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Irrational Man

On the cusp of turning 80, Woody Allen has been a prolific filmmaker for fifty years. He has been nominated for a screenwriting Oscar 24 times, a record. In addition, he has been nominated for a directing Oscar 7 times, tying him for the most. Allen has won four Academy Awards, three for best original screenplay and another as the director of “Annie Hall.”

Nevertheless, there are some, who never related to Allen’s jaundiced perspective on the human condition. In the wake of the scandal arising from Allen’s relationship with the adopted daughter of his paramour, Mia Farrow, he lost a significant portion of his fan base.

In this image released by Sony Pictures Classics Emma Stone, left, and Joaquin Phoenix appear in a scene from "Irrational Man." (Sabrina Lantos/Sony Pictures Classics via AP)

In this image released by Sony Pictures Classics Emma Stone, left, and Joaquin Phoenix appear in a scene from “Irrational Man.” (Sabrina Lantos/Sony Pictures Classics via AP)

As the millennium turned, Allen turned in a succession of five films which were mediocre or worse. This included “Small Time Crooks,” “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion,” “Hollywood Ending,” “Anything Else,” and “Melinda and Melinda.” The latter was a misbegotten conceit, which was demarcated into two distinct components, a comedy and a drama. Both were horrendous. Was Allen no longer content to make a single bad film at a time? Even some of Allen’s most devoted supporters wondered aloud whether the revered master had lost his touch.

Then, in 2005, Allen had a career resurgence with the release of “Match Point.” Allen’s antecedent works were predominantly set in Manhattan and usually featured 5’5’’ Allen or one of his proxies as a protagonist, who was also an unattractive, neurotic schlemiel. By contrast, “Match Point” was set in England and starred the tall, conventionally handsome Jonathan Rhys Meyer as a retired professional tennis player. It was a marked departure from Allen’s traditional narrative signature. Yet, it was hailed as a creative return to form.

In 2008, Allen made “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” The film was set in Spain and starred Javier Bardem in the lead. Bardem, who oozes sexual charisma, might be regarded as personifying the veritable antithesis of Allen’s screen persona. Again, the film was a tour de force for Allen.

More recently, in 2013, Allen crafted “Blue Sapphire.” The film featured Cate Blanchett as a beautiful, polished Manhattan socialite. Again, it was a far cry from the sort of the nebbish male protagonist, typically found in Allen’s film. However, the film was another success and won an Academy Award for Blanchett as Best Actress.

Many cinema savants would insist that Allen peaked artistically decades ago and has now devolved into irrelevancy. However, an examination of his filmography reveals that three of his best works were made in the past ten years. As a result of his erratic history, it is difficult to predict how Allen’s latest release, “Irrational Man,” will be.

“Irrational Man” stars Joaquin Phoenix as Abe Lucas, a supposedly brilliant professor of philosophy, who begins teaching at fictional Braylin College. His arrival at the beautiful Rhode Island campus is considered to be a big deal.

Nevertheless, Abe is consumed with existential angst and despair. He tries to self-medicate with alcohol, albeit to no avail. Although she is married, one of his fellow professors, Rita Richards (Parker Posey), attempts to seduce him. When Abe is unable to perform, he is humiliated.

Then, in a standard Allen trope, Abe becomes romantically involved with a much younger female, Jill Pollard (Emma Stone). The coed also happens to be one of his students. Even this promising relationship fails to emancipate Abe from his psychological woes.  Will it take an irrational act to enable him to find inner peace?

Opens in limited release on Friday, July 31. R (for some language and sexual content) 96 minutes. Sony Pictures Classics

Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation

Like a real-life phoenix, “Mission: Impossible” continues to rise from the ashes.

Created by Bruce Geller, “Mission: Impossible” made its debut back in 1966 as a weekly television series on CBS Saturday night prime time. Over its initial run, which lasted until 1973, it accrued 171 episodes. As such, it long held the distinction of being the English-language television series with the most episodes. In its eighth season, “24” broke that record.

During its first season, the show introduced the I.M.F., an autonomous covert operation, which took on formidable tasks. It was not defined exactly who the I.M.F. worked for. The opening sequence included a tape, which delineated the assignment. It invariably made clear that if the operation was detected, the team would be disavowed by their unidentified bosses. The targets of the I.M.F. would be corrupt dictators, crime bosses, and other nefarious figures. This was followed by the tape self-destructing and the commencement of the readily recognizable theme, by Argentinian composer, Lalo Schifrin.

In the opening season, the I.M.F. was led by Dan Briggs (Steven Hill). It also included Rollin Hand (Martin Landau), a master of disguise and escape artist; Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain), a stunning model; Barney Collier (Greg Morris), an electronics expert; and Willy Armitage (Peter Lupus), a heavily muscled man, who had set several world weight-lifting records.

In the second season, without any explanation, the I.M.F. team was taken over by Jim Phelps (Peter Graves), but otherwise remained intact. In season four, the Rollin Hand character was replaced by Paris (Leonard Nimoy), who had the same skill set as his predecessor. Season five saw the introduction of Dr. Doug Roberts (Sam Elliot) as a newly minted character and Dana Lambert (Lesley Ann Warren), who assumed the role as the only distaff member of the I.M.F.

After five seasons, the television series reached its end or so it seemed. In 1988, after an extended hiatus of fifteen years, “Mission: Impossible” was revived by ABC for an additional two seasons. Graves was back as the head of the team with Morris and Lupus also returning. This time around, Linda Day George joined the cast. This iteration became the first American television series to be shot in Australia.

Then, in 1996, “Mission Impossible” was revived again, this time as a movie franchise. Tom Cruise, who also co-produced, portrayed team leader, Ethan Hunt. The I.M.F. was redefined as a subsidiary of the C.I.A. The film became an international blockbuster and spawned a series of sequels.

“Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation” is the fifth in the cinema series. It features a plot in which there is a bombing of the Kremlin. When the I.M.F. is speciously blamed for it, the head of the C.I.A., Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) orders that they be closed down and disbanded.  Two members of the I.M.F., William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), are relegated to desk duty at C.I.A. headquarters.

Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) is a clean-cut, bespeckled fellow, who looks totally innocuous, more like a nerdish accountant than a super-villain. However, he runs the Syndicate, which is apparently dedicated to the permanent destruction of the I.M.F.

To exculpate themselves, the I.M.F. must go rogue. Hunt reassembles the team. Collectively, they must refute the widely-held contention that the Syndicate is apocryphal and thwart their malevolent plans.

The film includes location shooting in Austria, Morocco, and the United Kingdom. This should infuse the film with a decidedly international flair.

The advance buzz on the film has been extremely positive. In particular, the stunts, including one of Cruise hanging off of the wing of an airplane and another of him, performing an underwater task, are supposedly spectacular.

Opens in wide release on Thursday, July 30. PG-13 (for for sequences of action and violence, and brief partial nudity)131 minutes. Paramount Pictures

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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