The stupid things twenty-somethings get up to when there’s nothing to do has inspired countless slacker comedies over the years.The likes of Bottom, Spaced and Peep Show have all traded on pop-culture nods, gross-out gags and aimless characters you unexpectedly warm towards to strike a chord with 90s audiences. It’s that nostalgic vibe which is once again being channeled in Wasted, E4’s newest comedy about four friends who pass their time getting drunk and up to no good in a West Country village – only this time there’s a surreal 21st century twist.
Has a movie ever suffered such a remarkable reverse of opinion as Star Trek Into Darkness? Critically lauded upon release in 2013, the first sequel in the JJ Abrams-rebooted franchise brought a new legion of fans to the Trek universe but left purists underwhelmed. They even voted it the worst Trek movie ever, such was their disappointment with its dour tone, illogical plotting and heavy leaning on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
Arriving slap bang in the middle of the franchise’s 50th anniversary year, Star Trek Beyond feels like a mostly-successful bid to finally win over those diehard fans. Combining blockbuster scale and popcorn spectacle with the fun and optimistic tone of the original series, the Starship Enterprise’s latest space adventure often feels like the best of both worlds.
The story itself has the air of a classic episode from the ‘60s TV show as it largely centres around one sprawling, previously undiscovered location and an overreaching theme of togetherness. Even the sets look like they’ve been made out of paper-mâché, just like the shonky production work of the original series.
We rejoin the crew past the halfway mark of their five-year mission with Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) starting to feel the mental strain of endless days spent exploring the vast emptiness of space. After a brief pit stop at the Federation’s shinny new outpost (picture Elysium trapped in a giant floating snow globe), the crew is dispatched to rescue a spaceship stranded in an uncharted corner of the cosmos. That distress call turns out to be a trap orchestrated by Idris Elba’s gravel-faced baddie Krall, who unleashes a hive of spiky fighter-ships to destroy the Enterprise and send it plummeting into a deserted planet.
That dramatic crash-landing is actually the set-up for many of Beyond’s funniest moments as it splits the crew into unexpected odd-couple pairings. Kirk lands alongside Chekov (the late Anton Yelchin); Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Sulu (John Chu) find themselves in Krall’s clutches; Scotty (Simon Pegg) is rescued by native survivalist Jaylah (Sofia Boutella, an excellent addition to the core line-up); while Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Bones (Karl Urban) try to evade capture after a particularly bumpy ride. It’s this latter pairing which proves to be most uproarious with Spock’s grating rationalism providing the perfect foil for the pessimistic sarcasm of Bones, who gets the lion’s share of the funny lines as a consequence.
With so many characters in play it’s inevitable that few of them are served with fulfilling narrative arcs. While each crewmember gets an opportunity to showcase their action hero credentials, there’s very little meat on the bones of their individual stories. As a result, the action often lacks the necessary sense of peril.
It’s a problem symptomatic of a script which sticks too close to sci-fi epic formula. Few surprises await here as you will instantly predict how each conflict will resolve the moment it is posed. This predictability is most keenly felt during a final act which hinges heavily on Into Darkness’ climatic scenes with yet another futuristic city threatened with annihilation and Kirk once again risking his life to save everyone else’s. Screenwriters Pegg and Doug Jung admittedly had little time to fine-tune the script after parachuting in for a complete re-write mere months before shooting began, but the run-of-the-mill plotting nevertheless saps much of the energy out of the movie.
Though best-known for his outlandish work on the Fast and Furious franchise, director Justin Lin – taking over the reins after Abrams boarded a certain other space epic – keeps a tight leash on the action beats, making them bold and energetic without feeling overblown. The disintegration of the Enterprise is a particularly breathless and arresting spectacle.
It’s not all expensive explosions and witty repartee, of course; Beyond is more than willing to show-off its cerebral side. Be it Kirk’s deep-space malaise, Spock’s grief or Krall’s disregard for the Federation’s core principles, there are many thought-provoking themes that are sure to resonate with a modern-day audience. Kirk’s existential wrangling over his father’s legacy feels especially poignant with Pine giving his best performance yet in the role, adding a gritty world-weariness to the Captain’s swaggering charm.
Less impressive is Elba as Beyond’s chief antagonist Krall. After making a suitably bombastic entrance, the character’s natural menace is never built upon. Throughout his motivation remains unclear and the point of his grand scheme frustratingly hard to grasp. Unfortunately for Elba, despite his nightmarish look and actions, Krall is a rather forgettable foe in the mold of Eric Bana’s placeholder villain Nero rather than a seething scene-stealer like Benedict Cumberbatch’s John Harrison.
Regardless, by refining the formula to blend blockbuster-style adventure with the light-hearted, thought-provoking tone of the original TV series, Star Trek Beyond succeeds as a movie of which Trekkies both old and new can find something to be proud.
Runtime: 120 mins; Genre: Sci-Fi; Released: 22 July 2016;
Director: Justin Lin; Writers: Simon Pegg, Doug Jung;
Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Idris Elba, Zoe Saldana
Female sex comedies have come a long way in the last twenty years. It started with Sex and the City in the 90s, challenging perceptions with open conversations about sex and relationships while remaining fairly traditional with its stars’ need to find the ‘right man’ and settle down. That seminal series inspired a new generation of female writers and performers like Lena Dunham, whose HBO hit Girls added frank confessions, awkward sex and post-millennium navel-gazing to the mix.
Fleabag (BBC3), written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge, feels like the next bold leap in that evolution. Plunging us back into the confessional world of Bridget Jones, the show follows Waller-Bridge’s insecure 30-something as she navigates life as a single woman in the city. But rather than simply moaning about boyfriends and mean mothers, this comedy fearlessly tackles darker, more complex taboos that affect everyone. Almost as if women are just normal people too.
Opening with a scathing takedown of the late-night booty call, the script takes an angry, outrageous and often hilarious peak into the mind of a grief-stricken woman. In the vain of Girls and Channel 4’s Catastrophe, Fleabag is not a likeable lead – at least not a first. In her own words she’s a “greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman” who, at one point in the first episode, attempts to flash her bra at a bank manager (played by Hugh Dennis) just to get a small business loan.
But the brilliance of Fleabag is the way it reveals the heart and sorrow behind the gross comedy. As the series progresses, we learn how Fleabag has suffered multiple tragic losses throughout her life and slowly come to understand her crude, often downright bizarre behaviour (masturbating to a YouTube video of Barack Obama, anyone?) for what it truly is: the self-destructive act of a broken women desperate not to feel the loss of another loved-one. It becomes impossible not to warm to her.
We’re helped along by Fleabag’s charmingly cynical narration – a reminder of the show’s genesis as a fringe play at Edinburgh. The theatrical device not only acts as mean for Fleabag to make dry-witted asides, but also creates an air of intimacy. When Fleabag makes sideways glances down the camera lens you can almost see her heart-breaking, which is as much a testament to Waller-Bridge’s expressive, powerful performance as anything else.
And, in a wonderful piece of counter-casting, Fleabag’s passive-aggressive step-mum is played by the lovely Olivia Coleman. Despite its main character’s best efforts, there really is very little not to like about this funny, filthy and heartbreaking comedy.
Click here to watch the first epidote of Fleabag on BBC iPlayer
No comedy has faced more advanced scrutiny than Paul Feig’s female-driven Ghostbusters reboot. Even by the poisonous standards of internet comment sections, the reaction has been uncomfortably hostile – the first teaser even has the dubious honour of being the most disliked trailer on YouTube. And seemingly all because the comedy stars four funny women. It is still 2016, right?
That’s why it’s pleasing to report that the new Ghostbusters is good. Really good. Fun, foamy and imaginative, not only will it silence those pathetic online trolls, but it will also make you forget it’s even a reboot at all. The movie feels like it’s tailor-made for its quartet of stars. Considering the considerable legacy it follows, that’s quite the compliment.
Bridesmaid’s alum Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy naturally take centre stage and give good value as paranormal investigators Erin and Abby, best friends who split after their book on the existence of ghosts is ridiculed by their peers. But it’s Kate McKinnon’s unhinged engineer Jillian who adds a pleasingly off-beat edge to the team. Channeling the eccentric, live-wire style she honed over several years as a Saturday Night Live performer, McKinnon can always be relied upon to inject fresh energy into the group’s lengthy improv scenes. Only fellow SNL member Leslie Jones disappoints – largely because she’s lumped with an incredibly reductive role as sassy, uneducated subway worker Paddy. For a movie often praised for its progressive approach, Paddy’s characterisation feels surprisingly tone-deaf.
The humour is predominantly light and frothy with Chris Hemsworth’s delightfully dumb receptionist Kevin getting the pick of the funniest moments whether it’s wearing lensless glasses because they kept getting dirty or referring to an aquarium as a submarine for fish. But there are still signs of a sharp satirical wit at times with pointed barbs directed at the online vitriol (“Ain’t no bitches gonna hunt no ghosts”) and misogyny that has tormented the movie. That the big bad is ultimately defeated by a proton blast to the croch is no coincidence.
If this Ghostbusters has a flaw it’s that is can be too reverent to the 1980 classic. Cameos from the original cast, among many others, feel clunky and unnecessary while the story itself follows the first movie’s formula too closely for comfort. No awards will be handed out for guessing who the villain is or what his evil scheme entails (hint: it’s the creepy loner who keeps muttering to himself about cleansing the world). Feig just about gets away with it here, simply because his four stars are such a joy to watch, but let’s hope he feels able to take a few more risks if this movie earns its expected sequel.
Though directing his first effects-heavy blockbuster, Feig rises to the challenge with his handling of the ghost-busting beats. Shoddy CGI ghosts aside, Feig manages to elicit some genuine frights and even finds some innovative twists on the use of the iconic proton blasters – Jillian’s Travis Bickle-esque pistols are a particular favourite. But the movie is at its best when it’s just Wiig, McCarthy, McKinnon and Jones (and Hemsworth) sat in a room riffing off each other. Together they have delivered a comedy that, against impossible odds, is funny, moving and uproariously entertaining. Not bad for a bunch of girls, eh?
Runtime: 116 mins; Genre: Sci-fi/Comedy; Released: 11 July 2016;
Director: Paul Feig; Writers: Paul Feig, Katie Dippold;
Cast: Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones
Steven Spielberg’s BFG may have just slumped at the box office, but our appetite for a fresh shot of ‘80s nostalgia shows no sign of abating. With The Americans, Midnight Special and the new, all-female Ghostbusters to name but a few, screens both big and small are set on channeling that mystical vision of America where aliens exist, government agents should not be trusted and things really do go bump in the night. Stranger Things, Netflix’s latest binge-worthy offering courtesy of the Duffer Brothers, is one of the better efforts, superbly recapturing the vibe of the ’80s for a tense, charming, if slightly hackneyed, eight-part mystery thriller.
Set in one of those Anywhere American suburbs where the worst thing that every happened was an elderly resident being attacked by an owl – and that was because her hair looked like a nest – Stranger Things tells the tale of Will (Noah Schnapp), a boy who vanishes one evening while cycling home from a friend’s house. With no clues as to where he’s gone, the police, led by David Harbour’s surly Chief Hopper, are stumped by the disappearance while his mother (Winona Ryder) is being driven to her wits end as she starts getting phone calls she’s sure are from Will.
His friends, on the other hand, set out on their own rescue mission but instead stumble across a strange, short-haired girl with telekinetic powers. They name her Elle – short for the number 11 which is tattooed on her arm – and try to hide her in one of their parents’ basements. Meanwhile, a deliberately hidden-from-view monster escapes from a secret government facility and appears to be responsible for a spate of town-wide power surges and the disappearance of several minor supporting characters.
The Duffer Brothers – previously best known for writing a few episodes for Fox’s Wayward Pines – make no attempt to hide the type of era they are paying homage to here. The influence of filmmakers and authors like Spielberg, John Carpenter and Stephen King are all over this lovingly-crafted series. The Poltergeist is name-checked early on, The Thing is referenced on numerous occasions and the central trio of schools friends act like they’ve jumped straight out of an Amblin movie. They ride around town on bikes, play Dungeons and Dragons and talk via CB radios.
While this approach certainly has its charms, it causes problems when the call backs become less about setting a tone and more about lifting entire plotlines from its forebears. One subplot, which sees Elle hiding from her new friends’ parents, follows the structure of ET so closely it’s baffling that she doesn’t sprout an over-long index finger and start crowing about going home. And that’s not only time you will feel a sense of déjà vu. The likes of Alien and Sixteen Candles are all poached for story ideas with some scenes being lifted wholesale from the originals. It spoils the surprises too as the shocks and scares the Duffer Brothers spent so long constructing feel a tad too predictable to be effective.
The lack of originality impacts on the impressive cast, who all do fine work but are saddled with unimaginative characters. Harbour is your typical pill poppin’, chain smokin’, heavy drinkin’ cop with a troubled past. Matthew Modine plays a scheming Bad Guy who’s only role seems to be arriving on set moments after Elle and looking pretty darn annoyed about it. And Natalia Dyer’s Nancy is simply another innocent model student who just can’t resist the dimpled charms are her high school heartthrob. The only one who’s really allowed to shine here is Ryder, justifying her most high-profile role since that unfortunate payment mishap in a Fifth Avenue department store. As Will’s distraught, overwhelmed mother, Ryder wrings heartbreaking emotion out of every single seen in what feels like her most raw performance since Girl, Interrupted.
Stranger Things is still an engaging eight-episode watch, though, with plenty of dark mysteries, teen dramas and nostalgia-themed shenanigans to keep you hooked for the next instalment. The only drawback is that all its stranger things have happened before and if the Duffer Brothers want it to be more than just a fun but forgettable mystery thriller to while away the summer months, then they need really need to start thinking up their own ideas.
He might be one of the best-known literary creations of the 20th century, but poor old Tarzan has had a ropey transition to the big screen. Johnny Weissmuller’s authentically-awkward era is fondly remembered but hasn’t aged well. 1984’s Greystroke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes was an interminable bore. And the less said about Disney’s Phil Collins-infused animation, the better. The question of how to modernise Edgar Rice Burrough’s classic, which hides many uncomfortable world views behind its formulaic plots and stale characters, is one to which even this latest glossy-but-tame adaptation can’t muster an answer.
The early signs are promising. Scrapping the typical origin story formula, we find our one-time Lord of the Apes living the high life in Victorian London as John Clayton (True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgård), having already met and married Jane (Margot Robbie). The cracks quickly appear, however, when he is persuaded to return home to the Congo under the auspices of a diplomatic mission to open trade negotiations with King Leopold’s Belgium. This reconnecting with his African roots is really just a convenient excuse to invite a wave of relentless, soapy flashbacks charting Tarzan’s past as a human raised by apes.
Screenwriters Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer at least have enough awareness to thinly address the less palatable aspects of Burrough’s creation, inserting several sub-par subplots focusing on racism, the class-system and some bobbins about the King of Belgium assembling a giant army to enslave the continent. But for the most part, these are forgettable sidelines to a ponderous chase movie as Jane is kidnapped by Christoph Waltz’s moustache-twirling villain as part of a ploy to trap our chest-beating hero.
What ensues is an overly talky, turgid adventure particularly during the opening two-thirds as Tarzan spends far too much time moping around his old haunts across the Savannah wondering if he should give in to his wild nature. When your story primarily focuses on a feral child who swings from vines and talks to ostriches, moody introspection is not the kind of modernisation required. And while the pace picks up considerably in the closing moments, it’s all unleashed far too late to enliven this tedious tale.
It’s not all bad. The actions scenes, when they do finally swing into view, are stylish and exhilarating. Director David Yates (making his first film since Harry Potter’s Deathly Hallows double whammy) infuses the fight sequences with the pulse racing intensity of a war movie. The standout moment plays out like a Batman movie set in the amazon, as Tarzan and a gang of apes emerge from the shadows to lay the smackdown on a large group of Belgian mercenaries.
The visuals, too, are masterfully realised. The layered and immersive jungle setting bristles with vibrancy and life while the computer-generated menagerie of creatures are able to convey more emotion with just a look than the entire human cast are able to muster through their stilted dialogue.
The talented cast do at least try to make the most of the material. Samuel L Jackson is a light-hearted treat as America’s crack-shot ambassador George Washington Williams, Waltz is always good value when playing a sophisticated schemer and Robbie brings plenty of vigour to Jane – even though it’s frustrating to see a character so determined not to be a damsel spend almost all her screen time waiting to be saved.
As for Skarsgård, he certainly looks to part thanks to a brutal training regime and perfectly captures his character’s otherworldly edginess. But he’s also a painfully bland human being who, much like the film he carries, spends far too much time restraining his wild instincts instead of allowing them to burst forth with ferocious, colourful life.
Runtime: 110 mins; Genre: Adventure; Released: 6 July 2016;
Director: David Yates; Writers: Adam Cozad, Craig Brewer;
Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Samuel L Jackson, Christoph Waltz, Margot Robbie