9/4/15: Midday on 70 Years of Pacific-Theater Films of World War II

Rodricks WWII Pacific Poster

70 years ago, on September 2, 1945, the Empire of Japan signed the official Instrument of Surrender, ending World War II (the Germans had surrendered on May 7 of that year). Join us on Friday, September 4, 2015, at 1pm, on WYPR 88.1 FM, for the Midday with Dan Rodricks show, when Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed (that’s me) – Chair and Professor, Department of Film/Video, Stevenson University – will discuss films about the Pacific Theater with guest host Aaron Henkin. From So Proudly We Hail! (1943) to Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) to The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) to Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) to Empire of the Sun (1987) to Unbroken (2014), with  many more films in between, we’ll cover the way movies have portrayed the Allied war against the Japanese and how that portrayal has evolved.

Add your voices to the conversation via email (midday@wypr.org) or phone (410-662-8780 locally, or toll-free at 1-866-661-9309). If you can’t listen locally, you can live-stream the podcast here: http://www.wypr.org/listen-live. If you can’t listen live, then check out the podcast later by visiting the show’s site. You can also leave your thoughts on your favorite Pacific-Theater films in the comment section of this blog.

Enjoy the show!

Recycling the Tired Trope of Pixie Mania in “Mistress America”

Mistress America

Mistress America (Noah Baumbach, 2015)

Much of Mistress America is all a blur – much like its poster (above) – at least in terms of coherence. Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha) plays Brooke, the future step-sister of our protagonist, Tracy (played by relative newcomer Lola Kirke – sister of “Girls” co-star Jemima Kirke – and most recently of Free the Nipple), a lonely first-year Barnard College student. Since Tracy has (for some reason) trouble making friends – though she sort of connects with fellow writing nerd Tony (a funny, heretofore unknown Matthew Shear) – she decides to call up the daughter of the man her mother is about to marry. She’s heard that Brooke is something of a free spirit, and that turns out to be an understatement: manically unstable would be a better description. Tracy is both mesmerized by, and skeptical of, Brooke’s bubbly babble. She decides to use Brooke’s (mis)adventures as fodder for the story (entitled “Mistress America”) she hopes will gain her access to Barnard’s prestigious literary society . Soon, though, she finds herself caught up in a Connecticut-bound road trip with Brooke, Tony (he’s the one with the car) and Tony’s very unwilling girlfriend Nicolette (an also funny, also heretofore unknown Jasmine Cephas Jones). The ostensible goal of the trip is to allow Brooke to reconnect with an old flame and the woman who stole him (Brooke claims), so that said ex can give her money for a restaurant development (the latest in a series of failed ventures) she has planned. Things don’t go anyone’s way, but many lessons are learned. Some fun is had. The end.

If you liked Frances Ha – the last collaboration between writer/director Noah Baumbach (While We’re Young) and Gerwig – and/or enjoy movies about “manic pixie dream girls,” then chances are you’ll like this movie more than I did. If, on the other hand, you find Gerwig to be as much of a blight on current independent cinema as do I, then stay away. What’s wrong with Gerwig? Only the fact that there’s nothing new or fresh in her performances that Diane Keaton (Annie Hall) didn’t already show us in the 1970s. It was funny then; less so, now.

But Mistress America is not an entire loss. The younger actors are quite appealing, and some of the writing in those college scenes does, in fact, surprise. But when co-scenarists Gerwig and Baumbach turn their attention to the character who is supposed to be the creative heart of the movie, their imagination fails and they recycle tired tropes. This is especially ironic given the constant press about how Gerwig – the director’s real-life paramour – is Baumbach’s muse. In their particular case, I would avoid mixing business and pleasure.

