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Tom Cruise is his maniac self in Mission: Impossible—Fallout, the sixth installment in the steady franchise—and proof that Cruise is certifiably insane. The movie is one “Wow!” moment after another, and the guy shows no signs of slowing down, even though he’s now 56 years old.

The movie stacks stunt after stunt, featuring Cruise doing everything from jumping out of airplanes, to scaling cliffs, to piloting his own helicopter. It also shows Cruise leaping from one rooftop to another and breaking his ankle against a building—a stunt that shut down production for weeks, but remains in the film, in all its bone-breaking glory.

Do we really care about the plot when some of the best stunts and action scenes ever are here? Thankfully, the plot is a fun, twisted story, so you’ll be interested even when Cruise isn’t risking his life. Yes, there are a lot of, “Hey, haven’t I seen that before?” moments—lots of masks get ripped off, for starters—but the labyrinthine hijinks still feel fresh overall.

No, I’m not going to do much to explain the plot. It wouldn’t really do you any good.

OK, I’ll tell you a little.

Ethan Hunt (Cruise) finds himself on yet another mission to save the world, this time from nuclear terrorists headed by Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), the baddie from the franchise’s prior installment, making a welcome return. This time, Hunt is saddled with an “observer” in August Walker (Henry Cavill), tasked by CIA director Erica Sloan (a so-so Angela Bassett) with making sure Ethan and the IMF complete their mission with minimal funny stuff.

Cruise is sick in the head. Thankfully, one part of his sickness makes him willing to pull off movie stunts like the ones mentioned above. Cruise, while reteaming yet again with director Christopher McQuarrie (now the only director to have helmed two M:I films), manages to pull off his most spectacular cinematic feats yet. The skydive sequence, in which Hunt must work to save an unconscious co-jumper before they go splat, is simply unbelievable (in a good way). There’s a motorcycle chase through Paris streets that demands you see this thing on an IMAX screen.

Cavill, whose facial hair in this film has gotten a lot of attention over the last year, gets a chance to stretch out and play someone far more interesting than his Kryptonian dud. Here, he’s a multi-dimensional badass, especially in a bathroom brawl during which Walker and Hunt try to take out a worthy opponent. Cavill shares in the glory of some of the film’s craziest stunts. That’s not him skydiving, though: Cruise, also a producer on the film, forced Cavill to watch that sequence from the ground in favor of a stunt double.

Alec Baldwin, the original Jack Ryan, takes a break from hosting Match Game to show that he can still throw some big-screen punches as Hunt’s new IMF commander. Vanessa Kirby is sinisterly terrific as White Widow, a sly arms dealer Hunt whom must confront. In her second go-round, Rebecca Fergusson’s Ilsa Faust adds many elements of surprise. Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames deliver their usual, competent support. Lorne Balfe’s score deserves a big round of applause for its adrenaline-inducing contributions.

No matter how much money this movie makes, Cruise needs to slow down at some point. In some ways, Mission: Impossible—Fallout feels like it could be the franchise capper. It’s hard to think of any way Cruise could top what he puts onscreen, action-wise.

Then again, I probably started saying stuff like that when the original Mission: Impossible came out.

Mission: Impossible—Fallout is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

Concussion is an odd, misguided movie.

Will Smith plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, a pathologist studying the cadavers of former football players who are dying in mysterious ways. His studies eventually lead to the discovery of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a brain disease resulting from repeated concussive hits to the head.

Director Peter Landesman’s film makes the mistake of focusing on Smith’s character, and pushing the stories of the suffering football players into the background. Does anybody really care about Omalu’s love life when football players are killing themselves after retirement? The story of Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster (played movingly by David Morse) only gets a few minutes of screen time, while Omalu’s television habits and dancing prowess get more than one scene.

The film goes for a strange emotional payoff regarding Omalu’s triumphant discovery rather than really focusing on the treacherous cover-ups by the NFL when it came to CTE. Again, a movie that pushes the stories and fates of suffering NFL players into the background in favor of giving a big Hollywood star a beefed up role feels mighty self-indulgent.

