Deadpool

From the opening title sequence, which is just about the best ever, to a truly wonderful Stan Lee appearance, to the Marvel trademark post-credits coda, Deadpool is bursting with surprises, action and superhero fun.

Deadpool has an edge not seen before in Marvel movies. It earns its R rating with salty language, nudity, sex (including some kinky stuff) and intense violence. But, along with its edge, Deadpool always has a quip or a funny sequence just around the corner.

Deadpool is the new (superhuman—but disfigured) version of Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), one of the X-Men. Wilson falls in love with the gorgeous Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) but he is soon stricken with terminal cancer.

Wilson undergoes treatment, administered by Francis (Ed Skrein) and cohort Angel Dust (Gina Carino). The painful procedure cures his cancer but leaves his face and skin looking horrible. The treatment also makes gives him super strength and makes him virtually immortal.

“You look like an avocado had sex with an older avocado, “ is how his friend/bartender Weasel (T.J. Miller) describes Deadpool’s post-treatment look. (He follows that line with a more graphic description.) Miller, from the Silicon Valley TV show and the Shocktop Super Bowl spot, plays his role laidback until he has to urge Deadpool to seek out Vanessa.

Because his looks are so gruesome, Deadpool avoids his true love because he fears she’ll be repelled by his looks. But they reconnect and she is part of the film’s big action sequence, a battle between Deadpool and Francis. Deadpool gets assistance from X-Men Colossus (Stefan Capicic) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand). NTM’s resemblance to a certain pop singer generates one of Deadpool’s funniest lines.

Despite a costume similar to Spiderman’s and occasional reminders of Jim Carrey’s The Mask character’s speaking voice, Deadpool feels fresh. Deadpool delivers numerous asides directly to the audience, which is not normal superhero behavior.

And, in my estimation, Reynolds’ likability is exceeded in the Marvel world only by audience affection for Robert Downey Jr.

Deadpool should have a huge weekend at the box office, especially if ticket sellers are willing to agree with eager 15-year-olds that “yeah, you look seventeen” and admit them to this R-rated film.

If you are a fan of Marvel and superhero movies, Deadpool is a “must see.” Enjoy!

 

 

Zoolander 2

When Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) and Hansel (Owen Wilson) make their runway return early in Zoolander 2, they are wearing shirts that read “Old” and “Lame.” It is, of course, lame of me to point out how accurately those shirts’ sentiments reflect my thoughts about the film. Sorry.

Zoolander 2 has a handful of slightly funny moments, but many more moments that are supposed to be funny but are not. But hey, the numerous surprise cameos ARE fun! (Note: Other reviewers will spill the beans about certain cameo appearances. I will not. You’re welcome.) And the soundtrack includes some cool EDM.

Not “cameos,” per se, because they appear in the trailer: Benedict Cumberbatch as an androgynous model looks like Voldemort during his brief appearance. Justin Beiber as himself manages to hang on for a selfie before he makes his final exit.

The 2001 Zoolander movie was relentless as it poked fun at the fashion industry. Stiller and Wilson were hilarious as clueless male models. Will Ferrell, as goofy looking villain Mugatu, was a hoot. Try though it may, the new version just does not connect. (Stiller, by the way, directed both films.)

During their 15-year absence, Derek constructed a building in NYC. The building collapsed, killing his wife and disfiguring Hansel. Unfortunately, the shots of a building falling down in New York City recall the real-life event that happened two weeks before the release of the first Zoolander.

In Z-2, Derek and Hansel are dispatched to Rome to be part of a fashion show. But the focus of the film is on Derek’s effort to reconnect with his son (who just happens to be in a Rome orphanage). Mugatu is now in a “fashion prison” which, amusingly, is built to resemble a giant thimble.

The film’s climax involves a quasi-religious ritual involving real life fashion industry figures.

Penelope Cruz appears as a gorgeous Interpol agent. An unrecognizable Kristen Wiig is an oddly-attired fashionista. (She looks almost like the late Tammie Faye Baker.) Keifer Sutherland is the leader of Hansel’s diverse “orgy crew.”

Some sequels are better left unmade. Zoolander 2 might’ve been a good idea on paper. But on film, not a good idea.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hail, Caesar!

In 1951, movies are huge. Their stars are big. Their colors are bright, if not garish. Television has not yet become a national obsession. In Los Angeles, Capitol Studios fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) loves his job even if his days and nights are spent putting out fires.

In Hail, Caesar!, the Coen brothers sprinkle their new film with fully realized scenes like those that electrified the movies Hollywood made in the postwar, pre-TV era. It’s a trick comparable to the addition of compelling music performances to brighten up a melancholy story in their most recent film, 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis. Music also spiced up their 2000 release Oh, Brother Where Art Thou? It worked then and it works now.

Among the films in production at Capital in the day-and-a-half that Hail, Caesar! takes place is a film called “Hail, Caesar” starring Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). Whitlock is kidnapped after a spiked drink he chugs in a scene knocks him unconscious. A missing star is just one of Mannix’s problems.

DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johanssen) stars in a swimming pool scene that recalls Esther Williams movies. Mannix works to make sure news of Moran’s out-of-wedlock child is kept quiet.

Director Laurence Larentz (Ralph Fiennes) pouts when Mannix forces him to cast handsome young cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) in a sophisticated society film.

When Mannix seeks approval from a panel of clergymen for the script for “Hail, Caesar” and its depiction of Christ, they protest.

Twin sister gossip columnists (and bitter rivals) Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton) threaten to write stories damaging to Mannix’s stars.

When Mannix drops in on an editor (Frances McDormand) and asks her to show him some footage, she nearly chokes when her scarf gets caught in the film.

A cushy job offer Mannix receives from Lockheed presents a chance to move into a more stable industry and spend more time with his family. Will he take it?

Among the film’s best scenes is a dance number featuring Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), channeling Gene Kelly. Gurney sings and he and three other guys dance on tabletops. They lament that where they’re going there will be no dames. Near the end of the scene, the performance takes an unexpected turn.

Another features Mannix setting Whitlock straight with a bit of physical discipline.

Hail, Caesar! is a movie I enjoy greatly. The Coen brothers present a whacked-out story with damaged characters and several juicy 50s-era “movie within a movie” scenes. Brolin is excellent. Clooney gets to indulge in some ridiculous overacting. And Swinton continues to be one of the most versatile actors around.

As can be said about almost any Coens film, Hail, Caesar! may not be everybody’s cup of tea. You may walk out muttering WTFs. But you may also be delighted. It’s worth a shot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Revenant

The Revenant is a tour de force. For Leonardo DiCaprio. And for director/co-writer Alejandro Inarritu. Awards are coming. Maybe, just maybe, a best actor nod for LD.

Leo’s character Hugh Glass is part of a group of hunter/trappers who, nearly two centuries ago, gather pelts in the wilderness of western America. Following a violent attack by Indians, the men escape downriver on a raft.

As they continue their journey on land, a bear attacks Glass. A big bear. The episode is brutally depicted. With help from his mixed race son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), Glass survives. Soon he is left to die by Glass’s partner John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) who has killed Hawk. But he’s not quite dead.

Despite having limited movement and limited resources, Glass begins the long journey back to the fur company’s headquarters. His adventure is grueling, but the survival instinct is strong. A fortunate encounter with an Indian who provides food and temporary shelter provides hope. The goal is to stay alive and to extract revenge.

A revenant is one who returns after death or a long absence. Not long after company leader Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) is told by Fitzgerald that Glass has died, Henry is shocked to learn Glass is still alive. As is Fitzgerald!

Inarritu, who won the directing Oscar last year for Birdman, is a true cinematic artist. His visuals include gorgeous vistas of sky and unspoiled frontier, contrasted with horrifying images of physically damaged humans and animals. His lingering extreme close-ups are effective in revealing the pain of the central characters. His presentation of a dream Glass has about his son is heartbreaking.

And that soundtrack! It is stirring and relentless, utilizing drums that recall the Birdman soundtrack along with full orchestrations that underline the tense drama.

Because of its grisly content (including the grizzly content), The Revenant may not be for everyone. But if you can handle the violence and the gore, you’ll be rewarded with a memorable film experience. And you might even see an Oscar-winning acting performance from Leo!

 

 

 

Joy

David O. Russell’s best films are the ones that touch you emotionally, like Joy does. It is not always easy to cheer for a movie character, but Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) inspires audience hopes and dreams. She is an empowered woman.

The characters who populate Joy’s world add life and humanity to Joy. Her father Rudy (Robert DeNiro) moves in with Joy when his second wife dumps him. Joy puts him in her basement where he has to share digs with Joy’s ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez). Her mother (Virginia Madsen) spends most of each day perched in her bed watching soap operas. Grandma Mimi (Diane Ladd) is the film’s narrator.

Rudy finds a new girlfriend, Trudy (Isabella Rossellini). When Joy mops up spilled wine on her Trudy’s boat, she gets glass shards in her hands. This leads the clever Joy to make her own mop that she can wring out without touching it. Soon, she is making the “Miracle Mops” in dad’s garage and selling them wherever she can.

Trudy, a widow whose husband left money behind, helps Joy fund her company so she can make the mops. Joy’s big break comes when the fledgling QVC channel agrees to sell the mops. QVC honcho Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper) tells Joy to prepare to deliver 50-thousand mops. But the segment is a mop flop.

She convinces Walker to let her do the segments herself. A friend conspires to call in and tout the product. Sales skyrocket.

But more trouble awaits as suppliers try to take advantage of her. And a man who claims to have registered a similar product wants royalties for each sale. Joy faces the challenges head on and emerges triumphant.

The only thing about the story that’s baffling is Joy’s lack of romance as she takes care of business. Her ex is in the picture, but as a friend, not a lover.

Jennifer Lawrence is at her best in portraying this woman who accomplishes what she needs to get done, while others around her seem to be going through the motions of life. At the young age of 25, J-Law is more convincing as a mature woman in Joy than she is as a young warrior in the Hunger Games films.

Joy is a feel good movie for grownups. And, after the year that some of us have experienced, this upbeat story is exactly what many of us need. Big thanks to writer/Director David O. Russell and well as to Jennifer Lawrence for Joy!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Hateful Eight

Quentin Tarantino’s new film The Hateful Eight is not among his best. It has QT trademarks including over-the-top violence, a quirky mix of characters and the great Samuel L. Jackson. The Hateful Eight has an excellent original soundtrack by Ennio Morricone. The film even has an overture and an intermission! But the pacing is off.

Have you ever had someone tell you a joke that has a long set up before you finally get to the punchline? And then the joketeller repeats the punchline for emphasis? That’s what The Hateful Eight reminds me of.

Let’s meet the eight who end up in Minnie’s Haberdashery, a roadhouse in a desolate area of Wyoming, during a blizzard. The time is a few years after the Civil War. Bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is bringing in murderer Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) for a reward. (Ruth, with his overgrown moustache and boisterous manner reminds one of a taller Yosemite Sam.)

The stagecoach he’s chartered picks up bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a Civil War veteran (Union side) who hears the N-word many times during TH8. Another passenger who begs a ride is Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) who claims he’s to be the new sheriff of nearby Red Rock.

Already at the roadhouse are four more individuals: British dandy Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsden), “The Mexican” Bob (Demian Bichir) and former Confederate General Smithers (Bruce Dern).

The Hateful Eight meanders a full hour and 45-minutes before intermission. The long-awaited plot resolution after the break is violent but often funny in that QT way.

