Thursday, February 11, 2016

A dirty-talking origins story from Marvel

Deadpool brings us an energetic but cynical superhero.

I've mostly had my fill of Marvel Comics heroes, even when they strike caustic anti-hero poses as is the case in Deadpool. But fairness compels me to add that, at its best, Deadpool is a winking, sharp-eyed entertainment that turns rampant self-awareness into a sustained goof.

I make no claim to understanding fan boy mentality, but I'm betting Deadpool will strike a nerve with comic-book devotees without generating much by way of cross-over interest.

Stocked with enough sex jokes to make Seth Rogen blush, the movie serves up the kind of R-rated material that's bound to keep everyone's inner adolescent happy as it tells the story of Deadpool, a character Ryan Reynolds first played in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009).

Reynolds reprises and extends his portrayal of Wade Wilson in an origins story that explains how Wilson became Deadpool, a mutant superhero with a face that looks as if it caught fire and someone tried to put it out with a brick.

So how did Wilson go from being a hunky young man to a superhero so physically repulsive he has to wear a red suit and a mask to cover his body and face.

It's a sad story. After being diagnosed with terminal cancer, Wilson yields to temptation. He agrees to allow a character known as Ajax (Ed Skein) to perform a life-saving procedure on him. It works, but leaves him permanently disfigured.

That's a major problem for Wade, who believes that his girlfriend (Morena Baccarin) most likely will bolt when she gets a look at his defaced kisser.

Reynolds does his best to give Deadpool extra kick as he transforms from a cynical, wiseass mercenary into a cynical, wiseass superhero who's out for vengeance.

At times, Deadpool even speaks directly to the audience, letting us know that his character understands when the movie is doing stupid superhero stuff that threatens to become generic.

Director Tim Miller adds plenty of action, some of it slickly mounted, and includes scenes with X-men: Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Briana Hildebrand) and a hulking creature called Colossus. They try to recruit Deadpool for more noble enterprises than those in which he's accustomed to participating.

A lot of how you react to Deadpool depends on how funny you find it and how taken you are with Miller's approach, underlined from the very start with opening credits that are meant to be taken as a self-referential joke.

I'd put the movie's humor average at about 500, but an excited preview audience probably would disagree with me, and Deadpool surely will score better than Ryan's last foray into the world of comic books, Green Lantern (2011).

With its R rating, snide humor and abundant violence, Deadpool turns its origins story into what looks like an off-the-wall helping of edgy fun. Sometimes, it even is.

Another visit from Derek Zoolander

Ben Stiller revives a character that should have been left alone.

The original Zoolander (2001) became a cult favorite in the days when you still could find a Blockbuster store at which you could rent a weekend's full of dumb comedies. Here we are, 15 years later, and you'll have to go to a multiplex -- at least for a while -- to catch the even dumber sequel, Zoolander 2.

But there's dumb funny, and just plain dumb, and after you chuckle at renewing your acquaintance with the movie's collection of "ridiculously good-looking" dopes, there's not much left to tickle the funny bone in this amped-up rehash.

I suppose ardent fans of the first movie will turn out, but despite the return of Ben Stiller (as Derek Zoolander), Owen Wilson (as Hansel), Will Ferrell (as Mugatu) and the addition of Penelope Cruz (as an Interpol agent, fashion police division), this one proves overproduced and undernourished.

The movie opens with the collapse of the Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can't Read Good and Who Want to Learn to Do Other Stuff Good, Too. The building, a holdover from the first movie, falls into the East River.

A series of newscasters -- Katie Couric among them -- tell us that Derek's wife (Christine Taylor) died in the collapse. An incompetent father, Derek soon loses his son to social services and retreats to a cabin in the frozen wilds of extreme northern New Jersey.

He's so dispirited, he can't even do his patented Blue Steel look anymore.

