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Thursday, 27 August 2015

FILM REVIEW: Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation

The latest entry in the long running film series is a taut, tantalising cocktail of numerous identities, kinetic thrills and visual theatrics

At their best, the Mission: Impossible movies have slickly channelled the tone and tempo of Alfred Hitchcock and James Bond, tales of ordinary people in extraordinary situations to go with the locations, action, gadgets and girls we so often expect in the spy genre. When not drowned in directorial ego (see: the second film), style overtaking substance (the second film again) or the look of over-budgeted television (see: the all-too-Alias third film), the series spreads its wings and soars high and true with a uniquely satisfying edge.

In the fifth entry, Rogue Nation, the intimate intensity of the first movie and tongue-in-cheek excitement of the fourth movie are retained, if not enhanced. But this may be the first time the series has really flexed its visual and theatrical muscles; and it works brilliantly.

It's no coincidence, for me, that the U2 line of Vienna's underground railway plays an important part in our heroes meeting up for the traditionally effective night-at-the-opera set piece. Through transportation, both the undercover nature of spy work and the history of this film series are referenced: remember when Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen's turbulent adaptation of Lalo Schifrin's immortal theme tune re-raised the Mission: Impossible curtain in 1996, a mere year after Bono and the Edge penned the theme tune that saw Pierce Brosnan open the door on a brand new era for another famous spy?

Two decades later, James Bond and Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt have come full circle, finding themselves in an old and new world where none can sleep: how fitting is it that Turandot's Nessun Dorma - "None Shall Sleep" - is both the operatic and thematic centrepiece of this film? To put it another way, U2 reminds us of what was then, and what is now, while Nessun Dorma is fully reflective of the film's mood. It's also pretty reflective of the state of the Impossible Missions Force in Rogue Nation.

Faced with an unexpected death and a shocking revelation, Ethan Hunt must go on the run and into hiding when he and the IMF are deemed surplus to requirements and dissolved into the CIA after one too many brushes with danger. Once relied upon, they are now viewed as a hindrance. Such is the nature of the film's bureaucrats, who disregard the need for vigilantism, and will later seek to justify using it themselves when they believe they have no other choice.

Except perhaps they do. This universally established message, that of people forever seeking to rationalise their actions for the sake of either maintaining an image of control or achieving their personal goals, runs throughout the course of the movie, and reaches its apex when the quietly yet deceptively unassuming Attlee (Simon McBurney) remarks that there are no allies in statecraft, only common interest. Is his manner, for better or worse, relating to the underestimated, enigmatic prime minister of the same name who was renowned for substance over style? Judging by his character, it's quite possible.

What's definite is that the whole IMF have no choice to be fugitives. Or at least Hunt has to be hunted down. And what happens from there on in delights both body and brain. Pace, after all, is key when your protagonist both is and is played by the perpetual “man on the run”. Ethan Hunt is the prototypical Tom Cruise role: cool, calm and collected with sporadic, well-timed quips or emotional outbursts. It's a polarizing persona, either the perfect fit or an incompetent irritation, depending on Cruise's choice of collaborator.

Fortunately, Cruise has worked with a series of high profile and top notch directors, and Christopher McQuarrie is no exception. McQuarrie's Usual Suspects screenplay set a relatively recent benchmark for talky thrillers about conning and being conned, with an indelible mistaken identity twist. That is essentially what the M:I series is about; usual suspects in unusual situations, with Ethan Hunt and the film's requisite girl or femme fatale in the most unusual situations of them all. Here, we have the none-too-subtly named Ilsa Faust, played by the alluring Rebecca Ferguson: it's not revealing much to say that a key part of her personality is unveiled in Casablanca, and she's symbolically made a deal with the devil.

But in the hands of McQuarrie and producer JJ Abrams, such on-the-nose character naming is crafty rather than clunky. Knowing his actors' strengths, Abrams gives them plenty of time and space to be expressive and effective amongst nifty visuals and tense action. Be he a slacker, policeman, overgrown child or skilled engineer, Simon Pegg's characters are often defined by energetic loyalty, and his Benji Dunn is no different, while Jeremy Renner continues to wittily and affably evolve beyond his Daniel Craig-lite image. Rogue Nation has the ideal amount of heart, soul and drive for its cast, script and even locales, being flippant, yet fierce, silly, yet suspenseful, and improbable, yet irresistible. It's deceptively simple, tantalisingly swift and - thanks to ace DP Robert Elswit - strikingly beautiful. I loved it.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015


Pixar's latest seems like a routine animated romp, but it may well be the most important film of the summer

At its core, Inside Out is really nothing new: the Typical Pixar tale of a mismatched pair forced to bond on an adventure of inner and outer discovery, with a supporting cast of literally colourful characters. But Inside Out may also be the first Pixar film where the plot itself, appealing though it is, generally takes a back seat. By nature, the popular animated film company's features have been a mixture of postmodern neuroticisms and coming-of-age stories, and while Inside Out is no different in that regard, it offers far more than you might expect. Think of it as a story of character development inside and outside the human head packed with thrills, laughs and plenty of food for the brain.

