Review: Man From U.N.C.L.E.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was a TV series that ran in the 60s, and focused on two secret agents, Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, who work to keep the balance of power stable during the height of the cold war.  It was known and loved for the style and humour (although the later episodes erred too far toward camp farce at times as the late 60s influences took hold).  A film adaptation has been bandied around for a while now, until it landed in the lap of Guy Ritchie, who drew up his vision for the film and got the greenlight.  The film is set before the formation of U.N.C.L.E and sees CIA operative Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) assigned to team up to prevent a terror plot involving nuclear weapons.  The pair, having already met as opponents in the film’s opening act, have a rocky relationship, but must learn to work together to prevent world disaster.

One of the most refreshing things about this reboot of an old franchise is that it keeps to the setting of the original, and doesn’t try to become modernised.  Unlike the Mission Impossible films, or the A-Team film, Man From U.N.C.L.E embraces the 60s aesthetic with aplomb.  The clothes are sixties chic, the music is packed with the flavour of the era, and the locations are as well chosen as any seen in Conner era Bond films.  Guy Ritchie brings a little of his own style to the direction, with some such as split screen action feeling perfectly suited to the settings, but other moments are a muddle of confusing cuts with none of the fluidity of action direction that we saw in the recent Sherlock Holmes films.  The directors shtick of retelling key moments from different viewpoints, each time telling us something extra to eventually piece the facts together is put to good use here, and generally the film is a solid update of the old material.


The name's Solo....Napoleon Solo.

However, there is something missing.  The generic plot does the trick for starting the potential franchise off, but the leads take too long to settle into their roles, and a lot of their interaction feels flat.  Support cast do a lot better in their roles, from Hugh Grant and Jared Harris as agency bosses, but most importantly Alicia Vikander as Gabby, the only lead the agents have on the assignment, who adds glamour and charm to the film, as well as being the glue that keeps the two agents together.  The wit is handled well enough, but sometimes misses the mark, and feels a little forced.

As far as origin tales go, the film does a lot better than many other franchises manage, and entertains enough even if it won’t leave any lasting impression. The biggest problem is that in an era dominated by some of the best spy films (Bond, Mission Impossible, and Bourne), U.N.C.L.E. just doesn’t quite stand out enough.  By the end of the film, however, the seeds are sown for future films in the franchise to run, and I’d be interested to see more. 


Review: Inside Out

Pixar have, over the past couple of decades, crafted films which have toyed with our emotions.  Their mastery of the emotional impact of strong storytelling is generally spot on.  Heck, they even managed to tap into our anger with Cars 2 (seriously, it wound me up watching that mess unfold).  But their latest film not only plays with our emotions, it literally plays with emotions.

Inside Out is all about the little emotions that live inside each of us, and control and guide us through all of our life’s decisions.  The film starts as a newborn baby girl, Riley, starts off with one emotion, Joy ,voiced by Amy Poehler), who is quickly joined by Sadness (Phyllis Smith), and over time Disgust, Fear, and Anger join them in the headquarters which control the mind.  All goes well through the years of the life, with key memories the team help craft helping build essential zones of personality, whilst other memories are stored in the bank for retrieval when required.  However, when the Riley is 11, her family are uprooted when the father gets a new job, and the balance of emotions begins to go wrong.  Sadness, whom Joy has managed to keep sidelined for years, suddenly starts affecting past memories, turning anything she touches blue.  An attempt to stop her from damaging some key memories sees Joy and Sadness ejected from headquarters, and wandering in the memory banks.  Without them there, the other emotions can’t prevent disaster, and aspects of the personality begin to fall apart.

