The Fifth Estate (2013)

2015 #144
Bill Condon | 128 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & Belgium / English | 15 / R

It’s The Julian Assange Movie, in which Benedict Cumberbatch dons a lanky white wig and an Australian accent to portray one of the most significant figures of our times, whether you like it or not.

The story is told from the perspective of Daniel Berg, played by Daniel Brühl, who first encounters Assange in Germany and is somewhat captivated by him. Daniel helps Assange to really launch WikiLeaks, and is by his side through their early fame-garnering exposés. He functions a little as Assange’s moral compass, too, especially when they receive some stolen US military files relating to their controversial Middle Eastern exploits…

Cumberbatch’s performance is the showstopper here, and it’s been justly praised. It can seem a little over the top and affected, but then people who actually knew Assange say it’s bang on, so I think we have to take it that’s what he’s like rather than it being Cumberbatch overplaying. I largely rate him as an actor anyway, so he earns the benefit of the doubt. Brühl excels in the less showy role, however — much like he did in Rush, in fact, though even that role had its share of affectations to work with, which this part does not.

Daniel is torn between ‘saving the world’ and a love interest, played by Alicia Vikander, who is everywhere right now but I think this is the first time I’ve actually seen her in something. There’s nothing remarkable about her part, so I can’t really judge her. The same goes for the rest of the cast, where a wide array of starry and/or acclaimed names (Peter Capaldi, Laura Linney, Anthony Mackie, Alexander Siddig, Dan Stevens, David Thewlis, Stanley Tucci, Carice van Houten (who’s big in Belgium, it would seem)) don’t falter, but nonetheless struggle to make a mark when none are awarded anything meaty to do.

The rest of the film is unfortunately hit or miss. It begins with an absolutely fantastic two-and-a-half-minute title sequence that covers the whole history of human mass communication, from hieroglyphs to the internet and everything in between. It’s succinct, thorough, and excellent, probably the best thing about the entire movie. Elsewise, Bill Condon’s direction is a little rote. At times he seems to want to be clever and cutting edge, with on-screen tech and the visual representation of WikiLeak’s virtual office space, but it’s inconsistent, a grab-bag of tricks without a guiding principle. The rest of the movie is shot plainly. Not badly, just plainly; normally; almost old-fashioned-ly. Its directorial style doesn’t match the material. For contrast, look to David Fincher’s The Social Network, which also told the story of cutting-edge ever-so-now tech developments, but did so with filmmaking that could be described in similar terms.

Every once in a while the film interjects a US-set subplot that seems to go nowhere. The posters and trailers imply these American officials were people hunting Assange; instead, they’re relatively minor cogs in the political wheel who get caught out by what he does. They don’t seem to have any particular significance in themselves — they’re not famous, nor more wronged than anyone else — so maybe they’re just meant to be emblematic? As in, Laura Linney’s character is there to be representative of Assange’s effect, not the only person it happened to. Or was she the only person fired, and that’s the point? The film doesn’t make it clear.

In terms of understanding, it’s also very much a movie of Now. It assumes you know an awful lot of real-world context — essentially, the history of the last decade or two. Before too long, it’ll be a tough film for new viewers to follow or engage with without some kind of degree. Not everything should be made with an eye to its longevity, but one wonders how successful The Fifth Estate is in and of itself. It’s almost fiction-filmmaking as journalism: it’s about something that just happened — in some respects, is still happening — rather than an attempt to look back and explain those happenings in a historical context.

Indeed, one wonders how enlightening the film is in any respect. Assange is clearly a difficult person to get to know, by turns crusading hero and egotistical wannabe. That’s how the film depicts him, and if that’s accurate to life, well, that’s not the film’s fault — what’s wrong with having a primary character who isn’t a hero? Anyway, that’s the role Daniel is there to fulfil — he’s the honourable one; the one who’s actually invested in the site’s supposed values. But then the film is partly based on his book, so he would be the good guy.

In the end, this is an immensely complex story, with many different and contradictory sides to tell, and the film isn’t up to the task of covering them all. Great performances, though.

