Mission Impossible Fallout: the best one yet?

We were first introduced to super spy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) in the first Mission Impossible in 1996 (directed by Brian de Palma), and it represented a bit of a departure for Cruise. His last film credited film before that was Interview with the Vampire (1994) and, with maybe the exception of Top Gun, he’d not really done action before.

Not that the first Mission was big on action, it was more a spy thriller with an action feel. And it’s fair to say the franchise has grown and morphed over the years. It switched gears, opting for full blown action for the second film and hasn’t looked back.

Now a juggernaut blockbuster, a huge part of the franchise’s success has been down to Cruise driving it, such is his star power.

For the sixth instalment, Fallout, Christopher McQuarrie returned as director (the first to do so), and went about giving it a different look and feel to his last film, Rogue Nation. The main premise here being the ‘fallout’ from all Ethan’s prior missions. So, in terms of setup (not that it matters much), we learn that Ethan’s team have lost three nuclear weapons which, obviously, they’d like back before a terrorist group called ‘the apostles’ decide to unleash them – as is the way with bad guys.

Blaming Ethan for losing the nukes is CIA director Erica Sloane (Angela Basset), who decides to pair him up with Agent August Walker (Henry Cavill) to ensure the job gets properly. Ethan’s a scalpel and Walker is a blunt hammer. They immediately butt heads, but both grudgingly accepting that they have the same goal.

Cut to a trial by fire for Walker, who has to immediately proceed with a halo jump out of a plane over Paris for his first mission with Hunt, infiltrating a fancy party to make contact with a lead that should get them closer to the nukes. And whether it’s intensely visceral brawls in bathrooms, foot or motorbike or car chases, Cruise is at the heart of it all.

Now, we know he does all his own stunts, and a major part of the appeal of watching these films is wondering what crazy stuff he’ll do next. To the point where you find yourself exclaiming, ‘Oh my God, that’s Tom Cruise, he’s running across the top of Blackfriars bridge in London! He’s really doing it!’ This happens multiple times – often within a single scene.

The clever thing the filmmakers have managed to pull off is finding new and inventive ways in which to get from one action set piece to the next. And new ways in which to put Tom Cruise is perilous situations. You can almost imagine the headlines, ‘Tom Cruise died filming the latest Mission Impossible.’ Whilst it would be sad news indeed, it wouldn’t be hugely shocking. Probably with people saying, ‘Well, it’s the way he would have wanted to go.’

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the Mission films are now a finely tuned machine. The action is tangible, visceral and exciting, and if CGI is used, it’s hard to pinpoint where or when. Indeed, McQuarrie manages to get a number of the action set pieces to feel like Christopher Nolan put them together, which is high praise indeed.

Then there’s the storytelling.
Yes, these films are action blockbusters, but they also feel like they deliver on character in a dynamic way. Never did I suffer from action fatigue, or feel that any character moments were being shoehorned into the story between the car chases and explosions, it all felt organic and well put together.

To the point where I’m comfortable saying that this is the best Mission yet.
Mr Cruise, I look forward to seeing what you’ll do for the next one, should you choose to accept it.

Masks in movies: the weird, wacky and horrific

‘No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.’
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

Masks are fascinating. We all wear masks – of a sort – every day. It’s rare to meet a completely open person. And in film, a mask is intriguing. It can serve a number of purposes. For example, they can be used to heighten or accentuate your personality, or give you a different one altogether. They can be used to hide or reveal, to confuse or mislead, and as armour in defence or offense (to coin an American phrase).

They come in many different shapes and sizes, some functional, some more flamboyant (as we’ll see from my list below). Here are some of my favourite masks, characters, and the actors who wore them.

Michael-Fassbender-as-Frank-p002Frank (2014) – Michael Fassbender
More a giant head but still a mask of sorts. Fassbender plays the enigmatic leading man of a band struggling to find their sound in this quirky yet tragic tale.

V for Vendetta (2005) – Hugo Weaving
Never once removing his mask, Weaving plays this anarchist crime fighter to the letter in this adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel.

The Mask (1994) – Jim Carrey
Transforming from sad sack Stanley Ipkiss into the God of Mischief each time he donned the mask, Carrey firmly put himself on Hollywood’s A-list with this exuberant performance.

The Skin I Live In (2011) – Elena Anaya
The-Skin-I-Live-In-Review-The-Film-Pilgrim-Anaya-BanderasWhilst the actress named above wears the mask, this film is undoubtedly Antonio Banderas’s in terms of performance, teaming up with Pedro Almodovar in this creepy tale.

