"Movies Are Strange, Man”: Joaquin Phoenix Talks About Not Knowing What’s Next

Joaquin Phoenix, who stars in Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, says: "Lynne is a really amazing filmmaker because the more her back is against the wall, the stronger she gets, the better the ideas that come to her."
Courtesy of Amazon Studios
Joaquin Phoenix, who stars in Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, says: "Lynne is a really amazing filmmaker because the more her back is against the wall, the stronger she gets, the better the ideas that come to her."
I don’t know. Those are the three words that Joaquin Phoenix probably says the most during our interview. He may be one of the greatest actors of his generation — possibly, the greatest — but even he seems not quite capable of articulating just how it is he does what he does. That somehow feels right. We’re talking about Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, for which Phoenix won the Best Actor award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. It’s a marvelous performance, but he speaks very little dialogue, and for much of the film we see him only in brief glimpses. During our chat, as the actor fumbles over his words — abandoning analogies halfway through, professing ignorance of his own talents, wondering if anything he’s done works onscreen — he reveals something of his art. Because so much of what Joaquin Phoenix does is about not knowing, both for us as viewers and for him as an actor. In his best performances, he gives off a sense of total absorption and aliveness. Everything seems possible and nothing feels predictable. No other working actor today seems more intuitive, more uncategorizable.

Don’t tell him that, however: Phoenix doesn’t watch his own movies. When I tell him how much I admired him in this film, he deadpans, “Maybe you have terrible taste.” Then when I respond that I’m a fan of his performances in general, he responds, “It looks like you do.” He says it cheerfully, but it’s also hard not to suspect that there’s some doubt in the back of his mind that he uses to rid himself of anything resembling self-consciousness or preciousness. That’s a perfect state of mind for You Were Never Really Here, Ramsay’s devastating and gripping alt-vigilante drama. Phoenix plays a hammer-wielding veteran who is paid to save kidnapped children and who brings all his rage and regret and self-loathing and desire for oblivion to the job. The actor is so convincing in the role that at first I was somewhat scared to talk to him. But the result was a fascinatingly open-ended discussion about acting, Ramsay’s brilliant film and making intuitive decisions.

I’ve always found there to be something distinct about Lynne Ramsay’s characters — they’re very submerged and self-negating. You’ve worked with a lot of different directors. Was there anything about her approach that felt different to you?

Every director is different. I’ve never once felt like there’s one standard. But what is unique about Lynne … I don’t know how she worked on other films or how she worked with other actors, but on this movie, something that we were really cognizant of was trying to fight the cliches of the genre. We didn’t really have a set way of doing things. I imagine there’s like a wildly different performance in there, in other takes, you know. Because each take was different. That was kind of a goal — to do things that might seem out of character or uncomfortable and play with things and improvise. We looked for a way of approaching each scene that just wasn’t traditional, wasn’t what you’d expect. If anything in the script felt like it was something that we had seen before, we’d try to change it.

Even though you’re the lead and the whole movie’s pretty much from your character’s perspective, we rarely see your face. Sometimes, we don’t even see you. There’s so much of the film where we’re watching a room that your character has just left. I’m sure some of that happens in editing, but was that always the idea behind the performance?

Yeah, a lot of that was in the script. Certainly, Lynne set the tone for that from the very opening scene, creating this kind of mystery around this character — where you’re not really knowing exactly where you stand with him and who he is and what he represents. That was pretty evident in the screenplay, but I’m sure there’s stuff that she does in editing to magnify that or to lessen it.

But for you, as the guy who has to give that performance, what kinds of challenges does that present? When you know that your face is not actually going to be on screen much or that you’re not going to have as much recourse to dialogue? Do you have to work on the character’s physicality, say, or his posture or how you walk?

I think it’s a mistake sometimes, as an actor, to think about a movie from the filmmaker’s perspective. It’s hard not to be self-conscious, and it’s one of the struggles that you have as an actor. So, I don’t ask what size lens is there and how much of my body are you seeing. I just have to inhabit the space the way I feel is right. And how the filmmaker captures that or uses it is up to them. It was important to never feel certain of how I was going to behave. The crew was amazing — particularly the camera and sound department, you know, who have to basically follow you around and capture what it is you’re doing — but there really was this feeling that the moment you locked something in, it just started to die. So it felt like things would always have to change and you’d act differently. It was really important for the film and the energy of the character to work that way.

It’s also a pretty violent movie, but so much of what we see is the aftermath of the violence. There’s one fight near the end where we see the whole thing, but that’s about it. For the other scenes of violence, did you guys actually shoot a lot of that stuff and then cut around it in the finished film?

I haven’t seen the movie, so I’m not sure what’s in there, but it was intended that you didn’t see a lot of it. But there are probably other things that we shot and didn’t use. Lynne is a really amazing filmmaker because the more her back is against the wall, the stronger she gets, the better the ideas that come to her. She’s like this brilliant 11th-hour kind of person. And it’s really astonishing because the story shifted throughout production. There were a couple times where I thought, “Fuck, we’ve painted ourselves into a corner and we’re totally fucked.” And she just came up with something at the last minute, you know, and it was really, really impressive. Like, the brothel sequence was originally conceived as something different, and then she got to location. … But that’s what happens; you imagine something in your head and then you have to react to the location. That’s part of what filmmaking is, right? It’s the imagination, and then it’s the reality of what you’re working with. She was great at just reacting to the environment and coming up with something that felt unique.

The Psycho references, when you’re playfully doing the “eee eee eee” sound and air-stabbing your mom — were those always there or were those improvised?

Does it happen upstairs in the bathroom?

It happens twice early on in the finished film — once when she’s actually watching Psycho on TV, where you do it playfully. And then up in the bathroom, when she’s yelling at you from the other side of the door, and then you do it again — and it’s slightly more sinister the second time.

We shot all of that stuff with the mom over, like, two or three days in the same house. We played around with different versions of me coming home — what that could be like. And it was three takes in or something when Judith [Roberts, who plays the mother] said that she was watching Psycho; it wasn’t written in the script. She just said that, and so I did the Psycho voice. But I didn’t know if that was the take that was going to be used, so then upstairs when we shot that other scene, it just came up again. And I didn’t know if we would use that version or not. You know, there’s probably like four or five different versions of those scenes, each different.

When you’ve got a character like this who is so wounded, with such a complicated and tragic backstory, to what extent do you have to connect to those kinds of feelings to feel like you’re doing justice to the part?

I don’t know. It’s a good question, it’s a fair question. Movies are strange, man. Sometimes, you hear the writer talk about it, and you read about some of this stuff. For example, we spoke to someone who actually does [hostage] extractions. He goes in with a team. Some of the stories that he told were impossible not to be affected by. But to be honest, sometimes you’re fuckin’ eatin’ Fritos, and you shoot a scene. (Laughs) And you want to take credit for stuff as an actor, but the truth is that it’s really the filmmaking, ultimately. Probably some of the greatest moments in movies the actor was just thinking what was for lunch. So, I don’t know, it’s hard to say. There are times where you feel affected by things, and it’s emotional. But there’s other times when you go, “This scene is shit and this is not fuckin’ working.” Then somebody tells you a year later, “I really love that scene. It felt powerful.” And you’re like, “Oh, really?” It’s probably different on every movie. And I think you learn something from every movie — even if the lesson is “Well, let’s not do that again.”

There were parts of this film that were really challenging. Part of it is that we put in a lot of time, a lot of work in preproduction, and that’s about going all day long, into the night, going through and talking. Also, Jim Wilson, who’s the producer, was a really big part of that process. There were a lot of changes to the script, and when you spend your time thinking about one subject matter, it starts seeping into you. Inevitably you’re affected by it. But there are times where maybe it’s just that you’re emotionally available, and so you can go in and shoot a scene and be brought right into it. But, you know, there were times in the fuckin’ brothel where the hammer would bend, and I’d be carrying it in my hand and everybody would be laughing. And I’d go, “Oh, what the fuck’s going on?” You know what I mean? I hope it ends up being a tense sequence, but over the one or two days that we shot it, there were moments that were really tense, and there were moments where we were going, “This is a stupid line. How the fuck are we gonna say this? What is this?”

So, how do you get through that? You’ve talked about trying to avoid being self-conscious. How do you pull that off? Because you seem to do it pretty well.

(Long pause)

And I realize that probably makes you self-conscious too, me just saying that …

I don’t know. There’s not one approach. It depends on the scene. The important thing with this movie was — and I acknowledge I probably do this a lot — to feel comfortable enough to make a lot of mistakes. To be able to say there’s not one right way for him to behave. Again, it seemed like the key was not knowing what his reaction was going to be. I’m sure that sometimes we used just a really straight version of a given scene, but we filmed so many different versions. You just dive head on into that feeling. But sometimes, when you’re making a movie, yeah, your nerves wear off and you grow accustomed to it or you get tired or whatever. Maybe it’s a million things over the course of the six weeks. So you just go, “OK, well, this is fuckin’ shit,” and you go outside and you sit and you talk about it, and you try to connect again to what is meaningful about this moment — to try and uncover something that you can latch onto. I guess. I don’t fuckin’ know, man.

In You Were Never Really Here, there’s a random shot, almost part of a montage, where you’re reading a book and you tear out a page as you’re reading it. Do you remember the motivation behind tearing that page or even what book it was? It’s such a mysterious little moment.

I don’t remember the book. It was just sitting there. That was another day in which we were shooting stuff in the house, and we had all these different things that we talked about as possibilities. I don’t remember why that came up. Honestly, it was probably nothing. There probably wasn’t like a great idea behind it. Don’t know that it symbolizes anything. I think it was just in that moment, it happened.… We shot a bunch of stuff. We shot a thing with the knife [Phoenix’s character plays with a knife, balancing it in front of his face] and we decided to use that, and use this book. But I honestly don’t remember what occurred to me in that moment. Maybe it’s something that I read about somewhere or something I did once. I have no idea why I did that.

It’s revealing hearing you talk about this. My job is to write about movies, and often I have to discuss why the filmmakers made certain decisions. But hearing you talk, it’s clear that so many of those decisions are intuitive. You don’t necessarily sit down and reason them out.

Yeah, I’ve had both experiences, and certainly, my preference is the more intuitive — because I do think that if you’ve done your work and you feel familiar with the character in the world, that’s … I don’t know, any analogy sounds stupid. It’s like you have all your ingredients, right, and so you know your basics, of what you’re going to put together. But in the moment, you try a few different … oh, man, I don’t want to say herbs or fuckin’ spices! That’s so terrible; I don’t want to use that analogy! But you understand what I’m saying. And that is a joy. When I was younger, I thought the whole key to good acting was figuring it out, and locking something in and nailing it. And I just find that repulsive now. It was really something that we went after on this — just trying to be available and open to what the scene might tell you. I like that way of working.

12 Strong Is the Rare U.S. Desert-War Movie to Tell the Story of an Unambiguous Victory

In Nicolai Fuglsig’s 12 Strong, Chris Hemsworth rides on horseback to lead a squad sent into northern Afghanistan weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, to take the city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
David James/Courtesy of Warner Bros.
In Nicolai Fuglsig’s 12 Strong, Chris Hemsworth rides on horseback to lead a squad sent into northern Afghanistan weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, to take the city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
Look, you probably know already whether you’re going to go plunk down your hard-earned American cash — or swipe a MoviePass — to catch Nicolai Fuglsig’s 12 Strong. It’s the 2018 iteration of what has become an unofficial film franchise: a January multiplex release honoring the hell that American soldiers have faced in far-off deserts in the almost two decades since 2001. But don’t assume that Fuglsig has made another agonizingly conflicted portrait of heroism in the vein of Lone Survivor or American Sniper. Creators of those movies took great pains to celebrate the servicemen while remaining ambivalent about elements of their mission — and even angry about its toll on them.

Yes, the flags waved, and muted trumpets mournfully bleated, but those films found heroism not in the wars themselves but in duty, in resolve, in the soldiers’ caring for each other, in their belief that killing here, in Iraq or Afghanistan, meant less killing at home. The most thoughtful of these films then followed the survivors back to the States, where, shattered, they try to live next to lives they had believed they were protecting. That these movies, even the hits, are punishing and unsatisfying is not a flaw: If they weren’t, they’d be less honest — and they’d connect less powerfully to the American families who see something of their own soldiers in them.

By comparison, 12 Strong is in many ways a throwback. It’s a somewhat boisterous adventure, a war movie where you cheer not just for the boys to make it home but for them to complete the mission. It’s simple in outline, telling its heightened and streamlined version of the true story of Operational Detachment Alpha 595, a squad of 12 sent into northern Afghanistan just weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, and charged with arranging the taking of the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, the Taliban stronghold. Aiding the squad: local warlords represented in the film by Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban), who sometimes gets distracted from the mission of stomping out the Taliban in favor of waging his own war against his rivals. With Dostum’s men, the ODA 595 must ride on horseback across 40 miles of Taliban-controlled mountains, liberating small villages on the way — and calling in airstrikes whenever they spot enemy fighters. They must complete the mission in just three weeks, before the snow hits.

It sounds like a movie, but much of it really happened. This mission is why, for a couple of years, Donald Rumsfeld was feted as brilliant. Unlike Colin Powell, who insisted wars are won with overwhelming ground forces, Rumsfeld favored a combination of small squadrons and massive bombs, a strategy that won some spectacular early successes but also made inevitable the quagmire the heroes of the other desert-war movies get stuck in. Of course, 12 Strong is a more rousing entertainment than most dramas of our current and recent military imbroglios. Here’s a story where we win, where the goal is clear, the enemies are unambiguous, and the connection to the attack on our homeland is direct. The movie has what devotees used to credit George W. Bush with: moral clarity.

The soldiers here — led by Capt. Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth), Chief Warrant Officer Cal Spencer (Michael Shannon), and Sgt. First Class Sam Diller (Michael Pena) — bear the weight of history. They’re eager to kill some Taliban, but their gung-ho spirit is tempered by professional caution and a respect for Afghanistan itself. Twice in the film they’re told that that nation is the “graveyard of empires.” They regard Dostum’s band with respect, heeding his expertise while remaining somewhat wary of his motives. Here’s a spoiler not just for 12 Strong but for all studio movies: As always, the characters here face a moment of apparently complete defeat usually about 15 minutes before the credits roll; surprisingly, that emotional catalyst is the possible death of an Afghan a U.S. soldier has befriended.

Rather than a hellscape just to be survived, the Afghan mountains here are presented with some awe. Fuglsig is adept at showing choppers and peaks, caves and campfires, at suggesting the great silence at the roof of the world. He’s also a sure hand with the geography of battle, with ensuring we understand why the bullets fly in the direction they’re flying — and both where they come from and where they hit. That said, the firefights do wear on. Only the final one, the one where he dares go-for-broke heroic action, is especially memorable. Here are horses charging tanks and Taliban in a mountain pass, often filmed from above, the animals surging through smoke and rubble. (You’d never guess that this was shot in New Mexico.)

The movie also is longer than its story demands and occasionally redundant: After seeing the World Trade Center come down in the opening minutes, do we really need to watch a Taliban leader shoot a schoolteacher in the head? Don’t we all hate these guys already? The moment is corny movie-villain stuff that seems especially egregious considering what the filmmakers omit. Don’t expect a single line from our heroes considering the possibility of civilian casualties when they’re calling in the bombs.

His cast is top-heavy with ringers, and Hemsworth compels even as he tampers down his Thor glow. We see him thinking a lot, weighing risks, working out how best to get the job done and not lose a man. Shannon, blessedly, does not play a crank or villain, instead exhibiting a wised-up wisdom — especially when his character, like a real person, gets jacked up from riding a horse all day. Pena, meanwhile, is Pena, so offhandedly compelling that he steals scenes he barely speaks in, even when playing a character who doesn’t get to make decisions. The script, by Ted Tally and Peter Craig (and based on Doug Stanton’s book, Horse Soldiers), is long on context and short on nuance. The men continually explain the situation for our benefit: “No one’s ever flown a chopper this high this far!” “You’ve just been handed the most important job in the free world — holding the Northern Alliance together.” But some of what these characters tell each other is true beyond the specifics of their battle. The film’s most striking exchange comes at its end, when an Afghan ally explains to Nelson that they’ll always be brothers — but that if the Americans linger in Afghanistan, they will, like all previous outside armies, become the enemy. Too bad Rumsfeld didn’t get the message.

2001: A Space Odyssey Returns, on Screens Worth Its Full Wonder

Keir Dullea, the actor who played astronaut David Bowman, the biggest human role in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, attended the showing in May at Cannes, where it premiered 50 years after its release.
Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Keir Dullea, the actor who played astronaut David Bowman, the biggest human role in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, attended the showing in May at Cannes, where it premiered 50 years after its release.
One of the hottest tickets at Cannes this year was for a 50-year-old movie that pretty much everybody had already seen and would soon be back in release. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that had never screened at Cannes, made by a director who had never come to Cannes, arrived here courtesy of Christopher Nolan, who had also never shown a film at Cannes. Billed as an “unrestored” 70 mm print — that is to say, a new print without any digital restorations or alterations — the film screened at the great Debussy theater, because it was one of the few places that had the proper speaker arrangement to do true justice to the soundtrack of the movie’s 1968 Cinerama presentation. Nolan was accompanied to the premiere by Kubrick’s daughter, Katharina Kubrick; Kubrick’s producer and brother-in-law, Jan Harlan; and Keir Dullea, the actor who played astronaut David Bowman, the biggest human role in the film. The massive standing ovation after the screening was a foregone conclusion, but it was still heartwarming to see the love in the room for one of Kubrick’s greatest masterpieces. (The Nolan version of the film is now opening throughout the country.)

Cannes has never been big on science fiction, especially science-fiction studio blockbusters. (They do sometimes make exceptions; Solo: A Star Wars Story played the festival this year.) In a way, though, is the ideal Cannes film, in how it straddles art and mainstream cinema, austerity and magnificence, personal vision and commerce. It’s still stunning to me that the film was such a hit back in its day, given the bizarre, unorthodox quality of its narrative. The story unfolds via silent suggestion, and the seeming coldness of its surfaces is purposeful, conveying humanity’s complicated relationship to its tools: The primates of the first section live in a world without tools, and thus don’t know what to make of them; the future humans of the later sections live at the mercy of their tools, and thus don’t question them — until, finally, they do. Thus, alienation is the central thrust of 2001: alienation as ignorance, and alienation as detachment. This was one of the many reasons that the Village Voice’s Andrew Sarris, never a big fan of Kubrick’s, initially hated the film; to him, it was “Antoni-ennui” in disguise. (To his credit, Sarris later revisited 2001, this time making sure to get stoned beforehand, and decided it was an important and personal film from a major artist.)

It occurs to me that I’ve watched 2001 in pretty much every format imaginable: Betamax, VHS, laserdisc, DVD, Blu-ray, 16 mm, 35 mm, 70 mm, DCP, TV broadcast, cropped, uncropped, standing up, sitting down, lying down, with the lights on and people screaming, in a perfectly quiet movie theater with only me and three others. … I was, I think, 5 when I first saw it; Star Wars buzz had hit Ankara, Turkey, but not Star Wars itself, so my parents took me to a screening of 2001 telling me it was Star Wars. (Imagine thinking for a whole year or so that 2001 was Star Wars.) 2001 did have a cursory 70 mm theatrical re-release in 2001. Kubrick had died and the Warner honchos that worked with him had departed, so the release, which I suspect had been negotiated before the filmmaker’s death, came with little advertisement or support from the studio.

Sometimes people tell you that a movie becomes an entirely different thing when you actually see it on a huge screen. (I am often one of these people.) Often, they’re (we’re) exaggerating; the movie may play better, and you may watch better, but what’s actually onscreen rarely changes. 2001, however, is a different thing. It’s a film made for that huge screen, for absolute immersion. There are fine details in the image that are nearly impossible to see on a TV. The level of obsessive minutiae that Kubrick and his fellow wizards put into every shot is bewildering: Watch the scene of the spaceship docking at Clavius Base; on a big screen, you can see that there are tiny people doing tiny activities in each of the tiny windows, with tiny little monitors behind them, each showing different tiny little things. It was maybe on my 10th viewing of the film that I finally caught that.

And time moves differently in 70 mm: What drags on a small screen becomes immersion in an actual environment on a huge one. With TV, you wait for something to happen. With 70 mm, you are the thing that’s happening; you’re living in the space of the film, at least for a little while. That’s why the “space” in that title has different meanings: The film is a journey through outer space, but it is also a journey through cinematic space. It conjures the future by making you sit through its vision of the future, spending time just being in it. A sense of scale and spectacle is crucial to 2001, because it contrasts with the blase attitude of the humans in the film; the tension between our awe as viewers and their indifference as characters is what the film is largely about.

