Ant-Man and The Wasp

July 9, 2018 at 4:21 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊

I am tempted to just refer you to my review of the first “Ant-Man” movie from 2015. Honestly, I feel pretty much the same way about this one. As I have said before, Marvel films bleed into many different genres. They aren’t just action films. They also include horror, comedy, and serious dramas. The “Ant-Man” movies are essentially caper movies. Think of the “Ocean’s” films: a team of heroes (each with her/his own skill set) team up to steal (or steal back) something. Various wackiness and smirky humor ensues. Actually, given the wacky-to-smirky ratio in this film, “Logan Lucky” might be a better comparison than any of the “Ocean’s” films. There is good, goofy fun to be had here, but little else. The plot is silly and so full of holes that is doesn’t bear reviewing. The characters are shallow and one note; everyone is some variation of cute/sweet and goofy. Ant-Man’s young daughter is high on cute/sweet and low on goofy. The villain’s are highly goofy. And almost everyone else is somewhere in-between. An atmosphere of adolescent slapstick pervades the entire film, with Paul Rudd’s winking, self-aware delivery right at the center of it. But this film has no real teeth. It wants to be naughty but won’t commit the way “Deadpool” does; these are kinder, gentler, PG-13 dick jokes. It all gets a bit tedious toward the end. The only thing with any real teeth (and those teeth were stolen from other parts of the MCU) is the mid-credits scene. If you watch the film, definitely stay for that scene. But, you needn’t bother waiting for the final after-credits scene. That was utter silliness and highlighted one of the least believable parts of the film. Speaking of unbelievable, as with last time, I was really bugged that they can’t play by the basic rules of physics. Items that shrink or grow, either change or don’t change mass depending on what serves the scene in that moment. So, cars and building can be picked up when shrunken down, as though they were matchbox toys. But, Ant-Man can still knock a full grown man down with his microscopic punch because it still contains the force and mass of his full-sized punch. It get’s even worse when they go to the “quantum realm.” How can a ship be fueled by fire when you are on a sub-atomic level? What is that fire made of? How exactly can you “shrink” fire? Am I being too picky and expecting too much? Perhaps there’s no way to make Ant-Man not goofy. Maybe, this is just the best way to play him. And, I will admit, the film is not without its charms. Rudd can genuinely be funny and I did get a few good laughs. I honestly did not hate the film. And I can’t even say that I resent having paid for it (thanks Movie Pass). I can just think of other ways to spend a beautiful Sunday afternoon. In fact, I would highly recommend you watch this one on Netflix on a lazy Tuesday night.

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Deadpool 2

May 30, 2018 at 4:11 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

2016’s “Deadpool” was such a punch-in-the-face and breath-of-fresh-air at the same time, that it was hard for me to imagine how a sequel could do anything but seem repetitive. Yet, D2 remains as fresh as the original. Ryan Reynolds is back as our titular hero(?), only this time he has a cast worthy of sharing the screen with him. The first film felt like it was entirely and only the Ryan Reynolds show. This time, he is definitely the center of attention, but he has a stronger bench of supporting characters. Josh Brolin is particularly effective as Cable. He is essentially Deadpool’s straight man and Brolin is a master of the deadpan, self-serious look required here. The humor is the same as the first film, only far more self-aware. It’s as though the success of the last film had 20th Century Fox screaming, “more referential jokes!” Everything in “Deadpool 2” is meta². And sometimes brilliantly so, as when Deadpool references “The Passion of the Christ” (the only R-rated film with a higher box office than the first “Deadpool”). Or when he again calls out the studio for not having the budget for any of the popular X-Men. There were quite a few fun cameos; look for the shocking reveal of who the invisible character “Vanisher” is. This film also had more of a plot than the first one and seemed to be introducing a possible cast of regulars for future films. It’s a crew I would be happy to watch again. As I have mentioned before, superhero films are coming into their own and one sure sign is how they are increasingly willing to cross genres. First and foremost, this film is a comedy. If you like self-aware, raunchy humor, I think you’ll find this as enjoyable as the last one. Perhaps, even a bit more so. If, for no other reason, than that there is 100% fewer masturbation jokes.

Ready Player One

April 2, 2018 at 11:23 am | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ½

I find it hard to judge a movie whose book I read first. There are very few times when a movie is as good as, or better than, the book that inspired it (the LOTR series, as an example). Now, let’s be clear, “Ready Player One” is no masterwork of fiction. It’s light, easy sci-fi that can be read in a few days and likely forgotten in a few months. It probably would not even factor into this review, except that I just read the book and so, it was fresh in my mind. I was keenly aware of how much exposition was necessary, particularly in the beginning of the film, to set the stage for the audience. Yet, I was also aware of how much was being left out. That said, the two people I saw the film with, who had not read the book, did not seem to think that the story was unclear. But there was a lot left out that I thought really helped build out this world. I also could not help but be aware of all the changes that were made, some of which blunted any emotional impact the book had. What you do get is a fast-paced story that tries to balance world-building with action and stunning visuals. That makes sense. The book was very visual, describing in detail the various virtual locations the story moves through. It’s a testament to how far (and how fast) visual effects have progressed, that nobody is talking about the look of this film. We spend a lot of time looking at beautifully rendered virtual faces and they are really quite impressive. There is a scene that takes place in the hotel from “The Shining,” and it looked like a real set; with only a couple of exceptions, that hotel looked photo-real. The real reason this book has made any splash (and was even made into a movie) is that it is rife with 80s references. An action/sci-fi/virtual reality movie with 80s references just seems like it would appeal to everyone from 15-55, and Hollywood must love those numbers. So, if you’re in the mood for some nostalgia, open your mouth and waddle up to the hose. There are so many pop culture references (from the 60s through the 90s) in every single scene, you might wish you could pause the movie to catch them all. And you still won’t catch them all. One of my friends burst out laughing at one point. Apparently, the spell being used was taken verbatim from the 1981 movie “Excalibur.” Who knew? Apparently, nobody else in my audience. This film can be a fun ride but, be aware, it is all spectacle and no depth. The one “message” about the importance of living in the real world is so tacked on and saccharine that it almost feels sarcastic. If you want a goofy good time, see this film. Just don’t expect it to stick with you. Spielberg has made masterpieces that will stay with me my whole life. Five years from now, I won’t even remember what this movie was about.

Black Panther

February 17, 2018 at 12:20 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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Where to begin? With some films, there is so little I want to say, that I’m not sure I can squeeze a decent review out of them (whether I liked the film or not). For films like this one, I have so much to say, I don’t know how to fit it all in. To call Ryan Coogler’s new film brilliant seems to risk both overhyping it and underselling it; it cannot be categorized so easily with just one word. Coogler, whose other two movies include “Creed” and the stunning “Fruitvale Station,” has deliberately made a Black movie for a Black audience. What makes this film revolutionary is that he has done it within a genre that has been colonized entirely by the White perspective until now. The basic rules of a good superhero movie include: a lot of interesting action, great special effects, powerful (and emotionally complex) heroes, a daunting evil villain, and (more recently) plenty of quips and tie-ins to a larger superhero universe. To that end, this film checks most of those boxes and does so as well as, though not particularly better than, most of the best superhero movies. But evaluating it just on that criteria entirely misses what this film really does. For every other film in this genre, the race of the characters and the director was overwhelmingly White. As a result, the perspective of the entire film was a White one, and the implications of that remained unexamined by almost all of us, myself included. But, in “Black Panther,” the perspective is shifted, the lens turned back on itself, and the limitations within the genre thus far are left exposed. This is not a film made from the White perspective that happens to have an all Black cast; this is a Black film and we, as White viewers, are left on the outside looking in. It’s about time. This is a film whose bones are built on the thing that makes most White Americans uncomfortable with African Americans– their deep and abiding anger. That is why this film is so revolutionary. We have had plenty of films in the past that have explored the complex cultural issues around race, including fantastic Black films by Black artists. But those films have almost always been serious dramas or sly comedies. But superheroes are America’s epic heroes. As with other heroic tropes of the past (cowboys, knights, etc.), they serve as the representation of how we want to view ourselves: bold, noble, self-sacrificing, and the idealized representation of our truest values. When Coogler uses this genre to make us participants in the conversation about racial injustice and anger, he subverts expectations in a way we aren’t prepared for. I noticed my own discomfort when I watch Black people talking about White people behind our backs, so to speak. Typically, when we see this in film, White people remain the ones in power, even in those conversations, even when we aren’t present. Within the realm of comic book fantasy, Coogler is free to imagine a world where Black people are truly, entirely in power. In that world, we see Black people talking about White societies with the same “benign” condescension that we have historically used when discussing African societies; ie what is our responsibility toward the ignorant savages (only, in this case, the savages are the White societies). That that is such a revolutionary perspective, and that it makes me uncomfortable, exposes for me just how entrenched the colonizer’s gaze is. In “Black Panther,” we are shown a beautiful African society, as idealized as many movies have made American society. Coogler’s Wakanda manages to be both a technological supercity and also deeply African. The art, streets, clothing, architecture all have a profound African identity built into them. It is also a truly equitable city, where women serve in all roles of society (in fact, one could argue that this is also the most feminist superhero film made to date). Wakanda is a city built for the Black audience, as a representation of their idealized world. From that perspective, the final scenes of this film are particularly powerful. It feels as though this movie is having a conversation with Black America and, in the final moments, it is inviting the larger world to join that conversation. But (and here is the real revolution), they are not inviting us to a conversation about race on our terms; we are being invited to finally start having the conversation on their terms. I have said much about Coogler as the director and writer and nothing about the cast. It seems flippant to simply say that everyone was fantastic, but they truly were. This is a brilliant cast that includes some of the best of the rising young actors in Hollywood today. I will highlight one performance, though. I do think Michael B. Jordan should get an Oscar nomination for his character Killmonger. Everything about that performance is incendiary and his character is uncompromised from start to finish. His final scene with T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) was stunningly powerful; I cannot remember ever seeing that much honesty, rage, pride in a comic book film. And, all of that came from the villain. He is one of the best villains in any superhero movie to date; Heath Ledger’s may have been edgier, but Jordan’s is more moving and emotionally real. Now, I must confess my own discomfort reading back over this review. I am cognizant that I am speaking about a world that I’m not a apart of. Mine is not the best voice to interpret this film and its importance; I know that. I share here my perceptions and my desire to be apart of a broader conversation, that should happen on every level, including the arts. Film has a unique ability to reach so many people. That this one uses the framework of a genre we are so familiar with to speak a language that is so unfamiliar to most of us (and yet so comfortable to some), is why I think the only, best word for “Black Panther” is, in the end, simply brilliant.

 

Hostiles

February 4, 2018 at 6:23 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ½

Within the first few minutes, I had a clear sense of what this movie was going to be. It starts with Comanches massacring a homesteading family. The screen fades to black and we get the single word “Hostiles,” which fades until only the “I” remains. Just in case it isn’t clear yet that this is a film about how everyone is a hostile (including you and I), the first scene after the title is of white soldiers terrorizing an Apache family. From there, the film moves at a languid pace, interspersed with sudden moments of violence, as it tells the story of a group of soldiers commanded to take a Native American family home, so that the chief can die. They are led by Captain Blocker (Christian Bale), who has killed countless Native Americans and (of course) hates them all with a passion. The film hasn’t really started yet, but we can all see where this is going. Over the long course of 135 minutes, there will be some measure of suffering and redemption for virtually everyone. This is a strong cast, including Wes Studi, Rosamund Pike, Adam Beach, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemmons, Jonathan Majors, and Timotheé Chalamet. They all do a good job of being grim, broken, and determined. Few other emotions are required. That said, I was particularly impressed by Rory Cochrane (“Dazed and Confused,” “Empire Records”). I have mostly considered him a comic actor, but his haunted Sgt Metz was particularly effective. The film unfolds over the stunning Montana landscape and director Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart,” “Black Mass”) pulls out every stunning “Dances With Wolves” shot he can think of. And, in the end, that’s its biggest problem; there was really nothing new here. Every image shown, every idea explored, has all been done in other films. There is nothing wrong with this story. It just isn’t an original one. On top of that, the final scene was just a little too pat and easy. I’m not sure that much redemption had been earned. This wasn’t a bad film. It just felt like something I would have been impressed by a couple of decades ago.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

December 18, 2017 at 5:22 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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Expectations are always high when it comes to “Star Wars,” and that certainly was the case here. There was a giddy eagerness in the theater the night I was there. My audience applauded the opening credits, whooped and clapped throughout. They were looking for a good time and, fortunately, they were not disappointed. This, the 9th “Star Wars” film and the 8th in the Skywalker series, is the best one in years. Darker and far more brooding than most of the films, it also shows a level of character development that the series has sorely missed until now. In Lucas’s world, there were good guys and bad guys, but little in-between. Director Rian Johnson had directed three feature-length films before this: “Brick,” “The Brothers Bloom,” and “Looper.” Anyone who has seen any of his films knows he loves complicated, morally ambivalent characters. In Lucas’s hands, a character like Luke always felt a bit one-dimensional to me. Yet, in “The Last Jedi,” we get a window into a more complex character filled with guilt, self-doubt, a bit morally simplistic and even a bit arrogant. It was great to see Hamill again, playing the only character I have ever seen him play. He has become a comfortable actor, capable of playing a far more interesting Luke than he could 35 years ago. I really liked this new version of an old character and I hope to see more of him. I also really like how the two core characters are being played. I realize one might debate that there are core characters in this rich ensemble cast. But, using the first films as a guide, it seems to me the backbone of these stories is the relationship between Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), much as it had been the relationship between Luke and Darth Vader. I find this relationship more interesting than the Luke/Vader one. It has more uncertainty in it, with Kylo Ren as a far more conflicted villain than Vader ever was. I am very interested to see his character arc. I was also really pleased with the screen time General Leia was given. This final role was a fitting tribute to Carrie Fisher. Johnson also filled the film with all the things one would expect: beautiful planets, interesting aliens, a few battles and chase scenes, all the good stuff. He also had the requisite cute/funny aliens but, mercifully, kept them tightly contained. From start to finish, this was an entertaining ride and, more than that, it intrigued me. I genuinely want to see where these characters end up and that’s something I haven’t felt in a “Star Wars” film in a long while.

Atomic Blonde

December 8, 2017 at 4:44 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ½

In deciding how to rank this film, my thinking was fairly simple. It’s really not worth paying to see, not even just a rental fee. However, if you can watch it for free some time, it is reasonably entertaining. Taking place in 1989, as the Berlin Wall is falling, it follows one MI-6 spy (Charlize Theron) as she tries to find a defector and save his life with the help of a deep cover spy, played by James McAvoy. We are clearly meant to be entertained by the back-and-forth, fight-or-flirt tension between them. However, it all felt too predictable to be charming. In fact, the film goes exactly where you think it will. Even the twists within twists were telegraphed 10 minutes in. I could imagine the writers feeling very pleased with the ending they came up with, but it was truly the only real option for an ending that wasn’t completely dull. That said, the action was relentless and oft times entertaining, in that relentless action kind of way. There was some jaded humor, even a few good lines, and a great 80s soundtrack, even if it was used ridiculously literally (e.g. Flock of Seagulls’s “I Ran” for a chase scene). This really was an absolutely adequate way to waste an evening. But it was absolutely nothing more than that.

Justice League

November 19, 2017 at 10:09 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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Admittedly, the bar was low for this one. “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” was just a mess, with moments of visual wonder amongst the horrendous dialogue and muddled, overly-stuffed story line. I did not expect much as the curtain rose (I go to an old-timey theatre, where there actually still is two layers of curtains that do rise and a guy playing on the organ before the show starts). When the final credits rolled, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this film. Director Zac Snyder (“Batman v. Superman,” “The 300,” “The Watchmen”) has toned down the moody visuals he is known for. They were really the only thing I like about the last film, but they aren’t missed here. In their place, we get a tighter and less grim story arc, with genuine humor and even some actual character development. DC has a long way to go to match the camaraderie and complexity of the Avengers’s relationships. That said, I think Joss Whedon, who wrote the screenplay, does a good job of getting us halfway there. Each of these characters had his/her own distinct personality and way of interacting with the others. Even a character like Cyborg, who I had worried would get lost against the larger and more iconic characters, was a vital member of the team, with his own unique personality and compelling story. Whedon and Snyder even managed to create an Aquaman who was not wholly ridiculous. Much of that credit also goes to Jason Momoa who gave the character a sly humor and gravitas that he desperately needed. Most of the laughs centered around the Flash, with Ezra Miller well cast in the part. Miller’s Flash is hyperactive, giddy, wide-eyed and a bit goofy. He’s far more interesting than the boy-scout TV version. At times, the humor around him felt a bit forced and fell flat for me. But, the funniest laughs also centered around his character. Overall, I think this film lacked the comfortable humor of “Wonder Woman” and the action scenes were not quite as fun. That said, I found the plot here to be much more interesting, the story arc more satisfying, and the ending avoided the silliness that crept into “Wonder Woman’s” final moments. This was a fun, high action romp with characters I would love to see more of. In the end, I think DC did exactly what it needed to.

Thor: Ragnarok

November 5, 2017 at 9:52 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

I liked this film so much more than either of its prequels (“Thor” and “Thor: The Dark World“), which is admittedly a pretty low bar.  Those were both dull and overly serious, relying entirely on special effects to replace any meaningful plot or dialogue. Come to think of it, this film is not so different. It is mostly a special effects spectacle with largely silly dialogue and a plot so full of holes that it is hard to decide which ones to highlight. How about the utter lack of explanation for how Hulk ended up on this planet, or how Bruce Banner’s ominous fear about himself is utterly ignored in the end, or how a creature vanquished so easily at the beginning of the movie becomes all powerful when it returns. The list could go on, but then you might be tempted to think that I didn’t like this film and I did. Why? Because there was one critical difference between it and its predecessors; it had a sense of humor. New Zealand born director Taika Waititi, who is most known for the tedious “What We Do in the Shadows” and the lovely “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” is primarily a comedy writer/director. He has brought that aesthetic to the Thor franchise, where it is much needed. This film was, first and foremost, a superhero action movie. As such, it had its main villain, played with delicious glee by Cate Blanchett. It had its various lesser baddies, played with varying levels of silliness, from the relatively straight Karl Urban (as “Skurge”) to the always over-the-top Jeff Goldblum (“Grandmaster”). And it had several well-choreographed fight scenes, including the Hulk/Thor battle that we have all seen in all the previews, and the final battle scene, which was beautifully scored to Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” The best thing about these scenes was that the audience could actually follow the action, which has been a real problem in many CGI fight scenes in previous movies (think anything Michael Bay). But, as I mentioned, on top of all of this saving-the-universe-yet-again stuff, there was this nice layer of light comedy. At times it didn’t work, particularly when it was overly adolescent; I could have gotten through a Thor movie without ever hearing any masturbation, penis-size or anus jokes. But, what it did really well was to add dimension to two overly dramatic Marvel characters. Both Thor and The Hulk have suffered in overly serious films. Here, they suddenly became real people. These two characters were more alive in this film than in any film to date. Their buddy relationship was particularly fun to watch, as it allowed both actors to show a softer side to their characters, including warmth, humor, and self-doubt. I like this new Hulk a lot and I really like the new Thor who has evolved by the end of this story. I hope these are the two characters who show up in the “Infinity Wars” movies. I could definitely watch more of both of them.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

July 23, 2017 at 10:50 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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½

Based on a set of French comics that ran from 1967 – 2010, the film focuses on a Flash Gordon-type hero named Valerian and his partner, Laureline. They do amazing things and save the good guys from the bad guys. That’s hardly a revolutionary story line, though it doesn’t need to be. We go to films like this for a lot of reasons but being surprised isn’t typically one of them. However, we do expect to be entertained. And, in a movie so full of spectacle and action, I am sorry to say that I was bored, almost from the first scene to the last. The backbone of any good film is an engaging plot; it draws the audience in, creates the context for everything we see, and defines what’s at stake for the protagonists. But, right from the start, it’s clear that the emphasis is on surface over substance. Whole scenes are unnecessarily convoluted just as an excuse to play with more visuals and the plot as a whole makes virtually no sense. Similarly, the dialogue and character development feel frankly adolescent. Valerian and Laureline are supposed to be falling in love but the actors had no chemistry. In fact, none of them appeared to be trying particularly hard. Dane DeHaan, who played Valerian, is a terrific actor; watch him in “Kill Your Darlings.” But, here, he seemed to be channeling Keanu Reeves, as though Luc Besson thought he was making his own sort of “Matrix.” Besson, who is best known for directing “The Fifth Element,” shows all the subtlety here that he did there, though at least that film was visually arresting at times. Filmed almost entirely against a blue screen (there could not have been more than 3 or 4 actual sets in this whole film) for a whopping $180M, you would think “Valerian” would at least be fun to look at. You would be wrong. The imagery was all too much too often and without a coherent whole. Visuals were created just because they looked good and not because they served a consistent vision of this universe. The film lacked an internally compelling aesthetic. Also, because the characters all lacked depth, it did not matter that the CGI was good. None of their emotions meant anything. I kept thinking about the most recent “Planet of the Apes” and the character of Caesar. He was such a real and complex character that the CGI served to bring him to life. But CGI cannot animate the lifeless. As a tool, it can add new dimensions to film and allow the director/actors/audience to explore core truths in new and compelling ways. Or it can simply be gratuitous overload; visuals for the sake of the fact that you can create them. That’s what we have here. This film is all surface with nothing below a very thin veneer of pretty. Why bother? There are so many other better films to see. I can’t give this film a ∅. I mean, it didn’t offend me. It just felt like an 137 minute waste of time.

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