Thursday, August 6, 2015

Irrational Man, Hit Team, and shorter comments on Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation

           Deep Thoughts … And Actions That Cut Even Deeper
                                                  Reviews by Ken Burke
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
                                      Irrational Man (Woody Allen)
A noted Philosophy Professor spends a summer semester at a small East Coast college with little interest in his discipline nor his life (even a seduction attempt by a colleague’s wife goes nowhere, as do the romantic intentions of one of his students) until he hits upon an idea for a courageous act that will restore meaning to his existence—or so he thinks.
What Happens: Renowned (some would say outrageous because of the attacks he makes on many of his own lauded predecessors) Professor of Philosophy (an interesting academic situation, in that all of us with the Ph.D. degree are considered to be Doctors of Philosophy … but within our specific disciplines, whereas his degree is about the philosophy of philosophy itself, a demanding challenge that he doesn’t take lightly), Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), agrees to teach a summer semester at Braylin, a small, private college in Rhode Island (shot at Salve Regina University in Newport, RI).  Despite his stellar reputation he’s in a state of personal despair where he can’t come up with new ideas, has little incentive to live (illustrated by a scene at an undergrad party where he takes a serious interest in a round of Russian roulette that one of the young guys there was merely going to illustrate in a non-threatening-manner; at least when Lucas takes a couple of spins he survives, but you can tell that he wouldn't mind if he didn’t).  As Allen says about his protagonist: “What happens to Abe is that the ugliness and pain of existence and the terrible frailties of people have worn him down. He feels that he’s a personal failure because he’s never been able to make a mark. He’s just written all these erudite papers that have stimulated other professors and students to talk. But he’s reached a point where he just couldn’t care less about it anymore.”  At Braylin, though, faculty intermarriage is easily accepted as one of Abe’s Philosophy colleagues is married to Chemistry Prof. Rita Richards (Parker Posey) who’s easily attracted to Abe (despite his pot-belied, disheveled appearance, along with his constant swilling of single-malt Scotch as an emotional-pain-killer), taking the opportunity to try to seduce him while her husband’s off on an academic trip but Abe comes up impotent as he has for over a year since his wife left him for his best friend. 
 Marriage within the Music Dept. is also accepted, as 2 of the faculty there, the Pollards (Betsy Aidem, Ethan Phillips), have a daughter, Jill (Emma Stone), who’s a student at Braylin and (naturally) takes a class with Abe, becoming infatuated with him—yet distanced, both because of his dark nature and her devotion to sincere boyfriend Roy (Jamie Blackley).  Jill’s academic prowess intrigues Abe, though, so he spends an inordinate amount of time with her (which everyone notices, sparking the usual, but in this case unfounded, rumors), leading to the plot’s major twist.
 One day in a diner, Jill and Abe overhear a woman talking about her miserable life, how she can’t get full custody of her children from her overbearing ex-husband because he’s friends with the presiding judge of their case who takes pleasure in making her life miserable.  Abe comes upon the idea to poison this jaundiced jurist with cyanide, which he obtains from the Chem. Lab after stealing Rita’s key, although he’s discovered by one of his students (obviously a science major) during the theft, which he explains away with a casually-lame-excuse.  After studying the judge’s rituals, Abe knows that the best way to pull off his crime is by switching cups of orange juice while the victim’s taking a rest in the park from his usual Saturday morning jog.  The plan goes off as intended, the judge is dead, and Abe feels invigorated in that he’s now performed what he considers to be a moral act for the good of the anonymous woman, upholding his stronger interests in the worldviews of the situationally-ethical-Existentialists rather absolute morality positions such as Kant’s categorical imperative (which decrees that certain actions must be universally followed, as unquestioned practical laws rather than decisions based on empirical contingencies, including the requirement that no one has the right to individually choose to kill someone else—in the classroom, Lucas offered the observation that Kant’s rejection of lying shouldn’t be in force if you’re hiding Anne Frank’s family in your attic, but certainly that’s as we’d understand it from a pragmatic rather than a fundamentalist stance or at least we’d be arguing whether lying is acceptable—despite its sinful/criminal nature—if it serves a greater social good).  However, despite Abe’s re-energized understanding of the meaning of his life, Rita has reason to think that he’s the killer (the story doesn’t go away locally, so the constant attention on the motive and the perpetrator leads to ongoing speculation, with her able to put together the known circumstantial clues).

 Unfortunately for him, even as Abe convinces Rita to laugh away her theory as absurd Jill latches onto it, finally encouraging Abe to admit his crime which he assumes she’ll support; conversely, though, just as Philosophy teacher Rupert Cadell (James Stewart) is horrified to learn that his former students, Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Philip Morgan (Farley Granger), have taken his lectures on Nietzsche’s “superman” to heart in killing their friend, David (as a lesser man, subject to their whims), furiously turning against them as he forces surrender to the police in Rope (Alfred Hitchcock, 1948), so is Jill horrified at Abe’s killing, insisting he turn himself in before she does as she sees it as neither a “meaningful act” nor “a heroic thing.”  Now that Abe’s become rejuvenated, though, he has no intention of paying a price for what he considers to be a useful social decision so instead he plots to kill Jill, then run away with Rita to Spain.  But his plan to push her into an empty elevator shaft goes awry as Jill realizes what he’s up to, then struggles to save her life until he slips, ironically, on a little flashlight that she’s dropped (notable, because it’s a prize he won for her at a local carnival earlier in the film).  As this narrative wraps up, we feel secure that Jill has reunited with Roy, has learned a life lesson from her involvement with Abe (which went sexual with her as well as Rita, the younger woman soon replacing the older one as the object of his ongoing affection), and, hopefully, has told what she knew to the authorities in order to free a circumstantially-arrested-suspect who also had reason to hate the now-departed-judge (although nothing in her final voiceover as she walks along the Atlantic’s beachside tells us this last part specifically).

So What? While I’ve read a good number of complaints (substantiated by the abysmally-low-scores of 37% positive reviews from the writers surveyed by Rotten Tomatoes and a slightly-better 53% from those at Metacritic) about how Woody is repeating himself from earlier, better tales of calculated murder such as Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Match Point (2005), and Cassandra’s Dream (2007)—with the former often acknowledged as one of his very best (it would certainly rate 5 stars in a review from me) and the later 2 praised also (the former more than the latter), despite their partial-narrative-resemblance to Strangers on a Train (Hitchcock, 1951), although Allen’s often honored (rather than stolen from) his cinematic influences, as examples such as the Bergmanesque Interiors (1978), the Felliniesque Stardust Memories (1980), the German Expressionistic Shadows and Fog (1992), and the French New Wavish Deconstructing Harry (1997) demonstrate—I still find a lot to appreciate in Irrational Man, possibly because I have empathy for the environment of a small, liberal arts college (given my 26 years teaching various aspects of visual communication and film studies at the similarly-described Mills College in Oakland, CA) where faculty have such direct impact on their students (but, in my case, not beyond the classroom, although I can’t say that’s always been the case for all of my colleagues; fortunately for me, I met my astounding wife, Nina, just before I started working there so there was never any incentive nor need to push the boundaries of workplace relationships as Abe was prone to do, whether he was the initiator or the initiatee).  And, certainly, in a hothouse-environment such as this, where most everyone (especially on the faculty) knows most everyone else’s business (as well as the situation here where faculty also live close by the college so that their lives are completely consumed by its official and extra-curricular-activities), I’ve also experienced the impact that a newly-sought-after-acquisition to the campus environment can make (just like when star players are brought to a title-hungry-team right before the trade deadline—or sold away as is too often the case in 2015 baseball with my now-cellar-dwelling Oakland Athletics [Can we just forget about the rest of this season and start again next spring?  Especially after our recent loss to a Baltimore Orioles grand slam in the 10th inning?]).

 So, I think that Allen’s more in touch than he’s being given credit for with the interactive passions and ennui that can overtake those of us in the academic world, as we strive to find meaning in the fields that we’ve devoted our lives to (even if they mean next to nothing to the world at large … or to many of our students, concerned only with racking up course hours in order to graduate, then attempt to find meaning in their own so-far-unexamined-lives), even when the solutions we come up with may seem irrelevant to those with far more pragmatic marketplace concerns.

