Thursday, July 30, 2015

Secret of the Cruise: “Mission Impossible Rogue Nation” is Another Fantastic Spy Action Thriller

The “Mission: Impossible” is definitely going down in history as the most confusing action franchise ever conceived. But you know what? The films contain some of the most mind-blowing action sequences ever capture on film. The fifth in this ever evolving, yet always familiar, series subtitled “Rogue Nation” continues the breathless beats continued by Brad Bird’s 2011 hit “Ghost Protocol.” The newest entry’s wow fact is diminished slightly but not having an IMAX filmed sequence set the top of the world’ tallest building but it has several standout sequences most other action films could only dream of having. The film remains true to the Mission Impossible series by having amazing action while the slower scenes are filled with impossible to understand exposition and vocabulary only recognized by whatever CIA members or other agents might be in the audience.

“Mission Impossible - Rogue Nation” begins with an action sequence so crazy that it could have only be done for real. And that involves, as the film’s marketing campaign heavily showed us, Tom Cruise literally hanging off an airplane as it takes off into the air. It’s a thrilling opening and it sets the stage for the craziness that will ensue. And since one cannot so simply summarize the plot of a Misison Impossible film it makes more sense to just acknowledge the other elements that make or break the film.

At the film’s core is a beautifully directed sequence set inside a Vienna opera house shot with Hitchcockian precision. Director Christopher “The Usual Suspects” McQuarrie, taking the realms from Brad Bird, injects a tad more serious tone to the proceedings but it’s no less fun and his opera scene is every bit as exciting as watching Tom Cruise hanging off of a skyscraper. The plot basically involves Cruise’s immortal IMF agent Ethan Hunt, still on the search for the evil Syndicate which brings him to Vienna to stop a possible assassination. This opera sequence contains almost no dialogue and is filled to the brim with suspense and expert editing and camerawork.

Another standout sequence involves Hunt attempt to infiltrate a computer server locked away underwater. It’s a thrilling sequence with almost unbearable tension even if you know that Hunt is literally indestructible. It literally feels like an impossible mission, but we, the audience, know better. The film also takes a page from James Bond and features a great car and motorcycle chase. I think most of these films have learned after seeing the terrific stunt work in Christopher Nolan’s films and Sam Mendes’ Skyfall. You’ve got to step it up otherwise it’s yawn city.

“Mission Impossible Rogue Nation” is one of those films that feels almost impossible to comprehend and yet it’s impossible not to just love because of the incredible action. The actors are all very solid as well. Cruise is in top form, even showing off a bit of comic flair after Ethan’s tries to recuperate from his underwater adventure. And Simon Pegg is once again terrific in an even more expanded role after he was promoted to field agent in the last film. In a lot of ways, the movie sort of works as a buddy action film with Pegg and Cruise playing rather nicely off each other. I sort of missed Paula Patton’s character but we’re given Rebecca Ferguson’s mysterious character instead. Over all, I probably enjoyed the overall spectacle of “Ghost Protocol” more, but “Rogue Nation” fits rather quite nicely into a franchise that, like its star, just keeps getting better with age.  GRADE: B+

Theatrical Trailer for Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation on TrailerAddict.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Judging Amy: “Trainwreck” is a Delightfully Raunchy Yet Heartfelt Rom Com

Put simply, “Trainwreck” is sort of a raunchy Woody Allen film for the millennial generation. It’s sort of ode to New York City (a rarity for director Judd Apatow whose previous films take place in LA) and follows a woman who can’t quite seem to get her life together, though she’s perfectly okay with it. It has many of the trademark Apatowisms like funny supporting players, scenes that go on way too long, and yet strangely enough no appearances by Apatow regulars like Seth Rogen or Paul Rudd, which actually feels refreshing. Instead we get a perfect breakout role for comedian Amy Schumer who also wrote the script. As someone who has never bared witness to anything Ms. Schumer has contributed to the world until this, I can honestly say she does a darned fine job at both acting and writing. I wouldn’t be surprised if she even received award recognition here (at the very least a Golden Globe nod).  “Trainwreck” works because it takes everything we know or expect about romantic comedies and just goes for the jugular. It’s way more insightful and character driven than most of its ilk and while it doesn’t necessarily do anything particularly original cinematically the film works on several levels.

