Tag Archives: Sequel

“STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS” Review (✫✫✫✫)

J.J. Abrams: the spiritual successor to George Lucas.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a sheer blast of nostalgia, meaningful and joyous from it’s opening scroll credits to when John William’s score crescendos in the last shot. We’ve seen an updated Star Wars for a modern audience before, and that was in the lopsided and disappointing prequel trilogy. Now we have The Force Awakens, and it’s so good that it’s eligible to compete with the original.

It’s 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi. A new sith named Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has arisen and is bent on taking over the galaxy. His pursuits lead him towards a troup of misfits who have become acquainted almost by sheer chance. A scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley) lived on the desolate planet of Jakku before she got entangled into this conflict. Finn (John Boyega) was a Stormtrooper who defected for reasons unbeknown to us. BB-8 is a spherical droid who wants to get away from Kylo Ren for reasons also unknown. What is known is that these three figures have something that Kylo Ren wants, and he won’t stop at nothing until he has fulfilled his destiny.

It’s hard to talk about this movie without giving away any spoilers. One thing I will say without giving too much away is that the story is exemplary, and is reminiscent of the adventure and intrigue that made Star Wars iconic in the first place. The screenplay, written by Toy Story 3 scribe Michael Ardnt and polished up by Star Trek director J.J. Abrams and The Empire Strikes Back writer Lawrence Kasdan, is an active synergy of the old and new, incorporating elements that we are familiar with while at the same time introducing original content all their own. This is not just a strong Star Wars story. It’s a strong story, period.

For me, that was my biggest concern going into the theater, and the biggest relief coming out of it. This was the first Star Wars movie where its key subjects would not be featured. Yes, we have references to the older films, but we don’t have Darth Vader. We don’t have Yoda. We don’t have Obi-Wan. We don’t have any of the key figures that linked the whole series together, minus R2 and C-3PO. How would the movie hold up on its own?

Very well, as it turns out, and the new cast members do a great job servicing their roles and making them memorable on their own. Driver is menacing and malicious as Kylo Ren, an egotistical and maniacal presence that reflects both the chilling imposition of Darth Vader and the deepening paranoia of Episode III’s Anakin Skywalker. Boyega is both humorous and likable as Finn, a reformed spirit who is just trying to find new meaning and purpose in his life. Out of the entire cast, however, I am most impressed with newcomer Daisy Ridley. This is the first time she has acted in a feature film, but you wouldn’t have been able to tell that based off of her performance. She is both heartbreaking and intriguing as Rey, equal parts fascinating, sympathetic, and compelling as this character whom is a complete mystery to us. Even by the end of the film, we still don’t understand everything about her, and that’s the point. We’re not supposed to understand her history; we’re supposed to understand her. Ridley did an amazing job at bringing this character to life, and out of anyone else from the cast, she made me most excited for her journey in the future installments.

Do I need to go into the film’s visual and sound effects? They were the groundbreaking features of the very first movies, and they’re stronger than ever in this motion picture. Part of that is because Abrams takes a note out of George Lucas’ old playbook, reverting to practical effects and detailed costuming to bring authenticity to this universe. He still uses CGI, but he doesn’t rely on it. He only uses it when he absolutely has to, when X-wings are firing at TIE Fighters or when lightsabers are clashing against each other. Everything else is created through elaborate art direction and set design, while the CGI is used to compliment the visuals rather than serve as them. The result is the most visually authentic out of any of the films yet.

I have one gripe, and one gripe alone, and that is that there are plot elements that eerily mimic the storyline of one of the original films. I won’t spoil it by saying which one. I will say that even in the face of that criticism, The Force Awakens still manages to make itself unique and special in a series that is already unique and special by itself. We said goodbye to this universe a long time ago. Rejoice as we are once again reunited with the galaxy from far, far away.

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“STAR WARS: RETURN OF THE JEDI” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

Balance to the force, there is at last.

Editor’s note: There are spoilers to ‘Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back’ in this review. You have been warned.

This is it, the moment that everything has been building up to: the conclusion of George Lucas’ Star Wars trilogy. Just like the last few movies, Return of the Jedi is a strong sci-fi feature that focuses on its character’s development just as much as it does on its mythology and visual effects. I’ve grown fond of Star Wars and its sequel The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi is no different. The only disappointment is that it has to end.

Taking place after The Empire Strikes Back when Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is frozen in carbonite and Darth Vader (James Earl Jones) reveals he is Luke’s (Mark Hamill) father, Return of the Jedi sees our heroes as the Galactic Rebellion comes to its most crucial moment. As the Empire works to rebuild its infamous Death Star and the rebellion works to counterattack the Empire, both sides mount up their efforts as they have one last chance to defeat their enemies, either freeing or enslaving the galaxy for all eternity.

Out of any of the other Star Wars movies, Return of the Jedi is the most exhilarating, an exciting action romp that contains rebels and stormtroopers shooting at each other, chase sequences through forests, and lightsaber duels that are arguably the best out of the series. We’ve witnessed over and over again how visually ambitious the Star Wars saga is. Here is another demonstration of how groundbreaking the Star Wars movies really are.

Take the film’s climax as an example. As the film gains momentum, we switch around to multiple scenes at once and the stakes that characters are faced with in the heat of the moment. We switch to an epic space battle where rebellion cruisers and imperial spacecrafts are firing and flying at each other all at once. We switch to a ground scene where rebels are breaking into an imperial base before they are suddenly captured and fired upon. We switch to a dark room, where two jedi are staring tensely at each other, waiting for the other to make the first move against them.

