Movie review: “Deadpool 2”

So Deadpool is back. How you react to him will probably be determined by your age and gender: as in the first installment, any twelve-year-old boys who manage to convince their parents to disregard the R rating will find their efforts rewarded with decapitations and dick jokes galore. The rest of us will probably feel a bit deflated to note that “Deadpool 2” follows that tired old formula: kill off the girl “won” at the end of the first installment to provide crude motivation for the hero in the sequel. Fridging has always been gross, but in the last ten years, it’s gotten both gross and boring. What’s odd is that I think the filmmakers know it—a series of gags in the opening credits and a plot wrinkle later in the movie both undercut the move. Which begs the question: if you know you’re employing a hack tactic, and you know it enough to apologize and sorta-kinda take it back in the mid-credits, why use it in the first place?

The answer may lie in the directorial swap that’s taken place between “Deadpool” and “Deadpool 2”; Tim Miller (for whom “Deadpool” was a directorial debut) has been replaced with David Leitch, who started out his career as a stuntman and then gained a significant amount of experience working on high-grossing and competent films like “Jurassic World”, “John Wick” and “Captain America: Civil War”, but also, alarmingly, “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters”, “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues”, “Atomic Blonde” and “The Wolverine”. Leitch has made such a habit of working on massive projects with multiple (credited and uncredited) directors that it’s hard to derive any sense of him as a director, which makes me chary to lay the bad decision-making at his door. I’m slightlymore inclined to blame the screenwriting team of Rhett Reese and Paul Warnick, carryovers from the first film (the sequel also credits lead actor Ryan Reynolds as a writer), but again: how do you reallyknow who decided to write a straightforward fridging-followed-by-rampage instead of taking a risk and writing something fresh and interesting? You can’t, on any corporate project of this size, so instead I will invite you to simply absorb the names above. Notice anything? Say it with me: when women aren’t in the room, female characters die. In shitty ways, and for really shitty reasons.

The imbalance in the executive room comes through in other ways. In place of the sparky Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), Deadpool (Reynolds) decides to protect and defend a lonely kid, Russell (Julian Dennison), who is being abused at a “re-education” school/orphanage for mutants. Fair enough, except that a large portion of the plot centers on stopping Russell from killing before he ‘develops a taste for it’ and murders everyone in the school, students included. “He’s just a kid!” Deadpool bellows multiple times to stop various other characters, including the time-traveling Cable (Josh Brolin), from killing Russell. “He’s a good kid!” Can you think of any reason why the characterization of a boy planning the murder of all his classmates as “just a good kid” might not go down as easily as it once did? I can think of a lot of reasons.

Signs abound that the movie’s creators have lost the pop culture pulse: a recurring joke about dubstep, which died as a trend six years ago. The total waste, in a microscopic cameo, of Terry Crews, who has been ripe for a serious comeback for the last year. A “Fargo” reference.

All this is not to say that the movie is hopeless, or un-fun: it’s not, at all. The introduction of the delightful Zazie Beetz as hyper-lucky Domino is a blast of fresh air, and Brolin slots his time-traveling mercenary into Deadpool’s team so effortlessly he feels as though he has always been there. I’ll watch this movie again, and be equally entertained and frustrated by it, and probably write some corrective fan fiction for it that gives Negasonic Teenage Warhead (reprised by Brianna Hildebrand) more than five lines, and I’ll dream of a “Deadpool 3” helmed by a team that can imagine more for women to do than die.

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Movie review: “Black Panther”

When was the last time you got dressed up to see a movie? If you are one of those rarities who teases their hair into tufts for Wolverine movies and paints their face blue to visit the planet Pandora, note that I don’t mean costumed. I mean dressed up: ready for a wedding, or a funeral, or some other occasion of spiritual import. And if you are one of those even rarer birds who still irons their Sunday best to sit in the popcorn-scented darkness: when was the last time you weren’t the only one?

 

This Sunday, in a sleepy suburban theater at a not-so-popular time for movies, I sat surrounded by people who were dressed the fuck up to see “Black Panther”, a superhero movie set in Wakanda, a fantasy African nation not eaten out of its substance by a rapacious West. Its newly minted king, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), doubles as its spiritual defender, the Black Panther. Counselled by a coterie of female advisers, including his mother (Angela Bassett), ex-girlfriend (Lupita Nyong’o), mischievous younger sister (Leticia Wright), and trusted bodyguard (Danai Gurira), T’Challa is faced with a splintered tribal base and a timely conundrum: continue his late father’s defensive policy of strict isolationism, or risk exploitation by opening Wakanda and its high-tech riches to the world? It’s a good question that deserves plenty of chin-stroking thought; unfortunately for T’Challa, a brash challenger (Michael B. Jordan) is prepared to take the throne, and he would like Wakanda to come to the rescue of the less fortunate sons and daughters of Africa right now, please. If the measure of a villain is how close they get to becoming the hero of the story, then Jordan’s Erik Killmonger (sorry, but that is the character’s name) belongs in the pantheon of all-time great antagonists. Squint even a little, and you will find yourself seeing his point.

 

Surrounded by these high-powered actors, Chadwick Boseman underplays his hand, melting into the background of scenes he’s capable of dominating and creating a wide-open space in the movie for other characters to flourish. The result is an abundance of delights: Winston Duke, as mountain tribe leader M’Baku, whose impassive mask melts into sly humor. Letitia Wright as Shuri, crowing over her older brother’s unfashionable sandals. Daniel Kaluuya, fresh off the triumph of “Get Out” and scoring another direct hit to the heart as conflicted warrior W’Kabi.  American treasure Forest Whitaker as wise elder Zuri. You want to get to know these characters better; to spend hours admiring the brilliant details of their world; in Shuri’s case, to buy her a drink and spill all your secrets. Knowing that they are fictional smarts; but the movie’s point is not to lament what Africa could have been. It is to celebrate, in dazzling saturation, the joy and complexity of what is. Wakanda walks among us daily. Put on something nice before you see it.

Movie review: “Thor: Ragnarok”

I am so mad at Taika Waititi right now. I am up late at night, with a staggering head cold, long after I intended to be asleep, having written and deleted over ten different starts to this review. Because as it turns out, reviewing a nearly flawless movie? Is a real bitch.

 

“Thor: Ragnarok” is so good it barely even registers as a movie—you shuffle in, sit down, and are so thoroughly entertained, and at such breakneck pace, that the two hours feel more like two minutes. There is no chance to reach the bottom of your popcorn, much less murmur to a companion; forget using the bathroom. You will not move until the end, and then you will beg for more. This merciless ride comes courtesy of Taika Waititi, New Zealander, writer/director of (among other things) “What We Do in the Shadows”, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”, and “Eagle vs Shark”, and my new nemesis. He is the reason I may never sleep again, because now I have to convince you that a movie about the end of the world should be as colorful as an Orlando candy shop; that you can feel emotions about a hammer; that there is an undiscovered application of Jeff Goldblum’s shtick.

 

The tragedy is that “Thor: Ragnarok” has arrived so late in the progression of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that those not steeped from the beginning in the studio’s closed ecosystem of interconnected movies will likely pass this movie by, thus missing out on the giddy delight of a fully-matured blockbuster director finally getting his hands on a $180-million-dollar toy chest. Think Spielberg, going from battling a malfunctioning fiberglass shark to getting the remote control for a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Waititi has wisely charted a course just a little left of expectations, setting up familiar dilemmas (estranged siblings; a city besieged by dark supernatural forces; what the hell to do with Karl Urban) but solving for consistently unexpected values. The dialogue crackles along like microwave popcorn at the precise moment that everything goes apeshit in the bag—laugh too loud at one punchline, and you’ll miss the next four. But this isn’t a Whedon or a Sorkin or a McFarlane joint; you never get the self-congratulatory reference bingo that bogs down many clever screenwriters. For every joke, there’s a corresponding visual subtlety, a moment of pathos or panic that doesn’t get verbalized, creating a visual story as rich as the dialogue itself, of which a stunning eighty percent was improvised. Perhaps that freedom accounts for the sheer oddness of some of the movie’s conceits: in one setup, a rock-monster with a Kiwi accent carries around a dead slug pal because he “doesn’t have the heart to set him down”. That’s a joke setup. Nothing like that has ever survived a focus group before, but now that “Thor: Ragnorok” has arrived, maybe some more of it will. Welcome, weirdness. Welcome, Taika Waititi. Now please leave. I need to sleep.

Movie review: “Spiderman: Homecoming”

“Spiderman: Homecoming” contains a tiny homage to “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” at its center, which is fitting, because Matthew Broderick seems to be the first actor to have been reincarnated while still alive. Tom Holland plays an alarmingly fresh-faced Peter Parker, so young that when he skives out of high school, you fight the urge (as you never did with Bueller) to convince him to stay. Inside high school, there are bearable torments; outside, Michael Keaton is waiting.

 

Coarsened by age and desperation, Keaton’s blue-collar Adrian Toomes is an unlikely villain for a superhero movie. He doesn’t strut or preen, his most dramatic bit of costuming is a tatty bomber jacket, and his motive is as prosaic as they come—squeezed out of his government contract for salvage, he keeps his mortgage paid with illegal weapons. The fact that some of them glow blue and can reduce a human to a crumbling cone of embers makes Toomes a bit less scary; director Jon Watts is savvy enough to understand this, and arms Toomes with an ordinary handgun for his most threatening scene, a simple conversation with Peter Parker that will make the muscles in your neck go tense. Keaton can now summon the voltage that Jack Nicholson once could: in his gaze, you can sense the menacing hum of a transformer ready to blow.

 

Opposite Keaton, Robert Downey, Jr. plays a distracted Tony Stark, one who checks in occasionally and lavishes Peter with tech—maybe a little too much tech—but isn’t really aware of his young protégée’s interior life. And since Holland reads as genuinely fifteen years old (he’s actually twenty), and capable of the kind of staggeringly bad decisions that only a fifteen-year-old can make, his fatherlessness feels risky. Marisa Tomei, as Aunt May, senses Peter drifting, but the movie insists she react by A) crying and B) giving Peter dating tips and makeovers. Beyond the retrograde gender role, this is a waste of Marisa Tomei, who had already set up the character (in “Captain America: Civil War”) as a delightful source of good sense and mischief in equal measures. You wanted to go drinking with Aunt May, and possibly get matching tattoos on your shoulderblade, though she’d stop you from getting one on your neck. Why is she reduced to behaving like a second-string friend in a Kate Hudson romcom? The rest of the girls are similarly squandered; Laura Harrier, as Liz, vacillates between serving as a crush object and a helpless victim for Spiderman to rescue. Zendaya fares only slightly better: playing an appealingly scruffy classmate of Peter’s, she’s given nothing of her own to do, and instead must provide a snarky Greek chorus on the doings of boys. Of all the 80’s movie tropes to call back to, sidelined women wasn’t a good pick; let’s hope by the next installment of “Spiderman”, the girls will have at least joined the 90’s.

 

As for Peter Parker, the movie brings him to a graceful landing back in the center of Tony Stark’s regard; the moment is understated and perfect, and both characters play it off as if nothing much has happened, even though everything has. This movie may not have the faintest clue what to do with women, but it absolutely gets boys, and that delicate, bittersweet moment when they finally become Spidermen.

