Monthly Archives: March 2020

Tarantula! (1955)

*. In the 1950s everything got supersized. Blame the bomb. In his book The Monster Show David J. Skal names Godzilla (1954) as the film that launched “one of the biggest ritual displays of naive metaphor the world has ever seen.” The vehicle of that metaphor being giant creatures, the tenor atomic anxiety.
*. This is an obvious point that doesn’t need any further emphasizing here. In this movie the naive metaphor is a giant tarantula. In Them! it’s giant ants. In The Amazing Colossal Man it’s Glenn Langan. In The Giant Gila Monster . . . you get the point. The question I have is why a fear of nuclear war would bring forth such monsters.
*. Radiation makes people sick. Very sick. It doesn’t make things grow or give them super powers, both of which effects are actually pretty cool. And yet that’s the way it was imagined in the early nuclear age, and indeed has been up to the present day and figures like Doctor Manhattan. I’m not sure what to make of that.
*. Another thing driving the spate of gigantism in SF during the ’50s, and perhaps of even greater importance, was the improvement in special effects. By today’s standards the giant creatures stumbling through model landscapes or looming over hillsides may not be very convincing, but they were the CGI of their day. Sure you can see right through the giant tarantula’s legs in some of the shots here, but I’ll bet audiences in 1955 were thrilled. A movie like this gave them everything they paid for.

*. Mara Corday. Damn she looks good. She’s sexy even when just looking faintly bemused at what’s going on. Meanwhile, John Agar tries to do the same thing and only looks like a simpleton. Double standards.
*. Professor Deemer is often described as a mad scientist but his associates seem to have been the really bad ones, especially in their rush to do some human testing. The way the dying Paul injects Deemer with the growth isotope serum is particularly cruel. Their project, however, is humanitarian. Like Dr. Cragis in The Killer Shrews they’re concerned about growing global population and world hunger. Deemer wants an alternative food source while Cragis wants to shrink people so they won’t need to eat as much.
*. Deemer is concerned that by the year 2000 the population will be 3.6 billion. We nearly doubled that. As a result, today’s mad scientists are more interested in radical plans for depopulation than trying to save the human race.
*. Jack Arnold gets a lot of credit for being one of the major figures of this genre, directing such classics as It Came from Outer Space, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and The Incredible Shrinking Man. I think he did well enough with the material, but he wasn’t what I’d call an auteur. I feel like he really just keeps things moving along. He knew what audiences wanted to see and he didn’t cheat them, giving them their monsters in a series of building climaxes. The connecting tissue is just the usual dull stuff to be gotten through, which helps build up those climaxes even more.
*. All of which is only to say that this is a movie that’s no more than what it sets out to be, which is to be an excuse to see a giant spider crawling around the desert eating people before having Clint Eastwood flying in to save the day with some well-placed napalm. Fun then and fun now. How confident are we that our CGI blockbusters will play this well in fifty years?

Revenge (2017)

*. When Revenge came out it was greeted as a stylish, feminist rape-revenge movie, and I think people were using those adjectives to suggest ways it was different. But much as I like Revenge, I don’t think it’s new in either regard.
*. Is it feminist? Yes, but even within the rape-revenge genre there had previously been movies where the woman had exacted her own rough justice. As long ago as the ’70s there’d been Madeleine in Thriller: A Cruel Picture and Jennifer (note the name) in I Spit on Your Grave (which Zeir Merhi had originally titled Day of the Woman, as evidence of his feminist bona fides).
*. Is it stylish? Yes, definitely. It immediately made me think of the work of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani (Amer, Let the Corpses Tan) with all of its bright colours and crazy edits. You get the feeling director Coralie Fargeat wanted to make a statement with her feature debut, and she does. Even the symbolism — the apple of discord, Jen being impaled on the very phallic tree branch and then sprouting an erection from her own midsection — comes with exclamation points. But is there more symbolism here than in Bergman’s The Virgin Spring? Probably not.

*. Where I think it could be credited is in being so fantastic. Most people who disliked Revenge complained about how it broke all canons of plausibility. Could Jen have survived that fall? Was that really a likely way for her to get off the tree? Could anyone, among the many victims in the movie, survive the loss of so much blood? Why does Jen only cauterize the wound in her front, and not in her back? Indeed, where did the wound in her back go? And how did that beer can leave a tattoo? That wasn’t reversed? How is Stan firing so many shots out of that bolt-action rifle without reloading?
*. All good questions, with no good answers. But they just go to show that Fargeat isn’t interested in making a realistic movie at all. That really should be clear from Jen (Matilda Lutz) going on the rampage like a Barbie of Death, dressed in bra and booty-shorts with a hunting knife, shotgun and bandolier of ammo.
*. Does the sexualization of Jen go too far? Kevin Maher: “Can a movie be feminist and misogynist at the same time? Can a female director make a cheap and tacky piece of exploitation perv-bait without actually knowing it? Does regularly filling the frame with the lead actress’s barely covered buttocks qualify as an act of female empowerment?”
*. I don’t think the point is female empowerment. That was more what those movies in the ’70s (might have) had in mind. I think Fargeat is sending up the genre by being so over-the-top. I mean, just look at that bloodbath at the end. Apparently they splashed so much blood around that the prop department was running out of it.

*. You even have to laugh at some of the dialogue. Does Jen, who knows she’s in trouble, think that she’s going to placate Stan (Vincent Colombe, looking a lot like a young Eli Wallach) by telling him that he’s not her type because he’s “too small.” Hm. Kind of the wrong answer in such a situation. And does Richard (a perfectly heel Kevin Janssens) think he’s going to buy off Jen by telling her he got her a job in Canada, which is “practically Los Angeles”? Good luck with that.
*. Luckily there isn’t much dialogue after the first act plays out, and literally no more lines for Jen. This is a double bonus because Lutz is left only having to look good in the part, and the camera spends as much time looking at her ass as her face. Which I say is fortunate not because she has such a nice bum but because her face doesn’t register the kind of toughness that seems required. Or maybe she’s really supposed to have that doll-like quality all the way through.
*. I take it there’s a joke, and perhaps a feminist message too, in the way the girly-girl turns out to be so much tougher and more resourceful than the bros out on their expensive hunting expedition. That dangling giant pink star earring is a great touch.

*. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this movie so much. But it’s more than just a flashy spin on rape-revenge films. It’s actually very well put together. Fargeat doesn’t miss a trick in artfully composing frames that seem like they should be more static than they are. Even in the most formal of them there’s a sense of dynamism. Maybe it’s a trick of the sun, or the way the camera moves. Speaking of which, I love the long take following Richard out of the shower, and I thought the whole merry-go-round at the end was wonderful.
*. I understand people despising the rape-revenge genre. I’m not a big fan of these movies myself. Nevertheless, there are a number of standouts, or at least movies that have gone on to develop cults. Think of The Last House on the Left and Ms. 45. Or all of the sequels there have been to I Spit on Your Grave (five, I think, starting from the 2010 remake). There are even people who find something in Baise-moi (not me).
*. That said, having seen most of these I’d have to say Revenge is my new favourite rape-revenge movie and the only one I feel like I could recommend to pretty much anyone. Whether it should have been this much fun is another question.

The King of Comedy (1982)

*. The King of Comedy was a movie that failed very badly at the box office. This shouldn’t have been that surprising. Even Martin Scorsese’s strongest critic-fans, big names like Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert, had major reservations. They found the movie an oddity, and uncomfortable.
*. Its reception makes me think of The Cable Guy (1996), another black comedy that seemed a little too black, or too close to home, when it came out. The Cable Guy made money (it starred Jim Carrey at the height of his celebrity), but I think the box office was still disappointing, and critics were put off.
*. Today the conventional view is that The King of Comedy (like The Cable Guy) was ahead of its time. Maybe, but we have to specify in what ways. The script by Paul Zimmerman had been kicking around for ten years (Dick Cavett was the model for Jerry Langford), and just as a satire on celebrity or the media I don’t think it was saying anything terribly new. Lauren Bacall had been stalked by a crazy fan just a couple of years earlier. But of course that was a slasher flick, and this was Scorsese.
*. In the featurette included with the DVD release both Scorsese and Sandra Bernhard argue more for it being a movie that marked the end of something, a great period or golden age of America filmmaking, than being ahead of the curve. Bernhard: “I don’t think a film like The King of Comedy could be made today.”
*. Of course, in 2019 they did try to make a movie very much like it in Joker. But Joker is set in 1981, so is it of its time or does it harken back to a lost world?

*. I’ll pursue this a bit further. Here’s Roger Ebert: “This is a movie that seems ready to explode — but somehow it never does. . . . That lack of release disturbed me the fist time I saw The King of Comedy . . . I kept straining forward, waiting for the movie to let loose and it kept frustrating me. Maybe that was the idea. This is a movie about rejection, with a hero who never admits that he has been rejected and so there is neither comic nor tragic release — just the postponement of pain.”
*. Originally, Jerry Lewis had wanted the same kind of thing Ebert found missing, some more explosive catharsis. Lewis argued that Pupkin should have killed Jerry Langford at the end but Scorsese nixed the idea and Lewis was disappointed in the result, feeling the movie didn’t have a proper finish.
*. Joker would not be so discreet or ambiguous, erupting in a climax of individual and mass violence. Why? Because in 2019 perhaps we were all Arthur Fleck. In 1983 we most definitely weren’t all Rupert Pupkin. So in that sense at least we can say The King of Comedy was ahead of its time.
*. Rupert is not a gangster but one of Scorsese’s disturbed loners, men who don’t belong to any gang or community, or who even have girlfriends. Travis Bickle and Max Cady are the other two that come to mind. These people are very dangerous, existing outside of any socializing structures (however criminal those structures may be). Does Rupert even live with his mother? Or is that another part of his fantasy? Scorsese didn’t want audiences to be able to differentiate, any more than Rupert can. Without any social connections, unless you include the equally deranged Masha, Rupert is free to make up his own reality.

*. What is Rupert’s chief fantasy? Is it fame? Yes, but only as a means to an end. That end is not his being able to marry Rita (Diahnne Abbott, De Niro’s wife at the time) but rather to get revenge. He jokes with Rita about being able to spit down on those who will be beneath him when he becomes famous. In the dream wedding scene his high school principal is made to grovel, begging forgiveness. But most of all there’s the closing monologue, which consists mainly of a catalogue of the abuse Rupert suffered at the hands of his parents, being picked on and bullied by fellow students, and even developing an eating disorder. Is all this just made up too? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Something is fueling Rupert and I think this is it.
*. It’s a testimony to De Niro’s performance that we can feel Rupert’s anger beneath his unflappably nice persona. Despite the loud suits and the funny moustache and the general air of a prolonged losing streak we sense Rupert is a dangerous and nasty man. We can understand him, but can we sympathize with him? I don’t.
*. Masha is a scary figure too, and it’s remarkable how Bernhard not only holds her own with Lewis and De Niro but actually manages to upstage them. But what happens to Masha at the end? I guess she could have afforded a good lawyer, if charges were ever laid.

*. This is a movie that makes me think and wonder. One thing I wonder about is the freeze frame that Scorsese holds on for the opening credits. Masha inside the limo, pressing up against the glass. Rupert on the outside, illuminated in a flash and staring in at her. What meaning did Scorsese see in this image that he wanted us to look at it for so long? Is it just playing with the idea of our fascination in what’s on the other side of that invisible membrane?
*. One thing I don’t wonder about is Scorsese’s comment that the visual style of the film was somehow influenced by Edwin S. Porter’s Life of an American Fireman (1903). I think that was just pulling our legs.
*. How often have movies done TV well? I think of Network but not much else. There’s something about television that doesn’t translate to the big screen. Not because they’re in competition but because they’re mediums that don’t really communicate with each other. The fact that they seem to be growing together in the twenty-first century may be erasing that difference though.
*. I really love the script, even if I share David Thomson’s sense that Scorsese might not have understood it and in many scenes the dialogue was improvised. But setting those scenes up is done perfectly. All the notes are struck just right: the televised wedding fantasy as a way of expressing Rupert’s anger; the blow up with Jerry; the way Rupert’s final monologue is funny because it’s true; the housekeeper complaining that “He’s touching everything. He’s ruining the house.” That last gave me a flashback to the scene in Pink Flamingos when Divine and her son break into the house of their enemy and rub themselves over everything. Rupert has a similar kind of taint to him.
*. It was a masterstroke to cast Jerry Lewis in the role of Langford and then get him to play the part with such quiet understatement. There’s not a trace of shtick about him. And I love how Scorsese doesn’t force anything. Look at Langford watching Rupert on the showroom TVs after he escapes Masha. We just see his face and he doesn’t say anything. What is he thinking? He’s angry, I think we can take that much for granted. But is there some grudging respect for Rupert there? Or even sadness? I can’t read his expression, and I love that I can’t.

