Strait-Jacket

William Castle’s explosive 1964 film, Strait-Jacket, emerged in the wake of Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic proto-slasher, Psycho. Castle, an impish showman with a strong instinct for gimmickry, had been making horror pictures for years by the time Psycho was released, and the picture he made immediately after it–1961’s Homicidal–was accused by contemporaneous critics of being a crass ripoff. Castle’s effects were considerably more blunt and less “respectable” than Hitchcock’s, but if Castle wore the aura of carnival barker proudly, he could still be a very canny, expressive filmmaker. Homicidal may have sprung from the shadow of Psycho, but Strait-Jacket, made just a few years later, may be an even clearer descendant; Strait-Jacket was written by Robert Bloch, who wrote the novel from which Psycho had been adapted. Strait-Jacket repurposes some of Psycho‘s structures and motifs, but it proves to be more of a cousin to Psycho than a twin.

The psychological rupture at the heart of Psycho serves as background material to be doled out as exposition in the film’s denoument, but Strait-Jacket presents that rupture as its inciting incident, centering its dramatic arc on its protagonist’s attempts to re-enter society after years of recovery (in this way, its trajectory is actually more similar to that of Psycho II (1983), in which murderer Norman Bates struggles with his psychological stability as he returns to civilian life, than that of Psycho). Strait-Jacket does share Psycho‘s fixation on a maternal figure, but here the mother is both the film’s bogeyman and the film’s protagonist.

Joan Crawford stars as axe-murderess Lucy Harbin, who, in the film’s opening moments, brutally murders her younger husband and his lover after discovering them together. The film follows the psychological warping of Lucy Harbin–who first emerges as virile, confident, and sensual–as the realization of betrayal pivots from shock to dismay to psychosis, shifts that are all telegraphed with striking clarity by Crawford. As the violent act occurs, the film breaks apart before our eyes, blurring the line between the feverish experience of Lucy and that of her daughter Carol (who tragically witnesses the violent event). The decapitations are the first of many in the film, and in their cleanness as well as their unconvincing gore effects, they have a decidedly unreal quality that has been enhanced by the passage of time. The sequence climaxes with the image of Lucy, strapped to a gurney, screaming protestations of innocence, her twisting form superimposed over her daughter’s horrified eyes.

The shared trauma between mother and daughter turns out to be the heart of Strait-Jacket, and the title sequence, which serves as a pause as the film leaps forward twenty years, takes us into abstract, feverish images of that trauma: silhouettes traversing landscapes of severed heads and watchful eyes. The bookends–painted images of Crawford’s face as a vacant, eyeless mask–foreshadow the film’s climactic twist and suggests the way in which Lucy Harbin’s identity that has become untethered from the psyche. Van Alexander’s title cue disrupts lushly romantic, tender passages with eerie, wailing effects, the musical expression of a woman’s soul unable to reconcile itself to itself.

Crawford, now in the post-What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? phase of her career, anchors it through sheer conviction. Strait-Jacket demands that Crawford utilize the full range of her expressive abilities as she performs astonishing dramatic gymnastics, portraying a woman continually phasing through modes of meekness and anger and strength and weakness. Crawford proves adept at maintaining a sense of consistent character throughout all these sensationalized pivots, somehow able to reconcile the the vampy, confident woman she first emerges as and the washed-out, timid shell of herself that she has emerges as after twenty years in the asylum.

Lucy’s daughter, Carol, played by Diane Baker, remains preoccupied both with her mother and the past; the full extent of this fixation is not expressed until the film’s climax. Following her mother’s release, Carol seeks to return her mother to her past self in a sequence reminiscent of Judy’s transformation into Madeleine from Vertigo (and Baker herself has some of the Hitchcock aura; she memorably appeared in Marnie, which was released the same year as Strait-Jacket). Carol’s attempts to conjure the past also conjures up its demons, and hints of the latent violence in Lucy emerge, as well as hints of the raw sensuality of her youth. In one of the film’s wildest scenes, Lucy meets her daughter’s fiancé (who resembles the murdered husband, a hint at the daughter’s own fixations) and instinctively returns to her younger self, lasciviously flirting with him in a borderline predatory fashion. It’s a scene only Crawford could play, and she does it with panache; in a magnificent gesture, Crawford’s Lucy confidently lights a match by striking it on a record. This Lucy quickly crumbles when confronted with her greatest fear, the fear she might once again be imprisoned in an asylum. Another sequence in the film finds her trapped in a bathroom, frantically crying for release as she beats the room’s striped walls.

Much of the film features Lucy entrapped by the conceptions and demands of others, whether that be those of her daughter, of the doctor from the asylum (who stops by for a visit and, after seeing her distress, tries to return her to the asylum before losing his head), or of the parents of Carol’s fiancé. Without a strong sense of self, she is intensely vulnerable to the projections of others, both yielding to and resisting them simultaneously. But in the midst of these moments, glimpses of her vulnerability and tenderness emerge, her desperate hope that she might escape her own legacy of violence. None are quite so moving as when Lucy, fresh from the asylum, sees her daughter’s sculpture of her younger self and is left stunned by this monument to her lost beauty.

There’s a ghoulish sense of humor undergirding Straight-Jacket‘s trajectory of violence, a humor which will be familiar to anyone who’s spent some time with Castle’s filmography. Carol lives on a farm, and much is made of Lucy’s visible discomfort with the slaughter of the animals, as well as the cosmic pull of sharp knives and axes. The violence itself is staged with a keen sense of the lulls and pauses necessary to heighten the sense of anticipation, leading up the exclamatory burst of gore as the heads are removed from the bodies. That same perversity tilts over into the way in which the film relentlessly tortures Lucy, who the film continually pushes toward the breaking point, haunted by voices of children singing nursery rhymes about her murder and waking up to hallucinations of severed heads in her bed.

The hallucinations turn out to be nothing of the sort. Lucy has been a victim of a campaign to drive her back to insanity, a campaign led by her daughter, Carol. This reveal occurs as the film’s climax, as Lucy discovers that her daughter, Carol, is the murderer. Carol has become her doppelgänger, dressing up as Lucy in the same outfit Lucy wore during that tragic night twenty years ago, complete with an unsettling mask she sculpted on her mother’s features. Lucy pulls away, unable to utter a word. Carol’s own calm facade crumbles as her fiancé finds her, pleading with him as she explains she sought to kill his disapproving parents so that they could be married. Carol’s frantic explanations give way to incoherence; she pummels the mask of her mother with her fist, alternating proclaiming her hatred and love of her mother. Like practically everything in Strait-Jacket, the moment has no real subtlety, but it’s still agonizingly raw. Baker’s collected manner gives way to the frantic mania that Crawford’s gave to in the film’s opening minutes, as Crawford’s Lucy stumbles outside, bewildered.

That gut-wrenching revelation and its aftermath functions as the film’s true ending, the jarring conclusion of a nightmare. The scene that follows feels like the morning after, with a serene Lucy talking to her brother, neatly explaining all of Carol’s insidious attempts to exacerbate her mother’s mental instability and frame her for murder. If the film would be better without this attempt to assuage the audience, the film nevertheless concludes on a poignantly sad note: Lucy will be joining Carol in the asylum in the hopes of helping her heal, a mother bound together with her daughter in trauma and violence and madness.

Raúl Ruiz and Narrative

“To say that a story can only take place if it is connected to a central conflict forces us to eliminate all stories which do not include confrontation and to leave aside all those events which require only indifference or detached curiosity, like a landscape, a distant storm, or dinner with friends–unless such scenes punctuate two fights between the bad guys and the good guys.”

~ Raúl Ruiz, Poetics of Cinema

Terror and Solitude

“What has this man from Illinois created–I ask myself, closing the pages of his book–that his episodes of the conquest of another planet fill me with such terror and solitude?”

~ Jorge Luis Borges on Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles

The Little Men

“An age which is incapable of poetry is incapable of any kind of literature except the cleverness of a decadence. The boys can say anything, their scenes are almost tiresomely neat, they have all the facts and all the answers, but they are little men who have forgotten how to pray.”

~ Raymond Chandler, in a letter to Charles W. Morton, dated January 5, 1957

Mission: Impossible – Fallout

Mission: Impossible – Fallout marks the first time a Mission: Impossible director has returned to direct a follow-up installment, though writer/director Christopher McQuarrie has been a major contributor to this series as far back as Ghost Protocol, on which he served as writer. Recognizing that this film series was originally intended to function as a kind of director showcase, McQuarrie decided to vary his stylistic approach for Fallout. While the preceding two entries were characterized by a kind of bouncy energy, for Fallout, McQuarrie has decided to borrow the aesthetic of Christopher Nolan’s blockbusters.

McQuarrie is a better craftsman on a nuts-and-bolts level than Nolan; McQuarrie’s action sequences have a clarity and meticulousness that has always eluded the latter. Still, Fallout so often lacks the vividness and force of an actual Nolan blockbuster. The script and production design and cinematography and score blatantly evoke the work of Nolan’s collaborators–there are too many nods to the Nolan Batman films to count, including a League of Shadows-y cabal of villains calling themselves “The Apostles,” and a climax set in the icy mountains of Asia that recalls the icy vistas of Batman Begins–without capturing its force and scope, often reducing sequences to a pervasive brownish-grayishness backed by a numbing score. There’s still a sense of proper spectacle here (among other things, Fallout makes better use of prominent world landmarks than any of the recent Bond films), but the imitation-Nolan lacquer deadens the material.

Indeed, the textures and structures of Nolan’s films, messy and frustrating though they often are, extend from conviction. Nolan constructs grandiose, blunt-force expressions of his own secular mysticism, for which humanity’s transcendence (or failure to attain it) is always the greatest concern. The only transcendence with which Fallout is concerned is the transcendence of Tom Cruise.

The series has always been, to one extent or another, about Cruise himself, but it was only two films prior, on Ghost Protocol, that Cruise’s Ethan Hunt character truly found his groove. There, Hunt was formed into a charismatic cipher, a monastic hero driven by sheer will and determination. It’s an effective angle, but it offers little room for development; its sequel, Rogue Nation, didn’t really develop the idea as much as it forcefully reiterated it. Fallout does the same, but misguidedly tries to mine Hunt’s internal life for drama, punctuating the film with Hunt’s bland nightmares and monotonous speeches about why Hunt does what he does. Hunt is a thin avatar, and the character can’t (and shouldn’t be forced to) sustain this kind of inquiry. His headspace will never be as interesting as his feats of strength.

Those feats are certainly impressive, and Fallout‘s most satisfying, focused stretch begins with an all-timer: a breathtaking HALO jump that one-ups the memorable aerial sequence from Moonraker. From there, the film settles into a tense groove, becoming, for the next few scenes, a vicious and taut thriller that echoes the John Wick films while surpassing them in lushness and narrative intrigue. It’s no coincidence that this satisfying stretch of the film foregrounds Henry Cavill and Vanessa Kirby, both of whom have much more vivid and compelling relationships with Cruise’s Hunt than any of the series’ returning ensemble.

As with McQuarrie’s prior Mission: Impossible feature, Rogue Nation, Fallout loses its way the more it tries to integrate narrative tissue and characters from the prior films. This series has never been narratively satisfying enough to merit the construction of a true series mythology, and the more characters are added into the mix, the more it seems that these characters are saddled with uninspiring material while Hunt gets to do the truly showstopping stuff. (This becomes a significant issue during Fallout‘s helicopter climax, which fails to build momentum because of the constant cutting back to the rest of the ensemble, none of whom are doing anything anywhere near as interesting.)

To its credit, Fallout does seem to recognize that it is the conclusion of a certain trajectory, though it naturally leaves the door wide open for more shenanigans. With any luck, whoever directs the next one will bring the frisson of personal vision back to the series; it has been absent since John Woo directed his installment, and I miss it.

Novecento

Bernardo Bertolucci’s Novecento (more widely known as 1900) is a marvelously insane film, as vital as it is unsubtle. Bertolucci’s images always carry more charge than the dramatic and thematic constructs he uses as a foundation for them, and, in this regard, Novecento, shot by the legendary Vittorio Storaro, offers an embarrassment of riches.

Since watching it, I have been thinking about how much I enjoy sustained viewing experiences. Novecento has a runtime of over five hours (and, in its original cut, was actually released as two films). With any film of that length, your investment naturally ebbs and flows, and classic cinematic epics were designed in ways to accommodate that, to allow your attention to drift and to circle back to the object of your attention.

I can enjoy a film like Novecento and still walk away emotionally and intellectually energized, but most recent two-and-a-half hour blockbusters exhaust me. Our recent blockbusters pummel you with stimulation, desperate to keep you immersed.

I am reminded of a quote from Raúl Ruiz, taken from his Poetics of Cinema 2:

“There are those who believe that the best thing that can happen is for us to be fascinated by a film from beginning to end. Hence, they believe detachment is useless and boring. There is an expression that is widely used by film fabricators in Hollywood: ‘When you lose your spectator (that is, when you are no longer fascinating him), you lose him forever.’ According to this criterion, detachment is not only unnecessary but also dangerous. It’s not what I think. I have a few reasons to believe that detachment is indispensable, and not only so that we may apprehend the film rationally–we already know that reason doesn’t have a good name in the practice of art–but so as to experience the film’s events in their full complexity. We mustn’t forget that to experience a work of art is not simply letting oneself be fascinated by it, a mere falling in love with it, but rather it’s understanding the process of falling in love. For this one needs the freedom to move away from the loved object in order to return to it freely. The amorous encounter with the work of art is a practice that can be summarized in the following formula: ‘To love renders one intelligent,’ which certainly contradicts the formula which states being in love is more like being hit on the head by a club.”

The Lost World: Jurassic Park

The opening of The Lost World is, by some measure, the best sequence in any of the Jurassic Park films, our purest glimpse of Spielberg the Sadist since his camera watched dispassionately as a young girl was dragged beneath the waves by an unseen menace at the start of Jaws.

Jaws presents a vision of nature that is not just indifferent, but opposed, to humanity. Civilization only extends as far as the shoreline. The thrust of The Lost World is similar. Its Isla Sorna is a hostile space, a space out of time where prehistoric monsters roam free. To dare to journey there is to put yourself on the menu.

Here, the fodder is a young girl, brought to the island by extremely wealthy parents on a cruise. Spielberg spares us the undoubtedly horrifying images as she’s pecked to pieces by dinosaurs, but he lets us hear her screams and see the terrified face of her mother. The film then hilariously and chillingly smash cuts from the mother’s scream to Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) yawning in front of a poster in a subway station, as human-made an environment as has ever existed.

These are the film’s two worlds, and The Lost World suggests that regardless of which realm invades the other, the outcome won’t be good for humanity. Even those with good intentions, the environmentalists sent to protect this dinosaur paradise, are at risk; if you fix the broken leg of a baby Tyrannosaurus, you’re still dealing with a Tyrannosaurus.

In the film’s giddy monster movie coda, Spielberg unleashes the T-Rex on San Diego. To the T-Rex, the modern city looks like just another territory to conquer, its swimming pools serving as new watering holes, humanity’s domesticated canines making for easy prey. As it effortlessly prowls through the streets, it becomes comically clear that the king of the dinosaurs could easy become the king of the metropolis, a dark echo of the original film’s declaration that “life finds a way.”

Lighting the Fuse – The Mission: Impossible Films

Before Tom Cruise reworked Mission: Impossible into a cinematic showcase for his talents, Mission: Impossible was a television series, and a very good one. Created by Bruqce Geller, Mission: Impossible rode to success on the wave of 1960s spymania. It took a little inspiration from Jules Dassin’s heist film, Topkapi, offering a new, complicated challenge each week for its team–the Impossible Missions Force–to tackle and overcome. While the show had a recurrent cast of characters, each episode was driven less by its characters than the nature of the mission–often sketched in hazy terms during the episode’s opening moments–with each episode deriving its charge from the surprises present in watching the expert team maneuvering past any obstacles. At its height, the show was tremendously clever, and it had a groove all its own courtesy of Lalo Schifrin’s unforgettable music.

That music would be the one major element of the series to successfully make its way into every installment of the blockbuster film series of the same name (although none of the film composers who rearranged it could give it anywhere near the same punch that Schifrin did), though, at the start, its relationship to the television series was more discernible. The first of the movies, Mission: Impossible (1996), functioned as as a quasi-sequel to the original television series, albeit with a revisionist bent. Filmmaker Brian De Palma, whose aptitude for clockwork suspense sequences made him a natural fit for the material, was given the task of reshaping the property into a star vehicle for Cruise. The suspenseful opening of the film introduces a version of the TV show’s team, led by an aging Jim Phelps (Jon Voight, taking on the role originated by Peter Graves), only to memorably eliminate them all one-by-one during a mission-gone-bad. Young Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) survives, and is subsequently identified by the CIA as a traitor. He goes on the run and fights to prove his innocence. Using this framework, De Palma made the series into a vehicle for his own skepticism of the American state, which Mission: Impossible portrays as both deeply sinister and comically inept. Hunt’s journeys through the underworld lead him to the revelation that the true foe is Phelps himself, no longer a patriot, having been so disillusioned by the end of the Cold War that he’s now willing to murder his friends and betray his country.

Despite the film’s reputation as an action blockbuster, it’s more of a chilly spy thriller with a few intricate heist sequences in the tradition of the original series (the break-in to the CIA headquarters in Langley, in which De Palma exhibits his gift for sustained suspense, is, by far, the best of them). Its only true action setpiece, the memorable train sequence, occurs as a kind of outrageous victory lap after the film has dramatically and thematically resolved. The film’s true climax occurs moments prior. Hunt exposes Phelps’ scheme using the same tools of surveillance Phelps manipulated earlier in the film, rewriting Phelps’ false narrative (De Palma’s follow-up feature, Snake Eyes rephrases many of the same ideas explored in Mission: Impossible, including the basic structures of this resolution, but with more conviction and depth).

Cruise’s boyish charm and intense focus had not yet begun to mature into the gravitas he now brings with him to his performances, and the film’s Ethan Hunt, a thinly drawn member of the IMF team who has to rise from the middle of the ranks to the position of leader, remains a weak focal point for the film’s drama. Accordingly, the character’s personality changes significantly in the next few films. In Mission: Impossible II, Ethan Hunt would transition into a confident daredevil and ladies’ man, a kind of American James Bond with luxuriously flowing hair.

Mission: Impossible II marked Cruise’s apex as a marquee star and solidified Cruise’s reputation as an adrenaline junkie, eager to push himself beyond his physical limits.The film introduces us to Cruise’s Hunt while he’s engaged in a precarious rock climb, complete with a harrowing jump-stunt that Cruise proudly performed himself. The sequence, and the remainder of the film, is infatuated with Cruise, with his straining musculature, with his piercing eyes, with his clenched jaw, treating Cruise’s Hunt less as a character than a demigod, an exemplar of human physique.

Mission: Impossible II departs dramatically from the template of the original television series, making only the faintest gesture toward the Impossible Missions Force being a team-based operation (Ving Rhames comes over from the original film, though he has little to do, and he’s paired with a new supporting character, John Poulson, who has even less to do). The heist sequences give way to gun ballet and motorcycle acrobatics. If this resembles Hong Kong action cinema, it’s something a bit stranger; there’s a Limp Bizkit song on the soundtrack and Hans Zimmer’s score plays the Lalo Schifrin title theme on wailing rock guitar.

Cruise’s original conception for the Mission: Impossible franchise was that it would function as a big-budget version of The Hire, with auteurs reinventing the stylistic landscape of the series with each installment. So the franchise shifted from Brian De Palma to Hong Kong action film maestro John Woo, who had, at that point, been working in Hollywood for the better part of a decade. Woo conceived of the film’s major action setpieces before the film had a story, and Cruise brought screenwriter Robert Towne, who’d helped bring Mission: Impossible together, to give the sequel a story.

Mission: Impossible II borrows the narrative framework of Hitchcock’s Notorious, weaving it into a thriller about corporate malfeasance and the development of a bioweapon, the Chimera virus. The storytelling approaches of Towne and Woo do not have much overlap, and Mission: Impossible II feels oddly stranded between them, playing to the strengths of neither. The sequences where Woo feels like he gets to cut loose feel less integrated into the film than they feel like digressions from it, injecting operatic melodrama and gun ballet into the cracks of script written as a more conventional Hollywood action thriller. The cast, Cruise included, struggle when tasked with going to the extremes of theatricality that Woo requires of them. Still, while Mission: Impossible II is considerably weaker than the preceding Hollywood pictures helmed by Woo (Hard Target, Broken Arrow, and Face/Off), when Woo still delivers sequences of pure, passionate cinema in which image and physics yield to the impulses of emotion. Mission: Impossible II‘s climactic beach fight ranks among the best sequences in Woo’s body of work.

J.J. Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III backpedaled away from the Ethan Hunt, Action Hero posturing of the second film. III paints Ethan Hunt as a veteran agent looking to get married and settle down (a moment that famously coincided with his highly publicized relationship with Katie Holmes). Here, Hunt has spent so long in the world of espionage that he has difficulty letting it go, and, by the end, his personal life and his professional life become hopelessly enmeshed.

This was the first Mission: Impossible film to use Cruise as a human ragdoll, deriving action thrills from the spectacle of the human body surviving punishment (as it did during its much-publicized stunt where Cruise is flung into the side of a car by the force an explosion). Still, this third entry lacks the showmanship of its predecessors. Abrams’ direction is undistinguished and frequently clumsy, particularly when tasked with the construction of intricate action sequences (III‘s helicopter chase is the most awkwardly assembled action setpiece in any of the Mission: Impossible films).

The script, written by Abrams with frequent collaborators Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, also lacks refinement and structural clarity, unable to build any momentum from its best ideas. What little momentum the film has largely stems from Philip Seymour Hoffman’s turn as Owen Davian, a flimsy role that Hoffman manages to turn into something forceful through the application of intensity. The film’s opening, its most memorable scene, comprises of a flash-forward that finds Ethan and his new wife, Julia (Michelle Monaghan), at Davian’s mercy. Davian interrogates Ethan under the threat of killing Julia. It unfolds as a series of close-ups of a desperate, powerless Cruise and an unyielding, ferocious Hoffman. Alas, when the film returns to the scene later, it is none the richer for the addition of context.

Despite its considerable weaknesses, III established a new template for the franchise, which would increasingly become more mindful of continuity and more unified in its embrace of III‘s tone. The team dynamic would be given slightly more weight, and a cast of regulars would start to coalesce. The fourth film, subtitled Ghost Protocol, was the one to cement this template, finding an comfortable balance between Hunt and his teammates. Director Brad Bird came on board to direct his first live-action feature, and he restores the series’ showmanship even if he doesn’t restore its pronounced auteurist signature. Bird constructs the film with the understanding that the property’s real villain is the “impossible,” and so the plot itself exists merely to serve as a skeleton on which he can hang sequences with clearly-defined, ever-mounting obstacles for Hunt and his team to overcome.

Bird brings the dynamism of an animator to the film’s setpieces, the most impressive of which tasks Ethan Hunt with scaling the heights of the Burj Khalifa. Hunt (and by extension, Cruise) seems to push himself further and harder here than he has in any preceding film, taking hits and damage, fighting his way to the finished line in just the nick of time. There’s a resignation that accompanies Hunt’s characterization here. He’s found that he can’t give up the spy game and, accordingly, all he can do now is throw himself back into it with near-suicidal abandon. The film’s climax progressively breaks down Hunt’s body until Hunt is left nearly immobile.

In its follow-up Rogue Nation, Hunt’s appetite for inflicting damage on himself becomes one of the film’s jokes, though hope looms on the horizon. Rogue Nation gives Hunt a new love interest in Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a double-agent enmeshed in the machinations of the mysterious Syndicate. Rogue Nation works very well when it focuses on the two of them. Faust and Hunt have a cool, appealing chemistry; they’ve both been in the game long enough to have acquired their share of scars. In the other, they see a kindred spirit and perhaps the glimmer of a less dangerous life.

Alas, Rogue Nation gradually falls apart the longer it goes on, struggling to balance its too-large ensemble (it carries over most of the Ghost Protocol gang) along with the demands of its story (its third act was dramatically reshaped over the course of production, transforming what was to be its climactic airplane stunt into a throwaway gag for the film’s opening). Writer and director Christopher McQuarrie may be a careful craftsman, but he lacks the panache to make a sequence more than the sum of its pieces. Still, when all of the pieces are in place, as they are during the film’s opera house setpiece (which is, by far, the best clockwork setpiece since the CIA break-in in the De Palma film), Rogue Nation offers plenty of amusement.

Cruise and McQuarrie re-teamed for its successor, Mission: Impossible — Fallout, which, going by the promotional materials, will hit a number of familiar beats while again pushing Cruise to the limit. Here, he’s doing dangerous helicopter stunts and a daring HALO jump. He even injured himself during a rooftop chase sequence (the footage of Cruise breaking his ankle has been utilized in the finished film). If the Mission: Impossible series has become increasingly overburdened by its own ever-increasing ensemble of regulars, this series, in which Cruise/Hunt always goes to extremes, is a welcome presence in a time when more and more stuntwork is generated in a computer. Here’s to watching Cruise do the impossible one more time.

Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera

The first opera I ever attended at the Metropolitan Opera was Puccini’s Tosca.

Under general manager Peter Gelb’s guidance, the Met had just tossed aside the sturdy, if creaky, Zeffirelli production of Tosca for a new staging by Luc Bondy, part of a broader initiative to reinvigorate the Met. Bondy’s stark, uninviting production did not prove to be a hit with critics or audiences. Bondy tossed aside the grandeur of Zeffirelli for a haphazard vision that did little to enliven the material. Still, I found the experience delightful. I had never heard Puccini’s score performed live, and, as performed by the Met’s orchestra, it was truly thrilling. I further enjoyed seeing and experiencing the Met itself, an exemplar of mid-twentieth century architecture that finds some strange coherence through its incongruous impulses.

This past Friday, I once again journeyed to the Met for yet another Tosca, this one staged by director David McVicar. The McVicar production exists more or less as an apology for the despised Bondy production, promising a lush and traditional take on a beloved classic. The critical response to McVicar’s staging of Tosca has been muted, as if it would be unseemly to praise a production that takes no significant risks. But who needs big risks when you’re dealing with Tosca? It’s an opera that rarely benefits from innovation.

McVicar’s new staging is certainly attractive. The audience greeted John Macfarlane’s sets with applause, and rightly so; they’re elegantly composed and ornamented. There’s an impressionistic aspect to the way they employ color and texture, further accented by the painterly quality of David Finn’s lighting effects.

But what truly distinguishes this new Tosca is its dramatic clarity. McVicar puts the opera’s characters first, deriving the most striking moments of his staging through their interactions. McVicar loses his way a little toward the end of Act I, during which he needlessly crowds the set with anonymous extras wandering through the cathedral. Otherwise he remains in command of the material, adding flourishes that accentuate some of the opera’s more incredulous turns (including a fairly clever rendition of Cavaradossi’s final moments).

The orchestra, under the command of Bertrand de Billy, sounded as vibrant as ever. Jennifer Rowley played the title role, stepping in for Anna Netrebko, who was ill. Rowley’s firy, complex Tosca was a marvel; she demonstrated breathtaking vocal command throughout her performance, but especially on her very fine rendition of “Vissi d’arte.” Michael Volle’s Scarpia proved to be a terrific match for Rowley’s Tosca, and the great battle of wills between them in Act II proved to be the highlight of the night. The third link in the trio, Yusif Eyvazov’s Cavaradossi, demonstrated great vocal force, but otherwise dynamism and expressiveness; he seemed to struggle with Cavaradossi’s quieter moments.

If this Tosca will do little to make waves in opera history, the Metropolitan Opera now successfully has an updated, contemporary Tosca that will nicely align with many of the other staples in its repertoire. As it looks to other classic productions to update (of the Puccini tentpoles, I’m personally hoping they develop a new version of Turandot,, which, unlike Tosca, would benefit from conceptual innovation), they could do worse to follow the example set by McVicar’s Tosca.