Wednesday, July 22, 2015

IRRATIONAL MAN Is An Entertainingly Oddball Effort From Woody Allen


- At this point, watching a new Woody Allen film is sort of a singular experience. For good and for bad, there's nothing else quite like it. Between Woody's real-life scandals and the way they seem to awkwardly and consistently be reflected in his films (older men with younger women, for example) and his anachronistic dialogue and characters, there are often a lot of things in Woody's modern-day movies that make me cringe just a little. And yet ... I still love visiting the world of Woody. No other filmmaker has a voice like his, and few other movies fixate on the philosophical in quite the same way as Allen's tend to do. Such is IRRATIONAL MAN - a movie that is both frustrating and uniquely entertaining. It's got a fantastic cast - anchored by Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone (and Parker Posey!) - and a fun premise. It's good enough that I was able to overlook some of the awkwardness and go with it. Even though the movie's got no Allen and not even an Allen proxy, in many ways it's vintage Woody.

IRRATIONAL MAN follows Phoenix as Abe, a sort of rock star philosophy professor who seems to go from university to university, wowing students, pissing off faculty, drinking too much, and wooing his fair share of female students and colleagues along the way. He seems to be trying - but not necessarily succeeding - to avoid his old patterns at his latest teaching gig at a Brown-esque New England college. A married music teacher (Posey) lusts after him, as does Jill (Stone), a student who worships the ground he walks on. Even as Abe succumbs to both of their wiles, he finds himself restless and anxious. What finally motivates and excites him is a random idea that comes into his head, after overhearing a conversation at a diner. Abe hears a woman break down in tears, complaining about a heartless judge. Abe becomes convinced that if the cruel judge were to die - if he were to be murdered - the world would ultimately become a better place, and many would be spared his cruelty. Abe decides that he should be the one to commit the act, and begins brainstorming the perfect murder - all, he's convinced, in the name of serving the greater good. The more sure Abe becomes about the rightness of his mission, the more he seems to climb out of his alcohol-fueled depression.

On one hand, IRRATIONAL MAN is a very small, very slight film. On the other hand, there's a lot to unpack here. Allen seems to be using Abe to explore the idea of going down a philosophical rabbit hole at the expense of one's own morality. By becoming obsessed with "the greater good," Abe loses sight of just how coldly cruel his actions really are. And ultimately, he's something of a hypocrite - because as much as he talks about the greater good, he'll also do almost anything in the name of self-preservation. Basically, IRRATIONAL MAN seems to be Allen's thesis-statement about why putting too much stock in high-minded philosophical ideas is, essentially, bull$#&%. 

Phoenix's mumbly-weirdo persona is a good fit for the film. It's easy to buy him as a wrapped-up-in-his-own-head philosophy professor with a bit of a screw loose. He also brings a lot of humor to the table. What's more though, he is able to run with Allen's sometimes-stilted dialogue and make it his own. Emma Stone has the tougher time of things. As Jill, Stone is forced to play a doting college student who feels like a relic of some lost 70's TV-movie about New England prep-school girls with a rebellious streak. Before she falls in with Abe, Jill is dating a guy so dorky and square that he may as well be wearing a white sweater draped around his neck (he may actually be in some scenes, I don't recall). And Jill talks like no 21-year-old has *ever* talked, except in Woody-World. But that's part and parcel, I guess, with these movies. At least Parker Posey is better able to just go all-in and throw herself into the role of attention-starved hanger-on. Posey is great here, and by going broad with the character she makes it work.

The New England setting is an unusual one for Allen, but he really takes advantage of it. It's a great-looking film, capturing the stately vibe of an Ivy League university and of a quaint, seaside New England college town. There's nothing really flashy here, but the movie overall is picturesque and perfectly captures the sort of world of academia that surrounds Abe and, in many ways, feeds his vices. 

If you can get past all the weird Woody-isms, there's a fun little psychological comedic thriller to be found here. Yes, there will be more philosophers name-dropped than you'll know what to do with. And yes, you can have a pretty good drinking game if you take a shot every time a character awkwardly and non-ironically uses the term "making love." But you've also got to sort of marvel at how Allen's scripts, as dusty and eccentric as they may feel in 2015, remain stubbornly intellectual in an age where most everything else in pop-culture feels dumbed-down to the nth degree. Sure, we've seen many a movie in which a seemingly mild-mannered man tries his hand at murder. But rare is the movie where that man's thoughts on the matter are presented in the context of long, flowing dialogue exchanges about philosophy and existentialism and nihilism and ... well, you get the picture. That's Woody for you. I'm always curious what stories he has for us, and always interested to hear what he has to say. IRRATIONAL MAN is a strange beast of a film - stubbornly eccentric and occasionally frustrating - but it's also oddly refreshing: a complete 180 from most of what you'll see in theaters this year. 

My Grade: B

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

ANT-MAN Delivers Solid Marvel-Style Action

 ANT-MAN Review:

- Marvel has very smartly shaken up their go-to formula over the last few years. Guardians of the Galaxy went full on comic-book-cosmic-weird, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier paid homage to 70's-era paranoid political thrillers. But ANT-MAN is a return to the tried-and-true, "How To Make Movies The Marvel Way" template. It's not a bad thing - the movie is light, fun, funny, and breezily entertaining. But it also feels fairly slight and forgettable. There's not enough unique or memorable enough about Ant-Man for it to leave much of a lasting impression. Indeed, the most interesting thing about the film may be the future storyline possibilities it teases. First though, we must get through the obligatory origin story. As far as obligatory origin stories go though, you could do a lot worse.

ANT-MAN gets a lot of mileage out of its titular hero being played by the great Paul Rudd. Rudd is pretty much the perfect Marvel superhero lead - a versatile actor who happens to have impeccable comedic timing - and, as expected, he makes Ant-Man/Scott Lang into a likable and easy-to-root-for protagonist. Rudd's natural likability helps sell Lang as a noble ex-con, whose driving motivation is to spend time, post-divorce, with his daughter and find a way to course-correct his life. Lang is given that opportunity by Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) - the original Ant-Man. Pym and his daughter realize that their scientific work is being jeopardized by the sinister Darren Cross - Pym's protege, who is out to uncover and replicate Pym's secret size-control tech, with the goal of weaponizing it and making big bucks by selling it to the highest bidders. Pym needs professional thief Lang to break into his own corporate HQ and sabotage Cross' dangerous device. Lang agrees, and recruits his crew for one last big heist, after which Lang hopes to finally - with Pym's help - go straight and put himself on a new and better path.

But what Lang least expects is that part of the job involves donning Pym's old Ant-Man suit and mastering the art of strategic shrinking. The suit and the power comes with it means that Lang's journey isn't just about pulling off one last heist, but also about becoming a bonafide superhero in the process. What's fun about Lang is that he is a unique character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe - a crook-turned-hero who, even after he gets the Ant-Man suit, is basically just a regular dude. Not a scientific genius or a multimillionaire - just a guy who happened into an extraordinary set of circumstances. And again, Rudd pulls it all of to a T and makes Scott Lang feel like both a unique addition to the MCU, and like a character who fits right in to the tapestry of this world.

In fact, a lot of the most fun moments of Ant-Man are those that tie the film in to the larger MCU, even filling in some timeline gaps that had yet to really be explored in prior entries. I got a huge kick, for example, out of seeing a 60's-era Agent Carter (the now-iconic, to me, Haley Atwell)  interact with Howard Stark and a de-aged Michael Douglas (thank to some truly mindblowing special f/x wizardry) at S.H.I.E.L.D.. There's also a really entertaining throwdown between Lang and Anthony Mackie's Falcon, that felt like the kind of misunderstanding-leads-to-fisticuffs fight that have long been a staple of Marvel Comics.

Rudd shines, but the whole cast of the film is very, very strong. Douglas is clearly having a lot of fun playing Hank Pym, and his presence brings some veteran gravitas to the table. Corey Stoll, also starring on FX's The Strain, is clearly in his element as smarmy scientist-turned-supervillain Cross, aka Yellowjacket. I'm a fan of Stoll (could have been a fun Lex Luthor ...), and he chews scenery here with aplomb. The only downside to his character is that, in my view, he's too much of the typical Marvel-movie villain - going from a guy who's just sort of a jerk to a murdering, costume-wearing, sociopath supervillain without much explanation.

But the two surprise stand-outs of ANT-MAN are Michael Pena and Evangeline Lily. Pena is always great, but I say he's a surprise because I didn't even realize he was in the movie going in. But as Lang's right-hand-man, Pena kills it. He plays a would-be gangsta, bumbling thief - and he's absolutely hilarious, elevating this potentially marginal role into one of the film's most memorable turns. Similarly, while I'm a fan of Lily's, I wasn't sure what to expect from her in this film, playing Hank Pym's daughter Hope. As it turns out, Lily is incredibly badass in the movie. Not only does she run the show at Pym's company, but it's actually Hope who teaches Lang how to kick ass and take names. If nothing else, the movie leaves you wanting more of Hope, and hoping (pun intended) that she'll have an even larger and more hands-on role to play in future Marvel movies.

To that end, where ANT-MAN fumbles a bit is that it plays things, overall, pretty safe - even as it seems to want to be way crazier than it is. Perhaps that's the leftover DNA of the film as originally conceived by mad-genius writer/director Edgar Wright. What was exciting about Wright's involvement was the notion that a Marvel movie would break from the mold and go crazier and weirder than we'd yet seen. But every time this version of the film hints at a left-turn, it ends up staying the course. Hope is the perfect example. Intended or not, Lily's Hope is a show-stealer, and the movie leaves us crossing our fingers that Hope will get her turn at bat to be a proactive, ass-kicking superhero in her own right. But the film proves too by-the-numbers to throw us that curveball, and leaves Hope mostly on the sidelines - to play the all-too-prevalent part of undeveloped love interest - despite all signs pointing to her total untapped potential as a Wasp-y companion to Lang's Ant-Man. Sure, it could happen in future films, but why delay the gratification? Break the mold, I say, and go a little crazy. Another tease happens when Lang goes so microscopic that he enters the sub-atomic, quantum realm. For a moment, I thought the movie might go full, Guardians-level insane on us. But it quickly pulls back, as if to say: "sorry, but you're not yet ready for that jelly just yet."

Director Peyton Reed is not bad. He gives us some really fun sequences of a shrunken Ant-Man in a giant-sized world, and his ability to nail comedic sequences is on-point. But overall, there is a workmanlike quality to Reed's direction that delivers action in a fun but very straightforward manner. A lot of scenes, I think, could have benefited from a loopier, trippier aesthetic.

The timing of ANT-MAN's release feels opportunistic. After the bloat of Avengers: Age of Ultron, there is indeed something refreshing about the next Marvel movie being a much smaller-scale, more straightforward, light-on-its-feet, back-to-basics superhero story. ANT-MAN is eminently likable - it's fun, has a great cast, and it gives us a hero in Scott Lang who is clearly going to be a great addition to the MCU (and really, who isn't excited to see Rudd's Ant-Man meet Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, and the rest?). The downside is that ANT-MAN lacks the major "wow" moments that would have really put it over the top, or the unique aesthetic that would have, in the long-run, made it truly distinct from the glut of other Marvel origin movies. As is stands, ANT-MAN is very watchable, very solid - but not quite the next Marvel classic.

My Grade: B+

Monday, July 20, 2015

MR. HOLMES is a Master Class in Acting From Sir Ian McKellan

MR. HOLMES Review:

- MR. HOLMES is both exactly what you think it is and not quite what you're expecting. Yes, Mr. Holmes is a stately, magnificently-acted showcase for Sir Ian McKellan as an aging Sherlock Holmes. But no, it is not an intricately-woven, mind-bending mystery in the vein of the current BBC series. MR. HOLMES does have a mystery at its center, but the focus here is really on Holmes the man. And in telling that story - about an ailing legend looking to settle affairs while he still has time - McKellan delivers a mesmerizing turn. This isn't a rollicking adventure or a twist-a-minute mystery, but it is a meditative, artful film that invites you to sit back and just soak in its central performance.

Director Bill Condon has had an interesting and varied career - he's made small-scale dramas like Gods & Monsters and Kinsey, musicals like Dreamgirls, and even directed two Twilight movies. But MR. HOLMES is squarely in his wheelhouse - a small movie that focuses on a central, iconic protagonist. I found the structure of the film interesting. The bulk of the film gives us a ninety-something Holmes living in 1940's England. Holmes has moved away from his beloved Baker Street, now residing in a seaside home where he lives in relative isolation - save for his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro, and her son Roger. But the film also flashes back to twenty years earlier, when Holmes was still active as a detective. The focus in these flashbacks is on Holmes' final case, one that sent him into premature retirement. Without spoiling anything, the interesting thing about the case is that it's not an epic clash with an arch-nemesis or a dangerous investigation into criminal activity. Instead, it's a very small, very human case that exposes something about Holmes' character - something that makes him question the man he's become. But now, ninety-something Holmes has forgotten the details of the case - a problem complicated by increasingly worse memory loss. And yet, Holmes - whose career was long documented and sensationalized by his old partner Watson - now seeks to write down his own life story, in his own words, while he can.

There's so much to say about McKellan's performance here. He is so convincing as a very elderly, memory-addled Holmes that it's almost a relief to see him playing the slightly younger, much more spritely version in the flashbacks. But as the older Holmes, McKellan is masterful. Still possessing of a keen intellect and sharp wit, it's a joy to see the flashes of the world's greatest detective emerge. It's also a joy to see the relationship between Holmes and his housekeeper's son Roger. Roger, nine or ten years old, idolizes Holmes and is eager to learn everything he can from him - even if most of Holmes' adventures now consist of beekeeping and taking an occasional dip in the ocean. Even as Roger forms a bond with Holmes, his mother disapproves. Increasingly having to act as a nursemaid, Mrs. Munro talks of leaving Holmes' employ for greener pastures. Laura Linney is excellent in the role - while we as an audience can't help but sympathize with McKellan's Holmes, it's also easy to see why tending to him would be frustrating. McKellan, all the while, is funny and likable - but also often heartbreaking. As Holmes vainly searches for cures to help with his memory loss - even traveling to Japan because of the rumored potency of weeds from the Hiroshima blast-zone - you can't help but feel sad at seeing this fading legend struggle to come to terms with his own mortality. When we flash back though, we get to see a still-nimble, even cocky Holmes at or near the height of his powers. Now a verified living legend, it's pretty amusing to see Holmes' bemusement at his celebrity status - he even drops in on movies about his life and smirks at the inaccuracies.

The greatness of MR. HOLMES is almost entirely tied to the greatness of McKellan's performance. The small tics, the annoyed grunts that symbolize a man who's seen it all, the flashes of recognition and genius that shine through a clouded mind. It's a master-class in awesome acting. Condon knows enough to keep the focus on McKellan, and he further adds to the proceedings with gorgeous shots of the English countryside, as well as evocative scenes of Baker Street and 1920's London. The only thing that really keeps the movie from being a classic is that the story feels too slight. The details of Holmes' final mystery are mostly beside the point - but still, it would have been nice for the mystery to have a bit more bite to it. I did also like all the references to Holmes lore - there's a lot of fun stuff here, from brief glimpses of Mycroft to mentions of various classic Sherlock cases. At the same time, it would have been nice to get a bit more detail about relationships - like that between Holmes and Watson - that are more hinted at than fully explored.

MR. HOLMES isn't necessarily the epic "one last adventure"  story I'd envision, if you told me that there'd be a movie about the last days of Sherlock Holmes. But that's okay. This is a quiet and contemplative film, but it's also a powerful one - an elegy to a great man who, in his last days, finds the humanity in himself that he'd thought to be long-lost. McKellan does Oscar-worthy stuff here. Highly recommend this one to anyone who wants to see one of the greats at his best.

My Grade: A-

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

TERMINATOR GENISYS Turns Heavy Metal Into Pop


- Maybe it's just the times we live in, but man, I really wanted the new Terminator to be good. We're living in an infantilized age, where as adults we are spoon-fed the same PG entertainment as kids, and we tend to lap it up. So in the age of the PG tentpole movie, I occasionally yearn nostalgically for the glory days when movies like Terminator 2 provided R-rated carnage that, to a generation of kids and teens, put some proverbial hair on their chests and showed them that action movies could deliver more hardcore thrills than whatever sanitized, family-friendly funtimes Disney happened to be peddling. And so, there's something existentially sort of depressing about getting a new Terminator flick that on one hand tries to pay homage to the original James Cameron films, yet on the other hand feels very much like a product of our PG-ized, four-quadrant tentpole times. This is the heavy-metal Terminator franchise as pop-song remix. And not a very good one at that.

TERMINATOR: GENISYS has some elements that could have made it a worthy entry in this franchise. The smartest thing the movie does is it brings back Arnold Schwarzenegger as an aged Terminator, who in this film's timeline has been protecting Sarah Connor since she was a girl. It's a clever way to bring Arnold back to one of his most iconic roles, but in a way that takes into account his advancing age and plays off of it in a fun way. Arnold is the best thing about the movie - the man has always had a gift for spouting off droll one-liners, and his performance here is vintage Arnold. He's got a fun father dynamic with Sarah, and Schwarzenegger seems excited to be back playing a cyborg. But even the mighty Austrian cannot save the film's convoluted and ultimately silly script.

Time travel on film is always tricky business. But what makes it work is the usage of solid internal storytelling logic. GENISYS is severely lacking said logic. Without spoiling anything, the main characters seem to use time travel in a way that fundamentally makes no sense. Not in a nitpicky way, but in a blatant way. Like, why are characters in a hurry to time-travel to the future when the very act of time-traveling makes time relative? Why are they traveling to a specific point that is so close to doomsday that our heroes are now encumbered with a self-imposed countdown clock to save the day? They could have traveled literally days - or months - or years! - earlier and saved themselves the headache.

If the wonky time travel stuff was the movie's only issue, it wouldn't be a total loss. But the time-travel problems are indicative of a script that is just way too careless and hokey and not in keeping in the spirit of Terminator. This is a franchise about evil-as-crap looking robots who want to kill us all. So when we meet the ultimate manifestation of Skynet - the movie's big bad - it's hard not to feel underwhelmed.

The cheesiness also extends to the movie's romantic subplot between a younger-than-we're-used-to Sarah Connor and her sent-from-the-future, would-be savior Kyle Reese. The original Terminator movie did a great job of showing the two's blossoming, apocalypse-tinged romance. Here, there is little chemistry between the two leads, and the predetermined nature of their hook-up is more of a box to tick than a genuinely interesting part of the film. I'm a huge fan of Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaerian on Game of Thrones (who isn't?). She's solid here, but even the biggest Emilia Clarke fan has to admit that she seems a bit miscast as badass-female icon Sarah Connor. Ably played in the past by Linda Hamilton - and then by Clarke's GoT castmate Lena Heady in an underrated turn - Clarke's version of the character is more comic-book fantasy version of female hero than the tough-as-nails, legit-badass warrior that Hamilton played. But Clarke still comes off a lot better than Jai Courtney as Kyle Reese. I'm not a total Jai hater - he's been good on occasion. But this is Jai at his most Jai - bland, charisma-less, and utterly forgettable as a hero. Jason Clarke also feels somewhat miscast as messianic John Connor. Unfortunately, previews spoiled the movie's big twist about Connor, but ultimately it doesn't matter that much because this version of Connor is quickly reduced to the part of sneering villain. You've got to feel bad for Clarke, because his role is totally thankless. At one point, he moves in to attack Sarah and Kyle, and they pointedly mention that he can't kill them, or else he'd cease to exist. His response is something along the lines of "it doesn't work that way!" Um, okay. I've also heard some reviewers give praise to JK Simons as a loopy cop who witnessed the first Terminator time-travel incident way back when. It's another instance, to me, of the movie taking a great, very likable actor and giving him a pretty poorly-written role. JK does his best with it, but I found the character to be sort of a waste of time within the context of the film - more comic relief when what the movie really needed was more legit badassery.

As much as I've been ragging on GENISYS, it is occasionally enjoyable. There's some fun action, and watching old Schwarzenegger kick-ass, take names, and even square off with a younger version of himself is pretty fun. When I wasn't thinking about things like plot, character, or justificatoin for this movie's existence, I found myself enjoying some of the movie's more visceral thrills. I love the whole Terminator universe, so sure, part of me was happy just to visit it once more. If nothing else, this one is faster-paced and more dumb-fun entertaining than the Christian Bale-starring Salvation misfire from a few years back. This is a cast you want to like (well, Jai Courtney excepted, perhaps), and director Alan Taylor gives the film a sleek (if somewhat bland) look, with some of the future-set scenes in particular being pretty legitimately eye-popping.

But as a franchise re-starter, TERMINATOR: GENISYS is a near-total bust. The film left me with little interest in future sequels, and gives little to chew on after first viewing. What's funny is the the film tries to do the whole Marvel big-post-credits-reveal thing, but the big cliffhanger reveal is very forgettable. Interestingly, the cancelled-too-soon Sarah Connor Chronicles series on FOX was able to explore the Terminator mythology with a lot more depth and darkness than this movie does. It really does feel like the candy-colored little sibling to the original films - Terminator for the whole family! But in creating this slick, CGI-filled beast, they've lost sight of why Terminator was a sensation back in the day. It was dark, grim, badass, rock n' roll. And it was surprisingly smart in its storytelling. This one tells you what you need to know in its title. Not because it's the genesis of a Terminator revival. No, it's because they spelled "genesis" with a freaking "y."

My Grade: C