The Last Days Appendix II: Mission: Impossible (1996 – Brian De Palma)


So if Arnold Schwarzenegger is the penultimate movie star… then who is the last movie star?   Whilst there are still bankable, charismatic actors working today (Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington spring to mind) there are none who are able to get funding for their films on their name alone.  Even our subject has had to rely on building a handful of franchises (of which this film can retrospectively be seen as the first entry in one) in order to maintain the level of funding to which he is accustomed.  Tom Cruise is our last movie star.  In itself this is a curious statement; why are we assuming that there won’t be any more after him?  Star actors are so necessary to the success of movies.  Why is it that we have devalued them so?  I’m as big an auteurist as the next person, but that central, charismatic performance is what drives cinema.  You can choose your angles and edit your footage as much as you want, but we go to the movies to see the close-ups of these impossibly beautiful, deeply captivating actors.

It’s strange to think that as Cruise has got older, he has become a more physical performer.  Nowadays, the vast bulk of his career is consumed with action pictures, each one containing an extremely dangerous set-piece that Cruise performed himself.  He is one of the most reliable performers in the business, and even when the film as a whole does not add up to that much, there is a certainty that Cruise will be giving it his all, and watching him will be a pleasure.  But in the early days of his career, Cruise actively distanced himself from the action genre.  Instead, he chose to serve a form of apprenticeship, choosing to take parts in the films of notable, established directors such as Martin Scorsese and Sydney Pollack.  It was a bold decision, especially when we consider that the ideal of stardom (that of Schwarzenegger) was utterly concerned with stunts, explosions and running very fast.

Indeed, once Cruise finally took the plunge into the action genre he chose an established, New Hollywood director to helm it.  Even today, he prefers to work with stolid, workman-like directors (your Christopher McQuarries and Ed Zwicks), rather than anyone too flashy – Cruise has always been a classicist at heart.  Mission: Impossible was our first sight of Cruise pushing himself physically, and from this point, there would be no going back to understated supporting roles.  Cruise has a total commitment to verisimilitude; if there is a stunt or action he can do himself, he will.  This allows the directors he works with to have a greater freedom of shots – they can place the camera close to him during his performances, and in doing so, draw us closer in to him.  We are drawn to Cruise because on the big screen we can glimpse what he is capable of, and understand the genuine danger he is in during these moments.

Whilst the action sequences in Mission: Impossible may feature fewer explosions and car chases than the other films of the nineties, they annihilate them when it comes to inducing tension in the audience.  The meticulous planning and choreography of De Palma ensured that a simple act of Cruise abseiling down into a room became almost iconographic in its execution.  Using the heist sequence of Topkapi (1964 – Jules Dassin) as a launching pad (in itself a quiet rebuke to those who dismiss De Palma as a mere Hitchcock rip-off), De Palma ensured that a simple bead of sweat could cause us to grasp the armrests of our chairs.

And that is the great beauty of this film.  It does not fully reveal to us what Tom Cruise would ultimately become capable of in his career, but it does show us how pace, close-ups and the simple cut from shot to shot can cause us to be enthralled.  The first thirty minutes of this film are about as perfect a sequence in the history of cinema.  From the very start, a complex web of screens, masks and lies indicate that there will be a level of unreality to the film.  As the IMF team handle their heist upon the elite party, we realised as an audience that there are things going on in the background of shots that are as important as what is happening in the foreground.  De Palma cemented his use of the split-diopter lense into the very narrative of the film.  In doing so, he reminded us of the great pleasure of his films; that his tricks, his use of the camera, is the vehicle for telling the story.

Many of these tricks, particularly his use of first-person shots, lent themselves well to the spy genre.  And like all of De Palma’s method, it’s invisible until you start to look for it.  Mission: Impossible is one of many entries in this genre that occurred in the nineties; films such as Patriot Games (1992 – Philip Noyce), The Peacemaker (1997 – Mimi Leder) and The Saint (1997 – Noyce again) followed the form, or used the narrative tropes of multiple identities, double-crossing and isolated agents to tell their stories.  They also feature a retrospectively charming understanding of the still infant internet within their plots; Mission: Impossible has a sequence where Cruise posts on usenet bulletin boards.  But the constantly escalating narrative of ‘missions gone wrong’ became highly influential in itself.

