Thursday, July 30, 2015

Movie Review: “Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation”

Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation

**** 1/2 out of 5
131 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence, and brief partial nudity
Paramount Pictures

Article first published at The Reel Place.

The Mission: Impossible franchise is one of few exceptions to the law of diminishing returns. While audiences weren’t quite sure how to respond to the first big screen adventure of Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his Impossible Missions Force (IMF) cohorts, the series finally hit its stride when J.J. Abrams took the reins for the third installment. After the results of Abrams’s III and Brad Bird’s even better Ghost Protocol, writer/director Christopher McQuarrie — reteaming with Cruise after Jack Reacher — had some mighty big shoes to fill. His mission, should he choose to accept it: deliver Rogue Nation as not only another notch on the series belt, but one of the summer’s, and year’s, best action films, period.

In Minsk, Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) is trying to keep a load of VX nerve gas from getting into the wrong hands. Lucky for him, Hunt manages to be right where he should, in the spectacular, highly-advertised stunt involving him hanging off the side of a plane. Back on the homefront, Hunley (Alec Baldwin) manages to get the IMF dissolved and taken over by the CIA. In London, Hunt is gassed and taken prisoner by Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) — the creator of the anti-IMF group known as “The Syndicate” — but is aided in his escape by Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson), a British operative. Hunt is now on the run from the CIA and The Syndicate in a cat and mouse game the likes they’ve yet to see. Now, Hunt’s only hope for saving their name and stopping Lane is with the help of Benji, Brandt (Jeremy Renner), and Luther (Ving Rhames).

When it comes Mission: Impossible, we all know each installment sets out to one up the previous. Whether breaking into the Vatican or blowing up the Kremlin, there’s no set piece that won’t leave you breathless, anxiously awaiting the next. Which is where some members of the audience may find fault in Rogue Nation. While keeping its promise on expertly choreographed and elaborate action scenes, McQuarrie has instilled this installment with more of a throwback cat-and-mouse feel, relying on tricks of the trade and quick thinking of the characters more than just blowing stuff up.

Don’t let that last bit of information fool you. Rogue Nation is top notch popcorn entertainment, but you rarely know where the story is headed, offering plenty of surprises along the way. The action scenes are guaranteed to leave you breathless — including an extended underwater sequence that Cruise, in order to film, trained to hold his breath for six minutes! And the globetrotting takes us from Minsk to London to Havana to Casablanca — we wouldn’t expect anything less than plenty of exotic locales.

After Kingsman, Spy, and now Rogue Nation, it’s a good year to be in the spy business. Guess we’ll see how the year closes out with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and James Bond’s Spectre, another series returning to its roots storywise, finally introducing Bond’s arch nemesis. And the best part is that none of them take themselves as seriously as most. A good wink at the audience goes a long way in making sure the filmmakers strike the right tone, so things never get quite as gritty as the Bourne series, yet deliver across the board in every other aspect. There are even some fun nods to previous installments. Be on the lookout for a rabbit’s foot that comes in mighty handy.

Unfortunately, Rogue Nation still doesn’t quite get its antagonist right. Sean Harris is a fantastic actor, but is oddly miscast as the head of such a deadly organization as The Syndicate. It’s never a good sign when you can’t understand half of his dialogue, especially when it comes time to make threats against our heroes. Thankfully, the rest of the cast more than make up for it. Renner continues being the straight man to his band of IMF misfits, while Pegg keeps the laughs coming. Ferguson is a spectacular addition to the group with her shifting allegiance always in question, leaving Rhames just trying to keep up with everyone when he’s not comfortably sitting behind a computer screen. Baldwin in particular is a lot of fun as he makes life hell for the disbanded group as the perpetual thorn in their side.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation may be the fifth installment of a franchise based on Bruce Geller’s nearly 50-year-old TV show, but the series continues to keep its hot streak going. The ever changing directors undoubtedly add to keeping the flavor fresh, so it’s going to be interesting to see who fills the chair next. The sky seems to be the limit, with no end in sight. Hopefully we don’t ever see Ethan Hunt and his crew subjected the regions of space. That might be taking things a little too far. If any series was going to find a way to pull it off though, it would be Mission: Impossible.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Movie Review: “Vacation”


**** out of 5
99 minutes
Rated R for crude and sexual content and language throughout, and brief graphic nudity
Warner Bros Pictures

Article first published on The Reel Place.