It's not so much brain food as brain fuel that is the central focus of Inside Out. Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader) and Anger (Lewis Black) are the five living, breathing parts of the emotional spectrum inside the mental "headquarters" of the soon-to-be-teenage Riley Anderson (Kaitlyn Dias). Imagine a variation on Beano's Numskulls comic except with more colour, vibrance and depth: these headquarters house Riley's core memories, which in turn constitute five “islands of personality”, including one for friendship and one for family.

When Riley is forced to relocate from her happy home in Minnesota to San Francisco after her father gets a new job, Joy begins working overtime to ensure that Riley remains happy, with neither she nor the other emotions understanding the relevance of Sadness. That lack of understanding will get both Joy and Sadness into trouble and force them to go on a Pixarian adventure of discovery throughout the entire body: an exciting, eye-opening and even horrifying quest.

For Joy, while well-intentioned, is not all that far removed from a self-help Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She primarily believes that it is solely her responsibility to keep Riley happy while unfortunately forgetting, or even ignoring, that part that conflicting emotions play in building and sustaining character.

Appealingly simple though it would seem to separate one's primary emotions into five separate colours and one's personalities into a series of islands, it would also be reductive to think it can always remain this way. You cannot pigeon hole a human being into a solitary emotion, or even five: we are far more mixed up and uncertain of ourselves, as the film eventually proves.

It is painful to learn that in striving to make others happy, we forget that what we perceive will make them happy is not what will actually make them happy. Pete Docter has grasped this, in the form of a children's adventure, and skilfully dramatised it without losing sight of the plot-driven excitement and humour that Pixar are so good at. 

Riley's "brain people" are in for a rude awakening as their host grows up fast and they are forced into circumstances beyond their control. Joy learns that her lack of pragmatism is a stumbling block, and arguably more troubling than Sadness's desire for attention. Believing that anything is possible is one thing, not being realistic is another, and Joy's inability to listen is more detrimental to her, headquarters and Riley than she thinks. Similarly, the other emotions are cursed by pigeon holed narrow mindedness: Disgust is the prototypical deadpan snarker, Fear is your average pre-punch George McFly, and Anger is the Biff, he who is only too keen to lay physical and emotional biffs through Riley's psyche until he learns the error of his ways.

(Spoiler alert.)
The "death" of an exceptionally colourful imaginary friend makes Inside Out richly cathartic. His "sacrifice", the epitome of letting go childish playthings and opening one's eyes to the complications of teenage years, seems to contradict the film's message in the closing credits, that we should stay children forever. That is, until you view it from Joy's perspective: while she will continue her mission of making Riley happy, she will now do so with a newly sober outlook that retains the memory of childhood lost without using it as a crutch. Everyone is shaped by their upbringing: the challenge is to reflect on it for the better and not dwell on it for the worse, as the elderly protagonist of Docter's Up finds when he eventually lets go of the past and embraces his new found future.

The grim resonance of Inside Out arises from the initial idea itself, the horror that emotions can not only be minimised but reduced to a series of systematic technicalities as opposed to the human spontaneities they ought to be. It is a frightening reflection of societal planning, how often luck and adventure appear to be forgotten because we like to believe we're in control. Everything in Inside Out is symbolic, and everything has a message, which may well make it the most thematically ambitious movie that Pixar have ever produced. Just as well, then, that it's a thoroughly enjoyable one too.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

FILM REVIEW: Song Of The Sea

The price of putting the needs of the many ahead of the needs of the few is exquisitely illustrated in Tomm Moore's spectacular animated film

An intimately affecting Close Encounter beneath and above the ocean waves, Tomm Moore's spectacular Song Of The Sea is not so much about the mysterious and interesting creatures within it, but rather how people of all ages adapt, or attempt to adapt, in the presence of the unexpected. It's another undisputed triumph for Newry-born Moore, whose Kilkenny-based Cartoon Saloon earned an Oscar nomination for attuning their hand-drawn talents to the secret of the legendary Book Of Kells in the late noughties.

