Mission most marvelous

The Mission: Impossible films are a curious anomaly. Despite all being big hits, the series’ track record has been spotty. The first film (1996), directed by Brian De Palma, was confusing. The second (2000) ranks as John Woo’s worst Hollywood film. The third (2006), directed by JJ Abrams, was an improvement – thanks in no small part to Philip Seymour Hoffman as the villain. The last, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011), directed by Brad Bird, was the best of the bunch – until now.

Producer and star Tom Cruise, working with screenwriter/director Christopher McQuarrie, whom he previously teamed with on Jack Reacher (2012), has taken Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation to new heights. This is the one Mission: Impossible that can truly stand alongside the best of the Bond films, the franchise it has emulated from the very first.

The film, which hits the ground running – before taking immediate flight – is an action-packed, globe-trotting extravaganza loaded with gadgets and gizmos, and boasting a storyline that’s not only entertaining but credible in and of itself, which ups the ante considerably.

Alec Baldwin plays the new head of the CIA, who’s determined to scrub the IMF (Impossible Missions Force), claiming and complaining – not unjustifiably – that the secret unit’s success rate has largely been due to pure luck. (He could have added consistent box-office grosses, as well.)

This is bad news for Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, who has just uncovered evidence of the existence of “the Syndicate,” an international terrorist network that, without the IMF, will have free rein to commit mayhem.

Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames return to the fold, and the new leading lady is Rebecca Ferguson as the amusingly named Ilsa Faust. She’s more femme fatale than damsel in distress, but an eyeful in any case … and it’s not entirely clear just whose side she’s on. Our villain this time is Sean Harris’ Solomon Lane, the Syndicate’s malevolent mastermind.

It’s not surprising, although it is encouraging, how it all turns out. Given the recent announcement that Paramount is developing a sixth installment, more Missions will be forthcoming. Let’s hope they’re as exciting and satisfying as this one. !

Woody comes up short with Irrational ManAt age 80, Woody Allen keeps knocking ‘em out, and Irrational Man is the latest effort from the prolific and acclaimed filmmaker, although these days he tends to leave the onscreen neuroses and insecurities to a younger generation of actors.

For example, Joaquin Phoenix as Abe Lucas, a paunchy, dissolute philosophy professor teaching at a tony Rhode Island college during the summer session. Even through his self-induced haze, he can’t help but notice the attentions of comely co-ed Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), and she can’t help but become besotted with him.

The romantic relationship between professor and student indeed becomes the talk of campus, but what’s surprising is how it’s condoned and even encouraged, to the point where Jill’s parents (Ethan Phillips and Betsy Aidem) invite Abe to a meal. That this is a Woody Allen film might well raise some eyebrows given this story development, and Stone has been photographed as gorgeously and luminously as possible by cinematographer Darius Khondji.

A lot of familiar names are dropped – Dostoyevsky, Heidegger, Kant, Kierkegaard – and both Phoenix and Stone indulge in existential debate in their voice-over narration. But what initially seems a (mild) comedy of pretentions becomes a (mild) moral meditation, as Abe becomes obsessed with committing a perfect murder.

Allen has previously tackled such moral quandaries before in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and Match Point (2005), but those earlier films were sharper and more penetrating than Irrational Man.

At least Phoenix isn’t doing a Woody Allen impression as Abe, although the character occasionally recalls his turn as the shambling, perennially stoned private eye in last year’s Inherent Vice. As a boozesoaked, sex-starved faculty professor, Parker Posey does a lot with a little and bids fair to steal the film. Irrational Man is by no means a total loss – or Allen’s worst film, for that matter – but it’s minorleague Woody Allen all the same. !

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