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Friday, October 5, 2018




"You're a loser, Eddie," the black, goopy, alien symbiote calling himself Venom tells Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy). And we agree. Then the symbiote adds, "On my planet, I'm a loser too." And we're like, "Huh? That's... weird." Then again, this is a movie where Eddie is placed in an MRI machine, which is torture to Venom, and the doctor asks "Eddie, are you okay? Are you okay, Eddie?" He's been hit by, he's been hit by a smooth symbiote.

In director Ruben Fleischer's Venom, weird works and that in and of itself is weird. Venom is a bizarro buddy comedy crossed with a superhero movie crossed with a body horror alien invasion movie. As Eddie Brock, Hardy plays a swarthy, unethical San Francisco TV journalist who betrays his lawyer fiancee Michelle Williams in order to humiliate and expose sinister billionaire Carleton Drake (Riz Ahmed), head of the sinister Life Foundation. Instead, Eddie is exposed, loses his job, his fiancee, and six months later, he becomes even more swarthy while basically remaining the same amount of unethical. And then, this down-and-out loser meets Venom, a down-and-out loser symbiote from outer space. It's the worst thing that ever happened to Eddie. Or the best? Not sure, jury's out. But let's see these two best buds make a go of it, shall we?

Eddie was right to suspect Carleton Drake, though. Drake is a little like Adrian Veidt in Watchmen; he's a very rich, smart man who has a terrible plan to save the world. Trouble is, Drake hates humanity, though we can kind of see his point; just like in Shane Black's The Predator, the real enemy in Venom is climate change. The Predator estimated the Earth was two generations away from becoming uninhabitable. Venom moves that timetable up to one generation and Drake puts all the blame for this squarely on people. But his solution to our extinction ain't great: his space shuttle (piloted by astronaut John Jameson, hero son of Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson), finds a comet containing alien life forms and brings four of the symbiotes back to Earth. One escaped during re-entry and crashed the ship in Malaysia. The Life Foundation recovers three of the symbiotes and brings them back to their labs right next to the Golden Gate Bridge. The fourth symbiote murders and body-snatches Malaysian women until it finds its way onto an airplane to SF. 

Meanwhile, Life Foundation scientist Jenny Slate (who did ADR so that she pronounces "symbiote" properly, unlike in the trailer) has serious ethical qualms about how her boss kidnaps homeless people and exposes them to the symbiotes. The aliens try to bond with the human guinea pigs but quickly eat up their organs and murder them. One of the vagrants killed is Melora Walters, who has fallen on really hard times in the 20 years since Magnolia. Slate betrays Drake by clueing Eddie Brock in on the murders happening at Life, but Eddie being Eddie, he goes where he shouldn't go and has a meet-cute with Venom. They end up bonding in all the worst ways. Or best ways? Not sure, jury's out.

Eddie-Venom is a new kind of Odd Couple. Their banter is the highlight of the movie and man, is it weird. Hardy performs as Eddie being possessed by Venom and he portrays Venom's voice, talking to him in his head and sometimes manifesting physically as a black, jacked-up, toothy-faced monster. And for a homicidal alien freakshow, Venom sure is sensitive. He gets upset every time Eddie refers to him as a "parasite" and the first time he climbs to the top of a skyscraper like Spider-Man and looks out over San Francisco Bay, he decides Earth isn't so terrible and wants to stay. Venom also wants to reunite Eddie with his ex-fiancee; the alien monster playing Dr. Phil, giving Eddie romantic advice, and urging him to apologize to her is the weirdest part of the movie. No wait, Eddie sitting in a lobster tank at a fancy restaurant and eating a live lobster is the weirdest part. No no, hang on, Venom possessing Michelle Williams' body, turning her into She-Venom, and then making out with Eddie as he oozes back into Eddie's body is the weirdest. 

Of course, the fourth symbiote makes it to San Francisco and bonds with Carleton Drake. It calls itself Riot, and that's weird too. So wait, their names were Venom and Riot before they came to Earth? Riot's plan is to fly a new Life Foundation spaceship back into space, fetch a bunch more symbiotes, and then come back to invade and conquer Earth. Venom decides this isn't a good deal for him or his new human friend so he and Eddie go off to stop Riot. The battle between two disgusting, monster-faced, alien goopballs is brief but gross, but fortunately for Earth, good(?) triumphs over evil and Eddie/Venom kill Carleton/Riot.

In the end, all's well that ends well. Eddie and Venom settle into their new relationship, somehow Eddie is a reporter again, he and Michelle Williams are cool again, and Venom gets to stay on Earth but he can only murder certain kinds of people. So, great? What about climate change, are we doing anything about that? Nah, that's not really Venom's problem, so it's fine. In the end, we walk out of Venom hoping E&V can make it together in this crazy old world. Venom is a good time superhero movie if you can get on board with the movie's Looney Tunes-logic and Tom Hardy's gonzo Jim Carrey-in-The Mask performance. But like Gretchen Weiners trying to make "fetch" happen, Venom makes a serious case for replacing "So bad, it's good" and making "So Venom, it's good" happen.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

How The Fist Has Turned



Iron Fist season 2 is one of the great Marvel comeback stories. It's the Marvel TV equivalent of how Thor: Ragnarok successfully reinvigorated the Thor franchise. There's really no need to rehash the problems with Iron Fist season 1, but the season 2 turnaround is simply remarkable for all the ways new showrunner M. Raven Metzner wildly improved the show he inherited. Season 2 accentuated the positives, eliminated all of the negatives and baggage (this is the really amazing part), and changed the paradigm of Iron Fist, which will in turn reverberate across the Netflix Marvel Universe. 

Most importantly, Iron Fist 2 was a great deal of fun that took a hard look at its characters, worked out how they think and feel, and then set them all on better paths (except maybe Joy. Poor Joy is in a bad spot, but that's what you get for being the bad guy). Here are the big hits Iron Fist 2 struck - the five fingers of the Fist, if you will - that really turned the entire franchise around:

The Ballad of Danny Rand. Season 2 considered the man at the heart of the series, Danny Rand himself, asked the hard questions about him and came to the proper conclusions: he's just not good enough. Yet. He could be, but he's not there. Kudos to Finn Jones (who was always better than the material he'd been previously given) for how he took on the challenge of actually taking a back seat as the lead of his own series. Danny loses the Iron Fist in episode 4 and incredibly, he doesn't get it back until the final moments of the season, in a denouement set 'months later.' 

Danny was a problem child who, at long last, chose to address his biggest problem - himself. He asked for help from the right people, he admitted his limitations, and he chose the harder path - to grow and better himself. It's not often in a superhero series that the hero realizes he's not the person he ought to be and surrenders his powers to someone who could use them better than he does. This was a bold choice and it felt very right.

Colleen Wing is the Immortal Iron Fist. What a fantastic switcheroo - one that the show really had the balls to follow through on! The truth is Colleen was always the better character. She is smarter, more worldly, more mature, knows herself, and it never made sense that she was second fiddle (and 'the girlfriend') to Danny Rand. Not that she wasn't a great girlfriend and partner, but Colleen could be a lot more. Amazingly, Iron Fist 2 came to that same logical conclusion and empowered Colleen as the co-lead of the series. She's now the Iron Fist, and she deserves to be. Colleen absolutely deserves to stand alongside the other Defenders as a marquee superhero.

What was incredibly rewarding about season 2 was how well the seeds of Colleen's ascension were planted throughout. She was the calm and rational one, the peacemaker in a room full of Triad bosses and Danny Rand, the trustworthy one who did the right things for the right reasons. The absolute best thing about season 2 was how they finally utilized Jessica Henwick to her utmost; of course, she played Colleen as a badass, but Henwick also got to smile, laugh, crack jokes, and even host a dinner party (maybe the best moment in the series) where Colleen cut right to the heart of the tension at the table. Colleen is the real hero NYC needs; she's the most balanced, intelligent, and least damaged Defender. With Colleen wielding the Iron Fist, the future looks as bright as her glowing hand and her katana.

The Daughters of the Dragon stole the show. Bringing in Misty Knight paid off dividends. Simone Missick is simply fantastic and Misty has grown into the unsung hero of the Marvel Netflix shows. She's the true adult in the room who brings credibility and heart to every moment she's in. The Daughters of the Dragon mini-show within Iron Fist 2 was one of the best things ever in a Marvel Netflix show; not only is it great to see two female heroes take on missions together, but they brought out the best in each other. Colleen and Misty are every bit as funny, cool, and effective together as you'd hoped. And, as they each pointed out, they don't even really know each other but they're each other's mutual best relationship. The Daughters of the Dragon delivered an amazing proof of concept for their own spinoff series and hopefully, they'll get it.

All the negatives eliminated. The season 2 writers room must have asked the right question - What was dragging Iron Fist down? - and then they made a list and systematically crossed the cons right out of the show. The Hand? Gone gone gone. No time was spent in Rand Enterprises dealing with boring corporate shenanigans. No resurrections of old villains like Madame Gao or Harold Meachum no one wanted to see again. And the bad fight scenes? Completely turned around. The action in season 2 was top-drawer, especially all the moments (like Colleen and Misty fighting the Crane Sisters in episode 6) where you could see the actors were really performing the fights. Jones, Henwick, Missick, Sacha Dhawan as Davos all committed fully to the action and the results are right there on the screen. 

Down Ward, Up Ward. I dunno about you, but Ward Meachum is my favorite character in this whole series, just slightly outpacing Colleen. This poor guy suffers from his own demons and falls off the wagon constantly, but he's trying, man. No matter in what bad way Ward finds himself in, Tom Pelphrey plays him with a twinkle in his eye where you root for him and hope Ward somehow pulls it together. Just as entertaining as the Daughters of the Dragon are, Pelphrey and Finn Jones are magical in their many scenes together. They're brothers who both know they're just not quite good enough for the spots they found themselves in, but they take solace in each other with wry in-jokes and oddly touching personal revelations. For their part, Jessica Stroup had a bit more of a thankless task as a villain but never lost touch with the humanity in Joy Meachum, while Alice Eve created an intriguingly complex villain in Mary Walker, who is poised to reveal even more layers to herself.

Even at a shortened 10 episodes, the season still felt a bit too long for the story they were telling and maybe could have best been consolidated into 8 episodes, but despite that and a few other minor issues, Iron Fist 2 is a win, pure and simple. It's a remarkable feeling to walk away from Iron Fist dying to see more. 

Where's the place to be in Marvel NYC? Harlem? Hell's Kitchen? Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Crazy Rich Asians



The reactions of Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) and her best friend Goh Peik Lin (Awkwafina) in the photo above are apt for Crazy Rich Asians. Directed by Jon M. Chu and based on the bestseller by Kevin Kwan, the first Hollywood film in 25 years starring an all-Asian cast is an exuberant, funny, insightful, and eye-popping look at how the rest of the world lives. By rest of the world, I mean the insanely wealthy Chinese who practically own all of Singapore. Addressing themes of family, identity, self-worth, and tons of romance set in the luxurious backdrop of South Asia, Crazy Rich Asians is a stunning and joyous crowd-pleaser that is dominated by lovely performances by an outstanding cast, especially all of the women in the film, and earns its multitude of fireworks popping throughout.

The plot is simple: Rachel, an NYC-based Chinese American economics professor, is invited by her handsome and dashing boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) to be his date to his best friend's wedding in Singapore. Rachel would, of course, have to meet Nick's family. Nick is like the Bruce Wayne of Singapore - his every movement is tracked on social media by a cadre of female admirers - and like Mr. Wayne, Nick has been keeping a secret. He doesn't run around in a Batsuit at night, but he is fabulously wealthy. Nick is a bit suspect in his behavior throughout the film; he likes keeping things from Rachel (like his plan to propose to her), and he claims he wants nothing to do with being the Golden Child and heir to his family's vast fortune, but it's not that simple. Nick is very much devoted to his stern mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) and even more so to his grandmother (Lisa Lu), the matriarch and true power behind the family. Still, for every questionable decision Nick makes, the film bends over backward to reaffirm that he's really a good man and his heart and devotion to Rachel are true.

For Rachel, the trip has highs and lows. Anyone's jaw would drop at the sprawling mansions, exotic island getaways, and limitless food and privilege she's exposed to, but all of that comes at a price: most of the crazy rich Asians Nick grew up with are, unsurprisingly, total assholes. There are some exceptions: Nick's gorgeous cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan) is elegant and kind but stuck in a bad marriage, and the couple about to wed, Colin (Chris Pang) and Araminta (Sonoya Mizono), are lovely people inside and out. Still, Rachel is subjected to hazing and treated like an outcast for being a crazy not-rich Asian who has the gall to be dating Nick Young. Luckily, Rachel has her friend Goh to take solace with. Goh may not be crazy rich, but her weird-ass family (her father is played by Ken Jeong in total Asian clown mode) is still rich enough to take Rachel on a Pretty Woman-inspired shopping spree to find a dress suitable for the wedding. And what a wedding it is; an opulent, mermaid-inspired affair that may well be the most magical nuptials ever captured on film.

The wedding isn't so great for Rachel, though. Eleanor's obvious disapproval leads her to investigate Rachel's family and reveals some buried secrets about her mother and her past. The film seems to set up a fitting breakup between Nick and Rachel, with Rachel scoring her important moral victory by getting one over on Eleanor. That should have been enough and would have been a nice, bittersweet ending, but Crazy Rich Asians isn't in the market for bittersweet. Instead, Nick rises to the occasion and makes a final romantic bid to marry Rachel. It doesn't quite jive with the way Rachel asserted herself and her self-worth in the third act, but this is a Hollywood romantic comedy and there was plenty of money left in the fireworks budget, so we are delighted to put our quibbles aside to see Rachel and Nick get their happy ending and become Crazy Rich Man and Wife. Rachel probably should have asked for a little space to think things through, but fuck it, let's all leave the theater feeling good, why not? Rachel does marry into Nick's incredible wealth, but she learns the real treasure are the Crazy Rich Asians we met along the way.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Meg



The Meg is 33% decent and 67% shameless and, for a Jason Statham vs a giant shark movie, these turn out to be surprisingly winning statistics. This is a film where the actors take on everything with total earnestness while the screenplay by Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber, and Erich Hoeber and the direction by Jon Turteltaub throw in things like a tiny dog swimming in the middle of the ocean and coming face to face with a giant shark and a Chinese woman yelling "Pa! Pa!" whom they felt the need to subtitle "Dad! Dad!" The finale of The Meg is like Crazy Rich Asians at the beach, except dozens of them are being ripped apart by a Megalodon. Also, soldiers sent to kill the Meg with dynamite can't tell the difference between a shark and a whale. This is that kind of movie. But for a 2018 summer film about a prehistoric beast, it's way more ridiculously entertaining than Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Bite me.

And yet, the actors 100% believe nothing happening is ridiculous, which helps a whole lot. Jason Statham is a deep-sea rescue diver who unwittingly encountered the Meg five years prior. When an attempt to explore the Marianas Trench deep, deep in the ocean unwittingly reveals the existence of a Megalodon shark, long thought extinct, Statham is brought back to rescue his ex-wife Jessica McNamee, who is in command of the lost sub. Statham saves the day but the rescue ends up unleashing the Megalodon, which swims up to the surface and decides all of these humans on the deep sea research station owned by skeezy billionaire Rainn Wilson are its mortal enemies. 

Statham and the multinational cadre of actors like Li Bingbing (whom he has the hots for and vice versa), Cliff Curtis, Ruby Rose, and Page Kennedy, declare war on the Meg right back. Off they go a-huntin' for the giant shark, only to find out there's a second, even bigger Meg! "Nobody said there were two of them!" Kennedy yells, echoing the audience's thoughts at the movie's marketing. Despite their best efforts, the Meg(s) destroy every single boat the humans are on, their shark cages, most of their submarines, and the sharks ruin a fun beach holiday off the coast of China to boot. 

The Megs themselves are not sharks to remember. They're drab, brownish, CGI monstrosities that lack the presence and character of Spielberg's shark in Jaws. But no matter. This is a movie where Statham pilots a one-man sub against the Meg and then goes into hand-to-hand combat with it for good measure. But while Statham's gruff, macho skills are put to the test against the sharks, the real action is between him and Li. Sparks fly between the two, and her 8-year-old daughter Shuya Sophia Cai is all for her mommy moving on with this heroic, macho, bald Englishman with the magic lips that resuscitated her when she drowned. We end up rooting for them to get together as much as we root for them to beat the Meg. In the end, we're glad they all end up chums.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Mission: Impossible - Fallout



"Hope is not a strategy," August Walker (Henry Cavill) says to Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise). Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) quips back, "You must be new." Indeed, if you think about it, we never really see Ethan Hunt eat or drink, so he must be fueled purely by hope as he does impossible things to save the world.

