Ant-Man and the Wasp

Release: Friday, July 6, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Chris McKenna; Erik Sommers; Paul Rudd; Andrew Barrer; Gabriel Ferrari

Directed by: Peyton Reed

You’ve read it everywhere: Ant-Man and the Wasp is a refreshingly lightweight summer adventure that offers up more laughs than big character moments. It’s more of a superhero side dish than an entrée. But that’s okay for viewers like me, whose stomachs are starting to get pretty full with all the superhero shenanigans.

Is it me, or does “quantum entanglement” sound more like the way scientists fall in love rather than an actual problem they must solve? (“Hey everyone, I’d like you to meet my Scientist Girlfriend — we just recently got quantumly entangled.”) Alas, this isn’t a joke. Getting stuck in the quantum realm is quite serious, I assure you. Granted, not as serious as what we all went through a few weeks ago when Thanos snapped his decorated little fingers and turned half the audience into a sobbing mess. Mercifully, this is a new, pre-war chapter that gets away from all of that and returns us to a time when the superhero stakes weren’t so tiresomely dramatic.

The follow-up film to the Phase 2 finale finds Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) growing restless under house arrest. On the one hand, this has provided him an opportunity to spend some quality time with his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). On the other, his careless actions at the airport two years ago (you know, when Steve Rogers blamed Tony for losing his luggage) have created a rift between him and his mentor, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and love interest Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). They’ve gone on the run in an attempt to keep their miraculous shrinking technology a secret.

Scott has only a few days left to finish out his sentence, but that’s a large enough window for him to find trouble. But the interesting thing is, he doesn’t go looking for it; it finds him. He spends his time trying not to go insane in isolation, kept on a short leash by his parole officer (Randall Park, enjoying himself immensely). When Scott experiences a vision of Hank’s wife/Hope’s mother, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) still stuck in the quantum realm, his former allies seek him out in an attempt to retrieve her from the abyss to which they believed she had been forever lost.

It’s a ridiculous leap of faith following a simple voicemail but hey, there are worse plot mechanizations out there. Solving the problem of returning safely from the microscopic world isn’t the only challenge ahead of them, however. Because Scott in effect went public with his little stunt in Captain America: Civil War, a number of competing third parties are coming out of the woodwork in an attempt to benefit in some way from Pym’s genius.

There’s the black market dealer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), who sees the potential profit that can be made from getting into the quantum business. He gets into a little bit of a struggle with Hope over a parts deal that sours just as Ava Starr/”Ghost” (Hannah John-Kamen) appears out of nowhere. Ava is a young woman who seeks a cure for her gradually weakening physical state as a result of — and let’s not get too personal here — her unstable molecules. On top of that, we are introduced to a former colleague of Hank, a Dr. Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne), whose life work blahdee-bloodee-blahblah. He has a few reasons to make things more difficult for Ant-Man and the gang.

If anything, Ant-Man and the Wasp is about a family coming back together. That’s kind of the perfect scope for a film following one of the most financially successful (and costly) cinematic events in history. Like the incredible shrinking Pym lab, the drama is very self-contained; there is almost nothing linking this film to the Avengers narrative at-large, with the exception of the constant berating the ex-con receives from Hank and Hope. This sense of family extends to Scott’s friends over at X-Con Security, a consulting firm he and his ex-con friends — Luis (Michael Peña), Kurt (David Dastmalchian) and Dave (T.I. Harris) — started up in an attempt to go legitimate. Though these personalities don’t get much time to do their thing, you still feel the support system they provide for their perpetually-in-trouble pal Scott.

Of course, Ant-Man and the Wasp can’t really achieve any of these things without Rudd anchoring the movie. Never mind the fact he offers up a pretty wonderful example of fatherhood, he is just so effortlessly likable in the suit that he has quickly become a favorite of mine, in spite of how minor that role really is in the grand scheme. For my money, he’s right up there with Robert Downey Jr. and Ryan Reynolds in terms of infectious personalities. You have to squint to see him but he’s there, standing on the shoulders of giants while slowly but surely becoming one himself.

“Honey, I shrunk everything I cared about.”

Recommendation: Ant-Man and the Wasp is the beneficiary of Paul Rudd and a really likable all-around cast of characters. In a time when browsing through the back catalogue of the ever-expanding MCU feels a lot like shopping for flavors of Gatorade, it’s nice to have a superhero film that is not quite as preoccupied with furthering, deepening, expanding, extrapolating, implicating, duplicating, redacting, whatever-ing that all of the other chapters seem to be about. The more I think about the simplicity of this film the more I like it. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 118 mins.

Quoted: “Well, the ’60s were fun, but now I’m paying for it!”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

The Little Prince

'The Little Prince' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 5, 2016 (Netflix)

[Netflix]

Written by: Irena Brignull; Bob Persichetti

Directed by: Mark Osborne

The Little Prince is a gem. It’s a crime it never received a theatrical release. It’s a heartwarming journey rivaling anything Pixar has created on an emotional and intellectual level, and perhaps it’s the complex, multi-layered animation that truly sets the film apart, interweaving crude stop-motion with crisp, computer-generated imagery to produce an aesthetic you’ll struggle to find elsewhere.

Kung Fu Panda director Mark Osborne’s enchanting tale is a reimagining of the 1943 French novella of the same name, penned by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a successful commercial pilot (and novelist, poet, aristocrat and journalist) prior to World War II. The man once traveled to American shores in an attempt to convince the government to bring the fight to Nazi Germany following his disenfranchisement from the French Air Force in the early 1940s. He spent a little over two years in the States writing what would later become three of his most popular works. He later would re-join the Force only to disappear mysteriously soon thereafter à la Amelia Earhart.

Saint-Exupéry’s experiences as an aviator factor into this modern interpretation of The Little Prince in curious ways. (It should be noted, however, that his original story was published before he enlisted.) Fantastical elements are of course front-and-center and the story is entrenched in the stresses of modern living, but under the surface lie untold mysteries and tales of bravery, heroism and self-discovery. Strong emotional hooks are drawn from an impressive, inspired voice cast and Osborne’s touch, though ultimately nothing unique, is just confident enough to steer the story in a direction that, come the end, very well may have you in tears. The good kind, of course.

We’re introduced to The Little Girl (Mackenzie Foy, who thus far has Interstellar, The Conjuring and Ernest & Celestine on her résumé, and at the time of writing she’s yet to turn 16) who lives in a very grown-up world driven by rules, schedules and obedience. Her Mother (Rachel McAdams) wants her to attend the prestigious Academy so she can grow up and become an essential, contributing member of society. The initial interview does not go well as the panel, led by Paul Giamatti‘s intimidating and overly harsh instructor, springs an unexpected question upon her that causes her to panic. Mother has a Plan B: make her daughter cram so much studying into each and every day of her summer vacation she’ll be sure not to have any distractions (i.e. friends).

Mother draws up an impossibly elaborate Life Plan and constructs it so that each minute of every hour of every day of every week of every month of every year is accounted for. Soon enough, The Little Girl rebels. She befriends their eccentric, hoarding and elderly neighbor, The Aviator (Jeff Bridges), who is introduced as the scourge of this SimCity-esque neighborhood — one comprised of identical blocky houses and roads filled with cars driving identical speeds and in organized right-angled patterns. Mother looks at the situation like so: “Just think about [his] house being the reason [ours] is available. This is the place where you’ll learn to grow up and become Essential.” (I paraphrase.)

The Aviator is a wonderful creation, and Bridges brings the character to life in ways that are difficult to fathom. Practically speaking, his performance is little more than a voice laid over/synced up with a cartoon character. It’s not the genuine article, and yet, he is mesmeric as he regales The Little Girl about his past experiences with an enigma he calls The Little Prince, whom he met after crashing his plane in the Sahara Desert many years ago. The Little Prince (voiced by the director’s son Riley) shows him a world where everything is possible, a reality that The Aviator has been trying for years to communicate to anyone willing to listen. Finally he has found someone who will, even if her intelligence means she’s skeptical about certain details.

The Little Prince is a space-traveling young lad who once lived on a tiny planetoid, a celestial object so small you could traverse on foot in a matter of minutes and whose existence is constantly being threatened by hungry tree roots eager to take over the entire planet. He left this world and a Rose he fell in love with (voiced by Marion Cotillard for some reason) in search of greater truths amongst the cosmos. In the present day, The Little Girl decides it is her responsibility to track down The Little Prince and prove to The Aviator that he still does exist, and that even though he has grown into a jaded, passive adult, he never abandoned the child within.

The Little Prince astounds on a visual level. It is an exercise in contrasts, the real world from which The Little Girl temporarily escapes suffocating with its seriousness and sterility, while the universe expands into this wondrous, strange space in which individual worlds are populated by simplistic, insulated communities comprised of childless, passionless adult drones. Scale is quirkily reduced to something almost tangible. We’re not talking interstellar travel here, more like a weekend road trip amongst the stars. You’ll find the stop-motion animation reserved for backstories concerning The Aviator’s relationship with The Little Prince while the rest operates in a pristine, colorful world that gives Disney a run for its money.

Much like a Roald Dahl creation, The Little Prince refuses to condescend to its pint-sized viewers. It strikes a delicate balance between entertaining youngsters while providing the more jaded a few different ways to look at the lives they’ve shaped for themselves. Occasionally the chronicle trips into the realm of the pretentious with a few overly-poetic spits of dialogue that attempt to spice up an already fairly advanced narrative. It doesn’t have to try so hard. The exploration of just what it was that caused the kid in us to go away is profound enough on its own.

The Little Prince

Recommendation: The Little Prince offers adventurous viewers something a little different. Generally speaking the story arc isn’t something you’ll be experiencing for the first time, but it’s the incredible nuance and the textures and the layers to the animation that make it one of the most original works this former animated-film-skeptic has seen all year. Stellar performances abound. There’s even a cute fox voiced by James Franco, a Benicio del Toro-sounding snake and Albert Brooks is along for the ride so the cast is reason enough to check it out. Also, stop-motion. Have I mentioned how awesome the technique is? Yeah, it’s pretty awesome. Available on Netflix.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 106 mins.

Quoted: “It is only with heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

The Fundamentals of Caring

'The Fundamentals of Caring' movie poster

Release: Friday, June 24, 2016 (Netflix)

[Netflix]

Written by: Rob Burnett

Directed by: Rob Burnett

A long time ago I made some comment to the effect of being frustrated by how easily I’m tricked into watching movies starring Paul Rudd. This knee-jerk reaction was inspired by a viewing of the terrible 2012 comedy Wanderlust which paired him with Jennifer Aniston. That movie did nothing for the world of comedy or fans of either performer, but it was wrong of me to question my loyalty to Rudd.

Because here’s the thing about him: Paul Rudd is still Paul Rudd in poor films. In great movies he’s . . . holy crap, Paul Rudd. The Oxford grad-turned-professional-penis-joke-teller has weathered a few flops in his time and yet he emerges on the other side grin still intact. Every. Time. He’s never what’s wrong with a film and more often than not he’s the major box office draw. That couldn’t be more true when it comes to Netflix’s road trip comedy The Fundamentals of Caring, a movie that will have no box office intake to speak of, but will still leave audiences satisfied and smiling.

He plays Ben, a retired writer now looking for a way to move on after the loss of his young son. The restraint in his performance marks something of a diversion for Rudd, taking on a more dramatic persona here (though he’s not completely sullen — just think more stoic, as in Perks of Being a Wallflower and dial the infectious inanity of Anchorman down to 1). Ben turns to caregiving and starts looking after Trevor (Craig Roberts), a teen with muscular dystrophy and a dark sense of humor. His mother Elsa (Jennifer Ehle) isn’t exactly enamored when she finds out Ben has little experience in care-taking, especially since her son is more needy than the typical teen.

Ben thinks it would be good for Trevor to get out of the living room and see some of the world before his cynicism suffocates him. So he’s going to take him on a road trip to see “the world’s deepest pit.” Because the rest of the movie needs to happen, Elsa gets over her (completely understandable) fears in a heartbeat and soon we’re on the road, packed into an old van bound for a few tourist traps and maybe even some personal revelations along the way. Of course there’ll be a girl, too. The fundamentals of at least a decent road trip comedy. Check, check and check.

Rob Burnett’s adaptation of Jonathan Evison’s novel rarely breaks out of Checklist Mode, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t moments worth savoring. One manifests as a trip detour when Trevor decides he wants to see his estranged father who he hasn’t seen since he was three. He’ll have the chance to get some answers at the luxury auto dealer he now runs. We all know how this is going to go, but let’s just say there’s even less reconciliation in this scene than what’s expected. Bob (Frederick Weller)’s a cold-hearted bastard who’d rather shell out $160 than offer even a hint of an apology to his son.

The encounter is pretty heartbreaking. It has immediate repercussions that are hard to watch unfold as well, such as when Trevor, in a moment of bitter dejectedness, interprets the entire cross-country endeavor as a favor to Ben to make himself feel better, rather than the mutually-beneficial adventure Ben intended it to be. The fall-out is one of those many boxes the film must ultimately tick but because it, like much of the story’s moodiness, is handled with a particularly appealing brand of brashness (if that’s actually a thing), it doesn’t become another throw-away moment.

In stark contrast to what’s familiar and/or predictable, Selena Gomez ends up doing something absurd. She actually helps endear us to Fundamentals‘ bent-but-not-broken spirit. Though her character, a strong-and-silent type named Dot (terrible name), doesn’t have much to do or say, Gomez finds a way to inject sensitivity into a story that heretofore has largely lacked it. Truly, it’s Roberts’ cynical, self-deprecating outlook that funds the nonchalance. There’s an unshakable sense that Burnett never really wanted his project to be different. Just darker. Gomez doesn’t expose a truly complex character but she helps steer Trevor out of his deep funk. Her presence is perpetually welcomed.

Shot in just 26 days, Fundamentals is only ever a trio of lesser performances away from being forgettable road trip fluff. Because of the obvious comfort and chemistry between said performers, the adventure soon becomes one that’s surprisingly difficult to disembark from.

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Recommendation: Performances make The Fundamentals of Caring worth sitting through for there’s not much else separating it from the dearth of other road tripping adventures. Paul Rudd restrains himself once again to effect yet another example of how he is much more than just a penis-joke-teller. Best of all, he never overshadows his co-star Craig Roberts, who is also a lot of fun, and hey, even Selena Gomez is good here. Everyone’s all in on this one, and it shows.  

Rated: NR

Running Time: 97 mins.

Quoted: “Yes, and I’m not an a**hole. And since you want an a**hole, my not being an a**hole makes me more of an a**hole than the a**holes that you normally date, because they’re giving you exactly what you want; whereas I, by not being an a**hole, am not. Which makes me an a**hole.”

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com

Captain America: Civil War

'Captain America - Civil War' movie poster

Release: Friday, May 6, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Christopher Markus; Stephen McFeely

Directed by: Anthony & Joe Russo

Standing in a line of about 200 rabid fans an hour before the screening I was asked by a woman in line — a hot mom actually — if this was the line for the Avengers movie. I really wanted to tell her, “No, this is for Captain America,” but who am I kidding, this is totally an Avengers movie. And so I was like, “Yeah,” and she was like, “Cool,” and then we both just went back to our lives.

That Captain America: Civil War is closer in spirit to one of those ultra-blockbusters is actually good news for me as I’ve never really stood behind Captain America. The Boy Scout/super-soldier kind of ruffles my feathers for some reason, and that’s through no fault of Chris Evans either. Nevertheless there I was, middle of a mob on a Saturday afternoon, the manufactured product of a month-long brainwashing program designed to win my allegiance toward either Team Steve or Team Tony.

Civil War is a film whose emotional upshot takes an eternity to eventuate, but when it does it’s actually well worth the two-and-a-half-hour sit. Steve and his embattled friend Bucky, a.k.a. The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) are at the heart of a complex moral, emotional and psychological battle that divides the Avengers — all but Hulk and Thor, of course, who are off galavanting elsewhere — straight down the middle when they are asked to sign the Sokovia Accords, a peacekeeping effort drawn up by the United Nations in response to the concerns of a growing population that thinks the Avengers are doing more harm than good.

After yet another disaster, this time in Wakanda at the hands of Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen, who has completely given up on trying to sound Russian at this point), in steps Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) to give everyone a choice: either agree to the sanctions, to be potentially overruled in any given situation if it is deemed necessary . . . or retire from the superhero biz.

And then everyone seems to get really mad. Needless to say, the stakes are high this time, higher than they were when Loki was trying to divide and conquer from within all those movies ago, if you can believe it . . . (wasn’t it pretty much doomsday then, too?) One side argues for their continued autonomy while the other, surprisingly spearheaded by a guilt-ridden Tony, believes having a watchdog might help prevent future awkward encounters with any living relatives of people he has inadvertently killed.

Thanks to Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, two writers keen to redress familiar characters under this new guise of bitterness, distrust and uncertainty, there are equally compelling reasons to join either camp. In fact as Civil War progresses it gets ever more entrenched in the complexities of this ideological conflict. The appearance of a cold German militant named Baron Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl), the one behind an earlier attack on the UN that claims the life of Wakanda King T’Chaka, father of T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), inspires Steve to ignore new-age protocol as he attempts to stop Zemo from unleashing a secret arsenal of other Winter Soldiers being kept in cryogenic stasis at a Hydra facility in Siberia.

Civil War, like Tony and Steve, has a lot on its plate, but it wisely (and creatively) spreads the workload across its many players. Even if Downey Jr. takes this opportunity to effect a more somber version of his character than we’re used to seeing, that famous acerbic wit is never lost with the integration of Scott Lang/Ant Man (Paul Rudd) and Tom Holland’s amazingly acne-free Peter Parker/Spider Man. Black Panther digs his claws in with menacing presence and a lot of righteous anger. Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye returns as do Anthony Mackie’s Falcon and Paul Bettany as the visionary . . . Vision.

Even though giving each their time to shine means taking some away from Evans, extended interactions between less famous figures are more than welcome and give these individuals purpose within the context of the cinematic retelling of their own journeys. Bettany is perhaps the highlight, his loyalty to protecting the lone Maximoff twin from destruction following her actions in Wakanda offering a miniaturized version of the conundrum facing Iron Man and Captain America. And then there’s Black Panther’s determination to take out the one responsible for his father’s death.

For all of the potential devastation that is implied Civil War isn’t a dour affair. It doesn’t dwell in misery, and it really could have. There’s a melancholy vibe here, but the Russo brothers seem comfortable conforming to Marvel’s standard of finding levity amidst dire circumstances, injecting humor into scenes that would otherwise trend DC-dark. (God forbid that ever happen.) A movie with ‘war’ in its title going the comedy route is a risky proposition, and though this isn’t devoid moments of weakness, the continued expansion of a world parallel to ours allows them to pass quickly. There’s so much going on that Civil War all but demands repeat viewings. Eight years into the game, that’s a very good thing for the MCU.

I wonder what the hot mom thought about all of it.

Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 1.03.32 AM

Recommendation: With the slightly-famous actors as comfortable as ever in their respective roles, Civil War benefits from the intersection of emotionally resonant performance and thoughtful, crafty storytelling. People like me — non-Captain fans — benefit greatly from the distraction of the other people around him fighting for what they believe is right for the future of the Avengers. A solid realization of a very complicated time, and the balance struck herein makes it one of my favorites of the entire MCU canon thus far.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 146 mins.

Quoted: “Okay, anybody on our side hiding any shocking, or fantastic abilities they’d like to disclose, I’m open to suggestion.” 

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Ant-Man

ant_man_ver2

Release: Friday, July 17, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Edgar Wright; Joe Cornish; Adam McKay; Paul Rudd

Directed by: Peyton Reed

Well, it’s official. After watching this, stepping on ants for me is a thing of the past. Stepping on ants is murder.

If someone were to ask me what would be the strangest superhero for Marvel Studios to base a movie around, Ant-man would be the last thing I would have suggested. Then again, I’m likely not the best person to ask such a question, as my ignorance when it comes to everything comic book-related borders on embarrassing. Until it was announced last year that they were casting the role of Scott Lang/Ant-man, I had no idea that this was actually a thing.

When Paul Rudd was confirmed, suddenly I became antsy to see it. (Do we need to start tallying all of these awful puns?)

Edgar Wright’s . . . er, sorry, Peyton Reed’s Ant-man, the final film in the MCU’s Phase Two, is ultimately a successful new addition because the star of the film — a high-tech suit designed by former S.H.I.E.L.D. member Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) — represents one of the riskier propositions Marvel has had to sell relative newcomers to the superhero genre in some time. Let’s be honest, for every Marvel geek in attendance there is likely to be at least three who aren’t quite as attuned.

Everyone of course will continue basking in the glory of the Avengers’ camaraderie, pondering the likelihood of another stand-alone Hulk movie, eagerly anticipating the return of Chris Pratt’s Starlord. The popularity contest was won even before Tony Stark came on the scene in 2008. Basing a film around a piece of tech that can shrink a man to the size of an insect, enabling him to gain strength in the process, well   . . . that’s a difficult pitch. Similar to Guardians of the Galaxy, obscurity actually works in Ant-man‘s favor.

Unlike Guardians, Ant-man isn’t quite as dynamic or willing to take risks with its principals. That’s mostly because the main character itself is riskier than Gamora and Groot put together. (His name is Ant-man for Pete’s sake.) Neither film has a particularly inventive story to offer — it’s either save the galaxy or save the world from villains who equal one another in their villainous ineptitude. The former, however, did have spectacular visual effects and a cast of characters that remain vivid today. Conversely, Ant-man isn’t so interested in characters as it is in the environment, taking a magnifying glass to the mundanity that surrounds us in our everyday lives. Bathtubs, briefcases, children’s rooms and playsets become wild, vast expanses that play host to all sorts of adventure and exhilaration.

Déjà vu: Ant-man is an origin story. It operates, somewhat uninspired, as a redemption arc for a con-man wanting to do right by his young daughter. Despite the fact he has an electrical engineering background, Scott Lang has made a life out of cat burglary, robbing people without using violence. As such he has lost privileges with his ex-wife (Judy Greer) and daughter, after having served one too many prison sentences. When “one last robbery” leads Scott to discover a kind of jumpsuit in the heavily-protected cellar of an eccentric old man, he is faced with the opportunity to save more than just his reputation as an absentee dad and husband. Old habits die even harder when they are vital to the plot.

A sinister development within Pym Technologies sees Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), Hank’s former protégé, on the brink of harnessing the same power he had discovered, and has plans on unleashing it upon the world. Reed, whose previous directing credits are a little more than questionable, doesn’t rely on groundbreaking storytelling techniques, epic action setpieces nor particularly memorable performances to effect a highly entertaining, mischievous little outing that completely ignores its once-disastrous potential. Ants are hardly anyone’s favorite creature (sorry if they are yours) but in his film, ants become the good guys. I feel like that’s a feat in and of itself. We even get an education on their various classifications.

So, no. No I’m not stepping on any more ants. Even if this film had potential to become slightly more explosive I personally got a lot out of this exercise, other than realizing Paul Rudd can pretty much do anything he wants. Ants aren’t soulless, they aren’t the harbingers of ruined picnics I once thought them to be. Sure, they might be pests who always seem to find a way into your house but the next time I see a string of soldier ants strutting their stuff from one hole in the wall to the other, it might be best to assume they are reporting for duty.

Recommendation: Ant-man works as a genuinely entertaining (and genuinely harmless) bit of sci-fi action, though it will exist on the fringe in terms of Marvel’s most memorable outings. Its best attributes come in the form of a reliable Paul Rudd and some impressive visual effects which end up doing much of the film’s heavy lifting as the story shifts between points of view. Even if this character has eluded you until now, you should check it out and see what all the ant-icipation was about.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “It’s very rare you get invited back to the same place you robbed from.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: Romeo + Juliet (1996)

new-tbt-logo

It’s a little difficult to outfit TBT with a ‘romantic’ theme without turning the spotlight on *the* romance movie. . . or at least without recognizing one of cinema’s most popular, ill-fated couples. I’m sure if I were to ever nominate the Baz Luhrmann adaptation as the romance film to end all romance films I could expect to see that comment box at the bottom fill up with many an impassioned, even hateful, hurtful comment. I probably wouldn’t blame them either. It’s kind of a mystery as to why I’m going with this one but sometimes spontaneity is just what this blog needs. While this modern approach is hardly a patch on old Will’s play I think there are one or two interesting elements worth talking about with

Today’s food for thought: Romeo + Juliet.

romeojuliet-movie-poster

Seriously, these two have been kissing since: November 1, 1996

[VHS?]

Since the dawn of time, man has always . . . .

No. There’s absolutely no way I’m going that route. But at a certain point doesn’t the mere mentioning of the names Romeo and Juliet in any kind of discussion feel like a cliché in itself? There’s really no point in going through this post by ticking off the usual boxes: the quality of the overall experience, the effectiveness of its major elements (cast, setting, score, editing, etc.), any of its lingering effects . . . yadda-yadda.

I’m much more keen to talk about what I think the big man (no, not God — Shakespeare . . . which, for some, I guess the two could be interchangeable) would think of what Mr. Flamboyant has done with his timeless examination of two of the strongest human emotions, love and hatred. Would the world’s greatest writer take offense in knowing how many times his ideas have been revisited? Revised? Butchered (or just a little battered and bruised)? Would he spin in his urn knowing one particular film starred a version of Leonardo DiCaprio prior to him becoming one of the great thespians of the 21st Century? What about the concept of integrating ye olde dialogue — the stuff we largely accept now as archaic and impractical — into a modern context, would William approve or would he face-palm from beyond the grave?

Ignoring some factors only we modern audiences are likely to criticize — why couldn’t Leo be as good then as he is now? — there are a few tweaks that the great playwright maybe wouldn’t “get.” Take for instance the hallucinogenic Romeo takes at a party which sets him on a collision course with a most tragic fate. “Ecstasy? What, pray, is this ecstasy of which you speak? Doth thou hold no interest in retaining logic, for very little of it is produced in thinking one can swallow thine own happiness in a physical manner. Return this ‘ecstasy’ from whence it came; scrub this fantasy from the deepest recesses of thou perversed mind! Me be damned to mine own coffin, I do believe the kids got fucked up on wine.”

Oh, but Good Sir I must retort: the spirit of Romeo and Juliet still lives! Just because wine has little place in Verona Beach, that does not mean this city has no place for love. In fact the heart beats ever stronger for a couple as mesmeric (and pretty) as DiCaprio and Danes. The Capulets and Montagues are still fiercely at war with one another, through staunch ideological differences of the seedy mob-world variety. Ted/Caroline and Fulgencio/Gloria, in this day and age now tied in with the mafia who have ‘legitimate’ business competition, still hate each other. And their hatred is almost proportional to the intense feelings their offspring hold for something that is apparently forbidden: seeing past a rivalry and accepting the individual for who they are. Good Sir, that has been a sentiment echoed throughout the ages, and it does more than just enhance this modern adaptation of arguably your greatest work. Blind devotion comes to define the picture, as it ought to.

This, despite other, more notable deviations. You should rest easy knowing that even if Luhrmann wanted to swap out a couple of Capulets for some Montagues (and vice versa) the essence of this complicated family dynamic isn’t distorted or diminished. I don’t claim to understand why he wanted to make some name changes, but if anything it helps to distinguish this one particular entry from the legions of other versions. There are no friars here, nor swords. We have public officials and more advanced weaponry to not only elevate but contextualize this timeless drama.

Romeo + Juliet certainly is more lavish in its design, more heavy-hitting in its violence and yet more relatable in terms of Lords and Ladies being unable to sweep the dirt of the past aside in order to allow for even a single flower to grow. It’s a testament to the strength of your writing, Good Sir, that even a bizarre and controversial decision to modernize a film while retaining the original dialogue and basic story structure can still make us feel that our own hearts have been poisoned too.

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3-5Recommendation: Not everyone may see this is as a worthy adaptation, but I certainly do. It’s also one of the only things Baz Luhrmann has produced that I’ve really felt suits his particularly colorful style. Romeo + Juliet doesn’t particularly add anything significant to the ever-increasing canon inspired by the play, but its devotion to the spirit of the classic, combined with a fresh environment is enough to set it apart from other, much duller attempts. If you haven’t seen this yet I suggest taking a look. If nothing else it’s funny to see a few familiar faces in this before they really blew up (looking at you in particular Leo, and also Paul Rudd, who plays Juliet’s would-be suitor, Dave Paris).

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 120 mins.

TBTrivia: Apparently Natalie Portman was originally cast for Juliet Capulet, but after watching some of the footage, it was deemed that the age difference between Leo and her was great enough to make the romance not only unbelievable, but it gave the appearance as though Romeo was quote, molesting her in several scenes. So they recast it for Claire Danes. There. Much less molesting.

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Photo credits: http://www.cinematerial.com; http://www.film-grab.com  

Prince Avalanche

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Release: Friday, August 9, 2013 (limited)

[Netflix]

Mumblecore may not be a lost artform, but it’s pretty clear it’s on the fringes, particularly when the recent entries are as minor as this.

David Gordon Green, after directing more mainstream, sillier things like Pineapple Express, The Sitter and Your Highness, switches gears by creating a story dependent on actual, fine-tuned performances and not upon ridiculous set pieces and poop/fart jokes. He manages to avoid being pretentious with his shoestring budget, though it’s not much of a surprise to see such a divided audience opinion of Prince Avalanche

One of the main reasons the film carries great potential to be off-putting is the extremely slow pace. Seriously. Snails probably would learn a thing or two about slowing down if they could watch this movie. (That’s not to write snails off as being snobbish, by the way; I just think A) their weird little eyes are too small and B) even if they could comprehend this, they would get bored.)

But for us humans, because the film also zeros in on an obscure, isolated job like highway maintenance — Alvin (Paul Rudd) and Lance (Emile Hirsch) are responsible for applying all the road markings to a recently repaved section of road in the wake of a destructive wildfire that wiped out a good portion of forest land — there is not a lot to grab a hold of in terms of dramatic material. Plus the fact that extended moments of dialogue-free, panoramic shots of the nondescript environs dominate the narrative early on doesn’t help those who are seeking something to identify with.

When you factor in how Rudd’s character is first presented, this film seems to be making every effort to avoid becoming a crowd-pleaser. (Whoops, did I mention earlier that this film wasn’t pretentious? That might have been a bit of a lie.) Green, though, is able to find a modicum of success in his experimentation. There is a quirkiness to this weird little romp, a very natural humor that makes this story absolutely believable, even if inaccessible (or pointless) to some.

Relying on some nuanced performances, his small-time Avalanche attempts to differentiate between the concepts of ‘being alone’ versus ‘being lonely.’ He goes about this by presenting two starkly different personalities in Alvin and Lance, who show that while both concepts don’t sound favorable, one is definitely worse than the other.

A mustached Paul Rudd truly enjoys the solitude; he claims to be able to focus his downtime into gaining what he considers valuable skills, like learning foreign languages, and that being away from people — like his girlfriend, Madison who is also, by way of holy-shit-it’s-a-small-world, Lance’s sister — actually helps him better himself. Compare that to Hirsch’s whiny, materialistic Lance, who has slightly less ambitious stupider . . .we’ll just go with different goals and desires, like going into town on his days off and looking for some girls to take home with him. He’s clearly less satisfied with his employment and, hence, the lonely one.

Yet, there’s a monotonous amount of road-paintin’, and silence-havin’ — I think at some point, a bee gets to chew some scenery — all of this to get through as this simple albeit earnest story slowly gains traction. This is a movie filmed through cameras virtually ingrained into the trees and the mud and thickets through which we see this movie unfold. You have to give credit to Green and his right-hand man, D.O.P. Tim Orr for literally absorbing the environment in which they are in. At the same time, I cannot blame those who end up feeling a little insulted by watching a movie that literally takes place on the shoulder of a road.

Ultimately, Prince Avalanche is a decent film that perhaps treads the line between immateriality and art-house a bit too closely at times. The performances are too good to ignore though, and there is a warm conviction with which these two loners eventually come to embrace their statuses in life. The low-key affair is also dressed in a gorgeous soundtrack by Explosions in the Sky and David Wingo, which, it can also be legitimately argued, the film relies on a bit too much at times.

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3-5Recommendation: Experimental at best and inconsequential at worst, Prince Avalanche is not a film for everyone yet those who do crack its hard outer shell shall reap the rewards of its heartfelt message and will appreciate the quality of the two oddball performances. It’s also a good one to check out for yet another different Paul Rudd experience.

Rated: R

Running Time: 94 mins.

Quoted: “So when you say something negative and insult the other person… You’re really just showing that other person what an unsure-of-yourself-type person that you really feel like you are.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

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Release: Wednesday, December 18, 2013

[RPX Theater]

Baxter! Bark twice if you’re in this movie!

“Woof-woof!”

. . .and, oh how he is! Baxter and the entire Channel Four News team assemble for the much-anticipated follow-up to Adam McKay’s 2004 smash hit. Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. . .is, to put it completely unbiased-like and everything, well. . .it’s exactly the product you were expecting, but quite possibly funnier.

While the decades may have changed — the likes of Ron, Brian, Champ and Brick are now gone from Channel 4 News, doing their own thing, finding themselves slightly displaced with the 70s behind them — the characters that made the first movie so hilarious sure haven’t.

Sure, originality has faded a little since the prospect of seeing the guys “again” by definition means we are already accustomed to the antics and shenanigans that are likely to come our way. McKay does not take his audiences for fools, despite what some may think of the quality of his work. That we are already acclimated to this feverish silliness coming into the second film is really an advantage, since that leaves him with one option: making sure that we get to know the characters on a deeper level. That might not be something to necessarily expect from a sequel to a slapstick comedy like Anchorman, but that’s just what we get out of our second time around the block with four of Hollywood’s funniest forty-somethings. Well written, familiarly yet painfully hilarious, and perhaps even a touch more sincere than its predecessor, Anchorman 2 delivers the good news, and quickly.

The sequel can only be described as the natural succession in Will Ferrell’s most successful comedy outing. Mr. Burgundy and his former colleagues find themselves struggling to make ends meet in the new decade; that is, until Ron gets hired by a major 24-hour news station, GNN (Global News Network). He wants to reunite his team and deliver New York, and the world, the best damned news one mustache could provide.

Of course that means pitting his San Diego resume against that of the slick, professional and comically un-intimidating Jack Lime (hehe. . .Jack Lame). Ron soon finds that its going to take some serious news anchoring to get his name out, especially when he learns that his team is given the worst time slot to be on air (from 2 to 5 in the morning). Ron quickly discovers that no matter what time they’re getting to report the news, wouldn’t it be better to give the people greater quantity of “what they want” (like high-speed car chases and celebrity gossip) instead of what “they need” (high-profile interviews and clearly more quality stories like the ones Veronica Corningstone is trying to nail)? What is Ron going to sacrifice to get to that prime-time spot on GNN?

Fortunately none of the guys sacrifice their comedic wit in this second outing. McKay and company, much to their credit, bring back a lot of the jokes that helped make its predecessor so outrageous, and while that sounds like potentially lazy filmmaking, in this case it was a good idea. Familiarity can breed contempt, but rare are the dull moments when you’re around Ron and his dim-witted colleagues. Their antics are met with greater opposition at this station, as the four of them are overseen by a particularly no-nonsense station manager by the name of Linda Jackson (Meagan Good). . .and in comparison to others, the four seem to be the station’s least successful contributors.

That is, yes, until Ron discovers the secret of news reporting. Though set in the 80s, the heart and soul of this cackle-inducing comedy very much riffs on the state of more contemporary news outlets and the way they present information to the masses. It’s the soft news being spewed out by the likes of TMZ, MTV and even to some extent more reputable sources like NBC that get targeted by Ferrell and McKay’s still sharp and witty script. For the most part, it is as successful a formula as the one they came up with roughly a decade ago.

The only thing this film will likely not do is compete with the first’s quotability factor. While there are some epic moments here to remember, there are no glass cases of emotion to be found, nor one liners of pure gold such as “where did you get those clothes, at the toilet store?” Much to its credit though, this film’s sight gags are far more plentiful and these alone are worth paying for a ticket. One particular side-story is responsible for one of Ferrell’s most bizarre yet hilarious running visual jokes (that’s a pun, actually), a sequence which culminates in the most satisfying of comic climaxes. If you thought the scale of the last news team battle (and the list of big-name extras) was impressive in the first movie, just you wait.

The Legend does indeed continue. This is everything that a sequel to a comedy should be, and thanks to the reuniting of McKay with the same guys who helped make him a success in the early 2000s, the line between remaining reliably funny and becoming pretentious about what it’s trying to achieve is carefully avoided. It’s not a film that has a great amount of purpose, but it’s a deliciously entertaining film that shows a progression of the relationships between the guys from the Channel 4 News desk. It also makes some great use of supporting roles in Meagan Good and Greg Kinnear, bearing witness to some of the most brazenly racist and childish behavior any news team member has ever seen at GNN. You almost feel sorry for these two. Almost.

Long live the mustache, and most importantly, long live Baxter — the coolest dog any movie has ever seen.

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3-5Recommendation: This section is remarkably easy for this one. If you were a fan of the first, this will more than satisfy. If you weren’t, here’s one this December you can probably skip out on. The silliness is back in fine form here and although we had to wait nearly a decade to see a sequel, it’s more than great news that what awaited was not simply a ship waiting to sink.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 119 mins.

Quoted: “Suicide makes you hungry, I don’t care what anybody says.”

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Photo credits: http://www.screencrush.com; http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: I Love You, Man (2009)

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This may be pushing the limits that I sort-of (but not really at all) established about how recent a movie can be to qualify for this throwback feature, but darn it if today’s entry doesn’t qualify for one of the more memorable buddy-comedies. . . ever. It’s a slight film, but it’s also infectiously feel-good, and a delightfully breezy way to spend an hour and a half with a film. Such are the simple qualifications for the throwbacks of this month! Hope you enjoy. 

Today’s food for thought: I Love You, Man

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Release: March 20, 2009

[Theater]

Paul Rudd seems to be able to work a smile onto anyone’s face, no matter whom he’s working alongside, or in front of what audience persuasion he may be performing. He’s got this easy charm to him that is impossible to resist. (And if you can, then you’re simply jealous of not being quite as cool as he is.)

Then, when you pair him off with someone like Freaks & Geeks‘ Jason Segel — an equally lovable goofball who’s as gangly and awkward as he is tall — the only thing left a director needs to do with his film is scout the locations. The movie is already written, just by casting these two sincerely funny men. To me, for some reason the script for I Love You, Man is so natural and organic it wouldn’t be a great surprise to learn that half of it was improvised. Yet, at the same time, names like Rudd and Segel aren’t quite huge enough to drown out the rest of the cast; instead, they blend perfectly with the rest, creating one of the most enjoyable buddy-comedies in recent years.

John Hamburg (Along Came Polly)’s film follows Peter Klaven (Rudd) around town as he goes on a mission to find a Best Man for his upcoming wedding to the beautiful Zooey Rice (Rashida Jones). Having learned of the, shall we say, ‘deep’ conversations his fiancé has been having with her girlfriends, Peter has a rude awakening — he has never been one to have platonic friendships. With the women, he’s always been a girlfriend kind of guy, and as Peter’s younger brother (a gay Andy Samberg) puts it, “all his male friends just sort of fell to the wayside.”

Peter’s an ace at selling homes — specifically, bungalos, low-rise apartments. . .that sort of thing. One day he’s given an opportunity to sell a house way out of his league — namely, the multi-million dollar mansion belonging to none other than Lou Ferrigno, “the Hulk, from television.” During an open house for this spectacular property, he comes across the amiable, albeit strange, Sydney Fife (Segel) and the two strike up a conversation about cars, finger foods, and farting in open houses. It appears to be the first honest interaction Peter’s had with a stranger in quite some time, and the two begin hanging out often, becoming fast friends.

Ironically it’s this Sydney who is now responsible for Peter’s increasing distance from Zooey, who is initially beyond-excited for Peter’s latest “man-date” with this unseen Sydney guy, but as time goes on, the new relationship starts to pose as a threat to the soon-to-be-wed couple. Peter can’t prioritize his time. Even worse, he is so socially awkward he doesn’t realize that compartmentalizing friendship doesn’t realistically work. Since Sydney and Peter have such great bromantic chemistry, Peter’s thinking this is clearly the guy to be at his wedding. Yet Sydney thinks Peter’s just lonely and in need of a friend (which is also true).

I Love You, Man is a heartwarming comedy featuring fine work from both Rudd and Segel, who play off one another’s energy throughout the entire film. The film also offers an ensemble cast putting forth quite the effort as well, with hilarious performances from Jon Favreau and Jaime Pressley (as the gleefully dysfunctional married couple Zooey is friendly with); Sarah Burns as Hailey, Zooey’s beyond-desperately single friend; and Rob Huebel playing Peter’s obnoxious co-worker, Tevin Downey.

This particular film may not take you to any new places in terms of the type of comedy and it doesn’t offer locations that will stick in your mind long afterwards, yet that’s all part of the unassuming beauty of I Love You, Man — it’s so grounded in reality that one can hardly tell where real life and the cinematic life in this one converge.

As a piece of popcorn entertainment, its surprisingly substantial in that this speaks volumes about the insecurities people are bound to have when getting married. Is everything in the right order? What’s going to change when we are married, particularly the friendships? There’s nothing that’s profound as such, but the message contained herein is just sweet enough and important enough to keep this film at the top of the pile in terms of quality buddy-comedies. An incredible on-screen chemistry between two comedic pros helps ensure this. As well, our romantic couple feel so natural, forming a charming relationship that you cannot wait to see finally tie the knot at long last.

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4-0Recommendation: John Hamburg’s latest is by no means a timeless classic, but as far as contemporary feel-good’s are concerned, this one has remarkable staying power. This is earned from the great interactions between Rudd and Segel who form a believable, lovable friendship, and the rest of the cast do lovely work all around as well. For as many decently rude jokes that are sprinkled throughout, this is also a surprisingly mature film, one that shouldn’t be missed for comedy devotees.

Rated: R

Running Time: 105 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.bayoucityflyers.com; http://www.imdb.com

This Is 40

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Release: Friday, December 21, 2012

[Theater]

I do like Judd Apatow but I’m going to veer off-course here, just like his directing does in this film, by saying this is in no way one of his best features. It’s certainly one of his longest.

Clocking in at over two-hours, This Is 40 is a chance to exploit life’s growing pains and the pitfalls of married life for profit. I don’t necessarily have a problem with that since this is Hollywood we’re talking about, where nothing’s off-limits; I just wished this film was funnier and a tad shorter.

We once again are introduced to Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), that all-too-unhappy pair from Apatow’s decidedly funnier Knocked Upbut this time we have to stay for dinner. And for a long time afterwards, too. We would enjoy the company more if there were company to actually enjoy. Instead what we’re provided in this (have I mentioned long?) cross-examination of these individuals’ day-to-day are mostly asinine details about the less-enjoyable times throughout the later stages of life — life revolving around a rather unlikeable family.

To name a few, the kids coming of age (pre-high school) — and if this film is any indication, this phase can be attributed to most people’s gray hairs; things on the work front not going so smoothly — Pete is a record label owner failing to produce sufficient revenue and new artists, Debbie as a shop owner whose business is not faring much better; and then there’s always the case of an extended family being a rather dysfunctional group of characters, including Albert Brooks as Pete’s perpetually mooching father, and a rare sighting of John Lithgow as Debbie’s estranged dad.

As does Lithgow, these moments of hyper-stress and “what are we going to do with ourselves” only occur but for a few moments at a time, and sporadically. They never really become substantial or even really convincing. Well, the children are as annoying as ever come the halfway mark.

Moving outside of the immediate family, Apatow decides he needs some scenery for the film, so he casts Megan Fox and Charlyne Yi as Debbie’s store employees — Fox as Desi, a promiscuous flaunt who is about as bad in this movie as she’s ever been. Understanding how obvious it might seem that she’s hired based primarily on her looks, I have to say this time it’s so incredibly apparent that to not point it out would be to overlook one of the most tacked-on facets of This Is 40.

Ultimately, This Is 40 winds up as a weird mix of the serious tone dominant in Funny People and the bubbly-happy pseudo-reality commonly found in an Apatow production. The result is not nearly as satisfying as one would think.

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2-5Recommendation: As far as an Apatow production is concerned, I would save the money and wait for the next. A man this successful and talented is sure to pop out another here in a year or so. This was just a disappointment honestly.

Rated: R

Running Time: 133 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.dailymail.co.uk