Movie Review: Ant-Man and the Wasp

What a difference three years makes. Ant-Man and the Wasp, directed by Peyton Reed (Ant-Man, The Yes Man), is less substantial than 2015’s wispy Ant-Man (which might not have seemed possible). Indeed, this poorly written and acted perceptual-level assault is worse than this year’s painfully mediocre Black Panther and overwrought Avengers: Infinity War. These Marvel Studios pictures, which began about ten years ago with cleverly blended action and humor, are getting dumber and dumber.

Ant-Man 2 is among Marvel’s worst pictures. The nonstop eye strain picks up after the fleeting and forgettable Ant-Man and spring’s Avengers film with virtually no attempt to distinguish its own plot line. It made me think that Marvel’s planning a theatrical release marathon of Marvel Studios movies to run in one, long continuous loop for what might be considered subliminal propaganda to accelerate the rate at which today’s population mentally checks out. I know that today’s audiences (including some of my readers) fixate on these pictures as a kind of escapism, which I do not think they provide (and, in today’s pre-ordained movie industry, I predict Black Panther has a lock on Oscar’s Best Picture). So, for disclosure, I can barely tolerate these incoherent movies anymore on even the most superficial level. And this writer generally praised most of them. I even recommended snarky Deadpool.

But, from the start, this movie rots. Precocious children, lines about quantum this or that, stars that look much older than they’re apparently supposed to be — Ant-Man and the Wasp slams the audience with sensory data and lame jokes and never lets up. The title character makes origami and bounces a Superball while going stir crazy under police surveillance. This after a stale flashback pops up. Then, for the next couple of hours, you’re expected to dart from fragment to fragment of instantaneously upsized, downsized and disappearing buildings, cars and objects while keeping track of an incoherent mission. If this is your idea of downtime, it wouldn’t surprise me if you’re also sleep-deprived. Ant-Man 2 is suited for a dumbed down culture in which one is chronically going from app to app, fixating on screens and going dim, stoned or blank.

It’s so bad that when one character, a college professor, looks out at his audience and says he notices an “unusually high number of glazed eyes out there”, it struck me as the most relevant Marvel Studios movie wink — oh, pardon me, “easter egg” — ever planted. From the line that “the sizing coils are malfunctioning” to an unintentionally humorous and utterly, overly obvious line during the extremely dull climax that “it’s me”, the subatomic-molecular themed Ant-Man and the Wasp is so thin, fast and asinine that it defies description. At one point, there’s another Marvel mind meld, which is awfully convenient for the characters involved and makes no sense at all.

Add to this endless car chases while cars change sizes, often for no apparent reason, yet no one driver thinks to shrink, slow down and pull over to jettison from the chase. Not once. Policemen are either dolts or corrupt dolts. Villains are not wrong, bad or villainous. Ant-Man (Rudd) talks and acts like he’s in Animal House (so does everyone else) making him seem more inept than adorable this time. If you worship whim and today’s dumbed down culture in which dialogue is reduced to fragments of phrases and you wish everything was like one, big video game experience, tuh-bee-awnuss (translation: tbh) you will go absolutely apeshit over Marvel’s new Ant-Man movie and its trippy, Dionysian, Bay Area blend of computer generated anarchy.

Look for lots of product placement, for every brand from the city of San Francisco and Dell Computers to Mercedes-Benz and the Pez dispenser. The cast includes Michael Pena (Collateral Beauty, Lions for Lambs, Spotlight), a fine actor who is wasted in a role as a moron, Laurence Fishburne (Blackish, Boyz N The Hood), Evangeline Lilly (The Hurt Locker), Michelle Pfeiffer (New Year’s Eve, Hairspray, Murder on the Orient Express), Michael Douglas (Disclosure, Falling Down, Streets of San Francisco) and Paul Rudd (Ant-Man, The Cider House Rules) in the title role. Looking like what used to be known as a goth chick, with matching sneer and bad attitude, Hannah John-Kamen (Game of Thrones, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) appears as a ghost in the machine who messes with everything. But of course, to no effect. Indeed, Hannah’s ghost is an ideal mascot for this vaporous movie.

Reviews: ‘A Star is Born’

This year’s forthcoming new version of A Star is Born, judging by the trailer, appeals to me for various reasons.

First, it’s based on a great story first created, written and dramatized in motion pictures by William Wellman (Wings). Second, its leading man and director, Bradley Cooper (New Year’s Eve, Silver Linings Playbook, Aloha), strikes me as a potentially great actor and movie star; he delivered one of the most remarkable screen performances in 2014’s best movie, Clint Eastwood’s outstanding American Sniper, and he demonstrates skill in choosing movies with strong themes about man as essentially self-made, which could prove to be crucial in the new adaptation’s success. Third, the new movie co-stars the pop music singer known as Lady Gaga as the leading lady. Like Gaga’s predecessors in the role of the main female character, Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand, this woman is extremely talented, as she’s proven time and again with her songwriting and musical performances, which have also been controversial. Apparently, Gaga has written at least some of the new movie’s songs. Gaga and Cooper come packed with talent and look like a good screen couple.

The theme for A Star is Born is both universal and newly relevant. I had never seen any of the movie versions, though I’d caught parts of the Judy Garland film, which I think is chiefly how the pictures are known and remembered, and I did not have any desire to see them for a long time. This spring, I attended a film festival and I noticed that the original picture was directed by Wellman, whose movies are generally very good and whose silent Wings is breathtaking. So, I was newly motivated to see his original version, which I came to understand was, like Wings, co-created by William Wellman. I attended the festival screening at Sid Grauman’s Egyptian movie palace and saw the original A Star is Born for the first time. I was astonished at its quality. I was deeply moved by its depiction of a fading movie star’s intersection with a starlet whom he discovers, coaches and loves (read my review of the 1937 movie here).

Self-interest drives A Star is Born. Recent movies, such as 2012’s best film, The Artist, and 2016’s best film, La La Land, also put the pursuit of happiness in show business at the center of the story. They both recall the original’s splendor, romanticism and glamor, yet also integrate life’s anguish, realism and hardship. In this sense, because it depicts (or attempts to depict) redemption in the wake of an epic downfall, the central theme of A Star is Born radiates. Strictly speaking of the original, thanks to the performance of its leading man, Frederic March, as Norman Maine, it accomplishes this effect with a graceful balance of logic and clarity. The film’s final conflict resolution hinges this balance on an unforgettable act of free will. The result is cautionary, poignant and, ultimately, resilient. In other words, it’s what civilization needs now.

Wellman brought this passionate contrast of agony and ecstasy to his similarly heart-wrenching Wings. Subsequent Star is Born remakes, however, fail to recapture the 1937 movie’s transcendent vigor. They do so by failing to appreciate the original’s delicate and vulnerable portrayal of movie star Norman Maine. Both remakes recast the female star as the focal point (they also recast her as a musical, not a dramatic, star, which permits each remake to showcase the talents of its leading ladies). But what imbues the movies’ title with meaning is that the birthing comes as a byproduct of a union. The 1954 adaptation relies too heavily on its overburdened star, Judy Garland (read my review here). The 1976 version also overplays its leading lady, Barbra Streisand (read my review here). Both do so at the expense of the male character, whose complexity is critical to closing the successful climactic arc.

This is why I wish Bradley Cooper success with his new version, set to debut in movie theaters this fall. This delicate, romantic story of idealism, despair and rebirth comes in an ominous and I think potentially cataclysmic time of alienation, disintegration and loss of privacy, rights, rational discourse, unity and sanctity of life. What makes A Star is Born so penetrating a portrait is its multiple layers of psychologically complex and interesting artists who love life. See the helplessness of the one whom everyone assumes has all the power and privilege in the world. Watch what happens to the one upon whom everyone confers sympathy, adulation and praise. Let the bliss of romance cast its glow over the industry that promises to elevate the best to light up the world, yet observe that, if maligned and ignored, the best when it’s sinking and needs life support can be crushed — and think about the role of the collective and the supremacy of the one.

A Star is Born 2018,  if it recreates, preserves and protects why A Star is Born 1937 urges the audience to worship man at his best, especially when it means tending to him at his temporary worst, can fire up a torch in this spiraling, darkening world.

Referenced Links

The 40-Year-Old Movie

Next week marks 40 years since Paramount Pictures released one of its best movies, director Warren Beatty’s life-affirming Heaven Can Wait, which I’ve reviewed and examined here. I saw this romantic comedy during its early release, shortly after I’d seen Paramount’s other huge 1978 hit, Grease.

Whereas Grease gave me a welcome pre-teen glimpse of sex, raunch and fun, Heaven Can Wait‘s legacy was more indelible and enduring. I hadn’t seen Julie Christie as Lara in David Lean’s magnificent Doctor Zhivago. I hadn’t seen heartthrob Warren Beatty in anything. I had watched professional football on TV. Strangely, this is what paved the way for my predisposition to this wonderful and delightful film.

You see, in this movie, which is co-written with Mr. Beatty by the intelligent and enormously talented Elaine May, who was partnered for a time with the late Mike Nichols, Warren Beatty portrays a quarterback. This small plot detail proves to be pivotal to achieving the film’s blend of poignant, intimate romanticism and realistic humor with perfectly pressurized bite.

Until the year of release, and much more so since then, the football player was depicted as a mindless brute, a piece of meat, a gladiator in the Roman Empire for the mindless (even idiotic) masses. He might’ve been human (The Longest Yard) but he was hardly respectable and barely coherent, according to most major Hollywood fare.

Mr. Beatty had had some experience with this type of role in another, earlier breathtaking picture about romance, Elia Kazan’s marvelous tragedy Splendor in the Grass, a picture which earned Warren Beatty his first serious attention, a fact for which Mr. Beatty repaid Mr. Kazan with his loyalty during the major Hollywood assault on Elia Kazan (for being an anti-Communist) early in this century.

In Heaven Can Wait, the pigskin-playing athlete, however, is an individualist, not merely a cog in the wheel of dumb jocks. So is the woman with whom he falls in love and so is his best friend, who’s really his only friend. Not merely the individualist, Warren Beatty’s quarterback has an independent, rational mind, which he uses to pursue a single-minded virtue of selfishness (and look for a nod to the fountainhead of this radical ethics). It’s a light, warm movie about life, death and what makes heaven, which drills into the soul with a sense of peace, loss, loneliness, humor and eternal love.

All of this starts with a disarming title. Read my article on The New Romanticist here. Before you do, know that this Seventies movie imbued in me the knowledge that lightness, romanticism and a brush stroke of the ideal is possible in movies.

Three Summer Movies

Buy the Movie

One of my favorite summer movie experiences was seeing Grease when I was a kid in 1978. I think the Paramount film was my first major theatrical motion picture musical. I’d seen movie musicals on television. But Grease, which cast two major 1970s stars, a pop star whose songs I enjoyed on radio and a TV sitcom star, unleashed its sexual energy in a lush, bright but somewhat raunchy, colorful movie musical. It was extremely entertaining and not merely in a frivolous or mindless way. I write about why in a new, in-depth analysis of the 40-year-old film (read the article here).

Besides spring’s Love, Simon, which is still the year’s best movie I’ve seen, documentary filmmaker Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor? merits 2018’s best movie consideration. The film impresses with an intelligent and poignant approach to its subject, the late Pittsburgh children’s television host Fred Rogers. His family and associates grant the moviemaker unprecedented access in what amounts to a timely, relevant and important, not flawless, non-fictional movie. Read my extensive new review of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? here.

Pixar’s satisfactory sequel, The Incredibles 2, also entertains, if by a lower standard than the forementioned movie. With a brief appearance by the designer character Edna Mode, who’s a kind of Q from the James Bond pictures in terms of gearing up the superhero, a role reversal and a subtle dig at Hollywood’s dogma du jour, this mostly manic, action-packed followup to a hit movie released 14 years ago fits the bill. Read my thoughts on The Incredibles 2, which opens this weekend, here.

The Women’s Movies

Though watching The Post felt like I was seeing the first major motion picture affected by the Me, Too pop-mob hysteria, Ocean’s 8 is a top contender for the first major movie to either be made with Me, Too favorably in mind or the movement’s looming threats affecting its outcome. The Warner Bros. movie, directed by Gary Ross with an all-female leading ensemble cast, puts in its lead a conniving criminal (Sandra Bullock) that’s one half of a lesbian couple. Together, they assemble an all-female team of criminals that glamorize woman as criminal more than any movie since Sharon Stone’s Basic Instinct killer lesbianism in the 1990s.

But it’s Ms. Bullock’s thief leading the way toward revenge against the man who snitched on her, so even though she’s a convicted criminal, she’s supposed to be regarded as a victim. Of course, women banding together to get back at men has a ring to it. Classic Hollywood pictures from Jean Harlow in Red-Headed Woman to versions of The Women and, eventually, Ridley Scott’s post-feminist road picture Thelma and Louise share certain qualities with the bland, derivative Ocean’s 8.

Women’s pictures, like women’s sections in newspapers, used to relegate women to catty, calculating and hair-pulling stereotypes, though actresses such as Harlow, Stanwyck and, especially in early films, Joan Crawford, elevated the scripts. All-female bands and wronged woman types were often depicted as fallen, tragic figures. This type of depiction started to change with Westerns, film noir and movies such as The Fountainhead, On the Waterfront and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore as well as later, lighter fare such as Working Girl by Mike Nichols. Female characters in these pictures were interesting, different and distinct from previous characterizations. They tended to be highly independent, self-reliant and individualistic; they were complicated. Consider Silkwood (also by Mike Nichols) with its power plant band of unique individuals who were working women, the women in the village of Chocolat, or in the fields of Twister. Around this time, Mr. Scott’s explicitly feminist film, the seminal Thelma and Louise, depicted woman as victim, as doomed victim. In a way, the stereotype of woman as predatory resurged but they often accomplished or stood for nothing. For a while in the Nineties, it seemed like many major female film characters were predetermined to sacrifice themselves or become irrevocably damaged.

Ocean’s 8 glams up the feminism and magnifies the nihilism. And it comes with this downward sensibility that men are mostly, inherently bad unless used for their bodies, muscles and brute strength. Women, conversely, are both perpetually persecuted and inherently superior. According to this view, the sex difference lies in knowing how to subjugate men to women. Read my full review of Ocean’s 8, which opens in movie theaters this week, here.