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.

★★★★

Advertisements

Murder on the Orient Express

Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Writer: Michael Green


Dame Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Without those two names you don’t get the classic whodunit as we know it today. Christie’s work is now so iconic that you don’t even have to have read a single word of her writing to recognise the formula. There’s been a murder, everyone’s a suspect, a top detective is brought in to solve the crime and the audience sees if they can crack the case before the big reveal. It’s a formula that we’ve seen in movies time and time again from the classic Hollywood film noirs and Clair’s adaptation of Christie’s And Then There Were None to more recent examples like Clue and The Hateful Eight. Murder on the Orient Express is perhaps the most famous single story Christie ever wrote and it has been adapted numerous times, most notably in 1974 with Albert Finney and in 2010 with David Suchet. This time it’s Branagh, sporting a hideous moustache, who steps into the shoes of Christie’s iconic detective in what he hoped would be a dynamic retelling of the classic mystery.

It is 1934 and we are introduced to world-famous detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh and his ridiculous moustache) as he solves a case in Jerusalem. He must then immediately return to London for another case and is offered passage on the Orient Express by his good friend Bouc (Tom Bateman). Soon after the train departs Poirot receives an offer from the shady businessman Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp) to protect him from harm for the three-day journey after receiving an anonymous threatening letter, an offer which Poirot declines. The next morning Ratchett is discovered dead in his compartment and an avalanche stops the train in its tracks. A note is discovered connecting Ratchett’s murder to the infamous case of a murdered little girl in the USA and Poirot resolves to discover who among the other passengers killed him. His suspects include the governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), the missionary Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz), Count Rudolph (Segei Polunin) and Countess Helena Andrenyi (Lucy Boynton), the butler Edward Henry Masterman (Derek Jacobi), the widow Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her maid Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman), Professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe), the deceased’s assistant Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad), and Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.).

For me the biggest reservation I had going into this film was Kenneth Branagh as Poirot. Not because I dislike Branagh as an actor (I don’t) or because of that inhuman abomination to both man and God that he calls a moustache, but because David Suchet embodied the famous detective so perfectly on the ITV series that all other incarnations of the character, including the Oscar-nominated Finney and the Bafta-nominated Ustinov, will forever be fighting for second place. Still Branagh puts on the gross eyesore that occupies his upper lip and he has a go at Christie’s most famous character, playing him as an inflexible control-freak who cannot tolerate imperfections in the world, whether they be the physical imperfections of two uneven boiled eggs or the moral imperfections of human beings. Branagh is a good enough actor that he is able to play the atrociously-moustached Poirot with the sufficient flash and gravitas while also scoring some laughs with his one-liners, but his decision to attribute Poirot’s meticulousness as obsessive-compulsive tendencies made for what I found to be a far less interesting character than the altogether more eloquently-moustached Suchet, whose perfectionism as Poirot came from a steadfast, unyielding belief in the absolute virtue of the law, God, and decency.

Still, Branagh the actor didn’t bother me as much as Branagh the director did. He makes a strong attempt to make the Christie mystery feel cinematic, which is an effort that I do admire but don’t think ultimately worked. When we see Poirot boarding the Orient Express in a single, sweeping tracking shot or when we witness the discovery of Ratchett’s body with a static overhead shot that leaves the corpse just out of frame, the style of these shots called so much attention to themselves that they struck me as self-indulgent flourishes rather than as creative cinematic storytelling techniques. It’s the same kind of self-indulgence that I imagine inspired Branagh to feature Poirot and his ghastly facial fur at centre stage throughout the whole film at the detriment of the all-star ensemble at his disposal. Some actors do manage to give out a great deal with the little they’re dealt, most notably Pfeiffer as the glamorous and wealthy widow in search of her next husband, but other characters, including those played by the enormously talented likes of Olivia Colman and Derek Jacobi, simply do not get enough time to dance in their acting shoes. All are side-lined and are mainly there to sit and look astonished so the film can spend as much time as it can focusing on how incredibly impressive Poirot and his egregious display of horrendous facial hair are.

I saw the film with two friends who did not know the ending and, while the final twist did seem to take them by surprise, they left feeling overall underwhelmed. The movie just doesn’t have that edge-of-your-seat momentum that a great whodunit should have. The private interrogations that Poirot conducts with each of the passengers do not have that captivating sense of intrigue and feeling of inquisitiveness because Branagh is much more interested in showcasing the deductive brilliance of Poirot and his abominable whiskers than in fleshing out all these secretive characters and getting to the heart of the mystery. The movie is so desperate for tension that it resorts to a cheap, generic Hollywood chase scene along the exterior of the train. Even the big reveal fails to impress as it relies too much on style and not enough on substance, even going so far as to arrange all the characters into an impractical pose that evokes The Last Supper (I guess making Poirot Da Vinci because that’s how much of a genius he is). As with the later seasons of Sherlock, this is a case of an artist getting so carried away with showing everyone how brilliantly brilliant his brilliant character and brilliant style are that all else gets swept aside and the story suffers because of it. Murder on the Orient Express is a stylish but empty remake that did not need to be made. Also I didn’t like the moustache.

★★

mother!

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Writer: Darren Aronofsky


Divisive doesn’t even begin to cover the reception this film has received. mother! has inspired acclaim, hatred, adoration, revulsion, amusement, confusion, horror, curiosity, contemplation, frustration, and so much more from its audience. Some have applauded in ecstasy; others have walked out in disgust. Some hail it as an epic masterpiece; others disparage it as an epic catastrophe; and others still have absolutely no idea what to make of it whatsoever. It is a difficult film to watch, that much is certain. mother! is downright alienating, oftentimes horrifying, and relentlessly inscrutable. But it is also fascinating and unique. There’s never been a film quite like this and it’s one that compellingly draws your eyes and holds your attention the way that either a magnificent painting or a calamitous car crash would. I’ll try to go into more detail about the story and what I took from it, but personally I think the viewer should go in knowing nothing and would encourage anyone who has not seen it to stop reading now and go watch it.

Seriously, nothing I can say can prepare you for what happens. Whether you end up liking it or not, the only way to understand what kind of film mother! is is to actually watch it. If, however, you’re interested in knowing more about the story and what I think it means (if it means anything at all) then read on.

The movie is set in an old house in the middle of nowhere that was previously destroyed in a fire but has since been rebuilt and its two inhabitant are Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and Him (Javier Bardem). He is a famous writer trying to start a new novel but is unable to find the words and she is his young wife who occupies her time with remodelling her husband’s house. The two live a quiet life completely cut off from civilisation, perfectly content with no other company but their own. Later they are visited by Man (Ed Harris), a lost traveller who asks for a place to stay for the night. The next day they are joined by his wife Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer). Mother isn’t keen on the idea of having visitors over, fearing the damage they might do to the house or the disruption they’ll cause to their quiet, solitary life, but her husband is positively delighted to have them stay.

It would appear to be a simple enough set-up, but there’s something else going on. Within the first 10-15 minutes, it became clear to me that this movie does not take place anywhere that we would recognise as the real world. The way that we never see any trace of an outside civilisation and the way that time doesn’t seem to have any structure or meaning here suggests this. The house itself appears to have more going on beneath the surface as we see when Mother puts her hand on the wall and sees what looks and sounds like a dying heart. After the visitors start arriving, things only proceed to get more insane and surreal and Aronofsky seems adamant that the audience’s hand must not be held through any of it. Events escalate as the movie moves closer to its increasingly chaotic climax and through it all the movie remains steadfastly metaphorical. It is clear that this is a movie that has no intentions of playing by the rules and Aronofsky never makes any apologies for it.

Our protagonist is Lawrence’s Mother and she is just as confused by what’s going on as we are. Aronofsky makes a strong effort to convey a POV affect by fixing the camera tightly on Lawrence for prolonged takes and shooting other scenes from over her shoulder, drawing a clear focus to her perspective and reactions. Her character has no apparent ambitions or desires apart from living with her husband, being completely devoted to him, and becoming the titular mother that she is destined to become. Her husband is less content with their life, suffering from writer’s block and revelling in the company of others (especially when he discovers them to be admirers of his work). He continues to neglect his wife’s wants and feelings as he indulges himself in the encouragement and admiration of others and she’s left with the task of cleaning up after them. The film takes on a Rosemary’s Baby vibe as Mother starts to feel like everyone is out to get her, destroying everything she holds dear and attacking her while her husband remains oblivious to her anxieties.

Anyone who has ever attended Sunday school will start picking up on the film’s biblical connotations before long. Lawrence serves as a stand-in for nature (or Mother Earth if you want to assign a character to her) while Bardem’s Him is God. Man and Woman then would clearly be Adam and Eve and later on the film’s introduces two characters to represent Cain and Abel. This, in turn, would apparently make Mother’s eventual child a stand-in for Christ. So what is the film trying to say with that? Well, given the duress and trauma inflicted on Mother throughout the film, both physical and emotional, perhaps this film is an allegory for the way that man has mistreated nature. If that’s the angle Aronofsky is going for then it’s clear where his sympathies lie. He casts God as a vain figure craving recognition, someone who cares more about being worshipped and adulated than in caring for his wife and child. Humanity meanwhile is portrayed as being negligent, fanatical, and destructive, caring nothing for the damage they cause in their wake.

Or maybe the movie means something else entirely. It isn’t clear what kind of movie mother! is and it was made that way intentionally. This is a movie that is meant to be dissected and written about in length. Its style is a striking one that demands the viewer’s attention and its story is an ambiguous one that invites a never-ending series of questions without answers and several contradictory interpretations. It has been advertised as a horror film, and it is a horror in the sense that it creates an atmosphere of dread, carnage, and paranoia, and thrives off the terror of that which cannot be understood. But is it any good? I don’t know. I guess it depends on what you take away from it. I found mother! to be an often enthralling, often horrifying film to sit through. Since then I’ve found it to be a fascinating film to think about, read about, and talk about. I will have to re-watch it sometime, so maybe there’s something to be said for a movie that demands to be seen again despite (or maybe because) of all the unpleasantness it depicts. mother! is a well-crafted, provocative, and confounding film and, if it’s inspiring such a strong reaction from the audience, both positive and negative, it must be doing something right.

★★★★★