0333 | Eden

eden filmThe fourth feature-length film by French director and screenwriter Mia Hansen-Løve is less a celebration of the church of dance – though it is at times a paean to clubbing and its inherent vices, particularly in the first of its two parts – and more a bittersweet tale about moderate success, moderate failure, gain and loss, spanning a period of twenty years and focusing on the life and loves of (fictional) DJ and producer Paul Vallée (Félix de Givry). With its emphasis on the Parisian electronic music scene of the 1990s and early 2000s the subject matter of Eden may well alienate some cinemagoers, but those willing to take the plunge will find a well-scripted, intelligently-structured film that brings to mind both the cool dreaminess of Sofia Coppola and – through the use of several non-professional actors and the general focus on twenty-somethings – the work of Éric Rohmer.

Co-written by Hansen-Løve with her brother Sven, and drawing on Sven’s experience as a successful Paris-based DJ and producer, Eden traces Paul’s life from 1992 to the present day. This period of twenty-plus years is divided into two parts (subtitled ‘Paradise Garage’ and ‘Lost In Music’), the first much lighter than the second, building to a crescendo of sorts in the middle (when Paul’s career hits a peak and he’s in a long-term relationship with Louise (Pauline Étienne)). Each half consists of smaller segments that generally cover a year or two at most, and the structure smartly brings to mind the sets played by more thoughtful DJs, the kind that Paul’s hero Larry Levan was famous for creating in New York in the 1980s. Occasionally the narrative skips forward in time à la Boyhood – at one point four years pass by in the blink of an eye – often with no explanation of Paul’s break-ups or the beginnings of his love affairs, though without the luxury of a long shooting schedule like the one enjoyed by Richard Linklater the passing of time is depicted by more common visual signifiers: slight shifts in haircuts and trends, for example, and through changes in technology. Mobile phones and smartphones work their way in, but more interestingly the DJs’s tool of choice changes from turntables to CD mixers to the iMac, analogue slowly giving in to digital. Change is gradual and years pass by in a blur.

‘Paradise Garage’ traces Paul’s rise within the French touch house scene that became prominent during the mid-1990s. When we first see him it’s at the end of a party taking place inside an old submarine, where he’s coming down from ecstasy and bashfully asking the DJ about a certain track he played (‘The Whistle Song’ by Frankie Knuckles, which perfectly sums up Eden‘s blend of happiness and sadness). He and artist pal Cyril (Roman Kolinka) fall in love with this style of music – garage house born of disco and emanating from New York and Chicago – and Paul forms a musical partnership with fellow DJ, producer and friend Stan (Hugo Conzelmann), eventually hosting their own club nights. Two more members of the same scene, Thomas (Vincent Lacoste) and Guy-Man (Arnaud Azoulay), find fame as Daft Punk; there’s a charming scene here showing the pair nervously dropping breakthrough single Da Funk for the first time at a New Year’s Eve party, and a couple of amusing jokes based around their on-stage appearance, though wisely Hansen-Løve allows them to disappear from the story as their international profile rises. There are subtle nods to other key figures – a sticker for Étienne De Crecy’s landmark Super Discount album, for example, or a Cassius t-shirt – that simply serve as knowing winks for watching nerds.

The level of Paul and Stan’s success is marked throughout by the size of the crowds they attract: at first the parties are friendly and intimate, only for those ‘in the know’, but the crowds swell and the clubs get bigger, the peak being a residency at MoMA’s PS1 in New York. In ‘Lost In Music’, the second half of the film, things take a turn for the worse. Larger venues mean that Paul and Stan inherit more problems, such as insensitive promoters and diva antics from American singers who are flown over to deliver PAs, while Paul’s lack of business acumen means that he fails to capitalise on his fleeting popularity. His tastes remain constant while the music he makes and plays becomes less fashionable, and he is left floundering in the slipstream of newer trends as we move into the mid-noughties. By the end of the decade he has resorted to performing a series of uninspiring paying gigs where there is little respect for his craft, such as a private party in Morocco and a depressing-looking New Year shindig on a near-empty boat, during which we see that Stan has moved on and now has a partner and baby (we can presume that’s also what has happened to most of the early-90s clubbers seen fervently dancing and singing in the first half). Meanwhile the coke habit Paul develops in the 1990s gets worse, the debts become larger, and his decision to quit university to focus on music seems to have backfired, ultimately; it looks like a smart move at times in Eden, but with huge debts and no career in his mid-30s Paul cuts a desultory lone figure.

His inability to change is underlined by his various relationships, and the way in which his ex-partners manage to move on with their lives while he stays in the same flat, playing the same kind of music and gradually becoming worn out by working at night. When he revisits first love Julia, an American writer played by Greta Gerwig, she has seemingly found stability back home in New York and is pregnant. Louise, with whom he shares the most obvious chemistry and strongest bond, also moves on quickly after her years with Paul; one minute she leaves him, the next (in cinematic terms at least) she has had two kids with another man, even though she fails to find lasting happiness in the coastal town of Hossegor and eventually returns to Paris. Others come and go and, as in real life, when they’re gone they’re gone; Laura Smet’s celeb-obsessed party girl Margot seems like a bad bet from the off and Golshifteh Farahani’s upbeat Yasmin disappears following a skip forward in time. Hansen-Løve gives you just enough sense of each of these female characters to make such a parting of the ways seem logical, and occasionally inevitable: it’s not a surprise that Yasmin has left when we find a ‘new’ Paul, one who has kicked his coke habit and has stopped working as a DJ, even though she is shown in a sympathetic light before the narrative moves on.

Given that the main character appears to be a relatively nice guy it’s natural to want to see some light at the end of the tunnel when it turns sour, or to see him with the same person when we jump forward in time, but Hansen-Løve smartly avoids a saccharine ending with Louise and skilfully incorporates a few threads that hint at a different future, which feels wholly in keeping with the rhythm she has established up to that point. Paul enrolls in an evening writing course and meets Estelle (Olivia Ross), while there is a sense that he is finally taking action with regard to his finances and he also manages to move on from the loss of a friend several years earlier. At the end Estelle is super-imposed on screen as Paul reads Robert Creeley’s poem The Rhythm, a fittingly melancholic full stop to this snapshot of a 20-year period that has seen such dedication to music, but also a work that seems to sum up Paul’s place in the world.

Eden is a finely-constructed and engaging film, and one of my favourites of 2015 to date; that’s partly due to its many obvious qualities – with regard to the script, the use of music, the acting and the accuracy of the clubbing scenes (the best since Yolande Zauberman’s 1996 film Clubbed To Death, released when the 90’s French house scene was in its prime) – but I also regard it so highly because it left me feeling warmly nostalgic about my own twenties and the places I lived in or visited (though I never had the missionary zeal of the main male characters in this piece, and thankfully no equivalent drug problem). Eden is an accurate, heartfelt, intelligent and absorbing picture, while de Givry’s central performance is both understated and realistic; he is well-supported by the rest of the cast.

Directed by: Mia Hansen-Løve.
Written by: Mia Hansen-Løve, Sven Hansen-Løve.
Starring: Félix de Givry, Pauline Etienne, Vincent Macaigne, Roman Kolinka, Hugo Conzelmann, Zita Hanrot, Vincent Lacoste, Greta Gerwig, Arnaud Azoulsay, Golshifteh Farahani, Laura Smet.
Cinematography: Denis Lenoir.
Editing: Marion Monnier.
Music: Various.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 130 minutes.
Year: 2015.

0332 | Southpaw

Southpaw certainly deserves some praise: at times its fights – in which Jake Gyllenhaal’s Billy Hope takes plenty of punishment – are choreographed as well as any other boxing movie made during the past twenty years, and it’s easy to get carried away as blows land, sweat flies, blood spills, strings swell, crowds cheer, loved ones wince and another hero of the ring battles back from the brink of defeat. Yet consistency is lacking, and there’s something oddly fake about a couple of the early bouts contained in Antoine Fuqua’s latest film: the use of TV commentators as providers of character back story is hackneyed, not to mention cringeworthy, while at times it’s difficult to accept that the fighter we’re seeing being bludgeoned on the ropes is actually the light heavyweight champion of the world (though a beefed-up Gyllenhaal certainly looks the part).

In this conventional tale of loss and redemption Hope has gained his titles by fighting in the style of a brawler. No-one seems to question just how a professional boxer can win 41 bouts in a row without learning to defend, and despite occasional attempts to make him look as fearsome in the ring as a Tyson or a Hearns, the set-up is unconvincing. Still, it’s the movies, and it’s there to be overlooked. He and wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) spent their respective childhoods in New York City care homes, and thus Billy’s success means they’re now living the American Dream: huge mansion, expensive cars, multi-million dollar contracts overseen by fairweather manager Jordan Mains (Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson), etc. etc., though our hero repeatedly points out his family is the only thing that truly matters. However with eye-rolling predictability Billy subsequently loses his title in the midst of losing everything else, including his relationship with beloved daughter Leila (Oona Laurence).

Though there are emotionally-charged moments, punchy courtroom scenes and lots of tears, Southpaw is two hours of very-much-by-the-book melodrama, and an upturn in Billy’s fortunes is somewhat inevitable once he has hit rock bottom; Hope is aided in his quest to regain his daughter and his title – forearm tattoos describe him as a ‘Father’ and a ‘Fighter’ – by Naomie Harris’s Child Protective Services officer and Forest Whitaker’s gym trainer, both of whom take pity on the boxer after initial frostiness; in fact most characters here are simply concerned with helping Gyllenhaal’s fighter along as he travels the road from rags-to-riches once again. Cue uninspiring training montages, intense dialogue, a reconciliation with Leila and another crack at the title, with mouthy rival Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez) waiting in Vegas. We’ve seen all of this time and time again, from Rocky to Cinderella Man to The Fighter and countless other sports dramas, but I guess it still puts bums on seats.

The work by the assembled cast members ensures that Southpaw is worth a look, at least, and Fuqua should be happy in the knowledge that he has overseen the best lead performance in one of his films since Denzel Washington’s magnetic turn in Training Day. However any recommendation comes with several caveats. Like that earlier movie’s writer-turned-director David Ayer, Fuqua seems unwilling to break away from testosterone-heavy tales that incorporate countless boring scenes of boring men grunting to other men about their boring emotional state or their boring pressure cooker jobs or their boring problems. And the advice that’s grunted back is the usual, predictable, you-gotta-be-the-best-kind-of-guy-you-can-be bullshit. Expect plenty of it.

Additionally, although the gym- and barroom-set scenes with Gyllenhaal and Whitaker are as well-acted as you would expect, Kurt Sutter’s cliche-ridden script isn’t particularly inspiring and there’s barely a line worth reciting in the entire film; in fact such is the predictability of the screenplay you could probably fall asleep for various ten minute periods of Southpaw and still know exactly where you are when you wake up. Disbelief must be suspended when world title fights are arranged six weeks in advance, and more generally the timeframe of the story feels far too short; why not spread it out over a period of a few years, rather than mere months? Finally there are way too many leery, lingering shots of scantily-clad ring girls, the camera often resting on their legs or looking them up and down in a sad, degrading fashion. Gyllenhaal’s body also repeatedly draws the director’s attention (yes…he’s bruised and bleeding and has muscles and tattoos! I get it!) but by way of contrast he’s a male movie star who must sell the film and thus his body is championed and treated with far more respect. When Billy is naked from the socks up and crying on the shower room floor, for example, the camera backs away and rounds a corner, as if to give him some privacy. Rather than, say, repeatedly panning left and right across his buttocks. So why all da shots of da ladies’ legs like dat, huh guys?

Directed by: Antione Fuqua.
Written by: Kurt Sutter.
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Curtis Jackson, Naomie Harris, Miguel Gomez, Oona Laurence, Victor Ortiz.
Cinematography: Mauro Fiore.
Editing: John Refoua.
Music: James Horner, Various.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 123 minutes.
Year: 2015.

0331 | Timbuktu

timbuktuAt the beginning of Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu we see hunters in a jeep – Islamic militants who are part of the group Ansar Dine – chasing and shooting at an antelope on the edge of the Sahara Desert. They are unable to hit the animal and soon turn their attention to immobile objects instead, using traditional, small statues for target practice. Presumably these have been confiscated from residents of the titular Malian city, where the jihadists have taken root, as the carved objects that are based on female bodies suggest a state of undress. It’s an ominous symbolic opening.

