Movie review: “Ant Man and the Wasp”

“Ant Man and the Wasp” is a rare insect: a sequel that is dramatically better than the original. Granted, 2015’s forgettable “Ant Man” set a low bar, but “Ant Man and the Wasp” clears it with lots of room to spare, delivering a fun and functional summer flick that feels like it was made with good intentions by people who genuinely cared about producing a decent movie. That “functionality” and “good intentions” are now noteworthy in a movie is sad, but here we are and here “Ant Man and the Wasp” is, and let’s talk about what it did right.

 

First, the movie fully capitalizes on the simple superpower of Ant Man: a nifty bit of technology he can use to resize any object, including himself, into gigantism, sub-microscopy, or anything in between. (The first movie focused this power on ants, arguably the one member of the insect kingdom who leastneed such an enhancement to be awesome.) With this power, the moviemakers transform fight scenes, which now contract and expand as combatants shrink from grapples and expand back into kicks, as well as car chases, which now feature an exciting new leapfrog element as miniaturized cars sneak beneath their regular-sized counterparts. A building, too, gets the shrink-ray treatment, popping up in abandoned parking lots and empty strip malls and once, charmingly, the Muir Woods. One can only imagine the frustration of the postal service.

 

Second, the additions of Hannah John-Kamen and Michelle Pfeiffer. You haven’t heard of the first one yet, but she possesses an uncanny quality in common with the second: a riveting physicality that borders on telepathy. Neither has many lines, and neither needs them—both can communicate volumes by gait alone, and do, walking away with all their scenes.

 

Third the five-man writing team responsible for the script (Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barrer, and Gabriel Ferrari) have taken two great flavors and realized that they tasted great together: Tarantino and the Coen brothers. As in Tarantino, tense conversations frequently meander down banal pathways, the threat of violence looming while the characters hash out a minor quibble (in one particularly memorable scene, whether truth serum actually exists outside of Hollywood). Unlike Tarantino, no one sounds cool while they’re riffing: all “Ant Man” characters remain as resolutely earnest as “Fargo” cops. It’s a baffling combination that shouldn’t work as well as it does.

 

Speaking of things that shouldn’t work as well as they do, Paul Rudd! Hey, buddy! I will admit to many years of Paul Rudd apostasy. For decades following “Clueless”, I thought he was the human equivalent of “Friends”: a banal, medium-salsa Ken doll just good-looking enough to carry a weak comedy, and just funny enough to bolster a weak romance. I was wrong. “Ant Man and the Wasp” puts Rudd firmly in the same boat as Jack Lemmon and Bob Newhart: mild-looking men whose humor rests entirely in your choice to notice them. Rudd’s performance as Scott Lang/Ant Man is quintessentially Midwestern: blink and you’ll miss a quiet moment of pathos. You are invited to laugh, but not prodded to. It’s a rare quality in a summer blockbuster,  but altogether apt. If you want to see Ant Man, you’ll need to look closer.

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Movie review: “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”

At about three-quarters of the way through “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”, the new Fred Rogers biopic, I realized that I had been weeping for the last fifteen minutes straight. I snuck a look over at my companion. “I’m not crying, you’re crying,” he said thickly. “Shut up.”

Such is the hold Fred Rogers had over my, and many other, generations. There is a scene in this documentary of an event, held very early in his television career, where parents could bring their children to meet him. The line spanned multiple city blocks. With a subject this sacred to so many people, what can a movie add to the discussion?

Quite a lot, as it turns out.  Morgan Neville, the genius behind “20 Feet From Stardom”, finds footage of Fred Rogers philosophizing, scatting at the piano, pulling together half-formed and wooly thoughts that would eventually become the kernel of his decades-long effort to lovingly raise children through a television screen. The footage of his Senate hearing, when the funding for public television was threatened, is particularly illustrative. Faced with a panel of bored representatives, Rogers stammers and stumbles, finally resorting to a tactic I suspect many of us would consider suicide before attempting: reciting the lyrics of one of his own songs, in a quivering voice, out loud. It is riveting between-the-fingers watching, so painful that you almost don’t notice the moment the power dynamic of the room flips, placing a dozen senators at the mercy of a man in a sweater vest.

That Rogers succeeded in his quixotic crusade to love us into making better choices is evident in the faces of everyone who speaks about him, or even sits in silence while thinking about him (in an odd, and memorable, sequence). Trying to talk about Fred Rogers, it seems, is like trying to dig a hole in the beach—scrape even a little below the surface, and the salt water comes welling up.

Movie review: “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”

OK so “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”.

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Alert viewers of this now five-movie franchise will note that the previous installment ended as a T-rex stepped onto the rooftop of the defunct Park, signaling that the inmates had finally taken over the prison. The ad campaign for the fifth movie—not to mention the title—promised one thing: a world gone Jurassic, with uncontrolled and uncontained dinosaurs gleefully increasing across the planet.

Would that they had made that movie. Instead, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” dicks around for over two hours in the interstitial space beforethat premise, recycling the stakes of the fourth movie (moneyed bad guys want to weaponize dinosaurs) only to end up in the exact spot that should have been the movie’s starting point: a raptor, overlooking a quiet suburb, flexes its claws in anticipation. A trio of pterodactyls soars above the California coastal highway, while, concealed in the surf, a megalodon considers a farm-grown array of surfers. The imaginative possibilities of this situation are tantalizing. Why, then, did Derek Connelly and Colin Trevorrow settle for such a dull retread? It’s clear that scads of money were spent inventing reasons for the dinosaurs to escape the island (a volcano), a means for them to do so (a military evacuation with a corrupt profit motive) and a big, expensive destination for them to escape to (a weirdly Hogwartsian mansion in the Pacific Northwest). What’s less clear is why scads of money were spent, when you could have gotten a more genuine, Spielbergian thrill from watching a velociraptor stalk a pack of teenagers through a suburban cul-de-sac. The most memorable chase of the original “Jurassic Park” happened in a commercial kitchen, with props including a stainless steel table and some quivering Jell-O. It was terrifying precisely because it wasquotidian: you could imagine the dinosaurs coming to your own high school cafeteria. I doubt many viewers experienced the same thrill of familiarity watching “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”, but if you did, I’d love to know what it was like growing up in a house with a dumbwaiter and several basements accessible only by keypad-controlled elevator.

Not all the news is bad—Isabella Sermon, a strong child actor, does a lot with a thin script; her character reads as both precocious and genuinely young. Danielle Pinenda takes about three minutes from the introduction of the word “paleo-veterinarian” to convince us that she is the world’s most competent paleo-veterinarian. Bryce Dallas Howard has shed her infamous heels for a comfy set of boots, and, cheeringly, a raptor-sized gun. Bafflingly, she is still bothering with Chris Pratt’s humorless action stud Owen Grady, who, two movies in, still shows no signs of the charm we know Chris Pratt can provide. And that brings me to another point that would have been good to lift from the original “Jurassic Park”: didn’t all those dinosaurs get along just fine without men?

Movie review: “Solo: A Star Wars Story”

OK so “Solo”.

 

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So I went and spent real American dollars to see “Solo: A Star Wars Story”, which, if you know how to read between the lines of movie marketing campaigns, is a bit like sticking to the order of lamb cutlet after the waiter has very carefully and deliberately raised their eyebrow at you. I knew what I was asking for, and I got it: an overcooked and uninspiring meal, “Solo” boasts only a few flashes of genuine flavor. And no wonder, with all the cooks racing through the kitchen: directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were fired and replaced by Ron Howard after 75% of principal photography was completed, accepting producers’ credits as payout. Whatever their contributions amounted to versus Howard’s, and how much was cobbled together in editing, is impossible to determine, but what has arrived in theaters is a dull-to-passable heist movie punctuated by a checklist of references:

 

Kessel Run, check.

 

A bad feeling about this, check.

 

Wookies ripping arms, check.

 

Spice mines, check; card game, check; Han shot first, check. One can only wonder how freely and joyfully the story might have flowed, had it not been obliged to hit all these artificial marks.

That better story would almost certainly have featured a larger role for Donald Glover, whose Lando Calrissian is note-perfect: charismatic and mysterious and projecting a riveting blend of charm and weltschmerz, and wrapped in a dazzling variety of stylish capes. He’s accompanied the new droid L3 (spectacularly voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge), who brings a level of exasperating humanity to her character that will either entertain, or annoy, the hell out of you. Like any well-founded character, you’ll be able to predict what L3 would do within about twenty minutes of having met her—in another good sign, you’ll have strong feelings about it. Every time this pair was on the screen, I felt the movie achieve liftoff; sadly, every time it was brought crashing back down by another obligatory hit of nostalgia. Want the origin for Chewie’s bandolier? No? Here it is! And why do we need a scene establishing where Han got his name, anyway? “Han Solo” is one of the all-time great fictional names; in three syllables, it imparts a wallop of information, wreathed in a whiff of romance. It needs no introduction; it is an introduction. In carefully cataloging the origins of nearly every iconic moment, phrase, and prop from the original trilogy, “Solo” feels like a movie not for the people who grew up playing with Star Wars toys, but for rather for the grown-ass people who collect them—only those with a hefty investment in humidity-controlled display cases could possibly have been waiting for the origin story of Han’s blaster. Hence the widespread response to this movie: “Who asked for this?” I saw variations of this cry everywhere, from friends and acquaintances and in the first sentences of reviews. Even a cursory advance focus group should have cued Disney to re-evaluate the need for a painstakingly explanatory origin story for one of the most indelible characters of all time. The filmmakers—all of them—should have trusted the essential sturdiness of Han Solo; the willingness of their audience to follow him on a truly new adventure; our ability to enjoy a character who simply is. Their lack of faith disturbs me.

 

Movie review: “Deadpool 2”

So Deadpool is back. How you react to him will probably be determined by your age and gender: as in the first installment, any twelve-year-old boys who manage to convince their parents to disregard the R rating will find their efforts rewarded with decapitations and dick jokes galore. The rest of us will probably feel a bit deflated to note that “Deadpool 2” follows that tired old formula: kill off the girl “won” at the end of the first installment to provide crude motivation for the hero in the sequel. Fridging has always been gross, but in the last ten years, it’s gotten both gross and boring. What’s odd is that I think the filmmakers know it—a series of gags in the opening credits and a plot wrinkle later in the movie both undercut the move. Which begs the question: if you know you’re employing a hack tactic, and you know it enough to apologize and sorta-kinda take it back in the mid-credits, why use it in the first place?

The answer may lie in the directorial swap that’s taken place between “Deadpool” and “Deadpool 2”; Tim Miller (for whom “Deadpool” was a directorial debut) has been replaced with David Leitch, who started out his career as a stuntman and then gained a significant amount of experience working on high-grossing and competent films like “Jurassic World”, “John Wick” and “Captain America: Civil War”, but also, alarmingly, “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters”, “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues”, “Atomic Blonde” and “The Wolverine”. Leitch has made such a habit of working on massive projects with multiple (credited and uncredited) directors that it’s hard to derive any sense of him as a director, which makes me chary to lay the bad decision-making at his door. I’m slightlymore inclined to blame the screenwriting team of Rhett Reese and Paul Warnick, carryovers from the first film (the sequel also credits lead actor Ryan Reynolds as a writer), but again: how do you reallyknow who decided to write a straightforward fridging-followed-by-rampage instead of taking a risk and writing something fresh and interesting? You can’t, on any corporate project of this size, so instead I will invite you to simply absorb the names above. Notice anything? Say it with me: when women aren’t in the room, female characters die. In shitty ways, and for really shitty reasons.

The imbalance in the executive room comes through in other ways. In place of the sparky Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), Deadpool (Reynolds) decides to protect and defend a lonely kid, Russell (Julian Dennison), who is being abused at a “re-education” school/orphanage for mutants. Fair enough, except that a large portion of the plot centers on stopping Russell from killing before he ‘develops a taste for it’ and murders everyone in the school, students included. “He’s just a kid!” Deadpool bellows multiple times to stop various other characters, including the time-traveling Cable (Josh Brolin), from killing Russell. “He’s a good kid!” Can you think of any reason why the characterization of a boy planning the murder of all his classmates as “just a good kid” might not go down as easily as it once did? I can think of a lot of reasons.

Signs abound that the movie’s creators have lost the pop culture pulse: a recurring joke about dubstep, which died as a trend six years ago. The total waste, in a microscopic cameo, of Terry Crews, who has been ripe for a serious comeback for the last year. A “Fargo” reference.

All this is not to say that the movie is hopeless, or un-fun: it’s not, at all. The introduction of the delightful Zazie Beetz as hyper-lucky Domino is a blast of fresh air, and Brolin slots his time-traveling mercenary into Deadpool’s team so effortlessly he feels as though he has always been there. I’ll watch this movie again, and be equally entertained and frustrated by it, and probably write some corrective fan fiction for it that gives Negasonic Teenage Warhead (reprised by Brianna Hildebrand) more than five lines, and I’ll dream of a “Deadpool 3” helmed by a team that can imagine more for women to do than die.

“Avengers: Infinity War I”

I review most movies after one viewing. I took two before reviewing “Avengers: Infinity War I”, because this is a movie that wants to be seen twice. An overstuffed, sprawling adventure ten years in the making, starring characters introduced at separate points through nineteen different movies, A:IWI seems like it was made without reference to a clock; it is two and a half hours long, and needs to be. Despite that, I’m ashamed to note that it took me those full two and a half hours to rumble what was up. The Russo brothers have accomplished the most difficult trick in the directorial book—to deliver exactly what is promised, and yet still surprise. I stumbled out of the theater feeling stunned and more than a little stupid: I had, after all, walked into the film knowing I was watching the first of a two-parter, and moreover a movie firmly in the “Empire Strikes Back” position of a larger three-part cycle, and yet I was still caught off-guard by the ending. This is a remarkable trick for a movie to pull off, and it’s worth exploring how it was done, at length, over beers with your friends afterwards.

The final thirty seconds are the film’s greatest triumph, but there are other, smaller wins along the way; every second spent with Tom Holland as Spiderman, for example. The wise choice to include the entire supporting cast of “Black Panther”, rather than just the star, and to ground the majority of the action in Wakanda, rather than the done-to-death battleground of New York City. And the movie makes tremendous use of small breakout characters with limited ranges of action: Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Groot (CGI/Vin Diesel), and the CGI cloak that acts as Dr. Strange’s protector and pet.

When it comes to larger characters, though, the movie has some stumbles: Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Pepper Potts (Gwenyth Paltrow) have now broken up and gotten back together so many times that their once-buoyant romance now feels like a deathless slog; Vision (Paul Bettany) and Wanda Maximoff’s (Elizabeth Olsen) mopey relationship never got off the ground in the first place, but is now accorded central positioning and a baffling amount of screentime. (Other characters who fall into the Still Inexplicably Here category include the dessicated corpse of Don Cheadle as Rhodey and walking yawn Sebastian Stan as Bucky.)  Speaking of wasted time, delightful “Games of Thrones” star Peter Dinklage is buried in a MacGuffin-hunting sequence which goes on about ten minutes too long, and we spend a truly unforgivable amount of time dicking around in an empty train station in Scotland with Vision and Wanda (here, my companion reminds me that the sequence established some important power dynamics and allowed one character a memorable entrance, but I’m so bitter about potential Wakanda time going to these two mopes that I’m still calling the sequence useless).

None of these flaws end up mattering, though—the movie powers through on the strength of Josh Brolin’s incredible performance as Thanos, a villain now gearing up to star in “Avengers: Infinity War II” and an entire generation’s nightmares. Thirty years ago, Darth Vader’s horse-chuff breath and sparkling black mask traumatized everyone in grade school; now, a new crop of eight-year olds may learn to associate mortal terror not with a costume and a Death Star, but with a calm, reasonable tone and an earnestly presented plan that almost doesn’t sound like genocide. If Thanos were human, he’d have a large YouTube subscriber base and a rabid following on the lecture circuit. It’s only because he’s purple that we can’t see him when he’s right in front of our face, telling us exactly what he plans to do and how he plans to do it. It’s up to us to believe him.