Mission: Impossible – Fallout

Cast: Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Sean Harris, Angela Bassett, Vanessa Kirby, Michelle Monaghan, Alec Baldwin

Director: Christopher McQuarrie

Writer: Christopher McQuarrie

He’s at it again and this time things are different… in that a couple of things are actually the same this time around. After jumping through a roster of prominent directors who each boast their own distinctive style – Brian De Palma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams and Brad Bird – Fallout is the first of the Mission: Impossible films to have a director return. Following his highly enjoyable Rogue Nation, Christopher McQuarrie has stepped in once again to offer what is more or less a direct sequel, another break in precedent for the series. The story deals with the fallout (see what I did there?) from the events of the previous film, the female lead and the villain both return and the story-arc that was established for Cruise’s character is developed a little further. It isn’t hard to understand why Paramount signed McQuarrie up for another film and it’s not just because serialised franchises are the new thing in Hollywood right now. McQuarrie gets it. He gets what it is that people like about these movies, he gets Cruise’s appeal as a movie star and he knows how to make a decent action movie. Here he goes above and beyond and outdoes what he accomplished with Rogue Nation.

The remains of the Syndicate from the last film have reformed into the Apostles, a terrorist organisation hell-bent on creating chaos. That’s pretty much all you need to know about them. One of McQuarrie’s strengths is that he knows how to make a plot interesting without dwelling on the details. A movie like this needs a plot to keep things moving but it’s never the reason why anybody buys a ticket. We’re all here to see Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) in his latest adventure where he must stop the Apostles in their quest to assemble and set off three nuclear bombs. They already have the plutonium they need after Ethan loses it in an operation where he was forced to choose between completing the mission and saving his team. His boss Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) tasks him with recovering the plutonium by intercepting a weapons deal in Paris. He’s not going alone though. As well as his usual sidekicks Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), CIA Director Erica Sloane (Angela Bassett) orders him to take the imposing and ruthless August Walker (Henry Cavill and the moustache that destroyed a franchise) along. This latest mission leads Ethan into a crisis of apocalyptic proportions made all the more complicated by the return of former foe Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) and double agent/love interest Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson).

The movie hits the ground running and it never stops. It’s not just that there’s so much action happening but also that there are so many different styles of action to enjoy. There’s a stormy skydiving scene, a bare-knuckled fight that Jason Bourne would call brutal, a sprinting scene to remind us what great shape Tom Cruise is still in at 56 and more. What McQuarrie brings is this extraordinary fluidity in movement that allows us to keep up with the action without losing track of it, a rarity in the modern Hollywood blockbuster that favours shaky-cam and rapid editing even when it blinds us to the act. The skydiving scene where Hunt and Walker are free-falling their way through a thunder storm was shot in a single take (or made to look like it was), allowing us to appreciate their peril in real time, and with enough distance that each figure is constantly in sight. Then there’s the climatic helicopter chase scene where the intense pursuit is intercut with two other nail-biting events and which may well be the most ambitious, insane and masterfully executed sequence in any of the films.

In his nearly forty-year career, Cruise has displayed remarkable longevity as he has continued to play action heroes with the commitment and stamina of a man half his age. With Fallout though, McQuarrie is interested in exploring how the series and its central character has evolved since it first started in 1996 and so it opts for Cruise to start showing his age a bit with some of the wear and tear that comes from living a life as Ethan Hunt. Thus he gets paired up with Cavill who towers over Cruise (which is admittedly not that difficult a task for a 6 ft. 1 actor standing opposite a 5 ft. 8 actor) and who looks like a younger, fitter, tougher counterpart of Hunt. While Walker goes after his targets with a machine-like determination and deals blows with bone-crushing impact, Hunt is stumbling more than he used to and his punches don’t land with the same level of force. Hunt will still win the day of course because that’s what he does and he’s been doing it for a long time (I was reminded at one point of that Indiana Jones quote, “It’s not the years honey, it’s the mileage”), but the strain is starting to show and it raises the question of how much longer Ethan Hunt and keep being Ethan Hunt.

And that leads us to the other big question the film is interested in exploring of why Hunt does what he does. Early on in Fallout he makes the choice to save Luther and Benji from danger and has to abandon his objective to do so. It is argued that Hunt is too protective of those he cares about and that he doesn’t have it in him to make the kinds of sacrifices that are necessary for the greater good. Walker, an agent who works free of empathy and affection, is brought in to perform the role that Hunt is unable to fulfil, to let the few die so that the many may be saved. The contrast is a fascinating one as the film explores their differing methods and ideologies in an attempt to work out which is the better way. Near the end we’re given an insight into Hunt and his past which explains exactly how much he’s willing to sacrifice for the sake of the greater good and it’s more profound than you might expect from this kind of movie.