3 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Ant-Man (2015)

2015 #181
Peyton Reed | 117 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The final film in ‘Phase Two’ of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is perhaps the most fun Marvel movie since Iron Man kicked off the whole shebang seven years ago.

It’s the story of a burglar, Scott Lang (Paul “he’ll always be Mike from Friends to me” Rudd), who is enlisted by ageing genius Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) to pilfer something from Pym’s old company, now controlled by his former protégé and villain-in-waiting Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). Pym discovered/created something called the Pym Particle, which changes the distance between atoms and allows objects and people to shrink or increase in size. He hid his dangerous technology from the world, but now Cross has developed his own version and is seeking to sell a weaponised version to the highest bidder — which naturally includes some very nefarious characters.

Marvel are currently fond of mixing “superhero” with “another genre” to produce their movies — which makes sense, given the standard two-or-three superhero narratives were already becoming played out by the time Iron Man came along, never mind in the raft of movies Marvel Studios have released since. Here, “superhero” is mixed with “heist movie”; more specifically, “heist comedy”. It’s superheroes by way of Ocean’s Eleven, basically. In the key position, you’ve got Lang in the Ant-Man suit, able to shrink, infiltrate places, and control ants to help him; but then he’s got a whole support team: Pym planning and overseeing; Pym’s daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), the inside woman; and a gaggle of Lang’s criminal friends (Michael Peña, David Dastmalchian, Tip ‘T.I.’ Harris), brought in to help them hack security ‘n’ that.

Nonetheless, some have criticised the film for not being especially original. I mean, originality’s good ‘n’ all, but c’mon, what do you expect when you sit down to a superhero movie from the primary purveyor of superhero movies? Ant-Man may blend elements from a few other genres into the superhero mix, but, yeah, it’s a superhero movie that, at times, plays like a superhero movie — just like everything else Marvel Studios has produced (with the possible exception of Guardians of the Galaxy). If that’s not your thing, fine, but there’s nothing so spectacularly rote or generic about Ant-Man when compared to the rest of Marvel’s output that it deserves to be singled out. In fact, if anything, it has a higher dose of originality than its peers. And it doesn’t climax with a giant flying thing crashing to Earth, the first Marvel movie you can say that about for years.

Where the film really succeeds, however, is in being — as noted — fun. Sometimes the structure is a little wonky, sometimes the dialogue is a little off, sometimes it’s a little heavy on the exposition, sometimes this and sometimes that, but it never stops moving at a decent clip, is never too far away from a good laugh, and offers some strong action sequences too. The very nature of the titular heroes’ powers offers us something new. Okay, there have been plenty of shrinking movies before, but not like his. Macro photography and CGI have been used to great effect to bring us into his world, and the fact he can shrink and grow at will adds a real kick to fight scenes.

It remains tough to talk about Ant-Man without referencing The Edgar Wright Situation. I mean, you could ignore it, but then it becomes the elephant in the room. If you somehow missed it: writer-director Edgar Wright pitched Ant-Man to Marvel as a movie before Marvel Studios even existed, back in 2003, and had been developing it on and off ever since. The ideas he brought to the table — an action-adventure-comedy style, being a special effects extravaganza but with a lighthearted tone — influenced how the studio approached Iron Man and, consequently, the whole MCU. Nonetheless, Ant-Man wound up positioned as the 12th film in the studio’s slate, finally going into production after a decade of prep. Wright had a script almost finalised, he’d cast the film, a release date was set… and then he left due to “creative differences”. And the internet was on his side because Edgar Wright has made Spaced and Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz and Marvel are a studio and studios are always wrong.

The full extent of what these creative differences were hasn’t emerged yet, because it wasn’t that long ago (inevitably, they will one day), but it must’ve been pretty major to walk away from a project you’d been working on for so long and were so close to finally realising. Some reports say Wright wanted the film to be completely standalone, with absolutely no ties to the wider Marvel universe. I kind of hope there’s more to it than that, because while the final version of Ant-Man isn’t completely standalone, it’s one of Marvel’s less connected efforts. Okay, it references S.H.I.E.L.D., Hydra, and the Avengers, and there are cameo appearances by characters from other parts of the universe (including Lang having to fight an Avenger), but its story doesn’t feed directly from a previous MCU film, nor does it make setting up another one an inherent part of the plot. In short, it’s nicely connected — it’s definitely part of the universe — but you don’t need to know a great deal to enjoy it on its own.

After Wright left, the screenplay was rewritten by a host of scribes (far more than the two extra writers ultimately credited). Other things they’re responsible for include bulking up the supporting characters, especially Hope, which works pretty well, and Lang’s friend Luis (Michael Peña), which we should all be thankful for: Peña’s Luis is one of the best things in the movie, an enthusiastic motormouth who’s consistently entertaining whenever he’s on screen. He’s the standout from an ensemble that is generally strong, with Rudd proving a likeable lead and Douglas committing to the material in a way you wouldn’t necessarily expect an older actor to with ‘just a comic book movie’.

Would Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man have been better than Peyton Reed’s? We’ll never know. Well, one day we’ll have a good guess, because one day what changed will all come out. Wright still has a story and co-writer credit, so obviously a lot of his material survived. Nonetheless, the movie we’ve ended up with doesn’t feel like a compromised, homogenised, studio-controlled disaster. Chances are Wright could’ve brought greater visual and storytelling flair to proceedings, but Reed doesn’t do a bad job, especially when it comes to sequences in miniature. The final fight takes place on a children’s playset, doesn’t involve giant things falling epically out of the sky (is it the only Phase Two film to avoid that trope?), and is one of the best climaxes in the entire Marvel canon. Sometimes less really is more. Especially when “less” includes Thomas the Tank Engine. Whoever thought you’d see Thomas the Tank Engine in a Marvel movie?

I hope Ant-Man will be an important touchstone in what Marvel Studios do going forward. It proves smaller-scale adventures can work — not in the sense that it’s about a hero who shrinks to a few centimetres tall, but in that it’s a story focused on a couple of characters trying to steal something from a building and defeat one guy, not about saving an entire city or an entire planet. That doesn’t mean it’s a story that doesn’t have stakes, they’re just different stakes. It’s a refreshing change of pace at this point. It’s also pretty much standalone, with nice nods to the shared universe but without being dependent on other films (either before or to come) for its story. Guardians of the Galaxy did that too, but how many other recent Marvel movies is it true of? Even the highly-praised Winter Soldier is a long, long way from being immune to that fault.

Still, I doubt many people are going to call Ant-Man their favourite Marvel movie, although I think it might be the most pure fun I’ve had watching an MCU film since… well, ever. And I like fun.

4 out of 5

Ant-Man is available on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK now, and in the US from next week.

It placed 20th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Pain & Gain (2013)

2015 #47
Michael Bay | 124 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Pain and GainFor his first non-sci-fi movie in a decade, divisive action director Michael Bay channels Tarantino (kinda) for this based-on-a-true-story crime comedy. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Mark “Marky Mark” Wahlberg and Anthony “The Falcon” Mackie star as a gang of dimwitted Florida bodybuilders who come up with a ‘foolproof’ plan to rob a rich gym client.

That comparison to Tarantino is lifted from Now TV’s description of the film, and I don’t quite agree with it. Pain & Gain is certainly a comedic crime movie, the kind of thing Tarantino was known for before he got diverted into genre B-movie homage/parodies, but it doesn’t feel like a Tarantino movie — which, considering the innumerable films that do rip-off his ’90s style (even today), is only a good thing. I wouldn’t say Bay’s movie feels wholly unique or original, but I don’t think it’s Tarantino he’s riffing off.

Nonetheless, the film’s best asset is its humour, much of it derived from dialogue. Proceedings take a little while to warm up, with some character backstory flashbacks that aren’t always necessary and seem to befuddle the narrative, but once it settles down into the crime spree, it’s consistently hilarious. Bay has pitched the tone exactly right, playing it straight but with an OTT edge that betrays awareness of the ludicrousness of it all. Towards the end, when events have reached a point of total ridiculousness, he throws up an onscreen caption to announce, “This is still a true story.” That’s witty. (Though, ironically, it appears during one of the few bits the filmmakers did actually make up!)

