Rebecca Ferguson

Mission Impossible: Fallout

 

27/07/18

Most film franchises follow a familiar trajectory. They start well and, through the rules of diminishing returns, steadily become ever more feeble until somebody finally has the good grace to pull the plug on them. The Mission Impossible series, however, seems to have gone in the opposite direction. After a couple of so-so efforts, episodes three, four and five really managed to cut some mustard – and this sixth instalment of the TV-inspired show is surely its strongest manifestation yet. Indeed, this audacious thrill-ride, courtesy of returning writer/director Christopher McQuarrie is so enthralling I occasionally find myself holding my breath as Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) jumps off buildings, races on motorbikes, dangles from helicopters and runs for miles, all in the name of truth and justice. Yes, it’s complete tosh, but when it’s done this well, who cares?

When we first meet up with Hunt, he’s worrying about Julia (Michelle Monaghan), the wife he’s been forced to live apart from in order to keep her out of danger. But of course, for an IMF operative, danger is never very far away. Old adversary Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) is being used as a pawn by various secret powers, who aim to utilise his special skills to convert some stolen weapons grade plutonium into deadly nuclear devices. Hunt and his sidekicks, Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames), are assigned to take care of securing Lane and the plutonium and, for this mission, they are assigned an extra player – August Walker (Henry Cavill), a hard man with a high opinion of himself. But, when things go awry, the team are faced with a even trickier challenge. They must track down two nuclear weapons before they are detonated – an occurrence which will destroy huge areas of the planet. (So no pressure there.) Luckily, Hunt’s old flame Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) is on hand to lend her own special talents…

There’s quite a tricky story line here, with plenty of unexpected twists and reveals – and naturally, some of those hi tech masks that the makers are so fond of, but really, it’s all just a linking device for a whole string of spectacular set pieces, which are so triumphantly realised, you’ll barely have time to stop and speculate how far-fetched they are. Cruise, looking far better than anyone his age has any right to be, revels in some of the most hair-raising stunts this side of a Jackie Chan movie – indeed, the scene where he actually breaks his leg is included in all its wince-inducing glory. Cavill, who I’ve never really rated as Superman, is a lot more interesting when given a bit more character to play with and there’s excellent support from the rest of the cast.

Okay, you can argue that this film isn’t really about very much, but you’d be missing the point. It’s all about action and only a very few movies have managed to do it as effortlessly as its done here. My advice? Strap yourself in and enjoy the ride. And Mission Impossible Seven? Well, I certainly wouldn’t rule it out.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

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The Greatest Showman

03/01/17

Okay, so we need to get one thing clear: The Greatest Showman is in no way a biopic. It may purport to tell the tale of PT Barnum, but it’s so far removed from the insalubrious truth that it’s more accurately filed under fiction. It borrows Barnum’s name, that’s all, and a few details from his life. Otherwise, it’s pure fantasy: a complete reimagining of the infamous freak show.

That’s not to say it doesn’t work; it’s a highly entertaining and lively piece of cinema, beautifully produced and performed with precision and wit. It’s bright and exhilarating, with catchy tunes. No doubt about it: this is fun.

In this version of events, PT Barnum (Hugh Jackman) is a striver: a poor tailor’s son with huge ambitions, who falls in love with Charity (Michelle Williams), a rich, upper-class girl, and is determined to provide her with the lifestyle he believes she deserves. He’s a risk taker and a charlatan, but he’s charming with a big heart, and disarms everyone he meets. When they fall on hard times, he decides to open a circus, showcasing such ‘freaks’ as a bearded lady, conjoined twins, a dwarf and a fat man. In his fictional incarnation, he’s not exploiting them, exactly, although he is making money from their efforts; he’s celebrating them, offering redemption to those society has rejected, helping them to forge a kind of family. And all progresses swimmingly, until he can’t resist the charms of opera singer, Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), who seems like a passport into the higher echelons of society. He risks everything to promote her, and it all comes crashing down.

It’s utterly enchanting, even if it isn’t true, and there are some excellent set pieces, such as the freaks’ defiant song of self-determination, This Is Me, led by bearded lady Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle), whose voice is just spectacular. Jackman is very good too, and Michelle Williams proves again that she’s a real chameleon, able to convince – it seems – in almost any role.

I was disappointed, though, to learn that Rebecca Ferguson doesn’t sing her own songs  (she is dubbed by Loren Allred); Ferguson is a fine actress with a face just made for the big screen, but was there really no one available who could deliver the whole deal? It seems a shame to give the part to someone who can’t play it, just because she is a ‘name’. There are enough stars in this film to carry it, surely?

Still, quibbles aside, this is eminently watchable, itself fulfilling (ironically perhaps) what it claims were Barnum’s aims: it’s rare indeed to see such a diverse range of performers given such prominent roles in a movie. It has the feelgood factor in bucketloads, and is eminently suitable for a family audience.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

The Snowman

 

25/10/17

Apart from the occasional exception, the name ‘Michael Fassbender’ attached to a film used to stand for a guarantee of some kind of quality (although, since Assassin’s Creed, he doesn’t seem to have put a foot right). Director Tomas Alfredsen did a fabulous job with Let the Right One In, and his Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy adaptation received a lot of acclaim (even if it did leave me feeling indifferent). Still, put the two men together on an adaptation of one of Jo Nesbo’s hugely successful scandi-noir thrillers and for good measure, bring in Soren Sveistrup (of The Killing) to co-write the screenplay, and you’ve got at least a chance of a winner, right?

Well, no, I’m afraid not. It’s hard to understand quite how The Snowman can have gone so spectacularly wrong, but wrong it undoubtedly goes, a two hour opus that actually feels more like four, so turgid is the storytelling. It doesn’t help that wonderful character actors like Toby Jones and Adrian Dunbar are reduced to standing around spouting bits of clunky exposition whilst looking vaguely embarrassed, or that the plot is so ridiculously convoluted it beggars belief. Most damning of all in a procedural is that the eventual unveiling of a killer seems designed to surprise absolutely no-one, since it’s evident from about half an hour in who that killer is going to be – simply because we are presented with no other possible suspects.

Harry Hole (Fassbender) is a washed-up detective, reduced to drinking himself insensible in children’s playgrounds, after a messy break-up from his partner, Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg), whom he still carries a torch for, and his teenage stepson, Oleg (Michael Yates). When new recruit Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson) joins Harry’s team, the two of them work together to investigate a series of seemingly random killings, which are always marked by the presence of a snowman at the murder scene. This being Norway in the depths of winter, there are presumably an awful lot of snowmen about – and, when a character surmises that it’s probably falling snow that sets the killer off, it’s hard not to smile. The film occasionally flashes back to the events of nine years earlier in which another alcoholic detective, Rafto (Val Kilmer), stumbles around investigating a similar case – but the film is so clumsily edited, we’re not always sure what is past and what is present. Kilmer, by the way, is positively unreal. I get the impression that his efforts have been edited down to the bare minimum.

What else can I tell you? What might have generated suspense on the printed page doesn’t really work on film. The smiling snowmen featured throughout the story are no doubt intended to come across as sinister, but here they just cause unintended sniggers – and how is that Harry, a hopeless chain-smoking alcoholic, still manages to sport a six-pack that would make Charles Atlas suitably envious?

I hate to be so negative, so let me just say that those snowbound Norwegian landscapes do look ravishing – but frankly, that’s really not enough to recommend this farrago of a film. I doubt that it will please fans of the book and I’m sure it will leave most cinema-goers as baffled as I am.

1.5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Life

29/03/17

A spaceship visits a distant planet and discovers an alien life form. At first the crew are delighted, and they bring it aboard to study it in more detail. But as the creature begins to grow in size and cunning, they realise that they have invited something deadly into their midst. Pretty soon, they are involved in a desperate struggle for survival as the alien begins to pick them off, one-by-one…

Okay, who thought I was talking about Alien? There are startling similarities here and with Alien Covenant soon to hit big screens across the country, I can’t help feeling that Daniel Espinosa’s film, Life, has chosen a really unfortunate release date. Handsomely mounted though it is and blessed with considerable star power, it nonetheless can’t help but invite comparisons with its more famous cousin.

