Movie Review: Ant-Man (2015)

August 10, 2015 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Paul Rudd gives new meaning to the term “shrinkage.”

All things considered, Ant-Man turned out much better than expected. That said, I’d still preach caution against reading too many overly positive reviews.

That’s what happens with expectations sometimes. People were initially lukewarm on Ant-Man, then they were completely down on it, and now they’re really high on it, perhaps even too high on it. My verdict is that it’s a very solid film, a very funny film, one that might fit uncomfortably in the Marvel cinematic universe but offers a great time as an independent movie experience. Its ambitions are so underwhelming that it’s hard to rank it up there among the other Marvel superhits, though I feel it is strong enough to not drag the franchise down and deserves a place in the hierarchy as one of the more different and refreshing efforts.

One of my favourite actors, Paul Rudd, plays Scott Lang, a Robin Hood-type burglar who is offered an opportunity for redemption by becoming Ant-Man, a superhero capable of shrinking himself down to Honey I Shrunk the Kid proportions and control armies of different breeds of ants. I’ve been a fan of Rudd since Clueless — which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year — and never thought he would manage to survive in Hollywood this long (while Alicia Silverstone basically disappeared into obscurity). But here he is, and he’s excellent as Lang, who makes the most of Rudd’s dry personality as well as his underrated acting chops. The understated Rudd doesn’t dominate the film, and I think that’s a good thing because it plays into the whole apologetic feel of Ant-Man as a superhero.

The plot is fairly standard and revolves around the concept of family, in particular father-and-daughter relationships. In this regard the theme is played out brilliantly by Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lilly, who star as scientist Hank Pym and estranged daughter Hope van Dyne, respectively. I hadn’t seen Douglas on screen for a while and I had forgotten what a brilliant actor and screen presence he is. He’s a major reason why the film is as good as it is.

On the villain side, the ubiquitous Corey Stoll (naturally bald this time) is Darren Cross, a former protege of Pym who is close to perfecting a similar shrinking suit called the Yellowjacket. I love Stoll as much as the next heterosexual man, but his character in this is pretty one-dimensional and not particularly memorable. Can’t blame the man for collecting cheques when they keep flooding in, though.

Providing additional comic relief are Michael Pena, recording artist T.I. and David Dastmalchian. Pena in particular is at his blistering best, and those who enjoy his style of comedy will have a blast as he rolls off his awesome “tip montages”. Rudd, confined to being the “hero”, almost takes a back seat to all these supporting characters, and fortunately they make the most of the opportunities.

The special effects are of course cool and there are some innovative ideas when Lang is shrunken down to insect size. The film is often silly and it knows it, and the concept alone provides many inherent chances for laughter. One of its biggest strengths is that it straddles the line between comedy and farce very well so that it doesn’t cheapen this massive and complex universe Marvel has been building up since 2008 when it released the first Iron Man.

And that’s pretty good when you realise that Ant-Man originally had disaster written all over it. An idea for an adaptation of the Marvel comic arose back in the 1980s, though nothing came out of it. Then in 2003, Edgar Wright, best known for his Three Flavours Cornette trilogy of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End, became the driving force behind the project, even penning a script and participating in the casting process. But last year, Wright dropped out due to the dreaded “creative differences” excuse and the project brought on a new director, Peyton Reed, best known for Bring It On but had turned in three pretty mediocre efforts since (Down With Love, The Break-Up and Yes Man).

So we’re talking multiple re-writes, different fingers in the pie and a last-minute change of director. The general sentiment was that the film, already facing an uphill battle because of its high concept premise, would be a disastrous mess. It also didn’t help that critics were iffy about Paul Rudd, who has carved out an impressive career as a dry comedic actor but had yet to prove that he could carry a leading superhero role from a juggernaut franchise like Marvel.

Accordingly, almost everyone was pleasantly surprised that Ant-Man defied predictions and turned out to be really good. And it is. I liked it a lot. It was probably exactly what Marvel needed after exhausting everyone with one big blockbuster after another featuring more and more superheros and villains whose powers are growing out of control.

Despite many references to the Marvel universe — such as the Avengers and Age of Ultron, not to mention several notable cameos — Ant-Man works well as a standalone flick that isn’t a spoof but also doesn’t take itself as seriously as the other Marvel entries. It’s more self-contained, more self-aware, smaller and neater, and arguably the funniest Marvel superhero movie to date along with Guardians of the Galaxy.

