Ant-Man (2015)

★★★★

Ant-Man PosterDirector: Peyton Reed

Release Date: July 17th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Action; Science fiction

Starring: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Corey Stoll

Superhero movies are more popular than ever. They are financial juggernauts, crowd pleasers, cinema monopolisers. Since 2008, when Marvel gave unabashed life to the genre via Iron Man, venues have been awash with new crusaders donning new suits and old crusaders challenging old enemies. The average annual production rate is at least four outings per year — if we’re only counting those bearing Marvel or DC comic heritage — with only a handful of monetary flops to date.

In some quarters, inevitable suggestions of superhero fatigue are beginning to sound out (not over here, admittedly). Good thing, then, that Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is closing with a refreshing injection of sardonicism and locality. Despite the size-adjusting suit and Avengers references, Ant-Man sidesteps many of its predecessors’ elements. A good guy with peculiar powers does set out to stop a bad guy who lives for greed, but everything occurs within a grounded framework. If Ant-Man is a superhero film, it’s not quintessential Marvel.

When Dr. Hank Pym’s (Michael Douglas) game-changing technology is replicated by his former protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), the former S.H.I.E.L.D. employee recruits moral ex-con Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) in an attempt to scupper any mischief. It’s the classic origin plot and, as such, characters engage in quite a lot of backstory explanation. Hank and his daughter Hope, played by Evangeline Lilly, go through the verbal wringer in record time; from a seemingly amiable introduction, the pair quickly develop a fractious relationship which is apologetically resolved before the half-way mark.

As opposed to being the product of many pens — Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, and Paul Rudd all have screenplay credits — you get the sense that this overeagerness to explain histories and cement rapports is an origin movie problem. It leaves relationship arcs a little fragile, particularly when the barrage of audible exposition could have been conveyed less abrasively through ocular interactions.

Lilly and Michael Douglas slip into their respective roles with confidence. The former should have more do to, especially in the final act when the action amps up a notch, but her version of Hope van Dyne is smart, tough, composed and fiery. There’s undoubtedly more fleshing out to come. With seventy years under his belt and a frazzled exterior, Douglas is well cast as the ousted scientist with a chip on his shoulder. His early intentions are concrete (“As long as I’m alive, nobody will ever have the formula”) but Pym’s tragic past increasingly urges him to put his daughter ahead of the end goal.

For this is, more than anything, a film about familial care and compassion. Scott Lang’s previous criminal rightdoings — like a modern day Robin Hood, he illegally redistributed a lot of money to a lot of customers — get in the way of him seeing his daughter. There is desperation in Paul Rudd’s eyes, though nothing too melodramatic. He excels, relaying a brazen charm that is only bolstered by his principled thievery. His character could have been a psychopath and it wouldn’t have mattered; we were always going to root for Rudd anyway. The actor rewards that loyalty with one of the most likeable MCU performances so far: awkward and evasive, yet wholly endearing.

The humour is consistent throughout. It is a mellower first half, where Rudd’s pre-costume antics resemble his downbeat comedy roles (such as Role Models or This Is 40). Scott gets fired from his job for being an ex-con but his oddball boss allows him to nab a free Mango Fruit Blast before he leaves. Director Peyton Reed borrows some of Marvel’s wit and meshes that with Apatow-esque flippancy. As the film progresses occasional chuckles make way for frequent guffaws. A naive Michael Peña is tremendously amusing, similarly getting increasingly funnier: “Baaaack it up, back it up slowly,” is one of many comedic highpoints.

But Ant-Man opts for more than just plain wisecracks, poking fun at its genre — and, by definition, Marvel — too with loving cynicism. Edgar Wright, who vacated the directorial seat citing creative differences shortly before the start of filming, is still around in spirit. Any playful sarcasm is almost certainly his, low-key and delightfully devious, and the frequently zany score sounds like something out of his wheelhouse. Two Peña explanation montages have the same swooshy momentum as Simon Pegg’s zombie dodging plans in Shaun of the Dead (apparently those sequences are spawns of Reed and McKay). At one point Ant-Man sprints across a small-scale model city as pursuing bullets send cardboard splinters all over — a mini, tongue-in-cheek jab at the likes of Avengers Assemble and Man of Steel. We’re at a point now where the grandiose madness, the ridiculousness of superhero movies, can be the butt of the joke without consequence.

Far from a genre that lacks superior visual quality, it is still worth noting the brilliant technical work on display during Ant-Man. Our first insect adventure is exceedingly slick and inventive, shot in a way that somehow provokes genuine exhilaration from a tiny man getting stuck in a hoover and scampering away from a rat. The shrinking too provides a new avenue for action-drama; rather than lambasting us with shoot-outs, fun heists from the Mission: Impossible school of versatility prevail. Russell Carpenter’s colourful cinematography is also aided by Dan Lebental and Colby Parker, Jr.’s momentum-driving editing: our hero’s anti-Herculean training montage is funny, believable and moves the plot forward.

Only when someone mentions the Avengers — whose non-appearance is put down to Pym’s wariness of Tony Stark’s techno-autocrat sensibilities, and given Stark’s arc in Avengers: Age of Ultron we are inclined to side with Pym on this one — does it strike you that Ant-Man is part of their universe. The world doesn’t need saving here. Although there are Armageddon implications, the film’s disciplined approach localises any reverberations. Neither format is right or wrong, but the second is less worn out and that’s hugely beneficial. The silliness gets over more because characters are not surrounded by Norse Gods with flying hammers or angry green mutant beings — a scene showing ants juggling sugar cubes would probably get lost in those fantasies, but here it is odd and amusing.

This quasi-minimalist structure also adds weight to the villainous Darren Cross’ suggestion that his Ant-Man copycat suit will solve geopolitical tensions outwith plain sight. The idea reflects notions of surveillance and higher powers undermining their citizens’ privacy. Wright and company flirt with the Snowden effect but the movie probably isn’t as incisive as it wants to be, otherwise it might have made a compelling thematic companion piece to the more confident Captain America: The Winter Solider.

Ant-Man is a genre rebel though, a sneaky outcast doing its own sly thing. The very fact that it is less integral to the overarching MCU saga than any other film up until now is what makes the flick so attractive. Forget its bite-sized impact, this one has left a Hulking impression.

Ant-Man - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

★★★★

Director: Peter Jackson

Release Date: December 13th, 2013 (UK/US)

Genre: Action; Fantasy

Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly

Peter Jackson’s carrot-wielding Bree resident looks knowingly at the screen before sidling along the rainy, muddy Middle-earth town. Moments later the smoky, beer-filled room of the Prancing Pony inn hosts dwarf-heir Thorin as he glances wearily around clutching his axe in preparation for any potential attack. Gandalf the Grey sits opposite him, enticing us with familiar wispy tones, underplayed confidence and Lord of the Rings lingo (“We’ve been blind… and in our blindness the enemy has returned”).

We’re back. No, it’s not quite the Middle-earth from a decade ago — or, narratively, decades later — but it was never going to be. Rather, The Desolation of Smaug signals a return to the comfort of Peter Jackson’s pre-Lord of the Rings universe, and already proceedings seem more urgent than last time around.

Following their narrow escape from the Misty Mountains and temporary fending off of Orc war chief Azog, Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and his company of dwarfs find themselves splintered from Gandalf (Ian McKellen), who must investigate the state and whereabouts of an evil necromancer boasting powers that are ever-growing. As they part ways for the time being, Gandalf suggests that the best way to continue on their journey towards the Lonely Mountain and Erebor, is for the group to travel through a dishevelled, haunting forest, rather than treading two-hundred miles north and going around it. In the first film, the dwarfs and Bilbo most certainly would’ve taken the long route, and would definitely have sung an out-of-place song about picking mushrooms or making fire en route. Many of the previous instalment’s shortcomings (long-comings, even) are brushed to the side this time though, as the film hurtles along at a splendidly speedy pace, with plenty of action and wit to serve.

In fact, the variety of creature encounters and battle sequences give The Desolation of Smaug a much needed burst of energy from the get-go, unlike An Unexpected Journey which never really hit any kind of stride until Bilbo’s magnetic encounter with Gollum. Sadly Gollum does not feature here, however Bilbo does partake in a similarly dynamic conversation with Smaug the dragon, a meeting which is surprisingly full of more humour than tension. Martin Freeman comes into his own as the Hobbit Baggins, and along with a new found purpose through which his character evolves, Freeman also offers more than a handful of genuinely laugh-out-loud moments. His hurried, fidgety approach works expertly as he is often seen placing his cohorts before himself, exemplified during the tremendous barrel scene. However Bilbo’s engaging back-and-forth with Smaug sits effortlessly at the pinnacle of Freeman’s performance. Benedict Cumberbatch plays the dragon and, unlike Gandalf who possesses an assuring whispery tone, delivers his speeches deceitfully and slyly, as the words echo off the screen.

For a film (and trilogy) entitled “The Hobbit” we really could’ve done with more of said small being. At over two hours and 40 minutes (nine minutes shorter than the previous film) there is bountiful time for director Peter Jackson to tell the story of Bilbo finding the Ring and how the poisoned chalice affects him, however the film only breezes over the developing relationship between Hobbit and Ring. Rather, The Desolation of Smaug puts greater emphasis on the relationship triangle which incorporates a returning-to-the-franchise Legolas (Orlando Bloom), new-to-the-franchise Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and already-in-the-franchise Kili (Aidan Turner). The return of a makeup-laden Legolas is smart move on Jackson’s part as both the elf and Tauriel are the primary vehicles of energy, dispatched by way of exhilarating, fun-to-watch battle sequences; we even see Legolas skate via Orc rather than shield, as he did in The Two Towers. However unlike the romance sub-plot featured throughout the original trilogy (both book and film), the love triangle here feels very forced and artificial. Its creation was conceived exclusively for the big screen, but the film does not need it for added drama or emotion — that is already there as part of Bilbo’s journey.

The Desolation of Smaug is too long, although at no time does it noticeably falter as a consequence. There is more than enough going on to keep the audience attentive, and as a result the film looks more like a film than it does a congregation of set-pieces. Along with the reduced frame-rate (in most cinemas, back from 48 frames per second to 24) the swift advancement of proceedings prevents the viewer from becoming bored and spending their time staring at background objects that look exceedingly prop-like in a higher frame-rate environment — this hampered part one. The typically Lord of the Rings wide-shots which span over landscapes are beautifully shot and film’s computer-generated additions mesh in well. In an interesting move by Jackson, we see a number of mirroring scenes which serve both as a warning of evil times to come, and as a chance to reflect. For instance, Bilbo twanging the spider web and alerting many spiders a la Pippin knocking the metal armour down a shaft, in turn waking the goblins in Moria, and Thorin’s emphatic “What say you?” in his Aragorn-esque speech demanding affirmation, are two examples. Perhaps the most poignant of all though, is the elderly dwarf Balin’s declaration of his admiration for Hobbits, “It never ceases to amaze me, the courage of Hobbits,” which he unveils with the same authenticity as Gandalf does towards Frodo early in The Fellowship of the Ring.

Peter Jackon’s passion for the subject matter seeps through in abundance here and his decision to split the cinematic adaptation of The Hobbit into three films looks a great deal more justified by the end of The Desolation of Smaug (though there’s still a way to go). Martin Freeman shines as Bilbo Baggins in a sequel which, although still has its downsides, succeeds its predecessor both narratively and in content.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Out December 13th, 2013)

As presumably everybody already knows, the trailer for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug was released yesterday. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first of a forthcoming trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel, opened in cinemas back in December of 2012, and has now taken over $1 billion dollars at the box office. With all the fanfare behind the franchise and excitement starting to build already, I think it is fair to say that by this time next year, The Desolation of Smaug will have come close to that figure again, and perhaps have even exceeded it.

An Unexpected Journey, directed by The Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, delivered a more light-hearted Middle-earth (in comparison to Middle-earth during The Lord of the Rings trilogy) and it is more than likely that part two of The Hobbit, which Jackson helms again, will be portrayed in a similar vein. For me, this is by no means a bad thing — the book itself is certainly less downbeat than its successors and therefore the film does not need to be either. The problem I had with An Unexpected Journey was its less-than-unexpected runtime, which approached almost three hours. Jackson had stated in interviews before the film was released that he was looking into using excerpts from Tolkien’s other related writings (Unfinished Tales and such), and as it turned out, he used a few more than he probably should have (such as the scene with bumbling wizard Radagast the Brown and his energetic rabbits). Something tells me The Desolation of Smaug will have a similarly long runtime, but at the end of the day if it means I am sitting for an extra hour in a cinema, why should I be complaining?

“Wait, you’re saying these are just… chocolate coins?”

The trailer for The Desolation of Smaug certainly looks more action-packed than the previous instalment, as Martin Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins and his troupe of companions continue on their journey to the Lonely Mountain and an impending meeting with the dragon, Smaug. We see an array of new characters making an appearance in the trailer (such as Lost’s delightful Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel) and old faces returning (the ever-popular Orlando Bloom is back as the, well… ever-popular Legolas). Stephen Fry finally gets his debut in the franchise as the Master of Lake-town and Martin Freeman’s Sherlock compatriot, Benedict Cumberbatch, plays the dragon — who better (than Kanyon… never mind)? Aside from those four, many of the previous actors from An Unexpected Journey are set to reprise their roles, signalling the return of people like Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey, Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield and James Nesbitt as Bofur the dwarf. We are even getting the pleasure of another Andy Serkis performance as Gollum.

Particular events outlined in the book which stick out in the trailer include the barrel scene, the company’s arrival and travels through places such as Mirkwood and Dale, and the eventual confrontation with Smaug. We even get a greater glimpse of the dragon right at the end of the trailer (as opposed to just an eye in the previous film). Once again, it appears that the graphics team and visual departments have all worked wonders on the actual viewing aspect of the piece, as the detail exuding from the trailer alone looks magnificent, an element common in Jackson’s films — they tend to be truly cinematic and spectacular (take The Lovely Bones as an example).

One thing is for sure, at the hands of Peter Jackson, regardless of runtime or unnecessary scenes or any number of frames per second, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is certain to be a visually stunning, exciting and hugely enjoyable watch for all.