MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III (2006)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 6 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Frenetic Violence and Menace, Disturbing Images and some Sensuality

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Directed by: J.J. Abrams

Written by: Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci & J.J. Abrams

Starring: Tom Cruise, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ving Rhames, Billy Crudup, Michelle Monaghan, Keri Russell, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Maggie Q, Simon Pegg, Eddie Marsan & Laurence Fishburne

Despite having never been that interested in the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE franchise before this year, the only tidbit of knowledge that I knew about any of the films was that Philip Seymour Hoffman played the villain in the third movie. That alone was enough to make me excited for this to cleanse the palette after the disaster that was MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2. This third installment in the blockbuster franchise is the best that I’ve seen in the series (I will be watching GHOST PROTOCOL soon) thus far. Intense, exciting and smart, this MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE does something that neither of the previous entries did for me. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III actually made me feel like our main character was in constant peril and that the danger might overcome him at any point. I felt the dread, suspense and excitement rush through every single intense sequence, plot twist and action scene. It’s almost unheard of to see a third installment in any series one-up its predecessors, but that’s exactly what MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III does in every way.

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Since the events of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2, Ethan Hunt has retired from IMF missions and found love in his fiancé. He’s drawn back into one last assignment when a former protégé is captured. The rescue mission goes sour and Ethan finds himself hunting for a powerful black-market figure. The villain is Owen Davian, a notorious arms dealer who has pretty much become an invisible man. When Ethan is tipped off about Davian’s latest whereabouts, he sets in motion a complicated plan to kidnap Davian. Unfortunately, not everything in this plan is solid and sound. Things quickly spiral out of control. Soon, Ethan finds himself being specifically targeted by Davian and his fiancé being held hostage in the crosshairs.

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While MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE was a big popcorn-muncher of a movie and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2 tried too hard to be stylish and cool, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III easily sports the best script of the first three films. It ups the ante from the very beginning by showing a scene that we can anticipate later on in the movie. While I usually complain about stories starting off in non-linear fashion as a cheap gimmicky approach, this works far better in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III as the scene is an undeniably tense one. It gives us a vulnerable side of Ethan that we’ve never seen before in either of the previous entries, while also showing just how scary Hoffman is as the villain. The former is definitely a big part of what works so well for me about MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III. Adventures can only be so exciting when anyone can correctly predict where everything is heading and there’s no sense that the hero might fail. M:I 3’s script delivers a solid atmosphere of danger that hovers over every moment in which Ethan finds himself outgunned. It’s a nice change of pace for a series that seemed so content to play it safe and by-the-numbers.

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Since the screenplay is rock solid and the high stakes feel like high stakes this time around, the action scenes are extremely exciting. That’s also not to mention that the comic relief actually works, because it’s not overly excessive. Little moments of laughter do ease the tension a bit, but never dominate the scenes. One sequence of Ethan breaking into a heavily guarded building has the best punchline of any of the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movies delivered by Ving Rhames. Aside from stellar script, a nice change of pace, and exciting action, Philip Seymour Hoffman dominates as Davian. He’s a calm, cold, son of a bitch in the role. Exuding a bit of smugness, but more sociopathic tendencies than expected, Hoffman is one villain that you love to hate. He’s scary in how he delivers chilling dialogue in such a matter-of-fact, routine fashion as if the evil deeds he’s committing are really nothing to him…because they aren’t a big deal in his eyes at all. I doubt that we’ll receive another top-notch villain to the same high-caliber degree as Davian in the entire series. He’s that good!

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It’s not often that you can say a third entry in a blockbuster series manages to outdo the first and second installments, but that’s exactly the case with MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III. You can sense that somebody genuinely cared about crafting a solid film as opposed to just throwing out yet another generic sequel. The acting and characters are solid across the board, with Hoffman being the biggest scene-stealer of the bunch. The action is adrenaline-pumping and has actual emotion put behind it. The story is engaging and takes the series in an entirely different direction than simply an unstoppable guy saving the world again. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III improves on its predecessors tenfold and manages to become a great adventure in the process.

Grade: A

INSURGENT (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 59 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Violence and Action throughout, some Sensuality, Thematic Elements and brief Language

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Directed by: Robert Schwentke

Written by: Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman & Mark Bomback

(based on the novel INSURGENT by Veronica Roth)

Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Octavia Spencer, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Zoe Kravitz, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Naomi Watts, Kate Winslet, Mekhi Phifer & Ashley Judd

I was not a fan of DIVERGENT. That movie felt like an overly derivative mess that didn’t have a satisfying story, was filled with bland characters, and lowered even further by a cliché-ridden script. I really, truly hated DIVERGENT. So why am I reviewing INSURGENT? Apparently, I’m a glutton for punishment and asked people on Facebook if they wanted me to keep covering the series until its conclusion. They said yes, so here I am. INSURGENT is slightly better than DIVERGENT. It’s shorter, doesn’t waste time with unnecessary set-up, and manages to smuggle in a couple of cool action scenes. However, new problems arise in really stupid plot developments and eye-rolling moments that give Edward and Bella some competition for most unconvincing couple of the new millennium.

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When last we left the land of DIVERGENT, Tris’s parents had been killed, the fabric of an unstable class system was in question, and our group of fugitive heroes had escaped from the clutches of the evil Jeanine. Tris, Four (Tris’s lover), Peter (Tris’s nemesis) and Caleb (Tris’s brother) are hiding out in peaceful territory, but soon find themselves being ruthlessly chased by Jeanine and the Dauntless. It turns out that Jeanine (or as someone has referred to her, Female President Snow) has recovered an important artifact that can only be opened by a powerful Divergent. As Tris’s few surviving loved ones are threatened, this teenage heroine discovers that she’s the only hope of opening this artifact. That’s pretty much the plot right there. There are action scenes and encounters with other Factions, but INSURGENT has about as much going on as DIVERGENT did plot-wise. It’s familiar and basic stuff that’s made to look overly complicated and unnecessarily convoluted.

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INSURGENT thankfully doesn’t bother giving us a flashback set-up sequence, but still packs in plenty of young-adult clichés all over the place. The characters remain hollow and the cast appears to know that they’ve moved on to bigger things since DIVERGENT. Shailene Woodley (FAULT IN OUR STARS) is a one-note action heroine as Tris and still manages to garner plenty unintentional laughter on occasion, but also looks bored with the material she’s been given. Ansel Elgort is a woeful coward stereotype and doesn’t get a significant amount of screen time. Naomi Watts and Kate Winslet both seem present only to pick up an easy paycheck, though Blanchett gives the best performance of the whole film. The biggest blow comes in Miles Teller as the lame comic relief character who mainly serves as a convenient trigger for two plot points. Teller has recently come off of the amazing WHIPLASH and I couldn’t help but feel bad for the guy for starring in this sequel.

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INSURGENT’s visuals look good and more focus is placed on the post-apocalyptic world this time around. The ideas are still dumb and overused, but watching a crumbling futuristic society was slightly more interesting than watching a teenage girl try to become a member of a club…I mean, Faction. Though there isn’t an abundance of them, INSURGENT has good action scenes. I was enjoying myself during a shoot-out, a well-done chase scene and simulations that are the best scenes in the film. This being said, there are still lots of unintentional laugh-out-loud bits. My favorite of which involved Four yelling at someone “My name is Four!” and walking away from a dinner table like a pouty brat who constantly whines about nobody understanding them. In all honesty, that might be a portion of the film’s target audience though.

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The bad doesn’t stop there as the script feels downright lazy. This was based on a novel and I understand that part of these story problems birth from unoriginal source material, but there’s no excuse for how poorly written some of this stuff is. For example, there’s a huge plot point hinging on what’s inside this artifact and this is frequently brought up throughout two hours. When it’s ultimately revealed, it’s very underwhelming (not that I was expecting much to begin with) and insulting to the viewer. The discovery also more than reminded me a little of a certain other young-adult adaptation that came out last September, where that reveal also felt like a cop-out. I rolled my eyes so much during INSURGENT that I bordered on a possible hazard of vision problems.

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Going off the last note of INSURGENT, I’m really not sure what else of this story needs to or can be told. This opinion stems partially from just how bad these first two movies have been, but also because I really don’t think there’s much more of a story left to tell (let alone for TWO more films!). Seeing as HUNGER GAMES is ending this year, the young-adult void has been momentarily filled by the DIVERGENT series and THE MAZE RUNNER, though I’m really looking forward to the upcoming I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER. INSURGENT manages to be a miniscule hair above DIVERGENT in running time, but it’s just as convoluted and poorly executed as the first film. Now I’ll just go back to pretending that this series doesn’t exist until ALLEGIANT: Part 1 (of course!) hits next March.

Grade: D

DECEPTION (2008)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 47 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sexual Content, Language, brief Violence and some Drug Use

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Directed by: Marcel Langenegger

Written by: Mark Bomback

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Maggie Q, Lisa Gay Hamilton & Natasha Henstridge

Who knew sex clubs and murder could be so dull? That seems to the overarching theme of this undercooked and oversold thriller that accomplishes nothing other than passing two hours of time in complete boredom. DECEPTION didn’t make nearly enough to break even during its theatrical run and was avoided by many moviegoers (hitting #10 at the box office in its opening weekend). This glossy and hollow flick doesn’t offer much material to begin with, so this is likely to be a fairly short review warning of why not to indulge in DECEPTION.

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Jonathan McQuarry is a shy accountant on the verge of hitting a big new job. One night, he befriends Wyatt Bose, a charismatic lawyer who introduces Jonathan to a wilder side of town (complete with strip clubs and recreational drug use). Wyatt gets Jonathan to become a member of “The List”, an exclusive and anonymous sex club with certain rules. Enjoying this more erotic lifestyle, Jonathan finds himself infatuated with one young woman in particular, known only as “S.” However, not all is as it seems and Wyatt might be deceiving Jonathan which could possibly lead to Jonathan deceiving Wyatt and by the end of the film, everybody is deceiving everybody else and nothing makes much sense.

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The biggest draws to see DECEPTION are featured front and center on the poster. You have an erotic thriller starring Ewan McGregor and Hugh Jackman in a game of mental cat-and-mouse with each other. This could have been awesome if these characters were worth caring about and performances weren’t so lackluster. As Jonathan, Ewan McGregor is embarrassingly bad. McGregor uses a horrible American accent that sounds like he’s doing an impression of Woody Allen and goes so over-the-top with his shyness that it’s embarrassing. Hugh Jackman doesn’t fare much better as the hammy Wyatt. There isn’t a lot of development given to this character and that might “lend” itself to revelations later on, but he’s just not that interesting as a bad guy. Jackman does seem to be putting some effort into his role, but his clichéd villain isn’t worth caring about.

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DECEPTION looks visually slick, but that doesn’t count for much if the story is painfully boring. Running at almost two hours in length, the clichéd script just trudges through a mindless and pointless plot. The twists don’t make a lot of sense and contradict earlier scenes. Characters make a lot of stupid decisions that have no rhyme or reason other than to keep the plot dragging lifelessly on until the end credits. Since little effort was put into carving out solid characters, I can’t exactly say that it betrayed anything developed earlier as they could all naturally be the biggest idiots committed to film (especially, Ewan McGregor’s Jonathan). The entire movie is stupid, but not even on a level that might be fun to laugh at in a “so bad it’s good” way. It’s just plain dumb and tedious to sit through.

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DECEPTION becomes the worst kind of the thriller by not thrilling the viewer onto the edge of their seat and instead lulling them into a near unconscious state. This was a waste of time and money on the part of everyone involved. The dull, ridiculous script insults the audience’s intelligence and squanders the A-list actors. Aside from posting this review, this movie wasted my time…just like it will waste your time, if you bother with it. Your key goal is to not be deceived into thinking there’s a single shred of redeemable quality in this steaming pile of cinematic garbage passing itself off as a smart thriller. Avoid this movie!

Grade: F

DIVERGENT (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 19 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Violence and Action, Thematic Elements and some Sensuality

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Directed by: Neil Burger

Written by: Evan Daugherty & Vanessa Taylor

(based on the novel DIVERGENT by Veronica Roth)

Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ansel Elgort, Ray Stevenson, Kate Winslet, Zoe Kravitz, Maggie Q, Mekhi Phifer, Jai Courtney, Miles Teller, Tony Goldwyn & Ashley Judd

The vast well of material found in young adult fiction has been used a lot in the past few years. Since TWILIGHT was coming to a close and HARRY POTTER ended a decade-long reign at the box office, studios have been searching for the next big franchise to target the teenage demographic. THE HUNGER GAMES has become the new champion, but that isn’t stopping big budget attempts to start new film series out of any middle-school-oriented novel that comes out. Take for example the latest in this trend, DIVERGENT. Despite some shaky looking promotional material for this film, I was optimistic that it might be a good flick. After all, the book was so immensely popular that people had to be seeing something in the material. This all being said, DIVERGENT is a jumbled mess of scrambled parts from other (mostly more successful) plots that we’ve seen in the last few years.

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In a dystopian future, Chicago is the city left standing. The general population is separated into five separate groups (ala THE HUNGER GAMES) to keep the peace. Each citizen goes through a test that shows them which group best suits their personality. Tris is the teenage daughter in a family that belong to the vegan/hippie faction of society. Upon taking the test, it turns out that she’s a Divergent. This label is placed on individuals seen as a threats because they test positive for all five factions. Tris keeps this to herself and decides to join the law enforcement faction. This tests both her physical endurance and her mental strength. Bullied by some and facing the possibility of winding up factionless (e.g. homeless), Tris goes through rigorous training to find a place in her new faction. She also falls in love with Four (one of her trainers). The two do their best to avoid suspicion of Tris’s Divergent nature as an escalating war is on the horizon between factions.

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The ideas behind the plot of DIVERGENT aren’t bad ones. We’ve seen many of these clichéd scenarios in recent years (e.g. THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS, THE HOST, ENDER’S GAME, BEAUTIFUL CREATURES, I AM NUMBER FOUR, etc.). It’s the construction of the whole affair that’s a convoluted mess. In THE HUNGER GAMES series, ENDER’S GAME, and (hell, even) THE HOST, the dystopian future was explored just enough to satisfy the curiosity of the viewer. In DIVERGENT, the script seems focused on the wrong elements of the story. This is a dystopian society, but there are still tattoo parlors in underground dwellings (I almost laughed out loud when I saw this). A lot of things don’t make any sense in this world recovering from a supposed apocalyptic war. To add insult to injury, a whole lot of sappy pop songs make up the soundtrack. What else can you expect from a film whose target demographic is teenage girls?

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I would equate a majority of DIVERGENT to the recent adaptation of ENDER’S GAME. Imagine if that film had been based purely on Ender’s training for the war and hadn’t had a satisfying payoff. That’s exactly what DIVERGENT does and why it fails at being compelling. You could have summed up half of the film in 10 or 20 minutes. Even a montage would have been more satisfying. The movie adaptation feels that every single stage of Tris’s training is essential to watch. This makes for an over-two-hour running time that feels far longer than it should in every possible way. This might make for a compelling read, but as a film there’s plenty of editing that was needed. It’s not interesting to watch a teenage girl train for most of a movie where far more exciting events felt glossed over in the final third.

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The less said about performances and character, the better. Some tired clichés are used in the fast-paced ridiculous climax of the film. In fact, one of them is used twice (with unintentionally hilarious results). There are also discussions of politics and a deeper meaning that isn’t nearly as deep as some people claim it is. The message of how dangerous conformity can be was hammered in frequently. There were about three speeches (two of which were delivered from a scenery chewing Kate Winslet) preaching about the evils of free will and human nature. Had it not been for the giggling overly excited teenage girls in the packed auditorium, I was tempted to yell at the screen “We get it! Be more subtle!” That is the kind of film DIVERGENT is though. It’s the kind of movie that has its target audience cheering during so-called fight scenes, clapping as the end credits roll, and one girl notably yelled “Yes!” when a predictable kiss came. It’s successful in that sense, but that doesn’t make it a good movie!

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Perhaps, I might be optimistic in INSURGENT (coming out next year, because Lionsgate is pumping this franchise without even knowing how successful it will wind up being). After all, I liked CATCHING FIRE a whole lot more than the first HUNGER GAMES. In the first 30 minutes, I thought that DIVERGENT was a decent enough flick rounding about a C+. By about an hour in, that grade had been lowered to a C-. By the time the melodramatic, downright terrible film concluded it was at a…

Grade: D

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