Mission: Impossible III

Mission Impossible 3Now that JJ Abrams is knee-deep in the production of Star Wars Episode VII, I thought it would be a nice time to step back and look at some of the films he has directed in order to get a better sense of what he might bring to the table with his take on George Lucas’ beloved franchise.  After cutting his teeth in a several episodes of Felicity and Alias, he brought his signature style of kinetic hyper-realism to the pilot episode of Lost, which is still one of the most harrowing two hours of television I can recall seeing.  With the third installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise on the verge of being lost forever in development hell, producer and star Tom Cruise called Abrams in to save the day and get the film back on track.  And what a track it turned out to be.

Abrams essentially approaches the movie from the standpoint of a 13-year-old boy who wants to see big-screen heroes pull off big-time action.  With rarely a dull moment in its two-hour runtime, the movie focuses on a now-retired Ethan Hunt (Cruise) who is eager to leave the life of a super-spy behind and focus on new pursuits.  Chief among his new responsibilities is his soon-to-be wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) who hasn’t the first clue that her hunky, ripped-to-shreds fiancee is not, in fact, a lowly transportation data analyst.  How the women in these movies are so utterly clueless is beyond me, and in many ways the rest of the film could basically pass for a True Lies sequel.  Or reboot.  Either one works.

Believe it or not, Hunt soon manages to find himself knee-deep in the throes of his former life after his former trainee Lindsey (Keri Russel, taking a cue from Samuel Jackson in Deep Blue Sea by unexpectedly recusing herself from most of the movie) is abducted by a really bad guy named Owen Davian who wants to do really bad things.  To the whole world.  For some reason.  But few people can pull off a barely unhinged psychopath better than Philip Seymour Hoffman, and his turn as the villain almost steals the show from Cruise and company.

Group Photo Time!What ensues is a breathless globetrotting adventure involving all the typical Mission: Impossible tropes we have all come to know and love: car chases, double-crosses, clever masks, insane stunts, nail-biting infiltrations, and wisecracking computer nerd sidekicks.  Abrams runs the gamut here, from the ol’ “loop the security camera footage” trick to having Tom Cruise himself jump off skyscrapers for kicks, all while keeping the action flowing at a brisk pace that walks a fine line between engaging and overpowering.  And that’s the memo that John Woo somehow missed when he made Mission: Impossible II.  People don’t show up to these movies for long, slow buildups and mano-a-mano slow-motion standoffs.  They just want a hero to accomplish amazing things in the face of (wait for it…) impossible odds.  Abrams knows this, and keeps the action building from one setpiece to the next while also crafting believable, if somewhat thin, relationships between all parties involved.  The final showdown between Hunt and Davian is a bit anticlimactic, but the movie as a whole is a thoroughly engaging action romp with just enough lens flares so as to not leave the audience blinded.

Rating:[rating:4/5]

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Oblivion

OblivionMovie-Critics are calling Oblivion a mixed bag of sparse sci-fi plot threads strung together loosely and liberally.  They’re right.  I expected as much.  After all, what ground could the post-apocalyptic thriller have left to cover?  A future decades ahead.  Earth laid to waste.  Little to no survivors.  Futuristic machinery patrolling a ravaged globe.  Human technicians assigned to operate and repair the machines.

That’s the premise of Oblivion, which I suspect will mirror the upcoming thrillers After Earth and Elysium to some degree.  From The Matrix to 2001 to Moon to Wall-E to I, Robot and on and on, I could compare Director Joseph Kosinski’s film to many a science-fiction pictures of past.  That doesn’t hinder his film at all.  I anticipated I would spot similarities.  The film’s title even suggests where the story is headed.  Yet Kosinski’s canvas opens with mystery and intrigue that leads to grand places and ideas, even if they’ve all been mined before.

Tom Cruise plays Jack Reacher Harper, a pilot in the futuristic Earth, and one of the few survivors from an alien invasion led by Scavengers.  The Scavengers took out half of the moon causing vast planetary natural disasters, and humanity responded with nuclear warfare.  In the end, the aliens left, but Earth became a devastated habitat full of nuclear radiation.  Humans moved to a space station while Earth regenerates its ability to sustain life for a large population.

Huddled clans of Scavengers still roam the grounds.  Thus an army of government-produced drones monitor and control enemy activity.  But sometimes the drones are shot down or malfunction.  Harper, a drone repairman, keeps the drones up and running.  Outside of his job, he lives above the clouds in a technically advanced floating home base with his girlfriend and assistant, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), who monitors his movement on the ground level.  She also communicates with the command base from which she receives orders including Harper’s daily itinerary.

During a routine maintenance scout, Harper finds a radio beacon activated by Scavengers.  Questions abound.  What or who are they calling?  When they attempt to capture the leery pilot, Harper must investigate what little he knows about the Scavengers, what they might be planning, and how they might be tied to his dreams about a mysterious woman (Olga Kurylenko) whom he does not know but seems to remember.

oblivion-searchFurther developments lead the narrative into even bigger territory, and most of what is offered has been recycled but not necessarily for the worse.  Kosinski’s film is set apart from its film-brethren by its visual landscape.  This is an amazing movie to look at.  I’m shocked this film wasn’t converted and released in 3D.  I admire a director and studio not following the herd for an extra buck.  Lush nature is contrasted with the decay of nuked civilization, and giant hydrocopter versus computerized war drone battles couldn’t be composed any better.

