Ant-Man and the Wasp

7 Jul

 

There’s plenty big and small in “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” and I’m not talking about the diminutive or gigantic sizes its superheroes can achieve – and do, often and to great effect – but the elements of film. On the small, there’s a hive of plot activity, but little of it resonates or at least feels fresh or smart. On the big (or gigantic) is a kick-ass ensemble that plays off its sharp leads smartly, with fervor and punch in every frame.

For those of you who missed the cornerstone “Ant-Man” a scant few years back in 2015, you don’t need to back up and catch that less interesting flick before diving in. What you do need to know is that “Ant-Man” is part of the whole Marvel Universe run by Disney and that the hero known as Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) sans the suit, is serving the end of a two-year house detention mandated by the FBI for his participation in a fracas over in Germany, seen back in “Captain America: Civil War” (2016). It’s also why Ant-Man didn’t put in a show in Wakanda this year for “Avengers: Infinity Wars.”

All of the crowd-pleasing heat of the film flows through Rudd and his quirky, blue-eyed likability, be it Lang’s wisecracking antagonism of an FBI caseworker (Randall Park, bringing the same sourpuss charm he’s made a career of on “Fresh Off the Boat”) who pops in for random house searches, or his parries with testy ant-suit inventor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). The on-again-off-again romantic dynamic with Pym’s daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), which gave the first film a reason to be seen, bears fruit again and elevates Hope to superhero status as the other half of a bill that can shrink or enlarge. Hank’s also got a magic remote that can shrink cars and even entire buildings if properly configured; and there are those German shepherd-sized ants with massive mandibles that help run Hank’s shrinkable lab.

Fun stuff, but Hope and Hank newly believe they have a chance to rescue mother/wife Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer, who’s not in the film enough) from the quantum plane purgatory she’s been lost in for the past decades (there’s plenty of highfaluting mumbo-jumbo like this, and it’s best to just roll with it). The key to getting the right coordinates to her locale is implanted in Lang’s head through a dream or something of an out-of-body experience. To get there’s something akin to “Fantastic Voyage” (1966), but also one of the least interesting plot threads. Meanwhile, Lang, saddled with an FBI ankle monitor, has gone AWOL and there’s a Tom Wolfe-style restaurateur (Walton Goggins) who moonlights in black-market technology and wants Hank’s shrunken lab, while an entity known as Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), ever angry and able to walk through walls, wants to disrupt the quantum plane quest for her own ends. Perhaps the most daunting obstacles are Lang’s ex-wife (Judy Greer) and daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) who pop in via FaceTime at the most ill-timed moments looking for soccer cleats; even better is Lang’s security firm business partners, Luis (Michael Peña), Kurt (David Dastmalchian), and Dave (Tip “T.I.’’ Harris), who are both burdens and saviors, and quite effective as comic relief.

Peyton Reed, who test drove the cast for the 2015 outing, feels more comfortable and in control this go-round. The action sequences are seamless, funny and, with their use of big-small toggles, ever surprising and fresh. As much as Lilly gets near equal time – and she’s more than worthy – this is the Rudd show, and that’s not a bad thing; he’s just more the loose cannon, while the former “Lost” star anchors the film with emotional stability and grit. The combination of the personal and uproarious scenes such as Ant-Man summoning winged ants for transport that get picked off by a seagull put “Ant-Man and the Wasp” in the comedy-cum-action camp with the first “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Deadpool.”

Advertisements

Leave No Trace

29 Jun

‘Leave No Trace’: Cambridge’s Granik returns with ‘Bone’-deep tale of haunted duo on the run

 

Fans of 2010’s “Winter’s Bone,” which launched the careers of Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes, are bound to rejoice at Cambridge native Debra Granik’s first feature since. There’s plenty of common DNA between the two films. “Bone” was a deeply internal and character-driven narrative nested in parts of the Ozarks where culture, law and civility don’t penetrate, and “Leave No Trace” lands in a similarly remote environment, farther west in the Pacific Northwest where Will (Ben Foster) and his 13-year-old daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) hang out in the woods, away from civilization, TV and the law. The reasons they live under a green canopy abutting Portland and run from any crack of a branch triggered by a passing dog walker or jogger remains enigmatic for much of the film. Full answers never really materialize, but Granik, working with material from Peter Rock’s novel, leverages that as a strength, drawing and pulling provocatively throughout.

