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Monday, May 20

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Mission: Impossible III

Tom Cruise is very, very good at doing at least one thing: surrounding himself with some of the most exciting filmmakers working today who are willing to become part of the Tom Machine. Look at the list: Sydney Pollack, Oliver Stone, Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, Paul Thomas Anderson, Cameron Crowe, John Woo, Brian DePalma, Ron Howard, Rob Reiner, Barry Levinson, Tony Scott, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Neil Jordan and Michael Mann. And in most cases, Cruise was working with these folks in their prime, even if the resulting film wasn't always stellar. So when Cruise takes a chance on a totally unproven, first-time feature director to helm his still-alive Mission: Impossible franchise, that says something to me. It says, "Hello, J.J. Abrams."

Now technically Abrams is hardly the new kid on the block. He created, wrote and directed episodes of "Lost," "Alias" and "Felicity," so we know his standards are fairly high in terms of the cinematic nature of his television work. And with the recent announcement that Abrams is taking over the revamped, starting-from-square-one Star Trek film, Hollywood seems pretty impressed with the guy. And good for him, because he absolutely nails the third Mission: Impossible film, making it not only the most action-packed of the series but also the only one that gets the audience to care about the characters. Normally, I'm quite annoyed when my action heroes have a useless beauty on their arm. Usually all the fabulous creatures do is scream for help and crack stupid jokes. But the presence of up-and-comer Michelle Monaghan (North Country, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) is a blessing. Not only is she beautiful without looking like a runway model, but she also injects some much needed heart and emotion into Cruise's always cold and flat Ethan Hunt character. And for once Hunt is risking life and limb for more than just a faceless government organization.

Having established that, the story of M:I III is inconsequential. The entire film is about multiple characters chasing after a mystery object known only as the "rabbit's foot." We find out early on that Ethan has taken himself out of the Impossible Missions Force to function only as an instructor. He is engaged to Julia (Monaghan), who thinks he works for the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the couple are enjoying a crowded and jovial engagement party when Ethan receives a call from Agent John Musgrave (Billy Crudup) telling him that an agent (played by Keri Russell) Ethan trained and recommended for active duty has gone missing on a mission in Berlin. Ethan joins the search and rescue team (which includes old friend Ving Rhames as well as Jonathan Rhys Meyers and the sexiest agent of all time, Maggie Q) charged with finding her. And in the first of a half-dozen truly spectacular action sequences, the team fails to bring her back alive.

The man behind all the evil in round with Agent Hunt and company is a weapons dealer named Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman, fresh from his Capote Oscar win), and my only complaint about Hoffman is that he's not in the film enough. The IMF agents spend a whole lot of time fighting with Davian's minions but very little time with Davian himself. Ah, but the scenes between Hoffman and Cruise are swell, real swell (and with a nice role reversal from their pairing in Magnolia). Davian is never scared at any time, and he knows as soon as he escapes Hunt's grasp, there will be hell to pay. His bright red hair against his pasty round face just exudes a burning evil inside. It's an over-the-top performance, but there's no escaping how powerful Hoffman is here.

Also on hand in M:I III is Laurence Fishburne as IMF's Director Brassel, who may or may not be working on the wrong side of this fight. And look for Shaun of the Dead star Simon Pegg in a nice multi-scene cameo as Benji, a tech nerd who assists Ethan when the entire agency is gunning for him. His appearance is going to mean nothing to a whole lot of people, but it's an in-joke that made me chuckle. But the real credit for the film's success is director Abrams, who has a keen sense of action pacing and the uncanny ability to know just how cool it is to blow things up. There's a sequence on a bridge in which a drone is shooting missiles at the cars below that deserves to go down in the Blow 'Em Up Real Good Hall of Fame. But more importantly, Abrams guidance made me actually care about Ethan Hunt and those around him, and that's the reason Mission: Impossible III rises above not only the previous two films, but raises the stakes for the summer blockbusters this year. Superman, The X-Men and Nacho Libre have a lot to live up to in the coming weeks.


The Promise

I believe it was Ang Lee who once said that every Asian director has at least one martial arts film inside him burning to get out, and ever since his Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was released, the flood gates opened somewhat as some of the biggest directors from Asia gave us their take on the genre. Chinese director Zhang Yimou (Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern) gave us two actions film with Hero and House of Flying Daggers. And now Zhang's friend and contemporary Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine, The Emperor and the Assassin, Together) has entered the arena with The Promise (which he also co-wrote), perhaps the most elegant and visually magnificent of the big-budget martial arts film of recent years (the film was, in fact, the biggest-budget production in Chinese history and ended up being the nation's second-highest-grossing movie—behind Titanic).

Perhaps more a fantasy film with action than a straight actioner, The Promise opens with a little girl moving through a battlefield of dead bodies, looking for food. The time period of the film is uncertain at first, but this is not meant to be the aftermath of any particular war in Chinese history. If anything, the look and atmosphere of The Promise would have me believe that the story is set at the beginning of time, a time when the gods and human were still establishing their co-existence roles and when the rules of gravity and physics weren't quite in play. The little girl meet a goddess (played by Chen Hong), who floats in the air with what seem like miles of fabric moving around her. It's a breathtaking image, the first of many here. The goddess informs the girl that she has died and offers her a comfortable life as a beautiful woman who will be adored by all men. The catch is that every man she loves, she will lose. What starving child wouldn't accept?

The film jumps ahead 20 years, to a time when warfare is the only life people know. General Guangming (Japanese superstar Hiroyuki Sanada, familiar to U.S. audiences from his roles in Twilight Samurai, The Last Samurai and in last year's The White Countess) sends a group of slaves in as the first wave of attack against opposing forces and into certain death. One of the slaves, named Kunlun (Korea's Jang Dong-Gun, most recently seen stateside in 2004's Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War), survives the attack and is revealed to have the amazing power of running with lightning speed. He was never aware of his ability because slaves are not allowed to stand upright. Thanks to Kunlun, the General wins the battle, and the slave become something of a personal assistant.

Soon, word comes that the King (Cheng Qian) in the Imperial City is in danger, and the General is ordered to save him. But along the way, the General is injured by a would-be assassin named Snow Wolf (Liu Ye from Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress and Purple Butterfly). The slave engages the assassin, and at one point thinks he may recognize the heavy-disguised figure from his homeland called The Land of Snow. The assassin becomes rattled and leaves the fight. The General entrusts the slave to put on his armor and continue on, pretending to be him to save the King, who we discover is under attack from the evil Duke of the North (Nicholas Tse). The Duke isn't interested in winning lands with his overthrow, but in acquiring the beautiful Princess Qingcheng (Cecilia Cheung from Zu Warriors), who just happens to be the grown-up little girl. When he arrives at the castle, Kunlun (still wearing the General's armor) unintentionally kills the King and takes the Princess, setting off a chain reaction of events that are Shakespearean in scope and rich in creativity.

Much like all of Chen Kaige's other films, love and death are the focal points. A love triangle involving the slave, the General and the Princess soon emerges, but the evil Duke is never far away to ruin everybody's day. And the Goddess makes a return appearance as well to add new layers of trouble to the mix. The Promise is more about the story than the action, which doesn't mean there isn't some great swordplay and gravity-defying hand-to-hand battles. Where the film falters is with its special effects, some of which are painful to watch. The scenes featuring effects are blurry, fake looking and just plain ugly. So you really have to ask yourself, how much is this going to bother or distract you from enjoying what is otherwise a luscious and wonderful work? I'll confess, it distracted me a lot in the beginning, especially in the opening battle, but there are times when the effects are pretty solid. I feel it's worth suffering through the pedestrian CGI to see The Promise.

I was particularly taken with the complex relationship between Kunlun and the Snow Wolf, both of whom share a common history. Snow Wolf deserves his own movie, he's that cool. Throughout The Promise, allegiances are tested, changed, betrayed and broken, all for the love of the Princess (the film doesn't have many nice things to say about beautiful women). I need to mention cinematographer Peter Pau, who is the silent star of this film. His work on The Bride with White Hair and Crouching Tiger is unforgettable, but he tops himself with The Promise. The use of color and lighting almost distracts you from the solid performances. The film's pace and focus is different than most of the Asian action films you're used to seeing make it to theatres in the United States, and that's what made it stand out for me. I found its beauty hypnotic and its story intriguing. I wish I was able to say that about more films in a given year. Be aware that this version of the film is about 18 minutes shorter than the version that played in Asia, and there are moments where the story feels a bit chopped. I look forward to locating an uncut DVD at some point in the near future. In the martial arts/fantasy world, The Promise stands out as a work that distinguishes itself. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


Mountain Patrol: Kekexili

Although at first it sounds like a geography lesson coupled with a conservationist's doctrine, Mountain Patrol is actually an eye-opening and deeply tragic tale of a real-life, volunteer army in Tibet that patrolled the nation's deserts and snow fields searching for poachers killing off the Tibetan antelope population for its fur, leaving thousands of carcasses for the vultures. The Mountain Patrol was at its peak in the 1990s (in more recent years, the Chinese government has established its own, far more effective animal protection service), and they worked because they believed in their cause. Some hadn't been paid in months, even years, and since the government did not officially sanction them, they worked with run-down jeeps and limited food and ammo.

As the story opens, a Chinese journalist (Zhang Lei) arrives at a camp determined to embed himself with the patrolmen and tell their story to get the Chinese government to back them with more resources. Duobuji plays group leader Ri Tai, a seasoned veteran who understands that if the poachers get the jump on a patrolman, they won't take him prisoner; they will kill him. The film follows the group through the rugged countryside as they battle the elements, broken down vehicles and starvation. Director Chuan Lu does nothing to sugarcoat the mountain patrol's struggle and the danger they face every day. The film does not stray from the spiritual commitment these men feel toward their cause and troubled nation, and the sacrifices they make are enormous, almost unimaginable.

Mountain Patrol offers a few surprises for a film that is essentially just scenes of men driving and walking through some of the harshest environments on earth. When the patrol comes face to face with the poachers, you can't help but ask yourself if it was all worth it. The film is certainly worth it. It opens today at the Music Box Theatre.


Water

The third in Indian director Deepa Mehta's Elemental Trilogy (preceded by 1996's Fire and Earth in 1998—I'm not sure what happened to Air), Water is by far the most intimate and fragile of the group. Set in 1938, just as the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi are beginning to shape and change the future of Colonial India, the story opens with a young bride, Chuyia (played by newcomer Sarala), shortly after she has discovered her much older husband (whom she never met) has died. The first of many shocks the film throws at us is that Chuyia is only 8 years old, and, as was customary at the time in Hindu culture, she is sent to an ashram for widows, where she will be forced to live in solitude (certainly away from men) for the rest of her life, atoning for the sins that caused her husband to die.

The living conditions are a nightmare, and Chuyia makes as many friends with the other widows as she can, but Madhumati, the oldest, drugged out widow in charge, runs the place like her own private slave ring. She forces the most beautiful of the widows (Kalyani, played by Lisa Ray) into prostitution to bring money into the establishment. While the women are free to come and go as they please, most have resigned themselves to this life because the world outside the ashram shuns them for being widows. But as word of the spiritual teachings of Gandhi (who is portrayed briefly in the film) make their way to some of the widows, their belief that they should simply accept their state in life begins to shift.

Not unlike Peter Mullan's shocking 2002 exposé The Magdalene Sisters (about "shamed" Catholic girls working as washer women for nuns in Ireland), Water reveals the untold story of injustices and suffocating restrictions placed upon girls and women in the name of religion. But watching Chuyia (whose head is shaved as was the custom for widows) navigate the system and look for every opportunity to buck tradition gives us hope that change and freedom are not that far off. Water is an eye-opening experience filled with humor, heart and possibility. Young Chuyia represents the spirit of her people and an India on the verge of one of the most unique revolutions in history. This is a movie of tears, joy, love, pain and change.


Mrs. Palfrey at The Claremont

Don't count out Joan Plowright just yet. At nearly 80, the dainty Dame Joan still has a few great performances in her. She's been playing a variation of the same sweet, delicate old woman character since 1992's Enchanted April, but you won't hear too many people complain. She does it so well. But it's been a while since she's played the lead in any film, and her conviction and experience has never been more evident than with this adaptation of the novel by the late English author Elizabeth Taylor.

Plowright plays a recent widow who moves from Scotland to a somewhat questionable hotel in London, where her grandson currently lives. She attempts to establish contact with him, but he never returns her call. The hotel is filled with many older people, some of whom seem to be there waiting to die, while others seem to fill the time getting very nosy about the lives of the other residents. After months of talking about her wonderful grandson to the other tenants, Mrs. Palfrey meets a 20-something writer named Ludovic Meyer (played by newcomer Rupert Friend, who has had smaller parts in the recent The Libertine and Pride and Prejudice) after taking a nasty spill outside his apartment while on a walk. The two strike up a friendship, and she asks if he'll pretend to be her grandson for the benefit of the other Claremont residents.

What I'd thought was going to be a quaint comedy about a feisty old lady and a young man pretending to be her grandson turned out to be one of the sweetest, not schmaltzy films I've seen in a long time featuring an elderly woman. Plowright's subtle performance genuinely surprised me, and the depth of their friendship is inspirational. There is no love story here (that needs to be made very clear). Instead Mrs. Palfrey acts as a kind of mentor and life coach for the writer. When he meets a nice girl, she offers advice on love and relationships. Ludovic is the grandson she wishes she had. Of course, things around the hotel get a little disjointed when Mrs. Palfrey's real grandson shows up looking for her.

The films does drift a little into the "colorful" arena when we are at the hotel, dealing with the other residents. My favorite is Mrs. Arbuthnot, played by the legendary Anna Massey (Peeping Tom, Frenzy), who is still as lovely and radiant as ever. Director Dan Ireland (The Whole Wide World) has devised a film whose charm sneaks up on you and really takes hold. Plowright's strength is in her self-awareness and her years of loving her late husband. She is doing more than giving advice; she is passing along a lifetime of knowledge and good living to the writer and to us. The screenplay (from Ruth Saks, who is in her mid-80s) is light on action, but filled with sharp dialogue and deeply drawn characters. The film's ending seems fated almost from the beginning, but we leave the film knowing Mrs. Palfrey's words of wisdom will be well heeded by future generations of lovers. At its core, Mrs. Palfrey at The Claremont is about ageless and timeless love. The film opens today at the Landmark Renaissance Cinema in Highland Park and the Wilmette Theatre.


Hoot

The new environmentally oriented message film Hoot may be proof positive that it is impossible to make a film about being good to the endangered animals of the world. By filling its story with stock villains, dopey characters, stunt casting and righteous teenagers, Hoot does its subject a far greater disservice than the big corporation (in this case, a pancake chain) looking to bulldoze over homes of baby burrowing owls in Florida.

The younger cast is led by Logan Lerman ("Jack & Bobby") as Roy, whose family has just moved to the area, thus giving him an excuse to be completely unaware of this problem prior to relocating. He meets brother and sister Beatrice and "Mullet Fingers" (Brie Larson and Cody Linley), who are, like, way into saving these owls. For reasons I'm still not clear on, Mullet Fingers spends his days living in the woods and evenings sabotaging the construction site where the pancake house is scheduled to be built; Beatrice sneaks him food. Parents are nowhere to be seen. A subplot about Roy being pestered by a bully at his new school goes absolutely nowhere, takes up a lot of screen time, and exists for exactly one purpose toward the end of the film.

To add credibility to the film (if that's possible) is Luke Wilson as a town police officer, who befriends Logan when it appears he may be the one doing the vandalism. Tim Blake Nelson overplays his role as the local head of the building site, who is constantly at odds with Wilson about catching the criminals who have put his work behind schedule. But the worst casting decision here is Jimmy Buffet (who shockingly provides the film's music as well) as Logan's marine science teacher Mr. Ryan. If there are those of you out there who want to go see this film because Buffett is in it, first of all, please stop reading my column; second, don't be fooled. Buffett barely does a thing here and the guy can't act. While it's hard to fault it for it's intentions, Hoot is a lame, spineless film that should have gone right to video. Director Will Shriner shows his roots as a sitcom director by never bothering to spend any time developing his characters or rising above the one-dimensional screenplay, which he adapted. The story is filled with plot holes that aren't worth going into here, and it seems like the crimes committed by the corporation in order to get the permit to build on this property could have been called to light with one phone call to the proper authorities. Maybe I'm just over-thinking things. Perhaps the film's greatest crime is not making me care even one iota about these cute little animals. Shiner's greatest crime is caring more about these owls than his audience. Shame on you, sir!


One Last Thing…

At some point in history, someone will probably make a dark comedy about a dying kid who makes a racy request as part of the program to grant wishes to the terminally ill, but One Last Thing… isn't that movie. If anyone attempts to portray this movie as some kind of laughing-through-the-tears melodrama, you have my permission to whack them across the face a couple times. This film wants to be a sex comedy without the sex or comedy about young Dylan (Michael Angarano), who says his wish is to meet one of his baseball heroes. But at the event where this meeting takes place, he changes his wish to going on a date with supermodel Nikki Sinclair (Sunny Mabrey).

His friends think it's the greatest idea in the world, his mother (Cynthia Nixon) is appalled, and Nikki's manager (Gina Gershon) thinks it would be a great public relation's opportunity for her client, who has a string of bad behaviors to her credit, making her almost unhireable. Eventually Nikki agrees, although the five-minute meeting at Dylan's home is less than enthusiastic on her part. She makes the mistake of obligingly saying to Dylan that if he's ever in New York, he should come find her and they'll go on a proper date. Dylan and his friends immediately begin planning a lost weekend in the Big Apple, even though the three are barely 16 years old. Help (and funds) for the trip come from an unlikely source: the baseball player Dylan essentially stood up, who has since come to strike up a potentially romantic entanglement with Dylan's mom.

The boys' adventures in New York aren't nearly as wacky as they should be, despite them getting into a strip club, and the entire film feels like a safe, feel-good (but not too good, since the kid is dying and all) endeavor that has virtually no basis in reality. Director Alex Steyermark, who tortured us a couple years back with Prey for Rock & Roll, has again found new and painful ways to make us suffer cinematically. There were moments where I genuinely hated what I was watching, not because it was offensive but because the film thought it was being poignant or funny and it wasn't. Everything about this film seems ill-conceived and even iller-executed. It's probably not a good sign when, by the end of the film, you're eagerly awaiting the lead character's death. If you're one of the people who thinks United 93 is in bad taste, wait until you sample of morsel of One More Thing…

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to .

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