Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Safe (1995)

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Usually, when a great movie I hadn’t seen before is picked for Hit Me With Your Best Shot, I thank blogger extraordinaire Nathaniel Rogers for giving me the perfect excuse to finally catch up with it. However this time, because I’m doing my own 1995 Project, I was already going to watch Todd Haynes’s Safe no matter what, so instead, I will complain to Nathaniel for picking one of the best directed and photographed movies I have ever seen. How the hell am I supposed to pick just one shot from this masterpiece of a movie?

Not only is practically every shot in Safe as beautiful as you could ask it to be, but they are also essential to the movie’s message. As far as the art of cinematography is concerned, I don’t think you can ask for more than a beautiful looking movie whose photography is carefully designed to enhance the message of the plot. On that note, kudos to DP Alex Nepomniaschy for helping Haynes in crafting one of the greatest movies of the nineties.

The precise beauty of the compositions, and mostly static camera give away the bigger metaphors of the plot. Julianne Moore stars in one of the best performances of her career as Carol White, a L.A. housewife who starts to believe she is allergic to her surroundings. The fact that every shot in the movie is as beautiful as to be framed makes us aware of the screen as a canvas, a box. Thus, the frame becomes a symbol for Carol’s imprisonment. She is trapped in a sterile world as meticulously designed as the photography of the movie.

On that note, my pick for best shot is a very literal representation of this metaphor. Carol thinks she will find a cure to her ailments in a remote New Mexico commune. She is overwhelmed on the day she arrives, so she ends the day retiring to her cabin and crying her heart out. With time, she will start to believe that this facility is giving her the freedom and health that her previous life was lacking, but in this crying moment, the movie gives us a hint of the true nature of this “salvation”.

Haynes and Nepomniaschy put all of the cabin in frame. Seeing Carol cry inside is like seeing her in a prison. She’s come to regain her freedom, her health, her sanity, but she is just entering another box. Safe has a number of moments of heavy symbolism like this, and in that sense, it reminds me of Mad Men. Both use very obvious symbolism in the sense that is easy to spot what elements of the narrative are meant to be allegorical, while the meaning of the symbols is much more complex. It’s a mix between clarity and opaqueness that I enjoy. That’s why Mad Men is my favorite tv show of all time, and Safe one of the best movies I’ve ever seen.

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1995 Project: Short Review Round-Up

Toy Story

Busy times prevent me form writing full-length reviews, but the 1995 Project continues with a round-up of quick thoughts on what I’ve been watching this last couple weeks…

Get Shorty (Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld)
As the great Nick Davis pointed out in the last Film Experience Podcast, this movie has been kind of forgotten. Back then, it was part of the Pulp Fiction-fueled John Travolta resurgence (the “Travoltassance” is it happened today). He even won the Golden Globe for his performance as gangster-turned-Hollywood-producer Chili Palmer. And it was a very deserving win too. Chili is such a fantasy of cool that I commend Travolta for making him an actually interesting and entertaining character to watch. The supporting cast is also pretty amazing. Danny DeVito, Delroy Lindo, Dennis Farina, James Gandolfini, and Gene Hackman very amusingly playing against type. As far as Hollywood satires go, this owes a lot and isn’t as subversive as The Playerbut it’s a very solid and entertaining movie nonetheless.

Mighty Aphrodite (Directed by Woody Allen)
This is one of Woody’s weaker films. It’s one of those that it’s too slight to be interesting, and not funny enough to make up for it with endless laughs. Woody is married to Helena Bonham Carter (in a non-role) and is curious to meet the biological mother of his adopted child, who turns out to be a fiery prostitute played by Mira Sorvino. The movie’s biggest weakness is how focused it is on the Allen character and his personal neurosis, which in this case, is not only ver uninteresting, but doesn’t have other strong characters or story-lines to bounce off of. Sorvino is amusing as an optimistic “dumb blonde”, but this is still Woody at his most condescending and uninventive.

Apollo 13 (Directed by Ron Howard)
The movie that was supposed to win Best Picture until it didn’t, Apollo 13 is still the best movie Ron Howard has ever made. I know this statement sounds like faint praise, but this is actually a really good movie. A couple years ago Rush reminded us that he can be a strong journeyman director when he wants to, and he has never had better material to work with than he does here. Hanks, Paxton, Bacon, Sinise, and Harris make up as charismatic an ensemble as the mid-90s can provide. It’s a straight forward movie about men working hard to solve problems during a mission, but a solid screenplay aided by solid performances, editing, sound design, and direction goes a long way.

Nixon (Directed by Oliver Stone)
If you want ambition, search no further. At three hours long, Stone’s portrait of the most infamous President in United States History doesn’t hit every pitch out of the park (I’m talking about Bob Hoskins as Hoover, for example), but is constantly shooting for the fences, and scores a surprising amount of home runs. The biggest draw for me is Anthony Hopkins’s performance, who lands right in the middle between his subtler and hammier performances is what is no mere mimicry, but a full interpretation of the character. In fact, everything in Stone’s movie is symbolic and interpretative. People say it’s a surprisingly humane portrayal of Nixon coming from such a strong political figure as Stone, but the movie also proposes “Tricky Dick” as the defining figure of America’s century, and as the key to understanding the rise and fall of the American Experiment. Thanks to the grandiose editing and eclectic cinematography that characterized this part of the director’s career, Stone kind of succeeds.

Toy Story (Directed by John Lasseter)
Undoubtedly a historic movie. The first computer animated feature, it announced the rise of Pixar and its imitators just as the wheels of the Disney Renaissance were about to fall off. The level to which other animation formats have suffered, and the amount of shitty computer animation we have had to sit through, seem like enough of a negative impact to hold a grudge against Pixar. But no matter what Hollywood (and Lasseter) did on the eve of the movie’s success, it is just a fact that Toy Story is basically a perfect movie. Yes, the human (and dog) characters look primitive now, but this is a mighty fine looking movie for 1995. The animation, and most importantly, the characterization of Woody and Buzz hold up greatly, as does the cleverness of the script, the dedication of the animators, and the magical simplicity of a conceit that taps into one of the most fundamental questions of childhood: what do my toys do when I’m not around? Yes, this is basically just a buddy movie, but it might as well the best in the genre. Toy Story is the definition of a classic.

75 Years Ago: ‘A Wild Hare’ and the Legacy of Bugs Bunny

A Wild Hare

Like I did earlier this year when I wrote about the legacy of Tom and JerryI would like to take the occasion of the 75th Anniversary of Bug Bunny to talk about one of the most influential and popular cartoon characters that have ever existed.

I’ll disclaim my bias upfront: Bugs Bunny is my favorite, and has been for as long as I can remember. I’m, of course, not alone on the opinion that he is a great character. Unlike Tom and Jerrywho were enormously popular but enjoy relatively little critical respect today, Bugs’s legacy only seems to improve with age. Animation fans and scholars will recognize Chuck Jones as one of the biggest geniuses of the genre, and his work with the character in shorts like What’s Opera, Doc? and the Hunting Trilogy are regarded as some of the best animated film ever made.

Also unlike Tom and Jerry, who definitely appeared for the first time in 1940’s Puss Gets the Boot, Bugs’s 75th Anniversary could be the source of some dispute. A Wild Hare, directed by Tex Avery and released on July 27th, 1940, is regarded as the first “official” appearance of the character, for it is the first short that features a rabbit that we can unambiguously recognize as the Bug Bunny. Before that, Warner Bros. animators -particularly Ben Hardaway and Cal Dalton- had been experimenting with a rabbit character as far back as 1938, when a hyperactive rabbit terrorized Porky Pig in Porky’s Hare Hunt.

It wasn’t until A Wild Hare, however, that Mel Blanc -who had voiced the rabbit in his previous appearances- adopted a sardonic Bronx accent and the iconic “Eh, what’s up, doc?” that we associate with the character. Bug’s design would still go through some significant changes up until the fifties, and he wouldn’t be identified as “Bugs Bunny” on screen until the following year’s Elmer’s Pet Rabbitbut this 1940 short solidified the personality of the character that America -and the world- would fall in love with.

The impact of Bugs Bunny in the culture is unarguable. Not only did he become a company mascot for Warner Bros., but he became the first cartoon character to be portrayed in a U.S. postal stamp, he was the star of the first animated short to be inducted in the National Film Registry (What’s Opera, Doc? in 1992), and he became the second cartoon character to be awarded a star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame after, of course, Mickey Mouse.

As a corporate mascot, he hasn’t been as protected as Mickey. The most significant difference is the fact that corporate partnership hasn’t drained Bugs of his original mischievous personality. While some of his later career appearances can be a little tame compared to the classics, he is still easily recognizable as the same character. Alternatively, compare a contemporary depiction of Mickey Mouse to his debut in Steamboat Willie and you will see two similarly designed, but completely different characters as far as their psychology is concerned.

For this consistency of character we most likely have to thank Chuck Jones, who directed the character in his most iconic appearances, and his strict method of production. While Jones is celebrated for the wacky imaginative comedy of his shorts, he understood that the character he was working with worked best under a strict set of rules that defined their personalities and the way they would behave. He was probably responsible for making sure we would forever remember Bugs as a laid-back, cool, and smart character who, once provoked or put in danger, won’t stop until he proves how much smarter he is than anyone who is tormenting him at a given moment.

While Jones perfected the image of Bugs, and probably put the rules of his personality in writing, he most likely derived his understanding of the character from his early appearances. Tex Avery’s work with the character were the shorts that gave Bugs his initial popularity, and A Wild Hare, for example, already defined him as smart -in a sarcastic kind of way- and essentially pacifist. A lot of the responsibility for the character’s defining traits, of course, must also be given to Mel Blanc, who was there since the beginning and whose vocal performance must undoubtedly influenced the animators.

So, if you have any attachment to the character or the history of animation, why not celebrate by taking a look at some of his greatest moments? You can start with the “Hunting Trilogy” -made up by Rabbit Fire, Rabbit Seasoningand Duck! Rabbit! Duck!– which features the quintessential triangular conflict between Bugs, Daffy Duck, and Elmer Fudd. Continue with the musically-inclined shorts, which are some of my favorites: Long-Haired Hare which features Bugs as a conductor, Rabbit of Seville, and, of course, the monumental achievement that is What’s Opera, Doc? After that, take you pick. There are so many shorts to choose from, and something worth re-discovering in most of them. If you want more suggestions, you can check out the recommendations at the end of this essay by Tim Brayton, and I would also recommend checking out the video essay below on the work of Chuck Jones by the great Tony Zhou.

Happy birthday, Bugs!

Ashes to Ashes: A Review of Christian Petzold’s ‘Phoenix’

PHOENIX

How is it possible that other than the Village Voice‘s always insightful Stephanie Zacharek, practically none of the best film critics have recognized Christian Petzold’s Phoenix as the masterpiece it is?

Years of middlebrow movies shamelessly mining the horrors of the Holocaust to win awards have made it seem like there is no point in revisiting the subject, but Petzold’s film works as an alarm clock awakening us from the nap induces by these prestige pictures, and framing the infinite loss of one of humanity’s darkest hour within the mythical conventions of cinema. The less elegant way to say this is that Phoenix is a movie that doesn’t announce itself as anything other than a melodramatic thriller, and is all the more devastating for it.

This is the story of Nelly (Nina Hoss), a concentration camp survivor who, once the war is over, tries to reunite with her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). But it’s not so simple. While she was at the camps, Nelly was shot in the face and left for dead by the Nazis. She survived, but was severely disfigured. Reconstructive surgery gave her a new face, but one that she doesn’t recognize as her own, and once she finally finds her husband working at the “Phoenix” night club, neither does he. “You remind me of someone I knew” says Johnny. He has a plan. He asks this strange woman to impersonate his wife so that he can claim her inheritance.

As the movie goes on, it becomes less believable that Johnny wouldn’t realize this woman is his wife, and it’s then that one begins to understand the movie as a parable. We’re not in the realm of reality, we’re in the realm of movies. Petzold had already given us clues of his intent. The cinematography, stark light and shadow reminiscent of film noir, the swelling score, the movie’s own pulpy premise, they make Phoenix not a realistic depiction of post-war Germany, but a representation of the country’s (and the world’s) consciousness.

Nelly has risen from the ashes like a phoenix, but an equally appropriate classical allusion is that she, and the world around her, have stepped out of Plato’s cave. The horror of the Holocaust has forced the world to encounter the darkest side of human nature. Germany is recovering, and the world is pretending they can go back in the cave and look up to the shadowy projected ideals of the past, but the damage is done.

This is where the movie’s third character shows her importance. Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) is Nelly’s friend. She is the one who brought her back home from the camp, she stood beside her during her surgery, and she houses her while she recovers. She also suggests they should go away and start a new life in Palestine. She’s sick of the way everyone pretends things can go back to normal. She wants the virgin opportunity of the promised land. “Maybe then we can sing and hear German songs again”, she says.

But Nelly doesn’t want to go away. She doesn’t even identify as jewish. She wants to find her husband, the pianist that played alongside her back when she was a cabaret singer. She looks in the mirror and is horrified. She wants her face back. That, of course, is impossible. Before her surgery she asks her doctor to make her look like before. He says that’s not a good idea. It’s impossible to make her look exactly like she did before, and what’s more, there are advantages to having a different face.

The truth is that Nelly despises her new face. She searches for the happiness that seems to have disappeared from the world, but can’t possibly be attained. In Phoenix’s haunting final scene, we realize alongside Nelly that life has lost its meaning. The indifference of tragedy is overwhelming. The survivor can’t go back to the life of the past because it never existed. At the same time, the reconciled future is only play acting.

It is all there in the song “Speak Low”, which plays a couple times during the movie, “we’re late, darling, we’re late… everything ends too soon, too soon”. Where can we turn, when the dream of humanity has finally been broken?

9 out of 10 (I’m tempted to go for the 10, but I think I will need some time just to be sure)

Notes On the Politics of Authorship and Expectations in Judd Apatow and Amy Schumer’s ‘Trainwreck’

Trainwreck

I saw Trainwreck on Monday. The movie had only been out since Friday, but in the age of Twitter, that seemed like an eternity. Like coming especially late to a party everyone has strong feelings about. Which is funny, because my feelings towards Trainwreck aren’t particularly strong in any way. It was an often very funny movie that was otherwise quite messy and shapeless. You know, what you’d expect from a Judd Apatow movie… which brings me to what I actually wanted to write about.

The auteur theory has taught us that the director is the author, which is to say the strongest creative voice, of a movie. It’s basically the reason why it’s acceptable to refer to “Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds“, but saying “Tom Cruise’s War of the Worlds” can easily result in some raised eyebrows. In the case of Trainwreck, however, the fight for authorship has been strong. Not that the people who made the movie (Apatow and actor/writer Amy Schumer) were fighting over who gets credit for what, but more like audiences were fighting for who gets credit for a movie they were excited to see.

The adds for Trainwreck publicize it as “from the guy who brought you Bridesmaids” (which is in and on itself kind of problematic phrasing, since Paul Feig directed Bridesmaids and Apatow was *only* a producer). Cinephiles, however, were mostly looking forward to it as an Amy Schumer movie.

The reason for this is based mostly on popularity. Apatow might have been one of the defining comedic voices of the aughts, but he peaked early, hadn’t directed a hit in years, and practically everyone agrees that his last movie, This is 40was a creative disaster. Schumer’s star, on the other hand, is on the rise. Actually, it is skyrocketing to the top as she gets rave reviews for her Comedy Central show and is nominated for Primetime Emmy Awards.

These are two very strong, but not necessarily compatible comedic voices. Apatow made his mark with the kind of manchild-grows-up comedies that most people are tired of today, while the brand of subversively feminist comedy found in Schumer’s show seems tailor-made for the internet’s hip-progressive discourse. Most people saw this as Apatow stepping down from his pedestal as the king of comedy and inviting a unique, younger, female voice to the podium (not unlike he did executive producing Lena Dunham’s Girls for HBO).

This is when expectations come in.

The best sketches in Inside Amy Schumer are so brilliant that they already had set an incredibly high bar for Trainwreck to jump over. Still, I think the most disappointing part of the whole enterprise was the fact that the movie featured virtually none of the subversive humor Schumer has been so widely praised for, and instead feels very much like your typical Apatow movie, except with a female protagonist.

From a filmmaking stand-point Trainwreck suffers from all the ailments of Apatow’s work as a director. The movie is long and unfocused. The improvisational style results in scenes that go for much longer than is acceptable. There are many sub-plots that go nowhere and characters that are played by recognizable talented actors that have little to nothing to do. It’s messy and inelegant, and at the end, one isn’t so sure that this particular story needed this much movie. Whether these problems come from Schumer’s script, Apatow’s directing, or the editing cannot be said with certainty. But the problems are there, and Trainwreck shares them with Apatow’s previous work.

That being said, the movie is often very funny, and almost always very watchable. Like most Apatow movie, it gains a lot of life from the core performances. In this case, the stars are a charismatic Schumer, an invaluably charming Bill Hader as her romantic interest, and, surprisingly enough, Lebron James in a surprisingly hilarious supporting performance. This is all to say that the fact that Trainwreck is more of what we’ve gotten from Apatow in the past isn’t a tragedy. It makes for a pretty fine movie.

People who were disappointed by this being an Apatow movie tend to just shrug it off and accept it for what it is. The most vocal detractors of the movie are those who were disappointed because they feel like the movie betrayed the way they understood Amy Schumer as a performer and comedian. Not only because the movie wasn’t nearly as incendiary as Schumer’s television show, but because it seemed to sport an outright contradictory philosophy to her usual comedy.

I must admit that can see where these people are coming from. Like in most Apatow films, Schumer’s character in the movie leaves behind her years as a reckless party girl to embrace the comfort and pleasures of traditional love and monogamy. I don’t have any inherent complaints towards this message, but the way it is presented makes Trainwreck seem like an unexpectedly conservative movie.

It starts with the fact that Schumer’s character is not that much of a “trainwreck” to begin with. Sure, she sleeps around, parties, and smokes weed to the determent of her romantic relationships, but that isn’t much of a big deal. The bar for toxic behavior by a female character was set pretty high by the very dark Young Adult, and this movie doesn’t really come close. The protagonist of Trainwreck is still the smartest and sanest person in her office, and she has pretty healthy relationships with her father and sister. If anything, the character’s most problematic behavior seems to be the apologetic stance she takes towards her and her father’s casual racism.

At the end of the movie, the character is “fixed” by getting together with the sensible doctor played by Bill Hader. Being in a monogamous, loving relationship is just what she needed. And it’s hard to argue that it seems like they’re a good match and it’s worth it for Amy to try and make the relationship work, but like I said, she didn’t seem like a particularly nasty person. What’s more, her most noxious behavior -the casual racism- is not only not addressed, but kind of forgiven when she gives a eulogy in which she says her father was a racist, offensive person, but also kind of the best guy she ever met.

Closing with monogamy and shrugging off racism seems like a shockingly conservative way to end the big screen debut of one of the most visible voices of liberal feminism. Although I suspect that part of this is due to Apatow’s liabilities as a filmmaker. His lack of focus seems to make him lose track of character, plot, and theme, so much so that his movies end up reading in a way he didn’t intend at all. Either that, or he was trying to put forward some very conservative politics.

And in case you were wondering, I’d probably give Trainwreck either a six out of ten.

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: The MTV Video Music Awards

In this episode of Hit Me With Your Best Shot, our dear host Nathaniel throws us a curve-ball, and instead of watching our regular movie, he makes us pick our favorite shot from the five music videos nominated for Best Cinematography at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards.

Despite having been created to highlight the music, music videos are more often than not built entirely around visuals, which makes it kind of hard to determine exactly what the VMAs consider to be good cinematography. The “Video of the Year” category seems to be reserved for the most popular and successful songs, and the “Best Director” for the videos with the more impressive or unique visual styles. Judging by this set of nominees, I think the VMAs are approaching cinematography mostly from a lighting perspective.

Anyway, here are the nominees, and my picks:

FKA Twigs – “Two Weeks” (Photographed by Justin Brown)
Being that this video is made of basically one continuous and fairly static shot (the camera just slowly zooms out for the duration of the song), and given the fact that its Egyptian composition was most likely achieved mainly through computer effects, it find it very weird that it was nominated for a cinematography award. One could see the lighting of the different “characters” in it as the achievement, but even then the green-screen work is pretty obvious. It was also very hard to pick a favorite shot, since the video only has one of those, but my favorite moment is when a little FKA Twigs drinks water that’s bizarrely flowing from the main big FKA Twigs’s fingertip.Screen shot 2015-07-21 at 9.35.17 p.m.

Flying Lotus feat. Kendrick Lamar – “Never Catch Me” (Photographed by Larkin Sieple)
“Never Catch Me” is not only the best video of this bunch, but also features the best cinematography job. Especially if we focus on lighting as much as the VMAs seem to be doing. This is actually a pretty great video, so I’ll let it speak for itself. It’s all built around one subversively fantastic conceit, my favorite moment of which is the surprise of the first visual of the two little kids stepping out of their coffins and dancing in the middle of the funeral.

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Ed Sheeran – “Thinking Out Loud” (Photographed by Daniel Pearl)
Forget the whole Taylor vs. Nicki feud, the real controversy should be the fact that this snooze-fest somehow got nominated for Video of the Year. This one is not just one take, but it is confined to one room, a conceit that seems to have cinematographer Daniel Pearl shooting from every possible camera angle in order to make things as dynamic as possible. I guess the appeal of the video is seeing Ed Sheeran do an actual choreography, so kudos to him for pulling it off without major help from the editors. My pick from this video highlights the “reality” of the choreography, as we see how dirty the sole of the dancer’s foot is after dancing for a while.

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Taylor Swift feat. Kendrick Lamar – “Bad Blood” (Photographed by Christopher Probst)
And speaking of the Taylor vs. Nicki feud… The video for “Bad Blood” got a lot of publicity for having lots of celebrity cameos and expensive visual effects, but that’s pretty much all it has going for itself. It is a pretty bad video that plays on scenes and tropes that we’ve seen in recent action and science fiction movies but fails to become an eventful “narrative” video, it’s just a bunch of “cool” referential images one after the other. And as far as cinematography is concerned, it often looks pretty horrendous. I mean, look at this nightmare of a shot:

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The one thing I like about the video is the gag in which Taylor Swift is betrayed, falls from a roof seemingly dying by smashing into a parked car, and we cut to her body lying on top of the car and singing the song while looking directly at the camera.

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Alt-J – “Left Hand Free” (Photographed by Mike Simpson)
I’m only somewhat familiar with Alt-J’s previous album, and this song sounds very unlike it. This sounds more like a blues-y Black Keys type of band. This is just a video of people hanging out and doing dumb stuff like riding four wheelers and lighting up fireworks, so I’m assuming it got nominated for looking like a vintage home movie/instagram picture? I didn’t like it very much, so I just went with this cute picture of a swimming dog.

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You Know What Really Bugs Me? Insect Puns: A Review of Peyton Reid’s ‘Ant-Man’

Ant-Man

A Marvel movie will aways be a Marvel movie. At this point, it’s become pointless to expect, or even hope, that any of their production will ever feel particularly exciting or distinctive. Ant-Man carries the burden of having once been the beacon of hope for people who were wishing Marvel would use the unmitigated success of their movies to experiment and push the boundaries of blockbuster filmmaking, and not to secure the profits of what was becoming one of the most valuable entertainment brands.

At the time it was announced, Ant-Man was to be written and directed by no less of an auteur than Edgar Wright, the beloved British director known for his clever pop culture parodies and audacious commercial bombs. This was the moment of truth. One of the most successful and powerful cultural brands and one of the most distinctive directors in the world would collide, and we couldn’t wait to see what would remain of the two. But it was not to be.

Wright was famously and controversially taken off the project sometime before filming began, and replaced by director Peyton Reed (by no means a slouch, having directed movies as good as Bring It On and Down with Love), and thus, Ant-Man comes into cinemas with relatively muted enthusiasm from those who are sad Wright is no longer at the helm, and others who find Ant-Man to be anticlimactically places as the follow-up to the gigantic Avengers: Age of Ultron

Curiously enough, it’s the fact that Ant-Man is so reserved, compact, and modest when compared to most of the other Marvel movies that actually makes it better than your average Marvel movie. It would be foolish to pretend that the movie isn’t trapped by the limitations that the Marvel formula has forced upon its properties, and there is no denying that certain moments make one daydream about what Wright’s version would have been like, but there is a clever simplicity to Ant-Man that makes it stand out in the sea of Marvel’s lackluster product.

The plot of the movie is more similar to that of the first Iron Man than to any of the bigger movies Marvel has made since. Our hero is Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a Robin Hood-type cat burglar who has just come out of prison and is unable to find a job that will allow him to provide for his young daughter Cassie. Luckily for him, an eccentric millionaire and inventor named Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) has decided that Scott is the man he needs to pull off an elaborate heist that will prevent evil executive Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) from using Pym’s technology to arm the world with an army of miniature soldiers.

You see, Pym’s technology is a suit that allows people to shrink to miniature proportions while actually increasing their strength and power so they they become basically human bullets. Hence, the code-name Ant-Man, used by Pym back in the day when he used to be a secret agent for the government and inherited by Scott once he puts on the suit. On this note, the fact that Pym chooses Scott and not his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) as his successor will be frustrating for those of us who complain about Marvel’s lack of female heroes. The movie does promise Hope will put on the suit in the future, but we want our female superheroes now, thank you very much.

The focus on the one white male as the hero of the story is undoubtedly frustrating, but it is almost required when your movie’s story is going to play as safe as Ant-Man does. The plot is overwhelmingly familiar. It goes through the exact peaks and valleys that you would expect and comes out solid and predictable. It says a lot about how many times Marvel has subjected us to giant flying objects threatening to destroy a city that them going back to such familiar and low-stakes story-telling feels like a breath of fresh air.

This is partly because Ant-Man‘s pleasures are nowhere near its plot, but it in a couple key aspects of its execution. The first is the fact that the movie is very funny. Edgar Wright and collaborator Joe Cornish are still credited for the screenplay, alongside Adam McKay and star Paul Rudd, who did some re-writes after Wright left the project. Their material, paired up with Reid’s sense for comedy, do a lot to make the movie as swift and entertaining as possible. Instead of feeling like it’s trapped by its conventions, Ant-Man‘s comedy makes it feel liberated from the fact that it is a cog in a giant machine. It feels like just a movie.

Rudd’s laid-back style of comedy make him a pretty nice addition to the Marvel roster. He seems almost minimalistic when compared to the outsized personality of Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark or the winky goofiness of Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord. Years of working in comedy have allowed Rudd’s comedy to feel effortless, which makes us accept the fact that he will crack some jokes as a given, and not as an act. And even despite Rudd’s solid work, the comedic stand-out of the movie is Michael Peña, so funny as Rudd’s burglar friend that he should be the one to get a superhero franchise.

The other key aspect of Ant-Man‘s execution is, believe it or not, the visual effects. The blockbuster ethos is to always go bigger. To always fight more aliens, and always destroy more cities. By being a hero whose power is to become small, Ant-Man gleefully subverts superhero formula by destroying the model of a building instead of an actual skyscraper and setting its final battle in the a little girl’s bedroom instead of a floating city.

Even though the story is something we’ve seen a million times, the action sequences feel fresh by going into territory that is usually seen in animated film. These sequences, shot from the protagonist’s point of view feel like some of the more adventure-oriented moments of a movie like Toy Story or RatatouilleBecause there is Honey I Shrunk the Kidsbut otherwise, seeing a person deal with the dangers of being shrunk to insect proportions is not something we have seen a million times before.

Ant-Man is by no means a great movie, but it is so casually laid-back about its existence that it actually is fun to watch. I tend to advocate for more daring and innovative movies, even when they are not always successful, but sometimes I enjoy a movie just because it was well made and fun to watch, and I’m ok with that.

Grade: 7 out of 10