Suicide Squad (2016)

★★

Suicide Squad PosterDirector: David Ayer

Release Date: August 5th, 2016 (UK & US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Comedy

Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto, Joel Kinnaman

One of Batman v Superman’s biggest downfalls, as cited by the majority, was Zack Snyder’s reluctance to at least intermittently swerve away from a brooding tone. You cannot have a superhero movie without fun, right? And Batman v Superman was no fun, right? Perhaps I’m in the minority but I enjoyed the serious streak throughout Snyder’s film. Particularly the creator’s move to inject his superhero outing with a bout of harsh reality (co-writers Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer also deserve credit on that front). The end result never came close to threatening Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, not in genre terms nor thematically, but it did offer an alternative to the mantra of wit championed by Marvel.

Which is to say, essentially, that I was disappointed when I heard about the high profile Suicide Squad reshoots a few months prior to the film’s release. Especially since the rumour mill at the time pinned said reshoots on studio suits requesting more humour, they having seen an early cut of the film. Given this information was made public in early April, just weeks after the release of Batman v Superman, it doesn’t take a Commissioner-Gordon-esque detective to work out why DC higher-ups were worried about Suicide Squad’s tone. It’s a clawing bugbear of mine, changing one’s initial vision to suit the conjectural needs of moviegoers and/or studio execs.

And sure enough, the version of Suicide Squad that has made it through the cutting room and onto our cinema screens is a shell of what it could have — and very well may have — been. Jai Courtney revealed the reshoots were intended to bulk up the film’s action content, which strikes me as odd at best: I can’t say I’ve ever come across an action movie that wrapped filming without enough action. Regardless, if what Courtney claims is true, his words still paint the decision to reshoot sections as a worthless venture. The action in Suicide Squad is, after all, utterly generic. The fantasy elements are weightless. This is less Guardians of the Galaxy and more Thor: The Dark World — no Hiddleston or Hemsworth, only bland enemies and a lot of urban decimation.

Instead we have Will Smith as Deadshot, marksman extraordinaire and de facto leader of a criminal gang assembled by government agent Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) to deal with any catastrophic threat, such as a villainous metahuman. “In a world of flying men and monsters, this is the only way to protect our country,” apparently. Other baddies-on-a-mission include: Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), a psychopath, Courtney’s Captain Boomerang, flame-conjurer El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), and a talking crocodile (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) is the guy keeping them all right in the field, though his mission takes on a more personal pretence when the impending catastrophic threat turns out to be his girlfriend. Well, sort of — it’s Cara Delevingne as archaeologist June Moone corrupted by a bland ancient spirit.

Having decided the successful introduction of so many new faces wouldn’t be enough of a challenge, Ayer also summons Jared Leto to play the iconic Joker character. And since the Joker is a classic Batman villain, Ben Affleck is afforded the opportunity to earn a fleeting Batcheck too. This volume is a problem, the film’s most glaring misstep. Suicide Squad is, by definition, an ensemble piece that should be about connecting the arcs of characters already familiar to us. The idea that anybody could reel off so many personalities and effectively colour each of them with specialised quirks and emotive ticks is absurd. It took four years and five films for Marvel to acclimatise viewers to its universe, and only then could The Avengers work as well as it did. (I don’t mean to invoke Marvel at every opportunity when discussing DC outings, but when the former has perfected a storytelling model it would be remiss of me not to point out the latter’s mistake in ignoring it.)

We have Leto, for instance, whose Joker is set up for big things that never arrive. The actor tries, his interpretation of the infamous bad guy more sex pest than chaos-breeder, but Leto’s lack of screen time means the character never gets the opportunity to develop nuance or follow through on threats. He merely exists as a symbolic construction for Quinn to maniacally lust over. There are others with similar troubles, notably Croc, who infrequently mutters, and Boomerang, who does more drinking than developing. The film even seems to acknowledge this persona overload in a defeatist manner when it unveils another squad member halfway through proceedings only to have him killed off within minutes.

A few have better luck. Robbie sizzles as Quinn. A total tease; bright, breezy, and bonkers. Roman Vasyanov’s camera does leer uncomfortably whenever she is on-screen though, apparently revelling in Quinn’s sex appeal and suggestive demeanour (there are numerous shots of Robbie bending over, the camera positioned conveniently behind her). Granted, Quinn is supposed to purvey an overload of toxic allure before uncovering more empathetic tendencies. If only the filmmakers had more faith in the process of emotion and not appearance. Smith and Davis are solid in their roles, especially the latter, brazen and cold as Waller. Kinnaman’s Rick Flag draws the most sympathy and is the one actually worth rooting for. Kinnaman, star of The Killing, should be in far higher demand.

The film begins with a rush of comic book style, neon text splashing across the screen as it describes the various attributes of our new cinematic inmates. We get short vignettes establishing the main players, these clips incorporated in such a way that they reflect the panel format utilised by their source material. It does feel like the writers are stuck in an introductory loop for around 45 minutes; we see and hear about Deadshot’s impressive skills, and then see and hear about them again as the story remains static. When the action does get going it’s unspectacular, falling foul of the genre’s MacGuffin obsession (something about removing an evil heart). Having said that, these sequences are at least grounded in that gritty, wet aesthetic Ayer seems fond of — see Fury. It feels like events are happening on the street and not in a computer game.

The idea, then, is we’re supposed to root for bad people and then wonder why we’re rooting for bad people. In reversing the moral polarities, Suicide Squad is supposed to encourage a more complex interpretation and consumption of the supervillain (and superhero) identity. That there are varying degrees of villainy, for example, and that perhaps some criminal activity has value in the form of defending us from even greater peril. The truth is you don’t really come away from the film debating the intricacies of that mindset. You leave wondering why you haven’t just watched a Batman solo outing starring Harley Quinn and the Joker.

Suicide Squad - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros.

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

★★★★★

Captain America Civil War PosterDirectors: Anthony and Joe Russo

Release Date: April 29th, 2016 (UK); May 6th, 2016 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science fiction

Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Sebastian Stan, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie

Cards on the table: I’m a massive Captain America fan. Film series and character, but especially character. In The First Avenger, Steve Rogers is puny. A frail, ailing body with great aspirations and an admirable mantra. So he becomes a super solider and fights for his country against the Nazis. It’s great. By the time The Winter Soldier rolls around, Rogers is doing laps of the Capitol building in the year 2013. From the confident patriot, he’s now the unsettled defender of American freedom in a truly globalist world. It turns out Hydra has infected SHIELD; Rogers’ reliance on authority takes a hit. He still fights for freedom, but against whom?

Fast forward to Captain America: Civil War. His corporate distrust has never been more palpable — Rogers, once a willing propaganda figure for the USA, is now thoroughly anti-government. Which poses something of a problem given a guilt-ridden Tony Stark (he funds the projects of MIT students as it “helps ease his conscience”) has aligned himself with a legal arrangement drawn up by the United Nations to help govern superhero affairs. It’s why this incarnation of Stark, completely different from the incarnation relayed by Robert Downey Jr. in the first Iron Man movie, is so interesting. Just like Rogers, Stark has flipped, but in the opposite direction: no longer the rebel, now a willing integrator. And we sympathise with that penchant for integration as much as we do Rogers’ disassociation.

The aforementioned Sokovia Accords are developed in harmony by a conglomerate of nations following the Avengers’ role in the destruction of various cities across the globe. Spearheaded by the UN, the Accords split the protagonists evenly down the middle with Rogers heading up the ‘out’ gang and Stark the ‘in’. From the moment sides are established, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely serve up viable sparring justifications: Rogers fears the new world and its new politics, and believes each superhero should be accountable for his or her own actions. Stark regrets the path his actions have paved, that in shaping a team of valiant world-defenders he has also bred deadly foes like Ultron.

Markus and McFeely have been with Captain America from the beginning and they’ve done the character justice on the page, though kudos also ought to go to those who have helped shape Iron Man. You really feel the weight of history behind each persona and both actors use that pre-established weight with considered aplomb — the first glance between Rogers and Stark in Civil War is momentary, fleeting, and yet the definitive visual symbol for what is to come (spoiler: a disagreement or two). It occurs during a crisis meeting where the film tests our moral mettle via a slideshow showing Avengers-induced decimation, a meeting notable not only because it sets the fragmentation touchpaper alight, but also because it represents the bureaucracy in Stark’s argument.