 Of course, this isn’t to say that Abe’s murder solution to the distraught state of both himself and the anonymous woman in the diner is good, decent, or legal (although it seems quite appropriate within the subjective morality of Existentialism, where even casual murder can be accepted as a rational-although-non-invested-choice, as with Camus’ novel, The Stranger [1942]), but it does demonstrate how someone such as Abe can become so invested within abstract thought (and personal despair at the thought of being insignificant—his wife leaving—and a charlatan—with fame in a field where he actively objects to much of the preceding centuries of thought and conclusions) that he can first rationalize, then celebrate the heinous act that he’s come to see as a contribution to social improvement, so much so that he not only finds no guilt with what he’s already done but none with the additional murder that he plots against Jill simply because she’s now become inconvenient for his plans to more actively, passionately celebrate the life force that's eluded him for so long (probably longer than the time away from his wife, as it’s likely that his depression was a factor in her infidelity, just as boredom with her spouse is a factor in Rita’s willingness to abandon both husband and career as well as Jill’s willingness to throw aside the stability of Roy in favor of the more forceful, romantic possibilities she sees hidden deep within Abe, even during his time of self-abandonment).  Many of my critical colleagues haven’t been interested in seeing this version of Allen’s interpersonal dynamics play out though, with my local San Francisco-area-guru, Mick LaSalle of the SF Chronicle, saying this film “is so awful that you have to wonder if Allen wrote it himself or farmed it out to some look-alike cousin out to destroy him” (see the full review here).  

 Mick’s also among those who care not for the frequent VO narration from Abe and Jill (he complains that, presumably, Jill is verified in escaping possible death because she’s still around to tell her tale to us, yet that strangely doesn’t equally apply to Abe who also gives us plenty of VO commentary), which admittedly does give a more-novelistic-approach to this screen story, one might even say it leans toward Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866)—the most fascinatingly-difficult novel I ever read by my own choice, difficult in the sense that it was so brooding and inner-directed rather than having a fascinating plot in the more complexly-articulated-development of its activities as Steinbeck did better for me with The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and East of Eden (1952)—except here the guilt is felt by Jill simply because she’s sympathetic to the mystery woman’s plight, thereby giving impetus to Abe for his homicidal action, even though he seems to have felt no remorse about it.  LaSalle and the others who’ve found little redeeming grace in this latest offering from Allen always have a right to their opinions, especially when they clarify and detail them, but for me this story and its imaged-presentation work well more so than not, although I have to admit a certain level of artificiality in the structure that keeps me from fully embracing Irrational Man as much as I’d like to and did with Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Bottom Line Final Comments: Regarding my concern in the previous paragraph about Allen’s sense of artificiality in Irrational Man, I do find this characteristic a bit offsetting as an aspect of the film (but not nearly so much as the contrived happy ending in the last Allen-Stone collaboration, Magic in the Moonlight [2014; review in our July 25, 2014 posting]) as the characters talk in displays of highly-crafted-dialogue (which I admit would be not unusual at all during debates at college faculty meetings where everyone’s trying to impress everyone else with their reasoned-wisdom-informed-articulated-elucidations, but given that most of Irrational Man’s “action” takes place outside of actual academic settings it often seems as if the philosophy lectures never end, even when 2 estranged lovers are arguing the merits of third-party-benefited-murder).  However, I have to also admit that Allen often does present that aura of artificiality (especially in the last couple of decades of his prolific career), as he seems to be structuring his films more as if they were plays, where endless dialogue and limited arenas of activity are dictated by the nature of the live-performance-space-medium rather than films where any location can be available (either photographically or through computer-generated-imagery), pictures can often take precedence over words (as with the new Mission: Impossible discussed a bit further below), and the time-space-continuum doesn’t always have to follow a noticeable sense of progression from past to present (sometimes future) as flashbacks can easily re-arrange the flow of a film's narrative in substantial chunks of plot development or can simply be used to illustrate, to comment, to challenge, in ways that are difficult to structure in all but the most avant-garde-theatrical-performances.  Woody’s now much more interested in how ideas are developed among his characters on screen than he was when he challenged cinematic conventions with cinematic devices in such earlier work as the superb Annie Hall (1977), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), and Husbands and Wives (1992).  

