2015 has proved an interesting year for secret agents. Kingsman: The Secret Service did for spy films what Kick-Ass did for superhero films; Spy had the courage to place a non-conventionally shaped protagonist at the centre of its drama; Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation gave us more Cruising adventures. But before James Bond graces us with his presence once more in Spectre, spy fans could do a lot worse than Guy Ritchie’s adaptation of the 1960s TV series, as The Man From U.N.C.L.E. proves a smart and stylish entry to the genre. What makes The Man From U.N.C.L.E. stand out from the crowd is its deliberately arch humour and expressive production design. To accuse the film of valuing style over substance would be to miss the point, as the film makes substance from its style. Each costume of CIA man Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill), KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) and their German charge Gabriella Teller (Alicia Vikander) illustrates not only something about the character(s), but also the excessive design of the genre, such as James Bond’s tuxedo and the glamorous outfits of lady lovelies from Diamonds Are Forever to Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. The biggest action set piece has more emphasis on screen divisions and crosscutting than on the action itself. Rather than detracting from the narrative, this stylistic emphasis plays up the film’s affection for the genre and its history. For fans of the spy genre that enjoy reveling in its absurdity, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. offers much to enjoy.
Marvel’s super family has had a rough ride at the cinema. After a mid-90s film that was never released and two instalments from Tim Story that were met with negative reviews and audience disappointment, hopes were high for Chronicle director Josh Trank’s reboot. But amidst review embargoes, accusations of studio tampering and dismal box office, Fantastic Four (2015) looks set to continue the awesome foursome’s misfortunes. But considering the painful mess that is Catwoman or the embarrassed denial of Batman & Robin, Fantastic Four is far from the worst that the superhero genre has to offer. Trank lends the film a sombre mood, with gloomy visuals from DOP Matthew Jensen and some surprisingly gory moments. The central characters, Reed Richards (Miles Teller), Sue Storm (Kate Mara), Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan) and Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) are a decently disparate group, with suggestions of the snippy but affectionate relationships central to the mythos. They are not the family unit of the comic books (or earlier films), but as a group of young friends experiencing some unusual growing pains they just about work. The film’s strongest moments are those featuring our four heroes experiencing their altered states, with some genuinely unsettling moments of body horror, such as when Reed looks down at his elastic limbs and Ben’s evident sadness and disgust at his monstrous state once he becomes the Thing. The family dynamic is seen between Sue and Johnny and their father Franklin (Reg E. Cathey), and while their interchanges are clichéd they are at least consistent. Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) offers some interesting views on the hijacking of scientific discovery by the military-industrial complex, but his final act appearance as Dr Doom is wasted and undoes much of the solid work done previously.
This is the central problem of the film. It begins as a dour drama about friends grappling with changes that manifest in horrifying ways. Yet it also needs to be a superpowered adventure with grand set pieces and spectacular displays of amazing abilities. Perhaps Trank’s original version was more drama and less spectacle, and the reshoots forced in the rushed finale. The end result is unbalanced but still manages some interesting depictions of the body and explorations of outsiderness, ambition and hubris. The best super-family movie remains Pixar’s The Incredibles, but Fantastic Four (or perhaps Fantastic Flaw) is still worth a look.
Inside Out might just be the best film of the year. High praise from other quarters raised my expectations, although recent Pixar efforts such as Brave caused trepidation. But all my fears swiftly evaporated as Inside Out proves to be Pixar’s strongest film at least since WALL-E. Beginning literally with the dawning of consciousness, Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) first experiences Joy (Amy Poehler), as does the viewer in appreciating the filmmakers’ sublimely realised efforts at personifying feelings. Subsequent emotions Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) add to the mix, this jostling of emotion familiar to children and adults alike. Riley’s mindscape is dazzlingly realised, from personality islands to the thought train to the abyss of forgetfulness, and the random jingles that play in our head for no discernible reason. Nor are any of these elements gimmicky, as they all make sense within the film’s overall conceit: the seemingly random aspects of our minds have reasons and motivations, these aspects don’t always agree and sometimes feeling can be complicated. Most touchingly and movingly, Inside Out demonstrates that feeling Joy all the time is not only unrealistic but unhealthy, and that Sadness is essential and even positive. Inside Out made me laugh uproariously and I can unashamedly report that I cried, more than I have at almost any other film. For that, I cannot applaud it enough.
The fifth installment in the Mission: Impossible franchise is a mixed bag. It delivers grand scale set pieces, multiple intrigues and double-crosses, as well as the obligatory rubber masks and Tom Cruise running, and running, and running again. It also manages to work as an ensemble piece despite Cruise’s star power and the centrality of his Ethan Hunt, as Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames, who alongside Cruise has appeared in every MI film to date) and new arrival Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) all contribute equally to the drama. Ilsa goes some way to resolving the gender issues of the previous film, as her role in the drama is not determined by her gender. She also gets the best set piece of the film – a dark knife fight amongst stone columns that conveys the gritty professionalism of experienced killers.
This set piece, however, highlights director Christopher McQuarrie’s apparent discomfort with grand scale action sequences. The opening sequence is spectacular but subsequent set pieces fail to match its impact. An underwater heist followed by a car/motorcycle chase fails to draw the viewer in, despite some visceral angles from DOP Robert Elswit, while bullet-spitting chases are less than immersive. McQuarrie is more comfortable with intimate action, recalling his blistering debut The Way of the Gun. His style therefore seems at odds with the expansive scale of the MI franchise, while his script sometimes veers awkwardly from high tension to quirky humour. There are many good moments in the film, but they are not effectively knitted together, making MIRN less than the sum of its parts.
Ant-Man marks a change for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Whereas previous films have steadily upped the stakes, Peyton Reed’s entry scales things down (in multiple ways), delivering a warm, witty and sometimes wacky tale of guilt-ridden fathers and second chances. Ant-Man‘s connection to the Avengers is through plot developments rather than ironic winks, and the film features as many laugh-out-loud moments as Guardians of the Galaxy and also an engaging visual style, as Reed along with DOP Russell Carpenter and production designers Shepherd Frankel and Marcus Rowland make great use of their protagonist’s diminutiveness. Co-writer Paul Rudd makes for a likeable star, his slightly hangdog expression shifting to wry determination as his character Scott Lang embraces his heroic destiny. But the film’s greatest strength is its blending of genres. Much as GOTG was part space opera and Captain America: The Winter Soldier was part conspiracy thriller, Ant-Man plays largely as a heist/caper film. The (clichéd) band of specialized thieves, the last job that will finish their life of crime, the chain of events that lead to this one score (presented amusingly by Michael Peña), the planning that cross-cuts with execution – all these elements are delivered with verve and aplomb. Ant-Man therefore demonstrates one of the keys to Marvel’s ongoing success – rather than simply being one super-powered smackdown after another, the films of the MCU continually re-modulate and reform, developing the genre as well as the franchise.
Some franchises get better as they continue, and some demonstrate the law of diminishing returns. Terminator Genisys falls firmly into the latter category, as it attempts to rewrite a significant part of the franchise’s history and, in doing so, makes various clunking failures that highlight the film’s own redundancy.
Genisys repeatedly raids the Terminator production line, using footage from the 1984 original The Terminator, complete with young Arnold Schwarzenegger before his grizzled contemporary turns up. Nostalgia can be an effective dramatic approach, as in the rebooted Star Trek, but here the replaying of familiar material highlights Genisys‘ own lack of ideas. Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier’s script recycles various plot points from the first two films (ignoring continuity from Rise of the Machines and Salvation), and attempts to create new versions of established characters. The results, however, are anaemic and insipid. Schwarzenegger has been parodying himself for years and this is no exception, except that he is old and regularly reminds us of this (yes, Arnold, you’re old, not obsolete, we get it!). Emilia Clarke’s Sarah Connor is a pale shadow of Linda Hamilton’s guerrilla warrior, while Jai Courtney’s Kyle Reese lacks the feral desperation of Michael Biehn’s original incarnation (and Courtney’s massively buff physique – clearly there are still gyms post-Judgment Day – undercuts Schwarzenegger’s previously exceptional body). Jason Clarke is a bland John Connor, despite the potential for a great inversion of his character, a plot twist infuriatingly exposed by the film’s trailer.
All of these faults would be forgiveable if the film managed to engage with some interesting ideas. The best sci-fi is always concerned with ideas (see this year’s Ex Machina for a recent example), and the original Terminators did exactly this, principally the relationship humanity has with technology. The Terminator showed the omnipresence of technology and Terminator 2: Judgment Day blurred the distinction between human and machine. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines did the same thing badly but the unfairly maligned Terminator Salvation managed to go in a different direction by reversing the awareness of what is what. Terminator Salvation managed to refresh the franchise, but Genisys simply and blatantly replays what we have seen before: more time travel, more old Arnie, more unstoppable (although not really) terminator upgrades, more delays to Judgment Day, more ways to change the past and fight the future, and all for the purpose of stretching out a franchise that was completed perfectly well in 1991. The concepts that make the Terminator mythos interesting are simply referenced without engagement or due attention, resulting in a lazy and lifeless experience. Furthermore, director Alan Taylor demonstrates the same shortcomings he did with Thor: The Dark World, failing to create action set pieces that draw the viewer in or offer anything beyond stuff blowing up and flying around, with an unnecessarily clanking soundtrack that emphasises time and time again that THESE ARE MACHINES! Thanks, Alan, I might have forgotten otherwise.
Perhaps the greatest insult to the original films is the abandonment of their interesting gender politics. Far more than being a “strong female character,” Hamilton’s Sarah Connor was a woman of vision, voice and agency, who evolved from helpless victim to guerrilla commando, almost to the loss of her humanity. Clarke’s Sarah, however, mostly complains about her lack of choice over her future before accepting the dictates of the father and husband figures around her. Worse still, her voiceover is replaced with that of Kyle, making it his story rather than her’s and sidelining one of the most iconic women of action cinema. Depressing.
James Cameron gave his blessing to Genisys and described it as the true next installment. Much as I love Cameron, I have to disagree with him here, as Terminator Genisys is a wretched, retrograde regurgitation that fails to even have enough nostalgic value to maintain its running time. At least someone’s smiling.
It is that time of the year when film critics say “It is that time of the year.” And it is, indeed, that time of the year when I decide what are the best films of the year so far and how shall I rank them, according to my arbitrary and subjective notions of quality.
To clarify, I use UK release dates to determine what is a film of what year, so don’t go telling me such-and-such was really last year. To avoid confusion, I include the UK general release dates according to the IMDb, as well as links to my earlier reviews.
2015: Top Six of Six Months
Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) (1 January 2015)
A fearless, relentless, tragicomic blasterpiece.
Ex Machina (21 January 2015)
An eerie, beguiling and enthralling exploration of identity, consciousness and personhood.
Blackhat (20 February 2015)
A gripping and enthralling existential thriller of identity in a world of anonymity.
A Most Violent Year (23 January 2015)
A measured, compelling and de-romanticised portrayal of the American Dream.
Danny Collins (29 May 2015)
A warm, witty, hilarious, bittersweet, moving tale of redemption, family and the choices we make.
Selma (6 February 2015)
An intricate, powerful tale of great events told through the lens of shared, social experience.
These six are pretty good and they were hard to pick. Will all or indeed any of them make it into the Top Twelve at the end of the year? Time will tell…