Saturday, December 19, 2015

Movie Reviews: Just Before I Go, Ant-Man, The Wannabe

Just Before I Go
directed by Courteney Cox
This film is superficially interesting on initial view but the deeper you get into it the less it makes sense. Cox relies on some warmed over racist tropes (the black characters are only there to help the white characters find themselves ; the sole black female character is a loud brassy obese woman with a substance abuse problem) and relatively flat motivations for some of the other characters. Although the idea behind the movie (You can't go home again) is a old one I was hoping that Cox would be able to put some oomph into her take on this story. That turned out not to be the case. Part of the problem was that the story tried to reach for American Beauty levels of subtext and *important* storytelling while remaining wed to American Pie levels of crassness and silliness. So everything is uneven. The hero's motivation is so weakly defined that I never felt any sympathy or empathy for him. He's an incredibly dull man. And if a male director had crafted a role for Kate Walsh where 90% of her character's scenes involved pleasuring herself while semi-topless in front of her brother-in-law, I imagine that some people would start screaming sexism. There are some directors who can very easily make bittersweet comedy/dramas or "dramedies". Cox isn't one of them yet. Ted Morgan (Seann William Scott) is a man in his late thirties/early forties who feels (not strongly because he doesn't seem to have strong feelings about anything) that life has passed him by. He doesn't have any career path that beyond a dead end lower management job at a pet supply store. His wife (Elisha Cuthbert) cheats on him with her guitar instructor. In the ensuing divorce she accuses Ted of just stumbling through life without any purpose or excitement. She gets no passion from Ted. And apparently that is why she decided to hitch a ride on another man's train. How Ted's personality failings morally justify her adultery isn't clear but her criticism clearly cuts Ted to the bone. He's left reeling after being dumped. He feels worthless and inept.
Looking back on life Ted thinks that everything started to go downhill after his father's (Clancy Brown) death when Ted was in grade school. That was when Ted attracted the negative attention of two bullies, one of whom was a teacher. Ted thinks his life is pointless. He decides to kill himself. But he doesn't want to do that before he returns to his hometown to settle the score with the bullies and say goodbye (without announcing his suicidal intent) to his stereotypically blustering clueless macho chief of police older brother, Lucky (Garret Dillahunt), Lucky's wife Kathleen (Kate Walsh), his lesbian mother (Connie Stevens) and her Elvis impersonator partner (Dianne Ladd). But upon Ted's arrival he discovers that his nephew Zeke (Kyle Gallner) needs some help accepting who he is. This is shown, like most other things in this film, in a rather hamfisted manner. And the people who gleefully bullied Ted back in the day, most comically the earnest Rowley (Rob Riggle), are now totally different people who deeply regret their previous actions. Some of them don't have great lives themselves. A former grade school crush, Vickie (Mackenzie Marsh), is very happy to see him while his former teacher's granddaughter, Greta (Olivia Thirlby) has her own hidden reasons for tagging along to document Ted's last days. So Ted has to make a decision as to whether this suicide thing is still for him. In more experienced hands this could have been a more interesting and perceptive film. Unfortunately Just Before I Go always seeks the cheap laughs, while ineptly attempting to shoehorn in "important" messages about bullying, sexuality, acceptance and whatnot. The film was trying too hard to be something Wes Anderson would have done. You can safely skip this movie, unless you are eagerly anticipating seeing Kate Walsh almost topless. 

There aren't many surprises or new takes on old tropes. Thirlby did a good job with what she had. She just didn't have a whole lot with which to work. This film is something that, absent the generalized vulgarity, would have been a good fit for a 70s era ABC After School Special.


directed by Peyton Reed
This is a movie whose titular hero was never someone whose story interested me all that much. I mean, really your great superpower is that you can shrink yourself to the size of an ant and control ants? Whoop-de-doo! And who pray tell is your great enemy, against whom you must always be on guard? Borax Man? The Big Boot? The mysterious enemy known as The Broom? No I wasn't expecting very much from this film. But I was pleasantly surprised. Sure the story was something that's been done a million times before in various fairy tales and classic literature. A young impoverished man must win the trust of the king (and the hand of the princess) by performing great heroics and defending the kingdom against the renegade evil prince. But old stories stick around because they work. And yet because I wasn't as familiar with the specifics of the Ant-Man storyline as I was with the details of other Marvel heroes, it still had a few places where either the events or the special effects impressed. This is overall a fun movie that doesn't take itself too seriously. And that helps the viewer to enjoy it a lot. It drags ever so slightly in the middle but brings the bacon home at the end.

Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) is a scientist (and the original Ant-Man) who has perfected shrinking technology. However, much like Einstein, he's quite troubled by the military application of his advances in physics. He resigns from S.H.I.E.L.D. and is later forced out of his own company by his resentful daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) and his former protege Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) who may have a thing for Hope but definitely wants to prove to Hank that he's just as good as Hank at science. Cross is getting closer every day to perfecting Hank's old technology. And unlike Hank he has no problems with military applications. He's not even particular about to which nation or terrorist organization he sells his technology. Hope doesn't exactly like Cross but she thinks her father unfairly dismisses her abilities on account of her sex. And she also has unprocessed feelings over her mother's long ago death, something that her father won't talk about. Hank and Hope snipe at each other throughout the movie. Hope is no shrinking violet. She's back on her father's side..maybe. The father and daughter become angrier with one another when Hank, getting more and more worried about Cross' scientific progress and amoral worldview, decides to manipulate Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), an electrical engineer/activist/burglar, into working with him. Hope sees this as patriarchal betrayal of her. She has a need to prove to Daddy that she's just as capable as any man and certainly more so than Scott. Scott is just trying to stay on course to do the right thing by his ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer) and daughter. But it's difficult since no one is eager to hire an ex-con. No money means he can't provide child support. No child support means no visitation. And Maggie's new husband Paxton (Bobby Cannavale), while not entirely unsympathetic to Scott's fatherly prerogatives, would nevertheless prefer that Scott not show up and mess up his good thing with Maggie. Paxton is a cop so he's always giving Scott a little sideways look.

The special effects are impressive and thoughtful. Scott's burglary crew (Michael Pena, T.I., David Dastmalchian) provides a lot of the film's humor with one-liners, deadpan reactions and clothing styles.  Anthony Mackie has a quick cameo as The Falcon. As mentioned there are predictable story elements but overall this film was a fun ride. You should see it. It's not a grim or violent movie. It won't change your life or anything, but it satisfied. The good guys are good and the bad guys are bad. What more do you need? I enjoyed this movie.

The Wannabe

directed by Nick Sandow
This movie is based on the same true life story which inspired the film, Rob The Mob, previously reviewed here. If I had known that ahead of time I might not have sat down to watch the movie. It is interesting how some small time criminals manage to become larger than life Robin Hood/Bonnie and Clyde types while others live and die in utter obscurity. The husband and wife who were at the heart of this movie now have at least two different films detailing their exploits. I'm not sure they deserved one. This film has a slightly higher end cast than Rob The Mob (recognize all the names from The Sopranos, The Wire and Boardwalk Empire) but I don't think it fully reached the cast's potential.  The primary difference in how the two films treat their subjects is that in The Wannabe the duo, Thomas especially (Vincent Piazza) is portrayed not as any sort of tragic heroic dyad but as two low class deluded losers. Thomas lives up to the movie's title. He's someone who's on the periphery of the fringe of the outside of organized crime. Thomas tries to dress and talk like a gangster in order to convince people who don't know him that he's somehow connected. In truth he only knows a few mobsters about as well as the company CEO knows the first floor security guard. When Thomas is released from prison after a sentence for robbing video stores, he attempts to ingratiate himself with real gangsters by claiming mob bona fides for keeping his mouth shut about crimes no one ordered him to commit. Thomas tries to sound like a tough guy by quoting mob movies. Thomas' fake persona and claims of Mafia affiliation annoy authentic local gangsters, including the physically imposing Mickey (Domenick Lombardozzi), the quiet Sicilian neighborhood boss Richie (Vincenzo Amato) and the abrasive Queens neighborhood watchman (Mike Starr). In what is obvious foreboding each of these men tell Thomas at different times and in different ways: "You're not with us.".

Having fantasies of meeting and saving indicted Gambino boss and man-crush John Gotti, Thomas hangs around Gotti's Queens neighborhood where he meets, befriends and beds (not necessarily in that order) Rose (Patricia Arquette). Rose falls hard for Thomas and will later marry him. But as Rose's relatives point out, Rose, who is a junkie, is not exactly the best judge of character. Thomas' brother Alphonse (Michael Imperioli) tries to keep Thomas grounded in reality but you can tell that he's tired of this fight.  When a harebrained scheme to use fellow courtroom observer The Twin (Doug E. Doug) to bribe a Gotti trial juror falls apart, Thomas can't stand the difference between reality and his fantasy any more. Like Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy, Thomas takes drastic steps to get people to recognize that yes, he really is somebody. These steps include robbing various Mafia social clubs and trying to murder Curtis Sliwa (Daniel Sauli), who has been relentless in his criticism of the Mafia in general and the Gottis in particular. David Zayas has a small role as a television reporter who torments Thomas in his dreams. Martin Scorsese was an executive producer for this film but it's not something which really bears his mark in any real way I could see-with the possible exception of the ending. There are a lot of scenes showing the couple enjoying drugs and the material goods they bought with their robbery proceeds. These get kind of repetitive. 

The film itself was shot in a murky style. But perhaps that was a deliberate choice to portray 90s era NYC. This is not, despite the subject matter, a shoot em up gangster story. It's more about two sad characters and how they lie to themselves. It does have a certain panache to it but I think you'd have to be in a certain mood to enjoy this story. Rose's nervous energy plays nicely against Thomas' self-pity. Rose, despite her substance abuse issues, seems to be better grounded than Thomas. 

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