Jay Ruud’s Movie Reviews
My lovely wife and I go to movies. Lots and lots of movies. And I have opinions about movies. Lots and lots of opinions. Here, I share them with you. Lucky!
My lovely wife and I go to movies. Lots and lots of movies. And I have opinions about movies. Lots and lots of opinions. Here, I share them with you. Lucky!
Turner Classic Movies and Paramount Pictures brought back the musical “Grease” to the big screen in a singalong version this past week. Considering the rash of bombs recently coming out of Hollywood (Vacation? Fantastic Four? Hitman: Agent 47?), “Grease” may have been your best bet this week anyway. The 1970s-style homage to a nostalgic and never-neverland ’50s is by now a bona fide classic after 37—yes, 37—years.
When the film was re-released on its 20th anniversary in 1998, Roger Ebert wrote that “no revival, however joyously promoted, can conceal the fact that this is just an average musical, pleasant and upbeat and plastic.” Ebert was certainly right that this is not a perfect movie, but one thing that a critic really can’t argue with is the fact that “Grease” remains the number one grossing movie musical of all time. Why do you suppose that is?
If you sat in the theater this weekend singing those songs everybody knows and loves—“Summer Lovin’,” “Greased Lighting,” “You’re the One that I Want”—you’d know the first and most obvious answer to that question: The film is just plain fun. So much fun that hundreds of high schools and community theaters, in the wake of the film, decided to have their own little Dannys and Sandys play those roles made famous by John Travolta and Olivia Newton John, and so ordered scripts of the stage musical on which the film was based. And boy, were they disappointed.
First, at least two of the film’s most popular songs (“Hopelessly Devoted to You” and “You’re the One that I Want”) are not in the stage version, and the school version completely leaves out Rizzo’s false pregnancy and her “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” number. Of course, neither has the title track from the movie, written by Barry Gibb (that icon of the ’70s) and sung by Frankie Valli (that idol of the ’60s), paying homage to their roots in the pop culture of the ’50s. Perhaps even worse, the plot itself is completely episodic: a set of very loosely connected vignettes that ultimately do end up with Sandy and Danny getting together, as it pretty much had to.
So one remarkable thing that this film does is take an incredibly mediocre script and turn it into a smart, coherent story that appeals to our sense of comedy—youth, as always, triumphs over age and boy and girl get together. Allan Carr and Bronte Woodard get chief credit for this transformation of Jim Jacobs’ and Warren Casey’s original Broadway script.
But the other thing about the film that makes it a true classic is Travolta’s performance. “Saturday Night Fever” had made Travolta a star, but “Grease” made him a pop icon, and even Ebert admitted that “Travolta is an important and enduring movie star whose presence can redeem even a compromised ‘Grease.’’” In the film he is Elvis, Marlin Brando, and James Dean rolled into one—the hip swinging musical numbers channel Elvis, and the drag race with Annette Charles (Cha Cha DiGregorio) playing a superannuated Natalie Wood turns Travolta into James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause”—or, with the enemy gang’s “beaked chariot” with whirling blades attached to their car’s wheel hubs, Travolta becomes Charlton Heston in “Ben-Hur” as well.
But of course, it’s all camp. The film doesn’t take any of the teen angst seriously. It’s light and funny and part of the comedy is that all problems must melt away in the end. And this is what Ebert objected to most in the film: “Romance and breaking up are matters of life and death for teenagers, and a crisis of self-esteem can be a crushing burden,” he wrote. “‘Grease’ doesn’t seem to remember that.” This may be true, but it was the teenagers who loved the film at the time and there were a lot of ’80s teenagers singing along with “Grease” at the theater last Wednesday. Sure, they took themselves seriously at the time, as we all do and as today’s teenagers continue to do, but the ability to laugh at yourself (and, to be honest, to laugh at the way your parents acted when they were teenagers) is a valuable aspect of comedy in general. It was something “Grease” did in spades—especially when the parents also went to the film and saw themselves—and remembered sitting and watching Eve Arden in “Our Miss Brooks,” Sid Caesar in “Your Show of Shows,” and Edd Byrnes in “77 Sunset Strip”—not to mention watching Frankie Avalon on the big screen in such campy films as “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.” “Grease” captures that campiness brilliantly.
