Crime Drama

Ant-Man (2015)

In a world where we can (probably) download images of what Chris Evans ate for lunch during Captain America: Winter Soldier, it probably comes as no surprise that the pre-production problems of Ant-Man are well known. Kinetic director Edgar Wright (The World’s End) had been working on fleshing out the diminutive superhero since closing up shop on Spaced. Cut to 2011 and it’s announced that Wright will be working with Marvel to get Scott Lang out to the public. And then 2014 rocked by and the much-rumoured ‘creative differences’ between wright and Marvel comes to a head when Wright allegedly walks weeks before shooting, unhappy with certain changes. And just as suddenly, Peyton Reed was locked in to take the helm.

Taking into account the history, it wouldn’t have been surprising if the film turned out to be an omni-shambles of design by committee. Instead, Ant-Man manages to do something fresh with what is essentially the tired origin trope. Paul Rudd is Scott Lang, an electrical engineer and common thief. He roommates with three fellow ex-cons and has restricted access to his daughter. Scott wants to be straight, but is convinced to take one last job. Leading him to be taken under the wing of Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), who convinces Scott to work for him and steal a top-secret project from Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), Pym’s protégé who is wandering dangerously close to the dark side. To help Scott with his mission, Pym trains him to be Ant-Man; a diminutive superhero with all the force of a bullet.

Ant-Man is not your usual superhero movie, as the above shows. It’s more akin to a heist movie with Pym and Scott working together to develop and hone his skills as Ant-Man. Along the way, Pym struggles in his relationship with his daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly). Hope, infinitely more skilled than Scott, wants to don the Ant-Man suit herself and most of the conflict comes from her trying to understand why her father is so adamant not to allow her. These scenes are surprisingly effective, with the success coming from both actors treating the material truthfully and honestly whilst Rudd bounces around in the background providing the comic relief.

Rumours persist that Wright was unhappy with the rewrite of his and Joe Cornish’s script, wanting to keep his film at arm’s length from the juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. How much of that is true is unknown. However, there are numerous cameos storylines that carry on from Marvel’s properties, including a cameo from Iron Man 2. Unless you’re an avid Marvel fan, none of these will particularly affect your understanding of the narrative and all will have a good time.

Ant-Man’s real issues come from racial profiling that sees all minorities either wise-crackers or safecrackers. It’s not overly offensive, but it is a little problematic. In addition, Judy Greer is entirely wasted as Scott’s ex-wife. Even when her daughter is in danger during a climatic moment of the film, its both her ex and her new husband that do the protecting. If you’re going to use an actor from Arrested Development and Archer, we want more from her than scolding Scott and being scared.

That aside, with excellent effects, witty wordplay and charismatic screen presence by all those involved, Ant-Man manages to punch above it’s own weight. It’s not quite Guardians of the Galaxy, but it’s nowhere near as pedestrian as Thor 2. It’s another win for Marvel.

Felony (2013)

Written by Joel Edgerton (The Great Gatsby), Felony is a gritty Australian thriller that dissects the ideas of morals and honour amongst thieves. Or in this case, honour amongst the boys in blue.

Mal Toohey, played by Edgerton, is a hardworking detective with a decent future ahead for him and his family. After a successful raid and a near miss with a bullet, Toohey and his colleagues blow off steam at the local watering hole. From this point on, Toohey makes a mistake that will scar his life immeasurably. He decides to drink drive home and ends up clipping a young boy out on his bike. When the authorities arrive on the scene, senior detective Carl Summer, played by Tom Wilkinson, takes Mal under his wing and helps fabricate a story that the Mal is in fact a hero. Whilst the boy lies in a coma at hospital, the two men begin to feel the pressure. Mal struggles with his conscience and Carl is harassed by his young by the book partner, Jim Melic (Jai Courtney), who believes Mal’s act of heroism doesn’t add up.

Felony’s dark and stressful themes will certainly stir up emotions in its audience. Its three-way structure and moral ambiguity reminded us instantly of Curt Hanson’s LA Confidential, with each of our three protagonists lying somewhere on the spectrum of corruption. Even the wet behind the ears tests his professionalism when he starts to become attracted to the young boy’s mother, Ankhila Sarduka, played with great emotion by Sarah Roberts.

The performances are superb with Wilkinson standing out the most. Starting off cocksure and a little out of touch with modern society, he expertly portrays a man whose own moral barometer is no longer fit for purpose. Meanwhile, Edgerton moves from one scene to the next riding the clutch on a man ready to collapse under the weight of his own guilt and Courtney manages to maintain his head whilst all those around him lose theirs.

Felony is a mature piece of work that certainly shows Edgerton’s talents in writing. Here’s hoping the film gets the recognition it deserves outside of Australia.

Filth (2013)

Think Irvine Welsh and you immediately think Trainspotting. Some of you will be thinking about Welsh’s caustic novel about drugs and degradation in Scotland. Most of you will be thinking of Danny Boyle’s prettified-Iggy-Pop-soundtracked-give-it-some-sense-of-redemption film interpretation. A film that became bigger than itself. It snatched heroin-chic out of the jaws of Calvin Klein! It scared parents! Teenagers actually picked up a book! And the soundtrack?! We all bloody loved Underworld’s Born Slippy didn’t we? Oy! Oy! Saveloy! You on one! Maybe not the 10 minute version so much. Like your pervy uncle coming over for Christmas, nice in theory, but troublesome in practice.

This preamble is an overlong way of saying that Trainspotting was never going to be replicated. Which is why people tried: See The Acid House and Irvine Welsh’s Ecstasy.

So, when it comes to Jon S. Baird’s Filth, skepticism maybe high for this comedy-drama based on Irvine Welsh’s book of the same name. But fret not…

Ticking off the usual tropes of Welsh’s work – sex, drugs and impenetrable accents – James McAvoy plays DS Bruce Robertson; a misanthropic, alcoholic, five o’clock shadow of a man. He’s a bully and an adulterer. He plays little ‘games’ with his colleagues, like calling up their wives and, whilst performing a Frank Sidebottom impression, talks dirty to them. He is the worst person to put in charge of a murder investigation… And yet, clearly the memo didn’t reach his superiors.

Robertson belches, fucks, drinks and snorts his way through the investigation, taking a little time off to dose his friends in the middle of Amsterdam. McAvoy seems to be relishing the opportunity to play an utter bastard and you’ll be sucked in by the gravitational pull of his performance. There’s no cheeky, charming heroin addict a la Ewan McGregor here, Robertson is an utter shit.

Starting off bold as brass and beard of ginger, the pressure to prove himself to his superiors and his wife leads him down a path into the Arena of the Unwell. The extent of this illness is illustrated wonderfully by Baird through a series of imaginary conversations between Robertson and his psychiatrist, played with aplomb by a curiously accented Jim Broadbent.

For all its debauchery and sadism, Filth is equally a pitch black comedy that will raise giggles from you in the most unlikely circumstances. Not that it’s not without its moments of pathos, as slowly a picture builds up that clearly everything is not happy in the Robertson household. However, don’t expect to cling onto these moments for too long.

Filth is a cracking film. It snares you in and leaves you floundering as you try to scrabble around for someone to actually cheer on.

Good luck with that.

The Sweeney (2013)

Facking hell, it’s the rozzers. C’mon bruv I can hear the sirens coming. Apples and pears. Lawks a lordy. Etcetera, et-bloody-cetera.

Based on the popular 70s TV show of yesteryear, everyone’s favourite cockney Nick Love brings The Sweeney bang up to date. And by up to date, we mean mid to late 90s, when Loaded was a well-thumbed periodical and you were as hard the man you punched. This is the kind of film Tony and Gary would watch in Men Behaving Badly as a parody of the bullshit lad culture that permeated all those years ago.

If Danny Dyer and Vinnie Jones had a baby and then raised it in Wormwood Scrubs, it would grow up to write this script on the back of a fag packet. Probably whilst ‘shagging a bird’ or quoting lines from The Football Factory. Starting off with a conversation about how fit someone’s bride-to-be is, this utter dribble of a movie plods from one cop cliché to another without a hint of irony; barely bothering to pick itself up from the drunken-blue-balled-on-all-fours-crawl-from-the-pub pace its put itself on.

Ray Winston growls in his pants, Plan B doesn’t sing, Steven Mackintosh’s DCI is the baddy because Winstone is poking his wife and he doesn’t like corrupt cops. Or something. In fact, who cares. It’s all so tiresome. We actually miss the aforementioned Dyer, that’s how much he would have improved this film.

Prisoners (2013)

On a gluttonous thanksgiving afternoon, the Dover and Birch families find their worst nightmares fully realised when their youngest children Anna and Joy go missing from their quiet residential street. The children’s older siblings recall the two girls playing on a parked RV, and a man hunt begins for its owner Alex Jones (Paul Dano). Called in to lead the abduction investigation is Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), a quietly angry man who the families are assured has solved every case he’s ever been assigned to. The investigation comes to a standstill however when Alex is released due to lack of evidence, and Dover patriarch Keller (Hugh Jackman) takes it upon himself to torture the young man for answers.

Keller is a man whose motto is “Pray for the best, prepare for the worst.” He spends the film’s opening training his son to hunt, and professing to a musical taste that consists solely of Bruce Springsteen and the Star Spangled Banner. His Americana bravado cliché is saved, only just, by a bruising performance from Hugh Jackman, who manages to perfectly portray a man conflicted by his unfettered emotion and his alpha male duties to protect and provide. Jake Gyllenhaal too convinces as a man whose emotional balance is unequivocally tied to the finding of these two young girls. Unfortunately, they’re the only two actors given any space to excel, a shame given the film’s enviable cast list. The film devotes precious little time to Terrance Howard and Viola Davis as Franklin and Nancy Birch, a couple who find themselves unwitting co-conspirators in Keller’s controversial problem solving. But no one is more underserved than Maria Bello as Keller’s wife, a woman who after the initial trauma is all but written out of the scenario.

The film also struggles with what direction it wants to take. We get the bizarre, biblical leanings of a psychological thriller like Seven, a reach for the narrative complexity of Zodiac, the bureaucratic  angst of a standard police procedural flick, and a subplot that strives to ask its audience about their moral barometer. As such Prisoners meanders from one theme to another, often neglecting any sense of focus and pace. The film’s 153 minute running is bizarre and unnecessary as the middle section is begging for a trim and tighten. Detective Loki is presented as man of extraordinary skill, and yet the film’s length means that often the audience is a couple of steps ahead before he comes to any realisations.

Despite this, the film effectively presents a brooding and stark atmosphere, thanks mainly to Roger Deakins’ ever reliable cinematography and Johan Johannsson’s creeping score. There’s also enough mystery presented in Prisoners’ first act to propel your curiosity throughout the film, setting the tone for a narrative of interconnected twists and turns. Whilst not quite the lofty stellar thriller its advertising campaign may want you to believe, Prisoners is a solid drama that’s worth a watch.

2 Guns (2013)

In the harsh and dusty backdrop of the American/Mexican border, supposed criminals Bobby (Denzel Washington) and Stig (Mark Wahlberg) find themselves in hot water when the small town bank job they pull off implicates them in a larger web of drug money, corruption and duplicity. Add to this each other’s secret identities as a DEA agent and Naval Intelligence officer respectively and you get a whole smorgasbord of standard action movie plot incentive. That not enough convolution for your buck? There’s also conspiracy theories a plenty that go all the way to the top.

2 Guns, as you may have guessed, is not a subtle film. Nor is it a particularly original film. What it is however, is a ridiculously over-the-top popcorn flick that delivers exactly the kind of entertainment the trailer promises you. You want noise? Done. You want explosions? Done and done. You want Denzel Washington wearing grills? Well tough shit, here he is. Not to mention a fabulously pantomime performance by James Marsden as Stig’s shady boss. We also have the token action movie tempress in the form of Paula Patton’s Deb Rees, Bobby’s colleague and occasional bed buddy. Mrs Robin Thicke’s character certainly is beautiful, but two-dimensional? Not so much.

But in all honesty, for all its clichés, its standard action movie sexism, its frequently violent ostenticity, 2 Guns is an enjoyable entry to the buddy cop action genre, largely thanks to its effortless chemistry between its two leads. Washington and Wahlberg’s rapid fire rapport is genuinely charming to watch, and every bit as satisfying as the film’s louder set pieces. The standard action trope of yin and yang partners may be done to death but it does provide 2 Guns with a welcomed lean toward comedy, along with some wonderful non-sequitur discussions of flirting and breakfast etiquette.

Put it this way, 2 Guns is exactly the kind of film Hot Fuzz’s Danny Butterworth would be all over. It’s the same sort of gloriously silly slice of machismo that could sit next Bad Boys II, even if that doesn’t sound like a compliment (put it this way, 2 Guns asks for so much less of your time than its Michael Bay directed cousin). It’s the kind of film where people legitimately say “playtime’s over.” Quippy, fun and slickly presented, 2 Guns is an unapologetic, bromantic, action affair which just enough knowing humour to propel it through its clichés.

Only God Forgives (2013)

When his older brother and partner-in-crime is murdered in a bloody act of vengeance, Bangkok-based drug smuggler Julian (Ryan Gosling) is entrusted with the task of killing those responsible by his foul-mouthed and venomous mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas). What follows is a neon drenched, slow moving Freudian nightmare of Lynchian coherence that poses more questions than it answers.

After the surprise mainstream success of 2011’s Drive, director Nicholas Winding Refn reteams with Gosling in this Thai western, and admittedly it is admirable of the two to deviate so wildly from their previous collaboration. Gone are the dreamy soundtrack, the longing looks, the romanticised quest. Only God Forgives’ Julian is, like most of the film itself, an intimidatingly unreadable creature of little to no words whose motivations, dreams and hopes are all up for the guessing. Vithaya Pansringarm’s corrupt police lieutenant Chang casts an equally prominent yet baffling shadow over the narrative. With a fondness for swords and singing, Chang, like Julian, is given no real past, with both warring antagonists being presented more as sketches of ideologies than actual characters.

Nicely offsetting this is Kristin Scott Thomas’ poisonous mother figure Crystal, the perma-tanned, sharp-tongued Lady Macbeth. One of the most enjoyable (although perhaps that’s the wrong word) scenes of Only God Forgives is when Refn simply allows Crystal to drink and chain smoke her way through one of the most awkward meet-the-parents dinners captured on screen. Scenes like this, and Crystal’s sheer aura of awfulness elevates the film out of many a dull moment.

Despite Scott Thomas’s best efforts however, Only God Forgives simply never gets you to invest enough to care about what happens. Sure the film is basically about a bunch of villains all out to off each other, but on top of this, the bizarrely stilted direction, emphasis on visuals and overly stationary compositions leaves the whole film feeling like an assembly of video game cut scenes. The dialogue is clipped, whenever there actually is any, and each character has a grand total of around 3 facial expressions. But damned if they aren’t beautifully lit!

Which is a shame, because the atmosphere is all there. Throbbing like a hangover, Larry Smith’s cinematography is both inviting yet seedy, classy yet crass. The colour palette of the whole film is simply and undeniably stunning. Add to this Cliff Martinez’s almost tangible score which displays more dimensions than the characters on screen. The combination of the two is immersive and claustrophobic, but unfortunately feels squandered on a narrative that refuses to match its excellence.

Only God Forgives is a heavy handed string of motifs and themes which never really takes you anywhere new in its brief but beautifully presented 90 minutes. That being said, it wholeheartedly offers itself up on a plate for discussion, which is a certainly a commendable feat.

Trance (2013)

After becoming the Nation’s favourite after directing the Olympic opening ceremony, Danny Boyle returns to the big screen with British psychological thriller, Trance. James McAvoy plays Simon, a fine art auctioneer who falls into the hands of French gangster, Franck (Vincent Cassel). Helping Franck steal a piece of fine art, Simon ends up cracking his head open and forgetting where he left the painting. Silly Billy. To help spur his memory on, Franck books Simon a session with hypnotherapist, Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson).

What follows for the next 100 minutes, is a film that frustrates and fascinates in equal measure. There’s a real feel of Boyle’s earlier work at the beginning. An opening narration by McAvoy brings back fond memories of Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, whilst Boyle’s direction reminds us of the kinetic energy of Slumdog Millionaire.

The performances are all perfectly fine, with McAvoy playing Simon as man who is clearly in over his head; scared, alone and just really wanting to have a lie down. Dawson mixes up the sultry with the professional in a manner that makes us wish she had Catherine Zeta Jones part in Side Effects. Cassell is dependable as the most patient, angry gangster in the world.

And that last line hints at one of the issues we have with Trance. The script by Joe Ahearne (This Life and Ultraviolet) and John Hodge (Shallow Grave and The Final Curtain, to name but two) asks the audience to make leaps of logic in the run up to the dénouement. Returning to our original example, would a criminal, who has already been shown to be quite violent, really stay this calm for this long? Surely McAvoy would be wearing his testicles as earrings by now!

When the ending does arrive, you will either punch the air or a cat. It asks an awful lot of you, and whilst we were willing to suspend our disbelief for Side Effects, it took a hell of a lot more than a spoonful of sugar to help this medicine go down.

Trance does not have the strongest story and it’s as sexual as an episode of the Red Show Diaries, but Danny Boyle’s direction ensures that you won’t question any of this until you leave the cinema. What you make of it then is up to you.

The Place Beyond The Pines (2013)

Ryan Gosling is stunt motorcycle driver Luke Glanton, whose job in a travelling circus makes him a fleeting presence in the lives of others. One such other, old flame Romina (Eva Mendes), reaches out to Glanton upon his return to Schenectady, New York to inform the wandering thrill seeker of his having fathered her one year old son, Jason. In an attempt to convince Romina that he can provide for their son, despite her having set up house with new love Kofi (Mahershala Ali), Glanton decides to put the speed and technicality he’s developed as part of his circus act to criminal use in a series of bank robberies.

So far, you’d be forgiven for believing from this description and the film’s own marketing that The Place Beyond The Pines is simply a retread of Gosling’s most iconic role to date – a blue collar version of 2011’s Drive perhapsBut Pines reaches far beyond its initial plot motivations to deliver a meditative, if often meandering, study on the relationships between fathers and sons. As Glanton gathers confidence – some would say misplaced cockiness – with each bank robbed, he puts himself on the map of the police, in particular Bradley Cooper’s rookie cop Avery Cross who has also recently fathered a boy. As the admittedly long running time unfolds, Pines casts its spotlight on how the families of both men have evolved beyond their first act actions, and becomes a nuanced observation on family dynamics more akin to director Derek Cianfrance’s previous effort, Blue Valentine.

 As in that film, Cianfrance puts his documentary making past to good use in allowing the camera to observe rather than dictate the action, and never is it more evident than in the film’s opening tracking shot that fully immerses the viewer into Glanton’s death-defying world of small town thrills, as well as the film’s one-take bank heists. In keeping with this, the performances of all involved are subdued and rightfully so, with no showboating scene stealing despite the wealth of familiar faces.

Pines does have its flaws, particularly under any close comparison with Cianfrance and Gosling’s original collaboration. The novel-like structure is perhaps too broad in its reach, and as such the characters don’t feel as fully fleshed as they could be, meaning the film’s attempts at emotional punches aren’t as immediately visceral as those in Blue Valentine. The film also precariously tip toes the line between down to earth realism and extraordinary situations, complete with cheesy dialogue designed for poster taglines, none more so than “If you ride like lightning, you’re gonna crash like thunder.”

So whilst the film’s attempts at epic scope may fall a little short, The Place Beyond The Pines succeeds at providing a lingering and insightful exploration into the effects of the sins of the fathers over the generations, proving that when it comes to cinematic dissection of familial relations, Derek Cianfrance is a reliable force.

Gangster Squad (2013)

Los Angeles, 1949. Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) returns from service in WWII to find his beloved City of Angels drowning under a tidal wave of sin, orchestrated by East Coast mob boss Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). Wanting a better future for himself and his pregnant wife (Mireille Enos), O’Mara jumps at the chance to eradicate Cohen and his influence when Police Chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte) instructs him to form a vigilante-style task force. They must strike in the shadows, targeting each layer of Cohen’s criminal empire without leaving any trace of police involvement. Cue a series of clandestine missions and high-risk strategies that call into question whether the squad really can succeed fighting fire with fire.

Director Ruben Fleisher’s first foray into the gangster genre certainly looks the part. The men of 1940s LA walk the streets with their eyes hidden in the shadow of fedoras whilst the women sashay in curled hair and vampish red lipstick. This is a place where naïve young girls hoping to be movie stars prove easy prey for evil-minded, tommy-gun wielding crooks, and every exhalation is accompanied by a snappy line and a cloud of cigarette smoke.

Brolin’s is the sort of face that fits perfectly into this retro milieu, all chiselled frown lines and heavy brow, and the film really does belong to him. Amplifying the desperate tenacity he demonstrated on the run in the Coens’ No Country For Old Men, Brolin’s O’Mara strikes as the only character with anything really to lose, bar Giovanni Ribisi’s quietly intelligent Conway Keeler, who supplies the squad with “the brains to balance the brawn.” On the other side of the law is Sean Penn’s intense portrayal of Cohen, one which manoeuvres back and forth between reserved menace and chest-thumping rage so quickly it’s no wonder those around him don’t get whiplash. With an opening scene demonstrating just how violently vengeful Cohen can get using only two cars and some rope, Penn’s is a performance that truly convinces despite being weighed down by some dodgy prosthetics.

Such a shame then that the other characters are given so little room to shine. Ryan Gosling’s Sergeant Jerry Wooters proves a certified scene-stealer, though this seems more down to the actor’s decision to play the clichéd ladykiller as charmingly flamboyant more than anything. Completing the gangster squad itself are Gosling’s former Half Nelson co-star Anthony Mackie as streetwise Coleman Harris, Robert Patrick as straight-shot Max Kennard, and Michael Peña as keen-to-prove-himself Navidad Ramirez. Emma Stone is unfortunately given little to do but look pretty as Grace Faraday, Cohen’s attractive arm piece. Bored of her duties as gangster moll, she starts an affair with Wooters, which should be a tense subplot but is instead drowned out by the sound of all the explosive set pieces crashing around it.

It is these action scenes which provide the film with its best visuals and some of its most enjoyable moments, with Fleisher taking a leaf out of Zack Snyder’s big book of action directing, presenting his audience with slow-mo comic book style shootouts, the camera weaving between a rain of bullets to show the violent confrontations from all angles. A particularly tense moment in the film’s first act involving Wooters being sucked into a street siege, as well as an effortlessly cool raid the squad pulls in formal dinner wear whilst accompanied by contrapuntal cha-cha soundtrack are demonstrative of Fleisher’s capabilities despite his reputation for comedic fare. However, as you’d expect from the director of Zombieland, Gangster Squad is not without its brief light-hearted moments, particularly in the early stages of the squad’s formation, wherein bickering and banter show the team’s schoolboy side before the dirty work must be done.

Sure there are better gangster films, and yes, the first of the most eagerly anticipated Hollywood offerings of 2013 is somewhat disappointing. But somehow Gangster Squad keeps fighting beyond its underused A-list cast and clunky structure to secure your support for the good guys all the way to the final towering showdown. Though it may not leave that lasting an impression, it’s a slickly presented 113 minutes of unadulterated and superficial pulpy goodness. For all its flaws, Gangster Squad is still a solid piece of non-committal, popcorn entertainment.