Thursday, July 30, 2015

Ant-Man: For This Superhero, It's Go Small or Go Home

Paul Rudd brings his bemused charm to "Ant-Man"
Given that it's a movie about a man who turns into a bug, it's only fitting that Ant-Man feels small. That is part criticism, part compliment. Ant-Man is not especially memorable; it does not dazzle like The Avengers, nor does it charm like Guardians of the Galaxy. But in an age where bloated superhero franchises buckle under the weight of obligation and fan service, it's almost refreshing that Ant-Man—the concluding chapter in Phase Two of the scrupulously planned Marvel Cinematic Universe—feels so cheerfully trivial. Sure, Tony Stark's dad shows up in the prologue, and the post-credits stinger ties it in with next year's Captain America offering, but for the most part, this is a minor movie about a down-on-his-luck dad trying to get a job so he can pay child support and see his daughter. It is not exactly the stuff of legends, but there is valor in its modesty.

And in its lightness. Ant-Man benefits from a relaxed, nonthreatening tone that makes it feel less like a superhero adventure than a hangout flick. That begins with its casting of Paul Rudd as Scott Lang, a reformed thief trying to make it on the straight-and-narrow. Rudd has never displayed great range as an actor, but he's developed into a quasi-superstar through sheer affability, not to mention a gift for bemused reaction shots. His presence lends the film a laidback vibe that it mostly embraces, which helps deflect the absurdity of its plot and the stupidity of its pseudo-science.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Trainwreck: She's a Downtown Girl, Living in a Man's World

Amy Schumer and Bill Hader find love in "Trainwreck"
They may both tower over the modern comedy world, but Judd Apatow and Amy Schumer aren't very much alike. Apatow's works, particularly The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, are best known for the overgrown man-children at their center, but they're also curiously wholesome and sweet. He relies heavily on crudity and profanity, but he does so in the service of a romantic ideal—the notion that love can conquer all obstacles and generate true happiness—that is pure, cornball formula. But Schumer is a deconstructionist. She has ascended to the apex of the comedy landscape precisely because of the way she obliterates formula, exposing stereotypes and upheaving convention. Trainwreck, which Apatow directed from a script written by Schumer, is the funny, fascinating, and somewhat frustrating attempt to reconcile these two disparate voices into a unified song. Like its protagonist, it is often at war with itself. And, like its protagonist, it is vulgar, confused, warmhearted, and generally a hoot to hang out with.

Schumer plays Amy (in case you doubted the story's autobiographical bona fides), an unapologetically promiscuous boozehound whom one might call a slut or a female stud, depending on one's level of sexism or enlightenment. The idea that women can be funny, frisky, and lewd should hardly have been a revelation in 2011, but it was novel enough to turn Bridesmaids (which Apatow produced) from a well-made, modest comedy into an outright phenomenon. Now, Trainwreck extends that sense of gender liberation to the bedroom. That's where we first meet Amy, tumbling between the sheets with an anonymous schmo, extracting pleasure from him before feigning sleep to avoid the obligation to reciprocate. "Don't judge me, fuckers," she admonishes via voiceover. It's an odd plea, given that she spends most of the movie judging herself.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl: The Schmaltz in Our Stars

This is a sappy movie about Greg and Earl and the Dying Girl
I often censure movies for being generic; no film is more hollow than one without a personality. The flip side, however, is the movie that pummels its audience into submission via a surfeit of quirk. This is why Me and Earl and the Dying Girl—Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's skillfully made, unrelentingly precious, ultimately insufferable weepie—is a strangely worthwhile brand of disappointment. It is by no means lacking in individuality, and it sporadically sparkles with wit and ingenuity. But it channels its eccentricity in frustratingly clichéd ways, bludgeoning viewers with an onslaught of tackiness and schmaltz. It tries very hard to win your heart, and its calculated efforts to do so make it both laudable and oddly detestable.

Here is an example of this movie's shtick: During one of his shaggy-dog voiceovers, Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) analogizes hot girls—in particular the oblivious manner in which they exert their sexuality and power over horny boys—to moose inadvertently trampling over helpless chipmunks. It's a cute enough metaphor, and the first time Greg describes it, Gomez-Rejon cuts to a crude piece of claymation that playfully illustrates two such animals acting out that very scenario. That's a wry bit of visual inventiveness and formal looseness, but Me and Earl and the Dying Girl can't let well enough alone. For the remainder of the movie, every time the token hot girl carelessly touches Greg's shoulder, Gomez-Rejon returns to that image of the anthropomorphic moose and its pitiful chipmunk victim. The film desperately wants you to sympathize with the chipmunk (and, by proxy, Greg), and it actually half-succeeds; by the time it ends, you, too, will feel like you've been stomped on repeatedly.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Magic Mike XXL: Forget Your Day Job, It's Time to Party

Channing Tatum and co. are back for "Magic Mike XXL"
A few months ago, I saw a movie about an inveterate warrior who gets pulled back into a turbulent conflict, and who uses his ingenuity and physical prowess to triumph in battle. A few days ago, I saw another movie with a similar storyline, about a legendary figure who grudgingly returns to the battlegrounds of his past, relying on both his cunning and his skill to achieve immortality. And while the two films are undeniably different—Mad Max: Fury Road is about a life-or-death struggle set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, whereas Magic Mike XXL is about a stripper performing in Myrtle Beach—their dissimilarities, from a filmmaking perspective, are almost incidental. The traits that made Mad Max: Fury Road such a sensation—the no-holds-barred attitude, the revelatory practical stunt work, the palpable swagger—apply with equal force to XXL. Both worship at the altar of cinematic excess, and both thrill their audiences with their verve and dexterity. It makes little difference that, while Max faces a hail of bullets, Mike is bombarded with "a tsunami of dollar bills".

In conventional critical terms, Magic Mike XXL might appear to be a bit thin. It has no real plot to speak of, it is not especially interested in character development, and it is positively disdainful of plausibility. Certainly it lacks the lacerating bite of its predecessor, which benefitted from Steven Soderbergh's artistry, expertly camouflaging a wolf's tale of loneliness and manipulation in the sheep's clothing of glamour and decadence. (For this sequel, Soderbergh has passed directing duties on to his longtime assistant, Gregory Jacobs, though he returns as both cinematographer and editor, working under his usual twin pseudonyms, Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard.) But virtually none of this matters. XXL doesn't have time for trifling concerns like plot and character, and watching the movie, neither will you. You will be too busy cheering its electric set pieces and succumbing to its infectious spirit of euphoria.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Dope: A Harvard Wannabe Gets a Thug Life Education

Shameik Moore gets in over his head in "Dope"
An early scene in Dope, Rick Famuyiwa's highly entertaining mess of a movie, perfectly encapsulates the film's tone. It features its protagonist, a black high school student named Malcolm (Shameik Moore), fleeing with his two best friends from a pair of Los Angeles gangsters. It's a frenetic scene, with Malcolm and his pals riding pitiful bicycles while the thugs give chase in a roaring red El Camino. Then, as the desperate teenagers pedal across an overpass, the camera suddenly switches to a static wide-shot, revealing that the overpass is labeled, in austere capital letters, "Thurgood Marshall Justice Plaza." That level of silent wit—the confidence to quietly slip in a reference to America's first black Supreme Court Justice in the middle of a frenzied chase sequence—is indicative of Dope's sly sense of humor, not to mention its hectic, erratic sensibility. This mélange of styles and tropes is far too chaotic to be a great movie, but it's precisely that sense of unruliness that makes it so much fun.

Dope initially scans as a lively satire of Boyz N the Hood, John Singleton's seminal coming-of-age story about black youths growing up on hard streets in hard times. Malcolm, the son of a single mother, lives in The Bottoms, a crime-ridden district of Inglewood. His neighborhood is swimming in drugs and beset by gang violence (the red-clad Bloods are especially prominent), and he's under constant threat of thievery or worse. Yet Malcolm, contrary to expectation, is neither a reprobate nor a victim. He is instead, as Forest Whitaker's playful opening voiceover informs us, a geek. He dresses like a goofball, he rocks a ludicrous high-top fade, and he and his aforementioned friends, Jib (Tony Revolori, the lobby boy from The Grand Budapest Hotel) and Diggy (Transparent's Kiersey Clemons), are utterly obsessed with '90s hip-hop culture. His top priority is not avoiding jail or scoring drugs—it's getting into college, which is why he's penned a singular application essay entitled, "A Research Thesis to Discover Ice Cube's Good Day."