‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’ impresses with its maturity and continued personality

Editor’s Note: In an attempt to keep some resemblance of consistency, I’m actually getting another review out the gate faster than I thought I would. I’ve written a review for almost every Marvel movie (Thor: The Dark World and Ant Man) since Iron Man so I wanted to get this out there as quickly as I could. Actually really liking the movie didn’t hurt either. 

The first Guardians of the Galaxy is definitively my favorite of the Marvel Studios’ canon at present period. I wouldn’t say there was a single terrible movie in the batch. It mainly falls to some being much more memorable than the others, and out of all of them I’d wager Guardians is the one to beat in that regard.

My review of the first film can be found here.

Writer/director James Gunn just brought such a voice to that film movie it  transcended beyond anything the company had done up to that point. Much credit to Marvel for actually allowing the guy to down his thing albeit within the confines of their big picture. I just wish the same sort of situation could have worked out for Edgar Wright and his Ant Man movie which I would have thought to the be the one that topped Guardians but I digress.

Going into the sequel, I didn’t have much doubt I’d enjoy it particularly since Gunn was coming back along with the entire original cast. The question was whether it could actually surpass the original. Too often sequels go too big, favoring familiar rather than innovation. Luckily Gunn is a smart enough filmmaker to largely bypass some sequel (Chris) prat falls other directors do, delivering a product that may not be as good as its predecessor but comes mighty damn close in some respects.

This will be a spoiler free review, Nick.

The plot:

“Set to the backdrop of ‘Awesome Mixtape #2,’ Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 continues the team’s adventures as they traverse the outer reaches of the cosmos. The Guardians must fight to keep their newfound family together as they unravel the mysteries of Peter Quill’s true parentage. Old foes become new allies and fan-favorite characters from the classic comics will come to our heroes’ aid as the Marvel cinematic universe continues to expand.” – IMDb.com

The review: 

Thankfully that all important personality I was drowning on and on about in the preface carries over here, almost even more so. There are so many weird things I want to talk about because Gunn goes for some off-the-beaten path pulls this time around. I remember freaking out in the first film when he went so far as to include Howard the Duck (who returns briefly) near the end. Here we have Ego the Living Planet as a major character as well as shout-outs to the original Guardians of the Galaxy (led by an actor I’m surprised wasn’t included in the marketing more) and even the Watchers.

Pardon me as a scratch off yet another thing I assumed I’d NEVER see in a major motion picture.

It’s also a movie bursting to the brim with color, unafraid to embrace an entire palate rather than brood in the shadows providing yet another line-in-the-sand for Marvel against their distinguished competition over at DC.

Gunn is our sole credited writer this time out and it shows, given this movie does something almost unthinkable in relation to the sequel-dominated cinescape we find ourselves in today: rather than expanding this insane universe, Gunn brings us inward. At times, this movie is downright intimate; given that once again a talking raccoon and sentient tree are major characters, this is all the more shocking.

From the offset, Gunn shows us how these characters have changed since last we met. Peter Quill aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) is a little less reckless, recognizing himself as the caretaker of his team’s larger-than-life personalities. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is less hardened, actually opening herself up to genuine care and affection. The same could be said of Drax (Dave Bautista), who is downright jovial this time around. Conversely, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) is a much more bitter; his wise cracks sporting a sharper edge.

Also Groot (Vin Diesel) is now a baby….referred to as Baby Groot, obviously.

Oh by the way, Gunn communicates all this subtly within the first ten minutes of the film; no easy feat to be sure, particularly just how many characters I just listed without even getting to the rest of the returning cast and new recruits.

Largely focused on the idea of a family being what you make of it (much like the first film), Vol 2 splits our characters off from one another for portions of the film, partnering them up with another guardian as to allow for some further development/playing of each other in different ways. 

Think of it like the fourth season of Arrested Development only here we actually have multiple scenes of the entire family altogether.

As you may have guessed, the story kind of takes a back seat in this entry leaving a film that is much more leisurely in its pacing. The larger MCU doesn’t really factor into the events, leaving our characters to take the reigns which I actually ended up liking quite a bit. It doesn’t hurt that these are such lovable and weird characters obviously.

The cast is again uniformly outstanding. Dave Bautista’s Drax is yet again the comedic highlight and in many ways come to represent the heart of this franchise. He gets to spend some quality time with Mantis (Pom Klementieff), a personal favorite of mine from the comics. Their interactions are basically everything I wanted and more, leading to some of the movie’s funniest bits.

I was kind of worried Marvel was going to lean in really hard on Baby Groot, who is obviously very adorable, but luckily he’s used effectively and more or less sparingly.

If the movie were to belong to anyone in front of the camera, it’d be Gunn mainstay Michael Rooker pictured below with a local drunk.

Rooker’s Yondu is partnered with Rocket and the two really get down to the nitty gritty as to why their characters are they way that they are, both of whom share arguably the best arcs in the entire film. Quill’s notion of “building your family around” is something that obviously stemmed from Yondu, and is explored to poignant effect here.

Rooker’s one of those character actors that is basically good in everything he appears in, which is no easy feat given the sheer scope of his body of work as a character is. Seriously go check out his IMDb page and come back. So know I’m serious when I say this may just be his best performance to date. I won’t divulge into specifics but the movie’s best beats (both comedic and dramatic) all go to him, and I feel it’s a performance we’ll all be talking about for a while. Given the guys super talented, it should come as no surprise and it’s awesome to see Gunn give his friend such a hefty role in such a huge movie. Not that he needs it, but I hope this means we’ll only see more of him in bigger films.

This film also passes the bechdel test, which is something I always like noting in major blockbusters. Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, perhaps the least developed of the guardians, is given much more time with her adopted “sister” Nebula, played by my favorite companion Karen Gillan. The two share quite a few nice story beats throughout, playing once again into the whole family theme.

If anyone gets shortchanged, oddly enough it’d be Chris Pratt’s Star Lord, who is paired with his father Ego (of course he’s played by Kurt Russell). Pratt really doesn’t do a whole lot another the final act and it’s not like he’s out of commission a majority of the movie. He’s just a lot lest dynamic to the plot outside of he’s just met his apparent father. To go another further would be too spoiler-y, but even though it’s kind of late in the game, Pratt is consistently in his element here. Unlike Jurassic World or Interstellar, Pratt is the perfect quasi-level headed mantle piece for this insane galaxy to rest its shoulders. He’s an insanely charismatic everyman, unafraid to look stupid or take a joke at his expense.

So if I were to take any qualms with this one it’d be that it’s almost too easy on plotting, drifting off in some sections where some tightening could have been beneficial. This becomes increasingly apparent during the middle section where we linger on beats that drag on just a tad too long. This becomes jarring once things ramp up in the third act and we have action happening at a lighting fast rate.

The film’s soundtrack, following in the footsteps of the unlikely mega-hit that was the Awesome Mix, Vol 1, is similar to the film itself in that it is perfectly great but just not up to the exact bar of its predecessor. Their are certainly some stellar tracks put into play here though with my favorite Fleetwood Mac song of all time being the largest standout for me personally.

Although Glen Campbell’s inclusion was also a worthy of note too, particularly the ludicrously silly scene it accompanies.

To be a nitpick, I’d argue the songs in the first film “fit better” in that each and every one was obviously carefully picked one-by-one as to go specifically with each scene in which it appears. Vol. 2‘s soundtrack, while also doing this to a degree, feels just a little bit more like an oldies jukebox. There’s really nothing wrong with that. It kind of just boils down to personal preference. It comes no where near the level of ego/incompetence behind the ADD music cues in Suicide Squad, which were part showing off and part shamelessly attempting to emulate the success of the first Guardian‘s soundtrack.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether Vol. 2 a better movie than the first film; it’s a hell of a lot of fun all while being much more mature, opting not to rest solely on the past accomplishments of its predecessor to make it great. It builds on them. Think of this as the Paul’s Boutique to the first film’s License To Ill. Sure it lacks the populace appeal of the first outing as well as its conciseness, but it’s deceptively simple as it hides layers of complexity to be discussed and examined beyond its initial release.

I for one can’t wait to see this motley crew back in both Avengers 3 and the third (and presumably final) film with Gunn on writing and directing duties. Like it or not (why would you not), Gunn has carved out a whole universe for himself; largely undictated by the larger demands of the MCU and a sandbox for which he and his team may let their collective imagination run rampant.

Like (36 Chambers) or Fresh Cream, ‘Free Fire’ is a testament to the ensemble

The “fun” thing about transitioning to a “Do almost every movie I see” model of reviewing to a “Do it when I feel like it” model is it let’s me wax poetic about movies I actually have something to say about. Now that doesn’t mean I’m going to write anything transcendent or meaningful.

I’m just free to come and go as I please. Can’t promise that’ll translate to “better” posts all in all, but you may notice I am a bit more upbeat when I put them out.

Or not.

Who really cares?

Free Fire is a movie that’s been on my radar for almost a year now. I caught the trailer at a screening of Swiss Army Man (another A24 release) but there was no release date attached at that point. I guess it would be fair to say I keep my eye out for the A24 logo on just about anything really to be honest. A lot of that goes hand-in-hand with their remarkable track record, particularly in the low key genre films the studio distributes.

It must be said that I don’t think there is a company out there continually distributing mini-genre masterpieces at the same frequency as A24. I mean let’s look at some of their picks: Under the Skin, The Rover, Ex Machina, Slow WestMississippi Grind, The Witch, Green Room, The Monster and The Blackcoat’s Daughter to name just a few. And those are just what I’d consider their genre films. Least we forget they’re also behind bringing Room and Moonlight to the masses.

So it could almost go without saying that I was hoping for another home run with Free Fire, given not only A24’s interest in it and it’s brilliantly simple “I can’t believe this hasn’t been made before” premise but also the involvement of writer/director Ben Wheatley and just about every name listed in the cast. Having Martin Scorsese on as a producer only sweetened the pot as it were.

It may even be fair to say this paralleled my excitement levels for The Last Jedi, if not even surpassing it.

So was the hype met? Does A24 have another genre classic on their hands?

Unfortunately it falls a pretty sizable distance from of something I’d consider iconic. HOWEVER it is a ton of fun and a movie I could definitely foresee becoming a cult classic within a few years, played at 1 a.m. in dorm rooms around the country, the smell of herbal substances and Cheetos hanging in the air. And this is by no means a shot at the film. In a way I think that’s what it was going for. The plot never gets all that complicated and our characters aren’t exactly the most complex. What you see is what you get, and for what it is, it works.

The plot:

“Set in Boston in 1978, a meeting in a deserted warehouse between two gangs turns into a shootout and a game of survival.” – IMDb.com

The review: 

You look at bands like Cream or the Wu-Tang Clan; groups that made of considerable talent, with each individual member being a star in their own right.

Much can be said about the cast of Free Fire. 

We have Brie Larson for starters, who at 27 already has a much-deserved Academy Award. Props to Larson for not just cashing in, but continuing to strengthen her resume with massive blockbusters while still allowing herself to get her hands dirty with smaller films like this. She’s an actress I hope stays interesting as her career continues and even though she already has an Oscar, I hope we are far away from seeing her peak.

Then you fill in the gaps with the likes of Shartlo Copley, Cillian Murphy and Armie Hammer. All three of those guys are movie stars, turning in consistently solid work regardless of the quality of the project they’re in. Copley in particular is an actor who feels as if he should be on the A-list but opts to go for weirder, more memorable genre roles.

There’s handful of up-and-comers mixed with long-standing favorite character actors too. Standing alongside our marque talent we’ve got the MVP of last year’s Sing Street, Jack Reynor as well as Babou Ceesay, Enzo Cilenti, Sam Riley and Noah Taylor.

And who could forget Michael Smiley, or as he’s known in this household…

Possibly my absolute favorite thing about Free Fire outside of the bullet-ridden lunacy is that Wheatley doesn’t subject our lower-tier names to the sidelines. They’re placed forefront and center right alongside everyone else.

I am in no way accusing any one on this film of having an ego; this isn’t a Fast & the Furious movie. That’s a movie with stars, each with a contract I assume requires a certain allotted amount of screen-time, citing who gets to punch who and which person wins which fight.

I keep emphasizing this group effort because too often we see movies with large casts but they typically serve mainly to elevate one or two within the pool. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this mind you. I just truly appreciated how this movie didn’t have a star (singular); it has stars (plural). All our guys (and girl) feel equally integral to the story and they all elevate scenes rather than steal them.

In a movie like this, there isn’t a need for lengthy character development. Our cast of miscreants aren’t exactly the most lovable crayons in the box, if you catch my meaning. Setting the film in the 1970’s was another nice touch as it makes them think outside the box in terms of getting out of the shootout, providing at least the bare minimum of tension given they don’t have cell phone access. 

It’s a very silly movie with each of our characters serving as bullet sponges before they finally go down. For what that’s worth, I think that worked fine here for the most part. Sure, that kind of alleviates some the tension, knowing that your characters can’t really die at any moment instead straddling the suspension of disbelief as they take more and more damage without immediately bleeding out. 

This serviced the black, sort of wacky tone for me however, and I don’t think Wheatley and company were seeking any form of higher truth when crafting this movie. I could be wrong, but a movie like this isn’t going to solve many problems outside of entertaining you.And it does help that they DO actually seem to take damage with each hit, something I’ve harped on in the past. 

I guess that leads me to Wheatley himself. It’s been said many times before, but there is absolutely no consistency between this man’s films and I’m not referring to the quality. He may just be the most prolific director we have working right now. On the whole, I generally think most of his output is pretty damn spectacular. No, I’m speaking to the fact that all of his movies are widely different in terms of tone, look, approach, themes, etc. If you go in blind with no information provided as to what the connection is, you may be hard-pressed to determine what exactly the link is if forced to watch his library back-to-back. For example his last film, High Rise, dealt with big, lofty science fiction ideas. Where that film felt like Wheatley striving for Kubrick, Free Fire is his best take on Tarantino. The ending, in and off itself, might as well be a director nod to Reservoir Dogs and warehouse setting. Although this movie is much more violent and much less cruel.

Representing his first straight up foray into action, Wheatley does his best to keep the camera comprehensible before the bullets start zipping every which way. However, and somewhat disappointingly, he lacks the finesse of a John Woo.  Free Fire is more akin to a sloppy game of paintball with live rounds than a carefully orchestrated bullet opera.

Still, I guess some confusion keeps in tune with carelessness of our characters, who can’t even always remember who’s shot whom or which side to which they fall. Credit again to the uniformity of the stellar cast for keeping things light and falling perfectly in line with Wheatley’s black-comedic sensibilities, particularly Copley who may just represent a made in heaven actor-to-director match up Wheatley could draw upon for his future endeavors.

I think if I were to point to any sort substantial criticism to the flick, I’d say it lacks sequences. What I mean by that is I remember a handful of quick moments and lines, but the second half of this film is what equates to an extended action sequence. There’s not really any downtime and that sequence is largely made up of the following: characters shoot at each other for a bit mixed with some quips, the recover, change places and then shoot at each other again. Rinse and repeat about 10 or 20 more times. I’ll stress that the only point this kind of becomes monotonous is during the middle chapter where the threat of a sniper (or snipers?!) brings the momentum to an almost screeching halt as our characters are actually pinned down.

Wheatley’s prolific nature also serves as a double-edged sword as the film kind of lacks a director’s unique voice, something I was kind of hoping for.

I mentioned earlier how Wheatley likes to venture into new territory with each new film, which is all fine and well but that also means he lacks a definitive style. Compare this to other directors at (what I’d consider) Wheatley’s “precipice of mainstream” level like Jeremy Saulnier. Free Fire certainly has personality but its the personality of directors that influenced Wheatley, not Wheatley taking the proverbial baton and putting his own spin on it. At leas that’s how I interpreted it because, as I’ve said, I don’t really  have handle on what Wheately’s voice is exactly.

So Free Fire may not have blown my hair back in the way I wanted it to, but I still had plenty of fun watching it so in that it was successful. It’s something I’d fit in the category of “Hey gang! It’s 2 a.m. and we’re drunk. Let’s put on a movie.” And as far as I’m concerned, the world could always use more movies like that.

‘John Wick: Chapter 2’ is a more than worthy, albeit kind of bloated, follow-up to its predecessor

It’s been a year since Deadpool came out.

….

….

That doesn’t tie into the review proper at all.

More like a statement on the general passage of time, and how something something you don’t look around you might miss something something.

…..

…..

ANYWAY.

I’m still feel as if I’m reeling from the concussive wave of shock that assaulted my body with overwhelming quality in the form of John Wick back in 2014.

Show me someone they went into that first movie “knowing” it would be a new action classic and I’ll show you a liar. On the surface, that movie had a lot going against it. Mid-September release date, Keanu Reeves as the lead and a somewhat stupid on paper premise did not bode well. But low-and-behold, we have arrived at a sequel and it is one of the most anticipated releases of the year.

I didn’t do a full-review for the first film, but I think a lot of its strength is that initial shock I just mentioned. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great movie and I daresay about as perfect an action movie you’re likely to find in this day and age. But no one knew it would be AS good let alone outstanding.

And I loved, loved, LOVED being proved wrong because that next to never happens with movies any more. Surprise is a cinematic currency of increasing value in the Age of the Franchise and John Wick just might represent a renewed hope for new, fresh Western action cinema. The fact that it’s joining the big leagues with a sequel is all-at-once exciting and worrying. You can only make one first impression after all and diminishing returns are something each series faces at one point or another.

Keanu doesn’t age!

The joke?

Remember the joke that Keanu Reeves  doesn’t…um…age?

You’ve heard that one right?

Like you’ve seen the pictures?

keanu-reeves-is-he-immortal

See?

I’m doing the bit.

From the beginning….about the…the passage of…um…time.

