REVIEW: “Ant-Man”

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Marvel’s cinematic universe has become a powerful presense at the box office. This has allowed Marvel Studios (and owner Disney) to branch out into what could be more obscure territories for moviegoers other than comic book fans. We saw it first in the insanely successful “Guardians of the Galaxy” – a film about a fringe group of characters within Marvel’s comic book mythology. “Guardians” was a decent film that struck a major chord with audiences grossing over $750 million. “Ant-Man” falls into a similar category – a Marvel character lesser known to the masses brought to the big screen on the backs of the other films and their successes.

One of my big questions going in was whether or not this character and story was worthy of the big screen solo treatment or is this simply Marvel showing off their powerful box office muscles? That is a tough question to answer especially considering Marvel took an insane amount of liberties with the source material. The story we end up with only features snippets of content and characters from the comics. Taking liberties and telling a unique story isn’t a bad thing. But with “Ant-Man” I left the theater thinking that the better story was the one left behind in the comics – the one Marvel chose not to tell.

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“Ant-Man” had its share of development problems mainly in the form of writer and director Edgar Wright’s departure. A number of other directors turned down offers to helm the film until Peyton Reed eventually took the reins. Perhaps this contributes to the film’s shaky foundation and overall lack of identity. There are times when “Ant-Man” feels fresh and a bit experimental within its genre, but it never sees these things through. Instead it embraces some of the same cliches and story contraptions that we have seen numerous times.

Funny man Paul Rudd plays Scott Lang, a smart man with a good heart who sometimes makes dumb decisions. We first meet him as he is being released from prison after serving a sentence for a non-violent burglary. His incarceration has driven a deeper wedge between him and his ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer). She refuses to allow him to see their daughter Cassie until he gets his life together. This is tough pill for Scott to swallow especially considering how Cassie idolizes her father.

Now enter Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) who the movie has as a physicist who lost control of his company to an ambitious former protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). Since gaining control of Pym Industries, Cross has been trying to replicate Pym’s shrinking technology. But knowing the dangers of the formula in the wrong hands, Pym refuses to give it up causing all sorts of animosity between him and Cross. After Cross’ nefarious intent is revealed, Pym and his estranged daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) recruit Scott to help them stop Cross before he can unleash his evil plans.

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“Ant-Man” is definitely a mixed bag but its strong points are obvious. First, the story plays out on a much smaller scale which is something I appreciated. Yes, there are serious worldwide implications, but this is a superhero story which fits nicely within its smaller group of characters. There is no impending global doom or ominous cataclysmic event. In fact portions of the film play out like a corporate thriller while other portions play out like a heist film. I liked these elements and I was surprised by them. I was also surprised by how well Rudd fit into the character. The writing doesn’t always help him out, but overall he is good. I particularly liked Corey Stoll who managed to make a pretty one-dimensional character entertaining.

I also enjoyed the special effects which bounce back and forth between action-packed and playfully silly. In fact, some of the film’s best humor can be found in some of the visual effects sequences. It’s also worth noting that while the film is loaded with CGI, it’s not your standard big explosions and massive devastation. We get some of that but overall the effects serve different purposes which was refreshing. There is also a cool cameo and several other neat references which ground the film in Marvel’s greater cinematic universe.

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Unfortunately the movie’s strong points can’t overcome its problems. With all of the things the story does differently early on, ultimately it devolves into your standard, cliché-ridden fare. The redemption angle and typical origin story felt way too familiar and predictable. I also wasn’t blown away by its hit-or-miss humor. There were times when the movie is funny (Michael Pena is cast for no other purpose but to be a constant joke). Other times the humor fell flat and didn’t feel the slightest bit original. And perhaps my biggest issue was with the villain. On several occasions Marvel has struggled to give us an intense, engaging villain. Just look at “Guardians” for a glaring example. Darren Cross is pretty terrible. Now matter how good Corey Stoll is, his character’s actions simply don’t match his motivations. He is so poorly developed and we are basically given a few small lines of dialogue that are supposed to explain his reasoning. It just doesn’t work.

“Ant-Man” is an easy movie to digest. It dabbles in promising areas and has its share of fun scenes and cool visual effects. But it also squanders a lot of its potential by traveling down well-worn and overused paths. In the end this isn’t a Marvel film that I’ll find myself visiting again and it makes me skeptical of how they will use these characters in the future. I guess this is a case where I simply can’t shake the comic book fanboy within me. I still feel an Ant-Man film focused on a young Hank Pym and his wife Janet would be much better and more interesting than what we get here. But I guess we will never know.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3 Stars

REVIEW: “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”

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The biggest question swirling around Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” trilogy has been centered around the amount of content. Is there enough of it in J.R.R. Tolkien’s book to warrant three Jackson-sized films? That question has lingered in the back of my mind as I’ve watched each of the ‘Hobbit’ movies. The first two films sometimes struggled to suitably fill their time yet they managed to keep me engaged. Now we have Peter Jackson’s third ‘Hobbit’ film and final trip to Middle Earth. It’s “The Battle of the Five Armies” and I can see where people would say it is stretched too thin.

But to the question – Could “The Hobbit” have been adapted into two movies instead of three? I think the essential material could have definitely been covered in two installments. But at the same time “The Battle of the Five Armies” actually manages its time better than the previous films. Essentially it’s the trilogy’s big action-packed ending. The vast majority of the film is spent building up the climactic battle and then letting go with an epic-sized blow out. I had fun with it and it was far from the snoozefest I feared it would be.

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The film picks up exactly where the last one left off. There is no time jump. There is no setup. Smaug the dragon is loose and attacks Laketown. Bard (Luke Evans) guides the displaced people to safety and becomes their de facto leader. Thorin (Richard Armitage) and his band of dwarves have taken back The Lonely Mountain and its immense deposits of gold and riches. Problem is Thorin has gone mad with what is called “Dragon Sickness” and refuses to share his new-found wealth with Bard so that the people of Laketown can rebuild.

Then you have Thranduil (Lee Pace) and his elf army who come to the mountain to claim a white diamond necklace from the treasure. A blinded Thorin refuses and would rather fight than give up one piece of the mountain’s riches. With war about to break out between elves, dwarves, and humans, Gandolf arrives bearing news of a massive Orc army coming to take the mountain. The question becomes can they put aside their differences and come together to fight a much bigger and more deadly threat?

It’s hard to call this film a standard sequel considering the way it’s structured. It is much more of a direct continuation and I simply can’t objectively look at it as a stand-alone movie. It’s impossible to separate it from the previous film, and anyone watching this one without seeing part two will undoubtedly have a lesser experience. But as a follower of the series I think the film does a good job of picking up the story and bringing it to a conclusion. The performances are strong and steady and the effects are simply incredible. The action-fueled final hour features some great sword play and a cool host of creatures.

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But let’s face it, the series has several things working against it. It’s almost impossible to keep from comparing it to the superior “The Lord of the Rings”. First let’s take the characters. I love Bilbo, Thorin, and Gandalf, but the secondary characters, while good, aren’t up to those in LotR. Then you have the big conclusion itself. This big sprawling final battle is extremely cool, but it carries almost no connection to the previous two films. In LotR the buildup to the big finale started in the first film. Everything worked towards that epic point. In this film the battle doesn’t carry near as much weight, and I wasn’t left feeling quite as satisfied. But is it really fair to compare this film to LotR? I don’t have a good answer to that.

I do think this is a stronger film than some give it credit for. It’s a tighter and more focused movie and runs 20 minutes shorter than either of the first two Hobbit films. More importantly it feels in tune with the previous movies and offers us an exciting and fitting conclusion filled with great action and emotion. Could the series have been better as a whole? It probably could. But I find it hard to point a finger at this film as the reason for that. Narratively speaking this may be the best film of the three. It just had the difficult task of also wrapping everything up. It certainly did that well enough for me.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”

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Excitement, intrigue, skepticism, and division. These are just some of the words that describe the reactions to Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” trilogy. Was there enough material to stretch out into three films? Was there enough character depth? I’m certain you’re familiar with all of these debates and concerns. With the tablesetting done in the first film, the attention now turns to the second installment. In many ways this is the film that will tell whether the trilogy decision was a mistake. With the first movie set around introduction, does the second film have enough meat-and-potatoes to satisfy an audience especially considering Jackson’s format of near 3 hour movies.

The short answer to that question is an emphatic yes. “The Desolation of Smaug” is another huge sprawling Middle-Earth epic loaded with special effects and ambition. Better yet, it’s actually a nice step up for the trilogy. The film carries with it a true sense of adventure and I felt a much greater sense of urgency and peril than in the first film. These were big reasons why I really liked “The Desolation of Smaug”. While the first Hobbit picture was a fun and entertaining experience, I felt it lacked the big dynamic threat or plot driving exigency. That’s certainly not the case here.

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After a strange but brief opening flashback, the story picks up right where the last film left off. Gandolf, the hobbit Bilbo, Thorin Oakenshield and his twelve fellow dwarves continue their quest to retake their home within The Lonely Mountain. Hot on their trail is the pale orc Azog and his troops. Their journey takes them through cursed forests, ancient runs, and expansive mountains. They encounter skinchangers, giant spiders, elven warriors, and of course a deadly fire-breathing dragon named Smaug. The urgency grows, the stakes get higher, and by the end we are set up for what should be a tremendous final chapter.

I have to admit I was really surprised at just how well the story moves along and how much ground is covered. I’ll admit there were a couple of points where things slowed down a tad and Jackson does buy some time while his camera pans around admiring the beautiful scenery or impressive set pieces. But as a whole these things didn’t bother me. The story is compelling and the excitement moves from one great action sequence to another. The best is an amazing barrel escape down a white rapid river as an army of orcs attack our heroes from the shores. It’s an incredible spectacle to watch.

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I think the decision to include sections from Tolkien’s “The Return of the King” appendices was a key reason this worked. Having read neither “The Hobbit” nor the “Lord of the Rings”, I can’t say how well the film melds the contents of both books. But from a cinematic standpoint the appendices do a great job of not only adding more content and weight to the story but also connecting it to the three “Lord of the Rings” films. Some have taken issue with this creative choice but for me it worked very well and it helps bring together Jackson’s massive cinematic universe. There is a clear link being formed between the two trilogies which go beyond simple references. Old favorite Legolas (Orlando Bloom) has an action-packed presence in this film. The true corrupting influence of the ‘one ring’ begins to surface. And there are several other cool connections that I wouldn’t dare spoil.

Once again the characters of the story are a real treat. Ian McKellen is great as always although he is given a few too many overly dramatic lines. You know the ones – the camera zooms in on his face and he utters an intense one-liner about the peril that lies ahead. Martin Freeman hits another home run as Bilbo. There is a real transformation (both good and bad) going on in the character and Freeman’s performance wonderfully captures that. But perhaps my favorite performance again comes from Richard Armitage as Thorin. This strong but emotionally driven character is tough as nails but he is constantly trying to reign in his sorrow, anger, and thirst for revenge. It’s a great character and a great performance.

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But there are also some really good new characters introduced. Evangeline Lilly plays Tauriel, a headstrong elf who can certainly hold her own. Then there is Luke Evans who plays Bard, a single father who finds himself thrust into the middle of Thorin’s quest. Both have significant roles and add a lot to the picture. I also like Lee Pace’s small but intriguing part as an Elvenking from Mirkwood. And then there is Benedict Cumberbatch who voices Smaug the fearsome, treasure-hoarding dragon. There simply couldn’t have been a greater choice than Cumberbatch. Then you have the twelve other dwarves. Thankfully we do see an expanded role for a couple of them, but unfortunately the majority of them remain indistinct making empathy for them rather tough.

So let me get back to the original debate. Could “The Hobbit” story be told in two films? Probably so. Am I glad they expanded it to three by adding content from “The Lord of the Rings”? Absolutely! “The Desolation of Smaug” is a solid answer to the questions and criticisms thrown its way. The special effects are superb, the action sequences had my heart racing, the danger and imminence is there, and we spend more time with some wonderful characters. On the flip-side there are a couple of lulls and the indistinct tag-along dwarves still bug me. But those gripes do little to hurt the overall experience and Peter Jackson has me hooked for what the third installment will bring. It should be a blast.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

“REAL STEEL” – 3.5 STARS

I think the most surprising statement I’ll make this entire year is this: I liked “Real Steel”. From my perspective, everything about this film’s trailer pointed to disaster. The all too familiar story of a crummy father grudgingly paired with the son he’s never been there for mixed with radio controlled robot boxing. Sound exciting? Well, actually it is. There’s no denying the silliness of the concept on the surface. There’s also no denying that the film uses several clichés and plot devices that we’ve seen before. Yet as predictable as it is, the story has heart and it manages to take a ridiculous idea and make it pure and simple fun.

Hugh Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, a failed father and ex-boxer who travels to county fairs and pool halls with his robot boxer in tow. Charlie loses an ill-advised bet that he doesn’t have the cash to back and he has his mechanical meal ticket destroyed in the process. After his ex-girlfriend dies, Charlie is summoned to a court hearing that will determine custody his son Max (Dakota Moya) who he hasn’t seen in years. His ex-girlfriend’s rich sister and brother-in-law want the boy so Charlie comes up with a plan to sign over custody for $100,000 but he’ll have to keep Max for the summer while the couple is away in Europe.

There’s absolutely no reason to like Charlie. He’s immature, irresponsible, and self-absorbed. But just like every other character Jackman has played, there is something genuinely attractive about Charlie. Jackman brings out an almost natural likability with his performances. Charlie has a certain charm and personality that Jackman nails. You’ll shake your head in disgust at how he flippantly disregards his son but cheer him on through every boxing match. The biggest problem with the character is that his immaturity is a bit overdone. There are a couple of scenes where 11 year-old Max is speaking to his father like I would to my 3 year-old who I caught pulling the cat’s tail. Speaking of Max, Moya does a really nice job selling this hurt and hardened kid to the audience. He does fall victim to a few cheesy lines of dialogue and his occasional potty mouth did nothing to endear the character to me. But for the most part he’s believable as is his relationship to Charlie.

The film takes an almost ‘sports underdog movie’ turn after they find a junked sparring robot. Max immediately adopts the robot and calls him Atom. It’s Atom that plays a key role in bringing father and son together. The pair begin entering Atom into small time fights and notice he’s a little tougher than Charlie gave him credit for. There’s also hints that he may be more than just a lot of metal parts and circuitry.

That brings me to the wonderful special effects presented through a solid mix of computer generated images and animatronic props. The robots look amazing and they perfectly meld into the real world environments around them. This is especially impressive in the numerous scenes with the robots and real human characters together in cramped areas. The fight scenes are loud and bone-jarring and I couldn’t help but smile watching my son take it all in. Believe it or not, this silly concept is so visually flawless that I couldn’t help but be drawn in.

“Real Steel” is a little hammy and it’s very predictable. But it never takes itself too seriously and it knows exactly what it wants to be. It’s a little contrived in some parts but as a dad, even I couldn’t help but get a little misty during a few scenes. Most importantly “Real Steel” is fun. The characters are fun. The robots are fun. The fight sequences are fun. And most importantly, sitting next to my son in the theater soaking all of this up was fun. That’s good enough for me.