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“A Bunch of Grown Men in Rubber Masks Playing Trick or Treat.” Mission: Impossible – Fallout and Good Old-Fashioned Espionage Fun…

One of the most striking aspects of Mission: Impossible – Fallout is how thoroughly and how completely it rejects the idea of morally compromised blockbuster protagonists.

The Mission: Impossible series has always had a bit of an auteur quality to it, with individual writers and directors bringing their own styles to bear on a given installment. The original is very much a Brian dePalma film, leaning heavily into themes of identity and Hitchcockian tension. The second is very much a John Woo film, complete with slow motion black leather and white doves. The third is a J.J. Abrams film that comes in and very consciously tweaks the formula while drawing attention to its own plot mechanics. The fourth is a string of incredibly impressive and kinetic action sequences strung together with Brad Bird’s patented sense of pacing and spectacle.

However, there was some tension when Christopher McQuarrie was recruited to direct the fifth film in the franchise and returned to direct the sixth. McQuarrie is primarily known as a writer rather than a director, with only a handful of director credits to his name. McQuarrie doesn’t necessarily have a distinctive style, although he has a long-standing relationship with Cruise from his work as director on Jack Reacher and as writer on Valkyrie and The Mummy. However, in a high-stakes action series, there was always a question of what McQuarrie could bring to the series to put his own distinct slant on the series. Whether he has or not is still a matter of heated debate; some would argue that Mission: Impossible is an ode to Tom Cruise as auteur or to the stuntman as auteur.

That said, there is a sense that McQuarrie is approaching the material in his own unique way. Perhaps reflecting his own background as a writer, his two Mission: Impossible films tend to play rather heavily with the idea of what a Mission: Impossible film actually is, even if they aren’t quite as ponderous or self-conscious as the recent James Bond films. McQuarrie’s scripts for his Mission: Impossible films are decidedly writerly in a way that Mission: Impossible II and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol are not, and in a markedly different manner than Mission: Impossible III. In fact, arguably the biggest issue with Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation was that McQuarrie was too writerly, working too hard to sell the idea of Ethan Hunt as a compulsive workaholic.

Fallout perhaps gets the balance right. A large part of this is down to the careful structuring of its action sequences to build a sense of propulsive momentum. Most Mission: Impossible films tend to peak in the middle; the dangling sequence from Mission: Impossible, the Vatican sequence and bridge raid in Mission: Impossible III, the skyscraper climb from Ghost Protocol, the opera sequence and underwater dive from Rogue Nation. Instead, barring the spectacle of the HALO jump, the set pieces in Fallout constant escalate. They ramp up; the bathroom brawl, the Paris motorbike chase, the two-level urban pursuit, all building to the three-thread helicopter climax.

However, part of that is undoubtedly down to the fact that McQuarrie seems to fundamentally understand how a Mission: Impossible film works, and so weaves it carefully into the plot. Fallout superficially resembles a modern franchise blockbuster in a number of ways; the pulsing Lorne Balfe score, the darker and edgier teases, the heightened sense of continuity, the ridiculous escalated stakes, the crosscutting climax. However, all of these elements serve to emphasise the relative simplicity of Mission: Impossible as a series, and to celebrate what distinguishes it from contemporary blockbusters rather than attempting to close the gap.

The Mission: Impossible films seem relatively old-fashioned as far as blockbuster franchises go. They are released at a fairly steady pace, but with significant gaps between films. There is always relatively little gossip or hype around them until they actually arrive. There are seldom any casting rumours. There are no hardcore fans wondering how this instalment will fit within an established continuity. There is no post-credits teaser to set-up the next installment. Each film has a markedly different tone instead of enforcing a consistent house style across the films. It is possible for audiences to dip their tow into a particular film in the franchise without having to do any real homework.

More than that, they are a rare modern franchise that seems to be driven as much by star power as by the intellectual property. This may be largely down to how Brian dePalma adapted Mission: Impossible for the big screen in 1996, in the era before X-Men and Spider-Man effectively changed the blockbuster landscape. dePalma approached Mission: Impossible not as a sacred “mythos” to be adapted to screen with fidelity and delicacy. Instead, dePalma treated Mission: Impossible as a springboard to crafting his own decidedly esoteric psychological espionage thriller. There are elements of the original Mission: Impossible that can be traced back to the original show, but it is about as faithful to the source material as Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman: Returns.

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Non-Review Review: The Meg

The Meg is proof that bigger is not always better.

There are moments when The Meg works beautifully, the film embracing its ridiculous concept by going all-in on a couple of absurdly heightened images. There are a number of shots in The Meg, particularly towards the climax, that are gleefully and unapologetically “too much.” It would undercut these moments to discuss them in any great detail in a review of the film, particularly since they are the moments when everything in the film seems to click into place. In these beats, there is a reckless abandon, as if the film understands the appeal of “Jason Statham in Jurassic Shark.”

Lifeboats find a way.

Unfortunately, these moments serve to highlight what is missing from so much of the rest of the film. The Meg is a movie committed to the idea of “more”, but is more invested in promise than in delivery. Everything in The Meg happens at breakneck pace, to the point where the first act of the film might make a compelling blockbuster on its own terms, given room to breath. However, like the sea-faring predator that inspired it, The Meg is eager to get to the next thing and the next thing after that. The result is a movie that feels rushed, but never urgent.

The Meg is so busy trying to heighten its stakes and its scale that it never quite manages to establish them.

Don’t bait him!

