Review: Ant-Man

Paul-Rudd-Ant-Man-Movie

DIR: Peyton Reed • WRI:  Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, Paul Rudd • PRO: Kevin Feige • DOP: Russell Carpenter • ED: Dan Lebental, Colby Parker Jr. DES: Shepherd Frankel, Marcus Rowland • MUS: Christophe Beck • CAST: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Hayley Atwell

 

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is a well-to-do burglar who has finished serving his time. Now he wants to reconnect with his daughter but his inability to pay child support puts up an immediate roadblock. Having vowed never to return to prison, Scott attempts to go straight but finds it impossible to get a job with his criminal history. Reluctantly, he agrees to a ‘what could possibly go wrong?’ heist but ends up with nothing to show for it but a strange suit and helmet that exhibits unusual properties. Meanwhile, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) is a reclusive scientist who created a weapon back in the Cold War days that proved effective but which he kept to himself due to his distrust of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the devastating potential of the weapon if it fell into the wrong hands. However, in the present, Pym’s former protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) is close to perfecting his own version of Pym’s Ant-Man program in the form of Yellowjacket; a miniaturised suit of power armour he fully intends to sell to the highest bidder. Fearing the chaos this could bring on a global scale, Pym, along with his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), recruit Scott to pull off the heist of his career but with one ‘small’ twist…

 

With the departure of Wright and Cornish from the production, it seems like most people just decided this was going to be Marvel’s first big failure. And, personally speaking, going in with those diminished expectations made the surprise of just how fun this movie is all the more enjoyable to experience. Make no mistake, this movie still has ‘damage control’ written all over it. From an opening prologue that exists almost solely to remind you of previous movies by briefly bringing back Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter and John Slattery’s Howard Stark, to a hugely enjoyable but entirely extraneous Avengers detour halfway through the movie, you can almost see the studio notes on-screen demanding more fan-service in an attempt to placate those who only came to throw stones at the lack of Wright/Cornish-ness. Add in the heavy emphasis on (largely ad-libbed by the looks of it) comedy and you can tell they really want this to be this year’s Guardians of the Galaxy. It would be genuinely surprising if this manages to do anywhere near Guardians business but in terms of entertainment and tone, it’s pretty much on par.

 

There is a lot to like here. Rudd is a compelling lead and lots of fun, Lilly is solid and Douglas is clearly really enjoying himself. Stoll is the only real weak-link but a sub-par villain in a Marvel movie is at this point neither surprising nor much of an issue. In a reverse of the usual Marvel problem, Ant-Man actually starts off a bit weak and only gets stronger as it goes on. The final act is both dramatically and comedically the peak of the film. Meanwhile, the first chunk of the movie, while consistently funny, feels in desperate need of tightening up. Basically, once the heists and montages get going, the film only goes from strength to strength but getting there can feel like a bit of a chore. Speaking of montages, the visualisations of Michael Peña’s labyrinthine descriptions of how he attained ‘x’ piece of information are both the best thing in the film and laugh-out-loud funny. It’s a real pity there aren’t a couple more of them.

 

In terms of everything else, there’s not much to comment on. Reed’s direction is adequate but can’t hope to live up to the now never-to-be-realised potential that Wright’s gleefully frenetic style could have wrought. (That said, there is a great sequence near the end with some distinctly trippy visuals, it’s only a pity Reed doesn’t go that far more often.) Christophe Beck’s score goes largely unnoticed but the credits showcase a fun main theme and his frequent throwback pieces of old-fashioned caper music are enjoyable. There are clear attempts to ape Guardians’ use of licensed tracks and while it never reaches that level, there are a couple of fun sequences in that regard. The supporting cast are almost all fine. It is, however, very annoying to see yet another movie in as many months where Judy Greer is playing the mother of a plot-centric child and is ultimately given nothing to do. But now I’m just nitpicking.

 

While Marvel has somehow managed to (yet again) maintain their winning streak, this is the year the cracks start to show. Age of Ultron was little more than a very enjoyable, perfectly produced but entirely disposable fireworks display. Now we have Ant-Man which looks for all the world like Marvel trying to recapture the Guardians magic for a second time. While it lacks the consistent freshness that film displayed, there is a lot of good in this film overall. It’s also hugely refreshing to see a Marvel movie with such a noticeably small scale (pun very much intended). No cities get destroyed (only a single building explodes!), the world is never in immediate danger and the overall death toll is very conservative by blockbuster standards (it could even be in the single digits, on reflection). Any film in which the big final battle takes place in a child’s bedroom with the hero and villain fighting with a trainset deserves a lot of credit in our current climate of summer movies with a fetish for genocide, one city at a time.

