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Ant-Man •••

Ant-Man_posterStarring: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Corey Stoll
Director: Peyton Reed
Screenplay: Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish
Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 117 minutes
Release Date: July 17, 2015


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(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, I have a tiny request. Can you review the Man of Ant?

I thought it was a movie about Aunt Mann. Let’s recap.

It is 1989, and we meet scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). Pym resigns from S.H.I.E.L.D. because he discovers that his protege, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), is attempting to replicate Pym’s shrinking technology. In the present day, Pym is no longer head of the company and discovers that Cross is close to developing the technology, which he calls the Yellowjacket. Meanwhile, small-time burglar Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) has just been released from prison and needs a job.

No sooner has Scott sworn off thieving when Pym makes him an offer: “wear my Anf-Man suit, break into Cross’s headquarters, and I’ll make your prison record a thing of the past.” Scott needs a break as he has a darling daughter he’s estranged from and getting a steady job means he gets visitation rights. And so they make the plan to rip off Cross before he can sell the technology to the highest bidder: Hydra.

Greg, I have to admit that going into the theater I knew nothing about Ant-Man. It seemed like a goofy idea for a superhero, but I trusted that Marvel knew what it was doing. And I was right. Ant-Man charmed me with its endearing story about a down-and-out ex-con with a heart of gold who is given a chance to save the world. The spirited performances of Paul Rudd and Michael Douglas bring this sappy, playful screenplay to life.

This is a movie about evolving relationships. Relationally, we witness the heroic characters grow and the villainous characters unravel. Let’s start with the heroes. At first, Rudd as Scott Lang is on shaky ground with just about everyone around him. He is estranged from his ex-wife and disliked by her fiancé. He clashes with Pym and is disrespected by Pym’s daughter (and fellow scientist) Hope. As Lang slowly redeems himself, all of these relationships are rehabilitated and grow into something special. In contrast, the villain Cross allows his anger to poison all his relationships.

I was less enthused with this movie than you were, Scott. It is a very by-the-numbers origin story. We have the hero who has something to prove. He’s a good guy in a bad situation. His ex-wife doesn’t understand him. He loves his little girl and she idolizes him. He takes on the mantel of the hero reluctantly and has to be trained to use the special powers. That takes about half the movie – the origin story. Then there is a villain to overcome before some time expires. And we spend the rest of the film watching that unfold. If you replace Paul Rudd with Ryan Reynolds you’re basically looking at Green Lantern from a couple years back. I was pretty bored the whole time.

As a hero, Scott Lang does really well. He’s likable, if a bit misdirected (he’s a thief and a convict, after all). He loves his daughter. And his main goal is to gain visitation with her. When the going gets tough, though, he returns to a life of crime – which leads him to Pym. Ultimately, he risks his life and limb to save the world. Which is pretty much what you’d expect from a Marvel hero.

Hard to believe we saw the same movie, Greg. I wasn’t the least bit bored. Yes, it is true that Marvel tends to stick to a formula, but this movie’s witty, intelligent dialogue had my full attention. The film is superbly crafted. One innovation that I noticed here and in Terminator Genisys — Hollywood has found a way to restore aging actors’ back to their youthful selves. First it was Arnold in TG and in Ant-Man it is Michael Douglas. Never again does an actor have to age. Ever.

The supporting cast in Ant-Man is quite strong. Hope (Evangeline Lilly) serves as Lang’s mentor with regard to physical skills, and she evolves into a love interest. Michael Douglas as Pym is the catalyst or chief mentor who makes Lang’s transformation possible. Michael Peña provides comic relief as Luis, one of Lang’s sidekicks. Darrin Cross is a slick villain figure. Like many villains, he is wounded, but rather than use his wound to better himself, he allows his wound to justify violence. We discuss this origin of villainy in our new book, Reel Heroes & Villains.

I agree with your comments about the secondary characters. They are pretty stock archetypes, though. The jester, the mentor, the damsel, and the dark villain. And Marvel skirts some pretty thin lines in the area of stereotypes as well. These are more caricatures than characters. It was pretty unimaginative and added to my boredom.

If you like superhero movies, you’ll love Ant-Man. This film has smart dialogue, outstanding CGI effects, and a terrific underdog protagonist who evolves from pathetic thief to savior of the world. I was entertained from start to finish, and so I have no hesitation awarding Ant-Man 4 Reels out of 5.

The hero story follows the classic Joseph Campbell hero journey. Lang is sent by Pym into a new and dangerous world that requires him to grow in courage, resilience, and wisdom. Lang has helpers along the way, and a murderous villain to overcome. It’s a perfectly assembled hero story, marred only by its predictability, which I can forgive because the execution is so terrific. I give our hero Ant-Man 4 Heroes out of 5.

