Saturday, February 27, 2016

OSCAR 2016 - Pre-Show Thoughts & Predictions & Rants

OSCARS 2016 Thoughts and Predictions:

 Another Oscars, another year of controversy and complaining. What's always amazing to me is how every year, it suddenly seems to dawn on people that the Oscars are less-than-definitive. I mean, even putting aside issues like lack of diversity in terms of nominations, the Oscars have always failed to represent a broad spectrum of film genres and voices. The problem is the voters. It seems suspect that the film awards of record are voted on not by critics or journalists who make it a point to see as many new films as possible, but by Academy members who - no surprise to anyone who knows the entertainment biz - don't watch all that many movies, and don't exactly tend to be plugged in to anything outside of the mainstream. And so, the Oscars become a political game of which studio pushes which films the hardest and most effectively. Therefore, the systemic issues in how films are nominated and voted on also lead to the lack of diversity in the nominee pool. One of the best movies I saw in 2015 was Beasts of No Nation. If this film had received as vigorous an Oscar campaign as, say, The Revenant - then perhaps it would have been nominated for Best Picture, and Idris Elba for Best Supporting Actor. But the movie did not get that same push, and its status as a Netflix original production likely made it a puzzling film for stodgy Oscar voters who view streaming services with a wary eye. So, as usually tends to happen, the conversations around the Oscars become less about what movie was actually best, and more about which cult-of-personality actor has finally "earned" their Oscar, as if they were running for political office rather than being evaluated on artistic merit. This is why true film fans will always take the Oscars with a giant grain of salt: because we know that the awards are being decided by Hollywood establishment more so than true cultural critics or leading-edge cinematic voices.

With all that said, there are some minor miracles in this year's pool of nominations. Mad Max: Fury Road, first and foremost. My pick for the Best Movie of 2015 is exactly the kind of movie that the Oscars would typically ignore. But somehow, the hype for Fury Road hit so hard that it ignoring the film became impossible - and the movie came out early enough in the year that there was time for its cult to spread in the months following its summer release. I honestly don't know if Mad Max has a shot of winning Best Picture. But if it does win, it will be hard to complain about this year's Oscars - it will truly be a hell of a moment for film fans. There are a few other truly great, superlative movies in the Best Picture race. Spotlight is a triumph - and again, it's the kind of slow-burn potboiler that could have easily been ignored in year's past. Room, too, is an absolute masterpiece - an ultra-intense human drama that features the year's best acting performance from star Brie Larson. Somehow, Larson seems to be a lock - and deservedly so. It's rare that the right person is the frontrunner, but hey, this year the stars aligned. Or maybe Larson was just too damn good to ignore.

Speaking of people and movies that got ignored ... here are my Top 10 OSCAR SNUBS of 2015:

1.) Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor - Idris Elba, Best Lead Actor - Abraham Attah - Beasts of No Nation

- I'll start back here. I mean ... WTF. Elba's Commandant is an all-time memorable movie character - a nightmarish militia leader whose unhinged charisma makes him both feared and adored by the members of his child army. How was this career-best turn ignored? And then there's Attah. This child actor absolutely kills it in Beasts - transforming before our eyes from an innocent, happy-go-lucky kid to an ice-cold child warrior. A remarkable performance that should have been nominated. Now, maybe I could understand Beasts' omission from the Best Picture race if the nominee pool was completely stacked. But it isn't. Beasts - poignant, visually-stunning, unforgettable - is the superior film to Bridge of Spies (lower-tier Spielberg), The Big Short (funny but flawed), and The Revenant (draggy and pretentious).

2.) Ex Machina ... for anything.

- Here is the classic case of a movie coming in under the radar, but quickly gaining a cult following because it's freaking awesome. I was an early supporter of Alex Garland's science fiction tour de force, and it pains me that it got no real Oscar love. At the least, Alicia Vikander should have gotten a nod for her incredible turn as a lifelike robot. It's a performance that's already earned a spot in the sci-fi cannon, and for good reason. Ex Machina was the kind of smart, heady sci-fi that we need more of, and it should have gotten some Oscar recognition (it got a nom for Screenplay, but come on ... it deserved more!). 

3.) Best Director - Quentin Tarantino - The Hateful Eight

- The Hateful Eight was generally screwed over by the Oscars this year. Maybe there is some Tarantino backlash in the air, but whatever. The guy is one of the great living directors, and The Hateful Eight is yet another landmark QT film. No one else could make a movie like this. The tension-through-dialogue, the layered themes, the sheer sense of fun and insanity. The Hateful Eight should have been a contender. And while Jennifer Jason Leigh did get a much-deserved nom, I'll also give a shout-out to Samuel L. Jackson and Walton by-god Goggins, who were also deserving.

