Mockingjay: Part 1

Turns a political struggle into something thrillingly personal.

The Beat Beneath My Feet

A toe-tapping indie that is, quite simply lovely.


An extraordinary true tale made disappointingly ordinary.

The Battle of the Five Armies

"Why does it hurt so much?" Because the rest of it felt so real.

Star Ratings

Well good

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Raindance film review: Shelter Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Saturday, 03 October 2015 13:42
Director: Paul Bettany
Cast: Anthony Mackie, Jennifer Connelly
Showtimes: 18.45, 30th / 16.30, 3rd

"For the people who live in front of my building", reads the caption at the end of Paul Bettany's directorial debut, Shelter. It's a dedication that raises all kind of questions, but what could have been an exercise in romanticising poverty or projecting a story onto a disadvantaged stranger emerges as something far more moving and subtle.

The film tells the story of two homeless people connecting: Hannah and Tahir. Both their tales involve loss and tragedy, but what's remarkable about Shelter's understated script is the way it handles them. Facts and exposition aren't wheeled out immediately, because that's not what people are like. Tahir and Hannah aren't lonely hearts waiting for love; they're guarded, trying to get by as everyone around them either gives them something or takes it away.

Bettany presents the streets of New York as a harsh place, where things come at a cost - be it money, sex or dignity - and possession is what defines you. As winter arrives and storms batter the pavements, those with homes are safe and warm inside. Those without shoes, on the other hand, are visibly not part of society. Tahir guards his drums, which he uses to make money, fiercely, but Hannah, who steals his coat early on, mostly longs to possess more heroin.

Anthony Mackie is wonderful as the illegal immigrant, polite and gentle but always intimidating. He's matched every step of the way by Jennifer Connelly, who is unrecognisable as the desperate runaway. One has made peace with what he has; one cannot stop craving what she doesn't.

A standout sequence halfway through sees the pair break into a rich family's home, dressing up in their clothes and drinking their wine. As they sit down for a lavish meal at a borrowed dining table, the couple suddenly seem more human. Philosophy, French and religion become the conversation du jour and back-stories float to the surface without seeming forced.

Bettany captures this gradual acquisition of objects and intimate knowledge with a sensitive touch - one brief, poetic flourish, which sees the pair fall into a puddle, only to tumble through a slow-motion ocean, is a beautiful watershed moment - but there's a grim reality throughout that suits the low-budget production. As we learn more about these characters, the climax makes it harder to care about Hannah's plight, but the cast's stunning performances smooth over any melodramatic cracks in Bettany's debut script. The result is a accomplished, smart drama that aims for the head as much as the heart; less the cliched story of an unlikely romance and more a study of identity and humanity from a distance. Bleak and moving, it's a reminder that, no matter what you own, emotional shelter can be as effective as physical.

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Raindance film review: 1 World 100 Lonely Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Friday, 02 October 2015 12:41

Director: Brian McGuire
Cast: Robert Murphy, Farah Mokrani, Lara Heller, Mark Fletcher
Showtimes: 20.30, 28th / 14.10, 2nd

"I don't know if I should be dating, but I'd rather meet someone than stay at home," says a guy in 1 World 100 Lonely. You believe him. That raw sincerity has become something of a trademark for Brian McGuire, a director who returns to Raindance with another tale of loneliness in the modern age.

After Prevertere's rough romance over one night and Window Licker's portrait of one man's madness in a digital, media-saturated world, this serves as something of a halfway house between the two, combining McGuire's knack for emotional honesty with an understanding of how technology has subtly changed our everyday existence. Out of the mosaic of storylines here, all dealing with love and loss, it's no surprise that one involves online dating.

McGuire intercuts his stories with on-screen conversations, using texts and pictures to recreate virtual messages between an American and his Iranian correspondent, who eventually meet up. Miscommunication is immediately evident, but that gap opens even wider in another narrative, which sees a guy ranting at his ex-girlfriend while driving with terrifying passion. Devices not only help us connect, but disconnect too - something that's reinforced by McGuire's decision to shoot once again using only mobile phones.

There is happiness to be found, but as the title suggests, it's accompanied by that same pang of intimacy as the sad moments. The wobbly camerawork may alienate some, but it fits with the natural ensemble cast, who appear to improvise most of their dialogue (the excellent actors are credited as co-writers on the script). The same is true of the production values on the OkCupid-style messaging, which adds to the lo-fi, unpolished air.

