Ocean’s Eight (2018)

2019 #23
Gary Ross | 110 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English, German, French & Hindi | 12 / PG-13

Ocean's Eight

This somewhat belated spin-off from the Ocean’s trilogy of all-star heist movies (it came eleven years after the last one) introduces us to Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), the sister of George Clooney’s eponymous character from the trilogy, and also an experienced con artist. Recently released from prison, she sets about assembling a crew for an audacious heist: to lift a near-priceless necklace during the prestigious Met Gala.

Said crew is all female — well, the crews in the previous trilogy were almost exclusively male, so why not? And just as those casts were full of big-name stars, so too is this. If Bullock’s in the Clooney role then Cate Blanchett takes over the part of Brad Pitt: the cool, in-control ‘sidekick’ who really makes Ocean’s grand plan happen. Fortunately, the film doesn’t slavishly map everyone else onto roles from the previous movies. One of the key parts is a fashion designer, played by Helena Bonham Carter — not a job that’s normally required for a heist, I don’t think. Here, it’s their way to access the mark who’ll be wearing the necklace, played by Anne Hathaway. The rest of the titular crew is rounded out by names of varying degrees of famousness, depending on your exposure to their previous work: Rihanna, Sarah Paulson, Mindy Kaling, and Awkwafina.

As a gang, they’re quite likeable, fun to hang around with, and the cast seem to be having a good time. They’re somewhat hampered by a screenplay that rarely gives them the sparky material the previous bunch had to work with, though, so I’d suggest if there’s a Nine they get someone to punch up the dialogue and give this lot the text they deserve.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven... yep, eight. There's eight of them.

Having said it doesn’t wholly map onto the previous movies, Eight massively lifts one plot thread from Eleven, which is that Debbie’s plan is secretly a way to get back at an ex boyfriend (Richard Armitage). Okay, in Eleven Danny Ocean is trying to win back his old lover and/or punish her new boyfriend, whereas here those characters are kinda combined as Debbie Ocean is trying to punish her old lover, but, well, the basic conceit is the same, right? The film does nothing to acknowledge that fact, just leaving it hanging there — awkwardly, if you’re au fait with the first movie. Conversely, whereas Danny was obsessed with his revenge to the point it risked derailing the main heist, for Debbie it seems to be a side benefit.

That isn’t necessarily better, mind: it lowers the stakes of both the subplot (because she doesn’t seem that bothered) and the main plot (because she’s not in danger of getting sidetracked), so why include something so familiar? Indeed, the whole plot is relatively light on stakes, with the team carrying off everything with nary a hitch — barely any need to improvise or change the plan here, they’ve just got it covered. The one potential problem that does arrive is solved instantly, even before the heist begins, with such a straightforward fix that they don’t even need to modify the plan to incorporate it. It’s not even fake jeopardy, it’s just non-jeopardy.

The whole film veers dangerously close to blandness in this fashion. Director Gary Ross may be a friend and colleague of Steven Soderbergh, but he doesn’t seem to have picked up the trilogy director’s inventiveness. There’s some mildly flashy editing scattered about, and maybe one creative shot / bit of sound design (when the camera follows the necklace underwater, the non-diegetic music gets muffled like, you know, we’re underwater), but it lacks the sophistication and verve Soderbergh brings. It feels like it needs a kick up the arse, basically.

“Could you just give it a bit of a kick up the arse?”

I even began to worry it was going to end with no attempt at genuine twists or surprises whatsoever, aside from a few minor but not terribly exciting reveals, which is not good for a heist movie — part of the point, surely, is that they also pull off a kind of narrative heist on the viewer. Fortunately, Eight does have a trick up its sleeve, which is quite fun. But even then, the big plan is still a pretty simple heist, which the film tries to pretend is complicated by showing Heist 101 stuff in excruciating detail (there’s a whole scene devoted to Rihanna slightly changing the position of two security cameras, one… click… at… a… time…)

Yet for these faults, Eight still works as breezy entertainment. It’s not as perfectly slick and polished as Eleven — but then, that would’ve been asking a lot (as pure-entertainment capers go, Eleven is virtually flawless). It’s not as boundary-pushing as Twelve (a seemingly muddled film that gets interesting the more you think/read about it), but nor is it as aimless and derivative as I found Thirteen. It lacks the creative spark behind the scenes (either in the screenplay or directing departments) that could’ve elevated it, but it’s an easy way to spend a diverting couple of hours.

