Review: ‘Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom,’ starring Jason Momoa, Patrick Wilson, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Amber Heard, Nicole Kidman, Dolph Lundgren and Randall Park

December 22, 2023

by Carla Hay

Jason Momoa and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom”

Directed by James Wan

Culture Representation: Taking place above and below the oceans of Earth, the superhero action film “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” (based on DC Comics characters) features a racially diverse cast of characters (Asian, white and African American) portraying superheroes and regular human beings.

Culture Clash: Ocean-dwelling superhero Aquaman, also known as Arthur Curry, battles Black Manta, a villain who wants to control the world through environmental terrorism. 

Culture Audience: “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Jason Momoa and movies based on DC Comics, but the movie is inferior in every way to its 2018 predecessor, “Aquaman.”

Patrick Wilson and Jason Momoa in “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Just like toxic seaweed, “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” is a tangled and rotten mess of a superhero film with uneven visual effects, cringeworthy dialogue and a sloppy plot. The filmmakers mistakenly think that Aquaman’s charisma is defined by “surf dude” whooping and hollering. It all becomes very predictable and tiresome, especially when the story is so weak and becomes unnecessarily convoluted in order to stretch the movie’s screen time.

Directed by James Wan and written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” (whose release was delayed multiple times) is supposed to be the last movie in the DC Extendeded Universe (DCEU), which began with 2013’s “Man of Steel,” a Superman origin story. Movies and TV shows based on DC Comics are going through a major overhaul under the leadership of DC Studios co-chairs/co-CEOs James Gunn and Peter Safran, who were appointed to these positions in 2022. The first “Aquaman” movie, released in 2018, is the highest-grossing DC Comics-based movie of all time, with worldwide ticket sales of about $1.15 billion.

Many of the filmmakers behind “Aquaman” are also behind “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom,” including director Wan, screenwriter Johnson-McGoldrick, producer Rob Cowan, cinematographer Don Burgess, production designer Bill Brzeski, film editor Kirk Morri, music composer Rupert Gregson-Williams and music supervisor is Michelle Silverman. Most of the headlining cast members from “Aquaman” are also in “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom.” What went wrong?

“Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” stumbles from the beginning with a corny montage sequence of Arthur Curry/Aquaman (played by Jason Momoa) rescuing a ship that’s being invaded by pirates, and then explaining that he’s now a husband and father who’s the king of the secret underwater kingdom of Atlantis. “That’s right,” Arthur says proudly. “I’m the king of frickin’ Atlantis.”

Arthur likes having this royal title, but he says he hates doing government work that comes with the job, such as attending council meetings, because he doesn’t think it’s any fun. The montage includes Arthur/Aquaman looking like he’s about to fall asleep from boredom at one of these meetings. Aquaman is supposed to be an adult (who looks like a middle-aged human), but he often talks like he’s a teenager who’s become a legal adult and is resentful about having certain adult responsibilities.

Arthur’s wife Mera (played by Amber Heard) gets very choppy film editing in the movie. She’s almost non-existent in the early scenes showing Arthur taking care of baby son Arthur Jr., while Arthur’s supportive father Tom Curry (played by Temuera Morrison) lives in the same household. Adding to the movie’s unimaginative and juvenile comedy, the baby urinates in Arthur’s face more than once in diaper-changing scenes.

At several points in the movie, Arthur looks like he’s a single father, even though he speaks lovingly of his wife, who is nowhere to be seen without explanation when Arthur is spending time with his family. The off-screen controversy over Heard and ex-husband Johnny Depp might or might not have played a role in how Heard is edited in the movie. Many of Depp’s fans petitioned Warner Bros. Pictures to cut her out of the movie because of issues related to the ex-couple’s legal disputes.

Meanwhile, villain David Kane (played Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who has the alter ego Black Manta, is hell-bent on getting revenge on Aquaman, who was responsible for the death of David’s father in the first “Aquaman” movie. In “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom,” David is seen scowling while his Black Manta suit is propped nearby. He fumes, “Every day I don’t fix my power suit is another day that Aquaman gets to live.”

David has continued in his father’s profession of being a deep-sea diver who hunts for treasure. He ends up rescuing Dr. Stephen Shin (played by Randall Park), a marine biologist who has survived a deadly attack from a mysterious giant creature with tentacles during an underwater exploration near Antarctica. (“Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” was actually filmed in Hawaii.) This creature has killed some of the people in Stephen’s team.

Stephen (who is stereotypical science geek character) is grateful to David for saving his life, but it turns out that David is forcing Stephen and the rest of the marine biologist team to work with David. Unbenkownst to Stephen, David has found a magical Black Trident that has allowed David to communicate with this demonic-like creature. The creature has told David: “Free me from my prison, and I will grant you the strength to kill the man who murdered your father.”

This creature is Kordax (played by Pilou Asbæk), the leader of Necrus, which is also called the Lost Kingdom of Atlantis. There are seven kingdoms of Atlantis: Necrus, Atlantis, Xebel, Kingdom of the Fishermen, Kingdom of the Trench, Kingdom of the Brine and Kingdom of the Deserters. David finds out that the Black Trident needs a certain fuel to reach its full power.

Five months later, Arthur/Aquaman appears before the Council of Atlantis, whose leader Karshon (played by Indya Moore) advises him that the people in the surface world have been poisoning the atmosphere of Atlantis through irresponsible environmental pollution. (It has something do with David stealing a stash of orichalcum, a dangerous metal that was locked up in Atlantis.) Arthur thinks it’s time for Atlantis to reveal itself to the people above the water. However, he gets resistance from council members who think that Atlantis should remain a secret from humans.

The rest of “Aquaman” becomes a mishmash of very fake-looking chase/fight scenes, climate change messaging, and a family reunion with a lot of awkward banter. And there’s some nonsense about Curry family blood that gets thrown into the story in a desperate attempt to make the plot look more interesting. For the movie’s action scenes, “loud” and “cluttered” don’t add up to being “exciting” or “interesting.”

The family reunion part of the story involves Arthur’s estranged younger half-brother Orm (played by Patrick Wilson), the former king of Atlantis who was Arthur’s enemy in “Aquaman.” Orm (who also goes by the name Ocean Master) is a dirty, disheveled and emaciated prisoner when Arthur breaks him out of prison to help in the fight against Black Manta and Kordax. But in one of the movie’s phoniest-looking scenes, Orm magically “cleans up” and transforms into a chiseled hunk as soon as he submerges himself in some water on a beach.

Also joining the fray in this family reunion are Atlanna (played by Nicole Kidman), the mother of Arthur and Orm. Atlanna’s regal personality from the first “Aquaman” movie seems to be washed away in “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom,” which makes her as bland and bland can be. The same can be said for Mera, whose fiery personality has been replaced with being a generic sidekick who helps out in the fight scenes. Mera’s stern father, King Nereus (played by Dolph Lundgren), is also part of Aquaman’s fight team. The main purpose of King Nereus in the movie is to be the person on the team who is most suspicious that Orm will be helpful.

All of these characters would be enough for a superhero movie. But “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” doesn’t trust that would be enough to entertain audiences. And so, there are myriads of creatures that populate the movie as distractions that don’t do much to further the plot. Topo, the drum-playing octopus, makes a return to help Aquaman, who doesn’t really want this pet tagging along, but his mother Atlanna insists that Topo accompany Arthur. Arthur/Aquaman acts like a teenager who doesn’t want to babysit the family dog. Kingfish (voiced by Martin Short) is a mutant sea creature who is the sarcastic leader of underwater pirates that have conflicts with residents of Atlantis.

“Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” has some striking visuals in the Octobots:
vehicles with octopus-like metal arms that are used by Black Manta and his goons. However, even with these inventions and villainous armies doing battle against the heroes, none of it looks truly terrifying during these fight scenes. It all looks very busy, as if the filmmakers thought that throwing up a lot of computer-generated imagery (CGI) on screen is enough to create suspense.

The acting performances in “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” go through the motions and aren’t anything special. Momoa looks like he’s trying inject some playful energy into “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom,” but it just dilutes the action scenes to make Aquaman into a goofball with muscles. It’s similar to how filmmaker Taika Waititi’s version of “god of thunder” Thor in Marvel movies loses the royal aura that the character had in the comic books to become a walking comedy machine that tells jokes that aren’t always funny.

Don’t expect there to be any good mid-credits or post-credits scenes in “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom.” The mid-credits scene is meant to be amusing, but it will likely nauseate some viewers because it depicts someone eating a cockroach. There is no end-credits scene, which wouldn’t really help anyway, because this movie doesn’t have any story ideas that are fresh or surprising. “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” isn’t the worst superhero movie based on DC Comics, but compared to the first “Aquaman” movie, it’s like a crowd-pleasing cruise that has become a shipwreck.

Warner Bros. Pictures released “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” in U.S. cinemas on December 22, 2023.

Review: ‘Shortcomings’ (2023), starring Justin H. Min, Sherry Cola, Ally Maki, Tavi Gevinson, Debby Ryan, Sonoya Mizuno, Jacob Batalon and Timothy Simons

October 22, 2023

by Carla Hay

Sherry Cola and Justin H. Min in “Shortcomings” (Photo by Jon Pack/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Shortcomings” (2023)

Directed by Randall Park

Culture Representation: Taking place in the San Francisco Bay Area and in New York City, the comedy film “Shortcomings” (based on the graphic novel of the same name) features an Asian and white cast of characters portraying the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After an aspiring filmmaker and his girlfriend agree to take a break from each other while she does an internship in New York City, he and his semi-closeted lesbian best friend have various experiences in the dating scene.

Culture Audience: “Shortcomings” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching movies about single people looking for love and having a lot of quip-filled banter about their relationships.

Ally Maki and Justin H. Min in “Shortcomings” (Photo by Jon Pack/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Shortcomings” avoids romantic comedy clichés by not focusing on who’s going to be in a happy romance at the end. It’s a mostly entertaining character study of about a cynical grouch and his lesbian best friend, as they navigate the dating scene. “Shortcomings” is neither a classic film, nor is it an awful movie that’s a waste of time. It’s somewhere in between, as a movie that’s a fairly good option for people who are inclined to like movies where most of the scenes are people talking about themselves and their love lives.

Randall Park, who is best known as a comedic actor (he was a star of the 2015-2020 comedy TV series “Fresh Off the Boat”), makes his feature-film directorial debut with “Shortcomings,” a witty and occasionally sitcom-ish examination of unmarried people with a jaded attitude that often masks the hope of finding true love. (Park has a cameo in the movie as a waiter named Ji-Hun.) “Shortcomings” is based on the 2007 graphic novel of the same name by Adrian Tomine, who adapted the book into the “Shortcomings” screenplay. “Shortcomings” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and its New York premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival.

In the beginning of “Shortcomings,” aspiring filmmaker Ben Takanaka (played by Justin H. Min) and his girlfriend Miko Higashi (played by Ally Maki), who are both Japanese American and in their late 20s, are watching a romantic comedy at a movie theater in Berkeley, California, where they live. The movie they are watching is an unimaginative ripoff of “Crazy Rich Asians,” and it’s playing as part of the East Bay Asian American Film Festival. Miko is one of the programmers of the festival, so she’s thrilled that this movie is there.

After the screening in the theater lobby, Miko says to Ben: “As a community, we waited a long time to see ourselves reflected in a …” Ben then interrupts and finishes the sentence by saying, “A garish, mainstream rom com that glorifies the capitalistic fantasy of validation through wealth and materialism?” Miko looks slightly offended, but she’s become accustomed to Ben making cutting remarks when he doesn’t approve of something. Viewers will find out that Ben doesn’t approve of a lot of things.

Miko and Ben live together and have been dating each other for six years. Ben has issues with Miko recently having a political awakening about her Asian heritage and being more outspoken about Asian representation in many aspects of life. Ben (who occasionally talks out loud to himself and the “Shortcoming” viewers) says of Miko’s newfound political awakening: “She’s doing it because it’s trendy.”

It should come as no surprise that Ben and Miko have not been getting along with each other lately. Most of their arguments are about Ben thinking that Miko is some kind of “sellout,” while Miko thinks that Ben is jealous that her career has been advancing in the movie industry while his has not. Ben works as a manager of a local movie theater called Berkeley Arts Cinema.

Ben and Miko also have very different attitudes when it comes to love and marriage. Miko eventually wants to settle down and get married. She thinks that marriage should be the next step in her relationship with Ben. Ben doesn’t think they need to get married to prove anything. They’ve reached a stalemate regarding this issue.

Miko also has a problem with what she thinks is Ben’s sexual obsession with white women, especially pretty blondes. Ben denies it, but Miko gets triggered when she finds out that Ben has been looking at porn that only has white people in it. Ben thinks she’s overreacting and says it’s ridiculous for Miko to think he can only look at porn with Asian people in it. However, Miko is correct about Ben having an attraction to pretty blondes, based on who becomes his two love interests later in the movie.

And so, when Miko tells Ben that she has accepted an opportunity to do a three-month internship at the Asian American Film Institute in New York City, Ben and Miko mutually agree that they should take a break from their relationship. During this break, they can date other people and figure out after Miko’s internship ends if they should become a couple again or break up permanently. Ben sees it as a chance to explore the dating scene and see what he’s been missing.

Meanwhile, Ben’s best friend is Alice Lee (played by Sherry Cola), a Korean American lesbian who hasn’t told her conservative parents about her true sexuality. Alice not only hasn’t told her parents, she also deliberately misleads them into thinking that she dates men. As shown in the “Shortcomings” trailer, Alice pretends that Ben is her boyfriend when she introduces him to her parents (played by Borah Ahn and David Niu), who don’t have names in the movie.

Ben, who is a self-described movie snob, manages a small staff at Berkeley Arts Cinema. The employees he supervises include two self-admitted movie geeks who are concessions workers: talkative Gene (played by Jacob Batalon) and laid-back Lamont (played by Scott Seiss), who have constant debates and other discussions about movies. In a very meta joke, Gene mentions in one of these conversations that he prefers the “new Spider-Man.” (In real life, Batalon is a co-star of the “Spider-Man” movies starring Tom Holland.)

A new employee who has joined the team has caught the romantic interest of Ben. Her name is Autumn (played by Tavi Gevinson), a hipster who works in the theater’s box office. Ben wants to date her, but he’s also aware of how tricky it can be for a supervisor to date someone who reports to the supervisor. Autumn invites Ben to an avant-garde spoken-word performance that she is doing, and it’s Ben’s chance to see if this could possibly lead to a romance with Autumn, or if she wants to keep the relationship strictly platonic.

Around the same time, Ben meets down-to-earth Sasha (played by Debby Ryan) at a house party where Alice is also in attendance. One of the first things that Sasha says to Ben is: “We’re probably the only two people at this party whom Alice Lee has not seduced.” Sasha also confirms that she’s bisexual when Sasha tells Ben that she’s single and available after breaking up with her most recent girlfriend two months ago. Ben and Sasha have an instant attraction to each other, but Alice tells Ben not to date Sasha, whom Alice calls a “fence sitter.”

As already shown in the “Shortcomings” trailer, Alice decides to move to New York City. What’s not shown in the trailer: Alice moves to New York City because she got expelled from grad school for kicking another student in the vagina during an argument. This violent incident is not shown in the movie. While in New York City, Alice’s life changes when she meets another queer woman named Meredith (played by Sonoya Mizuno), and they quickly become involved with each other.

Ben decides to visit New York City, partly to hang out with Alice, and partly to spy on Miko. This is where the movie gets into sitcom-ish territory. Ben gets jealous after finding out that Miko has started dating a guy named Leo Alexander (played by Timothy Simons), who met Miko through Leo’s filmmaker friend whose movie was at the East Bay Asian American Film Festival. (Miko dating Leo is also revealed in the “Shortcomings” trailer.)

There really isn’t much of a plot to “Shortcomings,” whose appeal is mainly in watching how these characters interact with each other. The best scenes, of course, are those with Ben and Alice, who feel comfortable enough with each other to tell each other exactly how they feel. It’s in contrast to how Ben puts on more of a “nice guy” front as being sensitive and insecure when he’s dating someone new. He’s much more acerbic and pessimistic when people get to know him better and he shows his true personality.

It’s through the characters of Ben and Alice that viewers see how people often present themselves one way to certain people and another way to other people. Min handles his role as the often-unlikable Ben with considerable aplomb. Ben is not a “villain,” but he’s deliberately portrayed as a very flawed, self-sabotaging individual who hasn’t figured out yet that he’s going to have a hard time finding true love if he doesn’t love himself.

In the role of Alice, Cola has impeccable comedic timing and makes her banter scenes with Min have creative sparks of energy that are enjoyable to watch. The friendship between Ben and Alice is more meaningful than many of the romantic relationships shown in the movie. Overall, “Shortcomings” can be an amusing and realistic look at people’s personality quirks and insecurities that often get amplified (or covered up) when they go through the ups and downs of dating. It’s the type of movie that succeeds in its intention of making viewers laugh and feel uncomfortable at the same time, with an ending that is entirely authentic.

Sony Pictures Classics released “Shortcomings” in select U.S. cinemas on August 4, 2023. The movie was released on digital and VOD on September 14, 2023, and on Blu-ray and DVD on October 17, 2023.

Review: ‘Strays’ (2023), starring the voices of Will Ferrell, Jamie Foxx, Isla Fisher and Randall Park

August 17, 2023

by Carla Hay

Reggie (voiced by Will Ferrell), Maggie (voiced by Isla Fisher), Hunter (voiced by Randall Park) and Bug (voiced by Jamie Foxx) in “Strays” (Photo by Chuck Zlotnick/Universal Pictures)

“Strays” (2023)

Directed by Josh Greenbaum

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the comedy film “Strays” features a cast of dogs and a predominantly white group of people (with some African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Four stray dogs band together to get revenge on the sleazy and abusive man who abandoned one of the stray dogs.

Culture Audience: “Strays” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and anyone who doesn’t mind watching intentionally vulgar comedies about adorable animals that have some sweetness with the raunchiness.

Reggie (voiced by Will Ferrell) and Will Forte in “Strays” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

The purpose of “Strays” is to disrupt the image that people have of movies where cute animals talk. It’s the “Jackass” of talking animal movies: crude, comedic camaraderie. If you can’t tolerate a lot of jokes about bodily functions, then avoid this film.

Directed by Josh Greenbaum and written by Dan Perrault, “Strays” has been very clear in its marketing that this movie is not a “family-friendly film” that’s appropriate for people of all ages. This is most definitely a very adult-oriented film for adults who aren’t easily offended when watching movies filled with cursing, gross-out scenes involving body waste, and explicit talk about sex. The fact that domesticated dogs who talk like humans are supposed to be the source of all this raunch is the whole point of the movie.