Here, the space ship in question is the International Space Station and the extraterrestrial life form (dubbed ‘Calvin’ by some well-meaning kids back on earth), has come via a soil sample from Mars. At first, it’s an innocuous scrap of fluff that responds weakly to heat and light. Science officer Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) quickly falls in love with the thing and starts conducting a few casual experiments on it. Before you can mutter ‘bad idea,’ it’s free from its incubation pod and is growing bigger and more vicious by the second. Captain Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) is faced with the daunting task of trying to contain it aboard, rather than let it escape to earth where it will wreak untold havoc. She’s aided and abetted by Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sonada and Olga Diovichnaya as the other members of the crew. Clearly no expense has been spared here. The space vistas are  superbly rendered and the constant gravity-free environment is convincingly conveyed – apparently they used wire work rather than the infamous ‘vomit comet.’

I’ll be honest and say that there’s quite a lot to admire here (not least an unexpected switcheroo, that actually has me shouting out loud at the screen), – and Calvin is undoubtedly his own beast, with a particularly revolting method of seeing off his prey – but try as I might, I can’t rid myself of the notion that a salivating xenomorph might lurch out of the shadows at any moment. If the Alien franchise didn’t exist, I’d doubtless be upping the stars on this a couple of notches, but as it stands, this feels like an unfortunate rerun of a good idea. And no matter how polished it is, that’s never quite enough.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

The Girl on the Train

10/10/16

The Girl on the Train‘s transition from page to screen was inevitable: Paula Hawkins’ novel has been a huge hit, its popularity earning its author over ten million dollars, and pretty much guaranteeing that this film adaptation will attract a large audience.

It’s a thriller, of sorts, unpicking the tangled lives of three women. Rachel (Emily Blunt) is a tragic figure, an alcoholic, obsessed with her ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), and the baby she never had. Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) is Tom’s new wife, and Megan (Haley Bennett), is a neighbour who works as Tom and Anna’s nanny  (yes, they do have a baby) and seems to have the perfect life – at least, as far as Rachel can tell from what she glimpses from the train. Let’s be honest, the story stretches credulity at times, and it’s kind of irritating that the women are all defined by their motherhood – or lack thereof. It verges on the histrionic in places, and there are moments where it lacks pace or drive. But, where it works, it does work well.

There’s a change of location: we’re in New York instead of London, but this isn’t detrimental to the film. In fact, the cinematography is lovely; the contrasts between the urban mayhem and the glassy smoothness of the lake help add a layer of eeriness and tension to the piece. And the shift is only geographical: the social and sexual mores of affluent white suburbanites seem similar in both locales.

Emily Blunt in particular deserves some accolades: she absolutely convinces as the drunken, broken Rachel, desperately searching for a way back to herself. And there’s a stellar supporting cast, including the ever fabulous Allison Janney and the ‘why-doesn’t-she-do-more?’ Lisa Kudrow.

Overall, then, it’s kind of… okay. There’s a soggy middle section where your mind might wander, but you’ll be pulled back in for the rather racier (if somewhat predictable) ending.

If you liked the book, you’ll probably like this.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

Florence Foster Jenkins

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16/05/16

The last time we saw the chameleon that is Meryl Streep in a musical role it was in Rikki and the Flash, where she managed to utterly convince as an ageing rocker with a troublesome daughter. The titular Florence Foster Jenkins is something else entirely. Streep plays a genuine historical character who lived only for music and who enacted a whole series of infamous concerts during the 1940s.