4.) Best Picture - Creed

- Okay, let's think about this. The original Rocky *won* Best Picture. Creed is arguably the best Rocky film since the original, and the Academy acknowledged it merely by giving the token nod to Stallone for Best Supporting Actor? Dude. I'm all in favor of nominating Sly, but the reason he's so good is because of the overall team effort. Ryan Coogler should have gotten a Best Director nom, Michael B. Jordan a Best Actor nom, and most importantly - CREED - a truly great movie ... should have gotten a Best Picture nom.

5.) Best Leading Actress - Charlize Theron - Mad Max: Fury Road

- Sure, a Fury Road Best Picture nom is cool - but how then does the Academy not honor the movie's already-iconic turn from Theron, as Imperator Furiosa?! An all-time great action-hero performance, Theron is the heart and soul of the film. This reminds me of when Uma Thurman was not nominated for Kill Bill. Academy, I dub thee "mediocre!".

6.) Best Supporting Actor - Jacob Tremblay - Room

- Another of 2015's amazing kid-actor performances, Tremblay is preternaturally great in Room. He and Brie Larson play off of each other amazingly, and there's no way the movie would have worked as well as it did with a lesser actor in the role.

7.) Best Leading Actor - Sir Ian McKellan - Mr. Holmes

- I mean, did anyone in the Academy even watch this movie? McKellan gives a freaking acting master-class in it, playing Sherlock Holmes in two different eras and absolutely destroying throughout. Huge snub.

8.) Best Picture - Inside Out

- Inside Out is one of the top two or three Pixar movies ... which means that yes, it's an all-timer. If Inside Out isn't one of 2015's Top 10 movies, then good lord, the system is broken. Obviously the movie is a frontrunner in the animation category - but it's also proof that animation continues to be ghettoized even when an animated film is one of the year's best. 

9.) Best Leading Actress - Emily Blunt, Best Supporting Actor - Benicio Del Toro - Sicario

- Sicario was jam-packed with great performances, but two in particular were sheer dynamite. Emily Blunt was off the charts good - she is now solidified as the preeminent female badass of our time. And Benicio Del Toro delivered his best acting role in ages, cranking up the intensity to eleven. Sicario was totally snubbed by the Oscars - and that's a true crime.

10.) Best Adapted Screenplay - Aaron Sorkin - Steve Jobs

- I don't always love the writing of Aaron Sorkin. But when he's on, he's on. And he's on fire with Steve Jobs - a long-day's-journey-into-night glimpse into the void that is a harrowing, hypnotizing look at the soul-crushing price of success.



Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road

- Like I said, to me there are three nominated movies that deserve to win: Mad Max, Spotlight, and Room. All three got flat-out "A's" from me. But when push comes to shove, Mad Max is my pick for Best Movie of 2015. It's a new action classic that raised the bar for blockbuster filmmaking - delivering both thematic heft and unparalleled set-piece action scenes. And it will be re-watched, discussed, and marveled at for years to come.

Will Win: The Revenant

-Ugh. The Revenant should not win. But the hype train for Innaritu's pain-porn adventure seems too strong to stop. This is the classic case of a movie that so badly wants to feel big and important, but is all sizzle and no steak (much like Innaritu's winner last year, Birdman). But Oscar voters, caught up in the ambition of it all, will probably and predictably give it up for Leo and co.


Should Win: Michael Fassbender - Steve Jobs

- This category is pretty devoid of truly legendary performances this year. But Fassbender is my pick. I thought Steve Jobs was underrated, and Fassbender was amazing in it. He didn't look like Steve Jobs, but he captured the central conflict of Jobs' life via an amazing, kinetic performance. He made Aaron Sorkin's dialogue sizzle and pop. He owned the movie totally and completely.

Will Win: Leonardo DiCaprio - The Revenant

- So much hype. The thing is, Leo should have won for The Wolf of Wall St. That was his true masterwork. But it was probably *too* good for the Oscars, who didn't get that movie and it's greatness. Leo is good - very good - in The Revenant. But I kept thinking that he wasn't even 100% the best man for the part. That to me is not the stuff of a Best Actor award. But god forbid the Hollywood royalty goes too long sans Oscar.


Should and Will Win: Brie Larson - Room

- This one is the biggest no-brainer of the night. Larson DESTROYS in Room. I've been on the Brie-is-awesome hype train since her incredible (and not-even-Oscar-nominated) turn in Short Term 12. As amazing as she was there, she's even better in Room. I liked Cate Blanchett in Carol. I really liked Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn. But Larson in Room is a tour de force.This is one of those so-damn-good-she-has-to win performances. Larson is a lock.


Should Win: TIE: Sylvester Stallone in Creed, Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight

- I can't not root for Stallone. He's ROCKY. One of the greatest fictional characters ever. And Stallone is freaking great as Rocky in Creed. Stallone, really, is always great as Rocky. But in Creed he's got a sharp script to work with and a great star to play off of in Michael B. Jordan. And that final scene. On the steps. Hoo-boy. At the same time, Ruffalo is fantastic in Spotlight. He goes all-in, changing his whole posture, speaking style, and mannerisms. And he's got some huge, chill-inducing scenes in the film. It's the standout performance in a movie filled with great performances.

Will Win: Mark Rylance - Bridge of Spies

- Rylance is great in Bridge of Spies. Not showy great. But really, really good great. And I figure, Rylance is probably the main reason why this B+ movie was treated as an A-lister this Oscar season (you might say "well, it was Spielberg" - but many of the best Spielberg movies have not fared well come Oscar time, so who knows). In any case, I have a feeling Rylance might pull off an underdog win.


Should Win: Jennifer Jason Leigh - The Hateful Eight

- A strange, bloody, brutal role - Leigh's turn as Daisy Domergue in QT's latest is one for the ages. Leigh is fearless and holds nothing back, and she holds her own in a movie filled with all-time badasses. She may, in fact, be the baddest of them all.

Will Win: Rooney Mara - Carol

- I can't begrudge a Mara win, as she's phenomenal in Carol - with an understated, nuanced performance. Though the movie is called Carol, Mara's Therese is the real star. Why? Because the film is filtered through Therese's point of view, and it's Mara's performance that anchors and grounds the movie. My guess is that voters will want to reward Carol, and will do so by way of a Mara vote.


Should Win: George Miller - Mad Max: Fury Road

- My line of thinking here mirrors what I said earlier about the Best Picture race. Miller should win for Fury Road - he's a master who, despite already being a living legend, completely raised the bar for himself and for action movies in general with his latest. I mean, come on - the direction in Fury Road is *breathtaking.* At the same time, I was pretty floored by the directing in both Room and Spotlight, so could not be too upset if either of those films won. Room, in particular - the intensity and nail-biting nature of the film deserves recognition.

Will Win: Alegandro Inarritu - The Revenant

- I don't know. Maybe the Academy will do the right thing and go with Miller. But the cynic in me says they will do the predictable thing and go with Inarritu, sucked in by his tales of a life-and-death-struggle of a film shoot and his pretensions as a true artiste of cinematic greatness.The dude has talent, no question. There are moments of amazing visual splendor in The Revenant. But the story is lacking, and the film is in many ways emotionally and thematically hollow.


Should and Will Win: Spotlight

-Spotlight had an amazing screenplay. It builds and builds and intensifies and intensifies. It is sprawling yet never hard to follow. It's small in scale, but feels big - the stakes are huge. It is, in its own way, quite epic. Spotlight was my pick for the best Screenplay of the year, and I think it will win. Shout-out though to both Ex Machina and Inside Out - each were incredibly well-written as well.


Should Win and Will Win: Brooklyn

- It might surprise you that I pick Brooklyn here, but man, it's got one hell of a screenplay by the great Nick Hornby. I don't tend to love rom-coms, but Brooklyn transcends the genre by just being an insanely charming love story with a lot of heart, but also a lot of authentic-feeling emotion, layered characters, and an abundance of wit.


Should and Will Win: Inside Out

-My one caveat here is that Anomalisa is such an outlier in this category. It feels a bit silly to have it competing against a bunch of family and kids' movies. I feel like there should be two distinct animation categories - adult animation and kids/family animation. Or just do away with animation and have a kids/family category (and a comedy category, while we're at it!). Suffice it to say, Anomalisa is a pretty incredible film. I'd say it's a Best Picture-worthy one. But ... Inside Out, in my view, is a Pixar masterpiece. This is its year. The way it visualizes and conveys complex emotions into easily-distilled themes is truly remarkable. It's a clever, joyful, sad, emotion-packed, visually-stunning work of imagination and wonder and great empathy. A lot of times I feel like Pixar just wins these things by default. But this year, it is deserving.


Should and Will Win: Mad Max: Fury Road

-No other movie of 2015 so utterly and completely transported me to another world like Fury Road. This is a fully-realized post-apocalyptic world that fires the imagination. The detail, the aesthetic - amazing. And it's all so, so metal. Fury Road takes it. Although ... Alicia Vikander going all-in as an android in Ex Machina makes for tough competition.


