Blog Archives

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

Coming off the cataclysm of Avengers: Infinity War, Marvel’s latest serves as a palate cleanser, a breezy and light-hearted comic adventure with little more on its mind than having fun with its possibilities and leaving the audience happy. The basic premise of a team of thieves that can shrink or expand at will calls for a light touch, and returning director Peyton Reed (Bring it On) and his team have a strong idea of what an Ant-Man movie should be. Ant-Man and the Wasp won’t blow anyone away with its story or characters but it hits a sweet spot of silly comic affability that kept me smiling.

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is close to ending his two-year house arrest following the events of the Berlin brawl in Captain America: Civil War. His old partner Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lily) a.k.a. the Wasp is working with her scientist father, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), to discover the location of the missing Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), lost for decades in the subatomic quantum realm. They need Scott’s help to steal the final parts necessary to complete their quantum field transporter. There are other forces looking to make use of Hank Pym’s technology, namely Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), a woman who can phase through matter, and an unscrupulous local buyer (Walton Goggins) looking to profit. With the help of the Wasp, Scott Lang must protect his friends and allies so they can rescue Janet Van Dyne before she’s lost for good, and he cannot be caught before his house arrest period comes to an end or he’ll go to jail.

When any action movie has unique circumstances, especially those in the superhero realm because of their unique powers, I crave the proper development of the concept and the action sequences to make clever and imaginative use of their available tools. If you have characters that can shrink, that can make other objects big or small, and there’s a villain that can phase, then I expect a thorough and fun implementation of these elements to separate the movie from others. It takes a while to get going, but once the streamlined exposition is behind us, including multiple instances of explaining the plot to the audience, Ant-Man and the Wasp zips by on its sheer sense of sprightly whimsy and visual wonder. Paul Rudd (Wet Hot American Summer) is still as effortlessly charming as ever and elevates every scene partner. When it’s moving, the film does a fine job at entertaining, with funny quips and charming actors and visual panache. When it slows things down to explain or introduce perfunctory characters (looking at you, Laurence Fishburne) that’s when it becomes less than mighty. Ant-Man and the Wasp kept me laughing throughout, especially with the triumphant return of series MVP Michael Pena (CHIPs) as the energetic, motor-mouthed Luis. There are enjoyable payoffs strewn throughout and solid comic asides. It doesn’t feel too jokey to the point that nobody involved cares. It feels like everyone is united with the same mission statement.

The final act in particular is a blast, as now we have our MacGuffin and all of the various teams vying for it in an elaborate series of chase scenes. The cars are racing back and forth, under and over one another, with characters constantly jockeying for top position. It’s an exciting flourish to a conclusion, and every time a car went tiny for a split-second escape, or an ordinary item like a Pez dispenser went huge to form an obstacle, I grew happier and happier. The screenwriters unleashed a flurry of fun and zippy action ideas. Some will balk at the lower level of stakes in the Ant-Man films, or their general aw-shucks silly charm, but I view both as a virtue. Just because it’s a superhero movie doesn’t mean there can’t be a healthy degree of amusement, if properly executed and applied.

The villains are kept interesting enough, through concept or casting. With Ghost, here’s another character that can manipulate matter to her advantage. Her back-story is pretty ordinary (science experiment, looking for way to end pain/save her life) and kept mostly uncomplicated, as her plan is a matter of life and death. Hannah John-Kamen (Ready Player One) has a terrific look and physicality to her, but she’s lacking anything really memorable to do as a performer. Her character has some cool moves but that’s all. It feels like more could have been done with this antagonist. Then there’s genteel local criminal Sonny Burch who is given great gusto by Walton Goggins (The Hateful Eight). It’s like he simply plugged his Justified character’s smooth charisma. He’s a gentleman robber who has just enough self-awareness to acknowledge the absurd. A highlight of the film is an exchange between Goggins and Pena. He’s so good in such a relatively throwaway criminal role that I wish Marvel had saved Goggins for something grander down the line, something to really let his charisma seep into his wild, anarchic energy below the surface.

With all that said, the events involving the rescue of Janet Van Dyne are the weakest parts of the movie, and this saps the other Van Dyne characters as well. I just found myself caring very little for this excursion into the quantum realm, especially when we have fancy heists and opponents who can walk through walls. I understand the importance the rescue mission has with the other characters, but it didn’t feel that important to me. I was more invested in Scott’s ever-increasing near misses being caught breaking his house arrest, which was days away from being lifted by the FBI. Those scenes gave me the delightful Randall Park too (TV’s Fresh Off the Boat). Maybe it’s a casualty of the film’s genial tone, but I think the real culprit why I found myself unmoved is that the Janet rescue is the core storyline attached to Hope and Hank. Beforehand, Hank Pym served as a grumpy mentor figure for Scott, and now he’s mostly complaining about Scott’s exploits and how they invariably jeopardize the retrieval of his wife. Hope gets her spotlight, and name in the title, as Wasp, but she too is saddled with the same humdrum boring material. Lily (The Hobbit films) goes from scene to scene with a cloud of pinched annoyance. They’ve taken two characters who were more interesting in the first film, sanded off things that made them interesting, and bumped up their screen time, which is not a great formula. Everyone seems so irritable around this plotline, and when you haven’t invested much in it, that irritation becomes dangerously off-putting.

If you’re looking for silly, lighthearted escapism, Ant-Man and the Wasp is a superhero flick with entertainment as its top priority and enough infectious fun to achieve its more modest goal. It doesn’t follow the heist formula of the first film but it still finds room for comic asides and stacking payoffs for a lively, inventive final act. It’s definitely a lesser movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) but you need adventures in lower stakes too, especially after twenty movies and counting. Ant-Man and the Wasp could have used some fine-tuning and tightening, especially in its second act, and the quantum stuff definitely didn’t register for me, but it’s a mostly fun and acceptable summer escapade.

Nate’s Grade: B

Advertisements

Ant-Man (2015)

MV5BMjM2NTQ5Mzc2M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTcxMDI2NTE@._V1_SX640_SY720_For the longest time it looked like Ant-Man might be the first dud of the runaway successful Marvel cinematic universe (MCU), a film franchise that was practically printing money at its leisure. It’s a strange setup and the man responsible for the movie even existing, writer/director Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), walked away six weeks before cameras were going to roll. Wright was a big fan of the character and has been working on and off on a screenplay with Joe Cornish (Attack the Block) for the past eight years. Before there was an MCU, there was Wright pushing for Ant-Man. I’m pretty sure Marvel execs weren’t thinking the relatively unknown character was worth sinking money into, but Wright kept pushing. I was far more excited for an Edgar Wright superhero movie than I ever was for Ant-Man, and then it all went away. Neither side has spilled too many details but it appears the divorce was a result of “creative differences,” which is odd since Marvel approved Wright’s script through eight years of development. Several directors were auditioned and Peyton Reed won the spot. The fact that Marvel has gained a rep for being a formula-driven creative committee and they literally hired a director with a film credit called Yes Man is an irony I don’t know that fully sank in. If Marvel was going to miss, this was the film. A funny thing happened in the ensuring year. Ant-Man is a visually engaging, energetic, and funny superhero caper that stays fun from start to finish and is a more entertaining movie than Avengers: Age of Ultron. Didn’t see that coming.

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is a master cat burglar just finishing the end of his prison term. Lang was punished for a “cool crime,” stealing millions a large corporation had illegally bilked form customers and returning it to the very victims, but it makes it hard to secure gainful employment. Scott falls back with his old crew, lead by his pal Luis (Michael Pena), and break’s into Hank Pym’s (Michael Douglas) safe. Expecting cash and jewels, Scott is disappointed to only find a weird looking suit, which he takes anyway. Hank observes Scott and communicates with him about the power of the suit. The wearer can shrink down to the size of n ant with the push of a button in the glove. Hank needs a protégée to wear the suit now that he’s too old. His estranged daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), is working for Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), a scientist close to breaking through on replicating the amazing shrinking formula of Pym’s. As soon as Cross cracks the code, he’s going to sell the technology to the highest bidder (hail HYDRA). Hank must convince Scott to become the Ant-Man and sneak inside Cross’ secured workshop and steal his technology before it gets in the wrong-er hands.

Ant-ManArguably weirder than last summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy, which had a talking tree and space raccoon amongst its main characters, Ant-Man is the hardest property to sell by Marvel yet, and it smartly aims its sights lower and succeeds with the modest goal of just being a fun and enjoyable time at the movies. It helps that the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously and has characters pointing out the absurdity of its premise and developments, but not past the point where it would be detrimental. Let’s face it, a guy who can shrink down to ant-size isn’t that weird when you consider the applications, especially in espionage. The filmmakers do an admirable job of selling a superpower that pales in comparison to most other heroes on the market. However, the weirder power is that Scott has the ability to communicate and control ants via brainwaves. That seems like the even bigger superpower but it also begs the question, why simply ants? Of all the animals or living creatures who could be harnessed with this technology, we go with the tiny ones. There may be an explanation in the history of Ant-Man comics I’m missing but that doesn’t matter when we’re talking about the execution of the movie. The guy is able to control different species of ants with his mind. He is no Ant-Man but the Ant-King. Anyway, I think this power could be much more effective applied elsewhere. The ants are Scott’s friends and he has to train himself training them, getting them to coordinate and assist him properly, or else… there’s not much else at stake because they’re expendable. Perhaps their queen could have eaten Scott if he were unsuccessful.

On its surface, this movie should not work and is too goofy and insubstantial to engage, and yet that’s precisely what appealed to me. Not every superhero film needs to be averting a cataclysm that will destroy the planet. If the stakes feel big to our characters, and if the audience cares, then the stakes feel plenty big for us too. Scott simply foiling the corporate bad guy to be in a better position to see his daughter, that’s workable. Then the storyline is told through a heist, one of cinema’s most enjoyable plot mechanics. Heists are programmed for audience pleasure because it requires teamwork, which utilizes our cast in different and fun ways, it brings plenty of conflict and complications, and it lays out its steps one-by-one and provides a series of payoffs with the completion. It’s a tribute to Reed and the filmmakers that the heist portion of the film isn’t even the most fun part of the story. The majority of the middle is Scott coming to terms with the suit, his powers, his relationships in his life, and the mission. There’s probably one too many training montages (yeah, you get those sugar cubes you ants!) but the pacing is so breezy and the sense of fun so palpable, I didn’t mind. The use of humor never diminishes and Rudd is such a charismatic anchor for the movie, and yet he’s actually somewhat underplayed. He has it within him to be much funnier, but I guess he had to dial it down to effectively be seen as an action hero, hence the presence of newfound abs.

I didn’t have a lot of hope for the film once Wright left but I have to credit Reed for what he has achieved. It’s impossible for me to divorce myself from Wright’s involvement, and what kind of kinetic fireworks he would have birthed, but Reed manages to make Ant-Man come alive visually. Reed’s prior history shows an affinity for comedy but the films have never needed to be visually stylish, though I’d argue my super not-guilty pleasure Bring it On had an above average sense of visual spunk. Still, Ant-Man is a consistently visually immersive film that manages to find new perspectives. Scott’s first foray as a shrunken Ant-Man is an entertaining adventure through the dangers of a house party. The action sequences in miniature are treated just as we would expect a large-scale superhero epic to be treated, and then Reed pulls back at times for prime comic effect, like a battle atop a train that’s really just a child’s toy set. The visuals grandeur is patterned after the typical Hollywood action epic but the movie pulls back repeatedly to remind us how silly everything can be. The small world perspective opens up the movie in its storytelling and definitely in its action choreography. Because the Ant-Man has super strength when small, it behooves him to shift between small and human sizes when fighting. We’ll watch Scott race across the barrel of a gun in one second and then full-sized and hurling a security guard through a plate glass window the next. It provides a new sense of dynamism to basic fisticuffs. Reed takes advantage of the visual possibilities of his pint-sized super hero, like a clever battle that takes place entirely inside the contents of a briefcase. I chose not to watch this film in 3D, as my preferred option, but this is one I would almost consider going 3D. The shrunken worlds use a lot of macro photography to maximize the effect of depth.

ant-man-still_2The cast also seems to be perfectly attuned to the comic rhythms of the story and several supporting players make the most of their moments to shine. Pena (Fury) is hilarious as the easily excitable friend given to lengthy diversions when retelling his tales of intrigue. The two instances where Pena breathlessly recaps what so-and-so said to so-and-so are two of the most playful and comically fulfilling sequences in the movie. I also enjoyed the fact that he’s always making waffles for his friends but this is never overtly commented upon. While Pena provides another dose of humor, the heart of the movie is really the father-daughter relationship, and it’s nice that Lilly (The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies)’s character is given such prominence. She resents Scott because she feels like by every right she should be the Ant-Man; the movie presents the two like bickering rivals fighting for the approval of a father figure. Hope’s credible grievances with her father are treated with weight and her reconciliation is given as much screen time as Scott’s training, pairing the two more as equals. Douglas (Last Vegas) is a warm and welcoming presence as a mentor working through his regrets late in his life. The de-aging CGI effects are amazing early on, showing a 1989 version of Douglas that looks pristine. He looks like he just stepped off the set of Ruthless People. The only weak point is Stoll (TV’s The Strain) but that’s because his underwritten villain is just too generic to blend in amidst all the colorful characters and comic mayhem.

It’s impossible to watch Ant-Man and not try to imagine what it would have been like had Wright remained as its director. Wright’s presence is still felt in stretches and he and Cornish are still the top-billed screenwriters, with the addition of Adam McKay (Anchorman) and Rudd himself performing a rewrite. I’d love to one day read what Wright’s full script was like and what Marvel eventually decided they could not abide. Whatever the case may be, the Ant-Man that made it to the big screen across the world is a surprisingly entertaining and spry piece of work. Reed provides a nice dash of visual flavor without losing its sense of the comedy or drama, Rudd is effortlessly charming, and the structure provides plenty of payoffs. Above all else the movie maintains a sense of fun and a lightness in an arena too often overwrought with doom and gloom. I don’t imagine there will be any Ant-Man sequels soon since the character is rather limited, but expect to see Rudd popping up in other MCU titles (he’s already been spotted filming Captain America 3). Ant-Man is a fun diversion but even Marvel knows not to push its luck too far.

Nate’s Grade: B

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009)

I maintain that no story has been redone, recycled, re-purposed, and parodied more so than Charles Dickens’ classic holiday tale, A Christmas Carol. Dickens’ tale of redemption aided by supernatural ghosts and time travel has appeared in everything from Muppets to the Odd Couple. Statistically, the odds are good that right now as you read this very sentence television is airing some adaptation of this story right now. I suppose it was only a matter of time before Dickens got reduced to a romantic comedy setup. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past is a charmless and mostly empty movie that makes you pine for the comparative masterpiece of A Muppet Christmas Carol.

Connor Mead (Matthew McConaughey, playing himself for the thousandth time) is a hunky fashion photographer for Vanity Fair magazine and, boy, is he in-demand. Everyone wants his photo services and every woman wants to rip his clothes off. Connor is a notorious womanizer and he travels to the country to attend his younger brother Paul’s (Breckin Meyer) wedding. Connor is intent on dissuading his brother on the prospect of marriage, which Conner dubs archaic and he feels love is “comfort food for the uneducated and lonely.” It just so happens that Connor’s ex-girlfriend from way back, Jenny (Jennifer Garner), is the maid of honor at the wedding. She hasn’t seen her dubious ex for some time, but that doesn’t stop him from trying to make his move. Jenny and Connor were childhood pals, but an early bout of heartbreak led Connor to become the disciple of his Uncle Wayne (Michael Douglas), a boozy playboy who taught the kid everything he knew about bedding the babes. During Connor’s stay, the ghost of Uncle Wayne informs him that three spirits will visit to showcase Connor’s checkered past, present, and dodgy future, Dicken’s-style.

The movie is wholly unbelievable even for a contrived romantic comedy. The central romance between Connor and Jenny rests on the silly notion that after ten years apart, a lifelong selfish jerk can sweep his former girlfriend off her feet during a single crazy weekend. Connor’s redemptive arc is lackluster at best, and the movie just mimes the steps it feels that it needs to take to turn its lead insensitive jerk character into a sensitive jerk character. It doesn’t work. I refuse to believe for one second that a pretty, smart, confidant doctor such as Jenny would allow herself to get so completely suckered in by Connor’s “Baby I’ve changed” speech. It’s insulting and degrading. The compressed timeline reflects poorly on Jenny’s decision-making. The expedited timeline makes every human action seem far-fetched. There’s a scene where Connor opens a champagne bottle in the kitchen. The cork flies out and knocks one of the legs loose on the multi-tiered wedding cake. The cake is about to slip over when Connor slides in to stabilize it. Instead of redistributing the weight via the available legs, he tries reaching for the out of reach champagne bottle with his foot (the size of the bottle and the cake leg are not even close). A more believable situation would involve Connor trying to reach the fallen cake leg, not a champagne bottle, but alas. To make this example even worse, the filmmakers set up the disaster of a fallen wedding cake and then amazingly fail to show the goods. We only see the smashed aftermath. This is a comedy fundamental: set-up food disaster, let audience witness ensuing food-related disaster.

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past also doesn’t have one redeeming or marginally realistic female character. I would expect, given Garner’s star power and the natural importance of being the romantic lead, that Jenny would come across as a reasonable woman or someone worth fighting over. Sorry, Jenny is a powerfully underwritten character and Garner is left without much work other than serving as a reservoir of reaction shots. Seriously, that’s her main purpose in this movie; she is a cutaway image. Sandra (Lacey Chabert) is a shrieking high-maintenance shrew of a bride. The other female roles are largely one-note misogynistic fantasies (thanks male screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore). The trio of bridesmaids is gossipy chatterboxes and eager to get laid. Connor’s introduction to his future mother-in-law (Anne Archer) involves him casually groping her breasts, much to her prosaic approval. Connor has an irresistible way with the ladies, which makes everything without a Y chromosome want to sleep with the man. A young famous pop singer watches Connor dump three women simultaneously on an Internet conference call, insult them, and then she still strips off her clothes to bed the cad. She even states, “I don’t even know why I’m doing this,” and continues along. I’m just as confused what power Connor holds over the fairer sex because to me he’s just a twit.

Here’s a telling example about how obvious this movie is written from an unenlightened male perspective: the central relationship dilemma is that Connor is afraid of cuddling. In the past, Jenny asked him to stay and cuddle but that was the breaking point, so he bolted. All of these women somehow manage to fall head over heels in love for a guy who willingly goes through women likes changes of underwear. It makes all the women comes across as emotionally needy, insecure, vapid bubbleheads who will sacrifice everything, including self-respect and dignity, to get a taste of McConaughey’s back sweat. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past is not a flattering movie for either sex.

The tone of this movie never finds an authentic and satisfying balance. Being a half-hearted tale of redemption during the period of a weekend, the movie crams in plenty of gooey sentimental claptrap. You’ll listen to characters talk about the true meaning of friendship, tear up over family memories, and then someone will make an inappropriate sex joke. There is a high level of semi-racy sex jokes that populate the world, appearing at odd moments, destroying any assembling emotions. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past will pretend like it’s building to something that actually matters and then it will throw it all away for a cheap sex gag — har har. There’s a moment where Douglas is illustrating how much ire Connor has wrought with visual metaphors. It begins to rain and he says that the downpour is made up of all the tears shed from ex-girlfriends and flings. Then it starts raining ripped pieces of confetti, and this we are told is all the tissues used. And then comes all the used condoms, and we watch Connor try and take cover before the aerial assault of used (and presumably “filled”) contraceptives annihilates him. It’s kind of gross and tonally disjointed from the rest of the sappy, happy PG-13 storyline.

The movie is at its most amusing when it’s riffing on the expectations of following the Christmas Carol model. Connor is quite aware of the tried-and-true formula, so his comments along the way provide the movie’s only genuine laughs outside of Douglas. Really, Douglas’ character is the most entertaining character, and I kept wishing that the film would follow him even after death. Wouldn’t it be interesting to watch the life of a ghost involved in a Christmas Carol scenario? I imagine it would be a bit like a play rehearsal. I would enjoy seeing the behind-the-scenes work that goes into the scenario. I want to see ghostly foremen plot out unique scenarios for a list of real-life Scrooge cases, I want to see the ghost tryouts, I want to see the mechanics involved in the spiritual setup for this whole process. I enjoyed watching Uncle Wayne hit on his fellow spirits. But I suppose that approach would be too literary and break away from the cozy confines of the stillborn romantic comedy genre. And to prove that it is indeed a romantic comedy by the numbers, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past even includes the last minute dash to stop the romantic party from leaving via some method of transportation.

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past manages to squander every opportunity it has to be a better movie. The central idea could have worked but the execution is exceedingly lazy, charmless, and degrading to women in particular. The comic scenarios miss out on better laughs, and some of the better laughs are obvious and just around the corner, but the film routinely falls back on being a sexual farce. The characters don’t feel remotely like people and Connor is a terrible lead character with unfunny dialogue that reduces women to disposable pleasures. His transformation is contrived even for a romantic comedy. I’m not saying a cad character could not make for an entertaining lead here. Clearly Douglas is the best character, and his sleazy 1970s swinging sexpot has a fun Bob Evans vibe. Every moment he’s onscreen the movie comes alive in a new way, and Douglas is an actor that knows how to make lecherous appealing and appalling at the same time, like what Michael Caine pulled off in Alfie. This movie pales in comparison. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past should have been visited by the most important spirit of them all – the Spirit of Screenplay Rewrites.

Nate’s Grade: C-

%d bloggers like this: