I suppose you can’t make too much of a Marvel-ous mountain out of an ant hill. Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man and the Wasp (C) is an exercise in low-stakes water treading, with a few clever miniaturization sight gags and funny throwaway jokes from Paul Rudd and Michael Peña to punctuate the perfunctory proceedings. Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lilly are a bore as the father-daughter scientist team in what becomes a primary subplot. Reed aims for casual cool with a protagonist who’s not particularly smart or engaged, and the director’s resultant product is a pretty disposable entry into this universe of superheroes. Average effects, villains and action sequences seal the fate of a film that peaks after the fanfare opening with some nifty ways the hero is filling time during house arrest. Any of them would have made more interesting activities than sitting through this ho-hum film.
As both writer and director of Incredibles 2 (A), Brad Bird’s mastery of the animated form is on display in delirious grandeur. Far surpassing his original film in wit, creativity and subtext, the auteur has delivered one of the most engaging films of the year. The retro comic book style provides a delightful backdrop for adventure and comedy, with an onslaught of fun flourishes appearing like cinematic confections from whiz!bam!pow! frame to frame. It’s a message movie in superhero disguise, of course, with much to say about gender and workplace, societal obsession with technological screens and protecting equal rights of individuals with unconventional origins. And the sequences with the super-baby discovering his new powers are comic gold. The film is fun from start to finish and showcase’s the filmmaker’s maturity and evolution. Hollywood will be hard-pressed to showcase a more satisfying sequel blockbuster this year.
It’s all shiplap and survival in Baltasar Kormákur’s romantic drama Adrift (C), but despite the game efforts of a spry Shailene Woodley and a fetching Sam Claflin in central performances, this castaway escapade doesn’t have anywhere to go. Mostly set aboard a damaged ship on the Pacific, the film cross-crosses between a central dramatic endurance challenge and flashbacks to the burgeoning love affair that took wind before everything gets swept into disaster. The real-life characters are underwritten and the filming pedestrian, sputtering with narrative navigation and propulsion issues. It’s not clear how the movie treads any new waters; but for fans of the indomitable sea and its rejuvenating spirit even in the face of adversity, this story has a few nice moments that surge out of the ordinary.
More than a salvage effort from a troubled production and much more entertaining than many will expect, Ron Howard’s Solo: A Star Wars Story (B+) is a breezy space western with enjoyable characters and adventures. The good news is that Alden Ehrenreich steps charismatically into the shoes of famed space smuggler Han Solo embroiled in some of his pivotal early adventures. The origins of his friendship with Chewbacca, an inside look into his and Lando’s (a blissful Donald Glover) gamesmanship over possession of the Millennium Falcon and even the notorious Kessel Run are some highlights. There are some surprising ties to other films in the saga plus some unexpected twists and turns that give this origin story a jolt or two. Practical action set pieces, a mysterious romance and dollops of droll humor make this a fun summer movie for hardcore fans and newcomers alike.
The novelty is gone but the jokes spring eternal in David Leitch’s sarcastic superhero sequel Deadpool 2 (B-). Ryan Reynolds is again charismatic but keeps company with some pretty average associates in this low-stakes installment. Encounters with some characters in the X-Men and X-Force orbit and stories about time travel, paternal instincts and doing hard time all mutate in a plot both threadbare and overstuffed. It’s vulgar, fun and watchable but a pale follow-up to its predecessor. The comedy is better than the action, and the whole meta enterprise was better the first time around. See if for the in-jokes and knowing nods to sequel-dom.
Review of the first Deadpool here.
Disney and Marvel pull off a friendly merger, a team retreat and a shocking spinoff in the perfectly adequate but unremarkable Avengers: Infinity War (C+) directed by Anthony and Joe Russo. The Avengers team of superheroes works with the Guardians of the Galaxy in an attempt to thwart baddie Thanos (a solid Josh Brolin under all those prosthetics) from amassing all the Infinity Stones. There’s fun banter of one-upmanship between Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and Chris Pratt’s Starlord and a solid running joke about Rocket Racoon’s species, but the plot and action sequences are a long uneven slog. Many characters are missing in action. We get far too little Black Panther, for instance. It all feels more like corporate synergy than sensational.
Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One (B-) includes several moments of such unmitigated bliss that it’s a shame the full picture has a sloppy aesthetic, a cluttered and overlong story and utterly one-dimensional characters. It’s such a pop culture bonanza that it sometimes feels more like an incidental Comic-Con documentary than an actual feature film with a plot we’re supposed to relish. The intrepid director has a recent track record of rallying in the final sequences (“Didn’t you have a great time?”) but it’s a long slog cribbing plot elements of Wizard of Oz, Willy Wonka, Tron and more to tell the futuristic story of a teen trying to unlock three clues in a virtual reality game to win a life-changing fortune against evil corporate raiders of their own lost arc. Tye Sheridan and Ben Mendelsohn are wasted in the roles of the central players, with only T.J. Miller and Olivia Cooke getting standout moments as a wry animated bounty hunter and a spry revolutionary, respectively. There’s a wall-to-wall sense of nostalgia that culminates in a horror movie homage that is by far the best sequence. Otherwise the CGI is ugly and overwhelming and the action hollow with an undeveloped emotional core. This film should have been a magical sensation, but its user experience needed a bit more polishing.
A nihilistic murder mystery posing in pretensions and occasional droll droplets of gallows humor, Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds (C-) neglects consistent character development in the service of a nifty premise. Olivia Cooke is a revelation as a young woman incapable of emotion, and she becomes the perfect partner in crime for a differently depressed rich teen (Anya Taylor-Joy, also good in her role) motivated to slay a wicked stepfather. The men in the film don’t stand a chance, especially Paul Sparks as the diabolical daddy who doesn’t get to do enough evil to justify the trouble. The late Anton Yelchin is charismatic in an underwritten role as a would-be third conspirator. The set-up is elegant, but ultimately the structure crumbles under the women’s feet while they continue to act the hell out of their parts. Like the central character, the film is not funny or absorbing enough to justify getting to know it.
Writer/director Alex Garland’s Annihilation (B) is largely an incredibly absorbing sci-fi thriller about an army of women who venture behind a quarantined force field to resolve the enigma of the atmospheric abnormality going on inside. Natalie Portman is solid as the former military biology professor with a secret who discovers many of the chilling mutations and mysteries within “the shimmer.” The story is often hypnotic and the effects impressive, but the movie runs into some final act troubles. Some of the key characters are also underwritten, and there are myriad missed opportunities to more clearly articulate the film’s thesis, involving our cellular imprint toward self-destruction. The film is still smarter than your standard issue adventure, and like Christopher Nolan’s similarly ambitious Interstellar also overextends its reach.
Writer/director Ryan Coogler’s entry into the Marvel franchise, Black Panther (B+), is a regal rouser with a superhero who also presides as monarch of a fictional secret African nation. Chadwick Boseman is dashing as the lead in the globetrotting film set largely in his high-tech palace city, but (like Thor) he’s often upstaged by a moody, Machiavellian villain, played with swagger by Coogler muse Michael B. Jordan. A supporting cast including Lupita Nyong’o, Daniel Kaluuya, Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker brings pluck to the proceedings, but the best actors in the bunch are Winston Duke as a reluctant warrior and Letitia Wright as the king’s Q-like kid sis. The film takes a while to accelerate into the throne room barn burner it becomes, but once it generates steam, there’s a deliciously delirious set of showdowns in Korean crime dens, atop waterfall cliffs, in battle meadows and aboard Tron-like light rail tunnels. It’s a vibrant adventure and a morally urgent political parable that delivers on a variety of levels.
Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, for a sensational three-ring outer space circus featuring amazing planets, phenomenal creatures, stunning acrobatics and very little believable plot or character development. Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (B) is basically Rian Johnson’s Galactic Exposition of 2017, in which the visionary sci-fi writer/director assembles an absolute cavalcade of activity while neglecting the delights the preceding film breathed into a trio of new central characters, a bratty villain and a spherical droid. During its bloated running time, Johnson introduces far-fetched new technologies and powers for his ensemble but requires most of them to tread water until what is expected to be the conclusion of this trilogy when J.J. Abrams retakes the reigns. This middle film’s marvels include a pretty casino planet and at least one intergalactic dogfight with pizzazz, lots of cotton candy for the soul. Misfires involve both old and new characters, who behave with perplexing lack of clarity and continuity; some are done no favors through long periods of separation. There’s a gas shortage that rivals the taxation disputes of the prequels in terms of dramatic inertia and at least one moment of sky walking that defies both gravity and belief. Laws of space and time, be damned! Even for this fantasy space opera, this one hits some bizarro notes. For all its fussy audacity, you may leave this funhouse a bit dizzy and more confused than you should feel for the ride.
A triumph of production design with a colorful supporting cast surrounding a bit of a hollow central storyline, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (B) reimagines The Creature from the Black Lagoon in 1960s Cold War Baltimore with Sally Hawkins as a mute janitor at a military science lab who falls for Doug Jones’ captive Amphibious Man. It’s a visually arresting and solidly rendered fairy tale for adults, but the quirky central couple doesn’t get to do much more than display the traits of their tropes in an update of archetypes. Hawkins is effective in the quirky lead role, but the juiciest parts are played by Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer as her wry sidekicks and Michael Shannon as a corrupt colonel with a penchant for popping pills from a grotesque gangrenous hand. His unhinged performance, marked by a myriad of deplorable traits, is one of the film’s most notable delights. Alexandre Desplat’s score, layered with stardust melodies from classic Hollywood, sets the mood gracefully for outcasts in love. Del Toro clearly has a singular vision for his monster romance, but the film suffers from tonal shifts as its final act revolves into a protracted waiting game. Ultimately this beauty is missing a few beats.