The first How To Train Your Dragon is an animation classic. No one can dispute that. Adapted from a relatively obscure series of children’s novels, it was released in 2010 to near universal acclaim from audiences, garnering two Oscar nominations and becoming Dreamworks’ highest regarded film in a decade (stripping Chicken Run of the title), as well as the great honour of being one of the few films to ever make me cry (joining the illustrious company of My Dog Skip, The Road and The Elephant Man). Basically it’s bloody great and has a permanent place in my cinematic heart… but alas this fervent fandom probably set How To Train Your Dragon 2 up to fail.

That’s not to say it doesn’t retain some of the magic and wonder of its predecessor. The Viking/Dragon world is still as breathtakingly realised as last time, the score is once again excellent, the character design of the dragon hordes is some of the most imaginative you’re likely to see in a major studio picture, Toothless remains the most adorable creature ever committed to film, and the friendship between him and Hiccup is the most potent and reliable heartstring-puller around (there’s some extra emotional beats thrown in which prove incredibly effective - that blind dragon had me feeling things). But away from these already established elements, it feels quite a bit undercooked, with the plot jumping from point to point as if it’s not quite sure which one to commit to. You get all the important character beats built up from the first film as the sponge of this cake, but the story the script and the new characters are a pallid, unappetising icing on top, which barely covers the whole thing.

By now, everyone knows the big reveal, and if you don’t, you’re best looking away… Hiccup finds his long-lost mother Volka, presumed dead for his entire life, to be living on an isolated utopia as a Viking hippie, a Jane Goodall for dragons in the mist. The scene that serves as the introduction of Volka in her masked splendour is superb, and had it not been ruined by its constant use in trailers and TV spots, it would perhaps be one of my favourite scenes of the year. But her big reveal being spoiled is not the only disservice done to Volka. She unfortunately follows the increasing trend of strong female characters being used to further the male hero’s journey before being cast to the wayside. It’s happened so often recently, from The Lego Movie, to The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug, to Star Trek Into Darkness, Oblivion and Edge Of Tomorrow; fascinating female characters are built up, given agency and their own arcs, only to become love interests, sex objects or existing solely to serve the male hero’s development and motivation; in this case, Volka exists to give Hiccup a few rote motivational speeches at key points, and that’s it. She even steps aside from a fight with the villain to let her estranged husband take him on, despite the film informing us she’s more than adequately handled various assaults over two decades on her own. It feels like a betrayal of what we’d expect and a complete waste of Cate Blanchett’s Oscar-winning talents on a disappointing character. You’d like to think if the filmmakers had followed their original plan of using Volka as a conflicted antagonist, she may have gotten a better shrift, but then you see how underdeveloped Drago Bludvist (a nominee for worst villain name of the year) turned out to be and you wonder if the grass would really be greener. 

Speaking of Drago, it’s a little off-putting that the first and only major character of colour seen in the franchise happens to be an unreasonable, maniacal, murderous, dragon-abusing warlord. Full credit to Djimon Honsou giving a good showing in the recording booth, but it’s just uncomfortable seeing an ambiguously brown antagonist (with a potentially interesting backstory unfortunately ignored) being fought off by a whiter-than-white-bread cast of good guys. Good guys like the now seemingly typecast Kit Harrington, who proves himself to be as dull and wooden an animated character as he does a flesh & blood one, although at least his Eret, Son Of Eret provides some laughs via his bulging biceps.

I’ll be honest, despite being the main character and central to the whole franchise, Jay Baruchel really detracts from How 2. His nasally voice works in live-action, when he’s playing a slimy corporate PR as in Robocop, or a amiable stoned slacker, as in most other things; hell, even in the first film, this helped reinforce Hiccup’s youth, naiveté and inexperience. But now, the character is a “dragon master”, a swashbuckling adventurer and future chief of his clan, as well as being Neville Longbottom’d into a handsome young man, yet he still sounds like he’s on the receiving end of a dozen wedgies a day, and one scare away from wetting his riding britches. It’s frustrating that Baruchel’s range doesn’t extend to the more mature plot elements that the film broaches, albeit very clumsily in passing.

However, for these disappointing misses, there’s still a wave of hits and some of that original charm left over to keep the franchise afloat for the third instalment in two years time. And no doubt, that one will keep up the tradition and make me cry too.

The UK has a tonne of pop-punk, post-hardcore and “real emo” bands to fill small venues with kids sing-shouting the lyrics. Seriously, it’s kind of “our thing”. Do you like Neck Deep, dude? Do you like my Honour Over Glory beanie? Its rad, mandude. Yeah, you get the picture.

Still, even though there is an entire wave of almost identical bands, every plaid-clad boy and girl shed a little tear when Basement broke up. Why, you ask? It probably had something to do with the heartfelt lyrics, which reflected a menagerie of problems associated with “growing up” (whatever that is; as emotionless review writing software programmed into Tumblr, I have experienced no such thing). The indie loving music snobs could dig ‘em, too, due to their fucking sweet guitar sound that seemed to take more from early alternative rock than any of their contemporaries, and the song-writing was a lot more subtle than many of the bands that they played with.  They, along with Title Fight, represented something I like to call “respectable pop-punk”. You know, stuff that ticks all of the pop-punk boxes, but is ok to like because The Needle Drop said it was cool. That kind of thing.

Of course, after being gone for only just under 2 years, the world rejoiced when they came back to life, announcing a tour, and this here EP. While it’s fair to mock the histrionics that surrounded their short departure and almost immediate return, it has to be said – it’s good to have them back.

They pick up almost immediately where they left off with their last album, Colourmeinkindness. The EP kicks off with a typically mid-paced track in “Summer’s Colour”. The song kicks off with fuzzed out Dinosaur Jr-ish guitars, before pleasant, chilled out vocals take control of the rest of the track. Overall, there’s nothing to be wowed about, and it’s a bit of a wonder why they chose this to be the opener, and the single that they released prior to this EP. Still, the familiarity in the sound gives you enough sentimentality to forgive them for the track’s averageness.

Things finally kick into gear with the slightly more upbeat “Jet”. The track bounces along on choppy guitars and cryptic and typically wistful lyrics, before pausing briefly to employ “oohs” taken directly from Brian Wilson’s songbook. It’s a track that certainly lives up to anything from their full-lengths, and serves as a reminder as why their song-writing stood out in a scene that was too happy to replicate the straight forward verse-chorus-verse format.

The final track is a cover of Suede’s “Animal Nitrate”, which is fairly disappointing given that we’ve just gone through a drought of Basement material, and even just one new jam would have been greatly appreciated. Luckily, the band tackle it with aplomb. They don’t change much from the original, but it still seems to fit seamlessly into the catalogue, thanks to the swirling melodies on the fuzzed out guitars and the unlucky-in-love lyrics.

Ultimately, while it’s always good to have the sound of new Basement in your life, with this three track EP containing on track that sounds like an average album cut, and another that is a cover of a Britpop song, it proves to be something of a disappointment. Hopefully this is just a stopgap before they release a full-length.

With the Cornetto Trilogy over and done with, it remains to be seen what will become of Nick Frost. Simon Pegg is firmly entrenched as an alternative leading man, Hollywood blockbuster support, and voice of various animated critters, whilst Edgar Wright is always going to be able to direct what he wants, as long as he steers clear of Marvel Studios, but Frost is in a less surefooted position. Sure, he’ll be able to coast along thanks to goodwill, but when picking projects as weak and limp as Cuban Fury, that goodwill could find itself fading fast.

Cuban Fury centres around Bruce, a former child salsa champion, who quit due to bullying and grew up to be an underconfident, overweight office drone. When his company hires a new American supervisor (Rashida Jones, clearly grabbing the first script that came through after leaving Parks & Rec), it’s love at first day of work for Bruce, despite the fact he considering Julia to be out of his league. The situation is only made worse by the presence of the office asshole and alpha male Drew (Chris O’Dowd, essentially pulling a “Jon Hamm in Bridesmaids”) having Julia in his sights too. Fortunately for Bruce, Julia is an amateur dancer, and in order to win her affections, he has to get his groove back.

Despite a good cast - Frost, Jones, O’Dowd, along with Ian McShane, Olivia Colman, Alexandra Roach, Kayvan Novak and Rory Kinnear - such a premise coupled with a lame duck script leaves the film as welcome as a turd on the dancefloor. There’s no originality or innovation, and no attempt at improving on the millions and millions of films to come before it. Everything about this is such a rote set-up for a romcom; just substitute salsa dancing for any other hobby, and boom, you’ve got a good 50% of the genre covered at least. It’s telling that the best scene relies on the physical comedy gifts of Frost and O’Dowd without so much as a word between them, and even then, the show is stolen by a cameo from a certain someone.

