Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania

Posted on February 14, 2023 at 5:57 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School

What I’ve always loved about the “Ant-Man” movies, aside from the ever-lovable Paul Rudd in the title role, is the slightly hand-made quality, in contrast to the high-tech, hight-gloss, high-CGI aesthetic of the rest of the MCU. The opening of the second film in the series sets the tone. Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), under house arrest following the parole violation of saving the world with the Avengers, has created a cardboard thrill ride for his daughter, Cassie. The Ant-Man series had some goofy humor with Scott’s relationship with his ex-wife (Judy Greer) and her new husband (Bobby Cannavale), the cop who can’t decide whether to arrest him or befriend him (Randall Park), and with the discursive stories from his friend and colleague Luis (Michael Peña). The production design truly set the stage with more lived-in spaces than in the other Marvel movies.

Not so much this time. Of course, this is a Marvel movie and there are imaginative and exciting action sequences, especially as Scott develops his use of his powers. It has a nice mix of comedy and action, with characters we are invested in, not just as individuals but in the way they are connected to each other.

As the title tells us, this movie takes place in the least hand-made setting imaginable, the quantum realm. As wonderfully imaginative as it is, suggesting a mash-up of Alice in Wonderland, the Pastoral Symphony section of Disney’s “Fantasia,” the wildest anime creatures of Hayao Miyazaki, and video games like Minecraft and No Man’s Sky, plus last year’s “Strange World,” there is a pristine quality that removes much of the distinctive charm we expect from Ant-Man. Plus, talk about the forest and the trees. There is just so much detail here, with the endless settings and characters so overwhelming that they make it hard to keep track of what is going on. It’s not enough that a character’s head looks like a stalk of broccoli. Someone has to say, “His head looks like broccoli.” And then we don’t have much to do with him again. There’s a lot to see and much of it is enticing, but not enough of it relates to anything that relates to the stakes, the abilities or vulnerabilities of the good guys or characteristics that would help us understand who they are and how they behave. The issue of understanding each others’ language is handled briskly but other properties are not developed or explored.

The title says it all because the story is more about the place than about what happens there. After a brief prologue, with John Sebastian’s theme from “Welcome Back, Kotter” on the soundtrack, we hear from Scott about how lucky he feels. He is an Avenger, universally loved for saving the world, even if that means people always ask him for photos (with their dogs!) and they don’t always remember which insect superhero he is. His daughter is doing well, he and Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) are happily in love and she is out saving the world with wonderful programs to help people who need housing or other kinds of support. Scott has written a new book about his life, and enjoys appearing at book-readings.

But it turns out Cassie (Kathryn Newton of “Freaky,” excellent in the role) has been stirring up trouble by appearing at protests and experimenting with a probe into the quantum realm. Before Janet (Michele Pfeiffer), who spent 30 years there and has refused to give any details, can stop her, Scott, Casssie, Hope, Janet, and Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) are all sucked into the quantum realm, and that is where they stay for almost all of the rest of the film.

There is a long stretch where we meet an assortment of colorful characters. Some of them are fun, including a goofy return from one of the earlier films. It is always good to see William Jackson Harper (“The Good Place”) as a frustrated telepath who is way over hearing all of the disgusting thoughts of everyone around him and a jell-o-like character very interested in how many “holes” humanoids have in their bodies and what goes into and out of them. A major star appears for a few minutes for no real purpose.

There’s a very “Star Wars”-ish vibe with the diverse good guys wearing rough cloth and carrying spears and the homogenous and faceless bad guys with the high tech weapons that somehow are not very accurate as the armor-less good guys seem to have no problem dodging the bullets.

As I have often said, superhero movies rise and fall on the quality of the bad guy, who has to be evil enough to be a serious threat but not omni-powerful enough to make it impossible to defeat him. With Thanos gone, the Marvel character Kang the Conqueror has been refashioned in his image. Free of the reality-based limits of time and space, Kang’s calculus about wiping out whole universes is for him just straightening the pictures on the wall — except that it turns out there is a strong element of revenge behind his decisions about who and what needs to be wiped out.

Jonathan Majors, who we’ll be seeing as the antagonist in another huge franchise series in a few weeks, “Creed III,” makes Kang intriguing as he shifts from vulnerable and companionable to canny negotiations to imperious orders to white-hot fury. But it also makes him so all over the place that it is hard to invest in the battles. It does not help that the other side is so complicated that we do not attach to most of the new characters, and characters we love, including Woo and Luis and, worst of all, Hope, are pushed to the side.

“There’s always room to grow,” Scott tells his readers, and those reassuring words come back to inspire the good guys later on. But in this case, taking Ant-Man out of the smaller world of the first two films shows that all that room may not be what this story needs.

NOTE: Stay through the end credits for two extra scenes, one tying the next chapter to some favorite Marvel characters.

Parents should know that this movie has extended peril and violence with some disturbing images. Characters use some strong language.

Family discussion: How should Scott have responded to Kang’s threat? Why didn’t Janet tell anyone about her experience?

If you like this, try: the other “Ant-Man” and MCU movies

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Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

Posted on October 17, 2019 at 5:30 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for intense sequences of fantasy action/violence and brief scary images
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy peril and violence, characters injured, cursed, and killed, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: A metaphorical theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 18, 2019
Date Released to DVD: January 13, 2020

Copyright Disney 2019
Come on, Disney. You can do better than this. “Mistress of Evil” makes Maleficent sound like she is hosting cheesy old horror movies on late night television. Maleficent, of course, is the wicked fairy from the classic animated Disney version of “Sleeping Beauty” who was so angry she wasn’t invited to Princess Aurora’s christening that she cursed her to eternal slumber after pricking her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel. She could only be awakened by true love’s kiss, and ultimate her fury is so great she turns into a fire-breathing dragon. All because she felt she should have been on the palace guest list.

On the 60th anniversary of that film’s release, we get this sequel to the 2014 “Maleficent,” with Angelina Jolie as a villain more sinned against than sinning. It turns out it was more than a social oversight that made her angry. She was a fairy cruelly betrayed by the human man she loved, who ruined her so he could become king (the severing of her wings was a deeply disturbing scene). Basically, she was Glenn Close from “Fatal Attraction” with horns and magical powers. Who needs to boil a bunny when you can just zap people?

But then she could not help loving the darling little Princess Aurora. The famously maternal Angelina Jolie — formerly the famously wild child Angelina Jolie — was well cast as the fairy whose anger was cooled by the love of a child. Everything ended up pretty close to happily ever after, but that doesn’t help the box office so here we are again.

Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) is now queen of the Moors, which is fairy territory, and everyone loves her, from little pixies to Groot-like tree creatures. She floats around in hippie chick finery, and everything is blossoms and butterflies, kind, and peaceful. She accepts a proposal from Prince Philip (now played by Harris Dickinson), son of the king and queen who rule over the neighboring human country. Like so many brides before her, she implores her family, meaning Maleficent, to behave at the meet-the-prospective-in-laws dinner. And like so many meet-the-prospective-inlaw dinners, it does not go as well as the young couple hoped. Maleficent feels insulted, she lashes out, the king (Robert Lindsay) collapses, Maleficent is blamed (after all, she does know how to curse people into perpetual sleep), Aurora feels betrayed. And so, the princess stays with her new family, and Maleficent is banned again.

This time is different, though, because Maleficent finds for the first time, her own community, with horned and winged creatures like herself, though none with her magical gifts. They are outcasts, living in a secret underground community. The film’s best moments are those that make the most of the fabulously inventive visual designers and effects crew, and the “It’s a Small World”-style tour of the many variations within this group will make audiences wish for a pause button.

Unfortunately, some of the rest of the film will make them wish for a fast-forward button, including some very oddly off-key moments that give the movie a disconcertingly inconsistent tone. “I see what you did there” is not a line that belongs in what is otherwise a straightforward fantasy, not a post-modern, air-quotes, meta-take. The title character is intended to be complex, but she is just inconsistent as well. Nearly as emaciated as Joaquin Phoenix in “Joker,” with sepulchral skin and red red lips over dainty white fangs, she has heightened cheekbones that could cut glass and make Jolie look like she ate a coat hanger.

And then there is the political overlay, with messages about welcoming immigrants. non-violence, and justice for minorities that are lovely thoughts but not conveyed with any special insight or depth. More attention is given to some nonsense about creating a powder that is instantly deadly to fae folk, which is then deployed in mass quantities, but to keep the PG rating the amount of carnage is left unclear. Michelle Pfeiffer is the most vital element of the film as Philip’s mother (and her gowns and jewels are stunning), but she is not given enough to work with in the messy script, over-plotted and under-written. That’s the real villain in this fairy tale.

Parents should know that this film includes fantasy/action peril and violence much more intense than a typical PG with some very disturbing images including dissolving magical creatures, betrayal by a parent, curses, and a very sad death.

Family discussion: Why did Boora and Conall disagree? How are the issues in the movie similar to conflicts in the news? Why did Conall say we should not use our anger? Why did Aurora ask Maleficent to cover her horns and why did she apologize?

If you like this, try: the first “Maleficent,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Stardust”

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Ant-Man and the Wasp

Posted on July 3, 2018 at 4:15 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some sci-fi action violence
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic-book/action peril and violence, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 6, 2018
Date Released to DVD: October 15, 2018
Copyright 2018 Marvel

I like Ant-Man. He’s literally down to earth — after the intergalactic super-villain Thanos plotting the wiping out of half the universe, it’s nice to see our hero up against an ordinary, non-super thug of a bad guy. And it’s also nice to see, 20 movies in, a female superhero in the title of the film. I like the slightly retro, slightly bookish look of the Ant-Man films (outstanding work from production designer Shepherd Frankel). And I like the fun they have with scale. Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) can do more than shrink himself to the size of an ant and call on his ant friends to help him out. He can make himself and objects around him get bigger or smaller almost instantly. And the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) can do all of that AND fly and use her wrist blasters.

Scott has three more days to go under house arrest, wearing an ankle bracelet, with frequent check-ins by the local authorities, led by Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), who can’t seem to decide whether he wants to lock Scott up or become his BFF. He’s going a little stir-crazy, though he enjoys the elaborate games he creates for his daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). The terms of his parole forbid him from having contact with Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) or his daughter Hope (Lilly), but that has not been a problem. They are not speaking to him after they think he betrayed them by making their technology public in “Captain America: Civil War.”

But something else that happened in “Civil War” is the reason they have to find him again. Pym’s wife and Hope’s mother, the brilliant scientist Janet Pym (Michelle Pfeiffer), became too small and they thought she was lost forever in the “quantum entanglement.” Scott was able to return from the quantum entanglement, though, and they want to find out how and send him back there to see if Janet can be rescued. This is a job for two superheroes, and so it’s time for Hope to suit up.

An all-around crime boss named Sonny Burch (Walt Goggins) wants to stop them from getting the material they need to make that work. A character whose backstory I won’t spoil but who can vibrate through matter also wants it. And the cops are trying to capture the Pyms as well. So, lots of chases, lots of hand-offs and near misses. Director Peyton Reed and his writers (including Rudd) have a lot of fun with scale, sizing the vehicles up and down in an instant and Scott himself getting as big as the Statue of Liberty (which is exhausting for him) and as tiny as an atom. His suit does not always work correctly, though, and his judgment does not always work correctly, either.

The distinctive humor of the first film continues in this one, with Michael Pena returning as Scott’s loquacious fellow ex-con and business partner. His circuitous story-telling was funny in the first film, and it gets funnier here when he is questioned under the effects of what could be a truth serum (whether it is or not is a point of contention). Random topics that also come up for discussion include close-up magic, the Slavic folklore character Baba Yaga, loading the dishwasher, and playing the drums. There are some great action sequences, especially one in a kitchen and the chase scenes, and crisp pacing to balance the more laid-back comedy. Its biggest failing is the dumb nicknames for the daughters of the characters. Really, Peanut? Jellybean? Those girls deserve something as witty and distinctive as the rest of the film.

NOTE: Stay through the credits for a brief update on the “Infinity War” cliffhanger, and then all the way to the end for an even briefer and very silly little second extra that has an important clue.

Parents should know that this film includes extended comic book/action peril and violence, characters injured and killed, some scary images, mild language, and some parent-child issues.

Family discussion: What changes do you think the quantum experience has on people who travel there? How is Ant-Man different from the other Avengers?

If you like this, try: the first “Ant-Man” and the Avengers movies

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Murder on the Orient Express

Posted on November 9, 2017 at 5:54 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence and thematic elements
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Plot concerns a murder, references to kidnapping and murder of a child, suicide, miscarriage, gun, knife, scuffle
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters, racism is raised as an issue
Date Released to Theaters: November 10, 2017
Date Released to DVD: February 27, 2018
Copyright 20th Century Fox 2017

One of Agatha Christie’s most beloved mysteries has returned to the screen with another all-star remake of “Murder on the Orient Express,” this time starring Sir Kenneth Branagh, who also directed, as the brilliant Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. It does not have the lush glamour of the 1974 original, directed by Sidney Lumet, and the tone is uneven, but the tricky puzzle is still fun to try to solve, for those who have not read the book or seen the earlier film, and the international cast makes it entertaining.

We first see Poirot in Jerusalem by the Wailing Wall, one of the most sacred locations in the world. It is before WWII and Israel is not yet a state. A priceless relic has been stolen and the suspects, as Poirot notes, are right out of the set-up for a joke: a rabbi, an imam, and a priest. Poirot neatly solves the crime and even more neatly blocks the culprit’s attempt to flee. He explains that he is what decades later would be called obsessive-compulsive, so aware of patterns that he becomes deeply distressed when they are not symmetrical. He even refuses to eat two boiled eggs because they don’t match. But what causes him enormous anxiety in life turns out to be ideal for solving crime. “The imperfections stand out,” he explains. “It makes most of life unbearable but it is useful in the detection of crime.”

When he says he is going to take a nice long train ride and relax with a book by Dickens, we know he will soon be solving another mystery.  As his friend, a handsome but louche train company official, says, a train combines three things: boredom, anonymity, and a gentle rocking motion, and that can lead to all kinds of fascinating possibilities.

Of course, in order to have a mystery, we have to have suspects and clues, so much of the film is taken up with introducing us to the cast of characters, a very international group, as one might expect on a train from Istanbul to Paris. It includes a friendly governess (“Star Wars'” Daisy Ridley as Mary Debenham), a British doctor of African heritage (“Hamilton’s” Leslie Odom Jr. as Dr. Arbuthnot), a professor (Willem Dafoe), an elderly countess (Dame Judi Dench), an Italian-American car dealer (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and a shy missionary (Penelope Cruz).

Some additions to the storyline are more distracting than illuminating. More seriously, they take away from our chance to get to know the very large cast of characters and that takes away from the sense of mystery and the stakes of the outcome.  Shifts in tone give the film a disquieting inconsistency and flashy camera moves, like an extended shot looking down at the characters’ heads, serve no purpose except to make us wonder what they are supposed to be doing.  Poirot is famously proud of his mustache, and so any depiction of the character must have some impressive facial hair.  Branagh’s is close to farcical, making us wonder whether it merited or required its own trailer on set. One thing we know about Christie and her famous creations — they always knew exactly where they wanted us to be. This movie does not.

Parents should know that this film contains peril and violence including murder, references to kidnapping and murder of a child, suicide, miscarriage, gun, knife, scuffle, drinking, smoking, drugs, sexual references including prostitute, some racist comments, and some mild language.

Family discussion: Did Poirot make the right choice? What were the most important clues? What can you learn from him about observing significant details?

If you like this try: the original version with Albert Finney and other movies based on Agatha Christie stories like “Death on the Nile”

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mother!

Posted on September 14, 2017 at 8:27 pm

D
Lowest Recommended Age: Adult
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong disturbing violent content, some sexuality, nudity and language
Profanity: Some very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, drunkenness, cigarettes
Violence/ Scariness: Extremely intense, brutal, and graphic violence including murders of adults and a newborn, cannibalism, fire, many grisly and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 15, 2017
Date Released to DVD: December 18, 2017
Copyright 2017 Paramount

Over the next few weeks, maybe over the next few years, you will see some thoughtful analyses and interpretations of “mother!” (lowercase m at the beginning, exclamation point at the end), examining the Biblical references and exploring the metaphors.  I look forward to these discussions and hope I will be persuaded.  But I was unable to find anything more in the film than pretentious, self-indulgent images with, for a movie about in some sense creativity, very little to say.

It’s a warning sign of precarious pretension when a film’s characters are not named and listed in the credits only as archetypes: mother, man, woman, him, younger brother, oldest son, good Samaritan, fool, wanderer, idler.  It’s not that it can’t be done; it’s just that it’s a high bar to clear.  What might work as a horror story about a young, pure-hearted bride in a gigantic, isolated house who is confronted with various dread-inspiring elements both natural and supernatural in this case fails because it keeps telling us it wants to be more.  There’s some flashy cinematic flourish but very low octane.

Jennifer Lawrence is game and endlessly watchable as always, which is a good thing because most of the time the camera is close on her increasingly panicked face. She plays the title character, who is created out of dust as the house comes together from a wreck of ashes.  “Baby?” she asks tentatively and searchingly as she gets out of bed to look for her husband/partner, played by Javier Bardem.  He is a poet, acclaimed but currently blocked.  She is his endlessly devoted helpmeet, always working to restore the house or present him with wholesome meals or just encourage him.  

Their peaceful life is disrupted when a doctor with a bad cough (Ed Harris) arrives, later joined by his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer, mesmerizing and terrifying), a couple who have some very serious boundary issues, to the point of being predatory.  Basically, they are the world’s worst and most annoying houseguests.  mother wants them to leave and cannot understand why poet would not check with her first. He seems unable to recognize how destructive they are.  He seems flattered by having them there.

Then the bad stuff begins to happen.  And then the really bad stuff begins to happen and keeps happening.  Writer/director Darren Aronofksy, who has explored themes of creativity and the line between passion and obsession in films like “Requiem for a Dream,” “The Fighter,” and “Black Swan” may be trying to reach for overarching Biblical concepts here (he also made “Noah”).  But with the arrestingly staged but horribly violent last act and it’s not-to-be-revealed ending, it communicates something more like a defensive argument in favor of the right of creators to abuse those around them.  Not true, whether it’s family members or people in the audience.

Parents should know that this film includes peril and violence, with murders of adults and a newborn infant, guns, fire, explosions, abuse, cannibalism, grisly and disturbing images, nudity, childbirth, brief very crude language, sexual references and explicit situations.

Family discussion: What does the ending signify?  Who do the couple represent?  What does the house represent?

If you like this, try: “Noah” from the same writer/director, “North Fork”

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