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: Dark Shadows

2 10 2012

I’ve been critical of Tim Burton’s artistic choices over the past decade or so, taking material already marked with an inexorable aesthetic and cultural stamp to put a slight Burton refinishing on the top.  With the exception of “Big Fish” (and “Corpse Bride,” I guess – but that movie was just atrocious), the last 15 years have been one big long commercial for a peculiar visionary, a selling out and a selling of the soul.

I’m not even a big fan of “Edward Scissorhands” or “Ed Wood,” Burton’s two most acclaimed movies that are renowned mainly for their originality and peculiar personality.  So calling “Dark Shadows” a return to form isn’t exactly the phrase I’m looking for, because it still falls into the typical Burton pitfalls.  But it’s a flash of vintage Burton, a film with winning personality and a sharp sense of macabre humor.

That’s largely due to the fact that he draws a fantastic performance out of his choice surrogate, Johnny Depp, whose been acting in a bit of a fog for the past decade.  He’s not the first superstar who’s fallen victim to becoming a great imitator of himself, and he certainly won’t be the last.  Save perhaps Sweeney Todd, we’ve been seeing 50 shades of Jack Sparrow for movie after movie, and that’s really selling Depp short.  His delivery is deliciously deadpan, his period acting totally self-assured in “Dark Shadows,” and that alone makes for a surprising amount of fun.

Depp’s baroque sensibilities as Barnabas Collins, a wealthy heir in the early United States turned immortal vampire, are uproarious when juxtaposed with the 1970s in which he reawakens.  Burton’s version of the decade, a gloriously campy nostalgic pop song, is a fantastic character in and of itself.  It serves as a marvelous foil to Barnabas, unaware of just how different the times have become (and how at times they can be eerily similar).

The script does Depp and the decade a disservice by being clunky, unfocused, and a bit too dragged out.  It inundates us with an ensemble – including the siren who bit Barnabas turned business rival of the Collins family (Eva Green), an austere matriarch (Michelle Pfeiffer), a moody daughter (the ubiquitous Chloe Moretz), and of course Helena Bonham Carter as … um, Helena Bonham Carter – that are never quite sure of how they fit into the story.  That’s particularly true of the governess Victoria Winters (newcomer Bella Heathcote), who begins the film as a lynchpin of the plot only to disappear for nearly the entire movie.  (But don’t worry, she’s back for the climax!)

I would not go as far as to call the screenplay a mere stringing together of events that holds the funny moments together, but those moments are what make the movie memorable and entertaining.  Burton has still yet to make a truly great movie in my estimation, but the man sure can direct some riotous scenes.  B





REVIEW: People Like Us

1 10 2012

“People Like Us” is the kind of tender, domestic drama that has become a specialty for writer/directors like Alexander Payne, Jason Reitman, Tom McCarthy, and Noah Baumbach.  It’s a story meant to provide insight into the human spirit by focusing on a tortured soul in a time of great duress and total life upheaval, lifting up the power of our relationships to either make or break us.  All achieved with the power of pathos.

Well, this movie doesn’t have the Baumbach brain.  Nor the McCarthy might.  And it doesn’t even come close to achieving Payne and Reitman heights.  But consider the two movies that writer/director Alex Kurtzman, along with his co-writer Roberto Orci, scribed prior to “People Like Us;” they were “Cowboys & Aliens” and “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.”  Not exactly tender, heartfelt human dramas.

I’m not a proponent of grading on a curve (although I am a staunch proponent when it comes to my test being graded), but I will say that I’m wiling to cut Kurtzman and Orci some slack because they didn’t churn out “The Descendants” or “Up in the Air” on their first try.  (I will note, however, that “Citizen Ruth” and “Thank You for Smoking,” their respective debut features, are both highly impressive.)  All things considered, “People Like Us” is an entertaining and fairly keenly observed film.  It hits a few flat notes along its journey, but there are enough powerful and touching moments scattered throughout the film to make it redeemable.

As Sam, a barterer whose shady dealings lead him into hot water with the SEC at the time of his father’s death, Chris Pine shines in a role that allows him to shed the cocky exoskeleton coating him from too long in rom-com purgatory.  Baring flashes of his raw soul, he’s fairly easy to sympathize with in spite of his character’s frustrating actions.  Like Robert Pattinson in “Cosmopolis,” it’s not an announcement that a true dramatic virtuoso has arrived on the scene, rather a signpost pointing towards greater things to come.

The real story of “People Like Us,” though, is Elizabeth Banks.  Her struggling mother Frankie, a former alcoholic trying to keep her world in orbit, is the key to Sam coming to peace with a painful and unacknowledged part of his past.  It’s absolutely heartbreaking to watch her in all good intentions trying to restore her faith in others while we know she’s headed down a path that can only lead back to an all too familiar pain.  And it’s Banks who makes her such a light on the screen.  Frankie is not merely a character in her gifted hands.  She’s a person, with troubles, with issues, with worries, with anxieties, with struggles, with small triumphs … like us.  B





REVIEW: New Year’s Eve

2 01 2012

What were you doing this new year’s eve?  I hope you were celebrating with those you love or just celebrating in general.  But if you happened to be at the movie theater, I pray that you were nowhere near the egregious load of crap disguised as a movie called “New Year’s Eve.”  If you were one of those looking to get in the holiday spirit, I surmise you walked out not blissful for the year to come but rather disgusted that movies like this are allowed to exist.

Only see the movie for the following reasons:

1. You for some reason like to watch bad actors doing bad acting.  Yes, Katherine Heigl, you should not have spit in Judd Apatow’s face because he actually gave you a multi-dimensional character.  Now, enjoy being stuck in movies like this and “Life As We Know It” for the rest of your life.  Zac Efron … it’s official, your glory days were in the “High School Musical” era.  And in case you need a reminder, many musicians can’t act – looking at you, Ludacris and Jon Bon Jovi.  Oh, and Lea Michele too, who somehow to forgot how to act between “Spring Awakening” and “New Year’s Eve,” picking up how to be a gratingly obnoxious diva.  (Wait, she got that from “Glee!”  Thanks a lot, Ryan Murphy…)

2. You for some reason like to watch good actors doing bad acting.  Can you count the Oscar wins and nominations on this poster?  13 Oscar nominations and 5 wins.  While we can’t get the Academy to reclaim the statues (and indeed they shouldn’t), we as a public can take away their credibility and prestige.  I just don’t understand why Robert DeNiro can’t seem to stop the out-of-control downward spiral that is his career.  Strangely enough, the most unbearable members of the cast is a horserace between two-time Oscar champion Hilary Swank and three-time Oscar nominee Michelle Pfeiffer.  Any good will for a career comeback after “Hairspray” just went down the drain.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (September 17, 2010)

17 09 2010

I don’t know why I have let “I Am Sam” wait in the wings so long for its moment in the sun through the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” column, but it certainly reflects nothing on the quality of the movie.  For those of us who like to feel good, this a movie that will comfort your soul – although it will take you on an emotional rollercoaster ride leading up to your eventual soothing.

The title may be taken from the opening sentence of “Green Eggs and Ham,” but “I Am Sam” owes more to The Beatles than it does to Dr. Seuss.  The movie follows Fab Four fanatic and Starbucks employee Sam, played with complete control by the virtuoso Sean Penn, as he fights to maintain custody of his daughter Lucy (Dakota Fanning in her breakout role – at the age of 7).  The state has good reason to take her as Sam is mentally challenged; Lucy came into the world because her mother exploited Sam’s lacking logical capacity.

Despite whatever cognitive disabilities he may have, Sam’s ability to love his daughter is uninhibited, and he makes a wholehearted attempt to keep her.  He consults a harried lawyer, Rita Harrison, (Michelle Pfeiffer) for help, who on first glance won’t give his case the time of day.  But for entirely misguided and selfish reasons, she agrees to take Sam on pro bono.  As she gets more involved with the case, Rita winds up being taught how to feel by his undying love for his daughter.

I know it sounds clichéd to say that a movie about the power of love is a really moving thing, but every once in a while, there comes a movie that comes along that can repackage old emotions and make them feel warm and cozy again.  “I Am Sam” tackles a tough ethical question: should a mentally handicapped person be able to have custody of a child that is more intelligent than they are?  No matter what your opinion on the matter is, it’s pretty hard not to be affected in some way by this testament to love that can transcend any boundary.





REVIEW: Cheri

13 08 2009

When I started this blog, my plan was to publish movie reviews in reverse chronological order, that is, starting with the most recent and moving backwards.  However, in my haste to crank out review after review, I skipped over “Cheri.”  I think that is a testament to the movie itself.  It is fairly forgettable and mediocre, the only bright spot being Michelle Pfeiffer’s spectacular performance.  Unfortunately, it will not receive the attention that it rightfully deserves because the rest of the movie is a chaotic mess with no narrative poise.

Lea (Pfeiffer) is an aging courtesan in the Belle Époque period in France who has one last fling with the introverted Cheri (Rupert Friend), the son of one of her best friends (played by Kathy Bates).  She teaches him lessons that his mother never did, including how to be kind to his future wife.  Although she denies it, Lea ends up falling for Cheri.  Unfortunately, he has to be married.  That was the first 30 minutes of the film.  The other hour was an absolute mess that bored me to tears.  By the time that the emotional climax of the film rolled around, I honestly couldn’t have cared less.

Pfeiffer is ablaze in “Cheri,” a welcome comeback to the role of a leading lady for the star.  She is willing to acknowledge and act her age, a rarity in Hollywood nowadays.  Lea is the only character whose emotions seem logical, and I think that is so only because of Pfeiffer.  Kathy Bates is bearable, but Rupert Friend is just horrific.  He thinks he can hide behind his looks and not act, and that never works.  He phones in a performance without any driver whatsoever.  The second act focuses more on him, which may be why it was so gut-wrenchingly awful to watch.

Movies set in this time period seem tailored (no pun intended) to win Oscars for their costumes, and the threads are intricately woven for this movie.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this won the Oscar for Best Costume Design.  The narrative power of the movie is quite frankly atrocious.  A narrator pops up randomly every once in a while to provide some worthless information.  Utilizing such a corny element in a movie that takes itself so seriously was an ill-advised move.  The movie jumps from emotion to emotion constantly, and all of them are poorly developed.  It goes from sensual to sweet to sad to boring to heartbreaking to just plain depressing in a matter of 90 minutes.  Overall, the movie just leaves a bitter taste in your mouth, which is a shame because I do think that Pfeiffer gives one of the best performances of the year.  C+ / 2stars