So many characters are underwritten - Jones’ Julia might as well not even have a name, McShane’s grizzled mentor is dead behind the eyes and Novak is on camp autopilot - and very few gags land anywhere near their target that it’s amazing Cuban Fury manages to drag itself to a third act, let alone across the finish line. Frost is a sound enough screen presence and fantastic cog to have in comedic machines, but after this, he seems unlikely to match the success of his Cornetto compatriots.

If you’ve heard of J Mascis, chances are you are a fan. Not only did the guy make some of the best alternative rock albums of the 1980s and early 1990s with his band, Dinosaur Jr, but his idiosyncratic method of rock songwriting influenced countless noise rock, shoegaze and grunge bands. On top of this, he is one of the few aging alternative icons to manage to grow old gracefully. Given that he is 49 this year, he is still incredibly prolific, dropping a succession of albums with Dinosaur Jr, and a few solo efforts, all of which stand up as equals to the material from his heyday, while still making progressions in his signature sound. If you haven’t heard of J Mascis, I would like to kindly enquire after what the fuck you have been doing with your life? Stop what you’re doing and go and listen to You’re Living All Over Me and Bug right now. Then sit in silence and think about all the time you have wasted not listening to Dinosaur Jr.

Still, when your resume looks as good as J Mascis’, then the pressure is always on to keep up the quality of his work. Luckily, the enigmatic guitar hero doesn’t seem to give a second thought to this, and has knocked out yet another meticulously crafted album in a way that sounds completely effortless.

When it’s stripped down, the elements that make up this album are recognisable to anyone who is familiar with Dinosaur Jr’s work. Mascis uses simple, but effective, pop-rock chord progressions, and layers them with his signature “how the fuck does he make it sound so good?” guitar tone. The upbeat lead single “Every Morning” uses this to great effect, turning four chords, a snare and a hi-hat into a blissfully catchy number with some typically singular electric guitar solos from the man himself. Meanwhile, the closing track, “Better Plane”, is a fantastic little alternative rock ditty transposed into a sleepy folk song. Elsewhere, the masterfully paced “Heal The Star” would sound right at home on any recent Dinosaur Jr release. The little flares at the end of the phrases sound built to have some kind of effect pedal turn them into a squealing mess; however, in this more stripped down environment, you realise how magnificent some of the songwriting on their records really is.

This is not to say Mascis is simply repeating old tricks. There are several moments on Tied To A Star, just as on his other solo records, where he displays his unexpected ability to write beautiful folk leads. The opening track, “Me Again”, is a perfect example of this. The riff twists and turns and weaves its way throughout the track, providing a perfect backdrop for Mascis’ murmured vocal performance. Wide Awake repeats this, but adds strings and a female vocalist into the mix, which gives the track a perfect amount of texture to keep you interested, without becoming overbearing. Things are also shaken up on the strangely danceable “Drifter”, which sounds like an instrumental soundtrack to dancing drunkenly around a fire, which is certainly something you can’t say about many Dinosaur Jr tracks.

Of course, there are certain drawbacks to hearing Mascis step away from his pedal board. For one, his voice takes more of a central role on his solo albums, and some potential problems with it arise. His voice may have a love it or hate it quality to it: if you’re expecting dam-busting Freddie Mercury like performances, it’s probably best to look elsewhere (a Queen record would be a good place to start). The higher ranges of his voice are often utilised on this album, too, which may grate some. In essence though, most people don’t come into folk or grunge records expecting explosive vocal performances, and J’s mumbled tones often fit the weary content of his lyrics perfectly. One could imagine the refrain of “how much can I take?” in “Trailing Off” would lose some of its impact if it was delivered with any gusto.

