This Is a Movie Review: ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp’ Keeps It Cool for the Summer

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CREDIT: Disney/Marvel Films

This review was originally posted on News Cult in July 2018.

Starring: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Michael Peña, Walton Goggins, Abby Ryder Fortson, Bobby Cannavale, Judy Greer, Hannah John-Kamen, Laurence Fishburne, Tip “T.I.” Harris, David Dastmalchian, Michelle Pfeiffer, Randall Park

Director: Peyton Reed

Running Time: 118 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Large-Scale and Small-Scale Action Movie Destruction

Release Date: July 6, 2018

Ant-Man and the Wasp has left me feeling a lot more peaceful than other recent Marvel movies. I would it put about on the same quality level as Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok, but those blockbusters left me with nagging bits of emptiness, whereas Paul Rudd and company just give off good vibes. That is partly a function of my own expectations, but it is also a matter of how this franchise and its sub-franchises are promoted. The excursions to Wakanda and the garbage planet promised that they would be unprecedented game-changers. Whether or not they lived up to that hype, it is hard to match the buoyancy of their ad campaigns, and it takes effort for audiences to avoid every commercial. But with the original Ant-Man and now with The Wasp, you can just come in, be chill, and not have to worry about it being the best movie ever.

Director Peyton Reed and his team of five credited screenwriters (including Rudd) maintain those good vibes by allowing for some conflict, but avoiding true evil, and establishing that those who are at odds are ultimately really on the same team as each other. The main story thrust is the recovery of Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) from the “Quantum Realm,” a subatomic space where the normal laws of space and time do not apply. Her husband Hank (Michael Douglas) and daughter Janet, aka the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly), have the science skills to track her down, but they need the help of Ant-Man Scott Lang, as his previous venture into and escape from the Quantum Realm has allowed Janet to establish him as a point of contact. Standing in their way is a black market dealer (Walton Goggins), who sniffs out a big potential profit, but he does not have the killer instinct to tear them down. More serious are those who represent the skeletons in Hank’s closet, but their threat is neutralized by the ultimate realization that they can solve each other’s problems together.

A-M and the W has genuine, successful humor to match its laid-back style. The comedy in Marvel movies often has the cadence of a joke without actually being funny, but here there is a cast that is trained to find the laughter. Rudd obviously has more of a comedy background than any other Marvel headliner. Michael Peña delivers another round of his motor-mouthed, very detail-oriented storytelling. And the most delightful subplot features Fresh Off the Boat‘s Randall Park as a fastidious FBI agent hounding Scott while he remains under house arrest. If their jobs did not require them to be enemies, they would be friends for the ages.

It is certainly odd that Ant-Man and the Wasp arrives in the apocalyptic wake of Infinity War, but die-hard MCU fans will be happy to discover that the connective tissue is clear and satisfying. And those who are tired of every superhero movie being about the end of the world will be happy that that connectivity does not get in the way of everyone just having a good time.

Ant-Man and the Wasp is Recommended If You Like: The Marvel Cinematic Universe but with lower stakes

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Quantum Realms

This Is a Movie Review: The New ‘Tomb Raider’ is the Old Everything Else

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CREDIT: Ilzek Kitshoff/Warner Bros.

This review was originally posted on News Cult in March 2018.

Starring: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins, Daniel Wu, Kristin Scott Thomas

Director: Roar Uthaug

Running Time: 118 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Bloody Violence in Which the Camera Cuts Away Before You See the Worst of It, and Indiana Jones-Style Skin Decomposition

Release Date: March 16, 2018

The latest big screen version of Tomb Raider supposedly justifies its existence by positioning itself as Lara Croft’s origin story, but it could hardly be considered untold, as it is fundamentally derivative of every other entry in the globetrotting action-adventure genre. Even if you have not seen the Angelina Jolie TR films or never played any of the video games (like myself), chances are you will still feel like you have already seen this “new” one. This is basically a video game transferred to a different medium, but without actually adapting it into cinematic form. To wit, Alicia Vikander’s Lara spends most of her time solving puzzles (like arranging rocks to open a cave door) or jumping across platforms (like bouncing around all the boats in a crowded dock to escape some baddies). Again, the conclusion to be drawn is: you’ve seen this all before, better and elsewhere.

The mythology that kicks Tomb Raider’s plot into motion is fairly fascinating: Himiko, Queen of Yamatai, is said to have had power over life and death, with the ability to kill people just by touching them. Lara’s father Richard (Dominic West) has spent much of his life tracking her down. After disappearing for years during his search, he is presumed dead, and an absentee dad is only the first classic genre trope TR makes sure to give us. We also get the timeless purity-vs-profitability conflict, as naturally enough the villain is Richard’s rival archaeologist Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins), who only cares about getting rich off Himiko’s remains. Furthermore, the climax is essentially Indiana Jones-lite, with giant rolling rocks and unwise choices resulting in consequences akin to drinking from the wrong grail.

But despite all these shortcomings, I must accept that a fundamental aspect of my criticism (and all good criticism, I would argue) is identifying whether or not a film is exciting or boring. And on that score, Tomb Raider kept me engaged enough to feel like it was not a complete waste of time. Plus, it has a decently satisfying feminist bent, as any skin displayed by Lara primarily emphasizes Vikander’s athleticism, and at the moment when she thinks her father is being his most patronizing, he instead compliments her bravery. These are welcome elements, but they are mostly surface level. That shallowness prevents true terribleness, but it also leaves some uncomfortable implications less-than-fully unaddressed. Like, what is Mathias’ deal with wrangling up slave labor? There could have been an opportunity here for indelible villainy, but instead Tomb Raider plays it thoroughly safe.

Tomb Raider is Recommended If You Like: Every Indiana Jones knockoff, Watching someone else play a platform-jumping video game

Grade: 2.25 out of 5 Tank Tops

This Is a Movie Review: ‘The Death Cure’ Wraps Up the ‘Maze Runner’ Trilogy with High-Octane Action and Personal Battles of Class Warfare

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CREDIT: Joe Alblas/Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally posted on News Cult in January 2018.

Starring: Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Dexter Darden, Rosa Salazar, Giancarlo Esposito, Aidan Gillen, Ki Hong Lee, Will Poulter, Patricia Clarkson, Walton Goggins, Barry Pepper

Director: Wes Ball

Running Time: 142 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Zombie Makeup, a Few Puncture Wounds, and Some Explosions

Release Date: January 26, 2018

Readers, I must be upfront with you: The Death Cure is the only Maze Runner movie I have seen. I was not yet on a regular reviewing beat when the first two came out, but as the trilogy comes to its conclusion, the assignment has fallen to me. Now, I suppose I could have made time to get caught up on the first two, but I often contend that viewers can watch multi-chapter entertainment properties in whatever order they feel like. The Maze Runner franchise is probably not the best choice for doing so, as it is the type of film series that doesn’t waste any time playing catch-up for newbies. But I decided to experiment a bit and see if any enjoyment could be had amidst the confusion.

The good news is that The Death Cure’s spectacle is exciting and well-crafted enough to be enjoyed devoid of context. The opening action chase sequence of vehicles barreling towards a cliff plays like a postapocalyptic cross between the opening of Fast Five and the tank chase from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It is not as death-defying or as instantly iconic as its predecessors, but it sets itself apart enough to not be overly derivative. Director Wes Ball’s only three feature films thus far are the Maze Runner trilogy, but he has proven himself technically capable to fill in any openings that may exist in the action genre.

As for the story, I was generally able to fill in what must have happened in the first two enough to follow along, and it is not exactly what I was expecting. Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and his crew are dealing with the aftereffects of a virus that has infected most of the world’s population, leaving many zombified while those who are well-off wall themselves in the Last City. Thomas is one of a few who are immune, and he could be instrumental in developing a cure, but he does not exactly agree with the methods of those dedicating themselves to finding one. There is plenty to be gleaned here about the struggle between the 99% and the 1%, and I appreciate that that point is not underlined too hard.

It is also welcome that this series (or the conclusion of it anyway) is not too beholden to the stereotypical “chosen one” YA narrative. Sure, Thomas holds the key to saving humanity, but that fact is accidental, and it does not really have anything to do with what makes him a good leader. As for a (good) quality of this genre that The Death Cure does play into, there is its surplus of quality adult actors (Giancarlo Esposito, Patricia Clarkson, Walton Goggins, Barry Pepper) popping up in supporting roles.

Ultimately, The Death Cure is a bit too long. There is no need to flirt with two and a half hours when much of the last act involves one group chasing after another, and then that second group chasing after the first, moving along in a constant struggle to get to the last stand. But while it is a bit thick with narrative, it never lags. This is not particularly groundbreaking cinema, but it is also no cheap knockoff. It is unique enough and content enough to explore its own little world to make it worth a visit.

Maze Runner: The Death Cure is Recommended If You Like: The Hunger Games, I Am Legend, The Action Sequences of the Indiana Jones and Fast and Furious series

Grade: 3 out of 5 Infection Checks

2015 Emmy Nominations Predictions and Wishlist

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For my detailed thoughts on my predictions and wishlists in the major Drama, Comedy, and Variety categories, check out these links:
Comedy
Drama
Variety

Guest Actor, Comedy
John Hawkes, Inside Amy Schumer
Michael Rapaport, Louie
Chris Gethard, Parks and Recreation
Dwayne Johnson, Saturday Night Live

Guest Actress, Comedy
Susie Essman, Broad City

Guest Actor, Drama
Mel Rodriguez, Better Call Saul

Guest Actress, Drama
Allison Janney, Masters of Sex
Linda Lavin, The Good Wife

Directing, Comedy
Rob Schrab, “Modern Espionage,” Community

Directing, Drama
Adam Arkin, “The Promise,” Justified

Writing, Comedy
Dan Harmon and Chris McKenna, “Emotional Consequences of Broadcast Television,” Community

Writng, Drama
Thomas Schnauz, “Pimento,” Better Call Saul

Animated Program
Bojack Horseman – “Downer Ending”
American Dad! – “Dreaming of a White Porsche Christmas”
The Simpsons – “Treehouse of Horror XXV”

Commercial
Android – “Friends Furever”

Host – Reality/Reality Competition
RuPaul, “RuPaul’s Drag Race”

Interactive Program
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

Main Title Design
Man Seeking Woman

Single-Camera Picture Editing, Comedy
Bojack Horseman – “Downer Ending”

Short-Format Live-Action Entertainment Program
Too Many Cooks
Billy On The Street With First Lady Michelle Obama, Big Bird And Elena!!!

Stunt Coordination for a Comedy Series or a Variety Program
Community

Special Visual Effects in a Supporting Role
Man Seeking Woman – “Traib”