Tag (Full Review)

Everyone played tag growing up. It’s a fun game, but few could take it to the level of a group of friends who have played the game for over 30 years. It’s a wildly exciting true story published by the Wall Street Journal in 2013. The older we get, the more difficult it becomes to connect with your best friends. So taking this story of friends reconnecting and keeping the childlike fun alive and turning it into a comedy with an all-star cast is a recipe for a fun ride.

Tag_(2018_film)Every May since they were kids, five guys get together and play tag. It doesn’t matter that they live in different states and have careers and lives of their own, the game will still be played. But one skilled player, Jerry (Jeremy Renner), has never been tagged. With his wedding approaching, his friends Hoagie (Ed Helms), Bob (Jon Hamm), Chilli (Jake Johnson), and Sable (Hannibal Burress) team up to finally tag him. With Hoagie’s super competitive wife (Isla Fisher) and a Wall Street Journalist (Annabelle Wallis) along for the ride, the guys scheme out a plan to end Jerry’s perfect streak.

Tag moves at a sometimes uneven, often unbelievable, but pleasantly quirky pace. It takes a while for the cast to find their chemistry, but once they get their footing, everything works. Each character has individual moments that will make you chuckle, especially Hannibal Burress and Isla Fisher. The movie is at its best when it isn’t cramming unnecessary subplots, like a love triangle between Hamm’s Bob, Johnson’s Chilli, and an old flame played by Rashida Jones.

The nuance of the cat and mouse nature of the movie is nice. And there are plenty of funny moments, which is one of the most important things for a comedy, but that isn’t what makes Tag memorable. Once the climax roles around, the film finally hammers home its emotional core. The final scene is a wonderfully heartfelt ode to friendship that makes every weak moment in the movie evaporate amidst the pure joy that everyone onscreen is having.

FINAL GRADE: B

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Arrival (Full Review)

There are a ton of movies about alien invasions. All of them deal with how humanity reacts to the revelation that they are no longer alone in the universe. But none have ever truly grasped the psychology of such a scenario outside of expressing the more apocalyptic side of things … until now. Arrival is a different type of sci-fi film. And it is undoubtedly the most cerebral to ever enter the genre.

arrival_movie_posterAmy Adams stars as Louise, an expert in linguistics who is recruited by a U.S. military colonel (Forest Whitaker) when one of twelve monolith-like UFOs lands in rural Montana. Along with a scientist named Ian (Jeremy Renner), Louise must find a way to communicate with the aliens to learn their intentions, before the worst nature of humanity kicks in and insights war with the alien visitors.

From the opening sequence, it’s clear that this film is one bathed in subtlety and intense realism rather than CGI action sequences. Most of the film is spent with Louise and Ian attempting to communicate with the aliens by teaching them the basic foundations of language. And even though we are walked through elementary levels of teaching, director Denis Villeneuve paces the film beautifully with breathtaking cinematography and a soothing score. Despite a relatively melancholy tone, intrigue is kept throughout thanks to interesting insights into the fundamentals of communication and how it shapes our view of reality.

Amy Adams’ earnest and emotionally gripping performance is also a driving force. Her character deals with loss and a genuine hope of connecting with creatures that many have already deemed hostile due to humanity’s innate nature to be afraid of what we don’t understand. Several references are made to moments in human history where communication was used for malevolent purposes, and thus even though we never feel threatened by the aliens, we can’t help but understand the sides that do.

But through Louise’s journey, Arrival manages to present an inherently beautiful message. Through language and the perilous effort to understand and survive, the movie creates a sense of both hope and genuine love even if a terrifying outcome seems inevitable. There are so many nuances to unpeel about this film that can’t truly be touched on without giving away the film’s ending, but know that although the film is even more complex than Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, the themes of connection, time, and the beauty of life are all evenly felt.

FINAL GRADE: A

Captain America: Civil War (Full Review)

Just over a month ago, DC/Warner Bros. released a movie about superheroes fighting superheroes… sort of. Now, along comes the superhero film Goliath that is Marvel to one up them. Captain America: Civil War is an adaptation of one of the most popular comic storylines ever, pitting two of their most iconic heroes against each other. Loosely based on the source material, this cinematic version serves as a sequel to 2014’s phenomenal Captain America: The Winter Soldier as well as being a quasi Avengers 2.5.

Captain_America_Civil_War_posterIt’s been a year since the Avengers stopped Ultron from destroying the earth and now Captain America (Chris Evans) leads a new team featuring assassin turned heroine, Natasha “Black Widow” Romanov (Scarlett Johansson), intelligent android, Vision (Paul Bettany), sorceress, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), winged soldier, Sam “Falcon” Wilson (Anthony Mackie), and Iron Man bestie, James “War Machine” Rhodes (Don Cheadle). After a mission to stop a vengeful terrorist (Frank Grillo) goes horribly wrong, former Hulk adversary and current U.S. Secretary of State, Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt), brings down the Sokovia Accords: a doctrine forcing all heroes to adhere to the United Nations rather than act as an independent force. While guilt causes Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) to support the new law, the ever weary Captain America refuses to serve a government agenda, causing things to get dicey when Cap’s former best friend turned brainwashed assassin resurfaces (Sebastian Stan). The conflict splits the Avengers in two, with half siding with Iron Man and the others with Captain America.

All of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films aren’t great, as some might have you believe. Some are mediocre (Thor: The Dark World, Avengers: Age of Ultron) and others I just flat out don’t like (Any Iron Man movie after the first one). But the Captain America films have always stood out to me over the rest. This is due in large part to deeper subject matters and more intricate storytelling. Civil War is no different, in fact, it may be the MCU’s most earnest film yet.

Let’s start with the conflict, unlike with March’s Batman v Superman, this film’s budding rivalry has had several years to brew. So when things go downhill, it feels genuinely heartbreaking to see the two comrades and former friends warring against each other. An exceptional script that does a solid job sharing the two perspectives without condemning either one, makes this film feel more realistic than any Marvel movie to date. Both sides are right just as much as they are wrong, and this aspect drives the entire film and gives it more emotional weight than anything else in the MCU.

A stellar cast helps. Casting is perhaps the greatest strength of the MCU, and here everyone shines, even characters like Hawk Eye (Jermey Renner) and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) who are only on screen for a few scenes. As for the newcomers, they make their mark and prove that they are worthy additions to an already impressive roster. Chadwick Boseman portrays vengeful Black Panther with a regal fervor while Tom Holland is perfectly witty and exuberant as the new Spider-Man. Both make you excited to see them in future films. And while the MCU hasn’t always given us the best villains, Daniel Bruhl is stellar as the film’s sneaky antagonist.

The film drags a bit in its final act, but directors Anthony and Joe Russo deserve a ton of credit simply for managing to effectively juggle the massive horde of characters involved. It never feels like too much or too little, and when the titular battle goes down, it feels like something out of nerd heaven for fans of the genre even in spite of a few noticeable patches of spotty CGI. But visuals are only one part of making a memorable film. Captain America: Civil War isn’t great simply because of its action. Its captivating subject matter and emotional core are what make it one of the best superhero film’s ever crafted. So regardless of whether you’re Team Cap or Team Iron Man, you’ll come out of Marvel’s latest film feeling like a winner.

FINAL GRADE: A

Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation (Full Review)

Mission_Impossible_Rogue_Nation_posterThere’s nothing like a good spy movie. Fist fights, car chases, gadgets, and a cool, charismatic lead to bring it all together. Since it was first adapted from a 1960’s television series in 1996, the Mission: Impossible film franchise has been one of the best in the genre thanks to great stories, greater action sequences, and a strong lead in veteran action star Tom Cruise. As one of my personal favorites genres, I was more than excited to see if the newest installment could continue the franchise’s upward momentum created by 2011’s stellar Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol.

