Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible - Ghost ProtocolMISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - GHOST PROTOCOL

A European nutjob wants to start nuclear apocalypse, and Ethan Hunt and his team want to stop him. That's my condensation of Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol's needlessly complex plot in fewer than 20 words. Here's a condensation of my feelings toward this third sequel in fewer than five: The movie kicks ass.

Directed by Brad Bird, making an exceptional entry into live-action terrain after helming the animated The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille, this latest in Tom Cruise's blockbuster franchise is also the first one I've actively enjoyed.

And while I attribute much of my happiness to co-star Jeremy Renner, whose witty and empathetic presence as one of Hunt's fellow agents provides much of Ghost Protocol's rooting interest, enough can't be said about what Bird brings to the table, because he seems the first director in this film series less interested in thrilling us than thrilling us and making us laugh. The Mission: Impossible movies, of course, have always featured expert stunts and action choreography. Yet Bird pulls off a rather amazing magic trick here; he repeatedly gets us giggling while we're simultaneously holding our breath.

Hunt's introductory escape from a Moscow prison, underscored (fabulously) to Dean Martin's "Ain't That a Kick in the Head," sets the bar pretty high right off the bat. But Bird and editing wizard Paul Hirsch go on to supply one jaw-dropping, outrageously entertaining set piece after another: Hunt breaking into the Kremlin, and distracting a hallway guard with some high-tech sleight-of-hand; Hunt scaling the world's tallest building using adhesive gloves that almost function properly; a high-speed chase through perilous highway turns during the onset of a sandstorm. (At the screening I attended, a patron raucously applauded this scene's finale, and was right to do so.)

Beyond Renner, the movie's humans don't really display much charisma, although Cruise attacks his fourth go-round as Hunt with typically professional intensity and focus, and does score one huge guffaw with a perfectly cadenced "No shit!" (Among Hunt's teammates, Paula Patton has little to do but look lovely - which she does splendidly - and Simon Pegg, I'm bummed to say, is little more than a pop-eyed, yammering irritant here.) There's so much personality in Bird's staging, though, that you can easily ride past its scarcity in the characters and generically busy storyline. And while it's currently our area's only option for seeing the film, I'm not sure I can recommend Ghost Protocol's IMAX presentation strongly enough, as the scale showcases Bird's ingenious compositions and cinematographer Robert Elswitt's powerful and occasionally vertigo-inducing imagery with the grandeur they deserve. Pop a Dramamine and have a ball.


Charlize Theron in Young AdultYOUNG ADULT

Whatever else it is, director Jason Reitman's Young Adult, with its script by Juno's Diablo Cody, is certainly one of the riskier major-studio releases in recent years: a bitter, sardonic comedy about (there's no use phrasing this gently) a hatefully self-involved bitch who steadfastly refuses to learn or grow, and who may wind up more repellent at the end than she is at the beginning. I loved it. As former prom queen and current published author and drunken wreck Mavis Gary - who returns to small-town Minnesota to seduce her high-school beau despite his now being a happily married new father - Charlize Theron gives a performance so raw and bracing that she might singlehandedly prevent audiences from responding favorably to the movie. In this astonishing, gutsy portrayal, Theron burrows so deeply into Mavis' egocentric and deliberate meanness that her actions, while designed for laughs, are truly shocking, and the film itself delivers an almost perverse reversal of expectations; you continue to wait in vain for a comeuppance that never arrives.

Yet as someone mostly exhausted by the cookie-cutter formula of most Hollywood comedies, I found Young Adult a thoroughly captivating, frequently hysterical outing, and by no means a one-dimensional one. You have to look hard for it, but there's actually enormous sympathy built into Reitman's, Cody's, and Theron's exploration of a deeply troubled soul (watch Theron's reaction after her screen parents blithely toss off her admission of alcoholism), and the details here feel absolutely right, from Mavis' late-night fast-food binge to her inventive solution to a printer cartridge running out of ink.

In one of the film's few iffy touches, Patton Oswalt's Matt, the abused classmate who becomes Mavis' drinking buddy and patsy, tends to show up with too-convenient regularity (a fault of the script's, not the marvelous actor's). But there's just enough of Patrick Wilson as Mavis' doltish old flame Buddy and Elizabeth Reaser as Matt's much-hipper wife, and if you can stomach the character, Theron is unceasingly welcome despite Mavis' consistently heinous behavior and sentiments. You may loathe the character, but like the Oscar-winning Monster Theron played eight years ago, heaven knows you'll be hard-pressed to forget her.


Jude Law and Robert Downey Jr. in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of ShadowsSHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS

Rachel McAdams, who was the female lead in Guy Ritchie's 2009 Sherlock Holmes, only appears in the first 15 minutes of the director's sequel Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. I hereby consider McAdams the most fortunate actress in 2011 movies ... with the possible exception of every actress who isn't in the movie at all. There's really no point in getting into the niceties, if one could call them that, of Ritchie's latest blockbuster bastardization; aside from smart contributions by Stephen Fry (as Sherlock's brother) and Jared Harris (a satisfying, if fundamentally uninteresting, Professor Moriarty), it's exactly the loud, chatty, hyperactive, achingly dull adventure its predecessor was. Suffice it to say that, this time around, the jokey homoeroticism between Robert Downey Jr.'s sleuth and Jude Law's Watson is even more insufferably overt, the bountiful gunplay is even more frenzied (beware the introduction of the "machine pistol"), and in co-star Noomi Rapace, the film introduces us to perhaps the least engaging gypsy in cinema history. Elementary? Game of Shadows is damned near pre-school.

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