Thursday, July 30, 2015

'Mission: Impossible' scores again

A worthy addition to a reliably entertaining franchise.

The well-orchestrated action is plentiful, and an intense Tom Cruise approaches his role with the usual grim determination.

What else could we be talking about but a Mission: Impossible movie, this one entitled Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation?

I shouldn't be flip, though.

Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher and The Way of the Gun) drives the movie with sufficient skill to ensure that the Mission: Impossible series remains one of the more reliably entertaining franchises of recent years.

A breathless opening finds Cruise's Ethan Hunt hanging onto a speeding jet, but before you even dip into your popcorn, the movie has jumped into a plot that begins with the IM force being dissolved by Washington bureaucrats.

Suddenly a rogue agent, Hunt is left to battle with a world-threatening outfit called "The Syndicate," and we're left to wonder whether the lithe and lethal woman in this scenario (Rebecca Ferguson) can be trusted.

A spy who early on saves Hunt from Syndicate bad guys, Ferguson's Ilsa Faust may not be entirely on the righteous side of the fence.

With any Mission Impossible movie, character and plot deficiencies are easily overcome by great set pieces.

Rogue Nation never quite matches the vertiginous thrill of the signature scene from 2011's Ghost Protocol, the one that found Hunt hanging off a Dubai skyscraper.

Still, McQuarrie is no slouch when it comes to action.

A prolonged sequence at a Vienna opera house proves classy and exciting, action coupled with gorgeous music from Puccini's Turandot. An underwater scene generates plenty of tension, and Hunt's obligatory motorcycle chase -- this one across a winding mountain road -- is executed with quick-cut precision.

The usual suspects arrive, adding color and linking Rogue Nation to the series' past:

Simon Pegg reprises his role as Benji Dunn, the movie's technical wizard, as well as a comic foil for Hunt.Ving Rhames returns as an ace tracker.

Jeremy Renner shows up again; he's the IMF guy who -- in the movie's first half -- is stuck in Washington trying to defend his colleagues before a very official looking committee.

Alec Baldwin joins the fray as a CIA chief who wants to shut down the IMF. He regards Hunt as a loose cannon who needs to be eliminated.

Ferguson, a Swedish actress, lands a breakout role. She brings beauty and subtle helpings of gray matter to her character, giving the movie an aura of intelligence, it might otherwise lack.

At 53, Cruise continues to bring coiled energy and a sense of danger to a role that seems tailor made for him.

A gem? Hardly. The plot can feel preposterous enough to be laughable, and the movie doesn't always bristle with wit. At times, Rogue Nation feels like a Bond movie that's taking itself way too seriously.

Still, abundant style and excitement keep this one solidly in the plus column. Not bad for a series that's now in its 19th year.

Woody's latest breaks little new ground

An unconvincing work about a depressed philosophy professor.

In his new movie Irrational Man, Woody Allen chews over existential and ethical questions that feel so familiar, they go down without much struggle. That's not a good thing for a movie that's trying to deal with disturbing moral questions.

Allen's movie toys with big ideas, but little in Irrational Man seems deeply felt. And the movie's intellectual life seems more like patina than a rich vein of dramatic ore.

A capable Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, a dispirited philosophy professor and former political activist who has concluded that life is meaningless.

Newly arrived at fictional Braylin College in Rhode Island, Abe is regarded as brilliant but erratic, maybe even a little scary. He has a reputation as a womanizer, and doesn't seem to care about anything. He goes nowhere without a flask full of single-malt Scotch.

Allen does a decent job establishing an academic milieu that seems far removed from mundane realities, but doesn't seem to know what to do with the rest of his movie, which eventually arrives at a far-fetched turning point.

Abe springs to life only after he tries to plan the perfect murder.

Of course, there's also sex.

Seeing an opportunity to relieve her boredom, an unhappily married professor (Parker Posey) tries to drag Abe into the sack. Downtrodden and impotent, Abe can't initially oblige.

