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Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation •••1/2

Mission_Impossible_Rogue_Nation_posterStarring: Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, Jeremy Renner
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Screenplay: Christopher McQuarrie, Christopher McQuarrie
Action/Adventure/Thriller, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 131 minutes
Release Date: July 31, 2015


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(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, your mission, should you choose to accept, is to review this next movie with me.

Once again it looks like another round of Mission Improbable. Let’s recap:

The movie opens with super IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) acrobatically stopping a plane from transporting canisters of nerve gas to terrorists. He receives his next mission at a small record shop, where he is intercepted by a mysterious blond-haired bad guy (Sean Harris) who gasses Hunt into unconsciousness. Hunt then avoids horrible torture when a woman (Rebecca Ferguson), appearing to be a double-agent, allows him to escape.

The IMF is disbanded because of Hunt’s crazy antics in the previous four movies. And now Hunt is on the run as the CIA, FBI, and NSA are all out to get him. He scrapes together his band of closely held friends to concoct a plan to take down the Insyndicate – the rogue anti-IMF task force – or die trying.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is the strongest installment in the mission impossible franchise. The movie works on the strength of its hero, Tom Cruise, who seems to have kicked it up a notch as a lead character. As with most Cruise movies (Edge of Tomorrow being one exception), Rogue Nation doesn’t feature a hero who evolves much as a character. Yet somehow, paradoxically, Cruise’s portrayal of Ethan Hunt reveals a growing maturity, an increased presence and wisdom from the actor that has seeped into his performance here.

It doesn’t hurt that Rogue Nation is an example of superb filmmaking. The stunts are stunning and the cast is a blast. I was particularly impressed with Rebecca Ferguson’s portrayal of Ilsa, Cruise’s love interest, occasional ally, and occasional nemesis. Ilsa is a wonderfully complex person with a variety of strengths that we don’t often see in women characters in the movies. It’s refreshing to see Ilsa as Hunt’s physical, mental, and emotional equal.

I’ll second that emotion – Ilsa is every bit as strong a character as Ethan Hunt. Rogue Nation does suffer from the improbability of some of its stunts and some of its situations. The opening scene with Cruise hanging from the side of a plane (it’s really him, not a stunt double) is hard to believe. And his 6-minute swim below the depths of a water-cooled computer storage area push the limits of believability as well. But heck, this is Mission Impossible after all! It is everything you look for in a summertime popcorn movie.

Ethan Hunt measures up pretty well as a hero. He’s dashing, strong, smart and even empathetic and kind to his team members. Sadly, there’s not much of a transformation for anyone in this film. Hunt starts out awesome and ends up awesome. Which is one of the traits we noticed in our recent book Reel Heroes & Villains. He is an episodic hero – one that basically doesn’t change from episode to episode.

Good observation, Greg. I’m fascinated by the presence of a comedic supporting character in almost every serious movie that we see. Simon Pegg has made a career out of playing the super-smart and super-goofy sidekick with great charm and pizzazz.  Comic relief in a secondary character goes back to the time of ancient Greece, yet here we are continuing to witness it 25 centuries later. This archetype must reflect some deep-seated need in humans to seek emotional comfort from the most dire circumstances.

Another deep archetype appears to be the fugitive from justice who is innocent and who must devote his life to proving his worthiness. In stories of this type, the fugitive needs a team of people who selflessly risk their lives to assist the hero. The team is often a ragtag group that overachieves despite long odds. Yet another archetype is the blustery, bullheaded authority figure who has an entirely wrong impression of our hero, until the very end when the bullhead must eat crow. In a strange casting choice, Alec Baldwin does a nice job with this role.

We already sang the praises of Ilsa as a secondary character. Although we see her as a romantic interest, Hunt treats her as a equal professional. For the most part, it’s all business between these two. I wonder if she represents a mirror image of Hunt – a reflection character.

The villains are pretty typical. Last year we acknowledged the Villain/Henchman pattern and it is played out pretty well here. Sean Harris as Solomon Lane controls everything from afar, letting his band of merry men do the dirty work. In fact, it is only when he comes out from behind his laptop camera that he is done in. Once he starts to get his hands dirty, he makes himself vulnerable and is eventually caught.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation grabbed me from the get-go and never lost its grip on me for two fun-filled hours. If you’ve read my reviews of previous Tom Cruise movies, you know I’m not his biggest fan, but perhaps his middle-aged persona is growing on me. This film has everything you’d want in a summer blockbuster – action, adventure, romance, strong characters, and tightly-crafted script. I have no problem awarding Rogue Nation 4 Reels out of 5.

As an episodic hero, there isn’t much character transformation in Ethan Hunt, but then again we neither expect it nor require it for the movie to work. Hunt defeats the villain because he’s smarter, stronger, more charismatic, more resilient, more…. well, let’s just say he has more of all the Great Eight characteristics of heroes than the villain does. Hunt deserves a rating that is as rock solid as his abs. I give him 4 out of 5 heroes.

The supporting cast is simply terrific. We have a strong and dislikeable villain in Solomon Lane. His head henchman is the bone-crushing Vinter, whom we also love to hate. Simon Pegg is the funny man, Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa kicks beautiful ass, and Alec Baldwin is effective as the foolish boss. The entire cast impressed me and thus deserves a full 5 Cast points out of 5.

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Rogue Nation is a lot of fun but not as good as the first Mission Impossible film. I’ve longed for the sort of smart story line that we got in that first outing. Like so many sequels, the producers have emphasized and expanded the glitzy elements of the movie in favor of the story elements. The plot device of shutting down the IMF smells a bit like what we’ve seen in the Marvel universe where S.H.I.E.L.D was similarly shut down. It’s a bit unimaginative. While I had a good time, I can only give Rogue Nation 3 out of 5 Reels.

I still want to see some sort of transformation in either the hero or someone close to the hero. Ethan Hunt’s lack of change or catalyst for change left me wanting. Like other episodic heroes we’ve seen this summer (Iron Man, Thor, Ant Man, etc…) Hunt doesn’t grow much. I  can only give him 3 out of 5 Heroes.

I agree that the supporting cast is well designed. They either support or thwart the hero (or the villain) and there is a decent amount of depth to the characters. Still, because it’s a sequel, a lot of the backstory of these characters is unspoken assuming we’ll remember them from previous incarnations. I give the cast 4 out of 5 Cast points.

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Trainwreck •••1/2

Trainwreck_posterStarring: Amy SchumerBill HaderBrie Larson
Director: Judd Apatow
Screenplay: Amy Schumer
Comedy/Romance, Rated: R
Running Time: 125 minutes
Release Date: July 17, 2015


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Well Scott, I thought this movie was about trouble on the B&O Railroad.

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

No, Greg. This is a comedy starring the brilliant, up-and-coming Amy Schumer. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to Amy (Amy Schumer) who is a hard-working journalist at a women’s magazine called “S’nuff”. Amy is also a hard-playing gal with many suitors and a steady boyfriend-ish guy. She is sent on a job to interview a popular sports doctor named Aaron Connors (Bill Hader). Amy and Aaron hit it off – which surprises Amy because she doesn’t want a committed relationship. Hilarity ensues as Aaron attempts to nice-guy convince Amy that they were meant to be together.

Amy and Aaron begin dating and Amy does her best to remain true to her pattern by sabotaging the relationship. But Aaron sticks with her and they begin to fall for each other. Amy’s dad (Colin Quinn) reminds her of who she is, a person like him (her dad) who is incapable of commitment. Amy manages to break up with Aaron but learns her lesson, giving us the Hollywood happily-ever-after ending.

