Friday, July 31, 2015

Mission: Impossible--Rogue Nation Review (2015)

I wouldn’t want to be in Ethan Hunt’s shoes.

In Christopher McQuarrie’s fun, over-the-top “Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation” (the fifth installment in the “Mission: Impossible franchise) Ethan (played again by Tom Cruise) puts himself in a number of high stress, gutsy situations. To his credit, he handles it all with his normal sense of cool. He’s both a fugitive from the C.I.A. and the target of a super secret terrorist organization called The Syndicate yet he remains laid back and unfazed. Cruise is his usual charming, rugged self; if you’ve never liked his action movie persona before, “Rogue Nation” won’t change that.

However, even Cruise fans might agree he’s upstaged by his co-star Rebecca Ferguson. That name probably doesn’t sound familiar but after this movie it should be. As the British spy Ilsa, Ferguson is sexy, intelligent, tough as hell, and oozes charm and wit in practically every scene. She surpasses her male co-stars at every turn, sometimes literally going toe to toe with them (she gets into a knife fight with a baddie near the end) and transcends her token female status.

Ferguson out-Cruises Cruise and Ilsa is frequently the most compelling character. You can trust Ethan Hunt and his Impossible Missions Force (IMF) teammates Benji, (the always funny, always likable Simon Pegg) William (Jeremy Renner) and Luther (Ving Rhames).  And there’s a villain that you know is going to be bad from start to finish but with Ilsa you’re never sure what side she’s on, where her loyalties stand and what her personal motives are. She’s a true Femme Fatale and I would love to see a future “Mission: Impossible” movie with just her.

Overall “Rogue Nation” is a big movie full of grand sweeping camera movements, a loud energetic score by Joe Kraemer and a story that gets increasingly outrageous and far-fetched. It also has some extraordinary, inventive action set pieces. Since the scene featuring Ethan hanging from a military plane as it takes off has been advertised the most McQuarrie wisely puts it at the beginning to start the movie off with a bang (if you’re feeling drowsy, rest assured, the roaring of the jet engines and Cruise dangling from the door like a loose part will wake you up). There’s also a fight scene that takes place on a catwalk, perfectly timed with a Viennese Opera performance and the sequence in which Ethan swims through an underwater vent is just as claustrophobic and tense as it sounds.

While these three set pieces happen (along with a few others) you remain transfixed. They’re impeccably staged, the editing isn’t too chaotic and overbearing and, as far as I can tell, they’re done sans green screen. You know exactly what’s going on and how each character fits into the action. This sense of coherence, continuity and authenticity makes them more substantial. Also, the fact that Cruise does all his own stunts adds an additional layer of authenticity and immediacy to the action sequences. That’s him hanging off a real airplane and swimming through the underwater vent while holding his breath for six (!) minutes. I can’t even hold my breath for a minute thirty. There’s a legitimate sense of danger pulsing through these moments, a chance that Ethan (and Cruise) may not make it out.

At the same time the action can be a little much at times. In addition to those clever primary action sequences discussed above, there are a whole bunch of less exciting more routine sequences—car chases, shoot outs, foot chases etc. The movie is basically ninety percent action, which can feel taxing. Some scenes go on longer than they should; for example, there’s a lengthy motorcycle chase in Morocco involving Ethan, Ilsa and a few anonymous bad guys that ends with Ilsa outsmarting Ethan and getting away. The sequence itself is wonderfully staged but for how simply it’s resolved, the chase needs to be trimmed down. And it lacks the creativity of those primary set pieces.

Another issue with “Rogue Nation” is McQuarrie’s script isn’t resistant to cliché and while cliché isn’t always bad there are a few glaring ones. Various flash drives—containing “important data”—are stolen, transported, traded and fought over. Flash drives have become the Holy Grail of the digital age and in action movies they’ve become overused. There has to be a more interesting McGuffin for the characters to pursue. On top of that The Syndicate is just your standard issue movie terrorist organization--lead by a well-dressed, well-groomed, one-dimensional rogue agent (played by a brooding, soft spoken Sean Harris) who eats Sushi. The more action movies I watch, the more I notice that the villains are being treated like afterthoughts.

