Thursday, February 11, 2016
I think it was around the time that Deadpool farted into the face of an elderly black lady that I realized we weren’t dealing with a standard-issue superhero.
If that wasn’t the moment, then it arrived immediately after, when he needled her: “Hashtag: drive by!”
If “Guardians of the Galaxy” set the stage for comic book adaptations that were comedies first, action/adventure second, then “Deadpool” is the next step on the (d?)evolutionary scale: super heroes as gross-out laugh riots.
Golly, this movie is funny. And crude. And lewd. Even as I was watching it I thought to myself: “I can’t believe Marvel made this movie.” But I am very glad they did.
Things start with the opening credits, a freeze-frame journey of the camera around a scene of mayhem, a vehicle in mid-flight as Deadpool takes out some bad guys. As we pan and zoom around to reveal that Deadpool has his fingers poking a dude’s eyes out and the other hand giving another guy a wedgie, the credits mock themselves.
The film, we are informed, stars “a British villain,” “a CGI character” and “a moody teen,” amongst others, and was directed by “an overpaid tool.” A magazine flies by in the swirl, and it’s Ryan Reynolds’ “Sexiest Man Alive” cover of People.
Things continue as Deadpool repeatedly talks to the camera, reminding us that he’s a movie character. He breaks the fourth wall, then quips about breaking the fourth wall, then does a flashback where he again breaks the fourth wall. “That’s, like, 16 walls!” he brags.
The setup is that Wade Wilson (Reynolds) is a badboy mercenary, a smirking ex-Special Forces expert now accepting money to do bad things to people even worse than him. He catches the perfect girl, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), who shares his puckish humor and love of exploring every sexual position available. (A montage shows many, and much.)
But then he gets terminal cancer, which sucks, and signs on to a shadowy group that promises to not only cure him, but give him super abilities. This they do – he can heal virtually any wound a la Wolverine -- except it also involves turning him into a scarred freak who looks like Freddie Krueger’s next of kin.
Dubbing himself Deadpool, he resolves to hunt down the dastardly villain who did this to him, Ajax (Ed Skrein), get him to do a face fix, kill him, and win the girl back.
If this doesn’t sound like noble proselytizing about great power coming with great responsibility, that’s because it isn’t. Deadpool explicitly rejects the idea of being a hero, happily kills anyone who gets in his way and drops one-liners while doing it.
Deadpool also criticizes his own movie as it’s playing out, simultaneously acting as protagonist and nitpicking fanboy.
For instance, he has a run-in with Colossus from the X-Men (voice of Stefan Kapičić) and a young trainee (Brianna Hildebrand), then later recruits them to help him. Rolling up to Xavier mansion, Deadpool takes note that despite being such a big place, he’s only ever seen these two members of the team.
“It’s almost like the studio couldn’t afford another X-Man!” he zings.
At a reported $50 million budget, “Deadpool” is indeed a down-market spawn of the Marvel franchise. I will say that director Tim Miller milks every dollar of that budget, resulting in a great-looking film without any obvious cut corners. OK, Colossus looks a little cut-rate, not to mention very different from his previous movie appearances.
I should mention that Reynolds previously played the same character in 2009’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” but the filmmakers are doing a total reboot and hope you’ll completely forget about that iteration of Deadpool. (Don’t worry, guys, already done.)
Also turning up are T. J. Miller as Deadpool’s wiseacre best friend, who supports him but isn’t above betting on his demise; Gina Carano as Ajax’s burly enforcer; and Leslie Uggams as the aforementioned blind lady, who’s also Deadpool’s roommate at a ghetto rattrap.
(Hey, not every supe has Tony Stark money.)
Tim Miller was an interesting pick to direct, a first-timer who comes from a visual effects background. (His salary and tool-ishness are open to debate.) He certainly gives us plenty of eye candy and a brash tone. And screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, who previously brought comedy to the horror genre with “Zombieland,” crank the yuks dial up to 11 and then somehow manage to sustain it the rest of the way.
How hilarious is “Deadpool?” You’ll spend the entire time laughing, coming off a big laugh or cursing audience members for laughing so long you missed the next joke.
Welcome to the new age of super hero movies: funny, foulmouthed and farty.
