2015: Part 2

Ant-Man. Directed by Peyton Reed. Considering the fact that I shelled out $38 and change for my two tickets to see this summer blockbuster in 3D, I feel a little cheated. I realize that Guardians of the Galaxy set a really high bar for Marvel comic-book adaptations last summer but still, given all the talent involved in the making of Ant-Man, I thought that the end result would be looser and more fun than what I saw in the finished product. I don’t know how much of Edgar Wright’s original vision remains in Peyton Reed’s film (original writer-director Wright left the project last year, citing “creative differences”), but what I do know is that Paul Rudd does not have the golden spotlight that I was hoping for. He’s such a good actor – as well as being a handsome charmer ever since the teen comedy Clueless (1995) – and for most of Ant-Man it feels like he’s on cruise control. The audience is supposed to like Rudd because he has always been a likeable presence in front of the camera, but his character’s lack of personality and a dearth of funny lines hurt the narrative immeasurably. I was similarly unimpressed with supporting actors Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lilly, as well as with Corey Stoll’s totally colorless villain (ironically called “Yellowjacket”), who seems to be evil merely for the sake of being evil. The only truly admirable member of cast was Michael Peña, who consistently shone in and stole every scene he had as Rudd’s pal from prison, a guy who considers his history of burgling a plus on his résumé.

Fantastic Four. Directed by Josh Trank. Honestly, I like this movie. Swear to God. I had not actually intended on seeing it – that’s a long story – but anyway I sat through Fantastic Four and it was never less than entertaining. Sure, it wasn’t the best-thought-out story ever – Reed’s parents being totally out of the picture after the early scenes? Reed’s eyes being blue when he was a kid but brown when played, as a teenager, by Miles Teller? When Reed escapes the facility where he was held hostage after he developed his superpowers, how does he manage to find that sweet hideout shack with the high-powered computer tech stuff (but he could not, for some reason, procure a razor to get rid of his five-o’clock shadow)? Also, where did he get that cool superhero-type suit that he was wearing when he was later apprehended, since he was naked when he escaped the facility? How about the fact that Reed can magically see without his glasses (for the second half of the movie) after a brief dip in the Planet Zero energy pool (wish I could get some of that free, not-approved-by-human-science Lasik treatment)? What about Sue Storm never using her invisibility power, except to make another character, The Thing, invisible in the climactic showdown with Dr. Doom? And while we’re on the subject, did no one think that a character named “Victor Von Doom” would eventually become a villain?? Why did he feel the need to accessorize his evilness with such a shabby-looking cape??? – but despite all these issues, the film was still fun to watch. It’s brainless popcorn entertainment. The dialogue is often extremely cheesy, especially the pointless exposition that characters spout at the weirdest times, but all these problems create a campy aura that makes Fantastic Four into the Plan 9 of Marvel movies… but somehow in an acceptable way. I genuinely, without any irony, had a good time at this movie. Miles Teller, Reg E. Cathey (who’s great in everything), Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Bell did their best as actors to make the movie as OK as they could. This is not the zenith of 2015’s filmmaking, I’m sure, but I think it’s ridiculous that everyone jumped on the let’s-bash-this-movie band wagon when in fact it’s better than Ant-Man. It’s true that there have been some hairy stories about the production of this film (director Josh Trank supposedly destroying the house he was staying in, Trank and Teller almost getting into physical altercations), but in the end Fantastic Four is fine. Don’t let other people dictate what a movie’s going to be like before you’ve even seen it.

Jurassic World. Directed by Colin Trevorrow. My original intention had been to see the latest entry in the Jurassic Park franchise at my favorite IMAX theater in Manhattan (AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13, right across from Lincoln Center), but that didn’t pan out, so I ended up seeing it at the Strand Theater, in Schroon Lake, NY instead while I was on vacation. I still had a pretty good time, sitting in the front row so that I could get all the action and excitement of the Strand’s smallish screen, but the facts are just as I had assumed: Jurassic World is a movie that needs to be enjoyed for the visuals because you sure aren’t going to get good screenwriting or even good acting out of this experience. As many other critics have noted, the film is more of a remake of the first two Jurassic films than an addition to the franchise; despite the presence of park techie Jake Johnson as a “superfan” of the original park (and Johnson is one of the few bright spots in the film, adding some comic nuance to little physical gestures even when he is burdened with bad dialogue), the only difference between the different films’ stories is that there are shinier new gadgets here. Otherwise, characters do the exact things you would expect: dinosaurs are reborn, people are brought to see them, the dinos get out of control. There is little indication that filmmaker Colin Trevorrow was the right choice to direct this big-budget popcorn flick; his first feature, Safety Not Guaranteed, does not display any special skill that would suggest an ability to direct high-flying action. Gone is the strong, intelligent female lead that Laura Dern played in 1993; instead Bryce Dallas Howard plays a stereotype of a cold, bitchy businesswoman, which of course means that when she runs through the jungle, it’s in high heels and with her shirt opened to reveal cleavage. (Quelle surprise.) Chris Pratt is likeable enough for us to root for him to be a winning hero, but he’s awfully bland; any good feelings that we have for his character are leftovers from Guardians of the Galaxy, and since there’s very little in the way of actual humor in Jurassic World, the metaphoric leftover of Pratt’s performance isn’t reheated enough to be tasty. (Plus he never takes his shirt off – opportunity wasted.) Irrfan Khan and Vincent D’Onofrio, two of the best supporting actors you could potentially have in a movie, are misused by having to portray extremely dumb characters. Similarly, it seems like a waste to give Judy Greer such a “nothing” role, in which she can do little but look worried and/or cry. I liked Omar Sy (this is my first time seeing him in a movie) as one of the raptor trainers, though, and two other good scenes improved the atmosphere when a) Khan and BD Wong get into an argument about mad scientist-type quandaries and b) one of the film’s characters (I won’t reveal who) dies perhaps the most entertainingly violent and drawn-out death I have ever seen in mainstream American cinema. Is it worth sitting through the whole film for those tiny jewels, though? (P.S. For a movie set in Costa Rica, doesn’t it strike anyone as odd that there didn’t seem to be a single Hispanic character in the entire film?)

Magic Mike XXL. Directed by Gregory Jacobs. While the narrative structure may not be as sound as in the first Magic Mike film – purposes/goals/details are hazier here, opting instead for a “hey let’s just do this and see what happens and maybe we’ll talk more about it later!” vibe – the comedy is better in this film. (The previous installment had too much melodrama in the subplot about male strippers who sell drugs to supplement their income.) I also enjoy the fact that the male supporting characters (anyone other than Mike) talk more about themselves and that they were generally, collectively, an active part of the plot. I don’t remember Joe Manganiello doing much in the first film besides the dance routines, but here his character seems to have a personality, say and do things that are actually funny – and the “Cheetos and water” dance is, to say the least, memorable. Magic Mike XXL is certainly more feminist than its predecessor. Male characters (particularly Donald Glover’s) discuss the importance of talking to women – and listening to them – to find out what they want. Jada Pinkett Smith’s “Rome” character is probably the campiest thing seen in a mainstream movie in a long, long time, a lady who empowers women to enjoy the visual pleasure of gazing at (and touching, and at times more) these “male entertainers” (as they call themselves) who work in Rome’s “empire.” I’m not as pleased with Amber Heard’s character, which is a combination of underdevelopment and bad acting, but I guess she’s not as pointless as Olivia Munn’s character from the first film. (As I recall, Munn’s main narrative purpose was to look “hot” in sexual scenes and be topless.) Women in Magic Mike XXL are encouraged to look, to enjoy interacting with men and not to be ashamed of discussing sexuality. In this regard the best scene is the one with Andie MacDowell and her friends, women of a “certain age” who would not usually be given that kind of platform for discussion in other Hollywood narratives. (They would still be playing moms, but the subject of their sex drives would probably not be acceptable for living room chatter.) This is not to say that Magic Mike XXL is a perfect film, but I was entertained and that’s about all anyone needs out of a summer movie. If nothing else, having Steven Soderbergh on board as cinematographer and editor never disappoints.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. Directed by Christopher McQuarrie. Tom Terrific is at it again, running and jumping and carrying this movie through its many exciting stunts and set pieces, ably aided by editor Eddie Hamilton and good (if not especially special or stylish) directing by Christopher McQuarrie. My main quibble with the cinematography, done by Robert Elswit (who also shot Ghost Protocol), is that it seems a little bit below the expected IMAX resolution; I suspect that the reason is because the film was not shot with IMAX cameras and has been stretched out to fill the bigger-than-normal screen. (Again, I’m reeeeally kicking myself for not seeing Ghost Protocol in IMAX because that would have been the tops.) Indeed, none of the action scenes in Rogue Nation is as thrilling to me as the Burj Khalifa scene in Ghost Protocol, but that’s hardly a fault when you consider just how exciting so much of Rogue Nation’s stunt work and chase scenes are. As usual, Simon Pegg’s humor helps diffuse tension and Jeremy Renner and Ving Rhames are good as Tom Cruise’s other partners in crime. Sean Harris is a fairly scary villain (more so than some of the guys from previous M:I films), while Simon McBurney gives easily my favorite performance in the film as bespectacled British intelligence man Atlee. Nice to see Tom Hollander too, playing the British Prime Minister. Rebecca Ferguson was alright as Cruise’s leading lady, and I’m glad that the movie didn’t force her into being anyone’s love interest, but you do have to deal with a lot of the same old sexualization of ladies (unnecessary shots of Ferguson’s lower body and legs in the Maggie-Q-in-M:I3-esque dress that Ferguson wears to the Vienna State Opera, unnecessary bikini scene, unnecessary dressing scene with partial nudity). Speaking of the opera: the Turandot scenes were probably my favorites in the film, especially thanks to the glorious voice of tenor Gregory Kunde. The scene shamelessly lifts its plan from the Royal Albert Hall assassination attempt in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) – how fitting that I saw Rogue Nation on Hitchcock’s birthday! – and it also reminds me of the similar Mikado scene in Foul Play (1978), but I enjoy the homage all the same. Rogue Nation doesn’t break new cinematic ground, but it’s still a lot of fun and you are constantly and consistently entertained.

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