Ant-Man (2015)

Marvel's Ant-Man..Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd)..Photo Credit: Zade Rosenthal..? Marvel 2014

Ant-Man is the worst Marvel movie yet. Okay, that may be hard to believe in a world where this movie exists. And this movie. Oh, and this one too. Alright, maybe Ant-Man‘s not the worst ever. But it’s for sure the worst of what’s been dubbed the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or the MCU if you want to sound cool), which includes all the movies since 2008’s Iron Man distributed by Marvel Studios. But that’s kind of like saying Brave or Cars were the worst Pixar movies. Ant-Man, for all its flaws, is still really enjoyable.

National treasure Paul Rudd has a lot to do with that. He plays Scott Lang, an experienced thief who is being released from prison as the movie begins. His friend, Luis, let’s Scott stay at his place after he gets out, but then tips him off to a job breaking into a rich old man’s safe. The old man is (SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER) Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a scientific genius who, during the Cold War, discovered a particle that allowed him to shrink down to the size of an ant. Pym has a job for Lang, involving keeping the Pym Particle out of the hands of Pym’s former partner, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), who has gone insane with jealousy of Pym and will use the power for his own gain if he gains control of it. This is a nice chance for redemption for Scott, who wants to prove his worth to his young daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson) and her mother (Judy Greer), and for Pym, who wants to reconcile with his own, grown daughter, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly).

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The prevailing story around Ant-Man‘s production was original director Edgar Wright departing pre-production due to creative differences over the script he had written. Marvel turned the reins over to Peyton Reed, whose biggest claim to fame as a director was Bring It On back in 2000. This isn’t the first time Marvel has let a talented director walk away- Patty Jenkins (best known for directing Monster, the movie that won Charlize Theron her Oscar at the 2004 Academy Awards) was fired from Thor 2: The Dark World because she wasn’t “decisive” enough, which might not be sexist, but certainly sounds sexist, and which infuriated star Natalie Portman.

Marvel has the right to do this; they own these properties, and they have a specific style they want to maintain through ever movie, not to mention the whole “bottom line” thing that all studios care about more than anything else. The danger in Marvel’s disregard for directorial input is that the audience might at some point see the seams. So far, their movies have stayed pretty clean, with a few exceptions- namely, Ant-Man.

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Ant-Man has some fantastic sequences that belong among Marvel’s best so far. The final fight sequence between the titular hero and his diminutive nemesis (Cross as the villain Yellowjacket), taking place on a toy train set in Lang’s daughter’s room, is pure comedy genius. And the dramatizations of Luis’s stories of how he got tips on heist jobs for Scott are hilarious at a level we haven’t seen yet from the MCU except in Guardians of the Galaxy, which is coincidentally the one movie with a director given almost free reign. You get the sense that these were the Ant-Man scenes over which Reed was given leeway to take Edgar Wright’s script and run unfettered with it. These scenes hint at a great, unfilmed heist comedy.

But even with those inspired segments and a great cast, you feel Marvel’s meddling in all the backstory they felt was absolutely necessary for Pym and van Dyne that was absolutely unnecessary to Scott’s journey. You feel the meddling in the exposition laying groundwork for future Marvel installments, something the studio does in all their movies, though they’re usually able to maintain a consistent tone- not so in Ant-Man.

The seams are starting to show. It’s not the first time. The Thor movies both sacrificed the Shakespearean scope of Asgard by shoehorning in underwritten characters like Portman’s Jane Foster and her earthbound friends, and the first Captain America tacked on a modern-day scene at the end and some half-hearted HYDRA exposition in the middle, both of which spoil the movie’s otherwise fun Indiana Jones adventure vibe. But the break in the seams is bigger in Ant-Man, which was a long shot to succeed anyway, since it’s about a hero called Ant-Man. The movie’s fun, but it doesn’t really work and is ultimately disappointing. When Marvel’s released a less-than-great movie in the past, we’ve barely noticed because they’ve wowed us with a great movie less than a year later. Let’s hope Captain America: Civil War can patch it all up.

Quick Take: Sunshine (2007)

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No one knew what to do with Sunshine back in ’07: not the critics, who lauded its visuals but hated its horror-movie ending; not the studios, who couldn’t decide which aspect of its multifaceted plot to sell; and not the American audiences, who made a  movie with blockbuster-level scope and effects into a flop with a $3.6 million domestic gross. From our ideal hindsight perspective, though, Sunshine looks remarkably prescient. Sci-fi movies stalled out in the mid-’00s after the Star Wars prequels bludgeoned the genre into the ground with CGI and monotonous acting. But the genre saw a revival soon after Sunshine with Avatar, and appears to have entered an exciting new phase of relative realism with GravityInterstellar, and the upcoming The Martian, a phase that Sunshine would fit right into. Directed by Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) and written by Alex Garland (28 Days Later…), Sunshine strikes a chord right between Interstellar and Gravity, achieving a marvelous blend of fantastical space imagery and survival science. It’s a chord no other sci-fi movie has struck this decade, so it’s really a shame that Sunshine was only just ahead of its time.

Quicker take: Sunshine might blind you with science, but it’s worth it in the end.

Quick Listen: Pretty Speeches (2015) by Poema

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If you like HAIM but wish they sounded like a duo instead of a trio (first of all, who are you?), then you’re in luck! Poema, a sister act from Albuquerque, have released Pretty Speeches, an EP with enough pep to out-pop the aforementioned power-pop trio. Unlike HAIM, however, Poema’s Elle and Shealeen Puckett don’t shy away from pedal steel or a little twang, giving standouts “Go Away” and “Forget You in LA” a healthy dose of welcome melodrama. The Pucketts take their pop music very seriously, and it shows on Pretty Speeches.

Taking the Week Off

I’m going on a road trip with my friend, Thomas, this week, so I won’t be writing any posts. I give you permission to read other things this week. But only this week.

Quick Take: Serenity (2005)

L-R:Alan Tudyk,  Nathan Fillion, and Gina Torres in the movie SERENITY. photo by Sidney Baldwin. Universal Studios

It’s impossible to discuss Serenity without bringing up Firefly, the Joss Whedon-created cult TV show that preceded SerenityFirefly was a space western that only lasted 14 episodes, and it was brilliant, but Fox totally bungled its release by airing episodes out of order and showing sports instead of several episodes. Serenity was released in theaters two years after Firefly‘s last episode and served to tie up a few of the loose ends left by the show’s premature cancellation. Serenity was just as enjoyable as the best episodes of the show, mixing that signature Whedon wit with better special effects and higher stakes while preserving the individuality of every character. One of the major appeals of Firefly was that it felt like it could have endless stories to tell, and, magically, Serenity preserved that too.

Quicker take: Like Cowboys & Aliens, but you actually care about it.

Trailer of the (Retro) Hour: Gone with the Wind (1939)

I’m still out of town, so here’s another old trailer. Enjoy, me hearties.

I have no idea when this trailer was actually released- probably not before the movie, since it references Gone with the Wind‘s 10 Oscars. And, incidentally, this video appears to have been uploaded by some dude who’s very right-wing, as if Gone with the Wind were a patriotic movie at its heart and not a movie about American selfishness crumbling under the weight of the Civil War. Anyway, this trailer is pretty straightforward. The scenes they show between Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara are fascinating, because Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable were fascinating. And they place a large emphasis on its link to Mitchell’s classic book. But the most interesting thing about the trailer is that the first thing it boasts about is its stars, in big bold letters. It just goes to show how different things are now; trailers now begin by trying to sell a high concept, special effects, or a mood. Movies now don’t have stars the way they did back then, and this trailer is proof.

Best Movies of 2015 So Far

The movie industry is exploding in 2015. Movies have made more this year to date than any other year in at least five years. A lot of that is owed to just two movies: Furious 7 and Jurassic World. However, the surprising, sustained success of last year’s American Sniper crept into 2015 and contributed, as have expected hits Fifty Shades of GreyAvengers: Age of Ultron, & Inside Out. I consider it a good year for movies when any of those top grossers appear on my best-so-far list. This year’s list contains three of them, so let’s consider 2015 a success- so far.

Movies

bestsofar01Avengers: Age of Ultron: My wife thinks I’m crazy, but I think this one is even better than its predecessor. I just rewatched the first one yesterday with her, and I’ll admit, it’s a tough movie to top. But Ultron is far more polished as an action movie and much more purposeful about its story.

bestsofar02Furious 7: If you follow my blog religiously (as everyone should if they desire forgiveness for their pop culture transgressions), you know that I watched every Fast/Furious movie in anticipation of the seventh’s release, and I fully expected to think each movie was total garbage. Boy was I wrong. They gradually improved with every installment, and Furious 7 was up there with Fast Five as the best in the franchise.

bestsofar03Inside Out: I bawled like a baby, but apparently everyone is. God willing, I’ll be a parent someday. But after my experience watching Inside Out, I’m not sure I’ll be able to handle it without weeping daily.

bestsofar04Mad Max: Fury Road: It’s perfectly okay to effusively praise Fury Road. While some people may think calling it the best movie ever made is hyperbole, you won’t find any protest from me. I’m ready to give Fury Road all the Oscars, Golden Globes, Emmys, Grammys, Tonys, ESPYs, state fair blue ribbons, soccer trophies, gold stars, cookies, etc.

bestsofar05Paddington: My perspective on this movie may be a little clouded, since my wife and I just bought a puppy named Paddington. Come to think of it, he looks a lot like the dog in the movie’s poster…hmm, that can’t be right. At any rate, Paddington was a superb children’s movie, which are often preferable to superb grown-up movies.

Performance

Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road: Maybe I just haven’t seen as many movies this year as past years, but there’s really only one performance I’ve found worthy of distinction, and that’s Theron’s knockdown, drag-out turn as Imperator Furiosa in George Miller’s fourth Mad Max; she cold-bloodedly steals that movie from Tom Hardy’s man hands in the name of women everywhere.

Most Anticipated Movies of (the rest of) 2015

Bridge of Spies (10/16)You say Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks and I start weeping uncontrollably, so sign me up.

The Hateful Eight (12/25): This is a snow western, so I’d have to see it even if it weren’t directed by Quentin Tarantino, since the snow western is my favorite genre of moving picture.

The Last Witch Hunter (10/23): LOL JK.

Silence (11/27)Martin Scorsese is undeniably the greatest living American director, and his next movie is about two Jesuit priests facing persecution in Japan in the seventeenth story, which sounds fascinating.

SPECTRE (11/6): After Skyfall, I trust director Sam Mendes implicitly with the James Bond franchise.

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (12/18): I basically never grew up, so I’m committed to all future Star Wars installments on principle.

Quick Listen: The Pinkprint by Nicki Minaj (2014)

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I find no popular artist more frustrating than Nicki Minaj. There aren’t many better rappers than Minaj at her best, an opinion she’s come very close to making fact time and time again- but in spurts. While features (Kanye’s “Monster”) and her own individual songs (“Super Bass”, “Beez in the Trap”, “Feeling Myself”) are incredible, she’s never sustained that kind of quality over an entire album. It might be because every album she’s released has been super-long for some reason (Pink Friday was 13 tracks, not bad, but Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded was 19 and The Pinkprint is 16) or because there’s always an out-of-place, sugary pop song shoehorned into the mix (this time it’s “Pills n Potions”, but past culprits were the treacly “Starships” and “Last Chance”, which featured Natasha freaking Bedingfield). All that being said, The Pinkprint is her best album yet, even if it’s not that good. It’s at least interesting, which is more than you could say for her first two albums.

Quicker listen: Minaj just keeps throwing stuff at the wall, but this time more of it sticks.

Best Music of 2015 So Far

Welp, it’s 2015 and Taylor Swift is still dominating music. As much as rap tends to dominate the airwaves, it’s earnest pop music like Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, and Sam Smith that continues to have staying power in album sales. Swift has been in the Billboard Top 10 for 35 straight weeks, and it appears she’s averaged out at position #2 for that whole time, so we might as well call it a year. She’s reaching 2011-2013 Adele levels of world domination, though Adele was in the top 10 for a total of 80 straight weeks, so T-Swift’s still got a long ways to go. But considering she’s still in the top 5 after 9 months, we might as well call it a year. Pack it in, music industry. Taylor’s won. The next five albums may as well function as my Top 5 for the whole year. Seeya in 2016, pop music. Bye.

Albums

bestsofar01Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color: Alabama Shakes’s Boys & Girls was a perfect slice of a beach party, mixing the pathos of the blues with the chill of surf rock. Sound & Color is what happens when the bonfire gets out of control. Even if rock as we knew it is basically dead, on Sound & Color Alabama Shakes have delivered an explosion of the genre at its best.

bestsofar02Jimmy Needham, Vice & VirtueBefore this year, you’d be forgiven for thinking Jimmy Needham was soft. Speak, his bitingly blunt debut album, was released way back in 2006, so it was easy to forget how lovingly rebuking his songs could be. After the funky Vice, you won’t mistake him for anything but hardened by the ravages of sin and emboldened by the mercy of the empty tomb.

bestsofar03Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly: With great expectations comes great responsibility, and Kendrick has more than lived up to his end. Expectations were sky high after the cinematic good kidButterfly rocketed past them as very personal and yet somehow universal.

bestsofar04Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & LowellWe’re fifteen years into Sufjan’s career, ten years removed from Illinois, and five from Age of Adz. We’ve gotten scads of Christmas EPs and a symphonic meditation on a highway. And Carrie & Lowell is the first time I feel like I’ve seen the real Sufjan.

bestsofar05The Tallest Man on Earth, Dark Bird Is HomeMaking changes to one’s sound is always risky, and the breakup album seems like the most volatile time to make an attempt. But that’s exactly the hill Kristian Matsson determined to climb with Dark Bird. He expanded his sound from provincial folk to play around the edges of synth-rock, all in the name of purging his demons.

Songs

Fetty Wap, “Trap Queen”: That Furious 7 song will probably earn “Song of the Summer” honors at the end of August, but as far as I’m concerned, “Trap Queen” is the Song of the Spring, Summer, Winter and Fall.

Kendrick Lamar, “i [Album Version]”: The version of “i” that Kendrick Lamar was great enough, but the song that appears on the album sounds like a cherished bootleg copy with an added verse that functions as the epiphany of the whole brilliant record.

Sufjan Stevens, “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”: Sufjan has penned beautiful acoustic folk songs before, but none have ever had the emotional power of this single about dealing with his mother’s death.

The Tallest Man on Earth, “Sagres”: The warmest song Matsson has released to date; it’s also his most vulnerable, as he ponders whether hope is really worth it.

The Weather Station, “Way It Is, Way It Could Be”: A simple song, to be sure, but it’s haunted me more than any other this year.

Most Anticipated Albums of (the rest of) 2015

Gungor, One Wild Life: Soul (8/7): The eclectic band is releasing three new albums soon, the first of which is One Wild Life: Soul and is hopefully going to move in a more solid direction after 2013’s scattered I Am Mountain.

Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free (7/17): This will be the best songwriter in alt-country’s second album as a sober man, and arrives in anticipation of his first child with wife Amanda Shires, who will appear on the album.

Joan Shelley, Over and Even (9/4): If Isbell is alt-country’s best songwriter, Shelley might just  be alt-folk’s.

Sara Groves, Floodplain (9/11): Groves has never released an album I haven’t loved, and I don’t expect Floodplain to break that streak.

Titus Andronicus, The Most Lamentable Tragedy (7/31): This will definitely be the best five-act rock opera of the year.

Song of the (Retro) Hour: “Into the Mystic” by Van Morrison

I’m out of town, so I won’t be able to keep up with current music. I thought it’d be fun to do some old songs ahead of time.

Van Morrison is one of our strangest living legends. His greatest claim to fame is a whimsical pop song about a girl with brown eyes, and yet the vast majority of his art is mystical in nature, leaning heavily on Celtic music and surreal imagery. “Into the Mystic” might be the most Van Morrison song he ever made, evoking metaphors both spiritual and nautical to convey essential about the magnetism of desire. Morrison has a tendency to meander, even in some of his best music, but “Into the Mystic” is gloriously simple: there’s something magically unexplainable about love.