"How to Be Single" is part raunchy sex comedy, and that part's fun, at least for awhile. But it also wants its moments of tenderness and wisdom, and that stuff is just pure death, man.
In addition, it sets up a female protagonist and her off-the-hook wingwoman, and then just as we're settling in with them and their man troubles, it introduces a whole other heroine, and throws in a sister for the first woman to boot. Suddenly we're dickering around with these two new ladies and their romantic contretemps, plus the main gal, and there are so many storylines and random hook-ups with dudes we lose track of who's on first.
The end result is a confused mash-up of "Love, Actually" and "The Hangover." If that sounds like an impossible mix of mutually exclusive tones, that's because it is.
"Single" is based on the debut novel of Liz Tuccillo, adapted for the screen by Abby Kohn, Marc Silverstein and Dana Fox. Christian Ditter directed, and while normally I'm not much of a player in the identity politics game, the use of a male director for a story on dating from a decidedly feminine perspective feels wrongheaded.
The women wind up as feminized versions of male characters, carousing and partying and waking up in bed with people they don't recognize. Except sometimes they show a little regret afterward, whereas the guys wouldn't.
(And considering how much sex these characters have with random strangers, a more credible title would've been, "How to Deal with a Tsunami of STDs.")
Dakota Johnson plays Alice, a sweet girl from Wesleyan University who spent all four years in a relationship with Josh (Nicholas Braun), who's tall and nice and cute but not, y'know, vroom! So she kicks him to the curb when she moves to New York City for a new start. Officially it's a "break," not a break-up, so they can try life as singles to see if they really want to be together.
Alice gets a job in a posh law firm as a paralegal, where she meets Robin, played by the incomparable Rebel Wilson. Wilson always seems to play the same role, yet we never tire of it: the audacious party girl whose orbital confidence wows the boys and divides the girls, who either dismiss her or become her bestie. Alice opts for the latter.
Segue to a bunch of scenes of the pair dancing, drinking, sexing. Alice's first conquest is Tom (Anders Holm), an agreeable bartender whom Robin introduces as the training wheels runway to a new life of debauchery. After their coupling, Tom offers his own pointers on how to avoid emotional entanglements, such as keeping no food or running water in his apartment, so overnight guests have to leave for sustenance.
Then into Tom's bar walks Lucy (Alison Brie), using the free WiFi to maintain her 10 dating site profiles. She thinks she's got this whole mate selection thing down to a science, feeding potential dates into a spreadsheet. Meanwhile, the scruffy pourer across the bar from her might just be her ideal match after all. (When he's not screwing Alice, that is.)
Alice briefly lives with her (implausibly) older sister Meg, an Ob/Gyn doctor played by Leslie Mann who secretly hates babies but even more secretly wants one of her own. She eventually gets pregnant via an anonymous sperm donor but then attracts the eye of a much younger man (Jake Lacy), leading to some predictable prevaricating about the source of her burgeoning belly.
Occasionally the movie remembers to go back to Alice, who's tempted to reunite with Josh, then gets in deep with a slightly older widower (Damon Wayans Jr.) with a young daughter. There's one scene where the guy shows his kid pictures of her mommy for the very first time. It's genuinely moving, but a completely head-whipping changeup from what comes before and after.
I haven't read Tuccillo's book, but to my understanding its protagonist is a publicist pushing 40 who sets off to write a book about what it's like being a single woman in different parts of the world. Which makes "How to Be Single" the latest movie to buy the rights to a book just because somebody liked the title, and throw everything between the covers into the trash.
Wednesday, February 10, 2016
Just when you think the story of the Holocaust has been covered from every perspective, every angle, every storytelling form possible, along comes a film like “Son of Saul” to remind us that great tragedies never really end – their human echoes continue to reverberate and disturb.
“Saul” uses many of the same techniques as last year’s Oscar-winning “Birdman,” and indeed this film has been nominated for its own Academy Award as the foreign language entry from Hungary. The camera floats around the main character, a Sonderkommando working in the crematorium of Auschwitz circa 1944, in long languid takes.
A Jew kept alive to dispose of the bodies of other Jews, Saul has some measure of authority and protection from the German guards. But their own time is coming, as the head Sonderkommando learns they are about to be replaced and disposed of, so their memories can die with them. They quietly begin planning an uprising, stashing weapons and so on.
