Review Roundup

Even though my film viewing has slowed to barely a trickle recently (more about that on Thursday), my review backlog is still humongnormous (so I big I had to invent that new world to describe it).

So, here’s another exceptionally random selection of quick reviews to help clear out a tiny fraction of it. They’re connected merely by being films I watched over a year ago. Three of them score 3 stars, one of them scores 4, and I suspect you won’t guess which that is…

In today’s roundup:

  • American Assassin (2017)
  • Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (2017)
  • Wild Strawberries (1957)
  • Yes Man (2008)


    American Assassin
    (2017)

    2018 #79
    Michael Cuesta | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Hong Kong / English, Arabic, Italian, Polish, Turkish & Persian | 18 / R

    American Assassin

    Based on the Mitch Rapp series of novels by Vince Flynn (and, since Flynn’s death, Kyle Mills), American Assassin is an action-thriller about a CIA operative that’ll feel very familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a film starring Jason Bourne, Jack Ryan, or anything else along those lines. Indeed, it particularly reminded me of the last-but-one Jack Ryan reboot, crossed with something altogether murderier — you’ll notice this has an uncommonly high 18 certificate. I guess that was for some torture that goes on; although it also features a very intense opening scene, depicting an attack by terrorist gunmen on tourists at a beach resort. Considering this is no more than a dumb action-thriller, one might consider it a bit much to include such a viscerally-real-feeling sequence, inspired by relatively recent real-life attack(s), just to kickstart the hero’s journey…

    The film was made for just $33 million, which is chump change in modern Hollywood, and they’ve not done badly off it. The shooting locations do seem a little limited (the main sequence in Istanbul looks more like it was shot in a London shopping precinct (which, as I found out when I checked after, it was), and the bit in Poland is moderately familiar as London too (it’s Somerset House, recognisable to UK cinephiles as where Film4 host their outdoor summer screenings); but I’ve seen worse CGI in bigger-budgeted films, and the fisticuffs are decently staged.

    Altogether, it makes for quite an entertaining action thriller, with some decent scenes, but the story is wholly familiar — Mitch Rapp: Sum of All Shadow Recruits, if you will. Fans of the genre will likely get a kick out of it, especially if they’ve not seen some of the other films it feels so similar to (though if you’re a fan of the genre I don’t see how you wouldn’t’ve), but others need not apply.

    3 out of 5

    Captain Underpants:
    The First Epic Movie

    (2017)

    2018 #91
    David Soren | 85 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA, Canada, France, UK & India / English | U / PG

    Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

    Somehow I was vaguely aware of the existence of a series of books called Captain Underpants, but I’d paid them no heed because they’re for young kids, and also because they looked stupid. I thought the same thing of this movie adaptation, but then I started hearing good things about it and, well, here we are.

    It’s about two young boys who love nothing more than pranking teachers and creating superheroes. When their headteacher separates them because of the former, they manage to hypnotise him and convince him he’s the latter — the eponymous Captain Underpants. Initially that just makes their school life more fun, but then a supervillain turns up, so he’s handy for that too.

    Obviously it’s all thoroughly daft and primarily aimed at younger children — there are Messages without it being preachy, and it’s suitably irreverent and base at times. It’s the movie equivalent of mixing veg into, like, a burger, or something (I dunno, I’m not a parent. What food do you hide veg in?) But it also contains some good gags for the adults (satire!) and some clever bits of animation and stuff as well — it’s more inventive than you might expect in that regard.

    Indeed, I feel like it’s all-round better than you’d expect, given the title and overall style (the kiddie design and tone; the toilet humour)… but not so much better that it warrants 4 stars, so…

    3 out of 5

    Wild Strawberries
    (1957)

    aka Smultronstället

    2018 #90
    Ingmar Bergman | 87 mins | DVD | 4:3 | Sweden / Swedish | PG

    Wild Strawberries

    “Wondrously warm, one of Bergman’s very finest achievements, and a landmark in the history of cinema,” says Geoff Andrew in the notes that accompany the UK DVD release of Wild Strawberries, one of Ingmar Bergman’s most acclaimed movies from a career filled with them. However, speaking for myself, I’m still struggle to get a handle on the director’s output.

