Starring: Chris Pine (Into the Woods), Zachary Quinto (Margin Call), Karl Urban (Dredd), Zoe Saldana (Avatar), Simon Pegg (The World’s End), John Cho (A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas), Anton Yelchin (Fright Night), Idris Elba (Thor), Sofia Boutella (Kingsman: The Secret Service)

Director: Justin Lin (Fast & Furious 6)

Writers: Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead) & Doug Jung (Confidence)

Runtime: 2 hours

Release Date: 22 July (US, UK)

It’s hard to make a Star Trek movie that appeals to everyone. You can make an extremely faithful adaptation to appeal to the fans, but then you risk alienating a general audience with long scenes of technobabble. If you strip it down and make it more of a sci-fi adventure movie for the general audience, then the fans are going be dissatisfied because of the lack of technobabble. This is an issue that has plagued the rebooted Star Trek franchise since 2009. JJ Abrams’ first film was a fantastic reintroduction to these classic characters, but some were dismayed by the shift towards space opera instead of contemplative science fiction. The sequel Into Darkness tried to fix this by introducing more classic elements, but that only seemed to make things worse. Now with Abrams taking a backseat and Fast & Furious veteran Justin Lin stepping up to bat, there was a lot of worry that Star Trek would only further devolve into homogenised Hollywood blockbuster fodder. I am happy to report that, though Star Trek Beyond is still in the vein of its two predecessors, it shows a far greater understanding of the franchise than either of them.

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In comparison to the first two films where the complicated plots involved time travel and conspiracies, Star Trek Beyond takes a far simpler approach: there’s a bad guy who needs a thing to destroy another thing, and so Captain Kirk and crew need to stop him. There’s an elegant simplicity to the story that makes it easy to enjoy, and because of that it works well as a standalone Star Trek story rather than a small part of some grander saga. Though it does tie back into the first two films through some character moments, there is no rehashing of classic characters and scenes for the sake of fan service. This is an original adventure that creates new mythos for the lore and, like all great classic Star Trek does, uses its world to explore interesting sci-fi concepts. Beyond is ultimately a film about why the Enterprise crew needs to stick together and, in a greater sense, why Starfleet is important to this universe and why it should serve as an example to us in the audience. All of this is mainly just extra flavour behind all the character banter and action sequences, but it’s all there if you’re looking for it. For all intents and purposes, Star Trek Beyond’s ultimate goal is to have fun in this universe and it accomplishes that with aplomb with fantastically breezy pacing, a good sense of humour and some creative action set pieces. If you’re still expecting this series to make a sharp turn back to the strictly introspective you’re out of luck, but I’d say there’s just enough of it here to satisfy the slightly less pedantic fan.

With the story becoming less convoluted, Beyond now instead focuses its attention on the characters and develops them in small but meaningful ways. Whilst the focus of the film remains on Kirk and Spock, it’s less about their relationship with each other like the first two and more about their relationships with the rest of the Enterprise crew. For a good chunk of the film all these characters are split apart from each other in small groups, allowing for interactions previously not focused on. It’s fun to see Kirk and Chekov working together or watch Spock and Bones endure each other, giving the movie a little bit of buddy comedy flavour in the midst of the greater adventure. The entire main cast is still as excellent as ever and have really made these roles their own whilst respecting their forbearers, and to see the film pay tribute to both Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin in even the smallest way adds a tinge of sadness to an otherwise celebratory film fitting of the franchise’s fiftieth anniversary. In terms of the new cast, Sofia Boutella frequently steals the show as Jaylah. Her character is far more than a simple alien badass, adding some solid humour with her interactions with Scotty, and I hope they can find a way to bring her back for future adventures. Idris Elba’s villain Thrall, however, is probably the film’s weakest element. Elba’s performance is great and suitably villainous, bringing to mind Kruge from The Search for Spock without being a total copy, but the film waits too long to explain his character and motivation. He’s just a stock villain on the level of the average Marvel villain, and by the time he starts to get interesting the film is almost over; this is especially a shame given how his motivation ties back into the importance of Starfleet.

Justin Lin’s experience directing crazy action sequences certainly pays off here, making Star Trek Beyond easily the most viscerally entertaining of the new series. Though none of it comes close to the ridiculousness of the Fast & Furious films, the action does feel a lot more lively and varied in both on-foot skirmishes and spaceship battles. On a design level the film is in keeping with Abrams’ vision (though with his absence, the lens flare levels have significantly dropped), but little touches like the new Starfleet uniforms and some alternate ship designs give the movie its own flavour. Michael Giacchino’s score for the franchise continues to evolve and elevates every moment on screen and, though its presence in the trailer is still a little perplexing, the way they incorporate Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” into the actual story ends up creating one of the film’s standout moments.

Star Trek Beyond clearly loves the franchise but doesn’t do so by throwing in a bunch of references to the originals. It shows its love by creating a new story and expands upon the world rather than relying on what worked before. Unlike its forbearers, it’s easy to imagine this story sitting amongst episodes of the original series, but now it’s amplified by its modernity instead of hampered. It doesn’t bog itself down by trying to be too grand, instead just telling a fun sci-fi story that still works in character introspection and social commentary amongst all the action; it’s an approach to storytelling I wish more Hollywood blockbusters would take. I’m not convinced Beyond will satisfy every Star Trek fan out there, but to anyone who felt disillusioned by Into Darkness I think it more than deserves a watch.

FINAL VERDICT: 9/10

Starring: Kristen Wiig (The Martian), Melissa McCarthy (Spy), Kate McKinnon (The Angry Birds Movie), Leslie Jones (Trainwreck), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Neil Casey, Andy Garcia (Ocean’s Eleven), Cecily Strong (The Boss), Michael K. Williams (The Wire), Matt Walsh (Ted), Charles Dance (Game of Thrones)

Director: Paul Feig (Bridesmaids)

Writers: Katie Dippold (The Heat) & Paul Feig

Runtime: 1 hour 56 minutes

Release Date: 11 July (UK), 15 July (US)

Up front, I just need to make it clear that I am a massive fan of Ghostbusters. It has been one of my favourite films since I first saw it when I was six years old. I love the movies, I love the cartoons, I love the toys, and nothing brings me more joy than when I can find an excuse to quote the movie in everyday conversation. But ever since it was announced Ghostbusters was getting a reboot, the Internet has been in uproar not only because of the usual childhood sodomising claims, but because the filmmakers had the audacity to make the titular group of paranormal investigators all female. All of this at first could easily be blown off as the usual sexist Internet trolls blowing things out of proportion, but then that first trailer came out and all hell broke loose. Suddenly, this new Ghostbusters became a marketing nightmare and even anyone with any legitimate criticism unfortunately became associated with the aforementioned trolls. But now that the film is finally available to the public and I have witnessed it, I have a very strong urge to break composure and address the naysayers with some colourful language, but I’m going to remain civil and simply say I liked this movie. Quite a bit, actually. Here’s why.

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In describing the new Ghostbusters, the key phrase I’d use is “similar, but different.” The film is structurally comparable to the original, especially in the first half as our heroes discover the presence of ghosts and set up their business to fight back against them. You’ve got the university dismissing the Ghostbusters for their preposterous findings, accusations that they are actually frauds causing these apparitions for monetary gain, the slow discovery that the spike of paranormal activity is leading to an apocalyptic event, and government figures who ignore their findings in the face of this crisis. But to call this film a rehash of the original is like calling The Force Awakens a rip-off of A New Hope: it’s clearly intentional. From that basic template, this new Ghostbusters takes the series in a different direction and that is mainly done through having its own unique voice. It takes the core concept of the franchise and injects it with Paul Feig’s outlook and sensibilities, creating a film that certainly respects its source material but also wants to do things its own way. With that, the sense of humour is definitely more akin to his movies than the Ivan Reitman originals or similar films of that era and genre. The jokes are a lot faster and cruder, full of more adlibs and asides, than the more sarcastic and absurdist comedy that fuelled the original. But the key thing you’re all concerned about is far simpler: is it funny? That’s hard to judge because everyone’s funny bone is tickled differently, but for me I can happily say I laughed consistently throughout the entire runtime. Sure, not every joke hits, with most of the duds being the ones they used in the trailers (seriously, was Sony’s marketing department trying to make this movie look bad?), but enough of them do that it keeps the movie consistently entertaining. The movie does begin to outstay its welcome as it reaches its third act, especially given the slightly bloated two-hour runtime, and the many different pieces of fan service vary from chuckle-worthy to cloying, but none of that is enough to stop the movie from being a fun, entertaining ride.

Recapturing the magic of the original Ghostbusters cast is something you just can’t do, and so again the filmmakers have done something different with their new batch of heroes and I’m not just talking about their lack of Y-chromosomes. There are definitely elements of those original characters in the new team, with Melissa McCarthy’s Abby having an enthusiasm for her work comparable to Ray and Kate McKinnon’s Holtzmann being an awkward introvert genius in the vein of Egon, but these are otherwise original, funny and likable characters that stand apart from their masculine predecessors. In many facets these comediennes are just playing exaggerated versions of their real-life personas, but no more so than Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson were. Kristen Wiig’s Erin is certainly the most unique of the group, coming into this situation with more trepidation than excitement, and her inner conflict as she tries to find that balance between respectable scientist and paranormal geek makes her a deeper character and a great role model for those fighting against their own quirks in an attempt to be “normal”. McCarthy, as she did in Spy, thankfully uses her usual abrasive persona sparingly for comic effect rather than just being a walking trove of colourful insults, and her relationship with Wiig gives a strong emotional core to the story as two friends driven apart by conflicting priorities. Leslie Jones’ Patty makes for a good grounding presence as the layman of the group who honestly gets more character development in this one movie than Winston ever did in both of the originals, but I do think she will be a divisive presence; if you already don’t like Jones’ sense of humour, this won’t change your mind. But the breakout MVP of the main cast is most certainly McKinnon, finally putting her Saturday Night Live chops to good use and stealing every frame of film she appears on. She’s a hilarious wildcard of a character, with nothing that comes out of her mouth being predictable or sane. Seriously, if nothing else, I hope she at least gets some more shots at the big leagues because she bloody deserves it.

The supporting cast in comparison, however, feels a little undercooked. Neil Casey’s scheming Rowan does bring to mind Peter MacNicol’s Janosz from Ghostbusters II, but unfortunately not only is he not a particularly original character but he lacks development. It’s a real shame because there is a lot of potential with his character and towards the end he does start to become more interesting and even funny, but eventually it just devolves into another “blast the ghost” finale. Andy Garcia and Cecily Strong have some funny moments as the Mayor of New York and his conniving assistant respectively, especially in how confusedly they try to deny the existence of paranormal phenomena despite the obviousness, but they come into the story a bit too late to be effective. Michael K. Williams and Matt Walsh are basically just glorified extras with nothing particularly interesting to do, Charles Dance is funny whilst he’s there but is never seen again after his two scenes, and the various cameos from the original cast members are mostly just throwaway gags. Nevertheless, the salvation of the supporting cast comes from the most unlikely of places, and that is the simple but elegant brilliance of Chris Hemsworth’s Kevin. His entire shtick stems from the simple joke of “he’s an idiot”, and the sheer lunacy of how far his stupidity goes never ceases to get a laugh. Even when other jokes fall flat, you can always count of Kevin to get that smile back on your face.

The “similar, but different” approach the film takes also applies to the film on a technical level, appropriating many of the visuals of its source but repurposing them and giving them a new twist along with some welcome additions. The redesigns of elements like the jumpsuits, the proton packs and the Ecto-1 are ultimately harmless changes, but the new tech the film adds some much needed variety to the actual busting of ghosts and gives the action something a little more panache than just a bunch of guys standing still and firing lasers. The ghost designs are perfectly fine and match up well to the style of the original films, though I do wish there were more practical elements to the ghost effects instead of the full CG blowout. However, the effects themselves never seem unconvincing and for the most part fit in well with the more colourful tone of the film. The film’s overall look is far brighter and slicker than its forbearers, but it’s a shift in aesthetic than is again more fitting to the film’s tone. Theodore Sharpio’s score for the film is certainly nowhere near as iconic as Elmer Bernstein’s compositions for the original, but some of the pop music choices for the soundtrack are inspired. Oh, and for those who don’t like Fall Out Boy’s cover of the classic Ghostbusters theme (I’m kind of indifferent to it), don’t fret too much; it’s only used briefly in one montage scene and the Ray Parker Jr. original remains front and centre.

Let’s all face it: there was no way any new version of Ghostbusters could match up to the original. Remember, the core creative team tried to with Ghostbusters II and even they couldn’t manage it. It’s a unique lighting-in-a-bottle film that could not have worked at any other time, and expecting the same thing to happen again in completely different circumstances is pretty much insane. So the fact that this new Ghostbusters isn’t as good as the original is absolutely no shock to me, but the fact that it succeeds on its own terms does bring me a great deal of delight. It’s a film that is keenly aware of its legacy and wants to honour, but it also wants to do it on its own terms. It takes the premise of Ghostbusters and makes it its own, bringing a different sense of humour, a different cast of characters, and a different outlook on the world. The gender change to the main cast is absolutely the last thing wrong with this movie, and if there is any justice in this world their chemistry and humour will only inspire Hollywood to bring more casting diversity to Hollywood blockbusters. Will every fan of the franchise be pleased by the final result? Given the backlash before even a frame of footage was shot, I can unequivocally say no. But for anyone willing to accept the film for what it is trying to do rather than measuring it against a film it isn’t trying to be, then I’d say there’s a far stronger chance you’ll come out liking it. If you have even the slightest affection for Ghostbusters, you owe it to yourselves to go see the movie and decide for yourself. If you don’t like it, that’s perfectly fine with me as long as your opinion doesn’t completely stem from a preconceived place of hate.

FINAL VERDICT: 8/10

Starring: Alexander Skarsgård (Diary of a Teenage Girl), Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street), Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction), Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained), Djimon Hounsou (Gladiator), Jim Broadbent (Hot Fuzz)

Director: David Yates (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix)

Writers: Adam Cozad (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow)

Runtime: 1 hour 50 minutes

Release Date: 1 July (US), 6 July (UK)

Did you know there have been around two hundred different films featuring Tarzan? That’s a lot of movies about a shirtless guy jumping around the jungle and yelling, but even a hundred years after Edgar Rice Burroughs created the character he remains a memorable fixture in pop culture. But with that many movies, there’s bound to be a lot of fodder in there. There are the notable favourites like the old Johnny Weissmuller films of the 30s and 40s, Christopher Lambert’s take in 1984’s Greystoke, or the animated Disney version from 1999, but then you’ve also got the infamous Tarzan, The Ape Man with Bo Derek and Miles O’Keefe or that god-awful German CG abomination from a few years ago. To stand out from the pack, The Legend of Tarzan is going to need to do something different whilst also sticking to the core of what makes the character so enduring. But unfortunately, whilst it certainly strives to do that, the execution is ultimately lacking.

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Feeling in many ways like a sequel to a movie that doesn’t exist, The Legend of Tarzan touches upon the character’s origin through scant flashbacks whilst mostly telling a story set after his return to civilisation. Crafting a story that places Burroughs’ character within the real-life tragedy of Belgium’s occupation of the Congo in the 1890s (Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson’s characters being real historical figures in that event), the film certainly has lofty ambitions with its strong themes of honour, freedom, racism and the balance between man and nature. However, because the film is dealing with such sensitive subject matter and takes it so seriously, it ultimately sucks a lot of the fun out of the movie. The pacing is achingly slow at points, with far more scenes dedicated to discussing trade negotiations than swinging through treetops, which is further hampered by too often taking Tarzan out of his element. For most of the movie, he’s stuck in open plains or small settlements with little opportunity to take advantage of his skill set; it’s like watching a Spider-Man movie where he’s stuck in a neighbourhood of bungalows. But even as few and far between as they are, those moments when Tarzan is actually allowed to be Tarzan give the film a huge shot of adrenaline and reminds you why this character has stood the test of time.

What really holds the film together even in its dullest moments is Alexander Skarsgård as John Clayton/Tarzan himself, not only pulling off the physicality of the Ape Man but also his demeanour and personality. Tarzan is supposed to be a man of few words who mostly communicates through body language, and though Skarsgård’s version is more sophisticated given his domestication he retains that stoic gruffness that defines the character. Jackson’s George Washington Williams makes for a great counterpoint to Skarsgård, bringing a lot of his own natural charm and humour to bounce of off Tarzan’s seriousness, but at certain points he can feel a little anachronistic; he feels so modern that, if you changed the setting to present day, you’d barely have to alter his dialogue. Djimoun Hounsou is seriously underutilised as the vengeful Mbonga, but in those few moments he creates an interesting antagonist who generates as much sympathy as he does fury. It’s with these three aforementioned characters that The Legend of Tarzan shows off a surprising degree of moral ambiguity, with both Tarzan and Williams showing regret for past actions and Mbonga’s motivation being totally understandable. I just wish this level of depth was also seen in Christoph Waltz’s character. He does a fine enough job as the villainous Leon Rom, effectively just playing the same smug bad guy he’s played in every non-Tarantino production of his, but he there’s very little more to him that that; then again, if you read into what the real Rom was known to do, Waltz’s version is practically a teddy bear. But what I’m most sad to say is that Margot Robbie’s Jane is the one that really lets the side down. The character herself isn’t greatly written, her presence in the story basically just being incentive for Tarzan to chase after Rom, but as much as Robbie tries she feels a bit miscast in the role. Her romantic chemistry with Skarsgård is passable at best, and though she claims to be no damsel she pretty much is; she does manage to escape her captors without external help, but she gets recaptured pretty much immediately anyway.

David Yates’ experience in directing action sequences has mainly consisted of teenagers pointing magic twigs at each other, so The Legend of Tarzan serves as a challenge for the veteran Harry Potter helmer. In terms of capturing Tarzan in motion swinging on vines or jumping through treetops he’s done an excellent job, but when it comes to actual fight scenes the direction becomes a lot choppier. There’s one decent hand-to-hand confrontation on a train where Tarzan single-handedly takes out a carriage full of guards, but other scenes like Tarzan’s fight with a gorilla or his confrontation with Mbonga are sloppily edited so as to be almost incomprehensible; yet another example of quick cuts and cramp camerawork ruining action. The film certainly looks nice with its sweeping cinematography and great period production design, and Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score is suitably heroic enough, but there’s nothing that truly stands out on a technical level.

The Legend of Tarzan is a perfectly acceptable movie that I’m sure fans of the character will get a least a little kick out of, but considering the vast number of alternatives it’s certainly not one I see being especially remembered amongst its hundreds of brethren. I give it a lot of credit at least for attempting to do something daring with the source material, but unfortunately that braveness too often works against what the film should be. There’s simply not enough real Tarzan moments, and when the film actually remembers to have those moments it really shines. It almost makes me wish they just did a standard Tarzan origin with this cast and crew, as the potential for a great adaptation with today’s technology can be seen lurking within the story’s flashback sequences. Skarsgård’s excellent performance and its important messages ultimately make the film worth a look, but it’s certainly not a film that demands the full cinema experience; being able to take breaks might even alleviate the sluggish pacing. But even with that, I am worried for the fate of this movie at the box office. If we’re not careful, The Legend of Tarzan may become the second high-profile Edgar Rice Burroughs film to tank financially this decade…and that’s not great considering John Carter is the better movie (at least in my opinion).

FINAL VERDICT: 6/10

Starring: Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic Park), Liam Hemsworth (The Hunger Games), Jessie Usher (When The Game Stands Tall), Maika Monroe (It Follows), Bill Pullman (Spaceballs), Brent Spiner (Star Trek: First Contact), Charlotte Gainsbourg (Nymphomaniac), Sela Ward (Gone Girl), William Fichtner (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), Judd Hirsch (Taxi)

Director: Roland Emmerich (2012)

Writers: Nicolas Wright & James A. Woods and Dean Devlin (Universal Soldier) & Roland Emmerich and James Vanderbilt (White House Down)

Runtime: 2 hours

Release Date: 23 June (UK), 24 June (US)

Independence Day came out twenty years ago. That should make you feel pretty old, especially if you grew up with the movie in the 90s. It brought the alien invasion picture into the modern cinema experience through groundbreaking special effects, and it transformed Will Smith from the Fresh Prince into a gigantic movie star. But even back then it was a pretty stupid movie, and Roland Emmerich’s career has only continued to get more ridiculous as his career has gone on. Bringing back old franchises is something Hollywood seems fixated on at the moment, so now is seemingly the perfect time for this dormant property to jump back into the limelight. Unfortunately, Independence Day: Resurgence does not compare to The Force Awakens in terms of franchise revival. It’s not even a Jurassic World. Nope, we’re in bona fide Terminator Genisys territory here.

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Plotwise, Resurgence follows the structure of the original pretty damn closely: slow build-up as we discover the aliens, a bunch of landmarks get destroyed, and then humanity comes up with some convoluted plan to defeat them. There are some cosmetic changes given the alien-assisted advance in technology since the original, but the stakes haven’t been raised in a significant way and without the film’s MacGuffin plot dump they’d actually be even lower than the first. The film’s first half is way too slow as it takes its time getting to the aliens that we already know about, the second half is just a cluster of explosions and exposition, and the few interesting new ideas brought to the table are eclipsed by the same generic tropes all of Emmerich’s movies rely on. But what the film really lacks is a sense of heart and earnestness. The original propped itself up on cheesy American machismo and patriotism, sure, but it was honest in its convictions and that made it hard to resist. This sequel makes no attempt at that, instead taking the opposite route as both key characters and faceless civilians are killed with little time to dwell on it; even the film’s equivalent to the Randy Quaid sacrifice is blown over like it was nothing. Top it all off with a shameless hook for a sequel, and you’ve got yourself an experience that is as mindless as the first but also disappointingly heartless too.

Roland Emmerich movies almost always have a cast of thousands who mostly end up being kind of irrelevant, but Independence Day was mainly held together by the strength of its main cast. Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum and Bill Pullman brought every ounce of personality they had to that picture, and their enthusiasm made it fun even in its direst moments. In this sequel, one is out of the picture and the other is wasted, but I’m glad to say at least Goldblum hasn’t lost his touch. Every moment he’s on screen brings back a little of that first film’s flavour, and without him this movie would have been even more of a hopeless effort. No one else fairs even nearly as well. Pullman spends most of the film ranting like a lunatic and the rest of it just sitting quietly in the background, only coming to prominence in the final act before being quickly overshadowed. Brent Spiner’s return is OK but his wackiness has been turned up to eleven no matter the situation, whilst Judd Hirsch gets his own absolutely pointless subplot thrown in that barely ties into the main story. The film mainly focuses on its new cast members, and that’s a big mistake because none of them have any charisma. Liam Hemsworth is his usual prettily bland self, taking an already generic character and somehow making him even more banal. Maika Monroe is usually a damn good actress but as Pullman’s daughter she does nothing to really stand out. She lacks chemistry with both her on-screen father and fiancé, and despite being this supposed ace pilot she gets barely two minutes of action time. But the real travesty here is Jessie Usher as the son of Will Smith’s character, who is so utterly uninteresting that he’ll have you begging for the bad comic relief characters to come cavorting back on screen. He’s a stoic slab of nothing for most of his screen time, and in the few moments he has to emote he’s as convincing as a reluctant actor in a high school play. His performance really highlights how Smith’s absence has left the film without a charismatic presence, and there’s not enough Jeff Goldblum in the world to balance out that lack of personality.

The special effects of the original film did feature a lot fantastic computer effects for the time, but they also still used model work and animatronics throughout and it made that universe seem more tangible. Here, there is barely a frame of film that doesn’t feature a visual effect, including things that would have been done practically last time around. The effects are impressive to behold, especially as cities are brought to ruins through the mere gravity of the massive alien ships, but it also causes everything to lose a sense of weight. There are a lot of dogfight sequences in the movie, but they’re so jam-packed with information that these scenes become nothing but blurs of white dots shooting minty lasers at each other; it truly is a dense experience in both meanings of the word. The world is at least an imaginative example of exploring an alternative future enhanced by alien technology, but the film barely takes advantage of its unique setting in favour of more dull military bases and alien motherships.

In one scene of this film, Liam Hemsworth drops his trousers and pisses in front of the aliens whilst giving them the finger. That’s pretty much this movie’s modus operandi in a nutshell: it just doesn’t care. Independence Day: Resurgence is an outdated product stuck in a decade that we’ve long since moved past, but equally it would have felt just as lacklustre if released within a few years of its predecessor. It doubles down on the stupid and ridiculous but totally abandons the heart and fun that makes that original film an enjoyable guilty pleasure to this day, and the total lack of charm from its cast of characters makes any moment where an explosion isn’t going off an absolute bore. Jeff Goldblum and a few vaguely interesting sci-fi concepts manage to keep the movie on life support, but if they really want to make another entry of this franchise soon then they’re really going to have to up their game.

FINAL VERDICT: 4/10

Starring: Louis C.K. (Blue Jasmine), Eric Stonestreet (Identity Thief), Kevin Hart (Ride Along), Ellie Kemper (21 Jump Street), Jenny Slate (Zootropolis), Lake Bell (Man Up), Hannibal Buress (Bad Neighbours), Dana Carvey (Wayne’s World), Albert Brooks (Drive), Steve Coogan (Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa)

Director: Chris Renaud (Despicable Me)

Writers: Brian Lynch (Hop) and Ken Daurio & Cinco Paul (The Lorax)

Runtime: 1 hour 30 minutes

Release Date: 24 June (UK), 8 July (US)

A lot goes into creating a great animated movie. Designing a world, crafting unique-looking characters, getting every nuance of movement and facial expressions just right, the list goes on. It’s an extremely complex process, but at the heart of it all should be a simple but compelling story with a strong moral. Unfortunately, certain films often forget that part, and The Secret Life of Pets is most certainly one of them.

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The idea of seeing how pets act when we’re not around is not a new idea (heck, there’s a dozen reality shows based around that concept), but it’s a humorous conceit that has plenty of potential for not only some fun gags but also an interesting story. The Secret Life of Pets certainly gets the first part of that right and does mine some fun humour out of these animals throwing parties or getting into conversations about pet-centric topics. Tonally, it sets it all up perfectly well, but then it feels like the filmmakers forgot to put any effort into the plot. It’s a fairly basic buddy adventure about a mismatched pair trying to make it home whilst overcoming their differences, but not only is nothing really done to subvert the premise but it forgets to actually say anything by the film’s end. It seems far more concerned with getting to the next gag rather than saying something of importance, which is especially frustrating since so many opportunities to do so are offered on a platter. For example: about two-thirds through the movie, Duke (Stonestreet) reminisces about his relationship with his previous owner. This would be a great moment to add a little emotion and poignancy, maybe even a sweet message about dealing with loss or finding a new home, but instead we get nothing. The moment is cut short before it can be fully resolved in favour of yet another chase scene. The film doesn’t have to be deep on a Pixar level but it does need some kind of substance to feel satisfying, and by the film’s end I felt like nothing had really been accomplished.

Great characters are what also make an animated film stand the test of time, and here The Secret Life of Pets fares a little better at least in terms of the supporting characters. Our main heroes, however, are frustratingly bland. Louis C.K. feels incredibly wasted as protagonist Max, stripped of his trademark sense of humour and yet given nothing to work with in return; he could have been voiced by nearly anyone else and it wouldn’t have made a lick of difference. Eric Stonestreet fairs slightly better as Duke given he at least has a personality and the aforementioned quasi-emotional backstory, but he’s not really that compelling either. The entire film hinges on the rivalry between Max and Duke, but not only is their conflict flat but it just kind of resolves itself without much effort on either of their parts. It really feels like they were going for a Toy Story-like relationship with these two, but that movie had their conflict constantly impact the plot and dealt with issues far deeper than a simple popularity contest, so instead of Woody and Buzz they’ve ended up with Wooden and Blasé. The real entertainment comes from every single other character around them, most of who are only there for comedic purposes but all have far more distinct personalities. Jenny Slate is hilarious as the love-struck and determined Gidget, Dana Carvey gets in a few good laughs as the doddering Pops, Albert Brooks brings some darker humour to the table as the ravenous Tiberius, and Kevin Hart finally gets a chance to play against character as the unstable wrecking ball that is Snowball. Why all the effort in characterisation was put here instead of where it really matters baffles me, but at least the film provided some characters I could get behind.

On a presentation level, this is a pretty damn good-looking movie full of bright, exaggerated designs and crisp, cartoony animation. A lot of the gags rely on visual humour and those really work here, whether it’s something simple like Buddy (Buress) using his elongated body to scale a fire escape or something a little more frantic like Chloe (Bell) finding herself in a Wile E. Coyote-style series of pratfalls. Illumination’s work on the Despicable Me films shines through in these moments, but like with those films they aren’t enough to support the rest of the picture.

There’s nothing particularly bad about The Secret Life of Pets, and if you’re just looking for something to entertain the kids for a while it’s perfectly harmless entertainment. But workmanlike delivery isn’t enough to make you stand out in a crowded marketplace. A good animated film either throws you into a deeply imaginative world full of endless opportunities for humour, or they capture you with ingenious introspection on seemingly mundane aspects of life; the greatest ones manage both. The Secret Life of Pets easily could have done both but just doesn’t bother, which is something Illumination’s products have constantly missed the mark on. If any of their films are to stand the test of time (and many of them haven’t already), they need to change up their game fast or they are going to get swallowed up in the sea of animation studios fast.

FINAL VERDICT: 5.5/10

EIFF 2016 Round-Up

Posted: June 26, 2016 in Film Reviews

It’s been another fantastic year at the Edinburgh Internation Film Festival and, whilst I didn’t quite beat my record from last year, I did see a wide variety of films and enjoyed a good deal of them. It’s going to be a while before the vast majority of you can even see most of these, but here’s my brief thoughts of all that I witnessed over the course of these past two weeks.


Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Release: 24 June (US), 16 September (UK)

What We Do in the Shadows’ Taika Waititi brings us this charming and hilarious comedy with a good dose of action and heart. Julian Dennison is a revelation as the young miscreant forced to team up with a very curmudgeonly Sam Neill as they try to survive in the wilds of New Zealand. Another bold step forward for Waititi as a director, and certainly proves he has the scope and talent to handle Thor: Ragnarok. 9/10

Macbeth Unhinged

Release: N/A

Angus MacFayden directs this modern adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play, and to say the recent Michael Fassbender/Justin Kurzel version is better would be an understatement. This is a dull, cheap and utterly pretentious movie that is confined for almost its entire runtime to the backseat of a limo. The entire production feels like it was put together by an incompetent film student considering the amount of rookie mistakes on a technical level (don’t even get me started on the film’s score, which sounds like it was created by pressing shuffle on a playlist of random royalty-free music). In other words, don’t bother. 1/10

The Fundamentals of Caring

Release: June 24 (Netflix)

Fairly standard road trip comedy made enjoyable by some solid gags and a strong cast. Paul Rudd is essentially playing a slightly more depressed version of his usual persona, but Craig Roberts is the real standout as the foul-mouthed handicapped teen he cares for, and Selena Gomez is actually pretty decent in it too. Best thing is, if you’ve got Netflix, you can literally watch this right now. 7/10

Finding Dory

Release: June 17 (US), July 29 (UK)

Already done a full review of this that you can read here, but in summary: another solid effort from Pixar with all their usual trappings, but certainly not the instant classic its forbearer was. 8/10

Moon Dogs

Release: N/A

Another road trip movie as three teens trek from the Shetlands to Glasgow for various personal reasons. Strong central performances from the main cast, especially Tara Lee as the promiscuous Caitlin, but a mostly predictable plot, abandoned story threads and some very shallow supporting characters dampen the experience. 6/10

The White King

Release: N/A

This dystopian drama certainly sets up an interesting world but ultimately doesn’t go anywhere. Though a great deal of mythology and back-story has been created, it never really takes advantage of that and just tells a basic story of a broken family. The world is quite interesting though, there are one or two interesting set pieces, and the presence of Jonathan Pryce makes any movie better, but ultimately it’s a movie you could easily live without. 6/10

Jet Trash

Release: N/A

Robert Sheehan and Sofia Boutella star in this Indian-set crime drama that’s a little too complicated for its own good. The cinematography is beautiful and really captures the look of Goa, but the drama is a little overblown and it all ultimately amounts to very little. 5/10

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Adult Life Skills

Release: 24 June (UK), N/A (US)

Funny and touching dramedy about arrested development and struggling with loss. Attack the Block’s Jodie Whittaker is a magnetic lead as the peculiar woman-child living in her mother’s shed, and for someone still struggling to break into independent life myself I found it quite endearing. Perhaps a bit overlong, but still overall a funny and touching little movie. 7/10

Little Sister

Release: N/A

Amusing and sweet little film about a family that includes a goth nun and disfigured war vet, but one that kinds of meanders without much point. Addison Timlin gives a great lead performance and it’s great to see Ally Sheedy still working, but some dangling plot threads make the eventual conclusion feel abrupt and questionable. 6.5/10 little-sister-44-1

Firstborn

Release: N/A

Boring and unoriginal horror movie that tries to recapture the feel of 70s classics like Rosemary’s Baby or The Exorcist, but frustratingly lacks anything scary. Though there are some interesting ideas are floated about, none of them are taken advantage of in an interesting way in favour of the easiest option. The film is far too visually bland for its genre, shot more like a kitchen sink drama than a horror, relying entirely on lame sound effects and jump cuts for its “frights”. 2/10 thea_forest_still_layered_default-14471

Harold & Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story

Release: N/A

A fascinating and emotionally charged documentary about one of Hollywood’s unsung couples, Harold & Lillian is not only an interesting insight into sides of the film industry nobody talks about but a beautiful account of a romance that sounds like it was made for the movies. If you’re really into the history of cinema and love stories, definitely give this a watch. 8.5/10

Slash

Release: N/A

Delving into the phenomenon of erotic fan fiction, Slash doesn’t necessarily advocate the interests of its main characters but it certainly makes you understand their passion. It delivers a much-needed counterpoint to the view that fanficcers are nothing but talentless deviants, and it does so in a respectful but hilarious way. It’s also refreshing to see a movie explore teenage sexuality in such an honest way; no Hollywood movie today would even dare being this ambiguous. 8/10

Forsaken

Release: 19 February (US), N/A (UK)

Real father-and-son duo Kiefer & Donald Sutherland team up for the first time in twenty years in this decent but not particularly special western. The performances are strong all around from both Sutherlands, Brian Cox, Demi Moore and Michael Wincott, along with some nice production design and a solid action climax, but the story is incredibly generic and predictable for anyone with even the lightest knowledge of the genre. 6/10

Yoga Hosers

Release: 2 September (US), N/A (UK)

Kevin Smith’s bizarre mash-up of Clueless and Gremlins isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of maple syrup, but if you’re into movies that throw insane ideas at the wall with little concern for the consequences, Yoga Hosers is one you can have a blast with. Not all of the jokes hit and a lot of them require pop culture savvy, but the unadulterated fun and enthusiasm that exudes from the production is as potent as whatever Smith was smoking when he wrote this. Certainly a long shot away from the director’s 90s glory days, but certainly a step up from the interesting but tonally inconsistent Tusk, this movie may only appeal to the already-converted, but that’s OK considering it clearly wasn’t made for anyone else. 7/10

Away

Release: 7 October (UK), N/A (US)

A by-the-numbers grungy British drama only held afloat by some decent central performances. Timothy Spall and Juno Temple make for an interesting pair as two lost souls on the streets of Blackpool, and Constantine’s Matt Ryan makes for a surprisingly intimidating figure, but the amount of clichés and melodrama here make the nearly two hour run time feel like an eternity. Also, note to directors: telling your story out of sequence doesn’t immediately make it better. 3.5/10

The Virgin Psychics!

Release: N/A (US, UK)

Sion Sono’s manga adaptation is an insane ride filled with more risqué sex jokes than any Western comedy would ever allow. The fact that everyone in the movie takes this ridiculous story about virgins gaining superpowers at the point of orgasm seriously only makes it funnier. The plot does drag a bit and some characters prove to be pretty pointless, but its insanity and surprisingly sweet and honest message about finding true love keep it entertaining throughout. Then again, compared to Sono’s masterpiece Love Exposure, this is practically tame. 8/10

Ithaca

Release: N/A (US, UK)

Hollywood sweetheart of the 90s/early 00s Meg Ryan makes a surprising directorial debut with this WWII-set coming-of-age tale. Alex Neustaedter makes for a decent lead and there are strong supporting performances from Sam Shepard and Hamish Linklater, plus there’s Ryan herself and her old partner-in-rom com Tom Hanks in a small role. However the milquetoast tone, unfocused story, and the obvious messages about the effects of war makes the film miss that sweet spot between sad and uplifting, ending up being neither. 5.5/10

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The Last King

Release: 17 June(US), 24 June (UK)

A simple but fun Norwegian historical epic from the director of Pathfinder, The Last King’s basic story of royal heirs and duelling factions serves as the template for some stunning shots of frozen landscapes and some brilliantly done action sequences; skiing has never looked cooler. That and it’s got Tormund from Game of Thrones in it. 7/10

The Lure

Release: N/A (US, UK)

A twisted modern reimagining of The Little Mermaid, this Polish fantasy musical takes elements of the Hans Christian Anderson story and bizarrely melds it with Chicago and Species to create a unique and frankly bonkers experience. Not all the music is great and the film can’t seem to decide if these interludes are diagetic or not, but the lead performances from Marta Mazurek and Michalina Olszanksa are great and the special effects to turn them into mermaids are impressive (even though it’s obvious they couldn’t afford to show the transformation very often). 8/10

Sticky Notes

Release: N/A (US, UK)

A by-the-numbers cancer drama saved by the strength of its leads, Sticky Notes manages to get by purely on the strength of Rose Leslie as a struggling dancer and an absolutely brilliant performance by Ray Liotta as her foul-mouthed dying father. The story drags a lot near the end and the final twist is somehow both obvious and confusing, but at least its heart is in the right place. 6/10

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The Colony

Release: 15 April (US), 1 July (UK)

Emma Watson and Daniel Bruhl lead this true story drama about a German-run cult in Chile that’s equal parts fascinating and frustrating. The performances are strong from both leads and Michael Nyqvist as the deranged cult leader, but the script is fairly by the numbers with ill-defined characters and some pretty stilted dialogue; it was clearly written by people whose first language isn’t English. The film disappointingly also doesn’t go into much detail, skimming over interesting facts and instead ramming the same clichés about cultists we’ve always seen. Regardless, it’s still an important story to tell and the final act is incredibly tense if somewhat anti-climactic. 6/10

The Lovers and the Despot

Release: 23 September (US), N/A (UK)

A documentary covering the fascinating story of the abduction of South Korean movie director Shin Sang-ok and his wife Choi Eun-hee by Kim Jong-il, The Lovers and the Despot does highlight a tale that needs more attention but doesn’t go nearly in depth enough as it could. There are a lot of areas like the specific films Sang-ok made in North Korea (including Pulgasari, which is basically a Communist Godzilla movie) and his career in the United States afterwards that gets brushed over, and ultimately the film feels a little too emotionally detached from the story. If you’ve never heard about this before, it may be an interesting watch, but it could have been so much better. 6.5/10

The Library Suicides

Release: 5 August (UK), N/A (US)

I never thought a thriller set in a library entirely in Welsh could be gripping, but The Library Suicides manages it. Catrin Stewart pulls off a convincing dual role as twin sisters Ana and Nan as they delve into dark deeds dealing with their mother’s past, and the film makes strong use of its isolated and claustrophobic environment. The film’s final reveal comes off a little clumsy, but besides that this is a sharp and well-directed piece of cinema that will keep you guessing. 7.5/10

Mojin: The Lost Legend

Release: 18 December 2015 (US), N/A (UK)

This Chinese blockbuster heavily recycles elements from every Western adventure movie under the sun to create a cheap imitation of superior products that makes the Angelina Jolie Tomb Raider movies look like Raiders of the Lost Ark in comparison. The characters are either bland or annoying, the plot is generic and nonsensical, and the special effects vary from decent to downright poor. Also, though no real fault of the film, the English subtitles provided are atrocious; it’s an incredibly broken translation full of poorly chosen wording and spelling mistakes that provides far more humour than anything the film intentionally provides. 3.5/10

Mr. Right

Release: 8 April (US), N/A (UK)

Combing action with romantic comedy is rarely a good idea, but Mr. Right pulls off the mash-up mainly thanks to its fantastic cast and a witty script from Chronicle scribe Max Landis. Sam Rockwell and Anna Kendrick make for a delightfully kooky couple, and supporting turns from the likes of James Ransone and RZA add more to the laughs. The action sequences are a little choppy, but the humour is spot-on and rarely fails to get a laugh. If you like a little blood in your romance, this is definitely one to check out. 8.5/10

Whiskey Galore!

Release: N/A (US, UK)

A remake of the Ealing Studios classic, Whiskey Galore! provides good natured old-fashioned comedy hijinks but not much more. The cast is all around strong, particularly Eddie Izzard as the pernickety Captain Waggett, along with some lovely visuals and a good score by Patrick Doyle, but its perhaps a little too quaint for its own good. 5.5/10

Brakes

Release: N/A (US, UK)

A strange but quite captivating improvised comedy shot guerrilla-style showing the ends and beginnings of various relationships out-of-sequence; kind of like (500) Days of Summer but with a darker sense of humour. Some stories are better than others and the lo-def approach can get very distracting (watch Tangerine to see this style done right), but it nails that uncomfortable sense of humour that will have you squirming as much as laughing. 7.5/10

The Rezort

Release: N/A (US, UK)

The basic concept of Jurassic Park but with zombies has so much potential to be a fun-filled rollercoaster of a movie, but The Rezort takes itself far too seriously to be enjoyable. The initial set-up is well-handled and the world they’ve created feels tangible mainly thanks to some topical metaphors, but underneath it’s just another generic zombie movie filled with all the same clichéd situations and characters that are either bland or annoying. Fun in short bursts, but doesn’t go far enough to become a guilty pleasure classic. 5/10

Kids in Love

Release: 26 August (UK), N/A (US)

Trite and self-important coming-of-age tale that spouts generic pretentious wisdom as if it’s the first movie to ever come up with these concepts. The script is a slapdash of clichés with numerous dangling plot threads left unresolved, and the decent cast assembled are given nothing to do but party and be self-important dicks to each other. Will Poulter is one of the best young British actors working today, but here he comes across as a boring and unlikable moaner who we’re constantly told is cool but nothing he ever does backs that up. A film that is almost 50% just montages of young people hanging whilst trendy music plays in the background, Kids in Love often resembles a Gap or Budweiser commercial more than it does a feature film. 2.5/10

Holidays

Release: 22 April (US), N/A (UK)

Anthology films are always a mixed bag, because certain segments are bound to be better than others. Holidays is no different in its assemblage of festive-based horror stories. The stories range from darkly funny to quite disturbing, with Kevin Smith’s Halloween segment and Scott Stewart’s Christmas being the most fun, whilst Gary Shore’s St. Patrick’s Day tale and Nicholas McCarthy’s freaky Easter short are more likely to make you uncomfortable. Some of the stories feel a little underdeveloped and others only have tangential relation to their respective holiday, but they’re all at least interesting to watch. 6/10

Starring: Ellen DeGeneres (Finding Nemo), Albert Brooks (Drive), Ed O’Neill (Modern Family), Diane Keaton (Annie Hall), Eugene Levy (American Pie), Hayden Rolence, Kaitlin Olsen (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), Ty Burrell (Muppets Most Wanted), Idris Elba (Pacific Rim), Dominic West (Punisher War Zone)

Director: Andrew Stanton (WALL-E)

Writers: Andrew Stanton and Victoria Strouse

Runtime: 1 hour 37 minutes

Release Date: 17 June (US), 29 July (UK)

Finding Nemo remains one of the most beloved jewels in Pixar’s collection, telling a beautifully relatable story about a father and son whilst also mixing in all of the fun and humour the studio is known for. But of all their films, it doesn’t scream “sequel” like some of their others do (I’m still waiting, The Incredibles 2), so upon the announcement of Finding Dory I was very sceptical. Sure, the Toy Story sequels are both fantastic, but then there’s Cars 2 (need I say more?). But now that I’ve witnessed it for myself, I’m satisfied to say Finding Dory comfortably sits next to Monsters University in the category of “good, but not great”.

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The film’s opening 20 minutes is when my doubts began to rise, as the set-up does rely heavily on familiar characters and scenarios from the original. It all feels too safe and repetitive, but once the film gets past this and into the meat of the story it thankfully changes gear. Instead of the ocean-spanning adventure of this first, Finding Dory’s enclosed setting of a sea life sanctuary allows for a welcome change in story dynamic and puts our characters in fresh situations. The change in locale also changes up the film’s tone, feeling much lighter and more comedic than the more emotionally driven original. The film’s sense of humour is what keeps it entertaining throughout and it makes sense given the change of character focus, but that’s not to say that the film doesn’t have heart or strong themes at its core. Dealing with subjects like the unity of family and overcoming affliction, it doesn’t attempt to outdo its predecessor and instead focuses on trying to give its own unique but complimenting message. Even so, it’s not what I came out of the film really thinking about. I was having more fun just being with these characters again and seeing what situations they’d end up in next, and from that perspective it works perfectly well. However, I will say that even with all of the new elements, the story will be pretty predictable to anyone with a decent grasp on the tropes of kids’ movies; I simultaneously called two major plot beats well in advance, and I doubt I’m the only one that will. I don’t think it’s going to hamper anyone’s enjoyment of the film, but even as Finding Dory tries to do new things it does often still feel too easy.

Taking a supporting character, especially a comic relief character, and giving them their own movie almost never works out. Dory was a great character in Finding Nemo, bringing levity to a dire situation and acting as the optimistic figure that keeps Marlin going despite the odds. In most hands, a story centred on her would get grading fast, but the filmmakers have figured out how to make Dory a dramatically compelling character simply by flipping her defining trait. Instead of using her short-term memory loss purely for the sake of gags, they make it a dramatic obstacle that she has to overcome and a key part of her character journey. The film does this without sacrificing what made the character so lovable to begin with, and Ellen DeGeneres’ performance as Dory is just as adorable as ever but with some added dramatic weight to boot. Marlin and Nemo take a backseat this time around, and their evolved dynamic this time around reinvigorates what could have again been rehash territory. Yes, Marlin remains a bit overprotective and easily stressed, but that’s what defines him as a character; he’s certainly learnt his lesson from last time, but that doesn’t mean his personality has completely changed. What ultimately keeps the film fresh is its lovable set of new supporting characters that will no doubt become as memorable as those in the original (many of whom return also). Ed O’Neill as the beleaguered octopus Hank will certainly become a favourite, his spindly nature and ability to camouflage providing a lot of great physical humour. Kaitlin Olsen and Ty Burrell as a pair of problematic whales are a fun addition, and, whilst mostly inconsequential to the plot, Idris Elba and Dominic West as the seals are great fun when they’re there. Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy don’t get so much to do as Dory’s parents, mostly relegated to inspirational flashbacks for Dory herself, but these two know how to play the bickering but lovable old couple better than anyone.

Even to this day, Pixar’s vision of the ocean in Finding Nemo remains a breathtaking achievement in animation, perfectly replicating the way the underwater world looks and feels barring, you know, giving the fish human eyes for the sake of empathy. Finding Dory doesn’t spend nearly as much time in the open water, but the new setting of the sanctuary is well realised with unique designs for all the different areas. The quality of the animation is certainly improved with an impressive number of human and aquatic life on screen at once, and characters with unique movement like Hank showing how much computer technology has moved on in thirteen years. Thomas Newman returns as composer and, whilst not as instantly classic as his score for the original, the music is undoubtedly from the same mind as its predecessor.

Finding Dory certainly does not surpass the original, but it’s not really trying to because it knows it can’t. It wisely changes up its tone to fit its main character rather than trying to shove Dory into a box she doesn’t fit in. Is the film perhaps a bit safe and unambitious? Perhaps, but that certainly doesn’t mean Pixar haven’t tried, and I think they’ve made a solid movie that lives up to the studio’s calibre. Unless your expectations are ridiculously overblown, I think anyone who loves Finding Nemo are going to get a kick out of spending a little more time in this aquatic world.

FINAL VERDICT: 8/10

Starring: Patrick Wilson (Watchmen), Vera Farmiga (Source Code), Frances O’Connor (A.I.), Madison Wolfe (Joy), Simon McBurney (The Theory of Everything), Franka Potente (The Bourne Identity), Simon Delaney (Begin Again), Maria Doyle Kennedy (Orphan Black)

Director: James Wan (Insidious)

Writers: Carey Hayes & Chad Hayes (The Conjuring) & James Wan and David Leslie Johnson (Orphan)

Runtime: 2 hours 14 minutes

Release Date: 10 June (US), 13 June (UK)

Whether you believe in any of the “true” ghost stories or not, you can’t deny they can make for great chilling entertainment. The Conjuring in my opinion is one of the best horror movies in recent memory, revitalising the feel of the classic horror films of the 1970s but with the modern tricks film technology provides us. It wasn’t a wholly original film, but it did enough to subvert some tropes of the genre whilst simultaneously making all of the old tricks seem fresh with its pitch-perfect building of suspense. Topping that is a pretty difficult task and, whilst The Conjuring 2 doesn’t quite do that, it admirably matches its quality in every way.

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Structurally, the two films are very similar: after a mostly inconsequential cold open, a family is subjected to an increasingly haunting before the Warrens are brought in to investigate whilst also dealing with their own demons. It is a noticeable formula, but it feels far more like a solid foundation that a crutch for the story to fall back on. The film certainly goes bigger on the supernatural front, adding to the moving chairs and creaking floorboards with visions of horrific beings and floating bodies, which does bring the film further from reality that its predecessor but certainly adds to the intensity. Like the first, what ultimately makes the film work so well is the master handling of pacing and scares. Unlike most horror fare, The Conjuring 2 never relies on fake scares to keep tension high, making every moment you jump out of your seat genuine and earned. Instead of this, the film spends its quieter moments building character and weaving in emotional moments and even some levity; most horror films wouldn’t even think to break up the horror with a sweet scene of a main character crooning to Elvis Presley, but this one does. All building to an intense climax that is exciting as it is scary, The Conjuring 2 is yet another example of how effective horror can be when handled with skill rather apathy.

Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga made for a compelling pair of paranormal investigators as Ed and Lorraine Warren in The Conjuring, and in the sequel they continue to be so. Wilson manages to pull off the hard balance between being serious and assured yet light and likeable, and Farmiga again brings a lot of power to a character that could have easily been portrayed as a paranoid wreck. Their chemistry as a couple feels genuine and, like with the first, the development of their relationship aligns perfectly with the case at hand in a beautiful way. But also like the first, there is as much focus on the family in the haunted house as there is on the Warrens, and their performances certainly hold their weight when they aren’t around. The real discovery here is Madison Wolfe as the conduit of all these horrors Janet Hodgson, whose performance here mirrors that of Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist and would definitely hold up well against it. Whilst perhaps not as innately creepy as Blair, her genuine struggle with the despair of this situation makes her far more relatable. Frances O’Connor as the lonely matriarch of the family is equally strong, selling the horror of seeing your daughter float and speak in an old man’s voice whilst also being a strong mother trying to keep her family together. The rest of the cast is generally strong, but there are some exceptions. Sterling Jerins as the Warren daughter Judy doesn’t get much to do this time around and is pretty much just set dressing, and Franka Potente as the non-believer scientist only serves to annoy and hold back the plot. Sure, in real life she might be the saner one, but how often is the sceptic in a horror movie right? Yeah, I thought so.

Selling horror is all in the presentation, and The Conjuring 2 ranks amongst the best in doing that through its impeccable visuals and sound. The cinematography is beautifully eerie, making fantastic use of long takes, slow pans, dead space, and even being out-of-focus to build scares and suspense without a single creepy thing actually happening. The production design is equally brilliant in the way it captures to mood of both the 1970s and turns an otherwise bland British council house into something on par with any classic haunted mansion. The sound design and score perfectly accentuate the dread of the whole experience, shocking with loud shrieks but also building an underlying sense of fear through the slightest of creaks and moans. If nothing else, this is a movie that manages to make Christmas carols sound like the creepiest thing ever.

The Conjuring 2 is a more than worthy successor to its predecessor, not only standing up there with some of the best horror sequels of all time but also as one of the best horror movies of the decade. Everything you loved about the first film is as good as it was there if not better, and what it lacks from the original it makes up for with new elements that give the otherwise familiar set-up some new life. Too many horror franchises outstay their welcome fast, but this is a series that still has plenty of life in it and I’d be more than happy to sit through another chilling tale with the Warrens if offered the chance.

FINAL VERDICT: 8.5/10

Starring: Pete Ploszek (Teen Wolf), Noel Fisher (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part Two), Jeremy Howard (Galaxy Quest), Alan Ritchson (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire), Megan Fox (Transformers), Stephen Amell (Arrow), Will Arnett (The LEGO Movie), Brian Tee (The Wolverine), Tyler Perry (Gone Girl), Gary Anthony Williams (The Boondocks), Sheamus (The Escapist), Laura Linney (The Truman Show)

Director: Dave Green (Earth to Echo)

Writers: Josh Appelbaum & André Nemec (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol)

Runtime: 1 hour 52 minutes

Release Date: 30 May (UK), 3 June (US)

Can we please all drop the pretence and admit it: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a bloody stupid concept. It’s highly entertaining and a large part of nostalgic pop culture for many, but even its creators don’t take it nearly as seriously as some of its fans do. The original comics were made as a satire of Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil in the 1980s, and from there it unexpectedly exploded into a phenomenon that engulfed the western world for close to a decade. Its popularity has never waned not only thanks to recent reinventions of the franchise for a new generation, but because fans of the original have stayed vocal in the geek community. With all that said, that doesn’t excuse how much of a disservice 2014’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was to the franchise. It was a mess of a film with an indecisive tone, a series of baffling changes to the series mythology that only made it stupider, a story that forced in unneeded tropes like heroic destiny, and a focus on the lame and miscast human characters rather than the heroes in a half-shell the audience paid to see. But for all its faults, the Turtles themselves were decently realized as characters and the action was at least entertaining from a mindless point-of-view, showing there was at least some potential for the movie to plausibly work. It was just about successful enough to warrant a sequel, but if the fans are to be won over the filmmakers are going to have to knuckle down and finally give them what they want. And with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, I think they’ve done just about as good a job as they could.

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What really sunk the first film is that it couldn’t quite decide if it wanted to be a grounded reinterpretation of the property or just a goofy summer blockbuster, in the process making a film too self-serious to enjoy but also too juvenile to have respect for. All TMNT fans have ever really wanted is a straight-up live action adaptation of the 80s cartoon, and that pretty much is exactly what Out of the Shadows is with everything good and bad that comes with that. Any attempt at being something deeper has been thrown out of the window in favour of finally embracing the ridiculous nature of the source material, and with that one simple but key decision everything else falls into place. Yes, the plot is a simple fetch quest that could have easily been pulled from any number of episodes of the cartoon, but that’s what it’s trying to do. Yes, the science makes absolutely no sense and concepts like dimensional gateways and brain monsters controlling mechs are completely at odds with much of the rest of the movie, but compared to the insanity of other parts of the TMNT world it’s practically restrained. It also makes the smart decision of not dwelling too much on the mistakes of the past; the Turtles’ botched origin isn’t mentioned beyond a quick throwaway line, William Fichtner’s character doesn’t even get acknowledged, and the creepy way Michelangelo and Will Arnett’s Vern would ogle April (Megan Fox) is incredibly downplayed. There’s a real sense that the filmmakers have actually listened to fan complaints and tried to rectify them as best they can. Not every mistake can be fixed since it still has to serve as a sequel and many problems are deep within that first film’s DNA, but as a post-mortem clean-up job I think they’ve done admirably in delivering all fans really wanted: a fun adventure with the Turtles that embraces everything they love without the need to be ironic or ashamed.

Unlike last time where our title heroes took backseat to April and Vern, the Turtles are unquestionable the main characters in their own movie here. The film starts and ends with them, they have an important impact on the plot beyond being living MacGuffins, and they even have understandable internal conflicts and emotional growth drawn from their distinct personalities. Sure, their development isn’t much more involved than learning to accept themselves and their place in the world, but even something simple like that is enough to allow the audience to better invest in these characters. The human characters are now where they belong as supporting players and, though still not especially compelling, at least they don’t eat up half the runtime. Megan Fox is still incredibly out of her depth as April O’Neill and Will Arnett can be obnoxious as Vern Fenwick, but in their new positions they fit more comfortably into the movie and don’t distract from what we can to see.

On the new character front, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Stephen Amell may be a decent enough actor, but as Casey Jones he feels incredibly miscast. He certainly has the physique for the role and Amell at least looks like he’s at least enjoying himself, but simply lacks the laid-back charisma the character calls for; take the exact same script and give it to someone like Chris Pratt, and you’d have a more faithful representation of the character. Laura Linney frankly feels wasted as the generic police captain who turns from bitter and stern to supportive and trustworthy after one inspirational speech, and whilst Brian Tee’s interpretation of the Shredder is certainly a lot closer in spirit to the original character he’s constantly sidelined by the other villains in the movie; he never even gets involved in a major action sequence and is relegated to barking orders. Luckily, Shredder’s lack of presence is at least made up for by the many other villains in the movie, who are all not only far better than the pitiful excuse for villains last time but outrageously so. Bebop & Rocksteady are easily the most fan-requested characters to appear in a TMNT movie, and here they are given justice with lots of screen time and two major action sequences revolving around them; their dumb but happy-go-lucky personalities serving as a very apt metaphor for the film’s mentality. In a similar vein, Krang is finally given the big screen treatment and not much is sacrificed in the translation, complete with an enormous mech to fight the Turtles with and a certain “technological dome” at his disposal. He’s not in the film as much as many would like, but he’s great whilst he’s there and there’s certainly plenty of possibility for him to do more in future instalments. And, whilst I may be embarrassed to say it, I thoroughly enjoyed Tyler Perry as Baxter Stockman. He may be playing the stereotypical nerdy scientist complete with big glasses and bowtie, but he’s clearly aware of what kind of movie he’s in and is having so much fun hamming it up that it becomes infectious.

If there’s one thing I will say in the first movie’s favour, it’s that the action scenes were a lot better done there. Jonathan Liebsman may be a thoroughly bland director, but he at least had experience in directing action, whilst Dave Green is a relative newcomer with only a few shorts and a found footage movie under his belt. The action here is by no means incompetent or unoriginal, but it lacks the ferocity and visceral impact the first film had, mainly because it relies less on martial arts and more on causing mayhem. Fitting in with the lighter tone, the film’s look is significantly brighter with highly saturated colours and a far more outlandish approach to production design and visual effects. Not only does the CGI on the Turtles look more seamless but their designs have been noticeably streamlined to be a teeny bit closer to their classic look, thankfully looking less like roided-out Shreks this time. Similarly, Bebop & Rocksteady and Krang have both received updates to their appearance but are still instantly recognisable as those characters, proving they aren’t impossible to realise on screen and providing hope even more of the wackier side characters from TMNT lore could make the jump to the big screen. Honestly, at this point, introducing Ace Duck wouldn’t be too much of a left turn.

I was on the fence for the entire movie about whether Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows was a genuinely enjoyable dumb movie or just better in comparison to the lacklustre previous film…and then the end credits happened. I won’t say much more, but the moment they kicked in I not only grinned like a seven-year-old but I felt affirmed in my opinion on the film. Is this film ridiculous and stupid? Yes, but it’s clearly meant to be. Will people who don’t care about the franchise enjoy it? Probably not, but it’s certainly not made for them. Judged just like any other movie, this is garish disposable nonsense, but doing so would be snobbish and ignorant. This is a movie that looks at how crazy the source material is, sees how rabid the fan base is for it to be unleashed in all its insanity, and actually has the guts to say “F*ck it! Give them what they want!” without an ounce of shame. It is most certainly junk food cinema, but not the kind you immediately regret after consuming. This is the kind of absurd escapist movie experience that is enjoyable and even healthy in small doses, but it would be advisable to balance it out with something a little healthier on the brain. If you’re not at all invested in Ninja Turtles, you can easily knock a few points off my score. But if you grew up with even an ounce of these characters in your life, and you’re willing to admit to yourself that the franchise is inherently ridiculous, I suggest you at least give this movie a chance. Is this the perfect Ninja Turtles movie? No, but there is no such thing in existence. Perhaps barring the original 1990 film version, I’d say this is the best realisation of the franchise in cinema history, especially taking into consideration it’s a sequel to arguably the worst realisation of the franchise in cinema history. For that, I think this movie at least deserves a hearty proclamation of the Turtles’ immortal words: COWABUNGA!!!

FINAL VERDICT: 7/10

Starring: Travis Fimmel (Vikings), Paula Patton (2 Guns), Ben Foster (Lone Survivor), Dominic Cooper (The Devil’s Double), Toby Kebbell (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), Ben Schnetzer (Pride), Rob Kazinsky (Pacific Rim), Clancy Brown (Highlander), Daniel Wu (The Man with the Iron Fists), Ruth Negga (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.)

Director: Duncan Jones (Moon)

Writers: Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond) and Duncan Jones

Runtime: 2 hours 3 minutes

Release Date: 30 May (UK), 10 June (US)

Warcraft is a film that has a lot riding on it in the video game community, for it has long been the project eyed as the one that might finally break the video game movie curse. It’s got its creators Blizzard Entertainment supporting it, a wonderfully talented director and massive fan of the property in Duncan Jones, and a budget that is more than ample enough to bring the world of Azeroth to life in an accurate and fantastic manner. All it now has to do is have a well-told story and strong characters…and that’s unfortunately where Warcraft hasn’t quite nailed it.

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From a basic story perspective, Warcraft is a solid fantasy adventure that relies on tropes of the genre but also puts some unique spins on those elements to create something fresh. Most importantly, it eschews the traditional good vs. evil conflict and adds dimensions to both sides of the conflict between the Alliance and the Horde. It shows that our heroes can be prejudiced and susceptible to corruption, and that our supposed villains can value friendship and honour. In a similar vein, neither side feels like they dominate the other; victory and tragedy occurs on both sides, and by the conclusion there is no finite victory. It’s not quite Game of Thrones levels of complex, but it does genuinely keep you on your toes about which side will win and leaves plenty of interesting avenues to explore in potential sequels. Regrettably, however, a lot of the execution feels fumbled. The story’s pacing is far too fast, especially in the first act as it rushes the audience into the plot without much introduction to key characters and elements of the mythos. Once the film settles in and the story begins to ramp up, it does begin to flow a lot more smoothly, but the hasty introduction makes it hard to be invested earlier on. It does feel like a lot was cut out to make for a breezier runtime, but in the process it’s made the story feel sloppy and overstuffed. The tone of the film is also somewhat inconsistent; at some points it embraces the sillier elements of the lore through comedic asides or references to the game, but at others it takes everything desperately serious in spite of the ridiculousness of the situation.

Having said that, the real stumbling block for Warcraft is in its desperate lack of character. Many of the main characters, especially those on the Alliance side, don’t get much personality or development, too often motivated by the necessities of the plot rather than their natural motivations. Travis Fimmel’s Lothar suffers from this the most, being introduced suddenly with little fanfare despite ostensibly being the main character and his only reason for fighting being a bland son he only shares a handful of lines with. There’s a lot of great potential for a complex character in him, but it feels like they haven’t gone much deeper than you’d see on a brief character summation. This wasted promise is similarly felt in Ben Foster’s conflicted guardian Medivh and Ben Schnetzer’s inexperienced mage Khadgar, who are also too thinly drawn to become invested in their characters. Because of this, there are some big moments in the story that fall flat or don’t impact quite the way they should. It wants us to care about the fates and relationships of these characters, but it simply hasn’t set them up well enough for the audience to do so. In an odd switch to the norm, the Horde characters are far more fleshed out and compelling to watch, especially in the conflicts of loyalty displayed by Toby Kebbell’s Durotan and Paula Patton’s Garona. Motivated by his devotion to his wife and newborn son, along with a strong friendship with fellow orc Ogrim (Rob Kazinksy), Durotan possess everything that all of the characters in Warcraft should have by default. Garona is similarly fascinating as the bridge between the two sides, with all including her unsure of where her alliances fall, and the way her story plays out makes for a tragic character with fantastic promise in further stories.

If nothing else, Warcraft easily takes the title of most accurate visual translation from video game to motion picture. Though I’m not a huge fan of the franchise, the iconography on display from certain sets, creatures, props and costumes feel ripped right out of any of the games, and though many look garish and impractical on first glance they quickly become just another part of the outlandish grandeur of the production. The visual effects are also impressive and look spectacular in motion, even if the orcs never look 100% realistic. There are times when the movie just looks like a cinematic from the games when there’s nothing but CGI characters on screen, but when paired with massive armour and humongous swords of the Alliance characters it all surprisingly melds together. Top it all off with some beautifully sweeping cinematography (that sometimes even mimics the camera of the classic Warcraft games) and a suitably epic score from Ramin Djawadi, and you’ve got a film that certainly looks and sounds epic even when it doesn’t quite feel epic.

Sadly, Warcraft isn’t going to be the film that becomes the blueprint for video game movies moving forward, but it is at least a solid step towards that eventuality. As a translation of the source material, it has all of the elements it needs to be a genuinely great film but it still hasn’t quite grasped that key component: audience investment, and how that differs between the two mediums. In a video game, investment becomes easier because we are in control of far more of the action; we bring far more of our own personality into the experience. But in a film, it’s up to the filmmakers to craft the journey and, through careful manipulation of emotion, make us care about events on screen we have no control over. As much as Warcraft has tried to create a richly detailed world and complex characters to inhabit it, it hasn’t quite done enough to make a passive audience emotionally connect with it. When a video game film can finally grasp that, then we might have finally reached zenith we’ve been waiting for. Regardless of its final quality, I will make this final statement: if you want to see more good video game movies, please go see Warcraft for no other reason than to support an honourable effort and show Hollywood that they are a viable commodity. If you don’t, its failure will be written off as another example that “video game movies don’t work” and we’ll never get anywhere. They haven’t nailed the formula yet, but they are damn close. We just need to give them a few more chances.

FINAL VERDICT: 6.5/10