Ant-Man and the Wasp

Time to recover from Infinity War with a fun, light-hearted family movie about two of the world’s most disgusting insects!

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Ant-Man and the Wasp
Director: Peyton Reed
Writers: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barrer, Gabriel Ferrari
Starring: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly and Michael Douglas
Music By: Christophe Beck
Rated PG-13 (for frequent punching and occasional language)

Scott Lang, aka Ant-Man, is nearing the end of his two-year house arrest sentence for his part in Captain America’s Civil War shenanigans. He gets an unexpected house call from Hank Pym and Hope Van Dyne, who want his help in an attempt to rescue Hope’s mother from the Quantum Realm, where she’s been stuck for about 30 years. They plan to accomplish this using a shiny new bit of magic Pym tech, but a ghostly figure with the power to phase through objects has other plans for the device. Scott and Hope (newly outfitted with a wasp-themed shrinking suit) have to team up to stop Ghost’s schemes and rescue Janet, all without getting caught by the FBI or Scott’s over-zealous parole officers.

This movie is pretty much what you’d expect from an Ant-Man sequel. It’s full of fun action, goofy science, comedic moments (mostly courtesy of lovable ex-cons Luis and friends) and some heartwarming family relationships.  Like its predecessor, it feels designed to be a bit of a breather after an epic, mostly serious Avengers movie. I had a lot of fun with it, but it was also the first Marvel movie in quite a while that didn’t amaze me with its quality and creativity.

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Fun fact: In real life, many species of wasp eat ants and/or lay their eggs in them.

And yet, I can’t say it didn’t fulfill my expectations. I wanted basically two things from this movie: lots of Wasp action and more creative uses of Pym’s size-changing tech (I felt the first movie was less imaginative on that score than it could have been). And I got plenty of both. Wasp definitely earns her co-star credit with Ant-Man, getting just as much screentime as he does and driving the plot in a much more significant way. Unfortunately, she doesn’t get quite as much character development as I would have liked. Just like the last female-focused superhero movie of the summer, this one seems afraid to give its heroine any major flaws or challenges to overcome. It’s less annoying here than it was in The Incredibles 2, though, because anything’s an improvement over Hope’s role as a glorified extra in the last movie. And it’s a lot of fun to see her and Scott working together in their matching suits. I’m a sucker for a good superhero teamup scene.

We also get to see a lot more of what Pym particles are capable of in this movie. Both Scott and Hope have gotten much better at weaponising rapid changes in size, whether it’s by shrinking down to dodge a punch or growing a Pez dispenser big enough  to stop a car. And, of course, Giant-Man makes another welcome appearance. The movie is packed with cool fight scenes and car chases, trips to the ever-trippy Quantum Realm, and a variety of stunts achieved by variously-sized ants. If you’re looking for an afternoon of sheer goofy fun, this movie delivers pretty much everything you could hope for.

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“I’m not a whale, sorry.”

But if you’re looking for anything more than that, you’ll be disappointed. Ant-Man and the Wasp seems far more interested in delivering action and laughs than it is in giving its characters anything like a compelling story arc. For the most part, this movie doesn’t build on its predecessor’s character development at all. Scott is still a good dad, Hank Pym is still a bad dad (and husband) trying to redeem himself, and Hope is still a super-competent fighter and ant-whisperer. I still find Cassie adorable, and I still don’t buy the romantic connection between Scott and Hope. Nothing changes in this movie in terms of the characters and their relationships. As a result, even though the plot is essentially about bringing a loved one back from the dead, the story has surprisingly little emotional weight.

Ghost remedies that slightly. She’s everything a villain should be: legitimately threatening, with a sympathetic motivation and a shot at redemption that still don’t negate her evil actions. And unlike our protagonists, she does have a bit of a character arc over the course of the movie. Its effect is lessened a bit by the ending, which resolves her storyline with one of the more ridiculous deus ex machinas I’ve seen in a blockbuster movie, but I was on board up until then.

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Who you gonna call?

The movie’s secondary villain, Generic Evil Businessman #7, is so forgettable I’m not even completely sure why he was in the movie. He contributes nothing except excuses for a funny scene involving Luis and truth serum, and a car chase towards the end. Both those scenes are good, but I feel they could have been achieved in a way that didn’t involve giving tons of screentime to the most boring Marvel villain since the prosthetic elf in Thor: The Dark World.

I was also slightly disappointed by this movie’s use of the Quantum Realm. Mainly because it makes no sense. A Marvel movie is generally the last place I would expect to find scientific accuracy, but this movie takes the goofiness to another level. Just about everything in the plot is resolved by never-before-seen magical powers that are supplied by the Quantum Realm in ways the movie doesn’t even attempt to explain. Yes, I know, that’s how comic book science works most of the time, but when it comes to resolving a major plot point, I like the explanation to consist of a little more than a pseudo-scientific name beginning with the word “quantum.”

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At least it still looks cool. *Sigh*

Overall, this is a fun, light-hearted summer movie that goes well with popcorn and is suitable for kids (as long as they don’t have insect phobias). After the last six or seven masterpieces of blockbuster cinema, I guess I’ve just come to expect a little more than that from Marvel.

Come on, Captain Marvel. Please live up to the hype.

Grade: B

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The Incredibles 2

The latest superhero sequel of the year continues the 2018 theme of franchises not being content to leave well enough alone.

