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Posts Tagged ‘thriller’

Paul Feig’s A Simple Favor (I am going to stick with the American English spelling, even though it does make my teeth itch somewhat) is not a film I would necessarily have chosen to watch, even during the bacchanal of cinema-going which I am currently enjoying after an enforced one month drought. There’s no particular reason for that, but – and I do have to remind even friends of this sometimes – I don’t go to see absolutely everything, even when I’m at a loose end. Then again, there I was: all proper work done and dusted by noon, having agreed to go and see another movie with a friend in the early evening, and with a fairly sizeable space in my schedule until then. To be perfectly honest my first choice of movie-to-fill-the-gap would probably have been Mile 22, but it had finished the previous day (lots of big new movies starting today), and Feig’s film seemed like the best option.

Anna Kendrick plays Stephanie Smothers, a cheery, upbeat, perky, fluffy, home-oriented single mother whose life revolves around recipes, her son, and her vlog (which heavily features recipes and parenting tips). She is quite terrifyingly wholesome, upbeat and proactive, but is there something missing from her own lifestyle? Just what does she secretly aspire to? Well, the barest suggestion of an answer comes when she meets Emily (Blake Lively), another mum from her son’s school. Emily appears to be everything that Stephanie is not: elegant, sophisticated, a bit of a hedonistic rebel. The two women become unlikely friends, despite some occasional signs of odd behaviour on Emily’s part.

Then one day Emily asks Stephanie for a favour (Hah! Take that, American English!) – will she collect her son from school? Stephanie happily obliges, but then Emily fails to get in touch, and vanishes, apparently without a trace. Emily’s husband Sean (Henry Golding) doesn’t have a clue where she’s gone, and nor do her employers, and so the police are called. Soon everyone is beginning to fear the worst, and Stephanie and Sean find themselves drawn closer together in their shared grief. But is everything quite as it seems…?

It’s always a slightly curious thing when you find someone apparently trying to get out of their comfort zone and do something genuinely new and different, and from a certain angle this is what Paul Feig appears to be doing with this film. Feig, as you may or may not be aware, is best known as the director and occasional writer of comedy films, most frequently starring Melissa McCarthy: he’s the guy who did Bridesmaids, and also Spy and the All-Female Ghostbusters remake. So for him to be directing what looks on paper to be like a fairly mainstream thriller is a bit of a departure. Then again, the film stars Anna Kendrick, who is also not really known as a dramatic actress – okay, she’s done things like The Accountant, but even then I distinctly remember being somewhat nonplussed by the fact that this sort of thriller would feature someone who’s essentially a musical-comedy performer. (Blake Lively, on the other hand, isn’t primarily known for comedy. But then she seems to limit her film appearances rather strictly, so her profile in general is a bit more limited than I might have expected, and she hasn’t really been typed in the same way.)

My feeling is that comedy is much more difficult than straight drama, and so all things being equal I’d much rather watch a drama made by comedians than a comedy film made by drama specialists. The question is whether this film really is a drama made by comedians. Well, several key creative people on it are best known for comedy, as previously discussed, so that part is not really in doubt. But is it really a drama?

Well – I suppose it is, because lots of serious and often quite dark stuff goes on (Kendrick’s character has a particularly off-kilter element to her backstory), crimes are committed, unpleasant secrets come to light, and so on. The weird thing is that all the time you are laughing – not in a sustained, from-the-belly way, but nearly every scene contains a little bit of business or a snappy line or a reaction from Kendrick or so on. It may be that this is genuinely a comedy thriller, but if so then it is one of the blackest possible shade.

Then again, the fact that this is such a peculiarly and unexpectedly funny film works very much in its favour, because it works very well to give it its own distinctive identity. This is something that it definitely needs, because otherwise this tale of apparently-affluent couples with corrosive money troubles, mysterious disappearances in suburbia, Machiavellian scheming behind a domestic facade, and so on, would owe just a bit too much of an obvious debt to Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl and its movie adaptation.

There really did seem to me to be quite a lot of similarities between Gone Girl and A Simple Favor, but the fact that A Simple Favor doesn’t come across as being quite so thorough-goingly misanthropic, and actually contains some pretty good jokes, made me warm to it much more than its precursor. There are also signs of the film-makers being willing to admit just how implausible the story of their film is, which is always welcome (there is a joke at one point about a character writing a novel, which is apparently dismissed by other people because of its ‘far-fetched plot’).

I don’t actually mind watching movies with absurdly contrived storylines, as long as you don’t also try to tell me that this is actually a serious and mature story about deep unpleasant truths in contemporary society. Feig’s film doesn’t try to pull any of that – it’s more or less up-front about the fact that it’s a disposable piece of entertainment. This doesn’t mean that it’s a poorly made film, by any means – the performances are strong, the direction good, and the script hangs together pretty well (there are occasional slow patches). It is a little bit strange that such a dark film should also feel so upbeat and lightweight, but this is hardly a fatal flaw. Tonally odd and very derivative, but also rather entertaining.

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It has become almost facile to point out that the demise of the traditional western – as a significant part of the cinema landscape, anyway – occurred almost simultaneously with the rise of science fiction and fantasy films to the position of box office dominance they enjoy to this day. The conclusion to be drawn is very nearly as straightforward – it’s not quite that SF movies have simply replaced westerns, but that both genres meet the same need and appeal to the same audience. Or, to put it another way, there’s a certain type of action-SF movie which is basically a western in disguise.

The disguise is seldom as perfunctory as in Peter Hyams’ 1981 film Outland, however. Hmm, you may be thinking, where is this Outland place and why did they decide to make a film about it? Well, I have to tell you that this seems to be an example of film-makers not being able to agree on a good title and reaching a consensus on a duff one instead. The film was made under the title Io, which as any fule kno is a volcanically-active moon of Jupiter, but apparently the big brains of the production were concerned that non-astronomically-savvy audiences might read the title as either 10 or Lo, hence the change.

 

I will happily agree that Io is not a great title, but at least it’s accurate (personally I would have called the movie High Moon, because sometimes you just can’t be crashingly obvious enough). The film is set in one of those non-specific not-all-that-distant futures where the outer reaches of the solar system are being explored and exploited; people apparently go for many years without ever visiting Earth (the journey from the Jovian region to Earth apparently takes a year in cryo). Io is being mined for titanium and the story takes place in one of the mining outposts, mostly concerning the chief lawman of the place, Marshall (or Marshal, depending on where you look) Bill O’Niel (Sean Connery).

O’Niel has only recently taken up his post and is still receiving apparently mock-stern lectures from the outpost’s manager, Sheppard (Peter Boyle), about how he needs to be flexible in his approach to the job and cut the hard-working miners some slack. To begin with O’Niel is more preoccupied by the fact that his wife can’t hack rattling around yet another space outpost and has left him to go back to Earth, but his cop instincts are triggered when he comes across a string of suspicious deaths – workers cutting open their spacesuits while outside, or not even bothering to wear them.

(Outland is notable for its enthusiastic championing of the notion that if you go into a hard vacuum without a spacesuit, either your head or your torso will explode. Apparently this is just one of those myths, but it does allow the special effects department some fun. One of the people whose head explodes is John Ratzenberger, best known for playing Cliff in Cheers, but eminently spottable in small parts in many famous late 70s and early 80s films, thanks to a stint based in London.)

Normally the remains of these ‘accidents’ are quietly disposed of, but O’Niel eventually manages to lay his hands on the body of a worker who apparently goes mad. With the help of the outpost’s medic, Dr Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen), O’Niel discovers that all the dead men had been taking high-powered amphetamines, allowing them to work longer and harder but eventually frying their brains.

It transpires that Sheppard and even some of O’Niel’s own men are in on the racket – the drugs increase productivity, which is all Sheppard and his bosses really care about. Their assumption is that O’Niel, like his predecessor, can be bought off, because only a fool would risk his life by taking on Sheppard and the men behind him. But this does not sit well with O’Niel, who finds himself compelled to hang onto his principles and take a stand (or, this being a Connery movie after all, a shtand).

One day someone will write about Outland and not draw comparisons between it and Alien. But that day has clearly not yet dawned. The aesthetic of the two films is almost identical, to the point where they could quite easily share a continuity: the mining outpost is a grimy, cramped, industrial warren of corridors, controlled by faceless and uncaring corporations.

The setting of Outland is important as it’s the only thing which gives it its SF credentials. The story itself is that of one principled man attempting to put an end to drug racketeering despite the odds being stacked against him – it could really be set anywhere. Even the drug racketeering is on one level just plot fluff, setting up the central conflict of the movie, which is not so much Connery versus the drug dealers as Connery’s sense of self-preservation versus his stubbornly principled streak. What is he really hoping to achieve? Nobody would blame him for taking bribes or running away…

This owes, of course, a big debt to High Noon, although Outland only really closely resembles the earlier movie for a chunk of its second half: a far-from-subtle digital countdown indicates how long before the space shuttle carrying professional killers will arrive at the outpost.

To be honest, though, I found these scenes and the eventual fight between Connery and the hitmen to be rather laborious, though fairly well-mounted; much more interesting are the earlier scenes in which O’Niel uncovers the extent of the corruption around him and realises just what a sticky spot he’s in. There is some really good material here, including some top-class moral outrage, and Connery plays it for all that it’s worth. I find that in a lot of Sean Connery’s later appearances, his tendency is just to play it very broad and just do the same lovable twinkly performance, but this is a proper acting job from the big man.

His main support comes from Sternhagen as the grumpy doctor, and she is also very good. This is a well-played film throughout, to be honest, and a reasonably well-written one. The film’s visual effects and model work are pretty good, but you can tell that the director and the screenwriter are also working hard to keep the film focused and credible.

I first saw Outland on TV in the late 80s and do recall that I wasn’t especially impressed by it: good production designs, but a bit dull. I think I would revise that opinion now – this is a solid film with a compelling central story and performance, but let down slightly  by its climax. And I do think it’s telling that Hyams admitted later that he only really wanted to make a western – the outer-space setting was just the only one that the studio felt was commercially viable. You can tell that none of the major talent involved was really that interested in making a science-fiction film, because in a very real sense they didn’t. Nevertheless, this is a watchable thriller with some distinctive elements.

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‘Do you have any idea what this film is about?’ I asked Olinka as we settled into our places in a slightly rowdy city-centre theatre (having turfed out the kids who had chosen to ignore the allocated seating system and taken our spots).

‘No.’

(One of the many things I like about Olinka is that she will happily go and watch just about anything without the slightest demur, which she claims is because she simply enjoys going to the cinema with me. Hence her desire for one more trip before I disappeared for a while.)

‘Well, it’s a sort of comedy thriller.’

I was gratified to see her face light up. ‘Well, that’s good, because everything we go to see together -‘

‘- you either approach or come away from in the belief that it’s a comedy thriller, yes, I know. So I thought it would be appropriate.’

The film in question was Susanna Fogel’s The Spy Who Dumped Me, which – as the title suggests – ventures into fairly well-travelled territory as, well, not quite a spy spoof, but an espionage movie with some funny bits in it. This is one of those mid-budget genre movies for which expectations were originally quite modest, but following test screenings which apparently got ‘phenomenal’ reactions from the audience, it has been moved up to a more auspicious slot.

Mila Kunis plays Audrey, an ordinary shop assistant from Los Angeles with a slightly turbulent love life, having just been chucked by her boyfriend Drew (Justin Theroux – if, like me, you’re one of the people who has trouble keeping track of these things, this is the dude who wrote Iron Man 2, not the prime minister of Canada). Luckily, perhaps, Mila’s slightly unhinged best friend Morgan (Kate McKinnon) is around to cheer her up.

But then, as the title might have led you to expect, Drew crashes back into Audrey’s life, revealing that he is in fact a CIA agent being pursued by some Bad People, and that he has hidden a top-secret spy McGuffin in the stuff he left at Audrey’s apartment! It turns out that it is Audrey’s civic duty to go to Europe and deliver the McGuffin to the Right People, or at least stop the Bad People from getting their hands on it. Morgan ends up going along as well, because it’s important to have your friends around you at moments like these…

Well, from that synopsis, you would have to say that it doesn’t sound tremendously like the premise for a hilarious comedy experience. And there is a sense in which this is true, for this is one of those films which tries its hardest to hop genres. In a way it very much reminded me of the Melinda McCarthy-Jason Statham vehicle Spy, in that the spy movie bits are played very nearly straight, with some quite graphic violence, while the funny bits could have wandered in from any commercial American comedy of recent years (which is to say that they are profane, possibly to the point of actual obscenity, and fixated on bodily fluids and so forth).

The main thing I took away from this was an increased realisation of just how formulaic American genre movies have become: with The Spy Who Dumped Me, it’s like a comedy and a thriller have been deconstructed and an entirely new film has been assembled from the key elements of both. Which is another way of saying, I suppose, that this is a film with some tonal problems, as is often the case with this sort of thing – there’s something very odd about going from a moment where the main characters are beaten and tortured, into a wacky comedy bit within the same scene. Charade this is not.

On the other hand, I suppose the whole confection works as well as it does because the espionage genre (or the more escapist end of it, anyway) has become such an absurd proposition anyway. There’s a plot line in this film about the girls being hunted by a model-like eastern European gymnast turned gun-toting assassin, and while this is so outrageously silly it sounds like something out of a spoof, it’s also exactly the kind of plot element that turns up in Luc Besson movies or films like Atomic Blonde. I know I complain about the Bond franchise being stuck in ultra-glum mode at the moment, but I suppose there’s a sense in which they’re well out of the glossy, silly end of the genre. You could argue that, in a slightly clumsy way, films like Spy and The Spy Who Dumped Me are trying to fill the gap left by Bond in the way they combine action and humour in a wholly preposterous context.