The focus feels less crystallised as Prevertere and WindoW Licker, which benefited from a narrow focus to fit their small lenses, but the sweeping scale of 1 World 100 Lonely is testament to McGuire's ambition to chronicle human relationships on a bigger stage (it's a treat to see London in his work, as well as America). Regardless, all of the stories are united by the same uncertainty of whether they should be dating, the same habit of interpreting another person (and their messages) through the perspective of our own feelings. The result is a fragile drama that is definitely lworth going out to see rather than staying at home.

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Film review: The Martian Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Friday, 02 October 2015 05:36

Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Aksel Hennie
Certificate: 12A

"I'm going to science the shit out of this," decides Mark Watney (Damon) near the start of The Martian, after the astronaut finds himself stranded on Mars.

It's a simple motto, but that's the secret to both Mark's potential survival and the movie's success: it reduces space travel down to a string of problems that need to be solved. No water? Fine. How do you make it? No food? Ok. How do you grow some? The formula begins even before Mark's isolation, as the rest of the crew of shuttle Ares 3 face a more essential conundrum: with a severe storm hitting their base, should they evacuate without the missing Watney and survive, or wait to find him and possibly all die?

It's a tough call for Commander Lewis (Chastain) and co (Mara, Peña, Hennie), but it's over and done with in 10 minutes, because Drew Goddard's script knows that there are more challenges still to come. What follows is a series of theoretical and practical exercises, each one seemingly dry on paper but thrillingly urgent on-screen, where they mean the difference between life and death. It's like watching the final act of Apollo 13 remade into an entire film.

That unique mindset grounds everything: because we're focused on the basic challenges of day-to-day existence, our brains don't question that this is all taking place on an alien planet; the stunning scarlet landscapes (shot with unfussy style by Ridley Scott) are second to the mathematical athletics on display; the prospect of space travel is nothing compared to the mind-bending number of disco tunes in the possession of Chastain's guilt-ridden leader - if there's one thing Blade Runner was missing, it's Abba.

The downplayed mood extends to Damon too, who uses his everyman charm to narrate events with a surprising amount of humour. He doesn't make grand speeches or weep into his helmet; he makes fun of himself in video diaries and swears at NASA via text.

On Earth, people are just as flummoxed by Watney's situation. Sean Bean is enjoyably gruff as the veteran in charge of the crew, Chiwetel Ejiofor is composed as the boffin overseeing the mission and Jeff Daniels avoids being painted as the bad guy as his NASA chief tries to avoid any bad PR. In fact, there isn't really a villain at all: cutting between the people in the control room and the person on Mars, Scott and Goddard craft a tale that presents space exploration as one huge team endeavour. There's no difference between people in China, the US or even in space: they're all just clever humans solving problems. Isn't being smart cool?

From Damon's passion for homegrown potatoes to Halt and Catch Fire's superb Mackenzie Davis as an enthusiastic control room assistant, it's hard to think of another sci-fi with as much emphasis on the science. More than the flawless visuals, nuanced performances and consistent laughs - watch out for one cheeky movie reference - it's a treat to see a big budget blockbuster that celebrates intelligence over explosions. The Martian is essentially one long, two-hour equation. And it cinemas the shit out of it.

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Raindance film review: We Will Be World Champions Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Tuesday, 29 September 2015 13:34

Director: Darko Bajic
Cast: Nebojša Romčević, Goran Svilačić, Gordan Mihić
Showtimes: 15.40, 27th / 15.40, 29th

There aren't many Serbian movies that get cinema releases in the UK and there are even fewer basketball movies, so if you have the chance to catch We Will Be World Champions at this year's Raindance festival, grab it with both hands.

The film tells the true story of the birth of Yugoslavian basketball, as the country's first team is formed and, ultimately, goes on to compete at international level. The title quotes Nebojsa Popovic, nominal leader and the driving force behind the fledgling ball-flingers. He's played with charisma by Strahinja Blazic - part-Vince Vaughn and part-Romain Duris - wooing a basketballing belle with determination while juggling the loyalties and conflicts within the group.

