Ant-Man

Ant ManDirector: Payton Reed

Screenwriters: Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, and Paul Rudd

Cast: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Corey Stoll, Evangeline Lilly, and Bobby Cannavale

Na-na na-na na-na na-na… ANT-MAN?  You read that right.  Stan Lee’s 1962 comic book character, Ant-Man gets the Marvel cinematic treatment with Paul Rudd as the microscopic maverick.  This film concludes Marvel’s “Phase Two” that started with Iron Man 3 back in 2013.  Rumblings of an Ant-Man movie date back at least fifteen years when radio personality Howard Stern claimed that he tried to buy the rights to the character.  By 2003, British director Edgar Wright pitched an Ant-Man film to Marvel that was in perpetual development for eleven years before “creative differences” between Wright and Marvel’s parent company Disney eventually resulted in Wright’s departure.  Director Payton Reed would step in to finish the project, and while production was troubled and buzz was non-existent, Ant-Man, like its namesake, is stronger than it looks.

As I mentioned, Paul Rudd plays Ant-Man and his alter ego, Scott Lang.  Rudd also serves as a co-screenwriter on the film, making him the first star of a Marvel film to serve as both lead actor and screenwriter.  The film opens in 1989 where a furious Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) argues in front of S.H.I.E.L.D. (including Agent Peggy Carter, played by Hayley Atwell) that his breakthrough on reducing the distance between atoms, nicknamed the Pym Particle, is too dangerous to hand over to them.  Fast forward 26 years and Pym has been effectively voted out of control of his own company by his own apprentice, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll).  Cross has been working on recreating the Pym Particle and appears to be on the cusp of doing so, the consequences of which worry Pym.

Don't shrink me, Mr. Cross!
Don’t shrink me, Mr. Cross!
Cross is a bad dude, and if you weren’t sure…there’s a scene where he evaporates a cute, little lamb in his testing trials to shrink organic matter. But this film is not called Lamb Man, so I’ll move on.

It turns out Lang, an electrical engineer, caught the attention of Pym when he was arrested for “burgling” his employer, a cyber-security conglomerate, because they were overcharging their customers.  After serving three years in San Quentin, Lang was released and Pym, in a rather unorthodox[*] fashion, recruits Lang to wear a secret particle suit that would allow him to shrink to the size of an ant in a plot to overthrow Cross.

Lang’s place in the conflict between Pym and Cross does seem artificial at first.  Enter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), Lang’s six-year-old daughter.  Lang’s main motivation is to be a man Cassie can be proud of, and Pym is offering him a chance to do just that.  It also doesn’t hurt that Pym’s beautiful daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) is assigned to work closely with Lang in his training.

And there is a lot of training.  Not only does the Ant-Man suit allow Lang to shrink in size, but he retains human strength in his miniature form.  Pym also provides Lang with a neurotransmitter that allows him to communicate with actual ants making him the weirdest movie superhero to date, in my opinion.

However, weirdness works in the case of Ant-Man, mostly because of Paul RuddRudd has been slowly “breaking out” over the past 20 years.  His everyman approach and his bravado sense of humor make him impossible not to root for, which is precisely why he is effective as a superhero.  Like all of the best Marvel films, this one is not just a superhero film, but it is a genre film as well.  Ant-Man plays out like a “caper,” complete with safe cracking, data stealing, and elaborate breaking and entering schemes.  There’s even a sort of Ocean’s 11 vibe when Lang recruits has band of misfits including Michael Peña, David Dastmalchian, and T.I. to help with a big heist.

On a surprising note, I was underwhelmed by how mediocre the effects seemed in this film.  I saw Ant-Man in the traditional 2-D format, and some of the scenes where a shrunken Ant-Man navigates his miniature world echoed far too closely to Honey I Shrunk the Kids than should be the case in this post-Avatar day of computer effects.  Most of these effects were clearly staged and shot for 3-D, but they do seem clunky in the 2-D form.  Fortunately for Ant-Man, the script is fun with plenty of action and enjoyable dialogue.  The film is also woven nicely into the Marvel Cinematic Universe thanks to a fun scene between Ant-Man and a special Avenger cameo (On your left!). The crown for the goofiest Marvel movie that once sat on the head of Thor: The Dark World only to be claimed by Guardians of the Galaxy now firmly sits atop Ant-Man, but that continues to not be a bad thing!  B+

Ant-Man is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 57 minutes.  Unlike Avengers: Age of Ultron, this film does have additional scenes after the film.  There is one about a minute into the credits and another after the credits.

[*] I sat and pondered how to write a plot summary for this film for over twenty minutes.  I considered adding the detail about how Lang can’t find a job because of his criminal record, so he and his friend Luis (Michael Peña) plan another robbery, which turns out to be Pym’s house, which is how Lang first comes in contact with the Ant Man suit, which wouldn’t be that strange except that Pym had orchestrated the robbery anyway from the start!  But I decided to just call Pym and Lang’s meeting “unorthodox.”

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

ImageI have struggled to accurately articulate my feelings about films being split into multiple parts.  I’m not talking about sequels, trilogies, or franchises, but rather the recent trend of taking one story and splitting it into different films with different release dates.  Mixed reactions have surrounded the decision to split films like Kill Bill, Breaking Dawn, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, and the upcoming Hunger Games installment, Mockingjay into two films.  Some appreciate the expanded devotion to detail these films receive while others feel they result in bloated, watered down films designed to get doubled the box office.  Director Peter Jackson is mostly known for his Lord of the Rings films.  While, the third film in that series, Return of the King, clocks in at nearly four hours, Jackson never considered dividing it in half.  The film went on to be nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won every single one of them.  Jackson took a different route with J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, dividing the book into three films.  If anyone can make a film that convinces me of the merits of this decision, it’s Jackson, and The Hobbit’s second installment, The Desolation of Smaug just might be that film.

In classic “middle-film-in-a-series” fashion, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug opens with a brief flashback scene between Gandolf (Ian McKellen) and Thorin (Richard Armitage) to remind the audience about what’s happening.  Bilbo (Martin Freeman) continues his quest to assist thirteen dwarves in reclaiming their lost kingdom.  A pivotal step in the process involves recovering the arkenstone from a terrifying dragon named Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) who dwells in the caverns of the Lonely Mountain guarding his riches.  Those who complain about how Jackson’s Tolkien films spend too much time walking will be happy to hear that Bilbo and company do arrive at the Lonely Mountain with plenty of time to spare.  Like in the previous Lord of the Rings films, the characters do not all stay united in one plot for long.  Smaug finds Gandolf abandoning the band of dwarves to investigate the rise of a being known as the “Necromancer” whose threat on Middle Earth was introduced in the previous film.  Furthermore, the Mirkwood Elven Guard led by Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) are introduced.  Tauriel represents the first major evidence of Jackson’s and co-writer Guillermo del Toro’s decision to expand The Hobbit into three films.  Her character is not in the book and is created for the film.  Her role appears to be to add some romance into the mix as she catches the eye of both Legolas as well as one of the dwarves.  While introducing a female character for  strictly romantic purposes would be a bit shallow, Tauriel fits in well and holds her own as both a lover and a fighter.     

The Desolation of Smaug, like The Two Towers, improves on the previous film.  There is more action, more humor, higher stakes, and purposeful character development.  Bilbo is in the throngs of ring delusion and Freeman plays this ambiguous stage in Bilbo’s life with deliberate hesitation and false bravado.  While the film catches a small snag when Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) enters the scene, it in no way minimizes the excellent final act where Bilbo and the dwarves square off against Smaug.  If you enjoyed the classic game of wits between Bilbo and Gollum in the first film, you will love the battle of egos between Smaug and Bilbo as he attempts to fulfill his role as Burglar. 

The Desolation of Smaug is an exciting, beautiful, and thrilling film with plenty of excitement for any moviegoer.  The debate on whether the decision to split this film into three parts takes a substantial hit as the second installment is quite good.  Tolkien aficionados may resent some of the additional material added like Tauriel or Gandolf’s scenes, but these additions are in keeping with the look, feel, and tradition of The Hobbit and the Tolkien universe.   A-

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 41 minutes.  It was released in both 3D and 2D, but the 3D craze is dying down and this film works very well in the traditional 2D format.

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