Monday, July 23, 2018
Movie Reviews
Movie Reviews

First-timer Stephen Susco directs the sequel to ‘Unfriended,’ the surprise hit all-on-a-laptop thriller.

Sadly, it looks like we have to call it a subgenre now: the species of found-footage movie that unfolds entirely on a computer screen, with viewers seeing nothing but an array of browser windows, Skype chats, etc., while protagonists confront boogeymen online. What began a few years ago as a curiosity (Nacho Vigalondo’s 2014 Open Windows was an early example) turned into a hit when the first Unfriended earned over $60 million worldwide. So now we get Stephen Susco’s Unfriended: Dark Web, another tiresome example of what producer Timur Bekmambetov is touting as a “new film language”: “Screenlife.” Heaven help us, the producer is reportedly going around the globe teaching master classes in making these things.

This time, the villain attacking young people is not a vengeful ghost (as in the first Unfriended, which premiered in North America at the Fantasia Film Festival under the title Cybernatural), but a group of hackers whose skills and swiftness are so far-fetched they might as well be supernatural. That’s not immediately evident, though: At first, it seems to be just a case of one sicko that wants to retrieve the digital evidence of his crimes.

As we begin, a young man named Matias (Colin Woodell) boots up a stranger’s laptop. He says he bought it off Craiglist, but as we’ll soon learn, the purported seller didn’t bother to wipe a trove of very sensitive video files from the hard drive. We look at empty login screens as an unseen Matias guesses at the stranger’s passwords.

Matias logs on for a video chat with his deaf girlfriend, Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras). He wants to show her an app he has written that will translate his spoken words to sign language. Nobody asks why such a program is needed when the computer already allows them to communicate via text, but never mind that: What we need to know is that Amaya is upset with him and he desperately wants to salvage the relationship.

Our hero logs in to a different Skype session — a group video chat with a handful of friends that decide to play Cards Against Humanity remotely. But Matias evidently has attention-deficit disorder, and while his friends make inane chitchat, he starts digging around his new laptop’s hard drive and looking at its previous owner’s social media accounts.

To cut to the chase (and skip past multiple “this application quit unexpectedly” hiccups, which viewers probably get enough of in the real world): A hidden folder on the computer contains snuff films, and the man who shot them, who calls himself Charon 68, wants them back. Charon 68 is sending Matias threatening chat messages; though he doesn’t know where Matias is, he somehow has no trouble locating Amaya, and threatens to kill her if Matias doesn’t immediately return the laptop.

Early on, Matias has to share some of this with the Cards Against Humanity gang. Figuring out what’s going on becomes a group affair, and Charon 68 (who can see and hear everything happening on the computer) threatens to kill them all if they don’t follow his instructions. Much panic and arguing ensues; lest anyone doubt he’s serious, Charon 68 starts picking them off one by one in increasingly elaborate ways.

The protagonists here aren’t as insufferable as those in the first Unfriended, but Susco’s plot gets harder to buy by the minute; as a first-time director, he doesn’t get much out of his cast; and boy, does this Screenlife gimmick grow thin quickly. While this technique — which they claim is harder to pull off, in technical terms, than it looks — could be useful in some contexts, it’s hard to ignore the mountain of contrivance required to use it for an entire film. And don’t we all spend too much time looking at computers already?

Production companies: Bazelevs Production, Blumhouse Productions, Universal Pictures
Distributor: Universal
Cast: Colin Woodell, Betty Gabriel, Rebecca Rittenhouse, Andrew Lees, Connor Del Rio, Stephanie Nogueras, Savira Windyani, Douglas Tait
Director-screenwriter: Stephen Susco
Producers: Timur Bekmambetov, Jason Blum
Executive producers: Nelson Greaves, Couper Samuelson, Adam Sidman
Director of photography: Kevin Stewart
Production designer: Chris Davis
Costume designer: Cassandra Jensen
Editor: Andrew Wesman
Casting director: John McAlary
Venue: Fantasia Film Festival

Rated R, 88 minutes

Denzel Washington reprises his role as a retired government operative who is drawn back into action.

What made the original Equalizer special in the realm of revenge action thrillers was the imperturbable zen attitude of Denzel Washington’s Robert McCall, a retired CIA agent living simply among common people, reading worthy books and roused to action only when there were serious wrongs to be righted on behalf of people unable to help themselves. The savior quality, along with its concomitant humor, carries over into this follow-up, the first sequel Washington has ever done, but this distinctive character is gradually subsumed by familiar genre imperatives that eventually make McCall seem less special and singular than he did on first exposure in 2014. The initial entry pulled in $192 million worldwide, and this one, which looks considerably more expensive than the original, should do roughly the same.

The great appeal of McCall the first time around was his profile as a lone samurai, a societal outlier of regular habits, a man with an ascetic lifestyle and a straightforward dedication to helping those in need. He exhibited no religious affiliation, but his monk-like calm was unmistakable, making it all the more exciting when he was finally roused to action.

That the old veteran is still at the top of his game is apparent here in the Bond-like opening, in which McCall, bearded and dressed in native garb aboard a speeding train in Turkey and conspicuously shown to be reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, enters the club car and in short order dispatches three swarthy thugs. The incident feels entirely arbitrary but serves as a reminder that McCall was designed to fulfill all manner of righteous revenge fantasies and is still able to deliver.

Back home in Boston, McCall has moved into a more commodious, somewhat less spartan apartment than he occupied four years ago. He now works as a Lyft driver and seems more outwardly dedicated to those in need of a helping hand, including a Holocaust survivor (Orson Bean) and a local kid, Miles (Ashton Sanders, of Moonlight and the upcoming Native Son, in which he plays Bigger Thomas), who he sees getting sucked in by the wrong crowd.

He also remains close to his former CIA handler, Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo, percolating buoyantly), who knew his late wife, to whom McCall remains reverentially true. The purity of mind and pared-down simplicity of his life are what mark the man as a special character; these days, anyone — from little kids to old-timers wondrously made to look younger — can be an action star, but no others come off like an urban contemporary Siddhartha.

According to The Equalizer 2, the place not to be theses days is Brussels, where repeated sets of multiple murders of upscale officials at their homes are being committed by some ruthless commandos of unknown origin. The fact that one set of victims includes Susan plunges McCall into action, all the more so when it becomes evident that he’s on the hit list as well.

Along with the fact that McCall has by now moved on from Coates to reading Proust, the man’s meditative, cloistered side essentially disappears at this point, which turns him into an essentially conventional action hero. Having set young Miles on the right path by getting him to spruce up their apartment building rather than hanging with gangsta types, McCall from here on dedicates himself to tracking down the evident killer, none other than his old partner Dave (Pedro Pascal, of TV’s Narcos). From here on, we could as easily be watching Dirty Harry, Rambo or John McClane, so generic do McCall’s actions become at this point.

In fact, the grand finale showcasing the ultimate mano a mano between McCall and Dave comes off as both predictable and fundamentally preposterous, no matter how unusual its location, that being a coastal Massachusetts town (actually Brant Rock, an hour south of Boston) during a hurricane-force storm. Screenwriter Richard Wenk and director Antoine Fuqua obviously thought long and hard to come up with a setting for their climax that might seem fresh, but in fact it’s silly; why would either of these foes choose to fight it out under these conditions? It all seems too clever even for McCall’s unusual mind and simply too stupid for the shrewd Dave, who could easily have retreated and lived to fight another day.

And the long, wet, windblown finale also contains at least one big continuity blunder: All the electrical power in the community has been knocked out by the fierce winds and yet at one point McCall is able to switch on two big fans to blow some sight-obscuring powder in his adversary’s direction.

Even though the evil impulses of the villains feel rote and arbitrary, The Equalizer 2 is not without its pleasures. With his pared-down lifestyle, clear view of priorities and extreme skill at what he does, McCall remains a welcome and ingratiating character, an unusual action figure who Washington imbues with calm, grace and intelligence, a man whose downtime is actually more rewarding than when he’s once again, but inevitably, called back into battle.

Production companies: Columbia Pictures, Escape Artists, Zhiv, Mace Neufeld Productions
Distributor: Sony
Cast: Denzel Washington, Pedro Pascal, Ashton Sanders, Bill Pullman, Melissa Leo, Jonathan Scarfe, Orson Bean
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Screenwriter: Richard Wenk, based on the television series created by Michael Sloan, Richard Lindheim
Producers: Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, Denzel Washington, Antoine Fuqua, Alex Siskin, Steve Tisch, Mace Neufeld, Tony Eldridge, Michael Sloan
Executive producers: Molly Allen, David Bloomfield
Director of photography: Oliver Wood
Production designer: Naomi Shohan
Costume designer: Jenny Gering
Editor: Conrad Buff
Music: Harry Gregson-Williams
Casting: Lindsay Graham, Mary Vernieu

Rated R, 121 minutes

The animated characters make their first feature film appearance in this big-screen version of the popular Cartoon Network TV show.

It’s no small compliment to say that the feature film derived from Teen Titans Go!, a popular children’s animated series, often proves far more enjoyable than the grown-up superhero blockbusters it spoofs. Although obviously geared to the small fry who will no doubt eat it up, Teen Titans Go! To the Movies will provide many laughs for their adult chaperones as well. The modest animated feature is a definite boost to the DC Comics film universe.

Like the Cartoon Network show that inspired it, the film depicts the adventures of its titular teen heroes, including Beast Boy (Greg Cipes), Robin (Scott Menville), Cyborg (Khary Payton), Raven (Tara Strong) and Starfire (Hynden Walch). The story revolves around the efforts of the group, disappointed over not having starred in a superhero movie of their own, attempting to rectify the situation by convincing a famed Hollywood director (Kristen Bell) to develop one for them. Complicating their plans is the dastardly villain Slade (the ubiquitous Will Arnett) and his scheme to conquer the world.

The storyline is only slightly less rudimentary than the Saturday morning TV-level animation, but it all serves as an effective vehicle for some very funny gags inspired by comic book movies, beginning with the clever spoofing of Marvel films’ opening graphics. Sure, the screenplay by Michael Jelenic and Aaron Horvath includes the requisite fart and poop jokes, which elicited hearty guffaws from the youngsters who had been shoehorned into the press screening. But it also features enough smart meta-humor to make the proceedings go down easy.

The Marvel films provide plenty of material for the gags, from the cameo appearance by an animated Stan Lee to an appearance by the Guardians of the Galaxy, which prompts one character to point out, “That’s a different superhero universe!” Some of the more amusing running gags include Slade constantly being constantly mistaken for Deadpool, much to his annoyance; the need for villainous characters to have names that are fun to intone in dramatic fashion; and the endless recycling of origin stories. The proceedings are frequently interrupted by catchy musical numbers, such as one introduced as an “upbeat inspirational song about life.”

One of the funnier segments concerns Robin’s disgruntlement about not being given his own feature film spinoff, especially considering that among the future ones being heavily promoted are movies starring the Batmobile and Alfred the butler (he’s billed as “The Ultimate Grime Fighter”). Comic book movie aficionados will also appreciate the in-joke of Nicolas Cage voicing Superman; the actor had once been attached to a Tim Burton project about the caped superhero. Among the other celebrities making vocal contributions are Halsey as Wonder Woman, Lil Yachty as Green Lantern (the comment about that character’s ill-fated movie is priceless) and Jimmy Kimmel, of all people, as Batman. The film doesn’t limit itself to genre references but also includes random pop-culture gags as well, such as an inspired takeoff on The Lion King.

Considering the somberness that afflicts so many DC universe releases, the tongue-in-cheek, albeit admittedly juvenile humor of Teen Titans Go! To the Movies should come as a welcome relief to fans.

Production: Warner Bros. Animation, DC Entertainment
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Greg Cipes, Scott Menville, Khary Payton, Tara Strong, Hynden Walch, Will Arnett, Kristen Bell, Nicolas Cage, Halsey, Greg Davies, Jimmy Kimmel, Lil Yachty, Dana Snyder
Directors: Peter Rida Michail, Aaron Horvath
Screenwriters: Michael Jelenic, Aaron Horvath
Producers: Aaron Horvath, Michael Jelenic, Peggy Regan, Peter Rida Michail, Will Arnett
Executive producer: Sam Register
Composer: Jared Faber

Rated PG, 92 min.

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again
Pictured:Lily James and Josh Dylan

Writer-director Ol Parker and the producers get the whole band back together — and add a few newcomers, including Cher — for another round in this sequel to the smash 2008 hit ‘Mamma Mia!’

Spawned by a film no one predicted would be as successful as it was, which was adapted from a musical that itself was a huge surprise hit, comes a sequel that is — predictably — made with more money, wit and craft and yet remains faintly disappointing. Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, the follow-up to 2008’s smash jukebox musical Mamma Mia! (it earned over $600 million worldwide), is the cinematic equivalent of a B-side (digital-age readers may need to Google what that means): adequate, blessed with a few good hooks and likely to have its fervent fans. But no one would be paying much attention if the other one hadn’t been such a big deal.

Indeed, the movie’s biggest failing is that so much of its soundtrack, the very engine that propels it, is made up of far too many actual B-sides, or at least lesser-known tunes from the back catalogue of Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, the two Swedish singer-songwriters who made up half of the 1970s pop quartet ABBA.

The first film/stage production, an ingenious if silly contraption, consisted of a tacked-together tale (about a young woman, the daughter of a single parent, getting married on a Greek island and inviting the three men who may or may not be her father to the wedding) reverse-engineered around a collection of solid-gold hits, with every single one a toe-tapper. That is, if your toes are triggered to tap by the sound of lush orchestrations, close-harmony singing and deceptively simple but secretly musically sophisticated melodies, further stimulated perhaps by memories of ’70s fashions in all their lurid, glittery glory. “Dancing Queen,” “Super Trouper,” the title track “Mamma Mia” itself — they all fit that bill.

