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.

★★★★★

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Black Panther

Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whittaker, Andy Serkis

Director: Ryan Coogler

Writers: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole


This is a groundbreaking film for Marvel, and for superhero movies in general, and it’s not just because Black Panther is the biggest, most expensive film to be written and directed by African-Americans and to feature a predominantly black cast. It is also the most politically ambitious film Marvel has ever produced as it seeks to speak openly about the struggles of black people, both historical and modern-day. There are obviously limits to what a film such as Black Panther can accomplish in this regard. It is a work of fiction that can only incorporate so much conflict in its two-hour runtime, it is an American production that, despite being set in Africa and drawing much inspiration from its culture, incorporates a decidedly Western viewpoint, and it is a mainstream blockbuster that cannot afford to make its politics too radical for fear of alienating audiences (including white ones). What the movie can do is reflect on the turmoil and experience of black people living in the world today and convey them in a personal and emotional way that speaks to the audience. That is exactly what Black Panther does and it works wonderfully.

The film is set in the fictional African nation of Wakanda, the home of the Earth’s only source of vibranium, the strongest metal known to man (it is the same metal used in Captain America’s shield). To protect themselves and the world at large from those who would use the metal and its immense power for destructive purposes, Wakanda has kept itself in isolation for centuries and today poses as a third-world nation with little to offer in trade. In truth Wakanda is the most technically advanced civilisation on the planet. There the people live in a metropolis of space-age skyscrapers, holographic computers and magnetically powered monorails. Culturally it is a society of an unmistakably African heritage. This is evident not just in the high-tech spears and shields used by the Wakandan army and their armoured rhinos (I don’t think I can emphasise this point enough: this movie has armoured rhinos!), it is also evident in the art, fashion, and architecture. It imagines a pure, utopian version of Africa that never saw the interference and devastation of European colonialism.

Following the death of King T’Chaka (John Kani) in Civil War, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) must assume his place both as king and as the Black Panther, the protector of Wakanda whose strength is enhanced by ingesting the Heart-Shaped Herb. Through the process of his inauguration as performed by Zuri (Forest Whitaker), a Wakandan elder and the people’s spiritual leader, we learn a few things about T’Challa. We learn that has great affection for his late father, his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), and his kid sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) and that he still harbours a flame for his former girlfriend, Wakandan spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o). We learn that he is a strong but noble-hearted warrior, as we see when he emerges victorious in the ritual combat challenge for the throne and persuades his foe to yield rather than kill him as an example. We also learn that he feels a strong sense of duty to his people and nation and that his main priority as king will be to follow his father’s example and maintain the status quo. Thus, upon receiving word that the arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) has stolen a Wakandan artefact and intends to sell it, T’Challa, Nakia, and Okoye (Danai Gurira), the country’s greatest general, set out to South Korea to stop him.

The trio get there and learn that the deal is with CIA operative Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman). A series of chases and firefights results in the disruption of the deal, the escape of Klaue, and the grave injury of Ross. T’Challa decides not to pursue the arms dealer and instead takes Ross back with him to Wakanda, where they have the technology to heal him, thereby letting the CIA officer in on their secret as a technologically advanced civilisation. His decision is strongly opposed by many of his people, most notable his friend and head of security W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya). In the middle of the rift that emerges, Erik ‘Killmonger’ Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) enters the scene. A former black-ops soldier who more than earned his nickname, Killmonger reveals himself to be the son of T’Chaka’s brother N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) who was killed in Oakland. He challenges T’Challa for the throne, which he sees as his birthright, making clear his intention to use Wakanda’s power and technology to unite their black brothers and sisters all over the world and lead them in a global revolution against their oppressors.

Killmonger falls under one of the most interesting categories of villains, those who are so sympathetic and relatable you could argue that they are not villains at all. At first Jordan wins you over with his swaggering charisma and playful viciousness, making Killmonger one of those villains you love to hate because the glee he gets from being evil is so infectious. But then we learn a bit more about him and the tragedy that shaped him into the man he is today. More importantly the movie takes his arc and creates parallels and contrasts between him and T’Challa, making them two sides of the same coin. They both live in the shadows of their fathers, both are driven by a desire to achieve something great, and both feel a strong sense of duty to their people. The difference is that T’Challa desires peace while Killmonger desires war. But it’s not as black and white as that. True, Wakanda has endured as a peaceful and prosperous nation and has kept the world safe from the harmful potentials of vibranium, but by isolating themselves from the rest of the world and failing to use their technology for the global good of mankind, they’ve been at best neglectful and at worst culpable in some of the world’s worst atrocities including the slave trade and the two world wars. That Coogler, Boseman, and Jordan are able to take this larger conflict and express it on such a personal level makes it all the more complex and compelling.

This movie isn’t just about T’Challa and Killmonger though, they have an entire ensemble supporting them with no less than three women who each deserve their own spotlight. There’s Nakia, the skilled fighter whose heart is more temperate than that of her ex and who teaches him that it is compassion and not strength that makes a great king. There’s Shuri, the child genius who is exactly the right amount of imaginative and reckless to invent the weapons and gadgets that T’Challa uses to fight and is just itching for the chance to use them herself (goodness knows what kind of mischief she’d get up to in Tony Stark’s lab). Best of all is Okoye. T’Challa may be the strongest warrior in Wakanda but even he wouldn’t disagree that Okoye is the fiercest. She is a soldier who serves Wakanda above all else, including her lover W’Kabi, and might very well have the most gripping arc of all. Sworn to defend the throne, whoever may sit on it, much of the drama hinges on whether she will uphold her oath to the death or whether her duty to her country compels her to rebel.