 

While the final film is a tad more forgettable than it could have been in its original creators’ hands, there’s no denying this is one of the better comedies of the year, a decent action film, a fun caper and yet another name to add to the list of niche-appeal characters Marvel somehow managed to make good, crowd-pleasing films out of. Now, where’s my damn Hawkeye movie/Netflix miniseries, Marvel?

Richard Drumm

 

12A (See IFCO for details)
116 minutes

Ant-Man is released 17th July 2015

Ant-Man – Official Website

 

 

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The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies

hobbit-battle-five-armies-gandalf-galadriel
DIR:  Peter Jackson • WRI: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro • PRO: Carolynne Cunningham, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Zane Weiner • DOP: Andrew Lesnie • ED: Jabez Olssen • DES: Dan Hennah • MUS: Howard Shore • CAST: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Evangeline Lilly, Hugo Weaving, Orlando Bloom
 

The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies starts with an ending – or what seems like it should have been an ending. Smaug’s attack on Laketown is a deeply peculiar choice to open the film with. Everybody’s in the middle of doing something, and we have no time to catch up as we’re breathlessly thrown into an elaborate action setpiece. The strange thing is, as soon as it’s over – and it doesn’t account for much more than 15 minutes of screentime – it feels like the film proper has started too, with the pace mellowing (temporarily) and plenty of time given to re-establishing the characters and their new motivations.

The entire Laketown arc would have worked well as one entity – whether as the ending of one film or the beginning or middle of another. Split as it is, with a gap of a year since the pointless Desolation of Smaug cliffhanger and its resolution, the sequence here serves as an ill-judged prologue. It’s separate from the rest of the Smaug story for no obvious reason other than some perceived need to open with an action spectacle – something that can’t help but seem surplus to requirements in a film where a good half the running time is given over to action spectacle anyway (the clue’s in the title).

It is but one more symptom of a problem that has been obvious since An Unexpected Journey, arguably even since the announcement of the three film plan – The Hobbit never needed three films. There’s one, maybe two, good films buried in here somewhere, but they have been smothered as a result of the method of delivery. Some of it will play better when all three films are available to watch in quick succession – better yet, when somebody does a much-needed, clinically brutal fan edit (it won’t be Peter Jackson, who has released Extended Editions for these films which badly need the opposite approach). But watching them in the cinema with a year between releases, The Hobbit has been a slog – worse, a trio of slogs.

I consider this pretty faint praise, but The Battle of the Five Armies is probably a little better than its predecessors. Not insignificant is that it’s a good bit shorter than either of the first two films, meaning it’s less top-heavy in terms of ‘stuff’. Adjusted expectations also surely factor into that, along with the fact that there have never been any illusions that the film was going to be much more than an extended battle scene. There’s more to it than a five army melee, but not much more.

The battle itself… well if you’ve seen The Lord of the Rings you know what you’re letting yourself in for. It’s an hour-long affair, cutting back and forth between the various factions a la the battles of Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith.  While there’s plenty of individuals to follow, to Jackson’s credit he allows us relatively lengthy unbroken stretches with most of them, meaning it doesn’t feel as disjointed or hyperactive as it could have been. The battle itself is fine, I suppose – it’s pretty standard fare, enlivened by a few imaginative moments (a new twist on the Orc battering ram stands out). There’s still an over-tendency towards having characters swoop in at the last second to manufacture drama – a trick Jackson has overplayed throughout the series.

The eponymous battle also serves as a firm reminder of Jackson’s over-reliance on CG, which has been another major sticking point throughout The Hobbit saga. While generally far less cartoony than the other films, there’s still a real lack of physicality to much of Five Armies’ action and characters, the Orcs particularly. Although this is often obvious during the action – one shot of Legolas running across a collapsing bridge is very poor indeed – it’s almost worse during a number of dialogue-heavy scenes where actors are clearly standing in front of green screens. The The Lord of the Rings struck the perfect balance between CG and practical effects, makeup and locations. The Hobbit feels overly artificial, comparable to – dare I say it? – the Star Wars prequels of all things.