Amy Schumer is a bawdy comedian whose stand-up routines and her hit TV show Inside Amy Schumer deal with many topics, not the least of which is the American perception of women in the media and the workplace. Trainwreck is a natural extension of these routines. I’ve seen Schumer in an interview where a reporter asks her if Amy (in the movie) is a “skank.” Not missing a beat she says “Were you thinking of your mom just then?” Amy Schumer is a force to be reckoned with.

The movie is a lot of fun. Amy is confounded by Aaron’s consistent politeness at calling the day after sex, bringing flowers, and asking her a second date. Aaron has to confront Amy’s sleep-around lifestyle and gets unnerved by it. Amy, meanwhile, gets unnerved by her own feelings of affection for Aaron. Sadly, the movie ends with the two getting together and Amy becoming a one-woman-man. As you point out, Scott, it’s pretty much a Hollywood rom-com ending.

Trainwreck is an innocuous, enjoyable comedy that owes its success entirely to the comedic genius of Amy Schumer. This movie would likely have bombed if any other actress had played the lead character. Trainwreck works because Schumer knocks our socks off with her brilliant portrayal of the “modern woman” who is professionally successful but who is also an ardent commitment-phobe.

Greg, you use the term “sadly” to describe the ending. The movie must end on this note if we are to have any kind of hero’s journey. We learn early on that Amy must overcome a dark mentor (her dad), who taught his kids that “monogamy is unrealistic.” To this movie’s credit, the dad isn’t a bad person, and in fact Schumer remains very close to him despite his bad mentoring about relationships. Schumer transforms herself from a commitment-phobe to a woman who is ready to embrace commitment. She accomplishes this feat by learning the way that most heroes do – by suffering a big humiliation that has serious consequences. Specifically, she has one last promiscuous fling, this time with an underage guy, which gets her fired from her job.

Indeed, I say “sadly” because it cops out to the norms of society that I think Schumer is railing against. There’s a montage where she throws out her booze, candy, chips, etc… and “cleans up her act.” I much prefer the ending to Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001) where her Mr. Darcy accepts Bridget just as she is – cigarettes, booze, and extra padding. Amy Schumer is clever enough to come up with a more insightful ending.

However, I see your point about the transformation. It’s an abrupt one brought on by her coming to a very low point in her life. She has to pick herself up, dust herself off, and start all over again. So, yeah. It’s a nice little hero’s journey. But not every transformation has to end with accepting social norms. As in Bridget Jones’ case, sometimes the transformation is in realizing that you’re fine just as you are.

Good point. The villain in this story is Schumer herself. She is compelled to overcome her fear of commitment, and she also has a slight problem with alcohol. Stories of heroes who must triumph over their inner demons are common in Hollywood. We saw the “self” as villain in 2014 movies such as Non-Stop and Get on Up. For these movies to work, the hero must be someone we truly care about so that we, the audience, can root hard for them to overcome their issues. Schumer is such a character in Trainwreck. She is instantly likeable and remains so throughout the movie, even during scenes when she is embarrassing herself.

The rest of the supporting characters all do their jobs well. The dad may be a dark mentor, but his degenerative disease makes him a sympathetic figure. LeBron James is surprisingly good as Aaron’s good friend and confidante. Amy leans on a few girlfriends for help and they do a serviceable job in this role. Aaron is a sweetheart of a guy whom we know is good for Amy, if only she would see the light. All these characters are good but it is Schumer herself who is the unequivocal star of the show.

It’s true Amy is her own worst enemy, but she has a few oppositional characters to deal with. Not the least of which is her go-go-go boss Diana (Tilda Swinton) who keeps reminding her of her flaws. There’s an interesting rom-com switcheroo here too. Amy has a best friend Nikki who keeps telling Amy to play the field and run away from commitment-man Aaaron. Meanwhile, Aaron has empathetic-verging-on-sensitive buddy Lebron James telling him to shield his heart and not get hurt.

Also, there’s Amy’s sister who has settled down with a very stable man and his stable son. They represent the life Amy could have if she would give up her wild ways. I was very happy that Schumer didn’t cop out completely and have the young boy turn into a brat at the end of the movie. This is a stereotypical turnabout that she avoided. He turns out to be a nice, well-adjusted little boy who loves his Aunt Amy.

Trainwreck is a bouncy, witty, romantic comedy that provides giggles along with a charming love story. Amy Schumer now has her breakout movie and I anticipate an avalanche of Schumer movies in the coming years. Trainwreck features a female lead character, beset with self-destructive tendencies, whom we laugh at and care about. It’s a formula we’ve seen before many times but Schumer’s unique comedic genius allows this film to soar above most of the rest. I award this movie 4 Reels out of 5.

As I’ve noted, the hero’s journey is rock solid, with Amy cast into an unfamiliar world of steady romantic love, which makes her squirm and rebel in discomfort. She has dark mentoring to overcome, which she does with help and patience from her loving and adorable boyfriend Aaron. If Aaron is anything less than a good man, we’d be disappointed with this fairytale ending. For me, it works just fine. I give this hero’s journey 3 Heroes out of 5.

The supporting characters aren’t terribly noteworthy but they all play their roles in either helping or hindering our hero Amy. In a way, Trainwreck reminds me of an early Jim Carrey movie. In those films, Carrey’s immense talent and energy made everyone around him rather forgettable in comparison. Schumer is such a character. No disrespecting the supporting cast, but this is Schumer’s movie. I’ll still give this cast 3 out of 5 Cast points.

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Trainwreck is a lot of fun. It falls in line with such predecessors as Bridesmaids and The Heat. It gives us a non-traditional look at a non-traditional romance. I laughed out loud. But I was disappointed at the traditional ending. I give Trainwreck 3 out of 5 Reels.

Schumer creates a fully-developed three-dimensional hero. She is flawed, lovable, idiosyncratic, and smart. It’s hard not to get invested in her story. She undergoes a nice Hollywood-style transformation and turns into the girl next door. I give her 3 out of 5 Heroes.

And the supporting cast was quite excellent. Amy had her best friend Nikki. And LeBron James as Aaron’s buddy was a surprise standout. The sister’s family was a nice contrast to Amy’s wild party life. I give them 3 out of 5 Cast points.

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Self/Less ••

Selfless_posterStarring: Ryan Reynolds, Natalie Martinez, Matthew Goode
Director: Tarsem Singh
Screenplay: David Pastor, Àlex Pastor
Mystery/Sci-Fi/Thriller, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 117 minutes
Release Date: July 10, 2015


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Scott, if anyone had told me Ryan Reynolds was Selfless I would have thought it was a joke.

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

There’s a slash in the title, suggesting either great intrigue or great gimmickry. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to Damian Hayes (Ben Kingsley) who is not just old, but near death. He is a very rich man and looks into a technology called “shedding.” His entire mind will be transferred into another body – a younger body that has been grown in a lab and looks a lot like Ryan Reynolds. The transfer goes well but the new Damien has to relearn how to walk and talk. And he has to take red pills to prevent rejection. “New” Damien is doing pretty well when he starts to have nightmares about an alternate life.

The new Damien Google-searches the images he’s seeing in his hallucinations and discovers that his dreams take place in Missouri. He heads to St. Louis, rents a car, and meanders his way into a woman’s home. He learns that his Ryan Reynolds-like body was once this woman’s husband. Meanwhile, the mastermind of the shedding company Albright (Matthew Goode), has sent his henchmen to follow Damien. They try to kill him and the woman, and so now Damien is on the run, trying to unveil the truth about shedding and his true identity.