As a kid in the ’80s, it should come as no surprise that National Lampoon’s Vacation series was a staple in my childhood viewing. While some may balk at the idea of kid watching movies full of dirty jokes, and amazingly lighthearted nudity, it was my own version of “Father Knows Best.” When you get right down to it, who wouldn’t love to have a dad as lovably clueless as Clark W. Griswold (Chevy Chase)? Lucky for me, my mom always called my dad our own Clark, so maybe that was another reason I loved the films so much. Not to mention I share the same birthdate with Clark: August 8 — as revealed in European Vacation.

Along with the original, the sequels played on heavy rotation through the old VCR — I still defend European as the most underrated of the four. So it was sad that by the time the fourth installment finally took the Griswolds to Vegas, the well had officially run dry. While still full of the original elements that kept the family so endearing remained, the comedy was wasted on a PG-rating, something no Vacation — on film or in real life — could realistically be rated. Now, 32 years later, we find a new generation of Griswolds hitting the road, with dreams of “Walley World” gleaming in their eyes.

Rusty (Ed Helms) is all grown up with a family of his own with his wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) and two teenage sons James (Skyler Gisondo) and Kevin (Steele Stebbins). Working as a pilot for an economy airline, Rusty soon sees the glue holding his family together start to wear thin. Afraid of marital strife, and a bullying case of sibling rivalry, Rusty decides they’re heading for Walley World. The family can’t wrap their head around why Rusty would ever want to revisit one of the worst trips of his life, but Rusty is adamant. They all hit the road, in search of some family bonding, with the expected bumps along the way.

For anyone wondering whether writers/directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein (the first and only funny of the two Horrible Bosses) manage to deliver new laughs with a heavy side of nostalgia, look no further than the opening credit sequence set to Lindsey Buckingham’s “Holiday Road.” Or another bit where Rusty is revisiting family photos from the previous Vacations with each one consisting of every different Rusty and his sister Audrey — who have never been played by the same actors. Even the theme from Chariots of Fire is reworked to hilarious effect. And things wouldn’t be complete without pit stops to see Audrey (Leslie Mann), along with a final detour to visit the OG Griswolds Clark and Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) and true fans will know what I mean when I say the Family Truckster makes an appearance as well.

Does it really matter whether the troupe make it to Walley World? Not really, and anyone who’s seen any previews know they do. It’s the getting there that’s the fun part. Don’t worry, the family element remains intact, but they still manage to keep it chock full of the prerequisite shenanigans and laugh-out-loud moments we demand from a Vacation. Let’s just say nothing is sacred. From animal cannibalism to pedophilia, no stone is left unturned in Daley and Goldstein’s race to offend and make us laugh as hard as possible. Oh sure, most of them are of the guilty variety, but it wouldn’t be a Vacation movie without them. Some sequences may have a slight sitcom-feel to them, but when the family hits the road, wackiness ensues and it’s fantastic to see the Griswolds back on the big screen. This Vacation is definitely one worth taking.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Movie Review: “Paper Towns”

Paper Towns

**** out of 5
109 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some language, drinking, sexuality and partial nudity - all involving teens
20th Century Fox

Article first published at The Reel Place.

In the latest Jack Green novel-to-film adaptation Paper Towns, its protagonist Quentin (Nat Wolff) says that “Everyone gets a miracle.” And the same goes for Green and his deal with 20th Century Fox. After The Fault in Our Stars broke out last summer, it was only a matter of time before another one came calling. I haven’t seen Stars, but considering how fantastic Paper Towns is, I feel like I could give it a go at this point. Also encouraging is the fact it’s from the same screenwriting duo — Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber — who also gave us (500) Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now. Needless to say, Paper Towns is firing up to be the second Green film to draw in deserved box office.