We see more of that bureaucracy later: when the returning General Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) cuts a mission deadline from 72 to 36 hours, for instance, and also during a key UN conference. “Victory at the expense of the innocent is no victory at all,” states Wakandan leader T’Chaka (John Kani) at said meeting. These are significant words in any circumstance, but coming off the back of Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky — its premise based on powerful people juggling a young girl’s life before a potentially deadly terrorist strike — they resonate with significantly more gravitas. They place Rogers in a predicament that is ethically unusual for a blockbuster hero, especially one built upon a foundation of untainted righteousness: in arguing for free will, Rogers is by proxy defending the notion that some may die on the road to ultimate freedom.

There are grey tendencies in both camps that serve to ripen the narrative core. The ultimatum posed to the Avengers that they must sign the Accords or retire comes across as too heavy-handed, autocratic almost, while Rogers’ stubbornness suggests an insurmountable ideological purity that is perhaps blinding him from the harsh realities of modern geopolitics. The density of the fractured dynamic between those involved, especially between the lead duo, is endlessly compelling and fairly new to the genre I think, at least to the extent depicted here — you could argue X-Men: First Class tackled something similar, though even then Magneto’s presence shepherded a noticeable cloud of villainy.

Previous Marvel movies have been chastised for their lack of proper stakes, for their inability to suspend our disbelief when it comes to decisive matters such as estrangement or death. The nature of announcing franchise instalments years in advance has undoubtedly tainted the element of surprise (chances are Thor will make it past the end credits of Film Two when he’s on the call sheet for Film Three). Which makes Civil War all the more impressive. There are stakes this time, genuine gut-punchers centred on the solidity of relationships between various characters with whom we’ve spent the better part of a decade. If you don’t get that sense of clout from seeing such personal combustion, the frequent use of bold text to outline numerous city names ought to induce a big-time aura.

And despite all the bickering, there remains a wonderfully light touch; a vitality, a hilarity. At times the action is brutish — an apartment ambush involving Cap and Bucky (Sebastian Stan) borrows tepidly from the more crunching style seen in both Daredevil and Jessica Jones. It’s also fantastical: a monumental airport duel between the two teams almost certainly trounces all that has come before in terms of Marvel silver screen choreography. It’s at this point Ant-Man comes to the fore, Paul Rudd stealing scene after scene atop a wave of witty quips. We have seen him before but this is Ant-Man’s introduction to large scale superheroism and it is perfectly handled. Tom Holland’s Spider-Man is another positive, a bit immature, a bit overawed, a total do-gooder.

Though it may become ground zero for those looking to pull off their own future balancing act when it comes to handling personnel in an action environment, the airport clash only amounts to around one-fifth of Civil War’s runtime. The filmmakers manage to carve out meaningful narrative space for all their recruits throughout the piece in a way that does not indicate last minute hot-shotting. Black Panther gets a solid run-out, played with brooding authority by Chadwick Boseman who affords the newbie an air of instant importance. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow returns in a role that requires as much emotional interaction as it does ass-kicking.

Having landed the daunting task of sorting out so many moving parts — different enemies, different friends, different allegiances — the Russo brothers succeed by matching those variables to the many moving moralities on display. I haven’t even mentioned Paul Bettany’s Vision, Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, or Anthony Mackie’s Falcon. Nor have I brought up Daniel Brühl’s scheming villain Helmut Zemo, who might be a tad underserved but then it isn’t really about the baddie on this occasion. This is a formidable cast all in good form. Even Marisa Tomei sneaks in a playful jab clarifying aunts come in all shapes and sizes (take that internet).

Anyone who has any inkling of how blockbuster cinema works will likely recognise what they perceive to be a predictable arc unfolding. But the directing duo and their filmmaking collaborators work hard to induce genuine unpredictability, be it through character decision-making or surprising story reveals. Again the Russo brothers mix hard-boiled geopolitics with a palooza of popcorn-crunching proportions, and again they succeed. In trilogy terms, the Captain America series is by far the best the genre has cooked up to date (Nolan’s Dark Knight films are as much superhero movies as they are love stories) and Civil War is an ideal way to Cap it all off.

Captain America: Civil War - Chris Evans

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

★★★★★

Star Wars The Force Awakens PosterDirector: J.J. Abrams

Release Date: December 17th, 2015 (UK); December 18th, 2015 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy

Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver

If the mark of a great movie lies in its ability to permanently tattoo a grin across the face of its viewer, Star Wars: The Force Awakens might just be one of the best movies ever made. I couldn’t help but smile profusely throughout J.J. Abrams’ stunning series revitaliser, so much so that by the time the credits began to roll (following arguably the best closing shot the saga has produced to date) my jaw felt like it had been tagged by a fiery lightsaber.

We’re drafted straight into the chaos of war, and we see said chaos unfold from the perspective of both sides. Led by the evil Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), stormtroopers invade a small village looking for information on the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), and the one-sided battle that ensues relays a tangible energy missing from those ill-fated prequels. The scene shifts thereafter to Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger rappelling down an airy, desolate craft hoping to find extraneous junk she can later trade for food. Much like Skywalker in A New Hope, we meet Rey draped in white dusty robes — they’ve turned greyish — on a scorching desert planet (Jakku).

Conversely, Ren’s First Order starship is chrome-like and glossy. When we promptly cut back to the vessel it evokes a sense of austereness, of strictly implemented structure, as if fear has been drilled into the crew by Ren and like-minded baddie General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). By fervently switching between light and dark the film sets out its moral compass and highlights some truly wonderful sound design: the swoosh of lightsabers, the echoes of a vast ship. Ren is a terrific villain, full of dangerous complexity. Whereas Darth Vader would check his true emotion at the sliding door and favour an apathetic exterior, Adam Driver grants Ren an unpredictability that only serves to compound his menace.

Finn (John Boyega) is the link bad and good, having escaped the former only to find himself caught up in latter. We have moved away from the post-Cold War machine landscape into a more sinister, dehumanised age — stormtroopers are no longer artificial clones, but actual human beings, and Finn doesn’t want any part of the cruel conformity. He meets Rey on Jakku towards the beginning, at which point Abrams opts to stick with the pair, relying on their camaraderie and bustling chemistry. She is isolated yet wily and proficient; he functions through a humorous backbone likely installed as a defence mechanism against his shady past.

Ridley sparkles with vibrancy and Boyega is instantly likeable; together, they click into gear like a pristine Millennium Falcon. At times, you feel like you’re watching a buddy road trip venture, only here the sputtering cars have been replaced by sky-scoping jets. At one point both Rey and Finn repeat, “I can do this. I can do this,” perhaps speaking on behalf of their director who absolutely has ‘done it’. An information-touting droid named BB-8 trundles alongside the pair, spluttering hilarities. Oscar Isaac gushes charisma as Poe Dameron, premier fighter pilot for the self-descriptive Resistance, but he doesn’t feature nearly enough (nor does Gwendoline Christie’s First Order baddie Captain Phasma, who’ll likely see more screen time in the extended edition Blu-ray).

The Force Awakens wouldn’t be a proper franchise sequel without some crowd-pleasing throwback nods and while these moments are smirk-inducing for those in the know, they also bear just enough subtlety to avoid alienating those taking part for the first time. The snappy one-liners are genuinely funny and this shouldn’t be undervalued; indeed, the fact that many of the gags are rich in Star Wars mythology affords them greater validation. Marvel films, by comparison, employ a similar comedy format and although the jokes are often funny, they don’t quite have the same vitality.

A Kraken-esque battle scene inside a ship unfolds like something out of Doctor Who, only louder and bolder and much, much more expensive. Abrams’ film invokes the same melodramatic filling championed by the original trilogy: characters say mad things with a serious tone and pull it off. This is particularly true of Domhnall Gleeson, who offloads some terrific thespian yabber — 1977 wants its patter back — the best of which manifests during a maniacal speech straight out of Saruman’s playbook. But the outing is a playful fantasy at heart, a grandiose adventure, and everyone knows that. When some sentences creak, and some do, it’s just part of the charm.

That certainly doesn’t mean screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and J.J. Abrams (they redrafted an earlier Michael Arndt script) avoid hefty solemnity. There are instances of genuinely shocking gravitas, moments bolstered by Dan Mindel’s sweeping cinematography. The landscapes that unfold before our eyes feel authentic, primarily because they often are. Fight scenes boast substance too and the action is easy to comprehend, therefore the stakes are raised. John Williams’ score, as if it really needs saying, is as wondrous as ever.

Speaking of revamped classics, a few familiar faces join in on the fun. Harrison Ford’s grouchiness totally fits his older Han Solo, the rogue still fond of heart-warming cynicism. Carrie Fisher doesn’t have an awful lot to do as Leia, now a General, but her presence fuels the film’s emotional weight. Crucially, and this is true of the various other returnees, the duo serve the story: seeing our heroes back together in such a familiar environment is meaningful. It also ages the world in the best way possible — we know it is the same place as before, but we don’t know what fresh mysteries lie beyond the next star.

The beauty of The Force Awakens is that it addresses the nostalgic needs of the many while simultaneously ushering in a contemporary set of filmic variables ripe for fresh storytelling. It’s not just about waiting impatiently for the old guard to reappear; the new faces are a delight. I say four stars for a truly fantastic motion picture romp, and one more to J.J. Abrams for his frankly ballsy decision to take on the hopes of a cine-nation and successfully rekindle that highly sought after magic. We really appreciate it.

Star Wars The Force Awakens - Boyega & Ridley

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

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

Top 8 Films of 2015 (January-June)

In life it’s always worth taking a moment to stop and think. Before crossing the road, for example. During an exam. Just as you’re about to send out those inflammatory tweets. And especially when the cinematic year reaches its midpoint. At half-time, sports teams indulge in a studious team talk. This is our half-time team talk. A period of transitory reflection. Or, plainly, a great excuse to muster up a celebratory list singling out the best films released between January and June. Besides, if Mark Kermode does it, it’s worth doing.

I’ve decided not to include films released last year in the US. As such, the rankings won’t incorporate any of the 2015 Oscar crop – Birdman and Foxcatcher would definitely have made the cut otherwise. Though released this year in the UK, those are technically 2014 films. And so, from the great to the greater, let’s get going.

8. Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice PosterIt is very likely that your face will resemble Joaquin Phoenix’s poster expression by the end of Inherent Vice, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The film has a woozy magnetism that occasionally threatens to blind, but Phoenix’s aloof performance as an oddball 1970s detective keeps us attentive throughout (though probably not wholly aware). Paul Thomas Anderson is a really interesting director and this is another really interesting, if frequently bonkers, journey. Recurrent collaborator Robert Elswit provides hazy mood-setting cinematography. Josh Brolin also shows up bearing the flattest haircut in the history of cinema.

7. Kingsman: The Secret Service

Kingsman PosterAn amalgamation of Kick Ass’ thumping comic violence and Bond’s narrative flow, Kingsman: The Secret Service is an at times dazzling action-comedy. You do occasionally get the sense writer/director Matthew Vaughn’s errant imagination is overruling his common sense, but it is this exuberant mentality that funds the film’s enjoyability. Colin Firth ditches the stuttering king’s speech for something more poised and abrasive, while his fresh on the scene co-star Taron Egerton delivers a breakout performance. Firth also engages in a Quicksilver-esque slow motion church battle that has to be seen to be believed.

6. Jurassic World

Jurassic World PosterAs it continues to chomp its way through the global box office, Jurassic World is fast becoming one of the biggest films of all time in economic terms. Colin Trevorrow’s dinosaur delight is also a nostalgic powerhouse, respectful in its acknowledgement of Steven Spielberg’s breathtaking original but also geared towards a new generation of young, expectant cinemagoers. Underfed screenplay and character problems aside (no outright disasters), this is genuinely enjoyable cinema with a few spine-tingling moments to really savour. Listen out for the reverberations of John Williams’ glorious score, and keep an eye on that flare.

5. It Follows

It Follows PosterDavid Robert Mitchell’s second feature gained a lot of positive traction through word of mouth and subsequently found its way into cinemas nationwide across the UK and US. It Follows opens atop a barrage of tension, most of which the film never loses. There’s a vintage sheen at the fore, broadcast exquisitely via Mike Gioulakis’ rich cinematography, though we never actually find out when the movie is set (adding to the bizarre and unsettling goings-on). Maika Munroe is brilliant as the anti-scream queen in a patiently eerie horror outing that has more in common with John Hughes than it does Rob Zombie.

4. Ex Machina

Ex Machina PosterAnother wonderfully paced piece, Ex Machina manages to be both pristinely clinical and oddly ambiguous. Alex Garland, whose screenwriting backlog includes the stunning Sunshine, makes his directorial debut: a sci-fi mind-jolter set almost entirely within the shiny walls of a remote retreat. The director uses the element of mystery to great effect – character motives are never wholly clear. Oscar Isaac is pally yet deceitful, feeding Domhnall Gleeson’s inquisitive suspicions. Alicia Vikander also superbly captures the uncanny valley-like quality of a humanoid robot.

3. Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers Age of Ultron Poster 2Much like Jurassic World the second Avengers get-together suffers in the screenplay department. However, here it’s a case of over-complication as opposed to a lack of perceived originality. Age of Ultron isn’t difficult to follow, there’s simply a bit too much going on. And you can understand why: these characters are tremendous fun to be around, full of inevitable persiflage, and by now the actors have clicked as a collective unit. As Hawkeye, Jeremy Renner finally gets something meaningful to do and he does it with emotional gravitas. Joss Whedon’s final Marvel bow is one of the studios’ best so far.

2. Girlhood

Girlhood PosterGirlhood, a French independent drama that hones in on one girl’s social and cultural maturity, is quite the opposite. The film is compelling to no end, aided in abundance by lead actor Karidja Touré’s standoffish performance. The first time performer really is a joy to watch and a miraculous casting find. Crystel Fournier’s stylish cinematography contrasts thematically with an otherwise gritty, urban environment, highlighting the difference between dreams and reality. The film also hosts the year’s best scene so far: a stunningly shot group dance to Rihanna’s “Diamonds” that you’ll watch in a state of emotional fluctuation.

1. Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max Fury Road Poster 2Comparing the merits of a low-key European drama and a barnstorming Aussie dystopian epic is a pretty thankless task, but Mad Max: Fury Road just about edges top spot. After a thirty year break, George Miller delivers his best franchise instalment yet. Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy share the same type of niggling chemistry you’d expect to see in the middle of a high-intensity, life or death vehicular war. As Imperator Furiosa Theron is bullish and powerful, but the fact that she has a heart is why we care so much. Miller’s penchant for practical effects works a treat, helping to signify a seminal moment in action cinema.

Images credit: IMP Awards

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

★★★★

Avengers Age of Ultron PosterDirector: Joss Whedon

Release Date: April 23rd, 2015 (UK); May 1st, 2015 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science-fiction

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo

When Marvel rolls into town, you can absolutely expect two things: sarcastic humour and blistering action. The first phase of Kevin Feige’s super-cinema initiative had both of these in abundance. Iron Man brought the wit, Thor the hoopla and while Hulk mainly sulked, Captain America struck a balance between fun and funny. Phase Two, especially since The Winter Soldier, has provided something even more. Sure, those characteristics are still plentiful but now that the franchise’s myriad of characters have had time to flex their muscles — or branches — storytelling has the stage.

In a way, Avengers: Age of Ultron is the perfect amalgamation of everything MCU-related up until now. It is formulaic in the sense that you know the narrative structure before the lights go down: early energetic sequences designed to engross, a meatier, more reserved middle section, and finally a ball-busting finale. That’s not just superhero cinema, that’s action cinema. The antithesis of formulaic, however, is how director Joss Whedon almost manages to divulge equal spotlight to the most star-studded cast on the silver screen.

We re-rendezvous with the Spandexed Six during a battle in the frosty forests of Eastern Europe, where ardent anti-swearer Steve Rodgers (Chris Evans) is calling the shots. The raid is a success, thankfully, with the Avengers managing to obtain Loki’s sceptre. It’s an opening scene worthy of closing many a superhero jaunt, packed with effervescent camera work and some fist-pumping teamwork: Cap and Thor’s shield-hammer double team manoeuvre is a particular highlight. The Asgardian receives the least amount of screen time, certainly it feels that way, which is a shame as Chris Hemsworth’s gallant personification has become a wholesome source of entertainment.

As it turns out, Loki’s magic stick is the final piece Tony Stark needs to initiate his Ultron program, a system designed to defend the world from extraterrestrial threat. Stark’s unfiltered approach, driven by his insistence on protecting others and living up to expectations, ends in disaster when the artificially intelligent Ultron (James Spader) embarks on a violent purge of humankind.

The film fragments its characters when they’re not in the process of resisting their machine-bodied, prescient enemy. Hawkeye finally gets his chance to shine as a result, and Jeremy Renner hits the mark when it comes to emotional beats and wry comedy. A scene towards the end is one of the funniest of the entire franchise, this down as much to the actor as the writing. It pits Hawkeye, bow in hand, directing murmured threats towards a companion (“Nobody would know”). Nobody would.