We also learn that Hansel, Derek's modeling rival, has retreated from the limelight; he's ashamed to show his face, which was scarred when the Zoolander Center crumbled. Hansel now lives in the Malibu desert among of tribe of misfit nomads that includes Kiefer Sutherland and others who try to buoy Hansel's by catering to his taste for orgies.

Derek and Hansel soon are summoned to Rome for a big modeling job that could resurrect their faded careers. Zoolander goes so that he can prove he's capable of raising his 11-year-old son, played by Cyrus Arnold.

A series of cameos from the likes of Kristin Wiig, Sting and Benedict Cumberbatch doesn't do much to add merriment.

Justin Theroux, who appeared in the first movie, also turns up, as does Billy Zane, but the movie almost seems as if it's satirizing itself rather than poking fun at the world of high fashion.

The first movie had some difficulty expanding what began as a sketch into a full movie, and this one struggles even more with a Rome-based story involving the murder of pop stars and a plan to eliminate such fashion icons such as Vogue's Anna Wintour, Tommy Hilfiger , Vera Wang, Valentino, Marc Jacobs and others. Perhaps because they're good natured, these gods of fashion appear in the movie; they may live to regret it.

And, no, Donald Trump who did cameo duty in the first movie, skipped this one.

The fun wears out quicker than a fashion trend, leaving us wondering why anyone thought it would be a good idea to revive characters who should have been allowed to remain favorites of their zealous fans while leaving the rest of the world alone.

To be young, ungifted and single

A mush of romcom cliches and self-assertion.

Burdened with a generic-sounding self-help title, How to Be Single proves as superficial as most of the characters it tosses into a romantic stew about recent college grads exploring New York City's social scene. That means they spend lots of times in bars and often can be heard delivering the kind of breezy but forgettable dialogue that it took three screenwriters to concoct.

The movie is based on a 2008 novel by Liz Tuccillo, who also wrote He's Just Not That Into You, another book that was made into a movie. Tuccillo also worked on Sex and the City, and it's possible to view this bit of movie mush as Sex and the City for people who are still paying off their college loans. Don't take that as an endorsement.

Dakota Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey) plays the central role, a young woman who breaks up with her college boyfriend (Nicholas Braun) so that she can live alone and discover her identity.

Johnson's Alice lands a job as a paralegal at a law firm where she meets Robin (Rebel Wilson), a woman who has dedicated her life to sex, partying and trying to turn herself into the kind of crude character usually played in ribald comedies by Melissa McCarthy.

Alice's older sister (Leslie Mann) is a doctor who never wants to have a relationship or a family, a sure sign that before the movie ends, she'll have both.

The men in Alice's life are an essentially sorry lot. A bartender friend (Anders Holm) is so thoroughly committed to being single that he has devised ways to keep six partners from lingering in the morning; i.e., don't look for food in his fridge.

An attractive real estate developer (Damon Wayans Jr.) can't talk about his late wife with his young daughter, and can't communicate with Alice, either.

A secondary plot involves another newbie to adult life; Allison Brie's Lucy has but one ambition: She wants to get married.

Movies such as this always require at least one of the men be a too-good-to-be-true stalwart. This time, the job falls to Jake Lacy, who plays a man with a good heart, an unreasonable devotion to Mann's character and no apparent flaws.

True to form, the movie tries to redeem its comic sputtering by tacking on a bit of instruction: Alice must learn how to be comfortable being alone.

Fair enough, but couldn't the writers have been generous enough to give poor Alice a credible career path? Is she condemned to a millennial limbo of subsisting on the economy's fringe?

Appealing in the Pitch Perfect movies, Wilson becomes an irritant in a one-note performance as Johnson's BFF.

Occupying the movie's center, Johnson puts in the kind of mandatory effort required of characters who are finding their way to a self-asserting conclusion that you can see coming from several bar stools away.

To the movie's credit, a couple of turns aren't quite so predictable, but it doesn't take much thought to realize that most of the characters in this film need no coaching on how to be single. They're not especially interesting. So who'd really want to live with them anyway?