The pickings are decidedly thinner for Mamma Mia! 2.0. There’s a reason such tunes as “When I Kissed the Teacher,” “Kisses of Fire” and “My Love, My Life” didn’t become hits on the same scale as the aforementioned tunes. (Hint: They’re kind of crap.) This left the producers and filmmakers behind Here We Go Again with a particularly tricky challenge if they were to fulfill the mandate of all sequels: Offer more of the same but make it a little different.

Given that familiar, sing-along-able songs are so integral to the Mamma Mia brand’s appeal, the solution they’ve elected to use here is a compromise, one that patches together a story out of the leftover tunes but intersperses them with exactly the same colossal hits we already know and love from the first time around. It’s a solution both fantastically audacious and profoundly, bizarrely lazy. Imagine Rodgers and Hammerstein deciding to do a sequel to South Pacific and just recycling “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair,” “Some Enchanted Evening” and “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” because, hey, everyone loves those ones.

With that major caveat out of the way, it’s possible to acknowledge that there are many elements in this assembly that hugely improve on the original. For a start, the script — credited to Ol Parker (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), who also directs here, derived from a story by Parker, Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill) and Catherine Johnson (who wrote the book for the original Mamma Mia!) — is leagues better than its predecessor. Generously salted with witty one-liners that sound particularly Curtisian with their self-deprecating, oh-so-British cadences, the screenplay also has more emotional depth and complexity. That is especially true because it is structured around the — spoiler alert! — ensemble’s collective grief over the early death of Donna (Meryl Streep), the hotelier from the first film whose dalliance with three men back in the late ’70s led to the birth of her daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), the bride whose wedding is the centerpiece for the first musical.

Adroitly calling back to the first film with lots of reincorporated details (There’s the diary! Check out the dungarees!), Here We Go Again shifts back and forth between two timelines. In the present, Sophie and her stepdad Sam (Pierce Brosnan) strain to get Hotel Bella Donna, a redevelopment of Donna’s old farmhouse hotel on a Greek island, ready for a splashy relaunch to which various old friends (everyone of note from the first film) are coming.

Meanwhile, thanks to the magic of visual effects and nifty match cuts, flashbacks reveal what happened all those years ago when newly graduated Donna (played this time by a peppy Lily James) first arrived on the island and had affairs with Sam (played as a young man by Jeremy Irvine), Bill (Josh Dylan, and a returning Stellan Skarsgard in the present) and Harry (Hugh Skinner, scene-stealer from TV comedies The Windsors and Fleabag, and latterly by Colin Firth).

To reveal much more about the plot risks spoiling the fun, but only those who have been living in caves for the last few months will be unaware that Cher features crucially in the story as Donna’s estranged mother. The film takes its sweet time finally getting her onscreen, but her entrance is worth it, a drag-queen-style showstopper that starts from the stilettos and works its way up, designed to get queens of all genders jumping to their feet or bowing down in adoration, according to inclination. For a duet with Andy Garcia (almost inaudible through the swampy arrangement), there are even fireworks — deservedly for a tune that Johnson just understandably couldn’t find a way to work into the first edition but which comes into its own here. It’s basically the movie’s highlight, just as the cleverly jimmied-in production of “Waterloo,” sung with gusto by Skinner and James, is the helium that keeps the midsection aloft.

Parker, a more competent and imaginative director than Mamma Mia!’s stage-show holdover Phyllida Lloyd, likes to assemble the musical numbers in such a way as to recall the very earliest days of pop videos, with snappy editing or Busby Berkeley-style overhead shots of choreography veering on abstraction. The result is to make this feel much more like a throwback to old-school musicals in all their corny glory. It helps that the cast looks like they’re having a right old hootenanny of a time, practically winking at the audience, in on the joke all the way. And best of all, we don’t have to listen to Brosnan’s atrocious singing too much.


Production: A Universal Pictures presentation in association with Legendary Pictures/Perfect World Pictures of a Playtone/Littlestar production
Distributor: Universal

Cast: Amanda Seyfried, Andy Garcia, Celia Imrie, Lily James, Alexa Davies, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Dominic Cooper, Julie Walters, Christine Baranski, Hugh Skinner, Pierce Brosnan, Omid Djalili, Josh Dylan, Gerard Monaco, Anna Antoniades, Jeremy Irvine, Panos Mouzourakis, Maria Vacratsis, Naoko Mori, Togo Igawa, Colin Firth, Anastasia Hille, Stellan Skarsgard, Susanne Barklund, Cher, Jonathan Goldsmith, Meryl Streep
Director-screenwriter: Ol Parker
Story: Richard Curtis, Ol Parker, Catherine Johnson
Producers: Judy Craymer, Gary Goetzman
Executive producers: Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus, Rita Wilson, Tom Hanks, Richard Curtis, Phyllida Lloyd, Nicky Kentish Barnes
Co-executive producer: Steven Sharshian
Director of photography: Robert Yeoman
Production designer: Alan MacDonald, John Frankish
Costume designer: Michele Clapton
Editor: Peter Lambert
Music and lyrics: Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus
Composter: Anne Dudley
Music director: Martin Koch
Music supervisor: Becky Bentham
Choreographer: Anthony Van Laast
Casting: Nina Gold

Rated PG-13, 114 minutes

Tom Cruise reunites with director Christopher McQuarrie for the sixth spectacularly action-packed entry in the series.

The plot may be as indecipherable as The Big Sleep, but the action is insane in this sixth installment of Mission: Impossible. Loaded with extended sequences that show Tom Cruise doing what look like real — and really dangerous — stunts all over central Paris and London, in addition to more far-flung destinations and on almost any means of transportation you care to name, writer-director Christopher McQuarrie’s second outing on the series tops what he did with Cruise three years ago with Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, which is saying something. That film pulled in $682 million worldwide (71 percent of that outside the U.S.), and there’s little reason to believe that this new ultra-amped-up extravaganza shouldn’t pull in that much or more.

You get the feeling that Cruise and his frequent partner in crime McQuarrie made a pact to go for broke here. Especially in light of his serious injury suffered in jumping a good distance from one London building to another (it does look awfully precarious when seen onscreen), it wouldn’t be a total surprise if Cruise decided to make this outing as Ethan Hunt his last. If he does, he’d certainly be signing off on a very good note.

Unlike with other installments in the series, there is carry-through from the last one to this. In Rogue Nation, MI6 agent Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) went over to the dark side and joined the Syndicate, a terrorist organization bent on the idea that the status quo must be destroyed before a new world order can spring up. Lane’s possession of three small plutonium bombs and his intention to use them springboard all the action.

