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.

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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.

Review: Hail HAIL CAESAR!

Why is it coming out in February?

That was the thought swimming around in the back of my mind as I saw all the amazing trailers and promo spots for Hail Caesar!, the latest directorial project from the Coen Brothers. It looked good, had an amazing cast, Coens writing and directing, Roger Deakins behind the camera, why was this film getting buried after Oscar nominations come out?

The answer quickly became apparent as I watched: it’s too fun for the awards circuit. Hail Caesar! is a straight-up slapstick comedy, designed more for the purposes of joy and laughter than any kind of deeper philosophical or thematic conquest. A lot of jokes involve people falling down or getting slapped in the face. It’s not quite as outlandish or broad as The Ladykillers (there’s no equivalent to the “you brought your bitch to the muthafuckin’ Waffle Hut!” moment), which is good, but it’s fun and silly while still retaining that unique Coen artfulness.

As is any project shot by Roger Deakins nowadays (most recently his Oscar-nominated work on Sicario comes to mind), Hail Caesar looks gorgeous. The film is presented in a tall 1:85:1 aspect ratio (think 16×9 TV as opposed to traditional matted widescreen) and has a warm celluloid glow to it. Several sequences take place on film sets and feature “in-camera” shots presented in full-frame Academy ratio for authenticity. Scarlett Johansson’s elaborately-staged entrance is particularly striking in the unusual ratio. There are several repeated visual motifs (clock and watch faces, a particular camera angle used in the tracking shots where Josh Brolin interacts with his dutiful secretary) that hint at the cruel drudgery of the period’s constant chaos (Hail Caesar! takes place in roughly one day of film time).  Hail Caesar marks Roger Deakins’s return to shooting on film (though don’t get used to it), and the decision makes perfect sense for the post-war era in which the movie takes place.

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Tilda Swinton and Josh Brolin in Hail Caesar! (Universal)

Performances are stellar across the board, but what else could be expected from Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Jonah Hill, Ralph Fiennes, Alison Pill and Tilda Swinton (playing twins!) being directed by the Coens? It’s clear everyone is having a great time and the material is whip-smart. Channing Tatum, with little dialogue and only a few minutes of screen time, threatens to run away with the entire movie. His tap-dance extravaganza, hinted at in the trailers, is the scene to beat this year.

The story revolves frantically around a Hollywood studio fix-it man (Brolin) who goes about his day solving casting problems in various pictures, hiding his testy stars’ indiscretions from the public and attempting to free a ransomed actor (Clooney) who needs to be on set to avoid production delays. Characters and their problems flit in and out, contributing to a patchwork, sometimes intersecting, sometimes not.

The film has an interesting sense of comedic timing, and several moments stand out that I wouldn’t dare spoil. Suffice to say, sometimes the jokes come rapid-fire but a few are very slow burns. There are a ton of visual gags and there’s no lack of pratfalls and physical comedy. For a Coen joint it’s remarkably tame, and only even got a PG-13 rating for smoking (not going there today) and a few mildly dirty jokes. You can take your mom.

It’s not going to be the best film of the year or anything, but Hail Caesar! has a lot going on and shouldn’t be dismissed just because it looks like a zany comedy. It’s still a Coen Brothers film and has the requisite brains to go along with its charm and good looks. Go see it with a crowd.