Archive for December, 2011

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Posted in Film with tags , , , on December 17, 2011 by alexlarman

Or, as we mortals call it, Mission Impossible 4. 15 years after the first installment in the franchise, Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt has – once again – accepted an impossible challenge, this time to stop a Swedish madman from creating nuclear war between the US and Russia. That this hoary old plotline, familiar from countless Bond films, has been revived comes as little surprise, as the series has thrived on implausibility and absurdity from the start, sometimes knowingly and at other times with the straightest of straight faces. Even if those faces are sometimes – in a ta dah! moment – revealed to be someone else’s, concealed under an all too accurate mask.

The storyline here is really wafer-thin, frequently incomprehensible and apparently there as an excuse for Cruise and his team (Jeremy Renner as mysterious ‘analyst’ Brandt; Simon Pegg as tech-nerd and comic relief Benjie; Paula Patton as the obligatory woman) to travel between exotic locations including Moscow, Mumbai and Dubai on the trail of Michael Nyqvist’s vaguely camp villain. But you’re not watching a film like this for Chekhovian insights into unexpected quirks of character. Instead, you’re watching it for the action scenes. And these certainly don’t disappoint.

In the live-action directorial debut of Pixar whizz Brad Bird, there’s a vim and energy to the scenes of derring-do that is pretty much absent from most modern thriller filmmaking. Three set-pieces in particular – an opening jail-break scored in part to Dean Martin’ s ‘Ain’t That A Kick In The Head’; a climatic fight in a stunningly futuristic car park; and, best of all, a terrifyingly vertiginous external heist at Dubai’s Burj Khalifa – are pretty much the best things that I’ve seen of this ilk since Inception, and in some respects they top even that, because there’s a wit and playfulness to much of the action that is a world apart from the CGI-heavy ‘robot fighting robot’ sturm und drang that is synonymous with so much blockbuster product.

I’d hesitate to call this a great film, or even a particularly good one. It drags between action scenes, there are presumably remnants of an excised twist that never quite comes and Cruise, while still athletic and limber at 49, is beginning to seem faintly ridiculous in his desire to remain an action hero forever. (As a random example, Gregory Peck was 46 when he played Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, a role that seems associated with a vastly more mature actor than that of Ethan Hunt.) But, if seen in full jaw-dropping excess at an IMAX cinema, this is pretty much a must-see, at least once.

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Noises Off

Posted in Theatre with tags , , , , on December 17, 2011 by alexlarman

Michael Frayn’s 1982 play is rightly regarded as one of the greatest comedies ever written. Dealing with the attempts of a failing theatrical troupe to present a hoary old farce, ‘Nothing On’, under the tutelage of a past-it director, it combines verbal wit with a quite astonishing array of dramatic devices that illuminate the failure of the cast and crew to keep the show going. Frayn’s particular genius is to have three separate ‘Act Ones’, the first being a disastrous run-through at a dress rehearsal, the second being the action of the play observed from backstage, and the third being the incompetent presentation of it towards the end of its run.

If this sounds at all pretentious, then rest assured it isn’t in the staging. Lindsay Posner’s new production at the Old Vic provides comic bliss from start to finish, thanks to an incredibly well-drilled and very game cast, all of whom relish the opportunity to demonstrate split-second timing and remarkable comic poise. It is slightly invidious to single out particular actors from the uniformly strong company, but Celia Imrie’s grand dame thespian playing a comic housekeeper, Robert Glenister’s philandering director Lloyd Dallas, Karl Johnson’s elderly drunk and Jamie Glover’s petulant leading man are all particularly hilarious.

And, oh yes, it’s funny. Along with One Man, Two Guvnors, it’s the most uproariously hilarious night that I’ve had at the theatre this year. I’d seen it before about a decade ago with a starry cast including Lynn Redgrave and Stephen Mangan, but I don’t remember that production reducing me to the helpless paroxysm of mirth that this one did. By the end, the simplest of objects – a plate of sardines, a bag, a telephone receiver – have become so freighted with comic significance that their very appearance sends a roar of appreciative laughter through the audience.

