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Like the preceding Mission: Impossible film, Rogue Nation delivers exhilarating action in spades, and as such it’s probably the most entertaining live action blockbuster of the summer so far (you wait months for one intense set piece and three come along at the same time, etc.). The franchise has achieved a degree of stability, with three actors returning from previous episodes to join Tom Cruise for round five (Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner), and as you’d expect the magic, money-spinning formula has been strictly adhered to. Most of the elements that people seemed to like in Ghost Protocol can also be found in Rogue Nation, and all-told it works very well as an non-challenging action thriller, even if the nagging sense of déjà vu refuses to go away.

Disbelief must, once again, be suspended throughout. As per usual Cruise’s super-agent Ethan Hunt is discredited and disowned by his country, and must avoid his new CIA paymasters while battling shadowy terrorist organisation The Syndicate in a number of locations around the world: Minsk, London, Havana, Paris, Washington, DC, Langley, Casablanca and Vienna are all visited within an hour, sometimes just for a couple of seconds (‘Hey, it’s the Eiffel T…’), and Hunt’s team seemingly have identities and gadgets stashed in every city. Somewhat laughably we’re told that The Syndicate are behind everything, from plane crashes to power plant explosions to (I can only presume) any comedic slips on banana skins that occur, and their goal is to cause global instability. How they are actually managing to do this and how they intend to profit from it in the long run is never clearly explained, but we do discover that The Syndicate started out as a secret MI6 project and – like all the best evil organisations – it can ultimately be boiled down to one slightly creepy head honcho (Sean Harris) and his stupidly-named right-hand-man (‘The Bone Doctor’, with a performance straight out of The Big Book Of Musclebound Bad Guys by Jens Hultén). If this Multiplex Terrorism wasn’t silly enough in itself Rogue Nation viewers must also accept that someone who has reached the position of second-in-command at Syndicate Towers cannot actually hit Hunt while using a machine gun in a corridor that’s no more than four feet wide, that people who are shot in the back of the head from point-blank range do not bleed, and that people who jump through two window panes in the space of ten seconds can emerge without a scratch or a hair out of place. And that’s before we even get on to the big set pieces.

Few would look to the action thriller (or, more accurately, the spy action thriller) for their daily reality check, however, and if you sit back and go with it the running/shooting/fighting/jumping/swimming/driving tableaux provided are very entertaining; in fact three of the set pieces here give the famous Burj Khalifa and Langley scenes of earlier Mission: Impossible installments a good run for their money. Cruise hanging off the side of a plane is an obvious early highlight, while I also enjoyed the twenty minutes spent at the Vienna State Opera House, director Christopher McQuarrie channeling Hitchcock and, rather pleasingly, De Palma (indeed the production design, lighting and photography here often references the look of the original Mission: Impossible film, particularly the scenes set in Vienna and London, though McQuarrie’s film sadly only pays lip service to the series’ connective tissue of deception and false identity). There’s also a fine extended sequence involving a tense break-in to a water-filled chamber, while the car and motorbike chase that ensues through narrow streets and winding mountain roads is acted impeccably (by the principal cast members involved and the stunt crew). Cruise powers through all of this in an impressive, committed fashion, mostly joined by Simon Pegg’s tech wizz Benji rather than Renner’s agent Brandt, who has to settle for Congressional hearings and frantic phone conversations in corridors for much of the film.