On either side of the battle – and even occasionally during it – there are some solid character moments, however. Bilbo’s relationship with Thorin is well handled (bar a misjudged ‘dream’ sequence that fumbles badly in its attempt to visualise Thorin’s descent into madness), and gives Martin Freeman in particular some great material – that’s a good thing, considering he has often been relegated to the sidelines in a film where even the title declares him to be our protagonist. Near the end, Freeman also enjoys a great, almost silent scene with Ian McKellen as Gandalf, albeit one undermined slightly by a less impressive follow-up a couple of minutes later. There are plenty of subplots to resolve, but the film does not spend quite as much time on them as Return of the King did, which is a relief.

The Hobbit may be a marginally learner and sometimes meaner films that its predecessors, but that’s not to say there isn’t filler – in fact, there’s plenty. The screenwriters’ manufactured ‘star-crossed love story, and Legolas too!’ subplot is a dreary distraction, that amounts to little more than Evangeline Lilly’s character learning the meaning of true love. Blegh. Several characters could easily be excised to the benefit of the film’s pacing. That, for example, is true of Alfrid, played by Ryan Gage, and not coincidentally another of Jackson and Co’s own creations. He’s a crudely written stereotype even in a franchise that trades in archetypes, and bafflingly several of the film’s key characters repeatedly trust him to carry out important tasks despite the fact that he’s clearly a backstabbing rat and does little to disguise it. The sheer bulk of characters, meanwhile, means Jackson cannot possibly afford many of them much screen space, and hence they often disappear for huge swathes of the running time (the band of dwarves particularly suffer in that regard). In some cases, we don’t hear from them again at all for no apparent reason.

Battle of the Five Armies also continues The Hobbit series’ tradition of clunky callbacks to The Lord of the Rings. There are several remarkably unsubtle nods to what is to come – they could only be more obvious if the characters in question turned to the audience and remarked “this is a reference to what’s going to happen to me in The Lord of the Rings, by the way”, followed by a cheeky to-camera wink and a ‘To Be Continued’ title card. That said, the superfluous prequelising of the story does lead to what is easily the film’s – and possibly The Hobbit as a whole’s – best set piece. Several of Middle Earth’s most recognisable ancillary characters get to show off their fighting skills in a visceral supernatural showdown, with Jackson illustrating a sense of brutal visual panache barely seen elsewhere in the trilogy. It’s the climax of a redundant subplot spread out across all three films, but hey at least it concludes in style.

The Hobbit ends as it started – bloated and clunky, albeit with scattered moments that capture, however briefly, the alchemy that made The Lord of the Rings so successful. That’s a formula the new trilogy failed to replicate consistently or convincingly as it stretched a modest adventure story beyond breaking point. Maybe a fan edit will salvage it one of these years – creating the one great film The Hobbit could have, perhaps even should have been.

Anybody have Topher Grace’s number?

Stephen McNeice

12A (See IFCO for details)
144 minutes.
Battle of the Five Armies
is released 12th December.

Battle of the Five Armies – Official Website

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Cinema Review: Real Steel

Round 100

DIR: Shawn Levy • WRI: John Gatins • PRO: Shawn Levy, Susan Montford, Don Murphy, Robert Zemeckis • ED: Dean Zimmerman • DOP: Mauro Fiore • DES: Tom Meyer • CAST: Hugh Jackman, Evangeline Lilly, Anthony Mackie, Kevin Durand

Rocky With Robots? Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em The Movie? Transformers Fight Club? Yes, all of these jokes have already been made, and yes, it is very easy to come up with more of them. But after watching the movie, it becomes so much harder to make fun, as it’s been a long time since a movie has worn its heart so earnestly on its sleeve.

Hugh Jackman is the retired boxer trying to make a living in the new world of Robot Boxing. When we first meet him, his robot is wrestling a bull, the robot loses, and he makes a run for it without paying up his losses. In the next scene, he is selling his son to his brother-in-law. In short, he is not the nicest of guys. But through some barely thought out plot contrivances, Jackman is left minding his son for the summer, they find a very old boxing robot, and pretty soon they’re learning to love each other while ten-tonne machines are knocking ten shades of oil out of each other in the background.

There is a lot wrong with this movie; the stunningly overt product placement, the diabetes causing levels of saccharin, the kid (Dakota Goyo) is so annoying that you start wishing one of the robots to accidentally collapse on him… But then theres the fantastically realised robot fight scenes, the walking charisma machine that is Hugh Jackman, the stunningly beautiful Evangeline Lilly as his only friend, and a final fight that will have you cheering louder than the end of Warrior. Much like the scrapheap robot at its centre, yes this movie is stupid, but its heart is in the right place.

