Starring: Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler), Jessica Alba (Machete), Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Don Jon), Eva Green (Casino Royale), Rosario Dawson (Clerks II), Powers Boothe (The Avengers), Bruce Willis (Die Hard)

Directors: Robert Rodriguez (Desperado) & Frank Miller (The Spirit)

Writer: Frank Miller

Runtime: 1 hour 42 minutes

Release Date: 22 August (US), 25 August (UK)

Sin City was an aesthetic achievement back when it came out, being easily the most accurate page-to-screen adaptation of a comic book ever made whilst creating a distinctive and unforgettable atmosphere and style that many have tried to emulate. But that was nine years ago; tastes have changed, two cast members have died, and Frank Miller has only gotten more insane. Even after all that, Rodriguez and Miller have persevered and finally delivered A Dame to Kill For as promised. Better late than never I suppose, but was it all worth it in the end?

Like the first film, there are multiple stories here and I’m going to judge them all individually. “Just Another Saturday Night” is very inconsequential with little meaning or purpose, but it does quickly reel you back into Basin City and reintroduce Marv (Rourke) in a satisfying way. “The Long Bad Night” is probably the best story out of the bunch: a simple tale of pride and honour versus greed and power. It’s not the most original of tales but it mainly works thanks to the efforts of Gordon-Levitt and Boothe, though I did find its conclusion somewhat rushed and anti-climactic. The eponymous “A Dame to Kill For” takes up most of the running time, and by ‘take up’ I mean ‘engulf’. It’s a basic femme fatale story without much new to offer, and it could have easily been simplified to give more weight to the more needing stories. It’s not exactly a good sign when your main story is your weakest, but that is the case here. Finally, the movie comes to a close with “Nancy’s Last Dance”, which could have been the most interesting story if it had any meat to it. The story quickly resolves itself before it really has a chance to start, almost like the whole thing was an afterthought. As in the original, the dialogue is typical Frank Miller; very pulpy and stylised with lots of fragmented sentences and people comparing the city to things, which does add to the cool aura of the picture but does also lead to some odd line readings. The stories don’t flow as well as the first and the pacing lags behind too, making this 100 minute film feel at least twenty minutes longer if not more.

Rodriguez and Miller have assembled an all-star cast of familiar and new faces, as well some replacements, with mixed results. Mickey Rourke truly is Marv and is clearly having a ball here, relishing every little moment he gets and it’s his presence that keeps the movie alive during its duller moments. As said before, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s suave charm seems very fitting to the landscape of Basin City and he’s a fun addition to the cast. Josh Brolin, taking over for Clive Owen, does a decent job of acting but I never really felt he was ever the same person as Owen no matter how much they dress him up. Powers Boothe gets a lot more to do here than he did in the first, and his menacing performance is another highlight. Eva Green eats up the scenery as Ava Lord, going full-on in more ways than one in a performance that bares more than she did in 300: Rise of an Empire but not quite as entertaining. Jessica Alba gives one of the better performances of her career here but that’s not saying much, whilst Bruce Willis sleepwalks through his minor role. There are also plenty of cameos sprinkled throughout from some odd faces, but I’ll leave those to you.

As with the dialogue, the film has all the typical Miller aesthetics: dark empty streets, over the top violence and lots and lots of women dressed in questionable outfits. Love it or hate it (I can tolerate it in small doses), it’s what Sin City is and it delivers it. The problem is that we’ve all seen it before; the film does exactly what the first one did, taking away nothing but not adding anything either. Other than the minor improvements to green screen technology and the addition of 3-D (which admittedly does add to certain moments), it looks exactly like the first one. Same design, same camera and lighting tricks, same score. As I said before, we’ve moved on and what was impressive a decade ago is now somewhat passé, and so by sticking so close to the original aesthetic it actually diminishes the quality.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is like a magician who only does one magic trick; you’ll admit that it is an impressive trick, but once you’ve seen it there’s no reason to see it again. It often feels like the table scraps of the first film, which basically used up all the best material and that doesn’t leave much for this follow-up to work with. It certainly has its moments and die-hard fans of the first one will still get a kick out of it, but I think this is a major case of too little too late. Never say never, but I think this return to Basin City may also be our last.

FINAL VERDICT: 5/10

Starring: Scarlett Johansson (Under the Skin), Morgan Freeman (The Dark Knight), Choi Min-sik (Oldboy), Amr Waked (Contagion), Analeigh Tipton (Crazy, Stupid Love)

Writer/Director: Luc Besson (The Fifth Element)

Runtime: 1 hour 29 minutes

Release Date: 25 July (US), 22 August (UK)

Let’s just get this out of the way first: the whole “humans only use 10% of their brains” thing is utter bullshit; an urban myth. There is still plenty about the human brain we don’t yet understand, but that doesn’t mean that most of it is just sitting there doing nothing. That said, the concept has allowed for some interesting fiction jumping off that idea such as the criminally underrated Limitless. But where that film took a silly little idea and turned it into something cool, Lucy is under the impression that that silly little idea is something unparalleled and therefore gets lost in its own pretentious immaturity.

Lucy is most comparable to this year’s Transcendence, and not just because both movies have Morgan Freeman in them. They are similar because both of them are movies trying to be smarter than they are, and in the process only make themselves look that much more stupid. The plot is flimsy and ill conceived, dashing from plot point to plot point before reaching a baffling and laughably “deep” conclusion that, despite its ridiculousness, still manages to disappoint. Though the story moves briskly and with little downtime, it lacks any sense of tension. Once Lucy (Johansson) begins gaining her powers, any sense of danger or threat is immediately disintegrated because there’s nothing that can stop her. It’s like playing a video game with all the cheats on: it may be cathartic fun at first, but without any challenge the experience loses lustre. Perhaps if there was some threat that could match her ability, give her an adversary that actually tests her, maybe then there would have been something. But no, instead we just get Lucy defeating people without any resistance. If our main character is so blasé about what’s going on around her, why should we care?

Which brings us to another problem stemming from that lack of threat: because Lucy quickly becomes this ponderous shell with no emotion or feeling, it’s hard to connect with her. Before she becomes that, when there is still some threat to her life, Johansson does get to shine and perfectly sells this shallow but frightened young woman. There is also a great scene where she calls her parents soon after gaining her powers that is actually quite touching and makes we wish there were more moments like that. But after that, her humanity becomes ripped out and any sense of a person that was there is gone. Then again, it seems the filmmakers were aware of this, which is why we get the superfluous character of Del Rio (Waked), who in the second half of the movie is basically there to just gawp at Lucy as she does cool stuff and to give us something to vaguely connect to; this is blatantly made clear when he says “I don’t think I’m much help to you”, to which Lucy replies “You’re a reminder” [face palm]. Morgan Freeman here seems to serve the same role he did in Transcendence: saying a load of science-y bollocks to convince us that this is all plausible because, hey, if Morgan Freeman says it, it must be true. Choi Min-sik feels utterly wasted in this film as the generic psycho bad guy who, as said before, poses no threat whatsoever because we know Lucy could evaporate him at any moment. In fact, she gets several chances to do so in the movie and she never does. Wouldn’t someone so disconnected from humanity see his existence as a threat to her goals and take him out of the equation, deadly force or not? Oh yeah, but then we wouldn’t have adversaries to inconsequentially take out during the rushed climax.

Though the action sequences lack tension, they at least look pretty. The cinematography and production design have a bright and cool feel to them, giving the film a good deal of visual identity. Unfortunately, one of its main technical quirks is just bizarre and unnecessary. Often during the film, they will cut to some nature footage to convey something metaphorical. For example, when Lucy is being asked to deliver a briefcase at the beginning, there is a quick cut to a mouse being lured into a mousetrap. Why? To slam the obvious metaphor into your head, of course. It’s like Luc Besson is trying to emulate Terrence Malick or something, but completely doesn’t get what Malick is doing. Then again, who does?

Lucy is that rare breed of film that is both pretentious and idiotic. It’s almost endearing how smart this film thinks it is when all it’s really doing is procrastinating about life and intelligence to cover up the fact that all it is is just a dumb sci-fi action flick, and not a particularly good one at that. If the film actually had a formidable antagonist and dropped all pretence by just accepting what it is, this could have been goofy fun. Kinda like the films Luc Besson used to make. You know, the good ones. But other than some pretty visuals, a mildly diverting car chase and a solid but wasted effort on Johansson’s part, there’s nothing to recommended here. If you want a similar but better experience, just watch The Fifth Element and Limitless simultaneously, and you’ll be better off.

FINAL VERDICT: 3/10

Starring: Sylvester Stallone (Rambo), Jason Statham (Crank), Wesley Snipes (Blade), Antonio Banderas (Desperado), Terry Crews (Idiocracy), Randy Couture (The Expendables), Kelsey Grammer (Transformers: Age of Extinction), Kellan Lutz (The Legend of Hercules), Ronda Rousey (Fast & Furious 7), Jet Li (Unleashed), Mel Gibson (Mad Max), Harrison Ford (Air Force One), Arnold Schwarzenegger (Predator)

Director: Patrick Hughes (Red Hill)

Writers: Sylvester Stallone (Rocky) and Creighton Rothenberger & Katrin Benedikt (Olympus Has Fallen)

Runtime: 2 hours 6 minutes

Release Date: 14 August (UK), 15 August (US)

The Expendables franchise is a prime example of wasted potential; a good germ of an idea that wasn’t thought through properly and marginalised into something bland. The first Expendables was an absolutely incoherent mess whilst its sequel, whilst better, was still little more than milquetoast action fodder. So how does the third instalment fare? Do you really need to ask?

None of these movies are particularly well written, but Expendables 3 does have the best story of the bunch; not much to brag about, but it’s something. Whilst the first two films had such bland narratives that I can’t even recount them for you, this time around it feels a bit more solid because there seems to be a much more personal stake here. Rather than fighting just some random sadistic warlord, they’re fighting against a former brother (Gibson)…who has become a sadistic warlord (hey, you can’t expect them to completely change the formula?). It’s a simple story you’ve heard a million times before, but I at least can remember what the plot was. But that doesn’t mean the movie is free from any other action clichés, as the film delights in putting those in constantly and without any sense of irony. The film also suffers from terribly inconsistent pacing. A good portion of the second act is taken up by Stallone and Grammer wandering around picking up teammates like we’re watching Ocean’s Eleven or something, with these scenes and the dead spaces between action beats filled with “witty banter” that’s mostly just the cast referencing their résumé. They just go on and on about nothing, padding out the film to just over two hours and killing all tension and interest I had with it.

Stallone has once again assembled an impressive cast, but my main problem with this franchise still lingers: take away all of the star power, and these characters are nothing but dry cliché-ridden caricatures of either roles these actors have played before or just generic action hero stereotypes in general. They all have only one character trait each (though some of them can’t even muster that much), and with so many faces flying around none of them get decent amounts of screen time or development. The cast seems to be having fun, but that enjoyment doesn’t translate to the screen; it all feels so self-congratulatory. In terms of the fresh faces, the new group of young Expendables are weak and unremarkable; when Kellan Lutz is the most recognisable out of the bunch, you know there’s a problem. Antonio Banderas is a motormouth who gets on the characters’ nerves as well as the audience’s, Harrison Ford mumbles stone-faced through his performance, and Kelsey Grammer feels extremely miscast in a thankless role. Mel Gibson thankfully livens the proceedings in an eccentric performance, but he lacks any kind of physical threat. I’ll give Jean-Claude Van Damme’s character from Expendables 2 this much: he was incredibly bland, but at least he could still fight.

The Expendables 3 has succumbed to PG-13 neutering in the name of bigger box office, and though I didn’t find it too egregious considering how bad the CG gore was in the first two were it doesn’t make the film any better, especially when it’s clear it was shot with a harder rating in mind. The action sequences themselves are competently shot and choreographed, but none of them do anything particularly spectacular. The film’s climax is entertaining at times, but it goes on forever with barely a moment to catch your breath. It all just lacks any sense of originality or flair, content with just giving us the same thing over and over again. None of it comes off as incompetent, but it’s still lazy. That is except for the horrendous dubbing present in several parts of the film. Multiple times they’ve dubbed lines in that in no way synch with the actor on screen; most hilariously during a bit where you can hear Banderas blabbing away incessantly in the background but his lips are obviously not moving that much. It’s embarrassingly incompetent; especially considering it’s all in the name of yet more useless prattling dialogue.

I’d confidently say The Expendables 3 is the best of the franchise, but that’s like bragging about being the best player for a really sh*t sports team; it’s not much of an accomplishment when there was hardly any competition. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if it weren’t for all the actors in these movies, they would barely scrape by as those direct-to-video action flicks you always see clogging up Netflix. Despite mildly more competent writing and direction, the unoriginality on display here is just so numbingly dull that it’s very hard to care about the carnage on screen. It’s certainly not a bad movie, but it doesn’t really do anything to justify its existence, and the world wouldn’t be much of a different place without it. I guess you could say this movie is…expendable.

C’mon, that joke’s on about the same level as most of the gags in these movies.

FINAL VERDICT: 5/10

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks), Adam Driver (Inside Llewyn Davis), Mackenzie Davis (That Awkward Moment), Rafe Spall (I Give It a Year)

Director: Michael Dowse (Take Me Home Tonight)

Writer: Elan Mastai (Alone in the Dark)

Runtime: 1 hour 42 minutes

Release Date: 8 August (US), 20 August (UK)

The romantic comedy genre is so stale and predictable at this point that even making that statement is pretty redundant. But, much like the horror genre, there are usually one or two every year that make the concept seem fresh and enjoyable again. I wouldn’t say What If is one of those movies, but is certainly comes closer than most.

What If’s premise revolves around that time-honoured classic situation: the friend zone. Whilst the idea of basing the entire movie around that does seem stale, it does at least view it from a mature and very un-movie like standpoint. There’s no wacky misunderstanding or questionable character behaviour, hallmarks of the bad rom com, and instead the story does take the more interesting route of viewing this situation in a down-to-earth manner. The film does try to evoke classics like Annie Hall and When Harry Met Sally, and though it never reaches the heights of those movies it does at least make a concerted effort. But just because it avoids certain rom com stereotypes, that doesn’t mean it avoids all of them. There are still large plot coincidences to create awkward situations, some slapstick and plenty of cheesy speeches, and even when viewed through the film’s cynical and muddy lens it still doesn’t make them seem any fresher. The film does also drag on too long despite a reasonable runtime, which especially annoys during the more predictable parts of the narrative.

What ultimately makes What If a worthwhile watch is its two lead stars. Daniel Radcliffe seems right at home in this sort of material, able to show a more human and dorky side of himself that his previous roles haven’t allowed. Zoe Kazan is also an enjoyable presence, even if her character is basically a less pixie-like version of her role in Ruby Sparks. Their chemistry together is fantastic, managing to take every bit of the somewhat overwritten dialogue and make it sound like eloquent small talk. By themselves they do OK, but when together the screen lights up. Adam Driver and Mackenzie Davis come off as kind of obnoxious, which is what their characters are supposed to be but it does seem a little overplayed especially given the otherwise grounded nature of the film. Regardless, both of them have their good moments, most notably a scene between Radcliffe and Davis before the latter’s wedding. The cast member I take the most umbrage with is Rafe Spall, mainly due to the somewhat muddled nature of the character’s morality. In the standard rom com, his role would most certainly played for the highest levels of asshole so that the audience wants our hero to succeed that much more. But in a bizarre mix, whilst the script certainly doesn’t paint the character of Ben as an asshole, Spall’s performance does and that ultimately overpowers the words. Honestly, I think a far more ambiguous approach to the character would have made the film so much better, as it would have again ground the film in reality and made Radcliffe’s plight that much more compelling.

What If is ultimately a perfectly decent piece of fluff that thinks it’s more subversive than it actually is. An overall generic and drawn out premise combined with and unfocused tone grates, but is saved by Radcliffe and Kazan’s spell-binding chemistry and a few genuinely touching moments. It’s pretty inconsequential, but if you’re struggling for something to watch on date night it’s not a bad idea.

FINAL VERDICT: 6.5/10

Starring: Chris Pratt (The LEGO Movie), Zoe Saldana (Avatar), Dave Bautista (Riddick), Vin Diesel (Fast & Furious 6), Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook), Lee Pace (The Hobbit trilogy), Karen Gillan (Doctor Who), Djimon Hounsou (Gladiator), John C. Reilly (Boogie Nights), Benicio Del Toro (Traffic)

Director: James Gunn (Slither)

Writers: James Gunn and Nicole Perlman

Runtime: 2 hours 1 minute

Release Date: 31 July (UK), 1 August (US)

Guardians of the Galaxy has always been a humungous gamble since the word go. Its obscurity to the general audience, its irreverent tone, its odd assortment of characters, the fact it is so far removed from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and is being helmed by such a bizarre and relatively untested director. Why risk millions of dollars on such a wild idea? Well, as Marvel Studios constantly manages to do, it takes that challenge and surmounts it, only this time they do so in a manner deserving of a standing ovation and a victory dance. Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t just a good movie. It is outstanding.

Guardians’ story at its core is relatively simple: big bad wants thing to destroy things, so a bunch of people who don’t like each other have to learn to like each other to stop the big bad using the thing to destroy things. It’s hardly an original story, but on top of that familiar centre is so much more. The pacing is energetic and bouncy, the comedy consistently hits all the right notes, and the film even manages to pack a sweet and powerful heart. The dialogue especially sparkles, with plenty of quotable lines and whip-smart quips. It does everything a great movie needs to do and then some, blending that familiar Marvel flavour with Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Firefly and James Gunn’s own wicked imagination. In terms of connectivity to the other films, it’s pretty loose though I’m sure certain elements may become important down the line, and of course stay through the end credits for something that will certainly have the fanboys reacting wildly in some manner.

But what ultimately makes Guardians such an enjoyable ride is its characters. The Guardians themselves are incredibly well defined and performed, so much so that it is hard to pick a favourite. Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill oozes with charisma and wit, mixing Han Solo’s swagger with his own brand of humour; with this and The LEGO Movie under his belt, it is certainly his year to shine. Zoe Saldana is tough but endearing as the cutthroat Gamora, whilst Dave Bautista is a deadpan revelation as the team’s muscle Drax; he also has the distinction of delivering some of the film’s best lines, which I won’t spoil for you here. Vin Diesel does a phenomenal job voicing Groot, especially considering he can only say three words, but Bradley Cooper’s Rocket is certainly bound to be the film’s breakout star. He’s rude, he’s angry, but there’s a surprising amount of depth to his character that is only hinted at and I hope this gets delved into more in the already confirmed sequel. All of the actors have fantastic chemistry with each other, both when arguing and working together; their camaraderie often even rivals the bonds between Joss Whedon’s characters. The rest of the supporting cast don’t get quite as much focus, but they all have their memorable qualities, with particular stand-outs being Karen Gillan’s deliciously villainous turn as Nebula and Michael Rooker doing what he does best as the scoundrel Yondu. If there’s anything a bit lacking in the film, I’d say Lee Pace’s Ronan isn’t exactly that compelling an antagonist. He’s certainly an imposing threat, but most of his scenes lack the sense of humour that permeates the rest of the movie and it would have been welcome if his overt seriousness were at least called upon.

On top of all that, Guardians is certainly Marvel’s prettiest looking film. The attention to detail on all the sets, costumes and props is astounding and really sells these outlandish locales. The action sequences are fantastically well choreographed, filled with the same amount of effort and ingenuity that has gone into the dialogue; most memorable being an early four-way bout on Xandar and a fantastic prison break sequence. The film’s cinematography is colourful and well staged, the editing moves at a perfect clip, the music is packed with both a well composed score and fantastic use of 70’s and 80’s classics, and even the 3-D is worth it. See this movie on the biggest and best screen you can; I saw it in IMAX and the experience was worth every extra penny.

I don’t know how much more I can gush about Guardians of the Galaxy, but this is not one you want to pass up. Even removed from the rest of Marvel’s film catalogue it would still stand as one of the most fun and entertaining blockbusters not just this year but of the past several years. James Gunn has crafted a motion picture packs all of the wonder and heart of the films it is inspired by, and may indeed inspire the young generation in much the same way Star Wars did. It’s my favourite Marvel film so far, my favourite film of this summer as it comes to a close (honestly, I doubt anything in August will top this), and it certainly is vying for that highest of honours: favourite film of the year. What else do I need to say? Go see Guardians of the Galaxy. As the film’s tagline says: you’re welcome.

FINAL VERDICT: 10/10!

Starring: Dwayne Johnson (Pain & Gain), Ian McShane (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides), John Hurt (Snowpiercer), Rufus Sewell (Dark City), Ingrid Bolso Berdal (Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters), Askel Hennie (Headhunters), Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love)

Director: Brett Ratner (Rush Hour)

Writers: Ryan J. Condal and Evan Spilotopoulos (Battle for Terra)

Runtime: 1 hour 38 minutes

Release Date: 25 July (US, UK)

As is film tradition, 2014 again saw the release of two films with similar subject matter, and this year that subject is Hercules (which, I am always quick to remind people, is actually his Roman name, not his Greek one Heracles). The early part of the year gave us Renny Harlin’s The Legend of Hercules, which I have yet to see so I can’t draw any comparisons. That said, this film’s helmer Brett Ratner’s reputation isn’t that better than Harlin’s, so it’s easy to assume that his Hercules isn’t much good either. But judging a film based on the people behind it is hardly fair, so how is the movie itself?

Hercules, in a certain way, is an anti-300. Whereas that film took a historical event and embellished it with fantastical elements, this film takes a mythological character and grounds him in something closer to reality. The idea that Hercules’ (Johnson) back-story and labours were exaggerated is an interesting concept, one that the advertising has been coy about, but I wouldn’t call it a spoiler; I’d say it’s actually more of a selling point and gives the film something it can call its own. In terms of plot, Hercules doesn’t do anything particularly groundbreaking but it tells its simple tale briskly and effectively. The film mainly works because it doesn’t take itself too seriously and has a sense of fun (something sorely lacking from the 300 films). In many ways, it’s less of mythical epic and more like a big budget version of the classic swords-and-sandals movies of yesteryear like Conan the Barbarian and The Beastmaster; simple and silly, but enjoyable. Other than the grounded concept and a decently handled second act twist, there’s not a huge amount different on offer but none of it is handled particularly poorly and the film manages to remain entertaining enough to sustain its brief run time. 

Whether in good movies or bad, the man formerly known as The Rock always manages to be a welcome presence. Say what you will about his acting, but Dwayne Johnson exudes charisma and with his physique he seems almost born to play Hercules. Though Johnson’s acting chops aren’t exactly pushed by this role, he does makes a likable leading man and his mere stature provides enough proof that he’s one tough cookie. However, it’s Hercules’ band of loyal allies that make the film. Ian McShane and Rufus Sewell provide some good comic relief, Askel Hennie plays batsh*t insane pretty well and Ingrid Bolso Berdal does stoic badass chick quite convincingly. They aren’t exactly given much depth or development, but their camaraderie and banter does both lighten the proceedings and creates a strong bond between these characters. The rest of the cast are a mixed bag. John Hurt gives exactly the kind of performance you’d expect and Peter Mullan is always a good face to have about, but Joseph Fiennes’ character is underutilised and his performance is hammy, and Isaac Andrews gives one of the most sickeningly cute child actor performances I’ve ever seen; all of his lines are delivered with such precocious wonderment that I just wanted to slap the kid.

Just like its story, Hercules eschews a stylised look and instead goes for a more traditional aesthetic. Whilst this makes it feel less distinctive, it makes up for this with grand production design and well-staged action sequences. The film manages to avoid using extensive CG (which is good because, when it does, it doesn’t always look great), instead creating its sets and set pieces using practical methods whenever it can. It certainly helps add to the old school sensibilities of the film, and though the action isn’t exactly phenomenal it is enjoyable.

Hercules isn’t a film you’d describe as ‘different’, but ‘fun’ does come to mind. It does just enough to justify its existence with its interesting take on the Hercules mythos, good chemistry between Johnson and his team, diverting action sequences and, most important of all, doing all of this with a smile. In an age where all films of this ilk are fairly morbid affairs, seeing one that doesn’t take itself too seriously is certainly a step in the right direction. It’s hardly a must-see, but if you’re in the mood for some mindless fun you could do far worse than Hercules.

FINAL VERDICT: 7/10

Starring: Andy Serkis (The Lord of the Rings trilogy), Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty), Gary Oldman (The Dark Knight), Keri Russell (Mission: Impossible III), Kodi Smit-McPhee (Let Me In), Toby Kebbell (Dead Man’s Shoes)

Director: Matt Reeves (Cloverfield)

Writers: Mark Bomback (Unstoppable) and Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver (Rise of the Planet of the Apes)

Runtime: 2 hours 10 minutes

Release Date: 11 July (US), 17 July (UK)

I don’t think many predicted that Rise of the Planet of the Apes would end up being as good a movie as it was. Despite the swells of other unsuccessful reboots and the stench of Tim Burton’s failed remake still fresh, Rise ended up being both a fun summer blockbuster and a surprisingly smart and tender sci-fi story. Now the adventures of Caesar and his apes continue in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Are apes together strong, or should this movie be darned to hell?

Set ten years after the events of Rise, Dawn is much bleaker than its predecessor, but hope still shines through; by the film’s close, we are closer to where the original Planet of the Apes began but still with plenty of room to grow. The story and setting is far more dynamic and interesting than the first, expanding and adding to the themes explored in Rise, but what Dawn truly nails is something few movies rarely even dare to do: moral ambiguity. Unlike Rise where the lines in the sand were clearer, Dawn’s sense of morals are far blurrier; much like Caesar himself comes to realise, it is not as simple as “apes good, humans bad”. Every character’s motivations feel justified, even when they commit horrible acts, which creates for far more interesting drama and tension. Whereas the initial seeds of the story suggest it could easily become clichéd, the film regularly avoids the obvious and crafts a narrative that is both gripping and exciting. The film is perfectly paced, moving from heartfelt drama to rip-roaring action seamlessly, before reaching a very well-judged ending that is sombre and foreboding yet somewhat hopeful as well.

Andy Serkis is the unrivalled King of Performance Capture at this point, and once again he delivers a fantastic performance as lead ape Caesar. The character has grown from fearless rebel to wise leader, and Serkis imbues Caesar with just as much emotion as any of his human co-stars. All of the other apes are well portrayed as well, but special mention must go to Toby Kebbell for his terrific performance as the blood-hungry Koba. Jason Clarke leads the human cast this time around and, whilst not getting as much focus as James Franco did in Rise, he is certainly more relatable. Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee do fine work as well, though their screen time is fairly limited. Gary Oldman’s presence is also small, but he squeezes every moment for maximum impact, making what in most movies would be a stock arsehole character into something far more human and understandable; a brief scene where he sees old pictures of his family is heart-breaking and just one of the film’s many great examples of visual storytelling.

The effects that went into creating the apes in Rise were impressive, and the technology has only improved. Whether showing hundreds of them or an extreme close-up on one, the attention to detail done here is astounding; some of Weta Digital’s best work for sure. The film’s production design is well executed, often reminding me of the mossy world of The Last of Us, which combined with the inventive cinematography and Michael Giacchino’s wonderfully classic score creates for an engrossing atmosphere that most films can only dream of. 

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes does what sequels should do: it takes the concepts of the first film and builds upon it, creating a grander story not just in scale but also in execution. Like Rise, it has everything you want from a summer movie in terms of entertainment value, but also backs it up with smart writing and a good heart. It’s one of the best sequels in recent memory and also one of the best films of the summer. Considering the quality of the films so far, this franchise can take as long as it wants to reach that inevitable moment when George Taylor steps out of his spaceship and into the world of these damn dirty apes.

FINAL VERDICT: 9.5/10

Starring: Ellar Coltrane (Fast Food Nation), Patricia Arquette (True Romance), Ethan Hawke (Sinister), Lorelei Linklater (Waking Life)

Writer/Director: Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused)

Runtime: 2 hours 46 minutes

Release Date: 11 July (US, UK)

Making a movie can be a very time-consuming process. It eats up your entire livelihood, exhausts your body and mind, but by the end of it you have a product that you can be proud of and show off to the world. Now can you imagine spreading that process over the course of 12 years? Well, Richard Linklater has just finished doing that with Boyhood, which he began filming all the way back in 2002. I’ve been hearing about this film for as long as I have been on the Internet, and the fact that the film has even been finished is an achievement in and of itself. But has this lengthy process been all for naught, or has all that extra gestation made the pay-off that much more sweet?

For a film 12 years in the making, Boyhood is a very simple coming-of-age story. Growing pains, arguments, romance, family, it’s all there. But just because something is familiar doesn’t mean it is bad, and Boyhood manages to be a fantastically told interpretation of classic themes. It’s heart-warming and fun, but it never shies away from the real facts of life and goes to dark places when called for, making it also far more genuine that most films of its ilk. Considering the schedule it was shot on, the story has a very episodic feel to it, with each year have a beginning, middle and end that segue into each other quite flowingly. However, in between those shifts there does seem to be a bit too much dead weight. There are certain scenes and characters that feel inconsequential to the overall story and could have been cut without any major affect on the story. On top of that, I feel the movie had plenty of opportunities to end sooner than it did. Every time I thought the movie would cut to credits, it kept going and going with details that, while interesting, weren’t exactly necessary. The moment it does decide to end on is good, but by that point it feels like a good cap to an overall insignificant section of the film. Despite this though, the film remains engaging and well paced, mainly thanks to Linklater’s strong direction and writing. Whilst both this and the equally lengthy Transformers: Age of Extinction both overstay their welcome, Boyhood does feel far more worthy of the exuberant run time; it needs only maybe twenty minutes of trimming rather than an entire hour.

Seeing actors grow up over the years is something we’ve seen through a series of films such as the Harry Potter franchise, but seeing one grow up during the process of a single movie is a far more captivating concept. Finding a good child actor is hard enough as it is, but finding one who stays consistently good over such a long period of time is a minor miracle, and Linklater has succeeded in that with Ellar Coltrane. From innocent child to despondent teen to young adult, Coltrane manages to give a genuine performance throughout. The character of Mason isn’t always a likable one, especially in his later years, but he always feels like a real kid and never an adult’s interpretation of a kid. Similar praise can be given to Linklater’s own daughter Lorelei, though I feel her character progression was a bit wavier and near the end she slowly drifts out of the movie. But praise must also go to the adults, whose physical changes may be less drastic but their performances are just as excellent. Patricia Arquette hasn’t been this good since True Romance in my opinion, playing one of the most frustrated but sincere mothers put to screen; her final scene with Coltrane in particular being a real show-stealer. Ethan Hawke isn’t in the movie as much, but whenever he is it lights up. Hawke brings a lot of humour and fun to proceedings, and many of the film’s best moments are thanks to him. I was always disappointed whenever he left the screen, but it just made me anticipate his return that much more.

Boyhood is a simple tale told in the grandest of fashions. Even taking away the nature of the production, it is still a wonderful film that tells the story of a boy and his family in the most honest but uplifting way. Perhaps it could have done without some of its embellishments, but overall it works tremendously well and I highly encourage you to give it a watch. The filmmakers spent 12 years making it, so it’s only fair that you give three hours to experience it.

FINAL VERDICT: 9/10

Starring: Mark Wahlberg (2 Guns), Nicola Peltz (The Last Airbender), Jack Reynor (What Richard Did), Kelsey Grammer (X-Men: The Last Stand), Stanley Tucci (The Lovely Bones), TJ Miller (How to Train Your Dragon 2)

Director: Michael Bay (Armageddon)

Writer: Ehren Kruger (Transformers: Dark of the Moon)

Runtime: 2 hours 45 minutes

Release Date: 27 June (US), 5 July (UK)

Sigh. I’m tired, dear readers. I’m exhausted and I can barely comprehend what I’m writing at this moment. I just want to go to bed. Not because I’ve done anything physically stressful. Because I just sat through nearly three hours of Bay-hem and my mind is frazzled. But I’d best get my thoughts out now whilst they’re fresh, because before long most of this movie will have probably escaped my brain.

I’ll give Transformers: Age of Extinction this much: it perfectly captures the sugar-infused insanity of a child playing with his toys whilst rambling some nonsense story he’s making up as he goes. That’s how the plot of this fourth instalment feels: haphazard, thrown together, needlessly complicated, filled with clichés, derivative of every other sci-fi film on the market, and without any sort of internal logic or consistency. As I write this, I got out of the theatre less than an hour ago and I can only recall the barest of plot details because most of the film’s unforgivably brutal runtime is just filled with noise. The movie just refuses to end, bombarding you with everything it’s got even when there’s nothing left to throw. Even with the constant carnage, the film just becomes boring as the plot flimsily connects from one overblown action set piece to the next with only the quickest and laziest breaks for plot exposition and character development. I could go into far more detail, but my brain hurts too much for me to bother. If you’ve seen one Transformers movie, you’ve seen them all, so just expect the obvious but with even more OTT bombast.

The bag-wearing lunatic formerly known as Shia LaBoeuf has finally departed the franchise, leaving the post of “unnecessary human protagonist” to be filled by none other than Mark Wahlberg. Whilst having basically nothing but bare bones to work with, Wahlberg does his best to keep the movie alive but he ends up falling back on a lot of his old tricks; he’s far less obnoxious than LaBoeuf, but also far less dynamic. Nicola Peltz might be the best lead actress of the series so far, but she’s also the least well-written character of the lot. She’s is basically there as eye candy and as something to be rescued; when you’re making Megan Fox look like a better-rounded and more three-dimensional character, you are seriously failing. Equally pointless is Jack Reynor, whose relationship with Wahlberg can basically be summed up as, “I hate you. I hate you. I hate you. Wait, now I like you”. The villains fair a bit better; Kelsey Grammer manages to be a genuinely threatening presence and, surprisingly, the most well defined character. Stanley Tucci is basically playing Evil Steve Jobs (which some may say is the same as regular Steve Jobs), and like in everything he’s in he gives it his all even in the most ludicrous of situations, and also luckily manages to avoid embarrassing himself John Turturro-style. And that’s an impressive feat considering Age of Extinction has some of the worst dialogue I’ve heard this side of a Twilight movie (“Autobots, I vowed to never kill a human, but whoever is responsible for this is going to die.” A bit contradictory, eh Optimus?). As for the Transformers themselves (oh yeah, they’re still in this movie), they just feel like afterthoughts at this point. Peter Cullen still does as good a job as always as Optimus Prime, but the awful dialogue and inconsistent characterisation of the role just ruins it. Bumblebee feels pointless now without LaBoeuf around, John Goodman’s Hound won’t shut up, Ken Watanabe’s Drift is a racial stereotype bordering on offensive, and both Galvatron and the Dinobots are completely wasted. The only interesting new Transformer is Lockdown, a Boba Fett-like rogue with no allegiance and a bad attitude. Pity he gets nowhere near enough screen time.

Do I really need to describe at this point how a Michael Bay movie looks and sounds at this point? Oversaturated colours, sweeping cameras, explosions that look more like fireworks, gratuitous product placement, pervey shots of women’s legs, slow motion, clanging metal, you name it. Bay brought his entire toybox to the party and just threw it on the floor. You know what to expect, you get it in enormous spades, but there is some much of it that the film becomes oversaturated. Do I need to say more?

The first Transformers film is still a guilty pleasure for me; it’s stupid, but not too stupid. This instalment is nowhere near as bad as Revenge of the Fallen (still easily the worst Hollywood blockbuster I can think of), but it’s so monotonous and dull that it makes Dark of the Moon look like a breezy 90-minute romp. The story makes no sense, the characters are bland and/or annoying, the action is just more of the same but bigger, and did I mention that it’s NEARLY THREE HOURS LONG?! If you like the Transformers movies, fine. Go munch on your popcorn and have fun. But I implore everyone: it doesn’t have to be this way. Movies can still be mindless fun and not have to be this insulting. I’m all for movies about giant robots riding on giant dinosaurs that breathe fire and can fly. But you CAN make a movie about giants robots riding on giant dinosaurs that breathe fire and can fly AND give that movie a well-structured story, interesting characters and good balance between action and drama if you just try and put the effort in. The problem is that nobody can be arsed when you can make billions without even bothering with the second part.

FINAL VERDICT: 2.5/10

 

“Mr. Wahlberg, are you hiding Optimus Prime?”

“No, man. We’re not.”

“Is he hiding in that barn over there?”

“What? No!”

Starring: Jon Favreau (The Wolf of Wall Street), John Leguizamo (Ice Age), Sofia Vergara (Modern Family), Emjay Anthony, Scarlett Johansson (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Oliver Platt (X-Men: First Class), Dustin Hoffman (The Graduate), Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man 3)

Writer/Director: Jon Favreau (Iron Man)

Runtime: 1 hour 54 minutes

Release Date: 9 May (US), 25 June (UK)

Jon Favreau has certainly had one of the more interesting careers in recent film history. After writing and starring in indie classic Swingers, Favreau continued to be a familiar face in movies and on TV whilst transitioning to directing with films like Made, Elf and Zathura, before finally getting a huge break by directing Iron Man and kicking off the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a bang. After dabbling with the big boys for a few years, Favreau now returns to his roots with his newest creation Chef. Is this picture the freshest flick on the market, or should it be sent back to the kitchen?

Chef certainly feels like a very personal film for Favreau. Not just because it has the flavour of his earlier work, but also because the film’s story does mirror his own career in many ways. Not that the metaphor ever becomes grading or obtuse, as Favreau resists the temptation to turn the film into an “I hate critics” anthem the way Roland Emmerich and M. Night Shymalan have done in the past, but it’s hard not to see Carl Casper’s struggles paralleling the flack Favreau received for Iron Man 2 and Cowboys & Aliens (which I personally think are unfairly shat upon). But putting aside any potential deeper meaning, the story of Chef is a simple but heart-warming and effective tale of a man learning to do what he loves no matter what. The film could have maybe trimmed a little fat around the edges, keeping the pacing and timing a bit tighter, but otherwise this is exactly what I want from this kind of picture. Favreau injects a great deal of passion into the film and it shows on screen, making for a sweet and highly enjoyable trip through the culinary world.

Favreau has certainly never stretched too much as an actor, but he’s very good at what he does and here he’s as endearing as ever. That said, when he flips out on Oliver Platt’s character, it is golden; one of the best freak-outs I’ve seen on screen recently. Favreau has also made some good friends during his time in Hollywood and has assembled an impressive supporting cast to liven up the proceedings; standouts being John Leguizamo, who ends up giving one of the best performances of his career, the young Emjay Anthony, who manages to balance that fine line between cute and smart whilst never feeling like a third wheel, and Oliver Platt as probably the best depiction of a critic since Peter O’Toole’s Anton Ego in Ratatouille.

There’s not much to talk about on a technical level here, so instead I’m going to eschew tradition and devote this paragraph to talking about how good the food looks in this movie. In short: I am now very, very hungry. The way the camera lovingly gorges over the food on display here just makes your mouth water, almost like it’s teasing you. I know everyone who’s seen this movie has said the exact same thing, but it bears repeating: don’t see this movie on an empty stomach. You’ll regret it. Not much else to say but if I was working on this movie, I hope this was the stuff they had at craft services.

Chef is a simple but well-crafted and lovingly made dish of a film. I love a good movie about following your passions without worrying about what anyone else thinks, and this is the best film in that vein I’ve seen in quite a while. It can feel a little self-indulgent at points, with the overlong runtime and occasionally invasive subtext, but they’re gripes I can forgive. Much like Chef Casper himself, Jon Favreau has gone back to making the kind of movies he loves and I graciously encourage him to continue his career with this amount of honesty and passion.

FINAL VERDICT: 8.5/10