Monthly Archives: October 2016

Toy Story

WFTB Score: 17/20

The plot: The idyllic life of young Andy’s favourite toy Woody is turned on its head by the arrival of newcomer Buzz Lightyear, who is not only brighter and bolder than the old Sheriff but doesn’t even know he’s a toy. Woody’s resentment of Buzz leads to both going missing on the day Andy’s family is due to move: can the arguing duo overcome their differences and avoid being lost forever?

It’s Andy’s Birthday, D-Day for the toys who have spent a happy year organising themselves whenever Andy himself is not in the room. Leader of the gang – anointed by his owner’s name on his foot – is Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), an old-fashioned sheriff figure with pull-string phrases, and Woody marshals the troops together to eavesdrop on potential competitors for himself, Mr Potato Head, Rex the dinosaur and so on. All appears to be going swimmingly until a surprise toy is brought out and soon after introduced to the group in the stocky form of Buzz Lightyear.

Buzz (Tim Allen) is a plastic Space Ranger with electronic insides, wings and absolutely no idea that he’s a mass-produced toy; which Woody would find hilarious, except for the fact that everyone else – including Andy – finds Buzz irresistible, leaving Andy’s former favourite sulking on the sidelines. In a reckless moment Woody causes Buzz to fall out of the window, much to the horror of the other toys; and in the effort to rescue Buzz and restore his own reputation, Woody inadvertently leads them both into the lair of their next door neighbour Sid, a brat and renowned toy-torturer. Woody regrets the repercussions of his jealousy and Buzz makes an alarming self-discovery via a television advert, but there are more pressing matters at hand since Andy’s family is moving house and the two toys are still next door, Buzz due to be blown apart in Sid’s latest experiment. A combination of help from unlikely sources and sly bending of the rules is needed to prevent Woody and Buzz from the terrible fate of being permanently separated from their owner.

Were it dismal in every respect, Toy Story would still have a place in cinema history as the first feature-length film to be created entirely by computer animation. Happily, though, it’s not just a magnificent technological achievement but on any terms a rattling good film, from the central idea outwards. Since children are upset when they lose precious toys, it’s only natural that the toys should feel the same way, and the creative team at Pixar use this concept to craft a story that’s full of emotion, boosted by the two leads’ journeys of self-discovery.

And this is an important aspect of the film. There are plenty of animated comedies that play on the set-ups for laughs, though few of them match the sharp jabs of Toy Story’s script or its excellent sight gags (Don Rickles’ Mr Potato Head providing many of the laughs); very few explore their subject as thoroughly as Pixar’s first feature, with Buzz’s depression after realising he is ‘just’ a toy proving a particularly poignant and philosophical moment. The thought that has gone into little moments like this (there are others: where is Andy’s father? Why is Sid such a neglected child?) elevates Toy Story from a bright children’s film into something that can be savoured by all ages, especially when it is packed with other non-childish moments such as the funny horror of Sid’s ‘cannibals’ emerging from their hideaways and the not-so-funny terror of Woody coming to life in Sid’s hands.

The acting talents of Hanks and Allen make for lively sparring and invest Woody and Buzz with enormous amounts of character, a feature that also applies to the supporting toys: apart from Rickles, there’s good work from Jim Varney, Wallace Shawn and John Ratzenberger as (respectively) Slinky, Rex and Hamm the piggy bank. But at the end of the day, you have to go back to the graphics, which are little short of magical as they bring a roomful of toys to life. The computer animation is so good that you often forget that you’re watching a collection of pixels, the three-dimensional world filled with light, depth and texture, with some of the more difficult effects (Woody’s reflection in a spoon, a puddle of muddy water) still holding up today despite massive technological advances. The pastel colours and caricaturised human forms remind us that we are in a cartoon world, but it is a world that for the most part feels absolutely real. If there is to be a criticism, it would be of the occasionally stiff movements of the humans and especially of Sid’s dog, Scud; but it would be harsh to knock the film too much for simplifying something that could have taken years to perfect when the film was released (six years later, Shrek still cut corners when animating some of its characters). I’m also not too keen on the slightly intrusive nature of Randy Newman’s songs, but I don’t think they bothered me when the film was first released so the opinion is probably skewed by Family Guy (if you’ve seen the relevant episodes, you will know what I mean).

