Movie Review ~ Top Gun: Maverick

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When he finds himself training a detachment of Top Gun graduates for a specialized mission the likes of which no living pilot has ever seen, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell faces an uncertain future while confronting the ghosts of his past, culminating in a mission that demands the ultimate sacrifice from those who will be chosen to fly it.
Stars: Tom Cruise, Jennifer Connelly, Jon Hamm, Ed Harris, Glen Powell, Lewis Pullman, Danny Ramirez, Monica Barbaro, Manny Jacinto, Val Kilmer
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 131 minutes
TMMM Score: (10/10)
Review:  I think it’s safe to say that we’ve had our share of star movies over the past several years. You know what I’m talking about, too. Films that are the real draw more than any living, breathing actor or actress appearing in the picture. It’s like a long-running Broadway show in that, at a certain point, it doesn’t matter who is playing the leading role; it all depends on if the audience is willing to pay out money to see the machine at work. A seemingly endless stream of Marvel, DC Comics, franchise, and known content have clogged up theaters even before the pandemic, and now that’s all audiences want to spend their money on. It takes a bold movie with hot word of mouth (like the ongoing box office smash Everything Everywhere All at Once) to break through the noise. And it takes a movie star.

If anyone could bust through that wall of sound, it’s going to be an actor that’s been literally trying to break the sound barrier for years. Superstar Tom Cruise has had his fair share of bad press during his career and especially over the past half-decade, but what he continues to deliver is a breathlessly impressive supply of limit-pushing adventures that put the capital “C” in Cinema and remind you why you pay that extra fee to watch movies on the most giant screen you can find. His Mission: Impossible films have morphed from the kitschy fun of the original to mind-boggling action epics. Last onscreen in 2018’s Mission: Impossible – Fallout, with a two-part capper to his Ethan Hunt character from that series starting in 2023, Cruise is sliding back into theaters with a film that has been finished for a few years but has been delayed due to the pandemic. 

For a while, it felt like a sequel to the bombastic classic 1986 film Top Gun would never see a theatrical release. Already coming off to some like a stretch project thirty years too late, Cruise made it a point to let detractors know he’d been approached for a follow-up on multiple occasions, but it wasn’t until now that a script came together that felt right. With better technology and the opportunity to have actors trained to fly the jets (and film themselves as well!), Cruise could give fans a second chapter that would be worth waiting for. No one could have expected how long the wait would be, though. Intended for release in July 2019 (yes, 2019), it was bumped back for a myriad of reasons along the way. The important thing is that Cruise held out to keep Top Gun: Maverick from being a victim of the studio’s wave of pandemic straight-to-streaming offloads…and we should be forever grateful.

Thirty years into his career in the U.S. Navy, Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise, Rock of Ages) has remained a test pilot, passing up promotions to stay airborne and avoid the dreaded desk job of senior officers. Currently working on a hypersonic test jet at the film’s start, when he breaks protocol and is targeted by a commanding officer for permanent grounding, he’s called back to familiar territory at San Diego’s Top Gun training program. His skills are needed to oversee a new mission carried out by an elite group of the best recent graduates, many of whom weren’t even born when he was in their shoes. One of the pilots, Rooster (Miles Teller, The Spectacular Now), isn’t thrilled to see Maverick onsite due to their complicated family history. Fans of the original will make the connection (and it’s no spoiler), but I’ll let screenwriters Ehren Kruger (Dumbo), Erin Warren Singer (Only the Brave), and frequent Cruise collaborator Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher) connect the dots while you watch.

Rekindling a romance with old flame Penny (a barely-there character from the original and the substitute for Kelly McGillis, who, like Meg Ryan, sadly doesn’t return for the sequel, though other familiar faces do), Maverick balances questioning the need for stability at his age with, well, feeling the need for speed. You can guess what wins most of the time, but credit Cruise and Jennifer Connelly (Alita: Battle Angel) as Penny for creating a mature, age-appropriate relationship that is allowed to take center stage believably and often without a lot of dialogue. Connelly is so good (and eternally, impossibly beautiful) at conveying whole paragraphs with just an eye movement, that she makes one of the best Cruise love interests I’ve seen in quite some time. It’s the kind of non-mushy romantic involvement that even audiences coming for full-throttle action won’t mind pausing for.

Not that the film doesn’t have the pulse-pounding, nail-biting action to keep you alternately on the edge of your seat or pushed back gripping your armrests. Making good use of the IMAX cameras it was filmed on and incredible cinematography seamlessly blending the actual flying from any green screen, it’s as realistic an action-adventure as you’ll see this side of a documentary or Navy-approved training video. Credit to Cruise and the actors for going the distance and putting in the work to make it look accurate. Working with a mission more in-depth than the first film could have brought more complex challenges to keeping engagement, but it’s an easy-to-follow film with easy-to-root for high stakes.