In “Strays” (which takes place in an unnamed U.S. city but was filmed in and around Stone Mountain, Georgia), viewers are first introduced to the movie’s narrator. He’s an optimistic and eager-to-please Border Terrier (voiced by Will Ferrell), who has lived his entire life with a loser named Doug (played by Will Forte), who never gave this dog an official name. Instead, Doug calls the dog horrible names that usually have the word “shit” in the name. (In real life, this Border Terrier is a female named Sophie.)

In the beginning of the movie, bachelor Doug is unemployed and living in a messy house. Doug spends his days and nights getting stoned and masturbating. A phone conversation between Doug and his mother reveals that Doug can’t live near a school that has children, which is the movie’s way of saying that Doug is a registered sex offender. Because the Border Terrier doesn’t know any better, he thinks Doug is a great person.

Doug likes to do something that the Border Terrier thinks is a game called “Fetch and Fuck.” Doug throws a tennis ball far away, so the Border Terrier can run off and fetch the ball. Doug only does this because he hopes the dog will get lost and never find his way back home. When the dog inevitably does find his way back home, Doug says out loud in anger: “Fuck!”

One day, Doug drives the Border Terrier several miles away, into the inner part of a big city where the dog has never been to before. Doug throws the tennis ball, knowing that this dog will be too far away to walk back to the house. Doug then drives away. Doug’s heinous plan works, and the Border Terrier gets lost.

While out on the street at night, the Border Terrier meets a rebellious and tough-talking Boston Terrier named Bug (voiced by Jamie Foxx), who sees how naïve this Border Terrier is and offers to teach him how to survive on the streets as a stray dog. (This Boston Terrier’s name is real life is Benny.) Bug calls this Border Terrier the name Reggie, since that’s the name that one of Doug’s girlfriends used to call this Border Terrier.

Bug tells Reggie that humans can’t be trusted and a dog’s life is better without having an owner because the dog has the freedom to do whatever the dog wants. Bug believes that humans “brainwash” dogs into thinking that dogs need humans. Bug also tells Reggie that stray dogs shouldn’t get too close to other dogs either, because all stray dogs should eventually learn to fend for themselves. Bug’s past is eventually revealed to explain why he detests humans. One of Bug’s quirks is that he is fixated on humping inanimate objects, including furniture (Sofia Vergara voices a character called Dolores the Coach) and lawn decorations.

Soon, Reggie is introduced to two of Bug’s closest dog acquaintances: Maggie (voiced by Isla Fisher) is an Australian Shepherd who is intelligent and has a super-keen sense of smell. She is a stray because her previous owners preferred to have a puppy. (In real life, this Australian Shepherd’s name is Elsa.) Hunter (voiced by Randall Park) is a Great Dane who is insecure and often fearful. Hunter trained to be a police dog, but instead he was placed in a retirement home to be a therapy dog for the elderly residents, and he ran away. (In real life, this Great Dane’s name is Dalin.)

This motley canine quartet then goes on a series of misadventures. All other animals in the movie do not talk. The only living beings that talk in the movie are dogs and humans. An English bulldog named Chester (voiced by Jamie Demetriou) makes a brief but memorable appearance as a neurotic dog who imagines that there is an invisible, electrical fence surrounding his front yard. The four strays also encounter a German Shepherd named Rolf (voiced by Rob Riggle), a K-9 police dog who trained with Hunter at the same K-9 academy.

Two other noteworthy dog characters in the movie are a philosophical Labrador Retriever named Gus (voiced by Josh Gad) and a feisty Chihuahua named Shitstain (voiced by Harvey Guillén), who is almost as combative as Bug. And when there’s a movie about stray dogs roaming around a city, there are inevitable scenes of the dogs trying to evade capture from the animal control officers. “Strays” also has some scenes that take place in an animal shelter, where an animal control officer named Willy (played by Brett Gelman) has a job that’s similar to a jail guard/janitor.

Dennis Quaid makes a cameo portraying himself as a bird watcher. Why is Quaid in this movie? Quaid is the star of 2017’s “A Dog’s Purpose” and 2019’s “A Dog’s Journey,” two sentimental dramas about a “talking” dog (voiced by Gad) who gets reincarnated and whose thoughts are heard in voiceover narration. Quaid and Gad being cast in “Strays” is obviously the “Strays” filmmakers’ way of poking fun at family-oriented talking dog movies.

For a great deal of the story, Reggie is denial that Doug abandoned him and that Doug is not a good person. When the truth finally sinks in with Reggie, he decides that he’s going to get revenge on Doug, with the help of his new stray dog friends. If anyone watching “Strays” complains about how unrealistic this movie is, the question must be asked: “What part of ‘talking dog movie’ do you not understand?”

The comedy in “Strays” is far from award-worthy, but it does bring some laughs, and it doesn’t try to pretend to be lofty art. The biggest flaw in “Strays” is an over-reliance on jokes and gags about defecation. However, the best parts of the movie have to do with the friendship that develops between these four dogs. Hunter has a crush on Maggie, so there’s potential for more than a friendship between them.

The expressions on these dogs’ faces are enough to charm viewers who like dogs, although obviously much of what is in the movie involves visual effects using computer-generated imagery. The voice actors also play their roles capably, with Foxx and Ferrell being the obvious standouts. As long as viewers don’t have skewed or misunderstood expectations for “Strays,” it can be amusing entertainment with some genuine, laugh-out-loud moments. It’s not the type of comedy for everyone, but neither is “Jackass.”

Universal Pictures will release “Strays” in U.S. cinemas on August 18, 2023.

Review: ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,’ starring Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Jonathan Majors, Kathryn Newton, Bill Murray, Michelle Pfeiffer and Michael Douglas

February 14, 2023

by Carla Hay

Paul Rudd, Kathryn Newton and Evangeline Lilly in “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” (Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios)

“Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania”

Directed by Peyton Reed

Culture Representation: Taking place in an underworld universe called Quantumania, and briefly in San Francisco, the sci-fi/fantasy/action film “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” (based on Marvel Comics characters) features a cast of predominantly white characters (with some African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing superheroes, regular humans and alien creatures.

Culture Clash: Scott Lang (also known as superhero Ant-Man), his formerly estranged daughter Cassie Lang, Scott’s girlfriend Hope Van Dyne (also known as superhero The Wasp) and Hope’s parents get dragged into the Quantum Realm, where they have to battle evil forces, led by Kang the Conqueror. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of Marvel movie fans, “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and superhero movies that are very predictable, corny and formulaic.

Paul Rudd and Jonathan Majors in “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” (Photo by Jay Maidment/Marvel Studios)

“Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” is a quantum mess. It’s bad enough that it recycles tired clichés of Marvel movies. This uneven superhero movie also rips off 1977’s “Star Wars” in many ways. Jonathan Majors’ standout performance can’t save this substandard spectacle. “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” is supposed to be the start of Phase 5 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The movie will no doubt make blockbuster money, as all MCU movies have done so far. But in terms of creativity, this disappointing film is a stumble right out of the gate for the MCU’s Phase 5.

One of the biggest problems with “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” is how it awkwardly balances comedy with action. The jokes are the most juvenile, tackiest and least funny so far in the “Ant-Man” movie series, which began with 2015’s “Ant-Man” and continued with 2018’s “Ant-Man and the Wasp.” Peyton Reed is the director of all three movies, which makes his creative choices even more baffling for “Quantumania,” which has a drastically different tone (and lower quality as a result) than the first two “Ant-Man” movies.

When writer/director Taika Waititi directed 2017’s “Thor: Ragnarok” (the third “Thor” movie of the MCU), he radically changed the tone of the “Thor” movie series to make it fit his signature comedic style: goofy and slightly offbeat. Waititi did the same for 2022’s “Thor: Love and Thunder,” to less well-received results. But it doesn’t explain why the third “Ant-Man” movie has gone so far off-course when it’s had the same director for the first three “Ant-Man” movies.

Much of the blame for why “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” has turned into a hodgepodge of bad jokes, sci-fi rehashes and superhero triteness has to with the movie’s screenplay, which is the feature-film debut of Jeff Loveness. Loveness’ previous writing experience is for shows such as the Adult Swim animated series “Rick and Morty,” the ABC variety talk show “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” the 2012 Primetime Emmy Awards, the 2016 Primetime Emmy Awards and the 2017 Academy Awards, with these particular award shows all hosted by Jimmy Kimmel. All of these TV shows require a different skill set than what’s required to write an entertaining superhero movie. Unfortunately, hiring a TV writer with no experience in writing movies turned out to be a huge mistake for “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” and Marvel Studios.

In “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” the story begins right after the events of 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame.” Scott Lang (played by Paul Rudd), a former petty criminal also known as Ant-Man (whose superpower is being able to change the height of his body by wearing a special superhero suit), is a happily retired superhero living in his hometown in San Francisco. Scott has cashed in on his superhero fame by writing a memoir titled “Look Out for the Little Guy!,” where he talks about his superhero experiences and what they have taught him about life.

The movie shows Scott reading excerpts from his book at a book signing, but a few people there still mistake him for the more famous Spider-Man. Scott tells the small audience at this book signing, “From now on, the only job I want is to be a dad.” However, the movie unrealistically shows that middle-aged Scott, in his superhero “retirement,” has chosen to take a low-paying job as a customer service employee at a local Baskin-Robbins store. He has been named Employee of the Century because of his celebrity status as Ant-Man.

It’s really the movie’s obvious brand placement for Baskin-Robbins, but viewers are given the weak explanation that Scott took the job because he loves ice cream. It all looks very awkward and fake. The movie’s overload of Baskin-Robbins brand promotion is extremely annoying. There’s even a scene where a Scott Lang look-alike named Jack, who’s a Baskin-Robbins employee, gets in on the fight action. It’s all so crass and stupid.

Get used to seeing a lot of “look-alikes” in this movie, because much of it takes place in an alternate universe where clones of people and clones of creatures can show up randomly. Scott is trying to reconnect with his 18-year-old daughter Cassandra “Cassie” Lang (played by Kathryn Newton), who was raised primarily by Scott’s ex-wife while Scott was off doing other things, such as being a criminal-turned-superhero. Cassie has turned into a social justice warrior who’s involved in civil protests.

In the beginning of the movie, Cassie has landed in the San Francisco County Jail, because she was arrested for shrinking a police car because the police were trying to clear out an illegal homeless camp. Scott and his intelligent and sassy girlfriend Hope Van Dyne (played by Evangeline Lilly), also known as superhero The Wasp (she can turn into a wasp mutant and can also shrink her body height), have arrived at the jail to retrieve Cassie. It’s how Scott finds out to his dismay that Cassie is also an aspiring scientist who invented her own shrinkage suit. She hasn’t given herself a superhero name though.

Scott thinks Cassie is too young to get involved in superhero antics. Cassie thinks Scott has become too complacent and thinks he should care more about making the world a better place. Hope and Cassie have bonded with each other because Hope is now the leader of the Pym Van Dyne Foundation, which uses Pym Particle (the body morphing invention used by Ant-Man and The Wasp) for humanitarian causes. Of course, it’s already been revealed in the “Quantumania” trailer that Scott will literally be sucked back into superhero activities, whether he likes it or not.

Hope’s parents are scientists Hank Pym (played by Michael Douglas) and Janet Van Dyne (played by Michelle Pfeiffer), who were the original Ant-Man and The Wasp. As the movie over-explains and over-repeats in pedestrian dialogue, Janet was trapped in an alternative universe called the Quantum Realm for 30 years and doesn’t like to talk about what she experienced there. Janet returned to Earth when Hank rescued her from the Quantum Realm, as shown in “Ant-Man and the Wasp.”

However, “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” makes a big misstep by giving away in an opening scene that Janet actually was acquainted with the movie’s chief villain: Kang the Conequeror (played by Majors) while she was in the Quantum Realm, where Janet and Kang are seen escaping an attack from a giant insect-like creature. The movie should have left it a mystery until the right moment to show that Janet already knew this villain. Instead, this part of the plot is revealed too early in the film.

At any rate, Scott finds out that Hank, Janet, Hope and Cassie have been studying ant science. Hope and Cassie in particular want to use this science to explore the Quantum Realm, but Janet has no interest in going back there. Janet won’t say why, but she will eventually make a confession later in the movie.

Janet describes the Quantum Realm as a “place with no time and space. It’s a secret universe beneath ours.” To Janet’s horror, Cassie announces to Janet, Scott, Hank and Hope (while they are all in the scientific lab) that Cassie has been secretly sending signals to the Quantum Realm. Janet frantically tries to turn off the signal machine.

And faster than you can say “inferior Marvel movie sequel,” all five of them are sucked into the Quantum Realm, which looks like a half-baked “Star Wars” universe. For much the first third of the movie, Scott and Cassie are separated from Janet, Hank and Hope. Scott and Cassie spend a lot of time bickering over how much Cassie might or might not be ready to use her superhero suit. (Too late. We already know she will.)

Janet, Hank and Hope spend much of their time talking in vague tones about a mysterious “he” and “him” leader who has wreaked havoc on the Quantum Realm. Anyone can easily figure out that the “he” and “him” is Kang the Conqueror. There’s no reason to make him sound like “Harry Potter” villain Voldemort, also known in the “Harry Potter” series as He Who Shall Not Be Named. It’s yet another way that “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” takes ideas from other sci-fi/fantasy franchises.

Reed says in the production notes for “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” where he got some of the visual influences for the movie: “We pulled together a lot of visual inspiration—everything from electron microscope photography to heavy metal magazine images from the ’70s and ’80s. I collected all of these images from old science-fiction paperback book covers—artists like John Harris, Paul Laird, Richard M. Powers. Those paintings were evocative and really moody. We liked that feel and tone for the look of the Quantum Realm.”