The bowman has largely been ignored up until this point because he is just that, a supremely skilled man with bow. By inconspicuously embracing this notion, Whedon and company essentially break the third wall. Under the guidance of many others, playing the ‘normal guy challenging adversity’ card might have come across as cheesy and cheap, but Renner’s earnestness encourages us to believe in the character.

Draped in American patriotism and outdated chivalry, Captain America once could have flailed in the same situation — embodying an unrealistic symbol of humanity. Fortunately, since his initiation back in 2011 Chris Evans has injected palpable authenticity into Cap, and here we watch Evans evolve into a true leader with stature and assuredness. Even the egotistic Stark quips, “Actually, he’s the boss”. The piece is littered with Civil War previews built upon the duo’s clashing ideologies, paving the way for another Captain America instalment currently brimming with potential.

Age of Ultron, despite the customary destructiveness, is actually at its most compelling when it hones in on the people involved. It’s basically a quarter of a billion dollar psych evaluation, with relationships tightened or, as above, hollowed. Mark Ruffalo maintains his best-Hulk-yet aura, often sharing solid romantic screen time with Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are the latest lover-to-sibling converts, following on from Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort. The Godzilla co-stars play Wanda and Pietro Maximoff respectively, both welcome additions despite some shaky accent work.

As the main villain, James Spader has stumbled into an almost impossible task. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki managed to eclipse convention by being devious and charismatic in equal measure. Computer generated Ultron is a bad entity, plain and simple, and Spader’s croaky voice is packed full of calm menace, which works really well. But comparison, perhaps unfairly so, is inevitable and the character isn’t as enticing on screen as Loki.

The main problem abound throughout Age of Ultron is a familiar one: in handling so many characters, Whedon must oversee the lighting of touchpaper for multiple story arcs. You can feel the film seeping at the seams on occasion, with so much being rammed into such a short window (though, ironically, two and a half hours is normally an overindulgent runtime). Resultantly, some of the goings-on are left underfed. Hot off heels of Alex Garland’s probing science-fiction parable Ex Machina, the AI story told between Ultron and the Vision here isn’t quite as fascinating as recent evidence suggests it could have been.

Not consigned to resting on its opening sequence laurels, the piece ups the ante even more during a blistering, if somewhat disorienting, conclusion. You do get the sense that the stakes are shuffling their way up a notch the longer the clash between our Avengers and Ultron’s robot army goes on. By the time Brian Tyler and Danny Elfman’s booming score coalesces with Ben Davis’ now signature circular shot, goosebumps are flourishing. We’ve seen it before, and yet it carries no less weight this time around.

This is a Marvel film first and foremost, and a properly pulsating one at that. We live in a cynical world when it comes to big budget blockbuster movies, and at $300 million this is a very big budget blockbuster movie. But it’s one that doesn’t discriminate against proper storytelling and intelligent character development in favour of the extra exploding vehicle. Prompted by a build-up where hype levels usurped dollar bills, Age of Ultron matches expectations — at least, for my money.

Avengers Age of Ultron - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

★★★★★

Guardians of the Galaxy PosterDirector: James Gunn

Release Date: July 31st (UK); August 1st (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science-fiction

Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel

As far as pure cinema goes, Guardians of the Galaxy has all the boxes covered. Sure, we’ve been running on the fumes of superhero momentum for a few years now and with a behemoth such as Marvel Studios behind the film, entering expecting entertainment is an entirely justifiable frame of mind. But James Gunn’s picture never rests on any laurels, it is not satisfied with simply entertaining. Guardians of the Galaxy sets out to interact with the paying customer, to re-establish the genre whilst also refining it. There are laughs, plenty of ’em. Societal threads designed to make us think. And real characters, most importantly. This isn’t just a great addition to the Marvel ranks, it is also a great piece of cinema.

Having lived twenty-six years of his life aboard a scavenger spaceship, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) somewhat innocuously finds in his possession a universe altering orb. The artefact is highly sought after, by none more so than Thanos (Josh Brolin). In an attempt to scupper the success of a threatening deal made between Thanos and Kree radical Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), Quill joins forces with an alien, a warrior, a tree humanoid and a raccoon. Chaos? Ensue.