Tarantino has said that TH8’s story was modeled after certain plots on old TV westerns with episodes that took their time in revealing whether a stranger was a good or bad guy. Maybe QT just wanted his audience to become more familiar with the eight, but the first chapters of TH8 slog along at turtle speed. Don’t nod off.

The Hateful Eight is being shown screened in selects theaters (including Ronnie’s in St. Louis) in a 70mm wide-screen format using film instead of a digital system. (The digital version I saw showcased the film in a wider-than-usual aspect ratio.)

Don’t get me wrong. It’s great to have a Tarantino film back on movie house screens. But after his successes with Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, TH8 falls short.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Concussion

Concussion is an important movie that will change lives. It will lead some parents to forbid their kids from playing football. It will cause some football players to step away from the game.

Concussion tells the story of retired NFL players whose brain damage has led them to take their own lives. Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), a Pittsburgh medical pathologist, investigates and finds that these players suffer from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). When his information is presented to the NFL, it is rebuffed.

This is not new information. News of these suicides has been widely reported. The GQ magazine article that the script is based on ran in 2009. PBS’s Frontline covered the story two years ago. But Concussion is the first presentation of these facts featuring a major Hollywood star. (The 2012 death of NFL Hall of Famer Junior Seau is mentioned at the film’s end. News of Frank Gifford’s CTE diagnosis apparently came after the film was finished.)

Despite being too long and failing to provide a big payoff, Concussion offers a few reasons to check it out: Will Smith does a better job with a Nigerian accent than Alec Baldwin does with a Louisiana accent. Character actor David Morse brings a world of gloom to his portrayal of longtime Steelers center Mike Webster. Albert Brooks is wonderful as Omalu’s smartass (but supportive) boss. Omalu enjoys romance with Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a woman he meets in church; she soon becomes his wife.

Will Concussion damage the popularity of the NFL? I don’t think so. Football continues to be the most exciting sport to watch on TV. The combination of grace and violence is compelling. Love of football and teams is well-entrenched in the hearts and souls of millions of Americans.

But any impact Concussion has will be another step that may lead the NFL to do more for player safety now and for players welfare after their careers end. It took many years and tons of evidence before the tobacco industry admitted what we all knew for decades… that smoking kills. Is it time for the NFL to concede that football—in some cases—kills?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Big Short

The Big Short is one of the more clever, creative and different films to come down the mainstream movie track in a long time. It contains one of the year’s best acting performances. It is, unfortunately, a failure.

Why? Because it is too cute. Because it tries to explain arcane financial information in silly ways. Because it attempts to assign white hats and black hats where many hats should be gray. Because, ultimately, it is hard to cheer for these few winners when there were so many losers.

We all know what happened in 2007-2008. Okay, we don’t know exactly what happened but we know how the nation’s economic collapse affected each of us individually. The Big Short, based on Michael Lewis’s book, tries to tell part of that story with humor.

Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) is a Deutsche Bank employee on Wall Street who serves as narrator, occasionally turning directly to the camera in the middle of a scene to share a point of exposition. He drips smugness.

Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is a California doctor who leads an investment group. Burry, a man with tons of nervous energy (the real life Burry has Asperger’s), guesses that the housing market will collapse in ’07 when many subprime mortgages are scheduled to adjust significantly higher. He makes huge bets (using his investors’ money) that the mortgage banking industry will suffer defaults on home loans. Bale’s performance as this quirky but self-assured gambler is among his best.

Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) is part of a New York-based investment consortium which receives much of its funding from Morgan Stanley, a major Wall Street institution. Baum has a strong moral compass. He is concerned about right and wrong, yet he proceeds with betting against the banks—including Morgan Stanley.

Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) is a Boulder-based investor who wants to get in on “shorting” the mortgage market but his capitalization is too low. With help from Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), a former banker who has cashed out and retired, he gets in on the action.

Director Adam McKay (who co-wrote) includes clever quick montages of timely images to reflect the times. They include a Britney Spears clip to represent 2000 and a 1st generation iPhone to indicate 2007. The segments with Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez (alongside a real economist) attempting to simplify some of the complexity of finance are funny. Are they informative? A little.

McKay gets an “A” for ambition and a gold star for trying to relate the stories in Lewis’s book in a lighthearted manner. But The Big Short fails to accomplish its mission. I am betting against it.

Youth

A movie called Youth stars two men who are 82 and 76. Funny, huh?

Of course, the story is filled with reminiscences of their younger days, plus encounters with several youthful individuals.

The setting is a resort in the Alps, sort of a Grand Tyrolean Hotel with similarities to The Grand Budapest Hotel from last year’s Wes Anderson film. It is a spot for the rich and famous from all over the world to escape, enjoy quiet days and nightly entertainment and, maybe, become healthier.

Youth is not as madcap as GBH but it has a its own goofy moments and characters.

Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) is a retired conductor and composer. Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel, who also appeared in Grand Budapest Hotel) is a film director and screenwriter. They are old friends who are sharing a suite at the hotel.

Fred’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) is being dumped by her husband, who is Mick’s son. She stays at the resort and begins a flirtation with a mountain climber.

Among the story lines is an effort by the queen to recruit Fred to conduct a command performance in London of a song he composed. Fred repeatedly refuses for personal reasons.

Late in the film an actress who has had a long personal and professional relationship with Mick shows up at the resort. Brenda (Jane Fonda) has big news to deliver. For her brief appearance Fonda received a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actress.

Favorite scenes in Youth include Fred sitting on a log while “pretend conducting” cows and their bells, a guest hackysacking a tennis ball and Mick and his co-writers literally putting their heads together as they script his next movie.

Sort of a running joke: Smoking is forbidden throughout the resort but we see guests and staffers frequently lighting up. Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), an actor who is visiting the resort, smokes shamelessly. By the way, Youth contains a significant bit of gratuitous nudity.

Youth is a lark, not a “must see.” But if you like Michael Caine—and most of us do, don’t we?—you will enjoy sharing his holiday in the mountains with him and the other guests.

 

 

 

The Danish Girl

 

Talk about perfect timing! The Danish Girl arrives at the end of a year when the world’s trangender population has received more attention than ever before.

And those stars! The Danish Girl’s title role goes to the incumbent Best Actor Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne. Alicia Vikander, the gorgeous Swedish actress who appeared in Ex Machina and The Man From UNCLE this year, is his wife. Both have been nominated for Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards for their performances in this film.

The problem with The Danish Girl is, to borrow the Gertrude Stein line, there’s no there there. The story is weak and fragile. Husband Einar (Redmayne) and wife Gerda (Vikander) are artists in century ago Copenhagen. She asks hubby to slip on a gown so he can pose for a painting. He finds likes it!

Gerda paints more pictures of her new model and Einar hits the streets in a dress and wig. He even strikes up a relationship with a man, Henrik (the ubiquitous Ben Whishaw).

She and Einar (now going by Lili) take their art to Paris. They encounter Einar’s old friend Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts) who is not particularly surprised by Einar’s new alter ego.

The support that Gerda gives her husband as he transitions to his identity as a woman is remarkable. It recalls the support given Caitlyn Jenner this year by her family members. (There is a fringe benefit for Gerda: her paintings of this “woman” are a big hit.)

In time, Lili pursues and undergoes surgery to make the transition complete.

Even with this sensitive treatment by director Tom Hooper, it is not easy to fully grasp what exactly sent Einar on this path. He and Gerda appear to be a happy, loving, sexually active young couple. Then, in short order, the movie’s story is set in motion.

Because of its subject matter and its topicality, The Danish Girl will likely receive huge amounts of praise. But there are, I hope, better, more substantial stories about the transgender population waiting to be told on screen.