Sunday, May 14, 2006

A Mission Worth Accepting (Maybe)

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Mission: Impossible III (**½ out of ****), the latest installment in star-producer Tom Cruise's action franchise, seems in part to be an attempt at rehabilitating an image---Cruise's, of course---that has suffered rather startlingly in recent months. From his notorious couch-jumping on Oprah to the media hoopla over his relationship with Katie Holmes (which has now produced both marriage and a baby named Suri), from his belief in Scientology (brilliantly lampooned by Trey Parker & Matt Stone in last season's "Trapped in the Closet" episode of South Park) to his public comments about his aversion to psychiatry ("psychiatry is a pseudo-science," he has been quoted as saying), things seem to have fallen rather hard and fast for the movie star with the million-dollar grin. Thus this new film seems to take pains to show Cruise---once again playing superagent Ethan Hunt---being all domestic, and generally showing that he really does care about people. At the beginning of this film, he's at a dinner party where his engagement with a nurse, Julia (Michelle Monaghan), is announced and he basically looks all chummy and friendly with everyone. Wouldn't we like to have a guy like him at a dinner party?

Perhaps this series has always been a vanity project for Cruise, but I guess I was too young to notice it all that much when I saw Mission: Impossible II in the theater about six years ago, because I was too busy feeling my brain cells twinkle thanks to director John Woo's sleek yet strangely distant action pyrotechnics in that film. Cowriter-director J.J. Abrams' newest contribution to the franchise is better than Woo's film (I must admit that I haven't yet gotten around to seeing the original Mission: Impossible, directed by the often underrated Brian De Palma), but, as interesting as Abrams' attempts at bringing real human drama into all the non-stop action occasionally are, all of its noisy mayhem takes a backseat to seeing Tom Cruise playing resourceful and wily, efficient and human, etc. for all the world to see and say, "oh, how nice." And why not? As co-producer, he's mostly the big reason for these movies existing.

Mission: Impossible III does manage to bear the stamp of a director's vision, although not necessarily because of stylistic trademarks or even sophisticated visual ingenuity. The film plays out a lot like a few episodes of J.J. Abrams' TV show Alias crammed into one wall-to-wall package: it throws in a lot of (mostly well-orchestrated) action scenes and stunts, and sincerely tries to throw in real human drama in a few compact scenes. It also shares one thematic thread with Alias: Ethan, much like Sydney Bristow on the TV show, tries desperately to balance living a normal life with carrying on his duties at IMF. (In explaining to Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) why he likes to be with Julia, Ethan says, "She reminds me of before all this"---before he got so immersed in his work.) It's a shame that this thread isn't explored with more depth---this is a summer action blockbuster, after all---but one of the things that can be said in favor of the film is that you almost believe in Ethan Hunt as a real person, with genuine emotions---something that couldn't quite be said for the character in the faux-operatic M-I:II, with all of Woo's tiresome pet motifs being trotted out in place of character development. If you can't quite get truly involved in M-I:III on an intimate level---well, perhaps that's more an indication of how Abrams' gift for little character moments and plotting seems more suited for the serial format afforded by the small screen. Expected to deliver with the action in his big-screen feature debut, Abrams piles it on and leaves emotional depth mainly on the margins.

Mostly, I enjoyed the film for its occasionally dazzling action sequences, including one particularly noteworthy stunt which involves Ethan jumping off a building in Shanghai onto another building, sliding down the building while trying to shoot guards, and then going in to get the film's Macguffin (or, in J.J. Abrams terms, its equivalent of Alias' Rambaldi device), the "Rabbit's Foot." I enjoyed Philip Seymour Hoffman's appropriately cold, silky turn as bad guy Owen Davian. I also enjoyed some of the grace notes peppered throughout the film, including Simon Pegg's little speech about the "anti-God compound" and Maggie Q's explanation of her soft prayer as she sits with Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in Shanghai. The movie might have really been considerable if it had perhaps followed through on its small gestures toward telling a larger character story---about an agent trying to achieve a sense of normalcy in his dangerous undercover life---but, as disposable summer entertainment, it's reasonably entertaining, as long as you can disregard Tom Cruise's posturing and simply sit back and enjoy the action spectacle.


This current season of The Simpsons---its 17th---has seen a show trying to get back to its roots: the kind of family humor and social satire that the show balanced so well in its prime. I mean, once it looks like you've run out of ideas---and this moldbreaking show lost its way, many say, when one of its showrunners, Mike Scully, decided to let the wackiness and outrageousness roam free, allowing silliness like "Saddlesore Galactica" (the one with the jockey elves) and "Homer vs. Dignity" (in which Homer is, at one particularly embarrassing point, raped by a panda) to make its way onto the air---why not try to go back to what you once did best?

In that regard, this season hasn't been entirely successful: the ideas are often good, but the execution has sometimes been bland rather than memorably funny. And doesn't it seem like Homer and Marge seem to be separating nearly every week? Maybe it's too much to expect consistent brilliance from a show that has as many writers as it does now---in its fifth season, almost half of the season was written by Bill Oakley, Josh Weinstein, and John Swartzwelder. Still, this season has, at the very least, shown signs of a consistent vision (something which wasn't apparent when Mike Scully was at the helm), and it has had some decent half-hours. The recent episode penned by Ricky Gervais was kinda cute, and some of its anthology compilations have had its moments. I remember this season's Christmas episode had a particularly lovely moment in which Homer, having forgotten to get Marge a Christmas gift, ends up giving Marge a gift that she gives him (because she knew he'd forget)---a sweet moment made even more touching by its use of the second act "Pas de deux" from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. Genuinely sweet moments like that have made more welcome appearances this season, as has the occasional stabs at topical satire---like tonight's episode.

Tonight's episode tackled the issue of teaching creationism in public schools, and while South Park probably could have made a more cutting and coherent satire of both sides---tonight's Simpsons episode seemed clearly in favor of Lisa's belief in the truth of evolution theory, and even dared to paint Reverend Lovejoy as rather ruthless in his attempt to exploit the debate over creationism vs. evolution in order to spread his word and get people to attend church---overall this was a solid episode that, for once, didn't seem patched together like many overtly satirical latter-day Simpsons episodes.

One small moment that I'd like to draw attention to comes early in the episode: when Lisa poses the question to her mother about whether she believes in science or sheer belief, Marge says a bit of stuff and then basically wusses out, walking away from the table. Lisa's question is the kind of tough question that most people would much prefer not to answer at all, and I thought that was a particularly funny, incisive moment. (Marge eventually decides to help Lisa out after she is arrested for supporting creationism: her "conversion" comes after she reads through Darwin's The Origin of Species and not only find his arguments "convincing," but also likes a pic in the book that looks like Snoopy.) That's the way I often feel about debates in general: when they're civil, I don't necessarily mind them when I'm engaged in one, even though on issues of personal faith, such as this one, debating usually doesn't lead to anything, and may get people riled up in the process. When strongly-held religious beliefs get challenged even more strongly, it can be hard to shake off so easily. Better to evade the tough debate and go on living, hehe.

Anyway, the only thing I felt was missing from tonight's episode was more exploration and even insight into why many of the people in Springfield seem so intent on embracing creationism over evolution. But then, maybe one has to go back to a previous episode---"Lisa the Skeptic," from Season 9---to remember that the townspeople have a tendency to prefer the comfort of religion to explain things over the logic of science. Reacting to Lisa speaking on TV about the implausibility of the existence of a fossilized angel, Ned Flanders calls science "a blabbermouth who ruins a movie by telling you how it ends. Well I say that there are some thing we don't wanna know. Important things!" Put it in the context of tonight's episode, and maybe it's the episode's explanation of why creationism is voted as the overriding philosophy taught in Springfield Elementary.

All in all, pretty good episode tonight.

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