Wednesday, August 19, 2015

WITNESS THE STRENGTH OF STREET KNOWLEDGE : a review of "Straight Outta Compton"

Story by S. Leigh Savidge & Alan Wenkus and Andrea Berloff
Screenplay Written by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff
Directed by F. Gary Gray
**** (four stars)

Epic, incendiary, sprawling, and profound, "Straight Outta Compton," Director F. Gary Gray's enormously entertaining and brutally unflinching musical biopic of the pioneering rap group N.W.A. ferociously dominates the silver screen and even transcends its own cinematic genre over and over again and to a degree that is nothing less than outstanding.

For a film I initially had no interest in seeing as I was never a fan of N.W.A. (I was more of a Public Enemy/Boogie Down Productions man), and also fearing that the film would only exist as some sort of exploitative vanity project for former N.W.A. collaborators and film Producers Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, I am thrilled that I believed the hype set up by early rave reviews and ventured out to see this film. Dear readers, if any of you happen to be harboring any doubts whatsoever, let me excitedly inform you that "Straight Outta Compton" is explosive cinema, a vehemently thrown cinematic brick through the windows of rampant cliches, hollow sequels, and an artistic and socio-political disregard to the lives of the Black community, especially regarding the police harassment and the unrepentant violence committed against it. Yet alongside the righteous fury, F. Gary Gray ensures that his film is intelligently and artfully multi-faceted and multi-layered, making for a film experience that is overwhelming in its riches. Trust me, "Straight Outta Compton" is not to be missed!

"Straight Outta Compton" chronicles the rise and fall of N.W.A., abbreviated from the intentionally controversial moniker "Niggaz With Attitude," from its origins in 1986 Compton, CA when musically obsessed DJ Andre Young a.k.a. Dr. Dre (played by Corey Hawkins), budding lyricist O'Shea Jackson a.k.a. Ice Cube (played by Cube's own son O'Shea Jackson Jr.), fast talking neighborhood hustler Eric Wright a.k.a. Eazy-E (played by Jason Mitchell) as well as lyricist/rapper MC Ren (played by Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (played by Neil Brown Jr.), formulated Ruthless Records as teenagers (initially funded by Eazy-E's drug dealer money) and recorded the rap flamethrower "Boyz N' The Hood," which immediately placed them on the musical map and captured the attention of music manager Jerry Heller (a terrific Paul Giamatti).  

After Eazy-E hires Heller to manage N.W.A. and soon has the band signed to Priority Records, the label for which group created the iconic "Straight Outta Compton" album (released August 8, 1988), the film charts the band's meteoric rise which is indeed fraught with combined conflicts and hurdles. In addition to gradually rancorous group infighting due to contractual inequality between band members, N.W.A. also faces the increasing pressures from outside sources and influences from the mounting presence of Suge Knight (playing to menacing perfection by R. Marcus Taylor) and certainly the police and even the FBI after the band unleashes the molten lava protest song "Fuck Tha Police" out onto the world.

As N.W.A. breaks apart, with each of the three principal members of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Eazy-E moving forwards separately, we also discover how they all found their way back to each other before Eazy-E's death in 1995 after a surprising battle with AIDS.

F. Gary Gray's "Straight Outta Compton" is a sensational film made with the same intensity and urgency as the music and rap group, from which the film is based, provocatively operated. Fueled with slick direction combined with an artfully meticulous attention to period detail and cinematic atmosphere, Gray, working beautifully with Cinematographer Matthew Libatique, faithfully re-creates the rap scene of over 20 years ago (with imagery Gray himself had a serious hand in creating as he was a celebrated music video director of the era) plus also the hazy, sun-drenched locale of Compton, CA which belies the poverty and desperation contained within, the embryonic cocoons of dark recording studios where N.W.A. created their iconic works, and also the grandeur of the stage and Bacchanalian excess of life on tour.

Gray certainly has his work cut out for him as "Straight Outta Compton" possess a complex historical and character driven narrative all contained into a massive 2 1/2 hour running time. Yet, Gray, with the precision of a laser beam, keeps his eyes on the prize from beginning to end, ensuring the proceedings remain completely understandable and intimately identifiable at all times. And furthermore, the film moves like a rocket!

Conceptually, "Straight Outta Compton" shares much with Director Bill Pohlad's outstanding "Love And Mercy," and not just with the intimidating presence of Paul Giamatti in the role of a Machiavellian Father figure in both films. Most certainly, F. Gary Gray has fashioned a film experience that speaks to not only the power of music as a source of redemption but as a means for survival itself, just as Pohlad performed with his impressionistic take on The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson and for that matter, what Director Albert Magnoli magnificently accomplished with Prince's "Purple Rain" (1984), a film that often sprang to my mind as I watched "Straight Outta Compton."

Where Pohlad utilized the life of Brian Wilson to chart an exploration of debilitating psychosis into which he succumbed and eventually emerged from, and Magnoli utilized the life and mythology of Prince to explore themes pertaining to the cycle of abuse, Gray explicitly illustrates how the inherent artistic talents within the members of N.W.A. were the precise tools needed to try to escape their surroundings, an environment that has long existed to denigrate and destroy young Black males. This inexcusable reality provides the band's music, and therefore the film itself, with its combustible fuel and revolutionary spirit.

"Straight Outta Compton" presents a slice of African-American life that is as honestly presented and as politically charged as any moment we have seen before and since the likes of Writer/Director Spike Lee's "Do The Right Thing" (1989). It is also ferociously searing slab of socio-political journalism and activism that makes the film work as a companion piece to both Director Ryan Coogler's "Fruitvale Station" (2013) and undeniably Director Ava DuVernay's "Selma" (2014). Gray performs a subversive yet directly powerful job with his presentation of life in Compton, where communities have fallen due to the scarcity of jobs, the rise of crack, the fearsome lordship of gangs and the ever present surveillance, harassment and violence perpetrated by the increasingly dictatorial police and judicial system.

I particularly loved an early sequence in the film, where a teen-aged Ice Cube, who attends school in the San Fernando Valley, is compulsively writing lyrics in his journal while being bused back to his home in Compton. I loved how Gray very subtly showcases the changes in the environmental landscape and resources of the wealthy White community to the poorer Black community. Even the music that underlays this sequence makes subtle changes from the Euro-pop of Tears For Fears to the head nodding, war drum beats of hip-hop. And then, all of the scenery culminates in a near tragedy as school bus hijinks provokes a frightening drug dealer to enter the bus and place a loaded gun to the head of a student. But Gray, utilizing his artistic and journalistic eye, widens his cinematic lens from Black on Black violence to illustrate the larger issues that plague the Black community, most notably how guns and drugs are more readily available than jobs and progress.

