Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation – Film Review

Mission poster

To date, there are five Mission: Impossible films.  Not counting the current release, with the exception of the Brian De Palma original, the remaining three tend to hover at the back of the memory without form; you know they’re there but without looking them up, it’s hard to recall exactly what they were all about.

In Rogue Nation there’s a twist to the way Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) gets his orders.  The self destruct message that Hunt traditionally receives at the beginning – the one that begins, “Your mission, should you accept…” – here becomes a tool for the bad guys.  While listening to the recording in the privacy of a used record store in London, what Hunt believes are the details of his next mission turns out to be a direct message from the head of The Syndicate, a ruthless organization of ex-international agents causing havoc in the world.

The Syndicate is real,” Hunt tells fellow Impossible Mission Force (IMF) operative William Brandt (Jeremy Renner).  “They know how we operate.”

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The agents of The Syndicate are the ones responsible for banks collapsing, bombs exploding in foreign countries, commercial planes disappearing and various other disasters that have hit our headlines – all seemingly unrelated yet all the work of one.  Who they are, how they were formed and why they need to be stopped takes up the bulk of the film.  They’re the rogue nation of the title.

But Hunt and his secret team have other problems.  CIA chief Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) wants the IMF disbanded citing reckless world wide behavior, including demolishing the Kremlin.  And he gets his wish.  The government shuts them down.  Suddenly, the IMF is on its own.  In the same way that The Syndicate is a rogue nation, so, too, is the IMF.  “This may very well be our last mission,” Brandt tells Hunt.  “Make it count.”

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What follows is a non-stop barrage of chases, gun play, rubber-faced disguises, spies turning on each other, and breathless set pieces that really do thrill, all set to Joe Kraemer’s pulsating score that continually echoes stabs of Lalo Schifrin’s famous original TV theme.  The way the film sets things up, you’d think that Rogue Nation was the last in the series, yet the ending suggests otherwise, which is good news.  Rather than running out of steam on this fifth outing, the series actually appears to have successfully resurfaced; there’s a fresh burst of energy throughout.  It’s as if they’ve finally got the formula right.  By reuniting faces accumulated over the past four films – Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Renner and Cruise – and having them working together and on the edge of getting everything wrong all the time, the stakes seem constantly higher.

Plus, the story itself is one of intrigue involving not only the CIA but the British Prime Minister (Tom Hollander), the British secret service, a rogue female operative (Sweden’s Rebecca Ferguson with a flawless English accent and several killer moves of her own) and an MI6 agent gone really, really bad (Sean Harris).  Imagine a Bond-like character changing sides.

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Interestingly, the series has had a different director behind all five films.  This accounts for a differing style to each one, either with its telling or with its look, though with Rogue Nation there’s something else going on.  Director Christopher McQuarrie is also the writer, a first in the franchise.  With that in mind there’s little wonder that a well-thought, cohesive story emerges out of the spectacular, nail-biting mayhem.  Director McQuarrie is making sure that the work of writer McQuarrie isn’t buried under a cacophony of visual noise and well shot, global widescreen action pieces, and it works.

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As for Tom Cruise, whether recent negative publicity and the sharply critical reaction to Cruise’s involvement with Scientology, a result of the recent HBO documentary Going Clear and the live-stage satire THE TOMKAT PROJECT, will have any adverse consequences at the box-office is difficult to say.  My guess, probably not.  Understandably, Paramount Pictures would rather the issue remain mute, at least, throughout the duration of Rogue Nation’s release, but there’s a lot to be said for requesting, at the very least, some kind of a statement from the fifty-three year-old action hero.  However, real-life issues aside, with a myopic vision focused solely on the matter in hand, the man throws himself headfirst into the film and emerges every bit the movie star that has kept him a headliner since the eighties.  Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is 2015’s summer popcorn movie making at its best.

MPAA Rating:  PG-13     Length: 132 Minutes    Overall Rating:  8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

The Stanford Prison Experiment – Film Review

Prison poster

You might have heard of it.  In August of 1971, psychology professor Philip Zimbardo conducted an experiment.  Funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research, the experiment was to determine what was behind the causes of conflict between military guards and prisoners.  Students were assigned roles.  It was supposed to last two weeks.  It lasted six days.  Hell broke out.  The new drama from director Kyle Patrick Alvarez explains how and why.  Both the research and the film are called The Stanford Prison Experiment.

The film opens with a typewriter typing the ad intended for the local classifieds.  It reads: Male college students needed for psychological study of prison life.  $15 per day for 1-2 weeks beginning August 14.  In real life, seventy-five students applied.  Twenty-four were picked.

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During the opening moments of the film, students are asked a series of questions: Emotional problems?  Ever attempted suicide?  Do you drink or use illegal drugs?  Ever engaged in domestic violence?  “No,” answers one of the students, amused by the questions.  “I go to Stanford.”  Interestingly, when the students are asked what role they would prefer to play, either a guard or a prisoner, the response is the same; a prisoner.  “Why’s that?’ asks Professor Zimbardo (Billy Crudup).  “Nobody likes guards.”

The real situation had local police arresting the students at their homes and charged with whatever faux crimes their ‘characters’ were assigned.  This included the standard procedure of mug shots and fingerprinting at a real police station.  The film shows an example of one student being arrested while washing a car with his little brother.  The police cuff him then haul him away.  “It’s okay, it’s okay,” the student assures his concerned younger sibling.  Cut to the mock prison.

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The experiment was conducted in the basement of Jordan Hall, the university’s psychology building.  The hallway and a few empty classrooms were converted.   Students acting as guards took turns with their work shifts.  They had the luxury of leaving the building when their shift was over.  Students acting as prisoners remained.  With university researchers observing every move from hidden cameras, the idea was to explore the effects that prisons have on human behavior and how such an institution can affect and alter the human condition.  The ‘guards’ were under orders not to physically attack.  From the beginning it spiraled out of control.

At first, the faux prisoners joke about their situation.  “We’ve been framed!  Framed, I tell ya!”  But it’s not long before a different attitude surfaces.  Once in uniform with a baton in hand and shades to hide the eyes, principle guard of the first shift (Michael Angarano) embraces his correctional officer character to an alarming degree.  Basing both speech and manner on Strother Martin’s classic portrayal in Cool Hand Luke and calling every prisoner, “boy,” the ‘guard’ fully commits to his role, pushing prisoners around and bullying them, ordering them to strip naked then spraying them with disinfectant.  “Is it me,” whispers one of the prisoner students to another, “Or are the guys taking this a bit too seriously?”

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While casually watching events on a TV monitor, one of the researchers observes the very thing that wasn’t supposed to occur; a ‘guard’ angrily raises his nightstick during a confrontation and beats a ‘prisoner.’  The startled researcher leans into the TV monitor, unsure of what he has just seen.  “What just happened?” he asks.

What just happened is what continues to happen – ‘guards’ brutally push ‘prisoners’ around, violently forcing them into seclusion, or the hole, bullying them into submission and degrading them to a degree way beyond agreed requirements, all witnessed by the team of researchers, some of whom voice concern to Professor Zimbardo who simply sits back and states, “Let the guards figure it out; see where it goes.”

By subject matter alone, The Stanford Prison Experiment can’t help but fascinate.  Like the ‘prisoners,’ we rarely leave the claustrophobic confines of the basement, emerging only occasionally to remind us there’s still a sane world out there.  Ask any actor and they’ll tell you; after researching a role and learning the lines, once you don the costume, you become the character.  Watching events unfold as ‘guards’ take the authority awarded by simply donning the uniform ties your stomach in knots.  You can’t help it.  An inner anger arises throughout, especially when a student breaks character and demands to be released from the experiment’s agreement while Zimbardo, himself participating in role playing to a degree that should raise even more alarms, refuses and has the student marched back to the cells against his will.

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Tye Sheridan and Ezra Miller are extremely effective in their roles as ‘prisoners’ 819 and 8612.  They have names but we never know them; their identities are stripped, adding further realism to the illusion.  There’s also a nice, low key turn from Chris Sheffield as prisoner 2093 who displays a quiet but determined attempt to cling to his principles under extreme conditions and the pitbull tactics of the ‘guards.’ Plus, Angarano as the overzealous ‘guard’ is as efficient and as brutal in his role as his character is as a correctional office.

If you do your own research and investigate what Professor Zimbardo is doing now, you’ll discover an esteemed authority on psychology, a man who teaches, lectures and travels the world, discussing among many things the psychological results of his experiment that exceeded way beyond expectation.  The film is based on his book The Lucifer Effect.  Based on how Crudup portrays the real life character in the film, Zimbardo comes across as callous and insanely reckless, bordering on repellant, abandoning any sense of moral composure.  Paranoia kicks in after a priest visits the ‘prisoners.’  Zimbardo doesn’t trust the man, insisting that the ordained minister might get a lawyer after what was observed down in the basement.  As graduate student and associate to Zimbardo, Christine Maslach (Olivia Thirlby) angrily tells him, “Oh, my God, you’re way in this over your head.”  Based on how the film presents the professor, which, in turn, is based on Zimbardo’s own book, he may today be a respected collegiate expert but I wouldn’t care to be in the same room as him.  Not yet.  Not until I calm down.  That’s how deep the anger within is stirred.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is undeniably absorbing, but as film entertainment, that’s a tough call.

MPAA Rating:  R   Length: 122 Minutes   Overall Rating:  7 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Vacation – Film Review

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Thirty-three years have passed since Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) first took the family on the road to Walley World, whether they wanted to go or not.  Between then and now a lot has happened to change the landscape of comedy.  From 1983 to 2015, things that were once a little shocking are now commonplace; language once considered blue is now regular, and a situation with a cringe worthy crude payoff is no longer the exception but the rule.  Perhaps a college professor could teach a class on it.  He should.  Here’s why:  Vacation is the epitome of everything wrong with the American movie comedy, from the trailer promoting it to the film itself.  No joking.

Writers and first-time directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldtsein have taken characters created by John Hughes and found inspiration not from the original source but from their own work – they wrote Horrible Bosses.  The Griswolds were always dysfunctional but they were rarely mean, that’s what made them so likable. There was something recognizable in their antics and behavior that, while exaggerated, resonated enough that family audiences could see something of themselves reflected on their big screen counterparts, no matter how outrageous the situation.  Not this time.  It’s a different world.  It’s a different style of ‘R’ rated comedy.  There’s a new generation of Griswolds.  The ones that went on a ‘PG’ trip to Las Vegas in 1997 are retired.  Going on a vacation with this bunch is not the way you need to spend your summer.

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Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms) is now dad and he wants to do something different for the summer vacation.  Instead of another year at the cabin he surprises his family with plans to drive across country – from Chicago to California – to relive the memory of the same trip he took with his parents when he was young; to America’s favorite family theme park: Walley World.

You want to redo your vacation of thirty years ago?” asks a less than enthusiastic mom, Debbie (Christina Applegate) of her husband.  That’s exactly what dad wants, and he’s taking everyone, including his two boys, with him.

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Almost everything that happens, including the punchline, is in the trailer.  When the family soaks in what it thinks is a hot spring but it’s really a sewage plant, the joke is already known; it was in the trailer. So too is the joke about the girl in the speeding Ferrari.  It’s a reference that harks back to the famous Christie Brinkley moment, and it’s a good one, only here it’s played by Hannah Davis and the joke is she crashes.  But we already knew that.  It was also in the trailer.  Imagine how big the laugh would have been when that red Ferrari raced alongside the Griswolds and we didn’t expect it.  The surprise would have been great.  The trailer kills it.

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Fortunately, the film has one saving grace and that’s Christina Applegate as mom.  No matter what the film throws at her – including a vomit fueled assault course for charity at her old school where she was known as Debbie Do Anything – Applegate gamely obliges.  With a somewhat relatable character, a likable manner, plus a good sense of comic timing, Applegate carries the film.  Others in the Griswold clan don’t come off as well.

When Rusty’s character was a child, regardless of the several different actors who played him over the course of the original four big screen features (there were also two-straight-to-video films) he may not have been the brightest academic bulb at school, but compared to his over-enthusiastic dad, he came across as reasonably sensible and continually bemused by his father’s ideas and behavior.  In the new Vacation, Ed Helms’ Rusty is an idiot.  Dad’s determination to have fun at any cost – at least, as presented here – and his way of going about it are nothing short of infuriating.  Even the two Griswold boys annoy.  The younger, f-bomb dropping brother berates and bullies the older and it never stops.  The joke, of course, is that the bully is the youngest, not the other way around, but there’s little humor in it.  The sibling rivalry is just mean.

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The thing about big screen comedy is that those who run the studios must think that that in order for teenage audiences to laugh the dialog must be foul, the situation vulgar, the behavior crude and the outcome predictable.  When Chevy Chase as Clark went on that comically angry rant in 1989’s National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, the f-bomb regarding Bing Crosby dancing with Danny f#%!ing Kaye was funny because the moment built and the cursing was a one-off; it stood out.  That’s why you laughed.  If that same moment was used in the current Vacation, it would hardly raise a smile, there’s no longer a joke; all characters swear, all the time.

Let’s be honest, the Vacation series was never great; time and nostalgia tend to paint a rosier picture.  The first was fun, the Christmas edition remains a seasonal favorite, but the others fizzled, and most aren’t even aware there were a further two that went straight to the home market.  Compared to this new 2015 edition, the original John Hughes script now seems like an example of comic restraint; even in its darker comedic moments there remained a sense of good nature within all the characters.  It’s odd, then, that the current production would look not to its original source for its style and laughs but for the stupidity and the often mean spirit of ‘R’ rated comedies such as Horrible Bosses.  Good comedy is timeless.  What was funny in ’83 when the original Vacation was first released can be equally funny today, it’s only the cultural references that date it, not the absence of raunch and f-bombs.

MPAA Rating:  R      Length:  99 Minutes    Overall Rating:  3 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Southpaw – Film Review

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You’re gonna be punch-drunk in two years if you keep this up,” warns Maureen Hope (Rachel McAdams), wife to boxer and current reigning Junior Middleweight Boxing champ, Billy ‘The Great’ Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal).  And she’s right.

In the new, riveting drama from director Antoine Fuqua, Southpaw, Billy appears to have just about everything.  He’s a guy, dragged up through the system with little education since childhood, who, against all odds, has made it.  He’s a boxing champ and he’s really good.  But he’s paying a price; the beatings are taking their toll.  When Billy speaks it’s more of a mumble, that’s if he can speak at all, and if it’s a long sentence, it comes with expletives; he knows no other way of expression.  He uses swear words in lieu of real ones.  He doesn’t know any better.

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When we first meet Billy, he’s in the ring and he’s an animal.  His style is full on attack.  And he wins.  Again.  But there’s always someone waiting in the wings for their chance to knock the champ down, and here it’s up and coming boxer Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez).  “I just wanna know why you don’t give me my shot,” Escobar publicly declares, but Billy isn’t biting.  “You ain’t no champ,” Billy responds.  “You’re all show, you know that.”

But tragedy is ready to strike and it’s truly senseless, beginning with gun shots in a public place, resulting in a death while friends and associates scatter like roaches.  In an instant, Billy’s life is turned around and he loses all, including his palatial home, his manager, his career, and worst of all, his daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence).  She becomes the care of family services.  Like Billy, she’s now a part of the system.  His authority as a parent, like his title, is taken.

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Before the film is over, Billy will have hit rock bottom, his spirit broken to the point where there’s simply nothing left.  But this is still a boxing movie and there’s a grudge to settle, and in order to settle it, Billy needs to not only get back on his feet, but once he’s standing, change.  Change his attitude, change his demeanor, change his style.  With the initial, reluctant help of low-rent boxing gym owner Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker), who insists he doesn’t train professionals, Billy begins the long road back.  After all, with everything gone, Billy could hardly now be called a professional.

Like Billy’s approach to fighting, Gyllenhaal commits to the character full on.  It’s an attack.  In several interviews, the actor has stated that before filming he didn’t know how to box, and as far as the bodybuilding workouts that achieved the convincing look of a life long, experienced fighter go, they stopped the moment filming stopped.  Perhaps some would think that by achieving the look, the performance is already covered, but that’s not the case.  The physical appearance is merely the actor’s decoration, his costume.  During the courtroom scene where the judge separates an out-for-the-count Billy from his daughter, the moment is genuinely upsetting.  You can see that Billy just doesn’t understand what’s happening and why, and it’s Gyllenhaal’s total conviction as an actor that makes the scene work as well as it does.  When his daughter cries and is lead away, she can’t understand why because she’s a child.  But Billy is an adult, yet his level of understanding is seemingly no higher than his daughter’s.  It’s heartbreaking.  Like the actor’s physicality, his performance is remarkable.

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So, too, is Oona Laurence.  Broadway audiences will know the young performer from Matilda: The Musical, having originated the on-stage role with three other performers.  Here she’s a bespectacled young girl with a healthy humor and a love for both her mom and dad, not to mention the occasional moment of wisdom for one so young.  When her father insists she shouldn’t watch him box on TV, she replies, “I see stuff like that on TV all the time.  I watch ‘The Walking Dead.’”  During the big battle that concludes the film, the daughter gets her wish of watching her father fight.  Her emotions throughout run the gamut.  She’s a genuine joy to watch.

As for the boxing, director Fuqua puts us right in the ring, not unlike Scorsese did with The Raging Bull where the impact of being hit is felt and becomes personal.  But the comparisons stop there. When Billy returns to the ring for that climactic fight, his style is different.  The opening shot of Billy at the beginning of the film shows a man whose inner rage is fully exposed as he goes in for the attack.  Things are now different, and so is his approach to boxing.  Fuqua, himself a boxer, knows how to put his audience in the ring with his characters.

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Perhaps unintentionally, by putting us right there, within those ropes, feeling every punch the fighters throw at each other, experiencing cinematically each blow to the face, the film seems to be hammering home the question, why.  Why pummel each other to such a barbaric degree in the name of sport when you truly are stepping closer to having the sense literally knocked out of you?  As Billy’s wife tells the boxer, he really is a year or two from becoming punch drunk.  Success in sport such as this is temporary.  Success in life may eventually be less so.  Dementia Pugilistica, or simply DP, is a terrible price to pay for a sporting career, and it’s obvious Billy is already on the way. That may not be the film’s intention, but many will and should be asking that question, all the same.

MPAA Rating:  R   Length:  123 Minutes    Overall Rating:  8 (out of 10)

 

Posted in Film

Irrational Man – Film Review

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The opening is familiar.  White letters on a black screen.  It’s the way director Woody Allen does it.  Same with the music.  Allen rarely has an original score.  Usually it’s something in the vein of an early Benny Goodman or a nostalgic though jaunty jazz number, complete with the underlining worn noise of crackling bacon from an old 78 rpm.  But here there’s something different with the beginning of Allen’s new film, Irrational Man.  Nothing revolutionary, but being Woody Allen, it’s noticeable.

First, there’s no opening music.  Here the white letters on a black screen are initially silent until a little background noise starts to filter in.  Next, the film is shot widescreen.  Usually an Allen film has a standard sized screen ratio, but here it’s wide.  He shot Manhattan in ’79 the same way, plus there was the almost forgotten comedy of 2003, Anything Else and his recent Blue Jasmine and Magic in the Moonlight; all letterbox.  But after almost fifty films as writer/director – not sure of the full amount, but that’s close – when only five are intentionally wide, you notice it, and you wonder why.

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Now, you might be lulled into thinking that maybe there’s going to be a change of overall style.  After all, whether you’re a fan or not, Allen is a great maker of films, even if there’s a tendency to forget several once the release is over.  Annie Hall, Manhattan, Mighty Aphrodite; you’ll know them forever, and you should.  Hannah and Her Sisters?  Outstanding.  But, devoted fans aside, remember Small Time Crooks or perhaps Celebrity?  Chances are, you won’t.  As for Irrational Man, a movie buff may want a copy for the collection, but it’ll remain on the shelf, right next to Don’t Drink The Water, and there it’ll most likely remain, perhaps unopened.

“I think Abe was crazy from the beginning,” states the voice of college student, Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), one of two voice-over narrators.  “He was so dammed interesting.” The Abe she’s referring to is Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), the newly arrived college professor at Rhode Island’s Braylin College.  Abe is the other narrator.

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Abe has an individual style when teaching the subject of philosophy.  He also has issues.   “There’s a difference between philosophical bullshit and real life,” he casually instructs his students, adding, “Much of philosophy is verbal masturbation.”  He creates campus news, that’s for sure.  When he talks there’s a lazy drawl to his pronunciation; it’s the same way someone speaks when they’ve woken up and it’s about three in the morning.  And there’s a downbeat, could-not-care-less approach to illustrating what he means when he tells guests at a social event that life gives a fifty-fifty chance of survival.  He does this by popping a bullet in a gun and playing Russian Roulette.  The guests are horrified.  He doesn’t care.

Abe is impotent and has been for the best part of a year. After a strong come-on from married professor Rita Richards (Parker Posey), they go to bed, but it doesn’t work.  Abe, pot-bellied and continually swigging a little alcohol from a flask, no longer has what it takes.  He’s lost his spark of life.

Then something odd occurs.  It’s odd to the point where the film actually changes direction.  While at a diner with student Jill, Abe overhears a conversation in the next booth.  A distraught mother is at the end of her wits because of a nightmare custody battle between her and her husband and because of the judge who appears to favor the husband.  She tearfully tells the story to her three friends.  She’s going to lose her children.  Abe and Jill silently listen, fascinated.

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For Abe, hearing the story suddenly injects fresh vigor into his being.  He’s suddenly inspired.  What if he planned and committed the perfect murder?  What if he killed the judge in a way that no one would ever suspect that it was him, thereby helping the woman in the next booth secure custody of her children?  “The high risks made me feel alive,” Abe narrates.  And that’s what he does.  By stalking the judge and getting to know his habits, where he jogs, where he buys his daily juice, where he reads his newspaper, Abe tracks the man’s routine.  With a little cyanide sneaked out of the chemistry lab, Abe does what he plans; he murders the presumed prejudiced judge, and no one knows who did it.  “A great feeling of accomplishment came over me,” Abe tells us.  It also does wonders for his new found sex life.

Plotting the perfect murder is nothing new to a Woody Allen film.  He did it with Cassandra’s Dream, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and most memorably with Match Point.  In Irrational Man, the act is something of an exorcism.  It releases the stupor Abe was in and replaces it with a new release on life.  You could call Irrational Man a murder mystery, though the mystery is not so much a whodunit – we know whodunit, we’re with him every step of the way – but more of a how-will-they-catch-him, if they catch him at all.

Orson Welles once said that black and white is an actor’s friend; no one gives a bad performance in black and white.  The same can be said for a Woody Allen film; no one, even the most mediocre of performers, delivers a bad performance in a Woody Allen helmer, and Irrational Man is certainly no exception.  From lead characters Parker Posey and Emma Stone down to solid supports from Betsy Aidem and Ethan Phillips; they all deliver that natural quality whenever they’re on, a practical hallmark of an Allen production.  Plus, Joaquin Phoenix continues to erode the memory of that seriously miscalculated and painful attempt at faux documentaries, I’m Still Here.  But Irrational Man engages only to a point.

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Scenes follow each other at an even pace, continuously punctuated by variously paced versions of the same musical theme, Ramsey Lewis’ The In Crowd.  In the same way Jill describes the professor, the film is at first so dammed interesting; not particularly funny, but interesting.  But as it moves forward without highs or lows – it all runs on an even keel as if actual tension or any real sense of drama with potential danger eludes director Allen’s style – the film ultimately fails to emotionally engage.  Events merely unfold, we witness them, then it’s over.

It’s not that we should completely dismiss Irrational Man as simply another Woody Allen movie to put on the shelf along with the fifty or so others, it’s just that when there’s something about that beginning that suggests a change in cinematic directorial style, you hope to be surprised.  But it doesn’t come.

MPAA Rating:  R      Length:  97 Minutes    Overall Rating:  5 (out of 10)

 

Posted in Film

A Murder in the Park – Film Review

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It’s a fascinating subject, and here are the facts.  A man called Anthony Porter from Chicago sat on death row. He was found guilty for the 1982 murders of two teenagers committed on the bleachers by a swimming pool in Washington Park.  Seventeen years later, in 1999 with just hours to go before the execution, Porter’s conviction was overturned, the result of a new investigation by a group of Northwestern University students; it was part of a class assignment that freed Anthony Porter.

The students believed they found holes in the prosecution.  They also implicated another man, Alstory Simon, as the real murderer.  A new appeal, new information and a new confession of guilt from a second man lead to Porter’s exoneration.  After seventeen years waiting on death row, Anthony Porter was now free and a man called Alstory Simon was behind bars.  The media declared triumph for justice, the students and their professor celebrated their success and the state halted the death penalty.  All now seemed right with the world, except for one thing.  As explored in the new documentary A Murder in the Park from directors Brandon Kimber and Christopher S. Rech, the wrong man was walking free.  As attorney Andrew Hale tells us, “Anthony Porter killed those two people.  It was a big lie,”

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With quick reenactments from actors, illustrations, factual charts and a calm though authoritative narration from Dan Nachtrab, we learn how those Northwestern students, under the guidance of Professor David Protess, delved into the original evidence that put Anthony Porter in prison and found what they considered to be inconsistencies.  It was, in fact, simply bad detective work; a meaningless investigation with disastrous results.

Their professor even hired a private investigator, Paul Ciolino, to get an innocent man to confess to the crime while the students unknowingly worked on freeing the guilty party.  The film spells out how Ciolini used everything from coercion, the victim’s ignorance of the law, a fear of violence, the threat of a harsh sentence and even intoxication to get Alstory Simon to confess on camera to a crime he never committed.  Both Professor Protess and Private Detective Ciolino refused to be interviewed for the documentary.

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If the film suffers from anything, it’s the dry and unapologetically factual approach it employs to telling its story.  With such attention to complex details and so many characters to name, depending on your tolerance for too much information in one sitting, there’s always that tendency to let the mind wander.  But don’t.  Stick with it.  Like the most complicated tale in a detective novel with a murky plot and a vicious sting, there’s no other way to tell the tale.  The way the film presents its case then proceeds to unveil truth after hidden truth, each one more shocking than the reveal before, you’re hooked.

Throughout the whole of this scrupulously researched documentary, revelations of criminal injustice intentionally committed against the innocent while the guilty walks free come at you thick and fast.  The implications are overwhelming.  Your jaw can drop only so many times.

MPAA Rating:  PG-13     Length:  93 Minutes    Overall Rating:  8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film