Sex, Drugs and Female Empowerment in Wonderful “The Diary of a Teenage Girl”

Diary of a Teenage Girl

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller, 2015)

Be forewarned, O faint of heart, that this movie features inappropriate sex between an adult male and a teenage girl. Even more alarming, that girl craves the sex, and more. Sure, she may be underage, and he may be taking advantage of her, but that doesn’t stop young Minnie Goetze, our fearless protagonist, from going for what she wants and wanting what she gets (for the most part). The Diary of a Teenage Girl, adapted from the 2002 text/graphic novel hybrid of the same title by Phoebe Gloeckner – and already previously adapted as a stage play by the same writer/director of this new cinematic edition, Marielle Heller – is a bold work that cares not one iota about our prudishness and/or potential shock at its taboo subject matter. It’s all about Minnie and her peculiar coming of age in 1976 San Francisco. As she slowly grows from child to woman (in ways far beyond the physical), we watch as she unashamedly proclaims her desires and follows through on them, consequences be damned. Conceived by women, produced by women, and firmly about women, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a masterful feminist tour de force that eschews polemical talking points and focuses instead on the highly entertaining – if at times alarming – journey of one very special young person.

Before watching the film, I first read the book, which I recommend to any and all, regardless of whether or not you see the movie. In it, Minnie sometimes recounts her adventures in comic form (she’s an aspiring graphic artist), but most often through the text in her diary. I was curious to see how Heller would handle both elements in the film. For the diary, she chooses to have Minnie record her thoughts on tape. In some ways, this is unfortunate, since it makes Minnie much less of a writer – an integral part of the source material – but it does thereby make the resultant voiceover flow logically from the action (I routinely dislike unmotivated voiceover in film). After my initial disappointment in this device, I quickly forgot about it, and just sat back to enjoy. As for the comics, Heller chooses to animate them, and thus creates many a magical moment where hand-drawn images wash over the screen, blurring the line between Minnie’s imagination and reality. I particularly like the way that Heller has additional animations hover around Minnie at crucial points (such as after sex) in the narrative. Make no mistake, this is a truly cinematic adaptation of the book. Heller has thought long and hard about how to handle the story in its new medium.

The marvelous – and relatively unknown – young British actress Bel Powley (Side by Side) plays Minnie. She’s in her early 20s, but easily looks 15 (maybe even 14). We meet her at the very start of the movie as she utters the words that set the tone for the entire enterprise: “I had sex today.” It turns out that her lover is a man 20 years her senior, Monroe, who also happens to be involved with her mother, Charlotte. The Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård (The East) plays the former with a wonderfully vague dopiness that recalls the young Bill Pullman in Ruthless People, while American comic-turned-now-serious actress Kristen Wiig (The Skeleton Twins) plays the latter as a doped-up narcissist too intent on her own good time to see what’s going on in her own apartment. Both provide adequate support, along with the rest of the cast, but this is really Powley’s film, her “coming out,” so to speak. She owns every frame, and helps us stay focused on her, rather than on the criminal neglect and abuse of the adults in her life. And in spite of the sex, and the eventual drugs and threats of rape, Powley helps us see that Minnie’s story is also filled with wonder and a fair amount of humor.

Truth be told, though, I was the only one laughing at my screening, perhaps because, having read the book, I knew what to expect; but trust me, it’s funny. And ask yourself: how often do you get to see a movie where the sexual desires of a woman (of any age) are front and center? What’s even better is that this is ultimately not about sex, but about Minnie learning to love herself. I would recommend to all parents of teenage girls, but given the R rating (there’s plenty of nudity, alcohol and drugs, beyond the sex) and tricky subject matter, I think it better that parents see it first, then bring their daughters. Marylanders, especially, should see the movie, since its development was partially funded by a grant from the Maryland Film Festival. But really, everyone should see it.

In “Listen to Me Marlon,” Brando, As Always, Mesmerizes

Listen to Me Marlon

Listen to Me Marlon (Stevan Riley, 2015)

This is not the first documentary about the great American actor Marlon Brando (there have been quite a few, in fact, including the comprehensive made-for-TV Brando in 2007), who died in 2004 at the age of 80, but it’s the first to feature so many words straight from the mouth of the notoriously private thespian. Director Stevan Riley (maker of the excellent Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007) gained access to the home tapes that Brando recorded over the years, mostly (but not exclusively) for self-hypnosis exercises, on which he ruminates on his life and his career. Combined with archival footage, these recordings allow Brando to narrate his own story, as if from the grave, guiding us on his journey from youth to old age. It’s a fascinating film that clearly intends to be the definitive account of Brando the man, and which comes awfully close to achieving that goal.

We open on the moment in 1990 when Christian, Brando’s son with actress Anna Kashfi, shot and killed the boyfriend of his half-sister Cheyenne. From this nadir, guided by Brando’s vocal palliatives (“Listen to me, Marlon,” he urges), we jump back to the 1940s and the actor’s arrival in New York, where he met Stella Adler, who would become his teacher and launch him into the career that made him famous the world over. As most people who were alive in the 20th century should already know, Brando revolutionized acting for both stage and screen in the 1940s and 1950s, taking the then-fresh ideas of the method school of acting and popularizing them through his success. As a restless and somewhat introverted soul, however, Brando was never at ease with his fame, and as this film makes abundantly clear, struggled throughout his life to reconcile what he saw as the silliness of his profession with a desire for a life of meaning. Those of us who love and admire many of his screen performances – his two Oscar wins, for On the Waterfront and The Godfather among them – can attest to just how meaningful Brando was to us, but to the man, himself, acting frequently left him feeling depleted and subsequently aimless. This film chronicles all of Brando’s misgivings, coming full circle back to 1990 and the aftermath of Christian’s crime (followed, 5 years later, by Cheyenne’s suicide). It’s an unhappy end, but not exclusively so. For in his final days, Brandon seemed to be more at peace with the importance of acting and how his own films may have touched others.

Riley constructs his movie with great care, and many of his own “methods” work wonderfully. I love the fact that there are no talking heads, leaving Brando as our (mostly) sole narrator. I also love the footage he found of Brando’s digitized head, which speaks to us as if from inside The Matrix. Unfortunately, some of the audio on the tapes is difficult to understand, at first (at least until our ears adjust to the hiss), and this fact is not helped by Riley’s misguided insistence on the use of intrusive non-diegetic music (most distracting during the sequences on The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris). Despite these weaknesses, however, the film is, overall, extremely successful at painting a clear and moving portrait of a very complex human being. It is a must-see for all Brando fans, as well as anyone who likes biographical documentaries.

“American Ultra” Offers Eisenberg’s Mad Skills, and Not Much Else

American Ultra

American Ultra (Nima Nourizadeh, 2015)

He’s a stoner! But wait, he might be so much more. What’s that spoon doing stuck in the throat of the man in front of him? Who knew that dopey, hapless Mike Howell was so handy with cutlery? That about sums up American Ultra: jokey and ultra-violent. It’s too bad that it’s not enough of either to entirely work as entertaining pop culture. It’s fun, at times, and so not completely without merit, but it’s so often not even successful on its own terms that it hardly warrants a trip to the theater. I’d wait for it to come out to come to the home-viewing option of your choice. And then I’d see if there are other options, first.

Jesse Eisenberg (The End of the Tour) plays Mike, and he’s by the far the best thing about the film. All awkward gawkiness, Mike is so consumed by anxiety that he can only really interact with the world if he’s stoned. He lives with his extraordinarily understanding girlfriend Phoebe – played by a perfectly acceptable Kristen Stewart (Clouds of Sils Maria) – and as the film opens (after an opening scene that hints at the mayhem to come before flashing back to three days earlier), the two of them are trying to take a vacation to Hawaii. Unfortunately, Mike (yet again) is too panicked to fly, and so back home they go, to their normal humdrum life. And then, without warning, we get a satellite shot of mopey Mike, smoking weed outside, and learn that he may be more than he seemed (which we already knew, given that opening scene).

Soon, warring CIA agents Connie Britton (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) and Topher Grace (remember him?) and their surrogates are battling over Mike’s fate, some wanting to kill him, some to rescue him. Except that Mike may not need any rescuing, since he’s got mad skills, as it turns out. With shades of The Bourne Identity and The Long Kiss Goodnight – among other sources – the film soon tells us what we’ve long since figured out for ourselves, and we’re on our way to the blood-soaked craziness promised in the film’s first few minutes. Most of the action is incomprehensible, but there are those moments where Eisenberg gets to deliver a line or two that shows how much he can do with very little. It’s quite a fine performance, stuck in the middle of a very mediocre film.

The Docucinema of Bold Ink: “Best of Enemies,” “The End of the Tour” and “Straight Outta Compton”

[NOTE from 8/22/15: I just added a post-script, below, to my review of “Straight Outta Compton.”]

My apologies, for this is going to be one of my occasional Frankenposts, with multiple movies folded into one larger piece. With the start of the fall semester hard upon us, I find myself more than a little overwhelmed with my Department Chair duties and final syllabus prep. Throwing these films together like this allows me to feel better about only writing a few paragraphs on each. I would add The Man from U.N.C.L.E. to the batch, too, except that I cannot find a way to link it, thematically, to the other three. It gets its own post (albeit a short one) only because it has so little in common with its fellow August 14 releases.

Best of Enemies

Best of Enemies (Robert Gordon/Morgan Neville, 2015)

How you feel about this new documentary co-directed by the helmer of the Oscar-winning Twenty Feet from Stardom may well boil down to whether or not you were alive in 1968, when the events it recounts took place. Barring that, if you have a strong interest in that time period and/or in the evolution of television punditry, you may well find yourself fascinated, regardless of age. Finally, even if the subject matter leaves you cold, both William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal – the two subjects of the film – each have enough reptilian charisma to keep you watching in spite of the heavy hand of the filmmakers, who underline their points in bold ink at every turn (they also add intrusive music that leaves no moment unscored). For my money, it’s a compelling story given a pedestrian treatment that sometimes rises above its aesthetic limitations.

To summarize: before the 1968 political conventions, ABC – the #3 network of the time (behind NBC and CBS) – decided on the Hail Mary move of hiring two intellectuals, each from an opposing ideological camp, to comment on both parties’ presidential nominations. Buckley was a well-known conservative writer, founder of National Review, and Vidal was an equally well-known novelist (Myra Breckenridge) and screenwriter (Suddenly Last Summer), far to the left of Buckley. The network first asked Buckley to sign on and when they asked him for ideas on whom to hire as his on-screen partner, he indicated no preference, save that it not be Gore Vidal. So, of course, that’s who ABC hired. Audiences of the time responded by giving the struggling network the ratings it desperately craved – especially once Buckley lost his cool and threatened to punch Vidal – and voilà: the stage was set for all bloviating talking-head faux news to follow. What these gentlemen had, however, that many of their successors do not, was a firm command of the issues and a marvelous way with the English language. It’s too bad that we can’t just watch them without the constant editorializing of the directors (although I very much liked most of the expert interview subjects, including Buckley’s surviving brother, Reid, who help provide historical context). Still, the filmmaking is only occasionally truly distracting, and we learn so much about our present in this story about our past that I still have no problem recommending the movie to all.

End of the Tour

The End of the Tour (James Ponsoldt, 2015)

Full confession: I have never read any works by David Foster Wallace. The author, best known for his 1996 Infinite Jest, killed himself in 2008 after a long battle with depression. This movie, by James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now), tells the story of the end of the Infinite Jest book tour, when David Lipsky – failed novelist-turned-Rolling Stones columnist – flew out to Indiana to interview the reclusive author over the course of five days. The screenplay, by Donald Margulies (Dinner with Friends), is based on Lipsky’s account of that trip, published after Wallace’s suicide. If you’re a fan of Wallace and like movies in which big ideas – life, love, the pursuit of happiness (i.e., sex) – are discussed in passages of broad exposition, then this might just be the film for you. Since I am unfamiliar with Wallace as a writer, however, I have no way of knowing how accurate a portrayal of the man the movie creates, or whether or not the screenplay does justice to his intellect.