The success of Toy Story has been a blessing and a curse for the movie industry, with the march of technology making it much easier in successive years to churn out progressively cheaper (and often far inferior) animated films, though thankfully Toy Story 2 was also a notable success. I lament a little the mania for creating CG films to the almost total exclusion of traditionally-drawn animation (or even films that use both sympathetically, like The Lion King), but Toy Story cannot be blamed for what came after it. It stands on its own as both a landmark and a masterpiece.

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Mission: Impossible III

WFTB Score: 9/20

The plot: Semi-retired Impossible Missions Force agent Ethan Hunt is called out of his engagement party to effect the rescue of a colleague in trouble. When this ends in tragedy, Hunt leads a mission to bring the perpetrator, a callous black marketer called Owen Davian, to book. His investigations take him far and wide, but the real villains may be closer to home, threatening the lives of both Ethan and those he most dearly loves.

Beginning, Fight Club-style, with a scene that occurs about two-thirds of the way through the film before taking us back, M:i:III is all about the tension. Newly engaged Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), happy, relaxed and looking forward to a quiet life, is drawn back into working for the IMF (not the money people) by the news that his protégée, Agent Lindsey Farris (Keri Russell), has been captured in Berlin by weapons trader and all-round bad guy Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Although Farris is rescued, a capsule in her head kills her and Hunt is compelled to track Davian down in order to retrieve a potentially deadly weapon called the ‘rabbit’s foot.’

As this is an incredibly dangerous venture, Hunt marries his partner Julia (Michelle Monaghan) before heading off to the Vatican in an audacious bid to snatch Davian from under the nose of his protectors, aided by fellow agents Luther, Zhen and Declan (Ving Rhames, Maggie Q and Jonathan Rhys Meyers). The kidnap works but when fighter jets and other military might sets Davian free, Hunt (with information provided secretly by Farris) suspects that there is an insider working with Davian, most probably the irascible Theo Brassel (Laurence Fishburne), who is constantly on the back of Hunt’s boss Musgrave (Billy Crudup). When Julia is kidnapped, Musgrave sends Hunt to Shanghai to recover the rabbit’s foot and secure her release: but as that first scene showed Hunt handcuffed in a chair with Julia being shot in the head by Davian, how can the mission possibly be successful?

There’s actually quite a lot to like about Abrams’ film, so long as you are in Super-Secret-Agent mode. In Berlin, the Vatican, Shanghai and on an immense bridge in America, there are thrilling action sequences filmed with an eye and ear for mayhem and loud noises, with Hunt the all-action guy in the middle, downing planes with a single shot and swinging from buildings thousands of feet in the air.

The gadgets employed by Hunt and his team are impressive, extending to immediately convincing face-masks and voicebox replication, the most obvious nod to the original TV series. Far-fetched, possibly, but it would be picky in the extreme to criticise a film with the word ‘impossible’ in its title for being unlikely to happen in real life. The far-fetchedness of the plot is perhaps the series’ Unique Selling Point and, to be honest, since Bond pitched up in his invisible car in Die Another Day, anything goes.

What does let Mission:Impossible III down is the characterisation, and most obviously that of Ethan Hunt. Whereas Bond in all his incarnations and Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne are identifiable by their quips, quirks and flaws, it is hard to attribute much of a personality to Hunt. Yes, he’s chummy, emotional, super-fit, brilliant and generally superb at everything, but as this ‘complete package’ Cruise fails to invest him with anything that makes him less than super-human, the plot relying on the fact that we fear for his wife to make us concerned (of course, she turns out to be pretty handy, too).