The performance by Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson, who plays a duplicitous British agent named Ilsa Faust, has been praised in some quarters. Faust injects some much-needed mystery into the film and is a character that regularly kicks ass (or rather ‘thighclamps head’, given that’s what she does to most of her male adversaries), but McQuarrie makes a number of troubling decisions with regard to the way she is portrayed, and it’s worth pointing out that she is the only woman in an all-male ensemble. There’s no doubt that Ferguson is excessively sexualised here, male-gazed by a camera that pans up and down her legs in a seedy fashion on a number of occasions, and there’s even the kind of antiquated mission-impossible-rogue-nation-rebecca-ferguson-reviewexiting-water-in-a-bikini shot that the Bond franchise flipped and subsequently dispensed with a decade ago to herald the modern Daniel Craig era. Some may argue that Cruise gets similar treatment, and indeed he is predictably topless within the first twenty minutes, but it’s a very different kind of objectification and it’s one that typically shows how male and female characters are treated disparately in action movies. In Rogue Nation Ferguson is objectified to make her more sexually attractive and this is primarily done because it entertains the majority of watching (straight) men, hence the grubby nature of the camerawork, the ‘bikini scene’ and the repeated clamping of thighs round male heads before they are thrown to the floor (a submissive male fantasy if ever there was one, and a character trait that has been written by a man). Cruise is also objectified by his shirtless minute or two, but the intention feels different: in his case it’s to make the character look stronger, to establish his heroic credentials; of course it will also please anyone watching who happens to fancy Tom Cruise, but I don’t think that’s the writer-director in question’s main concern. (In the largely forgettable Jack Reacher – McQuarrie’s previous film as director – there was a half-decent gag about Cruise being shirtless, but such wit is missing here.)

It’s hardly original to point out that it’s rare for the men who make big budget Hollywood action films to introduce strong female characters and then simply allow them to be strong without any other agenda. In this particular film the character of Faust may be tough but apparently that’s not enough on its own: she must also be Hunt’s love interest and is duly filmed – rather clumsily, it must be said, but not always – in a way that reduces her to eye candy. Still, she isn’t defined wholly by her looks and it’s worth pointing out that Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation doesn’t end with Faust and Hunt in bed together, even though their relationship often appears to be heading that way. Ultimately including female characters in action films who are the intellectual and physical equals of their male counterparts is a start, but it’s only a start: while directors like McQuarrie leer over their legs (or while studio executives keep telling them they must include that kind of thing) there’s a long way still to go. And all of this on the back of the unfortunate way Ferguson was depicted on the movie’s posters, too.

Less importantly, once again artistic licence is taken with the geography of London: you can’t run from the Tower of London to the Royal Courts of Justice on Fleet Street in five seconds flat, and unfortunately it annoys me when films do this kind of thing, even if most people won’t notice or care (though presumably residents of Vienna and Casablanca who watch the film will notice mission-impossible-rogue-nation-trailer-01similar discrepancies). It’s sloppy, and I can’t imagine a similar trick would be pulled if, say, New York City or Los Angeles were the location in question. I also wish we could move on from bomb props that have big LED screens showing a countdown to zero or that flash the word “DISARMED!” in red letters when they are disarmed. Presumably this kind of thing is left in for the sake of dimwits who, with regard to the scene in question, need an explanation as to why Simon Pegg is still making chirrup-y quips seconds after it looked like his organs were about to be splattered across the screen. But let’s end on a positive note, because overall this is a decent action blockbuster in a year of disappointing event movies: Joe Kraemer’s score is pleasant enough, and the now-familiar trick of working short-and-long-term nostalgia-inducing pieces (in this case Nessun Dorma, which features heavily in the Vienna sequence, and Lalo Schifrin’s Mission: Impossible theme) into the soundtrack is executed with aplomb (see also Jurassic World, Terminator Genisys, etc.). I guess interpolation is par for the course when a franchise is twenty years old, and not just in terms of the music, so it’s worth pointing out how unusual it is to have this much fun when you’re five films in.

Directed by: Christopher McQuarrie.
Written by: Christopher McQuarrie. Story by Christopher McQuarrie and Drew Pearce. Based on Mission: Impossible by Bruce Geller
Starring: Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, Ving Rhames, Alec Baldwin, Sean Harris.
Cinematography: Robert Elswit.
Editing: Eddie Hamilton.
Music: Joe Kraemer.
Certificate: 12A.
Running Time: 131 minutes.
Year: 2015.

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Directed by: 
Wash Westmoreland, Richard Glatzer. Written by: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland, based on Still Alice by Lisa Genova. Starring: Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish. Cinematography: Denis Lenoir. Editing: Nicolas Chaudeurge. Music: Ilan Eshkeri. Certificate: 12A. Running Time: 100 minutes. Year: 2015. Rating: 6.9

[Note: The majority of this review had been written before the announcement that the co-director of Still Alice, Richard Glatzer, had sadly passed away earlier this week at the age of 63.]

Still Alice – the drama containing Julianne Moore’s multi award-winning performance as a Columbia University linguistics professor diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease – has only just been released in the UK, and it’s good to finally be able to see her work, which has at the time of writing won more than 20 of the past year’s more prestigious ‘Best Actress’ titles. Oddly, Moore was regarded as a shoe-in for Oscar success by almost everyone who had an opinion on the matter this year, even those who haven’t actually watched this film; was it even worth the other nominees turning up? Of course it is an impressive turn, by a consistently impressive actress, and anyone familiar with the disease will be able to appreciate Moore’s authenticity in the way she portrays memory loss, confusion, apathy, problems with vocabulary and other symptoms that patients experience.

In this story – adapted from neuroscientist Lisa Genova’s bestseller – Moore’s character, Alice Howland, initially becomes forgetful, receives her diagnosis and subsequently moves through the different stages of the illness: early, to moderate, to advanced. Throughout she is surrounded by her close family, and the film examines the relationships Alice has with her husband John (Alec Baldwin), oldest daughter Anna (Kate Bosworth), son Tom (Hunter Parrish) and youngest daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart), including the way in which they change as Alice’s condition deteriorates. The family is made up of high achievers and their individual reactions to the news, plus their different ways of coping, makes for interesting viewing. Unfortunately Alice’s illness turns out to be genetic, inherited from her late father, and she is told that there’s a good chance it has been passed on to her children. Lawyer Anna is pregnant with twins and, like trainee doctor Tom, undergoes testing straight away. Aspiring LA-based actress Lydia, though in her own way just as driven as the rest of the Howlands, is seen as the ‘different’ one, and doesn’t want to know whether she will be affected in later life or not.

Setting Lydia apart from the group – geographically as well as in terms of her personality and career – means that her relationship with Alice is the most distant, and troubled, as well as being the one that changes the most within the time frame of this film. Alice repeatedly asks her youngest daughter to drop her chosen career and go to college, and their bond appears to be strained as a result, but it strengthens through artistic discourse as Alice’s condition worsens; in contrast Alice’s other familial relationships are more clinical and business-like, defined through scientific and academic discussion, and often lacking in raw emotion. The character of John is a great example: he is generally supportive but he wants to hear facts rather than discuss feelings, and an unwillingness to jeopardise his career makes for an occasionally unsympathetic portrait of a scientist and of a husband. When he reveals his innermost feelings at the end of the film for the first time it is an emotional punch to the audience’s gut.

Naturally this is a moving film, directed with simplicity by married couple Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer (who was living with ALS, or Motor Neurone Disease), which allows the focus to remain on Alice throughout. Her sense of disorientation and panic is rendered in an obvious fashion, usually with shallow depth of field ‘removing’ the character from the immediate environment, but it is at least an effective technique. You could argue that relying on Moore’s facial expressions alone would have worked just as well: witness for example the scene in which she suddenly becomes lost while jogging through the familiar terrain of her university campus, or the panic-stricken attempt to locate the toilet in the family’s seaside holiday home. It is magnificent acting by Moore, who remains believable throughout and never once overdoes things, subtly altering the character in a gradual fashion as her dementia worsens. I’ve seen this point made elsewhere, and I’m sorry to say I can’t remember where that was, but the gradual change in Moore’s performance is expertly revealed during a scene in which Alice stumbles across an earlier video she recorded when lucid, at the early stages of the illness. The difference, even though this is ‘still Alice’, is startling.

As the illness gets worse Westmoreland and Glatzer choose to repeat earlier scenes, another effective way of highlighting the deterioration that has taken place: thus Alice’s scores while playing Words With Friends with Anna drop dramatically, while two similar visits to a frozen yoghurt store reveal how much has changed in a relatively short period of time. There is awkwardness when Alice forgets she has already met Tom’s girlfriend, but later a similar scenario plays out with added sadness when Alice fails to recognize Lydia, her own daughter.

