Review: Vacation

I admit to being quite a fan of the Vacation series.  Well, the early films in the series.  After Christmas Vacation in 1989 things went a little downhill with the dreary Vegas Vacation and the abominable Christmas Vacation 2.  So, a few years ago, when I first heard about a remake of the first film in the series, I was slightly anxious.  However, once the idea had developed into being a sequel, rather than a remake, I warmed to the idea a bit, even if there was still trepidation.  Casting decisions seemed fine (I have a fondness for Ed Helms), and the idea that the film would focus on Rusty Griswald, now all grown up with his own family, trying to recapture some of the magic of that infamous road-trip to Walley World seemed decent enough.  The trailer landed, and highlighted that the film was going to be self-aware and meta in nature, acknowledging the disdain shown toward reboots, much in the same manner the recent Jump Street films have, by way of a scene in which the ‘original vacation’ would be used as a comparisson.  The trailer amused me enough to hold out some hope, and so when I can to see the film I watched it with a sense of optimism.  Suffice to say, the film passed the six-laugh test.

Rusty is now grown up with a dysfunctional family of his own, and a job as a pilot for a cheap airline.  When he overhears his wife, Debbie (Christina Applegate), speaking about how the annual vacation is boring, he decides to change things and relive the nostalgia of his trip to Walley World with his father decades ago.  So he gets a family car, loads it up, and they set off on a trip they will never forget..but for all the wrong reasons.

Right from the start I found myself chuckling, as a series of terrible holiday photos were presented on screen to the familiar tune of Holiday Road from the original films.  Already in safe territory, the smiles kept coming as we were introduced to the life of Rusty and his family, finding out that the youngest son is somewhat psychotic, whilst the older one is meek and awkward.  Once the road-trip begins, the bizarre car Rusty bought for the trip adds some random humour into the mix as the various functions of the car are played with, and the gentle nods to the original films add a nostalgic element for the audience.  Much as with the original films, the movie is more a series of sketches strung together by a simple thread, and for the majority of the film it works.  There are some moments that don’t quite pan out, and a few gags that are drawn out a bit too much, but the times the gags work more than make up for it all.  By the time Charlie Day is introduced as a river rafting guide, I was suffering a bit of pain from laughing.  Chris Hemsworth’s turn as Stone, Rusty’s brother-in-law (having married Audrey) in a segment set on their farm is a scene stealing moment for many reasons.Griswald

One major flaw in the film, however,is that the trailer campaign gave away far too many punchlines to long-skits, such as the ‘hot springs’ the family bathe in.  The result is a scene that would have slowly built to the punch, but has been diminished by already revealing it in the trailer.  There are other elements to the skit that work (such as the local and his pet rat), but overall it is another example of marketing serving to weaken the end result.

But don’t let that put you off, as there are plenty of laughs to be had throughout the film, and the appearance of Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo towards the end is an added plus.  The result is the best Vacation film in the series since the 80s, and I’d probably go so far to say it is a better film than Christmas Vacation was (that film sagged a little in the middle).

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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.

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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.
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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)

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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.
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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

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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.

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"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

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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.

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"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.