Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation

Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation does exactly what it is supposed to do: it provides action, thrills, suspense and a modest amount of sexual tension. Tom Cruise is back as Impossible Missions Force (IMF) agent Ethan Hunt with a new trademark stunt and a new motorcycle chase.

Holding of for dear life on the outside of a cargo plane as it ascends and flies through the air is impressive. Interestingly, this latest courageous Cruise daring action occurs just minutes into the film. An underwater mission to procure a computer file midway through the movie is tension-inducing as Hunt is forced to hold his breath for an extended period.

The basic plot: CIA head Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) wants the government to defund the IMF while an organization of rogue agents called The Syndicate wants to wipe out the IMF. Hunt with IMF teammates William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Luther Stickell (Ving Rames) work to take down The Syndicate and its leader Solomon Lane (Sean Harris).

As he does in the Star Trek films, Pegg adds a touch of welcome lightheartedness to the proceedings. He’s rapidly becoming one of my favorite character actors.

The gorgeous babe in the mix is Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson), an appropriately named character since M:IRN has scenes set in Casablanca and elsewhere in Morocco. Ilsa’s allegiance initially appears to be to The Syndicate, but she’s on Hunt’s side in short order. Hers is a classy sexiness, but she wears a two-piece swimsuit and a yellow evening gown very nicely. There’s no Hunt-Ilsa hookup in the movie, but there’s an attraction bubbling under.

Settings include an opera performance in Vienna, a formal state event in London and… a used record store (where Ethan Hunt gets his instructions via disc).

Director/scriptwriter Christopher McQuarrie keeps the energy going with only brief pauses in the action. Yes, Tom Cruise overacts a bit, but that’s his thing and he does it well.

Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation hits its marks and checks off most of the items on the list of things you’d want in an action-adventure spy story. Enjoy the ride!

Advertisements

Pixels

 

Pixels is based on a ridiculous premise but is executed surprisingly well.

Here’s the setup: One of those capsules filled with samples of our culture was sent into space in 1982. The capsule was recovered by aliens. They mistook the recording of kids playing video games to be an act of aggression. They respond by attacking earth by replicating classic games of the 80s. (I’ve been told that the TV show Futurama had an episode which presented a similar scenario.)

Sam Brenner (Adam Sandler) was a talented gamer in the 80’s but now installs electronics systems. His childhood friend Cooper (Kevin James), who is now President of the United States, calls him to plan a response. No, you don’t need to reread the previous sentence: Kevin James plays the president.

Sandler and James’ characters are not as idiotic and obnoxious as the ones they usually portray. Not to say this is highbrow comedy.

Another childhood chum, Ludlow (Josh Gad), still as nerdy now as he ever was, jumps into the battle to help take down the aliens and their various game forms.

The aliens communicate with earth via a clever series of videos featuring 80s celebrities. Not unlike the hilarious Bad Lipreading videos that have become internet hits, the segments with 80s celebs (including Ronald Reagan, Mr. Rourke and Tattoo from Fantasy Island and Daryl Hall and John Oates, among others) tell our heroes where the next attacks will occur.

For the battle royale climax, another 80s gamer who helps the cause is Eddie (Peter Dinklage), now a prisoner, who trades his gaming skills for a presidential pardon and celebrity sexual favors.

One of Sam’s customers, Violet (Michelle Monaghan), turns out to be a military advisor who is deeply involved with the alien crisis. She’s also there to provide a romantic interest for Sam.

Pixels is perfect for the current generation of gamers, as well as for Gen-Xers who played Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Galaga and other arcade favorites back in the day.

Pixels is silly, light amusement that provides some laughs and has many cool effects. I think it would be fun to pay for your admission with a pocket full of quarters—not unlike the coins you might carry to the arcade—but I’m not sure the kid in the ticket booth would appreciate the joke.

 

 

 

Southpaw

 

Controlling rage can be a challenge for anyone. For a boxer, uncontrolled rage can be devastating, professionally and personally. In Southpaw, a classic redemption movie, it is self-control that saves the day (along with boxing skill).

Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an undefeated light heavyweight champ who wins with sheer physicality fueled by anger. Because his style is more about strength than grace, he leaves himself open to opponent punches. Following a big win, wife Maureen (Rachel MacAdams) urges him to take a break. She fears he’ll become punch drunk.

Later, as Hope exits a charity event, he is taunted by up-and-coming boxer Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez). Maureen urges her man to keep moving but his rage takes over and the two boxers get into a scuffle. As the tussle escalates, someone pulls out a gun. A shot is fired, killing Maureen.

Things go downhill quickly. An angry Hope drives a car into a tree. In his return to the ring, he punches out a referee, leading to his suspension. The big money offers from promoters and HBO disappear. He loses his mansion, his cars and, most sadly, his daughter Leila (Oona Laurence).

Uncontrolled rage is the culprit again at the court hearing to decide whether his daughter becomes a ward of the state. He loses her.

Hope moves into an apartment in a seedy part of town and takes a job as a janitor at a small boxing gym run by Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker). As Hope begins to mentor the kids who frequent the gym, Wills develops a fondness for Hope. Following an unsanctioned exhibition, Hope gets a shot at a match versus Miguel Escobar.

With training and support from Wills, Hope steps into the ring with a different attitude. Hope plays defense as well as offense. If you’ve ever seen a sports movie, you can guess the outcome.

Gyllenhaal, who has been brilliant in recent films Nightcrawler and Prisoners, should be a strong contender for year-end awards for his work in Southpaw. This is a gritty performance filled with realistic fight sequences and injuries that look painful.

Southpaw is beautifully directed by Anthony Fuqua. A favorite shot is a POV shot snakes around a corner to show a physically and emotionally spent Hope sitting naked on a shower floor.

The movie is good. Gyllenhaal’s performance is the reason to see it.

Infinitely Polar Bear

Infinitely Polar Bear is a movie about a man with a mental illness. It gets a few things about the condition right and one big thing wrong. Mark Ruffalo gives a strong performance as a bipolar person who is trying to manage his illness.

People with mental illness often smoke a lot. Cameron (Ruffalo) has an unfiltered Lucky in his mouth throughout most of the film. The story is set a few decades ago when smoking was generally permitted in public places.

Other family members may shun relatives with mental illness. This is especially true if the family is of an upper economic status. Cameron’s family fails to give him the support he needs—emotionally and fiscally.

Many people with mental illness decide at some point that they are well enough that they no longer need to take their medications. Cameron tries that trick.

The story begins with Cameron’s breakdown. He is institutionalized where he receives strong medicine. He is released to a halfway house and soon after gets his own apartment in Boston.

His wife Maggie (Zoe Saldana) and their young daughters (Imogene Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide) live separately from him. When Maggie gets a scholarship to Columbia University in New York, he takes the girls. Sometimes he is up to the challenge and at other times he fails miserably.

The film’s story wraps up more neatly than those of many families dealing with mental illness. The message is “simply take you meds and things will be fine.” As anyone who has a family member with a mental illness will tell you, it’s just not that easy.

Writer/director Maya Forbes has handed Ruffalo a juicy opportunity to exercise his acting chops and he is up to the task. Infinitely Polar Bear has strong performances by actors playing memorable characters who are moving ahead in their lives. But their destination is for the Hallmark Channel happy ending crowd, not for those of us who can handle a more realistic and honest outcome.

Trainwreck

Amy Schumer homers in her first major league at-bat. Trainwreck is funny and she is the movie’s title star. Just as importantly, she also gets the lone credit on the “written by” card.

Amy Townsend (Schumer) is not a loser. It’s her love life that’s a trainwreck. She’s a woman who men pursue. But most of her hookups are just one-night stands, a few of which are hilariously depicted in the film.

She’s a writer for a Maxim-like men’s magazine called S’Nuff. Her editor Dianna (Tilda Swinton) assigns her to write a profile of a sports medicine doctor, Aaron Conners (Bill Hader), whose patients include several big name pro jocks. Among them is LeBron James (played by, in a casting coup, LeBron James, who turns out to be an excellent performer).

Following her first visit with Aaron, he takes her to dinner. They spend the night together and begin a normal relationship, which is not Amy’s normal M.O. The inevitable bumps in the road occur leading to a happy resolution and solid laughter along the way. Along with the raunch, there’s some real sweetness.

The cast also includes Brie Larson as Amy’s sister Kim and Mike Birbiglia as Kim’s husband Tom. Colin Quinn is wonderful as Amy and Kim’s cantankerous, ailing father. Daniel Radcliffe and Marisa Tomei appear in an art house film that Amy attends with one of her less refined boyfriends (WWE wrestler John Cena). Ezra Miller and SNL vet Vanessa Bayer appear as Amy’s co-workers.

Director Judd Apatow has delivered raunchy romantic comedies with a heart before. He has nurtured talented actor/writers before. (See Seth Rogen.) Apatow’s a pro who knows where the good/bad taste line lies and dances all around both sides of it. Schumer’s script (which he acknowledges he tweaked) has some holes, but is fresh and funny.

