Starring: Megan Fox (Transformers), Will Arnett (The LEGO Movie), William Fichtner (Drive Angry), Pete Ploszek, Noel Fisher (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part Two), Jeremy Howard (Galaxy Quest), Alan Ritchson (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire)

Director: Jonathan Liebesman (Wrath of the Titans)

Writers: Josh Appelbaum & André Nemec (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) and Evan Daugherty (Divergent)

Runtime: 1 hour 41 minutes

Release Date: 8 August (US), 17 October (UK)

It took them long enough, but this day was inevitable. Our favourite heroes in a half-shell have been rebooted by Michael Bay for a modern audience complete with all the trappings you’d expect. Then again, TMNT is a property that has been reimagined several times over the years in even more outlandish ways for a concept that’s already pretty ridiculous, so in context this one shouldn’t seem so bizarre. The film has received bad press from its inception, and from what I’d heard from its US release I was expecting a Transformers 4 level stink bomb. What I got instead isn’t exactly good either, but certainly not awful.

OK, going back on that last statement for a sec, I will say that the story is pretty damn awful. The origins of the turtles have been meddled with in the past before, but this new version feels so hackneyed and ridiculous that it makes the original concept seem far more plausible in comparison. So many of the tropes of gritty reboots and modern blockbusters are pulled here that it often feels like a parody video off YouTube lampooning these clichés but without any sense of irony. Off all its stolen pieces, the most prominent is The Amazing Spider-Man of all things; not only is the new origin very similar, but the Shredder’s plan and the final action sequence are near identical to that film. The story is full of contrivances and plot holes, with rushed character development and the weakest villains I’ve seen in a major motion picture in a long time. On the plus side, the film is decently paced and is thankfully kept to under two hours, avoiding the fatigue that plagues most Bay productions, and the third act does pay off with two engaging and well done action sequences despite some of the obvious derivativeness. The film is at its best when it doesn’t take itself too seriously and has some fun. Whilst some of the humour is sophomoric and typically Bay, there are some chuckle worthy moments such as a scene where Splinter tempts the Turtles with a pizza or a humorous musical moment in an elevator. There are even a few Easter eggs for TMNT fans to watch out for. If the film had tried a bit harder in this area, maybe this review would be a little more positive.

Another positive TMNT has going for it is that the Turtles themselves do feel more like active participants in the film compared to Bay’s Transformers films. They can be grating at times and their personalities have been amplified a bit much, but they are still recognisably the characters many of us grew up with and they all get at least one cool action moment or amusing line each. It’s not exactly what I would have wanted, but it is a step in the right direction. Then again, maybe the Turtles don’t seem so bad is because the human characters are so uninteresting. Megan Fox couldn’t feel more miscast as April O’Neill, her feign attempts at being more than the manufactured eye candy she is failing with every attempt; considering her character’s main motivation is trying to prove herself as a serious journalist and be more than just a pretty face, her poor and uninvolved performance seems to go against everything she says. The brilliant William Fichtner has absolutely nothing to work with as Eric Sacks, a villain whose own motivations makes no sense and lacks any sort of threat. Even worse is the Shredder himself, who is given no characterisation at all and is just a hulking brute for the Turtles to fight. I mean c’mon, the original Shredder was hardly that great a villain but he had more to him than being a lifeless wodge of metal and testosterone. Will Arnett is the film’s only human salvation; despite being given some truly horrendous dialogue at points, he manages to skate by mainly thanks to his own natural charm.

Though it does have some of the veneer of the typical Bay production, the film is thankfully nowhere near as explosion-happy. The action sequences, especially the mountain escape and the final confrontation, do have some inventive choreography and fun camera tricks whilst also never becoming as incomprehensible as most Hollywood action sequences. Whilst I do prefer the original designs, I wasn’t too put off by the look of the new Turtles: they are a little busy and I question how some of their accessories stay on during the hectic fight scenes, but at least I can tell them apart. However, I hate the design of the new Shredder, which is exactly everything I loathe about Bay-ification. It’s clunky and excessive, trying way too hard to make it ‘cool’ and missing the point of the original. The CGI work is decent if a little dated, as I was never as convinced these characters were there as I was even in the Transformers films, and I found Brian Tyler’s score to be too bombastic and overly heroic. Also, give me “Ninja Rap” any day over that processed junk “Shell Shocked”.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is fundamentally flawed on so many levels, but I’d be lying if I said it was completely without merit. The film’s plot is derivative nonsense that needlessly messes with the mythology, Megan Fox’s performance is so oxymoronic that it’s almost hilarious, and the villains are criminally insipid. However, the Turtles themselves shine through and the film does have its inspired moments of humour and action spread unevenly throughout. I can safely say I was never bored at any point nor did anything really piss me off, but there were a fair few groans of disappointment. As a casual fan of the franchise, it wasn’t the cowa-blunder I was fearing nor is it even the worst thing the Turtles have been in (The Next Mutation, anyone?). If nothing else, there’s plenty for them to improve on in the already confirmed sequel. Then again, we all know how the second Transformers film turned out…

FINAL VERDICT: 5/10

Starring: Dylan O’Brien (The Internship), Kaya Scodelario (Moon), Will Poulter (We’re The Millers), Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Game of Thrones), Aml Ameen (The Butler), Ki Hong Lee, Blake Cooper

Director: Wes Ball

Writers: Noah Oppenheim & Grant Pierce Myers & T.S. Nowlin

Runtime: 1 hour 53 minutes

Release Date: September 19 (US), October 10 (UK)

One of the many problems with adaptations of young adult novels is their overconfidence. Many of them are so convinced that they’re going to be the next big thing that they leave all sorts of questions hanging for the next one. Not only can this leave the film feeling incomplete, it’s especially bad when the film flops and the sequel never gets made. Whilst the follow-up to The Maze Runner has already been confirmed as a certainty, it mucks up so spectacularly in its attempts to big itself up that it leaves me more infuriated than curious.

The film certainly has a decent hook as an amalgamation of The Hunger Games and Lord of the Flies, and for a while it holds together decently. There’s a good feeling of mystery and rising tension, with enough curveballs thrown in to keep it interesting even if the pacing is a little lagging. It’s nothing revolutionary, but it’s entertaining and I certainly was interested to see where it was going. The trap The Maze Runner then falls into about halfway through is that the plot starts to raise a horde of minor but innumerable questions. Whether it be faults in logic, poorly clarified plot developments, answers that just raise more questions or details left completely unanswered to create ‘mystery’, it all just starts to fall apart before leading up to the biggest tease of an ending I’ve ever seen. Sometimes these questions can be a source of unintentional humour, but for the most part it will just frustrate you. I can’t say much without spoiling the movie, and maybe a lot of this was better explained in the book, but the more I think about the movie the more it just unravels. It ultimately feels like a concept with potential but was never thought through properly.

Outside of the plot, everything else about the film is serviceable. The performances are fine and the characters distinctive enough I guess, but nothing screams out in any way. There’s no moment where an actor truly shines through, or that breakout character that you’re going to remember whenever you think of the movie. That’s a real pity because there are some good actors in here that are stuck with bland material; Will Poulter, for example, plays a character so forcefully abrasive from his first moment of screen time that he might as well have ‘CONFLICT’ written on his chest. On a technical level the film is a real mixed bag. The production design is quite impressive and the score raises enough tension, but the action sequences are ruined by my old nemesis: shaky cam and fast editing. Oh sarcastic joy!

For the most part, The Maze Runner is basic, dry and workman-like; everything functions but nothing impresses. If it did just that, it would be passable entertainment. But the whole enterprise falls apart because it just doesn’t add up under even the tiniest bit of scrutiny. There’s a big difference between being mysterious and being ambiguous, but The Maze Runner seems to be under the impression that they’re the same thing, and its attempts to entice you back for another round does nothing but make me feel like I’ve wasted my time. The only reason I even vaguely want to watch the next one is just so I can find out what the heck is actually going on.

FINAL VERDICT: 4/10

Starring: Luke Evans (Fast & Furious 6), Dominic Cooper (The Devil’s Double), Sarah Gadon (Belle), Art Parkinson (Game of Thrones), Charles Dance (Last Action Hero)

Director: Gary Shore

Writers: Matt Sazama & Burk Sharpless

Runtime: 1 hour 32 minutes

Release Date: 3 October (UK), 10 October (US)

The vampire craze seems to have died down since The Twilight Saga finally withered away (but beware, for there is word it may return). Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that vampire films will stop being made, nor does that guarantee that they will be good in this sparkle-free land we currently live in. Unfortunately Dracula Untold, as much as it tries, is not good.

Right off the bat, I want to make it clear that Dracula Untold is not a horror movie in any way. It’s more of a mixture of dark fantasy and superhero flick, and on paper some of its concepts seem like they could make an interesting film. Drawing inspiration from the character’s real-life inspiration Vlad the Impaler and casting him as a morally ambiguous protagonist do have certain draws to them that have the potential to be fascinating if handled properly. However, the movie scuppers this by its impatience and its thirst for spectacle. The film is not only short but also taxingly fast-paced, leaving barely a moment to linger on plot development and rushing to get to the next action sequence. It’s just plot point after plot point, only stopping for the vaguest semblance of character moments because I guess they felt like they had to. There is barely any time to learn a character’s name, let alone linger on the implications of Vlad’s (Evans) actions beyond the obvious surface level, so by the film’s end it’s hard to care about the fates of any of the story’s inhabitants good or bad. Though its nature as part of Universal’s plans to create a Marvel-esque shared universe of its monster characters is uncertain, the film certainly screams for a sequel with its conclusion. What that sequel will be, I don’t know nor do I particularly care.

Many interpretations of Dracula have inhabited pop culture for many years, from Bela Lugosi to Gary Oldman to The Count from Sesame Street. That said, Luke Evans’ portrayal of the legendary character probably won’t be remembered and instead be filed alongside other such forgettable Draculas like Richard Roxburgh and Gerard Butler (yeah, I bet you’d completely forgotten he was in Dracula 2000). The main problem with Evans’ Dracula again stems from the film’s unrelenting pace. The story suggests that he is this tormented figure who’s had to do bad things to protect his people, but because everything’s been so simplified to make room for more action, t he barely ever comes across as dark or threatening. Pitting him against Dominic Cooper and his Turks, who are portrayed as morally bankrupt and with very little dimension, doesn’t help matters much either. Because of this, Dracula doesn’t seem any less heroic or morally contemplative than the average superhero. We are supposed to fear this character, but the film never makes you because all his adversaries are worse than he is. The rest of the cast is completely forgettable, playing stock characters with nothing at all that interesting or special about them. Sarah Gadon as Dracula’s wife talks some game about fighting alongside him until the end, but you could easily replace her with a really important but still inanimate lamp and the plot would make about as much sense; similar sentiments can be made for Art Parkinson as his son. Even the legendary Charles Dance feels wasted, only showing up for a couple of scenes to advance the plot with the hint that he’ll be more important later on in the theoretical follow-up.

Much like directors who used to work in other departments of the film industry, directors who’ve spent most of their careers making music videos and commercials don’t always adjust to the transition; for every David Fincher or Ridley Scott, there’s a Michael Bay or a Rupert Sanders. Gary Shore falls into the latter camp. Whilst the film does have a good visual flair to it with its grand production design and detailed costumes, that’s all it really has going for it. Considering how much the film skimps on story in order to fit more action in, you’d think that would mean the action sequences would be really impressive. They’re not. Thanks to frenetic camera work, choppy editing, average CGI and most of them taking place at night, the action sequences fail to engage for the most part. The final battle at first seems like it could be really cool by throwing some interesting ideas into the mix, but it never takes full advantage of them. By the end, the film’s spectacle feels just as empty and lacking in substance as the story.

Dracula Untold tries to do something different with the character’s mythology but buckles from trying to do too much in too little time. The story is rushed and underdeveloped, the characters are stock and dry, the action is underwhelming, and the few good ideas that shine through are undermined by everything else. If Universal wants this to be the beginning of a franchise, whether contained to Dracula himself or tied to their planned shared universe, this is a poor way to start. I think their best option at this point is to Green Lantern this mess and try again.

FINAL VERDICT: 4/10

Starring: Ben Affleck (Argo), Rosamund Pike (The World’s End), Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother), Tyler Perry (Alex Cross), Carrie Coon (The Leftovers), Kim Dickens (The Blind Side), Patrick Fugit (Almost Famous)

Director: David Fincher (Se7en)

Writer: Gillian Flynn

Runtime: 2 hours 29 minutes

Release Date: 2 October (UK), 3 October (US)

Whenever David Fincher makes a motion picture, the film community stops and stares. His work all looks cut from the same cloth, yet each piece feels wholly unique. His style is meticulous and finely sharpened, yet he couldn’t make it look simpler. He is one of the few filmmakers who’s been around for as long as he has without making a major blunder (yes, that includes Alien 3, which was interesting if problematic and most of its problems don’t even stem from him). Yet despite all of this, everyone is still surprised by the fact his movies are good; everyone thought making a movie about Facebook was a doomed prospect, but then The Social Network turned into a modern classic and everyone went “Oh yeah. Fincher made this. Why was I doubtful again?” With Gone Girl, he returns to seemingly well-trodden ground for him: a murder mystery thriller. But though it is unmistakably Fincher from the first frame, that sense of amazement and awe still impacts in yet another fantastic piece of cinema that I cannot wait to indulge myself in again.

Analysing the plot of Gone Girl is incredibly hard to do without spoiling everything, so much so that I’m tempted to do a spoiler review after this just so I can talk about it properly, so excuse me if this paragraph sounds vaguer than usual. The story begins like you’d expect a tale like this to unfold: the crime happens, fingers start pointing, and the case unravels from there until the shocking conclusion. But after all the set-up, well executed though still formula set-up, Gone Girl starts to twist and turn like a twisty-turny thingy; every time you think you’ve tidied it all up, another ball drops and the plot continues. The film’s two-hour plus runtime may seem daunting, but it’s paced so acutely and the story full of enough tension that it never drags for a second; every scene, every line of dialogue, every tiny detail is important, but it never becomes convoluted enough to make it hard to follow. I don’t want to say much more, but just be ready to go to some truly unexpected places.

Among one of Fincher’s many talents is to get the best performance possible out of any actor; he is the guy that made Justin Timberlake seem amazing after all. With Gone Girl, he certainly does that with both actors you expect to be great and those who are made great by his direction. Ben Affleck’s performance as Nick Dunne is one of his best, given a meaty and complex character that’s hard to like but completely sympathetic. His situation remains engaging and relatable even as the plot escalates into more outlandish directions, mainly because he is made so remarkably human. Carrie Coon shines as his twin sister Margo, lambasting him for his failures but always sticking by his side. Neil Patrick Harris is off-putting and eerie in his small but important role, putting aside his usual comedic demeanour and giving a genuine but creepy performance. Even Tyler Perry comes off as excellent as Dunne’s slick lawyer Tanner Bolt, who’s friendly and supportive without ever losing that troubling twinkle in the eye you expect from a lawyer of his type. But it is Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne, the eponymous Gone Girl herself, who steals every scene she is in. Again, saying much more than that would be giving too much away, but Pike has never been this good and I hope to see her name among the Best Actress nominees come awards time.

Fincher’s work is instantly recognisable even if you can’t discern exactly why it’s recognisable, but his usual flourishes are here. The cinematography is simple but captivating, lit subtly and tinged that recognisable hue that permeates all of his work. The editing is sharp and expertly timed, and the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is a bit more subtle than their previous collaborations with Fincher but fittingly so.

It’s probably going to take time and a few more viewings to know for sure, but Gone Girl certainly sits among David Fincher’s best work to date and as one of the best films of the year so far. It’s riveting, shocking and hits every target it aims at. I’ll be rooting for this one come Oscar time, especially for Rosamund Pike’s career-defining performance; trust me, after this, few people will remember her as “the chick from that James Bond movie with the invisible car”. Go see this film as blind as you can and just enjoy the experience.

FINAL VERDICT: 10/10!

That Awkward Moment

An attempt at mixing up the rom-com formula that flounders due to its crude and flaccid script. What purports to be a more grounded and honest take on relationships from the male perspective ends up falling back on many of the old clichés, with the serious moments feeling abrupt and the comedy too often resorting to the vulgar. Made only vaguely watchable by the efforts of its impressive cast, That Awkward Moment certainly creates one on these actors’ résumés. 4.5/10

 

The Legend of Hercules

Wow. Just…wow. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie this expensive look this incompetent. Most major films are at least technically competent if nothing else, but The Legend of Hercules looks worse than most movies you’d find on the SyFy channel. Everything in this movie is just laughably awful: the story is bland and ripped from other better movies, the dialogue is barely above harlequin romance levels, the acting is uproariously OTT, the costumes look like they were bought at a fancy dress store, the action sequences are uninspired and ruined by their lack of violence, and the special effects are just horrendous. By all means, The Legend of Hercules is pure crap, but if you love to watch crap then you need to see this movie. It’s so bad at points that it becomes incredibly enjoyable. 1.5/10

 

Under the Skin

I’m not usually up for watching arty films, but Under the Skin is something I think everyone should at least try to watch. It’s certainly not for everyone, but for those who can stick with it will find an incredibly unique and captivating experience. Scarlett Johansson’s performance is what mainly sells the movie, embodying this cold and emotionless character but still showing a huge amount of depth with very little dialogue; easily some of her best work to date. Under the Skin also features some of the creepiest and shocking scenes I’ve seen in a movie in recent memory, which combined with the great cinematography and minimal but eerie score make for a truly unsettling experience. This is the movie I most regret missing in theatres this year. 9/10

 

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie

This is a hard one to review for many reasons, mainly because of its low-budget aesthetic and my own personal fandom for the AVGN web series. As a love letter to the fans it delivers on what you’d expect, though I’m not sure how well it stands as a movie on its own. Some of the story ideas are inventive and a lot of gags do hit their mark, but the loose nature of the plot and the simplistic characters do make it hard to really care that much about what’s going on. Whilst I did enjoy the cheesy nature of some of the practical effects, a lot of the digital ones look cheap in the bad sense; I understand it’s part of the aesthetic and that this is an indie production in the traditional sense, but there’s certainly some polishing that could have been done. All in all though, I’d say it’s certainly worth a watch for fans but I don’t think a general audience would really appreciate it. I’m going to give it a 7.5/10, but if you’re not into all things Nerd, then you should probably knock off a point or two.

 

Locke

Bottle films are always an interesting idea for a film even when they don’t succeed, but Locke is probably one of the more unique examples of the concept in recent history. Tom Hardy carries the film almost entirely with his performance, showing off an incredible range of emotions whilst remaining confined to the driver’s seat of his car; it’s an impressive feat by itself. Managing to keep its narrow setting engaging through its brevity, simplicity and somber tone, Locke is a unique picture that is only marred by its abrupt and unsatisfying conclusion. 8/10

 

Divergent

Adaptations of young adult novels aren’t going anywhere, and Divergent is supposedly supposed to be the next big one. Why? I have no idea, because all I saw was an overly complicated riff on every YA story cliché. If you want the brief description, it’s essentially The Hunger Games but without the tension or the biting if somewhat overdone social commentary. The movie’s pacing is stretched to tedium, most of it being just a series of training sessions with very little forward motion in its plot, before rushing through a stale and underdeveloped climax and setting up for the inevitable sequel. Other than the appreciated efforts of Shaileene Woodley, who is honestly too good for this material, there is nothing here that any number of its contemporaries haven’t done better. 4/10

 

Ride Along

There’s nothing more painful to sit through than an unfunny comedy, and though Ride Along is far from the worst example of this it is excruciating at points. Running through the motions of the clichéd buddy cop picture, Ice Cube and Kevin Hart lack chemistry on screen and the jokes they’re given rarely rise above titter-worthy. There are some amusing set-ups for gags, but all of them are stretched out way too long and lack a good punch line before devolving into banal and incompetent action sequences. The fact that this is somehow getting a sequel just baffles me to no end. My advice: if you want to see Ice Cube and Kevin Hart be funny, skip this and find the skit they did with Conan O’Brien on YouTube. It’s far funnier and free. 3/10

 

Cuban Fury

An amusing if occasionally imbalanced romantic comedy that avoids some of the tired clichés but falls back on others. The ever-enjoyable Nick Frost makes for a likable lead, creating an underdog protagonist whose own insecurities and disadvantages seem like genuine obstacles rather than things to get in the way of the plot, as well as proving himself as an impressive dancer for a man of his build. Rashida Jones, Ian McShane, Kayvan Novak and Olivia Colman are good fun in their supporting roles, but the usually appealing Chris O’Dowd feels a bit miscast as the typical “arsehole rival” character, though that may be more down to the writing. Funny and feel-good for the most part, but could have done with some polishing around the edges. 7.5/10

Starring: Denzel Washington (Malcolm X), Marton Csokas (The Amazing Spider-Man 2), Chloë Grace Moretz (Kick-Ass), Johnny Skourtis, David Harbour (Quantum of Solace), Melissa Leo (The Fighter), Bill Pullman (Independence Day)

Director: Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) 

Writer: Richard Wenk (The Expendables 2)

Runtime: 2 hours 11 minutes

Release Date: 26 September (US, UK)

Adapting a TV series to the silver screen is often seen in Hollywood but rarely does it translate very well. There are some great examples of it working like The Fugitive and 21 Jump Street, but then there are mountains of guff like The Dukes of Hazzard, The Flintstones, Charlie’s Angels, Dark Shadows; the list goes on. So how does The Equalizer fare out? Will it even up the score, or are the odds against it?

The film acts as an origin for Robert McCall (Washington), setting up a story that shows how he became the one-man A-Team he is in the show but without delving too much into the character’s mysterious past. The film is an incredibly slow burner, taking its sweet time to get the plot rolling and continuing to drag even once it has, which should increase the intensity but it instead increases the boredom. This is mainly down to an incredibly basic and predictable plot, one that might make a decent episode of the show, being dragged out and embellished with needless sub-plots and details. Clocking in at over two hours, the film becomes a slog to sit through especially during its second act. Once it finally reaches its climax, I’d lost any real interest and just wanted the movie to get to the point already. I think the filmmakers were trying to make more of a stylish action-thriller in the vain of Drive or Leon, but it lacks those films’ unique voices and creativity; other than a couple impressively brutal fight sequences, there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before.

What mainly keeps The Equalizer chugging through its punishing runtime is Denzel Washington’s performance as McCall, bringing his usual natural charm but also imbuing the character with some well-subdued depth. He’s the kind of guy you like even though you don’t know much about him, and his intentions are always well grounded even if his methods are questionable. It makes me wish both Washington and this character was in a much better movie. Marton Csokas plays the stereotypical Russian tough guy with the OTT violence and full body tattoos, who ends up being too much of a cliché to take seriously but far too stone-faced to laugh at. Luckily, two of his encounters with McCall are particular highlights, even though it’s Washington’s performance that’s carrying those scenes. Other than these two, the film has little to do for its other name cast members. Chloë Grace Moretz is set up as an important and interesting character, being the main motivation for McCall to begin his quest, but after serving her purpose she then disappears for the rest of the movie. Melissa Leo and Bill Pullman show up for a couple of pointless scenes that could have easily been cut, Pullman being especially useless. At least Leo serves the purpose of giving an exposition dump.

As mentioned before, the film’s action sequences are decent and full of strong violence but they are few and far between; it takes over half an hour before the first one even rears its head. Sometimes mangled by constrictive cinematography and dark lighting (symptoms that afflicted Antoine Fuqua’s last effort Olympus Has Fallen too), they rely too heavily on the brutality and the use of slow motion. In particular, the film’s use of the old “character slows down time to assess situation and react accordingly” trick is nothing new and has been done far better in some of the Spider-Man films and Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes.

The Equalizer suffers from a bloated and banal script that does little to elevate the simple premise of its source material to something worthy of the big screen. Perhaps if it simplified its story into something more swift and impactful, maybe it would have at least been a fun but disposable piece of cinema. Other than the expectedly excellent work of Denzel Washington and a few cool moments smattered about, there’s nothing here to make this movie stand out from the packs of homogenous products clogging the film landscape.

FINAL VERDICT: 5/10

Starring: Isaac Hempstead-Wright (Game of Thrones), Elle Fanning (Super 8), Ben Kingsley (Iron Man 3), Jared Harris (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows), Nick Frost (Hot Fuzz), Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowd), Tracy Morgan (Cop Out), Simon Pegg (The World’s End)

Directors: Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi (Open Season)

Writers: Irena Brignull and Adam Pava 

Runtime: 1 hour 37 minutes

Release Date: 12 September (UK), 26 September (US)

The folks over at Laika certainly like to avoid the conventions of the typical animated film (at least tonally and stylistically). Film such as Coraline and ParaNorman are just as creepy as they are charming, but that used to more common than you think. Back in the old days there were plenty of films aimed at kids that were pretty disturbing, like Time Bandits or Return to Oz, and it’s good to see that gap in the market filled. The Boxtrolls certainly checks off many of Laika’s usual criteria, but is that enough to make it good?

Much like how the Boxtrolls themselves are strange creatures with good hearts, the film is an odd tale but with a sweet and simple core. The story flows like a fairy tale, quickly bringing you up to speed on its world and getting the story rolling. It does this job a little haphazardly, as I felt the first twenty minutes or so were a little slipshod with the exposition, but once the ball (or should that be box?) gets rolling it all comes together quite well. The story doesn’t stray too far from the conventional, but what helps set The Boxtrolls apart is its surprising use of subtext and self-deprecation. Elements like the villains’ henchmen questioning their own morality, said villain’s obsession with class, or the upper class’ ignorance of the obvious problems, there is a lot of cogs working behind the scenes that should amuse the parents in the audience whilst their kids are distracted by the more surface-level humour. And really, that’s how a good family film should be done; not with out-of-place pop culture references to “appeal” to grown-ups and confuse the children, but by making it work on multiple levels to where kids watching it today will grow up and realise the deeper messages. All in all, The Boxtrolls delivers a fun tale and is the true epitomization of “fun for all the family.”

A good animated film casts actors based on their vocal suitability to the character rather than relying on name recognition, and The Boxtrolls thankfully does the latter. Isaac Hempstead-Wright is a likable protagonist as the voice of Eggs, though to be fair he’s arguably the least interesting of the main characters but that’s only because the rest are so bizarre and colourful. Elle Fanning’s Winnie is a charmingly odd piece of work, combining innocence and sophistication with the disturbing thoughts of a potential sadist, whilst Jared Harris is delightfully amusing as the bumbling aristocrat who’s own poshness makes him hilariously ignorant. Ben Kingsley does his best Ray Winstone impression as Snatcher, the sexually confused villain who pines to be a nobleman, whilst Richard Ayoade and Nick Frost consistently steal the show as the stooges who try to convince themselves that they’re not stooges. Tracy Morgan is unrecognisable as Snatcher’s third and disconcertedly feral lackey, whilst Simon Pegg has a brief but fun role that I won’t spoil.

Laika do their best to keep the magic of stop motion animation alive, and here they have once again fabricated an imaginative but spooky world. The Boxtrolls themselves have a very simple but unique and ingenious design to them, the city of Cheesebridge combines the rustic aesthetic of British architecture with the warped sensibilities of German expressionism, and the animation itself is seamless and a wonder to see in motion; not once did I see through the trick.

The Boxtrolls is a quirky and highly enjoyable effort from the folks at Laika, crafting a simple tale about acceptance that has plenty of deeper layers for those who wish to dig. It’s been a stellar year for animation thanks to the likes of The LEGO Movie and How to Train Your Dragon 2, but please don’t let this gem slip through your fingers. I’d say much younger or sensitive kids might find some of the imagery a bit much, but if you’re child is of reasonable age and ready to take on something a little more challenging, then by all means take them to see it. Hopefully you’ll enjoy it too, just maybe for different reasons.

FINAL VERDICT: 8.5/10

Starring: Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey), Maika Monroe (Labour Day), Sheila Kelley (Matchstick Men), Brendan Meyer (Tooth Fairy), Leland Orser (Taken), Lance Reddick (Fringe)

Director: Adam Wingard (You’re Next)

Writer: Simon Barrett (You’re Next)

Runtime: 1 hour 39 minutes 

Release Date: 5 September (UK), 17 September (US)

Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett showed a lot of promise last year when their long-gestating project You’re Next was finally released to the public and became a big favourite among horror fans for its amusing play on genre conventions. Not bad for a film that was essentially a bunch of film geeks mucking around. Now the duo is back with The Guest, a far more ambitious picture but with just as much love for the classics, and it’s one you won’t want to miss.

It’s hard to pin The Guest down to one genre as it dallies around with several of them, but it can be summed up as “very 80’s”. It may be set in modern times, but in terms of tone and style this film screams the 1980’s. Much like with his previous effort, Wingard owes a lot to John Carpenter but it never becomes so overt that it just comes off as an imitation. That’s not to say that is their sole influence, as there are certainly shades of The Terminator and other cult favourites, enough of them that I won’t bother listing them all. The plot moves a solid clip, gradually increasing tension and scale until building up to an insane third act where everything is on the table. It moves seamlessly from thriller to mystery to action to horror, with elements of dark comedy and possibly even sci-fi thrown in, all creating a wonderful stew of a movie. Some might find the ending a little inconclusive, but I think it just makes it that much more interesting, leaving it open for all sorts of theories and interpretations. I know I’m being very vague, but I think this is one you need to go in as cold as possible.

You’re Next provided us with Erin, one of the best horror movie protagonists in recent memory, and Wingard and Barrett have concocted another winning character in Dan Stevens’ David. His characterisation is already intriguing enough, but Stevens’ performance elevates what’s already a cool character and makes him someone impossible to dislike even in his darker moments. He brings such confidence and swagger to the part, along with fierce stoicism and a fun attitude, creating a character that is badass but also enigmatic and charming. His performance helps bolster the rest of the cast, who do a good job but don’t stand out a huge amount but I think that’s the point. This is a movie about taking a normal set of characters and circumstances, putting them in a room with something extraordinary and letting the fun happen. That said, I did have a particular problem with the bullies portrayed in the film. They are all a bunch of stereotypical douchebags like most movie bullies and, though their presence gives way to some of Stevens’ best scenes in the movie, I’d hoped a film that flips so many other conventions on their head would figure out a way to make this clichéd element seem a bit fresher.

As much as the storytelling conveys a classic vibe, it’s the presentation that gives The Guest that true old-school feel. The camerawork has more of a modern fluidity to it, but the lighting (especially during the climax) is very 80’s. The few action sequences in the movie are well handled if a little shaky at points, whilst the score wraps the entire picture together with a synth soundtrack that encapsulates the mood perfectly.

The Guest is an absolute blast for fans of old school genre pictures, mixing all of the classic elements with some modern twists to create something unique and entertaining as hell. Dan Stevens’ performance alone sells the movie, but everything else around him supports his work tremendously. Go in as blind as you can, bring along some friends and maybe some beers, and just yourself have a good time.

FINAL VERDICT: 9/10

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