The racial tensions that exist between young Black men and the police provides "Straight Outta Compton" with a palpable sense of moral outrage as it explicitly showcases what it means to be Black in America  A scene where the band members of N.W.A. are continuously taunted, verbally abused and forced to lie face down on the Los Angeles streets (and directly outside the recording studio from where they are recording their landmark album no less) by a group of White and Black police officers, despite the presence and protests of Jerry Heller, was striking enough. But in addition to the sequences of young Back men being harassed and abused by police offices, and there are several, Gray also including a striking image near the opening of the film when a militarized Batter-ram explodes onto a Compton residential street. And of course, the film recounts the 1992 videotaped beating of Rodney King by four White police officers, their subsequent acquittal and the ensuing Los Angeles riots which culminated in not only unleashed volcanic rage but also a enraged unity against a greater enemy of copious police brutality and systematic racism as depicted in one of the film's most powerfully stirring images, the intertwined bandannas of warring gang actions marching in solidarity against the police.  

To those who may feel that these scenes are gratuitous have completely missed the inhumanity on display and the boiling rage that such scenes SHOULD provoke in all potential viewers, especially with the rise of the current Black Lives Matter movement, itself born from the continuous systematic racism, police brutality and the seemingly unedifying deaths of unarmed Black people at the hands of the police. In regards to the subject matter of N.W.A., such sequences provide the viewer with the seeds from which the band's music was created in the first place. In one sequence, Ice Cube refers to himself as a journalist and at their very best, N.W.A. provided America with a viewpoint and perspective the mainstream media would never depict, therefore making the music of N.W.A. essential to the breadth of artistic expression as well as the breadth of our on-going political discussion. All of the film's musical/recording sequences and political sequences culminate in a concert sequence that allows the film to rise to near orgiastic heights as N.W.A., in a show of blazing defiance, perform the Earth shaking "Fuck Tha Police" after being instructed not to do so by the police and the F.B.I., thus completely violating the band's 1st Amendment Rights for Free speech and self expression. This is a sequence of riotous energy as we witness how the music IS the message and how artists and the audience forge a connection that is unshakable, no matter what obstacles are hurled.

And even then, F. Gary Gray's "Straight Outta Compton" probes further.

While the "reality rap" that originated N.W.A. quickly transformed itself into the violent, and often misogynistic and homophobic fantasies of "gangsta rap," the blurred lines of the genre have always been a quality that has troubled me. My feelings are such because what is depicted in song may indeed be a reality but not necessarily the literal reality of the performers themselves, thus presenting artifice inside of the truth, changing musical journalists into hedonistic super anti-heroes. This is a dichotomy that Gray is all too aware of and while I am not certain if he is utilizing sections of "Straight Outta Compton" to either fully embrace or critique this aspect of rap and hip-hop culture, the way I read the film, I think Gray leaned a tad heavier on the critique aspect. Or at least, he provided a larger perspective, the kind of which that arrives with aging and some distance from the time period.

There is no question that Gray exalts the art form and the artistic legitimacy of N.W.A. to it highest standard within the film but there are some areas in which we view the culture and songs from a different and more complicated lens. Yes, there are many party sequences within "Straight Outta Compton," and all featuring attained and discarded naked female bodies on display. Partially, Gray has used some of these scenes, especially the cruel "Bye Felicia" moment, to illustrate the hedonistic, unattended-kid-in-a-candy shop mentality of the rap tour as these teenagers are given the keys to the kingdom and the invitation to grab every single indulgence at their disposal. In those sequences, Gray depicts how the members of N.W.A. are given license to find ways to (almost) bring the violent lives and personas they have created within their music into a certain heightened reality.

Additionally, Eazy-E, always presented as a mastermind, consistently aware of every conceivable angle in order to elevate the cultural, musical and financial status of N.W.A., takes an "any publicity is good publicity" approach to any political pushback the band received, feeling that if kids knew that the F.B.I. didn't want them to hear N.W.A.'s music, then the kids will only demand it all the more.

But then, the film's later and hazier party sequences, after the band has already begun to fragment due to internal tensions, we can see how Jerry Heller utilizes the women, drinks, drugs and the constant flow of  Dr. Dre's beloved Parliament-Funkadelic music on the loud speakers as an all encompassing anesthetic, blurring and even blinding Dre's own vision as to how he and his fiends are ultimately being used and swindled in the process.

As for the violence itself, we see how the band members (mostly) keep their vitriol, especially against each other, strictly within the confines of the music they create. A brilliant sequence, during which the already departed Ice Cube, feeling scorned by his former band mates on their second and final album, unleashes the scorched Earth funk of "No Vaseline," completely decimating all of his former associates, solely through the means of his lyrical agility, Watching the reaction of N.W.A. plus Jerry Heller upon hearing the song provides one of the film's many high points as well as dives into the film's true center.  

The emotional core of "Straight Outta Compton" arrives with a thematic framework that echoes Writer/Director John Singleton's "Boyz N' The Hood" (1991), which itself was an echo of the N.W.A. song, and that is the friendship and combined evolution of the three characters of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Eazy-E. This relationship, in essence, makes the film also function as a coming of age drama as we follow the trio from teenagers to adulthood. from kids with an idea to individuals who possess artistic and financial independence, and ultimately, the journey from subjugation to emancipation. Viewing the friendship, camaraderie, honor and brotherhood between these three figures who each wanted to find their respective ways out of their limited surroundings on their own terms, and then falling away from each other and returning to each other in the process, was much more moving than I thought that I would experience when I walked into the film. This is truly a testament to the three performers who have embodied the roles of Dre, Cube and Eazy with such skill, attention to detail as well as high reverence and three dimensional humanity.

It is simply eerie to watch O'Shea Jackson Jr. embody the spirit of his Father, Ice Cube so completely. He actually looks almost precisely as his Father did when he acted in "Boyz N' The Hood." But even so, Jackson Jr. works far beyond mere imitation and makes the character of Ice Cube come to life so vibrantly that I often felt as if I was looking directly into the window of Ice Cube's own past and memories. Even more impressive is Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre, a legendary musical figure who also possesses a certain unknowable status. In Hawkins, we not only see the drive and determination but also the musical dreamer as well as a figure who falls under the spell and/or antagonistic thumbs of three Father figures throughout the film before finally attaining true independence. As for Jason Mitchell, who stars as Eazy-E, I really believe that he has elicited nothing less than an Oscar caliber performance that completely runs the gamut from cunning to vulnerable, fearless to fearful, ahead of the curve to desperate and hopeless, all the while also growing up from child to full adulthood. The twists and turns Mitchell takes throughout the course of "Straight Outta Compton," sometimes all in one scene (a late film confrontation with Jerry Heller is especially powerful), is masterful and I deeply hop that he is handsomely rewarded for his tremendous efforts during awards season.

F. Gary Gray's "Straight Outta Compton" above all else is a music biopic that serves as a celebration of inspiration and the creation of art and music itself. The recording sequences contained in the film showcase the same unbridled euphoria that comes from unfiltered creativity, just as also presented in "Love And Mercy," thus making for a film that is consistency a roof raiser. But overall, throughout all of the concepts, themes, and layers, Gray has unquestionably helmed a towering achievement of a film that simultaneously speaks of the past and the present with grit, teeth and full blooded passion.

"Straight Outta Compton" is easily one of the very best films of 2015.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015


by Kirk Honeycutt
with an introduction written by Chris Columbus
Published by Race Point Publishing
1st Edition March 25, 2015
224 pages

To begin my sixth annual tribute to the life and legacy of Writer/Producer/Director John Hughes, who passed away from a heart attack on August 6, 2009, I will present to you the words of Writer/Producer/Director Chris Columbus:

"My first interview with John was at his Lake Forest complex. I entered John's office and sat there. Alone, waiting. at some point, John's young, usually frightened assistant walked in, carrying a fresh pack of Carlton cigarettes, a disposable lighter, and a glass ashtray. These items were carefully placed on a table beside John's chair. The assistant left the room and after a few minutes, John walked through the door. This particular ritual happened before every single meeting I ever had with John Hughes. Noting ever changed about it. Except the assistants."

I never met John Hughes.

During my entire adolescence while growing up in Chicago, finding myself completely enraptured by the films of John Hughes and eternally inspired to begin writing, I wanted absolutely nothing more than to make personal contact with the man himself. If I was to succeed in my quest, I really had no set plan as to what I would say were I able to release words from my voice. All I could have wanted was just some time to talk to him, to ask him about his films of course, but to also ask him about his writing regimen and his process as well as chat as extensively as possible about music and most of all, thank him profusely for all he has given to my life through his work. Just one chance to speak with him. That was all I wanted, even as I knew how unlikely such an occurrence would be.

Even so, I wrote fan letters, which to this day I have no idea if he ever saw them let alone read them. I would scour both the Chicago Sun Times and Chicago Tribune for any Hughes related filming location tidbits with the hopes of maybe finding some way to reach the set and just have the chance to meet him. By my college years, with my dorm room always adorned with some Hughes related one-sheet poster, and also pursuing a Communication Arts degree with an emphasis in radio, television and film, I harbored many fantasies of somehow being able to find my way into working for him within his production company Hughes Entertainment. But the direction of my life did not precipitate the attempt of getting myself involved in any aspect of the movie business, so of course, any chance of meeting John Hughes within that specific context evaporated.

Even with my endless fascination and pursuit, by some time in the 1990's, I found myself feeling unsure if I did want to meet him after all due to his increasing reputation within the Hollywood industry for possessing a legendary volcanic temper, as well as erratic behavior and a precious sensitivity that afforded him the ability to hold personal grudges against others that Molly Ringwald referred to as being nearly "supernatural," in her beautifully written remembrance "The Neverland Club," as published in The New York Times on August 11, 2009, five days after Hughes' passing.

The idea that my hero, John Hughes, an artist who opened up a new way of looking out at the world and into myself so completely, could possibly be a misanthropic, embittered individual gave me serious pause. (Frankly, I still cannot wrap my head around the man having been politically affiliated with the Republican party based upon the films he made and the themes contained therein, but I digress...) I mean--what if I had the chance to meet him and he asshole? I guess I was afraid to have whatever image I had conjured up of him, as constructed through his work as well as interviews he and his collaborators had given, tampered with or even destroyed. But still, I wished for that day to occur nonetheless.

In March of this year, I purchased a new book that offered greatly to jointly fill in some of the gaps while also continuing the mystery of who John Hughes was as a human being and how that contributed to his artistry. Author and former Hollywood Reporter film critic Kirk Honeycutt's John Hughes: A Life In Film, is a lavishly presented coffee table book that I believe that most fans of Hughes would salivate over. Covering the entirety of Hughes' life, from his upbringing, his advertising career, his tenure as a Writer and Editor at National Lampoon magazine to his iconic filmography and up to his 2009 passing, Honeycutt has delivered a colorful, handsome tome that works as a fine companion piece to Author Susannah Gora's excellent You Couldn't Ignore Me If You Tried: The Brat Pack, John Hughes And Their Impact On A Generation and Director Matt Austin Sandowski's documentary "Don't You Forget About Me" (2009), which I profiled in the August 2011 section of this blogsite.

Honeycutt instantly reeled me in with a grand slam of an opening that spoke directly to my fascination with the type of person that John Hughes may have been: the Forward as written by filmmaker Chris Columbus, who directed two of Hughes' highest box office smashes, "Home Alone" (1990) and "Home Alone 2: Lost In New York" (1992). as well as the romantic comedy drama "Only The Lonely" (1991), which Columbus also wrote and Hughes produced.

It was the very type of crisp and connective storytelling that made me wish for more as Columbus described his memories of working directly with John Hughes as they collaborated on "Home Alone" from pre to post-production, some of which I presented in the opening of this year's tribute. Certainly, I will not spoil for you the remainder of Columbus' story as I wish for you to purchase this book and read it for yourselves. But I will say that Columbus' recollections of that period are filled with a compellingly intertwined sense of awe, frustration, appreciation, confusion and ultimately, a reverence that was profoundly moving to read and also mirrored the emotions I felt whenever I found myself wondering precisely who the individual behind the treasured films actually was.

After such a magnetic opening, in many ways, the remainder of Kirk Honeycutt's John Hughes: A Life In Film, does not disappoint. From beginning to end, this lushly illustrated tribute is loaded with all manner of film analysis throughout from Honeycutt, plus a plethora of photos as well as new interviews conducted with many of Hughes' actors and associates including Matthew Broderick, Steve Martin, Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson, Jon Cryer as well as Costume Designer Marilyn Vance, Directors Howard Deutch, Patrick Read Johnson and the aforementioned Columbus among others. And of course, we hear from the man himself, John Hughes, through his archived interviews and comments.

For John Hughes' most treasured material, Honeycutt spends the most time and therefore, provides the most material one could wish to read about. The section covering Director Harold Ramis' "National Lampoon's Vacation" (1983), which Hughes scripted from his original National Lampoon short story entitled "Vacation '58," published in 1979 (and written while bunkered at his home during the historic "Blizzard of '79"), represented a fine example of how well and deftly Honeycutt has been able to track and detail the evolution of a film from its gestation period into the final version that has become a comedy classic. Yet, once he delves into Hughes' "golden period" with his sextet of high school chronicles, the book becomes a veritable treasure trove of information and insight.

With the section devoted to "Sixteen Candles" (1984), Honeycutt not only recounts the writing, casting and production of the film itself, while also giving us some thoughtful analysis of the finished film along the way, I did appreciate how a sub-section entitled "The Long Duk Dong Controversy," directly addressed the serious viewpoint that this character, as played by actor Gedde Watanabe, has long served as a catalyst for debate of harmful to dangerous racial stereotypes presented in cinema. It was interesting to me to see how the character may have originated from Hughes' own family and had clearly been filtered through a National Lampoon lens, but that the overall intent was not to offend despite the fact that for so many the character is deeply offensive. Watanabe provides a compelling insight into his working relationship with Hughes in regards to constructing what they each felt to be a broadly comic character, from what was included in the film and to what was edited from the final version.

The lengthy section devoted to "The Breakfast Club" (1985), quite possibly Hughes' most celebrated film, has been well documented in film based publications as well as Gora's book. Even so, Honeycutt has unearthed and contained some especially fascinating material, including the brief casting of Rick Moranis as Carl the Janitor as well as more information about the brief addition of a curvaceous female teacher who gives some of the characters, and the audience, a bit of a peep show, an element that was cut from the final film, either through protests from Ringwald and Sheedy or whether Hughes ever really intended to use such a sequence anyway.

What is clear is that for all of Hughes' mastery as a writer, to which all interviewed participants attest time and again, he was never married to his material to a detrimental degree. Once the cameras began to roll, the written word combined with a healthy spirit of collaboration and improvisation congealed beautifully, creating a film set atmosphere that many of his actors have continued to express they have never experienced in quite the same way before or since (although Hughes' process would cause Script Supervisors and Editors massive headaches due to the ever changing and mountainous amount of material collected). Also of note is the sub-section entitled "High School Fashion Show," during which Honeycutt has Marilyn Vance, one of Hughes' longest serving collaborators, displays her original costume boards for the five principal characters of "The Breakfast Club," again showing how another individual's talents was able to bring Hughes' original vision to vibrant, three dimensional life.

If the sections devoted to "Pretty In Pink" (1986), where Hughes' relationship with Ringwald began to deteriorate, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" (1986) as well as the rapidly violate pre-production cast and director changes of "Some Kind Of Wonderful" (1987) showcased just what miracles making movies actually are, especially ones that have been so beloved by generations of viewers for nearly 30 years, I particularly enjoyed reading about the film that truly inspired Hughes to take control of his material due to how much he despised the restrictive and dismissive process the movie business can be to writers.

Director Stan Dragoti's "Mr. Mom" (1983), which Hughes scripted and based upon his own experiences as a househusband and Father to his two young sons, is a film that Hughes had long expressed his displeasure, despite its box office success and pop cultural longevity. It was a film on which he was actually fired from and replaced with two uncredited writers who, as far as I am concerned, wrestled almost any sense of Hughes' artistic voice from the script and replaced it with a veritable blandness that even the extreme warmth, charm and humor of stars Michael Keaton and Teri Garr had to work overtime to counteract. What made this section so involving for me was that Honeycutt gives us the full backstory of the film, even giving us a window into the content of Hughes' original script, which surprisingly did not house the tenderness Hughes often employed in his material alongside the slapstick and satire. The original version of "Mr. Mom" was indeed an affair that was darker, meaner, more satirical and clearly still guided by his activities with the far nastier National Lampoon. While Hughes' re-writes did indeed soften the overall tone, it was not enough to keep him attached to the project, resulting in an experience that may have been one of the first seeds planted in his tumultuous relationship with Hollywood.

Returning to Chris Columbus' excellent Forward for a moment and my own palpable nervousness with what I would have met if I had ever encountered John Hughes face-to-face, Kirk Honeycutt provides copious information and stories relating to Hughes' aforementioned difficult relationship with Hollywood, and the erratic nature and voluminous anger that only seemed to increase once his films because even more successful (and demonstrably less personal and more formulaic). This aspect of John Hughes: A Life In Film did indeed give me tremendous interest as well as a certain sense of frustration. Not entirely with Hughes' behavior, which if we are to believe everyone's stories, is at times confusing at best and reprehensible at worst. My frustration simply comes from the fact that everything is speculative, therefore dulling any sense of actual insight Honeycutt may have been able to fully provide for the reader and Hughes fan.

As also written in Gora's book, it is well known that John Hughes experienced a closeness with Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall that he possibly felt was familial, which possibly made Ringwald and Hall's desires to artistically move onwards from him feel like personal betrayals, therefore leading to relationships that he extinguished. This was a pattern Hughes would repeat over and again throughout his career. While Howard Deutch retained a friendship with John Hughes by the end of his life, Deutch, who indeed directed three films for Hughes, fell in and out of Hughes' favor time and again, and usually without warning or reason.

Director Patrick Read Johnson also vividly recounts conversations and phone call session between himself and Hughes that ran the gamut from sensational to a tad bizarre to downright horrific. We learn that Hughes first hired Johnson to direct his live action adaptation of Hank Ketchum's classic comic strip series "Dennis The Menace" (1993), but fired and replaced him with Director Nick Castle only to re-hire him to direct the ambitious yet impersonal $50 million dollar budgeted epic comedy, "Baby's Day Out" (1994), itself a production fraught with mis-communications, re-edits and large, and public, verbal fights between himself and Hughes.

These are just two of many examples presented within John Hughes: A Life In Film that do indeed cause considerable discontent with regards to an aspect of Hughes' personality, at least when dealing with real people in a most unreal situation of the Hollywood dream machine. Scorned Executives even referred to Hughes' unpredictable and unrepentant stonewalling as being banished to the "cornfield," a reference to an episode of "The Twilight Zone" during which a mutant had the ability to banish its enemies into a cornfield from which they would never return.

This realization undoubtedly contains a level of surprise and disappointment because Hughes was a filmmaker who consistently created populist social comedies and critiques that, at their very best as demonstrated in his masterful "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" (1987) and "The Breakfast Club," went to great pains to illustrate the damage caused when people behave at their most callous and cruel and the heights to which our humanity can reach when we just show some sense of empathy. Even so, it seems that with John Hughes, those concepts may have been a bit of an inner struggle for himself, a man who seemingly wanted to create an additional family with his professional collaborators, whose feelings were easily wounded and whose anger was often unforgiving. "He was a tough personality," explained Marilyn Vance in the book. "John loved you, loved you, loved you, until he didn't love you anymore. He fell out with almost everybody he started with." 

That is, except for John Candy.

Quite possibly the most unanswerable question regarding John Hughes was the reason or reasons he decided to completely walk away from Hollywood in the first place. As with his mood swings and personality shifts, for Honeycutt, Hughes' Hollywood departure is also up for speculation. But possibly, it was the death of John Candy in 1994 that shook Hughes to his core. John Candy seemed to be precisely the individual who became everything Hughes may have been looking for within his professional universe, a collaborator who could also exist as a cherished best friend and extended family member. The friendship between John Hughes and John Candy, by all accounts as presented by Honeycutt, was truly a relationship of great tenderness and affection as well as wondrous creative collaboration. The families of both men grew close together, vacationed together and reportedly have remained tightly intertwined after the respective passings of both patriarchs. "They were like brothers," expressed Candy's friend and business associate Bob Crane. "I never saw John (Hughes) connect with anyone like that,"echoed Vance.

Honeycutt makes considerable mention of how Hughes and Candy would habitually talk on the telephone for hours upon hours into the night, sharing stories and hatching ideas for projects they could share together, including the never filmed "Bartholomew Vs. Neff," a dueling neighbor comedy starring Candy and of all people, Sylvester Stallone and which Hughes would direct from his original screenplay. But as Crane explains in the book to Honeycutt, "You get those raw ideas. Then n come the deal-makers, attorneys, studio heads, publicity department, and it all changes from that raw, fun meeting or phone call as it starts to be 'developed.'"  

Maybe this was the key to John Hughes' discomfort within Hollywood and his rising anger over the years. He was a writer to the end and when writing, the universe the writer creates is precisely and exclusively everything that writer wishes for it to be. Once more people are inevitably part of the process in the world of movie making, that original idea transforms more times than the writer may have ever anticipated or even wanted. Even when John Hughes became a one-man movie mogul, he was not an industry unto himself as the money handlers were always at the door with their ideas, suggestions and notes as well as the ability to say "No" at any conceivable time. Take this, plus his perpetual feelings of displacement in Hollywood as he preferred to remain in his beloved Chicago and then, the death of his best friend, I think we are able to connect the dots.

For a book that contains this wealth of information, it is not without its flaws. For example, I really do not think that the book is as complete as it could possibly be. Certainly, I'd love to read more about his days at National Lampoon and even hear about the stories he wrote for the magazine but that said, this is a book about Hughes' film career, not a full biography. Where Honeycutt falters is that there is.not nearly enough attention is given to Hughes' entire filmography, especially the films that Honeycutt obviously didn't like or care that much about. Yet, I feel that there is as much to learn about John Hughes from his successes as well as his failures, perceived or deserved.

For instance, I think that it's a shame that I know more about the debacle that was "Career Opportunities" (1991). That film, which was directed by Bryan Gordon with whom Hughes fought, and released by Universal Studios against Hughes' wishes just to spite him for his rages against studio executives was a project that Hughes wrote, produced and essentially disowned, calling it "vulgar" and feeling ashamed that his name was even on the final product. Just with those few sentences, I gave you more information than Honeycutt's book bothers to distribute about that film.

And what of the underrated "Dutch" (1991), which Hughes wrote and produced and hired Peter Faiman to direct? Not much either. How about "Curly Sue" (1991), the last film Hughes would ever direct himself, a film that had a six month plus shooting schedule as well as one that actors, including stars Alison Porter and Kelly Lynch, repeatedly stated that Hughes worked especially hard, but was ultimately the least energetic and least satisfying film to emerge under his directorial eye (although I do have a bit of a soft spot for it).

Most of all, what of "She's Having A Baby" (1988)? For me, that film is John Hughes' crowning jewel, the finest film he ever made and of course, the most personal by a mile. It was a film that was beleaguered by a Hollywood strike, which derailed the editing sessions and forced it from its originally intended slot as a June 1987 release as well as serving as the bridge from the high school films to more adult characters. The film was a rare box office flop for Hughes which then signaled the beginning of making his cinematic output less personal and individualistic. I would think that there was a wealth of material to be discovered, gained and presented from that one film alone, and Honeycutt does not include any of it.

Furthermore, what of the films that Hughes announced and never realized? While we do read a little bit about projects like "Oil And Vinegar" (which was to star Matthew Broderick and Molly Ringwald and either Hughes or Deutch would direct) and "The Bee" (more on that later)  what about projects like "Black Cat Bone: The Return Of Huckleberry Finn," "The Nanny Fox," "The Bugster," or his adaptation of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan? Not one word on those or others and extremely disappointing indeed as all of the omissions felt like missed opportunities to create a book that was truly indispensable.

And yet, even with the flaws and all of the darker material presented, Kirk Honeycutt firmly utilizes John Hughes: A Life In Film as a celebratory and reverential exploration of a filmmaker who was unquestionably unlike any other, creatively audacious and often very much ahead of the curve. Not only was he the writer, producer and/or director of his projects, he handled the advertising, both professional and guerrilla, from writing the copy for the one-sheet posters himself and supervising the trailers to personally placing promotional stickers upon streetlight lampposts. He handpicked the music utilized in the films and even wrote the letters to his fan club mailing list himself as well (something that I have seen and am still smarting that I had never found my name upon any distribution lists considering how many fan letters I wrote). He distinctly understood the concept of building an audience by having one film playing in theaters just as the follow-up was being made (sounds like the Marvel universe now doesn't it?).

And returning to the unmade film "The Bee," which Hughes had originally planned to direct himself, he conceptualized a Chaplin-esque, almost silent movie as it featured a scant 10 pages of dialogue within his 120 page screenplay, and was entirely through the point of view of a bee. This idea was essentially 20 years ahead of its time as in the early to mid 1990's, such a film would have been impossible to make unless it was animated (a possibility Hughes toyed with) but in 2015, with CGI technology, "The Bee" would have been perfectly logical to realize.

John Hughes never received very much respect and credit for his work while he was alive (perhaps something else that punctured his sensitivities and fueled his discontent) but I do think that Kirk Honeycutt's book goes a long way in creating a tribute for the Hughes novice, casual fan and connoisseur. After reading the book and thinking again if whether I would have still wanted to meet him in person now knowing what I know, I think that even despite my nervousness, I would still want that one chance to thank him, to credit him, to show him that the work he embarked upon throughout much of his life was indeed more than worth any of the trouble, strain and frustration because his work touched my soul completely and deeply, inspiring me in more ways than he could have ever imagined possible. John Hughes' life in film had meaning and was indeed meaningful.

For it has meant everything in the world to me.

TONE DEAF: a review of "Ricki And The Flash"

Screenplay Written by Diablo Cody
Directed by Jonathan Demme
* (one star)

I swear if Meryl Streep is greeted with accolades during awards season for this, then I will hurl myself down a flight of stairs, have it filmed and uploaded onto the internet for eternal consumption.

Dear readers, I am not a member of "The Cult Of Meryl" and proudly so. This is nothing personal, mind you, as I don't know her in real life at all and furthermore, this is not a denigration of her legendary talents. I am simply rallying against a perception that ANYTHING she does in regards to her performances, no matter what it is or how good it actually happens to be, she will receive delirious acclaim and rapturous awards recognition, nominations and wins that may not even be deserved and only exist to serve and fuel the cult.

Yes, my feelings do all come down to a sense of personal tastes but let's be real, people. There is greatness all over the place in Meryl Streep on-going filmography but do you really believe that her work in "The Devil Wears Prada" (2006), or "Mamma Mia!" (2008) is on the same artistic level as her work in say "Sophie's Choice" (1982), "Silkwood" (1983), "Death Becomes  Her" (1992), "Adaptation" (2002) or "Doubt" (2008), for example? Come on! You can't strike gold every singe time at bat and that goes even for the very best of the best as the likes of Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino can easily attest as they have each made some stinkers. For Meryl Streep, the screamingly tone deaf "Ricki And The Flash" is one that she may wish to hide under the cat litter. Believe me, it's awful!

"Ricki And The Flash" stars Meryl Streep as Ricki Rendazzo, guitarist and lead singer for the titular combo, a strong bar band that specializes in classic rock (although they're trying to expand their repertoire with more current material by Lady Gaga and Pink) and features the talents of not only Parliament-Funkadelic keyboard legend Bernie Worrell on the "88s," drummer Joe Vitale, and the late, great bassist Rick Rosas but even the man himself, Rick Springfield as Greg, Ricki's lead guitarist and longtime paramour.

As the band has a teeny-tiny fan base in one Texarkana, California based bar, and her dreams of rock and roll stardom have long evaded her (she has just one studio album to her name), Ricki grudgingly and resentfully attempts to make a living through her day job, a cashier at a trendy, upscale Whole Foods styled grocery store. When one day, Ricki receives a troubling phone call from her wealthy ex-husband Pete (a perpetually bewildered Kevin Kline), who explains that their daughter Julie (played by Streep's real life daughter Mamie Gummer) has undergone a psychological breakdown after the departure of her boyfriend for another woman.

Ricki then trepidaciously makes her way back to her Indiana home town to try and make amends with the family she left behind in pursuit of musical fame and fortune, a family that includes includes her her gay son Daniel (Ben Platt) and her soon to be married son Joshua (Sebastian Shaw).

"Ricki And The Flash" is an unfathomable disaster of tonality and conception, quite shocking to realize that the script was written by Diablo Cody who gave us the wonderful "Juno" (2007) as well as the brutally acerbic "Young Adult" (2011), both of which were directed by Jason Reitman. An even greater shock is that of all filmmakers, the legendary Jonathan Demme, the man behind film classics like "Melvin And Howard" (1980), "Stop Making Sense" "Something Wild" (1986), "The Silence Of The Lambs" (1991), "Philadelphia" (1993), the outstanding "Rachel Getting Married" (2008) as well as a host of concert films, dramas and documentaries was anywhere near the camera, let alone directed it! Demme and Cody were the sole reasons that I ventured out to see this film and surprisingly, they have succeeded in making a film that is so astonishingly out of touch with any sense of reality.

Despite having a structural framework that recalls both "Young Adult" (the embittered failed artist returning to her home town) and "Rachel Getting Married" (a large multi-cultural family in the throes of a wedding ceremony), "Ricki And The Flash" is yet one more of those dysfunctional family movies that arrives, like Director Shawn Levy's "This Is Where I Leave You" (2014), that has absolutely no idea of how families work, operate, live, breathe, implode, destruct and reconstruct all over again. None of the participants in the film feel as if they had even met each other before the cameras rolled as they all have such a tremendous lack of chemistry, most notably Kline and Streep. Every character is presented within the broadest strokes possible and like Director Thomas Bezucha's odious "The Family Stone" (2005), Demme and Cody present a bizarro world socio-political dynamic where ALL liberals are wealthy, self-righteous blue bloods and ALL Republicans are highly honorable solely because they are ALL salt-of-the-Earth, dirt poor, vaguely racist individuals like Ricki herself and yet these are the only people who can truly understand the real transformative power of rock and roll. Excuse me while I gag.  

Which leads me to Meryl Sreep's actual performance, which is so showy, so blatantly insincere, so much of a painfully contrived "performance" that she is completely operating in state fair, grand prize salted HAM mode! Never for one moment does she delve under the skin of Ricki to try and make a character like this come off as anything resembling a living, breathing individual. Look, there really is a movie to be made with this material, a darker, tougher, exceedingly more honest film than the one on display here because "Ricki And The Flash" is so badly written, awkwardly directed, and not very well acted and unforgivably so. It is a film littered from top to bottom with the most ear aching dialogue in recent memory (and from a writer who knows better because she has done better) spilling from the mouths of actors unable to make (almost) any moment work or even be remotely compelling.  

Truth be told, I do have to give credit to Rick Springfield, who was indeed impressive, so much so that I could not hep but to wonder what the film would have been like if it was re-constructed (or better yet, entirely re-written and overhauled) so he was in the leading role. I think that with his longevity and musical chops, it could have made for something worthy, like a rock and roll version of Director Scott Cooper's "Crazy Heart" (2009), but "Ricki And The Flash" is what we're left with. Additionally, I also must give credit to Audra McDonald, who portrays Pete's second wife Maureen. Now, if anyone in this film provided a sense of gravity and realism, it was McDonald, who in one lengthy scene with Streep, nearly eats her alive with her command pummeling Streep's showboating hysterics.

With regards to Streep's singing in the film, as she does perform all of the band's songs, which are indeed very well filmed and presented by Demme, who certainly has had enough experience shooting concert sequences, she's good. That is not an issue at all in the film at all...well, except for the film's finale, which occurs at her son's wedding and I am certain that you can all easily figure out what Ricki's gift to her son actually is, and believe me it is just a howler in its execution.  

Dear readers, as I have expressed to you in the past, I see these things so you won't have to and Jonathan Demme's "Ricki And The Flash" is definitely one to seriously avoid. It is easily the worst film of 2015 so far as it is a giant vat of cliches and caricatures boiling so furiously, that I actually began wondering if the whole film was some sort of a cinematic dare or practical joke to see how bad of a film could they make that Meryl Streep would still receive awards recognition for.

While we still have to wait to find out if Streep is honored once again, and I realize that my opening challenge may be famous last words on my part, if she does miraculously pull nomination out of the awards season hat, the joke has unrepentantly been played upon me.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER...AGAIN: a review of "Irrational Man"

Written and Directed by Woody Allen
*** (three stars)

Another year, another new film from Writer/Director Woody Allen.

The nearly annual nature of new films from Allen can ether produce emotions of joy and anticipation or complete indifference and dismissal from movie goers and for my particular sensibilities, you can easily include me within the former group. Allen's prolific nature simply astounds me. Now that he is 79 years old, he remains seemingly unstoppable as his output has not slowed down a whit over the years and furthermore, the overall quality continues to outshine most of what one would be able to witness in their local theaters. But even so, with such a prolific nature not every film can emerge as solid gold and consistent themes may be revisited enough to the point of feeling that a new film is merely a recycled version of a past effort.

With "Irrational Man," his latest (and either his 46th or 47th feature film to boot), Woody Allen has arrived with a project that does indeed feel cobbled together from the spare parts of past and better films in his oeuvre but even so, the standard of the writing, direction and acting remain top tier culminating in a film experience that was completely involving, one that I would easily watch again in the future but somehow was not entirely satisfying as I have seen it all before.

"Irrational Man" stars an excellent Joaquin Phoenix as Abe Lucas, a Philosophy professor who is caught within the throes of a forever deepening quicksand of an existential crisis. A morass of contradictions, Abe displays a uniquely rigid nihilistic view of existence while he is constantly seeking a sense of meaning and purpose whether through his writings, political activism and teaching, all of which has emotionally failed him. Regardless of his rampant depression, alcoholism and even sexual impotence, Abe Lucas captures the wide reaching fascination of the students and faculty of his new academic home, the small town college campus of Braylin, most notably the unhappily married professor Rita Richards (a terrific Parker Posey) and Jill Pollard (an excellent Emma Stone), one of Abe's highly impressionable students.

Much to the disapproval of Jill's boyfriend Roy (Jamie Blackley) and under the ever curious eyes and ears of Rita Richards plus the campus, Jill forges a relationship with Abe, which he entertains and rebuffs once Jill makes her more romantic intentions known. Yet, during a lunch date as Abe and Jill overhear a conversation at the next booth, Abe makes a life altering decision that affords him with the exact sense of purpose that has eluded him..but not without dire consequences.