One of the knocks on the movie has always been that the principal actors were all too old to play high school students. This is certainly a legitimate gripe: at 24, Travolta was the youngest of the group. Olivia Newton-John, who had been a pop star for the better part of the preceding decade, was a 30-year-old high school senior. Jeff Conaway (Kinickie) was 28, and fellow T-Bird Sonny (Michael Tucci) was actually 32. Didi Conn (Frenchy) played a beauty school dropout whose guardian angel told to go back to high school at the age of 27. The aforementioned Annette “Cha Cha” Charles was 30. And Stockard Channing as bad-girl Rizzo was actually 34 years old—twice the age of the average high school senior. So yes, these kids are definitely not kids. But this is Hollywood. And even the ages of the actors may be a nod to the 50s: James Dean was 24 when he made “Rebel Without a Cause,” and Brando was 30 in “The Wild One.” So why not cast Stockard Channing?
Which brings me to one significant truth that I learned when watching “Grease” for the umpteenth time, this time on a big screen with singalong words at the bottom: of course, the characters in the film are nearly all one-dimensional caricatures: the “nice girl,” the “ultra-cool tough guy,” and yes, there’s a “jock,” a “cheerleader,” and a “nerd.” But I did see this time that the intended “bad girl,” Betty Rizzo (with a first name she has to remind Kenickie of in the throes of passion) is significantly more than one-dimensional. She is by far the most interesting and best-developed character in the film, the one character who rises above the campiness and the shallowness of the film’s chief plot. Stockard Channing’s portrayal of Rizzo is nuanced and sympathetic despite her “mean girl” façade, and her brilliant rendition of “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” has a range and depth of emotion that is the poignant high point of the movie.
Of course, Rizzo’s pregnancy cannot be allowed to bring the overall tone of the film down, and it is dealt with in a quick ten-second exchange at the end of the film, when she announces she is not pregnant after all and Kenickie offers to made an “honest woman” out of her, just before Danny and Sandy fly off into the sunset in Greased Lighting, just like Fred MacMurray at the end of Disney’s “Absent Minded Professor,” appropriately ending this Disneyfied representation of the 1950s.
So is “Grease” a classic? What makes a classic? Is it a human creation that holds up over time? Is it something a lot of people enjoy? Is it something that continues to move people—like Travolta’s memorable swaggering or Channing’s brilliant turn? If so, maybe “Grease” fits the bill. What it undeniably is, is a lot of fun. And that’s why it deserves three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare.
Woody Allen cut his scriptwriting teeth on plays like “Don’t Drink the Water” and “Play it Again, Sam,” and the fifty movies he has made over the past half-century very often seem like plays on film. Sometimes the fact that his characters talk so much reads to contemporary audiences as dull or slow-paced, particularly when the films come out in the summer and when most other movies out have virtually no dialog and a whole lot of chases, explosions, and occasional one-liners that are the only tiny clues we get of character.
For a number of viewers, Allen’s tumultuous personal life (for what now amounts to some two decades) is inseparable from his films, and there is a tendency to see each succeeding film as another attempt to justify or at least to rationalize his own life choices and obsessions. The fact that his films so often revolve around young women in relationships with older men lends credence to these critics.
Thirdly, inevitably, Allen is going to be compared to himself, and yes, like most artists, he tends to repeat particular motifs. One of these, of course, is the unorthodox older man who is probably a misunderstood genius, and the young ingénue who is attracted to him—a motif that is at the center of Allen’s newest film, “Irrational Man.” The film also explores another of Allen’s favorite themes: the abstract idea of the perfect murder that becomes very, very concrete.
“Irrational Man” was released a month ago, and plenty reviews of the film have already been published, some of which have been very positive, but more of which have found the film unsuccessful, generally for one of the previous three reasons: the film is slow paced and nothing happens for the first half hour; the film is just Allen trying to rationalize his own sleazy situation; or the film is just a mishmash of favorite Allen motifs that he explored more successfully in previous movies. Opinions of the actors vary wildly: many critics praise the three principal characters (Joachim Phoenix, Parker Posey, and Emma Stone) for their performances, many particularly singling out Phoenix as a convincingly disheveled, suicidal professor. But other critics have complained that the actors are unconvincing and that the script is confused and the dialog stilted, one significant critic—Lou Lumenick of the New York Post—calling the film “the nadir of the 79-year-old director’s career” (one wonders whether Lumenick has seen 2012’s “To Rome with Love”).
But seriously folks, go to this movie and pretend that it was written and directed by somebody you’ve never heard of—let’s call him Allan Stewart Konigsberg—and watch it without preconceptions. You’ll find the characters sad but interesting, the plot twists surprising, and the tone of the film sardonic—darkly humorous in some places, horrifying at others until, like Emma Stone in the end, you may pull back from the abyss before it’s too late.
