It’s our general August film round-up time, but we’ve inadvertently hit upon a couple of themes, with two superhero sequels, Ant-Man and the Wasp and Incredibles 2, two dramas with a religious bent to them, First Reformed and Apostasy, and we round things out with the critically acclaimed colonial character study, Zama.
The third, and final, of 2018’s MCU releases, Ant-Man and the Wasp is, and this’ll shock you, a sequel to 2015’s Ant-Man, which saw thief Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) don Hank Pym’s (Michael Douglas) hi-tech suit and become Ant-Man. Since his participation in the scuffle at the airport in Captain America: Civil War (please, Marvel, you have all of the money: buy a dictionary), Lang has been under house arrest in San Francisco (hence his non-appearance in Avengers: Infinity War).
If you remember from the first film, at one point Scott found himself shrunk to a sub-atomic size and in the “Quantum Realm”, a region from which it was thought there could be no return, and where Hank Pym’s wife, and Hope’s (Evangine Lilly) mother, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) was lost thirty years ago. Since then, Pym has been trying to build a “Quantum Tunnel” in order to go looking for her. (Before you say that this seems impossible/makes no sense, stop: unlike many other films in the MCU, Ant-Man resolutely does not take itself seriously, unless, that is, I massively misinterpreted the “giant ant taking a bubble bath” thing, so just go with the flow.)
Hank and Hope enlist Scott’s begrudging help (he doesn’t want to risk his parole and the ability to be with his daughter) to rescue Janet (she put a radio in his brain in a dream… look, really, just go with it), but this is complicated by evil businessman Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), who wants to get his hands on Pym’s nifty tech, and the mysterious Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), who wants to get her hands on Pym’s nifty tech. Fisticuffs ensue.
Like the first Ant-Man, the important thing to know is that Ant-Man and the Wasp is just a tremendous amount of fun. The main reason it is so successful is, of course, Paul Rudd, who is innately likeable and who can now be forgiven for the turd that was Mute (in which, really, he was woefully miscast), but returning support from Michael Peña (though if anything he’s underused) and Michael Douglas, who’s always had a decent drily comic turn, helps too.
Walton Goggins more or less pulls off goofy evil, and perhaps the only failure in character is with Hannah John-Kamen’s Ghost, a character who ought to be sympathetic, and certainly deserves pity, but does too good a job of being evil and unlikeable. Fortunately, though, and an improvement over the first film, this outing for the diminutive superhero doesn’t feature a true villain, and is all the better for it. It’s more of a rescue mission than anything, and Burch and Ghost present obstacles rather than the main objective, which is good since Marvel villains are pretty much all awful and boring.
Put all of this together and you have a hugely entertaining, admittedly silly, action film that neatly sidesteps the usual ennui that accompanies the inevitable massive CGI smashfest climax with the same fun, inventive use of changing size and scale that worked so well three years ago.
Best comic book film of the year.
Do you remember the fourteen year old Incredibles? Would you like to see more of it? Then, boy, do I have just the film for you with Incredibles 2.
We rejoin the Parr family still committed to breaking the Sokovia Accords by using their superpowers for great justice, with Craig T. Nelson’s Bob, Mr. Incredible, still causing as much damage as those he’s trying to stop. As such, the government takes a dim view of their antics and shuts down the Superhero Relocation Program, turfing them out onto the streets. Well, into a manky hotel. Close enough.
Succour is delivered when Samuel L. Jackson’s Lucius “Frozone” Best informs Bob and Holly Hunter’s Elastigirl, Helen, of a possible way back to public acclaim. Bob Odenkirk’s superhero-daft telecoms tycoon Winston Deavor, and his sister, Catherine Keener’s Evelyn, are looking to rehabilitate the public perception of Supers through a managed PR campaign, with Elastigirl at the front of it, in large part due to her being rather more mindful of the ol’ collateral damage thing.
They agree, but that does leave Bob back at their swanky new pad looking after their superpowered children; Sarah Vowell’s vanishing, force projecting Violet, Huckleberry Milner’s super-speedy Dash, and bafflingly named toddler Jack-Jack who has some sort of every-power cheat code thing going on. OP. OP. Plz nerf. So, strap yourself in as we sit though another “father struggling to cope with rambunctious kids” storyline, which runs every bit as predictably as you’d expect.
Meanwhile, Helen finds herself going up against the Screenslaver, who has stolen The Riddler’s plan from Batman and Robin, using telly screens to hypnotise people. This leads her into a plot to turn the world irrevocably against Supers at just the moment Winston will use to convince leaders to welcome them back into society again, which the family must band together to stop.
Normally when I can’t think of much to say about a film, I’ll just vamp and jazz hands my way to fill up five minutes and call it a day, but in this instance I’ll keep it to a minimum. I rather enjoyed this, and I seem to recall rather enjoying the first film, but I’ve not thought about the Incredibles once in the past fourteen years, and I’m sure I won’t be thinking of this much in future either.
It looks pretty good – I do like the art style used, as continued from the first film, and it’s often quite funny, and it handles the action scenes pretty well. Plot-wise, it makes its way up to serviceable, just, which is papered over by characters which are charming enough to make up for how predictable it is. You have to wonder why this well was returned to 14 years after the fact when it clearly doesn’t have any particular tale to tell, and it’s a marked step down from Coco. Although I suppose most films are.
It’s an enjoyable summer release, and very entertaining. And of very little other merit, but, well, sometimes that’s enough. I’m not moved, touched or otherwise emotionally affected by the piece, but, well, that’s enough sometimes. Watch it out of five.
Alex (Molly Wright), an 18 year old suffering from Chekhov’s Blood Disorder, lives with her mother, Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran) and her older sister, Luisa (Sacha Parkinson) near Manchester. The three are all devout, proselytising members of the local Jehovah’s Witness community (though I believe “proselytising” is the only acceptable mode for members), a minor sect of Christianity probably best known to the wider world as being “those people who turn up on your doorstep trying to give you magazines and who refuse blood transfusions”. In hospital, that is. The blood transfusions. I’m actually pretty OK with them refusing blood transfusions on your doorstep. You weirdo. Why do you have all of that blood anyway?
They talk constantly of the “New System” which god will enact after the rapture, something, due to its name, which I am unable to think of as anything other than the next version of Windows for Souls, and consider those not in their church (or “in the Truth”, as they put it) as unsaved, but not unsaveable, though they tend not to think too highly of them. However, the harshest judgement seems to come for those within their own community who are deemed to have transgressed. One such is Alex’s sister Luisa, who becomes pregnant by an outsider, and, to teach her an important lesson of… something… is excommunicated and ostracised by her “community”. The cruellest part of this is that her family are also forbidden from interacting with Luisa “unless strictly necessary”, and being pregnant, malnourished and alone apparently isn’t sufficient grounds, and her family also face being punished if they transgress and commit the mortal sin of caring about their relative.
This becomes an even harder burden to bear for Ivanna after Chekhov’s Blood Disorder goes off at the film’s midpoint, and the film’s viewpoint switches to her. Ivanna must struggle with her faith, the commands of the elders and her instincts as both a mother and a human. Luisa also suffers a great deal, and begins to rebel against the religion which was imposed upon her.
Directed and written by Daniel Kokotajlo, himself a former Jehovah’s Witness, Apostasy is shot in an almost documentarian style (though the unusual 3:2 aspect ratio isn’t used even close to as effectively as First Reformed’s Academy ratio, though the muted colours and lack of flashiness do reflect the austerity of the religion), and the encounters, conversations and situations have a real ring of truth about them. It would be easy to make the elders (all men, naturally) seem particularly villainous but, thanks to the aforementioned feeling of veracity, Kokotajlo doesn’t need to: they, their religion and their utter inflexibility are given enough rope with which to hang themselves without needing to diverge from the mundane.
Apostasy is far from perfect, in particular the use of spoken prayer as a way of voicing the character’s thoughts, and as a narration device, is clumsy, inconsistent and not particularly effective, but the three main performances, most notably that of Finneran as the devout mother facing a seeming lack of reward for her piousness and faith, are great; and by choosing to make this story as a drama the director brings a humanity to the story that I think a documentary couldn’t give it, while still managing to make much that is here seem, alas, real.
In the end it’s a bleak but interesting insight into a little-known world, delivered with the authority of one who has been there, and is recommended. Will make you furious, though.
Written and directed by Paul Schrader, he of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull fame, First Reformed sees Ethan Hawke slip on the dog collar of Reverend Ernst Toller, of the titular church, 250 years old and more of a tourist attraction than a working church. Nonetheless, there’s a small flock to tend to, and he’s called on to help Amanda Seyfried’s Mary deal with her radical environmentalist husband, Philip Ettinger’s Michael.
He believes it’s a mistake to bring a child into a world on the brink of ecological collapse, and wants Mary to get an abortion, which I understand there is some religious resistance to. While counselling Michael, Toller reveals some of the heartache that’s been brought into his life, his son being killed in the limited police actions in Iraq. This may perhaps explain Toller’s affinity for the bottle, and also his journal entries that attempt to rationalise his thoughts.
Things take a dark turn, from an already fairly dark grey state, when Michael kills himself, and in cleaning up his stuff Mary finds not just the stack of material calling eco-warriors to arms, but the materials to construct a suicide vest. Toller’s mission then becomes to comfort Mary, while also dealing with preparations for the upcoming church anniversary celebrations, and his own rapidly failing health.
There’s perhaps little value in recounting much more of the events, but as time goes on Toller’s mental state grows increasingly fragile, leading to some extreme places by the end of the film. There’s certainly more than a hint of Taxi Driver going on, as a character study of a man pushed out to the extremes by personal circumstance. It is, however, rather less satisfying by the time you get to the end of it.
None of that’s Ethan Hawke’s fault, who puts in a great performance, and the supporting actors do well enough with what they’re given. But there’s a certain sense that First Reformed doesn’t know quite what its central thrust is, and keeps diving down rabbit holes that don’t go anywhere, either the eco-messaging, or the implication of corruption in the church, and when it eventually swings back to focusing on the character study part of it, I don’t buy that it’s examined him anywhere near well enough to drop this sort of ending on us.
Questions remain about the last ten minutes then, and also about the laughably ropey effects shot that I understand is meant to be metaphorical, but is visually ridiculous. The rest of the running time I rather enjoyed. For the bulk of it, it’s an intriguing character study that’s played very well by Ethan Hawke, as he so often does, and while fluffing the landing means I can’t be overly enthusiastic about the recommendation, nonetheless I do recommend it.
Zama, based on Antonio di Benedetto’s 1956 novel of the same name (interestingly the book wasn’t translated into English until just two years ago, 60 years after its first publication in Argentina, but was immediately proclaimed “a neglected South American masterpiece” by US critics) tells the story of Don Diego de Zama, a minor functionary of the Spanish crown, living in Paraguay at the end of the 18th century in the waning days of the Spanish Empire.
Zama (a superb Daniel Giménez Cacho), a Corregidor, or chief magistrate, is, to put it mildly, stuck in a rut. A thousand miles from his family in Buenos Aires, poor, bored and lonely, he is desperate to get a transfer out of this provincial backwater. Sleeping with members of the indigenous population (and fathering a child) while pathetically lusting after the unobtainable (to him) Luciana Piñares de Luenga (Lola Dueñas), one of the peninsulares (Spanish-born whites living in the Americas who topped the casta system) that he tries to pass himself off as being, despite being a criollo and therefore looked down on upon as being lesser by the peninsulares.
As his various attempts to get transferred fail, and governors come and go, Zama becomes more pathetic, more desperate and more lost, after years eventually signing up for a dangerous mission to bring a notorious outlaw to justice.
Having very much looked forward to seeing this, I was somewhat disappointed. Existential works are certainly not my favourite thing (though I want to push myself in this regard), and the lack of a sense of place, while deliberate, meant that I never felt quite settled while watching this. Zama himself is a pitiful, but not pitiable, figure; a rather sad, pathetic and ineffectual man who, for all of his belief that the world is out to get him, has brought most of his misfortune on himself. But Zama as a whole is a metaphor for colonialism, racism and slavery, as well as being a treatise on alienation, loneliness, solitude and bureaucracy, amongst other things.
Some metaphors are obvious, some less so. The story of the fish rejecting the water recounted by the prisoner at the beginning is very on the nose for the protagonist (and like Ericca on The Magic Lantern, I too thought the fish shown were bottom-feeding catfish, but then again sometimes a fish is just a fish), but much is ambiguous or buried. It’s layers upon layers, is what I’m saying. A curious llama wanders through a scene behind Zama at one point. But is it a llama? Perhaps it’s an alpaca? Or maybe, just maybe, it’s the closely-related vicuña, which shares its name with Vicuña Porto (Matheus Nachtergaele), the bogeyman bandit whose legend haunts the film, and the protagonist?
Or maybe it’s just absurd and out of place, like Zama himself? Or perhaps it’s just there as comic relief, as the film has more than a few such moments of what could be (though I don’t think is, but also think is, but also not) humorous juxtaposition, and some oddly jaunty music in portions.
It’s an incredibly dense film, and it’s simply not possible to take it all, or even a good portion of it, in on a first viewing, so I will return to this in a while so I can fully unpack the metaphors and imagery. because it’s very much the sort of film that’s going to reward repeat viewing (though some knowledge of the Spanish Empire is really going to help, for which I direct you towards season 5 of Mike Duncan’s excellent Revolutions podcast).
For anyone who already likes Lucrecia Martel’s work then it’s a no-brainer – though if you’re not familiar this is perhaps actually the best entry point rather than beginning with La Ciénaga or La mujer sin cabeza (The Headless Woman) – but if you’re just looking for something rewarding and different you can get your cinephilic fangs into then it’s recommended; just set your expectations accordingly and be prepared to work for it.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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