MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT – IF YOU LOVED ANY OF THEM YOU’LL LOVE THIS ONE TOO

SHORT TAKE:

If you liked ANY of the other Mission Impossible movies, or were a fan of the old TV show, you will love this one.

YOU SHOULD LISTEN TO: THIS YOUTUBE WHILE YOU READ THIS BLOG!!!

WHO SHOULD GO:

Middle teens and up for the suspense and violence. No naughty behavior. While the language is mostly mild for an adult movie, they just HAD to put in ONE profound profanity which sticks out like a sore thumb.

LONG TAKE:

I wonder how many of the audience members in the latest Mission Impossible: Fallout movie know that the entire Cruise franchise was built on the shoulders of a show which debuted in 1966 – precisely 30 years prior to the first Tom Cruise MI vehicle and 52 years before today’s release?

The TV sculpted the inception of this story concept, which features a group of spies, each with unique skills, who infiltrate, uncover, and disassemble the maniacal schemes of megalomaniacs, terrorist countries, and other super villains using disguises, staged events, clever dialogue, magic tricks, seduction, faked deaths, and intricately devious plot devices. Often irony is involved wherein the bad guys are caught in the webs of their own spiderian constructs.

The founding company included Peter Graves (most notable to the current generation as the ill fated pilot with poor judgement in food choices featured in Airplane), Martin Landau (Bela Legosi in Ed Wood) with his real life wife Barbara Bain, Peter Lupus as Willie whose singular talent was to be real real strong, Greg Morris who had a long career in TV appearances, and Steven Hill – a staple character actor in everything from Yentl to The Firm. Hill started out as the leader of the pack but turned the baton over to Graves when filming interfered incompatibly with his devout Orthodox Jewish practices of not working on the Jewish Sabboth, a decision for which I will always admire him.

There were also a string of TV and supporting film actors who studded the MI set for its seven year run, like: Lesley Ann Warren, William Windom, Robert Conrad and Sam Elliott. But, saving the best for last was the regular appearance of our own Leonard Nimoy – the one, the first, the original Spock. Interestingly, Mark Leonard who played his father Sarek, and William Shatner, Captain Kirk, of course, were also veterans of the Star Trek universe and made guest appearances on the TV show Mission Impossible. So MI has a long and illustrious history of establishing the world in which Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible gang exists.

And the MI movies are no piker when it comes to history either.

It has been 22 years between today’s Mission Impossible: Fallout and the first Mission Impossible movie, the latter which debuted with an opening scene sporting Tom Cruise in prosthetics so campy it could have been mistaken for a Saturday Night Live skit – or the original TV show. The opening of the 1996 Tom Cruise hit, complete with fuse burn and the iconic rhythmic theme song, was the same year as Jerry MacGuire and only 2 years after the embarrassing Interview with a Vampire.

Poetically, 22 years (the same period of time betweem the first MI movie and Fallout) before the first Mission Impossible movie opened, we saw the end of the seven-year run of the Mission Impossible television show. There have been six MI movies and I have seen all but Mission Impossible III. No particular reason, except that I haven’t gotten around to it. They are all both very similar and completely distinct from each other at the same time. All six relate to each other but stand alone, like siblings in a close knit family. So I can, with some personal assurance, say, that if you liked any of the Mission Impossible movies you will like this one, and if you have not seen them all you won’t feel like you missed anything.

I HAVE made it my business to see all of the Mission Impossible movie intros. While they all do fitting and respectful homages to the Mission Impossible TV show none encapsulates quite so completely the traditional and iconic opening sequence format of the original Mission Impossible TV show as does this Mission Impossible movie Fallout. The retro style sets the tone for the entire movie. Not to say that it in anyway is a throwback, but squarely, firmly and proudly stands on the TV show grandfather’s shoulders.

On that note – BE AWARE – in keeping with the TV show format, the intro-credits throw in "spoiler-y" clips from the entire movie you are about to but have not yet seen. These clips are shown very quickly and out of context. If you watch hard you might recognize some of the scenes later when they happen in the movie. However, if you watch that carefully and are thinking that much during a movie like this then … you’re working too hard and not enjoying yourself enough. But, honestly, the scenes shown are not likely to give too much away.

