“Bee Movie” but instead it’s “Ant-Man and The Wasp”

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If it wasn’t official yet, it is now: Marvel does what DCan’t, and Ant-Man and The Wasp is even more proof! True, I was skeptical of Ant-Man well before its release in 2015, but it was no disappointment in my eyes or audiences — I’d even call it the sleeper hit of its year. Still, risks are greater this time around, both in story and in real life – Marvel Studios played quite a heavy trump card with Avengers: Infinity War back in April, and some would argue that there’s no point in seeing this movie. To those some, you’re very wrong.

Taking place at the same time of the events of Infinity War, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd, The Catcher Was A Spy) is under house arrest as part of a plea deal following his “criminal acts” in Captain America: Civil War — a light sentence, sure, but nonetheless boring. Alienated by his now-ex girlfriend, Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) and her father/his mentor, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), Scott is stuck doing nothing until he is given, for the lack of a better term, a vision of Hank’s long-lost wife, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer, Murder on the Orient Express) and her location in the mythical, nanoscopic Quantum Realm. Quickly, Scott is dragged back into the world of micro-heists as Ant-Man, allied with Hope as The Wasp, in the hopes of rescuing Janet and fighting off a terrifying menace known as Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen, Tomb Raider).

Returning director Peyton Reed continues to prove his worth as an action director with this film – masterfully commanding visual effects as he did with the first installment, from the title characters to the pioneering de-aging effects, making the dramatic moments meaningful and poignant, while keeping the comedy light-hearted and never suffocating — to think, this was the man who was initially best-known for directing Bring It On! Composer Christophe Beck also returns, and while his score makes little variation on what was heard before, it doesn’t need to be — what wasn’t broken before remains untarnished, and it’s good to have another Marvel solo movie with as recognizable a theme as Thor and Spider-Man! My only gripe with the creative/technical side of things is that it was shot in 2.39:1 — I see no reason for this ratio to exist in this day and age, especially when the preceding movie looked so good in 1.85:1 and that its new aspect ratio fits lousily on an IMAX screen and HDTVs, though in the case of IMAX showings, the image expands at select moments. Still, it feels like a step backwards, particularly after Avengers: Infinity War was filmed entirely with IMAX cameras.

As usual, the cast is superb — Paul Rudd continues to build better stuff against his previously (as I saw it) lousy CV of 90% dumb comedies. Seriously, this guy can do it all, and while Ant-Man is one of the more comedic heroes in the Marvel universe, he’s also one of the most complex – a divorced ex-con who wants to do right by himself, his daughter and his friends. Rudd understands this better than any other actor, and he should keep at this for as long as he can. Evangeline Lilly continues to be a fierce force in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and her role is as equally as complex as her male counterpart — Hope still feels betrayed by Scott’s actions in Civil War, but the playful repartee is still there among them, and she is determined in her efforts to see her mother again. This brings us to another facet of the MCU that I love, in that when they have strong ladies, they’re endearing to people of all ages without having manufactured fierceness, forced cuteness or pigeonholed into being a girl’s-only property (i.e.: Ghostbusters: Answer The Call, Frozen, Ocean’s 8). After all, the movie is titled Ant-Man and The Wasp, and the cooperative nature of the title is well-reflected therein. But, I digress.

Hank Pym is still a charming curmudgeon, skeptical of Scott and his friends as before, but tender at the right moments and every bit as brilliant as his actor, Michael Douglas. Michelle Pfeiffer, once Catwoman in Batman Returns, is still beautiful as ever and charming as Janet Van Dyne, and while I wish she had more screentime (she kind of functions akin to a MacGuffin), it’s still great to have an actress of her caliber in the Marvel fold. Also jumping the doomed DC ship is Laurence Fishburne (Hannibal) as Dr. Bill Foster, an estranged associate of Pym’s — it’s great to see that he’s written so complexly and is far more than the throwaway that Fishburne’s last comic book role, Perry White, was. Hannah John-Kamen, a relative newcomer in cinema, puts quite a feather in her cap as the elusive Ghost, another well-written character and one of the best-written villains in Marvel Studios’ history. Rest assured, she does far more than the angry Brit trope; she’s honestly one of the more tragic characters in the MCU, a fact that will be made much clearer when you see the film. Also, if you liked Luis (Michael Peña, Gangster Squad) in the first film, inane stories included, you will love this movie to the end of your days!

To be clear, the actions of Avengers: Infinity War do take a toll on Ant-Man and The Wasp, and that’s all the more reason to see the film — every Marvel Studios film, the good and the bad, is imperative to enjoying the next team-up, and we’ve got quite the film coming next May. Besides, if Infinity War depressed you, this brings some much-needed levity to the summer of Marvel.

Rating: 4.5/5

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The Bad In Every Man

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It’s been a banner year for spectacle films, with Dunkirk delivering on the war picture, Beauty and the Beast an unquestionable musical smash hit, Thor: Ragnarok undoubtedly the best blockbuster of the year, and a litany of independent critical darlings peppered throughout. Often overlooked in trade papers and festival buzz was the resurrection of the whodunnit mystery, in the form of Murder on the Orient Express. A paragon in Agatha Christie’s repertoire and another daring project from Kenneth Branagh (he of 1993’s full-text version of Hamlet), the film is simply amazing, but like its famous detective, we must go further into the who, what, when, where and why.

After an impressive case in Jerusalem, and now in Istanbul, renowned private detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) seeks a holiday away from the crime scene. Already travelling back home, he is persuaded by a close friend of his, Mr. Bouc (Tom Bateman, Da Vinci’s Demons) to travel with him by rail on the Orient Express — first class, all expenses paid! Quickly, the lush scenery and amenities do not justify the means when duplicitous passenger Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp, Black Mass) is found dead in his cabin, and so, for the greater good, Poirot must discern a killer from a motley crew of passengers-cum-suspects — among them, governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley, Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi), Doctor Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom, Jr., Red Tails), automotive dealer Biniamino Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, The Magnificent Seven) missionary Pílar Estravados (Penelope Cruz, Volver), Professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project), widow Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer, Dark Shadows) and the butler (Derek Jacobi, Anonymous) and bookkeeper (Josh Gad, Beauty and the Beast) of the recently deceased.

Star-studded this may be, but this film does not get lost in starpower like so many ensemble pieces do over the years — everyone gets their moment in the spotlight, and not one suffocates the other, not even Poirot himself! This is also firmly grounded as a murder mystery, first and foremost, and you will be shocked with how things play out — I’ve never read the book on which this is based, but by all accounts, there are numerous differences between the book, Sidney Lumet’s adaptation and Branagh’s, and that has drawn much ire and anger from critics and authors alike; I regard that as a great thing, because in a day and age when anyone can look up spoilers from classic novels via a smartphone, turning one such novel on its end only helps to surprise filmgoers and book-lovers. Rest assured, this film has a twist, and it is the most daring I’ve seen in a long, long time.

Branagh’s regular cinematographer, Haris Zambarloukis (Cinderella), returns for this film, and masterfully shoots it — on 70MM film, no less! Using the last four Panavision-made 70MM film cameras, the film’s native 8K image shines, even on a digital screen as I saw it. Despite the bulk of 70MM cameras and close quarters of a train cabin set, Zambarloukis manages to impress a wide viewing area, making the viewer feel that terror can come from anywhere, not unlike a horror film. My only gripe with said cinematography is that 20th Century Fox, the film’s distributor, opted for a Los Angeles/New York-only 70MM release, which I feel was stupid, given the amount of money Dunkirk made exclusively from said film showings. Still, it’s been a great year for movies photographed on film, and here’s looking to more!

Another returning Branagh regular is composer Patrick Doyle (Thor), bringing the requisite suspense and awe to a mystery picture, but also great moments of humility and drama at the appropriate times. He also co-composed an end credits song, with Branagh providing the lyrics (as they did on Cinderella), that is sung by co-star Michelle Pfeiffer, who carries the ballad with grace and heart.

In a cover story for Entertainment Weekly, the producers of Murder on the Orient Express spoke of sequels based on other Poirot mysteries if the film did well. The film has already outdone expectations at the box office — third place is nothing to sneeze at for a film like this — and I only hope that Kenneth Branagh and Company will be able to top the absolute perfection they have done with this film. As Poirot says, “there is good, and there is bad… and then, there is you.” We’ll see you at the Oscars, Monsieur.

Rating: 5/5