Sunday, July 29, 2018

Suped-Up: DEADPOOL 2 and TEEN TITANS GO! TO THE MOVIES

We've officially reached the eating-its-own-tail portion of superhero cinema. Now they can stretch whole features out of the idea. Weirdly, this also happened before the subgenre devoured a vast swath of pop culture -- 1999's Mystery Men, for instance -- but those tended to be oddball, one-off originals. Now the self-deprecating meta digs come from the name brand comics outlets themselves, the film departments feeding the consumption of ever more product. Why joke about superhero movies in general -- like 2008's dire off-brand parody Superhero Movie -- when you can specifically bring in the real X-Men (a couple supporting players in 2016's Deadpool) or Batman (in last year's The LEGO Batman Movie, a two-for-one product-placement comedy) or whomever to join the jabs and japes themselves, a whole back catalog of issues and franchises from which to draw their corporate synergy gags. Just this summer alone, Marvel and DC have slipped slight self-aware jokester features into theaters between the less intentionally silly bombast to which they'll return shortly. They're downtime jokes between CG slugfests, meant to puncture and puff up their inspirations in the same wink. 

First was May's Deadpool 2, which had the unenviable task of following up a truly noxious movie. The inexplicably popular original, an off-shoot of the X-Men Cinematic Universe, brought the fourth-wall-breaking, seemingly-indestructible anti-hero to ugly life in a clompingly ordinary origin story poor in invention and rich in vulgarity. It thought it excused its faults by pointing them out, tying them to a preening, self-satisfied crudeness. First-time director Tim Miller dutifully rendered visually a screenplay of bludgeoning gore, filthy gags, and potty humor micturated out with an irked Urkel smirk, star Ryan Reynolds' voice leering out of the red-and-black bodysuit in a permanent state of "Did I do that?" The surprise, then, is that the sequel is much improved. The screenplay -- once again by Zombieland's Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, with an assist from Reynolds himself -- still has its fair share of eye-rolling pop references and faux-cheery vulgarity, but the bones of the plot are sturdier, and the action is handled without the smeary clods and undisguised cheapness that plagued the first. What a difference a director makes. This time around, the film is helmed by David Leitch, whose work on John Wick is a recent gold standard of the action genre. Deadpool 2 not only involves better action -- a highlight being an inventive mid-film truck chase that involves surprising use of a new ensemble of B-level heroes, like the super-lucky Domino (Zazie Beetz) and the most surprising electric-jolt lighting-fast cameo of the year -- but it also makes its lead more of a character, with more than a standard origin arc to travel. It's still stock, but, hey, they're trying. Here he's driven to protect a misfit mutant teen (Julian Dennison) from a time traveling brute (Josh Brolin), part of a slow realization he should be less selfish about his invincibility. Darkly, he starts to view his power as a curse -- attempting several gruesome ways of ending it all before giving in and being a hero after all, even if Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) and Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) won't let him join the official X-team. The movie is still uneven, and relies too heavily on cheap shock humor (CG disembowlements aren't funny to me, but, hey, your mileage may vary) after it has already worked up a good compelling head of steam on its surprisingly involving rote plot. But, crucially, it's also less self-satisfied, mainly by realizing it's smug when Deadpool is the only jokester in a cast of scowling straight-arrows, but instead feels a wee bit generous and inviting when the rest of the ensemble get good laughs, too. It may overvalue its cracks about comics and their related media, and its giddy R-rating, but at least it is often more fun around them, even if it might peak with a Celine Dion (!) ballad over the opening credits. 

Even better is this weekend's animated Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, a smarter, denser, and funnier deconstruction of its subgenre, proving Deadpool's filthiness is meant, in part, to distract from how little it has to say with its cracks. A big screen expansion of a Cartoon Network show, this 2D hand-drawn aesthetic carries real Saturday morning cartoon freedom into its referential hall of mirrors. Stuffed to the gills with quick echoes of famous panels and scenes from comic books and their related movies past, the story finds the plucky Teen Titans (Robin (Scott Menville), Starfire (Hynden Walch), Cyborg (Khartoum Payton), Beast Boy (Greg Cipes), and Raven (Tara Strong)) totally overshadowed by literally every other DC superhero. Sure, it's one thing for Superman (Nicolas Cage), Wonder Woman (Halsey), and Green Lantern (Lil Yachty), to scoff at these superpowered kids who don't actually solve the big problems or get to star in their own major motion pictures. But even the relatively obscure DC characters point and laugh -- you can spot Jonah Hex and Swamp Thing basking in glory while the Titans slink away ignored and marginalized despite their neat abilities, like shape-shifting and laser beams and portals, and solid teamwork. The plot, then, follows the Teens as they attempt to prove themselves worthy of a movie by doing things like fighting a potential nemesis (Will Arnett), traveling through time on rad bikes, or breaking into Warner Brothers (upon spying the water tower, one squeals, "That's where the Animaniacs live!") to meet with a director (Kristen Bell) currently hard at work on Batman v Superman 2 ("Okay," Bats growls to Supes, "but what's your father's name!"). Jokes like that are spat out at an occasionally alarming rate, not all winners, some kid-friendly potty humor to go with the deep cut references, but all splattering in big, colorful, spare, blocky cartoon style. Wham! Pow! Nothing is safe from their silliness, and even though the kids are endearing, it's easy to see why Superman would shake his head and sigh, calling them no more than "goofsters." Written by series' developers Michael Jelenic and Aaron Horvath, the latter directing with series' supervising director Peter Rida Michail, the movie is a brisk 90 minutes which takes absolutely nothing seriously expect the fact that its main characters' friendships are as pure as they are lovable. It wears its encyclopedic memory for superhero pop culture lightly, and isn't afraid to dip into kid-safe Adult Swim-style weirdness -- as it has trickled down into Cartoon Network proper over the years -- like in an extended synthy 80's encouragement tune sung by a cheery big cat who has the voice of Michael Bolton and appears to be related to Tony the Tiger. (I dare not share his fate, which is as abrupt as it is shocking.) The whole endeavor is an overstimulated breeze, and a blast at being exactly what it wants to be, poking affectionate fun at all sorts of ephemera, even, who would have guessed?, working in jabs at Deadpool. (The sharp critique comes when Cyborg mistakes an obscure DC villain for the Marvel character in question and chirps, "Ooh! Look at the camera and say something inappropriate!") Manic, but not entirely mindless, it is a goof on the superhero genre as frivolous and endearing as the least essential elements with which it's playing. Still, I found myself wondering how many young children will be enjoying the blitz of references to, among wildly varied gags, Gene Hackman, Shia LaBeouf, Back to the Future, the 2010 Green Lantern flop, EDM, and Marlon Brando? Maybe it's built as baby's first meta movie, something for nerd parents to annotate on the car ride home. The seizure-inducing sound and light show is as likably quick-witted as it is dense with empty calories. It's not for nothing, I suppose, that the movie's villain intends to destroy the world by overloading it with superhero movies. Even when they're dizzingly self-aware and don't outstay their welcome, they still add to the sheer tonnage of super-content.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Cruise Control: MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE -- FALLOUT

Light the fuse. Cue the Lalo Schifrin. Mission: Impossible is back to show everyone how the Hollywood action movie is done. Sure, you might've gotten some competent entertainment out of the Marvel machine or found all kinds of minor pleasures in the digital frippery that beams out to multiplexes every other week. But only Tom Cruise's flagship franchise is still reliably delivering old-school thrills, pushing new technology, the height of what modern filmmaking can allow, into a tactile, analog energy played out on the biggest scale. Sure, it has special effects assists, but that so much of it plays so real, even the CG enhanced feats feel just a hair from plausible in the hurtling hurly-burly of the films' forward motion. Only the frenzied finale feels totally preposterous, but by then it's suspense whipped up so expertly into a three-layer cross-cut calamity of crises and last-second escapes that the sustained crescendo of it all carries it across. I was gripping my armrests even as I grinned at the countdown clock's elastic minutes counting down. Opening at full speed and rarely taking its foot off the gas is the sixth, and latest, in the series, Mission: Impossible - Fallout, which returning writer-director Christopher McQuarrie generously treats as all climax, a victory lap of a culmination drawing in elements (skills, gadgets, gambits, and supporting characters) of every entry that's gone before. The series has earned it -- delivering a consistently high-flying excellence in spy action over 22 years now -- and so has McQuarrie, whose Rogue Nation remains the best of them all. This one's very good, too, as satisfying as you'd expect from all involved. It's so breathlessly exhilarating, broad suspense leavened with a good-natured sense of real human stakes in the slick and shaggy sequences, I was ready to cheer as early as the opening notes of the theme song topping off a clever cold open.

Fallout finds Cruise's Ethan Hunt -- "the living manifestation of destiny" -- working harder than ever after a botched mission leaves an international terrorist organization in possession of plutonium. This leads to catastrophe that sends him running around the globe looking to stop further destruction. By now he, and we, should know what to expect. When globally bad things happen, he's our last first line of defense: the equal and opposite reaction. Because Hunt's single-mindedness in pursuit of his mission so perfectly matches Cruise's star persona, there's the deep satisfaction of seeing this exquisitely tailored match on screen again. By now we know the series lives and thrills on the back of its lead's willingness to top himself stunt after stunt. But it's not enjoyable simply because Cruise does his own stunts, taking a punch, jumping out of a window or a plane, hanging from a net thousands of feet in the air. It's the not-again expression and flash of fear in his eyes before, and the doubled-over-catching-his-breath exhales of relief when it's over. Hunt isn't invincible. He winces and scoffs and rolls his eyes and bruises his ribs. But he knows he and his team are all that stand between the world and its worst dangers. Here he and a few familiar faces (Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames) are in the field at the behest of their Impossible Missions Force boss (Alec Baldwin) and a skeptical CIA (personified by Angela Bassett) which sends along a prickly muscle-bound assistant (Henry Cavill, a perfect foil). To track down the missing plutonium they get involved in fast, pummeling, and gripping shootouts, double-crosses, sky-dives, fist-fights, and chases by car, boat, motorcycle, and helicopter. The sequences are gorgeously lensed, and crisply cut with pounding sound effects and a clanging score. If they're not always as witty as the even-better rubber-mask surprises , at least they're visceral, and shot with a go-go-go spirit that zooms excitingly by. The spectacular action is married to McQuarrie's typically crackling plotting -- at once incredibly complicated and totally simple -- of spycraft loop-de-loops (welcome back, Rebecca Ferguson) and a cascading escalation of dilemmas piling one on top of the other. But it all comes back to the pure thrill of Cruise taking off, desperately struggling to outrun the doubt that he'll not stop the latest calamity. Mark down another reliable thrill ride for what's become our most reliable franchise. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Grade Expectations: EIGHTH GRADE

Eighth Grade is perfectly positioned in the awkward space between Big Star's "Thirteen" and Taylor Swift's "Fifteen" as an agonizingly unformed cringe. It is, in other words, a fluttering and uncomfortable portrait of a fourteen-year-old's insecurities. Every scene is a negotiation between her past self and her potential futures, with stumbling mumbling, exuberant yet hesitant speech, and a slouched defensive posture. The film is therefore often excruciating, but usually sweet -- a bit much, with a pounding cutesy score cuing too obviously the character's mindset (loud blasts when she catches the eye of a cute boy, sudden silence when in an uncomfortable spot). But then again, isn't that just the way that age goes? Big emotional cues accompany every small moment of potential drama. Writer-director Bo Burnham (a former YouTuber improbably making a fine feature debut) sensitively observes this slice of gangly, fumbling life, poised teetering in the fuzzy, ill-defined space between middle school and high school. Taking place over the last week of her school year, the film follows Kayla (Elsie Fisher) as she simply gets by. She is, like so many of us were, caught between her need for approval and her desire for independence, her shy hope to avoid being noticed and her stubborn hope to be accepted. She approaches every social interaction in survival mode, seeking to be cool and approachable while guarding against looking as awkward as she feels. Each scene, then, is a sense of both preservation and a wish to answer an unspoken question -- how to make the popular kids like her; how to get the cute boy to see her as someone to know; how to not look foolish in front of her peers; how to be comfortable in her own skin. The movie is loaded with symbols -- a time capsule, a cracked phone, a sliding door -- but manages to wear them lightly as natural extensions of her ordinary, relatable existence. She's moving ahead, breaking and burning some of the old, trying to move out into the next phase of life while not sure if she has what it takes.

There's little ill-considered here, though its rarity of subject and sincerity had me practically holding my breath waiting for it. Burnham's flat, empathetic, low-key style rarely insists on amping up the drama or the stakes. Here's a movie that looks at a thoroughly normal girl living a life full of quotidian ups and downs. He sticks closely to her perspective. There's no big lesson, no huge change, no sudden crisis, and not even a big dance or calamitous coming-of-age dilemma toward which to build. It simply says she's an average, ordinary eighth grader, worried about her body, lonely without close friends, consumed in social media feeds that feed her insecurities, and lost in confusion and anxiety about growing older. And that's enough reason to care. Fundamentally a kind movie, it treats its characters with respect and interest, worrying about their well-being while unable to look away as they dive head first into awkward situations. It helps that its lead is giving a performance of remarkably unselfconscious specificity. Fisher (heretofore best known as the voice of the youngest daughter in Despicable Mes) embodies the ordinariness of her character's life -- she makes little YouTube advice videos that get somewhere between zero and three views each; she alternately loves and is annoyed by her dad (Josh Hamilton, radiating kindness); she shyly puts herself in social situations that lead to a minefield of potential embarrassments (or, as in one harrowing scene with a high schooler, worse) and fumbles her away out the other side a little wiser. Maybe. She presents these complications with a realistic tone, flitting across the light script with a quick eye and well-tuned ear, jumbling and mumbling when excited and glowering when unsure. Burnham gives her the space to make the part feel genuine, and the patience to allow her character the ability to simply be. 

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Net Negative: UNFRIENDED: DARK WEB

If Unfriended: Dark Web isn't as entertaining as its predecessor, it's only because this is a horror movie with nihilism running deeper, and sadism more real. The horror this time sinks in not from cute teens murdered by an unseen paranormal force, but only from the recognition of the trade off we've made for our modern life: easier modes of connections and communication on the surface, with a deep river of darkness flowing and burbling beneath. The original managed both as one of the cleverest, most compelling, and allegorically forceful scary movies of the last several years. Told entirely from the perspective of a girl's laptop screen, with layers of windows for exposition and a chorus of Skype windows filling out the ensemble, it was a movie about a vengeful cyber-ghost haunting a group chat. Through its form and function, it was cleanly and nerve-janglingly about the vulnerability of our social media lives, about the ability to behave in increasingly dehumanizing ways toward one another. Technology, as we have seen, empowers mobs and bullies to goad each other on, and the internet never forgets. This sequel, written and directed by longtime horror screenwriter Stephen Susco, keeps the central visual conceit -- right down to using fuzzy pixelation and frozen video connections as suspense, although it's used sparingly here -- but strips away the supernatural. Here tension is maintained entirely from our throughly hackable lives. Very little, practically speaking, is impossible here. Sure, by the end it is preposterous amped up horror hyperbole, but the fact an undetectable hacker can be in your webcam as you read these words is plenty scary on its own. The most chilling sequence is a swatting that plays out exactly as it could, and has. It's not as enjoyable -- the film is thinner and more obvious in its mechanizations -- but it has the jumps you'd expect.

This sequel finds a group of international twenty-somethings on their regular game night Skype session. Cards Against Humanity is the thematically apropos choice for the evening. Unfortunately, our viewpoint computer has recently been lifted from a cyber cafe's lost and found box by Matias (Colin Woodell). This means that while he's chatting with his pals, and desperately trying to Facebook message his girlfriend in order to make up after their opening scene argument (fine use is made of the appearing and disappearing ellipses that are effectively her only response for some time), they're being watched. He doesn't know that at first, but as he pokes around his newly acquired used laptop, he discovers a treasure trove of snuff films and a portal to the Dark Web. Soon enough, the criminals whose lost computer he found start insinuating themselves into the chat. Stay connected. Don't call the cops. Return the computer and no one gets hurt. Of course, the cast tries desperately to wriggle their way out of the predicament, but the cold, unblinking logic of technologically abetted evil and the unwavering perspective of a desktop slowly crowded with windows of various nefarious intent does not bode well. It's gripping and scary, if not as cleverly crescendoed, visually dense, or fully engaged in character building and allegorical expression as the great original. But what it lacks in fun and novelty, it gains in similar bone-deep recognition. Here's a movie about the inherent instability, exposure, and danger from which we're all one wrong click away. Are we likely to be targeted by a powerful hacker collective willing to blackmail and kill to protect their contraband videos? Probably not, but the image of stumbling into the Dark Web is as plausible as the dark forests and dim alleyways that have long been the slasher genre's stock in trade. It's no fun to be reminded how dangerous the internet can be, but as an exercise in modern resonance and horror style it's certainly effective right up until it grows too obvious and peters out. 

Thursday, July 19, 2018

ABBA Gold: MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is a good argument for taking the time to get it right. The original jukebox musical Mamma Mia! hung ABBA's greatest hits on a threadbare clothesline plot about a daughter (Amanda Seyfried) getting married while trying to figure out which former lover (Pierce Brosnan? Stellan Skarsgard? Colin Firth?) of her mother (Meryl Streep) is her father. To the extent that movie worked at all, which was little, it gathered up from the catchy pop sounds of the Swedish group to which it was a tribute, and the eager giddiness with which its decidedly amateur chorus attacked their routines. The shame, then, was how consistently they were undone by slapdash editing that fumbled the timing of jokes and dances alike. Now, ten years later, they're back, and it's better than ever. It has less plot, but more story, if you catch my drift, with stakes so very low, but a timeline that whipsaws back and forth in time, catching the early days of Streep's whirlwind romances with three young guys she meets while galavanting across Europe in a post-collegiate haze, and the modern travails of the daughter trying to start a hotel on her mother's beloved Greek isle. It's still just a pretense to sing and dance, but writer-director Ol Parker (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) leads the troupe with a surer hand. He holds the spectacle of the clever choreography with a better bounce and clearer cuts, while allowing the cornball storytelling to work up to a glitter fever of big, belting emotions sung through the slightly lesser hits of ABBA (and encores of all the best they used last time). In sum, this movie is a blast of frivolity - dancing, jiving, having the time of its life. You try to hold back a smile when a gigantic group number to "Dancing Queen" inaugurates a party in style.

The new cast members are charismatic, with supremely charming Lily James (Cinderella) stepping capably into the role of the youthful free spirit Streep meeting handsome young men (Jeremy Irvine, Hugh Skinner, and Josh Dylan) wooing her at every stop. She breaks a heart. Hers gets broken. It's all filling in backstory we didn't much need literalized in the first film, but this one's better anyway. It's bouncy, ebullient, playful. Her story plays out a casually heightened and sweetly permissive sense of easily falling in and out of love. The participants are uniformly as pretty as the picturesque sun-dappled Europe around them. Of course they sing "Waterloo" in a Parisian cafe. Of course she glumly sings the title song when she's been betrayed -- "I was cheated by you and I think you know when," after all. It's all a fizzy blur, attractively photographed and energetically performed. It rushes on like a summer storm and retreats as quickly. The flashbacks nestle in the story of the daughter, who feels closer than ever to her mother because of her location and company. She's surrounded by some of the returning characters (Christine Baranski, regal as always, and Julie Walters, always charmingly, purposely, a step behind the dance) and helped by a welcome addition in a dashing Andy Garcia. She's missing a departed loved one. There's a sadness there, but nothing a song can't lift for a moment. There are teases of heavier emotions around the margins -- and a bittersweet ghostly duet in the end -- but the movie's too much of a dance party to get weighed down. This lets it draw sweet, sentimental contrast between mother and daughter, to watch youthful folks passionately living lives, and older folks stubbornly trying to keep their spontaneity afloat. All that and Cher turns up in the end to literally upstage fireworks in the most predictable and satisfying payoff in recent dangled plot hint history. What a fun, featherweight, goofy groove of a hangout movie. 

Friday, July 13, 2018

Flaming Creatures: RAMPAGE and SKYSCRAPER


Dwayne (formerly "The Rock") Johnson is one of our most visible movie stars, cranking out a new major motion picture at a rate of about one a quarter. He's always in the press on a charm offensive, tweeting encouraging platitudes and doing-it-for-the-fans openness, and flirting with politics while never taking any strong party stances. (That he seems to stand for truth, justice, and the American way is enough for most, I suppose.) But there's just one hidden-in-plain-sight secret. He generally can't carry a movie on his own. Oh, sure, you're never disappointed he turns up in a movie. He's charming, likable, physically powerful, and capable of both soulful glower and cheeky self-aware winks. He's our best movie star who is only a value-added proposition, best when added to a plot in motion and surrounded by a cast loaded up with excess personality. Make him a Fast and Furious frenemy. Make him a memorable supporting character in an auteur's passion project (Southland Tales, Pain & Gain). Make him the cornerstone of a high-concept ensemble comedy (Baywatch, Jumanji). Make him half of a two-handler buddy comedy (Central Intelligence). Make his Hercules work with Ian McShane. Make him prickly sidekick to a Disney princess (Moana) or the star attraction in a deep-bench disaster movie (San Andreas). All decent choices. I like his screen presence. He's hard-working and generally picks fun projects. But his last couple movies he's been the solo star, standing in a CG debris field and left totally adrift in the boredom. They give him basically nothing to play, and he brings nothing to them

Rampage, loosely based on an arcade game, finds him best friends with a gorilla. It's not too weird, seeing as he works for the zoo and all. Anyway, there's some mad science experiment gone wrong, which causes the giant ape to get even giant-er, which only makes him madder. He goes King Kong across the continent, and Johnson flees after him, hoping to tell the military that the big guy means no harm. Although, really? Eventually, the mutated giant critter meets up with other victims of the corporate science plot run amuck: a giant flying wolf and an enormous crocodile. They converge on downtown Chicago, where Johnson, a scientist (Naomie Harris) chirping exposition, and a swaggering government agent (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) speaking nearly exclusively in deep-fried Southern profanities run around until the explosions stop. There's really not much to it, aside from the acres of property damage and untold thousands trampled underfoot. But at least Johnson gets to hug his gorilla again. It's from Brad Peyton, who whirled up the effects for the almost satisfying San Andreas and pretty agreeable Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. Here it's just loud, charmless, ugly sequences that bury any sense of understandable suspense or rooting interest. The Rock's mere presence next to this calamity is not foundation enough to care. I entertained myself imagining the movie told from the monsters' points of view and wondering who to contact about writing the novelization in that style. 


At least Skyscraper has the good sense to have some believable dangers, namely the totally understandable and relatable fear of falling from the 96th floor of a skyscraper. (The name is fitting in that way, even if I'd rather it be used for a Frederick Wiseman documentary so that this big budget explosion could have something more appropriately pulpy to go by.) The movie is written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber. You might recall his earlier films Dodgeball and We're the Millers (plus Central Intelligence). You might be surprised to learn this action thriller about a high-tech super-skyscraper -- the tallest in the world, a breathless backstory newscast tells us -- lit on fire by a group of nasty ne'er-do-wells has not a single laugh, and tries for almost none along the way anyway. It's a grim rescue-the-family massacre, as the terrorists mercilessly machine-gun hundreds of police officers, security personnel, and passerby on their way to control the fire systems and wreak havoc on the once-gleaming tower. The goal is to steal a flash drive, because of course it is, fitting the Die Hard plus Towering Inferno math that somehow adds up to half the movie either of those were. Even as Johnson (playing an ex-military security expert caught in the plot) desperately charges into the danger to save his wife (Neve Campbell, who gets a few good looks and kicks) and children (adorable moppets McKenna Roberts and Noah Cottrell) are hurrying and scurrying about the flaming building, and the billionaire owner (Chin Han) hides in his panic room, the movie kicks up only a modicum of suspense. Dangle a man out a dizzyingly high window by his prosthetic leg, and, gee, I'm only human. Of course the stomach lurches at such a spectacle. But the plotting is so rote, the characters so thin, and the action sequences so meagerly imagined, that there's nothing but a crushing sense that we're not so much eager for how they'll get out of this mess, but are simply waiting it out. It's just another calamity with a screenplay not even close to as solid as The Rock. 

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Here We Grow Again: ANT-MAN AND THE WASP

At a certain point, reviewing the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies feels as pointless as it would be to review a Big Mac. No matter where the McDonald's may be, a Big Mac is a Big Mac, same basic ingredients slapped together in a familiar style. Does it sometimes hit the spot, and other times leave you dryly smacking your lips saying, "eh, that's not quite what I wanted today" and feeling vaguely empty? Of course. So it is with the MCU. Among the emptiest is the latest, Ant-Man and the Wasp, a small, silly, sci-fi plaything, with just enough nifty effects and charming actors to do a decent impression of entertainment. There are no surprises -- not even the surprises, if you catch my drift -- and the ratio of smirking comedy to zippy action is about what you'd expect. Is it worth measuring out the ways in which this particular pre-fab burger feels a little undercooked and the ways in which the special sauce is a bit thin? Maybe for those of us who care about doing such close reads. I'm thinking if I brought any such scrutiny I'd be taking a big dive in a shallow pool. (Pardon the mixed metaphors, but here is a movie that has driven my thoughts to drift.) Returning director Peyton Reed keeps things bouncy, and the two hours flies by breezily. It goes down smooth and easy, with the expected tastes in place. But compared to the extra doses of style and personality in the last several MCU entires -- the evocative Black Panther, the zazzy Thor 3, the groovy Guardians, the bouncy Spidey reboot, the bombastic cliffhanger of Avengers 3 -- there's not much here beyond the slight charms. It's a bright, colorful, nothing. 

A deliberately small-scale interregnum in the galactic conflict we've been tracing as of late -- technically an Infinity War prequel, I suppose, as no matter the conflict here, everyone's still feeling pretty good, Mr. Stark -- the movie finds Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) under house arrest after the (underwhelming) events of Civil War. He's snuck out by new partner The Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) and her science guy father Hank Pym (Michael Douglas, seeming quite checked out). They want him to help them enter the Quantum Realm and find a missing Michelle Pfeiffer (a great, if fleeting, sight as she's the mere MacGuffin Pfeiffer). There's no real overarching villain, just a bunch of people working at cross-purposes: a phasing lab-accident Ghost (Hannah John-Karen), a funny FBI agent (Randall Park), a black market tech dealer (Walton Goggins), and a grump professor (Laurence Fishburne). There's a lot of hurrying and scurrying as various characters and a handful of props shrink down and then grow again, leading to quick-paced action in which the effects are deployed with the same rhythms the dialogue scenes use for quips. The scenes take on predictable shapes of exposition-joke-exposition and punch-gag-punch. Nothing much to get worked up about one way or the other, sometimes good for a chuckle and other times not. Best is, paradoxically, the slightest touch of all, silly little grace notes in which returning supporting characters -- Michael Peña, Judy Greer, Bobby Cannavale -- pop in with fully developed normie characters who side-eye the strange goings-on with some real befuddled charm. It adds up to a reasonably diverting two-hours in an air conditioned theater, but even by the MCU's standard lightness, my memory of this thing feels like it'll blow away on the summer breeze. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Rebirth of a Nation: THE FIRST PURGE

The First Purge is the best one yet. It's as tense, exciting, and horrifying as the premise's potential, with a recognition that what began as a B-movie funhouse mirror held up to the worst cracks in our culture has steadily gained too-close-for-comfort resonance. After all, it's much harder to scoff when presented with a future America where a gleefully authoritarian administration pursues transparently evil policies despite massive backlash in order to please their loud minority of hateful supporters. Series' screenwriter James DeMonaco takes us, in this fourth entry, back to the beginning, before the country was irrevocably changed by embracing the national Purge, an annual 12-hour period in which all crime is legal ("including murder," goes the consistent darkly amusing thumb-on-the-scale addendum). Here it's an introductory experiment inflicted on Staten Island, where the locals batten down the hatches as their protests fall on deaf ears. The government creeps -- pasty slugs in suits plus Marisa Tomei in a relatively thankless role -- rub their hands in glee as night falls and the laws go with them. Here is a horror movie about the inexorable march of a very bad idea, stoked by all the worst impulses of the deplorables and purposely built to damage those least prepared to survive. There's a sick dread to scenes in which impoverished locals are given stipends to stay, and the bridges and ferries are closed off trapping those who can't afford to flee. Late in the picture, a suit casually says he hopes the Purge helps thin the population of the poor to lower the need for welfare programs, but it's already clear what the endgame really is. 

When the locals don't go instantly murder-happy, eager interlopers are let loose to ensure the carnage happens. We watch as our main characters -- plucky sister and brother (Lex Scott Davis and Joivan Wade), a blaxploitation-cool kingpin (Y'lan Noel), quipping neighbors -- sit tight in apartments, gather in church, attend block parties. Sure, the local psychotic heads out to fight, and one guy takes a crowbar to an ATM, but it's mostly business as usual. This doesn't work for a government that needs this purge of "undesirables." Luckily, their party loyalists are available to stoke violence and fear: the NRA, the KKK, racist cops, and Russian mercenaries. (Apt collusion, there.) As directed by Gerard McMurray, this prequel is thus far the fullest activation of the series' potential. The usual action-tinged horror and horror-tinged action of these films is here exploited to vivid political energy as well as fine-tuned suspenseful images. (A nice touch is glowing contact lenses handed out to paid participants, lighting up shadows with pops of eerie neon eyes.) We follow our characters through the usual scrapes and escapes, jump scares and splatters, while the tableaux around them pack extra violent symbolic punch. We see grinning white police beating an unarmed black man on a baseball diamond (America's pastimes?) and groups in white hoods bearing torches as they ride up to terrorize a church. We see paramilitary fascists barreling down on the projects to carry out a mass shooting. The catharsis kicks in as our main characters not only dodge and survive, but fight back in gory, satisfying sequences of resistance. The situation is dire. The Purge will be with them for years to come. But at least if they fight, things just might eventually be all right.