Like an authentic ’80s summer sweltering blockbuster, it has a power anthem from Lady Gaga with a needle drop at a perfect position. It was a fantastic move to have its theme weaved into the score throughout. I still like the Oscar-winning Giorgio Moroder/Berlin song from the first film best, but I am glad Gaga and Hans Zimmer didn’t simply remake that classic. Gaga has a serious chance to win another songwriting Oscar for her fist-raising barn burner that rounds out one of the most enjoyable times I’ve had at the movies in my recent memory. If you’ve been waiting weeks, months, or years (?) to head back to the theater…Top Gun: Maverick is the film to break your fast. See it on an IMAX screen as big as you can find with a great sound system and you’ll get the full impact. Waiting until streaming will not do at all. Top Gun: Maverick is a must-see in general, but you can’t miss it in the movie theater.

Welcome to Summer 2022.

Movie Review ~ The Tomorrow War

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An ordinary family man is recruited by time travelers from 30 years in the future to fight in a deadly war against aliens.

Stars: Chris Pratt, Yvonne Strahovski, J.K. Simmons, Betty Gilpin, Sam Richardson, Theo Von, Jasmine Mathews, Mary Lynn Rajskub

Director: Chris McKay

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 140 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  It’s still been sort of a weird summer, hasn’t it?  While things felt like they were heading back on track with theaters re-opening, the business hasn’t exactly been booming.  Sure, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It and F9: The Fast Saga unsurprisingly attracted devoted fans into seats based on their name recognition alone, the disappointing showing of the much anticipated musical In the Heights knocked the wind out of many sails just as things were getting going.  Approaching the traditionally jam-packed July 4th weekend, there’s not a smorgasbord to choose from in cinemas and definitely no major blockbuster release that historically debuted just ahead of the holiday weekend.

Instead, that action mega-ton popcorn film is making its premiere on Amazon Prime and while The Tomorrow War gets the job done as a frenzied, effects-heavy epic that just keeps going and going, it’s missing a few key elements that were magic ingredients to previous success in years past.  We’ll get into what those components are in a bit, but I want to say from the start that you absolutely should watch The Tomorrow War and not be deterred by a trailer and synopsis that suggests a bland sameness or Pratt’s waning promise as a capable lead in motion pictures.  Stumbling terribly at first, the film positively jolts to life about forty minutes in and hooked me for the remainder.

Several years in the future, Dan Forester (Pratt, Jurassic World) is a ordinary guy with a wife and daughter trying to get a better job after his military service.  Then, during a holiday party at their house when everyone is watching a soccer game on TV (at Christmas? I know…), the world changes when out of a center-field nebula armed visitors from the future appear and announce the need for volunteers to come and fight a war going on decades from now.  Over the next year, armies across the globe go forth and are decimated by alien creatures so terrifying the future visitors dare not share pictures for fear that they will have trouble recruiting present day citizens from traveling through time to battle them.  Eventually Dan is called up through a national draft and finds himself facing down these beasts along with others that have had no training in combat or evasive measures. 

These first forty or so minutes of The Tomorrow War that deals with all the exposition needed to inform the audience of a lot of plot details is pretty bad.  It’s awkward and gangly, sort of like Pratt’s weirdly uncomfortable look stuffed into a shirt/sweater combo during the holiday party.  The writing is poor, the acting is not much better, and all signs were pointing to 140 minutes of iffy effects to go along with the bad plot mechanics.  Then, something sort of amazing happens.  Director Chris McKay (The LEGO Movie) and writer Zach Dean put Dan and his untrained bunch face to face with an enemy that might just be one of the most terrifying creations seen in these alien beasts on Earth films yet.  I’m not kidding when I say that when we get our first look at the White Spikes I sat up rigid in my seat, jaw agape, and said “Oh no, I do not appreciate that.”  Much of this has to go to the effects folks who created this monster, seamlessly blending it (for the most part) with the live-action actors…but it’s a formidable foe that is nightmarishly ruthless.  That McKay keeps it hidden for an extended period of time also adds to its overall scariness when we finally do see it.

In time-travel movies, the filmmakers can play fast and loose with their rules, and they do so here as well, to some extent.  I won’t go too far into who Yvonne Strahovski (All I See Is You) is playing or how she figures into Forester’s life but the two join forces in the future which winds up having a major impact on the past.  Just when you think the movie is reaching its climax, you look at your watch and realize it’s only halfway done.  Then the next time you think it’s over, your watch tells you there’s a half hour left.  This happens two or three more times before the film actually wraps up and the multiple endings give The Tomorrow War an overall breathless pace but also contributes to a weariness after a time.  That extra time gives way for some slow dips in the action and dramatic scenes between Dan and his estranged father (J.K. Simmons, Zack Snyder’s Justice League) as well as a few fun sequences of Indiana Jones-style adventure.  It’s a big package to digest and while it wouldn’t have worked on the big screen because you’d have to take it a bit more seriously, on the small screen some of these quirkier asides tend to play easier.

What is harder to take is Pratt’s clunker performance, a disappointing sign the actor isn’t delivering on some early promise that he had leading man potential.  An executive producer of the film, Pratt should have been even more on the ball as someone with a grander stake in the movie’s prospects but alas, he’s just missing that magical “it” factor that could have given all of his scenes more weight.  His jokes don’t land, his dramatic thrust isn’t felt, it’s just a vacant, mannequin type of performance that goes through the motions but doesn’t bring anything new.  That’s especially apparent as the film draws to a conclusion and becomes a one-man Pratt showcase even though he’s sharing the screen with likable actors like Sam Richardson (Werewolves Within) who outcharms him without even trying.

This is a big, big, big movie and not one you should be watching on a tiny computer screen or your phone.  You will want to check this one out and make The Tomorrow War an event if you can, trying your best to ignore it’s bad opening and enjoy when it shows what our heroes are up against.

Movie Review ~ Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse

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The Facts:  

Synopsis: An elite Navy SEAL uncovers an international conspiracy while seeking justice for the murder of his pregnant wife. 

Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Bell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Lauren London, Brett Gelman, Jacob Scipio, Jack Kesy, Colman Domingo, Guy Pearce 

Director: Stefano Sollima 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 111 minutes 

TMMM Score: (6.5/10) 

Review:  I must confess to being a huge fan of the Tom Clancy films of the Sean Connery/Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford days and not so much from the later chapters when Ben Affleck took over for Ford, Chris Pine took over for Affleck (in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and John Krasinski took over for Pine in the popular TV series for Amazon Prime.  Each actor had their own spin on the role of Jack Ryan so you were bound to have someone along the way you could call your favorite.  Movies just aren’t made at the breakneck speed necessary to keep up with the pace that books are written so much of Clancy’s material has been left un-adapted and even the properties that were already brought to life have had to jettison key characters with stories too complex to include into larger narratives.

Take John Clark, Jack Ryan’s close friend and onetime bodyguard.  Featured in a number of Jack Ryan novels and eventually becoming nearly as popular as Ryan himself, Clark fits into many of the operations Ryan undertakes throughout Clancy’s blockbuster espionage thrillers.  However, it was in 1993’s Without Remorse that Clancy gave readers Clark’s origin story, including how and why he changed his name from John Kelly and why the CIA helped him change his identity.  Though the film has been bouncing around Hollywood for years trying to get made with several big names attached, it wasn’t until red-hot star Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station) showed interest that the title became a must-have commodity again.  Now, as Jordan gets ready to direct and star in Creed III, he’s set himself up with another franchise starter but how would Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse measure up to the level of thrillers it has followed?

It’s a little bit of the whole good news and bad news situation right now.  Ripping the band aid off, I’ll say that the bad news is the overall ambiance of the movie doesn’t feel like the big budget production it should, considering the studio funds behind it and the producers involved.  A number of films originally intended for theatrical release acquired by a streaming service look like they were made for the big screen when you see them at home.  With Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse, everything feels scaled down like the original goal was only to be for in-home distribution.  More on that later but for now let’s talk about the positives.  The good news is that Jordan is a natural for the role, well suited to be playing a skilled Navy SEAL back from a dangerous mission in Syria involving the CIA and the Russian military.  When members of his team are assassinated and his pregnant wife is killed, he’s left for dead by an attacker’s gunfire but survives.  This turns out to be, ironically, a good news/bad news situation all over again.  Good news for John Kelly and bad news for anyone that gets in his way of finding those responsible for the death of his wife and unborn child.  Taking the title of the movie literally, Kelly is a one-man machine of vengeance as he mows his way through high ranks of government both foreign and domestic to get the answers he wants. 

The final script was re-written by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario, Wind River and the upcoming Those Who Wish Me Dead) and it shows with his vernacular and tendency to use shorthand in his technical terms.  He has the actors speak like these professionals would talk and it assists in the authenticity of it all.  Working with his Sicario: Day of the Soldado director Stefano Sollima, Sheridan took over script duties form Will Staples so I can’t say who made the majority of alternations from Clancy’s original novel but the changes seem to be for the better in allowing this story to grow in future installments…because it should and will.  Apart from it filling a gap for representation in people of color as action heroes, Kelly’s a complex character like we haven’t seen much of lately.

Much of that complexity is owed to Jordan’s performance as well as his platonic relationship with Lt. Commander Karen Greer (Jodie Turner-Smith, Queen & Slim) a friend and SEAL team member he can trust that has been watching out for him while he’s healed.  Working with the Secretary of Defense (Guy Pearce, Lawless) and a not entirely trustworthy CIA Officer (Jamie Bell, Rocketman), Kelly and Greer use their government resources to further their serach for the truth. Of course, this being an action film built around large(ish) scale set piece, Kelly stages some daring acts of aggression in order to extricate information from sources that can help them locate who put a target on all of their backs.

