Recent Movie Roundup 30
I think it was in one of last year's recent movie roundups that I noted that while everything in the world seemed to be terrible, at least the movies were good. On the level of popcorn entertainment, if on no other, 2017 was a genuinely great year, delivering instant classics like Get Out, impeccable crowdpleasers like Wonder Woman, and slightly off-the-wall experiments like Spider-Man: Homecoming or Thor: Ragnarok. Now here we are in 2018, everything in the world is, amazingly, even worse than it was last year, and as if to add insult to injury, the movies aren't even that good. After the early highlight of Black Panther (which I'm increasingly coming to think of as an honorary 2017 movie), most of this year's blockbuster entertainment has run the gamut between fun-but-dumb (Deadpool 2), inessential (Solo), and pretty lousy (Infinity War). I don't even have high hopes for the rest of the year, whose "highlights" include Mission Impossible: Fallout, Venom, and Aquaman. The following bunch of films were all perfectly entertaining, but even the best of them pales besides what 2017 had to offer.
- Incredibles 2 - This fourteen-years-later follow-up to one of Pixar's greatest successes--and one of the best superhero movies of the 21st century, one that anticipated, and in many ways outclassed, many of the live-action films in the ongoing, post-Iron Man superhero boom--had a lot of expectations riding on it, and it's probably not a great surprise that it doesn't quite manage to live up to them. That's not to say that Incredibles 2 doesn't have moments of greatness that match the original. Its action scenes are thrilling and imaginative, taking full advantage of its various superpowered characters' abilities and the snazzy tech they've been furnished with. There are some genuinely laugh-out-loud sequences, most involving the youngest member of the superpowered Parr family, baby Jack-Jack, and the problems of corralling an infant with seemingly-unlimited superpowers. Edna Mode turns up, of course, with her familiar and irresistible combination of genius, ego, and murderous inventiveness. It's an extremely fun movie.
But it really isn't much more than that, and the checklist above is probably a big part of why. Incredibles 2 is the sort of sequel whose approach is to give the audience all the things they loved about the first movie, but bigger, louder, and in greater quantity. There's a reason this is one of the longest movies in Pixar's roster, and it's not because the plot desperately needs it. Rather, you can sense the filmmakers' (like the first film, this one has been written and directed by Brad Bird) desire to cram in every idea they had while brainstorming, in the belief that this is what the audience wants. But unlike other unnecessary-but-successful Pixar sequels like Toy Story 3 or Finding Dory, Incredibles 2 never finds a way to build on what its predecessor originated. The Edna Mode scene is an Edna Mode scene, allowing her (and Bird, who also voices the character) to cut loose with all the tics and idiosyncrasies we love and remember so well. But it does nothing new with the character, and this is true for the rest of the movie as well.
Perhaps the glut of fanservice is also meant to conceal the fact that Incredibles 2 is also not nearly as smart as its predecessor. The original Incredibles had one of the tightest, most perfectly-crafted scripts in Pixar's history (I might even go so far as to say in Hollywood in general), and one of the things that made it work is that it drew Bob and Helen Parr as intelligent, experienced people who were aware of the pitfalls of their profession (or rather, the tropes of their genre) and knew how to avoid them. What's more, it painted them as emotionally intelligent, aware of the need to maintain their marriage and take an active role in the raising of their children.
Incredibles 2 walks a lot of that back when it has the Parrs unthinkingly accept the offer of a superhero-buff industrialist to bankroll them and help them reform their image (the brief superhero renaissance promised by the end of the first film is cut short by concerns about mayhem and property damage), even though any genre-savvy viewer will be instantly suspicious. Even worse, it reduces Bob to the cliché of the dumb, clueless husband, when it turns out that Elastigirl, not Mr. Incredible, is to be the new face of superhero-dom, leaving Bob at home to care for the kids.
In the first film, Bob came off as distracted and depressed, but nevertheless a good, loving guy. That impression is destroyed by Incredibles 2, in which Bob can't even manage to pretend not to feel dismayed and displeased at being upstaged by his wife. His struggles to juggle the kids' needs, and slow realization that he needs to step up as a parent so that Helen can have her moment, would be more impressive if they weren't such a massive step backwards for the character (among other things, implying that, despite working at a job he despised and found extremely boring, Bob had virtually nothing to do with the care and upbringing of his children until Helen got a job).
Perhaps in response to the decade-plus of debate over the original Incredibles's political subtext, Bird dispenses with any ambiguity about the sequel's politics, stuffing it with tons of overly-complicated dialogue that sounds clever but turns incoherent at the slightest examination. In an early scene, the Parrs are informed that they can't be superheroes anymore because "politicians don't trust people who do good just because it's right". This is, obviously, completely wrong (it's also one of the ways you can tell this movie's production stretches back to well before the Trump administration), but what's worse is that the idea is dropped almost as soon as it's introduced. Later, Helen fights a villain who insists that he is trying to free people from their passive dependence on screens and entertainment, which might be a boldly subversive statement to make in an entertainment that millions of people will watch on a screen, if the film actually did anything with it.
Incredibles 2's ultimate villain tries to awkwardly tie this technophobia to a distrust of superheroes, insisting that people have become too dependent on supers and won't solve their own problems (to state the obvious, this seems highly unlikely in the world of these films, where superheroes have been illegal for fifteen years). But the film's response to this is to, well, have superheroes save the day, and no one seems to feel that this in any way validates the villain's point. In the end, it's hard to tell what Incredibles 2 is about, beyond the opportunity to let these characters do their thing for two hours. That's not nothing, but it's not the sequel we were hoping for, or that the original film deserved.
- Ocean's Eight - This all-female sequel/reboot/remake of the delightful Ocean's Eleven series (itself a remake of a Rat Pack film from the 60s) does little to conceal its connection to those films. Like Ocean's Eleven, it starts with our protagonist (Sandra Bullock as Debbie Ocean, sister of the original's Danny) scamming her way through a parole hearing by promising faithfully to stay on the straight-and-narrow, and, as soon as she's released, looking up her old partner in crime (Cate Blanchett as the stylish, cool as a cucumber Lou) so they can put together a team of equally quick-witted professionals to pull off a major score that turns out to have a personal component for their leader. There are some differences--Debbie's objective is revenge on the man who left her holding the bag and facing a prison sentence, not winning back a lost love (though the fact that her relationship with Lou, though never explicitly acknowledged as such, could very easily be read as a partnership in more ways than one gives the film a subtext of romantic reconciliation). And, of course, the context of the job--a jewelry heist at the Met Gala--is a change of pace from the previous Ocean films, and a nice touch given the all-female cast, since it allows our heroines to immerse themselves in an environment where almost everyone--marks, accomplices, obstacles--are women.
Nevertheless, Ocean's Eight feels very much as if it was written to a template, hitting setbacks and reversals almost exactly where a fan of the original films would expect them--as in a scene in which Lou realizes that Debbie is planning revenge against her ex, and gives her a speech that is almost word-for-word Rusty's "now we're stealing two things" rebuke from the original Ocean's Eleven. To be clear, this isn't a bad thing--there's a reason Ocean's Eleven is a classic, and recapturing its highs with an all-female cast of this caliber (as well as Bullock and Blancett, the film features Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham-Carter, Sarah Paulson, and Mindy Kaling) is worth the price of admission even if you can tell the twists ahead of time, especially because women so rarely get to play the types popularized by the Ocean's films, of chill dudes who know their business but also have each other's back.
The problem is that recalling the original Ocean's Eleven so strongly serves to highlight just how poor the plotting is in Ocean's Eight. In an early scene, Debbie tells Lou that she spent five years in prison planning this score, but the job we actually see is rooted in compromise, improvisation, and coincidence (not least, as the film's final twist reveals, the fact that the entire score rests on the Costume Institute choosing a particular theme for that year's exhibit). A long final stretch of the film in which the job is completed but Debbie and crew must scramble to throw off the attentions of an insurance investigator (James Corden, who gets some of the film's best jokes but is still playing a part that should have gone to a woman), only makes it more obvious that the characters have done a terrible job of covering their tracks, and that in six months they should all be in prison.
Most importantly, Ocean's Eight lacks the original films' sharpness. The twist at the end of Ocean's Eleven is one of the most thrilling moments in modern pop culture, and while that's obviously a tough act to follow (the two subsequent Ocean's movies, after all, were never able to recreate it) there's nothing in Ocean's Eight that even comes close that jaw-dropping realization of how thoroughly and delightfully we've been tricked. Instead, the film coasts on its stars' charm and wit--Hathaway's shallow yet surprisingly savvy Hollywood star, an unwitting accomplice of the gang as they manipulate her into borrowing a valuable Cartier necklace for her red carpet appearance, is a particular highlight, but everyone, including relative acting newcomers Rihanna and Awkwafina, carries their weight. That's not nothing, and I left the theater after Ocean's Eight feeling thoroughly entertained. But the more distance I get from it, the more I feel like these women deserved a better script, one that would have elevated Ocean's Eight from a gimmick into the classic that its cast could absolutely have delivered.
- Ant-Man and the Wasp - For all the reasonable objections raised to the concept of the MCU delivering a lighthearted, comedic romp only months after depicting galactic genocide at the end of Avengers: Infinity War, this is the only film I've watched recently that actually outdid its prequel. That, of course, has a lot to do with the fact that the original Ant-Man was half-baked at best, and easily one of the MCU's least successful entries. For the sequel, returning director Peyton Reed and his writers demonstrate an impressive capacity to recognize what worked in the original film--so Michael Peña's delightful ex-con character Luis returns with a lot more to do, including a scene in which he motor-mouths a summary of the events that took place between the two Ant-Man movies that is one of the sequel's comedic highlights--and jettisoning the stuff that didn't.
Most of all, this means downplaying the role of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), whom the original Ant-Man repeatedly and unconvincingly tried to sell as a hero, despite the fact that Evangeline Lilly's Hope Van Dyne was a much more persuasive candidate for the position of that film's protagonist. Ant-Man and the Wasp instead leans into the fact that Scott is a self-sabotaging idiot. The film opens with him only three days from completing the two-year home arrest sentence he was saddled with after thoughtlessly running off to fight alongside Captain America in Civil War, a choice that among other things forced Hope and her father Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) into hiding. Scott could do nothing but goof off for 72 hours and things would be fine, but instead he latches on to the flimsiest excuse to reach out to Hope and Hank, and from there his life descends into chaos.
Despite its title--very clearly chosen to assuage the angry response to Ant-Man's sidelining of her--Hope is not the co-lead of Ant-Man and the Wasp. But then, neither is Scott. The film is rather the MCU's first true ensemble piece, with multiples storylines and protagonists, each with their own goal. Hope and Hank hope to rescue the missing Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), lost for decades in the quantum realm, for which task they need Scott, who seems to have forged a connection with Janet during his own foray in the realm in Ant-Man, to help them. Their efforts to retrieve the last components they need for this project are interrupted first by Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), a mobster who wants to sell their research to criminals, and later by Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), an assassin who can phase through matter.
The latter turns out to be the daughter of one of Hank's former SHIELD colleagues, whose failed experiment doomed his daughter to a lifetime of pain and a looming death (if nothing else, you have to appreciate the Ant-Man movies for their casual insistence that SHIELD was always a dysfunctional shitshow, spewing far more chaos into the world than it ever solved), so it's hard not to feel that she has a point even though she's willing to kill Janet (and Scott, Hope, and Hank if they get in her way) to save her own life. Similarly sympathetic is Luis, who just wants the security business he's started with Scott to stay afloat, and keeps causing trouble for the Pyms by butting in at just the wrong moment.
It's refreshing for an MCU movie to extend so much sympathy and attention to each one of its characters--really, the only character who isn't even a little bit sympathetic is Burch, and even he's not very malicious; when he wants to get information out of Luis, for example, he resorts to truth serum, not torture. Even a subplot in which Randall Park plays Scott's long-suffering FBI monitor, who knows that his prisoner is breaking the terms of his plea deal but can't prove it, is given space to breathe. But as Ant-Man and the Wasp draws to a close, this proliferation of plotlines doesn't converge as elegantly as it should, and the film's ending feels rushed and crowded.
This is compounded by the fact that using it for fight scenes is literally the least interesting, least imaginative use to which one can put Hank Pym's miniaturization technology. The early parts of the film recognize this--a scene where Hank miniaturizes the entire building where he keeps his lab, thus turning it portable, drew gasps from me for its implications for the technology's possible implementations. But as the story approaches its mandatory big fight finish, these flights of imagination fade away--there are only so many times you can rely on the gag of "something that is supposed to be small is big", or vice versa, before it feels like you're reaching for ideas (the film actually gets more mileage out of scenes in which Scott's suit malfunctions, stranding him in child size or giant size, and forcing him to improvise around those limitations). Still, the film's use of humor, its relatively modest stakes, and its compassion for every one of its characters, mark it as a step in the right direction for the MCU and for the Ant-Man series in particular--even if the post-credits scene reminds us that in the wider world of the Avengers movies, none of these qualities are as prized as they should be.