Ant-Man marks a change for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Whereas previous films have steadily upped the stakes, Peyton Reed’s entry scales things down (in multiple ways), delivering a warm, witty and sometimes wacky tale of guilt-ridden fathers and second chances. Ant-Man‘s connection to the Avengers is through plot developments rather than ironic winks, and the film features as many laugh-out-loud moments as Guardians of the Galaxy and also an engaging visual style, as Reed along with DOP Russell Carpenter and production designers Shepherd Frankel and Marcus Rowland make great use of their protagonist’s diminutiveness. Co-writer Paul Rudd makes for a likeable star, his slightly hangdog expression shifting to wry determination as his character Scott Lang embraces his heroic destiny. But the film’s greatest strength is its blending of genres. Much as GOTG was part space opera and Captain America: The Winter Soldier was part conspiracy thriller, Ant-Man plays largely as a heist/caper film. The (clichéd) band of specialized thieves, the last job that will finish their life of crime, the chain of events that lead to this one score (presented amusingly by Michael Peña), the planning that cross-cuts with execution – all these elements are delivered with verve and aplomb. Ant-Man therefore demonstrates one of the keys to Marvel’s ongoing success – rather than simply being one super-powered smackdown after another, the films of the MCU continually re-modulate and reform, developing the genre as well as the franchise.
Some franchises get better as they continue, and some demonstrate the law of diminishing returns. Terminator Genisys falls firmly into the latter category, as it attempts to rewrite a significant part of the franchise’s history and, in doing so, makes various clunking failures that highlight the film’s own redundancy.
Genisys repeatedly raids the Terminator production line, using footage from the 1984 original The Terminator, complete with young Arnold Schwarzenegger before his grizzled contemporary turns up. Nostalgia can be an effective dramatic approach, as in the rebooted Star Trek, but here the replaying of familiar material highlights Genisys‘ own lack of ideas. Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier’s script recycles various plot points from the first two films (ignoring continuity from Rise of the Machines and Salvation), and attempts to create new versions of established characters. The results, however, are anaemic and insipid. Schwarzenegger has been parodying himself for years and this is no exception, except that he is old and regularly reminds us of this (yes, Arnold, you’re old, not obsolete, we get it!). Emilia Clarke’s Sarah Connor is a pale shadow of Linda Hamilton’s guerrilla warrior, while Jai Courtney’s Kyle Reese lacks the feral desperation of Michael Biehn’s original incarnation (and Courtney’s massively buff physique – clearly there are still gyms post-Judgment Day – undercuts Schwarzenegger’s previously exceptional body). Jason Clarke is a bland John Connor, despite the potential for a great inversion of his character, a plot twist infuriatingly exposed by the film’s trailer.
All of these faults would be forgiveable if the film managed to engage with some interesting ideas. The best sci-fi is always concerned with ideas (see this year’s Ex Machina for a recent example), and the original Terminators did exactly this, principally the relationship humanity has with technology. The Terminator showed the omnipresence of technology and Terminator 2: Judgment Day blurred the distinction between human and machine. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines did the same thing badly but the unfairly maligned Terminator Salvation managed to go in a different direction by reversing the awareness of what is what. Terminator Salvation managed to refresh the franchise, but Genisys simply and blatantly replays what we have seen before: more time travel, more old Arnie, more unstoppable (although not really) terminator upgrades, more delays to Judgment Day, more ways to change the past and fight the future, and all for the purpose of stretching out a franchise that was completed perfectly well in 1991. The concepts that make the Terminator mythos interesting are simply referenced without engagement or due attention, resulting in a lazy and lifeless experience. Furthermore, director Alan Taylor demonstrates the same shortcomings he did with Thor: The Dark World, failing to create action set pieces that draw the viewer in or offer anything beyond stuff blowing up and flying around, with an unnecessarily clanking soundtrack that emphasises time and time again that THESE ARE MACHINES! Thanks, Alan, I might have forgotten otherwise.
Perhaps the greatest insult to the original films is the abandonment of their interesting gender politics. Far more than being a “strong female character,” Hamilton’s Sarah Connor was a woman of vision, voice and agency, who evolved from helpless victim to guerrilla commando, almost to the loss of her humanity. Clarke’s Sarah, however, mostly complains about her lack of choice over her future before accepting the dictates of the father and husband figures around her. Worse still, her voiceover is replaced with that of Kyle, making it his story rather than her’s and sidelining one of the most iconic women of action cinema. Depressing.