You’d likely be able to write down who the bad people are at the beginning the film, seal it, and open it again at the end of the film and find your correct answer within.  Along with a strange look that gives it almost a B-movie vibe, there’s little in the way of surprise as the plot moves from Point A to Point B.  Extended fight sequences are periodically thrilling but endless gunfire scenes start to get old rather quickly, especially when it becomes a challenge following the action.  Several times, Oscar-winning cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (Beautiful Creatures) leaves us lost amongst the action with no direction on where to look.  It’s all disorienting.

It might not rise to the ranks of The Hunt for Red October or Patriot Games but for a first outing with John Kelly, Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse is a sufficient introduction to the character.  This was a Saturday evening choice in my house and it proved to be a popular and rather perfect selection for a movie night.  Jordan is said to be coming back for a second film and if that proves successful I’m wondering if we’ll ever see him team with Krasinski or another new Ryan feature film in the future – now that would be the event film I’d like to see.

Movie Review ~ Gemini Man


The Facts
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Synopsis: An over-the-hill hitman faces off against a younger clone of himself.

Stars: Will Smith, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clive Owen, Benedict Wong, Linda Emond, Douglas Hodge

Director: Ang Lee

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  It isn’t uncommon for some movies to take a long time to get made.  Like, a loooong time.  Commonly referred to as development hell, a script can pass from studio to studio and be revised along the way as it is handed between directors and is attached to different stars.  Quite a few Hollywood blockbusters and even more infamous bombs have toiled along this tortured route and the stories around their creation are either the hard-won tales of success or the blueprint of abject failure.  Last year, we saw a success story with the third remake of A Star is Born which defied all odds and was a sensational retelling after gestating for nearly two decades. This year, another project that’s been in the works for twenty years is finally getting released…and strangely enough the lead (Will Smith) is the guy originally meant for A Star is Born when it was first developed.

You can do a quick Google search or look up the Wikipedia entry for Gemini Man and see all of the A-List stars and directors who have been mentioned as being involved with the film over the years.  To give you an idea of how far back we’re talking, Sean Connery was one of the box-office draws considered for the role at one time or another.  When the rights for the film were finally acquired by Tom Cruise’s production company in 2016 it was naturally assumed it would be for the white-hot actor to star in but instead he handed it over to Oscar-winning director Ang Lee (The Life of Pi), an exciting choice but a less-than-obvious one.  When Will Smith signed on, Gemini Man actually started coming together and, coupled with Lee’s glee in utilizing advanced filmmaking technology, we have a visually arresting but dramatically stilted action film.  It will definitely spike your adrenaline in the appropriate moments, just be prepared for some less than engaging dramatic shifts.

You’re advised to buckle up when the coming attractions are over because once the Paramount studios logo has faded and Gemini Man begins, there’s a lot of information thrown at you in short order.  Government assassin Henry Brogan (Will Smith, Aladdin) has decided to retire after 72 kills.  His aim isn’t quite on pointe anymore and the emotional toll is starting to wear him down.  Plus, he just wants a little R & R at his peaceful homestead nestled in Buttermilk Sound, GA. Side note: has there ever been a more enticing name of a location to want to retire to?   After meeting with an old friend with inside knowledge (Douglas Hodge, Joker), Brogan begins to suspect his last kill was a set-up and now he’s another loose end someone needs to trim. His dreams of serene sunsets as a retiree are dashed quickly as his suspicions are confirmed and he’s targeted by his former agency…and not just because they don’t want to pay extended benefits.

They’re dealing with a pro, though, and to take him down they’re going to need someone who can match him in every way.  Lucky for the agency there’s been a covert project underway for years outsourced to a black ops unit run by Clay Varis (Clive Owen, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) operating under the codename Gemini and they’ve got a secret weapon ready for a test run.  This all leads to Brogan globe hopping with a plucky agent (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, 10 Cloverfield Lane) and an gregarious ally (Benedict Wong, Doctor Strange) while trying to remain one step ahead of an unrelenting soldier that bears a striking resemblance to Brogan and seems to be able to anticipate his next move.  What’s the secret behind the Gemini program and how far into the organization has the conspiracy infiltrated?

It’s already been revealed that the soldier pursuing Brogan is his clone and what a bummer that is to have had that spoiled in advance.  I know that’s pretty much the entire idea the movie is marketed around but still, consider how much more interesting the film would have been if the identity of this unknown force was kept hidden just a little longer.  The filmmakers sure try to pretend we all hadn’t seen the trailer a hundred times already, attempting to build up suspense for a reveal that doesn’t quite pan out like they planned.  With Smith playing both roles and being de-aged to play his younger self, it works some of the time but more often than not looks creepy.  It’s as if Smith is entirely a CGI creation and not just his face.  The lips don’t always match what his mouth is saying and during some action sequences I swear there are times when Smith’s head is in one place and his face is in another.

Speaking of action sequences, this is the real reason to catch the movie on the biggest screen possible.  Three key bonkers scenes are the total highlight of the film.  A motorcycle chase through Cartagena is a caffeinated delight, culminating in one Will Smith literally beating up another one with a motorcycle.  An impressive fight is staged throughout the catacombs of Budapest and the finale is just the right length without pummeling us with too much gunfire.  It’s too bad this wasn’t screened for critics the way Lee had intended; the film was shot digitally at an extra-high frame rate of 120 fps, modified for 3D and I could see where the impact of some of scenes would have been raised if I’d seen it projected like the director wanted.  I’m probably not going to see this again in theaters so it was the one opportunity to impress me and seeing it projected flat on a 2D display wasn’t cutting it.

Sadly, there’s a lot of movie left over in between all the action and while it’s all beautifully shot by Dion Beebe (Mary Poppins Returns), it’s suffers from a too-serious dramatic performance from Smith.  Smith has long since proven he’s an actor that can headline a summer blockbuster as well as an awards contender but along the way he lost his ear for good dialogue and characters that didn’t aggravate.  He’s more easy-going here than he’s been in a long time but there’s still a desperate need to make what’s mostly a generic action flick more than what it is.  Everyone else seems to understand what level of movie they’re in but it’s like Smith thinks that with Lee directing him he has a shot at an Oscar if he emotes extra hard.  His action scenes are spectacular, his dramatic ones are tough to get through.

Twenty years is a long time for a movie to move through a production cycle and the results of Gemini Man are good but not great.  I was surely entertained for two hours and it’s nice to see Lee continue to surprise by showing there’s not a genre he can’t tackle with some measure of success.  I still wish a bit more of the twists had been held back early on but at least there was one genuine surprise that wasn’t hinted at in early previews.  If you’re going to see this in theaters, and you likely should, go see it the way the filmmaker intended and spring for the extra charge to see it in 3D HFR.  I have a feeling Lee will make it worth your while.

Movie Review ~ Annihilation

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A biologist signs up for a dangerous, secret expedition where the laws of nature don’t apply.

Stars: Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny

Director: Alex Garland

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Until last week when Black Panther was released, movie going in 2018 was lacking any real spark. There were some nice family films (Paddington 2, Peter Rabbit) and the final nail in the Fifty Shades coffin (Fifty Shades Freed) but January was mostly a chance for audiences to catch up on the awards favorites they missed during the holidays. With the arrival and phenomenal success of Black Panther and now Annihilation (not to mention the upcoming Red Sparrow), I’m wondering if we’re moving into a nice groove where entertaining, hyper-intelligent films designed to challenge audiences get their day in the sun.

I’ll say right off the bat that Annihilation is going to divide a lot of people. Your mileage may vary at how much the movie speaks to you or if it even works at all in your mind, but I found it to be a dazzling bit of sci-fi that gets pretty close to becoming a modern genre classic. Based on the first novel of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, it’s hard to classify, let alone describe, what goes on in Annihilation but my advice is to go in as blind as possible. My review of the teaser trailer was the last bit of footage I saw before the screening I attended and I’m positive that added to my overall enjoyment of the film.

Director Alex Garland (Ex Machina) adapted VanderMeer’s book with a bit of a loose interpretation of the set-up. I confess I only got halfway through the short tome before the movie screened but what’s onscreen clearly doesn’t follow VanderMeer’s cagey narrative. There are some facts that remain. Three years after a comet crashes into a lighthouse on the Florida coastline, the smartest minds in the world can’t figure out why a strange amorphous cloud has started to slowly envelop the surrounding land known as Area X. Dubbed The Shimmer due to its transparent yet colorful form, people may enter The Shimmer but they mysteriously never return…until now.

Mourning the loss of her husband who disappeared on a military mission nearly a year ago, biologist Lena (Natalie Portman, Jackie) is dumbfounded when he returns without fanfare not remembering where he’s been or how he got there. Something’s not right, though. Kane (Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year) looks the same and while Lena can’t put her finger on it is clear something’s off in her husband. How Lena winds up at Area X and enters The Shimmer is best left for you to discover but know that it’s important to pay attention to Garland’s informative but tricky script.

Accompanied in her journey by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight), Anya (Gina Rodriguez, Deepwater Horizon), Josie (Tessa Thompson, Creed), and Cass (Tuva Novotny, Eat Pray Love), Lena is plunged into an upside down world of mutated life that holds unseen dangers. With several detours into dreams it becomes harder to tell what is real and what The Shimmer is conjuring up to confuse the women, but the end goal is never clear and absolutely not foreshadowed. It’s refreshing to find a film that doesn’t let you get too far ahead of the plot and allows you a fair amount of surprise along the way.

The experience of watching Annihilation is harrowing, with Garland revealing only the bare minimum of information and allowing careful viewers to pick up his not very generous hints at the end game. We get time to know the women, which makes it all the more difficult to endure along with them the hell they go through the deeper they get inside The Shimmer. There are several terrifying sequences that give way to profound sadness, cinematic kicks to the stomach after the film has already delivered a debilitating punch to the throat.

I can’t imagine another actress taking on Portman’s role. The Oscar winner is notoriously choosy about projects and while at the outset I scratched my head at the thought of Portman as an ex-military biologist hauling her gun around a deadly jungle, she more than justifies her place at the top of the cast list. Leigh is another actress with curious but not universally loved gifts but I was taken by her quirky approach to the role of a psychologist possibly harboring a dark secret. Her voice is pitched higher than normal but that same dour expression is classic Leigh. Rodriguez may have won acclaim in her comedic role on television’s Jane the Virgin but she makes a compelling case for her star continuing to rise as a tough medic slowly unraveling in this new world. Thompson’s role is the most difficult for viewers to navigate because it’s so esoteric but it’s Novotny that leaves a lasting impact thanks to her delicately nuanced performance.

Garland hasn’t shied away from the darkness in his sci-fi tales before (he also penned the screenplays for Sunshine, 28 Days Later, and the traumatizing Never Let Me Go) but he’s gone to an even darker place here. Gorgeously shot by Rob Hardy (Endless Love) and featuring an omnipresent creepy score from Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, the film easily manages to land its ending, which is largely without dialogue and surprisingly sustained suspense. You may walk out of Annihilation or you may crawl…either way, you’re in for a hell of a ride.

Movie Review ~ Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Ethan and 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.

Stars: Tom Cruise, Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Ferguson, Alec Baldwin, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Simon McBurney, Tom Hollander

Director: Christopher McQuarrie

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 131 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: If there’s one thing I’ve said time and time again in this here blog it’s that Tom Cruise knows how to deliver a spectacular action film.  Off-screen antics aside, Cruise proves with each new release that he knows how to build off of his strengths and give the audience what they came for.  Never less than 100% committed to the work (see his bold turn in the otherwise blah Rock of Ages), he’s best when he’s going the extra mile.

That being said, for this fifth installment of the TV show turned blockbuster franchise I felt that Cruise and company didn’t take as strong a step forward as they did with 2011’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.  That film felt fresh, with a renewed interest in inventive action sequences coupled with an intriguing plot of crosses, double crosses, and triple crosses.  Cruise tried out some cool stunt work and director Brad Bird produced a nice mix of over the top action and sly spy work.

With Bird off directing Tomorrowland, Cruise brought old pal Christopher McQuarrie into M:I5 and that’s where some problems surfaced.  All four previous installments had brought Cruise together with different directors he had no prior shorthand, but this is the first time Cruise is working with a director he has history with.  McQuarrie wrote 2008’s Valkyrie and 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow for Cruise and wrote/directed the underappreciated Jack Reacher back in 2012.

So what we have is a star and a writer/director that kinda already had it all figured out before starting up production and the final effect feels like an overly safe but still better than average film that could have been great.  No matter how many of his own stunts he was reported to have performed himself, Cruise isn’t challenged much by McQuarrie to truly push the limits so the resulting movie feels slightly tentative and more in service of protecting the profitable franchise instead of doing something truly original.

Not that McQuarrie’s script is your run-of-the-mill spy tale.  Sure, there’s a lot of intrigue to go along with the spy movie checklist items but it’s more intelligent than its predecessors and aims high in covering a lot of thoughts and ideas.  Each previous Mission: Impossible film has had its share of twists and turns and this is no different, it’s a credit to the filmmakers that even when the plot points feel rehashed from similar films they still manage to be effectively entertaining.

Building off of an idea introduced in the final moments of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Rogue Nation starts with Ethan Hunt and his IMF (Impossible Missions Force) compatriots attempting to prevent a stash of nuclear armaments from falling into the hands of the shadowy organization known as The Syndicate.  At the same time, the future of the IMF is called into question by a high ranking government official (Alec Baldwin, Aloha, doing his best impression of Alec Baldwin) and soon Hunt becomes a wanted man by The Syndicate and his own government.  Teaming with a skilled agent with a questionable allegiance (Rebecca Ferguson, Hercules), Hunt hops around the globe in search of the head of The Syndicate (rat-faced Sean Harris, Prometheus, a mostly forgettable villain).  Saying more of the serpentine plot would take up too much room here but suffice it to say that the quest isn’t easy and more than a few lies will be told along the way.

Where the film really excels is the breath-taking stunt work.  From the opening airplane sequence (already more than a little spoiled by the trailer and poster) to an underwater operation to thwart a complex security system to an edge of your seat motorcycle chase through the Moroccan desert, the film is a must-see on the biggest screen possible.  I didn’t catch it in IMAX but will seek out a screening later to really appreciate the scale of the work that went into these stunts that are more than worth the price of admission.

