The One Scene Movie: Mission: Impossible (1996)

Welcome back to the Tom Cruise Cinema Club. I recently returned with the whole family to watch the Brian de Palma-helmed, curiously punctuated Mission: Impossible for the first time since seeing it on its theatrical release, and found a few surprises.

One: the internet. Wow, it’s easy to forget how recently the internet became omnipresent. 1996 doesn’t sound like very long ago, but the internet in this film is Triassic. Clunky big laptops. Such ostentatious use of ‘E-Mail’ it’s almost capitalised, with a little animation to illustrate a message being packaged up in an ‘envelope’ and ‘posted’. Tom even needs Usenet to contact the criminal underground. Usenet! Fantastic.

Two: there’s only one scene in the whole film. I know, that’s not exactly true, but there’s a reason why the overriding mental picture most people retain of the movie is Tom Cruise suspended in the air on a cable in a white vault. The film is built around a series of set pieces but the only one that really works is that CIA heist. Who can remember the others? Exploding chewing gum on a fish tank, a chase with a helicopter in a train tunnel, they’re all fine but they don’t stick in the memory like the highly contrived but entertaining ceiling-dangling-computer-hack. The film looks like that was the primary scene that anyone thought of and the rest of the picture was built around leading up to it or following the repercussions.

Tom worked hard to reboot the Amiga

Three: that one scene is terrific. The stakes are clear, the obstacles obvious, the timing immaculate, the execution highly accomplished. De Palma is shooting his own mini Rififi here. There is very little dialogue because very little is needed. And because only a tiny amount of the plan has been explained beforehand there are plenty of surprises and reversals to maintain the tension. We cringed and held our breath and ooh’ed and ahh’ed as we watched, just like we should. Great fun.

So I guess the take home message is that you CAN build a multi-sequel, twenty-eight-year-spanning film series out of a single scene, as long as that scene is good enough. Maybe we writers should be putting more effort into single outstanding scenes and not worrying about the surrounding 110 minute stories after all…?

Episode 44: Popcorn Counter: Under the Sea

Ah, the water: clear, blue, enveloping. And also cold and airless and deadly. Do we have any favourite films set on or under the water? You bet we do. From Moana’s beautiful vistas to Jaqueline Bisset’s effect on an impressionable eight year old, we look back at half a lifetime at sea in the cinema. Plus we reveal the secret to successfully pitching an ocean-going picture, and contemplate the benefits of drowning in butter.

Oh Dear: Adventures in Babysitting (1987)

This scene does not happen in the film, by the way

Okay. That’s it. I might just have to give up watching films from the 1980s. It’s a shame, but they’re just too damn weird.

I’d never seen 1987’s Adventures in Babysitting before this week. It’s the directing debut of Chris Columbus, and it’s true that the basic shape of the film is good. Elizabeth Shue is Chris, a seventeen year old baby sitter looking after an eight year old, until she gets a call from her best friend pleading to be picked up from the bus station in downtown Chicago. So the eight year old has to come along for the ride, and so do her 15 year old brother and his buddy. But then they burst a tyre on the way, and a cascade of bad luck sees them kidnapped by criminals, escaping and being pursued across the city. All good family fun. And to be fair, there were quite a few moments when I laughed out loud…

… but. Oooh but. The uncomplicated family fun stops pretty early in the film, pushed off screen by a long parade of weird sexual stuff and straightforward racism. Ah.

White people go to the city

Playboy is all over this film, so omnipresent that it must surely have been a paid-for product placement. One of the boys has a copy of the magazine with him, and points out that the centrefold model looks like Chris; then the criminal masterminds have written notes on their car theft conspiracy all over another copy of the magazine, which one of the boys steals and hides in the eight year old’s backpack. They go to a frat house party, where one of the party goers has brought a copy of the magazine along (what?!) and tries to get Chris to autograph it; they go to a high class, fancy restaurant, which has a huge poster advertising Playboy right outside, making the doorman do a double take. It’s relentless. Who thought Playboy was an appropriate product placement for a family-ish comedy?! The 80s, that’s who.

The uncomfortable sex stuff doesn’t end there, either. What about the seventeen year old street walker played as a throwaway gag? Or the fifteen year old seducing an adult student at the frat party? Or Chris’ friend from the bus station being sexually assaulted in the car as she sleeps? Oh dear.

And you remember I mentioned the racism? Oof. People of colour in this film are there to be scary. That’s it. The kids get in a car to escape a shooting, only to find it’s being driven by a BLACK MAN!! Everyone screams. They run away from the bad guys, only to find themselves in a blues club where all the patrons are BLACK!! Oh my God!

Oh, and even people with disabilities are in the firing line, too, as the kindly tow-truck driver who picks them up has a hook shaped prosthetic hand that’s played for horror and/or laughs. That’s nice.