This could’ve been the incisive, important film the subject needs, rather than a melodramatic excuse for Will Smith to try out a new accent. 

Concussion opens Friday, Dec. 25, at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

As is the case with some of the other sequels coming our way this summer (Terminator Genisys, Jurassic World), Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, the fifth in the series, is a decent piece of summer fluff, but little more than that.

Tom Cruise (whose hair stylist included a little too much red in the mix, resulting in a hue that doesn’t quite fit his complexion) is back as Ethan Hunt. This time around, he’s hanging from airplanes in unnatural and impossible ways, performing overly long tasks underwater, and riding a motorcycle again.

Everything he does is in service of a typically convoluted plot, involving some sort of evil syndicate of international agents who have faked their deaths and are looking to terrorize the planet. All sorts of nations are in on the evil, but the United Kingdom is especially nasty in this one, giving the whole thing a little bit of a James Bond vibe. In addition to London, Ethan goes to Morocco, Paris and Jupiter. (OK, I’m kidding about Jupiter … wouldn’t that be cool?)

If you are running late for the movie, just stay home, because you will miss the incredible airplane stunt in which Cruise clings to a jet while Simon Pegg looks on in horror. Some folks came into my screening a little late and missed the entire sequence. I wanted to walk up to them, point a finger and yell, “Ha, ha, ha … tardy, tardy, oh so farty, you and yours missed the plane stunt party! You suck! Go home!” However, the entire theater would’ve kicked my ass had I done this, so I refrained.

Speaking of Pegg, his Benji the computer analyst guy gets a bigger role this time around, reaching the level of spunky sidekick. He gets to scream and moan during car chases, and in the finale, he has one of the cooler moments in the movie, involving a bomb. It’s a good move having Cruise and Pegg pair up. It leads to a level of humor not present in previous installments.

A newcomer to the series, Alec Baldwin, gets a couple of good scenes as the CIA guy trying to eradicate Hunt’s agency. Rebecca Ferguson is impressive as an English agent who may or may not be a villain; she’s also quite decent-looking in a bikini. Jeremy Renner is around to crack wise as he messes with Baldwin’s character, while Ving Rhames still gets to collect a paycheck. As for Emilio Estevez, sadly, he’s still dead after his elevator accident in the first film.

This movie is directed by Christopher McQuarrie, who won a screenwriting Oscar for The Usual Suspects, directed Cruise in Jack Reacher, and wrote the incredible screenplay for Cruise’s vastly underrated Edge of Tomorrow. He’s officially in the Tom Cruise business.

Back to the subject of Cruise’s hair: I’m thinking his stylist should allow a little gray to come through, and should opt for something a little more dark brown. The reddish-orange tint bothers me, especially when the light hits it in a certain way. It makes him look older than he actually is. Come on—we all saw him totally grey in Collateral. He looked sharp, and that was more than years ago. Embrace the gray, Tom! Embrace the gray!

Word is out that Cruise is going to make Mission: Impossible 6, and who knows what crazy stunt he will subject himself to next time out? He’s scaled the tallest building in the world, gone cliff-climbing, and held onto an airplane while it takes off. Perhaps he will eat a whole glob of wasabi in one chomp at a sushi restaurant. That would be insane!

Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation is my least favorite M:I yet, but it’s still a good film. Things feel a little by-the-numbers this time, but Cruise is a crazy bastard who’s willing to go all-out for his movies, and this installment is no exception. The dude is nuts, and we, the movie-viewing public, are better off because he’s nuts.

Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease steals the mind of a very smart woman in Still Alice, a movie that is sure to garner Julianne Moore her first Academy Award.

In this film—which was one of the most talked-about features at this year’s Palm Springs International Film Festival—Moore plays Alice, a professor at Columbia University who leads an organized life of lectures, dinner parties and runs in the park. After starting to forget words here and there, and losing her place in lectures, Alice gets lost during a routine jog and can’t find her way home. She begins to realize that these aren’t normal memory-loss problems for a 50-year-old woman.

