Ant-Man (Disney, cert 12)
I’ve never signed up to the notion that Edgar Wright was the author of the Cornetto trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, World’s End). That was Simon Pegg, clearly. But even so he was a vital component, and the news that he’d left this film before anything was in the can was a downer. On the upside, there is still plenty of his and Attack the Block’s Joe Cornish’s original script in Ant-Man – a fast, witty, inventive and playful thing, full of youthful energy, which Paul Rudd has made a decent fist of adapting (with Adam McKay). Rudd and McKay probably did the tinkering necessary to insert Ant-Man into the increasingly tiresome Marvel Comics Universe – with Anthony Mackie’s Falcon the film’s one utterly unnecessary digression. But, to the batcave – Rudd is the slacker jailbird trying to make a go of things but being lured by retired scientific genius Michael Douglas into trying on his ant suit. Cue many The Fly-style shrinking adventures, done at superfast speed (Wright and Cornish I’d bet) – Ant-Man in a bath, on a club dancefloor, in someone’s forest-like carpet, avoiding the hoover, and so on. Then, fun and games over, bona fides established, it’s on to the plot proper, an old-school wrangle about the forces of good and evil featuring twisted genius Corey Stoll who now runs Douglas’s company, and Douglas’s daughter, Evangeline Lilly, thrown in for love and smarts, her hard carapace revealing a soft centre. Rudd is a master at playing unworldly characters; Douglas is the epitome of guile; Stoll is a bullet-headed badass; Lilly exudes attitude – so the casting is spot-on. And apart from that Mackie/Falcon moment, this film drives and thrives on invention, particularly at the miniature level – the last 40 minutes is breathless action brilliance, put together well by director Peyton Reed (on a hiding to nothing, let’s face if, after Wright’s exit), who keeps all the physics consistent, so we’re actually on that mini-toy train as it hurtles round the tracks while Rudd’s Ant-Man clambers over it, fighting nemesis Yellowjacket (a wasp in British English). The SFX are great, the wit keeps coming and the references to Spielberg – so many imperilled children, so many totems of innocence – are used as a seasoning, not the meal itself. Best Marvel movie since Iron Man.
The Gift (Lionsgate, cert 15)
He acts, he writes, and now he directs – Joel Edgerton is shaping up as a renaissance man of film-making. But before we get the Orson Welles comparisons down off the shelf, there is one thing to say about his thriller about a got-it-all couple (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall) being menaced by a creepy loner (Edgerton) – there is always the sense of the other shoe about to drop, which does either rack up the film’s tension or undermine it, depending on what sort of a mind you’ve got, and whether you’re the sort who starts anticipating a twist. Either way Edgerton builds in such a sense of dread in the simplest early scenes – like when lovely back-in-LA Bateman and Hall run into Bateman’s old school friend in a store, and an acquaintanceship is renewed, very much at the loner’s bidding. After that, though DP Eduard Grau shoots the couple’s slick modern apartment as a place of dark corners, Hitchcock’s overlit thrillers are the most obvious reference point as director Edgerton lays on the trouble-in-paradise elements and shows us that there’s a touch of sham in the lives of this golden couple. This requires good acting, and both Bateman and Hall deliver – Edgerton the actor doesn’t do much more than skulk, but that’s all he’s meant to do. Nuff said, I think, except that Saunder Jurriaans and Danny Bensi’s score of drones and sliding violins really adds to that sense of lurching, bubbly foreboding.
Listen to Me Marlon (Universal, cert 15)
He went from being the biggest Hollywood star to the fattest, but here’s Marlon Brando mostly in his own words, with his self-therapy and self-hypnosis tapes mined by director Stevan Riley – and did Brando ever like to talk. There’s so much material, in fact, that Riley has managed to build a biography of pretty much all of Brando’s life – a childhood as the son of a drunk mother and a bullying dad, the early career under the wing of Method guru Stella Adler (a second mother). His early success and how it changed him – “I was destined to spread my seed far and wide… the beast aspect of my personality held sway.” And for lovers of headlines, the big stuff is here too – that scene from On the Waterfront with Rod Steiger is evaluated, the making of the notoriously fractious Mutiny on the Bounty, Last Tango, The Godfather, Superman (“silly”). Of these, Last Tango seems to have given him most pause – “Bertolucci wanted me to be me… I wasn’t going to do that.” But as Riley’s cleverly deployed clips from the film show us, that’s exactly what Bertolucci got Brando to do (and that’s part of why Last Tango is such a great film). The public life is no less interesting, and we see that Brando was early on the scene in the civil rights struggle, that his espousal of Native American rights wasn’t just a stunt (though the rejection of his Oscar and sending a Native American woman in traditional gear to read out his rejection speech – that was). Then there’s the more private man – the infamous wrestling with his weight, Brando broken up over his son’s incarceration, his daughter’s suicide. With its suggestion that money can’t buy you happiness but it can buy you the time to be indolent and greedy, this is precisely the sort of biography that’s needed for our straitened times. It’s also a lovely, meditative film about a thoughtful and tender man.
By Our Selves (Soda, cert 15)
Is psychogeography the right term for what film-maker Andrew Kotting does? In this gorgeous and dreamy semi-documentary he examines both the psyche of the nature poet John Clare (1793-1864) and the physical landscape as Clare makes his escape from an insane asylum in Essex in 1841 and trudges towards Northampton in the centre of England. At this point, somewhat unexpectedly, comics legend Alan Moore (V for Vendetta, Watchmen) arrives on the scene to explain to Kotting that Clare was part of a tradition which goes back at least to Wycliffe, in which language, religion and politics fuse, and the pagan and shamanistic also play a role. It’s precisely the sort of history of a country, a place, that gets ignored – because it’s too off-message, too idiosyncratic – and Kotting’s shooting and editing MO echoes the fractured, fragmented, piecemeal nature of his assembly job. Boom mikes often swing into view, the actor Toby Jones (who speaks not a word), playing Clare, is often seen coming up against real modern people as he re-enacts his long lonely 19th-century trudge (“What’s ’e doin’? Is it actin’?”), while fluffs by the actor Freddie Jones (who played Clare in a BBC production decades ago) as he reads Clare’s poetry are left in. The soundscape is the same – ambient twiddles crash into archive sourced material, with a pair of ancient crackly BBC accents intoning “John Clare was a minor nature poet, who went mad” like a drone. A muted phantasmagoria, you could call it, with Wicker Man flavourings. Maddening too, at some level. But then that’s Kotting.
Fantastic Four (Fox, cert 12)
This got such a pasting in the grown-up press that I expected it to be really bad – like Iron Man 3, say. In fact it’s really rather good, as long as you approach it with different expectations. Josh Trank directed Chronicle, you may remember – a bunch of kids accidentally get super powers and have a whale of a time with them, before discovering that with great power… etc etc. You can see why Stan Lee (whose line that is, borrowing from Voltaire) wanted him for Fantastic Four. And what Josh has given Stan and the Fox studio is a reworking of Chronicle – kids in trouble, rather than superheroes doing their thing. Maybe that’s why the critics didn’t like it – that, and the sudden change in sympathy for Miles Teller, who seemed to out himself as a douche in an Esquire article. But to the film: four bright kids get caught up in a weird machine that transports them to another dimension where they pick up their weird powers – stretchy, flame-y, rocky and invisible. It really is an origin story, too, with an acre of back history for childhood allies Reed Richards (Teller) and Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell). Sue Storm (Kate Mara) is the cute girl who works in the lab . Trank tries to dress up the sexism of her character’s pointlessness a bit, with some token staring by Mara at a clipboard and the odd smart line. But she’s not doing much and it’s the guys, including Michael B Jordan’s Johnny Storm, who do the hard science. Plus there’s Toby Kebbell as Victor Von Doom, whose parents surely knew he was going to turn out to be a comic book baddie when they named him. The film’s big problem is its Marvel furniture, particularly the strident soundtrack, which insists that what we’re watching is a superhero film full of grand actions and noble sentiment, when in fact it’s a bunch of kids largely out of their depth – again, Chronicle, a film that played with and against superhero tropes. Flip out the bombastic music and replace it with something a bit lower key and I suspect this really would fly. No Stan Lee cameo either. Was he not asked? Or didn’t he want to be seen near the crime scene?
