Review – Antboy 2: The Revenge of the Red Fury

It’s interesting in age when superhero cinema, and one of the latest critical buzzwords “superhero fatigue” being bandied about with nearly mindless abandon, to take a look at films who have a more modest approach to the trope and different aims than the world’s most gargantuan cinematic franchise. As has previously been mentioned here at The Movie Rat, the world of foreign genre cinema offers different takes which is typically like a breath of fresh air compared to the American formulaic traits. Whether or not they are always successful is almost not even the point as there is great value in seeing a different way to broach familiar topics.

However, Antboy and Antboy 2: The Revenge of the Red Fury are most definitely successful. One of the ways in which this sequel succeeds is in walking the tightrope between a continuous narrative that would lose the uninitiated and a film overly-slavish to its prior installment. Where reminders become necessary they are there but do not waste excessive amounts of screen time or come off as ham-handed.

The film jumps into the action almost immediately and moves at a steady clip from thereon out making its brisk running time not feel conversely overly-expansive. It’s also great to see a tale of super characters where the stakes are high, and matter to those concerned, but they are also focused and contained to their small, suburban hometown. It’d be relief enough just to have character time in a standard superhero film, but when you add the fact that this is a story with young antagonists and protagonists; you have something doubly rare wherein a film is treating both kids and superheroes/super-villains as people.

Antboy 2: Revenge of the Red Fury (2014, Attraction Distribution)

As opposed to the first film, I watched this one with original audio not dubbed. The dubbing in the prior installment was passable, and clearly more accessible to the younger viewers who are the target audience. Therefore, it’s fairly safe to assume that there must not be much degradation in quality offered in English dialogue. If the option of viewing the original audio version is available to you, it is clearly a better approach.

When discussing films designed for kids the potential pitfalls are many: pedantic story treatment and characters, too much escapism with little pedagogical value, or the opposite issue; too bluntly moralistic to be enjoyable. Antboy 2 does not suffer on any of these accounts, in fact, excels in folding in its lesson with the entertainment value. It turns out to have a statement about not taking out one’s anger over slights against others, self-assurance and confidence in a highly enjoyable, entertaining and funny package. The only way in which it lacks in this regard is that the atonement is a bit easily earned and the reason behind the offense not adequately explained to the offended. Ultimately, the forgiveness Pelle earns ends up being a bit like the Blue Fairy’s granting Pinocchio’s wish because despite his mistakes she knows he’s good at heart.

The visual effects while not of the highest order are used sparingly and executed well enough such that the do not detract from the story in anyway. What truly augments the story is the sound mixing and editing, which take it a step above where most would believe it to be, and the suspension of disbelief is most aided by the work of the costume department who has all characters looking the part.

Antboy 2: Revenge of the Red Fury (2014, Attraction Distribution)

The heart of the film lies in the young cast who are extremely capable and aptly pull off the double-task of being relatable and super-human. In many ways those who are returning are given more opportunity to shine. Oscar Dietz, as Pelle a.k.a. Antboy, aside from having stuntwork, and his physically weak moments when faced with his character’s version of Kryptonite; has to show a emotional vulnerability and insecurity throughout, as he’s struggling with normal adolescent angsts and insecurity balancing that with the dichotomy of having an alter ego who seems to have it all together. He is a perfect every-kid and delivers when scenes get emotional. Samuel Ting Graf (Wilhelm) and Amalie Kruse Jensen (Ida) return to the fold more assured and layered as Antboy’s sidekicks and best friends. While Wilhelm keeps him motivated and in check Ida’s fascination with one of the new kids Christian (Hector Brøgger Andersen) is understandable and very believably played by both. The new, titular villain played by Astrid Jucher-Benzon perhaps has the best arc, and achieves the highly difficult task of being a villain that can engender empathy.

Antboy 2: Revenge of the Red Death (2014, Attraction Distribution_

As these films are adaptations of popular children’s novels in a post-Harry Potter world, the turn around on the series will be quick and there will be more Antboy to follow. However, there is a small universe here that doesn’t connect anywhere else unless you count the connection these characters and their stories make with the audience which is surely palpable, and as such make the continuation of this series something to look forward to indeed.

9/10

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Review- Captain America: The First Avenger

Chris Evans in Captain America: The First Avenger (Disney/Marvel)

As is always the case when dealing with a superhero film I feel that one’s personal history with a character is an important factor to consider when discussing the film, at the very least so I can relay to you my frame of reference. In the crop of superhero films released this year Captain America is likely the property I had the least amount of history with, which if you think about it is an advantage to the film. For as much as I talk about disengaging expectation built by other media from a film the reason I write on it so much is that it’s a fight against human nature to more purely and accurately judge a film.

So Captain America, to me, is free of the restraint of expectations but does it take advantage of this advantage? Not fully, no. The film sets its character up well enough: Steve Rogers is a kind, disciplined, brave young man who yearns to serve his country in the hour of its greatest need but is repeatedly rejected due to his build and health problems. This film, especially the opening, runs the risk of being overly overt propaganda, however, it focuses on character enough, at the beginning at least, such that it narrowly avoids that.

Another manner in which it dodges the P-word is in the turn the film takes immediately following the experiment that gives Steve his abilities. The trajectory from everyman to super-being isn’t a straight ascent because at first the only responsibility he’s given is that of pitchman. He has to fight the power and be a little rebellious to truly fulfill his destiny so that makes it a bit interesting.

Another strength that the film has to fall back on is the strength of its cast, the supporting cast mainly. Not to discredit Chris Evans, he does a fine job and is believable as Steve at both stages though he’s not as dynamic as he was in Star Trek and it seems like he was always waiting for the transition- that CG job making him skinny is quite impressive.

First and foremost among the supporting cast is Hayley Atwell who plays Peggy Carter and the love interest in this film and is not only a strong, intelligent woman but makes the love interest in a superhero film vital for the first time in some time. If you think about it many of the recent crop have had love interests as either an afterthought or not at all. The relationship between her and Steve gives this film the little extra it needs to get by.

Tommy Lee Jones and Hugo Weaving each do rather well in their respective required roles: Jones as the disbelieving Colonel and Weaving as the villainous Red Skull, replete with an authentic-sounding accent in a film with too much foreign intrigue to dabble in foreign tongues like others have recently. Also quite enjoyable is the performance of Stanley Tucci as Dr. Abraham Erskine who takes Steve under his wing.

This isn’t the only recent superhero film of late to deal with actual historical events in a fictionalized context, see the recent X-Men film, what that film did though that this failed to do (and it was the major failing of it) is that it made its tale as high stakes and intriguing as the historical incident in which it wrapped itself up. It also re-wrote history in a major way this film decided instead to write a subplot so to an extent you’re watching the undercard of World War II as Captain America and co. go after Red Skull and his rogue band of occultist Nazis and Hitler and the majority get second billing and no play. When an actual man who wanted to take over the world takes a backseat to a fictional creation who does, it’s a monumental task to make that notion as scary regardless of how likely it is in the world of the story.

Thus, in Captain America his initial battle as a hero, which in the end is more climactic, is also more effective.

When it’s all said and done Captain America is an effective and enjoyable film with obvious flaws that could’ve been handled and addressed better than it is.

6/10

Review- Green Lantern

Ryan Reynolds in Green Lantern (Warner Bros./DC)

Note: Some spoilers within.

Of the rash of comic book films that are due out this year I’d put Green Lantern near the bottom of the list with regards to how much prior knowledge I had about him going in (As opposed to The X-Men with which I am quite familiar or the upcoming Captain America, which would rank lowest). Thus, the expectations might not be as great but the onus would be squarely on the film to convey who this guy is what the rules of this particular universe and his abilities are. It’s serviceable but it could’ve been handled better. A lot of information about who the Lanterns are and what they do is disseminated immediately in a voice-over and considering that there will be more information to absorb later along with a lot of flashy fight sequences that don’t require thought it’s a risky strategy and there was some debate of the finer points amongst my party after the film.

Having said all that for the most part the foundation is laid and laid well not only in establishing Hal, his world and how it changes when he is summoned but also going forward should the films continue. A factor this film benefits from is that it’s not a super-being tale but rather gifts endowed to a regular person, which makes identification somewhat easier. While typically I am more drawn to the vigilante-type a la Batman, this film does do enough well to be considered better than The Green Hornet, who is of the vigilante mold, especially when you consider that this film managed to incorporate comedy with making it one, which is a tribute to the casting choice of Ryan Reynolds.

One of the decisions that didn’t work as well for this film is that in essence it contained dueling antagonists. On the one hand you have Parallax who is essentially a personification of fear that grows more dangerous and violent the more it defeats and consumes, which was pretty cool and different from what you typically get, and on the other you have Hector Hammond. Hammond is a scientist who gets infected by contact with one of Parallax’s victims and that creates a psychic link. Part of the problem with devoting so much time to Hammond is that he’s essentially a tool. It does give us a good performance from Peter Sarsgaard but his narrative ends rather unceremoniously.

Not to say Hammond was unnecessary but it just feels certain aspects of the film are short-changed in the interests of keeping the running time manageable. While Hammond’s being developed, I wanted more Hal, while Hal’s having his doubts I wondered what was happening on Oa. It seems as if in the interest of trying to get a lot covered the whole wasn’t all it could’ve been. On the positive, I thought the sequence with the requisite backstory regarding Hal’s father was very well-handled as was the introduction of what relationship all these characters had to one another. It’s just that plotting and pacing suffered after a while when trying to do too much all at once.

There are then with two antagonists and two climactic battle sequences; little fish then big fish. While I’ll be the first to complain when one seems far too long these were oddly truncated and anti-climatic. They each have their “Oh, that was cool” moments but also have that “Oh, it’s over?” moment as well.

The animation was rather good considering that there was a lot of it but definitely could’ve been improved further. For the record I did not see this film in 3D as I saw no need to as it is a post-converted film and I try to avoid those.

Lastly, don’t leave as soon as the credits start rolling as there is a little teaser at the end. Or you could leave because it really bugged the hell out of me. Can we knock it off with the teasers already? I recognize that running time begins at fanfare and ends when the credits stop rolling but more often than not these tacked on scenes leave you scratching your head or rolling your eyes rather than giving you anything you’re actually glad you stuck around and watched. Any superhero film has a built-in “excuse” for a sequel: it’s about a superhero. There’s always a bad guy. You don’t need to bend over backwards for it.

Anyway, having said all that I do want to stress that I think this film does more well than it does poorly it just sometimes that the latter is easier to expound upon. It’s a fair indoctrination to the character and the Green Lantern concept as a whole and is enjoyable popcorn-fare.

6/10

Review- X-Men: First Class

Caleb Landry Jones, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, Nicholas Hoult, James McAvoy and Lucas Till in X-Men: First Class (20th Century Fox/Marvel)

I believe, when grading or reviewing a film, that taking a film for what it is and not comparing it something its not or not trying to be is of paramount importance. Thus, I will look at films from not just a genre perspective but also within the confines of subgenre and in some cases franchise. This clearly applies to X-Men: First Class.

It’s an action film, it’s a superhero film but moreover it’s a film in the X-Men series. I will state in the interest of full disclosure that I am a fan of the X-Men and it’s mainly through other interpretations be they the TV series I was hooked on as a kid or the films that came later.

I will here echo sentiments uttered quite astutely by my friend Joey Esposito because they are true and have bearing on any interpretation of this film. Those thoughts being that the connection many can feel to the X-Men are usually for either of two reasons: first, the mutants all feel outcast and most people at one point feel like outsiders, some more poignantly or persistently than others- this instantly adds to the appeal of the characters. However, perhaps the most intriguing dynamic in this universe is the dichotomy between Xavier and Magneto who have two diametrically opposite views on how to deal with this struggle and better yet anyone can see the logic in both approaches.

While I liked the previous installments in varying degrees, save for Wolverine, these truths and this philosophy was always hinted at and alluded to but never became central to the narrative. The films were engaging, flashy and fun, in short good entertainment that lacked that little something extra that made it necessary or desirable to revisit the film two or three times or more.

I have already seen X-Men: First Class twice because it not only gets everything I was talking about but delivers on it in spades. Never are you left wondering as the geriatric lady of infamy in the 80s advertising campaign said: “Where’s the beef?” Instantly the characters of this tale are built we see the circumstances that set Magneto on his course, likewise with Charles Xavier.

The films opening scenes are absolutely hypnotic and quickly establish suspense. The drama of the situation aided by Kevin Bacon who gives a wonderful and memorable turn in his first villainous role in some time confronts a Young Karl, played with utmost brilliance by Bill Milner, a young actor I’ve long contended is the best of his age group and he keeps proving me right. He is pushed and traumatized beyond his breaking point and it crystallizes his view of humanity. Meanwhile, Charles (Laurence Belcher) also gets a perfect introduction, not without its own bit of suspense, and we see him exhibit his nurturing, befriending nature.

Very quickly, dramatically and effectively the film establishes its characters before it really sets the story in motion, It’s a gripping start and I responded emotionally immediately which is rare. Like a few of the X-Men films it has memorable scenes with its lead characters in younger incarnations such as Cayden Boyd as Young Angel in X-Men: The Last Stand or Troye Sivan as Young Logan in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. What this film does is deliver on the promise that those early scenes show, in fact, there is a string of absolutely outstanding scenes that kick-off this film in tremendous style and the scenes end perfectly, carry great tension and importance are numerous in this film.

The success of this film hinges greatly on the strength of its script and it is simply put outstanding. The dialogue most of the time is sharp and concise and even though it wanders into typical superhero banter on occasion it is always purposeful and almost never wasted. Furthermore it communicates the philosophies of its characters, which needs to hit home, very well.

The characters are also made more interesting by the fact that they too have things at stake aside from the stakes of the plot. Not to knock that either. It’s hard to up the ante more than this film does but we’re not just seeing a spectacle because the characters are personally invested in their mission with different motives and that just makes it work that much better.

A few cast members were already singled out but a few more deserve mention. What wasn’t discussed in Kevin Bacon’s bit prior is that he, like a few other actors, was asked to speak a few lines in languages which are not his own and it just makes the experience that much more real and immediate. Having English as a substitute for foreign languages in a film is a slippery slope and I’m loving that people are trending towards using the foreign idioms themselves.

Clearly a lot of the kudos acting-wise need to go to Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy, who play the two principal characters. They are the ones that intrigue us most and who bear most of the burden and knock it out of the park. While this role isn’t a showcase of her considerable talent as Winter’s Bone did Jennifer Lawrence does very well playing Mystique and each of the initial assemblage of mutants played by Nicholas Hoult, Edi Gathegi, Caleb Landry Jones, Zoë Kravitz and Lucas Till each have their moments to contribute.

The bottom line is that this is the best cinematic representation of who the X-Men to date are and why they are loved. The story is engaging and exciting but equal in intrigue are the characters. Add to that brilliant handling of how Xavier and Magneto whom are initially friends but just can’t see eye-to-eye philosophically and you have an absolutely dynamite film.

10/10

Review- Thor

Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman in Thor (Paramount/Marvel)

To make it very clear I have in the past set down a list of rules regarding adaptations of any materials wherein I try to divorce myself entirely from the source material when gauging a movie. Meaning that I will not comment on adaptation choices or omissions. With Thor that task was much easier as my knowledge of both the legend and the Marvel rendition thereof is severely limited so I came into the film with a fairly clean slate.

Perhaps what is the most surprising part of the story to me is the fact that the film struck a very good balance of locations. It started for an extended period of time in Asgard establishing the characters and setting up Thor’s predicament and then after he’s exiled to earth switches back frequently. The advertising did make it seem as if it’d be very heavy on Earth-based action but I guess they just didn’t want you seeing too much of Asgard.

I think this balance serves the narrative quite well indeed. As Thor struggles to repent and reclaim his hammer at home the stakes keep on rising and events continue to conspire against him unbeknown to him. The pace is tempered so as the tale isn’t rushed and more meaning can be added to the spectacle rather than there just being a spectacle to behold and the audience “Oohs” and “Aahs” and walks out bloated by candy and soda gas.

You film buffs/comics fans out there might be aware, especially through the intimations made in prior films, that Marvel has been gearing up for an Avengers films. They have been doing so very methodically with slight dovetails in previous films. For the uninitiated where S.H.I.E.L.D. gets involved in the story has been the prelude to The Avengers. S.H.I.E.L.D. is more of a presence in this film as they cordon off his hammer in a makeshift compound and detain Thor for a while but they’re only as much of an obstruction as they have to be they never become an encumbrance to the plot as a whole.

Having said that if you should see Thor be sure to plan your bathroom trip carefully because you’ll want to sit through the end credits for a teaser and a cameo appearance.

What might perhaps be overlooked is that in a tale such as Thor where you’re dealing with gods in another realm, the Earthlings who find him and those trying to detain him is that acting is pivotal. It’s pivotal both in the casting and the direction of the film. Which is why Kenneth Branagh, as counter-intuitive as it likely sounded to you at first, is the perfect director for this vehicle. This is a man who made his name as an actor and a director by interpreting Shakespeare if anyone can infuse some comedy but also lend this kind of tale the kind of gravitas it needs to succeed it’s him. Yes, it’s strange to see his name attached to something CG-heavy but there umpteen thousand people involved in that aspect he’s just making sure the tale is communicated and it is.

Speaking of the effects they were absolutely fantastic. The most challenging thing for a film is to create a wholly new world and this clan did that with ease. There is some pretty effective creature-work in here too, chilling stuff. The effects, of course, can only do so much it’s merely an interpretation of the production design which is also great. The sets and locations, where they need to be, are grandiose and majestic and just marvelous.

And now for my token paragraph on the 3D. I did see it in 3D. I debated not seeing it in 3D. I don’t think I would’ve liked it one iota less if I had gone the conventional route. If you want to save some money go for it. The colors, scope and vistas will be just as impressive.

I will readily admit my expectations were not very high for Thor. I’ve given you the positives as there were many. It wasn’t perfect but it was darn good and enjoyable and left me wanting more no matter how I come about it (be it comics or a sequel).

8/10