Review: “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”

Mission Impossible 5

At what point does the title “Mission: Impossible” become obsolete in a film franchise that is 19 years old?

The series follows the exploits of the IMF (Impossible Missions Force, in case you were wondering) and their top agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise). This time around Hunt is tracking any information on a mysterious criminal organization known as “the Syndicate.” After being kidnapped by the group early in the film, Hunt is rescued by Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), an untrustworthy ally. Just after this, the IMF is dissolved by the head of the CIA, Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin). With nowhere to turn for help and a mission to complete, Hunt goes rogue in order to bring the leader of the Syndicate to justice.

As always with these films, Hunt is eventually joined by a team of operatives from the previous films. In the case of “Rogue Nation,” this includes Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), and William Brandt (Jeremy Renner).

Though the series began as a more serious spy franchise with Brian De Palma’s 1996 film, it’s focused more on being action/thriller since John Woo made M:I 2. With this new installment, the story takes one step closer to the original’s tone. Less slow-motion action scenes, more backstabbing and complex characters.

Two of the film’s newest characters, Ilsa and Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), are mostly to thank for this more leveled action:espionage ratio. Ilsa has the fighting skills of Ronda Rousey but her character proves as difficult to read as most femme fatales from a Bond movie. Lane is the leader of the Syndicate who is always several steps ahead of Ethan and his team. His introduction near the beginning of the film is cleverly written and sets up an interesting showdown for the film’s climax. While Harris is very good at portraying creepy intellectuals, I would have preferred an actor with a little more gravitas for such a big role in the franchise.

Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie has worked very well with Tom Cruise lately in “Jack Reacher” and “Edge of Tomorrow,” but for every good film he’s made there’s a “Jack the Giant Slayer” or “The Tourist.” Of course “Rogue Nation” isn’t a bad film and it’s far from the worst in the franchise, yet it feels like it doesn’t live up to its potential. Beyond the opening sequence of Cruise hanging outside of a plane, there isn’t too much in the way of major excitement the rest of the film.

The saddest part of “Rogue Nation” was noticing just how old everyone is getting. Cruise looks 10 years older than he did in “Jack Reacher” and, at 56, Ving Rhames doesn’t look capable of doing much beyond typing on a keyboard.

With a more stylish director and perhaps a casting change or two, “Mission:Impossible – Rogue Nation” could have been one of the biggest films of the summer. However, settling for a solid spy movie with pretty good action sequences is nothing to frown upon. If nothing else, the film continues the franchise’s legacy of quality entertainment and further solidifies Cruise’s stardom.

Grade: B

Happy viewing.

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Review: “Ant-Man”

Marvel's Ant-Man..Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd)..Photo Credit: Zade Rosenthal..? Marvel 2014

In a world of billionaires flying in weaponized suits and green monsters pummeling puny gods, it’s nice to know that heroes can also come in smaller packages.

Rounding out Marvel’s Phase 2 (which began with 2013’s “Iron Man 3”), “Ant-Man” brings the ever-expanding superhero genre back down to the basics. With ongoing cinematic universes in both Marvel and DC, origin stories are somewhat viewed in the same way a child today may look at a Game Boy from ’89: it’s kinda fun, but you know it could be a lot cooler.

After recently paroled Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) breaks into the home of Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and takes a strange looking suit, he discovers he has the ability to shrink down to the size of an ant at the turn of a switch. Teaming up with Pym and Pym’s daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), Scott agrees to help them steal some of Hank’s old research that is about to be put into the wrong hands.

As an origin tale, the story hits many of the beats audiences have come to expect but the tone of the film is what it makes it unique. Combining the wittiness and technology of “Iron Man” with the plot of an average heist film, “Ant-Man” entertains without the need for giant battle sequences and an alien threat.

The threat, however, does come from the same boring assembly line that produced every other Marvel villain who isn’t Loki (a petulant child, but the best Marvel’s written so far). Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) is the man who took over Pym’s company and wants to sell his Ant-Man technology to the highest bidder, no matter what that may mean for the rest of the world. Just cut and paste any of Iron Man’s villains from his solo films and replace robotic suits with a shrinking one. It’s the same idea.

Paul Rudd does well as the titular hero. His character seems unique from the rest of the Avengers lineup while also fitting into the universe. Though Rudd’s signature charm is on full display here, it’s Michael Pena’s character, Luis, who really steals the show. A fellow criminal, Luis is Lang’s right hand man and the film’s biggest source of comedy.

The main plot of Lang becoming the Ant-Man is fun to watch, but much of the excitement around the film has more to do with the larger Marvel cinematic universe as it continues to expand. Without spoiling anything, there are plugs for Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, Spider-Man and other Marvel storylines throughout the film which remind us of what is to come.

As a down-to-earth superhero movie, “Ant-Man” works more often than not. It’s fun to watch, has decent characters, and provides just enough action to satisfy those who need it.

Grade: B-

Happy viewing.

Review: “Terminator Genisys”

Terminator Genisys

“I’ll be…”

Rebooted? Replaced by Sam Worthington? Washed up after another Expendables sequel?

I always forget how that line ends. Oh well.

In a year full of sequels, reboots, and other recycled scripts, “Terminator Genisys” picks up 31 years after Arnold Schwarzeneggar first played the cyborg hunting Sarah Connor. Missing from the series since 2003’s “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” many fans were hoping Arnie’s inclusion would signal a return for the once-revered franchise. Not so fast.

With its cat-and-mouse structure somewhat played out, “Genisys” doubles down on its time travel origins to alter the original story we know and love from the ’84 original. This isn’t a reboot so much as the beginning of a new trilogy (which we may not even get to see if the box office numbers don’t improve).

Jai Courtney and Emilia Clarke debut as the new Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor with Jason Clarke taking over as John Connor. It’s rare that a film miscasts every core character, but these three are all wrong for their parts. I’m sure it looked good on paper, and they all give as good a performance as they can with the source material, but none of the three seem to match up with their respective characters in the previous films. It’s too bad, because Schwarzeneggar is clearly happy to be there, even if it’s mainly just for the same humor from the previous films.

Suspension of disbelief is important for any filmgoer watching a movie about time-traveling cyborgs, but the further the Terminator series develops, the harder it is to answer questions about its timeline. This film cranks those problems up to 11 and even introduces new ones. If you think about it for more than a minute, your head might explode.

Fortunately the Terminator films have been pretty good at distracting the audience from these problems with cool action sequences. While the new film’s CGI action usually doesn’t hold up well compared to the better balance of practical effects from T1 and T2, it does contain a few scenes that are pretty entertaining. One section of the film takes place in T1’s 1984 timeline and has a few great callbacks to the original. It also features a fight between Schwarzeneggar and a digital version of his ’84 self that is probably the film’s best special effects.

It would be easy to label “Terminator Genisys” as a soulless cash grab, but the franchise should be commended for at least trying to do something new. Making the film PG-13 is a pretty critical error, but this is still a better film than “Terminator Salvation” which was doomed as soon as McG was put it in the director’s chair.

“Terminator Genisys” is a generic action movie in one of Hollywood’s most iconic franchises. Much like “Jurassic World”, one’s enjoyment may be dependent on how often the film is compared to the original. However, let’s all hope the next sequel (if it happens) shoots for a higher goal than rainy day entertainment.

Grade: C+

Happy viewing.

Review: “Jurassic World”

Jurassic World

There is a limited number of films in existence capable of captivating an entire audience and imprinting the moment on each person’s psyche. Movies like “Indiana Jones,” “Star Wars,” “Back to the Future,” and, of course, “Jurassic Park” come to mind.

So when a new installment of these franchises is announced, there are two competing thoughts that race into one’s head: 1) This is amazing news! and 2) They are definitely going to ruin a film that I love.

In the case of “Jurassic World,” the filmmakers decided it best to go with a popular note among studio executives: make it the same, but different. Instead of bringing back Sam Neil and his trademark hat and neck scarf, director Colin Trevorrow (“Safety Not Guaranteed”) and writing team Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver basically rehash the original film’s premise, this time with a park that has been successfully running for 2 decades rather than a small dress rehearsal with scientists.

With the incident from the 1993 film in the past, Jurassic World has opened to major success with innovation and popularity that John Hammond could have only dreamed possible. It’s amazing to look back on the original park and see just how much the technology has changed in 22 years. Instead of Jeep Wranglers driving on designated tracks, the park is now equipped with a monorail and has a ride where you can drive alongside herds of dinosaurs inside of a protected sphere. But enough about how cool the park would be to visit, let’s get back to the story.

Serving as the director of the park, Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) is desperate to find a new attraction that will help the park maintain its booming business. As she says in the film, people are no longer excited by the idea of merely bringing dinosaurs back to life (an interesting moment of self-observation for the series). It falls to Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong) and his team to create a new dinosaur with more teeth that is a hybrid of several species. Enter the Indominus Rex, a 50-ft killer with a long list of spoilerific upgrades not to be shared in this review.

The other characters of note in the film are the male protagonist Owen (Chris Pratt), a Navy vet who is responsible for training the velociraptors and two brothers (Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson) who are visiting the park for the first time to see their aunt Claire, who runs the place.

There are often many moral and philosophical questions pondered in the Jurassic Park films, as well as Michael Crichton’s books. In the original, Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) was the voice of reason who states “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could (create dinosaurs) that they didn’t stop to ask if they should.” This time around a similar conversation takes place between Dr. Wu and the new owner of the park, Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan), where the film discusses the implications and dangers of creating new monsters.

While covering many of the same topics touched on previous films helps the new one find its place in the series, what matters for “Jurassic World” is whether or not it holds its own as a summer blockbuster. In this regard, it’s a success.

Let’s not confuse success with being perfect, though. Many of the characterizations, including Claire and Owen’s dynamic together, are very archaic. There are a few ideas in the film that are a reach (Yes, even for a movie about dinosaurs) and not all of them pay off. Without spoiling too much, one character thinks it’s plausible to turn raptors into drones for the military. Spend more than five seconds thinking about that plan and see how good it still sounds.

Probably the biggest complaint that will be filed against “Jurassic World” is that it isn’t as good as Spielberg’s original film. Is that fair? No. Is it true? Yes.

Like many Indiana Jones fans would probably say: maybe an exciting new installment of your favorite franchise doesn’t have to be perfect. It just can’t be about aliens or feature Shia LaBeouf. On that note, “Jurassic World” is a clear winner.

Though it has a few stumbling moments here and there, “Jurassic World” is a worthy successor of the franchise.

Grade: B

Happy viewing.

Review: “Tomorrowland”

Tomorrowland

“What if there was a place…where nothing was impossible?”

After he fails to impress the judges of the World’s Fair with his homemade jetpack, young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) is befriended by a girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) who gives him a strange pin that leads him to a mysterious futuristic world with robots and other contraptions he could only dream of inventing.

Decades later, Casey (Britt Robertson), the daughter of a NASA engineer (Tim McGraw), struggles to find her place in a world that seems determined to brace for the apocalypse rather than trying to prevent it. After being arrested for trespassing on government property, Casey discovers a Tomorrowland pin of her own when she reclaims her belongings in the police station. Upon touching it, she receives visions of a fantastic world of imagination and sets out to find more information on the strange land. This eventually leads her to an old Frank Walker (George Clooney) who has been excommunicated from Tomorrowland and is every bit as cynical as Casey is optimistic.

If that seems like a really long buildup for a plot, you should try spending 45 minutes in a theater waiting for the pieces to connect.

“Tomorrowland” is the latest attempt by Disney to monetize every aspect of their existing properties. Much like “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “The Haunted Mansion,” this film is intended to expand the Disney empire while also (hopefully) putting together an interesting film.

Dialing down the cynicism for a moment, “Tomorrowland” has some very interesting things to say about the world we live in today. We are a culture engrossed in chaos and violence on the news and dystopian futures in our entertainment (“The Walking Dead” and “The Hunger Games” come to mind). Every day there is a new story to outrage over, a new product or company to blacklist, new laws or guidelines enacted that stomp out creativity or free speech and so on.

What the film continually asks of the audience is “What happened to our vision of the future as a beacon of hope, light, and imagination?”

As great as these ideas are, director Brad Bird and writer Damon Lindelof still have to mold them into a cohesive plot that is entertaining and makes for a good film. That’s where the trouble starts.

It is well known around the film community that Lindelof has a reputation as a writer that dreams up big ideas that he can’t necessarily deliver on. The two best examples of this are the TV show “Lost” and “Prometheus.” While not all of Tomorrowland’s faults can be placed on Lindelof (Bird also handled the script), it’s important to point out the pattern.

The biggest issue with the film, aside from the writing, is pacing/editing. As previously stated, it takes 45 minutes for the film to address what the story is about. Until that point, the story is mainly several scenes of Casey tripping over objects while “walking” through Tomorrowland or Athena telling Casey that she’s important in the most cryptic way possible.

After all the time the movie spends setting up the plot, the payoff is extremely underwhelming. Tomorrowland itself looks like a leftover “Divergent” set and the villain (Hugh Laurie) who has been set up to be a very bad guy (his robot army kills several people early on) ends up being a pretty reasonable character who has the best monologue in the film. Not to mention that the “chosen one” is barely of use in the climax.

“Tomorrowland” is what happens when a creative team comes up with about 60% of a full story, realizes it can’t finish it in the remaining time, and hopes the audience won’t notice the corners that were cut.

There are pieces of a great family adventure film scattered throughout “Tomorrowland,” but the final product looks more like a first draft than a film Disney would bank $190 million on. Not even the Tim Allen-esque performance of Clooney will help the film earn back its big budget.

All in all, “Tomorrowland” is a missed opportunity that may be best enjoyed on Redbox or when it inevitably pops up on ABC Family.

Grade: C+

Happy viewing.

Resurrection

Star Wars 7Inspiration can be a hard thing to find. Sometimes the monotony of life can pull us away from the passions that we would normally pursue and in their place we devote all of our attention to simply waking up and checking off our daily list of tasks.

For the last 3 months I’ve neglected this blog because I had lost that inspiration. January-March is often considered the time of year for films that the studios have no faith in. Perhaps the mediocrity of films such as “The Wedding Ringer”, “Fifty Shades of Grey” and “Jupiter Ascending” played a part in my new-found apathy. Whatever the reason, it’s time for a comeback.

From my perspective, the movies could also use a comeback. Aside from a few successes here and there (“Guardians of the Galaxy”, “Interstellar”), 2014 was a rather disappointing year at the theater. Oscar bait like “The Imitation Game” and “Foxcatcher” left something to be desired, whereas many of the anticipated summer blockbusters fell flat.

But that’s the past. Let’s talk about the future.

Though the first few months of 2015 were a little bumpy, this year has the opportunity to be one of the biggest the industry has ever seen. If not in quality, then certainly in box office dollars and anticipation.

Here is a list of the franchises that have a new installment in 2015 (more notable series in bold):

Taken, Divergent, Paul Blart, Monsters, Avengers, Mad Max, Pitch Perfect, Poltergeist, Entourage, Insidious, Jurassic Park, Ted, Terminator, Magic Mike, Despicable Me (Minions), Mission Impossible, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Fantastic Four, Hitman, Fast and Furious, The Transporter, The Maze Runner, Hotel Transylvania, James Bond, The Hunger Games, Rocky Balboa, Star Wars

There is something to be said, of course, for originality and fresh storytelling. Is it a little hypocritical to anxiously look forward to these properties while also at times complaining about the lack of new ideas in Hollywood? Probably. But the sheer magnitude of franchises being revisited is incredible. If there were new Indiana Jones and Batman movies coming out this year, basically everything I have ever loved would be present.

Obviously this could all end very poorly for me and any others waiting for these films. I can already tell you that “Furious 7” is an absurd letdown. That being said, 2015 is poised to be a juggernaut of a year and could be a much-needed return to quality entertainment.

So on this Easter Sunday, I’m bringing back the reviews and looking forward to what might be a great year at the movies.

Happy viewing.

Review: “Guardians of the Galaxy”

Guardians of the Galaxy

With only a couple of quality films under its belt, Summer 2014 was looking like a major bust for the film industry. Things started well with “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” recently breathed a little life into the box office. Just as it looked like the summer might end with a whimper, “Guardians of the Galaxy” is here to revolutionize the superhero genre.

After he is beamed aboard a spaceship as a child, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is raised by smugglers and scavengers. During the course of a big score, a bounty is put on his head that draws the likes of Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Groot (Vin Diesel) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana). After a series of events lands them in jail, they come across Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) who is on a vengeful path to kill Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace). As it so happens, Ronan is also after an artifact that is possessed by Quill, who also goes by Star Lord.

Thus the Guardians of the Galaxy come together as assassins, thieves, and…tree things to fight Ronan and save the planet he intends to destroy.

The concept of the film is a pretty tall order as it has traces of “Star Wars” but carries the attitude of a Saturday morning cartoon. Fortunately, James Gunn is at the helm and he understands the material perfectly. His direction is fun, though fairly by-the-numbers, and makes the film reach its full potential. The previous Marvel films have all favored a lighter tone mixed with their heroes, but this latest film has perfected the formula and delivered the most entertaining film of the summer.

“Guardians” is one of the, if not THE, best casted superhero films of all time. From Pratt and the rest of the heroes to Pace’s Ronan and even the superb choice of Michael Rooker as Yondu, the smuggler who raised Quill. This film started with a leg up because each character has the right person playing them.

While it certainly delivers on the laughs, a superhero space film without good special effects and action sequences would be a waste of time. Luckily, there’s nothing to worry about on those fronts. Though “The Avengers” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” might have the film beat on fight scenes, there are more than enough fisticuffs and explosions to suit your summer blockbuster needs.

The plot alone is compelling enough to warrant the ticket price, but it’s the characters that make the film worth remembering. The opening scene of the film establishes its heart by showing us Quill’s life on earth before he is abducted. That heart continues throughout the film with the relationship between the characters and their backstories. Even Drax the Destroyer is an endearing character and Bautista plays him with the perfect amount of rage and humor. One of the best relationships of the film is between Rocket and Groot, the group’s least human characters. Rocket is a raccoon who can fight as well as talk after some nasty lab experiments and Groot is essentially a talking tree (granted he only says “I am Groot”) that can beat the sap out of some bad guys. Their Han Solo/Chewbacca relationship is one of the films more heartwarming qualities.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” was such a weird concept that it was either going to bust or be the biggest hit of the summer. I’m glad to report that the latter is, in fact, true.

Grade: A+

Happy viewing.