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Friday
Feb122016

Deadpool (2016)

Six Feet from the Edge

If you had no idea who Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) was two months ago, chances are you've at least seen him by now. It's hard to miss all the billboards, TV commercials, and irreverent viral videos the costumed antihero has turned up in. He drinks, swears, screws, and rattles off just as many one-liners as bullets while spinning through the air in slow motion. The inclusion of Colossus from The X-Men series might lead you to think that Marvel has made a bold step in shaking up comic-book movies, that Deadpool will herald a more "grown-up" era of hard-core, R-rated genre fun.

God, I hope not. The last things we need are more artificially outrageous, non-sensical versions of every other mainstream superhero origin story.

The first fifteen minutes are terrific, beginning with a suitably sarcastic voice-over, juvenile title cards, and a breathtaking mega-slow-mo panoramic of Deadpool fighting thugs in a truck as it sails through the air. These goons work for a mad scientist named Ajax (Ed Skrein), who transformed Deadpool from a cancer-ridden ex-Special Forces operative named Wade Wilson into an invincible, immortal mutant. The torturous process left Wilson scarred and even crazier than he was before. It also made him unable to face his hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold fiancée, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), for fear she'd be repulsed by his looks. He stalks her silently, hiding his horrible disfigurement in a hoodie when he's not wearing a stylish mask. Deadpool works his way up the underworld to find and kill Ajax, all the while being soft-recruited to the light side by do-gooder Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and a cranky trainee named Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand).

Deadpool constructs an Inception-style Jenga tower of flashbacks-within-flashbacks-within-flashbacks, in an effort to distract us from just how conventional its plot is. Despite some wry meta-touches (like referring to Reynolds' non-starter of a Green Lantern franchise, and a couple nods to Hugh Jackman and Hugh Jackman as Wolverine), most of the "jokes" amount to little more than profane Mad Libs targeted at 40-year-old men:

"Hey, [80s TV Personality], why don't you [Profane Verb] my [Profane Noun] like [90s Reference]?"

This struck me as odd, until I remembered that Deadpool's DNA is the early 90s. Created in 1991  by artist Rob Liefeld and writer Fabian Nicieza, Deadpool came onto the scene as Marvel Comics' "Merc with a Mouth", a kind of wise-cracking, morally ambiguous Spider-Man whose raison d'etre was being a badass.

Liefeld left Marvel to form Image Comics in 1992, helping launch dozens of would-be franchises starring a hundred Deadpool-like characters: tough-talking, brightly costumed vigilantes toting impossibly large guns and swords and superfluous leather pouches adorning half-a-dozen oddly placed belts. Within a year, Image largely abandoned the Marvel/DC model of actually telling stories, and became fixated on splash pages, with whole issues being comprised of double-page spreads wherein titans would punch, kick, and blast each other into oblivion--leaving just enough connective tissue at the end to suggest a continuation of the "narrative" the following month. It didn't take long for other publishers to catch on, rendering mainstream comics unreadable for half a decade.*

Image Comics also published Spawn in '92, and a big-screen adaptation followed five years later. In it, a Special Ops mercenary makes a deal with the devil and gains invincibility and immortality; the process leaves him horribly disfigured. Unable to face his beloved wife for fear that she'll be repulsed by his looks, he stalks her silently, hiding his horribly disfigured face in a hood when he's not wearing a stylish mask.

In 1993 (bear with me), the film True Romance came out. In it, a down-on-his-luck comic-book-store employee falls for a prostitute after an evening of great sex and better conversation. Deadpool's screenwriters hang their entire premise on replicating the Clarence/Alabama dynamic, since their love story drives Wade Wilson's crusade for revenge (sort of). The problem is, Reynolds and Baccarin's natural charisma gets lost in artifice, drowned out by a script that's more interested in time-jumping and cute voice-over than in helping us understand who these characters are, why they love each other, and why we should care that they do. Reynolds gets sufficiently scruffy and pulls off the Smarmy Idiot thing well, but Baccarin plays the prostitute-in-a-dive-bar role as if she were Jean Grey from the X-Men, studying for a kinky role-play date with Scott Summers.

The only bit of edge in Deadpool is Ed Skrein's Ajax, who may just be the best (and most criminally misused) villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.** We've seen his ilk before, in the X-Men films, but always as military men who cloak their twisted mutant experiments in nth-degree nationalism. Ajax is just a monster, himself a victim of science gone dark, who compensates for his lack of emotion and functioning nerve endings by toying with other poor saps' genetics. Skrein's scenes with Reynolds are terrifying, and give us a glimpse of the outrageousness Deadpool could have had, instead of just claiming to have.

Of course, Ajax won't be in the sequel. Of course, Deadpool takes him out after a long fight that takes place at great heights, against a backdrop of crashing, flaming CGI scrap metal. We end with just enough of a "narrative" hook to get us into a sequel--which Deadpool himself promises during a post-credits homage to Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

Again, with the references. For all its politically incorrect whimsy, Deadpool feels calculated to within an inch of its snarky, celluloid life. As I mentioned earlier, Reynolds appeared as a version of the character before, in the much-maligned X-Men Origins: Wolverine. An early cut of that film famously leaked onto the Internet and allegedly undercut its box office. We'll never know if the leak alone contributed to the movie's poor performance, or if the bad word-of-mouth ultimately scuttled the would-be Origins franchise. But I could easily see Fox executives hedging their bets against "Content Should Be Free" Millennials, focusing all their demographic humor on middle-aged comics fans, who may be more likely to go out and see a movie in the theatre, as opposed to simply streaming it. If you doubt this theory, ask the nearest twenty-five-year-old who Meredith Baxter Birney is.

Take out Deadpool's "extreme" violence, language, and sexuality, and you're left with another predictable story about an unconventional good guy in a red suit, fighting a bald, power-enhanced bad guy (see also Ant-Man, if you must). For much better examples of how to do R-rated Marvel anti-heroes properly, check out Punisher: War Zone and Kick-Ass. These are fun yet genuinely disturbing, black-humored adult stories that deal with the real-world implications of maniacs donning costumes to thwart (and perpetrate) crimes. Deadpool isn't a kids' movie by any stretch, but it was definitely made for man-children.

*This coming from a reader who consumed voraciously between 1987 and 2010.

**Yes, I know this is a pocket universe, and will remain so until Disney wrestles the last few Marvel properties from Fox.

Thursday
Feb112016

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Oh, Brother...

I've heard Joel and Ethan Coens' Hail, Caesar! described as a love letter to the movies. Here's the thing about love letters: it doesn't matter if they’re written on expensive stationery, drafted with a fancy pen, or infused with all the passion in the world—illegibility will leave the recipient feeling awkward instead of awestruck, disappointed instead of dazzled. The Coen Brothers' latest is a celebrity-packed, visually inspired period piece that doesn’t know what to do with all its big feelings about Old Hollywood.

Set in 1951, the film stars Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix, a movie-studio "fixer" entrusted with keeping stars and starlets on the marquees and out of the tabloids. From covering up an unplanned pregnancy; to digging up a last-minute leading man for a picture-in-progress; to discreetly solving a kidnapping case involving the studio’s biggest draw, this brief glimpse into Mannix’s world underscores his attraction to an “easier” job at Lockheed, overseeing development of its recently tested Hydrogen Bomb.

The Coens' recent dramedies A Serious Man and Inside Llewyn Davis are weird, compelling period pieces built around stuck, grumpy, first-world protagonists--men whose insecurities and desire for significance don't gel with their respective eras. Their plights echo through the decades in ways that both sting and inspire. This film's semi-dimensional characters and flimsy narrative execution is, to borrow a phrase from another Coen Brothers film, dumber than a bag of hammers.

A similar problem reduced the promising satire of Burn After Reading to a Stars Acting Silly vanity project, the Coens by way of Ocean's Twelve. In Hail, Caesar!, Brolin's perpetually furrowed brow and steely eyed cantankerousness sell the fatigue of a vaguely principled man who does bad things to keep horrible people rich. I imagine his Capitol Pictures existing in the same precinct as Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential. Indeed, one of Mannix's first scenes finds him busting up some late-night domestic shenanigans in similar fashion to Russell Crowe's compromised detective in that film.