Amy Schumer is riding high on a positive wave generated by a successful Comedy Central TV series and tons of good media publicity for Trainwreck. The horrible comments made earlier this year by internet trolls regarding her physical appearance—she’s not the traditionally glamorous babe seen in most rom-coms—have led to backlash in her favor.

Trainwreck would be a respectable effort if it came from a veteran. Coming from a rookie writer/actor, it’s damned impressive.

Ant-Man

Another Marvel Comics character comes to life in Ant-Man and has apparently birthed a new movie franchise.

Paul Rudd is a pretty boy actor from rom-coms and buddy movies—not your typical action hero. Rudd plays Scott Lang, just sprung from San Quentin where he did time for burglary.

When he can’t keep a job at Baskin-Robbins because of his felon past, his friend Luis (Michael Pena) guides him to a break-in gig. It turns out to have been a setup, arranged by Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). When Pym sees that Scott is crafty enough to have busted into his safe, he drafts Scott to put the technology he developed into play and become Ant-Man.

With a press of one button he becomes ant size, with the press of another, he returns to full size. Ant-Man has a mission: to derail the work being done by Pym’s successor, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). Pym developed the tech that made Ant-Man work. Now Cross is working to perfect his version of that tech to deliver a similar shrinking man he calls Yellowjacket, which he promises would allow its owner to control the world.

Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) is Pym’s daughter who continues to work with Cross. As the film begins, it’s not exactly clear whose side she’s on, but it soon becomes clear that she’s daddy’s girl. Her sparring with Scott creates some low boil sexual tension.

Ant-Man takes its time getting to the real action while Scott’s family situation is examined. He’s a divorced dad who wants to see his young daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). His ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer) and her boyfriend Jim (Bobby Cannavale) want him to stay away until he becomes solvent.

When Scott begins training as Ant-Man, the fun begins. He learns to run and leap through keyholes, timing his shrink/expand buttons to allow smooth passage. The film’s climax takes place in and around the lab that produced the technology and at the home where daughter Cassie lives.

Ant-Man is a fun film, thanks to script revisions by Adam McKay and Rudd. Ant-Man is notably lighter, less serious than your typical Marvel film. A highlight is a brief encounter with another character from the Marvel universe. Ant-Man is directed by Peyton Reed.

(FYI, Should a shot or two in Ant-Man trigger a memory of the 1989 film Honey I Shrunk The Kids, take note that Ant-Man first appeared in Marvel comic books in 1962.)

Minions

Minions is more cute than funny. Despite its quick-moving story and a handful of memorable human characters, Minions is tailor-made for the younger crowd. Little kids should love it. For adult filmgoers, it’s a definite maybe.

In the two Despicable Me movies, the minions were amusing support players; here the capsule-shaped yellow creatures are the film’s centerpiece. When a TV sitcom sidekick gets a show of his/her own, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Are the minions strong enough to carry the movie? I say yes, but it’s borderline.

The film opens with the evolution of their species. The minions seek their life’s mission: to serve the worst villains they can find. The list includes a T-Rex, Dracula, Napoleon, etc. When minion life becomes boring, three minions (Kevin, Stewart and Bob) set out to find new villains to serve.

They come ashore in 1968 New York City where a billboard touts one of America’s real life political villains. But the yellow trio hitches a ride to Villain Con in Orlando with Walter and Madge Nelson (Michael Keaton and Allison Janney) and their kids. At the con, they meet up with Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock), touted as the first female super villain, and her husband Herb (Jon Hamm).

When she drafts them to do her bidding, they join her in England where she conspires to take the crown from Elizabeth. After a series of wacky activities, the Queen gets her crown back and (with an assist from the other minions who’ve joined them in London) the trio emerge as heroes.

Because of its 60s setting, the soundtrack includes classic tunes from The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Turtles, The Kinks and The Who. An appropriate salute to the minions’ pigmentation is Donovan’s Mellow Yellow. (The minions hum the opening Universal fanfare… which would’ve seemed clever if the Barden Bellas hadn’t just done it better in Pitch Perfect 2.)

Minions ranks a notch below the two Despicable Me movies, but should draw huge audiences because of the love for the predecessors. AND because of heavy marketing—(get your Minions Happy Meal!)—aimed at that youthful target. Sometimes an animated film has just as much adult appeal as kid appeal, if not more. That’s not the case with Minions.