Visually, Black Panther is up there with Marvel’s best. Wakanda is a stunning realm of rich colours and imaginative designs, again all drawing heavily from African culture. (As someone who lived in Lagos for a few years, I can tell you that there is plenty of Nigeria to be found in the fashion, art, and accents). Coogler, who already proved in Creed that he knows how to shoot a great fight scene, keeps the combat small so that it never gets too cluttered, enabling him to keep things personal and intense. Even in the climax when things get a little bigger, his expert command over the geography of his scenes means that you never lose track of who is where at a given time. Add in the clearly defined progressions and turning points in the plots and the well established motivations and you have fight scenes that are all the more enjoyable because you know who everyone is, what they are doing, and why they are doing it.

And yet, even with all that going for it, it’s the social relevance that really makes Black Panther stand out. It offers a villain who stands as a symbol of black radicalism in opposition to white supremacy and, without endorsing its violent means and inescapably violent ends, allows us to understand and sympathise with the oppression and turmoil that drive this kind of rage. In the end the Wakandans do of course reject the path of revenge, but not in favour of a return to isolation. Instead they choose the path of compassion and improvement. Black Panther is a movie which acknowledges that times change and that what made sense and worked before may not be right anymore. The way forward then is to grow and change with the times and to try and create a better future. The alternative is Killmonger’s way and there are only two possible outcomes, either the hate destroys you or you become the very thing you want to destroy. T’Challa says it best in the line that speaks most directly to the world as it is today: “The wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers”. We need more movies like this.

★★★★★

White Bird in a Blizzard

Cast: Shailene Woodley, Eva Green, Christopher Meloni, Shiloh Fernandez, Gabourey Sidibe, Thomas Jane, Angela Bassett

Director: Gregg Araki

Writer: Gregg Araki


One of the things that can make any film grating to watch is if there is a lack of investment. If the characters don’t care about what happens to them or what they are going through, why should the audience care? This is the reason why I found White Bird in a Blizzard to be a frustrating film. There is no commitment on its part, nothing compelling or captivating for the audience to hold on to. It attempts to work as both a gripping mystery and as an emotional coming of age story, but succeeds at neither.

The story is about Kat Connor (Shailene Woodley), a seventeen-year-old girl living in suburbia with her parents. She comes home from school one day to find that her mother (Eva Green) has disappeared without a trace. She recounts flashbacks of the circumstances that preceded this incident which reveal the wild and unbalanced behaviour that her mother had exhibited before and the abusive tendencies she demonstrated towards Kat and her timid, spineless father (Christopher Meloni). However Kat seems unbothered by her disappearance, figuring that her mother has just walked out on her and her father, and simply tries to move on with her life. What frustrated me the most about this story is the severe indifference shown by the main character. The film does make it clear that Kat and her mother shared an unstable, unhappy relationship, but surely an incident of this magnitude would provoke some sort of reaction out of her. Whether it be anger, despair, confusion, concern, contempt, or even relief, an incident as immense, as unexpected, and as alarming as this should surely be met with a little more than a shrug of the shoulders.

Perhaps the emotional blankness in this film results from a lack of investment on the filmmakers’ parts, or it could stem from a lack of understanding of how emotions work in films. One trend I noticed while watching White Bird in a Blizzard was a tendency for the characters to use direct, straightforward dialogue. What I mean by this is that the characters in this film have a habit of explaining exactly what it is they are feeling, what it is that’s happening to them, and what it is they’re going through. Some writers do this because they think that this is how they are supposed to communicate emotion in a film. However, by doing this, they fail to utilize the potential of film as a visual medium. One of the main rules that filmmakers are told to apply is ‘show, don’t tell’. This film tends to have its characters explain their feelings out loud rather than just show them. It isn’t enough for the characters to describe their emotions, they have to actually express them. Otherwise the emotions never register and the audience is thus unable to empathise with the characters. The film understands this to an extent as evidenced by Kat’s dreams about her mother, but apart from them there are barely any other scenes in which the characters are able to achieve genuine human moments. It’s as if the film does not trust its audience to understand and interpret the characters’ feelings and motivations based on their characterisms or their actions and must instead spell everything out.

The dream sequences were the one part of the film that I actually did like a lot and so I think I’ll elaborate on them a bit. In her dreams Kat finds herself in a snow-covered wilderness searching for her lost mother. The film allows the visuals to do all of the talking as the environment provides a reflection of Kat’s feelings: cold, isolated, and lost. Her fragility and vulnerability are shown as she calls out into the empty landscape for her mother and receives no answer. The otherworldly state she finds herself in emphasises how surreal the experience of her mother’s disappearance has been. Woodley, a talented young actress who really deserves to be in better films than this one, shines in these scenes as she depicts the alienated state that Kat has found herself in. If only the rest of the film’s emotion was expressed as strongly as in those scenes.

This could have been a really good film. The drama inherent in this kind of concept was practically gift-wrapped. However the filmmakers either never realised or never understood how to get into the emotional heart of this story. Kat’s feelings for her mother’s disappearance are given a backseat as the film focuses more on her sexual exploits with her dim-witted neighbour and the handsome cop investigating her mother’s case. Even towards the end when the mysterious circumstances surrounding the mother’s disappearance are brought into question and give rise to the film’s mystery, the lack of engagement up to that point prevents the audience’s interest from being captured. Throughout the film I never found myself caring for Kat or the effect, or lack thereof, that her mother’s disappearance had on her.

★★