Ant-Man (Peyton Reed, 2015)

As a rollicking if innocuous expansion pack to the oceanic MCU, Ant-Man is largely a character-driven affair that’s succumbed to unfortunate timeline placement. Opening with a meeting of the minds-cum-fallout circa 1989, it becomes abundantly clear that Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) is undyingly protective of his breakthrough brainchild the Pym Particle: a subatomic compound that allows for the shrinking of matter whilst it retains all of its original physical attributes. Two-plus decades later, unstable protégé and successor to the Pym throne Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) has closed in on replicating the formula, thus alarming Pym himself and prompting the recruitment of recently sprung ex-con and would-be electrical engineer Scott Lang (Paul Rudd). Given Lang’s skillful proclivity for thievery in the face of adversity, he’s recruited in an attempt to quell Cross’ ill motives via elaborate heist scheme, all the while pining for his daughter’s love amid requisite preparatory training montages.

Despite Ant-Man’s early prominence as an inaugural member of Marvel’s Avengers, the film in question unavoidably pales in comparison to the MCU’s more renowned heavy hitters, prompting me to wonder just how disparate Wright’s involvement could (and assuredly would) have been. Instead, we’re bombarded with a lot of expository pseudo science that fails to elevate the proceedings above the simplicity of character origin trappings and a general banality of narrative. Humanism is confined to basal familial relationships and corresponding motives – Lang longs to reconcile with his estranged daughter; Pym with his – yet its all ineffectual as the predictable evolution of Rudd’s at-first bumbling Lang segues into a comparably ordinary heist caper.

For as detail-heavy Ant-Man is regarding the Pym Particle and its wide-reaching gravitas, the proceedings can’t help but pander to the Marvel cinematic stencil we’ve come to expect from every subsequent franchise entry. Rudd is fine as Lang and exudes serviceable chemistry with Douglas and Evangeline Lilly as Pym’s daughter Hope but, at the end of the day, Ant-Man is too largely inconsequential as an attempt to broaden the broad with a lack of sustained engagement in the vein of other films’ multi-strand narrative bombast. Thankfully, there’s still fun to be had thanks to the charming juvenility of size-changing sight gags and one-liners.

Thanks to a combination of formula and bad timing, Ant-Man‘s introduction into the MCU is just that: a mild-mannered insertion of the character’s mythos into a recognizably dense body of predecessors. Wright’s unfortunate departure aside, I find it hard to believe that even his panache as a witty, moreover stylistically-inclined purveyor of quality cinema could’ve substantially elevated the film above fanboy expectations. It’s biggest problem is that it exists and attempts to thrive within a singular, unexplored universe to little avail to the opposite effect of last summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy. A poor and obvious comparison for sure, however the performances and intermittent wit serve to overshadow maudlin narrative chunks and mostly flaccid action set pieces.

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My Top 10 Films of 2013

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Hello everyone, and welcome to my not-so-punctual list of the best films that I saw throughout the year 2013! For a second consecutive time, I ventured out to Toronto, Canada for a predictably lauded TIFF experience – once that you folks have likely recognized as one of note given my discussion of many a worthwhile film. As always, the films I saw last year – regardless of a scheduled 2014 theatrical release – are eligible by default for this list’s consideration. So, without further adieu, I now present to the list you’ve been (or haven’t been) waiting for!

NOTE: While everything I’ve reviewed already has been paired with an excerpt from said reviews, let it be known that I still feel the same way about each of these films with the exception of 12 Years of a Slave, of which has grown on me since my initial viewing of it. That being said, click on the images to read my full-length reviews (where applicable)!

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My August ’13 in Review

A solid month preceding my year-defining stint at TIFF in what’s presently just a few days’ time, August yielded a heavy theatrical load, a majority of which ranged from plain worthwhile to thoroughly enjoyable as unavoidable duds still wormed their way in.

Prince Avalanche 2Prince Avalanche (David Gordon Green, 2013)

A recognizable if somewhat slight return to form for David Gordon Green, Prince Avalanche is a genre-melding success thanks largely to several key sequences and strong central performances. Though thematically sparse, things still remain poignant enough to hold one’s interest as a foreseeable joint bout of maturation washes over the coworkers at the film’s core. Full review here.

