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OCCASIONAL NOTES ON FILM

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Clearly the best action film that has been released so far during 2018, this latest franchise entry delivers plenty of the high-octane thrills that have become synonymous with the series, particularly during recent years. There’s a quite thrilling, brutally bone-crunching fist fight that takes place in a bathroom, for example, involving Tom Cruise’s familiar IMF agent Ethan Hunt, Henry Cavill’s CIA assassin August Walker and a man who may or may not be an international terrorist called Lark, with all the shots of bodies slamming into washbasins and through walls that have become de rigeur post-Bourne. There are also speedy, exciting vehicle and foot chases through the streets of central Paris and London, with the requisite number of landmarks incorporated into the sequences’ establishing shots. And the finale – though marred a little by the awful expository dialogue that precedes it, which all of the actors involved seem a tad embarrassed by – is staged very well, particularly with regard to the helicopter chase that was teased in the trailer.

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Simon Pegg and Henry Cavill

This ending is also indicative of Mission: Impossible – Fallout’s laziness, though, perhaps epitomised by the use of such cliches as characters grimacing as they tensely cut the red wire on the left-hand side of a bomb’s interior (WAIT…OR IS IT THE GREEN WIRE ON THE RIGHT, ETC ETC?!!), figures dangling off incredibly high ledges or ropes and timers slowly ticking down to zero. These tired action movie tropes have long been ditched by more inventive, thoughtful writers and directors, and it’s a little dismaying to see them employed yet again within this film, when the marketing tends to proudly push the line that its stunts are next-level and its characters are presented as sprightly and able to think outside of the box in order to outfox the enemy. Allayed to this there’s a nagging sense that even the actors are a little bit bored by it all, performing in variations on scenes that they’ve already appeared in numerous times before (particularly with regard to Cruise, Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg, all veterans of this series). When one character is hoodwinked by Hunt’s team’s misdirection early in the film, for example, and another subsequently falls for a switcheroo involving one of those rubber face masks that seemingly come out of nowhere in these films (because… someone has a laptop handy), are there any audience members who feel the same level of surprise at having had the rug pulled from under their feet? Isn’t it time to move on from the kind of twists seen in Brian De Palma’s first entry in the franchise, and from the more novel ideas that were contained within David Koepp and Robert Towne’s Mission: Impossible movie screenplay?

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Vanessa Kirby

Supporting actors are game, but this is of course A Tom Cruise Film and as such the rest of the cast is marginalised, their characters unable to wallow in a sub plot or enjoy an independent thought of their own that isn’t somehow for Hunt’s benefit. Rebecca Ferguson’s assassin Ilsa was, for some, a breath of fresh air in previous entry Rogue Nation, but she takes a back seat here, appearing with impeccable timing whenever Hunt is in a bind and needs some help. She’s just another team member now, albeit a quasi-member for much of this story, and the actor is surely destined to go the same way as the likes of Emmanuelle Béart, Emilio Estevez, Jeremy Renner and various others have before; but maybe time will prove me wrong. Elsewhere, Sean Harris reprises his role as the big bad of the series, a puppet master of Very Bad Things who is all beard and gravel-voiced threats, while Vanessa Kirby smoulders unconvincingly as new character ‘The White Widow’, a wealthy, powerful broker of dodgy deals who would not be out of place in a Roger Moore-era Bond film. Pegg has already fully accepted his sidekick status, wisely, while Ving Rhames is also seemingly happy to continually play a character who was last given a bit of meaningful personality and a sense of his own life outside of service to Hunt and the IMF way back in 1996, a full five films ago.

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Rebecca Ferguson and Tom Cruise

There’s terrible dialogue here and lots of wooden acting – particularly during the opening, pre-credits scenes – but evidently people go and see these films to be wowed by stunts, and Fallout will not disappoint in this respect; they are very well-staged and each set piece is exciting and incredibly well-choreographed, especially when you consider how many vehicles are involved at times. Somehow the years do not seem to be catching up with Cruise, who yet again gives a solid impression of a man who happens to leap off buildings, kill people and stop nuclear weapons from being deployed almost as often as he eats cornflakes or takes a dump. It seems like there’s plenty left in the tank. (3/5)

