REVIEW: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

30 07 2015

The “Mission: Impossible” series, now spanning nearly two decades with its five installments, somehow manages to sustain a childlike sense of adulation for its leading man.  Tom Cruise, perhaps the biggest movie star in the world when the franchise launched in 1996, has seen his ups and downs both personally and professionally in the years that followed.

But watching “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation,” it seems like his star has miraculously managed to lose no shine.  These movies see no parallels between the furious arm-pumping intensity of Tom Cruise’s movie run and the limber legs that propelled him to jump on Oprah’s couch.  Never does his stardom feel laced with irony or constrained by public perception.  The film treats Cruise like the greatest thing since sliced bread … or at least since Harrison Ford.

Cruise makes his first on-screen appearance by dashing into frame after a quick cut on his unexpected opening line, and it feels triumphant.  This is the cinema’s closest approximation to the kind entrance that Bernadette Peters or Idina Menzel can make when they walk on stage – which is to say, it mandates a pause to let the audience applaud simply on sight.  Cruise, working on assignment for writer/director Christopher McQuarrie and co-writer Drew Pearce, so thoroughly owns his superstardom here that he gains the power to push “Going Clear” completely out of mind for two hours.

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REVIEW: Going Clear

6 04 2015

Going ClearSo long as writer/director Alex Gibney’s research is solid, then his searing exposé “Going Clear” makes a pretty damning case for the group’s dismantling.  Or, at the very least, it ought to lose the aegis of religion under which it hides physical and mental abuse.  The Church of Scientology should definitely not qualify for tax exemption since such a privilege seems to be the modus operandi for L. Ron Hubbard to claim his science-fiction texts were a religion in the first place.

Gibney stirs up a lot of emotions as he documents the development of Scientology, its growth in the Hollywood community, and the shocking measures of the leaders (namely chairman David Miscavige) to maintain the group’s fragile stability.  The most obvious is anger, a sentiment that the documentarian can elicit with ease.  “Going Clear” makes the impact of “Mea Maxima Culpa,” Gibney’s documentary about sexual misconduct within the Catholic Church, seem like an investigative report about robbing a 7/11.

But the gamut of feeling moves far beyond easy outrage into a much wider range.  There is pity for John Travolta, who the Church of Scientology may have blackmailed into silence with personal revelations that he disclosed in auditing sessions (at his own expense, no less).  There is also disappointment with Travolta, Tom Cruise, and other high-profile members who appear to turn a blind eye to the exploitation since they derive benefit from luxury services the Church provides.  There is incredulity to spare as Gibney exposes some dark corners of Scientology’s tax evasion and bullying tactics.

One thing that “Going Clear” is not, however, is an attack on the religion’s core beliefs.  (“South Park” already took care of that.)  Gibney never suggests the foolishness of the members for buying into what many, myself included, think constitutes a rather far-fetched system of teachings.  Furthermore, he never blames them for falling into the “prison of belief,” a phrase used in the film’s subtitle.

When the Scientology defectors give their interviews, they often speak in terms that could apply to any extreme sect or cult in any mainline faith.  The problem with Scientology, as articulated by Gibney, has nothing to do with faith but rather with how religious leaders can exploit vulnerable people into permitting or condoning inexcusable acts.  A- / 3halfstars





REVIEW: Edge of Tomorrow

7 06 2014

It would have been all too easy to write off “Edge of Tomorrow” with a few jokes about familiarity.  Given the nature of its plot, which involves Tom Cruise’s character doomed to relive the same day until he can defeat an invading alien force, I would not have been surprised if I felt a frustration tantamount to his character.  That is to say, I expected to feel like I was caught reliving a hackneyed story until I reached the point of insanity.

But to my surprise, director Doug Liman finds a way to make “Edge of Tomorrow” feel fresh and exciting even though it isn’t reinventing the blockbuster wheel.  It takes the film a little while to find its footing after a sped-through expository opening sequence and a fairly standard beginning of the time travel process.  Once Emily Blunt enters the picture as a gritty soldier who once suffered a similar “Groundhog Day”-esque affliction, though, things start to get a little more intriguing.

That’s mainly due to the smart script by Christopher McQuarrie, the Oscar-winning writer of “The Usual Suspects,” with the help of Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, who penned Liman’s underrated “Fair Game.”  While their screenplay might not be nearly as cerebral as Duncan Jones’ superb 2011 time travel thriller “Source Code,” it certainly shows the signs of real effort to be clever.  They avoid falling into obvious traps of the sub-genre and find some nice moments for Cruise and Blunt to play on the path less traveled.

Credit is due to Liman as well for finding creative ways to present and re-present events that have to be repeated.  It’s often beat into filmmakers to show something rather than tell it.  Liman finds a two-handed approach to work just fine, however, and “Edge of Tomorrow” feels invigoratingly as a result since each section feels a little different from the one before it.

This does contribute to making the film slightly uneven, but even so, it’s one of the better big-budget blockbusters I’ve seen in a while.  If there was one I had to sit through again and again, there could be worse than this.  Like Cruise’s character in the film, I could probably find new ways to improve it each time though.  B2halfstars





LISTFUL THINKING: 2012 Superlatives

1 01 2013

New Year’s Day always marks a very interesting balancing act, reflecting on the old while also ringing in the new.  So while people are still thinking about 2012, let me offer up the first annual Superlatives post for the films of 2012.  I’ve already weighed in with the best and worst 10 of 2012, but what about the other 80 movies of the year?  What about the performances?  What about all sorts of other things?  This is the post where I get all sorts of stuff floating in my mind out there.

For the sake of review, I’ll go ahead and re-list my 10 best and worst of 2012.

Top 10 of 2012

10 Best of 2012: “21 Jump Street,” “Argo,” “Hitchcock,” “Killing Them Softly,” “Looper,” “Bernie,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Les Misérables,” “The Master,” “The Queen of Versailles

Prometheus

Honorable Mentions: “Rust and Bone,” “Prometheus,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Wreck-It Ralph,” “End of Watch,” “Holy Motors

Worst 10 of 2012

10 Worst of 2012: “The Grey,” “The Bourne Legacy,” “John Carter,” “Gone,” “The Vow,” “Killer Joe,” “The Paperboy,” “The Deep Blue Sea,” “The Watch,” “Casa De Mi Padre

pitchperfect2

Honorable Mentions: “Pitch Perfect,” “Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap,” “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” “First Position,” “Keep the Lights On,” “Being Flynn

10 More 2012 Releases I Still Need to See: “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” “The Impossible,” “Promised Land,” “The Intouchables,” “Seven Psychopaths,” “Hyde Park on Hudson,” “Not Fade Away,” “Smashed,” “The House I Live In,” “Searching for Sugar Man”

Vanellope

5 Most Surprising Movies of 2012: “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Bernie,” “End of Watch,” “Hitchcock,” “21 Jump Street

Denzel Washington in Flight

5 Most Disappointing Movies of 2012: “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Django Unchained,” “Lincoln,” “Flight,” “The Bourne Legacy

Bachelorette

10 Most Forgettable Movies of 2012 (in alphabetical order): “Bachelorette,” “Hysteria,” “Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” “Lola Versus,” “Man on a Ledge,” “Men in Black III,” “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” “Take This Waltz,” “Trouble with the Curve

Silver Linings Playbook

5 Most Rewatchable Movies of 2012: “21 Jump Street,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Argo,” “Ted

Lincoln

5 Movies of 2012 I’m Glad I Saw But Will Never Watch Again: “Lincoln,” “Amour,” “The Invisible War,” “Compliance,” “ReGeneration

Killing Them Softly

5 Most Underrated Movies of 2012: “Killing Them Softly,” “Les Misérables,” “Prometheus,” “Safety Not Guaranteed,” “End of Watch

The Avengers

5 Most Overrated Movies of 2012: “The Sessions,” “Lincoln,” “Django Unchained,” “Life of Pi,” “The Avengers

PSH

5 Movies That Got Better with Distance and Time: “Killing Them Softly,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “The Master,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Prometheus

Brave

5 Movies That Got Worse with Distance and Time: “Brave,” “Lincoln,” “Flight,” “The Sessions,” “The Dark Knight Rises

Argo

5 Movies That Felt Shorter Than Their Runtime: “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Les Misérables,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Argo,” “Django Unchained

Keira Knightley in "Anna Karenina"

5 Movies That Felt Longer Than Their Runtime: “Lincoln,” “Anna Karenina,” “This Is 40,” “Damsels in Distress,” The Five-Year Engagement

BOTSW

Breakout Performances: Quvenzhané Wallis in “Beasts of the Southern Wild,”  Eddie Redmayne in “Les Misérables,” Ezra Miller in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” Garrett Hedlund in “On the Road,” Scoot McNairy in “Argo

Silver Linings Playbook

Breakthrough Performances: Bradley Cooper in “Silver Linings Playbook,” Michael Pena in “End of Watch,” Jack Black in “Bernie,” Channing Tatum in “21 Jump Street,” Elizabeth Banks in “People Like Us

Best Exotic

Breakdown Performances: Anna Kendrick in “Pitch Perfect,” Salma Hayek in “Savages,” Tom Cruise in “Rock of Ages,” Emile Hirsch in “Killer Joe,” Dev Patel in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

frame 01021605R

Best Body of Work in 2012: (tie) Anne Hathaway in “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Les Misérables,” Jennifer Lawrence in “The Hunger Games” and “Silver Linings Playbook

The Deep Blue Sea

Worst Body of Work in 2012: (tie) Rachel Weisz in “The Bourne Legacy” and “The Deep Blue Sea,” Taylor Kitsch in “John Carter” and “Savages

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

Best Heroes: Jessica Chastain as Maya in “Zero Dark Thirty,” Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk in “The Avengers,” Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean in “Les Misérables

John Carter

Worst Heroes: Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man in “The Amazing Spider-Man,” Taylor Kitsch as John Carter in “John Carter,” Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross in “The Bourne Legacy

Catwoman

Best Villains: Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle/Catwoman in “The Dark Knight Rises,” Russell Crowe as Javert in “Les Misérables,” Leonardo DiCaprio as Calvin Candie in “Django Unchained

Skyfall

Worst Villains: Tom Hardy as Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises,” Javier Bardem as Silva in “Skyfall,” Rhys Ifans as Lizard in “The Amazing Spider-Man

Joaquin

Best Possessed Performance: Joaquin Phoenix in “The Master

The Paperboy

Worst Possessed Performance: Nicole Kidman in “The Paperboy

Bernie

Best Comedic Performance: (tie) Jack Black in “Bernie,” Channing Tatum in “21 Jump Street

The Watch

Worst Comedic Performance: The cast of “The Watch

Uggie

Best Cameo: Uggie in “The Campaign

Ryan Reynolds

Worst Cameo: Ryan Reynolds in “Ted

Eddie Redmayne

Best Singing: Eddie Redmayne in “Les Misérables

Alec

Worst Singing: Alec Baldwin in “Rock of Ages

That’s about all I can come up with for now … may add to this later!  Happy 2013, everyone!





REVIEW: Rock of Ages

20 06 2012

Rock of Ages” – the movie too bad to be true.  This horrendous piece of schlock that profanes the movie musical as we know it is thankfully self-consciously corny.  The invitation to laugh at the film’s ridiculousness begins in the first minute when Julianne Hough’s archetypical naive Oklahoman good girl, Sherrie Christian, breaks out in song on the bus to Los Angeles, only to be quickly accompanied by the rest of the passengers.  Surely this movie can’t be for real, you immediately think.

Oh, but it only gets better … er, worse.  The movie quickly runs through the hard rock anthems of the ’80s as if it were selling you a TIME Life boxed set.  Except rather than hearing the original raspy-voiced rockers, we get to hear them sung by actors whose only pipes are situated firmly in their trailer.  Aside from Julianne Hough, a vocal virtuoso, all the decent singers are relegated to bit parts.  Ultimately, that’s not worth getting too upset about since Mary J. Blige and Catherine Zeta-Jones both overact their ridiculous caricatures so much that it negates their singing talents.

No, instead, we are treated to hear Alec Baldwin’s dreadful attempts to belt and Tom Cruise murder three halfway-decent songs as the stuporous superstar Stacee Jaxx.  (I’m just going to throw out my theory that he had a voice double – his singing voice sounded NOTHING like his speaking voice.)  I’m not terribly offended by his performance.  After all, being a child of the ’90s means that these songs hold no sentimental or nostalgic value for me, although I did like “Wanted Dead or Alive” before Cruise tried to sing it.  However, clearly no one learned anything from the Pierce Brosnan-“Mamma Mia!” fiasco, and what could have been an amusing cameo gets stretched out into an obnoxiously long Jack Sparrow impersonation.

Really, the problem with Stacee Jaxx is the same problem with “Rock of Ages” on the whole.  They start out amusing in their lunacy and prove worth a few good laughs.  But it just goes on far too long, just trying to find any excuse to throw another ’80s song into the mix for the soundtrack.  There comes a point where using one random off-the-cuff remark to cue a lavish musical number just becomes plain stupid, and it quickly wears out whatever good will you had in the beginning.  The longer it goes on, the more you begin to realize that “Rock of Ages” loses its chance to proclaim itself so bad it’s good.  Instead, it becomes so bad that it’s bearable.  C





REVIEW: Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

4 01 2012

Leave it to Brad Bird, a member of the Pixar brain trust responsible for such triumphs as “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” to figure out how to make the year’s purest, most enjoyable action movie with “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.”  For 135 minutes, the adrenaline pumps steadily as the eye is treated to a potpourri of dazzling stunts followed by stunning cinematography.  It’s skin deep, sure, but Tom Cruise has been unabashedly likewise for years, so who cares?  Movies like this are supposed to be fun, and so often they aren’t.  This one is.

Maybe it’s the sort of child-like wonder and awe that Bird brings with him from Pixar that makes this movie “Mission: Enjoyable.”  But whatever that X factor is, it works well.  There’s slightly less substance and character development than J.J. Abrams’ last installment in the series five years ago, which also featured one of the most maniacal villains in recent memory in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Owen Davian.  But when you’re seeing Tom Cruise actually scale the world’s tallest building in the world – yes, he actually did that stunt himself – Bird more than compensates for the film’s major shortcoming.

He draws on two valuable resources to make the movie such ruckus fun.  The first is simplicity: it’s much easier to enjoy the ride when you aren’t having to keep track of a million different characters and names caught up in a huge scheme of political espionage.  When it’s Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, being as corny and ridiculously impetuous as ever, being backed up by an eclectic IMF squad going against a crazy Swedish scientist and a small gang of confederates trying to nuke the world, it makes it easier to sit back and enjoy the car chases and the cool gadgets.

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Random Factoid #462

2 11 2010

There has been pressure on the Academy to recognize stunt performers at the Academy Awards; the Screen Actors Guild recently added a category to award the best stunt ensemble of a movie.  If the Oscars do decide to add a new category any time soon, I definitely think this should be it.

I’m not a particularly daring person when it comes to attempting physical feats.  I wasn’t the kid to climb a tree to the top or try the giant leap down.  I’ve often watched a movie wondering how any sane human being could do some of the feats being performed.  I’ve grown a little more cynical with the dawn of CGI, but I know there are still many daring stunt performers at work in Hollywood.

I’m also pretty amazed when I hear about actors doing their own stunts.  This summer, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Angelina Jolie did the work for “Inception” and “Salt,” respectively.  But they are all about to be put to shame by Tom Cruise, who pulled off a stunt dangling from the side of the world’s tallest building in Dubai.  I don’t care how much you pay me or how much publicity it got me, as an actor, I would NEVER do this stunt myself.

Although it doesn’t technically count as stunt work (at least to my knowledge), I still chalk up the most daring feat in acting of my time to Christian Bale for standing at the tip of the tallest building in America for “The Dark Knight.”