Assorted Thoughts of a Salted Caramel...
The Amazing Spider-Man 2

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    If only the title referred to the film and not just the character…

I would normally devote a great deal of time, effort and thought mulling the plus and not-so-plus points of a major summer blockbuster, but The Amazing Spider-Man sequel is so very much like the first outing in 2012 that I really can’t spare the time (particularly not with a broken hand and a subsequently much reduced typing speed). 

Suffice to say the best thing about the rebooted franchise remains the sparky chemistry between Andrew Garfield’s cocksure Spider-Man and the always delightful Emma Stone, reprising her role as Gwen Stacey. On the other side of law and order, Jamie Foxx (shock ‘n’ bore villain Electro) and Dane DeHaan (spoiled brat and erstwhile Green Goblin Harry Osborn) make do and mend with superficial characters. 

By the book action sequences, super villains fleshed out with all the care and nuance of a stick man sketch and the sort of ludicrous plot twists that would have been trashed had they shown up in the previous trilogy (Peter Parker’s father had a secret lair? A LAIR?!?!) mean that the only memorable moment of the film occurs near the end. While it packs a leftfield emotional wallop, it left me feeling bereft - not something I’m looking for from my popcorn movies as a general rule - and increasingly disinclined to bother with the third installment. 

Bring back Alfred Molina as Doc Ock and I might reconsider - until then, I can only hope that Garfield and Stone get to bring their sizzling chemistry to a movie more deserving of his cocksure charm and her retro brand of modern day moxie.

How To Train Your Dragon 2

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                       Hiccup gets his PhD in dragon training…

Proving that bigger isn’t necessarily better, the sequel to 2010’s animated sleeper hit swooped into town a few weeks early thanks to the cine-drought caused by the World Cup (which, as entertaining and dramatic as it’s been, is no substitute for the season’s usual blockbuster fare). 

Thanks to the lack of loose ends from the first film (Dragon trained? Check Personal growth? Check. Got the girl? Check…),  HTTYD2 opts to reset the environment. Hiccup is now a strapping 20 year old (you can tell by the animated designer stubble speckling his measurably squarer jawline albeit still possessed of Jay Baruchel’s charmingly squeaky vocals) and the formerly dragon fearing town of Berk is now a haven for the flying beasties. 

Cue: Drago (an impressively fearsome performance by Djimon Hounsou, although it’s a shame that the only ethnic minority in the village is a psychotic dragon hunter), a mysterious dragon rider intent on destroying or enslaving all dragons.

What follows is a mish mash of more personal growth as Hiccup shies away from his future as Berk’s next Chieftain and makes some improbable discoveries about his past together with an epic battle that starts to feel a little like the result of a brainstorming session aimed at dreaming up as many cool dragons as possible. 

Not that there’s anything much wrong with that - and to be fair, the film potters along nicely if somewhat aimlessly for an hour or so. The real flaw concerns a Significant Event that occurs about 20 minutes from the end of the movie. Despite being a life altering moment that proves vital to Hiccup and Berk it’s quickly and conveniently brushed under the carpet as the film canters to a close. 

Is that too much of a criticism for what is, after all, ‘just a kid’s film’? Personally, I would say not - just because it’s nominally aimed at children, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be well-crafted and consistent. 

But if you’re after a one off romp that, unlike its predecessor doesn’t linger much longer than the credits, then Dragon 2 will be right up your street. 

And I still really want my own Night Fury. 

The Nut Job

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                                       No nuts, no bore-y.

I went to see this in order to cheer myself (ok and yeah - because I like cartoons despite being far too freakishly old for them). Unfortunately, The Nut Job is so dull that the best thing about it is the Gangnam style shape throwing over the credits featuring an animated Psy as well as the full cast (an act of seeming randomness until the credits reveal that it was (co)produced in South Korea.

The plot (a marginally redemptive storyline involving Will Arnett’s scoundrel squirrel reluctantly agreeing to help save the collected critters in the local park by pulling off a daring heist at a local nut retailer) is almost instantly derailed thanks to a tedious and broadly unnecessary human interaction with a bunch of scheming bank robbers. The resulting sub-plot goes nowhere for 70 minutes before becoming a clunkily essential part of the haywire denouement.

Quite apart from the story, the animation is - jerky and at times barely above the quality of a weekly budget ‘toon being churned out by Nickleodeon - at times unforgivably poor. The voicework is passable, with Brendan Fraser infusing his delusional alpha squirrel the most gusto, but the script is so dire it’s difficult to tell half the time, and the other half I just spent wishing the cast of pathologically unlikable creatures (with the exception of Maya Rudolph’s ridiculous pug) would end up as roadkill. 

Tedious with a wafer thin plot, stretched even thinner by the excessive seeming 85 minute run time, if you want a wild-critters-fending-for-themselves-over-the-winter movie, go back a few years and check out the vastly superior Over The Hedge. But should you be desperately seeking a deliberately annoying cure for insomnia - this is your film.

The Internship

                                   Google for Dummies

Out of a job in a digital economy that laughs in the face of interpersonal skills, newly unemployed salesmen Nick (Owen Wilson) and Billy (Vince Vaughn) blag their way into a Google internship for which they are comically (and I use the word advisedly) ill-prepared.

Not quite as mindnumbingly stupid or painful to watch as the original reviews (and trailers) implied, The Internship is actually a sweet film, one that should bring a little succour to those of us with socks older than the average Google employee. 

Sadly the film is infested with narratively essential but utterly implausible flaws, not least the willful ignorance of its two leads, with references to putting things ‘on the line’ and an apparent inability to use (or own) a computer, smartphone or anything made after 1998, including Google itself. And it’s a shame they don’t make more use of the host of comic talent orbiting the fringes of the movie.

Still, even if Vaughn and Wilson don’t quite bring the chemistry (or the acerbic smarts) from some of their previous collaborations, they do manage to reheat the same old schtick with warmth and a slacker charm alongside their adorkably fresh faced co-stars. Harmless, feelgood fun…if you can pretend you’ve never used Google before.

Guardians of the Galaxy

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                                           Marvel-ous

Proving without a doubt that Marvel do their best work when putting themselves out on a dangerously twiggy limb without a safety net, Guardians of the Galaxy has made one hell of an entrance.

I was prepared for it to be little more than a curio. With Marvel’s standard teaser trailers revealing some out of context attempts at humour and little in the way of storyline I’d already made my peace with the possibility that this would be Marvel’s first, well-meaning misstep. 

On paper, it’s a potentially epic fail. A largely unknown property that straddles the no man’s land between comic book fantasy and space opera, populated by a cast of not exactly household names and fronted by the chubby guy from cult (i.e. beloved but little seen) mockumentary Parks and Rec, its ragtag band of initially charmless felons (including a talking tree with a 3 word vocabulary, a double crossing thief and a trigger happy raccoon) is charged with saving a galaxy from a mystical MacGuffin. 

Instead, like the Jon Favreau’s Iron-Man and Joss Whedon’s Avengers, James Gunn’s Guardians is - in defiance of all logic and expectation - a beautifully bonkers triumph. 

Like the best comic book movies, it downright revels in the flaws of its heroes from the monosyllabic Groot (surely the easiest paycheck Vin Diesel has ever earned) to the narcissistic self regard of roguish leader Peter Quill aka Star Lord aka the newly buff Chris Pratt. It’s also laced with Marvel’s trademark tongue-in-cheek humour which, as ever, extends to the slickly conceived comic book violence (watch Groot take out…pretty much anyone).

If anything, between the wisecracking Quill and Rocky Raccoon (Bradley Cooper in possibly a career best turn - and yes, I have seen Silver Linings Playbook) and the beatific Groot, Zoe Saldana’s Gamora and Dave Bautista’s homicidal Drax do come across as marginally less interesting.

But faced with the challenge of introducing an entirely new galaxy to an entirely new audience in 121 all too brief minutes, Guardians breathes heart and soul into its cornucopia of heroic freaks with cunning efficiency while still finding time for hordes of cameos (not least the end credits, which features the most unlikely comeback of all time). 

Confronted by near omnipotent villains (Liverpudlian Lee Pace doing a storming job as an interstellar terrorist), and infused with an almost childlike nostalgia (aided and abetted by the gleefully retro soundtrack - on a mixtape no less!) it’s little wonder that whispered comparisons with Star Wars can already be heard. 

I count myself among those mildly alarmed by the departure of Ed Wright from the upcoming Ant-Man, but between Guardians and The Winter Soldier, my wavering faith has been sufficiently bouyed. I may not have a clue what Marvel are up to, but as long as they do who am I to argue with these comic savants when they’re capable of such cinematic alchemy?

Drinking Buddies

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                                              Small beer

A meandering wisp of a movie, Drinking Buddies is a snapshot in the lives of Kate (a fresh faced Olivia Wilde) and Luke (New Girl’s Jake Johnson) and out on the periphery, their other halves Jill (Anna Kendrick) and Chris (Ron Livingston).

Coming in at a slender 87 minutes, with likable leads and an uncomplicated feel, I wanted to enjoy this more than I eventually did. Its length means it’s not quite a character piece and its lack of destination means it doesn’t quite tick the mainstream movie checkboxes. As a result, it’s adrift in the hinterland, dependent on Wilde and Johnson’s earthily unrequited performances. It was all going rather well until the final few minutes, which aim for provocatively inconclusive, but end up feeling like the film has prematurely ground to a halt thanks to some misguided editing. 

It’s an interesting enough showcase for writer-director Joe Swanberg, but overall, isn’t worth more than a ‘could do better’.

Transformers: Age Of Extinction

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              Robots in disguise - as something really boring…

Michael Bay has returned to a rebooted (Shia LeBeouf and Megan Fox-less) Transformers universe in which, betrayed by humankind, the Autobots are being hunted down in the name of human security by a rampantly out of control CIA (spot the post-9/11 metaphor anyone?). 

Critics may hate it, but audiences apparently love it. Me? I was thoroughly bored by it, an admission that pains me greatly as a long time defender of Michael Bay’s shrill, shallow but oh-so-shamefully-enjoyable guys ‘n’ guns approach to blockbuster movie making.

Sadly, whatever dark arts Bay perfected as a music video director, Transformers 4 is proof that he is now incapable of telling a story over the course 165 butt-numbing minutes, let alone a single song. It’s also a terrifying glimpse at the future of blockbusters with barely comprehensible direlogue (“My face is my warrant!”) and the kind of delirious location hopping that can only be driven by global box office aspiration rather than anything approaching a logical plot (Exhibit A: would the US really allow a top secret military project to be re-located to China? Really?). 

In some ways, it’s the perfect global blockbuster - solidly marketable lead (notwithstanding his $16m paycheck for T4, Mark Wahlberg remains a bargain basement action hero); blandly attractive teenage sidekicks, character actors doling out more ham than an Iberian pig farm as the villains and scene after scene of wordless, wanton action. 

I love summer blockbusters, and will cut them more slack than most films. I will happily admit for example that Kelsey Grammar’s psychotically patriotic CIA agent is by far the best thing about this movie, closely followed by Stanley Tucci’s barely-a-character Steve-Jobs-alike tech entrepreneur. I could even have looked beyond the unintelligble plotting, the largely slipshod voicework and the inexplicably bad Irish accent being toted by bargain basement Jesse Spencer Jack Raynor (inexplicable because he was brought up in Irelandfor crying out loud).

But T4 has positioned itself firmly beyond the pale by failing to deliver the one thing I expect - nay, demand - from such movies by utterly, utterly failing to deliver something I haven’t seen before.

For every titanic clash, there’s a sense of been there, seen that - the addition of samurai swords and dinobots fails to improve on the inspired destruction on display in T3’s Battle of Chicago. Everything looks interminably familiar, if not from a previous Transformers movie (hello again, Chicago), then plucked - sorry, ripped off - from any number of other, better movies, from Jurassic Park’s iconic T-Rex to Man of Steel's cataclysmic terraforming scenes (not to mention its soundtrack). When even the sight of Optimus Prime astride a freakin' Dinobot can barely stir the soul, it is clear that Bay has delivered the most epic of fails.

Dull, predictable, annoying, incoherent and unforgivably long - oh avid cinemagoer, look upon thy fate and tremble…

The Three Musketeers (2011)

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                                           SteamPunk’d

2011’s misbegotten re-imagining of Alexandre Dumas’ classic tale of intrigue, espionage and musketeering is (perhaps unfortunately) not quite as bad as its critical mauling would imply.

Still - it isn’t good. I’ve got no problem with yet another adaptation. I don’t even mind the slightly desperate attempt to freshen up the 17th century shenanigans as the scheming Cardinal Richlieu attempts to dethrone the King by injecting a healthy dose of steampunk. I do, however, deplore the creation of yet another a movie made by Paul WS Anderson, a man whose continued employment on anything other than the Resident Evil franchise can only be explained by the fact that he still gets mistaken for the other Paul Anderson

The fight choreography is distressingly bad (if you can’t make a battle between two airships interesting, you really should consider a different career path - actuarial science perhaps?), while the acting is merely a reflection of pitiful dialogue. Orlando Bloom at least earns his paycheck, hamming his way through every scene, but Mathew Macfadyen in particular looks at best bored, but more likely downright upset to be there. Even Mads Mikkelsen and Christoph Waltz purring malevolently through their scenes fails to inject any real gusto.

Annoyingly, there are glimpses of a stupid but fun movie in there. With a different director, a better script, a little less ham and a lot more action (yeah, ok, so almost an entirely different movie), TTM 2011 could have been brainless, but rollicking good fun. 

Sadly it wasn’t, a point underlined by the laughably optimistic, sequel-baiting final scene, which Anderson didn’t even have the nous or humility to hide mid-credits. I suppose I should just be grateful they did junk the follow-up…

X-Men: Days Of Future Past

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                                   Back to the future?

Another year, another superhero sequel. Based - very loosely - on the 1981 storyline of the same name, thanks to some misguided vigilantism on the part of a now thoroughly badass Mystique in the 70s, the future is a burnt out shell, dominated by ruthless Sentinels bent on destroying mutants and anyone who helps them. The only hope for the X-Men and humankind is some mindbending time tampering by Wolverine. 

DOFP packs the most wallop when its First Class cast are hotfooting around in the 70s - a groovily understated rendering that makes the film’s burned out future look like a generic apocalypse-by-numbers. Sadly, the sequel isn’t quite as funny as its predecessor, but there are some decent action scenes. The absolute standout - and worth the ticket price alone - is Quicksilver’s franchise debut (American Horror Story’s Peter Evans breathing cocksure life into the teenage incarnation) which peaks during a sensational jailbreak sequence.

Sadly the rest of the film never quite hits those heights again. While there’s a trainspotterish enjoyment to be had from identifying fan favourites and the actors playing them, cramming that many X-Men into a single film means that pretty much everyone is, to varying degrees, marginalised to cameos and action sequences (Colossus, Blink and Bishop are among the most significant victims of this). Even the core First Class cast struggle to make an impression outside of their key set piece scenes.

Somewhat controversially (multiverses being more of a DC thing) DOFP takes the opportunity to wipe the franchise’s movie slate clean. If nothing else, it’ll be interesting to see how that pans out should the powers that be decide to make another stand alone present day X-Men movie.

Visually appealing and inventive in places, DOFP fails to make much of an impression outside Quiksilver’s blistering turn, eventually stumbling towards a denouement that, in part due to some unfortunate editing, fails to capitalise on the drama of events unfolding in two different timelines.

But most of all, like most time travel movies, success ultimately relies on being emotionally invested enough with one or two characters to want to see a ‘bad’ timeline undone (it’s why the Back To The Future films work so well - who doesn’t want to see Marty McFly put bully Biff Tannen back in his sad, little place?). I love Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, but unfortunately a bloated cast and an absence of drama mean that undoing the events of five other movies (at least two of which I like a heck of a lot more than this one) left behind an unsatisfyingly hollow feeling. 

The over-the-credits teaser hints at more time travelling shenanigans but following this year’s strangely unexceptional offering, I await 2016’s sequel with a little less enthusiasm than before. 

Chef

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                                     (Gastro) porn star

An easy going road movie, Chef is to the summer blockbuster schedule what salt is to caramel - unexpected, but all the better for it. Thanks to the devastation wrought by the World Cup (which has, like a fat kid at the buffet, left nothing but a few unsatisfactory crumbs for those of us not riveted by the prospect of Belgium vs. Algeria) to the usual parade of popcorn movies, Chef has managed to sneak quietly into a cineplex near you.  

Part travelogue, part father-son bonding session, Chef never pretends to be complex or challenging. It’s a charming, sweet movie with a luscious line in gastro porn (I now know what a darkened room full of people salivating over a grilled cheese sandwich sounds like…) whose only challenge is whether the movie’s women (Sofia Vergara and Scar-Jo amping up the va-va-voom) or food is more appealing.

The plot, with all the substance of a poached meringue, sees chef Carl Casper (writer-director Jon Favreau in the leading role) going on a road trip in a food truck to rediscover his mojo (not to be confused with his mojo) and bond with his 10 year old son (the charming Emjay Anthony) ably supported by his motor-mouthed Man Friday (John Leguizimo) following a very public face off with a powerful food critic.

What follows is an artisanal marshmallow of a movie - some will find it cloying, but most will enjoy it for the lovingly made treat that it is. If you don’t leave the cinema with a spring in your step, a song in your -heart and a deep-sated craving for a fresh cubano sandwich, then frankly, I can only conclude that you’ve recently had your joy glands removed.