Ant-Man and the Wasp (PG) ***
Hearts Beat Loud (12A) ****
Sicilian Ghost Story (15) ***
Literally and figuratively Ant-Man continues to feel like a minor character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He might headline his own films, but it’s unlikely anyone would notice were he to suddenly drop out of sight the way his alter-ego, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), does whenever he zips himself into his sub-atomic shrinking suit. That, however, works to the character’s advantage. The first film’s down-scaled action — the finale took place in a kid’s bedroom — was an unexpected delight after the city-levelling chaos of every other superhero movie. Modest anticipation for a sequel, meanwhile, has encouraged Marvel to stop dragging its heels and boost interest in the series by finally giving a female superhero above-the-title billing. Cast as the Wasp in Ant-Man and the Wasp, Evangeline Lilly steps up from frustrated supporting player to fully fledged action star, her alter-ego, the ass-kicking, tech-savvy Hope Van Dyne, no longer subservient to Ant Man’s superhero journey.
Indeed, as the film opens she’d rather have nothing to do with Lang, whose Ant-Man antics in Captain America: Civil War have resulted in him being placed under house arrest back in San Francisco. Unfortunately this has also forced her and her father, original Ant-Man Hank Pym (once again played by Michael Douglas), to go on the run, which is in turn inhibiting their efforts to use Hope’s own miniaturising suit and Pym’s arsenal of shrinkable laboratory equipment to rescue her mother, the original Wasp, from the “quantum realm”, a sort of sub-atomic void in which she’s been trapped for the past 30 years. (Hope’s mother is played by Michelle Pfeiffer, making a welcome return to superhero films 26 years after stealing the show as Catwoman in Batman Returns.)
That’s only part of the busy plot, though. A wealthy criminal (played by Walton Goggins) is attempting to steal Pym’s latest tech to sell to the highest bidder — and a mysterious shape-shifter known as the Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) is also trying to get her hands on it for her own purposes. Then there’s Lang, who is just trying to complete the final three days of his house arrest without incident so he can retain visiting rights with his beloved daughter — a plot strand that serves up its own minor comic pleasures, among them his playfully antagonistic relationship with an emotionally needy FBI handler (played by Randall Park). But it’s not long before he’s pulled back into the fray, thanks to Hope’s long-lost mother making contact with him via his dreams — a rather squiffy piece of storytelling logic that’s leavened by the jokey way in which Lang experiences this bit of inter-dimensional communication.
Such unobtrusive self-awareness is in keeping with the style of returning director Payton Reed, who likes making light of all the pseudo-science chat in the script. “Do you guys just put ‘quantum’ in front of everything?” quips Lang at one point, perhaps echoing Rudd’s own thoughts as one of the film’s co-writers. As fun as all this can be, though, the film still doesn’t feel all that essential and even Lilly’s headlining role peters out as the focus shifts more firmly onto Ant-Man (something signified by his ability to not just shrink, but enlarge himself to B-movie monster-sized behemoth). And yet when the film serves up a final shock reminder that this is taking place in the same timeline as the most recent Avengers movie, the force of the ensuing narrative sucker punch feels appropriate for a film in which the minuscule can quickly become monumental.
As a failing record shop owner in Hearts Beat Loud, Nick Offerman brings his customary grouchy charm to this casually sweet, musical-inflected indie comedy about a widower (Offerman’s Frank) determined to start a band with teenage daughter Sam after a song they co-wrote gains some traction on Spotify. Frank’s impractical dream is really his own way of coping with his daughter’s imminent departure for medical school (Sam is nicely played by up-and-comer Kiersey Clemons); for Sam, whose lyrics for the titular song are inspired by her feelings for her new girlfriend, her dad’s delusions are a mild annoyance that nevertheless yield a better understanding of the need to take a breath once in a while to reflect on and enjoy life. Co-writer/director Brett Hayley mostly avoids falling into the mawkish traps and hipster one-upmanship this premise and setting all but invite. Instead he concentrates on crafting amiable characters who are fun to hang out with, something aided both by the easy rapport generated by his leads and a supporting cast that includes Toni Collette as Frank’s landlord/love interest and Ted Danson — back behind the bar for the first time since Cheers — as his pub-owning best friend.
Based on the real-life 1993 kidnapping and torture of a Mafia informant’s 12-year-old son, Sicilian Ghost Story retells the horrifying story of Guiseppe Di Matteo from the point of view of a fictionalised classmate, Luna (Julia Jedlikowska), whose fantastical imagination and outrage penetrate the code of silence that has condemned this boy to his fate in the eyes of the locals. Writing/directing team Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza embellish the facts of the case with lots of grounded-in-reality fairy-tale elements, transforming it into a sort of Neo-realist Pan’s Labyrinth to make a wider point about the way violence haunts Italy. The results are hard-going but grimly compelling. ■