3 out of 5

Ocean’s Eight is available on Sky Cinema from today.

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The Hurricane Heist (2018)

2018 #60
Rob Cohen | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

The Hurricane Heist

Billed as a “Sky Cinema Original Movie” here in the UK (which, I presume, is like half of Netflix’s “original” movies — i.e. they paid for exclusive rights to something already completed), The Hurricane Heist… does what it says on the tin, really: as a hurricane strikes Alabama, a gang of crooks plan to use it as cover to rob a Treasury facility and its $600 million of waiting-to-be-shredded old notes. What they didn’t count on was crack ATF agent Casey Corbyn (Maggie Grace), who attempts to stop them with the help of meteorologist Will Rutledge (Toby Kebbell) — who drives a tank-like hurricane-proof car — and his ex-military mechanic brother Breeze (Ryan Kwanten).

Yes, a film called The Hurricane Heist has a main character called “Breeze”.

I suppose that’s indicative of the tone the film’s shooting for, really. It’s not Sharknado, but you have to hope the filmmakers knew it was cheap and cheesy as hell and wanted to play up to that. It’s only sporadically successful — much of the dialogue is just bad rather than so-bad-it’s-good, for example — but it has its moments. About halfway through there’s a sequence where Will throws scrap hubcaps into the wind so that they fly at the bad guys like spinning discs of death, at which point the film looks like it might tip from “so mediocre it’s mediocre” into “utter genius”. Sadly, it doesn’t keep that inventiveness up for more than about ten seconds, but at least it means there’s something memorable here. And while it may generally look and feel kinda cheap, there’s a massive amount of practical wind and rain being thrown around to create the storm, which is pretty effective.

The wet and the windiest

Another success comes in a couple of amusing villain deaths during the climax, but to say more would spoil things. The chief villain is played by Ralph Ineson, whose basic skill as a performer at least elevates that role somewhat. Toby Kebbell is probably better than this too, though considering some of his other choices in the past couple of years (Ben-Hur, Warcraft, Fantastic Four) maybe he’s lucky to get this now. Certainly, this is more entertaining than the ones I’ve seen of those.

If The Hurricane Heist had been made 20 years ago it probably would’ve been a major blockbuster. It certainly looks like the CGI was produced back then. Now… well, it’s gone direct to Sky Cinema, hasn’t it? Maybe it’ll find a cult following, but I’m not sure it’s quite barmy enough to achieve that so-bad-it’s-good love. It is pretty stupid and definitely cheesy, but… well, it’s not so much boring as… not exciting. Like, it’s middling. It’s okay. It’s kinda fun. You won’t remember much of it the day after, but for a bit of daft brain-off action on a lazy evening, it’s alright.

3 out of 5

The Hurricane Heist is allegedly in some UK cinemas now. It’s definitely available on Sky Cinema, and will be (presumably exclusively) until at least 5th April 2028.

The Love Punch (2013)

2018 #7
Joel Hopkins | 94 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | France & UK / English | 12 / PG-13

The Love Punch

In this very daft comedy heist thriller (calling it a thriller is a bit of a stretch, but anyway), Pierce Brosnan plays Richard, a businessman whose company is bought out by mysterious others, only for them to strip its asset and sink the employees’ pensions — as well as that of Richard’s ex-wife, Kate (Emma Thompson). When the man behind the buy-out, Kruger (Laurent Lafitte), refuses to play fair, Richard and Kate team up with their neighbours, Pen (Celia Imrie) and Jerry (Timothy Spall), to pilfer the extraordinarily expensive diamond Kruger has bought his fiancée (Adèle Blanc-Sec’s Louise Bourgoin).