Rory Cashin

Rated 12A (see IFCO website for details)
Real Steel is released on 14th October 2011

Real Steel– Official Website

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The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker

DIR: Kathryn Bigelow • WRI: Mark Boal • PRO: Kathryn Bigelow, Mark Boal, Nicolas Chartier, Greg Shapiro • DOP: Barry Ackroyd • ED: Chris Innis, Bob Murawski • DES: Karl Júlíusson • CAST: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Bryan Geraghty, Evangeline Lilly

Jeremy Renner may not have received an Oscar® nomination earlier this year for The Hurt Locker, yet he more than deserved it. In Kathryn Bigelow’s (Point Break, K 19:The Widowmaker) excellent Iraqi war movie, his is the standout performance in what could be considered the first truly effective look at the war in Iraq ,or, more specifically, the occupation of Iraq by US-led forces. As bomb disposal expert Staff Sergeant William James, Renner brings an intensity and believability to a role that, like the film as a whole, could so easily have succumbed to the clichés that are home to many war movies, be it melodramatic, crazed soldiers or pseudo-lecturing on the depravity of war.

Based on Mark Boal’s book of the same name, The Hurt Locker focuses on a Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) Bomb Disposal unit with Bravo Company in modern day Baghdad. The unit, consisting of Staff  Sgt James, Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Bryan Geraghty) are sent to areas where there are suspected bombs, with Sgt. James, the maverick soldier of the piece, sent into the firing line as the man tasked with defusing whatever device may or may not be planted on the streets of Iraq.

In the film’s opening scene, we see James’s predecessor with Bravo Company, Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce), killed, after the bomb which he aimed to defuse was set off by a nearby shopkeeper. As the viewer soon realises, the soldiers stationed in Iraq take every little move as potentially hostile and often with good reason – an idle car, an individual using their phone, even a misplaced piece of rubble all pose deadly risks to those monitoring the streets of Iraq. In less capable hands this point could well have been laboured, but Bigelow effectively builds up the tension and paranoia which constantly follows the soldiers in their actions. Indeed, the narrative is set up according to how many days are left in Bravo Company’s ‘rotation’ in Iraq, putting forward the very real time-bomb of survival these young soldiers face.

Bigelow’s film may infuriate some viewers for ostensibly taking at times an apolitical stance towards the conflict. Yet permeating the surface are instances of Bigelow probing the mindsets of the men sent to take part in this war and the dichotomy of service versus survival. Indeed, throughout The Hurt Locker, Mark Boal’s script is littered with acerbic comments on the realities on the ground. After US soldiers arrest a taxi driver who sped passed a checkpoint without stopping, Sgt. James wryly comments, ‘If he wasn’t an insurgent before, he sure the hell is now’. In another instance, a US Soldier asks Sgt. James, ‘Can’t we just shoot him?’ in reference to an innocent family man who begs the US soldiers to defuse a bomb he was made to carry. Whilst Specialist Eldridge and Sgt. Sanborn see little point in the conflict; for Sgt. James his role as a bomb technician is a calling – something he was born to do and which he excels at. Reckless and brash (taking his protective suit off whilst defusing bombs), he is more at home on the streets of Iraq than the domesticity of the US, seen so lucidly in his bafflement at trying to choose a cereal from the multitude on offer in a supermarket on his return home. Moments of simple humanity and camaraderie punctuating the lives of the soldiers do at times feel forced, yet at the same time are all the more poignant given the veritable vacuum which Iraq poses for these men. Thus, a simple friendship between Sgt. James and an Iraqi boy nicknamed ‘Beckham’ is surprisingly believable as James struggles to bond with his fellow soldiers at Camp Victory (As Sgt. Sanborn caustically notes, Camp Victory was formerly called Camp Liberty, but ‘Victory sounds better’).

The film’s close may seem like a calling card for enlistment in Iraq, yet this would be to miss Bigelow/Boal’s crucial point. Whatever about the merits of the Iraqi invasion or occupation, the viewpoints of the soldiers on the ground are equally revealing – isolated, dangerous and constantly fighting for survival, Iraq is a twilight zone not only for modern warfare, but modern life itself.

Jason Robinson
(See biog here)

Rated 15A (See IFCO website for details)
The Hurt Locker is released on 28th August 2009

The Hurt Locker – Official Website

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