(Netflix Streaming, March 2016) It had to happen at some point: I think I’ve reached a certain jadedness level regarding the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. The time to wonder at how Marvel maintains such a level of quality has passed; we may have entered the age of diminishing returns. Or I’m being grouchy for no good reason: Ant-Man, after all, is competently made, decently paced, suitably integrated with the rest of the MCU … it’s hard to point at the film and say that something is wrong with it. Paul Rudd is a good choice for the titular role, bringing his usual affability on-screen and setting up an interesting addition to the ongoing MCU serial. The film’s microscopic action sequences feel new enough, and the film’s relatively small scale and restrained ambitions is a welcome change of pace from the usual save-the-world grandiosity of most other comic-book movies. However… Ant-Man does feel quite a bit more ordinary than it ought to have been. The scale-switching action leaves us hungry for more, the usually-enjoyable Corey Stoll seems wasted in a fairly typical villainous role, while Evangeline Lilly seems far more capable than what little she’s given to do here. (But then there’s the sequel to consider.) In short, there’s a sense that as competent as it is, Ant-Man is holding back from its true potential. Without getting into the what-ifs of the film’s troubled production history in which director Ed Wright (whose movies I love) was replaced by Peyton Reed (whose first two movies I love), it seems as if Reed wasn’t able or allowed to push Ant-Man as far as it could go. The result is fine, but the problem with MCU films is that they have to top themselves in order to keep the wow factor: Once you’ve hit The Avengers, Guardian of the Galaxy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier levels, it’s hard to go back to mere competence. Heck, when even Age of Ultron starts smelling like déjà vu, the MCU enters a new phase: how to keep things interesting without necessarily saving the world every time. Ant-Man is a sufficiently different beast to keep things interesting, but it also hints at how difficult it’s going to be to keep up interest at a time when half a dozen new comic-book movies are scheduled every year.
(Video on Demand, January 2015) Considering the amazing cast put together for This is Where I Leave You, it would be understandable to expect a bit more from the results. I count at least nine interesting actors on the top bill, and seeing some of them play against each other is almost fun no matter the material they’re given. As siblings (and their assorted partners) reunite after the death of their father, the film becomes an intricate multi-ring circus of entwined subplots –enough of them that you’re guaranteed to relate. There are laughs, cringe-worthy situations, a surprising amount of R-rated material and an ending that ties up most loose ends hopefully. Jason Bateman is his usual leading-man self, Jane Fonda gets a late chance to play her curves, Corey Stoll and Adam Driver finally gets substantial big-screen comedy roles, Tina Fey and Kathryn Hahn are effortlessly likable… think of this film as a buffet and you won’t be too far off the final impression. Of course, this means that some parts don’t entirely work, or feel contrived, or are executed more mechanically than anything else. There’s wasted potential here, magnified by the known-name actors. (I suspect that had it featured unknowns, the film would have earned better reviews.) Still, as far a dysfunctional family comedies and assorted romantic dramas go, This is Where I Leave You is decently enjoyable, with enough twists and turns and revelations and set-piece sequences to justify the running time.
(On Cable TV, October 2013) Woody Allen’s “European capitals” tour continues to please, as romantic fantasy Midnight in Paris goes to the French capital for a bit of nostalgic introspection and historical comedy. As a Hollywood screenwriter with a fondness for the classics discovers that he can time-travel back to the nineteen-twenties, writer/director Allen turn in a film that appear effortlessly charming and quite a bit wise about the pernicious appeal of excessive nostalgia. Owen Wilson is his own unique self as the protagonist: Midnight in Paris would have been completely different with another actor, as Wilson’s hang-dog charm and wide-eyes befuddlement makes him a perfect match for the material. Otherwise, the performances to highlight are those in which a few actors get to play with historical figures; Kathy Bates is riveting as Gertrude Stein, and Corey Stoll is instantly compelling as Ernest Hemingway. As for the rest of the picture, well, it’s refreshingly mum about the time-traveling rationale, well-photographed (especially during its credit sequence, which shows us much of picturesque Paris in three-and-a-half minutes), generally amiable and maybe even untouchable for the kind of low-key comedy it aims to be. Compared to Allen’s latest films, Midnight in Paris is even a bit more hopeful and comforting in its resolution. (Well, except for the detective stuck in Versailles. Poor guy.)