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Now in Theaters: July 2016 (Part 1)

Summer of 2016 has made for a spotty summer movie season, with some fascinating indies and documentaries balanced out by a lot of blockbuster trash. Part 2, looking at Independence Day: ResurgenceThe Neon Demon, Swiss Army Man and The BFG should be forthcoming later in the week.

THE LOBSTER

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I can’t remember the last time I walked out of a screening feeling as terrible as I did after seeing The Lobster. This brutal satire about relationships and modern dating hit very close to home for me in a way I’m not going to dwell on in a film blog, but makes this film extremely difficult for me to review. Intellectually, I understand the film is well-made and well acted, and darkly funny in a way that should have spoken directly to my sensibilities, but I spent the whole time convincing myself not to walk out. Never has a film felt like it was designed so specifically to hurt me, and weeks later I still find myself feeling somewhat resentful towards it. Maybe I can’t take a joke.

That’s not to say The Lobster isn’t a good and competently-made movie, because it is (and one of the best-reviewed of the year, to boot). The cinematography is stark and striking, the pacing is spot-on, and there are great performances all around (Colin Farrell is as good as I’ve ever seen him). I’m not seeing this a lot in the broader conversation, but watching the film struck me as a tense experience with a constant threat of danger, especially in the back half. This is Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’s English-language debut, previously he was best known for Dogtooth, another transcendentally uncomfortable film.

I’ll make the same recommendation for The Neon Demon and Swiss Army Man, go into this one blind and don’t watch the trailer. This is such a specific film a trailer can’t really do it justice, and it goes into some interesting and unexpected territory in its second half. The basic premise of the film has Colin Farrell arriving at a resort during an unspecified time in the future, and guests at the resort have forty-five days to find a romantic partner before they’re turned into an animal of their choosing. Terrifying stuff.

 

NOW YOU SEE ME 2

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I reluctantly gave the first Now You See Me the benefit of the doubt, but the sequel retroactively makes the original worse by amplifying all its problems. NYSM2‘s structure hews very close to its predecessor to diminishing effects; for a sequel to an already near-pointless film it does little to shake up the game. The Now You See Me franchise is filled with contradictions, they’re loaded with heavy hitting casts (Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Jesse Eisenberg, Woddy Harrelson, Daniel Radcliffe, etc) that have hideous material to work with, and for ostensibly being about stage magic there’s an awful lot of unconvincing CG. After the half-baked twists in the original, there’s nothing Now You See Me 2 can do that would actually be surprising, so for all the propulsive music and swishy editing the film is incapable of generating any genuine excitement.

As is the case with many weird projects nowadays, the film’s one saving grace is Daniel Radcliffe. He’s clearly having fun playing a wacky villain and gives the film a boost as it flags, but everybody else is just there for the paycheck. Even Woody Harrelson both reprising his character from the first film and playing something of an evil twin is barely worth a mention. Lizzy Caplan fills the token female slot occupied by Isla Fisher in the first outing with similarly underwhelming results. Come to think of it, I can’t think of any reason for you to pay money to see this.

WEINER

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I’m a huge political junkie so was probably more predisposed than the average person to like it, but nonetheless I found Weiner to be absolutely riveting and one of the best films of the year. This documentary follows controversial former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner during the entirety of his 2013 run for New York City mayor,  during which the embattled politician’s sexting scandal kept getting worse and worse. Never have I seen a film that had so much access to a political figure (though keeping with the subject of documentaries about failed political campaigns, I’ll take this opportunity to recommend Mitt on Netflix).

The film shoots straight and doesn’t really pick sides, Anthony Weiner is a breathtakingly problematic individual regardless of his political affiliation and his wounds are self-inflicted. He struggles, he falls, he keeps making horrendous mistakes, completely incapable of not shooting himself in the foot whenever the opportunity presents itself. It seems like the crew must have followed Weiner around almost 24/7, because the amount of raw, honest and sometimes heartbreaking footage is astonishing.

If you’re a politico like me, reason enough to see Weiner is Huma Abedin. Even thought she isn’t interviewed and rarely engages the cameras, the documentary provides what will probably be the clearest portrait of Hillary Clinton’s guarded right-hand woman and Anthony Weiner’s wife. Watching Abedin’s face over the course of the film as the situation keeps getting worse and she struggles to continue supporting her asshat of a husband is both fascinating and devastating to behold. A must watch.

WARCRAFT

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In a summer littered with stinkers, this may be the worst. I fully acknowledge my lack of Warcraft cred, I was a StarCraft guy as a kid and I have no interest in WoW. Would it have helped if I knew the difference between bright-green orcs and grey-green orcs? I highly doubt it. It’s two hours of generic fantasy nonsense, with broad-stroke characters and settings that made perfect sense in a DOS game from the early nineties, but look like a joke in front of today’s sophisticated audiences. I laughed a few times at some particularly horrific bits of dialogue and couldn’t help but chuckle at the sheer absurdity of it all, but this barely even qualifies as a movie. Things happen because plot and the characters are generic fantasy archetypes at best.

I’ve read that a novel facial motion-capture system was developed for this film, and indeed some of the close-ups work on the orcs, especially in the first act, don’t look that bad. Besides some scattered good work though, the visuals in this movie look atrocious. Bright blue and green blasts of magical energy look good in a video game and help you tell units apart, but on a giant movie screen there’s no need for it. The action is your basic PG-13 hacking and slashing, though I continue to be shocked at how much blood can pass under the R-rating limbo stick as long as it isn’t human blood. There are some cute nods to the gaming crowd (in one scene, the action even goes faux-isometric), but less than you’d expect or hope for. There was no reason for the movie to not include an orc yelling “what?”

It completely tanked at the U.S. box office, but WarCraft is nonetheless the highest-grossing movie based on a video game due to its runaway success in China. I know the big studios have to make money any way they can, but a lot of the blockbusters that are designed to do well in Asia are trope-filled, obvious and filled with clunky exposition (think Transformers: Age of Extinction and Independence Day: Resurgence) and this picture fits the made-for-China mold as well as anything. This is one where if you liked it, I won’t be able to convince you otherwise but by the rest of us it’s been rightfully ignored.

 

My thoughts on more recent releases from the last few weeks will be forthcoming shortly, watch this space.

 

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Relax, FINDING DORY is good

There are fewer scarier possibilities for today’s modern moviegoer than a Pixar sequel. I personally cope with this by tempering my excitement for new Pixar fare in a way I didn’t used to, and emotionally holding out as long as I can to see if the films can win me over (Inside Out did, The Good Dinosaur did not). Is it fair to hold every new movie from the studio up to the “Pixar standard?” That’s a big question, but thankfully we can table that discussion for another day because Finding Dory both manages to justify its existence as a sequel to one of the most-loved family films of the ‘aughts and a comfortable addition to the Pixar canon.

Finding Dory feels retroactively necessary to the first film in a way few sequels do, primarily by taking the title to heart and giving Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, returning to the role that pushed her back into the mainstream over a decade ago) new dimensions that were only hinted at in Nemo. Her short-term memory loss is taken seriously as a disability instead of a cute narrative device, and the consequences of her mental handicap are brought into an uncomfortable new light. The sadness in her parents’ eyes as they try to teach a young (and dangerously cute) Dory how to survive is an unforgettable beat.

Dory’s search for her parents (Eugene Levy and Diane Keaton) provides the narrative thrust for the story, and their clear love for their daughter (expressed through extensive and meticulously-constructed flashbacks) and how that manifests is the most touching take-away from the film. The movie doesn’t venture into the same three-hankie territory as Up or Toy Story 3, but in some ways that’s a relief. There are a few big emotional moments that land well, but the film wisely doesn’t dwell on them for too long.

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The film struggles for the first half hour as it covers familiar territory (there’s an action beat designed to mirror the shark scene from the first film that doesn’t feel essential), and straightens out and takes off like a rocket once it sidelines Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolence, taking over for Alexander Gould). Dory’s new foil is Hank the octopus (Ed O’Neill) who provides some comic edge and visual dynamism that help the film tremendously. Hope you like tentacles. There are interesting hints in the script that Hank has had a rough go of it, but they’re mostly subtextual touches for those who are paying attention.

Like the best Pixar films, Finding Dory is both consistently and unexpectedly funny. Pixar films are workshopped and tweaked within an inch of their lives, and while this vetting process may take away a sense of individual authorship, it means few jokes are duds. The few obvious pop culture references (some obvious but very funny references to Inception and Alien come to mind) work and won’t date the film but most of the biggest laughs come from well-constructed character moments. Also, make sure you stay through the credits.

It’s not top-tier Pixar (neither, arguably, is Finding Nemo), but it’s a very worthwhile addition to the studio’s stable and justifies its existence in a way that’s unexpected and heartening. Unlike the lesser Pixar sequels (ahem, Cars 2 and Monsters University) Dory succeeds by staying true to its source material and expanding on it meaningfully, as opposed to trying to switch genres or get too clever. You’re going to see Finding Dory no matter what, but rest assured, it’s worth it.

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Now Streaming: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

In an effort to be slightly more relevant to my friends who don’t go out to the multiplex all the time, I present Now Streaming. This series will feature interesting films that are accessible to pretty much everyone from home (i.e. Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now/Go)Our subject today, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, is currently available on Netflix.

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In an early scene from A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, the final film in Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson’s loose trilogy about the human condition, an aging, pasty-looking man struggles to uncork a bottle of wine while his wife sings to herself and prepares dinner in the next room. After a half-dozen or so increasingly desperate pulls at the cork, the man appears to suffer a heart attack and collapses on the floor, his wife oblivious to his struggle. The scene cuts.

Following that, we see a mother on her deathbed surrounded by her adult children. One of them is late, and is appalled to see she clutches a bag filled with her expensive jewelry which she intends to take with her to the afterlife. He vainly attempts to wrestle the bag from her while she screams in protesting, berating her in the film’s native Swedish, “that’s not how it works!”

In the next scene, crew members of a ferry hunch over the body of a man who died just after he paid for his beer and sandwich. The crew is left with a dilemma: what to do with the food that’s already been purchased? After a pause, a bystander offers to take the beer, with a noncommittal shrug.

These three “meetings with death” come close to the beginning of the film and give a good idea of what’s in store: Andersson’s deep-focus, perpetually-static camera gazing upon tragicomic dioramas conveying the merciless bleakness of human existence. As with the other films ‘s Andersson’s Living trilogy, Songs from the Second Floor and You, the Living, every shot is static and in deep focus, allowing the viewer ample time to take in the meticulously composed mise-en-scene of each frame. Almost any still in the movie would be suitable for framing.

Some of these sequences are more connected than others, over the course of the film certain characters reappear multiple times (about a quarter of the scenes focus on a pair of miserable novelty-item salesmen, nobody wants to buy fake vampire teeth) and some running gags show up consistently. Several key lines of dialogue appear in different contexts (many characters participate in identical one-sided phone conversations, telling whoever is one the other end of the line, “I’m happy to hear you’re doing fine,” though clearly none are happy).

In the film’s final twenty minutes or so, the film takes a turn towards physical violence, and the necessity of this shift is debatable. Let’s be real though, you’re going to be watching this on Netflix and if you’ve already made it 85 minutes in, you’re committed. I laughed more during this film than I do for most things, and I’m not really sure what that says about me. If you’re feeling adventurous and have a little bit of patience, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is fascinating and absolutely worth a watch.

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Now in Theaters: May/June 2016

We’re in the peak of the summer movie season, and the results are mixed. Let’s examine:

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR

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I’m calling it now, this is going to go down as an important movie. Captain America: Civil War represents the full potential of Marvel’s brand of serialized filmmaking. It took Marvel Studios almost a decade of careful planning and patience that their distinguished competition seems to lack to arrive at a film that could not have existed until now. Marvel could slam-dunk this due primarily to the strength of their brand, their audience was already fully on-board before even buying their tickets.

Civil War blasts out of the gate so assuredly, it doesn’t even bother with opening credits. Besides the Marvel after the cold open, there are no title cards or credits of any kind, even for the title  of the film. Instead of sitting politely in the corner of the frame like they would in any other blockbuster, location cards blare in massive white block letters that fill the entire screen. Characters are referred to by their first names almost exclusively, even if we haven’t seen them in a while (he’s Clint, no need to call him Hawkeye). The film also unafraid to put characters we like in a morally ambiguous situation in which nobody is fully right.

Civil War is an interesting adaptation of tricky source material. Some of the biggest moments in the comic arc simply can’t happen in the current state of the MCU (Spider-Man unmasking himself, a bunch of X-Men and Fantastic Four stuff), and personally I wasn’t in thrall of the comics anyway. The film retains some of the bigger things from the comics (the Superhero Registration Act becomes the Sokovia Accords, the Raft goes from being trans-dimensional space prison to sea prison), but instead performs the tricky high-wire act of being both a second sequel in the Captain America series and an Avengers-level cinematic event.

Civil War is big, and plenty of stuff blows up, but the story unspools itself in a  manner that deliberately deconstructs the structure of typical superhero fare. The movie builds in the scope of its action and ensemble of characters until it reaches the masterful and thoroughly cathartic airport sequence, then pares itself back down until only three characters remain to duke it out by the end of the third act. An even dozen heroes (all of whom we actually know) come to blows in the best action sequence in any superhero film ever, but we never forget this is a Captain America movie first.

Civil War is still a Marvel Studios joint, and the genre still has its limitations. The musical score is useless. Besides some second-unit work from the guys that shot the Raid films and some interesting decisions in the final fight, much of the cinematography would blend in with any other Marvel movie. This is all par for the course, though, and doesn’t detract from this film’s set of mammoth accomplishments. Civil War is an absolute tour de force. Go see it again.

 

NEIGHBORS 2: SORORITY RISING

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This one was a pleasant surprise. Neighbors 2 is not tremendously substantive, but it’s smarter than you would think and takes a bemused but thoughtful look at our modern expectations of feminism. The films mirrors the structure of the first Neighbors‘s battle between adjacent lots (same houses, too), but instead of just settling entirely for gross embarrassment comedy acts as an exploration of gender dynamics. The word ‘sexism’ is bandied around a lot and examined in multiple contexts. It also goes out of its way to normalize gay relationships in a way that’s a little heavy-handed but nonetheless appreciated.

Neighbors 2 is a lot of fun, and doesn’t waste time getting too dark. In its own quietly amusing way, it sets up some situations that could be escalated to disastrous levels, but never do. It moves right along and while some of the gross-out stuff isn’t very helpful, it doesn’t get bogged down in endless riffing and remains almost entirely affable and well-meaning. Even Rose Byrne tones it down a little bit. I also continue to find myself surprised by how much I consistently like Zac Efron. I laughed maybe half a dozen times, which is pretty good for me. It’s not essential, but definitely worth a rent when it shows up at your corner Redbox in a few months.

 

X-MEN: APOCALYPSE

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I don’t know what it is, but I can’t bring myself to care about the X-Men. I didn’t watch them on TV growing up, and the first X-Men movie I saw in theaters was Days of Future Past. For whatever reason I never connected with the property, and unfortunately Apocalypse did nothing to change that.

X-Men: Apocalypse is by no means a terrible movie, but it has the grave misfortune of being released on the heels of the titanic critical and commercial successes of Deadpool and Captain America: Civil War, both of which make this movie look antiquated by comparison. Every silly superhero trope that Civil War attempts to deconstruct or Deadpool skewers, Apocalypse barrels into with a grimace and energy beam blast. An awful lot of stuff, especially in the first act, happens because, plot. We now live in a post-Civil War world where just seeing everyone together looking like we expect them to isn’t enough anymore.

With a title like Apocalypse, the movie pigeonholed itself before the script got its first scene heading. As you’d expect, the “stakes” are world-ending, but for all the buildings crumbling and metal particles flying around, I didn’t get a feeling of massive scale like I expected. This is probably due in part to some unfortunately shoddy CG work that disassociates the massive destruction from the spaces the characters inhabit. The film also shoehorns in a few scenes of destruction in places that have no relation to the plot. The action’s climax is staged amid boring piles of rubble.

Maybe it’s because I don’t have much familiarity with the property outside of the films, but I thought there was a lot of stuff in this movie that wasn’t particularly helpful. Like Days of Future Past there’s a flashy Quicksilver sequence that stops the narrative cold for several minutes, but there’s less novelty value this time around. (minor spoiler ahead!) Following the Quicksilver sequence, there’s a lengthy detour that exists just to put Wolverine on-screen for a few minutes, after which he literally scurries away to get back to his own movies. In terms of character motivations, everything to do with the titular villain and his posse is a little too far on the side of implausible. We don’t really need yet another Magneto redemption arc, as serviceable as this one is. It’s all a little too much.

If you’re already in the bag for this movie, there’s plenty of stuff you’ll like. I’m just not sure what the point of the whole thing is.

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Now in Theaters: April 2016

Right now, there’s a lot more good stuff playing at your local multiplex than you might expect. Here are some of my plot-free impressions of several interesting movies you can go see today.

 

THE WITCH

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If you missed it the first time around a few months ago, The Witch is back in multiplexes and for fans of genre filmmaking, it’s an absolute must-see. The film, from first-time filmmaker Robert Eggers, can be classified most accurately as a horror movie but doesn’t deserve to be lumped in with all the PG-13 jump-scare nonsense we’ve gotten so accustomed to lately. While The Witch is short on the sudden jolts, its atmosphere is shaded with ten layers of creepy and makes for a more deeply unsettling experience than just waiting for some pale, black-robed creature to come out and yell at you.

The Witch enjoyed a rapturous response at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, but the gushing hyperbole about it being the “scariest film of the year” led a lot of folks to have the wrong impression and not give the film the thought it deserves. Besides the lack of sudden spikes in the audio track, the film has an ending that has proved polarizing, but I’m completely on board with (and I won’t dare spoil) it. The Witch isn’t afraid to step into some fascinating and morally ambiguous territory, and while many horror fans apparently weren’t looking for it, there’s a morality play bubbling underneath the surface that’s just as troubling and fascinating as the movie’s claustrophobic imagery.

I typically avoid horror films like the plague, but I was so enraptured by The Witch,  I bought another ticket the same day. My second viewing of the film is easily the best theatrical experience I’ve had all year, and left me giddy and smiling. Dunno what that says about me, but I can’t recommend this film highly enough whether you’re into horror or not.

 

ZOOTOPIA

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If you haven’t seen Zootopia yet, where the hell have you been?! It’s a masterpiece. The newest feature from Walt Disney Animation Studios is almost certainly its best yet in a long line of winners since Disney’s merger with Pixar and John Lasseter’s reign as chief creative officer of Disney animation proper.  It’s lush, it’s deep, it’s culturally resonant in a way that’s almost shocking. The candidacy of Donald Trump and Zootopia do not exist in separate vacuums.

While the filmmakers and Disney will never say so, Zootopia is an intensely political film and it comes at a volatile and important period of demographic transition in our country. Like America, the city of Zootopia is a promising but imperfect place where ideals of promoting diversity and inclusiveness clash with the harshness of reality as different populations are made to coexist. Many characters, even ones we like, betray their own biases and have to learn from their mistakes and accept the consequences of their ignorance.

The film’s inter-species dynamics are specific and different enough from our society’s prominent racial biases that it’s easy for Disney to shrug off the allegory, but make no mistake: Zootopia leans to the left. And I love it for that. There are so many ways to tackle the film as it excels on almost every level, but its daringly progressive stance was the aspect I found most thrilling. If Zootopia achieves even a fraction of the cultural penetration that Frozen continues to demonstrate, we’ll be living in a slightly better world.

 

BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE

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Whoof.

Talking about this movie is tough for me, because quite frankly I was biased against it going in. I don’t like Zack Snyder’s aesthetic very much, and BvS bears his visual trademarks as much as anything else in his filmography. Predictably, it’s a washed-out, smoky and loud dick-waving contest. Having said that, the film is not completely without merit and if you’re a film fan or pop-culture connoisseur it’s required viewing regardless of its quality. The movie is called Batman v Superman for God’s sake, what are you going to do? Skip it? Just because a movie is bad doesn’t mean it’s not culturally relevant. I saw it twice just to make sure I didn’t like it.

My first viewing was conflicted experience. The opening title sequence features the murder of Batman’s parents (again) intercut against a restaging of young Bruce Wayne’s discovery of the Batcave from Batman Begins, except this time young Master Wayne is elevated, Christ-like, from the cave by a fleet of bats as the words “Directed by Zack Snyder” appear on-screen. I almost barfed. This cinematic atrocity is followed by easily the most interesting sequence in the film, as the film takes a different perspective on the final act of Man of Steel from Bruce Wayne’s point of view.

The third act of Man of Steel is highly problematic and those issues have been discussed in thorough detail from a variety of sources.  BvS attempts to atone and provide commentary for Man of Steel‘s wanton displays of destruction but muddles its message to the point where the intent is frustratingly unclear. Similar to its Marvel analog, Avengers: Age of Ultron, the film feels unfinished and in need of a 3-hour cut. This is a terrible precedent to be setting for event films. Several scenes feel unnecessary to the plot and are not interesting enough to stand on their own. Snyder also continues to indulge his embarrassing slo-mo fetish.

Batman v Superman is interesting, but unfortunately that is mostly due to its flaws rather than its strengths. I was drawn to Tomorrowland last year due to its trainwreck nature, and I feel similarly about BvS. It’s fun to wrestle with, but it is not a good movie. Sorry.

 

HARDCORE HENRY

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If this movie is for you, you probably know it already. Hardcore Henry distinguishes itself by being told entirely from the first-person perspective of the title character (i.e. GoPro helmets), and draws just as much, if not more, influence from the world of video gaming than other films. It’s a non-stop 90-minute barrage of bloody violence and profanity, and it’s hard to deny that can be a lot of fun.

As a project willing to actually break new cinematic ground, it can feel rough-around-the-edges at times in a way that is both refreshing and periodically annoying. Curiously, for a film told entirely from a character’s first person perspective I was expecting a lot more long takes, but almost every sequence is filled with cuts, even if it feels like only a few seconds of footage were removed.  The staccato editing style keeps up the ferocity and momentum, but this comes at the expense of  a real sense of geography in several of the locations. The plot is secondary at best, which itself is not necessarily a problem, but after a while it can feel exactly like an FPS in the wrong way: a progression of levels, NPCs (played mostly by Sharlto Copley in various ridiculous outfits) and ever-increasing hordes of baddies to slay. By the time the credits rolled, I was tired.

None of this is to say Hardcore Henry isn’t fun or worth seeing, because it is. I’m not a professional critic, but I go see a lot of films and watching something in a theater that is actually unique is an experience I’m always, ahem, game for. Go to a matinee screening with appropriate expectations, and you’ll have a good time.

(note:  I went to the Fathom Events opening-night screening of the film, and was given a prequel comic-book which fills in a lot of backstory for Hardcore Henry‘s villain that isn’t even hinted at in the film. The experience would have been much more perplexing without this background info.)

My thoughts on a few other current releases will be forthcoming soon, thanks for reading and stay tuned to this station.

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Thoughts: DEADPOOL is a (slightly) different kind of superhero movie

Deadpool is a film in conflict with itself.

The story of this movie’s greenlighting process is well-known at this point but it is a huge part of this film’s meta-narrative and internal struggle; Deadpool has both the freedom and burden of being the first studio superhero film developed due to popular internet demand. The film is pulled between two sets of demands: the need for this (ostensibly) niche product to make a demonstrable profit, and to please the hordes of fans who clamored for the Deadpool flick after leaked test footage from Comic-Con went viral.

So what’s the ruckus about? Different people will give you different answers, but at the end of the day it all boils down to the one thing about Deadpool (a.k.a. mercenary Wade Wilson) that makes him different from any other mainstream comic book character: he knows he’s a fictional character. This notion has tremendous dramatic power; unlike any other hero, Deadpool has the unique ability to elevate or completely derail any scene he is in at any time. By the character’s very nature, anything involving Deadpool is going to be deeply meta and the potential is limitless. Deadpool is also filthy and violent. He’s a member of the X-Men family of Marvel superheroes, and therefore falls under the purview of 20th Century Fox who eventually proved game enough to fund an R-rated film of this character, as is befitting his violent and crude nature.

In trying to please both the suits and the fans, Deadpool talks a big game while resting on the standard superstructure of pretty much every other Marvel Comics-related movie of the last decade. All the pieces are there, from the team-up with a few minor characters, to the plucky-but-still-imperiled heroine, to the bit at the end when stuff blows up. The film presents a recognizably standard superhero origin story, a little more graphic than what we’re used to seeing in this kind of movie but not particularly distinctive. Deadpool, both visually and aurally, fits neatly into the shiny Marvel aesthetic.

As a direct link between the reader and the story Deadpool has always served as an audience surrogate, making the MST3K-style jokes you’d crack with your buddies. The film’s running commentary is often very funny, but masks the fact that underneath the lewd exterior, Deadpool isn’t actually all that subversive. Everything you’d expect to see in a superhero film is here, and nothing I saw on screen actually surprised me. T. J. Miller is good, but feels a bit misplaced as comic relief to a character that’s already a clown. Morena Baccarin is delightful as Wade’s love interest (a new addition for the film not present in the comics), but by the middle of the third act is tied up by the villain like superhero love interests are so often wont to do.