    It’s about a grumpy old professor (Victor Sjöström) who sets out on a road trip to collect an honorary doctorate. Along the way he has various encounters with other travellers, which prompt daydreams and memories that cause him to reassess his life and its worth.

    Put like that, what it’s “about” seems obvious, though in my notes I wrote “I’m not sure I have any idea what it was about. Something to do with old age and looking back and maybe death,” so how effectively its themes come across on a first viewing is, perhaps, debatable. That said, I’m fully prepared to accept I was looking in all the wrong places, maybe focusing too much on the literal road-trip storyline and not the figurative exploration-of-self the trip was provoking.

    On the bright side, there’s some effective imagery in the dream sequences, and I found it less crushingly dull or obtuse than Persona, which is something. Maybe Bergman’s just not for me? Or not for me yet? Well, I didn’t dislike it, but at the same time I didn’t get much out of it. Maybe some day I will.

    3 out of 5

    Wild Strawberries was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project.

    Yes Man
    (2008)

    2018 #86
    Peyton Reed | 100 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA & UK / English & Korean | 12 / PG-13

    Yes Man

    Loosely based on Danny Wallace’s memoir of the same name, Yes Man stars Jim Carrey as a negative chap who attends a motivational seminar that encourages him to start saying “yes” to every opportunity that comes his way.

    On the first night, he says yes to a homeless guy who wants a lift across town, then yes to letting the guy use his phone, then yes to giving him all his cash. But it turns out the drive used all his fuel, the call used all his battery, so he can’t phone for help, and he has to trek miles in the dark to buy fuel… not that he has any cash. So much for saying “yes” to everything. But at the petrol station he meets Zooey Deschanel and they hit it off. So, yeah, point made with perhaps the most outsized karmic reward ever.

    I suppose everything about Yes Man is broadly familiar — the romcom story arc; the kooky supporting characters; Jim Carrey’s schtick (it feels very much in same vein as the high-concept ’90s comedies that made his name; although there’s no fantastic element this time, and the worst excesses of his ‘act’ are thankfully limited to one or two scenes) — but it carries it off with reasonable charm. I mean, if you have no time for Carrey’s comedies, and aren’t attracted to Deschanel being a MPDG again, then there’s nothing here that’s going to win you round. For fans of such shenanigans, however, this is a perfectly enjoyable experience. It’s a 3.5-out-of-5-er, but I had a nice time with it, so my score leans on the side of generosity.

    4 out of 5

  • Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

    2018 #247
    Peyton Reed | 118 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.39:1 + 1.90:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Ant-Man and the Wasp

    After the huge (in every respect) Avengers: Infinity War, the comically-minded Ant-Man and the Wasp feels like a palate cleanser for the MCU; a bit of light entertainment to help smooth the long gap between the Avengers film’s devastating cliffhanger and 2019’s double whammy of Captain Marvel (trailer today!) and Avengers 4 (trailer Wednesday!) Some people didn’t take too kindly to the ‘abrupt’ tonal swing (they’re completely separate movies, so that’s a pretty daft complaint to have, frankly), but I thought this sequel was a ton of fun.

    It actually takes place before Infinity War anyhow: Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), aka Ant-Man, is finally coming to the end of two years of house arrest, his punishment for being involved in the events of Civil War. He’s also been forbidden from contacting the inventor of the Ant-Man suit, Dr Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), or his daughter, Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), who are wanted fugitives; but when Scott has a vision of Hank’s wife and Hope’s mother, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), from his trip to the Quantum Realm (see the first Ant-Man), he becomes involved in Hope and Hank’s attempt to travel their and rescue Janet. Along the way they also have to deal with black market dealer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), who wants to monetise the tech he’s been helping them build, and a mysterious masked figure known as Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), who can phase through solid objects and is trying to steal said new tech.

