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Movie review: ‘Arrival’ fascinating, but underwhelming

Click audio player to hear Tim’s review of “Arrival” on “The KQ Morning Show” with Tom Barnard.

“Arrival” (PG-13)

The space alien genre gets a seemingly new twist in “Arrival,” a thinking person’s sci-fi thriller that ultimately is more about questions of humanity than it is the otherworldly beings that initiate first contact.  But while “Arrival”  feels fresh in comparison to several alien thrillers recent years – it’s about aliens that invade, but don’t attack – it ultimately comes off like a smattering of similar films.

In fact, it doesn’t take long to realize the touchstones of “Arrival” seem to borrow from the plot points of “District 9” (which features hovering ships), “Gravity” (about a protagonist dealing with loss), “Contact” (about a scientist decoding alien messages), “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (about aliens warnings to Earthlings) and “Interstellar” (about the transcendence of space and time).

That’s not to say that “Arrival” isn’t fascinating and thought-provoking. It just can’t seem to get over the hump to approach the greatness of any of its equally-smart predecessors.

Amy Adams is brilliant as Dr. Louise Banks, an expert linguistics professor, who, along with and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), is recruited by a military colonel (Forrest Whittaker) to attempt to communicate with the beings in an alien spaceship that lands in Montana. A saucer-shaped ship that appears to be levitating sideways, it’s one of 12 massive vessels hovering over different parts of the world that gives no clear indication of its intentions.

Louise’s task is to decode symbols that the aliens are seemingly communicating with, trying to figure out why they are here and what they want; and Ian wants to figure out where they came from and how they got here. The problem is the messages of the beings – dubbed “heptapods” (they resemble octopuses, but are one leg short) – are so complex that Louise and Ian may not have enough time to stave off a festering global war. It turns out that countries like China and Russia are perceiving the heptapods as a threat, and an attack on the ships is imminent.

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“Arrival” not surprisingly arrives just in time for awards season, and thanks to the brooding tone and atmosphere set by gifted director Denis Villenueve (“Prisoners,” “Sicario”), the film manages to be cerebral without being pretentious. From the very first frame, Villenueve masterfully constructs a plot of misdirection, which ultimately results in one of the most satisfying payoffs on the big screen this year.

The problem is, up until the big reveal in the film’s third act, “Arrival” plods along and may feel like a bait and switch to moviegoers expecting much more based on the film’s tantalizing trailers. In the end, “Arrival” comes off as a studio-backed sci-fi art-house movie that doesn’t deliver any of the sorts of scenes moviegoers associate with the genre. On one hand, the less is more approach is completely welcome for those pining for originality; but on the other, the film just feels too uneventful running up to the unexpected, hard-hitting climax. In the end, “Arrival” is satisfying, but ultimately underwhelming.

Lammometer: 6 (out of 10)

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Movie reviews: ‘Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation,’ ‘Vacation’

Tom Cruise in 'Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation' (photo - Paramount Pictures)

 By Tim Lammers

“Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” (PG-13) 3 1/2 stars (out of four)

Tom Cruise truly makes the impossible possible with “Rogue Nation,” a serious contender for the best installment in the five film “Mission: Impossible” series. Expertly directed and co-written by Christopher McQuarrie, “Rogue Nation” maintains the same energy, thrills and explosive action as it’s awesome predecessor “Ghost Protocol,” yet continues to advance the “Mission: Impossible” narrative instead of running into the trappings of most film sequels.

Cruise returns as Ethan Hunt, a rogue agent of the Impossible Mission Force (IMF) and No. 1 pain in the ass of CIA honcho Hunley (Alec Baldwin), who finally manages to convince the  government to absorb, and effectively, abolish, the IMF program. Apart from his past misgivings, Hunley is also fed up with Hunt’s obsession with the terrorist organization known as “The Syndicate” — a group that the CIA claims is a product of Hunt’s

(Cruise) imagination.

But after a deadly encounter with The Syndicate’s head (Sean Harris), Ethan confirms the group is indeed for real; but he needs the now small group of his fellow IMF colleagues to bring the group down. Ethan is forced to take a leap of faith and trust Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson), a Syndicate agent who for reasons unexplained, helps him escape torture and certain death at the hands of her employer.

Interview: Rebecca Ferguson talks ‘Rogue Nation’

The great thing about “Rogue Nation” is that it’s full of surprises, starting with the highly-publicized scene where Cruise hangs onto the exterior of a cargo plane. Usually the sort of show-stopping scene you’d see in the third act of a film, the plane scene actually kicks off “Rogue Nation,” raising the stakes higher than they’ve ever been for a “Mission: Impossible” film (with maybe the exception of the Dubai tower scene in “Ghost Protocol”).

From there, “Rogue Nation” is naturally jam-packed with riveting action scenes (including a dizzying cycle chase), yet never once loses sight of the film’s detailed narrative. Loaded with twists and turns, “Rogue Nation” will keep you guessing until the very end.

Cruise is spectacular once again as Ethan, and you have to really admire his commitment to the physical demands of the role and the ever-expanding narrative of the “Mission: Impossible” series. He’s clearly the star of the series, yet generously shares his screen time with co-stars Simon Pegg (funnier than ever), Jeremy Renner and Ving Rhames — the only IMF agents he can trust.

Cruise also has an amazing eye when it comes to bringing new actors into the fold, particularly Ferguson, an experienced star of Swedish and British film and TV, who marks her second appearance in a U.S. film with “Rogue Nation.” Smart, physically lethal and sexy as hell, Ferguson possesses a classic Hollywood screen beauty rarely seen in today’s films. Even as a relative newcomer to American film, she more than holds her own against Cruise.

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“Vacation” (R) 1 star (out of four)

The “Holiday Road” has hit a dead end with “Vacation,” a dreadfully unfunny remake of the Harold Ramis-directed gem “National Lampoon’s Vacation” from 1983. Packed to the gills with moronic jokes and forced humor at every turn, “Vacation” is easily a contender for worst movie of the summer, if not worst movie of the year.

After an amusing opening featuring a couple-dozen pictures you’d see in an Awkward Family Photo album (full disclosure – the first photo they show is of my wife’s second cousins),  “Vacation” picks up with Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms), who shifts gears away from the usual summer vacation destination and insists that his wife, Debbie (Christina Applegate), and two sons (Skyler Gisondo and Steele Stebbins) retrace his family’s cross-country trip to Walley World from 30 years before.

Renting a knock-off hybrid vehicle that instantly becomes trouble, Rusty loads up his wife and kids for the long trip from Chicago to California. Naturally, they run into one disaster after the next, yet hold out the hope of making it to Walley World in one piece.

Opening with a classic “Holiday Road” tune from the 1983 original film, the music switches gear to an F-bomb laden rap song, setting the tone for the sort of trashy movie the new “Vacation” quickly becomes. Whether it comes with the revelation of Debbie’s torrid sexual encounters during college to her puke-soaked attempt to regain her former glory during a stop at her alma mater; or the family’s dip into the festering sewer waters which was revealed in the film’s red band trailer, “Vacation” seems intent to make you cringe and gag in the hope that you’ll laugh at it, too. Cringe and gag you will. Laugh you won’t.

But that’s not the worst of it. There’s the youngest Griswold (Stebbins) who plays one of the most annoying characters in recent movie memory: a smart-ass preteen who drops the F-bomb with wanton abandon; and also kicks off the movie’s string of oh-so-funny (NOT) jokes about pedophilia and rape that pollutes the film.

By far the most embarrassing thing about “Vacation,” though, is Helms, who assumes the role played by Anthony Michael Hall as a child (if the filmmakers thought Hall wasn’t able to play himself as an adult, the joke’s on them).  It’s too bad, because Helms (as evidenced by “The Office” and “Hangover” films) can be funny; but here he’s relegated to effectively playing the same, horribly misinformed dad that Chevy Chase embodied in the first film. Chase, naturally, shows up in a cameo, as does Beverly D’Angelo, but they’re really not given anything to work with because frankly, there’s nothing there.

As awful as “Vacation” is, there are a few bright spots: Chris Hemsworth, who plays the very well-endowed husband to the adult Audrey Griswold (Leslie Mann), is quite funny; and Charlie Day nails his bit role as a chipper whitewater rafting guide. While not as funny as the still photos in the opening credits, the stills to close the movie (along with yes, another trashy, F-bomb filled song) signals the film’s squandered potential. And, um, Thor does swing his mighty hammer in the end credits, so beware.

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Interview: Rebecca Ferguson talks ‘Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation’

Rebecca Ferguson Tom Cruise MI Rogue Nation

By Tim Lammers, DirectConversations.com

Guess you could say after making a “Mission: Impossible” movie with Tom Cruise, it’s becomes second nature to spring into action in a moment’s notice, no matter how harrowing the scene is.

That’s at least the feeling I immediately sensed while chatting with Cruise’s fellow lead Rebecca Ferguson. During a recent call from Ferguson in Chicago to talk about “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation,” the stunning Swedish actress was glancing out of her hotel window and gasped when she nearly witnessed a bad accident.

“Oh, my God. A man ran across the road and a car nearly hit him. I could have jumped down and saved his ass,” Ferguson quipped.

A veteran of European television and film, Ferguson’s U.S. film debut came in 2014’s “Hercules” opposite Dwayne Johnson, a fantasy adventure where the action star did most of the heavily lifting.

With “Rogue Nation,” she said, that all changes.

“When I did ‘Hercules’ I wasn’t a woman in action. For me, it was mostly about horses, sandals and a camel named ‘Bobby,’ which was lovely. But after the movie, I thought, ‘God, I’d love to kick some ass now,'” Ferguson said with a laugh. “When they started casting ‘Mission: Impossible,’ I thought, ‘That’ll never happen. It’s not an independent movie.̵

7; But I guess my audition went well.”

In “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation,” Ferguson plays Ilsa, a mysterious woman with ties to a terrorist organization known as “The Syndicate” — a group that the CIA claims is a product of IMF agent Ethan Hunt’s (Cruise) imagination.

After a deadly encounter with The Syndicate’s head (Sean Harris), Ethan confirms the group is indeed for real; but with the IMF division abolished thanks to a vindictive CIA honcho (Alec Baldwin), the rogue agent only has a small group of fellow IMF colleagues to count on to help expose the group. More importantly, though, Ethan is forced leap of faith and trust Ilsa, who for reasons unexplained helped him escape torture and certain death at the hands of her employer.

Opening in theaters and on IMAX screens Friday, “Rogue Nation” is directed by Christopher McQuarrie, and features the return Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner and Ving Rhames as Ethan’s only IMF allies.

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By now, it’s quite likely that movie fans have seen behind-the-scenes featurettes for “Rogue Nation” that illustrate how Cruise’s death-defying stunts in the film are definitely real. Ferguson, a 31-year-old native of Stockholm, Sweden, said knowing Cruise was doing his own stunt work helped motivate her to keep her stunt double seated on the sidelines.

“I think it’s really intoxicating seeing him do it and know that it’s possible,” Ferguson said. “But I’ll admit I was really scared knowing that on the first day of filming I would be shooting off the rooftop of the Vienna Opera House. Doing something like that was a big fear of mine, and I knew I could always say, ‘No,’ because I had this wonderful stunt double named Lucy who could jump in.”

Having a month-and-a-half to prepare for the scene with Cruise, Ferguson eventually opted to do the scene for real because she realized if you’re doing an action-filled adventure film, you have to actually experience the adventure — especially when that adventure is with Cruise.

“I wanted to be going through it with him. I wanted to be on this adventure. That’s why you do a ‘Mission: Impossible’ film. Also I knew that I’d have my legs wrapped around Tom Cruise and going, ‘Woo-hoo!” Ferguson said, laughing.

While Ferguson has her legs wrapped around Cruise and is holding on for dear life in one scene, she proves in many other scenes in the film that she can more than handle herself against the bad guys as she puts on a spectacular array of crippling martial arts moves.

Amazingly, Ferguson said, she didn’t know a thing about physical combat before she started work on the film.

“When I got the part, we flew over to London and a car picked me up, and we went straight to the gym,” Ferguson said. “They showed me the schedule, which was basically six hours of training a day, six days a week. We did Pilates, stunt training, choreography and sprinting, because Tom Cruise likes to run. I had no idea of the amount of training that goes into what people eventually see on screen. But now, I miss it. After shooting the scenes, I’d say, ‘Let’s do it again!’ It’s such a high that kicks in when you’re doing it. It’s like an incredible dance routine, and you get better and better the more you do it.”

While “Rogue Nation” was stocked with more than enough action and adventure scenes to give Ferguson her an adrenaline high, she said the experience of working on the film wouldn’t have been complete without the smart story that action and adventure is rooted in.

“That’s the reason I’ve loved all of the ‘Mission: Impossible’ films from the start,” Ferguson enthused. “I love the highly intelligent stories. I love the twists, turns, stories and the characters. I love it when the filmmakers get together and make this incredible puzzle. They make the impossible possible.”

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