Deadpool hits the ground running with a thoroughly clever title sequence skewering comic-movie tropes and barrels gleefully through an expanded version of the highway action setpiece from the original test footage, but begins to sputter during the flashback sequences detailing Wade Wilson’s metamorphosis. Once the film is solidly and the third act and things need to get resolved, the film loses some steam and ends on a bit of a weak note (although the post-credits stinger, some pure fan-candy, perks everyone up on the way out the door). Maybe I was expecting too much, but what I was hoping would be a new kind of superhero movie really was just a naughty version of what I’m already used to seeing, and this sort of thing no longer feels filling.

This isn’t to say the film is bad, because as far as comic book movies go Deadpool is pretty solid. It chugs right along and I never once thought about checking my watch. Ryan Reynolds has found the role that will define him. The jokes comes fast and furious, and just enough of them land. Some of the inside-baseball quips (at one point Reynolds quips about fondling Wolverine’s balls while affecting an Australian accent, the writers are credited in the opening titles as “The Real Heroes here,” etc.) are pretty refreshing.

I really did like Deadpool, and the fault may lie more with me wanting it to be an art film. I’ve seen it twice and both times the audience gobbled it up. It’s crushed all opening-weekend records for an R-rated film, and that’s without 3-D. All’s I’m saying is, Deadpool is good but let’s not get carried away.

David Thewlis voices Michael Stone in the animated stop-motion film, ANOMALISA

Review: The quiet devastation of ANOMALISA

Over the course of his film career, writer Charlie Kaufman (Being John MalkovichEternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) has proven himself exemplary at the fine art of making me feel like shit and like it. His latest, Anomalisa, continues this trend and marks another splendid entry into the Kaufman canon, blending quirky melancholy, absurdist fantasy and heartbreaking disappointment into a distinctively singular work. It’s also his first foray into stop-motion animation, and he utilizes the medium in a unique way that somehow makes the film feel more human than if the actors were human.

Anomalisa originated from a 2005 stageplay written by Kaufman and was funded in part from a Kickstarter campaign; it’s an intensely personal story he’s been harboring for a long time. Its origins on stage makes sense: the story is small, takes place in only a few setting with only a few characters, and over the course of about a day. Many scenes take place in real-time or close to it.

The film follows a middle-aged business traveler as he spends a night in a high-end Cincinatti hotel before giving a speech the next morning. Within the first few moments of the film, and without it ever being verbally stated, it’s clear the traveler, Michael Stone, is hopelessly lost in life (in a thematic echo to the story and as a nod to Kaufman’s long-standing interest in neuroses and mental disorders, Stone stays at the “Hotel Fregoli,” named after a delusion in which the sufferer thinks multiple people are actually the same person). That he meets the title character and they make a connection almost goes without saying if you’ve so much as seen a trailer, but the true joys of the movie lie in discovery, watching as the world is established and it becomes clear all is not as it should be.

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Anomalisa truly looks like no film that has come before. In a departure from the stop-motion medium’s typical flights of visual fantasy, Anomalisa takes place in an exhaustively realistic (and mundane) world in miniature. Besides the physical spaces the puppets inhabit, the film’s realism comes from its pacing and action. The first act painstakingly follows Stone as he lands in Cincinnati, has a useless conversation with his cabbie and checks in at the hotel. His check-in, in particular, is documented in one slow, methodical take that takes him from the front desk, up an elevator and down a hallway to his room over several minutes.  Nothing “of consequence” happens, but the effect is subtly powerful. In technical terms the “long take” is a bit of a fallacy in animation, but Anomalisa has a few of these very long sequences that contribute to the film’s heightened surreality.

It seems counterintuitive but this film, under the direction of Duke Johnson, depicts moments of emotional and sexual intimacy that are as frank and honest as any I’ve seen on film. The sex scene that has anchored much of the conversation in this film mostly transpires in another of those chilling long takes. If we’re going there, it’s easily the most graphic puppet sex I’ve seen since Team America: World Police.

Much of the joy of watching Anomalisa comes from slowly inhabiting the world, learning the rules and being present in intense emotional moments with the characters so I’ll go light on plot, but rest assured, the film leaves the same kind of emotional wreckage observed in the wake of Being John Malkovich or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Kaufman’s bleakly bittersweet persective on love and loss pulls no punches and leaves just as strong an impression as the truly unique design aesthetic. Highly recommended.