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Non-Review Review: Jumanji – Welcome to the Jungle

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a weird and interesting experiment, in part because it is a nostalgic and belated sequel that remains caught between its past and the present.

Welcome to the Jungle joins a long (and perhaps undistinguished) line of twenty-first century franchise revivals for beloved nineties properties. The original Jumanji was a hardly a breakout hit, even if it did make an impression on a younger generation who would have grown up on it as part of Robin Williams’ nineties family-friendly oeuvre along with Hook or Ms. Doubtfire. Indeed, Jumanji is arguably the nineties Robin Williams film most perfectly suited to a revival like this, in that it involves a premise that can be divorced from its iconic and beloved star.

Franchises find a way.

At the same time, Jumanji is undoubtedly near the bottom of nineties adventure films in need of a revival, lurking in the shadow of other resurrected blockbusters like Independence Day or Jurassic Park. Perhaps because of this distance, and perhaps because of the lack of a true cult iconography, Jumanji serves as an interesting control case. This is a film with one leg in the present, aimed at what modern families expect from blockbuster entertainment. The other leg it planted firmly in the past, harking back to certain aspects of formula that seem almost quaint.

Welcome to the Jungle is not a particularly good film, but it is an interesting one. It serves as a prism through which certain aspects of nostalgia might be deconstructed and explored.

Players.

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“My World Doesn’t Exist Anymore.” Man of Steel, Batman vs. Superman, and the Rejection of Nostalgia

Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman are deeply flawed films. However, they are also breathtakingly ambitious films.

There are very few big budget blockbuster films that look and feel like Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman. Actor Henry Cavill has diplomatically described Batman vs. Superman as a “niche” film in order to account for the openly hostile fan and critic reaction to the movie. There is a sense that Cavill was trying to offer an apology without an apology, to appease certain vocal segments of fan culture without throwing his work under the bus. However, there is some truth in his words.

It is tempting to wonder how much of the vocal and aggressive online response to Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman comes down to the fact that these movies challenge popular perceptions of these iconic characters. Comic book writer Mark Waid was very vocal in his dislike of Man of Steel, not on the basis of the direction or the choreography or the framing or the craft, but because the film misunderstood “the essential part of Superman.” These complaints were echoed across the the blogosphere.

An unchallenged and unspoken assumption crept into discussions and debates around Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman. The primary argument seemed to be that this wasn’t really Superman and this wasn’t really Batman, because these characters were so impossible to reconcile with the popular image of these characters. Many criticisms of Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman measured them against other iterations of the characters, real and imagined. Man of Steel wasn’t colourful enough. Superman doesn’t kill. Lex Luthor is not Mark Zuckerberg.

The idea was that Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman violated some unspoken compact with the audience, that it offered a version of these characters and their world that didn’t line up with audience expectations. Indeed, this is perhaps most notable in the inevitable comparisons between Zack Snyder’s work and the output of Marvel Studios. Marvel Studios had spent the better part of a decade building a reputation as a studio that was faithful and respectful of its source material, to the point of slavishness. Marvel Studios offered uncomplicated, straightforward adaptations.

However, there is a sense that Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman were rather consciously rejecting the culture of nostalgia that has become so dominant and overwhelming in contemporary blockbuster cinema, that the films represented a conscious effort to challenge audience expectations and to push provocative and ambitious interpretations of these characters and their mythos. Indeed, it is hard not to see the audience’s vicious and aggressive response to Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman as a response to that.

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Tinkers, Tailors: The Phantom of the Prestigious Sequel…

If rumours are to be believed, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is such a dramatic success that discussions have begun about a possible sequel, with Gary Oldman even chiming in that a follow-up might do well to adapt both The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People into a single film – reducing leCarré’s trilogy to a duology. Still, even if there’s only one more film produced, the news can’t help but seem a little strange: after all, it’s very intellectual material for a Hollywood franchise, isn’t it?

Every right to be Smiley...

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The Cautiously Conservative Cost of Film-Making In the Recession…

When it first became clear that we were in for a long recession, there was a lot of fear about what that would mean for cinema. With less money to go around, and the ever-present fear of financial disappoint, a lot of people speculated that it would lead to a serious downturn in the production and distribution of “indie” movies by the major studios, a concern validated by the closing of various speciality divisions within major studios. While it has undoubtedly gotten significantly harder to produce and sell independent film, one look at last year’s Best Picture nominees suggest that these little gems are doing relatively okay – with films as provocative as Black Swan, as alternative as The Kids Are All Right and as gritty as Winter’s Bone all making the cut. Still, if the indie apocalypse that was foretold hasn’t come to pass, I do have to wonder what the cinematic cost of the current economic climate might be.

Hollywood's taken the occasional slap on the wrist over the past few years...

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Non-Review Review: Transformers 3 – Dark of the Moon

Here’s the thing: I don’t really expect a lot from Transformers: Dark of the Moon. It’s a movie about two rival factions of robots who engage in civil war on Earth. It’s not the stuff of epic tragedy or cinematic masterpieces. It’s designed to offer knock-down brawls, superb CGI, stunning action and a handful of fist-pumping moments. I’m cool with that. I don’t expect any more than that, and – to a certain extent – the movie meets my basic needs. However, despite a superb supporting cast and some superb special effects, the movie feels a little too self-important and po-faced to ever really engage. The final forty minutes are something to behold, but there’s just too much mundane plotting and pompous pseudo-philosophical rambling in the first two hours to really justify it.

Jump in my car...

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