It’s hard to be too critical of the film, except to say that if you haven’t seen it it’s exactly the kind of movie you (probably) expect it to be. It’s worth highlighting Moore’s performance once again, which really turns Still Alice into a must-see, while the talented Kristen Stewart is also very good in support. The directors have dealt with the subject matter in a way that is sympathetic, understanding, respectful and moving, and the recent sad death of Glatzer means there’s an added poignancy to its release.

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Received movie-going wisdom has it that late-period Woody Allen films are very hit and miss. Looking at his largely successful mid-to-late 90s period, as well as some of the gems of recent years, I’d say that late-period Woody Allen films hit the mark far more often than they miss it. Sure, last year’s To Rome With Love was a disappointing, Allen-by-numbers affair, which critics suggested felt incomplete and rushed, a direct result of the writer-director’s self-imposed one-film-per-year heavy workload and fast turnaround time. But the past five years, to pick a completely arbitrary period of time, have also seen the release of the passable You Will Meet A Tall, Dark Stranger and the underrated, low-key Whatever Works, as well as the more celebrated crowd-pleasers Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Midnight In Paris. (Let’s not cheapen this opening paragraph by mentioning Cassandra’s Dream, though, eh?)

Oops.

So anyway, here’s a fact. Blue Jasmine is the best of the recent bunch by far, and while it fails to match the very finest moments of Allen’s long, rollercoaster career, it certainly compares favourably to many of his much-loved melodramas.

The Jasmine of the title is played by Cate Blanchett, who is absolutely superb here, and will certainly be in with a shout for the Best Actress Shiny Gong next year following this standout performance. A New York socialite fallen on hard-ish times, Jasmine is attempting to recover from the end of her marriage and subsequent financial woes by staying with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in Ginger’s cramped but cosy San Francisco apartment. Jasmine’s extravagant old lifestyle of luxurious homes, cocktails round the swimming pool, Upper East Side designer shopping sprees and polo matches is shown in a series of flashbacks, which also detail the philanderings of ex-husband Hal (Alec Baldwin). Hal is a Bernie Madoff-esque financier, and we learn that his bending of the law (to which Jasmine largely turns a blind eye) has led to an FBI investigation and, subsequently, imprisonment.

Broke and breaking down, Jasmine settles her nerves with a near constant mix of Stolichnaya and Xanax. She is losing the plot, gradually, as a result of events with Hal and her own attempts to make ends meet in New York after their break up, and she is regularly seen talking to herself in public. She makes vague plans to turn her life around and reinvents herself as an interior designer, while employed as a dentist’s receptionist, but she has previously been handed everything on a plate and shies away from doing hard work. Meanwhile, she snobbishly passes judgement whenever possible on Ginger’s home and choice of blue collar partner while completely missing – or refusing to acknowledge – their relative moral decency in comparison to her own ex. Ginger has two kids by handyman Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), but their marriage failed after a lottery win was mis-invested by Hal, who lost all of their funds. In the present day, Ginger’s boyfriend and soon-to-be live-in partner is mechanic Chili (Bobby Cannavale), a rough-around-the-edges type, but ultimately a decent, caring guy.

Jasmine, though, can only see failure, and she constantly berates her sister for settling down and failing to better her lot. The impressionable Ginger listens, and begins an unnecessary affair of her own, with home entertainment salesman Al (Louis CK). Jasmine’s love life, meanwhile, appears to take a turn for the better when, after fighting off the unwanted and clumsily aggressive advances of her dentist employer Dr Flicker (Michael Stuhlbarg), she meets ambitious politician Dwight (Peter Saarsgard). However, Jasmine proves to be her own undoing, mixing deceit with an unbecoming and forthright sense of entitlement; added to this is the fact she has not been able to fully deal with the effects of the events of the past. Constantly mentioning Hal in conversation, she finds that the process of cracking up is a difficult one to halt.

