Retro Review: “Mission: Impossible” (1996)

Mission Poster

Paramount Pictures had repeatedly tried and failed to adapt the “Mission Impossible” television series to the big screen. Tom Cruise loved the show as a kid and began working on his vision for it. He believed so strongly in the project that he made it the first film developed under the banner of his fledgling production company. The two came together and in 1996 this unique interpretation hit theaters.

The first signal that “Mission Impossible” aimed to be different came with the signing of director Brian De Palma. Though not unfamiliar with studio blockbusters, De Palma came to the film with his own peculiar sensibilities. You see it on the technical side with his extreme closeups and fascinating camera perspectives. But also through his deconstruction of the popular long-running TV series and its characters. That’s what prompted the biggest response from fans of the show.


Obviously “M:I” launched Cruise’s upstanding Ethan Hunt character, less sexualized than James Bond but with the same unflinching moral code. The film begins with Ethan as the frontman for a covert IMF (Impossible Missions Force) mission in Prague. A very good Jon Voight takes over for Peter Graves as John Phelps, the team leader who sends his team to nab a top secret list of undercover IMF agents from the U.S. Embassy before it falls into the wrong hands.

Things go terribly wrong, a mole is unearthed and Ethan finds himself in the crosshairs of IMF director Kittridge (Henry Czerny) who brands him Public Enemy No. 1. He seeks out the help of fellow disavowed agents Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Franz Krieger (Jean Reno) to root out the mole and clear his name. The wonderful Vanessa Redgrave plays a crafty arms dealer, Emmanuelle Béart plays a mysterious IMF agent, and even Emilio Estevez pops up as a not-so-superhacker.

It was interesting to rewatch “M:I” in light of how we routinely see these types of movies today. It’s a blockbuster uninterested in franchise blueprints, shared universes, or other big budget considerations. Those things weren’t as prevelant at the time which allowed for De Palma to play with his Hitchcockian and genre thriller influences.


I still remember the initial reactions from people I knew who didn’t quite know what to make of it. The big finale aside, “Mission Impossible” subverted the blockbuster at nearly every turn. Now keep in mind it was 1996. It shared a big chunk of the summer box office with “Independence Day”, a movie all about fast-paced action and large-scale destruction. “M:I” had a much different idea. Build quiet and focused sequences where a simple bead of sweat can create white-knuckled tension. Of course the famous train sequence showed De Palma could also go big and the scene was a unknowing prophecy of what the franchise would become famous for.

Over time I’ve grown to appreciate this movie more and more. Of course the irony of it all is that this weekend the sixth installment in the “Mission: Impossible” series hits theaters. A subversive first film that went out of its way to break the blockbuster mold birthed a multi-billion dollar franchise. But just like the original, the series has consistently differentiated itself from most other big properties and it has only gotten better. Much of that is due to a perceptive Tom Cruise and he certainly got things started on the right foot.



REVIEW: “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”


Lee Daniels’ 2013 drama “The Butler” is very loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, an African-American man who served as a White House butler for 34 years before retiring in 1986. During those years Allen served under 7 different presidents and became a beloved member of the White House staff. “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is built on these handful of facts but goes on to invent its own story which is sometimes too overt and preachy but at other times intensely powerful.

In the film Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) is the main character. His life is quite different from the real life of Eugene Allen. Cecil grows up on a cotton plantation and endures plenty of horrors. But a series of fortunate events sees him eventually being hired as a butler to the White House during the Eisenhower administration. During his years at the White House huge nation-changing events occur which not only effect the presidents he serves but his family at home.


Speaking of his family, Lee Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong go heavy on the dramatic family dynamics. His wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) is a boozing shrill whose attitude can change in a second. His oldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) is a disgruntled young man who would rather be proactive in the fight for equality. His youngest son Charlie (Elijah Kelley) is the fun-loving baby of the family who enlists to go to Vietnam. They are all built for high drama and we get plenty of it. Some of it really works on an emotional level. Other times it feels contrived and utterly predictable.

The film seeks to create a historical profile chronicling race relations in the United States. Much of this is done surrounding the Louis character. He ends up going to a college down south where he partakes in various action groups. This leads to protests, arrests, and even encounters with the Klu Klux Klan. There are moments where the tension is incredibly well developed and the discomfort of what you’re watching is powerful. But there are also a few things that I couldn’t quite shake. For example Louis happens to be present at so many of the events that made headlines from the Alabama bus firebombing to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. His presence certainly helps out the story but feels more or less like plot devices.


But it’s Cecil who is the real attraction and Whitaker is amazing. He is the real heart of this picture and watching him age as the film moves forward makes you feel as if you’ve been on a journey with him. It is hard to gauge at times what Daniels thinks of the character but I thought he was compelling. I also loved the work of David Oyelowo. The 37-year old actor actually first appears as a teenager and is very convincing. But he’s even better as his character springboards into some of the film’s more powerful scenes. The supporting cast is strong and features Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, and Vanessa Redgrave just to name a few. Then there is the unusual assortment of actors who play the presidents. The strongest performances come James Marsden who plays Kennedy and Alan Rickman who plays Reagan. Perhaps the weakest is Robin Williams who is oddly cast as Eisenhower.

Even with the film’s ambition and deeply moving moments, “The Butler” still comes across as a big Hollywood piece. That’s not always bad. There are several big moments that work very, very well. But the further I got into the movie the more it felt scripted. Unlike the more raw and organic “12 Years a Slave”, this film seems to be more dependent on plot gimmicks and melodrama. It also can’t help but get a tad political specifically in the final third of the film. Still, I can’t downplay the great work by the cast led by Forest Whitaker. He’s simply brilliant. I also really enjoyed the smarter and more focused scenes which can be both inspirational and challenging. I just wish we had been given a few more of them.



The wonderful actor Ralph Fiennes makes his directorial debut with “Coriolanus”, a modern-day version of Shakespeare’s 400 year old  play. It’s such an interesting and faithful take on the Shakespeare tragedy. While the film takes place in an entirely different time period than the one the play was written in, it’s still a wonderful examination of war and politics as well as an enthralling look at a truly mesmerizing character. It’s an incredibly unique movie and a challenging undertaking by Fiennes especially since he not only directed the picture but also starred in it.

Fiennes plays Caius Martius, an accomplished Roman general who finds himself at odds with the people of Rome after overseeing the government’s effort to hoard up all of the grain during a food shortage. Martius has no love for the people. He finds them contemptible  and he doesn’t trust them nor does he respect them. After Martius squelches a riot led by an anti-government protest group, two politicians Sicinius (James Nesbitt) and Brutus (Paul Jesson) seize the opportunity to gather support from the people by speaking out against him. It’s here that Fiennes the director gives us our first look at the political maneuvering and manipulation that plays such a big part of the story.

But after Rome’s bitter enemy the Volscians begin moving closer to the city, Martius and the army head out to meet them. The Volscians are led by Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler). Aufidius and Martius have met in battle several times and have developed a deep-rooted hatred for each other. The two bring their armies and engage in a bloody urban gun battle that results in the Volscians falling back. Martius is welcomed back to Rome as a wounded war hero. He’s awarded the name Coriolanus in honor of his service and is encouraged to run for Consul by his mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) and Menenius (Brian Cox), a Roman Senator sympathetic to Coriolanus and his family. But in the midst of his popularity, his pride and stubbornness combined with the ambitions of the self-seeking politicians put him at odds once more with the people of Rome. This time Sicinius and Brutus get what they want and Coriolanus is banished from Rome. Burning with anger and blood-thirsty for vengeance, Coriolanus forms the most unlikely of alliances to pay Rome back for what they’ve done to him.

Fiennes delivers a bold and vigorous performance. He shapes and develops Coriolanus through every scene and we quickly understand that he’s a very complex individual. He’s hampered by his unbriddled arrogance and refusal to compromise the smallest thing that he feels may question his authenticity. He’s also a soldier who loves Rome and a man who loves his family. But even when in the comfort of those people and things he loves, he finds it hard to function as he should. Fiennes perfectly sells all of this to us and I was completely enthralled in the character.

Fiennes is also helped by a phenomenal supporting cast. Gerard Butler gets back on track after a few subpar performances in some really subpar movies. Here he’s really good and I was immedietaly reminded that he can be a solid actor. Vanessa Redgrave was simply fabulous as Coriolanus’ mother. She shares several brilliant scenes with Fiennes that you just can’t take your eyes off of. I also loved Jessica Chastain who gives another understated and measured performance as Coriolanus’ wife. I couldn’t help but find similarities between this and her role in “Take Shelter” even though they are two very different films. Even Brian Cox, an actor that I haven’t always appreciated, is really good here.

One of the first things that you’ll notice when watching “Coriolanus” is that it uses the classic Shakespeare lines and language. At first I wasn’t 100% sure if I liked it or not. It was a little jarring at first seeing it used in such a modern setting. But before long I was perfectly sold on it and I was amazed at how fluid and seamless Fiennes made it feel. Now I admit, there were a few moments where I simply didn’t follow what was being said and a few that just didn’t fit with the current day setting. But these moments were rare and overall it was pretty remarkable what the movie was able to accomplish.

I also have to mention that “Coriolanus” is a really good looking picture. Fiennes doesn’t try to do too much with the camera but he clearly has a good eye for framing shots. The film also has a unique look to it and a lot of that has to do with the decision to shoot in Serbia. The locations have a gloomy almost war-torn look to them and not I’m not just talking about the action sequences. Speaking of that, the movie does feature some pretty gritty action that are made even more believable in large part due to the setting that resembles what Serbia may have been like just a few years earlier. Fiennes doesn’t exclude the blood but he doesn’t load these scenes down with them either. Instead he focuses on Coriolanus and his combat intensity as he leads his men through the streets. It works really well. He also tells a lot of the story through some clever usage of the Roman media, particularly a news channel called Fidelis TV. There’s some interesting commentary on the power and influence of the media and we see it through a host of really effective news clips and talk shows.

I was excited about “Coriolanus” but I was caught a little off guard. The Shakespearian dialogue took some adjusting to at first but as I mentioned, soon I was completely wrapped up in it. This was an extremely ambitious project for Ralph Fiennes especially for his first attempt at directing. But this is an impressive and auspicious debut from this already seasoned actor. On that note, his performance is simply fantastic and he brilliantly portrays one of the most intriguing characters I’ve seen on screen in a while. But he’s not alone. The film is also helped by a tremendous supporting cast. I really enjoyed “Coriolanus”. It’s not just a unique and daring movie. It’s also one of the best movies of the year so far.