Big Little (Ant-Man and the Wasp, 2018)

Ant_Man_Wasp_PosterWe last saw Ant-Man in prison with the other heroes who sided with Cap in Civil War. People noticed that he was absent from all the Infinity War promotions, and while Infinity War gave a quick explanation of where he and Hawkeye were, Ant-Man and the Wasp gives us the “full story”. With days to go on his house arrest, Scott Lang has been out of contact with Hank Pym and Hope Van Dyne for months, having parted on less than good terms as he stole the costume for his role in Civil War.

Hank and Hope have renewed hope that Janet Van Dyne (believed lost in the Quantum realm) may be alive.  They are working in secret to locate her. When one of their experiments coincides with a crazy dream of Scotts, the three are brought back together to try and rescue her. But it is not as simple as they hope, as they are in competition with underground arms dealer Sonny Burch and a mysterious villain called Ghost. Ghost is trying to get the Pym lab because she has phasing powers, but cannot control them. Add to this being hunted by the FBI, rescuing Janet may not be as easy as they hoped.

The film is more focused on Hank and Hope, with Scott brought along somewhat unwillingly, but I found this worked okay. The first film had a running joke about how Hope was far more competent a super-hero, but never got to wear the suit. This film gives us a lot of Wasp action, and it is a whole lot of fun to watch. Scott gets some solid action of course as well, and he even gets a few opportunities to really show his cleverness (a FBI breakout sequence calls back to a scene in the first film, but flips the roles).

Rudd is as goofily charming as in the first film…and Michael Peña is hilarious (even though they only give us one of his elaborate stories). The return of Judy Greer and Bobby Cannaval is welcome.  I really like that the relationship between Cannaval’s Paxton and Scott is not some sort of rivalry over their shared family. Instead, Paxton seems to want the best for Scott and genuinely like him.

The film has some genuinely touching moments with Scott and his daughter Cassie. A wise kid who looks up to her dad and wants to be his sidekick.

The story works very organically, the things that bring the first film’s cast together makes sense (Scott, Luis and their team of ex-cons now have a security business to help businesses avoid being hit by folks like…well, themselves).

The first Ant-Man was a surprising film and a welcome relief to the trend of telling bigger and bigger stories in the solo Marvel films. Ant-Man and the Wasp carries the fun over, building on it’s small scale mythology (the post credit scene ties it to Infinity War).  Ant-Man and the Wasp is a pretty worthy sequel and a lot of fun to watch.

 

A Battling We Will Go (The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, 2014)

The_Hobbit_Battle_PosterThe Battle of the Five Armies is a very long and busy film. From it’s opening moments, it is all about trying to out do Return of the king.  Dragon fights! Giant battles against orcs! Wizard Battles!

Bilbo and the Dwarves had failed to stop Smaug who attacks Lake Town.  As the citizens try and escape his wrath, the Bard seeks to fulfill his family’s promise and slay Smaug. After ending Smaug, the citizens make their way to the ruins outside the the mountain fortress of the Dwarves.

Thranduil arrives with an elven army to reclaim what he feels the elves are owed by the dwarves.  However, Thorin becomes obsessed with finding the Arkenstone.  To make matters worse, he seems to be falling pray to paranoia.  Unknown to the dwarves, Bilbo has found the stone. Concerned that Thorin is being spiritually poisoned by his obsession, he slips out to give the stone to the Bard as a bargaining chip.   This only makes matters worse.

Eventually, the armies must unite against the armies of orcs and other evil that sets upon the mountain. This culminates in a battle royale between Oakenshield and Azog.

The Battle of the Five Armies is really a culmination of the desire to recreate the Lord of the Rings.  The changes of the first Hobbit were not really needed, but mostly harmless.  But the snowball started in the Desolation of Smaug. And here, the battle is the focus.  And everything is gigantic. It consumes a large part of the time, and it gets kind of confusing.  And everybody starts to blur together.

So many things feel like calls back to the Lord of the Rings.  And granted, this is a prequel to those films.  The book the Hobbit came before the Lord of the Rings books. But the films are a prequel.  And it is expected to see some loose connections.  But here, it feels like nothing can stand as it’s own.

This all makes for a rather disappointing final.  I did not hate the movie, but I don’t think it comes close to, say, Jackson’s very flawed but still well done King King. The flaws make the good stuff harder to enjoy here.

I don’t hate these movies quite as much as some.  This may in part be due to the fact that I don’t have a real tight connection to the series.  I did not read the Lord of the Rings books until after I saw the films, as I was nearing thirty.  I did not read the Hobbit until after I started watching the films in 2012. So, I never entered the films with presumptions of what I would see, beyond vague memories of the Rankin Bass cartoon from the late 1970’s.

But unlike the Lord of the Rings films, I do not feel the strengths overcome the flaws.  And so the Hobbit trilogy is nowhere near as satisfying a watch as the Lord of the Rings films.

A Desolationing We Will Go (The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, 2013)

The_Hobbit_Desolation_PosterThe film picks up with Bilbo, Thorin and their band of Dwarves on the run from Azog’s orcs.  They find themselves appearing to be hunted by a very large bear.  Gandalf promises they are near the home of a man who might help them with safety.  They rush, chased by the bear until they reach a remote home.

Once inside, Gandalf explains that the bear is actually the man they are trying to reach.  Beorn is a shapeshifter who is also mistrustful of dwarves, so Gandalf cooks up a plan to slowly reveal them to Beorn.

Once on their way, they find themselves facing giant spiders and elves, eventually reaching Laketown, near the mountain fortress they seek. Initially, Laketown presents an obstacle, but Thorin promises to share the riches of the mountain if they allow them passage and provide some weapons.  Of course, most of the citizens being poor and desperate, it is not a hard sell.  And the mayor is a greedy man who figures if they succeed he reaps the reward and if they get eaten by Smaug they are out of his hair.

Meanwhile, Gandalf has gone to find and confront the Necromancer, a dark being that is an impending threat to Middle Earth.

Once they reach the mountain and find the secret entrance, it falls to Bilbo to slip inside and see if he can locate the Arkenstone.  This turns out to be like looking for a needle in a haystack, as there are jewels and gold coins everywhere. Bilbo must outwit Smaug, who is wakened by the presence of Bilbo.

The Desolation of Smaug is the first of the three films to start really padding on story.  And this drags the film as a whole down.  There are some great sequences, and the Smaug sequence itself is pretty nicely done.  But the film also adds in completely unnecessary subplots like a love triangle. The film includes Legolas, whose father is the Elvenking Thranduil, as a link to the Lord of the Rings films.  Legolas did not appear in the book, though as he is the son of Thranduil, it is not an unreasonable addition.

The filmmakers felt it would be good to add a female cast member in some of the action scenes.  They created Tauriel, a young and skilled elven warrior.  Portrayed by Evangeline Lilly, she is a tough adventurer. Even as additions go, the character herself is not a problem.  I like Tauriel. However, Lilly agreed to take the role as long as her character was not in a love triangle. She was assured this was not going to be the case.  So the film has her being sought by both Legolas and the dwarf  Kili. It feels like they really wanted the Kili and Tauriel aspect be a callback to Aragorn and Arwen.  And while they introduce it as a love triangle, it is entirely pointless.  It is not a source of real conflict.  Legolas could have gone to her side simply as a friend, not out of romantic desire.  It is clear the film wants to focus on her and Kili.  And that is perfectly fine, and would have improved the sub-plot had they dumped the “triangle” part.

Honestly, the inclusion of the Necromancer stuff (none of which comes from the Hobbit, it is referenced in the Lord of the Rings appendices) is more to make the audience get those “Lord of the Rings” vibes. It does not enhance the story or threat…and it feels wholly unconnected to the main story.

Smaug looks great, and Cumberbacht’s voice performance is good stuff. The visuals are great.  I still enjoy the performances, I actually like a lot of the charcters…and yet?

Story suffers from bloat. When it drags along? It reaaaaally drags.

How to Be a Dad (Little Evil, 2017)

little_evil_posterGary’s life seems to be going pretty good.  He just married his dream girl Samantha and he is working to get to know his new stepson Lucas.  Lucas is a special child.  As in, he is the spawn of Satan.

Gary does not, of course, accept this right away.  But mysterious events and death seem to give signs that Lucas is not all right.  Little Evil is a comedy brought to us by the same guy who made Tucker & Dale vs Evil.  That film was a funny send-up of  slasher films ranging from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre to the Wrong Turn franchise.

One might question where the humor is in the religious horror of satanic kids…but writer and director Eli Craig finds the spot where they can intersect.  Ans as with his previous film, does so with some sweetness and heart.

After an Omen-like incident at school, Lucas and Gary are sent to counseling.  For Gary, this means a support group for fathers (which is attended by his friend Al…a lesbian struggling with her stepson’s lack of athletic ability).  There, he is initially assured that these types of things are normal.  But as deeper research finds, there is a lot of tragedy that seems to follow Lucas.  And so Gary struggles to find a way to stop the son of Satan.

The cast is a strong comedic group.  Led by Adam Scott (Parks and Rec) the character  of Gary remains largely sympathetic throughout the film, which is important for those moments when he “veers off the path of good parenting”.  Bridget Everett’s Al could have stayed in it’s “Butch Lesbian” stereotype lane…but she brings such an exuberance to the character that Al stands out and of course, brings plenty of humor.  Evangeline Lilly (Ant Man and Lost) has a role that could get overshadowed, but she brings the appropriate heart to the role.

Little Evil is a lot of fun, though it does not quite reach the levels of insanity of Tucker & Dale Vs Evil.  This is partly due to the narrow nature.  They are really parodying the Omen here.  Unlike Tucker and Dale, where there was an homage a minute to some slasher film, Little Evil is more restrained.

If you liked Tucker and Dale, you will more than likely enjoy Little Evil.  And I would dare say that as long as the subject matter does not make one too uncomfortable? Non-horror fans may enjoy it as well.  The film has not gory, and the visuals are not terribly frightening.  Afterall, the goal here is not scares.  It is laughs and maybe a bit of sentimentality.

It’s the Little Things (Ant-Man, 2015)

ant_man_posterAnt-Man is the 12th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  It has been the source of multiple controversies.  It was not always meant to be a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, instead it was the pet project of Edgar Wright.  With Iron Man, Marvel Studios birthed their cinematic universe, and slowly started to wrangle Ant-Man in.  When Marvel announced actor Paul Rudd, it got a shot in the arm.  Eventually Wright and Marvel hit an impasse.  Wright left the project and people got nervous about Ant-Man.  Although a founding Avenger in the comics, many questioned the point of a character seen as fairly obscure outside of comic circles.  But Marvel was determined to make the film, hiring director Peyton Reed (Down With Love, Bring It On).

The film we have gotten is not necessarily what we would have gotten from Edgar Wright.  But that does not make what we got a bad offering.  The fears that we were getting the first official MCU bomb have not come true.

The film is the story of criminal Scott Lang (Paul Rudd).  He was a skilled burglar who exposed a corporation screwing over it’s customers and is now recently released.  His hopes of being a part of his daughter Cassie’s life are quickly dashed, as his ex-wife (Judy Greer-underused again) set strict rules before he can re-enter Cassie’s life.

ant_man_leapRunning parallel is the story of  Hank (Michael Douglas) and Hope (Evangeline Lilly) Pym.  Hank has spent 20 years trying to protect Pym Particles from falling into anyone’s hands and it strained his relationship with his daughter Hope.  Hope felt abandoned at a time when she probably needed Hank the most-the death of his wife and her mother Janet.

The strong points of the film are that it stays mostly in it’s own grounds.  There is an obligatory Avengers crossover, and we know Hank used to work for S.H.I.E.L.D.  But it is mostly background.  This is smaller scale, no universe/planet saving.  In fact, it is more of a traditional heist film where they added the element of super-heroics.  The final battle takes place in a little girl’s room.  The only world at stake in that moment is Scott’s.  After so many “bigger” Marvel films, the smallness of the film is pretty refreshing.

The cast is terrific, with Michael Peña‘s Luis being a real highlight.  He is solid and enjoyable comic relief.  It is a nice touch that he is not inept, simply excitable.  I liked Evangeline Lily’s Hope, and even felt Douglas made Hank’s adamant refusal to allow her to don the Ant-Man costume made sense.

The miniature effects look great, and Reed makes the best of the moments.

At the same time, the film seemed to take short cuts.  We never really see when Corey Stoll’s Darren Cross shift from ambitious business man to psycho villain.  It just happens.  While understandable why Hank opposes it, the idea that Hope never dons an outfit as the Wasp in the film?  Disappointing.

ant_man_lillyAnother controversy (which proves true in the final film) was “fridging” the original Wasp*.  We never see much of her, she is hidden behind a mask.  Between this and the lack of Lilly getting to be the Wasp left me wanting a bit more from the film.

The final work is still strong, with likable characters, fun adventure and great humor.

ant_man_yellow*”Fridging” is the term for storytelling where a female character is killed on or off screen for the sole benefit of the lead (usually male) character.

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