In a tricky and winning opening sequence, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and his buddy Benji (Simon Pegg) try to nab the caps in Berlin, but the botched operation triggers the wrath of Angela Bassett’s CIA director and forces Ethan and perennial helpmate Luther (Ving Rhames) to be saddled with a sidekick, August Walker (Henry Cavill, a good and welcome presence out of his Superman suit), whose ongoing relationship with Ethan is as uneasy as his real intentions are unclear.

An even more ambiguous figure is the “White Widow,” a wildly wealthy philanthropist and apparent part-time arms dealer played with a mix of elegance and frisky abandon by Vanessa Kirby, so great as Princess Margaret in The Crown. Needing to get to Paris in a hurry to see her at a giant shindig, Ethan and August arrange a rather novel means of transportation; they jump from a high-flying jet transport to a low altitude before opening their chutes and landing directly on the Grand Palais, a grand entrance no doubt unprecedented in Paris society.

In short order, they mix with some of the Widow’s muscular goons in a deliciously protracted and bloody action scene in a large, gleaming men’s room before Ethan starts negotiating with the provocative Widow, who plays a high-low game and wouldn’t mind combining big business with a little pleasure involving the straight-arrow American.

McQuarrie, the first director ever asked to return for seconds behind the camera on this franchise, succeeds in establishing and more or less maintaining the ideal tone, one that fuses sufficient self-aware humor with the ever-more-outlandish set pieces so as to encourage the audience to enjoy them for what they are — some of the most extreme, sustained and dangerous-looking stunt-reliant action scenes ever assembled. Even at 56, Cruise is well-known to push these boundaries, and here he has two eager accomplices in McQuarrie and stunt coordinator/second unit director Wade Eastwood.

So even as the narrative becomes more perplexing — as before, realistic masks conceal true identities, characters’ actual agendas remain hidden — the fast-moving spectacle unfolds in extraordinary fashion. Probably never has Paris been availed so extensively as the setting for such spectacular action, which encompasses not one but two breathless motorized chases, one involving cars and a second on motorcycle that has a helmet-free Cruise zooming through congested streets and, in the most amazing interlude, speeding against traffic in the busy circle around the Arc de Triomphe. In scenes like this, any sense of dramatic necessity or real purpose is obliterated by the sheer sensation of it, which is significantly enhanced in the Imax format. Lorne Balfe’s sharp reorchestrations of Lalo Schifrin’s original themes nicely further the cause throughout.

One way or another, McQuarrie spins just enough of a narrative line on which to hang the big set pieces. Having exhausted Paris, these characters who never sleep move on to London, where Rebecca Ferguson’s former MI6 agent from Rogue Nation, Ilsa Faust, steps more to the fore, with intentions that muddy the waters even further. To figure out who’s on what side and why and what they’re all trying to pull off becomes an impossible mission of its own after a point. So the impulse is to just let this go and ride with it, a worthwhile decision because of the extraordinary level of visceral and realistic-looking action cinema the team here has achieved.

A chase that takes Ethan through a jammed church funeral service is pretty amusing, while the prolonged footrace atop some scenic London roofs (during which Cruise was badly injured) makes you catch your breath at times; as much as any other scene, this one provokes real wonderment about how it was pulled off.

Eventually, the journey’s end brings everyone to Kashmir (doubled by Norway and New Zealand, it would seem), which the amazingly still-living Solomon Lane has determined will be the best place to launch the destruction to trigger the eradication of the known world and the birth of the new. Lo and behold, Ethan here runs into his ex-wife, Julia (a returning Michelle Monaghan), who was thought to have died after M:I 3. The fact that Julia and Ilsa bear more than a passing resemblance to one another is subtly acknowledged by the looks the two actresses give each other and adds to the resonance of these late scenes, which pivot on the Goldfinger-like countdown to a doomsday explosion Ethan’s partner Luther (Rhames plays a bigger role in the proceedings this time) desperately tries to help prevent.

But even here, McQuarrie, Cruise and Eastwood (no relation to Clint) find a way to vastly up the ante, sending Ethan out on a desperate helicopter pursuit of August through the mountains. As has been the agenda throughout the film, this episode needs to top the one that has come just before and, to everyone’s credit, it does just that. The action here represents the mainstream cinema’s version of extreme sports, and these guys have staked their claim at the summit. Now someone will have to try to top this; either someone else will take on the mission, or these guys will again, if they choose to accept it.

Production companies: Tom Cruise/Bad Robot
Distributor: Paramount
Cast: Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Sean Harris, Angela Bassett, Vanessa Kirby, Wes Bentley, Frederick Schmidt, Michelle Monaghan, Alec Baldwin
Director-screenwriter: Christopher McQuarrie, based on the television series created by Bruce Geller
Producers: Tom Cruise, Christopher McQuarrie, Jake Myers, J.J. Abrams
Executive producers: David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Don Granger
Director of photography: Rob Hardy
Production designer: Peter Wenham
Costume designer: Jeffrey Kurland
Editor: Eddie Hamilton
Music: Lorne Balfe
Stunt coordinator/second unit director: Wade Eastwood
Casting: Mindy Marin, Toby Whale
Rated PG-13, 144 minutes

Dwayne Johnson must save his family from a burning building in Rawson Marshall Thurber’s ‘Die Hard’ wannabe.

Part Towering Inferno, part Die Hard, and part test to see how much Hollywood baloney a physics-literate viewer can take before his or her head explodes, Rawson Marshall Thurber’s Skyscraper is one of the most idiotic action movies to come down the pike in some time. It’s also a lot of fun if you’re willing to go with it, and getting viewers to go with things is one of several fronts on which The Rock routinely earns the money he gets paid.

The performer now known as Dwayne Johnson — but honestly, a flick like this demands The Rock — brings more earnestness than wit to this performance. Though that makes sense when playing a man who must rush into hell to save his family, it (along with Thurber’s subpar script and the absence of a Hans Gruber-grade villain) keeps this film well short of John McTiernan’s enduring Bruce Willis crowd-pleaser, which celebrates its 30th birthday this very month. Nevertheless, multiplexes should welcome it with open arms.

Johnson plays Will Sawyer, a former special-ops guy who, since a decade-old tragedy that cost him half of one leg, has stayed behind a desk. Now working as a high-level security consultant, Will has landed a peach of a gig: He’s vetting all the safety and security systems on the Pearl, a Hong Kong skyscraper that is the world’s tallest, three times the height of the Empire State Building.

The Pearl is a curvy, biomorphic thing, with a 30-story park in its interior and a mysterious sphere cradled up top. The building’s billionaire owner, Zhao (Chin Han), brags that the vast array of high-def monitors inside that sphere makes it the Eighth Wonder of the World, which really only means that he needs to leave his skyscraper more often.

Zhao has an enemy whose crew steals control of all the Pearl’s systems and nearly kills Will while he’s away from the building. Will’s wife (Neve Campbell, playing a military surgeon) and twin kids are still high up in the tower, though, when the bad guys start a massive fire on the 95th floor and shut down all those precious safety systems, locking down the building’s entranceways and exits.

Look: If you think you can keep The Rock out of a flaming skyscraper while his wife and kids are inside, you’re welcome to try. But do yourself a favor and make sure there aren’t any giant construction cranes nearby. In the first of many guffaw-worthy daredevil sequences, Will scales a crane’s exterior (how long would it take to climb a hundred stories?!), uses its hook to smash a hole in an upper floor of the Pearl and takes a running leap from the crane into that hole.

Only a scholar of schlock would know, but it’s possible that no other film has made such frequent and ridiculous use of the device in which a character falls from something very tall but catches himself at the last possible moment in a completely impossible way. Will is barely inside that hole in the building before he’s finding far-fetched reasons to go back to its exterior. (And as stupid as things get out there, you gotta love the guy’s faith that duct tape will keep him from flying off the 98th-floor ledge.)

Inside the building, Campbell’s Sarah Sawyer isn’t exactly a helpless damsel. But in a script whose action often boils down to knowing the right buttons to press on a control panel, Will’s expertise is going to be necessary at some point. Up in the 220th-floor penthouse, Zhao has locked himself in a titanium-walled safe room, and the men who want him out decide they can get Will to help open the room by taking his kids hostage. Again: Good luck with that. (And to the viewer: Please temporarily disable your brain before the movie reveals where the access panel to the penthouse is located.)

With no real personalities to play against on the villains’ side, the film’s human-on-human (as opposed to human-on-the-laws-of-physics) action is more ordinary than it might have been. But Johnson is nothing if not invested, and it’s gratifying to see him play Unstoppable Dad, even in such a setting. At this point in his career, why is Johnson still having to make mindless films watchable? Why aren’t genuine action auteurs lining up to make movies with this man?

Production companies: Legendary Pictures, Flynn Picture Company, Seven Bucks
Distributor: Universal
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Chin Han, Roland Moller, Noah Taylor, Byron Mann, Pablo Schreiber, Hannah Quinlivan
Director-screenwriter: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Producers: Beau Flynn, Dwayne Johnson, Rawson Marshall Thurber, Hiram Garcia
Executive producers: Dany Garcia, Wendy Jacobson, Eric McLeod, Eric Hedayat
Director of photography: Robert Elswit
Production designer: Jim Bissell
Costume designer: Ann Foley
Editors: Mike Sale, Julian Clarke
Composer: Steve Jablonsky
Casting director: Sarah Halley Finn

Rated PG-13, 102 minutes

Drac looks for a new Countess in Genndy Tartakovsky’s third ‘Hotel Transylvania’ cartoon.

Sending its gang of cuddly monsters off on a holiday at sea, Genndy Tartakovsky’s Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation is exactly the kind of energetic, middlebrow ‘toon-timekiller fans will expect. It’s also the series’ biggest peddler yet of one of the most damaging lies movies have ever sold to young people: That there’s one and only one love out there for everyone in the world; that it can be recognized at first sight; and (advocates for the abused love this part) that you must never give up on that true match, even if she’s trying to kill not just you but all those you love.

The asterisk here is that a person might get a second chance at a “zing” (the series’ sickly-cute name for true love), provided that your first one has died. Hotel Transylvania’s proprietor Dracula (voiced by Adam Sandler), having been a widower for well over a century, begins at the film’s outset to yearn for a new neck to nibble. But he has barely started swiping through the menagerie on ghoul-hookup app Zingr when Mavis, mistaking his loneliness for workaholic fatigue, books him and all their friends on a surprise vacation: a cruise beginning in the Bermuda Triangle and destined for Atlantis.

Drac’s buddies Frankenstein, Wayne the werewolf, et al are sure he’ll meet somebody on the cruise. No sooner has he chided them, “this isn’t the Love Boat,” than a lithe acrobat flies through the air and makes Drac go goofy with infatuation — a white-clad woman with a platinum pixie cut who turns out to be the vessel’s Captain Ericka (Kathryn Hahn). She also turns out to be a member of the Van Helsing clan of vampire-hunters, though it’ll be a while before the passengers learn that.

In a flashback to 1897, we see Dracula and Ericka’s great-grandpa in an amusing series of Coyote/Road Runner encounters, with Van Helsing getting foiled so many times he eventually gives up. But the human villain has kept himself alive all this time with a series of steampunk substitute body parts, and has trained Ericka to loathe vampires above all other beings that make bumps in the night. She’s supposed to take the ship to Atlantis so the old man can retrieve what he believes is a secret weapon there, but Ericka is impatient and makes several covert attempts to slay the soft-hearted bloodsucker en route.

The movie flirts with the usual mixed-signals of romantic comedy, but is on much more solid ground with sight gags (as when Drac’s jello-like blob friend happily absorbs the slice-and-smash violence Ericka aims at the vampire) and character work that depends less on celebrity voice talent than on body-language animation: Though not used much this time around, Mavis’ hang-loose husband Johnny (Andy Samberg) slouches and sways his way into a few laughs near the end. Though much of the design work is either generic or derivative, the folks in charge of motion earn their keep.

This being a kiddie picture, Ericka will eventually zing for the Count, and even her grinchy great-grandpa will see the light: Monsters or humans, “basically, we’re all the same,” as Drac puts it. Here, at least, is a moral more worth feeding to elementary-school kids than “a zing only happens once in your life” or “a zing never lies” — and certainly less harmful than the third-act admonishment, “you’re just a half” a person until you create an “infinite whole” with someone else.

Production company: Sony Pictures Animation
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Cast: Adam Sandler, Selena Gomez, Andy Samberg, Kevin James, David Spade, Steve Buscemi, Fran Drescher, Keegan-Michael Key, Molly Shannon, Fran Drescher, Kathryn Hahn, Jim Gaffigan, Mel Brooks
Director: Genndy Tartakovsky
Screenwriters: Michael McCullers, Genndy Tartakovsky
Producer: Michelle Murdocca
Production designer: Scott Willis
Editor: Joyce Arrastia
Composer: Mark Mothersbaugh
Casting director: Mary Hidalgo

Rated PG, 97 minutes

Keanu Reeves and Ana Ularu star as ill-fated lovers in Matthew Ross’ fatalistic Russia-set thriller.

While killing time waiting for the release of John Wick 3, viewers might be forgiven for mistaking Matthew Ross’ “romantic thriller” Siberia for a fair facsimile of Keanu Reeves’ hardboiled crime series. Or perhaps the pairing of Reeves with contemporary Molly Ringwald as alienated spouses sounds like too good an opportunity to miss, but since they appear in only two scenes together (one of them an online video chat), well, wrong again.

Instead, Ross serves up a fatalistic romance framed by a pointedly obscure heist plot that struggles to gain momentum before finally sputtering out. Stiffly scripted and stoically directed, Siberia shamelessly squanders the particular appeal of its charismatic lead and wastes an inordinate amount of screen time going practically nowhere, except undoubtedly right to VOD.

Selling rare diamonds to Russian gangsters probably isn’t the safest segment of the high-end industry, although gem dealer Lucas Hill (Reeves) seems resigned to the inevitable risks of the black market trade. He gets caught off-guard, however, on arriving in St. Petersburg to find that his Russian partner Pyotr (Boris Gulyarin) has gone missing. Showing up empty-handed at a meeting with local crime boss Boris Volkov (Pasha D. Lychnikoff), he gingerly negotiates a two-day deadline extension to secure the samples of blue diamonds that Pyotr previously promised in a $50 million deal. Before you can vocalize the thought “go home now,” Hill tracks his partner to the Siberian city of Mirny, chartering a private jet to the remote gem-mining outpost in hopes of locating Pyotr and recovering the missing samples.

This being the off-season, it seems like Pyotr wouldn’t be that hard to locate, but Mirny is one of those dark little towns with lots of secrets, or something to that effect. What becomes clear, however, is that some residents don’t like outsiders, after two locals rough up Hill when he defends the virtue of local cafe owner Katya (Ana Ularu). Apparently she’s not as hostile as her neighbors, taking him home to recover and moving him to bed her the next day. Hill initially demurs, however, since he has diamonds to locate and gangsters to appease. That’s not a problem for Katya, who’s happy to tag along back to St. Petersburg where their relationship can get super-steamy as Hill attempts the delicate task of negotiating with Volkov.

Some of this nonsense almost succeeds just on the basis of Reeves’ ability to speak some passable Russian at key moments, although not so much during the numerous love scenes with Ularu, who does a decent job of playing an incongruously English-speaking Siberian. The sense lingers, however, that if screenwriter Scott B. Smith (who also scripted the far superior A Simple Plan) had let Reeves dictate the terms of the plot himself it would have turned out at least somewhat more involving.

As it is, he’s left to drift through a miasma of existential angst on his search for Pyotr and the missing diamonds, inching toward some undoubtedly fatalistic resolution. Lychnikoff’s over-the-top Volkov periodically provides a modicum of comic relief, although not much of a credible threat as the clocks ticks down on the promised diamond delivery date.

Ross (Frank & Lola) hems them all in with restrained camerawork, too-cool lighting and ponderous pacing, determined to make us feel every moment of Hill’s mental and physical pain, but is it worth it?

Distributor: Saban Films

Production companies: Saban Films, Mars Town, Elevated Films, The Fyzz Facility, Globus Film, Unbound Films

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Ana Ularu, Pasha D. Lychnikoff, Dmitry Chepovetsky, James Gracie, Eugene Lipinski, Rafael Petardi, Veronica Ferres, Molly Ringwald, Boris Gulyarin

Director: Matthew Ross

Screenwriters: Scott B. Smith

Producers: Stephen Hamel, Keanu Reeves, Gabriela Bacher, Braden Aftergood, David  Hansen

Executive producers: Cassian Elwes, Christian Angermayer, Wayne Marc Godfrey, Ness Saban, Shanan Becker, Christian Angermayer, Klemens Hallmann, Marc Hansell, Christopher Lemole, Tim Zajaros, William B. Bromiley, Robert Jones, Phyllis Laing, Devan Towers, Jere R. Hausfater, Jeff Beesley

Director of photography: Eric Koretz

Production designer: Jean-Andre Carriere            

Costume designer: Patti Henderson

Editor: Louise Ford

Music: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans  


Rated R, 104 minutes

Richard Foreman/TIFF

Woman Walks Ahead

Type: Movie; Genre: Drama; Release date: 06/29/18; Performer: Jessica Chastain, Sam Rockwell, Michael Greyeyes; Director: Susanna White; MPAA: R

In an era as chaotic as our current one, part of the pleasure of watching history unfold onscreen is just knowing what you’re in for. Isn’t it comforting to be sure that at least some of those crazy kids will make it home from Dunkirk, or that the queen’s faltering marriage will definitely live to see another season on The Crown?

But the flip side, of course, are the unhappy endings you can’t rewrite or forget — and anyone who sat through seventh-grade social studies remembers the fate of Sitting Bull and the Battle at Wounded Knee. Woman Walks Ahead at least comes at the story from a relatively fresh angle, via real-life activist and artist Caroline Weldon (Jessica Chastain), a wealthy young widow determined to make her way from circa-1890 New York to North Dakota to paint the legendary Lakota warrior.

Despite her social connections to millionaires and senators, Weldon is hardly welcomed with open arms; in fact, she’s spit on, called a prostitute, and worse. A gruff colonel named Silas Groves (Sam Rockwell) clocks her as trouble before she even disembarks the train, and the great holy man himself (Michael Greyeyes) can’t help side-eyeing her clumsy overtures, at least at first. (It doesn’t help that Chastain, always such a lovely and expressive actress, has chosen to speak in an oddly strangled cadence straight out of the Ministry of Silly Accents.)

But her Weldon is determined, and undeniably brave. And BAFTA-winning director Susanna White (Generation Kill, Parade’s End) captures the stark racial and sexual power dynamics of the 19th-century West with a deftness that the script, by Steven Knight (Eastern Promises) sometimes struggles to match.

Both probably share some responsibility for the white savior/noble savage tropes that creep in — especially as Weldon begins to insert herself into the fight between the Native population and the men conscripted by the U.S. government to take their land away and effectively eliminate their way of life.

The relationship between the painter and her subject also veers dangerously close to paperback-romance territory, though the inherent grace of the two actors playing them, and Rockwell’s acerbic turn, help cut the creep of sepia-toned sentiment. (So does the striking wide-open scenery, by cinematographer Mike Eley.)

Woman could use some of the quieter character nuance of a movie like last year’s Wind River, another fact-based drama that reflected the struggle of indigenous people with a sensitive, unvarnished kind of naturalism; White’s well-meant version is undoubtedly incomplete, and gilded with a certain amount of Hollywood silliness. But if it doesn’t exactly feel revelatory or deeply explored as a historical document, it’s still an intriguing story, capably told.

An ex-con computer hacker falls in love with a grieving war widow in Jeremy Culver’s romantic dramedy.

The opening montage of news clips about cyberattacks hardly provides an accurate introduction to Jeremy Culver’s offbeat romantic comedy/drama. While one of its central characters is a computer hacker who gets involved in an FBI investigation into stolen bitcoins, No Postage Necessary proves decidedly old-school in its storyline. Best suited for basic cable exposure, the film, receiving a limited theatrical release, is most notable for being the first to be screened on a blockchain platform and available for purchase with cryptocurrency. That’s cinematic progress of a sorts, I guess.

One of the film’s chief problems is that its principal male character, Sam (George Blagden, TV’s Vikings) is something of a creep. Recently released from prison, he’s crashing on his brother’s couch while working a menial job at a soft-serve ice cream stand and supplementing his income by pretending to be a postal carrier and stealing mail that occasionally contains cash.

One day he purloins a letter addressed to “The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.” It turns out to have been sent by Josie (Charleene Closshey), who periodically writes missives pouring out her heart to her Marine husband who was killed years earlier in Afghanistan. Living with her father (Raymond J. Barry) and emotionally troubled adolescent daughter (Michelle Moreno), Josie is still very much in the grieving phase.

Intrigued by Josie’s heartfelt letters, Sam begins stalking her and, with the help of his religious-minded co-worker and fellow hacker (Robbie Kay), manages to meet her by pretending to save her from being run down by a car. Sam and Josie embark on a tentative romance, even as he is forced to deal with his attentive parole officer (Michael Beach) and a ruthless FBI agent (Stelio Savante) pressuring him to use his unique skills on a case involving the underground drug market on the internet and a fortune in missing bitcoins.

Director/screenwriter Culver doesn’t succeed in blending the complex storyline’s romantic, comedic and thriller elements into a coherent whole. None of it works remotely well, including the ploddingly paced love story that begins with a dinner at Outback (the Bloomin’ Onion is very much on display) and eventually results in Sam rediscovering his inner decency. That the film works at all is a testament to the performers who manage to make the awkward material palatable. Blagden brings just enough charm to his roguish character to make him seem not totally repellent, while Closshey is low-key and appealing as the emotionally vulnerable war widow. The supporting players are even better; the veteran Barry infuses his stern but loving character with genuine gravitas, Beach is stolid as the parole officer who treats his ex-cons fairly, and Kay is a hoot as Sam’s reluctant accomplice.

There’s nary a believable moment, emotionally or otherwise, in No Postage Necessary, which also suffers from its overly treacly musical score composed by Closshey. The film bears as much relation to real life as cryptocurrency does to hard cash.

Production: Two Roads Picture Co.
Cast: Charleene Closshey, George Blagden, Robbie Kay, Raymond J. Barry, Michelle Moreno, Stelio Savante
Director/screenwriter: Jeremy Culver
Producers: Charleene Closshey, Jeremy Culver
Executive producer: Jennifer Closshey,
Director of photography: Jeff Osborne
Production designer: Matthew Hill
Editor: Sandy S. Solowitz
Composer: Charleen Closshey
Costume designer: Kerry Hennessy

Rated PG-13, 104 minutes


The First Purge

Type: Movie; Genre: Horror; Release date: 07/04/18; Performer: Y’lan Noel, Lex Scott Davis, Joivan Wade, Marisa Tomei; Director: Gerard McMurray; MPAA: R

What are The Purge movies supposed to be? Are they horror movies, in which we’re given a ludicrous set-up (all crime is legal! Mayhem reigns!) so we can enjoy ideally no more than 90 minutes of gore and anarchy? Or are these movies social commentary — an attempt, a la Blumhouse’s most critically successful venture to date, Get Out, to illuminate cultural truths through the shared nonverbal language of jump-scares and goosebumps? In the Purge franchise’s own mind, one suspects these movies are both. Unfortunately, The First Purge succeeds at accomplishing neither.

In The First Purge (a movie whose title already sets up a miserable Abbott and Costello routine, for it’s the fourth film in the franchise), the United States government — run by a new neo-fascist political party — decides to implement an experiment on Staten Island: for 12 hours, all crime will be legal. Citizens will be paid $5,000 if they decide to participate in the experiment by remaining on the island, and those participants will be fit with neon-glowing camera contact lenses so their violent debauchery can be broadcast to the public. The logic here is shaky at best (yes, I know, I know, I did just write the word “logic” in a review of The First Purge) because the goal seems to be to broadcast as much gory violence as possible to a still-free press — these fascists work slow, it turns out — but wouldn’t that turn off the vast majority of the public? If this is the First Purge, and it’s not yet something the modern-day populace is acclimated to, one imagines mass-broadcasted footage of a drug addict slashing a stranger with a fist of hypodermic needles (the first “purge” of the night) would cause most rational-minded people to recoil and think, “hmm, perhaps this isn’t the best embodiment of our nation.”

The experiment, as it’s called, was engineered by a miserable-looking Marisa Tomei in a terrible blonde wig, dressed as if she’s planning on attending an uptown art gallery opening when all of this murdering is over. We’re made to believe this character is a true believer in the moral righteousness of the Purge, a woman who’s sense of right and wrong permits encouraging free-wheeling killing but who draws the line at the government fudging the numbers to make the trial look better. (Equally incorrect casting: the monotone, middle-aged accountant-looking guy who was apparently elected president. Aren’t fascists supposed to be charismatic?)

For the first two-thirds or so of the movie, the scares are lacking. As our character archetypes — I mean, protagonists: Nya (Lex Scott Davis), her little brother (Joivan Wade), her heroic ex-boyfriend (Y’lan Noel) — wander wide-eyed through near-abandoned streets, it feels more like an overpriced haunted house than anything: out pops a guy in a scary mask waving a machete! Out pops a lunatic wearing a raincoat who sprays you with water! Oh no, hands grabbing at your ankles! These moments are so discrete and harmless you expect our heroes to collect a souvenir photo when all of it is over.

The premise of a “Purge” — the helplessness and anarchy of it — is so promising, it’s no wonder why they keep making these movies and why people (your reviewer among them) keep paying money to see them, expecting guilt-free, bloody mayhem, a symbolic two-hour Purge from the obligations of responsible consumerism.

Why then, does this film feel so cardboard? In part, no doubt, because of its self-seriousness (the moments of humor they do attempt to inject are awkward and misplaced) but also maybe because law-enforcement is never a considerable factor in horror movies, and so removing it, while fun in premise, doesn’t do much as a matter of actual practice. All horror movies find a way to nullify the comfort of an active and capable police force (“My phone is dead!” or “This cabin is so far away, police won’t be here for hours!”) until the final moments. “No police to help” is the precondition for good horror, but no more.

And early on, The First Purge teaches us that police aren’t a helpful factor in the lives of our characters: pre-Purge, a junkie slices a young drug-dealer in the face with a razor blade in his mouth. That same junkie is the one who goes on to hypodermic needle-stab someone else, but obviously he’s not someone who was patiently waiting for crime to be legal to really let loose: he already sliced our hero in the face! Where the Purge movies could have been about the slow — and then terrifyingly rapid — dismissal of morality and social norms, like High-Rise, it chooses instead to skate through those haunted house scares and clunky symbolism.

By the final third of this movie though, I’m not sure if you can call it symbolism at all, when it’s just the thing itself and not a representation of it: when people haven’t been murdering enough, the fascist government sends in mercenary racists to systemically gun people down. In a clear echo of the 2015 shooting in Charleston, neo-Nazis ride motorcycles away from a church whose congregants were slaughtered. The KKK glide in bloody sheets through the sheets. The leader of the unit assigned to murdering everyone in the protagonist’s apartment building is dressed like an SS officer, with his goons in minstrel black-face masks. (Were these costumes provided to these last-minute Purge missionaries or did they select people who already had them?)

These images are horrifying, but if 2018 has taught us anything, it’s that, even more horrifying, in the real world, the villains don’t wear bloody KKK hoods or twirling metaphorical moustaches. Evil is petty and banal. Racists love to begin their sentences with “I’m not a racist, but.” Neo-Nazis balk at the comparison to Nazis, and use the accusation as fuel to prove how outlandish and off base their enemies are. How much less terrifying the world would be then, if they were all wearing SS uniforms, and their power dissolved at sunrise.

At one point, as an organized militia armed with machine guns begin their march into the heroes’ apartment building to murder everyone inside, a neighbor earnestly pulls Nya aside and says she’s worried about the state of the country. A reminder: armed gunmen in Nazi costume are currently storming up her stairwell to remorselessly kill them. Hey lady, now’s not the time for an exaggerated wink to the audience. I promise, just dealing with The Purge would be interesting enough.

Peyton Reed’s sequel stars Paul Rudd as the titular Marvel superhero, along with Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas and franchise newcomer Michelle Pfeiffer.

It’s hard to say which is the most lightweight, evanescent and inconsequential of the bunch — Ant-Man, the Wasp or Ant-Man and the Wasp. But while pondering this conundrum for two hours, it becomes increasingly difficult not to notice that this latest entry in the unstoppable Marvel Studios takeover of the world is probably the most amusing film the company has made since the Kevin Feige reign began a decade ago. With a domestic haul of “only” $180 million in 2015, the original Ant-Man stands as the company’s second-lowest grosser during that period, so Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War will not feel threatened. But young summer audiences will nonetheless delight in the goofy, low-stakes nonsense the mostly engaging characters generate.

Black Panther instantly became a landmark by placing black characters and culture front-and-center in such a mass audience attraction. Now it seems as though Ant-Man has exerted a strong influence of its own by demonstrating that actors of a certain age can once again play characters decades younger. Having passed 70, Michael Douglas, submitting to the miracle of digital facelifting, three years ago paved the way with his entirely convincing turn as the fortysomething downsizing genius Dr. Hank Pym. Michelle Pfeiffer and Laurence Fishburne clearly took note and told their agents, “Hell, get me some of that stuff, too.” And here they are, looking (part of the time) as ready as ever for their close-ups.

Trying to slip these wispy little insect characters into a world dominated by the likes of Thor, Thanos, Iron Man, Hulk, Drax and so many bulging others was always a long-shot challenge, so it was a smart move to push a disarming sense of humor to the forefront in this series. Star Paul Rudd is the only returning writer from the original’s team of four, and replacing the departed ones are four more — Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers (The Lego Batman Movie, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) along with Andrew Barrer (Haunt) and Gabriel Ferrari — whose marching orders clearly mandated coming up with as many jokes and gags as possible for returning director Peyton Reed to spin into the action.

The result is an effects-laden goofball comedy in which anything goes and nothing matters. Not that this is an entirely plot-free extravaganza or just an excuse for comic riffs. But the filmmakers are so cavalier about the idea that any of this is supposed to make any sense that there’s a certain liberation in not burdening two human-brained insects with the fate of the entire universe. If the filmmakers don’t pretend to take the proceedings too seriously, you don’t have to, either.

It’s refreshing to feel that the little corner of the universe known as San Francisco hasn’t yet come to Thanos’ attention. All that really matters for good-natured goofball Scott Lang (Rudd) is to serve out the remaining three days of his house arrest without lapsing back into his superhero guise. Given all the hubbub in the household, you can bet it won’t be easy.

Scott is under strict orders not to re-enter the Quantum Realm, but this is like telling Eve not to eat the apple — especially since the Realm’s pioneer explorer, Dr. Hank Pym (Douglas), believes his beloved ex-wife, Janet (Pfeiffer), the original Wasp, remains in limbo there, and Hank and Janet’s daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), is also a quantum physicist keen on helping out. Part of the film’s antic comedy grows out of Scott’s slippery maneuvers to elude the authorities on this score, and another part of it rests in the sort of flippant attitude that allows one character to snort to a scientist, “Do you guys just put the word ‘quantum’ in front of everything?”

But even more of the mirth springs from the fact that, in this installment especially, size matters. A lot. Part of the minute lead characters’ effectiveness stems from their minuscule stature and consequent near-invisibility, hence their ability to zip around mostly unnoticed. But now they can get really large on a whim as well, and so instantaneously that the filmmakers’ decision to essentially dispense with justification and explanations becomes part of the romp’s charm.

But the main benefit of this devil-may-care attitude is the running gag relating to the size of Dr. Pym’s top-secret lab headquarters. Since size-changing is the central given of this series, why not then logically extend it to a building, specifically the one where all the secrets are kept? Possessing this edifice becomes the prime concern of bad guy Sonny (an amusing Walton Goggins), and the sight of the building repeatedly being reduced from the size of a city block to that of a suitcase that can be stolen and carried around provides a droll kick, both for its own comedy value and for the way it intermittently pushes the silliness to the level of quasi-inspiration.

By Marvel standards, the film is reductionist in every way, and what’s at stake couldn’t be further from what lies in the balance at the conclusion of the studio’s recent mega-blockbuster Avengers: Infinity War. But therein lies most of its modest charm. Almost by necessity, it takes the low road, but its underdog status is embraced, even exulted in.

Rudd does more than anyone to set the mood by walking a tonal balance beam with a seriousness shot through with an irrepressible edge of goofy insubordination. While the sincere grownups in the room are played by Lilly, Douglas and Fishburne, the latter as a brainy former academic colleague of Pym’s, counterbalancing them with antic comic relief are Scott’s former small-time criminal cohorts (Michael Pena, Tip ‘T.I.’ Harris, David Dastmalchian) trying to make a move into the security business.

Given that there’s really nothing that the filmmakers could have done to disguise the truth of the matter, which is that Ant-Man really is a pipsqueak compared to the A-cast of Marvel superheroes, Marvel has done a pretty good job with its B team. After the heavy lifting involved in the studio’s most recent blockbusters, Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War, Ant-Man lays out a welcome picnic.

Production company: Marvel Studios
Distributor: Disney

Cast: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Pena, Walton Goggins, Bobby Cannavale, Judy Greer, Tip ‘T.I.’ Harris, David Dastmalchian, Hannah John-Kamen, Abby Ryder, Randall Park, Michelle Pfeiffer, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Douglas
Director: Peyton Reed
Screenwriters: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barber, Gabriel Ferrari
Producers: Kevin Feige, Stephen Broussard
Executive producers: Louis D’Esposito, Victoria Alonso, Charles Newirth, Stan Lee
Director of photography: Dante Spinotti
Production designer: Shepherd Frankel
Costume designer: Louise Frogley
Editors: Dan Lebental, Craig Wood
Music: Christophe Beck
Visual effects supervisor: Stephane Ceretti
Casting: Sarah Halley Finn

Rated PG-13, 112 minutes