Watching 2001 in 70 mm, I was also struck by how differently the celebrated Stargate sequence at the end of the film — the giant, trippy light show that basically obsessed a generation of viewers and helped turn 2001 into the ultimate stoner movie — plays on a massive screen. The rumbling and howling on the soundtrack, the floor shaking beneath your feet, the blossoming colors and speeding rays of light, the wild patterns forming and reforming on the screen, the occasional freeze-frames back to David Bowman’s face — at that size, these things actually do cause some physiological reactions. I felt not only transported, but as if my body had suddenly stopped being my own for a few minutes; as if the film had taken over. By restoring our sense of awe, 2001 doesn’t just command our attention on the screen — it sends us out of the theater to see the world with new eyes.

A Wrinkle in Time: Ava DuVernay’s Humanity Is Worth More Than Any Effects Budget

Storm Reid (right) plays Meg, who hopes to find her missing father, and takes her new friend Calvin (Levi Miller) on a Technicolor search-and-rescue mission through time in Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time.
Atsushi Nishijima/Courtesy of Walt Disney Enterprises
Storm Reid (right) plays Meg, who hopes to find her missing father, and takes her new friend Calvin (Levi Miller) on a Technicolor search-and-rescue mission through time in Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time.
I’ll get this out of the way: I haven’t read Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved science-fiction adventure novel A Wrinkle in Time, but I have seen Ava DuVernay’s heart-on-its-sleeve adaptation. No doubt there will be those who compare and contrast the book and the film, as L’Engle’s words have touched the childhoods of so many, but I’m going in fresh. And while I cannot fold time and return to my youth to experience what it would be like to find comfort in the fictions of a woman who deeply understood children’s fears and insecurities, I can say that as an adult, I was transported by DuVernay’s adaptation to the mindset of my girlhood — embarrassing insecurities and all. This is not a cynic’s film. It is, instead, unabashedly emotional.

At times, the choices DuVernay makes seem antithetical to the traditional big-budget adventure tale. Early in the film, she employs the vérité techniques she honed in low-budget indies — intimate, handheld cameras, lingering on a person’s face before cutting to two hands touching, or maybe the back of someone’s neck, followed by an extreme close-up on a profile. And forget the establishing shot orienting you in a place; in these first scenes, DuVernay is most concerned with the people, always ready to begin and end with them filling the frame, not a room or a house.

Take the opening scene, where Mr. Murry (Chris Pine) is showing his daughter Meg (played at her youngest by Lyric Wilson) a physics experiment in his backyard laboratory. The tone between the two actors is light and easy, touched with improv, something you don’t see in most $100 million movies but that here quickly grounds us in Meg’s emotional state. When we see Meg four years later (now played by Storm Reid), she’s mourning her disappeared father. Those first moments of realism prove crucial: The adaptation must then compress hundreds of pages into an hour and 49 minutes, sending Meg, her little adopted brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), and her new friend Calvin (Levi Miller) on a Technicolor search-and-rescue mission through time.

Helping the children along the way are three near-divine beings of light — the astral-traveling Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) — who are adorned in any number of multicolored, puffy, flowy, metallic, knit, quilted and woven gowns. As always when she takes an acting role — most recently in 2017’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks — Winfrey reminds us that she’s not just a brand name. Jennifer Lee’s script gives her one beautiful monologue to chew into, the kind of pep talk about fighting against the darkness that you may need to put on repeat these days.

Witherspoon’s wry humor lands a few solid laughs. She’s the self-important Mrs. Whatsit, playfully berating the low-confidence Meg like an older sister, needling into Meg’s fears but out of love. Meg is a pressurized bottle just waiting to pop, afraid to trust in the world or herself. Mrs. Whatsit is rightly frustrated with this girl, and when Meg says those two annoying little words — “I can’t” — Mrs. Whatsit cocks her head and replies with a parent’s firm encouragement: “At least try.” The film sends the simultaneous messages that it’s futile to coddle children but also that it’s okay to feel the icky stuff that you feel, because even your weaknesses can be transformed to strengths.

And who would have thought in a film with this cast that the most cathartic moment would come from Zach Galifianakis? The comic plays the Happy Medium, a seer who forces Meg to find balance within herself so that she can open up to the world and locate her missing father. After a session channeling difficult truths about her father and why he left her to “shake hands with the universe,” Meg and the Happy Medium embrace, the hug truly moving. “It’s okay to fear the answers,” he assures her, and you believe it.

But this film belongs to the kids, the ones in the audience and the film’s stars. Little McCabe is no older than nine, and yet he’s capable of playing both a character so pure of intention that he beams like a ray of sunshine — but also a character so callous that he seems to beam evil from his eyes. A horror director could make great use of him. Miller, who happened to star as a psychopathic villain in one of the funniest/scariest horror-comedies of 2017, Better Watch Out, proves here he can be the nice kid, playing a role usually reserved in the movies for the girl sidekick who must admire the boy hero’s smarts and tenacity.

Reid, while a little unsteady in scenes where she must play joyful, nails the darker emotions, like the moment when Meg asks Mrs. Which if she could possibly come back through the tesseract that bends space and time as someone different, because she hates herself so much. Often, Calvin offers comments on Meg’s hair, saying how nice it looks, and each time, Meg refuses to believe him. Meg, who is mixed-race, wears her black hair curly. I may be white, but I’ve listened to enough African-American women to understand the hurt and pain that can come from living in a world where European hair is seen as the desirable norm. That DuVernay uses her latest film to tell little girls that their natural hair is good and pretty is the kind of touch we’d expect from the activist filmmaker. That she does it in a tentpole blockbuster is revolutionary.

A.P. Bio and the Limits of Crossbreeding Cable Edge With Sitcom Schmaltz

Glenn Howerton plays Jack Griffin, a Harvard philosophy professor-turned-high-school biology teacher who reluctantly returns to his hometown of Toledo, Ohio, in A.P. Bio.
Vivian Zink/Courtesy of NBC Universal
Glenn Howerton plays Jack Griffin, a Harvard philosophy professor-turned-high-school biology teacher who reluctantly returns to his hometown of Toledo, Ohio, in A.P. Bio.
In NBC’s new sitcom A.P. Bio, Glenn Howerton of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia plays a Harvard philosophy professor-turned-high-school biology teacher who reluctantly returns to his hometown of Toledo, Ohio, after losing his dream job. The first episode, which aired in February, finds the ne’er-do-well crashing his car into the school’s sign in the parking lot before sauntering up to his classroom in a pair of sweatpants and sneakers. “My name is Jack Griffin,” he introduces himself to his young charges, “and I don't want to be here.”

If you’ve ever wondered what it might look like to crossbreed an edgy cable comedy with a jovial network sitcom, A.P. Bio, created by former SNL writer Mike O’Brien, suggests just that sort of Frankenfood. Caustic and a little pathetic, Howerton’s character lives in his late mother’s house, which is still equipped with frilly curtains and a stair lift. Jack is strikingly similar to Dennis Reynolds, Howerton’s role on Always Sunny, one of five friends who own a bar in Philly. (Always Sunny is returning to FXX in 2019, although it’s unclear if Howerton will still be on the show.)

But a dimly-lit dive bar on a cable series is a far cry from the dutifully sunny classroom setting of A.P. Bio. If Always Sunny follows the dumb logic of its idiotic characters, A.P. Bio follows the dumb logic of network sitcoms, to middling results: Where the former makes a meal out of the gang’s bottomless appetite for debauchery, the latter is the kind of weak-sauce low-fat version of a favorite snack, corrupted in the attempt to balance its protagonist’s bad-boy license with a more familiar, nourishing mode of sitcom storytelling. It’s one thing to wring laughs from a merry band of alcoholics who spend their days cooking up drunken schemes in their scuzzy, sticky-floored dive; it’s quite another to spin comedy out of the concept of a selfish prick who’s responsible for a class of dozen kids five days a week.

In its first few episodes, A.P. Bio struggles to balance the salty and the sweet. It’s pretty clear, early on, that Jack will soon warm up to his students and coworkers, in particular three teachers played by Lyric Lewis, Mary Sohn and Jean Villepique, who congregate over Tupperware’d lunches in the staff room. It’s not long before Jack is teaching the kids syrupy lessons about bullying and passing on a potential hookup to hang with his new pals. Four episodes in and already, wouldn’t you know it, Jack is starting to like this place!

On the other hand, the show’s attempts to be brash and irreverent often come off as creepy, or worse, in exceptionally bad taste. In the pilot, Jack informs the kids that he is far too brilliant to be teaching high school biology, so he won’t. Instead, he enlists his students as reluctant foot soldiers in his war with Miles Leonard (Tom Bennett), the rival professor who got the job that Jack wanted, as the head of Stanford’s philosophy department. After he someday takes over Miles’ position, Jack explains to the class, his only other goal is to “have sex with as many women as I possibly can throughout the state of California.”

This setup might yield more laughs if it didn’t so heavily rely on the shock factor of a teacher speaking frankly to his students about sex. Jack asks his students to write an alluring message to Miles, which he’ll later send to his rival in an attempt to “catfish” him. An upcoming episode opens with the teacher scrawling his latest assignment on the chalkboard: “Who will Jack bang?” (Within minutes, a hot mom conveniently shows up.) In last week’s episode, Jack asks the kids for a “show of hands”: “You guys all masturbate, right?” Icky isn’t the right word for this; “sexual harassment” is closer.

A.P. Bio feels network-noted to death; it either goes too far or not far enough, and you can sense the tug of war between the writers’ desire to put a risque comedy on prime time and the network suits’ imperative to buffer the show’s rough edges.

Another network sitcom featuring Howerton’s Always Sunny co-star Kaitlin Olson manages to find the sweet spot: On The Mick, which premiered on Fox last year and is currently wrapping up its second season, Olson plays Mackenzie “Mickey” Murphy, a Rhode Island grifter who finds herself in charge of her wealthy sister’s three privileged children in Connecticut when her sister and brother-in-law are arrested for tax fraud. Both A.P. Bio and The Mick surround their surly protagonists with children that they don’t particularly want to care for; both Mickey and Jack find themselves obliged and, eventually, charmed enough to stick around.

The Mick, created by Always Sunny writers Dave and Josh Chernin, pulls off its wastrel shtick more winningly than A.P. Bio, partly because its fish-out-of-water story puts the scuzzy protagonist in a classy setting instead of centering on a guy who thinks he’s too good for Toledo. The writing on The Mick is better, but Olson also does more with it; maybe her gawky physical humor is easier to build a series around than Howerton’s holier-than-thou routine. Or maybe she’s just funnier. So far, A.P. Bio substitutes a kind of smug brattiness for the clever plotting and more fully developed characters of Always Sunny and The Mick —and those aren’t elements that necessitate a “TV-MA” rating.

The old sitcom koan dictates that nothing and no one radically changes over the course of a show’s run. That philosophy is the reason Always Sunny is set to become the longest-running live-action comedy in TV history. Each episode begins with a timestamp, usually indicating a weekday afternoon, when the gang is hanging around the bar avoiding doing their jobs. No matter how seriously Dennis, Dee (Olson), Charlie (Charlie Day), Mac (Rob McElhenney) and Frank (Danny DeVito) might commit themselves to doing the right thing at the beginning of an episode, by the end, it never works out, because they are who they are: bad people. That stance makes Always Sunny not only hilarious, but, I’d argue, morally responsible. Sure, you can “break bad,” but it won’t look pretty, the way a glossy sitcom set in an impossibly slick-looking public school does; it’ll look like a dive bar where your best friend is a one-eyed homeless guy who does PCP in the bathroom.

Even if A.P. Bio were more certain in its writing and more sharp in its performances, the comedy would likely still prove more queasy than funny. The idea that irresponsible grown-ups are hilarious works better in the context of a bunch of losers who run a bar than, say, a teacher running a classroom. Or maybe being bad just isn’t as funny as it used to be; maybe these days, the idea that the adults running the show are negligent and morally bankrupt sounds less like comedy than documentary.

A.P. Bio airs Thursdays on NBC; The Mick airs Tuesdays on FOX.

All About Nina Says Little That’s New About Women in Comedy

Mary Elizabeth Winstead stars as a stand-up comic bringing a familiar brand of misandrist humor that gets her both lauded and confronted for her brash honesty in All About Nina, the debut feature from writer-director Eva Vives.
Courtesy of The Orchard
Mary Elizabeth Winstead stars as a stand-up comic bringing a familiar brand of misandrist humor that gets her both lauded and confronted for her brash honesty in All About Nina, the debut feature from writer-director Eva Vives.
Within the first few minutes of All About Nina, the debut feature from writer-director Eva Vives, we get the highlight reel version of just who this Nina is through quickly strung glimpses of her stand-up routine: period jokes, punchlines about how men screw everything up, a familiar brand of misandrist comedy that gets her both lauded and confronted for her brash honesty.

Thirty-three-year-old Nina (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has all the predictable traits of a candid female comic. She wears a black leather jacket, a tough exterior that matches her hardened heart, and dates casually but has commitment issues and is often attracted to the wrong type, like her on-again, off-again lover, an abusive married cop (Chace Crawford) who shows up in her life whenever he pleases. Nina can’t seem to say no to him, but the bruises on her love life make for good stand-up material, which is perhaps why she keeps men like him around. Winstead’s casting is a godsend, as she makes Nina a compelling watch even as the movie burns through all there is to know about this stereotype just after its opening scenes.

“I’m with him because I’m a fuck-up,” Nina says while practicing an anecdotal bit. That moment seamlessly transitions into a therapy session — the line between what she shares on stage and under the oath of doctor-patient confidentiality often gets blurred. Vives relies heavily on cliché cues, showing us the extent of Nina’s damage with scenes of her smoking cigarettes in the shower, puking backstage or making provocative sentiments about her abusive relationship: “keeps me from falling asleep during sex.”

For a change of personal pace, and in pursuit of an opportunity to audition for an Saturday Night Live-type show, Nina moves to Los Angeles. Too bad that there Vives falls back on even more clichés, pairing Nina with the most stereotypical L.A. roommate: a New Age hippie type named Lake (Kate del Castillo) who attends cat sanctuary circles.

The film perks up with new energy when Nina meets a guy named Rafe (Common, with a performance that proves he should lead every romantic comedy). Their courtship is also predictable but at least fun to watch. As expected, some bumps come along — and pretty soon — like the run-in with Rafe’s ex, another comically L.A. stereotype (a woman named Ganja who threatens to go out with Joaquin Phoenix instead). But more significantly, Nina’s past comes back to haunt her — not just the affair with the abusive cop (with Rafe being black, you’d think this would make for a bigger talking point) but also the original cause of Nina’s trauma.

Always a likable actor, here Winstead is at a charismatic high, carrying a mediocre film, making it impossible to turn off through her star power alone. She’s wildly funny (and spot on) doing the impressions in Nina’s act (especially of Bjork ordering a smoothie) but also proves uninhibited and candid when Nina doesn’t have jokes to hide behind.

American Chaos Lets Trump’s Fans Jabber On and On

John Ladd (left), a rancher near Bisbee, Arizona, who often appears in the press touting Donald Trump's border policies, appears with director-producer James D. Stern in American Chaos.
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
John Ladd (left), a rancher near Bisbee, Arizona, who often appears in the press touting Donald Trump's border policies, appears with director-producer James D. Stern in American Chaos.
To his credit, director-producer James D. Stern acknowledges, just 20 minutes in, a fatal flaw in the premise of American Chaos, his documentary wallow in the electoral pig trough of 2016. He lays out his original idea in the film’s opening minutes, just after some throat-clearing: First, we get a crisp, pleasing montage of film footage of every president to reign and campaign in the era of moving pictures. And then comes highlights from the episode of the ‘50s TV Western Trackdown in which a slick fella named Trump sells a town full of rubes on an apocalypse only he can stop. Oh, and then comes another montage, this one driving home a point that’s already been driven home, put to bed and given a nice hot toddy. Here are the TV talking heads assuring us, in early 2016, that Donald Trump will never, ever be president.

That settled, Stern cuts to himself in the summer of that same soiling election year. He speaks of his concern and dismay. He’s shocked at the Republican base’s fervent support for an obvious con man and convinced that he must set out on a journey to “see what they really see in this guy.” A journey that will help him “tell my kids why this is happening. Tell myself why this is happening.” A journey in which he’ll study that rarest of species, Homo MAGAnus, in its natural habitats, the wilds of West Virginia or Boca Raton, Florida. And then, once in the vicinity of such unknowable specimens, he’ll “just take it in.” He’ll just listen.

First up on his listening tour: The Trump-touting Boca GOP politico Armand Grossman. Next: former Hialeah, Florida, mayor Julio Martinez, a Republican operative born in Cuba and thrilled that at last his party has nominated a candidate who detests “illegal” immigrants as much as he does. After that: an AM talk-radio host whose very livelihood depends on her daily praising of Trump over the airwaves. You might wonder what utility there is in passively listening to people who enjoy public platforms, positions of power and a vested interest in one party’s success.

Twenty minutes in, Stern wonders that, too. But he doesn’t much change his approach — he’s still traveling and listening. But, to offset his subjects’ arias of grievances and misinformation, he brings in some experts — academics, mostly — to answer the questions that come to him during the rants. “What do you say to people who don’t believe in climate change?” he asks University of Chicago professor David Archer. Other authorities explain the sociological myth, shared mostly by older white folks, that 1950s America was indisputably great, and just why so many of Stern’s interviewees are convinced that Hillary Clinton has committed a bevy of treasonous crimes.

The film, I suspect, will have some minor historical value, but I fear that watching Stern well up on election night won’t offer much insight to people alive now. I’ll give him this: His chats with the Trumpists expose the pointlessness of many of the prank segments on Sacha Baron Cohen’s Who Is America? It doesn’t take a costumed provocateur to inspire Americans to expose themselves on camera as asses. Stern gets a nice-seeming woman to ask, after more than 20 women accused Trump of sexual misconduct and assault, “What the hell is wrong with these women?” She doesn’t say she disbelieves the charges; what she can’t fathom is why she’s never seen Trump with a black eye, evidence to her that these “namby-pamby” victims didn’t fight back. Another woman beams with pride after declaring, “The Democrat Party is no better than [Muammar] Gaddafi,” and that they would “chop your head off” if they could. Another insists, during the Republican National Convention, that “everyone” knows Barack Obama is planning to declare martial law and cancel the election.

Of course, none of that will shock anyone who has ever heard a “Lock her up!” chant. What is shocking: Stern neither challenges nor probes these people. He just lets them natter on, never pressing anyone on issues of race or gender, and then sometimes cuts to an academic in other city, representing Team Reasonableness. Sometimes, Stern even more cavalierly dithers away his viewers’ time. Do we need to hear him rattle off, extemporaneously, the winner of every presidential contest going back a half-century, just to prove the truism that Americans elect the candidate we would prefer “to have a beer with”? Rather than subject us to that or to a lengthy recounting of a political parable about blind men touching different parts of an elephant, Stern might fruitfully have followed up, in 2018, with the Trump devotee who insists that you just never hear anything scandalous about Trump but that you hear about Clinton scandals every damn day. How would that guy now spin his 2016 insistence that when it comes to scandal, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire”?

Despite those occasional interjections from experts, the film becomes a portrait of something more than Stern intends. Rather than an examination of American chaos, of an aggrieved population believing outlandish and unprovable things, it’s a portrait of middle-of-the-road liberalism’s utter haplessness in the face of such a population. They go low, and he smiles politely.

American Crime Story's Versace Doesn’t Actually Have Much Versace — and That's Great

Edgar Ramirez is the title character in FX’s American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, Ryan Murphy's true-crime anthology series that examines death as a 24-hour-news-cycle spectacle.
Jeff Dayly/Courtesy of FX
Edgar Ramirez is the title character in FX’s American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, Ryan Murphy's true-crime anthology series that examines death as a 24-hour-news-cycle spectacle.
In the first scene of FX’s American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, the title character (Edgar Ramirez) wakes up, glides through his gilded mansion, accepts a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice that he sips by the courtyard pool, and heads out to buy a stack of magazines from a nearby newsstand. This is the ’90s Miami of The Birdcage, a haven for gay men, awash in creams and peachy-pinks. The second installment of the true-crime anthology series that Ryan Murphy began with The People vs. O.J. Simpson, Versace tells another blood-soaked story about the crazy-making quest for wealth and fame — or at least the appearance of it.

At the outset, The Assassination of Gianni Versace, which premieres Jan. 17, feels like a straightforward continuation of The People vs. O.J. Simpson, which also takes place in the mid-to-late 1990s. Both examine the then-novel concept of death as a 24-hour-news-cycle spectacle: When Versace is gunned down in front of his home, a crowd forms outside, and a tourist who earlier sought the man’s autograph now sneaks under police tape to dip a Versace ad torn from a magazine in the designer’s blood. But it’s fitting that the show opens on the last morning of Gianni Versace’s life, on July 15, 1997. By the second episode, Versace himself fades from focus, replaced by 27-year-old serial killer Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss) — a nothing, a nobody, until he made a name for himself by murdering his idol.