The trouble is, Eddie Mannix is essentially Eddie Valiant from Who Framed Roger Rabbit: a human being plagued by real-world problems, trapped in a bubble with animated idiots. Between Scarlett Johansson's chain-smoking Betty Boop-type, George Clooney's handsome Hollywood airhead, and Tilda Swinton's amounts-to-nothing roles as twin gossip columnists, Hail, Caesar! goes sitcom-broad in pandering to modern audiences' perceptions of what old movies were like. We also get a predictably pat "Who's on First" routine between Mannix and a makeshift council of religious leaders, and a tiresome "Rule of Three" scene in which the Clooney character keeps almost sipping from a chalice of poisoned wine.

This early scene best illustrates the film's problematic Big Bang Theory approach. If you've seen television or other movies, you know precisely how it will play out--as well as the scene that follows, and probably the scene after that. There's nothing funny in the writing or execution. The "comedy" relies on A) our forgetting that we've watched this bit a million times, and B) recognizing actor Wayne Knight, who plays the saboteur. "Hey! It's Newman from Seinfeld! 'Hellloooooo, Newman! Ha! Still cracks me up!"

Instead of turning convention on its head, the Coens coast on good will. Llewyn Davis would have bailed on this movie, and punched the ticket-taker on his way out.

Contrast this with a handful of really smart, superbly acted scenes, and you'll understand my frustration. Alden Ehrenreich plays a cowboy-movie star recruited by Mannix to take the lead in a high-society drama for a high-class British director, played by Ralph Fiennes. The scenes between these performers are electric and hilarious, and work on several different levels. Their main gag together is middle-brow, but the actors convince us that they're playing other people riffing on the art of creating other people. I could have watched a whole movie devoted to Mannix trying to make something of the Ehrenreich/Fiennes debacle, and even the Ehrenreich character's budding romance with a lovely young actress (Veronica Osorio)--who he charms with what I can only hope is a real display of dazzling lasso-work.

But, no. The Coens insist on their lame kidnapping story as the film's through-line. Even that, according to the trailers, carried the promise of a bizarre, game-changing story. Mannix receives a mysterious ransom letter that claims to have been written by "The Future". Turns out "The Future" is just a group of pissed-off screenwriters who want to seed Tinseltown with Communist propaganda. It's a solid Plan B, I guess, but that story goes nowhere, too.

Hail, Caesar! is an episodic mess, a ninety-minute "This Season On..." tease for an HBO comedy that probably wouldn't convince me to buy cable. If there were a theatrical version of YouTube, I would definitely recommend checking out the production numbers and spectacular set pieces peppered in among the filler. The homages to 1940s and 50s filmmaking are fantastic, especially the two fun-writ-large scenes involving Channing Tatum, and Frances McDormand's brief moment of horror-comedy. But Hail, Caesar! is mostly a sad reminder that even great auteurs like The Coen Brothers aren't above the need of a fixer from time to time, a streamlining Cyrano who can make their emotions make sense.

Friday
Feb052016

Slash: Raised on the Sunset Strip (2014)

L.A. Squirt Guns

Slash has many great stories to tell, and he's very good at telling them. The people behind Slash: Raised on the Sunset Strip aren't very good at telling stories. I'm not even convinced they're really people, beyond the gross Supreme Court definition, which ascribes as muclh personhood to sponsors DirecTV and Guitar Center as to director Martyn Atkins. 

With its slim running time (71 minutes), oddly glossy production values, and scattershot narrative, Raised on the Sunset Strip lands squarely in the “docummercial” category. The first half is effective. We learn a bit about Slash's wealthy-Bohemian childhood; his friendship with future Guns ‘n Roses band mate Steven Adler (who introduced him to the guitar); and the early gigs that helped forge the rock god's reputation on the L.A. club scene. But there’s an Axl Rose-sized hole at the center of this story that sucks the life out of the rest of the show, leaving both filmmaker and audience spinning into a brightly colored, nonsensical oblivion.

Full disclosure: I appreciate Slash as a cultural icon, and I like what he did with G’nR. But I’m neither qualified nor passionate enough to call myself a fan. I went in to Raised on the Sunset Strip hoping to fill in some knowledge gaps, and gain a better understanding for why the film’s subject has had such a profound impact on rock music. It may be unfair to say this, but it’s the truth: I was spoiled by We Are Twisted Fucking Sister!, another rocker-profile doc I watched last week. That film so fully explored its subjects' personalities, context, and culture that I felt as though I’d become proficient in a foreign language by the end. I only had questions after watching Atkins’ film, and forgot most of them an hour later.

Here are a few that linger:

1. Is there an official style guide for the West Coast music scene, or does everyone just happen to wear the same Goth-teen costume? For a lifestyle that promotes individuality above all else, I had a hard time distinguishing between anyone who was not Joe Perry or Dave Grohl. Alice Cooper seems to have set the tone, which was copied by Nikki Sixx, and then Xeroxed endlessly down the line, with Slash’s current band, Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators, perfecting the blandness of the uniform: jet black hair, black t-shirts, tattoos, sunglasses, leather pants. I have nothing against any of these things, mind you, but I now understand why Slash adopted the top hat and aviator-shades look: to keep fans from wondering if he’s one of the bearded old guys trying to look twenty or one of the non-bearded old guys trying to look twenty.

2. What is Dave Grohl’s beef with Alice Cooper, and why is it in this movie? Cooper and Grohl have a little spat about grunge fans. More accurately, the editor cuts their spat together to comedic effect. It's very funny, especially Cooper's remark about "rounding up all the grunge fans and putting them on buses to Disnelyand". Like an outtake that never got taken out, the scene perfectly illustrates the narrative-cohesion problem I mentioned earlier. Right around the time everyone starts tiptoeing around Guns 'n Roses' history, the film cuts furiously between musicians talking about God knows what from various points in (or out of) the Slash timeline, desperately trying to make a meal out of appetizers.

3. Would I have cared at all, were it not for last month's epic Celebrity Dead Pool? Admittedly, a big part of my fascination with Raised on the Sunset Strip was seeing late, great music legends Lemmy and David Bowie in a documentary for the second time this week. The inclusion of Stone Temple Pilots front-man Scott Weiland (who passed last year), highlighted just how mortal rock icons can be, and how sparse the current landscape is. In fairness to Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators, I liked what I heard during the rehearsal/concert footage toward the end, but only time will tell if any of these guys warrant the full Guitar Center treatment.

The heart of the problem is there's simply not enough Slash in this Slash documentary. Between the off-the-rails talking heads, the unofficial Conspirators music videos, and the inescapable aura of affected, buttery privilege in each interview and interview setting, one could easily mistake this for a Nivea hand cream infommercial*--or a fan club video targeted at selling members-only access for upcoming tour dates. If you're looking for an unguarded, in-depth look at Slash's career, in his own words, check out his episode of The Movie Crypt Podcast instead. It's free, it's two hours long, and it rocks.

*The interviews with Slash are especially crisp and beautifully lit. I can see why Shout! Factory opted to put this out on Blu-ray, even though I can't recommend a blind buy.

Monday
Feb012016

We Are Twisted Fucking Sister! (2014)

Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll

Before watching Andrew Horn's documentary We Are Twisted Fucking Sister!, the only thing I knew about the titular 80s glitter band was that they'd had a couple big hits and that front man Dee Snider became a reality-TV personality in subsequent years. I was too young and too uncool to appreciate Twisted Sister in their heyday, and "We're Not Gonna Take It" stirred nothing more in me than childhood flashbacks to Gung Ho and Iron Eagle (which featured the rock anthem). I approached this film as a fascination, expecting a fluffy, sensational Behind the Music-style journey of fame, excess and burn-out. Instead, I found a resonant and utterly engrossing chronicle of artistic struggle that ranks among the best films I've seen in awhile.

The band got their big break in 1982, playing a condensed, profanity-free set on a Brit-pop TV show called The Tube. Horn opens with a clip from that show, and then rewinds to a decade earlier, when Snider wasn't in Twisted Sister, and the band's identity was still fluid. Guitarist Jay Jay French envisioned a group that had the glam and stage presence of New York Dolls or David Bowie, but who could really play hard-driving rock n' roll. Hence, the hair, the makeup, the attitude--along with fickleness, betrayal, and the distractions of a rock lifestyle that are more conducive to partying than creating art. French reluctantly appointed himself lead singer just to keep his dreams moving forward.

Then Snider joined. A sassy but sheltered Long Island kid who loved music and craved attention, he clashed with French, who was ostensibly wiser in his age, and certainly intimidating as a force in the band. Horn cuts together some great anecdotes of those early days, almost moderating a conversation between Snider and French, who we never see interviewed together. That's not to imply there is or isn't some lingering animosity (my knowledge of the band stops where the film does), but there's an odd rapport between filmmaker and subjects that suggests Snider and French, in talking about each other, are talking to each other through Horn.

Despite their differences, the musicians shared straight-edged sensibilities that helped them navigate all the craziness that was to come. Neither drank or did drugs, and Snider has been in love with his wife, Suzette (also Twisted Sister's costumer), since they met during a gig nearly forty years ago. While other band members quit or were replaced due to substance abuse and violent tendencies, French and Snider focused on raising the bar and boosting the band's profile. Twisted Sister performed relentlessly, gigging five- and seven-night weeks for ten years, and developing a fan base that would travel for hours to see them play a crappy dive bar.

At their pre-global-fame height, the band was the top act on the New York rock-club circuit. Horn interviews several old-school fans (one of whom leans up against what I can only hope was a recently cleaned urinal), who share stories of being ridiculed for liking such a weird-looking, obnoxious rock group in an era where disco was king. These devotees found each other, and recruited more music lovers to check out Twisted Sister. By 1980, the band was selling out club after club, moving up the chain to the coveted 3,000-5,000-capacity venues--all without a record deal or legit radio play. Their success (as argued by some, including Twisted Sister) can be attributed partially to music, and partially to an outrageous escalation of stage antics, from hanging Barry White in effigy during their "Disco Sucks" era, to their unofficial "Club Destruction Period" (which is exactly what it sounds like).

That's a high-level view of the beginning of Twisted Sister's journey. You'll have to let Horn fill you in on the rest. I can almost guarantee you've never heard such messed-up, almost-famous rock stories told by such colorful raconteurs (rockonteurs?). But don't worry, this isn't just a talking-heads piece. Like an analogue version of Amy, We Are Twisted Fucking Sister! is an immersive media tapestry that employs collage, rare show footage, interviews, and text to create an indelible experience. Cell phones and 24-hour media access weren't a thing back in the late 70s, but Horn appears to have scoured the Earth to find every bit of memorabilia, every snippet of a performance, and every articulate storyteller with first-hand experience of that time and place to construct his accessible yet head-spinningly complex narrative.

I can imagine another rock biopic confining the entirety of this film to an off-the-cuff mention of "lots of bar gigs, lots of deals that didn't go through". This movie isn't interested in the artifice of stardom and worldwide popularity. At the end, Horn teases that lots more drama found its way to the band after they hit it big. But Snider, French, and the other members of Twisted Sister speak passionately about the leading-up-to days, the dingy, sweaty times of uncertainty in which they proved to themselves that they were worthy and capable of drinking their naysayers' milkshakes. We Are Twisted Fucking Sister! isn't just an unmarketable title for a movie. It's a call to action for artists of all stripes, a declarative rebuttal to the crippling voice of self-doubt that asks us every day, "Who the fuck are you?"