Reed curiously didn’t mention “Star Wars,” which is undoubtedly the biggest influence on “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.” The Quantum Realm’s terrain looks like a desert in some areas and looks like a crater-filled planet in other areas. The desert scenes look too much like the desert realm of Tatooine in “Star Wars,” while the hooded costumes worn by the Quantum Realm residents look an awful lot like the costumes worn by Tusken Raiders from “Star Wars.”

And if the “Star Wars” similarities for the production design and costume design weren’t enough, “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” also imitates the Mos Eisley cantina scene in “Star Wars,” but doesn’t make it nearly as fun and interesting to watch. Hank, Janet and Hope end up in a place called Axia Restaurant, which is basically a “Star Wars” cantina look-alike filled with unusual-looking creatures. There’s no memorable music at the Axia Restaurant, like there was in the Mos Eisley cantina. Christophe Beck’s musical score for “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” is serviceable and unremarkable.

It’s at Axia Restaurant where Hope and Hank meet the smirking Lord Kylar (played by Bill Murray) for the first time. Janet already knows Lord Kylar, who says he is neither a human nor a machine. Lord Kylar, who is the governor of the Axia community, hints that he and Janet used to be lovers when she was in the Quantum Realm.

“I had needs,” Janet tells Hank and Hope in a somewhat defensive and uncomfortable tone. Hope then has to hear Hank talk about an ex-girlfriend. And she acts like a prudish teen who doesn’t want to think about her parents having love lives before they met each other. This is the type of time-wasting dialogue that’s supposed to pass as “comedy” in the movie.

Even though Murray shares top billing for “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” his role in the movie is just a cameo that lasts for less than 15 minutes. It’s ineffective and misguided casting because he’s not convincing as this fictional character. All viewers will think is that this is Murray in a space-alien costume playing a version of himself.

As for the other inhabitants of the Quantum Realm, it’s a random mix of beings who look like humans and those who are very non-human in appearance, including a lot of jellyfish-like creatures that float around in space. As soon as Scott and Cassie arrive in the Quantum Realm, they are force-fed a red ooze by a creature named Veb (voiced by David Dastmalchian), because this red ooze will help these humans understand the language of the Quantum Realm residents. Dastmalchian had the role of Kurt (a member of Scott’s posse) in the first two “Ant-Man” movies. Veb is an underdeveloped character that is meant to be comedic, but Veb’s jokes fall very flat.

The Quantum Realm residents predictably greet these newcomers from Earth with reactions that range from curiosity to hostility. Jentorra (played by Katy O’Brian) is an anti-Kang freedom fighter who scowls a lot and has to learn to trust these Earth heroes to be her allies. Xolum (played by James Cutler, also known as Jamie Andrew Cutler) is a loyal soldier and totally generic sidekick of Jentorra.

Quaz (played by William Jackson Harper) is a psychic/telepath, whose only purpose in the movie is to make people uncomfortable by reading their thoughts and saying their thoughts out loud. His revelations are supposed to be amusing, but they’re not really all that funny. Randall Park has a small and non-essential role as FBI agent Jimmy Woo.

Corey Stoll returns as “Ant-Man” villain Darren Cross, also known as Yellowjacket, who has now been shrunken by Kang into a subatomic lackey with an oversized head known as M.O.D.O.K., which stands for Mechanized Organism Designed Only for Killing. M.O.D.O.K. looks like a floating head and delivers some of the few genuinely comedic moments in “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.” Various characters in the movie have horrified reactions to seeing Darren look so drastically different as M.O.D.O.K., but this gag is repeated too much and loses its impact by the middle of the movie.

As for Kang, Majors’ performance is the only one that brings a certain gravitas to the rampant foolishness and smarm that stink up “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.” Majors brings a combination of menace and melancholy to his role, but it’s wasted in a movie that is hell-bent on trying to be more like Waititi’s “Thor” movies. The rest of the cast members’ performances aren’t bad, but they’re not special either. Kang’s soldiers are Quantumnauts, which are as anonymous and soulless as the mostly CGI creations that they are.

Unfortunately, the big showdown fight scene is lot more montonous and unimaginative than it should have been. It ends abruptly and in a way that has been done already (and done much better) in many other sci-fi/fantasy/action movies. As for the movie’s visual effects, it’s a shame that a movie with this big budget can make visual effects look so cheap and shoddy. There are scenes that make it obvious where the “blue screens” and “green screens” were.

A mid-credits scene and end-credits scene basically show the return of a major character from the movie. The end-credits scene is a nod to the Disney+ series “Loki.” As an example of how “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” has a sitcom tone to it, the movie uses John Sebastian’s 1976 hit “Welcome Back” (the theme from the sitcom “Welcome Back, Kotter”) as bookends to the movie. A big-budget superhero movie should not look like a second-rate sitcom, which is what “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” has turned out to be.

Marvel Studios will release “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” in U.S. cinemas on February 17, 2023.

Copyright 2017-2024 Culture Mix
CULTURE MIX