 When the on-screen talent is as appealing as we find with Phoenix, Stone, and Posey it’s no problem to see them mostly talking a lot, often about a good many deep subjects (such as “man and God and law,” if you want a return visit to Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm” [from the 1965 Bringing It All Back Home album] at, a performance at the Newport Folk Festival, presumably the “heretical” 1965 one when he first went electric), although it all does get a bit well-crafted-dialogue-heavy (to match the “heaviosity” of some of the topics being discussed) at times, even as you can (hopefully) appreciate the manner in which such master thespians give you the sense that at least these academically-oriented-people actually talk like this in casual conversation, even if it sounds nothing like what you’d encounter as other films try to capture a more documentary-like-expression of how non-actors would converse at cocktail parties, in walks along the beach, or in heated conversations about the ethics of calculated murder.

 I’ll agree that Allen hits a greater level of depth with his explorations of the absurd/morbid/ devastating aspects of the human experience with the enthralling explorations of Crimes and Misdemeanors, but how often can anyone hit such heights with a study of the inexplicable components of human nature?  (Well, OK, Bergman could, but despite his critical acclaim I doubt that his films sold nearly as many tickets as have Allen’s, especially when Woody occasionally hits box-office-pay-dirt with something truly charming such as Midnight in Paris [2011]—which also picked up an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.)  Bottom line (that’s what this section’s all about, after all) I have a lot of admiration for Irrational Man, despite some problems it displays about forcing its structure onto its characters in a bit of an arbitrary manner as well as getting annoyingly-repetitious with its use of a jazzy-version of “The ‘In’ Crowd” (written by Billy and Gene Page in 1964, with a big hit single version from Dobie Gray [also on the 1965 album, Dobie Gray Sings for ‘In’ Crowders That ‘Go Go’] but Allen prefers the Ramsey Lewis Trio version from their 1965 album The In  Crowd) that seems to have no particular connection to events on-screen.  Still, if music usage in this film reminds me it’s time to wrap up these comments with my usual Musical Metaphor, a tune that speaks to the themes or presence of Irrational Man, then I think that The Beatles’ “Nowhere Man” (from the 1965 British version of the Rubber Soul album, along with the 1966 American album Yesterday and Today) at is appropriate here, accompanied by a collage of various video clips of the Fab Four (unfortunately, generally low image quality in all cases) performing the song, with its resonances to Abe’s sense of “making all his nowhere plans for nobody,” although he does discover (mistakenly) on his own, with no need for “somebody else [to lend him] a hand,” that “the world is at [his] command,” but only as long as he remains “as blind as he can be” about the immoral insanity of the murderous path he’s chosen.
 Next, an acquaintance of mine recommended a movie available only on the Internet so I checked it out, then decided to go further in a different direction for this blog and review it, although you won’t find much beyond my commentary to give you any insights on it so you’ll just have to trust me.
                            Hit Team (Mark Newton, 2014)
A mismatched pair of killers (1 goofy, 1 sexy) are sent from Las Vegas to Los Angeles to make 6 quick hits in one day but (of course) things go wrong as they squabble with each other, have to worry about being taken out themselves by their hot-headed-employer, and are being chased by 2 pairs of equally-wacky-cops; it’s all exaggerated, done entirely for broad laughs.
What Happens: Michael Cunningham (Douglas Macpherson), a Las Vegas mobster accompanied by his perpetual-airhead-moll, Sprinkles (Melanie Camp), sends a pair of hit-men (well, actually, one of them’s a woman, but “hit-persons” sounds too p.c. for a movie such as this so we’ll just go with the more generic term) to LA to kill 6 people that day, then return home.  Given the klutziness of the guy, Max (Myles McLane—also the screenwriter), who thinks he’s in charge of the operation (he does have their tight schedule on his clipboard, but that’s about it for his competency throughout most of this intentionally-silly-movie) it’s amazing that they’d be able to shoot fish in a barrel, but due to the “ruthless” (that reference returns if you listen to the beginning of my suggested Musical Metaphor a couple of paragraphs below) nature of his sexy partner, Ruthie (Emerald Robinson)so I guess that's why Max isn't "Ruth-less" himself (Sorry!  It's just the nature of this material.)their hits start coming together in an orderly fashion, even as she has to keep fending off his oblivious come-ons: Max takes 6 shots at street punk Leroy (Michael Eisner—no, not the one that used to run Disney), missing all of them so Ruthie finishes the job; next, we have Dick Jackoffski (Steve Quimby) (if your 6-year-old [demographics show that many of my readers fall into this category] skims this review and asks what’s so funny about that I’ll refer you directly to Myles if he hasn’t changed his address again this month) who falls again to Ruthie after Max again screws it up; then, there’s Mary Buchanon (Jennie Floyd), finally killed by Max while sitting next to her at a bus stop, after missing a shot from further away (by this point Ruthie begins to warm up a bit toward Max—briefly—but it’s probably mostly out of pity, especially after learning that he found his assassin’s job by doing an Internet search); finally, from the clipboard schedule at least, we have the demise of hooker Doris Harris, whom Max wounds and Ruthie finishes off after Max has chased her, leading to a rough-and-tumble-fistfight between Doris and Ruthie.  However, our team’s day isn’t going as efficiently as they’d hoped because the dead prostitute is actually Jasmine Patterson (Crystal Coney), which creates complications for frustrated Michael so he heads to the City of Angels (or at least spirits, as the population keeps shrinking through the jobs accomplished by our titular assassins) with his retinue of thugs to off Max and Ruthie before they cause him any further trouble.  Things only get worse for them as intended victim #5, Tim Masters (Joseph Barone), shoots at them, escapes, is almost captured when Ruthie offers herself as a sexual enticement, but then gets away after all.  

 Their final name on the list, Samantha Martin, is a 14-year-old, but before Max and Ruthie even get to her they go on a sightseeing trip which ends up with them in Griffith Park, pursued by the Vegas thugs and 4 LA cops. These police—in 2 separate teams—are conceited, obnoxious Akeem (Roger Payano) with his rookie partner Cynthia (Anita Leeman), at first disgusted by him but as time goes on increasingly excited by the ongoing chase to find the killers who’re littering up their city, along with Detectives Swan (Lori Quintanilla) and Turner (Isaac Cheung), with high opinions of themselves, snotty attitudes toward Akeem and Cynthia, and Swan's need for anger-management-classes as she'd probably kill everyone in sight given the right motivation.  In the ensuing shootout finale, 3 of Michael’s henchmen die, Max and Ruthie are wounded, then Michael's shot by Max, finished off by a triumphant Cynthia, leading to a true connection of our hit team principals as the final credits roll.

So What?  With all due respect to my cinematic recommender of Hit Team (no, it wasn’t my so-far-silent-critic-partner Pat Craig, nor anyone with a grudge against me), there’s a lot to laugh at here beyond the intentional play on movie stereotypes (Max as the cocksure “leader” of the assignment, clueless as to how clueless he is; Ruthie as the pushy sexpot [on the verge of dominatrix-dom in her black-leather-jacket-and-boots/short-skirt-ensemble and frequently antagonistic attitude]; Akeem as the super-cool-know-it-all who’s not nearly as suave and in-the-know as he thinks he is; Cynthia as the young female airhead who’s easily swayed by events beyond her comprehension; Detective Swan as a tough customer [also a seemingly un-self-acknowledged butch lesbian], ready to eliminate any obnoxious male in her path; Detective Turner as the wiser-than-the-West Asian, disdainful of the inferiors who surround him) and their calculatedly-imbecilic-dialogue, but those other humorous elements have to do with the overall acting quality (although Robinson does get more in command of her character—as well as of Max—as the story develops, while she continually radiates sexual heat, which might be reason enough for a $1.99 rental for some potential audience members; for that matter, McLane’s Max may be intentionally a doofus in his delivery to properly match his character’s shortcomings—however, most of the others are purposely overplaying it at best, although I think that’s probably too generous a decision), the undernourished production values (especially in the interior Vegas scenes with Michael where the sound quality’s not so good, as well as several shots overall where the lighting’s too dark), and just the overall clunky-pacing-attempt to stretch this concept to a little over an hour and a half, in a manner that reminded me of the quickly-done-and-gone scenes of the “Smog Stalker” episodes (including the tough-guy cops) —officially called “The Trip,” originally broadcast in August, 1992—of the Seinfeld TV series from years ago (but without the more refined comic talents of Jerry Seinfeld, Jason Alexander, and Michael Richards to give nuance) now put into a format that requires further (but not fully successful) fleshing out.  Hit Team looks exactly like what it is:  an underfunded-attempt by all involved to get some better recognition for themselves in the difficult world of Entertainment Central than any of the principals have yet achieved (despite all of them having been in a few movies each, although none that I’ve yet seen or even heard of).  