The Love Punch flirts with seriousness in its setup — what could be more current than unscrupulous moneymen buying a company and screwing over people’s pensions? — but quickly reveals its true nature as an implausible farce. Despite the lead cast, it seems to have been a French-driven production (even the UK-set scenes were filmed over there), so I suppose that style is only appropriate. While never scaling the heights of genuine hilarity, I don’t imagine anyone thought they were making anything other than a light romp.

So if you like any (or all) of Brosnan, Thompson, Imrie, and Spall, as well as the idea of a bit of gently-farcical gadding about in the south of France, then The Love Punch is amiable fluff to while away 90 minutes on a Sunday.

3 out of 5

Now You See Me 2 (2016)

2017 #54
Jon M. Chu | 129 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & France* / English, Mandarin & Cantonese | 12 / PG-13

Now You See Me 2

Con thrillers are much like magic tricks: they set you up to expect one thing, then reveal something else was going on all along. The major difference is that, unlike most magic tricks, con thrillers eventually show you how it was done. So whoever came up with the idea of combining those two things into a movie where magicians use their skills to pull off elaborate heists was practically a genius in my book — what a magnificent marriage of ideas! Unfortunately, the resulting films — Now You See Me and this sequel — aren’t much good at magic, routinely substituting CGI for the tricks, and they’re not great at cons either, substituting a headlong rush and a barrage of twists for a plot that hangs together. And that’s why these films are fundamentally empty: they don’t understand that the impressiveness of both magic and a reveal-based narratives lies in doing it for real, not in pretending to do it.

Nonetheless, I quite enjoyed the first movie — in spite of its flaws, it was a daft bit of fun. The sequel (which misses a trick from the off by not being titled Now You Don’t) is too stupid to even manage that level of entertainment, instead devolving into a morass of nonsensicality. It’s not even that its plot has zero credibility as a plausible story — it’s the very way it’s put together as a film. Scenes feel disconnected from one another. Bits within them seem to have been snipped out. Sequences of varying scales seem to have been created from the notion of “what if we had a scene like this?” with no thought given to if it fits in the film, or even if it makes sense within itself. I’m left wondering if the movie had to be heavily trimmed for time; or did it never make any sense and this is the best they could stitch together?

The cast try to understand the plot...

Some spectacle-driven movies can drift by without too much sense, but a con movie — where a major component is the explanation — is not one of them. Indeed, Now You See Me 2 endeavours to make sense. It tells you there was a twist; a clever plan; that someone pulled the wool over someone else’s eyes. Sometimes it does even pretend to explain how they supposedly achieved that… but it doesn’t actually explain it. It tries to just sweep you along in a whirlwind of “surprise!” moments. That might be fine if you don’t care how it hangs together, but if you pause to consider who knew what when, and who plotted what and how… well, the film doesn’t want to give you a chance to think about any of that. That just contributes to my belief that, if you did stop and try to piece it all together, you’d discover it doesn’t actually make sense.

A few minor positives come from the new cast members. Lizzy Caplan is really good, a funny addition to the team, and Daniel Radcliffe entertains as the smiling villain, although thanks to the flurry of reveals he doesn’t get as much screen time as he deserves. Actors like Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Caine feel like they’re phoning it in for a paycheque. Well, sometimes a movie’s worth doing if it, say, pays for a nice house, eh Michael?

Watching it doesn’t bring any such benefits, though, so don’t bother.

2 out of 5

* I had this down as a USA/UK/China/Canada co-production. IMDb now says USA/France. Other places say just USA. One of the main production companies is from Hong Kong, according to IMDb. So who the hell knows? ^

21 (2008)

2017 #114
Robert Luketic | 123 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

21

21 is based on a true story. Actually, it’s based on a book that’s based on a true story. Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich was a non-fiction bestseller, telling the fun and exciting story of the MIT blackjack team, a bunch of college kids who learnt card counting and took Vegas for millions of dollars. It was such a popular book that all the attention made people look into it, and it turned out it was heavily fictionalised — Mezrich not only exaggerated events, he flat out invented whole chunks of the story. (At the same time, he also left out some good stuff.) In turn, the book has itself been heavily melodramatised for this movie adaptation. What we’re left with is probably about as close to the truth as Game of Thrones is a fair depiction of the Wars of the Roses: some of it happened, but not to those people, not in that way, not at that time, and certainly not all of it.

