Friday, February 26, 2016

Deadpool, Hail Caesar, Anomalisa, The Witch Reviews

Dir. Tim Miller
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If Jim Carrey's character from The Mask was a sword-wielding, X-Rated superhero with parkour skills, you'd have something like Deadpool. Ryan Reynolds, who's seemed to belly-flop every chance he's been given with a comic book-based movie franchise (Blade: Trinity, X-Men Origins, Green Lantern), has finally found his muse with the 'Merc with a Mouth,' Wade Wilson, aka Deadpool. A fan favorite among comic book fans, Deadpool is a self-referential character that is aware he's in a movie, frequently breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the audience, making references to real-life figures like Hugh Jackman and Ryan Reynolds himself. The film is unlike anything that Marvel has made thus far, combining a Ted-like raunchy humor with an ultra-violent aesthetic that would probably make 12-year-old me as giddy as a schoolgirl. Deadpool is a fantastic satire of its own genre that's fun from beginning to end.

The story is more or less a bland "origin" template of which an endless series of gags uses as a springboard. A Special Forces operative-turned-mercenary, Wade Wilson's (Reynolds) life comes crashing down when he is diagnosed with cancer. An evil scientist (Ed Skrein) lulls him into believing he has the cure, but in turn tortures, disfigures, and transforms Wade into Deadpool, with the power of accelerated healing. Using the help of two X-Men: Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), he's on a revenge mission to kill the man who destroyed his life. Throw in a comic relief bestie (T.J. Miller) and an obligatory love interest that does nothing (Morena Baccarin) and that's the plot in a nutshell. Though the characters are lovable, admittedly the plot is disappointingly shallow.

However, the jokes more than make up for a lacking plot (in fact within the first 10 seconds, the brilliant opening credits pokes fun at itself). The humor in the film directly catered to my sensibilities. As a fan of these types of films and pop culture in general, Deadpool feels like the funniest speaker on the dais of the X-Men roast. While I do think the nature of the humor will date badly years from now (in 15 years, what kid will understand the context of Reynolds' "don't make the suit animated" joke?), it does capture the absurdity of confusing superhero narratives and our culture's obsession with the genre in funny, irreverent ways. Also: don't bring children. This is the American Pie of Marvel properties, and throughout the film I was shaking my head, thinking 'I can't believe they went there.' Jason Biggs sticking his member in an apple pie seems tame by comparison.

It's great to see a movie like this breaking all kinds of box office records (biggest R-Rated US opening, beating out The Matrix Reloaded, and the biggest-ever US opening in February), and I hope this signals to studios that not every superhero movie has to aim for that "four quadrant" PG-13 tentpole release like The Avengers. While it's not for everyone, if you connect with Deadpool's cartoonish, sophomoric, "meta" sensibility, you'll have a kick-ass time. Lamebrain killjoys who are too high brow for a good testicle joke need not apply.

Rating: B+

Hail, Caesar!
Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen
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The Coen Brothers are primarily known for two things: quirky characters and never making the same sort of movie twice. They jump genres from thrillers (Blood Simple), to comedies (Raising Arizona), to westerns (True Grit), to crime dramas (Miller's Crossing) - that's what fans love about them, the directing team is always stretching their skills into new venues, and you never really know what to expect from their projects. Funny enough, Hail, Caesar!, which takes place in the backlot of a 1950s-era Classic Hollywood movie studio, allows them to combine many of these genres they've dabbled in over the years. Though the meat of the story follows Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), head of Capitol Pictures, as he attempts to find his kidnapped movie star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the setting allows the Coens to go off on random "side scenes" that pay homage to a bygone moviegoing era, such as a Gene Kelly-inspired dance number from Channing Tatum and a choreographed synchronized swimming sequence with Scarlett Johannson as a mermaid.

While I loved the typically fun characters and style that the Coens brought to Hail, Caesar!, I found it to be pretty flat and boring, with an aimless story that went nowhere. It seems as though the Coens intentionally didn't focus on the plot, using the "kidnapping" thread just as an excuse to write what they considered a series of interesting, but disconnected scenes (which might have worked if they were funnier). Even though the cast assembled here is amazing (Clooney, Fiennes, Swinton, Brolin, McDormand, Johannson, Tatum, Jonah Hill and Alden Ehrenreich), it felt more like a parade of celebrity cameos than anything of substance. Although I love the idea of the Coen Brothers playing in the sandbox of old Hollywood, and Roger Deakins' cinematography is reliably great, the haphazard, unfocused Hail, Caesar! is unfortunately one of my least favorite films from the directing dynamic duo.

Rating: C

Dir. Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson
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On paper, it doesn't seem obvious why Charlie Kaufman's latest film, Anomalisa, needed to be told with animation. It's a quiet existential drama about a motivational speaker Michael Stone (David Thewlis), who after having checked into a hotel and had a bad run-in with an ex, has a tender and painfully human one-night-stand with a bashful fan of his named Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Even though there are no talking animals or princesses or impossibly large action scenes that would seemingly necessitate the use of the medium, I found the animation in this film to be uniquely profound. Because it was meticulously designed with stop-motion animation, the small little human moments that Michael goes through pronounce themselves without being showy. The film taps into these banal details like the rain on a windshield, or your hotel passcard not working - the fact that it's animated makes what would in live action seem like a pointless detail, but here some of the most "everyday" things are given this surreal, haunting quality. It's one of the most strangely human films I've seen, and it's told with puppets!

The story reminded me a lot of Lost in Translation. In that film, two strangers in a strange land - a couple of Americans in Tokyo - find a connection with each other. Similarly Anomalisa takes this same concept and heightens it in a very "Kaufman-esque" way; besides Lisa and Michael, every other character in the film has the same pleasant, yet monotonous voice and similar facial features. When Michael first hears Lisa, it sounds so different and sing-song-y, that even though she's seemingly average in every way, he's transfixed by her. The film taps into the mundanity of real life really closely, but to me at least, does so in a hypnotic, interesting way.

While it's not nearly as complicated as most of Kaufman's other works (just describing the plot of Being John Malkovich would sound like the rantings of an insane person), Anomalisa is still a strange, anomalous little film that sort of blew me away. Though the main character may be an insufferable prick at times, it could be considered "depression porn," and some of the absurdist comedy is a little too weird for my taste, still, this is one of those films that will stick with you after watching it. I say add it to the pile of Kaufman masterworks!

Rating: A-

The Witch
Dir. Robert Eggers
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Director Robert Eggers won the Best Director award at the Sundance Film Festival for The Witch, which takes place in a pre-Salem Witch Trials New England town. It's about a deeply religious farming family who are banished from a plantation and sent to create a life for themselves out in the woods. And as you probably already know, nothing really nice or wholesome ever comes from the woods. Panic ensues when the family's youngest son Samuel goes missing during a game of peek-a-boo gone bad, and everyone starts to point the blame on the eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy in a breakout performance), suspecting her of witchcraft. The Witch is clearly a labor of love from the former production/costume designer and first-time director Robert Egger, with its amazing period detail on a low budget production and genuinely creepy atmosphere, but ultimately I was left wanting more.

Eggers has said in interviews that he wanted The Witch to feel like a Puritan's nightmare, and in that I think he succeeded. The film taps into the fear men had (and unfortunately still have) of women having any sort of power, along with the fear of one's family turning against you in a religious fervor. However, I generally felt distanced by the film; it doesn't shy away from using convoluted, arcane old-English, and most of the script was taken from actual period transcripts (Eggers is also no stranger to old dialects, as he's a student of Shakspeare). Throughout the film I was battling with simply understanding what the characters were saying, especially under the thick accents. It also, in a clear attempt to emulate The Shining, attempts to use a languid pace to slowly draw out terror, but it only does so in a half-successful way in my opinion. Sometimes it works, other times it feels like it's milking a moment past its fear quotient. The Witch is a darkly beautiful film (like The Revenant it was shot with all natural light) and certainly feels like a respectable, well-crafted debut feature, but I was left cold by the end.

Rating: B-

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