(Indeed, one of the loveliest aspects of this movie was the fact that the masks worn by Cruise within the film ensured that the studio prevented Val Kilmer from using too many false identities in The Saint, thus denying us all of too much of a good thing…)

The emphasis on carefully constructed set-pieces in action movies was broadly rejected by the industry – one only has to watch Mission: Impossible 2 (2000 – John Woo) to see how little impact it made – but it did seem to open the door for Tom Cruise to explore how pure physical performance was essential to being a star.  In that sense, Cruise recalls the great performers such as Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton.  For that we can be truly grateful.  But for a survey of the action genre in the nineties, Cruise simply did not have any great impact.  It would only be in the decades to come (perversely as he got much older) that we began to see Cruise emerge as one of the greatest physical performers of all time.

Films seen August

Dunkirk (2017 – Christopher Nolan)


There was a lot of talk about this film, but really, when it came down to it, it was utterly thrilling.  I was completely gripped by the whole thing.  Easily Nolan’s most proficient film by a considerable distance, Dunkirk seemed to capture a nostalgia and dignity for a time that only exists in the most patriotic fantasists.  The brutality of war and the hopelessness of survival were buried under a British reserve.  But this all seems far away… thought the deliberate refusal to refer to Germany or Italy or any other of the Axis powers in the opening crawl did seem to suggest that all-consuming capitalism and the fear of offending these potential markets has managed to trump an antiquated notion of decency.

But there is moment where Tom Hardy looks at his fuel gage and realises he now has to choose whether to turn back home or stay in the air and defend British ships in the Channel.  And there is fear and deliberation and finally resolve… all performed solely with his eyes.  It is the most exquisite piece of acting I have seen for many years.  The best special effect in cinematic history.


Seen on 15/70mm at the BFI IMAX.  Ticket cost £18 or something like that.  There was a typical backlash against the fetishisation of release formats that accompanied the release of this film, but it really did benefit from being seen on this huge, all-encompassing screen with extraordinary sound.  The experience was slightly let down by my neighbour referring to me as ‘middle-aged’ though!



The Conversation (1974 – Francis Ford Coppola)


I don’t think I knew that the dream sequence in this movie was the result of an abandoned waking chase scene that Coppola didn’t have the time to shoot completely before he began shooting The Godfather: Part II (1974).  I mean, I probably did know it once, but had forgotten it.  My memory sometimes feels like a cinematic dream sequence, desperately clutching onto thoughts and images that have some meaning.

I don’t think I understood Harry Caul’s paranoia the last time/first time I saw this movie.  I certainly didn’t know the solitude he had imposed on himself.  But as I get older, the dislocation he senses within himself towards the surrounding world feels more profound.  It is a deeply unsettling film; one that masterfully indicates how our own perceptions shape our senses and a film that technically anticipates the digital revolution a few decades before it arrived.


Seen on 35mm on the main screen at the Curzon Soho followed by a gracious and intelligent Q&A with Walter Murch.  Without any justification, the fact that the film was projected from 35mm was described as being inherently better by the event’s organiser… a statement slightly deflated by Murch’s stated wariness of film projection a few minutes later!  Ticket cost £18.



A Ghost Story (2017 – David Lowery)


I liked it at the time, but I can’t remember much of it now.  I think I wanted a nastier ghost.  Or a ghost that didn’t experience all that silly going forward and backward in time towards the end (that felt like a little too ‘narrative clever, clever’ where an early moment of confusion is later revealed to be the action of a character we see on screen.  It’s a little too pretentious and tidy for my liking.  And not very impressive anymore.)

But I wish I never found out that Rooney Mara had never eaten pie before her traumatic gluttony.  It’s the most preposterous thing I’ve ever heard.  Who goes their life without eating pie?  What miserable, self-denial of happiness convinced her that that was an acceptable life choice?

Can I recommend a good steak and kidney Rooney?  It’s what I turn to in moments of grief/boredom/Tuesdays.


Seen at the Curzon Soho on the large screen.  Ticket cost £10.50.



Big Wednesday (1978 – John Milius)


Meditative and full of the lost highways and broken relationships that are scattered about our lives, it’s easy to see why Spielberg and Lucas thought that Milius was the real deal in comparison to them.  From the start, Milius imprints himself upon the film; you wonder whether he realised the brokenness of his central characters and the substantial limits they place upon their existence.  The violence is ridiculous, the draft-dodging scene is offensively hilarious and the surfing shots are beautiful.  A great, contemplative movie.


Projected from 35mm at the BFI Southbank on Screen 3.  Like all screenings in London, there was a homeless man in the audience.  Ticket cost £8.



Atomic Blonde (2017 – David Leitch)


It’s such a boring movie revolving around such tediously predictable spy tropes (the MacGuffin is a list of undercover agents for Pete’s sake)… which becomes understandable once you realise that the film is an adaptation of a comic book.  And it was probably one of those lowest common denominator comic books that was made solely for the purpose of selling off some film+TV rights.  The shallowness of it all is only underlined by some of the most basic music cues committed to celluloid.

But, in the middle of this film is the most extraordinary fight scene I have seen for many years.  Shot to simulate a single take, it is a thrillingly brutal scene of Charlize Theron murdering henchmen in a stairwell.  It is everything you want in a fight scene.  It has verisimilitude, stacked odds and amazing choreographed performances from a stunt team.

And so you’re left with a boring movie with one exceptional scene.  And you have to ask yourself… is it worth it?


Seen on the decent-sized Screen 3 at the Odeon Covent Garden.  Ticket cost £6.50



Love Streams (1984 – John Cassavetes)


It’s just a film with such empathy.  And two profoundly different portrayals of individuals suffering from mental health issues – Cassavettes all crashing and burning  and chequebooks and pens and Rowlands nervy and impulsive.  There’s an extraordinary couple of dream sequences – an amazing car crash and a dance on stage that may or may not have been directed by peter Bogdanovich in a desperate attempt to save himself from his depression.  I love how you feel they only figured out that they were siblings after several weeks of shooting.  It’s delightful to spend time amongst the clutter of their house, so familiar it is to us from their previous movies.  It’s immediate – Cassavetes’ desire for truth sees him include shots where camera crews that are visible.  And it’s utterly hilarious – the scene where Rowlands tries to get home whilst abroad is possibly the funniest thing ever.

It contains pretty much everything I have ever loved about movies.

Seen on the downstairs screen at the Prince Charles.  Projected from 35mm.  Had a migraine, but still enjoyed myself.  Ticket cost £4.50.



The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974 – Tobe Hooper)


Throughout the runtime of this film there was a man sitting behind me laughing every thirty seconds.  The Prince Charles is an amazing cinema, but it does frustratingly encourage this behaviour with its knowingly ironic screenings.  And I gave this dude the half-turn… and then the turn, but it had no impact.  I’m not the most intimidating fella.

And as I walked out I heard him turn to his friends.  ‘You see’ he sneered ‘I think it’s meant to be funny.’

Well, it’s not you absolute cockhead.  It’s a horrifying movie.  The soundtrack of the second half of the film is a never-ending cacophony of guttural screams and the grinding a whirring of a chainsaw.  That in itself is as unsettling as cinema ever got, and that’s before you mention the inevitable dread of the hitchhiker, or the sudden violation of the metal kitchen door slamming shut out of nowehere, or the…. I could go on.

It’s a terrifying movie.  It’s not a comedy.  And you are not worthy of watching it.


Projected from 35mm on the downstairs screen at the Prince Charles.  Print seemed to originate in France.  Beautiful condition.  Ticket cost £6 or thereabouts.  Obviously a screening that gained some retrospective poignancy after Hooper’s recent death.


Tom of Finland (2017 – Dome Karukoski)


Which is an ‘18’ for some reason.  Someone needs to let the BBFC know that we can all cope with seeing a few drawings of penises.  Because it deserves a wider audience.  It’s a joyous film that encountered much of the gay experience of the second half of the twentieth century; repression, violence, S&M, the gradual slipping out from the closet, desire and HIV.  A lovely little film.


Seen on one of those awful little small screens at the Curzon Bloomsbury and I had to pay £10.50 for the privilege.



Out of Sight (1998 – Steven Soderbergh)


About half an hour into the film, there was a moment where I suddenly became profoundly aware of how much I was enjoying myself.  It’s a great, big pleasure of a movie, and more and more, I realise what a rarity that is.

I’ve been thinking of the nineties quite a lot recently – the decade in which my burgeoning cinephillia blossomed – and a time when we were all told that The Usual Suspects (1995 – Bryan Singer) was an important film.  And a little bit pathetically, I feel nostalgic for it, remembering how surprising it must have been to hear the Coen Bros. for the first time.  But there are real mainstream gems from that era, and Out of Sight is at the forefront of that, so drowning in acting talent is it.  I don’t think I’d ever realised that Albert Brooks is a major part of this film!


Projected from 35mm on the downstairs screen at the Prince Charles.  Ticket cost £4.50.



Logan Lucky (2017 – Steven Soderbergh)


Which I watched with a huge smile on my face.  It was just wonderful to watch all those modern actors who I actually like – Tatum, Keogh, Waterson etc. – in something enjoyable for once.  A real favourite already (which as I type I realise isn’t as a powerful statement to make… in September!)


Seen on a big screen at Bluewater Showcase.  Ticket cost £9.



American Made (2017 – Doug Liman)


It’s just Tom Cruise and I love Tom Cruise and this is Tom Cruise in a comedic twist on a sub-Goodfellas (1990 – Martin Scorsese) fall-from-grace.  I don’t think I’ll ever watch it again – hell, I barely remember any of it now – but I loved every minute of watching it.  Great stuff.


Seen on a pretty big screen at Bluewater Showcase.  Ticket cost £9.



Detroit (2017 – Kathryn Bigelow)


It was a surprisingly tame film… which seemed to only make the case even more convincing for a more ethnically diverse directorial landscape within mainstream cinema.  Because this film seemed to pull its punches, in a way that made me suspect that it was fearful of being perceived a racist itself.  And I get it… no-one wants to have the dodgy racial politics of Quentin Tarantino, but it was a horrific moment in history, and it needed to be horrific, not unpleasant.

And this only adds to the case that John Krasinski is not a movie star.  He totally derails the final half-hour of the movie.  What is it with Bigelow and her desire to cast mediocre television stars in her films.  John chuffing Barrowman is in Zero Dark Thirty (2012) for christssake.

Seen on a huge screen at Bluewater Showcase.  Ticket cost £6.50.

J. J. Abrams as director 1 – Mission: Impossible III (2006)


There are many complaints I have about cinema; its timidity, its intolerance of appetite, its dependence on established ideas.  (These stand opposed to my complaints about cinemas – lack of visible seating plans, tolerance of people putting their feet up on the seats in front, beautiful London theatres partitioned off leading to tiny screens).  I sometimes place too much weight on that last complaint.  Movies have always been remade, they have always been based upon established properties (chiefly, literature).  I remember reading an issue on Empire back in in 2003 (where I was already at an age where I should have known better) and it complained of the dependency on sequels in that summer’s prospects.  If only they could see what it looks like now.

I also have complaints about complaints.  Aside from the insufferable dick-waving one-upmanship of who is the most woke film writer (‘I’m so woke I won’t even contemplate sex or race or gender’ is the new dominant theme), there is the intolerable fallow-minded argument of the current superiority of television.  Television operates as a kind of Stockholm Syndrome media – spend enough time with a TV series and you will love it regardless of its flaws.  Television will always appear to have greater depth than cinema, simply because it has a longer running time.  It operates within tedious parameters that never have to apply to cinema – the sound design on television has to be set at a certain level to hear dialogue, for instance.  The most recent season of Master of None proved how tedious, how pseudo-intellectual (black-and-white episode, working-class people episode – yuck, yuck, yuck) even an intermittently entertaining programme can be.

So we have a cinematic landscape that simultaneously aspires to be televisual whilst maintaining established intellectual properties… it’s not a promising landscape (it’s a bit like Dymchurch in that sense).   But one man has been able to straddle this vast unpromising chasm… J. J. Abrams.  And so I complain about him.  Because it’s kind of unbearable to me that one man could be the ‘New New Spielberg’ and waste that influence on existing properties.  (Of course, M. Night Shyamalan was the ‘New Spielberg’ – though it occurs to me, what was Robert Zemeckis?)  Five movies now, and only one of them has been an idea of his own – though in all fairness, he has produced a greater number of films by other directors that are based on original ideas.  But within his own body of work, he has explicitly re-trod the ground worn by others, bringing little to the table except an excess of lens-flare.

But is this fair?  Or like all prejudices, is it something we need to examine and challenge?  Because as much as I like to dismiss his films, as much as I like to play the contrarian and claim that a George Lucas Force Awakens would be better than an Abrams Force Awakens, I can’t help but begrudgingly like his movies to one degree or another.

So it’s come to this… Abrams as an auteur.  But is he worthwhile?

* * *


In 2017, Tom Cruise is determined to hold onto his stardom.  His career is now dependent on the franchises he has to his name – his woefully mis-cast Jack Reacher (great first film, terrible sequel) series, the Dark Universe (whatever the fuck that is?) series and Mission: Impossible.  It is the position he has been forced into by an unimaginative industry.  The last couple of times he has tried to build something new in the film industry – the science-fiction double of Oblivion (2013 – Joseph Kosinski) and Edge of Tomorrow (posthumously retitled as Live. Die. Repeat.) (2014 – Doug Liman) – are unfairly perceived to be failures.  But back in 2006, it would be unfair to call Mission: Impossible a franchise by our modern standards.

Cruise had long resisted the action picture in the early part of his career, instead choosing to spend his time working with as many established directors as he could.  Even when he finally took the plunge, he insisted on an old-school director – Brian De Palma – helming the nominally action based movie.  Cruise is a traditionalist – one of the uncommented aspects of his career is his insistence on shooting his movies on celluloid, and he annually contributes at least one million dollars to Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation.  The follow up, M:I-2 (2000) is one of the more disappointing entries in John Woo’s foray into Hollywood (better than Windtalkers though).  But neither of these films suggested a franchise, and Cruise’s interest in having a different director shoot each entry with little continuity between each instalment seems to actively work against any idea of a ‘shared universe’ (these habits have only recently been abandoned as Christopher McQuarrie returns to direct M:I 6).

Cruise’s choice to place Abrams as director of Mission: Impossible III belies the televisual beginnings of the concept.  Abrams was an established television showrunner, at the time living off the heat from Alias and Lost, and at times, M:I III feels like an episode of some sixties super-spy series.  The Vatican heist, in particular with its ludicrous costume changes and relatively basic technology could easily have been a sequence in one of the original television shows.  If we’re being clever, we could imagine this as some kind of meta-commentary on the film series, but in reality, Abrams has a curious tendency to throw away key action sequences in his film.  His set-pieces never feel like set-pieces, such is his unwillingness to revel in the spectacle of what’s in front of him.  His reliance on a close-up, shaky-cam style of framing denies the audience any opportunity to gain a coherent understanding of what’s going on in front of him.  It is something, that on the advice of cartoonist Bryan Hitch, he rectifies for the Enterprise shots in Star Trek (2009).

It’s strange, because of all of his years in television, we don’t treat M:I III as a first film. Because it very much feels like one.  As a visual stylist, Abrams is very much unformed at this stage.  His aforementioned tics – his irritating use of lens-flare in particular – don’t feel out of place within mainstream, big budget cinema.  It’s just… it feels a little ‘hack-y’.  Like its some photocopied, bootleg version of a visual style.  There are moments when Abrams presents unseen flashbacks (these are technically flashbacks-within-flashbacks as the majority of the film is leading up to a moment we have already seen), but he does so with little cause or intent.  So we over-emphasise, the choices he does make, such as the pseudo-mythical ‘rabbit’s foot’ MacGuffin that drives the plot of this film.  It is at times like this when I despair of auteur theory, how it forces us to over-praise even the most insignificant thematic or visual iconography that any director employs across a body of work.

At the heart of all the Mission: Impossible films lies Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt.  Like all great cinematic spies, he is a blank slate – a character without character.  The qualities that we give to him – decency, bravery, trustworthiness – are painted with the broadest of brushes.  Hunt, with his constant apparatus of masks and false identities, remains more vague and ill-defined than any Bonds, Bournes or Saints.  It just seems that Abrams took this to heart, and became a blank slate himself.  Mission: Impossible III is about as competent a film as is possible.  It is momentarily exciting, compelling and well-performed.  But there is nothing in it which is even occasionally dangerous or messy.  So Abrams becomes ‘a safe pair-of-hands’.

Films seen June

In the Cut (2003 – Jane Campion)


Campion’s deeply sexy neo-noir is one of those films that was initially glimpsed whilst flicking through the channels on late night television.  It’s a film whose reputation preceded it, so inextricably linked to the collapse of Meg Ryan’s stardom following some rather minor indiscretions and awkward Michael Parkinson interviews.  On that initial viewing, it was quite breath-taking, so rich was the texture of the impasto cinematography.  Over the years, the pleasure has only grown.  There’s a bitter-sweet intensity to finally seeing it on the big-screen (on celluloid no less) knowing that the colours, the shadow and depth of sensation is unlikely to ever be as vivid as it was on this night.  It is unpatronising, considered and features an extraordinary central performance from Ryan.  Until this point she was not a naturalistic performer, but here, not only is she acting with a high degree of realism, she also effectively presents a barrier between herself as a performer and the audience.  We are never entirely sure of her thoughts, never certain of her intentions, and as such, it is utterly beguiling to watch her.


Seen on Screen 1 at the Curzon Soho.  Ticket was a fairly hefty £17.  35mm presentation (absolutely beautiful print!) by the Misc. Films collective followed by a fascinating Q&A by Jane Campion.  Highlights included: her utter generosity when answering heavily loaded questions from the audience, a hilarious mix-up between Tinder and Kinder and a standing a few feet away when she was asked to dinner by a complete stranger in the audience.  Good times!



Wonder Woman (2017 – Patty Jenkins)


So it’s a very important movie for a lot of people, and I enjoyed it an awful lot.  There are moments – such as the exposition heavy recap of the history of the Amazonians – which are presented with a grace that is rare in big-budget cinema.  And the emotional honesty – the non-patronising affection Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor displays for Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman (a superb mix of naivety and elegance) – is quite brilliant.  These DC movies are so good, and so much better than their Marvel equivalents, because they reframe human emotion into fantastical settings.  The Marvel movies are just a bit basic in comparison.  And they’ve ploughed this very modern idea of superheroes having no obligation to save humanity to an admirable extent.  I accept that I will never find this movie as powerful as others do because I have never wanted for cinematic role-models, but we just need to get to the stage where this is everyday, rather than uncustomary.


A huge screen at the Bluewater Showcase.  Ticket only cost £6 or so because I was able to go on a Monday.



The Mummy (2017 – Alex Kurtzman)


I mean, look, it’s a Tom Cruise film.  I’m going to see it on its opening weekend.  And, y’know… um… this was not a good film.  I laughed out loud when I saw their ‘Dark Universe’ logo and it was downhill from there.  (and Jesus… ‘Dark Universe’… because I get it, every fucking film needs to be a franchise nowadays, but if your solution to bring together a number of steadfast properties as Frankenstein and Dracula – all of which have managed to sustain dozens of films over the history of cinema – is to create literally the dullest secret society imagined, you need to take a long step back from making movies.)

The appeal of a latter-day Tom Cruise film is his absolute dedication to performing a stunt or sequence that is innovative and breathtaking.  And there are good moments in this film – there’s an underwater sequence that is particularly engaging – but they aren’t anything special.  For the first time in forever I feel I watched a Tom Cruise film that was just treading water.

  • By my count this is the third out of his previous four films that was filmed in part in England.
  • Jake Johnson as a sarcastic haunting is a brilliant idea… that is just dropped. Why would you choose to negate the most charismatic idea within your movie?
  • Annabelle Wallis brings little to the movie, other than an underwhelming ability to repeatedly utter the dialogue ‘Nick?’ about fourteen-thousand times.
  • Russell Crowe manages to do two bad English accents in this movie – his standard cod-Shakespearean accent as imitated by Chris Hemsworth in his Thor appearances, and his new working-class-cockney voice.


A good-sized screen at the Bexleyheath Cineworld.  Ticket cost £11 or so.



Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul (2017 – David Bowers)


There are tonnes of these fairly worthless kids films in cinemas all over the land, and if you’re a parent, you probably see them all the time.  I’m not.  But I’ve been showing the kids I work with Harold Lloyd movies over the past few weeks and it’s completely blown their minds.  I mean, they scream and laugh as they watch them and then immediately want to see more.  They can name Safety Last (1923) and Feet First (1930).  I don’t really have a point to this, other than to say, can’t we just aspire to something more.  Why do we insist that children’s movies have to be safe and patronising and sentimental?


A medium-sized screen at the Bluewater Showcase.  On the plus side, it was free as I took fifty eleven-year-olds to see it.  On the down side, I spent 30 minutes trying to get to the bottom of who hit who in a fight that broke out before the film.



Streets of Fire (1984 – Walter Hill)


I’m going to write about this film at considerable length in the months to come.  Suffice to say, it is an all-time favourite.


Seen on the upstairs screen at the Prince Charles Cinema.  35mm showing – every reel of the film was in a different condition – some looking pretty good, some were neon pink.  That’s the joy of these celluloid screenings; watching a film on Blu-Ray will ensure the experience is consistent.  On celluloid, it is vibrant and alive and will be truly different each time you see it.  I had a shitty day at work, but the audience were really into the film and I loved every minute.  Ticket cost £11, but came with a beer and a slice of pizza.



Transformers: The Last Knight (2017 – Michael Bay)


Which is a beautiful mess.  Because for a lot of the running time you’re trying to figure out what is going on (and who is voicing the violently obsequious robot British butler), but it doesn’t really matter, because every thirty seconds you’re blown away by a shot of absolute breath-taking beauty.  It’s that construction, that deliberate location of shot following shot to overwhelm and outstand the viewer that is the signature of Bay’s artistry.  Anthony Hopkins has been going around on the press tour calling Bay a true master of the medium, and most interviewers have treated these statements as nigh-senile ramblings, but he’s not wrong.  Bay is propelling cinema forward, forcing the viewer to become more active, more engaged in what they are watching, and despite the speed of his editing, he is still composing highly-classically beautiful shots.  We will talk about Bay in the terms we reserve for Hitchcock in the years to come.

It’s a brilliant film because there is a short sequence where a homicidal Transformer annihilates a horde of Nazis during the Second World War…FOR NO REASON WHATSOEVER.  And, love it or hate it, that is movies at its best.


Seen on a huge screen at the Bluewater Showcase.  Ticket cost £11.40.



Aliens (1986 – James Cameron)

The traditional view of Aliens is that Cameron took Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror and turned it into a sci-fi action picture.  I don’t think I’ve ever questioned this opinion, but seeing it for the umpteenth time, I was struck by how limited a reading this is.  Not only is there far less shoot-em-up action than you remember, the majority of the film is a deliberate reflection of Scott’s entry (some shots are deliberately paralleled).  The creeping tension of an incoming unstoppable killing creature intent on destroying you is as prevalent here as it was in the first film, and the sadistic corruption of pregnancy perpetuated by the xenomorph stand in contrast to Ripley’s essential nurturing nature.

70mm showing of the theatrical cut on the downstairs screen at The Prince Charles Cinema.  The experience carried a certain bittersweetness whenever Bill Paxton appeared – he really was an extraordinary screen presence.


(I was also due to see The Beguiled (1971 – Don Siegel) on 35mm at the Prince Charles, but it was during the heat-wave and melting points caused the trains to go up the spout and I didn’t make it in time.  Disappointing.)

Top Five – Michael Mann films

Walking out of The Counselor (2013 – Ridley Scott), I had to bite my tongue.  I had just seen an oppressive thriller, where every note of dialogue indicated a heavy sense of the inevitability of death.  The film was living, breathing dread, and it had captured my heart in a way few films do.  Those strangers around me, more fascinated with updating their facebook status during the viewing, muttered about whether they could ask for their money back.  Moaning about a film is the least interesting thing you can do (even when the film is genuinely terrible).  Discovering lost masterpieces, passionately advocating for personal favourites, speaking up for the underdog are some of the most delightful aspects of cinephilia.

This is not the most appropriate introduction to a list of favourite Michael Mann films, given the absolute adoration in which he is held by many (mainly male) cinephiles, but when I saw Miami Vice it grabbed my heart and I could not for one second understand why it had been so critically neglected upon release (a critical consensus that I shamefully heeded at the time).  The film has become a call to arms, one of the clearest indicators of the way ahead for cinema in the 21st Century.  I’m not spoiling things by saying it is one of my favourite films of all time.


  1. Collateral (2004)


Mann has long explored the dedication to which some men hand over to their professions.  Here, that dedication overwhelms even the most benign of daydreams.  Jamie Foxx is a fantasist; in Mann’s world if he was meant to own a limousine, he would do so already.  His words are not reflected in actions (a key defining characteristic of Mann’s protagonists, often identified by their refusal to use contractions in speech).  That honour is given to Tom Cruise’s contract killer – defined as atagonistic to Foxx.  In Collateral, Mann takes the dual leads of Heat and places them in opposition.  Instead of equals, the killer holds the position of power, not only through the threat of violence, but through his wealth and the oppressiveness that this brings him as he occupies the role of consumer.  He manipulates the idle dreams of the working man, using his financial dominance to move Foxx into compromising his integrity.  He dies, defeated not through any implicit physical superiority, but by running out of bullets.  His wealth is spent.  The digital filmmaking is sometimes overstated on this film, but does allow for some extraordinary moments when nature disrupts the frame.  Some things cannot be bought.


  1. Heat (1995)

There’s a whole film within this film about the desperate, miserable relationship between Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) and his wife Justine (Hanna).  It contains some of my favourite writing by Mann, as he explores the collateral damage wrought by the dedication Pacino has to his career.  “You live among the remains of dead people,” she tells him trying to communicate with him how he looks at her like she’s a ghost, and later, “This isn’t life.  This is leftovers.”  It is a brutal exploration of how living with murder robs a person of their essence, their ability to connect with others.  In the end, all they see are cadavers.  The fact that this is not the heart of the film, and just one of many small elements, shows how complex the construct of this film is (perhaps due to the fact that this is one of those few occasions where a filmmaker was giving the material a second shot, here a few years after the TV movie L.A. Takedown).  It goes without saying that the downtown shooting is as extraordinary as action cinema ever got.



  1. Thief (1981)


Mann’s superb examination of how the individual can struggle to survive in the face of a corporation has an obliqueness of image and sound that belies the genre trappings in which it operates.  There is an emotional honesty, a directness, to the work that is quite charming.  Ultimately, the individual can survive, but only through a level of self-delusion.  They have been bought, their values destroyed by simply operating within a capitalist marketplace.  We all know this – I write this typing on a computer, wearing clothes that are accessible only through slave labour.  Mann tried to show the universality of James Caan’s predicament by applying a fantastical Tangerine Dream soundtrack; the fact that the film, packaged and commercialised as the movie industry does so often, was simplified into a neon-lit, rain-drenched neo-noir speaks to how pervading corporations are.  They even bought this film’s truth.



  1. Manhunter (1986)


‘It’s you and me now sport.’ mutters Will Graham (William Petersen) as he looks through a reflection that he no longer recognises.  In Mann’s greatest exploration of the fragility of mental health, Graham’s complete empathy for the sick and murderous becomes a virus, one that consumes his very notion of who he is and what and why he loves.  Mann never shies from displaying horror; he does not protect us and deny us the full extent of man’s capacity for destruction.  Death is everywhere.  He knows how the deliberate constructs we create to help us find peace, those of family and responsibility, can be disrupted by the sadistic impulses of the deranged.  It is a violence we cannot escape, and one we relentlessly vicariously explore through the movies.  Manhunter is the greatest exploration of this impulse committed to celluloid.


  1. Miami Vice (2006)

And here, Mann’s opposes that view, by exploring how family and responsibility can be disrupted by complete, uncontrollable love.  It is a film of moments; of glances and touch and micro-gestures that betray the true emotions we seek to bury.  Filmed with an immediacy, a kaleidoscopic montage of alien colour and stolen looks, Mann shows how little we are able to control the world around us.  For a man who is so dedicated, so knowledgeable, so prepared for the films he makes, he has tirelessly delved into the brutality of existence, and the fact that we cannot keep these little castles we build in life forever.  The film shone the way forward; it showed us that we were capable of extracting narrative from flashes of images and meaning from half-formed words.  He created a panoramic world, one where culture and geographical location was simultaneously the most and least important thing.  And no one listened.  The lessons were never learned.  We couldn’t let go.

It’s important to note that at one point every Michael Mann fan has watched The Keep (1983) hoping to find a neglected masterpiece.  It’s not.