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: War on Everyone

4 02 2017

war-on-everyoneWar on Everyone” is writer/director John Michael McDonagh’s second film involving politically incorrect and raucous law enforcement agents. If this could become some kind of series … sign me up!

The beer-guzzling, coke-snorting duo of officers Terry (Alexander Skarsgård) and Bob (Michael Peña) wheel around Albuquerque framing perps and taking names. Their genius lies in getting away with the unethical deeds they so fondly commit. The stumbling blocks come from their frequent ineptitude and inflated sense of power. The team finally meets something resembling their match when they try ripping off a strip-club manager whose power extends far deeper than anticipated.

I watched the ’80s classic “48 HRS” a few months ago and have to imagine that the Skarsgård-Peña pairing has to be somewhat akin to the sensation of watching Nolte-Murphy. The two actors always match each other in self-deprecation and pithy dialogue, lighting up the screen at every opportunity. McDonagh utilizes their commitment to wonderful effect in “War on Everyone” as he toes the line on some touchy subject matter without ever overstepping the boundaries. There’s a sense in a lot of raunchy comedies these days that these lines only exist for their crossing, irregardless of who gets hurt by doing so. McDonagh makes this off-color humor work with in the parameters established for his irreverent characters, and the taboos bend without breaking. B+3stars





REVIEW: The Martian

24 10 2015

Since he burst onto the scene with 1997’s “Good Will Hunting,” Matt Damon usually seems to play some version of that titular character. He’s had many a memorable movie and role in his decades-long career, but they almost inevitably come from the same mold of a loud, often brash man’s man. Damon might be one of the best at his particular brand of swagger, though it comes at the cost of getting caught up in an individual creation of his.

That changes for Damon with “The Martian,” a movie that reminds us of his star power since he’s tasked with essentially carrying it all on his shoulders.  While boasting a terrific ensemble, the heart of the story is a one-man show. Damon’s Mark Watney, a NASA botanist on a manned mission to Mars, gets stranded on the red planet after being presumed dead in a dust storm by the rest of his crew.

Like Sandra Bullock in “Gravity” or James Franco in “127 Hours,” Damon rises to the occasion of keeping things moving and interesting with no one to act opposite. This challenge actually brings out the best in Damon, as a matter of fact. For an actor who often draws strength from being the most powerful person in a given scene, not having anyone to beat makes him turn inwards. The result is one of his most heartfelt, moving performances to date.

While he focuses on survival, all of NASA works tirelessly on Watney’s rescue. This goes far beyond his fellow astronauts, led by Jessica Chastain’s steely yet humane Captain Lewis. Entire new spacecrafts must be built and engineered, which brings out the best in both jet propulsion lab head head Bruce Ng (Benedict Wong) and Donald Glover’s young astrodynamicist Rich Purnell. (Yes, Childish Gambino.)  China also gets involved in the humanitarian mission, making sure that NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), Mars mission director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and PR head Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig) earn their salaries.

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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: Fury

4 11 2014

FuryThe “war is hell” thesis argued by David Ayer’s “Fury” is certainly nothing new under the sun.  But as the amount of viewers with personal connection to warfare dwindles daily, cinema must continue to provide this myth-making service to provide those images for our culture.  Ayer’s film serves as a reminder of the sacrifices that soldiers make as well as the brutality to which they are exposed on a consistent basis.

“Fury” begins at the end of the journey in 1945 Germany for a tank division under the leadership of Brad Pitt’s Don “Wardaddy” Collier, an equally red-blooded but less caricatured version of Aldo Raine from “Inglourious Basterds.” He commands a group of men who have all been visibly demoralized by fighting the inhumanity of the Nazis, particularly Shia LaBeouf’s world-weary Boyd “Bible” Swan.  His sobering nihilism marks the first clean break the actor has made from his goofy Louis Stevens persona, which has been an unwelcome legacy looming over all his work.

After one of their drivers is gunned down, the unit receives an unwelcome replacement in Logan Lerman’s green, babyfaced Norman Ellison.  Prior to stepping in the tank, his only experience of World War II had been from behind a typewriter doing clerical work.  Norman becomes the entry point into “Fury” as well as its emotional core, two roles that Lerman performs astutely.

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REVIEW: The Lincoln Lawyer

28 08 2013

I’ll admit, I’m a bit of a sucker for a legal thriller.  Though I don’t watch any of the “Law and Order” series, I’m pretty much game to get involved in any movie that takes place in America’s criminal justice system.  “The Lincoln Lawyer” is not a particularly notable entry into the genre, but it’s compelling and entertaining enough to make for a good watch.

Matthew McConaughey stars as the titular litigator Mickey Haller, a slightly crooked lawyer in the mold of George Clooney’s character in “Michael Clayton.”  He’s caught in entangling web of alliances and often finds himself in tough positions as a result.  His bind in “The Lincoln Lawyer” results after taking on a spoiled brat of a client, Ryan Phillipe’s Louis Roulet.  He’s been accused of beating a prostitute and ropes Haller into a devious master plan that will keep him out of jail.  Unwilling to be made a pawn in anyone’s game, Haller and his investigator Frank Levin (William H. Macy), start pulling their own strings.

The story, taken from the novel by Michael Connelly, is engaging and engrossing, just as any good page-turner feels as you grip it.  But as is often the case with such airport magazine stand mass-market paperback books, “The Lincoln Lawyer” keeps the events rolling by sacrificing character development.  While McConaughey’s performance (one of the earliest in his much-heralded comeback) is decent enough to propel the movie, it could have gone from merely good to GREAT by adding a few more layers of complexity to Haller.  But all in all, “The Lincoln Lawyer” is fitting for what it is: a breezy legal drama.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: Gangster Squad

7 01 2013

Gangster SquadThere were two clear paths to success for “Gangster Squad.”  The first would be to follow the “L.A. Confidential” pattern and take a hardboiled approach to period criminality.  Writer Will Beale crafts his screenplay with various neo-noir elements: the post-war moodiness and shadiness, a little bit of moral ambiguity, and of course, the femme fatale (Emma Stone’s red-haired dynamo Grace Faraday).

The second, and perhaps more reasonable, template would have been Brian DePalma’s 1987 “The Untouchables,” a movie that shares quite a few similarities with Ruben Fleischer’s “Gangster Squad.”  There’s the borderline insane crime lord of a major city who just happens to be played by a two-time Oscar winner (Sean Penn now, Robert DeNiro then).  Because of that de facto tyrant’s chokehold on that city, a team of top law enforcement officials is tasked with bringing him to his knees.

The only difference is Eliot Ness and the Untouchables stayed within the boundaries of the law.  Josh Brolin’s John O’Mara, Ryan Gosling’s Jerry Wooters, and the rest of the titular merry band of extralegal avengers have no such regard for the rules.  They go outside the law to stop a man who is above the law.  But in such a drastically different detail, little new conclusions are ultimately reached.

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