Reel Opinions


Friday, July 31, 2015

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation

The real gift of Tom Cruise as an actor is that he makes it so effortless for you to forget all of your personal thoughts of him or his beliefs, and just focus on being entertained.  I will admit, in real life, Cruise kind of irritates me when I see him in interviews, or when I hear his views on certain subjects.  It's a personal thing.  And yet, in every Mission: Impossible film, I completely forget about all that, and find myself completely drawn in both to his performance and the movie he's in.  Rogue Nation is no different, and is the best pure action summer entertainment we've had this year since Mad Max.

In the 19 years since the film franchise began, the series has evolved beyond merely being based on a classic TV show, and has taken on a life of its own.  Cruise has grown into the character of Ethan Hunt, mixing the right amount of adrenaline-fueled action with self-knowing humor.  I think it has also helped that each installment has had a different director, who is able to bring their own unique style to the franchise.  This time, the writer-director is Christopher McQuarrie, who previously worked with Cruise on Jack Reacher, but is perhaps best known for writing the classic thriller, The Usual Suspects.  He shows a wonderful ability on how to keep things moving.  His action sequences are frantic and impressive, but never feel overwhelming.  But more than that, he knows how to tell a compelling and complex story without falling into the trap of convolution too often. (There are some instances, but they probably could not be avoided.) The Mission: Impossible film series is that rare franchise that has only improved with time.

This time, Ethan Hunt finds himself on the trail of an evil offshoot of the secret IMF agency known only as The Syndicate, which is composed mostly of former agents who have gone missing or are suspected to be dead.  Their leader is a steely British agent (Sean Harris), whose scheme seems to go directly into the government.  While Hunt is spanning the world on the trail, back in the U.S., the IMF agency finds itself under suspicion of C.I.A. head Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), who demands that the IMF be dissolved, and become part of his agency.  Naturally, Ethan does not follow orders, and continues on his own personal trail after The Syndicate.  He is soon joined by fellow IMF agents Benji (Simon Pegg, providing good comic relief here), Luther (Ving Rhames, who has been with the series since the beginning) and relative newcomer William Brandt (Jeremy Renner).  Along the way, he is also joined up by the beautiful and strong Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson), who may or may not be a double agent, and constantly causes Ethan to question which side she is on.

If there was any doubt early on as to why the studio was releasing the latest entry in such a reliable franchise so close to August (a time usually reserved for lesser summer movies), it fades away the moment we see the opening action sequence, which has already been shown partly in the trailer, where Cruise actually hangs onto the outside of a plane during takeoff without the aid of CG or a stunt double.  It's quite similar to the opening of a Bond movie, which usually has a spectacular stunt right before the opening credits kick off.  What's amazing is that even with that amazing kick off, that's not even the best action sequence Rogue Nation has to offer.  There's an amazing (and surprisingly funny) car and motorcycle chase, as well as a tense and well executed sequence set backstage at an opera.  And it would be a crime to reveal anything about the sequence built around a massive tank of water, so I'll leave that for you to enjoy for yourself.

When you stop and think about it, this really does act like a very strong entry in the earlier Bond films (before Daniel Craig took over) that emphasized over the top action, gadgets and special effects.  It never gets too silly, but it knows how to have fun at its own expense.  Even the female lead, Ilsa, seems to be written right out of the Bond-girl playbook.  She's strong willed and even stronger in a fight.  But, unlike most Bond girls, she does have to be called upon to save Hunt's life once in a while when he gets in over his head.  But, I enjoyed this aspect.  I also enjoyed how the film worked Pegg's character, Benji, into the plot and the role that he plays in Ethan's mission.  This is a very well thought out summer movie, where the action never eclipses the characters, while still keeping a frantic pace throughout. 

Rogue Nation doesn't quite top the last entry, Ghost Protocol, as my favorite in the series.  But, it does come pretty close, and has more than enough individual strengths to make it a strong late summer contender.  It's rare for me to be wishing for a sixth film in a series, but this time around, I definitely am.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Vacation

The update/modern day reboot of the venerable Vacation film franchise is fairly middle of the road, and never quite works up to the level of absurd humor that the better entries of the earlier films (1983's original Vacation and 1989's Christmas Vacation) displayed in spades.  However, I must admit in honesty that there was one element in this film that truly made me laugh out loud, pretty much every time it showed up on the screen.  That one element is the car that the current Griswold clan uses to drive cross country to the infamous theme park, Wally World.