She was remarkable for a variety of reasons. As a teenager, she’d been a musical prodigy but an unwelcome dose of syphilis, passed on to her by her first husband when she was eighteen, had left her incapable of playing the piano. Her only other option was to sing and luckily for her, she had inherited her father’s fortune and was able to fund a series of private concerts. The reviews were generally favourable, largely because of the sterling efforts of her second husband, former actor St Clare Bayfield (played here with great charm by Hugh Grant) who smoothed his wife’s path by bribing reviewers and ensuring that she never ever witnessed people laughing at her – something they were likely to do, because of course, she couldn’t carry a tune to save her life.

The film opens with her auditioning for an accompanist and she soon settles on Cosme McMoon (a beautifully understated turn by Simon Helberg) who finds himself conflicted by his desire to play good music and his understandable horror at the noises he hears coming from the mouth of Ms Jenkins. The situation is manageable when the concerts are kept small and intimate but when on a whim, Jenkins books herself a performance at Carnegie Hall in front of an audience of 3000, it’s clear that Bayfield and McMoon are going to have a more difficult job on their hands. And to compound matters, she’s only gone and made a blooming record!

This is a slight but perfectly judged film, skilfully directed by Stephen Frears and built around a wonderful comic performance from Streep. If you think there’s not much humour to be milked from such a tragic premise, don’t be fooled – you’ll laugh your way through much of this and towards the end, you’ll almost certainly be close to tears. The script, by Nicholas Martin, is adept at confounding your expectations. Bayfield, who at first appears to be an unspeakable cad (he led a double life, living with a young woman, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson)) clearly did love his wife and lavished great care and attention on her at every turn, unlike musical virtuosos such as Arturo Toscanini and Carlo Edwards, who happily took a series of cheques from her but never once turned up to show their support.

In an age where the likes of The X Factor and BGT have elevated the championing of musical mediocrity to an art form, Jenkins’ story seems a particularly prescient one – and for Streep’s performance alone, this is worth seeking out.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

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02/09/15

We were far too late getting on to this – largely because an entire month of reviewing at the Edinburgh Fringe left us with too little time to actually make it to the cinema: a sorry state of affairs. Rogue Nation is the latest improbably titled instalment in Tom Cruise’s evergreen TV spy spinoff and as the series goes, it’s one of the better efforts – an adrenalin fuelled romp with an outrageously daft plot and a whole heap of inexplicable gadgetry to help the IMF team achieve their goals.

The film starts as it means to go on with the throttle wide open. Ethan Hunt attempts to board a plane… after it’s taken off. (Don’t try this at home. That’s my old stamping ground of RAF Wittering hundreds of feet below, by the way and yes, that is Cruise clinging on to the side of the plane. Nobody can say he doesn’t earn his millions.)

Hunt is on the trail of a mysterious organisation called The Syndicate, who have dedicated themselves to the eradication of the IMF and who are headed up by evil villain, Solomon Lane (a deeply creepy Sean Harris.) As Hunt hurtles around the world, evading assassins and leaping athletically from very high buildings, back at base, Brandt (Jeremy Renner) is engaged in a more pedestrian battle as grumpy CIA man, Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) attempts to get the Impossible Missions team shut down. It seems he finds them a bout too reckless for his liking. Soon Hunt is pretty much out there on his own, aided only by his hapless bessie mate, Benjie (Simon Pegg, who must be relieved to add a much-needed hit to his CV) and by the mysterious Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who keeps popping up just in time to save Hunt’s life.

It’s fairly pointless to go into the plot. Most of it is unfathomable and all of it is unlikely, but it’s presented with enough tongue-in-cheek brio to suspend your disbelief. There’s an ingenious set piece at the Vienna opera house, while an underwater sequence where Hunt has to hold his breath for three minutes wracks up the tension to an almost unbearable degree. On the downside, there’s a  motorbike/car chase that seems a tad perfunctory this time around, but that’s a minor quibble. Overall, this is a superior slice of entertainment, which should keep you riveted till the final credits. And of course it still features Lalo Schifrin’s sinewy, unforgettable theme tune, which is a thriller all by itself.

What else can I say? Mission accomplished.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney