Starring: Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network), Kristen Stewart (Snow White & The Huntsman), Topher Grace (Spider-Man 3), Connie Britton (Nashville), Walton Goggins (Predators), John Leguizamo (Romeo + Juliet), Tony Hale (Arrested Development)

Director: Nima Nourizadeh (Project X)

Writer: Max Landis (Chronicle)

Runtime: 1 hour 35 minutes

Release Date: 21 August (US), 4 September (UK)

American Ultra itself isn’t too dissimilar to its protagonist: it has the ability to do some incredible things, but it’s hampered by how incoherent it is. It’s a film that’s trying to straddle multiple lines at once and fails to balance on any of them, resulting a film that could have been great if it just went that extra mile and dared to be different.

The “sleeper agent” story is well-trodden ground with great examples like The Bourne Identity and The Long Kiss Goodnight, so American Ultra already has a lot going against it from the start. Though the approach of telling the story with a confused stoner as the badass killer is novel, the film doesn’t take much advantage of this new angle other than having Jesse Eisenberg being bemused by his actions and spouting a typically awkward quip after each kill. The story plays out as you’d expect with no real surprises (even the moments that are supposed to be surprises), leading to a sequel hook for a movie that sounds far better than the one we actually got. The film is efficiently short but still drags in the first half, the action scenes are far too brief and don’t go anywhere near as wacky as they could, and other than the occasional funny line most of the humour falls flat. However, the main problem American Ultra has is that it just can’t decide on a tone. The film flits from goofy stoner comedy to tense thriller to wacky shoot ‘em up from scene to scene, and none of these different facets are strong enough on their own to be entertaining. If the film had just been straight-up ridiculous entertainment from beginning to end, I would be far more forgiving of the film’s more generic aspects, but American Ultra just doesn’t have the guts to go full bananas.

Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart played off each other very well in the underrated Adventureland, and that chemistry still works here for the most part, but the material just isn’t as strong. Their early scenes as a bizarre but cute couple feel genuine and sweet, Stewart especially shining with her usual brand of awkward but somehow absorbing charm, but when the plot actually kicks in their relationship becomes less and less compelling. This especially becomes clear during a mid-plot reveal that splits them apart, and it comes off just as contrived and annoying as when they pull this trick in every bad romantic comedy ever; if they just calmed down and talked like sensible people, then there wouldn’t be a problem (then again, they’re not exactly normal people). Topher Grace comes off as far too goofy and inept to be a credible villain, Connie Britton’s character kind of becomes superfluous after kickstarting the plot, and the film just doesn’t have much to do for the rest of its decent supporting cast; why even hire Tony Hale if he’s not going to do anything funny?

Despite being sold as such, American Ultra is surprisingly light on action for an action-comedy and what’s there isn’t that interesting. Though a lot of the methods of killing are done with unconventional things like spoons and frying pans, none of it is done with much flair or excitement. The way the action is shot is also peculiar. Despite most of it being filmed from a good distance and edited smoothly, it’s still shot with a bunch of superfluous shakycam that only distracts from the action; it’s a pointless stylistic choice, especially when it’s clearly not even needed to cover up anything. The whole movie just has a cheap, slapdash look to it; other than a visually unique trip to John Leguizamo’s UV-lit drug den, most scenes take place in barren-looking buildings and streets that could use a few more decorations or an extra or two.

On the outside, American Ultra looks like a wacky mash-up with unique ideas, but underneath it doesn’t actually have anything new to say; it is the cinematic equivalent of a hipster. Though Eisenberg and Stewart’s on-screen dynamic is mostly compelling and it does have flashes of brilliance, the film just plays it far too safe and always takes the easy road instead of embracing the lunacy. In a year where batsh*t insane action films like Mad Max: Fury Road and Kingsman: The Secret Service exist, even taking American Ultra’s more modest ambitions into account it still comes up short.

FINAL VERDICT: 5/10

 

FINAL VERDICT: 5/10

TOP 5 MOVIES OF SUMMER 2015 (Part 2 of 2)

Posted: September 2, 2015 in Videos

SUMMER 2015 WRAP-UP (Part 1 of 2)

Posted: August 28, 2015 in Videos

Starring: O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins (Non-Stop), Jason Mitchell (Contraband), Neil Brown Jr. (Fast & Furious), Aldis Hodge (The East), Paul Giamatti (Sideways)

Director: F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job)

Writers: Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff (World Trade Center)

Runtime: 2 hours 27 minutes

Release Date: 14 August (US), 28 August (UK)

The fact that Straight Outta Compton isn’t aimed at my demographic isn’t lost on me. I certainly know who N.W.A. are and like some of their songs, but neither was I clamouring to see a movie about their life story. But the key to a great movie is making it interesting for anyone, not just those familiar with the subject matter, and Straight Outta Compton accomplishes that excellently. Musician biopics aren’t anything new, but this one makes a mark by being one of the first ones about a hip-hop group. But to simply call it a biopic is underselling the movie a bit, as it’s not only about N.W.A. and their work, but also about how their influence affected not only the music industry but also the culture in general around them.

