Ant-Man (2015)

★★★★

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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 Lucky Ones (2008)

★★★

The Lucky Ones PosterDirector: Neil Burger

Release Date: September 26th, 2008 (US)

Genre: Comedy; Drama; War

Starring: Rachel McAdams, Tim Robbins, Michael Peña

In the upcoming season of True Detective, Rachel McAdams will play a prickly, stoical police sheriff (or if you’re reading this after August she already has, and rather brilliantly too, right?!). That sounds like quite the departure from her character in The Lucky Ones — a soldier, tough without doubt, but whose veins pulse with good-natured naivety. Her volcanic charm is the type that could turn a long road trip into a really, really long road trip. Not here though. Not on McAdams’ watch.

She is Private first class Colee Dunn, joined on a cross country excursion by Sergeant first class Fred Cheaver (Tim Robbins) and Staff sergeant T.K. Poole (Michael Peña). The trio meet at JFK airport having just finished their respective tours of duty, and opt to collectively hire a car since flights home are in short supply. What follows is a familiar voyage down the road movie genre, with periodic stops at comedic junctions and soul searching stations.

What this is not, is a war movie. The film has been criticised for not sufficiently addressing the complex issues of battle — but it simply isn’t a war movie. Certainly, the three main characters with whom we spent time are soldiers on leave, but that doesn’t mean the film has to ruminate about the war they’re presently separated from. Colee and company discuss it, sure. They feel the weight of its heavy baggage at times. But hey, maybe they’re just people. Two normal guys and one normal girl, each trying to reacclimatise to the real world. Struggling, often comically, sometimes painfully.

T.K. is the brash macho-type who subdues authenticity. We first see him inside a tank spouting tasteless jibes about women, before debris from an explosion renders him impotent. His lack of functionality becomes a recurring joke that eventually finds resolution in the film’s worst scene — a poorly executed tornado forces Colee and T.K. into a claustrophobic drain pipe, and it’s really cringe-worthy. Peña undercuts most of the unlikeable traits often attributed to those “macho-types” by delivering a fairly nuanced performance. At one point his character awakens suddenly in the middle of the night, clearly still troubled by the blast, and can only mutter a, “You know… sorry,” when questioned by Colee.

She is the most engaging of the three. McAdams has real presence, lighting up the screen every time she appears. Colee is the buffer between humour and emotion, her wide-eyed lack of cynicism both refreshingly authentic and solemnly disheartening. “That girl’s living in a dream world,” T.K. asserts, and it’s true. She lugs around the guitar of her close friend Randy who died on duty, aiming to return the instrument to his family in Las Vegas. Though Colee has never met them, she is driven by the hope that they’ll let her stay. She exudes so much positivity that we start to buy into her crazy plan. It’s the potential prize at the end of the rainbow, a treasure that differs from the materialistic hoards prevalent in other road trip movies such as O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Rat Race.

Quite the opposite is Tim Robbins’ Fred, or Cheaver, since he is the elder statesman of the group. A modest guy looking to get away from active combat, Cheaver rolls into family despair near the beginning of the journey. He is definitely the unluckiest — though the other two aren’t exactly wearing rabbit’s feet — and Robbins succinctly captures this turmoil. There are similarities to be drawn with Sam Jaeger’s Take Me Home as far as character relationships go, where petty squabbles inevitably evolve into admiration and understanding.

That film’s aimless quality is also apparent — the men constantly say they “don’t have time” to indulge Colee’s sight-seeing desires, but they’re not actually going anywhere. In a way they have all the time in the world, but the guys are too obsessed with achieving an end goal that probably doesn’t actually exist. Though their plot construction could be questioned, director Neil Burger (Limitless, Divergent) and co-writer Dirk Wittenborn’s character creation is effective. Just like in the army, the trio grow to rely upon each other — monetarily, emotionally, and intellectually — a conclusion arrived at with sincerity.

To the film’s credit it doesn’t spend two hours achingly debating the woes war. However, it opts not to ignore the pitfalls either. America becomes part of a clinical world that the army-goers aren’t used to (“You’re at a disadvantage if you don’t master your computer skills”). Bystanders and acquaintances constantly thank them for their efforts abroad, but it’s all platitudinal. Yet it doesn’t feel like The Lucky Ones is trying to emulate the rich verve of something like a Sideways. When the movie threatens too much seriousness it quickly scrambles back under its light-hearted comfort blanket, embodied in a scene where life reflections are interrupted by a penis balloon joke.

Nibbles of narrative stupidity are glibly accepted as a given by the screenwriters. A customer service employee grants the group a car due to their army credentials, even though the only vehicle remaining belongs to the employee’s airport boss. Problems that arise often bear very simple solutions, these problems too easily erected in the first place (Cheaver’s son gets accepted into Stanford University but needs to cough up $20,000 in tuition fees). The film chooses to manoeuvre its way around simple answers through comedy: Randy’s guitar would solve Cheaver’s monetary problems, but Colee amusingly decides to cry rather than oblige.

Though the actual trip part of The Lucky Ones does run into a few roadblocks — it’s not as funny as it should be, nor as emotionally-involving — the characters behind the wheel are wholly accommodating. Besides, who doesn’t want to watch a movie where Rachel McAdams plays an impulsive Southerner with more charm in one glance than a machine gun has bullets?

The Lucky Ones - McAdams & Pena

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Lionsgate, Roadside Attractions

Fury (2014)

★★★★

Fury PosterDirector: David Ayer

Release Date: October 17th, 2014 (US); October 22nd, 2014 (UK)

Genre: Action; Drama; War

Starring: Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf, Jon Bernthal, Michael Peña

War is a nasty business. Of course, contemplating the nastiness of war isn’t a new undertaking, nor is it something that Fury director David Ayer feels compelled to shirk away from. His film is really quite horrendous. We see limbless bodies and bodiless limbs more often than we see rays of sunlight breaking through the clouds of 1945 Nazi Germany. Ayer’s intimate tale isn’t a fresh concept to the silver screen and it has absolutely been done better before, but there is a lot to admire here.

As World War II nears its conclusion, a Sherman tank troupe commanded by US Army sergeant Don Collier (Brad Pitt) is hurtled into the bloody doldrums of battle in Germany. Fighting through urban wastelands and disfigured countrysides, the ‘Fury’ group of five must survive via a combination of camaraderie and brute force, all the while depositing innocence at each rotation of their vehicle’s caterpillar track.

Ayer localises a grand story and his film is all the better for it. Often, the key to success in the war genre is engaging an audience in the plight of a few whilst also acknowledging the struggle of many. Fury manages this, no doubt aided by a stringently focused narrative that follows a particular group of soldiers. It’s their story and we’re always in their presence, allowing time (well over two hours of it) for us to empathise with the characters. And while the camera never ventures more than a few feet from at least one of the five, Ayer’s induction of a heavy and wearisome tone relentlessly captures the universal toil of war.

These characters don’t write the guidelines on positive morality either. In fact, their contribution to the Allied war effort has flurried any goodness purveyed by Collier and his crew. They each have a nickname — fittingly Collier’s is Wardaddy. That is not to say the man heralds a thirst for battle, rather it highlights Wardaddy’s efficiency in dark turmoil. (“Do as you’re told, don’t get close to anyone”). Brad Pitt plays him without immediate discernibility, casting doubt not over the sergeant’s motives, but over his methods. Ayer’s quintessential heroes are nothing of the sort. There are no good guys, only perceived bad guys.

The remainder of the group bear roles that are more clearly defined: Technician Boyd “Bible” Swan is the devoted religious type; Corporal Trini “Gordo” Garcia steers the tank with eccentricity; PFC Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis lacks moderation; and Private Norman Ellison carries the newbie status, a kid lost amongst a conflict in which he shouldn’t be fighting. Logan Lerman exudes ordinariness as Norman, reminding us of war’s infecting bullet wounds on humanity. Walking Dead alumni Jon Bernthal is also terrific as the gruff Coon-Ass but it’s Shia LaBeouf who wows more than any other. Scrubbing the stigma of celebrity from his face and replacing it with rotten dirt, LaBeouf displays a great deal of restraint, his eyes never far from filling with tears fuelled by a scarred mind. It turns out he can act, and act well.

LaBeouf’s character is the agent through which Ayer introduces a religious thread, one that doesn’t wholly endear itself to the narrative but does contribute towards an emotive punch. These faith-based overtones aren’t distracting as they only rear occasionally, and despite manifesting as a tad contrived, they do represent an attempt to manoeuvre proceedings away from any potential muscle bound machoness of battle. Indeed, the film manages to extract a large helping of connectivity from the audience through solemnity, a theme that runs along the piece like one of Nazi Germany’s seemingly endless mud trails. This helpless sobriety is first summed up in statement relayed by Jason Isaacs’ army Captain (“Why don’t they just quit?”), before revealing itself plainly in an extended Inglorious Basterds-esque dining room scene rightly devoid of any Tarantino quirk.

After 90 minutes of gruesome despair, the outing suddenly shifts its gaze in the direction of a more action-packed conclusion. The final act essentially wears the hallmark of a western standoff, trading cowboy hats for leather helmets. Granted in its final half hour Fury still maintains a gritty realism but this divergence in tone might not appease all. Tank jousts do occur before the lengthy concluding sequence, but frequently end in a matter of minutes. These battles are arduous in their execution, just as they should be, and do not glorify the mechanical face of war at all, whereas it could be argued that the long, underdog-ish rallying cry denoted in the final act does invite a semblance of glorification.

Technically, the film is a powerhouse. Cinematographer Roman Vasyanov turns the English countryside (where shooting primarily took place) into a bleak, putrefying Nazi Germany at the end of its tether. Two scenes stand out especially: a beautiful opening shot that patiently stalks a lone horseman as he tramples over smoky ruins and comes face to face with the fragility of tanks, and a dread filled moment nearer the end that involves a collection of simultaneously marching and chanting enemy troops. This uncompromising style meshes wonderfully with Steven Price’s score and pinpoint sound editing, and comes as close as any film to achieving the fist-clenching ambience of Saving Private Ryan.

It is certainly not as good as Spielberg’s aforementioned masterpiece, but not many outings born from this particular genre are. Fury is a visceral and effective retelling of war at its most desperate and least forgiving. If nothing else, it’s an example of high standard utility filmmaking.

Fury - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Columbia Pictures