This is something all of the Star Wars movies handle well, which is perspective. We have our main conflict between Luke and Darth Vader, certainly, but they’re not the only ones in the scope here. We also have Han and Leia’s romance, 3PO’s humorous cowardice, R2’s curious sense of adventure, and Chewbacca’s loyalty and brutishness. We have a comprehensive understanding of all of these characters, their motivations and aspirations, and we sympathize with them when they’re in the midst of tragedy. It’s rare to have this much character diversity and not have it fleet in its focus, but Return of the Jedi succeeds in being emotionally balanced and meaningful. If The Empire Strikes Back is the buildup, Return of the Jedi is the payoff.

There are a few elements that don’t work as well with this picture. The beginning sequence, for instance, ran a little longer than it should have, and could have been edited down to about ten minutes as opposed to the 25 minutes it took up. On the opposite end, the final battle, while thrilling and climactic, was equally too long and took up the better half of the picture. The introduction of some teddy bear-sized aliens called Ewoks definitely did not help the picture either. These squatty little freaks speak in such incomprehensible and annoying sounds that they make Chewbacca look like he speaks English. The fact that these midget-sized creatures had a fight scene was almost laughable to me.

But the film’s flaws are miniscule compared to it’s sheer and massive successes. Yes, the runtime was too long, but it at least kept me interested throughout most of it. The action was engaging, the chemistry of the cast was genuine, and George Lucas ultimately gave a fitting conclusion to one of cinema’s most cherished trilogies. We can forgive him for the Ewoks.

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“STAR WARS: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” Review (✫✫✫✫)

The Galactic rebellion intensifies.

How do you improve upon perfection? The second installment in the Star Wars series, The Empire Strikes Back, answers this question with profound confidence, wiping away any doubt with the swift of a lightsaber and the influence of the force. It’s hard to imagine that at one point, creator George Lucas doubted the impact his series would hold. And now here stands The Empire Strikes Back, not only every bit as strong as its predecessor, but also cementing its influence on cinema forever.

Taking place a few years after the events of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back follows its core characters as they continue the intensified conflict against the empire. Darth Vader (James Earl Jones) is viciously in pursuit after Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Han Solo (Harrison Ford) has a debt he desperately needs to pay off from a criminal overlord. Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) has a war she’s still trying to fight. And while all of this is going on, Luke receives a message from his long-deceased friend, Ben Kenobi (Alec Guinness), telling him to go to the Dagobah system to train with the only Jedi master left in existence. Now all on separate paths towards their destinies, these rebels and friends must complete their own journeys as they continue to fight the empire and save the galaxy from its evil clutches.

After the massive success of Star Wars, you’d wonder how on Earth George Lucas would be able to provide a follow up to his science-fiction saga. Yes, he had created these wonderful characters, but character appeal can only last for so long. You have to give them something to do to test the strength of their resolve and the changes that they go through. For the sequel to work, Lucas needed to not only reproduce his memorable heroes: he needed a story just as compelling to allow them to grow and evolve.

Thankfully, Lucas delivers just that alongside director Irvin Kershner and screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan. One improvement that The Empire Strikes Back has upon its predecessor is in the scope of its storytelling; in the stakes that it sets up and in the challenges it pits against its characters. That’s perhaps the most noticeable way in how this movie excels, is in its buildup and anticipation.

Take, for instance, the dynamic that pits Luke Skywalker against Darth Vader. As the movie builds, you quickly realize how similar Luke and Vader are to each other, and how dangerous of a path Luke is on if he isn’t careful. Luke is training to become a jedi. So was Vader, at one point. Luke is very strong in the force. So is Vader. Luke wants to get powerful fast so he can protect his friends. So did Vader, before he turned to the dark side. The parallels this movie draws on its protagonist and antagonist are very strong, and Kershner is effective in highlighting the conflict going on inside of Luke. It shows that if Luke isn’t careful, the greatest thing he will lose is not his friends, but his soul.

The other characters are just as great as they were the first time we became acquainted with them. Han Solo is still the smug, over-confident rebel, Leia is still the stubborn and headstrong leader that gives a good name to female protagonists. Darth Vader, however, is just as imposing and fearful as he was when we first met him. I would argue even more so, given more of the history we learn about him in this movie. When listening to him, I had forgotten how pivotal James Earl Jones was in his character conception, how his voice lends so much to his performance and his agony. It isn’t just the deepness of Jones’ voice that perfectly encapsulates Darth Vader: it’s in the sincerity of his words, how he says some lines with intensity and quietly utters others in softness. In the first movie, we got a great introduction to Darth Vader as a villain. Here, we’re beginning to understand him as a character, and Jones continues to be pivotal as that comprehension continues to be constructed.

What of the technical elements? Read my first review. You know what I think of its technical elements. The landscapes are vast and barren, contributing to a deep sense of loneliness and vulnerability. The action is exciting and suspenseful, teaming our heroes up against near impossible tasks, then having them find solutions in the most creative and dynamic ways possible. John Williams’ score doesn’t even need any elaboration. Can’t you remember the emotions you felt the first time you saw the words “Star Wars” on the screen and heard the horns blasting proudly in harmony?

This movie is just as strong as the first film was in its production value. Yet, production value means nothing without a strong arc for our characters to go through, and The Empire Strikes Back has that in spades. On the surface, it’s another sci-fi action blockbuster not too dissimilar to its first entry. In deeper insight, it’s a character conflict on how these heroes and villains react to stakes rising and how similar they are in their struggle and in their pain.

There are other characters and story elements that I would like to talk about, but doing so would cheat you of the experience and take away the enjoyment of seeing it for yourself. Star Wars was a masterpiece. The Empire Strikes Back, even more so.

