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Movie Review: “Mission: Impossible- Rogue Nation”

Tom Cruise, just hanging out

Tom Cruise, just hanging out

It wasn’t too long ago that the “Mission: Impossible” movie franchise looked pretty much dead. The third film, in 2006, was a dud- the efforts of villain Philip Seymour Hoffman notwithstanding- which coincided with the Oprah’s couch-associated decline of Tom Cruise’s star power.

And that’s why the fourth film in the franchise, 2011’s Brad Bird-directed “Ghost Protocol,” was such an unexpected delight. You had a nearly 50-year-old Cruise doing fantastic stunts, such as hanging off a skyscraper in Dubai. You had a half-dozen awesome, tense action setpieces. You had the return of the team dynamic that was always part of the old TV show but wasn’t part of the movies since the first. And it all came from Bird, a director mostly associated with animation.

Now we have the fifth film, “Rogue Nation,” with another new director in the chair, “Usual Suspects” screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie. And while the franchise has had five films from five different directors, the general formula stays the same: A globetrotting plot, tense and super-intricate action sequences, and a plot that’s twisty to the point of being sort of ridiculous. Oh, and those funny masks.

The one that’s gotten all the attention is Cruise jumping onto a plane as it takes off; that’s just the pre-credit sequence. The real centerpiece has Cruise sneaking into an underwater facility, with only three minutes to spare, in order to allow Pegg to sneak into a government facility undetected. There are also multiple chase scenes and a lot of fighting too.

The plot has the secret agency known as the IMF battling a global terrorist faction known as “The Syndicate,” not to be confused with the X-Files villains of the same name. Meanwhile, a Senate committee, at the urging of the head of the CIA (Alec Baldwin) is trying to shut the IMF down.

Cruise is back as Ethan Hunt, certainly in impeccable fighting shape for a man of his age. The plot takes him from London to Vienna to Morocco and back to London again, as he goes toe to toe with Syndicate leader Solomon Lane (Sean Harris.) Cruise is assisted by Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames; it’s never explained what happened to the Paula Patton character from the last film, or for that matter Michelle Monaghan, Cruise’s love interest in the last two films.

Instead we get Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson), a British spy who may be either friend or foe. But either way, she’s a fantastic character, played by an unknown who’s unlikely to remain so for long. And her name’s Ilsa- of course she turns up in Casablanca.

The supporting cast is strong and deep, with Baldwin (playing a colorful bureaucrat much like he did in The Departed) a welcome addition. Renner, after last year’s “Kill the Messenger,” is still fighting the CIA. And fans of “In the Loop” will be happy to learn that Simon (Tom Hollander) has been promoted in the British government, all the way to prime minster.

While it’s a tick below “Ghost Protocol,” “Rogue Nation” is a winning effort- much better than you’d expect from the fifth film in a series featuring a 53-year-old man as an action star.

Movie Review: “Irrational Man”

“Irrational Man,” Woody Allen’s latest film, represents Allen making a version of “Crime and Punishment” for at least the third time, and the story of an older man finding bliss in the charms of a younger woman for about the 25th time. It plays something like a Woody’s Greatest Hits, minus only specifically Jewish angst and a gorgeous, daffy blond.

Irrational Man The film has its charms, but it’s ultimately a lot of been-there, done-that. And what we saw when Tom Wolfe tried to write a novel about college applies here as well: When a man who’s past the age of 75 sets out to create a work of art about today’s college life, it can only end in tears.

“Irrational Man” stars Joaquin Phoenix as a celebrated author and philosophy professor who takes a teaching job at a fictional Rhode Island college. Despite his pronounced paunch (prosthetic, I hope), tendency towards gibberish philosophizing and obvious depression and alcoholism, women can’t stop falling at his feet. These include one of his students (Emma Stone) and a married fellow professor (Parker Posey.)

It feels at first like another of Allen’s trademark tales in which a guy falls for a woman many years his junior, like last year’s mediocre “Magic in the Moonlight,” also featuring Stone. But midway through, there’s a twist- out of nowhere, Phoenix decides to commit a murder. And rather than take the guilt-ridden Dostoyevskian route like “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Match Point,” this crime makes Phoenix… feel alive and purposeful.

