ANT-MAN MOVIE REVIEW

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There’s been a noticeable habit among superhero movies, as of late, to aim bigger and bigger in scale. Some properties naturally lend themselves to the enormous blockbuster approach while others are a little to overwhelming for their own good.

It’s therefore interesting that Marvel is following up Age of Ultron — one of those latter movies I mentioned — with Ant-Man. Like a true David and Goliath scenario, Marvel’s smallest hero shows the big dogs how it’s done, delivering a movie that uses its scope to its advantage in delivering a well-balanced heist comedy that’s one of Marvel’s most fun films in years — even if it is more than a little familiar.

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) can’t hold a job or get permission to see his own daughter on account of being a convicted burglar. Desperate to catch a break, Scott goes through with the robbery of an anonymous millionaire’s safe.

Little does he know, said figure wants him to rob that safe. The man behind the curtain is Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), former S.H.I.E.L.D. scientist, expert in microphysics and originator of the Ant-Man identity. Pym reaches out to Scott to pull off a very special heist. With the help of Pym’s prickly daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), the trio must infiltrate Pym’s company to stop its new head, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), from utilizing Pym’s uncovered shrinking technology to create an army of miniaturized assassins.

To do this, Scott must take up the mantle of Ant-Man and become the world’s smallest hero.

In a cine-scape of prolonged battles, multiple subplots, dozens of characters and endless tie-ins to other movies, Ant-Man is a superhero film that embraces refreshingly old-school principles that make it wholly accessible.

The film (previously to be helmed by Edgar Wright) is a mostly self-contained story that sticks to a core handful of characters, saves most of its action for the third act and keeps the core of the film between the characters, as opposed to the special effects. It’s because of these choices that the film is more genuine and embraceable than many other of its ilk.

In keeping things more focused, director Peyton Reed and crew can hone in on more of the colors that make the film unique. The best Marvel movies tend to be strong genre pics with a superhero twist; Ant-Man is the studio’s first foray into the heist genre and plays like Ocean’s meets Iron Man (that’s a compliment). The decision to have Ant-Man as a heist movie is damn near inspired, allowing Reed and the myriad of writers on the film to mix things up in fun ways, like combining the practice run montage on a heist film with the superpower discovery section of a superhero pic.

At the same time, the film mimics the general arc of such films and touts the power of buildup rather than sheer geek-gasm. Sounds strange for a modern superhero film, no? Well, it helps that the film is paced near perfectly, coming in at a brisk 1 hour, 57 minutes. Alongside films like Mad Max: Fury Road and Inside Out, it’s not a stretch to say that Ant-Man is one of the summer’s leanest offerings that uses its runtime to its advantage.LOz04Ry

Being a Marvel film, there are naturally a lot of effects going on but not to the point of exhaustion. Ant-Man‘s shrinking abilities and his communication with ants is positively playful and acts more as a character beat than a studio-mandated effects shot. Reed and co. use just the right amount of restraint in the film until the end, letting us appreciate the effects more rather than getting spoiled by them.

In the meantime, the real strength of the film comes with the main three cast members. Rudd, Lily and Douglas all tap into the lightness of what the writers are going for but never phone it in, tackling the humor of the piece with charm and grace. This film may be more on the comedic side of the Marvel spectrum but serious kudos should be given the cast and creative team for making both the humor and the drama of the film genuine (the father/daughter themes in the film are beautiful), instead of having things come off as too cool for school… unlike certain other Marvel flicks.

That’s not to make it sound like everything about Ant-Man is shiny and new. Right off the bat the similarities between this hero and Marvel’s other super-powered suit-wielder are pretty clear. The benevolent suit-wearer up against the military industrial complex is Marvel’s shining cliche, but at very least they find a few new ways to go about it to keep things fun.

On the topic of Marvel cliches, let’s talk about how much their villains still suck! One day these guys will pick up the ball on their bad guys but Ant-Man isn’t the film to break the streak. Corey Stoll is a fine actor and gives it his best go here, but there’s only so much to do with the same cookie-cutter role the studio keeps carving out for their antagonists. Unfortunately, Yellowjacket is a one-two punch of the studio giving the villain weak motivations, then having him possess the same powers as the hero.

Then there’s Luis.

Coming out of this film, I was elated to realize this was no where near as aggressively annoying as Guardians of the Galaxy… with this one character being the exception. Michael Pena is quite good in a great many things but here his presence is just, well, ants to my eyes and ears. At best, he’s a major annoyance that hampers the vibe of the movie; at worst, he’s an insulting stereotype of the Latino community that Marvel let get out of hand and would be better off distancing themselves from.

Even with weak villains, cliched plot points and a Hispanic Stepin Fetchit, it’s hard to dismiss the pure charm Ant-Man has going for it. With only limited ties to the greater Marvel universe, it’s oddly comforting going in knowing you can have a fun time contained just to this one film. And fun it is. With movies like this you can hear it in the score (excellent, by the way) and see it in the edits.

At just under two hours of two-for-one genre thrills, Ant-Man is the type of playful film that has the confidence in it’s own strengths to escape its trappings.

7.5/10 

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BATMAN: ARKHAM KNIGHT VIDEO GAME REVIEW

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Some people say video games aren’t art. They say complex human emotions, narratives, morals and themes can’t be conveyed through the interactive game format.

At least, there was that sentiment several years ago when video games were relatively new; these days… not so much. However, for any holdouts left, allow me humbly point out Batman: Arkham Knight, a spectacular example of playability and storytelling combined to create a breathtaking Batman experience that matches the greats, regardless of medium.

It’s been 9 months since the horrors of Arkham City and Gotham is experiencing a rare time of peace. That peace comes to a screaming halt after the Scarecrow threatens the city with a apocalyptic amount of his latest fear toxin. Out for revenge after Arkham Asylum, Scarecrow has resurged with alarming force, thanks to his partnership with the mysterious militia commander, the Arkham Knight. Against overwhelming resistance, Batman must face both his greatest foes and fears to emerge triumphant as Gotham’s savior.

But will it be his final hour?

Arkham Knight follows two game-changing titles — Asylum and City (not as much for Origins) — and sticks the landing to make for a terrific conclusion to the series. Not many doubted developer Rocksteady’s ability to deliver another great Batman game, and they, in turn, delivered another deeply layered, highly detailed, amazingly playable entry in their impressive catalogue.

It is both a blessing and a curse to say that I have been devoting a vast majority of my free time over the past month to completing as much as I can of this behemoth; there’s just that much to do! Completing the epic main storyline only accounts for about nine hours of gameplay, a fraction of what is all there. Between rescuing missing firefighters, solving the mysteries of gruesome murders and mysterious monster sightings, stopping Two-Face and Penguin and tracking down those pesky Riddler trophies, there is never not enough to do in Arkham Knight. Rocksteady has made this game worth every last penny.

The increased time it takes to beat this game can also be attributed to the level of difficulty. As the last of the series, Arkham Knight ramps up the difficulty, making fights more varied, predator missions trickier and puzzles more head-scratching. It can, admittedly, be a little frustrating to get hung up on a challenge when all you want to do is continue on, but the added difficulty makes the experience all the more rewarding.

The major addition to the gameplay this time around, besides the little fact that the Gotham City map is three times the size of Arkham City (and lightyears more developed than the one in Origins), is the Batmobile. Players not only are given a Batman at his peak, but are given access to a whole new gameplay dynamic with the car. From the get-go, players are taught to rely on the Batmobile, as it comes into play for a majority of the game.

Vehicle sequences, including chasing down militia caravans, engaging in tank warfare with the Arkham Knight’s drones and racing on the Riddler’s race courses, are definitely fun and unique. The problem comes from how over-reliant the game is on them. So often it feels like the tank battles are just obstacles the developer throws in to pad the game, while the main story provides too many instances where you are dependent on the car to bail you out of tough spots.

“Wait, couldn’t I have just ‘Batman’d’ myself out of this situation in previous games?,” I thought more than once while playing.

Still, if there’s going to be anything wrong with a game like this, it’s preferable that there’s too much of a good thing.

Yet, going even further, I oftentimes found myself wanting less gameplay in general. Not because it was, in any way, bad; because the story of this game is so damn engaging. Once again we have a plot that essentially puts Batman at the end of his crusade and asks how Gotham could survive without Batman. Better yet, it tests him like never before by mixing in consequences from his past and present that come back to haunt him and gives him an internal struggle with his self control that is beautifully realized through the appearance of a surprise figure. Geoff Johns’ writing for this entry is a real asset to the game, in that it makes you want to watch a cutscene as much as beat up some thugs.

Much has been made of the plot point of the Arkham Knight himself. I certainly understand the deception that was at play with the character (think Benedict Cumberbatch in Star Trek Into Darkness) but the inclusion of this new foe largely works in favor of the story, minus the overwhelming feeling that they named him the Arkham Knight just to nail down a title that was consistent with the rest. What doesn’t work is everything after the Knight’s identity is revealed, as he is essentially shuffled off with no followup.

While one antagonist left a little to be desired, it was Scarecrow who t took the cake from the beginning, receiving another ghastly redesign and a stronger presence to great effect. Yes, I wish they would find a deeper motivation for him beyond “He wants to cause fear because HE’S EVIL,” but the design, writing and vocal performance by John Noble is so irresistible that it’s hard not to see this iteration as the best Scarecrow representation in media yet.

Like the previous entries, Arkham Knight has its little things to pick at, but like those games, I hardly think those things will be what we remember in the coming years. The fact that this piece of software has acted as a complete narcotic for several weeks on end is either a frightening realization of this writer’s priorities or the hallmark of excellent craftsmanship.

I prefer to think the latter but feel free to congratulate me on my Arkham-free way of living next time you see me. Hopefully I’ll have given it up by then.

8.8/10

JURASSIC WORLD MOVIE REVIEW

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There are several movie franchises where the sequels are as beloved as the original film; the Jurassic Park films aren’t one of those. The second and third films in the series largely failed to capture the wonder, excitement and brilliance of 1993’s Jurassic Park, a classic that easily holds up to this day.

Over 20 years later, the stage has been set to recapture the magic of the original, much less do it right. To pull this off, Jurassic World goes for an old, reliable method:

“If you can’t beat ’em, copy ’em.”

Jurassic World certainly has some different wrinkles appear in its plot but one could argue that it is, on the whole, practically the same movie as Jurassic Park. And while it’s nothing short of familiar, the movie is still successful in being downright entertaining.

Decades after the events of Jurassic Park, Isla Nublar is up and running as the fully-functional Jurassic World. In an attempt to boost attendance, the park’s geneticists, headed by operations manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), create a hybrid dinosaur, the Indominus Rex, made up of several dinosaurs and comparable amphibians.  Paired with animal behaviorist Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), the two are to observe the man-made monster before debuting it to the public. But, as expected things go very wrong as the Indominus escapes and lays a path of murder and mayhem on its way toward the park, where Claire’s nephews Zach and Gray are visiting.

Dinosaurs running loose on an island and eating people is essentially what a Jurassic Park movie means, and World certainly delivers on that. Director Colin Trevorrow has clearly taken steps to recreate many of the aspects that are attributed to the first movie: gradual set up before chaos breaks out, a knowledgable male lead who foresees the danger on its way, a pair of kids to put in peril, a schemey schemer in the midst of the staff, a cautionary tale about the dangers of science that seems archaic in this day and age. It’s all there.

While it’s certainly easy to point out the parts that have been used before, it rarely ever feels harmful to the movie. Stories like Jurassic World are like grilled cheese (thanks Ben): nothing terribly complicated or nutritious, you’ve had many before and will have many to come, but it’s all still pretty good.

For me, this is the actual first film where Chris Pratt shows he can be a serviceable leading man (or at least that he can not be entirely annoying in a lead role) while Howard shines brighter here than in her previous large-scale roles. Together, they make a pretty convincing old-school Hollywood odd couple. Everyone else in the cast does relatively well for what the script allows them (comparatively little to Pratt and Howard).

What’s unfortunately not always as convincing is the quality of visual effects the movie has to offer. World steps up the scale of the story in comparison to the original, which calls for some elements that practical effects can’t create. As its own movie, the CG in World might have looked decent (given there’s an absolute abundance of it). But held up to the timeless skill and artistry of the first movie’s practical effects, the effects on screen come off like a circle-jerk of studio cost-cutting.

In the realm of special effects, Park is how you do it right, World is how you do it cheap.

On a better note, while John Williams doesn’t return for scoring duties, Michael Giacchino — William’s ultimate sonic doppelganger and successor — crafts an exciting and fitting followup score.

Jurassic World isn’t bound to break any cinematic barriers (box office being the enormous exception) but it fulfills its purpose as a fun, fluffy summer blockbuster. In this case, that’s enough.

 

7/10