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

This Is 40 (2013)

★★

Director: Judd Apatow

Release Date: December 21st, 2012 (US); February 14th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Comedy

Starring: Leslie Mann, Paul Rudd

The Valentine’s Day film always goads suspicion. Like releasing a Christmas flick in December, a children’s adventure during mid-term, or a horror movie on Halloween, the legitimacy of the proverbial February 14th film (the date This Is 40 was released in the UK) often comes into question, at least in these semi-cynical eyes. How would it fare in cinemas on any other generic weekend? A moot point really, particularly in terms of critically assessing the piece. But the decision to hold out for a specific release date lends its hand to a lack of confidence in the product in the first place. And sadly, when it comes to Judd Apatow’s This Is 40, a confidence deficit is only one of many headaches. Misdirection, grating characters and a badly written screenplay sit atop a list of negative traits associated with a comedy that’s only occasionally funny, and ought to thank its lucky stars that some semblance of watch-ability is retained through the accommodating faces of Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd.

Seemingly happily married, but unhappily ageing, Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) live with their two young daughters. They must be pretty well-off too as Debbie owns a boutique and Pete runs his own record label; a venture he probably undertook to get away from his wife every now and again, or maybe it was to embellish himself in a false sense of youthful hipness. It’s not that he doesn’t care for Debbie, but there’s only so much baseless moaning a human can endure. Debbie has just turned 38 — that’s forty to every other sane person — and cannot handle the overbearing, horrifying toll it is taking on her. Only nobody really cares about her age. Especially not the audience. And that’s the problem.

Going into a film titled “This Is 40” you are absolutely aware of the self-opulence about to be hurled your way, but that doesn’t soften any blows from water balloons filled with whine (and not the alcoholic kind) as they relentlessly strike your face. Debbie cannot fathom waking up to the big four-oh, which is a petty mindset in itself but might have had some comedic legs within the boundaries of structured character development and a cohesive narrative. However she’s too jolly too often, making it difficult to engage with any semblance of sympathy that may or may not exist. Debbie lies on medical forms to hide her age, yet she doesn’t even bother to use a consistent date of birth. Further tarnishing matters is her relationship with husband Pete, one that skips foot-by-foot between hot coals of happiness and hatred quicker than the first penis joke is sounded. The duo get up to generic antic after generic antic, from hash-cookie gorging to awkward family gatherings that are no longer awkward. Heck, the film itself struggles to identify any prerogative – “The sort of sequel to Knocked Up,” reads the poster.

The best character is Sadie, Pete and Debbie’s eldest daughter, because she is easy to relate to; when met with end-of-the-world stipulations we concur with her inexperienced spitefulness, knowing it’s not terminal. There’s a significant difference between a 13-year-old cursing the earth over a Lost ban enforced by her parents, and a grown-up churlishly denouncing her existence over age. Besides, if someone prevented me from watching Lost, I’d lose the plot too (“It’s not frying my brain, it’s blowing my mind”). Interestingly, This Is 40 is an Apatow family affair: Judd directs, Leslie stars, and their two children Maude and Iris act.

Another nail in the coffin is hammered tediously by way of a fairly uneventful plot. Although comedies are driven first and foremost by gags, quips and puns, a baseline story must be present in order to provide a buffer. Nothing happens in the opening 30 minutes (of an unnecessarily long two hour runtime), other than the establishment of how great the family before our eyes have it in life. Both daughters amble around with iPads, the two parents drive their own glimmering cars, the house is spacious and homely, Pete spends his time gorging on delicious-looking cakes and Debbie eats out with her father at up-scale restaurants. Sounds pretty good to me. And other than the groan-inducing issue of getting older that pitifully tries to veil itself as a narrative, no authentic dramas arise until proceedings are too far gone (by that time, the JJ Abrams condemnation has played out and there’s no way back into my good books). Historically Apatow has been hit-or-miss in the director’s chair, and neither his directorial nor his writing skills are up to standard here.

Thankfully, there are a few positives. Even though many characters are lifeless, they benefit enormously from embodiment by a pair of very likeable actors. Paul Rudd is up there with the best comedic performers around today, someone whose timing and wit often exceed the material in front of him. Pete is not the most annoying character, but without the spark provided by Rudd he’d likely be the most boring — instead, that accolade goes to camera-fodder Desi, played by Megan Fox, whose existence in the film seems only to advocate prostitution because it affords you a nice car. Leslie Mann, although straddled by the gripe-ridden Debbie, once or twice manages to valiantly charm her way through an annoying character and relax into that recognisable humorous self in moments of respite. Chris O’Dowd is criminally underused as an employee at Pete’s record company, but manages to be funny when given the chance. Melissa McCarthy, Lena Dunham and Jason Segel also find time for a cup of coffee. Oh, and there’s a very funny Simon & Garfunkel joke. I’m out.

Hampered by shoddy characters, all too familiar comedy tropes and a messy narrative, This Is 40 ain’t even good enough to be a one star film. Occasional murmurs of humour seep through, and likeable faces shield the piece from too much brutal disharmony, but a lot more is required. Sadly, neither man(n) can save this one: Ant nor Leslie.

Prince Avalanche (2013)

★★★★

Director: David Gordon Green

Release Date: August 9th, 2013 (US limited); October 18th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Drama

Starring: Paul Rudd, Emile Hirsch

There’s something profound about Prince Avalanche. As of yet I’m not entirely sure what it is. Perhaps the unavoidable sense of insignificance in the wider scheme of things; maybe it’s the occasionally gentle, often idyllic soundtrack; it could even be that gratifying feeling you prescribe to after watching a low-budget, indie-style offering — you know, like you’ve done something good for the little guys. No, I think the sensation is as genuine as the film and the cards it places on the table. Not a King of Clubs, certainly not an Ace. Rather, a Two of Hearts and all the better for it.

Alvin and Lance are both very different. The former writes letters to his sweetheart (the sister of his workmate) and delves in poetry, whereas the latter spends Friday’s eagerly awaiting a weekend on the town and Monday’s trying to piece together events. One thing the men do have in common though is painting traffic lines along a road hidden away by a fire-pillaged wilderness. When we meet them they chant in sound bites, just like colleagues do, but soon enough it’s back to the job: “We gotta lot a’ work to do and it’s a very long road.”

The inconsequential nature of the job wears on the pair, but in doing so highlights the immaterial arena they find themselves haunting. Their work is mundane but their lives are invaluable. It’s 1988 and wildfires have destroyed more than just landscape that Alvin and Lance inhabit. Life has migrated elsewhere, away from a place in which it previously thrived — the only animals left are physically scarred. Other than that, all that remains are Alvin, Lance and their poisonous paint, and even they’re only temporary. This deeply melancholic setting administers a great deal of the film’s character. It also furnishes a few of 2013’s most moving scenes.

Lance is somewhere partying. Alvin spots an elderly woman enclosed in rubble, presumably that used to make up her home. They speak, but we can’t hear much of it. That doesn’t matter anyway; the specifics are personal, it’s the sentiment that matters. The lady was formerly a pilot but she has lost her licence in the fire — proof of her incredible life experiences burnt to nothingness. Director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) adds a slight documentary-esque feel to the scene by remaining distant from their conversation. Alvin says his goodbyes and shortly after finds himself re-enacting daily life amongst more bricks and mortar. Abandoned instantly. Out in this natural mural of devastation material things don’t matter.

Lance returns boasting a new watch. The relationship between the men is strained from then on. Paul Rudd (Anchorman) is Alvin, whose rattled demeanour suggests preferred solitude in the wake of Emile Hirsch’s (Into the Wild) Lance, a well-meaning but insecure fellow. The pair, and they are first and foremost a pair here, bicker when necessary — no doubt fuelled by Alvin’s relationship with Lance’s sister — yet still share a subtly warming dynamic. Rudd and Hirsch work well together with Rudd suitably stepping up as the knowing father figure in compliance with Hirsch’s futility.

Cinematographer Tim Orr has shared many film sets with friend David Gordon Green, but you’d be hard pressed to find a more beautifully shot output. Yes, the obvious organic landscape works in his favour but Orr captures it in all its potency — as our two companions’ relationship and understanding develops, we eventually see some telling shots of emerging wildlife amongst the ash. The ambient soundtrack, scored by American post-rockers Explosions in the Sky and composer David Wingo, is exactly the sound you’d expect in this setting and is exactly the sound what you’d want to hear too. Fluid, low-key and poignant, it has listeners sailing along with the two main characters as they toil in the past, suffer the present and paint the future.

There’s even the odd rush of comedy amongst proceedings that are otherwise slightly bleak. An alcohol-fuelled rage for one, and keep an ear open for Paul Rudd’s exclamation, “She’s hooking up with a masseuse? Gross!” Speak for yourself, Mike. Lance LeGault appears every so often as a hardy, abrasive truck driver and is often the vehicle of funny. Perhaps fittingly, much like Alvin and Lance, his story ends movingly but not wholly. It’s left to the viewer to fill in one or two gaps, which works because Prince Avalanche isn’t trying too hard to be anything. At its simplest it doesn’t really matter. But that’s the allure: the film’s inconsequence compounds the importance of everything else around it. In that sense, it echoes Alvin and Lance.

As i write this review, the wanes of Explosions in the Sky and David Wingo caressing my eardrums, everything feels calm. Urgency has been banished. Time will wait its turn. Prince Avalanche is a lot like that, and if you’ve got the patience you’ll enjoy it as much as i did.

“Just do it, it’s good for your soul.”

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013)

★★

Director: Adam McKay

Release Date: December 18th, 2013 (UK & US)

Genre: Comedy

Starring: Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, David Koechner, Christina Applegate

The screen flashes suddenly with the vintage-looking figure of Ron Burgundy nestled behind his giant news desk. The anchor begins reciting a number of promotional plugs for Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, a diatribe that fails on the whole to pack a humorous punch. Why an advertisement for the second instalment of Anchorman is playing before a screening of the second instalment of Anchorman is a mystery on its own, however the likeness of the promo in comparison to the film itself is unfortunately similar. Burgundy and his cohorts’ reunion is only occasionally funny, certainly not funnier than its overrated predecessor, and definitely not funny enough.

After many years anchoring together on a prestigious New York news station, Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) and wife Veronica Cornerstone (Christina Applegate) are separated after she is promoted and he fired. This causes friction between the pair, primarily due to Ron’s massive ego, and is the catalyst for the demise of their relationship. Ron finds himself cast away from the news industry until approached to anchor at the premier 24-hour news station, GNN, in tandem with Brick (Steve Carell), Fantana (Paul Rudd) and Champ (David Koechner).

As the wise man once said, “Sooo…”

The band are back together and tonally it’s a lot more of the same, only we’ve seen and heard most of it before. Whereas the first Anchorman film is renowned for its multiple catchphrases which seem to be rehashed by fans more often than the days of the week come around, Anchorman 2 is filled with a lot of loud noises. For some reason, director Adam McKay decides to go with high-pitched squeals and abrasive shouting rather than well executed gags. Some of these are pretty funny — Steve Carell gets the best loud noises, and the best lines — but after half an hour the screeching and wailing becomes tiring and unimaginative, with each instance feeling increasingly like a cop-out. Perhaps the pressure to deliver more iconic “I’m in a glass case of emotion” moments played on the minds of Ferrell and McKay, who co-wrote the film together, and this comes across at times as the script feels like it has been written by someone putting their anxiety to paper… literally. There are a few genuinely funny moments (Carell talking about a shadow and doing the weather) but these are overshadowed by the boring stuff. I’m not a massive fan of the first film, and it’s entirely conceivable that the over-dramatic style of comedy on show in Anchorman 2 is exactly what fans of Anchorman want, but it’s simply not enough.

More frustrating than the lack of the laughs present is the seemingly absent general direction of proceedings, and more specifically, a great satirical opportunity missed. The film jumps around a lot — we go from wife and kid to making bets with other anchors to doing 24-hour news to ice-skating to lighthouses — and, even with the two-hour runtime (which is too long for this kind of comedy), events feel crammed together and rushed. Focus is placed elsewhere when it should be streamlined towards delving into Burgundy’s antics whilst working on a constantly broadcasting news station. We only fleet around the topic of how non-news becomes desired news (“It’s total crap and they can’t stop watching”) when this should make up the majority of the story. Reporting non-news is a very current problem and surrounds mainstream media today as much as it did during the inception of rolling news, therefore further exploration into the subject would have been relevant, funnier and ultimately justified. Less relenting racism, more smart satire please — saying “black” twelve times in a row isn’t all the hilarious anyway.

Although Ferrell is the star of the show by many accounts, Steve Carell outshines the lead and everybody else here much like he did the first time around. Carell is very funny inside and outside the movies, and his off-the-cuff, spontaneous comedy really works in the Anchorman setting. The character he plays, Brick Tamland, is probably the easiest to laugh at because he emits aimless stupidity often, but Carell ensures Brick doesn’t become a parody of the man we watched in the previous instalment (which sort of happens to Burgundy). Paul Rudd who, alongside Carell, is one of my favourite comedy actors, can’t overcome the dreary material his pretty naff character Brian Fantana is given, which is a shame. In regards to Ferrell, he is okay as Burgundy although his performance feels too much like Will Ferrell playing Ron Burgundy when it should appear far more natural. The scenes between him and his son come across as very dated, and lines such as “I hurt my pee-pee” are eye-rolling. That being said, Ferrell can sing to a shark every day for the next 40 years and I’ll probably laugh on each occasion.

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is not horrible, but it certainly is a disappointing outing given the heaps of accompanying hype. After half an hour it was difficult to process anything other than reliving the excellence of Blackfish, and by the end it was a struggle to comprehend anything other than wondering how much money was wasted on pointless cameos. The legend may have continued, but the comedy couldn’t quite keep up.

Hey Ron, maybe it’s time to call it a Burgun-day.