An invasion Michael Moore supports

If you were gainfully employed in Italy, you'd get 30 days paid leave every year -- if you had a job, that is. Italy's unemployment rate hovers around 11 percent.

You'll only learn the first part of that statement from Michael Moore's Where to Invade Next, a jocular European travelogue in which Moore visits a variety of countries to show us some of the civilized perks they enjoy. I take that back; they're not perks, but accepted parts of what's considered a normal and decent life.

As is often the case with Moore's approach, you won't get a whole lot of context for the stories he tells. Where to Invade Next seems intended less to make us think deeply than to stir the fires of our discontent.

Not only are we now supposed to look at the one percent with a mixture of resentment, envy and righteous anger, we're supposed to look at Europe and wonder why our lives are so stressful and depleted that we can't even enjoy life's simple pleasures.

Take the Ducati motorcycle factory. This Italian enterprise gives its employees two hour lunches. Most of them go home to enjoy a hearty meal with their families. They don't gobble sandwiches in their cars as they race from one appointment to the next.

And, yes, it gives you pause, providing you're not one of those folks who would view lunch with the family as a less-than-invigorating prospect.

The list of Moore's discoveries is long. College education is free in Slovenia. A French school serves its pupils lunches that look very much like gourmet meals. Norway has a prison system that doesn't rob inmates of their dignity. Finland has one of the world's best school systems, but the country's teachers don't believe in homework. They think kids need time to be kids. They don't believe kids have to be little achieving machines.

Moore builds all this information (and more) around a somewhat flimsy comic idea: He's going to invade many countries, steal their best ideas and bring them back to the US. He'll conduct the kind of invasion that will succeed where so many of our military adventures have failed.

Considered Moore's most upbeat film to date, Where to Invade Next is really a collection of stories tailored to make us wonder about the inadequacy of so much of American life.

That's fine -- as far as it goes.

Moore doesn't, however, talk about why the countries he visited are able to do the things they do and why we aren't.

Let's consider school lunches. I recently listened to my grandkids talk about what they eat in school. Let's just say their comments ranged from disgust to disbelief to descriptions of dishes that they thought defied all known gastronomic classification.

Would I rather they hate well, and at a pace that allowed them to digest what they've consumed? Of course. But if we had a national school lunch ballot initiative that would require even a modest tax increase, would it pass?

And who's going to fight for American workers? Depleted unions? A Congress that has little time for anything other than repealing Obama care?

Don't get me wrong. I have no answers here, but Moore at least should have raised some of these questions so that his film could have been more than a breezy series of cherry picked anecdotes -- no matter how entertainingly told.

Ingrid Bergman, Up Close and Personal

Swedish director Stig Bjorkman has assembled a documentary that pays tribute to one of the screen's greatest stars, Ingrid Bergman. Using letters Bergman wrote to friends, as well as interviews with her children, Bjorkman fashions Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words, a bio-doc that reminds us of two things: How breathtakingly beautiful Bergman was on screen and what an independent spirit she was off camera. Fortunately, for Bjorkman (and us) Bergman took lots of home movies that show her in a variety of settings. Bergman's letters and portions of her diaries are read by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, who intensifies Bergman's presence in the film. Bergman's life wasn't always easy: She was three when her mother died and 12 when her father passed away. She had a busy romantic life, and survived a major scandal when she had a child with Italian director Roberto Rossellini before the two were married -- to each other, that is. Suddenly, the angel of the cinema became the whore of the tabloids. Bergman and Rossellini had three children, including actress Isabella Rossellini. Retired television journalist Pia Lindstrom, also interviewed in the film, was the child of Bergman and Swedish surgeon Petter Lindstrom. Because of career-induced absences Bergman probably didn't qualify as the ideal mother, but her children mostly speak fondly of her. They seem to remember her more as a fun friend than a parent. As we learn, Bergman may have had only one abiding love in her life -- the camera. No wonder, then, that she talks reverentially of working with Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart and Alfred Hitchcock. For a time, she really was living the dream -- and millions of moviegoers lived it with her.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Coens take on '50s Hollywood

Great cast, but Hail, Caesar! is enjoyable only in bits and pieces. Fortunately, some of those bits are inspired.

Despite the exclamation point in its title, the new Coen brothers film, Hail, Caesar!, isn't the sharpest or most emphatic of their many amazing efforts. A collection of sketches that both satirize and celebrate Hollywood of the 1950s, Hail, Caesar! lands the Coens in what for them is strange terrain: They've come up with a middle-ground addition to their idiosyncratic oeuvre with -- and this deserves underlining -- touches of entertaining brilliance.

There's a whisper of a story here: Fictional Capitol Studios finds itself in the midst of a major production. The movie is called Hail, Caesar!, and it carries the same heavily freighted subtitle as Ben-Hur, A Tale of the Christ. The plot, which offers echoes of The Robe focuses on a hardened Roman officer who eventually sees the light, rapturously submitting to a new faith when he encounters Christ on the cross.

Capitol's mega-buck epic stars Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), a slightly dissolute movie star who is also slightly dim.

During the filming of a scene, Whitlock is drugged and spirited away by extras who demand a $100,000 ransom. As it turns out, they are rebels with a cause, leftist screenwriters enamored of the Soviet Union who meet regularly to be lectured by Professor Marcuse (John Bluthal), an unveiled reference to Herbert Marcuse, a hero of the New Left during the 1960s.

It falls to Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the studio's tough but perpetually burdened mogul, to return Whitlock to the set so that his mega-production can wrap. Eddie's part businessman and part fixer, a guy who's accustomed to covering the tracks of the studio's frequently wayward stars.

Eddie Mannix is modeled on a real-life MGM studio fixer of the same name. Here, Mannix is treated as decent but beleaguered man who's trying to keep the studio from running aground -- not an easy task when its stars have a penchant for landing themselves in embarrassing positions.

As Eddie puts out one Hollywood fire after another, he also entertains an offer from Lockheed, which wants to give him a high paying job that would allow for a more regular and presumably respectable life.

Now, very little about the plot matters. What makes the movie palatable are several winningly ludicrous snippets from Capitol's movies. Think of them as footnotes that are more interesting than the main body of the work.

One of the best involves a bone-headed decision to turn the studio's acrobatic cowboy star into a romantic lead, jamming him into comedy in which characters dress to the nines and speak in the kind of faux British -- or British-ish -- accents that were popular in some movies during the '30s and '40s.

Director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) is stuck with this egregious piece of miscasting. The scene in which Laurentz tries to prepare cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) for sophisticated patter might be enough to justify the price of admission.

The same goes for brief appearances by Tilda Swinton, who plays two roles -- gossip pedaling, twin columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker. Listen to the way Swinton says Eddie's name, giving it a twist that evokes the pleasures of a whole era of studio filmmaking.

And if you don't smile during a production number featuring Channing Tatum as a tap-dancing sailor who, along with his shipmates, contemplates life at sea without "dames," you're in an even worse mood than I usually find myself in.

And then there's a broadly comic bit involving Frances McDormand as C.C. Calhoun, a chain-smoking film editor.

For me, those were highpoint to be savored, along with numerous small touches.

Alas (to be as stilted as some of the dialogue in Capitol Studio's productions), not all of the sketches work so well. Though beautifully produced, an Esther Williams' style swimming number featuring Scarlett Johannson might have been included just to show that the Coens could do it.

Johansson plays DeeAnna Moran, a pregnant movie star who forces the studio to find ways to cover the fact that she's not married. Her story eventually leads to Jonah Hill, whose role amounts to little more than a forgettable cameo. Hill plays Joseph Silverman, a man who specializes in "personhood," a joke that's not really worth the trouble of explaining.

In A Serious Man, the Coens took on religion; their attempts to do the same here aren't nearly as rich. The movie opens with Mannix in a confessional booth where he establishes himself as a serious Catholic who's addicted to confession. Mannix feels guilty because he lies to his wife about having quit smoking, but his real guilt comes from working so hard to support a morally dubious and often lunatic enterprise.

Stretches of Hail, Caesar! proves only mildly amusing and some of the humor built around the Hail, Caesar epic struck me as more obvious than we expect from the Coens who've taken swipes at Hollywood before, notably in the feverishly brilliant Barton Fink.

Hail Caesar! may not rank at the top of Coen's impressive list, but it should do nothing to sour anyone on their work. My advice: Treat the movie as a smorgasbord. Pick what you like; forget the rest.

Hunting 'Treasure' in Romania

The Treasure, a subdued film from Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu, opens a window into contemporary Romanian society, revealing a less-than-rosy picture that's marked by economic duress, bureaucracy and a few lingering mementos of the Communist era.

That may sound like a formula for an explosive political movie, but Porumboiu (12:08 East of Bucharest and Police, Adjective) seldom pushes the dramatic pedal to the floor. He's interested in quiet desperation, but he sees it through a sensibility that's so attuned to absurdity, it has become almost commonplace.

Costi (Cumin Toma) lives in a cramped Bucharest apartment with his wife and son. He likes to read the boy stories about Robin Hood, an activity that's probably meant to remind us of the moral of a popular folk tale: Rob from the rich; give to the poor. This may be ironic.

One evening, Costi is approached by Adrian (Adrian Purcarescu), a neighbor who wants to borrow 800 euros. The neighbor doesn't plan to use the euros to pay debts or stave off hunger. He wants to rent a metal detector and search for a treasure that he believes his great grandfather hid on a rural property that Adrian shares with his brother and mother.

The evidence supporting Adrian's treasure claim hardly could be skimpier, but Costi joins Adrian's quest. He'll pay for the metal detector, and, in return, will receive half of whatever treasure the duo unearths.

Costi rents a metal detector and hires a man (Corneliu Cozmei) to operate it. He sets out with Adrian to find what he may hope will be life-changing largesse.

The protracted scenes of treasure hunting are dryly funny, and nicely conceal the fact that Porumboiu has a few surprises up his sleeve.

I began by saying that The Treasure is about Romanian society; it is, but by the end, you may have remembered that it's not only Romanians who make half-baked decisions based on inadequate information.

No fair telling more, but know that Porumboiu wisely ends his film in a way that's either crazy, instructive or redemptive. Maybe all three.

Another look at wayward priests

A difficult, perplexing and punishing movie from Chile.

Just what the Catholic Church needed, another reminder about wayward priests.

Like it or not, Chilean director Pablo Larrain has weighed in on the issue of church scandals with an odd and difficult movie that focuses on four defrocked priests, a nun, an inquisitor from the Vatican and a greyhound dog.

The movie's quintet of exiled religious rogues lives in the isolated coastal town of La Boca. They've been sent to this sleepy, seaside village for a mixture of punishment and penance -- and to be hidden from public view.

Things seem to be going smoothly enough until a new resident arrives. The others rightly see the presence of this recently defrocked priest as possibly disruptive. It doesn't take long before one of the town's fishermen -- a former altar boy -- is outside the house screaming at the new arrival, describing -- in excruciatingly graphic detail -- the way in which he was sexually abused.

Clearly disturbed, the priest responds by shooting himself in the head.

That's a bit of a spoiler, but you should know that most of the movie involves the repercussions felt by these sinning priests and the wily nun who tends to them.

The situation becomes critical when another priest -- this one a representative of the church -- arrives to conduct an investigation.

It should be noted that the men are free to leave; they're not prisoners; they've consented to this strange banishment, a situation in which none totally admits to wrongdoing. They seem to reinforce their communal sense of denial.

The priests still observe Catholic ritual, but they allow themselves one diversion: They train and race a lone greyhound, putting their winnings aside for expenses.

Larrain tries to see these priests in clear-eyed fashions. They're flawed men burdened by bitterness, defiance, self-aggrandizement and, in one case, dementia, but they're not particularly remorseful.

The former altar boy, whose relentless taunts echo throughout the movie, wobbles his way through the story as the church's representative conducts his inquiry.

It takes some time before we get any sort of handle on this interrogator, who has his own ideas about how to balance compassion with the institutional need of the church to insulate itself from scandal.

I can't say that I totally understand the ways in which Larrain plays with symbolism; a bizarre and difficult to watch late-picture event -- part sacrifice, part punishment -- makes a cruel piece de resistance to a cruel, arduous and, I'm afraid, perplexing exercise in bleakness.

Larrain's movie is commendably serious, but it also brims with the kind of rabid determination that feels as if it's rebuking those who might raise even the mildest of objections to its thoroughgoing rancor.

Of course, no one approves of pedophile priests or a clergy that collaborates with torturers, but The Club seems to regard aberrant behavior as an excuse to flagellate not only the movie's characters, but the audience, as well.

If I had to articulate a point to all of this, it might be that every status quo will go to great lengths to preserve itself and those whose interests depend on it, and that, in the process, there will be pain.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Bland on land; better at sea

In the rescue film The Finest Hours, it's the storm that stars.

In 1952, a small Coast Guard team attempted to rescue members of the crew of an oil tanker that had been sheared in half during a vicious winter storm off the Cape Cod coast.

This story of heroism and high seas adventure makes a natural movie subject, and for the most part, Disney's The Finest Hours gives it decent enough treatment. Moreover, the fact that the story may be unfamiliar to most audiences adds a bit of freshness.

It's also true that The Finest Hours can tend toward blandness whenever the crew of a small boat isn't battling the ferocious waves of a nor-easter as it tries, in what seems to a doomed mission, to make its way out of a harbor and into storm-tossed seas.

Chris Pine plays Bernie Webber, a by-the-book member of the Coast Guard, which -- in the movie -- seems like a cottage industry staffed by locals who know the potentially treacherous Atlantic coastal waters.

Pine goes for all-American, cereal-box steadiness, and, achieves it, perhaps the point of boredom.

The rest of his three-man crew are mostly treated as props along for a February ride that -- if nothing else -- leaves you feeling chilled to the bone.

Ben Foster, an actor capable of high intensity, is pretty much wasted as one of the crew's members, and Eric Bana, with a southern accent, doesn't do much to distinguish himself as the Coast Guard station's commander. He's clearly ignorant about New England waters, but insists on having his way.

The fate of the ship that's under duress lies in the hands of a boiler-room engineer, Casey Affleck's Ray Sybert. After the ship -- The Pendleton, by name -- breaks apart, the stoic Sybert must convince his comrades that their best opportunity for survival rests on running the ship aground.

Sybert's shipmates don't trust him, and some argue that everyone should take to the lifeboats, a move that would bring about instant death in impossibly rough waters.

Affleck is not an easy actor to cast; here, his quiet brooding turns him into the movie's least routine character. Eventually Sybert figures out a way to maneuver what's left of the ship toward a shoal.

Holliday Grainger turns up as Miriam, a love interest for Pine's Bernie. She cajoles him into an engagement for which he professes not to be ready, and then spends the rest of the movie worrying that he'll be lost conducting a rescue mission that the town's craggy older residents believe is ill-advised.

Director Craig Gillespie too often leaves the high seas to follow Miriam's efforts to discover what's happening to her fiancé.

But in a way, none of what I've just said matters all that much because images of half of a four-story ship tossing in the seas or of a 36-foot boat trying to make it out of the harbor to find the lost vessel are what count the most.

The movie's ocean sequences are good enough to make The Finest Hours an acceptable -- if not great -- piece of January entertainment.

A footnote: I got no extra kick from the 3D presentation; The CGI storm was enough to hold my interest.