Mission: Impossible (1996)

The 100 Films Guide to…

Mission: Impossible

Expect the Impossible

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 110 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 22nd May 1996 (USA & Canada)
UK Release: 5th July 1996
Budget: $80 million
Worldwide Gross: $457.7 million

Stars
Tom Cruise (Top Gun, Minority Report)
Jon Voigt (Midnight Cowboy, Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2)
Emmanuelle Béart (Manon des Sources, 8 Women)
Henry Czerny (Clear and Present Danger, The Ice Storm)
Jean Reno (Léon, Ronin)
Ving Rhames (Pulp Fiction, Dawn of the Dead)

Director
Brian De Palma (The Untouchables, Snake Eyes)

Screenwriters
David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Spider-Man)
Robert Towne (Chinatown, Tequila Sunrise)

Story by
David Koepp (Death Becomes Her, Panic Room)
Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List, Gangs of New York)

Based on
Mission: Impossible, a TV series created by Bruce Geller.


The Story
When a covert mission goes sideways and the rest of his team are killed, agent Ethan Hunt is blamed for their murder. On the run from his CIA employers, he sets out to prove his innocence and bring the real culprit to justice.

Our Hero
Mission: Impossible may be meant to be a team exercise, but as most of them get killed we’re focused on surviving member Ethan Hunt, an exemplary agent who must figure out what happened and track down who’s responsible.

Our Villain
The CIA man, Kittridge, who thinks Hunt is responsible for killing his team and is determined to bring him in. Of course, Hunt’s innocent — so is Kittridge really behind it all?

Best Supporting Character
Needing a new team, Hunt recruits a couple of disgraced IMF agents. One is Luther Stickell, a stylish computer expert and hacker. Despite his initial doubts, he’ll become one of Ethan’s loyalest team mates.

Memorable Quote
Kittridge: “I can understand you’re very upset.”
Ethan Hunt: “Kittridge, you’ve never seen me very upset.”

Memorable Scene
Ethan and his team need to retrieve a computer file from the only place it exists: a highly secure room in the centre of CIA headquarters. Access is controlled by voice print identification, a six-digit access code, a retinal scan, and a double electronic key card — none of which they have. In the vault itself, security measures include sensors for pressure (anything on the floor sets if off), noise (anything above a whisper sets it off), and temperature (a rise of a single degree sets it off). All of which leaves Ethan with only one option: to lower himself in from the ceiling, staying calm and cool enough not to raise the temperature, while not making any noise — all while hoping the guy who works in the room doesn’t come back. The resulting heist scene is a fabulous bit of suspense moviemaking.

Memorable Music
Danny Elfman provides a good score for the main body of the film, but the shining star remains Lalo Schifrin’s main theme, as iconic a piece of spy-fi music as the James Bond one. The new version featured here wasn’t produced by Elfman, however, but by the less famous half of U2, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen. It was also released as a single and became a sizeable hit, reaching #7 in both the UK and US charts (where it received a gold certification) and even making it to #1 in some countries.

Technical Wizardry
The main title sequence is a modern do-over of elements from the TV series: a fast cut (even by today’s standards) montage of scenes from the film to come, plus a burning fuse, all scored by that updated version of the peerless theme music.

Making of
Jon Voigt, as pudgy “getting soft in his old age” Jim Phelps, was 57 years old when they made this film. For the new one, Tom Cruise learnt to fly a helicopter so he could do it all himself throughout a major stunt sequence, and actually performed hundreds of tricky HALO skydives for another major sequence, not to mention sundry other bits of running around and jumping off buildings — most of it while recovering from a serious leg injury. He is 55. How times change.

Previously on…
The original Mission: Impossible TV series was a popular and long-running part of the James Bond-provoked spy-fi craze of the ’60s. It was revived for two seasons in the ’80s. Although the film might look like a reboot, it kind of isn’t: there’s supporting material (such as the character bios on the film’s DVD and Blu-ray releases) that reconciles both TV series into the same continuity as the movie.

Next time…
Multiple never-less-than-entertaining sequels, starting with the standalone M:i-2, before becoming increasingly serialised through M:i:III, Ghost Protocol, and Rogue Nation. This summer’s sixth instalment, Fallout, promises to bring them all to some kind of head.

Awards
1 Saturn Award nomination (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film)
1 Kids’ Choice Award nominations (Favourite Movie Actor (Tom Cruise))
1 MTV Movie Award nomination (Action Sequence (for the train-helicopter chase) — it lost to Twister)
1 Razzie nomination (Worst Written Film Grossing Over $100 Million — it lost to Twister, again)

Verdict

Watching Mission: Impossible now, it’s funny that people used to regard it as unfollowably complex. I’m not saying the plot is straightforward, but if you pay attention then it’s all there. Obviously it can’t be that there were no complicated movies made before 1996, but I guess because at the time it was a summer blockbuster (not enough CGI or superpowers for that nowadays, of course) people didn’t expect to have to think about the story. Arguably it displays the kind of intricacy and complexity we specifically praise in spy thrillers, meaning the film has actually aged very well indeed. Well, it’s always been popular (it was the third highest grossing film of ’96), so I guess it just took a while for its reputation to catch on.

The world premiere of the new Mission: Impossible, Fallout, is in Paris today. It hits UK cinemas on 25th July and US theaters on July 27th. It’s not actually released in France until August 1st.

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Red Sparrow (2018)

2018 #149
Francis Lawrence | 140 mins | download (UHD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Red Sparrow

Jennifer Lawrence stars as Dominika, a Russian ballerina whose career-ending injury leads her down a path to becoming a “sparrow” — a highly-trained undercover operative for the Russian secret service. Used and abused throughout her training, when she’s sent after a CIA agent (Joel Edgerton) in order to find a mole within Russian intelligence, a series of double- and triple-crosses leave everyone in doubt about whose side she’s really on… including, er, us viewers.

Red Sparrow is set today. I think. It’s easy to forget. I had to check on a couple of occasions, including one final double-check before writing this review. The thing is, the politics of it all is very Cold War. Of course, given the current state of geopolitics, a neo-Cold War between Russian and the West is probably at its most believable since the ’80s, it’s just that this film’s handling of it doesn’t feel timely and modern, but like a Cold War story that someone decided should be set today. Partly that’s because a lot of the technology and tradecraft feels like it comes from a previous era too. I mean, one major sequence revolves around floppy disks. Floppy disks! I can’t even remember the last time I saw a floppy disk. Either that bit is based on something real-world (like, there’s a reason why someone stealing secrets would still be using floppies) — and, if it is, the film doesn’t bother to lay out why — or it’s the single most unrealistic thing in a movie that’s about a former ballerina being trained to be a Russian spy skilled in psychological influence and sexual manipulation in just three months — i.e. this is a pretty unrealistic movie all round.

Lady spy in red

Even if we ignore the inconsistencies of its temporal setting, it struggles with what else it has going for it. In its attempts to provide a twisty-turny plot, it’s not as clever as it thinks it is. As it flips and flops around about which side Dominika is supposed to be on really, clearly intending for us to feel wrong-footed every half-hour or so, the gears of how it’s setting up an inevitable final “reveal” begin to show through. Either that or I’m a genius for working it out ahead of time, whichever. One great well-disguised twist is better than endless back-and-forthing, but none of the filmmakers here seem to realise that, or don’t have the confidence to rely solely on that final reveal. Another side effect of this is it becomes hard to root for any particular character. Maybe this is the legacy of it being a US production: it can’t quite bring itself to ask us to fully invest in Dominika, a Russian spy, even as it tries to keep her the heroine. Plus the supposed twists wouldn’t work if we were actually let in on what she was plotting.

And away from the plot, the whole movie is sort of… seedy, but without owning it. It wants to be about sex and to somehow be honest about that, while also trying not to titillate in any way. It wants to be realistically violent, while merely being nasty in just one or two scenes. Conversely, it also wants to be a grown-up, labyrinthine Le Carré-esque thriller, but it’s so busy trying to repeatedly fool you that it forgets to properly engage you. It certainly doesn’t succeed in being plausible, with the elaborate plan Dominika supposedly concocted relying rather too much on crossed-fingers-type logic — or, I’m sure the filmmakers would say, her unparalleled ability to read people.

Sexy spy shenanigans

I’d rather it had picked a side: either go all out schlock — more violence, more tits — or go full intelligent thriller — rein in the seediness, rein in the superhuman foresight. As it is, Red Sparrow is not trashy enough to be titillating, certainly not clever enough to challenge Le Carré as the go-to example of intelligent spy thrills, and not stylish enough to get away with it either. It kind of sits in an awkward middle ground between all those things. I didn’t actually dislike it, but it didn’t thrill me either.

3 out of 5

Red Sparrow is released on DVD, Blu-ray, and UHD Blu-ray in the UK today.

Passengers (2016)

2017 #156
Morten Tyldum | 116 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Passengers

This review contains major spoilers.

I got the distinct impression everyone hated Passengers when it came out 18 months ago — it has a lowly 31% on Rotten Tomatoes, and most of the think-pieces penned in its wake seemed to be about how terrible one particular aspect was (I’ll come to that, hence the spoiler warning). It has a 7.0 on IMDb though, which might not sound great, but anything north of 7 isn’t bad on IMDb — there are plenty of popular movies languishing in the 6s. Personally, I rather enjoyed it.

Sometime in the future, shortly after mankind has begun to colonise other worlds, the spaceship Avalon is on a 120-year journey to a new planet with thousands of colonist-to-be in hibernation onboard. Just 30 years into the trip, the Avalon strikes an asteroid field, causing a malfunction that wakes up just two passengers: Jim (Chris Pratt), a mechanical engineer, and Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), a journalist. Faced with the prospect of never reaching the destination they’d set out for, the pair begin to develop a relationship.