Early on, it’s pretty clear Will has military training and suffers form some form of PTSD or a similar condition. He’s a good dad, however, making sure Tom is well-educated (advanced for her age, a social worker later remarks) and he teaches her survival and avoidance skills. They’re good at evading and make occasional forays into the city (he gets his PTSD meds and resells them for cash), but eventually authorities catch up with Will – turns out he’s not the only recluse living in the state forest. As if on cue from our daily newsfeed, the sudden fear that Will and his daughter will be separated fills the screen. They are for a brief period, but thankfully Oregon family services show more compassion than the current regime in Washington and the two are set up in a nice cottage on a farm where Will is given a job. First thing Will does is to put the TV in the closet, and it’s not too long until he and Tom have packed up and headed back into the woods.

How the film moves into the final chapter is driven more through Tom’s POV than Will’s. She’s clearly torn, wanting human interaction and the other things she thinks she may be missing out on, despite her love and care for her father. The two actors themselves feel so fully immersed in their characters that you wonder if they didn’t spend the entirety of the shoot in the woods eating bark and bugs, and there’s emotional depth in every scan of their faces – you know what they are thinking and feeling without a word. The film’s so tight and intimate and quiet you feel as if you’re at the campfire sipping pine needle tea with Tom and Will. Granik, a quiet, reflective soul, herself knows that the real story comes from inside, and the best way to tell it is to feel it.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

28 Jun

 

“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” arrives in theaters this week with plenty of dino-wow, as one might hope, but with a bronto-sized side of mommy issues and some sustainability woes to boot. Which to tackle first? Hopefully you’re up on what went down in “Jurassic World,” the 2015 relaunch of the “Jurassic Park” franchise made so indelibly by Steven Spielberg and Michael Crichton back in the 1990s. Those first three “Parks” dug deep into our imaginations, with their all-too realistic renderings of T-Rex and lethally heeled velociraptors, and they slew at the box office. “World” marked a respectable redux, but “Fallen Kingdom,” gets weighed down with a fossil-heavy backstory and never quite achieves the amusement ride thrill that made its ancestors such scary good fun.

As with all the “Jurassic” flicks, the action begins down in Costa Rica, at the theme park from the last chapter that’s been abandoned and overrun by rampaging dinos. The crisis du jour becomes increasing volcanic activity that threatens to “re-extinct” the “de-extinct” lizards (okay, birds). Congressional debate rages about saving them or not and, blessedly, Jeff Goldblum looms at the epicenter with rapturous logician metababble; then, just like that, the crew from the last “World” – the park overseer (Bryce Dallas Howard) and raptor wrangler (Chris Pratt) – are back as part of a conservation effort to get as many of the dinos as possible off the island and to a “sanctuary.”

The pair go in at the behest of a benevolent billionaire (James Cromwell, in a requisite but wispy role) who partners them with a team of big game hunters that feel a lot like the bunch from the second film, “The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” (1997) and are led by Ted Levine, surprisingly not too far from his Buffalo Bill in “Silence of the Lambs.” There’s a lot of Spielberg DNA to be found in “Fallen Kingdom” – Pratt’s smug, everyman posturing and action sequences feel right out of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” but just because you clone something doesn’t mean you get exactly what came before. That brings us back to those mommy issues: There’s a precocious little girl by the name of Maisie (Isabella Sermon), who may or may not be the billionaire’s granddaughter, and there’s Blue, the empathetic raptor from the last “World” raised by Pratt’s Owen, who holds the key to controlling the new line of mega-raptors being weaponized for trade and profit. Yes, sadly it all comes down to military-industrial complex shenanigans, avarice and hidden agendas.

Given the one-percenter station of many of the players in the film with their fingers on the stings, I kept asking myself, how much is too much? Why do billionaires need a lousy 20 million for ankylosaurs? The answer to which can only be power and control. The pomp and arrogance through which it’s executed feels far too profound a metaphor for the carnivorous control that’s taking hold across the country these days. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but given the big, bloody slab being dangled, one has to bite.

The film’s natural subtext of “don’t mess with Mother Nature” – because payback’s a tooth and claw feng shui session – gets executed with perfunctory perfection at the apt hour. The wrap-up of the film, directed by Spanish director J. A. Bayona, best known for the arthouse horror film “The Orphanage” (2007), becomes its most provocative and resonant moment. Much of what precedes it is dull despite all the thrashing, and it doesn’t help that all the combative-romantic chemistry between Pratt and Howard in the last “World” has seemingly gone the way of the dodo (no, they have not been brought back yet). Overall, “Fallen Kingdom” makes it feel like the series might be done for, even though where we end feels like a launching pad – a place of opportunity, laden with possibility.

Hotel Artemis

9 Jun

 

At the Hotel Artemis, you can check in any time you’d like but – like the Eagles tune tells us – it’s pretty damn hard to leave. Why? Well for one thing, it’s a safe house for criminals. And two, outside in the grubby L.A. streets, mobs are rioting over the privatization of water.

“Hotel Artemis” takes place in the near dystopian future, though it’s hard to get a full register of what that’s really like; similar to Wes Anderson’s “Grand Budapest Hotel,” the film’s mostly an inside job. Lording over the den of thrives is a boozy, disheveled Jodie Foster, referred to as The Nurse, with a Master Blaster of an orderly at her side by the moniker of Everest (played by hulking former wrestler Dave Bautista, so winning in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Avengers” films) who enforces house rules and metes out small doses of medical aid. Among the potpourri of personalities checked in are Sterling K. Brown’s dapper bank robber, Charlie Day channeling his inner Joe Pesci as a jabber-jawed arms dealer and Sofia Boutella’s super sleek assassin (she played a similar role in “Atomic Blonde”). About halfway in, a banged-up capo known as the Wolf King of L.A. (played by a game Jeff Goldblum, who’s onscreen too little) shows up to raise the stakes. If the invocation of another “Wolf” in L.A. crime doesn’t seem like a grab at something from Tarantino’s hip criminal universe (Harvey Keitel’s fixer from “Pulp Fiction”) then maybe the fact that all the “guests” are referred to by their room name – substitute “Niagara” and “Waikiki” for “Mr. Pink” and “Mr. Black” and you get the picture – might tell you what screenwriter/director Drew Pearce is angling for. “Artemis” even has its own McGuffin (a mysterious pen) and a wounded cop (Jenny Slate) with information to share. 

Much is packed into a lean 93-minute runtime. First-time helmer Drew Peace, who wrote the screenplays for “Iron Man 3” and “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation,” shows a knack for snappy action the way stuntman turned filmmaker David Leitch demonstrated with “Atomic Blonde” and “Deadpool 2.” The rub, however, is that as a narrative, “Artemis” jumps around too much, and not everything quite fits (perhaps over-enthusiastic editing had a role to play). As a result, the only characters that resonate even faintly are Foster’s wheezing hotelier and Brown’s remorseful perp saddled with a blundering older brother. It doesn’t help that in an era of grand set designs, the glimmers of the outer-scape feel cheap, plastic and uninspired – not in the cheesy, good way that “Logan’s Run” made so indelible, but more like the stagy street riots in David Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis” (2012) or the Orwellian future-scape in “Equilibrium” from 2002, if you even remember that one. Peace is blessed with a great cast, and the actors all provide above-the-bar turns. It’s just too bad in execution “Artemis” feels more like a staged (and very promising) concept than the mean teeth of true criminal intent.

Upgrade

5 Jun

‘Upgrade’: Victim of attack has a question: ‘Siri, how do I get my gruesome revenge?’

 

The name Logan Marshall-Green might not ring a bell immediately; he played the first scientist in Ridley Scott’s “Alien” reboot, “Prometheus” (2013) affected by the alien, his eyes going black and turning into something of a berserker before getting torched by a flamethrower and run over by a bus. Seeing “Upgrade,” a sci-fi take by longtime “Saw” collaborator Leigh Whannell (working with James Wan), it seems these are desirable acting skills, as rough, good-looking Marshall-Green plays another intrepid protagonist similarly subjected to violent torment and put through a nasty physical transformation. The good news for his Grey Trace is that the brutal smackdown happens upfront in this film; then it’s time for the upgraded Grey to lay down his own brand of ass-kicking.

Set in the near future where driverless cars are the norm and criminals and vagrants roam the littered cityscape, Grey and his wife are beset upon in a vehicle that goes way off course. It doesn’t end well – she’s dead; he might as well be. A few days later Grey’s up, learning to walk again, a super computer chip implanted in his head to help make all connections to the nerves that make him go. He also hears voices in his head: his own personal Siri, that, if Grey grants permission to take control, can use his body in lightning-fast ways. In short, he becomes his own personal “Terminator” on the trail of getting revenge on the posse of vermin who offed his wife. 

Natch, there’s a fly in the ointment – corporate espionage, bottom lines and more that drive the bigger picture, and themes right out of “Frankenstein” or “Blade Runner” (1982) – but it’s all a device for Grey to tap into his inner HAL and hack up henchmen, some of whom have guns implanted in their arms; one who can sneeze deadly spores.

In the end, the clear borrowing from the great, snarky original 1987 “RoboCop” (near-future cityscape and all) almost overpowers “Upgrade.” It’s not nearly as sharp or socially biting, but does have a fresh, whimsical take on tomorrow – “Her” (2013) on crack and very angry. Whannell could have played the camp angle for more; as is, the dark and violent approach works largely thanks to Marshall-Green selling his wonder and horror so effectively. Besides genre fans, “Upgrade” is likely to prove a fun, forgettable watch, more a reboot than the next version.

First Reformed

26 May

‘First Reformed’: The reverend is in torment in a ‘Taxi Driver’ for a newly tormented era

 

In two of Martin Scorsese’s career-defining films – “Taxi Driver” (1976) and “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988) – the protagonists (cab driver Travis Bickle and Jesus) are souls in torment and on the cusp of greater things that, to varying degrees, shift the civilized world as we know it. Both were written by Paul Schrader, a Calvinist-raised midwesterner who’s regularly shown himself a master as writer (“Raging Bull”) but something of a tormented soul himself as a director. With early hits such as “Blue Collar” (1978), “American Gigolo” (1980) and “Cat People” (1982) and intermittent wonders thereafter – “Affliction” (1997) and “Auto Focus” (2002) – Schrader has more recently scored a series of miscues – “The Canyons” (2013) and “Dog Eat Dog” (2016) – that have tanked critically and gone to the secondary market without the dignity of a theatrical release.

The good news is that Schrader’s latest, “First Reformed,” is something of a resurrection for the 71-year-old filmmaker, and an apt one; it revolves around a soul arguably more anguished than Christ or Bickle. The object of the title is a small, upstate New York church on the eve of its 250th anniversary. Tending to its diminishing flock is a reverend by the name of Ernst Toller (played with perfect restraint by Ethan Hawke, delivering his best work since “Training Day”) who’s clearly more lost spiritually than any of his flock. We learn early on that in the near recent past he’s lost his son to the war, and his wife abandoned him in the aftermath. Toller remains composed at the dais, but behind rectory doors he’s washed out, rueful and barely able to find solace at the bottom of a glass of bourbon. Smartly, he keeps the bottle hidden, but higher-ups at the parent parish (played with power and concern by Cedric the Entertainer) ultimately suss him out. How Toller finds redemption comes initially through purpose, when pregnant young parishioner Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks him to counsel her troubled husband, who spouts eco-terrorism mantras and conspiracy theories – nothing like a drowning man trying to save another going under – and later, in the discovery of a suicide vest. Continue reading

Solo: A Star Wars Story

26 May

‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’: Lively origin tale, but young Lando beats the Han we’re dealt

 

“Solo,” the new “Star Wars Story,” is a fun galactic go, breezy and lithe with just the right amount of darkness. That said, it doesn’t do much to deepen the whole Star Wars mythos the way “Rogue One” so ingeniously did back in 2016. That first “story” implied a series of one-off backstories that would embrace and extenuate the goings-on in the three “Star Wars” trilogies (we’ve gotten eight to date, with one more to go). “Solo” does the former, giving us an intimate look at the young Han Solo pining away for a woman who isn’t Leia, but two and a half hours later, I was wondering: To what end? After all, the mature Han, as played so iconically by Harrison Ford, perished in “Episode VII: the Force Awakens” (of course, we know a return is not out of the realm of possibility) and the big reveals that made “Rogue One” such an inviting companion piece are scant here by comparison. “Solo” does answer the long lingering questions of how Han got his name, how he and Chewbacca met and how they got their mitts on their Millennium Falcon. But it also raises a few.

At one point in the movie, someone says, “It’s not about you.” It’s an astute observation, as the film is at its thriving best when the screen is filled by the potpourri of personality that orbits the pivotal pilot of the title. The problem with Han (played by Alden Ehrenreich) as a character here is that he’s just not all that interesting of a dude, or in the least close to what was hinted at by Ford’s wisecracking incarnation. Also too, and I hate to say it, Ehrenreich is no Ford – not even a shadow. He tries, but you spend more time searching for vestiges and mannerisms of the Han you know than you are transported to the then and there. Continue reading