James Cameron gave his blessing to Genisys and described it as the true next installment. Much as I love Cameron, I have to disagree with him here, as Terminator Genisys is a wretched, retrograde regurgitation that fails to even have enough nostalgic value to maintain its running time. At least someone’s smiling.
It is that time of the year when film critics say “It is that time of the year.” And it is, indeed, that time of the year when I decide what are the best films of the year so far and how shall I rank them, according to my arbitrary and subjective notions of quality.
To clarify, I use UK release dates to determine what is a film of what year, so don’t go telling me such-and-such was really last year. To avoid confusion, I include the UK general release dates according to the IMDb, as well as links to my earlier reviews.
2015: Top Six of Six Months
Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) (1 January 2015)
A fearless, relentless, tragicomic blasterpiece.
Ex Machina (21 January 2015)
An eerie, beguiling and enthralling exploration of identity, consciousness and personhood.
Blackhat (20 February 2015)
A gripping and enthralling existential thriller of identity in a world of anonymity.
A Most Violent Year (23 January 2015)
A measured, compelling and de-romanticised portrayal of the American Dream.
Danny Collins (29 May 2015)
A warm, witty, hilarious, bittersweet, moving tale of redemption, family and the choices we make.
Selma (6 February 2015)
An intricate, powerful tale of great events told through the lens of shared, social experience.
These six are pretty good and they were hard to pick. Will all or indeed any of them make it into the Top Twelve at the end of the year? Time will tell…
A tribe of weird yellow creatures that babble barely comprehensible gibberish are not the most obvious leads for a movie, especially when their origin is as sidekicks. Nonetheless, the Minions were the breakout stars of 2010’s Despicable Me and, after their enlarged role in Despicable Me 2, they prove themselves more than capable of commanding a whole film, as Minions had me laughing from start to finish. This is largely due to directors Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin’s talent for slapstick humour, combined with genuine affection for their creations. The exploits of Kevin, Bob, Stuart and the rest of their tribe (all voiced by Coffin) are especially enjoyable because of the film’s affection for them – there is no spite or meanness in the film’s wit and invention. Furthermore, at a time when Jurassic World raises anger over its presentation of women, Minions manages to be surprisingly progressive, as Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock) is a wonderfully realised and rounded character, not defined by gender or hampered by stereotype. Minions manages to be surprising and impressive in its gender politics, while delivering on the laughs and ample instances of “BANANA!”
The biggest earthquake in recorded history rocks California, amidst the dire warnings of a leading seismologist (Paul Giamatti). Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson), the biggest man in the Los Angeles Fire Department, is THE man to save the day. Buildings crumble, fissures open in the ground, but nothing will stop this man mountain from saving his family. Lots of other people die but apparently that’s not interesting.
The spectacle of San Andreas is impressive, as whole sections of cities buckle, landmarks are destroyed and judder after judder shake the audience. But the film lacks an equivalent human scale, its focus too narrow on the broken family of Ray, ex-wife Emma (Carla Gugino) and daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario). Disaster movies like Titanic and The Day After Tomorrow as well as classics like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno work because they either show the wide effects of the disaster or focus on a small group of characters. San Andreas falls between these stools (or should that be continental plates) by occasionally presenting other victims of the earthquakes, but then abandons these plot lines to just focus on the Gaines. This is most glaring when Ray is on a rescue missions that he suddenly abandons to rescue Emma before both of them set off, in an LAFD helicopter, for San Francisco to get their daughter, Ray and the film apparently disregarding everyone else.
Politically, this is an unfortunate manifestation of conservative individualism – save yourself and your family – but it is also narratively aggravating because tighter plotting could have avoided it. It may seem odd to complain about the plot of a disaster movie, but action films of this type, when done carefully, often exhibit precise and efficient storytelling. But the sloppiness of Carlton Cuse’s screenplay, including the tired device of INEXORABLY RISING WATER as a climactic set piece, detracts from director Brad Peyton’s fine handling of the action sequences, including some enthralling long takes that draw the viewer through the onscreen architectural carnage. The generic clichés are perfectly fine, such as the slimy new boyfriend and the random strangers Blake bonds with in the crisis, while scenes at Cal-Tech with Lawrence (Giamatti) and a news crew are very good. Overall, however, San Andreas is let down by its shaky screenplay that could easily have been tightened up.
