Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse(12/30/2018)

2018 was generally a pretty bad year for humanity, but it was a pretty good year for one fictional character: Spider-Man.  The character was going strong coming off of his successful Marvel Cinematic Universe debut in last year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming and also played a prominent role in this year’s Avengers: Infinity War.  On top of that he had a hit video game come out for the Playstation 4, which was a huge seller and one of the most acclaimed superhero games since the end of the Batman: Arkham series. Hell, even the dude’s villains are now getting majorly successful movies made about them.  With all that web-slinger content to go through I must say I wasn’t exactly doing much to anticipate Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, an animated feature film that Sony was planning to release late in the year almost as an afterthought separate from all the other Spider-Man related releases they were cranking out.  Was it based on some Saturday Morning cartoon I wasn’t familiar with?  Was it going to be something that was strictly for kids?  Was it going to be more like the dozens of animated movies that DC puts out for whoever it is buys those things?  Well to my surprise it’s being treated as something more substantial than all those things, in fact among critics it’s become one of the more universally liked animated movies of the year and something I probably couldn’t just ignore.

This Spider-Man film is set in an alternate universe from the one we’re used to seeing Spider-Man in.  In it Peter Parker (Chris Pine) is a blond guy who has been fighting the good fight as Spider-Man for many years and is pretty widely accepted as a superhero, but this film isn’t told from his perspective.  Instead it’s told from the perspective of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a middle school student who’s recently been accepted to a top end charter school but who feels stifled by his parents’ expectations.  One day his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) takes him to a hidden subway where he is (for reasons unexplained) bitten by a radioactive spider.  Soon he begins to obtain Spider-Man like powers that he doesn’t know how to control, and he’ll need them because shortly afterward he stumbles upon a giant particle collider that The Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) has built while Spider-Man is trying to take it down.  Spider-Man does damage it but is injured in the process.  He warns Morales that this collider could cause a full on apocalypse and gives Morales a USB drive that can be used to bring it down for good.  Unfortunately Spider-Man is found by The Kingpin and unable to help, Morales watches as Spider-Man is killed.  Morales escapes, but feels ill-equipped to finish what Spider-Man started, that is until he realizes that this collider has opened up some sort of inter-dimensional rift and he meets another alternate version of Spider-Man, and another, and another.

This highlight of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is almost certainly its screenplay by Phil Lord (of Lord and Miller fame) and Rodney Rothman.  In it they do a pretty good job of doing a new take on Spider-Man that feels quite distinct from the many other iterations of the character without feeling like it was trying to tear those versions down in any way.  The film also does a good job of having a rather sarcastic wit without constantly feeling more snarky and self-referential than it needed to.  I especially liked the creation of Peter B. Parker, an alternate universe Spider-Man voiced by Jake Johnson, who appears to be a perfectly competent superhero despite sort of being a fuck-up whose personal life is a mess and who just sort of “wings it” while out on missions rather than meticulously planning everything.  I love the way the film manages to pretty much mock this guy while still making him very clearly a hero in all the ways that count.  The film also does a good job of getting kind of serious when it needs to and prioritizing Morales’ character arc over gags.

So there’s a very solid stand-alone Spider-Man story here to work with, but I found the way that it was executed to be a bit… all over the place.  In particular I found the animation style they landed on to be quite the mixed bag.  Now before I get too deep into this I do want to say that I’m glad the people making this did at least try to use a somewhat experimental animation style for this relatively high profile film.  That kind risk taking is necessary and that kind of variety is necessary in the film landscape.  That having been said, I think what mars the look of this film is that it kind of has a whole lot of ideas and never really settles on a specific set of them.  It’s over-riding goal is seemingly to take on something of the look of a silver-age comic book but it also doesn’t want to go all the way and use traditional animation so it instead takes the form of a CGI animated film but one that uses cel-shading, kind of like a Telltale game.  The result really doesn’t look that much like a vintage comic book to me so I’m not sure why they still bothered with certain filters to try and give it that four color look.  Occasionally the film will use some overt comic book techniques like word bubbles and panel divides, but it never really commits to this and or consistently uses it as part of its film language.

On the positive side, the film does have its characters move in a way that feels unique and it also has a bit more of a sense of depth within the frame, and almost gives the illusion of the film being a work stop-motion at times, which is interesting.  I will also say that the film does a very good job of blending in the divergent styles of some of the alternate universe Spider-people and making them all cohere on screen, which was probably an even harder task than it appeared given that a couple of the characters really take on the features of traditional animation in ways that most of the film doesn’t.   On the less positive side, while this is still a movie that was made for $90 million dollars that’s still kind of low budget for a feature length animated movie like this (by comparison The Incredibles 2 cost more than twice as much), and at times that budget does show.  Certain elements of the movie like the cityscapes and the backgrounds during a scene set in a forest seem to really use their stylization to conceal corners that are being cut and certain elements just look kind of unfinished.  I must also say that for all of the film’s success in designing the alternate universe spider-people I think the film really dropped the ball in their designs for some of its villains.  The Kingpin just looks silly with his insanely large bulk combined with a sort of hump on his back, when the Green Goblin is briefly present he looks like an indistinct snarling monster, The Prowler almost seems to be hard to see on screen at times, and their makeover of The Scorpion just looks plain ridiculous.

That’s not to say I dislike the movie because of any of this.  Again, the writing in it is very strong and despite my misgivings the animation does have some things going for it.  The movie is certainly a whole lot better than it needed to be given that it looked like something of a weird side-project by Sony Pictures to exploit the one franchise they have that still seems to be working for them.  All that said I think I am a bit less into this movie than some people are, in part because I’m sort of part of a second wave of people who went to see it.  Unlike the first round of critics who were blindsided by it, I was going into it with higher expectations because of the hype and that probably made its shortcomings stand out a little more to me.

***1/2 out of Five

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Shoplifters(12/22/2018)

With the world being as big as it is movie opinions are legion.  Anyone can have opinions about any movie, but generally speaking consensuses exist for a reason.  That is especially true for opinions about which works in a given filmmaker’s filmography is considered their major works.  For example, if your favorite Alfred Hitchcock movie is Vertigo, Psycho, Rear Window absolutely no one would be surprised. If you’re favorite is more of a deep cut like Notorious, Strangers on a Train, or Shadow of a Doubt it might seem like a unique pick but it would more or less be understood.  Meanwhile if you said your favorite was something like Spellbound or Marnie people might think you’re being a bit of a contrarian to get attention and if you say your favorite is Topaz or Under Capricorn people will rightly say you’re just trolling.  I bring all this up because my opinions about the Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda have been a bit… unconventional.  His most famous film up to this point was almost certainly his 2013 film Like Father, Like Son, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes and was almost remade by Steven Spielberg.  I thought that movie was… alright.  It was fairly well done but I never really bought into the premise and it never really took off for me.  I genuinely preferred last year’s After the Storm, a movie that was respected but which did nothing at Cannes before it came and went from theaters.  But the Kore-eda movie that really spoke to me was his 2015 (2016 Stateside) film Our Little Sister, which was another movie that no one was talking about coming out of Cannes but which I found to be this really engrossing look at the lives of it’s fairly ordinary characters.  I say all this because Kore-eda’s newest film is already plainly his most acclaimed, the Palme d’Or winning effort Shoplifters, and that might just be a chance for me to finally match with public opinion on a Kore-eda film.

Shoplifters is set in Tokyo and focuses in on a strange little makeshift family being run by a patriarch named Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky) who makes a career of training the younger members of the “family” like a little boy named Shota Shibata (Kairi Jō) to shoplift items from grocery stores.  Other people living in the house include his wife (girlfriend?) Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), a younger woman named Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) who works as a stripper, and an elderly woman named Hatsue (Kirin Kiki) who is collecting a pension from her dead husband.  These hustlers seem to be making their unconventional lifestyles work until one day they come across a little girl named Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), who has been left out in the cold while her abusive parents fight with each other inside.  They decide to bring Yuri back to their place for the night rather than leave her there, and after some consideration they decide not to return her at all and incorporate her into the “gang” rather return her to her awful parents.

I’m sure this is mostly a quirk of what media I tend to consume but generally speaking I don’t see a lot of depictions of social strife in the modern Japanese nation.  It just seems like a country that is not very interested in airing its dirty laundry, so seeing movies like this about the people who do not hold a very high place that society is always kind of interesting.  This film in particular manages to assemble a pretty interesting cast of characters each with fairly distinct personalities and connections.  Osamu Shibata is a bit of a standout and feels like a bit of an extension of the protagonist of After the Storm, who was also a guy of about the same age and with a similarly questionable outlook on life and his relationship with Shota had shades of the questions of familial bonds explored in Like Father, Like Son.  The morality of what is essentially a kidnapping is also explored, about whether these people have a right to just put together a family based on what everyone wants and if such an arrangement deserves to continue.  The movie doesn’t endorse this lifestyle, in fact it pretty much dismantles a lot of the ideas underpinning it, but it never loses track of the feelings of the people involved and views them as legitimate.

That said, the movie never quite connected with me the way it seemed to connect to the Cannes jury, and that’s partly because a couple other pieces of 2018 kind of beat the movie to the punch for me.  The first of these was Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, which also looked at a family that’s living at the fringes of society and the morality of a parent forcing a child into an unconventional and technically criminal lifestyle and how a government can respond to that.  The other thing it reminded me of was, of all things, the video game “Red Dead Redemption II.”  Might seem like a crazy comparison and obviously that game is a much more violent and grandiose take on this sort of thing, but both have stories that focus on a gang of sorts that are trying to get by through various hustles and are bonded by a sort of blind loyalty to a charismatic leader even though their way of life is inevitably going to fall apart because of the mistakes they’ve made.  The stories parallel each other in ways that are kind of crazy considering how much they diverge in setting and format… or maybe they don’t and I’m making too much of this because I have a damn videogame on the brain.  Either way I think it maybe does say something that I allowed myself to be distracted by these comparisons rather than becoming immersed in Kore-eda’s world like I have for some of his other films.

Of course which movies you like the best is, more often than we like to admit, something of a reflection of the mood you happen to be in when you watch them and I feel like that’s especially true of movies by people like Kore-eda that really require you to make a connection with the characters.  I saw Our Little Sister in a September after a long summer movie season and with no real expectations while I saw Shoplifters in the middle of the prestige movie season and with much higher expectations given its critical acclaim and Cannes triumph.  Alternatively, it might just be that I have an easier time relating in some odd way to a movie like Our Little Sister which is ultimately about a bunch of young adults trying to find their place in life than a movie like Shoplifters which is ultimately about the bond between a parent and child.  Either way I’d say my choice of favorite Kore-eda film has not been usurped, but just the same I do get why this is the one that has gotten the extra attention and festival clout.  It’s the movie that has more of a story hook to it and a bit more of statement to make about society at large.  I certainly liked the movie, there’s nothing about it to dislike really but I went into it chasing that high that the previous movie provided and I didn’t quite get it.

***1/2 out of Five

Suspiria(11/3/2018)

The fall of 2018 has been notable for a lot of reasons to a lot of people.  One of the things it might be remembered for a bit less than others is that it was the year when two remakes/reboots of classic horror movies from the late 70s went head to head against each other.  One, Halloween (2018) was a remake of an American slasher classic that had become a household name after several sequels and numerous imitators.  That reboot (technically sequel) was made with the backing of horror super producer Jason Blum and has now made more a hundred and fifty million dollars at the box office.   The other film I’m thinking of is a bit of a different beast.  That film would be the movie Suspiria, a remake of the 1977 Italian film of the same name.  The original Suspiria is very well known among horror aficionados but to most average movie goers it’s a pretty deep cut and even if it was more well-known I’m not sure that Luca Guadagnino’s new interpretation of it is probably not made for the masses, which is probably part of why it’s looking like it will leave theaters without so much as making two million dollars.  For film/horror fans Guadagino’s film may be the bigger must-see of the two films given that it’s coming hot off the heels of Guadagino’s Call Me By Your Name and it seems to be doing some pretty radical and interesting things with Dario Argento’s original film.

Like Argento’s original film this remake is set in West Germany in 1977 and focuses in on an American teenager named Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) who has been accepted into a prestigious German ballet academy called the Markos Dance Academy.  As she arrives the school is in a bit of tumult because of the disappearance of a student named Patricia Hingle (Chloë Grace Moretz).  As an audience we know a bit more about Hingle than Bannion does as we saw her confiding to her psychologist Josef Klemperer (played by Tilda Swinton in heavy makeup) prior to her disappearance that she has seen a whole lot of really strange things happening at this academy.  Bannion, oblivious to all this, begins trying to impress her teacher Madame Blanc (also Tilda Swinton).  Meanwhile, she meets other students named Olga Ivanova (Elena Fokina) and Sara Simms (Mia Goth) who are suspicious about what happened to Hingle and begin looking into their teachers who we increasingly come to realize are part of a coven of witches that are in the midst of some sort of internal power struggle that their unsuspecting students are in the middle of.

When you think of the original Suspiria the first thing that will come to just about anyone’s mind is Luciano Tovoli’s gorgeous cinematography, which used a very wide frame and some rather extreme colored lighting to create a sort of dream like (or rather nightmare like) vision.  For his remake Guadagino has opted not to even try to match that look and has instead gone for more naturalistic cinematography.  He also isn’t using Goblin’s famous score and has instead tapped Radiohead’s Thom Yorke to do a distinctly different though certainly interesting in its own right score.  So we basically have a remake of a movie that is largely known for the way it looks and sounds which doesn’t retain either the look or the sound.  Instead the main thing the movie seems to retain is actually the story and concept, which is a pretty bold choice given that the script was easily the weakest element of that original film… or from another perspective it was the element most in need of improvement.

The plot of the new Suspiria is told in a more straightforward way than that of the original, which was rife with strange character motivations and at times felt like little more than an excuse to show people being murdered in elaborate ways, but it adds to the mix a certain amount of its own brand of convolution.  While watching it I found myself a bit lost as there are a lot of characters here and a lot of names that you need to attach faces to.  By the film’s finale I was pretty actively confused by what was going on in the plot, though reading the film’s summary on Wikipedia after the fact did clarify a few things.  I also found that some of the thematic additions that Guadagino added did not really add up.  Guadagino for example seems to be way more interested in the fact that this story is set in Germany than Argento was.  Guadagino goes to great lengths to point out that the film’s events were happening at the same time as the “German Autumn” in which the Baader-Meinhof group had hijacked a plane resulting in a great deal of political tumult and the film also deals with the German generational guilt over the events of the second world war through the Klemperer character… which is all plenty interesting but I haven’t the slightest clue how any of it really ties into the film’s main plot about a witches coven killing running a demonic ballet school.  In fact I’m not terribly clear why the Klemperer character is in the movie at all.  He ultimately has basically no effect on the plot and I haven’t the slightest clue why it was decided to have him be played by Tilda Swinton.

So, this new Suspiria is a rather curious piece of work.  Few people who are unfamiliar with the original movie will find themselves interested in this one, and it’s also so different from that movie that it may very well also alienate the hardcore Argento fans.  It also manages to be a too gory for the arthouse crowd and too artsy for the grindhouse crowd.  So there’s already a pretty limited audience for the thing, and even someone like me who sort of fits into that small audience still found myself kind of confounded by a lot of it so it’s sort of apparent why this thing is more or less tanking at the box office.  And yet, there’s a certain something to it.  It’s various ambitions and over-reaches make it kind of fascinating and there are certain elements of the production that are kind of amazing.  Swinton certainly does some impressive work in her triple role and if there’s any justice the movie will earn itself at least a nomination for best makeup effects at the Academy Awards.  It’s also got some really well staged set pieces like a dance/murder scene early in the film and its gory finale is an amazing piece of filmmaking even though I kind of didn’t understand what the hell was going on.  I can see this thing getting a bit of a devoted cult following in the years to come and I may well warm up to it myself over time, but for now I’m not quite ready to commit to any sort of strong support for it.

***1/2 out of Five

Widows(10/20/2018)

Going “three for three” as a filmmaker, meaning the making of three straight films that are considered to be really important works as a filmmaker, is never easy.  Debut films are often too small to reach a filmmaker’s full potential, and when filmmakers do manage to hit the ground running they’ll often hit a sophomore slump, and when they do manage to make two straight triumphs they’ll all too often stumble on the third.  One of the few filmmakers who have managed to avoid those pitfalls recently has been the English filmmaker Steve McQueen (not to be confused with the actor).  McQueen’s debut film, the IRA prison movie Hunger, was an amazing debut that instantly established him as a major talent.  It didn’t get the degree of attention it deserved upon release but people in the know caught onto it quickly and it also made something of a star out of Michael Fassbender.  His collaboration with Fassbender would continue with his American debut, Shame, a searing drama about sex addiction that has become a bit divisive with some critics but which was undoubtedly very well made.  His profile then took a giant leap with his next film, the Academy Award winning 12 Years a Slave.  The importance of that movie largely speaks for itself but a movie like that isn’t always the easiest act to follow and in the five years since its release many have wondered what he’s been up to.  As it turns out his new plan was to go in a different direction for his fourth film and make a film that has social relevance but a lighter approach called Widows.

The film is set in Chicago and focuses on a woman named Veronica Rawlins (Viola Davis), whose husband Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson) has just been killed in a botched robbery attempt.  Veronica had long looked the other way while her husband acquired wealth for decades through large scale heists and built a life of relative luxury for her.  Shortly after Harry’s death Veronica is visited by a man named Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) who’s currently running to be an alderman in Ward 18 against a guy named Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the son of an old school and corrupt Chicago politician named Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall).  Unfortunately for Veronica this aspiring politician is living a double life as the leader of a violent street gang and apparently he’s the one who Harry was robbing when he was killed in a fiery explosion destroying the loot and he’s demanding that she repay him one way or another.  Fortunately for her she does have access to Harry’s notebook, which has his plans for one final score written in it.  Not trusting any of Chicago’s other career criminals she decides to instead contact Linda Perelli (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice Gunnar (Elizabeth Debicki), the widows of two of the other people who died along with Harry to enlist them to do this final heist along with her.

Clearly this movie is operating off of a bit of a high concept and from the basic description of the film I had expected these widows’ motives to be a bit more vengeful but as it turns out all three of the main widows had rather complicated relationships to their respective husbands.  In the case of the Elizabeth Debicki character her husband is quickly established to have been physically abusive, in the case of Michelle Rodriguezs character her husband was a bit of a deadbeat who gambled away a lot of the couple’s money, and over the course of several flashbacks we learn that the Viola Davis character’s husband had his dark side as well.  Instead the movie focuses on these women finding their own independence in their new lives, especially the Debicki character who had once been something of a doormat but who is now kind of taking her first steps onto the dry land in standing up for herself.  The Michelle Rodriguez character’s arc is a little less clear, but the fact that she’s the only of the three with children does give her the extra dimention of having to find babysitters while she shows up to heist meetings is interesting.  Of course the Davis character’s plan to have these widows take part in this heist is a bit odd.  Neither she nor her accomplices are hardened criminals with any real experience in the caper business, but the movie doesn’t really emphasize or make a lot of comedy out of the fact that these are supposed to essentially be amateurs playing with guns.  One could easily see the movie turning into something along the lines of The Lavender Hill Mob, but it generally plays things a bit straighter than that.

The parallel story to all of this looks at the alderman race, which proves to be an incredibly cynical look at local politics.  Brian Tyree Henry’s character is of course a cold blooded killer, we’re given no particular reason to think he knows how to run the office, and he explicitly says at the beginning of the movie that he wants this job for corrupt and self-serving reasons.  Sounds bad, but we’re given plenty of reasons to be just as suspicious of Colin Farrell’s character, who appears to largely have contempt for the people of his now largely lower class and African American ward despite occasional photo ops to suggest the contrary and we hear that he may have made some very shady deals on a transportation committee he was on previously.  On top of that this character largely seems to have entered politics because he was the son of the ward’s previous alderman, a mean old bastard almost certainly inspired by Joe Kennedy who openly uses racial slurs behind closed doors and seems to largely view politics as a business opportunity.  When not on the campaign trail neither of these candidates show the slightest interest in helping anyone but themselves, and our opinion of both of them basically just goes downhill as the movie continues.  Pretty bleak.  I’m not entirely sure that this “House of Cards” level of cynicism about politics is entirely healthy, it’s the kind of thing that makes people want to “drain the swamp” so-to-speak.

Granted this is Chicago, and that’s not exactly a city that’s known for earnest leadership but I’m pretty sure that the real corruption there is a bit more mundane than what we see here and I don’t get the impression that this movie has a David Simon level of insight into this kind of local politics.  Instead this movie seems to be operating on more on the logic of pulp when it comes to most of these machinations.  It works to tie the plot together but I’m not sure it has anything overly insightful to say about urban politics.  I also wasn’t a big fan of the way the film invoked some fairly heavy #BlackLivesMatter imagery just to have it largely serve as a sort of pop psychology motivation for a character later on.  Ultimately I think this is a movie that’s probably best enjoyed if you’re not taking it too seriously.  I’m not sure that the award season hype of a November release is going to help it as it might lead people expecting a little more out of it than what it aims for.  Looked at more as Hollywood potboiler though and it certainly delivers and enjoyable yarn that’s worth your time.

***1/2 out of Five

Ant-Man and The Wasp(7/9/2018)

2014 was not a good year for Marvel.  That was the year that Avengers: Age of Ultron came out and proved to be a rather unruly mess, and that was followed by a strange little movie called Ant-ManAnt-Man is to date the third lowest grossing Marvel film after The Incredible Hulk and the first Captain America and to those in the know the final film kind of lived in the shadow of the fact that Edgar Wright was once going to direct it.  I wasn’t a fan of that movie either.  Of course it was a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie so there was enough quality control going on that it certainly wasn’t “bad,” but there were a lot of elements that didn’t really work and it just seemed like kind of a lame exercise in the grand scheme of things.  I was especially put off by one aspect of Ant-Man’s powers, namely the way he could punch people while miniature and have them react as if they’d just been given an uppercut by a heavyweight fighter.  That doesn’t make sense.  Even if they did have incredible strength while miniature the fact that it’s channeled into a small space like that would make Ant-Man piece into the bad guys like a bullet not hit them with blunt force trauma.  It breaks the laws of physics dammit!  Still, in 2018 Marvel is on a roll and I suspected that they had enough momentum to improve on their last effort with the sequel Ant-Man and The Wasp.

The film is set two years after the events of Captain America: Civil War but before the events of Avengers: Infinity War.  After having been arrested for breaking the Sokovia Accords in Captain America: Civil War Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) has been on house arrest this whole time.  Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) have apparently also been on the run this whole time because it was their technology that was used in Scott’s breach.  At the film’s start his sentence is only days away from being over but for some reason he suddenly finds himself having a strange dream about Hank and Hope and in a semi-delirious state calls them using a burner phone that he had hidden and tells them about it.  Something like a day later he’s suddenly tranquilized and moved to a secret lab that Hank and Hope have been building where they hope to enter sub-atomic space to rescue Hank’s lost wife.  But not long after they all find themselves in a run-in with a mobster named Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) and then they’re accosted by a strange masked combatant that seems to phase in and out of reality and it becomes clear that they’re going to be in the fight of their life.

The title of Ant-Man and The Wasp gives equal billing to Hope but don’t be fooled, this is still very much a story told from the perspective of Ant-Man, which is perhaps to be expected given that he’s more of an audience surrogate than Hope.  Hope is given a costume this time around and gets to participate in the action sequences as The Wasp but narratively she more or less shares her storyline with her father, who could just as easily be considered a co-star with the other two.  That aside the movie generally has a clearer picture of its characters than the original film did and the fact that it has its origin story stuff out of the way gives it a lot more time to act as something of a romp.  Most of the comic relief cast from the previous movie like Michael Peña and T.I. are back and Randal Park has been added as a delightfully nerdy FBI Agent who’s meant to be overseeing Scott’s house arrest and just steals every scene he’s in.  People who are frustrated by the fact that so many superhero movies tend to end with fights against super-villains that are about to set loose some world ending calamity will likely enjoy the fact that this movie involves a fight against some rather low level thugs led by Walton Goggins (who’s very much in “Vice Principals” mode here) and even the more traditional superhero foil called Ghost proves to be less eeeevilll than most Marvel villains.

In general Ant-Man and The Wasp is a clear improvement over its predecessor, it seems to have a bigger budget, it more clearly knows what it wants to be, and its cast has gelled considerably.  That said I still think this is one of Marvel’s weaker franchises, some people might like the film’s lighter tone, but I think Marvel movies are already plenty light to begin with and the Ant-Man movies bring that lightness to the point of feeling downright disposable.  This one in particular seems to really think that its tone can excuse away some pretty obvious plot-holes like the FBI’s incredible inability to keep tabs on Scotts home.  This all feels particularly inconsequential given the ending of Avengers: Infinity War, which only really comes up here during Marvel’s patented post-credits sequence, but the film otherwise does not feel terribly important to the greater MCU storyline.  The decision to release this a mere two months after Infinity War seems particularly curious given that there are no Marvel movies lined up at all for the fall and I’m guessing that there would have been a much bigger shortage of escapist entertainment like this during that season.  Having said all that, I don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that this isn’t worth seeing because it probably is at least if you’re an MCU fan.  These movies are basically never bad and this one isn’t either.  It’s a neat action movie and most audience members will get what they came for.

***1/2 out of Five   

Leave No Trace(7/7/2018)

Usually for me a decision to go to the movies is something planned weeks in advance.  I keep an eye on release schedules for the big movies, I monitor festival buzz for the small movies, and I generally know what’s coming and when.  Every once in a while though I can be surprised a little by something, which is what happened with the film Leave No Trace.  I never saw a trailer for the movie and while I can see now that it did play at Sundance I don’t remember hearing a whole lot about it at the time, possibly because the title and basic concept don’t stand out a whole lot.  So the film was completely off my radar when I suddenly saw that it would be playing at my local limited release theater and when I googled it two things stood out to me: 1. It was directed by Debra Granick, who had a big breakout with 2010’s Winter’s Bone before sort of disappearing afterwards, and 2. that the movie had a 100% rating on Rottentomatoes.  Now I know a lot of people don’t think terribly highly of Rottentomatoes and a movie certainly shouldn’t be judged in its totality by having a good or bad score on it, but any way you cut it managing to get 120 film critics to agree on something has to mean something.

The film is by and large the story of a father and a daughter.  The father is a man named Will (Ben Foster) a veteran who suffers in some way from PTSD and whose wife appears to have died at some unclear time in the past for reasons that are never explained.  As the film starts Will does not own a conventional home and has opted to live at an illegal campsite in a national park in New York with his teenage daughter Tom (presumably short for “Thomasin” a name she share with the actress who plays her, Thomasin McKenzie).  The two have managed to survive a long time more or less off the grid and Will seems to have pretty effectively home schooled Tom along the way.  However this way of life comes under threat when someone spots Tom and the next day police arrive with dogs to locate the two of them.  The next thing you know Will and Tom are forced to justify themselves to Child Protective Services and fight to stay together.

“Family that shuns a conventional lifestyle and lives in the woods” has become something of a sub-genre as of late.  I’m sure there are even earlier precursors but I first remember a story like this coming to cinema screens with the 2007 documentary Surfwise, about a family that raised their kids in an RV that toured various beaches.  I believe there was another film along these lines called The Glass Castle but the film that probably told a story like this with the most commercial success lately was a film called Captain Fantastic with Viggo Mortenson as a widower father who has to defend his rights to raise his kids in the woods and homeschool them rather than enroll them in school or give them normal shelter.  In terms of high concept the similarities between Leave No Trace and Captain Fantastic are pretty clear but the movies actually have pretty different tones.  I think Captain Fantastic was technically an independent movie but it didn’t really feel like one.  It occasionally examined the negative effects of raising kids like this but it also wants people to see the family as kind of cute and let its audience decide the morality of it all.

Leave No Trace is perhaps a more realistic look at what a life like this would look like and almost has the opposite problem of not really explaining why anyone would find this kind of life so appealing.  Captain Fantastic was pretty upfront about that family’s motivations: the parents were hippies who had political qualms with modern life and was more than happy to expound on this at length.  Here the father’s motivations are left a bit more unspoken.  I wouldn’t call Will entirely apolitical but he certainly doesn’t seem like someone who’s inclined to have the family celebrate Noam Chomsky’s birthday.  Instead the implication here seems to be that Will’s inability to live in a house with running water seems to be a function of his PTSD.  One imagines a backstory where he came back from the war, stares at a cereal aisle like Jeremy Renner’s character from The Hurt Locker, but unlike him can’t re-enlist because he’s got a daughter who would be more or less orphaned if he did.  Tom by contrast mostly seems to be completely on board with this life but it’s not clear at first if that’s because she truly loves the outdoors or if it’s because she loves her father and doesn’t know what she’s missing from society.

As I mentioned before this is Debra Granick’s first film in eight years since directing the Oscar nominated Winter’s Bone, a film that perhaps unfairly became better known for introducing audiences to Jennifer Lawrence than it did for its direction.  Personally, I liked Winter’s Bone but I did think some of the hype around it was a bit overblown.  It certainly had an interesting setting but it often felt like it didn’t have much going for it beyond its anthropological observations about Middle America.  This new film has its Hell or High Water moments where it stops to make comments about rural America in decline but it doesn’t feel like the movie is merely a pretext to witness these communities and really does keep the focus on the characters for the most part.  That’s probably the right choice but I still don’t necessarily think this is a story for the ages or characters that will live on with me too long after I’m done watching the film even though they’re very well written and acted.  It lacks the veneer of genre that probably helped Winter’s Bone gain a wider audience so I don’t know that this is going to be as much of a breakout even though I largely consider it a better movie.

***1/2 out of Five