Another potential pitfall with this album is that it relies on a certain formula; although it has to be said, this formula often works. The key to Mascis’ solo material seems to be to start off a song with sparse arrangements, and then build to a crescendo in the middle of the track. This works absolutely blissfully in some places. In “And Then”, when the electric guitar kicks in, it offers an expected change of pace that adds so much to the track, and to the album as a whole. This is also done perfectly on the aforementioned taking off, when the accelerator is suddenly hit and Mascis delivers the most blistering solo of the album over a frantic performance from the acoustic, before returning to its previous pace as if the track was embarrassed about the outburst. However, on tracks like the awkwardly placed and overly long “Come Down”, this becomes an underwhelming chore. It’s difficult to deny that J is good at what he does, but on repeated listens, this can become a tad predictable.

Overall, though, Tied To A Star is yet another beautiful listen from one of the most underrated songwriters of his generation. J Mascis has a wonderful way of not overstating things; from taking the simplest of chord progressions and carefully building them into something memorable and unmistakably individual, to his guitar solos, which always stop before they become unnecessarily overblown. If you’re a fan of this man’s work, this is an essential album for your collection. If not, you better get started on listening to those Dinosaur Jr albums I recommended. Like, right this second. There really is no excuse not to.  Get cracking.

With Monty Python currently wrapping up their career with a month of live shows at London’s O2 Arena, it might just be time to put the group’s sole American member Terry Gilliam out to pasture as a film director too. His latest film and his first since 2009’s ill-fated The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus, The Zero Theorem is a sad grumpy shambles, a parody of the ideas and themes which built Gilliam’s reputation as a true auteur.

Set in the brightest digital dystopia you could think of, The Zero Theorem centres on agoraphobic office drone number-cruncher Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) tasked by his shadowy corporate overlords with coming up with the mathematical equation of “zero equals 100%”, whilst waiting on a mysterious phone call to explain the meaning of life. He’s surrounded by a cavalcade of obfuscating technology and consciously zany characters, from Melanie Thierry’s manic pixie cam-girl to David Thewlis’ jittery toupee-wearing supervisor and Tilda Swinton’s app-based shrink. But for an excellent-on-paper cast and potentially fertile ideas at play, The Zero Theorem ends up as a weak pastiche of a genre Gilliam helped to codify; a film created by old men worried about people’s use of technology and how they don’t understand it - Gilliam has even explained in an interview that the film acts as “a warning against the perils of a digitised existence” - the kind of worldview that Monty Python likely would’ve satirised were they in their youthful prime today.

There’s just so much weak symbolism and so many rote metaphors floating around in the film; “The Church of Batman The Redeemer”, haha yeah coz people “worship” pop culture and celebrity and stuff. A crucified Jesus statue, but with Jesus’ head replaced with a security camera. A all-powerful corporation called Mancom, which is repeated until it sounds suspiciously like “mankind” by the end of the film, and Qohen’s insistence on using “we” instead of “I” and correcting a colleague how persistently gets his name wrong. This is a film which is transparently about the meaninglessness of life and the lack of any higher power and how religion and belief is silly and atheism is clearly the only way to go and how big business is bad and… really the only way to convey the major thematic ideas of The Zero Theorem is with mouth farts. It’s just that lumpen and undercooked.

I was genuinely shocked to find its writer Pat Rushin is a creative writing professor because his script is a) duller that an Ikea instruction manual and b) crammed with ideas that should barely make it past a sixth-former’s rough story notes. It was, however, less of a shock to discover this was Rushin’s first ever screenplay, written in ten days with  ”no idea what [he] was doing” and using “several screenwriting books and screenplays out from the UCF library, including Terry Gilliam’s Brazil”. There you go, kids; if you pen a sub-par script directly inspired by a director’s masterpiece, he’ll eventually direct the adaptation of what you’ve written. It boggles the mind how the likes of Waltz, Swinton and Thewlis - actors who’ve all been in classic films with top-tier screenplays - read this and didn’t immediately reject it. To their credit, they all do the best they can with what they’re given and are still immensely watchable.

To be fair, it’s hard to lay much blame at Gilliam’s door. His world-building is second to none, and whilst the future dystopia he creates isn’t entirely original, it does feel like a fully fleshed-out place from the cumulative fifteen minutes or so we see of what’s outside Qohen’s dilapidated church dwellings. A meld of the smokey industrial gloom of 1984 and the bright saccharine hedonism of The Hunger Games’ Capitol, with a dash of omnipresent advertising, news, and tech, this future doesn’t feel so outlandish as to be a clear departure from the world we live in now. It’s actually worryingly prescient. But the fact that a filmmaker of Gilliam’s talents couldn’t at least polish a turd of a script into something interesting, if not, thrilling, is a real disappointment.

In the opening minutes of the new season of Channel 4’s Utopia, Rose Leslie’s Milner balances on one foot over a drop into the guest in a lavish mansion party. For those familiar with the show, it will hardly come as a surprise - the superb first season of Utopia continually did this; knife-edge tension during moments of extreme calm and beauty. The show’s return for a previously uncertain second season began in wholly unfamiliar territory. Through a 4:3 aspect ratio and ’70s TV filter, we see the early origins of the Utopia story, a young Jessica Hyde, and a young Arby, as more of the show’s clandestine villains are exposed and their motivations explained. 

Philip Carvel, the writer of the fabled Utopiamanuscript from the first season, is played superbly with a Kubrickian tint by Tom Burke, not only in appearance but in character traits, which only lends itself to the retro interiors and sets. There’s a distinctly familiar feeling to the opening episode, as we watch the bittersweet and uneasy, but relatively undisturbed lives of Milner and Carvel before the events of the first series, scored impeccably by Cristobal Tapia De Veer who uses childlike theremins and choirs in equally effective measure. Rose Leslie as a young Milner is brilliant, a zealot for her cause whose descent (or ascent) into the character we know is brilliantly spelled out. It’s once again, pretty tough going, but honestly, with Utopia, it’s hard to have it any other way. 

The second episode brings us crashing back to present day, catching us up to Jessica Hyde (Fiona O’Shaughnessy who is as enigmatic and venomous as ever. In a mirror to the pilot, Ian ( Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) is once again stuck in his office job, though his growth since the pilot is immediately apparent, as is Arby’s, who now plays happy families with his girlfriend and her daughter, and insists on being called by his birth name of Pietre. Old characters are dripped into the plot, which doesn’t quite shift into top gear immediately. Parallels can be drawn with the pilot over and over again, as hints of danger and unrest boil below the surface. It’s perhaps for the best, as new viewers of the show are able to watch without feeling overwhelmed with the pace and it benefits from having a slow, anxious buildup to the darker events of the episode. It’s still light-hearted, too, with Grant (Oliver Wooliford) and Ian clashing early in the episode as they’re reunited. 

The show is still stunningly shot, with a plethora of superb sets and moments of cinematic style that make this show stand out above the rest of British television. There’s no disparity of quality between Utopia and American hit shows, with the exception of the upper strata of television, and like those hit shows, sometimes Utopia is victim of tedious dialogue and writing with patronising plot exposition that was present in the first season rearing its ugly head from time to time. 

Promising start for the second season of a show which may have ended abruptly enough to never have a second season. Thankfully it’s back and hopefully can cement itself, much like the graphic novel in the show, as a cult classic.

“Surf goth” sounds like a genre that a 15 year old made up after seeing a picture of Kurt Cobain at the beach on Tumblr and, from the example set by the dark princes of sunshine, Wavves, it probably isn’t too far off from reality. Surf goth is a field that seems to be dominated by Californian dudes who don’t have much to complain about besides how bored they are with themselves and everyone/everything else; “it’s too hot out, all my friends hate me, and the people at this beach are dumb”. However, the Massachusetts band Fat Creeps are finally waking the West Coast noise from its weed induced coma with a dose of dry East Coast humor on their first full-length album Must Be Nice.

With jangly guitar riffs and buoyant drumming, Fat Creeps are a call back to beach punk bands like the Trashwomen, but with a much needed production upgrade and probably a proneness to depression. Bassist Mariam Saleh and guitarist Gracie Jackson harmonize about boyfriends, the sun, and parties, which on the surface may seem like a continuation of what every other ‘60s throwback band is doing, but there is a tinge of gloomy irony underlying it all. They monotonously sing “Isn’t she wild, having so much fun dancing in the sun?”. The droning harmonies of Saleh and Jackson give off a hymnal vibe, if your version of church is a dingy basement in Boston and your holy water comes in a 40oz. 

2012’s self-titled EP was a step up production-wise from previous demos but Must Be Nice has finally propelled the band into hi-fi glory, proving once and for all that it’s possible to be a grimy punk and have clear sound quality. With all of the demos and EPs they’ve put out in their four years as a band, Fat Creeps have never once phoned it in and, still, Must Be Nice goes above and beyond anything they’ve previously released. It’s an album that is best listened to in full and in one sitting, which isn’t hard to do as it’s only a little over 20 minutes long.

The album varies from hazy grunge melodies like “Daydreaming” to punchy instrumentals like “Back 2 Skool”, while still holding on to Fat Creeps’ signature witty surf vibes throughout. One of the most outstanding songs is “Party”. Saleh mocks bro-y party hookups, talking like a stilted caveman over the jittery beat (“Leaving the party/Taking her from party”). She and Jackson sarcastically shout in the chorus “I’m gonna piss off her folks!/I’m gonna stick it up her nose!”. It’s a hard and fast song exemplary of  their DIY roots and their sense of humor that is somehow both dark and goofy. The album closes with “Nancy Drew”, which is a cleaned up version of one of their first demos. It might as well be Fat Creeps’ theme song, considering how long they have been performing it and the fact that it has one of the most memorable choruses in the history of mankind (simply, “doot doot doot doooo/hey Nancy Drew”). The song opens with a quick bass line, leading into a guitar riff that sounds like it belongs in a ‘60s movie about a detective who only solves crimes that were committed during high tide. With a closer as ripe for getting stuck in your head as that, you’ll be hearing this album for the rest of your life whether you like it or not.

The Manic Street Preachers are as reliable as they are unreliable. Now on their twelfth album, the Welsh stalwarts have lived a career defined by context and rallying against the odds, never ones to truly settle down. Futurology comes just one year after Rewind The Film, an album that saw the band gazing inwardly at themselves, contemplating their middle-ages and where they are now. It was a record drenched in melancholia and pastoral atmospheres, their most resigned yet. In typical fashion, Futurology might be their most bombastic and extroverted, a love letter to European highways and Simple Minds. The only problem with the Manics ethos is that misfires can and do happen.

Futurology’s musical aesthetic involves shimmering guitars, krautrock-influenced bass and light drums, riffs being drenched in effect pedals until they don’t sound like guitars anymore. The Manics have long freed themselves from constraints and expectations, and it certainly feels good to know they’re revelling in their creative freedom. Songs like “Europa Geht Durch Mich” and “Dreaming A City (Hughesovka)” are some of their weirdest yet, the former being some kind of siren-blaring industrial grind with sloganeering and declarative German vocals from Nina Hoss, the latter being a spaghetti western-influenced instrumental that doesn’t so as much gallop but rather soars off into space. Lyrically, Nicky Wire spends Futurology reminding listeners of where the band came from politically, a typically hypocritical stance when you consider the weariness of Rewind The Film. Compare “Let’s go to war to feel some pureness and pain” to “I can’t fight this war anymore, time to surrender, time to move on” from last year’s "This Sullen Welsh Heart".

However, despite the good intentions, oftentimes Futurology just doesn’t work. This is no strange concept to the Manics (witness the flat and dull atmospherics of 2004’s forgotten Lifebloood), and in Futurology, the biggest victim here is ultimately just poor songwriting choices. The opening title-track is always threatening to blow up, but instead stays uncomfortably in the middle-ground with over-produced drums and middling lyrics. “Let’s Go To War” has a snake-like guitar riff straight out of PiL’s Metal Box, but the chorus never lives up to the rest of the song’s otherwise confrontational aesthetics. Numerous other songs follow this same pattern, of never really lifting off the ground, most of them drowning in over-production and unpleasant guitar effects. It can be somewhat frustrating to listen to, as though you’re listening to a different song as to what you were promised.

Although, as with every disappointing Manics album, there are still gems to uncover. "Walk Me To The Bridge" creeps up on you with its fantastic and explosive refrain, “Sex, Power, Love And Money” is a self-conscious parody of their glam-punk days and it utterly works in how ridiculous it is. The ending of the Green Gartside-featuring “Between The Clock And The Bed” is genuinely beautiful. The two instrumentals “Dreaming A City (Hugheskova)” and the closing “Mayakovsky” are genuinely massive, hinting at the sky-high ambitions the band have always been proud to declare, whilst "Europa Geht Durch Mich" is Futurology living up to its aggressive, confrontational promise, like Kraftwerk’s Autobahn beating Nine Inch Nails into the ground, if it grew up listening to Generation Terrorists.

