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Ant-Man and the Wasp is a fun continuation of what returning director Peyton Reed started with Ant-Man three years ago. I whined a bit about the decent original; I wanted it to be more subversive, knowing that Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) was originally supposed to direct it.

I’m over it: Reed is kicking some Marvel ass, and his sequel is actually better than the first. After the well-done but gloomy Avengers: Infinity War earlier this year, Ant-Man and the Wasp joins the likes of Thor: Ragnarok as a fun, slightly eccentric diversion from the serious Marvel shit. This one, for the most part, just wants to have a good time, and it succeeds.

As the title implies, this is no longer a one-man show for the always-entertaining Paul Rudd as Ant-Man. Evangeline Lilly returns as Hope Van Dyne and gets a bigger part of the limelight as the Wasp, who has decidedly better martial-arts skills than professional burglar Scott Lang, aka Ant-Man. The Wasp lets the kicks fly in an early scene with a crooked businessman (Walton Goggins … I love his name), and she owns every moment she has onscreen.

It looks like a kick from The Wasp hurts more than one from Ant-Man. That would make sense; she trained him. Lilly’s Hope was pivotal in the original, but she watched most of the action with her dad, out of harm’s way. This time, Hope proves it would’ve probably been a better strategy to have had her throwing down from the start. She does a lot of the heavy lifting, while Lang sits next to Pym (Michael Douglas) and watches from afar.

The film’s main villain is Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), a complicated badass on a mission to steal some of Dr. Hank Pym’s tech in order to cure her condition. That condition involves her molecular instability and the Quantum Realm—which might still contain Pym’s wife, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer, seen in flashbacks).

While the stakes aren’t quite as high as in other Marvel fare—the entire universe isn’t at risk in this one—Reed and his crew make it more than compelling. They also make it very funny, thanks mostly to Rudd, ninja master of comic timing.

Fortifying the laughter would be Michael Peña returning as the oh-so-happy Luis, who tells yet more amusing stories, one of them under the influence of truth serum. Randall Park shows up as an FBI agent watching over Lang, who is still under house arrest for the events of Captain America: Civil War. His eagerness to learn card tricks is one of the film’s better gags.

The film also qualifies as one of the summer’s better family films. Dr. Pym’s mission to rescue his wife, his relationship with daughter Hope, and Lang’s love for his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson, capably reprising her role) add heartwarming elements. As for the Ghost, her family issues also play a big part in the plot. Paxton (Bobby Cannavale), Cassie’s stepdad and Lang’s enemy in the first film, returns and is now one of Lang’s best friends. It’s all rather sweet.

But you don’t go to a Marvel movie to have your heart warmed, right? Don’t worry: The action is first-rate, as are the special effects, which often involve car chases with vehicles and buildings constantly shrinking and enlarging. Sight gags involving buildings as roll-away luggage, salt shakers and Pez dispensers also benefit from exemplary visual artistry.

There’s not much that connects this installment in obvious ways to the overall Marvel universe story arc, but you do get the requisite Stan Lee cameo and the obligatory after-credit scenes. The Ant-Man franchise got off to a decent start with the first film. Now, it’s the Ant-Man and the Wasp franchise, and that makes the future for this one even more exciting.

Ant-Man and the Wasp is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

Writer-director Darren Aronofsky is a nut, and his latest film, Mother!, is one helluva nutty movie.

The film’s star, Jennifer Lawrence, is currently dating Aronofsky, a fact that infiltrates the mood of Mother! because the film takes aim at relationships, in a rather nasty way, among its many targets. Those targets also include the Bible, narcissism, celebrity, art, family, smoking and … oh yeah, motherhood. By the time Mother! is over, you might not know exactly what went down, but you know that what happened was rather cynical … highly stylized, loony, entertaining cynicism.

Lawrence plays Mother, an apparently kind-hearted partner to Him (Javier Bardem). They live in an old-style country house out in the middle of nowhere. Him is a writer, going through some major writer’s block and occasionally speaking of having lost everything in the past to a fire. He has some sort of crystalized object on a stand that he claims empowered him to move on after the fire. It’s in a room nobody is allowed to enter alone.

They live a quiet life in their little Eden, with Mother preparing meals while Man tortures himself, unable to produce a single word of his next great work. Then there’s a knock at the door. It’s Man (Ed Harris), soon to be followed by Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), a strange couple who wind up houseguests, thanks to Him’s hospitality—much to the chagrin of Mother.

Man and Woman invade Mother’s space, with Man huffing cigarettes and frequently vomiting from illness while Woman swills alcohol and asks Mother extremely personal questions. Eventually, Man and Woman’s two sons show up; if you’ve read the Bible, you can perhaps guess what happens when the whole family is under one roof.

Then … well, things get a little weird.

After a rage-inspired sex session, Mother becomes pregnant, and Man is suddenly fertile with ideas. He writes his next big thing, and their home is besieged by agents, fans, religious zealots, paparazzi, former Saturday Night Live cast members, policemen, soldiers, terrorists and fire. Mr. If there’s a takeaway from Mother! it’s that Aronofsky doesn’t have a pleasant attitude toward celebrity. Or Sunday school.

Lawrence lets it all go here, delivering her rawest, and sometimes angriest performance to date. Her character starts off placid and collected, but as more people show up, and more things get broken in the home she has quite literally put her heart and soul into, Lawrence’s Mother ratchets things up to psychotic levels. There’s something seething under the surface with Mother, and Man’s refusal to kick the invaders out of their home brings it up.

Bardem brings a “golly, gosh, gee whiz” quality to Him, interspersed with his own scary outbursts. (I’m thinking both Lawrence and Bardem went to therapy after wrapping this one.)

Harris is great as the first unwanted guest, clearly dying from something, but still able to do naughty things with the wife while the door’s open. Pfeiffer owns her role; this is her best work in years. She only has a few scenes, but all of them, especially one with Mother in the laundry room, leave a mark. The same can be said about Kristen Wiig, who takes a few minutes of screen time late in the film and kills it.

This is the second Aronofsky take on biblical themes. He treated the story of Noah like it was The Lord of the Rings a few years back, and now he’s treating it like Rosemary’s Baby meets The Shining. The film deals with creation in a way that ties into art, the universe, broken sinks and being left out of somebody’s will.

At times, the film is absolute chaos, but Aronofsky, the master behind Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan and The Fountain (another of his creationism meditations), keeps it all under control. Longtime collaborator Matthew Libatique provides impeccable cinematography yet again, making a total rebellion inside a country home look somehow realistic and perhaps even possible.

If you like your stories and scares straightforward, Mother! may frustrate you. However, if you have been having recent conversations about that puzzler that was David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, and you’ve watched Aronofsky’s The Fountain more than once, Mother! might be right up your alley.

Mother! is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

The Family tries to be many movies at once—and none of them are any good. The result is an overcooked mafia comedy laced with jarringly inappropriate violence and jokes that only its writers would enjoy.

The Family wants to be a comedy, but it isn’t funny. At times, it wants to be a scary and realistic take on mafia life, but it lacks tension. It also wants to be a family drama, but none of its characters can be taken seriously. It also boasts an over-stylized, fairy-tale quality that makes the undertaking a weird, unbalanced experience.

Robert De Niro plays Giovanni, a mafia hit-man who has ratted out his co-workers and has been relocated with his family to Normandy, France, where he receives a new name, Fred Blake. His wife, Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), daughter, Belle (Dianna Agron of Glee), and son, Warren (John D’Leo), all seem rather forgiving of Fred’s past evil ways, and take to their new town with varying degrees of acceptance and criminal behavior.

De Niro has mined this sort of material before with Analyze This, and its sorry sequel, Analyze … Oh Stop It, Already! While he went with parody in those movies, he plays it straight and mellow in this one—except for when the plumber tries to screw him over; then he goes into Travis Bickle mode, with the sort of violence that doesn’t feel appropriate in a stylish comedy.

Perhaps the biggest film in the early portion of Pfeiffer’s career was Married to the Mob, and her Maggie character is essentially a replay. The thick New York accent and eye-rolling here reminds of her past glory, but they do little to make this movie original or intriguing. It’s a shame, because Pfeiffer is an interesting actress who isn’t getting very many good roles these days.

Agron’s portion of the movie is the most annoying and discordant. Her character is a high school virgin who is looking to lose it to a young man studying to be a teacher. She’s capable of breaking your ass with a tennis racket if you try to take advantage of her, and she’s a hopeless romantic who thinks suicide is the answer when a man rejects her. She’s also a crack shot with a handgun when mobsters show up. She’s a whole lot of things—and none of them make a lick of sense.

As for D’Leo, his story involves dealing with bullies at school. He hatches some sort of plan involving sports trading cards that never gets spelled out, and finds himself in trouble for stuff that is never made clear. Like Agron’s character, his story arc feels incomplete, misguided, unfulfilling and far from funny.

There’s a dopey subplot involving Giovanni and his yearning to be an author. He’s writing some hackneyed novel/memoir that raises the ire of the agent assigned to watch him (Tommy Lee Jones, who acts as if he’s in a movie that is supposed to be serious).

At one point, the people in their small town invite Giovanni to some sort of film-society screening to give commentary on a movie. That movie winds up being Goodfellas—which should’ve provided a chance for De Niro to perform some good self-parody. Instead, Besson blows this opportunity: The moment winds up feeling desperate and muted.

There are some other little nods to American mobster movies and TV shows that also don’t work. Vincent Pastore shows up as a character named Fat Willy. Pastore, of course, played Big Pussy on The Sopranos. So instead of being a large vagina, he is now a big dick.

Besson has done good (Léon: The Professional and The Fifth Element) and bad (The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc and this) as a director. I’ve come to the conclusion that he is a better visual artist than a complete storyteller. When he puts words to his visuals, they don’t match—and his formula really doesn’t work when applied to a giggly mafia story.

The Family has an identity crisis. The performances aren’t half bad. In fact, you could argue that De Niro and Pfeiffer are actually quite good in the thing. Unfortunately, they are slaves to a script that doesn’t know what it is trying to say—and a director more interested in a film that’s pretty rather than coherent.

The Family is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews