Furious 7

Much better than the previous entry, and up there with Fast Five among the best of the series. The abundant fist fights and car chases are as over-the-top as you’d expect but are well shot (if a bit too briskly cut) and pretty damn exciting on the whole. Some of the plot points are ridiculous but there’s always one of those action scenes as payoff, and aside from an occasionally cheesy soundtrack and one played-out character, the dramatic elements are respectable considering the outrageousness that surrounds them.

Kudos for the movie’s handling of Paul Walker’s tragic death in a dignified manner. It’ll be sad seeing the series go on without him, but director James Wan has proven that if that must be the case, he deserves to be the one to have a shot at it.

Big Hero 6

There’s a clear love of all things anime and Japanese in Disney’s Big Hero 6, from the robot-controlling orphan (see Giant Robo) to the mysterious masked villain (20th Century Boys) to the fire-breathing monster… literally a guy in a rubber suit. Best of all is the fictional setting of San Fransokyo, which in combing two of the most iconic cities in the world provides a visual treat every second the characters step outside – streetcars running down hills covered with cherry blossoms, gleaming cityscapes merging the Financial District with Shinjuku, and a Golden Gate bridge lined with Shinto’esque spires.

Sadly the plot is paper-thin as origami. After a patiently told and at times even poignant beginning, the second act steps firmly into get-the-bad-guy territory, and the third… I’m not sure there was a third act, unless a villainous scheme and critical character introduced ten minutes before the closing credits count.

Still, for kids the underlying story is good and there’s plenty to entertain, while for kids-at-heart who share the creators’ interest in Japanese culture, a sour ending doesn’t too much spoil all the CG candy that comes before. Bonus points for the opening short “Feast”, which is as charming as any the studio – including their Pixar subsidiary – have produced.

Guardians of the Galaxy

Having almost conquered the super-hero action genre (their only real competition being Fox’s X-men movies), Marvel now have their sights on the sci-fi space opera. If this first attempt is any indication, they may be slated for similar success. Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t quite the strongest of their movies (that goes to The Avengers and The Winter Soldier), but it’s up there with the original Iron Man as second-best, and may be the most outright fun of the whole bunch.

The prerequisite sci-fi action and effects are in full effect. The action is shot too closely to truly admire but is entertaining; the effects are generally realistic enough to suspend disbelief while still showcasing plenty of cosmic razzle dazzle, and on at least one occasion are genuinely beautiful. Where the film shines, though, is its script. Writer-director James Gunn keeps the character interaction just serious enough to care about the proceedings while lighthearted enough to have fun, and shows a talent for realizing exactly what moments might come off as cliche and making them into something clever and amusing instead.

As Glenn Close (one among a surprisingly accomplished cast) mentions, it’s a bit like the original Star Wars in its ragtag group of characters and its lighthearted sense of adventure… but with the quirkiness of The Fifth Element – and more humor than either movie – mixed in.

Transformers: Age of Extinction

Michael Bay likes the boom. The boom boom pow. And a lot like Will.I.Am, he doesn’t care how silly his lyrics are or how manufactured his stylings. The difference being that while Black Eyed Peas songs have their moments of dumb fun, Transformers: Age of Extinction only has moments of dumb.

Conversely Bay himself might actually be quite smart in peddling his products to the mass-market lowest common denominator. Maybe he knows audiences won’t mind that high-tech military helicopters somehow can’t accurately shoot an 18-wheeler… as long as the surroundings get blown up. Or that when said 18-wheeler’s robot mode has been defeated in battle (not a spoiler, it happens every movie), an advanced alien spaceship picks up the remains not with a tractor beam or a high-powered magnet, but with a net… as long as a hot blonde gets caught in it too. Or that the same robot, after spending most the movie driving to and from peril as a clunky 18-wheeler, suddenly exhibits the ability to rocket off into space… as long as it means there’s a sequel.

From a fanboy perspective the movie is still bad. There are a few nice effects shots, but nothing jaw-dropping or significantly different from the previous three movies. The Dinobots offer the potential for some impressive action and destruction, but as with Devastator’s appearance in Transformers 2, it goes largely unfulfilled. Fans often say they want to see less of the humans and more of the robots in these movies, but as annoying as the human characters can be, the Autobots are actually worse, ranging from a pot-bellied, potty-mouthed robotic redneck to a bright blue bot with a Japanese accent (Ken Watanabe’s second bad movie of the summer) and a sword.

It’d be nice if one of these Transformers sequels didn’t make a billion dollars so the studio would have an excuse to get a different director. But much like Megatron there’s no keeping Bay down, and even as producer he’d still likely put his unsightly stamp on the series (as seems to be happening with the awful-looking TMNT reboot).

Maybe some things are better left in the ’80s.

Edge of Tomorrow

Live. Die. Repeat.

And blast a bunch of aliens along the way.

A cynic might liken the premise to a standard video game; a more optimistic comparison would be to the excellent sci-fi drama Source Code of a few years ago. I’d place it between the two – more substance and much better effects than most games, less intelligence and emotional pull than Source Code… but a lot more action.

Those who dislike the idea of Tom Cruise as a bad-ass action hero can rest assured he plays a more vulnerable and believable character than the trailers convey – with modest amounts of bad-assery to boot. Costar Emily Blunt shows the same gritty resolve that she did for her character in Looper (another recent sci-fi great), along with some bad-assery of her own.

As in Source Code, the ending stretches the time-shifting premise a bit, but any dubious quantum-physical details are easy enough to overlook when the film as a whole is this solid.

Godzilla (2014)

Godzilla vs Pacific Rim: Fight!

Godzilla: Giant monsters smashing cities.
Pacific Rim: Giant monsters smashing cities, plus giant robots smashing giant monsters.

Godzilla: Sporadic action until the end.
Pacific Rim: Enough action to last a tub of popcorn.

Godzilla: Second-rate acting and silly script; still takes itself way too seriously.
Pacific Rim: Second-rate acting and silly script; knows it, doesn’t care.

Neither movie is exactly championship material but at least Pacific Rim puts on a good show. For Godzilla chalk up another failed comeback attempt.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

It’s safe to say The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has the biggest explosions of the series. Huge, colorful explosions complete with streaking bolts of electricity. If that’s what you look for in a film then you won’t walk away disappointed.

The web-slinging action is mostly the same as we’ve seen in the previous four movies. That’s not such a bad thing, but there’s really nothing new to it except for more frequent slow motion, which detracts from the very thing that makes Spider-Man action exciting in the first place, the lightning-quick speed. (It also allows more time to notice that it’s almost all computer-generated.)

Jamie Foxx’s talents are wasted on a two-dimensional, almost imbecilic character, while the casting of Paul Giamatti as an utterly mindless thug with a bad Russian accent reinforces the notion of a studio having money to spend for all the wrong reasons. As has often been mentioned, there’s too much story twined together for a single movie, but more problematic is that it just isn’t told very well, with rushed developments and plot holes so plainly obvious that it’s clear the story was nothing of a priority.

Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone were the anchor of the reboot’s first episode, and they remain this sequel’s one saving grace. Garfield mixes strength, vulnerability and teenage quirkiness well (even at 30), and Stone is nearly impossible not to like. But while the first movie showed the two’s relationship develop, here it’s a simple back-and-forth between “I love you but we can’t stay together” and “I love you so let’s stay together anyway”. Both actors do well with what they’re given, but the dialog often has a soap-opera-like expository tone without the nuance of real conversation.

Despite the numerous flaws I was content to write this one off as another mediocre Spider-Man movie to follow the previous one, until in a vain attempt to turn the franchise into a villain-heavy Avengers-killer they hastily destroyed the one good thing about the series, moments later returning to big-budget action as if nothing happened.

Astute viewers may notice the product placements for Sony’s Trinitron and Vaio lines in the film. It seems symbolic that both are dead or dying brands.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Minute for minute the best Marvel movie yet. At its best it’s right up there with Iron Man 1 and The Avengers, but while Iron Man faltered a bit at the end and The Avengers required some amount of indulgence, this one is rock solid from start to finish and even a comic book cynic could enjoy it. The pacing is perfect, the action has a bit of everything and is seriously impressive, and there’s hardly a line of cheesy dialog to be heard.

If you had to nitpick you could say the grand scheme doesn’t live up to the intrigue that precedes it (granted there’s a lot of early intrigue) and, well, the makeup artist goes overboard on Chris Evans in a couple scenes. Yeah, that’s the worst of it. As far as action movies go it’s about as good as it gets.

Blue Jasmine

Woody Allen’s latest is purely a star vehicle for Cate Blanchett, and her performance as a spoiled socialite struggling psychologically with a fall from grace is outstanding.  But as genuine as the depiction of her flawed, almost completely unlikable character may be, there’s no thought-provoking look into the root of it all, no hint of resolution, no exceptional cinematic craftsmanship, and little humor to distract from the sad state of affairs at hand. It’s a plain look at real people struggling with real – if slightly elite – problems, and as such it wins points for authenticity but few for entertainment or artistry.

American Hustle

This is an ensemble film so let’s get down to it. Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper seem a bit out of place in a ’70s film but turn in quality performances, Jeremy Renner is solid, Christian Bale unsurprisingly is brilliant, and Amy Adams – somewhat more surprisingly – is equally so, shifting from manipulative to vulnerable, loathing to empathetic without losing an ounce of believability.

The story takes its sweet time to develop, which during the extended prologue feels novel but by the third act becomes a small bit tiresome. Still, with characters this interesting it’s not such a terrible thing if they overstay their welcome.

Spring Breakers

A fairly dark look at young decadence, which despite the art-film aesthetic offers about what you see on the cover – spritely pop stars in bikinis and James Franco with cornrows and a grill. Neither of which is necessarily a bad thing. The generally depraved proceedings, overexposed camera shots, and constantly repeating imagery and dialog don’t make for light entertainment, but they’re admirable enough from an artistic perspective. Until a ridiculous ending makes the whole thing seem like posturing.

Fast & Furious 6

Fast Five was a well-oiled machine; this sequel shows some of the series’ mileage but still makes for a fun ride. After a strong start the movie stalls in its middle section from too much loosely connected plot and too little action, until hitting the gas again for an exciting finish. A bit too fast maybe, as a couple of major developments happen to prominent characters and hardly anyone seems to notice.

The action, though, makes for good fun – not only the car chases but several brawls that do the bone-crunching Rock-Diesel showdown from the previous movie proud. And just being able to talk seriously about the plot in a Fast & Furious movie shows how far the series has come. Fast Seven and Tokyo here we come.