Rather than using a linear story or focusing on a few individuals, Sissako’s film – made in his native Mauritania – cuts between various incidents and characters to examine a situation that has become increasingly familiar for the residents of many towns and cities across northern Mali, and more generally northern Africa. The visiting militia (easily marked out by their ubiquitous AK-47s) impose a series of rules on the confused people of Timbuktu who, as one exasperated local imam points out, are generally observant Muslims. Orders are given by megaphone informing residents that they are no longer allowed to smoke, play soccer, make music or even sit outside their houses. Those entering and leaving a mosque are told to roll up their trousers. A woman selling fish in the market becomes understandably exasperated by a new decree that all women must wear gloves in public. Gunmen lit by the moon patrol the city at night, watching from the rooftops for minor transgressions. If all of this wasn’t petty enough we later see a soldier mysteriously telling residents in broken English that ‘any old thing’ has now been outlawed, the mirth induced being somewhat bittersweet given that people are actually forced to put up with this behaviour in real life.

As if to highlight the absurdity of the situation Sissako includes a scene in which boys and young men play soccer without a ball, pretending to kick, tackle one another and score goals. When the militants drive past menacingly the two teams simply stop what they’re doing and pretend to be in the middle of otherwise innocuous exercises, before returning to their imaginary game when the coast is clear. The soldiers and their leaders enforce more and more rules in the hope of catching people out, thereby justifying their own existence and actions, while residents try to circumvent the impositions safely. Meanwhile the hypocrisy of the militants is shown in a number of scenes that reveal their impunity: we see jihadist Abdelkrim (Abel Jafri) sneaking a smoke behind a sand dune and being informed by his driver that all the other soldiers know about his vice, while an aggressively-forced marriage is dismissed by Islamist lawmen as just and fair simply because it involves a fellow Ansar Dine member.

This is a very serious – and current – subject for a film and acts of cruelty are inevitably depicted, the first half giving way to a much darker second. The director briefly shows a stoning, though it’s unclear who the couple being stoned are or what their transgression was (although earlier we do hear a jihadist with a loudspeaker confirm that adultery is punishable by death). A group of talented musicians, making music that sounds beautiful and unlikely to offend, is broken up by gunmen and the transgressors are arrested and tried instantly; the female singer is given a public lashing for casually mixing with the opposite sex. There is also an execution by gunfire.

The nearest Timbuktu comes to a main character, or a story arc, is with regards to Tuareg herdsman Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), who lives away from the city on the edge of the desert with his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) and daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed). Many other nomads have apparently fled the area but Kidane wishes to stay, despite the fact Ansar Dine men are not content with their business within the city and their visits to the family come laden with implied sexual threats. We return to Kidane’s story repeatedly and, somewhat inevitably, he finds himself at the mercy of the jihadists and their bureaucracy.

Beautifully photographed by Sofian El Fani, who incorporates a standout shot of a lake in the aftermath of a bloody fight that serves as a bridge between the two distinct halves of the film, Timbuktu is full of images that linger in the mind: a priestess named Zabou (Kettley Noel), the one woman who seems to instill a little fear in the minds of the soldiers, blocks a jeep in the middle of a road; donkeys carrying straw wind their way through narrow alleyways; then there’s the aforementioned phantom football match and, of course, the harrowing scenes of violence (which are generally short but powerful). Meanwhile just as important to the overall piece are the numerous interactions between local residents and the jumpy Ansar Dine soldiers: their awkward conversations are full of mistrust, misunderstandings and poor translations – a mix of Arabic, French, Tamasheq and English is spoken during the film and more than 50 languages are spoken throughout Mali – which highlight the problems faced by such a society in a period of extreme transition. Timbuktu is a must-see, rightly lauded since it competed for the Palme D’Or in 2014, and one that looks at the effect of intolerance and fundamentalism on both individuals and an entire community with subtlety and grace.

Directed by: Abderrahmane Sissako.
Written by: Abderrahmane Sissako, Kessen Tall.
Starring: Ibrahim Ahmed, Toulou Kiki, Abel Jafri, Fatoumata Diawara, Hichem Yacoubi, Kettley Noel, Mehdi AG Mohamed, Layla Walet Mohamed, Adel Mahmoud Cherif, Salem Dendou.
Cinematography: Sofiane El Fani.
Editing: Nadia Ben Rachid.
Music: Amine Bouhafa.
Certificate: 12A.
Running Time: 95 minutes.
Year: 2015.

0330 | Spy

spy melissa mccarthyWriter / director Paul Feig’s third collaboration with Melissa McCarthy is a spoof on the male-centric spy genre, though in truth it only ever manages to fix its sights firmly on the James Bond films, mimicking the work of John Barry, the use of gadgets and the glitzy locations while incorporating its own versions of the helicopter, plane and motorbike stunts that have become de rigeur for 007. McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a desk-bound operative locked away in the basement of the CIA’s facility in Langley, Virginia, where she is an aide to Jude Law’s suave agent as he shoots, fights and gambles his way around the world.  When he comes unstuck and other agents are compromised as a result, Cooper volunteers to go into the field and continue her colleague’s work, despite the fact she has forgotten much of her training. Rather than picking a new identity of her own, however, she is given some unflattering alter egos by Alison Janney’s CIA chief, the running joke being that they get progressively more dowdy as Cooper’s own ability at espionage increases.

Feig’s targets are all quite obvious, and when the spoofing starts to get boring (and it does, pretty quickly) his answer is to have his star pretend to be a badass bodyguard for twenty minutes so that she can lay the improv on thick and turn the air blue (which, though crude, actually results in an upturn in laughs). As widely reported elsewhere there’s also an amusing supporting turn by Jason Statham, who sends up his own macho on-screen persona by playing a tough, sexist CIA agent who is prone to braggadocio but actually quite inept, and he gets many of Spy‘s best lines: one minute gruffly asserting that he re-attached his own arm to his body when it was torn off, the next claiming that he saw the love of his life thrown from one plane only to be hit by another plane in mid-air.

This kind of spy-themed silliness has been done before, of course, and there’s little (nothing?) here that compares favourably with the mocking detail and sparkle of, say, Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery, Top Secret! or even 1964’s Carry On Spying. There are substantial supporting roles for two British comedians, Miranda Hart and Peter Serafinowcz, and while the former delivers a rough approximation of her popular, scatty TV character Miranda the latter has the thankless task of playing up to the stereotype that Italian men are leery womanisers who can’t drive (the hilarious twist being … wait for it … he’s actually BRITISH and is just pretending to be Italian!) McCarthy definitely has bags of energy and confidence, and is willing to send herself up, but the inevitable fat jokes that are either her own or Feig’s are tired and lazy, this is twenty or thirty minutes too long and it’s not a patch on the earlier collaboration Bridesmaids. Still, it’s all subjective, and I appear to be in the minority with this one: Spy has delighted many and has proven to be a big box office hit. Wow.

Directed by: Paul Feig.
Written by: Paul Feig.
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Jason Statham, Rose Byrne, Miranda Hart, Jude Law, Alison Janney, Bobby Cannavale, Peter Serafinowicz.
Cinematography: Robert Yeoman.
Editing: Dean Zimmerman, Don Zimmerman.
Music: Theodore Shapiro.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 119 minutes.
Year: 2015.

0329 | Coherence

coherenceThe doppelgänger has been the motif-du-jour for low-to-mid budget indie dramas and thrillers of late, perhaps highlighting the fact that simple but credible visual effects are now within the grasp of most filmmakers working with a shoestring budget. Of course the idea of a human double is nothing new: it has been explored in cinema countless times before – more often than not with satisfying, intriguing and creepy results – while the concept has existed in literature for hundreds of years. In James Ward Byrkit’s directorial debut Coherence there are many doppelgängers — at least one for every cast member, though a repeat viewing and unbroken concentration would be necessary to identify the correct number.

Using a cast of improvisational actors and two busy, hand-held cameras, Ward Byrkit sets up his premise with a minimum of fuss. Eight middle-class friends (four heterosexual couples) gather in Santa Monica for a dinner party, and in the middle of their light-hearted conversation they notice that some of their smartphone screens have spontaneously shattered. Talk immediately turns to Miller’s Comet, currently passing through the night sky above, with nervous heroine Em (Emily Baldoni) explaining that a similar body passed over Finland 100 years earlier and caused strange phenomena and visual hallucinations. Suddenly the lights go out in the whole neighbourhood, although co-host Mike (Nicholas Brendon) soon restores power. Oddly when several members of the party venture outside to take a look at the comet they notice that a house further up the street also has power; when Hugh (Hugo Armstrong) and Amir (Alex Manugian) wander over to see if they can make a phone call or to see if the house has internet access they return in shock, carrying a mysterious box: it transpires that the house up the road is an exact replica of the one they are all in, while the box contains photos of the group with numbers on the back that have been written in Em’s handwriting.

