Cromwell (1970)

Written and directed by: Ken Hughes

Cromwell_poster[1]When critically watching biopics, I can find myself asking a version of the question: “is this art or mere recreation.” Historical inaccuracies aside, there are two ways to answer that with Cromwell, a lengthy film depiction of the ascent to power of England’s only non-royal head of state (the passion project of Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang co-writer/director Ken Hughes). One way to answer that question is to say that the art/reaction dichotomy does not apply, when truth is so ridiculous it might as well be a work of fiction. That argument, for instance, explains a lot of the appeal of Adam McKay’s Dick Cheney biopic Vice.

In the case of Cromwell, his story is not brimmed with absurdity in the way that Cheney’s is, but it nonetheless derives its artistic appeal in a similar manner. When watching political films, an overused though not useless response is to say “can you believe this is still relevant today!” Cromwell, by contrast, works as a story precisely because it is so hard to apply it to modern contexts. 1640s England was a society in which the death penalty (and accusations of treasons) are almost nonchalantly deployed my monarchists and parliamentary rebels alike. The arrests leading to these executions, meanwhile, are carried out rather (to today’s gaze) comically, by forces with hoity-toity voices in comically period costumes, armed only with swords. The most uncomfortable reason Cromwell is not translatable to modern contexts, however, are the politics of its protagonist. Cromwell is portrayed as a socially-conscientious critic of aristocracy with no patience for corruption, elitism and religious hypocrisy. In his context, however, those views (along with his Puritan faith) led him to take staunchly anti-Catholic  views, attitudes that established his legacy as a brutal colonizer in Ireland. If Oliver Cromwell were alive today would be far-left? Far-right? Neither? In today’s world, one free of the Puritansand anti-Papal rhetoric, would a Cromwell figure actually be a friend of the Irish independence movement? That it’s impossible to say is part of what makes his cinematic-story such a unique one.

The other way that Cromwell manages to be art and not just mere retelling is in its Shakespearian character. In its Cromwell’s first scenes, Oliver (Richard Harris) is very forward in his political analysis. In that scene I felt the film was primarily a work of exposition, rushing to make its point. When a few scenes later King Charles I (Alec Guiness) is introduced, however, it becomes clear that there is something more artistic to the film’s expositional quality. At this early point in the film, neither Cromwell or Charles are presented as ideological hardliners (though Cromwell begins the transformation quite quickly). Both mull over their options, listening to the stronger-willed voices around them. Charles’s Queen, Henrietta (Dorothy Tutin), even has an air of Lady MacBeth to her. Yet despite their initial moderation, and their ability to be civil with one another, Charles and Cromwell alike (much like the initially uncorrupted Lord MacBeth), both come to make drastic decisions and gradually become more confident about having done so.

This Shakespearian portrayal of Cromwell and Charles is undoubtedly a creative decision. I say this not only because it explains some of the film’s historical liberties, but also because the very idea of reducing a historical event to the tale of two complex characters living in a sea of empty talking-heads is a political statement of sorts. How exactly Oliver Cromwell is perceived often depends on whether the perceiver sees him more as an austere dictator or a proto-democratic revolutionary. Through portraying Cromwell as uniquely introspective, however, this film not only challenges this dichotomy, but also way democracy is celebrated in the west. We often assess the general benevolence of states based on whether they have liberal-democratic governments or not. By contrasting Oliver with the less ideologically-astute parliamentarians, however, Cromwell shows this way of thinking is inadequate. What good is a government that has good form if (to borrow Cromwell’s Christian parlance) it has no soul?

       Cromwell’s biggest downside is its runtime (2 hours twenty minutes), no doubt over-extended via the film’s depiction of the actual English civil war. My overall experience, with the film, however, was a good one. Through its Shakespearian approach, it manages to show its sympathies to the anti-monarchic cause, while still portraying Charles as an individually engaging character (particularly in his final scene with his children). More importantly, it’s a film that portrays Cromwell as he requested, “warts and all,” and in doing so it makes a unique statement in favor of the individual in politics.