While Cruise may be the star of the show, Ferguson manages to swipe the film right out from under him.  Previous movies have placed the females as little more than damsels in distress (no matter if they’re trained super agents or not), but Ferguson represents a character that’s Hunt’s equal in every way.  Sure, her presence in a variety of skin baring costumes gives Cruise and audience members something to swoon over but McQuarrie wisely keeps it all business, adding to her mystery.  We never really know quite what side she’s on, so we never know what to expect when she appears onscreen,

While I’ve loved Simon Pegg’s work as a supporting cast member in Star Trek, Star Trek: Into Darkness, and two previous Mission: Impossible films, it was an unfortunate mistake to beef up his role here as Cruise’s nervous ally within IMF.  Sure, he’s a valued element of comic relief but he’s made too much of a central figure here, taking time away from Cruise, Ferguson, and the forward motion of the plot.  It’s not all Pegg’s fault, but I’m sure Jeremy Renner (Avengers: Age of Ultron) and Ving Rhames (Won’t Back Down) would have liked a little more screen time of their own.

I felt like Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol heralded the start of a new chapter of Ethan Hunt and the IMF and thankfully that’s continued here in Rogue Nation.  I do, however, wonder whatever happened to Paula Patton from Ghost Protocol, and Maggie Q from #3…not to mention Hunt’s wife (Michelle Monaghan, briefly seen at the end of the last film).  I kept hoping for a hint at what’s to come next but sadly the film leaves us with more questions than answers.  I’m invested enough in the series to keep accepting future Missions…but hope that the next outing feels a bit more challenging.

Movie Review ~ Terminator Genisys

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The Facts:

Synopsis: John Connor sends Kyle Reese back in time to protect Sarah Connor, but when he arrives in 1984, nothing is as he expected it to be.

Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Clarke, Jai Courtney, Matt Smith, Emilia Clarke, Byung-hun Lee, J.K. Simmons, Sandrine Holt, Dayo Okeniyi, Michael Gladis, Courtney B. Vance

Director: Alan Taylor

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 125 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: So far, the summer of 2015 has proved fertile ground for highly anticipated blockbuster sequels.  From May’s Avengers: Age of Ultron & Mad Max: Fury Road to June’s record-breaking Jurassic World and Ted 2 audiences have willingly plunked down their dough to revisit old friends.  Well, July is here and a chilly wind has disrupted the warm paradise…and it’s called Terminator Genisys.

The Terminator franchise is a great example of a movie studio unwilling to quit while it’s ahead.  Released in 1984, James Cameron’s The Terminator was a sleeper hit that officially introduced Arnold Schwarzenegger (Kindergarten Cop) has an action star.  Seven years later Cameron had a golden idea for a sequel, resulting in the groundbreaking Terminator 2: Judgment Day.  That film was a forward thinking epic on the grandest of scales, effectively saving the summer movie event from the comic-book mayhem it was turning into.  Cameron’s director’s cut of the film remains one of my favorite films of all time, perfectly continuing the story he created and wrapping things up beautifully.

Unwillingly to leave well enough alone, Warner Brothers moved forward with a third film in 2003 and a fourth in 2009.  Neither were much to write home about because they were designed to be cash grabs for a studio that seemed to lack an original idea.  Admittedly, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines isn’t awful but it’s far more appealing than the gloomy Terminator Salvation…still, both films exist only for profit and nothing more.

So here we are, 31 years after the original with the fifth film in the Terminator universe and it’s easily the most troubling one of them all.  I held out a little hope for the movie at the outset because it seemed to be going for a clever revisionist reboot vibe, with scenes from the 1984 film recreated with a fine eye for detail.  Good intentions are quickly overtaken by uninspired action sequences that introduce a host of new faces playing familiar characters.

In the future where machines have taken over the world and are exterminating mankind, Kyle Reese (a flat Jai Courtney, Jack Reacher) is an impassioned devotee to resistance leader John Connor (Jason Clarke, Lawless, looking alarmingly like the puppet from the Saw films).  How impassioned is he? Well, let’s just say that when Reese finds out later that he’s actually Connor’s father you can see that Reese’s dreams of sipping mai-tais with Connor on a beach disappearing right before his sorrowful eyes.  When the opportunity arises for a mission back to 1984 to save Connor’s legendary mother, Reese volunteers and the rest is history…or the future…doesn’t really matter.

Back in 1984, things aren’t exactly like we remember them (the film reminded me a lot of Back to the Future Part II) and instead of finding a helpless Sarah Connor, Reese meets up with a determined heroine that has her own Terminator (Schwarzenegger) in her protection detail.  Emilia Clarke may have a Linda Hamilton look to her but the comparisons stop there.  Clarke is, like her co-stars, not a strong enough actor to carry this type of character to the end and therefore scenes displaying her unyielding stance at fighting for survival don’t land like they should.