Max (Warner, cert 12)
Dogs. There we are. Either your heart just hardened or a little aah escaped from your lips. If it’s the former, give this film a miss. If you’re down with our four-legged friends, this unashamedly sentimental film might be for you. Thomas Haden Church is the titular star, but in fact it’s mostly about his son Justin, played nicely by Josh Wiggins, a disaffected kid who spends too much time on his X-Box and whose brother has just been killed in a firestorm in Afghanistan. All changes when Max, his brother’s now shell-shocked German shepherd, comes to stay with the grieving family. And before you can say “Woof”, Justin has forsaken his virtual relationships and forged one with his new pet. Romance arrives in the shape of dog-loving teenage hotness Carmen (Mia Xitlali), and jeopardy in the shape of Justin’s dead brother’s old army pal Tyler (Luke Kleintank), who does not like dogs. Repeat: does not like dogs. Adventures of a vaguely Lassie sort are had, which blow away any initial thoughts that this is going to be a canine War Horse, the setting being apple-pie America where BMX bikes are ridden and kids have adventures in the woods (I suspect that if these were UK kids they’d be doing home-made bongs and having sex in those woods, but there you go). The flag is waved, and I suspect some foundation for the promotion of Christian values is behind the whole thing. It all squeaks a bit, in other words. I rather liked it.
Shane (Eureka, cert PG)
Shane is one of a handful of genuine must-have classic westerns. Now, returned to pristine Technicolor glory for its Blu-ray debut, it stars Alan Ladd as the retired gunman helping a family of homesteaders tame the West. Ladd wasn’t a particularly tall actor – in most films he made his co-stars had to stand in an off-camera trench, or he on a box – but here his height, his baby face, his baby-blues and blond hair, not to mention his fringed buckskin jacket, are all played on to maximum effect. It’s a film full of domestic detail too, with children (in the shape of Brandon de Wilde), dogs and animals, as well as women and home cooking all featuring prominently, since this is all about the domestic versus the untamed old West, law and order versus the rule of the gun, the feminine versus the masculine. “A gun is as good as the man using it,” says the generally taciturn Shane at one point, having just saved the bacon of the Starrett family he’s now working for after riding in, like a prototype Clint Eastwood, from out of nowhere. “We’d all be much better off if there wasn’t a single gun left in the valley,” says Marian Starrett (Jean Arthur), wife of Joe (Van Heflin), Shane and Marian neatly summing up the current argument over gun control in the US. Is Shane going to whisk Marian away from her decent but lunkish husband and her squeaky loveable son? Is he going to stand up to the bullies? Those are the springs that drive this drama, a much more nuanced one than you’d expect from a western – bad-guy cattle baron Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) even gets a speech which explains his position in terms we can fully understand. He fought for this land, with blood and sacrifice, against Indians and with none of the accoutrements of civilisation, and he’s damned if he’s going to be fenced in by sodbusting johnnie-come-latelys. The Wyoming landscapes are magnificent, Jack Palance (still being credited as Walter Jack Palance) puts in an early appearance as a bad man who’s quick on the draw, and whether it’s Victor Young’s score, Loyal Griggs’s cinematography or the production design, soundscape and special effects, it’s all designed to work on the most mythic, epic scale. It entirely does.
© Steve Morrissey 2015