- Should and Will Win: Mad Max: Fury Road


- Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road
- Will Win: The Revenant


- Should and Will Win: Mad Max: Fury Road


- Should and Will Win: World of Tomorrow


- Should and Will Win: The Look of Silence


- Should Win: ?
- Will Win: Last Day of Freedom


- Should Win: ?
- Will Win: Day One


- Should and Will Win: Son of Saul


- Should and Will Win: Mad Max: Fury Road


- Should and Will Win: Mad Max: Fury Road


- Should and Will Win: Mad Max: Fury Road


- Should and Will Win: The Martian


- Should Win: The Hateful Eight
- Will Win: Star Wars: The Force Awakens


Should Win: ?
Will Win: "Writing's On the Wall" - Spectre

Well, it will be an interesting Oscars. There are A LOT of great films nominated this year, despite what the backlash to the nominations may have you believe. I strongly urge you to check out movies like Spotlight, Room, and Steve Jobs if you haven't already. At the same time, there are, again, plenty of amazing movies that won't be talked about at this year's Oscars. That includes movies that inexplicably missed the cut - like Beasts of No Nation - as well as indie and genre movies that never really stood a chance of awards recognition. In 2015, some of the movies that inspired me most and and got me most excited about cinema included gems like It Follows, Ex Machina, Crimson Peak, Dope, Bone Tomahawk, Predestination, Kingsmen, and Cop Car. So at the end of the day, realize that the Oscars are not the end-all, be-all. What makes being a film fan so much fun is finding the unique voices, the bold visions, and the unexpected gems.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

THE WITCH Is A Triumphant, Nightmarish Look at American Evil

 THE WITCH Review:

- If THE WITCH was not a horror movie ... it would still be one hell of a period-piece drama. The film recreates 17th century New England in stunning detail, from the clothes to the homes to the dialect - painstakingly based off of actual writings from the era. The movie starkly, vividly depicts life in the New World - we see the toll it takes on early settlers, and how they cling to puritanical faith in order to give order to the chaos of life in the still-untamed land. We see the gender politics at play, and the way the family unit works together to provide food and shelter and sustenance. THE WITCH is one of the most immersive, almost documentary-like depictions of this era that we've seen in a movie. But it is also a horror movie. And it's one of the creepiest, most affecting, most hardcore horror movies I've seen. This isn't a movie that feels the need to shock you with jump scares or gore - no, this is another in the recent string of great indie horror movies that creep you out with slow-burn scares and an overpowering sense of dread. Movies like House of the Devil, The Babadook, and It Follows did it. But THE WITCH may well be the new king of indie horror. Scratch that - the new king of horror. THE WITCH is a film so good, so bone-chillingly *evil*, that it raises the bar for the modern horror movie to an extent that's going to be very, very hard to top.

THE WITCH makes writer/director Robert Eggers an instant person-to-watch in the world of film. This is his feature film debut - and, holy crap! - what a debut it is. Visually, THE WITCH is stunning. Having grown up in a small, fairly rural town in New England, I can say without hesitation that Eggers perfectly captures the feel of the region. The greyness. The darkness. The woods. Even today, New England kids are taught to fear the woods - so I can only imagine what it was like in the 1600's. But the woods of THE WITCH are spot-on - dangerous, terrifying, mysterious. If you go in those woods, you had better be prepared. The woods loom all around the movie's central family - and they represent the literal and metaphorical danger that surrounds and threatens to envelop them. Eggers' film looks amazing, but he also smartly paces the movie deliberately - creating a perpetual feeling of creeping dread. But certain images in the movie are instantly-iconic. Eggers brilliantly uses his storytelling abilities to make even seemingly innocuous creatures - a small rabbit, for example - seem creepy as hell. The movie builds and builds and builds. And when the big moments of hardcore, satanic terror come - they come hard and no punches are pulled. That said, one of the smartest things that Eggers does is that he quickly establishes that there is indeed a witch in this movie - a witch who is in command of some seriously evil black magic, and is not to be messed with. It's brilliant because the ensuing paranoia that results between our main characters feels all the more futile and misguided, knowing as we do that the real evil of the movie lurks just beyond their grasp. Again, this *could* have been a really good movie about paranoia and "witch-hunts" in the Salem Witch Trials sense. But the fact that it is that - but *also* a movie about a real, really evil, in-league-with-Satan witch - well, that just cranks things up to another level.