Animation wise, we know what to expect from the team at Pixar, and once again they deliver. From the design of the emotions themselves, to the surreal nature of the internal memory stores, the film looks great. Story wise, the film is a bit weak, but at the same time extremely clever in the way it plays. Effectively the ‘ejected but need to get back to prevent disaster’ aspect of Joy and Sadness’ story is extremely formulaic, and nothing that we haven’t seen done hundreds of times before in a variety of films. As is the ‘two diametrically opposing personalities, where one puts the other down, must come to realise that both are equal in order to survive’. However, the genius comes in how this generic formula affects the other elements of the film, namely Riley herself. Anyone who has kids, and who has made life changes which affected them, will recognise the sulking, and shutting down of the personality whilst the child adjusts to the new environment, and this is what works so well in the film. Without Joy and Sadness, Riley strikes out as Anger tries to take control, shows her hatred of the move (Disgust), and feels nervous in the new surroundings (Fear), all in a very realistic way that many people will be able to relate to. As the film progresses, Riley’s journey becomes the genuinely emotional aspect of the film, and suffice to say this is another Pixar film that will bring tears out in even the sternest of folks.

Small additional moments show us the same emotions in control of others, such as her parents, and cleverly highlight how a child’s emotions aren’t very co-ordinated, with one emotion (in Riley’s case, Joy) taking control of the others, but adult emotions work together equally. An end credit sequence hilariously demonstrates a variety of characters and their emotions, and should ensure that you leave the screen with a huge smile on your face.

Inside Out is a great example of Pixar at their creative best, and highlights that the team work so much better when dealing with original ideas rather than the slew of sequels they have churned out in recent times (and in coming years as recent announcements have added Incredibles 2, Toy Story 4, and for some unknown reason another Cars film to their slate). An emotional film about emotions is just the right kind of crazy idea for the studio to make work.


Review: Fantastic Four (2015)


Given the much maligned production from day one on this project, with the collective Internet and press moaning about pretty much every aspect of the production from casting, director, and stories of on set troubles, it is no shock at the response to it. The knives were out even before any screening of the film was run, and it’s pretty safe to say a few critics at least went in with the desire to tear the film to shreds. However, even within the wave of bad reviews, some of the poor reviews did touch on some glimmers of hope within the film, rather than just ripping the whole film to shreds in an attempt to gain some clicks and likes.

But is the film really as bad as the low score of Rotten Tomatoes suggests?  Well, let me set off by mentioning tat I have been a fan of the Fantastic Four since childhood – it was the first Marvel comic book I read, and I have collected it ever since I was 7.  The cosmic adventures of the team have thrilled me and excited me through the decades.  I have laughed, cried, and had my heart broken at their personal lives, whilst embraced the dimension hopping, time travelling, micro-verse exploring elements of even their most crazy of stories.  The love I have for the Four left me with mixed emotions on the Tim Story directed films – the banter and playful nature was there, but the film lacked something to make it really work.  I have been intrigued about the new film, having enjoyed Chronicle, and am accepting of the ‘Ultimate’ approach the film is taking.  So, as a fan, did it pay off?

The answer is no, it didn’t. But not to the negative degree that the consensus would suggest.

First things first, this is the Ultimate Fantastic Four version, with a young team building a dimension gate, and their experiences through it result in changes to their genetics to grant them powers. In addition Victor Von Doom, a young scientist from Latveria (not Domishev the hacker as was erroneously reported early into production) works with the team on the project and undergoes changes himself. We’ve seen this origin before, only last time it was a bit more fun, and had its tongue planted firmly in its cheek. In this new version it is all a lot more serious toned, with some po faced lines of dialogue being recited with utter seriousness, and lots of frowns and serious stares. Much like the manner in which Man of Steel took the super away from Superman, here the four are less than fantastic.

Getting the bad out the way first, the middle act is a sombre mess of body horror (which really doesn’t belong in a Fantastic Four movie, even if it looks good) followed by a swift jump ahead in time as though the writers didn’t really know how to handle the team adjusting to their new powers, and so just skipped ahead to avoid tackling it. It feel like a huge, interesting chunk of story was just dropped in order to speed toward a climactic resolution against Doom. That, itself, is such a poor mess of a fight that is over pretty much as soon as it begins, with no build-up or any sense of threat.

But it’s not a total disaster. The start of the film is really well presented. A look at how Reed and Ben became friends as kids gives some heart to the start of the film, and the introduction of the cast to each other works well, even though they don’t quite gel at that point. As a fan of the comics I loved these earlier moments of getting to know the personalities of the characters. Miles Teller is an adequate Reed, Michael B Jordan has the cocky attitude of Johnny Storm just right, Kate Mara is pretty much spot on as Sue Storm in both looks and her scientific nature, whilst Jamie Bell is perfectly affable as Ben Grimm. Toby Kebbell’s introduction as Doom is a little weak, but his interplay with Reed as they work on the dimensional travel machine is lifted straight from the comics. Josh Trank (director) plays these earlier moments of the film well, and has a good eye for the right shot. Gone is his amateur camera style of Chronicle, and here is a more confident manner on which to follow characters as they grow on screen. However, it is once the machine is activated that the film goes dreadfully wrong. The initial character relationships are dropped, and there is barely any chemistry between any of the team from that point onward. The direction becomes drab, and the focus on the horrific aspects of the powers is uncomfortable and unnecessary.

At the closing moments of the film, we get a glimmer of hope of what we could see should a sequel be greenlit, as the banter starts to come into play. But why should it take this long to get the fun banter into play? If the film didn’t take itself so serious throughout, and delivered the same lines of dialogue with a wry smile instead of sombre expression it would have worked a lot better. Yes, editing faults would still hinder it, but at least it would be a lot more fun to sit through.

The film has been compared to a pilot episode of a TV series, and that comparison is spot on. The effects vary from great (Ben Grimm in rock form as The Thing) to ropey (Doctor Doom’s altered form looks like it was ripped straight from 80s era Doctor Who). The characters don’t quite work, but show promise for further episodes. The whole endeavour feels like a forced way to get the origin out the way before the fun can be had. If this was a TV pilot I’d be intrigued enough to see a second episode, to see if the bad would be dropped and the potential would come out (much as I did with the TV series of Constantine). But as film, it’s an unbalanced mess, and you can see the production problems and behind the scenes disagreements in ever scene from the mid point onward.

Tim Story’s films may not have been great, but they at least we’re as bright, colourful, and infused with a sense of fun as the FF deserve. This new FF, whilst not a total disaster, is just an unnecessary retread of a story we already know when they could have just jumped right in to the FF as a team.


Review – Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation


One thing I love about the Mission Impossible series of films is that it is a deliberate choice to switch directors each film, thus ensuring a fresh take on the franchise with each outing.  This also means that if an entry is bad (I’m looking at you, MI:2), you can still be optimistic about the next film.  Another thing I love is that there seems to be no rush to churn out films, but more a determination to only commit to one when the story and players are all in place.  This is the fifth entry in 20 years, which considering most franchises reach number 5 in under a decade, is quite impressive.  And, boy, what an entry in the series we have.

Rogue Nation starts with that action set piece that has been all over the promotion.  You know, with the plane and Tom Cruise (as Ethan Hunt) hanging onto the side.  Yup, what everyone thought was the big stunt being given away in a trailer actually turned out to be a pre- credit  bit of fun to get the film started.  What follows is an intrigue fuelled tale of double agents, betrayalm and the disbanded IMF trying to bring down an organisation  that nobody believes exists.

Christopher McQuarrie, who worked with Cruise on the much overlooked Jack Reacher, takes the reins as writer and director this time, and turns out a very slick, almost retro, spy drama which could very well act as a calling card for the next Bond film. Similar to how the first film delved into a lot of the double play and intrigue, so too does this, which is refreshing after the fun but forgettable antics in Ghost Protocol. This is a film which will bear the scrutiny of repeat watch to look for the twists and turns throughout. It is also smart with the use of action to break the drama and tension at just the right moments. These action breaks are well composed, from walkway fights above an opera stage, to a high speed chase through streets and mountains. Not forgetting that these sequences and stunts are made all the more thrilling thanks to the determination of Cruise to do nearly all his own stunts, thus allowing for close up shots which the use of stunt men would hinder.


"I'm going to come in and smoothly steal the scene away from you. Just watch me!"

The support cast of Pegg, Renner, and Rhames make a welcome return, whilst Rebecca Ferguson adds some feminine charm and action as a rogue agent who may or may not be on Hunt’s side. But it is the welcome addition of Alec Baldwin as CIA director Alan Hunley that really adds the icing to the cake, as he thunders into every scene with the prime intention of stealing it from those around him. The only weak link is Sean Harris, who sadly doesn’t really have much of a screen presence as Solomon Lane, the main villain of the piece, and just doesn’t have enough menace to be a believable threat to Hunt’s team.

That minor niggle aside, though, Rogue Nation is another strong entry in a franchise that has only had one serious mis-step so far, and is definitely one of the highlights of what has generally been a lacklustre summer of disappointments.


Review: Trainwreck


Judd Apatow has, in one way or another, been responsible for some of the most beloved comedies of the past decade.  His name crops up in the producer credits of films such as Anchorman, or anything with Seth Rogan and his gang in.  Every so often he even directs, using a script he wrote himself, usually drawing upon his own life’s observations for the basis. Well, this film is the first which he has directed using someone else’s script, and if it teaches us one thing it’s that he should stick to only directing films he writes!
Schumer plays Amy, a writer for a men’s magazine who has a cynical view of relationships thanks to her father’s brutally honest reasons for divorcing. Despite having a steady boyfriend, she enjoys casual encounters with anyone she meets, and parties pretty hard almost every night. When she is assigned to write a sports article, a subject she has zero interest in, she enters a phase in her life where she will question her values, and reevaluate where she is on her life journey.
Basically, take any prior Apatow movie, but swap the genders of the characters….and there you have it.


"Remember when I deliberately fell in front of Kanye? That's about as funny as this script is!"

It’s telling when 25 minutes into a film a fake film within the film showing at a cinema looks more worthy of 2 hours of your time than watching some strained attempts at comedy play out with a bunch of second rate comics (although, the fake film is a black and white film called The Dogwalker starring Daniel Radcliffe, so that has to be worth watching anyway).

Writer and lead Amy Schumer,  who I am informed is apparently really funny, goes down as one of the most annoying comics on screen this year, and if this film is indicative of her brand of humour then I’m relieved that I have never sat through any of her material before, and I’m sure to be careful not to ever again. The jokes fall flat, and it feels that Schumer genuinely believes that her material is cleverer than it really is when it attempts to play comical gender stereotype reversal concepts to highlight the double standards of society when it comes to the gender roles. However the film then undermines all of this by effectively becoming a typical rom – com by the end. Throw in the fact that Apatow doesn’t seem to know when to end a film (a problem all of his films have), making it really drag once it is past the 90 minute mark, and the result is nearly 2 hours of tedium which, I am told, is hilarious but find it hard to recall a single moment which made me even smile, let alone chuckle.


Review: Ant-Man


Director: Peyton Reed
Cast: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Michael Pena, Evangeline Lilly

The Marvel Cinematic machine rolls into its third phase with another new character, and a film which has seen much discussion and speculation over the troubled production.

Ant-Man sees Paul Rudd as Scott Lang, a skilled thief who has just been released from prison.  Reuniting with his daughter, he wants to prove himself a positive role model and leave his life of crime behind.  However, he swiftly finds that it is hard to get gainful employment when you have a criminal record, and soon reunites with his old partner in crime, Luis (Michael Pena), on one last job that has landed on their laps.  Breaking into a secure vault of a wealthy industrialist, the score turns out to be a costume of some kind.  When he tries on the outfit, and triggers a switch on one of the gloves, he is suddenly reduced in size to that of an ant, and discovers that the chemicals released by the suit have granted him extraordinary abilities, with enhanced strength, agility, and speed being part of them.  He also discovers that the heist was all set up by the industrialist, Henry Pym (Michael Douglas), who wants to recruit Lang to help him stop the technology being sold for militaristic use.  Pym, and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), begin training Lang to be the Ant-Man.

In the early stages of production, the film was in the control of Edgar Wright, writer and director of films such as Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Scott Pilgrim.  However, much was reported about some creative disagreements between Wright and the studio, which resulted in Wright exiting the process and the hiring of Peyton Reed in his place.  Naturally, as this was the first Marvel film where such disagreements and changes were reported, the knives were out and many anticipated it to be the first core Marvel film failure.  However, whilst it is early to report on the box office performance of the film, cinematically it is one of the strongest outings for the studio, and stands as one of the best origin tales to date.

The tightly paced script still has Wright’s name attached, and it is easy to see why.  Many sequences and moments echo the style that Wright brought to his previous comic book adaptation, Scott Pilgrim, along with the humoured tone.  Reed has picked up on the initial draft, and added a few extra elements of his own, then presented it in a snappy, fun, and vibrant fashion.  Running at just under 2 hours, the film never out stays it’s welcome, and uses the shrinking gimmick, and control of the legions of ants, in clever, witty, and visually striking ways to ensure that, whilst the overall film is predictable and generic, you can certainly say that you haven’t seen action like this before.

I am going to say something now that is rare for me to say, but if you get action chance to see this film in 3D, I urge you to do so!  Yes, despite my usual hatred of the format for comic book movies (it is pointless, and action sequences are a resultant mess because of it), with Ant-Man we actually have some creative use of the format.  Additionally the film has been tailored for the IMAX screen, and it is in this format that the visuals will truly impress.  When shrinking into miniature form, the 3D bends the world around him, and adds a vertigo inducing aspect to the world.  The action is handled well to not confuse with too much happening, and some standout miniature action (including a fight in a briefcase) are well planned and executed in the 3D format, making this the first Marvel film to have genuinely utilised it as more than a gimmick.

Throw in a support cast that are generally strong, although Corey Stoll as chief bad guy Darren Cross is given woefully little to work with and is instantly forgettable, and you have one of the highlights of the summer season.  Evangeline Lilly plays well alongside and against Douglas in a troubled father/daughter relationship, whilst Pena steals every scene as Luis.  Mix in an all too brief cameo by one of the Avengers, and some scattered references to cities being dropped, wall crawling heroes, and Tales to Astonish, and Ant-Man, whilst not a perfect film, is definitely one of the best films of the summer period, with the fun factor compensating well for any shortcomings.

A final note to be made about the score by Christophe Beck.  The theme and style of soundtrack has a very retro feel to it, harking back to heist movies and spy thrillers of yesteryear, which, in the end, is what Ant-Man is at its heart.

Phase 3 is off to a strong start, and two credits scenes signpost a little of what is to come, so be sure to stick around.


Review: Ted 2


With the success of Ted a few years ago, a sequel was inevitable even though there seemed no good reason to continue the story.  Ted 2 is the result, offering a forced attempt to recapture some of the magic that made the first film work so well, yet missing the whole point drastically.

Set a few years after the events of the first film, Ted 2 sees Ted and Tammy married and wanting to have children, whilst John is single again having seemingly proven that, contrary to the message of the first film, love won’t make opposites attract.  When Ted then has to legally prove that he is a person not an object, the thunder buddies seek assistance from a fresh faced lawyer (Siegfried) to help them.  Cue a series of sketches mashed together in a desperate attempt to pad out almost 2 hours of film.

What made the first film work was that, whilst it retained the MacFarlane style of comedy that we know from Family Guy, it was structured like a film with a flowing story to spin the gags off.  The sequel seems like it could very well just be a mash up of a few episodes of Family Guy, including those zany cutaway moments that the show is notorious for.  In fact, switch Ted with Brian, and you genuinely have a plot for the cartoon, the disadvantage being that Family Guy episodes are 20 minutes long, whereas this is almost 2 hours. 


"Seriously? Two hours?"

But, hey, who cares about plot?  This is a comedy!  Well, sadly the puns fall flat, with only two moments in the whole film managing to spark a chuckle put of me, whilst the rest of the film was spent in stony silence.  The sparkle that brought Ted to life is simply gone.  A sub plot involving Donny (Ribisi reprising his role from the first film) is not only familiar, but pretty much the exact same sub plot from before. By the time the action locates to New York Comic Con, and two background actors get to jokingly dress up as characters they used to play in old TV shows, boredom has set in so much that you just want it all to be over.

All in all, Ted 2 is the kind of comedy sequel that makes you think that perhaps Hangover 2 wasn’t too bad…Heck, even Hangover 3 was a better laugh!  The charm, wit, and magic is all missing, replaced with lazy, formulaic hack comedy, proving that, as expected, Ted was a film that didn’t need continuing.