Abe also resists but ultimately succumbs to the earnest charms of one of his students (a lively and appealing Emma Stone). By the time Abe gives in to Jill, thoughts of murder have reinvigorated his dormant libido.

The supposedly fascinating Abe begins to take over Jill's life. She's smart, young and still-impressionable. She's also beginning to lose touch with her adoring boyfriend, a sincere college kid played by Jamie Blackley.

At various times, Allen makes us privy to Abe's thoughts. At other times, we listen to Jill's thoughts, not that either of them is all that interesting.

Particularly in the early going, Allen clutters the dialogue with talk about Kierkegaard and Kant. Maybe that's why the movie seems like a strange hybrid: part term paper, part thriller and part satire about academia.

The theme in Irrational Man -- the meaning of ethics in a meaningless and random universe -- was better handled by Allen in movies such as Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point.

I'd say Irrational Man improves on Allen's last outing, Magic in the Moonlight, which also cast Stone in a principal role, and Phoenix, Stone and Posey remain in good form throughout.

But for all its attempts to deal with weighty matters, Irrational Man comes off as slight. It's a minor addition to the expansive Allen catalog -- not to mention one that overuses Ramsey Lewis' rendition of The In Crowd.

The bottom line: Irrational Man isn't difficult to watch; it is, however, not always easy to believe.

When students become prisoners

Re-living a brutal experiment at Stanford University
If you're looking for a drama that demonstrates the alarming malleability of human nature, you may want to try The Stanford Prison Experiment, a tightly wound look at a real-life experiment that took place at Stanford University in 1971. Twenty-four students volunteered to play prisoners and guards, roles that were arbitrarily assigned. Billy Crudup plays Dr. Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist who concocts the experiment. He believes that his foray into how men behave under pressure ultimately will benefit society. A capable group of young actors portray the guards and prisoners. Working from a screenplay by Tim Talbott, director Kyle Patrick Alvarez ably puts the story through its psychologically brutal paces. The point: People will rise (or in this case "sink") to their assigned roles in any relationship based on unequal power. The screenplay raises the right ethical questions, although it's clear from the outset that the experiment qualifies as a questionable endeavor. Long before the experiment reaches its abrupt conclusion, you may find yourself wondering whether you're looking at science or sadism.

A haunting look at horrible carnage

Director Joshua Oppenheimer brings us another documentary about mass murder in Indonesia.

In 1965, Indonesia went through a harrowing bloodbath in which the army encouraged civilians to murder anyone deemed an opponent of a coup that brought an officer named Suharto to power.

Indiscriminately labeled Communists, victims were ruthlessly slaughtered and hacked apart. More than a million died within a single year.

If this insane carnage sounds familiar to moviegoers, it's because of director Joshua Oppenheimer's Oscar-nominated documentary, The Act of Killing. In that gripping and bizarre 2012 film, Oppenheimer talked to perpetrators of the violence and had them re-enact the killings, which many spoke about with robust pride.

The movie was as difficult to watch as it was haunting, so it's hardly surprising that Oppenheimer couldn't let this subject go. Once you've seen into the heart of darkness, it's not easy to pretend that you haven't.

Oppenheimer's new film -- The Look of Silence -- adds to our knowledge of what happened in Indonesia, and gives us another glimpse into the minds of killers who remain unrepentant and even boastful about what they did.

But this time, we also get a feel for the torment of relatives who lost loved ones to the mob.

Oppenheimer builds his documentary around Adi, an optometrist whose brother Ramli was killed at Indonesia's Snake River, site of the murder of more than 10,500 people. Ramli died a year before Adi was born.

Adi visits the men who participated in the killing of his brother to fit them with glasses. Their vision may be improved, but few are able to see the harm in what they've done.

We also meet Adi's aging mother and addled father and are told that both may be more than 100 years old. Adi's father is lost in the fog of dementia; his mother remembers -- all too well.

A persistent interrogator, Aid conducts probing interviews with men who find ways to justify their ruthlessness and sometimes even talk about it with smiles on their faces. At times, they look like old men fondly recalling athletic exploits from high school days.