The director mapped out a detailed story with actor and co-writer Manugian that smartly plays around with the themes of recognition and stolen or mistaken identity from the off, though with no pre-scripted dialogue it’s the actors who pick up such ideas and run with them. Dancer Em explains how she was replaced not once but twice by rivals prior to a performance, while Mike insists to Laurie (Lauren Maher) that he appeared in several seasons of a TV show she watched despite the fact she doesn’t recognise him (this is a wry joke at the expense of the actor in question — Brendon appeared in over 140 episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer). Meanwhile Laurie previously dated Kevin (Maury Sterling), who is now going out with Em; there’s even a line suggesting that Laurie’s new beau Amir always picks up Kevin’s ex-girlfriends. As the events of the evening become stranger, and more serious, the use of doppelgängers is tied in with the notion of hidden personalities, with Mike in particular revealing a self-destructive and violent streak.

The five day shoot took place in Ward Byrkit’s own house, and each actor was given just a few key lines, character details and motivations on a daily basis. The improvisational approach works very well indeed, with overlapping chatter and natural-sounding dialogue a feature throughout and the reactions to events (or even comments made by other characters) mostly seem genuine and plausible. Each character is understandably jumpy and several make jokes about the situation they have found themselves in to diffuse the tension. There’s also an adherence to gender stereotyping in the way that the women wish to follow official advice and remain safely indoors while the men are more hot-headed, keen to go outside and confront or spy on those in the other house (arguably to obtain a greater understanding of the situation, but more likely because they have to be seen to be doing so).

Thankfully Coherence delivers on its intriguing sci-fi premise with a rigorous story, and though it operates at times like a puzzle that is becoming ever-more complicated the creepier moments ensure that the film straddles the divide between mystery, horror and thriller successfully. Kristin Øhrn Dyrud’s score encapsulates the prevailing discordant mood and works well with the film’s few out-and-out shocks, while the ensemble acting is good and the editing is equally commendable (Lance Pereira has been singled out for praise by Ward Byrkit for his ability to piece together scenes from the hours of footage amassed). The use of a single location and the camerawork may put some off, and one or two awkward passages of quantum mechanics-related exposition (complete with barely credible plot points) are dropped into the middle before the mystery begins to unfold, but unlike last year’s The One I Love this film manages to provide its viewers with an acceptable explanation for its strange occurrences and contains a punchy ending to boot. A low-budget gem.

Directed by: James Ward Byrkit.
Written by: James Ward Byrkit. Story by James Ward Byrkit and Alex Manugian.
Starring: Emily Baldoni, Maury Sterling, Nicholas Brendon, Elizabeth Gracen, Alex Manugian, Lauren Maher, Hugo Armstrong, Lorene Scafaria.
Cinematography: Nic Sadler.
Editing: Lance Pereira.
Music: Kristin Øhrn Dyrud.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 88 minutes.
Year: 2015.

0328 | Ant-Man

This latest introduction into the Marvel Cinematic Universe is clumsily linked to goings-on elsewhere by a brief mention of the events depicted at the end of Avengers: Age Of Ultron, a post-credits scene that has presumably been lifted from an upcoming Marvel ‘Phase Three’ release and the underwhelming appearance of a minor character who appeared in last year’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The pressure to slot new stories or characters into forthcoming movies is beginning to tell, and it’s a chore that isn’t currently being tackled with any outstanding creativity by the various writers and directors working on these films; naturally we can expect even more of this convoluted business as Marvel tries to find room for the likes of Doctor Strange, Black Panther and Captain Marvel, each of which is the subject of a standalone film in the next three years, and there’s also a Spider-Man reboot to factor in.

On to matters at hand. The superhero thrills n’ spills shift temporarily from the US’s east coast to west in this formulaic, inoffensive and light-hearted film. Paul Rudd stars as Scott Lang (aka the titular hero), an ex-con who is absolved from an earlier unseen white collar crime by the overly-apologetic screenplay, which takes the easy way out by painting him as a modern day Robin Hood (while we’re at it, even though only a fool would look to Marvel’s comic book adaptations for doses of gritty realism, what’s with the depiction of the inmates of San Quentin as a bunch of friendly, completely agreeable chaps?)

Lang’s motivation when committing further crimes with ex-cellmate Michael Peña is not wanton greed, like most people, but a more wholesome desire to pay child support so that he can continue seeing his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). His skill as a cat burglar leads him to Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a scientist and former S.H.I.E.L.D agent who once invented an incredible shrinking suit. And thus under the tutelage of Pym and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) Lang becomes Ant-Man, a hero who can shrink to the size of an ant and is able to command forces of like-minded insects.

Though it’s nothing new, the best moments of Peyton Reed’s film come when Lang is tiny and attempting to negotiate the world from an ant’s perspective: it’s full of unexpected hazards, as per Fantastic VoyageInnerspace, Honey, I Shrunk The Kids et al, though the comic-book character created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby predates all of those films. Thus rodents become huge, fearsome monsters and objects as innocuous as a record player stylus are suddenly life-threatening, while the shrunken size allows Lang to perform feats of heroic endeavor and reach areas that are otherwise off-limits to normal-sized humans. In the film’s highly enjoyable and amusing finale Ant-Man and his nemesis Yellowjacket (aka corporate villain Darren Cross, played by Corey Stoll) even duke it out on and around a Thomas The Tank Engine train set, with a few size-related gags hitting the mark.

The main problem is that we’ve seen so many origin tales in recent years that to truly stand out each new entry into this bloated, gargantuan world needs something else: a dose of the x-factor, perhaps, or a certain je ne sais quoi; feel free to insert your own relevant term, if you wish. And yes, perhaps a maverick filmmaker could have helped lift this, and yes, one can only wonder what kind of film Edgar Wright would have made had he stayed on as director; he’s still credited as a co-writer but ‘creative differences’ were given as the reason Wright left the project, and it seems as though Marvel’s strict guidelines with regard to consistency of tone, visual design, etc. will only attract compliant filmmakers from now on (this is where I mention it’s purely coincidental that Reed’s previous film was the comedy Yes Man).

It’s a shame, really, as there’s some good work here, but the set-up, crap villain, story arc and even the pitch of the humour all seems way too familiar, and as such much of the material sitting between the action sequences sags. True believers and those with an unquenchable thirst for all things superhero will lap it up, and parts of Ant-Man are certainly fun, but I expect anyone who has been dealing with fatigue on-and-off for a year or two will be ambivalent. Still, given that it manages to keep its focus on a sole superhero for the most part, Ant-Man may well be seen in the future as an exercise in minimalism. This lesser-known character will presumably be shoe-horned into upcoming blockbusters before too long, destined to play second fiddle to the likes of Thor and Iron Man, but at least he gets a couple of his own hours in the spotlight here. And it was nice to see Roger Sterling and Avon Barksdale, albeit fleetingly.

Directed by: Peyton Reed.
Written by: Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, Paul Rudd. Based on Ant-Man by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby.
Starring: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Bobby Cannavale, Michael Peña
Cinematography: Russell Carpenter.
Editing: Dan Lebental, Colby Parker, Jr.
Music: Cristophe Beck.
Certificate: 12A.
Running Time: 116 minutes.
Year: 2015.

0327 | The Imitation Game

imitation-game-still-1Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game highlights a terrible wrongdoing, namely the treatment of British computer scientist, mathematician, logician and cryptanalyst Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) after World War II, when he was prosecuted for homosexual activities under archaic gross indecency laws. After a guilty verdict Turing accepted ‘treatment’ of oestrogen injections – a form of chemical castration – as an alternative to prison, and subsequently purportedly committed suicide by cyanide poisoning in 1954, days before his 42nd birthday (though there is evidence to suggest that this was accidental). As such this is a well-intentioned fact-based biopic, briefly drawing attention to the 49,000 other men who suffered the same conviction, although the primary focus of this film is on Turing’s important work during World War II at Bletchley Park.

As is widely known today, Turing was instrumental in decrypting the ciphers of the German Enigma machine, leading a team of codebreakers who – according to some historians – ensured that the war ended two years early (and thus saved anything up to 14,000,000 lives, though how such figures can be estimated with any kind of accuracy after factoring in the dawn of the atomic age is beyond my comprehension). In telling this story Tyldum and writer Graham Moore take a number of liberties with the known facts but it does make for occasionally gripping viewing: the eureka moment when a breakthrough is made is keenly felt, for example, while scenes depicting the awkward Turing’s clashes with establishment figures in the British government and the armed forces are certainly well acted, with Charles Dance popping up regularly as a formidable grimacing opponent. However ultimately the film fails to break free of its formulaic structure and design, the inability to make more of extremely one-dimensional supporting characters is frustrating and so much of it is wearyingly familiar: the predictable overpopulation with attractive actors, the omnipresent received pronunciation, the prevalence of tweed and the sullen brown colour palette (though I freely admit the presence of Scousers, denim jeans and pink overlays would be an eye-opener).

There aren’t many roles of note but the widely-praised Cumberbatch is excellent, though the actor certainly benefits from the decision to accentuate many of Turing’s character traits, and the invention of some new ones. Most obviously the codebreaker’s social difficulties are exaggerated in this film to the point that he seems to have Asperger’s syndrome, and is portrayed as an intellectual snob who is alienated because of his distinct lack of humour; however in reality Turing was sociable, had friends and enjoyed good working relationships with colleagues. He also led such a fascinating life that the focus here on three distinct periods – initial awareness of sexuality as a schoolboy (played by Alex Lawther), the Bletchley years and the period just prior to his arrest and prosecution – means that this feels somewhat incomplete as a study of the man: for example there is only a brief pre-credits mention for his pioneering work on early computers, and the establishment of the Turing Test is only alluded to by the film’s name, though the decision to skirt over these achievements is unsurprising: they’re not exactly the kind of subjects that regularly attract audiences to multiplexes in their droves, after all.

Keira Knightley is on form as Joan Clarke, a similarly important figure in the Bletchley deciphering, though when she appears as the only woman at an interview / codebreaker test and is mistaken for a secretary it’s hard to stop the eyes rolling toward the heavens when she subsequently beats all of the assembled male boffins and posts a record time to boot. Unfortunately the film’s mockery of the sexual politics of the era ends there, and Clarke is primarily defined by the way in which she relates to Turing, becoming his ‘right-hand woman’ and the only person he seems to be at ease with. It’s disappointing, though again hardly surprising, that the character’s role as an emotional crutch gradually becomes more important in this screenplay than her own work as a cryptoanalyst. Knightley’s part is, however, more substantial than most: Matthew Goode must act out numerous variations on the same scene as the caddish Hugh Alexander, while Mark Strong’s MI6 Chief Stewart Menzies fares little better, his special power being the ability to step out of the shadows at the crucial moment of every single high-level conversation. Dance’s Commander Denniston is nothing more than a perma-hindrance to Turing’s work – a portrayal that angered Denniston’s family in real life – while most of the other codebreakers are incidental or revealed to be imbeciles (presumably so that any modern day imbeciles watching can fully grasp the fact that the Alan Turing character is, by contrast, a genius).

When the action shifts briefly away from Bletchley Park we get little more than a sanitised version of wartime events. Tyldum occasionally drops in bloodless before-and-after montages that show the ominous sights of approaching U-boats or bombers as the Germans take advantage of supremacy above and below the sea, for example, and rather than witness the actual bombings of houses in London we instead see defiant people sitting on top of their piles of rubble; few of them actually look miserable and fewer still appear to be grieving. This reticent approach to showing the horror of war or the pain and suffering that took place means that little insight or hitherto unknown contextual information is gained, but at least the importance of cracking the Code is adequately established by several lines of dialogue, with Menzies asserting to Turing early on that four people have died while their conversation has been going round in circles.

Sadly despite its two very good Oscar-nominated performances The Imitation Game suffers from a blanket acceptance of popular dramatic convention, reducing years of work to a series of clichéd fiery clashes and needlessly linking Turing to the Soviet spy Cairncross (Allen Leech) for added intrigue. Turing’s life and work is interesting enough without such exaggeration, and you could argue that the inclusion of such a subplot betrays a lack of faith in either cinemagoers or the subject matter itself, even if it’s a common biopic trick. It’s also a shame that the screenplay really does little more than pay lip service to the work of others while a number of lines, such as Clarke’s ‘Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of that do the things no one can imagine’, seem to be written with trailer and poster tagline in mind — and even the delivery by an actor of repute can’t disguise it. Worst of all is the tip-toeing around the subject of Turing’s sexuality; we don’t see anything of his relationships as an adult, which would be far more apt than the fabricated interactions taking place with a Russian mole or Bletchley’s top brass. Still, it’s not a poor film by any means, and makes for an interesting comparison with Michael Apted’s Enigma, an adaptation of Robert Harris’ fictional (and arguably heterocentric) novel of the same name.

Directed by: Morten Tyldum.
Written by: Graham Moore.
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Charles Dance, Mark Strong.
Cinematography: Óscar Faura
Editing: William Goldenberg.
Music: Alexandre Desplat.
Certificate: 12.
Running Time: 112 minutes.
Year: 2014.