Your mission: to file out

Gosh, there is no really bad Mission: Impossible movie, and no really good one, is there? Let me count the ways: the first one, Mission: Impossible (1996), has the courage to kill most of its illustrous cast quite early on, and it has that famous scene wherein a helicopter is chasing a high speed train through a tunnel. That sequence is so preposterously over the top that the rest of the movie sort feels muted in comparison. And if you can make sense of the plot, then you are a better person than me. Continue reading

A Damn Fine Cup of Culture Podcast #2: Magnolia

d1ad56da-abce-4afe-9f45-79294aede9e3Tune in for episode 2 of A Damn Fine Cup of Culture podcast as Mege and Matt discuss Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, with a quick chat about the chilling, murderous Lady Macbeth and the biopic Jackie by Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín. Once again, mild spoilers are to be expected, and we may have some opinions on Tom Cruise – so respect the cup, sit down and listen.

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Taking the edge off tomorrow

Edge of Tomorrow is a dark comedy, at least the first half. It’s a sci-fi action flick, sure, but that is more like a backdrop for the fun it has with its story. We meet William Cage (Tom Cruise), a high-ranking liaisons officer for the U.S. military, who are busy fighting an alien intruder. Within a few minutes, Cage gets blackmailed, demoted and arrested by his general (played by Brendan Gleeson), abducted by his own army and wakes up in an American army base near London being shouted at by a detail leader who looks like Bill Paxton.

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Wait, it gets worse. And the worse it gets, the more I like that first hour. Cage is strapped in a high-tech weapons suit, put on a military aircraft together with his detail  and dropped off over the coast of Normandy, where everything goes fubar. It’s like D-Day orchestrated by Windows 8. There’s a nice running gag about nobody telling Cage how to switch off the safety. Almost everybody dies because the aliens have somehow figured out when and where the U.S. will strike. Cage wakes up again with Paxton staring at him. Reincarnation on repeat is just too much of a hassle – just ask Bill Murray. After he dies a few times more, Cage meets famous war heroine Rita Vrataski who has singlehandedly saved mankind at Verdun.

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That Rita is pragmatic. She knows about Cage’s loop because she has been in one herself. That loop, if you survive for long enough, gives you insight on how to vanquish the aliens, so whenever Rita feels that Cage is not doing too well, she reboots him. By shooting him. In the head. Repeatedly. I think Emily Blunt has just the right amount of gruff zeal with that role.

The second half of the movie has much less of that grim fun, and the movie is the worse for it. The sci-fi mission takes over, and I won’t spoil anything when I tell you that Cage destroys the alien headquarters. It’s all well made, but it’s by the book. Shame. The first bit has so much going for it. Imagine Tom Cruise running into the baracks, yelling at his platoon: “You’re doomed! Now listen to me! Your lives depend on it!” Cruise, like Cage, understands that this is a funny line, and has fun with it because he is the only one who will survive, no matter what.

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Those aliens. Some of them look like really aggressive mops that come out of the ground whenever they sense that humans are near. More evolved ones look like Treebeard has gone digital. That’s not too bad, but they’re not as inventive as they could have been. The screenplay is by Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects), based on a Japanese novel, and the movie is directed by Doug Lyman, who did three of the Bourne films, so he knows how to do a good action flick. My guess is that Lyman knows that, when he’s at his best, his movies are more than just entertainment. That is true for only the first half of this one.

January Variety Pack (2)

A bit later than promised, but here’s the second January Variety Pack, containing all the snap, crackle and pop you could hope for, as well as Teutonic metaphysics and an ageless gnome who’s finally getting old.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Werner Herzog is one of those film makers I’ve been aware of for a long time but whose work I’d never seen. His name triggers childhood memories of zapping into Klaus Kinski films and being weirded out by the guy, and I definitely remember hearing about the epic, ongoing on-set battles between Kinski and Herzog – but I’d never seen more than a couple of seconds of the actual films. I’d heard good things about his earlier documentary, Grizzly Man – but again, if it was ever on I missed it. Cave of Forgotten Dreams hadn’t even been shown at cinemas here when I succumbed to the post-Christmas lure of Amazon.com and went ahead and ordered the film on Blu-ray. Hey, if people praise its amazing visuals, I want all the pixels I can get, right? (No 3D, though – it’s available on the disk, but my TV don’t do three-dimensionality.)

Herzog’s a weird one, at least on the basis of this film. Much of his slow, accented voice-over is heavy on the metaphysics, and while I wouldn’t necessarily say I like it, I cannot deny that I find it compelling – right down to the surreal epilogue featuring albino alligators. It becomes even weirder when Herzog cracks a joke, in the same slow, deliberate, strangely sad voice. (Imagine a voice with a heavy German accent that’s pretty much the aural equivalent of Tommy Lee Jones’ facial expression throughout The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.

As much as Herzog puts his stamp on the film, its real star is the cave itself and its amazing paintings dating back tens of thousands of years. Not all of the individual paintings are equally fascinating, but some show striking subtlety and artistry – and they look as if someone left them there just yesterday. Herzog’s film is highly successful at evoking both the age of the cave artworks and their immediacy – freaky amphibian reptiles with blood-red eyes are just an extra. The film is enjoyable even without smoking pot or drinking a bottle of cheap-but-nice red wine beforehand.

Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol

… or MI:4, to its friends. In spite of my pretentious-yet-middle-of-the-road film geek credentials (with a few dozen Criterion editions on my shelves I cannot really deny it) I like a good action movie. I’ve enjoyed the Bourne series, Die Hard is one of my favourite Christmas flicks (right there with It’s A Wonderful Life and Nightmare Before Christmas) and I have fond memories of the Californian governor relieving Bill Paxton of his boots, clothes and motorbike.

In those terms, is Em-Aye Four a success? There are moments in the film that I’d consider among the most exciting action scenes of the last ten years. (It helps that we’ve arrived at a point where you can’t always tell a green-screen shot from stunt work.) I sat on the edge of the chair, I jumped, my pulse went up, my breath caught, just as the movie intended.

Apart from that, though, the film fails in one fundamental way: I didn’t care about any of the characters. Is the problem that Brad Bird’s first non-animated movie doesn’t know what to do with its human cast (nor, cheap joke alert!, with Tom Cruise)? Perhaps. It pays lip service to characterisation, but the motivations it provides for its protagonists are uninterestingly written and the actors don’t make them come to life. In fact, you care more about the characters when they’re not angsting about the partners they’ve lost to the job – they’re more relatable when they shut the hell up than when they open their mouths and pretend they’re real people.

For what it’s worth, MI:4 is better than John Woo’s MI:2 – but then, watching a burning dove fly past pooing itself in slow-motion fear is (marginally) better than that film. Is it on par with MI:3? I honestly couldn’t say, because for the most part J.J. Abrahams’ stab at the Missionary position self-destructed about five seconds after I exited the cinema… which is quite the achievement, admittedly, for a film featuring Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

Speaking of achievements, though, CGI has finally managed to conceal the fact that Thomas Cruise, Esq. does not age. The wrinkles that have begun to show on the Cruisester’s face look positively life-like. Will the Academy Award go to Make-Up or to Visual Effects? And is there any truth to the rumour that Cruise’s performance was motion-captured off Andy Serkis?

P.S.: For the record, I quite like Tom Cruise as an actor, when he’s got good material and is directed well – or when he shows that he’s got a sense of humour. (A bit of respecting this! and taming that! also seems to work quite well for him…)