MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 11 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Action and Violence, and brief partial Nudity

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Directed by: Christopher McQuarrie

Written by: Christopher McQuarrie

(based on the TV series MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE by Bruce Geller)

Starring: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Alec Baldwin, Simon McBurney & Zhang Jingchu

Before June of this year, I had never seen a single MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie. I didn’t grow up watching the series, so I didn’t have any nostalgia for it. Watching those four movies for the first time, I saw the series like this: MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE is big dumb fun, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2 tries too hard to be cool, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III has the best villain of the series, and GHOST PROTOCOL is a better-than-expected fourth installment. All my preparation of watching those films was for ROGUE NATION (the fifth film in the franchise) and I’m so glad I got into this series at all, because MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION is one of the best films to hit the big screen this summer!

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IMF agent Ethan Hunt is convinced that there’s a threat out there far bigger than any he’s ever faced before. This enemy is a group known as The Syndicate. Though they only serve as tall-tales for the C.I.A. and the rest of IMF, Ethan discovers that the Syndicate is very real and have it out for him. They are an anti-IMF. They assassinate world leaders and collapse foreign economies. It’s a mastermind criminal group made to break societies. With IMF torn down by the C.I.A., only Ethan and a handful of former IMF agents (as well as a questionable femme fatale) have any hope of stopping this terrorist organization from completing their master plan.

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The plots in the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE franchise range from clichéd and stupid (a deadly virus being used by a terrorist, a madman armed with some nukes) to complicated and clever (a weapons dealer enacting revenge on an IMF agent). Having sat through all four films recently, I find ROGUE NATION’s plot to be the most complex story yet in the series. This feels like the most mature and adult MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie yet. It’s a result of the series slowly evolving over the later sequels. Tight editing and strong momentum make the film seem neat and compact in its 131-minute running time.

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It should come as no surprise that Tom Cruise slips right back into the role of Ethan Hunt with ease. As an action hero, there’s no denying that Cruise can still carry a blockbuster squarely on his shoulders. However, ROGUE NATION also lends bigger roles to the side characters this time around. Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames and Jeremy Renner all have big parts to play. It was nice seeing them used as equal members of a team and not merely as means to an end. Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson (coming off last summer’s awful HERCULES) plays one of the most interesting female characters in this franchise. You’re never fully certain which side she’s on, but her mere presence forces you to like her either way. While Philip Seymour Hoffman remains a vicious baddie who cannot be topped, Sean Harris plays my second-favorite villain in the series. He’s evil and calculating, but there’s also an understandable motivation behind his actions (explained as the film goes along). He was perfect in this role and can’t wait to see what he takes on next.

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Of course, what’s a MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie without insane action scenes. Opening with an airplane stunt (that’s been posted in every piece of marketing for this film), ROGUE NATION packs a ton of adrenaline-pumping excitement into a story that knows where to place these crazy scenes. The gun fights and car chases don’t feel pointless or forced in the slightest. Instead, they weave right into the complex plot. One lengthy sequence set at an opera house was a special highlight for me. I was constantly on the edge of my seat through the whole film though. Every scene is riveting for one reason or another.

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It’s crazy how the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE franchise seems to have come full circle and become the highest possible version of popcorn entertainment. However, this fifth film is far from big and dumb. Instead, it’s the most mature, complicated entry yet and made all the better for it. It was originally rumored that this fifth entry would be the final MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie and I can say that the franchise would have gone out on its highest note. However, if the sixth film (now in production) is anywhere near as accomplished and hugely entertaining as this fifth entry, bring it on! I have nothing negative to say about this summer blockbuster. I loved every second of ROGUE NATION!