Or so the trailer would have you believe (and this is where the spoilers come). In fact, the malfunction only awakens Jim. After a year alone on the ship, with his only company being a robot bartender called Arthur (the always excellent Michael Sheen), a suicidal Jim comes across Aurora’s pod. Smitten, he watches her video diary, struggles with the morality of awakening her… and eventually does, claiming her pod must’ve malfunctioned too. What a bastard, right? Eventually Aurora finds out and hates Jim for robbing her of the life she’d intended, but this is a romance movie so…

I C You

Obviously, this is the aspect that generated all those digital column inches. Having read some of them, I get the impression that the reason so many people were annoyed by Jim’s dick move is either, a) it wasn’t hinted at by the trailer (therefore people were too busy trying to read the film as a straight-up romance, because that’s what the ads promised, and didn’t consider the actual story it was telling), or b) people seem to really struggle with movies where the lead character makes bad decisions that are either unlikeable or amoral. That’s a general observation I have about audiences, but it seems applicable here. See the numerous “Star Lord is the real villain of Infinity War” hot takes for a similar Chris Pratt-related example.

One of the reasons people being angry about the film’s ethics bug me is that at no point does the movie try to argue that Jim waking up Aurora was a good decision — everyone knows it was a bad, selfish idea. What the film does do is try to make you see why he would make that choice (it takes him over a year to do it, remember), and then shows how everyone eventually deals with the fallout (which is just life — shit you don’t want happens and you have to find a way to handle it). In fact, buried underneath all the romancing and effects whizz-bangery of the film’s climax, maybe there are some decent life/moral lessons, about the need for forgiveness, and accepting, and making the most out of things we can’t change.

No! Bad Jim! Bad!

A lot of people seemed to jump on the idea the film would be better if acts one and two were flipped — if we woke up alongside Aurora, only later learning of Jim’s betrayal. It would certainly have been different. Better? I don’t know. It would shift the emphasis around a lot. Maybe it would’ve made him romancing her more palatable for those who found it objectionable to their core, because while watching it you wouldn’t know what he’d done — but it wouldn’t change what he did, just how you were presented with it. In some ways, then, the movie we have got is the more interesting version: we know what he did throughout their courtship and have to accept that fact.

Moral questionability aside, the romantic plot is actually traditionally shaped: there’s the meet-cute (it’s just a sci-fi’d-up one), the falling for each other, the disagreement and separation, and eventual reconciliation. Maybe such familiarity is fine when it’s being dressed up in shiny new sci-fi surroundings; maybe it was the problem, too: the massive betrayal at the film’s core gets in the way of a traditional happy-sappy arc; if you wanted to go all gooey over their burgeoning romance, it gets in your way. But it’s a more interesting story because of it. In real life, such a horrid act might prompt a definite “walk away and never see him again” response. Things aren’t so straightforward aboard the Avalon. If you wanted them to be… well, so did Aurora, and she didn’t have a choice either. Perhaps the film could’ve spent more time digging into the emotional impact and decision-making of that rather than faffing with a sci-fi-cum-disaster-movie action-packed climax, but when your movie’s this expensive (as much to do with the no-doubt-ginormous salaries of the two stars as it is the CGI, I expect) you need some money shots and jeopardy to draw the blokes in.

Sci-fi money shot

Taken as a sci-fi movie, I really liked it. The concepts are well considered and played out, from the big ideas of how colonisation might work to little touches of how the tech functions. Much of the ship and its interfaces are beautifully designed and realised — I don’t know how much of it was built for real, but I suspect a fair chunk of the main locations are practical, and I do love a big set. I liked Arthur too, partly because I like Michael Sheen, but also because of how he functions as a robot designed to be kind of your mate.

On the whole, I suspect the negative reaction to Passengers is more a case of mismanaged expectations for some audience members rather than it being an objectively bad movie. I guess a lot of critical viewers put themselves in Aurora’s position, but Jim’s dilemma is just as relatable — I mean, not in a literal sense (none of us are ever likely to wind up in such a situation), but in a “what would I do?” way. Clearly, everyone thinks he did the wrong thing, but can you blame him? Would you be able to withstand a life of total loneliness? Maybe you would. Maybe you think you would. Nonetheless, the romance plot is inevitable (because that’s how movie plots work, especially in expensive Hollywood blockbusters), so the time bomb of What He Did adds an uncommon frisson. And the big action climax isn’t bad for what it is.

It's full of stars!

That said, the more you think about it, the more you can dream up variations that would’ve been of even greater interest. Like, what if Jim wasn’t physically attractive? Would Aurora still have fallen in love with an ugly bloke just because he was the only fella there? Or what if he’d died, leaving her to face the same dilemma he had — would she in fact wake someone up too? But those kinds of alternatives are far too challenging for a Hollywood romantic blockbuster. Like, the only way you’d get a physically unattractive leading man would be if it was a comedy and he was funny, and then she’d fall for him in spite of his looks because he made her laugh. But hey, it’s Hollywood entertainment behaving like Hollywood entertainment — should we be surprised?

4 out of 5

The Snowman (2017)

2018 #84
Tomas Alfredson | 119 mins | streaming (UHD) | 1.85:1 | UK, USA & Sweden / English | 15 / R

The Snowman

I read a comment somewhere that said Tomm Wiseau’s notorious film The Room is like a movie made by someone who’s never seen one but has had the concept thoroughly explained. The Snowman is like that but with crime thrillers.

Michael Fassbender stars as Norwegian detective Harry Hole — I presume there’s been some kind of fault of culture or translation there because, in English, that’s pretty much the worst name for a detective ever conceived without deliberately trying to be awful. He’s kind of washed up, with a terrible private life, but he’s also an unassailably brilliant detective — oh yeah, the originality keeps on coming. Anyway, after a woman disappears, an ominous snowman built near the crime sets Hole and a younger cop (Rebecca Ferguson) on the trail of a serial killer who’s been active for decades.

All of which should make for at least a solid crime thriller, but it just doesn’t quite work. It’s like the whole thing has been almost-correctly-but-not-quite translated from another language. I’m not just talking about the dialogue (though that’s sometimes that way too), but the very essence of the movie — the character arcs, the storylines, even the construction of individual scenes. Like many a Google Translate offering, you can kinda tell what it’s meant to be, but it doesn’t actually make sense in itself. According to the director, around 15% of the screenplay was never even filmed due to a rushed production schedule, which perhaps explains some of these problems.

Mr and Ms Police

Said director is Tomas Alfredson, the man who gave us Let the Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, so you’d expect a lot better of him. Even the technical elements are mixed: there’s some stunning photography and scenery, contrasted with occasional bad green screen; and all of Val Kilmer’s lines had to be dubbed (due to his tongue being swollen from cancer, apparently), but it sounds like it. His performance on the whole is weird, just one more part of the film that doesn’t sit right. It all builds to a massively stupid, unremittingly nonsensical finale. It’s during the final act where things finally goes overboard from “not very good” to “irredeemably bad”.

Indeed, some of the The Snowman is so shockingly awful that I considered if it merited my rare one-star rating. It’s close, but a lot of the film is fine — it actually toddles along at a reasonable three-star level most of the time, before falling apart entirely towards the end. “It could be worse” may be the faintest of praise, but it certainly doesn’t deserve any more.

2 out of 5

The Snowman is available on Sky Cinema from midnight tonight.

Game Night (2018)

2018 #111
John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein | 100 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Game Night

Despite what the poster suggests, the cute dog is not in fact one of the three leads.

1 out of 5

Okay, okay — let’s put the Westie-based bait-and-switch advertising aside and give the film a fair hearing, because it’s actually surprisingly brilliant.

The other poster stars, Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams, play hyper-competitive couple Max and Annie, who love nothing more than the weekly game night they host with their best friends, from which they exclude their odd next-door neighbour, Westie-loving cop Gary (Jesse Plemons). One week, Max’s super-successful older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) unexpectedly shows up and gatecrashes game night, then offers to host an even better one. For that he arranges a real-life mystery game, where he gets kidnapped and the others have to track him down… except then he gets kidnapped for real, and they only have the rest of the night to rescue him.

If you’ve ever wondered “what if someone reimagined David Fincher’s The Game as a comedy?”, Game Night is probably the answer. Personally, I’ve never wondered that, but I’m up for it. That said, I was all prepared to let it wait until it popped up on Netflix or something, until the film’s home release in the US a couple of months back prompted a wave of praise from critics I follow on Twitter. Now I’m adding my small voice to those urging you to check this movie out.

Wanna play a game?

It’s the kind of film where I don’t want to say much more than I already have, because obviously the joy lies in the jokes (and jokes are a lot less funny if you spoil them) and the plot developments. At the risk of just reeling off a list of superlatives, I’ll say that what unfolds is fast, inventive, clever (after you’ve seen the film, check out this spoilersome bit of trivia. I mean, that’s superb!), and, above all, hilariously funny. There are more laughs in its opening montage than many modern comedies manage in a whole film. Jesse Plemons transcends the “budget Matt Damon” jibes (but, c’mon, he really looks like an own-brand Matt Damon) to all but steal the film with his hysterical straight-faced supporting role. I only say “all but” because everyone else is firing on all cylinders too: it’s a cast full of likeable, well-performed characters, not least Max and Annie. McAdams, in particular, gets to give a line delivery that’s an all-timer. If there’s a criticism in this regard it’s that, with so many characters competing for screen time, I’m not sure how well their individuals arcs really work, but that’s a minor distraction.

One other thing I will criticise — which is nothing to do with the quality of the film itself, but bugged me enough that here’s a whole paragraph about it — is the scarcity of extras on the Blu-ray, which total just ten minutes. Seriously? Put some effort in! All the praise from American Twitter led me to acquire the film via Alternative Means, but, being the good honest film consumer I am, I was going to rent it when it came out here as retrospective payment. But then I loved it so much I thought I’d just go ahead and buy the disc. But a full-price new release of a film I’ve already seen with a grand total of ten minutes of special features? You’re having a laugh. Were there no deleted scenes? Could they not stump up for a commentary? Surely they filmed longer interviews than that just for the EPK? But no, all we get is a 6½-minute gag reel and a 3½-minute “featurette” (I’m being kind — at that length it can’t be much more than a trailer). I’m going to buy it eventually, in a sale, because I enjoyed the film enough to add it to my collection, but you cost yourself a day-one purchase there, Warners. I don’t know how much the general film-viewing populace still care about special features, but us aficionados do, and I know I’m not alone in feeling this way about this particular title. Anyway, rant over.

Who's stealing the film now, eh?

For pure enjoyment, I came very close to giving Game Night the full five stars — when it works, it absolutely sings — but there are just a few bits, here and there, that fell a little short. Nonetheless, it’s certainly the kind of film I loved in spite of its flaws. If only the adorable dog had been in it more, maybe this’d be a five anyway…

4 out of 5

Game Night is available to own digitally in the UK from today, and on that disappointing DVD & Blu-ray from next week.

Yojimbo (1961)

aka Yôjinbô

2017 #126
Akira Kurosawa | 111 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | PG

Yojimbo

Best known to many viewers as the film Sergio Leone ripped off to make A Fistful of Dollars, Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo is itself already a Western in all but setting: it stars Toshiro Mifune as Sanjuro, a ronin who wanders into a village where two gangs are at loggerheads, a conflict from which the regular folk cower in fear. Where Kurosawa deviates from the Western, at least as they had been made to that point, is that Sanjuro isn’t a clean-cut hero who’ll side with the good guys and get this mess sorted — he’s a mercenary, primarily out for his own interests; and besides, there are no good guys to join: both gangs are equally bad.

In his essay that accompanies Criterion’s release of the film, Alexander Sesonske argues that Kurosawa is actually combining “two typically American genres”. So we have “a classic Western setting, with dust and leaves blowing across the wide, empty street that runs the length of a village, a lone stranger passes as frightened faces peer from behind shutters”, mixed with the morals (or lack thereof) of a gangster movie, with everyone a crook hoping to merely outgun the others. That all comes wrapped in the milieu of a samurai movie, meaning instead of pistol duels or scattershot machine-gun fire we get flashing blades. Indeed, Yojimbo was the first film to have a sound effect for a sword slashing human flesh — they had to experiment to get it right, because it had never been done. Considering the film also features severed limbs and squirting blood, the BBFC’s PG seems awfully lenient…

Observing the conflict

Given all that, it seems like this is an almost mercilessly nihilistic film. It’s set in a town that’s been fucked up by the never-ending gang warfare, and over the course of the story nearly everyone dies, many of them in brutally violent fashion. Even the hero seems remorseless, killing freely and plotting to get the two gangs to massacre each other because he sees a way to profit. Sesonske asserts that “Yojimbo lacks the intellectual challenge of Rashomon, the moral resonance of Ikiru, or the sweep and grandeur of Seven Samurai”, which may all be true to an extent, but we shouldn’t disregard what the film does offer: a bleak worldview that chimes with the careless brutality of the world as we know it.

Even in such hopelessness there is beauty, and here, at least, that comes from Kazuo Miyagawa’s gorgeous black-and-white cinematography. With many incredibly blocked and framed shots, it’s no wonder Kurosawa has been so copied — his visuals are always amazing. His exacting desires may’ve created various production issues (the specially-built set, made with extreme period accuracy, was unprecedentedly expensive; to create the windswept effect they used all of the studio’s wind machines, which was so powerful actors couldn’t open their eyes and camera cranes couldn’t complete moves; and he used all of the studio’s big lights for night scenes, but the way they pulsated meant lens filters had to be used to compensate), but it doesn’t half look good in the end.

5 out of 5

Yojimbo was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

Review Roundup

Hello, dear readers! I’ve been away for most of the past week, hence the shortage of posts, but I’m back now, so here’s a random ragtag roundup of reviews to kick things off again.

In today’s roundup:

  • That’s Entertainment! (1974)
  • ’71 (2014)
  • Guardians (2017)


    That’s Entertainment!
    (1974)

    2017 #80
    Jack Haley Jr. | 124 mins | TV | 1.33:1 + 1.78:1 + 2.35:1 + 2.55:1 | USA / English | U / G

    That's Entertainment!

    Greatest hits compilations always seem to be a popular product in the music biz, and that’s essentially what this is, but for movies. An array of famous faces appear on screen to help provide a scattershot history of the MGM musical, but really it’s an excuse to play some fantastic clips from old hits. This may be the kind of programming that TV has taken on and made its own in the decades since, but when the quality of the material is this high, it feels like more than just schedule filler.

    Thanks to many eras being covered it has more aspect ratio changes than a Christopher Nolan movie, though that’s actually quite effective at demarcating the old-school spectacle from the linking chatter. There’s also some “you wouldn’t get that today” commentary, like Frank Sinatra talking about a line of chubby chorus girls (who don’t even look that large!), or various bits and pieces criticising the studio’s history, like how all the films had the same plot.

    It was originally promoted with the tagline “boy, do we need it now”, a reaction to the gritty style of filmmaking that was popular in Hollywood at the time, as well as all the real-life problems of the era (it was released the same year as Nixon resigned because of Watergate). MGM needed it too: the studio was in decline, releasing just five films in 1974. The whole thing carries a somewhat bittersweet air, as ageing stars reflect on past glories from the decrepit environs of MGM’s rundown backlot.

    Nonetheless, it creates a marvellous tribute to a golden era. And I guess it must’ve done alright, because it spawned two sequels, a spin-off, and MGM are still going (more or less) today.

    4 out of 5

    ’71
    (2014)

    2017 #95
    Yann Demange | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

    ’71

    Set in Belfast in (you guessed it) 1971, ’71 is a thriller that sees an Army recruit become separated from his unit during a riot at the height of the Troubles, leaving him trying to survive the night “behind enemy lines”.

    The film’s best stuff is early on: a brewing riot as police perform a door-to-door search; a tense foot chase through the backstreets; a single-take bombing and its aftermath. The immediacy of all this is well-conveyed, suitably tense and exciting, but also plausible. Then the film decides it needs some sort of plot to bring itself to a close, and so it kicks off some IRA infighting and British Army skullduggery. The added complications don’t exactly bring it off the rails — it’s still a fine and tense thriller — but it lacks that extra oomph that the hair-raising sequences of the first half deliver.

    Still, it’s a promising big screen debut for director Yann Demange, who was reportedly among the frontrunners to helm Bond 25 before that got diverted into Danny Boyle and John Hodge’s idea. His second feature, another period movie, this time a crime drama, White Boy Rick, is out later this year.

    4 out of 5

    Guardians
    (2017)

    aka Zashchitniki

    2017 #122
    Sarik Andreasyan | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Russia / Russian | 12

    Guardians

    You may remember this film from when its trailer went viral a couple of years ago: it’s the “Russian answer to The Avengers” that featured a machine-gun-wielding bear. Naturally, that kind of attention assured it got an international release eventually (I paid to rent it, then it later popped up on Prime Video. You never know how these things are going to go, do you?)

    It’s about a bunch of old Soviet superheroes being reactivated to stop a villain. If that sounds vague, well, I can’t remember the details. Frankly, they don’t matter — Guardians is the kind of film a 6-year-old would write after a diet of Saturday morning cartoons, with the same attention to character development and plot structure you’d expect from such an endeavour. The story is semi-nonsensical: the villain’s plan is never clear (beyond “rule the world”); it flits about between subplots; characters appear and disappear from locations… There’s a litany of “things that don’t quite make sense” — too many to remember without making obsessive notes while rewatching, which I have no intention of doing.

    But if you can ignore all that — or, even better, laugh at it — then it’s fairly watchable, in a brain-off entirely-undemanding so-bad-it’s-good kind of way. There’s some decent CGI (given its budget), some half-decent action, and it’s mercifully brief at under 90 minutes.

    2 out of 5

  • Gangster Review Roundup

    In today’s roundup:

  • City of God (2002)
  • RocknRolla (2008)
  • Scarface (1983)


    City of God
    (2002)

    aka Cidade de Deus

    2017 #100
    Fernando Meirelles | 129 mins | DVD + download* | 1.85:1 | Brazil & France / Portuguese | 18 / R

    City of God

    What better insight into my film watching habits than this, a movie I’d been meaning to get round to for the best part of 14 years (ever since it topped Empire’s list of the best films of 2003, around the same time as I was getting into film ‘seriously’, i.e. as more than just “movies I like to watch”). Plus, it was one of my Blindspot picks back in 2015 (but didn’t get watched, obv), and it was the highest ranked film on the IMDb Top 250 that I’d not seen — all good reasons why I made it 2017’s #100.

    Adapted from a novel that was based on real events, it tells the story of how organised crime grew in Rio de Janeiro’s Cidade de Deus favela — the “City of God” of the title — from the late ’60s to the early ’80s. The main thing that struck me watching it now is how much it reminded me of the TV series Romanzo Criminale — both are basically about young people taking over and running all the crime in a city. The fact that they’re also both inspired by true stories (the series depicts a criminal gang in Rome through the ’70s and ’80s) is intriguing for different reasons. They also share certain stylistic similarities, I think, in particular the almost documentary-like visuals. The series came later, of course, so if one did inspire the other then this isn’t the copycat.

    At the risk of turning this into a review of something else, I must say that, while Romanzo Criminale is a favourite of mine (I included it in my 2017 list of Favourite TV Series of the Last 10 Years), City of God was a work I admired more than loved. Nonetheless, for anyone who likes crime epics, this is a must-see (but, uh, so is Romanzo Criminale).

    5 out of 5

    * Possibly because it’s just been sat on a shelf for over a decade (possibly just through sheer bad luck), my DVD was corrupted about halfway through and I had to, uh, source another copy. ^

    RocknRolla
    (2008)

    2017 #146
    Guy Ritchie | 110 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | UK, USA & France / English & Russian | 15 / R

    RocknRolla

    In my review of Snatch I commented that its contemporary reviews were along the lines of “oh, Lock Stock again”, and yet now it’s pretty well regarded. My memories of RocknRolla’s contemporary reviews are “oh, another Guy Ritchie London gangster film — isn’t it time he did something new?” And yet, it now seems to be pretty well regarded. Not as much as Lock Stock and Snatch, but better than you’d think “Guy Ritchie does the same schtick for a fourth time” would merit.

    Well, it is a case of Ritchie doing his usual schtick (thank God he did eventually move on, at least applying the same broad MO to some new genres), but a cast that includes the likes of Idris Elba, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, Tom Wilkinson, and Thandie Newton can’t help but elevate the material. Gerard Butler is ostensibly the lead, front-and-centre on the poster, but the movie follows the standard Ritchie template: an ensemble cast in a variety of story threads that bump into each other and overlap in different ways at different times. Even if the specifics aren’t the same as his other films, and the cinematography is more slick and big-budget than the grimy ’90s indie visuals of his debut and sophomore flick, the general style feels very familiar.

    Ultimately, I enjoyed it more than Snatch, but maybe I was just in the right mood — I mean, like I said, they’re all fundamentally the same kind of thing.

    4 out of 5

    Scarface
    (1983)

    2018 #14
    Brian De Palma | 170 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Spanish | 18 / R

    Scarface

    Brian De Palma’s in-name-only remake of 1932 gangster classic Scarface follows Al Pacino’s Cuban immigrant Tony Montana as he rises up the ranks of organised crime in ’80s Miami. As it turns out, it’s not easy being at the top.

    A near-three-hour epic (what is it with gangster movies being three hours long?), interest is sustained through Pacino’s wild-eyed performance, De Palma’s slick direction, and a story that at least has enough incident to merit that length. Also, early-career Michelle Pfeiffer, who gives a good performance as Montana’s increasingly miserable gal but, frankly, could just stand there and still keep half the population interested.

    Apparently a favourite movie among rappers, I guess some people get the wrong message from Scarface. I suppose the stylishness with which its produced has the side effect of idolising the lifestyle Montana and co lead, but the way it gradually crumbles and destroys everything should be a pretty clear indicator of how such things actually go. Still, it all makes for a heady mix.

    5 out of 5

    Scarface was viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2018.

  • The Conversation (1974)

    2017 #10
    Francis Ford Coppola | 114 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG

    The Conversation

    In the mind of writer-director Francis Ford Coppola, the concept for The Conversation started out as a puzzle, a story that used repetition to make the audience reconsider what they thought they knew — “not like Rashomon where you present it in different ways each time,” Coppola told Brian De Palma (in this interview, which is a must-read for anyone interested in the genesis and making of The Conversation). “Let them be the exact lines but have new meanings in context. In other words, as the film goes along, the audience goes with it because you are constantly giving them the same lines they’ve already heard, yet as they learn a little bit more about the situation they will interpret things differently.” That element is unquestionably still in the film — it propels its plot and generates its twist — but Coppola was a very character-driven filmmaker, and so he couldn’t help but flesh out the man who was listening to those lines over and over again.

    That man is Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), a professional eavesdropper — people pay him to record what other people are saying in private. When Coppola conceived the film, this was just an interesting world to play around in. By the time it was produced and released, Watergate had recently happened and the film could not have been more timely. Nonetheless, the end result is not merely an espionage mystery, but also a character study about what kind of man would perform this work. So we do see how Harry goes about his job, but these scenes are almost as much about telling us who this man is (methodical, thorough, clever, inventive) as they are about furthering the plot (which, naturally, they’re central to).

    Here he just looks like a toilet repair man...

    It’s also about how the job affects him. One part of that is paranoia — an obvious reaction when you think about it. Harry has multiple locks on apartment door, and one major early sequence is based around him trying to establish how a kindly neighbour had got in to leave him a gift — a seemingly innocuous thing, but the potential it holds has him terrified. Come the end of the film, such behaviour takes on a maddening new dimension. But perhaps an even bigger problem is conscience. Harry lies to himself about the nature of his work, because once upon a time a trio of deaths resulted from it. He says they weren’t his fault because he was just doing his job, but he still clearly carries the guilt of it, and that is what ultimately leads him into a new predicament. Not that that ends well either. Yes, it all comes to a very ’70s conclusion: bleak.

    Coppola’s original vision for the film, as a puzzle for the viewer to be solved, survives into the final cut, though anyone watching it just to solve the riddle may find it slow going at times. That’s because Coppola’s other filmmaking instinct, to explore character, has naturally taken hold, and so the movie is as much about the bugger as the bugging. And so it’s very much two things hand in hand: the mystery of what’s going on in the recording, and a study of the psychology of a man who does this for a living. It’s all the richer for being both.

    5 out of 5

    The Conversation was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

    Vehicular Review Roundup

    Get in Vehicle 19 to go for a Drive with The Driver in today’s roundup, featuring:

  • The Driver (1978)
  • Drive (2011)
  • Vehicle 19 (2013)


    The Driver
    (1978)

    2017 #101
    Walter Hill | 92 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA & UK / English | 15 / PG

    The Driver

    Walter Hill’s stripped-back neo-noir car chase thriller stars Ryan O’Neal as The Driver, a getaway man for hire and the best at what he does. Out to get him is Bruce Dern as The Detective, who’ll go to any lengths to catch him — including illegal ones. Almost cornered, the Driver enlists the help of The Player (Isabelle Adjani) to thwart the Detective.

    The film’s influence on the likes of Baby Driver and Drive is clear (Nicolas Winding Refn claims not to have seen it before making his film, but it must’ve been seen by someone somewhere down the line, whether that’s original novelist James Sallis or screenwriter Hossein Amini, because the DNA is right there). Both those later efforts burnished and perfected the formula in different ways, but the original has a gritty, low-rent charm of its own. The archetypal characters and straightforward noir plot are delightful almost because of their simplicity, while the few action scenes are handled with the panache, not of a slick blockbuster, but of a filmmaker who knows how to create something effective even within his limitations.

    The Driver maybe doesn’t transcend those to the level of being a classic, but, for fans of the genres it crosses, it’s deservingly a cult favourite.

    4 out of 5

    Drive
    (2011)

    2017 #106
    Nicolas Winding Refn | 101 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

    Drive

    Iconoclastic Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn had made noteworthy films before Drive, but it felt like this was where he really hit home. It stars Ryan Gosling as a mechanic and part-time movie stunt driver who also moonlights as a getaway man, but when he tries to help out his attractive neighbour (Carey Mulligan) and her husband (Oscar Isaac) he gets embroiled in a crime with deadly consequences.

    It’s a noir storyline with a familiar shape, but as with many of the best examples of that not-quite-a-genre it’s the stylish filmmaking that elevates the material. Refn was influenced by the likes of Jean-Pierre Melville and Sergio Leone to take a very American genre and give it a European influence, and the result is a movie that’s as much about its mood and feel as it is the intricacies of plot or character. Despite the title and theme it’s not even a car chase movie, really, though the handful of well-created driving sequences do pack a greater punch thanks to their scarcity.

    5 out of 5

    Drive was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project.

    Vehicle 19
    (2013)

    2017 #151
    Mukunda Michael Dewil | 82 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / R

    Vehicle 19

    One of the last films Paul Walker completed before his untimely death, Vehicle 19 sees the Fast & Furious star doing what he will always be remembered for: driving a car, sometimes fast. Here he’s Michael Woods, a recent parolee who arrives in Johannesburg intending to reunite with his partner. Unfortunately he picks up the wrong rental car and finds himself the subject of a manhunt, because in the car is evidence relating to a political conspiracy. Unfortunately for the bad guys who want said evidence, Michael is, like, an honourable chap — and also a criminal, so he totally knows how to drive a car like he’s escaping a crime. The main conceit is: the whole film’s shot from within the car.

    Yep, that’s why I watched it. I wish I hadn’t. Vehicle 19 is a deeply stupid movie. Like, Michael’s phone is all-important — it’s the only way he can contact other people; later, it contains vital evidence — but when he notices the battery is low he does nothing about it, despite having a charger in his bag, until the battery literally runs out mid-call. And that’s just one of innumerable nonsensical contrivances throughout the film.

    It lacks pace, and therefore lacks tension. Michael just pootles around the city from the very start. Apparently everywhere is reachable within 20 minutes, or Michael — who’s never been to this city before — thinks it is. Whenever he asks for directions, everywhere he’s going is either just a block away or down the road, third right. At one point the police say they just received a call to 911. From what I can tell, the emergency number in South Africa is not 911. And I could probably go on — the film is absolutely littered with things that just don’t quite hang together.

    Fast and/or furious

    It can’t satisfy as a dumb action flick either. I presume it was a low-budget production with ambitions beyond its scale in the chase scenes. Understandably, the trailer foregrounds these to help sell the movie. Unfortunately for the film, it’s a bit of a bait-and-switch: the clips in the trailer are near-as-dammit the entirety of the film’s action. These sequences are few, far between, short, and, even then, poorly staged. The problem isn’t that they’re all limited to only being seen from within the car (the opening sequence of The Driver does exactly that to marvellous effect, for example), it’s that they lack both adrenaline and plausibility. For example, at one point Michael manages to make the chasing car flip over, but I watched that bit three times to try to decipher it and I still have absolutely no idea how he’s supposed to have done it. Oh, and then the car explodes. And Michael and his passenger seem to react like “oh, that’s that then” and just drive on.

    They’ve got the right idea, though: if you’re thinking of watching Vehicle 19, no, just drive on. Or just put Drive on — it’s a totally different movie, but at least it’s a good one.

    1 out of 5

    Vehicle 19 featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.