The car is a boxy monstrosity from Albania, and is an inspired bit of lunacy on the part of writers-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein.  It's so convoluted and complex and makes so little sense, I often found myself laughing just looking at it.  The car's central feature is that it comes with a wide variety of buttons that seemingly either do nothing, or something completely nonsensical.  One button causes the driver's seat to swivel in a 360 degree motion for absolutely no reason, while another causes the rear bumper to fall off.  Even better, the buttons and how they are labeled are just as nonsensical as the features themselves.  The buttons are labeled with obscure pictures that couldn't possibly hint at what the button is supposed to do.  The labels include such random images as a top hat, a rabbit, a muffin, and even a swastika. ("I'm not touching that button", proclaims the Griswold patriarch, played by Ed Helms).  The car comes equipped with a GPS that screams at the driver in an angry Korean voice, and even includes cup holders...On the outside of the car.   It has two gas tanks, but seems to run out of gas on a regular basis, usually less than an hour after being on the road.

If everything else about Vacation had been as hilariously warped as the car the filmmakers have dreamed up, we'd probably be looking at the funniest comedy of the year so far.  Unfortunately, everything else about this update is so banal, it's almost not worth mentioning.  The film more or less follows the same template as the original 1983 movie, which featured Chevy Chase as the dad trying desperately to wring as much fun as he could out of a horrible family vacation where everything went wrong.  Just like before, the movie is made up entirely out of black out gags, or moments of black humor tied into odd encounters the family experiences on the road.  But whereas the original movie had such memorable moments as the dog that was tied to the bumper, or the ultimate fate of crabby old Aunt Edna, this movie comes up short in just about every way.  We get references to pedophile truck drivers, scuzzy motel rooms, drunken sorority houses, and suicidal river rafting guides.  But the movie never really goes the extra mile and tries to make these things actually funny.  It's like the filmmakers are checking off items on a list of things that could possibly be offensive but humorous, and forgot to add the second and most crucial part.

The main character in this film is Rusty Griswold, who was depicted as a teenager in the earlier movies (most notably by Anthony Michael Hall in the original), but is now an adult played by Ed Helms.  He's grown up to be a pilot for a cheap econo-airline and has a family of his own, which includes his supportive wife Debbie (Christina Applegate, likable, but underused here), sensitive teenage son James (Skyler Gisondo), and youngest son Kevin (Steele Stebbins), who seems to be a little psychopath in training, and likes to terrorize his older brother by smothering him with a plastic bag to see how long he can last until he passes out.  Rusty begins to notice that his family is bored and in a bit of a rut, so he springs the idea on them of a surprise trip to Wally World, the amusement park destination that the earlier Griswold clan trekked to in the first Vacation film.  They all pile into that hilarious car, and have a series of little adventures on the road.  These include a visit to a toxic raw sewage pond (which they mistake for a mineral hot spring), and a visit to Rusty's sister Audrey (Leslie Mann), who is now married to TV weatherman Stone Crandall (Chris Hemsworth), a rugged Texan with an exaggerated accent, and a large prosthetic in his shorts that is always sticking out through his boxers.

None of this is exactly bad necessarily, and while the movie can be gross, it never really offends.  It just never goes the extra mile to be truly funny.  We may smile from time to time, but outside of the gags involving the car, I never actually laughed.  In fact, there are some moments where the filmmakers actually seem to be pulling back from offending anybody.  When Rusty's family visits his sister Audrey, they make a point to mention that her husband is a far right-leaning Republican, and that his values clash with the rest of the family.  Yet, when they arrive at Audrey's home, this is never really brought up, nor are political views even hinted at or joked about.  I understand that the directors are obviously trying not to offend a certain portion of their audience, but at the same time, it feels like a set up without a punchline.  None of the individual adventures the family experiences on the road are all that memorable, and while some moments may elicit a mild chuckle, most of the jokes fall flat.

But at least the actors seem to be trying their best with the material they've been given.  That's more than can be said of Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo, who make an extended cameo as their characters from the earlier movies.  Rusty's family pays them a visit at one point, and we learn that Clark and Ellen Griswold have retired and now run an unsuccessful bed and breakfast.  This leads to a lot of painful scenes of Chase bungling around in an awkward and slow manner, as he fumbles about in a sad attempt to recapture the kind of physical humor that made him a star back in his Saturday Night Live days.  It's like watching somebody well past their prime being forced against his will to perform, and he looks uncomfortable doing it.  It's supposed to get laughs, but we really just end up being depressed.  D'Angelo, meanwhile, is given so little to do in her scenes that she may as well have not shown up at all.  Fortunately, this only goes on for about five minutes, though it feels a lot longer when you're watching Chase's personal humiliation, and the filmmakers expect you to laugh.

Vacation is horribly uneven, and often not that funny, but I will admit to laughing out loud a few times, mostly at the Griswold car.  It's a stroke of comedic gold in an otherwise fairly drab film.  Considering how many comedies I've sat through this year that have had no laughs at all, this at least puts it in the mid-range.  You may have the odd laugh, but you likely won't remember anything about the film a month from now.

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Sunday, July 26, 2015

Southpaw

The last time we saw Jake Gyllenhaal on the big screen was in Nightcrawler, where he played the wide-eyed and nearly skeletal antihero, Louis Bloom.  It was a performance that should have earned an Oscar nomination, but sadly he was looked over.  Now he's back in Southpaw, and he looks much more muscular, toned and dangerous.  And while his performance here does not stand out quite as much, the transformation he has undergone between the two films is remarkable.

Southpaw tells a very familiar story of a professional boxer who hits rock bottom, and then tries to work his way back up to the top.  It's the kind of movie where you can pretty much predict every story beat just by watching the trailer.  And yet, it's an effective work.  Gyllenhaal has not only transformed himself physically for playing the boxer Billy Hope (now there's a name only a screenwriter could love), but he does manage to give a very raw and emotional performance.  But the real find here is child actress Oona Laurence, who plays his 10-year-old daughter, Leila.  It's one of the best child performances I have seen in a long time.  She's truly in the moment from the instant she's up on the screen, and never comes across like she is acting.  She has to go through some very hard and emotionally heavy scenes, and she pulls each one off effortlessly.  I really hope this kid goes on to big things, but even if she doesn't, she will always have this breakthrough performance.  The chemistry that the two actors share as father and daughter overcomes any predictable plot contrivances that make up the script.

As the film opens, Billy is the reigning boxing champ, but he is nearing the end of his career.  His wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams) is worried about him, especially after the fight he goes through at the start of the film goes into extended rounds, and though he wins, he is beat, bloody and barely conscious by the end.  Maureen wants Billy to take a break out of fear he will end up punch-drunk if he keeps at it.  Billy grew up in a child's services home, which is where he met Maureen in the first place.  He is surrounded by friends and supporters, who happen to enjoy his wealthy lifestyle and lavish home.  They are the ones who encourage him to continue fighting.  There is also a brash new young fighter climbing the professional ranks named Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez), who is chomping at the bit to fight Billy, and frequently disrupts his press conferences with taunts and challenges to fight him in the ring. 

Tragedy strikes in Billy's life when he is attending a charity event.  While walking through the hotel lobby with his wife, Miguel shows up and starts taunting him again, this time making personal insults toward Maureen.  An actual brawl breaks out between the two fighters right there, and in the end, a gunshot goes off from somewhere in the middle of the chaos.  Maureen is fatally wounded, and this sends Billy into a spiraling and violent depression.  He loses custody of young Leila, who is sent to live in a home until Billy can get a job and put his life back together.  But fighting is the only thing that he knows how to do.  He takes a job helping out at a local gym run by a retired fighter named Tick (Forest Whitaker), who tries to help troubled kids get off the streets.  It is here that Billy will try to put his shattered life together, and win back the respect of his daughter.

Southpaw may be predictable in its plotting, but the script is a little better than you would expect, as the drama has some truth for it.  Yes, some moments are played up rather large for the sake of melodrama, but whenever Billy and Leila are together, the movie creates a wonderful relationship as both are shattered by the loss of their wife/mother, and realize that it was Maureen who always kept things running in their home.  Billy has never had to do anything but bring money in from his fighting.  Now he has to not only win his daughter's trust and prove to the court system that he can support her on his own, but he also has to truly raise her for the first time.  They had always been best friends, now he has to truly be a father, and there are some great moments as this realization dawns on him.  Again, as good as Gyllenhaal is, it is young Oona Laurence who really demands our attention.  She gives a mature performance, but not so much so that she comes across as a kid imitating an adult.  She acts like a kid who is being forced to grow up a lot faster than she or anyone else would like.

What also saves the film from falling into the pit of predictability is the direction by Antoine Furqua.  When he is filming the fight scenes, they are energetic, sometimes putting us right in the action by having the boxers seemingly pummeling the camera.  He also does a great job contrasting the different sides of Billy's life.  In the ring, he is a confident and crazed fighter with blood dripping from his mouth by the end of the bout.  Outside, his head is hung low, almost like a child.  He is not good communicating with those he is not comfortable with, and when he must face a Judge in a courtroom or a case worker at the home where his daughter is, he shrinks and almost does not want to be seen.  These moments feel real, and show us how some fighters may behave when dealt with emotional blows instead of physical ones.

Southpaw is a familiar, but effective film.  It doesn't always hit the right notes (a subplot concerning a troubled kid Billy bonds with at the gym feels like a cheap shot to wring tears, especially how it is concluded), but the performances and the realism of the fights make it worth watching.  Not every movie needs to be original to be successful, and not every movie about boxing needs to be Rocky, Raging Bull or Million Dollar Baby

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Saturday, July 25, 2015

Pixels

Say what you will about the current body of work of Adam Sandler, but the thing is, the guy always at least seems to be having fun making his movies.  In Pixels, we get to see a very different Sandler.  He is deflated, kind of quiet, and looks tired.  Maybe he was having doubts about the project while he was making it, or maybe he knew that people would be coming to see the special effects and not him, so he just didn't feel the need to try as hard.

Pixels is a supremely dimwitted movie built around a premise that could have been clever if only it had been given room to breathe amongst the effects and the lame jokes.  We learn that in the early 80s, a time capsule containing video footage of pop culture of the time period was shot out into outer space in the hopes of possibly reaching alien life.  Amongst that footage was a tape of a 1982 video game tournament.  The capsule did reach an alien life, who somehow interpreted the footage as a declaration of war from Earth.  Now, some 33 years after the footage was shot out into the stars, the aliens have decided to attack Earth with giant monsters that take the form of video game icons like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong.  Far-fetched as the idea behind the movie sounds, I think it could have worked as a special effects comedy.  It would just need to be fleshed out - Maybe make the aliens extremely stupid or something to help explain how they could interpret the footage of 80s pop culture as a war declaration.

The movie gives us nothing, and so it quickly turns into a series of ideas up on the screen with nothing to connect them to anything, other than the filmmakers thought the visuals would look really good.  We learn nothing about the aliens - Who they are, where they come from, how they misinterpreted the videos so badly, and why they waited so long to attack us.  And why attack Earth with video games in the first place?  Are we to believe they have the technology to create giant, deadly versions of video game characters, but not a weapon powerful enough to destroy all the Earth at once?  Why go through all this trouble?  If you want to destroy Earth, as these aliens apparently do, just destroy it, don't toy with the humans by sending Pac-Man down to the streets of Manhattan.  And just what do these aliens want?  Near the end of the film, we hear the President of the United States (Sandler regular Kevin James) talk about negotiations with the aliens.  Yet, we don't see this happen, nor do we hear about what these negotiations entailed.  Wouldn't it be kind of nice to know just what these aliens wanted in these all-important negotiations?  Hello?  Is anybody listening?

Adam Sandler stars in the film as Sam Brenner, a guy who peaked when he was 13-years-old when he almost beat the reigning video game champ at Donkey Kong at the previously mentioned 1982 tournament.  Since then, his life has been pretty aimless as he makes a living hooking up entertainment centers in people's homes.  His childhood best friend Cooper (Kevin James) has done a little better than him, growing up to be President.  However, Cooper's poll numbers are in the toilet, and he tells Sam early on that his wife hates him.  What's puzzling is that when we see Cooper and the First Lady a little while later, they're having fun making a cake together for some reason, and goofing around.  But I digress.  Reports start coming into the White House from all over the world that military bases are being attacked by mysterious ships that resemble the galactic alien bug villains from the classic arcade game Galaga.  Seeing that the enemy ships are using the exact same attack pattern that they did in the games, the President decides that the best course of action is to have Brenner lead a crack squad of classic video game addicts to fight back against the advancing video game hoard.

Two other players from the old days join Brenner in battle.  They include Ludlow (Josh Gad), an obnoxious man-child who is obsessed with conspiracy theories and is equally obsessed with a video game heroine the filmmakers made up named Lady Lisa, and Eddie (Peter Dinklage), an egotistical gamer who was the one who beat Brenner at that video game tournament years ago, and is now in prison for computer hacking crimes.  His demands for helping Brenner out?  A full pardon for his crimes, and a sexual three-way with him, Serena Williams and Martha Stewart.  If Sandler can be accused of not bringing enough life to his performance, then Gad and Dinklage bring too much, and often come across as being shrill.  The guys must participate in real life recreations of classic video games, such as blasting digital Centipedes that drop from the sky over Hyde Park in London, or chasing after Pac-Man in "ghost cars" through the streets of New York.  These lengthy effect sequences that recreate classic games in real world environments are obviously intended to be the highlights of the film.  And while they are well executed, the film's ad campaign has already given away almost everything there is to see.

So, what do we have left to look forward to in-between these special effects sequences?  A lot of filler dialogue, some one-liners that barely register a chuckle, and an ineffective romantic subplot between Brenner and one of the President's lead military officers (Michelle Monaghan).  What's strange is that in all these scenes when the characters are not being attacked by video game monsters, nobody seems to act like there is an alien invasion going on at all.  They're like scenes from another movie.  At one point, the young son of Brenner's love interest is kidnapped by the aliens, yet she barely seems bothered by this, except when she actually enters the alien mothership, and sees her boy in the clutches of Donkey Kong.  Even then, she doesn't seem all that visibly upset.

Very little makes sense in Pixels, and there are many moments where it seems like the screenwriters are just making the stuff up as they went along during a marathon writing session.  Why do the aliens communicate to the humans through poorly dubbed video tape footage of 80s icons like President Reagan, Hall and Oates, Madonna and Max Headroom whenever they issue threats to Earth?  And why do the aliens reward Sandler and his team for beating them at games with "trophies" that include video game pets?  When Sandler's team beat the Centipede challenge, we see a little old lady get rewarded with the video game dog from Nintendo's Duck Hunt.  When they win at Pac-Man, the heroes are rewarded with Q-Bert, who becomes kind of a sidekick/annoying comic relief to Sandler for the rest of the movie.  Again, none of this is explained.  It just happens.  A lot of stuff in this movie just seems to happen for no reason.

I imagine little kids will have fun with Pixels, though they likely won't get all the old video game references and in-jokes.  Anyone old enough to have played or remember these games back in the day may get a sense of nostalgia here and there, but are likely to be bored the rest of the time.  The thing is, with some effort, I could see this movie working.  All it would need is a star who acted like he actually wanted to be in the movie, and a script that actually tried to make sense of itself.

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Friday, July 24, 2015

Paper Towns

I did not buy the premise of Paper Towns for a second, but oddly enough, I didn't care.  The movie is oddly engaging, despite its implausible storyline, and the fact that the only reason why the kids in this movie get away with what they do is because their parents are hardly ever around.  The movie has the light, somewhat comedic feel of a John Hughes teen drama.  The kids in the movie may not be fully realistic, but there is enough honesty to the characters that we do eventually get behind them.

Our lead character and narrator of this coming of age story is Quentin (Nat Wolff), a high school senior who is pretty much defined by his conformity.  He gets straight A's, never gets in trouble, and has never really taken a risk in his life.  His main goals in life at age 18 is to go to med school, graduate, get married, and have two kids by the time he's 30.  Quintin lives across the street from Margo (Cara Delevigne), a popular girl at school whom he has secretly obsessed over since she moved into her current home.  They were friends as kids, and went on a variety of adventures around the neighborhood, but they drifted apart over time.  Margo is a free spirit, prone to disappearing from school or her home at random moments in order to find some kind of amazing adventure.  She's pretty much the kind of girl you meet only in your dreams, or the movies.

Margo comes back into Quentin's life when she climbs through his bedroom window one night, and asks him to come with her to get revenge on her ex-boyfriend, as well as some of her best friends whom she feels have wronged her.  The two seem to reconnect during their night together of pulling elaborate pranks, but when Quentin wakes up the next morning, he learns that Margo has disappeared once again without telling anyone where she has gone.  But then, Quentin begins to realize that Margo has left a series of clues that he thinks he is supposed to follow in order to find her.  The clues are quite cryptic, so this naturally means that Quentin and his two best friends from school can solve them in a matter of seconds, or stumble upon the answer almost immediately nearby.  The search for Margo will force Quentin to get out of his "comfort zone", search spooky abandoned buildings for clues, cut school, and go on a road trip to New York State.

I'll say it again, watching Paper Towns requires a certain suspension of disbelief.  The movie is based on a novel by John Green, who also wrote the book that inspired last year's effective teen tearjerker, The Fault in Our Stars.  That movie was a bit more grounded and dramatically effective.  This is more of a teenage flight of fancy mixed with a coming of age story.  There are a lot of moments where the audience will just have to throw logic out the window in order to buy the premise, such as why do we hardly ever see the parents of these kids, and why would their parents just let them leave on a thousand mile road trip at a moment's notice without warning?  What grounds these kids in some kind of reality is that they are intelligent, and talk about things smart teenagers would talk about.  When Quentin hangs out with his two best friends, Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith), they have conversations that you might overhear smart kids sharing with each other.  The dialogue does not sound scripted, and it does not sound like something out of a sitcom.

That's because just like The Fault in Our Stars, the script for this movie was provided by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who are quickly shaping up to be the go-to team for smart teen films about love. (They wrote The Spectacular Now, as well as (500) Days of Summer.) Again, they show a real honesty with the way they have young people talk, and they have the characters talk about interesting things, such as Walt Whitman and the music of Woody Guthrie.  Even the humor in the movie has a ring of truth to it.  When Quentin, Ben and Radar must psyche themselves up in order to enter a scary abandoned building, the guys decide to sing a song in order to work up their courage.  What song do they choose to sing?  The Pokemon theme song, of course.  This makes sense.  It's a song tied into something from their childhood that they shared together, and puts them in a good mood.  It's a nice touch that we don't usually see in youth movies, who usually portray their characters as being sex-driven, or as shallow as a brick.

All of the main characters are written very well here, from Quentin and his friends, right down to Margo's former best friend, Lacey (Halston Sage), who starts the movie off as an unobtainable beauty, but winds up having more to her character before the film is over.  It's the intelligence of these characters that kept me involved, no matter how stupid the plot got at times.  I mean, if a couple of kids broke into your house, vandalized it, and shaved off one of your son's eyebrows in his sleep in an act of revenge, would you not call the police?  And are parents really so totally okay with letting their kids cut school, and drive cross country from Orlando to New York State on a whim?  Yes, I was asking these kind of questions the entire time I was watching the film, but I got wrapped up enough in the characters and dialogue that I was still willing to give the film a pass.

As long as you don't think about the plot of Paper Towns too much, this can be an emotionally rewarding movie with good performances.  It harkens back to the films of John Hughes, where the kids were allowed to be smart, and be funny and honest.  Sure, the kids in Hughes' movies did impossible things too, sometimes. (Just how did Ferris Bueller fit everything he did into one afternoon?) But just like those films, this one understands that if the characters are interesting and work, we can suspend disbelief just as long as we get to spend time with them.

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Saturday, July 18, 2015

Trainwreck

In Trainwreck, our attention is supposed to be focused on Amy Schumer, the TV comedian who stars in the film and wrote it as well.  However, my attention was mainly focused on Bill Hader, the former Saturday Night Live star who plays Schumer's love interest.  After his surprisingly nuanced performance in last year's The Skeleton Twins and now this, Hader is shaping up to be an actor to watch closely.

Schumer is very good too, though to be honest, I liked her better in this movie when she isn't trying to desperately shock or gross us out.  She has a natural comic talent here, and can often be very funny.  But she also often goes for broke, and doesn't get as many laughs as she may be trying for.  The character that she plays is also named Amy, and though it's not exactly autobiographical, there are some elements that both the actress and the character she plays share.  The Amy that is up on the screen is a boozing, pot-smoking caricature that makes Ted, the foul-mouthed teddy bear from the Seth McFarlane movies, seem subtle in comparison.  She spends half of her life sleeping around with a wide variety of men that she picks up in bars almost every night, and the other half working for a men's magazine where articles with topics like "Are you bored with your wife, or are you just gay?" are pitched to the magazine's editor (Tilda Swinton), who seems to be channeling the Meryl Streep character from The Devil Wears Prada

If there's one thing this movie shows is that Schumer has no problem with showing us the worst sides of the character she plays.  She is frequently drunk, hungover, in embarrassing sexual situations (there is a funny scene where she tries to get her muscle-bound simple-minded boyfriend to talk dirty to her during sex), or projectile vomits.  Again, Schumer shows a talent here, but a lot of the shock humor isn't as funny as the movie seems to think it is.  Amy and her younger sister, Kim (Brie Larson), were taught by their father as little girls that "monogamy doesn't work", and he drilled that idea into his daughters' heads.  Now in the present, Kim is happily married and expecting her first child (her husband already has a son from another marriage), their father (Colin Quinn) is in a medical home battling MS, and Amy herself has taken her father's words to heart, and refuses to settle down with a single man.

