A Walk In The Woods (2015)

A Walk In The WoodsAsked in an interview why he has never written about the US, travel writer Bill Bryson (Robert Redford) is unable to answer. He hasn’t written anything recently, instead spending his time attending funerals with wife Catherine (Emma Thompson) and strolling through the woods near his New Hampshire home. On one such walk he happens across the Appalachian Trail, and adamant that he has one last adventure in him decides to walk the full length of it from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine, a distance of 2,200 miles. Understandably concerned that her elderly husband might be eaten by bears or swallowed by a ravine, Catherine insists that he travel with someone else, though it doesn’t come as much reassurance when that person is revealed to be Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte), an alcoholic ex-convict who previously inconvenienced Bryson as a young man in Europe.

A vaguely fictionalised account of A Walk In The Woods, the real Bill Bryson’s 1998 memoir — beloved by many — about walking sections of the AT, Ken Kwapis’ film attempts to find drama in what was originally just description, albeit eloquent, engaging and effervescent description in the Bryson style. This necessitates a clarification of motivation, increased characterisation of Catherine, and various attempts at foreshadowing, all of which result in a much larger opening salvo that attempts to establish some sort of narrative trajectory — something that was willfully missing from Bryson’s original manuscript, particularly towards the end. By far the most apparent change from the book, however, is Bryson’s age, increased here from fortysomething to sixtysomething, so that producer Robert Redford (79) could realistically star in the lead role. First announced in 2005, the supporting character of Katz had to be recast after the death of progenitor Paul Newman in 2008, prompting Nick Nolte to be hired in his place. 

This particular amendment works perfectly well (though the inclusion of Nick Offerman as a sales clerk does make you wonder why they didn’t just use him for Bryson, instead), with writers Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman getting plenty of mileage out of the character’s age, whereas in reality his biggest obstacle had been his weight. Redford is perfectly fine in the role, if a little unremarkable, whereas it’s Nolte who feels like the better fit as Katz. He looks like he’s been genuinely living off of Little Debbie’s for years, so unhealthy does he seem in every single shot, while his raspy delivery seems to come straight off the page. Katz squeezes off of the plane fully formed, stumbling through the airport door and striding straight for the vending machine in the arrivals area. Inevitably, he gets many of the best lines (though sadly he never gets to say “flung”), not least a launderette-set seduction of Waynesboro’s Beulah, expertly intercut with Bryson’s ill-fated attempt to reach K-Mart across a busy highway to genuinely great comic effect. Also well cast is Mary Ellen, the hapless but hateful thru-hiker who the companions meet along the way, with Kristen Schaal perfectly capturing her intolerable ways without ever once cleaning her Eustachian tubes.

The reason that Bryson is ultimately shortchanged by the adaptation is Kwapis’ tendency towards broad comedy over acerbic wit. Undoubtedly informed by his two decades living and working in England, as well has his travels across Europe and Australia, Bryson’s wry sarcasm is what gives his books the edge over more emotionally earnest travelogues, recently seen adapted for the big screen in the form of Tracks and Wild (both of which were better films), not to mention Eat, Prey, Love (which wasn’t). The comedy in A Walk In The Woods feels much more typically American, decidedly cruder and somewhat less sophisticated, as when Bryson and Katz take on a pair of bears while wearing their tents or fall into a creek or down a cliff — events that never happened in the book. The more scathing lines that are lifted from the text fall rather flat, delivered in part or without the necessary dryness or derisiveness, Redford imitating sarcasm rather than embracing it, while many of Bryson’s observations are lost in translation — like his description of newlyweds Donna and Darren. His relationship with Catherine is also mishandled in an attempt to introduce marital drama where there wasn’t any to begin with, though the fact that it is directly responsible for Mary Steenburgen having a larger role as innkeeper Jeannie (“Mother, let go of the man’s hand”) is undoubtedly a welcome one.

Fans of Bryson will be familiar with his favourite words, two of which seem to be ‘amiable’ and ‘agreeable’, judging by their preponderance in his published works. Both could be used to describe A Walk In The Woods, which is undeniably amusing without ever quite capturing what made the original anecdotes — or for that matter the Appalachian Trail itself — so memorable. The title was meant to be ironic, but this really does feel like just a walk in some woods.


Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (2015)

The Scorch TrialsFollowing their last-ditch escape from the maze, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and his fellow Gladers are flown to a halfway house by saviour Mr. Janson (Aidan Gillen) while they await their turn for onward transportation to a safe haven. It turns out that their’s wasn’t the only maze being operated by WCKD — the sinister World in Catastrophe: Killzone Department pulling the strings — who are looking for a cure for the Flare virus, at any cost, and upon their arrival at Janson’s facility they are introduced to their fellow survivors, including Aris (Jacob Lofland), a quiet boy previously saved from a Glade of girls. Suspicious of Mr. Janson, and conscious of WCKD’s continued and potentially uninterrupted threat, Thomas enlists Aris to help him and his friends escape once more, ultimately leading Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Minho (Ki Hong Lee), Teresa Agnes (Kaya Scodelario), Frypan (Dexter Darden) and Winston (Alexander Flores) out into the “Scorch”, an inhospitable wasteland surrounding the complex, where they meet Brenda (Rosa Salazar) and Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito) on their way to the hills.

And it all started out so simply! 2014’s The Maze Runner was a wonderfully straightforward movie; while The Hunger Games and Divergent wasted no time in introducing their corrupt governments and convoluted conflicts to audiences (to drastically different levels of success, it must be said), Wes Ball’s adaptation of James Dashner’s Young Adult novel hardly took any explaining at all, and was all the more compelling for it: there were some boys in a maze; a girl showed up with an ominous message; the boys needed to get out of the maze. Instead of endless exposition Ball packed his movie with uncomplicated characters, kinetic action and sensational set pieces; it moved at such a breakneck speed that it was easy to overlook the film’s few preposterous attempts at world-building: namely, that WCKD sounded more like an alcopop than an evil organisation and the astonishing implication that a solar flare caused a zombie outbreak. It even had a bit of depth; if The Hunger Games was a meditation on media and Divergent was — and let’s be generous here — a precis on personality, then The Maze Runner scrutinised science. After all, and as you may remember, the boy’s were revealed to be little more than lab rats by the end of the first film — experimented on by WCKD as the organisation searched for a cure.

For the sequel, however, this simplicity has been lost. Its protagonists now free from the maze — in many ways the series’ defining feature — it’s a narrative scramble (if not all-out shambles) to find something else for them to do. The Maze Runner was great because it didn’t spend half of its running time setting up future instalments that, given the hit to miss ration of YA adaptations, audiences were never likely to even see; now that we’re onto episode two, however, there’s little sense of a narrative trajectory or coherent through line as a result. Who is Thomas? What does he want?  What does he have to do in order to achieve it? These are all simple questions that the film has a worryingly hard time trying to answer, instead spouting the same “Chosen One” rhetoric that makes all of these movies sound the same. To begin with the film flirts with the idea that he has simply been released into a much larger maze — a labyrinth of corridors and ventilation shafts — but before long they are running free in the dessert and the original film is little more than a distant memory. Instead of battling Greivers — deadly robotic spiders designed to patrol the maze, for some reason — the children find themselves battling zombies — or Cranks, as the film calls them, for another — none of which has any real precedent in the series to date. There was no sense of drought, for instance, in the Glade, with its lush grasses and regular rainfall, while Thomas’ young age makes his prior employment by WCKD somewhat hard to swallow.

That said, as preposterous and ultimately perfunctory as Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials might seem, the franchise remains more engaging than most. If anything Ball’s sequel picks up the pace, with nary a moment passing in which the Gladers aren’t running to somewhere or from something. There’s a real energy to these scenes that propels the film even in the absence of plot, and the frantic camera movements work alongside the spirited cast to produce sequences of real dynamo and drama. One such scene, in which Thomas and company are searching an abandoned shopping centre for clothes and power, is genuinely tense and thrilling, while a later, loosely connected scene is as visceral and brutal as anything the genre has yet to offer. The Scorch Trials is a lot more muscular than the competition, which has a tendency towards the introspective and philosophical. It would be chauvinistic to attribute this to the gender of the protagonist, however; it’s simply that with no memories or obvious motivation there is only so much for Thomas to muse on. The Scorch Trials isn’t all surface, though, it must be said, as the film begins to develop its stance on scientific experimentation. Wasted in the first movie, Kaya Scodelario is finally given something to do, and while Thomas is busy running away from zombies, lightening and Aidain Gillen, Teresa is bravely facing a crisis of conscience: is it still OK for the rats to revolt if the experiment is saving human lives?

Naturally, The Scorch Trials ends on a cliffhanger, setting up the next film in the series — The Death Cure, natch — in its dying minutes. Whether you can be tempted back for another, well, whatever this is, is one thing, but while The Scorch Trials comes may come no closer to explaining the point of this series it does succeed in entertaining for another couple of hours — which is more than could be said for the second Divergent, or Percy Jackson, or Twilight. It’s even a half-descent zombie movie, apart from the bit where they came from the sun.


Fantastic Four (2015)

Fantastic FourHaving developed a prototype matter transportation device throughout high school with the help of fellow student Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), Reed Richards (Miles Teller) is approached at a science fair by the director of the esteemed Baxter Foundation, Professor Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey), and his daughter, Sue (Kate Mara). Now based in New York, Reed works alongside Sue, her brother Johnny (Michael B Jordan) and Franklin’s previous protege Victor (Toby Kebbell) to perfect the technology. But when the facility’s supervisor, Dr. Allen (Tim Blake Nelson), announces plans to hand the device over to NASA for the first human trials, Reed reaches out to Ben and goes behind Franklin’s back to insure that it’ll be their names that go down in history as the first human explorers to visit an alternate dimension. While using the Quantum Gate, however, Victor becomes stranded on Planet Zero and Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben begin to exhibit strange new abilities.

It should have been so simple. Like most superhero origin stories, the Fantastic Four’s can be easily pared down to its basic premise: a ‘family’ of scientists become celebrity superheroes after they are exposed to cosmic rays. Unfortunately, this iteration of the comic book plot was used previously in Tim Story’s 2005 film, a shortlived series that never quite found favour with fans due to its family-friendly tone and confused casting decisions. In a misguided attempt to learn from their mistakes, 20th Century Fox thus decided to tweak the formula to facilitate a darker edge, drawing on elements from alternate versions of the characters, much in the way that Sony had done previously (and, with hindsight, disastrously) with The Amazing Spider-man. Inevitably, 2015’s Fantastic Four suffers from many of the same weaknesses as Sony’s film: in purposefully and pointedly sidestepping many of the property’s most iconic touchstones the film not only feels derivative, but needlessly convoluted. Far from being appeased, the fans are freshly outraged.

For Fantastic Four, however, the problems go deeper than that. The original films may not be as beloved as Sam Raimi’s Spider-man trilogy, but they at least stood out from the crowd. Since X-Men (or Blade, if you’re being fastidious), the superhero genre has exploded to the point that super-powered protagonists have infiltrated every other genre, too. This has made it much harder for new characters and budding franchises to distinguish themselves, but with the recent trend towards grit and realism that has seen Batman rebranded a vigilante and Marvel’s shared universe introduced through the relatively credible prism of Iron Man, Story’s unabashedly primary coloured take on Fantastic Four was surprisingly refreshing. The hiring of Josh Trank, director of 2012 stand-out Chronicle, should have enabled the series to re-imagine itself without compromising that novelty value, but a combination of studio interference, directorial irreverence and a vocal fanbase have rendered the film woefully unremarkable and profoundly compromised. The last act in particular could easily be confused with Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel, so muted is the colour palette and meaningless the special effects. Like Snyder’s film, Trank’s appears almost embarrassed by its subject matter, doggedly refusing to kowtow to the comic books before conceding in a red-faced whisper near the end. Hearing “Fantastic Four” for the first time isn’t exciting, it’s excruciating.

The impressive thing about Trank’s previous film, his directorial debut, was that even though it was a science-fiction movie it felt authentic and believable. Considering how convincing the teenage characters were in Chronicle, and how rooted their actions seemed in insecurity and emotion, it is genuinely astonishing just how laughable Fantastic Four‘s attempts at characterisation actually are. Miles Teller (28) and Jamie Bell (29) are woefully miscast as high schoolers (and they are undeniably high schoolers when we first meet them), and if anything the incongruity only increases as the film goes on. Much has been made of Jessica Alba’s casting as Sue Storm in Story’s films, and Mara undoubtedly does a better job here of portraying the celebrated scientist, but every other of Trank’s casting choices is inferior to their predecessors — particularly Bell, who doesn’t seem anywhere near as exuberant as Michael Chiklis at being cast in the role of Ben Grimm, and who promptly vanishes the moment the character goes CGI. Even the effects seem subordinate: both The Thing and Doctor Doom look like pale imitations of their former selves, the former lacking any real weight or personality while the latter is almost unrecognisable as a revisionist Doom, albeit one who plucks a cape out of nowhere just in time for the final showdown — a senseless demo-reel for the video game tie-in that only serves to further confuse exactly what the villain’s powers and motivations might actually be.

Nothing about Trank’s Fantastic Four works: it’s boring, incoherent and preposterous — a terrible mess that wastes not just the talents of everyone involved but the efforts of those who have gone before. Whatever Story’s films might have been, at least they were entertaining.


Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)

Rogue NationHaving been on their tail for months, Impossible Mission Force agent Ethan Hunt thinks he finally has sufficient evidence to prove the existence of the mysterious Syndicate. Before he can report his findings, however, Hunt is kidnapped in London by Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) and interrogated by Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a disavowed MI6 agent of dubious loyalty, who nevertheless helps him escape, remaining behind so that she might purportedly protect her cover. Back in America, IMF agent William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) is defending the organisation against CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), but ultimately finds himself presiding over its dissolution as the government steps in to close it down. As a result, former agents Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) must commit treason to assist their old boss.

While Marvel’s Cinematic Universe goes to great pains to protect its continuity, burning bridges with auteurs and making concessions to other characters in order to create a comprehensive shared universe and integrate its various multimedia spin-offs, other studios seem to be taking a more laissez-faire approach to their own ongoing franchises. Films like Star Trek, Terminator Genisys and X-Men: Days of Future Past have all overtly addressed the issue of continuity by explicitly underwriting old timelines to keep their brands viable for continuation and accessible to new audiences, while the likes of Prometheus, Superman Returns and Casino Royale simply ignored the events of previous instalments to satisfy the whims of filmmakers. It’s a worrying trend that risks disenfranchising fans who have stuck with franchises from the very beginning, and undermines engagement in general as audiences don’t need to keep up with developments.

Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation may not directly contradict its own continuity, but like every other film in the series it feels more like a standalone movie than a continuation of a series — another film about a threat to the IMF, only this time directed by someone else. The IMF’s roster of agents, meanwhile, continues to rotate without comment, while Hunt’s wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) — featured prominently in Mission: Impossible III before being reduced to a mere cameo in Ghost Protocol — doesn’t feature at all. It seems strange then, given the number of characters who have been dropped over the years, that Rogue Nation brings back the actors that it does: Simon Pegg and Jeremy Renner may be bigger names than Jonathan Rhys Meyers or Paula Patton but they aren’t any more memorable or compelling (Pegg being almost unbearable at times) — though it’s admittedly good to see Ving Rhames back in action. J.J. Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III is arguably the best film in the series; the key to its success being the introduction of real emotion and high stakes into a saga that had previously been more concerned with surface style and gimmickry. (But then an actor like Philip Seymour Hoffman can do that for a film.) It’s disappointing to see the series slide back into inconsequence.

Enjoyed simply as the spy genre’s answer to Doctor Who — a silly nonsense in which nothing really matters and the most mundane of objects are imbued ludicrous new importance (a fingerprint activated vinyl, for instance) — however, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is perfectly entertaining, perhaps even more so than Ghost Protocol. While that film is mostly remembered for the Dubai sequence, in which Cruise scaled the tallest tower in the world, the sequel boasts a handful of memorable moments including the heavily trailed Airbus sequence, but also a lung-busting underwater dive and a protracted chase through Casablanca that ends in a genuinely thrilling motorcycle ride through the Moroccan dessert. It also has a better mystery at its heart, though this has little to do with Sean Harris’ largely redundant role as villain, and the England-set finale featuring Tom Hollander as the British Prime Minister could conceivably fit within the framework of a more serious spy flick. Well, aside from the liberal use of digitally printed prosthesis. Rebecca Ferguson is another fine addition to the franchise, and hopefully her Ilsa Faust won’t be quite so unceremoniously dropped next time around.

With both Bond and Bourne now back in play, it’s reassuring to see Hunt raising his game again — and while the characters’ films might lag behind the best of the rest there’s no denying that Cruise himself is a force to be reckoned with, perhaps even more so than Daniel Craig and Matt Damon. If the franchise is really going to compete with 007 and Treadstone, however, it urgently needs to address its two biggest weaknesses: its forgettable villains and apparent disregard for emotional investment. Mission: Impossible VI should be a sequel to Mission: Impossible V.


Paper Towns (2015)

Paper TownsPreviously partners in crime, neighbours Quentin “Q” Jacobsen (Nat Wolff) and Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne) have since grown apart, the former planning for the future alongside fellow outcasts Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith), while the latter lives in the moment with the in-crowd, including Lacey (Halston Sage) and boyfriend Jase (Griffin Freeman). One night, however, after an impromptu reunion “to right some wrongs, and wrong some rights”, Margo disappears from Orlando, Florida seemingly without a trace. Q knows her better than that, though, and searching for clues manages to trace her to Agloe, New York: a Paper Town used to protect a cartographer’s copyright. Together with his friends, Lacey and Radar’s girlfriend Angela (Jaz Sinclair), Q borrows his mother’s car and sets off in pursuit.

Written by the same team of writers who adapted The Fault in Our Stars — Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber — John Green’s romantic drama about two teenage cancer patients, Paper Towns feels less like a standalone indie film than a highly anticipated genre piece. Previewing nationwide with a cast and crew Q&A, and featuring the sort of fan service usually saved for auteurial oeuvres or long-running franchises, Robot & Frank director Jake Schreier’s new film isn’t simply a release, it’s an event. Even more bizarrely, the excitement isn’t just palpable but contagious, partly due to the fact that The Fault in Our Stars was really rather good but also because star Cara Delevingne has become ubiquitous in popular culture in the run-up to the film’s release — proving herself to be 2015’s answer to Kristen Stewart or Jennifer Lawrence. Happily, Paper Towns is even better than its predecessor, and it’s hard not to get swept up in the youthful energy of it all.

Like The Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns seeks to cut through the caricatures and cliches usually used to depict young characters — only this time focusing on adolescents in general rather than teenage cancer patients in particular. For a genre that’s given audiences the likes of Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen, strong protagonists who so often have the weight of the world on their shoulders, it’s amazing just how simplistic and unsophisticated they seem next to Green’s own flawed heroes — his almost revelatory young adults. Paper Towns deals with people’s perceptions of one another, not simply in terms of Q’s adolescent egocentrism — his friends at one point need to remind him that they are individuals in their own rights, with their own distinct needs and wants — but the very human tendency to mythologise those who can’t be understood — an irony surely not lost on Green when he had to come to the defense of one of his actors after an awkward junket interview. Nobody can ever know what is really going on inside someone else’s head — be it neighbour, classmate or girlfriend — nor should they presume to.

Paper Towns only really comes into its own once Margo has disappeared, however, and prior to her impromptu night of reconciliatory revenge with Q the film is harder to distinguish from the rest of its class — less a criticism of Delevingne, who recalls Emma Stone both in terms of likability and charisma, than of the initially uninspiring script. It opens with the same voiceover, the same incidents and seemingly the same soundtrack as just about any other high school movie you can think of, before finally setting out in search of something a little more interesting, a little more insightful, a little more subversive. Even in these early scenes though, Paper Towns is uncannily contemporary. Ironically, the coming-of-age drama has had trouble growing up, with even recent additions to the genre — up to including this year’s The Duff — feeling like throwbacks to its 80s and 90s heyday. Paper Towns is different, not just in its noughties cynicism but in the pop culture it chooses to reference. Whereas Pitch Perfect still had characters harping on about The Breakfast Club and 90s-set The Perks of Being A Wallflower fixated on a David Bowie song, Paper Towns quotes Game of Thrones and — in one of its stand-out sequences — samples the Pokemon theme tune.

Caught somewhere between festival picture and a Nicholas Sparks adaptation, Paper Towns has both something clever to say and the cogency with which to say it. Like all good high school movies it spends less time patronising its target audience than it does trying to appeal to all. Go in with an open mind; you might just be a fan.




July 2015 – Baskin Robbins always find out

Slow West posterI’m not going to lie, with each passing month these round-ups are starting to feel more and more redundant. I saw ten movies this month, but only got around to reviewing four of them. For the likes of Magic Mike XXL, True Story or The Gallows I either couldn’t find enough to say or enough time to say it in to justify a 600 word review, while inconvenient scheduling meant that I had to leave ten minutes before the end of Song of the Sea, which up until that point seemed like a shoe-in for my film of the month.

The films I did manage to review were Slow West, one of the better Westerns released…well, ever; Terminator Genisys, one of the stupidest and least necessary sequels…well, ever; Minions, a Despicable Me spin-off that somehow managed to be even worse than Despicable Me; and Ant-Man, the twelfth instalment in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, and probably the best twelfth instalment of anything…well, you get the idea. In all fairness, however, it’s only real competition is For Your Eyes Only. Between the uninspiring films and the underwhelming weather, summer 2015 has so far been both depressed and depressing.

Luckily, a few films seen earlier this year at the Edinburgh International Film Festival finally hit screens nationwide this month, meaning that I could still be part of the cinematic conversation. Pixar’s Inside Out opened in cinemas, while video game adaptation Dead Rising: Watchtower went (unfairly, if you ask me, and if you compare it with other big screen video game adaptations) straight to DVD. I bought a few DVDs this month too, including two of my favourite films of the year so far: The Interview and It Follows. The next time I’m in HMV I’ll also be able to pick up CHAPPiE and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night as well. Should you wish, you can find my entire top ten listed on my Letterboxd page.

Thankfully, I have been a bit more productive elsewhere. My first article for The Blazing Nomad went live as part of their July edition, while I published two more pieces on Finding A Neish following a trip to the Isle of May with Paul Greenwood and a solo expedition from Arbroath to Montrose along the Angus Coastal Path. The site has been going from strength to strength, while the corrosponding twitter profile has been accumulating followers at a frankly astonishing rate. Having been shortlisted for World Nomads and Lonely Planets 2015 travel writing scholarship in June, I this month received certification for my achievement. I also visited Loch of the Lowes near Dunkeld to watch ospreys at the wildlife reserve, but I haven’t yet decided whether there’s a blog in it.

Film of the month: Slow West

Ant-Man (2015)

Ant-ManDespite having resigned first from SHIELD and then been ousted from his own company for trying to protect his Ant-Man tech, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) hasn’t quite been able to keep others from replicating his Pym Particle. Former protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) has come the closest, with his Yellowjacket suit showing a lot of promise, but Pym is unable to use the original suit to stop him, and unwilling to endanger his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), who is already acting as his eyes and ears on Cross’ staff. Instead he reaches out to Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a recently released ex-con who is struggling to go straight and still meet the custody payments required to see his own daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson).

Considering that this should be Marvel’s most accessible picture since Iron Man, predating the Marvel Cinematic Universe and having originally been developed by Edgar Wright as a standalone feature, Peyton Reed’s finished film is surprisingly difficult to follow, at least at first. It opens completely out of context, with a flash back to Pym’s last encounter with SHIELD, and expends almost no time or energy establishing characters or story: we are simply supposed to know that that’s Howard Stark (John Slattery) from Iron Man 2 and that’s Agent Carter (Haley Atwell) from Captain America: The First Avenger, and they’re sitting next to Mitchell Clarkson (Martin Donovan) who…nope, I’m still pulling a blank. It’s a strange and stilted scene, and it makes you fear the worst for a film that already had expectations set to low.

Thankfully, however, this confusion is relatively short-lived. Ant-Man is a decidedly simple story, and like the first Iron Man it deals with men in suits battling it out over stolen technology. There are numerous other attempts to tie the narrative into the wider franchise — Lang at one point suggests calling the Avengers, only to later end up doing battle with one of their members — but these cross-overs and convergences feel a lot less incongruous. For the most part its a story of two fathers trying to reconnect with their estranged offspring, and the parallels between these two relationships is what ultimately gives the film its heart. One is told to be the hero his daughter already thinks he is, while the other must decide whether he is ready for his daughter to be the heroine she is both ready and willing to be. Father issues are nothing new to cinema, and particularly not the superhero genre, but Evangeline Lilly and little Abby Ryder Fortson aren’t defined by them.

It helps that the tone is kept relatively light throughout, with Rudd rising to the challenge set by Chris Pratt in last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy, if not quite surpassing him. He’s an incredibly likeable lead, and is able to sell even the most preposterous situation with a wry, disarming smile. Reed ensures that this levity isn’t lost as soon as Rudd puts the Ant-Man helmet on, and most of the set-pieces are as witty and amusing as the exchanges conducted out of costume. It’s nice to see Douglas having such a nice time opposite him, too, in a role even lighter than Liberace in Behind the Candelabra. The real comedy gold, however, is served by Michael Peña, who plays Lang’s former cellmate and current roommate Luis. Ant-Man‘s equivalent of Thor‘s Darcy Lewis, he is as far removed from the usual superheroics as it is possible to get, instead getting sidetracked with superfluous details or spending time saving people he has just incapacitated. His tips, in which he recounts the stories behind each piece of information, have as much energy as many of the fight sequences.

Ant-Man’s biggest success, however, comes in the way that it revitalises the MCU, introducing a new cast of characters and leaving the audience to imagine how they might interact with the established ensemble. It’s a small film, just as Ant-Man is a small hero, but it just might be enough to save Phase Two.


Minions (2015)

MinionsHaving inadvertently caused the death of just about every villain in history, the minions find themselves exiled in Antarctica where they slowly unravel without an evil master to serve. It is up to Kevin (Pierre Coffin), Stuart (Coffin again) and Bob (you guessed it) to search the planet for a new purpose for their people, and after accidentally accessing a secret villain-centric television channel set their sights on Villain-Con in what is destined to become Orlando, Florida. They’re soon hired by Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock), a villainess who wants nothing more than to be crowned Her Majesty the Queen of England. Things go awry when Bob is crowned in her place, prompting Scarlet to first disown and then declare war on minion-kind.

The continued success of Universal Picture’s Despicable Me franchise is as inexplicable as it is undeniable: the minions are everywhere, even Broughty Ferry. Quite why the characters have taken off in the way they have despite being neither cool or particularly cute is impossible to say. The first film barely warranted a sequel, being little more that a pale imitation of DreamWorks Animation’s far superior and still commendably singular Megamind, let alone a spin-off origin story devoted to its most irritating characters. The minions are no less intolerable here, left to headline a film despite being unable to speak English or get through a single scene without making you want to groan or sigh out loud. They’re not funny, and they’re certainly not clever.

This is children’s entertainment at its laziest and most cynical, simply transporting a single gag — or catchphrase, in the case of the minions’ collective obsession with bananas — to England and hoping that the change of scenery is enough to compensate for a distinct lack of new material. What follows is a convoluted, contrived and often incoherent string of incidents that lack the intelligence or imagination of something like A Town Called Panic or even the most recent Spongebob SquarePants movie, and instead falls back on the sort of asinine idiocy that gives slapstick a bad name. Through in a couple of pernicious stereotypes — both gender and cultural in nature — and you get a real sense of just how insipid Minions is, not just as a comedy but as children’s entertainment.

In fact, if it weren’t for Geoffrey Rush’s narration Minions would be very nearly indefensible. Charming, companionable and genuinely amusing, his voice over carries the viewer through an extended montage of the minions’ various misadventures with the likes of Dracula and the dinosaurs. His introduction “they go by many names: Dave, Carl, Paul, Mike…” is about as funny as the film gets, and with the exception of a family hold-up on the way to Orlando with the Nelsons is likely the last time you’ll smile for the rest of the feature. The only other consolation is how well-rendered it all looks; the design of the minions is as crude as ever, but some of the animation — particularly the cityscapes and set pieces — are really quite impressive. Presumably the animators lost interest in the characters and focused instead on the less offensive inanimate objects.

It’s never clear what the studio is hoping to accomplish with Minions — more an exercise in maintaining brand awareness and marketing merchandise than making people laugh, setting it firmly behind last year’s Penguins of Madagascar in terms of entertainment value — but if there were any creative ambitions going into production there’s certainly no evidence of it on release. Do yourself a favour and watch Song of the Sea instead.


Terminator Genisys (2015)

TerminatorJohn Connor’s (Jason Clarke) Resistance has finally won the war, but not before Skynet (Matt Smith) has sent a T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) back to the eighties to exterminate his mother and erase him from existence. In response, John sends right-hand man Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back in time to protect Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) and inadvertently father John in the process. An unprecedented interference by Skynet, however, contaminates the timeline, such that Kyle arrives in a past different to that known by his future officer/offspring. Another, reprogrammed T-800 is already in place to neutralise Skynet’s, leaving Kyle to battle a T-1000 also sent back to terminate Sarah. Memories gleaned from the Kyle Reece from this new timeline lead Sarah, Kyle and the T-800 Genisys, a new operating system that is set to go live in 2017. Helpfully, rather than wait for the new millennium, the T-800 has been working on a time machine of their own.

There can’t be many film franchises as unsettled or unintelligible as the Terminator series. Whereas most sagas are mapped out, their sequels shot back-to-back and their casts contracted until the cows come home, Terminator doesn’t seem to know where it’s going from one minute to the next, or whether it has any future at all. James Cameron directed the first two instalments, but by shifting his focus from mother to child and recasting his villain as a hero he did away with much of the usual connecting tissue. Twelve years later Jonathan Mastow recast John Connor and killed off Sarah Connor, and whereas the earlier films played as horror and action movie respectively his veered more towards comedy, but T3 still incorporated itself into the established canon through call-backs and cameos — sadly, however, Earl Boen’s Dr. Peter Silberman hasn’t been seen since. By the time McG’s Terminator: Salvation rolled around in 2009, the franchise was almost unrecognisable.

Now, a further six years, yet another rights kerfuffle and now a failed TV spin-off later, the brand has been liquidated almost as many times as its titular Terminators. Not that that has stopped director Alan Taylor and production company Skydance Productions from promising another new trilogy of films — because being presumptuous has obviously paid off so well in the past. Effectively ignoring the last two films in the series — a la Jurassic World, and for that matter the itself ignored Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles — the film once again seeks to stop Skynet, Cyberdyne, Genisys, or whatnot, necessitating not only a backwards step for the franchise pre-Salvation (the world ended, get over it) but a backwards leap to the 1980s. Closest in tone to the unfairly maligned Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines — a film the production has done everything in its power to distance itself from — Terminator Genisys was presumably just trying to avoid unflattering comparisons. Off-screen at least Judgement Day is finally here, and the fifth instalment has been found wanting. Taylor’s film is the most witless, unintelligible and inept film of the summer so far — and, given the unrelenting transparency of its promotional campaign, one of the most predictable, too. And it has a silly title to boot.

Essentially a soft-reboot, much like JJ Abrams’ Star Trek, the film rewrites the past in a way that aims to be both respectful and revisionist, and ultimately fails on both counts, reading instead as an irreverent rehash. Unlike Abrams’ film, however, the mechanics of this retcon are never really explained, or subsequently justified, meaning that it’s a frustrating experience from start to finish. Who sent the good T-100 back to save Sarah aged 9? Why is the T-1000 suddenly Korean? What exactly is a T-3000 Terminator? Whereas once a killer robot sent back from the future took an entire movie to content with, here they’re killed efficiently and effectively, just not particularly dramatically. Even the sequel’s Big Bad doesn’t seem particularly difficult to defeat, or at least delay, as our heroes seem to have little trouble escaping him every time he conveniently tracks them down, seemingly out of the blue, for the two-hourly explosion to break up the otherwise inexorable exposition. It just all seems so inconsequential, not just because you know that the main characters are more than likely going to survive, but because you know that the actors are probably going to be recast, or their efforts negated somewhere down the line. After all, almost as many actors have now played John Connor as have played James Bond (with five films to 23).

A convoluted mess of coincidences and contrivances, Terminator Genisys is not just confusing, but itself confused. Next time it might simply be easier for John Connor to travel back in time and buy the rights for himself — it won’t stop Skynet, of course, but it might very well save cinema.


Slow West (2015)

Slow WestWhen an incident back home forces the girl of his adolescent dreams to flee to America, naive 16-year-old Scotsman Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) sets off in hot pursuit. Little does he realise that Rose (Caren Pistorius) and her father (Rory McCann) have a large price on their heads, and that in his youthful innocence-cum-ignorance he is inadvertently leading a parade of bounty hunters right to them. Interested parties include Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), an Irish immigrant who sells his services to Jay in the supposed spirit of camaraderie; Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), a gang-leader and alpha-hunter who has a history with Silas; and Angus the Clergyman (Tony Croft), a lone mercenary who assumes the identity of a holy man to wrong-foot his prey. As they draw closer to their respective prizes, however, Silas begins to admire Jay’s courage and determination.

Of all cinema’s assorted genres and subgenres, it’s perhaps the Western that is the most divisive among cinephiles, at least behind horror. Either you can relate to the perennial nameless wanderer — a personification of tumbleweed both bow-legged and squinty-eyed — or you can’t; and if not then the Old West is invariably a barren and inhospitable place populated by characters that you find it next to impossible to engage with. Thankfully, as is often the case in the multiplex medium of film, there are exceptions, and John Maclean’s Slow West is undoubtedly one of the most exceptional of all. After all, this is a Western with a Scottish protagonist, a comedic undercurrent and strong female character — it’s about as far removed from the blanched American desert and staunch individualism that usually characterises this kind of movie as it is possible to get. There isn’t a single sheriff, deputy or Mexican in the entire movie.

Some have described the absurdist tonal elements as decidedly and distinctly Coen-esque, but while the brothers might well have been an influence Slow West goes well beyond the likes of No Country For Old Men and True Grit in reconciling its tragicomic sensibilities. These are complex, compelling and (most unusually) coherent characters who just happen to be companionable, too. Rather than get caught up in race-relations and other issues of American culture Maclean takes a refreshingly European view of the whole set-up, having Jay and Rose themselves take a more sympathetic stance towards the natives and other immigrants. This new perspective and fresh approach lends the film a novelty that precious few Westerns can lay claim to, particularly in its treatment of women and ethnic minorities. We have in recent years seen the genre transplanted to the American outback in films such as The Proposition and The Rover, but this really is our first exposure to a British or specifically Scottish Western (Maclean hails from Tayside).

To praise the film for possessing such wit, however, is not to suggest that it’s not without acuity or gravitas too, as a gut-wrenchingly unforgiving visit to a trading post during the film’s second act unmistakably proves. Whereas most Westerns glorify violence through prolongued shoot-outs and protracted death throes, the often ruthlessly unsentimental Slow West focuses instead on the immediacy and inglory of death. Lives are ended, potential is squandered and children are orphaned, while the killers themselves are rarely spared their just deserts. The film ends with a strikingly silent and senseless montage, revisiting the trail of dead bodies left by Jay and Silas as they lie motionless across 19th Century Colorado. Earlier in the film, Jay asks an apparently friendly anthropoligist if he minds sharing his fire with a murderer, to which the ethnographer replies that he wouldn’t have many visitors if he did. The film subtly but succinctly outlines the harsh and sometimes inhuman realities of colonialism, and arguably serves to criticise both contemporary American foreign policy and its questionable gun laws at the same time.

Throw in one of cinema’s more convincing Scottish accents (pronounced to perfection by the impeccable Smit-McPhee) and the spectacle of seeing two men in long-johns drying their laundry on a line strung between two horses (complete with comedy call-back) and you have one of the most accessible and pleasantly surprising Westerns to date. And to think, I was all too ready to derisively dub it Slowest.



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