The premise of Fallout, around which I must delicately dance to avoid spoiling the spider web threads of plot which are beautifully characteristic of the entire Mission Impossible concept, revolves around the search for three balls of plutonium.

MILD SPOILERS BUT WOULD ONLY BE GIVEAWAYS TO THOSE WHO HAVE NOT SEEN THE TRAILERS OR HEARD ANY OF THE MOST NOTABLE SCUTTLEBUTT ABOUT THE FILMING

Without giving away too much, I can promise you will find all of the delightful Tom Cruise reboot Mission Impossible features that we have come to expect and love, including: spectacular stunts performed by Mr. Cruise, which I am fairly certain raise the blood pressures of the Essential Element Cast Insurance agents to dangerously high levels. And it’s not much of a spoiler, given the amount of P.R. it has received, to mention that Cruise snapped his ankle during one gig. And, I did not know this until doing the research for this blog but, Cruise did his own flying during the helicopter scenes. He not only has a license to fly the birds but has a masters which allows him to fly the very dangerous stunts as well —- which he did. I’m glad I’m not his mom.

The cast includes, of course, Tom Cruise who plays Ethan Hunt, the leader of the IMF team, our heroes. Alec Baldwin reprises his role as their Superior, Simon Pegg appears again as Benji, the techie who wants field work. Benji has a line I can't help but laugh at based on my own interpretation of the meaning. In the trailer, Benji and Ilsa watch as Ethan is getting set to do yet another crazy death defying stunt. Ilsa asks: "What is he doing?" To which Benji quips: "I find it best not to watch." I couldn't help wonder if that line was really an ad lib by actor Simon Pegg as he watched his fellow actor Cruise prepare to do — yet another crazy death defying stunt —- for real.  Henry Cavill (Superman) makes his debut in the franchise as August, the blunt instrument representative of the CIA. Cavill and Cruise created fight scenes I haven't enjoyed so much since I watched Dave Bautista beat the living snot out of Daniel Craig’s James Bond in Spectre.

It's kind of a hoot in Fallout to see Superman and Hunt go toe-to-toe in a bathroom-wall shattering, finesse-less, jackhammer fisticuffs confrontation with an extremely capable martial arts opponent. That is, if someone likes that kind of thing … which I confess I really do. The scene is featured in the trailer and it's even more fun to watch on the big screen as Cavill outshines even Tom Cruise who, in his turn, graciously allowed the scene to demonstrate that after 22 years of this, he is slowing down just a little bitty tad bit. No big surprise as Henry Cavill is half a foot taller, 30 pounds heavier, and 21 years younger than Tom Cruise. Despite Cruise’s apparent eternal youthfulness, boundless energy and teenage-style recklessness, he is old enough to easily be his co-star's father. And yet, though Cavill is bigger and faster, Cruise still believably keeps up with him in every scene.

Angela Bassett (Black Panther) plays Erica Sloan, head of the CIA and August’s boss. Ving Rhames is back as Luther, Hunt’s Jiminy Cricket. Rebecca Ferguson reappear as Ilsa. In a surprise but delightful cameo is Vanessa Kirby as White Witch, a character of gray area motives. Kirby most recently appeared as Elizabeth II's younger and scandal loving sister, Princess Margaret, in The Crown. And Christopher McQuarrie does double duty in Fallout as the screenplay writer and the director, a dual position he also held for MI: Rogue Nation AND Jack Reacher. In addition, McQuarrie wrote Edge of Tomorrow/Life, Die, Repeat, Valkyrie and The Usual Suspects. To say McQuarrie already has an astonishing resume, not to mention a long standing, obviously successful professional relationship with Cruise, would be redundant.

No evaluation of any Mission Impossible movie would be complete without mention of the classic theme written by Lalo Schifrin from the original TV show (which I hope you are listening to as you read this): bum, bum, BUM BUM, bum, bum, bum bum. Doodle ooooo doodle oooo doodle ooooo – do do………is planted and threaded whimsically and delightfully throughout the entire musical score.

The special effects and action sequences are as amazing as you might like to ever see, the dialogue quick, snappy and classic. The acting solid, and shows the actors comfortable in their character’s shoes. And the plot is as contrived, complex and convoluted as you can possibly want in a Mission Impossible movie. The only issue I really have is in an annoying subplot.

However I'm not going to say anything about that unless you plow through my…

ONE REAL SPOILER ALERT. FEEL FREE TO JUMP TO "END OF SPOILER" FOR THE REST OF THE REVIEW.

So, if you made it this far – my big problem with the movie is with the appearance of Ethan Hunt's wife, Julia (Michelle Monaghan). To the best of my knowledge they were never divorced, she just faked her death, as Lois Lane might have done to avoid the clutches of the superheroes evil villainous nemeses. So when Julia introduced her new "husband" to Ethan, two simultaneous thoughts occurred: Julia is committing adultery and bigamy, and Julia is putting this poor schmuck at the same risk she was avoiding by faking her own death…….!?!

My husband pointed out that it would have been so much more fun, noble, in keeping with their initially selfless characters, and just plain old more romantic, for Julia and Ethan to continue the charade of her being dead, but clandestinely having intermittent rendezvous. Like other star crossed lovers: River Song and the various guises her husband, Dr Who, takes on, married and meeting over the centuries as they move through time in opposite directions from each other, but find each other when they can. Or Bobby and Lance Hunter in Agents of Shield who have a turbulent marriage but stick with it, meeting to get "reacquainted" from time to time. Or The Time Traveler's Wife, wherein the couple are separated often and for long periods of time because of his affliction of being "unstuck" in time? Or, how about your average married and deployed military man or police officer? They take great risks and endure long separations all the time but still managed to stay faithful for decades.

Instead, Ethan and Julia get to shallowly have their cake and eat it too. She gets to play dead but have a second functioning regular playmate she can call a husband and he gets to continue thinking of her as his and yet still pursue, tease and nurture a new relationship with Ilsa. I almost half expected there to be a planned menage a quatra. Thankfully, not.

END OF SPOILER

So, using the usual parental discretion, go see Mission Impossible: Fallout, bring your mid and older teens. Then, if you are like me, a fan of the original show, go home and introduce all your kids to the granddaddy TV show. BUM, BUM, BUM, BUM – TA DAHHHHHHH!

CLEO – WHERE REEL LIFE AND REAL LIFE EXPLOSIVELY COLLIDE ON THE ALLEY THEATER STAGE

SHORT TAKE:

Cleo is a brilliant stage dramedy, playing through April 29, 2018 at the Alley Theater in Houston, Texas – written by Lawrence Wright and directed by Bob Balaban, about the filming of the movie Cleopatra as seen from the perspective of the explosive affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, who play the cinematic lovers Cleopatra and Marc Antony.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults. Burton, Taylor and their relationship became the short hand definition of a passionate, torrid love affair. In addition, the movie they were filming, Cleopatra, pushed the MPAA ratings of that time to the edge of the envelope. So to show less than Mr. Balaban does would be like trying to demonstrate an atomic bomb with a birthday candle. But this means it is not appropriate for youths.

LONG TAKE:

I have rarely seen life so poetically and entertainingly imitate art and that art so analogously reflected back than in the play Cleo currently running at the Alley Theatre in Houston, Texas. And I have NEVER seen such a story more skillfully manifested. Masterfully written by Lawrence Wright and brilliantly directed by the multi-talented Bob Balaban, Cleo is about the romance that volcanically erupted between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton during the shooting of the movie Cleopatra.

Cleopatra, for anyone under 40 and not an old movie aficionado, is a classic, epic, bombastic, spectacular that was filmed in 1963 with three of the heaviest hitting stars in Hollywood at the time – Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and Rex Harrison, and populated with some of the most solid and talented supporting actors of their era including   Martin Landau, Carroll O'Connor, Roddy MacDowell and Hume Cronyn.