While there are going to be more superhero films combining all of these various strands in the upcoming “Phase Three” of Marvels cinematic universe, which will begin with Captain America: Civil War next year and end with Avengers: The Infinity Wars Part II and Inhumans in 2019, Ant-Man offers fans a much-needed breather from the familiarities of the Marvel money-making machine. It’s not the type of film that will wow you with mindblowing visuals, creativity or action. What if offers instead is good-natured, light-hearted fun that’s as self-deprecating as its lead star, something many audiences might actually prefer as a change of pace to the excesses of the more “marquee” names. Just keep in mind, however, that it is simply a good film that exceeds low expectations rather than something truly extraordinary that shits all over all its more well-known siblings.

3.75 stars out of 5

PS: I fully recommend this video of Paul Rudd from Conan, which includes an “exclusive” clip from the movie.

Movie Review: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013)

March 19, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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The original Anchorman, released 10 years ago, is remembered as a classic of random laughs and weirdness, hilarious political incorrectness, memorable characters and masterful improvised dialogue. It’s not actually as funny or as good as you remember it to be, but that’s the way it goes sometimes with movies that end up developing its own legend.

In all likelihood, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, will not be as revered as its predecessor, but the truth is that it’s probably just as funny and irreverent. If you enjoyed the zaniness of the original and developed an affection for the characters, then there’s a good chance you’ll have a great time with this one too.

The “legend” picks up several years after the end of the first film, with Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) sharing anchor duties with his now-wife, Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate). Their boss, played by Harrison Ford, drops a bombshell on Ron and his ego is too fragile to take the hit. Just when he’s down in the dumps, he gets a visit from an exec played by Dylan Baker (I’ll always remember him as the deranged dad from Happiness), who offers him a job on a new 24-hour news network that no one in the industry thinks will succeed. The story really begins from here, as Ron starts to track down his own team of misfits including Champ Kind (David Koechner), Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd) and Brick Tamland (Steve Carrell), and together they head to New York to challenge the big boys of national TV.

The bizarre absurdity of Anchorman 2 is no doubt an acquired taste. If you get it, however, chances are you’ll love it. Without giving too much away, there are some brilliant sequences that will either have you clutching your gut in laughter or shaking your head at the stupidity of it all. There are also some skits that pay homage to some of the classic moments in the original, including a really epic climax that keeps rolling in one huge surprise after another (best to avoid spoilers). You have to give props to Ferrell and his crew for not sticking to conventions and really going for the weirdest, most non-nonsensical shit they could come up with. While it’s still often hit and miss, the hits are usually big hits, and the misses can be swept aside rather quickly because the gags keep coming at a furious pace.

Even if you take all the randomness aside, Anchorman 2 still has some clever satire and witty social commentary weaved into its narrative tapestry. Again, I don’t want to play spoiler, but let’s just say it takes a fairly sharp stab at the state of Western media networks today and makes intelligent use of information we know in the present but won’t be known to the characters for a decade or two.

For me, Anchorman 2 is still never quite as funny as it should be or thinks it is. I kept feeling like the actors were having a better time than I was, and I sense the reason they even made the sequel in the first place is because they all loved hanging out with each other so much. The chemistry between the characters is definitely there, but if you’re not in the right mood then some of the gags will come across as lame and unfunny. Steve Carrell’s mentally challenged Brick, for example, is more creepily insane than ever, and this time they’ve paired him up with a female version of his character, Chani, played by Kristen Wiig. It was one of those things where you’re thinking, “This should be really hilarious,” but in the end turns out to be “meh”.

That said, Anchorman 2 still probably has one of the highest laughs per minute ratios of any film released in 2013. Part of the reason is that there are so many strong characters that you’ll likely find at least a couple of them funny. My personal favourites were Paul Rudd’s sex-obsessed Brian Fantana and, surprisingly, Ron Burgundy himself, who seems somehow both wiser and dumber than he was the last time around. James Marsden, who plays the new network’s douchebag poster child, and Greg Kinnear, who plays Christina Applegate’s lover/psychologist, are the highlights from the supporting cast. And if you like seeing a lot of A-list stars doing things you wouldn’t expect of them, you’ll love all the great cameos in this too.

Ultimately, despite its flaws — including the excessive running time of 119 minutes — I think there is enough quality stuff packed into Anchorman 2 to call it a worthy sequel. It’s never easy living up to expectations following a cult classic original, but even after 10 years the story and the characters’ goofy charm have not waned. Not everything works, but when things occasionally fall into place the result is comedy magic.

3.75 stars out of 5

PS: Pretty awesome gag reel, but I’d recommend watching the movie first.

2012 Movie Blitz: Part 6

August 7, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

This Means War (2012)

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I don’t really care for Reese Witherspoon, but I do like Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and I love Bane (Tom Hardy), and so I checked out This Means War, a romantic comedy about a couple of CIA operatives going to extreme lengths to win over the girl of their dreams.

The central joke comes from the farcical premise that two supposedly highly trained and professional men would backstab each other and use government resources for the sake of love. A lot of the laughs come from the guys trying to one-up each other and using their special agent skills for moronic purposes. (I don’t get it, personally, why Reese is so appealing, but I guess that’s just me.)

Unfortunately, This Means War cannot escape the fate of the generic rom-com. The idea is a good one, but it’s no more than a mildly amusing, silly, and unmemorable film trying to get by on the charm of its three stars. The editing is messy and the action scenes are poorly done. The intention of the craziness is to create some fun, but I got the feeling that the actors were enjoying it a lot more than the viewers.

The film has been savaged by critics but I don’t think it’s that bad, as they are a couple of funny moments here and there, but on the whole it’s just barely passable.

2.75 stars out of 5

The Lucky One (2012)

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Nicholas Sparks could very well be the devil. He drew us in with his debut, The Notebook, which everyone loves, but then since then we’ve been given one sappy melodrama after another.

The trend continues with The Lucky One, essentially a Zac Efron vehicle about a US marine in Iraq who is saved from a deadly blast because he found a photo of a pretty lady (hence he is “The Lucky One”). After returning home, he sets about finding this woman who “saved his life”, and when he does, he inexplicably starts working for her but can’t bring himself to tell her the truth for some reason.

Typical small town drama ensues, with sceptical busybodies, jealous husbands and young children all thrown into the mix. Of course, Efron plays this perfect guy who is just nice to a fault and the lady (Taylor Schilling) cannot help but fall in love with him. You can guess the rest.

This might be one of Sparks’ better novels — I have no idea — but it’s still a pretty difficult film to stomach. It’s directed by Aussie Scott Hicks, who gave us Shine, so technically the film is very sound. But the emotional manipulation and sappiness is just trite, and watching Efron prance around on screen pretending to be Mr Perfect is quite unbearable.

There is clearly a market for Sparks adaptations or else there wouldn’t be this many. What is clear though is that I don’t belong in this market.

2 stars out of 5

The Dictator (2012)

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I am a big fan of Sacha Baron Cohen. I love the characters Ali G and Borat, which show off his genius at improvisation and ability to generate laughs on so many levels. His main advantage was anonymity, which allowed him to dupe people by pretending to be this outlandish character. Now that he is world famous, Cohen has no choice but to head in the direction of scripted comedy. And unfortunately, he’s just not very funny when he does this.

Like the miserable failure that was Ali G Indahouse, Cohen’s latest effort, The Dictator, just isn’t any good. It’s sad. I can tell he tried, really hard, to infuse some of his trademark lowbrow humor into the script, but you can see the punchlines a mile away. Take away Cohen’s masterful spontaneity and he’s not much more than an average — if not somewhat obnoxious — comedian. He’s simply too obvious.

The Dictator is not a mockumentary like Borat or Bruno, but a straight-up comedy about the tyrannical but moronic ruler of the fictional North African Republic of Wadiya. You would have already seen some of the so-called best bits in the trailers, such as the sprinting contest where no one has the guts to beat the great leader. It’s an obvious parody of dictators such as Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong-il.

Strangely, the film soon becomes a kind of Coming to America imitator as Cohen’s character is brought to the United States and becomes a regular Joe who has to fit in with the rest of society. He meets a boyish woman played by Anna Faris, meaning lots of sexist jokes, but of course he eventually realizes he may have feelings for her, turning The Dictator into a rom-com as well.

The result is a messy mishmash of genres, tonal unevenness and a lot of bad jokes mixed in with a couple of decent (usually very crude and/or politically incorrect and/or inappropriate ones). There is the occasional bit of satirical sharpness in Cohen’s political messages, though I’d still classify The Dictator as a letdown because it just isn’t consistently funny enough.

2.5 stars out of 5

Wanderlust (2012)

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One of my favourite actors (Paul Rudd) teams up again with one of my least favourite actresses (Jennifer Aniston) to bring us Wanderlust, about a financially strapped couple who escape society by moving to a hippy commune full of weird and wacky characters. (The two had previously worked together on 1998’s The Object of My Affection, and also on a lengthy arc in Friends.)

This is an interesting idea with great potential for laughs, and I was surprised that the film lived up to the potential somewhat. It’s a good movie for people who enjoy random humour and unusual situations, as there’s plenty of both. It makes fun of the “free love”, “non-violent” principles of such communes, but it’s not done in a mean-spirited way and actually makes them likable as opposed to just bizarre characters. So I guess what I am saying is that this is a rare movie that has both genuine laughs and heart.

The role of the husband is tailor-made for Rudd, who is at his best as the awkward bumbler who gets in over his head. Aniston, I will admit, is not too bad here either in this role (by that I mean not annoying). Her real life beau, Justin Theroux, almost steals the show as the nutty leader of the commune, and has probably the most hilarious sequences in the movie. Also worth noting are the couple who play Rudd’s intolerable brother and sister-in-law, Ken Marino and Michaela Watkins. They are awesome.

Wanderlust did awful at the box office but I think it’s a little gem of a comedy with some real wit and several laugh-out-loud nuggets of gold. It loses some steam towards the end and got unnecessarily messy in trying to create a crisis to serve as the film’s climax, but I think it is definitely one of the more underrated comedies of 2012.

3.75 stars out of 5

Recent Movie Reviews: Part III

July 18, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Admission (2013)

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Two of my favourite people in the world, Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, together at last in a comedy about America’s university admissions process — sounds like a winner to me.

But unfortunately, Admission is just OK. Fey plays an admissions officer at Princeton and Rudd plays a teacher desperately trying to get one of his unusual but gifted students into Princeton. The student also may or may not be Fey’s long lost son.

Admission is a fairly average rom-com with a somewhat unusual premise and is driven by the charisma of its two stars. Fey’s character has a personality similar to Liz Lemon’s and Rudd’s character is like Rudd in every movie he’s in — which is awesome. The jokes are clever and provide some fascinating insights into how the admissions system works at prestigious US universities, but at the end of the day the film just isn’t funny enough. Amusing in spots but too bland and flat overall, which is a shame given the potential it had to be something memorable.

2.5 stars out of 5

Movie 43 (2013)

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The rule of thumb for ensemble movies these days is the greater the number of stars the worse the movie. Movie 43 stars Kate Winslet, Hugh Jackman, Naomi Watts, Liev Schreiber, Anna Faris, Emma Stone, Richard Gere, Kate Bosworth, Justin Long, Uma Thurman, Kristen Bell, Halle Berry, Stephen Merchant, Johnny Knoxville, Gerard Butler, Sean William Scott, Chloe Grace Moretz, Elizabeth Banks, Josh Duhamel, among others. I guess that tells you how good it is.

Seriously, I have no idea how this film was made. What did the producers have over all these stars to force them to be in this turd? And calling it a turd is really a compliment.

The film is essentially a collection of comedic sketches strung together by a forced narrative. There are apparently two versions, the first of which is a pitch made by Dennis Quaid to Greg Kinnear, a film executive. The version I watched was the British one, which is about a bunch of kids searching for the most banned film in the world, Movie 43, which they are stunned to discover actually exists.

As for the sketches, let’s see…there is the one where the whole joke is Hugh Jackman having a scrotum on his neck, another one making fun of home schooling, one about a team of black basketballers being terrified of their white opponents, and so on and so forth. And those are the less offensive ones. There’s also the Anna Faris one about her wanting her boyfriend to defecate on her during sex, a really pathetic one about a young girl getting her period, and a really boring and lame one about superhero speed dating. The only sketch I found mildly amusing was the one where Stephen Merchant and Halle Berry dare each other to do a bunch of crazy things, but that was probably only because the rest were so utterly unwatchable.

I’m just dumbfounded by how bad this movie is. I don’t believe in zero star films, but this one tempts me. I don’t wish the experience of watching this monstrosity on my worst enemy.

0.25 stars out of 5

Mama (2013)

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One of my most anticipated horror movies of the year, starring Jessica Chastain and Jaime Lannister (I mean Nikolaj Coster-Waldau or whatever his name is). The main reason is because visionary Guillermo del Toro served as an executive producer, and del Toro seldom disappoints (The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth both rank high on my list). I mean, did you see that trailer with those two freaky little girls scampering around?

Perhaps my expectations were too high, but Mama wasn’t quite as scary or different as I wanted it to be. Basically, a dude in financial ruin plans to kill his two young girls and himself, but before he gets the chance he is “terminated” by an unseen force. Years later the freaky ass girls, who somehow survived on their own, are found and put under the care of the dude’s brother, Mr Lannister, and his girlfriend, Chastain.

The freaky girls kind of become more normal but they keep referring to someone as “Mama”, who you and I both know is very scary and loves hanging around doing spooky things. Much of the movie is about Chastain learning to accept looking after the girls and finding out just who the heck Mama really is.

There are plenty of old school scares in this one — a combination of “boo” moments and atmosphere — but as usual it’s when Mama begins to appear to us on screen that things become less frightening. Still, it’s much classier and well done than your average horror flick these days, delivering on a decent ending whereas most such films tend to crumble and self-destruct. I don’t know how much del Toro influenced the film but I believe there are some nice touches of eerieness that can be attributed to him.

Mama didn’t scare the crap out of me like I wanted it to, but it will probably still be one of the standout horror movies of 2013.

3.5 stars out of 5

The Last Stand (2013)

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Here’s a shock. Arnie is still acting (and I use that word in a very loose sense).

The former Californian governor is back as a sheriff of a small town that happens to be the final stop before a highly wanted fugitive makes his away across the Mexican border. Arnie and his gang of local cops and a couple of misfits must dig deep and stop this guy because no one messes with Arnie. That’s the story in a nutshell.

As bad as that sounded, The Last Stand, which received almost no buzz in the lead up to its release, is actually a very solid action flick. I was surprised how effective it was in creating entertaining action sequences and even the humour was pleasantly unexpected. Lots of guns fights, explosions and “holding down the fort” type activity, like an adult version of Home Alone. It’s fun.

Arnie might be closing in on 100 years old, but his charisma as an action hero seems like it will never fade. The supporting cast is pretty decent too, and includes Johnny Knoxville, who manages to keep his obnoxiousness under control to everybody’s amazement.

I suppose credit has to go to Korean director Kim Ji-woon, who made a nice little action movie out of practically nothing. The Last Stand will likely be forgotten in a year or two, but I’ll remember that I had a good time watching it.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Dinner for Schmucks (2010)

October 1, 2010 in Entertainment, Movie Reviews

I’ll admit, the first time I saw the preview for Dinner for Schmucks, I was mightily unimpressed.  To put it bluntly, it looked stupid and unfunny.  I even though the other preview, for The Other Guys, was more promising.  Well, I was wrong.  While Dinner for Schmucks was definitely stupid, it was actually pretty funny too.

Starring Paul Rudd (one of my favourites) and Steve Carrell, Dinner for Schmucks is a farce comedy loosely based on the 1998 French film, Le Diner de cons (The Dinner Game).  It’s framed around this concept of a kind of high society dinner where each guest brings a moron with them, and the guest with the biggest moron wins.

However, the dinner itself only plays a relatively small part of the film, which makes the title a little misleading.  Most of it is centred around the relationship between Tim (Rudd), the immensely likeable financial executive is desperate to climb his way to the top to impress his girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak), and Barry (Carrell), the hopeless tax agent who likes to taxidermy mice for dioramas.

In terms of plot, Dinner for Schmucks is exactly how you would expect.  We’ve seen films like this before.  In fact, Paul Rudd’s I Love You, Man, is eerily similar, just with slightly different characters.  You, Me and Dupree is another.  It’s the classic straight man meets dufus and dufus turns straight man’s life upside down.

However, in terms of laughs, Dinner for Schmucks is very unpredictable, largely thanks to the amazing supporting cast of complete weirdos that makes it one of the most random films I’ve seen in a while.  Not much makes sense, and you can accept that ignore all logic and common sense, then you might find yourself laughing out loud like I did.  Some of it was unfunny, but some of it actually was.

I was particularly pleased to see the hilarious Jemaine Clement from Flight of the Conchords playing a misunderstood artist, and it was great to see his number one fan from that show, Mel (Kristen Schaal) play Rudd’s secretary Susana.  Another standout was Lucy Punch, who plays the obsessive Darla.  Zach Galifianakis (from The Hangover) was a little more uneven as Barry’s boss, but still provided some decent laughs.

The two biggest problems I had with the film were the believability of Steve Carrell’s character (as much as I wanted to believe him he was too inconsistent at times) and the length (114 minutes), which was way too long.  They could have easily cut 20 minutes from it and made it a better, tighter film.

Nevertheless, on the whole, Dinner for Schmucks was signficantly better than what I had expected.  Barry’s taxidemied mice dioramas were done extremely well and were very cute, and the execution of the more ‘poignant’ scenes were handled with sufficient care.  Dinner for Schmucks was by no means perfect, but as far as farce comedies go, it’s one of the better ones.

3.5 stars out of 5