Monthly Archives: February 2016

Deadpool — 5/10

DEADPOOL (2016, Tim Miller)

“Shit-spackled muppet fart” is a phrase that would have had me giggling at age 14. All of those words are funny separately, and put together it’s a slam-dunk juvenile laugh riot. But now that I’m old and jaded and boring, it’s impossible not to realize that a) that phrase makes no sense on several levels; and b) it’s easy and lacks the real wit that causes me to laugh these days.

Fortunately, for every time the protagonist in DEADPOOL says “cock-gobbler,” there’s a real joke that works. Whether it’s a line of dialogue comparing a shaven-head emo-teen to Sinead O’Connor or the self-reflexive opening credits (that say stuff like “produced by a bunch of asshats,” or labeling Ryan Reynolds as “God’s perfect idiot”), there’s enough solid comedy to keep stuffy adults like me from totally checking out.

Fundamentally, this is a vapor-thin origin story with two basic acts: hero is tortured and mutated, hero gets revenge. There aren’t many characters, the villain has no real motivation, and the love interest is a cliché with some updated lines of vulgarity to keep in spirit with the rest of it. After the fast-paced opening 30 minutes, the ideas start to die out and it’s a chore to get to the predictable climax. The stakes are low, the tastelessness is high, and the instrumental score is noticeably bad. (The ironic use of adult contemporary/soft rock, however, in the form of Juice Newton, Wham!, and Chicago, is hard not to smirk at). From the writing team that gave us the equally violent, meta, and humorous ZOMBIELAND, it’s easy to tell if this is gonna be your thing or not. Also, your ability to handle Ryan Reynolds operating at Smart-Ass Level 11 matters a great deal. (I don’t mind him in VAN WILDER mode, or his sitcom Two Guys, A Girl, and a Pizza Place, but I prefer him when he’s really acting, like in the terrific BURIED). He’s certainly game to poke fun at himself: at one point he says “You think Ryan Reynolds got where he is on his acting method?” He also lambastes his own participation in GREEN LANTERN and the BLADE franchise. DEADPOOL is a compilation of throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks. If you don’t mind that what they’re throwing is shit and blood, have at it. Because half of it sticks, and half of it stinks.

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The Witch — 6/10

THE WITCH (2016, Robert Eggers)

[Some spoilers below, so beware]

Frustratingly close to being a great movie, THE WITCH can’t quite summon the depth to match its compelling content. No surprise to learn that Eggers is an art director, costume designer, and production designer — the work in those categories here is tremendous. Not only the supposedly-accurate period research (I say “supposedly” because I wasn’t actually alive in the 17th century, despite my aging body), but also the crisp look of the film, from the photography down to the harmony between the locations, actors, and effects. This is one cool-looking piece of work.

And for a while, it’s very provocative. Here’s a look at a family of Pilgrims, banished from town into nature, where they set up a farm and try to survive on the land. But of course they run into some trouble in the form of a supernatural force in the woods, which slowly tears the family apart. Eggers makes sure to show us how the unraveling is the result of a series of lies, withholdings, disloyalties, and harsh blame. The witch(es?) may only be the impetus: it’s human nature that’s the real problem.

And I probably would have liked it if the movie didn’t even have anything supernatural in it: if it were just a story about a family who suffers from their own tragic flaws, it would be pretty great. But I’m not criticizing this film for being something other than what I wanted. For me to tackle the movie Eggers actually made, I need to look at the reason for the witchcraft in play. And while you can make plenty of arguments that witches represent the only alternative for women in a society that represses them, there isn’t enough justification in the text. While Caleb is fascinated by his sister’s burgeoning womanhood, Thomasin herself never displays any endangered sexuality, only a desire not to be sold off by her parents in town. So that metaphor is half-baked. And the tacked-on ending (how great would it have been to end with her head on the table?) could be read as a happy one (now she’s liberated; better to be a demon than a Calvinist), but it’s ridiculous in practice, especially the shots of C-grade theater people writhing around a fire like in a bad musical. Also, if Eggers is criticizing religious zealotry for putting this family in the predicament in which they find themselves, why let them off the hook by justifying their paranoia? However, despite the ultimate failings of the material, THE WITCH is put together well enough that I will be in the front of the line for Eggers’s next project.

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Hail, Caesar!: Reevaluated

HAIL, CAESAR! (2016, Coens) — now 7/10

I have only seen HAIL, CAESAR! once, but I still want to adjust my grade on it because I basically haven’t stopped thinking about it since I saw it. My objections to the entertainment value remain, but my appraisal of its intellectual value should have been given even more weight. Basically, what I’m saying is I think it’s too smart to dismiss as the mediocrity I incorrectly labeled it as.

After watching THE WITCH yesterday (review forthcoming), I started thinking a lot about religion and its place in modern cinema, and all that did is move me back onto the track of HAIL, CAESAR! Because the points I made in my earlier review should have extended to thoughts of how the art of cinema itself is in its own way a type of religion. There’s so much to this film that analogizes the production of Hollywood movies to institutionalized religion. Eddie’s flirtation with the Lockheed job represents his crisis of faith, and his ultimate decision to stick with Capitol is a return to the “church” of Hollywood. So like a fundamentalist he abuses the now-Communist-minded movie star and berates him into serving The Lord: movies.

What Clooney’s Baird Whitlock does next is deliver a speech in the film within the film that has its crew members gasping in awe. They know it’s bullshit. They know this is a script. They know it’s fiction. But they give in to it anyway. Isn’t that what organized religion is? A large group of people being fed a series of bullshit myths, that they all know deep down are fiction, but choose to believe anyway because of their faith. We go into that darkened theater and worship at the altar of the moving image; suspending our disbelief to engage with fantastic stories and silly narratives that help us deal with the meaninglessness of the real world. Just as the ideas of God and Jesus (and whatever else the clergymen in HAIL, CAESAR! are babbling on about) are myths constructed to explain inexplicable senselessness of the human condition and a hostile, indifferent universe, so are movies a way to spend two hours coping with the absurdities our lives have become. They sweep us away, escapist or not, so we can let artists turn their individual thoughts into universal experiences for masses. [Before I get religious people too mad at me, I’m just saying what I think the Coens are saying — not trying to inject my own agnosticism or existentialism into this, though I guess it’s hard not to]. When science fails to explain the injustices of the world to us, we turn to holy books and made-up stories. And when our fellow man and daily tasks fail to satisfy our yearnings for meaning, we turn to well-told stories on screen to fit the bill.

Every set onto which Eddie walks to see a movie in production contains a grand effort by dozens of craftspeople, almost all artificial, in the service of something that looks real and convinces the audience. (Refer to my earlier review for an analysis of the film’s series of artificialities). All of this hard work to trick us. Because if humans have no religion, if they have no outlet to justify things that if inspected too closely would have us peering into an endless black hole, then life is too brutal to face. And movies, they can be a similar tonic. Even when they’re harsh and realistic, they’re man-made. Someone else, suffering what we’re suffering, is talking to us through art. Sharing with us. And when they’re fluff, they’re an enjoyable, ephemeral answer to the blunt nihilism outside the theater. Cinema: the opiate of the masses.

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Hail, Caesar! — 6/10

HAIL, CAESAR! (2016, Joel & Ethan Coen)

Early on, a screening of a rough cut has two missing elements: one is the crew credits, the other is God, identified by a slate that reads something like “Divine presence to be shot.” This is a very Coen move — first, the double meaning involved with “to be shot,” and second, the idea that what’s missing in the movies are credit and religion. Later, a movie star delivering a powerful monologue forgets a word in his line: that word is “faith.”

This lack of faith runs throughout HAIL, CAESAR! and the theme becomes a huge weight on its shoulders. The narrative begins and ends at a Catholic confession (the opening shot of the film is Christ nailed to the cross), and the eponymous picture being filmed on the lot is a Biblical epic told from the Romans’ point of view. But the movies and Hollywood itself are filled with lies, sins, and artifice, and that crisis mostly falls on Josh Brolin’s lead character Eddie Mannix. Mannix thinks he’s pretty bad, even going to confession over the guilt he suffers from smoking a cigarette or slapping a movie star. But what we learn over the course of these two hours is that everything is phony: the handsome kid with the bright smile wears dentures; the girl-next-door starlet is knocked up by who-knows; the sailors on screen do a homoerotic dance during a song about how much they’ll miss their women; the All-American Navy boy is a Comrade in the Communist Party. A film director keeps correcting Hobie when poor apologetic Hobie mispronounces his name, but the director calls Hobie “Herbie.” Even the would-be intellectual Communist writers don’t know what they’re talking about, can’t agree on anything, and despite wanting to liberate from their capitalist opressors, they keep telling each other to shut up.

And while all of this behind-the-curtain charade-revealing is being done, the constant reminders of religion, the lack thereof, and the unreliability of any given system are blinking lights around the screen. (Even a meeting between Mannix and four men of the clergy devolves into petty bickering and semantic one-upsmanship). The ultimate effect of all of this Very Deep Subject Matter is that it drops a heavy wet blanket onto the entertainment value of what looks on the surface like a light-hearted, fleet-footed screwball comedy. If only the script had the snap of the Coens’ sensational 2003 farce INTOLERABLE CRUELTY; instead it hisses air like a flat tire. Only a few scenes bring the film to life, almost all of which involve explosive star Alden Ehrenreich (the “Would that it were so simple” bit should be most-talked-about, I’d imagine). But when Clooney is blathering on about shaving Danny Kaye’s back, or Scarlett Johansson is hitting on Jonah Hill, or the Communists are bloviating… the movie just sits there and dies: a flavorless serving of intellectual nutrients without the exuberant taste that would come with a funnier script. And although there’s a lot to process here, and although I admire having as much to think about as I did with A SERIOUS MAN or INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, what I wanted was to eat a cobb salad with bacon, egg, chicken, and avocado — but all I got served was a kale caesar.



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Southbound — 6/10

SOUTHBOUND (2016, various)

Starts off quite strong, building a world that’s creepy and consistent. “The Way Out” (directed by Radio Silence) is brief but creative and spooky, leaving us waiting for more (which comes at the end with “The Way In,” but doesn’t provide the answers we’re hoping for). Roxanne Benjamin’s “Siren” moves quickly and accelerates to a batshit ending (part of that pace may be credited to editor Jason Eisener, who’s directed plenty of solid horror shorts and features himself). The middle segment, David Bruckner’s “The Accident,” is the film’s high point — a marvel of sustained tension and confusion, acted impressively by longtime comic actor Mather Zickel. But then things slow way down in the undercooked, pointless, and inexplicable “Jailbreak” by Patrick Horvath. The anthology is unable to recover despite a nice structural trick with “The Way In” that makes the form of the movie mirror its circular content. Still, some clever moments of dread throughout and the memorable peak of “The Accident” is enough to push this anthology above lesser brethren like V/H/S and THE ABCs OF DEATH.

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