The thing with the Manics is, they’ve never been shy to their own failings. Some ideas work, some don’t, it just happens. It’s what makes them always so fascinating to follow. The band have never been one to give in, always one to proudly scream their influences from the goddamn mountains. Manic Street Preachers are one of the most ambitious bands to walk the earth, and it’s what makes even their duds still absolutely essential.

Silicon Valley comes from the minds of Mike Judge (King Of The Hill, Office Space) and longtime writing partners John Altschuler & Dave Krinsky (Role Models, Blade Of Glory), who have also been writers on some of Judge’s previous projects. Between the three, there’s plenty of hits and misses, and plenty of silly, crude comedy. Fortunately, HBO’s Silicon Valley feels destined to be a hit, often embracing the crude familiar gags we’ve come to expect from Judge, but also delivering on the clever stuff too. And that’s not to say that Judge hasn’t written clever comedy before. What is brilliant about him is that he’s really a man who uses both sides of his brain when writing; the lower common denominator comedy and the more cognitive, smart comedy. Silicon Valley probably leans more towards the latter, and it’s all the better for that. Considering it’s essentially a show about computer nerds, it could have so easily fallen into traps that the likes of The Big Bang Theory unashamedly falls into week in, week out. But, for the most part, it doesn’t, and that’s a very good thing indeed. 

The premise is a young employee (Richard, played by Thomas Middleditch) working at Microsoft-esque digital mega-corporation Hooli who accidentally creates a compression algorithm that could be revolutionary in the world of computing. The big boss man of Hooli, Gavin Benson, offers him 10 million dollars for his code, but Richard instead decides to go with another investor, brilliant oddball Peter Gregory who offers him a substantially smaller amount for a percentage in his company. This allows Richard to stay in control of his company, Pied Piper and employee his incubation friends and co-workers to build the product from the ground up. 

The team are a group of vibrant characters, each super nerdy in their own way, and each pretty hilarious in their own way too. Martin Starr stars as Gilfoyle, a character which very much resembles the character he played on Party Down a few years back; droll, sarcastic, and well, a Satanist! Kumail Nanjiani plays Dinesh, who is almost the token Indian nerd; a good programmer who’s still with the ladies leave a bit to be desired. Zach Woods (best known as Gabe from the Office) plays Jarred; a fidgety, weird but smart in his own way kinda’ guy, who handles the business-y elements of Pied Piper. T. J. Miller plays Erlich Bachman, perhaps the funniest character on the show. A self-proclaimed Jesus who is completely up his own arse, but feels like it’s warranted. It’s his arrogance and confidence that provides the show with some the best awkwardness, and it’s a stark contrast to the likes of Richard, who is a lot more timid and modest than he. They play off each other fairly well, as do the rest of the main cast as a whole.

As pointed out, one of the reasons why the show hits the right notes is it’s balance between crude and clever humour. It delivers the sort of jokes about one character being turned on by another’s code and jokes about “how fast you could jerk off all the dicks in the room”, and they are thrown at us at a nice pace, making it entirely possible to leave viewers smiling ear to ear for the duration of an episode, or indeed the season as a whole. It’s pleasantly surprising just how witty the show is, and being produced by HBO gives it the sort of freedom to go places that network sitcoms aren’t allowed to go. It’s worth noting too that the show isn’t strictly a “sitcom”, although it might appear that way on first glance. There’s some drama in there too, albeit ridiculous and larger than life, but it’s there. And the show is heavily serialised too, something which would make it much more difficult for more casual viewers to jump in and out of, but will reward dedicated TV viewers myself who thrive on such serialisation.

The season pans out at a slow-enough pace, with Pied Piper being put to the test on several occasions. There’s plenty of bumps along the way, with name changes, idea changes, coding errors and of course their main competitor, Hooli, who had stumbled across some of Richard’s algorithm code and have decided to rebrand it as their own, making it bigger and better. By the end of the season, both Hooli and Pied Piper are performing at a software competition and after Hooli’s crowd-pleasing presentation proves that their product is superior to Richard’s, he decides to “pivot” his idea into something even more exciting. The season ends right there, setting up plenty of thick plot-fuel for season two. It’s a show with great wit delivered by a good cast of oddballs, and the heavily serialised nature of the show makes it actually quite exciting and definitely addictive, as if it were created to be binge-watched. Silicon Valley is another worthy recent addition to HBO’s increasingly brilliant catalogue of programming, and will hopefully grace our screens for quite a few seasons yet.