Director László Nemes, who co-wrote the screenplay with Clara Royer based on years of research and testimony by the actual concentration camp workers, keeps things unnervingly in our face. Most of the footage is close-ups of the main actor, with a purposefully short focal plane so everything a few feet past him is blurry.
This shallow focus is the breathtaking counterpoint to Gregg Toland’s use of deep focus in “Citizen Kane.” It’s a pioneering new way of looking at things that also serves a key narrative purpose: keeping us inside the tunnel vision of Saul, who sees what he needs to and blocks out what horrors he can.
Until, that is, Saul witnesses something he cannot ignore.
A young Jewish boy survives the gassing, and the German doctor is brought over to examine the medical marvel. After contemptuously ending the lad’s miracle with his own hands, the physician orders an autopsy. Witnessing this, Saul decides to intervene, claiming the boy as his own son, and determining to give him a proper Jewish burial – with the reading of Kaddish by an actual rabbi.
Is the boy really Saul’s own flesh and blood? It seems quite unlikely. When Saul shares his plans, his fellows remind him he has no son.
But Saul, heretofore known as a ghostlike presence who goes along to survive, has clearly made an irrevocable choice. Géza Röhrig, with his hard angled face and deep penetrating eyes, is a revelation in the role. His mission may not make any kind of cognitive sense, but it’s the journey of a restless spirit with but one purpose left in life.
Saul wanders around the camp, trying to find a rabbi, asking questions, sneaking into places he shouldn’t go, sticking his neck out, endangering the rebellion. One man dies as a direct result of his actions. But Saul does not waver. As the time of crisis grows closer, here is one man madly risking his life for a small, meaninglessly act of decency.
Is it worth it? Is he right, or terribly wrong? Does it matter?
“Son of Saul” is an unspeakably powerful film not about striving for life but facing a death that is inevitable. Saul chooses the path of his own unmaking, and in doing so finds grace amidst the ravages of hatred and mass murder.
Astonishingly, this is the debut feature film of László Nemes and, I hope, the first of many.
Sunday, February 7, 2016
It’s been said that when selecting a president, American voters seek the opposite of the incumbent, of whom they’ve grown tired. I think that holds true for James Bond actors, too.
The Pierce Brosnan Bond films were the epitome of breeziness, a celebration of the unflappable joie de vivre of the British superspy. Arriving in a grittier, scarier era, Daniel Craig’s Bond has been defined by his dourness. Here was a man to be taken seriously, and Craig was a skilled enough actor to let slip the pain that lies just behind the eyes of the icy killer.
But time marches on, and in his fourth outing, “Spectre,” the heavier nature of these movies is starting to wear down the franchise like a repetitive stress injury. Craig has mused publicly about tiring of playing Bond, and there's a lot of animated chatter about Idris Elba or Tom Hiddleston or (insert latest rumor here) sliding into the role.
The plot is… the usual near-unfathomable twist of threats, high-wire action sequences and hiss-able villains. In a not entirely convincing bit of revisionist history, the titular shadowy consortium is revealed to have been behind nearly all the troubles our man has encountered.
Christoph Waltz plays the group’s chief, a sneering manipulator named Franz Oberhauser, who has an intimate connection to Bond. He’s the best thing about the movie (which is something you can say about most films with Waltz in them).
Less successful is this iteration of the “Bond Girl,” played by Léa Seydoux. She’s the daughter of an infamous villain we’ve seen before, and gets caught up in the intrigue. (Why is it so many female characters in spy movies are the daughter of somebody important, instead of just being important themselves?) The script doesn’t give her much to do, but Seydoux is still rather drab.
The movie, the second in a row directed by Sam Mendes, is entirely watchable, and parts of it are even thrilling.
But there's something missing here, a vital essence that seems to have drained away. This iteration of the Bond legend feels tired, grumpy, chippy. It senses the anticipation for the next thing, even shares it, but isn't quite ready to let go of the Walther PPK and Aston Martin.
Bonus features feel a mite miserly. On the DVD version there are seven video blogs from production, including one by Mendes. Others touch on typical making-of topics like constructing action scenes, musical score, assembling the cast, etc.
Upgrade to the Blu-ray and you add a gallery of still photos and the making of the supposedly biggest opening sequence ever for a Bond film.