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The Incredibles 2
Director and Writer: Brad Bird
Starring: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, etc.
Music By: Michael Giacchino
Rated: PG (for more of the same superhero violence and adult themes found in the first movie)

This sequel picks up right where its 14-year-old predecessor left off. The Parr family has just saved the day from Syndrome’s schemes, but that isn’t enough to convince the government to legalise hero work. After the family is forced underground again, a pair of tech company executives offer Elastigirl an opportunity to advocate for superhero rights by attaching a camera to her suit while she performs public acts of heroism. Mr. Incredible stays home with the kids, which turns out to be a more difficult assignment than he expected when baby Jack-Jack’s plethora of powers start to emerge.  Meanwhile, Elastigirl’s activities draw the attention of a new, mind-control wielding supervillain called the Screenslaver. It’ll take a whole family of supers (plus Frozone and a few new allies) to foil their tech-savvy foe’s plans.

The Incredibles was the first superhero movie I saw in a theatre, and even though it was intended as a deconstruction of the genre, it did more to spark my love of cape-and-cowl fiction than anything else from my childhood (except maybe the original Spider-Man trilogy). I still think it’s one of the smartest, most consistently entertaining superhero films out there, even in today’s golden age of comic book movies. It’s also a very complete movie, especially for its genre. Every plot thread and character arc is wrapped up in the end, with no loose ends demanding a sequel. I’ve heard Brad Bird quoted as saying he didn’t want to make a sequel unless he was sure it could be as good as the first movie. So this film, coming well over a decade after its predecessor, had a lot to live up to.

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Everyone looks a lot better than they did 10 in-universe seconds ago…

And it definitely does a lot of things right. It’s nice to hear all the original voice actors return (with the exception of Dash, who was recast by necessity), and Giacchino’s soundtrack is as jazzy and cool as ever. The animation definitely showcases the technological advancements that have been made since the first Incredibles. It’s actually a bit jarring to see the super-stylised characters from the last movie moving so much more smoothly, and with so much more detail in their faces and backdrops.

But it definitely helps with the action scenes. The action in this movie is as exciting and fun as it was in the first instalment, and if anything, it shows more creativity on the part of Brad Bird and his animation team. Some highlights include a train vs. motorcycle chase scene involving Elastigirl, a climactic fight involving a character who creates portals, and absolutely every scene in which Jack-Jack appears. After the hints we got in the last movie regarding Jack-Jack’s many powers, I was excited to see him use them in this movie, and he did not disappoint. An uber-powerful baby with no control over his abilities may be a parent’s nightmare, but he completely stole the show for the me.

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“No firing the baby around the house!”

Another thing I enjoy about both Incredibles movies is seeing the family work together. When you have a bunch of superheroes with different abilities fighting the same villain, it can be difficult to make them work together in a believable way without resolving the conflict too quickly or giving one superhero more to do than the others (see the end of Justice League for an example of this being done badly). But unless they’re having trouble communicating in-universe, the Incredibles always manage to do the teamwork thing really well: for example, in one scene Mr. Incredible is steering a giant machine away from some buildings while Frozone slows it down with ice and Elastigirl fights the baddie controlling it. Everybody has something to do and does it well, which is always one of my favourite things to see in a superhero team-up movie.

Another thing I appreciate about The Incredibles 2 is that it managed to maintain the same tone as its predecessor. Like that movie, this feels like a superhero film aimed at adults, which also happens to be suitable for kids, rather than the other way round. It doesn’t shy away from death, violence, or complex concepts like the role of technology in our lives.  And the setting revels in its retro-futuristic style as much as ever.

But as much fun as I had with this movie, it didn’t even come close to leaving the same impression on me as the first one did. Granted, I’m much older and far more inundated with superheroes than I was when The Incredibles came out, but I also think this movie fell a bit short in some of the areas that made its predecessor so special.

First, there’s the villain. Screenslaver has a creepy design and an intimidating power, and, at first, seems poised to bring an interesting philosophical question about superheroes to the fore, just like Syndrome did. The villain’s first couple monologues (no, the baddies still haven’t learned their lesson about monologuing) argue that superheroes should stay underground because their heroics make normal people weak and dependent. It’s a valid point that Lex Luthor and other supervillains have explored before to great effect. But this movie does disappointingly little with the idea, and I think it’s partly because Screenslaver isn’t as compelling a villain as Syndrome was.

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“The Screenslaver interrupts this broadcast for an important announcement…”

Unlike Syndrome, Screenslaver has neither a personal connection to the Parr family nor an onscreen backstory. Screenslaver’s identity is also kept secret for half the movie and treated like a major twist when it’s revealed, which I think was a bad idea. First, it relegates our villain’s motivations to one monologue and a 30-second flashback, instead of allowing the audience to see things from their point of view like we did with Syndrome. And the surprise element didn’t even work for me. There were only two possible candidates for Screenslaver’s true identity, and I figured out which one it was about five minutes after they were introduced. Surprise villain reveals are a lot more fun when they’re, y’know, surprising.

This movie also falls short of its predecessor in terms of its character arcs. In the first movie, every member of the Parr family learns a lesson or grows as a person by the end. In this movie, most of the family has everything figured out from the beginning. Bob switches roles with Helen and has to figure out how to be a better dad (kind of like he did in the first movie…), and Violet has a minor subplot where she learns to appreciate hero work and accept her role in the family crime-fighting team (kind of like she did in the first movie…), but Helen, who takes the spotlight for the most part, really has nothing to learn. Her part of the story is all about stopping the bad guy, which is fine–I love watching Elastigirl rubber-punch things. But apart from a few fleeting moments where she gets worried about leaving her family at home, she doesn’t really have an internal conflict to resolve or a flaw to overcome. It almost feels like Brad Bird was afraid to give his super-mom any weaknesses, which is a shame, because it makes her story less interesting than Bob’s was in the first movie.

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At least she gets a cool bike out of the deal, though!