The story eventually introduces a colony of humans led by the great Morgan Freeman, but unfortunately, much of the supporting human characters are underused.  Cruise leads the show, and proves ever-capable, but if Oblivion falls under the weight of its grand ambition, it’s because the script misses the underlying human factor.  The film focuses less on humanity’s impact, and more on the impact to the Harper character who must come to terms with the painful reality of his place and identity in a devastated world.

The plot doesn’t exactly move at a fast clip either.  Oblvion, while featuring some stellar visuals and action, meanders more often than drives.  Harper investigates location after location.  He returns to home base and discusses his findings with Victoria again and again.  The movie reaches the halfway-marker before really diving into some meaty ‘events.’  There’s a lot of eye candy throughout the film’s entirety, but this movie needed to pick a destination and operate via a concrete route.  This is where the film borrows heavily from other films and that’s okay.  But choose some key check points in the story along the way.

Kosinski’s Oblivion is still a film to admire in many respects.  Despite insanely good visuals, I really felt like the film didn’t have the feel of a studio product.  It felt like the objective of a filmmaker brought up under some great sci-fi movies who set out to pave his own from used parts.  He doesn’t deliver slam-bang-pow-wow entertainment.  He gives us a thoughtful action film supported by a magnificent production design and visuals that will last long after the story fades from memory.

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Summer 2013 Preview

The blockbuster season is so close you can smell the shrapnel.  Luckily for us movie fans the studios have begun trotting out some of the big tentpoles early ever since the year 2011 when Fast Five broke the mold and opened a week before the typical Summer launch which has been the first weekend of May for over a decade.  The Vin Diesel-led action-sequel turned out to be a roaring success, even besting final grosses of the almighty Thor which kicked off the ‘season-proper.’  Now the studios are realizing audiences will pay to see a big movie any time of year if the anticipation is there.

I haven’t done this for a few years, but I miss the optimism in looking ahead to the movie season rather than the disappointment in looking back.  What movies are on my radar this summer?  Actually quite a heap.  Nearly every weekend has a movie I’m eager to see which is likely a major problem for studios as supply is very high this season and the competition will be fierce.  Hopefully my adoring wife will hold my hand through them all… or most.  I’m sure there will be big winners and major losers in this bunch.  But the real question is: will there be any surprises?  And which am I looking forward to most?

The Dark Horses:

pangPain and Gain (4/26): We have seen a lot of Dwayne Johnson lately.  And he will be around a lot more yet.  With Snitch and the G.I. Joe sequel still in theaters, he’s about to star in an uber-violent action-comedy from Michael Bay about criminal bodybuilders.  Johnson co-stars with Mark Wahlberg, Ed Harris and Tony Shaloub.  The trailers for the film definitely have some personality and signature Bay visuals—tan human beings drenched in sweat (or is that the camera lens), gunplay, car chases and explosions.  But I’m not sold yet.  The film looks a little more niche than expected and may play just as well at home if it’s any good at all.  TRAILER.

greatgatsThe Great Gatsby (5/10): It’s not the first title that comes to mind when I think ‘summer.’  That might be because the studio moved it from its Christmas award season slot last year to May 10th where there will be less… competition.  Right.  The trailer looks visually arresting and I’m surprised to see the film getting a 3D release.  As a film adaptation directed by Baz Luhrrman and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, this could be fantastic, but I’m not entirely sure it will break out at this time of year. TRAILER.

This-is-the-End-2013This is the End (6/12): A slew of comedic actors who’ve all shared the screen together in some capacity star as themselves caught up in an apocalypse.  Seth Rogen, Michael Cera, James Franco, Craig Robinson, Jay Baruchel, Aziz Ansari, Paul Rudd, Jonah Hill, Jason Segel, Mindy Kaling, Danny McBride… Yes, they’re all in this movie and they all play their celebrity selves.  Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg wrote the film.  They also wrote Superbad and Pineapple Express.  And Green Hornet… and The Watch… If you are still reading they also wrote Drillbit Taylor (Remember that movie?  Owen Wilson was in it.  No one saw it…)  Their latest movie, looks like an intriguing concept…which could in fact turn out to be The Watch all over again (and that movie was a complete disaster).  But the trailers have me convinced this could be funny… or maybe too raunchy for my tastes.  Sadly this is one of the few comedy choices we have this coming season so we can only hope. TRAILER.

The-WolverineThe Wolverine (7/26): What?? Not in my top ten?? No.  Ever since Director Darren Arronofsky famously dropped out of the this dark prequel/sequel/standalone/spinoff or whatever it is, my anticipation went down.  I want to see it, but I’m not particularly excited.  James Mangold is a capable director.  But Walk the Line and Knight and Day aren’t exactly titles that tell me he was the right choice to revive this installment after the dumping ground that was X-Men Origins: Wolverine.  Hugh Jackman has the chops to still deliver a great solo Wolverine movie, and the trailer looks pretty good, but how can a trailer for this movie not ‘look’ good?  TRAILER.

despicable-me-2-picture03Despicable Me 2 (7/3): I have to admit I really enjoyed the original surprise hit featuring the voice talent of Steve Carell.  Will this movie be a simple cash grab or a worthy follow-up?  I don’t know.  Time will tell.  Sequels to animated films generally don’t retain the magic of the predecessors, but I have no doubt that the writers could come up with something truly special.  Or maybe those yellow minions will be incredibly annoying the second time around.  TRAILER.

the-heat-trailerThe Heat (6/28):  Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock as hardcore law enforcement?  Sounds like comedy to me.  But will this movie have enough wit in the script or will it be an onslaught of profanity substituted for genuine ideas?  I believe both of these actresses are capable of delivering a very entertaining comedy and would likely make a dynamic pair, but I’m on the fence and entirely not blown away by the trailer. TRAILER.

LonerangThe Lone Ranger (7/3): This actually looks very entertaining, regardless of the naysayers.  This honestly just looks like a fun movie—batty, goofy, action-packed, impressively shot.  But it still has an iffy air about it and so it didn’t quite make my top ten list.  But Johnny Depp as Tonto strikes me as awesome.  Armie Hammer as the Ranger?  Hopefully a star is made out of him.  Plus Gore Verbinski is directing, and if he can recreate the magic of his first Pirates of the Caribbean film, then we may have something here.  TRAILER.

MonstersUMonsters University (6/21): Pixar Studios have been wanting sequels left and right all of a sudden.  It’s been off-putting for me as they typically come up with great original storytelling.  The teaser trailer for this Monsters, Inc. prequel also rubbed me the wrong way portraying monster college to children as a mindless wild party atmosphere (just without the booze).  Then a follow-up trailer filmed as a university advertisement was a bit more daring and original.  I think Monsters Inc was a very solid movie, but I’m not enthused for another.  TRAILER.

AftEarAfter Earth (6/7): My biggest question mark of the season… M. Night Shyamalan’s After Earth.  The studio hasn’t been putting his name in the ads.  Why?  Because you probably laughed out loud when you read his name.  The man has been cursed.  At one point in his career everything he touched turned to gold.  Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs.  He was the next Spielberg.  Then… The Village, Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender.  Make it stop!  After Earth, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller starring Will Smith and Jaden Smith looks both good and bad.  I don’t know.  I suppose if this wasn’t a Will Smith-starrer I would look the other way.  I don’t see it as a resurgence for Shyamalan, but anything is possible.  Maybe it’s just that southern drawl in the actors’ voices that has me confused.  TRAILER.

world-war-z-trailerWorld War Z (6/21): I’m a big fan of The Walking Dead TV show mainly because of the high production values and searing drama amongst the human cast.  World War Z, which appears to be a very loose adaptation of its novel source, looks like a solid suspenseful ride.  But I have my doubts about Marc Forester directing (not to mention the highly-public troubled production)—he was behind Quantum of Solace and Finding Neverland.  The zombies look like dodgy CGI creations on speed, sort of like I am Legend.  Brad Pitt stars which adds some leading man power, but despite a promising trailer, I have a feeling Forester will deliver a completely digital film that misses the human element, the realism, and the drama.  Will I still see it?  Um, yeah.  TRAILER.

The Top Ten:

1183878 - WHITE HOUSE DOWN10) White House Down (6/28):  Okay.  I just saw Antonie Fuqua’s version of this movie and it was bad.  But come on.  The trailer for this Channing Tatum-Jamie Foxx version looks surprisingly good.  I’m game for another White House takedown movie even if it stars Channing Tatum because Director Roland ‘Independence Day‘ Emmerich is taking it down… and he has a profitable history in doing so.  Hopefully the villains, the heroes, the script, the plot, the visual effects and everything else in between are better than Olympus Has FallenTRAILER.

Fast-Furious-6-Official-Super-Bowl9) Fast & Furious 6 (5/24): Remember how Fast Five came out two years ago and blew away expectations?  I have a feeling returning Director Justin Lin will take it to a whole new level with this sixth installment.  I can’t believe I’m writing these words.  I mean, the awful Tokyo Drift was three movies ago!  Actually, Fast Five didn’t blow me away like everyone else, but I did enjoy it enough to be very excited for the entire cast returning for even bigger action, bigger chases, and even further ridiculousness.  Just don’t try and follow the titles of these movies, because they only want you to be confused.  TRAILER.

elysium-neil-blomkamp8)  Elysium (8/9): —UPDATE: The trailer arrived and it did not disappoint.  In fact, I should be moving this film higher on my list.  It looks great!— I have not seen a single frame of a trailer for this movie, but the production stills have me intrigued enough.  Plus the Oscar-nominated hit District 9 was my favorite movie of 2009, and Director Neill Blomkamp is now back with this new sci-fi action-thriller starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster.  What’s it about?  IMDB lists the synopsis as: “Set in the year 2159, where the very wealthy live on a man-made space station while the rest of the population resides on a ruined Earth, a man takes on a mission that could bring equality to the polarized worlds.”  Sounds good to me! TRAILER.

now_you_see_me_xlg7) Now You See Me (5/31): This trailer jumped out of nowhere and arrested me at gunpoint.  Magicians who rob banks, but for what purpose?  Is there something greater going on behind the curtain?  Count me in.  It has the intrigue of The Prestige with the fun of The Italian Job.  Plus the cast is absolutely top notch.  Something good in the script must have attracted them all.  Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Morgan Freeman, Isla Fisher, Michael Caine, Mark Ruffalo.  Ticket.  Bought.  TRAILER.

2_Guns_26) 2 Guns (8/2): An action-comedy in vein of Lethal Weapon starring Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg.  It looks action-packed, but most surprisingly, it looks funny!  I can’t remember the last time Washington ran for some laughs.  This has all the right ingredients for a good-old buddy-action-flick and also looks to be a fresh break from all the comic book heroes and science fiction running amok.  TRAILER.

oblivion201212109117055) Oblivion (4/19): Summer starts very early this year and Tom Cruise is prime set to deliver a sprawling sci-fi actioner about a post-apocalyptic Earth and the aftermath of humanity leaving the planet (which is also the synopsis of After Earth).  Joseph Kosinski directed and the man is a visual talent, but can the story also deliver?  His previous film was Tron: Legacy which I actually enjoyed a lot.  I think Oblivion has grown on my radar the more ads I see for it.  Plus Cruise rarely stars in a bad film, especially his big budget fare.  I’m in.  TRAILER.

three-new-posters-for-pacific-rim-123740-02-470-754) Pacific Rim (7/12): Okay.  I know.  Giant robots versus giant monsters battling to the death.  I know!  But come on.  There’s people inside the giant robots manning controls.  And Charlie Hunnam who is a force to be reckoned with on Sons of Anarchy has what is potentially his big breakout role here.  Plus!—this is a Guillermo del Toro film who is a fantasy genius and he creates incredible creatures and worlds.  He’s the man behind Blade II, Pan’s Labyrinth, and the Hellboy movies.  I think he’s got us covered.  Pacific Rim looks like Transformers meets Godzilla with hopefully more brains than either of those.  And it looks awesome!!  TRAILER.

ironman3-poster-jumbo-jpg_1621423) Iron Man 3 (5/3): This ‘proper’ season kickoff will be huge.  Iron Man 3 luckily has the advantage of looking like a sequel to The Avengers (which everyone loved, and that film nearly doubled Iron Man’s previous domestic audience) rather than the mild disappointment that was Iron Man 2 three years ago.  New movie.  New director.  New tone.  And it looks like Tony Stark may have a lot to lose this time around.  I swear looking back—did anything actually happen in Iron Man 2?  Now the chips really start to crumble for Stark and it looks like an absolute blast.  TRAILER.

STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS2) Star Trek Into Darkness (5/17): J.J. Abrams is the new deity of dorks.  But cool people love him too.  So now there really isn’t such a thing as dorks anymore.  Abrams is a genius… yes I’m in that camp.  And no, I haven’t seen Lost.  But his movies get better and better.  Mission Impossible III, Star Trek, and Super 8.  Soon he will deliver Star Wars Episode VII.  But for now let’s talk Star Trek and the upcoming sequel.  It looks amazing and I’ve only grown more fond of Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot over the years.  He did everything right in making Star Trek accessible to a mainstream audience.  The film was action-packed, funny, witty, well-acted, and the nods were everywhere for hardcore fans.  But if you missed them as a casual moviegoer, you still loved the movie!  So how can I not be ecstatic for the new Star TrekTRAILER.

mosposter1) Man of Steel (6/14): As I’m typing this I feel absolutely blown away that Man of Steel is in my number one spot.  I’m not a Superman fan!  I just don’t dig the character.  I don’t dislike him.  I just think he’s not that exciting of a character.  He’s basically indestructible, so where is the fun in that?  But Christopher Nolan is producing.  Zack Snyder of 300 and Watchmen is directing.  And the trailers look… amazing.  I’m honestly still skeptical, but I can’t deny that I’m most interested to see how this one turns out.  Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, and Henry Cavill (as Clark Kent)… that’s a solid cast.  The visuals looks great.  The emotion looks in place.  The story and themes seem to be just right.  It has that Nolan-feel.  Maybe that’s it.  We had this same anticipation experience back in 2006 when Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns was set to usher in a new era for Superman.  The movie was a box office disappointment (only because Warner Bros spent way too much on the film because it performed exactly the same as Batman Begins the year prior) and people went from worshiping the film to outright hating it over the years.  I don’t know how people keep repeating these phases in moviedom.  The same thing happened to Indiana Jones 4 and Terminator 3 and Prometheus… and okay I’ll stop there.  But I really think Nolan and Snyder will deliver a Superman movie that finally makes me a fan.  TRAILER.

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Jack Reacher

jack-reacher-poster-internationalThe film adaptation Jack Reacher is guilty of a lot of crimes, but perhaps its largest is that of bad timing.  This thriller looses the mystery of a mass shooting in which five innocent victims wind up the target of a deranged assassin one fateful morning.  How this eerie resemblance to real life of late hasn’t blown up bigger in reaction to the film boggles the cortex.

From the picture’s outset, the audience knows the identity of the real perpetrator, but investigators follow a concrete trail of breadcrumbs leading directly to a military sniper, James Barr (Joseph Sikora), complete with a mental history that resulted in the cold-blooded murders of four army cohorts.  Barr demands the feds find someone to assistant his defender, Helen (Rosamund Pike) in order to find the truth.  He calls on Jack Reacher, a military cop-drifter, living entirely off the grid.  The audience only views the back of Mr. Reacher’s noggin for his first few scenes.  Why is he so secretive?  Because he’s a hard-boiled limb-snapper with nothing to lose.  You think he’s a hero?  He is not a hero.  He doesn’t care about the law.  He doesn’t care about proof.  He only cares about what’s right.  Yes, you’ve seen the ads.  They might as well have said, “Dear bad guys: he will find you.  He will kill you.”

The noggin belongs to superstar Tom Cruise, whose career has bounced around the building blocks for the last eight years.  They love him.  They hate him.  They tolerate him.  They love him again.  They hate him again.  Luckily none of that matters as Cruise has always brought 100 percent to his work—even made-for-cable thrills such as Jack Reacher, which gloriously miscasts Cruise, drives through cliches with a snowplow, runs about twenty minutes too long, and somehow manages to still reward audiences with plenty of bang for their buck.

Even though Cruise would be considered pint-sized against author Lee Child’s hulking intimidator from his Reacher novel series, the actor still brings charisma and believability (as far as any believability can go in this film) to the part.  Did I believe he could lay waste to five perps bare-handed and single-handedly?  Absolutely.  Do I think he can take a baseball bat to the back of the skull and still maneuver?  Hmmm.

JACK REACHERBut let’s be honest here—Cruise blows up any action movie he touches in a good way, even when he doesn’t belong.  Jack Reacher is a prime fit for him if we didn’t already know this was a franchise originally intended for a Dwayne Johnson-type.  Once audiences get past that glare, they can settle into a grimy thriller from writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, a frequent collaborator with Director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, Valkyrie) and now of course Cruise (the upcoming All You Need is Kill and Mission Impossible 5).

McQuarrie lets Reacher settle in a placid violence.  The action often results in painfully brutal imagery.  The shooting.  The fisticuffs.  Then there’s the menace of his villains, Jai Courtney (the actual shooter) and the brilliant insanity of filmmaker Werner Herzog who steps in front of the camera as the maniacal, foggy-eyed embodiment of evil referred to as the Zec.  The performances throughout the film range from fair, to good, to wild.  It’s actually all quite fascinating.  Then McQuarrie underscores the events with unmistakable dread.  Somehow his movie escaped with a PG-13 rating probably because there’s little blood.  But the violence is blunt, brutal and lingering.  Think Taken and Bourne on a depressant, in which the action doesn’t cut and jump around to a head-spin.  Instead McQuarrie let’s the moments of violence build and linger.

This is where the writer-director somehow blends the formulaic proceedings of the plot with the odd dose of casting and mixes in his bitter penchant for the deep-rooted cold, making Jack Reacher an unexpected kick to the gut.  Is Reacher, the enforcer, a hero?  The question is never exactly answered, but I’m guessing as a potential franchise for Cruise, the powers that be will think so.

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Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to skip all of the potential Oscar-caliber fare out there and go for some straight-up sheer entertainment.  With Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, the bar for exciting megawatt blockbuster couldn’t be set any higher—literally.

Tom Cruise returns to his globetrotting ways as IMF super-spy Ethan Hunt, on the run with three other fugitive agents after a bombing at the Kremlin building has the team framed as terrorists, and causes intense friction between the U.S. and Russia.  The President initiates Ghost Protocol to shut down the entire IMF Agency.  Only Hunt and his team can stop the real terrorist, Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), an extremist bent on worldwide nuclear destruction.

From the film’s opening, the excitement kicks off and rarely lets up, delivering relenting pulse-pounding action sequences.  This is Cruise’s most accomplished action film to date, and that’s saying something.  The man, regardless of his tarnished off-screen persona, is one heck of a performer.  If this fourth installment of the M:I franchise doesn’t reignite his star power, I don’t know what will.  At nearly 50-years-old, Cruise delivers a physical performance that is often stunning.  Bruised and tossed around the screen, the man flies around this film like a winged insect—running, kicking, punching, ascending, flipping, falling, flailing, you name it.  The film could have been titled Run Tommy Run.

And what about those impressive action sequences?  This is a wall-to-wall assault of a movie, but the action never becomes tedious or dull.  It totally and completely serves the story, keeping the plot in a constant motion, and invigorating this franchise with a heap of fresh and interesting possibilities.  Credit Brad Bird, a former Pixar director of The Incredibles and Ratatouille, for making a live-action cartoon that never once feels cartoonish.  The picture is simultaneously gritty and relaxed.  Bird finds just the right tone for his movie, returning the series to a team-oriented picture rather than just another Tom Cruise vehicle.

Actors Paula Patton, Jeremy Renner, and the comedic Simon Pegg round out the team quite nicely.  Everyone plays a crucial role to the events of the film.  I was not at all surprised to find this fresh change.  Cruise has consistently made every Mission: Impossible film entirely unique and different, utilizing a new director for each installment, for better or worse.  Brian De Palma delivered a twisty plot with the first mission.  John Woo excelled with balletic action sequences that took precedence over the storyline in M:I-2.  J.J. Abrams delved into a personal quest for Ethan Hunt against a cutthroat adversary in the third outing.  For Ghost Protocol, Brad Bird seeks to tip the scales for extreme blockbuster entertainment, gaining top-dollar out of every shot, and reinvigorating the team spirit of the franchise.  Even with a villain in Hendricks that seems more like an afterthought than a real threat, unlike Philip Seymour Hoffman’s menace from the 2006 film, M:I-4 still fires on all cylinders because Bird keeps the threat immediate rather than looming.

I was treated to this film in IMAX format.  30 minutes of the film was shot natively in IMAX.  The towering picture for certain sequences could described as none other than absolutely stunning.  The sequence featuring Cruise ascending the Burj Khalifa tower using questionable suction gloves is a scene that will be talked about for a long time.  Experiencing it in IMAX added to the intensity and vertigo.  Rather unbelievably, the scene was apparently filmed on the actual tower with Cruise actually dangling from it 130-some stories above ground.  How will another sequel top this?  I don’t know.  I’m calling mission impossible on that one.

As for this franchise, it’s reached an incredible high with Bird at the helm.  The series has never been better.  Action movies in general have rarely been better.  And that is no easy feat, as this somewhat underrated series has consistently delivered the goods over the last 15 years.  Lackluster villain complaint aside, this Mission is probably the most entertaining film all of 2011 has to offer, and you’d be crazier than Tom Cruise to miss it.

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Days of Thunder

Days of ThunderTop Gun Days of Thunder, from director Tony Scott, is a pretty decent action/drama movie about a plucky, hotshot fighter jet pilot NASCAR driver, played by Tom Cruise, and his bitter journey to exorcize a few personal demons in the cockpit on the race track while trying to balance a newfound romance with a pretty astrophysicist doctor.  Of course there’s a healthy dose of competition from his frenemy-with-a-clever-nickname Iceman Rowdy, and a healthy dose of high-speed flight race scenes, a crash or two, and enough close calls to have your nails digging into the seat.

Ok, so it’s not the most original movie out there, but Days of Thunder is a perfectly passable by-the-numbers late-80’s dude flick.  Tom Cruise plays our unfortunately-named protagonist Cole Trickle with all the vintage Tom Cruiseness you could hope for.  He knows he’s one of the biggest stars in the world, and from time to time the frame can barely contain the sheer amount of smugness on display.  Filling out the cast is a couple of acting giants–the Obi-Wan Kenobi to Trickle’s Luke Skywalker, Nicole Kidman as the no-way-she’s-old-enough-to-have-completed-med-school doctor, and even some B-listers like Randy Quaid, Cary Elwes, and Fred Thompson.  The movie is kind of a who’s who for movie stars in 1990, and for that reason alone, Days of Thunder is worth watching.

Days of Thunder: Cruise, Kidman

Now that's how you do product placement.

The basic idea here is as predictable as one would expect, and if you’re in doubt even for one moment how things will end up when the credits roll, it’s back to movie-watching-101 for you.  Our hero Trickle (it’s hard to even write that without laughing out loud) starts off as a disgraced race car driver eager to get back in the saddle, while his would-be mentor wants nothing to do with race car driving anymore.  But sure enough, Cruise is soon cruising (get it?  No?  You didn’t watch the trailer, did you?) around NASCAR tracks at 190 mph, dodging tires and sparring with rednecks for the elusive checkered flag.  His old mentor gets on his case for taking too many risks, and–you guessed it–Cruise’s newfound racing career is brought to a sudden halt–a trickle, if you will–when he crashes one too many times and ends up in the hospital along with racing nemesis Rowdy.

Will the two solve their differences?  Will the pretty doctor fall for the crazy scientologist?  Will Robert Duvall ever have a role as good as Tom Hagen?  It’s not rocket science, people.  It’s not even finger painting.  But it is actually a lot of fun.  Watching stock cars zoom around, crash into walls, and explode into tiny bits is a joy to behold, and it’s fun watching these A-Listers overact all the way to the bank.  Tony Scott’s fast-paced overblown directorial style is in full effect here, and as long as there’s a bucket of popcorn and 12-pack of Mello Yello handy there’s really nothing no way not to mindlessly enjoy Days of Thunder.

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Knight and Day

If “Knight and Day” does anything particularly well, it proves that star-power is absolutely crucial in elevating haphazard writing.  Any hack writer can jot down “Action sequence. Car chase.” and proceed with details regarding grandiose explosion after explosion without one shred of an idea on how to pen stretches of dialogue or convincing human interaction.  Sometimes actors have to fill in the gaps, and their natural talent and improvisation can jack up a lazy script.  Such is the case with the overly-amplified vehicle starring the aging Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz, two veterans in a movie about ten years too late for them, and still looking pretty good for their age.  Heck, who am I kidding?  We have ‘The Expendables’ ready to wreak havoc in a few months, so maybe Cruise and Diaz are shining in their prime.  Either way, their seniority is only one of many winks at the audience throughout “Knight and Day.”

I’ve heard all the rumors surrounding the pain and sweat (and multiple writers) that went into getting this movie to the screen.  While I’m sorry to say the final product isn’t a masterpiece for anyone involved, it does what it can.  I wonder how many writers it actually takes to deliver next to nothing as far as the plot goes.  Seriously, the plot seems to be recycled out of Cruise’s own ‘Mission: Impossible III.’  The punchline of a star turns the punchline on the audience, playing an eccentric and wildfire secret agent, Roy Miller, involving an unsuspecting mechanic, June (Cameron Diaz), in the middle of a one-man war against the F.B.I. (or so they claim they are).  Why is Roy on the run and bagging a bunch of other agents with machine guns?  Well, because they are after a new scientific breakthrough that can antiquate the world’s primary energy sources, and Miller may be out to protect it–or steal it.  For better or worse, June is Miller’s captive, and no matter where she runs, she can’t escape trouble.  To her own dismay and hesitation, she bargains for Miller’s ‘protection’ as he sends her into firestorm of one-man army battles involving warehouse shootouts, freeway chase shootouts, and jumping out of airliners probably involving shootouts.  If you want action, you have action and then some.

Saving this mess of a script is primarily Cruise, whose charisma and self-parody adds a necessary charm and hilarity to the proceedings.  The man knows his current public image, and the only way to absolve it is to acknowledge it and play it up for all it’s worth.  There’s little to no depth to the character of Miller, only a lunatic surface that could be real or fake. Let’s face it, he’s a secret agent and everything he does is for a reason.  Maybe he’s not crazy, but he spends most of his time killing off enemies in the most outrageously dangerous fashion at his disposal.  In fact, I think many audiences will be surprised how violent the film is.  Cruise acts like he’s finished a load of laundry after killing off 30 assassins.  Diaz starts out shocked by all the chaos early on in the film’s opening sequence where Cruise single-handedly takes out a plane full of killers and proceeds to land the airliner.  Gradually she becomes engulfed in her secret agent boy toy and eventually finds herself taking part in the mayhem.  Comedy holds it all together, as Cruise and Diaz riff off each other quite nicely.  They don’t so much create characters as much as exchange banter and crooked looks.  Surprisingly, that’s enough to keep “Knight and Day” in check.  The romance goes out the window–there’s no wild passionate love scenes or heated chemistry between the two–they simply coexist in this whacked out adventure.

James Mangold directed the movie, and to my surprise you would have no idea.  The man has “Walk the Line” and “3:10 to Yuma (2007)” to his credit.   Why he decided to jump into a loosely-plotted action-extravaganza is beyond me.  He may have had a heck of a time divulging in sugar-filled summer filmmaking.  The stars couldn’t be of higher-caliber or more glamorous, the worldwide locations for filming probably made for quite the treat, and the action sequences allow him to go as big as he possibly can.  He pulls it off surprisingly well.  I really have no complaints as generic summer action-pictures go.  This one is for laughs, audacious stunts, and two veteran actors taking ten years off their age or more.  It’s no ‘True Lies,’ but it’s about on par with ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith.’

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2010 Summer Movie Preview

I have to thank TacoGrande and his latest poll for inspiring me with the idea for this post.  As  the blockbuster Summer season is about to kick off next weekend with the release of “Iron Man 2,” I thought I’d take a look at my top-10 (sort of) most anticipated movies over the May-August frame, where studios release some of the biggest films of the year.

10. ROBIN HOOD (5/14):  In all honesty I have little interest in another take on Robin Hood.  But with Russell Crowe returning to his ‘Gladiator’ roots, and Ridley Scott behind the lens, maybe there’s hope for this mega-budget epic.  Ridley is trying to go the ‘King Arthur’ route and present his take on Robin Hood as the ‘real story behind the legend.’  ‘King Arthur’ was a domestic flop, and Scott’s own “Kingdom of Heaven” starring the star-that-never-was Orlando Bloom was a box-office disaster when it kicked off Summer, 2005. The previews for “Robin Hood” look a little bit like a montage of tamed battle sequences taken right out of ‘Gladiator,’ but I can’t deny being intrigued by a major epic reteaming of Ridley and Russell.  I really do want to know, however, what happened to the project’s original incarnation of “Nottingham” where the story was reversed and focused on Crowe playing a heroic version of the Sheriff of Nottingham.  Regardless, this movie looks epic, and the action should be great.  Add in the brilliant Cate Blanchett as Maid Marian, and this movie could potentially be awesome.

9. THE LAST AIRBENDER (7/2): The other “Avatar” movie hits theaters over July 4th weekend in converted 3D.  I have to admit that I know nothing of the anime series, but the previews alone have swayed me into an intrigued state, especially with M. Night Shyamalan taking a stab at the material.  While the infamous director has given us enough reason to hate anything he touches over the last few years, we can always look back to a happier time with Signs, Unbreakable, and The Sixth Sense.  Hopefully he’s got enough ‘bad-movie-itis’ out of his system to deliver an entertaining adventure film. I have faith in him yet, but this man seriously needs some salvation of credibility, and hopefully this movie is at least a small revival for him.  Visually, this movie looks plenty fun.

8. SPLICE (6/4): Sci-Fi has to be my favorite genre, and while I can’t tell if “Splice” is going to be a good movie per se, I can say that the premise intrigues me.  A month ago I knew nothing about this project.  After seeing a few trailers, I’m sold on the idea.  Since the film isn’t exactly being talked about a lot, I will tell you the plot centers on two scientists (Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley) who experiment on forging human DNA and animal DNA, creating a humanoid organism hybrid.  Things must eventually turn deadly, as this is sci-fi horror, but I have to say the trailers are effective, and I am very interested to find out if this is any good.

7. THE A-TEAM (6/11): Hopefully we get enough wit and laughs for all the explosions and stunts coming our way with “The A-Team” starring Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, and Jessica Biel among others.  The action sequences look a little heavy, but I have faith that this movie will be one of the best kick-back popcorn rides of the Summer, low on brain-power and high on thrills and humor.  This will all depend on the chemistry of the cast–if it works and audiences respond in kind–expect a franchise to form.

6. THE OTHER GUYS (8/6): Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell as two cops trying to compete with Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson as two gung-ho cops in a comedy from Adam McKay (Anchorman).  Count me in.  Casting Wahlberg is an inspired choice, and I’m looking forward to him and Ferrell exchanging some great banter.  Wahlberg may be an awkward dramatic actor in Max Payne, The Happening, and The Lovely Bones.  But he was great in The Departed and very funny in Date Night.  So I can see him having a blast with this, and I think audiences will like the pairing of him and Ferrell.  With ‘Anchorman 2’ getting the axe this week, this may be the best we can hope for from McKay and Ferrell.  And as for Ferrell lately, with his last three movies finding serious hate from me (Semi-Pro, Step Brothers, Land of the Lost), this should be a sure-fire hilarious rebound.

5. TOY STORY 3 (6/18): Pixar movies have become just about as much of an event movie for me as any, and they are returning to their best film–“Toy Story” after more than 10 years since “2.”  Just think, the original “Toy Story” came out 15 years ago.  10 year-olds then would be 25 now, and possibly taking their little one to this latest installment.  “Toy Story 3” should be huge, especially with all the major voices returning (including Tom Hanks and Tim Allen), as well as the reliability of the Pixar brand.  While I don’t expect it to be as brilliant as the first film or some of Pixar’s recent movies, I imagine this being good-old nostalgic fun with a lot of heart and humor, and one of the biggest blockbusters of the year.

4. KINGHT AND DAY (6/25): Finally we have the return of Tom Cruise.  While 2008’s ‘Valkyrie’ managed to keep him on the map, luckily the former biggest-star-in-the-world returns to blockbuster action territory.  It appears as though he’s playing an action-junkie spy trying to protect Cameron Diaz’s character, and the results look very funny and very entertaining.  Some of the trailer mirrors “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” and it very much gives off that vibe, and I’m totally fine with that.  Cruise is playing a character about as crazy as everyone thinks he is, and I think with him having a ball playing a role like this, it should turn out to be another solid $100 million for him.  I still think he’s a great actor despite all of his negative publicity since his Oprah days five years ago, but hopefully ‘Knight & Day’ will get him back on track.  Under the direction of James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma, Walk the Line), I think it’s possible.

3. THE EXPENDABLES (8/13): Fans of Cobra, Rambo II, Commando, and other classic cheeseball action flicks can rejoice–“The Expendables” are coming this August.  Of course I’m dying to see this throwback to 80s action flicks, if not just for the scene that finds Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone in a single frame together.  Add in Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, Jason Statham, and a whole cast of macho superstars in a major over-the-top action flick–and this is shaping up to be the event action movie of the year.  Back to classic real-life stunt work, pre-Bourne editing, and larger-than-life action stars in all their glory.  I’m so there.

2. IRON MAN 2 (5/7): While ‘The Dark Knight’ may have shadowed the enormous popularity of ‘Iron Man’ in 2008, this year is all about Tony Stark, as this sequel looks to be the highest grossing movie of the year–I see $400 million on the horizon.  Even though TDK is the fan-favorite of 2008, if I had my choice of watching the gloom-and-doom of Christopher Nolan’s superhero flick or the hilarious, roller-coaster ride of Jon Favreau’s, I am more than likely to take the ‘Iron Man’ route.  What an entertaining surprise that film was two years ago.  Robert Downey, Jr. has ten times more charisma and chops than Christian Bale, and ‘Iron Man 2’ should have just as much wit and fun as the last film.  Don’t get me wrong, ‘Dark Knight’ is brilliant and objectively the better film, but ‘Iron Man’ is a lot more fun.  Cheers to you Mr. Stark.  I will be trying to catch this one on an IMAX screen, and not a fake one…

1. –TIE– So what if I’m cheating… I can’t decide between my two most anticipated movies of the Summer, so you’ll just have to get both.

PREDATORS (7/9): I have been pining for another “Predator” installment for a long time (I should admit 1987’s ‘Predator’ is my all-time favorite guilty pleasure movie), and I can’t believe it’s actually happening.  It’s been 20 years since “Predator 2,” and after two horrid “AVP” movies, finally Robert Rodriguez looks to deliver a proper standalone sequel to the Predator universe.  While the trailer has me thrilled just knowing a new installment is in existence, I wasn’t completely blown away by what the studio has to show just yet.  Luckily, the story takes place on a jungle planet (much like the setting of the first movie), and will feature lots of predators facing off savage human killers from Earth.  Add in some bankability with Oscar-winner Adrien Brody and Laurence Fishburne headlining the cast, and I think this could actually turn out to be the sequel                                                       I’ve been waiting for.

–and–

INCEPTION (7/16): Anything Christopher Nolan touches turns to gold.  I like that he takes breaks in between his Batman films to conjure up other original projects.  I also love the fact that he has clouded “Inception” in total mystery.  It has something to do with agents stealing people’s dreams, or entering their minds or something… and that’s all we know other than the movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Caine, and Ellen Page.  The trippy trailers feature some crazy visuals that may become the invention of a new filmmaking style (ala The Matrix).  I think this is going to be the surprise juggernaut of the year and, if it’s as good as Nolan’s other work, may finally garner him the credit he deserves come award season, especially with 10 Best Picture nominations now.  But this is all too early to tell.  It could turn out to be a gargantuan flop, but I can’t doubt the man.  All I can say is, I can’t wait to see what’s in store with “Inception.”

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