These reservations considered I still had a blast watching “Rogue Nation.” Anytime the movie starts to drag, a clever quip or a bit of exciting goofy action picks it back up. While those centerpiece action sequences are worth the price of admission alone Ferguson is the best, most refreshing thing about the movie. I can’t wait to see what she does next.


Thursday, July 30, 2015

Irrational Man Review (2015)

In “Irrational Man” Woody Allen turns Fyodor Dostoevsky’s dense philosophical novel “Crime and Punishment” into a light modern-day mystery/romance. The film addresses a number of interesting philosophical ideas-- mainly existential choice (the freedom to choose) as well as randomness and chance and how those ideas interact with each other in real life. Unfortunately, Allen’s script doesn’t explore these concepts in any great depth—the movie often feels like a bland philosophy lecture. On top of that I just couldn’t buy the central relationship between its two protagonists.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe, a philosophy professor who takes up a summer teaching job at a small town college. He’s painfully misanthropic, disillusioned and seemingly on the verge of suicide. Why? Because the world is unfair and he feels he can’t make any meaningful impact. Things change when he befriends one of his students, Jill (Emma Stone) and when they’re out one day, he happens to randomly eavesdrop on a conversation concerning a judge that’s abusing his powers  Hearing this, Abe has an a-ha moment and decides to commit a rather drastic act, a decision that gives him a new lease on life.

This almost one hundred and eighty degree turnaround in Abe’s attitude is the first problem “Irrational Man” runs into. Abe decides to commit this act primarily for selfish reasons; he’s not going to sit back and accept the unfairness of this situation, he’s going to take action. In his mind he’s exercising his freedom to choose and feels doing this act will make the world a better place. While this philosophical reasoning is interesting Abe’s change comes too abruptly. He becomes a different man, happy and relaxed. He’s so sure in his decision that there’s no convincing him otherwise, a change in demeanor I just simply couldn’t believe.

Additionally, after his a-ha moment Abe becomes a rather stale, one-sided character. Like Abe, part of Ralskolnikov (the protagonist of “Crime and Punishment”) does believe his existential act is just and beneficial but there’s another part of him that’s racked with guilt and paranoia. He even becomes physically sick. That other side of Ralskolnikov (the side that makes him multilayered) is missing from Abe. You’d think that as a professional thinker, Abe would consider the repercussions of his actions and have that moral debate in his mind but he doesn’t. He practically shuts his brain off. There’s not much more character development after his turning point and Abe ceases to be a compelling character.

Another problem with “Irrational Man” is it deals with its philosophical ideas, themes and almost everything else in such a heavy-handed, surface level way. For starters, the fact that Abe is indeed a philosophy professor dealing with this big existential crisis feels too on the nose, too obvious. On top of that, between the hindsight voiceover testimonials from Abe and Jill, scenes depicting Abe giving lectures on concepts acted out in the movie and the various philosophical discussions between characters throughout, the film doesn’t leave much for the viewers to dissect afterwards. Everything is left out in the open. To hammer home the “Crime and Punishment” angle further we get a scene where Jill finds Abe’s personal copy of the novel with the judge’s name written in it.

In a scene early on during a lecture, Abe discusses the difference between philosophy in class and applying philosophical ideas to real world situations. In classrooms, you’re dealing with highly theoretical situations that may not fully apply to real life. It’s ironic then, that the picture itself takes such a textbook, didactic approach to its “real life” situations. The only thing missing would be to have Allen himself, standing off to the side of each scene, with a Philosophy 101 textbook open, breaking the fourth wall and instructing us on how a particular philosophical concept applies to the scene at hand.