Saying anything more detailed about the play is not only unfair, but verges on the incomprehensible for the uninitiated. All I can say is that this is a guaranteed hit, and yet another splendid addition to the run of excellent plays at the Old Vic. For this, Mr Spacey, many thanks.

Hugo

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , on December 7, 2011 by alexlarman

Martin Scorsese has been on an exceptional run of it lately. After the flawed-but-occasionally-interesting Gangs Of New York, he has set himself up as a maker of exceptionally well crafted mainstream films, normally starring Leonardo DiCaprio, but has also dipped into music-related projects as eclectic as the recent George Harrison documentary Living In The Material World and the Rolling Stones’ concert film Shine A Light. He even won the much overdue Best Director Oscar a few years ago for the excellent The Departed.

He’s certainly a man who can do whatever he wants, joining a select few including Spielberg, Nolan and Fincher in a club where they can make passion projects at ludicrous expense and know that their commercial success or failure is all but irrelevant to their personal prestige, as the artistic quality of the films is likely to be high. All the same, Hugo (renamed from the book’s title The Invention Of Hugo Cabret) is a surprising departure. His first foray into what appears to be children’s films, as well as his first 3D film, it suffers from a slow opening and unfortunate detours into irrelevance, but has a central theme and message that represents Scorsese at his most heartfelt and sincere. Quite who it’s aimed at is anyone’s guess.

It begins with much exposition. Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan living in a 1930s Paris train station after the death of his mechanic father (Jude Law, in a tiny cameo) and the disappearance of his drunken uncle (Ray Winstone, similar). Making a living of sorts by petty thieving and avoiding the station master (Sacha Baron Cohen), he seeks to mend a broken automaton that his father brought home from a museum. Unfortunately, his plans are thwarted when the miserable toyshop owner, Georges (Ben Kingsley) confiscates his notebook as a punishment for Hugo’s stealing. His only hope is to elicit the help of Georges’ goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Moretz) in an attempt to retrieve the notebook, repair the robot and see if, as he suspected, his father left him a last message.

The above summary doesn’t really do justice to what Scorsese’s grand aim is. It’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that Georges is in fact Georges Melies, founder of modern cinema but fallen on hard times when the film begins. Thus, about halfway through, Hugo turns into a wonderful and thrilling paean to the early days of silent cinema, conveying the fun and excitement of an unknown world in which anything seemed possible and everything could be achieved by hitherto unsuspected means. The film’s helped by excellent performances by Kingsley, Helen McCrory (as his wife and muse) and Michael Stuhlbarg (as the Melies-obsessed academic responsible for his eventual rehabilitation). It’s some of the most heartfelt and affecting stuff you’ll see at the cinema this year.

However, it bears comparatively little resemblance to the children’s film around it, which Scorsese doesn’t seem particularly interested in. Butterfield and Moretz are both fine, if increasingly peripheral, presences, but it’s the oddity of casting Baron Cohen, in a substantial role, that really mystifies. The character as portrayed is a wounded WW1 veteran with a leg support, a fierce dog and a penchant for sending unaccompanied children to the local asylum. Fine, a cartoonish Dickensian stock villain, to add some otherwise absent jeopardy. But there seems no rhyme or reason for his presence in the film, which bears no relation to the central plot, or his eventual rehabilitation as a sympathetic figure of sorts. It’s perfectly possible to see a Chris Cooper or a Ray Winstone doing very well in the role, as a bitter older man haunted by the memories of the trenches, but Baron Cohen’s arch and rather annoying performance doesn’t convince at all, meaning that all the various chase scenes, while visually impressive, are just so much padding.

So, a curate’s egg, then. But the good stuff is so good that one hesitates to describe this as a misstep, more as a fascinating curio that will always occupy a unique place in Scorsese’s extremely distinguished canon. Unless he makes Alvin And The Chipmunks: Chipfellas, that is.