Nostalgia is a funny thing. Sometimes it makes something sweeter; other times it feels tired and worn. For cinemagoers of a certain age, Jurassic Park was a landmark moment in 1993, with the most convincing and compelling dinosaurs ever seen on screen. Over time, such monstrous spectacles have become commonplace, yet the sense of wonder and awe at Steven Spielberg’s classic remains strong and prevalent.
Jurassic World clearly acknowledges the audience’s familiarity with spectacular beasts, and the titular theme park’s need to up its product resonates with modern blockbusters’ need to deliver bigger and better. Along the way, director Colin Trevorrow continually tips his hat to the original, with frequent interludes of John Williams’ iconic theme, visual quotes such as close-ups of dinosaur eyes and old favourites including the tyrannosaur, velociraptors and even the dilophosaur and Mr. DNA. This nostalgia permeates the film, regularly reminding the viewer how much they enjoyed Jurassic Park.
The problem is that Jurassic World fails to convince in its own right. The plotting is sloppy, the set pieces functional and the characters disparate. Chris Pratt is an engaging hero while Bryce Dallas Howard has a half-decent arc, the two kids are not irritating and the dinosaurs are well rendered. But Trevorrow fails to bring any distinctiveness or panache to the visual palette, resulting in a ride that has too few jumps and shocks and no central thrust to pull the viewer along. It is a far sight better than the dino-sized doo-doo that was The Lost World, but lacks even the pace and wit of Jurassic Park III. Fun though it is to see dinosaurs because, well, dinosaurs, perhaps it is time for this franchise to go extinct.
A suave, debonair spy holds a sinister Eastern European at gunpoint, making it clear who is in control, then sneezes because of hay fever. Meanwhile, the spy’s tech support precisely guides him through the elaborate underground complex, while the other CIA hub agents deal with a pest infestation. From these opening moments, Spy presents familiar features of the spy genre while simultaneously adding its own comedic spin to them. Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy’s third collaboration (after Bridesmaids and The Heat) is a spy action comedy that knows its genre and winks this knowingness to the audience. It takes itself seriously enough to deliver startling action sequences with genuinely nasty violence, but maintains humour to ensure that each scene delivers the laughs. The film relies, with great judgement, on McCarthy’s versatility, talent and charisma for both its dramatic and comedic impact. McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a brilliant CIA tech who is sent into the field due to her anonymity after agent identities are leaked. Cooper takes on international arms dealer Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) and her gang of thugs, while ex-master spy Rick Ford (Jason Statham) blunderingly attempts to complete the mission himself, stopping just long enough to tell Cooper of his ludicrous exploits. McCarthy commands every scene she’s in with a layered performance of ambition, frustration, creativity and determination. Whether talking her way into a casino or out of a Mexican standoff, Cooper remains sympathetic and compelling. While she is very funny, the biggest laughs of the film are often prompted by Statham, who repeatedly sends up his hard man image with preposterous stories and bungling incompetence. Strong support also come from Jude Law, Allison Janney, Miranda Hart and Peter Serafinowicz, while the script delivers fast and sophisticated gags and Feig proves himself a skilled action director, especially during a fight between Cooper and opponent Nargis Fakhri that is as gripping and wince-inducing as any scrap Paul Greengrass has delivered. As well being hilarious, intelligent and exciting, Spy is also important and, as another critic has argued, groundbreaking. Spy dares to propose that (a) it is alright to be fat because fat does not equal worthless or wretched; (b) fat jokes are not alright and need to be highlighted as such; (c) a woman does not need to be judged beautiful by others in order to feel valued; (d) a woman’s narrative need not end in romantic resolution with a man to be happy because, shockingly, there is more to life to romance! While there is much to enjoy in Spy, it is also to be applauded as a sobering reminder of the inequality of gender representation in mainstream cinema, and how far we have to go before such a film is commonplace rather than exceptional.