Sunday, July 26, 2015

New Releases!! Trainwreck (2015); Ant-Man (2015)

Trainwreck (2015)

Director: Judd Apatow

It may be about 30 minutes too long, but Trainwreck is another solid step by comedienne Amy Schumer towards legendary humorist status.

Anyone familiar with Amy Schumer through her standup or her brilliant Comedy Central series Inside Amy Schumer knows her unique niches. While she occasionally does sillier, farcical humor, her genius is in her willingness to tackle gender biases and double standards. She is never afraid to adopt personas which take certain stereotypes to hilariously logical, and ultimately ridiculous, conclusions. With Trainwreck, she brings some of this approach, though probably not quite as much as one might hope.

In the film, Schumer is a Manhattanite with a serious aversion to committed relationships, springing from her adulterous father's careless advice that "monogamy is not realistic." She is a successful columnist for a men's magazine whose primary philosophy is to promote avarice and lust in an attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator of stereotypical male culture.  She is assigned to write about a surgeon-to-the-star-athletes, Aaron, who has devised a revolutionary surgical procedure that is greatly impacting pro sports. Despite caring nothing about sports, Amy finds herself falling in love with Aaron. What follows is her transition from an endless series of one-night stands and boozing to a nerve-wrackingly deep relationship with Aaron.

The movie has plenty going for it. Amy is great in the role as a foul-mouthed, oversexed, commitment-o-phobe. Bill Hader, in perhaps the straightest role I've seen him in, plays the low-key and admirable Aaron perfectly. The supporting cast also enhances, from Colin Quinn's turn as Amy's racist, selfish father, to John Cena as Amy's muscled-up quasi-boyfriend, to Lebron James as Lebron James (Lebron's not a natural-born actor, clearly, but he does fine). Schumer, who wrote the screenplay, made some brilliant decisions about how have the professional athletes like Cena and Lebron play quirky, fictionalized versions of themselves, rather than simply cameo in the movie for their star power alone.

Uber-athlete Lebron James does a decent enough job working
with the hilarious fictionalized version of himself.
As with any Judd Apatow-directed movie, there is plenty of great extemporaneous banter between characters, which punches up some of the stronger moments of scripted dialogue. It did, however, feel that the film could have used more paring down. Several scenes, most notably a bizarre "intervention" moment involving Lebron, Chris Evert, and Marv Albert with Aaron, really should not have made the final cut.

NPR film critic David Edelstein offered some very interesting insight about Judd Apatow. Though I had never noticed or even considered it before, Edelstein points out how Apatow's movies always hold up a traditional, settled lifestyle as the ultimate goal. It belies a conservatism that many of us might not associate with Apatow, whose films often feature lovable stoners and amusing 30-something adolescents. This message that embracing a traditional nuclear family life is a panacea is clear in Trainwreck, where Amy's great epiphany is that her pregnant, married younger sister, is living an admirable life worthy of emulation. I hadn't taken stock of this fact as I was mostly just waiting for the next laugh, but it has me wondering if Apatow will ever veer away from this formula and try something more daring.

Trainwreck is, despite some extraneous pieces and slightly inconsistent tone, a nice entry into the canon of modern comedies. I can't help but think that the 34-year-old Schumer has plenty of culturally insightful, hilarious work ahead of her, and this film is a great first step onto the larger stage of movies.

Ant-Man (2015)

Director: Peyton Reed

As a massive geek for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (exhibits A and B are my post about the MCU from a few years ago and the follow-up done earlier this year), I wasn't sure what to expect from Ant-Man. Unlike quantities known to me, such as the Hulk and Captain America, the Ant-Man character was nothing more than a historical name. I knew that he was an original Avenger in the comic book mythology, but little else. I was happy to discover that the movie made for one of the best of the "Phase Two" MCU movies, though not for reasons that many people would expect.

The story is that of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a master thief of uncommon intelligence and agility, who is recruited to undertake a daunting task. Lang is trying to reform his life and become a better father to his young daughter, but life is hard for a convicted felon. After the unspeakable indignity of being fired from a Baskin Robbins, Lang reverts to crime and attempts to burgle the home of one Henry "Hank" Pym (Michael Douglas). What Lang doesn't know is that Pym was one of the world's very first superheroes - a scientist who had devised a formula which could shrink a person to nigh-invisible size while exponentially enhancing their strength. Pym catches Lang and recruits him to assist in preventing his formula from being mass-produced and sold to the highest bidders.

The movie does follow more than a few origin-story tropes. We get the establishment of Scott Lang as a likable fellow and sympathetic father. We get his disbelief in the incredible reality that Hank Pym reveals to him. We get the humorous training montage, complete with goofy missteps. We get the hero overcoming his own selfishness to become more heroic, via a mano-a-mano showdown with the arch-villain. The marks of the genre are all well-known, and Ant-Man hits them all.

However, despite doing nothing novel with the basic architecture of a superhero origin movie, Ant-Man has plenty of imaginative fun with the details. Lang is arguably the most "human" of any MCU hero we've seen. Though a brilliant thief, he is not a world-class assassin or soldier like Black Widow or Hawkeye. He does not possess the genius, financial resources, or immense confidence of Tony Stark. He does not possess the innate moral compass or bravery (or the Supersoldier Serum) of Captain America. He is neither a Norse god like Thor nor a monstrously powerful force of nature like the Hulk. Lang is, instead, a fairly normal guy who simply wants to be a part of his daughter's life. Compared to the other Avengers headliners, Scott Lang is a refreshingly normal character.

More than Lang simply being a more relatable character, though, is that Ant-Man mostly avoids what has been a growing problem with the MCU - the inability to tell a self-contained story. Nearly every Phase Two movie, with the exception of Guardians of the Galaxy, has relied more and more heavily on knowledge of the films which came prior to it. Age of Ultron was perhaps the most serious offender, by necessity. Ant-Man, though, can be enjoyed with very little knowledge of any of the previous MCU films. With the exception of a few minor spoken references and a fun sequence involving Falcon at Avengers HQ, any viewer can follow the story without feeling as if they are missing something. I very much hope the filmmakers of future MCU movies keep this in mind.

Michael Pena's Luis is the single most entertaining human
sidekick character in any MCU film to date. Despite limited
screentime, he's worth the price of admission.
The plot and dialogue are decent enough, if not completely entertaining from start to finish. The two other key ingredients to Ant-Man, in addition to its more personal scale, are the supporting cast and the self-deprecating tone. Michael Douglas is excellent as the aged and playfully pugnacious proto-superhero Pym, and Michael Pena steals every scene he's in with his chipper, motor-mouthed portrayal of Lang's associate, Luis. Many of the action sequences make effective and use of the transition between small- and large-scale perspective for comic effect, though this is an area which has even more potential.

I will forever wonder what Ant-Man would have been like if the original writer/director - iconic, irreverent British director Edgar Wright - had been able to see the project through. Replacement director Peyton Reed did, however, do a nice job in creating an entertaining superhero movie which stands apart from its MCU brethren. I'll look forward to seeing how Scott Lang is incorporated into the film series as it moves forward.