Movie review: “Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2”

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” starts with a considerable handicap: the audience already knows what they’re in for. The first movie surprised because it wasn’t supposed to be good, and was; now, GOTG2 is supposed to be excellent, and mostly, is. The team is back, with the addition of a charmingly naïve empath named Mantis (Pom Klemantieff), who is stuck on a planet with only one inhabitant. That the inhabitant is named Ego should give you pause; that he is played by Kurt Russell, and appears not a jot over 50, should give you night terrors. I’ve seen bricks age worse. But Russell’s eerie youth is being leveraged for a purpose; he is immortal, and has the notches in his bedpost to prove it. One of them is Peter Quill’s mom. Chris Pratt once again brings an appealing, early-Ford-like insouciance to Peter—unfortunately, the movie gives him a fraction of the screen time he got in the first installment, and squanders half of that fraction on a forced romance with Gamora (Zoe Saldana) that seems to exist to service a “Cheers” reference. Thankfully, other relationships are sketched with a lighter hand: Mantis and Drax (Dave Bautista) develop a horrifying version of friendship based on their mutual lack of guile (and filters); Nebula (Karen Gillan, much improved from the first installment) gives her side of the troubled sibling relationship with Gamora, and develops a bit of sympathy along the way; Rocket (Bradley Cooper) pushes away the love of his found family in a way that feels 100% human, 0% CGI raccoon. But all these lively and delicate stories pale by comparison to the main event, which is a war of the father figures—in the left corner, Yondu (Michael Rooker, clearly aware that he is playing the game of a lifetime). In the right, Ego. Peter must choose between the father who kidnapped, bullied, threatened and manipulated him, and the father who wasn’t around to do any of that. The choice appears easy, until it’s not; Platt carefully treads the line between hope and wariness, and Saldana shows a careful tenderness that could easily have melted into romance in the third movie, if the filmmakers had been willing to wait that long. (Alas, it’s easier to talk about a slow burn than to take the time to actually build one. Maybe they should have gone back and watched “Cheers” again.) But who can begrudge anyone a hurried romance when the galaxy is, once again, at risk? It seems churlish to criticize the movie for not being note-perfect when so many of the notes are delightful: Baby Groot (Vin Diesel), tap-dancing his way through an epic space battle. A planet of self-regarding aliens who all resemble Paris Hilton, if she were spraypainted gold. An extended argument about Scotch tape, mid-climax. Exquisitely timed joke payoffs, coming to fruition a full two acts after their setup. A credit roll that will mercilessly test the limits of your bladder with multiple post-credit sequences, all worth waiting for. You will leave the theater bubbling over with glee and catchy pop songs and also pee; but as this movie so aptly demonstrates, two out of three ain’t bad.

Movie review: “Logan”

When I was about nineteen, I saw X2 at midnight with a crowd of rapturous fans in varying degrees of costume, from “Marvel t-shirt” to “blue body paint”. The better costumes got nods and chuckles as we shuffled into the theater, but the only attendee to get a real rouse was the guy, otherwise unremarkably dressed, who’d styled his hair like Wolverine. He got a full round of applause.

That’s Hugh Jackman’s doing. No other actor in the “X-Man” franchise is so identified with their character—Patrick Stewart, while he makes a tremendous Xavier, will always be Jean-Luc Picard to the majority of the planet, and Ian McKellen, Gandalf. But Hugh Jackman is Wolverine. He’s been doing it longer than about 25% of the world’s population has been alive[1], and he looks it—now sinewy and greying at the temples, he’s more weathered limestone than carved marble. Which makes playing an immortal character difficult; hence, “Logan”. In Jackman’s final curtain call as the character, we meet a Wolverine whom time has finally chased down. Weathered and exhausted, he’s driving an El Paso limousine and commuting nightly across the border to an unspeakably depressing hideout, population four: himself, the dying professor Charles Xavier, the albino Caliban (Stephen Merchant), and their shared misery. Caliban tends to Xavier and doles out a grating ration of criticism; Xavier has nightmarish seizures that send his psychic power washing through others like radiation; Logan is stuck between a Prof and a nursemaid. No help is coming over the horizon, either. As the mutants slowly die off, private companies hunt the last stragglers for biological experimentation. And one of those stragglers needs help—a young girl, mute and furious, is rescued from a lab and thrown into Logan’s care like a stray kitten. His resistance to her need is the hard emotional kernel around which the plot is wound. If you’re picking up whiffs of Rooster Cogburn and Mattie Ross, that’s not coincidental. “Logan” is a Western, from the unforgiving light to the barren landscape to the increasingly Eastwoodian set of Hugh Jackman’s squint, but most especially in its harrowing formula: put a group of characters in a vise and squeeze. It wouldn’t be sporting to reveal who survives the squashing, but I will say that fewer will escape than you’d like—the movie’s pitch-perfect dialogue pulls you in like real family squabbling, with all the attendant intimacy and frustration. Dafne Keen (as the young Laura) especially holds up her corner of the tent, which, given that she is twelve and playing against 166 combined years in Stewart, Jackman, and Merchant, goes well beyond impressive and into the realm of suspiciously supernatural. Someone should get that kid tested for the mutant gene.