What I can say is that, in spite of some issues, the film (mostly) held my interest. Which is a good thing, because I found the trailer to be a snooze. But the jury in my brain is still out: this is either a good movie about a pretentious conversation or a pretentious movie about a good conversation. Jason Segel (Sex Tape) plays Wallace with quiet conviction, proving that he is more than just his usual on-screen buffoon. Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network) plays Lipsky, and brings his usual shallow inexpressiveness (not always a bad thing) in service of a shallow, envious man, who learns some hard truths about himself in the course of the multi-day conversation. It’s a fine pairing, and the two actors work well together, helping us past the occasionally glaringly obvious bold moments of revelation in the script. Ponsoldt brings his usual low-key direction to bear, which has the charm and distinction – and sometime limitation – of feeling like no direction at all. We’re intimately present as these two smart guys go at it, and if you like what they have to say, then you’ll like the film.

Straight Outta Compton

Straight Outta Compton (F. Gary Gray, 2015)

Before the screening of Straight Outta Compton began, the theater played the trailer for Ride Along 2, in which rapper-turned-actor Ice Cube (once known as O’Shea Jackson) plays a cop. How the world turns! As the movie as I was about to see reveals, Ice Cube – along with his N.W.A. colleagues – was responsible for that late 1980s rap anthem of urban discontent, “F*** tha Police.” Long since turned respectable citizen (and a very funny one at that), Ice Cube has nonetheless never quite lost all of his angry edge, honed in the streets of Compton (shown this summer, as violent as ever, in the great teen comedy Dope), where this new movie, from director F. Gary Gray (who directed Ice Cube in one of his first films, Friday, which he also co-wrote, back in 1995), begins. I have always liked Ice Cube, and I remember well the impact of N.W.A.’s 1988 debut album on the hysterical white establishment, and had high hopes that Gray’s new effort would prove both informative and entertaining.

What it turned out to be is two-thirds of a really good movie burdened with a messy and interminable final act. Expertly acted, with a powerful O’Shea Jackson Jr. (Ice Cube’s son) as Ice Cube – ably assisted by a cast of rising African-American performers that includes Corey Hawkins (Romeo and Juliet), Jason Mitchell (Dragon Eyes), Neil Brown Jr. (Battle Los Angeles) and Aldis Hodge (The East), as well as by journeyman character actor Paul Giamatti (Love & Mercy) – the film starts off with energy and a strong sense of purpose, promising a greatness that dissipates by the end. But while it lasts, this drive gives us an extremely timely meditation on poverty, race, police brutality and the intersection of all three. The five rappers who formed N.W.A. used their respective experiences as black men in America to speak truth to power, and given the traumatic events of the past year, the need for such truths has clearly not gone away. Unfortunately, the film also traffics in grotesque misogyny, with many a naked woman treated as nothing more than a sex object. You can’t have everything, I guess. It’s too bad, though, because when the movie is good, it is very good, making its failures greater for the disappointment of frustrated expectations. Still, a good flawed movie is better than a perfect mediocrity, and Straight Outta Compton is definitely worth seeing.

[from 8/22/15]

As a non-aficionado of the story of NWA and subsequent trajectories of its members, I was unaware of the full extent of the misogyny that was such a big part of how some of them viewed the world. The uproar over the omission of Dr. Dre’s abuse of women – documented in this article in today’s New York Times – gives me pause, and makes me revise my assessment of the film. It’s still a movie that does a wonderful job highlighting police brutality against young African-American men, then and now, but it’s also clearly not giving us all of the details about who these young men were. That’s a shame, since human beings grow and evolve, and including the fact that Dre and his mates changed (apparently) after committing such acts of atrocity would have made the film truer, and probably better, since the final act, as it is, is the weakest part of the movie. <sigh>

The Ditzy, Dizzy “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” Dazzles with (Empty) Style