Not surprisingly, only Schwarzenegger scores with any regularity.  He’s perfected this character over several cinematic endeavors (and one exciting theme park ride) so this is all old hat to him. A chance for the elder Schwarzenegger to fight with a recreation of his 1984 persona is a pleasant sequence but an all too brief foray into ingenuity by screenwriters Patrick Lussier & Laeta Kalorgridis.

Director Alan Taylor (Thor: The Dark World) has several large action sequences up his sleeve and while they deliver the requisite thrills, they seem like they’re cut scenes from a movie far removed from the Terminator universe.  Mostly, the film is a paint by the numbers exercise in too much exposition backed up with surprisingly weak special effects.

The worst thing about the movie is how much of it has been spoiled by the marketing team.  I won’t confirm or deny what people are thinking but you only need to look at the poster or watch one of the many spoiler-heavy trailers to get an idea of what’s going on in the film and preview nearly all of the pivotal moments the film tries to spring on you.  A very shameful showing by the marketing people at the studio.

A poorly executed sci-fi adventure that loses itself in its own pretzel twists of time, there’s little to like or recommend here…it’s a chipped tombstone for the series.

The Silver Bullet ~ Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

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Synopsis: Ethan and 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.

Release Date: July 31, 2015

Thoughts: I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time over the past several blogging years defending Tom Cruise. There’s a faction of audience members that can’t get past Cruise’s religious beliefs, wacky couch jumping tendencies, and somewhat self-aggrandizing attitude. Still…here’s the thing…the man knows how to make a movie. In fact, I’d say that Cruise has energetically come out of a mid-career slump of outings that were too serious and “important” and settled nicely into delivering popcorn chomping ready events that highlight his strengths. A lot of that renaissance was firmly cemented with 2011’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol — maybe the franchise’s most enjoyable outing yet. I’ve got a good feeling about 2015’s upcoming fifth installment of Cruise’s spy series…and apparently so does Paramount Pictures. The studio moved it up from a prime Christmas Day release to an end of the summer bow that could be perfect time for box office gold. Reteaming Cruise (Oblivion, Edge of Tomorrow) with his Jack Reacher director Christopher McQuarrie (Jack the Giant Slayer) and with familiar faces (Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, Ving Rhames) returning and a new beauty (Rebecca Ferguson, Hercules) on board this is one mission I’m more than happy to accept.

The Silver Bullet ~ Terminator Genisys

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Synopsis: The year is 2029. John Connor, leader of the resistance continues the war against the machines. At the Los Angeles offensive, John’s fears of the unknown future begin to emerge when TECOM spies reveal a new plot by SkyNet that will attack him from both fronts; past and future, and will ultimately change warfare forever.

Release Date:  July 1, 2015

Thoughts: I recently went back and re-watched the first three Terminator films and for a franchise that’s been around for 30 years, I was impressed how well the futuristic films have held up…well, that third entry has some serious problems and let’s not even go there with McG’s Terminator: Salvation. (I also visited the Terminator 3D ride at Universal Studios in September which, though amusingly dated, featured some of the most wowza 3D effects I’ve ever seen.)

With Paramount hitting the ever popular “re-boot” button that seems to be all the rage, the killing machine first introduced in James Cameron’s 1984 original is making a return to the big screen now that Arnold Schwarzenegger (The Last Stand) was willing to don that leather jacket once more.  Our first teaser for the summer 2015 flick looks like a splicing of the skeleton from the original low-budget entry and the effects marvel of the 1991 follow-up.  I’m interested to see where it’s all heading and with fresh faced cast members Jason Clarke (The Great Gatsby), Jai Courtney (Jack Reacher), and Emilia Clarke preparing for battle under Alan Taylor (Thor: The Dark World) the hopes are high that the Terminator is back…for good.

The Silver Bullet ~ Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

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Synopsis: Jack Ryan, as a young covert CIA analyst, uncovers a Russian plot to crash the U.S. economy with a terrorist attack.

Release Date:  January 17, 2014

Thoughts: Poor Jack Ryan…he can’t catch much of a break.  The star of Tom Clancy’s bestselling novels has already shown up in four screen outings and his latest screen adventure was set to open in a prime late December spot…until The Wolf of Wall Street was pushed back, taking good ‘ole Jack’s place.  Perhaps moving this reboot from the crowded Christmas season will be a good thing but I can’t imagine director Kenneth Branagh and stars Chris Pine (Star Trek, Star Trek: Into Darkness) and Keira Knightly (Anna Karenina) were all that pleased with the last minute shuffle.  I’m not sure I love the idea of moving Jack Ryan back into his youth…he’s been played by three different actors so far (Alec Baldwin in The Hunt for Red October, Harrison Ford in Patriot Games {my favorite} and Clear and Present Danger, and Ben Affleck in The Sum of All Fears) and I think I prefer the character to have a few more miles on him.