Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.
BART: Nine years ago I was invited to a lavish cocktail party to celebrate the appointment of Tom Cruise as the new production chief of that once-proud company, United Artists. When I walked over to congratulate him, Tom remarked that he’d been studying UA’s troubled history and asked, ”Didn’t you once have my job of running UA a few years ago?” That was true, I said, “but my reign lasted less than a year.” Fast on his feet, Cruise joked, “I may not even make it that long.” Cruise’s forecast was pretty close. After an awkward eighteen month stint as a studio boss, Cruise returned to being a movie star. As the new Mission Impossible sequel proves, his standing in that job is formidably secure. (After UA, I moved over to become senior vp at MGM, which was enjoyable but insecure).
FLEMING: What do you think went wrong for him? It was a huge announcement with plenty of funding, after Cruise’s relationship cratered at Paramount. The end result was not enough pictures to replenish that funding, and the whole thing kind of fizzled.
BART: As a studio boss, Cruise’s taste was erratic. I never understood Valkyrie and felt Lions for Lambs was a lame bet.
FLEMING: I thought Valkyrie was quite good, but Lions was a preachy polemic and despite the incredible star power, it’s possible audiences weren’t ready for movies about soldiers in Afghanistan in 2007. I did a lengthy interview here with Rogue Nation director Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote and produced Valkyrie, and it is very clear from that discussion that while Cruise might not be the guy to oversee a film slate, he’s a superb CEO of his own film vehicles. Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation is just terrific and to hear McQuarrie tell it, much of the success comes from Cruise’s presence as producer and idea man. He’s tireless in coming up with ways to raise the bar onscreen, and his willingness to throw himself into life-threatening stunts is something none of his peers do, or should do. I find it tiring at 55 merely to get to the airport, get through security, and simply board a plane. This guy, at 53, hangs from an exterior door while it is airborne.
BART: Mission reminds us all that Cruise has a remarkable understanding of how to manufacture industrial entertainment. His set pieces are expertly designed, whether under water or at an opera house. His stunts are created not only for their dramatic impact but for their ultimate promotability – clinging to a giant airplane as it takes off, for example. The new Mission, however, invites comparison to the venerable Bond franchise, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Both brands offer the stunts, the exotic international locations, the indestructible hero, the beautiful girl, the booming theme music. Mission’s biggest asset, of course, is Cruise himself, who is great at all this. The Bond brand, however, offered other components – a coy sophistication and sexuality. In short, style. By comparison, Mission seems a little bland, if not downright corporate. No one is shaking martinis, they’re too busy hatching plot lines.
FLEMING: Again, I disagree. James Bond’s tone now is super serious and that reflects its star, Daniel Craig. 007 films always reflected the strengths of the actor who played the character. The Bourne Identity series, the other successful espionage serial, is also very serious. Mission: Impossible is by comparison far more playful, but serious when it needs to be with enough distinctive set action pieces to hang with either of those spy series. More like the 007 of Sean Connery and Roger Moore than the current incarnation. I agree there is 007 overlap, but that becomes inevitable in the genre. The villain, played by Sean Harris, and the female lead played by Rebecca Ferguson, would have been at home in those roles on a 007 film. We wondered in the last column whether that Scientology docu Going Clear movie would be a factor here, and it wasn’t. It is clear from McQuarrie that all of this stuff, including charges they have veered into James Bond territory, are white noise to Tom. To me, what he and his cohorts have accomplished here is memorable. Remember it wasn’t that long ago when press speculation had Jeremy Renner being groomed to supplant Tom in this franchise? You can see from this film and the last one that that is a laughable assumption and no slight to Renner. They have a tent pole here as viable as any out there. Paramount and Skydance desperately needed this after Terminator Genisys, even with Schwarzenegger back in the fold, was such a huge disappointment there seems no reason to continue. Messing with the mythology of James Cameron’s classics seems unwise after the fact because nobody involved in that umpteenth sequel is as talented a storyteller as Cameron is. Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation is a win for all involved. Put at the top of that list Cruise, who works harder at these things than anybody else, ignores the clarion call that he is over and proves doubters wrong again and again.