Adept at comedyBay is aided by leads who are surprisingly adept at comedy. Johnson is the best thing in it, consistently hilarious as his conscience battles former addictions and newfound religious convictions. I noted down some of his best lines to quote in the review, but they lose something without his delivery.

I suppose there is a question of whether this tone really is appropriate: as these are real-life events, should we be finding them so funny? It is kind of tasteless. I suppose you could parlay that into a discussion about the comedic crime sub-genre on the whole: is it okay to laugh at this kind of behaviour so long as it’s been dreamt up in the mind of some (wannabe-)auteur, but as soon as someone actually did it for real, a film of those events has crossed the line. Is that a sound argument? If you’re going to find a fictionalised account of the real-life version abhorrent, shouldn’t we similarly find the wholly-fictional version similarly poor? It’s a moral quandary I don’t really have an answer for because, when all is said and done, what the real guys did was horrendous, but the way they went about it was ludicrous and is almost unavoidably darkly funny in the re-telling. I certainly laughed.

Gaining painAfter he’s become so sidetracked making the awful Transformers movies, it’s easy to forget that Bay was once a quality action filmmaker. His works may not have class, but they had style and panache befitting the genre — The Rock, in particular, is a ’90s action classic. Pain & Gain isn’t exactly a return to form because it’s not the same kind of movie, but it is the first Bay movie for at least a decade that’s really worth your time.

4 out of 5

Runner Runner (2013)

2015 #23
Brad Furman | 88 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Spanish | 15 / R

Runner RunnerSometimes, films are so maligned that you feel you just have to see for yourself. Or I do, anyway. Crime thriller Runner Runner, with its 8% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, is one of those occasions.

Set in the world of online gambling, it sees Justin Timberlake’s college student and gambling expert being scammed by a casino website. After flying down to the site’s Costa Rican HQ to confront its owner (Ben Affleck), he finds himself with a job that entangles him in the business’ illegal activities. FBI agent Anthony Mackie wants Timberlake to turn on his new employer, under threat of punishment himself, while he learns from Affleck’s right-hand-woman and love interest Gemma Arterton that he’s being set up to take the fall for everything. However will he extract himself from all that?!

More importantly, will you even care? Well, no, because the film gives you no reason to. It’s fatally marred by flabby storytelling, which substitutes voiceover and aimless montages for plot, with a pace that’s shot to hell — some of it rushes by, too fast to comprehend, but then later it just drags on. Director Brad Furman, who previously helmed excellent thriller adaption The Lincoln Lawyer, has tried to make a con thriller, indulging in the genre’s schtick of keeping characters’ plans hidden purely to play their success as a series of twists later. Unfortunately, it just feels like the film’s failing to elucidate necessary information. That includes all of the gambling rules and concepts, which are simply poorly explained — if you don’t know the world already, parts of the film will run away from you instantly.

Everyone in this photo deserves better than this film. Yes, even him.Brian Koppelman and David Levien’s screenplay is packed full of dreadful dialogue, which isn’t helped by phoned-in performances from all the principle cast, in particular Affleck. I guess he needed a payday between his Oscar-winning directorial efforts. I’ve seen some assert that the dialogue and delivery are meant to be mannered and stylised, but I just don’t buy it. Unless the style was meant to be “cable TV cheapie”, anyway. The Puerto Rican filming locations are quite prettily shot by DP Mauro Fiore, at least, but that’s scant consolation when everything else is so woeful.

There can be entertainment found in poorly-reviewed films: sometimes, they’re an undiscovered gem; sometimes, they’re just quite funny; but sometimes, they really are trash. There is no quality to be found here, though. If there’s such a thing as a lover of gambling-related thrillers, I guess they might find some enjoyment from the mere fact this film even exists. Otherwise, avoid.

2 out of 5

Runner Runner featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2015, which can be read in full here.