Criss’ portrayal of Cunanan, a gay man whose outward confidence and taste for the finer things belies a deep well of insecurity, is the highlight of the show. This is a guy who can make eating a bowl of Froot Loops look menacing. The gripping performance is enhanced by the show’s narrative structure, a risky gambit that pays off: The season moves backward in time, each episode taking place just before the events of the previous week’s. Versace is a puzzle the viewer puts together as it goes on, and with this approach the story seems to ripen with every episode as we move deeper and more intimately into Cunanan’s past.

We also learn about his other, less glamorous victims, almost all of them gay men who entered into relationships with Cunanan. (The series is based on the 1999 book Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U. S. History by Vanity Fair’s Maureen Orth.) Writer Tom Rob Smith, himself openly gay, draws out the way Cunanan exploits the stigma of being gay in the 1990s both to lure his prey and to cover up his crimes. He is devious in his manipulations. Against his victims, Cunanan wields a possessive logic: the world doesn’t want or accept you, but I do. Against law enforcement, he cannily exploits the systemic straightness of police, leaving behind evidence of the victims’ sexual proclivities that makes it easier for the cops to, if not dismiss the crimes, treat them with a smirk and a sideways glance: Oh, it’s a gay thing. “They hate us, David. They’ve always hated us,” Cunanan tells an ex-boyfriend. “You’re a fag.”

Versace is not camp; it’s a respectful and often deeply moving depiction of the struggle for acceptance, both from the wider world and from oneself. Despite the boldfaced names touted in FX’s ads, the story of Gianni Versace, his sister, Donatella (Penelope Cruz), and his lover of 15 years, Antonio D’Amico (Ricky Martin), merely frames Cunanan’s escapades. Thematically, the parallel story lines of Versace and his killer work in tandem: In one episode, we witness Cunanan construct a sellable version of himself as Gianni helps Donatella design her first dress; in another, Gianni contemplates a public coming-out while the alternate story follows a gay character in the Navy during the era of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

The Versace family has already released a statement declaring the show’s depiction of the late designer’s professional and domestic struggles a fantasy. But the Versaces are the embroidery here, not the tapestry. Like Orange Is the New Black’s Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) — the nice white lady who's sent to the big, bad prison — the Versace angle is a Trojan horse, a mass-marketable hook for a series that’s actually most interested in stories about less flashy, more marginal characters. This is far less a show about a fabulous atelier than it is about a handful of gay men you’ve probably never heard of.

Sure, it’s a bait-and-switch. But maybe that’s what we need at a moment when a powerful speech at an awards ceremony is all it takes for the media to breathlessly anticipate Oprah 2020. As much as I loved O.J., which rightfully won the Emmy for Outstanding Limited Series last year, I have serious reservations about the prospect of our popular culture being clogged with stories about celebrities from 20 years ago (next up on the Murphy/FX docket is Feud: Charles and Diana).

The casting of the long-closeted Martin as Versace’s partner is a nod to the fact that we have finally reached a point when an openly gay man can create a show for a major cable channel that’s this, well, gay. With so few straight characters, Versace can move beyond the anxiety of representation — no one gay man stands in for the whole. There’s no hint of a character or story line that feels wedged in for the sake of the platonic straight male viewer. Cruz is wonderful as the fledgling version of the Donatella we know and love — and also, it has to be said, almost distractingly beautiful — but she remains fully clothed throughout.

Again, it’s Criss who is the main draw. Despite a bit of midseason sag in the plot, he holds the viewer tight in his grip. Cunanan exerts control over his victims calmly, which is so much scarier than bluster, like your mom going really quiet when you know you’re in trouble. He’s got a Trumpian swag, an unearned confidence in his ability to sell himself to anyone. Yet Criss never lets us forget his desperation and shame, the self-loathing just beneath the surface of the collegiate bravado. You can just make out the panic behind his eyes. “You can’t go to America and start from nothing,” Cunanan’s father, an immigrant from the Philippines, tells him in a flashback episode. “That’s the lie.”

The character calls to mind two creepy-brother portrayals in films of the past year: Caleb Landry Jones in Get Out and Billy Magnussen in Ingrid Goes West. Like this pair of privileged yet sinister bros, Cunanan as depicted in Versace is a country-club psycho — an embodiment of the moral rot at the core of the pristine image of the American dream.

American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace. Premieres January 17 on FX.

Ant-Man and the Wasp Doesn't Quite Stomp Out Ant-Man's Pleasures

In Ant-Man and the Wasp, Evangeline Lilly (left) has a higher profile as Hope Van Dyne than she did in the first Ant-Man film while Paul Rudd continues his goofy antics in the title role.
Ben Rothstein/Courtesy of Marvel Studios
In Ant-Man and the Wasp, Evangeline Lilly (left) has a higher profile as Hope Van Dyne than she did in the first Ant-Man film while Paul Rudd continues his goofy antics in the title role.
Every so often, Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man and the Wasp manages to channel the same kind of lo-fi irreverence that made the original Ant-Man so memorable. To the new film’s credit, those moments come regularly, welcome blasts of fresh air; to its detriment, they serve to remind us of a better movie that we could be watching — one actually built on that kind of cheeky spirit rather than merely utilizing it to distract us from a cumbersome, uninteresting plot.

Reed’s 2015 film, one of the unlikelier entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, dispensed with the typical heroics and focused on the humor inherent in its concept: A mopey, down-and-out thief winds up with the power to shrink to microscopic levels, whereupon he can ride insects and mind-meld with ants and even kick some occasional human ass. Reed also foregrounded the small-scale emotions of the movie's storyline. Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) was simply trying to get back into the good graces of his estranged family, especially his young daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson); the added complication of him now becoming a not-very-good superhero was a force that threatened, sometimes hilariously, to disrupt everybody’s lives even further.

This time, Scott isn’t trying to make a new life post-prison. He’s waiting out the last few days of house arrest after having been dinged by the Feds for violating the Marvel Universe's superheroes-must-register law the Sokovia Accords to go fight with the Avengers in Berlin, as seen in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, where his appearance was one of the few bright spots. But let’s not get distracted here. You don’t really need to know (or remember) what happened in Civil War. Just know that Ant-Man is now wearing an ankle monitor and stuck at home shooting Nerf baskets and fiddling with his drum set while dreaming of the day that he’ll be able to take Cassie for a real walk in a real park.

That becomes a problem when he gets wrapped up in the efforts of his mentor Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Hank’s daughter Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) to help retrieve Hank’s beloved and long-presumed-dead wife Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) from the Quantum Realm, that dreaded subatomic dimension in which one gets lost forever if one shrinks too much. Hank and Hope have built a tunnel to that dimension, complete with a tiny submarine-type doohickey they can ride in. Of course, Ant-Man himself survived a brief descent into the Quantum Realm at the end of the last film. It now appears that some element of Janet’s consciousness conjoined with his while he was down there, suggesting that she’s still alive, stuck for decades in this infinitesimal alt-universe, calling out to her loved ones.

That’s all intriguing enough, even if the fact that Janet is played by the always-luminous Pfeiffer makes the issue of whether we’ll get to see more of her later a foregone conclusion. But such a setup is apparently not enough to power a whole superhero movie, so we’ve got a super-villain, too: Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), a mysterious figure who can pass through walls and other solid objects, and who has some kind of unresolved history with Hank Pym. There’s also Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), a corrupt restaurateur and businessman who wants Hank’s laboratory, which contains all his world-altering research and can be shrunk to the size of a small carry-on suitcase. Add to all that the fact that Scott has to evade the Feds looking to catch him breaking the conditions of his house arrest, and the movie is just clogged with incident and subplots while running low on cohesion.

One of the first Ant-Man’s strengths was its refusal to play the annoying stakes-raising game of most modern superhero films. Ant-Man and the Wasp tries to have it both ways. It keeps the conflicts relatively inconsequential, but piles them indifferently atop one another as if to reach a prescribed level of momentousness.

The performances make for bright spots amid the clutter. Ghost's story is generic, but John-Kamen has a genuinely nihilistic energy; you sense that Ghost really wouldn't mind killing everyone onscreen if she could. And Lilly's Hope Van Dyne, who, of course, becomes the Wasp, has a higher profile this time around — an excellent development, since Lilly is a tremendously charismatic performer. (She was pretty much the only good thing about those stupid Hobbit movies.)

And the picture is enlivened by some of the same things that made the first one so endearing. Reed and Rudd deliver plenty of the goofy antics we’ve now come to expect from Ant-Man: size-change cock-ups, charming incompetence on the macho bluster front, etc. Michael Peña, T.I., and David Dastmalchian return as Scott’s bickering ex-con partners in the security company he’s trying to get off the ground, and their back and forth remains funny. (Peña nearly stole the first film out from under everybody else; he doesn’t come close to doing that here, which speaks to his reduced, tangential presence.) It’s disjointed, and cluttered, but it’s also entertaining in spurts. Is that enough? Just about, and not quite. Ant-Man and the Wasp overloads and underachieves, but it also never entirely squanders the first film's goodwill.

Aquaman Proves Superheroes Are Better Down Where It’s Wetter

Jason Momoa (right) plays Aquaman, a hard-drinking surface-dweller townie raised in a Massachusetts lighthouse, and Amber Heard is Atlantean battle-mermaid Mera in James Wan’s superhero epic.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Jason Momoa (right) plays Aquaman, a hard-drinking surface-dweller townie raised in a Massachusetts lighthouse, and Amber Heard is Atlantean battle-mermaid Mera in James Wan’s superhero epic.
The tagline for Richard Donner’s original Superman (1978) — “You’ll believe a man can fly” — wasn’t just a boast about breakthrough special effects. It was a promise of wonder, that you’d not just behold a pairing of the human and the impossible but that you’d be moved by it — that it would be a joy rather than a chore to suspend your disbelief.

Wonder has often been in short supply in the never-ending age of superhero movies. This month, though, it’s suddenly in abundance. First came that soaring, remix-minded hit Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, an inquiry into the humanity of spider-folk that’s no-joke one of the best movies of the year. And now, just a week later, James Wan’s giddy epic Aquaman cannonballs into the pool, making a much greater splash than you might have expected. Its star, the beard-scraggled man-mountain Jason Momoa, tends to burp out his dialogue with a little uncertainty, so the film is no triumph of humanism. But it has seven seas’ worth of the simpler kind of wonder, the razzle-dazzle imaginative kind. Here are the warriors of Atlantis straddling great white sharks and swimming into battle. Here’s an ancient combat arena deep in the Atlantic where combatants face off above pulsing lava and a martial drumbeat is pounded out by (double-checks notes for confirmation) a giant octopus. Here are sea beasts straight from Homer and Lovecraft, a Tron Atlantis and an Attack of the Clones-style clash against an army of crustaceans.

I’m not saying you’ll emerge from this extravaganza believing that a man can talk to fish, but I will promise this: If anything in that description sounds at all appealing to you, you probably won’t regret the plunge. And in their own mumbly way, Momoa and this Aquaman did in the end even move me, some, through the power of representation and metaphor. Our hero is a hard-drinking surface-dweller townie raised in a Massachusetts lighthouse and named, for some reason, Arthur Curry. Arthur also happens to be a princeling with a claim to the throne of Atlantis. (His dad, played by Temuera Morrison, fell in love with Nicole Kidman’s reluctant mer-princess Atlanta.) Aquaman’s half-brother, the current king (Patrick Wilson), plans war upon us polluting landlubbers, sick of our oil spills and chucked-out beer cans. After Atlantis takes a spectacular first strike, Aquaman — at the urging of the Atlantean battle-mermaid Mera (Amber Heard) — sets out to claim his crown and usher in an age of peace between the realms. As Mera puts it, this man of two worlds is “the bridge between land and sea.”

That’s hilarious, sure. A bridge leading from land to sea is actually a ramp. But that artlessness allows for a more pressing meaning: A bridge between two cultures in conflict beats the hell out of a wall. Not incidental to Aquaman’s pleasures is its vision of a mixed-race hero, played by a mixed-race actor, fighting to protect and understand clashing aspects of his heritage. This drumming-octopus goof of a movie chums its waters with boldly bonkers battles that suggest a briny Return of the King, the oddest of old Saturday morning cartoons, and even the covers of ’70s horror paperbacks. But it also can’t help glancing up against meaning — though, to its credit, it never slows down to dwell on such matters. There’s always another kraken to ride!

The key is Wan. With his horror films, like The Conjuring and Saw, he evinced a skill for rare manipulative clarity. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, whose sequences flail somewhat recklessly from beat to beat, Wan has always nudged audiences to feel exactly what he wants us to, just when it suits him, while situating us precisely within the action. Recall how the roving camera from The Conjuring stirred the sense that we weren’t just watching characters wander that house — we, too, seemed to be exploring. With Furious 7, he applied that talent for you-are-there immersiveness with that franchise’s hurtling momentum and WWE-style featured brawls. The fit was perfect, the action not just joyously ludicrous but coherent. Now he’s working on his largest scale yet, and he proves himself adept at a wide variety of fantasy adventure sequences. I loved the protracted Mediterranean rooftop chase and face-offs, which marry the vaulting glee of Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin with the travelogue grit of the Jason Bourne and recent James Bond films. That comes just a couple of scenes after a mostly animated (and entirely convincing) doozy depicting underwater gladiator combat and a zipping sub chase that beats Ron Howard’s Solo at Han Solo-isms. Aquaman also boasts showcase set pieces from disaster epics, Clash of the Titans-style mortal-vs.-gods silliness, and a hold-your-breath terror pairing World War Z with The Abyss.

That said, Wan is no master of tone. The film bucks recklessly from mood to mood and shovels in backstory at awkward junctures — and even with that it’s hard to get much of a read on just who Momoa’s Aquaman was before he started on this adventure. The biggest buzzkill is the most earthbound sequence. Aquaman is the third PG-13 film I’ve seen this year to feature a scene of badass villains bursting into a command center and machine-gunning innocents at their workstations. Kids are going to steep themselves in this movie, watching it over and over. I don’t worry that it’s going to inspire them to ride seahorses to war, as thoroughbred seahorses aren’t readily available to them. But in this deeply troubled country, guns are available, and Aquaman (like Skyscraper and Mortal Engines before it) depicts those guns as the quickest, easiest way to prove you’re somebody who deserves our attention. We may no longer believe a man can fly, but we know damn well a kid can shoot.

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