As a film, it’s been mashed broadly into the heist movie template. Setting aside the veracity and treating it purely as an entertainment, this has pros and cons. Whenever it’s whizzing around in Vegas it’s kinda fun, with flashy camerawork and a slick feel for the excitement of being a successful high-roller. But when it puts that aside to get stuck into the characters’ thinly-drawn personal lives, it gets kinda dull. Part of the point of the book is how boring normal life began to seem to the team when compared to their Vegas lifestyle, but 21 tacks on more interpersonal subplots that just become finger-drumming.

Counting cards

Trying to make the chosen genre function isn’t helped by the fact that there’s no complicated heist here. The blackjack team are doing the same thing over and over — that’s basically how their system works as a moneymaker — and once the system’s been explained and we see it in action, the film only has a few ways to jazz that up. Between that and those subplots, at over two hours 21 is much longer than it needs to be, but doesn’t focus that time in the right areas: at least one major character undergoes a huge personality change across a single montage.

21’s got enough pizzazz to make it enjoyable purely as a lightweight movie experience, but you do have to wonder: would the incredible real story, by dint of being true and not movieised to fit a genre template, actually have been more interesting?

3 out of 5

Ocean’s Eleven (2001)

The 100 Films Guide to…

3 casinos.
11 guys.
150 million bucks.
Ready to win big?

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 117 minutes
BBFC: 12
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 7th December 2001 (USA & Canada)
UK Release: 15th February 2002
Budget: $85 million
Worldwide Gross: $450.7 million

Stars
George Clooney (Batman & Robin, Michael Clayton)
Brad Pitt (Fight Club, World War Z)
Matt Damon (The Talented Mr. Ripley, Jason Bourne)
Andy Garcia (The Godfather: Part III, Jennifer 8)
Julia Roberts (Pretty Woman, Closer)

Director
Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Magic Mike)

Screenwriter
Ted Griffin (Ravenous, Matchstick Men)

Based on
Ocean’s Eleven, a 1960 film starring the Rat Pack.


The Story
A gang of crooks plot the biggest heist in Las Vegas history: robbing three casinos at once.

Our Heroes
Danny Ocean, a charming con man fresh out of prison, planning his biggest job yet — well, anyone’s biggest job yet. To do it he’ll need ten more men, including right-hand-man Rusty, newbie Linus, explosives expert Basher, inside man Frank, old pro Saul, tech head Livingston, gymnast Yen, general double-act support Virgil and Turk, and all of it bankrolled by Reuben.

Our Villains
Smug Las Vegas big shot Terry Benedict, owner of all three casinos the gang are targeting. Also: he’s shagging Ocean’s ex-wife.

Best Supporting Character
The aforementioned former Mrs Ocean, Tess, who’s shacked up with Benedict in part because he’s a more honest man than her ex. Or so she thinks…

Memorable Quote
Danny: “Because the house always wins. Play long enough, you never change the stakes, the house takes you. Unless, when that perfect hand comes along, you bet big, and then you take the house.”
Rusty: “Been practicing that speech, haven’t you?”
Danny: “Little bit. Did I rush it? Felt like I rushed it.”
Rusty: “No, it was good, I liked it.”

Memorable Scene
As with any good entry in this genre, the heist itself — which is less “a scene” and more “the third act”, of course — is the highlight of the movie.

Letting the Side Down
Don Cheadle’s cockney accent is less Guy Ritchie, more Dick Van Dyke. But then, as we know, that’s how cockneys are meant to sound anyway.

Next time…
A pair of less well regarded sequels followed in 2004 and 2007 (ten years ago! Time flies), while an all-female spin-off is out next summer.

Verdict

As slick and stylish now as it was a decade-and-a-half ago, Steven Soderbergh’s remake of the Rat Pack comedy-thriller is that rarest of all things in moviedom: a remake that’s better than the original. Apparently Soderbergh said that he saw this as an opportunity to give audiences “pleasure from beginning to end… a movie that you just surrender to, without embarrassment and without regret.” Well, he nailed it. It’s a film packed with likeable characters, memorable lines, snazzy direction, cool music cues, and the raison d’être of a heist movie: a final act that pulls the wool over the audience’s eyes. It’s pretty much perfect entertainment.

Fast & Furious 7 (2015)

aka Furious Seven

2016 #52
James Wan | 132 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, Japan & China / English | 12 / PG-13

Fast & Furious 7The franchise that can never make up its mind about what each instalment’s called continues with its most outrageously ludicrous entry yet.

Picking up from the events of the last one, this time our ‘family’ of car-racing heisters are targeted by their previous enemy’s brother, Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham). After Shaw’s first attempt to kill our heroes fails, they’re recruited by covert ops agent Mr Nobody (Kurt Russell) to obtain a computer surveillance program, on the promise that, if they’re successful, Nobody will help them deal with Shaw. Because when you’re in charge of a covert ops team, you don’t have your own guys for that kind of thing. Anyway, this leads us on a globe-trotting mission that involves things like parachuting cars into Azerbaijan and using cars to leap between skyscrapers in Abu Dhabi.

So yes, the action is ridiculous and implausible. Even the stuff that doesn’t seem physically impossible is overblown. But it’s so ludicrous that the film can’t possibly be trying to claim it’s real anymore, and therefore it kind of works — they’ve committed to it. Though anyone who started out enjoying this series for its broadly-realistic car-racing thrills must be pretty disappointed in it by this point.

Despite that, the series is beginning to feel increasingly “fans only”. That’s the way of all things these days, I suppose. Long gone are the days when movie series aimed at accessibility, each entry fundamentally a standalone adventure for a popular hero. Serialisation is the new discreteness, and it pays dividends for Marvel and, indeed, for Fast & Furious: in the same year as the return of Star Wars, the return of Jurassic Park, the return of the Avengers, the return of James Bond, and the return to form of Pixar, Furious 7 was still the third highest-grossing film worldwide, and sixth of all time.

But I still find it remarkable how well it did at the box office, because while most of those other films are actually very accessible to newcomers, this is resolutely a film for those well-versed in the franchise. Its story joins the dots between several previous films — as far back as Tokyo Drift, four films and nine years ago — but seems to assume you’ll know what those dots contain, because it only shows the joins. Even as someone who knows what events are being linked (that Tokyo Drift connection has been long-awaited!), it feels a bit disconnected and piecemeal. And it doesn’t help anyone that Tokyo Drift’s Lucas Black looks like he’s aged every single day of the nine years since his last appearance…

Of course, you can’t ignore that part of the reason for the film’s financial success is the death of Paul Walker, particularly as it occurred halfway through production and the filmmakers understandably felt the need to give one of the series’ primary stars a fitting send-off. With seemingly little of his part shot, his performance is mostly faked. It was created with a mixture of techniques, many of them pioneering — while we’ve seen computers being used to generate a performance for a deceased actor for over 15 years now (I believe Gladiator was the first), those tend to be for very short scenes and/or filtered through some other medium (like Laurence Olivier appearing on a videoscreen in Sky Captain), whereas here they’ve attempted to create a co-lead-sized role. Truthfully, the effect is variable. If you’re looking, it’s always obvious (well, I say that — if it was so good that you couldn’t see it, you wouldn’t know you were seeing it). However, if you’re not looking too hard then a lot of it is very well done… though some remains pretty glaring. At the end of the day, you know why they did it, but it still rather draws attention to itself. However, a post-climax finale is a nice send-off for Walker (again, you can’t deny that it’s more about paying tribute to the actor than writing out the character), and represents a moment of catharsis that clearly worked for the cast, crew, and the series’ die-hard fans.

The quality of other elements is rockier. Kurt Russell’s spy is a cool new character, but can’t escape the feeling he’s been introduced to play a bigger role in the inevitable sequels. Jason Statham has clearly been cast for his ability to fight, which he does well enough, but a bit more dialogue-based antagonism might’ve added some flavour. He gets a very cool opening scene, though. And while a coherent story is not likely to be at the forefront of many people’s minds when it comes to these movies, the plot is nonetheless scattered with holes. Like, the gang’s entire motivation to undertake the mission is so they can borrow the software to track down Deckard… but he keeps showing up anyway.

But hey, what does it matter? The point is the big dumb fun of the action sequences, be they well-choreographed and -shot fisticuffs, excellent stunt driving, or computer-generated ridiculousness. Is it okay to just give a movie’s plot a free pass like that? Sometimes, I think it is. Furious 7 is an action movie, in a fairly pure sense of the term, and action it delivers.

4 out of 5

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.

Robot & Frank (2012)

2015 #66
Jake Schreier | 89 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Robot and FrankIn “the near future”, Frank (Frank Langella) is an ageing jewel thief in denial about his dementia, contenting himself with visits to the local library, which is being taken over by a bunch of yuppies to turn into “the library experience”, and shoplifting from the beauty store that used to be his favourite restaurant. Concerned for his wellbeing, his son (James Marsden) gets him some home help in the form of a humanoid robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard). Initially reluctant to accept its presence, when the robot attempts to help by also shoplifting from the beauty store, Frank senses an opportunity…

Ostensibly a science-fiction movie, complete with futuristic-looking cars, a casual robotic presence, and glass-like tablets and smartphones, Robot & Frank is really a drama about, amongst other things, old age. The SF elements provide an interesting angle, of course, and this is a well-imagined very-near-future world (it was inspired in part by current attempts in Japan to develop robots specifically to care for the elderly), but the film’s joys and illuminations lie outside the sci-fi elements. Asimovian concepts of robot self-awareness/consciousness are touched upon, but they’re in service of one of the film’s central themes/stories rather than as an end to itself.

Where the film is most effective is in the friendship between Frank and his robot. Some have described it as a buddy movie, and while it doesn’t offer the rollicking action and humour that tag normally implies, it’s not a wholly inaccurate label. When Frank’s daughter (Liv Tyler) suddenly appears home halfway through and turns the robot offLibrary love (part of a half-realised almost-subplot about robot rights, or something), we not only feel Frank’s (temporary) loss of his friend, but also urge the film to turn the robot back on and get back to what’s really making the movie work. The event serves a purpose (it’s the point Frank realises he’s stopped just putting up with the damn robot and actually come to appreciate its presence), but still.

The heist elements, played up in some of the film’s marketing, probably to make it sound exciting, are actually rather low-key. Burglary would be a more accurate term. What I’m trying to say is, don’t expect Ocean’s Eleven with an old man and his robot sidekick. There are altogether different delights, including a wry sense of humour that surfaces rarely enough to lend the ‘gags’ extra emphasis but frequently enough to keep the amusement ticking over (avoid the trailer, it contains one of the best laughs). The emotional bond that develops is affecting, in the subtly-built way that you may not see coming. When the end rolls around, you may even feel a tear in your eye.

Robot & Frank is the kind of film that should appeal outside of apparent genre constraints — heck, the way technology’s going, it might not be that long before it’s just a straight-up drama. Frank and robotEqually, this is of a branch of science-fiction we see all too rarely on the big screen, but which is fertile ground for those wishing to explore it: using fantastical concepts to explore and enlighten our own world. Even if you learn nothing revelatory about old age and the rigours of dementia, the friendship between the robot and Frank is reason enough to enjoy.

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Robot & Frank is on BBC One tonight at 11:15pm. It’s available on BBC iPlayer until 1:40am on Thursday 28th May.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

2011 #43
Sidney Lumet | 120 mins | DVD | 15 / R

Director Sidney Lumet sadly passed away a week ago today. In tribute, I watched one of his many highly-regarded films…

Dog Day AfternoonOn August 22nd 1972, John Wojtowicz and Salvatore Naturile attempted to rob a Brooklyn bank to raise money for Wojtowicz’s male wife to have a sex change operation. The ensuing hostage situation was watched live on TV by millions of New Yorkers. If you made it up people wouldn’t believe it — especially in the ’70s — which is why this film, closely based on those events, strives so hard for naturalism. And it succeeds, and then some.

There are multiple reasons it works so well, and I’m glad I for once got round to watching all the DVD extras because they reveal these factors very nicely. I’m going to use a liberal sprinkling of those facts as a way into my thoughts on the film, so if you’ve watched those features some of this may seem too familiar. Sorry.

Let’s start where all films do (well, should): the screenplay. Written by Frank Pierson, based on a magazine article about the true story, it was his screenplay that attracted both director Sidney Lumet and star Al Pacino to the project. It’s immaculately structured, from the excitement of the opening — a confused, amateurish bank robbery — through negotiations with police, emotional telephone conversations, and on to a nail-biting finale at JFK airport. The pace is well considered. It doesn’t rush through events but it never flags; the tension is maintained but important emotional scenes are never sped through. More on that in a moment. Importantly, the plot’s numerous reveals are well managed too — for instance, Sonny’s homosexuality and transgender partner are revealed quite far in, by which point we’ve already built a firm opinion of the characters. This was important for a ’70s audience (as Lumet suggests in his commentary), Sonnyto try to circumvent built-in prejudices that would’ve adversely affected an audience’s reaction too soon. It still works now — it’s not a twist, per se, but it is likely to change one’s perspective on the film and its characters mid-flow, which is always interesting.

The dialogue is also spot-on, but that’s not all down to Pierson. While rehearsing, Lumet was so keen to capture a realistic tone that he allowed the actors to improvise the dialogue. This was working so well that he had it recorded, transcribed, and Pierson rewrote the dialogue based on the cast’s improvisation. (His scenes and their order remained intact, just the words were changed.) This, coupled with additional improvisation techniques used on set, lends a believable tone to the characters’ actions and words — they’re not speaking dialogue, they’re just speaking.

In terms of performance, this is a real showcase for Pacino. As Sonny — the movie’s version of John — the whole film rests on his shoulders, and he’s more than capable of bearing the weight. Some roles allow an actor to subtly be good throughout the film; others allow a few grandstanding set-pieces where they can Act; but Dog Day Afternoon gives Pacino both. The latter are, naturally, easier to recall: the way he works the crowd (“Attica!”), the pair of draining phone calls to his wives; but most of all, the will-writing scene. As the climax looms, Lumet allows the time for Sonny to dictate his will in full to one of the bank girls. Pacino is brilliant, understated but — in a combination of performance and writing (though, in this case, the text is taken from the real-life will) — revealing, cementing some of the conflicting forces that have pulled on Sonny throughout the film.

BankIn trying to get a handle on the real Sonny when he was starting on the screenplay, Pierson talked to various people who knew him, but struggled to reconcile their conflicting accounts of the same man. The link he found was that Sonny was always trying to please people, and that’s what he used: in the film, he’s not just out for himself or his boyfriend, but also trying to placate and please his hostages, the police, the media, his partner, his mum, his other wife… Pierson and Pacino do indeed make him a different man to all of them, and this is one of the reasons Sonny is such a great character and a great performance: he’s genuinely three-dimensional. All of us behave differently, to some degree, when we’re with different people — we don’t necessarily realise it, because they’re all facets of the same us, but we do it — so to put that into a character is to make him real.

Pacino is propped up by a spotless supporting cast, all of whom get their moment(s) to shine and use them to excel. Of particular note is John Cazale as Sal, the other robber. It’s a largely quiet role, but he nonetheless conveys an awful lot with it. Lumet says that Cazale always seemed to have a great sadness in him, which you can always see come out in his performances, and he’s certainly right here. We learn very few facts about Sal during the film, but we still know him, you suspect, as well as anyone does.

Chris Sarandon is also superb (and Oscar nominated) as Leon, the gay wife who wants a sex change. Lumet was keen to avoid presenting a stereotypical homosexual type, Leonthroughout the film trying to avoid turning any of these unusual characters into freaks, and Sarandon pitches it right. He plays the truth of a conflicted, confused character; a man who is perhaps easily led but hard to please, I think. As with the rest of the cast, the little touches he brings — such as starting a sure-to-be-emotional phone call to a man currently in the middle of a tense hostage situation with “so how are you?” — sell the reality of the piece.

