Cruise’s Mission: Who Knows?

Welcome, suckers. Summer is here and so is Tom Cruise. In Mission: Impossible III, the pecs-flexing tabloid cover boy, billionaire Scientologist and palpitating amateur psychopharmacologist who turned Oprah’s sofa into a trampoline acts normal. It may be his most challenging performance.

As idiot movies go, this one is as sub-mental as you might expect. The third installment in the often tiresome and always incomprehensible M:I popcorn franchise boasts a new budget ($150 million), a new bad guy (Philip Seymour Hoffman, slumming it after his Capote Oscar and making some money at last), a new series of expensive locations (from Shanghai to Vatican City) and a new director (J. J. Abrams, from the Lost TV series). The empty-headed plot has Mr. Cruise’s action junkie Ethan Hunt retired from the field of pyrotechnic Paramount Pictures pay vouchers to train rookie spies—and marry a stupid nurse (Michelle Monaghan) who has no idea where he goes in the daytime.

But when arch-villain Hoffman, a rotund “invisible man” who sells terrorists state-of-the-art weapons left over from the James Bond archives, plants an explosive charge inside the head of a pretty trainee (Keri Russell, from TV’s Felicity), the star goes into robot overdrive. The rest of the movie packs in fuse-blowing, moronic dialogue, lunatic conspiracies, diabolical tortures, political chicanery, comics in science-lab coats and decibel-shattering action, with Mr. Cruise’s stunt doubles performing a marathon of jumping, banging, shooting, stabbing, falling and punching shots. There is one great sequence (a helicopter chase through a maze of windmills that crash to the ground with a noise that could shatter a hearing aid) and one unintentionally hilarious sequence (Tom Cruise doing algebraic equations!).

A number of superb actors are criminally wasted in the mayhem, including Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Ving Rhames, Billy Crudup and Laurence Fishburne. But mourn not—they can all retire on their bloated salaries. The only question is: Will the bad guy implant one of those microchip hydrogen bombs in Tom Cruise’s brain? This is the only truly scary idea in the whole movie. I mean, is anybody brave enough to want to know what’s going on inside Tom Cruise’s brain?

Gangs of U.K.

Dead Man’s Shoes is another avenging-angel movie from the genre of British underworld dramas, with the gifted Paddy Considine (so honest and appealing as the immigrant Irish father who brought his family to New York for a new start in life in Jim Sheridan’s autobiographical In America) imposing the role of a Sergio Leone gunslinger onto a contemporary tale set in the dreary British Midlands. It is filled with rage, relentlessly dark and disturbing, and occasionally quite violent.

It is also heavily reminiscent of Mike Hodges’ 2003 gangster mantra, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, in which Clive Owen returned to his old neighborhood from a long absence to wreak bloody revenge on the gangsters who raped and killed his handsome and sensitive younger brother, played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers. In Shane Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes, another young man meets the same fate. This time, the victim is a retarded boy named Anthony (Tony Kebbell). When his protective older brother, Richard (Considine), leaves home to join the army, the gullible Anthony becomes the mascot and sexual play toy of a gang of skanky drug dealers who taunt and hang him for kicks.

Seven years later, fearing “God will forgive them and let them into Heaven,” Richard returns to stalk, torture and execute each member of the gang, while black-and-white flashbacks reveal the abuses they inflicted on the boy. Just as Americans are rendered speechless by news reports that grain-belt communities in Iowa and Nebraska are the new hotbeds of the drug trade, films like this are now exploring the bowels of rural England, where crime and drugs are rampant and gangsters design the fabric of daily life. Jane Austen doesn’t live here anymore.

Despite the gruesome details and a few supernatural elements that constitute an unnecessary conceit, Dead Man’s Shoes is restrained, subdued and spare. Mr. Meadows (who co-wrote the screenplay with Mr. Considine) is more intrigued by the logic of fatalism than the baroque excesses of the underworld genre. His interesting choice of physical locations also shows us a side of this country we rarely see on screen: country villages with dank side streets, underpasses and cobblestone walkways that build a mood and stand at odds with the images of stately hunting lodges, historic inns and thatched-roof bed-and-breakfasts we get from travel brochures. Struggling with the moral ambivalence of righteousness and revenge, Dead Man’s Shoes is for the true connoisseur: a tight, well-made, evocative piece of filmmaking that recalls the extreme emotions in some of Sam Peckinpah’s genre-benders about retribution and vigilante justice. It’s as hypnotic as it is paranoid.

Tormé Tribute

Bad music is spreading like the bird virus. Like price-gougers at gas pumps, the tone deaf who praise and promote the kind of junk music that pollutes the ozone get no respect from me. While the ripple effect of this trash affects us all, the gifted singer-pianist-arranger Billy Stritch is staging a recovery campaign of his own, and he’s got a brand-new Manhattan nightclub to do it in. For the rest of this week, through Sunday, something positive, entertaining and very special is happening in the heart of Chelsea. Serious lovers of the Great American Songbook can earn a Ph.D. from Mr. Stritch’s course in music appreciation as he christens the new Metropolitan Room, at 34 West 22 Street (reservations: 212-206-0440), and celebrates the vast, seminal talent and musical influence of the legendary Mel Tormé.

A tribute to one of the most beloved singers in the history of jazz and popular music is long overdue. Melvin Howard Tormé recorded thousands of songs in his career, and Mr. Stritch, who has studied them all, covers as much territory as one hour will hold. Swinging in chords, crooning favorite Tormé ballads like “Blue Moon” and “A Nightingale Sang in Barclay Square,” scatting in rhythm on “Just One of Those Things” and “Mountain Greenery,” Mr. Stritch honors the versatile musician he has admired since childhood with an eclectic and thrilling set that is guaranteed to send you into orbit. He doesn’t sound like the “velvet fog” (an apt moniker Mel despised) and he wisely doesn’t even try to imitate him, but he’s such an excellent arranger that he can reconfigure the Tormé treasury with such cleverness that a swing tune can turn into a waltz and a ballad can become a bossa nova. Throughout, he maintains the wistful longing of a boy in love with lyrics combined with the worldly insouciance of a reckless roué.

The late, great Tormé was my personal friend as well as my favorite song stylist. He loved music, antique guns, Big Little Books and 16-millimeter prints of classic movies. In California, he cooked spaghetti for me, and in New York, I always got him a press pass to attend the New York Film Festival. But as well as I knew him, I never attended a club session, concert or jazz-festival appearance at which I didn’t learn something new about both the man and his music. Listening to Billy Stritch sing Mel’s own composition, “Born to Be Blue,” I felt the same way. With Maria Friedman singing Sondheim at the Carlyle, Rebecca Luker singing show tunes at the Regency and the revered saloon singer Charles Cochran making a “comeback” every Sunday and Monday night at Danny’s, a welcome renaissance may be in progress.

Last Wishes

Engaging and tender, One Last Thing … is about Dylan, a 16-year-old boy with terminal cancer whose last wish is a weekend alone with a popular, overexposed flavor-of-the-month supermodel named Nikki. Dylan (wonderfully played by Michael Angarano) doesn’t yet show the punishment his illness will inevitably provide, and self-pity isn’t part of his nature. He has a caustic wit and delights in sharing his medical marijuana with his mischievous best friends, to the shock of his distraught but loving mother (Cynthia Nixon, of Sex and the City), who must deal with the loss of both a husband and a child.

Eventually, through the help of a charitable organization that generously helps sick teenagers, Dylan does land a date with his dream girl, Nikki (Sunny Mabrey), who turns out to be a messed-up, drunken self-destruction machine desperately in need of a boost of favorable publicity after pushing another model offstage at a fashion show. Her agent (a caustic and witty Gina Gershon) gives Nikki an ultimatum and sets the stage for one of the year’s most unlikely courtships.

Alternately poignant, tearful and laugh-out-loud funny, One Last Thing walks an odd tightrope between dark, disturbing drama and airy feel-fine comedy, but it seems sure of every move, thanks to the pitch-perfect script by Barry Stringfellow and the accomplished direction of Alex Steyermark, who elicits subtle, expertly modulated performances from a terrific cast. Young Mr. Angarano, a familiar face from Seabiscuit and Almost Famous, underplays to great effect; his comedic timing is impeccable, his somber moments credible and affecting. Ms. Nixon, in a thankless role, conveys great strength as a woman battered by circumstances. This is a small film with a big heart that gives American independent cinema a rich new respectability, proving that strong, emotionally involving movies that make sense are still possible when artistry and vision are more important than money.