More than this, spotting Cruise’s name as co-producer of the film, you suspect that this is a deliberate choice, not so Hunt looks good, but in order that Cruise himself is shown to best effect. How else would you explain an absurdly long tracking shot of him running down a street in Shanghai, which does nothing but reveal our star to be in great shape?

As for Team Hunt, only Ving Rhames (with a rapport built from the first two movies) is really given enough screen time to develop anything approaching a rounded character. Meyers is OK and Maggie Q almost completely wasted, a hint at romance between the pair so fleeting as to be pointless. Besides, when it comes time for the wife to be rescued, it is the office IT geek Benji (Simon Pegg) who helps; Pegg is fine in the role, but is lumbered with guessing at what the rabbit’s foot might be, and his comic skills are rather trampled over by the action-centred camera and score.

For the bad guys, Philip Seymour Hoffman is excellent as the chillingly psychopathic Davian, but although he does get to beat himself up in the Vatican toilets, he feels underused; the showdowns between Hoffman and Cruise are potentially the highlights of the film but they are too brief and just like Hunt, we never really understand the man behind the evil. Could it be that Hoffman is just too good an actor for Cruise to compete?

I said earlier that Mission: Impossible III is all about the tension, and this is clearly the intention of the director, making us believe that for all Hunt’s efforts something goes terribly wrong and even he cannot protect the ones he truly loves. However, for all its efficient stunts and thrills, Hunt is really too good for his own good, and what he is fighting against – despite the ‘real’ bad guy coming up with some guff about the Middle East and America’s talent for rebuilding infrastructure – never clearly defined or explained. And since you never really feel Hunt is in danger, the film sometimes feels less like an action movie than an expensive show reel for Mr Cruise. For this reason I’d choose Bourne, or even the more serious Bonds, over an evening spent with Tom’s impossible missions.

Mission: Impossible 2

WFTB Score: 7/20

The plot: When rogue agent Sean Ambrose kills a scientist for the deadly bio-weapons he’s carrying, Ethan Hunt is on his tail; but first Ethan must track down professional thief Nyah and get her into Ambrose’s good books, enabling her to act as a double agent and stop the ‘Chimera’ virus from falling into the hands of a ruthless industrialist. Although Hunt agrees to take on the mission, his relationship with Nyah threatens to compromise his ability to get the job done.

Although the idea of ickle Tom Cruise being an all-action superspy in 1996’s Mission:Impossible may have struck some as faintly preposterous, there was clearly enough merit in the idea to convince executive producers such as… er, Tom Cruise to green-light a sequel. And when choosing a director for preposterous action flicks, who better than John Woo, who had already brought face-swapping fun to the screen in Face/Off?

The plot, such as I can re-assemble it in my mind, is this: someone who looks like Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) stops protecting scientist Dr Nekhorvich and kills him instead, the killer ripping off a mask and revealing himself to be Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott). Ambrose steals the scientist’s deadly virus with the intention of selling it to the highest bidder and leaves the planeload of passengers to perish along with the doctor.

Meanwhile, the real Ethan is called away from his fantastically dangerous mountain-climbing holiday to go on boss Anthony Hopkins’ mission, namely to secure the services of beautiful thief Nyah Nurple-Purple* (Thandie Newton); Ethan catches up with Nyah in Seville and after some bathroom fun and an exciting car chase, the pair quickly fall in love. Unfortunately, Nyah is required for being Ambrose’s former squeeze rather than her thieving skills, and while both she and Ethan are distraught at the idea of sending her back to Ambrose and his haughty henchman Hugh Stamp (Richard Roxburgh), back she goes with a microchip only traceable by one computer, belonging to Ving Rhames’ returning tech expert Luther.