Finally, the most frustrating aspect of “Irrational Man” is the relationship between Abe and Jill. From the get go Jill is infatuated with Abe; he even rejects her advances at first. She says she’s “in love” with him multiple times. Why is she so in love with him? At the beginning, Abe is a miserable, alcoholic, uncaring schlub and yet she can’t get him out of her mind. We’re told by others that he can be “charismatic--” not once is he charismatic. Jill says he has lots of problems but he’s “brilliant.” We don’t see this brilliance because he goes from being miserable to upbeat and one note. And anyway, not all brilliant people are necessarily sexy. In other words, I didn't buy their romantic relationship for a second and I found it particularly maddening that Jill is the one who lusts so hard after Abe. It sort of feels like an old cynical writer’s fantasy: cute, smart, funny, young Emma Stone lusting after the extreme misanthrope!

"Irrational Man" flat lines and fails to make good use of its meaty concepts. The ending is too quick, wrapping things up too neatly and again, not giving the audience anything to chew on. All in all, the picture is mostly a skin deep, heavy-handed philosophy lecture.


Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Vacation Review (2015)

While watching National Lampoon’s “Vacation” (starring Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo as Clark and Ellen Griswold) did you ever think to yourself: “Gee, I wonder what it would be like if their son Rusty was grown up and took his own family on a road trip to Wally World?” Neither did I. But that didn’t stop writer-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan M Goldstein from doing it anyway. So now we have a new “Vacation” with Ed Helms as Rusty and Christina Applegate as his wife Debbie. Surprisingly, this new iteration isn’t half bad and while it may not have been necessary the film still had me laughing consistently the whole way through.

At ninety-nine minutes the movie doesn’t wear out its welcome. It moves at a comfortable pace, never dragging, or lingering too long on a gag. There are a nice variety of random physical and verbal jokes (my personal favorite: state troopers from Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico meet and quarrel at the Four Corners) that keeps the movie from feeling overly repetitive and tedious. The movie doesn’t rely on the nostalgia factor as much as it could have, which is a relief considering how many recent sequels and remakes have tried so hard to wink at the audience and remind them of the original property. Except for a few throwaway gags and an extended unfunny cameo featuring Clark and D’Angelo (that disrupts the otherwise tight comedic flow) this new “Vacation” remains its own self-contained road trip comedy.

The acting is universally solid; Helms has perfected his well-intentioned, wimpy doofus persona first seen on “The Office.” He has an almost effortless ability to make you cringe with awkwardness. Applegate gets laughs as a reformed party girl who’s now a housewife (but she’s still got a wild side to her). Their two kids: James (Skyler Gisondo) and Kevin (Steele Stebbins) each have one characteristic apiece. James is junior wimp while Kevin is an obnoxious little jerk who bullies James. Believe it or not, those traits are able to sustain them for the duration of the movie. In fact, the movie overall sustains comedic momentum up until the end credits.

The plot can be summed up as: the Griswold family is on a road trip and shenanigans occur. The stakes are low-- it's as if Daley and Goldstein said, “we’re not going to try and develop characters and relationships or have much of a story, instead we’re going to tell jokes!” For the most part, that approach works because the movie doesn’t labor on for two hours. At the same time, because the film is so thin and favors joke telling over character and story it doesn’t have much staying power. I enjoyed my time while watching and then I moved on with my night, ready for something else. There’s not much to think about afterwards. In this way, “Vacation” is empty carbs: it’s quite tasty in the moment though you’ll be hungering for a midnight snack.


Thursday, July 23, 2015

Southpaw Review (2015

In terms of narrative, “Southpaw” plays things safe. Directed by Antoine Fuqua, it’s a simple and straightforward redemption story. A boxer goes from rags to riches only to drop back down to rags, and then must rebuild himself. Yes, boxing movies often follow predictable paths but in the case of Fuqua’s picture it’s not just the broad strokes that are the same, every plot point (with the exception of one) comes as no surprise. For all the suffering we see on screen things play out rather smoothly and routinely. However as far as bright spots go, “Southpaw” has Jake Gyllenhaal, and what a bright spot he is.

In the last few years Gyllenhaal has emerged as one of our best working actors. From the obsessive, twitchy detective Loki in “Prisoners,” to the skinny bug eyed creep Lou Bloom in last year’s “Nightcrawler,” Gyllenhaal has incredible range; the ability to be utterly unrecognizable from one role to the next. In “Southpaw” he transforms once again with his raw, explosive portrayal of fictional boxer Billy Hope. It’s unlike any performance he’s ever given and he puts forth every ounce of effort. He exhibits so much intense power and emotion that you can’t take your eyes off him. Billy takes a lot of hits in the movie (his fighting philosophy is: the more I get hit, the angrier I am and the harder I hit) and his reactions to each one look painfully authentic. Watching Billy stumble around post fight, with his swollen eyelid and bleeding forehead, you feel battered and sore as well.

Hope is a mumbly, street-smart boxer from rough circumstances. He’s impulsive and short-tempered but also gentle and compassionate. Beneath those muscles and bruises lies a big softie. Watching him interact with his wife Maureen (Rachael McAdams) and daughter Leila (Oona Lawrence) you see nothing but affection on his front. In the redemption portion of the movie, when Billy loses Leila to child protective services, he displays genuine sensitivity and heartache. Gyllenhaal brings depth, dimension and immense physical presence (he actually bulked up in preparation for the part) to a role that could easily be one note.

Speaking of McAdams, the thirty seven year old actress is also terrific and her role is really the only real refreshing aspect of Kurt Sutter’s predictable script. Instead of being passive or a wet blanket side-ring wife she’s Billy’s smart, assertive confidante. She makes all of the decisions, keeps Billy stable and in line. He’s putty in her hands. Maureen is the dominant one in the relationship and her accidental death early on is what causes Billy’s life to spiral out of control. Without her, Billy is rendered vulnerable and even emasculated. McAdams only has about five or ten minutes of screen time but her presence can be felt in Billy’s anguish and hunger for redemption.

The section featuring Billy’s self destructive behavior in the wake of Maureen’s death is nightmarish and grotesque. I’m not sure grieving has looked this excruciating in a movie before. While the first couple scenes are effective it does begin to feel melodramatic and forced, like Fuqua is screaming: “LOOK! LOOK HOW MUCH HE’S SUFFERING!” We see it, Fuqua. We see it very clearly. And there are only so many sequences of pure anguish one can continually endure in a single sitting. Thankfully, things loosen up a bit when Billy reconnects with old friend Tick Willis, (Forest Whitaker) an ex boxer now running a gym to keep the local youth off the streets. Initially, Tick is simply the grizzled no nonsense, wise-cracking boxing mentor who gives Billy pep talks and forces him to reevaluate his life. Although soon enough we begin to see cracks in his foundation; he’s a wounded soul, full of bitterness and regret. The performance sometimes verges on loopy but Whitaker has gravitas, while also managing to bring nuance and subtle humor to the role.

Also strong in the redemption section is Billy’s up and down relationship with Leila. Father-daughter redemption isn’t a new concept but Fuqua embraces it and develops the relationship. The execution can be shaky at times but Fuqua sticks with it and Gyllenhaal and Lawrence are convincing. Their bond ultimately resonates and the redemption feels deserved.

I wish “Southpaw” had taken more narrative risks. I wish there had been less cliché lines of dialogue. The score by the late James Horner, while moving, is oppressive and gets in the way of the movie--making scenes more melodramatic than they should be. When two characters are having a serious heart-to-heart it’s never good to have a big instrumental score blaring in the background. On the other hand, the fight scenes are visceral and well done. Cinematographer Mauro Fiore uses hand held cameras, guiding us in and out of the ring, bringing us up uncomfortably close and personal with our battered, grieving protagonist.

Yet, the movie’s strengths primarily come from the actors. Without them, “Southpaw” would be much worse. But what a cast! Especially Gyllenhaal. It’s a performance of tremendous highs and his shear commitment to the role is astonishing to behold. It makes you wonder what character he will disappear into next.


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Stanford Prison Experiment Review (2015)

It doesn’t take long for the Stanford Prison Experiment to stop feeling like an experiment and start feeling like a real, unpleasant prison situation. It doesn’t take long for the eighteen year old boys who’ve been selected to play mock prison guards to become too drunk with power and the boys who’ve been selected to play mock prisoners to be abused and degraded and thinking they’re actually prisoners. However, Stanford Psychology professor Dr. Phillip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) keeps the study going.

Kyle Patrick Alverez’s alarming, uncomfortable “The Stanford Prison Experiment” is about the psychology behind the abuse of power; what kinds of situations make seemingly normal people turn cruel? It’s also a fascinating portrait of an obsessed, egotistical professor who’s determined to see his experiment through until the end. Additionally, the movie forces you to step into the shoes of the characters and think about what you would do in their situation  

The Stanford Prison Experiment was conducted from August 14, 1971 to August 20, in the cramped, windowless basement of the Stanford University Psychology building. The goal of the study was to test the effects of prison on an individual. It took less than forty-eight hours for test subjects to assimilate into their dominant or submissive roles. The mock guards began inflicting psychological torture and humiliation—making them do continuous push-ups and jumping jacks, making them recite their prison number again and again, taking their beds away, making them go to the bathroom in metal buckets, tying them up, etc.

It’s disturbing how much a brown uniform, a pair of sunglasses and a nightstick can empower someone. It’s even more disturbing to see the pleasure and glee some of the “guards” take in humiliating their prisoners. In the movie, the meanest one (Michael Angarano) adopts a phony southern accent, imitating the sadistic prison captain Strother Martin from “Cool Hand Luke.”  On the other side of the coin we witness mock prisoner Daniel (Ezra Miller) have a complete mental breakdown. Within two days, he goes from cocky and loud-mouthed, not taking the experiment very seriously, to a hysterical and frightened wreck.

“The Stanford Prison Experiment” is intense and unsettling; I went from nervously clutching my shoulders to violently biting my nails. Through a minimal, unassuming docudrama style, Alverez establishes an unnerving sense of heightened realism. He makes good use of the cramped “prison” setting, making an already stressful watching experience more stressful and claustrophobic. Cinematographer Jas Shelton often employs tracking shots taking us up and down the hallway, imitating the action of one frantically pacing back and forth. While watching, the picture hits you on a visceral level; you feel angry at the actions taking place on screen. How can these guys be so cruel?

And yet, when the credits role, the movie forces you to think logically about the situation. Your initial gut instinct is to pass judgment on the boys but it’s easy to do that from a position of spectatorship. It’s easy to say, “I would never do this” but if you were actually in their shoes, would that be the case? Similar to “Compliance” and “The Hunt,” “The Stanford Prison Experiment” evokes such a strong initial reaction out of you but then forces you to go back and examine it more closely. In the end you may be firm in your stance that you would never do such cruel things but hopefully you will have also considered multiple sides. We may all be capable of inflicting psychological torture.

 A bevy of talented young actors mostly seen in independent projects portray the test subjects--Miller, Tye Sheridan, Johnny Simmons and Thomas Mann, among others--who all give authentic performances, even if their characters remain somewhat underdeveloped. However, Crudup is the standout-- delivering an obsessive, unsympathetic, slightly sociopathic performance that really digs deep into the character’s psyche. The study ends up taking Zimbardo some dark places, places I’m sure he never thought he’d go. Near the middle he says to the other Psychologists assisting him, “I had no idea it would turn out this way, but this is important to me.” He’s become so intertwined in the experiment that he demonstrates a disregard for his subjects. Things get iffy early but he pushes on because of a selfish determination. He even becomes so obsessed that he alienates himself from his girlfriend and fellow psychologists. By the end of the film it’s just him, watching the action unfold on a video monitor from another room.

“The Stanford Prison” is an engrossing psychological drama; one that affects you on a gut level as well as a cerebral one. A movie capable of conjuring up that kind of duel response is nothing short of successful.