Friday, July 06, 2018

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP: As Fun As It Is Forgettable

Now playing at every multiplex from here to the quantum realm:


(Dir. Payrton, Reed) 

It’s getting harder and harder to write reviews of these Marvel movies. I feel like I’m writing the same thing over and over whether I like or dislike whatever newest one.

I note where the newest falls in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), i.e. the subject here, the sequel to 2015’s ANT-MAN is the 20th film in the franchise, and it comes in the second half of Phase Three of the series.

I run through the cast and premise, i.e. Paul Rudd returns as Scott Land/Ant-Man, but shares equal billing with the also returning Evangeline Lilly as Hope van Dyne / Wasp, (who gets to kick a lot of ass), as they try to rescue her mother, Janet van Dyne / the first Wasp (Michele Pfeifer) from being trapped in the quantum realm with the help of a tunnel built by Hope’s father, Hank Pym/the first Ant-Man (Michael Douglas, also back). Lawrence Fishburne, as an old colleague of Pym’s who may not be on the up and up, and Hannah John-Kamen as Ava Starr / Ghost, who can phase through walls ‘n whatnot, round out the busy cast.

I identify the MacGuffin: a laboratory building, encasing a quantum tunnel (Ant-Man: “Do you guys just put the word ‘quantum’ in front of everything?) that can be shrunk down to the portable size of a 12-pack box of beer. Hank and Hope want it so they can save Janet; and Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), a slimy black market dealer wants it because he sees its potential for profit, so it gets thrown around a lot.

I refer to the obligatory tropes: action sequence settings, Stan Lee cameo, tell folks to stay for the end credits stingers, etc.

Sure, many folks will say I’m writing the same review repeatedly because they’re making the same movie repeatedly, but, despite the familiar formulas, I can’t completely agree. This year’s previous Marvel movies, BLACK PANTHER and AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR had their inspired, and worthwhile moments, but, yeah, I can concur that there’s a lot of predictable Marvel material here.

I enjoyed quite a bit of ANT-MAN’s second adventure (or third if you count his part in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR). Rudd charms his way through it – a scene where Pfeiffer’s Janet takes over his body and talks through him is cute – and there a lot of laughs along the way, many provided by Michael Peña (also from the first one), who now runs a security service named EX-CON, and the effects are flawless.

There’s a lot of fun in watching Rudd shrink (a bit where he masquerades as a kid at his daughter’s elementary school made me giggle), and get huge in the climatic chase sequence through the streets of San Francisco, but I doubt those parts will really stick in my memory.

So there it is, even with its fair share of laughs and thrills, ANT-MAN AND THE WASP is as fun as it is forgettable.

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Thursday, June 14, 2018

INCREDIBLES 2: Predictable Plotwise, But Still A Solid Sequel

Opening tonight at a multiplex near everybody:

Dir. Brad Bird, 2018) 

t the screening of this long awaited sequel, there was a mini-featurette before the movie began in which the film’s stars – Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, and Samuel L. Jackson – stress more than once that while it’s been 14 years since the original, this’ll be well worth the wait. For the most part it is.

Mere months after the events of the first installment, we catch up with the crime-fighting Parr family – Bob/Mr. Incredible (Nelson), Helen/Elastigirl (Hunter), Violet (Sarah Vowel), Dashiell/”Dash” (Huck Milner), Violet and Jack-Jack Parr (Eli Fucile) – as they are trying to thwart a bank robbery by the returning supervillain, the Underminer (voiced by Pixar regular John Ratzenberger).

This results in a pretty thrilling, funny and gorgeously animated opening sequence involving the Incredibles, with the help of the icy touch of Lucius Best/Frozone (Jackson), pulling together to stop a ginormous drilling machine from reaching its Metro Bank destination, and the follow-up is off to a great start.

Things settle down a bit when the premise is introduced by a couple of new characters, telecommunications CEO Winston Deavor (a slick Bob Odenkirk), and his tech saavy sister, Evelyn (a more energetic than usual Catherine Keener). The Deavors wants to arrange a campaign that will make the use of super powers legal again, and recruit Elastigirl to go off and fight crime in the dangerous city of New Urbrem, while Bob stays home to take care of the kids to his great disappointment.

But while stranded at home, Bob learns that Jack-Jack has an array of super powers (17, he says at one point) including being able to shoot lasers out of his eyes, teleport through walls, turn himself into fire, and change into a scary red monster (sort of a like a fiery Tazmanian Devil) if he’s denied a cookie.

Since Odenkirk’s Winston is such an unabashed fanboy of the Incredibles who knows the words to all of their individual theme songs, he stands out as a candidate for the film’s secret bad guy, but gladly screenwriter Bird knows that would be too obvious.

As for the film’s up front villain, there’s the Screenslaver, dressed in black with big goggles like a cartoon Kylo Renn, who can hypnotize people through their screens. There’s also the thread that the secret baddie (I won’t Spoil their identity) has devised glasses that control the wearer in order to frame them doing acts of evil.

That’s a pretty predictable plotline that’s been done to death, but the action and laughs come so fast and frenetically in the film’s last third, which is set on runaway ship headed to crash into New Urbrem, that it really doesn’t get in the way of the extreme entertainment factor.

Sure, the overall world of the INCREDIBLES doesn’t feel as fresh as it did in 2004 (still looks really cool though), but despite its formulaic flaws, it’s a joy to spend time with these characters again on another fast paced ride. INCREDIBLES 2 is a solid sequel that should please the many big fans of the first one, as it did a casual fan like me. Thanks for the update, Bird, Pixar, and all the great voice talent – see you in another 14 years!

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Friday, June 08, 2018

Paul Schrader’s Profoundly Powerful FIRST REFORMED

Now playing:

FIRST REFORMED (Dir. Paul Schrader, 2018) 

Paul Schader’s 21st film as director is his most vital work since 1997’s AFFLICTION (though I do admire his somewhat wacky 2002 Bob Crane biopic, AUTO FOCUS). FIRST REFORMED tells the intense tale of Pastor Ernst Toller, a minister at a tourist church (historical because it was once a stop on the Underground Railroad) in upstate New York where he preaches sermons to pews with only four or five people.

Toller’s temple of the title is figuratively in the shadow of a megachurch that owns it, Abundant Life headed by celebrity preacher Pastor Jeffers (Cedric The Entertainer, credited as Cedric Kyles). A young pregnant woman, Mary (Amanda Seyfried) seeks out Toller in hope of having him counsel her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist who wants his wife to have an abortion because he can’t stand the idea of bringing a child into such a doomed world.

After their first discussion, in which we learn that the Pastor lost his son in the Iraq war and that destroyed his marriage, Toller researches what Michael is tormented by – the overwhelming scientific predictions of environmental disaster - and it triggers an existential crisis that gets worse the more glasses of whiskey he downs (he drinks more than his character in the 2012 horror film SINISTER, and that’s saying a lot), and comes to a horrible head when Michael commits suicide.

A 250th Anniversary celebration is being planned for Toller’s church, but Jeffers and one of Abundant Life’s corporate sponsors, represented by CEO Edward Balq (Michael Gaston) are concerned about the troubled chaplain after has his choir sing Neil Young’s Young’s pro-wildlife/anti-fracking anthem “Who’s Gunna Stand Up?” at Michael’s funeral.

Having found out that Balq is a climate change denier whose oil company is responsible for much of the area’s pollution, Toller plots a deadly end to the Anniversary event involving a suicide vest over his body wrapped in barbed wire.

From this description, I’m sure you can grasp that is a seriously dark and disturbing experience, but it’s a fascinating, immersive one as well that’s as watchable as it is unpleasant to process.

I originally wasn’t a fan of Hawke (his work in such films as DEAD POET’S SOCIETY and REALITY BITES didn’t rub me well), but he’s really grown into one of the most interesting actors of his generation. His work here is intricately stoic, but with instances of emotion (such as when he tells a woman, played by Victoria Hill, that he once had an affair with that he despises her), that can really get you in the gut.

FIRST REFORMED is the first movie in a long while that I want to read the screenplay of as it plays like a piece of literature in its thoughtful depiction of a complete crisis of fate.

The ending may baffle many audiences – it did a number on me – but it’s a profoundly powerful one. Many critics are comparing the film to Martin Scorsese’s 1976 landmark TAXI DRIVER, which Schrader wrote, a valid comparison for sure, as the films’ themes and tones are close in feeling. But Toller is a different kind of creature than Travis Bickle, created to reflect an even more dangerous world.

It’s impossible for Schrader’s incredible work here to make the same mark as that undeniable classic as the cinematic landscape is infinitely more cluttered, but I predict that in time, FIRST REFORMED will be considered as being in the same class.

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