Woody Allen's "Irrational Man" exists as yet another of  his philosophical debates with the meaning or meaninglessness of existence yet the film strode confidently into my personal wheelhouse on many levels. The collegiate setting combined with the academia of Philosophy was a powerful draw for me and the environment felt to serve as a perfect locale to showcase Allen's peerless, literary wit and dialogue which is ALWAYS a pleasure to hear when I go to the movies. As the conduits for Allen's words, themes and debates, Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone, who I believe elicited one of her finest performances, were nothing less than perfect. Their chemistry together was palpably charged and individually, they commanded the screen with an ease, confidence and sharp intelligence that was intoxicating to regard, especially as the story stretches into its darker passages.

Phoenix's work as Abe Lucas made for an Allen creation that was as multi-layered as it was familiar. Certainly, Abe's inner trauma mirrors Allen's as he is a self-described nihilist, who despite the random and unforgiving nature of the universe, continues on his artistic path without trepidation year after year. In fact, the character could exist as another one of Allen's stand-ins, not in those iconic mannerisms and gestures, but completely within a certain philosophical makeup, belief system and conflict, that is indeed fascinating and frustrating. What Allen achieves with the character of Abe Lucas is to take him (and the audience) on a wild emotional ride that begins in despondency, transforms to elation and further evolves into a sense of entitlement that borders on madness and Joaquin Phoenix is equal to every tempestuous tenor.

As he performed so brilliantly in Writer/Director Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" (2012), just regard Phoenix's body language throughout the film. Just watch how he seems to have an ever present paunch and stoop during his drunken first third of the film and how he makes subtle new changes as the character discovers a certain and disturbing new lease on life. Yet, Phoenix completely dives under the skin of Abe Lucas, making some sequences electric in their tension, most notably a short scene where Abe plays a round of Russian Roulette in front of his students at a house party to demonstrated the randomness of existence. From beginning to end, Phoenix remains as uncomfortably intense and as mesmerizing as ever.

Emma Stone also takes the familiar Allen character of the young woman taken in by the significant influence of an older man, not through sexuality (initially) but intelligence yet she infuses her own tenacious quality of taking on Abe Lucas as a bit of a challenge. For Jill Pollard, it feels that Abe Lucas represents that certain unattainable bad boy (clearly the complete opposite of her devoted but increasingly alienated boyfriend) that she feels that only she will ever fully understand and is also the one that can possibly tame his inner beasts as well as have him fall love with her. Thankfully, Allen and Stone do not have this character solely exist to determine which relationship she would rather find herself involved with. "Irrational Man takes Jill upon her own existential crisis as she is forced to think and re-think what her view of morality actually is, especially as she falls in love with the highly unstable professor and to a degree, slowly grows unstable herself.

All of this being said, "Irrational Man" has much to share with past Allen efforts, including two of his very best films "Crimes And Misdemeanors" (1989) and "Match Point" (2005) and for that matter, elements of "Manhattan Murder Mystery" (1993), "Scoop" (2006), "Cassandra's Dream" (2007), as well as one of the storylines in the underrated "You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger" (2010), as he again focuses his attention upon the ideas of fate vs. luck and the possibility of being able to commit the perfect crime, which is again murder. This time around, however, I don't think that the change in scenery and being fueled with such strongly written characters that are brought to vivid life by Phoenix and Stone were rich enough to make "Irrational Man" stand as tall as possible.

Dear readers, where some critics have bristled with any sense of repetitiveness on Allen's part, I will not join that specific choir. At least, not quite. I have no issues with Woody Allen revisiting or even recycling certain themes within his films for he is truly copying no one else but himself and the themes are clearly of intense interest to him (possibly even moreso as he ages and mortality is looming greater and closer). As an artist, I feel that Allen should be able to revisit these themes as many times as he wishes. The problem that I had with "Irrational Man" is not that he has returned to nihilism and murder but that he has nothing new to say about either of these themes this time around, which ultimately made for a film that doesn't stick to the cinematic ribs as tightly as it should. And while the film has not faded from memory, the proceedings still didn't feel as fresh as in films past. I guess it was sort of like seeing a volume of "Woody Allen's Greatest Hits" instead of seeing something that really jumped off the screen like "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" (2008), "Midnight In Paris" (2011) and "Blue Jasmine" (2013). 

But, I have no fear that Woody Allen will not be able to craft another great film. Who knows? Maybe it will be his next movie, which is presently getting ready to be filmed. Even so, do not let any minor criticisms sway you from "Irrational Man," especially if you are looking for a slice of sharp, smart entertainment designed for adults that is accessible, captivating, engrossing and sways and swaggers confidently to the sounds of The Ramsey Lewis Trio. While it is a film that you may wish to discover on the small screen down the road, I do gently urge you to go to the theater and give this film some box office support. Not for Woody Allen's sake necessarily but for the possibility that more films of a decidedly more adult nature, no matter how flawed, don't get swept under the rug entirely.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!: a review of "Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation"

Based upon the television series created by Bruce Geller
Story by Christopher McQuarrie & Drew Pearce
Screenplay Written and Directed by Christopher McQuarrie
**** (four stars)

Dear readers, this absolutely should not be happening.

In the cinematic world of tired remakes, sequels, prequels, re-boots, re-imaginings and so on, any new installment within an existing franchise series should be creatively spinning its wheels by now, arriving with one more unimaginative episode to cash in on any stitch of allegiance we may hold with the familiar characters and situations that first captivated us. With Tom Cruise's "Mission: Impossible" film series, on which Cruise serves as Producer as well as starring as the eternally intrepid secret agent Ethan Hunt, he has ensured the normalcy of movie franchises' waning quality over time refuses to be applied to his output. In addition, he has also ensured that his franchise will exceed all expectations and any semblances of skepticism.

"Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation," as directed by Christopher McQuarrie, who last collaborated with Cruise on the understated crime thriller "Jack Reacher" (2012), is a triumph. For the fifth film in this on-going series, it should have been the one where the adventures of Ethan Hunt and his team of secret IMF agents would grow weary and creaky. Instead, and masterfully so, we have a film that illustrates in high flying excitement and high class, that blockbuster films need not be brain dead in order to be entertaining and that sequels need not be uninspiring cash grabs. In a film series that does not have even one bad entry, "Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation" continues the excellence set by Director J.J. Abrams with his "Mission: Impossible III" (2006) and Director Brad Bird's outstanding "Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol" (2011). This is as rock solid as it gets.

The plot of "Mission: Impossible -Rogue Nation" is lean, mean, sharply effective and completely involving. Ethan Hunt (again played by Tom Cruise) and his band of secret IMF agents, who include Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and longtime partner Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), are being threatened by The Syndicate, a supposedly mythical organization of rogue agents and assassins who kill to order and are led by the nefarious Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), essentially Hunt's equal and dark sided twin in espionage.

While also being pursued around the globe by CIA Director Alan Hunley (played by Alec Baldwin), Hunt feverishly attempts to prove the existence of The Syndicate as he evades all manner of...ahem...impossible situations and with the aid of the mysterious Ilsa Faust (a tremendous Rebecca Ferguson).

As that plot description is brief, the complexities firmly exist within the details. As with the previous four films, "Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation" travels the globe, this time from Austria to Morocco to London, and throws Hunt and his colleagues into one death defying adventure and action set piece after another and another and the effect is exhilarating. McQuarrie has staged each and every sequence with a tremendous precision and even elegance. There is no sense of ADD editing on display, whatever CGI special effects technology that exists never calls attention to itself and is seemingly kept to a minimum and all sequences are beautifully choreographed, staged, executed and most importantly, they all serve and advance the story as a whole. No sequence is superfluous or excessive. The violence is forceful but never gratuitous. And McQuarrie has truly seemed to achieve the impossible, especially for a film goer like myself who has seen more than his share of action sequences and explosions in his lifetime: McQuarrie consistently kept me upon the edge of my seat with the tension and I nearly leapt out of my seat to cheer as I was surprised over and again. In many ways, McQuarrie, like Abrams and Bird before him, has helmed an installment that feels like a throwback to the era when blockbuster films and sequels did not have quite the same soiled reputation that they do hold in the 21st century. That the artistry and creativity remained paramount to the entire enterprise was clearly at the forefront of "Mission:Impossible-Rogue Nation." This is not a lazy escapade in the least.

By now, you have all seen the sequence where Ethan Hunt is hanging onto the side of a plane as it takes off, a stunt that Tom Cruise has famously performed himself. Well, the even more outstanding fact about that sequence is that this set piece opens the film! Yes, you read that correctly. McQuarrie has taken what most movies would use as the climax and has used it as the catalyst to begin the story of this new installment. Even more impressive, McQuarrie does not utilize the remainder of the film to keep topping himself with outrageousness, therefore running the risk of bludgeoning the audience into submission. Again, and I cannot express this sentiment enough, McQuarrie ensures that every action sequence is story driven, and they will exist on larger or smaller scales depending upon the plot and he uses all of the action as building blocks to ratchet up the overall intensity.

As with his work in "Jack Reacher," McQuarrie has also eschewed the propensity of action films to pepper the audio with mountains of perfunctory and ultimately, useless dialogue that distracts rather than enhances. McQuarrie has his characters speak only when necessary, if at all, during action sequences thus providing a sense of emotional realism and visceral connection even when situations grow wilder and more dire for our heroes. A lengthy sequence where Ethan Hunt, Ilsa Faust and an assassin pursue each other while backstage during an opera was exquisitely designed and near "Hitchcock-ian" in its delivery and suspense. An underwater sequence may have you gasping for air right alongside Ethan. The film's actual climax in fact is not a widescreen extravaganza. It is in fact more intimate and yet more intense than the airplane sequence because of all that we have learned about the story and characters along the way. And a car chase, which then flows into a motorcycle pursuit, moves at the speed of a hurricane and nearly rivals sights seen in Writer/Director George Miller's ferocious and brilliant "Mad Max: Fury Road."

In fact, "Mad Max: Fury Road" crossed my mind quite a bit as I watched "Mission: Impossible -Rogue Nation" as both films offered more complex character development than what may seem to exist on the surface. With Ethan Hunt, yes, we do not know very much about him...and we never have, which is fine because he is indeed a secret agent. But there are aspects to this evolving character that Tom Cruise continues to mine and hone to its finest points.

Throughout the series, we have essentially seen this character emerge from overgrown Boy Scout to youthful thrill seeker and now into a more hardened, cynical adult whose moral compass has grown even more rigid over time. With the previous installment, "Mission:Impossible-Ghost Protocol," Cruise delivered an action hero who is an angrier, hungrier lone wolf grudgingly forced to work with and accept his team. By this new film, Ethan Hunt, while no less driven, has come to fully accept his team and has even embraced the bonds he has formed with them, as their loyalty and friendship provides "Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation" with one of its largest themes and emotional core. Additionally, this new film delves into Ethan Hunt's enormous competitive streak, in this case as it relates to the villainous Solomon Lane, as Hunt will seemingly go to any length to not allow Lane to one-up him, lengths that nearly cost him and his teammates their lives. This aspect allows Cruise to explore Ethan Hunt's faults, so as not to make him too virtuous and decidedly fallible. I appreciated the effort greatly as it just continued to provide the proper shadings to continue making this character one that we wish to follow and learn more about. For all of the superhuman feats Ethan Hunt displays, Tom Cruise always makes him recognizably human.

This is the skill and commitment of Tom Cruise, an actor who seems to always work at peak form. There is a reason that he has remained a movie star (as well as an extremely perceptive yet highly underrated actor) for over 30 years. Regardless of whether you like the film or not, it can never be denied that Cruise has given his ALL for the role in question and with his signature series, he has delivered the goods all over again. In addition to his talents and skills, Cruise is also a most generous actor as he does not need to have all of the star wattage focused solely onto himself. As terrific as he is, as far as I am concerned, the real star of "Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation" is Rebecca Ferguson. Believe me, she owns the screen.

As with "Mad Max: Fury Road," where the engine that drove that film's story and action was not the titular Max but more truthfully, the character of Imperator Furiosa as portrayed with howling rage by Charlize Theron, "Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation" is equally propelled by Rebecca Ferguson's role as Ilsa Faust While I will not get into her character within this review so as not to spoil the fullest discovery of her, her backstory and ultimate motivations, I will say that the film as a whole would not work without her. I deeply appreciated how her character possessed several layers to uncover and she never once existed in the film as a romantic interest or foil for any character, including Tom Cruise's. Ilsa Faust made for a figure of mystery, intrigue, action, palpable anger, rich pathos and sorrow plus an unquestionable sexual allure that is perfect for a film of this nature and Rebecca Ferguson is sensational. She delivers a thoroughly engaging and terrific performance, the very kind that I think would be star making and even one where some viewers may entertain the idea of giving her character her own film. To think, this film series has given us one of its finest characters in its fifth go-around. Just amazing!

At this time, plans are already underway for a sixth installment in the franchise and while I would usually yawn and groan at the prospect, this is a case where I am already anxious to see just where Ethan Hunt will end up next time for this episode was so enormously satisfying. Christopher McQuarrie's "Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation" is a top flight spy thriller that leaves the likes of Jason Bourne far in the dust and is dangerously nipping at 007's heels.


I am shocked to realize that the month of August has arrived so quickly. It is as if the second half of July almost never happened. With late summer having now arrived, sometimes the movie selections tend to  become slimmer yet with some films not having reached my city as of this time, I am hoping to remain pleasantly busy for these last few weeks before the advent of autumn.

In addition to "Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation," which I am seeing later today, and hopefully with "The End Of The Tour" arriving soon, I also wish to screen...

1. Writer/Director Woody Allen's annual effort, the drama "Irrational Man" is high on my list should the film arrive in my city this month.

2. "Straight Outta Compton," the musical biopic about the controversial hip-hop group N.W.A., from Director F. Gary Gray was really not upon my cinematic radar until I happened upon two rave reviews which strongly captured my attention.

3. "Ricki And The Flash" does fill me with some skepticism as my Meryl Streep fatigue has long taken hold of me. But any new effort from Director Jonathan Demme demands attention.

Beyond those five features, there are two more I have waiting for me here at home that I had been planning on watching for quite some time but let's see if I do indeed have the ample time at my disposal.

So, wish me luck as always as your support truly keeps me pushing forwards. And also as always, I'll see you when the house lights go down!