Review: ‘Ant Man and the Wasp’ is a Fun, Witty Entry in the MCU

A much needed, light-hearted film following Avengers: Infinity War.

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A much needed, light-hearted film following Avengers: Infinity War.

RATING: ★★1/2 (out of four stars)

The MCU has had an incredible year so far with Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War. Both of those films were very serious and, for the most part, some of the more darker chapters in the universe. They were definitely great movie experiences, but with Ant Man and the Wasp, it’s nice to go back to laughing every five minutes for a Marvel Studios movie. Even though the events in the movie take place before Infinity War, it was smart and necessary for Marvel Studios to set Ant-Man and the Wasp pre-Infinity War.

Let’s talk about what worked in Ant Man and the Wasp. Paul Rudd is perfect as Scott Lang/Ant Man. His wit, comedic timing, and charisma make his character very likable and easy to root for. He spends the first act of the movie on house arrest following the events in Captain America: Civil War. The writing uses this plot element as a great way to continue building the relationship with his daughter after the events of Ant-Man. Best of all, it explains where he was during Avengers: Infinity War.

Now if only we can get justice for Hawkeye…..BUT ANYWAY….

Evangeline Lilly makes for a good partner as Hope/The Wasp for Scott Lang/Ant-Man. She has some of the coolest fight sequences in the movie and she’s also just as cool and collective when she’s not in a superhero suit. Michael Douglas as Hank Pym and is about the same as he was in Ant-Man. The biggest difference for his character this time around though is that Ant-Man and the Wasp’s story is far more personal to his character, which adds some gravitas to the story. Laurence Fishburne is now a part of the MCU and the DCEU, so that’s pretty cool if you like comic book movies. Michael Pena once again steals the show with some of the funniest moments in the movie. Seriously, get him a suit and a movie of his own now, Marvel Studios.

There are two problems in Ant Man and the Wasp. One is somewhat minor and can be overlooked by most people, and the other is pretty glaringly obvious. The small problem is the chemistry between Scott and Hope. It isn’t bad, but the issue is that they built their relationship between the two movies. So, the fact that the audience hasn’t actually seen it build makes it difficult to believe when Hope gets mad at Scott or when they have a romantic moment. They had some chemistry in the first film, but without seeing it build on-screen poses as a  small character connection problem. The main problem in Ant Man and the Wasp is a problem that’s been around for years in the MCU: the villain (or should I say villains). They missed a big opportunity to make Ghost the main villain and one that we could sympathize like Thanos and Killmonger. After Avengers: Infinity War and Black Panther earlier this year, it looked like Marvel Studios finally got the antagonist side of their MCU entries right – and then Ant-Man and the Wasp shows how it’s still a glaring problem that has yet to be fixed entirely. And not only is there Ghost, but there’s also Walton Goggins’ character and group of henchmen that are connected to the FBI too. When you have this many villains, it’s hard to keep the core focus of the film. If Ghost had been the only villain, then Ant Man and the Wasp might have soared to greater heights.

As a whole, Ant Man and the Wasp is loads of fun and is laugh out loud funny. The fact that you’re either laughing or smiling from excitement makes it easier to forgive the movie for its flaws and issues. The mid-credit scene is awesome and the post-credit scene is simply okay. And yes, Ant Man and the Wasp does answer some questions from Avengers: Infinity War and ties everything together nicely.

Review: The ‘Jurassic’ Franchise Roars Its Way Back to Life with ‘Fallen Kingdom’

Life finds it’s way back into a tired franchise.

Life finds it’s way back into a tired franchise.

RATING: ★★★ (out of four stars)

Jurassic Park is a monument of a film. It’s special effects work propelled the use of CGI and other practical effects into the stratosphere. This was another film of Spielberg’s that made blockbuster movies a staple of every summer.  Not only was the film entertaining as hell but it immediately cemented itself as a classic.  Every subsequent film in the franchise has faltered when trying to recapture the magic of the first one.  When the series was rebooted with 2015s Jurassic World, a movie where a fully functioning theme park was built and operational on dinosaur island.  While the movie failed to recreate the spectacle of the original, it did provide enough dino-violence to make it a financial success.  Now a few years later, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom manages to fix some of the problems with it’s predecessor by giving audiences a fun blockbuster with some freshness on the beloved dino franchise.

Set three years after the tragic events of Jurassic World, Fallen Kingdom starts with a montage of news reports saying a volcano as become active on Isla Nublar.  Many people support going in to save the dinos, while other say let nature run its course. A wealthy man representing the Lockwood estate (former parter of the original park’s founder john hammond) approaches   Claire Dearing about transporting the dinosaurs to a nature reserve. Wanting to save the beloved dinosaurs from re-extinction, she recruits Owen to return to island once more.

There is a lot going on in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.  Much like Jurassic World retread much of the original Jurassic Park, the first act feels like The Lost World: Jurassic Park.  The first act takes place on the island in a race for time to find Blue, the beloved raptor from World before the volcano erupts.  There is a new level of tension in this part of the film that hasn’t been present in a Jurassic film before.  The rumbling of the volcano is ever present to add tension to these quiet moments.  Once the eruption starts, the movie turns into full blown chaos as dinosaurs stampede past our heroes to escape certain destruction.  This sequence is one of the most fresh and most fun that has been in Jurassic movie in sometime.

Once the ash starts to settle the movie plays out in a way that highlight director J.A. Bayona’s reserved directing style. The camera effortless swops through quiet scenes with the characters to establish the space and slowly wring out the tension.  One sequence with Owen and Claire in the cage with a sedated T-Rex showcases this style of filmmaking.  The first act of the film is explosive with its action, while the last two thirds are more reserved for some thrilling sequences that closely resemble the horror elements of the original film.

One of the main plot points of this film’s predecessor is that audiences don’t care about the original dinosaurs anymore, so new ones must be manufactured.  This idea is carried out further with the Indoraptor, a hybrid of velociraptors and the Indominus Rex.  For fans of the ludicrous idea of a Jurassic film about dinos with guns, this is as close as its going to get in a practical sense.  The Indoraptor is much better than the Indominus Rex and provides for some genuine thrills.

The best thing about Jurassic World was how seemingly self aware the film was for a blockbuster.  It poked fun at cooperate sponsorships while being a cheesy action blockbuster itself.  This films carries that spirit with Chris Pratt’s charismatic deliver of the hokiest lines.  The movie is a by the books blockbuster through and through, but it never takes itself too seriously so the film feels fresh while it retreads familiar ground.

The best quality of Fallen Kingdom is how the ending setups future films.  the biggest problem with any Jurassic Park sequel is how the movies have been confined to the dinosaurs on island.  The events in the film, both on and off the island, allows any subsequent films to explore new territory that hasn’t been in a Jurassic film thus far.  The idea of genetics is on that is integral to the Jurassic franchise, but hasn’t been expanded upon outside of the dinosaurs.  What this film does with that shows the franchise has room to grow.

The film isn’t perfect, but every entry in the franchise after Jurassic Park has a lot to live up to.  This is the first film to boldly step into new territory and successfully pull it off.  It’s not a perfect movie, but really what blockbuster is.  Its fun through and through like a Jurassic film should be, and opens up the franchise to new ground that it desperately needs.  Any fan of the franchise needs to see this film, as it is essential viewing and entertaining as hell.

The Prism: ‘Incredibles 2,’ ‘Tag,’ ‘Gotti’

The latest Prism looks at all different sorts of families.

Each week, 615 Film’s resident overthinker Cory Woodroof will attempt to reflect the week’s releases against each other, new or repertory, showing how they intersect and blend to bring forth ideas about themselves in part and as a whole. Maybe it’ll form a rainbow when we’re done – who’s to say; science has a mind of its own. Welcome back to The Prism.

Incredibles 2 starts out in bombastic fashion. We’re whisked right back into the action, as Mr. Incredible, Elasta-Girl, Violet, Dash and Jack-Jack all ward off the Underminder (yes, the mole-thief with the gigantic bulldozing contraption from the end of the first film), and nearly see the city’s town hall destroyed by a wayward drill. The Underminer slips away (fingers crossed for a third appearance), and so does the Incredibles’ short leash with the government.

That’s the magnificent mirror that Brad Bird lays out with his Pixar sequel – every punch, every force-shield, every explosion and bang, boom, pow comes with a reverse idea. Few filmmakers can make their films all at once spectacle and worth speculating over, but few filmmakers are Bird. Even if his newest super-family tale isn’t quite as novel and refreshing as the first, Incredibles 2 is still a showing of strength for what Bird does best, and a teeny-tiny reminder of what he’ll always need to be mindful of.

This time, a super-telecommunications company, led by a doting fanboy who knows all of the super-theme songs to our main heroes, has the power to change the public reception of what superheroes are to the public. Winston Deavor has puppy dog confidence, his inventive sister Evelyn the cool of a cat. Both want to reframe the lens on supers. After losing their government support, the Incredibles and Frozone can’t turn the offer down.

But, Elastigirl gets the main duties this time as the Deavors feel that she’s the most able to corral in public admiration (hint: she’s more careful and breaks less things). So, in a clever twist of fortune, it’s Helen who gets to solve the day’s mystery, and Bob who stays home to take care of his three kids. Helen digs deep into why a mind-controlling baddie named the Screenslaver is trying to disrupt the city’s media frequencies and rain down havoc; Bob has to solve Dash’s new math book, tend to Violet after boy drama and help solve baby Jack-Jack’s myriad of emerging powers. It’s as relevant to gender roles in 2018 as it is a showy “this is how it’s done” to all of 2018’s summer blockbusters.

The film brings over the original’s penchant for splashy, smart action sequences, all tinged with Bird’s imaginative flair (one fight between Jack-Jack and a feral raccoon works as vaudevillian slapstick as it does blistering creativity). Michael Giacchino keeps the heartbeat pounding and dancing with a rousing homage and interesting extension to his previous work on the series. And, of course, Bird’s ear for voice casting remains undefeated, with Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener, Isabella Rossellini and Sophia Bush all inspired choices to breathe life into their animated counterparts.

Though, this is a Brad Bird film, and of course we’re going to have some ideas, and, yup, some monologuing. The Syndrome/monologuing gag in the first Incredibles is such piercing meta-commentary, with Bird well-aware of his desire to say lots of things with his movies. Most of the time, his messaging is seamless (see three of the greatest animated films of all times, this film’s predecessor, Ratatouille, The Iron Giant). Those films can’t be touched; they are perfect blends of filmmaking and posturizing and are unmatched for what they do.

Bird’s other films, sans his Mission: Impossible installment, in which he takes a break from theory and just has fun with his skillset, verve a little too close into homily. Tomorrowland whizzes and sparks with ingenuity and heart until Preacher Bird gets up to deliver the message; it’s not that it’s not good sentiment, it’s just that it kind of slows the film down. Bird is in his zone when things are going at one hundred miles an hour – even his intimate dialogue scenes move fast because they’re so well-written and relatable.

In Incredibles 2, the director says plenty of pertinent things about gender roles in the family, about how societies can view things that awe and scare them, about how tough parenting really can be. But, it also wants to provide commentary on our addiction to screens, on our morality when it comes to how we view, uh, morality, on doing the right thing and the wrong thing, on media’s impact on our society. And, I guess on raccoons being awful, which should never reach the ears of our new friend in St. Paul.

Bird’s always right, even if it’s not quite as succinct as we’d hope. But all the great directors have their weak spots. Bird’s is trying to chew on too many ideas at once. But, make no mistake: Bird is one of our great directors, as important as anyone who’s come before him. If Tomorrowland winds up being his misstep, what a heck of a misstep to make.

Incredibles 2 isn’t The Incredibles; there’s no way it could be. It’s a bit more translucent with Bird’s vices, but it’s also a striking testament to his virtues. It’s a master at work with the family that put him on the map. Of course it’s a great movie. Don’t trust me? Take on one of Bird’s many mottoes, and see for yourself.

Tag

In Tag, a group of middle-aged men use a child’s game to keep their childhood alive. Does that even function as a metaphor if it’s not even thinly concealed?

The first film for director Jeff Tomsic, Tag earns points for being so exhausting, y’know, like a game of…you guess it – TAG! At least it’s honest marketing.

If it weren’t for Hannibal Burress, who slides into his glorious corner and pops out cheeky one-liners throughout to keep us all sane, this film would be a comedic wasteland. It’s manic concept – a rose-colored filter thrown over a game of professional tag where lifelong chums subvert any and all laws (American, human, comedy) to finally make Jeremy Renner it – the sitting king of this game of tag, who is never, well, it. But, remember, this is also a metaphor for not wanting to let childhood die. As nice a sentiment that is in theory, you almost want this movie to just move out of its parent’s basement and get a job already.

The Tag team (have mercy) is all game (woof) for the film – almost too much at times. Rick James did tell us cocaine is a hell of a drug, but in this movie, so is tag. Here, tag is a heroine-like highway to the danger zone that nearly destroys the lives of all involved. They leave their kids for it; spend uproarious amounts of money on it, threaten physical and psychological harm on others to get tag, relish that sweet, sweet tag once they finally aren’t it. In one moment, they nearly waterboard someone in the name of tag. All at once, tag is used as an excuse for crashing an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and in faking a miscarriage. At any moment when tag thinks about growing up, tag doesn’t, because tag freaking rules, and you’re a nerd. I NEED TAG, BABY! SPRING BREAK!

But, remember, loudly, that *tag is a metaphor for keeping your childhood alive.*

There’s a reason we all grow up, you know.

By the film’s end, we’re forced to encounter an emotional development that can’t help but touch you (ah, hell, we’re the ones who are it, screw you, Tag). See, tag can also have heart. And, y’know, it does suck when you grow apart from your friends. You’re angry that you have to sympathize with such a universal truth, because everything that comes before it is a pretty flagrant counterpoint – you believe it is all at once necessary and dire to leave child-like things behind and be a responsible adult. This film advocates boring.

Judd Apatow already paved the ground out for cinematic man-children who need to grow up; they were films for a bygone era when we could all afford immature white men to have a wide canvass work out their feels, and learn that adults are things, too. Apatow found the humanity in that crude, messy awakening; Tag wants to only force itself to accept the social norms by film’s end. But, y’know, it’s sweet when it does, in an “Ooh La La” by The Faces and nostalgia sort of way. Manipulation can work in movies.

The families we make never really leave us, though time and distance will try to convince us otherwise, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to keep childhood bonds alive. But, when you’re willing to abandon any sense of maturity and responsibility to keep it going, you miss the joys of adulthood. Tag’s a movie that doesn’t want to grow up.

Gotti 2

In Gotti, La Cosa Nostra is at the heart of everything mob boss John Gotti and his associates do. It’s said many times – at formal meetings, in darkened hush-hush summits in old cars, in fits of rage when someone tries to put the “NO” in La Cosa NOstra. The Gottis love family, whether it be by blood, or by pricked blood in a coronation to join the infamous New York-based Gambino crime family.

There’s a lot of love in this movie. Maybe a little too much.

Director Kevin Connolly (yes, “E” from Entourage) makes his take on the Gotti legacy a naval gaze at a ne’er-do-well, almost the cinematic equivalent of that neighborhood kid who always wants to follow around the cool gangsters, only to get a tussle of the hair and a “get a load of this kid,” before he’s sent off while the adults go do adult things.

That kid typically grows up to be a cold, hardened mob boss himself; Gotti knows no such maturity.

It’s a film that’s straining to be everything you’ve seen before in the genre, but with all the admiration and zeal toward the life that those films were wise enough to avoid. It’s clumsy with the way it tells its story – often trying to utilize three different perspectives at once, none of which ever make sense for the other, ending up in a “grandpappy tells five different stories at once” twist of logic. Too often, you’re twelve scenes away from the last time you fully understood what was going on. It’s like if The Godfather told its sprawling epic narrative with splices of the day of the Don’s daughter’s wedding throughout the movie, but also with running, fourth-wall breaking narration from Marlon Brando.

John Travolta can’t be knocked for giving the leading Gotti role everything he’s got. It’s a big ham sandwich of a performance, though it’s absolutely committed, and entertaining. He plays Gotti as a mini-god, with Old Testament anger and New Testament water-to-wine cajole, but also with the gusto of the Italian Chef on The Simpsons if one of his dishes were on fire. The rest of the cast fills in like Spingfield’s Fat Tony, and his gaggle of “Bada Bing” bad guys, or like people who won fan contests to be in the movie at a Godfather convention. Only Stacy Keach, who has been ordained to be intimidating, really stands out, well, besides Travolta, who’s hard to miss.

It’s not that Connolly’s film is downright trash; he’s got a good eye for sequencing when he’s able to settle on a sequence, and it’s not his direct fault that Pit “Mr. Worldwide” Bull’s lazy synth score and obvious musical cues often clash with the moments that he frames well. Too many scenes fizzle right before your very eyes when you imagine Pitbull in the corner, plucking away at a synthesizer and jamming out like he’s at Coachella. I suppose it’s not Gotti’s fault that’s what came to my mind at times, but I suppose it’s also not-not the film’s fault, either.

Mafia movies will always be a delicate walk, just because you don’t want to be too adoring of people who literally shoot bullets through people’s brains and distribute cocaine throughout communities as often as they toast to La Cosa Nostra and celebrate weddings (it feels like every good mafia movie has a wedding in it). These films don’t have to be sanitized; we all get curious about how these things worked historically. We crowd around the little window that looks into the basement where the mafia magic happens, where bosses are crowed and downed in equal fasion. Mob movies can make for great cinema. But, curiosity isn’t by itself worthy of art, which makes Gotti more informational than good.

Gotti is a movie you become curious about, but that’s only if you don’t know a ton about the Godfather of New York. It’s, at times, comic-tragedy in all the wrong ways, at other times, Goodfellas cosplay. It will only engage people who just are naturally inclined to think these people are more than cool in just a cinematic sense.

Connolly has a future as a documentarian; he peppers this film with fascinating clips of New Yorkers who mourn Gotti’s passing as they would any folk hero in their midst, suggesting it’s the government who is crooked, and that Gotti is their Robin Hood of the Five Boroughs. There’s a deeper exploration here to be had about how something like the Gambino crime family anchored itself into a community, and how the public, and the media, paint these infamous crime legends in their heyday and in the rearview.

And, there’s further analysis to be given to the treatment of Gotti’s son, who while guilty of crime, the film argues was used as a whipping post for the government to get its last lashes in to his family name. Is that exactly true? Who’s to say, but it’s an idea that would have been better explored outside of a pre-credit black screen text typed in what can only be described as Microsoft Word’s “Fuggedaboutit.”

Connolly would be an excellent steward for this introspection in documentary format, and Travolta a great narrator. That film might win an Oscar. Not Gotti, no. You can forget about that.

Perhaps this lackluster effort could produce something much better, like many changing of the guards in mafia movies. This story needs to stay in the family, but you’ve got to rearrange the furniture.

Right now, they’re in all the wrong places.

Review: ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ a Potent Antidote to Calendar Year

The Mr. Rogers documentary washes over you like an antibiotic to an infection you didn’t even know you had.

The Mr. Rogers documentary is a needed balm in desperate times.

RATING: ★★★★ (out of four stars)

Few people can pin you to your seat like Fred Rogers.

No, he’s not a fiery evangelical super-church pastor with a football-wide throat and sweat beads to fill a community pool. No, he’s not a big-eyed politician who throws out promises like free buttons at unsuspecting voters. No, he’s not a big-voiced huckster shelling out his snake elixir to whatever bald doofus wants a full head of hair again.

He’s a mild-mannered man in a sweater who plays with puppets and tells you that you matter.

In 2018, that’s the stunner that’ll leave a mark.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? walks softly and carries a big stick. It’s a tidal wave of emotions about a man who entered each episode of his beloved children’s show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood with the calm and ease of a gentle wave brushing past your feet. He’s the silent warrior of emotions that disarms you with compliments, and love. If this moment in history had a Pied Piper that would lead us all right back to where we belong, he would be named Fred, and would be oh, so glad you stopped by.

Director Morgan Neville gives audiences the SparkNotes on Rogers’ career, spanning from his days as a sickly, reserved child to one of entertainment’s most prolific voices. It’s as flattering a portrait as could be, very rarely taking detours into the darker aspects of Rogers’ life, but the darkness is easy to empathize with. This man is as close to a saint as you’re likely to see on a screen this year, and Neville raises the glass with proper respect and adoration. Fred Rogers was the man worthy of a thousand toasts.

What Rogers did was revolutionary. At a time where television was a budding medium,  treating kids like lab rats for what would stick, and what would sell, the future public television icon wanted to make programming that would engage a child’s emotions, not just sell them the latest Ovaltine shake or toy gun. He wanted for kids to deal with the feelings they had deep down, to love the face they saw in the mirror, to extend the Golden Rule and a warm smile to whomever they ran into on the street. A minister at heart, Rogers wanted to use empathy as a motivator for his young audience. It was his vocation to send the trolley away to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

He had a way with people that was uncanny, and unmatched. The famed Sen. John O. Pastore hearing for PBS funding feels like you’re watching a miracle: the gruff, unmoved Pastore’s complete visage dropping at a meek, unprepared Rogers saying the exact, piercing words of wisdom and love that gave public television its lifeblood. The way he worked with children was, in and of itself, a revelation — he treated them all at once like kings and queens and old friends, deserving of regal distinction and playful camaraderie. He treated his co-workers like they were working for free and were doing him a life’s favor. His loving wife and children nary had a bad thing to say, either, even if it was clear that Rogers had some trouble with transitioning out of his television aura at home.

Rodgers

His kindness is a balm that will stretch over his era to ours, and how fitting that Neville’s film comes in a time where knives at throats are more regular than bear hugs. There’s a rancid little clip from a Fox and Friends segment in the film that stands as the summer’s scariest villain. In it, the hosts garble back and forth about how Mr. Rogers’ message of self-worth and love “ruined” a generation into thinking they were entitled, the great excuse for life’s natural progressions. To them, the Neighborhood is where water crystallizes and forms one million snowflakes. It’s the wicked mirror into our malfeasance, where Fred Rogers’ ideals are seen as stumbling blocks to the powerful and mighty. No Trump Towers raise in this Neighborhood; only snowflakes fall there.

But, really, you sense the sadness in the clip, and wonder what a good talk with Rogers would do for these Fox and Friends. Maybe, they’d do well with Daniel Tiger, the conduit for Rogers’ own faults and fears. So often, bullying covers up longing for love. Fred Rogers never met a bully he couldn’t fix.

We needed an experience like this in 2018. There will be better films to come along, but few will carry the necessity. This one soaks over you like an antibiotic to an infection you didn’t even know you had. The affirming score by Jonathan Kirkscey lulls you in, the talking heads preach Fred’s gospel, and archival clips of Rogers tell you the words your soul longs for.

Don’t be surprised if the box of Kleenex is empty, and the theater is quite still by the time you say farewell to this neighbor. Just like Rogers, this quiet, empathetic act of reassurance will make you long for a world where there are more Rogers than Trumps, more songs about loving your friends than speeches about making America great again, more random acts of kindness than feats of strength.

Y’know, being a good neighbor isn’t just local to that little studio in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with the handmade sets and quaint puppetry. Maybe hold the door for someone on your way out of the theater, ask a stranger what they thought of the movie, cast a smile and a kind word to the college kid taking your order at dinner, maybe even secretly buy the ticket for the person behind you in the line out front, and tell them to enjoy the show before you go and get your popcorn.

Never have we so desperately needed a film to escape the screen. After all, this is documentary; not fiction.

Mr. Rogers isn’t just a television character; he’s an example.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is currently playing at The Belcourt. 

The Prism: ‘Ocean’s 8’, ‘Amadeus’

The Prism returns with a look at how confidence helps Debbie Ocean, and sinks Salieri.

Each week, 615 Film’s resident overthinker Cory Woodroof will attempt to reflect the week’s releases against each other, new or repertory, showing how they intersect and blend to bring forth ideas about themselves in part and as a whole. Maybe it’ll form a rainbow when we’re done – who’s to say; science has a mind of its own. Welcome back to The Prism.

The pangs of mediocrity ring through the haunted halls of Antonio Salieri’s memories like a toddler smacking a piano, playing nothing of note, but so, oh, so many notes.

The whiffs of mediocrity get whirled away in a slick heist of confidence in Oceans’ 8.

The tortured Italian could’ve learned a thing or two from Debbie Ocean and company – if you’re going to play in Texas, you’ve got to have a fiddle in the band.

The latest Ocean’s installment comes at the perfect time. Hollywood is finally playing catchup on female-driven franchise films, and as a sign of the progress being made, it’s wonderful to see women get to have their own familiar-yet-enjoyable-enough tentpole release, free from guzzball fanboy hatred.

Ocean’s 8 is a very mediocre movie that thinks it’s as good as anything that’s come before it. That, believe it or not, comes quite in handy when you’re playing a cover version of a much better song. But, Ocean’s 8 doesn’t care about how familiar it is, or how every step has been stepped in before, or how this heist just ain’t quite as thrilling as when her brother Danny and the boys jacked up Vegas.

Ocean’s 8 is as confident as any film released in 2018 – it makes it look easy, even though, uh, what they’re doing is, er, quite easy. Call it a poker face, call it a bluff. Whatever it is, it scrubs your mind of anything else but robbing diamonds and doing it in style for nearly two hours and gets out at the last minute making you feel like you’ve watched a real original.

Check your pockets, folks. Ocean’s 8 is the heist of the century.

Gary Ross, whose career spans from Seabiscuit to The Hunger Games to, no kidding, Pleasantville, is a perfectly fine director, and here, he does a perfectly fine job. One wonders if, ahem, a woman would’ve brought a bit more pizazz to the proceedings, but c’est la vie, it’s refried Ocean’s, the serving was always going to taste the same.

Ocean’s 8 is the movie where there’s no such thing as a spoiler. Here, Debbie Ocean gathers a team of quirky personalities (the first crime squad to ever pass the Bechdel Test!), plans a heist of a rare set of jewels on the neck of a snappy Hollywood starlet (Anne Hathaway, having an absolute ball deconstructing her personal image) and tries to make out of Dodge all the richer and wiser. Toast the glasses and walk out in style – this is an Ocean’s movie, same as the last movie. These films are Mad Libs, but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

To call this film average would be to deny its uncanny ability to entertain. Whether it’s relative newcomer Awkwafina dropping gags in a Subway, or Daniel Pemberton laying down a sleek bit of music over a snappily-edited flashback, or comedy queen Sandra Bullock spending just enough time on a facial reaction to something that’s going on, this film is bedazzled in strengths. It’s not inherently strong, but it knows how to make you smile. What else can you ask of a movie where the inevitable outcome could be screamed at you as you walk in the theater, and have no direct affect on the experience?

This film doesn’t slouch, and it’s not afraid to ask the boss for a raise (or, well, pick it right out of his back pocket). Sometimes, these spinoff films can be a bit mawkish in trying to be something different. Ocean’s 8 feels no pressure to do anything differently, and by all means, does nothing differently. This is a movie where *Cate Blanchett* blends into the scenery. Cate Blanchett! What kind of mediocre-ass movie makes a two-time Oscar-winner lack in personality?

Ocean’s 8 does, darn it. And you’re going to love it anyway.

Rarely has something so mediocre come across so cool. Maybe it’s best if we handed our franchises over to the ladies.

Sometimes, it takes a woman.

In Amadeus, Salieri lacks the cool and composure to do anything but blame God for making him not as good at music as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Yes, Mozart, the womanizing, bug-eyed man-child who lets out a siren of a laugh when he gets nervous and quite literally farts all over Salieri’s labor of love in private. Mozart, the genius who can’t escape his father’s shadow and never met a bottle of booze he didn’t like. Mozart, the bane of his existence, who will always be better than Salieri, even if Salieri is, at the core, still quite good at what he does.

Amadeus, the late, great Miloš Forman’s symphonic epic on the dangers of covetousness, and when brilliance goes unchecked, is anything but mediocre. It’s a big, lout statement, a slam dunk that shatters the glass, a film so confident it lasts for nearly three hours and doesn’t even blink. If film is adrenaline, then Amadeus is three cans of Red Bull and a gigantic slice of extra-chocolate chocolate cake. You feel positively alive when you watch it, and mentally exhausted when it’s finally over.

Requiem for a sugar rush.

Forman tells the tale of Mozart and Salieri in the way it was likely told in back rooms over post-opera coffees between friends after the former’s passing. It’s a tall tale with unfounded basis in reality featuring two of that era of music’s more prominent names. Though, you don’t play Salieri when your baby needs to take a nap, and the local orchestra doesn’t host Salieri nights at the park. Mozart won the legacy game, whether it was played or not, so how riveting that we got this perhaps fully fictionalized, perhaps as true as true can be fable for the cavity that decays decent men when they don’t get their way.

F. Murray Abraham, who won the Oscar for this, tells his story in impeccable makeup to a slightly-bothered priest. You see, he feels like he killed Mozart. He certainly wanted to kill Mozart, making it his life’s mission to set the young musician in a labyrinth that has to be the musician’s equivalent of The Cask of Amontillado. Whether it actually works is up to you as you watch it. Abraham wrestles his silent, rotting admiration for Mozart with his desire to see him fail; Mozart (played with jumpy, sleazy wonder by Tom Hulce, nominated by the Academy for his turn) wrestles with his own petulance, daddy issues and the burden of being brilliant. He only registers Salieri as a friendly, apathetic contemporary, not as the harbinger of his doom. The mouse has no idea he’s being chased by the cat; the cat enraged he wasn’t created a mouse. Tom and Jerry are killing each other out of pure coincidence. It’d be kind of funny if it weren’t so pathetic and wasteful.

Though, that’s what covet does to us, isn’t it? It’s the pointless quest for “more” even when you already have. If Salieri couldn’t tell a G-flat from an apartment, and his heart had called him to a career in music, you can understand the frustration. But, the cruel irony comes when we actually hear Salieri’s work. It’s not bad! He’s still talked of as an influential musician for his time. Now, he’s not Mozart, and therein lies the conflict. Salieri didn’t want to be a great musician; he wanted to be the best musician. Absolute power, or the search for it, corrupts absolutely. The guy lacked the confidence in his own work, forcing it to be measured up to literal Mozart. No wonder he went off the deep end. Like the best cautionary tales, the red flags wave with zeal here.

By the end of this bombastic masterpiece, your heart racing every other minute when Forman shows off his impossible skill to match his actors with the awing spectacle of the music and the staging, you see Salieri hail himself patron saint of the mediocrities. His lack of self-worth when an all-time talent lived next door drove him mad. How funny: the simmer of not being “quite as good” as somebody else drives home one of the greatest movies of all time.

Y’know, Salieri ain’t Debbie Ocean. Confidence is key, right?

Review: ‘Hereditary’ Takes the Horror Genre to Unsettling Heights

A24’s fourth horror film in five years is worth all the hype.

A24’s fourth horror film in five years is worth all the hype.

RATING: ★★★1/2 (out of four stars)

If there’s one thing that’s been the most consistent about A24 since they were founded in 2012, it’s their dedication to the arthouse horror subgenre. 2014 would be the year of Under The Skin, which paired harrowing imagery and an unnerving score to an abstract narrative that blended elements of atmospheric science fiction and cosmic horror to create a haunting but thought-provoking commentary about beauty, sexuality and what it ultimately means to be human. Two years later, A24 would release The Witch, a period horror piece that took the risk of grounding its dialogue in the dialect of colonial-era England to tell its haunting tale about a family banished from their homeland only to be haunted and driven to paranoia by supernatural forces. Then there was the extremely divisive It Comes At Night, which was sold as a post-apocalyptic horror film centered around a family trying to retain their existence after a disease wipes out the majority of humanity around them, but turned out to be an unsettling mindbender of a psychological drama.

Now this weekend, A24 is poised to release Hereditary, the directorial debut of Ari Aster, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to an unprecedented level of praise. While only time will tell if Hereditary is one of the scariest movies of all time, it certainly is terrifying in its own unique way, and takes the horror genre to new heights through its stylistic choices, deliberately slow pacing, and a knockout lead performance from Toni Collette.

Hereditary begins with an obituary over a black screen for Ellen Graham, which in true newspaper fashion makes note of her deceased parents and husband, as well as the surviving members of her family, most notably her daughter Annie (Toni Collette), who is having as difficult a time coping with the loss of her mother as she is with completing an elaborate showcase of miniature houses and buildings complete in time for an important art exhibit while raising her own immediate family, from her teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) and her young daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), while her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) elects to keep to himself and focus on his work as a therapist.

Right from the get-go, it’s made clear that this family has a tumultuous relationship, from the sparse conversations they do have with each other before heading off to partake in their menial but quirky hobbies; Charlie draws sketches of creepy monsters and Peter socializes and smokes cannabis with his friends. But Ellen’s death is the catalyst for Annie to find herself and her family haunted by terrors that may be of mental, supernatural, or even ancestral origin, and sets out to discover their true source despite her mental vulnerability.

From that synopsis, Hereditary sounds like a straightforward horror film, but what earns it all the hype and critical praise is the assured direction from Ari Aster. In his debut feature film, Aster does the unprecedented and sets a new bar for the horror genre by fusing a variety of subgenres to create a film-watching experience that’s uniquely terrifying from beginning to end. A particular example of existential horror comes in the film’s opening shot, where the camera zooms in on one of the many miniature houses in Annie’s workshop until the bedroom takes up the entire frame, just in time for Peter to wake up and have a brief conversation with his father standing in the doorway. The tilt shift lens used for this opening adds to the existential perspective of Hereditary by making these characters look like dolls in this proverbial dollhouse, suggesting that the horrors they go through in the next two hours are inescapable and beyond their control.

Meanwhile, elements of psychological horror permeate throughout Hereditary through Annie’s mental anguish, conveyed by a powerhouse lead performance from Toni Collette. Forever a character actress, Collette makes the case for a Best Actress Oscar nomination with every breakdown at her grief support group, outburst at her family, and drive to discover the secrets of her family history. As the film progresses and Annie’s search takes her down a psychological rabbit hole, one is left wondering in a pivotal scene if Annie is having nightmarish visions, possessed by a spiritual force or crying out to her mother in helplessness from her situation, and Collette sells the ambiguity of Annie’s emotional state with an unflinching intensity.

Aster also succeeds at keeping Hereditary suspenseful for the entirety of its run time through a plethora of aesthetic choices which give the film a consistent, unsettling ambience from scene to scene; from wide shots that isolate the characters, to long takes and painfully unhurried camera movements that contribute to a deliberately slow pace that only builds the tension more and more as the audience comes to learn about the Graham family and the unhinged baggage they carry. Even the resentment everyone in this family has for each other, and the familial pressures Peter feels as a teenager are played for scares, only adding a layer of domestic horror on top of the film’s existential and atmospheric dread. It’s worth noting that Aster went the extra mile to make his first horror feature fresh and new by crafting it devoid of jump scares. When audiences finally see the force that’s really haunting the Grahams lurking behind them, their only choice is to watch in between fingers and pray our characters escape, or survive sight unseen.

But in a film with many twists and turns, Hereditary does take one for the conventional in its third act resolution. It’s especially deflating because it follows a conclusion full of disturbing imagery and haunting atmosphere that succeeds at making one’s skin crawl. Meanwhile, the film’s slow pace and just over two hour runtime can really test the patience of causal moviegoers. But for those up to the challenge, Hereditary is a fresh, hypnotic take on the horror genre that will leave audiences on the edge of their seats for its consistent, unrelenting atmosphere, demented turns in its story, and inventive merging of genres into an experience that’s terrifying in its uniqueness. It’s deserving of all the hype and positive criticism it’s gotten up to this point, as it’s the type of film that will leave its viewership wishing to stop feeling scared as much as these characters wish to stop living with each other.

The Prism: ‘Adrift,’ ‘Action Point’

Welcome to our new weekly review column, The Prism.

Each week, 615 Film’s resident overthinker Cory Woodroof will attempt to reflect the week’s releases against each other, showing how they intersect and blend to bring forth ideas about themselves in part and as a whole. Maybe it’ll form a rainbow when we’re done – who’s to say; science has a mind of its own. Welcome to The Prism.

We’re all just out here trying to survive, right?

The cinema has long been a place of disaster-ridden escapism, with some macabre film executive long ago deciding that it would be fun to watch people survive in fictional (or “based on a true story”) scenarios on the big screen, so that the audience can munch on popcorn while an island-bound Tom Hanks laments at the loss of his volleyball companion Wilson, or poor park guests try not to become the early bird special for 65 million years plus crowd. Your big queen-size bed waiting for you at the end of the show makes it easier to stomach.

No masked slasher or ne’er-de-well gunslinger has amassed a higher body count than Mother Nature, and in Adrift, she comes to kill a sullen romance on the high seas.

Building a good romance is a bit like tossing dough to make a pizza crust. You’ve got to pound and roll the dough around to firm it up, but the deftest of touches completes the process in the air. You’ve got to do the leg work to cast the likeable leads, make sure the script doesn’t sick the starstruck lovers in dialogue that would come out better in chunks (yes, those chunks) and ensure that whatever journey the romantics go on doesn’t hold back the genuine lovey-dovey-ness of all of it.

Misery loves company, so it’s no wonder so many romances are predicated on an afternoon gone wrong. Adrift sends Shailene Woodley, who plays a carefree globetrotter with no set destination, with Sam Claffin, a carefree globetrotter with no set destination and a beard, into a tropical depression. The two meet on land in Tahiti, and drift into each other’s arms, their shared love of all things nautical and free-spiritedness the, ahem, anchor to their swoon. It sounds corny, but it’s a real story, and Woodley and Claffin have a comfortable chemistry with each other. It’s not exactly Bogart and Bergman, but you believe that these two make sense for each other. It makes sense that Miles Teller, Woodley’s real-life on-screen Bergman, was once cast in this role.

Baltasar Kormákur, whose ignored 2015 against-the-elements drama Everest will have you reeling the next time your morning hike hits a hill, has found a nice little niche in telling big stories that nest their humanity in little moments, and while Adrift is far from his best movie, it’s the best example of his patience. He’s not going to barrow you with waves and desperation every second – he wants you to care about the couple headed into the maelstrom, and care, you do. Everyone involved buys into the story, even if the story itself begins harder and harder to buy into once the switch gets flipped.

Well, there’s a bugaboo of a plot twist that nearly drowns the entire affair, though it’s not one the film exactly could’ve avoided. Y’know, real story and all. Once the ship goes sideways, and Woodley and Claffin are in survival mode, the film takes on an added layer of worry and weariness, and survival comes full circle. Here, the two lovebirds learn what it means to really love another person, for better or for worse. Both actors deepen the once-relaxed romance in the moments of turmoil, cementing in why they’re made for each other – the two haggle over whether Woodley can break her vow of killing and eating meat when fish becomes necessary for their diet at sea, they share awkward peanut butter salvation when a rogue jar washes into sight on the dingy, they sing together, they share fears of surviving their ordeal, Woodley tend to Claffin’s beat-up leg like it were her own. It’s what love is supposed to be; not just what they typically show you in those dime back disaster romances.

But, the waves continue to bellow against what works so well, because, once again, this is a real-life story, and this is a film where the creative minds involved decided to mix around scenes of the surviving at sea with scenes building up the aquatic ardor, and how they got to the aquatic accident. It’d be a simple fix to just put the film in chronological order, but it’s a dead weight as it’s composed. Again, *this is a real-life story,* and the film’s late twist bellies up like a catfish in a vat of chemical waste. But, that’s really how it went, so you’re appreciative and thankful that’s how the boat actually goes into dock. The real-life trauma endured isn’t ever lost on you, but one retroactively wonders if this would’ve have been better staying on the shelves at your local Books-a-Million from a story-sense. But, then you’d lose what’s in between. Certainly a quagmire for the Queequeg.

Adrift somehow survives the late reveal, and the awkward structure, to remain an alluring meditation on the kind of love that carries water. You might not make it all the way to shore, but you don’t regret setting sail with this kind of silent wisdom, and these lovely leads.

Survival can go past what we typically expect – how about surviving an afternoon New Jersey’s most dangerous amusement park?

In Action Point, the latest Jackass mini-reunion, the crotch-shots just don’t land as hard as they used to.

Make no mistake, it still hurts like a hill of beans to get pegged square in the family jewels and is still as funny as all get out when you’re not the bullseye. But, even ball jokes have an event horizon.

In the film, Johnny Knoxville, the merry king of Jackass’ crash dummy court, brings his old pal Chris “Party Boy” Pontius along for his latest shenanigans, all at once a piece of fan mail and a eulogy for a by-gone era where theme parks like Action Point could exist.

At Action Point, the only rule is to have fun. That sounds fine in theory, but when kids are falling through the slides and cutting their legs open, and are smoking at the ticket booth, and are flailing about like they’re at The Three Stooges’ version of Disney World, it’s fair to feel like a few rules would do this venture some good. It’s the Most Unsafe Place on Earth, just the way Knoxville and company like it.

The park’s story is told through Knoxville in aging makeup as the grandpop version of his main character D.C., because no actor loves to get decked out in elderly disguise and make a fuss like he does (not even Eddie Murphy). This character is the kind of old fogey who bemoans the era of the helicopter parent, and would love to take a flamethrower to anything “politically correct.” Early in the film, he spouts out a racially-crude epitaph, only to begrudgingly correct himself. At least he’s trying?

D.C.’s daughter comes into town for the summer, but so do the winds of change. A local business schmooze (Dan Bakkedall) named Knoblach (a name perfect for R-rated alterations) wants to tear Action Point down and use it for development land, and as the rickety park struggles to make end’s meat, D.C. and his band of “Shitbirds” (a little family of flunky, frolic-loving park employees) devise a plan to save their stomping grounds. If this sounds like a spec script that dropped into the back of some studio exec’s filing cabinet in 1983, you’d be right. The thing is a formulaic as doing the Macarena in neon pants.

Knoxville and company want to not only homage the raunchy 80s fight-the-man comedy, but, indeed, the times themselves, when you rubbed dirt on knee scrapes, didn’t mind your mouth and didn’t worry about having anything but a good time. Times change, and we get older. Hypersensitivity can be a blessing and a curse, and while it’s been refreshing and needed to adjust the way we view things like concussions, racial awareness and, particularly for this slice of film, the way we treat and view women, one does kind of get where Action Point is coming from – maybe we do need to loosen the stick in our butts just a hair, just enough to sit a bit more comfortably than normal. Trumpism pulled the stick right out and smacked progress in the face with it, so there are extremes to avoid, of course.

But, the film needed more duct tape to hold its shaky ends together. It’s a vapid affair, one that’s spliced together with Jackass-approved stunts (that was the key to the marketing campaign), a father-and-daughter routine performed as frequently as “Free Bird” is at country cookouts, pathetic attempts to meet the “R” threshold and enough rally the troops brouhaha to paint that Bill Murray recruiting poster from Stripes. It’s a pale comparison to what’s come before, and, let’s be real honest here for a second, what came before really wasn’t all that great in the first place.

Though, Action Point puts forth an anarchistic streak that feels good to shake around in, because, yeah, the man does suck, and screw that guy. And, it feels like an act of catharsis for Knoxville and Pontius, who have seen Father Time and Vine make their Jackass stunts impossible and irrelevant for modern audiences. Who wants to pay to watch a jackass when your next-door neighbor just uploaded his latest screw up to YouTube for free? These guys are getting older, and the evening sun is setting low. A few more days, and they must go.

Knoxville is the fixed point here, and it’s fascinating to watch him maneuver in the film. He takes his stunts in stride, but they feel lonelier than usual. Most of his big gags are surrounded by random young actors we don’t know, and while they, and we, laugh at the shenanigans, you miss the comradery of the Jackass days, where even the most painful of nipple pinches or trips on the ice were met with instant pats on the back or bear hugs. Those guys loved to get hurt, but they also loved each other. Knoxville looks a bit weary, a little tired, not quite as spry, but still somewhat game. A blooper in the closing credits shows one of the less-dangerous stunts taking a toll on Knoxville’s body. The crew applauds when he gets up, instead of running over to slap his butt and send him off for another go.

Something’s off.

The familiar pranksters have indeed thinned out, and Knoxville and Pontius are left to corral about in a mediocre studio comedy, and do their best to keep the spirit alive. The former’s swagger is reminiscent of John Wayne in his farewell film, The Shootist. There, a sickly cowboy ventures into town to effectively find his death bed, and is only greeted with friendly familiarity by Jimmy Stewart’s local doctor, who shoots the breeze with Wayne about the wilder days and offers him some medicine to make the dyin’ a little easier for the old pilgrim. Everyone else around either wants to kill him, or ogle at his former glories. He’s still got his shot, but it ain’t gonna last much longer.

Pontius reminds you a bit of Stewart here – he’s the goofy, loveable oaf who just hangs around because he’s supposed to be there, the kind of character who would show up on Jackass and blend in just fine. That architype doesn’t exactly work for most fictional movies (typically, characters need to serve something grander), but for something trying to desperately recapture whatever magic still exists in a nut shot, he’s more than welcome.

Action Point is Knoxville’s The Shootist, or perhaps his Unforgiven. It’s kind of a lukewarm movie, but it’s also got moments of beauty and melancholy for what it means for those involved. One in particular finds D.C. and his kid at a diner, where the latter begins to bring her insecurities about her father to the forefront. How can you take care of me, she asks, when you can’t quite seem to take care of yourself? The rugged days of being a beer-guzzling Peter Pan to a gang of Shitbirds have to come to an end at some point, right?

Knoxville looks her square in the face and shows his hand. It’s you who gives me fear, not the death-defying tricks and lack of a helmet, he quietly shares, the actor’s teary eyes transcending fiction and reality. You wanted to see a real stunt? Well, here it is, the actor’s finest moment, square in the middle of a movie where he also chases after a porcupine and gets pricked in the leg.

Knoxville is 47 now, an actor whose name isn’t actually “Johnny Knoxville.” He was born Philip John Clapp Jr., in Knoxville, Tennessee. Johnny Knoxville is a stage name, and one wonders if “Johnny Knoxville” the personality is long for his world. He treats Action Point like it’s a precious farewell, and in that moment of staggering vulnerability with his fictional daughter, shows why Knoxville the actor might have a second wind beyond the demands of what being “Johnny Knoxville” has always called for. He needs to play back that scene at the diner and use to leverage some more dramatic roles. He’s clearly got the chops for it, and drama doesn’t require you to take countless hits in Mr. Johnson’s sack of potatoes. He’s free to take a breather; nobody’s going to question the guy’s status as a gifted slapstick comedian anytime soon.

By the end of Action Point, Knoxville’s D.C. gets everything he wants – he sticks it to the jerk business guy, saves the spirit of the park (if not the land itself), and wins back his daughter. Through all the celebrating, though, you can’t help but wonder if this is really it for Knoxville and his jackassery. Just how many times can a guy approaching 50 be slung by a trebuchet into a wooden barn? That final blooper of him slowly recovering from a stunt gone awry is the last thing you see before the final credits roll. That doesn’t feel like an accident.

The Jackass-style of comedy has its place in comedy history, a hallowed one in the medium. But in an age where kids eat Tide pods, and snort condoms up the nose, and Dumbass Davy is trying to be Facebook’s billionth idiot savant in his dive onto the flaming cardboard table, perhaps it’s time professional stunt comedy is retired. It’s never going to go away in terms of media, but maybe that warning before each and every Jackass episode has lost its prohibitive edge. When we’re all jackasses, should anyone really be a Jackass?

If Action Point really is it, and Knoxville about to hang up the tricks for good, consider this as fitting a farewell vehicle as he could’ve asked for. There are scratches and dings all on the sides of the car, the wheels are flat, and the bumper is missing. But, Johnny Knoxville is not John Wayne, nor does doesn’t need a classic to go out on. Just a humdinger of a jalopy that makes loud “pow” sounds out of the tailpipe, is good for a giggle every now and again and has enough room for everybody that wants in.

That still doesn’t work as a great movie, at least in the format Knoxville and company might be physically able to endure nowadays.

There aren’t any more pranks in the valley.

Maybe that’s a good thing, for Knoxville, and for us.

That’s how you survive, and make that survival count.