Tag: Michael Pena

Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Oscar-winning sucker punch (literally) movie as a woman goes against the odds to make her boxing dreams come true

Director: Clint Eastwood

Cast: Clint Eastwood (Frankie Dunn), Hilary Swank (Maggie Fitzgerald), Morgan Freeman (Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris), Jay Baruchel (Dangerous Dillard), Mike Colter (“Big” Willie Little), Lucia Rijker (Billie “The Blue Bear” Osterman), Brian F. O’Byrne (Father Horvak), Anthony Mackie (Shawrelle Berry), Margo Martindale (Earline Fitzgerald), Marcus Chait (JD Fitzgerald), Riki Lindhome (Mardell Fitzgerald), Michael Pena (Omar), Benito Martinez (Billie’s manager)

Spoilers: I thought the end of Million Dollar Baby was pretty well known, but when I watched it with my wife, I realised half-way through she had no idea where it was going. I’ll be discussing it, so consider yourself warned!

We know what to expect from most Sports stories don’t we? A plucky underdog fights the odds and emerges triumphant, winning the big match or going the distance when everyone doubted them. So it’s not a surprise Million Dollar Baby was marketed as a sort of female-Rocky. It had all the ingredients: Swank as a dreamer from the wrong-end-of-the-tracks, tough but humble and decent; Eastwood as the grizzled trainer; a working-class backdrop; a struggle to put their pasts behind them on the road to glory. Then, imagine what a sucker punch the final act of the film is when you suddenly realise you’ve not been watching a feel-good drama, but the entrée to a heart-wrenching euthanasia story.

Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) has spent months persuading grouchy boxing trainer Frankie “I don’t train girls” Dunn (Clint Eastwood) to train her. Frankie suffers from a string of lifelong regrets, from the daughter that returns his letters unread to not ending a fight decades ago that saw best friend Eddie (Morgan Freeman) blinded in one eye. Frankie’s resistance is eventually worn down by Maggie’s persistence and the two form a close bond. Maggie is on fire in the ring – until a foul punch leads to a terrible fall leaving her paralysed from the neck down. With Maggie having lost everything that gave her life meaning, how will Frankie respond when she asks him to end her life?

Of course, the clues should be there earlier that we are not about to settle down for a triumphant Rocky II-style yarn. Eastwood’s (self-composed) maudlin score constantly works against the action, until we realise it is sub-consciously preparing us. Expectations are overturned: Frankie’s reluctance to let his fighter “Big” Willie (Mike Colter) go for a title shot – hesitation that lasts so long, eventually Willie hires a new manager – is shown to be misjudged when Willie wins. Dunn spends hours in church every day, plagued with guilt about misdeeds he can’t begin to put into words. Maggie’s family are not a supportive working-class bubble, but trailer-trash dole-scum who react to Maggie buying them with house with fury as it may affect their (unmerited) benefit cheques. We even get several shots of the stool that will eventually play a crucial role in crippling Maggie.

What the film is actually building to in its opening 90 minutes is not a story of triumph, but how a close relationship builds between a man who has lost his family and a woman whose family is a grasping horror story. Eastwood charts this with a carefully judged pace, delivering one of his finest performances as the guarded and grouchy Frankie, who uses his gruff exterior to protect himself from the possible hurt of emotional commitment. Because it’s clear Frankie actually cares very deeply, frequently going the extra mile to help people, even while complaining about it.

It’s that buried heart, that draws him towards the determined and good-natured Maggie. Rather like Frankie, Hilary Swank makes clear in her committed performance Maggie’s optimism and enthusiasm is as much of a shield as Frankie’s gruffness. She knows that she’s nothing to her family except a meal ticket and her entire life seems to have been one of loneliness, working dead-end jobs to funnel money to her mother at the cost of any life of her own. Switching away from her grinning enthusiasm leaves her in danger of staring at her own life and seeing what a mess it is.

With their two very different shields, these two characters are exactly what the other needs and one of the film’s principle delights is to see them slowly confiding in each other, sharing their vulnerabilities and filling the void their own families have left in their lives. This all takes place inside a conventional “sports movie” structure, which writer Paul Haggis almost deliberately doubles down on, as Maggie builds her skills, via training montages and Frankie starts to relax about sending people into the ring to have seven bells beaten out of them and dreams about one more shot.

This all means it hurts even more when that (literal) sucker punch comes. Eastwood’s film doesn’t shirk from the horrors of Maggie’s disability – re-enforced by the previous 90 minutes establishing how crucial movement and reflexes are to boxing, and how this element in particular helps give her life meaning. She’s covered with bed sores, can’t breathe without a respirator, it takes over an hour to lift her into a wheelchair (which she cannot operate) and eventually her infected leg is amputated. Her family visit only to get her to sign over her assets (she tells them where to get off). She is reduced to biting through her own tongue to try and bleed to death, meaning she is left sedated to prevent self-harm.

It’s all more for Frankie to feel guilty about. Although the film could have given even more time to exploring the complex issues – and moral clashes – around the right to die, it does make very clear the crushing burden of guilt and the impact his final decision will have on him. In fact, it would have benefited from spending more time on this and giving more time to O’Byrne’s priest (who quite clearly states that it’s wrong), to help give more definition to the arguments around assisted suicide (I wonder if Eastwood’s agnostic views came into play here).

Perhaps the film spends a little too long on its initial – even deliberately formulaic – rags-to-riches boxing story. In its boxing club vignettes, you can see the roots of the film in a series of short stories by former boxing trainer FX Toole. Mackie’s cocky boxy and Baruchel’s gentle intellectually disabled would-be boxer run through the film play like short story anecdotes. The narrative is linked together by narration from Morgan Freeman. It’s a natural fit for Freeman – essentially a semi-reprise of Red in Shawshank – and fits him like a glove (it was no surprise he won an Oscar). But trimming this content could have given more time to the films closing moral dilemma.

Which doesn’t change the impact it has. Eastwood’s low-key style – with its drained-out colours and piano chords – make a perfect fit, and its expertly played by himself and Swank (who also won an Oscar). Even on a second viewing, Million Dollar Baby still carries a real impact, particularly as you appreciate how subtly the sucker punch that floored so many viewers first time around is built up to.

American Hustle (2013)

Glamour and confidence tricks in David O. Russell’s flashy American Hustle

Director: David O. Russell

Cast: Christian Bale (Irving Rosenfeld), Amy Adams (Sydney Prosser), Bradley Cooper (Richie DiMaso), Jennifer Lawrence (Rosalyn Rosenfeld), Jeremy Renner (Mayor Carmine Polito), Louis CK (Stoddard Thorsen), Jack Huston (Pete Musane), Michael Peña (Paco Hernandez/Sheik), Elisabeth Röhm (Dolly Polito), Shea Whigham (Carl Elway), Alessandro Nivola (Anthony Amada), Robert De Niro (Victor Tellegio)

In 2013, American Hustle was nominated for ten Oscars and won none of them. Somehow, being invited to the big party but not receiving any prizes was strangely fitting for a film about small time grifters forced into a big game way beyond their control. Russell’s film is like a celebration of his strengths and weaknesses as a director: it’s stuffed with some very good (if rather mannered) performances, offers lots of dynamic film making, but is still basically a rather cold and arch film that’s hard to really invest in – rather like a con game in itself.

In 1978, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a small-time grafter, running scams with his partner and lover Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who uses the identity of a young English aristocrat “Lady Edith Greenslly”. Rosenfeld longs to leave his unstable, selfish wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) for Sydney, but fears he will lose all his access to his adopted son. Rosenfeld and Prosser’s career of clever investment frauds is brought to an end when Prosser is caught red-handed by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). DiMaso forces the pair into his entrapment operation, targeting New Jersey politicians with offers of bribes as part of a Fake Sheik investment. Initially it targets Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), but the operation quickly expands, as the ambitious and impulsive DiMaso constantly follows every connection and the operation expands to dangerous levels, taking in the mafia. Scared, Rosenfeld and Prosser desperately try to play both ends against the middle.

American Hustle is a decent film, which pulls together the sort of capers, turmoil and antics that you would expect from a film about a long con. It throws into the melting pot the vibes of several other films, from The Sting to Goodfellas, and asks us to admire the results. Russell encourages the actors to play it with an edgy verisimilitude that pretty much works as a metaphor for con men. Each performance is an effective display of high-wire character acting work laced with arch, studied tricks. But only rarely do you get a sense of something that’s real.

That’s part of a film that wants to have a cake and eat it as well. It’s striking in the entire story that the most sympathetic character is the initial target, Jeremy Renner’s well-meaning, passionate New Jersey politician, bamboozled into taking a bribe (money he mostly uses in the local community) because he is convinced it’s a crucial part of getting Arab investment. It’s even more striking that the most honest, subdued (and deadly) character is the Mafia kingpin Victor Tellegio, played with chilling menace by an unbilled Robert DeNiro. Nearly everyone else on the side of the entrapment operation is pretty much a selfish prick or verging on the unhinged.

But then that’s part of the point of the film, which throws two people who know what they are doing (Rosenfeld and Prosser) at the mercy of people playing with fire (Roselyn and in particular DiMaso, a permed, tightly-wound powderkeg). This is one hell of a performance from Bradley Cooper – and a sign again after Silver Linings Playbook that Russell and he have a natural understanding. Cooper is a force of nature, a bundle of terrible impulses combined with an utter lack of shame or self-control, who is quite happy to trample over everyone to get what he wants and has no regard whatsoever for the danger he puts himself and others into. Utterly unpredictable, he never sticks to a plan, veers between rage and hysterical laughter and, worst of all, is always convinced he’s right.

It’s DiMaso who spins the operation into dangerous waters with his vaulting ambition to land yet another big fish, recklessly peddling insubstantial, unprepared lies on top of each other – to the terror and horror of practised peddlar of bullshit Rosenfeld, whose whole successful schtick is based on saying “no” and having the mark do all the desperate work. DiMaso’s approach not only puts the operation at risk, it puts lives at risk – not that DiMaso cares, preoccupied as he is with his childish one-upmanship with his boss and a teenage sexual obsession with Prosser.

What chance do the (mostly) small-fish politicians and local figures have, whose lives are placed on the altar of DiMaso’s ambition? It’s no wonder that, late in the film, our conmen heroes start to feel guilt and remorse – none more so than Irving Rosenfeld. Played by Christian Bale with the sort of tricksy, Olivier-ish disguises that he so loves (in this case increased weight, a balding comb-over and a pair of tinged glasses he obsessively fiddles with), Rosenfeld is an operator happy with the level he is working at and incredibly wary of stepping up into the dangerous big leagues. Justifiably convinced of his own professionalism at fleecing money and winning trust, Rosenfeld has no problem with taking money from the selfish but every problem in the world with destroying the life of a fundamentally honest man. Bale’s performance, for all the tricks, manages to successfully build a picture of a selfish man who believes himself in his way to be honest in a way and is just trying to make his way.

That way also involves balancing between two very different women. Amy Adams does decent work as a blowsy fake-aristocrat, sporting a series of tops with neck lines that literally plunge down to her waist, although she is perhaps a little too “nice girl next door” to really convince as the love-em-to-manipulate-them Prosser. She’s not also helped by the script giving her an ill-defined arc of self-doubt linked to pretending to be someone else. Sweet as the genuine love can be her between her and Rosenfeld – and excellent as her chemistry is between Bale and Cooper – it’s the character who remains the least knowable in the film.

Also not helping is the fact that Jennifer Lawrence burns through the film as Rosalyn, the sort of electric, larger-than-life but still very real performance of arrogance, selfishness, dangerous stupidity and greed that marked her out as a major actress. Whether inadvertently putting Rosenfeld’s life at risk through blabbing details she’s half-overheard and half-understood, cleaning the kitchen while singing an aggressive rendition of Live and Let Die or nearly burning the house down because she won’t believe metal can’t go in “the science oven” (aka microwave), Lawrence is the film’s MVP.

Russell’s film showcases all these actors brilliantly, but his overall story remains a little cold and not as clever as it thinks. With a film about conmen you expect a final rugpull – and this film sort of manages one – but the story telling to take us there isn’t quite as articulate and clever as it needs to be in order to be really satisfying. Perhaps it’s the film’s ragged, hip, indie style of telling – or the air that the actors are making a lot of this stuff up as they go with edgy, semi-improvised performances – but the film never really engrosses or engages. For all that we see the inner worlds of Rosenfeld and Prosser, I can’t say I really, truly cared what happened to them. 

Instead Russell focuses on the marshalling of his resources, and cool, slick film-making. He uses expert camera work and editing, mixed with a superbly chosen soundtrack, overlaid with voiceover, sudden transitions, some narrative jumps and a vibrant sense of cool to make a story that finally feels a little too much like a style-over-substance trick – in fact a con game all of its very own, as enjoyable and entertaining as the rest of the film, but when it finishes you realise your pockets are empty.

The Martian (2015)

Matt Damon is Lost in Space in The Martian

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Matt Damon (Mark Watney), Jessica Chastain (Commander Melissa Lewis), Jeff Daniels (Teddy Sanders), Kristen Wiig (Annie Montrose), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Vincent Kapoor), Sean Bean (Mitch Henderson), Michael Peña (Major Rick Martinez), Kate Mara (Beth Johansson), Sebastian Stan (Dr Chris Beck), Aksel Hennie (Dr Alex Vogel), Mackenzie Davis (Mindy Park), Donald Glover (Rich Purnell), Benedict Wong (Bruce Ng)

Imagine being abandoned somewhere really difficult to get out of. Now how about being abandoned somewhere where it’s literally impossible to escape? Well you can’t get much more impossible than Mars, a place so bloody difficult it doesn’t even supply you with such luxuries as oxygen, water or food. But that’s exactly what happens to astronaut Mark Watney.

Part of the first manned mission to Mars, Watney (Matt Damon) is struck by debris and presumed killed after a storm forces the crew to abandon their planet. With no one on Earth aware he is alive, Watney faces huge difficulties: the next Mars mission isn’t for four years, and will land over 2,000 miles away. He has only enough food for at best a couple of years, and his Mars Rover can only travel 70 miles before it needs to be recharged. Fortunately, Watney (as well as being incredibly inventive) is a botanist – and works out a complex improvised farm in the base to grow potatoes (the only potential crop he has) as well beginning to modify the Rover to drive to the next mission site in four years. But things change when NASA (after holding his funeral) spot his movements via satellite – and now the race is on to organise a rescue mission.

The Martian perfectly works out what we find appealing about survivor stories: a charming, easy to relate to, protagonist who inspires with his never-ending MacGyver-ish invention. The best sequences by far focus on this, as Watney uses whatever he has available, from radioactive waste to his own shit, to try and save his life. There is something hugely compelling about seeing such inspiration in the face of adversity – perhaps because you want to believe “heck that’s what I would do…”

The first half of the film is crammed with these moments, made even more enjoyable by Watney’s off-the-wall, amusing commentary on events via video diary. Watney never succumbs to despair but instead constantly puts as positive as possible a spin on his situation, aware that opening the door to despair is the road to the end. A lot of this works so well because of Matt Damon’s terrific performance in the lead role. It’s no easy thing basically holding the screen entirely by yourself, but Damon does an amazing job here. He’s not just funny and engaging, but he also subtly touches on deep inner feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Scott understands all this and shoots most of the sequences with Watney with a low-key, calm but technically assured simplicity. He lets the action here largely speak for itself, and shows a better ear for comedy than I think many people thought him capable of. He also uses Watney’s “suit cam” and the video diary format to constantly shake up the visuals and allow us to see Watney’s actions and decisions from different perspectives. His mastery of the sweeping epic comes into its own when the camera swoops over Martian panoramas, making the hostile red planet look unbelievably beautiful. 

It’s easy to see why NASA supported this film so strongly, as the organisation comes out of this impossibly well. This is essentially a fictionalised retelling of Apollo 13, with the astronauts surviving above, while the ingenious techies below work miracles to first communicate with, and then devise a rescue mission, for Watney. The film is deeply in love with NASA – despite some personality clashes, the NASA characters are all shown to be highly intelligent, compassionate people. Even “the suit”, Director Sanders (played with a square jawed patience by Jeff Daniels), is basically a humanitarian who wants to preserve human life (and is cool enough to have a brilliant Lord of the Rings gag).

Despite this, the struggles of the various bigwigs at NASA to save Watney are slightly less interesting than the opening half of the film based around Watney’s struggles to survive. Perhaps because, well done as it is, we’ve seen this sort of stuff before, done better – not least in Apollo 13 – and partly because what NASA is trying to do is not quite clearly explained in layman’s terms. Think of the simple brilliance of Apollo 13 when the engineers need to create a filter using only what the astronauts have on the ship: it’s easy to understand, clear, brilliant and gripping. Comparative scenes in this film just don’t land as quickly.

The film also struggles as events and twists in the midway part of the movie lead to Watney losing a lot his agency. Since most of the film’s unique enjoyment is seeing Watney conquer his environment, and gain mastery of the rotten hand that fate has dealt him, as soon as that element is removed and Watney turns into more of a man in distress, the film struggles to maintain its unique interest. It makes the second half of the film more conventional (Damon is noticeably in this much less, considering how much he dominates the first half) and also ends up comparing unfavourably with other, better films (sorry I mean Apollo 13 again…)

But The Martian is crammed with good lines, fine jokes and some good performances – even if some of the characters seem a bit sketchily drawn. Benedict Wong is very good as NASA’s top techno bod. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sean Bean do well as the most clearly sympathetic senior NASA bods. Up in space, the rest of the crew are very lightly sketched, but Jessica Chastain gives a fine sense of authority to the Mission Commander. But make no mistake this is Damon’s movie – and he dominates both the audience’s interest and the film’s.

The Martian is a very well made, intelligent crowd-pleaser. It’s not a classic – and it’s slightly in the shadow of better movies – but it’s brilliantly put together and hugely engaging. The second half of the story is less compelling and more conventional than the first, but there is more than enough invention and enjoyment there for you to want to come back and see it again.

Crash (2005)

Matt Dillon and Thandie Newton deal with racism in tedious best picture disaster Crash

Director: Paul Haggis

Cast: Sanda Bullock (Jean Cabot), Don Cheadle (Detective Graham Walters), Matt Dillon (Sgt John Ryan), Jennifer Esposito (Ria), Brendan Fraser (DA Rick Cabot), Terrence Howard (Cameron Thayer), Ludacris (Anthony), Thandie Newton (Christine Thayer), Michael Peña (Daniel Ruiz), Ryan Phillippe (Officer Tom Hansen), Larenz Tate (Peter), Shaun Toub (Farhad), Bahar Soomekh (Dorri), William Fichtner (Flanagan), Keith David (Lt Dixon), Bruce Kirby (‘Pop’ Ryan), Beverly Todd (Mrs Waters)

If you had to name the least popular Best Picture winner, there is a fair chance the name you’d come up with Crash. Crash was a surprise winner in 2005, beating out Ang Lee’s tender gay-cowboy classic Brokeback Mountain. Crash was a little independent movie, filmed in and around Los Angeles, that seemed to be tackling big themes – racism, humanity, fate, blah blah blah. To be fair, Paul Haggis’ film is giving it a go. But what you get is just hugely, well, average. It’s not a film that has aged well, and it’s not a film that has enough depth to it to overcome the general cynicism towards it.

The film follows a kaleidoscope of events in Los Angeles, each of which revolves around clashes between different races, with stories that are shown to interlink. So we have an ambitious DA (a miscast Brendan Fraser) and his wife (a pretty good Sandra Bullock) carjacked by two gangbangers (Ludacris and Larenz Tate). A TV director (Terrence Howard) and his wife (Thandie Newton) are pulled over then assaulted by a bigoted cop (Matt Dillon), despite the fears of his nervous liberal partner (Ryan Phillippe). A locksmith (Michael Peña) deals with racial suspicions from the DA’s wife, and from a Persian shop owner (Shaun Toub), who is himself the victim of racial abuse. A cop (Don Cheadle) and his partner (Jennifer Esposito) investigate two undercover cops who shot each other, monitored by the DA. And so it goes on.

Crash could be pretty much relabelled Racism Actually. In fact, it shares a lot of traits with Richard Curtis’ loosely assembled series of shaggy dog stories, feeling as they do like off-cuts and half assembled scraps of ideas from Haggis’ writing desk. But what he ends up wheeling out here is a manipulative, cliché-filled pile of earnest claptrap, in which basically a series of unpleasant characters behave unpleasantly towards each other. You can see why the ageing academy might have warmed to it – it’s a film that looks at racism, by exploring how, gosh darn it don’t you know “everybody is a little bit racist” sometimes. 

On top of that, Haggis’ film relies overwhelmingly on coincidence and the tired “we are all linked together” clichés. It wants to try and make big statements about the prejudices and victimisation that we all suffer in our different ways – but it delivers them in such a clumsy and manipulative way your nose ends bruised by the number of points hit on it. For starters, do people really throw around racial slurs as readily and immediately as the characters in this film do? Surely the real danger of racism is not the people who shout racist nicknames and get angry immediately – isn’t the real danger of racism its incipient nature, the quiet whispers behind closed doors or the barriers gently but firmly put in the way? 

This film turns racism into something loud, obvious and crass. And then it produces a film that does the same thing. The script is full of scenes which never feel real, – every conversation in the piece turns into a clumsy series of “we all hold prejudiced views” or “I’ve got more depths than you think” statements that always feel fake. Not once do the characters sound like real people. It’s the sort of clumsy, crappy, thuddingly worthy film-making that ostentatiously believes itself to be great film-making, when in fact it’s as average as cornflakes.

Even the more effective moments only work because they are so manipulative: the confrontation at gunpoint between the locksmith and shop owner, and the rescue of Thandie Newton from a burning car by Matt Dillon’s brutish cop. When they are happening, these moments are strangely gripping – but literally the instant they finish, you are struck by how Haggis has filmed them in such an operatic, balls-to-the-wall way you would have to work pretty hard not to be swept up in them. Effective manipulation is still manipulation – and manipulation really shouldn’t be this easy to spot. Certainly not within seconds of it happening.

But nearly all the characters are so simple and cookie-cutter that, despite the quality of the acting, you never connect with them. It doesn’t help that Haggis’ unsubtle screenplay is desperate to point up “surprise” personality twists – the “you think they are like this, but look: here they behaving totally differently. People are more complex than you think!” card is played so often it starts getting worn out. All of this serves to boil down to a trite message that when we try and get along with each other everything eventually might work its way out. Oh please, give me a break.

The acting, though, is actually pretty good. Sure Brenda Fraser is horribly miscast, and Don Cheadle is stuck with a terrifically boring cop who has to hold some of the narrative threads together, but there are plenty of decent performances. Sandra Bullock gets to show she has some solid dramatic chops, Thandie Newton is a pretty much a revelation as a seemingly shrewish wife, Terrence Howard mines a lot out of a clichéd middle-class black man going through a mid-life crisis. Ludacris and Lorenz Tate are excellent as the two gangbangers, although their dialogue and actions never feel real at all. Michael Peña is very endearing as just about the only outright likeable character. Dillon got a lot of praise (and an Oscar nomination) as the racist cop and he is fine (though dozens of actors could do what he does here), even though the character is thin as paper and relies on having the two of the best impact scenes.

Dillon’s character is a good example of the film’s moral shallowness. Perhaps it’s the #MeToo era, but do I think that Dillon’s clearly racist manner and his sexual assault on Newton’s character is cancelled out because he saves her from a fire and treats his dying Dad well? I mean, what is this sort of laziness? The film says “ah ha look viewer you thought he was a bad guy, but look at his depth”. So forget the sexual assault because he saved his victim’s life the next day. Wow. Don’t get me started on the contrived weighting of the scales the film puts together so that our opinion is shifted on Phillipe’s good cop. The film is full of this sort of clumsy, ham-fisted, chin stoking, liberal garbage that feels overwhelmingly patronising.

But then this is a film that doesn’t trust you to think. It is the ultimate middle-class, hand-wringing exercise in “oh if only we could fix the world through good things” nonsense. It shouts and shouts and shouts at you about racism, but never really tells you anything other than that bad-tempered, ignorant people will do bad-tempered ignorant things. It smugly says “of course we are better, but guess what viewer, this sort of thing does happen”. Only of course the script is so thin, the general film-making so thuddingly average and unsubtle, the story and morality so shallow, that its preachy hectoring only really serves to turn you off.  Anyone with a brain will get the message within the first 10 minutes. The film takes another hour and a half to catch up with you. The worst Best Picture winner ever? It’s gotta be up there.

Ant-Man (2015)

Paul Rudd springs into action as Ant-Man

Director: Peyton Reed

Cast: Paul Rudd (Scott Lang), Michael Douglas (Hank Pym), Evangeline Lilly (Hope van Dyne), Corey Stall (Darren Cross), Bobby Cannavale (Paxton), Michael Peña (Luis), Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson/Falcon), Judy Greer (Maggie), Hayley Atwell (Peggy Carter), John Slattery (Howard Stark)

Back into Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, as yet another comic book hero comes to the big screen. Is there going to be anyone who has appeared in a Marvel comic at any point who isn’t going to find their way into a live action film at some point? It’s looking unlikely!

Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) was formerly Ant-Man, a super-hero who can shrink himself to the size of an ant, with superhuman strength. In the present, he has been forced out of his own company by his former protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) and his estranged daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). When newly released thief Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), desperate to provide for his daughter, steals Pym’s Ant-Man suit, Pym identifies him as the man who he can train up to take his place as Ant-Man and help to protect the shrinking technology from being misused by Cross.

Ant-Man was a project developed for many years by Edgar Wright, dynamic director of the Cornetto Trilogy with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. But our old friend Creative Differences reared its head, and studio and director went their separate ways. Which is a real shame as you can’t shake the feeling a director with genuine invention and imagination might have been able to craft something truly original out of this, rather than the essentially solid piece of craftwork it is.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with Ant-Man. It’s just a rather average, forgettable film with moments of interest. It’s a jolly, inoffensive little caper, which goes through the motions of the origins story of a hero without offering anything that different from what we’ve seen dozens of times before now. It’s all very professionally done, and even witty in places, but it’s nothing special.

This is particularly a shame since there are genuine moments of originality. A battle between Lang and Cross, both shrunken, takes place in a child’s train set, with the film cutting between the different scales of events for some effective comic impact (so we see the train crash with seismic impact on small scale, then see the same event at normal scale where it seems laughably minor). Similarly, Michael Peña’s character tells a series of anecdotal stories in voiceover in a laid back, hipster patter, with his words and phrasing exactly lip-synched by the people in the story. It’s a neat little piece of cinematic invention.

The heist structure of the film is good fun, and the pseudo-science of shrinking is entertainingly (and consistently) explained. Even our hero’s ability to control ants doesn’t seem too silly (which is really saying something).

It’s just all pretty much what you would expect. Corey Stoll’s villain in particular seems a slightly contrived after-thought, an antagonist whose existence serves as a contrast to Lang and Pym rather than a character who seems to be organically developed. Their final confrontation is amusingly done – but it’s a familiar Marvel trope now: a hero and villain with the same powers facing off. We’ve seen it done many times since the first Iron Man film.

Saying that, Paul Rudd is a decent and engaging lead (even though he seems to be effectively playing himself) and he makes Lang into a character it’s easy to root for (even if we’ve seen the sort of “Dad wants to prove himself” narrative many, many times before). Michael Douglas could do his mentor role standing on his head, but brings the role a nice lightness of touch. Evangeline Lilly brings a nice mix of resentful and caring to a tricky role as Pym’s overlooked daughter.

The problem you always have is that everything in the film feels a little bit too straight-forward and easy. It’s not a bad thing that this is a film that simply sets out to entertain, but somehow, enjoyable as it is, you want something a little bit more rather than the rather safe concoction that we have here. It’s fun while it lasts but then it disappears from your mind almost completely once it’s finished. Is that a good thing? Well it makes good escapism. But plenty of these films have managed to be more than just something to enjoyably pass the time. Which is all Ant-Man really is.

Battle Los Angeles (2011)

The aliens are coming! Get ready to fight! High-octane nonsense in Battle Los Angeles

Director: Jonathan Liebesman

Cast: Aaron Eckhart (Staff Sgt. Michael Nantz), Michelle Rodriguez (TSgt Elena Santos), Ramon Rodriguez (Lt William Martinez), Bridget Moynahan (Michele), Ne-Yo (Cpl Kevin J. “Specks” Harris), Michael Peña (Joe Rincon), Lucas Till (Cpl Scott Grayston), Adetokumboh M’Cormack (HM3 Jibril A. “Doc” Adukwu)

We are not alone, and the visitors do not come in peace. But then in films like this they rarely do. They don’t even want to be taken to our leaders. They just want to kill us. An alien invasion strikes, and Los Angeles is one of several cities on the frontline against the seemingly indestructible alien hordes. Staff Sgt. Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart), a veteran whom many blame for leading members of his platoon to their deaths on his last tour, is hurriedly reassigned to a platoon of fresh recruits and sent into the city to rescue a group of civilians. But they quickly find themselves trapped behind enemy lines, fighting a rear-guard action against the invaders.

Battle Los Angeles has received little love from the critics. It’s not hard to see why. The characters (such as they are) are a collection of ill-defined military types, who give voice only to the purest of clichés. Literally nothing in it is new or original, with Liebesman combining the offcuts of Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down and District 9 into an alien urban shoot-‘em-up cocktail. The plot is so predictable it could be comfortably guessed in advance with only a brief description of the characters. Will Aaron Eckhart’s Distant-but-Dedicated-Haunted-Sergeant win the respect and love of his men? You betcha.

So why, despite this, did I actually quite enjoy this film? Possibly because it has no pretensions at all but solely sets out to entertain. It presents its clichés with such steel-jawed commitment, it makes them fairly entertaining. It has more heart in its affection for its staple characters than a host of other, bigger blockbusters and certainly more fun. It’s a short and high-energy ride. Despite its Michael Bay-ish, fetishistic love for the military, it’s not afraid to present the marines suffering from fear and anxiety. It’s a simple, unbloated story. Sure it’s not very good at all, but it’s not offensively bad, and catch it in the right mood and you’ll enjoy its corny heroics and “man on a mission” dynamic.

Part of this probably comes from Aaron Eckhart’s acting, which is at least several degrees better than the movie deserves. Replace him with an action lunk and it would slip into militaristic tedium, but Eckhart gives his performance a certain humanity – and inspires, I think, some decent, realistic work from his fellow actors. They more than service the “Men/Women gotta do” structure – and rather winningly the film shows all the characters as competent and all willing to go the distance to help each other.

So we get a decent, B-movie cutting of a modern war film, with the frame full of bangs, crashes and chaos. Sure, many of the characters remain indistinguishable and the plot is nothing at all to write home about, but there is an unabashed, unpretentious simplicity about the film I found strangely winning. Liebesman is no artist, but he is a solid craftsman and while he lacks any originality, he does have a schlocky sense of fun that really works here.

It’s not fit to lace the boots of any of the films it’s ripping off (you can chuck in Independence Day, Aliens and almost any war film made this century) but it’s perfectly content with being a bootroom reserve. It wants to entertain you: sit back and let it do so and it probably will. Critical thinking off!

Fury (2014)

Brad Pitt and his boys saddle up – but sadly not on a war against cliche

Director: David Ayer

Cast: Brad Pitt (Sgt Don “Wardaddy” Collier), Logan Lerman (Norman Ellison), Shia LeBeouf (Boyd “Bible” Swan), Michael Peña (Trini “Gordo” Garcia), John Bernthal (Grady Travis), Jason Isaacs (Captain Waggoner)

The Second World War. How many times has it been placed on screen? And  how hard is it now to tell an original story about the conflict? This film proves it is, in fact, very hard indeed. Norman (Logan Lerman) is a young clerk sent to join a tank crew as a replacement machine gunner. He joins the crew of the tank Fury led by “Wardaddy” (Brad Pitt), a famed veteran whose crew are a tightly loyal crew of old hands: Logan’s reluctance to fight quickly makes him a target for anger. But when they are sent on a mission to hold a crossroads, will he prove himself?

There isn’t much original in this rather dull remix of elements from other war films – most notably The Dirty Dozen, Saving Private Ryan and elements of Inglorious Basterds, with Pitt in particular essentially offering a second version of the same Nazi-hating wild guy he played in Tarantino’s film. As a result, there is almost nothing in here that you haven’t seen in several – often much better – Second World War films before. Nothing seems fresh, nothing seems original and as a result nothing is ever particularly exciting or engaging.

Added to that, this “coming of age in a time of war” drama is undermined by the fact that none of its characters are particularly sympathetic, engaging or likeable. The film wants to partly show that constant conflict and war has dehumanised its principle characters– and we see the effect it starts to have on  young Norman – but that doesn’t change the fact that the tank crew we are saddled with for the course of the movie are boorish, unpleasant, swaggering, bullying assholes. The small amount of shading added to them doesn’t change that, and it’s pretty hard to feel anything at all when they start getting killed off late in the movie.

The final confrontation scene also flies in the face of logic – one broken-down tank takes on 200 German soldiers? Why don’t the troops outflank it? More to the point, as everyone involved acknowledges the war is nearly over, why bother with the risk – what is at stake? Why the kamakazi final stand? Never are the stakes clearly explained – instead it’s just lazy “men gotta do” action rubbish. Ayer may feel that he making a point with Norman’s character about innocence shattered by conflict, but it’s a pretty murky point that’s been made many, many, many times before, and I don’t think he is swift in criticising or condemning some of the terrible things Wardaddy and his soldiers do in this film, despite their undoubted efficiency at combat. But like many films of this genre, slap the label Nazi or SS on anyone and it justifies any level of violence directed at them.

I’ll give the film a nod for some good photography and some impressive sound and visual effects. In terms of showing tank warfare, this is pretty impressive, and the deadly firepower of these weapons is brought very well to life. The characters may not be engaging, but this is decently acted – even if many of the scenes rely too heavily on grandstanding performing. Brad Pitt is good enough to even sway some interest in a 2D character he could play in his sleep: quieter scenes of reflection allow us to think that there is more to Wardaddy than a love of fighting.

But this is a dull and empty film and it builds towards things you’ve seen done better elsewhere.