Young Quentin (Josiah Cerio) really believes in everyone getting their one miracle. His happens to go by the name of Margo (Hannah Alligood), who has just moved in across the street. Instantly smitten, the two eventually become best friends, at least until the awkward teenage years come calling and Margo gets hot and popular (now played by Cara Delevigne), leaving a divide in their friendship. Quentin spends his days making good grades and setting life goals like going to college, having a career, and being married with kids all by the time he’s 30. His friends now consist of Radar (Justice Smith) and Ben (Austin Abrams), who are just as grade-driven as he is — even if Ben can’t stop talking about how much he wants to bang Quentin’s mom.

Just when Quentin finds his life almost too boring, Margo sneaks in his bedroom window in need of a getaway driver. She’s out for revenge against her cheating boyfriend and conniving friends who knew about it. Reluctantly, Quentin tags along, eventually leading to an evening looking out over Orlando from the SunTrust Building. Over the next few days, Margo winds up missing and her parents are so tired of it that they’re honestly relieved that she’s 18-years-old so they don’t have to report her missing. They’re convinced she’s just looking for attention, but Quentin becomes convinced that she’s strung along clues as to where she may be. It’s here that Quentin talks his friends — along with Margo’s best friend Lacey (Halston Sage) and Radar’s girlfriend Angela (Jaz Sinclair) — into hitting the road to see if they can find Margo.

For anyone who is a teenager, has ever been a teenager, is in love, ever been in love, or suffered from unrequited love, Paper Towns offers a universal coming-of-age story. Hilarious and heartfelt, full of characters you grow to love before the film reaches the end credits, director Jake Schreier makes a far better film out of Green’s material than his Sundance debut Robot & Frank. Wringing a surprising amount of levity out of the pitfalls of growing up, he’s also cobbled together one of the best young onscreen ensembles since J.J. Abrams gave us in Super 8. They all feel like real friends, and even better, like people we could have, or were, friends with back when any of us were in high school.

The film’s pacing could have used just a tad bit of tightening up, but at only 107 minutes, you’re never bored and the mystery surrounding Margo’s whereabouts is always just enticing enough to make the adventure feel worthwhile. The best way to describe Paper Towns may sound a little odd, but you could say this is The Goonies meets The Girl Next Door. Trust me, once you see the film it’ll make far more sense.

While not the target audience, I thoroughly enjoyed Paper Towns and the film made me consider popping open one of Jack Green’s novels. They may be labeled “Young Adult,” but we’ve all been one at some point. The best part of the film is its unconventional ending. It was not what I was expecting, but felt way more realistic than any other route the story could have taken. It’s a breath of fresh air, and the whole of Paper Towns is too. A film that knows its demographic, but doesn’t pander to them, while giving the rest of us a winning film to enjoy as well. Don’t let the tween marketing turn you off, Paper Towns is worth the trip.

Movie Review: “Southpaw”


**** out of 5
123 minutes
Rated R for language throughout, and some violence
The Weinstein Company

Article first published at The Reel Place.

I am not a fan of the MMA or UFC, but I do have respect for boxing. My great uncle once fought Muhammad Ali before I was even born, so I appreciate the grace and actual elegance to the sport. It’s more exhilarating to watch than just two people trying to claw each other’s eyes out. To say the least, I was far more interested in Antoine Fuqua’s Southpaw than I would be in something starring John Cena.

The only thing that concerned me was seeing it written by Kurt Sutter, the creator of Sons of Anarchy. Biker gangs are also something that I have absolutely zero interest in, so it comes as a huge relief to say that at Southpaw’s heart is a tear-jerking father/daughter tale of a man who comes close to losing it all before fighting his way back to redemption.

Pro-boxer Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is at the top of his game, current light heavyweight champion with a 43–0 record. As much as he loves his fights, he loves his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and daughter Leila (Oona Laurence) even more. One night after a press conference, Billy gets into a fight with Miguel ‘Magic’ Escobar (Miguel Gomez) in a hotel lobby where Maureen winds up accidentally getting shot. Quickly, Billy’s life spirals out of control as grief and guilt take over with only revenge on his mind.

Soon enough, social services has whisked Leila away and Billy winds up claiming bankruptcy after headbutting a ref during a match. Now, Billy must find a way to pull his life back together, begging for a job helping Tick Wills at his gym. Eventually, redemption comes calling when Billy’s former manager, Jordan Mains (50 Cent), offers him the fight of his life against Escobar in Vegas.

Anyone who has ever seen even a sports drama knows where this is headed. Thankfully, Fuqua provides plenty of hard-hitting boxing, and even harder hitting daddy/daughter scenes to make up for some heavy-handed cliches. Gyllenhaal and Laurence make a killer combo, aided by the setup showing their homelife before Maureen is killed off. The pacing may be a little off during the first hour before the film finally reveals its true colors, but the performances bring the needed gravitas to make it all pay off.

Gyllenhaal is electric as Billy, giving one of his best performances yet. And the biggest reason it works so well is that this is also his least-Gyllenhaal-y performance. Transforming himself physically into a beast in the ring and a doting father out, Billy is a character we come to love by the time the credits role and anyone privy to Kleenex may want to have them handy. While the final fight may not have quite the expected payoff, audiences will still be left cheering.

Gyllenhaal is even more Oscar-worthy than in last year’s Nightcrawler. McAdams was clearly cast to make us immediately smitten with Maureen and Laurence is not only adorable as Leila, but also manages to hold her own against Gyllenhaal. A scene at Child Services is particularly heartwrenching. Sports fans will find plenty to love, along with anyone looking for something a little heavier buried in this summer’s onslaught of special effects spectacles. A colleague asked if it was too early in the year for something from The Weinstein Company, but when it’s this good, absolutely not.

Movie Review: “Pixels”


*** out of 5
105 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some language and suggestive comments
Sony Pictures

Article first published at The Reel Place.

Let’s get this out of the way right now, it felt weird walking out of an Adam Sandler movie and not thinking it’s the worst movie I’ve seen all year. We might as well face it, the man hasn’t made so much as a decent movie outside of his Happy Madison Productions wheelhouse since 50 First Dates — and that was 11 years ago! I don’t know if it was having a director who knows how to make actual movies calling the shots, but Chris Columbus (Home AloneMrs. Doubtfirethe first two Harry Potters) has made the best Sandler vehicle in over a decade — still that’s not saying much.

In 1982, teenagers Brenner (Anthony Ippolito) and Cooper (Jared Riley) head to the opening of a new arcade. Turns out, Brenner is a gaming prodigy taking him to the Worldwide Video Arcade Championships, picking up Ludlow (Jacob Shinder) along the way. Unfortunately, Brenner loses to Eddie (Andrew Bambridge) in a Donkey Kong smackdown.

In present day, Cooper (Kevin James) is now the President of the United States and Brenner (Sandler) is a lowly home theater installer. But after a U.S. military base in Guam comes under attack by a live-action version of Galaga, the world’s fate winds up in their hands, and only Brenner, Cooper, Ludlow (Josh Gad), Eddie (Peter Dinklage), and prerequisite love interest Lieutenant Colonel Violet van Patten (Michelle Monaghan) can save Earth from impending attacks by Centipede, Pac-Man, Asteroids, and of course, Donkey Kong.

Faint praise be damned, this is the first time I’ve laughed in a Happy Madison film in years. No disrespect to James L. Brooks, Mike Binder, and Judd Apatow, but even though Spanglish, Reign Over Me, and Funny People don’t represent any of those directors at the height of their careers. Yet they all feel like masterpieces compared to the likes of Grown Ups, That’s My Boy, Jack and Jill, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, and I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry (possibly the most homophobic movie ever made).

Expanding Patrick Jean’s two-minute short about 8-bit creatures attacking New York City into 105 minutes must have been hard enough. But surprisingly, Sandler cohort screenwriters Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling have finally found a safety zone for Sandler fans of yore and the teeny poppers who still laugh at his outlandish antics. This also may be the softest PG-13-rated film his crew has ever produced. Believe it or not, there’s only one pee joke!

If there’s anything working against it, it’s the film’s insistence on us buying James as the President of the United States. After two Paul Blarts and Zookeeper, long gone are his days as a lovable oaf. Reruns of The King of Queens and his costarring turn in Hitch are as good as he was ever going to get. Gad almost wears out his welcome, but is nothing compared to the soon-to-be-Razzie-nominated turn by Dinklage. It’s a truly sad day when he is the absolute worst part of any production. At least his Game of Thrones costar Sean Bean doesn’t get killed off, something people love to do to him and I honestly was waiting for it to happen. Meanwhile, Brian Cox is given absolutely nothing to do but yell his lines while he’s made fun of for being “old.”

Sandler and Monaghan finally make a believable couple in a Sandler movie, but you still never once care whether they wind up together or not. And frankly, Sandler looks a little bored and disinterested in the whole thing before the credits role. Almost as if he was clocking the runtime in his head while shooting, just waiting for his paycheck to clear and he can move onto another miserable excuse for cinematic excrement. Thankfully, Columbus keeps the action moving along — once it finally starts — and the special effects are really fun to watch as all our favorite arcade games are brought to life. They look particularly nifty in 3D, only making them seem that more real.

The final word is that this is not necessarily good entertainment. But considering how awful we’ve come to expect from Sandler & Co, Pixels feels like a milestone for all involved. Except Dinklage. You’re still better off watching either Scott Pilgrim vs. the World or King of Kong.

Blu-ray Review: ‘Kung Fu Killer’

Movie: **** out of 5
Video: **** 1/2
Audio: **** 1/2
Extras: ***

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: ‘Kung Fu Killer’ Starring Donnie Yen on Blogcritics.

Just seeing Donnie Yen’s name grace the cover of any Blu-ray immediately puts expectations in check. Death defying stunt work, along with intricate and elaborate fight scenes pitted against decent characterization, you’re always in for a treat. Even if the story may fall flat, at least you know it’ll be a feast for the eyes. And Kung Fu Killer is no exception. Director Teddy Chan invests us with a kung fu film wrapped around the heart of a police procedural. You could say Donnie Yen is the Hannibal Lecter of the film, but this is no psychological thriller. We came to see fists fly and bones break, and that’s exactly what we get. Kung Fu Killer is available on Blu-ray July 21.

Kung Fu Killer, Teddy Chan, Donnie Yen, Charlie Young, Wang BaoqiangHahou Mo (Yen) has just walked into the Central Police District Headquarters and confesses to killing someone. Three years later, a car chase leads to a shootout and a dead body, but Madam Inspector Luk Yuen-Sum (Charlie Young) is informed that the cause of death was something else. Seeing the death reported on TV, Hahou demands to talk to Inspector Luk, because he knows who will die next. Turns out killer Fung Yu-Sau (Wang Baoqiang) is on the loose, taking out retired martial arts masters. Hahou wants out of prison in exchange for helping catch the killer, using his own martial arts expertise, and the help of some friends along the way. Fung won’t stop until all the masters are gone, with Hahou at the top of the list.

Well Go USA Blu-ray discs always suffer from the very same anomaly: banding. While some discs look worse than others, it’s always the one thing standing in the way of a perfect score. Color, contrast, detail, black levels — you name it — if it weren’t for the disc being on a 25GB disc, which would annihilate the problem, this would be a perfect disc. As for the audio, surrounds are put to great use for ambience, along with keeping directionality razor sharp. Deep LFE also gives every kick and punch the proper, well, punch. Dialogue is never drowned out, with the following audio options: Cantonese 5.1 or English DTS-HD Master Audio, and Spanish or French 5.1 Dolby Digital. But more than likely you’ll use one of the included subtitles available in English, Spanish, or French.