[1] http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.0014.TO.ZS

Movie Review: “Doctor Strange”

Guys, it’s funny. Did you think it was going to be funny? Did you think Benedict Cumberbatch could even be funny? Neither did I! Considering that he is being funny while A) faking an American accent and B) wearing an outfit that Nosferatu would find tacky, the list of things Benedict Cumberbatch cannot do is now narrowed down to:

  1. Interact meaningfully with a voice recognition system that asks your name. “Cumberbatch!”

“Cumberland?”

“Cum-ber-batch!”

“Cucumber?”

“CUM BER BATCH!”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that…”

  1. Play Khan.

 

(Sorry. I’m still not over it.) But “Doctor Strange” reveals a new and delightfully goofy layer to our favorite thespian onion, allowing Cumberbatch to boogie and wobble and (memorably) fight a particularly stubborn piece of clothing. His note-perfect imitation of an American surgeon includes all the tics those who must deal with surgeons will recognize—the fighter-pilot arrogance, the abysmal bedside manner, the statistics-keeping—but never strays too far into pompous windbag territory. Cumberbatch locates an appealing smartass streak and follows it through a familiar arc: the arrogant scientist brought low by an inexplicable spiritual experience. “Doctor Strange” is mining some extraordinarily impoverished narrative territory, and those who pointed out its usage of offensive tropes are correct: it’s tiresome to watch yet another white man travel to the “exotic Orient”, study at the feet of a mystic master, then leap to the head of the class of “other” students to become The Best Savior Ever. The choice of Tilda Swinton to play The Ancient One was baffling, drawing even more pointed (and warranted) criticism for whitewashing. “Doctor Strange”, as both a story and a movie, is flawed along racial lines: the story wasn’t written in a vacuum, the movie wasn’t made in a vacuum, and as my friend Billy Ockelmann Lee-Wagner astutely pointed out, a storyline based on “an arrogant white male proves things to his minority and female friends” is propping up some dangerous bullshit. But for all its deep internal flaws, the movie is neither soulless nor mean-spirited: its climax hinges upon a deeply selfless realization, one that’s all the more powerful for not being based in magic, but rather in logic and humanity. That’s the true strength of the “Marvel way” of storytelling—these are superhero stories, but they work first and foremost as stories about people, and their emotional beats hinge upon human realizations, faults, and triumphs. (I don’t know what DC movies are supposed to be about, but “people” aren’t it.) “Doctor Strange” uses CGI as liberally as any summer blockbuster, but it grasps that we can only be moved so much by pretty jets of light and kaleidoscopic arrays of color: while Strange deals in the magical manipulation of matter and time, the movie carefully defines the limitations and effects of the few spells he casts, never descending into the soulless red-light-versus-green-light battles that weakened “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” and sunk the Harry Potter franchise. And in the “death of the mentor” scene, an obligatory Station Of The Cross for every superhero story, CGI is hardly used at all—instead, the movie simply hands the scene off to Tilda Swinton and lets her talk about snow. Not a dry eye in the house.

 

So sure: get Benedict Cumberbatch for your comedy role. Cast Tilda Swinton as an ancient Asian dude. We are now through the looking glass in every way possible, and with two more months to go in this worst of all years, I’ll take my laughs where I can get them.