From the Vault #2: THE LAST SAMURAI (2003)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one is from April 15th, 2014…

The honour and code of the samurai has always been enticing to a Western civilisation that is far removed from such customs, which perhaps makes The Last Samurai such an enticing, enigmatic film.

Edward Zwick crafts quite an epic adventure rich in mythology & thematic resonance that while traditionally Hollywood in its construction still manages to exist a cut above many such movies of its ilk, a touch of class surrounding how the story of Captain Nathan Algren is put together, based as it is on several real life legendary American figures who played key roles in the Satsuma Rebellion in Japan during the late 19th century. This isn’t a direct re-telling of those events but serves as a leaping off point to construct a tale about a stranger in a strange land, of a man haunted by fighting an unjust war who rediscovers his honour & place in the world through a dying culture.

Zwick’s film is slick, sweeping, beautifully shot and frequently involving, backed up by a strong performance by Tom Cruise in one of those roles that remind you just what a good actor he can be.

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Film Review: Memory – The Origins of Alien (2019)

Forty years since it first revolutionised both science-fiction and horror cinema, what is left to discover about Ridley Scott’s Alien?

Memory: The Origins of Alien gamely attempts to celebrate the anniversary of this seminal picture by digging deep into the genesis behind the creatives responsible. Less so Scott, whose directorial vision and process in developing Alien—the film that put him on the map at the end of the 1970’s after success with The Duellists—but more angled on the life and work of initial writer Dan O’Bannon, unique visual artist H. R. Giger, and heavily on their inspirations. Alexandre O. Phillippe’s documentary leans into the driving forces that underpin Alien conceptually, it’s origins deep within myth and cultural subtext, plus the many touch stones from earlier science-fiction and horror which became a collaborative brew that led to the film we know and love.

In truth, many books and documentarians have doubtless captured much of what Phillippe’s film brings together in Memory over the years, but he at least attempts to fuse together traditional documentarian stylistics (talking heads to camera, intercut footage etc…) with a few artful flourishes; the film begins with a surprisingly protracted sequence set at the Temple of Apollo ruins on the island of Delphi in Greece as Phillippe depicts the old Furies of myth, terrifying aged women who almost seem plucked from some great Shakespearean stage tragedy. It’s an unusual way to begin but a striking and different one, even if it exposes a level of pretentiousness that sadly lingers a little too often across Memory.

For all Phillippe is consolidating and combining information and detail from multiple texts, Memory does at least fascinate on its perspective when it approaches Alien.

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Mission Impossible: Fallout (2018)

Given the stature and prowess of the Mission Impossible franchise, the sixth movie is not likely to bring the curtain down on this series, but were Fallout to be the swansong for Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt, it would quite honestly be a perfect way to bow out.

Everything about Fallout has the sense of an ending. Christopher McQuarrie’s second film as writer/director does numerous things. It fully transforms Mission Impossible, in its twilight years, into his personal baby, on which he stamps his mark in a way not seen since Brian De Palma’s original 1996 adaptation of the 1960’s original TV show. Fallout is not just a direct sequel to Rogue Nation, despite being the first Mission Impossible film to pick up where the previous one left off, but it also works to tie together from a storytelling perspective every film from Mission Impossible III onwards, while thematically reaching back to John Woo’s derided Mission Impossible II. It teaches a film like James Bond movie Spectre, which retroactively attempted to link Daniel Craig’s 007 into a string of continuity, how it’s done.

Mission Impossible: Fallout might just also boast some of the most intense, robust and powerful sequences of the entire franchise. This is doubly surprising given just how much of it doesn’t even feel like a Mission Impossible film at all.

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Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015)

If Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation confirms anything, it’s that the Tom Cruise-fronted franchise has spent almost two decades trying to work its way back to Brian De Palma and back to the roots of where the series began.

In some of my previous pieces on the earlier films in the Mission Impossible franchise, one fact that remains true is how the series consistently reinvents itself every few years in order to stay vibrant and relevant, but oddly enough Rogue Nation on reflection is not as bold a reinvention after 2011’s Ghost Protocol as you might remember. There is greater filmmaking skill involved, with Christopher McQuarrie imbuing more heft into his set pieces than Brad Bird managed in the previous film, while McQuarrie’s script (revised after efforts by Will Staples and before that Drew Pearce, with whom he shares a story credit) certainly has more depth to the storytelling. Beyond that, there is a consistency framing itself between this and Ghost Protocol, one which may well carry through into the next film, Fallout.

Rogue Nation is consistent in how it stylistically reaches back to the first film in the franchise while further mythologising Cruise and his character Ethan Hunt.

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Mission Impossible III (2006)

Mission Impossible III may not be the strongest outing in the franchise, but it may be the most human.

Surprisingly, this works as both a strength and to the film’s detriment in the eyes of many. For everyone who considers Mission Impossible II the weakest episode of the saga, which you can find my thoughts on here, not far behind will be a detractor of JJ Abrams’ sequel to John Woo’s own take on Bruce Geller’s kitsch 1960’s series. This, to me, is hard to fathom, and not simply as a big fan of Abrams and the dominance his works have achieved on pop culture, both in television and cinema.