When I say “this kind of movie” I of course refer to the Hollywood blockbuster, which doesn’t have the esteem it used to possess. With the endless sequels, reboots and other franchising dominating the box office these days, it’s easy to feel pessimistic about the whole thing and to see the entire Hollywood industry as nothing more than as a mechanical profit-focused machine that has ceased to produce art and even entertainment in favour of commercial, demographically-targeted products. Even the movies themselves are getting pretty cynical these days (including the good ones like Logan, The Last Jedi, and Avengers: Infinity War). That’s why it’s important to remember that films like Mission: Impossible – Fallout are still being made by filmmakers like McQuarrie who care about what they do and about creating something special for the audience. This movie is an antidote to cynicism; it offers the kind of escapism that we crave from the movies and that leaves you feeling elated and ready to conquer the world. I’m all for introspective movies that ask us to take a hard look at ourselves and the world around us, but sometimes you want to forget about all that and just leave your body for a couple of hours to enjoy something exciting and fun. Fallout does not only offer that, but it also does it incredibly well.



Still Alice

Cast: Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish

Directors: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland

Writers: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland

When a film undertakes the task of portraying the effects of a devastating disease such as cancer, dementia, AIDs, and so forth, it is often the case that they’ll try to appeal to the audience’s sentimentality whilst avoiding the bleak and messy bits that come in between. What sets Still Alice apart is its uncompromising honesty and bravery. This is a film that is not afraid to show just how difficult Alzheimer’s disease can be on an emotional level. The struggle of Alice and her family to try and retain her sense of who she is is unflinching in its brutality. The film never resorts to pathos but instead captures the audience’s attention and sympathy by portraying the dismal effects that this disease has on Alice and her family and simply letting their story speak for itself. The level of cold honesty that this film conveys is one that I haven’t seen since Michael Haneke’s Amour.

Dr. Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is a smart and accomplished woman who has enjoyed a happy and fulfilling life. She has managed to maintain a strong and loving marriage with her husband John (Alec Baldwin) all the while balancing the feats of raising three children and pursuing a highly successful career as a professor of linguistics. It is not a perfect fairy-tale life. There are cracks in the seams such as the rocky relationship between Alice and her youngest daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart), but on the whole they are content.

On her fiftieth birthday Alice and her family have a get together to mark the occasion. It is on this night that Alice begins to show the early signs of her disease. It is an offhand throwaway remark in which she confuses a story about her two daughters with one about herself and her own sister. It is shrugged off and forgotten by all as soon as it passes. However, as the days and the weeks go by, these lapses of memory start occurring more frequently. She appears at a university to give a guest lecture and loses her train of thought mid-sentence. She goes jogging along her usual route and gets lost for a few brief seconds. These happenings cause her enough concern that she visits the hospital for a check-up. After a few scans and memory tests, Alice is told that the diagnosis is early onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Alice’s world collapses at this point. She is told that she has a disease which will slowly but surely eat away at her until she loses her memories, her identity, and her humanity. On top of that, the form of the disease that she has caught is a rare genetic one meaning there is a 50/50 chance that any one of her children could be a carrier. However Alice refuses to be defeated by this disease. She resolves to do as much as she can while she is able. She wants to continue working, she wants to see her grandchildren born, and she wants to continue living her life. She rigorously exercises her memory by providing herself with words to memorise and questions to answer. Every step is a struggle and not every goal is one that she can achieve. There are some days when she is almost herself but there are others when she is completely lost. Her determination and resolve are utterly compelling which is why it is so despairing to see her fight a losing battle. She is so desperate to maintain what little control she can that she even leaves herself a message and a means of taking her own life should the day ever come when her former self is completely gone.

Last night Julianne Moore deservedly won an Oscar (and about time too!) for the tragically powerful performance she gives in this film. Her depiction of the effects of Alzheimer’s disease combined with the desolation and anguish she conveys is absolutely extraordinary. As the remnants of who Alice once was gradually disappear, so does any sign of the actress. What is left is a moving and painfully truthful performance. Also deserving of praise is Baldwin as her loyal, steadfast husband. Although it breaks his heart to see his wife disappear before his eyes, John understands that it is up to him to carry them both. He exhibits an exceptional level of sensitivity and patience in his care of Alice, even at the times when it is most difficult for them both. Baldwin delivers in every aspect.

Still Alice is a heartbreakingly beautiful film about the loss of one’s self. It offers a harrowing portrayal of what it is like to watch someone you love disappear before your very eyes. The fact that Alice understands exactly what is happening to her but is powerless to do anything about it makes it all the more devastating to watch. In one of the most poignant scenes in the film Alice maintains that she is not suffering, but struggling. She is struggling to hold onto the memories of who she is and of her family. Without them, she is nothing.