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Review: Ant-Man

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Director: Peyton Reed
Cast: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Michael Pena, Evangeline Lilly

The Marvel Cinematic machine rolls into its third phase with another new character, and a film which has seen much discussion and speculation over the troubled production.

Ant-Man sees Paul Rudd as Scott Lang, a skilled thief who has just been released from prison.  Reuniting with his daughter, he wants to prove himself a positive role model and leave his life of crime behind.  However, he swiftly finds that it is hard to get gainful employment when you have a criminal record, and soon reunites with his old partner in crime, Luis (Michael Pena), on one last job that has landed on their laps.  Breaking into a secure vault of a wealthy industrialist, the score turns out to be a costume of some kind.  When he tries on the outfit, and triggers a switch on one of the gloves, he is suddenly reduced in size to that of an ant, and discovers that the chemicals released by the suit have granted him extraordinary abilities, with enhanced strength, agility, and speed being part of them.  He also discovers that the heist was all set up by the industrialist, Henry Pym (Michael Douglas), who wants to recruit Lang to help him stop the technology being sold for militaristic use.  Pym, and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), begin training Lang to be the Ant-Man.
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In the early stages of production, the film was in the control of Edgar Wright, writer and director of films such as Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Scott Pilgrim.  However, much was reported about some creative disagreements between Wright and the studio, which resulted in Wright exiting the process and the hiring of Peyton Reed in his place.  Naturally, as this was the first Marvel film where such disagreements and changes were reported, the knives were out and many anticipated it to be the first core Marvel film failure.  However, whilst it is early to report on the box office performance of the film, cinematically it is one of the strongest outings for the studio, and stands as one of the best origin tales to date.

The tightly paced script still has Wright’s name attached, and it is easy to see why.  Many sequences and moments echo the style that Wright brought to his previous comic book adaptation, Scott Pilgrim, along with the humoured tone.  Reed has picked up on the initial draft, and added a few extra elements of his own, then presented it in a snappy, fun, and vibrant fashion.  Running at just under 2 hours, the film never out stays it’s welcome, and uses the shrinking gimmick, and control of the legions of ants, in clever, witty, and visually striking ways to ensure that, whilst the overall film is predictable and generic, you can certainly say that you haven’t seen action like this before.
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I am going to say something now that is rare for me to say, but if you get action chance to see this film in 3D, I urge you to do so!  Yes, despite my usual hatred of the format for comic book movies (it is pointless, and action sequences are a resultant mess because of it), with Ant-Man we actually have some creative use of the format.  Additionally the film has been tailored for the IMAX screen, and it is in this format that the visuals will truly impress.  When shrinking into miniature form, the 3D bends the world around him, and adds a vertigo inducing aspect to the world.  The action is handled well to not confuse with too much happening, and some standout miniature action (including a fight in a briefcase) are well planned and executed in the 3D format, making this the first Marvel film to have genuinely utilised it as more than a gimmick.

Throw in a support cast that are generally strong, although Corey Stoll as chief bad guy Darren Cross is given woefully little to work with and is instantly forgettable, and you have one of the highlights of the summer season.  Evangeline Lilly plays well alongside and against Douglas in a troubled father/daughter relationship, whilst Pena steals every scene as Luis.  Mix in an all too brief cameo by one of the Avengers, and some scattered references to cities being dropped, wall crawling heroes, and Tales to Astonish, and Ant-Man, whilst not a perfect film, is definitely one of the best films of the summer period, with the fun factor compensating well for any shortcomings.

A final note to be made about the score by Christophe Beck.  The theme and style of soundtrack has a very retro feel to it, harking back to heist movies and spy thrillers of yesteryear, which, in the end, is what Ant-Man is at its heart.

Phase 3 is off to a strong start, and two credits scenes signpost a little of what is to come, so be sure to stick around.

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Review: Ted 2

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With the success of Ted a few years ago, a sequel was inevitable even though there seemed no good reason to continue the story.  Ted 2 is the result, offering a forced attempt to recapture some of the magic that made the first film work so well, yet missing the whole point drastically.

Set a few years after the events of the first film, Ted 2 sees Ted and Tammy married and wanting to have children, whilst John is single again having seemingly proven that, contrary to the message of the first film, love won’t make opposites attract.  When Ted then has to legally prove that he is a person not an object, the thunder buddies seek assistance from a fresh faced lawyer (Siegfried) to help them.  Cue a series of sketches mashed together in a desperate attempt to pad out almost 2 hours of film.

What made the first film work was that, whilst it retained the MacFarlane style of comedy that we know from Family Guy, it was structured like a film with a flowing story to spin the gags off.  The sequel seems like it could very well just be a mash up of a few episodes of Family Guy, including those zany cutaway moments that the show is notorious for.  In fact, switch Ted with Brian, and you genuinely have a plot for the cartoon, the disadvantage being that Family Guy episodes are 20 minutes long, whereas this is almost 2 hours. 

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"Seriously? Two hours?"

But, hey, who cares about plot?  This is a comedy!  Well, sadly the puns fall flat, with only two moments in the whole film managing to spark a chuckle put of me, whilst the rest of the film was spent in stony silence.  The sparkle that brought Ted to life is simply gone.  A sub plot involving Donny (Ribisi reprising his role from the first film) is not only familiar, but pretty much the exact same sub plot from before. By the time the action locates to New York Comic Con, and two background actors get to jokingly dress up as characters they used to play in old TV shows, boredom has set in so much that you just want it all to be over.

All in all, Ted 2 is the kind of comedy sequel that makes you think that perhaps Hangover 2 wasn’t too bad…Heck, even Hangover 3 was a better laugh!  The charm, wit, and magic is all missing, replaced with lazy, formulaic hack comedy, proving that, as expected, Ted was a film that didn’t need continuing.

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Review: Terminator Genisys

There’s a brief moment toward the start of the film, during the scenes of the future war, where we find that after Judgement Day humans were rounded up and imprisoned in extermination camps.  At hearing the voice over announce this you immediately wonder why round them up, and why the machines didn’t just shoot them all (especially as we are shown the terminators stood with huge guns).  Then it dawns on you… The reason they do this is because the screenwriters didn’t have a clue, and thus the level of intelligence that went into the rest of the film could be ascertained.  Suffice to say, the rest of the film didn’t disappoint – it was every bit as bad as you would expect.

A brief synopsis to start us off…

When John Connor sends Kyle Reece back to 1984, something happens that changes the timeline.  He arrives to find Sarah and her pet terminator already prepared for the fight.  In addition there is a T-1000 in the mix, and before you know it another new design of terminator (which anyone who saw the trailer will already know the plot twist of…great marketing campaign there) which is, effectively,  a T-1000 but with little solid bits and a weakness for magnets.  The team set about stopping Skynet from going active by way of a plot the screenwriters stole directly from the Sarah Connor Chronicles TV series.  Cue chases, explosions, and lots of sequences of terminators throwing each other against walls.

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This is genuinely a repeat gag throughout the film. Oh the hilarity!

Much like the recent trip back to Jurassic Park, this new entry to the Terminator franchise relies heavily on nostalgia for the original film, even copying the arrival moments from that film, whilst also hopes that you have forgotten the later films which it then proceeds to blatantly rip moments from to present to you like it is fresh cake.  The result is a series of sequences that seem like a mash up of key moments from the earlier films, only done by some bad cosplayers.  The one interesting segment is the early moments of the future war (if you ignore the aforementioned plot contrivance), as we get an extended look at that future in a much better way than Salvation spent a whole film on.  Sadly, once we are into the past/present (and anyone who says ‘spoilers’ at that point clearly didn’t watch the trailers) it all feels very humdrum and formulaic.  The action set pieces would have thrilled more if we hadn’t seen the same moments done better previously, and also if there weren’t some baffling moments where scale of objects goes a little haywire (especially with a school bus that flips unrealistically, and seems to grow in size from shot to shot as it does).

It’s not all a loss though.  The ever amazing JK Simmons adds so much to the sparse few scenes he is in that you hope he will come back for the next film, and actually be the lead actor.  He is the one member of the cast who seems to actually have a screen presence.  Even Arnie seems to just be going through the motions,  much as he did in T3. 

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Is it just me, or did these effects look so much better in the 90s?

But where the film really fails is in the writing.  Unconvincing moments, contrived storytelling, and so much ambiguity that it seems clear they are trying to force further films out of the gaps in the script.  I always have a dislike of films that assume that their audience are brainless, and so play to that element (hence my dislike of a certain  Michael Bay), as I feel they are treating the audience with disdain so why should I treat the product with anything else.  Well, this is one of those films.  It doesn’t ask you to leave your brain at the door, it expects you to leave your taste at the door too.

Not quite as bad as Terminator 3, but not a patch on the rest of the franchise, Genisys serves as nought more than a ‘greatest hits’ by an obscure cover band.

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Review: Jurassic World

In a year of supposed blockbusters, where most so far are proving to be pretty disappointing experiences, along comes another much hyped, and much anticipated event movie which fails to buck the trend.  My anticipation for this film was quite high last year, but as the trailer campaign progressed I grew less interested as it looked to be more Jurassic Park 3 than 1 or 2 (yes, even 2 has some redeeming features).  The ropey CGI seen in the trailers didn’t worry me too much as surely they would refine that in post production…surely?

Jurassic World, as many will tell you, is the spiritual successor to the first film.  Ignoring the side stories of the different islands of the previous sequels, this film is set decades after the events of the first film, and a fully operational dinosaur park has been established.  However, bizarrely it didn’t take the population of the planet too long to tire of dinosaurs (even though the packed streets and attractions of the park that we keep seeing kind of contradict that contrived plot element), and so the park works at not only extracting more DNA from fossils, but also mixing up their own new brand of dinosaur.  Enter the deadly Indominus Rex, a genetically bred mix of mysterious origins (although the twist of where the DNA came from isn’t although clever although so it thinks, being easy to work out in the first lines of dialogue introducing the beast).  Cue Rex escaping and rampaging over the island, putting park guests and exhibits in danger.  Included in them are the nephews of the park controller, the generic military madman who wants to use dinosaurs as weapons, the nerdy worker in the control room, and Chris Pratt in a role that seems like an afterthought which was expanded when Guardians of the Galaxy proved popular.

Let me first of all get off my chest that this is yet another film  in which unnecessary conversion to 3D actually helps damage the experience thanks to some genuinely poor composting of multiple images.  In crowd scenes, the live action characters are mapped poorly among CGI constructs, resulting in moments where they seem to be mapped ahead of other people when they should be behind.  Shots in motion result in a bending of scenery (and in some cases limbs) as the forced perspective struggles to keep up with the changing visual perspective.  The jarring effect of such poor rendering snaps you out of the film, and you end up unable to really immerse yourself in the events on screen.  In addition, this is yet another action film where converting to 3D makes it so that too much is going on in some moments for your eyes to follow, and I had to close one eye on occasion just to keep up with the visuals on screen.  When combined with some sloppy CGI which quite clearly wasn’t improved after the trailers, it doesn’t make for a great experience.  The dinosaurs look great, however, but it is the many CGI park shots that fail spectacularly.

But even without the 3D and ropey CGI, the film is nothing more than an average experience, marginally better than the third film was, but nothing more.  The characters are dull, generic drones, with Pratt suffering the most from a part that (as mentioned) seems to have been expanded once his popularity exploded last year.  The story setting – a packed theme park – should have led to more peril than we had seen in previous films, but instead we only really have a small number of people in peril, aside from one small moment when crowds (who mysteriously vanish minutes later) are attacked.  A few half baked forced nods to the original film (and seriously, how long do batteries last in equipment that is decades old?) make it seem that the director desperately wants you to love his film as much ands that old one.  Continuity between shots suffered at times, and I get the feeling there are some late re shoots and additions forced in which account for the problems (especially as most involve Pratt and Howard’s characters, which further highlight the expanded minor role previously mentioned).

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But, hey, maybe I’m being too picky.  After all, surely all that people want from the film is dinosaurs?  Well, if so then the film does deliver.  The effects for the dinosaurs are great, with all the favourites in the mix, and the new Rex being a gloriously terrifying creation (although also an inconsistent one in the tracking abilities it is said to have).  The roar chills, the skin detail is disturbingly real, and the creations all fit well into the scenes.  It’s just a shame that the human elements are so weak, as instead of us being thrilled at the peril on screen, we are nought but visitors to a theme park ourselves,  watching the dinosaurs with a modicum of interest, but internally feeling a bit tired of seeing things we have seen 3 times before.

Jurassic World will no doubt thrill the easily pleased who just want dinosaurs fighting dinosaurs, but to those of us who prefer there to be some semblance of plot, characters, or drama (you know…human element) in our films, then it is nothing more than forgettable eye candy destined to be looked back on as just another sequel.

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What I learned re-watching the Mad Max films recently.

***Note: I originally intended to post this before the release of Fury Road, but didn’t get round to finishing it.***

With Mad Max Fury Road finally arriving on the big screens over a decade after it was originally intended to be made (and if you still haven’t seen it, then get out and do so now), it seemed an opportune time to revisit the films about Max, the road warrior.  It has been a long while since I last saw any of these films – in fact it was round the release of Beyond Thunderdome, a film so disappointing at the time that it retroactively destroyed all memories of the first two films.  Whilst re watching the trilogy, I began to realise a few things about the series, and why they are so iconic.

1: The first film is the only ‘true’ story of Max
Now, I’m not trying to claim that there really is a road warrior out in the Australian outback, ramming cars into bikes, trucks, and strange men in gyro copters.  No, what I’m saying is that the first film is the only part of the series that is realistic and restrained to some kind of grounded setting.  As the origin story for our protagonist, it is told as is, not via voice over of someone telling the tale.  Grounded in reality it may look cheap at times (hey, it was a low budget film), but it tells  powerful story of a lawman who tries to put his family first, but loses everything and is pushed over the edge.  By the end of the film to all intents and purposes Max has lost his mind and gone off the deep end.  The Mad of the title can be seen not as a word for angry, but for genuine insanity.

2: Kids imaginations are responsible for the bondage-punks style of the villains
Mad Max 2 introduced the , mythical aspect of the road warrior by telling the tale via flashback.  The opening and closing is narrated by an elderly tribe leader, talking about his encounter with the mysterious stranger.  The thing is, as we find out to the end (did I say spoiler alert?), the narrator is the feral boy from the film, a primitive character who was quite clearly a disturbed young child (he had a bladed boomerang – that’s not normal).  The story he is telling is quite clearly exaggerated by his childhood memories, and likely enhanced to make for a better story.  So, the good guys dress in white (or cream colours), the bad guys have weird masks, spiked leather bondage clothes, and drive cars built out of Satan’s meccano.  This is similar to when you start to tell your mates about that time you got in a fight on a night out, but realise that the reality (that you were beaten up by a girl and ended up a bloodied mess on the floor crying) wasn’t that impressive, so you add 14 armed bouncers to the mix, who you deftly took out one by one until that one guy sucker-punched you.  Yup, the events of the second film were probably just a small argument at a petrol station which turned into a bit of a fight, but as told by this aging madman it becomes a mythical adventure, inspired by old stories of lone cowboys fighting off bandits.
Now Fury Road may seem to dismiss this theory, as the opening voice over is by Max, but to which I refer you to the last line of the first point.

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Hold on..that's Weird Science! Ah well..

3: Practical effects from decades ago look better than modern CGI
Look, they just do, you can’t deny it.  Whilst some CGI can look great (the recent Planet of the Apes films for example), so much today looks cartoon like and fails to impress.  When you watch CGI cars flipping around in Transformers films, you can’t help notice that they are bouncing wrong (we all know how gravity works).  Now, regardless of how old it is, if you have a shot of a real car smashing through a real bus, it will always look like a car smashing a bus because, well,  it is.  Same goes for dismemberment and blood spurts – yes, it does look a bit fake at times, but the fact it was done practically with models and fluids makes it still work better than doing similar with CGI.  Thankfully the new film, according to reports, knows this and we can expect real stunts and blood bags ahoy in Fury Road.

4: Thunderdome wasn’t actually that bad
Look, it is a bit of a mess, and mashes two stories (Bartertown and the plane survivors) unconvincingly, and Tina Turner is a bad choice, but it still has some great moments.  Just accept it as a warped tale being told by an aging survivor trying to recite his encounter with Max, possibly whilst getting drunk with his mates (see point 2), and you can find it a lot easier to accept the failings of the film.

5: They can tell any tale in this world
Thanks to the mythical nature of the series since that second film, you can spin any story out of the setting.  Seriously, think about it for a second.  Say, for example, someone came up with the idea to pit Max against a mutated hyper-intelligent dog, well they could easily add a back story of genetic research being conducted some time before the fall of civilization, and we’d just chew it up and accept it so long as it had cars and bad guys in bondage.

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Even epic vehicles like this!

This is also why everyone has been quite accepting about the new film being made.  Bear in mind that reboots and remakes get a bad rep, with many judging before it is even made, Fury Road was warmly embraced from day one, even when it was made clear that Mel Gibson wasn’t coming back.  The world collectively said, “So what? Just give us cars and carnage!”  Think of Max in the same way as James Bond, anyone can play the role so long as it sticks to the basic conventions of the setting (Bond = spy, Max = twisted future).  Although if in the next film (which has a script ready to go) Max drives an invisible buggy to an ice castle, I’m out.

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RIP Sir Christopher Lee (1922 – 2015)

Another one of the greats has left us.  Sir Christopher Lee passed away on Sunday morning, with the news only breaking today as they wanted to ensure that family and close friends were informed first.

Lee is an actor who, at 93 years old, must have had an impact on pretty much every generation of film viewer today, with him being fondly remembered for a variety of roles.

For myself, I first discovered his work through roles such as Scaramanga in The Man With the Golden Gun, or as Rochefort in the Musketeer films, along with his iconic turns in the Hammer Horror films (I was quite a young viewer of Hammer films on TV, lapping up the theatrics and dread).  Films such as Wickerman came to my attention at a much later time, which meant there was a body of work that I could explore more of as I got older.

Never an actor to take himself too seriously, his appearances in films such as Spielberg’s (unfairly) maligned comedy 1941, or as a mad professor in Gremlins 2, showed a degree of humour he possessed (although the less said about Police Academy: Mission to Moscow the better).  Even in interviews he had a gentle wit, such as when he was quoted as saying, “Somebody once asked me how I found Peter Jackson, and I said: ‘Well, I parted his hair, and there he was.'”

In more recent times he has found a new audience through roles in the Star Wars prequels, Lord of the Rings, and varied Tim Burton films, and even when those films haven’t quite been as good as you would hope, there was no denying that Lee stood out and made his scenes engross and entice you.  As he said himself, “Every actor has to make terrible films from time to time, but the trick is never to be terrible in them.”

All of that iconic work, and without mentioning the same gravitas he brought to TV roles in dramas such as Gormenghast, or voice roles such as the Discworld series (animations Wyrd Sisters and Soul Music, and live action Colour of Magic) as the voice of Death.

Rest in peace – as the great man himself once said, “To be a legend, you’ve either got to be dead or excessively old!”  Well, he got to life to a fantastic age, and his legacy of work will ensure that he will live on forever.

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Review – Mad Max: Fury Road

It is quite common in this day and age to find old franchises given a new burst of life via a reboot, sequel, or remake. Much of the time any such announcement is met with derision from the fans, and nonchalance from the general public, resulting in many people already making up their mind to hate the film before it even starts filming. Strangely this has not been the case with this new Mad Max film, which has been embraced by the whole community from the offset. Perhaps it is the fact that the original creator and director is still involved, or perhaps it is that people realise that tales of Max are timeless and can be told for each generation to enjoy. Either way, it is safe to say that there was a lot of anticipation from the fan community for this new entry into the series.

Real stunts by real madmen!

Real stunts by real madmen!

This new film kicks off right into the action. Max stands alone, haunted by memories of those he failed to save, when he is ambushed by a gang, resulting in him being used as a blood-bag for a warrior in a great kingdom built into rocks. The leader of this domain, King Immortan Joe (played by Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played Toecutter in the first film) rules from high up in the rocks, where his control of the water has given him power over all, and allowed for him to build trade routes with nearby fuel and ammunition tribes. When one of his regular trade runs, led by Furiosa (Charlize Theron), diverts from the route, Joe discovers that his Five Wives have been taken and sets off in pursuit. Caught up in amongst the carnage that follows is Max, hooked up as a bloodline to Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a War Boy intent on proving his worth to Immortan Joe and entering Valhalla in the afterlife.

Much has been said of the fact that the stunts and carnage were done with as little CGI as possible, and this staple of the franchise not only works well here, but has some of the most spectacular action moments on film this year. The explosions, carnage, and destruction are all brutal, and unlike certain CGI fuelled action films of recent years, believable. But it isn’t only in the destruction that George Miller shows his skill at direction and visualisation. Beautiful shots of sandstorms, swamp-walkers, and cities built into rock flesh out his mythical future world even more, and serve not only the story, but the whole franchise well. On top of that there is the expected bizarre vehicle design, all beautiful in their twisted construction, but none more so than the drummers, wall of speakers, and guitarist on a vehicle serving as mock buglers,sounding the battle chimes. Comical, and stunningly impressive, this one vehicle alone represents the madness of this future world – a world gone very wrong.

Seriously awesome!

Seriously awesome!

With a character as iconic as Max, it was always going to be a hard job to follow Mel Gibson’s take on the part. After all he made the role what it is, and anyone attempting to copy him would be under severe scrutiny. Maybe this is the reason that the character doesn’t have a lot to say through this film, as it gives a chance to redefine the physicality of the character in the form of a new actor, rather than forcing us to compare mannerisms and voice inflexions. Suffice to say, Tom Hardy rises to the challenge, and aside from adopting an Australian accent, doesn’t attempt to copy Gibson’s take, instead making the part his own for a new era. Charlize Theron also steps up to the plate as Furiosa, and the film is more about her than Max. As the one-armed driver of the rig who goes off-mission and starts the whole chase off, her character begins as cold and empty, but as we learn her story she grows more depth. As, too, does Hoult’s character, who at the early part of the film we want killed, but as the film progresses you start to root for him. Such character growth in what is essentially a 2 hour action extravaganza put many recent blockbusters to shame.

It has been thirty years since Beyond Thunderdome, that’s 30 years in the wilderness for Max Rockatansky. But it has been 30 years well spent if this is anything to go by, and with Miller saying he already has plans for two more films (at least), then it is a welcome return. We may not need another hero, but we do need Max to show action cinema how to really do it.