The reason this revisionist disdain for MI:3 is strange to me is because Abrams’ movie arguably saved the franchise, and allowed Tom Cruise to not just reinvent his character Ethan Hunt but position Mission Impossible as a series which blended fantasy escapism with a relatable heart and soul.

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Mission Impossible II (2000)

Mission Impossible II is a film that remains eternally fascinating to me, particularly as the demonstrable nadir of, otherwise, one of cinema’s most consistently entertaining blockbuster franchises.

The better entries of the Tom Cruise-led modern adaptation of Bruce Geller’s iconic 1960’s espionage TV series are easier to write about, in many respects. You have the Euro-centric, Hitchcockian suspense and classic retro thrills of Brian De Palma’s first 1996 take on the material, and once JJ Abrams and Bad Robot get their hands on the property from 2006’s Mission Impossible III onwards, the franchise becomes a much slicker fusion of all-American spy thrills, combining modern technology, action spectacle and ‘spy-fi’ theatrics. Abrams’ III is an adaptation of his TV series Alias in all but name. John Woo’s II is the clear, harder to define aberration.

In a way, it also remains the most interesting.

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Alias (Series Overview + Reviews)

Alias arrived at a fascinating point when it came to television.

The year was 2001 and a lot was changing in the ether around it. JJ Abrams, at this point best known as the writer of Harrison Ford weepie Regarding Henry, Michael Bay blockbuster Armageddon and show-runner of late 90’s teen hit drama Felicity, was nowhere near the producing and directing Hollywood totem he would become. His production house, Bad Robot, had not yet become the nascent Amblin of its generation. And, just nineteen days before the pilot, ‘Truth Be Told’, aired… 9/11 happened.

Abrams’ spy series already had some interesting cache behind it. Alias was a show that emerged on ABC with the intention of riding into the 21st century with a fresh storytelling model. The most successful and important TV shows of the 1990’s had almost all built their success on an episodic, network model of storytelling; 22-26 episode seasons with plenty of stand-alone stories which would serve the show well in syndication. In everything from Quantum Leap through to The X-Files, show-runners moving from the 1980’s into more of a Golden Age of television, in which some of the most key writers in both TV and cinema of the next few decades would emerge, had cleaved to the way it had been done for years.

Not Alias.

It would immediately strive for an aesthetic which would tap into a deep reservoir of retro-futurism, both aesthetically and in terms of production. Abrams and his staff came out of the gate leaning heavily into the kind of serialisation most shows in the 1990’s just didn’t do, bar a few trend-setting exception we’ll return to. The concept was both high and complex – female super-spy Sydney Bristow would find herself learning the covert CIA branch she had been working for, SD-6, was in truth the arm of a worldwide crime syndicate, and would work as a double-agent to bring down the enemy from within. Episodes would end on a cliffhanger every week and fold into each other. A surfeit of character and narrative mysteries would propel Syd’s journey along, not to mention a curious central, underlying occult and arcane mythology which tipped the show away from action-thriller and more toward science-fiction.

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Cinematic Universes: the divisive wave of cinema’s future

With the advent of Justice League, many fans and commentators are once again discussing the concept of the ‘Cinematic Universe’, given the formative attempts by DC Comics over the last several years to emulate the rampant success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the first truly successful and revolutionary cinematic model of an overarching mythological world of characters and narratives informing one another. Inevitably with the internet, it’s leading to a war of trolls – Marvelita haters and DC sceptics waging a pointless conflict over territorial ownership and trying the answer the utterly subjective question – ‘which is better?’. For every critic who tells you the MCU is technically stronger as a tapestry, you’ll easily find more than enough ‘DCEU’ defenders to race in with their Amazonian swords and claim everything Marvel has done is powerfully overrated. There can be no victor in such a battle.

In truth, discussion of the Cinematic Universe has never gone away. Hollywood and the blockbuster movie system has been utterly consumed and dominated by the power of a connected storytelling model, following the template Marvel Studios laid down. It has arguably changed the very fabric of the cinematic franchise. Following the essential advent of the ‘blockbuster’ in the mid-1970’s with Jaws and of course Star Wars, it took Hollywood a while to truly embrace the idea of creating what we accept as a ‘franchise’. Sequels had always existed – we can go back as far as 1916 indeed for the first recognised follow up, Thomas Dixon Jr’s The Fall of a Nation, which carried on the story from DW Griffith’s historically polarising The Birth of a Nation – but it was truly the 1980’s that gave birth to the notion of a franchise, once Star Wars developed sequels to George Lucas’ game-changing original movie and developed an entire cinematic eco-system around the property.

Sequels, nonetheless, remained *sequels*. Film number two. Taking the characters and situations from the first successful picture and moving them in new directions, though not always. Many sequels in the 80’s and 1990’s simply re-trod all of the same beats people loved about the first movies, mostly with diminishing returns. That’s what made The Empire Strikes Back so powerful; it took Star Wars and those characters truly in new, challenging directions and forever altered their destinations. Not every sequel took such a bold leap forward for its characters and narrative. Many played it safe, an accusation oddly levelled at some of the recent cinematic universes which were born out of the ashes of continuing storylines.

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