So I give up. I don’t remember the 80s being like this, but I think they were. We have proof. Might be better to back away now before anyone else gets hurt…

Episode 43: Avatar The Way of Water vs The Abyss: James Cameron Deep Dive

Avatar The Way of Water is dominating screens all over the world, closing in on two billion dollars at the box office as we record. But it’s not the first time James Cameron has been on a diving holiday – and we’re not talking about Titanic, either. 1989 sci-fi swimathon The Abyss was the superstar director’s first foray into the water (Piranha II doesn’t count), and although it flopped at the time, it has a great deal in common with his new, all conquering CGI epic. We submerge ourselves in the two films, and return to the surface with questions. Which film features 1960s dad? Which film relishes the darkness? And which of the two could really do with a few more jokes? Plus we play a new movie game and watch half of Glass Onion. Only half, mind you.

Episode 42: Film of the Year 2022

We’ve been doing this podcast for a whole year now, and we’ve seen some astonishing and remarkable movies. We’ve seen some dreadful clunkers, too. So join us for our inaugural award ceremony, celebrating the best of the best in six categories, while not forgetting the awful films, which get an award all of their own.

Episode 41: Popcorn Counter: Bah Humbug

There’s a whole channel of Christmas movies now, a whole channel! Why? This episode at the popcorn counter we ask how come there seems to be such a wealth of Christmas movies, but not nearly so many Easter movies or Thanksgiving movies or Harvest Festival movies. And seeing as there is such a glut, we single out some of our favourites to give you a bit of a guide to the best of Yuletide watching.

Episode 40: Your Christmas or Mine vs It’s a Wonderful Life: Festive Face-Off

It’s that time of year again, when Christmas movies come to our screens thick and fast. But do either of those adjectives describe the new Amazon original, UK-based, rom-com feature Your Christmas or Mine? And how does it compare to the eternal yuletide classic It’s a Wonderful Life? We examine both films in depth, including a look at the writing process and the challenges of creating a good ‘bottle episode’. Which film features Elon Musk in disguise? Which film has the Cliche Squad working overtime? And does the differing way these films discuss race and class suggest any social change in the last eighty years?

ChatGPT: what now for writers?

Image from the Midjourney subreddit

Imagine asking Isaac Asimov or Arthur C Clarke sixty years ago what their most optimistic vision of humankind’s future might look like. Perhaps they would have suggested a utopia where robots and computers do all the menial jobs leaving humans to concentrate on pursuits like art and writing.

Cleverly we seem to be working on the exact opposite.

I’ve read plenty of stories this year about working conditions at Amazon and Tesla, and about clothes and phones made in sweatshops. Workers rights are eroded as capitalism continues to accrue power and a cost of living crisis gathers pace. People visit food banks in growing numbers while many worry about how they will pay to heat their homes.

Computers on the other hand have been having a great year. They’ve been learning to paint and experimenting with creative photography. They’ve been working on their novel, too, and enjoying driving lessons. Some have been doing a bit of shooting. And with all these new skills they’re looking forward to well paid jobs in the near future. So, good for them.

My obvious question – within the remit of the Two Reel Cinema Club – is: what does this mean for screenwriting?

So all around AI wag Guy Parsons has apparently ‘written’ a film treatment using ChatGPT. (I accidentally typed ‘Chat Git’ there the first time round. Should have left it.) Having just read the treatment, I can confirm that I’ve definitely heard real pitches for films far worse than this. In fact I’ve seen real, finished movies that are worse than this.

Critics of AI will tell you that ChatGPT cannot make anything original. It simply takes elements of what it’s been fed and spits them back out in a new configuration.

But then critics of commercial cinema will tell you the same thing.

Once the computers become competent at writing screenplays (it won’t be long) the question will no longer be, ‘Can it be done?’ And we seem already to be beyond the question, ‘Should it be done?’

Instead, the question will be, ‘Why do we make films at all?’

So … why do we make films? If the answer is only ‘to make money’, then we the screenwriters may be doomed. Soon computers will be able to write novel-seeming stories that are structurally satisfying, airtight and consistent, superficially surprising, and commercially viable. And … maybe that’s fine. Maybe that’s enough.

But if we can decide that the process is an important part of the output, that the act of film-making, of writing and creation has value beyond its efficiency at turning a profit, maybe we’ll still have a chance.

Who wants to take that bet, though?

Episode 38: My Old School vs Kes: Clipped Wings

We’re travelling through time this episode, back to the podcast we missed last summer, and back to school. Acclaimed Scottish 90s teenager doc My Old School has arrived on streaming platforms, meaning we can at last watch it and draw parallels with Ken Loach’s 1969 classic Kes. Two films about struggling youths, one doing everything he can to escape his oppressive life, the other doing everything he can to turn back the clock and live it all again. But how differently do the two films portray education? And which of the two contains the finest football scene in all of cinema?