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Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

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The Mission Impossible franchise has been getting better with age, but it has still struggled to find its voice. By changing directors with every installment – Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher) takes the reigns this time around – the series hasn’t established itself as a substantial film series outside of some good old-fashioned spy fun.

Rogue Nation, the latest effort, does a fine job of building on the foundation laid by the previous installment, Ghost Protocol, and is brimming with spectacular action sequences. But despite tight cinematography and good supporting characters, the plot is inconsistent and the pace is dodgy, resulting in an uneven, albeit enjoyable film.

The problem isn’t the characters. Tom Cruise is charismatic as ever as Ethan Hunt, but he’s not the best part of the film by a mile. Whereas his other leading roles he tends to do most of the heavy lifting, such as Edge of Tomorrow or Oblivion, Rogue Nation feels less like a one-man show as any of the other previous films in the series. His crewmates Benji (Simon Pegg), IMF executives Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and Hunley (Alec Baldwin) all match Cruise in charm and have their fair share of fun lines. But its new addition Rebecca Ferguson, who plays the elusive Ilsa Faust, who runs the show this time. There’s no forced romance, but there remains natural chemistry between her and Hunt. Their mutual admiration for each other allows them to get the job done and the writing still makes time to flesh out her character.

The plot of Rogue Nation is a bit uneven, with a forgettable villain who plans to create an “Anti-IMF” legion of terrorists. Hunt must prove to IMF that the Syndicate is real, all while going on the lam. I never get too invested in the plots of the MI films, I’m not exactly sure what it is. Spy thrillers usually grab me instantly, but Rogue Nation spends the first thirty minutes getting the promotional stunt out of the way and reacquainting us with the gang. This would be fine except for the fact that there’s nothing of interest nary any plot development until a terrific opera house scene ⅓ of the way in. While the action is rock solid with some outstanding choreography and sense of place, the pacing leaves much to be desired.

And damn are the stunts good. We’ve all seen the plane stunt many times in the trailer, but that isn’t even the best in the film. A beautiful highway chase sequence that could rival Mad Max and a stunning heist that involves a water chamber are just two of the many great sequences in Rogue Nation. Maybe that’s how we should be reading these films. They’re not tense espionage thrillers like Bond but rather fun bits of escapism to beat the summer heat. The plot may not sing, but the performances to do and the breezy action will keep your heart beating.

 

 
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Posted by on August 1, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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Irrational Man

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Woody Allen has experimented with so many genres throughout his years that most of his films essentially boil down to belonging in their own category. That is, a dramedy with romantic elements that gives the viewer an elusive sense of wanderlust upon viewing. Irrational Man is classic in all of Allen’s stylistic tendencies. It never goes above and beyond or has much to say, but it’s a breezy and light 90-minute affair that is still worth seeing.

Irrational Man has the bare essentials of a plot, but it keeps these essentials close to its chest. We’re introduced to Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), a new professor at a liberal arts university who is trying to give his life a new meaning. After hitting it off with one of his students Jill (Emma Stone), he hatches a murder plot that in all honesty sounds pretty realistic (even for Allen). What follows is a 45-minute romantic comedy mixed with a 45-minute murder mystery. It’s Allen in nature, but with bits of Hitchcock thrown in.

Abe is quite a downer, and he fits all the checkboxes for ‘philosophy professor.’ He spews Kant and makes his students look as bored as we are watching the beginning of this movie. This makes the first half of the film pretty standard and unexpected. He mingles with the faculty and turns heads with his age-inappropriate relationship with Jill, but he is tormented deep within and is searching for a deeper will to live. While the murder plot can seem ridiculous on the surface, it’s mostly used as a device to kickstart Lucas’s second coming, and the film gets significantly better following. After planning this murder and carrying it through, Abe is a changed man. Phoenix reflects Abe’s change and becomes much more lighthearted and seems very pleased with himself the rest of the film. It’s a day-night change that might seem hasty but makes sense given what we understand about Abe.

Luckily Irrational Man never gets too preachy with its philosophical genre conventions. But like Allen’s last film, Magic in the Moonlight, it’s pretty standard affair. While the finale is unexpected and there are little bits of humor sprinkled in, but there simply isn’t much here to recommend other than a rental. Even Stone gives an unimpressive performance as the wide-eyed hopeless romantic smitten with Abe but unsure how to move on from her boyfriend Roy. While I’m sure Allen has much to say about finding meaning in life’s mechanical course of procedure, he doesn’t quite get there in Irrational Man. 

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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Trainwreck

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“I’m in love with you”

“Why do you keep saying that??”

The exchange above tells you just about everything you need to know about Amy, the protagonist in the latest Judd Apatow adult comedy, Trainwreck. She’s a commitment-phobe, after having her father drill the concept of monogamy being unrealistic into her brain as a young child. This sets the stage for a new kind of romantic comedy, one that is unforgiving yet still full of heart. Trainwreck, written by its star Amy Schumer, is smartly balanced and makes great use of its Apatowian running time, which could feel a bit long for some. With winning performances and an excellent original script, Trainwreck is easily the best comedy I’ve seen this year.

With a lot of romantic comedies in the twenty-first century, the expectation is that they diverge from the traditional formula. Rom-coms always fall prey to being too formulaic and predictable and as a result genre films either fall into quirky independent territory or go full-on Nicholas Sparks. The good ones are the ones that break free of these restraining tropes. But Trainwreck doesn’t set out to subvert your expectations, that’s not its goal. Amy is unlike any Apatowian leading lady we’ve seen before. Her commitment issues and lifestyle as a modern female in New York City lends itself to interesting conversations about modern dating and monogamy, all while breaking free of what might seem traditional by conventional standards.

While Trainwreck does follow a set of benchmarks that all romantic comedies tend to hit (there’s the love montage, the big fight, hell there’s even a musical number), it does so in a way that harkens back to earlier romantic comedies, where it’s not all sunshine and puppies. As Amy falls for sports doctor Aaron, we’re not necessarily rooting for the couple as we are rooting for Amy herself. The script shows us her sentimental side with her relationship with her sister Kim, but also shows us her risqué and brash side in her job as a magazine editor. Flawed protagonists are all the rage these days, but we’ve never seen one quite like Amy.

And what a star vehicle this is for Schumer. I’ve loved watching her Comedy Central series every Tuesday, as she manages to make self-deprecating humor less about making fun of the individual than it is making a social commentary. She plays a similar role in Trainwreck, as she is, in her words, a trainwreck. Schumer is an expert a comedic timing, and there are some hysterical moments in here. Her first relationship with cross-fit enthusiast Steven, played by none other than John Cena, is mostly played for laughs (a dirty talk sex scene comes to mind), but it does a great job at introducing us to Amy and is a great lead in for her follow-up as she falls for Aaron (Bill Hader). Schumer shines in every scene, whether its a tender moment with her father Gordon or a satirical quip at the writing industry at her job.

Trainwreck’s script is brilliant at navigating the murky waters of dating in the modern world. Schumer wrote it herself, and she draws mostly from life experiences and her observations in the city. It’s smart, but never preachy, and simultaneously hilarious and heartfelt. It expects more from us as an audience to judge our flawed heroine while still reflecting on our own personal lives. As Amy struggles to see how she can have a life like her sister Kim with a white-picket fence and a suburban cottage, she not only grows but she evolves. In a not-so-subtle conversation with her Minecraft-loving nephew, Amy sees how she can plan out her life as much as she wants, yet still fill it with the things she loves. This “early adulthood” stage is a new term coined for the awkward transition into adulthood and for some like Amy it lasts longer than others. Apatow and Schumer have made an extraordinary comedy about surviving this life stage, and its full of heart, humor, and brimming with insight.

 
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Posted by on July 17, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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Penny Dreadful Season 2

Last night the Showtime gothic drama Penny Dreadful wrapped its second season, and it continues to be quite an under appreciated prestige series that I looked forward to every week. Season two found the gang being haunted by all sorts of demons, internal and external, all while the show maintained the excellent mythology and world behind the characters. The Victorian London setting is beautiful like always and the production is breathtaking at times. It’s the kind of series that rewards patience, but can be enjoyed nonetheless to see Ethan Chandler go full-werewolf and tear shit up.

This season, Vanessa Ives, the protagonist of the show (if there is one), finds herself possessed by demonic witches, courtesy of last season’s Madame Kali/Evelyn Poole. The decision to make her a primary villain this season was a good one, as Helen McCrory steals the show in some outstanding sequences that are chilling to the core, including a doll-making montage at the end of episode 2, definitely a highlight. Eva Green continues to shine, and she has her fair share of memorable moments as well. While there’s nothing here like Season One’s “Seance,” Green puts on a more subtle face as Vanessa confronts her inner demons and has to make all kinds of difficult choices. We learn more about Vanessa in a few flashback as well, including the third episode “The Nightcomers,” and while they might be an awkward break in the pace of an excellent season, these moments help flesh out our characters and we get to see their true selves.

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Sir Malcolm, however, found himself in a joyful mood amidst all the terror, as he fell head over heels for Madame Kali. But he quickly gets in too deep after being put under her spell and is forced to face his past and his regretful choices we learned about last season. While Malcolm has the least to do this season in terms of plot, he’s still a very well-rounded character and acts as an old sage of sorts. His mentor relationship with Vanessa is great this season, and after the finale in which the gang all but parted ways, I’m excited to see where his journey will take him.

Penny Dreadful has always done a fine job of balancing the demonic storylines with the mythology of others, such as Victor Frankenstein and Dorian Gray, and this has always been one of the show’s strongest suits. We all know the story of Frankenstein and his monsters, but the show manages to make everything that’s old new again, and it remains exciting and full of surprises. After creating a love interest for his creature John Clare in the form of Lily (ex-Brona Croft), Frankenstein finds himself in the position of playing god, and faces the consequences as Lily and Dorian strike up a relationship antithetical to what Victor was expecting. While these plots might get a bit messy at times, and Dorian’s side chick Angelique feels underused and a bit out of place, it’s all in service of the world-building. This leads up to an outstanding sequence in which we finally learn Dorian Gray’s secret (as if we didn’t already), but once again Penny Dreadful makes this as riveting as if its new to everyone.

American gunslinger Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) has always been my favorite character, as he serves as our entry point into this crazy British world, and he has plenty to do this season as his past catches up to him and he faces the fallout of his bar massacre last season. An investigation led by a Pinkerton agent hired by Ethan’s father manages to track Ethan down, and despite him going into hiding with Vanessa for a two-episode arc, he still finds himself imprisoned and on his way back to America come the season finale. Ethan’s plot provides most of the emotional foundation for the season, and he and Vanessa strike up the sort of romantic relationship that fans have been craving for since day one. If anything feels contrived, it’s this, but I still appreciated the effort to make them end-game. A beautiful moment in the finale features an alternate universe in which Vanessa and Ethan are married and have two children, and I teared up at the thought of them finally escaping this haunted world, but we know this will never be reality.

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The last scene in the season has Vanessa looking thoughtfully out the window as the gang part ways, and we wonder if they will ever see each other again. It’s a depressing thought, really, and the finale isn’t a rousing winner despite a few knockout scenes early on, but Penny Dreadful has always been just that, dreadful. There isn’t much that is pretty here, but the characters manage to find beauty in other ways. There’s still some lighthearted humor, such as a fun scene in which Vanessa helps Victor go shopping for Lily (why exactly? But it’s still fun), but Penny Dreadful still nails its eerie atmosphere and bleak universe. Brilliant production gives us great sequences like a literal bloodbath in Dorian’s home, and great action scenes with Ethan, Sembene (always a delight) and Kali’s witches. Creator John Logan has taken all of these historic properties and made something beautiful, and the show keeps you on your toes thanks to some frustrating cliffhangers, and this is a credit to the excellent characterization for these characters over the course of just 18 episodes. The show has already been renewed for a third season, and as it looks now we might be looking at self-contained storylines set across the globe. Whatever the prospects, I’m excited, because I know it will never be dull.

 

 
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Posted by on July 6, 2015 in TV Reviews

 

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Best Movies of 2015 (so far)

6 months into 2015 and it’s time to start looking ahead to awards season where the best films of the year will be recognized. This year has been record-breaking for the box office but we’ve also had a fair share of smaller films that have taken the art house scene by storm. With half of the year under our belt, I thought I’d share what I think are the best films of the year so far. This is in no particular order, as I’m not sure of where these will place come year-end, or if they will even make my final list.

Kingsman: The Secret Service

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This one I know for sure is my #1 this year. Kingsman is hands down the best kind of fun you can have at the movies. It’s sharp, tightly paced, well-acted, and features outstanding action sequences (including the best I’ve ever seen in a church). The great cast adds plenty of charm to the film and the plot will keep you engaged the entire time. No other film this year is as risqué, action-packed and hilarious as Kingsman.