The Impossible Mission Force team, complete with annoying Aussie sidekick Billy Baird (John Polson), track Nyah in Australia and discover that Ambrose is planning to sell the virus to bio-technologist John McCloy (Brendan Gleeson), who will do anything it takes to make money, including spreading deadly viruses and controlling the cure. However, they also discover that Ambrose has in fact only stolen ‘Bellerophon,’ the cure part of the equation, as Nekhorvich carried ‘Chimera’ within his bloodstream; both parties race to Sydney where Nekhorvich’s company Biocyte is storing the very last of the Chimera stocks. Even though Hunt manages to get into Biocyte, he cannot prevent Chimera from escaping, or Nyah from  becoming involved in a desperate race against time.

Or something. The key thing about John Woo films (not that I’ve seen that many) is not so much what happens, but how it all looks; and in many respects Mission: Impossible 2 is highly favoured, with the camera looking longingly at Tom Cruise and Thandie Newton whether they’re lying in bed or spinning in endless circles in sports cars. In fact, the camera looks so longingly – read so long – at almost everything that even Woo’s trademark two-handed gunplay is brought to a virtual halt by slow-motion replays.

When the effect is used to highlight the balletic nature of the fighting it can be excused, but when Nyah takes about three minutes to walk off a boat the film becomes an exercise in narcissism. The problem is not so much that Woo’s style doesn’t fit in with the Mission:Impossible world, since both are completely unrealistic, but that there is such a disconnect between the show-off look of the film and the fact that it still has a story to tell; and this results in a fine actor like Scott being reduced to explaining all the bits of Ethan’s plan for him as he breaks into Biocyte, and having a little cry because Nyah prefers Ethan to him. Aaaww.

Style and substance clash again as the film builds to its climax, with Woo’s completely unnecessary slo-mo doves cluttering up Ethan’s search for Bellerophon. Here, however, story is most to blame: in a totally ridiculous plot twist, Stamp is sent out to find Hunt and returns with him, unable to speak. Ambrose kills Hunt, only to discover that he has actually killed Stamp, Hunt having put his own face over Stamp’s and come back wearing a Stamp face-mask. I am prepared to accept that convincing face-mask technology is all part of the Mission:Impossible experience, but it is something of a miracle that Hunt had the prescience to bring a Stamp face-mask plus one of himself, unless he just happened to find Ambrose’s copy of his face lying around; not to mention the quick-change of clothes, accent, height and so on.

If you are prepared to take all of this at face value, you will probably also love Ethan’s message being delivered by exploding sunglasses via a rocket launched from a helicopter at the start of the film, and to be absolutely fair the climactic bike chase and capoeira-style fighting at the end of the film is a blast. In terms of performances, Cruise and Newton are okay, Hopkins does his day’s work with effortless authority and the bad guys do their thing, Scott with the limitations already described. However, Mission: Impossible 2 is not an actor’s film, neither is it a thinker’s film, and frankly in too many places it is far too slow to be considered an all-out action-fest. All in all I think this is still something of a misfire for Cruise’s would-be superspy career, but at least the plot is original.

Right, what’s next to watch? Oh good, Hitchcock’s Notorious

NOTES: Something like that.

Mission:Impossible

WFTB Score: 13/20

The plot: A mission to retrieve the top secret details of agents goes wrong for several members of the Impossible Missions Force, forcing Ethan Hunt to mount his own attack on the CIA and steal secrets for himself in an effort to force the organisation’s ‘mole’ into the open. It’s a dangerous game, however, since he’s putting the names of undercover agents into the hands of weapons dealers; and even when he finds answers, he won’t necessarily like them.

Any self-respecting movie star, and any business-minded film studio, wants a successful film franchise to call their own; and since the rights to defunct TV series Mission: Impossible were lying dormant at Paramount, what better than to get little Tom Cruise involved in some Bond-style intrigue? And who better than De Palma, director of exciting, brutal dramas such as Scarface and The Untouchables, to bring the action forcefully to the screen?

Fans old enough (sorry, but it was a long time ago) to remember the TV series will be pleased to see Jon Voight reprising his role as Jim Phelps, an IMF agent in charge of capturing a chap called Golitsin as he tries to steal something called the ‘NOC list’, a computerised record of the real identities of CIA and IMF agents in Eastern Europe. Phelps’ team is comprised of computer expert Jack (Emilio Estevez), Hannah, Sarah (Kristin Scott Thomas), his wife Claire (Emmanuelle Béart) and Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), going undercover in a rubber mask as a politician. The operation initially goes to plan, but events spiral out of control, leading to the death of Jack, Hannah, Sarah and Jim.

Ethan’s grief is as nothing compared to his rage when he discovers the mission was simply a ‘molehunt’, an attempt to find the real identity of an insider at the CIA who is trading details with an arms dealer called Max (Vanessa Redgrave). Contacting Max via the new-fangled Internet, Ethan agrees to provide an even bigger NOC list for the princely sum of $10 million, on condition that the IMF contact known as ‘Job’ reveals himself. To obtain the list, he enlists the help of master hacker Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) as well as Phelps’ widow and her colleague Krieger (Jean Reno) to break into the impenetrable CIA computer room at Langley; but when the time comes to hand over the information, on a TGV speeding from London to Paris, Ethan must be prepared for uncomfortable truths about the traitor’s identity – or identities.

Were Mission: Impossible simply a Bond clone with a diminutive man in the lead role, it would have little to recommend it; but thankfully there is more than the welcome sound of Lalo Schifrin’s memorable theme tune to enjoy. Firstly, there are the face masks; while these are essentially gimmicks, they recall the invention of the TV series and are good fun (so long as they are not overused or abused: see Mission:Impossible II).

Secondly, and more importantly, there is the element of the IMF working as a team, meaning that while Ethan may be the strongest, fastest and smartest cookie, he is always vulnerable because of the ineptness (or malevolence) of those beneath him. Here the team ethic is explored to the full as Jim’s team in Prague is itself being shadowed by other CIA agents, and when Ethan gets his own people together he has to rely on Claire’s word that Krieger is reliable, his attempts to find ‘Job’ also bringing CIA boss Kittridge (Henry Czerny) to the party.The sense of a group rather than an individual working on the case really adds something, especially when the likes of Scott Thomas and Rhames are involved, and it is a shame that the sequels (especially M:I:III) concentrated almost exclusively on Ethan’s – meaning Cruise’s – exertions.

The set-up’s good, then, and so are the stunts, the central, celebrated set-piece where Ethan dangles tantalisingly above the pressure-sensitive floor of CIA headquarters’ most closely-guarded room a particular highlight. The Channel Tunnel climax is also very exciting, even if blurring of the characters and landscapes means that you’re never entirely convinced the characters are speeding along on the outside of a train. Even when the film is quieter it retains an intrigue, De Palma using interesting camera angles and locations (Liverpool Street station!) to keep us interested in the complex proceedings. However, no amount of dynamic cinematography can cover up the fact that the plot stumbles between its set-pieces, losing its shape as Ethan tries to flush ‘Job’ out via the exotic wonders of the Internet; when the motivation for all the killing is revealed as little more than dissatisfaction at the size of the bad guy’s pension (he would have got away with it too, if it weren’t for those pesky Gideons!), you have to wonder if he couldn’t just have hacked into a bank account and siphoned some money off – he can control everything else, after all.

It may be that I found this film refreshing after watching a lot of the weak quipping and lazy womanising of Pierce Brosnan’s Bond (here, the hinted-at attraction between Béart and Cruise is curiously truncated); or that the collective approach of this movie is a welcome break after watching Cruise’s self-promoting efforts in the two sequels; but I rather like Mission: Impossible. It’s not especially clever, but it delivers stylish thrills at reasonable intervals, and since that is surely all it set out to do I would suggest it’s more a case of mission: accomplished than mission: abort.