In a nutshell, the story focuses on a brilliant but erratic philosophy professor, Abe Lucas (Phoenix), who is well-known in his field but mysteriously takes a job at a small liberal arts college in Newport, Rhode Island—the fictitious Braylin College. Rumors abound on campus among both faculty and students before he ever appears, and when he does show up, he is clearly burnt out, alcoholic, and disillusioned about the entire educational endeavor, and about his discipline in particular. In the snippets we get from his classroom, we see him debunking Kant and Kierkegaard, though he does insist at one point, tellingly, that he thinks Dostoevsky “got it.” Our lessons should come from life, he insists, and not from textbooks.
Somehow Abe, in his morose, pot-bellied, scruffy embodiment of existential angst, proves irresistible to chemistry professor Rita Richards (Posey), as well as to his eager, promising young student Jill Pollard (Stone). As the film goes on, though, we learn, as does Rita, that Abe’s despair has not made him simply intellectually impotent. And, with Jill, we also learn he is suicidal. He needs something to bring him back to life. By sheer chance, he overhears a conversation about a terrible wrong he believes he can right through a radical existential act—the perfect murder of a complete stranger. An act that completely turns him around intellectually, emotionally, and physically. In the end, things turn out differently from what he, or any of the other characters, expect, and the role of chance in our lives (as opposed to philosophical speculation) is underscored. The film is thought-provoking and well-acted, and stands on its own merits.
Yes, Martin Landau had a similar experience in “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” as did Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in “Match Point.” But the motives are quite different, Abe’s being completely intellectual. And the results are quite different. And yes, Juliet Lewis came on to her professor just as irresistibly in “Husbands and Wives,” but she is a completely different character. Some things in the film are a bit fantastic—Allen’s experience of university life was certainly at no school I’ve ever been associated with, since faculty offices here are more lavish than those of most university presidents, and faculty homes suggest salaries far beyond those of any real university employees except perhaps for football coaches. Add to this the fact that Abe walks around campus sucking on a flask of single-malt Scotch, and that he and his student Jill engage in PDAs all over campus without any figure in authority even commenting.
On the other hand, there are brilliant little touches in the film that bear close scrutiny. Pay attention to Abe’s back story: we learn about it only through rumors, and through his own occasional comments, but his comments never mesh with one another. His best friend seems to have died, apparently in Iraq—or is it Afghanistan? And was he blown up, or beheaded, or did he in fact run off with Abe’s ex-wife? Can you really trust anything he says? Or does he simply think that his past, like his ethics, is all about words, and what he can convince people to believe?
Watch the clothes. Other movies you ever see use a change of scenes as a new opportunity to add new wardrobe items. But in this film, people wear a lot of the same clothes in different scenes—like real people, who can’t afford new clothes every day (though these people CAN afford really expensive houses). And then there is Jill and her long-suffering boyfriend Roy (Jamie Blackley), who get each other sweaters for their birthdays. It’s completely practical—but Jill at one point is appalled that Abe might think her “practical.” Roy seems dull, of course, compared with Abe, but it may turn out dull is actually a good thing.
And, of course, music is always interesting in an Allen movie. Jazz tends to be his go-to genre, and here, the Ramsey Lewis Trio’s ’60’s classic “The In Crowd” plays over many of the film’s scenes. What’s THAT about? Is it part of the film’s sardonic humor? Is being with Abe like being with the “cool kids” for Jill? Is that why she is so infatuated with him?
Food for thought. As much of “Irrational Man” is. I do recommend that you give this movie a chance. I’ll give it three Tennysons. See what YOU think.
Simon (Jason Bateman) is a sales representative for a network security company that has just moved him from Chicago to California with his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall), an interior designer who has left her old job behind and hopes to start a family with Simon—a new start after a miscarriage and a subsequent period of self-medicated drug dependency. The couple has a chance encounter with an old high school classmate of Simon’s, a socially awkward character named Gordo. Played by Joel Edgerton (“Zero Dark Thirty,” “The Great Gatsby,” et al.), who also wrote and directed the film, Gordo begins to bring the couple unwanted gifts, intrudes on their space, and wheedles his way into their lives to what ultimately becomes an unwelcome, then even a harrowing, extent.
If this scenario sounds familiar, it should. 1987’s Fatal Attraction ushered in a whole genre of films about tormenting stalkers terrorizing young couples or defenseless women. Films like Single White Female, The Hand the Rocks the Cradle, Pacific Heights and Sleeping with the Enemy followed in rapid succession. The popularity of the genre waned after the mid-nineties, but Edgerton brings back a film with the same basic structure. So is there any reason you should go to this movie, or have you seen it all before?