Wednesday, February 3, 2016
At some point the Coen brothers are going to remember they're funny. Not this time, though.
"Hail, Caesar!" is the latest from the writer/producer/director siblings, Joel and Ethan, and the latest strikeout. It's not nearly as dour as "Inside Llewyn Davis," nor does it have the dragging sense of self-importance of the overpraised "No Country for Old Men."
But the fact that "Hail" is actually trying to be caustic and funny, and fails pretty miserably at it, perhaps makes the disappointment even more keen.
It's a daffy send-up of the Hollywood studio system circa 1950, when chiefs ran the show and stars were just playthings to be shuffled and traded like cards in a deck. It's the sort of movie in which everybody comes off looking bad -- the behind-the-scenes overlords, the dimwitted actors, the narcissistic directors, the nosy press, the whole kebab.
Even the screenwriters, who usually get portrayed as the put-upon heroes of the trade, are seen as stooges of the Communists, happily spouting Marxist theory but really desiring more of the dough and limelight for themselves.
The Coens doubtless intended this as caricature, a joke-within-a-joke about how artistic types were often viewed during the McCarthy era. Call me old fashioned, but I just don't find the Blacklist every funny.
The central character is Eddie Mannix, the fixit man for Capital Pictures. The sign on his office door says Head of Physical Production, but he really runs the studio on a day-to-day basis while the man ostensibly in charge keeps a careful remove in New York. Mannix's job is a quotidian nightmare of putting out fires, making sure the trains run on time, preventing the embarrassing stuff from getting into the press and keeping the tantrums/temptations of the stars to a manageable minimum.
Things go haywire when his biggest star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), is kidnapped from the set of the Roman drama that bears the title of this film. It's Mannix' big prestige picture for the year, and soon the gossip columns have heard about the disappearance -- including rival sisters, Thora and Thessaly Thacker, both played by Tilda Swinton.
The kidnappers are... not terribly organized. They're a bunch of egghead scriptmen who bring Baird to a beatific beachside home, still in his Roman soldier get-up. They don't even bother to lock the doors, and we wonder why he doesn't simply walk up the driveway and thumb a ride back to town. But Baird is fascinated by the lefty "scientific theory" of the crew, who apparently just requisitioned it from a visiting professor. He happily chats them up, trading stories about drinking with Clark Gable, having to shave Danny Kaye's back and such.
Hanging around the periphery is Hobie Doyle, a singing cowboy star in the mold of Audie Murphy who's just been asked to change his image with a switch to erudite romantic dramas. Deliciously played by Alden Ehrenreich, Hobie is hopelessly ill-equipped for anything more than ridin' and ropin', but gamely gives it a go.
If Baird is dim, then Hobie's mind is just about pitch black. But somehow the simpleminded, earnest young star always seems to point himself in the right direction, while Mannix and his henchmen are confounded by the kidnapping.
Also turning up in bit roles -- just a scene or two apiece -- are Ralph Fiennes as Laurence Laurentz, an uppity director trying fruitlessly to whip Hobie into thespian shape; Scarlett Johansson as DeeAnna Moran, a swimsuit beauty a la Esther Williams who's more Bronx moll than angel; Jonah Hill as the ever-ready fall guy; Frances McDormand as the editing whiz toiling in her cave; and Channing Tatum as a Gene Kelly-esque song-and-dance man.
Tatum shines in one of the better scenes, a homoerotic romp with a bunch of Navy sailors already missing the dames as they're about to put to sea. Kelly was light as a feather on his feet, while Tatum's tapping has a more of a lumbering quality to it, but I still appreciated the effort.
"Hail, Caesar!" is a wonderful-looking picture, photographed by Roger Deakins in the saturated colors and crisp tones of the era. The Coens seem to be having a grand old time, amusing themselves with musical numbers and other homages to Golden Age Hollywood -- while simultaneously undercutting the whole industry as trivial and silly.
It's a schizophrenic film without much narrative semblance or sense of purpose. A few bits dazzle, fool's gold for those of us who used to believe the Coens could do no wrong.
Monday, February 1, 2016
Released the same year as the much higher profile "The Hunger," "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence" was David Bowie's own personal favorite performance of his itinerant career as a movie actor. Upon his recent death I thought I'd look up the largely forgotten film.
Bowie is indeed a mesmerizing presence in the film, which is either a Japanese film with some British actors, or a British film made by Japanese filmmakers, depending on how you look at it. His oddity is both the film's greatest strength and weakness, a World War II prisoner of war drama that is much more contemplative and fey than you usually get.
It's another example of Bowie savoring his artistic status as "the other," a stranger in a familiar land who looks at the world sideways and sees things other miss.
The most obvious thing you realize watching the film, of course, is that Bowie's Maj. "Strafer" Jack Celliers is not the main character. It's Lt. Col. John Lawrence, played by Tom Conti.
Celliers is an almost ethereal presence who arrives at the POW camp during the second act and shakes things up, especially the young Japanese commander, Captain Yonoi, who becomes convinced the beautiful blond New Zealander is an "evil spirit."
What he's really experiencing is a latent sexual attraction, though he tries hard to exorcise it nonetheless.
The homoerotic aspect of "Mr. Lawrence" is not exactly in your face. Neither Celliers or Lawrence ever have any overt romantic encounter, either with each other or the Japanese, though Lawrence does form a strange sort of relationship with Sergeant Hara (Takeshi Kitano) that alternates between warmth and brutality. Celliers, for his part, seems to float above normal mortal interactions.
There is a depiction of homosexuality, though, between a Korean guard and a Dutch prisoner (Alistair Browning) that causes much dismay to the Japanese. It's treated as if the guard raped the Dutchman, but it's pretty clearly suggested that it was a mutual encounter that went far beyond just fleeting fleshy exchanges. When the guard is forced to commit seppuku, ritual suicide through disembowelment, the POW bites off his tongue and swallows it, so they both die moments apart in a star-crossed affair.
Still, I think the attraction between Yonoi and Celliers is there, even if it is a bit one-sided. When Celliers wants to extract the maximum amount of embarrassment from the Japanese commander, he does so by embracing him and kissing him once on each cheek, European style. Yonoi is so overcome with shame that he moves to slay Celliers with his sword on the spot, but falls back in a swoon instead, unable to destroy that which he loves.
The physical appearance of Yonoi is highly stylized; he has a rather gender-bending aspect to his look and mannerisms -- while Bowie, known for decades for his fluid sense of masculinity, comes across rather butch (for him, anyway). Yonoi seems to be wearing makeup that accentuates his eyes and mouth. He's as slender as a boy, and speaks English with an extremely pronounced lisp.
(Indeed, one of the film's unfortunate drawbacks is a lack of subtitles for the Japanese actors, even on the Criterion Collection DVD I watched. Their speech is often very hard to comprehend.)
Yonoi is played by musician/actor Ryuichi Sakamoto, who also composed the music for the film, which I greatly enjoyed. I have a fondness for 1980s films with contemporary synthesized scores, usually by American or British pop bands of the day. Sakamoto's music is a compelling mix of Eastern and Western sounds, and comments upon the action without dominating it.
Interestingly, Sakamoto also wrote another version of the main theme that includes lyrics. The title, "Forbidden Colours," I think pretty convincingly puts the final nail in the coffin on the discussion about the homoeroticism of the film. If that's not enough, then the lyrics offer another: "Learning to cope with feelings aroused in me/My hands in the soil, buried inside of myself/My love wears forbidden colours/My life believes in you once again."
Sakamoto released this as a single, sung by David Sylvian. If you'll watch the music video, you can see the pretty obvious attempt to mimic Bowie's sound as well as his look of that era, blond pompadour and sleek suit. One wonders why they didn't simply recruit the star to do the song, too -- though that is a much more modern habit.
(Watching the movie, the feminized man/boy portrayal of the Japanese POW commander reminded me very much of the one in 2014's "Unbroken." It now seems clear to me that director Angelina Jolie must have been influenced by this film. The actor in that film, Miyavi, is also a composer/actor hybrid.)
Conti gets the majority of the screen time, as the sensitive Lawrence, who was the odd one among the POWs until Celliers came along. Fluent in Japanese and a resident there before the war, he is much more capable of negotiating with their captors than the senior officer in charge, Hicksley (Jack Thompson), who seems to spend most of his time worried that Yonoi will usurp his position in favor of Lawrence, or later Celliers.
Director Nagisa Oshima ("In the Realm of the Senses") wrote the screenplay along with Paul Mayersberg, who collaborated with Bowie on "The Man Who Fell to Earth." They were working from the writings of Laurens van der Post, which were influenced by his own experiences as a WWII POW, especially the book "The Seed and the Sower," which includes sections with both Lawrence and Celliers as the main character. In the book the prisoners struggle to understand their Japanese captors and vice versa, but the sexual attraction angle is not there.
(van der Post is an intriguing figure in his own right, an Afrikaner who became a prominent adviser and friend to British politicians and royalty -- a close friend of Prince Charles, he was Prince William's godfather. After his death a whole bunch of nasty stuff came out, including that he fathered a child by a 14-year-old girl who was in his charge.)
The film is very engaging in spurts, and then seems to drift away into moony musings without a whole of narrative coherence. The best/worst example is when Lawrence and Celliers make an aborted escape attempt and are put into neighboring cells, presumably awaiting execution, and share life stories. Lawrence's is merely an anecdote about a brief love affair before the war.
Celliers' recollection turns into an entire flashback sequence about his boyhood, particularly his relationship with his angelic younger brother (James Malcolm). In the first of two sequences, Celliers defends the lad against some bullies who were mad that he mocked their off-key singing in church. He bears their blows without complaint, but grows angered at his brother for fetching the parish priest to save him.
In the second part, Celliers is a BMOC at their boarding school and fails to save his brother from the ritual hazing given to new students. The boy is carried about and made to undress, revealing that he has a mild hunchback. I guess the idea is that Celliers could've spared him this shame but chose not to, for reasons that are entirely unclear. Further compounding the confusion is that another actor of about age 12 plays Celliers in the earlier sequence, while Bowie himself takes over the character in the second -- even though the same performer plays the brother both times.
I think Oshima and Mayersberg did a poor adaptation of van der Post's book, keeping in bits they felt compelled to while layering in a bunch of stuff about forbidden love that doesn't fit with the rest of the material. They either should've been more faithful to the novel, or much less so.
Still, it's an often compelling film, with disquieting themes of alienation, love and humanism co-existing in an uneasy alliance. I can't quite agree with David Bowie that it's his best role in a movie -- that probably belongs to "The Man Who Fell to Earth" -- but it's certainly a worthy turn.
Sunday, January 31, 2016
In such an outstanding year for movies, "Bridge of Spies" is the sort of film that tends to get overlooked. It doesn't have a flashy subject, or the hot new thing as a star or director, and it's a historical piece about an embarrassing Cold War event that many people would just as soon forget.
It got an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, but I don't think anyone considers it a serious contender. Nor should it be, but it's a very good picture that deserves some attention on video.
Tom Hanks plays James B. Donovan, an insurance lawyer from Brooklyn who finds himself thrown into the kettle of geopolitical politics. First it's being selected to represent Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Ryland, in a wry performance that got its own Oscar nod), basically because nobody else wants the job. He tries his hardest -- which annoys some of his colleagues -- and convinces the government not to execute Abel since they might need him someday.
Someday arrives a few years later when American pilot Gary Powers is shot down over the Soviet Union in the infamous U-2 incident and held prisoner. Donovan is sent to Berlin to negotiate an exchange, Abel for Powers, but in the overheated era of nuclear standoff, the government can't officially acknowledge his role as their representative.
He's essentially freelancing it with his rear end exposed, making daily trips across the Berlin Wall with briefcase in hand to haggle with a bizarre array of Russians and Germans. Complicating things, the East Germans have captured an American student on trumped-up spying changes. Donovan takes it upon himself to free him too: "Two for one" is his mantra.
It's a potboiler political thriller, more about the threat of violence and dire consequences than the actual depiction of them. Director Steven Spielberg and screenwriters Matt Charman, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen turn the screws at just the right pressure, with Hanks spectacular as always as the well-meaning everyman thrust into extraordinary circumstances.
Bonus features are OK, though Spielberg shows his typical disregard for filmmaker commentary tracks. There are four making-of mini-documentaries: "Berlin 1961: Re-creating The Divide," "U-2 Spy Plane," "Spy Swap: Looking Back On The Final Act" and "A Case Of The Cold War: Bridge of Spies."