Saturday, February 6, 2016

Deadpool Review

(dir. Tim Miller)

20th Century Fox
“You're probably thinking 'This is a superhero movie, but that guy in the suit just turned that other guy into a fucking kebab.' Surprise, this is a different kind of superhero story.”

We’ve been down the irreverent superhero road before with mixed results. From the good (Kick-Ass), the okay (Super), and the bad (Hancock), R-rated deconstructions of the superhero movie are difficult to pull off well without their so called maturity coming across as juvenile, and their shots at the genre coming across as mean-spirited mockery. Enter Deadpool, the long-gestating take on one of Marvel’s most popular characters in terms of readership, a character whose meme-ready, and off-beat sense of humor and 4th wall-breaking has made him the most popular X-men character, surpassing even the likes of Wolverine. On the subject of roads we’ve been down before, 20th Century Fox has already attempted to bring Deadpool to the big-screen before with Ryan Reynolds in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but that take on the character turned out to be a debacle that shared little in common with his comic book roots. Despite the reception to that film, Deadpool became a passion project for Reynolds, one that seemed unlikely to ever happen until test-footage was “unofficially” released and fans clamored for Tim Miller’s R-rated take on the character, until that’s exactly what we got. Despite being a studio production, Deadpool is the biggest fan-film ever made, and that ain’t a bad thing.

Just when good-natured and mentally unstable mercenary Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) is ready to settle down with the love of his life, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), he is diagnosed with terminal cancer. He volunteers for an experimental treatment, only to find himself prisoner to an elusive organization that seeks to activate dormant mutant genes and create an army of super slaves. Disfigured and more unstable than ever, Wilson escapes and dons the guise of Deadpool to hunt down the people who ruined his life, and hopefully get his face fixed.

Tone and heart go a long way in making Deadpool one of the year’s earliest success stories. This is one of the rare-instances where bait-and-switch marketing actually lives up to both sides of the joke. For months now we’ve seen the teasers and billboards championing Deadpool as a must-see romantic comedy. It was a clever bit of marketing to get couples into theaters on Valentine’s Day weekend, but of course the trailers told of a movie splashed in ultra-violence and raunchy humor. As it would turn out, Deadpool is a romantic comedy, one made of dismembered body parts and peak levels of inappropriate behavior, but oddly sentimental and sweet all the same. The heavy-reliance on a love story is actually quite a departure from the comics where Deadpool’s selfish and self-serving behavior drives the majority of his story arcs. This departure goes a long way in terms of making Deadpool a character we can root for in spite of, or perhaps because of his twisted humor and extreme levels of violence. Deadpool has never been one of my favorite characters, but Miller and screenwriters, Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese, give him a cause to fight for while still maintaining the character’s sense of identity and Bugs Bunny-like antics.

Every central plot beat in the film is framed by Wade’s love of Vanessa, and the charismatic performances from both Reynolds and Baccarin sell that romance better than most superhero movies. Breaking the narrative mold of origin story films, Deadpool switches back and forth between Wade’s present day storyline of revenge and his love story with Vanessa, until we meet up in the middle for a blend of both. This not only balances the film’s emotional stakes and action, but also prevents either the meet-cute romance or action from becoming tiresome or repetitive. In true Deadpool fashion, the film displays an awareness of its own inter-workings with references ranging from studio budget, Reynolds’ career missteps, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and other clever commentary that I dare not spoil. This awareness easily allows the film to maneuver the clichés and tropes of the genre, and while some may see it as a means of beefing up the film’s simple narrative, these tricks go a long way in terms of making the film’s narrative seem more complex than it actually is. The supporting characters: TJ Miller’s Weasel, Ed Skerin’s Ajax, and Gina Carano’s Angel Dust, also allow for the film to take some amusing avenues in both the departments of comic relief and villainy, and give Deadpool a range of characters to play off of.

Deadpool’s lack of complexity is refreshing and it creates an efficient superhero yarn that doesn’t rely on world-building, subtext, heavy thematics, or world-ending threats. When you look at the film’s plot laid bare of all of its self-referential gags, call-backs, and deviations, we’re left with a film about a guy who just wants to get his face fixed so he can go back to his fiancé. It sounds silly when the film is looked at from that angle, but silly is exactly where this film’s priorities are. This is a film that is so comfortable in its identity that even the jokes that don’t land, and some of the obvious first-time filmmaking techniques, only serve to work in the film’s interests. The film uses “fuck” and “dick” like a 12-year old who just learned he can swear around his friends without anyone giving him the side eye. It’s occasionally annoying, but the film even owns up to that factor, commenting on Wade’s occasionally annoying nature and penchant for saying nonsensical things. Some would say that the film’s ownership of its faults are the filmmakers’ attempts to avoid criticism, and they wouldn’t be wrong; but it’s so engaging to watch a film that doesn’t try to force the audience to ignore its limitations, but to laugh at them instead, and I can’t help but commend Deadpool for that because I laughed a hell of a lot.

Tim Miller may be working under the pressures of a limited budget and his own inexperience, but he boldly uses the X-Men lore like no X-film director before him. He embraces the wild and weird nature of the comics, clinging to its pseudo-science, humor, and soap-opera elements. While Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead are the only X-Men to feature in the film, they feel more like the characters that people have loved over the decades than most of Singer’s take on characters. This isn’t to say that Deadpool is the best X-verse film, but it does show a willingness to engage with areas that we rarely see and avoid taking itself too seriously…ok, Deadpool doesn’t take itself seriously at all. In addition to a clear-love of the source material, Miller shines in the film’s action sequences, delivering a hand-to-hand combat fight scene that ranks alongside The Winter Soldier. While there are still a few kinks in editing and cinematography to work out before the film’s inevitable sequel, Miller certainly proved that he was the right guy for the job.

From the moment we see Deadpool’s fantastic opening credit sequence, it’s unmistakable that Miller and Reynolds have created something special for fans and soon-to-be fans alike. This isn’t the best superhero movie ever, not even close, but this was made for a very specific audience who will bestow upon it that very title. This is a film about, and composed entirely of love (and dick jokes.) It took Ryan Reynolds four prior attempts to find a superhero franchise worthy of his particular brand of humor, and in Deadpool he has finally found his calling and I think he knows it. I suspect we’re going to see Ryan Reynolds' butt in red spandex for a long time to come. Sophomoric and charming, Deadpool is a blast to watch, even more so because I know that this is what Deadpool’s biggest fans have been waiting for.

Caution kids, Deadpool at play.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

2015: The Year in Review

So I’m later than last year with this list, but earlier than usual, so I suppose that counts for something. I’ve decided to break the mold a little and extend my Top 10 list into a Top 20, because as the Terminator franchise has taught us: more is better. But this isn’t just an excuse for me to hold your attention a little longer. It’s a way to celebrate what an incredible year in film 2015 was. Out of the 276 first time watches this year, 102 were new releases (if anyone wants to sponsor me with movie theatre gift cards I’m open to it). You can check out my full list and ranking at:

Top 10 (portions of some entries originally published at Audiences Everywhere )

1. Mad Max: Fury Road
Almost without warning, 70-year old George Miller revolutionized what action films are capable of both in terms of narrative and spectacle. This is a watershed moment in action filmmaking that hasn’t been seen since The Matrix. Mad Max: Fury Road allows Miller to usher in a new and distinct visual style, one that washes away the dull gray and brown color palate we’ve come associate with a world gone rot, and replaces it with bright bursts of color and operatic grandeur. There is a beautiful, handmade quality to George Miller’s wasteland, and I can promise you that no matter how many times you’ve seen fictionalized depictions of our world post-nuclear holocaust, you’ve never seen anything like Mad Max: Fury Road.

2. It Follows
While most horror films can’t resist a deflating backstory, David Robert Mitchell knows that the most successful aspects of horror are the things that can’t be explained. But that doesn’t mean the film is without answers or meaning. While it’s easy to state the film is an allegory for STDs, it’s also something far more complex than that. It Follows aims to capture sexual anxiety, in the form of the willingness to engage in the act, and the questions of what comes next. The whole film is built on that adolescent notion of feeling different after sex, of growing up while being haunted by something younger and older than oneself. It Follows is a beautiful, intimate, and transformative experience that will leave you shaken.

3. Creed
Just as John G. Alvidsen’s film did almost 40 years ago, Ryan Coogler’s Creed situates us in place and character, putting emphasis on relationships and self-examination over ringside noise. The facades of familiar Philadelphia locales have been slightly revamped and given new coats of paint, our familiar characters are older and a little worse for wear, the tunes have changed to provide the movie with a pulse of its own, and our lead character’s background is drastically different from Rocky’s, but underneath all of these necessary changes is that same beating heart reminder that the legacy of Rocky has always been about more than boxing. Creed is big-hearted drama at its best, and the cinematic celebration of identity and legacy that we’ve been waiting for.

4. The Revenant
With The Revenant Alejandro G. Innaritu creates a tonal poem of human survival. This is a visceral experience, one that emphasizes what is felt moreso than what is told. Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as Hugh Glass is that of an open wound, physically, emotionally and spiritually raw, and a profoundly affecting look at humanity at its most basic and primal nature. While it’s production has garnered constant attention for almost a year, the lengths that Innaritu, the crew, and the cast went through doesn’t lessen the film’s impact or emotional stakes. In fact, it could be argued that it furthers them. No, The Revenant didn’t have to be filmed on location, no it didn’t have to be filmed in natural light, and no DiCaprio didn’t have to eat raw bison liver or sleep inside an animal carcass, but each of these decisions comes through in the film, giving it a power both real and mythologized. The best art isn’t always created by doing what is easy, but doing what is honest and The Revenant is deeply honest.

5. Sicario
Sicario is a panic attack, not only in its efforts to create a visceral emotional experience for its audience, but also as a cinematic critique of a compassionless American government. Like Prisoners and Enemy before, Denis Villeneuve takes his characters (and viewers) down a long and winding tunnel of darkness where the light at the end is the illumination of their true selves, which they, and perhaps we, were hesitant to face. In many ways, Sicario is like Westerns of old, the ones that saw cowboy ethics fall to the wayside as industrialization and railroads brought the frontier to an end. While superheroes and modern myths fill our screens, Sicario does nothing less than assure us that in this day in age, there can be no heroes.

6.  Star Wars: The Force Awakens
The Force Awakens is the start of something grand, familiar by design but entirely new in terms of where it places its attention and emotional interest. Much of The Force Awakens’ modernity stems from the fact that the lead characters are in the hands of a woman, a black man, and a Latin American man. While so many franchise restarts try to cater to the same audience, Abrams aims to broaden and celebrate the reach of Star Wars not by just focusing on legacy, but diversity as well.  Beyond that, it’s impossible not to see the energy and care on the screen. The Force Awakens provides the emotional first steps in convincing audiences that Star Wars is back for good and we no longer need be bound by fear.

7. Ex Machina
Alex Garland’s restrained and character focused sci-fi opus thrives in the spaces left between. Whether it be moments of silence in between dialogue, the division between characters that direct eye contact intensifies rather than lessens, the stillness in between Ava’s direct and graceful movements, or the gap between how individuals present themselves and who they really are, Ex Machina carefully uses this space to revel in and reprimand curiosity. In doing so, Garland creates a modern myth, but one that’s cautionary tale can’t be divided by simple binaries. Beautifully composed, and comprised of performances that deny expectations, Ex Machina is one of the truest examples of science-fiction that wholly embraces the scientific part of its identity to providing more questions than answers.

8. Dope
Like a love-child of Spike Lee and John Hughes, Dope balances its honest portraitures of blackness and neighborhood life with teenage wish fulfillment and narrative convenience. Dope is deliberately modern and unique in its approach to filmmaking, announcing itself as far more than a sampling of familiar tracks. Heroically, Rick Famuyiwa’s film reclaims the term “oreo” and uses it not as an insult, but as an identity marker that can be owned and redefined by those so referred to as such. Like ’90s rap, Dope is a mix of intelligence, humor, and morally questionable decisions that don’t create a sum total of contradictions, but speak to the complicated nature of black identity in America.

9. The Hateful Eight
Lacking in immediate satisfaction, The Hateful Eight is arguably Quentin Tarantino’s most mature film. Racially charged, and packed with a motley crew of characters fashioned from the director’s intrinsic tics, The Hateful Eight is a mocking portrait of America’s systemic racism, mythologized history, and old-world attitudes. If Tarantino’s previous takes on history, altered events in the service of violent optimism, then The Hateful Eight displays our history as it is, without a moral center. While his blend of humor and violence has defined Tarantino’s career for two decades and made him a fan-favorite, The Hateful Eight shows a willingness to alienate that fanbase in the service of an honesty that doesn’t allow for forgiveness or restitution.

10. Carol
There isn’t a single frame in Carol that isn’t exquisite. The same can be said about its performances. Every touch, every lingering glance that Therese and Carol share is deeply felt, and lasting in its impact. As audience members, we become invested in their love story not because of the characters’ sexuality, but because of their fragile humanity. Todd Haynes crafts a love story that isn’t just engaging and tender, but also necessarily radical in its depiction of choice and consequence. He plays with what we’ve come to expect from period romances, and assures us that a fragile humanity doesn’t necessitate tragedy, that our characters can embrace hurt and pain, and not only still be strong, but come out better for it. Carol is so unafraid of quietly tearing down clichés, that it doesn’t even feel like a film from this era. Yet, it remains unquestionably topical all the same.

The Best of the Rest (11-20):

11. Avengers: Age of Ultron
12. Crimson Peak
13. Room
14. Predestination
15. Bone Tomahawk
16. Inside Out
17. What We Do in the Shadows
18. Spring
19. Mistress America
20. Tangerine

Honorable Mentions: Clouds of Sils Maria, Trainwreck, Brooklyn, Cobain: Montage of Heck, Straight Outta Compton

Worst of the Year: The Seventh Son, Serena, Fantastic Four, Aloha, The Lazarus Effect

2016’s Most Anticipated

1. Suicide Squad
2. Rogue One
3. 10 Cloverfield Lane
4. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
5. X-Men: Apocalypse
6. Doctor Strange
7. Captain America: Civil War
8. The Witch
9. Everybody Wants Some
10. Midnight Special

I'd like to thank everyone who visited my blog this year and read my reviews. If you enjoy what you read here please be sure to check out me and my friends on Audiences Everywhere where I also publish reviews and other features concerning movies, TV, and popular culture.

--Richard Newby