That changes when Amy is assigned to write an article for the magazine about a doctor who works with professional athletes and their injuries.  Aaron Conners (Bill Hader).  Aaron has an awkward, kind of geeky charm that instantly appeals to Amy, even though she won't admit it at first.  He's completely different from all the other men in her life, in that he is smart, respectful, and actually interested in her for reasons that don't involve sex.  As Amy and Aaron start to come together, and a relationship between them seems possible, the movie starts to find its focus and I started to enjoy it more.  While the scenes depicting Amy's wild party lifestyle had some laughs, the movie seemed somewhat rambling and too intent on shocking us instead of entertaining us.  Once Aaron enters the story, the movie does take a more conventional romantic comedy approach, but one that doesn't seem lame or forced.

Like a lot of R-rated comedies aimed at adults, Trainwreck wants to shock us at first, but then it eventually wants us to warm up to the characters and sympathize with them.  This approach seldom works, but it does here, because I think Schumer finally gets a grasp on her character.  She stops trying to go for broad laughs non stop, and starts actually developing a character with emotions.  There are some surprisingly effective dramatic scenes between Amy and her family (particularly her father) that I will not reveal here, but gives the film a level of maturity and nuance that I was not expecting.  This is also the part where the movie finally started to come together for me.  Schumer and Hader have great on screen chemistry, and Schumer has written a strong starring role for herself, which not only gets to show her comedic skills, but also her acting ability.  Like I said, she did base certain elements of her character and her family in the film on her own life, so there is some honesty behind the film.

As good as the film's two lead stars are, the big surprise here is basketball superstar, LeBron James, who has a fairly large supporting role as himself, who is good friends with the Aaron Conners character.  He shows a wonderful gift of comic timing and line delivery, as sometimes just hearing how he delivers a line can bring laughs.  He's not just a sports celebrity making an extended cameo here.  He's giving a genuinely funny comedic performance that ranks as one of the better ones I've seen this year.  I actually wouldn't mind seeing him tackling some other roles in the future.  He shares a number of his scenes with Bill Hader, and can pretty much match the comic veteran in every scene they're in together.  Speaking of Hader, he makes for a surprisingly likable romantic lead, and not only shares a great deal of chemistry with his female co-star, but has great screen presence on his own.

This is somewhat of a sloppy movie, that didn't really seem to be going anywhere early on, but gradually won my attention.  By the end, I had fallen for the characters, and wanted to see them get together.  But most of all, by the time it was over, I really just wanted it to end.  Like a lot of recent comedies, this movie seems far longer than it needs to be.  Part of this is expected, since the film's director is Judd Apatow, a filmmaker who makes good movies, but really needs an editor.  There's quite a bit of useless fluff in this film that could have easily been cut to make it shorter.  The scene that immediately comes to mind that should have ended up on the cutting room floor is a late scene where a bunch of celebrities show up for no reason, and try to stage a "love intervention" for Hader's character.  The scene goes on too long, is not that funny, and seems to exist simply because a few famous people happened to be visiting the set that day.  This is one of those movies that is good now, but might have been better with a slightly leaner running time.

Regardless, Trainwreck did manage to win me over as it went along, and that is the important thing.  The movie starts off kind of messy and raunchy, but it ends on a kind of dorky sweet note that is self aware, and even manages to have a little bit of fun with some romantic comedy cliches, such as having one of the lovers running across the city in order to be with the other after an argument threatens to split them up.  This is not a perfect comedy, but it works well enough as a star vehicle for Amy Schumer, and I think this movie shows she has more than enough talent to carry another film.

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at Amazon.com!

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Friday, July 17, 2015

Ant-Man

In the grand scheme of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Ant-Man feels like a fairly minor entry.  Don't take that to mean it's bad, as it's certainly not at all.  It's actually quite funny and enjoyable.  But anyone walking in expecting a summer thrill ride movie along the lines of The Avengers or its sequel is going to be disappointed. 

This is essentially a two hour origin story, setting up the Ant-Man, who his alter ego is, and how he gets his powers.  At times, it feels like a really long set up for a much more exciting sequel, where we will finally get to see the character cut loose.  Ordinarily, I can't stand it when movies do this.  But here, a strong cast and a playful sense of humor holds our interest.  We have Paul Rudd as Scott Lang, who eventually becomes the Ant-Man, with the ability to shrink himself to miniscule size and control his namesake insects.  Michael Douglas plays the wise mentor role, and it's good to see him up on the big screen again.  Evangeline Lilly plays Douglas' estranged daughter, who becomes an eventual love interest for Rudd.  A scene that plays during the end credits hints at much bigger things for her character in the inevitable sequel.  Finally, Corey Stoll plays the evil Darren Cross, who eventually adapts a super villain persona named Yellowjacket.  In the Marvel films, the villain has frequently been the most forgettable part of the movie, and that does not change here, though Stoll is appropriately bombastic in a slimy way.

What sets Ant-Man apart from other superhero films under the Marvel label is that it's more concerned with having fun than it is about having its hero save the world.  I know, last year's Guardians of the Galaxy did the same approach, but that wasn't really a superhero movie, it was more of a comedic space opera.  This movie feels a lot lighter, maybe even sillier than your average superhero origin.  Even the big climactic battle between Ant-Man and Yellowjacket doesn't take itself seriously for a moment, which is kind of refreshing.  The movie is a lot of fun, especially when it comes to the special effects.  There are some really inventive set pieces, and I like the way the filmmakers use the hero's shrinking ability to create some hilariously perilous moments, such as when a toy train set turns into a towering force of destruction when the hero is in micro form.  A comic actor like Paul Rudd may seem like an odd choice to join the roster of Marvel superheroes, but he really does a great job grabbing our attention almost the moment he walks on screen, and he manages to hold onto that attention.  He's also apparently been working out quite a bit, if this movie is any indication.

The plot starts off centered around the Douglas character, a scientist named Hank Pym.  40 years ago, he created a technology that could shrink physical matter.  He even created a super-powered outfit that he could wear that allowed Hank to make himself miniscule, but still possessing incredible strength and agility.  After some field tests, Hank decided that the suit and the technology itself was too dangerous to be trusted with the military or the government, especially if it would fall into the wrong hands.  Flash forward to the present, and the current head of Pym's technological empire is the evil Darren Cross, who is developing his own technology based on Pym's ideas.  When Hank catches wind of this, he turns to his estranged daughter, Hope van Dyne (Lilly), who is working directly under Cross.  The two decide to dig up Hank's old Ant-Man suit, and find someone new to carry the title, so that he can sabotage Darren's attempts to recreate the technology, and sell it to some shady individuals that are working for an evil organization that Marvel fans will be familiar with.

The man that Hank chooses to wear the suit is ex-con, Scott Lang.  Scott is trying to go straight, so that he can have visitation rights to see his adorable young daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), as well as maybe prove to his ex-wife (Judy Greer) that he's not just a criminal loser who can't hold down a real job.  The way that Hank gets Scott's attention is more than a little convoluted, and involves setting up an elaborate ruse that results in Scott breaking into Hank's mansion, and stealing the suit from a massive safe.  Regardless, the two form a partnership after this, as Scott is convinced assuming a costumed hero identity can redeem his past crimes in the eyes of his little girl.  There are a lot of scenes of Scott trying to learn to use the suit's powers, some of which could have easily been left out to make this movie a little bit of a shorter sit.  Still, the chemistry of Rudd, Douglas and Lilly carry us through this part, and take us to a very fun sequence where Ant-Man must sneak into the villain's lab with the aid of his dim-witted comic relief crime cohorts, led by Michael Pena.

Fun as the movie can be, Ant-Man never really kicks into high gear, which may frustrate some audiences.  It's fairly low key, and the action is pretty much contained in the last 20 minutes or so of the movie.  It is the character of Scott Lang, as well as Rudd's performance, that keeps us invested.  He has an easy to relate to conflict, in that he is essentially a former family man who has made a lot of mistakes, and is trying to reconnect with the ones his actions caused him to lose.  The movie never really gets slowed down too much by the drama, nor does it feel like the screenplay is ignoring this element of the character.  I would have liked to have seen a bit more of this aspect, but it's still there.  There are also some good scenes between Douglas and Lilly, as we learn more about their relationship.  This isn't exactly a character-driven film, but the moments where the characters and their personal dramas do show through are effective.


Where the movie really won me over is with its inventive use of special effects.  It's fun seeing Scott in micro size, trying to befriend the ants that will become his followers, as well as learning to use the suit to its full potential.  We see so many special effects in movies these days, it's easy to become kind of jaded.  We forget how much effort is usually put into them.  Here, we're reminded, because there are some truly fun and imaginative sequences that really exploit the idea of a superhero who can shrink himself to the size of an ant.  There is some real thought on display to the special effects, and you can tell that this was a fun movie for the artists to work on.  My only complaint is that the CG ants often don't mesh very well with the human actors, but then, CG insects have never looked convincing to me in any film.

Ant-Man is not an epic adventure, but then, it never pretends to be.  It's a kinder and gentler superhero movie and, despite the PG-13 rating, I think it would be a good movie for small kids, who will love the effects.  If you want a more grander adventure, I think you'll have to wait for next year's Captain America: Civil War.  This movie's all about having fun.

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at Amazon.com!

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