The traditional rise-and-fall story of a music biopic is so ingrained in our minds at this point that it’s not even a surprise anymore, and Straight Outta Compton still follows that expected arc. It’s hard to argue when it’s a true story, but even with that said it was easy for even a layman to N.W.A. lore like me to see where the story was going. The film pulls the “pause for effect when somebody’s about to name something important” trick a few too many times for comfort, and when they bring out the old “indicate a character is sick by having them cough constantly” bit it was almost starting to feel like a parody. However, the film ultimately works despite these flaws. Firstly, despite the film’s almost two and a half hour run time, it’s snappy and well paced enough that you probably won’t notice. That break-neck pace means certain things feel a little glossed over (and certain other major, more suspect events completely omitted), but everything important impacts in all the right ways and keeps you invested in the story. But what ultimately makes the movie work on a story level is how it melds N.W.A.’s story with the current events of the time and their impact on each other. N.W.A. was a group very much inspired by the environment they lived in, and through their music they not only showed the rest of the planet what their world was but also created a lot of discussion about authority and censorship. It’s these elements that make Straight Outta Compton more than just a biopic. It’s a time capsule of an important part of American culture that touches on subjects that are arguably just as relevant now as they were back then.

N.W.A., as the third word of their name implies, were very much a group based around attitude, and our three main players certainly have enough of it. The idea of casting the role of Ice Cube with his own son may seem like a stunt on first thought, but O’Shea Jackson Jr. not only manages to capture his father beyond mere looks, he’s actually a much better dramatic actor than Ice Cube has ever been; it’s hard to call that based on one performance, but I think he proves it. Whilst Straight Outta Compton’s depiction of Dr. Dre does sweep a lot of the nastier parts of the person under the rug, Corey Hawkins portrayal of the character of Dr. Dre is excellent throughout even if you can’t quite shake the feeling of whitewash (this is kind of inevitable considering both Ice Cube and Dr. Dre are producers on the movie). Jason Mitchell is the main standout as Easy E, giving the character a lot of troublemaker spirit whilst also nailing every dramatic scene thrown his way; it’s definitely a career-making performance. DJ Yella and MC Ren don’t get as much focus as the big three but Neil Brown Jr. and Aldis Hodge do well with what little material they’re given, and Paul Giamatti is perfect casting in the traditional “sleazy band manager” role.

In a movie about music you’ve got to have a great soundtrack. This movie does. Alongside playing all the hits from N.W.A. as well as Ice Cube and Dre’s solo careers, the film also has a great selection of songs from other period artists that help set the tone during the early scenes before the group makes it big. Matthew Libatique’s cinematography is appropriately gritty and impactful whilst also looking cinematically beautiful, helped along with period-perfect production design and crisp, neat editing.

Straight Outta Compton works as a movie for fans of N.W.A. and as a well-made film on its own. Even if you don’t have much interest in rap and hip-hop, it’s an enjoyable ride from start to finish thanks to its clever social commentary and all-around solid performances from a group of promising up-and-comers. If you’re a fan of Cube and the gang, you’ve probably already made up your mind about seeing it, but if you’re on the fence I recommend that you give it a shot.

FINAL VERDICT: 8.5/10

FINAL VERDICT: 8.5/10

Starring: Amy Schumer (Inside Amy Schumer), Bill Hader (The Skeleton Twins), Brie Larson (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World), LeBron James, John Cena (The Marine), Ezra Miller (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Tilda Swinton (We Need To Talk About Kevin)

Director: Judd Apatow (Knocked Up)

Writer: Amy Schumer

Runtime: 2 hours 5 minutes

Release Date: 17 July (US), 14 August (UK)

There hasn’t really been an honest romantic comedy, at least for this generation. Even when trying to depict relationships in a realistic light, there’s always an aura of falsity to the proceedings, like the filmmakers want to make a blunt statement but also need to satisfy the audience with a happy ending. Trainwreck is that rare film that manages to do exactly that without feeling at all dishonest.

Whilst presented like a typical rom com with plenty of the clichés as garnish (set in New York, working at a magazine, obnoxious best friend, etc), Trainwreck sets itself apart with one simple question, “What if our heroine wasn’t looking for romance?” It’s an intriguing point of view for this story to take, and one fitting for our society’s increasingly permissive view of relationships. Whilst it does eschew a lot of the traditions of both love and the genre, it doesn’t necessarily say those ideals are wrong. It presents its core relationship in a sincere and realistic way, and any time it looks like it’s going to become too treacly or trite it swerves and surprises you. For example: you know that typical situation about two thirds through one of these movies where the couple has a falling out or some misunderstanding and they break up? You always want to say, “Just talk!”, right? Well, here they do! It doesn’t go well, but they at least tried. The film even has a third act race and a grand romantic gesture, but it always finds a way to make it work in context. It’s little touches like that that shows some effort and awareness of reality. But that’s not to say the film is a perfect example of the genre. The film is a good 10-15 minutes too long (a typical flaw with Judd Apatow’s work, but not quite so egregious here), certain scenes feel a little overlong due to obvious adlibbing, and some of the comedy does fall flat at points. But for every joke that fails, there’s at least one that gets a chuckle and there are some scenes that are laugh-out loud funny throughout. So yeah, it needs some polishing, but Trainwreck gets a lot of points purely for its honesty.

Amy Schumer’s been hanging around Hollywood a while now, and her first foray into the film spotlight is certainly a success. Her sense of humour is crude and her personality a little boorish, but it’s just the right amount to avoid being obnoxious. Her being flummoxed by the initial concept of romance seems a little OTT, but by the time she’s deep in there’s a lot of humanity there. Like with her excellent work on the screenplay, Schumer’s performance is genuine and consistently engaging and I’d love to see her get the chance to star in movies beyond her comedy roots; I really do think she has the chops to stretch further. Bill Hader is as hilarious as ever, just as unconventional a romantic lead as Schumer is, and their chemistry is palatable in all the right ways. Their relationship isn’t some destiny-laden, far-flung romance where they seem meant for each other. They’re just two people with radically different interests and professions that somehow find something that connects them. And you know what, that’s how life usually works! The rest of the film’s cast is generally good, with some surprise turns from the likes of LeBron James and especially John Cena; the scene with him and Schumer in the cinema keeps hitting and hitting with the jokes. Tilda Swinton feels a little underutilised and her character a bit wafty, as did Ezra Miller, but the focus is on Schumer and Hader and they did more than enough to compensate.

Trainwreck is a fresh and honest look at relationships and the romantic comedy in general, and a perfect showcase for Amy Schumer’s talents. Apatow’s best film since The 40 Year Old Virgin, it’s consistently funny and just sweet enough to be satisfying, but the traces of bitterness seeded throughout is what makes it such a unique movie. Whether you can’t get enough of romance or think it’s become stale, give this one a try and maybe you’ll see that sparks can still be made from this overworked genre.

FINAL VERDICT: 9/10

Starring: Henry Cavill (Man of Steel), Armie Hammer (The Social Network), Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina), Elizabeth Debecki (The Great Gatsby), Jared Harris (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows), Hugh Grant (Cloud Atlas)

Director: Guy Ritchie (Snatch)

Writers: Guy Ritchie & Lionel Wigram (Sherlock Holmes)

Runtime: 1 hour 56 minutes

Release Date: 14 August (US, UK)

2015 truly is the year of the spy movie. With Kingsman: The Secret Service, Spy and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation already released and Spectre still to come, there’s certainly no better time to be fan of international espionage. It’s a pity then that The Man from U.N.C.L.E., based on the classic 1960s television series, has kind of gotten lost in the shuffle. And it really shouldn’t be one to overlook because, whilst not quite as sharp as some of its brethren this year, it’s a more than satisfactory time at the movies.

It’s a Cold War era spy thriller, so the plot is almost self-explanatory: tension between Russia and US, threat of nuclear destruction, third party trying to spark conflict, yaddayaddayadda. It’s a formula that’s been old since even before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. doesn’t stray too far from it. Other than a decent third act twist, the story is pretty formulaic and, given common knowledge of world history, the likelihood of total annihilation occurring is unlikely from the offset. However, what the film lacks in substance it more than makes up for in style and execution. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is breezily paced and well structured, creating for a light and fun experience that keeps good time and never becomes dull. There is a great balance of action and humour, and when the two are combined it creates for some of the film’s best moments. The third act feels a bit abrupt and the final moments setting up a potential franchise are a little cheesy, but by this point you will have either gotten caught up in the movie’s swing or you won’t have.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. also benefits from a strong leading duo in Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer as CIA agent Napoleon Solo and the KGB’s Ilya Kuryakin respectively. Whether working together or against each other, these two are a magnetic presence and a great comic duo. Cavill’s suaveness is on in full force here and his bravado always brings a smile, creating a character that’s still cool even when engaging in less commendable situations; he really would have made a great James Bond. On the other side, Hammer pulls off the Russian accent surprisingly well and mines a lot of great deadpan material out of Kuryakin’s stiff and bitter persona. The two play off each other in the expected bickering manner, but never fails to amuse and the bond that forms between them feels genuine by the end. Also fantastic is the ever impressive Alicia Vikander, who unfortunately doesn’t get in on the action as much but serves wonderfully as a third foil between the ultra-egos of Solo and Kuryakin. Hugh Grant also shines in his small role as Waverly, but he gets nowhere near enough screen time despite his character being a major part of the show. The main flaw in the cast is the film’s villain as played by Elizabeth Debecki. She does a fine enough job with the material and pulls off the femme fatale role almost too well, but there’s not much on the page beyond that, and other than killing one minor character she doesn’t do much but stare and look pretty the rest of the time.

Guy Ritchie has always been a style over substance director, but his penchant is very well suited to a picture like this. The film very effectively imitates the style of 1960s films using old school techniques like whip pans, crash zooms and titled angles, as well as very effective and creative use of split screen. The action scenes are perhaps cut a little too quickly, but they’re all very well staged and memorable; an early car-to-foot chase is a major highlight. Aside from the all-around excellent cinematography, the period detail is also well captured in the film’s design with great sets and fabulous costumes, and the film’s soundtrack also nails the era with a wonderful selection of vintage tunes and a catchy score from Daniel Pemberton.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is not a movie you need to rush out and see, but if you’re even slightly interested in it or you’ve seen everything else on at the cinema right now, I’d definitely recommend giving it a go. It’s not a film that’ll set the world on fire nor does it stand out as much compared to other spy movies this year, but it has its own identity and packs in plenty of thrills and laughs. Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer’s chemistry is worth it alone, but the added 60s flair just sweetens the deal. I’m not certain what the film’s sequel prospects are, but colour me interested should Solo and Kuryakin team up once again.

FINAL VERDICT: 7.5/10

Starring: Jason Bateman (Horrible Bosses), Rebecca Hall (The Town), Joel Edgerton (Warrior)

Writer/Director: Joel Edgerton

Runtime: 1 hour 48 minutes

Release Date: 7 August (US, UK)

Joel Edgerton gets kind of a bad rap, and I think that’s a shame. He often gets lumped in with “generic” actors like Sam Worthington or Liam Hemsworth or Jai Courtney, but I don’t really see the similarities other than that they’re all Aussies. Sure, he’s made some questionable acting choices like Exodus or The Thing prequel, but films like Warrior, Zero Dark Thirty and The Great Gatsby show he has far more range than just being another generically good-looking white guy to shove in action fodder. Now he’s branching out to directing, which is a move that is either met with great praise or indifference depending on the final product. The Gift is that first one. A well-crafted and effective thriller, it’s a potential sign of great things to come from Edgerton.

The Gift is an incredibly hard film to talk about because to really explain why it’s so good, I’d have to ruin half the plot. I don’t want to do that, so please excuse my incredibly vague praise. For a film with a deliberately slow pace and a lack of action (the height of physical intensity is a brick being thrown through a window), The Gift is an incredibly tense and gripping thriller through just simple character interaction, not too dissimilar to classic Alfred Hitchcock pictures like Rear Window. The story has its predictable moments, but like all good thrillers it knows how to play with your expectations and switches up the game every time you think it’s over. The film builds from just an awkward situation to possibly something deeper and darker, but the film’s greatest strength is that it leaves a lot of the digging to the audience. Edgerton knows when to leave things quiet and let the situation play out, allowing the audience to not only figure it out but also interpret what they think is really going on. The film’s final moments are highly ambiguous, which may frustrate some viewers who want a definitive answer, but it perfectly wraps up a very well played game of cards and fits perfectly in with the film’s twisted view. Again, without saying too much, it’s ultimately the “boy who cries wolf” story taken to its final destination and a cautionary tale about how one insignificant moment in one person’s life can drastically alter another’s. Read into that what you will.

With a film that relies this heavily on character, you’re going to need some damn fine performances and the triple threat of Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall and Edgerton himself are certainly up to the task. Bateman is another actor most people underestimate, mainly because he’s usually typecast as yet another variant of Michael Bluth from Arrested Development. But when allowed to do something a little different, he can be phenomenally good and here he gets that chance. Like the film’s plot, the characters of The Gift are very ambiguous and Bateman’s character very much fits that description. From moment to moment, you either sympathise with this guy or hate his guts, and that game of flip-flop is what helps keep the tension so high. Edgerton casting himself in a supporting role is a smart move that allows him to focus on directing, but he’s no slouch in his performance. His character of Gordo is meant to be hard to read and Edgerton does a good job of balancing the line between disturbing creep and well-meaning simpleton. He’s a peculiar guy, but there’s a lot of sympathy in him too that makes him relatable. I’ve known people like this; heck, I’ve probably been this guy to someone in some way. Rebecca Hall acts as mediator between these two personalities, and she does a great job of being the audience perspective in this increasingly uncomfortable scenario.

This has been a hard line to balance on, but ultimately the takeaway from this should be that you should see The Gift. It’s a solid and nail biting thriller made out of a seemingly unexciting situation, and one that offers a unique perspective in a genre that has gotten all too predictable. It’s not Gone Girl good, but for a late summer release from a first-time director it’s highly impressive. I don’t see Edgerton getting signed on to direct the next Hollywood blockbuster, but if he keeps putting out little movies as good as this I’ll happily go see them.

FINAL VERDICT: 8/10

P. S. : I’ve put the trailer here as usual, but if you’ve not watched it I’d urge you actually not to. I went into the movie pretty cold, and I think that’s the best way to watch it.

Starring: Miles Teller (Whiplash), Kate Mara (Transcendence), Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station), Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot), Toby Kebbell (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), Reg E. Cathey (House of Cards), Tim Blake Nelson (The Incredible Hulk)

Director: Josh Trank (Chronicle)

Writers: Jeremy Slater (The Lazarus Effect) and Simon Kinberg (X-Men: Days of Future Past) & Josh Trank

Runtime: 1 hour 40 minutes

Release Date: 6 August (UK), 7 August (US)

The Fantastic Four haven’t had it easy in Hollywood. Sure, the two films directed by Tim Story from the mid-2000s weren’t the worst the genre had to offer, but as adaptations of Marvel’s first superhero family they were a complete disservice with poor storytelling, even worse pacing, and some bafflingly poor casting choices. But even then, that’s not arguably the worst thing they been associated with. Remember that low-budget Fantastic Four movie they joked about in the fourth season of Arrested Development? That wasn’t just a joke. That actually happened! Watch if you don’t believe me:

But now a decade after they originally messed it up, 20th Century Fox is taking another stab at making a Fantastic Four movie with a drastically different tone, a younger cast, and a fresh director in the form of Chronicle helmer Josh Trank…and yet still they just can’t catch a break. Ignoring the frankly disgusting amount of backlash against Michael B. Jordan being “wrong” to play Johnny Storm because of his melanin levels (geez, it’s 2015. Are we still on this?), the film has been plagued by reshoots, a very late marketing campaign, and vague reports of Trank being difficult on set. I’ve been an avid defender of this project from the word go, but as it went on even I got a bit nervous. Now having seen the result of their labours, I can safely say, “Damn it! The haters were right this time!” Much like the team itself, Fantastic Four is a noble experiment gone horrifically wrong and yet another embarrassment for the much-loved comic book.

fantastic-four-2015-poster-doctor-doomThe film draws most of its inspiration from the “Ultimate Fantastic Four” reimagining of the story, so the complaints about changes like the younger cast and retooled origin should be quelled. One of the main ideas it draws from this run is treating the story as less fantastical and as more of a hard science fiction story. It’s an interesting point of view on the material, viewing the story and characters in more of a real world context and how they would fit into our reality, much like what Man of Steel did. But just like Man of Steel, sloppy execution ruins it. Of all of Fantastic Four’s problems, all of them link back to its incredibly uneven pacing. The first half of the movie is actually pretty decent, slowly building up to the event when they get their powers and actually getting to know the characters a bit. Sure, it essentially takes them half the movie to get them their powers, but the slow burn gave it more of that sci-fi feel and was a nice change of pace compared to the rushed origin in the 2005 version. During this time, they also manage to actually make sense of some of the more silly aspects of the source material; for instance, they better explain why each of them gets drastically different abilities, and also why certain less qualified characters like Johnny (Jordan) and Ben (Bell) tag along. But once they finally get their powers, the movie then takes a complete left turn into awesomeness…for about ten minutes, then takes another left turn and promptly implodes. There’s a small stretch where the film turns into a David Cronenberg-style body horror flick and, as drastic a shift and as out there as it is, it’s really unique for a superhero film and I’m surprised they had the balls to do it. I was all amped up for where they were going to take it from there, but then the aforementioned implosion happens and the movie becomes an utter mess. The pacing picks up rapidly, almost like they’re trying to make up for lost time, and rushes towards its climax so fast that it’ll take you a few minutes to comprehend that the movie is over. The jargon-heavy dialogue suddenly becomes incredibly on the nose, with plot and character developments merely stated instead of naturally woven in, and the characters go from being three-dimensional people to static chess pieces that only move to advance the now paper-thin plot. All semblance of character and atmosphere and tone and detail gets jettisoned, which in turn actually makes the good first half of the movie not only feel like a distant memory but also irrelevant; there’s even a few subplots that are set up in the first half that are completely forgotten and unresolved by the end. It really does feel like someone cut a good 20-40 minutes out of the movie, and then shot some new scenes and dialogue to cover up the seams in the most slipshod way. I don’t know whom to blame, but something just went disastrously wrong here and I don’t think I can adequately explain it without going deep into spoiler territory.

The cast of Fantastic Four has some really high calibre players and a few of them get time to shine, but those that do are flattened into nothings by the midway gearshift. Miles Teller makes an excellent Reed Richards at the start, playing the character as this socially awkward and self-absorbed genius bordering on autistic. His performance reminded me a lot of Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network, in that both of their characters are really fascinating to watch even if you don’t always agree with or even like them. Michael B. Jordan is also great as Johnny Storm, squashing the haters and proving he was a great choice to play the cocky hothead, getting in the film’s best lines and providing some relief during the more reserved first half. All of this is pretty much made null and void in the middle when they become bland shells of their former selves, but it was nice while it lasted. The rest of the cast, try as they might, don’t fare as well. Kate Mara’s Sue Storm is so constantly apathetic and cynical that you never really get to know much about her beyond one brief conversation with Reed, and she spends so little time with Johnny that them being siblings is a fact you might easily forget. Similarly, Jamie Bell’s Ben Grimm is absent for most of the film’s first half and his friendship with Reed is only explored on the surface level. The scene where Reed first sees what’s become of Ben after the accident is actually genuinely gut wrenching and emotional, but nothing like that is ever explored afterwards and it just feels like a waste. Toby Kebbell’s Victor Von Doom is set up quite well as this pessimistic anti-authority figure with a superiority complex, but once he is reintroduced as the villain they spend no time on him whatsoever. They don’t explain what he’s been up to, what exactly he’s planning to do, how his powers work, what exactly motivated him to enact his vague plan, he barely even exchanges dialogue with his former colleagues; it’s like Venom in Spider-Man 3, but much, much worse. Reg E. Cathey’s main role as Franklin Storm seems to be to spout important sounding exposition (because I guess they couldn’t afford Morgan Freeman or something, because he’s the king of that), but he does share a few good moments with Johnny and their father-son dynamic is probably the most genuine of the character relationships. Lastly, and certainly least, Tim Blake Nelson’s Harvey Elder is a cookie-cutter banality of a secondary antagonist. The whole “government wanting to use experiment as weapon” story is already played out as it is, but it’s especially played out here and Nelson’s performance is so drab and unimaginative that you wonder why they hired an actor of his skill level for such a thankless role.

Josh Trank’s Chronicle was a really imaginative look at the superhero genre from a unique perspective, and the idea of that mind taking on an established property like Fantastic Four has some great possibilities. What exactly happened to that guy, I don’t know, because this movie honestly looks like it could have been made by anybody. It’s all competently shot and edited, but there’s no real sense of unique flair to it. I guess it’s kind of hard to nail down Trank’s style from only one film (and a found footage film at that), but this is starting to make me think Chronicle’s strength was in its writing and actors rather than its direction. But maybe this could be the hands of some outside interfering force, as can be seen in the film’s few fight sequences. Whilst Chronicle’s action was creative and wild and took full advantage of its characters’ abilities, the action in Fantastic Four is incredibly generic and the unique power set of its characters feels drastically underutilised. There are a few inspired moments like Sue using her force fields to fly or Reed stretching his facial features to disguise himself, but otherwise they use only the most obvious applications of these powers. The CGI is very inconsistent throughout, ranging from pretty good to “is that even finished?” Rendering The Thing in CG rather than as a practical effect is actually a rare case where the computer beats doing it for real, as it allows them to realize the true scale and impact of the character, and the effect is genuinely well done. But Johnny’s full body fire and Sue’s shields only look passable at best, whilst the rendering of the alternate dimension they visit often looks the CGI backdrop covering up a green screen that it is; the worst part is the glowing green energy seeping in the ground, which looks like somebody playing with various bloom effects in Adobe After Effects. Even the film’s score is bland, and I should not be saying that about a score co-written by Philip Glass, one of the great composers of our time.

Fantastic Four is an absolute mess, but I’ll at least concede that it’s an interesting mess. It doesn’t merely feel like some paint-by-numbers superhero film that some studio pumped out just to compete with Marvel Studios. Somewhere hidden within this jumbled heap is the spark of a great idea crafted by people who actually cared, but somewhere along the way something happened. I don’t know if it was studio interference or mere incompetence, but something went wrong and the whole film suffers for it. The first half of the movie is pretty decent, even brilliant at times, but all goodwill is lost by the end and now I’m somewhat pining for the days of Michael Chicklis in a rubber orange rock suit; at least his version of The Thing had a more defined personality. I’m not angry at Fantastic Four. I’m just sad and disappointed. I’m sad and disappointed because this movie didn’t just shoot itself in the foot. It shot itself in the face. Repeatedly.

FINAL VERDICT: 4/10

Starring: Tom Cruise (Edge of Tomorrow), Simon Pegg (The World’s End), Rebecca Ferguson (Hercules), Jeremy Renner (Avengers: Age of Ultron), Ving Rhames (Dawn of the Dead), Sean Harris (Prometheus), Alec Baldwin (Beetlejuice)

Writer/Director: Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher)

Runtime: 2 hours 11 minutes

Release Date: 30 July (UK), 31 July (US)

19 years on, and the Mission: Impossible series is still running as fast as Tom Cruise’s little legs can carry him, which is mainly down to how it reinvents itself with each instalment. Every film has its own style and tone with each director who has taken the helm, ranging from intense spy thriller to OTT action romp to hijinks-filled adventure comedy. However, Rogue Nation is a little different by not being a complete overhaul. It feels like more of a refinement of the formula created in Ghost Protocol with trace elements of the other films in the series. The final result is a familiar film but one done to perfection, and could well with time become the best of the franchise.

Rogue Nation starts off sprinting into an early action sequence before starting the main story, kicking us right back into danger and reintroducing us to the returning players. It’s a brief but fantastic piece of action that perfectly sets the tone for the movie, but once the actual narrative kicks in it only gets better. The Mission: Impossible series’ main flaw so far is that their actual plots are actually pretty forgettable; it’s always some generic villain scheme involving arms dealers, double-crosses and sneaking into parties. Whilst this fifth instalment has a lot of these same elements, they are wrapped around a far more cohesive and interesting tale with plenty of surprises. Rather than just an excuse to string together a series of set pieces, the story is actually compelling in its own right thanks to sharp writing, compelling characters and even a little political commentary. It’s overall a film about why the IMF is necessary despite their risky operation, and a cautionary tale against giving governments unchecked power to police the world. It’s not anything that’s going to set the world on fire, but it’s simple well-paced blockbuster entertainment that is enthralling from start to finish and you can’t ask for much more than that.

Say what you will about Tom Cruise as a person, but he is a capable and dedicated actor who puts his all into every performance. His character’s exact personality has shifted somewhat with the series’ ever-changing perspective, but here it feels a lot more solidified. Ethan Hunt is a brilliant and determined agent, one willing to put everything on the line for the mission, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a little bit obsessive and difficult to work with. It’s the most nuanced portrayal of the character thus far, and Cruise is as game as ever for whatever stunt he has to pull next. But one of the great things about Ghost Protocol is that it made the team aspect important again, and that trend continues in Rogue Nation with the most returning characters thus far in the series. The ever-lovable Ving Rhames returns as Luther Stickell in his most prominent role since the original and he’s as charming as ever; he’s not in on the action as much, but he’s great when he’s there and it wouldn’t be a Mission: Impossible film without him. Simon Pegg’s Benji continues to gain more prominence since his minor role in M:I III, tagging along with Hunt for the entire journey, and continues to provide great comic relief and most of the film’s heart; a scene where he staunchly decides to stick by Hunt despite his reluctance is a humorous and genuine moment amidst the chaos. Jeremy Renner returns as Brandt from Ghost Protocol and takes a slightly more ambiguous role as he is caught between his friendship with Hunt and his new overlord at the CIA (played by the ever-enjoyable Alec Baldwin). He’s mostly in the backseat for this adventure, but seeing him teamed up with Rhames in a surprisingly funny buddy cop dynamic makes it worth it. Sean Harris’ Lane is definitely one of the more interesting villains the franchise has had on paper, but I found his performance to be a little too reserved and stoic; he’s certainly a step above Dougray Scott and Michael Nyqvist, but he’s nothing compared to Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s menacing turn in M:I III. But the real standout that everyone should be talking about is Rebecca Ferguson as the elusive Ilsa Faust. Serving as somewhat of a skewed mirror of Hunt, Faust is just as focused and skilled as our hero but perhaps a little more willing to cross the line, and Ferguson fulfils that role with gusto. I hope she’s a character that returns for future adventures, and I’m sure Ferguson is going to start getting offers for all the major franchises soon enough.

Christopher McQuarrie showed he could pull off grounded action with Jack Reacher, but here he shows he can play with the big boys too. Whilst Rogue Nation doesn’t quite have that standout set piece like the Dubai sequence from Ghost Protocol, it has action in spades and it’s spread far more evenly and generously throughout the picture. From the much-advertised plane sequence to chases by foot, car and motorbike, Rogue Nation has a bit of everything and it’s all executed near-flawlessly. Whilst the cutting in some hand-to-hand fight scenes does feel a little choppy, the cinematography and editing is seamless in every other aspect and lets you take in all the unfolding carnage; it’s definitely worth the extra dough for the IMAX experience. The production design is sleek but grounded, the stuntwork is top notch across the board, and Joe Kraemer’s score is familiar but heart pumping and kicks in at all the right moments. Like he did with Reacher, McQuarrie knows the value of silence and lets action play out without music when it’s not needed; it’s a restrained approach that’s actually far more intense than the usual musical bombardment.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation isn’t a major game changer for the franchise or action movies in general, but it’s a rock solid piece of entertainment nonetheless. It’s the perfect coalescence of nearly two decades of storytelling, refining the formula down to its greatest pieces and delivering everything it promises. This is a series that shows no signs of stopping, and if it can keep up this quality of output then I see no reason why it should. Keep on running, Mr. Cruise. Just keep on running.

FINAL VERDICT: 9/10

Starring: Adam Sandler (Happy Gilmore), Kevin James (Paul Blart: Mall Cop), Michelle Monaghan (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), Josh Gad (Frozen), Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones)

Director: Chris Columbus (Home Alone)

Writers: Tim Herlihy (Grown Ups 2) and Timothy Dowling (Role Models)

Runtime: 1 hour 46 minutes

Release Date: 24 July (US), 12 August (UK)

I know it’s pretty easy to write off any movie starring Adam Sandler at this point, but Pixels actually showed some promise. It’s got a great premise for a movie with strong potential for nostalgia and creativity, it’s based on a plotless but visually rich short film, the supporting cast has a good mix of dramatic and comedic actors, and it’s directed by an actual filmmaker. Sure, Chris Columbus hasn’t directed a good film in over a decade, but he’s got some truly classic films under his belt (Gremlins, The Goonies, Mrs. Doubtfire, Home Alone, the first two Harry Potter films) and he’s far better than any of Sandler’s usual dial-a-schmuck hacks. I am an ever an optimist when it comes to upcoming films, and in spite of all red flags I try to go into a film with an open mind and ignore any bias. But nope. The warning signs were really that obvious from the start. Pixels doesn’t just suck. It is an appalling, degrading and offensive piece of film that only gets worse the more you think about it.

Of Pixels’ many, many, many, many, many problems, most of them stem from its trite, incoherent screenplay that feels like a first draft written over a weekend that wasn’t even briefly proofread. The plot is an absolute mess on all fronts, ricocheting from set piece to set piece, with no articulate internal logic that causes the film’s rules to constantly change and break for no apparent reason. For example, they establish trophies are awarded to the winning side of each game; for us, they take the form of game characters like the Duck Hunt dog and Q-Bert. But later on, it’s revealed cheating was used to win the second game and the aliens revoke humanity’s win. So if that’s the case, why did they award us with Q-Bert in the first place, and why does he still stick around after this revelation? The movie is full of nonsense like this. Subplots are introduced and then forgotten about, characters change motivation and personality on a whim, and everything else is just a pile of meaningless clichés. The film is unevenly structured and poorly paced, taking far too long to set up before breezing into its second act, and then suddenly it’s the big final battle and then it’s over; it completely negates any feeling of tension or impact. A lot of this could be excused if the movie was actually funny, but Pixels makes the same mistake so many modern comedies inexplicably make: it’s not at all funny. There are a few chuckle-worthy lines here and there, but those are random isolated moments that have no impact on plot and were probably adlibbed on set. Any of the big set piece jokes or running gags that drive the plot just fall completely flat, and most of the jokes that aren’t sexual or scatological are just a bunch of 80s references. This brings up another major conundrum: what is this movie’s target audience? Most of the jokes are far too juvenile for a discerning adult, but so many of the references are to things a child is going to have no frame of reference for. I’m sure some of them will get stuff like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, but what 12 year old is seriously going to laugh at references to Fantasy Island, Max Headroom and Hall & Oates? I’d be impressed if a kid even knew what one of those things was. I guess you could say the filmmakers were…out of touch? [Apologies. Obvious joke was obvious.]

As much as everyone rags on him, Adam Sandler is not talentless. Give him a good script and a talented director and he can really put in a good performance; I urge anyone who hasn’t seen Punch-Drunk Love to give it a shot and see proof of that. No, Sandler’s main problem is that he’s just lazy and his performance in Pixels is no exception. He’s just playing the same “sad sack loser with a heart of gold” that he always plays; a guy who we’re ostensibly supposed to like but who goes through absolutely no change because he’s apparently perfect already. It just screams of arrogant, smug superiority, and yet he’s probably still the best character in the movie. Kevin James thankfully isn’t relying too much on his weight from humour here, but without that he has absolutely nothing to work with and all you’re left with are his lacklustre acting skills. Michelle Monaghan does her best with the awful material given to her, but there’s just no getting around the fact her character is shallowly written and her chemistry with Sandler is completely non-existent; seriously, all this guy does is play video games and insult her, but somehow she’s won over by him? Peter Dinklage feels utterly wasted playing an insufferable d-bag who does nothing but spout dated slang and casual insults of all types; at one point, he completely screws over the planet for no other reason than arrogance and shows absolutely no worry or remorse about it, and he’s supposed to be one of the good guys. But while Monaghan and Dinklage simply look too good to be here, Josh Gad completely embarrasses himself in a stereotypical nerdy role so offensive it makes the cast of The Big Bang Theory look perfectly restrained; he’s so cringe-inducingly unfunny and derogatory that it’s close to the geek equivalent of blackface. Pretty much everyone other noteworthy actor in the movie has absolutely nothing to do. Brian Cox’s grumbling admiral seems to be set up as some secondary antagonist but then completely disappears come the third act, Sean Bean’s role is so insignificant it’s barely above a cameo, and why the f*ck is Jane Krakowski even in this movie? She’s an incredibly funny actress who could have done so much to liven up this mess, and yet she has only about six irrelevant lines and none of them contain jokes.

Now I normally don’t dedicate an entire paragraph to one aspect of a film like this, but this irked me so much it needs to be said: Pixels’ attitude towards gender politics is insulting on a degree I can’t possibly express properly, but I’m going to try. This is essentially going to be a mini-essay in the middle of my review with some spoilers, so go skip ahead if you—actually, no. Don’t skip ahead. This is important. OK, so there’s this whole subplot with Josh Gad’s character obsessing over this female ninja character from some made-up video game; his character is literally introduced making advances towards an arcade cabinet. That part’s just insulting to the nerd in me, but bear with me now. During the big final battle when all the game characters attack Washington DC, that same game character is among the invading forces and attacks Gad. But then Gad makes some bullsh*t plea to her about how he’ll always love her or something and then, out of bloody nowhere, she falls in love with him. OK, that’s mostly just god-awful sh*tty writing, but wait for it. So now the ninja girl is fighting with the humans for whatever reason, but when the aliens are defeated and they all turn to pixels, she dissipates too and leaves Gad all sad. OK, now here’s where it gets bad. Remember that whole Q-Bert trophy thing I mentioned earlier? So right at the end of the movie, Q-Bert turns into the ninja chick with absolutely no explanation as to why and she and Gad hook up. Sandler even quips, “Doesn’t anyone else find this weird? She was Q-Bert a second ago!” Yes, Mr. Sandler, but “weird” is kind of an understatement when you consider these two disgusting truths. Number 1: THE MOVIE IS LITERALLY SAYING SHE IS A TROPHY TO BE WON!!! And Number 2: THIS ENTIRE RELATIONSHIP HAPPENS WITHOUT HER UTTERING A SINGLE LINE OF DIALOGUE!!!!! She has no discernable personality, Gad shows no sign of appreciation for her outside of her looks, and did I mention SHE IS LITERALLY AN ITEM?????!!!!! I can’t…I…what is…what were they…F*CK!!!!!!!!!!…

[clears throat] Sorry about that. I think I’ve made my disgust clear. Back to the review.

Now, in case you thought I couldn’t mine some positive points out, I do have a few. Henry Jackman’s John Williams-inspired score is quite good, there’s a good selection of 80’s cheese classics on the soundtrack, and the visual effects used to bring all these video games characters to life are quite spectacular…at first. It’s basically the same effect over and over again, and once you’ve seen it that’s it; they don’t do much more with the concept. The cinematography is interesting during some of the action sequences, where camera angles and scene blocking often imitate the layout of the game being emulated, but otherwise it’s just the same bland camerawork you see in every modern comedy. The real culprit though is the editing, which kills the comedy almost as much as the script. The timing of cuts is just completely off most of the time, ruining a joke that might have worked by cutting off too quickly or letting something sit far too long. It’s like the editor didn’t know what was supposed to be funny and what wasn’t. Then again, neither did I most of the time.

Pixels is an utter travesty on every level, and what few bits of praise I can give it are insignificant compared to the mountain of things it just plain gets wrong. There’s a really cool idea for a movie hiding in here, but all potential has been dismembered and what’s left is a shambling deformed monster that needs to be put out of its misery. It’s a film that commits the ultimate crime: it’s insulting. It’s insulting to its source material, it’s insulting to fans of that source material, and it’s insulting to its audience’s intelligence. Video games still don’t get the respect they deserve in popular media, and this film is doing its reputation absolutely no favours. So please, if you consider yourself a gamer, watch pretty much any other movie involving gaming instead. Watch great movies like Scott Pilgrim vs The World, or WarGames, or The Last Starfighter, or Tron, or Wreck-It Ralph, or just wait for the Ready Player One movie to be made already (if they f*ck that up, we’re doomed). The Wizard and Gamer are far better movies about gaming than Pixels. Most films based on video games are better than Pixels; even Uwe Boll movies are funnier than this (unintentionally, but still). What more can I possibly say? This has got to be one of the worst summer blockbusters I have ever seen, and the fact it involves so many properties I love makes firing this bullet particularly painful. Say it with me now, people: F*CK THIS MOVIE!!!!!!!!!!

FINAL VERDICT: 1.5/10