The Grandmaster 2The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-wai, 2013)

A viscerally grand if detrimentally sweeping period epic, Kar-wai’s long-gestating The Grandmaster is a lyrical account of the legendary Ip Man (Tony Leung) and his peers’ influential martial arts prowess. Although masterfully choreographed bits of sparring take center stage whenever present, the production as a whole still remains very distinct and resonant as we watch key events unfold at regular intervals. Full review here.

Drinking Buddies 2Drinking Buddies (Joe Swanberg, 2013)

Concisely and incisively addressing the complex line between friends and lovers, Drinking Buddies captures the subsequent messiness that arises when flirty, otherwise engaged coworkers ambiguously maintain a questionably strong relationship. Forgoing grating genre tropes in favor of embracing a slice of seriocomic gold, Swanberg laughs effortlessly in the face of mediocrity while presenting us with a highly engaging and unpredictable slice of relatable cinematic substance. Full review here.

The World's End 2The World’s End (Edgar Wright, 2013)

A more than fitting conclusion to Edgar Wright’s “Cornetto Trilogy,” The World’s End sports its predecessors’ trademark blend of wit and intended genre twists, this time honing in on an invading otherworldly species. Ceaselessly engaging, technically flawless and even a bit touching, Frost, Pegg and Wright have all contributed valuably to a deservedly lauded series of films that will certainly stand the test of time. Full review here.

Blue Jasmine 2Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen, 2013)

As a brilliantly acted and conceived slice of Woody Allen-infused humanism, Blue Jasmine‘s titular narcissist’s unrelenting mental collapse following her ex-husband’s imprisonment is involving beyond words. Acutely addressing the toxicity of Jasmine’s (Cate Blanchett) personality in relation to the distant sister she forces her presence upon, uncomfortable occurrences are plentiful as intermittently unveiled bits of the former’s past steadily increase in significance. A characteristically elegant effort from one of my favorite, moreover legendarily prolific filmmakers, Blue Jasmine is a laudably welcome departure from a majority of 2013’s pre-Fall offerings. Full review here.

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Other first-time viewings (in alphabetical order):

The Canyons (Schrader, ’13)
Closed Circuit (Crowley, ’13)
The Double Life of Veronique (Kieslowski, ’91)
Elysium (Blomkamp, ’13)
Europa Report (Cordero, ’13)
Magic Magic (Silva, ’13)
Scenic Route (Goetz & Goetz, ’13)
You’re Next (WIngard, ’13)

Total number of films watched (including re-watches): 13

The World’s End (Edgar Wright, 2013)

It’s no surprise that films tend to pale in comparison to their immediate or spiritual predecessors. Whether a creative team forges its own cinematic legacy or unnecessarily perpetuates a preexisting series or an undying trend, you’ll undoubtedly overhear something in the vein of “That was pretty good, but not as good as…” In the case of the Edgar Wright-piloted but collaboratively written “Cornetto Trilogy,” we have an absolute case of the former, wherein inventive and intelligent reworkings of recognizable genre cliches transformed the familiar into a wholly enjoyable three-film streak spanning nine years.

Initially honing in on infamous derelict Gary King (Simon Pegg) – nearing his forties and paralyzed by the throngs of adolescence – as he rounds up his childhood buddies for a legendary, previously failed pub crawl, the entire lot soon if regretfully finds themselves back on the streets of their once native Newton Haven. Symbolizing a bit more to the one-track-minded boozehound at its helm, discomfort and distaste steam to a boil as past demons reemerge, however something queer’s going on among the local population – something that poses a threat more dire than failing to complete the “Golden Mile” a second time, if only to those with common sense.

Even considering their unifying creative quirks, each installment of the Cornetto Trilogy has always taken the time to establish a sense of individuality among its characters and setting regardless of recurring leads or themes. From film to film, Pegg and Wright have consistently delivered unparalleled, intendedly homage-esque if gleefully standalone efforts that have become staples within the realm of comedy-centric genre melding. In The World’s End‘s case specifically, it too combines whip-smart dialogue and humor with darker undertones and requisite action-oriented bits in an agreeably wonderful fashion.