Vanilla Sky (2001) – Tom Cruise
Disfigured after a car accident Cruise’s character spends a large part of the film hiding behind a weirdly androgynous mask designed to heal his scars. Or does he?

Eyes Wide Shut (1999) – Tom Cruise
Hands up, who’s in a troubled marriage and wants to attend a high society sex party? Tom Cruise’s character does that’s who. Sneaking his way in with a black robe and handy mask.

Batman Begins (2005) – Cillian Murphy
Intelligent and intense yet wildly unhinged, Murphy’s portrayal of the Scarecrow in Nolan’s first Batman outing was mightily impressive and firmly ticked the creepy box.point-break-mask

Point Break (1991) – Patrick Swayze
Charismatic surfer cum bank robber Bodhi’s modus operandi when on a heist involved him and his team donning masks of ex-Presidents.

Watchmen (2009) – Jackie Earle Haley
Rorschach’s mask was unlike most others, in that it reflected his personality, the inky lines shifting and swirling with his mood.

Karaoke? Yeah baby!

Joseph-Gordon-Levitt-500-Days-SummerSpontaneously bursting into song, that’s what it’s all about. By ‘it’ I mean random and unexpected musical scenes in films. They are like little rays of cinematic sunshine.

And, like all good moments of music that you experience in your life, a lot of these will have stayed with you as fond memories; for me, I’ve always had a soft spot for the songs in A Life Less Ordinary and Empire Records.

Some of these you may have seen coming – karaoke for example – but some, I imagine, took you by surprise in a wonderful way, as they did me. Here’s my selection:

‘Don’t Stop Believing’ Chris Evans – The Losers
Need to ensure no one gets in the lift with you? Just sing Journey with gusto. An unexpected and genuinely hilarious scene, one which works due to Evans’ ballsy delivery.

‘Beyond The Sea’
Ewan McGregor and Cameron Diaz – A Life Less Ordinary
A great scene in this underrated Danny Boyle film. It got me hooked on Bobby Darin for a fair while and remains one of my favourite Cameron Diaz performances.

‘Sugar High’
Renee Zellweger – Empire Records
It’s hard to pick one scene in a film packed with musical gems. This one is so much fun that it makes the cut. And Zellweger is so sweet singing her little heart out.

‘Hey Ma’
Anna Kendrick and Jake Gyllenhaal – End Of Watch
Apparently on a long drive the two actors were mucking about singing in character with director David Ayer in the back seat. He caught this and stuck it in the movie. That’s a moment.

‘Brass In Pocket’
Scarlett Johansson – Lost In Translation
This Sofia Coppola film which gave Scarlett her break remains my favourite of her performances. As she donned a pink wig, Bill Murray’s resistance was futile.

‘These Eyes’
Michael Cera – Superbad
Comedy that stands the test of time, now that’s tough. This film holds up though. A modern classic, encapsulated in this memorable scene. The hurtin’s on me yeah!

‘Here Comes Your Man’
Joseph Gordon-Levitt – 500 Days Of Summer
I have to say, I know one or two girls that would fall over themselves to get a piece of Gordon-Levitt. Here he gives us a masterclass in how to effortlessly rock a tank top.

‘Afternoon Delight’
Will Ferrell, Steve Carrell, Paul Rudd and David Koechner – Anchorman
Remember the first time you saw this film? Every scene held a wonderful surprise. This one was a classic example as I doubt anyone saw this 1976 song by the Starland Vocal Band coming.

‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’
Tom Cruise – Top Gun
I am sure I’m not the only one that’s had mates reenact this in the direction of unsuspecting women; essentially cornering them till the song is done. Ladies do love a crooner.

‘New York New York’
Carey Mulligan – Shame
Filmed with Mulligan singing live in one unbroken shot, this scene is so raw and affecting that I’ve only been able to watch it twice. Along with Fassbender, Mulligan elevated this film to pure art.

‘He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands’
Steve Buscemi – Con Air
Supremely creepy, yet mesmerising in a way. An innocuous little scene in the middle of this – clearly quite bonkers – Michael Bay movie has Buscemi singing like a loon as their plane prepares to crash.

‘Blue Shadows’
Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, Martin Short – Three Amigos
This 1986 John Landis classic was packed with wonderfully witty musical ditties. Whilst ‘My Little Buttercup’ tends to get all the plaudits, honorable mention should go to this song too.

Oblivion: Cruise, Kurylenko, Riseborough – an effective team?

5170522a5a42e-Oblivion_01-510x340Does Oblivion cut the futuristic mustard? Yes and no. The last Cruise sci-fi film I can recall that was any good was Minority Report (more a noir thriller, but anyway) – so this latest offering has a lot to live up to. Actually, looking back through his filmography, he’s not been in that many sci-fi films, perhaps with good reason, but we’ll come to that later.

In terms of Oblivion, the story begins by telling us earth as we know it has been ravaged and left largely uninhabitable, the result of war with an invading alien species known as scavengers (scavs). Humanity won the war but lost the planet. As a result the human race is leaving earth on a giant ship called the Tet. In order to do so they’re sucking energy out the oceans to power their voyage into space.

With the planet still inhabited by scavs, drone machines roam the earth protecting the big ocean-sucking machines. Maintaining the drones are Jack (Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), Cruise-Ship-Oblivionwho live in a sort of suspended bubble dwelling in the clouds. As they near the end of their maintenance assignment Victoria is more than ready to leave, whilst Jack is still quite attached to planet earth and begins to have other ideas.

All of what I’ve just described takes place in the first few minutes, so if you hit the cinema five minutes late you’ll have missed a lot of plot. However, never fear! What you’ll find over the next two hours of cinema time is essentially a game of spot the sci-fi reference, as the film is literally littered with them.

To backtrack a second, it all begins with Jack doing his maintenance rounds on the planet’s surface, fixing drones, bombing around on a motorbike, doing his Tom Cruise thing. Scavs are hinted at in teasing, telling shots – Jack is being watched but he doesn’t know it. This part, for me, is the most effective – taking its cues from films like Moon, I am Legend and so on. There’s a sense of loneliness and isolation, one man surviving against the odds, clinging on to his humanity. It’s also tense, edge-of-the seat stuff – director Joseph Kosinski uses space and silence well in this apocalyptic setting to play on our fears of the unknown.

Film+Review+Oblivion_KaufFrom there we have ‘major plot point 1’ when a ship crashes in Cruise’s maintenance sector. He investigates, only to find and rescue Julia (Olga Kurylenko) a woman he’d been dreaming about for some time. Not every day the woman of your dreams comes careering out the sky to crash on your doorstep is it? Well this is Hollywood, keep up.

Needless to say Julia has a noticeable impact on Jack. This is when the movie begins to show its hand and the scavs aren’t all they appear to be. Neither is anything else for that matter. Much like the first five minutes, there are a lot of twists and turns near the end, so you’d better be on your A-game come the finish; nudge nudge, wink wink.

In terms of performances, Cruise does ok. I mean, it’s not a dramatic stretch for him. Kurylenko doesn’t have a vast amount to do other than run around and pout a bit. The biggest revelation, for me, was Andrea Riseborough. She gave her character depth and oblivion_7c9f9ffbefa5afdf19ac4563d6bd23cbcomplexity in what was essentially a small but vital role.

This film was Kosinki’s baby, taken from a half-finished idea and a half-finished graphic novel, sold to the studio and the star on some beautiful concept artwork. But that’s exactly what it is, a half-finished film. First half with Jack alone on the planet’s surface, maintaining drones, building the tension and silence was suspenseful and beautiful. Indeed, the film in general was a visual joy, all clean lines; blue, white and grey. Polished, futuristic, yet wistful, eerie and a touch ominous. As soon as it revealed its hand the tension fizzled out and we had a standard Tom Cruise action tale. No bad thing, but it could have been so much more, simply by doing less. Often the hardest thing to achieve.

Overall, a decent, beautiful looking sci-fi with a promising start, that perhaps loses its way a little in the third act, but does so in an entertaining fashion.

Top ten performances of Tom Cruise

After being impressed with Cruise’s performance in Jack Reacher recently it got me thinking. Is Cruise one of the hardest working actors in Hollywood? He surely must be, given his output. Since his first credited role in Endless Love in 1981, I can only count seven instances in the last 31 years where he’s had more than a one-year break between jobs. Mostly he’s had at least one film out a year, 39 in total to date.

What’s most impressive is the range of films and quality of performances. I assume that’s why, for some people, he’s a divisive figure. A man at the top of his game and loving it. Whether you’re a fan or not, it’s hard to dispute his screen presence and charisma. Here’s my pick of his top ten performances:

  • lestat tom cruiseInterview with the Vampire – 1994
    Cruise wasn’t initially favoured by novelist Anne Rice, but won her and audiences over with his sublime, sadistic and graceful take on aristocratic vampire Lestat, constantly tormenting Brad Pitt’s troubled vampire Louis.
  • Vanilla Sky – 2001
    Described as ‘Jerry Maguire on an acid trip’ this sees Cruise play a publishing mogul who becomes facially disfigured following a car accident. What happens then is anyone’s guess as dream and reality blend together in Cameron Crowe’s twisted tale.
  • A Few Good Men – 1992
    Slugging it out with Jack Nicholson’s army general in a courtroom is no easy task. Cruise’s performance as idealistic navy lawyer was realistic and compelling, plus he gave us that iconic ‘you can’t handle the truth’ scene.
  • YouCompleteMe_JerryMaguireJerry Maguire – 1996
    Taking nothing away from the outstanding Zellweger, this film is anchored by Cruise’s raw, touching performance as sports agent Jerry, trying to rebuild a career and hang on to his marriage. A beautifully told, feel-good tale.
  • Minority Report – 2002
    Some may think this a Spielberg action tale, but it’s closer to a futuristic film noir. Cruise convincingly plays cop John Anderton whose life gets upended, accused of a crime and forced to clear his name whilst on the run.
  • Collateral – 2004
    Perhaps this was a nice warm up to play Reacher – here he played a cold, calculating and ruthless hitman, les-grossman-moviestuck in a cat-and-mouse game with Jamie Foxx’s average Joe-type cab driver.
  • Tropic Thunder – 2008
    With an ensemble cast of great comic actors, Cruise stands out as ruthless studio head Les Grossman – his tirades (I will massacre you!), his dancing, his menace. Fantastically funny and refreshing.
  • The Last Samurai – 2003
    As world-weary Captain Nathan Algren, his performance in Ed Zwick’s epic action tale is truly a masterclass in submitting wholeheartedly to the character. Compelling, heartfelt and affecting throughout.
  • Jack Reacher – 2012
    Ensuring the wrath of Lee Child fans worldwide, Cruise opted to play 6’5 man-mountain army detective Jack Reacher – a sort of modern Dirty Harry. Here he gives the character wit, intelligence and gravitas.
  • tom cruise Born on the Fourth of July 01Born on the Fourth of July – 1989
    Delivering arguably a career-best performance as wheelchair-bound Vietnam veteran Ron Kovich. This film came only a few years into his career ascendancy, but firmly cemented him as bona fide A-grade, talent.

Jack Reacher – Cruise brings the pain!

JACK REACHERThere’s been so much talk of Cruise not being tall enough to fulfil the role of Lee Child’s man mountain creation Reacher, that many have lost sight of the fact that he’s an incredibly versatile, dramatic action actor.

It’s no wonder Lee Child gave his seal of approval. Plus if we’re going to talk physical appearance – other than height – Cruise fits the bill. As well as being incredibly ripped (there’s a shirt off scene to prove it) he gets Reacher’s movement spot on. A hulking presence, hands loose, ready to fight – but able to talk his way out of situations if needed.

Cruise also brings an intensity and intelligence to Reacher, perhaps drawing on his ruthless hitman character from Collateral. Dialogue on Reacher’s part is kept sparse and concise, so you’ll be disappointed if you think you’re paying to see a breakneck action film with the dial ramped up to 110%. Mission Impossible this ain’t and that’s no bad thing.

One director, one shot
This largely due to Writer/Director Christopher McQuarrie, whose past work includes The Usual Suspects, The Way of the Gun and Valkyrie. He’s also written the screenplay for forthcoming films The Wolverine and All You Need Is Kill, the latter starring Cruise.

McQuarrie’s films are intelligent and well scripted, often with great set pieces. His gun battles put you in mind of Michael Mann’s Heat in some respects. He’s primarily a writer, but his last directorial effort, The Way of the Gun starring Benicio Del Toro and Ryan Phillippe, was highly underrated. If you missed it, here’s the hilarious opening scene – not for kids!

JACK REACHERAnd so, back to the film. In terms of cast Cruise is amply – ahem – supported by Rosamund Pike’s lawyer, Helen, who mainly gets to react to most situations with wide-eyed surprise and a heaving busom. Sixty years ago that part would’ve gone to Marilyn Monroe! Perhaps I’m being unfair, Pike does well with what she has, but ultimately this is Cruise’s movie. That said, there’s a great addition of Robert Duvall in the third act. Bigger than a cameo and helps the plot along.

In terms of bad guys, McQuarrie’s choice of villain, Werner Herzog as shadowy gulag survivor The Zec, was an inspired one, if a tad underwritten. He has a suitably creepy introduction but goes a little downhill from there – his motivation for evil deeds perhaps not coming across as well as it could have done.

All in all though, McQuarrie and Cruise have confidently created a potential new action franchise. Reacher, a throwback to characters from 70s and 80s films, could perhaps be a breath of fresh air if done in a modern way. On the strength of this film, my guess is don’t be surprised if we see a sequel in the next few years. If McQuarrie stays on board – or a similar type of Director – then we’d be in for a treat.