More than one of them reveals that in order to keep from going crazy, he drank the blood of a victim. That's not a metaphor. It's a literal statement about the ways in which some of these men swallowed their crimes.

We also meet the children of perpetrators. They're either embarrassed or defensive about what their fathers did. One expresses a sincere hope for reconciliation.

Listening to stories about mass killings -- recounted with exacting and graphic detail -- makes for difficult but necessary viewing: Each of these stories reveals how people attempt to justify even the most perverse behavior.

Time and again, Adi is told to leave the past in the past, but this past becomes an alarming part of our present, a warning about the crimes committed by men who are convinced that they're right.

Movies such as The Look of Silence ask us to look horror in the face in hopes that we won't allow it to be detoxified by time. It demands that we reconsider what we believe about the world in which we live. You won't soon forget it.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

No funny rest stops in this 'Vacation'

A dud of an attempt to revive a franchise.

If you're looking for a break from stupid comedy, Vacation isn't likely to fill the bill. This lame attempt to revive a dormant franchise -- the last of four Vacation movies hit screens in 1997 -- vainly tries to wring new laughs from an old premise, the one that made the 1983 original a hit.

Ed Helms (of the Bachelor Party movies) plays Rusty Griswold, the grown son of Clark Griswold, the character Chevy Chase portrayed in the original.

A disrespected pilot for an economy airline, Rusty has the same idea that his father had more than 20 years ago. He wants to bring his family closer together by taking them on a car trip from Chicago to California, home of Walley World, the theme park from the first movie.

Christina Applegate portrays wife Debbie Griswold, and Skyler Gisondo and Steele Stebbins play the Griswold kids.

The movie -- which features late-picture cameos from Chase and Beverly D'Angelo, the original Griswold mom -- stuffs its trunk with gags that tend to be more painful than funny, not to mention a few that are disgustingly gross.

How gross? At one point, the Griswolds find themselves covered with excrement, having mistaken a pool full of sewage for an invigorating hot springs.

The trip begins when Helms' dim-witted Rusty rents an Albanian car for the trip. Surprise! Nothing about the Albanian "Prancer" -- which looks the same when viewed from either the back or the front -- works properly.

A running gag involving a Griswold confrontation with the driver of a semi is predictable and dumb. And the youngest Griswold -- the kid played by Stebbins -- is one of the more obnoxious movie kids in some time, a foul-mouthed brat.

Throw in jokes about pedophilia, shabby motels, and the Griswolds' fading sex life and the picture should become clear.

Perhaps to add more connection with the original, Rusty stops to visit his now grown sister (Leslie Mann) who's married to a hunky weatherman (Chris Hemsworth) with a very large ...

Oh, the hell with it.

Vacation qualifies as more R-rated rot for a generation of moviegoers that probably never heard of National Lampoon, the humor magazine that spawned Animal House and the original Vacation .

Does any of this prove anything? Only that one trip to Walley World is enough for any family.

For the record: The original was directed by the late Harold Ramis (Groundhog Day) from a script by the late John Hughes (Ferris Bueller's Day Off). This one has two directors: John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein, neither of whom previously has directed a feature-length movie. Goldstein and Daley also are credited with having written the script.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Hard punch, but no knockout

Jake Gyllenhaal plays a boxer who hits the skids in director Antoine Fuqua's Southpaw.

In the realm of boxing movies (Body and Soul and Raging Bull being two of my favorites), Southpaw hardly qualifies as a contender.

Boxing movies tend to punch hard, but that doesn't mean they should be totally lacking in nuance. A predictable story about the rise, fall and ultimate redemption of a boxer played by Jake Gyllenhaal, Southpaw serves up plot points with all the subtlety of a clenched fist pounding a vulnerable face.

A Hip-Hop veneer masks some of the cliches, but director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) creates an in-your-face drama that fails to stake out a claim either as an example of hard-core realism or Rockyesque fantasy.

Brutal and bloody, Southpaw revolves around Gyllenhaal's performance as Billy Hope, a light-heavyweight champion whose rage ignites a dramatic and precipitous fall from grace.

Gyllenhaal effectively communicates Billy's polarity: fury coupled with occasional tenderness. Reticent and emotionally bottled up, Billy mumbles through a mouth that never seems to fully open.

I'd say that Gyllenhaal was better as a rogue TV cameraman in last year's Nightcrawler, but he's never anything less than intense in Fugua's full-bore assault on the senses.

Raised in a New York City orphanage, Billy is married to Maureen (Rachel McAdams), another product of the city's indifferent child-care system. They live in a mansion, want for little and have a loving marriage.

Early on, we learn that Maureen thinks Billy should take a break from boxing; she believes he's only a few steps away from permanent brain damage.

Oona Laurence plays the cute, bespectacled daughter who increasingly figures into the plot.

I'll leave the family drama for you to discover in a theater, but you should know that a terrible calamity results in Billy hitting the skids and being discarded by his self-serving manager (Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson).

Billy also takes a Jake LaMotta style beating in the ring, a form of self-inflicted punishment. Billy apparently wants to pay for his sins.

When Billy finally embarks on the comeback trail, he receives help from the tough-minded proprietor of a run-down gym, a worn-looking Forest Whitaker.

Whitaker's Tick Willis, who works with poor kids, teaches Billy the fine art of defense, convincing him that his future depends on controlling his anger -- both in and out of the ring.

Fuqua goes to great lengths to make the audience feel the punches that are thrown in the ring, and he certainly conveys the dizzying excitement that surrounds a major fight, a couple in Madison Square Garden and another in Las Vegas.

But when the final bell sounds, Southpaw stands as a movie steeped in a fatal contradiction: It talks loudly and boldly, but has nothing much to say. It's full of intense close-ups, but almost totally lacking in elevating perspective.

'Paper Towns,' not so easy to believe

A low-impact drama about a teen's romantic delusions.

Despite heavy reservations about the towering importance movies usually assign to adolescence, I still can be suckered into a good teen drama.

Sorry to say, but Paper Towns -- the latest movie to dip its toe into teen waters -- doesn't quite make the cut.

Based on a novel by John Green, Paper Towns is constructed to teach 18-year-old Quentin (Nat Wolff) a life lesson: Reality doesn't often confirm the fantasies that young men have about young women.

Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but Paper Towns's semi-appealing characters and thematic ambitions aren't matched by a credibly developed story.

Paper Towns is based on a novel by John Green, who also wrote The Fault In Our Stars, a "YA" (as in young adult) story that last year became a popular movie by bringing mortality into the mix.

This year's adaptation of a Green novel revolves around Quentin (Nat Wolff), a character whose voice-over narration can be heard throughout the movie.

As a kid, Quentin fell for Margo, a girl who moved across the street from him and immediately caught his eye.

By the time Quentin reaches high school, Margo (Cara Delevingne) has become a free-spirited but exceptionally popular girl. The two have drifted apart.

The film also supplies Quentin with a couple of obligatory buddies (Austin Abrams and Justice Smith). One's a nerdy white kid; the other's a brainy black kid whose parents own what might be the largest collection of black Santas in the western world, a bit of pointless quirkiness.

To his credit, director Jake Schreier pays a bit of earnest attention to each of Quentin's pals, allowing them to emerge as real characters.

The story is set in motion on a night when the adventurous Margo climbs through Quentin's bedroom window, and enlists him in a revenge plot against a boyfriend who cheated on her.

Yes, it's once again theme time: Can Quentin learn to take risks? Will he live fully or dutifully work his way toward college and med school, the plan he says he's made for himself?

As a result of joining Margo on her revenge spree, Quentin believes that he has rekindled the spark that once existed between them, but Margo quickly disappears from school and from Orlando, the town where all this is taking place.

Quentin's search for Margo propels the rest of the story; he's motivated by love and guided by clues Margo has left for him concerning her whereabouts.

A road trip Quentin takes to find Margo -- with his pals in tow -- isn't engaging enough to overcome a plot that never credibly explains why the elusive Margo leaves all those murky, complicated clues in the first place.

The clues and the search they launch feel like contrived bits of business that undermine what had been a reasonably believable effort.

Wolff gives the film an engaging center, and Delevingne is good enough as the movie's wild child, but Paper Towns remains a low-impact entry into the ever-growing, coming-of-age genre -- intermittently amusing, but not much more.

If you don't already know (and I didn't), paper towns are fictional spots that cartographers put on maps to ensure that copyrights aren't violated. That might be the movie's biggest revelation.

Peeling off LA's facade

Tangerine: a sometimes comic foray into the world of two transgender hookers.

Technical matters usually play second fiddle to story and character when it comes to movie reviewing. But, for me, one of the important reasons to see Tangerine -- a movie about transgender prostitutes scuffling to survive on the mean streets of Los Angeles -- centers on how the movie was made.

Reportedly named for the orange hues that dominate its images, Tangerine was shot entirely on iPhones (with special add-on lenses) and, one presumes, pro-level sound equipment, as well as lots of post-production massaging.

Tricks aside, any feature film shot entirely with iPhones -- specifically the 5s model -- should be of interest to anyone who cares about making credible, big-screen features on the cheap.

I wouldn't say Tangerine is a game changer; it's a continuation of game in which technological innovation already has made it possible for serious filmmakers to operate with budgets that once would have been considered laughable.

The iPhone approach is not incidental to the movie's style: Deeply saturated colors correspond to the street-saturated lives of the movie's characters, two transgender hookers (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and May Taylor).

Director Sean Baker takes a walk on Los Angeles' seedy side. Neither a moralist nor a journalist, Baker uses a down-scale milieu as a base for a comic exploration of people on the fringe -- "people'' being the operative word.

After spending 28 days in jail, Rodriguez's Sin-Dee Rella is back on the streets. Taylor portrays her best friend Alexandra, another hooker -- albeit one who's less prone to emotional fireworks.

When Alexandra tells Sin-Dee that her pimp boyfriend (James Ransone) has been sleeping with a woman (Mickey O'Hagan), Sin-Dee's fury is unleashed.

A whisper of a plot serves as an excuse to create a variety of scenes that introduce a variety of oddball characters, notably Razmik (Karren Karagulian), a stony-faced Armenian cab driver who routinely betrays his family with dalliances with transgender hookers. He's the kind of guy who's offended if he encounters a hooker with a vagina.

The main characters are played by trans actress, who bring an aura of gritty (and often funny) realism to the story, which -- by the way -- takes place on Christmas Eve, an inescapable note of irony in a film that's far removed from the wreath-and-holy mode.

Just when you find yourself wondering where the hell the film is going, Baker stages a farcical scene in a joint called Donut Time. Baker brings his characters together for a raucous comic finale.

To enjoy Tangerine, you have to accept the movie's profanity and sometimes squalid locations. Baker depicts this world with nonjudgmental realism, which means that Tangerine isn't always a pleasant experience.

Baker caps the movie with a coda about the way friendships survive and endure. I wouldn't say that Tangerine rises to the level of a feel-good movie, but it's a lively, full-on immersion in the tattered lives of characters who seldom (if ever) make it to the screen.

And, yes, it also proves that if you know what you're doing, you may not need a small fortune to make a good movie.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Amy Schumer's semi-nasty rom-com

In Trainwreck, the spotlight is on a sexually aggressive woman.

Is there anything Tilda Swinton can't do?

In the new Amy Schumer comedy Trainwreck, a nearly unrecognizable Swinton plays the crisply aggressive British editor of S'nuff, a trendy New York-based magazine that explores such ludicrous topics as the best ways for men to masturbate at work.

"Pitch me. Pitch Me,'' she goads her staff, looking for topics to satisfy her perverse journalistic appetites.

Swinton's role is parodic, but it leaves you wondering whether she might have added even more sharpness to a movie such as The Devil Wears Prada.

But wait. I already hear the groaning. Why am I talking about an actress who has a tasty supporting role in a comedy starring Schumer, the off-color, feminist-oriented comic who's garnering big-time attention at the moment.

The best answer, I suppose, is that I'm easing into what's going to be a review that resists falling too far on either side of the Schumer fence.

In Trainwreck, Schumer earns a center-stage spot on the big screen, but her movie hits flat spots even as it finds major comic flourishes. Besides, Trainwreck isn't nearly as creative as Schumer's Comedy Central show, Inside Amy Schumer.

In Trainwreck, Schumer plays Amy Townsend, a talented magazine writer who defends herself against emotional involvement by sleeping with just about every man who crosses her path.

Amy has rules about her profligacy. She never spends the night with one of her bedmates. She consumes lovers, and quickly moves on.

That's an interesting (and novel) enough premise for a comedy, and it probably should have carried Trainwreck further than it does.

After all, movies seldom portray women as aggressors in the sexual arena. Amy doesn't make love: She notches conquests.

This approach allows Schumer, who wrote the screenplay, to play to her strengths. In the war-of-the-sexes, her character takes no prisoners.

The movie, which was directed by Judd Apatow, has fun putting Amy in charge of its sometimes scalding narrative.

The most notable of Schumer's early picture assaults revolves around Amy's relationship with a muscle-bound hunk (John Cena) who's too dim to acknowledge his homoerotic impulses. He also can't believe that Amy's interest in him doesn't extend beyond the sack, where his idea of erotic talk has to do with filling her with protein. He makes love to her as if she were an exercise machine.

Amy's life, which also includes excessive alcohol consumption, makes room for encounters with her sister Kim (Brie Larson), a younger woman who's married and who has a stepson, a brainy child who rubs Amy the wrong way. Kim qualifies as the anti-Amy, but the sisters are close.

If there's any psychology here, it revolves around Amy's father (Colin Quinn): He's a bigoted Mets fan who left his wife because he couldn't stand the bondage of monogamy.

A demonstrably rotten father and a worse husband, Quinn's Gordon presumably served as Amy's role model when it comes to men. His philandering evidently paved the way for Amy's lack of trust.

Still, Dad's the person to whom Amy feels closest. When illness forces him to move into an assisted living facility, Amy dotes on him.

So where's all this going? The train wreck that passes for Amy's life eventually takes a predictable turn. In the course of researching a story, she meets a well-regarded sports doctor (Bill Hader).

A bit awkward around women, Hader's character falls for Amy. She falls for him, too, but to make the relationship work, Amy must lower her guard and overcome her indifference to all matters concerning sports.

The movie's love story accomplishes two things: It allows Trainwreck to spend too much of its indulgent 125-minute length chugging into conventional rom-com territory (girl meets boy, girl screws up relationship, girl learns lesson), and it introduces cameos from two basketball players LeBron James (funny) and Amar'e Stoudemire (not so much).

The movie, by the way, is set in New York during a time when Stoudemire was still a Knick. Last I checked, he plays for the Miami Heat.

Much of the humor revolves around sex and reflects Schumer's non-stop attack on feminine cliches and the male ego. And, yes, her humor can be laced with acid.

For the most part, Hader's playing straight man as the movie's romantic lead, a good guy whose patience qualifies as preternatural.

Here's the pivotal point, though. You may find yourself wondering why Hader's Aaron doesn't give up on a woman who seems intent on destroying relationships. Amy can be amusing, but she's not always likable. She's often a pain in the butt.

Apatow (This Is 40, Funny People, Knocked up, and The 40-Year-Old Virgin) doesn't always strike the right balance between the movie's comedy and its occasional serious moments, but directorial style doesn't much matter here. This is Schumer's showcase.

A footnote: It's refreshing to see James poke fun at the grim-faced intensity he shows on the basketball court. Those of us who follow the NBA seldom see LeBron James exercise his smile the way he does here.

Maybe in her next film, Schumer and James can go one-on-one. The result might make for good, competitive fun.