Grade: A+

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL (2011)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 13 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Intense Action and Violence

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Directed by: Brad Bird

Written by: Josh Appelbaum & Andre Nemec

Starring: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Paula Patton, Michael Nyqvist, Vladimir Mashkov & Samuli Edelmann

Of all the series I’ve covered for 2015’s summer movie releases, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE was the one that I was least enthused about. I had never seen any of the Tom Cruise blockbusters until about a week ago and (aside from the second film) I’m very glad that I finally took the plunge into the franchise spawned by a 1960’s TV series. The 1996 original is the epitome of big, dumb popcorn entertainment. 2000’s sequel was too concerned over style and weighed down by a bad screenplay to be any fun. 2006’s third installment easily surpassed both films to become an outright great movie. So five years after that second sequel, director Brad Bird delivered MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL. Where does this fourth film sit? It’s somewhere snuggly between the first and the third.

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Ethan Hunt is doing time in a Russian prison, but IMF extracts him for another seemingly impossible task. This time around, Ethan and his team are being sent into the Kremlin to retrieve files on a terrorist known as “Cobalt.” Unfortunately for them, the mission doesn’t run as smoothly as planned (do they ever?) and the Kremlin is bombed by the very terrorist they were looking for. Ethan and his team members make it out alive, but tensions between the USA and Russia have risen to a level where IMF is disbanded. It’s up to Ethan and his small band of former IMF agents to take down Cobalt, prove their innocence, and retrieve nuclear codes before the unthinkable occurs.

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You might notice that plot sounds a bit generic this time around, almost as generic as your typical spy thriller a.k.a. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2. However, it’s all in the execution. Director Brad Bird (who is most famous for his animated work) knows exactly how to pull off a “been there, done that” script in a way that feels fresh. He throws a number of suspenseful scenarios and the most grandiose action to grace a MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie thus far. Though number three is still my favorite for a variety of reasons, the action is definitely most exciting and ridiculously awesome in GHOST PROTOCOL. We get intense chase scenes, fights while the stakes are at the their highest, and Tom Cruise scaling the world’s tallest building with a pair of faulty gloves. That last scene ramps up unbelievable levels of tension and is bound to make those afraid of heights wet their pants. Though the formula of making the action even more over-the-top with each entry can easily backfire, it works well for the fourth MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE.

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As far as the performances go, Tom Cruise is back in true action hero form as Ethan Hunt. Whatever you may think of his personal life, Cruise shines as this memorable agent always facing off against impossible odds. Though previous characters pop up for cameos, Simon Pegg is the only other big name to return from any of the previous films. He serves as the obvious comic relief, but does a damn fine job of it. Paula Patton and Jeremy Renner are new additions to the M:I team, but pull their weight. Renner is especially enjoyable in his role as an analyst turned amateur agent. While the good guys are worth rooting for, the villain is super bland this time around. It seems like the filmmakers knew that they would never be able to top Hoffman’s arms dealer, so they went in an entirely new direction. While I liked the concept of this nuclear extremist (played by Michael Nyqvist of the original GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO), he simply doesn’t have much dialogue or enough screen time. I knew he was a baddie and that’s about all there was to his character. He just seems a little anti-climactic when compared to his competition in the series, even the moronic villain in M:I 2 is slightly more fleshed out in comparison.

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GHOST PROTOCOL stands as the second-best MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie thus far. Though it suffers from clichés and a boring villain, the fourth film in the franchise manages to up the excitement and entertainment through crazy action and solid suspense. If you’re a fan of the first three films (or even just one and three, like myself), then GHOST PROTOCOL should be right up your alley. This leaves me excited for the fifth (and supposedly final) film in the franchise coming on July 31. So far, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE is three for four and those aren’t bad odds.

Grade: B+

NORTH COUNTRY (2005)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 6 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sequences involving Sexual Harassment including Violence and Dialogue, and for Language

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Directed by: Niki Caro

Written by: Michael Seitzman

(based on the book CLASS ACTION by Clara Bingham & Laura Leedy Gansler)

Starring: Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Sean Bean, Richard Jenkins, Sissy Spacek, Michelle Monaghan, Jeremy Renner & Woody Harrelson

NORTH COUNTRY sounds like a surefire winner on paper. You have an important story being brought to life with an A-list cast. Though it bombed at the box office, the film even managed to garner two Academy Award nominations (Best Actress and Supporting Actress) and rightfully so. Based on the Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Company case, NORTH COUNTRY showcases great performances and a hard-hitting issue that happens to be driven by a muddled script trying to tell two tonally different stories at once. One involves a court case over sexual harassment in the workplace and is obviously the more important and compelling of the two. However, screenwriter Michael Seitzman tries to tie this into a story of a woman returning to her childhood home. He seems focus too much on the less-interesting latter.

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After years of abuse, Josey Aimes has decided to leave her spouse, take her two kids with her, and move in with her parents. While her mother seems to support Josey, her father less than approves and is ashamed by her presence. In order to make ends meet and earn some real money, Josey starts to work at the Mesabi Iron Range. The company is less than welcoming and Josey (along with her female coworkers) are subjected to frequent sexual harassment. To boot, an ex-boyfriend of Josey’s happens to be working at the mine and instigating more verbal/physical abuse towards her. Josey decides to file a class-action lawsuit against the company, but struggles to find members of the community that will stand in support of her case. It’s all a fictionalized take on an actual court case that changed the working world forever, but the film seems to only marginally focus on that…changing into something else entirely by the conclusion.

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Aside from the important issues being addressed (however glossed over they might wind up being), the main reason to watch NORTH COUNTRY is for the cast. I mean, look at those names! I was originally sold on seeing this movie because of the plot, but the A-list talent in this film got me even more pumped up to watch it. Charlize Theron has proven herself to be one of the best actresses working today and demonstrates both vulnerability and strength in equal measure as Josey. Seeing as her character is subjected to slut-shaming from the very beginning, it makes the viewer reevaluate how they treat certain people in our society who do get pregnant at 16 years-old and what not.

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Frances McDormand is sympathetic as a union representative whose health is slowly declining and Sean Bean has a side role as her husband. Meanwhile, Sissy Spacek and Richard Jenkins are outstanding as Josey’s parents, especially Richard Jenkins as the seemingly emotionless father who you want to punch in the face on multiple occasions. Jeremy Renner plays Josey’s ex with a sort of scumbag glee. Aside from playing Jeffrey Dahmer, I never really saw Renner in any antagonist role. So this was a nice change of pace. Woody Harrelson is great as Josey’s lawyer/possible love interest. All in all, the performances are great from everyone in this film and that would warrant at least one viewing in my eyes.

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NORTH COUNTRY is certainly effective in moments. These are the infuriating scenes of sexual harassment, the indifference of the higher-ups, and Josey’s courtroom scenes. However, the movie teeters close to Lifetime Original Movie territory whenever it goes into Josey’s past with little reveals coming to light (especially a bombshell in the final third that almost feels like a cop-out). Whenever the former moments are on, the movie is great. Whenever the latter is being focused on, the movie dips into mediocre and easy clichéd storytelling. I really wish that the movie had been a more accurate representation of the real court case that it was inspired by and not loaded with a lot of fictional soap opera level drama that seems to detract from the important issues being discussed.

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NORTH COUNTRY is a decent flick thanks to great performances from an awesome cast and the upsetting issues being discussed, but it’s weighed down by a subplot that really had no business being in this film. Charlize Theron’s performance is well worth the rental price alone and the rest of the impressive cast also boost this film’s quality above simply being a movie-of-the-week melodrama. However, it seems as if NORTH COUNTRY is two movies under one title. The first is a compelling drama inspired by one of the most important court cases in recent history. The second feels like a Lifetime script that somehow got a budget of 35 million. I really wish the former stood out more than the latter, but they’re given equal screen time and that’s the problem. NORTH COUNTRY is worth a watch, but don’t expect it to be as amazing as it could have been.