I can’t say how fresh it feels to see a film directed by Judd Apatow that wasn’t also written by him. Having a female voice changes things up dramatically but still having that raunchy male eye behind the camera is a perfect combo – especially since Amy Schumer can get be just as dirty as her male counterparts. Schumer plays Amy Townsend who lives a free-spirited lifestyle. She a writer for a sleazy men’s magazine, she sleeps around, drinks a lot, and doesn’t want any kind of meaningful relationship. She’s close with her similarly free-spirited and divorced father who has recently been brought to a nursing home. Her sister Kim (Brie Larson) is a perfect foil for Amy: she’s settled down with a husband and her lame stepson who the film likes to make the butt of the joke. The film basically tells two stories: the story of Amy and her sister and their differing points of view on life and that of Amy and sports medicine doctor Aaron Chambers (Bill Hader) who she must write an article about and ends up falling for.

The film is peppered with memorable side characters and cameos that accompany Amy and Aaron’s romantic journey. Aaron works with several high profile sports celebrities and is best friends with LeBron James who appears as himself. Hader’s scenes with James are sometimes funny but sometimes go on too long. His presence (and Aaron’s career in sports medicine in general) feels like a way to just get guys to see the film but it’s sort of a different approach to the material and otherwise welcomed. LeBron James isn’t the worst athlete-turned-actor, but he definitely shouldn’t quite his day job. He’s certainly not as bad as WWE wrestler John Cena who appears in an extended cameo as a guy Amy is dating early in the film who unwittingly makes homoerotic jokes at his own expense. Tilda Swinton is particularly memorable as Amy’s tense boss who says mostly inappropriate things. SNL’s Vanessa Bayer has a decent role as Amy’s co-worker and wrings some decent laughs despite her unfortunately mitigated screen time.

Schumer’s script her performance is what really stand out here. It goes from raunchy comedy to sentimental drama sometimes within the same scenes and Apatow’s assured direction makes sure the transitions are seamless. It also works as an ode to the endless array of New York set romance films that the film even squeezes in a Woody-approved (save for the funny joke made at his expense) “Manhattan” like montage complete with ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ jazzing up the soundtrack. Sure the film probably meanders in parts and is probably 10 or 15 minutes too long (it sort of feels like a DVD’s unnecessarily longer director’s cut). However, the film features extremely sharp and observant humor, some of which will probably be dated in a few years’ time, but it’s such a charmingly vulgar and refreshing reflection of our present day that you’re likely to identify with the characters and thoroughly enjoy it. For sidesplitting laughs with a well-earned emotional core, and easily the funniest Judd Apatow directed film since "Knocked Up," you could do a lot worse than “Trainwreck,” just leave the kids at home.  GRADE: A-

Trailer for Trainwreck on TrailerAddict.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

King of the Hill: Marvel’s “Ant-Man” is a Fun Little Film That Doesn’t Bite

There are lots of ants in “Ant-Man.” More than I ever thought. Because Ant-Man doesn’t just shrink down to the size of an ant but he also controls them with his thoughts. Thank goodness the only spider in Spider-Man is the one that bites Peter Parker, otherwise it would be scarier than “Arachnophobia.” Thankfully, I’m not that afraid of ants. The premise of the little known Ant-Man character is silly to be sure, but it also works tremendously well onscreen mostly because of star Paul Rudd’s endless likability and director Peyton Reed’s firm comedic grasp of the material. “Ant-Man,” written essentially as a comedic heist film, is probably one of Marvel’s funniest films, and probably one of its weirdest. It’s certainly not quite as successful as last summer’s surprise hit “Guardians of the Galaxy” but it fits nicely into the Marvel Cinematic Universe even if it’s a smaller scale adventure with less ambition than its older, more popular brothers Iron Man and Captain America.

Paul Rudd is perfectly cast as cat burglar Scott Lang, though I have no idea if the comic character Scott Lang was ever described as a Paul Rudd-type. Lang, is just being released from prison and is determined to make amends with his young daughter and ex-wife. Soon after his release he’s recruited by scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) to help with a heist involving the protection of a powerful shrinking formula (shades of “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” are to be expected). The film functions as an origin story, showing how Lang is introduced to a special suit that can shrink to the size of an insect and grow back within seconds which gives him super strength. He also becomes ruler of the ants by communicating with the bugs through telepathy. It’s a premise you either go with or you don’t, if you can make it through any of the other eleven Marvel films you’re bound to at least enjoy this one.

The real strength of “Ant-Man,” in an age where superhero films are as consistent as the rising sun, is the reliance of humor to tell its story. Rudd is paired up with his prison pal Luis played by Michael Pena who provides outstanding comic relief. So much of their dialogue feels improvised I’m not shocked to see Rudd’s name listed as one of the film’s four screenwriters. Though it’s interesting to wonder how much of original director Edgar Wright’s script was left intact. Corey Stoll is also a highlight as a former apprentice of Pym’s who eventually becomes the villainous Yellowjacket. He spends a lot of the movie turning people that cross him and test animals into tiny gobs of snot with his own not-quite-perfected shrinking technology. Evangeline Lilly is also actually quite good as Pym’s daughter Hope and a potential love interest for Scott. All of the actors are solid and well-cast.

I thoroughly enjoyed “Ant-Man.” I think I would describe is as Marvel-lite. It’s not quite effective as the more solid Captain America or Iron Man films but it’s definitely much better than the ones people tend to think less of, i.e. “Thor” and “The Incredible Hulk.” And it must be said that the effects are nicely handled here they’re cool without being overblown; they’re convincing more than realistic which works for the film. And for a film with such a weird premise the film is wisely grounded in reality. The heist plot also feels like a fun change of pace. You can see that with this entry that even if Marvel is giving us the same stuff over and over again, they’re at least nice enough to give us a new flavor.  GRADE: B 

Trailer for Ant-Man on TrailerAddict.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Hey Arnold! Too Convoluted For Its Own Good, “Terminator Genisys” is Still Nostalgic Fun

I've always had a theory that movie sequels that come out years after the previous entry rarely work. I was proven wrong with the recent release of the thrillingly fun “Jurassic World.” Now we have another beloved franchise with another entry (the fifth one if you're keeping track) called “Terminator Genisys.” Odd titled spelling aside, the film is decently fun and it returns Arnold Schwarzenegger to one of his most famous roles, but the film's confusing time travel plot line becomes more head-scratching than truly thrilling.

First of all, let's address the elephant in the room. It must be said right away that “Terminator Genisys” has a problem before the movie even begins, and it's no real fault of the film or filmmakers: its trailer reveals a plot element that should have never been revealed. You know about it it, as did I. It doesn't really hurt the movie, but takes away what would have been a fun surprise. Having said that the revelation is interesting to say the least and the less said about it to people who haven't seen the film the better.

There's nothing truly wrong with this fifth entry. Director Alan Taylor (Thor: The Dark World) is completely capable of delivering fun action scenes, even if none of them are truly as memorable as what James Camera gave us decades ago. Even the actors are pretty good. Jai Courtney, mostly known as playing Bruce Willis' son in the dreadful fifth Die Hard film, gives one of his better performances as Kyle Reese the man who is sent back in time to protect Sarah Conner (played this time by Game of Thrones' Emilia Clarke) who will eventually give birth to John who will become a leader in the futuristic war of man vs machines. Clarke makes a good Sarah Connor though she's no Linda Hamilton. Jason Clarke (last seen in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”) is the adult John who sends Kyle back in time. Anyone who knows this franchise well will either love the film's fun attempt to retroactively change the earlier entries' chronology, or completely hate it: It turns out, a good version of the T-800 (Schwarzenegger) was sent to Sarah's childhood and has been protecting her… so when the T-800 from the first film shows up in 1984, there is an Arnold vs Arnold fight every sci-fi nerd has been waiting for. Though it's over much too quickly.

One can't even describe the full plot of “Genisys” without getting a headache so it's pointless to attempt to tell it here. Screenwriters Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier spend most the script changing everything about the first few films. There's also way more time travel than any of the other films (though it is pretty cool to see how it all works) which creates too many complex story elements that are way too difficult to keep track of. A time travel film can only be successful if it's done in a relatively simple way and if it makes the story pretty airtight. There's nothing all that airtight in “Genisys” and I stopped trying to figure it all out by the halfway point. And I still don't understand the point of recent Oscar winner J.K. Simmon's character. And I don’t think the film knows either.

“Terminator Genisys” will easily be one of those divisive entries. Some fans of the series will enjoy it and others with loathe it. Put me somewhere in the middle. It has plenty of positives including the return of Arnold, a fun take on elements from the earlier films, and a sense that the filmmakers had fans in mind. At this point in the series I'm not sure what other direction the film could have taken (and it's much better than “Salvation”) but I'm convinced nothing will ever top Cameron's films.  GRADE: B-

Trailer for Terminator: Genisys on TrailerAddict.