Irrational Man

Irrational ManDirector: Woody Allen

Screenwriter: Woody Allen

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, and Parker Posey

Well the word on the street about Irrational Man had me worried that I would have to write my first unfavorable review for a Woody Allen film. Well, fear not! Irrational Man is a moody, dark, twisted little film that proves engaging to even the most discerning Woody Allen-hater, and I can say this because I brought one to the theater with me!

Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe, a philosophy professor who has lost his passion for life. Not in the pondering death and its inevitableness kind of way, but in the hey, it’s a college party, I’ll try a little one-man Russian roulette, kind of way. Abe’s past reputation as a great mind in his field quickly captures the attention of one of his young students, Jill, played by Emma Stone. Their relationship “walks the line” of acceptability between teacher and student as Jill becomes more and more infatuated with the brooding Abe. During one of their supposedly innocuous dates, Abe and Jill overhear a conversation from a woman at a nearby table that sends the film spinning in a very different direction leading Abe to ponder taking an action that just may rekindle his spirit and reinvigorate his purpose in life. While I will not reveal exactly what that “action” is, I will say that it is involved in what could be considered a plot twist, something rarely found in a Woody Allen film.

Irrational Man is Allen’s darkest film since the sensational Match Point in 2005, and while it’s not quite at the caliber of that film, Irrational Man does borrow an idea or two from it. In fact, Irrational Man could be considered the fourth volume of an informal morality tetralogy after Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point, and Cassandra’s Dream. Allen has explored morality as a function of many of his films, but these four further his discussion beyond a humble motif. For this film Allen paints Abe as an existential philosopher who spouts Kierkegaard, Kant, and of course Dostoevsky, but seems virtually void of any desire to utilize free will in the search for meaning. It is not until Abe meets Jill that he suffers a truly Kierkegaardian experience forcing him to realize his anxiety truly is the dizziness of freedom. The dynamic between Abe and Jill is highly responsible for the film’s success. Phoenix’s grumpy genius is a perfect foil to Stone’s bubbly inquisitiveness. These two actors share a brilliant and intense scene late in the film that is as powerful a scene between two characters as any Allen has ever written.

Contrary to the way this film is portrayed in the trailer, Irrational Man is not a romantic romp. I’d liken the tone to something the Coen brothers might dream up; somewhere between Fargo and The Man Who Wasn’t There. In a recent NPR interview, Allen was asked, “What’s your problem with people?” Allen answered, “I think some of them are wonderful, but [there] are so many of them that are not. I was one of the few guys rooting for the comet to hit the Earth. Statistically, more people that deserved to go would go.” You may say that these are the words of an irrational man, but if you’re willing to concede that he may have a point, go see Irrational Man. B+

Irrational Man is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 37 minutes.

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Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation PosterDirector: Christopher McQuarrie

Screenwriter: Christopher McQuarrie

Cast: Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Alec Baldwin, and Ving Rhames

A scene early in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (a title so dramatic, it requires both a colon AND a dash!), finds our heroes in Casablanca, Morocco – a city fairly iconic in American cinema lore.  In one shot Tom Cruise, reprising his role as Ethan Hunt for the fifth time, seemingly looks at the camera and gives one of those Tom Cruise smirky smiles that he has perfected over the past 34 years.  A smile that at least in this case seems to say to director Christopher McQuarrie, “This looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

And it just might be!  McQuarrie, most famous for his Oscar winning screenplay for 1996’s The Usual Suspects, has written three of Cruise’s most recent projects[*] and served as director for two of them, including this film.  This time McQuarrie “rounds up the usual suspects,” and puts together this year’s best action film that does not involve super powers or dinosaurs.

Kremlin Explosion Scene from Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
Oops!

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation begins right where Ghost Protocol left off.  The nefariously named Syndicate (gasp!), has managed to force the American government to basically dissolve the Impossible Missions Force (IMF) over that nasty Kremlin incident from Ghost Protocol.  Now the Syndicate has its eyes on…world domination, Mwa, ha, ha, ha, ha!  Yes, the Syndicate’s goal is to set off a series of global terrorist attacks, creating a need for an entirely new world order.   Now Ethan Hunt is a rogue agent who will stop at nothing to bring down the Syndicate and clear the name of the IMF.

Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
“Of all the torture chambers in all the towns in all                   the world, she walks into mine.”

But he can’t do it alone…although he tries.  Eventually, Hunt has to recruit his old team including William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames).  Hunt’s only lead is a blonde man with glasses named Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), whom Hunt believes is the director of the Syndicate.  When Hunt is surprisingly rescued from a torture chamber by a mysterious double agent named Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), Hunt’s mission is further complicated regarding her motives.  Is she MI6 or is she working for the Syndicate?  Questions abound as Hunt trots the globe searching for Lane, while also trying to prevent more catastrophes.

The Mission: Impossible franchise is as fascinating as they come.  Each entry is a fresh take starting with director Brian De Palma in 1996 and inviting a new director for every subsequent film: John Woo, J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird, and now Christopher McQuarrie.  The result is a series of films that while connected through narrative have a truly unique look and tone that makes for a really interesting set of films.  Of course, the critical unifying element is Cruise.  Cruise is a juggernaut, and he does not take it easy the fifth time around.  Rogue Nation opens with the much talked about scene featured on the poster above where Cruise hangs on to the exterior of an aircraft as it takes off.  The reason that this scene can be talked about and be used to open the film is that there are at least four more tremendously entertaining action stunts left to come that rival this opening scene’s intensity.  Too often films are ruined in the trailer; this is not one of them.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is an action film that harkens back to the golden age of adventure, invoking films like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Die Hard or as I mentioned earlier, even Casablanca.  However, the film it will be most compared to is the fantastic fourth Mission: Impossible film, Ghost Protocol.  As great as Rogue Nation is, it does fall slightly short of the magnificence of its predecessor and here’s why.  Ghost Protocol was a real ensemble film.  The stunts were incredible, but more importantly, every character was deeply involved.  Cruise, Pegg, and Ferguson are on full display in Rogue Nation, no doubt about it, but Renner and Rhames are given very little to do in this film.  And did I mention Alec Baldwin is in this film?  He is, but he’s there to wear a suit and say stuff like, “Where’s the proof of this so-called Syndicate?” or “I need Hunt captured by whatever means necessary.”  Someone does need to say lines like these, but they feel wasted on Baldwin, who is slowly devolving into a caricature of his Saturday Night Live appearances.  Let’s hope Mission: Impossible 6 or M:I 6, as it’s bound to be called, has more in store for these second tier characters because, “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”  Nonetheless, this film represents the best time at the theater so far this year.  A-

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes.

[*] McQuarrie wrote and directed 2012’s Jack Reacher, wrote 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow, and served as writer/director on 2015’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.