Man from U.N.C.L.E.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (Guy Ritchie, 2015)

The original “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” television series ran from 1964 to 1968 on NBC. I have only a vague memory of watching some of it during rebroadcasts in the 1970s. I often get it confused with actor David McCallum’s short-lived 1975-76 series “The Invisible Man – which I am old enough to have watched in its original run – and as result, since on that show McCallum frequently removed the latex mask covering his invisible face, for a long time I mistakenly believed that McCallum had starred on that other 1960s TV espionage series “Mission: Impossible,” in which masks play such an indelible part. More fool me. All of this serves to point out that I am absolutely no expert in the source material of this new movie by British director Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels). All I can judge is what I saw on this particular screen at this particular time.

The verdict? It’s a hell of a lot of fun, if completely vacuous. Set during the 1960s – shortly after the building of the Berlin Wall – the film stars Henry Cavill (our modern-day Superman) as CIA agent Napoleon Solo; Armie Hammer (our modern-day Lone Ranger) as KGB agent Ilya (spelled, for some reason, as “Illya” in the credits) Kuryakin; and Alicia Vikander (our modern-day replacement) as Gaby Teller, daughter of a missing Nazi scientist. Forced to work together on a joint American-Soviet operation, the men prance and strut their stuff with great panache, while Vikander mostly just sits around and looks pretty. That’s Hollywood. But what a good time we have on our way to nothing. Ritchie is in flamboyant high spirits here, starting with an opening sequence that will have you on the edge of your seat: he certainly knows how to stage a car chase. Sometimes his editing style overwhelms any sense of narrative coherence – as if, by confusing us, he hopes to hide the fact that he didn’t stage everything as well as that opening – but for the most part the modish titles and split screens, evocative of the era of the story, serve as pleasingly entertaining devices. There’s not a lot of there, there, but emptiness has rarely gone down so easily.

The Redundant Reboot: “Fantastic Four” Falls Flat

Fantastic Four 2015

Fantastic Four (Josh Trank, 2015)

Where to begin? Perhaps with the question, not unique to this particular movie, of why. In a world where The Amazing Spider-Man comes out just ten years after the critically and commercially successful – and therefore not in apparent need of an immediate reimagining – Spider-Man (and only five years after the third film in that Tobey Maguire series), it should no longer surprise us that stories are recycled and rebooted with increasing frequency. Ten years is the 21st-century Hollywood standard for ancient. For the record, I actually liked The Amazing Spider-Man (more, even, than Spider-Man), yet I still don’t understand its raison d’être (beyond the mercenary).

Now comes Fantastic Four, just – again – ten years after the 2005 film of the exact same tile. Unlike its web-slinger counterpart, that original film took a serious critical drubbing upon its release (though it did turn a profit, leading to its 2007 sequel, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer). Despite the stupidity, I enjoyed it, finding it content to be the silly superhero film that it was, and populated by actors who didn’t take themselves too seriously. Chris Evans was especially fine as Johnny Storm (aka “The Human Torch”) back then, and has since gone on to better movies, including Captain America: The First Avenger and its sequel, in which he plays the titular role. Still, dumb fun though it may have been, the original Fantastic Four was not a good movie. I could see how some smart writer/director might envision a more interesting way to approach the story. Josh Trank, who wrote and directed the intriguing found-footage sci-fi thriller Chronicle, seemed like a good choice to take on the reboot (if reboot were needed).

And for the first ten (maybe twenty) minutes of Trank’s film, I was rooting for him. I loved his approach. We meet two of the main characters – Reed Richards (later to become Mr. Fantastic) and Ben Grimm (later to become The Thing) – as children, and watch their friendship grow over a shared sense of being outcasts. No one understands them but them. Richards is the scientific wunderkind; Grimm, the devoted sidekick. Richards, all of 10 years old, has developed a matter transporter (laughed at by his teachers). Grimm’s family owns a scrapyard, and so Richards, through his friend, has an unlimited supply of materials for his experiments. Flash forward 7 years (the movie begins in 2007), and Richards – now played by Miles Teller (Whiplash) – and Grimm – now played by Jamie Bell (Snowpiercer) – are discovered at a high-school science fair by Dr. Franklin Storm – played by Reg E. Cathey (Freddy on “House of Cards“) – and his adopted daughter, Sue – played by Kate Mara (Zoe Barnes on, yet again, “House of Cards“) – who will soon enough become the Invisible Girl. It turns out that Storm runs a special magnet school for geniuses, and wants Richards as a student. He particularly wants Richards’ transportation device, which, it turns out, actually works, sending matter (so far, inorganic only) back and forth between our world and another dimension. If they can but build a larger, human-sized unit, perhaps they can travel to this new world and find renewable sources of energy to save the Earth.

So far, so good. But once we’re in the school and the device-building begins, the movie goes south. Deep South. The script takes a turn for the terminally stupid and, even worse, for self-seriousness. Musical montages replace character development. Good actors – we also get the usually wonderful Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station) as the new Johnny Storm (Dr. Storm’s biological child) – turn in terrible performances, but who could possibly do much of anything with the inane dialogue with which they are saddled? Equally disturbing – for a sci-fi superhero film – the special effects and world design look cheap (amazingly, Johnny Storm’s flying stunts looked better in 2005). Plot spoiler: there’s a villain (telegraphed from the first time we meet him), and our four protagonists – now physically transformed because of an accident involving radiation from that other dimension – must learn to work as a team to destroy him. The real villain, however, is the script, itself, and if we can all work together as our own team and prevent people from seeing this movie, perhaps there will never be a sequel. More likely, of course, is that there will be a reboot next year.

“Shaun the Sheep Movie” Entertains, But Needs Its Woolly Bits Shorn

Shaun the Sheep Movie

Shaun the Sheep Movie (Mark Burton/Richard Starzak, 2015)

The English animation studio Aardman Animations – best known for its Wallace and Gromit short films, television series and one feature – has long been a favorite of mine, producing delightful absurdist confections that I can watch multiple times without losing interest. Still, while I almost always marvel at their stop-motion ingenuity (and love the very British teeth with which they design all of their animals), I have not loved all of their work equally: their first feature-length movie, Chicken Run, was a winner; The Pirates! Band of Misfits (in spite of its Oscar nomination) was a dud. In some ways I prefer their earlier, more raw work, in which the animation may not be up to today’s standards, but the ideas shine with sparkling mischief, such as Peter Lord’s wonderful setting of Nina Simone’s “My Baby Just Cares for Me” or Nick Parks’ playful mockumentary Creature Comforts.

Now we have a new feature, directed by neither Lord nor Park – stalwarts of Aardman’s past – which follows the adventures of Shaun the Sheep, who has had his own BBC television series since 2007, and is apparently a character who first appeared in the 1995 Wallace and Gromit short A Close Shave. I knew nothing about Shaun going into the film, but I went hoping for something at least as fun as “Chicken Run.” What I got was not quite up to that standard, but still (mostly) entertaining, and a movie that is sure to appeal to young kids, making it the perfect cinematic destination for families now that everyone has seen Minions and Inside Out.

Shaun and his ovine brethren live in relative harmony with their farmer master – the movie opens with a home-movie montage of their earlier happy days on the farm – but long for just one day off from the quotidian routine. Inspired by a bus-side billboard urging them to just get away, they come up with what should be a harmless plan to lure the farmer back to bed (what puts people to sleep? counting sheep!) so they can run off and frolic … somewhere else. Things go dreadfully wrong, however, and soon Shaun and company – accompanied by a most unhappy guard dog – are adrift in the big city, looking for the lost farmer. Will they find him before a villainous animal control representative finds them and locks them up? Watch and find out.

There are plenty of very funny moments in the movie – including the sleepy sheep counting – but also passages where the story drags. Unfortunately, when that happens, the filmmakers often choose to create pop-music montages that feel more about marketing that particular song than about furthering the plot. Indeed, the music, overall, is the weakest part of the film (except for one delightful “baaa-baaa-shop” scene which is actually quite cute). I loved every aspect of the animal containment center, though: it’s designed to look like a prison, complete with an Orange Is the New Black “Crazy Eyes” character. Overall, the plusses outweigh the minuses, even if the sum total never quite comes close to the masterpieces of yore.

Go, Tom, Go! In “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation,” Cruise and Company Run a Great Game

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (Christopher McQuarrie, 2015)

Christopher McQuarrie, the Oscar-winning writer of Bryan Singer’s terrific 1995 The Usual Suspects – as well as of last year’s (mostly) equally smart Tom Cruise vehicle Edge of Tomorrow – but also the director of the terrible Tom Cruise vehicle Jack Reacher – clearly has a thing for action thrillers (be they of the gangster or sci-fi variety). On paper, based on his previous work, he could be a great person (not counting Jack Reacher) to take on the most recent incarnation of the Mission: Impossible series, which originated in 1966, on CBS. The first movie in the Tom Cruise era was helmed by Brian De Palma in 1996 – almost twenty years ago, when its star was only 34. The last entry with Cruise was in 2011, entitled Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (otherwise known as Mission: Impossible 4), and was directed by Brad Bird, he of such animated gems as (especially) The Iron Giant and (a little less so) The Incredibles. That film did well enough (and was pretty fun, I must say, if dumb) to revive the franchise after the comparatively dismal showing of Mission: Impossible III. And now, 4 years later, with a now-53-year-old leading man, Ethan Hunt, lead agent of the IMF, is back. Look up at the poster, above. That should tell you all you need to know about the kind of film this is. Action-packed and completely unbelievable. So how do McQuarrie and Cruise do?

Wonderfully. Suspend your disbelief. Forgive (for 131 minutes of the movie) Tom Cruise his association with Scientology (if that’s possible, though some reports indicate he may be leaving the cult). Sit back, relax, and let this perfectly plotted jocular espionage romp take you for a ride. Well, perhaps “relax” is the wrong word, since this movie never stops, just as its star never stops running. There are a few moments of down time, to be sure, but otherwise this is mostly one powerful energy drink of a film. Even the opening sequence – the one involving that image on the poster – somehow works, probably because all of the actors involved seem to be having such a good time. Indeed, in spite of his crazy on-screen stunts, even Cruise seems in on the joke, which is pretty spectacular, given how self-serious he can so often appear. He’s helped by a very entertaining cohort of co-stars which include holdovers from the previous films like Ving Rhames (Pulp Fiction), Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead) and Jeremy Renner (Kill the Messenger), and newcomers like Alec Baldwin (Still Alice), Sean Harris (Harry Brown) and Rebecca Ferguson (“The White Queen“). The latter two particularly shine, he as the villain and she as a lethal super-agent femme fatale who may be friend, foe or some combination of both.

To share the plot would spoil it. Also, to be honest, I no longer remember all the details. Let’s just say that this is a movie made in the vein of the long-running “24” television series, in which Jack Bauer is eventually cast out of his organization and hunted by his own government. The “rogue,” in other words, refers to more than just the terrorist organization that Ethan Hunt tracks with his usual tenacity. Hunt is hunted, too.

What I most remember, however, is that opening airplane, and a later motorcycle chase, featuring Ms. Ferguson, that took my breath away. Ms. Ferguson can also fight pretty convincingly, and one of the additional pleasures of the film is seeing a woman on screen who is fit and thin, but certainly no waif (in other words, she’s normal, if in shape), more than holding her own with the men. So hats off to all involved. May they all return to the fray again in another 4 years or so. Let’s see how long Tom Cruise can go before running no longer suits him. He certainly still looks good doing it. Maybe there is something to Scientology after all (just kidding). If you’re looking for a good mid-summer adrenaline rush, then look no further. This is it.