They are equally, if not more, at home with the look, feel and most importantly the heart of their characters in this scenario; the results, which secured another Oscar nomination, are simply astounding, touching on the real world-fantasy world parallels of a Pan's Labyrinth and the soulful, sensitive exploratory themes of a Where The Wild Things Are, while always ringing fresh and true.

It's late 1980s Ireland, and lighthouse keeper Conor (voiced by Brendan Gleeson) is still reeling from the disappearance of his wife Bronach (voiced by Lisa Hannigan) who strangely vanished after giving birth to their now mute, six-year-old daughter Saoirse. Her brother Ben (voiced by David Rawle), cannot cope with the attention his little sister is receiving, and Moore does a fine job of highlighting why Ben is unwilling and unable to accept Saoirse as part of the family. Because her arrival coincided with their mother's departure and took the focus away from Ben, he has become consumed by bitterness.

When he pushes Saoirse's face into her birthday cake before she has even had a chance to blow out the candles, it is a painful reminder of how jealousy and rigidity can damage one's childhood. And Ben's rigidity will be tested to the full when he and Saoirse are forced to move to Dublin with their not-very-fun-loving grandmother (voiced by Fionnula Flanagan) whose appearance and presence are a very clear reflection of what's to come.

For Saoirse, like her mother, is a white Selkie: a human over water but a seal under it. Her discovery of a white sealskin coat, and her initial dive into the sea, allows her to realise her true self and opens up numerous narrative and thematic strands. Prior to her find, Ben has frightened her by telling her a scary, if true, story: yet the very moment he sees how terrified Saoirse is, he immediately apologises. He must surely realise by this stage that the silent Saoirse cares for him, but he doesn't want to admit any hint of a connection, lest he be seen as weak. Because he is so young the true value of family hood has not yet dawned on him, although it will.

It already weighs heavily on Conor, and that is why he is so willing to discard the magical coat and singing shell bequeathed to his children by their mother. Never mind the excitement that these items may bring; Conor has already lost one woman in his life to the sea, and he's not going to lose another. Hence his reluctant decision to separate Ben and Saoirse from the lighthouse and the family dog, Cu. But the shell remains in Ben's hand, and it is here where the adventure truly begins.

Without going into too many specifics, Song Of The Sea follows the tried and trusted path of the best family movies, but in a unique manner. Ben learns to accept Saoirse, Conor finally lays the memory of his lost love to rest, and Granny learns not to be so set in her ways. At its core, the film centres around the restoration of a family; beyond that, it is about characters battling their inner and outer demons and accepting new cultures and challenges. It is told with grace, with skill, without melodrama, and within a beautifully animated backdrop which I haven't even mentioned yet! How powerful must a film be if story and character dwarf the visuals themselves?

And it is not as if these visuals aren't fascinating in their own right. Moore's seemingly two-dimensional strokes are full of life and invention, giving the art a Celtic and childlike lilt that is fully in line with the tone and the music of the film. When the journey from the family home to Dublin is briefly depicted on a childlike "map", the gap between the child's and the adult's perception of the real world is signified. When Saoirse puts on her little white coat, we feel the effect. It's hardly heresy to state that Moore's work feels more three-dimensional than anything recently put out by Pixar or Disney.

I still don't believe I've wholly done justice to Moore's filmmaking here. I love that he set the film during the 1980s, where technology was not so capable of intervening as a means of communication. I love that the crux of the film happens on Hallowe'en, where macabre sights, real or fake, are commonplace, allowing Ben and Saoirse's adventure to blend in with their surroundings. And then there's the metaphor of stone, both as a loss of emotion and a way of handling pain; in the wrong hands, it could feel hugely unsubtle, but here, it is exquisitely illustrated.

But it is arguably Song Of The Sea's denouement (spoiler warning) which raises the most interesting and troubling issue: is one's desire to reunite a family at the expense of another's desires selfless, or selfish? It is arguably a bit of both. How easy it is for we fantasy loving viewers to encourage little Saoirse to don her white coat and continue to swim around a magical, mystical undersea world of happy seals, dancing fairies and beautiful music. Adventure, excitement and spectacular visuals cannot help but tantalise the audience.

Yet there is a marked difference between what one wants and what must be. And with that in mind, Bronach's final course of action is both the logical and human thing to do: she remains a Selkie while choosing not to deny the no-longer-silent Saoirse the upbringing that she now wants and the rest of her on shore family have clearly earned. (No coincidence that Saoirse's first word is "Ben".) That, to me, is what Song Of The Sea truly highlights: the price of putting the needs of the many ahead of the needs of the few, regardless of who is the real "many" and who is the real "few".

The late Leonard Nimoy would be proud.