Review: Marvel's 'Ant-Man' has a giant heart and a sly sense of humor
Credit: Marvel Studios
B+

Review: Marvel's 'Ant-Man' has a giant heart and a sly sense of humor

Charm more than carries the day in this most unusual superhero movie

I am already tired of the conversation about what would have been different if Edgar Wright had stayed onboard to direct "Ant-Man," the latest movie from Marvel Studios. As the writing credits on the film reflect, much of what Edgar did with his co-writer Joe Cornish is still intact, and they were the ones who cracked the way to bring one of the strangest members of the Avengers to the screen for the first time.

There is plenty of director Peyton Reed and co-writers Paul Rudd and Adam McKay on display here, too, though, and one of the things that makes "Ant-Man" stand out is that it's one of the most effortlessly charming films that Marvel has made so far. It was a big part of the appeal of last year's "Guardians Of The Galaxy," as well, although this film has a very different sensibility. In basic structure, the film hits some of the same beats as "Iron Man," with a disgruntled second-in-command trying to stage a hostile takeover using a modified version of the hero's weaponry. But when you look at the difference between the way the two films feel, it's clear that there is still plenty of room to make these films feel individual.

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is a career criminal who's just getting out of his latest stint in prison, and he's determined to go straight this time. After all, he's got some pretty strong motivation in the form of his young daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson, who seems omnipresent these days). His ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer) has moved on, and the guy she's picked as a replacement for Scott, Paxton (Bobby Cannavale), is pretty much his polar opposite, a cop. Scott's intentions may be good, but he finds himself frustrated at every turn, and it doesn't help that he's living with his former prison cellmate Luis (Michael Pena), who has some ideas for how he and Scott can put their skills to good use.

When Scott does finally give in to temptation, it brings him to the attention of Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), an eccentric but well-known scientist whose company is no longer under his control. Instead, Pym Industries is being run by Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), and they're working to perfect a military application for a miniaturization process that was based on some of Pym's early work. Fans of the comics already know that Pym played a pivotal role in the early days of the Marvel universe, and there's an opening scene that hints at that role, and it features a startlingly realistic young Michael Douglas, de-aged digitally by the same team who put Chris Evans's head on a skinny body. The work here is almost spooky, especially since we know what a young Michael Douglas looked and sounded like.

"Ant-Man" has one of the slower starts to a Marvel movie, and it takes a little while to really find its rhythms. Once Scott is in contact with Hank and his daughter Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lily), the movie really hits its stride, and for fans of heist films in general, there's a fun attitude that the movie strikes. The characters are clearly drawn, and simply motivated, leaving plenty of room to just enjoy the undeniably weird side of the entire concept. After all, this is a superhero who shrinks to bug size and who can communicated telepathically with ants.

The film builds and builds, with a third act that is preposterous fun both because of how it is staged and because it keeps the emphasis on the personal. This may be the most intimate movie so far in the main Marvel movie universe, even though it ultimately proves to be an essential puzzle piece in many ways. We learn a lot in this film about characters we have yet to meet as well as characters we've known for a while now, and there are two separate post-movie stings. One comes mid-credits, and one is at the end, and they're both pretty great. In the first one, Evangeline Lily delivers the single most meta line in any of the Marvel movies so far, one that should have female fans cheering and that speaks to where the movies could be heading soon.

Reed's touch is most firmly felt in the way the characters relate here. There is a relaxed comic energy to the film that really works, and Paul Rudd is a perfect Scott Lang. He's nothing like the standard issue Marvel hero so far, and the movie is better for it. He has tremendous chemistry with Michael Pena and with Evangeline Lily, and both of them walk away looking great thanks to the roles they're playing. The film has a very different visual feel than the last few Marvel films, with the decision to use largely real macro-lensed photography to create the backgrounds for the miniature sequences paying off beautifully. There's also an introduction of a new dimension, the Quantum Realm, that is flat out gorgeous, and a fascinating new plaything for storytellers working at Marvel.

There's something gratifying about a film like this, where most of the third act takes place inside a child's bedroom, after seeing a movie as gigantically scaled as "Avengers: Age Of Ultron." It is a reminder that just because these movies all come from Marvel, there is no obligation to make them all feel like the exact same movie. I like the way the film thematically deals with the promises and the heartbreak that exist between fathers and children, and I love a middle-of-the-movie sequence that folds into "Ultron" in a most unusual way. "Ant-Man" has its own voice, no doubt thanks to all of the talent involved, and it stands as a surprisingly sturdy success for the studio, a delightfully weird little movie that has no business working this well.

"Ant-Man" is in theaters July 17th.

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Check out an exclusive look back at Magneto as 'X-Men' invades San Diego
Credit: 20th Century Fox

Check out an exclusive look back at Magneto as 'X-Men' invades San Diego

Fox has some exciting opportunities at Comic-Con for fans of 'Days Of Future Past'

As we make our way south to Comic-Con, one of the big questions is "what are we going to see?"

It's safe to assume that there's going to be a big emphasis on all things "X-Men" at the Fox panel that closes out the programming on Saturday. It would be great if they brought some footage from "X-Men: Apocalypse," and maybe we'll learn some details about the final Wolverine movie as well.

One thing we know for sure will be presented will be "X-Men: Days Of Future Past - The Rogue Cut," which is Bryan Singer's alternative cut of the movie. It doesn't sound like this is a director's cut in the traditional sense, but simply a different way things could have worked. While the film won't be available for purchase on digital HD, Blu-ray and DVD until July 14th, anyone at Comic-Con will be able to pick it up early at the Fox Booth (#4229) and at the "Rogue Cut" booth at Nerd HQ. If you buy the film, you'll also get two tickets to one of the four simultaneous screenings they'll be having of the film during the Con.

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Han Solo gets his own 'Star Wars Anthology' film with Miller and Lord directing
Credit: Lucasfilm Ltd.

Han Solo gets his own 'Star Wars Anthology' film with Miller and Lord directing

With Kasdan writing, this sounds like it could be a winner

It's somewhat fitting that Chris Miller and Phil Lord are working on an animated "Spider-Man" film as one of the 900 things they have in development at the moment. They're being entrusted with some of the biggest projects in town, and little wonder. They have demonstrated time and again that they can take even the most unappealing concept (a big-screen version of "21 Jump Street," for example, or an entire movie about LEGOs) and turn out something that is smart and entertaining and that treats the audience with respect.

With all of this power, though, there is a responsibility, and I would imagine their most recently-announced project comes with the single most crushing set of pressures I can imagine. After all, it's one thing to make a "Star Wars" movie. It's something else entirely to make a Han Solo anthology film, giving Solo a backstory for the first time in an official capacity.

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D'oh! Fox ponies up the big bucks to keep the 'Simpsons' cast intact
Credit: 20th Century Fox/Gracie Films

D'oh! Fox ponies up the big bucks to keep the 'Simpsons' cast intact

Yep... even Harry Shearer

It's only been in the last few weeks that my kids have started to express any interest in "The Simpsons," but they fell in love with their first episode, and now they're looking forward to all the catching up they get to do.

"The Simpsons" has been on the air in one form or another since I moved to LA in 1990. At this point, the show feels like something permanent, like a cultural fixture, unchanging and permanent. That's ridiculous, of course. We've lost cast members along the way, and it still smarts when I see an older episode and Troy McClure shows up. I'm not sure I'd watch a version of the show that didn't feature the voice actors who have been there since day one, but I'm not sure anyone would actually keep making the show if they lost their voice artists.

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So that's how a 'Ghostbusters' proton pack works...
Credit: Columbia Pictures

So that's how a 'Ghostbusters' proton pack works...

Paul Feig has more fun with reveals on Twitter

So far, Paul Feig appears to be having a great deal of fun with the way he's revealing some of the details of his new "Ghostbusters" film.

And why not? It's not often you get to play with iconography as familiar as this. One of the things that was clear just from the first rough pass of ideas on the film from Feig and his co-writer Katie Dippold is that they want to include all of the familiar details, but in a way that reconfigures them completely. It's not the standard approach to a reboot or a sequel, landing somewhere in-between.

Today, Feig released a heavily-annotated picture of a proton pack, the primary tool of a Ghostbuster. I like the handmade look of this thing, and I particularly love the way each piece has been explained. This is part of the appeal of "Ghostbusters" in the first place, the blue-collar real-world feel of the equipment.

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25 Years In LA Part 5: 'Bat Out Of Hell,' Skywalker Ranch, and Film Nerd 2.0
Credit: Drew McWeeny

25 Years In LA Part 5: 'Bat Out Of Hell,' Skywalker Ranch, and Film Nerd 2.0

In which we finally settle in and realize what our main focus should be

I have spent most of the past year trying to destroy myself.

The good news is that I seem to be reaching the end of that stage of things. I am not a particularly happy person these days, but I think there's a way to be happy again. It will require a pretty major shift in lifestyle on my part, but when you've blown up everything that you know already, what's a little more reinvention?

Let me say that I'm sorry it took so long for me to finish these articles. By the end of this piece, I'll have written something like 25,000 words, which seems appropriate. But that's a whole lot of self-reflection, and what started as a fun look back for me became surprisingly bittersweet. The more I've reflected on the way I've ended up where I am right now, the more I find myself wrestling with regret. That's a hard place to be at 45 when there are people counting on you, but one of the things I've tried to do with my writing has been make it honest, and when I'm being honest, then I have to confess… I feel somewhat lost.

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A trip to the newest Universal ride has us thinking about the park's big changes
Credit: Universal Studios Hollywood

A trip to the newest Universal ride has us thinking about the park's big changes

Things have changed a lot for this tourist attraction

As I wrote in one of my "25 Years In LA" pieces, I was a tour guide at Universal Studios. Technically, we were "studio guides," and in my time at the park, I did many different jobs. I was Leatherface for a full run of Halloween Horror Nights, and I managed to win a nod for "Best Scare" at the end of the event. That doesn't really mean anything, but it felt great at the end of a really tough eleven or twelve straight days. I worked "Backdraft" when it was an attraction that took up a full soundstage, and I made up my own slightly insane tweaks to the script that entertained me, if no one else. My friend and I figured out where we could stand in the "E.T." ride so we could say names to it at the beginning of the ride, since the end of the ride featured E.T. saying your name back to you and telling you goodbye. Nothing made us laugh more than when E.T. would call someone a "blank-blanking blankblanker" while wishing them farewell. And sometimes, I was a VIP tour guide.

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Paul Thomas Anderson plus Robert Downey Jr equals kid's film, obviously
Credit: Walt Disney Pictures

Paul Thomas Anderson plus Robert Downey Jr equals kid's film, obviously

The edgy writer/director may be making his first family friendly film

"I wanted to make something my kids could see."

Ah, if I had a dollar for every time I've heard that phrase, I could retire comfortably by now. It's a common refrain because many artists start their careers with a kind of ferocity, unafraid to explore any topic, unwilling to compromise, and determined to demolish taboos in every form. But like everyone, when they have kids, they are changed by that experience, and it makes sense that when those kids start asking about what their parents do, those parents get real motivated real fast to be involved in something that they can share with their kids.

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Don Winslow on his amazing new book 'The Cartel' and America's drug war
Credit: Don Winslow/Twitter
A

Don Winslow on his amazing new book 'The Cartel' and America's drug war

We sit down with the author for an indepth look at the horrifying world captured in his new novel

Have you read Don Winslow's remarkable open letter about the drug war?

If so, then you've got some sense of the simmering anger that runs through his new novel, The Cartel, which is one of the most impressive books I've read this year. Dense, sweeping, and scathing in terms of pointing at all the systemic failures that keep a horrifying mechanism in place, The Cartel is worth your time, and it's worth a serious conversation, which is exactly what I had with him about a week before the book hit the shelves.

He dialed me directly. I was at home, and as I hit record on the conversation, he was already mid-explanation about how long he's been working on telling this particular story, which arrives just as this conversation seems to be heating up onscreen (the documentary "Cartel Land") and in real life.

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Review: 'Magic Mike XXL' gives Channing Tatum one of his rowdiest roles yet
Credit: Warner Bros
B+

Review: 'Magic Mike XXL' gives Channing Tatum one of his rowdiest roles yet

A strong ensemble anchors this surprising sequel.

Here's how I know "Magic Mike XXL" is a good film.

There's an entire subplot about how unhappy Big Dick Richie is about his inability to find a woman who is physically built right to accommodate his outrageous size. A "glass slipper," as it were. And we are supposed to actually empathize with this horrifying problem of being preposterously hot and so well-endowed that it becomes a problem.

And it works. Like pretty much everything else "Magic Mike XXL" does, that subplot works because of how it's written, how it's played, and how it's shot, and on all fronts, "Magic Mike XXL" is exemplary. There is a subtle quality to the film that works in its favor, especially when the material itself picks up a kind of supercharge in certain sequences. It is rowdy at heart, but smart about it, and it is one more reminder that Channing Tatum is really not like anyone else working in movies right now. It is also celebratory in the way that the first film was sad, concerned more with self-acceptance than running from something.

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