*. Two lines stand out for me as having particular resonance. The first comes when Rupert is having dinner with Rita and he tells her that a “guy can get anything he wants if he pays the price.” What a touching credo, and one that is so ingrained in our modern ethos. But of course it isn’t true. Riches and fame are distributed randomly. Rupert works hard and believes in himself, and his stand-up isn’t terrible (though it’s not ready for prime time either). But it just isn’t going to happen for him. What does happen to him then?
*. The other line I keep thinking about comes during Rupert’s confrontation with Jerry at the latter’s house. Jerry says he’s not going to listen to Rupert’s stuff because he has a life. Rupert says he has a life too and Jerry says “that’s not my responsibility.” I think we all immediately think that’s right, but then we may wonder where our responsibilities for each other begin and end. Or do we have any?
*. The celebrity and the incel raging in his mother’s basement are at either end of a polarity, but they share a divorce from that social connection I mentioned earlier, or any sense of personal responsibility. It’s telling that Jerry is a loner too, with no wife or kids anywhere in sight. Scorsese found one of the most interesting questions raised by the film to be that of what fans want from celebrities. Obviously what Rupert wants is a foot in the door, but beyond that he wants to be Jerry. What I think Jerry understands as he looks at the row of TVs he can’t hear, is that to some extent he already is. It’s just that one of them is living the dream and the other the nightmare. And that’s not Jerry’s problem, or responsibility, but ours.

Mission Impossible – Fallout (2018)

*. The Mission: Impossible franchise began with a pair of films that very much bore the signature of their directors, Brian De Palma and John Woo. In Mission Impossible III J. J. Abrams took the reins and I thought there was a noticeable turn toward the generic. This isn’t to say things got worse. In fact, this series of films has maintained a relatively high level of quality throughout, if what you want is big-screen action. But it does mean that after the first couple of movies I have trouble keeping the different episodes straight in my head. Which was the one with the Rabbit’s Foot? Or the one with Tom Cruise holding on to the outside of a plane while it was taking off?
*. When Fallout was released it was met with near universal praise and heralded by many as the best Mission: Impossible yet. It’s certainly the biggest, clocking in at two-and-a-half hours and filled with all of the trademark spectacular stunts you’ve come to expect as well as such franchise stand-bys as Cruise sprinting for very long distances, climbing cliffs without a rope, and (most dangerous of all) riding a motorcycle like a maniac without a helmet.
*. That said, and perhaps because of all that I’ve just said, I found this to be the first of these movies that bored me. Not all of it, but at times. As far as plots go I felt like they’d completely run out of ideas. Basically this is the back half of a two-parter that started with Rogue Nation, and much of it seemed a little too familiar. There’s the kidnapping of a bad guy in a washroom at a swank event so that the team can duplicate him (that was in Mission Impossible III). There’s the fake hospital interrogation (used on Brendan Gleeson in Mission: Impossible II). Having been here before it was easy to stay out ahead of the plot. I don’t think there are any twists here that came as a surprise, and I thought there should have been.
*. In short, I didn’t care for the script. It’s not interesting on any level. The plot revolves, again, around the recovery of some small, portable item (in this case balls of plutonium). Ethan Hunt’s wife is dragged back into the picture for no good reason at all. Just imagine the movie without her. It’s very easy to do. Jeremy Renner’s character has disappeared without explanation (Renner had another two-part franchise blockbuster to star in at the time). Poor Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) is little more than a piece of luggage for most of the movie, and I still couldn’t figure out just what his evil plan was. Henry Cavill looks like he’s making an honest effort to get this material work, but really it’s beyond even his brawn and rugged good looks. Everything here takes a back seat to the action.
*. If there’s nothing new here, at least what there is is very well done. Meaning expensive and totally state of the art. There’s a helicopter chase scene at the end that must have blown audiences away on a big screen. It’s truly spectacular, and set against some awesome natural backdrops. The photography is marvelous. Aside from that, there’s a chase through the streets of Paris and a scene where Cruise and Cavill jump out of an airplane at high altitude. None of this makes a single lick of sense. Apparently Hunt doesn’t even know how to fly a helicopter and still manages to make out like a stunt pilot extraordinaire. But the whole series has waved its hand at probabilities.
*. It was very successful, and plans were announced for (at least) a couple more films. Which should take Tom Cruise into his 60s. I hope he keeps training and eating healthy meals because I don’t see how they can affort to let things get any easier for Ethan Hunt. I do hope they try to do something new though. As I began by saying, the last four movies all just stick together in my head in a blur and I can no longer remember what any of them were about. But I don’t think that generic, formula quality is the secret of the franchise’s success, or at least the main part of it. It’s worth putting that to the test anyway. I hope I’m not wrong. I mean, people don’t just want more of the same, do they?

Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)

*. Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation. Also known as “the one where Tom Cruise holds on to the side of a plane that’s taking off.” Here we go!
*. In my notes on Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol I mentioned how the series had hit its stride and was now smoothly going through the motions of an established formula. That’s the case again here, as Ethan Hunt once again gets captured, escapes, goes jumping from great heights, piles up frequent flier points jetting around exotic locales, and runs like mad. I don’t remember him having to climb any cliffs, walls, or tall buildings, though the business with the plane is something kind of similar.
*. The plot is nearly identical to earlier instalments. Hunt has to steal something that the bad guy then steals from him and that Hunt has to get back. I think that covers everything. The bad guy here goes by the name of Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) and he heads up an organization called the Syndicate, which is an “anti-IMF” (which stands for Impossible Mission Force, not International Monetary Fund). The Syndicate is made up of ex-spies who now want to kill all spies. So basically it’s SMERSH reborn. As in all the earlier instalments I was never entirely sure what their mission was, but who cares? They want the dingus so Hunt has to get the dingus for them and then get it back or keep it away from them somehow.
*. Part of fitting into the groove is the sense that we really are in serial country now, which means a lot of this film felt like a set-up for the next movie, Fallout. So much so that I was sure there was going to be a mid-credit or post-credit teaser as with the Marvel movies. There isn’t, but you still could be sure you hadn’t seen the last of Solomon Lane.
*. Pretty much everything I said about Ghost Protocol goes for this one. It looks really good. There are a bunch of impressive set-piece scenes. You get more Simon Pegg as Benjy than we really need. Hunt has a female counterpart in the shapely form of Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson). The camera has a bit of a booty fixation on her. There are big chunks of material that aren’t very important that I could have lived without. The blockbuster sequences come at the beginning and the middle, which leaves the end feeling a bit anticlimactic. The first two movies were more traditional in saving those scenes for the end.
*. My only problem with Rogue Nation is that by this time I’d been down this road so many times (with Hunt, and Bond, and Bourne) that I was well out ahead of the plot and I started to get a little bored even while admiring how slickly it was all put together. The assassination at the opera has been done before, and working in three assassins only spiced things up a little bit. The face mask business this time out seemed obvious to me. The car chases, as always, are totally gratuitous. But I guess they have enough fresh material to keep things interesting, if you find car chases interesting (crushing the bikers up against the walls of an alley, the car doing a whole end-over-end tumbling roll down an arcade).
*. The need to one-up the challenge level or degree of difficulty on the impossible missions is starting to strain credulity. The only place they can get the computer file they need is on a server in Morocco, that Hunt has to enter an underwater cooling system to access the security codes for? Come on. That just felt like a leap too far.
*. Bottom line: Well done, but now just more of the same. Mission Impossible II is felt by many to be the weakest film in the series, but to be honest I was starting to miss John Woo a little by the end of this one. Not the pigeons, just something a little more invested with a personal sense of style. But of course that’s not how the money’s made. Audiences wanted more of the same and that’s exactly what they were going to get.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)

*. With this, the fourth film in the Mission Impossible series, one can clearly see the formula that has now been established. As far at the action goes, Ethan Hunt and his background team break into places that are impossible to break into and then break out of places (sometimes the same place) that they end up being trapped in. Ethan will climb up cliffs and tall buildings and he will leap from cliffs and tall buildings. A car will race through traffic. Cars will be blown up. And Ethan will run. A lot. Sprints even. Given how many takes he must do for even the simplest of these shots I’d say Tom Cruise really is in great shape.
*. In terms of plot there is also some consistency. That consistency being inconsistency. As this movie begins we learn that Ethan’s wife has disappeared (only to be picked up somewhat mysteriously at the end). This is good because we don’t have to waste any time watching Tom Cruise trying to be a ladies’ man. Another discontinuity has Cruise jumping back into field work, as well as having a new boss. I think in every movie thus far he’s had a new boss.
*. Again we have a villain who is a throwaway. Little explanation was given of Davian’s plot in Mission: Impossible III (what the Rabbit’s Foot actually was even becomes the punchline to a joke), and in this movie I had no idea what Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist) was up to. He wants to blow the world up because it’s part of a natural process? What good will his directing that process do? How is he going to profit from it? For a while I thought he might have been someone like Zobrist in Inferno, pursuing a kind of environmental agenda, but that doesn’t seem to be it. I think these movies just don’t want us to think about these things too much. How many lines does Hendricks even have in this movie, aside from the ones in the recording Hunt and the gang watch?
*. As with the Bond franchise, each new Mission: Impossible movie has to up the game by taking us to more exotic locations and giving us bigger effects. I give Ghost Protocol high marks for its inventiveness and production values. Climbing the outside of the Burj Khalifa was spectacular. The dust storm in Dubai and the parking garage fight in Mumbai were both well concieved and executed. It’s an odd mix of technical cleverness and invention with total indifference to logic and coherence that is the Mission: Impossible signature.
*. Director Brad Bird was doing his first live action film and he handles it well as comic book adventure. The days of De Palma and Woo aren’t even memories any more, handing off to pure generic thrills. But it all turns out nicely. The structure of the story is hopelessly clunky and I didn’t understand why they had to include any of the stuff with the Indian media tycoon, as it wasn’t very interesting and didn’t end up having any necessary part to play. But as I’ve said, these movies don’t care very much about the story. Big chunks of irrelevant material are par for the course. They just want to move you along to the next big moment and they don’t worry about connecting the dots.
*. It took a while, but with this movie you really got the sense that the franchise was hitting its stride. Critics approved and audiences ate it up. So there would be more.

Mission: Impossible III (2006)

*. Do you ever read those notices that come with a film’s rating? I sometimes wonder if they’re taken from a generic list or if someone actually writes original copy for the warnings that go in the little box. For Mission: Impossible III we get the following: “Intense scenes of frenetic violence and menace.”
*. The reason I mention this, aside from it being kind of cute in its laconic way, is that it made me think of director J. J. Abrams. In the first two Mission: Impossible movies the directors — Brian De Palma for Mission: Impossible and John Woo for Mission: Impossible II — were known for their signature styles. Indeed I think they were hired in large part for their style. Which brings us to Abrams (David Fincher had been the first choice, which would have taken the conversation in a different direction I’m sure). Tom Cruise had been binge-watching Alias and was “blown away.” For his part, Abrams was ready to make the jump from TV and go on to become one of the biggest names in franchise filmmaking in the twenty-first century. Bu what is the Abrams style? I wonder if we can do any better than “Intense scenes of frenetic violence and menace.”
*. Well, maybe we can add a bit to that. Abrams is an action director and he knows how to keep things moving. I don’t really think of him as setting up specific action sequences, as the action has an almost seamless flow throughout most of his films. Put another way, it’s common to describe the story in such movies as just a laundry line to hang the stunts and explosions on but in Mission: Impossible III the line is so flimsy as to be only a thread. There’s a MacGuffin in the form of something called the Rabbit’s Foot but we never even find out what the hell it is. Now that’s a MacGuffin! There’s a good turn by Philip Seymour Hoffman (again not a first choice) as the villain, but who the hell is he anyway? He’s just the villain, meaning the guy who wants the MacGuffin. No attempt is made to flesh any of this out. All we do is run, run, run from place to place.

*. Which leaves us with the stunts and explosions. If this is the real Abrams then it’s pretty generic, something that has probably contributed to his becoming such an in-demand director. As David Edelstein observed in his review of this film, “he [Abrams] doesn’t have much personality of his own to get in the way.” But it looks great. Or it looks really expensive. It’s curious though that the climactic fight between Ethan Hunt and Davian is so low rent, especially compared to earlier scenes like the helicopter chase through the windmills and the final battles at the end of the previous movies. Perhaps they were running short of cash. Stranger things have happened.
*. The action picks up some time well after the last movie, with Ethan Hunt settled down as an agent trainer and even thinking of getting hitched. Why Tom Cruise keeps playing a romantic lead is beyond me. As I’ve remarked many times before, he is determinedly asexual. He is incapable of projecting sexuality. But I guess part of the burden of being a leading man is being able to pull your shirt off in a sexy way and make love up against a wall.
*. In the face of all this breathless action there isn’t much time for carping. It’s very slick. Once it gets going it doesn’t take its foot off the gas. Things blow up “real good,” as they used to say on SCTV’s Farm Film Report. People go flying through the air. Tom Cruise still isn’t much in the acting department, but then Ethan Hunt isn’t really a character in any meaningful sense. We visit some exotic locales, see some expensive cars, and wind up pretty much right where we started. Ready to reload and go again.