It’s like a gag.

Fuck it, start the review!

john-wick-chapter-2-poster

The plot:

“After returning to the criminal underworld to repay a debt, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) discovers that a large bounty has been put on his life.” -IMDb.com

The review:

I’d be quick to compare John Wick: Chapter 2 to The Raid 2. It’s quasi-startling at how many pros and con (singular) the two share. Both are sequels to surprise action films released relatively close to their predecessors. Both are longer than their predecessors due to more world-building. Both up the ante by noticeable margins both in scope and action. Both are ultimately really, really, REALLY great but ultimately come just a hair short to their respective predecessors due in part to said world-building.

Where John Wick kept things relatively simple with its “gang kills man’s dog, man goes on rampage” premise with bigger assassin-centric universe playing a more supportive role, Chapter 2 covers a substantial amount of ground in its somewhat bloated runtime by bringing its world-building to the forefront.

If the worst thing I can say about a movie is, “It was just a bit too long,” you’ve got yourself a pretty, damn good movie. You’re ridin’ high, fine as wine, havin’ yerself a Big N’ Rich time.

Wait, what?

Sorry, I’m just getting distracted all over the place here.

Like I said, my only real “issue” with the film comes right down to preference in pacing. Whereas the earlier film built momentum through domino effect, its sequel prefers to stack its cards all at the top and letting them fall to pieces by the second act for the 40 or 50 minute equivalent to cinematic jenga. Nothing wrong with that at all. I just felt winded by the time John reaches the kingdom of panhandlers, led by Laurence Fishburne (Matrix reunion!!!!!!!), and could have either used a more substantial break rather than MORE information to access right before getting back to business. It was too much of a good thing for me in some respects.

It’s almost frustrating in a way. The film does just about everything I could ask for in a sequel. World-building, interesting new characters, etc. It’s a buffet of riches, and yet I still feel it could have been scaled back to some degree. I don’t know. Simply put: the film was just a bit too long for me personally.

That was the negative, so lets focus on the positives (PLURAL) because there are a ton.

Once again, the action (the main attraction) is utterly sublime and entertainingly surreal.

Gunman take suppressed shots at one another unnoticed in a crowded subway station.

Blood splatters the blank walls of an art gallery like Pollock painting.

We also finally get to see what kind of damage John can really do with a pencil.

I was a little worried that since only one of the two directors from the first film (Chad Stahelski to be specific) would be returning for the second outing. Like maybe the other guy (David Leitch) saw something wrong with this film and jumped ship. The two former stuntman only have Wick as their directing credits so it’s not like the Cohen Brothers splitting up but I feel its fair to say there could be concern that the magic might have been lost without the full band getting back together. Consider any worries I (or maybe you) had dead and buried. Stahelski is as apt at every in presenting action in way that is at once exciting and comprehensible. Believe it or not, you can in fact have your cake and eat it too in this instance.

Characters take damage here, and every bit is just so wonderfully kinetic that you find yourself wagging your finger at other filmmakers that seem to think we like spazz attacks rather than steady, competent camera work. The filmmakers want you to gawk at the stunt-work and revel in the back-breaking work they put into their set pieces. Wick fights a gun-totting Harry Potter, his various firearms proving far more effective than any wand or staff. (I’d say let there be a drinking game in which shots are downed with every headshot Wick fires off, but those are supposed to be fun; not death sentences.)

Reeves cements Wick as an anti-hero for the ages. Much has been said about Reeves acting abilities, or arguably lack-there-of, but I argue, and have argued for years, he’s fucking phenomenal in the right roles. I guess you could really say the same for any actor or actress, but Reeves is an absolute testament to this simple fact: CASTING MATTERS.

He bounces off so well against a much livelier cast of characters because this is a man who’s, at his core, dead inside. This second film really represents more of a descent for John whereas the first film really was just about revenge. He’s forced back into the game as it were by Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), a member of the Neapolitan Camorra, an old frenemy who will not accept “No,” as an answer. Soon, John is off to perform yet another seemingly impossible task and wouldn’t you know it? There’s a double cross and old John Wick finds the candle burning on both ends….on both ends…..the candle is burning on….John Wick? Candle. Guys?

The movie can’t really sustain the emotional heft of “man’s dog is killed, said dog was also last connection to dead wife” so it makes the wise decision to pretty much forgo that all together. Instead it just doubles down on everything else that made the first one work so well, namely that aforementioned action and fantastical assassin-filled world-building.

And instead of devolving into some sort of gritty, brooding slodgefest revenge films seem to be defined by, this weirdo franchise opts to shed blood in the light and fully embrace the wackiness of LITERALLY anyone being an assassin.

Speaking of blood, let’s talk about the new blood. I’d say this is probably something this film aces over the last. Sure, there are less women (only one speaks substantially as I recall and the other is a mute) but I’m not sure this movie is setting out to say some sort of larger statement on feminism. In fact, I don’t really think there are many topical sentiments to be had at all here….other than assassins seems to be everywhere.

Fuck, we’re getting a little too social conscious here.

Back on course.

I really felt a better sense of presence from the supporting cast this time around. I don’t want to go beat-for-beat with each one, but we can break down one. Um….Common!

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Now Cassian is not  THAT developed per say but neither is our title character. The film does a lot with a little in this regard. There’s clearly a history between he and John and you get that with like next to no dialogue on the subject. I love how these movies go about characterization. There’s not an ocean of depth to them, but there really doesn’t need to be. Unlike…oh let’s say Rogue One…the movie isn’t all that dependent on a super strong cast of characters. They really just need to be memorable TO AN EXTENT. And the film and its cast achieves that largely. Ruby Rose’s silent Ares may even be a shining star in this regard as I remember a hell of a lot more about her than I do about…give me one second I’ve got to look it up….Jyn Erso. Ares says LITERALLY nothing, communicating via sign language, but it’s yet another “mountains out of molehills” situation.

Now hopefully we can file “Tyler overly cares about digestible yet interesting characterization” away for the foreseeable future. We’ll put it next to “Did you know mainstream horror largely sucks” or “Action heroes need to get beat up more.”

I also loved where this film leaves Wick. No spoilers but needless to say: he’s not probably not going to be having a great time if and when we catch up with him in Chapter 3.

So…there you have it.

John Wick 2 is great. I’d even go so far as to say it’s amazing. Sure, it could use some trimming around the edges but how I can really chalk that up to anything more than personal preference. I’m old and I have a hard time with most movies over an hour and a half.

It’s like the first film is a hearty appetizer. Yeah, you’re hungry for more but once you get halfway through the main course you’re ready to explode. However, if you’re a fan of the first outing, you’re going to love this one. Not a doubt in my mind on that.

‘Rogue One’ looks great, thrilling even at times; all while failing to justify its own existence (SPOILERS)

By reading the title, I think one surmises I am going to be complaining just a tad throughout this view. Well, I wouldn’t say complaining. I’d say critiquing is a more applicable term.

I saved this for the end last time, but I’m going to address right at the jump now and (hopefully) keep it short: it is completely okay to like or dislike any given movie and it sucks to be criticized for falling in either category.

You don’t have to go that far back to see my views on the last film, which were mostly positive. I say that only because I don’t want to be accused of only liking old things or being some sort of Star Wars snob.

I’m not.

Or at least I don’t think I am.

I could be though?

I don’t think my views on the series as a whole are all that controversial either.

I love (for the most part) the original trilogy.

I don’t care for a large portion of the prequels.

I’m a huge fan of both The Clone Wars and Rebels animated series.

I LOVE Marvel’s recent revamp of Star Wars comics.

I grew up reading the AU material, and remember enjoying quite a bit of it.

So when I say I didn’t really care for a large portion of the new Star Wars movie, please don’t take it personally. I’m not attacking you or Star Wars.

One of the most interesting ideas about this movie (and its one I feel it almost achieves) speaks to the entire Star Wars-verse as a whole. This universe is HUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUGE. There are a crazy amount of stories, perspectives, arcs and what have you to explore and the story of how the rebels got the plans for the Death Star is one that immediately conjures interest, or at the very least a raised eyebrow.

The peak it must surpass is monumental however as the telling of that story is arguably pointless given we know the end. Therefore your approach must emphasize journey over destination in way that is actually satisfying. Adding color and levels to something that arguably did not need them in the first place. (See: the Star Wars prequels) To surmise, I wanted a movie that sucked me int to such a degree that I FORGOT that “Oh, of course the rebels win.” Also probably important to note that when I say useless, I don’t mean automatically bad. I mean it needs to be a story worth telling.

For me, this prequel did what most do and tell a story we know the ending to without justifying its reason for doing so.

Before diving in, it’s also important to note there will be spoilers peppered THROUGHOUT. I don’t think I reveal anything that huge but still be advised. There is no set spoiler section this time so enter at your own risk.