The way that Eggers chooses to quickly reveal the presence of the witch, even while keeping her exact nature and motives mysterious - also speaks to the strength of the movie's script. The witch's presence informs the movie from start to finish, and leads to some absolutely holy-$%&# moments of supernatural craziness. And yet, so much of the substance of the film actually comes from the central family members - and the slowly-rising tension bubbling up to the surface and threatening to tear them apart. In the opening scenes of the film, we see William - the family patriarch - and his wife and children, kicked out of the New Hampshire settlement that they called home. The reasons are not entirely clear, but we're led to believe it has something to do with William's strict religious convictions. William lives a life in servitude to God - with an unyielding devotion to the word of the Bible, with an almost fanatical level of orthodoxy. His wife is cut from a similar cloth, and William's children, too, have been taught to adopt their parents' devoutness. However, the combined hardships of life on an isolated farm and encroaching adolescence are creating tension. William's pre-teen son Caleb is growing up, and his older sister Thomasin is on the verge of adulthood. For these kids, adolescence means more than just hormones (though those are there too) - there's also the question of their place in the family unit. For their parents, there's an almost palpable fear of their children growing up - the loss of innocence is seen as the gaining of wickedness. William and his wife Katherine now have reason to look at their once-cherubic children with suspicion - and that sense of tension only adds to the paranoia to come. Suffice it to say, Eggers' script brilliantly pits these characters against one another - and uses the fact that their piety makes even a simple white lie (in their minds) an act of true wickedness to great dramatic effect. Eggers also smartly highlights the feminist aspects of his story. So much of the real-life fear of witchcraft had to do with fear-of-femininity. In THE WITCH, Thomasin's status as a teenage girl is a source of fear for her parents. They equate her growing independence and womanhood with wickedness. And so it is that she becomes persecuted not just by the witch in the woods, but by her own family.

Speaking of Thomasin - she is played by an actress named Anya Taylor-Joy - and she is jaw-droppingly good. Taylor-Joy deserves to be huge - and she just might be after her stunning turn in THE WITCH. It's hard to go into too much detail without spoiling things ... but I will only say that Taylor-Joy skillfully and breathtakingly takes Thomasin on an emotional journey that is absolutely harrowing. This is total breakthrough, Oscar-worthy stuff. The rest of the main cast is equally exceptional. Ralph Ineson has appeared on Game of Thrones, but I was not really familiar with him going into THE WITCH. He's fantastic here as William. From my earlier description, William may have sounded like an oppressive patriarch and not-so-great father. But Ineson makes William a truly great, multifaceted character - a man who loves his children and who would do anything to support his family, but whose faith often blinds him towards the more complex emotional truths that his family must face. Kate Dickie is also pretty amazing as matriarch Katherine - a woman whose hopes and dreams had to be put aside in the name of sheer survival. Dickie provides a toughness and emotional depth - even amidst moments of hurt and frailty - that make Katherine a great character. Harvey Scrimshaw also turns in a memorable performance as young Caleb. Caleb is at the center of some of the movie's craziest, scariest scenes - and Scrimshaw pulls them off with wild success. In any case, I'm not exaggerating when I say that all of the central performances in THE WITCH are truly astounding - and though they will likely be overlooked come next awards-season, I would deem them more than award-worthy.

THE WITCH has a crazy-good cast, a smart and layered script, and gorgeously haunting visuals that are pure nightmare-fuel. But it is also, plain and simple, one of the most bone-chilling horror films in many, many years. The movie taps into real-life folklore to give us images, moments, and iconography that are likely already buried deep in our cultural DNA - and it plays off of those long-passed-down fears with style and a deeply-felt desire to scare the daylights out of its audience. The result is a movie that feels evil to its core, in a way that few films likely have since The Exorcist first freaked out audiences. There is one moment - towards the end of the film - where it really felt like we as viewers were staring down into the very heart of darkness. THE WITCH gazes into that deep, dark abyss and dares us to embrace the evil. And it does so with the backdrop of an historical era in which such mystical evil was considered all too real - giving the entire film a nightmarish, you-are-there quality. 

THE WITCH is a brilliant horror film, but it's also just a brilliant film - period. An absolute masterpiece that examines both the evil man creates and the evil that lies beyond our ability to comprehend. This is one that kept me glued to the screen, mesmerized and hypnotized. This was one hell of a film - in every sense of the word. Go see it. 

My Grade: A

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

DEADPOOL, Improbably, Does Right By the Cult Comic Book Character


- And here we are: after a monster four-day President's Day weekend, DEADPOOL has shocked the world and become the highest grossing R-rated film ever. How did we get here? How did we get to a place where a cult comic book here outgrosses Marvel and DC's biggest big guns? Let's set the stage a bit ...