As an actual thriller, The Spy Who Dumped Me is forgettable stuff, with a plot that barely hangs together: it’s also so stuffed with cliches that it must be intentional. As a comedy, however, it is rather more effective. It’s hard to shake the sense that Mila Kunis owes a significant element of her career to the fact she is, well, easy on the eye sockets, but she’s also quite an effective lead for this kind of light comedy. It is just unfortunate for her, then, that she has wound up sharing this film with Kate McKinnon, who is a ferociously talented comic performer.

The wacky best friend is a stock figure in this kind of film; not long ago I was fairly critical of the sub-par work done by Chelsea Handler in This Means War (a film which is almost like a weird mirror image of The Spy Who Dumped Me in some ways). Kate McKinnon is not sub-par in this film: in fact, she is so good that it almost unbalances the whole thing, as she is the person you are always wanting to see more of. She has an ability to steal scenes which almost defies belief, in addition to being able to deliver a killer one-liner and also do bizarre physical comedy. She was the funniest thing (possibly the only really funny thing) in the All-Female Ghostbusters remake; she is the funniest thing here, too. If she can find herself the right vehicle to star in in her own right, global stardom surely beckons.

I said about This Means War that it felt like a rom-com aimed at jocks, which presumably explains why it was such a lousy film. The very least that you can say about The Spy Who Dumped Me is that it feels like an action comedy genuinely made for a female audience. Naturally, this puts me out of the target audience in a fairly definitive way, but I still had a good time watching it. The supposed plot is negligible, but there’s McKinnon doing her thing, and there are also lots of very good jokes, many of them about the culture clash between the US and Europe. There’s also a typical adroit cameo from Gillian Anderson, whom it is always nice to see.

In the end we rather enjoyed this bona fide comedy thriller; we weren’t hooting and gasping and shrieking like many other members of the audience at our screening, but we had fun. It’s not what you could honestly call a great film, by any measure, nor does it really break new ground. But in terms of the odd little intersection of genres where it finds itself, it is an entertaining and quite likeable movie.

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The Phoenix in Oxford is officially in the middle of a Hitchcock season at the moment (Psycho this coming Sunday, Vertigo the week after that), but if one didn’t know better one might suspect that the cinema’s film booker was quietly running another, unofficial season at the same time: this week the place is showing not two but three films with a religious theme to them. (I enjoy a revival as much as anyone else, but not usually in this sense of the word.)

Yes, this week, currently showing at a cinema near – well, likely not you, but certainly me – is First Reformed (previously discussed hereabouts), Apostasy (a British drama about life in a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses), and finally Xavier Giannoli’s The Apparition (titre Francais: L’Apparition), which will be our main focus on this occasion.

Vincent Lindon plays Jacques Mayano, who as the film opens is a deeply traumatised figure: we first find him hunched in a hotel bedroom, somewhere in the Middle East, clutching a battered and bloody camera. The situation soon becomes clear: Mayano is a war reporter, and his photographer colleague has recently been killed in action. Mayano is consumed by grief and guilt, and upon his return home to France shows every sign of being in the throes of some kind of psychological breakdown.

Then a message comes, from the Vatican no less. He is invited for a confidential meeting with one of the cardinals there. The Catholic Church has a job for Mayano, if he is prepared to take it on: a young girl in rural France claims to have been visited by an apparition of the Virgin Mary, and has attracted a dedicated following of pilgrims and other believers as a result. The girl is named Anna (she is played by Galatea Belugi) and she is a novice in the local convent. Her local priest (Patrick D’Assumcao) is a rebellious type and not being especially cooperative with the Holy Office, who generally like to keep a lid on this sort of thing, at least until it can be authenticated (Mayano is told that the Church would prefer to let a genuine case of a supernatural manifestation languish in obscurity than give publicity to something that might be fraudulent).

And authentication, or not, is what is on the cards for this particular phenomenon. How does this involve Mayano? Well, the Church would like him to participate in the process, essentially being lead investigator for the assessment panel (which also includes a psychiatrist, a priest from the local diocese, a theologian, and so on). More out of curiosity than anything else (or so it is implied), Mayano takes the job – but as he gets to know Anna and the other principals in the case, he finds himself being more deeply affected than he had anticipated – especially when it seems there may be a connection between Anna’s supposed visions and his own recent trauma…

I saw Xavier Giannoli’s previous film, Marguerite, a couple of years ago, and was rather blown away by it: a very subtle and impressive piece of work, especially in the understated shifts in tone which see a film that begins as a smart comedy end as a genuinely moving and rather tragic drama. His name rang a vague bell when I saw it on the poster for The Apparition, but I didn’t put two and two together until after seeing the film – I have to say this is probably just as well, as it would only have raised my expectations for the new movie.