Edgerton’s script plays with the conventions of the genre, but takes a number of unexpected turns, just when you’re getting comfortable. The chief clue that things are going to get real is Gordo’s comment that he was willing to let “bygones be bygones.” What on earth does he mean by that? You are supposed to wonder at that, just as Robyn does. But Robyn is back on drugs, so how much can she trust her own instincts? On the other hand, Simon is defensive and clearly hiding something. What on earth is it?
Obviously this is the sort of film where I can’t say much of anything beyond setting up the basic situation, since it’s a thriller and a mystery. Suffice to say that one of the themes of the film seems to be that no one is innocent—that things happen to us that are the results of our own prior deeds, and that taking responsibility for those deeds is the wisest course of action. But another theme of the film seems to be that people do not really change. These are characters who knew one another in high school, and their relationship twenty years later is predetermined by their relationship at that time. Somebody who was a complete jerk in high school is still going to be a complete jerk in later life despite any façade he may have put on to mask that core self.
Bateman is brilliant as the outwardly charming Simon, who wants to give the impression of being completely in control of everything, including himself, though it is clear that he pretty much always thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room, and cannot always control his impatience. Bateman, as usual, makes everything look easy, and his complex performance seems so effortless that he just seems to be playing himself. But he’s not.
Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Town, Iron Man III) is convincing as the fragile, damaged wife, sympathetic to the awkward Gordo but submissive to her husband even when we can see that he’s stepping on her freedom to think for herself—or is he simply protecting her from her weaknesses? And what about Gordo? Edgerton takes on the challenging role himself, gives himself a bad haircut and unflattering goatee, and is skittish and needy enough to make most people want to find something else to do two minutes after meeting him. But Gordo the Weirdo, as Simon calls him, is not a simple psychotic stalker. His motives are more subtle, and his actions more ambiguous, than the Glenn Closes and Michael Keatons of those thrillers of the eighties and nineties.
“You think you’re done with the past,” Gordo says. “But the past isn’t done with you”—a sound bite that encapsulates the film. It’s one that will surprise you at a number of turns, and leave you guessing at the end. Three solid Tennysons for this one.
If like me you are old enough to have been a fan of the original Mission: Impossible TV series in the late 1960s, you will remember that the suspense came from watching the MI team figure out how to pull off their mission by using elaborate deceptions and disguises (Martin Landau was a makeup expert and a “man of a thousand faces”) and technological wizardry (Greg Morris was something of a proto-computer geek), and then get away with it. They weren’t action heroes and didn’t engage in impossible chase scenes or blow things up. In the first Mission: Impossible film, director Brian de Palma added the exotic locale of Prague and a few heart-pumping action scenes, but also managed to keep a good deal of the elaborate schemes (Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt hanging from that wire while breaking into the CIA, and later using a lifelike mask to pass himself off as Jon Voigt), so that the film seemed to give us what the original series did but more. Subsequent installments in the Mission: Impossible film series have not understood that original concept and have gone mainly for the straight action-film genre.
Perhaps this is the result of Cruise’s involvement—the most reliable of “action” stars in terms of bringing the money in, he seems most interested these days in challenging himself physically and makes no secret of doing his own stunts in his films. In the opening sequence of this fifth MI movie, Rogue Nation, the 53-year-old Cruise leaps onto the wing of a cargo plane and clings to a door handle as the plane takes off—a stunt he repeated eight times to allow director Christopher McQuarrie (reteaming with Cruise after their earlier successful collaboration in Jack Reacher) to shoot the footage he wanted. In a later scene, Cruise swims underwater in a vault where he has a complex task to perform, switching one computer chip for another. Again, Cruise did multiple takes of this grueling scene, during one of which he was required to hold his breath for six minutes.
And, of course, there is a rollicking chase scene involving cars, guns, and motorcycles, and I’m pretty sure Cruise is riding his own cycle there. So yes, the MI series has been dominated by the action scenes because its star likes to be thought of as an action hero. But one good thing that can be said about Rogue Nation is that it is so much more than an action movie.