As a (slight but long-term) fan of London’s Saint Etienne I’d been meaning to watch the trilogy of short films they made with director Paul Kelly for some time. Examining three different aspects of London, the body of work is made up of Finisterre (2003), What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day? (2005) and This Is Tomorrow (2007), each one being around an hour long and a kind of wistful meditation on the changing face of the city (and thus as they deal to various extents with the past, present and future Saint Etienne’s very distinct brand of retro-futurism seems like a good fit for the soundtrack to me, for they are a band that has always looked back to classic European and American pop and also to more modern sounds of the dancefloor, albeit filtered through the lens of white pop classicists). I understand that the fourth collaboration between band and filmmaker, 2014’s How We Used To Live  a collage about 20th century living that uses British Film Institute archive footage, and which I haven’t yet watched sits seperately from these earlier works.

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Finisterre poster

Finisterre, co-directed by Kelly with Kieran Evans, is a modern take on the city symphony film, the footage darting from spots in suburban London a few of which I definitely recognised, a few that seemed familiar, many that I don’t currently know and probably never will – to more recognisable yet characterful places in the centre. The band and others, such as artist Julian Opie and musician Lawrence from the acts Felt, Denim and Go Kart Mozart (who would later be the subject of Kelly’s 2012 film Lawrence of Belgravia) discuss the places that mean something to them, which tend to be old, traditional cafes, gig venues, record shops, pubs and other places along those lines. But that’s not all; there are wide-reaching cityscapes, close-ups of boarded-up shops and everything in-between. The directors show a knack for catching small architectural details, interesting graffiti and stencils (the latter still a relatively new artistic phenomenon back then), and they use typography as a means of tracking changing times and design fashion, an approach that is consistent across all three films. It’s a fleeting glimpse of a city in flux, and it does to an extent feel like a personal one: this is Kelly and Saint Etienne’s London, primarily, not yours or mine, even if there is some overlap with the types of faces and places you see. The South Bank, Camden, Chalk Farm, Soho, Croydon… Finisterre darts from one spot to the next, knitting it all together, and the emphasis on London’s music scene and nightlife makes it seem warm and positive.

The voices of born and bred locals are more to the fore in What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day?, a 45-minute short about Hackney Wick and the lower Lee Valley in London’s East End (pictured top). Watching today, this is the part of the trilogy that feels to me like the most valuable snapshot, given that the area of the city it examines has been heavily gentrified in the years since it was made, and is markedly different now to how it was in 2005. Kelly spoke to the BFI in 2014 about the three films, addressing the remaking and remodelling of the era. “There was a lot of change going on in London, but we didn’t necessarily see that as a negative thing,” he said. “London was being revitalised. But we wanted to document anything that we thought was going. At the time, there were lots of places that we thought ‘We’ve got to capture this,’ but by the time we got there it would be gone. There was a sense that things were going very fast. It seems to be changing even faster now, accelerating at a pace.”

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Still from What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day?

Mervyn Day the title is a rather niche reference to a 1970s goalkeeper who played for local teams West Ham United and Leyton Orient is an atmospheric portrait, proudly examining the area’s industrial and sporting past, finding plenty of time for the waterways, overgrown and neglected corners and crumbling, condemned buildings of 2005. There are hints of the present and future: radio reports of the London terror attacks are incorporated, while the then-recently successful bid to host the 2012 Olympics is referred to in hopeful terms by some, who correctly identified it back then as an opportunity for renewal, collaboration and sporting endeavour.

East London’s gentrification was already well underway by 2005. As Kelly pointed out to the BFI, it was the influx of artists taking advantage of cheap rent in Hoxton and Dalston during the late 1990s that kicked it all off, but it went through the roof immediately after this film was made. However, as one resident points out on the soundtrack, this is a part of London that has regularly seen periods of dramatic change, partly due to its proximity to the Thames and the City of London (ie the financial district). The arrival of larger numbers of younger, middle-class professionals than normal is nothing new for an area that had just previously welcomed a large influx of Bangladeshi residents, or had seen a sizeable portion of the community’s white working class families move out of London into Kent and Essex. I’ve walked around here a couple of times in 2018. Some edges are still tatty; not everything has changed.

There’s a surprising amount of dereliction on show in this film, considering how close everything depicted is to one of the wealthiest square miles and some of the most valuable property in the entire world, but it’s all shown for a purpose, to highlight lost industries, to demonstrate how things  places, communities, events  can be forgotten, or how economic shifts take place and the use of land changes. Our guide through all of it is a mopey teenage lad on a bike, perhaps a Saint Etienne fan, perhaps a future Olympian, while David Essex and Linda Robson – defiantly uncool but absolutely inspired choices of celebs who were raised in the area – provide commentary.

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DVD cover

Of the three films, I was less enamoured with This Is Tomorrow, which charts the building, role and later renovation of the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank, but it’s still well worth a watch. The area was bombed during the Second World War; the building of the concert hall as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951 helped to put south London on the map, so to speak; and much has sprung up around it since, so it fits with some of the trilogy’s overarching themes, such as London’s changing face and land being used for different purposes. Kelly’s eye for detail is evident once again and there’s an interesting selection of interviewees, including philosopher Alain de Botton. Also present is Robin Day, one of the most significant furniture designers of the 20th century, whose seats adorn the hall. The film was commissioned by the Royal Festival Hall itself (or rather the people who work in it and for it), and as such it’s more of a conventional documentary than the other two films in A London Trilogy, somehow less personal and by necessity rendering the people of London irrelevant.

I felt sad watching the three films; I see here the London that I moved to, albeit in 1999 rather than 2003, 2005 or 2007. What I should say, then, is that I definitely see the London I lived in for many years. I also felt a degree of warmth towards the films which came, oddly enough, because of Kelly’s insistence on poking around in dingy, messy corners of the capital. You don’t see these spaces committed to film too often, and I think such scenes here are part of a kind of more general, quiet celebration that I’m glad exists.

The London Trilogy is available to watch on BFI Player in the UK and can be purchased from lots of the usual outlets.

My Blind Spot choice for May was an excellent one, and as I write this a couple of weeks after watching Jacques Demy’s 1964 film The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg for the first time, I feel relatively confident in saying that it is now one of my favourite musicals – a vivid, colourful and bittersweet melodrama containing wonderful performances from Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo and an insistent, memorable score from Michel Legrand. Despite the film’s stellar reputation among amateur and professional critics – not to mention musical aficionados – I had wondered beforehand whether I was going to like the recicative dialogue; it’s not something I tend to enjoy and I thought it might be a stumbling block preventing me from connecting with Demy’s work. However, it’s so well-done here that I stopped noticing the device for a while, and at times it even seemed completely natural that the actors were singing their lines throughout. And bravo to cinematographer Jean Rabier, whose vibrant vision of the French port town makes the bad weather seem oddly warm and appealing. This is a masterpiece. (*****)

The first of five semi-autobiographical François Truffaut films – also his debut – that star Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doinel, a young Parisian boy whose journey from neglected, mis-treated youth to juvenile petty criminal is profoundly moving and wonderfully acted. The opening sequence sets 1950s Paris up as a kind of playground, and it remains as much for most of the rest of the film, with Henri Decaë’s camera wandering the streets in tandem with the latchkey lead. I first watched Les Quatre Cents Coups (sorry, I’ve always hated the badly-translated and comparatively clumsy English languate title) when I was a teenager, but I identify with and have way more sympathy for Antoine now than I did back then. It’s a film that’s ostensibly about a child, yes, but really Truffaut is holding up a mirror to adults, requesting them to think about their own actions and the society they have created. (*****)

Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight is a 1952 film about a washed-up, alcoholic stage performer (Chaplin) and a suicidal but promising dancer (Claire Bloom), who he nurses back to health; to different extents they inspire and encourage one another to tread the boards once more. Chaplin’s own father went through similar travails as his popularity dwindled at the end of the 19th century, though the director always maintained that Limelight was to some extent based on the life and career of stage actor Frank Tinney. There’s something of Charlie Chaplin’s own ups and downs in there, too, with various nods toward his retired Tramp character and former glory days. The film certainly captures the tragic nature of a great performer as he nears the end, with Chaplin’s luvvie Calvero gamely carrying on despite changes in audiences’ tastes, as it’s the only thing he’s ever done. Chaplin only made two more features after this, his last Hollywood film (though it’s set in England), and although it’s a melancholic affair there’s still humour and energy and kindness emanating from the great star’s character. Bloom, here at the beginning of her long film and stage career, is good but occasionally required to be hysterical, and the washed-up star narrative is underlined by the appearance of Buster Keaton – who by 1952 had fallen on hard times – as Calvero’s stage partner. There are some splendid match cuts that take us in and out of Calvero’s dreams, some well-designed sets and, unfortunately, a bit of dodgy accent work that suggests the director had lost touch with his homeland and London specifically. It’s very good, though. (****)

You can see what George Clooney was trying to do with The Monuments Men. On paper it looks like a modern day Kelly’s Heroes, or some other war caper movie from the 1970s featuring an unconventional cast made up of normally serious actors, bankable stars, a couple of non-Americans – to pay lip service to the other nations who were involved in defeating the Nazis – and a few comic players for light relief. Joining Clooney here are Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin and Hugh Bonneville, and their collective job as part of the Allied Forces’ Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program is to locate all of the precious artwork the Germans looted during the Second World War and locate it before the retreating, nearly-defeated enemy soldiers torch the lot. There was a chance to create an interesting story, here, and Clooney has evidently tried to make something different to the norm, but it all feels so flat and dreary and there’s very little drama. The decision to make a couple of the characters oddly fixated with just one artwork, as if to inject the narrative with some purpose, is a total mis-step. And just look at the charismatic figures within that cast! Not one of them comes away with any credit, though it’s hard to blame them individually; they’re all working with a turgid, dull screenplay. Balaban and Murray draw the shortest straws as they should be the most entertaining; they share lots of screen time and, bizarrely, when they appear it’s so turgid you feel like you’re watching in slow motion. A pity. (*½)

I still think of Peter Berg as being a half-decent 90s actor, as opposed to his new guise as a director of macho, artillery-heavy blockbusters, simply because I haven’t bothered to check out many of the films he’s made. Those that I have seen – Hancock, Very Bad Things – just didn’t seem to work, despite Berg’s attempts to try something a little different within two genres that seemed quite tired at the time. I might start paying a tiny bit more attention, though, having now seen 2016’s disaster movie Deepwater Horizon, which tells of the 2010 oil rig explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

There are faults with this film, for sure. The screenplay largely neglects to cover the aftermath, including most obviously the massive environmental impact of the oil spill, save for one scene in which an oil-covered bird runs amok on a ship’s bridge, smashing into windows and machinery; there’s a brief mention of the long clean-up process at the end, which to date has apparently cost BP more than $54 billion, and very little regarding the lawsuits and criminal cases that ensued in the wake of the disaster. The focus here is almost entirely on the men and women who worked on Deepwater Horizon at the time of the accident, with emphasis on Mark Wahlberg’s electronics technician Mike, Kurt Russell’s supervisor Jimmy, John Malkovich’s BP manager Donald and navigation officer Andrea (Gina Rodriguez). Wahlberg’s a good fit for the lead role: here he’s playing a skilled employee and all round likeable guy who acts heroically in the face of extreme danger and just wants to get home to his wife and daughter. Russell is great to watch, as usual, and has a good part here. Malkovich overacts in order to establish quickly that he’s the villain of the piece. Rodriguez doesn’t get as many lines as the men, but is OK.

There are maddening cliches here: Kate Hudson is handed one of those thankless wife-left-dangling-at-the-end-of-the-phone (well, Skype call) roles, hundreds of miles away from the action when the power on the rig suddenly cuts out; later, as huge fires burn on the rig, a lone, defiant American flag billows in the wind before it is subsumed by the flames; and there’s absolutely no lingering on the trauma experienced by any of the survivors – Mike’s is quickly dealt with in about ten seconds flat before a typical (but understandable) syrupy reunion with his family to round things off. However, despite all of that I was engrossed in the story and the action; the actual mechanics of the rig and cause of the explosion are explained in enough detail that even I – a man who shrieks and runs away at the prospect of a bit of DIY – understood what had happened. And I can’t imagine how difficult it is to recreate this huge, terrifying accident, with all the fires raging and explosions taking place and huge pieces of metal falling in such a cramped space, but Berg and his effects team carry it off with aplomb. So this is another disaster film in which the disaster itself is the real star, but Berg manages to choreograph the chaos so that it’s easy to follow (yet still utterly terrifying), and, most importantly of all, he shows respect towards the 11 men who died on board the rig. (***½)