As it is, The Apparition gets off to a notably assured and compelling start, detailing Mayano’s personal situation and then his summons to Rome. This all plays rather like a more naturalistic and credible version of something that Dan Brown might write, with the understated way that various church officials discuss extraordinary phenomena only adding to the impression that the film makes. You are left genuinely wrong-footed and unsure of just which way the film is going to go as it proceeds – is this going to be a slightly arty drama about Mayano’s own personal issues? Some kind of paranormal mystery, with a touch of the theological about it? Or a more conventional thriller, exploring some of the murky backstory of Anna’s visions of the Virgin?

Well, if I say that even at the end of the film, I wasn’t entirely sure which way the film had gone, you may get some idea of the problems with which The Apparition is saddled: it has a great opening, to be sure, but by about halfway through it has lost most of its momentum and cuts back and forth between a number of plotlines, with no great sense of this being a film which is in a hurry to go anywhere in a hurry. Indeed, ‘hurry’ is definitely not the word, for The Apparition is knocking on the door of being two and a half hours’ long, and this is frankly just too much. The story wanders off on odd tangents and explores obscure subplots, but there’s not much sense of anyone being in command of the narrative. When I say that by the end of the film I still wasn’t entirely clear if anyone had genuinely seen the Virgin Mary or not, and what this might mean, you may get some idea of how impenetrable the film becomes – not because it’s difficult to follow what’s going on from scene to scene, but because it’s clearly all supposed to mean something but it’s very difficult to tell what. You’re in no doubt as to Mayano’s mental state as the film concludes, but you have no real sense of it yourself, nor any real understanding of why he’s feeling this way.

Now, it would be remiss of me to suggest that there’s nothing of interest going on here at all: Giannoli takes a balanced view of the Church, comparing the genuine faith and decency of some adherents and members of the hierarchy with the willingness of others to exploit Anna for her visions, and puts this across with a light touch. The film also benefits enormously from two tremendous performances from the two leads – Lindon does just enough to suggest that beneath the surface of his world-weary journalist is a man who may actually want to believe in something greater, while Galatea Belugi is astonishingly self-assured in a very demanding role as the young devotee: I suspect she may very well be going places.

However, if so it will almost certainly be in vehicles which are better assembled than The Apparition. There is enough good stuff here for me to put it in the pile marked ‘Creditable Misfire’, and one certainly gets the impression that Giannoli managed to get reasonably close to the subtle and thoughtful film he was clearly aiming for. Nevertheless, it still looks to me like he fell some way short of his target, with the result that this is an ultimately disappointing movie on many levels.

 

 

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It is with a bit of a jolt that I realise that I have been going to see Mission: Impossible movies at the cinema for half of my life. It doesn’t seem that long since I had only been going to see the first one for a couple of hours, at a rather lovely old cinema in Hull city centre, but there you go, that was 1996. I just wish that I had lasted in the interim as well as Tom Cruise, for he doesn’t look that different to how he did in the first film, whereas I’m honestly starting to feel slightly ravaged.

These days, a nice Mission: Impossible movie is Tom Cruise’s best shot at getting the kind of hit which sustains a career, which may be why he’s finally settled down to making them approximately in accordance with a standard blockbuster franchise release schedule – to wit, one every three years or so. The new one is as punctuation-heavy as ever – Mission: Impossible – Fallout, directed (like the last one) by Christopher McQuarrie. The first few films in the series were essentially standalones without much connecting them, but the retention of McQuarrie as director signals that a bit of a change is in the air, although ‘change’, where this series is concerned, is a relative thing.

So it’s front and centre once more for crack American fun-and-games squad the Impossible Missions Force, in this film comprising toothsome legend Ethan Hunt (Cruise, 56), comic relief Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg, 48), and computer whiz Luther Stickle (Ving Rhames, 58). Clearly the new young generation of agents just ain’t cutting the mustard, even though Luther’s ability to do all the running about and hiding in plain sight demanded by a typical Impossible Mission is somewhat compromised by the fact he looks about seventeen stone and is always wearing a selection of rather incongruous hats. Jeremy Renner, somewhat ironically, has not come back this time as apparently his commitments to Infinity War got in the way – I say ‘ironically’ as all of Renner’s scenes in the Marvel movie ended up on the cutting room floor.

Plotwise, it turns out that capturing the international terrorist mastermind Solomon Lane (Sean Harris, 52) at the end of the previous film has only annoyed his various acolytes and caused violent global upheaval and terrorism (which only makes one wonder why Cruise et al bothered in the first place), and they are now intent on getting some plutonium so they can blow things up. They are assisted in this by the mysterious John Lark, a shadowy figure intent on causing international disruption and chaos whose real identity is a mystery (I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he turned out to be a golf-loving Washington DC resident with an active Twitter account).

Well, things do not initially go to plan, as Cruise opts to save a comrade rather than secure the plutonium, and the team is obliged to proceed in the company of beefy CIA hard-case August Walker (a luxuriantly moustachioed Henry Cavill, 35 – this is the moustache that Warner Brothers had to spend a bomb digitally erasing from Cavill’s mush after the Justice League reshoots), who is under orders to get nasty if Cruise looks like going rogue at any point (which is a pretty sure thing, given he seems to go rogue on a weekly basis in these films). It turns out that securing the plutonium will involve another run-in with Lane, not to mention ex-MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson, 34 – one thing about these characters is that they do lower the average age of the ensemble a bit), with whom Cruise had a bit of a thing last time round…

So, anyway, another new Mission: Impossible movie. As usual, I sat there watching the movie, making mental notes of pithy little observations I could make when it was time to write this here review which you are reading (if indeed you still are). But a strange sense of familiarity, even perhaps deja vu, crept upon me as I did so. In the end I went back and re-read the reviews of Mission: Impossibles 3, 4, and 5 from this blog, just to make sure I didn’t end up repeating myself.

And, seriously, I’ll tell you what a really Impossible Mission is: it’s telling this film apart from the previous ones. Now, I know that probably sounds quite negative, and I should qualify it by saying that it’s every bit as competent a piece of glossy, big-budget entertainment as the other films in this series. There are some stupendous, absurd stunt sequences, a ridiculously byzantine plot, first-rate action, competent performances, and all the rest. But the fact remains that, just like the previous films, it primarily resembles a series of set-pieces strung together by minimal plotting, said plotting revolving around double- and triple-crosses and characters ripping off their faces at key moments to reveal they weren’t who they initially appeared to be.

The real Impossible Mission – or certainly, the very challenging one – is to identify the bits of Fallout which actually make it distinctive from the other films in this franchise. Well, initially it seems like the dramatic meat of the film is going to be built around the Big Moral Question of whether Tom Cruise is capable of dealing with a Hard Choice. Will he save a team-mate or grab the plutonium? Is he prepared to shoot a cop for the good of the mission? Is he even prepared to go head-on with Ilsa? Sounds quite promising, doesn’t it, until it becomes apparent that the script is always going to let Cruise cop out of actually making a Hard Choice, or contrive it so that whatever dubious choice he makes works out in his favour. In the end this angle just gets dropped in favour of slightly vacuous stunt sequences (although, to be fair, the film concludes with a set-piece with a couple of helicopters that is absolutely eye-popping).

The other innovation in this film is the fact that it’s much more a sequel to the previous film than is usually the case in this franchise – the same villain recurs, along with various other supporting characters. You also really need to be more than passingly familiar with the plot of Rogue Nation in order to completely follow that of Fallout (not that following the plot of one of these films is strictly necessary in order to enjoy it). The links go further back, with another appearance by Michelle Monaghan (most prominently seen in Mission Impossible 3), and the implication that a new character played by Vanessa Kirby is the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave’s character from Mission Impossible 1 (I’m not sure this is even biologically possible, given their ages, but I suppose fertility experts get assigned Impossible Missions too). In this case at least, it’s just something to reward those of us who’ve been turning up faithfully for over two decades.

When you really get down to it, Mission: Impossible – Fallout is basically just product made to meet the demands of a formula – there’s still more than a little of Bruce Geller’s classic TV show to proceedings, and there’s a particularly bombastic version of Lalo Schifrin’s classic theme this time around, but the film series has probably now eclipsed its forebear in terms of audience awareness. It basically just has all the fights, chases, stunts, twists, turns, and tricks you expect from this kind film, delivered with a lot of gloss and conviction. And the end results are undeniably entertaining, even if six months later you’ll be hard pushed to remember what this film was actually about, and probably find it blurring together with the others in your head. But this is the world of the popcorn action blockbuster – it’s not intended to be a film for the ages, but a film for the moment when you’re actually watching it, delivering a pleasant and familiar buzz. And, on those terms, it is undeniably a successful movie.

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As this long, hellish, The Day the Earth Caught Fire-esque summer has worn on, so the Kubrick season at the Phoenix has come to a conclusion, which is obviously cause for sadness. But looking on the bright side, in its place we are currently enjoying a season of Hitchcock revivals, which is always something to relish. Most recently on the screen was a movie from the start of the 1950s, the decade which arguably saw Hitchcock at the height of his powers and brought him his most sustained run of popular and critical successes. The film in question is Strangers on a Train, one of the great director’s most playfully ambiguous works. Is it a psychological thriller? A film noir? A pitch-black comedy? Or just a searing indictment of poor health and safety standards at American funfairs? Nearly seventy years on, the jury is still out.

Farley Granger plays Guy Haines, an amateur tennis player and aspiring politician, who is making a fairly routine train journey when – apparently by chance – he makes the acquaintance of Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), a wealthy, charming fellow who seems to be a fan of his. Somewhat reluctantly, Guy gets to know Bruno better, and it transpires that both men have their problems: Guy is stuck in a marriage to an unfaithful wife (Laura Elliott), while Bruno finds himself oppressed by his authoritarian father. Bruno takes the opportunity to unveil his ‘perfect murder’ scheme, whereby he will kill Guy’s wife, while Guy disposes of Bruno’s father – as each man apparently lacks a motive for these particular killings, they should get away with it, with no difficulty.

Guy is clearly just too well brought-up, for his attempts to extricate himself from the company of someone who is clearly slightly unhinged only serve to give Bruno the impression that he is enthusiastically on-board with this ‘criss-cross’ plan. Matters become somewhat more complicated when Guy’s wife proves to be not just unfaithful but rather manipulative, soaking him for money while refusing to give him a divorce, even though she is carrying another man’s child (hey, it was the Fifties). All this causes Guy to make some rather intemperate public utterances, which could well be seen as incriminating when his wife turns up dead in the middle of a funfair one night – Bruno has gone full speed ahead with his murder-swapping plan…

Guy is safe for the time being, but one piece of evidence away from being arrested (his alibi just isn’t quite watertight enough). This would be stressful enough, even without Bruno starting to haunt his footsteps, wondering why Guy is so reluctant to follow through on his side of the deal, and clearly quite capable of making Guy’s life extremely difficult if he reneges entirely…

Strangers on a Train is not quite at the very top of the list of Hitchcock movies everyone can name – it’s a step or two down from Psycho, Rear Window, North by Northwest and Vertigo, for instance – but it is still immediately recognisable as a product of the same creative sensibility. From the very first seconds you are aware of the playful way in which the director is presenting the two leads as doubles, or opposites – their arrival at the station opens the film, with Hitchcock choosing to show us their feet rather than their faces, saving this for the moment when they first see each other. There is also the same kind of moral ambiguity that shoots through so many later Hitchcock films – it’s made clear that Guy really does want to murder his wife, it’s only the social contract which is keeping this urge in check. There’s a sense in which Guy is a bad, er, guy.

In the same way, there’s a sense in which Bruno is, if not a good guy, then at least a charming, appealing presence whenever he appears. This is mostly due to a terrific performance from Robert Walker, whose final completed film this was: Walker pretty much walks away with the acting honours from Strangers on a Train, as the good guys are decent but wooden, and his only real competition (Elliott) is only in the film briefly. Elliott manages to be so objectionable that the set piece in which Walker stalks her through a funfair before eventually strangling her – the murder famously reflected in her fallen glasses – is essentially one in which the audience is complicit with the killer, or at least feeling no guilt at anticipating the murder.

Of course, there’s something else going on in this film, a subtext which is surprisingly clear given the time it was made. Guy is dashing but weak, led into immorality by a charming older man with a mother-fixation. The coding is quite obvious – Bruno is presented as a thinly-veiled predatory homosexual, aiming to seduce Guy – morally, if not physically. Robert Walker’s performance is very good, but it’s also kind of Liberace meets the Boston Strangler. Suffice to say that the love of a good woman (Ruth Roman) is essential to Guy’s clearing his name and resolving the crisis.

As the film goes on, it progressively deviates, if you’ll pardon the expression, from Patricia Highsmith’s original novel, which (to minimise spoilers) concludes with Guy being arrested, and this may be why the initially watertight plotting of the film begins to unravel somewhat. There’s something a little melodramatic, or at least rather improbable, about the way the climax is managed – Guy has to win his tennis match in double time, lose his police tail and then get to the scene of the crime before Bruno can plant the evidence that will see him arrested. You could poke half a dozen holes in the scenario, yet it is still thoroughly engaging, enjoyable stuff, and you do get the sense Hitchcock is having fun, not intending the audience to take it too seriously either . There are quite a few moments during the climax of the film which drew general laughter from the audience at my screening, and I’m sure some of this was intended. But all of it? I’m really not sure; Hitchcock remains as slippery a magician as ever.

Possibly if this film were in colour, or had a more distinguished cast, it would perhaps have a slightly higher profile. Nevertheless, it is still a supremely accomplished movie – the plot holds together well enough, there is plenty of snappy dialogue to enjoy (‘I may be old-fashioned, but I thought murder was against the law’, ‘When an alibi is full of bourbon, it can’t stand up’, and so on), and the story has just enough darkness and ambiguity to it to deliver a pleasant frisson, rather than becoming too bleak or downbeat. A very fine film, and still only one of Hitchcock’s relatively minor works.

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You have to feel a bit sorry for the proprietors of Oxford’s premier art-house cinema, working hard to bring international movies to film-lovers in and around the city. I imagine that their hope with non-English language presentations is to lure in anyone from the same country as the film being shown, together with casual viewers who happen to be passing. And so it is quite simply the worst possible luck for their preview showing of Michael R Roskam’s Franco-Belgian thriller Racer and the Jailbird to coincide almost exactly with another, rather higher-profile Franco-Belgian get-together, of considerable local interest to boot. So it was that about three of us turned up to watch Roskam’s film while everyone else was glued to the football semi-final.

(I suppose one should be grateful the film was showing at all; the entire schedule in Screen One had been cancelled for the following evening so yet another venue could show the other semi-final match. And don’t get me started on the fact that the UK release of Ant-Man and the Wasp has been postponed until six weeks after its American debut, once again because of the bloomin’ World Cup.)

But hey ho. There we were for Racer and the Jailbird (a title which we will return to), which initially looks like it will be a familiar sort of tale in tone, if not in detail. It opens with a fragment from the youth of Gigi, a young man with a clearly troubled family background, before we meet him in adulthood. He has grown up to be that very capable Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, and has apparently become a charming and smooth businessman, even if exactly how he makes his money is a little unclear. He and his friends are visiting a racetrack when he makes the acquaintance of Bibi (Adele Exarchopoulos, probably best known for Blue is the Warmest Colour), a promising young racing driver.

Well, Gigi makes a move, rather directly, Bibi is not unwelcoming to his overtures; the film in general doesn’t hang about and cuts straight from them meeting for their first proper date to the pair of them in a fairly graphic delicto-type situation. They get to know each other as people, too: would you follow me anywhere, they ask each other, do you trust me? What’s your biggest secret, Bibi asks Gigi. I’m a gangster and rob banks for a living, ha ha, he replies.

But, of course, he’s not really joking, which sets up rest of the plot, one way or another. The lovers grow closer, and realise that something serious has begun between them. But Bibi is no fool and is aware that there are parts of Gigi’s life to which she is not privy; her father (Eric De Staercke) can tell Gigi is serious about his daughter, and gives his blessing provided he either comes clean or stops doing whatever it is that’s forcing him to lie. One last big job looms, after which they can be together…

So, yes, that title. In the original French this film is called Le Fidele, which basically translates as The Faithful – something which gives you a pretty good pointer as to the general tenor of the movie. But, for reasons which I cannot begin to fathom, for its English release it has been given (as noted) the title Racer and the Jailbird, which is a horrible, totally inappropriate name for this kind of film, sounding as it does like some kind of wacky, high-spirited comedy-thriller caper from the 1970s.

This is not a wacky, high-spirited comedy-thriller caper in a 70s kind of style. The first half of the film is admittedly a very slick and entertaining crime drama, in what seems to be a highly-commercial style intended to appeal to international audiences (I have heard it compared to Heat). I found myself idly wondering how long it would be before the inevitably inferior American remake came out, who would be cast in the two lead roles, and just how much they would tweak the story and style (the sex scenes in this film are just a tad more explicit than you tend to find in a mainstream American film, but hey, there are French people involved). In short: thoroughly enjoyed the first half.

But then the film undergoes an abrupt and profound volta, signified by the switch of main characters from Schoenaerts to Exarchopoulos, and a huge change in tone. This is much more the kind of thing you would expect to see in Franco-Belgian art-house releases, i.e., it all becomes a bit heavy and depressing. The list of tribulations visited upon Bibi and Gigi as they struggle to sustain their love is so comprehensive and extreme it might even move Job to complain providence was laying it on a bit thick. Melodrama beckons, and the film doesn’t really manage to resist its siren song.

This is a shame, not least because the second half of the film is really Adele Exarchopoulos’ opportunity to shine after playing what’s initially something of a supporting role. She’s still very good, but she has to contend with some rather suspect material in a way that Schoenaerts simply doesn’t in the first half. But the two actors are good together, have chemistry, and you do kind of want to see them end up with some kind of happiness, even if the film never quite hits you with the massive rush of emotion you get from a film like (to choose another Schoenaerts-starring romance) Rust and Bone. In the end what you get is a curious ending, rather carefully ambiguous while still definitely quite downbeat. And you come away feeling mildly disappointed, both by the lack of closure and the way in which all the promise of the first part of the film was left to fizzle away.

I find it hard to be really negative about Le Fidele (or, if you really insist, Racer and the Jailbird), simply because the first half is just so strong, and even the second half is lifted by the two lead performances. But the fact remains that this resembles a peculiar welded-together hybrid of two films with wildly different styles and sensibilities, one of them much more accomplished and rewarding than the other. Worth seeing, I think, but keep your expectations under control.

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