Love & Mercy

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A spin on the traditional biopic, Bill Pohlad’s affecting drama about Beach Boys’ lead singer Brian Wilson is an outstanding portrait of a tragic man. The decision to feature two different actors at two different periods in Wilson’s life is a bold one, and it pays off handsomely. Paul Dano and John Cusack are excellent, and Elizabeth Banks shines in an unexpectedly well-developed supporting role. The unorthodox storytelling techniques, mirrored with unique cinematography and storytelling mechanics makes Love & Mercy a joy to watch.

Inside Out

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I try to avoid superlatives, but Inside Out is Pixar’s best film since Finding Nemo. Inside Riley’s head, a psychological plot unfolds like none other this year. Kids will adore the bright colors and funny slapstick, while adults will stick around for the affecting drama and sharp wit. But Inside Out goes the extra mile and delivers a commentary about the hardships of growing up and how being emotional is an important part of that.

Jurassic World

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Is there a better blockbuster this year than Jurassic World? Hell no. Jurassic World takes us back to before superhero movies ruled the summer, when all it took was good old dinosaurs. At the wheel are Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard, who are a great pair, and while the plot might not always sing, seeing dinosaurs never grows old.

Clouds of Sils Maria

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A very unconventional choice for me, as Clouds of Sils Maria is very experimental, but no less engaging than the other films on this list. Kristin Stewart gives my favorite performance of the year thus far, as Clouds examines one woman’s pursuit of career excellence in a Hollywood that would consider her past her prime. Olivier Assayas’s excellent script and wonderful dialogue make this trip to Switzerland one worth taking.

 

 
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Posted by on July 2, 2015 in Other

 

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Inside Out

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Inside Out is Pixar at their creative best. After a string of misfires, Pixar is back on track with this one, a deep psychological study full of humor and heart. The best thing about Inside Out (and almost all of Pixar’s movies) is that it works on so many different levels. This is a film full of laughs about the hardships of growing up, but beneath the surface there’s a deeper study of how everyone is different inside their heads, and how our emotions drive our actions. With an all-star voice cast and plenty of signature gags, Inside Out is a delight.

Inside Out is Pixar’s most innovative and daring film to date. Our frame of reference in the film is Riley, an 11-year old girl whose adolescence is uprooted when her family moves from their home in Minnesota to sunny San Francisco. While her parents are busy with the moving van and her father’s startup company, Riley is impacted the most by this sudden move. After all, we all know how hard moving to a new home and new school can be, especially at her stage in life.

We enter this world through the emotions in Riley’s head, represented as Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear. After Joy and Sadness go missing as they compete for Riley’s emotional control, the other three are left at the helm and Joy and Sadness must journey through Riley’s mind in an effort to return to headquarters and save Riley, who spirals into a depression.

Inside Out is simply genius. Its storytelling works on so many levels and it will please both kids and adults alike. To start, you’ve got some hilarious voice acting from Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith as Joy and Sadness, respectively. They are literally the embodiments of these emotions, and I can’t think of anyone else I would cast. These five emotions become genuine characters, and it’s fun to see how their actions affect Riley. It’s weird to say that these emotions have chemistry with each other, but they honestly do, and it’s a delight to see them play along with each other with witty banter and fun jabs. The script, credited to director Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley, is simply brilliant.

Inside Out is insanely creative as Joy and Sadness navigate Riley’s head. They go through the memory chambers, the subconscious, abstract thought, and, my personal favorite, dream productions. All of these areas in Riley’s head are brimming with invention and the signature Pixar detail. You’ll see memory workers dumping useless information from Riley’s memory. You’ll see the five foundations that build Riley’s personality: family, friendship, honesty, hockey, and goofball. It reminds me of The Sims in a way that every character in the film is a unique being. This is best represented in an outstanding dinner scene, where Riley’s anger escalates and we see how both her parents react to the situation with their own five emotions in their head. Along the way we also meet Bing Bong (Richard Kind), Riley’s imaginary friend who provides the rock of the film’s emotional core. Some brilliantly animated scenes portray Riley’s growth and the film displays an excellent and emotional farewell to childhood.

What I love about Inside Out is that it doesn’t shy away from the hardships of growing up. A brilliant theme in the story revolves around how Sadness finds meaning among the group, and how without her there isn’t really any Joy. Riley’s life isn’t a perfect one, as represented by the bleak San Francisco buildings and dark recesses of her mind, but the key is finding Joy in every memory. Pixar has made a beautiful and moving tribute to childhood, one that doesn’t have the answers to life’s problems but expresses the necessity for emotional expression. Inside Out will be remembered for a long time, I think. As a movie, it’s funny, touching, and beautifully animated, with a genius score from Michael Giacchino. But it also transcends the boundaries of traditional storytelling and gives us an informative and unique account of how every human is an emotionally complex being. One of the best films of the year by far. Hell, of the decade.

 
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Posted by on June 20, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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Orange is the New Black Season 3

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With the latest season of Netflix’s biggest original series, Orange is the New Black continues to prove that with such a brilliant ensemble of characters, a looming plot isn’t always necessary. While I appreciated season 2 for going the “villainous” route through the character of Vee, it felt far too central to make an impact in such a contained environment. Season 3 irons out the wrinkles leftover from last season, showing how the setting of a prison can affect those that inhabit it. We’ve already seen Piper Chapman go through her prison crash course, and the show has already wisely sidelined her and focused on the best part of the series – that is, the wide and diverse cast of characters that make season 3 the tightest and most profoundly entertaining yet.

Season 3 is all about faith, and as the women of Litchfield penitentiary find out, it’s hard to have when everything seems to be falling apart around you. Keeping the faith and having something to latch on to helps our characters escape reality, and gives them something to believe in when times get rough. For Lorna Morello, this means having faith in her love life as she pursues an outside beau. For Sophia Burset and Gloria Mendoza, faith means remaining a part of their lives outside prison, as both clash over raising their children. For other inmates, it means putting stock in mute Norma’s healing powers, whatever they may be, because they make life seem a little less bleak.

Orange is the New Black continues to explore these different personalities through the use of flashbacks to the inmates’ former lives, and while it works, the flashback structure remains both the best and worst part of the show. At this point, we’ve learned the stories of how these women came to be incarcerated, and scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of characters doesn’t work out in the show’s favor (was anyone really waiting for Chang’s flashback?). Some of the flashbacks have become very routine and predictable, such as Flaca’s fake high school drug ring, or Pennsatucky’s old flame, but these stories are all smart because they provide a frame of reference for whatever the theme of the episode may be. The best flashback, from Leanne of all individuals, shows how her Amish upbringing acted as her own personal prison, and escaping from it led her to Litchfield. There’s still smart and sophisticated writing to be found in OITNB, even if it must be reached for.

This is a testament to the brilliant characters we’ve come to know and love throughout three whole seasons. Creator Jenji Kohan (Weeds) taps into these characters’ psyches to examine how the prison system affects them as people. The wise decision to drop Larry, Piper’s ex-fiance, and focus more on the internal affairs in prison is a move I wholeheartedly applaud. The show continues to move the focus away from Piper, our entry point into this crazy world, and instead zero in on more interesting characters, be it the optimistic Taystee or everyone’s favorite Russian chef Red. An additional pleasure of this season was the new focus on the guards of Litchfield, as we got to see C.O. Bennett’s backstory as he decides if he wants to be a father or not. We also saw more of Joe Caputo, one of my favorite characters, and how he saved the prison from going under with the help of Danny Pearson (Mike Birbiglia).

Like I said, while there is no overarching plot this season, season 3 is better as a result. Many have cried that “nothing happened” in season 3, but there isn’t much external conflict that can be drummed up for dramatic effect. Instead, life continues to roll on for these ladies, and we see how everyone deals with their own shit. One bigger plot this season was Piper’s new panty-selling enterprise with the help of new inmate Stella (Ruby Rose). The show introduced the new job of selling Whispers undergarments, and the girls hop aboard with vigor. This is Piper’s link to the outside world, as for her having faith means praying she can return to her old life as a New York yuppie, and this is her own way of keeping faith. The show continues to have many different avenues and entry points, Piper remains one of them, and all of the plot strands soar this season. Things never get too messy, and the narrative is always grounded in the prison reality. As a result we get the best season of OITNB yet. It’s confident in its own skin, it knows what kind of show it needs to be, and it delivers throughout all 13 episodes.

 
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Posted by on June 18, 2015 in TV Reviews

 

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