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In the pantheon of spy movies, there have been some impressive set pieces that take place in public bathrooms. Mission: Impossible – Fallout adds to this legacy with an inventive and visceral sequence that incorporates needles, laptops and various methods of unarmed combat with basins, mirrors, pipes and cubicles. The scene is typical of the film as a whole: gripping, visceral and intense, as writer-director Christopher McQuarrie delivers a ruthlessly efficient script and muscular direction. The plot, unusually for this franchise, follows on from the events of the previous instalment. Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is haunted by his past missions, especially memories of his wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) and malevolent adversary Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). When the remnants of the Rogue Nation pursue weapons grade plutonium, Ethan and his team of Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) are given the mission (should they choose to accept it) to intervene, and lumbered with CIA observer/assassin August Walker (Henry Cavill). From this set-up, intrigue, disguises and quadruple crosses abound, amid an array of quite astounding set pieces. The M:I franchise has prided itself on ever-escalating action sequences, and in the contemporary era of superhero exploits, it is impressive that this sixth instalment pulls off scenes with heft and physicality without the benefit of superpowers. Curiously, several of these scenes appear to re-stage sequences from previous films. The aforementioned bathroom scene echoes True Lies and Casino Royale, while a mountain climbing sequence recalls M:I II as does a motorbike chase, which is also reminiscent of similar chases in Rogue Nation and Skyfall. Speaking of sky fall, in the movie’s bravura set piece, McQuarrie flexes his stylistic flair, as two characters perform a sky dive in a continuous take, the viewer spiralling and tumbling along with the figures on screen. It is a breathtaking sequence with a genuine sense of peril, and one of the finest action set pieces this year. There is also emotional turmoil to match the physical, as themes of regret, guilt and responsibility pulse throughout the narrative, while the convolutions of the plot ensure that one’s brain is engaged as well as guts, leading to a film that is exhausting on an emotional as much as a physical level. As a result, despite these missions running for over twenty years, I would certainly choose to accept further ones.
Superhero narratives have a reputation for being conservative. Terms such as chauvinistic, right wing and valorising the cult of the individual often appear in discussions of the genre. Since Pixar and director Brad Bird first presented their superpowered family in 2004, films such as Wonder Woman and Black Panther have offered alternatives to this pattern. Incredibles 2 does so as well, making it the best sort of sequel: it gives us what we know and expect and also something new. There is the same blend of action and humour, much of the latter deriving from Bob Parr/Mr Incredible’s (Craig T. Nelson) struggling with domesticity while Helen/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) leads on the action front. In one bravura sequence, a souped-up motorcycle chases a train with the tangibility and immediacy of live action. The introduction of more supers allows for further exhilarating sequences, and the humour and action are brought together brilliantly with the development of Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile).
All this is great fun, but in its narrative development and also world building, Incredibles 2 displays some surprising elements. The film’s focus on Helen is not the limit of its exploration of gender, as discussions between Helen and Evelyn Deavor (Catherine Keener) as well as Voyd (Sophia Bush) raise further issues. Furthermore, Incredibles 2 also questions our engagement with technology through its villain the Screen Slaver, and while this discourse could be reduced to clichéd monologuing, it is striking that the film includes this feature. In addition, there is a curious social aspect to the presence of supers in the film’s world. When Helen and Bob consider their future, they refer to the private sector, and benevolent government agencies are shut down due to public mistrust. All of this distances the Incredibles from the more self-righteous exploits of Batman and Iron Man. If superheroes are presented as inspirational figures, especially for children, figures that want to help others and make the world a better place, Incredibles 2 suggests that the place to do that is within the purview of the state. In a time of rampant individualism and self-interest, Incredibles 2 continues Disney’s surprising messages of acceptance, tolerance and state intervention and responsibility. If the imagined nation the United States of Disney actually practiced what films such as Zootopia, Beauty and the Beast and now Incredibles 2 suggest, it might not be so bad. And that may be the most incredible thing of all.
Jiminy jump cuts, we’re half way through the year! 2018 has already given us Brexit shenanigans, the savaging of civil liberties by the US government and sporting events that some people enjoy. In the movie world, we saw a fantasy film win Best Picture, a superhero film with a largely black cast become a box office success, and fan responses to Star Wars reached a new low. The cinematic offerings of 2018 thus far have, by and large, been impressive. From varied award bait to adaptations of video games, novels and stage plays, franchise instalments to indie gems, January to June provided film delights aplenty. Now at the half-year point, I offer my top six of the first six months on 2018.
Traditional as it was, this was the Best Picture nominee that impressed me the most. Were I a member of AMPAS, I might not have voted it for it for political reasons (more on that later), but this is the most impressive film of the year for me so far.
An extraordinary experience, to such an extent that after I saw it, I needed to take a walk just to let it settle. Describing such a exquisitely cinematic experience in words is hard (though I did it anyway), so all I will say here is that you need to see it. Off you go, you can read the rest of this later.
The culmination of ten years of world and story building for Marvel Studios, Infinity War manages to do that thing you don’t expect in a franchise instalment – be surprising. Blending a myriad of characters and narrative threads, and going to strange thematic places, Infinity War continues Marvel’s mastery of the superhero genre.
Were I a member of AMPAS, I would probably have voted for this to win Best Picture, since it is a different sort of nominee that manages to blend the fantastical and the real, the whimsical and the brutal. Guillermo Del Toro has crafted a remarkable oeuvre and, while this is a career highlight, I hope he continues to give us further brilliant pieces of cinema.
Perhaps the oddest film this year, one that I can only recommend in the sense that is an exquisitely crafted piece of cinema. Paul Thomas Anderson’s period romantic drama about an insufferable dressmaker could be sold on its talent, but to view it is to enter into a fully realised and often uncomfortable world.
It says something about a superhero film when you find yourself considering the foreign policy of a fictional country, the society of which is based entirely on a fictional element. It means that the film is working so well on a generic level that you want to apply its conceits to the real world. Marvel’s venture into Afro-futurism combined super-powered thrills with debates between isolationism and interventionism, and without labouring the point struck a blow for cinematic equality.
Only one real stinker so far, and I hope that I don’t see a worse film this year. Red Sparrow had so much potential, considering its subject, its themes and talent. That made the disappointment of watching this tedious, turgid, brutal, nasty and ultimately hollow film all the more crushing.
Will the top (and bottom) films of the year include these entries or others? Time will tell, so keep viewing with Vincent to see where the year goes.
When I saw Jurassic World back in 2015, I thought the franchise should die out. A massive box office return meant that it would not, and the announcement of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom raised the question of how would Universal reinvigorate a franchise that seemed exhausted of ideas? Enter director J. A. Bayona, whose career has risen steadily since his feature debut The Orphanage in 2007. Under Bayona’s steady yet unsettling hand, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom emerges like a T-Rex from foliage as a film of two halves. The first half is one we have seen before, with standard Jurassic tropes of island, jungle, rain and the occasional dinosaur. The addition of a volcanic eruption adds surprisingly little additional drama, although Bayona excels with some great set pieces. One features riding a humorous riff on the bucking bronco motif, and the other involves a submerged vehicle that is conducted largely in a single take. This sequence is menacingly immersive in all the right ways, and the menacing environment continues in the second half when the film moves into new territory for the franchise. A grand mansion and long subterranean tunnels, as well as judicious use of shadows and Nosferatu-like limbs, imbue the second half of the film with a Gothic milieu. The second half of the film also features effective villains of both the human and saurian variety, as well as some interesting if brief explorations of cloning, the right to live and that trusty stalwart of science fiction, hubris. There are some points where the preposterousness of the story is a little grating – why attempt to retrieve a valuable asset in a tropical storm? Is the nefarious scheme really likely to be profitable? With that much lava, surely the characters would be overcome by poisonous gas? Happily, Bayona’s effective style and the game cast – including the winning chemistry between Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard – ensure that the viewer spends little time worrying over such details. Meanwhile, there are references to earlier instalments that carry just the right level of knowingness to avoid slipping into parody. Overall, JW: FK takes the franchise in an interesting new direction, and ends with the promise of more, that will hopefully be different as well.
Ocean’s 8 is a film of both familiarity and absence. The opening sequence features an Ocean (Debbie, played by Sandra Bullock) facing a parole board, much as this franchise started in 2001. Upon her release, Debbie reunites with a former partner in crime, Lou (Cate Blanchett), and they subsequently recruit a motley crew of experts in nefarious activities and plan an audacious heist. Along the way there are surprises and twists, cross-cutting both spatial and temporal, an upbeat soundtrack and a slick portrait of opulence and wealth. The significant absences are an immersive sense of place and Steven Soderbergh’s ephemeral touch. Director Gary Ross gives New York a functional rendering that pales in comparison to Soderbergh’s almost otherworldly depiction of Las Vegas, and while Ross is competent enough he seems to struggle with innovative style. Fortunately, a game cast add as much sparkle as the object of the heist. Bullock and Blanchette are a superb double act, making this viewer hope they work together again with richer (no pun intended) material. Excellent support comes from Sarah Paulson, Mindy Kaling, Rhianna, Helena Bonham-Carter and Awkwafina as other members of the crew, but arguably (and perhaps ironically) Anne Hathaway steals the show as she chews her way through all the scenery around her. Narratively and stylistically, Ocean’s 8 lacks substance, but its cast provides a glittering shine.
A long time ago at a cinema far away (from my current location), a friend commented that The Phantom Menace suffered from the lack of Han Solo. Twenty years later, we get a prequel/spin-off (pre-off? Spin-quel?) all about Han, later Solo (Alden Ehrenreich). Ron Howard’s film makes a virtue of omitting the baggy story of those earlier installments while still referencing such Star Wars lore as the Empire, Tatooine and the Kessel Run. The film’s closest cinematic cousin, however, is Serenity, incorporating elements of the western and the heist film. These elements include lawless planets, a train job, gun slinging (including an unambiguous first shot), crime syndicates complete with menacing boss Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), and perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the film: a motley crew of vagabonds. This crew includes Beckett (Woody Harrelson), Val (Thandie Newton), Rio Durant (Jon Favreau), Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), the introduction of other familiar characters including Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), and a certain spaceship that any Star Wars fan would love a ride on. Ehrenreich embodies the cocksure charm and charisma needed for the young Solo, and his relationships with Qi’ra, Beckett and Chewbacca give the film heart. Howard incorporates these characters into some thrilling action set pieces – including a speeder race that recalls the director’s Rush – and some exhilarating space chases and dynamic combat sequences including the closest the film comes to a light sabre duel. This distance indicates the film’s major weakness: without the mystical element of the Jedi and the wider menace posed by the Empire (used to great effect in Rogue One), Solo feels somewhat flimsy and underpowered, the central McGuffin allowing little more than suggested links to wider events. Han has always been a fun character, but he works best in comparison to more idealistic figures such as Luke, Leia and, more recently, Rey and Finn. Here, everyone is a charming rogue and Han is simply the fresh blood, his arc and contributions offering little that we have not seen before. Solo is enjoyable while it lasts, but overall it lacks a certain Force.