The stories surrounding this legendary moving disaster area are legion. However, Messieurs Wright & Balaban tackle the central fuse that wove its way through the making of the movie – the romance that began between the couple who for the next two decades would be known in one breath, almost as one word – Liz and Dick. Married and divorced twice to each other and many times to others they became inseparable. Toxic to each other but unable to stay away from each other, they remained close for the rest of their lives, whether married to each other or not. Cleo tells the story of the beginning of this incendiary relationship.

Cleo is funny, bittersweet, bawdy, fascinating, historically interesting, and somehow also whimsically endearing. Lisa Birnbaum, as Elizabeth Taylor, radiates all of the subtleties of Taylor's voice and body mannerisms without creating the caricature that could have so easily emerged. The same for Richard Short as Richard Burton. I loved the accents Short was able to swing into and out of – Burton's normal Welsh versus the high British posh that we are so used to hearing him speak. 

All the subtlety but unmistakable familiarity of these personalities reincarnated on stage for us is a massive credit to both the skillful writing of Mr. Wright whose dialogue lends itself to revelations and foretelling, and to the insightful direction by Mr Balaban. In other hands this could have ended up as a farce. But the affection and respect Wright and Balaban have for these subjects shines through. Mr. Balaban's understanding and perceptive observation of these creatures of Hollywood who are also deeply human beings is personified in the choices which he has made with these actors in particular and the production in general.

Mark Capri portrays Rex Harrison and is given a bit broader license to portray the man who was both Dr. Dolittle and Henry Higgins. Capri's larger than life performance offers a counterpoint and some comic relief to the intense proceedings sparking around him. Brian Dykstra as Joe Mankiewicz occupies a Machiavellian type father position, who both struggles to keep peace amongst his cast but also tends to stir the pot just enough to elicit the dialogue and performance of which he knows these intensely talented movie stars are capable. Adam Gibbs as the cuckolded clueless Eddie Fisher, the man who left his wife Debbie Reynolds for Elizabeth Taylor, provides just the right combination of posturing famous singer and schlemiel who is the last one on the train to recognize that he has lost his wife. Gibbs' Fisher reminds me of the sad clown husband character from Chicago who devotedly would have kept his straying wife but is ultimately abandoned. But unlike the husband in Chicago we know Fisher's hands are not at all clean and that there is a certain poetic justice to the affair lighting up between his erring wife and the Welsh actor.

Bob Balaban, the director, is one of those faces you recognize but don't always remember his name. He has been in a wide range of movies, as a wide range of characters – from the oddly named but sweetly thoughtful Dr. Chandra in 2010, to the corrupt federal investigator in Absence of Malice, to the charmingly out of his depth cartographer in Close Encounters, to the ill-fated film critic in Lady in the Water and the art connoisseur in The Monuments Men. Mr Balaban has had a long career in Hollywood as a gifted actor, director, writer and producer. He even has a singing credit in Woody Allen's Deconstructing Harry. But this directorial outing of Cleo will stand out as one of his best works.

There is no whitewashing or lionizing of Taylor and Burton's scandalous behavior, the drunkenness, or the betrayal of their spouses. There is a scene in the stage play Lion in Winter in which Queen Eleanor reminisces to her son Richard about the first meeting between herself and his father, Henry II. Eleanor had been married, at the time, to King Louis of France. However, Eleanor recounts of Henry: "He came down from the North to Paris with a mind like Aristotle and a form like mortal sin. We shattered the commandments on the spot." This line echoed in my head as I watched Cleo. The violent passion between Taylor and Burton washes over the audience, exposing both their strengths as well as their all too human weaknesses. We see behind the Wizard's curtain and much like the fascination one might have for a slow motion train wreck, it is not always pleasant to see but it is absolutely captivating and mesmerizing to watch.

The movie, Cleopatra, destroyed the careers and health of two directors, wrecked at least two marriages and almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox. Cleopatra was drastically behind schedule and grostesquely over-budget when Joseph Mankiewicz took over the director's chair from Rouben Mamoulian. Without a viable shooting script to this disaster on wheels, rewrites were occasionally not completed until the night before, organization was poor and money was thrown willy-nilly at problems that should never have arisen. The entire cast and crew, trying to recreate the hot dry Egyptian climate in chilly damp London was moved to Rome. One scene was to be shot on the beach at Anzio. Rights were obtained, permissions were granted, and construction workers were killed from the detonation of a live mine left over from World War II. Shooting was once again delayed as a minesweeper had to be hired to prevent another tragedy. Elizabeth Taylor almost died from double pneumonia during the shoot. Established famous character actors had to be hired and paid for, in some cases months beyond the time for which they were originally contracted, as delays mounted one upon another.

BUT, as amusing as these scenarios and anecdotes are, most are wisely not addressed in Cleo. They do, howeverprovide a fitting backdrop of catastrophic ambiance to the Ground Zero of this nuclear romance.

During a Q&A before the performance, Mr. Bob Balaban spent an hour giving generously of his time to provide some background about the making of this play, spin stories about his personal life in New York as his family founded a string of movie houses, and field questions from an appreciative audience. He was extremely gracious, patient, open, warm, articulate, and friendly. Sort of like how you might imagine Mr. Rogers were he a theatrical director. He very kindly agreed to allow photos, videos and audios be made of the mini seminar. He also waited for anyone who wished afterwards to have a word and a photo. I was one of those who benefited from his affability, and assuming my technical crew can make the transfer, I will have audio and video excerpts up soon.

For the record, I used to think Elizabeth Taylor was a bubble-headed movie star. And to some extent, yes, she was. She made some very bad choices in her life, she drank, she took drugs, she lived to excess. However there was another part of her which I did not know about until doing research in anticipation of seeing the play and writing this blog. Elizabeth Taylor was a convert to Judaism. She was quite devoted to Israel and her outspokenness actually got her banned from Egypt even for the production of Cleopatra so that scenes were filmed in Rome with her and exterior shots only were filmed in Egypt without her. She spent the latter part of her life, after her film career, in well known philanthropic projects, including AIDS research, children's education, and raising money for Israel. However the most astonishing and courageous thing that I discovered she did was something I had never even heard a whisper about before. 

In 1976 Muslims hijacked an airline carrying 248 passengers. They rerouted to Entebbe, Uganda and threatened all the passengers with murder unless fellow terrorists were released. All of the non-Jewish passengers were released. Elizabeth Taylor, then one of the most famous faces on Earth, offered herself in exchange for the remaining 100 Jewish hostages. The terrorists refused the offer. Not just a PR stunt, the Israli Ambassador to the United States, Simcha Dinitz publically thanked her at the Jewish National Fund Gala, presenting her and her then husband Jack Warner with a certificate for a forest which would be planted in her honor, saying: "The Jewish people will always remember." It was an extremely brave thing to do. Had these Muslim terrorists accepted there is no telling what they would have done to her. Instead Israeli Defense Forces successfully released almost all of the hostages safely and took out the terrorists.

While the events in the play Cleo take place over a decade before this real life drama at Entebbe, Cleo's backstage pass look at one of the most infamously known, adulterous affairs in history, reminds us that there is often much more to the players involved than is commonly known. Thanks to Mr. Wright and Mr. Balaban, we have an opportunity to warm our hands by a still shot, an intimate and affectionately humorous peek, at the megaton conflagration that was Taylor and Burton

In 90 minutes the craft of this play is such that we, as the audience, come away feeling we have known these people for years, not just because we have read critiques, seen the movies, scanned articles and sadly noted obituaries about them. But we know these people because we have been given a look at them in their smallness, in the sinful activities of which we are all subject in this Fallen World. Great literature makes one feel that one is a better person after having seen it. That can come in two forms. The story can be of either a good example or a horrible warning. I think you can probably guess into which category this amusing, sad, bittersweet and mesmerizing play falls. As the play Cleo demonstrates, in this backstage pass look at one of the most infamously well known adulterous affairs in history, there is often much more to the players involved than is commonly known.

I predict Misters Wright and Balaban have a justifiably massive hit on their hands. Cleo will only be playing at the Alley Theater through April 29, 2018 so hurry to see it there. It will, undoubtedly find a national run in the near future as word gets out about this emotionally expressive and delightful play, but why wait??!! Treat yourself to a one-of-a-kind experience in Cleo as stars in reel life and real life collide on the Alley Theater stage.