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Column Fri Jul 31 2015

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, The Stanford Prison Experiment, I Am Chris Farley & Samba

Steve-at-the-Movies-300.jpg

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation

I'm not quite sure how Tom Cruise has managed to pull it off with this franchise (the first entry of which marked his first time credited as producer), but it feels like each new Mission: Impossible movie is better than the last — not by leaps and bounds, mind you, but the course correction is just enough that this fifth film, Rogue Nation, finally feels damn near perfect. Nearly every aspect of the film feels stronger as both a pure action exercise and a intricate spy thriller with psychological tension to spare.

A great deal of the credit has to fall to writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, who previously directed The Way of the Gun, but more importantly has written scripts for Cruise, including fantastic ones for Jack Reacher and Edge of Tomorrow. The film feels both familiar and new, thanks to a handful of returning faces (Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, and recent Impossible Mission Force addition William Brandt, played by Jeremy Renner), and first-timer Sean Harris as a whispery, truly menacing villain Lane, who heads up a secret counter-IMF agency known as the Syndicate made up of rogue (believed dead) spies from all over the world. Lane is particularly menacing o Cruise's Ethan Hunt because he seems to have the uncanny ability to predict every move and counter-move the IMF agents will make, and he plans accordingly, sometimes getting them to do his bidding without them realizing it.

Lane's greatest potential weapon is a disgraced British agent named Ilsa Faust (Rebeca Ferguson, best known as the lead in "The White Queen" series), whom he's not quite sure is even 100 percent on his side. She helps Ethan escape more than once, but always in the name of creating ways to get the IMF to carry out impossible missions that the Syndicate can't be bothered to. For most of the film, we're never quite sure whose interests Ilsa is serving, other than her own, and even with fairly startling revelations about her true mission, we still don't know. Ferguson plays Ilsa with a rich combination of class, melancholy, and an absolute willingness to perform any dangerous task with as much gusto and Ethan. More importantly, Ilsa is the first Mission: Impossible character who I've ever wanted to get their own film.

To talk about the specifics of any of these unthinkable missions is almost pointless, since the only thing you really need to know is that the Syndicate is ultimately trying to destroy the IMF and boosting its ranks with secret monies hidden so well that only the British Prime Minister (Tom Hollander) can get to it. From multiple chases (of the foot, car and motorcycle varieties), an underwater retrieval heist that requires Ethan to hold his breathe for many minutes at a time, and a fight scene that begins in the upper reaches of the Vienna Opera House and end with Cruise and Ferguson dropping from its roof to the street on a wire. The stunts are flawless and continue to give us variations we simply haven't seen before. Much has been discussed about how Cruise does all of his own stunts in his movies, including hanging off the side of a plane taking off in the first five minutes of Rogue Nation, but it makes all the difference in some of these scenes just seeing his face attached to that much danger.

I especially love that Pegg's Benji Dunn is not only getting more to do from the tech side of operations, but he's also been elevated to field agent. He's not doing the most death-defying action, but he's surrounded by it and it makes him more viable by association. The Mission: Impossible movies have always been good about not growing their casts beyond what is absolutely necessary. No actor has been brought on board unless they serve a purpose to the story. So many sequels add a few faces with each new chapter and rarely take away from the headcount, saddling us with what feels like dozens of faces with only enough juicy material for a few. But with Rogue Nation, everyone is active and vital.

The only non-essential thing about the film is the framework (more like bookends, I suppose) of the IMF getting dismantled with the help of overly ambitious CIA head Alan Hunley, played by Alec Baldwin. It doesn't add anything to the proceedings to have the American government attempting to absorb IMF agents into the CIA, but it does give Pegg and Renner an opportunity to use the agency's resources to help Ethan clandestinely.

More than once in Rogue Nation, the point is made that these remaining team members are also friends, and I think that's an important turning point. With the IMF no longer operating, these men are doing this out of loyalty and friendship to Ethan, not as part of a mission. I like the odd couple of Ethan and Benji, and the way Rhames's Luther does everything he does to help old pal. There's more of a heart in this film than the more artificial macho friendships generated in the Fast & Furious films.

Another great addition is Sean Harris, a television and indie film powerhouse ('71, Prometheus, "The Borgias"), whose Lane might be the best-written character in the movie. He scares Ethan because he's smarter than Ethan, which makes him both dangerous and vulnerable. Ethan tells his comrades that going after Lane isn't personal, but they all know that's bullshit. There's something about Lane's speeches concerning Ethan's use of force in a world where extreme violence is frowned upon in most cases. I wouldn't go so far as to say Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation was the thinking-person's action film, but it's about as close as we've come. I hope McQuarrie and Cruise continue down this road of smart, thrilling, well-acted action pieces that care about story, character development, and being unapologetically entertaining. Who knew that would ever work?

To read my exclusive interview with Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation star Rebecca Ferguson, go to Ain't It Cool News.

The Stanford Prison Experiment

If you took a psychology class in college, you have probably heard of the almost unfathomable experiments conducted by a small team led by Dr. Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University in 1971. By scientific terms, the experiments were a failure from the onset; there was no control group, for starters. It was meant as an examination into behavior with regards to societal labels — in this case Prisoner and Correctional Officer. Twenty-four students were selected over a break in classes, and they were made either prisoners or guards in a makeshift prison (actually a series of empty offices). There were rules in place about physical contact, but other than that, the guards were encouraged to see how far they could push the prisoners in terms of demoralizing behavior.

The students playing guards weren't given specific behaviors to act out, but within a day they started to show signs of exerting their cruel power over the inmates, and most of the inmates completely submitted to the sadistic behavior. Lest you assume this is documentary, it's not. What it becomes is a harrowing, tension-laden work, directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez (C.O.G.), from a screenplay by Tim Talbott, that provides the stage for some of the finest young actors working today.

Created with the close help of the actual Dr. Zimbardo (played here by Billy Crudup) Stanford Prison Experiment eases into its human horror. Most of the students are hippies looking for a little extra cash. And it's clear that the researchers have no clue what's about to unfold, and certainly can't anticipate just how rapidly things deteriorate. It would be impossible to go through all of the great actors on display here, but let me single out a few, including Tye Sheridan (Mud), Moises Arias (The Kings of Summer), Keir Gilchrist (It Follows), Thomas Mann (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), and Ezra Miller (The Perks of Being a Wallflower). But the most shocking and chilling work comes from Michael Angarano (Red State) as guard Christopher Archer, who transforms into an abusive and creative torturer with a Southern accent he believes sounds like the Captain in Cool Hand Luke. Even more disturbing is that when his shift is over, he goes right back to being a nice guy.

Some members of the team resist continuing, while others fight the urge to abandon the whole thing because the results are so fascinating. When Dr. Zimbardo's girlfriend, Dr. Christina Maslach (Olivia Thirlby) shows us, we assume she'll be the voice of reason, but even she is intrigued by the ferocity of the events. Director Alvarez wisely keeps to a ungarnished style of storytelling, just allowing the events to play out, as inmates try everything from asking to leave the experiment entirely to conversing with the "warden" (Zimbardo) about conditions to actually planning a jailbreak. Almost without meaning to, the experiment revealed some of the darkest sides of both prison life and human behavior when one group has any amount of power over another, even the imaginary kind.

Winner of two awards at the Sundance Film Festival, including Best Screenplay, The Stanford Prison Experiment is rough stuff on many levels. Still the most upsetting aspect of the film might be in where it sends your brain, wondering how you would have reacted and behaved in the same circumstances. Your rational mind tells you you would have walked away, but something brimming underneath tells you that compliance with whatever side of the equation you were on would have been easier. "We were just following orders." If you think you can handle the idea that humanity will always be about the strong overpowering the weak, you're in for a hell of a time at the movies with this one. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

I Am Chris Farley

When profiling a person who died young, a victim of their own indulgences (drugs, booze, food, all of the above), it's a delicate balancing act between seeing a death at 33 as a tragedy versus seeing it as something avoidable and inevitable. There's no getting around the fact that comic actor, "Saturday Night Live" cast member, and one-time Second City improv great Chris Farley was about as beloved by family, friends and comedy colleagues as a person could be, but all of them were keenly aware of his shortcomings and highly addictive behavior. The new documentary I Am Chris Farley tells the cradle-to-grave story of the Wisconsin native who was desperate to please people, make them laugh, and do everything in his power to show them a good time when the work was done.