In the relentlessly entertaining Mission: Impossible - Fallout (the 6th Mission in 22 years), Ethan is pushed to his absolute limits as he and the IMF, consisting of the hilarious Benji (Simon Pegg) and the ever-loyal Luther (Ving Rhames) - race around the world to stop two nuclear weapons from killing millions of innocent people. The genius of Fallout, directed once more by Christopher McQuarrie, is in how all of the dangers the IMF has ever faced has been balled up into the personal guilt of Ethan Hunt. He's responsible for all of us, and he knows it. "I'll figure it out!" is Ethan's response every time the IMF asks him what to do, though by then, Ethan has already taken off to perform some type of aerobatic insanity. Bless him, Ethan will go to absolutely any lengths to save us, because that's simply what Ethan Hunt does.

The last three Missions have been a more tightly-woven narrative than the original trilogy from 1996-2006. 2011's Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol introduced the Syndicate, a rogue nation of former government operatives led by an anarchist named Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). Ethan and the IMF captured Lane in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, but two years later, the remnants of the Syndicate have reorganized into a new terrorist network called the Apostles. They want their old leader back and they'll detonate three nukes to get him. Of course, the IMF mobilizes to stop them, this time led by Secretary Hunley (Alec Baldwin). Hunley was the IMF's greatest critic until he saw Ethan in action in Rogue Nation; like anyone who gets to see what Ethan Hunt can do, Hunley was instantly converted. Indeed, Hunley delivered an astonishing pro-Ethan speech in Rogue Nation where he called Mr. Hunt "the living manifestation of destiny." Now's he's Team Ethan all the way. However, the IMF always has to be disavowed in some way. New CIA head Angela Bassett thinks the IMF are a bunch of "grown men in Halloween masks" and sends her own man to oversee Ethan, August Walker. If Walker could twirl his infamous mustache, he would have.

The action in Fallout is typical for Mission: Impossible, which is to say it's deliriously breathtaking. With the 56-year-old Cruise once more performing the majority of his own stunts, Ethan soars higher and takes more risks than ever. Ethan and Walker HALO jump 25,000 feet into Paris just to crash a party where the mysterious Apostle leader named "John Lark" is set to meet a broker called the White Widow (the fetching Vanessa Kirby). If you think about it, was the HALO jump even necessary? It's Paris, not North Korea - there are a dozen safer ways to enter the City of Lights. Nevertheless, that sets the stage for a brutal men's room brawl and an incredible motorcycle and car chase sequence all over Paris as Ethan evades the police after capturing Solomon Lane yet again. Ethan then parkours and runs across the rooftops of London chasing after Walker, who is revealed to be the real John Lark, before it all culminates in an absolutely spectacular helicopter chase that concludes with a fight on a Kashmir mountaintop where Ethan is literally dangling off the mountain by his fingertips.

For her part, Kirby delivers a speech about her mother Max, which means she must be the daughter of the original broker of information Ethan encountered in his first Mission in 1996. And the White Widow is powerfully attracted to Ethan, so like mother, like daughter. Also attracted to Ethan is MI-6 agent Ilsa Faust, who was Ethan's partner and foil in Rogue Nation. Ilsa joins the IMF at last, though not after betraying Ethan again, which he naturally forgives because he knows she has "reasons." That's the spy game for you. The best callback of all, however, is the return of Ethan's wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan), who has been on the run for her own safety since Mission: Impossible III. She's a doctor without borders now, married to Wes Bentley of all people, but when Ethan comes back into her life once again, she knows it's because the world is at stake. She gets him. "I like her," Ilsa realizes, and we agree. Even while four action set pieces are going on at once, George Lucas-style, in one of the best roller coaster third acts ever in an action movie, we're stunned at the emotional punch Julia and Ethan's reunion packs.

Poor Ethan apologizes eight times in Fallout: once to a French police woman who finds herself in the wrong place in the wrong time, once to Alec Baldwin, twice when he runs into a funeral in a cathedral while being chased by the Apostles, and four times to Julia herself. But as Julia notes, Ethan has nothing to be sorry for. Ethan's guilt over the way his adventures have upended his wife's life is expunged and finally, he's free of the secret torment he harbors - the same torment Solomon Lane uses against him in his nightmares. Of course, Ethan Hunt can't ever stop trying to save the world, and the world desperately needs him. But by the end, with Ilsa and the IMF, his team - no, his friends - rallied around him in the hospital after he put it all on the line once more, we regard Ethan with the same admiration that they do. Rest up, Mr. Hunt, and get back out there. The world needs you in Mission: Impossible 7.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

The Equalizer 2



The Equalizer 2 plays right into that time-honored stage trope: if you say that there's a storm coming in Act 1, then that storm better come in like a motherfucker and you fight all the bad guys in it in Act III. Director Antoine Fuqua's The Equalizer 2 resists calling itself the logical title of The Sequelizer; nonetheless, this is Denzel Washington's first-ever sequel in his illustrious career. Denzel returns as Robert McCall, a Boston native and former CIA operative with a certain set of skills and a hole in his lonely soul he can only fill by putting the hurt on very bad people. As established in the previous film, McCall is a man who believes in pure justice and will apply his certain set of skills on behalf of the unfortunate souls who cross his path and need his help. He's intelligent, unrelenting, and unstoppable. If you need the Equalizer, you can reach him via your Lyft app.

In the years since he massacred the entire Russian mafia to help a teenage prostitute (Chloe Grace Moretz) get her life on track, McCall has left his job as a beloved manager at Home Depot. His vigilante activities require him to set his own hours, plus he needs to be amongst the people to figure out who is worthy of his incredible talent for murder. Like old man Logan, McCall entered the livery business; the many scenes of him scooting all over Boston and taxiing people to and fro are the most entertaining scenes in the movie. For all of the driving around, however, The Equalizer 2 is slow to get where it ultimately wants to go. The many, many scenes of Bob behind the wheel or trying to help out his neighbors, who had their apartment building and garden vandalized, are intermittently interspersed with, you know, the actual plot of the movie.

Bob is eventually pulled into a quest for revenge when his best friend and former CIA overseer Melissa Leo is murdered in Brussels. All signs point to Pedro Pascal, Bob's former teammate when they were running black ops together for the agency and sure enough, Pascal is the bad guy. There was never any doubt about this. The way McCall calls him out is a clever reversal of the villain threatening the hero's family; Bob drops by with all smiles and gets Pascal's wife and kids to warm up to him. They're blissfully unaware they're human shields while McCall plays Pascal right into his trap. After threatening Pascal and his mercenary buddies lives by telling them flat out he's going to murder them, McCall goes and does exactly that.

The original Equalizer climaxed with an extended shootout of McCall against the Russian mafia at Home Depot. Once more, McCall takes on his enemies on his home turf: he booby traps his seaside hometown of Marshfield, MA Home Alone-style and decimates Pascal's men in the middle of a typhoon. McCall effortlessly navigates his quaint New England hamlet completely unbothered by the relentless rain and wind, delivering methodical and brutal vengeance as the Right Hand of God. It's satisfying watching Denzel annihilate bad people, yet at the same time, he is never truly challenged, rarely injured, and he's not once in any actual danger. By staging the climactic battle in the midst of Mother Nature's wrath, The Equalizer 2 flat out announces that Bob McCall is the real force of nature.

Overall a drab affair, The Equalizer 2 takes quite a long while to shift into gear, yet it's comforting to ride along with Bob McCall. Even though he's a mass murderer, he is a righteous one and deep down we know he is the good guy. His murders are actually much lower key this time around; compared to the first movie, McCall's body count is seriously reduced. With no Moretz as his youthful foil, McCall is paired up with a troubled young artist named Miles (Ashton Sanders) whom he saves from becoming a gangbanger and tries to teach some life lessons to, but Miles doesn't exactly win the audience over. The question now is whether Denzel will actually set another precedent and make another Sequelizer. Maybe he will if we leave him a five-star rating.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Ant-Man and the Wasp



There's a moment early in director Peyton Reed's Ant-Man and the Wasp that subtly epitomizes why Marvel Studios superhero films work so well. Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) gets double-crossed by a criminal dealer in exotic technology played by Walton Goggins. As his goons set upon her, she transforms into the microscopic but wondrous Wasp and goes to town on the bad guys. Naturally, they open fire while she takes refuge in a chandelier. As she waits for the coast to clear, Hope is breathing heavily - being a superhero and fighting baddies is hard, it takes effort. And even though she has the superpowers to shrink and fly with mechanical wasp wings, Hope is human through and through.

The human moments are the highlight of Ant-Man and the Wasp, which continues the story of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd, as affable as ever), the smallest (not officially an) Avenger. The last time we saw Ant-Man, he was in a maximum security prison called the Raft after he was captured for fighting alongside Team Cap in Captain America: Civil War. In the two years since, Scott copped a plea bargain for violating the Sokovia Accords by revealing that his Ant-Man tech came from super scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). As a result of his shrinking technology being unregistered with the UN, Hank and Hope are now fugitives on the run and are not at all happy with Scott. For his part, Scott is under house arrest and, in a spin on a classic cop movie trope, he's only got a few days left until retirement his sentence is up and he's a free man. But Scott had the best of reasons to give up the Pyms: he did it to be with his adoring 10-year-old daughter Cassie (Abbie Ryder Fortson), the apple of his eye and the best pre-teen in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. 

Family is what Ant-Man and the Wasp is all about, and the plot really thickens when Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer, a bit underutilized), the original Wasp who was lost for 30 years in the other-dimensional Quantum Realm, somehow mind-melds with Scott, who was briefly lost in the Quantum Realm in the first Ant-Man movie. (This is called a Quantum Entanglement but, as Scott wryly notes, the Pyms put the word "Quantum" in front of most of their super-sciencey words.) Since the coordinates to find Janet are in Scott's head, Hank and Hope kidnap Scott and launch a wacky series of shrinky-dink adventures in their quest to find Janet and bring her back home. Hank has constructed a Quantum Tunnel is his secret shrinking lab, and the film overdoses on jokes about how the Pyms can shrink and enlarge just about anything, especially the Hot Wheels cars they drive on several gonzo chases all over San Francisco. 

All of the bad guys, including the mysterious Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), want that shrinking lab, and practically all of the characters play an extended game of hot potato with that lab. Unfortunately, after super villains like Vulture (Michael Keaton), Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), and Thanos (Michael Josh Brolin), Ghost, a desperate victim of Hank Pym's super science mistakes who can phase through solid matter but is in danger of disappearing into the Quantum Realm entirely, is a bit of a letdown despite John-Kamen's best efforts to make her poignant.

In the meantime, just about everyone from the first Ant-Man comes back for the sequel, including Scott's ex-con cohorts-turned-business partners led by the hilariously motormouthed Luis (Michael Pena). Despite his house arrest and the film's ticking clock trope of him needing to be back home periodically to throw the Feds off his scent, the fact that Scott can be in business with a bunch of ex-cons in a security company literally called X-Con shows that he somehow struck the most lenient plea bargain deal in the short history of the Sokovia Accords. Also back are Judy Greer as Scott's ex-wife and Bobby Cannavale as her cop husband; this time, they amusingly love Scott and can't get enough group hugs. But then, it's incredibly hard not to like and want to hug Scott Lang. 

The first Ant-Man was a tidy little (but honestly, probably superior) Marvel superhero movie disguised as a heist film. Ant-Man and the Wasp is more sprawling and ambitious, but considerably less focused. This can be attributed to the film being the product of no less than five screenwriters, including Paul Rudd, who reportedly emphasized Scott's family ties. Meanwhile, Lilly is a firecracker as the Wasp; one senses she has been waiting her whole life to be a superhero (just like Hope) and she makes the most of finally getting to wear a supersuit and sock bad guys. Hope and Scott continue to have chemistry that the film doesn't quite go all the way with, perhaps realizing that this prequel film must eventually synch up with the tragic events of Avengers: Infinity War. Thanos' finger snap does factor into the film, and most of the characters fade to dust in the end - a rather ballsy denoument after a pleasingly lighthearted and fun adventure yarn. But before half the universe dies, Ant-Man and the Wasp is a good time Marvel palate cleanser - which, all things considered, is no small feat.