Mission: Impossible II (2000)

*. Though promoted as M:I – 2, in the title as it appears on screen they use Roman numerals. Why? I don’t know. A touch of class? It’s a movie thing.
*. Brian De Palma out, John Woo in. I’m sure they knew exactly what they were getting from Woo, and they got it. Tom Cruise told Woo that all he wanted was his “style,” so if Mission: Impossible was a De Palma film, and it was, Part II is pure Woo. There are slow motion action scenes. There are people firing two guns at once. There are people jumping through the air firing their gun. There are people jumping through the air firing two guns at once. There are people firing guns out of cars, out of helicopters, off of motorcycles. He even brought his damn pigeons with him. You can’t get any more Woo than that.
*. Whatever happened to John Woo? I guess by this time his routine was wearing thin and, from the evidence, he didn’t have any other tricks up his sleeve. He was a bit of a hot property in action films in the ’90s, but after that things seem to have petered out, at least in Hollywood.
*. I don’t like this movie as much as the first Mission: Impossible, but I don’t blame Woo. The action isn’t bad, in its far-fetched way. If you don’t mind all the rubber face masks being pulled off like people removing a jacket I don’t see any reason to object to the jousting on motorbikes. Or the guys firing two guns at once. I think I’ve mentioned before about how unrealistic this is. Has anyone, ever, in any sort of a tactical situation, fired two pistols at once? What would be the point?
*. The real blame lies elsewhere. The usually reliable Robert Towne mailed it in with the script. In his defence, apparently he was just told to come up with some thread to hang the action sequences on. Even so, the plot, characters, and situations are all generic. Similarities to Notorious were frequently pointed out. The dialogue is awful. I don’t think the villain has one good line. Ethan Hunt has a love interest (Thandie Newton) who is basically just a Bond girl. The bad guy, played by Dougray Scott, is totally forgettable but for his honest expression of thinking with his cock. Hunt has a couple of sidekicks: Ving Rhames, who would stick around for the rest of the series working with computers, and John Polson. who . . . can fly a helicopter? Honestly, why is he even in this movie?
*. Also taking some share of blame is Tom Cruise. I liked him in the first movie, but here he is back playing Tom Cruise. He’s grinning and smirking (to the point where the villain even has to criticize him for it), and tossing about his gorgeous long locks like he’s in a shampoo commercial. He is also, as usual, incapable of providing any romantic chemistry. What is it about this guy that he projects so little sexuality? Antonia Quirke: “Cruise is flavourless, frictionless, a vacuum. His Hunt has no characteristics whatsoever, not even recently divorced or giving up smoking. Trying to grasp him, or even root for him, the mind skitters like a spider in a sink.”
*. Apparently Woo’s first cut ran three-and-a-half hours. I can’t imagine. Did they leave out more things blowing up? More pigeons? As it is, this is a dull movie that just sort of moves from one set-piece scene to the next with very little connecting tissue. Much of it is overblown, even operatic, which is fine as far as the stunts and explosions go but is silly elsewhere. Thandie Newton standing on a cliff just made me roll my eyes. So thanks very much Mr. De Palma and Mr. Woo. You at least delivered as promised. Next up, that hot new kid from television, J. J. Abrams.

Mission: Impossible (1996)

*. I doubt anyone at the time figured Mission: Impossible would turn into such a long-lived franchise, running for more than twenty years with the same star in the lead. But generic spy stuff never goes out of date. Bond will never die and Jason Bourne had a good run. So why not Ethan Hunt?
*. It also helped that while keeping Tom Cruise (and I don’t think he ever played a part as well) they also kept the talent around him strong and fresh. Brian De Palma directed this first instalment (he was in need of a hit), while David Koepp and Robert Towne did the script. Give those guys a lot of money and things were set to get off to a good start.
*. All of which makes the fact that I had completely forgotten this movie all the more surprising. I guess (nearly) twenty-five years is a long time, but still. The only part that had stuck with me was the immediately iconic scene of Cruise suspended from the ceiling while breaking into the CIA mainframe. I couldn’t have told you a thing about the plot. Even the climax in the Chunnel only came back to me when seeing it again.
*. This isn’t meant as a criticism of Mission: Impossible. In fact, I was impressed at how good a movie this is seeing it again. It’s only more evidence of how little stays with us of the culture we consume. Books, TV, movies . . . seen today, all but gone in a week or a month.

