Kingsman: The Golden Circle


Being a superspy can go right to your head.

(2017) Spy Action (20th Century Fox) Taron Egerton, Julianne Moore, Mark Strong, Channing Tatum, Colin Firth, Michael Gambon, Jeff Bridges, Halle Berry, Thomas Turgoose, Sophie Cookson, Elton John, Pedro Pascal, Poppy Delevingne, Bruce Greenwood, Emily Watson, Hanna Alström, Edward Holcroft, Keith Allen, Tom Benedict Knight, Samantha Coughlan. Directed by Mathew Vaughn

 

The first film in this nascent franchise, Kingsman: The Secret Service was a thinly veiled satire on spy film tropes and class warfare that included some fairly spectacular action set pieces and a notorious denouement in which a beautiful Swedish princess rewards the hero for saving her life by consenting to butt sex.

Critics of course took great umbrage to the latter and labeled it crass (which it was) and sexist (which it clearly wasn’t; women should be allowed to enjoy sex – even in the posterior – without it being some sort of political statement). There were some issues  revolving around an overabundance of gadgets and gimmicks but it was a solidly entertaining film that left the viewer anticipating a sequel.

So here it is; now that Vaughn has gone to the trouble of setting up his world of gentlemen spies, he decides to tear it all down by having the Kingsmen wiped out in the first act, leaving surviving hero Eggsy (Egerton) and gadget guru Merlin (Strong) asking the American counterpart – the Statesmen – for help (read into that what you want, politically inclined viewer). The agency works out of a Kentucky bourbon distillery and has agents with names like Whiskey (Pascal) who has a way with a whip, Champagne (Bridges) who is the agency head, and Tequila (Tatum) who has suspicions about the Brits. There’s also Merlin’s counterpart Ginger Ale (Berry) who suspects not all is morning in America.

They are up against a vicious, ruthless drug lord with a lavish jungle base. Now, you might have a vision in your head of a Latin hacienda but what Vaughn came up with is Poppy (Moore) who has a fixation on Happy Days-era America and has a bit of an inferiority complex. Lonely and bored in her jungle Main Street lair, she fills her days with vicious robotic dogs and Elton John (playing himself) whom she kidnapped to put on nightly concerts exclusively for her.

Vaughn has always excelled at action set pieces and he does so again here, but the camera work is highly kinetic and as a result many of the sequences are vertigo inducing and may work better for viewers susceptible to such things on the small screen. Still, he has no compunction about going way over the top and so he does here.

In my review of The Secret Service I maintained that the journey was out on Egerton who was lost among the gadgets a bit and here that is not so much the case. He comes off as smarmy and a bit superficial, a change from his cockney street kid turned gentleman spy in the first. It is not, I should say, a welcome change. Here Eggsy is trying to balance his relationship with the Swedish princess with his job as suave superspy. We rarely get a glimpse of his good heart that made him more palatable in the first film. This is what I would call a mistake in direction.

Moore is a talented actress but even she can’t elevate this role above the cookie cutter villain that Poppy turns out to be; all gimmick and no growl. She has her own plan for taking over the world and it’s a fairly clever one but it’s been done before both in Bond and in other imitations. While she has some fun interactions with the most venal President (Greenwood) ever, at the end of the day she lacks the spice to make her a truly interesting villain.

Most of the fun here comes from the supporting performances; Strong makes Merlin the heart of the Kingsmen and he gives the role more nuances than it probably deserves. Berry also shines as Merlin’s counterpart. I loved Elton John here as a kind of venomous caricature of himself, turning out to have some surprising ninja skills in the climactic fight. Never underestimate a gay pop star who has spent a career fighting for the lives of his fellow gay men during the AIDS crisis.

This simply isn’t as good as the first movie. While there are plans for a third film in the franchise and possibly a Statesmen spin-off film, I’m not looking forward to them as eagerly as I did this one. Once bitten twice shy when it comes to movie franchises and I suspect a lot of you out there feel the same way.

REASONS TO GO: Elton John is terrific in an extended cameo and Strong is equally so as Merlin. The fight scenes are hyperkinetic.
REASONS TO STAY: This is really not as good as the first movie. Egerton is too smarmy and Moore too generic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of violence, some drug use, a bit of sexuality and plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are five Oscar winners in front of the camera: Moore, Firth, Bridges, Berry and Elton John, who won for Best Song.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Fios, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/2/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 52% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Austin Powers in Goldmember
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Blade Runner 2049

Despicable Me 3


Gru can’t believe that his twin brother has Fabio hair.

(2017) Animated Feature (Universal/Illumination) Starring the voices of Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Trey Parker, Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier, Nev Scharrel, Pierre Coffin, Steve Coogan, Julie Andrews, Jenny Slate, Andy Nyman, Adrian Ciscato, Brian T. Delaney, Katia Saponenko, Ken Daurio, Cory Walls, Carlos Alazraqui, Mindy Sterling, Laraine Newman, Teresa Ganzel. Directed by Kyle Balda, Pierre Coffin and Eric Guillon

 

There’s this thing about the third film in a trilogy. Once in awhile, it turns out to be the best of the series i.e. the original Star Wars trilogy or Indiana Jones. Most of the time, however, the films in a trilogy tend to get progressively weaker. Which one in the Gru trilogy will the third film be?

Gru (Carell) is working with his new wife Lucy (Wiig) in the Anti-Villains League trying to take down Balthazar Bratt (Parker), a kid star from a forgotten 80s sitcom who is out to steal the world’s largest diamond. When that goes sideways, the two are fired by new no-nonsense AVL head Valerie Da Vinci (Slate).

When Gru’s mom tells her son about the twin brother Dru (Carell again) that he never knew he had, Lucy urges him to visit his twin along with the girls – Margo (Cosgrove), the level-headed one; Edith (Gaier) the playful one and Agnes (Scharrel), the shrill unicorn-obsessed one – to visit. It turns out that Dru has taken up the family business and plans one last big score with his brother. It’s back to being despicable once again – or is that deplorable?

The first movie felt fresh and fun, the sequel less so and this one feels tired and uninspired. Dru isn’t much of an addition to the ever-expanding family and the girls get more obnoxious and unendurable with each passing film. Worse yet, Bratt is an unremarkable villain who seems to be all gimmick and no interesting traits. The movie relies way too much on gadgets, some of which are admittedly fun but one gets into gadget overload – did the directors learn nothing from the mid-80s Bond films?

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned the Minions up to now. That’s because they have a much-reduced presence in this film compared to the first two and I think that ends up hurting the movie overall. I can understand that the producers might have been concerned about an oversaturation of Minions, considering that they had their own movie a couple of years ago (and another one scheduled for 2020) but they have been the best part of the Despicable Me franchise from the beginning. Trying to rely more on Gru and the colorless Dru was a tactical error.

There’s enough here to keep the kids entertained and clearly they were – the movie was the only summer release to gross more than a billion dollars at the worldwide box office. However, parents who decide to rent or buy this one might want to find a reason to leave the room when the kids are watching.

REASONS TO GO: There are some great “mom” moments. Some of the gadgets are clever.
REASONS TO STAY: The franchise feels like it’s running out of steam. The film could have used more Minions and less Dru.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of cartoon action and some rude humor (if your kid goes ape for fart jokes, you might want to think twice about letting them see this).
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Elsie Fisher who voiced Agnes in the first two films was replaced by Scharrel because Fisher had outgrown the role.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Minions
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Man Who Invented Christmas

Eye in the Sky


The final onscreen performance of Alan Rickman is a good one.

The final onscreen performance of Alan Rickman is a good one.

(2016) Thriller (Bleecker Street) Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Aaron Paul, Phoebe Fox, Bakhad Abdi, Jeremy Northam, Iain Glen, Richard McCabe, Monica Dolan, Kim Engelbrecht, Ebby Weyime, Babou Ceesay, Faisa Hassan, Aisha Takow, Armaan Haggio, Carl Beukes, Bob Chappell, Daniel Fox, Jessica Jones, Michael O’Keefe, Laila Robins, Lex King. Directed by Gavin Hood

Warfare is full of shades of grey. The morality of killing other people for political or economic purposes is shaky to begin with but in modern war, killing can be done with the touch of a button and with a change from armies facing each other in remote places into terrorists in urban places, war can come to the population. Of course, in the 20th century that had already taken place but now there is no place a military strike can’t take place, or at least very few places with the advent of drones.

A multi-national task force is tracking an English radicalized terrorist (King) with ties to Al Habaab in Kenya. In an operations center in Britain, Colonel Katherine Powell (Mirren) is coordinating with her superior, Lt. General Frank Benson (Rickman) as they observe her activities in a house in a terrorist-run part of the city. They have eyes on through the use of drones, piloted by American airman Steve Watts (Paul). On the ground in Kenya they have Jama Farah (Abdi) who is observing the house directly.

At first they think they hit paydirt when their target meets with some high-level terrorist officers, but their satisfaction turns to concern when they discover that a suicide bombing is being planned for and executed out of the house. That changes the color of the mission and frantic calls start going up the chain of command asking for and receiving an authorization to use a Hellfire missile to take out the terrorists. But things get further complicated when a little girl sets up a bread stand outside the terrorist house; the drone controller begins to have doubts and the calls up the ladder take a more urgent tone. Suddenly those who were eager to authorize the mission earlier are passing the buck, while time ticks away. Is the life of a single girl worth the dozens of lives that might be taken if the suicide bombers carry out their mission?

I don’t know that the movie really intends to answer that question; in fact, it can’t really be answered. From a strictly numbers viewpoint the answer is no – the people who might be killed by the suicide bomber are no less innocent and no less important than the life of a little girl. The question really is does knowingly ordering an airstrike that will be likely the death of a little girl more monstrous than allowing a bombing to take place when it could have been prevented. And that’s where the waters become a little bit murkier because we get into political territory then.

But that’s as may be. As a movie, Eye in the Sky does a credible job of keeping the tension high, although there are times when I thought they were being overly redundant in explaining that when you bring politicians into a military matter, things tend to get worse rather than better for while a soldier is more interested in accomplishing their particular mission, a politician is more concerned about covering their own derrieres.

And in conveying that message, Hood inserted some prestigious performers in key roles. Mirren is as gifted an actress as there is in the business, and her hawkish, shrill colonel is as stiff as a ramrod, as pitiless as a predator and as patient as a boiling teakettle. Colonel Powell is in many ways the epitome of a military mind, very centered and focused on completing the task at hand. Powell in and of herself is basically not very likable, but Mirren makes her human, a deceptively difficult job.

The late Alan Rickman, who passed away this past January and who will be much missed by this critic, never disappointed during his career and went out on a high note. In all honesty his General Benson is the epitome of a liaison, trying to balance the needs of the soldier with the needs of the politicians and having to stand on one leg while holding an umbrella over his back with a teacup balanced on the tip of his nose. Rickman gives the part some humanity as the one character who truly sees both sides of the argument.

Paul, who won three Emmys for Breaking Bad hasn’t really had a role in the movies that has utilized him as well as this one did. He is an airman with a conscience, one who doesn’t blindly follow orders but questions them when the orders appear to be morally ambiguous. In many ways, he had the most complicated role of the three main leads, but he shows that his award-winning performances were no fluke.

Is this manipulative? You bet it is. There is nothing more innocent than a little girl who is trying to help her family by selling the bread her mama baked to her neighbors going to market. That makes the moral issue a bit more focused, but it is a bit lazy – I don’t doubt that those in command of executing drone strikes find any civilian casualties wrenching, whether the victims are cute little girls or old alcoholic men. Taking the life of a non-combatant is not an easy thing for the military, as Rickman so eloquently expresses near the end of the film: “Don’t dare to presume that a military man doesn’t understand the cost of war.”

This is a movie that, if you’ll forgive an unintended pun, flew under the radar. However it is a crackerjack of a movie that should be sought out on VOD or in the near future, on home video. The performances here are scintillating and the questions raised timely and difficult. In many ways this is not only a thinking person’s war film, but a suspense film of the highest order.

Hood is not really trying to send a political message, or at least I don’t think he is. He is simply presenting the world as it is; that when killing comes down to the touch of a button, the morality of it becomes far murkier. And that’s a very powerful subject matter indeed.

REASONS TO GO: Edge of the seat suspense. Tremendous performances by most of the leads. Grapples with the morality of modern warfare.
REASONS TO STAY: Is guilty of being manipulative. Drags in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Violent images, adult themes and rough language, as well as children in peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rickman’s final on-screen appearance; he also lends his voice to Alice through the Looking Glass.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Good Kill
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Embers

Spectre


No vehicle is safe around James Bond.

No vehicle is safe around James Bond.

(2015) Spy Action (MGM/Columbia) Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Monica Bellucci, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott, Rory Kinnear, Jesper Christensen, Alessandro Cremona, Stephanie Sigman, Tenoch Huerta, Adriana Paz, Domenico Fortunato, Brigitte Millar, Lara Parmiani. Directed by Sam Mendes

The past has a way of surfacing when we least expect it. Sometimes, it’s just a pleasant memory we’d forgotten. Other times, our sins come back to haunt us in ways we could never possibly expect.

With the carnage of Skyfall behind him (there are spoilers here if you haven’t seen that movie so quick, go see it before reading on), James Bond (Craig) finds himself in Mexico City several months later during the Dia de los muertos celebration. He is after a terrorist who has plans to set off bombs somewhere in the city, but Bond has other plans. Before sending most of the men in the room making plans to end the lives of innocents to kingdom come, he overhears plans to meet with someone called the Pale King. As is the wont around James Bond, buildings are blown up, a chase takes place through the crowded streets of Mexico City and a fight ensues on a helicopter which narrowly avoids crashing into the crowd.

The trouble is, Bond wasn’t authorized to do any of this or even be in Mexico. The new M (Fiennes) is already having issues with C (Scott), the head of MI-5 who has recently merged with MI-6 and is now in charge, and who is threatening on dismantling the double 0 program and replacing it with the Nine Eyes directive – the combined surveillance material from the nine largest agencies in the world, including the intelligence communities of the United States, Russia, China and other nations. Only South Africa remains a holdout.

Given the ruthlessness of C, it isn’t any surprise when a terrorist attack in South Africa changes their vote. These events, Bond deduces, are related to his own chase of the Pale King. After seducing the widow (Bellucci) of the assassin, Bond tracks down an old nemesis whose daughter Madeleine Swann (Seydoux) holds the key to a sinister criminal organization known as SPECTRE – and it’s mysterious leader (Waltz) who has a connection with Bond’s past – in more than one sense.

This has every element that makes Bond films so entertaining; a debonair and cool as a cucumber spy, gorgeous women, mind-blowing gadgets, absolutely amazing action and stunt sequences and exotic locations. Well, it’s missing one element – a great theme song, but Sam Smith delivered an absolutely atrocious song that may go down as one of the worst of any Bond film ever – and there have been some absolute turkeys, although the vast majority of Bond themes have been fabulous.

Craig in his fourth film inhabits the role, and while he is contracted for a fifth film (which the ending sets up very nicely), he has said in interviews that he wouldn’t mind finishing out his run here. I think he may want to rethink that; this isn’t his best performance as Bond (Skyfall is) and he might want to go out on a higher note than this.

Part of the problem is similar to what plagued Quantum of Solace – it simply doesn’t measure up to the high bar set by the film before it. While this movie is much better than Quantum, it’s also no Skyfall and that isn’t a knock at all; Skyfall is in my opinion second only to Goldfinger in terms of great Bond movies. Sacrilege to some, I grant you, but that’s how I see it.

While Craig is ice cold through most of this, Waltz as the villain whose name I won’t reveal here is simply put the best villain of the Craig era and maybe the best other than Auric Goldfinger in the whole franchise. Waltz as…he who shall not be named….is as urbane as Bond, has a deadly edge to him and is certifiably insane, but not in a “Look at me I’m Napoleon” manner but in a quiet, serious “I’m going to do something spectacularly evil” way. You have no doubt that Waltz’ character is capable of conjuring up absolutely horrific mayhem and is quite willing to see it through.

We get to explore Bond’s relationships with his team, mainly Whishaw as Q, Harris as Moneypenny and Fiennes as M. There is a cameo by Judi Dench as the previous M whose posthumous message sends Bond careening off to Mexico, and we get a sense of Bond’s loyalty. He doesn’t trust anyone really, but one senses he trusted M – and not the new one, necessarily.

The stunts here are as good as ever – the Mexico City sequence is worth the price of admission alone – and while the gadgets aren’t as gee-whiz as in past years, the best line of the movie comes when Q hands Bond a watch and Bond asks “And what does this do?” Q responds with a droll “It tells the time.”

The movie feels like it’s cramming a little bit too much plot in; I don’t know that we needed to go all over the globe to finally end up in futuristic volcanic lair that we don’t really get to see much of but is apparently immense. They had to conjure up the largest explosion in movie history in order to…well, let’s just say that it doesn’t end He Who Shall Not Be Named’s nefarious plans.

Don’t get me wrong – this is thoroughly entertaining and certainly will keep Bond fans more than happy, although the critical reaction has been disappointing. I do hope Craig does do one more film and finishes his time in the franchise on a better note than this. It’s a good movie, but not a great one. I think Craig has one more great Bond film in him.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific action sequences. Waltz is the best villain of the Craig era. Continues the return to the iconic 60s Bond films.
REASONS TO STAY: A little on the busy side. Sam Smith’s song is terrible.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of action violence, some disturbing images, sexual innuendo and some mildly foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At age 50 during filming, Bellucci is the oldest Bond girl to appear in the franchise by twelve years (Honor Blackman was 38 when she filmed Goldfinger).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/15/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: You Only Live Twice
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Veteran

Moonraker


In space, nobody can hear your witticisms.

In space, nobody can hear your witticisms.

(1979) Sci-Fi Spy Action (United Artists) Roger Moore, Lois Chiles, Michael Lonsdale, Richard Kiel, Corinne Cléry, Bernard Lee, Geoffrey Keen, Desmond Llewellyn, Lois Maxwell, Toshiro Suga, Emily Bolton, Blanche Ravalec, Walter Gotell, Arthur Howard, Michael Marshall, Brian Keith, Chichinou Kaeppler, Claude Carliez, Catherine Serre, Beatrice Libert.  Directed by Lewis Gilbert

Sci-Fi Spectacle 2015

Among James Bond fans, Moonraker remains even today a divisive subject. Some hail it as being among the best of the entire franchise (New York Times critic Vincent Canby thought it was even better than Goldfinger) while others look upon it as campy schlock with little redeeming value.

The plot is pure balderdash. A space shuttle, on loan to Britain from the U.S., is hijacked from a 747 on the way back to America. James Bond (Moore), MI-6 agent 007 is assigned the case by M (Lee, his last appearance in the franchise) and is sent to interview Hugo Drax (Lonsdale), the billionaire owner of Drax Industries who manufactured the shuttle. While on the French estate which the industrialist had moved stone by stone to the California desert, Bond meets Dr. Holly Goodhead (Chiles), an astronaut assigned to Drax and is nearly murdered by Chang (Suga), Drax’ bodyguard. With the assistance of Corinne Dufour (Cléry), Drax’ personal pilot, Bond discovers some blueprints to an unusual glass container.

Bond goes to Venice to find out the secret of the container and discovers that it is a vessel for a highly toxic nerve gas, accidentally killing several lab technicians in the process. Chang, however, he kills on purpose. He calls in the cavalry only to find the entire operation has disappeared. However, Bond kept a vial of the gas as proof and M keeps Bond on the case despite calls to take him off it. Under the guise of sending Bond on holiday, M sends him to Rio de Janeiro where Bond has discovered that Drax has moved his operations. There, with helpful contact Manuela (Bolton) he eventually learns that Drax has a secret base near Iguazu Falls on the Amazon.

Drax also has a new bodyguard, by the name of Jaws (Kiel) and a plan – to render Earth uninhabitable by humankind (the gas is harmless to animals and plants) and take the most beautiful specimens of humans onto a space station orbiting the Earth, kept hidden by a massive radar jamming device. Bond and Goodhead, who  turns out to be an ally, must stop Drax from wiping out all of humanity and beginning a new master race, one which he and his descendants will rule.

As Bond movies go this one is pretty ambitious. It had for its time an eyebrow-raising budget. In fact, For Your Eyes Only was supposed to follow The Spy Who Loved Me but as Star Wars had rendered the moviegoing public sci-fi crazy, producer Albert Broccoli decided to capitalize on the craze and send Bond into space. Utilizing series regular Derek Meddings on special effects (for which he was nominated for an Oscar) and Ken Adam for set design, this became one of the more visually spectacular of the Bond films, right up there with the volcano lair of You Only Live Twice.

Moore as Bond relied on witticisms more than Sean Connery ever did; here he approaches self-parody. By this time he was beginning to show his age (he was older than Connery was when he made Never Say Never Again) and becoming less believable in the role, although he would go on to make three more Bond films. This wasn’t his finest moment as Bond but he continued to make it through on charm and comic timing.

His main Bond mate, Chiles, was decidedly less successful. Many consider her the coldest Bond girl ever; she is decidedly unconvincing as a scientist and less so as a spy. She has almost no chemistry with Moore; Carole Bouquet would turn out to be a much better fit for Moore in For Your Eyes Only which wisely brought Bond back to basics when it came out in 1981.

Kiel, as Jaws, was already one of the most popular Bond villains of all time. Rather than being menacing, he became almost comic relief; his indestructibility becomes a running joke which might have been a tactical mistake by the writers. The movie desperately needed a sense of peril to Bond and you never get a sense he’s in any real danger other than a single sequence when Chang attempts to murder him in a G-force testing machine. Nonetheless Kiel is game and is one of the better elements in the film.

By this point in the series Bond films essentially wrote themselves and had become a little bit formulaic. Despite the popularity of this film, Broccoli knew that he had to break the franchise out of its rut and he would do so with the following film which would become one of the best of the Moore era; this one, while some loved it and audiences flocked to it, remains less highly thought of today. It is still impressive for its space battle sequence, it’s amazing sets and zero gravity sequences, even despite being somewhat dated. It, like nearly every Bond film, is solid entertainment by any scale.

WHY RENT THIS: Special effects were nifty for their time. Moore remains the most witty of the Bonds. Jaws.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Chilly Chiles. Lacks any sense of peril. Occasionally dull.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence and some sexual innuendo
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Would be the highest-grossing film of the series until Goldeneye broke the record in 1995.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Special Edition DVD includes a still gallery and a featurette on the Oscar-nominated special effects. The Blu-Ray edition includes these as well as some storyboards and test footage.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $210.3M on a $34M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Blu-Ray/DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu (download only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Sci-Fi Spectacle continues!

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation


Tom Cruise is within earshot of Rebecca Ferguson.

Tom Cruise is within earshot of Rebecca Ferguson.

(2015) Action (Paramount) Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Simon McBurney, Jingchu Zhang, Tom Hollander, Jens Hulten, Alec Baldwin, Mateo Rufino, Fernando Abadie, Alec Utgoff, Hermione Corfield, Nigel Barber, James Weber Brown, America Olivo, Adam Ganne, Eva-Marie Becker. Directed by Christopher McQuarrie

When we go to the movies in the summer, it is with a different expectation than when we go in the fall. In the autumn and winter months, we expect something more thoughtful, something challenging. In the summer, we want spectacle. We want things blowing up and car chases and bullets flying but never ever hitting the hero, who is usually a big Hollywood star. We wanted to be wowed.

Well, nobody ever accused the Mission: Impossible franchise of failing to give the people what they want. The IMF finds itself in hot water, but not from some baddie with an axe to grind who wants to take over the world; no, not unless you count the CIA and Congress among that demographic. You see, the head of the CIA (Baldwin) wants to break up the band – shut down the IMF. He feels that they have no oversight, they do essentially what they want, have a ginormous budget and the return on that budget is shall we say chancy. Being that there’s no Secretary to speak up for the IMF, it is up to agent William Brandt (Renner) to carry the torch and he basically has his hands tied. End result: the IMF is history.

It’s a bad time for the IMF to take a header. The Syndicate, an evil organization that is out to sow the seeds of chaos and war around the world (and fans of the original series will remember was often the antagonist to the IMF back in the day), is ready to rear its ugly head and agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) has made contact with them – at least, he knows what some of their agents look like. Aided by a British agent named Ilsa Faust (Ferguson) who has a name that would have sounded better on a sexy SS agent, he escapes their clutches and sets out to foil their plans and bring the anti-IMF – which is what the Syndicate is – to its knees, if not on its back in the morgue.

To do so Hunt is going to need old friends Brandt, Benji Dunn (Pegg), an expert on computers and gadgets and Luther Stickell (Rhames), maybe the world’s best hacker. They’ll be going up against Solomon Lane (Harris), the head of the Syndicate and a soft-spoken but wholly deranged former British agent, and his top dawg Janik “The Bone Doctor” Vinter (Hulten) who should sue for a better nickname. They also can’t be sure about Ilsa, who may be a double agent but has some pretty messed up stuff in her past, nor about Atlee (McBurney), the weasel-like head of the British Secret Service who is either a ruthless spy out to protect his country at all counts, or just plain ruthless.

The film begins with a sequence that includes Hunt holding on for dear life to the outside of a cargo plane – which is an actual stunt actually done by Cruise which I’m sure led to some cardiac arrest in the halls of insurance companies worldwide. He also is really driving the car going down the steps and flipping over like something out of NASCAR, and that really is his knee almost touching the asphalt as he drives his high speed motorcycle around a hairpin curve on a mountain road outside of Casablanca.

The action sequences are big and bold and exciting. The sets range from gleaming high tech to dusty ancient cities to the gilded grandeur of the Vienna Opera House. Each location is proclaimed in big graphic letters so we always know where in the world Carmen Sandiego, or at least the IMF team, is. Like the Bond movies which set the formula, we get the team in exotic (and not-so-exotic) locations, we get nifty gadgets and we get amazing stunts and action. We even get beautiful women, although in this case it’s just one woman, but when she emerges from a swimming pool in a bikini, don’t tell me that you more veteran moviegoers weren’t thinking about Ursula Andress.

McQuarrie started out as a writer, penning the excellent script for The Usual Suspects among others, and has lately graduated to directing with solid results (Jack Reacher, Edge of Tomorrow) has graduated to better than that. This has all the ingredients for solid summer entertainment; and likely will dominate the box office (given the anemic early results of Fantastic Four) throughout August.

Like a lot of the M;I films, there are some twists and turns to the plot, most of them involved with Ilsa’s true allegiance, but for the most part they don’t fool anyone and in all honesty, I think the movie could have used a little more vagueness when it came to her true intentions. Well before the final denouement we all knew which side she was buttering her bread as it were.

The main fulcrum that the movie revolves around however is Cruise, and at 53 years old which in action star terms is a bit long in the tooth he still has the boyish good looks that have always been his stock in trade (although he is starting to show his age just a tiny bit). Then again, both Schwarzenegger and Stallone have been doing action films with effectiveness in their 60s. Cruise is still in fine shape and looks like he could do another  three or four of these movies without breaking a sweat and given the satisfying box office numbers here at least one more is almost certain. Cruise is a star through and through and he continues to have maybe the best fundamental understanding of how to remain a star as any in Hollywood.

This is definitely a “grab the popcorn and an ice cold soda” kind of movie, the kind that you can drag the whole family out to, or your entire circle of friends. It doesn’t matter if you’re young, old or in between – this is entertainment for nearly everybody. Just sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.

REASONS TO GO: Top notch action sequences. Cruise still has it.
REASONS TO STAY: The twists are a little on the lame side.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence and intense action sequences with a scene of brief partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Each Mission: Impossible film has had a different director: Brian De Palma, John Woo, JJ Abrams, Brad Bird and now McQuarrie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Casino Royale (2006)
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Nightingale

Minions


Scarlet Overkill attempts to kill the Minions with kindness.

Scarlet Overkill attempts to kill the Minions with kindness.

(2015) Animated Feature (Universal) Starring the voices of Sandra Bullock, Jon Hamm, Michael Keaton, Allison Janney, Steve Coogan, Jennifer Saunders, Geoffrey Rush, Steve Carell, Pierre Coffin, Katy Mixon, Michael Beattie, Hiroyuki Sanada, Dave Rosenbaum, Alex Dowding, Paul Thornley, Ava Acres, Carlos Alazraqui, Lori Alan, Laraine Newman, Mindy Sterling. Directed by Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin

We know the villains. They are often flamboyant, deliciously evil and unforgettable. But what of their henchmen? What of the cannon fodder they send to take on the hero, or to do whatever nefarious deed needs doing. What of them?

Master criminal Gru (Carell) has long been supported by his yellow pill-like Minions (all voiced by Coffin), odd creatures in denim overalls, usually with two eyes (occasionally with just one) who speak an odd high-pitched patois of every language on Earth as well as some gibberish that sounds like a 33 1/3 vinyl album played at 45 RPM (ask your parents or grandparents; they’ll understand the reference). But where do these non-human creatures come from?

It turns out from right here. An amusing opening sequence (much of which is seen in the trailer) shows them evolving from single-celled organisms who are determine that the best way for them to survive in a hostile world is to find the biggest, baddest villain they can, serve him and by doing so, come under his protection.

This goes badly for the Minions. It isn’t so much that their masters turn on them, as you might expect that evil villains might. It’s just that the Minions, in trying to serve, have an unnerving knack of killing their masters by accident. This causes the Minions to sink into a deep depression.

One of their number by the name of Kevin won’t sit idly by for this. He determines to leave their ice cave lair and find a new boss to serve. To accompany him will be Stuart, a would-be rock and roller, and Bob, the most adorable Minion and perhaps the most enthusiastic.

As the Minions have been in hiding for a number of years, the world has changed somewhat since last they had been seen. It is 1968 and it is New York City. You’d think that Minions would find plenty of villains there but they discover that, rather, Orlando is the place to be. That’s because a convention of evildoers is about to convene in The City Beautiful in the years Before Disney.

They hitch a ride with Walter (Keaton) and Madge Nelson (Janney) who are driving down to Orlando with their kids. It turns out that they are villains as well, expert bank robbers. And there are a number of Villains who might be worthy of the Minions, like Professor Flux (Coogan) or Sumo (Sanada). However, the biggest baddest villain of them all is Scarlet Overkill (Bullock) who it so happens is hiring.

Kevin, Bob and Stuart get the gig and go to London in Scarlet’s private jet (apparently crime does pay after all) where they meet her mechanical genius of a husband Herb (Hamm). Scarlet’s already got a job in mind for the adorable yellow Minions; to steal the crown of Queen Elizabeth (Saunders). Easy peasy, right? Of course, the Minions make a hash of it and things go rapidly downhill from there.

There has been a tendency in the world of animated features of late to populate them with adorable supporting creatures, from the slugs of Flushed Away to the penguins of Madagascar. Sometimes these creatures are more interesting than the main characters (see Skrat, Ice Age). The Minions may be the best of these, entirely incompetent but always worth a giggle. They often upstage Gru in his own movies.

They actually do an adequate job of carrying their own movie as well, although not a spectacular one. While their Minion language gets a bit old in its indecipherable glory, it still gets the message across. Their simplicity appeals to children who tend to like their characters to be uncomplicated and the Minions are definitely that.

The entertainment factor is solid. There are plenty of sight gags that are clever although truth be told they occasionally are too clever for their own good (like the Minions emerging from a sewer on Abbey Road only to be stepped on by Four sets of Fabulous feet at the crosswalk. It’s a famous album cover – ask your parents or your grandparents, they’ll understand the reference.

But the problem here is that there really is no there there, as Gertrude Stein might say. It’s entertaining, but only that; the content is so light and airy that the slightest of breezes will blow the whole thing away like a dandelion in spring. The story, while disposable, grinds to a halt in a few places and unnecessarily so. There were some scenes the movie could well have done without.

I would have thought that the Minions could have survived on their own but it turns out that they need Gru more than he needs them, which comes as a bit of a shock. At the end of the day, they are supporting characters and because they are meant to be in the background, they don’t really make an impression in the foreground for the hour and a half running time. This really feels like a Saturday morning cartoon stretched out to feature length, and while that may be a bit harsh and perhaps unjustified, nonetheless that’s the impression I walked out with. It’s entertaining enough that if you take your kids to see it you won’t be unbelievably bored (as with several animated features from last year) but at the very least this movie will make you appreciate Gru all the more.

REASONS TO GO: Reasonably entertaining for both parents and children. Minions are adorable.
REASONS TO STAY: Disposable fluff.  Drags in places.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of slightly rude humor and animated action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While Kevin, Bob and Stuart are watching Scarlet Overkill’s presentation at Villain-Con, Gargamel from the Smurfs can be seen sitting directly in front of them.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/25/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flushed Away
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Ant-Man