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: “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues”

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I’ve never shared in the enthusiasm or admiration for “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy”. The 2004 comedy was a box office success but it gained most of its following in the subsequent years. To my surprise the film has a legion of devoted fans who adore these characters and can quote line after line. For me the first “Anchorman” film had its moments but ultimately it milked its gimmick dry and it grew old fast.

Surprisingly it took almost 10 years for a second installment to hit theaters. That’s unheard of in this modern movie era of churning out cash grab sequels by the gross. This time around we get more of the same familiar gimmick, many of the same gags, and the same wild sporadic storytelling. This is probably good news for fans of the first film, but for me it was another mediocre experience with even less laughs than the first movie. To make matters worse it’s almost 30 minutes longer making it a grinding endurance test for those not smitten with its humor.

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Seven years have passed since the events of the first film. Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) and Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) are married and living in New York City. Both are successful co-anchors at a popular local news station, at least until Veronica is offered a prominent evening news position and Ron is fired. Ron’s ego takes over and he gives her an ultimatum – the job or him. The couple separate and Ron takes up petty jobs and heavy drinking.

But opportunity knocks when Ron is approached by Freddie Shapp (Dylan Baker). He offers Ron a job at the first ever 24-hour news network. Ron searches out his old news team of Champ Kind (David Koechner), Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), and Brick Tamland (Steve Carrell). The four get back to work and turn things upside down with their barrage of juvenile, racist, and sexist stupidity. Some of these moments do provide some good laughs. But honestly there are so many back-to-back jokes that some were bound to land. Eventually they all but disappear and the movie seems to repeat variations of the same gags over and over and over and over.

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Ferrell is certainly comfortable playing Burgundy and he has never been ashamed to make himself look ridiculous in order to get a laugh. Often times it’s the sheer earnestness of his idiocy that is the most effective. But after a while I just wanted him to go away. Rudd and Koechner are the same – funny for a spell but then they sputter. My personal favorite character is Steve Carrell’s Brick. He’s a lovable imbecile whose humor mainly consists of spontaneous statements that make no sense whatsoever. Carrell is so good in the role but even he eventually becomes repetitive and tiresome.

“Anchorman 2” has the expected surprise cameos (most of them crammed within one small sequence) and a couple of intentionally absurd musical numbers. None of these can save this overly long and monotonous sequel. Eventually I had had enough of the toilet humor, body part gags, and rehashed jokes. Ferrell and frequent collaborator Adam McKay have had plenty of success putting things like this together and this film certainly registered with the “Anchorman” faithful. Personally I wouldn’t be sad if I never saw Ron Burgundy again.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “Prince Avalanche”

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Good luck trying to classify David Gordon Green’s “Prince Avalanche”. Green directed and wrote the screenplay for this odd little independent film that is part drama, part comedy, and part offbeat character study. It was inspired by an Icelandic picture titled “Either Way” only here it takes place in an isolated woodland area in Texas. It’s a 2013 film that didn’t get much press and brought in less than $200,000 during its very limited release. But now word of the film is starting to ease out and that’s a good thing.

Paul Rudd plays the starched, tightly wound Alvin. He’s a highway worker who hires his girlfriend’s airheaded but well-intentioned brother Lance (Emile Hirsch) to help him paint yellow traffic lines on a long stretch of isolated roads. The roads wind through a forest area that has recently been ravaged by wildfires. This is the dreary, near apocalyptic landscape where the entire film takes place. We just follow along watching Alvin and Lance go through their workday. We sit with them at their camp enjoying a plate of grilled fish and coffee. The story is truly that simple but Green is quite clever in how he opens up these characters to his audience. It’s amazing what all we pick up just by listening to their many conversations.

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There are a number of pleasant but telling scenes early in the film. It becomes clear that Alvin and Lance are distant. In many ways they’re very different people and they obviously don’t have a longstanding relationship. Watching the slow-moving male bonding is good fun and it tosses in several well-conceived laughs. But it also connects us to these characters so that we are invested once things get rough. And they do get rough. The two personalities clash and some humorous scenes follow. But these problems end up revealing a lot to each one about themselves. That’s when the true meaning of this film surfaces.

This is a slow and meditative story that spends a lot of time on simple observation. Just watching and listening. Both Rudd and Hirsch are fantastic They both unwrap these two characters exposing their charms and faults with great clarity. Alvin is a man who desperately needs to break out of this lonely world he has created for himself. In it he sees what he wants and ignores important elements to life. Lance needs to realize he is no longer a child. He has to grow up and take responsibility. These two very different men with very different problems are actually in a very similar boat.

“Prince Avalanche” is an independent film through and through. David Gordan Green adapts and directs this light but crafty picture that made me laugh often. But it also develops two really good lead characters who despite their eccentricities are very human in more regards than you may think. This is a tightly made film that has heart and humor and it’s able to deliver it in a way that most bigger modern films can’t. I really appreciate that.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

“Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” – 2.5 STARS

ANCHORMAN posterThere are a lot of people who absolutely love “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy”. I’ve heard so many people talk about its hilarity and give it rave reviews. Yet I have stayed away from it for several reasons, mainly Will Ferrell. I know most people love the guy and find him hysterical, but I can only handle his brand of humor in small doses. Another turnoff for me was seeing that “Anchorman” is a Judd Apatow production. Again, I know Apatow’s movies have a big audience but I’m not into his insistent crass and raunchy style. So the question becomes why would I watch this film? Simply put, I’ve been asked about this movie so many times that I felt I should give it an objective look.

Let me get this out of the way first. “Anchorman” isn’t as bad as I feared. In fact it has several clever gags and some laugh-out-loud funny moments. But it also has the same flat and unfunny “humor” that plagues most of Ferrell’s movies. And of course Apatow’s dull raunchy influence is found at different points throughout the film. It’s really a shame because I like good absurdist comedy and “Anchorman” has a lot of that. But there are also several moments where the movie thinks it’s a lot funnier than it actually is. This roller coaster ride between funny and unfunny scenes can be a little taxing.

Ferrell plays Ron Burgundy, a beloved and legendary anchorman for San Diego’s #1 ranked Channel 4 News. His popularity is citywide and he’s considered the big fish in the San Diego news reporting community. He rolls with his news team consisting of his loud and obnoxious sportscaster “Champ” Kind (David Koechner), his fashion-conscience field reporter Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), and team weatherman Brick Tamland (Steve Carell) who is basically the village idiot and that’s saying something considering the company of clowns he keeps. The four are given a pretty long leash by their boss Ed Harken (Fred Willard) and they spend it partying with newsroom groupies.

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The film is set in the 1975 and it spends a lot of time spoofing the male-dominated society of the time. Burgundy and company view women as a lesser species whose main purpose is to serve them and their “needs”. Of course their sexism is so insanely over the top that it’s often times quite funny. That sets up quite a clash when these moronic Neanderthals learn that, in the interest of diversity, the station has hired a beautiful news reporter named Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate). Ron thinks it’s a ridiculous idea and that there’s no room for women in the news room. But he underestimates Veronica’s tenacity and ambition. He also underestimates her irresistible beauty and charm, and his attraction to her jeopardizes his role as a chauvinistic icon.

Ferrell co-wrote the script and I assume he tried to cater his role to his style of comedy. He has his moments where he’s very funny but there are also several times where his character’s gags land with a thud. Some of his jokes are so shallow and poorly written that they resemble material you would hear during a subpar comedy club’s amateur hour. But Ferrell does provide some good laughs especially when he’s swapping lines with his team. But overall I don’t think he’s the funniest character in the film. For me it was Steve Carell. He’s a complete space cadet and he had me laughing nearly every time he spoke. I also thought Applegate was very good as the straight person in the midst of a ton of lunacy. There’s also some really fun scenes with Willard. He’s a guy that can be very funny if given the right material.

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There are several cool touches that make the movie fun. I loved Bill Curtis’ pitch-perfect narration. The hyper-70’s wardrobes and hairstyles are a blast and the whole parody of the 70’s network news scene worked for me. Ferrell and gang play within this period sandbox and they’re clearly having a ton of fun. There are also a host of interesting cameos that pop up along the way. Some work while others are pretty pointless. I also have to tip my hat to Ferrell’s willingness to humiliate himself to get a laugh. It doesn’t always work but more often it does.

“Anchorman” actually attempts to provide some social commentary within its outlandish humor but I don’t think it pulls it off. For me it’s a film better appreciated as an insanely silly and preposterous comedy. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Unfortunately it’s a terribly uneven film and you have to wade through numerous flat and unfunny jokes to get to the good stuff. It seems that for every hilarious gag “Anchorman” gives you two boring and lazy ones. And of course there’s the Apatow signature toilet humor that’s just as cheap and annoying as in Judd’s other pictures. And it’s really a shame. “Anchorman” has a number of great scenes and I found myself laughing out loud numerous times. Unfortunately I found myself rolling my eyes just as much.