How do you solve a problem like Tom Cruise?

The guy is probably is one of the top five movie stars on the planet with a filmography that stretches back to 1981 and arguably one of the most successful box office draws ever. There are, however, two big sticking points for Cruise at this moment in time; firstly, he’s been on something of a dry run for the last few years, either since Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol in 2011 or even further back since Mission: Impossible III in 2006, and secondly, we’ve seen him save the world time and time and time again to the point where seeing him as a cowardly novice really breaks the suspension of disbelief.

Both those points combine to leave Edge Of Tomorrow on shaky footing from the beginning, nevermind the derivative Groundhog Day/Quantum Leap/Source Code-esque time-loop plot. It comes as something of a surprise to find that it might be one of the better blockbusters of the summer. It’s also possibly the best video-game movie not based on a video game.

When William Cage (Cruise) - formerly a army PR talking head, hired to big up a failing war effort against the alien force devastating Europe - wakes up on the first day of his demotion down to active duty grunt, he’s basically at the start of his level; his first checkpoint. Eventually, a close encounter on a French beach with an monstrous alien attacker — a tough end-of-level boss — kills Cage and sends him back to the start of the game, forcing him to play the two days again. With each death, he has to learn from his mistakes and discover how to survive to reach the next ‘level’.

Despite being pieced together from those aforementioned time-loop-travel films and shows (as well as elements of Aliens, The Matrix and a pile of other sci-fi/action classics), and despite the repetition of the premise occasionally strangling its momentum, there’s a lot to like about Edge Of Tomorrow (that title - chosen over the source novel’s All You Need Is Kill -  is not one of them). The action sequences are expertly shot by Bourne Identity and Mr & Mrs Smith director Doug Liman, in particular the first instance we see of the futurist Normandy landings, which probably stand as the best representation of D-Day on film, after Saving Private Ryan. The supporting cast is great too, with Brendan Gleeson and Noah Taylor continuing to be two of the finest character actors of the moment, and Bill Paxton providing a wonderful hardass of a sergeant. However the highest praise has to go Emily Blunt as Rita Vrataski, who can now walk into any high-profile action role she wishes after this. Blunt is truly remarkable, casting off any “English rose” tag which some may have placed on her and kicking ass like Ellen Ripley reborn. In fact, the film would’ve been infinitely improved by switching Cruise and Blunt’s roles around, especially since Blunt’s legendary war hero - alternately nicknamed The Angel of Verdun and Full Metal Bitch - is forced by plot contrivance to step aside midway through the film to let Cruise perform his usual running-based heroics.

There’s also a wonderful vein of comedy running throughout, a branch of what Tyler Durden termed “flashback humour” - expertly placed gags and Gilligan cuts help prevent things from slipping into too much of a grim lull, and laughs are certainly needed amongst the bloodshed and explosions - whilst the score and creature design are both far more interesting than any summer schedule-filler has any right to be

But in spite these elements worthy of praise, the core of Edge is far from sturdy. There are numerous plot holes, as is always the case when messing with time, which would take a lot more words than I’m willing to write to explain, and everything just kind of sputters and slows out around an hour in when Cage and Vrataski become isolated on an abandoned farm for the requisite sexual tension filler. Perhaps I was spoiled by Pacific Rim not cramming a giant square peg of romance into a triangular hole, but there’s really no need for that sort of thing just because you have a male and female lead in your movie. Yeah, it makes narrative sense for Cage to eventually develop feelings for Vrataski after spending what could be years for him in her company, but in the prime timeline, she’s known him for all of a week at the very most, which we’re pretty sure is the dictionary definition of far too long to be around any incarnation of Tom Cruise. There’s also an uncomfortable theme of “war is character building” running throughout, which kinda borders on offensive, depending on your sensibilities.

Perhaps despite its uneven structure and glaring weak points, Edge Of Tomorrow can find a prolonged second life as a slightly silly cult classic, in the vein of Independence Day or Starship Troopers (it certainly shares a lot of similarities with the latter, albeit without its biting and oft misunderstood satirical element). It’s certainly entertaining enough and has just about the right amount of brains. And if it doesn’t, hey, it can just die and come back and try again.