Grade: B-

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 21 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Action, Violence and Destruction, and for some Suggestive Comments

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Directed by: Joss Whedon

Written by: Joss Whedon

(based on the AVENGERS comics by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby)

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgard, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson, Andy Serkis & Julie Delpy

Hats off to Marvel. Seriously, it takes an indescribable level of skill to plan out different films that all tie into one massive storyline. I can honestly say that I haven’t disliked a single movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date and AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON doesn’t change that. This being said, I didn’t love the first AVENGERS. I found it to be a lot of fun with some flaws. With the initial set-up of the Avengers out of the way, I was hoping that AGE OF ULTRON might prove itself to be even better than 2012’s superhero opus. That was definitely not the case. It’s a serviceable piece of blockbuster entertainment, but ULTRON falls on the lower end of the spectrum in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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After raiding a Hydra station, the Avengers have finally retrieved Loki’s scepter. While much celebrating is in order, Tony Stark is haunted by the possibility of a day when the Avengers won’t be able to save the world. In order to stop that apocalypse from ever happening, Stark and Bruce Banner create the Ultron program. Ultron is an advanced A.I. that becomes all too self-aware. Unfortunately for the Avengers and humanity in general, Ultron sees the only solution to peace as world domination and destruction. It’s up to the Avengers to stop the threat that Stark created!

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The most enjoyable part about the original AVENGERS was watching well-known superheroes have casual banter and interactions with each other. That holds true of this sequel too. A lot of the humor and running jokes between the characters work well. Though we know there will be plenty of explosions and fights down the line, one can’t help but laugh during an early party sequence in which War Machine tries to impress Thor with a pretty basic story or Iron Man and Thor trying to one up each other in comparing their girlfriends. Running jokes about Thor’s hammer and Captain America’s reluctance to swearing got laughs out of me every single time they appeared. Audiences aren’t simply there to watch the superheroes have casual conversations and hang out though, they are expecting rollicking action scenes and high stakes. ULTRON delivers in a few stand-out sequences. The show-stopper of which is a scene involving Hulkbuster armor.

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We’ve already seen plenty of Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor to know who their characters are and what they stand for. Credit to ULTRON for bringing out more development on both Black Widow and Hawkeye. The former is far more interesting than the latter. There’s also possibly too much time being spent on the latter, but this sequel made an honest effort to flesh these side characters out further. Hulk is a far more interesting character here too, not to mention that his CGI design doesn’t look nearly as cartoonish this time around. New faces come in Quicksilver and Scarlett Witch (who are both entertaining, but underused) as well as Vision (wonderfully played by Paul Bettany). Finally there’s the title villain: Ultron! James Spader voices the mechanical menace with humor being injected into his performance, but he’s about as clichéd a bad guy as you can find.

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AGE OF ULTRON’s overlong running time doesn’t necessarily help matters either. There are far too many scenes spent setting up future films (CIVIL WAR, RAGNAROK, and IFINITY WARS) at the expense of putting the main storyline in the backseat during solid chunks of this movie. There are spots in AGE OF ULTRON that easily could have been snipped out for a far tighter and better film. The finale also gets pretty repetitive with the Avengers facing off against a massive army of Ultron-controlled droids whose only purpose is to get smashed up by the Avengers. It makes sense to pit an army against a band of superheroes, but I wish the actual climactic showdown was far more interesting and entertaining than it wound up being.

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Though it’s far from bad or mediocre, AGE OF ULTRON is the third worst movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far. The two MCU films that I would consider worse than ULTRON would be IRON MAN 2 (which also spent too much time setting up future films and not focusing enough attention on the story at hand) and THE INCREDIBLE HULK. AGE OF ULTRON has both good and bad qualities. The good far outweighs the bad, but enough problems (flawed pacing, a repetitive finale, clichéd villain, etc.) remain to make this a step down from the first AVENGERS. AGE OF ULTRON is an okay superhero flick, but we’ve come to expect a lot more from Marvel.

Grade: B-

THE AVENGERS (2012)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 23 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Action throughout, and a mild Drug Reference

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Directed by: Joss Whedon

Written by: Joss Whedon

(based on the AVENGERS comics by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby)

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Stellan Skarsgard, Samuel L. Jackson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Paul Bettany & Powers Boothe

In the history of cinema, there’s never been anything quite like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Through various origin stories and connections, Marvel released a number of films (IRON MAN, THE INCREDIBLE HULK, IRON MAN 2, THOR, and CAPTAIN AMERICA) with the intentions of leading up to a massive epic AVENGERS movie that comic book geeks never thought they would receive in their wildest dreams. While the films leading up this 2012 summer blockbuster ranged in quality, THE AVENGERS fast became a critically acclaimed blockbuster that ranked as one of the biggest money-makers in the history of film. Everybody loved this movie and most still do, but I don’t fawn over it as much as everybody else seems to. THE AVENGERS is hugely entertaining, but far from perfect thanks to three problems.

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Top secret organization S.H.I.E.L.D. is experimenting with the Tesseract (an infinity stone) and find themselves in a bit of trouble. The evil Loki has come to our world with the goals of using the infinity stone for evil and dominating all of mankind. It’s up to special agent Nick Fury to assemble a ragtag group of superheroes to form the Avengers. They might not get along with each other, but this team of heroes is here to save the day. It’s Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Captain America, Black Widow, and Hawkeye vs. Loki and his army of intergalactic conquerors.

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The biggest pleasure of watching THE AVENGERS is to see this group of Marvel superheroes interact with each other. You get to watch as Iron Man gets into arguments with Captain America and forms a friendship with the Hulk. There’s also Thor being aggressive towards everyone as well as the entire S.H.I.E.L.D. team being wary of Bruce Banner to much comic relief. Seeing as these characters have been developed through separate movies (save for Black Widow and Hawkeye), there’s no real need for extra character development. It’s a cast of actors slipping right back into their established roles with ease. Black Widow is a good character on her own, but Hawkeye is underdeveloped (though that’s mainly the result of a plot device in the first 5 minutes).

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The biggest drawback character is Loki as the main villain. He’s already been given his time to shine as the bad guy in THOR, but we’re expected to find him just as interesting in THE AVENGERS (having already seen Thor beat his ass once already). While Tom Hiddleston is funny in the role, he just isn’t that great of a threat for the Avengers. The rest of the baddies are a bunch of faceless aliens that really aren’t given much of a purpose other than to be beaten by the Avengers. For a movie that was set up as an action-packed superhero extravaganza from beginning to end, AVENGERS takes an awful long space of time just focusing on the team members squabbling with each other on their floating S.H.I.E.L.D. base. It’s as if this movie that was clearly setting itself up as a fanboy’s wet dream decided to take a break in order to build supposed tension and that doesn’t really work out in the movie’s favor.

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As far as the spectacle itself is concerned, AVENGERS looks huge and feels epic. The action set pieces are entertaining and it’s a blast to watch this well-known group of mismatched heroes working together in a climax set across the streets of New York. There are plenty of one-liners, fights, and explosions to go around. Everything looks great with one problem and it’s a big one. The Hulk is really cheesy. Mark Ruffalo is quite good in the role of Bruce Banner, but the CGI monster that he turns into looks pretty silly compared to everything else around him. It’s possible that we’ll never see a Hulk who looks perfectly rendered because, well, the Hulk isn’t that great of a hero to begin with. However, even the Hulk from 2008’s INCREDIBLE HULK was a lot better than this green Ruffalo-resembling creature. It doesn’t distract from any of the awesome scenes featuring the other heroes, but he’s pretty dumb looking by himself. That being said, a scene between him and Loki is pure gold.

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Overall, THE AVENGERS is a lot of fun. That being said, it’s far from a perfect movie. Hell, there are even films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that have managed to outdo this one (CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY). The running time is bit too long and the design of Hulk looks pretty silly. Also, we’ve seen Loki before and I wish they could have given us a better villain. With all these things in mind, THE AVENGERS is a highly entertaining comic book film that delivers the goods. I do think it’s a bit overrated, but there’s hope that AGE OF ULTRON could manage to one-up this in every possible way.

Grade: B+

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