Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

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The Mission: Impossible series feels a fair distance away from Brian DePalma’s dark, brooding 1996 effort. Five films and nearly two decades in, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) has settled into a comfortable, James Bond-ian groove, singing to a hymnsheet of familiar spy beats. Car chases? Check! Tuxedos? Check! Slightly gratuitous shots of disrobed ladies? Check and mate!

It’s hardly breaking any bold new ground. But as Hunt, Cruise is utterly reliable, his commitment to the role – and what must have been a brutal workout regime – never in doubt. The sundry action sequences are again defined by a signature stunt, again ostensibly done by the Cruiser for real; last time around, he swung rakishly off an Emirati skyscraper. This time, he hangs off an A400 Airbus plane, as it takes off, all within the first blistering five minutes – setting a whippy pace which lasts at least until Sean Harris’ whispering bad guy caricature explains his evil schemes.

Still, it’s undemanding fun. The series is starting to get a whiff of repetition about it – Hunt’s apparent immortality and infallibility stretches the definition of ‘impossible’ ever further – but with Cruise at the wheel, it remains nothing if not solid.

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Southpaw

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Every new boxing movie faces a dilemma. Whether it wants to or not, any film rendering the sport of kings must be judged against those two eternal blueprints of the genre. There’s been challengers. But Raging Bull and Rocky remain the heavyweight champions. You almost pity a movie like Southpaw.

Does director Antoine Fuqua aim for Scorsese’s artful, sensitive camera movements – boxing as ballet? Does he vie for something more approaching Stallone’s sense of personal triumph and inspiration? Or does he try something new?

It begins, as boxing movies are inclined to do, with a boxing match: introducing Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) at the height of his powers, cocky, reckless, but unequivocally the undisputed light heavyweight champion of the world. He has a beautiful wife (Rachel McAdams), and a tenacious promoter (50 Cent). He’s rich, he’s successful. Life is good.

But then, Kurt Sutter’s script manoeuvres a tragedy into Hope’s life, in the clumsiest and most cynical of manners; and the stage is rapidly set for a sour melodrama. Funerals, drink, drugs, guns, homes repossessed, children taken into care, extended crying scenes, rain… a veritable montage of misery.

All of this piles on in unrelenting fashion so that, much like Alan Partridge before him, Hope can bounce back. Forest Whitaker, in whispering mentor mode, reluctantly helps him back to form. A comeback beckons. It doesn’t take a boxing expert to guess how it ends.

Southpaw isn’t terrible. You cannot doubt Gyllenhaal’s chameleonic commitment to the role. You believe every punch he throws. You feel every one he takes.

But you can’t help wondering what it’s trying to say, and whether it’s even worth saying. Does the boxing-as-redemption cliché really need regurgitating? Do we need another I-hate-to-see-you-do-this-to-yourself speech from a fretting wife? Is the only way to regain your daughter’s love really just to go twelve rounds in the ring?

Do Scorsese and Stallone have anything to worry about? On this evidence, their title belts remain safe.

Ant-Man

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As one of over a thousand Marvel superheroes all presumably making their way to the big screen, Ant-Man is no easy proposition. To those not versed in Marvel’s prolific comic book heritage, the superhero sounds, well, a bit ridiculous, really. A man who can shrink to the size of an insect makes for a less than impressive superhero when stacked up against Thor, the God of Thunder.

As if overcoming instant negative perceptions wasn’t tricky enough, Marvel also had the ire of Edgar Wright fans to weather. After a decade of developing the script, the Shaun of the Dead director abruptly exited the project last year, weeks before filming, citing the old “creative differences” mitigation. Whatever the efforts of his replacement, Peyton Reed (The Break-Up), there will always be Wright diehards who lament the Ant-Man that never was.

Be in no doubt: Ant-Man had a mountain to climb (or in ant terms, at least a hill). So it’s to Reed and Marvel’s substantial credit that Ant-Man is not, in fact, an absurd folly, but a perfectly entertaining little entry in the increasingly oversized Marvel Cinematic Universe, and one that works on its own terms. It doesn’t quite shrug off the by-now-extremely-well-worn superhero origins formula. But it has a refreshing sense of humour about itself.

Much of that comes from the impossibly likeable Rudd, who, as well as starring, contributed to rewrites of Wright’s script. He plays Scott Lang, a skilled cat burglar looking to reunite with his estranged daughter after a stint in prison.

When all seems lost, Lang is approached by scientist and inventor Hank Pym (Douglas), who passes the torch of his incredible shrinking suit to the young pretender and together they harness an army of easily-susceptible real-life ants to save the world. As only superheroes can.

As Lang, Rudd has a fantastically dopey charm, which grounds the movie into something approaching believable, and punctures some of the more eye-narrowingly ludicrous elements. (Pym’s shrinking technology is apparently possible thanks to ‘Pym Particles’, and, y’know, science!)

Lang is an unusual entry in the Marvel line-up, in fact. Handsome and charismatic, certainly, but also a bit of a goofball, with some goofy powers that could never pit him among Marvel’s A-team. So it’s a shame that the movie around his is not a wildly unusual entry in Marvel’s increasingly repetitive canon.

Wright’s script called for a heist movie, and there is certainly some fun, spicy, Ocean’s 11-esque break-in sequences. But take that away and it’s Superhero Origins 101, complete with training montages, redemption cliches, and in Corey Stoll’s Yellowjacket, a villain for villain’s sake, whose primary motivation for evil seems to be, erm, because the template demands it.

Mercifully, however, we are not treated to another finale dominated by computer-generated cities being destroyed by computer-generated superheroes. Ant-Man’s excellent third act largely takes place on a micro scale, with Lang’s shrinking powers paving the way for some highly inventive visual effects – and very funny Honey I Shrunk the Kids-style visual gags.

It remains a Marvel movie through and through – something they are keen to remind you throughout, with innumerable references to, and occasional cameos from, the Avengers. But Ant-Man’s unlikely charm is just enough to stop it from being squished at the cinematic picnic.

Song of the Sea

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Back in February, Song of the Sea was memorably described by one Oscar voter as “that obscure freakin’ Chinese fuckin’ thing that nobody ever freakin’ saw,” which must have come as a surprise to Kilkenny-based Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon. No matter: obscurity surely now short-lived, it richly deserved its Oscar nomination.

With a fairytale template and childlike sense of wonder, clumsy comparisons to Studio Ghibli are inevitable, but overstated; while Song of the Sea undoubtedly owes a debt to the Japanese studio, this is an Irish film, through and through. The selkies, giants, and spirits of the story are rooted in centuries of Gaelic mythology, with themes of grief and loss weaved seamlessly into the tapestry. Folkloric storytelling on a lavish canvas, it also boasts some of the most astonishing animation in recent memory – every frame could be framed. Moore’s film brims with charm, wit, emotion and magic, and should, by all measures, leave you utterly rapt. Go freakin’ see it.

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