Movie Review: ‘Mission: Impossible’

Preposterous, playful and shamelessly entertaining, “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation” obeys the first rule of action thrillers-cum-star vehicles: Take this all too seriously and you’re dead meat. Tom Cruise, who delivers a Dorian Gray-like performance in his fifth outing as the Impossible Mission Force’s Ethan Hunt, knows this in his preternaturally uncreaky bones.

Starting things off with an impressively realistic stunt, hanging off the side of an ascending airplane — which he performed himself, according to pre-opening publicity — Cruise strides through “Rogue Nation” with the combination of swagger and winking self-deprecation that have helped make him one of Hollywood’s most enduring and, dang it, lovable screen products. Just when viewers are about to give into full eye roll — when he displays the perfectly sculpted chest that his contract apparently stipulates he bare in every movie, say, or lays one of his penetrating Blue Steel looks on the baddie du jour — he delivers a perfectly timed pratfall or handsomely dim retort.

Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, who worked with Cruise on the far grittier “Jack Reacher,” is just as canny as Cruise himself when it comes to deploying his lead actor. “Rogue Nation” turns out to be a fleet, well-crafted, effortlessly stylish addition to the “Mission: Impossible” canon in which outlandish derring-do, risibly arcane stakes and a woefully overlong running time are leavened by an endearing sense of humor that at times approaches high camp.

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The joshing tone of the most recent installments was securely established when Simon Pegg joined the force in 2006. With Alec Baldwin in the mix — as a peevish CIA director eager to strip the IMF of its unchecked powers — “Rogue Nation” goes deep meta. When Baldwin utters “Hunt” in a pivotal scene near the end of the film, what might have been a moment where the wheels come off instead attains deadpan silkiness of Donaghy-esque proportions.

The great strength of McQuarrie is that, even when he’s leaning into the laughs, he plays it straight — he doesn’t sacrifice inviolable core values in the name of escapism, whether in the form of smart writing or superb production aesthetics. Handsomely photographed by Robert Elswit, “Rogue Nation” possesses the sleek, globe-trotting feel we’ve come to expect from the James Bonds and Jason Bournes of the world. What distinguishes this iteration is a classical sensibility that feels almost like a throwback, like 007 before he went techno-ballistic.

The spine of the plot touches on such topical tropes as computer hacks, government transparency and global terrorism. But the set pieces are pure old school, from the film’s eyeball-grabbing opening number and a Hitchcockian fight staged during “Turandot” on a backstage catwalk, to a beautifully executed underwater bit and a motorcycle-car chase that must have struck co-star Jeremy Renner as dimly familiar from his stint in the Bourne universe.

Through it all, Cruise maintains the signature focus and physical cool that we’ve come to expect, even if Ethan has become a little unhinged in his righteous lone-wolf fury (“unhinged” being yet another beat Cruise can pluck easily from his emotional tool box). What’s more, as he did in the criminally under-seen “Edge of Tomorrow,” Cruise once again chooses for Ethan to work with a female counterpart who, rather than a stock lady-in-jeopardy or erotic love interest, is just as competent and physically courageous as he is. (In a clever twist, it’s Pegg’s dweeby character, Benji, who emerges as “Rogue Nation’s” damsel in distress.)

Indeed, as much as Cruise dominates “Rogue Nation,” it’s his co-star, Rebecca Ferguson, who emerges as the film’s true and most memorable revelation. A dazzling, auburn-haired Swedish beauty, she embodies the glamour and élan of a modern-day Diana Rigg, or “Edge of Tomorrow’s” Emily Blunt. Like Blunt, Ferguson manages to be sexy, strong, complicated and enigmatic in a performance that Cruise highlights by way of his own reflected persona. It may not entail hanging off the side of a moving airplane, but it’s a pretty gutsy and admirable stunt nonetheless, free of vanity and brimming with the secure, unfussy confidence of a true star.

★ ★ ★ out of ★ ★ ★ ★

PG-13. Contains sequences of action and violence, and brief partial nudity. 131 minutes.

