REVIEW: Ant-Man and the Wasp

9 07 2018

There’s been a recent trend in the last five years or so in superhero filmmaking where directors feel the need to say their movie is cut from a different cloth. It’s not only a blockbuster, it’s just dressed up like one. Whether it was “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” as a ’70s-style paranoid thriller or (my personal favorite) James Mangold’s “Logan” as “an Ozu film with mutants,” the implication is that being a superhero movie on its face is shameful – or not enough.

This long-winded intro is just a set up to say that Peyton Reed’s “Ant-Man and the Wasp” finds success by being something besides a Marvel, only that something is a type of film that actually meshes quite well with a super suit. It’s a Paul Rudd movie! The star, who also shares a co-writing credit on the film, infuses his charming, witty energy into all facets of the project. Before the self-aware smugness of “Deadpool” and the commercially-motivated universe building of “The Avengers,” comic book movies could be like this. (You know, eons ago … like 2008 with the first “Iron Man.”)

“Ant-Man and the Wasp” is wonderfully self-contained, driven less by the need to connect to some grand five-picture arc and more by the immediate concerns of the story. Rudd’s Scott Lang wants to be cleared from his house arrest following the events of “Captain America: Civil War,” yet the urgent call of duty with Michael Douglas’ Hank Pym and Evangeline Lilly’s Wasp threatens to undo years of his patience in exile. As with many of these films, the real joy is in their group banter – especially whenever Scott lacks the knowledge or information that his counterparts possess.

Reed ditches some of the “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”-style cheekiness about size and scale that dominated the first “Ant-Man,” which might have been a holdover from Edgar Wright’s involvement with the series. The film compensates for the loss of that humor with more Rudd being Rudd, a welcome thing be it a Marvel movie or a David Wain romp. While it might not be enough to completely overcome a lackluster villain, relatively generic fight scenes, and total underuse of Michelle Pfeiffer, it’s still better than watching Marvel’s carousel of white guys named Chris play tough and moody. B

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REVIEW: Ant-Man

23 08 2015

Ant-ManAnt-Man,” the final piece in Marvel’s so-called “Phase Two” of their Cinematic Universe, invites us all to do what I have done for the past five years: not to take any of this too seriously.  With the constantly winking and self-effacing charm of Paul Rudd (and co-writer Adam McKay), the best Marvel movie in years is ironically the one that spits in the face of what the studio signifies.

This is the first film from the comic book behemoth since the original “Iron Man” back in 2008 that feels entirely sufficient as a film in its own right, not just a placeholder for the next super-sized sequel.  Granted, some of that might be a response to its iffy economic viability at the green-lighting stage of the process (and some concerns over authorship following the departure of writer/director Edgar Wright and his screenwriting partner Joe Cornish). Nonetheless, “Ant-Man” earns a second installment by virtue of its tongue-in-cheek spirit and fun sense of scale.

Rather than set up some cataclysmic battle of the fates where the powers of good do battle with a terrifying evil that beams a big blue light up into the sky, “Ant-Man” builds up to a fight between two men for one important thing.  This climax engages rather than numbs (as “Avengers” final acts tend to do) because it takes place on the human level where the rest of the film registers.  It also helps that the final clash is essentially the only major one in the movie, going against Marvel’s general tendency to throw in a major action set piece every 30 minutes or so to placate the thrill-seekers in the audience.

And every time it seems like “Ant-Man” is turning into a conveyer belt of Marvel tropes, Paul Rudd’s humor kicks in to disrupt the moment and make a joke at the studio’s expense. He plays on admittedly shorter leash than someone like Judd Apatow or David Wain gives him, but his sardonic wit proves a welcome reprieve of Marvel’s faux gravitas that proves suffocating in their more commercial products.

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REVIEW: Haywire

4 12 2012

There was a decent chunk at the beginning of “Haywire” when I was totally drawn in not by anything in the script or the story … but by Steven Soderbergh’s unique visual sensibilities.  And all of a sudden, it actually begin to sink in that the director actually intends to retire from the craft of cinema and what a loss that could be to the film community.

Soderbergh’s canon of films ranges from the heist films of the “Oceans” series to the zany genre-bending intrigue tale of “The Informant!” to immensely moving biopics like “Erin Brockovich” to hyperlink cinema like “Traffic” to tense thrillers like “Contagion” and even into strange experimentation with whatever the heck “The Girlfriend Experience” was supposed to be.  (Oh, and he also oversaw some movie about magic where Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey showed their butts.)

In just this one sequence where the protagonist of “Haywire,” played to dull effect by MMA fighter  non-actress Gina Carano,” escapes from her captors, there are flashes of almost all of his different movies.  They share a similar rhythm and vibe, achieved in a perfect harmony of cinematography, editing, and sound.  It’s truly remarkable that across so many genres and types of filmmaking, something feels like it’s coming from a single mind.

Now just because he has unified conventions doesn’t mean that they always work or redeem an otherwise poor movie.  Such is the case for “Haywire,” an action thriller that does some clever presentation and narrative organizing to brush up a conventional narrative.  Perhaps the medium is the message for Soderbergh, and his mere repackaging of familiar elements is the point in and of itself.  But the film just always feels like an all-too familiar experience.

Soderbergh does succeed in making it slick (for the ladies, he did get the eye candy of Michael Fassbender and Channing Tatum for brief scenes) and subversively political, though.  Yet these victories seem small while watching and seem even smaller in retrospect.  Watch some of Soderbergh’s elegant sequences that have the grace of a ballerina on YouTube some day and skip “Haywire.”  It doesn’t go fully, well, haywire … but there’s got to be some new cinematic voice or story you can use your 90 minutes to hear and see.  C+





REVIEW: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

16 01 2011

I have no problem with Hollywood approaching the 2008 financial collapse; look no further than my “A” for Charles Ferguson’s documentary “Inside Job.”  But it’s a slippery slope to walk on, and Oliver Stone’s slanted “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” does a total face-plant as its blatantly pointed activism destroys any legitimacy the movie might have.  Compared to Ferguson’s fascinating investigation and research, Stone’s allegory is a cowardly and vicious attack on the system of greed that the original film highlighted in 1987.

There was no reason to resurrect Michael Douglas’ Oscar-winning character Gordon Gekko at all, and Stone’s haste to use him as an instrument in unleashing a tirade against Wall Street renders his transformation senseless.  In the first film, he was a slimy representation of greed and excess, and an antagonist meant to be deplored.  Yet in 2010, he has been conveniently reassigned to the voice of the writer and his liberal sensibilities.  No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, this move just doesn’t work under the basic conventions of storytelling.

The movie’s main plot is mostly independent of Gekko, tying him in through a broken relationship with his daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan).  She’s engaged to Jake (Shia LaBeouf), a young upstart banker who gets caught up in the idea of creating something from nothing that he ultimately winds up without anything.  After the suicide of his mentor, he finds himself reeling and very lost.

Sure, it has its entertaining moments, but the whole movie just reeks of a misplaced sense of political vindication.  Stone doesn’t challenge, inform, or educate, and there’s nothing left for the audience to ponder.  The deranged manifesto that is “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” is just a series of thinly veiled pot-shots on everyone involved in the financial meltdown, less based on the facts than on the opinions and convictions of its hardly neutral filmmakers.  C-





REVIEW: Solitary Man

9 12 2010

Michael Douglas, like most skilled actors, can deliver good performances in his sleep, but these types of actors are only exciting to watch when they try something different or really put in the work to elevate their performance.  In “Solitary Man,” it seemed to me like Douglas was sleepwalking through the entire movie.

It’s really a shame because this could have been a great role for him.  Fascinating performances often arise when actors take parts that reflect where they are in life, particularly at milestone ages.  From child to teen, from youth to adulthood, from young to middle-aged, and for Douglas, from middle-aged to the age of mortality.  The theme of confronting old age is particularly eerie to watch now given Douglas’ fight with cancer.

Yet while all the components are there, something just doesn’t add up.  I wouldn’t attribute it all to Douglas; the film’s plot is pretty weak and the self-examination severely underdeveloped.  This is such a rich topic, but the movie only brushes the surface.  Douglas’ Ben Kalmen struggles with a lot of things: his loneliness, his infidelity, his fall from grace in business, his desire to stay young, among others.

The psychological struggle is all provided by Douglas, not at all by the script.  Nowhere is there a great line for us to chew on or a particularly interesting plot development to leave us reeling.  There’s just predictable old plot gimmicks that run for 90 minutes, which hardly feels adequate for Douglas to give the character much depth.

He gets no help from an impressively cast ensemble including the likes of Susan Sarandon, Jenna Fischer, Jesse Eisenberg, and Mary-Louise Parker.  The writers don’t bother to give any sort of depth to these supporting actors; they might as well have just abandoned names altogether and called the characters “aging ex-wife,” “young new girlfriend,” and “beautiful daughter.”  There’s so much “Solitary Man” could have been, but not even Michael Douglas can save it from becoming an entirely forgettable snooze.  C





“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” Poll Results

16 10 2010

Looks like we’ve got a hung jury.

Back in the beginning of September, I pondered Michael Douglas’ Oscar chances given all the sympathy stemming from his very public fight against cancer (and the fact that he was getting good notes).

Three people think Douglas could cash in on the sympathy and get a Best Actor nomination while three think he won’t.  I hesitate to publish a split vote, but it’s pretty much where I stand as well.  Given the movie’s lackluster box office showing and mediocre critical reception, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” doesn’t really seem to stand a chance.  But good performances have been nominated from sequels that didn’t light the world on fire – for example, Cate Blanchett for “Elizabeth: The Golden Age.”

So while a nomination isn’t out of the question, I’d say before precursors hit, it’s highly unlikely.





FINCHERFEST: The Game

26 09 2010

Fincher followed up the resounding success of “Se7en” with 1997’s “The Game,” a cerebral thriller that was received notably less well both financially and critically.

I made the slight complaint with “Se7en” that I had seen a similar premise done a little bit better.  With “The Game,” I have a similar grievance.  The movie was, in essence, the same as the 2008 paranoid thriller “Eagle Eye” with much lower stakes and much less intrigue.  Both involve people getting played by some system bigger than they can comprehend, and both follow the struggles of the people trying to escape the oppression of this omniscient system.

Michael Douglas headlines as banking mogul Nicholas Van Orton, a man who has chosen money over relationships.  He is estranged from his younger brother Conrad (Sean Penn) and let his relationship with his most recent wife fall by the wayside.  The problems can all be traced back to his father’s suicide while he was a young boy, and the effects of the life-shattering decision continue to affect him decades later.

But things all change after a mysterious birthday gift turns into an all-encompassing game designed to challenge his priorities.  Reality begins to blur in this game, although not as intensely as it does in a movie like “Inception.”  Van Orton feels mildly disoriented and wonders whether every suspect thing in his life is happening because of the game.  Eventually, his anxieties lead him to demand answers from the organization that set up this game.

By no means am I saying that “The Game” isn’t good.  The premise keeps us interested the whole time, although the ending is wholly unsatisfying because it wraps up way too neatly.  Fincher’s attempt to recreate a very tense atmosphere of terror just isn’t quite as effective as it is in “Se7en,” and the paranoia is totally missing.  This thriller lacks any sort of thrill, making it little more than just a series of events with the hope of a bigger twist waiting at the end.