Friday
Jan292016

Lazer Team (2015)

Earnest Goes to Camp

Remember when Amazon only sold books, movies, and music? Or when Netflix just shipped DVDs to your home? YouTube has joined the entertainment revolution, evolving from a novelty video-sharing site that gave people the opportunity to "Broadcast Yourself" into a largely lawless media galaxy of pirated content, sanctioned content, and funny cat videos. Now, they make movies.

It's fitting that Lazer Team, one of YouTube Red's* first "original" productions, is little more than a re-packaged collection of references to other films strung together by an equally Xeroxed premise. YouTube's users get away with this all the time, uploading mainstream movies in chunks so their friends can skip right to the best parts. Lazer Team models itself as a classic regular-guys-band-together-to-save-the-world comedy, in the vein of Ghostbusters, Independence Day, and Men in Black. Unfortunately, there's also some Green Lantern and Pixels in the mix.

Co-writer Burnie Burns stars as Hagan, a small-town Texas sheriff who never got over losing the Big Football Game in high school. Neither did his former best friend, Herman (Colton Dunn), now the obnoxious town drunk. Herman and his skinny-rube drinking buddy, Woody (Gavin Free), provide Hagan no shortage of grief, as does the current local football star, Zach (Michael Jones), an alcoholic moron who has somehow wormed his way into the heart of Hagan's daughter, Mindy (Allie DeBerry).

The four main players find themselves in the middle of a field one night. Zach is locked up in Hagan's patrol car (the result of a drunken brawl), while Hagan tries to stop Herman and Woody from lighting illegal fireworks. The biggest rocket goes off and, while careening into the beautiful night sky, collides with an alien spacecraft that was about to land at a nearby military base. The aliens, you see, are a race of noble creatures who'd planned to deliver a power suit to the Earth's super-secret "champion", a brave, intelligent defender against a pending invasion of ruthless space monsters. Instead, the suit winds up with our sloppy protagonists, who are each unwittingly gifted (actually grafted) with a single piece of glistening white armor.

Hagan gets a laser shield. Herman gets a pair of super-speed boots. Zach gets a laser-blast gauntlet. And Woody gets a super-helmet, which grants him all the knowledge of the universe--and a British accent because "that's what smart people sound like to stupid people." Before anyone can figure out just what the hell happened, Zach has Tweeted, Facebooked, and Instagram-ed a picture of the guys in their sweet new gear, dubbing them "Lazer Team".

This doesn't sit well with the military, who must change tactics and train Hagan's men to be Earth's mightiest heroes. Their coach is a real Captain America-type named Adam (Alan Ritchson), who was bred to wear the suit, and told that he was destined to save the planet from annihilation. Cue the wacky training montages. Cue the rival alien team covertly landing and possessing another team of soldiers. Cue Hagan and company disbanding and then reconstituting during Mankind's Darkest Hour. Spoiler Alert: things turn out okay, and the filmmakers leave the door wiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiide open for a sequel (more on that in a minute).

Here's where things get complicated. I don't like Lazer Team as a comedy, but I really like the cast and the ideas that peek through all the references and lifted material. Burns, co-writers Chris Demarais, Josh Flanagan, and co-writer/director Matt Hullum spend too much time on dick jokes and making sure we know that they know about the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Come to think of it, this movie would have worked much better as a feature-length version of Item 47. In that short film, which was included on the home-video release of the first Avengers movie, average citizens discover some leftover invading-alien weaponry and get into trouble. Imagine if Lazer Team were given the Marvel treatment: a legit action movie, punctuated by levity, with the "real" Captain America having to train a new generation of average-Joe superheroes.**

As it stands, Lazer Team could use a lot more Galaxy Quest and a lot less "Guardians of the Galaxy Best Jokes Clips Pt 5". Hullum, Burns, and company have created a slick, well-acted, and deep-down-earnest effort. The sequel's story could propel this charismatic cast in a hundred interesting directions. I can only hope for an action-comedy so original, so brain-tickling, that people will be anxious to watch it over and over again--and not just on YouTube.

*Do not confuse this with "RedTube"--especially if you're at work.

**It'd be far more interesting than watching the same costumed franchise-bearers video-game the crap out of each other for six movies.