Every once in a while a genre movie reminds us of what intelligent cinema looks like and they make ideas come to life. The turbulence of our current domestic and international waters is to thank for that. Never in our history have we had more ways of communicating with one another, yet the gap in real understanding continues to widen. I’m not going to say Arrival is a poignant reminder of what art can show us about our shortcomings, but it sure makes a great effort.
Arrival is a film about communication and language. It tells the story of alien contact through the interaction of a linguist and a foreign species over the course of an undefined amount of time. The metaphor of aliens is fairly obvious: they represent the “other” that we don’t know. The question of a film like this is, how do we get to understand the “other”? The film posits the importance of language as well as science in establishing a connection.
While there is certainly a scientific aspect to the film there are few scenes of expository science jargon to bog down the script, unlike most sci-fi films. It is interesting to note that the supporting protagonist is a theoretical physicist, as in, he’s more about ideas than concrete physics, much the same as the film, itself. There is a physical military presence throughout the film to clash with the philosophical aspects but, thankfully, the film steers away from the clichéd military vs. science conflict for the most part and keeps the physical tension as mostly a B plot device to raise the stakes for our protagonists.
What the film does best is breeze past much of the science and breakdown the ideas of language as the source of conflict. Aliens have their own form of communication, as do humans. And not even that, amongst humans there is a dearth of communication forms ranging from spoken languages to body language and cultural traditions.
It’s here where the thesis of the film crumbles away a little bit. The school of philosophy centered on knowledge is known as epistemology. This school has formed theories on our association of the “other” and how they are represented. The basics of epistemology are: what do we know and how do we know. When it comes to the “other” our only way of knowing is through the prism of our foundations. Our own culture shapes our views of the world and they are unmistakably part of the foundation of our knowledge. So the question to be asked is, is it possible to understand the “other”?
I can watch 10,000 Japanese movies and break them down frame by frame and inject knowledge of Japanese history, customs and art, yet still the analysis is framed through a window of Western culture. I grew up in America. And as such, I am unable to view a Japanese film as a Japanese person would.
The resolution of Arrival includes an assimilation of culture between the aliens and the protagonist. Amy Adams’ linguist learns to understand their language and is able to think the way they do, in non-linear terms, thus preventing a global war. Using the previous example, this would be the equivalent of an American learning the Japanese language and immediately being capable of thinking the same way a Japanese person thinks. It is true that the structure of language dictates the way we process our thoughts. The subject-predicate structure varies from language to language and invariably affects information processes. For example, think of how Yoda from “Star Wars” speaks. There are many languages that translate in a similar structure showing a different emphasis in sentence arrangement.
Maybe this is just a nitpick but I have visions of philosophers watching this film and scoffing at the simplified presentation of the “other”. It would be arrogant to assume we can comprehend the nature of another culture by simply learning their language, but it’s certainly a great first step in learning to know and accept others through our own prisms of understanding.
I’m not meaning to detract from the point of the film. Each and every one of us needs to exercise empathy and try to understand others and their modes of thinking and communicating. The simplified view expressed in Arrival is an idealistic version of how important it can be to communicate with cultures we are unfamiliar with. For that reason, the film has a worth beyond the performances and technical aspects, which is rare in a genre movie.
As enchanting as La La Land is (and wants to be), it left me a little disenchanted overall.
The film mixes old-time Hollywood style into a modern day setting, complete with musical numbers on a gridlocked L.A. highway and scenic Hollywood Hills’ locales. I’ve read pieces saying it’s a love-letter to Los Angeles, but that’s romanticizing a fairly mundane story into something it’s not. At the heart of the story is sacrifice and all the things you have to give up to achieve your dreams, as much as I hate using that word.
Because, really, this movie is a dreamers fantasy. The main characters, Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), have aspirations of success within their respective art-forms: Mia wants to be an actress and Sebastian wants to be a jazz musician/club owner. Damien Chazelle’s love of jazz music is most notably at the forefront of the story, as it was in his previous film, Whiplash. Through musical numbers and chance encounters, the film tells the story of these two dreamers who press each other to….well, achieve their dreams.
That’s one problem with the film. It’s a retread of many other stories about Hollywood dreams, stories that were better told and with more impressive musicality.
The benchmark for stories like this is pure classic Broadway, such as 42nd Street. Where La La Land fails is when it’s a classic narrative posing as a musical, and when it’s a musical posing as a classic narrative. It could have been successful at being either one of these things, it’s just not successful being both. The movie mixes film techniques, such as craning cameras, widescreen lenses and single-take shots with stage production methods, like fixed-point lighting and painted backdrops, but to what avail? What we’re seeing is neither fully Broadway nor fully Hollywood.
So many scenes are lit to make the film seem like a stage play, especially during dance numbers, which don’t strike me as a snug fit for the story. Whipping and craning camerawork are employed, especially during the meandering but mostly pointless opening number, in an attempt to create some kind of kinetic energy. But the story being told doesn’t merit this device. It is’t a peppy, toe-tapping, Hairspray kind of a musical. I respect the minimal editorial cuts for the sheer skill and degree of difficulty, but I don’t think it aided the type of musical numbers they wrote and choreographed for the film.
After all, what makes film unique compared to a stage production? It can capture a world you can’t present on the stage. Film doesn’t need back-drops and movable sets to create an environment for the audience like a stage play does. It can take real life and make it as magical as they want. So how is it possible that La La Land gets away with using these elements of live theater? The luxury of editorial authorship is king in the cinema, whereas a stage production has to drop the curtain to edit.
Take the above image as an example. From the still (the main publicity still from the film) we get a sense of what the film wants to be: a fun, whimsical tale that sits atop the L.A. skyline. But look at that image closely and scan the individual parts. The actors are being lit by an enormous white light, far too bright to be a simple street light or the moon, especially considering there’s a dusk light creeping up in the back of the frame. Also, the green-screen addition of the L.A. lights is far too obvious. When you see this scene in the movie you can tell that this street is not a real location and the city behind them is a green-screen. Why does this image (and scene) need to look so fake?
Listen, I understand that it’s probably just me, but elements like those are what take me out of the movie.
And for the record, I love musicals, both stage and screen presentations. So there is no bias here.
The film tries to tell a Los Angeles story, a place where art and culture are around every corner, but they staged it like a Broadway play. So where is the love-letter to L.A. vibe coming from? It celebrates a lifestyle, but certainly not the locale.
All that being said, the two leads are great together (especially Emma Stone) and the film tells multiple love stories in a mostly visual way. Chazelle deftly uses his camera to carry us through the emotions of two artists trying to mold their lives into something for themselves and each other. He paints a picture of old Hollywood set in a modern age, complete with eco-friendly cars and movie back-lot coffee shops.
On a thematic level, the idea of sacrifice and leaving behind one dream to forge another is acutely realistic for an artist. Many times a personal passion is all encompassing, forcing us to choose a path. For a city rich in artistry and artists, I’m sure that’s more true than any other place in the world.
La La Land is a good film with a cliched story and some visual panache. It jams several elements of things I truly love (music and movies) into a film that didn’t honor either of them properly. Thankfully, the characters keep you engaged and are performed so well you invest in them. In one way it prevails, in the other it doesn’t. I wish I liked it more.
When I wrote about Inside Out last Summer I mentioned that I didn’t like writing about kids movies very much, mostly because they rarely have a higher purpose other than entertainment and I don’t enjoy picking apart childish fun. For my dime, that isn’t so interesting to write about. Though, Pixar films have been known to possess a higher purpose.
Being that Finding Dory is a sequel to a beloved and, admittedly, very good kids film, there are certainly some interesting parallels and thematic elements to discuss. So, let’s dive in. (Get it? I’ll be here all week!)
The plot of Finding Dory is another adventure, like Finding Nemo, wherein the titular character is crossing the ocean to search for her parents whom she has suddenly started to remember again. The original film was also a familial adventure and had a personal theme of accepting personal and physical faults. The sequel dials down the ocean voyage obstacles and instead places the characters in a Sea World-like environment where many of the obstacles are man-made. This works well because they avoided treading the same water (Yeah, I got puns) as the original story.
Plot points aside, the film has several emotional moments that draw their power from our love of these characters from the first film. In the same way you knew Marlin was sacrificing his very nature in order to find his son, you know Dory’s journey is more important than just finding her home. She’s finding herself.
Heavy for a kids flick, right? Yes and no. The best kinds of these movies essentially offer a McGuffin, which is a narrative plot point that forces the characters to have an arc. Nemo was both a character and a goal for Marlin to achieve. Like I said, it’s just as important for Dory to find about herself as it is for her to find her parents. But in order for her to achieve her goal, she has to overcome her deficiencies and prove to herself she is capable of overcoming them. So the plot of her trying to find her parents is secondary to her own self discovery. And if you’re paying attention, this is the structure of nearly every story ever told.
And the first film is no different. Marlin’s journey is to find his inner courage as much as it is to find his son. But he needed the tragedy of losing his son to make it possible. His over-protectiveness and neuroticism were endearing and also served as a catalyst for the events of Finding Nemo. He had undergone tragedy in the loss of his wife, which affected his psychological state, and his voyage to find his son was in stark contrast to that. It took one tragic experience to get over the other.
Interestingly, one of the most fun parts in Finding Nemo is the Woody Allen/Diane Keaton-like relationship (though, not in a romantic way) Marlin and Dory have. She is free-wheeling and careless, and he’s a nervous wreck who envisions certain death at all times. Finding Dory rarely explores this dynamic and instead separates the two very early. What this does is it provides a set-up for the characters to depend on themselves and their resources. Dory finds a new set of new and old friends which she bonds with in various ways. Sadly, Nemo has been reduced to a sidekick and more of a resource for Marlin in this film, but it’s still a fun relationship to watch.
Also of note, the voice cast is excellent. Ellen Degeneres is obviously the stand-out, as she was in Finding Nemo. It’s funny because it rarely works when a supporting character from one film is given their own film, but you could argue Finding Dory stands toe-to-toe with the first one. And a lot of that has to do with Ellen’s portrayal of Dory. She is the heart of the film in a big way.
I feel like I could babble on about the themes of family and finding your inner strength, but again, it’s a kids film and it’s all in plain sight. There isn’t anything I said in this review that you won’t see for yourself. In short, the film has an enormous heart, a big emotional impact, lovable characters (Ed O’Neil’s Octopus ((Septopus)) is a stand-out new character), and a captivating adventure plot. Highly recommended.
Cutting to the chase, the MCU’s latest superhero extravaganza is rich in action, circus-act set-pieces, and rife with conflict, both political and emotional. It’s the combination of these elements that make the film a stand-out in the realm of superhero cinema. The film isn’t without flaws but the Russo Brothers deftly manage a smorgasbord of plot, character, and action in a way that few could, and that alone is an achievement.
Warning: there may be spoilers below. Proceed with caution.
I’ll start with the flaws. The main complaint with the previous MCU films has been its inability to tell a complete story. The stories here are culled from decades of comic books, which as a medium is defined by its serial nature. This week’s issue is a continuation of last week’s while also being the precursor of next week’s. Film has never really been that way, unless there were planned installments (i.e. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Trek). The arc created in previous installments is rarely concluded within a single narrative context. In other words, comic book superhero narratives are longer than your typical narrative. They are resolved over the course of several issues, or films, while only black-and-white struggles get resolved. The actuality is, these films prove it is much easier to vanquish a physical enemy than it is to get rid of a metaphysical one (i.e. Steve and Tony’s internal struggles linger long after their enemy has been killed or imprisoned at the end of the movie). So the problem we run into in films such as Captain America: Civil War is one of a structural nature.
What I’m working towards is the reason for the inclusion of characters and moments that don’t necessarily complete the narrative we’re watching, but they add to an existing narrative outside the confines of the current story, or they are planting the seeds for another story to begin.
The most obvious example is the massive shoehorn the Russos employed to wedge the MCU’s returning hero, “Spider-Man”, into Cap’s adventure. When Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark goes to Queens to recruit the high schooler with the superhero abilities, it brings the Civil War storyline to a grinding halt. I am aware that “Spider-Man” was present in the comic book version of the Civil War storyline, but he existed within that world long before the big battle takes place. In this film, he is brought in for three reasons: to give Tony Stark a moment of levity in an otherwise emotionally vulnerable story for “Iron Man”, to provide some humor and fun to the heavy-handed proceedings, and to introduce “Spider-Man” into the MCU. Narratively speaking, he serves no purpose. He doesn’t choose a political side or fight for a reason. He fights because his idol asked him to, which is most dubious considering how well and how long the film sets up the emotional and political reasons for all the characters to fight for their side (except maybe Paul Rudd’s “Ant-Man”, who seems to fight for almost the same reason “Spider-Man” does, albeit on Team Cap).
There are conflicting ideologies at work that truly elevate the story in a way that no Batman v Superman ever could. Both films deal with the collateral damage inflicted upon civilization and the consequences thereof. Where Civil War succeeds is in creating grey areas for the characters to exist within. Steve Rogers understands the ramifications of civilian casualties in the process of stopping the bad guys, but he also understands the agendas of those that would force him to or keep him from taking some necessary risks. Have we learned nothing from the scheming Hydra agents from Winter Soldier? Imagine if they had final say in where, when, and under what circumstances the Avengers were sent into action?
But we are also shown the toll that the events of the previous movies has taken on Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr. is fantastic in this film). The amount of damage resulting from the existence of the Avengers is tremendous and Tony doesn’t want the burden anymore. I’ve seen people writing pieces about the reversed allegiances and the backwards ideologies of the two main characters. This is where that notion of incomplete storylines and serial narratives comes back to bite the MCU. What do we know about Cap? He’s a soldier who fights for truth, justice, and the American way. And we know Iron Man is an arrogant, stubborn loner who revels in the attention of being a superhero and billionaire playboy. So how is it we got to the point where Cap becomes a government outcast and renegade fighter while Iron Man fights for the rights of the government to control the actions of superheroes? You have to read (see) last week’s issue!
The best parts of this film are character moments: interactions between Anthony Mackie’s “Falcon” and Sebastian Stan’s sympathetic, dangerous and conflicted “Winter Soldier”; “Spider-Man” interacting with everyone he meets from the Avengers; Chadwick Boseman’s intense performance as the grieving, vengeful king of Wakanda, T’Challa (A.K.A. the “Black Panther”); Paul Rudd’s what-am-I-doing-here comedic shtick (as well as an amazingly fun action sequence centered around his “Ant-Man” abilities); and one of my favorites, the insecure and frightened performance of Elizabeth Olsen’s “Scarlet Witch”, who carries the burden of causing the catastrophe that sets the story in motion as well as the being the “outcast” of the group because of the intensity of her powers.
The joyous, huge action sequence between the two superhero teams is a much-deserved payoff after we are given ample reasons for each team to fight for their cause. This is why it pays to set-up, set-up, and set-up some more. By the time we have reached the fight, the backstory of political ideologies and emotions have been firmly established. Of the two main fights in the movie, this is the political struggle narratively created into an actual fist-fight, complete with humor and over-the-top action beats. The climactic battle between Cap, Iron Man, and the Winter Soldier is equally rewarding, if not moreso, because this fight embodies the emotional baggage of each character and succeeds in embodying the sheer intensity of an emotional fight. The explosion of emotion that ignites this battle is lit literally from the very first seconds of the film. The fact that we have to wait until the very end to get the payoff makes it even more satisfying.
When we are served a superhero film that combines this many characters with this level of thought and planning, we are all lucky customers. The inherent structure of superhero films begs for the creation of a thousand think-pieces about the nature of story and cinematic narratives, but I’ll leave that to much smarter people and enjoy the ride the Russo’s have given us.
Podcast Episode #10: 9/29/15 – Talking Getting Old, My Disgust with the Internet, Reviewing PARANORMAN as well the the Trailer for THE REVENANT, Slasher Flicks, Football, and other nonsense
I’m back on my Tuesday schedule this week as I hit a milestone….EPISODE 10! I couldn’t have done it without you all. You keep me going. Yes, you.
As usual I ramble about nonsense, including the Pope’s visit, internet stupidity, douchebags with water jugs, football, and slasher movies. I also managed to squeeze in some real movie talk as I reviewed Paranorman (written review here) and discussed the trailer for The Revenant (which can be viewed here).
I stated in my Inside Out review that I really don’t like to critique kids films. They tend to not strive for technical or narrative brilliance (unless it’s Pixar) so it seems silly to pick them apart. But, since I haven’t watched a newer movie in quite some time I’ll come up with some words about a kids flick.
All in all, I dug Paranorman. It doesn’t feature the narrative arc that every other kids movie has where the kid has to discover something about him/herself in order to achieve the goal of the film. There’s a little bit of that in here but it’s not the defining arc. In this movie Norman stays virtually the same throughout the film (for the uninitiated, he can see and speak to ghosts). The film actually critiques the townspeople who don’t believe in his gift and constantly pick on Norman and think he’s a freak. So I suppose you could find an interesting connection to horror films, which this film is a derivative of. In most horror films there’s something or someone threatening to kill or destroy people or the environment or whatever the case may be, and there’s always one person who figures it out and no one believes them until the end. But usually by then all of those people are dead, but we all know they had it coming. Humorously, Norman is shown watching horror movies throughout the film and appears entranced yet unaffected by them. Such is the life of the weird kid (yours truly included).
The horror homages throughout are definitely a treat for any fan of the genre. I can’t honestly recall every tip of the hat but there is one shot that humorously parodies Halloween and Friday the 13th in the same image, which I quite enjoyed.
I also would like to mention the animation. I have a deep admiration for any filmmaker working in stop-motion animation, not only because of the time and effort it takes to shoot a stop motion film but because of what it adds to the story. It adds a tangible effect to the film that other types of animation can’t boast. Computer generated films are impressive because of what they can conjure up visually while coming close to realism, but because they are done entirely with a computer I find it difficult to engage fully in the animation. They’re still trying to make everything look so real, which makes me look at it in an attempt to judge the realness. I think with any kind of imagery that isn’t filmed reality you’d want the image to pull you in and not show it’s seams. Stop motion goes for an unusual look (which, for my buck, is what animation should be used for) that displays more creativity than the most realistic looking computer generated moose or elf or human.
That’s really all I have to say. It was certainly a fun flick and recommended viewing during the Halloween season.
Trainwreck is the Amy Schumer show masquerading (pretty successfully) as an R-rated romantic comedy. If every film is essentially a series of ingredients mixed up in a bowl and served as the sum of all those ingredients you could say this recipe is 60% Amy Schumer and 60% Judd Apatow. That is to say, there’s just a little too much of each.
Schumer has made a healthy career as a smart, crude, misandrist-like comedian whose stand-up routines could make Andrew Dice Clay feel awkward. She’s a strong woman who daftly points out irregularities in gender, sex and sexuality and does so with wit and intelligence. She says things about men that male comedians have been saying about women for years. As if to say “the world is stupid and here I am to tell you all how stupid you are.” I have a feeling it comes easy to her, and in a perfect world she would be the norm.
But, as with most comedians, this is a visage. She makes a living saying the one thing A) she isn’t supposed to say because she is a woman, B) that a man might typically say, and/or C) that would be the most shocking. And she’s terrific at her day job. That visage is how she wrote the character in the film, which is simply her stage persona on the big screen. And thankfully she’s so smart she’s able to pull it off.
Considering this is Schumer’s introduction to the world, for the most part, she has to display her persona in full force, for better or for worse. She plays a wise-ass with commitment issues who likes to drink and smoke weed. Sound familiar? That’s because it’s the male part of every R-rated romantic comedy, especially Apatow comedies. She likes to sleep around and has trouble with intimacy. Hell, there’s a whole sub-genre of sit-com characters based on those same traits (“Two and a Half Men” and “How I Met Your Mother” for instance). This gender-swapping definitely adds an unfamiliar and welcomed element to the picture. But while it’s fresh and different that the character is played by a female in this movie, it’s still a character we’ve seen 1000 times before. This one is just a little funnier. Sadly, this means you can’t predict what she’ll say next but you can certainly figure out what she’ll do next.
Now, what I’ve just described is Schumer’s 60% of this film. She wrote the screenplay and is the lead actor. The character’s name is “Amy”. There is no separation of actor and character. There are definitely scenes that play out like comedy sketches (as might be featured on her show “Inside Amy Schumer”) and bits from her stand-up routine. Most of these scenes are funny but the problem is they feel like sketches and stand-up bits. They are pure set-up for her to make an outrageous or offensive remark, and because of this it doesn’t feel like organic comedy. In other words, it’s written so the narrative sets up the comedy instead of the comedy moving the narrative forward.
Unfortunately, this is where the 60% of Judd Apatow comes into play. He’s made a living making tangential films with paper-thin, clichéd stories that are mere window dressings for his troupe of improvisational actors (Seth Rogan, Bill Hader, Jonah Hill, etc). This film isn’t paper-thin, but it is littered with more than enough tangents and clichés. Bits like the “You know how I know you’re gay….” scene from The 40 Year-Old Virgin are everywhere in this movie, but most of them are quite funny. The scenes with LeBron James, in particular, standout as funny if not completely unnecessary scenes. And for a movie that runs over 2 hours they can drag the story down. The John Cena plotline at the beginning of the film is a perfect example of a useless, largely unfunny tangent with no payoff. I have a feeling they knew they had a clichéd story and tried to be funny enough to cover it up. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t, like most Apatow productions.
The bottom line is Amy Schumer is a really funny and really smart comedian who has established her brand. Judd Apatow is a funny and smart filmmaker who has also established a brand. While the two brands often times meld in the right places, there are enough times that the marriage is too much. Where the film at its best is when it is subverting gender roles, and that is 100% Schumer’s writing and comedic talents. Thankfully, Schumer and Bill Hader are charming and funny enough that the outcome is largely positive.
Hope you enjoy!
Pixar’s recent critical cold streak (Cars 2, Brave, Monsters University) has seemingly come to an end with the high concept, internal conflict film, Inside Out.
Kids’ movies are usually critic-proof in terms of critical content, but I feel like Inside Out straddles the line between adult and kid friendly and offers something extra to think about.
The framework of the narrative is built around the personification of a little girl’s emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear. The majority of the screentime is focused on these five as the young girl is faced with the transition of moving with her family from Minnesota to San Francisco. After the move we spend most of the time with Joy and Sadness, who become separated from the rest of the emotions. Do you see where this is headed? Because it’s very easy to spot early on. And, of course, there’s nothing wrong with a simplistic theme because, again, this is a kid’s film.
There is a fairly meticulous construct that makes up the film’s idea of the brain, whose elements include core and normal memories, small islands erected to show interests and personality traits, a literal train of thought, a dream set that resembles a movie set, a memory dump where old memories fade away, and so on and so forth. And these areas are generally populated with cute little animated beings for the kids to enjoy.
This depiction of the brain is fairly accurate to how a physical construction of a brain might work if you combined an adult’s knowledge with a child’s imagination. Only, I wonder if populating this world with cute, colorful entities is enough for kids to make any sense of it. The part most kids will relate to is the part of the narrative where Joy and Sadness get lost and have to find their way back. It provides the “adventure home” narrative tension that appeals to a child’s cinematic tastes. However, I wonder if a child understands the metaphor attached to that struggle. You never lose those emotions, but sometimes they fall into the background during times of turmoil, which is the scenario this movie depicts. The film provides a scenario where Joy and Sadness are in danger of being lost forever, seemingly in order to keep the kids interested, but adults know this is an impossible outcome.
They present a colorful world with a very binary depiction of emotions. When things go wrong characters get sad, and when they don’t know how to deal with that they get angry. As an adult you know things rarely work that way. Emotions are complicated and often overlap with several other emotions at one time. I suppose this is where I take issue with the film, from an adult’s perspective.
The ideas presented in this film are dumbed down to make sense to a child, but I feel like if you asked a child to explain the inner workings of the mind based on the landscape they create in this film you’d get a very one-dimensional answer and not a complete understanding. Which is fine except why go through all the time and effort to create this rich world? Adults know it’s silly, and kids just enjoy the colors and humor.
So who is this movie for? Most adults will know there’s more to emotion and brain activity than this and kids will only attach themselves to the cute emotions and the various little beings that live in this girl’s mind.
This isn’t to say it’s a bad movie, I just don’t think it’s enough. It’s a high concept with a low return. Go see it with adults, or kids, because the conversation you have afterward is worth it.
This film is first and foremost a product of the Marvel machine, which means it’s entertaining and fun but nothing more than set-up for future Ant-Man tales.
The story is smaller than those of Thor and The Avengers based simply on character recognition, but rest assured we’ll see this diminutive character alongside the likes of Captain Rogers and Tony Stark soon enough. First we need to see an origin story, just as we saw with every other major Marvel character. And if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Let’s check off the boxes: a reluctant or unknowing character gains a power or is chosen to be wield a power, the character fumbles around during training sequences, a paper-thin villain is introduced, in the last 30 minutes the hero has a dramatic character moment that alters their arc, and finally they gear up for battle and save the day. On a small scale. Let’s not forget, it takes at least 2 movies before we get to see any actual stakes or a formidable villain.
But again, the purpose of this film is to build towards a larger future. Marvel can’t introduce Ant-Man into their future Avengers movies without setting him up within the universe they’ve created. And they certainly do that in this film, going so far as to have a mini-fight with a lesser Avenger right in the middle of the movie, which turns out to be one of the cooler sequences in the film. I personally enjoy when characters and storylines cross over, and maybe that’s just the inner comic book fan in me saying that. The Avengers films have firmly been ingrained in our culture at this point, and a reference to the super team is made very early in this film so we’re aware that they have similarly affected the world within their cinematic world.
The issue with all these movies is stakes, or lack there of. Every audience member is aware that Scott Lang will accomplish the mission and survive the film, so it must be the job of the director to make sure it’s fun and captivating despite the lack of tension. I would say this film has less tension than most superhero films solely because the villain is so one-dimensional and really poorly written, which is tragic considering the run-time is almost a robust 2 hours. I think writers and directors forget sometimes that the strength of a hero is directly affected by the strength of their adversary. In this case the adversary is, essentially, a douchebag. There are some pretty long stretches of time where he leaves the film as we see the family tensions between the film’s two real stars, Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lilly (taking nothing away from Paul Rudd’s “Scott Lang”, but neither Rudd nor Lang are allowed to be anything more than pawn pieces). The villain pops up sporadically just to remind us who Scott will have to defeat later and to add any layer of tension other than familial drama. You could almost say the film only has a villain because it needs one to function as a comic narrative, not because the story dictates it. The villain doesn’t teach our hero anything, he learns everything his character needs to satisfy his arc from his friends and, sadly, that strips the villain of any narrative resonance. Think of what the Joker means to Batman and how he affects him in The Dark Knight. That doesn’t happen in this film.
Where the film succeeds is in Hank Pym’s (Michael Douglas) backstory as the first Ant-Man, the tension with his daughter, any time Scott puts on the suit, and any time Scott’s trio of cohorts (Michael Peña, T.I., David Dastmalchian) are on-screen. There is ample humor spread over the last hour or so of the film, mostly provided by his three amigos, to go along with the action and the final showdown is cool and fun, even going so far as to poke fun at its own size in a pretty funny Thomas the Tank Engine sequence. Sounds silly, but it’s good stuff.
I won’t go into the Edgar Wright controversy, I’ll just say Peyton Reed made a simply told, entertaining film. The fact that two separate writing and directing crews worked on this at various times surely affected the final product. For what it’s worth, if you see Ant-Man you’ll have a good time.
Podcast: 4/16/15 Episode #6 – Talking Early AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON Reactions, WONDER WOMAN, Plus Two Movie Reviews
Note #1: This episode was recorded on Tuesday, April 14th so I’m behind on the Wonder Woman director carousel news. To update, Patty Jenkins has replaced Michelle MacLaren.
Not a whole lot of movie news took place in the last week so I had to pick and choose a couple things to talk about today. Regardless, I chat about the early screenings on Avengers: Age of Ultron and what we might be in-store for based on the reactions, followed by some Wonder Woman talk to wrap up the superhero news. Then I get into an article on IndieWire that dissects the economic trajectory of It Follows and other independent films in relation to theatrical and VOD service windows. That article can be found here. Finally, I wrap up with a couple reviews, including a lengthy one about Jean-Luc Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (which I wrote about here), and a quick one about Disney’s Big Hero 6, and tacked onto the end is, of course, this week’s DVD releases and box-office chatter. Enjoy!
Note #2: I apologize about the low volume of the podcast, my mic volume was set a little lower than usual for some reason. This will be rectified next episode.