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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

The Break-Up (2006)

Real-life couples have a rocky track record when they star together. Sure, for every Mr. and Mrs. Smith there’s also a Proof of Life, Vanilla Sky, or, God help us, a Gigli. The trouble is that what captures the fancies of two actors rarely translates to the big screen. Was anyone more the wiser why Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck got together on the set of Gigli? Now here comes The Break-Up, an anti-romantic comedy starring Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston. They’ve been playing a coy game with the media about whether they’ve been dating since the movie wrapped a year ago. Audiences will have difficulty seeing whatever magic the two felt, because The Break-Up isn’t romantic in any sense of the word.

Gary (Vaughn) and Brooke (Aniston) meet cute at a Chicago Cubs game and begin a two-year relationship. Then one evening, after a terribly uncomfortable dinner between their folks, both decide to call off their romantic entanglement. Neither is willing to leave the condo they co-own, so each engages in a battle to convince the other to leave. Gary wardens off the living room as his space. Fine, Brooke invites her brother’s glee-club to perform in her area. He gets the pool table they had talked about waiting to purchase. She throws his clothes into the hall listening to Alanis Morissette. She invites dates over. He has a night of strip poker with actual strippers. At the same time, Brooke is questioning whether she can save their relationship and work things out.

Audiences expecting a cheeky romantic comedy will be soundly disappointed. The Universal marketing weasels have lied to you! After the 30-minute mark, The Break-Up doesn’t have much comedy, let alone romance. This is really more of a gutsy mainstream drama that prefers to exist in a world similar to ours where heartbreak and yearning are often unresolved. This is a respectably good, if flawed, relationship drama that doesn’t pull its punches. The Break-Up has a very Chasing Amy air to it; both films present atypical Hollywood relationships and both seem to sense a happy ending would just be insulting. Actually, in another similarity, both The Break-Up and Chasing Amy have their comedy completely dissolve by film’s end.

The biggest flaw The Break-Up has is that we don?t generally care if Brooke and Gary get back together. The only good times of yesterday we see are via photographs that are shown during the opening credits. Beyond this brief photo collage, we?re basically starting at the end of their union. There’s a fair amount of gender stereotypes to go along with the characters and their behaviors (men are from Mars, women from Venus?), though it didn’t bother me as much as it would have in a typical romantic comedy. Brooke is a bit of a nag but an altogether good person who just goes about her reconciliation plans in the wrong manner (push him away to have him come back, make him jealous, the famous double-speak). Gary, on the other hand, is pretty much a jerk. The tagline for The Break-Up says, “Pick a side,” but the movie already picks for us. Gary is a lazy, egotistical, unappreciative, selfish jackass and you’re really puzzled why Brooke would keep trying to resuscitate their relationship. Again, part of this is because The Break-Up doesn’t ever show us a moment of these two crazy kids in love. We really have no interest in seeing these unhappy people be unhappy with each other for a longer period of time.

The Break-Up has a lot of intentionally pained awkwardness to it, partly because good portions of the movie is about voyeuristically watching an unhappy couple argue. The Break-Up‘s relatability, something nearly unheard of in the overly saccharine, simplistic world of romantic comedies, is a double-edged sword. Couples may wince and pass knowing looks, thinking, “We’ve had that fight. I too crossed the line like that. I too went about that the wrong way.” Audiences will see pieces of themselves onscreen, but do mainstream audiences really want to see pieces of themselves screaming at each other for a whole movie? I doubt it. I think displeased moviegoers are going to tell their friends to stay away in droves, unless they’re avid tabloid followers.

Vaughn continues his motor mouth lout shtick, though it’s somewhat impressive that he willingly puts himself in such an unflattering light. He’s also a bit puffy in the movie. Aniston is an actress I haven’t been overly enthusiastic with, to say the least, but she’s a winning personality even if she’s replaceable. She seems to be in a frazzled rut. Despite whatever real-life passion the filming ignited, the leads have little chemistry together onscreen. This would be a bigger concern if the film was starting at the end of their relationship, though. The supporting cast of Vaughn’s friends and co-workers is rich with talent. A late scene between Vaughn and Favreau about hiring a hitman to take out Brooke’s supposed new beaux is solid gold. The wonderful John Michael Higgins (Arrested Development), as Brooke’s socially inept brother, provides the biggest laughs. And for those wondering what ever happened to Ralphie from A Christmas Story, here he is all growed up and emasculated by Joey Lauren Adams.

Director Peyton Reed (Bring it On, Down with Love) has a good feel for human comedy and interesting shot selections. He normally keeps his movies brisk and airy. The dialogue is above average and feels naturalistic. I am surprised that I have heard so little about Aniston’s brief nude scene. Then again, I don?t watch that recycled Entertainment Tonight TV vomit. It’s kind of neat to note that there was a 1998 movie itself called The Break Up; they just didn’t have the hyphen. Remember that hyphen in a few months when you’re at your local video store [Author’s note: R.I.P. video stores].

I give Vaughn and the filmmakers credit for trying something challenging and attempting to have a mainstream audience go along. The Break-Up is uncomfortable in how painfully awkward and relatable it is. Whether audiences want to flock to a movie about unhappy people who don’t belong together is a good question. This isn’t as nasty a comedy as The War of the Roses; no, this film is kind of stuck in a thematic middle ground of a gutsy, if flawed, relationship drama. Those expecting promises of comedy and romance might feel cheated. The Break-Up is like a real-life experience: it’s somewhat painful, somewhat expected, and perhaps better once it’s finally over.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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