It’s a worthy and interesting twist, although ultimately not one able to sustain a whole movie. It also doesn’t explain how multiple women in the same college town see it fit to chuck their existing boyfriends and husbands in favor of this drunken buffoon. Not to mention, Woody’s not exactly a keen observer of how young people act these days- in his universe, college students still get their news from the morning paper. Meanwhile, the third act just plain gets silly.

Both leads are quite good, though. Allen, apparently having tired of Scarlett Johansson, appears to have chosen Stone as his latest muse of choice, and she’s a good fit for Allen’s style. Phoenix continues his streak of outstanding roles, though even he can’t make some of the screenplay’s gibberish make sense. Posey is quite good too, although I confess that for most of the running time I thought she was Rosemarie DeWitt.

A version of this movie, called “The Rewrite,” was made earlier this year with Hugh Grant, also played an aging, down-on-his-luck college professor who simultaneously romances both a young student and a woman his own age. The difference is, the Allen film doesn’t even bother to make it an issue that a professor/student relationship might be a problem.

Woody Allen turns 80 later this year. Does he have one more great film in him? It wouldn’t surprise me. “Irrational Man” is more middle-of-the-pack Woody.

Movie Review: “Trainwreck”

For good and ill, “Trainwreck” has most of the hallmarks of director Judd Apatow’s previous work. There’s the scatological banter, the healthy clip of hilarious jokes, the distant imperfect father character, the awkward sex scenes, the protagonist who slowly but inevitably matures, the sprawling cast of rising comedians, and the tendency for both scenes and the movie itself to drag unnecessarily long. Trainwreck

The big difference, of course, is that playing the Steve Carell/Seth Rogen part is… Amy Schumer, Apatow’s first female protagonist, who’s also credited with the screenplay. And it’s a triumph all around- Apatow’s best film in years.

In the time since the film was shot- and its ad campaign has been ubiquitous for a good six months- Schumer has emerged as American comedy’s voice of the moment, the subject of daily thinkpieces about everything from feminism to body image to race. Now she’s something else- a movie star.

While different enough from Schumer’s standup and sketch work that it doesn’t feel been-there, done-that, Schumer’s character here is a version of her established persona: She plays a Manhattan magazine journalist given to overindulgence in sex, drinking and various other vices. Taught early on by her father (Colin Quinn) that “monogamy isn’t realistic,” Schumer resents her married sister (Brie Larson) and angles for a promotion at work (working for “Devil Wears Prada”-like editrix Tilda Swinton, totally unrecognizable in a wig and spray tan.)

She soon meets Aaron (Bill Hader), a nice-guy sports physician who represents security and stability, thus scaring Schumer out of her mind. And probably the best idea in the whole movie is that Hader’s best friend, rather than Rob Corddry or Ken Marino is… LeBron James, playing himself with absolutely impeccable comic timing.

The laughs here are plentiful, largely from Schumer, although she spreads the wealth quite a bit, to a cast that goes 30 or 40 deep. There are non-actors, like James and WWE star John Cena, who steals multiple scenes as a steakhead boyfriend. There are comedians, like Quinn, Dave Attell, and Mike Birbiglia, sitcom vets like Jon Glaser and Randall Park, and current-gen SNLers like Vanessa Bayer, Leslie Jones and Pete Davidson. Ezra Miller, so mesmerizing in “We Need to Talk About Kevin” and “Perks of Being a Wallflower,” has a weird sex scene that had me cackling. Hader, oddly enough, is maybe the funniest person in the whole cast, but is largely relegated to straight-man duty.

I was especially impressed with Quinn, always much more a comedian than actor, who’s playing the latest in a string of imperfect fathers in Apatow movies (in the tradition of George Coe in “Funny People” and Albert Brooks and John Lithgow in “This is 40.”) Apatow, meanwhile, keeps things moving well. While long at exactly two hours, this one’s still leaner than “Funny People” or “This is 40.”

No, the movie’s not perfect by any stretch. Schemer’s big eureka moment feels somewhat like a copout, and the film, like every Apatow or Farelly Brothers comedy to date, reaches the safe conclusion that traditional monogamy is the way to go. There’s a pretty huge plot hole, in that nobody seems to mind that Schumer is openly dating Hader while writing a magazine profile of him, which is especially weird when a completely different ethical breach becomes a problem.

There’s one scene, featuring cameos by Matthew Broderick, Chris Evert and Marv Albert, that isn’t funny and makes no sense whatsoever; it’s as if they all showed up on set one day, improvised unsuccessfully, and Apatow threw the failed first take into the finished film anyway. It’s never explained why LeBron James, who plays for Cleveland, is in New York virtually all the time. And the movie’s biggest stretch of the truth, by far, is that Amare Stoudamire comes back successfully from a knee injury to once again play for the New York Knicks.

Nevertheless, “Trainwreck” is consistently hilarious, and cements Amy Schumer as big-screen star. Another past Apatow star, Katherine Heigl, followed up “Knocked Up” with a string of starring romcom roles; I’ve got a feeling Schumer’s next several films will be much better.

Movie Review: “Ant-Man”

Ant-manFor the second straight year, Marvel’s late-summer entry is a film, based on a little-known comic book property, that’s a whole lot of fun. “Ant-Man” isn’t quite the joy that “Guardians of the Galaxy” was, but it’s still an inventive, very enjoyable action film. Casting Paul Rudd as a superhero, Michael Douglas as his mentor and Corey Stoll as the villain- were all masterstrokes, whichever director was responsible.

(The usual disclaimer- I’ve never read any comic books and therefore know nothing about the book histories of these characters besides what my friends and my kids tell me- and my kids have never heard of Ant-Man.)

“Ant-Man,” of course, is exactly what it sounds like: A superhero who turns into an ant. Or rather, an ant-sized creature with the ability to control actual ants- when Rudd puts on the Ant-Man suit, he shrinks to the size of an ant, and can go back to human size at will.  This creates a lot of opportunities for creative setpieces, whether it’s a fight on top of a child’s Thomas the Tank Engine train set or Rudd’s attempts to jump through a keyhole.

Rudd stars in the film as Scott Lang, an ex-con thief looking to reconnect with his young daughter. During a heist, he stumbles into the Ant-Man suit, which was created by Hank Pym (Douglas), another in the Marvel universe’s seemingly endless series of rich, brilliant scientists. He’s got a daughter of his own (Evangeline Lilly), who currently works for his evil rival (Stoll.)

Rather than the most recent “Avengers” film, which had to service seemingly dozens of characters and make connections with Marvel pictures of the past and future, Ant-Man is much leaner- it’s a relatively straightforward story that leads up to a pretty thrilling third-act heist. Not that there’s no connection to the Avengers universe- both facilities and people from the earlier films do show up.

Edgar Wright was famously supposed to direct “Ant-Man,” before he dropped out and replaced by the less-highly-regarded Peyton Reed. Reed, who made “Bring it On” but has had a more checkered career since, including a seven-year layoff since his last film, the Jim Carrey comedy “Yes Man.” I don’t know the film Wright would have made or how different it would have been, but Reed didn’t do a bad job.

If you like the Marvel universe, you’ll probably enjoy “Ant-Man.” But in a way that “Avengers: Age of Ultron” didn’t, this one stands on its own as a quality action film.

Movie Review: “Minions”

MinionsHow do you make an entertaining childrens’ movie about a group of characters who speak in gibberish language and, indeed, are barely characters at all? That’s the challenge of “Minions,” the origin story of the Twinkie-resembling henchman characters from the two previous “Despicable Me” movies, which plays at times like a Muppets sketch in which every character is Beaker.

Yet somehow, it (sort of) works.

The film gives the Minions a somewhat entertaining backstory. They’re presented as an ancient, nomadic people in the tradition of the biblical Israelites, who date back to the time of the dinosaurs, although they also crossed paths with the likes of the ancient Egyptians and Napoleon. The bulk of the action is set in the late ‘60s, with the little guys in London attempting to foil a plot by supervillainous Scarlett Overkill (voiced by Sandra Bullock) to steal the English crown.

On top of late-‘60s references that at this point are most likely to land with the grandparents of tykes watching this than their moms and dads, the plot is various glosses on “King Ralph” (a minion becomes King!), “Ghostbusters” (one of them does a Marshmallow Man impression) and the James Bond legend (handled much better than “Cars 2”’s attempt at the same thing. Then there are Beatles references, and even (?) a moon landing truther joke.

It’s also remarkably similar to last year’s “Madagascar” spinoff, “Penguins of Madagascar,” in that it’s a spinoff movie about largely mute supporting characters from a previously popular franchise, which makes up for the lack of speaking by sending the characters all over the world.

Sure “Minions,” like its predecessor, is a cut below the standards set by the stuff Pixar and Disney Animation Studios are putting out. But it’s tolerable.

Movie Review: “While We’re Young” 

While_We're_Young_(film)_POSTERNoah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young” is a truly odd movie- a character study combined with cinema’s most vicious, mean-spirited denunciation of the millennial generation yet, both yoked to an earnest defense of authenticity in documentary filmmaking. Oh, and significant supporting roles for members of both Peter, Paul and Mary and the Beastie Boys.

The film has its moments but overall, it’s somewhat of a mess, especially when it goes into loony-tunes land in the third act.

“While We’re Young” seems heavily influenced by Woody Allen, right down to the credits font, and specifically “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” as just like Woody, the hero is an unhappy documentary filmmaker working on a commercially questionable passion project based on endless interviews with a dull, aging, leftist intellectual. Also present? A sort of nihilistic spirit, and an absence of virtually any characters who aren’t risible assholes.

That’s Josh (Ben Stiller), a Gen-X aged filmmaker, married to Naomi Watts, and they represent the only childless couple among their friends. They’re soon befriended by Millennial couple Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), as Josh first sees Jamie as a potential protege. But instead, he emerges as a 21st century analog to Alan Alda’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors” villain. Also on hand are longtime Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz as Stiller’s new-dad friend, Peter Yarrow as his doc subject, and Charles Grodin as Watts’ father.

The film starts off as the makings of an interesting character study. The mechanics of adult friendships- especially along the kids/no kids divide- is a fascinating, under-explored subject, as is generational feuding among different ages of adults.

But “While We’re Young” falls victim to a few major pitfalls, the greatest of which is that it has a weirdly mean-spirited axe to grind with Millennials. The screenplay has a get-off-my-lawn vibe to it, about kids these days and their smartphones and texting. This is especially weird for a film starring Stiller, who both directed and starred in “Reality Bites,” what was meant to be a totemic film about Gen X. And guess what- everything that was said about Millennials now was said about Gen Xers in 1994. Everyone always hates the generation after them, and if smartphones and texting had been invented 20 years earlier, you know the young people of back then would have behaved much the same.

This whole attitude is bad enough early on, but by the third act it quickly curdles into moral revulsion, by implying (with little to back it up) that todays 20-somethings are unethical liars. It’s also sort of incongruous that Driver and Seyfried (who are 31 and 29, respectively) are cast as avatars of Millennialism.

The film’s other major agenda, in favor of authenticity in documentaries, is more admirable, although it ultimately amounts to let another fish-in-the-barrel shot at reality TV. But it’s totally afield from everything else the movie is about.

Baumbach has had a checkered career. He directed some great stuff early (especially “Kicking and Screaming” and the underrated “Mr. Jealousy,”) and then “The Squid and the Whale,” a movie that resonated deeply with people with divorced parents and less so for those without them. Then there was the odious “Margot at the Wedding,” although “Greenberg” (also starring Stiller) was an improvement and “Frances Ha” was his best film in years. “While We’re Young” has its moments, but it’s mean-spiritedness sinks it.

Mini-Review: “Jurassic World”

Jurassic World Oh, it’s not that bad. Nothing special either, though. The effects were cool, and the action sequences impressive. But it also represents the worst use of Chris Pratt ever- it didn’t even allow him to be funny or charming. And I still don’t think I’ve ever been impressed with Bryce Dallas Howard in anything.

I can’t say anything about the gender depictions/problematic-ness of the whole thing that hasn’t already been said already. Would I have noticed had I not read dozens of think pieces before seeing the movie? Probably. Yet the first word that comes to mind- not “sexist,” but rather “boring.”

I’d consider this film, while not entirely terrible, is neither worthy of having broken box office records, nor of its director taking over a “Star Wars” installment.