Kung Fu Killer, Teddy Chan, Donnie Yen, Charlie Young, Wang BaoqiangThe special features are short and sweet, showing behind-the-scenes footage, along with interviews with the cast and crew. The “Making Of” is broken into four segments: “Fight to the Top” (2:21), “The Spirit of Kung Fu” (2:30), “The Final Duel” (2:49), and “Legends of Martial Arts Film” (2:34). The last section is the best as they point out the kung fu/Chinese filmmaking royalty involved in the production. Something that’s also explained in an elongated pre-credits scene. To list them all, and why, would be a whole article in itself. The film’s “Trailer” (1:55) is also included.

Chan keeps the pace flying, leaving viewers barely enough time to catch their breath between fight scenes. Which could normally leave one feeling pulverized themselves if they weren’t so entertaining. With Yen as the action director, you should know what to expect, and the action manages to crescendo from scene to scene. The final showdown between Hahou and Fung is a sight to see and will satiate even the most hardened kung fu fan. The special features may be on the scant side, but the audio and video are top notch, making sure we always see and hear every drop of sweat or breaking bone, ensuring a good time to be had by anyone who picks up a copy of Kung Fu Killer.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Movie Review: “Trainwreck”


**** out of 5
125 minutes
Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, language and some drug use
Universal Pictures

Article first published at The Reel Place.

Transitioning from TV to film has to be a daunting task. I can only imagine how much harder it might be if you’re a woman. Especially in comedy. However, it comes as no surprise that Amy Schumer does it flawlessly in Trainwreck — it doesn’t hurt that she wrote it herself. And teaming up with director Judd Apatow (40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up) could have been a stroke of genius, if it weren’t for the fact that the film gets mired in his excessive runtimes. Most comedies should not be more than 100 minutes. Get in, make us laugh, get out. Schumer may have higher sights than that, but the pacing is all off, in true Apatow fashion, keeping the film from being the true delight it’s trying mercilessly to be.

Twenty-three years ago, Amy’s (Schumer) parents are getting divorced. Her father Gordon (Colin Quinn) instills in her the belief that monogamy is impossible. Now an adult, Amy is a successful career woman working at a men’s magazine, with her boss Dianna (Tilda Swinton) coaching her into a promotion. Her dating life consists of endless promiscuous encounters and hard partying, the closest thing she has to a normal relationship is going to movies with Steven (John Cena), before they make it back to his place for sexy times. However, Amy may have met her match — literally — when Dianna assigns her to write an article about Dr. Aaron Conners (Bill Hader), a big time sports doctor. Now, Amy must face the challenges of arrested development and her fear of commitment if she wants to be successful both at work and her dysfunctional love life.

Good news for Schumer, Trainwreck does not live up to its title. Surrounding herself with some of the funniest people around — i.e. other comedians — and having Apatow directing never hurts. Except for the aforementioned pacing issue. I know Apatow loves his comedy/drama mashups, but there’s no excuse for how long his movies always are. With that said, it’s a good thing we love the characters as much as we do or it could have turned into another vanity project run amok. Luckily, things never venture that far. Schumer asserts herself into a starring rom-com lead admirably, and throws most of her inhibitions out the window. Something that won’t be a shock for anyone who is already a fan or has seen even one skit from her Comedy Central show Inside Amy Schumer. The only real shock was finding out Swinton played Dianna. You’d never know it was her.

The biggest surprise is actually how funny Cena and LeBron James are. Absolute scene stealers, period. They both score huge laughs with their deadpan delivery. Even if the biggest laugh comes from Hader harkening back to his Saturday Night Live years in a reference to The Exorcist. Be prepared to get put through the wringer emotionally. The most susceptible to rom-coms will be in tears about three-quarters through, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Don’t worry, Schumer’s trademark wit and raunch remains intact making for some big laughs, even if they’re in shorter supply than you might think. This aspect does give Schumer a chance to shine and show that she’s more than just a comedienne.

While maybe not the masterpiece the buzz made it out to be — it sat at 100 percent on RottenTomatoes for awhile — it is certainly better than Apatow’s last two films. Fans will be pleased, the rom-com demographic will be twitterpated, and Apatow’s followers will be happy to see him back to doing what he does best. The Schumer/Apatow power-comedy combo makes for a hilarious time at the movies.