 I don’t mean to be harsh toward people who’re sincerely looking for that elusive Hollywood “big break” (I’ll save my true smarminess for crap turned out by folks with fat resumes and hefty bank accounts when they get involved with absolute junk that’s beyond comprehension, even if they’re legitimately trying to “stretch” themselves beyond the limits that satisfied-and-secure-audiences try to impose on them; if you want more exploration of this topic see my comments about Daniel Radcliffe in Horns [Alexandre Aja, 2013—based on a book by Joe Hill, Steven King’s son; very brief review in our November 6, 2014 posting]), but I just don’t see that happening for anyone involved with Hit Team, based on what some producer might be hoping to find in a hunt for diamonds in the rough (although cluelessness and sexiness are screen presences in demand these days so maybe Myles McLane or Emerald Robinson might get a payoff from this investment someday after all).

Bottom Line Final Comments: Based on my frequently-glib-dismissals of the particulars of Hit Team in the above paragraphs, you might wonder why I’m exploring it at all or giving it a higher rating than Horns.  The simple answer is that the filmmakers involved with Horns had a lot more to work with as far as budget, actor-and-original-author-name-recognition, and placement within a genre where there’s a lot of current interest in aspects of the occult and themes from horror movies; conversely, with Hit Team, nothing about it except its very affordable price ($1.99 rental, $5.99 purchase on YouTube [start within 30 days of rental, finish within 72 hrs.] or Vimeo [in general, some say the video quality at this site is better, but one definite difference is that here you get a trailer for this movie], just added to Amazon [same price to buy, $2.99 to rent, 7 day viewing period]would initially be an attraction for a search-as-you-feel-like-it-viewer because it’s quite unlikely that most of us would recognize anyone associated with this project from their past work while the concept of established-genre-parodies is one that can be appealing but there’s a lot of competition available for this concept, including all sorts of free YouTube idiocy.  Therefore, I admire the people who put their time and effort into Hit Team, realized some effective results from it (despite the obvious technical and line-delivery limitations), and are hoping to find some response wherever they can in our globally-crowded-media-marketplace (plus, I really love the background murals in a few of the opening shots).  Honestly, would I watch Hit Team again?  No, but then when I look over the films that I’ve previously reviewed (see the link far below for the summary of what's posted on this blog) I doubt that I’d be “pledging my time” (To quote an old Bob Dylan song, from the 1966 Blonde on Blonde album—Want to listen?  OK, here it is at watch?v=N81eudRXg4s.) for much of anything that hadn’t earned 4 stars or higher (and even most of those are ones that I wouldn’t feel secure enough about frequent-re-viewings to invest in for purchase) so that’s no knock against Hit Team.  For all of its faults compared to what we normally understand as outstanding achievements in the cinematic arts, this little movie is funny much of the time (as long as you accept it as parodying stereotyped characters and plot devices rather than promoting them), is a pleasant diversion from the likely-more-stressful-aspects of our lives, and—for those so inclined, whatever your gender orientation—Ms. Robinson has quite an attention-getting-screen-presence, so I’d ask you to seriously give it at least a rental consideration if you think it might be a fun decision.  (Just as long as you don’t accidentally get the 2001 Hong Kong action-oriented-movie of the same title, directed by Dante Lam; if you did that, you might never recover from the confusion—or you might think it’s like another Woody Allen experiment, What’s Up, Tiger Lily? [1966], only without the dubbed dialogue concerning a stolen egg-salad-recipe.)

 Now, if you're in the mood for something wacky concerning crime themes but don’t yet have the time to spare for Hit Team possibly I can whet your appetite with my “Musical Metaphor,” which this time isn’t a song but instead is side 2 of the Firesign Theatre 1969 comedy album How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All, an extended parody of old detective movies called “The Further Adventures of Nick Danger” (this specific episode’s known as “Cut ‘Em Off at the Past,” running 28:09) at  This farce, also patterned on old radio drama broadcasts, may be difficult to just sit and listen to while you’re waiting to see more of Emerald (“but everyone knew her as Nancy”—you’ll just have to endure Nick Danger, Third Eye, to get this context), but just try closing your eyes and drifting along with it.
(A Somewhat) Short(er) Take (what is this word, “concise,” you keep saying?)
                               Mission: ImpossibleRogue Nation 
                    (Christopher McQuarrie)

The IMF team is back in (outrageously-over-the-top) action as the CIA is trying to disband them, forcing Agent Ethan Hunt to go underground while trying to both prove the existence and stop the actions of the Syndicate before all hell breaks loose (as usual), with help (maybe? maybe not?) from an attractive but deadly Syndicate insider; probably the best of this summer’s action epics.