The rest of the cast are just as good, from Aleksandar Radojicic as reluctant teammate Bora Stankovic to the scene-stealing Leon Lucev as the amusingly over-stern Major Stukalo, who is assigned to keep an eye on the boys. the whole thing is packed with fantastic period detail and irresistable sentiment, with shots of the past dusted in nostalgia and hope for glory. Flashbacks between the 1940s and 1970s, though, undo some of the sporting magic, setting up plot cliffhangers before the cliffs have been introduced and disrupting the pace of the climactic tournament. But the theme of politics and sports still resonates today, while the unfamiliar subject matter to UK viewers means that the journey to the world finals in Ljubljana is surprising enough to balance out any historical drama cliches. It's not quite the slam-dunk it could be, but We Will Be World Champions has all the winning confidence of its title.

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Raindance film review: Digital Dissidents Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Sunday, 27 September 2015 10:19

Director: Cyril Tuschi
Cast: Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Thomas Drake, Daniel Ellsberg
Showtimes: 14.15, 26th / 12.10, 27th

There aren't many people who haven't heard of Edward Snowden or Julian Assange. Are they heroes fighting for liberty and transparency? Villains of the state? Cyril Tuschi's documentary puts aside those questions to ask another: is it worth exposing such secrets to then live life as a fugitive?

It's a provocative subject matter for what proves to be an unsettling, relevant film. Tuschi traces his "traitors" all the way back to the daddy of them all: Daniel Ellsberg, who blew the whistle on the Pentagon's plans for Vietnam. Cutting together contributions from him, Assange, Snowden and Thomas Drake, Tuschi finds intriguing parallels between his protestors - and some differences too, especially when it comes to Drake and his decision to stay working for the government (unlike his colleagues) and trying to fight things from the inside.

From the opening frame to the final shot, Tuschi also lines up revelation after revelation about just how much data about us is given over to authorities, voluntarily, as we live in an increasingly online age. Your phone? GPS. Your Google history? Logged. Your Facebook account? A treasure trove of information that once would have taken weeks for the secret service to collect.

But in trying to raise so many big issues, Digital Dissidents ends up muddled, losing sight of its initial question halfway through and never really finding its focus again. An ex-British spy doesn't get enough screen time to offer full insight, while footage of a former Stasi prison balances precariously between heavy-handed and hugely powerful.

Tuschi spent years researching his material for another project, before being hired to assemble this for German TV and, unfortunately, it shows: occasional mistakes in subtitles and establishing shots that linger for too long make the mixed pacing more noticeable, while footage of Snowden talking at a hacker conference is almost undermined by the distracting sight of Ellsberg fiddling with broken headphones. While the polish is lacking, though, there is some gloss to the presentation, as Tuschi links together his segments with effective, flickering animations and (best of all) drone shots of Berlin and London - a decision that lends a chilling immediacy to the whole movie. The result is uneven, but undeniably important. Snowden re-appears near the end to suggest it's not about sharing their viewpoint, but about finding your own principles to believe in. It's a great message, but it's different to the one the film promised to deliver.

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Raindance film review: God's Acre Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Sunday, 27 September 2015 07:49

Director: J.P. Davidson
Cast: Matthew Jure

Showtimes: 18.30, 26th / 10.10, 27th

A man's home is his castle, so the old saying goes. But in the UK, that saying feels older than ever: after years of Right to Buy, buy-to-let and nothing being built, the nation's facing a crippling housing shortage, sending prices soaring and trapping a generation in rented accommodation. God's Acre doesn't just capture that feeling on screen; it builds an entire movie around it, complete with a roof and chimney.

The film stars Matthew Jure as Malcolm, a developer who's fallen foul of the recession, spiralling into debt. The only thing to his name? A property that needs to be done up and sold on, if he's ever going to get his life back on track. Jure is superb as the desperate man, all frazzled facial hair and frantic eyes; he spends his days cowering in the gloom, occasionally wielding a hammer.

As the pressure on him mounts, that hammer gets used more and more often, less a tool than a weapon to fight back against his problems. But it soon uncovers something rotten in the brickwork; a creeping unease that seeps through the entire frame. It's a fantastic directorial debut by J.P. Davidson, whose experience as an editor pays off in dividends: chopping the film together with Teddy Bekele (veteran of The X Factor and The Great British Menu), the dread is palpable, as the fast-cut visuals combine with whispering voice overs, creaks and tinkling wind chimes (not to mention Christopher Campbell's atmospheric music). There's a very real sense that the walls are closing in; even Malcolm's only friend, Sonny (Richard Pepple), turns out to be mostly interested in reclaiming owed money.

Never really leaving the confines of the property, God's Acre ramps up the claustrophobia to unsettling extreme. On paper, a horror flick about home improvement sounds daft, but on the screen, this is a scarily literal take on the notion of dispossession and being possessed; you'll never look at the phrase "haunted house movie" in the same way again. Just how contagious the clammy mood is only becomes apparent when an innocent neighbour wanders in for coffee. With the windows open and the sunlight streaming in, the startling nastiness of Malcolm's existence is exposed, throwing the curtains wide on an age in which a home is less like a castle and more like a prison.

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Raindance film review: Love / Me / Do Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Saturday, 26 September 2015 16:39

Martin Stitt
Cast: Jack Gordon, Rebecca Calder Certificate: 15

Showtimes: 21.00, 26th / 21.15, 29th

If the lyrics of The Beatles skip through your head as you sit down to watch Love Me Do, you're not alone. The classic song, which pledges both truth and passion, is a simple plea for union distilled into three words. When they appear on the screen in Martin Stitt's film, they're divided by diagonal lines. Love looks detached. Me appears isolated. And the verb on the end feels more emphatic than ever.

The movie follows a decidedly odd couple. Antonia is an investment banker with a hard nose and singular focus. Max, on the other hand, is an out-of-work actor, at the opposite end of the financial spectrum. She's gunning for someone else's job; he's still waiting for his break. It's hardly a natural match. But hook up they do in a bond that proves mutually beneficial and destructive, each of them a trophy for the other's arm, plus the means to reach an end.

Essentially a two-hander, the cast are magnetic to watch. Jack Gordon is suitably chameleonic as the actor, believably intense, even if his sudden (and extreme) loyalty is hard to swallow. Rebecca Calder, meanwhile, is blistering as the determined career lady; you can't take your eyes off her.

The pair wind around each other with fierce conviction, but that class gap slowly eats away at them. The couple find themselves questioning their own ambitions - and their resolve to achieve them. What will they for themselves and, as darker desires come to the surface, what will they do for their partner? That pressure to succeed stems not just from the characters, but the city they live in; the insidious rat race of London is captured by Stitt (making his feature debut) with an impressive claustrophobia, one that is channeled by the white-walled home of Antonia. Exactly the kind of place successful people live, be that success economic or creative, the importance of surface appearance is echoed by Max's profession - everything is a performance, to some extent. The result is a intriguing study of a relationship where self is as important as passion. It's not always about whether you love someone; it's about what you do.

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Film review: The Scorch Trials Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Friday, 11 September 2015 11:00

Director: Wes Ball
Cast: Dylan O'Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Giancarlo Esposito, Aidan Gillen, Barry Pepper, Lili Taylor, Ki Hong Lee, Patricia Clarkson
Certificate: 12A

The Scorch Trials manages the impressive feat of containing more running than The Maze Runner, a film that was mostly about people running. The problem is that after escaping their labyrinthine prison at the end of the first film, our defiant teens need something else to run from. They take their lead from Marlon Brando's similarly rebellious Wild One: Whaddaya got?

At first, the answer seems to be a vaguely suspicious shelter for teens immune to the virus wiping out humanity. It's run by creepy-man-of-the-moment Aidan Gillen, whose job title is unclear, but mostly seems to involve curling the corner of his mouth every time someone gets hurt. You don't need to hear the words "paradise", "lucky chosen ones" and "never seen again" to guess things aren't all they seem.

When outside of the compound, though, that reason changes to the zombies now populating the planet - freaky, dull-eyed, black-veined creatures that don't waste time shuffling around like the Romero monsters of yesteryear. Or is it the humans trying to survive in this burned-out society, the kind of scavengers desperate enough to fire a gun, chain someone from the ceiling or sell out their friends? Perhaps it's the sinister organisation WCKD, which wants to harvest the kids for their cure-carrying blood?

Our teens spend the whole film rushing between this endless string of threats, stopping only to look shocked, surprised or remind each other to keep running. Dylan O'Brien remains likeable as leader Thomas, but is reduced to jogging to the end of the frame and staring, open-mouthed, into the distance at the next oncoming peril. The rest of the gang, meanwhile, rely on their actors' natural charm (Thomas Brodie-Sangster remains a talent to watch) to get through the script: the majority of the dialogue consists of the words "Quick!", "Run!", "You're almost there!" or a combination of the three.

Wes Ball directs it all, at least, with an impressive urgency; after tackling sci-fi with his first outing, he leaps into horror with the same energy and strong sense of world-building. The abandoned skyscrapers and eerie corpses are all brilliantly, creepily brought to life - although, despite being edited for a 12A certificate, this is really not suitable for those under 15. The newest members of the cast, meanwhile, are obviously having fun: Breaking Bad's Giancarlo Esposito is enjoys himself as, essentially, a desert pirate, while Lili Taylor tries to bring gravitas to the film's science as a former member of WCKD - you can tell a company is bad when their name is one letter away from a lucrative sponsorship deal with an alcoholic beverage. The excellent Kaya Scodelario, meanwhile, out-acts them all as Teresa, who becomes increasingly conflicted over the whole situation.

But the threads holding the plot together are woefully thin: Rosa Salazar is wasted as a token romantic interest, who is introduced just for the sake of having a love triangle, while Alan Tudyk's role as a sleazy bar owner could have come from a completely different film - another person inserted solely to extend the runtime. There's much to be said for a film aimed at younger audiences daring to tackle the same moral dilemmas as Channel 4's brilliantly dark series, Utopia - the use of the divided ensemble to foreground the debate of the kids' lives vs the future of the world is effective - but writer TS Nowlin is so busy being ambitious, he forgets to be entertaining. This is a big step down from The Maze Runner's taut, gripping structure: the maze, not the running, was the secret to that film's success. Here, our heroes even flee from the weather in a scene that brings to mind Mark Wahlberg trying to outrun the wind in M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening. Without the confines of the franchise's maze walls, this sequel dashes all over the place - but it feels slower than ever.

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Film review: Legend Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Friday, 11 September 2015 09:36

Director: Brian Helgeland
Cast: Tom Hardy, Tom Hardy, Emily Browning
Certificate: 18

What's the only thing better than Tom Hardy? Two Tom Hardys. It's hard to argue with the logic behind Legend, which sees the actor take on the dual role of Reggie and Ronnie Kray - and sure enough, he knocks it out of the park.

Hardy swaggers about the place as Reggie, as cool and suave as his suits. Then, thanks to some CGI trickery, he stomps into frame as Ronnie, all pout and aggression. It's a neat study of two halves of a whole: one glances sideways; the other stares bluntly at you.

The loud title immediately makes it clear that we're not in for a low-key ride: Brian Helgeland's film is a brash, cartoonish take on the famous gangsters, positioning the brothers as monuments of myth. Hardy's performance - one of the best of his impressive career - fittingly towers over it all. It's sad, then, that the rest of the movie never quite escapes from his shadow.

That problem is evident throughout the production in both big and small details. To match Hardy's larger-than-life presence, Helgeland's camera adopts a similarly glossy attitude. On the one hand, that allows for dark humour, as the graphic violence veers towards Tarantino levels of gore. On the other hand, it means everything has to scream 1960s to be heard over the soundtrack, which packs in obvious tunes like a Spotify playlist your boss has chosen to put on at work.

The result is something so stuffed with period details that it feels a little too faux to fully convince. When it comes to the punch, though, Hardy still sells it: a fight sequence between Reggie and Ronnie, which could be straight out of an Eddie Murphy comedy, is both emotional and dramatic, not to mention physically brutal.

The film tries to balance that nastiness with a lighter touch, packaging up the story as a doomed romance told from the perspective of Reggie's girlfriend, Frances. Emily Browning is good as the melancholic mobster's moll, but she's wasted in the role, which uses her as a conduit for the narrative rather than an actual character - a mismatch that drives the uneven tone. She joins an equally impressive supporting cast, which includes Colin Morgan as her brother, David Thewlis as Reggie's wonderfully weasel-like legal adviser, Leslie, and Paul Bettany as rival criminal Charlie Richardson.

The latter turn occurs during a superbly-judged opening sequence, which quickly slips in exposition and historical atmosphere with a subtle confidence. But this isn't a place for subtlety and there's little room on screen for anything that isn't Hardy; Christopher Eccleston as the cop bent on capturing the Krays is presented with such weight that you wonder why he's only in it for 10 minutes. As things escalate into amusing photos with politicians and graphic turf wars, the script's swings become increasingly wild. Tom's star quality isn't in his performance, but in his ability to smooth over that transition; the unbalanced mood becomes an echo of his own contrasting characters. When he's on screen, it's never less than entertaining. The film itself may not go on to become a legend, but it makes a convincing case that Hardy should.

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Film review: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Friday, 14 August 2015 17:00

Director: Guy Ritchie
Cast: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander
Certificate: 15

"Dior should never be mixed with Paco Rabbane," impeccably dressed CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Cavill) insists to his Soviet counterpart, Illya Kuryakin (Hammer), as they attempt to pick out an outfit in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.. Shallow, silly and obsessed with surface appearance, it might be the most important scene in the whole film.

Guy Ritchie's reboot of the 1960s TV series arrives in a year tailor-made for spying: it follows the latest Mission: Impossible film into cinemas and paves the way for the next James Bond film. It can't help but pale in comparison, but The Man from U.N.C.L.E.'s secret is not to try: it's too busy looking in the mirror to bother with the competition.

The premise is taken back to its roots, with the odd couple paired up by American and Soviet intelligence to take down a mutual threat: Italian heiress Victoria Vinciguerra (the wonderfully feline Elizabeth Debicki), who has snared a scientist capable of building a nuclear warhead. But while the concept starts from scratch (complete with back-stories to explain our leads' motivations), Ritchie and Lionel Wigram's screenplay wisely keeps the setting the way it used to be: the 1960s context sets apart this world of simpler thrills from the extravagant explosions of modern espionage, resulting in a smorgasbord of colours and clothes that could have been torn from the pages of a period range catalogue from Marks and Spencer. (Some films come with warnings for their violence or sexual content. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. should come with a warning for your credit card bill.)

Cavill, whose charisma did not always shine through in Warner Bros' earnest take on Superman, slides into the role of Solo with an effortless twinkle, smirking his way through innuendos, car chases and hotel receptionists' underwear. Hammer has all the clout of two identical actors as Napoleon's polar opposite, clenching his fists and growling at anything that so much as resembles happiness. And yet, despite their entertaining (and inevitable) bromance, it is Alicia Vikander who walks away with the show as Gaby, the missing scientist's daughter. The script makes her good at fixing cars in an attempt to give her depth, but she brings all the substance herself, emerging as an equal to the two deceitful, distrusting males - after Testament of Youth and Ex Machina, Alicia has now completed a trilogy of films where she has whipped the movie's rug from under the feet of the men around her.

While the ensemble are acting up every line of dialogue, Ritchie's camera doesn't overdo it, playfully lingering in a truck with a bottle of wine while a set piece (that would no doubt be shot with handhelds by a contemporary) unfolds in the background. Here, his direction feels more confident than ever, presenting a thrillingly underplayed road pursuit in the opening minutes and indulging in some split-screen fun come the climax. Daniel Pemberton's score echoes the elegance and wit, sashaying between Lalo Schifrin and Ennio Morricone to marvellous effect. Add in against-type cameos from Hugh Grant and Jared Harris and the result is a cool pastiche that isn't ashamed to simply have fun. Sometimes, it's not just about how well you do something: it's about how good you look while doing it.

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5 thoughts on Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Monday, 03 August 2015 05:52

I caught Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation last week and, while a full review will appear in another publication at a later date, here are five initial thoughts about the enjoyable fifth entry in this almost 20-year-old franchise.

1. Christopher McQuarrie

Mission: Impossible's strength as a franchise is that it's not about Tom Cruise. It's actually about its directors. Every film has been a showcase for a different action auteur, from Brian De Palma (dutch tilt and deception) and Brad Bird (live-action cartoon) to JJ Abrams (blue filter, meta-script) and John Woo (slow-motion doves). They all bring their own style, which is partly why the series' cycle of one-upmanship delivers such entertaining results: the world impossible means different things to different people.

What does Christopher McQuarrie bring to the table? He's always been a writer (The Usual Suspects) more than a director, so while his visual fingerprints may not be everywhere - Mission: Impossible's director-as-star approach does have its weaknesses - his written signature certainly is. Hitchcock nods drive the largely retro plot, including red phone boxes on London's Great Windmill Street and a riff on The Man Who Knew Too Much in one superb opera-based assassination sequence; the introduction of Simon McBurney and Tom Hollander as British officials recall the labyrinthine intrigue of TV's Spooks (this is the first film since the original to be about espionage); but, most importantly, he conceives a set piece that is genuinely not possible for a human to overcome - a fact that gives this film's ludicrous action a surprisingly grounded sense of peril. This is also the first time since the original film that Cruise's super-agent Ethan Hunt (described as "the living manifestation of destiny" by Alec Baldwin's CIA boss) hasn't managed to achieve the impossible.

2. Joe Kraemer

The other key figure in any Mission: Impossible film is the composer. Or, to be more precise, Lalo Schifrin, whose signature theme from the original TV series has an almost Pavlovian effect upon people. Audiences hear it and they perch on the edge of their seat. Tom Cruise hears it and he starts dangling off the nearest skyscraper. After Danny Elfman's symphonic arrangement (Mission: Impossible) and Hans Zimmer's loud, unsubtle treatment (M:I-II), Michael Giacchino made M:I his own with two fantastic soundtracks that played with the theme in every way imaginable. It's to Joe Kraemer's credit, then, that he steps up to bat and knocks it out of the park. Relying more on the Lalo theme than any of the other composers, he restricts his whole orchestration to instruments from Schifrin's ensemble, delivering something that has the sound of Mission: Impossible, as well as the style and energy. (As well as the prolific bongo action, check out the vibraslap on "The Plan", echoing the same rhythm used by Lalo in "Jim on the Move" on the original show's soundtrack.)

3. Simon Pegg

Simon Pegg returns once more to the franchise as Ethan Hunt's phone-a-friend sidekick, Benji. His third appearance since M:I-III, Pegg's presence has been promoted from tech guy/comic relief to best mate/comic relief/active field agent, now getting to co-star in car chases and deliver such key exposition lines as "An anti-IMF?" to the camera. He wears the part well enough - I remember interviewing Pegg for Hot Fuzz years ago and him insisting quite adamantly that he was not "best friends" with Tom Cruise, how times change - but his recurring role, alongside the familiar faces of Jeremy Renner (as William Blandt, sorry "Brandt") and Ving Rhames (as hacker-supreme Luther Stickell) only emphasises the fact that the series has never given a proper second appearance to a female character. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol was so promising because it ended with a team of agents, including Paula Patton's Jane Carter, ready to carry on the torch from Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt. To see them all sidelined for more of the same male-heavy action, then, is a huge disappointment and a big flaw of the franchise, no matter how likeable Pegg is.

4. Tom Cruise

Tom Cruise may not be the star of the show, but he's a key instrument in its success: in an age of CGI spectacle, Tom embodies the jaw-dropping appeal of practical stunts, allowing himself to be blown up, hung off buildings and - now - strapped to a plane as it takes off, all to bring a new sense of excitement to the table. He's as sprightly now as he was two decades ago, while the occasional cragginess on his face brings a welcome mature edge to his IMF "legend". The problem, though, is that it only encourages the levelling-up of each set piece, which leaves Rogue Nation in the same situation as the previous film: not knowing when to stop, it keeps going and going, adding in too many set pieces. When it works, it rushes from one chase sequence to another - a daisy chain of thrills - but when it doesn't, the whole thing ends up 30 minutes too long. On the plus side, Tom's character has already been developed over the course of the previous films (the absence of any mention of Michelle Monaghan's wife after the fourth film is a shame), which means that more attention can be paid to the other players. That brings us nicely to…

5. Rebecca Ferguson

Forget the director. Forget Tom Cruise. The MVP of Rogue Nation is someone entirely different: Rebecca Ferguson. Who's that? If you haven't seen The White Queen, in which she played Elizabeth, you most likely won't know, but that only makes her turn in Rogue Nation even more effective. This is a star-making turn and she is sublime as Isla Faust, an enigmatic secret agent whose character is that she is an enigmatic secret agent. On the one hand, that means she's the stereotypical elusive female upon whom the largely male cast can project their various ideals. On the other hand, that means the hilariously (read: dreadfully) named Ilsa gets to use that against the largely male cast.

She has a sexual quality - McQuarrie's camera dives in for a butt shot very early on - and wears a stunning yellow dress to the opera, but even as she and Ethan abseil from the Vienna landmark together, there is no forced romantic subplot between them. The nearest she gets to being the movie's love interest is in her relationship with Sean Harris' villain, who is in charge of The Syndicate (the "anti-IMF"), and is susceptible to her feminine wiles. One scene with Simon McBurney's MI5 head, meanwhile, gives her the kind of double-agent depth that could power a whole season of Spooks. The fact that she can kick ass and saves our hero's life (rather than the other way around) without it being a big deal, makes her a fantastic asset to the Mission: Impossible franchise. The fact that she will almost certainly not return in the next sequel, though, only makes you wish for more screen time devoted to her - say, the whole of M:I-6. That, you sense, really would be an impossible mission for the franchise.

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