It turns out that the plane Hunt boards in that opening scene contains weapons that are evidence of the nefarious activities of a secret organization known as the Syndicate whose director Solomon Lane (played with cold malevolence by Sean Harris) sponsors major terrorist acts with the intent of toppling the global political and economic system. Meanwhile the Impossible Mission Force’s current head William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) is appearing before a congressional committee to defend the tactics, and even the very existence, of the team from an attack by CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), who doesn’t believe that this Syndicate even exists. The hearing ends with the disbanding of the Impossible Mission Force and the absorbing of its members by the CIA.
Hunt essentially becomes a rogue agent as he tries to track down Lane with the CIA chasing him. Ultimately, of course, he is helped by Brandt and by his comic sidekick Benjy Dunn (Simon Pegg, like Renner reprising his role from the previous Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol), as well as Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames, returning in his role from earlier films). They are also joined by Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), an agent apparently working for the Syndicate who saves Hunt’s life and then proceeds to help or hinder him at various points of the plot, so that the audience, like Hunt himself, is kept guessing as to her ultimate loyalties.
The film does take s to some exotic venues, including Vienna, Casablanca and London, with pivotal scenes at the Vienna Opera House (where an assassination is planned during a performance of Turandot—from which motifs beautifully pervade the film’s soundtrack) and the Tower of London, where the climax of the film plays out. It also contains two fairly complicated schemes set up by the team: The first, which the audience is let in on, is an elaborate plan (involving Hunt’s underwater escape) to break into an impenetrable fortress (recalling the break into the CIA in the first MI film); the second, which the audience is kept in the dark about, involves the final plot to foil the bad guy’s evil plans for good—a plot that also satisfyingly recalls the first film of the franchise, but I won’t include any spoilers here.
There are lighter moments in the film—with Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames how could it avoid them? And although it focuses particularly on the heroics of the action star Cruise, the overall theme of the film has more to do with camaraderie and solidarity: the MI force as a team working together, and one that refuses to leave a brother behind. The lead actors work well as a team, and some of the supporting cast—notably Harris and Simon McBurney as the head of British MI6—are impressive in their roles. But the most memorable performance in the film is turned in by Rebecca Ferguson as Faust. Her character’s name, of course, suggests her selling her soul to the devil (Harris?), but her playing both sides, her true motives which are always kept just out of reach of the audience, and her own feats of martial prowess that rival those of the “action star”—though she is careful to remove her fashionable shoes before plunging into action—make her the antithesis of the 1960s “Bond girl” of earlier spy films, all of which make her the most interesting part of this movie.
In my view, Rogue Nation is the best action film of this summer. It’s smart, well-made, well-acted and well-paced—the action scenes don’t go on for twenty minutes of one explosion after another until the audience is numbed, but just long enough to remain intense and compel us into the next actual plot element. I’m recommending this one highly—three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare.
You may well, and with good reason, ask yourself why at this point we would need still another Sherlock Holmes. We have, to name only the most obvious, the wildly popular Benedict Cumberbatch-Martin Freeman series on Masterpiece, the Lucy Liu-Jonny Lee Miller series on CBS, and the Robert Downey, Jr.-Jude Law films that have been box office gold for Guy Ritchie. We seem to be in the midst of a Holmes renaissance, and one might assume that the current Bill Condon film Mr. Holmes is simply a low-budget, little-promoted attempt to jump on the Holmes bandwagon. It is not.
Featuring the brilliant Ian McKellen as a nonagenarian Mr. Holmes, Condon’s film is a quiet meditation upon the hyper-rationality of the great detective, as created by Arthur Conan Doyle. But based on Mitch Cullin’s 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, Jeffrey Hatcher’s screenplay gives us a different kind of Holmes than we’ve become accustomed to. In a meta-fictional twist, in this film the “real” Sherlock Holmes is somewhat resentful of his old partner Dr. Watson’s published accounts of his escapades, because of Watson’s tendency to fictionalize things—the deerstalker hat, for instance, and the pipe are simply props created by Watson to round out Holmes’ “character.” In the film, Holmes is particularly annoyed with Watson’s account of his final case. He knows that the resolution of the case as Watson conveyed it in the published story is false, but at his advanced age he cannot remember precisely how that ending is false, and from his faltering memory he spends much of the film trying to piece together the true story of that case, which had for some reason led him to abandon his investigative career, and to leave Baker Street and retire to a small house on the coast near Dover, to raise bees.
The story opens in 1947, as the aging Holmes is returning to England from post-war Japan, where, at the invitation of a mysterious admirer there named Mr. Umezaki, played by Hiroyuki Sanada (Lost, The Wolverine) has lured him with the promise of a miracle herb he hopes may restore his failing memory. Growing only, apparently, in what is left of bomb-ravaged Hiroshima, the plant may be emblematic of new hope springing in the midst of devastation—like the desolation of Holmes’ own psyche. But there is something else going on in Japan, and one of Holmes’ challenges is to find the true reason for Mr. Umezaki’s invitation.
Another mystery, much more mundane, concerns what is killing Holmes’ bees. In his remote farmhouse, Holmes’ only company is his housekeeper Mrs. Munro and her tween-aged son Roger. In a remarkable casting feat, Condon has here been able to call upon and unite the lead actors from his two most critically successful previous films—McKellan (Oscar-nominated from Condon’s Gods and Monsters) and Laura Linney (Oscar-nominated from Condon’s Kinsey), who plays Mrs. Munro. Linney is convincing as a disgruntled widow, trying to do what is best for a son whose remarkable intellect she cannot understand herself. A real surprise is young Milo Parker (Robot Overlords) as Roger. In a sympathetic and compelling performance he manages to arouse our affections as he does those of Holmes, who begins to rely on the boy as his helper with the bees, while at the same time becoming Roger’s mentor and surrogate grandfather.
The film flashes back regularly to 1917, thirty years before the film’s “present” of 1947—the date of that last maddeningly elusive final case, his own “true” version of which Holmes is striving to compose. It involves a despairing, grief-stricken young wife (Hattie Morahan) whose husband believes is being manipulated by a music instructor. The case is set up like a typical Holmes mystery, but in the end turns into something quite different. The film keeps returning to the past as aspects of that case return in snatches to what is left of Holmes’ memory, and with Holmes we learn the truth. McKellen’s shifting back and forth from the frail old man battling senility to the detective at the height of his rational powers is a tour-de-force for actors—though part of the “willing suspension of disbelief” required for the film is accepting that there is in fact a thirty-year difference in age between the 1947 Holmes and the 1917 Holmes.
Ultimately the film looks at the cold detachment and rationality with which Holmes regularly solves his cases and asks whether there may be something missing in a life so tightly contained. Holmes fans may well be disappointed in the film if they are expecting the sort of twist that brings together all the clues at the end, solving the puzzle. If so, they have missed the point, which in large part is that life holds out for us no such denouement.
Among the “action films” and the raunchy comedies of the summer movie season, there’s a good chance that Mr. Holmes might be lost in the shuffle. I’d advise you not to let that happen. Here’s a thinking viewer’s movie that will entertain and enlighten you, and still get you out of the sizzling summer heat. Three Tennysons for this one.
In issue #34 of Showcase magazine in 1961, a new comic-book super-hero was introduced—a brilliant scientist who had found a way to shrink himself down to the size of an ant, while still retaining the strength and power of a full-grown man. The publisher was DC comics and the superhero was called “The Atom.” As the alter-ego of scientist Ray Palmer, the Atom was a huge success, soon getting his own magazine and becoming a member of the famed Justice League of America. The following year, in the September 1962 issue of Tales to Astonish, Marvel comics introduced a new super-hero who could also miniaturize himself, the secret identity of the brilliant scientist Hank Pym. In those days, riding on the popularity of Superman and Batman, DC was the 400 pound gorilla in the comic book universe, and Marvel was just beginning to make its mark with quirky but more psychologically complex characters like Spiderman. Why shouldn’t they take a little bit of creative license and tweak DC’s new hero into something similar in a Marvel vein—and call him “Ant-Man”?
In the newest movie set in the now dominant Marvel universe, however, director Peyton Reed (Bring it On, The Breakup) chooses to adapt the story of the second person to wear the Ant-Man uniform, Scott Lang. In the comics, the character of Lang, introduced in The Avengers magazine in 1979, was an electronics expert who turned to burglary when he was unable to support his family. After doing time in prison, he was hired by Stark International, but when his daughter Cassie fell ill with a heart condition, Lang returned to his criminal life, broke into Hank Pym’s house and stole the Ant-Man costume, and broke into Cross Enterprises. There he found that the villainous Darren Cross was holding Dr. Erica Sondheim prisoner. Lang was able to free Sondheim, the only person capable of saving Cassie’s life, and once Cassie was cured, Lang sought to return the Ant-Man suit to Dr. Pym, but Pym decided to allow Lang to keep the suit, on the promise that he would only use it in a good cause.
The film’s script only follows the broad strokes of the original story. Here, Lang (played with likeable self-deprecation by Paul Rudd) has an MA degree in electrical engineering, but was sent to prison for hacking a giant corporation’s files and taking money from them to put into the accounts of people they had cheated. He’s released early for good behavior, but can’t find a decent job, and is unable to send money to his ex-wife Maggie for Cassie’s support. At his daughter’s birthday party, where Maggie’s new cop-boyfriend Paxton (Bobby Cannavale) makes it clear he is not welcome, Maggie (Judy Geer) tells him he needs to get a job and start stepping up or she’s canceling his visitation rights.
Enter Lang’s old buddy and fellow burglar Luis (Michael Peña), who in ludicrous detail tells Lang about a job he wants to do. Turns out the job is breaking into a safe in Dr. Pym’s house where the only thing Lang finds is what he thinks is an old biker’s suit—but what turns out to be the Ant-Man uniform. It soon becomes clear that Pym (Michael Douglas) set Lang up to steal the suit, and wants him to become Ant-Man in order to stop his former protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) from duplicating Pym’s own technology for Ant-Man and selling it as a weapon of war, the lethal Yellowjacket. The plot to stop Cross also involves Pym’s daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly of TV’s Lost), who works for Cross and has some issues with her father, mainly regarding the death of her mother years before.
The film has a very light touch for a Marvell superhero movie—think a little more Guardians of the Galaxy than Captain America, though the scenes with Pym and his daughter tend to be more serious than those with Lang and Peña. Still it does comment on father-daughter relationships, and gives us an interesting parallel between the Lang/Cassie and the Pym/Hope relationships. There’s also a bit of an Oedipal conflict between Cross and Pym, so that Cross’s villainy seem largely fed by father-figure Pym’s rejection of him, leaving him with a desire to destroy the father. But these things are only very lightly touched upon.
The movie does have its flaws. My wife, never much enamored of giant insects and not much impressed by action scenes, called the movie “gross and boring.” There is something to be said for that point of view. The bugs are kind of disgusting, but mainly I didn’t find them particularly interesting as visual effects. Which reminds me—don’t waste your money by seeing this in 3-D. There’s nothing here that needs that enhancement, and no effects worth remarking on from my point of view. As for the action scenes, yes, they tend to be as dull and redundant as the action scenes of summer blockbuster movies usually are, full of quick cuts that make it difficult to figure out just what is happening; but fortunately there aren’t that many of them, and often the unusual point of view of the Ant-Man character gives such scenes a comic twist, as in the scene where the toy train threatens to run over Yellowjacket.
There are moments when the script seems to be confused—perhaps the inevitable result of four different hands working on it, including Rudd himself and the original director Edgar Wright (of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, who left the production because of “artistic differences”—his intent, apparently, was to make the movie an all-out spoof). But when Pym has to explain to Lang (who has a master’s in electrical engineering) what the quantum universe is, it doesn’t quite ring true. And the movie as a whole is schizophrenic. Overall, it’s a little hard to tell whether the movie wants to be that serious one that Pym and Hope want to play in, or that comic one of Rudd and Peña’s.
Who knows? Maybe it would have given Lang a more believable motive for becoming Ant-Man if they had kept the original comic book plot of his having to rescue the doctor that could save his daughter’s life, rather than trying to prevent Cross’s using the technology for evil, which is really Pym’s big concern, not Lang’s. The movie could also have been more entertaining in itself without the necessity that the producers seemed to feel of connecting Ant-Man’s story with the rest of the Marvel universe (the scene in which Lang visits a Stark Enterprises warehouse seems completely unnecessary as far as this particular film’s plot goes).
But some of these things are quibbles. The movie is fun and entertaining. Rudd is charming, likeable, and funny as he always is, and his light touch is perfect for a movie about a very light super hero. Peña is hilarious as the sidekick. Douglas is appropriately respectable and virtuous, and gets to be a little more than one-sided because of his complex grief over his wife; Stoll’s could also be pretty much of a one-note performance if not for that Oedipal thing he’s got going on. Greer, unfortunately, is given almost nothing to do, which makes her character forgettable, as opposed to her boyfriend Cannavale, who has a lot more to play with in his relationship with Cassie and with Lang. Abby Ryder Fortson is fine as Cassie—at least she’s not cloying and annoying as child actors are often wont to be—and she is believable as a child forced to divide her loyalties. Much better fleshed out (character-wise) is Lilly, and there is a nice chemistry between her and Rudd.
On the whole, the film is worth seeing. You’ll probably have a better time at it than some of the bigger action movies of the summer that are taking themselves much more seriously. I’ll give it two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson.
Back in the fifth century, a Latin writer named Prudentius composed a poem called Psychomachia (the “Battle of the Spirits”), in which he personified virtues and vices that might coexist within the human mind and portrayed them at war with one another: Chastity is assaulted by Lust, Patience is attacked by Anger, Greed is presented as the enemy of Love. It was the first of a whole literary tradition of allegory—the personifying of abstractions—popular throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. Flip the calendar forward to 2015, and Pixar has come up with a “creative” and “new” approach to presenting internal conflicts by externalizing them (the inside does come out) and presenting them in the form of…personified abstractions.
Not that I have anything against this approach. It worked for a thousand years back in the day, why shouldn’t it work now? Especially when it is undergirded by contemporary psychology and entertainingly voiced by the likes of Amy Pohler (as the sometimes overbearing Joy), Phyllis Smith (as the overlooked but ultimately vital Sadness), Bill Hader (as Fear), Mindy Kaling (as Disgust), and the absolutely hilarious Lewis Black (as, who else, Anger).
There are two levels to the plot of “Inside Out”: there’s, well, an inside and an outside. The outside, or surface plot, goes like this: Riley (Kaitlyn Davis) is an eleven-year old girl who moves from Minneapolis to San Francisco. Hard enough for a child of any age, but for a pre-adolescent eleven-year-old girl, forced to leave all of her friends and her most avid interests (ice hockey in Riley’s case) and start over again, a real trauma. Riley’s parents (voiced by Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) are having their own difficulties adjusting, and her mother expresses her gratitude to Riley for taking everything in stride in being her “happy little girl.”
But Riley is called on by her teacher on her first day at her new school and forced to introduce herself to her classmates, breaking down in the midst of her introduction as she realizes how much she has lost. Her audition for the local hockey team also goes awry, and Riley spins emotionally out of control.
The parallel inside plot follows Riley’s personified feelings—Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust—as they react to the things that are occurring in the outside world, and try to drive Riley in particular directions. In this they are led primarily by Joy, who believes she must be dominant in Riley’s life, largely to the exclusion of other emotions. The inner feelings preserve Riley’s memories, most of which—particularly the “core memories” that are stored deepest in Riley’s psyche—are the color of joy.
With the family’s move to San Francisco, however, Sadness begins to take a more active role in matters inside Riley’s head, much to Joy’s dismay. Not only does Joy struggle against events as she seeks to dominate Riley’s psyche, but at the same time she does everything she can to keep Sadness down and negate any effects that contrary emotion might have in Riley’s emotional life. But when Joy and Sadness are accidentally sucked deep into Riley’s long term memory, where they meet the nearly forgotten Bing Bong, Riley’s imaginary friend (Richard Kind), who helps them as they struggle to return to the control center of Riley’s mind. In their absence, Anger, Fear and Disgust have taken over and have steered Riley onto what may be a disastrous path.
“Inside Out” has four major positives going for it: First, its allegorical presentation of the workings of the mind—the subconscious, the memory, the intertwined emotions—is creative, imaginative, and entertaining, even if it is 1500 years old. Second, the story allows for moments of clever humor (the “train of thought” is an actual train that puffs along the tracks of Riley’s mind; dreams are created in a “dream factory,” complete with a production crew and soundstage. One of Riley’s more frightening memories is a clown from an early birthday party). Third, the voices of the television personalities who inhabit the major roles do a remarkable job bringing those characters to life. Finally and most importantly, the film undercuts the dangerous attitude that all our emotions must be sublimated to happiness in favor of a healthier acceptance of sadness, anger and fear. It is a message that may surprise audiences expecting Joy to win out in the end, as a good summer Hollywood blockbuster should.
The film is animated, but may be beyond the grasp of small children. Adults will get the most out of it, but eleven-year-olds who can relate to Riley’s plight are likely to grasp most of the subtleties of Docter’s story. This is a film that ranks with Dokter’s other great triumphs—“Toy Story” and “Up”—and as such is likely to be the best animated film of the year. I’ll give this one three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare.
Ruud Reviews Movie Rating Scale
This is a great film.
You need to see it, or incur my wrath.
This movie is worth seeing.
I’d go if I were you. But then, I go to a lot of movies.
2 Jacqueline Susanns
If you like this kind of movie, you’ll probably be entertained by this one.
I wasn’t all that much.
1 Robert Southey
This one really isn’t worth your money. If you’re compelled to see it anyway, at least be smart enough to wait until you can see it for less money on Netflix or HBO. If you go see it in the theater, I may never speak to you again.