Directed by Brent Hodge (A Brony Tale) and Derik Murray (I Am Evel Knievel, I Am Steve McQueen, I Am Bruce Lee), this profile shows us how a high school athlete moved into acting and eventually into the Chicago improv scene under the mentorship of the legendary Del Close. Each chapter of Farley's life brings in a new crop of interviews, from his brothers (in particular, comedian Kevin) and sister to Mike Myers, who details Farley's Second City years and also recommended him to SNL producer Lorne Michaels as a possible new cast member. Although Farley is best known for his flailing, out of control, hyperactive performances, Myers and Michaels make the point that, like John Belushi, there was a brain behind the energy.

I Am Chris Farley gives a nice history of where some of his more iconic SNL characters originated (from motivational speaker Matt Foley, who was a Second City transplant, to his topless stripper character who went against Patrick Swayze in a dance off), but it was the nervous talk show host version of himself that he created for "The Chris Farley Show" that was closest to the real man getting meet some of his idols. And let us not forget Farley as part of a group of Chicago Bears Superfans. The filmmakers parade out the appropriate lineup of famous faces for this era in Farley's career. Cast members Myers, Jay Mohr, Jon Lovitz, Molly Shannon, Adam Sandler and dearest friend David Spade, as well as guest hosts Christina Applegate and Bob Saget all contribute funny insight, detailed commentary on particular memorable sketches with Chris that add some color to the clips.

One of the greatest discoveries of the film is that Farley never wrote a sketch on SNL; but since he was the funniest and most in-demand cast member, people were lining up to write for him. For Farley, getting on SNL was the goal, so a career in movies was more of a side project for him than a step up. He made the cult hit Tommy Boy while still an SNL cast member, and the bungled Black Sheep was the result of the studio wanting to repeat the modest success of Tommy Boy and interfering to the point of ruination, which led to terrible reviews and a spiraling out of control for Farley. The film details his many trips to rehab and old friends like Tom Arnold and Bob Odenkirk give some insight into Farley continually slipping back into bad habits.

I Am Chris Farley is a moving showcase of a real comedy talent who used observational humor with pure physical fortitude to nail down his craft. For those who know very little about Farley outside of SNL, there's a great deal to learn; for those who know a bit more than the surface-level details, there is some great vintage material and newer recollections that are sure to add an extra dimension to Farley's work. If you think Farley was simply a guy who yelled a lot and fell down, you have a lot to learn, and this film might be the place to start. The film opens today in Chicago for select showings at the Music Box Theatre.

Samba

One of the most popular French films ever in the United States was the 2012 work The Intouchables (the film grossing more than $400 million worldwide), co-starring Omar Sy, who has since been such mega-American films as X-Men: Days of Future Past and Jurassic World (he played Chris Pratt's righthand man, Barry). And now Sy reunites with his Intouchables writer-directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano for Samba, a tale of undocumented workers in Paris. Sy plays Samba, a man who immigrated from Senegal 10 years earlier and has been working steadily in kitchens across the city.

Samba is caught and ordered to return home as soon as he can (I guess the French don't force you to leave; it's more like a strong suggestion), so he enlists the help of immigration specialist Alice (Lars von Trier favorite Charlotte Gainsbourg) to help get him a fighting chance at staying in France permanently. She's suffering from job fatigue on the verge of total collapse after years of listening to the struggles of other, and naturally Samba is intrigued by this. The film is adapted loosely from Delphine Coulin's novel Samba pour la France, but Samba is a pure and unabashed sentimental creature, attempting to put a human face on the issue of immigration, illegal and otherwise — a subject that many Americans might be curious about as well.

Although Alice is told repeatedly to keep an emotional distance from her clients, Samba's charms win her over and the two engage in what is mostly heavy flirting. Samba also forms a friendship with an Algerian man named Walid (Tahar Rahin of A Prophet and The Past), who pretends he's Brazilian because he thinks it makes him more of a ladies man. Walid is the designated and largely unnecessary comic relief, but that doesn't make him any less funny.

The issue of immigration is a much different one in France than it is in the States, but it seems equally emotionally charged. Samba covers a lot of political and personal ground through its small scale and handful of characters. Sy and Gainsbourg are the main attractions, but the film has a few supporting players who truly carry the day and give additional dramatic heft to the work. Sy continues to astound as a charming, funny actor whose personality is undeniable and compassion comes across in every scene. If you allow yourself to embrace the subject matter, Samba is a remarkable little film with a great deal to say about the way we treat each other and the way we should. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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