Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (2016)

If you’re going to binge 4 trips to the cinema in 3 days, picking a very light and silly one to finish on seems like a good idea – a bit of a mental break on the viewing! And really, they don’t come much dafter than Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates.

The Stangle brothers (Zac Efron and Adam Devine) have a long history of ruining parties by letting their life-of-the antics get out of control. Blowing up RVs, pulling half a roof (plus occupant) down – the mayhem never ends. So when the pair’s little sister is getting married, the warning goes out: no disasters, no acting up – in fact, bring some dates to keep you calm.

We already know the pair are dumb, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that they think it’s a good idea to advertise online for some ‘nice girls’ to have a free holiday in Hawaii. A queue of ‘hilarious’ poor choices are offered for our amusement, before Anna Kendrick (playing rather against type) and Aubrey Plaza weasel their way into the trip – and the scope for utter mayhem is doubled!

There’s a fine line between dumb fun and just dumb, and MaDNWD rarely stays on the right side of it. The humour relies far too much on shock value, imo, and what could have been a really amusing set up is pushed into stupidity. Just keeping it a little more realistic would actually have been funnier.

Oh, and Zac Efron only takes his shirt off once 😉

Released: 10th August 2016
Viewed: 28th August 2016
Running time: 98 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 4/10

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Mechanic: Resurrection (2016)

Okay, I confess: trashy action movies are my guilty pleasure. You know going in that you aren’t about to get Shakespeare, but there is a good chance of a whole lot of butt-kicking fun! And in the list of action heroes, Jason Statham generally amuses me, neither taking himself too seriously (or at all, in the marvellous Spy) or crossing the line into silly, and generally looking believable with the kicking and punching and the overall meanness.

I have only vague recollections of the first Mechanic movie (it had Ben Foster in it, and a record player) but it really doesn’t matter. M:R is just A.N.Other action flick, maybe a touch of backstory from the previous installment, but it’s all laid out for you anyway and largely irrelevant.

What we’re left with is: old frenemy turns up and using his not-real-but-sort-of-real affection for Jessica Alba, manoeuvres the Stath into carrying out three ‘impossible’ assassinations, each having to look like an accident. But hey, it’s okay: pains are taken to point out how morally unpleasant the victims are. Cue the MacGyver-ish assembling of nifty tools of destruction, some gravity-defying stunts, and a lot of behind kicking.

There’s not a lot else, apart from the huge disappointment that Jessica Alba is clearly there only for the lingering shots of her behind walking into the sea. Her character is former military, and yet manages to need rescued repeatedly, being too delicate not to be easily overpowered by every bloke who grabs her wrists. Hmm. Tommy Lee Jones gets a nice just-more-than cameo role, but otherwise this is The Stath doing what The Stath does – churlish to complain about that, but the framework is just a bit too flawed for me.

Released: 26th August 2016
Viewed: 27th August 2016
Running time: 98 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 4/10 – Stath doing what Stath does, but the woeful female character loses it big points

Central Intelligence (2016)

The best bit about this movie is either the tagline – “Saving the world takes a little Hart and a big Johnson”, riffing perfectly on the actors’ names and relative heights – or the outtake scene shown over the closing credits where Hart makes a joke about ‘stupid made up names, like The Rock’.

Between those, we have a not-entirely-original story about the bullied fat kid in high school growing up to be Dwayne Johnson and joining the CIA. Meanwhile, school hero Calvin Joyner (Kevin Hart) has entirely failed to live up to his own potential, now bored and dissatisfied as an accountant. On the day he’s passed over for promotion again, he accepts a random friend request on Facebook, and suddenly finds himself sucked into the world of international espionage. The question is, is friend Bob the good guy or not?!

As I said, it’s not a new idea, but quite a fun one. And I think the reason I ended up not really liking this movie was that it just wasn’t as fun as I think it could/should have been, given the set up.

Two reasons this didn’t work for me: first, I just didn’t find Kevin Hart funny. I don’t think I’ve seen him in anything before, but the fart jokes weren’t amusing to begin with and too often he was allowed to just keep talking past even a vague sense of humour. His character is terribly whiny, too: all that potential, wasted. Yes, the life lesson over the course of the movie is part of the point, but still – guy needed a bigger slap from the get-go.

Secondly, the spy character of Bob was just too idiotic. At first I assumed it was an in-film act – well, unicorn t-shirts and ‘fanny packs’, c’mon! – and kept waiting for the overly-long set up scenes to play out, but the over eager puppy voice continued way passed the point where it wasn’t like fingernails on a chalkboard to me. Again, there’s a character arc over the movie, but it was just ridiculous thinking someone that lacking in confidence could be an international spy, tbh. It reminded me a bit of Tom Cruise’s character in Knight and Day – again, just can’t take trained killers being quite so dippit.

Central Intelligence is an out-and-out wanting to have fun movie, and from reviews I think a lot of people enjoyed just that. Alas, I think I was maybe just expecting a more usual ‘Dwayne the Rock Johnson’ badass role, and the slightly soppy diversion from that didn’t appeal to me so much. It feels dangerous to be left wanting to slap some sense into a character with quite so many bulging muscles… o_O

Shout out, though, to some fab cameos from Melissa McCarthy and Jason Bateman.

Released: 29th June 2016
Viewed: 1st July 2016
Running time: 107 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 4/10 – harsh, but when you want to slap both lead characters it’s not going to do well with the ratings!

The Quarry – Iain Banks

“Most people are insecure, and with good reason. Not me.”

I held off on reading this book, for several reasons. For one, I’m meting out the last few unread Banks’ books on my shelves, saddened by the knowledge that there will be no more. And, even less happily, because I’d heard less than good things about this one, his last. Unfortunately, those things are largely true, and I was pretty disappointed with this, Banks’ last, book.

It feels incredibly mean to criticise a book like this, which was allegedly rushed out to make it into print before the author died. I’m also amazed to read that it was supposedly written before Banks received his cancer diagnosis, in which case it would be eerily precogniscent: in it, a character is facing his final days/weeks/months, slowly wasting away from the disease and losing every dignity along the way. His last times are spent ranting about the woes of the world, and it’s hard not to see those character-rants as author-rants, too, and in horribly all-too-similar circumstances.

The book describes a gathering of old university housemates around their dying friend. A less likeable bunch is hard to imagine: idealists turned yuppies (I found it hard to read these characters as 1990s students in 2013, as they were meant to be, and not from a decade or so earlier), grand visions turned to mundane existences. Two ‘McGuffins’ spice the plot: first, the hunt for a home-made video whose contents threatens the cosy little lives of all involved. Secondly, the narrator – Kit, son of the dying Guy and ‘on the spectrum’ – hopes to discover the identity of his mother. Is it one of the gathered group? And what awful secrets are on the missing tape?

The set up has promise, but sadly I felt it lived up to none of it. No spoilers to say both of the above issues are wrapped up, but with disappointing lack of ‘Ah-ha!’ feelings. Instead, we have a long weekend of this merry band drinking, doing drugs, and whining about the world, all the while revealing increasingly unlikeable aspects to their personalities.

Other than the main character, Kit, who just didn’t gel as ‘real’ or consistent in his voice, as a character study the book is actually very good, if not in an overly enjoyable way. As a story – well, not so much. Perhaps with time for another draft… but then, that in itself is a chilling take-away from the book, both in story and in reality. Urm.

On the plus side, I didn’t leave it ’til last in my reading of Banks’ books, so this doesn’t have to be my enduring memory of a body of work that has sometimes puzzled but more often amazed and entertained me.

Hardback: 326 pages / 8 chapters
First published: 2013
Series: none
Read from 6th – 13th March 2016

My rating: 4/10 – not a cheery read, in any regard

Tales of the Dying Earth – Jack Vance

“Turjan sat in his workroom, legs sprawled out from the stool, back against and elbows on the bench.”

I don’t have a great deal to say about this, other than I didn’t really like it. A lot of ‘classic’ sci-fi and fantasy (this is a curious mix of both: set far in the future, where ‘magic’ has become a real thing) I just don’t think it’s aged brilliantly: the women get a very poor deal, and the ‘heroes’ are very hard to warm to.

Tales From Dying Earth is actually a collection of four works, each of which is made up of several linked shorter stories and novelettes.

We start with Turjan – to be honest, these tales left me a little lost, and I didn’t feel they actually went anywhere. They were, however, a vaguely interesting introduction to the world, which I felt could have been followed up well – but alas, it was not to be!

Books 2 and 3 follow the misadventures of Cugel, and like Rhialto in the final instalment, he’s a barely tolerable ‘rascal’ in my opinion. He interacts with the world as if it owes him something, grumbling bitterly if anyone treats him the way he treats others. How this is supposed to be even slightly sympathetic I have no idea – I just wanted to slap the selfish, shallow idiot and his banal aims into the dying, red sun!

I dunno, maybe I’m just missing the point – certainly, the denizens of GoodReads seem to rate the book highly. But, while I’m glad to tick another of the Fantasy Masterworks off the list, I remain thoroughly under awed with work.

Paperback: 741 pages / omnibus of 4 books
First published: 1950-1984
Series: Dying Earth books 1-4 / Sci-Fi Masterworks
Read from 18th September – 5th December 2015 (with long pauses between ‘books’)

My rating: 4/10

The Good Dinosaur (2015)

Oh, Pixar – you really shouldn’t have bothered. The Good Dinosaur is a pretty average kind of an animated movie. From anyone else, that might be forgivable, but the world has come to expect better from Pixar – creators of the wonderful Inside Out, just a few months back.

It’s not a terrible viewing, but it’s a sack full of recycled ideas. Little dinosaur Arlo is a cowardly failure, but circumstances dump him far from home, requiring a long trek of redemption back to his family. Along the way he picks up a stray pet, a feral human child he names Spot, and together the pair face many (yawn) dangers and learn many (more yawn) important life lessons.

I did like the little boy in the movie – mostly dog, it has to be said, and I suppose a nice reversal on the boy-and-his-pet theme. But otherwise the characters did absolutely nothing for me. Protagonist Arlo is rather annoying, and no one gets a great deal of screen time to be anything other than two dimensional.

Does it look nice? Yeah, that’s about the best of it. But then, plonking a cartoon green dragon down on what looks like actual nature film footage just looked wrong, somehow. The dinosaurs – rather thin on the ground, tbh – all share a kind of odd half-cartoon, half-meant-to-be-realistic look that did nothing for me.

Overall, the whole movie really shows the strains of its troubled production, and comes across as fragmented and uninspired. It’s not dreadful, but ‘fine’ just doesn’t cut it from Pixar.

Released: 27th November 2015
Viewed: 4th December 2015
Running time: 93 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 4/10 – high on the ‘meh’ factor

Land of the Headless – Adam Roberts

On Tuesday a genetic materials test confirmed my guilt (but of course this confirmation was only a formality) and on Wednesday I was beheaded.”

What a brilliant hook – such intrigue! The premise is even more fascinating: not only is our narrator beheaded in the opening line, he’s not only still alive, but part of a culture where such ‘headless’ are commonplace. Turns out the book title is meant literally!

We find ourselves in a super-religious culture where all crimes – that is, adultery (and that’s anything outside marriage), murder, blasphemy – are punished by beheading. But that’s okay: said culture is also super-advanced (!) so no need to kill anyone. No, their consciousness can be captured and continue via technology, and the headless person can go on with their ‘lives’ thoroughly (!) chastised. Shame the headless are so scorned by society, right enough, but hey: mercy!

Alas, I just don’t feel the scope of that premise is lived up to in the story. I would have loved more exploration of the culture’s background, but instead we get a really downbeat, self-involved pity-trek from said narrator, who is, quite frankly, a whiny git (and a poet. Says it all!). His obsession with a girl (!) drives him through varying trials, until – right at the end – we’re told “But this isn’t my story…”. Urm, really?!

No, really: the ending is a hint at the far more interesting tale – that perhaps should have been told? As it was, I’m sure the themes of religion and morality, and memory, were fascinating to dig into – but I couldn’t get over the narrator’s whinging.

This is the second of Adam Robert’s books I’ve read (the first was On), and I think the problems are the same: great idea, really grating, downbeat telling.

HB: 275 pages, 4 parts each with ~8 chapters each
Finished 17th June 2015

My rating: 4/10