*. I don’t think De Palma was pushing himself too hard here, but he employs his usual bag of tricks all to good effect and without being overly distracting, building suspenseful scenes out of weird angles and interesting edits. I also like that the plot isn’t unnecessarily complicated. I think the twist is pretty clear right from the beginning, as perhaps it should be, but being able to follow everything as it unfolds is a plus.
*. Speaking of seeing the twist coming, I raised my eyebrows while listening to producer Paula Wagner talking about how great it was to have Jon Voight playing Mr. Phelps since “you wouldn’t expect him at all.” I don’t think of Jon Voight as having one of the most trustworthy faces in the business.
*. What I like most about Mission: Impossible, I think, is that it doesn’t feel like a blockbuster, despite all of the signature big moments. What De Palma, and I suspect Towne, give to the proceedings is a human scale. This is something that is also emphasized by the large close-ups of people’s faces. I even found myself looking at the stubble on Cruise’s cheeks in one scene. Too often action blockbusters become impersonal at the same time as they become more generic, but this movie never loses contact with the people in it. Not real people, to be sure, but people we can relate to. In a similar way, Prague actually feels like a real place and not just a location. Maybe it’s the lack of CGI, but I appreciated all of this.
*. As I began by saying, it is a bit surprising that I’d so completely forgotten such a good movie. But these things happen. I’m glad I watched it again, and I hope it won’t be the last time.

Dr. Cyclops (1940)

*. I know I’m in for a good time when I see Technicolor announced. I love these early Technicolor movies, and in fact Dr. Cyclops was the first American horror film made in three-strip Technicolor. Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum had been made using the two-strip process.
*. I hope you enjoy, with me, that glowing green lab, looking like something Mario Bava was making notes on for future use. What with the weird spangle of lights we might as well be in an aquarium — a feeling that’s only deepened when Dr. Thorkel puts on his radium suit, which looks like some kind of Victorian diving apparatus.
*. Alas, despite this promising opening, which includes the usual warning directed to Thorkel about how “You are tampering with powers reserved to God!”, I have to rate Dr. Cyclops a disappointment.
*. The one part of the movie that gets a lot of praise is the performance of Albert Dekker as Dr. Thorkel. He’s certainly weird, but I’m not sure it’s a great performance. It’s more a case of a strange character with a striking appearance (a large man with a shaved head and small, thick-lensed glasses that make him look like a demented jeweler).
*. Thorkel is a mad scientist, sure. And, like all mad scientists, when people call him mad it only makes him angry. But is he a sadist? There I’m not so sure. His cruelty is inextricably bound up with his curiosity in the outcome of his experiment. This makes his cheery demeanour all the more disturbing.
*. However you want to read him, Dekker is the only member of the cast who holds our attention. The rest of the film is just waiting to see what sort of visual trickery they’re going to come up with next. Dr. Thorkel, you see, has discovered a way to (temporarily) shrink other living creatures, making this yet another movie about tiny people wandering through giant sets. Not that far removed from the explorers of Skull Island in King Kong, which is no surprise given that Ernest B. Schoedsack had a hand in both films.

*. Unfortunately, there’s a strange energy deficiency noticeable in the proceedings. When we first meet the character Stockton he’s reclining in a chair with flies crawling over him. His indolence strikes what will be a recurring note. Dr. Thorkel later proves to be a real sleepyhead. Upon discovering that he can now control life absolutely he immediately nods off. The later plan to kill him will involve rigging his shotgun to shoot him while he sleeps.
*. I think there might also be something related to this in the lack of urgency shown by the little people when they first escape. What do they do when they get out of Thorkel’s clutches? Remarkably they’re discovered in the next room, setting up a commune. Eating. Reading. Sewing new clothes. Apparently getting away was not a high priority.
*. Why do people keep cats? Every time we have one of these movies about people being shrunk the cats show their true stripes and try to kill their now tiny owners. That’s what your cat would do to you too, if they had the chance! They’d eat you! Dogs meanwhile, can be counted on to show a certain residual loyalty.
*. Sticking with the cat, could they not have found something in the sound library that sounded more like a cat? Even before the group shrinks its growls sound like a guy doing a very bad imitation of a cat. Which doesn’t sound like a cat at all.
*. So I like the Technicolor. Even more than the effects, which I don’t think are all that good. And Dekker’s Dr. Thorkel is a uniquely creepy mad scientist. The story here though is a waste of time, and something about it feels off in an uncomfortable way. It’s not just the air of laziness, but things like the casual way Dr. Bullfinch is disposed of. I usually give credit to a movie that gets under my skin, but in this case it’s a feeling I didn’t appreciate.