menacing and effective as his would-be DC counterpart. There’s never a moment where you feel Reacher might be vulnerable and without that risk there’s no drama.

Director Edward Zwick is completely mismatched to this kind of muscular, kinetic thriller and the direction is oddly clumsy. Some of the early scenes, especially those featuring Cruise and Madalyn Horcher are particularly heavy handed in their use of trickery to accommodate Cruise’s stature while the action scenes are routine and humdrum.

In a year that has seen a number of underwhelming sequels, Jack Reacher joins Jason Bourne in falling prey to that most implacable of foes – unnecessariness.

4/10 

My Scientology Movie (2016) Review

There’s no denying a Louis Theroux documentary draws a quite different crowd to the cinema. Those docuphiles who wouldn’t deign to visit the unwashed multiplexes during blockbuster season, some who came specifically to sneer at the bizarre tenets of Scientology itself and, I suspect, many like me who were drawn to the screening seduced by the possibility that this documentary was cinema-worthy because it contained some earth-shattering revelation hitherto undiscovered about the world’s most secretive ‘religion’. But were there any actual Scientologists in the screen, mingling undetected amongst us? Listening; judging; observing..?

My idle conspiracy theory musings gained early traction when the Live Stream malfunctioned as soon as the screen lit up. Okay, so I was watching it at Cineworld Whiteley, a venue notable for two things: one, there is absolutely zero mobile signal within the building itself (an architectural oversight retrospectively painted as a deliberate virtue) and two; in the eleven months since it opened, there’s never been a day when all of its systems and technology were fully functional. But those facts aside, was the outage actually a pre-emptive strike by an elite SeaOrg operative, hoping to disrupt the transmission of the movie and its accompanying Q&A. The answer was soon apparent: no. A simple ‘switch it off and on again’ sorted everything out. Stand down, IT Helpdesk – your work is done.

With little preamble and no adverts or trailers (Yay!), the presentation started. It was time to see the implacably ironic Louis Theroux take on the pathologically impassive behemoth of the Church Of Scientology!

Repeatedly denied his requests to make a documentary on Scientology from the inside, celebrated documentary maker Louis Theroux’s first theatrical feature sees him take on the subject in his own inimitable style. Taking inspiration from the Church’s own media productions, he seeks out former Scientologists turned whistle-blowers to aid him in casting actors to play Scientology’s major players, reasoning that if you can’t get inside to experience the church, the only way to understand it is to recreate it on the outside. One thing is undeniable, though: the young actor Louis casts (Andrew Perez) to play David Miscavige has a bright future ahead of him: he’s incredible.

Louis’ deadpan, poker-faced sense of humour prove to be well matched to the utterly un-self-aware reactions from the Church, leading to a number of surreal confrontations, almost tipping the movie into Inception territory as one documentary ends up housing another which in turn contains another documentary. In fact, replace cameras with handguns and there are some scenes which could be ripped straight from a Tarantino movie.

Despite these amusing (with a disquietingly sinister undertone) confrontations with fringe representatives from the church, the finished movie ends up, as many of Louis’ documentaries do, becoming more a portrait of Louis’ relationship with a specific individual, in this case Mark ‘Marty’ Rathburn. Curiously, and despite the constant bizarre behaviour of the Scientology flunkies which doggedly although gently harass Louis and his crew, it’s Marty and his possible complicity in the activities and organisation he now condemns that draws your focus, sympathy and suspicion. Despite his amiably Bill Murray-esque appearance, by the end of the movie he’s a deeply divisive figure, painting a vivid picture of his experiences of life under Miscavige but ferociously closing down any discussions of what he personally did for the Church before his abrupt fall from grace led him to quit.

“My Scientology Movie” is dryly witty and, despite its light tone, still disquieting glimpse at an organisation that seemingly begs to be described as a sinister cult. The Church itself still presents an irresistibly cinematic, compelling archetype: a secretive and powerful organisation under the iron grip of a mysterious totalitarian leader with an army of devoted acolytes who ruthlessly hunt down, harass and seek to destroy their enemies and defectors. It’s the stuff Bond films are made of. As Louis points out, there may be good people working hard to do good things within the strictures and structures of the church’s hierarchy but the organisation is so viciously defensive and so absurdly heavy handed in its public relations that it’s impossible to take it any other way. It’s hard to avoid the thought that the church – for whatever reasons – likes and maybe even covets its whacko reputation; a sort of corporate adoption of ‘The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist’.

Ultimately there’s nothing in this slightly disappointingly lightweight documentary that will really shift the needle of your own personal e-meter when it comes to Scientology itself. Alex Gibney’s “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” remains the gold standard in taking the church to task. There’s a scene very early in the film where Louis is driving Marty Rathburn around and Marty asks if they’re filming some B-roll footage. As the end credits rolled, I felt like nearly all I’d watched was B-roll footage, the punches I’d hoped to see land pulled in favour of a gentle poke in the ribs and a Pythonesque ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ attitude.

6/10 

Despite Cruise’s efforts to hog the limelight, it’s Rebecca Ferguson who rules Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)

Back for a fifth instalment, “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” finds Ethan Hunt facing off against two distinct threats. One is The Syndicate, a shadow network which styles itself as ‘the anti-IMF’; the other is from the American government and the CIA who are pressing to have the IMF shut down.

The latter threat is not only understandable but long overdue. Although consistently entertaining, the “Mission: Impossible” movies have a common thread running through them: the IMF, and Ethan Hunt in particular, are among the most spectacularly inept and ineffective secret agents ever to grace the silver screen. Throughout every one of their cinematic outings they have concocted convoluted, intricate plans which then habitually fail, requiring some kind of desperate last-gasp stunt to save the day. Hunt himself has failed to detect treachery in his own organisation on several occasions, has been repeatedly disavowed and invariably chooses the most extreme and thrill-seeking approach to solving problems. He’s not simply a dangerously incompetent secret agent; he’s a recklessly arrogant adrenaline junkie.

By now the movie franchise resembles its source TV series only in the quaint gimmicks of self-destructing mission briefings and Lalo Schifrin’s effortlessly cool theme tune. In place of the clever, innovative ensemble approach of the TV series, the movie franchise has mutated into an ego trip for its main star, relegating almost everyone else to comic relief sidekick status.

Tom Cruise continues to be fascinating dichotomy; unappealingly synonymous with crackpot religions and odd behaviour off-screen yet eminently watchable on it. It has to be said that he’s starting to show his age on screen and the spectre of being past his prime may be the reason why so many (all) of the big action sequences are reserved for Ethan Hunt as the producers (also Cruise) make sure to flatter the leading man’s ego. Whether it’s hanging on the side of a plane as it takes off or hurtling through the streets of Morocco in cars or on motorbikes, Cruise’s commitment to performing as many of his own stunts as he can is as impressive as it is symptomatic of a cinematic mid-life crisis in progress.

The real victims of the gravitational lensing caused by Cruise’s star power are Jeremy Renner and Ving Rhames who end up playing third and fourth fiddle respectively and often spend time just twiddling their thumbs while the action unfolds elsewhere. Simon Pegg fares a little better but is still very much the comic relief that we’re directed to laugh at rather than with. Alec Baldwin brings a much-needed gravitas and ambiguity to proceedings as CIA chief and would-be IMF axe man Alan Hunley but Sean Harris’ Solomon Lane – head of the sinister Syndicate – is a major let-down, mustering all the malice of a sleepy Sven Goran Erikson and affecting a comical whispering voice which would give even Tom Hardy pause for thought.

Despite all these problems, there’s no denying that “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” is an entertaining and sporadically action-packed thriller. In fact, there are times when “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” is quite simply brilliant. Some of those times are in the Cruise-centric big action sequences which are carried out with technical perfection and shot brilliantly by writer/ director Christopher McQuarrie. Most of the times the film achieves brilliance, though, are when Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust is on the screen. As the shadowy, double agent, constantly dancing on the line between hero and villain, Ferguson is a revelation here. She is not only a super-skilled bad-ass, but she’s shown to be every bit the equal – if not superior – of Hunt and any of the bad guys. Subverting the usual tropes, she’s never in need of Hunt’s help or last-minute rescue and even gets to have her own drawn-out, knock-down showdown with some of The Syndicate’s most brutal henchmen. Rebecca Ferguson single-handedly salvages what could have been a self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing Cruise-heavy bro-fest and gets it back on track to being the well-balanced action-adventure spy caper it needs to be. She is, by far, the franchise’s MVP by the end of the movie. If Paramount have any sense, they’ll be locking Ferguson down to a multi-picture deal and considering a spin-off film starring her on a solo mission as well as making sure she’s an integral part of “Mission: Impossible – Fallout”.

The last third of the movie, although light on the big set-piece stunts, hews much closer to the TV series source material and by the end, the movie’s assets outweigh its liabilities. It’s as ambitious and flawed as one of Ethan Hunt’s elaborate schemes and like Hunt’s schemes, it manages to entertain and thrill even as it makes some pretty stupid blunders. It’s still good quality blockbuster fare but the sooner this franchise frees itself from its self-imposed dependency on the waning star power of Tom Cruise and gives every member of the team moments to shine, the better. After all, Rebecca Ferguson won’t always be around to save the day…

8/10

Edge Of Tomorrow (2014) Review

If, like me, you made the switch from going to see a movie because Tom Cruise was in it to going to see a movie despite Tom Cruise being in it a while back, you’ll find a lot to enjoy in “Edge Of Tomorrow” (not least of all the many, many times his character meets a sticky end). But don’t be dismayed if you’re a devoted fan of the world’s favourite Level VII Operating Thetan; you’ll enjoy this cracking, clever Sci-Fi actioner as well – because he’s great in it.

In the near future, Earth has been invaded by a parasitic alien race nicknamed “Mimics” who landed in Germany and spread out to conquer much of mainland Europe from there. After fighting a losing battle on all fronts, humanity has just achieved their first victory at the Battle of Verdun, thanks to new exo-suit technology and the leadership of Special Forces soldier Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt).

On the eve of the allied invasion of Europe, American Major William Cage (Tom Cruise), a cowardly advertising executive turned Army PR man is ordered to the front by General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson). Cage tries to weasel and blackmail his way out of joining the troops so Brigham has him arrested and branded a deserter. Forced to join a ragtag cannon fodder infantry group, Cage finds himself on the front line with no training and no idea what to do. Through blind luck, Cage manages to kill an unusually large Mimic, getting saturated in its corrosive blood as he does so. Abruptly, he wakes up again at the start of the day when he was declared a deserter. He lives out the same day over and over again, gradually learning to anticipate events but when Vrataski realises what he is doing, she tells him to come and find her when he wakes up because he alone may hold the key to ending the war.

If you’ve ever played the EA game “Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars”, you’ll find a lot of the imagery and texture of this film quite familiar and like Cruise’s previous Sci-Fi vehicle “Oblivion”, “Edge Of Tomorrow” owes a major debt to other films. The opening narration comes perilously close to being an edgy sci-fi reboot of the “Dad’s Army” title sequence but the clearest ancestry here is “Groundhog Day” and “50 First Dates”. Don’t worry though, this is no romantic comedy and despite its derivative roots, the story it tells is innovative, compellingly tense and action-packed.

It really is refreshing to see Cruise, for a while at least, play against his all-American hero type and be the sleazy, corruptible, weasely Cage as he gradually learns not only to accept his curse to ‘live, die, repeat’ but to actively embrace it and use it to change his destiny. Emily Blunt, on the other hand, is all badass from the beginning and really delivers in the tough, no-nonsense role of the ‘full metal bitch’ of the propaganda posters. There’s superb support from Brendan Gleeson, both mad-eyed and moody as the Commander of the Allied Forces and a swaggeringly imperious Bill Paxton as Master Sergeant Farrell (who in my own personal imaginary connected universe is a distant ancestor of Private Hudson from “Aliens”). Noah Taylor even pops up playing a somewhat similar role as he did in the Tomb Raider movies.

“Edge of Tomorrow” is, as you’d expect from director Doug Liman, an action movie with brains and although by its nature the plot is full of twists, turns and blind alleys, it manages to keep itself moving forward with a lean, muscular clarity, never becoming confusing and never taking itself so seriously that there’s no room for the occasional lighter moment. The gradual revealing of the plot is a delight thanks to the cleverly assembled trailers wrong-footing you without actually lying; meaning that how you think this might unfold isn’t how it actually goes down.  The production design is gritty and realistic, with the Mimics themselves particularly unnerving as they seem to occupy an unknown space between the organic, mechanic and digital. Their movement, in particular, is a wonderful touch: so unlike any creature on Earth, it really underscores their alien nature.

Up until the last three minutes, the movie is a Sci-Fi action masterpiece but unfortunately there are three closing scenes which absolutely reek of focus group feedback, the result being “Edge Of Tomorrow” ends on a massive cop out. Without those three small scenes (which could be cut without difficulty or disruption) the end note of this movie would be a bittersweet and pyrrhic one but would complete, in spectacular and classical fashion, the hero’s journey Tom Cruise’s character has been on. Thanks to these three scenes, this powerhouse of a movie fails to stick the landing and in its last moments, stumbles back into the Hollywood mainstream. It’s a real shame, too, because this was on course for full marks.

8/10