What's amazing to me is how superheroes at the movies have drawn inspiration from so many different eras of comic books - it must be confusing to the casual observer. In comics, the bright, optimistic sci-fi and adventure of the 60's gave way to darker and more real-world-based stories in the 70's. That evolution continued into the 80's, even as titans like Frank Miller and Alan Moore penned gritty deconstructions of iconic characters. This begat the "extreme" stories and characters of the 90's, which in turn led to the creation of characters like Deadpool. Deadpool poked fun at the absurdities of the era with a fourth-wall-breaking sense of self-awareness in the style of classic Looney Tunes characters. He was Marvel Comics' Bugs Bunny - except with guns and swords and a costume that blended Spiderman with DC's Deathstroke. When comic book pandering to the 90's audience became too much, Deadpool (and Lobo, and several others) were there to skewer it all.

Superhero movies, meanwhile, have taken inspiration from various comic book eras and put decades of comic book evolution into a pop-culture blender. Deadpool is itself an extension of FOX's X-Men movies, which in the early 00's ushered in the modern era of big-screen superheroes by downplaying the comics' more colorful aspects - giving us black leather-clad heroes from a studio seemingly semi-ashamed of its franchise's comic book roots. Shortly thereafter, Warner and DC rebooted the Batman movies under Chris Nolan as epic action/dramas - dark and deadly serious - to much critical acclaim. But then the Marvel Studios movies came along, and serving as a rebuke of the monochromatic superhero movies that had then become the norm. Culminating with the live-action-comic-book-spectacle that was The Avengers, Marvel presented a clear alternative to both FOX's dark X-movies and Warner's even darker Bat-films. And that's where we're at today - Marvel is a juggernaut - a money-printing part of the Disney IP empire that has created the definitive cinematic brand at the box office today. So why is *now* the right time for DEADPOOL? I think superhero movies are now ingrained enough into the pop-culture collective that they are ripe to be skewered. The fanboys that Deadpool spoke to in the comics - well, we are now all those fanboys/girls. And we've now seen enough variations on the superhero origin-story movie that *that* story in particular is ripe to be skewered. And Marvel, in particular, has become enough of a "machine" that the time is, I think, right, for a character that is self-aware and can make fun of that machine a bit. If Iron Man was the birth of the new era of superhero movies, then we're now in that era's snotty teenage years. And if that's the case, then you had better believe that DEADPOOL is the hero that is the living embodiment of the superhero movie's adolescent years. The superhero movie is now in its bratty teenage phase, people.

I mean, hey - I was a teenager in the 90's. And I liked my superhero comics then like the studios like their superhero movies now - either way too self-serious and dark (hello, Batman v Superman) or semi-rebellious and funny and maybe just a little bit extreme (or X-TREEEEME, as we would have said circa 1997). So strap in to your time machine, because it's the 90's all over again. The old is new again, and we live in a weird era in which pop-culture is reflecting back on itself in a funhouse mirror version of the history of the comics that inspired them.

As many have pointed out ... the studios will likely take the wrong lessons from DEADPOOL. Expect plenty of X-TREEEEME superhero movies in the near future, for example. But this should not be the takeaway here. Instead, we should recognize that different characters demand different approaches, and that there's not a one-size-fits-all take that is a guarantee of success. All one needs to do is look at FOX's epic fails with the Fantastic Four franchise to see that straying too far from the core of what makes characters beloved is, in fact, a recipe for failure. The simple genius of DEADPOOL is that it is exactly what Deadpool fans want out of a Deadpool movie. The movie delivers on expectation. And the fact that a real-deal Deadpool movie seemed so unlikely in the current climate of corporate superhero franchises makes its authenticity all the sweeter.

So yes, DEADPOOL is - surprise! - a Deadpool movie, down to the last detail. The costume is 100% comic-book accurate. There's the same exact sort of R-rated Looney Tunes violence, meta-humor, 100-mph quips, and self-referential humor you'd expect from a Deadpool comic. Clearly, director Tim Miller - and everyone else involved in the film - were passionate about the character and wanted to nail the movie's vibe, to keep it authentic. And FOX, apparently, thought they had nothing to lose by letting them go for broke. Thank the lord for that.

Ryan Reynolds has had a rough go of it as an action movie leading man. He first became known for his comedic chops, and there's something about the guy that makes him a little hard to buy as a humorless straight man. We want to see Reynolds snark his way through a fight, not grimace and scowl. That sort of casting mismatch made him a terrible fit to play straight-arrow Hal Jordan in the Green Lantern movie. But it makes him a perfect Deadpool. Reynolds was born to play the wise-cracking, smart-alecky, no-filter antihero that is Wade Wilson. And he's great here. It's the most I remember enjoying a Ryan Reynolds performance since ... ever.

This really is the Ryan Reynolds show. But he's helped by a supporting cast that is across-the-board really good. Morena Baccarin often plays distant or angst-y characters, but here she gets to cut loose as Wade's punk-rock girlfriend Vanessa. She makes Vanessa a lot more memorable (and, um, adventurous ...) than your average superhero-movie significant other. And somehow, she makes you really root for Wade and Vanessa as a couple. Despite the movie's irreverent tone, there is a level of sincerity to their romance that works. Similarly, there's a lived-in quality to the friendship of Wade and TJ Miller's Weasel that also works well. You can argue that you don't need a comic relief character in a movie where the main character is already comic relief - but Miller is so naturally funny and sharp that he adds a lot to the film. Meanwhile, Ed Skrein's villainous Ajax is sort of a cookie-cutter adversary in some ways - but Skrein is so seethingly vile and easy-to-root-against that he really elevates the role.

Plus ... DEADPOOL has Colossus. Like, a Colossus who looks like the spitting image of the dude from the X-Men comics and cartoons and videogames. In the old X-Men movies, a somewhat cartoonish-looking character like Colossus was suitable only for quick cameos that downplayed his over-the-top, hulked-out look. But this is a new era of crazy, and DEADPOOL wholly embraces the awesomeness and goofiness of the Colossus we know and love. So yes, this CGI'ed Colossus, endearingly voiced by Yevgeniy Kartashov, feels like he came from some long-lost crazy and colorful X-Men movie that we never got but always wanted. Plus, he makes an awesome pair with Brianna Hildebrand's Negasonic Teenage Warhead (yep, you read that right). Warhead - sporting a classic black-and-yellow X-outfit - is a sullen teen girl whose unlikely kid-sister relationship with Colossus, and occasionally-explosive rivalry with Deadpool, make her an instant favorite.

DEADPOOL moves along at an ultra-quick pace, with kinetic action that brings satisfyingly visceral superhero fights to life. Even if the scale of DEADPOOL is a bit smaller than the X-Men or Avengers movies, it doesn't skimp at all on action - and it's got some of the craziest fight scenes you'll find this side of John Woo. Plus, the gore factor gives everything a shock-value not seen in most other superhero movies. Combine that with the fact that Deadpool is less bound by the laws of physics than his superhero contemporaries, and you've got a movie where the action has the free-flowing thrill of a cartoon or videogame.

So is DEADPOOL actually the best thing since sliced bread, as its $100+ million weekend box office might lead you to believe? Well, I wouldn't quite go that far. Get past the sex and violence and meta-humor, and the movie, at its core, is actually a pretty conventional superhero origin story. Wade Wilson is still, at the end of the day, an antihero in the mold of a Punisher or Crow or whoever, who is out for revenge on the scumbags who done him wrong. And the plot of the film is pretty much that - revenge - without much in the way of added layers. Not only that, but it's one that's told with a sorta-convoluted flashback-within-flashback structure that makes the main, present-day action feel oddly truncated.

The other knock against the movie is that it's funny, but, well,  not *that* funny. A lot of the jokes are pretty low-hanging-fruit bro humor - quick meta-references of the Family Guy variety and warmed-over rap-battle insults. This has always been the Deadpool aesthetic, so no surprise. It's just - as funny as the movie is, it could have been a lot funnier with better jokes. That said, there are moments of genuine cleverness. And even when jokes are not-so-clever, Reynold's rapid-fire delivery helps them land better than they might have in less-capable hands. What keeps DEADPOOL a cut above though is that its got smarts and passion to balance out the parts that fall flat. It's smart enough to add depth to the characters beyond just being walking one-liner delivery machines. And it's passionate enough about them to get all the details right. Even though not every joke lands, the sum here is in many ways greater than the parts. Because the overall *vibe* - the lasting impression here - is one of fun and genuine affection for the subversive and winking world of Deadpool.

For us longtime comic fans, DEADPOOL represents the self-effacing meta superhero finally getting the big-screen treatment (okay, other movies like Kick-Ass have tread some similar ground, but this one is a MARVEL character - worlds within worlds, baby). For many others - kids and teens just cutting their teeth on the whole superhero thing - this one will be an eye-opening (in more ways than one!) look at how superheroes can be more than just whitebread tales of good vs. evil. Again, we've seen all of this before - and will again - from Kick-Ass to The Tick - but DEADPOOL feels like a gleefully insane sanity-check in a world that is starting to feel a bit *too* dominated by the action-figure and themepark ride-ready aesthetic of the Disney/Marvel superhero machine. For that reason, DEADPOOL opportunistically feels like a breath of fresh air.

But again ... the basic success story here lies in the fact that Tim Miller and Ryan Reynolds brought to life a fun, beloved cult comic book character in a way that does right by that character and his fans. It's a crazy-fun movie - an exciting and timely counterpoint to the other big superhero franchise movies of the moment that have become the new normal. Well, that new-normal now includes the sword-wielding, fourth-wall-breaking Merc With a Mouth - who has now crossed over from cult icon to mainstream smash. Guess we had all better get used to it.