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The plot:

“Jyn Erso, a Rebellion soldier and criminal, is about to experience her biggest challenge yet when Mon Mothma sets her out on a mission to steal the plans for the Death Star. With help from the Rebels, a master swordsman, and non-allied forces, Jyn will be in for something bigger than she thinks.” – IMDb.com

The review:

Rogue One‘s biggest sin is its utter failure in convincing me to care about what was going on, and I think that relates right back to the rather flat cast of characters that round out our main team.

Jyn Erso, as played by the wonderful Felicity Jones, was perhaps the biggest disappointment for me overall, particularly in relation to her characterization. She’s posited as a quasi-Han Solo surrogate. Cocksure, stubborn, a scoundrel through and through. Oh wait. No. Sorry I’m describing Han Solo. Jyn Erso…is…hm….she’s….confident sometimes? She’s brave. And…stands by her beliefs? Right? Like near the half-way point, she starts doing that….for reasons? Really, and let me stress I cannot prove this, her character reeks of re-tooling from the much maligned and (allegedly) extensive reshoots from earlier this year. Her transition from “I don’t give a fuck” to…

…kind of comes out of nowhere. Sure, (utterly-wasted here) Forrest Whitaker TELLS us she has this backstory of a freedom fighter, but we don’t see that in action all that much. We get the sense that she’s a decent enough person given she saves a child at one point early on but I’m struggle to remember another instance of that pop up.

Jones plays the character with no charm. There’s no flair to the character. Now I’m not arguing she be more like Solo. I’m arguing that she be a character. Jones, who I’ve seen be great time and time again in other things, is flat and unaided by the fact that almost everyone around her is playing a more interesting, but equally undeveloped characters. That’s a MASSIVE problem for a lead.

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Oh sure, with the exception of Erso, the other characters are entertaining. They range from cool to less-bland. None are particularly memorable by themselves however outside of Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO who has the excuse of being a droid and the film’s de facto comic relief. (No matter what, the fact that Tudyk is now considered Disney’s lucky charm delights me to no end.) Riz Ahmed, so good in HBO’s The Night Of and movies such as Four Lions and Nightcrawler, is probably the one I’d point to when asked who my favorite was if only because I found his turncoat Imperial pilot Bodhi to be the most compelling. It was also really, really, REALLY cool to see an actor of Middle Eastern descent as one of the good guys in a major studio release. Having an entirely diverse cast is also just flat out refreshing. I just wish the movie had been up to their talents. Donnie Yen and Jiang Yen (playing blind Force-sensitive monk (?) Chirrut Imwe and his mercenary pal Baze Malbus) are cool enough when the action comes a calling but never really expand beyond passing amusements. We no next-to-nothing about these people outside of their shared interest in not liking the Empire. What we are told is often conveyed interestingly through flat-exposition. The original films are almost effortlessly characterize its leads. It’s done so breezily that you almost don’t even notice it. Take the first time we meet Lando in Empire. 

Extrovert.

Doesn’t carry himself too seriously.

Not overtly trustworthy.

Smooth like fine wine.

You get just about everything you need to know about Lando pretty quick in one scene. I don’t really remember any of the characters in Rogue One getting a similar introduction. I use Lando because he’s a somewhat morally grey character from the offset, much like the characters in this are purported to me.

It’s also telling that I literally had to look up the names of each and every one of the new characters. And don’t even get me started on Ben Mendelsohn’s imperial scientist whose name I’m not even going to bother looking up. Not sure I’ve seen such an ineffectual bad guy since….well, since Ghostbusters this year. Man, this year was not great for franchise baddies. I guess when Donald Trump is an actually out there, all other conceited, whiny, creepy villains pale in comparison, huh?

Even characters in the prequels were memorable, to one extend or another. Hate him or loathe him, I fucking remember Jar Jar Binks. (Pump the breaks, I’m not making the case that Jar Jar Binks is a better character than anyone or thing in Rogue One. Maybe characterized? Not a better character by any means, but I KNOW who that idiot is within seconds of his introduction.)

This isn’t a slant to the actors at all. All of them are completely fine. All do well with the material they’re handed; a feat most of the actors in a set of other prequels set in a galaxy far, far away failed to accomplish.

The relatively weak characters play into the plot, which also failed in more than a few respects for me. Because those characters are what’s going to justify whether this is a story that needed to be told, and they don’t. At least no for me.

I wanted something akin to 13 Assassins or The Dirty Dozen. Instead, the mission is relegated to the tail-end of the movie with the rest of the movie spent fumbling around from set-piece to set-piece with actual character development being waved away at nearly every corner.

Our core group goes through enough adventures together that by the we got to the climax, I really felt no tension in regards to whether they would ultimately succeed. There was never really a moment where I felt our heroes were properly fucked. It’s almost the exact same problem I had with Suicide Squad, a movie I have largely soured on since seeing it this past summer. 

Can you imagine for one second actually forgetting about whether these rebels ultimately succeed in their mission? To me, it would have awesome to just have the movie be the mission rather than the movie lead up to the mission. Like cut all of Jyn’s backstory stuff or at the very least minimize it. Use that time to bulk up our leads, emphasize that desperation, dedicate ALL action to the mission. That or having something akin to Munich wherein our team goes from place to place, taking out Imperial higher-ups, finally landing on the architect of the Death Star. Once again, I’m skidding the line of “HEY DER I COULDA WROTA BETTER MOVIE THAYN THEM” territory which really, REALLY hate doing so let’ pump the breaks and move on.

We’re granted glimpses of a desperate Rebellion, filled with shades of moral grey stuff which defined the best season of Battlestar Galactica. 

I loved that aspect (more on that later), but once again, it felt small rather than being emphasized. Except when the movie felt like taking a paint-by-numbers soapbox stance on what “sides” are.

Before we move on, I do need to address another negative and that is fan service. Well… the overabundance of it, I should say. Some of it’s great, particularly when it doesn’t feel like pandering. (Vader’s house from the abandoned Empire-screenplay is a deep, DEEP cut that I never thought I’d see in a million, trillion years. Not to mention the Whills get an actual shout out. You’re past the point of rabbit hole at that point.)

Some fan service really gets in the way however. Sure, it’s great in the moment when a bunch of others are screaming in excitement but the true test all relates back to if that nod was just that or something closer to a distraction. Which brings me to Grand Moff Tarkin’s inclusion.

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It would have been very simple to have him appear in a one-scene bit, explaining how the Death Star was placed under his command. But no, he’s arguably a pretty major player here. The problem? Peter Cushing has been dead for a few decades now.

The uncanny valley is very real and very at play here. It’s completely baffling to me that Disney rather CG an entire person that go for an actual actor. They found someone who looks EXACTLY like Mon Mothra (to be fair, actress Genevieve O’Reilly was cast as the character for Revenge of the Sith with her scene not making the final cut), and yet they cannot find someone who looks enough like Peter Cushing to cast and put some prosthetics on? Hell, just have Ben Mendelsohn play Tarkin! The same goes for the surprise appearance at the end. Neither are bad effects in and of themselves. But there is a major difference between a CGI character like Gollum or K-2S0 (literally had to scroll back up to see what its name was again) and a CGI person, or even doing minor touch ups to an actor to make them look younger or older. Speaking of…

Let’s move ahead to the positives of which there are a number, which may surprise some who think I hated this film.

The entire climax is utterly masterful. I daresay possibly the best action sequence in a Star Wars movie on the level of sheer spectacle. Well-worth the price of admission alone. Leaps and bounds ahead of the dog fight over Starkiller Base near the end of Force Awakens which seemed tacked on in the face of the saber-duel on the planet-surface. The iconography at play is also outstanding. We actually get a proper war film in a film with WAR in the title. It’s Star Wars meets Saving Private Ryan as the rebels face off against Imperial forces on a beach planet, something already cooler than any of the planets we saw in TSF. The ways in which the Star Wars iconography is put to use is utterly drool-inducing as well. AT-ATs storming the beach, a Star Destroyer coming out of light-speed out of nowhere, etc. It’s phenomenal.

If the entire film built to that entire sequence it would have been all the sweeter. Particularly given all the respective fates of our heroes. I credit the twinge of sadness I felt to credible filmmaking in that section rather than anything beyond that. As far as I’m concerned, the whole last act could be a short film with the first two done away with completely. Does that justify the movie existing? No, but I had a shit ton of fun watching it.

I’m also a huge of how un-Star Wars like the whole affair is. Right off the bat, no title crawl. Something that immediately jars an audience with a near-Pavlovian expectation to be smacked with the iconic John Williams fanfare right away. It’s also nice the film doesn’t fall back on said score all that often either. Composer Michael Giacchino adds hints and there but saves those cues for the bigger moments, largely falling back on original music which fine. You can kind of tell he only had a few weeks to write it here and there, but it was competent enough to get through and I don’t think the man is capable of turning in a score that is anything less than at least hummable.

Also really important to note that the film is flat out gorgeous. Cinematographer Greg Fraser shot the hell out of the movie with some of the most breathtaking shots you’re likely to see in a Star Wars movie. He opted to go for digital over film (all three original films and TFA were shot on film) which I ultimately think was a good call. There’s an abundance steadicam, giving it a more gritty feel. As I said, this movie isn’t concerned with looking like a Star Wars film and nor should it. I say embrace your existence outside of the spectrum/saga, and be your own thing to the best of your ability. Letting different directors, cinematographers, composers and what have you contribute is something I’m most excited for looking ahead. Star Wars is at its best when not under one unified vision but in the capable hands of craftsman at the peak of their craft. That’s how we got the two best movies in the series after all as well as two incredibly good TV shows and fleshed out AU. It’s something I think the Harry Potter films or Pirates of Caribbean could have greatly benefited from.

I’ve been reading a few reviews of the film here and there, some good and some bad, and a common theme is just how dark it is. As if Star Wars

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…has been nothing but…

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….sunshine and lollipops.

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That all being said, yes this film is pretty bleak. Not bleak enough to be a determent mind you. This is a war movie. We get scenes of rebels being rebels, and you know what? Sometimes rebels aren’t exactly squeaky clean.

In this “silly sci-fi film for kids” we are treated to visuals of suicide bombers, friendly fire and more.

Given the very real situation underway in Aleppo, I can’t recall a time in which Star Wars got this  “real” or relevant. Well…

I should probably also discuss the Vader of it all…

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It should go without saying, the prequels did quite the number on Darth Vader as a character. It isn’t wholly fair to say those movie ruined such an iconic character. Pop culture did its part too, but man, was the characterization just off there in relation to use feeling empathetic towards him.

Star Wars: Rebels has been doing the Lord’s work in terms of bringing him back to speed in terms of how utterly terrifying he needs to. Oh and not to mention the insane level of pathos it provides for fans of Clone Wars.

Not to mention Kieron Gillen’s masterful take on the character in his solo-Marvel series which I highly recommend anyone with even an ounce of Star Wars love in their hearts to go pick up and read right this second.

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So I approached his appearance here with initial trepidation. He’s not in the movie all that much; by the end I believe he only appears in two scenes, one of which could have been cut entirely with no consequence whatsoever.

However, it is really hard for me to sit atop an ivory tower when I enjoyed LITERALLY every second he is on screen. His appearance near the end is the closest the movie ever comes to being full-blown cathartic, all while returning the menace and dread such a character demands. His saber emitting from the black is an image I could never tire of and it is used to maximum effect here. Director Gareth Edwards is incredibly adept at not (and pardon my crudeness here) blowing his load so to speak when it comes to giving audiences what they desperately want, also evidenced by his approach to his 2014 take on Godzilla. Giving the viewer a taste here and there, only to given them a full taste right at the end.

I compare his appearance to Spider-Man’s in Civil War; wholly unnecessary, but so much fun.

So, I wasn’t a big fan of Rogue One but don’t let my whining fool you. It was a passable movie, at best, to me and really that is what defined this year for me in regards to many of the bigger studio releases.

There’s a wonderful video essay that basically covers all the same beats I would make.

If you had fun, great. If this movie meant something to you, great. More power to you in fact and that’s not meant to be condescending. I had fun for a good portion of the movie and not so much in others but I’m not here to take away anything from you. People get way too personal about movies in general these days, something I’m sure that will only worsen as division gets easier and easier. That’s a different rant for a different day though. What matters most though is the experience that is wholly subjective.

A lot of people seem to like or even love Rogue One, and that’s fine.

I thought it was kind of empty providing only the most basic-level of entertainment, and that’s fine.

I think Christopher Orr of the Atlantic said it best in his review:

“These are the risks and rewards of trying something new (or rather, new-ish): Rogue One is neither as good as a good Star Wars movie nor as bad as a bad one.”

How about I meet you in the middle and say that it is hands down the best Star Wars prequel to date.

Now, can we still be friends?

‘Deadpool’ succeeds at being a Deadpool movie by getting down and dirty with its absurd comic book roots

Whoda thunk, right?

Like cut back to May 2009. Right after you saw X-Men Origins: Wolverine and just how badly the character of Deadpool was handled in that film.

Flash forward to now, and we actually have a proper interpretation of the character.

To be fair, the film environment back then probably would not have allowed for a PROPER Deadpool film, but we are in a post-Guardians of the Galaxy world and in my book that opens the floodgates for just about any obscure character to get his or her own movie deal.

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I’m on the edge of my seat for the Rom major motion picture.

That isn’t to say Deadpool is any way, shape or form an obscure character. Not in the slightest. I’m not sure who describes Deadpool as a “cult character” other than those that have NEVER picked up a comic book or have NEVER attended a fan convention. The Merc with a Mouth is an INSANELY popular character and is only going to get more popular with a wide release film that actually plays to his strengths.

The first time I can recall experiencing over-saturation was with Deadpool. I don’t think you could pick up a Marvel comic book from the years 2008 – 2011 without Deadpool making a cameo at one point or another. Whenever I go to a comic book convention there are a minimum of 20 to 30 Deadpools of varying quality and spin on the costume (zombie Deadpool, pimp Deadpool, steam punk Deadpool, etc.). Now, my love of the character was pretty intense from my introduction around middle to about the end of high school. I eventually tired of the character however. Not to any fault of any particular writer, but Marvel as a whole. They were forcing him into EVERYTHING and I needed a break. It’s been a few years since I picked up a solo book staring Wade Wilson, and given that he’s set to blow up even more in popularity after this weekend, I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.

Do not get me wrong: I still enjoy Deadpool, as a character, quite a bit. (I even put together a low-rent costume two Halloweens ago.) What has always appealed to me (in the comics) is he is really only the comic book character to recognize and actively comment on the fact that he is a comic book character. (Sure, Animal Man met Grant Morrison but that moment is not something that is really ever recognized in later Animal Man comics under the direction of other writers.) He exists to be a smart ass in the way that Spider-Man can’t be. Because of this, writers are able to mess around with standard comic book conventions. For instance, he has active conversations with his thought bubbles.

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He is what I would consider a template for meta humor, which appeals to me in varying degrees. He’s very much a product of the 90’s (little surprise should come from the fact that he was created by the comic book industry’s resident bro-writer/artist Rob Liefeld), and I completely get while people both love and hate him. When written poorly, Deadpool is cheap catchphrase machine with sex and boner jokes that appeal to the lowest common denominator. He’s also a character that it’s rather tough to care about on a emotional level. Given that he’s both aware of his fictional existence AND has a super healing ability, it’s hard to care about whether he’s going to live or die.

If this movie was going to work, it needed to not only be smart in how stupid it was but also embrace its own absurdity that its comic book namesake. As long as you embrace the absurd, you can get away with just about anything.

Luckily, the team behind Deadpool don’t just make it to second base with that absurdity; they hit a home-fucking-run and go all in. Done with the sex metaphors….FOR NOW.

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The plot: 

“This is the origin story of former Special Forces operative turned mercenary Wade Wilson, who after being subjected to a rogue experiment that leaves him with accelerated healing powers, adopts the alter ego Deadpool. Armed with his new abilities and a dark, twisted sense of humor, Deadpool hunts down the man who nearly destroyed his life.” – 20th Century Fox

 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZIM1HydF9UA

The review: 

Right off the bat this is a movie for fans made by fans. There is a palpable kinetic energy to the proceedings from every one involved. A fun movie can only be fun if its participants are also having fun.

Clearly someone was going their jobs in both A) making this movie and B)marketing this movie. They understood what is so appealing about this character.

Any doubts that I may have had that the filmmakers where going to mess this up were almost immediately eliminated by the opening credits which are a perfect “you’re either in or out” thesis before all the mayhem begins. An overt nod to the comic book splash page, the filmmakers clearly know their stuff because each action sequence is fun, gag-filled and excitingly preposterous.

It’s almost as if Fox cared very little about this movie as long as it stayed under budget (a fact the movie openly comments on) and made money (given it’s a comic book movie, they must have assumed that was a safe bet) because director Tim Miller and screenwriters Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese throw almost every insane, crude, offensive, R-rated joke he can at the audience. Given this is the same studio that gave us that atrocious Fantastic Four reboot that reeked of studio intervention a few months ago, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was a little surprised. Hell, we actually get Colossus (played this time around by Andre Tricoteux)  portrayed as Russian, a trait the other movies seem to be gleefully ignoring at this point. It even boils down to little details like making the eyes on Deadpool’s mask CGI so they can emote just like they do in the comics. Both Weasel (played by Silicon Valley-scene stealer TJ Miller) and HYDRA Bob appear for small parts. We live in a world with a live action HYDRA Bob, people! (He obviously isn’t a member of HYDRA in this, but we get an old friend of Wade’s called Bob.) Fox, take note: it’s not that hard to make a character look and act like they do from their respective sources.

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Oh…….oh no…….why………what is my life………?

I don’t think since Robert Downey Jr. declared he was Iron Man have we had a better actor to character translation. Reynolds, who has had three previous attempts at the comic book movie apple now including a previous shot at Deadpool, FINALLY gets a superhero film worthy of his considerable charisma. He was always the right choice for the character (the opening moments with the character in that piece of shit disguised as movie, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, where he can actually quip and y’know be THE MERC WITH A MOUTH, rank as the film’s only lively scenes), but now he has a full platform to show just how right of a choice he was. I hope this starts a trend of actors, who were great/perfect choices for comic book roles that got stuck in shitty comic book movies,  getting second chances. I’m looking at you for recasting Mark Strong for Sinestro in your inevitable Green Lantern remake, DC.

I take issue with anyone that says Ryan Reynolds is a bad actor. Sure, he’s been in bad movies. Who hasn’t in Hollywood? Like just about every other actor in Hollywood, he also gets miscast in stuff. But I dare you to watch movies like Smokin’ Aces, Adventureland, The Voices and the recent (and possibly his best performance thus far) Mississippi Grind. The guy has always done solid work and he’s finally starting land consistently quality stuff worthy of his talents.

Reynolds plays Deadpool as if he leap right off the page. For better or worse, this is pretty much Wade Wilson as he is in the comics albeit only slightly watered down in order to be at least a little palatable to a wide audience. Rest assured though, much like Raphael, he is still the rude, crude, fighting dude we all know and love.

His latter appearance in said shitty Wolverine film is cheekily reference but wisely ignored in terms of where it comes into play. (These X-Men films have never, EVER cared about continuity and it’s best we accept that now rather than later.)

Speaking of the film’s cast, I was a big fan of Morena Baccarin as Wilson’s main squeeze Vanessa (who will one day become Copycat).

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I got some heavy Marion Ravenwood vibes from her in that she matches our hero quip for quip and actively avoids being a simple damsel in distress troupe. Baccarin has been working over at the acting wasteland that is Gotham lately so forgive for forgetting that she is actually a very charismatic actress worthy of much more than that terrible, TERRIBLE show that I still watch for whatever reason. Excuse me while address Ms Baccarin (who I am 100% sure is definitely reading this): Yo, Morena! I know DC probably pays you pretty darn well and ya met the fatha of your child on tha set -and may dat child be a b-e-a-utiful and healthy child- but more stuff like dis please. You’re beautiful. I wish you well. Papa bless.

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Okay, I’m back.

If I were to have any major complaints, it would be for all the bells and whistles, the story is pretty rudimentary. While told out of sequence for the first half, the film follows just about every beat you would expect in a standard origin/revenge story. Even our villians – Ajax played by Ed Skrein and Angel Dust played Gina Carano – are basically one-and-dones that don’t leave much of an impact.

I know. I know. You’re never going to a movie from a major studio that throws away all convention. It’s just that when Reynolds is out of costume, the movie becomes wholly predictable.

I also suspect (but hope I’m ultimately wrong) that this may be a movie of diminishing returns. It’s not fair to say because I’ve only seen it once but this movie didn’t have the heart of similar weird comic book movies like Guardians and Scott Pilgrim Vs the World did. I’ll give it a few more viewings before I commit to that statement so take it as more of a worry than an actual criticism. 

Also while I LOVE that this movie was made with little supervision, I’d be omitting if I didn’t say that at times it looks straight to video action movie at points in terms of cinematography and location. A minor, MINOR quibble, as being an asshole, I must both have and be able to eat my cake.

We are teased with promise of Cable in a future sequel (stick around for the end of the credits for a Bueller-ian inspired tag), which both excites and terrifies me. If there is any character in comics that would be harder to justify in a film than Deadpool, it’d probably be Cable. Just look at his bio and try to make sense of it. I wish luck to whatever writer(s) tasked with that assignment.

Should this movie be a massive success and spawn a franchise, I fear Fox will start to pay attention and start instituting PG-13 ratings for maximum profits so the character can properly cross over with the company’s sister X-Men series. Two X-Men appear here, the aforementioned Colossus and perpetually teenage smartass, Negasonic Teenage Warhead (another deep pull I was astounded by) as portrayed by relative newcomer, Brianna Hildebrand. I argue for the opposite however. Let the Deadpool team work outside of the confines of mega-budget studio tent-poles and let the X-Men come to him. As evidenced by that shitty, SHITTY Wolverine movie, this is a character that just doesn’t work in a movie that does not revolve around him or at the very least a universe in which he can fuck with the rules because that IS the character; the outsider. The one who can actively comment on the world he inhabits and the world outside it. Given that won’t be the case, here’s hoping someone a lot more talented than I is in charge of incorporating the Merc with a Mouth into the proper X-Men cinematic universe without sacrificing all the good will Miller, Reynolds and the rest of the team did such a commendable job building here.

The Fateful 15: My 15 Favorite Films of 2015

Boy, 2015 was quite a year; both personally and movie-wise.

I found myself gravitating more and more to smaller, simpler films this year. Not out of some misplaced cry against “the system” or big-budget spectacles (I saw and enjoyed my fair share of those this year); nor is it because I have some higher palette when it comes to the movies I favor. This was simply a great year for movies that gave us simple stories as opposed to complex, universe-building mega-franchises.

I don’t really want to go over plots here so I’ll leave that to the trailers I’ve also included. I’m not even planning on going into great detail either (I’m currently suffering from an undisclosed sickness -coughDepressioncough- and trying to get this done quickly) so my apologies for the broadness of my praise…just now I loved all of the movies on this list and recommend you see them all now…like right now…stop reading this….GET OUT OF HERE.

As I am writing this, I have yet to see the following critically acclaimed films:

Carol, The Revenant, Son of Saul, Brooklyn, The Tribe, Victoria, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Anomalisa, Spotlight and many, many, MANY more.

Mad Max: Fury Road

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Not often do I see a movie that I am almost immediately willing to call an instant classic.

Fury Road stands shoulder to shoulder with the best action movie ever made, including AliensDie Hard and The Raid: Redemption and it is without a doubt my favorite film of 2015.

George Miller has spearheaded a film that, by all rights, shouldn’t even exist given the size of its budget and its lengthy (and tumultuous) production. After all this is a movie that has had almost as many false starts as Stephen King’s Dark Tower adaptation and The Hobbit. Hell, I remember first hearing about it as far back as 2003, right around when I first started perusing the internet for movie news. Well given THIS is the movie we got, the wait was well worth it.

No other film spoke the visual language of cinema better this year than Fury Road. Each and every aspect is completely perfect; pacing, tone, score, acting, editing, the list goes on and on. You can get into thematic aspects about how this movie is feminist, but

As Miller intended, you could watch this film with no dialogue at all, and still get a completely insane and glorious experience.  I hate to hype a film up so much but this was one for the ages and I don’t care who knows it. Like Ron Burgundy, I want to declare my love from on top of a mountain…flutes playing and trombones and flowers and garlands of fresh herbs…AND YOU WON’T BE INVITED.

This is the cream of the crop for 2015, people. Witness it. 

Click here for my full review.

Ex Machina 

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The best Twilight Zone episode never written.

I’m a fan of almost any movie that could also function as a play and this is one that borders on theatric more than almost any other this year, with the exception being a certain film by a certain Quentin Tarantino that I will get to shortly. Ex Machina primarily consists of three major players (all three leads, Domhall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander and Oscar Issac, have all had a PHENOMENAL year) with two minor recurring roles. If this were a just world, all three would be up for Oscars for their work here. Oscar Issac for the sheer power of his dance moves alone.

Ex Machina isn’t about whether Ava is good or evil. Writer/director Alex Garland is more concerned with whether she/it can even grasp what those concepts are. More importantly, he wants you to fall to her/its spell and in doing so what we consider human, both literally and as an idea.

It’s a movie that gives you new treats, thoughts and revelations with each viewing. Every time I see it, I leave with different feelings which speaks well for its longevity.

What We Do in the Shadows

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Hands down the best comedy of 2015 in a year with a surprisingly weak turnout for comedies, What We Do in the Shadows is part parody, part homage. Like Shaun of the Dead did for zombie films over 10 years ago, Shadows manages to take all of the troupes, cliches, imagery and what-have-you from decades worth of vampire movies, subverts them to hilarious effect but the genuine love for the genre can be felt in every home run of a joke this film makes in its all too short (but ultimately perfect) 90-minute runtime.

This is probably the movie I saw most this year. There’s just so many jokes, both upfront and in the background, that it demands multiple viewings. Being a comedy, I can’t really say why its as funny as it is. Just take my word for it…or don’t, I guess. My opinion matters very little, but this is still a funny movie so go see it…please?

Inside Out

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This is a movie that could actually help people. Now I want to stress that this movie shouldn’t be used as a substitute for actual therapy or medication. What I mean is, that this movie could serve as a gateway for both children and adults to opening up about our emotions and actually trying to understand them in a society that seems to favor masking and fearing them.

For example, there was a scene so cathartic in this movie (when the importance, neigh necessity, of Sadness is finally realized) that I didn’t exactly cry but was hallowed out for what felt like months. I had never thought to look at it at the way it is presented here and it was so therapeutic that I wished this movie had been made a decade earlier for a younger version of me to experience. 