As I’ve noted, the supporting cast does exactly what it’s supposed to do. You’re right, Greg — we have several classic archetypal characters who give the hero what he needs to succeed and give the audience what it needs to feel satisfied. Again, a rating of 4 out of 5 for these fine supporting peeps.

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Ant-Man is a by-the-numbers superhero story with few surprises and a lot of predictability. The clever CGI effects aren’t enough to support this flimsy story. Paul Rudd does pretty well in the hero role. His comedic talents are put to good use here. But Ant-Man isn’t a particularly entertaining movie. The relationships are pretty superficial. The dialog is a lot of talking heads and backstory (how many times have we seen the hero relate his life story while in a car ride?). I give Ant-Man just 2 out of 5 Reels.

As I mentioned, Paul Rudd capably portrays a ne’er-do-well who is strongly motivated to do good. It’s the heart of a little girl he aims to win and who doesn’t love a man who loves his daughter? The storyline follows the hero’s journey so closely that it doesn’t leave room for creativity. Ant-Man is perhaps one of the least creative Marvel films I’ve ever seen. There’s even an Avengers tie-in scene – so we’ll probably see Ant-Man in future Marvel films. I give Paul Rudd and his portrayal of the Ant-Man just 3 out of 5 Heroes.

The supporting cast is pretty much cut from the cloth of other hero stories. There aren’t any surprises or great performances, although Michael Douglas delivers a performance worthy of his status as Hollywood elite. But the rest of the cast put me to sleep. I give them just 2 out of 5 Cast points.

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Terminator Genisys •••

Terminator_GenisysStarring: Arnold SchwarzeneggerEmilia ClarkeJai Courtney
Director: Alan Taylor
Screenplay: Laeta KalogridisPatrick Lussier
Action/Adventure/SciFi, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 126 minutes
Release Date: July 1, 2015


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(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Well, Greg, he said he’d “be back.” And he was right.

This looks like the Genisys of a new Terminator trilogy. Let’s Recap:

In the year 2029, resistance leader John Connor (Jason Clarke) leads a human invasion force on Skynet’s headquarters. Connor and his friend Kyle (Jai Courtney) discover a time machine that Skynet has used to send a Terminator back to 1984 to kills Connor’s mother, Sarah (Emilia Clarke). Kyle volunteers to go back to 1984 to save Sarah.

But he no sooner arrives in 1984 only to find that things aren’t quite as he expected. Sarah Connor is not the vulnerable young girl he was told she would be. She’s in command as she saves him from an attack by a liquid-metal android called a Terminator. And, she’s aided by an older model Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) who looks like he’s about sixty years old. Kyle discovers that he has to stop a new form of Artificial Intelligence called “Genisys” that will take over the world.

Greg, we’ve now seen two movies this summer that are retreads of films that enjoyed wild success decades ago. First it was Jurassic World, a movie that essentially replicates the plot of its 1993 original. And now we have Terminator Genisys, a film that is essentially the same as the 1984 version but with a slightly altered timeline. Neither of these 2015 remakes are bad; in fact, they each have their moments. But neither movie creatively breathes any fresh air into its aging franchise.

Speaking of aging, Terminator Genisys stars Arnold Schwarzenegger who, with the magic of CGI effects, appears as his youthful musclebound self in a few brief scenes where he plays a villainous Terminator. Later, Arnold’s elderly Terminator character assumes the role of Sarah’s protector. Arnold does a commendable job in these roles and even has the opportunity to utter his famous “I’ll be back” catchphrase. But even Arnold at his best can’t overcome an overly convoluted plot that features time travel to 1984, 1997, 2017, and 2029.

It wasn’t all bad. Genisys combined the elements of the first three Terminator films to make an engaging action/thriller. The hardest part of the story for me to follow was Genisys’ time travel rules. They are all over the place. Apparently, you can go back in time, but if someone turns a person in the future into a robot, that creates a rift in time where you have memories of what would have happened if everything had gone well. If you had trouble reading that last sentence, then you might have trouble with time travel in this movie’s universe.

Usually in time travel stories you either have one timeline where altering past events alters future ones. Or, every time you travel back in time you create a new reality that has no effect on the original timeline. Genisys doesn’t even try to reconcile these two concepts. The rules are written and broken in whatever way best serves the story. It’s a maddening mess.

You might even say that it was a maddening mess trying to keep up with who the heroes and villains are. John Connor is first a hero, and then a villain. Arnold’s terminator character is first a villain and then a hero. Kyle is probably the main hero, trying to save Sarah and figure out his place in the past, the present, and the future. Kyle’s transformation resides in his dawning realization that he is (or will be) Sarah’s lover and John’s father. So we have a fairly interesting story of self-discovery here.

The evil Terminator is the villain, of course, and John Connor becomes his henchman. There’s nothing terribly interesting about the evil Terminator — he’s a pure evil villain, a slightly stronger robot than Arnold, who is an outdated Terminator and therefore must use his brains as well as his brawn to defeat his evil counterpart. J.K. Simmons excels in his role as a good-guy cop character who lends a helping hand in defeating the villain. And Emilia Clarke shines as Sarah, a smart, strong woman who does more than hold her own. So overall, the supporting cast is rock solid.

I agree that the hero structure is pretty fractured. I think it was supposed to be an ensemble cast with Arnold, Emilia, and Jai Courtney as equal partners. But it’s hard to tell who we’re following at any point in the story.

The evil Terminator is dispatched in the first 15 minutes of the film so he doesn’t work as a villain. He’s replaced by the evil future John Connor – who has been converted into a superhuman-robot by the future SkyNet (played by Doctor Who alum Matt Smith).

You’ve already mentioned the ever-excellent J.K. Simmons. There aren’t many secondary characters to support this story. Unless you call CGI a character – in which case it was awesome. You’ll believe a bus can fly.

Terminator Genisys is fairly entertaining if you don’t mind watching another similar version of the 1984 Terminator movie. This modern rendition underwhelms us with its unnecessarily convoluted time jumps to multiple temporal destinations. The CGI effects are only slightly better than the Terminator films of the 1990s. But if you’re a fan of Arnold, then I suspect that you’ll enjoy Terminator Genisys. I award this movie 3 Reels out of 5.

The hero story was odd in that characters we think are heroes are villains and vice-versa. The character of Kyle emerges as a hero and does undergo an awakening about his true identity. Kyle isn’t the most charismatic character in the world but he does save the world and get the girl. This is usually all that we ask of our heroes. I’ll be generous and award him 3 Heroes out of 5.

As you mention, Greg, the supporting cast was minimal, but I have to admit to harboring a soft spot in my heart for both J. K. Simmons and Emilia Clarke. For me, both these characters were more memorable than the hero Kyle. I’ll give them a rating of 3 out of 5 as well.

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Terminator Genisys is a last gasp at resurrecting the Terminator franchise before the rights revert to James Cameron. Apparently Cameron sold the rights to the original Terminator script for one dollar and the chance to direct the first film. Those rights revert to him in 2019. So there is a mad rush to put out a new trilogy of Terminator films – we’ll probably see about one new film a year until 2019. Hopefully, James Cameron will do something more meaningful with these characters when his turn “comes back.” I give this incarnation of Terminator just 3 out of 5 Reels.

Scott, you and I disagree on the hero structure. Which is a clear sign that something is not quite right with this film. You need to KNOW who the hero of the story is. To me it looks like a three-way ensemble. But you could make a case for it being a duo with Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese in the lead and “Arnold” as the mentor. I give this confusing group  just 2 Heroes out of 5.

The supporting characters are not much better. We get two villains, one of whom is supposed to be a hero. It wasn’t hard to follow, but it was a weak villain structure. Not that you need a lot of support when you have so many stars in the lead roles, but there weren’t a lot of secondary characters. I give them just 2 out of 5 Cast points.

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Max •••

Max_posterStarring: Thomas Haden Church, Josh Wiggins, Luke Kleintank
Director: Boaz Yakin
Screenplay: Boaz Yakin, Sheldon Lettich
Adventure/Family, Rated: PG
Running Time: 111 minutes
Release Date: June 26, 2015


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It looks like we’re reviewing the prequel to Mad Max – the story of his dog.

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, are you mad? Or are you just dog-tired? Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to the Wincott family. Mother Pamela (Lauren Graham) is Skyping with her elder son Kyle (Robbie Amell) who is a soldier and a dog handler in Afghanistan. Father Ray (Thomas Haden Church) is harping on younger son Justin (Josh Wiggins) who would rather play a videogame than talk to his big brother by Skype. Pamela barely has time to say goodbye when Kyle is called away on a mission.

Kyle leads his men, and his dog Max (Max), into an Afghan battlefield. A suicide bomber sets off an explosion near Max, and when Kyle movies in to help, another American soldier named Tyler (Luke Kleintank) shoots and kills Kyle. Max returns to the U.S. with PTSD and is adopted by the Wincott family. Justin is charged with caring for Max. Meanwhile, Tyler is hired by Ray to run the family’s storage unit business. Max doesn’t like Tyler and alerts Justin to Tyler’s involvement in shady arms-dealings. Soon Max, Ray, and Justin find their lives are all in danger.

Scott, i’m a sucker for any story about a dog. Dogs are natural heroes – loyal, honest, dedicated and full of unconditional love. In Max we have a nice buddy story about a boy and his dog. Both of whom undergo a profound transformation.

Justin doesn’t have much interest in anything outside video games. But when a pretty girl named Carmen (Mia Xitlali) takes an interest in Max, Justin starts to come around. The two of them start to retrain Max and help him overcome his PTSD. Max begins to trust Justin and ultimately redeems himself by saving Justin and his father Ray from the bad guys.

Greg, I’m right with you on good dog stories. Going into this movie, I was convinced we’d see a story about how a dog helps a human being overcome his or her demons. But what I got was much more. As you point out, this is a movie about a dog and a boy who are both damaged and who both help each other in healing and growing. It never occurred to me that a dog protagonist could undergo a heroic transformation, but Max does just that. Justin helps Max overcome his PTSD, and Max helps Justin become a responsible adult.

So we do have a unique inter-species buddy duo involving a human and a canine. And it works on both an emotional level and on a good storytelling level, too. Good buddy stories do involve two people helping each other become better individuals, and that’s exactly what we get here. I once knew a dog that had PTSD (not from war but from an abusive owner) and a good friend of mine helped the animal recover. So there is a realism in Max that I appreciate. The movie is predictable in some ways but it is nevertheless effective in tugging at our heartstrings and showing good characters grow in inspiring ways.

You bring up a good point, Scott. The movie isn’t just predictable, but it is also overly simplistic. With a PG rating, it is aimed at the family audience and there isn’t much depth to these characters. A certain bicycle scene reminded me of ET: The Extraterrestrial. The audience for this movie is young people, and so a young person (and his dog) must save the day. The bad guys aren’t complex in any way and are simply bad without explanation. In our new book Reel Heroes & Villains we discuss this sort of mindless villain as a classic “monster” type. They’re just bad as bad can be.

Justin is accompanied by several great supporting characters. We’ve already discussed Carmen, who is the woman who makes her man better. Her brother Chuy is a sort of sidekick to Justin. He’s a rather dim-witted good kid who is mixed up with the wrong people. Justin has good parental units and an absent older brother (who casts a long shadow that Justin feels he must live in).

You’re right about the supporting cast, Greg. I’d like to point out Hollywood’s unfavorable and biased treatment of dog characters. There are no fellow canines to help out poor Max, nor is he given any canine love interest. In contrast, Justin gets human help and a cute girl to assist him. All kidding aside, the supporting characters do their job well. I found Tyler to be a more interesting villain than you did, Greg. Tyler has this boy-next-door charm and good looks that deceives everyone except Max. I wouldn’t call Tyler a mindless villain but rather a dangerous and deceptive one.

Fair enough. I enjoyed Max very much. It follows in the footsteps (paw-prints?) of other great canine heroes like Run Joe Run from 1970s Saturday morning TV, Lassie, and Benjie. But it’s still a rather simplistic story with predictable story elements. I give Max 3 out of 5 Reels.

All the elements of a true hero are realized as Max starts out a good dog, falls into a deep hurt, and recovers – making him a redeemed hero. Justin overcomes his missing inner quality of apathy and learns to respect himself and his father. It’s a great buddy story with both heroes overcoming their demons. I give our heroes 4 out of 5 Heroes.

The supporting cast was good. We have the girlfriend Carmen and her brother Chuy,  deceptive villain Tyler, and supportive parents Pamela and Ray. There were even some additional villains in the form of the bad-apple sheriff and Mexican gun runner. Not to mention a gaggle of bicycle riding buddies for Justin and Chuy to hang out with. Overall a pretty good selection of secondary characters which I give 4 out of 5 Cast points.

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Max is a fun movie about a teenage boy and a dog who are both hurting and who both help each other heal and grow. Max is a feel-good movie although it does have its dark moments featuring several menacing human villains to oppose Justin and two ferocious doggy-foes to battle Max. How they filmed the many fight scenes involving those two dogs is beyond me — those stunt-dogs really earned their kibble. Overall, I enjoyed Max and give it 3 Reels out of 5.

The buddy hero story between a boy and his dog was moving and effectively portrayed. Yes, much of the screenplay is predictable but the bottom line is that it warmed my heart. We see a dog become heroically transformed by loving human, and a human become transformed by a loving dog. That’s about as good as it gets for a dog film, so I give these buddy heroes a solid 3 Heroes out of 5.

The supporting cast was commendable. All the members of the Wincott family delivered fine performances, including the character of Kyle whom we grow to love despite his limited screen time. I found Chuy to be an annoying character but his smart, feisty cousin Carmen more than made up for Chuy’s vapid immaturity. The villain Tyler and his doggy minions were formidable foes, too. Overall, the cast deserves a laudable rating of 3 out of 5.

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