Ant-Man (2015)

Avengers, comic book, Marvel, Michael Douglas, Paul Rudd, review, superhero
Is there anyone out there who isn’t even a little bit excited for the upcoming phase of Marvel films? It’s a fucking great time to be a Marvel fan and it’s set to only get better. There are so many exciting new faces set to make their first appearance and it’s bloody brilliant… even if some people won’t have as much knowledge of them. Ant-Man  is one of those superheroes that means a lot to people in the know but isn’t exactly one of the mainstream. Whilst waiting for the film’s release I’ve had to suffer the mocking tone of several colleagues who think it’s just some silly parody. Forgive the fucking awful pun but he’s simply too small to stand out against the likes of Thor, Captain America and the Hulk. He was the underdog, which made him the perfect focus for a writer/director like Edgar Wright. Shame that dream died a fucking horrible mess then. So, despite my unquenching excitement to see Paul Rudd take up the costume, I found myself sceptical that I would enjoy this film as much as I would have enjoyed the first one.

Ant-Manhas done for Paul Rudd what Guardians of the Galaxy did for Chris Pratt. That is to say, it made him fucking jacked. It’s incredible and I was sure that, even if this turned out to be the worst Marvel film since Iron Man 3, I would have something to rave about. It was something of a genius move to cast Rudd in the role of Scott Lang. Rudd knows he’s not the typical action hero and plays the part with this in mind. Instead he has that lovable quality that was necessary for telling the story of a thief turned costumed hero. He may have fucked up in the past but his love for his daughter makes my fucking heart melt. It’s a great strategy and Rudd gives the role enough heart and humour to make an audience fall in love with him. Does he convince as an action man, though? He’s not too disappointing when it comes to the crunch and handles some of the more fast-paced scenes well enough.

Of course, without a great mentor Scott Lang wouldn’t be able to recreate himself in such a way. Michael Douglas doesn’t necessarily get a lot of wiggle room playing Hank Pym, the original Ant-Man turned recluse, but he does a great job delivering several of Pym’s dramatic speeches about doing the right thing. Pym calls on the talents of Scott when his protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) threatens to crack the Ant-Man technology and utilise it for evil. With the help of Pym and his angry daughter Hope (Evangeline Lily), Scott must drag himself away from his life as a thief in order to steal from Cross.
Ant-Man is a fairly simple premise when it comes down to it. You set up your future hero, give him a training montage and set him off on his merry way. Every cliché in the fucking book is on display in this origin story and Peyton Reed’s direction does nothing to help this. It’s the same kind of shit we’ve seen time and again but it’s being presented in a slightly inferior way. Ant-Manhas a sense of awareness about how unoriginal it is and, rather than playing up to it, it lets it weigh it down. Despite it’s comic script, the film never manages to decide whether its serious or not. For every Paul Rudd quip there is an Evangeline Lily reminder of everyone’s impending doom.
There are many problems that become glaringly obvious within this format. Evangeline Lily looks set to be another Black Widow badass but she is relegated to the sidelines. She’s the bitchy wannabe that has to swallow her jealousy in order to let the inferior candidate take her place. It won’t help Marvel with feminists and it feels like a massive cop-out to leave such a great actress to a bland bit-part and rushed love interest. Even the villain of the piece never gets the chance to really shine. Stoll, who was so successful in House of Cards, could have been the perfect foil for everyman Paul Rudd. Instead, he is a substandard caricature who poses very little real threat and whose motivations were given less thought than Michael Douglas’ beard.
Ant-Manhas been favourably compared to Guardians of the Galaxy thanks to it’s light-hearted feel and ultimate sense of fun. I agree that Ant-Man is, on a basic level, one of the easiest Marvel films to enjoy: there are some superb visuals jokes and Paul Rudd plays for humour as often as he can. However, plenty of the jokes actually fall flat. Reed is by no means an abysmal director but he has been caught under the shadow of his predecessor. There are so many hints of Edgar Wright left within the script and you can’t help but think he would have helped the jokes land better than Reed. I lost count of the amount of times a joke is glossed over instead of being indulged.

Although that’s not to say I didn’t like Ant-Man. Critics may believe the concept is too small to justify but that’s exactly what makes it so appealing. There is a sense of nostalgia surrounding a man whose superpower is to shrink. Compared to the recent Age of Ultronand Winter Soldier, it feels more like a B movie than a Blockbuster. It could have been a perfect second-class Marvel film if it hadn’t pushed towards being more. It was never going to compete with the bigger films so it should have accepted its fate. There is plenty of potential in Ant-Man going further but, based on his debut, it looks doubtful that he’ll get another solo outing any time soon. So we must all sit here and mourn for the movie that Edgar Wright should have been allowed to make.. whilst still appreciating Paul Rudd’s abs obviously.

Behind the Candelabra (2013)

drama, Liberace, Matt Damon, Michael Douglas, review, Steven Soderbergh, television

Steven Soderbergh is in an odd position when it comes to his supposedly last film ever. After American film studios chose not to fund a no-holds-barred look at Liberace’s private life just in case it came across as a bit too gay, it became necessary for HBO to step in to back the adaptation of Scott Thorson’s account of his five year relationship with the superstar pianist. Therefore, we are in the odd position of this potentially being Soderbergh’s last film outside the US only. It also means that neither its director nor its stars will have any chance to receive Oscar nominations for their work here.

The film picks up in 1977 where, thanks to a random hook-up with a very 70s Scott Bakula, Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) finds himself surrounded by a gaggle of women at one of Liberace’s Vegas shows. Finding himself backstage with the legend, the animal handler and wannabe vet offers his services in caring for the pianists much loved dog and ends up becoming his live-in companion complete with bejewelled chauffeur outfit.

This may be a look behind Liberace’s candelabra, but there is no denying who the stand-out star really is. Damon gives a superb performance as Liberace’s young lover, despite being well over 20 years older than Scott really was at the time. Some amount of technical wizardry and make-up has taken place to make Damon seem younger than his actual 42 years, but nobody is able to truly turn back the clock. Of course, the lack of realism has little effect on the overall might of the performance and Damon once again proves how much better he is than the Jason Bourne films suggest. The actor plays Scott as fairly passive and it feels as though the slightly naïve youth is simply swept along on a wave of adoration, celebrity and wealth. Although there are hints of a real affection and admiration for the pianist and is captivated by his presence from his first glimpse.
And it’s easy to see why, thanks to Michael Douglas’s sensational job of bringing Liberace to life. There is no doubt that Douglas is a talented actor, but if he hadn’t embraced the chance to glide around a stage this whole thing would never have come together. He has such confidence in his own sexuality and performance that there is no awkwardness from the fact that a very heterosexual actor is playing a very homosexual star. Douglas portrays Liberace as someone who is aware of all of the facts. The performance is slightly tongue-in-cheek and you get the sense that the actor is much more embracive of the ridiculousness of the situation than Liberace ever could have been. He has to accept the façade because of the role, but that doesn’t mean he has to believe it.
It is during our first glimpse of the great man that we get the greatest sense of the extent to which Lee and his audience were engaged in their mutual delusion. The figure we see floating around the stage covered in jewellery, sequins and fur is so incredibly at odds with the accepted image of the womaniser with his gaggle of lust-filled female fans. Everyone, even his own mother (played by an almost unrecognisable Debbie Reynolds), buys into the lie because, as Lee himself explains, “people only see what they want to see”. Just as the film’s audience will only see what they want to see.  Watching Douglas in performance mode you know deep down that there is no way the actor is responsible for the technical wizardry on show, but watching everything unfold before your eyes you’ll happily give him the credit for the double-time boogie-woogie. Douglas isn’t just playing Liberace he is Liberace. You can certainly see why Scott becomes so enamoured quite so quickly. The film’s opening section leaves you in no doubt that the man had endless talent and a great sense of showmanship.
Such a great showman that Liberace managed to hide a bucket-load of neurosis and personal pain. The pairing works because they each receive something vital from the other. When they first meet, Scott tells Liberace that he was orphaned as a child and moved between foster homes. It is his fear of abandonment and lack of strong fatherly presence that drives the young man to accepting the offer: within Liberace he has found someone to love, protect and teach him. On the other hand, Lee is drawn to younger men so he can cling to the youth that he still can’t accept that he has lost. With every year that passes Scott becomes less interesting and the star’s wandering eye finds itself focusing in on potential replacements. It is a romance that is doomed from the start and we see a glimpse of Scott’s future in the shape of the pianist’s former squeeze, his duet partner Billy Leatherwood. All of Lee’s boys outlive their welcome. It is just a case of making the every year count.
It is after seeing footage of himself on television that Liberace gets slapped in the face by his ever-advancing years. Hoping to cling to his youth for a little longer Lee embarks on a series of intense plastic surgery at the hands of his delightfully grotesque surgeon, Dr. Jack Startz, played by an unrestrained and fantastically funny Rob Lowe. Deciding that Scott has grown too comfortable with his new life of luxury, Lee pays for another deluge of surgery to turn the young man into a replica of the young pianist. (Amateur psychologists eat your fucking heart out with that one.) Startz gets Thornson hooked on a regimen of prescription drugs leading to his further decent into the murky waters of addiction.
The naïve Scott grows more aware of his lover’s lessening affection and instead turns to his drug dealer to provide him with the means to ignore it. We see Damon go from innocent young country bumpkin to a broken, world-weary man. When Scott finally comes to realise that he is just like the boys who have gone before him there is a wonderful glimmer of humiliation, anger and self-hatred in his face. We all knew this relationship was damaging and would end in an inevitably bleak manner, but that doesn’t stop Damon allowing the audience to feel sorry for him. It would have been easy to overplay both of the men, but these two stars have more than enough talent and restraint to give this film the extra layers it needed to prevent a horrible fall into celebrity soap opera.
In fact, there is a great sense of old school Hollywood beneath all of the gaudy visuals, sex, drug use and gory close-up scenes of plastic surgery. Soderbergh’s film has been put together with great care and every scene feels as well designed and detailed as Liberace’s public image. This film knows what it’s trying to say about its characters and presents its vision with such confidence that you simply get swept along with the story. The camera work is simple, but effective: we are treated to a mixture of graceful long shots, locked-down close-ups for more intimate moments, and a small amount of shaky cam to aid Scott’s descent into booze, diet pills, and coke. Thanks to Soderbergh’s immense skills as a filmmaker (taking his usual additional roles as DOP and editor here) and a remarkable script from Richard La Gravenese, a trashy tell-all book has become something sensational. It is funny, dramatic, heartbreaking and heart-warming all at once. If this truly is Soderbergh’s last work than the film industry is losing a titan and will no doubt be worse off for it.