    The Wasp and Ant-Man

    Got all that? I haven’t even touched on some of the other subplots that get thrown in for good measure. For something that’s clearly been designed as a light romp, Ant-Man and the Wasp certainly has a lot of plot going on. That might be part of what keeps it romp-y, mind: with so much to get through, there’s always something happening, it’s always pushing forward. It arguably gets a bit bogged down having to line everything up in the middle, with some scenes that lean a little heavily on exposition, but it always finds time for a gag or two. Personally, I’ll let quite a lot slide if I’m having fun, and this keeps the fun quotient high throughout.

    Entertainment is definitely the name of the game here, and to that end director Peyton Reed and the five credited screenwriters (including star Paul Rudd) set out to tickle various emotional responses. The most obvious one is, as mentioned, the funny — there are laugh-out-loud moments here, as well as a never-ending barrage of one-liners and comedic business. But it also takes time to be emotive and heartfelt. Scott’s relationship with his daughter (a charming and likeable performance by young Abby Ryder Fortson) is a major character point, and a key touchstone for a definite parent/child theme across the movie. What we might actually ‘learn’ about parent/child relationships from all this, I don’t know, but it feeds some surprisingly heartwarming material at times.

    But which is the parent and which is the child?

    Thirdly, there are thrills in the shape of multiple fantastic action sequences. Hope dons the Wasp suit — all the powers of Ant-Man, plus wings and blasters — shrinking and growing at speed to kick plenty of ass, though Ghost’s ability to just phase through objects presents a unique challenge. There’s a heist sequence, too, recalling the overall theme of the first movie… though as it’s in a primary school and occurs while Scott’s suit is malfunctioning, it’s played more for laughs. Well, so’s almost everything in this movie, but it works. Best of them all is the extended car chase finale, with the good guys’ size-changing vehicles used for some highly inventive antics, plus all sorts of other goings-on in a race with multiple pursuers. I’ve seen some criticise this part for going on too long, but I thought it was just right, and is a strong contender to be remembered as an all-timer chase sequence.

    Often when I watch stuff in 3D nowadays I don’t actually mention it in my reviews — I still enjoy the experience more often than not (some stuff underwhelms, naturally), but I know most people don’t have the option and, frankly, it’s rarely essential. Well, the 3D probably isn’t essential here either, but it is superb, really adding to the scale and impact of the big scenes — when things are switching sizes all over the place, that’s no bad thing. Plus it’s clearly effective in just regular moments, too: the film’s opening shot is just of a house, but the dimensionality is still palpable. Top work by whoever did the post-conversion.

    Plus, the 3D Blu-ray comes with the benefit of the film’s shifting IMAX ratio, where the frame expands upwards from 2.39:1 to 1.90:1 for certain scenes. This is commonplace for Marvel films nowadays, which means sometimes it seems to occur just for the sake of it, but Reed has put the effort in to make great use of the larger image. Okay, it’s no surprise that it’s used for the action scenes (including opening up for a whole half-hour-or-so at the film’s climax), but he’s mindful of the transitions between ratios and the effect that can have — at least twice the actual moment the film moves from one ratio to another is as effective as the bigger image itself. Some people hate shifting aspect ratios on Blu-rays, I know, but I love ’em, and this is a great example of why.

    Ant-Man will return... but will anybody else?

    In the year of Black Panther and Infinity War, the relatively frothy Ant-Man and the Wasp was always destined to be “the other one”. But just because it’s not Big or Meaningful doesn’t mean it has no merit. Far from it. Whether you want to view it as a palate cleansing instalment of the MCU or as a standalone adventure, I think it’s pitched almost perfectly as a fun, entertaining ride of a movie.

    The first Ant-Man is, to date, the only MCU film to make it onto one of my year-end best-of lists. The way things have gone in 2018, I won’t be surprised if this sequel is the fourth.

    4 out of 5

    Ant-Man and the Wasp is out on DVD and Blu-ray (regular, 3D, and 4K UHD flavours) in the UK today.

    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.