Film Review: Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

Dir: Peyton Reed
Starring: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, Michael Peña, Bobby Cannavale, Walton Goggins, Randall Park, Judy Greer, Laurence Fishburne, etc.
Runtime: 1hr58min
Rating: PG-13
Spoiler level: Light, some hints here and there. One tidbit beneath the read-more.

I am a big fan of 2015’s Ant-Man, to the point where it’s in my current Pantheon of great Marvel films, so I’ve been eager about the follow-up ever since the post-credits teaser of the original. Like its predecessor, Ant-Man and the Wasp is a departure from the typical superhero formula and the high-stakes, dire nature of most Marvel films, and the result is a humorous palate-cleanser and a much-needed dose of levity with just enough heart and conflict to connect it back to recent installments in the MCU.

Ant-Man_and_the_Wasp_posterAnd-Man and the Wasp follows our hero Scott Lang (Rudd) who seeks to repair his fractured relationship with Hope van Dyne (Lilly) and Hank Pym (Douglas) as they team up once again in order to save Hope’s mother and Hank’s wife Janet (Pfeiffer) from the Quantum Realm while also fending off a mysterious enemy named Ghost (John-Kamen) who wants their technology for herself.

Overall, this film is a wild ride from start to finish – a well-balanced comedic action film that is relatively self-contained while also tying into the MCU as a whole. Folks might be quick to write off this film as “disposable,” since it doesn’t feature any of the “big,” Avengers, but I’ll attest that it’d be a crime to miss out on this little adventure, especially if you find yourself needing a laugh or two after Infinity War.

The cast turns in great performances all around, from returning crew and newcomers alike. Rudd and Lilly, our titular heroes, play off one another even better than the first film, with Hope’s more straight-laced nature providing a superb contrast to Rudd’s humor and allowing for memorable banter between the two. Lilly’s first official outing as the Wasp is also totally badass as the first officially “titled” female hero in the MCU. The two of them truly carry the film as equals, but the remaining roster isn’t slouching. John-Kamen is intriguing as Ghost, though the character doesn’t quite reach Vulture or Killmonger or Thanos level of development. Douglas is delightfully grumpy and gruff as Pym, Pfeiffer charms in her role as the long-missed Janet, and Judy Greer, Bobby Cannavale, and Abby Ryder-Forston are wonderful as Scott’s family and loyal support squad. Walton Goggins also appears as the skeevy secondary villain, who is essentially a hammed up version of his role in Tomb Raider.

The appeal of Rudd as Ant-Man is not only his stellar comedic skills, but also his relatability – Scott Lang is the best example in the entire MCU of what would happen if an ordinary man was suddenly thrust into the role of a hero. He messes up, he has real-life issues to deal with, he has a daughter he loves and doesn’t want to disappoint, he’s trying to pick his post-convict career off the ground, he doesn’t know what he’s doing about 48% of the time, and he wants to help the people he cares about save the life of someone they love. Though he pitched in to help Cap in 2016’s Civil War, this film never reaches “save the world” level stakes, but the film still resonates, which is proof that the MCU needs characters like Ant-Man to ground it, and to allow audiences some breathing room after watching characters like Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor grapple with intergalactic threats who seek to bring doom upon the world.

Reed masterfully maintains a swift pace (when was the last time a Marvel movie was under 2 hours?) throughout this film without dropping the ball on either humor and action – in fact, the elements of both genres are seamlessly intertwined thanks to the performances of the actors and the nature of the size-changing hijinks that occur throughout the film. No matter the context, a giant Hello Kitty pez dispenser taking out a bad guy on a motorcycle is hysterical. And even though it relies a lot on comedy, there’s plenty of emotion to be found, especially in the way the film portrays familial relationships, such as the father/daughter bonds between both Hank/Hope and Scott/Cassie (and perhaps another similar bond between two others, though I won’t spoil that). Though the action and fight scenes are great, I will say that a significant portion of them are featured in the trailers, so that was a little disappointing. Maybe they should have saved the giant salt-shaker for the film instead of revealing it beforehand, but regardless, the stunts are just as brilliant as the epic Thomas the Tank Engine scene from the first film.

Arguably, this film feels more “comic-book”-y than lots of the other Marvel titles, due to a combination of a fitting score, jokes and silliness aplenty, unbelievable science, insane stunts, and larger than life characters. Neither Ant-Man nor the Wasp are trying to save the world – nothing as big as that – but the conflicts they face are that much more easy to relate to because of it. Scott doesn’t want to disappoint those he loves, Hope wants to rescue her mom – and even the villain motivations are not as lofty as other MCU baddies. And this film totally delivers on the comedic front, especially thanks to Rudd, Peña’s return as Scott’s best pal and quick-tongued, loose-lipped business partner Luis, and Park’s performance as FBI agent Jimmy Woo, who desperately wants to catch Scott violating the terms of his house-arrest.

Ant-Man might not be the most thrilling hero to grace the silver screen, and, in the wake of April’s Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp seems downright unimportant in the grand scheme of the MCU. However, much like the MCU needs characters like Ant-Man, the MCU needs films like Ant-Man and the Wasp to provide audiences a break from such drastic peril and potentially world-ending battles. Sure, this film might be relatively small in scale, comparatively speaking… but that’s exactly why it packs such a big punch.

Overall Rating: 8.5/10

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Film Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

Dir: Ron Howard
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Thandie Newton, Donald Glover, Joonas Suotamo, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Paul Bettany.
Runtime: 2hr 15min
Rating: PG-13
Spoiler level: Light, some hints here and there.

After facing a (rumored) fraught production, during which the original directors were fired due to “creative differences” and replaced with Ron Howard in the eleventh hour, which led to significant portions of the film being re-shot, expectations for Solo seemed to be teetering between “bad” and “disastrous.” My own hopes for the film were decidedly low as negative rumors swirled in the lead up to release, but after seeing it, I can safely say that I should not have had such a bad feeling about it.

Solo_A_Star_Wars_Story_posterSolo follows the young titular character (Ehrenreich) as he breaks free from his life on the streets and pursues his ambitions to become the best pilot in the galaxy – though, along the way, he gets sidetracked by a heist or two and learns a few important lessons about who to trust, the price of loyalty, and the weight of betrayal.

This romp of a film capably blends nuances from various genres – space opera, noir, western, thriller – and the result is a well-crafted, if somewhat overlong jaunt through space that chronicles young Han Solo’s life and achievements prior to Episode IV: A New Hope. Though Solo features such iconic moments and fanboy fodder as Han’s first encounter and blossoming partnership with Chewie, his infamous Kessel Run (in under 12 parsecs) and and his acquisition of the Millennium Falcon, it (surprisingly) does not over-rely on nostalgia and fan service to tell its story and weave an original, if occasionally predictable narrative. Overall, Solo is a worthy addition to the Star Wars Anthology series and an enjoyable space adventure that offers thrills and a compelling look into the backstory of the galaxy’s favorite stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf herder.

Asking Alden Ehrenreich to live up to the legacy of Harrison Ford in the role of Han is like asking a guppy to fill the fins of Jaws, or a tennis ball to pack the same emotional wallop as Wilson the volleyball – it’s an impossible task. BUT, that is hardly Ehrenriech’s fault, and he delivers enough charm and charisma to convince the audience to root for him and have faith in his burgeoning career and confidence as an outlaw, and his developing camaraderie with Chewbacca (Suotamo) is an emotional high point of the film. Ehrenreich certainly has the infamous smirk and the stance down pat, and seeing Han and Chewie sit in the Falcon together for the first time with the iconic theme playing is almost worth the price of admission alone.

As far as the rest of the supporting cast goes, Woody Harrelson as the outlaw Beckett is… well, Woody Harrelson. In the best way, of course. Thandie Newton is great as Val, despite limited screen time. Our new Chewbacca, Joonas Suotamo, warbles and fights and interacts with Han in a way that would make Peter Mayhew proud. Glover – predictably – offers a convincing impression as the debonair Lando Calrission and plays off Ehrenreich exceptionally well. Bettany is somewhat underused as the villainous Dryden, though what we do get from him is enough to prove how sinister and vicious his reputation as the Crimson Dawn ringleader implies. Clarke is lovely as the enigmatic Qi’ra, Han’s old friend from his time on the streets in Corellia, and it will be a shame if we don’t see more of her in future installments. Plus, that “little” cameo at the end – which made my jaw drop – has made me excited to see what the next anthology installment has in store. But perhaps the most compelling new addition to the growing Star Wars cast list is the mysterious Enfys Nest – I sincerely hope we see that character again, because Enfys has the potential to become f*cking AWESOME.

However enjoyable this film is, and how it may well have crawled back from the jaws of potential ruin after the crisis of losing two directors, it is far from perfect. One major drawback is the lack of humor – there are jokes scattered here and there, and a few of them might earn some genuine chuckles, but a significant portion of them fail to land as intended. It didn’t need to be a comedy film, but Han’s one-liners could have been stronger and the humor we did get was lackluster. The character of L3, for me, was also a massive miss and I disliked most of her scenes. The whole “equal rights for droids” schtick is a worthwhile thread to follow, but in this film, it comes off as a silly parody instead of a sincere focus on what could translate to a relatable and genuine issue. Much of the cinematography is dark and muddled, which, during some action scenes, makes it difficult to peg who is who, though – in true Star Wars fashion – the creature effects are stellar.

It is unfortunate that Solo comes on the tail of The Last Jedi, which is perhaps the most polarizing Star Wars film of them all. Fans who disliked Episode VIII might feel less inclined to indulge in the latest space adventure from Disney’s rejuvenated Star Wars franchise, and I was stunned that the theater I went to had only about six other folks in it on the second Saturday of release. Even if you dislike the new main trilogy, I’d say it’s worth taking a chance on Solo, if only to go off on a new adventure without the burdensome weight of the often frustrating mythos to bog it down. Perhaps, if it can fill more seats in the coming weeks, Solo can give some jaded fans new hope in the franchise.

Overall Rating: 8/10

Film Review: Call Me By Your Name (2017)

Dir. Luca Guadagnino
Starring: Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, Victoire Du Bois
Rating: R
Runtime: 2hr 12min
Spoiler level: Minor (some dialogue is revealed)

Each year, I make an effort to see every Best Picture nominee for the Academy Awards, and was lucky enough to have time to see Luca Guadagnino’s film Call Me By Your Name on the last day it was playing in my town, after a mere 6-day run at one of two local chains. I went into this film unsure of what to expect, and emerged from the theater, 2.5 hours later and teary-eyed, with a new personal favorite for Best Picture at the Oscars this year.

CallMeByYourName2017
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54670536

Adapted from André Aciman’s 2007 novel of the same name, Call Me By Your Name explores the relationship between seventeen-year-old Elio Perlman (Chalamet) and twenty-four-year-old Oliver (Hammer), an American scholar who is staying with the Perlman family as an assistant to Elio’s father (Stuhlbarg), as it evolves over a summer in 1980’s Italy.

Call Me By Your Name‘s strength is a combination of beautiful cinematography, strong performances from a brilliant cast, and the way it delivers its messages and themes to the viewers. While fellow Best Picture contender Phantom Thread (which I saw the day prior) is a film that makes you think, to wrack your brain trying to pick apart the character’s motivations and desires and connections to one another, Call Me By Your Name is a film that makes you feel. It draws on emotions from various different angles – from the awkwardness of adolescence, to the conflicting pain and elation of first love, to the lamentation of wasted days and the curiosity of sexuality, to the bond between parents and children and family of different generations, to the thrills of desire – and it never feels disingenuous. The emotions felt and expressed by the characters resonate off the screen and linger long after the credits have rolled and the lights come on, and it will be a film that sticks with me for a long time.

Overall, the film is paced in a way that allows the relationships between the characters – not only the leads, but the supporting cast as well – to develop in an organic manner, that does not feel rushed or forced. The film also does a marvelous job in exploring the beauty of small moments – small gestures, brief touches, the flicker of a gaze or a soft sigh – and it makes every scene, even the ones with no dialogue (only the excellent soundtrack) – explode with purpose and meaning. The scenery of a summer in Italy provides a gorgeous, lush backdrop for the character interactions, and is shown in a way that I could almost feel the heat or the gentle breeze or the coolness of the river.

Though it will be a challenge to dethrone current award-season Best Actor champion Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour), Chalamet’s performance as Elio is remarkable, and might just be my current favorite dark horse in the Oscar race. His nuanced portrayal of a seventeen-year-old experiencing the roller coaster of emotion that comes with a first love is rife with subtle mannerisms, evocative dialogue, and familiar elements that anyone who has felt a similar way, or who has ever been a somewhat awkward teenager growing up in a world they don’t fully understand yet, can likely relate to. His final scene in the film was enough to draw a tear or two, and the way his voice broke on the “Can you come get me?” line was enough to split even my cold heart in half.

Hammer delivers a powerful and moving performance as Oliver – I found myself often focusing on his facial expressions, and how he was able to masterfully portray a myriad of emotion in such small, subtle motions and gestures, especially as he grapples with his feelings for Elio and the worry of how his actions might be perceived. Though the age gap between the characters might draw the side-eye from some (and understandably so) their relationship unfolds in a way that does not come off as exploitative or manipulative, and does not rely on common LGBTQ tropes or themes. Their chemistry is palpable, their conversations feel raw and genuine, and their connection to each other is expressed more prominently in their growing emotional intimacy than the physical. It’s somewhat of a subversion of the genre, and a breath of fresh air – as is Michael Stuhlbarg’s performance as Elio’s father. His speech to Elio in the third act of the film is so real, and so wonderful – the line “But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything – what a waste!” (which originates in the novel) is the single greatest line I’ve heard in a film all year, and Stuhlbarg delivers it beautifully as he attempts to support and help his son navigate the tribulations that come with such an intense emotional journey.

Call Me By Your Name is a unique coming-of-age-film that expertly handles matters of the body, heart, and soul, and exposes the vulnerability of emotion, relationships, and first love in a beautiful, compelling, and heart-wrenching fashion. It might be a dark horse, but any gold statues it takes home on March 4th (and I hope it gets some) will be utterly deserved.

Overall rating: 9.5/10

Film Review: Darkest Hour (2017)

Dir. Joe Wright
Starring: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ben Mendelsohn, etc.
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 2hr 5min
Spoiler level: Minor

The moment I saw a screenshot of Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill some months ago, I knew I was going to see this movie. I had to travel an hour away to do it (drawbacks of small-town living) but Oldman’s Golden Globe win last Sunday solidified that his turn in Darkest Hour was a performance I didn’t want to miss on the big screen. Also, The Shape of Water isn’t playing within 50 miles of me, so…

dhFollowing Winston Churchill (Oldman) as he takes the mantle of Prime Minister in May 1940 with World War II brewing ominously on the mainland, Darkest Hour offers insight (both in public and behind closed doors) into Churchill’s first tenuous/strenuous days in office as he faces opposition and doubt from his fellow party members, the crown, and himself.

First things first; the cast is superb. Kristin Scott Thomas is great as Clementine Churchill, as she conveys the inner and outer struggle of a wife and her efforts to support her husband as he endures such intense scrutiny. Ben Mendelsohn (who I didn’t even recognize, a total fail on my part) does an excellent job expressing the turmoil of King George VI, who grapples with his opinion of Churchill and what is best for the nation as a whole as it faces the possibility of invasion. Lily James turns in a nuanced performance as Churchill’s personal secretary, Elizabeth Layton, and Stannis Baratheon Stephen Dillane’s determined and frustrated Halifax stands toe to toe with Oldman’s Churchill as he argues for appeasement over war. But obviously, the film is carried by Oldman, who delivers Churchill’s famous speeches with passion and fire, but also shows vulnerability as he is assailed by doubt and criticism from all sides, not to mention the looming war with the Axis Powers on the horizon. He plays off of the other key characters with aplomb, as the chemistry Oldman shares with Scott Thomas, while only shown in a few scenes, is an inspiring look into the strengths and strains of an enduring marriage, while Oldman’s scenes with Mendelsohn evolve over the course of the film as their interactions go from tension-riddled and uncertain to tempered hostility to grudging respect and beyond. Hearing the “We shall fight them on the beaches,” speech coming from Oldman is electrifying, as his words build in intensity and fervor and serve as a contrast to those poignant flickers of uncertainty and wavering confidence he suffers while debating whether or not to enter peace negotiations with the monster threatening to invade and conquer.

One of the film’s main strengths is that it isn’t a wide-spanning look at Churchill’s life and career, sprawling over the course of several years; it’s a snapshot centered on Churchill’s earliest days in office, which encompasses only a few weeks and culminates in the evacuation at Dunkirk. This lends the film a greater sense of focus and a deeper look into Churchill’s mindset and emotional state, and permits a greater exploration into the opinions of those around him, particularly Halifax and Chamberlain. It doesn’t seek to show Churchill’s entire legacy in two hours, and the result is a more intimate film with a greater focus on the gravity of his decisions and their possible consequences, rather than a blustering epic about his greatness with no time to breathe in-between scenes. The pacing is a bit dodgy at times, but the film also strives to show the criticism that Churchill faced during his tenure and references some of his more controversial actions, including the Gallipoli Campaign, which provides a somewhat more “balanced” portrayal of the historical icon, rather than a 2-hour lovefest.

Darkest Hour also shines on a technical level, as the cinematography, lighting, sound (including Dario Marianelli’s score) and direction are stellar, and all components function together to make a visually (and audibly) beautiful film. Certain shots and sequences are framed and shot in such a evocative, visceral way, it gives even more weight to whatever is happening onscreen at the time. Lots of great “hallway” shots and tracking shots, and one particular shot of Churchill in an elevator shows the perfect image of a man who feels utterly “alone” not only physically, but in his convictions. Plus, I’d be shocked if Tsuji and team don’t win the Oscar for Makeup and Hairstyling (Sorry, Beauty & The Beast), as Gary Oldman’s galvanizing performance is enhanced by the amazing physical transformation he undergoes to become one of the most well-known and revered figures in British history.

One of Darkest Hour‘s taglines is also one of Churchill’s most famous phrases, “Never surrender.” And though those famous words have been heard countless times, and WWII has been depicted repeatedly on screens of all sizes, Darkest Hour is a semi-unconventional “war” film that brings something fresh and new to the table in offering a closer look into Winston Churchill’s life and legacy, his personal and professional relationships, and his unwillingness to give in, even when facing such grave odds and innumerable doubts.

P.S. I might suggest this film and Christopher Nolan’s 2017 film Dunkirk as a double feature, though viewing both films back-to-back could be pretty draining… though you could start off with Tom Hooper’s 2010 Oscar-winner The King’s Speech, for a bit of levity.