Blanchett’s performance here is extremely convincing. From the opening monologue unburdened to a fellow air traveller right the way through to the haunting, solemn closing scene, she fills the screen with this partly-unsympathetic character, ultimately managing to wrest some empathy from the viewer in the final act despite the fact Allen revels in showing the very worst of Jasmine’s traits. She is more-than-ably helped by the supporting cast. Baldwin is excellent as the arrogant bigshot bastard, and Hawkins is the perfect foil for Blanchett as the simpler, well-meaning sister, her English accent as well disguised as Blanchett’s Australian one. Cannavale, Saarsgard and Clay are all entirely convincing as the other men in Ginger and Jasmine’s lives, and even those with limited screen time do well: Max Casella, for example, has just one scene as Chili’s friend Eddie, and you long for his awkward encounter with Jasmine to continue.

Together, each character’s conversations (and, eventually, arguments) with Jasmine slowly bring out her foibles, her petty snobbery, her neuroses and her prejudices. The character is classic Allen, a tragic figure unable to free herself from her own clutches, despite her frequent protestations that she wishes to turn over a new leaf and start afresh.

There are plenty of other Allen hallmarks, on top of the oft-arguing characters and the crisp, fast-moving dialogue; a checklist would include ticks by the following standards: busy interiors, the breakdown of relationships, the satirical take on New York high society, the classic jazz soundtrack and the simple title and end credits. There’s even an awkward moment where a few characters bump into each other in the street at a key time (and as always that doesn’t work well). While you could argue that these are merely signs that point to a well-honed style, it’s actually a little frustrating, and the criticism that Allen treads water from film to film still remains. Would an entirely different look, or a more unusual structure, be all that difficult for Allen to produce? Predictability brings comfort, but it also makes you wonder if more time spent in development or post-production might yield creative surprises. Allen has never forgotten his stage roots.

That all said, the way he films Blanchett is itself fascinating. Allen opts for a lot of close ups, picking up every tic and reaction and minute change of expression his leading lady proffers. The quality, and occasional subtlety, of Blanchett’s performance would have been noted even with a more distant focal length, but the fact that she fills the screen so often and every detail is captured, every flick of the hand and every raising of the eyebrow, certainly helps illuminate the actor’s work.

It’s interesting that there are no shots that show off the glory of Manhattan, yet Allen paints an almost loving picture of the geography of San Francisco, something which he perhaps didn’t quite manage with his other film set in The Golden City, Play It Again, Sam. With a woozy, sunny haze falling across the streets and on the character’s faces, San Francisco looks warm and inviting in comparison to the cold grays of Avenues Madison and Fifth. This is a character-driven drama, and the cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe doesn’t distract attention away from the acting unduly, but it’s worth mentioning that the film is pleasant on the eye. (Aguirresarobe previously worked with Allen as Director of Photography on Vicky Cristina Barcelona.)

At times it is a sad, poignant movie, and it treats the subject of stress and its effects on mental health and familial relationships with a necessary seriousness. Many have already compared it to A Streetcar Named Desire, and there are obvious parallels in terms of the plot and the characters. Jasmine, with nerves shredded and former glories turning to distant memories, is a modern day version of Blanche DuBois, and it surely cannot be mere coincidence that Blanchett played the character on stage in Sydney five years ago, or that Alec Baldwin has twice played the role of Stanley Kowalski – most recently in a mid-90s TV movie. The famous, ironic line “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers” could just as easily be spoken by Jasmine at the film’s end, with its suggestion of what will eventually become of the character.

Given the subject matter, fans of Allen’s comedy will appreciate the fact it has to be light on bellylaughs, but it is as witty as you would expect an Allen-penned social satire dealing with morals and class to be. There is plenty in this well-paced, brilliantly-acted piece to keep audiences smirking, and on this evidence the suggestion that Allen is incapable of reaching former glories holds no truck whatsoever. If he continues to make films as good as this, you can forgive him the odd turkey or two every five years.

There have been countless attempts over the years to write Allen off, to suggest that his best years and best films are long behind him. Blue Jasmine isn’t a definitive answer to all the naysayers, by any means, but it’s a measured response to those who feel he disappoints all-too-regularly. This is a very, very good late-period Woody Allen film, with a standout central performance and excellent support. Well worth seeing.

The Basics:

Directed by: Woody Allen
Written by: Woody Allen
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Sally Hawkins, Bobby Cannavale, Andrew Dice Clay, Peter Saarsgard
Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Year: 2013
Rating: 
8.3

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