Saturday 22 July 2023

Oppenheimer (Movie Review)

Not many directors in Hollywood today can command the level of respect that Christopher Nolan gets. You only need to hear his name attached to a project for it to shoot up most people's most anticipated movies lists. This is a result of having consistently delivered great cinematic experiences like Dunkirk and Inception to name a few. So of course I was already onboard with Oppenheimer long before I even knew what the film was about. But does the film itself live up to the director's reputation or does it fall short of his incredibly high standards?

Set over a period spanning the Second World War and the early years of the Cold War, the film tells the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a theoretical physicist who was chosen to head the Manhattan Project. His work would lead to the development of the atomic bomb, a devastating nuclear weapon that would prove instrumental in bringing about the end of World War II. But as we learn over the course of the film, one does not flirt with such destructive power without psychological ramifications, and so the movie explores the moral quandaries of its titular character as he grapples with the dangers of the forces he has helped set into motion.

It is hard to dive into any kind of critique of Oppenheimer without first spotlighting the actor that helped bring the whole thing to life. Cillian Murphy delivers what is arguably his best performance to date in the titular role of J. Robert Oppenheimer with an acting turn that can be considered both restrained and poignant. His every move and mannerism embodies the troubled mind of the genius scientist at the center of the film, showing that the actor has an acting range that rivals that shown by the very best thespians. I know it is still too early to call an Oscar nomination for the actor a lock but I'll be very surprised if his name doesn't get called out among the nominees at next year's ceremony.

He was of course supported by a stacked cast of actors who likewise gave standout performances. Both Emily Blunt and Florence Pugh went the extra mile as the title character's two love interests while Robert Downey Jnr. in particular was almost unrecognizable as Lewis Strauss. There were a few actors like Rami Malek and Gary Oldman that I would have loved to see more of, but that would probably have meant the final cut of the film might have ended up even longer than the 3-hour theatrical cut we have presently.

Going behind the camera now, props have to immediately go to Christopher Nolan for his handling of the script and source material. And in true Christopher Nolan fashion, he once again uses the recurring motif of time to tell the story in a nonlinear manner. The story is told in a series of flashbacks, with two separate hearings serving as a framing device, before the whole thing ultimately coalesces during its third act. But because it juggles between quite a number of characters and events spanning several years, a lot of it might be hard to follow for those not already familiar with those aspects of world history. It also takes a fair chunk of its 3-hour runtime before things truly kick into gear. But once it does, the narrative flows in a way that is scarcely seen in the realm of biographical dramas. In fact, one could almost liken it to watching a psychological thriller with the way it manages to keep you on the edge of your seat as its events unfold.

But the area where Oppenheimer truly excels in my opinion is in its striking visuals, from the stunning black-and-white sections to the mostly practical effects that helped depict the sheer power and force of a nuclear explosion. It is all stuff you would want to see on the biggest, most premium screen available so do yourself a favor by heading down to your nearest IMAX theater or premium large format of choice. It also bears mentioning that all those incredible visuals were complimented by the cinematography, score, editing, and sound design, all of which come together to create an audio-visual experience worthy of the Christopher Nolan name.

As far as character studies go, Oppenheimer is one of the best ones I've seen in years. It takes you on a journey into the very psyche of its subject matter, asking you to judge for yourself if his heart was truly in the right place. And like any good character study, it never shies away from showing the various vices and idiosyncrasies that helped define the man. But most remarkably, the movie manages to transcend the typical character study to become one of the finest cinematic experiences Christopher Nolan has crafted to date, so go out and experience it for yourself if you haven't already.

Friday 14 July 2023

Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One (Movie Review)

After setting the box office on fire with Top Gun: Maverick last year, Tom Cruise is back in Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One. This time around, he once again steps into the shoes of aging IMF agent, Ethan Hunt, who is on a new globe-trotting mission to save the world from those who would rather see it go up in flames. But having worn those shoes for seven movies spanning almost three decades, one has to wonder if they still manage to fit or if perhaps it is time for him to hang them up for good.

Billed as the first of two halves, the film has Ethan going after the lost keys to a rogue artificial intelligence simply referred to as the Entity. With the ability to hack into any defense system in the world, it soon becomes the target of several competing governments and shadow organizations, each one planning to use it for their own nefarious needs. But when Ethan is faced with an adversary from his distant past, he'll be tested like never before as he pushes himself to do whatever it takes to complete the mission.

The Mission: Impossible franchise has prided itself on thrilling moviegoers ever since the first movie came out in 1996. And with each subsequent entry, Tom Cruise and the various filmmakers involved have found increasingly inventive ways to up the ante. Except things wouldn't really get kicked into orbit until Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, a film that had the Hollywood star scaling the sides of the world's tallest building. And the franchise has continued to soar ever higher ever since, an ascent that would eventually crescendo with the phenomenal HALO jump and other stunts in 2018's Mission: Impossible - Fallout.

So heading into Dead Reckoning Part One, I already had doubts that it could ever manage to match or surpass the highs of the previous one. This is despite following up on news of its production, which was impacted by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as watching an extended behind-the-scenes look at its audacious motorcycle cliff jump. And while I feel that the final product didn't indeed match the thrills of the last one, it at least comes with its own bag of tricks, even though some of it did tend to feel like already-explored territory.

We get the usual spy thriller staples like car chases and tense hand-to-hand combat encounters, all of which play out exactly how one would imagine for a film of that nature. But it is how these sequences are shot and edited that helps them feel alive and vibrant. The film is also well-paced for the most part, doling out such scenes at a steady enough cadence to keep most viewers engaged. I did start to feel the length of the movie over time though, especially while it took the needed time to explain the various twists and turns of its ever-evolving plot, and it took some time before the story truly kicked into gear.

But once it did, it never truly lets up until the very end. And with the story being the first of two halves, I was afraid that perhaps they might end it on a cliffhanger without any real resolution to the ongoing conflict. Except I still ended up coming out of it feeling like I had eaten a full meal, which is more than I can say about most other movies that get split in two. A lot of ground was covered in this first half and just enough threads were left unresolved to keep me interested in seeing how the whole thing wraps up next year.

In terms of acting and performance, Tom Cruise proves that he's still got what it takes, pulling absolutely no punches in his pursuit of delivering breathtaking stunts and top-of-the-line action scenes. I had to constantly remind myself that he was now in his 60s as I marveled at his latest feats of physicality. The fact that he is willing to risk life and limb for stunts that typically get put together with CGI in other films goes to show his commitment to the craft and his willingness to do whatever it takes to sell all of it to the audience. That level of dedication is rarely seen in the action film genre and for that reason alone, I hope that the movie gets to experience every bit of success that it deserves.

Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One is a solidly-crafted spy thriller that once again serves as a showcase for Tom Cruise as one of the very best action movie stars working today. That it does that while telling a timely, cautionary tale about the dangers of AI in today's society only goes further to add to its overall appeal. And while I felt it didn't quite hit the same level of sheer brilliance as past entries, or even other recent action films like John Wick: Chapter 4, I still feel it is a movie that is very much worth experiencing on the best cinema screen available.