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Raw (2016)

Written and directed by: Julie Decournau

Raw_(film)[1]When I watch movies with a critical mind I regularly find myself thinking something along the lines of “the movie shied away from” or “ignored” its message.” It’s a frame of thinking I’ve developed through writing a series of articles on Marvel movies. In the case of those movies, it’s an appropriate framework. Its quite possible that when producing a major commercial project, writers’ rooms propose mixing and matching storytelling approaches aimed at one part of their demographic, with those aimed at another. This approach to critiquing film, however, has followed me beyond my recent Marvel phase into indie theatre showings of Under the Silver Lake and Her Smell. The problem with applying this kind of thought to auteur’s projects (as opposed to blockbusters) is that there’s a very good chance some sort of consistent philosophy does underline these films. Therefore, when I accuse them of losing sight of their message, all I’m really saying is that they’ve abandoned what I thought their message should have been.

So I’m sure it will not surprise you to learn that when watching Raw, at several points I found myself saying “I think the movie lost sight of its message.” There are lots of ways to describe Raw. Despite overall enjoying the film, “unwatchable” is one adjective I found myself thinking several times: especially in an early moment when students are depicted slowly abusing a horse as part of a frosh week activity. The film’s graphic shock is more than matched however, by its equally vivid (and fully coherent) narrative structure.

Raw is the story of Justine (Garance Marillier) a vegetarian from a vegetarian family, and an academic standout. The film begins as she starts her time at veterinary school, though North American audiences should know, in Belgium, where the film, is set this appears to be the equivalent of an undergraduate degree. As such, Justine’s is a coming of age story, a genre of film on which Raw shines what can be read as a critical light .

I recently wrote about how certain films can make substance-abuse look like an inevitable part of rock-and-roll culture, and my sense is that many films given the “coming of age” brand extend that sense of inevitability to general teenage culture. Take the example of Dazed and Confused, a film that portrays high school (and a 9th grader’s coming of age experience) as a time of drunken parties, hazing rituals and parental absenteeism. While I appreciated the film as a dystopia, I realize that it’s still possible to interpret that film as a work of light fun. Raw, however, is far less ambiguous in its depiction of hazing. Unlike Dazed and Confuses it has a consistent, three-dimensional protagonist and we are made to see how marginalized she feels about her hazing experience.

In its first act, therefore, Raw appears to offer a troika of themes: one is in its scathing depiction of hazing culture, and the other two are vegetarianism and the culture surrounding professional schools. Upon arriving at veterinary school, Justine is compelled to eat a rabbit kidney. That her protest that she can’t because she’s vegetarian is not easily accommodated at a veterinary school in Belgium in 2016 stands out as mind-boggling.

From there the theme of vegetarianism is further developed particularly in a conversation in which Justine objects to the idea of sexually assaulting a monkey. Her compassion is mocked by the boys she shares a lunch table with, before she is ultimately attacked by a female classmate for making what, out of context, sounds like a sexist comment. Justine’s compassion is of a kind that makes her classmates uncomfortable and as such, she is absurdly punished for it.

Just as the themes of vegetarianism and hazing are brought together by the film’s script, so too are the issues of vegetarianism and professional school culture. Justine is quick to raise the absurdity of a veterinary school not anticipating (let alone accommodating) vegetarians in its student body. I read this as a commentary on how, in our current society, many go to medical school seeking prestige and big salaries rather than out of an actual desire to help patients. Similarly, many may go to law school, spouting rhetoric about justice in their cover letters, only to end up doing morally inconsequential (or detrimental) work in corporate fields.

          Raw ultimately takes a dark and surreal turn, a turn that, in my view, undermines its initial themes. While some emotional weight is added to Justine’s ultimate fate given the early emphasis the film puts on her vegetarianism, the two plot points are not fundamentally connected (and furthermore, the film’s narrative-focused second act, marks an escape from the analytic approach of the first act).

Nonetheless, I should be mindful, of accusing auteurs of abandoning their thematic commitments when I cannot read their minds. While Raw moves away from the specific themes that engaged me in its first half, it nonetheless maintains a broad commitment to depicting the plight of social outcasts. Justine is not just punished for her vegetarianism, but for her academic success, her clothing choices, etc. And importantly, Justine is not the film’s only outcast. Her roommate, Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella) is abruptly introduces when she expresses indignation that she was not matched with another girl. He responds by saying “I’m a f*g I guess that counts for them.” While at the time this line feels like a throwaway joke, Adrien gradually gains prominence as a character. His own outsider status makes him a beacon of hope for Justine, a fact that’s not unequivocally good for him.

Finally, Justine’s sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is also an outsider, though it is hard for Justine to realize this since, Alexia’s outsider-status stems from her rebellion against her parents (whereas Justine is an outsider because she is loyal to the principles on which she was raised). Justine and Alexia are opposites, but Raw makes clear that “opposite” people can, in a limited way, have a lot in common: strong personalities of all kinds can be penalized for their deviance from a rigid society.

Raw is not a movie for the easily grossed out, and perhaps it’s not 100% the story I wanted it to be. Those disclaimers aside, it’s the kind of work that never has a slow moment and is rife with creative energy from beginning to end. If you’re looking to see some out-there cinema, or are in the mood to se hazing culture crudely taken on, this can be the movie for you.

John & Yoko: Above Us Only Sky (2018)

Directed by: Michael Crowley

Story Editing by: Joss Epstein

  v1                John Lennon may be the most famous Beatle. He died young at the hands of a gunman and his song “Imagine,” is probably the most well known solo tune by any of the fab four. But how well do most people know his post-Beatle music? Above Us Only Sky is an unfortunately over-focused documentary in that it tells of the life of John Lennon and Yoko Ono primarily around the time John was working on his second post-Beatle record. In that sense, it does not provide much in the way of consumable information on his post-Beatles work. Nonetheless, the film does offer a thesis: that John and Yoko were in a way one, and through that thesis it both provides insight into their music while also introducing viewers to Yoko’s art.

Above Us Only Sky does not get off to an excellent start. It shows Tittenhurst Park, John and Yoko’s countryside home, and the recording studio John built there. Much of the film’s interview content discusses the building of this studio and how John’s early in-studio jam sessions proceeded. While committed fans might enjoy this footage, including depictions of a quiet, very-focused George Harrison, it doesn’t really build up to anything. Viewers who make it through these scene, however, will likely appreciate what they come to see.

Yoko’s prominence in the documentary gradually rises. Her first extensive depiction is interview footage of her describing one of her earliest artistic memories. The film only discusses a few of her projects, projects that may sound very simple to outsiders. What’s striking, however, is how much those projects captivated John. The film makes only brief reference to the story that Yoko “broke up the Beatles,” but it quickly makes clear that this narrative has a causation problem. Yoko didn’t take a sledgehammer to the band, but rather, upon meeting her, John’s identity changed.

One of the Lennon songs that partially makes it into the movie is “Cold Turkey.” We see a long-haired John playing the song alongside Yoko, an image which renders plain just how strange a song “Cold Turkey,” is, and in turn, just how a different an artist Beatle and post-Beatle John were. Post-Beatle John did not concern himself which composing musical hooks. At most, he was concerned with getting ideas out, and he put music behind them to represent his moods, un-catchy as those moods might be.

In some ways its hard to fully appreciate John and Yoko’s art out of context. Modern art has proliferated, and “Merry Xmas War is Over,” a song Yoko describes as a proactive call for people to think of the world differently has become ubiquitous. Nonetheless, even if one can’t look at Yoko’s “Yes” piece with the same wonder that John did fifty years ago, the film still resonates. Its portrayal of two minds merging is very convincing, and it should makes those two dismiss Yoko as the scream-singer think-twice about their understanding of her as a musician

The Hate U Give (2018)

Directed by: George Tillman Jr. 

Written by: Audrey Wells

This being a politically reflective review, in vague ways, this review is more spoiler-based than what I usually write here. 

  The_Hate_U_Give_poster                When I first saw the theatrical trailer for The Hate U Give I was led to believe the film would be a fictional recounting of how the Black Lives Matter movement came to be. The trailer depicts the police killing a young black man and a movement, led by someone in a shirt derived from the Black Lives Matter logo. Having seen the film I can confirm that that first impression is largely correct. The nuance comes from the fact that the film is largely told from the perspective of one teenager, Starr (Amanda Stenberg).

In so far as The Hate U Give is “the Black Lives Matter 101 movie,” it is very effective. It opens with a depiction of a young Starr and her siblings getting “the talk” from her father (Russel Hornsby), in which he explains to his children that they will likely be the target of police profiling and how they should respond to it. A few scenes later, the shooting happens. While The Hate U Give is not subtle about its points, it is very well written, and as such, really brings its tragedies to life. In the shooting scene, for instance, the cop is thoroughly menacing, but because he never directly utters a racial slur, viewers are able to hold out hope that he can be talked to reason. He is not, making the scene a vivid demonstration of how racist murder can and does occur in our “post-racial society.”

Through Starr’s eyes, the film goes on to portray the various complications that can stem from such a strategy. In one scene, for instance, Starr is interrogated by a woman-of-color on the police force, whose calm tone briefly provides hope that Starr will finally be heard out by the powers at be. She is not. We are all exposed to Starr’s hesitancy to deal with media, her mother (Regina Hall) and father’s disagreements over striking the balance between protecting family and community identity, and her relationship with her white friends from school.

If The Hate U Give has a problem (and in fairness, I don’t know if this problem is rooted in the screenplay alone, or in the book it is based on), it’s that it is undecided as to whether it simply wants to be “the Black Lives Matter 101 movie,” or whether it wants to be a more complex character study. A recurring character in the movie is Starr’s friend Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter). In early scenes in the movie Hailey occasionally says problematic things, but seems genuinely invested in being Starr’s friend. This sets up an interesting nuanced, tension as the film seems to be depicting two characters who want to be able to get along and communicate but can’t due to their starkly different social contexts. As the film continues, however, Hailey goes on to a spout a number of anti-Black Lives Matter clichés. This changes her role in the film from being a compelling participant in a politically-tinged friendship drama, to being a mere mouthpiece for white racist society.

Hailey is not the only The Hate U Give character whose presence signals confused-vision on the story-telling team’s part. Early in the film we are introduced to a secondary villain, “King” the druglord (Anthony Mackie). We are told that a number of the film’s black male characters have worked for King in the past out of desperation. Starr’s father explains that the cycle of black poverty is maintained due to drugs being brought into black communities. In adding King to the plot, the writers displayed confusion as to whether they were really committed to making a Black Lives Matter movie, or whether they wanted to create a multi-dimensional plot. King’s presence is not a mere subplot in the film, but regularly comes up. At one point, while being interviewed about the shooting she witnessed, Starr is asked about the issue of drugs in her community. She half answers the question before indignantly asking why the reporter cannot discuss the question of racist police brutality without also looking for faults in the black community. This is a great line on Starr’s part, but it also (consciously or not) is just as applicable a critique to the film itself as it is to the interviewer’s question.

In addition to confusion about The Hate U Give‘s raison d’être, I think there are two other explanations for why King factored so heavily into the story. One comes down to the story’s theoretical conception of racial injustice. We live in an age of “identity politics” in which activists like to emphasize that oppressions are specific to particular communities. This idea is addressed in The Hate U Give when Starr counters a painfully-clichéd insistence from her white boyfriend Chris (K.J. Apa) that he doesn’t see color. While needless to say, Chris’s statement is reactionary and unhelpful, there are critiques from the left that can be made of rooting one’s politics exclusively in identity. Let’s revisit the moment, for instance, where Starr’s father begins to make what sounds like a radical critique of the war on drugs, but concludes his argument by emphasizing that wealthy people from outside of black communities are responsible for bringing drugs into those communities in the first place. This identity-based observation, reproduces the dominant notion that drugs should be dealt with through the criminal justice system. Starr’s father doesn’t say that black people are unfairly incarcerated for participating in the drug trade: he simply says they are coerced into participation. This way of thinking contrasts the film’s identity politics with the intersectional approach of figures like Angela Davis who see critiquing racism as inseparable from critiquing capitalism and incarceration.

The other reason that The Hate U Give emphasizes King’s villainous presence is that it provides the film’s characters with a villain they can overcome. Police racism is a deeply engrained problem in American society, and as such The Hate U Give’s creators rightly decided they could not depict it as something that could be smashed in a feel good happy ending. King, by contrast, is not a systemic problem (at least not in the film’s logic), but a single, not-so-powerful villain. His ultimate defeat, gives the film a way to have a “happy ending.” Though as Black Lives Matter organizers Melina Abdullah and Patricia Cullors suggest , having such a happy ending perhaps undermines The Hate U Give’s very raison d’être as a “Black Lives Matter” movie.

I realize I’ve written a lot of critical paragraphs here, and I do not want to give the wrong impression. The Hate U Give is an engaging, well-acted work that can play an important role in bringing to life the issues addressed by The Black Lives Matter movement to those who do not get it. It is because of these qualities, however, that it’s worth engaging with the film’s politics on a deeper level, and that’s why the questions come out. Again, I think these problems are tied to one simple but illustrative flaw in the film’s genesis: the question of whether The Hate U Give was going to be a simple “this is what Black Lives Matter” is about story, or whether it was going to be something more three dimensional. And while that indecision unfortunately resulted in some compromised choices that undermined the film’s message and quality, it wasn’t all for the worse. The temptation to make the film’s simple story more complicated led, for instance, to Starr’s Uncle Carlos (Common) making a few appearances in the film. Carlos is a black cop who at first seems committed to changing the system from within, but in one the film’s most memorable scenes, he reveals that the truth of his work isn’t that pretty.

In short, The Hate U Give is a political film. For many viewers it may start conversations they have never properly had before. But viewers who are not entirely new to or at odds with its message, should try to talk about it. Because, while at its surface, The Hate U Give is straightforward in what it teaches, its actually a film rife with layers, layers that should be a source for praise and critique alike.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

NOTE: I usually aim to write spoiler free reviews. In this case I cannot since the very thing I want to discuss is very much a spoiler.

Directed by: Anthony and Joe Russo

Written by: Christopher Markus  and Stephen McFeeley

  Captain_America_The_Winter_Soldier                I write this review at almost an inappropriate time. The specifics of Captain America: The Winter Soldier are fading from my mind. Nonetheless, in a period in which I am writing somewhat regularly about Marvel Cinematic Universe films, I feel this one in particular deserves commentary. Aesthetic wise, The Winter Soldier did nothing special for me, and its most memorable line was a slogan rehashed from the previous Captain America film. Nonetheless, when it comes to storytelling-concepts, The Winter Soldier ranks amongst Marvel’s best.

The story reintroduces us to Cap/Steve Rogers (Chris Hemsworth), now living in modern America and working for the intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D. He works alongside Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson), making his story somewhat less of a standalone work than some of the other early Marvel films (but those characters aside it doesn’t really feel like an Avengers movie either). The pair are joined by one other sidekick for Cap, a fellow soldier named Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). Wilson falls perhaps a scene and a half short of being the well developed character that it appears the writers intended him to be, with his presence, like Cap’s, providing a likeable and vulnerable, but in no ways critical understanding of the American soldier.

The particular tale is one that unravels gradually. It opens with Cap participating in a mysterious, hostage-rescue mission. this event, in turn, is followed by Nick Fury being attacked by a mysterious assassin. Finally, Cap and Black Widow discover a far grander and more sinister scheme at play.

The actual “Winter Soldier” storyline is a weird one. While its not a poor fit in this movie per se, it does rely on the more chaotic Captain America: Civil War (which is an Avengers movie in all but name) to be brought to completion. That’s not a bad thing , but it is worth observing. What Captain America: The Winter Soldier is really about, however, is something far more political than any one superhero-super-villain rivalry could be. The first Captain America movie tells the story of an idealized patriotism; of a courageous and selfless young man who joins the army to stand up to Nazis. As I discussed in my last review, the first Captain America is likeable but largely because it hides from the question of “what would Cap do in a less justifiable American war?”

Captain America: the Winter Soldier both does and doesn’t answer that question. It is a film whose political villains again are “Nazis.” Well, technically they are part of the splinter-Nazi group Hydra, and appear to have leading African-American member, raising the question of whether they actually practice Nazi racial ideology or simply have a vague obsession with power and fascist aesthetics. While the ambiguity of Hydra’s racial-political character could cynically be read as an attempt by the film’s creators to keep their work from getting too politically flavorful, I feel that ambiguity, in its own way, enriches the film’s meaning.

While, like many Marvel films, The Winter Soldier lacks a particularly memorable main villain (I suppose in this case he’s at least played by a memorable actor), it does include a memorable from-the-comics villain in a brief, but important role. This character’s ascent to super-villaindom, and his commitment to the Hydra-cause come as a surprise, as he was previously presented as someone who was a Hydra-member-by-convenience rather than a passionate ideologue. Unlike, the self-serving, individualistically power hungry, Red Skull, however, this character turns out to be very committed to Hydra’s “cut one head off, three more grow back” mantra. His sinister plan, it turns out, was joining the American intelligence world and then re-growing Hydra from within it.

Through this subplot, Captain America: The Winter Soldier questions the idea that Cap’s idealism is a mere product of the American way, presenting America as a society that very well could be infiltrated by agents of another racist, Western state. This is why I say the watering-down of Hydra’s potential racist ideology “enriches the film” “in its own way.” On the one hand, The Winter Soldier falls short of making a fully coherent critique of America’s own racist character. On the other hand, by presenting (non Hitler) Nazis as somewhat ideologically flexible, The Winter Soldier provides a plausible vision of the agents of two, once-adversarial, imperialist states coming together.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier puts out a bold idea. Does it take it to its logical conclusions? Not quite. Once Hydra’s involvement in American intelligence is revealed, we notice that its American recruits are not mere stooges or sellouts, but actually ideological converts who utter the phrase “hail hydra” amongst themselves. The result of this image is that The Winter Soldier still passes for being a movie about a weird and massive conspiracy, rather than an actual reflection on America’s “he may be a sonofab**** but he’s our sonofab**** foreign policy.” Again ,this is not a bad thing per se. It’s ok for movies to have cartoonish, rather than perfectly political allegorical plots. That said, both the existence and the limits of The Winter Soldier’s Hydra plot cannot go unnoticed. As I’ve written before, Marvel often flirts with exploring philosophical and political ideas, but then abandons them in favour of, play-it-safe, cash-grabbing good-versus-evil stories. The Winter Soldier doesn’t quite break this mould, but much like Black Panther it comes close enough. As such, save for its modest-failures in functioning as a standalone movie it is one of the Marvel films I see myself as most likely to recommend to superhero-movie fans and non-superhero-movie fans alike.

 

Looper (2012)

Written and directed by: Rian Johnson

Looper_poster               When I saw the trailer for Looper it didn’t seem like the kind of thing I would watch. I saw Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis running around with guns. Some people are into that kind of thing. I’m not. But then I saw the film was written and directed by Rian Johnson. Johnson does not put out a tonne of content, but thanks to Star Wars The Last Jedi (love it or hate, I love it), he’s started to make a bit of a name for himself. Johnson showed with his contribution to Star Wars that he’s not afraid to experiment with time-honoured formulas. While admittedly with Looper, his original story, he has less to mess with, his work nonetheless produced an action-thriller that truly has the potential to appeal to those unimpressed by gunshots.

Looper is set in a fictional-“present”: well it’s a present where the future already exist, since its central character Joe works as a “looper” for a crime syndicate from the future (scratch that the movie is supposedly set in 2044, but the point is it feels like its in the present). Loopers work as assassins, shooting people sent to the present from the future. It’s a lucrative job, but one that has a cost: loopers are eventually sent back to the past and shot themselves since they are deemed to know too much.

If there is one question regarding the film’s logic that goes under-explored it’s the question of why people become loopers in the first place. This question applies somewhat to Joe who is at least moral enough to pass as a likeable protagonist, and more so to his friend Seth, who is as timid and unthreatening (as one would expect given that Paul Dano plays him). But while this question may weigh on some viewers, it’s not a major problem: who says you have to answer all of life’s mysteries just to examine some of them?

The appeal of Looper comes down to two narrative qualities. One is, to use a word now well associated with Johnson, that it subverts expectations. The film does not have conventional villains, and it resolves its moral problem in a way that’s close to, but not exactly what audiences are lead to expect. I think Looper’s most notable strength, however, is its economy of characters. My perception has been that gun-filled movies are often populated by disposable and/or generic characters. While admittedly I should rewatch it, my memory of Inception is that, despite it being a cerebral action movie, it nonetheless isn’t particularly inspired in all of its character choices (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, to use an ironic example, does not feel like a major character so much as a major placeholder, in that work). Looper by contrasts has very few characters, both in and out of its action scenes. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s self-actualizing criminal; Bruce Willis’ dogged, cold, romantic, Emily Blunt’s brave-faced but self-doubting single-mother, and Pierce Gagnon’s heartbroken wizkid are the key ones. While the film’s few other characters are slightly more typical of the genre, they too are cast fairly economically and play their parts well.

Time travel is a subject rife with paradox, and I admittedly was not able to keep up with all of Looper’s internal logic. But don’t worry. While it’s first act might give you the impression you’re watching something aimed at fans of details and bullets, Looper speaks to a paradox far more universal and intelligible than those created by time travel. Looper looks at what it means to act morally, when it feels no decision one can make is without huge moral costs. That coupled with the film’s twists, a memorable child-actor performance on Gagnon’s part, and fable-like structure, ensures that Looper is absolutely worth the watch.

Ant Man (2015)

Directed by: Peyton Reed

Written by: Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish (first draft) and Adam McKay & Paul Rudd 

Ant-Man_poster                 This is the fourth Marvel related article I find myself writing in a short time span, and as with the first two, one question reigns firm in my mind: that of ideology. Part of me doesn’t like taking this approach. Cinema is such a sensory experience, that it seems a shame when certain critics reduce their analysis of its products to political commentary. With Ant Man, however, I feel this is an apt approach. The story is a fairly straightforward one to follow. It is not at all subtle, but its narrative is different enough from that of other movies that the lack of subtleness does not lead to corniness. Rather, it makes it a movie that’s more about its ideas than its execution.

Protagonist Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is introduced to us in a prison-fight, that turns out to be a harmless performance. Lang is a thief, differentiating him from typical superheroes, but what’s more unique about this portrayal is that he is in no sense an anti-hero. The Guardians of the Galaxy are introduced as criminals who have to overcome varying degrees of selfishness to become a team. Tony Stark is perhaps not a criminal, but an arrogant war profiteer who can never quite be virtuous with a straight face. Lang, by contrast, steals out of a combination of need and principle, and he shares neither the Guardians’ lack of empathy nor Stark’s inability to be sincere.
It is because of this unique portrayal of Lang and his good-vibes thieving buddies (Michael Peña, T.I., and Dave Dastmalchian) that it’s so tempting to think of Ant Man in political terms. Early in its story we see Lang being fired from a Baskin Robbins because of his criminal record. The absurdity of this is rendered plain, both because of the specific character of Lang’s crime and because it shows how, contrary to what our courts say, there is double-jeopardy in capitalist societies. Criminals are punished both through the carceral system and subsequently through an unregulated sentence of poverty.

I had previously written that in films like The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2 the M.C.U. has a pattern of floating critical ideas before comfortably retreating to the status quo. In its first act Ant Man seems primed to take this approach. We are introduced to Lang’s ex-wife Maggi (Judy Greer), daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) and Maggie’s new partner Paxton (Bobby Cannavale). Paxton is a cop, and while he is portrayed as inappropriately judgemental, Maggie’s preachy monologue to Lang about how he is unready to be a father has an ominous air to it. Maggie’s presence as a moral authority seems to imply: “yes critiques of the criminal-justice system are an interesting idea, but let’s just stick with status quo, tough-on-crime thinking.”

Luckily, Ant Man doesn’t quite go where Maggie’s presence suggests it will. Instead, it abandons its earlier political character in favour of a simpler one. Lang does not flip from “criminal” to “saint,” but instead transcends that divide through becoming a superhero. While Ant Man, therefore, might not be the most iconic of the Marvel movies, it nonetheless feels like a perfect representative of what they are: the biggest thing in Hollywood right now. Through critiquing our society’s approach to criminal justice, Ant Man certainly shows Hollywood’s supposed left-leanings. On the other hand, by avoiding political resolution in favour of a big-budget action one (ie overcoming your past by becoming a superhero), the film ultimately shows what Hollywood is really about: appealing to the masses with ideologically vague cinematic magic.

Political questions aside, Ant Man is further defined by its straightforward story and, perhaps not memorable but at least distinguishable and charismatic characters (Michael Douglas as scientist/mentor Hank Pym, Evangeline Lilly as Pym’s doubting daughter Hope and Corey Stoll as rogue scientist Darren Cross). That said, sometimes a movie can be about its ideas, even when its an action movie made for popular consumption. Ant Man might not be the next great political treatise, but it also doesn’t shy away from raising a question that the justice-world order of superheroes really needs to address.