A Movie Misstep of the Week

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A fugitive who should have thought twice about his next career choice and a whole lot of stripper tips are among the craziest crime stories of the week:

    •    Fugitive Caught Thanks to Role in Horror Movie: When it comes to promoting a movie, no press is bad press, right? Right, unless you happen to be a fugitive. Police in Olympia, Washington, arrested Jason Stange after recognizing him in photos that ran in the local paper about the movie’s filming. It’s a horror flick, not a bank-robber flick, a topic Stange knows something about.

    •  Teen Clerks Brilliantly Foil Would-Be Robber: Best attempted-robbery story in a while: When a guy in a lame disguise (it involved a plastic bag) walked into a Subway store in Coventry, Rhode Island, and demanded money, the young clerks had a simple but effective reaction.

    •  How Not to Ask for Directions to the White House: Some guys will never ask for directions, and some guys just shouldn’t. An example of the latter: The driver of an out-of-state pickup pulled over his truck in Washington, DC, about 2:30am Tuesday and approached a police officer to ask, “Where’s the White House?“ Then the officer saw what was allegedly in Steve Oney’s car.

    •  Feds: Man Tipped Strippers 2K Times With Company Cash: There’s using the company credit card for unethical reasons, and then there’s this story out of Gilbert, Arizona. The feds accuse John David Berrett of dropping $476,000 of his employer’s cash on online strippers—strippers he tipped 2,200 times. He also bought them some odd gifts.

    •  Reporter Confronts Accused Thief of His Credit Card: “You picked the wrong guy,“ Dallas Fox 4 reporter Steve Noviello can be heard telling the woman on video. He’s not kidding: Noviello is on the consumers affairs beat, and when he got an alert that someone had used his credit card number at a local hotel, he headed there and confronted the suspect as police led her away in handcuffs.

‘The Book of Mormon’ Gets Rousing Reception in Utah

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SALT LAKE CITY, UT—The biting satirical musical that mocks Mormons received a rousing reception this week in its first-ever showing in the heart of Mormonlandia, kicking off a sold-out, two-week run at a Salt Lake City theater.

The audience cheered wildly as the Tony Award-winning “The Book of Mormon” began, with the show’s gleefully naive missionaries singing in front of a backdrop of the Salt Lake City skyline and Mormon temple that resembles the real one just two blocks away.

They laughed loudly as the jokes played out, many touching on Mormon lingo and culture that is intimately familiar in Utah. Some of the most raucous applause came during a scene when an African character sings, “Salt Lake City, the most perfect place on Earth.“ At the conclusion, attendees at the Capitol Theater crowd gave the actors a standing ovation.

Despite the jokes and jabs that create a caricature of Mormon beliefs, there were no protests outside and no mass walkouts during opening night. The playbill did include three advertisements from the Mormon church, including a picture of a smiling man with the words, “You’ve seen the play, now read the book.“

The audience included a cross-section of non-Mormons, ex-Mormons and some practicing Latter-day Saints like Omar Ledezma Soto, a student at Mormon-owned BYU. He drew attention by coming dressed as a missionary, wearing a white shirt, tie and the name tag he wore when he was an actual missionary. He said he knew other BYU students who were planning to attend other showings.

“The humor is crude and offensive, but I don’t think it’s meant to attack or belittle Mormons,“ said Soto. “It’s just a means to talk about the silly situations we put ourselves in. That’s why I think this is so funny and lethargic and freeing to me.“

The show’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone of “South Park” fame, weren’t at the show but told The Associated Press this week that bringing the show to Salt Lake City feels like validation and also brings the creative process full circle.

“It feels like a really cool thing that it finally gets to play Salt Lake City,“ Stone said. “It just feels very much like it’s coming home.“

They were hopeful that the show’s jokes would get even bigger laughs in a crowd likely to be more familiar with Mormon culture than most audiences. “It’s like playing `Fiddler on the Roof’ to a bunch of Jews,“ Parker said.

That certainly seemed to be the case, as audience howled at jokes about Mormon beliefs, practices and idiosyncrasies. “It pokes fun without being mean,“ said Eric Kriss, of Draper, after the show.

Two hours before the opening, about 100 people lined up in a ticket lottery, a group that included ex-Mormon Brandon Haden. The 26-year-old theater teacher, hoped to see the show again after attending a production in Los Angeles, but he said his parents have no plans to attend. (Prices range from $26-$160, not including fees).

“My parents said they wouldn’t come see something that makes fun of their religion, which I totally get,“ Haden said, adding, “I don’t think they make any like sacred, doctrinal jokes, they just poke fun at the stereotypes.“

He didn’t win tickets, but 24-year-old Kate Hickam did.

Hickam, who isn’t Mormon, had seen the show in Denver but was anxious to watch the hometown crowd’s reaction. “They have so many inside jokes that Utahans will appreciate,“ Hickam said.

Leaders with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been quiet about the musical over the years, repeating a one-line statement that has now become synonymous with the show. “The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ,“ it reads.

Some curious Latter-day Saints may go to see what all the fuss is about during the run in Salt Lake City, but most will probably turn the other cheek and let the state’s non-Mormons revel in the fun, said Scott Gordon, president of a volunteer organization that supports the church called FairMormon.

Gordon said he has mixed feelings about a musical. It has brought extra attention to Mormonism, and most Latter-day Saints can take some ribbing. But he said, “I just wish it didn’t go so far.“

Parker and Stone said they’ve never received any blowback from Mormon leaders or church members, which they say proves a theme that carries through the musical about Mormons being so darn polite all the time. In a way, they said they think church members might have appreciated the extra attention.

“I think it legitimizes them,“ Stone said. “You’re not really real until somebody makes fun of you and makes a big Broadway show about you. Then you’re really, really part of the American fabric.“

Dr. Seuss Book Explores What Came Before ‘One Fish Two Fish’

Move over mockingbirds and watchmen. There’s a new Yent in a tent in town.

Dr. Seuss’ new book, “What Pet Should I Get?“, features the same siblings seen in his 1960 classic “One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish.“ The book went on sale Tuesday, two weeks after the release of Harper Lee’s long-awaited second novel, “Go Set a Watchman.“

But unlike some fans of Lee’s 1960 book, “To Kill a Mockingbird,“ those who love Dr. Seuss are unlikely to be disappointed, says Donald Pease, author of two books about Seuss and an English professor at the author’s alma mater, Dartmouth College.

“It’s a classic Dr. Seuss treatment,“ he said. “What it does is it brings a child, actually a brother and sister, into relationship by way of a problem almost every child addresses in her or his life: What pet should I get?“

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As the siblings ponder which animal to acquire — Dog? Cat? Fish? — they start to imagine more fanciful creatures: the aforementioned Yent, or a “thing on a string.“ All the while, they face the constraints of what their parents would allow. The final illustration, which shows two eyes poking out of a basket, leaves readers guessing about their choice.

Pease suggests Seuss didn’t publish the book because he used it as a jumping-off point for “One Fish Two Fish” instead.

“In a sense, the pet shop is giving the children access to the difference between the world of pets they can encounter in a pet shop, and the world of creatures they can only enter encounter by opening the book equivalent of a pet shop: the archive of Dr. Seuss’s children’s books,“ he said.

For example, in “One Fish Two Fish,“ the children have a Gox, a Gack, and a Wump with one hump.

Seuss, whose real name was Theodor Geisel, grew up in Massachusetts, but it was at Dartmouth that he found his passion for writing and drawing.

“I began to get it through my skull that words and pictures were Yin and Yang. I began thinking that words and pictures, married, might possibly produce a progeny more interesting than either parent,“ he told the Dartmouth alumni magazine in 1975. “It took me almost a quarter of a century to find the proper way to get my words and pictures married. At Dartmouth I couldn’t even get them engaged.“

The Ivy League school is also where the Seuss pseudonym was born. When Seuss was a senior, he and his friends were caught drinking alcohol in his room during Prohibition. (“We had a pint of gin for 10 people, so that proves nobody was really drinking,“ he recalled.) Part of his punishment included being booted off the staff of the campus humor magazine, but he got around the sanction by signing his cartoons with his mother’s maiden name and his own middle name: Seuss.

Unlike Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman,“ in which the heroic Atticus Finch disparages blacks and condemns the Supreme Court’s decision to outlaw segregation in public school, the new Seuss book joins other Seuss classics such as “The Sneetches and Other Stories” and “Green Eggs and Ham” in affirming equality, Pease said.

In general, Pease said, the world that Seuss created didn’t have race or class distinctions but instead celebrated differences.

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