Scott, this movie had great potential. We start off with an Academy Award winner in Ben Kingsley. He is quickly discarded for the more youthful and less talented Ryan Reynolds. We didn’t get enough time with Kingsley to really recognize him when he wakes up in a different body. And the Reynolds’ character very quickly goes from enjoying his young body to searching for the origins of his new body. Reynolds doesn’t really act like a man who woke up in another man’s body. He seems very motivated to reconcile the wrong that allowed him to “shed” his old body. The Kingsley character was a cut-throat, unflinching, even uncaring pragmatist. But the Reynolds character is the complete opposite. It doesn’t make sense.

You’re right, Greg. Kingsley’s character, Damian Hayes, isn’t on screen long enough for us to get to know him or really care about him. From what we do know, he shouldn’t react in some of the ways that the Ryan Reynolds version of him reacts. For one thing, Damian Hayes as Kingsley is very intelligent, yet he is easily duped by Albright and remains duped even after the physical transformation. Every human body has little marks and imperfections from everyday wear-and-tear. He should have noticed the obvious signs that his new Reynolds body is a “used” (or pre-owned) body.

Another problem with Self/Less is its lack of originality. The 1968 final episode of the original Star Trek series was called Turnabout Intruder, and it featured a similar body and identity switch. Conveniently, to justify any kind of story, Self/Less employs a transference process that is flawed, requiring the ingestion of a pill to completely eliminate the host’s prior identity. Of course this process has to go awry for us to have any kind of story, and the resolution of the conflict, with the Reynolds-Damien character getting the girl in the end, is highly predictable.

The villains in this story are pretty bland. There’s a Steve Jobs-type super genius who invented shedding and tries to control Damien with promises that the red pills will make him feel better. And there’s his new best friend Anton (Derek Luke) who alternately tries to help and then kill Damien. He’s the henchman to Albright’s mastermind.

For secondary characters there is the love interest Madeline (Natalie Martinez) who still loves her husband and is shocked to see his body return with another man at the helm. And also a little daughter Anna (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) who is the whole reason Ryan Reynolds original body owner gave his body to “science.” (It seems little Anna needed chemotherapy and original Ryan Reynolds sold his body to pay for it). She’s adorable and serves the purpose of being cute in the midst of all the craziness.

There isn’t much more to say, so let’s get right to the ratings. Self/Less employs a tired premise of body-switching that uses stock characters and situations that left me uninspired. The performances from the cast are fine but I sensed from the actors that they knew they were stuck in a B-movie. Pretty much everything we see in Self/Less is predictable and unimaginative, and really the only people who need to see this film are fans of Ryan Reynolds. Self/Less earns a measly 2 Reels out of 5.

The hero story fell flat to me because, as we’ve mentioned, the protagonist Damian appears to make choices that are inconsistent with his character after he undergoes his physical transformation. One could argue that he’s simply experiencing a moral transformation and has learned the importance of doing the right thing. That may be possible but the transformation doesn’t appear to have been triggered by anything and thus doesn’t ring true. I can only award Damian a paltry 2 Heroes out of 5.

As you note, Greg, the villain Albright is rather dull, and I sensed that Matthew Goode was chosen for this role only because of his English accent. Again, there are stock characters who help and hinder Damian but they’re all rather forgettable. Even the love interest and her cute kid failed to inspire much enthusiasm. The cast also is also saddled with a rating of 2 out of 5.

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Forgettable is the operative word here, Scott. The movie seemed to forget the main character’s true self and transformed into a martyr without visible cause. I also give Self/Less 2 out of 5 Reels.

Ryan Reynolds just can’t seem to catch a break. I think he’s tried to move away from his comedy roots into more dramatic roles, but he keeps ending up in these ‘B’ movies. His work in the earlier film Woman in Gold opposite Helen Mirren was very good. But the movie attracted little attention against the summertime popcorn movies. As you note, Scott, Damien’s transformation is unbelievable and so I can give Damien only 1 Hero out of 5.

And the supporting cast is lackluster. We see the typical Mastermind/Henchman villain structure and the girlfriend and daughter complete a familial unit. The supporting cast gets just 2 out of 5 Cast points.

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