All of the emotions are voiced perfectly…like almost eerily so. If there was an Oscar for casting, this movie would be the top contender. (Seriously for Lewis Black as Anger alone this movie deserves all of the awards.) 

Director Pete Doctor and the masterminds over at Pixar have crafted a movie that will stand among the best in the company’s history. It’s filled to the brim with such lofty ideas, clever gags, background brilliance that is destined to be a movie that we are going to be talking about for years and years to come.

The Hateful 8 

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On the surface, this is a movie about bad people doing bad things to one another. Like its sister film, Reservoir Dogs, however, this is a movie with a TON happening between the lines. It’s Tarantino at his most theatric and his most political. We aren’t supposed to like this people. We are supposed to despise them, yet ultimately recognize ourselves in them. When put under the right (or wrong conditions), any one of us can fall to our baser natures including jealousy, distrust, racism and the like.

Speaking of Dogs, its remarkable to see how far Tarantino has come as a director in regards to his use of tension, subtly and dialogue. This is a movie that is carried by all three and like a play, once that intermission hits, you’ll have a shit ton to discuss and think about even before Act II begins.

Looking at talkbacks, this movie has received a…let’s say “mixed” reaction…in other words, what I can only assume is Tarantino’s intent. This is a movie that’s making people talk, and its certainly doing that.

Sicario 

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This may be the movie I revisit the least on this list. Not because it is a chore to sit through or anything of that nature. Quite the contrary actually. No, the reason is that this movie pulls no punches. In other words, you don’t leave feeling particularly good by its end.

A cynical look at the drug war being raged both in the States and across the border, Sicario is a movie that is much more than the sum of its parts. It works both as a searing drama, a tension-filled action vehicle and a political statement all in one. Director Denis Villeneuve is three-for-three with his cinematic output at this point. Combined with the visuals of Roger Deakins, there was no way this wouldn’t make my “Best of…” list by the end of the year.

Both Emily Blunt and Benecio del Toro deliver career-best performances. del Toro in particular deserves a certain amount of praise for the quiet yet devastating performance on display.

Click here for my full review.

Room

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Room was the biggest surprise of the year for me. I went in completely blind and left completely blown away. I’m glad I didn’t see the trailer before going in, but seeing it doesn’t ruin the movie by any means. It only alleviates some of the tension regarding Joy and her young son Jack escaping the titular room.

The movie isn’t really about the room however. This is a movie about how different people deal with trauma. Like Sicario, this movie pulls very little punches in regards to the horrible things Joy has been put through but this movie has a different intent and actually provides glimpses of hope at the end of a very dark tunnel.

Brie Larson no longer has nothing to prove and now stands side-by-side with the greatest actors/actresses working today. In turn, her young co-star Jacob Tremblay is equally mesmerizing and does just as much emotional heavy-lifting as his older counterpart.

Creed

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Creed gets back to the bare-bones of what makes the Rocky franchise so great.

Like The Force Awakens and Jurassic World, the film borrows/lifts narrative points from its predecessors with new faces filling the parts. Unlike The Force Awakens or Jurassic World however, Creed isn’t burdened with an overriding need to pay homage to what came before. Sure, it moves the Rocky franchise forward  but Creed is definitively concerned with telling its own story.

Director Ryan Coogler approaches the franchise film with such confidence and gusto that you would think this was directed by a much more seasoned director. (This is Coogler’s second full-length film to date.) I’m excited to see where he goes in the future of the strength of his first two films alone. Fingers crossed he headed towards directing a little movie about a certain Marvel character called Black Panther.

Michael B. Jordan recovers with earlier franchise blunder Fantastic Four, and delivers one of the strongest performances of his young career. He imbues the titular Creed with all the rage and hunger of an embodies that just breaks your heart. Similarly Slyvester Stallone returns as Rocky Balboa and gives his best performance since he first put on the boxing gloves. As improbable as it sounds, I sense some serious Oscar potential.

Bridge of Spies

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Can we just have Steven Spielberg direct all of our period piece procedurals from here on out? The guy is two-for-two between this and Lincoln. In a year full of spy movies, Bridge of Spies offered a old fashioned somber, even-keeled alternative. It harkens back to the Cold War thrillers of yesteryear, were battles were thought with words, not guns.

This film revels in dialogue and actual suspense, which is a common thread of a lot of movies I love most share. I think this is in large part thanks to the script by Matt Charman and JOEL AND ETHAN COEN. A Spielberg/Coen Brothers collaboration is enough to make any moderate film fan salivate. The result is as absurd, lovable and utterly watchable as one would expect.

Tom Hanks does his best Jimmy Stewart as James B. Donovan, one of those true life heroes  that find themselves at the right place at the right time in history that Spielberg is so fond of. It’d almost be unbelievable if the character were played by anyone other than Tom Hanks. Renowned Mark Rylance (who will reteam with Spielberg next year for The B.F.G.) steals scenes as the Russian spy that finds himself at the center of a trade between the US and the Soviet Union. His scenes with Hanks are some of the film’s best thanks in no small part to the duo’s natural chemistry.

Click here for my full review. 

Phoenix

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 Speaking of old fashioned, Phoenix is a classic noir thriller that takes an unbelievable premise and overwhelmingly succeeds by underplaying it.

We see a country and a woman in the middle of a crossroads in terms of their identity. Jewish nightclub singer Nelly (Nina Hoss) has returned to post-war Berlin after receiving extensive facial reconstruction surgery due to being disfigured in a concentration camp while Germany is looking to find its feet after a crushing defeat to the Allies as well as the Holocaust. Nelly is on a quest to find her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who may or may not have turned her over to the Nazis to save his own skin. Once she finds him however he doesn’t recognize her, but due to her passing resemblance to his wife (who presumes to have long since died), he cuts her into a scheme to acquire her own inheritance.

Director Christian Petzold favors subtly and nuance over theatrics, which ultimately lead to the film’s success. It also sports perhaps the greatest ending of any movie this year. I won’t spoil it but like the movie as a whole it is a testament to economic editing and phenomenal acting.

It’s currently available on Netflix, and I highly recommend you give it a watch if you have not already.

The Martian 

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Or “How Ridley Scott Got His Groove Back.”

The Martian was a welcome return to form for the iconic director, thanks in no small part to a phenomenal ensemble cast led by the ever-talented, ever-punching Mat Damon and screenplay brimming with likability from Drew S. Goddard.

Unlike last year’s rather dour Interstellar, The Martian never really gives into despair regardless of the utterly hopeless situation our hero finds himself. We know Mark Watney is fucked, but that isn’t going to stop his chipper attitude and never-say-die attitude.

Also it gets a massive plus is that this is very much a “team movie.” There aren’t any real villains. It’s simply about smart people trying to save one person and one smart person trying to stay alive long enough for smart people to save him.

Click here for my full review.

Steve Jobs 

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It’s rather annoying the levels of people casually dismissing this movie without having seen it on the snarky basis of it being a movie about Apple co-founder, Steve Jobs.

I get it. The canonization of Jobs after his death is bit much, but to deny the man led an interesting and complicated existence is to be glib. If this movie were to have any major sin it would be that it falls a bit under Jobs’ spell at the very, VERY end but for the most part it paints the best, most compelling portrait of a man that was anything but perfect.

We get Jobs’ life in three acts, each of which takes place on the eve of a major product launch, a unique approach to the somewhat stale biopic subgenre.

Every aspect of this movie screams: OSCAR BAIT, however it never concerns itself with prestige and instead gives us Jobs the man, not Jobs the god nor does it exist to service Jobs exclusively. Michael Fassbender is great at the titular character but its the supporting cast that left the biggest impression on me, particularly and most surprisingly Seth Rogen’s Steve Wozniak.

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin writes veritable action scenes with his dialogue here. The sequence involving Jobs confrontation mentor/friend/boss John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) and the former’s expulsion from Apple may go down as the most thrilling of the year.  Sorkin’s writing, Danny Boyle’s direction, Elliot Graham’s editing and Fassbender and Daniels’ performances are all on fire and had me on the edge of seat with not so much as a single explosion.

Cop Car

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It’s kind of shame this movie didn’t reach a wider audience but given that John Wells is about to become a much bigger name due to his next job as director of certain Marvel film revolving around your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, I’m sure it will be seen by more and more people as the latter movie’s release date looms closer.

It’s Duel meets Stand By Me with a little bit of a Coen Brothers movie thrown in for good measure.

From the first scene, I was hooked just by how natural the kid actors spoke back and forth. By the time we get to the mystery of how the titular cop car came to be abandoned and the cat-and-mouse game being played by figures we really don’t get a grasp on until the third act, I couldn’t look away.

No spoilers, but I recommend going into this knowing very little.

It Follows

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Honest to goodness dread is a pretty damn hard thing to convey in a movie. It Follows does it so well that it makes you wonder if anyone else making horror movies these days is even trying.

Writer-director David Robert Mitchell imbues his teenage cast of characters with the right amount of accuracy and maturity that feel downright refreshing in the modern horror landscape, but importantly never lets us forget that these are still teenagers.

Another thing I fucking loved was how we learn “the rules” organically over the course of the film, instead of all the exposition being dropped on us in one solid brick of a scene. Take note, other horror movies: Knowing more about a scary thing makes said scary thing less scary. It’s a delicate balance giving us just the right amount of information in a movie. Too little and you get Prometheus. Too much and you get any number of the horror prequels we’ve seen over the past 5 years. It Follows gives a monster we can interpret but never fully understand. Like Cop Car, it succeeds by implementing the “less is more” approach to story-telling.

My only real minor nit-pick is that movie seemingly breaks these rules, as established, near the climax.

Click here for my full review.

Turbo Kid

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I saw a ton of fun movies in 2015, and by fun I mean they certainly aren’t going to win a ton of awards but they are going to win a ton of smiles from me.

Turbo Kid was probably the most fun I had watching in movie over the past year, and this is a year that includes Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Jurassic World and Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron.

I’ve watched a lot of bad movies over the past year. Turbo Kid lovingly pays homage to the endless stream of cheesy science fiction flicks of the 1980s without ever coming off as a pandering pieces of shit (much like the Sharknado films that I absolutely despise).

It gets dark at times and it is incredibly violent (perhaps the goriest film I saw this year), but it never loses that sheen of innocence and enthusiasm that makes the film such an utter joy to watch.

The cast is uniformly great and full of unknowns (with the exception of character actor legend and utter badass Michael Ironside), with the real find being Laurence Leboeuf as Apple. The film’s likability is at all time highs when she is onscreen. I was worried about her character falling to the “Manic Pixie Dreamgirl” troupe but given what we learn about her character later on, those worries melted away pretty quickly.

 Turbo Kid is a lot of things, but most of all, it is a blast. Much like Fury Road, it’s A-class world building but unlike the other film, it operates on a meager budget; making it utterly impressive for similar yet different reasons. Give it a look see, and get ready to fall in love with the futuristic world of 1997.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, Kingsmen: The Secret Service, Spotlight, The End of the Tour, Me, Earl and the Dying Girl, Electric Boogaloo, Trainwreck, Call Me Lucky, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, Mission Impossible: Rouge Nation, Amy and Ant-Man.

‘Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation’ becomes a franchise high by playing it safe

Here we are at the end of another summer movie season, and what better way to close it out than with a ever-accessible, ever-engaging, ever-improbable Mission: Impossible film?

 

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The plot:

“Ethan Hunt and his team take on their most impossible mission yet, eradicating the Syndicate – an International rogue organization as highly skilled as they are, committed to destroying the IMF.” – IMDb.com

The review:

Ethan Hunt is a special agent. His and a small, usually inter-changeable, sometime returning team that helps him thwart evil people. The clandestine organization they work for, IMF (Impossible Missions Force) is perpetually on the verge of being disavowed and/or dismantled.

These are the only things you really need to know going into any of the Mission Impossible films. In an age of connected universes and crossovers, it’s refreshing to have a series like this and it’s dumber (yet equally entertaining younger brother, the Fast and the Furious franchise, that present easily accessible, popcorn fuel. You can literally watch these movies in any order, and get the same amount of enjoyment from them. Sure, there are some connecting threads amongst them but they are utterly superfluous. These are dumb movies made smartly.

 I find this series to be a bit more stimulating than the Fast movies however if only because I never feel backed into a corner when I defend them. These movies actually have something called subtly to them as well as the ever important depth. Something I’ve always appreciated about the Mission Impossible franchise is that never once do the characters seem like they are having very much fun. While the plots are mainly nonsensical, they are played straight. Ethan Hunt, much like John McClane in the first Die Hard film, doesn’t want to be in these situations. He is literally the only person who can do them though. It’s delicate tight rope, but Cruise has always done a fantastic job at pulling it off time after time.

Like the Alien franchise, each entry has a new director and with the promise of a new director this series has found ingenious way to remain fresh while never straying too far from the established formula. In the director’s chair this time out is Christopher McQuarrie, who directed Cruise in the highly underrated Jack Reacher as well as contributing his writing talents to a last year’s equally underrated yet poorly named Cruise vehicle Edge of Tomorrow. Instead of branching out too far, McQuarrie plays it somewhat safe by bringing a “Greatest Hits” package by taking the most successful elements of each preceding chapter and molding it into a cohesive whole: Brian De Palma’s mistrust and shifting loyalties; John Woo’s kinetic, well shot action beats; JJ Abrahams’ haunting, omniscient main baddie, and Brad Bird’s set pieces. Unlike a recent shitty reboot that shall remain namelessRogue Nation honors what came before all while forges its own path. In other words, it doesn’t rest on the laurels of the iconic moments of the earlier films; it wants to top them. Put together, this may just be the best of bunch thus far. It’ll require another viewing, but right now its neck and neck with Bird’s series high, Ghost Protocol. 

I think what I liked most about this movie is that I never knew what was going to happen next. Sure, I know Ethan Hunt is going to save the day before the credits rolled but as with any movie like this it is all about the journey not the destination. While I’d still give the edge to Fury Road (literally the only movie that I think stands a chance of bringing me as much joy as that masterpiece is Star Wars and even that has its work cut out for it), it’s been quite a while that I actually felt like I truly let my mind go during a movie. Rogue Nation ultimately succeeded in keeping me guessing and that is as high a compliment as I can give. There is a scene in an Vienna opera house that feels as if it was ripped straight out of a Hitchcock film. There are so many spinning plates added but it never once gets confusing. Nor does the tension release. Every development only adds, and once it reaches its zenith, I almost felt like I needed to leave the theater for a breather. Speaking of breathers, Rebecca Ferguson’s  dress though…

 

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The cast this time out is packed with some welcome familiar faces as well as some great new ones.

Tom Cruise is, in my opinion, perhaps one of the few honest-to-Xenu MOVIE STARS we have. He has the uncanny ability to bring any role with a level of  charisma that most actors can only dream of. The only draw back is that he can no longer play “ordinary people.” I’d even go so far as to say that he can’t really even play characters anymore. He is Tom Cruise. If I see him in a movie, I see Tom Cruise. (The only aspect I didn’t buy in Edge of Tomorrow was Cruise’s character being a coward at the beginning.) Luckily, Ethan Hunt isn’t so much as a character as he is an avatar for the audience. We want to be as cool and awesome as Tom Cruise…er I mean Ethan Hunt so in that respect there is absolutely no one better to play this character than Tom Cruise.

I just want to take a moment to say how happy I am how integral Simon Pegg’s Benji has become to this series. I was worried that he would become a one-and-done Q rip-off. Instead, he is almost the second lead here  as he travels with Cruise’s Hunt for a majority of the movie and actually gets his hands dirty this time around. Pegg’s actual chemistry with Cruise provides some of the film’s funniest moments but also add a layer of honesty that I think a lot of modern action movies lack. I buy that these two guys are friends and therefore care what happens to them. While they aren’t given as much to do, series veterans Ving Rhames and Jeremy Renner also get some fun moments later in the movie. But let’s get to the new blood.

While she is easy on the eyes, Rebecca Ferguson plays one of the best characters of the franchise as the mysterious Ilsa. I’ve seen a lot of double agents in movies, but I genuinely did not know where Ilsa’s loyalties were. Her arc contains so many twists and turns that I was actually engaged in what side of the fence she was going to land on by the film’s end.

Sean Harris plays the main baddie, Soloman Lane, the head of the titular Rogue Nation, who comes off as a sort of mix between Steve Jobs and Javier Bardem’s Silva from Skyfall. While I don’t think he reaches the ultimate menace and intensity the late, great  Philip Seymour Hoffman brought to the third movie, I think this certainly the best villain this series has had since Hoffman. He is truly a threat to Ethan because he is a hell of a lot smarter than him and thus always at least two or three steps ahead.

The main draw of this series is not Cruise or the cast however; it’s the increasingly preposterous yet utterly thrilling set pieces they find themselves in. At this point, one would think filmmakers would be digging  the bottom of the preverbal barrel by now. Well fret not because the set pieces are just as thrilling as ever.

I don’t want to spoil specifics, but the now-famous “Cruise dangling outside a plane FOR FUCKING REAL” sequence that has been at the very center of the marketing thus far takes place within the first five minutes of the movie…AND THE BAR IS ONLY RAISED FROM THERE.

The only element that I found a tad bit tedious was the whole subplot about the IMF being dismantled AGAIN. It didn’t play too much into the main plot and it stank of “been there, done that.” I’ll give it a pass however as it allows Alec Baldwin to be in the movie, and I’m all for Alec Baldwin being in any movie…ever. As Team America taught us that he is the greatest actor ever.

Tom Cruise recently said in an interview with Jon Stewart (who is leaving the Daily Show two days from this blog’s creation -sob-) that he would keep doing these movies as long as he can. Given the level of entertainment we’ve gotten from the last three installments, I hope that he is able to for a good long while.