Wright’s flourishes lend themselves admirably to the proceedings as always, the film’s breakneck pacing and presentation halting only briefly for bits of deliberation among surviving lads. Although few could be so stupid as to hang around for as long as the key players do, such a noticeable narrative hiccup serves to add fuel to The World’s End recognizable departure from its giddier antics – one in the form of a brewing catharsis on Gary and Andy’s (Nick Frost) behalf that we expect from the get-go. In short, the script as a whole is nothing but a seriocomic melting pot of human emotion and a nuanced Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the latter of which serves to produce some seriously enjoyable fight choreography that gives your standard big-budgeted yarn a run for its money.

From a meticulous attention to detail to the wide-reaching if consistently enjoyably absurdity of its first two-thirds, the Cornetto Trilogy’s third and final installment serves as a solid testament to apt singular filmmaking. For what it’s assuredly worth, Frost, Pegg and Wright have successfully produced a trio of films that deserve to be revered for as long as they have and will be. While not as strong in comparison to its two predecessors, and forgive me for belying my introductory mission statement, The World‘s End very competently and even endlessly engages thanks to all of the proverbial puzzle pieces being present and fitting perfectly into place. Superbly acted and rarely missing a beat, this film’s somewhat weak sci-fi trappings don’t quite match the daunting immensity of Shaun‘s zombies or the conspiratorial hilarity of Hot Fuzz, yet the discrepancy is negligible as it should be and I for one love just about everything The World’s End does as a figurative endcap.

My Top 10 Films of 2010

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Year-end lists aren’t necessarily hot commodities these days, especially in the realm of us film bloggers. They’re often bland, repetitive as such and generally uninteresting. Why am I compiling one you ask? The answer’s simple: I love lists, and I love film even more.

While 2010 wasn’t what you’d call a landmark year for filmmaking, there were more than a handful of above average efforts I had the pleasure of viewing, a good deal of which arrived in theaters just in the nick of time. This in mind, I’m proud to say that I’m pleased with my choices for the ten best of the past year, and in spite of not being the most awe-inspiring or original, it’s safe to say I’ve finally kicked the habit of letting the opinions of others directly affect my own; something I feel has been reflected in the list I’m about to share with you. Enjoy, and as always, feel free to comment on whatever you’d like.

Honorable mentions (in alphabetical order): Buried, Catfish, Cyrus, Easy A, Enter the Void, The Fighter, Greenberg, Never Let Me Go, The Town, Toy Story 3

10. 127 Hours (dir. Danny Boyle)

Danny Boyle and I have never really gotten along. Sure, I enjoy the hell of 28 Days Later and (most of) Sunshine, but the director’s noticeable creative flourishes have often struck me as somewhat ostentatious. With 127 Hours however, Boyle managed to strike a perfect balance between his signature style and the affecting, emotionally charged framework of the true story the film is based on, allowing James Franco to shine in a breathtaking turn as the one and only Aron Ralston. It’s this performance that transforms the film from good to great, but Boyle’s uncanny ability to keep a film set entirely within a barren crevasse as engrossing as it is further elevates 127 Hours above its contenders.

9. Animal Kingdom (dir. David Michôd)

You can’t throw a rock inside your local Blockbuster without hitting the latest pseudo-intellectual crime drama littered with predictable twists and turns. Having heard nothing but praise for David Michôd’s Australia-set Animal Kingdom, I decided to take a gamble and walked away much more than just pleasantly surprised. Sure, the textbook elements of the genre’s precursors are there, twists and all, but the hard-hitting narrative and genuinely interesting characters bring a whole lot more to the table while Michôd deftly sidesteps any and all clichés. Emotionally riveting and beautifully shot, Animal Kingdom is easily the best feature-length debut from any director to come along in quite some time.

8. Let Me In (dir. Matt Reeves)

Just the thought of remaking a contemporary horror classic roughly 2 years after its theatrical release is blasphemous enough, but actually acting upon that thought and doing the unthinkable is an entirely different animal. Surprisingly enough, director Matt Reeves of Cloverfield fame has managed to do something countless others haven’t: produce a remake that actually surpasses the original. As bold as this statement sounds, Reeves’ thoughtfulness in combining the key elements that made the original so great with his singular, tasteful creative touches have allowed me to stand by these words even months down the line. Throw in a pair of captivating performances from two of Hollywood’s most promising young upstarts and you’ve almost perfected something that was already dangerously close to perfection.

7. The Kids Are All Right (dir. Lisa Cholodenko)

While some may feel differently about Lisa Cholodenko’s seriocomic foray into the world of familial relations and the importance of togetherness, I found it to be quite the masterpiece. With a budget of around $4 million, it’s safe to say that anything less than a stellar narrative would fail to deliver where the film most certainly should have, and stellar is precisely how it can be described. Deftly avoiding both convention and melodrama to craft an exceptionally well-rounded and accessible piece of cinema, Cholodenko’s indie hit rests safely among the year’s best and showcases several probable Oscar-worthy performances.

6. Inception (dir. Christopher Nolan)

Some call it a “thinking man’s blockbuster.” Others say it’s overrated. Seeing as how Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending venture into the inner workings of our very own subconscious has scored a spot on this list, Inception in my eyes is far from overrated; it’s just that good. As an exceedingly intelligent piece of science fiction, Nolan’s sprawling epic puts forth ideas so appealingly complex that any flaws the film does have are immediately overshadowed by the multi-layered narrative that’s bewildered even the most seasoned of viewers. Accompanied by unique, jaw-dropping visuals and an unforgettable musical score, Inception received the attention and overt praise it most certainly deserved.

5. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (dir. Edgar Wright)

The phrase “It was like nothing I’d ever seen!” is probably one of the most hyperbolic and generally misused statements heard today. Sure, I’ve been found guilty of throwing it around here and there, especially after watching something as unique as Edgar Wright’s nearly flawless adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s acclaimed graphic novels. It’s no secret that Wright himself has provided us with a pair of the most hilarious, well-written action comedies to come along in the past decade, and Scott Pilgrim can safely be considered the third. Fantastic sense of humor aside, the film incorporates a wildly entertaining visual flair to coincide with the very essence of the source material, the inclusion of which takes Scott Pilgrim to noticeably new heights within the realm of cinema, even if some may already be suffering from Michael Cera overload.

4. Exit Through the Gift Shop (dir. Banksy)

In the world of street art, to say the name Banksy rings a bell is like saying the Grand Canyon is just a ditch. Originally meant to be a documentary about the famed faceless legend himself, Banksy instead took it upon himself to switch roles with the individual who had initially set out to work with him: the bizarre and eccentric Thierry Guetta. Whether the production as a whole is a hoax or not, it’s hard to deny how fascinating this mostly up-close examination of the most renowned artists of our time truly is, despite the bizarre shift in focus that inadvertently sheds light on topics frequently touched upon within the art world. Humorous, intriguing and just plain wonderful, Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop is one of the few documentaries I’ve ever taken such a fervent liking toward.

3. Black Swan (dir. Darren Aronofsky)

Easily discernible as the quintessential companion piece to director Darren Aronofsky’s previous effort, Black Swan once again unflinchingly and brilliantly illustrates the tragic downfall of an individual forever consumed by his or her demanding profession. Aided by a magnificent central performance from Natalie Portman, Aronofsky’s genre-bending psychological thriller is both appropriately melodramatic and wildly entertaining, even as Nina’s deteriorating mental health and overwhelming fragility begin to haunt us as much as they do her. Tense throughout and an absolute wonder to behold, Black Swan is more than just an acceptable companion piece: it’s a stroke of genius.

2. The Social Network (dir. David Fincher)

Creating a film that effectively defines an entire generation of people in just under two hours is quite the achievement. David Fincher’s The Social Network is just such an achievement, bringing with it an unsurpassed cinematic prowess that largely excels due to its enthralling, lightning fast pace and ingenious script. Granted, the story surrounding the social networking behemoth’s inception is fascinating within itself, but Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of the young billionaire that’s responsible is equally to thank for how great the project turned out. Oscar contenders abound round out an already stellar cast and Fincher’s confidence behind the camera ensures that The Social Network is easily one of the year’s best.

1. Blue Valentine (dir. Derek Cianfrance)

After driving nearly three hours to this past year’s Philadelphia Film Festival to see this and this alone, I assure you that the experience was as rewarding as can be. While contemporary meditations on love found and lost aren’t necessarily a dime a dozen, Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine carries with it a sense of authenticity so powerful it’s almost surreal. Alternately depicting the highest highs and lowest lows of a couple’s relationship as one Dean struggles desperately to rekindle what he and wife Cindy once had, the film itself remains a hugely affecting, almost devastating account of what it’s like to find and lose that love you swore you’d never find again. Additionally, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams commit to their roles so convincingly that most of what makes Blue Valentine so perfect by way of believability can be traced back to their dynamite performances. It isn’t the easiest film to watch, but it sure is beautiful, which is precisely why Derek Cianfrance’s indie drama rises above the rest.

Review: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

Directed by: Edgar Wright
Starring: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kieran Culkin

As a cinematic breath of fresh air, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is precisely what the doctor ordered. Granted, it’s yet another adaptation of a graphic novel with an immense cult following, but writer/director Wright has successfully provided us with an extraordinarily funny, in-your-face and stylistically savvy work of art that truly is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. In fact, the film functions so well as a wholly original visceral romp that this is quite possibly the first time I couldn’t care less about its staying faithful to the source material, although this aspect will obviously come into play for fans of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s brainchild.

Centering primarily around the cartoonish daily goings-on of one Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) as a blossoming romance quickly transforms into something much more sinister, the titular slacker must defeat his newfound love interest’s seven evil exes in order to continue dating her. While she, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), remains cool and collected, Scott himself is kept in the dark as to when and where the proposed brawls will take place, if at all. Once the going gets tough, Mr. Pilgrim soon realizes that the hazardous nature of his relationship is something to be taken seriously, to say the least.

Given the glaringly overt, arcade-style beat-’em-up simplicity of the narrative itself, therein lies the age-old issue of style over substance, but in this case, there’s no need to ponder such nonsensical things when you have someone like Wright at the helm. The director employs his signature, eye-popping creative flourishes in an effort to engross us more and more as Scott makes the transition from one battle to the next, yet the film as a whole remains gleefully self-aware and, of course, visually stunning. The appropriately frenetic comic book/video game hybrid style it embraces (onomatopoeia and all) is spot-on despite obvious pacing issues that coincide with cramming an entire series of novels into one film, and while the awe-inspiring action sequences run at full throttle from start to finish, the film also unflinchingly showcases a more sensitive side to give us but a brief chance to further familiarize ourselves with the central characters. Never once coming off as something arrogantly self-serious for the sake of staying true to its literary roots, Wright deftly blends together the film’s disparate, wholly unique plot elements, effortlessly bouncing back and forth between sequences chronicling Scott and the gang’s involvement in a local Battle of the Bands, the aforementioned brawls that ensue and the consistently hilarious lulls thrown in to break up any potential monotony.

Wright’s trademark wit also elevates Scott Pilgrim to new heights, as does the cast and the stellar soundtrack that gives each pivotal scene that extra oomph, cashing in on the ever-popular indie music scene Scott’s band Sex Bob-omb is proudly a part of, and tastefully at that. Love him or hate him, Michael Cera’s really found his niche, and while some may be fed up with his geeky deadpan shtick, it always suits the roles he plays to the fullest. The supporting cast too is aces all around with each individual playing their part to near perfection, giving each and every one of Ramona’s seven evil exes their own distinct personalities to make the film as a whole that much more hilarious and just plain enjoyable.

Being that Scott Pilgrim is almost stylish to a fault and sports a certain fondness for video game culture, those who fall out of the intended demographic will most likely have a problem with it. To deny that it’s easily one of the most innovative cinematic achievements to grace theaters in quite some time though would be both unfair and an injustice to yourself as an avid movie-watcher. Not only is it aesthetically brilliant from a technical standpoint; it’s wonderfully acted and perhaps funnier than just about anything else I’ve seen this year. Needless to say, it won’t win the Oscar for Best Picture, and it isn’t perfect, but Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is quite spectacular in enough ways to elevate it above a substantial portion of 2010’s ever-expanding lineup.

Rating: 9/10