My Grade: B+

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES Never Fully Delivers On the Fun of Its Premise


- The first twenty minutes or so of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES are pretty much exactly what you'd want out of a movie with this title. You get a quick but effective intro to a world where a zombie plague has forced otherwise stiff-upper-lipped Londeners to become zombie-slaying badasses. It's a world where women carry concealed daggers beneath their laced-up dresses, where one's worth is determined by the usual things - class, wealth, and upbringing - but also by one's ability to brutally dispose of a horde of attacking zombies. The tone of the film's first act is spot-on: pulpy, silly, over-the-top. It promises a winking, grindhouse-y take on a literary classic. For the movie's first twenty minutes, the people in my theater were cheering and clapping consistently. This was going to be fun ... until it wasn't. For some reason, the movie quickly abandons its more over-the-top instincts, eventually settling into a much more grounded rhythm. It becomes much more Pride and Prejudice, much less so zombies. The movie opens with a great glimpse at the potential for subversive fun in this world - but it never really delivers on any of that promise, beyond a couple of initial moments. What happened? I mean, the premise lends itself to a movie that pulls no punches and goes for broke. Instead, we get a movie that is basically just the Jane Austen novel with a couple of zombies thrown in for good measure. Lame.

I suppose that what is commendable and interesting about this movie is that it ultimately keeps things pretty classy. If you were to take away the zombies altogether, you'd have the makings of a pretty solid, straightforward adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. The cast has real acting bonafides, and they ultimately do the Austen part of the movie justice - in fact, they mostly play things pretty straight. Again, it's really strange, because the film's opening moments seem to promise a bloody good time that never materializes. The only person who seems to be doing something other than straight-up Austen is former Doctor, Matt Smith. Smith hams it up as Parson Collins - a whimpering suitor who is an effective source of comic relief in the movie's dour second half.

That said, Lily James is a great lead as Elizabeth Bennet. She's got the period-drama bonafides to pull off Pride and Prejudice, and also the needed badassery to be believable as a dangerously determined slayer of zombies. Sam Riley is also good as Mr. Darcy, though his old-English twist on the Christian Bale Batman voice grows a little wearisome after a while. Still, he does brooding well - and I thought the way that the film made the prideful aristocrat also be a highly-regarded zombie-destroyer was clever. It adds even more fuel to his rocky romance with Elizabeth. The movie's also got appearances from lots of genre favorites. Charles Dance and Lena Heady from Game of Thrones both show up (though feel underutilized). Boardwalk Empire's Jack Huston plays Wickham - the seemingly noble (but maybe not-so-noble!) suitor-turned-antagonist.

Lena Heady's character is a great example of where the movie comes up short. As we all know, Heady is one of the great badass actors working today. Sarah Connor. Queen Gorgo. Circe Lannister. Here she plays Lady Catherine de Bourgh - an eye-patched hero of the zombie wars who other characters speak of in hushed tones. When she first appears in the film, we don't actually see Heady as Catherine, not at first. Instead, we see Catherine immortalized in a lavish painting that depicts her taking on a horde of zombies in battle, mowing them down with her gleaming sword in epic fashion. The painting is so entertainingly crazy that its reveal is in and of itself a big applause moment. Surely, this is a teaser for some insane action sequence to come - where we'll get to actually witness Lady Catherine in her full, zombie-destroying glory. But does that scene ever come? Do we ever get to witness the sure-to-be-jaw-dropping spectacle of Heady making Rick Grimes look like Rick Santorum? No. We do not. And this sort of sums up PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES in a nutshell ... lots of filler, not even close to enough killer.

Because, look - I haven't read the book version of this. But, maybe in book form, there's a certain novelty to, you know, just having this cool-looking book that is at first glance just Pride and Prejudice, but on second glance - oh man, it's got zombies! But Pride and Prejudice and Occasional Zombies does not make for a compelling movie-going experience. We keep wanting for the movie to go all-in, and it doesn't quite deliver.

But it gets by for a while on sheer potential, and the goodwill generated from its uber-entertaining opening. The cast is fun, the premise is cool, and the movie comes out of the gate swingin' - all that's missing is the follow-through. It's actually a bit baffling. The movie ends up limping towards its finale. A post-credits scene tries to make good on the lack of fun in the third act, but it feels like way too little, too late.

Sidenote: there was a great comic book series from a few years back called The New Deadwardians, with a similar concept, that was really excellent. Track it down!

My Grade: C