Mission: Impossible has become a de facto American James Bond franchise with every film offering up a different female lead and sinister villain. But Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is always the glue that holds the films together. Hunt is no James Bond and his recklessness and unpolished nature are always what add tension to these films. This time around his chaotic methods have caught up to him and he and the rest of the IMF (Impossible Mission Force). While CIA head Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) seeks to find him and shut him down, Ethan goes rogue and searches for a secret terrorist organization that seems to know his every move.

From a narrative standpoint, Director Christopher McQuarrie’s film doesn’t quite flow as well as Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol or reach the tension of J.J. Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III. But in McQuarrie’s defense, the plot of Rogue Nation isn’t as interesting as Ghost Protocol’s nor are the stakes as high as they are in M:I 3. Where this film tops its predecessors however, is in its characters. As always, Simon Pegg is witty, comedic gold as tech expert, Benji. Other returning characters, Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and Luther (Ving Rhames) are at their suave, snarky best throughout. Sean Harris also provides a worthy adversary as Solomon Lane, although that is probably attributed to the script rather than Harris’ actual performance.

But the character who undoubtedly steals the show is Rebecca Ferguoson as double agent, Ilsa Foust. There are femme fatales, and then there’s Ilsa. Ferguson caries out each scene with a calm, collected swagger that is both sexy and menacing. She not only holds her own around Cruise, but after the credits role you may find yourself wishing for her character to get her own set of on-screen adventures. Ilsa is not only the best female role in a Mission: Impossible movie, she may very well be the most exhilarating female lead in any spy movie to date.

The fights, chases, and gadgets are all incredible although the action sequences in the film never top the Burj Khalifa scene in Ghost Protocol. Several scenes, including a motorcycle chase and an underwater heist, certainly come close. It’s amazing that almost 20 years after the film franchise began, the films are getting more and more interesting. Sure, the spy genre can certainly be a bit monotonous and their stories convoluted, but Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation is proof that as long as you’ve got good action and interesting characters, we don’t mind sequel after sequel. You’re move 007.

FINAL GRADE: B+

Avengers: Age of Ultron Review (Spoiler Free)

Avengers was overrated. Now, before you throw rocks at me and swear off my reviews forever, please hear me out. Is Avengers one of the best superhero movies ever? Yes. It’s one of my all time favorites. But when you go back and look at the actual plot, it doesn’t really stack up to other iconic hero films like The Dark Knight, Iron Man, or X-Men 2. One of the heroes’ arch enemies teams up with a random alien army to invade earth; it sounds like the plot of an animated, straight to DVD Marvel movie. But Avengers wasn’t great because of its story. It was a success, because it was fun. A little chemistry between actors, and some great action scenes go a long way. But to feel like a better movie, Avengers: Age of Ultron needed to feel a bit smarter.

Avengers_Age_of_UltronObviously seeing the films since the previous Avengers (Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: Winter Soldier) are pivotal to understanding cameos, plot points, and certainly the opening sequence of the movie. But newcomers can get the gist pretty quickly. Cocky, but brainy Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) returns as Iron Man along with straight laced leader Captain America (Chris Evans), master assassin Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), snarky sniper Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), the Shakespearean speaking muscle man, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and of course, the loveable rage monster. Hulk a.k.a. Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). The gang reunites to recover Loki’s mind controlling staff from HYDRA and a pair of super powered evil twins (Aaron Taylor Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen). After a seemingly successful mission, an uber paranoid Tony Stark decides to create an artificial intelligence to protect the world, ultimately resulting in the creation of the evil android antagonist for which the film is named.

The first thing you need to know is that everything that was good about 2012’s Avengers is back. The characters all have tremendous chemistry. Evans and Downey Jr. are a perfect rocky, but efficient tandem. Johansson and Ruffalo manage to create a beautiful, albeit random, romance. And Jeremy Renner manages to steal the show with some timely quips and genuine heart. Newcomers Aaron Taylor Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen are welcomed additions if you can overcome their lousy European accents. Their characters, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, have the most visually appealing powers in the film. The only actor lost in all of this seems to be Hemsworth’s Thor, who never really has his moment to shine. James Spader makes it all come together well as Ultron, a charismatic villain who makes his dreams of human extinction justifiable through a very childishly hopeful, yet almost God-like perspective.

The problem is; it might be too much of the same. Director Joss Whedon seems to not have learned from the flaws of his last Marvel venture. He just seems to have traded aliens for robots. Even the climactic battle, as pleasing to the eyes as it may be, is almost an exact retread from the New York City skirmish in Avengers. Ultron even does his best to pull a Loki and make the team turn on each other.

There are also things that purists (anyone who has watched all of the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) will undoubtedly notice. For instance; if the Avengers are all buddies who are ready to just jump back into action when needed, then why didn’t they appear in each other’s solo adventures? I’m pretty sure Thor could’ve used Captain America’s help when Dark Elves were destroying London in The Dark World. And where were Iron Man and War Machine (Don Cheadle) when S.H.I.E.L.D. fell apart in Winter Soldier? Come to think of it; didn’t Tony Stark destroy all of his Iron suits at the end of Iron Man 3? And yet, there he is in the opening sequence, in his armor and controlling a host of drones.

It might seem nitpicky, but Marvel’s cinematic universe prides itself on the connectivity. Why have a bunch of dots on the page that don’t connect in the final picture? This is not to deter you from seeing the movie, by any means. Avengers: Age of Ultron is fun and exciting and a must watch for any action/adventure fan. I left feeling excited about what’s to come as you probably will too. I just wish Marvel would put the same thought into their biggest money maker, as they do with the smaller ones.

FINAL GRADE: C+

American Hustle… Full Review

It’s amazing what you can do with a great cast. In some instances, you can take a group of talented actors and build a story solely around them. And while this is no guarantee for a great movie (see The Counselor), it does provide enough of a framework to make something worthwhile more times than not.

ImageDirector David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, The Fighter) probably knows the power of the cast better than anyone, because he’s worked with most of this cast before. This time around, he takes his acting All-stars to the glorious late-1970s and engulfs them into a loosely based tale of the FBI’s ABSCAM investigation. It’s worth noting that the costumes, soundtrack, and cinematography for this film are all great… but none of those things are why this movie could compete for an Academy Award.

Christian Bale and Amy Adams reunite from The Fighter to play two con-artists who fall in love, despite the fact that Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld has a family of his own. Watching Bale’s hairy gut and listening to his heavy Brooklyn accent makes you almost forget this is the same guy that played Batman. Adams brings out her ferocity and sex appeal like never before as Sydney Prosser, perhaps the biggest hustler in the entire film. After the two lovers’ shady investment firm is taken down by the FBI, they are forced to work with federal agent Richie DeMasso to bust other con-artists. Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook, The Hangover) plays the greedy Agent DeMasso at his angry and hyperactive best.

The dynamic of those three characters as they attempt to hustle the good hearted, but double dealing, mayor of Atlantic City is what drives the plot. Jeremy Renner (Bourne Legacy, Avengers) plays Mayor Carmine Polito with so much genuine spunk that you can’t help but root for him. What drives the movie most, however, is Jennifer Lawrence (Hunger Games, Silver Linings Playbook) who channels up perhaps her best performance yet as Irving Rosenfeld’s loud, obnoxious, and unpredictable wife Rosalyn. Are back-to-back Oscars in the near future for her?

If the film falls flat to some, it is because of a plot which at times becomes a bit convoluted. But overall, there is enough information for the average moviegoer to comprehend. So while American Hustle may not be the smartest film of the year or the most exciting, you’ll be hard pressed to find one with such fun and invigorating performances.

FINAL GRADE: A