At first, Alice thinks she has a brain tumor. But memory tests suggest to her neurologist (Stephen Kunken) that something else could be causing her difficulties. A series of brain scans reveals the ugly truth: Alice has Alzheimer’s.

Alice, husband John (Alec Baldwin) and her children are horrified to discover their matriarch, a brilliant woman, will rapidly lose her memory, her sense of self and her ability to recognize her own children. Making matters worse, she has a rare strain of Alzheimer’s that is familial, meaning there’s a good chance she has passed the possibility of the disease to her three children: Anna (Kate Bosworth), Tom (Hunter Parrish) and Lydia (Kristen Stewart).

This is not a fun movie to watch, but it is a remarkable film: Moore and the entire cast take this way above your average disease-of-the-week movie. Moore is one of our very best actresses, and she makes Alice into a palpable representation of this horrible disease.

The script, based on a novel by Lisa Genova and written by co-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, avoids most of the melodrama that tends to mar films about illness. They present a very real family going through total devastation—all while handling the process with dignity, class and love for Alice. It’s very moving.

The much-maligned and highly underrated Kristen Stewart may be the supporting cast standout as the youngest daughter, who is trying to make it as an actress. Alice wants her to attend college, but Lydia steadfastly refuses—and the argument becomes very awkward when Alice becomes ill. Stewart is spot-on in her portrayal of a young woman determined to follow her dreams, yet driven by the need to help her mother.

Baldwin takes a very quiet approach to the role of John, turning in a subtle performance that reminds us that he’s a great dramatic actor. John still feels the need to protect and provide for his family, even if that takes him away from Alice for a new opportunity. It creates one of the film’s central conflicts; John’s decisions create a subject for debate among those who see the movie. Moore and Baldwin have great scenes together, especially the one in which Alice reveals her illness to her children. Baldwin’s reactions to her wife’s progressive memory loss are painful to watch.

Moore gives us a deep, fully realized, multi-dimensional performance that never feels trite. Alice is a woman who prides herself on her encyclopedic knowledge base for teaching, and exhibits nothing but grace as that knowledge is rapidly stripped away. Credit Moore for making every step of Alice’s tribulations seem honest and credible.

Moore should get her first Academy Award with her fifth nomination, and she very much deserves it. There were some great performances this year (especially Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl and Reese Witherspoon for Wild), but Moore outshines the class. It’s Oscar time for Moore.

Still Aliceis now playing at the Regal Palm Springs Stadium 9 (789 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs; 844-462-7342) and the Century Theatres at The River (760-836-1940).

Published in Reviews

In 2007, neuroscientist and writer Lisa Genova released her novel Still Alice; it would find a home on The New York Times best-seller list for more than 40 weeks.

That book has been adapted into a film starring Julianne Moore, and the Palm Springs International Film Festival honored her with the Desert Palm Achievement Award for her performance. I caught a screening of Still Alice as part of the PSIFF on Wednesday afternoon, Jan. 7, at the Palm Springs Regal 9.

The film begins at a conference at UCLA, where Dr. Alice Howland (Moore), a Columbia University professor of linguistics, is due to give a speech. She takes the podium sounding confident and knowledgeable—until she stumbles on a word that she can’t seem to remember.

After she arrives home in New York, her husband, John (Alec Baldwin), is nowhere to be found. She later decides to take a run through the campus of Columbia University—when she discovers she doesn’t know where she is. When she’s at home cooking a holiday dinner, she struggles to remember a bread-pudding recipe.

Because of all these problems, she nervously meets with a neurologist (Stephen Kunken). Shortly after, it’s revealed to Alice and John that she has early onset Alzheimer’s disease. The news is a crushing blow to Alice, who struggles to maintain her position at Columbia. She attempts to retain her memory through the use of her iPhone; she also has bullet points typed out for her courses. However, these steps don’t necessarily work.

Alice isn’t the only one directly affected by the diagnosis: It’s explained that the disease is genetically passed on, and therefore, her children could be at risk for the disease. Her pregnant daughter, Anna (Kate Bosworth), and her son, Tom (Hunter Parrish), both get tested, while her daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart) explains that she doesn’t care to know.

Alice later decides to pose as a woman who wants to put one of her elderly parents into a home for people with Alzheimer’s, and gets a glimpse of patients struggling with the disease.

While there have been films made about Alzheimer’s disease before, Still Alice is unique in that it’s told mostly from the perspective of the character with the disease. We see Alice struggling to maintain her composure while her husband and children watch her slip away; the audience gets a taste of what it feels like to lose one’s memory.

Moore is masterful; she’s rightfully earning Oscar buzz for her acting here. Stewart (Twilight) offers a surprisingly good performance as the outcast who fights her mother on going to college, because she’s determined to make it as an actor.

Still Alice is a compelling film that tells its story without any added drama or plot twists. The emotional hardships Alice and her family go through are real and heartbreaking enough.

The film opens in Los Angeles and New York on Friday, Jan. 16, and will later open in a wider release.

Published in Reviews

There was a time when Woody Allen was consistently making the best movies in the business. Blue Jasmine is that return to form that some of us former Allen fans have been seeking, thanks in large part to a phenomenal central performance by the Oscar-nominated Cate Blanchett.

Blanchett plays Jasmine, the wife of a Bernie Madoff-type financier (Alec Baldwin) who must relocate from New York to San Francisco after she is bankrupted and emotionally destroyed. She gulps martinis, criticizes her helpful sister (Sally Hawkins, also an Oscar nominee) and, quite frighteningly, is prone to bouts of talking to herself.

Allen finds the dark humor in the story, and employs a supporting cast that includes comedians Louis C.K. and, most astonishingly, Andrew Dice Clay—who, doggone it, delivers an amazing performance as Ginger’s financially destroyed ex-husband, Augie.

Above and beyond the humor, though, Allen makes his film a parable about how some deeds are irredeemable, and some folks are simply doomed. It’s as bittersweet as any movie you will see. As far as the Allen film canon goes, it’s a Top 5 installment.

On top of the acting nominations, the film got a nom for Allen’s screenplay. It deserves the nomination. However, the film didn’t get nominations for Best Picture or Best Director—and Blue Jasmine is better than most of the films nominated in those categories. That’s a bit annoying.

This is one of those films in which everything comes together perfectly, with Blanchett at its powerful center. Yeah, Woody Allen is total scum, but he’s still making movies, and this is one of his best.

Special Features: As is usually the case with Allen releases, there’s not much here. You get a press conference and some quickie interviews. 

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

There was a time when Woody Allen was consistently making the best movies in the business—and Blue Jasmine is that return to form that some of us Allen fans have been waiting for, thanks in large part to a phenomenal central performance by Cate Blanchett.

Blanchett—sure to nab an Oscar nomination here—plays Jasmine, the wife of a Bernie Madoff-type financier (Alec Baldwin) who must relocate from New York to San Francisco after she is financially ruined and emotionally destroyed. She gulps martinis, criticizes her helpful sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), and, quite frighteningly, is prone to bouts of talking to herself.

Allen finds the dark humor in the story, and employs a supporting cast that includes Bobby Cannavale, Louis C.K. and, most astonishingly, Andrew Dice Clay, who, doggone it, delivers one amazing performance as Ginger’s financially destroyed ex-husband, Augie.

Above and beyond the humor, Allen makes his film a parable about how some deeds are irredeemable, and some folks are simply doomed. It’s as bittersweet as any movie you will see this year—or any year, for that matter.

As far as the Allen film canon goes, this is in the Top 5. It’s one of those films where everything comes together perfectly, with Blanchett at its powerful center.

Blue Jasmine is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews