Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, Will Patton, Virginia Gardner

Director: David Gordon Green

Writers: Jeff Fradley, Danny McBride, David Gordon Green

It’s been forty years since John Carpenter’s classic horror first took to the big screen and kickstarted the trend of teenage slashers that would lead to such fearful hits as Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Since then the gory Hallow’s Eve saga has gone through so many sequels, spin-offs and reboots of such inconsistent quality that the continuity has long since lost all meaning and coherence. Thus Fradley, McBride and Green have gone the Jurassic World route by wiping the whole slate clean. Halloween is a direct sequel to Halloween (they probably could have gone with a slightly different title if only for the sake of practicality) and it picks up forty years after the events of the first film having retconned just about everything that happens in the successive titles. Michael Myers (James Jude Courtney) has been incarcerated in a mental institution ever since his killing spree in Haddonfield and Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) has been preparing herself for the day that they’ll cross paths once again. As the 40th anniversary of that dreaded day approaches, Michael escapes his captivity and creeps his way to that same town to repeat the bloody cycle all over again.

One of the great debates surrounding the original Halloween film is the nature of Michael’s character; is he really this superhuman, innately evil bogeyman or is there a human being with thoughts and feelings somewhere deep inside? Is he nothing more than a bloodthirsty monster beyond any reason, conscience or understanding as Dr. Loomis said, or is there something beneath it all driving his compulsion to kill? Fans have tried to get to the heart of Michael’s humanity by searching for some kind of motivation behind his actions or some kind of link between him and the one character to survive his murderous rampage, Laurie Strode. The sequels shed some light on this with the reveal that Laurie is actually Michael’s younger sister and that she had been his target the whole time, a twist that Rob Zombie would then incorporate into his remake where he sought to provide the viewer with greater insight into who Michael was before he donned the William Shatner mask. However not only does this new film completely erase the continuity of the franchise, it even directly addresses this specific point and dismisses it on the outset. These incarnations of Michael and Laurie are not in any way blood relations, yet many of the characters are nonetheless determined to believe that there is an intrinsic bond between them.

Many of the reviews that I’ve read of this new film have billed it as essentially a revenge movie. Michael Myers has escaped once again! He’s going after Laurie to finish what he started! Except this time she’s waiting for him! That is how the movie was advertised and it’s certainly what I expected to see going in, but I’m not sure that’s the movie that Green and co. actually made. What I found most interesting about this film’s portrayal of Michael is how little bearing Laurie seems to have on his actions. When he and Laurie do inevitably face off at the end, it isn’t because he has sought her out but because factors beyond either of their control deliberately conspired to bring them together. Yet that doesn’t mean his actions are indiscriminate either. In the movie that first introduced us to Michael, there was a clear method behind his movements; he stalked his prey, which were specifically young women around the same age as the sister he brutally murdered in his very first scene, before moving in for the kill. When he returns to the town where it all began on that very same day, 31 October, the first place he visits is that same sister’s grave where a couple of the characters whom we’ve already met by this point have the misfortune of being when he catches sight of them. Afterwards he returns to his old pattern of hunting and murdering teenagers. There’s an enigma here but no plot twist to explain it all; it’s up to the viewer to find the answer for themselves.

From Laurie’s perspective there is no doubt in her mind that Michael is out for her and her loved ones. She already escaped him once and in the forty years since then she has been preparing for his return. “He’s waited for me” she says, “and I’ve waited for him”. This is personal for her, and what makes it all the more interesting for me is that she believes it’s personal for him as well in a way that it may not necessarily be. It’s strange but it might actually be more comforting for Laurie to believe that Michael has always had it out specifically for her than to consider that the bogeyman who killed her friends, traumatised her, and ruined her life did so for no other reason than because she was somebody of the wrong age and gender in the wrong place at the wrong time. One of the great tragedies of life is to believe that you are special only to find out that you’re not and Laurie has already had a profoundly tragic life. She now lives as a recluse deep in the woods, twice divorced and estranged from her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak), all because her PTSD has compelled her to devote her whole life, and that of her child, towards making preparations and honing the skills needed so that when Michael does return, he won’t find the same defenceless young girl waiting for him. “If the way I raised your mother means that she hates me but she’s prepared for the horrors of the world” she tells Allyson, “I can live with that”.

As far as the horror itself goes, Halloween takes most of its cues from its 1978 namesake. What made Carpenter’s original outing so effective was its simplicity; it’s long, drawn-out takes, its sparing use of sound and its ability to evoke brutal images without graphically depicting them (at least not as gratuitously as you might remember). Green takes a similar less-is-more approach and the result is quite good, even if he does tend to draw on moments from the first film a little too often. The problem there is that, while it makes perfectly logical sense to find inspiration in the techniques and imagery that made Halloween as successful as it was, those same methods and images have been so widely imitated in so many other films in the decades since that the 2018 Halloween too often feels like just another slasher film. The tension is there and Green shows enough restraint that his echoing of the preceding title never goes overboard, but he’s nonetheless still walking in the looming shadow cast by one of great, iconic titles in American horror cinema.

The moment when the film truly comes into its own is the third act where Laurie and Michael have their showdown. Laurie has gone through a totally remarkable transformation between the two films akin to Sarah Connor and Curtis nails it like the pro that she is. On its release it was noted by many that Halloween marks the largest opening for a film with a female lead above 55 years old and it is a strong and compelling one at that. Laurie is so much more than a tough heroine who shows up to kick arse and takes names; she is a fully formed character who after four decades is still trying to reckon with her trauma. When she comes face to face with Michael once again it isn’t some epic duel between old adversaries, it’s a fundamentally damaged person being confronted by the terrors of her past in the form of a ghost. By scrapping the familial bond between them, Laurie’s motivation becomes all the simpler and harsher as Michael’s becomes more inscrutable and tormenting. The most inspired images in this film are those where Laurie and Michael are framed as mirror images to one another and those were the moments that gave me the most unsettling chills.

I guess I didn’t find Halloween to be a particularly scary film, but I also think that dismissing it on that basis is kind of missing the point. I’ve never found the John Carpenter film to be especially scary either, in large part because I wasn’t even born until well over a decade after it was made, but that doesn’t stop me from appreciating the masterful way in which it crafts so much tension from such a simple concept in such an economical way. The new Halloween doesn’t get under my skin or shock me to my core the way that my favourite horror films tend to do, but I was still engrossed from beginning to end. Green proves himself to be a worthy disciple of Carpenter as he adeptly manages to construct that same eerie, uncanny air of disquieting suburban atmosphere (with a little bit of help from Carpenter’s signature score with that jarringly monotonous melody) to startling effect. It also understands that the ambiguous humanity of Michael Myers is a crucial part of what makes him scary; the more unknowable he is, the more we come to dread his deathly presence as the characters are faced with a force as intangible and pitiless as the Black Plague.



Ant-Man and the Wasp

Cast: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Peña, Walton Goggins, Bobby Cannavale, Judy Greer, Tip ‘T.I.’ Harrison, David Dastmalchian, Hannah John-Kamen, Abby Ryder Forston, Randall Park, Michelle Pfeiffer, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Douglas

Director: Peyton Reed

Writers: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barrer, Gabriel Ferrari

In Avengers: Infinity War, the Marvel Cinematic Universe beheld an apocalyptic reckoning. Earth’s mightiest heroes banded together to combat the greatest threat the universe had ever seen and were instead utterly defeated. But, before the world came to an end with a bang and a whimper, before the sun turned black and the moon became as blood and the stars of heaven fell unto the Earth, before the Avengers beheld Shiva the God of Death and Destroyer of Worlds, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) found himself caught up in a sticky situation involving a shrunken quantum laboratory being thrown around, a ghost-like figure phasing through walls and a human-sized ant playing the drums. In truth Ant-Man and the Wasp is probably the respite we needed after the operatic tragedy of Thanos and his cataclysmic crusade. This latest adventure in the MCU is light-hearted, fun and a total breeze to watch.

As a result of his actions in Civil War, in which he commandeered a shrinking suit and made off for Europe to aid Captain America in direct violation of the Sokovia Accords, Scott Lang has spent the last two years under heavy house arrest. He does what he can to support his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Forston) and to help Luis (Michael Peña) in setting up their new security business, but there’s only so much Scott can do when chained to an ankle monitor that goes off the second he sets a foot outdoors and with parole officer Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) breathing down his neck, just waiting for a chance to catch him with his pants down. Another consequence of joining Cap (and destroying the suit rather than let it be confiscated) is that former mentor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and former girlfriend Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) want nothing more to do with Scott. They’ve cut all ties and have dedicated themselves towards finding a way into the Quantum Realm where they believe Pym’s wife Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) might still be saved after getting trapped there thirty years ago.

A breakthrough is reached when Scott receives what appears to be a message from the Quantum Realm. Convinced that this must have been sent by Janet, Pym and Hope reluctantly decide that they need his help to find her. They liberate Scott from his confinement and take him to their secret and, thanks to the wonders of shrinking technology, portable laboratory. Before the gateway to the Quantum Realm can be opened there is a particular machine part they need to obtain from black market dealer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins). The deal goes south once Burch realises the economic potential of Pym’s research, leading to a clash between his goons and Hope in the new and improved wasp suit. Their skirmish is interrupted by Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), a masked figure with the ability to move through solid objects. She seizes the lab in its shrunken suitcase-sized state and absconds with it, leading to an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse where Scott, Hope and Pym must track the intangible thief down, recover the lab and rescue Janet from the Quantum Realm before their window of opportunity closes.

After the galactic catastrophe of Infinity War, the ideological conflict of Black Panther and the cartoonish sci-fi extravaganza of Thor: Ragnarok, Ant-Man and the Wasp is an MCU movie that feels a lot more grounded and down to earth with stakes that feel much more human-sized and personal. Pym’s ultimate goal is to rescue his wife. Scott’s biggest concern is getting through the next couple of days without getting caught breaching his house arrest so that he can start rebuilding his life with his family. Even the villain is revealed not to have any kind of overtly political, economic or moral motivation compelling her but is instead acting out purely from a place of tremendous pain. This allows for the kind of superhero movie that doesn’t need to be an epic or a spectacle; you can just enjoy it for the fun side story that it is. There is no attempt to make this movie feel epic, dark or all that serious because that’s not the movie it wants or needs to be. This is ultimately a B-story in the MCU canon and proud of it; all it wants is to get you to care about these characters and have some thrills and laughs along the way.

One way that this movie improves on the first Ant-Man is the action. The idea of pitting a hero who can shrink and grow at will was already enough to make for a viscerally gratifying experience but this time not only do they increase the scale (literally in one scene), they also add in a few extra factors. One is the titular heroine who not only possesses the same abilities as Ant-Man but is also a better fighter and can fly (I wonder if there’s a veiled reference somewhere in there to Ginger Rogers doing what Fred Astaire did backwards and in heels). Another is the antagonist who can phase through solid objects. Together they combine to create some of the most creative action in any modern Hollywood blockbuster. In the movie’s first proper action scene, Wasp takes out a whole bunch of hired goons using a combination of shrinking/enlarging technology and aerial hand-to-hand combat which is interrupted by the arrival of ghost whose use of phasing adds an entirely different dimension to the fight. Later there’s a car chase scene where the use of a shrinking vehicle leads to some neat surprises. These are accomplished by an inspired use of CGI, choreography and framing and made for an action movie that feels distinct from the rest of the Marvel properties.

Ant-Man and the Wasp isn’t just an action movie though, it’s also a comedy and a funny one at that. Part of the credit belongs to the cast, particularly Rudd who is effortlessly charming in his hapless, goofy way, Lilly whose eye-rolling, business-like demeanour gets played more for laughs, and Peña who continues to steal every scene he’s in. The bulk of the credit though goes to Reed and his team of screenwriters and their understanding of cinema’s capacity for visual comedy. The Ant-Man films are essentially high-budget screwball comedies with a sci-fi twist and the humour goes far beyond the use of situation and dialogue that most modern American flicks tend to rely on. The action scenes often give way to uproarious slapstick. There’s the continued use of idiosyncratically staged re-enactments to accompany Luis’ baffling, rambling narrations. There’s a scene where Reed’s use of framing and blocking allows for Ghost to unexpectedly reveal her presence in a hilarious way. There’s also a scene where Paul Rudd has to pretend to be another character, leading to some wonderful physical comedy. The laughs are numerous and they never get tiring because it isn’t all done in just one style.

The film does have two weaknesses. One is that it takes the movie a while to get going. The story is pretty messy as it tries to weave several subplots together into a coherent whole. As well as the main stories concerning Pym’s rescue plan, Scott’s house arrest and Ghost’s arc, we have Luis trying to save his new security business from falling under, the attempts by the weapon dealer and his goons to recover their merchandise, Scott’s ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer) and her husband Paxton (Bobby Cannavale) checking in every now and then so that Scott’s private life remains in the picture, and the introduction of Pym’s former colleague Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne) and their shared history. There’s a lot of ground to cover and the first-half of the film has to get through a lot of plot pushing and exposition dropping before the movie can really take off. Oftentimes the movie’s screenplay feels like it was cobbled together by a sizeable committee of writers (which, well… it was). The other main weakness is that Wasp, despite being one of the titular characters, doesn’t have as prominent a role as Ant-Man or her father. Although she gets plenty to do in the action scenes, she isn’t given enough of an arc or a large enough presence in the movie to justify her role as more than a supporting player in what is clearly the Ant-Men’s story.

All in all, Ant-Man and the Wasp isn’t the best at what it does nor is it really the best of what Marvel has to offer, but it is certainly more than enough for what it wants and needs to be. It does take a while to truly get there but, once all the pieces are in place and it can get started with the good stuff, it’s exactly the film you want it to be. The second half of the film is nothing but inventive fight and chase scenes coupled with outlandish comedy routines, all depicted with visual splendour and wit (another highlight is Scott asking for the villain’s help so that he can video-chat with his daughter in what is supposed to be a tense moment). The relief this movie provides from Marvel’s most recent offering is welcome and the film itself is self-contained enough that you won’t be distracted by tangential asides for world-building nor will you need to have seen any other movie but the first Ant-Man to be invested in what’s happening. It’s funny, it’s exciting, it has one or two touching scenes and it’s a blast to watch.