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Column Fri Jul 17 2015

Ant-Man, Trainwreck, Mr. Holmes & Tangerine

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Ant-Man

As I said in my review of Avengers: Age of Ultron, the way my assessment of Marvel's films of late seems to have fallen is that I love the material that is new and cares nothing for where we have been or where we are going in what we're all calling the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When the characters are addressing the danger in front of them or talking amongst themselves about issues relevant to the movie at hand (as opposed to several movies down the line), things tend to work. Lucky for us, the studio's latest effort Ant-Man was originally conceived as a stand-alone work by original writers Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish. Perhaps Marvel's attempts to integrate Ant-Man (the movie and the character) into the greater Marvel world were what drove Wright off the project (he and Cornish get a story credit and share writing credit with reworkers Adam McKay and the film's star, Paul Rudd), but the outside-world intrusions are minimal — limited mostly to a few lines of dialogue mentioning the Avengers, SHIELD and Hydra, as well as one beautifully placed mid-film showdown Ant-Man has with a known entity that will forever link him to the bigger world of superheroes (and of course, make sure to stick around until after the credits).

The greatest appeal of Ant-Man isn't its impressive special effects or its winning performances by Rudd as former burglar-turned-hero Scott Lang and Michael Douglas as his new mentor and original Ant-Man Hank Pym. What makes Ant-Man work is context. Following by just a couple of months Marvel's largest-scale production in Age of Ultron, it's refreshing and wholly entertaining to scale things back a bit and focus on a single story about a dangerous new technology that is on the verge of being put into the wrong hands. Being the last film in Marvel's so-called Phase 2 set of films, Ant-Man sets out to show us how even the ordinary guy — not a god, armored billionaire, super soldier, master assassins, or gamma-irradiated monster — can get pulled into the superhero world because it's all around us now. When Lang goes head to head with a familiar opponent, he isn't trying to hurt him; he's telling him what a big fan he is and how sorry he is to take him down with the help of his army of ants that he controls with his mind.

In this version of reality, superheroes, advanced technology and enhanced villains are fast becoming the status quo, and Lang is pulled (willingly, for the most part) into it by Pym. The film opens with a flashback to the 1980s, where it is clear that Pym lost his wife when they were playing heroes together, and now SHIELD is attempting to duplicate his famous Pym Particle tech that decreases the space between molecules, making an object or thing shrink to the size of an insect. Pym founded Pym Technologies and abruptly hid away the Ant-Man suit and related tech, but in the modern world, his former mentee Darren Cross (the great Corey Stoll, currently on "The Strain") is on the brink of creating his own version of the shrinking formula, which he will use in conjunction with a weaponized armor called the "Yellowjacket" suit and sell to the highest bidder.

Pym clandestinely selects the recently sprung Lang to break into his house and steal the Ant-Man suit, and eventually trains him to use it with the help of Pym's daughter, Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lily), who just happens to work for Cross and isn't a fan of Lang, since she believes she should be the one in the suit, something Pym is not in favor of. Lang agrees to be a part of Pym's mission to break into Cross' lab and deal with the Yellowjacket technology mostly because he needs the money to pay child support for his young daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson), who is in the care of Lang's ex-wife (Judy Greer) and her new significant other, a cop named Paxton (Bobby Cannavale).

One concern I'd heard leading up to the film's release was that it was going to be more of a comedy than the other Marvel movies, which, let's face it, isn't tough to do with every hero trying to out-angst every other one. And maybe because Ant-Man doesn't exist is completely dark corner of the world (geographically or psychologically), people are mistaking this for being humorous. I don't think Ant-Man has any more laughs than the first Iron Man movie, and the biggest laughs come not from Rudd but from Lang's criminal sidekicks, played by the very funny Michael Peña, rapper T.I., and a Russian-accented David Dastmalchian. I really haven't thought much about what Wright's version of this story might have been like in terms of tone and humor, but actual director Peyton Reed (Bring It On, Down with Love, The Break-Up) has a real sense of visual style and slightly elevated humor that bring an energy to Ant-Man that is both subtle and noticeable in the best possible way.

Ant-Man also succeeds by feeling personal. The villainous force on hand isn't an infinite number of aliens or robots or dark elves or whatever massive group is attempting to snuff out human life. In this film, Pym and Lang are trying to stop one person, and it's a person whom Pym has a complicated history with. You could reduce the reasons for Cross' entire scheme down to his being hurt about the way Pym ended their professional friendship. Stoll is a gifted enough actor to convey that his pain runs deep. And then there's Hope, who is dealing with the dual issues of her mother's untimely death and her father abandoning her right after. Pym was voted off the board of his own company years later, and the deciding vote came from Hope. So complicated might be a word you'd use to describe the interpersonal connections between the three, with Lang tossed in just to make everybody else feel a tad more awkward.

Above all else, Ant-Man restores my faith in Marvel to make a fun film that offers us something new — in this case in the form of macro-sets and miniature cameras, a horde of talented ants, and the constant reminder that when you're small, pretty much everything is hazard. But I also love how they did link Lang's Ant-Man in with world around him, and make it clear that the world of superheroes isn't even close to done with him. I hope Lang keeps his sense of awe as he goes on to meet more heroes, because in so many ways he's the first character through whose eyes we can actually see just how cool it is to live in a world like the one in these movies. I like this film, but just as much, I like this character too.

Trainwreck

In an opening scene from the latest Judd Apatow-directed work Trainwreck, we see Gordon, a bitter father (a note-perfect Colin Quinn) attempting to explain to his two young daughters why he and their mother are splitting up, as well as instilling in them his fundamental belief that monogamy isn't realistic. It's a funny scene, but as the film goes on, that moment and message resonates throughout everything that happens in the life of the older daughter, Amy, played as an adult by the film's writer, comedian Amy Schumer, who has based a great deal of the story on her on life experiences.

One should keep in mind going into Trainwreck that, like many Apatow films, it's more than a raunchy comedy about a woman who gets drunk every night and ends up sleeping with different man every night. There's an underlying thread of pain in Amy's life that makes it impossible for her to see herself as someone worthy of actually falling in love with. She looks at guys who want to spend the night or make her breakfast the morning after or see her for a second date with disdain: "You know how this is going to end up, so why bother?" Some may just see her as someone who is having fun, but I would argue that the two aren't mutually exclusive.

Amy is poised to rise through the ranks at a trashy magazine run by Dianna (an almost unrecognizable Tilda Swinton), and the film is so strong that you could have made an entire movie just about the work environment at this hellhole. Amy's co-workers include the likes of Randall Park, Jon Glaser, an intern played by Ezra Miller, and Amy's best pal Nikki, a doormat of a person (both personally and professionally) played by "SNL's" Vanessa Bayer. Some of the film's most inappropriate material happens in the office, and be prepared to cringe during the editorial meetings.

Amy's latest assignment is to interview a renowned sports doctor Aaron Conners (Bill Hader), taking on the role of the straight man to Schumer, as well as his best friend LeBron James as himself. I'm sure by now you're heard this from multiple places, and rest assured the truth is funnier than the hype: James is one of the funniest elements of Trainwreck. His revealing and personal conversations with Aaron are hilarious, and their friendship is one of the key driving forces of this film. Another very funny athlete putting in a fine appearance here is pro wrestler John Cena as the one guy in Amy's life she goes out with on a semi-regular basis, mostly because he's ripped and decent in bed. But in a scene in which she ends things with him, it's actually a tiny bit sad, primarily because he's taking it so hard.

Lest we believe that two girls growing up with the same shitty father would end up the same, we discover that younger sister Kim (Brie Larson) is married to dweeby Tom (Mike Birbiglia), and they have one child with a possible second on the way. Self comparing to her sister's life isn't doing Amy any favors, but when Dr. Aaron starts showing an interest in dating her, Amy isn't sure how to handle it. One thing to remember is that, in real life, Schumer trained as an actor in college, so her stand-up success wasn't exactly planned. In the scenes in which she's torn between her old beliefs that committed relationships are confining and her thriving because she's being loved and respected by Aaron, we see Schumer the actress shine through in a way that she's never given herself a chance to in comedy sketches on her "Inside Amy Schumer" series on Comedy Central.

In particular, the moments between Amy and Kim are some of the best because they represent the disparate responses to be exposed to their father philandering ways. Kim responded by vowing not to repeat her father's mistakes, while Amy took his messages about monogamy to heart and closed herself off to the idea of one man for her. The film moves into a couple of dark corners of this idea split when Amy and Kim are forced to deal with their father's living arrangement after his long-term struggle with multiple sclerosis makes it necessary to put him in an assisted-living facility. Kim wants to put him in the worst possible home, while Amy is willing to spring for just slightly better than the worst. In moments where Amy must deal with her father after she's deep into the relationship with Aaron, she sees that maybe Gordon's advice to her as a child wasn't the most sound.

If the film has one weak spot, it's the ending, which I won't ruin, but not surprisingly, Amy's long-engrained ideas about coupling sneak in and threaten to ruin the relationship. The question then becomes, will it be Amy or Aaron who makes the big public display of commitment to bring that happy ending we know is coming. There's a weird, totally unnecessary intervention that LeBron James sets up for his friend involving random cameos by Matthew Broderick, Chris Evert and Marv Albert that is so out of left field that it threatens to pull you right out of the movie; thankfully it doesn't last long.

Unlike other overlong Apatow offerings, Trainwreck feels more compact and better paced, even with its two-hour running time; there are still dead spots, but I actually didn't mind them as much because they give the film a chance to focus on character and admire Schumer the actress. Trainwreck may seem like it's in the Apatow wheelhouse, but it's just far enough afield to make this feel fresh for his abilities as a director capable of extracting the funniest material from his actors. Schumer's version of herself is a perfect combination of charming and abrasive. When "Amy" is doing things that are somewhat self-destructive, she owns them. She's not looking for pity or sympathy, but that doesn't mean she isn't open to ideas on bettering her outlook on love. It's a much-needed twist on the romantic-comedy formula, and I'm glad it was the highly capable Schumer who brought it to us.

Mr. Holmes

It's not perfect, but that doesn't stop me from adoring it completely. I fear of late that Ian McKellen is going to go down in history as having made his greatest achievements as a genre actor. And while there's certainly nothing wrong with him adding his special brand of gravitas to Peter Jackson's Middle Earth-set epics as the wizard Gandalf, or to the X-Men films as the team's primary nemesis and eventual comrade Magneto, I'd hate to think that entire generations of film fans will never get to see him perform in a Shakespeare play or an adaptation of a Dickens novel.

Hell, I'd be happy if people got a look at some of the earlier works with filmmakers McKellen has been working with a great deal lately. For example, you should seek out Apt Pupil, his early work with X-Men director Bryan Singer. Better still, watch or re-watch Gods and Monsters, in which he plays Frankenstein/Bride of Frankenstein director James Whale (coincidentally, both films came out in 1998). McKellen's director on the latter was Bill Condon, who just happens to helm his latest film, Mr. Holmes, in which the esteemed actor plays Sherlock Holmes, a retired detective who is tired of the celebrity that has fallen upon him thanks to fictionalized accounts of his crime-solving exploits.

I love the premise: this is a world in which Sherlock Holmes was not the creation of Arthur Conan Doyle — he isn't a creation at all. All of the accounts of Holmes' were, in fact, written by his partner Mr. Watson, who may have embellished things a bit (Holmes never wore a deerstalker hat or smoked a pipe; he preferred cigars). When we meet him in this story, it's 1947, Holmes has retired, Watson is dead, and the detective is about to take up permanent residence at his secluded seaside farmhouse, where his only company is his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her young son, Roger (Milo Parker). We soon find out that the real reason he's has left the investigation practice is that he is slowly becoming "senile" and is losing his memory more and more with each passing day.

Just before he came to the country house, he took a trip to Japan to seek out a rare root (that has become rarer still since World War II) that is said to help improve the memory, and he is aided in his search by a fan of the Sherlock Holmes books, Mr. Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada), who has ulterior motives for wanting to meet the detective. Holmes is plagued by memory loss, especially regarding a specific case — his last case 30 years earlier, which he knows he never solved, and today he can't now remember the specifics of the case or why it baffled him. It was one that Watson never wrote about, and now Holmes would like to be the one to tell his final adventure as truthfully as possible. By committing pen to paper, he's hoping the memories will come back, which they do but quite sporadically, much to his frustration.

Based on the Mitch Cullin novel "A Slight Trick of the Mind" and adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher, Mr. Holmes is a mostly contemplative affair. No one's life is being threatened by a master criminal, either in the present or in the case Holmes is attempting to recall (which is not to say that the planning of a killing isn't happening), but the sense of urgency to solve it is wracking the sleuth's brain for obvious reasons. His trusted ally in memory recall and overall relaxation becomes young Roger, who seems to have a keen mind for problem solving and an even greater interest in Holmes' hobby as a bee keeper.

So really what we have in Mr. Holmes is two films, and to a degree they are both mysterious of different sorts. One is about solving or stopping a crime; the other is about piecing together why this unsolved mystery haunts Holmes to such a degree. He's afraid his dulled recall may have led to someone's harm. The case being written about concerns a man (Patrick Kennedy) who asks Holmes to follow his wife (Hattie Morahan), whom he's afraid is being brainwashed by a music teacher, perhaps for financial gain. When you watch that version of Holmes, you immediately see the wonderfully subtle variations McKellen is using in his portrayal. The detective is confident, charming, dare I say suave? The farm house version is unsure, scared, a man barely holding on in so many ways. It's a fascinating performance and easily one of the best I've seen from McKellen since Gods and Monsters.

Condon has made films about other real people before, with films like Kinsey and The Fifth Estate (he also did Dreamgirls, a veiled account of the Motown experience, and we'll just put his two-part Twilight: Breaking Dawn epic off to the side for now), so it's fun to see him make a movie that gives a fictional character the emotional touchstones of an actual person. McKellen fills in the flourishes and finds ways to take our hearts in his grip that I was not expecting. The most interesting aspect of Mr. Holmes is how the two stories complement each other; each is made more compelling by the other, and Condon is quite certain of that.

There's a strange crisis thrown in at the tail end that feels like clumsy manipulation. And while the film doesn't need it to achieve greatness, its inclusion doesn't tank it either. It just keeps it from being perfect, and a movie doesn't have to be perfect to still be wonderful. But almost more than anything, I'm excited that younger audiences get a chance to get a look a old-school McKellen doing some of his best work, with hopefully more to come (I'm especially excited about his pairing with Anthony Hopkins in a new adaptation of The Dresser for BBC/Starz for director Richard Eyre). Hopefully the renewed hipness of Sherlock Holmes will get people curious about these "real" later years. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Tangerine

For all of its vulgarity and sexually explicit aspects, director and co-writer Sean Baker's (Starlet) latest Tangerine is a little crowd-pleasing slice of heaven set in the very authentic world of transgender prostitutes on Christmas Eve in downtown LA. We meet Alexandra (Mya Taylor) on the street when her best friend Sin-Dee (Kiki Kitana Rodgriguez) is back home from being in jail for a short time. Sin-Dee suspects her pimp/boyfriend Chester (James Ransome) has been cheating on her while she was inside, and she in on a rampage looking for him — bouncing from convenient stores to various eating establishments to assorted sleazy locations, causing chaos and destruction wherever she goes.

I'm going to assume that the two lead actresses have never acted prior to this film experience, and I don't mean to say they can't act; they absolutely can are are fantastic to watch. They are both attractive and talk at a million miles an hour, running around town without a moment's notice. Also on the town this fine day is an Armenian-born married cab driver Razmik (Karren Karagulian) who has a thing for young men dressed as women. At one point in the film, Razmik picks up a hooker walking a street normally occupied by transexual pros. When he get her alone and discovers vagina instead of a penis, a storm of rage spews forth from the driver.

Eventually, the two stories intersect in a donut shop, where Sin-Dee confronts the boyfriend and the hooker he allegedly slept with (Mickey O'Hagan). But everything that gets us to that point alternates from hilarious and terrifying to explicit and tragic. This isn't an examination into the lives of these prostitutes; there's no backstory or even a real sense of where they are in life outside of this one day. But just because director Baker (who wrote the screenplay with Chris Bergoch) doesn't draw a traditional character study doesn't mean he doesn't care about these people. He clearly does and his affection for them is contagious.

Tangerine is probably best known as being the film at Sundance that was shot on an Apple iPhone 5s camera with an anamorphic adapter, and you notice visual differences right away. For example, the camera can be literally inserted into a conversation or argument between two characters. The camera practically zips in between the actors during a scene, and it adds a level of intimacy and immediacy that makes the movie vibrant and alive.

The locations are gritty and sometimes disgusting, the cast of characters that dip in and out of their lives are, at times, fascinating and troubling. Nearly every scene feels authentic. The prostitutes seem to have a language of their own that takes a while to really decipher, but the more you understand, the funnier things get. I have a great deal of affection for Tangerine, and as flat-out nasty as some of these ladies can get from time to time, I think they'll be a big hit with audiences who take the time to view them as something more than just curiosities. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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