Wednesday, April 19, 2006

A Goldie Looking Geek Medal For J. J Abrams While DePalma Takes My Top Honours

Harry Knowles has published his review of Mission: Impossible 3, and, frankly, he's gone so far over the top it was a little disturbing to read.

Many of the opinions he shares seem to come from an interview he has carried out with J. J. Abrams, the film's writer and director. He talks about falling asleep an hour into the first M:I film and damns John Woo's sequel as vapid, and then later lets slip that, when they spoke, J.J would "openly talk about liking the first hour of Mission: Impossible, how he didn't care at all about the second one."

Harry also raves about True Lies, which is reasonable enough because it really is pretty good, but then gets carried away finding apparent comparisons to a whole slate of James Cameron's films in M:I 3. He doesn't tell us what they are, just that they are there, and until I see them for myself, I'm finding that assertion pretty hard to swallow.

The one passage that left me shaking my head most of all, however, was the following appraisal of Simon Pegg's appearance as tech-head, Benji Dunn.

"His monologue about the Anti-God is classic stuff. The sort of material that we geeks retain in our bizarre freakish psyches for late night geek babblings regarding the fundamental secret essence of the universe. You know you have those conversations and Simon is just the sort of man-god that can give you fodder for those occasions. This time, it's all about the Anti-God. Genius."

Bizarre freakish psyches? Fundamental secret essence of the universe? The Anti-God? What does he think he's talking about? This kind of pretentious juvenilia, whiffing of wotsits and pot and glorifying a sad, sorry pseudo-intelligence is just what helped the Matrix trilogy rake in all of those billions of dollars. I'm reminded again why Aint It Cool sometimes upsets me so much.

There's something important to be said about Brian DePalma's Mission: Impossible movie. Very important, really. And that is, truth be told, its right up there amongst the very best films ever made. Even though great swathes of it are inferior, even though much of the script is flabby and tangled, what is good is so very, very good that it becomes truly essential.

The ballet sequence in The Red Shoes. The dinner in Alien. Crossing the street in Toy Story 2. The return to scenes from Back to the Future in Back to the Future 2. I could go on naming plenty of film sequences that are virtually perfect, and utterly thrilling in their complexity and cinematic execution. Hitchcock alone had at least half a dozen on his resume. Everyone of these scenes, however, would come second to Brian DePalma's show stopping moment of genius in Mission: Impossible.

There's an extended sequence in which Ethan Hunt and cohorts attempt to steal data from the CIA headquarters at Langley. From the moment the M:I theme is drummed up until the heist is complete, DePalma has the audience in the palm of his hand.

Excuse me while I get giddy thinking about it, but the staging is incredible. The editing is almost unparalelled. The performances are note perfect. Suspense, excitement and subtext are perfectly created and manipulated. My love for this scene is my love for films and filmmaking.

I admit, I find it almost impossible (ahem) to do the sequence justice without having a clip to refer to, pause, rewind and refer to again. The details which make it work so well are visual and aural, and, of course, need to be seen and heard to be really understood. Try to find a copy now - hopefully you have a copy on your shelf, if not, there's a new edition available right now - and see for yourself. Don't be afraid of really giving the scene a very good chew. Even in isolation, the sequence achieves an awesomely complex semiology that could keep a very solid Thesis afloat.

I'd argue - and, as I said, argue best of all with the clip here to refer you to - that the Langley sequence in Mission: Impossible is, quite comfortably, the greatest single scene in cinema.

Of course, it has a flaw. A niggling flaw that bugs me - to say the very least. I've been known to have nightmares about this glitch the night before a particularly important day of shooting.

I'll try to explain where it is, if you can recall the moment. Cruise is in the vault, hanging on wires. He must not let anything fall - not even a drip of sweat. But he is sweating, and heavily.

After a dolly shot in towards Cruise's face as he hangs, trying to be still and silent, there's a subsequentent cut-in to a bead of perspiration running down his specs. Its not an entirely disjointed return to the subject, and for many viewers there won't be an issue at all, however, had the dollying take been run for longer, getting the camera in closer, and the tail end used as the cut-in shot, then everything would be seamlessly smooth. Seamlessly. The compositions do match fairly well, but the persistence of motion in the previous cuts has come to a sudden, and unexpected halt here and it does jar a little.

Take a close look, you'll see what I mean.

Of course, there's no simple way such a macro-level close up could be achieved easily and happily as the end of a big move. Remember the sweep Hitchcock engineers in Notorious, to the key in Ingrid Bergman's hand and you'll recall how it ends up further back, not as intimately acquainted with the key as DePalma's camera needs to be to the sweat droplet.

Sweeping a shot right in to something so small is very, very difficult. Cameras and lenses don't like to behave that way. DePalma and his crew were limited, by tech, budget and schedule, and I know this all too well, so I admit that I'm nit-picking at an absurdly focused scale - but that's how good the scene is. It's smooth to that degree and deserves that kind of up-close scrutiny.

You might not share my nuts-and-bolts view of filmmaking, where I look at the process as purely a series of technical challenges, choices and limitations, in camera, editing, design, performance, scripting, sound - in every discipline. You might not consider such a mainstream film so worthy of consideration. You might not be happy, for whatever reason of your own, with any number of the elements that make up the scene I was describing. You might simply think I'm blowing out a lot of hot air. Please do go and take another look at the scene, however. And please take it seriously.

J. J Abrams' M:I 3 will be setting geek hearts aflutter, most likely including my own, from May 5th. DePalma's incredible original is in video stores everywhere now.

1 comment:

Mark said...

I liked De Palma's one, too. It had some very pretty cityscapes of London and Prague in it. A chuffin' great photographer, that guy.