Saturday, July 14, 2018

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Still Small, But with Big Upgrades

Evangeline Lilly and Paul Rudd in Marvel's "Ant-Man and the Wasp"
When we last left the Marvel Cinematic Universe (all of two months ago!), its foundations had been shaken to their cosmic core. The ending of Avengers: Infinity War carried with it cataclysmic consequences for virtually every member of the MCU, though noticeably absent (or maybe not that noticeably) was Scott Lang, the affable thief better known in comic-book lore as Ant-Man. Perhaps he was busy promoting his own movie. Regardless, in light of Infinity War’s devastating conclusion, it was fair to wonder if Ant-Man and the Wasp—the sequel to the passably entertaining, entirely unmemorable Ant-Man—would feel trivial by comparison. In one sense, it does; after all, no galaxies are threatened in this film, whose kill count is in the single digits rather than the billions. But in another, more important sense, Ant-Man and the Wasp is a significant achievement, because it features a key quality that Infinity War largely lacked. Quite simply: It’s fun.

I don’t want to frame Ant-Man and the Wasp as the antithesis of Infinity War, because it’s still a Marvel movie, with all of the pleasures and obligations that entails. (You’ll never believe this, but Stan Lee has a cameo.) But the differences between the two are nevertheless noteworthy. Where the third official Avengers crossover was absolutely massive—a sprawling undertaking that spanned multiple planets and comprised several dozen heroes and villains—this bug-centric sequel feels insular, with a narrow focus that spares only a handful of glances toward the broader MCU. (Most notable of these is the mid-credits stinger, which elicited gasps at my screening.) And where the tone of Infinity War was grave to the point of lugubriousness, Ant-Man and the Wasp is breezy and jovial. Nobody here is worried about saving the world; they just want to spend time with their families.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom: Terrible Lizards for Hire? Dino-Mite!

A T-Rex roars in "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom"
The only thing harder than cloning intelligent life, it appears, is cloning intelligent movies. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is the latest failed attempt to replicate the wonder and the horror of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, that quarter-century-old landmark that brilliantly married new-age special effects with old-school filmmaking craft. Fallen Kingdom, with its toothy lizards and toothless people, takes place in the present day, but it feels like it’s an entire geological era removed from the original film; in fact, it expends little effort trying to even resemble a good movie. Instead it recognizes its role in the contemporary blockbuster landscape: to supply a steady stream of loud, reasonably coherent set pieces in which fearsome dinosaurs do battle with one another and occasionally pause to munch on the hubristic humans who are either too foolish or too unlucky to get in their way.

As with many forgettable and unpretentious movies, Fallen Kingdom aspires to be labeled “dumb fun”. It’s dumber than most. Where its predecessor, the uneven but not unentertaining Jurassic World, envisioned Michael Crichton’s theoretical theme park as finally becoming a commercial reality—a tourist mecca that attracted throngs of imbeciles who thought peeking at prehistoric man-killing monsters from behind six inches of glass qualified as a vacation hot spot—Fallen Kingdom considers the aftermath of its collapse. A volcano is now set to erupt on Isla Nublar, the fictional island that hosts the now-ruined park, thereby imperiling the many dinosaurs who still thrive there ever since humanity fled in a mass panic. This pending natural disaster engenders a spirited political debate, the kind with Senate hearings and grim newscasts. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum, returning for just a few pointless scenes) deems the volcano a critical evolutionary corrective, and he urges the American government to live and let die. (You might call his approach, “Death finds a way.”) But Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), who has apparently changed careers from middle manager to conservationist, pleads with reclusive billionaire Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) to transport the not-so-terrible lizards to a safe haven, where they can roam and roar in peace.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Incredibles 2: Still Super, After All These Years

The Parr family is back in "Incredibles 2"
Taking stock of a dramatic change in circumstances, a young boy early in Incredibles 2 poses a seemingly simple question: “Are things… bad?” Well, son, it depends on whom you ask. Like the best of Pixar’s movies, Incredibles 2 situates itself squarely on the boundary between the fantastical and the real, wielding an arsenal of artistic tools—bravura technique, sharp wit, limitless imagination—to supply meaningful commentary and poignant themes about everyday life. These days, characterizing everyday life as bad could be construed as a pitiful understatement. But while Incredibles 2 does not entirely ignore our current political environment—one enterprising character adopts the slogan, “Make Superheroes Legal Again”—its allegorical concerns are more universal, expanding on the original film’s thoughtful exploration of marriage and parenthood. And because it perpetuates the franchise’s familial odyssey with even greater verve and intelligence, things in this sequel are far from bad. In fact, things are very, very good.

Again written and directed by America’s animation laureate, Brad Bird, Incredibles 2 picks up immediately after its predecessor left off, with the Parr family—a clan of clandestine superheroes led by Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson) and Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), more commonly known as Bob and Helen—attempting to halt the exploits of a silly baddie calling himself the Underminer. It’s a bit surprising that Bird refused to allow any fictional time to pass between the two installments (the first Incredibles, of course, was released 14 years ago), but it spares him the bother of exposition, allowing him to instead dive straight into some brawny superhero mayhem. The movie’s opening set piece is a rambunctious joyride through the city’s streets and sewers, with Bob frantically attempting to subdue the Underminer and inadvertently causing massive amounts of property damage in the process.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Hereditary: Pall in the Family

Toni Collette is terrorized and terrifying in "Hereditary"
She just had to be a miniaturist. Hereditary, the impressive and excessive and frequently electrifying debut feature from Ari Aster, would have been scary enough if its besieged heroine had worked as a lawyer or a teacher or a writer. But no, the recently orphaned Annie (Toni Collette) is a conceptual artist who specializes in designing tiny panoramas, and there’s something extra-creepy about the way she uses paint and glue to manufacture ornately detailed dollhouses. Maybe it’s the notion of a powerful creator exercising absolute dominion over her realm, not unlike a movie director domineering his helpless audience. It seems more than just a fancy flourish that Hereditary opens in an abandoned attic, the camera slowly rotating from a sunlit window to the shadowy interior, then gradually pushing in on one such minuscule dollhouse bedroom; one invisible special effect later, and that facsimile has become the film’s actual environment, with a man striding through the door to wake his son. It soon becomes clear that this movie, with its countless shrieks and shocks, is itself an artfully assembled prison. You cannot escape from it; you can only hold on for dear life, as Aster buffets you where he may.

That may not sound like your idea of a good time, but for cineastes, Hereditary is essential viewing purely as a matter of formal technique. The horror genre is so durable in part because of its mutability—any political point or allegorical tribute achieves more force when appearing in the guise of zombies or ghosts—but it also draws talented craftsmen with an innate command of cinematic grammar. And while Hereditary is not without its flaws—most notably a third-act tilt into absurdity—Aster’s abilities cannot be in dispute. He wields the camera with elegant precision rather than brute force, favoring silky and captivating long takes as opposed to vulgar jump cuts. His directing is always controlled, even when his writing is utterly bonkers.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

First Reformed: Still Preaching, But Is Anyone Listening?

Ethan Hawke as a plagued preacher in "First Reformed"
Ethan Hawke has always had a crease in his face, a thin vertical line running from the center of his forehead to the bridge of his nose. But this crinkle somehow looks more pronounced in First Reformed, as though the weight of the world has been pushing in on his features and flattening the surrounding skin. Hawke is a naturally garrulous presence—recall his motormouthed writer of Richard Linklater’s Before movies, as well as his cool dad of Boyhood—which makes him a curious choice to play Reverend Toller, a solitary preacher haunted by internal demons. But just as Hawke’s career has slowly illuminated the considerable talent behind the folksy Texas charm (he’s recently done some of his best work in low-profile films like Predestination and 10,000 Saints), First Reformed gradually reveals itself as a different creature, a more subtle beast, than it first appears. What starts as a sober character study eventually transforms, almost miraculously, into… something else.

To say too much would risk spoiling the story’s surprises, but it’s important to note that the story is surprising, and that it smartly leverages our expectations against us. As you settle in to First Reformed and absorb its particular aesthetic and narrative qualities—its cramped aspect ratio, its grey palette, its solemn and solitary voiceover—you are likely to deduce that the movie will unfold as an attentive but familiar exploration of its complicated, grief-stricken hero. Your assumption will not be entirely wrong; to the last, First Reformed commits completely to its mission of understanding what makes Reverend Toller tick. But Paul Schrader, the iconoclast who wrote and directed this movie and whose name will be forever linked with his script for Taxi Driver, is not interested in making a gentle prestige picture. He goes for the throat as well as the soul.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story: Getting Cocky, Even as a Pup

Alden Ehrenreich is a young hero in "Solo: A Star Wars Story"
There’s a quick shot in Solo: A Star Wars Story of someone in a spacecraft sliding into the copilot’s seat, ready to help guide the ship out of danger. Taken in a vacuum, it’s an unremarkable image, just a basic establishing shot of the type we’ve seen in countless sci-fi films. But while this fun and frisky movie may take place in outer space, it most certainly does not take place in a vacuum. Instead, it is set within the Star Wars mythos, which means that the pilot is a cocksure grifter named Han Solo, the copilot is a gigantic walking carpet called Chewbacca, and the spaceship is none other than the Millennium Motherfucking Falcon. And for viewers of a certain generation, the image of Han and Chewie sitting side by side in the cockpit of one of the fastest ships in the galaxy carries with it a frisson of elation, because we are witnessing not just the usual collaboration of roguish outlaws, but the birth of a partnership that served as a cultural touchstone of our youth.

This is almost unfair. By telling a story about characters I grew up with, Solo is capable of hard-wiring into my lizard brain, remapping my neural pathways and convincing me that it’s a good and meaningful movie simply by reason of its existence. So perhaps the happiest surprise about Solo is that it does not coast along entirely on nostalgia. There is some of that, sure—hey, do those dice look familiar? What’s that adage about Wookiees pulling people’s arms out of their sockets?—but there is also a breezy sense of adventure, along with a winning atmosphere of wonder and discovery. By and large, the film gets by on its own merits; there’s no mystical energy field that controls its destiny.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Deadpool 2: Lacking in Wisdom, But Still Cracking Wise

Zazie Beetz, Ryan Reynolds, and Terry Crews in "Deadpool 2"
The dirty little secret of Deadpool was that, for all its supposed subversiveness—the meta commentary, the vulgar jokes, the extreme gore and relentless profanity—it largely proceeded as a straightforward superhero origin story. So it’s only logical that Deadpool 2 abides by the Law of the Sequel, doubling down on the original’s purported irreverence while also methodically expanding the franchise’s universe and setting the stage for further installments to come. If you deemed the first Deadpool to be an anarchic laugh riot, you’ll likely be sated by this follow-up’s well-stocked buffet of ad-lidded one-liners and bloody carnage. And if, like a certain humorless critic, you found the original to be a mildly clever, philosophically vacant sketch concept that quickly wore out its welcome, well, at least you still get to spend a few hours hanging out with Ryan Reynolds.

Reprising his role as Wade Wilson, the potty-mouthed assassin with a red leotard and a severely burned face, Reynolds receives a co-writing credit this time around (shared with Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, who scripted the first film), suggesting that the affable actor improvised acre-sized swaths of his dialogue. (In fact, given that Wade spends most of his time wearing a head-to-chin mask, it’s fair to wonder if Reynolds just muttered “insert wisecrack here” while on set, then looped in his gag of choice during post-production.) Here he favors a high-volume approach that seems rooted in the ZAZ school of comedy, the notion that if you keep the jokes flying fast enough, you’ll land enough punches to keep the audience in stitches. And he does land his fair share; apologizing to his girlfriend for arriving home late, Wade explains, “I was fighting a caped badass, but then we discovered that his mom is named Martha too.”

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Tully: My Queendom for a Nap, or a Nanny

Charlize Theron in "Tully"
Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody are good with words. Reitman’s first feature, Thank You for Smoking, was an acid satire about an amoral lobbyist with the gift of gab; for his next, Juno, he took Cody’s zinger-filled script and turned it into a sweet study of teenage loneliness and connection. But it’s telling that in Reitman and Cody’s subsequent collaboration, Young Adult, the jokes flowed slower as the characters got older, the rapid-fire one-liners replaced by caustic insults and grim observations. The trend continues now with Tully, a warm and thoughtful meditation on family and motherhood that’s less antic but no less resonant. Sonically speaking, if Juno was a clatter of snickers and shouts, Tully is a heavy sigh, the deep breath that you exhale as you collapse onto the sofa at the end of a long, hard, numbingly familiar day.

If this suggests that Tully is a wearying experience, well, it is and it isn’t. Certainly, Reitman and his star, Charlize Theron, articulate the film’s atmosphere of groaning exhaustion with discomfiting clarity. But there is pleasure, too, and not just the satisfaction of watching Theron work. (It is nigh impossible to reconcile the perpetually tired matriarch we see here with the ass-kicking secret agent of Atomic Blonde.) No, the real joy in Tully derives from watching a movie that intimately understands its characters, and that treats them with empathy and generosity.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Avengers: Infinity War: Everybody Must Get Stones

Benedict Wong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey Jr. in "Avengers: Infinity War"
Vaulting through the interplanetary air, sticky webs shooting from his genetically altered wrists, Spider-Man issues a sincere apology. “I’m sorry,” he says to his plummeting compatriots as he slings gobs of gummy goo at them, yanking them out of their falls and saving them from certain death. “I can’t remember anyone’s names.”

Can you blame him? The nineteenth official installment in the gargantuan compendium known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Avengers: Infinity War arrives as the ultimate crossover event, a superhero greatest-hits collection most notable for its sheer tonnage. No fewer than eight major characters here have already headlined their own standalone films, while countless others—all played by recognizable actors—have carved out sizable territory as villains, foils, squeezes, and sidekicks. The closing credits sequence alone feels like a breathless roll call, cramming as many high-profile names above the fold as possible, just so nobody’s agent complains about their client getting the shaft.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

You Were Never Really Here: Out for Blood, But Lost in Fog

Joaquin Phoenix as a sullen killer in Lynne Ramsay's "You Were Never Really Here"
Action-packed but not kinetic, stimulating but not engaging, immersive but not intimate—Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here might be described as an anti-thriller. Its plot, which is essentially Taken by way of Taxi Driver, features a handful of genre staples: a rugged but troubled hero, a girl in peril, a cadre of reprehensible evildoers, crushed skulls and buckets of blood. But while the movie hits all of the familiar revenge-narrative beats, it does so in decidedly offbeat ways, preferring to linger in the unsettling spaces that bubble up between the requisite moments of violence and mayhem. It’s less interested in elevating your pulse than in digging under your skin.

This approach has its rewards. You will surely see more exciting movies in 2018 than You Were Never Really Here, but you may not see a more distinctive one, and there’s intrigue in the way Ramsay upends expectations and shows you something creepy and new. But her assaultive style has limitations, too; when viewed from a certain angle, her commitment to jaggedness is less suggestive of a disciplined artist abiding by her principles than of a smug director refusing to entertain her audience. The result is a film that’s easy to admire but difficult to, you know, actually like.