2 stars

REVIEW: Mission: Impossible II (2000)

When terrorists plot to steal a deadly super virus, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is tasked with putting together a team to find the terrorists and get to the virus before they do. Joining him is tech expert Luther Strickell (Ving Rhames), pilot Billy Baird (John Polson) and civilian thief Nyah Hall (Thandie Newton), who has a history with the terrorist leader, Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott).

Directed by John Woo, Mission: Impossible II is almost the polar opposite of the first film. Mission: Impossible II is all about the action and is a full fights and shootouts, while Mission: Impossible was more of a character-driven thriller. There’s a lot of dramatic slow-motion camera shots in Mission: Impossible II that after a while just makes the whole thing feel cheesy. Ethan Hunt has apparently learnt martial arts in the four years since Mission: Impossible and it sometimes looks really quite weird and unnatural and is another way the film distances itself from its predecessor.

Mission: Impossible II begins with Hunt recruiting Nyah and they both fall for each other surprisingly quickly leading to a good proportion of the film being about Nyah stuck between two men. Unfortunately, Cruise and Newton have little chemistry, and some dodgy dialogue, so they are a couple you really don’t believe in.

Mission: Impossible II’s main problem is for all of it’s over-the-top action sequences it still ends up being dull. The characters are not that interesting, though Ambrose has his moments of being an intimidating villain, and the finale is over-long. 2/5.

Admittedly we probably have Mission: Impossible II to thank for the increasingly dangerous stunts Tom Cruise takes part in in each subsequent film. The first time we see Hunt in Mission: Impossible II, he’s climbing a huge rockface, thousands of feet off the ground, without out any ropes and then dangles by one hand off a cliff. These huge stunts are now a key part in the Mission Impossible franchise.

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REVIEW: The Meddler (2015)

Marnie (Susan Sarandon) doesn’t know what to do with herself after her husband dies so she moves closer to her daughter Lori (Rose Byrne) and soon befriends Lori’s friends and tries to fully intergrate herself into Lori’s life.

The Meddler is about grief. It’s been over a year since her husband died but Marnie misses him terribly and suddenly has way more money than she knows what to do with thanks to his life insurance payout. She becomes overly generous because of that, paying for her daughter’s friend Jillian’s (Cecily Strong) wedding and buying expensive gifts for just about anyone she meets. She even befriends Apple store worker Freddy (Jerrod Carmichael), convincing him to take night classes and then even driving him to and from them.

The problem with Marnie is I did not like her. I understand why she is being so interfering and clingy as it’s because she’s still grieving and is focussing on everyone around her instead of thinking about her dead husband but that still didn’t stop me from wanting to throttle her. While Lori obviously still loves her mother, even though she annoys her a lot of the time, as a viewer I had no fond feelings for her at all.

The Meddler is heartfelt and sometimes funny too. The performances are all great and Sarandon is a standout but that wasn’t enough to get me to look past how much I disliked Marnie. Unfortunately my dislike of Marnie had a knock on affect and made me dislike the film itself. 2/5.

REVIEW: Doctor Strange (2016)

After an accident that permanently damages his hands, neurosurgeon Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) travels the world in search of healing. He’s drawn into the world of the mystic arts and is taught the sorcery skills and the path to enlightenment by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) to protect the world.

Stephen Strange is a brilliant surgeon but an incredibly arrogant and rude man. His relationship with fellow doctor, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), is strained due to his superiority and it only get worse as he refuses to accept that his career as a leading neurosurgeon is over. Strange isn’t a likeable character and while he does go on a journey and changes, he’s still not a particularly pleasant guy.

Doctor Strange is an origin story, and an origin story that is very similar to that of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in Iron Man. However, Cumberbatch lacks the humour and charisma of Downey Jr, which means that Strange feels like a very bland hero. Humour and Cumberbatch don’t really work together, in fact the only moments of humour that really land in Doctor Strange are when McAdam’s Christine is performing surgery while a magical battle is happening around her.

The bad guy in Doctor Strange is Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a sorcerer who’s got dark plans. He seems like an interesting antagonist, especially when he has a dialogue with Strange, but unfortunately you don’t get to see him that much – he’s there for a fight scene and then disappears until the next one.

Doctor Strange has some incredible visuals. While there’s a fair bit of exposition to introduce the concept of multiple dimensions and the astral plane to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, when you get to see characters interact with and move between these dimensions, it’s stunning. Characters can bend reality to their will, leading to mind-bending visuals. It’s like a city is inside a kaleidoscope, and as the city folds into itself, characters are fighting with magic while contending with the constantly moving environment.

The performances are generally decent but not great unlike the spectacular visuals – but a great-looking film doesn’t make a great film. There are moments of wonder and excitement in Doctor Strange, but otherwise it’s not that memorable. 2/5.

REVIEW: Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

My original review of Avengers: Age of Ultron from April 2015 is here and my spoiler-filled rambling thoughts on the film from May 2015 are here. I only reread both these posts after I wrote my MCU rewatch review.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) attempt to make a peacekeeping AI named Ultron, but Ultron (James Spader) has its own ideas of what peace on Earth should look like and the Avengers must stop him before he can enact his deadly plan.

Age of Ultron has a lot going on and not all of it is cohesive. It feels like a lot of things crammed into one move. There’s the introduction of the twins, Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen), two characters that present interesting powers, but you never learn more than what’s on the surface with them, especially Pietro. There’s also a lot on infighting in the Avengers team, while some events in the film certainly cause this, there’s also the sense that a lot of them don’t feel like a solid team or even a group of people that like each other. Side by side with the infighting is a surprising romance that is painful to watch – it feels like once the powers that be gave Clint (Jeremy Renner) his secret family, that Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) couldn’t possibly not have a romantic subplot and paired her up with the only other Avenger who didn’t have someone they loved. Then there’s Thor (Chris Hemsworth) who’s pretty redundant to the main plot of the movie and has his own sub-plot which is basically to give the audience a crash course in the Infinity Stones.

Age of Ultron is written and directed by Joss Whedon, the guy who did such a great job with The Avengers and had a decent take on each of the characters in that film. However, a lot of the characters development we’ve seen in various films between these two Avengers movies is just forgotten. Some elements make sense like Tony’s paranoia about aliens and protecting those who he cares about, but straightaway in Age of Ultron you see he’s built a load of robots when he’d partly dealt with his trauma by blowing all his suits up. Also, Steve (Chris Evans) often feels like a caricature of Captain America which is frustrating as we’ve previously seen the man behind the title so well in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The same can be said for Natasha, the version of her you see in Age of Ultron is a massive step backwards from the one in The Winter Solider. She’s still a badass, and while you can obviously have a female character who can fight and fall in love at the same time, the way it’s executed feels rushed and not in-line with what we’ve seen of Natasha’s character previously.

The action sequences are great, and the special effects are still top-notch. The humour that’s throughout the film doesn’t always land and sometimes feels like characters are saying a witty one-liner for the sake of it. The stakes in the final battle do feel high and you want both civilians to be safe and the heroes to succeed and survive, though I feel like a lot of that’s thanks to typical genre conventions and pre-existing affection for the characters rather than because of the characters as they’re shown in this film.

The stuff I really like in Age of Ultron are pretty much anything to do with Clint, surprise family and all, and Wanda. The way the film sets up their relationship is fascinating to me and I’m pleased that so far, those in charge of the MCU have continued to work with their dynamic. When it comes to pretty much anything else in this film, I’m either ambivalent towards it or actively dislike it.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is such a mismatch of themes and story ideas, and it’s a let-down after watching previous MCU movies in quick succession. A lot of characters seem to either take a step back in their development or receive none at all – a potential pitfall with an ensemble cast such as this that Age of Ultron fall right into. 2/5.

READ THE WORLD – Egypt: A Certain Woman by Hala El Badry

Nahid is a woman determined to go on a journey of self-discovery and understanding. She finds love and sex with novelist Omar, who is stuck in a loveless but marriage with volatile Maggie, while Nahid herself has chosen to keep up a facade of a marriage to Mustafa, a man she does not love for the sake of her middle-class family. This is Nahid’s story of discovery and self-love.

A Certain Woman is told not only from Nahid’s point of view but Omar’s, Maggie’s and Mustafa’s too. These changes in voice aren’t always obvious as there’s no clear signposts at the start of each subchapter who we’re now following. You have to figure out who’s head your now in through their conversations and wishes, sometimes it’s easier to figure out than others.

A Certain Woman is about Nahid’s quest for liberation. Not liberation from societies norms or from a man, but from her own set beliefs that inhibit her from following her heart and finding fulfilment, whether that’s in regard to independence, desire or love. She stays in her loveless marriage because of her children and a fear of trusting someone else with her happiness.

While A Certain Woman is on the short side with just over 200 pages, it’s quite a slow read due to the sometimes-delirious rambling thoughts of Nahid. She, and Omar, frequently change their mind about what they want and the way the story was written made it difficult to connect with either of them.

Nahid is an archaeologist and the sections with her being an archaeologist and finding joys in the digs she was a part of were my favourite parts of the book, but besides that I find it a bit of a slog to get through. A Certain Woman is a romance story and on the whole, that is not my go to genre of choice so maybe that’s why I didn’t particularly care for Nahid nor the situation she was in.

REVIEW: The Incredible Hulk (2008)

As scientist Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) tries to stay one step ahead of the U.S. Government, he searches for a cure for the monster he turns into, whenever he gets angry.

The Incredible Hulk starts off as more of an action thriller than a typical superhero film. Banner is on the run from the US Government led by General Ross (William Hurt), a man who is single-minded in his determination to capture Banner and cares very little about who may get caught in the crossfire. The scenes where Banner is hiding out in Brazil are a highlight, especially the foot chase through the favela and when you catch your first glimpse of the Hulk.

It’s a pity the film doesn’t keep up that same momentum throughout its runtime. There are some good action set pieces, the confrontation between the Hulk and the Army on a University campus is especially good, but the final battle is not. It’s dull and typical and offers little in terms of character.

The Incredible Hulk’s main problem is that it has a simple yet weak story. Bruce wants to find a cure for the monster inside him, but as anyone who knows this character knows it’s futile. While it’s nice to have a more small-scale journey for the reluctant hero, Banner feels like a cardboard cut out of a character as the Bruce Banner/Hulk story is one that is so well-known it is as if whoever wrote the script didn’t feel they had to try that hard. Actors like Liv Tyler as Dr. Betty Ross are underutilised, and Tim Roth is a weird choice to portray Emil Blonsky and he never really feels as if he settles into the role.

The Incredible Hulk is not a memorable film. This is in part because besides the first act, it never gets that exciting. The Incredible Hulk is a more broody action film, and as Norton isn’t a particularly dynamic lead, it can feel more dull than entertaining. 2/5.

REVIEW: Downsizing (2017)

The world is suffering from overpopulation but some Norwegian scientists have found a solution – shrinking people to five inches tall. When Paul (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) decide to change their lives and become small, things don’t go the way they expect.

Downsizing has a solid first act. The concept of shrinking people down so they don’t use as much resources or produce as much waste is fascinating and it was really cool to see how the process worked and what it meant for society – both for those who became small (an irreversible process) and those who stayed normal size. Seeing small people (and things), in a normal sized persons world is weird but enjoyable because it’s so unusual.

The premise is an interesting one, with what it tries to say about the environment, poverty, and society as a whole but unfortunately it seems to try and say too many things so it ends up saying nothing of real substance.

This is the unfortunate thing about Downsizing, the premise and the set up is great but it never really lives up to that. After the first act, the film, much like Paul himself, meanders along, and things just happen to Paul without him really being that proactive. The film doesn’t go where you think it might but if anything, that makes it worse as it seems almost aimless, and you feel the just over two hours running time.

Damon is fine in his role but Christoph Waltz as Paul’s neighbour Dusan is the most fun and engaging character. He lives life to the full and has some of the funniest lines. With the character of Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau) a Vietnamese revolutionary, it seemed the film wanted you to laugh at her. She often seemed like a racist caricature and again the film didn’t really seem to know what to do with her.

Downsizing is supposed to be a comedy, and at times it is. Other times though it feels like the concept was stretched out to more than it could be, losing humour and any real character development on the way. 2/5.