BART: With it all, Tom Cruise has clearly made a banner career choice. He’s not so much an actor as he is an industrialist. And his products, though over-priced, doubtless will return a solid profit.
FLEMING: Next topic. After all the summer frivolity for young audiences, is it time for adults to step back into the pool? Tom Rothman is betting big with the upcoming Ricki And The Flash. The film opens Friday, in the slot that brought success for the Helen Mirren-starrer The Hundred Foot Journey and other adult films. This one has the Oscar pedigree: Meryl Streep, reteaming with Sophie’s Choice co-star Kevin Kline, script by Diablo Cody, and Jonathan Demme directing. It has the emotional family-in-crisis gravitas Demme brought to Rachel Getting Married. But the big bet here is Streep, one of the most reliable actresses who draw audiences. Here, she sings up a storm — songs like Tom Petty’s American Girl that resonate with a crowd including myself, the one that still bristles when my kids regard my fixation with Springsteen and U2 as “dad rock.” Demme gets the joke: Streep heads a bar band (yes, her decision to leave behind her family to become a rock singer results in the futility of fronting a bar band) and when they sing current pop tunes I regard as instantly forgettable, the kids perk up and flock to the dance floor. Streep’s singing is outstanding and she keeps coming up with ways to keep it fresh and the return of General Hospital heartthrob-turned-rock star Rick Springfield as her bandmate/lover is a nice surprise. Much has been written about Sony’s thin year, and this won’t right the ship by itself. They’ve spent on advertising, but at heart this is an $18 million budget character piece with Meryl singing like an angel, that starts on 1,800 screens. But the film should play through August and should be a step in the right direction for Rothman, who is now putting together bigger movies like Stephen King’s The Dark Tower and the Jennifer Lawrence/Chris Pratt sci-fi two hander Passengers, as he tries to reinvigorate the slumping studio.
BART: It’s impossible to make an interesting movie about a writer. Or about a journalist. That seems to be the message of a curious little film titled The End of the Tour, which came out this week. I ’get’ the message, but what I don’t ‘get’ is why some critics are recommending the movie. The movie consists of a prolonged interview conducted by a reporter for Rolling Stone, played by Jesse Eisenberg, with an eccentric, suicidal novelist named David Foster Wallace, played by Jason Segel. Wallace, who wrote a 1,079-page cult novel which critics loved, is suspicious of his interviewer (rightly so) and therefore has nothing really interesting to say. The reporter, played by a twitchy and equally neurotic Eisenberg, has nothing really interesting to ask. Their dialogue reveals the creepy elements of the interview process — an ingratiating journalist who is really out to betray his subject; the uneasy subject who semi-trusts his interviewer but suspects nothing good will come of the process. His suspicions are valid.
FLEMING: With rare exception, and the best example being All The President’s Men which to me is one of the great American films, I rarely see films about journalists or authors that work. Capote you can put on the exception list as well as Sweet Smell of Success. How many bad movies have we seen come and go on Hemingway, for instance, or when Johnny Depp was obsessed with the drunken excesses of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson? I think that even though journalists tell hard truths and are a laudable breed, the public doesn’t really like the breed, especially in movies about them. I often wonder if the creative architects of these films stop and ask themselves, why would anybody want to pay money to see this?
BART: I personally have survived nine book tours. All had their ups and downs — great audiences as well as empty rooms. There were the usual TV interviews with talk show hosts who have never read any book, including mine. It never occurred to me, however, to shoot a movie about a book tour and End of the Tour reminds me why. Writers should be left alone behind their computers. If they want to say something, let them write. And interviewers, unlike Jesse Eisenberg, should tell their subjects “My editor assigned me to make you seem like a suicidal asshole, so please blurt some dumb quotes quickly so I don’t have to stick around for a weekend.” End of the Tour could have been ten minutes long.