Balance is pivotal, just ask the bloke in prison with only one leg. Gags, thrills and seriousness are all elements that see plenty of daylight under the astute guidance of James Gunn, a decision that wholly benefits the director’s film. It is tough too, cementing each individual strand without compromising the whole, a concoction Iron Man 3 failed to measure correctly (and look what happened there). Guardians of the Galaxy never stumbles into said pitfall and instead thrives on variation. If the essence of tip-top filmmaking is versatility, we’re looking at a lofty outing. As an audience overly saturated with superhero escapades, we need more. A divergence from the, albeit rather fun, company line. We need space adventures and fresh motives, and both are on the menu here.

As Peter Quill and co’s gallivanting adventures scamper between wondrously constructed civilisations, it becomes increasingly difficult to decipher what might happen next. Mystery and intrigue swivel in and flurry around proceedings, at which point our minds are buzzing with a thirst for more. 10 films into Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, this burst of authentic suspense is truly welcome, particularly at a time when the formula is beginning to wane. And it’s not just the raucous air that commands a sense of thought; Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman also include a frequently rearing class allegory, pitting different species side-by-side in disharmony and challenging social boundaries.

And if you’re just here for a laugh, you could do a whole lot worse. The film is hilarious, and it knows so. There’s a prevailing camaraderie between audience and filmmaker; collectively, we know this is all a bit absurd — a tree with a conscience, a raccoon with a rocket launcher — so why not revel in the madness? Brilliant one-liners (“Pelvic sorcery”) make way for equally funny banterous group deliberations. Despite oozing a retro vibe, the film still bears more than a semblance of accessibility. Newcomers will leave filled to the brim on “bro” lingo, whereas the more mature amongst us can lap up Footloose references — of all people, Kevin Bacon becomes one the best running gags on screen this side of 2014. Or, like me, you can inelegantly giggle at everything. Guardians of the Galaxy has a heart, one that beats for all-comers.

At the epicentre of its heart is a ramshackle gaggle of misfits. Forget cookie-cutter characters, these five are dense to the nth degree. Chris Pratt plays Peter Quill — though he prefers Star-Lord — and is the glue that holds the guardians together. Pratt is on a mission to stardom himself, and his performance here is another indication of the leading man’s talent. He injects Quill with some soul and, rather than becoming the conventional male hero, embarks down a slightly less glamorous yet equally loveable path. No doubt buoyed on by his Parks and Recreation experience, Pratt also has comic timing down to a T. Zoe Saldana is Gamora, the kick ass alien who is sort of Thanos’ daughter but sort of not. Saldana has already proven her worth on the blockbuster stage and her mystique is integral as it affords the group an ambiguous streak.

Perhaps the most impactful performance emerges from wrestler turned actor Dave Bautista. No doubt, his skills inside a ring prove handy when it comes to fulfilling a number of exciting fight sequences, but it is the big man’s sincerity that really shines through. Drax takes everything literally — a trait that often tickles the funny bone — but he is never presented as stupid. He’s had a tough time in life and he is a tough guy, but Drax is also an endearing presence and Bautista deserves huge credit for ensuring that this is case. Groot is the Hodor at large, partnered alongside the spitfire raccoon, Rocket. Bradley Cooper’s voice work is both persuasive and energetic. A wit-off between Tony Stark and Rocket must be in the pipeline. The aforementioned quintet mesh together like a rugged patchwork quilt: rough and probably a bit dirty, but entirely warming.

Unlike The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy is not an all guns blazing affair. There are a lot guns and they do embark on a hefty amount blazing, but that comes with the territory. We get the sense that the engine is only revved half-way, that the future is dangling the promise of a whole lot more. And that is thrilling. We’re only in the introductory phase of this particular relationship and, while the sparklers are sizzling now, fireworks undoubtedly lie ahead. The comparatively small-scale feel, then, is really charming and quite emotive. Subsequently a deeper connection with the characters ignites. The film’s mischievously dated soundtrack has a hand in generating this personable aura. Its compilation is a masterstroke, making for a number of unorthodoxly funny mishmash sequences — Cherry Bomb is particularly rollicking.

Going forward, one thing is a certainty: if this is Marvel’s new prerogative, then rest assured that next time the comic book logo appears on screen we’ll be in good hands. “If there’s one thing I hate it’s a man without integrity,” rings out early on. I’d like to think that Guardians of the Galaxy is gender-neutral and I’m convinced it is bursting with integrity. It’s also Marvel’s best film to date.

Guardians of the Galaxy - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures