Straight Outta Compton(8/14/2015)

8-15-2015StraightOuttaCompton

In 1989 there were two Hip-hop groups that towered over everything: Public Enemy and N.W.A.  One was East Coast and one was West Coast, but they were much more divided by their different lyrical approaches.  Public Enemy would seem to be the embodiment over everything that the intellectual class wanted hip-hop to be: they made socially conscious protest music and set it to infectious beats you could party to.  Their less reputable west coast cousins in N.W.A, by contrast, were a lot harder to defend in op-eds and at middle class dinner parties.  They made profane gangster narratives, denigrated women and homosexuals, and had no qualms about bragging about money.  This is probably why Public Enemy are currently in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and N.W.A aren’t, but that narrative is problematic, in part because it fails to acknowledge just how courageously political N.W.A actually were.  It’s a lot easier to make vague revolutionary statements about “fighting the power” (“power” being something that naïve young white people can choose means whatever they want it to mean) than it is to throw out “respectability politics” altogether and shout “fuck the police.”  Looking back, Public Enemy’s music looks less like a brave new turning point for hip-hop and more like a final scream of an old-school sound defined by DJ turntables, sample collages, and hype-man interjections, N.W.A by contrast seems significantly more influential and a straight line can quite easily be drawn from “Straight Outta Compton” to “All Eyez on Me” to “Ready to Die” to “The Blueprint” to “Get Rich or Die Tryin.’”  Up until Southern Hip Hop started shaking things up in the mid-2000s, it was the sound set down by Dr. Dre back in ’89 that would define an entire musical genre’s trajectory.

The movie begins in 1986 and primarily focuses on the three most famous members of the group: Ice Cube (played by the actual rapper’s son, O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), and Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins).  MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) is largely sidelined and DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.) is depicted as almost a comic relief character who kind of sits back and wisecracks about the soap opera that unfolds around him.  We watch how the various members came together and are given a good idea of what each member brought to the table.  Dr. Dre was the musical genius behind the group’s beats, Ice Cube was the main lyrics writer and brought the political dimension to the group, and Eazy-E brought the most street cred to the table while also financing the early recording sessions with his drug money.  We then see how they managed to rise to national prominence with the aid of a sleazy manager named Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) and also see how his toxic influence also led to the group’s swift breakup and the ensuing back and forth between the former memebers.

In case you can’t tell, I’m pretty familiar with N.W.A and know a thing or two about their story.  I’ve long thought that this saga could make for a cool movie if treated the right way and turned into an epic of music, politics, and betrayal but I’ve never had much confidence in Hollywood to do it right.  In particular I didn’t have a lot of faith in this version of the story, mainly because Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Eazy-E’s widow were all brought on as producers, which is a huge red flag.  These are people with images to maintain and who can’t always be trusted to view their own legacies objectively.  Look no further than the 2009 Biggie Smalls biopic Notorious to see how easily family members can soften movies like this and force their subjects to be seen in a certain light.  That movie wasn’t a complete hagiography, but it was way too focused on trying to make its protagonist into someone who was blameless for almost every problem in his life and who came across like a misunderstood teddy bear more often than not.  I do get a whiff of interference in a few places with this movie as well.  Dr. Dre’s infamous assault on TV personality Dee Barnes is nowhere to be found in the film and it also seems to avoid re-living the diss tracks that were directed towards Eazy-E (they literally turn off the song “No Vaseline” right before the verse about Eazy and Dre’s feud with him is omitted entirely via a jump forward in time, this depriving us of the making of that video where the Eazy-E lookalike is holding a “will rap for food” sign) but the effects weren’t as extreme as I was expecting and the filmmakers mostly made the logical choices rather than the PR driven ones.

Straight Outta Compton is produced on a large scale and seems to recognize the importance of its story without being self-serious about it.  The internet tells me that the movie only cost $28 million to make and I find that hard to believe given production values on display.  Pretty much the only concessions to budget seem to be the film’s cinematography (this is yet another digitally shot movie that can’t seem to handle shooting in dark environments) and its cast of mostly unknown actors.  All three of the film’s main actors deliver solid performances but not extraordinary ones and you won’t see any “Jamie Foxx in Ray” or “Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line” level imitations either.  O’Shea Jackson, Jr. obviously looks a lot like his father but maybe doesn’t carry himself with the same authority.  Corey Hawkins by contrast clearly seems to understand Dr. Dre’s mannerisms but doesn’t seem to sound that much like him (well, he doesn’t sound like what Dre sounds like when he’s rapping, having checked some vintage interviews it seems the guy did have a slightly different speaking voice).  Jason Mitchell’s Eazy-E is probably the most convincing of the three, but even he wasn’t quite perfect.  Paul Giamatti is the loan acting veteran in the cast and his extra experience is noticeable.  The screenplay does a really good job of making Jerry Heller a somewhat sympathetic character, a manager who had did seem to genuinely understand the importance of this music and did seem to care about the people he was managing to some extent but who was nonetheless exploiting them and taking unfair amounts of money off the top as per standard music industry practice, and Giamatti does a good job of playing into the grey areas the screenplay gives him.

A lot of critics flinch when given a biopic to review, and musical biopics in particular tend to be looked at with a lot of suspicion.  Straight Outta Compton doesn’t do anything radical to break out of that mold and I suspect it will be criticized because of it, but I think that is unfounded.  Not every movie based on a real life cultural figure can or should do something wild like I’m Not There just to differentiate itself from the baggage of being a biopic and this movie was right to mostly play things straight.  That isn’t to say that the film feels overly clichéd and it does differentiate itself from other movies about bands, in part because NWA did have a somewhat unique trajectory in the music industry.  The group was relatively short lived, which gives the film a manageable scope and avoids the “greatest hits” compression that movies like Ray had to deal with.  What’s more, the group’s eventual breakup was a bit more dramatic than your average rock band downfall what with all the public feuding and Suge Knight assisted backstabbing.  The film also generates a lot of extra interest by tying the group’s incendiary lyrics to the environment that the group’s members inhabited.  The film does a great job of painting a picture of 80s/90s Compton and in just a few scenes showing how police antagonism would have played into the band members psyches leading up to the Rodney King Riots.

The Rodney King element of the film proves to be something of a double edged sword for the film.  The case provides a perfect example of the kind of police brutality that led them to write “Fuck the Police,” and much of the film’s second act seems to be leading up to the riots, but when they finally do come they feel like something of an anti-climax.  The riots were the moment where the anger that NWA had warned everyone about was finally thrust into White America’s face, but the film only really seems to spend something like three minutes on them and rather than dealing with the immediate fallout the movie just jumps forward six months in time at that point and the whole movie sort of seems to lose steam at that point.

The last thirty minutes or so of the film feel oddly abridged and yet over-stuffed.  Ice Cube kind of disappears in this section and the film tells parallel stories about Dr. Dre’s discontentment with Death Row Records and Eazy-E’s slow realization that Jerry Heller was kind of an asshole.  Here the film tries to fit a little too much in a short period of time and indulges in a few too many inclusions that kind of feel like fan service.  The decision to bring in a Tupac impersonator for all of one scene probably did a good job of establishing a timeline for those wondering when he, Dre, and Suge Knight’s stories intersected, but the inclusion stands out awkwardly just the same.  Similarly, did the film need to be calling attention to Eazy-E’s discovering of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony right as the film was wrapping up?  Probably not.  Otherwise the whole film has kind of a bad habit of throwing scenes into the movie seemingly just to make sure a famous song is included.  The aforementioned Tupac moment definitely feels that way and so does an otherwise pointless scene where Dre is seen listening to Parliament’s “Mothership Connection” just so those in the know can think “Ha! He must be planning to write ‘Let Me Ride’ while listening to that.”  Thing is, I acknowledge that these things do kind of cheapened the movie and screw with the pacing but I enjoyed all of them and I’m not sure I would have wanted to see them go.

To put it bluntly, I really enjoyed this movie.  Like, a lot.  The big question I have, and it’s a question I still don’t really have an answer to, is whether it was the hip-hop fan in me or the film buff in me that was driving my enjoyment.  The film was directed by F. Gary Gray, a filmmaker who’s always had a certain degree of talent and professionalism but who I’ve never had a lot of respect for as an auteur.     Gray has long been sort of typecast as the maker of critically ignored “black movies” like Friday and Set it Off and whenever he leaves that milieu he seems to make serviceable mediocrities like the 2003 remake of The Italian Job, but having finally been given some respectable material he seems to have really risen to the occasion.  This is still defiantly a journeyman effort, but I was definitely impressed with some of the camerawork and energy that he brought to the proceedings.  If I have any real complaint with the filmmaking it’s that the actual musical moments sometimes aren’t really one of the films strong points.  The scenes where the group performs in concert don’t really sound like live performances; I don’t know for sure how much of the rapping was actually done by the cast but one way or another they looked and sounded kind of like lip synching to me.  Otherwise, this is s a really well rendered biopic.  Would I recommend it to someone who wasn’t already a big NWA fan like myself?  I don’t know, I definitely wouldn’t recommend it to someone who straight-up hates hip-hop but open minded audiences should be able to find more to enjoy here than they would out of the average musical biopic.  It’s a movie that certainly doesn’t break any new ground but which does really rise up to the challenge of telling this story that so many fans have been wanting to see turned into a Hollywood epic, and I was leaning forward in my seat while watching it with the kind of smile across my face that a movie hasn’t elicited in me in a long time.

***1/2 out of Four

The Journey Continues: Skeptical Inquiries into Family Cinema- Cars 2/Monsters University

Cars 2-Monsters U

The following is the final installment in an ongoing series of blog posts analyzing contemporary family films that the author has previously resisted seeing.  This series is a sequel of sorts to a previous series called Finding Pixar: A Skeptics Journey, which applied the same treatment to the films of the Pixar Animation Studio.

Nothing left to do now but take us full circle.  I started examining family movies in 2011 when I kicked off my original “Finding Pixar” series.  My initial goal was simply to get people off my back about this whole Pixar phenomenon.  That was back when the studio was on their legendary four movie winning streak and were routinely showing up on critics top ten lists and earning Oscar nominations and it felt like it was simply irresponsible to call myself a film buff without at least giving them a chance.  Besides, I thought my skeptical outlook might bring an interesting perspective to them.  Since then I’ve tried to further broaden my knowledge of family films by watching a decent sample of the better reviewed animated movies of the 21st century and I think it’s worked out pretty well.  I feel like I have a pretty good grasp of the major trends in family films and I have a pretty good idea of how to review them.  A funny thing happened though, pretty much the second I got caught up on Pixar the studio almost immediately started to lose a lot of relevance.  The year I was doing the Pixar series the much derided Cars 2 came out, and they followed it up with moderately successful but still disappointing Brave, and then they made Monsters University, which was met with collective indifference.  Oh how the mighty have fallen.  Still, now that I’ve taken a survey of the rest of the landscape it seems right to go back to where I started this series and finally watch the last two Pixar movies I haven’t seen: Cars 2 and Monsters University.

Cars 2 (2011)

It’s no secret that the original Cars was one of the least beloved movies that Pixar made all through their first fifteen years of existence.  It was a blemish on what was otherwise considered a pretty spotless track record and while it definitely did make money it wasn’t necessarily one of their biggest hits, at least not comparatively.  At the time it was only their fifth highest grossing movie and today it sits as their ninth highest grossing movie.  However, from Disney’s perspective the project as a whole probably still sits as one of their biggest successes for two simple reasons: 1. kids seem to love it and 2. it’s very easily merchandisable.  Actually, I think there’s a third point as well: As much as the critics and the usual Pixar boosters might hate the movie it actually probably pretty well liked by parents in middle America.  The movie is more or less about NASCAR and it is pretty overly about what you’d call “small town values.”  Could a sort of cultural elitism be what’s to blame for the movie’s reputation as opposed to a true absence of quality?  Well, there’s probably a little of that going on but only a little, for the most part I think it is fair to say that it’s one of Pixar’s poorest outings.  It’s too long, its plot is clichéd, it has some really annoying characters, and the whole “talking cars” thing just really didn’t seem to work.  I probably disliked A Bug’s Life more, but at least in the case of that movie Pixar had inexperience to blame for its shortcomings.

Still, Pixar saw the writing on the Disney ledger books and Cars became the first, but decidedly not last, Pixar movie outside of the “Toy Story” franchise to get a sequel.  In fact, sequels are something of a running theme throughout the “downfall of Pixar” narrative.  Cars 2 was going to be their second straight sequel after Toy Story 3, a film that was obviously very well received but that was different; Pixar had already proven that they could successfully sequelize Toy Story and besides, they had already earned a lot of cred by waiting over a decade to make a third installment in that series… and it wasn’t a series that everyone already hated.  To me it’s an open question whether Pixar really should have been rewarded as much as they were for Toy Story 3.  Personally, I thought that third installment was kind of a retread, a movie that probably existed for monetary reasons more than a lot of its fans probably wanted to admit, but for all the free passes that this studio seems to get they clearly found the limits of the critical establishment’s goodwill when they decided to make a Cars 2 because it was the first Pixar movie to receive outright negative reviews and then some.  On RottenTomatoes the movie got a 39%, a number that sounds average-ish but which is actually really low given how charitably critics tend to receive big budget animated movies.  To put that in perspective, the one and only DreamWorks movie with a lower score than that was the ill-conceived 2004 Finding Nemo ripoff Shark Tale.  That’s right; all four Madagascar movies got better reviews than Cars 2Turbo got better reviews than Cars 2Bee Movie got better reviews than Cars 2.

Did the movie deserve to be received with that much disdain… maybe.  I certainly would have given it a “rotten” review but when I finally watched the movie it seemed surprisingly… inoffensive.  Truth be told, it probably wouldn’t have taken much to make the movie seem “better than I expected.”  I went into the movie with subterranean expectations and anything remotely watchable would have felt like a success to some extent.  Of course I had two advantages that the early critics didn’t have: 1. I never thought that Pixar was a goldenboy miracle worker, and 2. I knew going in that this was a doomed enterprise.  The early critics on the other hand had just gone through a period of four straight supposed “Pixar masterpieces” and they needed to begrudgingly give the studio some benefit of the doubt despite all signs to the contrary and the fact that they had such high expectations for Pixar almost certainly played a big role in the critical backlash to Cars 2.  There was however a certain contingent of critics, a sort of backlash to the backlash, which insisted that Cars 2 wasn’t really that bad and that if any other animation studio had made the film it wouldn’t have been as poorly received.  Honestly, I think they might have had a point.

If Cars 2 has one major advantage over Toy Story 3 it’s that it couldn’t really be called a retread.  Instead of making another story about a rich car stuck out in a small town when he wants to be out on a NASCAR track, this film goes international and indulges in an unexpected sub-plot inspired by the James Bond movies of all things.  Two of the new cars are Bond style rigs equipped with gadgets like machine guns and oil slicks and on a whole the occasional spy movie set pieces are pretty well choreographed and are probably one of the more fun elements of the film.  It doesn’t hurt that, for all the film’s storytelling shortcomings, Pixar has not skimped on the animation budget here and have done a pretty good job of making this into one of their better looking films on a technical level outside of the fact that they play a little too much into the 3D effects they seemed to be going (this was made right in the middle of post-Avatar 3D boom).  Additionally, John Lasseter and his team seem to be having a lot of fun imagining what a car version of Tokyo, Paris, and London would be like.

That’s about where the positives end unfortunately, much of the rest of the film is about as problematic as I had heard.  One of the worst things about the original Cars was a character called Mater, a rusted tow truck voiced by one of the most hated of all pop culture figures: Larry the Cable Guy.  To say that Mater was annoying in the first movie would have been an understatement so you’d think that they’d have learned their lesson and eliminated this guy from the sequel.  Instead of doing that, they expanded the character to the point where he’s pretty much the main protagonist.  Think about that for a second: this is a $200 million dollar project fronted by the hippest and most critically acclaimed entity in Hollywood and at the center of it all is the dude who popularized the phrase “git-r-done” and starred in the film Delta Farce.  Yeah, bad sign.  I will give them this though, in the original film Mater was just a horrible side character dropped in to pander to rednecks, here there actually does seem to be a legitimate thematic reason to be including such a character.

Like the first Cars, this sequel is a sort of meta-commentary about the culture wars and the state of relations between urban and rural and features a hopeful/naïve vision of city people and country people setting aside their differences and becoming friends.  I’m not sure how John Lasseter (who directs both movies and seems to be personally sheparding this franchise) came to care so much about small town America.  The dude was literally born in Hollywood, California and grew up in a Los Angeles suburb and most of his co-writers also appear to be city slickers, but he does genuinely seem to romanticize the pastoral life and seems to think we should all have more respect for the hayseeds of the world and has developed a multi-milllion dollar animated franchise about talking cars in order to express this.  There’s something oddly respectable about this, but I also think the whole thing is kind of profoundly misguided.

The first movie was all about preserving small town America… it didn’t make much of an argument as to why small town America needs to be preserved outside of its general glorification of the inhabitants’ sense of community, but I guess the message is inoffensive enough for the most part.  This second movie is more about America’s image abroad and specifically about the way the more sophisticated Americans try to sweep the “ugly Americans” under the rug in order to look more cosmopolitan to our friends abroad.  Here that’s represented by Lightening McQueen’s friendship to Mater as he embarks on a world tour to race against an Italian F1 racer.  Over the course of this tour Mater quickly starts acting like the buffoon that he is and starts embarrassing McQueen via a variety of misunderstandings just generally dumb behavior.  After he screws up one of his races because he’s too stupid to turn off his microphone while he’s bumbling through some spy antics he’s gotten himself in through a series of ridiculously stupid misunderstandings (such are the weaknesses of this film that I don’t even have time to get into how dumb the film’s mistaken identity plotline is) and McQeen blows up at him.

Later McQueen comes to regret this because friendship is important or something and Mater’s IQ conveniently seems to magically rise a couple of points at the end so that he can be made into something of a hero at the end and we can all learn a lesson about how we shouldn’t judge people by appearances.  Give. Me. A. Break.  No one was judging Mater on his appearance and they also weren’t pre-judging him because he happened to come from a rural area.  They were judging him because the script does everything in its power to make him look like and ignorant motherfucking buffoon who screws everything up and leaves a trail of destruction everywhere he goes.  You cannot spend two movies doing everything in your power to try to make your audience laugh at a character only to then try to turn around and make that same audience feel bad for having laughed at him.  I don’t know why McQueen was friends with this clown from the beginning nor do I know why we as an audience should respect him in any way. If imparting that message was John Lassater’s goal then he failed and given that this is all meant as an allegory for modern society then he’s also failed at saying anything meaningful about that.  I’ll grant you, I’m an urban sophisticate so I’m predisposed to hate this guy and am probably the kind of person this movie is trying to chastise for being a judgmental ass but if you’re going to try to set me straight about that you’re going to have to come with better ammunition than this.

Questionable messaging and humor aside, the movie still suffers from the same basic problem as the original: this whole talking cars concept is a fucking loser of an idea.  These characters just look really weird and the world they inhabit just doesn’t make sense.  I still don’t know whether these things are built on a conveyor belt or whether they exist because the cars are fucking each other, but it doesn’t make sense either way.  There is no evolutionary reason for them to have developed to be just the right size for humans to fit in them and there’s also no reason for cars built by cars to have doors and shit.  Also, why do the cars have tounges and why do they seem to eat and drink? John Lasseter was clearly a madman for thinking that this was a good idea in the first place, and if this series had been the pet project for anyone else at Pixar I don’t think it would have gotten a sequel sooner than The Incredibles or Wall-E or any number of other movies that people don’t hate.  Aside from some small subset of children I don’t think anyone was really asking for this movie and the box office numbers seem to bear this out.  The movie made about $191 million domestic, which is less than its production budget.  The movie was saved by international audiences, who ironically seemed to take to the movie more than Americans (possibly because Larry the Cable Guy was mercifully dubbed over in foreign markets) but the fact remains that it’s the second lowest grossing Pixar movie and if you adjust for inflation it is the lowest grossing by a rather significant margin.

But this brings us back to the question I started with: “would the film have gotten so much bad press if any other studio had made it.”  It’s a complicated question because I do think the movie deserved the bad reviews it got but I also don’t really think it’s that much worse than your average DreamWorks-style kiddie movie.  Maybe the problem isn’t so much that Cars 2 was over-bashed so much as all those other animated movies have gotten a free pass because they’re cute and provide rudimentary entertainment for children.  Additionally, maybe some of Pixar’s other movies have been over-rated because this is definitely a step down from their usual high standards but the gap isn’t quite as vast as some people make it out to be.  It’s not that much worse than A Bug’s Life and while I do think it’s inferior to the first Cars it does improve on it in some ways simply by being a bit faster paced and a little less clichéd than its predecessor. So I guess at the end of the day I agree that this movie sucks but I don’t feel the same sense of betrayal.

Monsters University (2013)

Pixar lost some goodwill from Cars 2 but I’m pretty sure most critics would have been more than happy to forgive and forget if they had come out blazing with their next movie.  Prior to that Pixar had had an amazing winning streak and it wouldn’t have been hard for most people to say “well, as long as they’re not wasting their time with that ridiculous franchise they’re gold,” but it quickly became apparent that their problems were deeper.  Their follow-up, Brave, was certainly a financial success (the general public never seems to have really abandoned them) but it was met with a sort of critical indifference that no Pixar film had ever been met with.  Granted, it did still win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, but that almost certainly had more to do with a lack of competition that year than anything.  The movie certainly wasn’t hated but almost no one was putting it on their top ten lists and there certainly weren’t any people demanding that it get a Best Picture nomination.  So those were two straight movies that weren’t up to Pixar’s high standards and unfortunately they weren’t going to bounce back with their next project, a sequel to one of their previous successes that was met with an even bigger shrug than Brave.

First and foremost, Monsters University was to be looked at with suspicion simply because it was a sequel or rather a prequel.  For the longest time Pixar was viewed as a bastion of integrity for their stubborn refusal to make unnecessary sequels and suddenly it seemed like they wanted nothing more than to pimp out their beloved movies in search of that franchise money.  Monsters University was their third sequel in four years and as of this writing they’ve also announced plans to make four more sequels including continuations of the Toy Story, Cars, Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles franchises.  This sudden zeal for franchise cannot possibly be a coincidence, these guys were selling out and of all the movies they decided to make into a franchise Monsters Inc. seemed like the strangest choice.  Monsters Inc. was certainly one of the better movies of the studio’s early days but it was a flawed movie and as far as I could tell not an overly beloved one, at least not by the lofty standards of this studio.

I don’t hold a lot of reverence for the original Monsters Inc., which was a somewhat enjoyable film that was undercut by a concept that doesn’t really hold up to a lot of scrutiny and its prequel suffers from the same problem.  The whole idea of scaring as an energy source always seemed a bit contrived to me, but the notion that such an occupation requires a degree from a four year university strains credulity even more.  Frightening small children is not a difficult thing to do even if you’re not a monster.  This is the same demographic that thinks it’s scary as hell to say “bloody Mary” three times into a mirror, scaring them is not a difficult task… hell, Pixar themselves seem to have gone to great lengths simply to avoid making their monsters too “scary” for their target audience.  I remember the scare factory workers in the first movie having more of a blue collar/lunch bucket ethos, not an educated white collar feel.  What’s more it’s never exactly clear what these monsters are being taught about the subject of scaring, in the final test at the end they all just more or less seem to jump out and growl at the kids at various volumes and are assigned relatively arbitrary scores.  Not to mention the fact that the movie never seems to bring up that this subject that Mike is so passionate about and which the film never questions is determined to be evil in the earlier film that this is the prequel to.

Ignoring all that, the idea of making a Pixar college movie was probably misbegotten regardless of what these monsters are studying.  The Animal House-esque college comedy is probably one of my least favorite movie genres even when the stars are humans and to make one into a G-rated animated movie seems like a particularly misbegotten idea.  I think what I hate the most about this genre is that the universities in these movies seem to bear no similarity to my own college experience and probably doesn’t bear much relation to anybody else’s experience either… or maybe they do, I don’t really know.  I lived off campus for most of my time at college and if fraternities play as big a role on campuses as they seem to in movies it’s something that I managed to completely miss.  At the very least I feel like most of the aesthetics of the stereotypical college movie are really dated and that’s certainly the case with the tropes this movie plays on.  This is set in a university that’s filled with overly perky people wearing letter jackets (as if this were a high school) and making bets with the crusty dean who is way too concerned with the minutia of individual students.

The characters in this movie have neither the vocal patterns nor the basic attitude and mannerisms of modern college students nor their busy ambition. This probably isn’t helped by the fact that the main characters are being voiced by a pair of actors who are 63 and 67 years old respectively.  Granted some of the datedness of the film could be justified by the fact that, with this being a prequel, it could be seen as a period piece of sorts.  Also, one could argue that the culture of the monster world simply evolved differently than it did in the human world, but I don’t quite buy either of those excuses simply because they don’t really do enough to make this university for monsters all that… monstrous.  The actual campus in the movie looks like a carbon copy of any number of small town colleges; they do absolutely nothing to customize the architecture to match the fact that this institution was built by monsters.

This is not to say that this movie isn’t enjoyable at times because there definitely are some witty moments to be found in it.  While a lot of the “extras” in the movie just kind of look like generic mascot type things, some of the more prominent characters are pretty interestingly designed.  I was particularly fond of the university librarian with giant Kraken-like tentacles and the Helen Mirren voiced dean who as a sort of centipede-bat thing.  I was also really amused by a side character called Art, who was voiced by Charlie Day and has this sort of elongated shape but with limbs.  In general I think what’s most interesting about the movie is just how low-stakes it is.  Most animated films seem to feel like they need to justify their $200 million price tags by adding a bunch of adventure elements that make them more in line with how $200 million dollar live-action movies play out.  That makes sense (why pay all that money just to make something you could make with humans for $30 million) but it sure can make a lot of these animated movies feel awfully samey and there is something refreshing about seeing someone make one of these movies that doesn’t end with a big fight at the end against a snarling bad guy.  Then again, at the end of the day this is probably more of a liability than a strength, this just feels more like an idea for a direct-to-video prequel or cartoon series that has somehow gotten the full Pixar treatment even though it probably doesn’t deserve it.

At the end of the days I don’t really know whether I really dislike this movie or not.  I have plenty of problems with it, but I’d be the first to admit that some of them are a bit nitpicky, and it wasn’t necessarily unpleasant to watch.  At the end of the day its biggest crime is just being insubstantial.  In final analysis it’s pretty much exactly what it sounded like in the first place: an unnecessary sequel.  There were probably a million better things that Pixar could have been doing with their time and most critics seemed to agree.  The movie did manage to get a 78% on Rotten Tomatoes, but that score is probably a bit misleading, judging from the general tenor of the conversation I’d be willing to bet that most of those “fresh” ratings were of the three-star “I guess it’s okay” variety.  The film also became the second straight Pixar movie not to garner a nomination in the Best Animated Feature category, a loss made all the more embarrassing by the fact that the likes of The Croods and Despicable Me 2 did manage to make it.  Odds are it did probably deserve to get in ahead of those two, but I approve of the animation branch making a statement that they weren’t going to let Pixar get away with laziness and judging by the general reception of it and the two movies that came before it neither were the rest of their fans.

In Conclusion

When I started this series I had a pretty good narrative I was working off of: the decline of Pixar giving way to the rise of a renewed Disney Animation.  Thing is, it turns out that it wasn’t that simple.  The Pixar movies I saw certainly bore out that storyline, they were a pale imitation of that studio’s former self, but the Disney movies I saw didn’t really feel like they were quite good enough to replace them.  But what’s really thrown a wrench in the gears of that narrative seems to be Pixar themselves, who released a movie called Inside Out a few months ago and by all accounts it’s a return to form.  That movie is sitting at 98% on Rotten Tomatoes and will most likely be a fixture of year-end discussions.  I don’t know that this means Pixar is back for good, they still have a lot of questionable sequels on their docket but they also have some original stuff planned including a second movie for 2015 called The Good Dinosaur. I’ll definitely be checking out Inside Out when it comes out on Blu-Ray, until then though I’d say my distaste for later-day Pixar stands but I’m certainly hopeful about that development.

The Short Program

For old time’s sake I thought I’d step back and take a look at some of the animated shorts that have been attached to some of the Pixar and Disney movies I’ve been watching for the series.  As soon as John Lasseter gained control of Disney’s animation studios one of the first things he did was announce that he’d start following Pixar’s lead by attaching short films to their theatrical releases because he “sees [that] medium as an excellent way to train and discover new talent in the company as well as a testing ground for new techniques and ideas.”  I first noticed this when Disney’s shorts started getting nominated for Oscars.  For the longest time I’d been killing it in my Oscar pools because I’d always bet against the Pixar shorts that everybody else blindly predicted.  I had long assumed that this losing record would carry over to Disney but surprisingly enough it didn’t: not one but two of Disney’s shorts actually won the Best Animated Short Oscar in the last three years.  Why was that?  Were Disney employees engaging in block voting?  Why didn’t they also do that with Pixar?  As it turns out, the explanation is a lot more simple than that: Disney is just better at making shorts than Pixar is.

The first of the Disney shorts I saw (but not the first one chronologically) was “Get a Horse!” which was attached to Frozen.  This was a very light-hearted and gag oriented short which used new technology while looking way back into Disney’s history.  The film stars Mickey Mouse himself but actually uses the style from the original short that made Disney the studio that it is today: “Steamboat Willie.”  The catch is that this short plays around with 3D and has the characters jumping in and out of a screen within a screen.  It’s certainly not the most emotional or substantive of shorts, but it’s a lot of fun and was probably a good choice to put in front of one of their most popular movies.  The next Disney short I saw was the Academy Award winning “Paperman,” which was in front of Wreck-It Ralph.  This short is really cool.  The film is set in the 40s and has a pair of young Urbanites flirting with paper airplanes and eventually coming together out of fate.  It uses this really cool 2D/3D hybrid black and white animation and is just extremely classy as far as these things go.  That it was attached to something as silly as Wreck-It Ralph is pretty weird.  Finally there’s Feast, which was attached to Big Hero 6 and also won an Academy Award and while I didn’t like it as much as “Paperman” it was still pretty cool.  It basically showed the evolving courtship between a man and a woman through the eyes of a dog that just wants to get better food from his owner.  It’s a pretty cute little high concept thing with a heart.

The two Pixar shorts I watched, by contrast, seemed pretty lame.  The short attached to Cars 2 is actually set in the “Toy Story” universe and is meant to be a sort of coda to Toy Story 3.  That’s pretty lame, firstly because these short films should be an opportunity to do something a bit more creative and experimental than that and secondly because Toy Story 3 would seem to have been a pretty good place to simply let that series be… of course there’s also a Toy Story 4 in the works so that closure was probably going to get fucked over either way, but whatever.  To be fair, Disney isn’t above this sort of thing either.  There was a follow-up short to Tangled that was attached to the 3D re-release of Beauty and the Beast and a Frozen follow up attached to Kenneth Branagh’s live-action Cinderella.  Still this is not a great sign for Pixar and is emblematic of their general decline.  The short attached to Monsters University is at least a little more interesting in that it blends animated elements with live action footage.  However, the short’s story is a super simple “boy meets girl” story in which the boy and the girl happen to be umbrellas which is… just a really weird idea.  I don’t begrudge them for making what is essentially a glorified tech demo, but it still sort of pales next to some of the stuff they did in the past.  I guess Pixar’s shorts have always been these simple little high concept experiments like that, but it feels like Disney has taken the short game to a new level and Pixar just hasn’t caught up.

Final Thoughts

And that will be the final installment of this series.  When I embarked to watch the first eleven Pixar movies in my original series my goal was to catch up with a set of movies that people thought were great and to wrestle with weather or not I could get on board with this particular form of supposed greatness.  Having done that I embarked on this follow-up series less out of an intense curiosity about the films at hand (although I was highly curious about a number of them) so much as a desire to become well versed enough in the trends and patterns of modern family films so that I’d have the vocabulary to write about them as well as I feel I can about more traditional films.  I watched 32 movies in that quest, and I do think it’s fair to say that I’ve now seen most of the major mainstream titles in this genre and I do think I’m a lot more equipped to deal with these movies going forward although my idiosyncratic skepticism about the genre certainly isn’t going anywhere.  There are definitely gaps in my knowledge; I’ve avoided most of the mediocrities of the Dreamworks variety and I’ve hardly looked at contemporary live-action family movies at all.  Still, I feel like I’ve done my homework and it was fairly rewarding.

One of the big differences between this series and my Pixar series is that I was very much on the attack during the Pixar series.  Those movies had been posited as masterpieces of cinema and it felt like I had a duty to really scrutinize them and decide if anything made primarily for six year olds can truly be described with such hyperbole and came to a conclusion along the lines of “probably not, but there’s certainly some good stuff there.”  With this series I was mostly dealing with movies that hadn’t had unrealistic expectations built into them and I guess I was a little more open minded as I explored the works of the various studios and filmmakers involved.  Over the course of the project I definitely encountered a handful of movies that were really good, a few that really sucked, but mostly I encountered a lot of three star “good” movies that never quite managed to be something truly memorable.  As time went along I started to notice certain patterns emerge and some of these animated movies really started to seem like regurgitations of the same movie with different coats to paint put on top of them.  I don’t know that that was the majority but it was distressing.  In fact, this experience may have given me a bit of a renewed appreciation for some of those Pixar movies I nitpicked like mad before and maybe better recognize how different some of them are from the rest of the animated field.  Anyway, my education about this genre certainly isn’t over, but now that I at least have a grasp on this stuff I do think this essay series has outlived its usefulness.  So, I’ll leave you all with one final thing, a ranking of all 36 non-Harry Potter movies I’ve watched over the course of the two series along with “out of five” Letterboxd ratings:

  1. Wall-E ****1/2
  2. Ratatouille ****
  3. Coraline ****
  4. The Incredibles ****
  5. Big Hero 6 ****
  6. Toy Story 2 ****
  7. Monster House ***1/2
  8. Up ***1/2
  9. How to Train Your Dragon ***1/2
  10. Toy Story 3 ***1/2
  11. Fantastic Mr. Fox ***1/2
  12. Frozen ***1/2
  13. Monsters, Inc. ***1/2
  14. The Lego Movie ***1/2
  15. Rango ***1/2
  16. The Iron Giant ***1/2
  17. Frankenweenie ***1/2
  18. ParaNorman ***
  19. Brave ***
  20. Chicken Run ***
  21. Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Wear Rabbit
  22. Toy Story **1/2
  23. Finding Nemo **1/2
  24. Cloudy with a Change of Meatballs **1/2
  25. Monsters University **1/2
  26. Wreck-It Ralph **1/2
  27. The Prince of Egypt **1/2
  28. Kung Fu Panda **1/2
  29. Corpse Bride **
  30. Tangled **
  31. Cars **
  32. A Bug’s Life **
  33. Cars 2 *1/2
  34. Where the Wild Things Are *1/2
  35. Happy Feet *1/2
  36. The Polar Express *

Mission: Impossible- Rogue Nation(8/2/2015)

8-2-2015MissionImpossibleRougeNation

I like to think that I have some very unique taste in film but truthfully my opinions match with the popular critical consensus more often than not.  More often than not when I depart with popular consensus it has more to do with the degree of ire or respect that’s being thrown at a film rather than the actual verdict.  In recent memory one of the most extreme examples of this was the 2011 movie Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol.  This was a movie I would say I liked even though I didn’t particularly respect it and thought it could have been a lot better.  It was a movie with three really good scenes but very little else going for it, it was almost insulting how little work was put into making it into a narrative that was worth a damn.  I also wasn’t too fond of how little director Brad Bird was able to bring a distinctive style to the film that would make it stand out as much as previous filmmakers like Brian De Palma and John Woo had.  While the James Bond series has built its reputation on sticking to a traditional formula, the Mission: Impossible movies are supposed to do the opposite and take a very distinct style with each installment.  And yet, somehow we’ve reached a point where the Bond series is contantly pissing me off by departing from conventions just as the Mission: Impossible series has decided to start sticking to a formula that works.  However, I’m not such a zealot that I’ll dismiss a film simply for not sticking to a set of rules that may or may not only exist in my imagination, and with that in mind I went to the latest Mission: Impossible.

While it was never entirely clear how much continuity there was supposed to be between the early films in the series, this installment is very decidedly meant to be a continuation of the events of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.  Many of the players from that film return but in slightly different roles.  Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is still a daredevil spy who finds himself doing insane things like climbing on a plane as it takes off, but William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) seems to have taken more of an administrative role and is introduced to the film during a congressional hearing where he’s sparring with CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), who has grave concerns about the way the IMF functions.  Brandt fights the good fight, but ultimately the IMF is shut down and its agents are folded into the CIA, all of the agents except for Ethan Hunt, who is in the middle of the hunt for a web of spies called “The Syndicate” that he believes are responsible for a number of world disasters.  Hunley doesn’t believe the Syndicate exists so when the IMF disbands Hunt goes rogue in order to continue hunting them down all over the world.

As stated earlier, this series was initially defined by its radical stylistic shifts from film to film.  The numbered installments were directed by Brian De Palma (who opted to make a slick movie focused on suspense and spy intrigue), John Woo (who was trying to make an intense melodramatic action movie), and J.J. Abrams (who brought a snarky post-modern sensibility to the series).  The next film, Ghost Protocol, was different in that Brad Bird was neither a veteran stylist nor was he working on the screenplay and bringing a unique voice to the film in that way.  He just kind of seemed like a jobber and while you could vaguely see him bring something to the table in his shot compositions, he mostly just seemed like a slightly less lens flare and film grain enthused version of Abrams.   This latest installment is directed by Christopher McQuarrie who is probably the most curious choice to date.  He isn’t an experienced action-auteur like De Palma and Woo and he also isn’t a young turn trying to break into features like Abrams or Bird.  Rather he’s a man primarily known as a screenwriter and frequent Bryan Signer collaborator who seems to have struck a rapport with Tom Cruise while writing Valkyrie and Edge of Tomorrow and directing Jack Reacher.

In other words, he’s the safest choice yet and the least likely person to shake up the series in the way that new directors are supposed to.  That was my fear anyway and that fear mostly seems to have panned out.  Put bluntly, McQuarrie just isn’t an auteur.  His 2000 directorial debut Way of the Gun was a Tarantino ripoff that was largely indistinguishable from the likes of The Boondock Saints and while many of his screenplays have been turned into serviceable Hollywood thrillers there isn’t really any kind of stamp linking his work.  It’s not all bad though because the guy is certainly a professional and he apparently does know how to shoot a pretty good action scene.  Here he doesn’t indulge in the same grandiosity that Brad Bird aspired to, but that probably suits the material better in a number of ways and the film has a certain degree of energy that some previous installments have lacked.

In fact, the movie actually borrows from some of the better elements of all the previous installments of the series.  It borrows the teamwork aesthetic from Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol and brings back a lot of the cast from that film like Jeremy Renner and continues to expand Simon Pegg’s role as Hunt’s sidekick.  From Mission: Impossible III is borrows a certain comedic lightness, which is probably something the last installment borrowed as well.  Like Mission: Impossible 2 the film isn’t afraid to engage in some gunplay and it also has a really big motorcycle chase at its center.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this is the first installment of the series since the original Mission: Impossible to take its spycraft even remotely serious.  I don’t want to oversell this point because the movie still isn’t remotely realistic and is generally devoid of substance but it does embrace its roots as an adaptation of a Cold War era TV show and does indulge in some spy vs. spy subterfuge and double-crossing.

The story certainly isn’t original.  In fact it’s the second (maybe even third) straight installment to recycle the plot of having Hunt and his team go “rogue” and try to solve a world calamity without the help of the IMF.  Honestly, I’m not sure why they keep going back to this well, especially given that they never seem to stick to it and keep giving these agents cool expensive looking spy equipment whenever it’s convenient for the script.  At its heart, like most Mission: Impossible movies this plot only exists to string together action scene, but I did appreciate that it actually tried to give the plot a few twist and turns than the almost insultingly simplistic Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol.  The film does, however, share a notable weakness with that film in the form of a rather bland villain.  That character, a Blofeld like leader of an evil spy ring, is at least written more interestingly than the dude from the last movie, but actor Sean Harris never really gives him the wicked menace that he needed.

Alright, time to stop burying the lead.  Action scenes.  This movie has some and they’re pretty good.  The film’s opening scene, in which Hunt is stuck on top of a plane as it begins to take off plays a pretty big part in the film’s advertising, is actually a bit of a disappointment.  The film cuts away right at the big money shot where Hunt is supposed to jump on the plane’s wing, and the whole sequence is actually pretty short and ends on a bit of an anti-climax.  The movie makes up for it though with a cool cloak and dagger scene in an opera house, a key underwater stunt, and especially with its big mid-film motorcycle chase, which is really exciting and is clearly the film’s peak.  The motorcycle chase is actually almost too good in a way because it sort of upstages the film’s actual climax, which proves to be one of the film’s most understated sequences.

My ultimate feelings about Mission: Impossible- Rogue Nation are… kind of complicated.  I spent a decent amount of this review talking about the various ways that the film works within the patterns of the series but I don’t want to give the impression that all that played a huge role in my ultimate verdict on the film.  I find that stuff interesting, but this isn’t the James Bond series, the sanctity of the series ultimately isn’t that important to me.  What is important is that this is a very well executed and entertaining summer blockbuster, albeit a particularly inconsequential one.  It’s breezy entertainment that’s meant to be forgotten pretty quickly after you’ve left the theater.  It’s basically a Fast & Furious movie but without the youth culture trappings and with fewer speeches about “family.” But there’s nothing wrong with that when it’s good at what it’s trying to do, and on a whole this might be the best installment of the series since the original.

***1/2 out of Four

Home Video Round-Up: 9/1/2015

Chappie (7/11/2015)

7-11-2015Chappie

Not since M. Night Shyamalan’s fall from grace have I seen the film community so dramatically abandon a director as they have with Neill Blomkamp after two straight critical failures.  His latest film, Chappie, has a couple of defenders out there but it was largely derided by critics and ignored by audiences.  It didn’t help that it had a really bizarre marketing campaign that initially made it looks like a family movie of the E.T. variety before revealing that it was actually an R-rated action movie that was more of a piece with Blomkamp’s previous films.  Then again I wasn’t really in sync with the critical consensus around Blomkamp’s first two films (I thought Distict 9 was good but a bit over-rated and actually saw Elysium as an improvement) so I was willing to go into Chappie with an open mind.  On a basic story level there’s not really a whole lot new to chew on here.  I said in my Ex Machina review that I’m kind of sick of the old “how human are robots” theme and the same goes for this movie.  The movie also borrows shamelessly from Robocop in a number of ways and it also has some really dreadful performances from Sigourney Weaver and a woefully miscast Hugh Jackman.

All that having been said, I kind of admire this movie’s weirdness.  Essentially what Blomkamp has tried to do is use a mainstream Hollywood budget to make a movie that is not only set in a foreign country but also steeped in that country’s youth culture.  Specifically, the film draws from the Africaaner “Zef” sub-culture exemplified by the rap group Die Antwoord, who star in the movie as a pair of gangsters raising a robot.  To go all in on potentially alienating trappings like that without regard for the commercial ramifications is ballsy, especially in a film climate that is increasingly trending towards a sort of culturally homogenous blandness.  That the film seems to have been rewarded with nothing but derision for this brave choice is a little disappointing.  If this were a Korean or Japanese film I feel like a lot of audiences (at least film buff audiences) would have been a little more patient with some of its stranger tendencies.  As it stand I can’t quite go so far as to call this a particularly “good” movie, and Blomkamp definitely needs to re-invent himself fast, but the film does have some interesting things going on with it and definitely doesn’t deserve the hate it gets.

**1/2 out of Four

Jupiter Ascending (8/1/2015)

This is why original ideas have such a hard time getting greenlit in Hollywood.  Of course this is only “original” in technical sense that it’s not officially based on an original IP… and that it’s kind of nutty.  Really though, this is not a movie that deserves the “visionary” label that some people tried to put on it.  The Wachowski’s last movie, Cloud Atlas, was the real deal.  It took some really “out there” ideas and applied them to a story that was interesting and meaningful.  Jupiter Ascending… not so much, it’s just kind of an odd amalgam of YA clichés and poorly explained space opera stuff.  Frankly it kind of feels like the Wachowskis were trying to sell-out by making this movie and failed spectacularly at doing so.  They did fail kind of interestingly though.  This is still the directorial team that made The Matrix and they do create some pretty decent action scenes and render some decent special effects and that does keep the film somewhat watchable.  There’s also some interesting art direction here and there, the Wachowskis clearly put some thought into creating this world but they fail spectacularly at presenting it in an understandable and building a compelling narrative around it.

** our of Four 

8-1-2015JupiterAscending

Wild Tales (8/23/2015)

8-23-2015WildTales I don’t really know what to do with this.  Anthology films are always a little hard to review; do you try to rate each segment individually then come up with some kind of average to see if the movie as a whole is worthwhile?  Or do you maybe try to see if the film has a sort of throughline that carries it?  It complicates things further when the anthology is done less as a series of short films from different directors (which usually end up being so hit and miss that they don’t really warrant serious consideration one way or another) and more as a single director’s unified vision.  In this case we’re given a movie composed of six separate vignettes with no narrative intersections but something of a common theme.  All of the stories are about revenge, but not revenge of the deep and relentless variety that movies are usually about, rather this is about the kind of impulsive and hotheaded actions that are taken in heat of passion.  The segments actually kind of started to remind me of those old Dave Chappelle “When Keepin’ it Real Goes Wrong” sketches, and there is indeed a sort of dark humor that runs through the film.  The film is very well made and consistently entertaining, but I’m not sure I would have given it a competition slot in Cannes or a nomination for Best Foreign Language film.  Frankly, I was kind of surprised when I learned that director Damián Szifron was forty years old and already had two feature films to his name.  This is the kind of movie that you usually expect to come from a hotshot right out of film school who has a lot of energy and technical ambition but whose ideas maybe aren’t as deep as he thinks they are.  The movie has the hutzpah it needs but not a lot of depth.  Still, there’s no denying that this is a really fun movie and I’m excited to see what Szifron does coming off of this.

***1/2 out of Four

Kingsman: The Secret Service (08/26/2015)

Kingsman: The Secret Service is the other film this year besides Chappie which seemed to have a weird disconnect between the tone of the trailers and the content of the final film.  The advertising made it look like Harry Potter but with spies instead of Wizards, but the actual film is a characteristically crass R-rated Mark Millar adaptation.  I’m not exactly sure whether that version of the movie would have worked better, the tone would have probably fit more but on the other hand the idea of making a cruder and more violent James Bond style spy flick is sort of the film’s novelty and to eliminate that would almost be to miss the point.  In general I would say that the tone would have been enjoyable enough but the movie is kind of undermined by Matthew Vaughn’s rather obnoxious visual style.  Vaughn is a director who can restrain himself and does a pretty good job for most of the film but when the action scenes startup he can’t help but overdo it and add a bunch of weird CGI touches that I didn’t really care for.  The film also has a decent cast with some good young talents as well as an unexpected action turn by Colin Firth.  It’s a flawed film, but I’m feeling generous and I guess I’ll give it a pass for being a fun movie with some interestingly subversive edge, but it could have been better.

*** out of Four

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What We Do in the Shadows (9/1/2015)

9-1-2015WhatWeDoIntheShadows I’m generally pretty skeptical about comedic mockumentaries.  More often than not the mockumentary format is used as an excuse to throw together ramshackle improve fests and while the new film from Jemaine Clement (who is one half of Flight of the Concords) and Taika Waititi (who is some other guy from New Zealand) isn’t completely devoid of its genre’s weaknesses it is notably more thought out than mockumentaries usually are and it actually feels like the people involved put some real work and craftsmanship into it.  The film concerns a group of vampires boarding in a house in New Zealand and their petty squabbles.  It plays on a pretty standard comedic convention where supernatural beings are revealed to be pretty regular folks who react to their strange powers in mundane ways.  I wouldn’t say I laughed out loud to many times while watching it but the comedic moments, while not wildly original, were well executed and clever throughout.  The film never quite develops a particularly meaningful arc and maybe would have worked better as a TV show or as a series of sketches, but I enjoyed it just the same.

*** out of Four

Ant-Man(8/26/2015)

8-26-2015Ant-Man

What a difference one movie can make.  When 2015 began Marvel Studios was flying high, hell, I opened my review of The Avengers: Age of Ultron by opining about how much the studio had killed it during 2014 with the one-two-punch of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy.  Unfortunately the aforementioned Age of Ultron was a pretty big letdown.  The movie certainly made money and there were definitely Marvel loyalists who defended it, but the truth of the matter is that the movie was a mess.  It was over-stuffed with tie-ins to other movies, its plot was shallow and under-cooked, and no amount of Joss Whedon snark could save it.  It certainly wasn’t the first Marvel movie to disappoint but it was certainly the most high profile.  It was supposed to be the big event movie that the rest of the Marvel films were leading up to and to have that fall as flat as it did was certainly a blow to Marvel’s aura of undefeatablity.  It also came at a dangerous time because the next film that Marvel had to offer, Ant-Man, looked like a pretty tough sell and it had a troubled production history to boot.  That movie’s here now, and frankly I don’t think it’s going to do much to get Marvel back on track.

The film is primarily about a guy named Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), who has just been released from prison after serving out a sentence for burgling from a dirty corporate executive.  Unable to find work and estranged from his ex-wife (Judy Greer) and daughter, Lang reluctantly joins a heist scheme with a couple of other ex-cons (Michael Peña and T.I.) to steal from a safe owned by an old man named Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), but is shocked to find that the only think in the safe is an old costume.  Curious, he tries the costume on and suddenly finds that he’s been shrunk to the size of an ant.  Freaked out, he tries to ditch the suit but soon finds that he’s actually been chosen by Pym and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) to dawn this shrinking suit and assist Pym in stopping a megalomaniacal business executive named Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) who has taken over Pym’s old company and is trying to develop his own shrinking suit and plans to sell it to Hydra.

Ever since Guardians of the Galaxy came out people have been going in masse to the internet to demand that their favorite obscure Marvel character be turned into a movie under the mantra “if they can sell a talking raccoon they can sell anything.”  This belief is probably a bit shortsighted, it fails to acknowledge just how hard it was to make Guardians work with the public and somehow assumes that this is easily replicated.  Ant-Man may well be proof of just how hard it is to try to make a movie out of a C-tier superhero.  Originally the film was meant to be directed by Edgar Wright and I can kind of see how a movie about a character called “Ant-Man” might fit into Wright’s sort of humbly geeky sensibility, as an actual big budget Marvel film it just seems kind of strange.  Ant-Man is, frankly, a lame superhero and it is frankly bizarre that we’ve gotten to the point where this seems like a viable subject to be making a $130 million dollar movie about.

What kind of lame-ass power is the ability to shrink?  The movie certainly goes out of its way to come up with situations where that could be useful, but for the most part it would seem to be the opposite of what you’d want to do in a fight.  Ants are easily killed pests that don’t exactly exude power, why would someone want to control these things and shrink down to their size?  The film deals with this by giving the shrunken Ant-Man the same power in his punches that he has when he’s at his normal size, but this kind of goes against the basic laws of physics.  Real ants are proportionally much stronger than humans, but there’s a reason that they can’t punch out a human, they just can’t build up the momentum and power to make a dent on something of our size.  Even if they somehow could build up that kind of power, the fact that it’s being exerted on such a small target would mean that Ant-Man’s punches would be less like a blunt force trauma and more like a bullet penetrating its target (imagine the difference between being steped on by a flat shoe and being stepped on by a stiletto heeled shoe).  The response to this would of course be “it’s a superhero, of course it’s impossible.”  True, but that doesn’t change the fact that this particular set of impossible powers just looks silly.

Looking past that, the film really just doesn’t make much of a case for Ant-Man as a character either.  Having a mentor figure in the form of Michael Douglas’ Hank Pym is sort of an interesting development, but otherwise this Scott Lang guy just seems kind of vanilla.  That’s probably at least partially because he’s being played by Paul Rudd, who I’ve always considered to be an aggressively boring actor and working outside of the strictly comedic realm perhaps calls attention to how bland he is.  Speaking of which, if you’re thinking that because this stars Paul Rudd, was developed by a comedic director, and then taken over by another comedic director, that it would be a particularly funny Marvel movie you’d be wrong.  The movie certainly doesn’t take it self particularly seriously, but neither do any of the other Marvel movies and while there are a few more sight gags here it’s not any more funny than Guardians of the Galaxy or the first Thor or any of the Iron Man movies.

Now, I’ve been pretty negative up to this point but I don’t want to give the impression that this movie is unwatchable or anything.  If nothing else, Marvel has a way of making sure that all their films are just “good enough” to not generate strongly negative opinions and this one isn’t any different.  It’s not “bad” so much as it kind of seems like a waste.  A waste of time, a waste of potential, a waste of goodwill.  If you want to see a superhero movie, or even a Marvel movie, these days you have A LOT of options.  The simple fact is that there is a finite amount of interest that the world has for movies about superheroes and given that I don’t think there’s much room for something as mediocre as Ant-Man in the culture.  If Marvel truly needed to incorporate this character into their universe they probably would have been better served making him a side character in The Avengers like the Hulk or Hawkeye than making him the star of his own feature film and if they’re smart they’ll probably stick to doing that instead of trying to make an Ant-Man 2.

**1/2 out of Four