Capturing reality is clearly Lumet’s prime concern — it’s reiterated multiple times across all the special features — and I think he succeeds admirably. Some things we might not even notice — the film is lit with natural light outside, the bank’s real fluorescent lights inside, and the nighttime sequences by a genuine police van reflecting off the white front of the bank — while other things, like the complete lack of a musical score, are more readily apparent. I say that, but that’s not readily apparent: one may well notice, but it’s such a perfect decision that it never rears it’s head. Lumet argues that having an orchestra chime in to underline an exciting or emotional moment would have broken the realism of what we’re watching, and he was right — there’s not a single scene here that could be improved by music, but several that would have been damaged by it.

The way the film’s shot supports this too. This is from the ’70s remember, before the craze for faux-documentary and everything being handheld, so it still looks like a film, but it’s not one that’s been precision-staged. Indeed, quite the opposite. Everything is kept loose — sometimes actors block each other’s shots, or talk over each other, or the handling of a prop goes wrong, and so on — but Lumet leaved it all in, even plays it up at times, and makes it work to his advantage. Rather than being the obvious “we’re trying to make this look real” Policeof today’s grainy shakycam stuff, this just feels real; the heart and truth of it come through, not the surface sheen of it being documentary footage. That’s more important.

There’s great editing by Dede Allen too, though most of the time it goes unnoticed: in keeping with the aim of letting the audience ‘forget’ this is a film, most of the cutting is simple and natural. Two examples leap to attention, however, and those are the two times (the only two times) guns are fired. Lumet and Allen recreate the confusion and violence of such an event with a smash of fast, sub-one-second cuts on both occasions. We see mindless fast cutting all the time now, but this incongruous example shows the effectiveness a fast montage can have when done by the right hands. The soundtrack also jumps with each cut, which is equally vital to the slightly disconcerting way it works — they’re not just smoothing over this series of flashing images, we’re being deliberately disorientated by them.

Remember earlier I mentioned Pierson’s pace? The editing plays a role in that too, naturally. After the film had been tightened for the final time, Lumet felt it had lost something, especially when it came to the will-dictating scene, which now felt slow. So with Allen he went back and added six or seven minutes of footage back in — as with his staging, making it a bit looser, more naturalistic, and in the process fixing the pacing issue and making the important will scene feel right again. Without being able to see that cut it’s hard to say just how necessary it was, but as the final result feels so right it seems his instinct was a good one.

SalPierson’s screenplay won at the Oscars. The film was also nominated for Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actor and Editing, but this was the year of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest so that took most of the big awards. That’s another of those all-time classics I’ve not seen, so I can’t offer my personal take. What I will say is that it goes to show (as most of us I’m sure already know) that the Oscars are as much about the year you’re in as the film itself: Dog Day Afternoon is better than masses of films that have won the same awards before and since, but clearly it got an unlucky year.

I’ve written quite a lot here but, brilliantly, I’ve still only got a certain way beneath the surface — there’s plenty more in there. That’s always the mark of a good film. And there’s certainly more memorable anecdotes and interesting directorial techniques I learnt from the special features that I’ve left out. Lumet set out to make a believable film about an unbelievable situation, and I do believe he achieved that goal. These are normal human beings with normal emotions — not like you and I, perhaps; taken to an extreme, certainly — but in a very bizarre set of circumstances. It was important to Lumet that they didn’t come across as freaks and, with the help of Pacino and the rest of his cast, I think they’ve achieved that too.

Coming outThe film treads a delicate line between drama, comedy and thriller, but doesn’t once tip too far in any direction. It’s got several genuine laughs, but none compromise its serious side or claim to reality — it’s tense and touching too. Anyone else making a film about an extraordinary situation, be it a true story or from the mind of a crazed writer, would do well to look at Lumet’s work here.

5 out of 5

Dog Day Afternoon is on ITV tonight, 19th November 2014, at 2:30am.

See also my review of the documentary short about the making of Dog Day Afternoon, which is also on the DVD, Lumet: Film Maker.