But that’s about it for character arcs. Dash contributes practically nothing to the story, and although Jack-Jack goes through some changes (literally), he’s still more of an unpredictable prop than a character. We’re introduced to some new supers, but they don’t have much to do except help out in a big fight at the end.

Would I care about any of this if I hadn’t grown up with the first movie? Probably not. On its own merits, The Incredibles 2 is a fine movie that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to any family with children. But I’m picky about sequels, especially when they come after classics like The Incredibles. In order for me to love a sequel, it has to do at least one of three things: continue a storyline left hanging in the first movie, develop the first movie’s characters in new and interesting ways, or take the first movie’s concept and do something totally unique with it. The Incredibles 2 doesn’t do any of those things particularly well.

But then, what did I expect? The Incredibles is about as close to a perfect superhero movie as we’re ever going to get. It has everything: suspenseful hero action, likable characters, quotable dialogue, an interesting setting, and a bunch of challenging messages designed to make the audience think. It’s basically a smarter X-Men or a less depressing Watchmen. Any sequel was doomed to pale in comparison. In a way, I’m glad the standards have been lowered a bit. Now it might be possible for future Incredibles movies to pleasantly surprise me.

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“I never look back, darling. It distracts from the now.”

Still, if you haven’t done so already, I highly recommend seeing this movie in the theatre–if only to make sure you see Bao, the short film that precedes it. It’s the oddest, most surprising cinematic experience I’ve had in quite some time. I won’t say anything else for fear of spoiling it, but just like Piper before Finding Dory, it’s a short that rather outshines its feature film.

Then again, The Incredibles 2 has Jack-Jack fighting a raccoon. That counts for something.

Grade: B+

Solo: A Star Wars Story

Looks like Disney put out a new Star Wars movie last week.

Unless it was in 2012. I’m a little confused, to be honest.

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John Carter
Director: Andrew Stanton
Writers: Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon
Starring: Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins
Music By: Michael Giacchino
Released: 2012
Rated PG-13 (for very mild language, blood that is mostly blue, and offscreen youngling murder)

This space opera tells the story of a lovable rogue who gets reluctantly caught up in a war between aliens, falls in love with a princess, and becomes best friends with a dog-like monster. More specifically, John Carter is a bitter Confederate soldier-turned-prospector who’s hunting for gold in the Wild West when he comes across a glowing amulet that transports him to Mars–or, as the locals call it, Barsoom. Thanks to the lower gravity, he’s extra strong and can jump extra high on Mars, which helps endear him to  a tribe of green, four-armed warriors. But when he bumps into a conveniently human-looking princess on the run from her fiancé, a warlord who wants to take over the planet, he quickly finds himself having to choose sides in a war between Mars’s two major cities.

There are two reasons I thought I might like this movie going in. First, I enjoy those early sci-fi novels, written when actual scientists still thought there might be canals on Mars and rainforests on Venus, and nobody had a clue what space travel would be like. And this movie is based on one of the earliest examples of that type of book–A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (same guy who wrote the original Tarzan). Second, I knew this movie was a huge box office flop when it came out, and, historically, most of my favourite Disney movies–Treasure Planet, The Rocketeer, The Emperor’s New Groove, etc.–have also flopped to one degree or another.

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I wasn’t the only person who saw this, right?

And I did find a lot to like about this particular Star Wars movie. Some of its CGI hasn’t aged well (I had the urge to laugh every time John Carter hopped into the air on invisible wires), but it still manages to paint a beautiful and believable picture of its Martian fantasy world. Even though the movie throws a lot of alien culture at the audience in a short amount of time, it does so almost completely through visual storytelling, not exposition. For example, nobody ever explains the four-armed aliens’ method of reproduction, which is important for one of the many subplots–John Carter just stumbles across a nest of babies, and we then see how they’re integrated into the tribe’s society. Even some more complicated concepts, like the actual method by which our hero gets zapped to Mars, get about two lines of explanatory dialogue at most–the audience is just expected to pick up the idea based on what happens onscreen. Most sci-fi and fantasy movies have at least one long exposition scene, so I found this movie’s commitment to show, not tell, rather refreshing.

Of course, the downside is that the audience is also expected to accept a whole lot of ridiculous names being thrown at us by actors (and CGI monsters) with absolutely straight faces. Tharks and therns and Jeddaks and a city called Helium and a magical chant containing a word that sounds exactly like “wheeze”…it’s a lot to take, even for somebody like me, who thoroughly enjoyed Doctor Strange‘s magic artefacts. I imagine that’s part of the reason this movie didn’t do well at the box office, apart from its unnecessarily bland title. Without a built-in fanbase, it’s hard for Hollywood to get people interested in a story with so many ridiculous names and places to keep track of.

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At least it’s no Jar-Jar.

Despite all that, I was always able to follow the story, and by the time John Carter got to Mars (which admittedly took a few minutes too long), I was invested. The lead actor isn’t bad…although he does have one of those faces I automatically associate with gym-loving guys who use the terms “beta” and “–tard” unironically. I don’t imagine he would do well in a role that required nuance and complexity, but fortunately this one doesn’t. He’s just a regular action hero with a very simple character arc, and it works.

The other characters largely make up for the hero’s blandness. Princess Dejah Thoris, despite having yet another goofy name, is really quite likable and gets to do a lot more than I was expecting from a damsel in distress. But my favourite characters were the two main Tharks (the aforementioned four-armed aliens), who are, weirdly enough, played by two of the more famous actors in the movie. Theirs was the most interesting out of all the subplots woven through this story, and they were the characters I connected with the most on an emotional level.

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Way more than these two, that’s for sure.

Oh, and the dog-alien was cute, I guess. It seems there always needs to be a dog-alien when Disney is involved.

John Carter is very much in the vein of all the old, pulpy adventure movies where a muscle-y guy goes to an exotic place, punches some monsters while shirtless, kills the bad guys, gets the girl, and saves the priceless artefact (or is the other way round?). For what it is, it’s very well-made and accomplishes pretty much everything it sets out to do. If you enjoy that kind of story, or if you just like seeing fresh visual takes on alien worlds, there’s a very good chance you’ll enjoy this movie.

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I mean, I’m always up for a good arena monster fight.

Personally, though, I think its greatest weakness is that it’s just okay. It’s not bad, but it’s not amazing, either. And I think that’s why it failed so hard at the box office. The other Star Wars movies can get away with occasional mediocrity because they have the words “Star Wars” in their titles, and most people will pay money for anything even tangentially associated with that label. Because this movie left those words out of its title, it didn’t have a gigantic fanbase willing to accept whatever nonsense was thrown on the screen, so it would have needed to be Lord of the Rings-level awesome in order to turn a profit. And it just wasn’t.

After watching it, though, I’m honestly kind of sad we’ll never get a sequel. I’d like to see more of Barsoom and its creatures and technology. Maybe I’ll have to check out the books.

Grade: B

Oh, and maybe someday I’ll review Solo for real. Didn’t feel like paying theatre prices for it.

Cargo

I’m in a zombie mood again!

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Cargo
Directors: Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke
Writer: Yolanda Ramke
Starring: Martin Freeman
Music By: Daniel Rankine (I think…the internet is unclear)
TV-MA (for swearing and zombie-related grossness)

Andy, his wife Kay, and their baby daughter Rosie are waiting out the Australian zombie apocalypse on a houseboat in the middle of a river. Since a sensible set-up like that obviously can’t last in a zombie movie, the undead catch up with them, Kay gets killed and Andy gets bitten. Alone in the outback, with about 48 hours of humanity left, Andy has to find a way to get his daughter to safety before he becomes a mindless, munching monster.

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An Unexpected Journey.

This movie is based on an excellent 7-minute Australian film with the same name and the same writer/director duo. When I stumbled across it on YouTube a few years ago, I loved it because it was such a short, sweet story, and packed such a big emotional punch. (I’d still highly recommend it–you can watch it here.) So when I found out it was going to be a Netflix movie, I was torn between excitement and pessimism. On the one hand, the short was so good that I was sure its creators had it in them to make a good feature film. And Martin Freeman starring in a movie is always a good sign. On the other hand, much of the short’s impact comes from its simplicity, and I wasn’t sure how well it would work to expand it to two hours. Not to mention that the term “straight to Netflix” is starting to take on the same connotations as “straight to DVD” when it comes to movies.

And yes, this movie does sometimes feel as slow-moving as its zombies. There’s very little action and quite a lot of walking and talking. But the writer and director clearly worked hard to expand on their original concept. For one thing, in the full-length version, Andy is joined on his journey by an Aboriginal girl named Thoomi, a clever survivor who’s still having trouble accepting that there’s no cure for her zombified loved ones. The movie also adds a human antagonist in the form of Vic, a greedy miner who sees the apocalypse as just another business opportunity.

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And on top of everything else, her makeup’s running.

Part of the fun of any zombie movie is seeing how it portrays its living dead–because generally speaking, no two zombie movies are alike in that regard. Cargo adds some inventive twists to the monsters: hibernating zombies that have to stay in the dark, “diggers” that bury their heads in the ground while waiting for prey, etc. The transformation process is also a bit different–and a bit more gross–than usual. This movie’s zombies don’t come across as living corpses so much as really, really sick people, complete with a disgusting sap-like discharge from their eyes and mouths. That being said, the movie has a pretty tasteful approach to its gore. Most deaths happen off-screen, and the focus is always on the tragedy of the death rather than the blood-and-guts.

And personally, while I don’t mind fast zombies necessarily, I tend to prefer monsters that take longer to transform, partly because it allows for dramatic scenarios like the one in this movie.

The original short was a simple story of fatherly love. This movie keeps that theme, but it also adds several more layers of character development for its protagonist. For one thing, the full-length movie shows the disaster that kicks off the plot is largely Andy’s fault, adding a desire for atonement to his motivations for the rest of the film. It also throws some tough ethical dilemmas his way as he searches for a suitable home for his daughter. Turns out that, after an apocalypse, your options for an adoptive family are limited, and Andy often finds himself having to choose between leaving Rosie with people who are good at surviving or with people who are…well, good.

His relationship with Thoomi is another welcome change to the story. They meet under bad circumstances and don’t really get along at first. Like a lot of Aboriginal people, she has no reason to trust a white guy, and he doesn’t understand her way of doing things. But as their situation forces them to rely on each other more and more, they develop a rather sweet friendship. The movie becomes, not just a story about fatherly love, but also one of reconciliation and understanding between people from very different cultures. Which is also very sweet.

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“You’re all I’ve got.”

The problems I have with this movie are fairly small. Characters make some pretty stupid decisions, especially towards the beginning, and a lot of problems even later on could have been avoided if people would just come out and say what they were thinking. Some of these mistakes are understandable, especially coming from a character like Andy, who’s not used to surviving in the outback, and they’re certainly not unusual in the zombie genre, but they still annoyed me a bit.

On the other hand, the characters also come up with some pretty clever ways of avoiding the zombies later in the movie, so that helps make up for the earlier stupidity.

As one might expect from its premise, this is a very sad, bleak story, without much of the silliness or crazy action you’d expect from an average zombie movie. Its message is ultimately pretty hopeful and uplifting, but there’s a lot of depressing stuff to wade through before we get to that point. This is definitely not something to watch when you’re trying to cheer yourself up after a rough day.

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At least…the baby’s cute?

Overall, though, I thought it was just about as excellent as I would have expected from the makers of the original short. Martin Freeman is brilliant as always, and it’s kind of nice to see him doing an indie movie like this after becoming part of the big Marvel machine. The Aussie actors backing him up also do a great job (even the twins who played the baby, although whoever directed them should probably take the credit for that). There’s some impressive zombie makeup, some lovely shots of the Australian landscape, and some hauntingly beautiful music. It’s more thoughtful and more creative than the straight-to-Netflix label might suggest, and I feel comfortable saying it’s the best zombie movie I’ve seen in quite some time.

While I was watching it, though, I realised it’s been at least a good month and a half since I saw a movie in which all the main characters survive to the end. I need to find a more cheerful movie for next week…

Grade: A-

Sunshine

Don’t look directly at the sun, kids. It’s bad for you.

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Sunshine
Director: Danny Boyle
Writer: Alex Garland
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh, etc.
Music By: John Murphy
Released: 2007
Rated R

Apparently, 50 years after this movie was made, the Sun is going to stop working, and the Earth is going to get cold, threatening the existence of the human race. Our story is about a group of eight astronauts aboard the Icarus 2 (the previous Icarus mission having failed, probably due to its terrible name), who are on their way to fix the Sun by throwing a big bomb at it. (Shockingly, this film was made by Brits, not Americans.) Along the way, something goes wrong with the mission, forcing the astronauts to make contact with the previous Icarus ship, where the crew may or may not still be alive.

This movie is more than 10 years old, was made by an Academy Award-winning director and stars some very big Hollywood names (although in fairness, it was made when Chris Evans’ most famous superhero role was still the Human Torch), yet it took me until late last year to find out it existed. I’m always game for trying a new sci-fi movie I know nothing about, and I’m going through Captain America withdrawals, so I decided to pick it up pretty much based on those facts alone.

And…it turned out to be a bit of an odd pick. Based on the plot description, it seems like it should have been a goofy B-movie, and it certainly isn’t. Based on its cinematography and writing, it seems like it should be a philosophical sci-fi epic, but it never quite gets there, either. It’s some kind of weird hybrid of the two. A…B-epic, perhaps?

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Got your SPF 9000 handy?

Let’s start with the setting. I’m no astrophysicist, but I’m fairly certain most of the “science” presented by this movie is nonsense. Just for starters, NASA scientists predict the Sun won’t start “dying” for at least a couple billion years, barring some very unlikely accidents, and when it does die, it’s far more likely to expand, heating up the Earth, than to cool and cause another ice age. And that’s not even getting into some of the ridiculous ways space behaves in this movie.

But Sunshine does try very hard to create a scenario that makes sense, if not according to real-world physics, then at least according to its own internal logic. Much of the first act is dedicated to showing the audience exactly how everything works on the Icarus 2: how its massive radiation shield has to be aligned perfectly toward the Sun to avoid catastrophic damage, how it gets oxygen from a garden fed by recycled water, how the ship’s advanced computer has to be immersed in coolant in order to function, etc. All these things become important later on, and the set-up pays off because the way they work remains consistent throughout the movie. Everything is presented in a way that seems plausible, even if it wouldn’t work in real life.

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Oxygen gardens seem like a sensible thing to have in space, though…

Another reason the lack of actual science in this movie didn’t bother me too much is that it has a pretty surreal feeling throughout, which I’m pretty sure is intentional. There are short dream sequences; a scene that keeps getting interrupted by quick, almost subliminal shots of dead characters; and one character who always appears blurred and distorted on the screen. Then the third act happens, and things get really wonky. But I think the sound is more to blame for that surreal feeling than the visuals.

The soundtrack is probably my favourite thing about the movie. I had already heard some of it before–the climactic track “Adagio in D Minor” has been recycled in numerous trailers, and even some other official soundtracks. But in the movie itself, the music blends with the noises of the ship and of space (yes, this movie occasionally has noise in space, just go with it), and it creates a very creepy, moody atmosphere that perfectly fits the story’s tone.

That atmosphere leads to a constant feeling of claustrophobic tension. Almost the entire movie takes place inside a stark, badly-lit spaceship with little room to move…and when we join up with our crew, they’ve already been together inside it for months. It’s no wonder tensions are already running high at the beginning, especially since the crew has just passed outside the range of communication with Earth and the resident psychiatrist has an unhealthy obsession with the Sun.

“Kaneda, what do you see?”

Like any self-respecting sci-fi drama about a small crew trapped and alone in space, this one features quite a few characters who go a little nuts. But characters in this movie tend to go nuts only in a way that involves unsafe sungazing. When it’s not taking place inside a drab spaceship, the film is full of beautiful shots of the Sun and extreme close-ups of human eyes looking at the Sun. Our nearest star is treated almost like a living thing in this movie: a siren beckoning some characters to their doom, while promising some sort of enlightenment to others.

And throughout the movie, I had the feeling the storytellers were trying to say something through that Sun-obsession theme. At one point, a character who’s gone insane starts babbling about how the Sun is God, and He wants humanity to end…but it doesn’t really go beyond that, and the insane character is a little hard to take seriously anyway. The ending, while somewhat ambiguous, seems to suggest there really is something enlightening or spiritual about coming face-to-face with the Sun, but it just isn’t expanded upon as much as I’d hoped. Unless I’m just too stupid to get it…which is always a possibility.

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One lesson I definitely took away from this movie: Mercury is super cool!

A theme that’s better developed in this movie is the idea of weighing one person’s life against many. From the beginning, all the characters are well aware of two things: the extreme danger of their mission, and the fact that it is the “last, best hope” for mankind. From the moment things start to go wrong, the movie is basically a long series of trolley problems, forcing the characters to make increasingly drastic choices to ensure their mission doesn’t fail. The right choice always seems pretty clear, at least to the audience: after all, what is one person’s life compared to all the billions of people who live on Earth, and will live there in the future? But despite knowing the risks beforehand, some characters don’t react well to the idea of dying or letting a crewmate die, and at least one goes way too far in the other direction. (After all, what are billions of tiny human-sized lives compared to the Sun and the vastness of space?)

Against all odds, this movie actually did ease my Captain America withdrawals, because Chris Evans plays the most competent character in it. Mace, the computer engineer, has some anger management issues, but he’s the only member of the cast who consistently puts the safety of the human race above his personal feelings (including his regard for his own life or the lives of his crewmates). He always does the most pragmatic, logical thing in every situation, which is rather refreshing to see in a movie like this. I wouldn’t be too surprised if this role helped Evans land his spot in the MCU. Of course Cillian Murphy’s character, the physicist Capa, is no slouch in the hero department either, even if he causes as many problems as he fixes.

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“Is it the surface of the Sun? Every time I shut my eyes, it’s always the same…”

Overall, I enjoyed this movie quite a bit–mainly thanks to the music, the creative visuals, and the acting, which is great across the board. But I constantly felt like it was trying to say something important, and I don’t think it ever quite got the words out. It feels like a movie that could have been right up there with the greatest sci-fi classics of all time…if a few story elements were tweaked and the filmmakers thought a little harder about what they wanted to say. As it is, it’s an exciting flick with some very memorable scenes, but not necessarily a must-see.

Unless you have a powerful need to see Scarecrow fighting Captain America. Then you don’t want to miss it.

Grade: B

Final Space

Now that Infinity War is out, I’m free to talk about stuff that isn’t Marvel. And what better way to transition out of those giant box office juggernauts than with a relatively obscure cartoon by a D-list YouTube celebrity?

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Final Space
Creators: Olan Rogers, David Sacks
Starring: Olan Rogers, David Tennant, Tika Sumpter, etc.
Music By: Shelby Merry and Jake Sidwell
Rated TV-14

Gary Goodspeed is finishing up a five-year prison sentence in deep space. He’s only had a crew of annoying robots for company during that time, so he’s overjoyed when an adorable little green alien, whom he dubs Mooncake, bumps into his ship, the Galaxy One. Unfortunately, it turns out that Mooncake is actually a planet-destroying super-weapon, and the evil Lord Commander is after it for nefarious purposes. Gary teams up with a grumpy bounty hunter named Avocato and a scientist named Quinn (who also happens to be his unrequited crush) to protect Mooncake and save the Earth–nay, the universe–from Lord Commander’s schemes.

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“‘Universe’ sounds way cooler.”

Pretty much ever since I discovered YouTube, Olan Rogers has been among my favourite YouTubers. Whether it was his early skits with the BalloonShop channel, his later skits on his own channel, or dramatic stories about his life, his goofy-yet-wholesome brand of comedy has always been one of the few things guaranteed to cheer me up whenever I’m feeling down. If you’ve never heard this man tell a story, you should remedy that immediately. Here’s a link to a classic to get you started.

So naturally, I was thrilled when I found out this guy had made it big and started his own cartoon show on TBS. And for the most part, Final Space is exactly what I would have expected from Rogers. The humour is very much in the same vein as his YouTube stuff, relying on odd euphemisms (“Dear Heavenly Lightning Lord!”), other colourful turns of phrase (“I didn’t expect that hurt coin deposit in my sadness savings!”), and general absurdity. But it also throws in a lot of morbid, black comedy…which mostly works even better in the world where this story takes place.

And the world of Final Space looks great. Heck, space itself is the best-looking thing in this show. The character designs may be cartoon-y, but the backdrops, the spaceships, the supernovae and the occasional apocalyptic destruction just look like beautiful sci-fi art. The soundtrack, which I think I can best describe as indie space rock, adds several layers of atmosphere and perfectly complements every emotional moment. It’s one of the better soundtracks I’ve heard in a show, cartoon or otherwise.

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“Play the good stuff, HUE!”

But the best thing about the show is easily its characters. Gary is a bit of an acquired taste (even more so, I imagine, for anyone unfamiliar with Olan’s style of humour), but he’s often hilarious, and always a great guy at heart. Quinn is all the heroism with none of the stupidity, Avocato is as cool as he is cat-like, and David Tennant, again, shows his skill at creating villains I love to hate with his unrecognisable Lord Commander voice. Even the show’s robots have a wide range of personalities, from the everlasting annoyance of KVN to the patient, loyal HUE. And Mooncake is just ridiculously adorable.

As eclectic as they are, all the main characters have one thing in common: they’re all flawed, and they all know it by the end.  Gary is impulsive and irresponsible, Quinn is stubborn and tends to put her trust in the wrong people, and Avocato is a ruthless mercenary trying to atone for a dark past. But throughout the show, they strive to become better people and often succeed, mainly because of their undying loyalty and friendship with each other. Gary himself sums it up best: “All of us are broken. It’s just a matter of how much, and how far we’re willing to go to fix it.”

Even though I found it quite funny, I think calling Final Space a comedy would be a stretch. The jokes are just the sprinkles on top of the show. At its gooey centre,  this is an epic space opera about a ragtag group of heroes facing down impossible odds to save each other and the world. For every moment that made me laugh, there was at least one other that tugged at my heartstrings.

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In space, no one can hear you cry.

Oh, and there’s quite a lot of gory death–sometimes deliberately over-the-top for comedy’s sake, and sometimes played straight. The show also has something of an atmosphere of impending doom. Each episode begins with a flash forward to a future in which Gary is drifting alone in space, slowly running out of oxygen with only HUE for company, so we don’t start off with a whole lot of confidence in a happy ending.

Final Space is only 10 episodes long, and each episode is only about 20 minutes, so it has to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time. For the most part, it does this admirably (I imagine years of experience with YouTube shorts helps with that). Hardly a single moment feels wasted, and the writing manages to pack a ton of character development and a rather complex plot into the allotted time. Still, the format does limit its storytelling a bit. I would have liked to see more backstory for some of the characters, and the romance between Gary and Quinn really suffers from the compressed timeline. It’s pretty much your basic “loser falls in love with girl way out of his league, gradually wears her down with persistence and a winning personality” story from every comedy ever. The show at least tries to make their relationship feel natural (it helps that Gary really is a good guy at heart), but there’s just not enough time for it to work. Fortunately, there have been hints on the Twittersphere that Season 2 will be longer.

 

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Statistically speaking, relationships formed during the apocalypse tend to be short-lived.

Other than that, and a few jokes that didn’t land for me, the only thing I don’t like about Final Space is that its soundtrack hasn’t been released yet. I need that in my life.

Disclaimer: This is the first cartoon for adults I’ve ever gotten into, so I don’t really know how it compares to stuff like Rick and Morty or Futurama. If you’re a fan of the genre, you might come in with very different expectations than I did. But coming in as a fan of Olan’s YouTube channel, and with no other background info whatsoever, I kinda loved it.

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To the max-core.

It should be noted that, based on his videos and the way he interacts with fans online, I think Olan Rogers might be one of the most decent human beings working in entertainment right now, so I was somewhat predisposed to like this show just because of that. It’s hard not to want a guy like Olan to succeed, especially when he seems so genuinely grateful for the success he’s had already.

But while its humour might not be everyone’s cup of tea, and its story occasionally falters,  I do think this is a good show on its own. It’s got flavours of Firefly and Guardians of the Galaxy, and just a hint of Doctor Who, but Final Space  is very much its own thing, and it’s one of the more imaginative sci-fi stories I’ve encountered in a while. It surprised me, made me laugh, and took me on a wild emotional rollercoaster. I can’t wait for Season 2.

Grade: A-

 

 

Avengers: Infinity War

Well, this is it. Ten years of Marvel movies have all been leading up to this moment.

And yet, I don’t think any of us were prepared.

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Avengers: Infinity War
Directors: Anthony and Joe Russo 
Writers: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Starring: Half the Universe
Music By: Alan Silvestri

Thanos is a big, powerful, purple alien we’ve glimpsed a few times before in the Marvel movies, but never really got to know. He believes the universe is dangerously overpopulated, and he has a simple solution: kill half the universe. In order to accomplish this, he plans to collect the six Infinity Stones (which we’ve also seen popping up here and there in various Marvel movies) in his Infinity Gauntlet, which will allow him to wipe out as many intelligent beings as he wants with just a snap of his fingers. The Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange and the armies of Wakanda join forces to stop him from collecting all the Stones before it’s too late.

There’s basically no way to talk about this movie without giving away spoilers, so for the spoiler-free portion of the review, I’m just going to describe what it was like seeing this movie on opening night.

I live in a part of the country that doesn’t have a particularly high concentration of geeks, or people who care about movies in general. So the theatre where I saw Infinity War was only a little more crowded than usual on Thursday evening. But there was a definite feeling of excitement as we waited for the movie to start. A lot of the people there were wearing Marvel gear (except for one brave soul in a Superman t-shirt) and swapping theories about who would die, where the Soul Stone is, etc. During the first two acts of the movie, there was a lot of laughter at the jokes, and loud cheers and applause at three specific moments. But during the last 15-20 minutes, the crowd became very quiet. As the movie drew to a close, the silence started being broken by people shouting at the screen. It was mainly a repeating cycle of “What?!” “No way!” “No!” and various profanity. When the end credits began, there was applause, but also a lot of audible frustration. Same thing happened after the stinger (which didn’t come until the very end of the credits, by the way).

Personally, I spent the last few minutes of the movie giggling like a maniac, because it was exactly the ending I’d hoped and dreamed about for more than two years, and didn’t expect to see.

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It brought a smile to my face.

Without giving anything else away, all I can say is that I highly recommend Infinity Warif you’re a fan of the MCU and have seen at least most, if not all, of the previous movies. If you occasionally rent a Marvel movie from Redbox but don’t really feel invested in any of the characters or storylines, this movie wasn’t made for you, and you probably won’t enjoy it much. It doesn’t make any attempt to introduce characters we’ve met before or explain plot elements that were brought up in other movies. There’s no time for that.

It’s also important to realise going in that, despite the studio’s decision to drop the Part 1 from its name, this movie is very much the beginning of a story, not a complete story in and of itself. If the end feels unsatisfying, that’s because Part 2 is coming out next May to resolve a lot of the plot threads that were left dangling here.

So that’s my spoiler-free review. If you’re a Marvel fan, you’re not going to want to miss this one. And definitely see it in the theatre if possible, because the audience’s reactions are half the fun.

In the rest of my review, I’m not going to intentionally spoil any major plot points. But so much surprising stuff happens in this movie that I don’t trust myself not to give anything away while giving my opinion on it, and I know a lot of people like to go into a movie as blind as possible. So there may be some minor spoilers ahead.

READ PAST THIS POINT AT YOUR OWN RISK IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE MOVIE!!!!
(unless you don’t care about spoilers)

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First spoiler: This shot isn’t in the movie.

So, one of the reasons I listed Thor: Ragnarok as my second favourite MCU movie was because it was the first one that truly felt like a comic book brought to life. I felt similarly about Infinity War--except that, more specifically, it feels like an event comic brought to life.

For anyone unfamiliar with comics, event comics are big crossovers that happen about once every five years in DC and once every five months in Marvel. They typically bring as many characters as possible together into one epic storyline that will have an impact on their entire universe, sometimes even rebooting the whole thing. That’s what this movie felt like to me: just a giant, comic book-y crossover with a ton of beloved characters interacting in ways we’ve never seen before, with a much higher-stakes plot than we’ve ever seen before.

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Could you imagine Iron Man hanging with this crowd back in 2008?

And while event comics can often be messy, involving a lot of contrived plot devices, people acting out of character, or pointless deaths, I felt this movie handily avoided most of those problems. Yes, the cast is huge, and some characters do get more of a spotlight than others out of plot necessity, but everybody gets at least one moment of character development or just plain awesomeness. Doctor Strange is about 10 times cooler here than he was in his own movie, Thor continues to prove that he is truly the Strongest Avenger, the Scarlet Witch/Vision romance gets more development, all the Guardians get to show off their growth from the last movie while remaining hilarious, and Tony Stark not only gets a ton of ridiculously cool new tech, but also gets to see his paranoia from the last 3-4 movies validated. (Though…he’s probably not happy about that last part.)

But if this movie has a central character, it is Thanos himself. It’s his quest for the Infinity Stones that drives the plot, and his character arc that forms the emotional core of the movie. More time is spent on his backstory and motivations than that of any other single character.

And the fact that I still hated his guts by the end says a lot about the filmmakers’ storytelling skill, as well as that of his actor, Josh Brolin. Thanos is not at all sympathetic, no matter what certain fanboys on the internet might tell you. He’s a genocidal maniac who’s so convinced his cause is just that he will sacrifice anything to achieve it. And that makes him terrifying. He’s easily the biggest threat the Avengers have ever faced, not just because the Stones make him so much more powerful than any of them, but also because he’s so dedicated to his cause that we know he will never stop, no matter how many inconveniences our heroes throw in his way. As a result, this was the first Marvel movie where I wasn’t sure the good guys would win. From the opening scene to the end credits, there was never a moment when they seemed safe, or their victory seemed assured. A constant atmosphere of dread and desperation hung over the entire two-and-a-half-hour runtime.

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Man, Thor just never gets a break, does he?

Of course, that’s not to say there isn’t plenty of the usual Marvel humour in this movie. There are quite a few moments that made me laugh out loud, mostly resulting from the interactions of characters who had never met before. The gigantic cast spends most of the movie in more manageable small groups, and each group of characters fits incredibly well together. Iron Man butting heads with the equally-arrogant Doctor Strange and Star-Lord makes for some comedy gold, as does Bruce Banner’s encounter with Shuri. Thor’s team-up with Rocket and Groot is so brilliant that I now want a whole franchise of them together. There’s a little less focus on Captain America and Black Panther’s crews, but they still have some lovely moments together.

But when it’s time to get serious, Infinity War doesn’t play around. As one might expect, this is the darkest MCU movie yet, and it’s not even close. When I went to see it a second time (to collect my thoughts and emotions), a lot of the small children in the audience were crying by the end, and I don’t really blame them. If you’ve spent the last 10 years getting to know these characters, watching them grow and change and get better…some of the stuff that happens in this movie is gonna hurt. Even though I fully expect everything to be happily resolved in Part 2, I still found a few scenes in this movie hard to watch after my marathon through the rest of the MCU.

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FOR EXAMPLE.

And that leads me to one of the few complaints I have about the movie. All the female characters seem to get the short end of the stick when it comes to characterisation and screen time. Only two Marvel women have a significant impact on the plot, and it doesn’t end well for either of them. One of those characters gets an especially raw deal that I don’t think she deserved, and worse, it seems like one of the disasters in this movie that’s least likely to be undone in the sequel. That rather upset me, especially after all the progress that had been made in Phase 3 on creating better female characters.

Also, although I think the movie did as much justice to its characters as it could without a 5-hour runtime, there were a few bits of backstory for our heroes that I felt were missing–particularly for the Guardians. We never find out exactly how long it’s been in MCU time since their last appearance, but considering their first two movies took place within six months of each other, it’s reasonable to assume it’s been three years or more. Their relationships to each other seem to have changed in some subtle but important ways during that time, and because of certain things that happen in this movie, I wish we could have seen those relationships better developed onscreen. I also would have liked to know more about Thanos’s henchmen, most of whom don’t even get named in the movie.

I have a few other minor quibbles: Wakanda’s warriors seem less powerful here than they did in Black Panther, Thanos’s motivation made more sense in the comics, once in a while there’s a CGI effect that doesn’t quite look real, etc. But despite those few quibbles, I still found this movie to be an excellently-crafted, emotional epic that paid proper tribute to the best of the Marvel Universe while also doing things no other Marvel movie has done. Despite how overstuffed it is, I came away loving certain characters–Iron Man, Doctor Strange, Gamora, Scarlet Witch, etc.–even more than before. The action is incredible, and just about all the emotional beats hit me exactly the right way.

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“Earth is closed today!”

The Russos continue to be my favourite MCU directors (except for maybe Taika Waititi, who made the Thor we see in this movie possible), and I cannot wait to see what they do with the sequel.  In the meantime, I’m glad I have Ant-Man and the Wasp to cheer me up after this emotional rollercoaster.

Grade: A for Avengers