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“CREED” Review (✫✫✫1/2)


Donnie’s, not Apollo’s, legacy.

I find it interesting how much Creed lives in the shadows of its predecessors, just like its main subject does. Creed is not trying to be a movie like Rocky, and likewise, Donnie Johnson-Creed (Michael B. Jordan) isn’t trying to be a boxer like Rocky. Creed really isn’t even a movie about Rocky’s rival, Apollo Creed, and it’s just as well because Donnie doesn’t want to be remembered as Apollo Creed’s son. Both the movie and the character are aspiring to leave their own marks on a world where pretty big marks have already been left by key figures from their past. The fact that the movie is trying to do this with Sylvester Stallone reprising the role of Rocky Balboa makes its challenge all the more difficult, but Creed pulls it off with plenty of emotion and style to spare.

You know exactly how Creed is going to play out. Or do you? When the movie begins, you think this is going to be another rags-to-riches story similar to Rocky or The Fighter, and indeed, the opening scenes makes it look like it’s going to play out that way. But Donnie starts his story with the riches, then backtracks to the rags in order to train and become a pro boxer. Why would he sacrifice all of his money and his high-class lifestyle in order to become a fighter? His motivation is not explained until much later, but when it is, it’s nonetheless heartbreaking.

He moves to Philadelphia and seeks out Rocky for training, who as you remember from his last film quit boxing and now owns an Italian restaurant. He insists to Donnie that he doesn’t do that anymore, and he doesn’t even want to be involved with fighting from the ringside. Yet, he eventually suspends his discontent and commits to training this new kid for the ring. Why? He never says why in the movie, although I suspect it’s for the same reasons that Micky decided to train an Italian nobody in the original Rocky.

Creed is a hot-blooded sports drama, ripe with all of the adrenaline, action, and emotion that you’d come to expect in boxing movies. Like its main character, it works independently from its inspirations, despite having very deep ties with the rest of the Rocky franchise. When I first heard that this movie was coming out, the one thing I did not want it to be was another Rocky picture. Of course, it’s going to sell itself as a spinoff, but as a film, I did not want it to focus on Rocky, nor did I want it to try and mimic the franchise formula. It’s called Creed. I wanted its emphasis on that character’s story specifically.

Luckily, so did writer-director Ryan Coogler, who approached in telling this story not as a sequel to a popular franchise, but rather as an intimate, personal story about one fighter’s deep aspirations. Does the movie fall for some of the genre conventions? Of course it does, but the conventions don’t matter as much as the intentions behind them. When Donnie steps into the ring, you don’t want him to win the fight because he’s the main character, but because of all of the hurt and pain he’s gone through up until this point. When he and Rocky talk, you don’t want the conversations to be meaningful because he’s talking to the Italian Stallion, but because the words they’re exchanging are genuine, honest, and real to each other. Coogler succeeds in not only making a powerful fighting drama, but a powerful drama period. He throws quite a few emotional punches in there that I wasn’t expecting.

Of course, for this dynamic to work, Jordan and Stallone need to have the chemistry to make these characters feel real. They have it in spades, and I would even challenge this dynamic to be as likeable as the one between Rocky and Mick in the original. Jordan is electric as Creed, a young rebellious sort who is full of energy, vigor, and passion, not letting any punk young or old telling him what he can or can’t do as a fighter. Do we need to go into Stallone? He’s done the character for years now, and he’s just as great now as he was nearly 40 years ago. Again, he throws a few emotional jabs I wasn’t expecting, but I’ll stop there so that you can experience it for yourself in the theater.

This is simply one of the most motivating films of the year, let alone one of the best Rocky films, if you can call it that. It takes its characters and their emotions seriously. The actors service their roles well and make them believable and real. My only complaint is that this movie has to suffer for being called a “franchise film”, but what do you expect? Let’s face it: the title wouldn’t have been as interesting if it was called Johnson.

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“MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION” Review (✫✫1/2)

More like a city, or a gated community.

I’m really starting to get sick of these action movies. I know, I know, how do I get sick of action? Well, have you ever seen a television episode over, and over, and over again to the point where it frustrated you just to look at it? That’s where I’m at with these action movies that are getting recycled summer after summer after summer.

I was really hoping Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation wasn’t going to be another recycled action pic. Truthfully, I wasn’t expecting it. The film is at a 93% from critics on RottenTomatoes, while users rate it at a 91%. Metacritic users rate it an 8 out of 10. Cinemascore polls it at an A-. Everyone around me seems to be fervently enjoying the action romp that is Mission Impossible. Everyone, that is, except me.

So what happened? Simply put, I think audiences were expecting something different from me. I’ve seen four of these movies now before watching Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, and with each one, I got something different. The first Mission Impossible pitted a younger Ethan Hunt against two opposing spy agencies, along with the gravity of seeing his entire team get killed on a deadly mission. The third Mission Impossible found Hunt breaking out of retirement to rescue his wife, who was held captive at the hands of a cruel terrorist threat. The fourth Mission Impossible found Ethan dealing with his wife’s death after the events of MI3. We won’t count Mission Impossible II, because that’s not a real Mission Impossible movie.

With Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Ethan Hunt (once again, portrayed by Tom Cruise) is pitted against both his own government and yet another secret spy agency named the Syndicate, comprised of insurgent IMF agents labeled as either missing or dead. That’s it. He has no personal investment in the story, no driving emotional force that focuses on him and him only. At one point in the movie, one of his closest friends gets kidnapped by the syndicate and he starts freaking out about it. Right. How many times did someone get kidnapped in your other movies, Ethan?

His supporting characters includes most of his crew from the fourth Mission Impossible. Ving Rhames is back as Vincent, returning once again to help Ethan Hunt since their first mission in the original Mission Impossible. The comedic relief Benji is once again portrayed by self-employed funny man Simon Pegg. Jeremy Renner returns as William Brandt, acting as Ethan’s voice of reason against all of his crazy ideas of stunts. Considering Cruise does all of his own stunts, I think Renner needs to be his voice of reason off-screen as well.

The first thing you need to know about Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation is that the visuals do not disappoint. The one thing every movie in the series is most known for is its spectacle, and Rogue Nation keeps the tradition going strong. In one fight scene early in the film, Ethan was fighting a swarm of syndicate agents while handcuffed at both his wrists and ankles. In another, he’s quietly struggling against a sniper on top of a German opera production while the performance is still going on. My favorite is probably when he has to hold his breath under water for six minutes in what is essentially an underwater hard drive as he switches out two data disks. It’s important to note, Cruise actually trained with a diving specialist in order to hold his breath under water for three minutes. The sequence we see in the film was actually shot in one take with no edits.

The stunts we see in the film are impressive to say the least. The danger with a fifth entry, however, is that I’ve been impressed four times already. Whatever stunts are to come, I’m already expecting. And since I’ve seen these crazy stunts in four movies now, the effect is dulled before I even see it.

For instance, the big stunt people were excited for in this movie specifically was a sequence where Cruise is holding on outside of an airplane while it is taking off. Impressive as it was, it was the very first scene in the movie. Since I’ve already seen the trailer, I know Cruise survives this sequence, otherwise why would we even have a movie? How am I supposed to feel tension and excitement in a scene where I already know what’s going to happen?

The cast is appropriate, but ineffective. They serve the same roles they’ve done from other movies and that’s about it. How is Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt? The same he’s been for four movies now. How is Jeremy Renner? About as good as he was in Ghost Protocol, except now he’s less interesting because he doesn’t have the investment and guilt he had in Ghost Protocol. Pegg is the same. Rhames is the same. The only characters that are different are the new characters, which includes its baddie played by Sean Harris and its discount Bond girl played by Rebecca Ferguson. Again, what do these characters have to offer that we haven’t seen before? The late Phillip Seymour-Hoffman did a better job manipulating and pushing Ethan past his limits in the J.J. Abrams-directed Mission Impossible III than Harris did in this movie. And Ferguson? Did she not see Emmanuelle Béart in her brilliantly deceptive performance in the original Mission Impossible?

I caught myself saying one thing over and over again during the film: “I’ve seen this before.” For a movie series that’s lasted past five films, that’s not a good thing. Funny, this movie is written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, who is responsible for writing The Usual Suspects and Edge of Tomorrow and directing Jack Reacher, all films with their own unique interest and personality. Now he has made Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, and like Ethan’s assigned missions, his movie blew up in my face after it gave me what it was supposed to.

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“MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

Pray for Tom Cruise’s sanity.

There is something seriously wrong with Tom Cruise if he is not pissing his pants while scaling up the world’s tallest building in Dubai. In Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, he shows he’s more daring by stumping a feat that he matched in MI2 where he free-climbed up a canyon wearing nothing but a safety harness. This time, he’s climbing up the Burj Khalifa building in Dubai, which happens to be the world’s tallest building at a whopping 829 meters. That’s the equivalent of three Eiffel towers.

What is wrong with him?

This feat, among others, demonstrates that Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is by far one of the most visually spectacular of all the Mission Impossible movies. It’s also one of the more entertaining ones as well. Like the other Mission Impossible movies, there is never a dull moment, and never a thrill wasted. There is appeal in every scene of every shot, whether it is a ridiculous chase/action sequence, a precise line of exposition, a humorous exchange of dialogue between characters, or Cruise pulling off yet another stupidly insane stunt that would probably kill anyone else. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is the definition of great moviemaking.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol takes place a few years after the events of the third Mission Impossible. Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), who was previously happily married to his wife, Julie (Michelle Monoghan), is now incarcerated and in a federal prison in Moscow, Russia. What he’s doing there, we have no idea. Not until later in the movie.

He is broken out of prison with the help of two IMF agents: agents Carter (Paula Patton) and Benji (Simon Pegg), who you would remember as the dorky, but funny, computer geek we saw in Mission Impossible III. They are ordered to break Hunt out of prison for one reason: assistance on an upcoming mission where they have to break into the Kremlin to discover the identity of “Cobalt”, a global criminal who intends to start an international nuclear war in order to issue a new era of peace. His idea is similar to Ozymandias’ in the 2009 film Watchmen: before humanity can be saved, there first needs to be something to save them from. That is, at least, what “Cobalt” believes.

Here is a film where the visual spectacle and design of the film overwhelms the story that is being told. In the two previous Mission Impossible movies, that was a weakness. Here though, I applaud it for its ambition in visual spectacle and for its audacity to impress the audience in sheer spirit and style alone. Besides the climbing of the Burf Khalifa sequence, I can name many other sequences that really impressed me, such as the prison break scene in Moscow, the breaking into the Kremlin, a chase scene between Ethan and “Cobalt” in Dubai, and a final spectacular fight sequence that takes place in a car lot in India. I was so impressed by all of these sequences that I went back to the theater to watch it again just for those scenes alone.

Don’t think for a second, however, that just because the story is secondary to the action, it doesn’t mean it cannot hold up on its own. One thing I was initially worried about with this movie was how it would handle being a sequel to Mission Impossible III, which I thought was a fine way to end the franchise on a happy note. How they tie that movie into this one is brilliant, and there are many moments where we can pick up what happened to Ethan and Julie in between the events of MI3 and Ghost Protocol. This is where the film’s emotional appeal comes from. Ethan is trying to recover from what happened with him and Julie in the past, and as husbands and lovers, we can sympathize with Ethan and his problems. It isn’t tear-wrenching, but it doesn’t need to be. It gets a response from its viewers, and it doesn’t need an explosion and a falling building to get it. As a movie that is action-focused, it impresses me that the movie focuses on all the areas that it needs to: not just the ones that will bring it the biggest bucks.

Cruise, of course, is as slick, cool, and crazy as he always is, and comes back to this movie with the same charm and charisma that made him an icon in the original “Mission Impossible” movies. Paula Patton, who is most known in supporting roles like “Déjà Vu”, “Precious” and recently “Jumping The Broom” plays here yet another supporting role who is just as effective in other movies as she is here. She is smart, ambitious, and incredibly passionate, who puts in everything she can into every shot. And, if I may say so, she looks damn good while doing it.

Two actors who I felt had great presence in the film: Benji, played by Simon Pegg, and a new character named Brandt, played by Jeremy Renner from The Hurt Locker. I loved both of them in this movie. If Cruise and Patton provided the action-packed, exciting moments in the movie, these two provided the comedic relief. I can remember countless lines of dialogue from them both that made me and everyone else in the theater laugh. One especially funny scene was basically a re-enactment of the iconic dangling scene from the first Mission Impossible movie. Was it exciting, suspenseful, and nerve-wracking? Yes, but Benj’s oblivious comments combined with Brandt’s agitated responses culminated for a very funny moment that started off very unnerving and heart-pounding. Few films have the capacity to be able to switch from one tone to another; this film does it with surprising efficiency.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this film is that this is the director’s first live-action film. Director Brad Bird is famous for animated critical successes such as The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille, but no live-action films prior to Mission Impossible. How was he able to make this and make it look so amazing? Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is visually spectacular, sharply humorous, and relentlessly spirited and invigorating. It may not be the best Mission Impossible, but it is definitely the best sequel.

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“MISSION IMPOSSIBLE III” Review (✫✫✫)

Your mission, should you choose to accept it. 

Finally, we can forgive Tom Cruise for the disaster that was Mission Impossible II. This is the perfect example of a solid action movie, a film that has suspense, excitement, romance, and intrigue: a Hollywood blockbuster that has a nice balance of everything you can ask for. There is a moment in Mission Impossible III where we feel for Ethan Hunt not as another movie action hero, but as a human being, who has emotions and worries that any other normal human being would possess. The way Cruise portrays him in this movie is very realistic. Think about it: if you were out there, stealing nuclear devices, kidnapping black arms dealers, and saving the world every ten seconds, wouldn’t you be worried about your wife who knew nothing of your double life back at home?

Apparently now retired, we catch former IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) as he is happily engaged to Julie (Michelle Monoghan) a nurse who is studying to be a doctor. For once, Ethan is experiencing a sense of normalcy. He’s experiencing what it is like to be a husband, and what it is like to love. No explosions, no excitement, and no lives at risk. Ethan, for once, is just a normal guy who is in love with a beautiful woman. He is experiencing happiness.

Happiness for Ethan, however, doesn’t last long, and he soon finds himself shoved right back into the profession he wants to retire from. When told by his superior, John (Billy Cudrup) that Ethan’s apprentice, Lindsey (Kerri Russell) was captured and tortured by criminals while spying on black arms dealer Owen Davian (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), Ethan feels that he has no choice but to go back into the field so he can save his friend from certain demise.

This film, like the other Mission Impossible movies, sports strong performances. The cast is just as strong as any other movie, and I think you can argue that they are the strongest in this one. Cruise, for instance, doesn’t play a paragon of an action hero. Here, he plays a human being, flesh and blood, emotion for emotion, merely molded to look like an action hero. Despite his skills and experience, he can’t be everywhere at once. He can’t be with his wife and take care of her and go off to save the world at the same time.

At some point, whether he’d like to or not, he has to leave one world in order to take care of the other.

I however, wouldn’t leave Julie alone with a creep like Davian for a second if I had known he would pay her a visit. This dude seriously scares me. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who is a very skilled actor, is perhaps the subtlest in this movie, and plays a ruthless criminal who is just plain mean, evil, cruel, and antagonizing. I have met few antagonists who are as patronizing and as threatening as this guy is. Here is a guy that puts many other movie villains to shame, including those in the first Mission Impossible. Here is a guy who scares you just by staring bleakly into your eyes. He doesn’t need to speak to you: his eyes do all the talking, the eyes that say that he’s going to kill the person you love most, and he’s going to do it in front of you while you’re watching.

This film doesn’t go as deep into those politics of things as some may like it to, but I don’t think it is necessary. Mission Impossible III is fun. I say that as a simple statement, but there is nothing simple about this movie. This movie has earned the title of Mission Impossible from the stunts and visuals alone. I can easily name eight scenes on the top of my head that truly impressed me. Perhaps the most memorable moment for me was an assault between IMF agents and trained ex-military assassins on a bridge near New York. This scene was nerve-wracking, exciting, and worrisome for multiple reasons. Perhaps the biggest is because everything was happening all at once.

Cars were blowing up. Pieces of the bridge were falling apart. Innocent people were caught confused and afraid in the crossfire. Agents were getting shot. Assasins were breaking a prisoner out of an armed jeep. And here is Ethan, running around, avoiding gunfire and explosions, trying desperately to grasp the situation and take control of it. The reason this movie is so successful is because, like the other movies in this series, they push the limits of what they can achieve. There is not a single moment in this film where a thrill is wasted. It’s all there, and it is just as effective as it was in the first Mission Impossible.

The action overwhelms the plot a little bit in the third act of this movie, but other than that, the film is almost perfectly balanced. Director J.J. Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have found a nice combination involving stellar action sequences, funny dialogue, memorable characters, and heartfelt emotion. Have I mentioned before how I hate emotionless action movies? I have no complaint with Mission Impossible III. Its heart is in the right place, and it knows its characters as well as its action. That’s a rare treatment for action movies. It’s a treatment that should be given to them more often.

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“MISSION IMPOSSIBLE II” Review (✫✫)

So ridiculous, it can only happen in a movie.

I wonder what it would be like to write action scenes in a screenplay. Not briefly, mind you, but over an extended period of time. We are so used to these action movies that contain nothing but wall-to-wall action, violence, exploding, shooting, stabbing, kicking, punching, and body-dropping all over the place. Few of those movies have worthwhile plot or dialogue to them, which are the main tools a screenwriter uses when writing their screenplay. I imagine writing an action movie for them would be a nightmare. There’s nothing interesting to write about except for who dies next.

I feel especially sorry, then, for screenwriter Robert Towne, who is normally known for his smart, driving plots found in movies like Chinatown, The Firm, indeed, even the first Mission Impossible, now stuck to writing about nothing but explosions, gunfire, broken bones, ribs, limbs, and jaws, with a little twinge of intrigue placed somewhere in this muck of explosions and action. Mission Impossible II is not the movie that the first Mission Impossible was. The first Mission Impossible had memorable characters, iconic situations, and an in-depth and mysterious plot that kept your interest for every second of that movie. Its sequel Mission Impossible II has nothing the first one had except for its action. The characters, while likable, are also disposable, and lack any emotional conviction to make me really care for anyone for a long period of time. The plot is utterly pointless. Like this movie, it exists only to provide reason for the action, rather than the other way around.

MI2 follows agent Ethan Hunt’s (Tom Cruise) pursuit of an ex-IMF agent named Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), who is impersonating Hunt through the same face-masks from the first film. What is Ambrose after, and what does Hunt’s identity have to do with it? He is after a harmful chemical known as “Chimera”, a terrible virus that infects the host in a matter of hours, takes his cells, eats them, and kills the host as slowly and painfully as possible. The doctor who made this is named Vladmir Nekhorvich (Rade Serbegija), and he has been a close friend of Hunt’s for some unknown period of time now (Although he keeps calling him “Dimitri”, for some  reason).

This film is directed by John Woo, who is mostly known for his ridiculous, overly-long, overly-explosive action scenes in his movies. His action scenes are so ridiculous, that he makes Michael Bay shrivel up in his seat. This movie is no exception. Mission Impossible II is just as explosive, outlandish, insane, exhilarating and visually stellar as any other John Woo movie is, and that includes movies such as Broken Arrow and Face/Off.

On one hand, this is a good thing, considering Woo makes some incredible action sequences at some moments in this movie. I remember one scene where Tom is fighting off countless professional assassins in a chemical building while trying to destroy a sample of “Chimera” in the process. That gunfight was insane. Cruise was fighting off countless assassins with grenades, Uzi-Subs, and M-104’s, and what does Tom have to fight off against them? A pistol. It is these impossible odds that stacks up the action scenes to incredible heights, and makes for very entertaining, exciting moments in this movie.

Unfortunately, Woo focuses too much on the action. The difference between this film and his earlier film Face/Off is that Face/Off had a smart, original, and fascinating plot, while Mission Impossible II just copies elements from other action films. Stop me if you’ve seen any of this before: A) A Bond-type action hero that beats bad guys to a pulp and always gets the girl, all while looking incredibly sexy to the female audience with his long hair flowing freely in the wind, B) The hero falling madly in love with a woman who is just as sexy to the male population as the hero is to the female, C) The hero eventually having to rescue the damsel from distress, D) The sinister villain is introduced and narrates a plan so ridiculous, it can only happen in movies, E) An excruciating length of a 40 minute action sequence takes place, F) The villain dies at the end of the movie, and G) The hero and his lover kiss at the end of the movie and walk into the sunset in a “Happily Ever After” kind of concluding tone.

Could that entire paragraph be technically considered a spoiler? No, it can’t, because we’ve all seen that movie before. Is it really so surprising that the villain dies, and the woman is saved from danger at the end of the movie? Is it really so shocking? You might enjoy seeing the same thing over and over again, but I can’t stand it. I can’t stand movies that have a method to it. I can’t stand movies that follow formulas. Granted, I don’t want a movie where the villain lives and the hero dies with his love next to him, but geez, throw something unpredictable in there. Action without point is no action at all. It is just headaches.

That’s not to say that the strong points still don’t hold up to what we expect them to be. I already said the action is amazing, and it is. The music has definitely improved from the last movie, and Hans Zimmer inserts a nice rock twist to the famous theme that made the series iconic by right. Cruise especially shines in this movie just as much as he did in the first movie. In the first sequence he’s introduced in, Cruise makes an impossible rock climb over a canyon in nothing but a sleeveless shirt and a waist pouch with gripping dust in it. Remember something here: that’s not CGI, and that’s not a stunt double. Cruise is doing his own stunts, meaning he actually free-climbed up this deathly-high slab of rock. I think he secretly has a death wish for pulling off stunts as stupidly risky as this, but I hold my respect to him for having the audacity to even think about pulling off a stunt like that. It is moments like that that really impresses the audience, and what I think, makes Cruise a very credible and successful actor. He’s willing to pull off whatever he can in order to impress the audience.

But the strong points of this film pales to the weaknesses. Mission Impossible II is all style, and no substance. It has plenty of action, explosions, and body counts to overwhelm you with, but it lacks interest and consistency in between the action scenes with its stupid dialogue, and its plot that is as incredulous and predictable as any other action film can be. I’ve said before that I don’t mind action films as long as they are good ones. This is an ambitious one, but it’s too similar to other action movies to say it’s a “good” one. In the end, this movie to me is like a magician trying to con you at the circus. He shows off its tricks to you, but when he’s done, he turns and says to you “Sorry kid, no refunds”.

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“JURASSIC WORLD” Review (✫1/2)

Never trust a velociraptor. 

If there is any reason you need convincing as to why some movie franchises need to stay extinct, let Jurassic World be your most recent example. How to I start with this? Well, let me start with a positive: Joe Johnston isn’t directing. Thank God, because I couldn’t stomach another Jurassic Park III. Maybe I already have.

The movie takes place 20 years after the events of Jurassic Park, which is just as well because it literally is more than 20 years after the original was released. The new plot re-writes the history so that The Lost World and Jurassic Park III never took place. Not a change I will be missing since those movies contributed as little to the series as World does.

The film’s cast of characters includes a dinosaur whisperer named Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), who controls his own small battalion of velociraptors ready at a moment’s notice. Yes, you read that right. A velociraptor battalion. You get used to such absurdities as the movie goes on. You have Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), the park manager of the newly-designed Jurassic World. Then you have Zach and Gray Mitchell (Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson), two brothers who go to Jurassic World for a small vacation away from their parents. Oh yeah, and Claire is their aunt. You can tell their parents are really responsible by sending their kids away to an exotic park filled with man-eating beasts and reptiles with their ditzy, airhead of an estranged aunt to take care of them.

Anyhow, the upgraded, new-and-improved Jurassic World is a major step forward from Jurassic Park, the failed first attempt at a dinosaur park thanks to the hands of John Hammond. But no worries! Jurassic World is the perfected design of Jurassic Park, and nothing can possibly go wrong!

…right? RIGHT?!

Wrong. They do the smartest thing they can do and create a new carnivorous dinosaur called the Indominus that is more powerful than the T-Rex, Spinosaurus and a pack of Velociraptors combined. Hooray for dinosaur science!

As soon as the film opens up, you realize how many stupid characters are packed into the film to create the biggest idiot plot you’ve seen since Idiocracy. Idiot # 1: Whoever decided to create this park after the original one ended so disastrously. Idiot # 2: The mad scientists who decided to create a new carnivorous dinosaur, splicing together the DNA of nature’s most dangerous dinosaurs. Idiot # 3: Bryce Dallas Howard’s character, for deciding to run in high heels the entire movie. Idiot # 4: The park official who thought the dinosaurs could be reused as weapons for tactical takeover. I’m sure he was still wondering what went wrong as one was chewing off his head (Hint: They’re hungry, you moron). Idiot # 5: Mr. DNA, because curse that Clippit wannabe. Idiot # 6: Anyone who thought it was a good idea to pay money to go to this park after knowing what happened at the old one.

It’s true, I’m not a fan of this movie’s conception to begin with. The premise itself has so many logical flaws to begin with, its hard to get into the story. But I’ve been faced with worse cases before and have been happily proven wrong. I had doubts before I went into the theaters to see 22 Jump Street and Guardians of the Galaxy, and those ended up being some of the most fun movies of 2014. If done well, a movie can suspend disbeliefs and be what a summer moviegoing experience is supposed to be: entertaining.

The problem with Jurassic World is that it undermines its own intelligence, and the entertainment value doesn’t pay off despite it. The script starts off with its flaws of logic in the outset and never addresses them in the film, its characters as oblivious to their own faulty thinking as badly as the screenwriters are. The movie continues with an onslaught of cliches and inaccuracies, some of which I rolled my eyes hard at and wondering if I was watching a Roland Emmerich action picture. Some of the worst blows come in the form of dialogue that actors somehow manage to deliver with straight faces (i.e. Lines like “I was with the Navy, not the Navajo” or “Wait until I tell my mom!”). Don’t even ask me how many times characters told each other to run.

Probably the worst offense comes with the casting. I’m not denying that these are talented actors. From big roles to small ones, each of these cast members have been in roles where they had a strong presence on screen. Now, their presence includes running away from dinosaurs and looking good in sweaty clothes. Simpkins was cute and likable in movies like The Next Three Days and Iron Man 3. Now, he’s an OCD dinosaur nerd who recites species like he’s a dictionary. Robinson was solid in in the coming-of-age drama The Kings Of Summer. Here, he’s in the cliche Gothic-teen phase like those characters you’d see from “Degrassi.” Howard’s resume needs no explanation. Her acting ability is worth more than the pretty-faced ditz role she’s forced into this movie. And Pratt? Ugh. Pratt is the worst. After making as strong a debut as he did in Guardians of The Galaxy, director Colin Trevorrow did the worse thing you possibly could do to Pratt in this movie: he made him boring.

Again, the visuals are amazing. Whoop-de-do. The more I offer the visual effects and the fight sequences as the movie’s strongest points, the more irritated I get at knowing I’m writing the same criticism over, and over, and over, and over again. Yes, the visuals are amazing, but are they good enough to substantiate the movie’s flaws? The original Jurassic Park revolutionized computer imaging years ago when you saw the life-sized dinosaur for the first time in 1993. What big achievement can Jurassic World boast about? Continuing the trend that Jurassic Park started. That’s it.

Great visual effects mean nothing if a plot is not strong enough to stand on its own two legs. Is one character’s solution to outrunning a giant dinosaur seriously to release a bigger, scarier dinosaur? What was she going to do when either dinosaur was finished? And on that note, is she seriously running and doing all of this leg work in high heels???

I’m seeming pretty harsh with this movie. I know it, and I’m sticking by it. The more I thought about my experience with this movie, the more irritated I get at the movie’s ignorances of itself and its audience. This movie’s premise was not the worst thing in the world. Guardians of the Galaxy had an even more preposterous idea to its story with talking trees and raccoons, and it pulled it off with humor and with heart. This movie copied what Jurassic Park did first and better, and it’s artificial efforts show. It needed to understand how prehistoric sequels are nowadays, and how badly it needed to evolve from it.

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“MAD MAX: FURY ROAD” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

A lovely day and a flaming guitar. 

I’ve never seen a movie break as many rules as Mad Max: Fury Road does and get away with it. I’ve never seen a movie so loud, obnoxious and over-the-top that still manages to impress me by the time the end credits roll. Previous movies have done the same thing Fury Road has done and failed spectacularly. Transformers. Resident Evil. Underworld. G.I. Joe. Fast and Furious. All of those films are every bit as explosive and stupid as Mad Max: Fury Road is, and yet I don’t love them as much as I do Mad Max. Why is that?

I think its because the movie knows its just that: a movie. It knows that it’s loud, obstinate and stupidly explosive. It knows that its a blockbuster of exceedingly epic proportions that shakes the theater so much, it makes viewers shat in their pants. And more than anything else, it knows it is an action movie, with all of the fun and flaws alike bundled with it.

So what does a director like George Miller decide to do with that, knowing this is the fourth film in his own franchise? Fix the mistakes that are present in all of his predecessors?

No. Instead, he decided to embrace them, like a soldier throwing himself onto a hot grenade.

The end result is exactly how it sounds: bloody awesome.

The plot (if you can call it that) follows Max Rockatansky (this time portrayed by Tom Hardy) after the events of Road Warrior and before Beyond Thunderdome. In this desolate landscape called planet Earth, Max is a survivor of Nuclear war, traveling dry and sandy deserts in silence and solitude. Everyone else around him is either dead or has signed up in the mad crusade of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a tyrannical warlord who has idolized himself as a god and has labeled everyone under him as his followers. Considering he has control over the only water source over hundreds of miles, the survivors have little choice but to submit to him.

One of these followers is Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a fierce female warrior who is charged with transporting Joe’s water to a nearby town with her small battalion. Little to Joe’s knowledge, however, Furiosa is transporting something else: all of Joe’s wives. Now on the hunt from Joe and all of his maniacal followers, Furiosa needs to team up with Max to escape the desert landscape and free the wives that have been under Joe’s cruel control for so long.

Is the plot as stupid as it sounds? The answer is no, because the film really doesn’t have a plot, only the resemblance of one. The narrative is a weakness all of the films in the series share with each other. While other science-fiction movies have a rich amount of lore and backstory behind them, Mad Max doesn’t have as much to boast about in its own series. Really, as far as story goes, all of the Mad Max movies are kind of weak in narrative scope. Here’s the plot for all of them: a guy is trying to survive against a homicidal maniac in a deserted landscape. That’s it. It’s a big case of “what you see is what you get.”

Here’s where Mad Max: Fury Road is different though: there’s a lot to see. Even though the plot is about as thick as a studio pitch, Miller displays this meager plot in spectacular, stunning, eye-popping action and explosions, and even a few soft moments of short dialogue exchanges between characters.

The stunts are unlike anything you’ve seen in any of the previous movies. The most destruction you found in Mad Max and Mad Max 2 was cars exploding and toppling over into deep sand dunes and rocky road pavements. In this movie, vehicular manslaughter is the least of the destruction found in the film. In one of the first action sequences, an entire armada of Joe’s fleet follows Furiosa into a giant sand storm of extremely windy proportions. In another scene, gang members viciously chase Furiosa’s truck in a tightly-cornered crevice of mountains. In another, a flunkie gets blinded by gunfire, puts cloth around his bleeding eyes, then fires blindly at Max and his gang like a crack-happy trigger maniac. For crying out loud, there’s one underling in the film that uses a guitar flamethrower.

Yes. That’s right. A guitar flamethrower.

It’s obvious that the film is ridiculous and absurd in the most gleeful of ways. Yet, what I like so much is that in between all of the over-the-top and in-your-face action, there’s actually a purpose and a reason for actors being in the movie. Yes ladies and gentlemen: this is an action movie that has actual acting in it. Hardy replaces Mel Gibson’s role with hardened machismo and stiffness to his gesture, and while Max is still mostly a flat character, Hardy portrays him with a sort of intrigue to him that makes you curious about his history, even though we already know most of it. Theron, however, impresses me the most. She’s incredibly versatile in the film, being a firm and uncompromising action heroine in one moment, and an emotionally exhausted and stricken survivor in another. She’s honestly the real lead in the film, with Max being more of a supporting character to Furosia’s rebellion against Immortan Joe. The film is really empowering to females, and that’s an incredibly rare thing, especially for an action movie.

By now, you’ve hopefully gotten the idea of what the movie is like and whether you’d be interested in this sort of thing or not. The film definitely has its flaws, but by God, the movie is just so freaking entertaining. I can’t sum up the film any better than that. Now go get your movie ticket. There’s a flaming guitar that you need to see.

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