 Something you can’t possibly just drift along with is this latest episode of the M: I franchise (Mission: Impossible [Brian De Palma, 1996], Mission: Impossible II [John Woo, 2000], Mission Impossible III [J.J. Abrams, 2006], Mission Impossible—Ghost Protocol [Brad Bird, 2011], which I’m positive  I’m reasonably sure I think I’ve seen all of [they do tend to run together a bit], with that last being all I can verify because it was one of the first Two Guys in the Dark reviews, December 27 2011 [with all of the initial layout clumsiness such an early date entails]), making a significant enough impact at the box-office ($55.5 million domestically after 1 week in release) that I hardly need to bother with details because you know by now what’s you’re getting in a movie such as this (even as the directing and writing credits have changed hands over the years with McQuarrie possibly being the least-well-known, although he has gotten an Oscar for the marvelous Best Original Screenplay, The Usual Suspects [Brian Singer, 1995] and has written for or directed ongoing M: I star Cruise previously in Valkyrie [Singer, 2008], Jack Reacher [McQuarrie, 2012; review in our December 23, 2012 posting], and Edge of Tomorrow [Doug Liman, 2014; review in our June 11, 2014 posting]), with Tom Cruise consistently in the lead as daredevil-ultra-secret-agent-Ethan Hunt, backed by team-member Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) from the beginning, with others leaving or joining along the way, plus a crackerjack-special-effects-team worried sick that someday Cruise’s insistence on doing most of his own stunts will terminate both the actor and the series long before the intended demise of this ongoing project ($2.2 billion and counting worldwide so far, with M: I‘s 4 and 2 holding the 49th and 82nd spots on the All-Time-Worldwide income list).  

 This time the team's compact, Hunt and Stickell joined only by … Ghost Protocol returnees tech-wizard Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and CIA-liaison William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), with major antagonism from both Syndicate leader Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) and determined-to-shut-down-the-out-of-control-IMF (including blowing up Moscow’s Kremlin in … Ghost ProtocolCIA Director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin); British secret agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who’s infiltrated the Syndicate seems to be an ally for Hunt as he stays out of sight with the usual store of fake identities and stashed cash, but we’re never sure until the end just who’s she’s really aligned with.

 While the main plot deals with Hunt and company (not “The Company,” of course; they’re the ones under Hunley’s direction hunting down our hero—including Brandt and Dunn, trying to keep up a façade of CIA loyalty while clandestinely helping Ethan) trying to get secret files about the Syndicate hidden in a magnificently-secure-vault in Morocco, the focus is on the lengths that Hunt has to go to in order to keep control of his life after first being captured by Lane and his goons (including the especially-vicious Janik “Bone Doctor” Vinter [Jens Hultén], prepared to do some skeletal-rearrangement on Ethan before Ilsa helped him escape); then having to fend off Ilsa and 2 other assassins in a Vienna opera house (only to see the Austrian Chancellor killed anyway, with a car bomb after the performance); endure a daring-underwater-break-in to the Syndicate-security-system with only 3 minutes to change out some crucial software before running out of air; chase her in a wickedly-dangerous motorcycle-episode through the streets of Casablanca into the surrounding mountains, resulting in her escape; followed by the frantic final confrontation with Lane and his henchmen through London (with a bomb perilously-ticking-away on captured Benji’s chest) after Hunt forces a confession from British MI6 spy agency director Attlee (Simon McBurney) that the Syndicate is a creature of his concoction, run by a rogue Brit agent.  After Lane’s caught as the result of a carefully-executed-plan, Hunley has to reverse himself before the skeptical Senate committee who finally accept his plea to reinstate the IMF, with implications that he’ll be back next time as a covert part of the team but with Ilsa out on her own (now that she’s no longer being blackmailed by the MI6 chief, as the Prime Minister [Tom Hollander] is now aware of the subterfuge that had gone on undetected until a careful plot by Hunt and Brandt, using the old M: I standbys of masks and deception revealed the needed truth)

  I’d say … Rogue Nation is the best of this summer’s big-budget-thrillers, certainly superior to the recycled-tedium-of-endless-chases-across-the-desert in Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller; review in our May 20, 2015 posting) as well as the recycled-but-time-warped-twists of Terminator: Genisys (Alan Taylor; review in our July 31, 2015 posting, where I gave it 3½ stars, like … Rogue Nation, because of some ingenuity in those plot changes), and the recycled-vicious-dinosaurs-on-the-loose in Jurassic World (Colin Trevorrow; review in our June 17, 2015 posting, which also got 3½ stars because of the superb CGI technology bringing those amazing beasts to virtual life).

 Admittedly, the M: I format has more to work with than just the narrative limitations of cross-country pursuit, killer machines, and rampaging beasts, in that all sorts of attractive locations, more intimately-involving-hand-to-hand-combat, and hard-to-anticipate-allegiance-shifts (or at least their semblance) do give the M: I storytellers more to work with, but work well with it they do, keeping me constantly attentive and invested in the on-screen-action, from the moment that Ethan brazenly jumps onto the wing of a Russian cargo plane during takeoff (with a payload of nerve-gas-bombs that he needs to liberate) then finally gains access (as everyone involved's yelling into Benji’s earpiece for him to make the connection that allows Ethan to “Open the door!”), all the way to the end with Hunley’s about-face, aided by Brandt’s ongoing refusal to “confirm or deny,” that surely sets us up for another installment as this franchise continues to successfully roll along.  If you’d like more details on this episode, though, you can consult the movie's home page, a trailer, and the review summaries presented at Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic (both quite positive; in general, they also agree with my hesitations on Jurassic World [despite its current juggernaut toward the top of the All-Time-Worldwide-Box-Office list, currently #3  with $1.56 billion] but fall far below me on Terminator: Genisys, although the situation is reversed with Mad Max: Fury Road where they’re all wild about it but I’m not).  As for a Musical Metaphor for … Rogue Nation, what could be more fitting that the original 1966-1973 TV show theme (composed by Lalo Schifrin) at, or if you’d like to hear it for more than 50 seconds here’s his version from the 1967 Music from Mission: Impossible album at (2:31) or a 3:27 approach at; however, if you really want to invest yourself in this catchy tune then here’s a 10-minute-option at watch?v=3snywZWT6WE (although, actually, it’s just repeating the shorter approach a few times which leads to some dead air between replays so be patient during the short stretches of silence).

 And, because we're celebrating this All-American spy team in the above comments as I post these remarks, I'll proudly note that according to Google tracking my U.S.A. readership has once again overtaken my readership from Russia, so I'll just have to assume that all of the patriotic GOP Presidential candidates (I watched the closing 5 min. of their debate tonight; that's enough for me until November 2016, thank you.) must be reading my blog to keep up to date on critical national issues.  Thanks, guys.  Now, let's hear it:  U.S.A!  U.S.A!  U.S.A.!  (And God, of course.)
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Here’s some more information about Irrational Man: (39:41 interview with writer-director Woody Allen and actors Emma Stone, Parker Posey from a 2015 Cannes Film Festival press conference; eloquent but grim comments from Allen about the meaninglessness of life and how making—and watching—films serves as a distraction from the cruel reality of existence)

Here’s some more information about Hit Team: (here you’ll find clips, photos, and production info; you’ll also find the claim that this was made in 2013, but a little further research on my part revealed that it wasn’t released until 2014 so that’s the date I used far above)

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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.


  1. Nice review of Irrational Man. I am with you on this one; Mick LaSalle must of really disliked the voice over misdirection enough to trash the movie. To me Irrational Man is simply the latest gem from Woody Allen, we will certainly miss them whenever his prolific output ceases. As you noted "the characters talk in displays of highly-crafted-dialogue"; which is exactly what we like about a Woody Allen script. Everyone at the Bijou Saturday night seemed to enjoy it as well.

  2. Hi rj, Yes, I think we have the high ground here with little clue about what set LaSalle off so badly on Irrational Man (I'd say Mick's the irrational one here, but I doubt that would matter to him much). Anyway, I enjoyed the film and completely agree with you that there'll come a sad day when we no longer have the individual vision of Woody Allen to admire, even with those offerings that don't fully work out as best they might. His output will at some future point make for a grand DVD collection. Ken