Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Monday, July 16, 2018

Between A Rock And A High Place

Every summer it seems there are endless popcorn films that don’t make you think- aside from how preposterous that whole thing you just saw was.  It’s heavy emphasis on action, no emphasis on logic. Usually one of them can be described best as the Big Dumb Summer Movie, and usually it's one of Michael Bay's Transformers abominations. This year the title falls to Skyscraper, which could have easily been titled Die Hard In The Towering Inferno, or The Physically Impossible Crane Jump Shot. A derivative action thriller that pretty much messes around with both terrorist and disaster film franchises and doesn’t do so nearly as well, it gives Dwayne Johnson a chance to growl at everything (again) and throws concepts like sense, physics, and gravity right out the window. Of a very high building.

A prelude establishes Will Sawyer (Johnson), an FBI hostage rescue team leader, and a botched crisis results in his retirement, what with losing the better part of a leg and all, when it doesn’t go according to plan. Years later he’s married to Sarah (Neve Campbell), they’ve got a couple of too-cute kids, and his line of work is assessing security concerns for skyscrapers. He and his family are residing at the Pearl, a two hundred plus story beast of an ultramodern tower in Hong Kong, as he consults on the building design for his employers, and of course this being an action film, and since it’s ripping off Die Hard, it doesn’t take long for terrorists to show up and turn things into, well, a towering inferno.

Rawson Marshall Thurber wrote and directed this. He’s done comedy work before, most recently the film Central Intelligence, also with Johnson. This is the first time he’s done an action thriller. The script borrows liberally from more than one genre. The Die Hard theme of terrorists taking control of a confined space certainly applies. But so too are things like employers not taking legitimate concerns seriously, authorities jumping to conclusions, and ultimately life and death peril. And where Die Hard succeeds is in that we feel John McClane is believable and mortal; Sawyer, on the other hand, gets written in such a way that doesn’t feel believable, that’s over the top. This is Thurber desperately trying to hide the fact that his story is derivative behind a whole lot of overblown and over the top plot devices.

Disaster films are mined for their effect- a fire high in a very high building was already done to good effect with The Towering Inferno back in the day. The script plays to some of the same stereotypes typical of that genre, all while ignoring basic rules of physics. I mean seriously… there’s what we can best describe as the money shot of the whole film, and in short it is not possible. It’s a matter of defying things like gravity and physics and trajectory and fundamental reality. Not that it stops your average action thriller from ignoring such realities- insanely impossible stunts have kept Tom Cruise pretending he’s still twenty five years younger than he is in the latter half of the Mission Impossible series, after all.

Thurber as a director is more competent in that role. He can reasonably handle action, even if it feels over the top and violating the rules of gravity. A lot of the production values are CGI and FX- you’re not literally going to suspend an actor that high above anything, but things look realistic enough. It does have a vertigo inducing effect at times, which is appropriate given how tall this building is supposed to be. Thurber’s style handles the conventions of the genre decently enough- moments of sheer terror in between creeping down dark corridors and enclosed spaces, the desperate fights for survival, and so on, but it doesn’t change the fact that the film still feels derivative.

This is one of those cases where the cast is, for the most part, better than the writing gives them. Chin Han, who I’ve only seen in a supporting role in The Dark Knight, has a supporting role as Zhao Long Ji, the developer who’s hired Sawyer. He’s blasé about the concerns brought up, and hiding a secret or two himself. It’s reluctantly that he’s drawn into the action, but the actor gives the role a certain stoicism that at least works. Pablo Schreiber turns up as Ben, Will’s slighty shifty buddy. And British-Aussie actor Noah Taylor ramps up the sleazeball angle as an underwriter, Pierce, whose presence in the film just feels creepy.

Of course in a film like this, you need an antagonist, otherwise it’s just Building On Fire, News At  Eleven, Now Back To Men’s Curling In Progress. Which would make for a boring movie. The problem here is in the writing, because the villain, Kores Botha, is no Hans Gruber. Played by Danish actor Roland Moller, the character chews the scenery, menaces the innocent, and wrecks havoc. He’s the required Euro-trash thug with an agenda. The actor’s probably better than the material gives him to work with, but the material at hand just makes him the villain-du-jour and doesn’t give us a reason to find him compelling.

Neve Campbell, best known for Party Of Five and the Scream franchise, gets to play the requisite damsel sort of kind of in distress as Will’s life Sarah. Filling in the part of Bonnie Bedelia’s Holly (minus the marital estrangement) from the first Die Hard, Sarah finds herself and her children in peril throughout the film, either from gun toting Eurotrash or a burning building, and while part of that means she’s in peril, she’s capable of fending for herself too. Campbell makes the most of the role as a mother protecting her kids in the midst of peril (the Die Hard franchise waited to put the kids into peril until they were grown up), and at least the dynamic between she and Johnson feels believable.

Johnson as an actor has the gift of a good sense of comedic timing, a gruff, grouchy demeanour, and stage presence. He’s interesting to watch, though here the role is over the top. In the last few years his films have included playing a Greek demigod in Hercules, putting up with Zac Efron (for which he should have been paid double just for the irritation) in Baywatch, wasting time in some of those Fast And Furious films, tangling with mutated beasts in Rampage, and surviving the ultimate earthquake in San Andreas. Now we find him pitted against the world’s tallest imaginary building. While the character is rendered mortal- losing a leg will do that- it still doesn’t feel as human as, well, John McClane always felt. That’s more to the fault of the writer than the actor. Johnson makes do with what he’s given, wavering between seriousness and the occasional quip.

So Skyscraper pretty much takes the cake as the Big Dumb Summer Movie of 2018. It’s entertaining enough in its own way, but it’s derivative and over the top, and does things over the course of storytelling that defy logic. There are plotholes big enough to fit a skyscraper in, and it just leaves you with two general impressions- first, that the director needs to work from the scripts of others and the studio needs to keep a close rein on him, and second… just how ridiculous was that whole thing?

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Small Heroes And Big Stakes

“Nothing can prepare you for what’s coming.” ~ Ava

“Hiya, champ, how was school today?” ~ Hank Pym

“Thanks to you, we had to run. We’re still running.” ~ Hope Van Dyne

“I do some dumb things, and the people I love the most- they pay the price.” ~ Scott Lang

In 2015, Ant-Man gave the Marvel cinematic universe a different perspective, bringing in characters established in the comics and creating new ones in what was a light hearted sort of heist film. Now director Peyton Reed returns with the lead actors and a formidable new antagonist to another chapter in the small sized hero element of the Marvel world in Ant-Man & The Wasp, set in between Captain America: Civil War and the more recent Avengers Infinity War.

The film picks up threads from the previous film, with the disappearance of Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) into the microscopic quantum realm while on a mission. Former criminal Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), as Ant-Man had entered and returned from that realm, giving hope to Janet’s husband Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) that it might be possible to find and save Janet. Scott’s participation in the superhuman dust-up that was part of Civil War leads to a parting of the ways, as Scott ends up on house arrest and Hank and Hope go into hiding. Two years later, Scott’s nearly finished his parole term after receiving a cryptic message from the quantum realm, and fate draws him back into the orbit of Hank and Hope, all while other players play into unfolding events.

With the success of the original film, of course there was going to be a sequel. Leading man Rudd is credited as one of the writers, along with four others, usually a sign of trouble when it’s writing by committee, though that’s not the case here. Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Andrew Barrer, and Gabriel Ferrari are also credited, and the script that results builds on what’s come before and takes things in new directions. That includes the light hearted humour and earnest charm of Rudd, the family dynamics moving into new directions for the Pym-Van Dyne clan (from estrangement in the first film to a common purpose), and the fantastic elements of microscopic worlds that the premise opens up.

Where the first film was more of a heist and caper film, this blends in part action, part romantic comedy, and for good measure throws in a complex villain who turns out to be a real treat in the way she’s treated. The writing for the characters is what grounds the film, playing to the strengths of the actors and to where they’ve already come from, giving depth and nuance in each case. Most of those are already established characters, while introducing new ones who are familiar to comic readers. The film's stakes aren't as big, perhaps, as that of Infinite War, with its despotic antagonist, but more personal, a rescue mission to save a life, and perhaps more than one life.

Reed’s return to the director’s chair for this second installment brings back the same techniques of the first film. He proved in the first case that he could balance the work of actors on the one hand and the CGI and action on the other, and that continues here. Where the characters are the bedrock of the film, Reed’s work continues to succeed in making use of CGI where it’s needed, and pacing action sequences in a way you can follow. Concepts like rapid shrinking or growth, as well as a character who phases in and out of physical touch, are made use of in the right way.

The cast, both returning and new players, are welcome in their roles. Michael Pena, David Dastmalchian, and Tip “T.I.” Harris return from the first film as Luis, Kurt, and Dave, each of them Scott’s old criminal associates who have gone legitimate, and the characters are part comic relief, part indispensable and unlikely backup in a crunch. Pena’s Luis is a particular motor-mouth who never seems to know when to shut up, which is part of the fun of the character, but Luis is also a strongly loyal sort. Randall Park debuts in the role of FBI agent Jimmy Woo, a fixture in the comics for some time now; he’s given a different role as a fed overseeing Scott’s house arrest, and gives the character a suspicious wariness.

Walton Goggins has made a career of playing dirtbags, most recently in Tomb Raider, and the same applies here as he plays Sonny Burch, also a character drawn out of the comics, where he was a minor villain in the Iron Man books. The character certainly fills the sleazebag role, a dirty dealing black market criminal with more ambition than brains, sniffing around at an opportunity and not considering that he might be in over his head. The character isn’t remotely likable or sympathetic, but the actor certainly plays to that and seems to be having a ball, chewing the scenery as he goes along.

Laurence Fishburne debuts in the Marvel universe (having had played Daily Planet chief Perry White in two of the recent Superman films for DC) as Bill Foster, another figure from the comics. Here Foster is an old associate of Hank Pym, though the two have had a parting of the ways some years earlier and aren’t on the best of terms. Fishburne has the acting chops to go toe to toe with Douglas on a matter of ethical concerns, and that comes across in the film, but he also plays Foster as a man of great intelligence and fortitude, doing something that he feels is the right cause.

Hannah John-Kamen plays the primary antagonist of the film, a young woman with a distinct problem. Ava is her real name, and she has ties to other players in the story as the Ghost. She is a mystery when we first meet her, phasing in and out of reality, her condition unstable at the quantum level. For her, Pym’s technology may be the key to saving her life, so her actions are entirely understandable, and it also makes her sympathetic. Ghost is a longstanding character in the Marvel universe, something of a mix between villain and anti-hero, and the character has been gender-switched here from a man into a woman, but it’s not jarring at all- if anyone could be switched like that, it’s Ghost, whose real name in the comics has never been divulged. The look of the character fits with the comics generally, and the presence- the line between villain and anti-hero- the actress gives her makes her a compelling one, and I’d like to see more of her down the line.

Michelle Pfeiffer also debuts as Janet Van Dyne, the original Wasp from the comics, and from movie continuity, taking over the role that was seen briefly in the first film. She’s not around for a whole lot of the film, generally confined to the second half, but she brings the right touch to Janet- the strong survivor who’s somehow made it through decades of being shrunk down in the microverse (where’s the food down there?), the wife and mother who’s missed her family, and the hero who’s willing to help someone who might not deserve that help. Her take on the character is sympathetic and a welcome addition to the Marvel cinematic universe.

Michael Douglas returns as Hank Pym again, the original Ant-Man who’s spent years trying to make things right. In the first film he reconciled his differences with his daughter, and this time out it’s about finding a way to determine what’s become of his wife. Pym starts out in one place- justifiably irritated with Scott because of Scott’s involvement in the superhuman dispute that’s put his own work in jeopardy. As the film unfolds, the character has to set aside those differences for a greater good, and Douglas gives the character the right tone of exasperated and wary scientist on the one hand and a paternal quality on the other. With the latter, it’s pride in his daughter and a more reluctant pride where Scott’s concerned. Pym might be cranky (and even a bit of a jerk), but there’s a sort of father-son dynamic with Scott, and Douglas plays to that.

Having had teased the notion of Hope Van Dyne as the Wasp in the previous film, this time out the story puts her right in that role, and Hope’s look fits the character. Evangeline Lilly reprises her role as Hope, a new creation for the cinematic universe the first time out (though the comics do now feature a teenaged daughter for Pym named Nadia, created mostly because of the previous film). Where the first film had Hope estranged from her father and reluctant to work with a scoundrel ex-con like Scott, this film finds her at a better place with Hank, and trying to sort out differences with Scott over his decisions (she starts out justifiably angry with him). There’s a playful, romantic spark between Hope and Scott that the actors play off of, but the actress invests her character with strength, resolve, and a fearlessness that makes her come into her own.

Paul Rudd brings back his laconic charm as Scott Lang, the former convict who’s been hard at work trying to better his life. The first film brought him full circle in that respect (with a rather impulsive decision during Captain America Civil War leading to him messing up his life, even if it was with good intentions). We find him still making the effort to do right, even if it’s under house arrest and the only thing he can do right is to be a good father to his daughter Cassie. The film takes him beyond that, requiring him to put his legal status in peril for a greater good; his concern about being a responsible parent happens to also be the same personal quality that makes him want to do right by Pym and Hope. Scott is something of a regular person (which is how Rudd plays him), but he’s the sort who can rise to the occasion when needed, and proves to be resourceful and capable in and of himself.

Ant-Man & The Wasp continues the Marvel cinematic universe in the right way, investing itself in its characters, playing off a lighter tone but still with some dramatic weight. It’s self-contained and yet linked to the greater Marvel universe (as the credits sequences will show), and it’s fun and well-paced. The leading actors have the right degree of chemistry, and their antagonist is a welcome new addition to the Marvel universe, one who manages to elicit our sympathy just enough.

Monday, July 9, 2018

A Day In The Life Of A Cat

And now it is time for the cat to have her say on all matters of utmost importance....

7:06 AM. Waking up at home. Taking a big stretch and yawning. Slept well. Dreamed of finding the biggest field of catnip I’ve ever seen. No, I do not have a problem, why do you ask?

7:09 AM. Making an inspection from the windowsill of the grounds. Birds out there pecking away at the grass. Oh, sure, enjoy it now, but you and I and all those people out there now that winter is coming. Yes it is, with every single passing day we get one day closer to it.

7:13 AM. Stealing glances up at the ceiling. I’ve heard sounds from upstairs, so I know the staff is awake and accounted for, but still, I am expecting breakfast post haste. She should just consider herself lucky I don’t make a habit of walking all over her at four in the morning.

Very often, anyway.

7:16 AM. Pacing back and forth on the back of the couch, listening to the sound of the shower upstairs. Come on, staff, hurry up!

7:27 AM. The staff finally comes downstairs. Staff, do you realize I have been awake a full twenty-one minutes now and I still haven’t had breakfast? Just between you and me, I think it’s time we remedy that, post haste.

7:28 AM. ….and honestly staff, how many times do I have to explain the no-field rations provision? I keep telling you over and over and over again, and day after day, you keep providing field rations. Now then, let’s get to it. A bowl of milk and a plate of meat would suit me nicely. Chicken or tuna, whichever works as well as the other. 

7:29 AM. The staff has set down a bowl of milk and a plate of chicken. This meets with my approval. To my continued dismay, she persists in setting down a bowl of the field rations. I sigh and dig into the chicken and milk. I shall ignore the field rations. Perhaps this will finally get the point across.

7:31 AM. Finished with that portion of breakfast that I wanted. I shall leave the staff to see to her breakfast in peace and quiet.

7:42 AM. Meowing farewell to the staff as she heads out the door for that work place she goes to every day. Don’t forget to bring some catnip home, staff! We’re down to one more box!

7:51 AM. Nice and warm here, sitting on the windowsill in the morning sun. Just the sort of thing that makes a cat want to take a nap. Oh, sure, I haven’t even been awake a full hour yet, but since when did that stop me before?

8:32 AM. Startled out of a contented dozing moment by the sudden sound of a loud bark outside. I spring up and look around. It’s that foul hound from down the road, just standing there on my lawn, wagging his tail, grinning like an idiot. I start hissing and howling and cursing him like a sailor who just broke into the whiskey.

8:33 AM. Watching the dog walk away, obviously pleased with himself. Hey! I wasn’t done yelling at you! Get back here, you mangy mutt! You hear me? Nobody wakes me up like that and lives to see the winter! 

8:42 AM. Stewing and infuriated. My perfectly fine peace and quiet morning disrupted by that vile mutt. And he wonders why I don’t like him. He’s probably off laughing to himself right now, thinking he’s hilarious.

8:51 AM. Pondering if I can hire a ferret goon to sort out that dog once and for all. 

9:03 AM. Musing to myself as to options. When it comes down to it, revenge is really a dish best served cold. And when the other party has no idea that it’s coming. So it might not be today, it might not be tomorrow, but one day, that dog will have his guard down. And that’s when I’ll be there.

11:38 AM. Waking up from a nap. This time it wasn’t because of the barking of a foul hound.

12:02 PM. Watching the Weather Channel. That paranoid specialist is back again, and this time he’s going on and on about dust devils picking up your beer bottle off your deck chair. I thought they institutionalized this guy in the winter when he tried to start a panic over a snowstorm and urged people to go all Donner Party to survive. Not exactly his finest hour if you ask me, and of course you are asking me.

1:29 PM. Barking from down the road. That foul hound must be barking at the mailman. Come on, honestly, the guy’s just doing his job. What is it about that which seems so difficult for a dog to grasp?

3:54 PM. Waking up from another nap. Looking at the clock. Rats, the staff won’t be back yet for another hour and a half. Can I sneak in another nap?

4:29 PM. After some attempts at more napping have come to nothing, I have settled at the piano and am playing a masterpiece concerto. I call it Piano Concerto #26: Ode To A Hairball. Humans, not understanding cat music at all, would wonder who’s making that racket.

5:10 PM. Sitting on the couch, staring outside, waiting for my staff to get home. Feeling impatient.

5:28 PM. The staff finally shows up at home. I meow greetings and demand to know if she brought any catnip home.

5:32 PM. An inspection of the grocery bags determines that the staff failed to bring home catnip.

6:41 PM. Dinner with the staff. She has been considerate enough to give me a plate of stewing beef. That suits me quite well.

8:50 PM. Lying in the living room. Ignoring the staff, who’s wrapped up in a book. Contemplating the great mysteries of existence. What came first, the cat or the purr?

11:33 PM. The staff is off to bed. Very well, staff, good night. Do keep the door open, though. If I happen to feel like walking all over you at four in the morning, I don’t much like being inconvenienced by a closed door.