Sunday, September 30, 2018

A Mild Case of Sequelitis: "Deadpool 2" (2018)

I really really loved the first "Deadpool" film. The shock at that foul-mouthed, winking, bloody film surprised even a normally jaded me, and I liked that Ryan Reynolds finally found a vehicle custom fitted to his talents. The inevitable sequel was announced around the time the first film came out, and some bumps occurred on the way (the original director dropped out, cast member T.J. Miller's dangerous off-screen antics) before this hit theaters and was a smash hit. Put on the brakes, Thanos, because while "Deadpool 2" is a fun time here and there, the shock and awe is muted here, and that old "I've seen this all before" feeling begins to seep in.

**A few spoilers ahead** Deadpool AKA Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds, who also co-wrote this installment) is bloodily killing bad guys around the globe. He gets to go home to his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) before she is killed by one of Deadpool's enemies. Wade goes into a deep depression, attempting suicide in the opening flash-forward scene, but his healing superpowers won't let him off himself. Cue a reason to live in the form of a mutant named Firefist (Julian Dennison), who is in the process of destroying the mutant reform school he was being tortured in. Also, cue our hero's nemesis, Cable (Josh Brolin), who arrives from the future to kill Firefist now before an adult Firefist kills his family in the future. Firefist and Deadpool are captured and have their powers taken, with Cable still out gunning for the boy. Eventually, Deadpool forms an "X-Force," hires a bunch of burgeoning heroes, and decides to save Firefist and the day!

The film's many trailers covered most of the X-Force angles, but what was not expected is what happens to the team, save for Domino (Zazie Beetz, who pulls off her deadpan line delivery to perfection). Domino's superpower is "luck," and the unconcerned look on her face during giant violent action sequences is hysterical. There is a final battle back at the reform school that holds no surprises...

Also holding no surprises is the majority of the running time of this film. There are many a hilarious cameo (Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, the cast of the last couple of "X-Men" films that I didn't feel bothered to see), and Reynolds is in fine form. He made Deadpool all his, and with his and other cast members' asides, this movie feels like an episode of "Mystery Science Theater 3000" if the bots and either Joel or Mike had entered the film and were commenting and involved in the plot line. The supporting cast keeps up with Reynolds very well, with running jokes a-plenty (X-Man...trainee, Leslie Uggams' Blind Al aiming her gun in the wrong direction) as well as bizarre sequences that somehow work in this world (Deadpool's baby legs- a scene you may never forget).

However, "Deadpool 2" gave me the same feeling I had watching "Anchorman 2"'s anchor fight scene- loved the first one, but this time they tried too much, and it fell flat. For every laugh out loud moment I had, I cringed at Jared Kushner and "Fox & Friends" references, both of which felt completely out of place. Deadpool is such an un-PC character, his reaction to Negasonic Teenage Warhead's (Brianna Hildebrand) lesbianism is funny, but this is a Hollywood film, and we have to toe the Liberal line, which suddenly doesn't make Deadpool so dangerous. His unpredictability was a huge character trait in the first film, here his jabs elicit a yawn (and the child molester character Deadpool says looks like Kushner looks more like Steve Buscemi than anyone). Same with the reform school superintendent's religious hang-ups. Why not make him Catholic while you're at it? In all the stories over the years about online sexual predators, how many have had a strong religious heretical background? Christianity is an easy religion to mock, Hollywood continues to do it all the time, here they even pick on "The Passion of the Christ."

Hey, I loved the first film because I didn't have to be confronted with these kinds of glaring smacks to the face, but in this day and age of a Donald Trump presidency, it's going to happen. Another thing that has happened is that I haven't set foot in a theater since the wife and I caught "Zootopia" because I'm tired of all the insults (that's why I simply don't watch new network television shows, and even entire networks, ever). I don't have cable, just over-the-air channels, Netflix, Amazon Prime, and almost a thousand films on DVD and videotape. T.J. Miller, who is funny as Weasel in both films, is currently in the throes of career self-destruction. It's hard to watch and laugh at a performance, but also knowing he settled out of court with an Uber driver after physically assaulting him for supporting Trump.

So, yes, these small offenses begin to take their toll and add up. Sometimes they aren't glaring, but they do turn off. If there is a third installment in the series, get back to the spirit of the first film. Take a breath and punch that screenplay up again. I'd rather spend this review praising the outstanding action scenes here, or another awesome turn from Karan Soni, instead of miring myself down in Liberal minutiae. It doesn't really matter, this was a smash hit and I even purchased the blu-ray disc, but like most everything else coming out of Hollywood these days, I'm going to take a long pause before checking out a lot more of their product. I used to pick up one or two new releases a week on video, now it's more like one or two a year. I give "Deadpool 2" (* * *) out of five stars. This is MPAA rated (R) for strong physical violence, strong gun violence, strong gore, profanity, brief male nudity, sexual references, strong adult situations, drug use, alcohol and tobacco use.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Good Will Faltering: "After Earth" (2013)

While not the unmitigated disaster it was made out to be upon its initial release, "After Earth" is an interesting, violent failure yet completely watchable.

Will Smith is Cypher Raige (yeah, I know), a legendary military general. Earth has become uninhabitable, and mankind has moved on to a new planet populated by giant human killing alien monsters. Raige has the ability to show no fear (the aliens feed off the pheromones released), and thanks to that unique ability, has risen in the ranks. His son, Kitai (Jaden Smith), wants to follow in his father's footsteps, but isn't getting advanced at military school. As Cypher prepares for one final uneventful trip before retiring, he takes Kitai along, as well as a captured and contained alien creature.

The uneventful quickly becomes eventful, as the spaceship crashes, leaving just the Raiges alive. Cypher's legs are broken, and he must send his son out to retrieve a distress signal which is buried in some wreckage a hundred kilometers away. Oh, and not only has that creature escaped, but the spaceship has crash landed on Earth, which now teems with genetically mutated animals that are also looking to kill some humans.

Will Smith's name is all over the credits- coming up with the story, co-producing, and starring. M. Night Shyamalan's direction is assured and confident, which camera movements that feel natural. He is not credited with any scripting, so those looking for a Shyamalan twist ending will be disappointed. Doing some further reading, Smith had hoped this would open up a multimedia franchise that would revisit this look at humanity a thousand years from now, but the audiences didn't show up, and the film was panned.

The biggest complaint I heard when this was released was about the performances. Teen Jaden Smith plays a teen very well, but I do agree that Will Smith is not good here. His idea of stoicism and being emotionally distant to his family (Sophie Okonedo is his wife), is to show absolutely no emotion and to deliver his lines in a monotone. Hollywood is filled with films about military men who do show emotion even though their first love is the military. As an Air Force Brat, I can tell you I never saw any personnel act like this. Maybe the silent assassin/military man of the future acts this way, know-it-all? Granted, but does that mean teen boys of the future will still act the same way as teen boys of today, as Jaden Smith's performance makes clear?

The computer generated special effects were also a distraction. The pacing was swift until the last half hour or so, when things began to derail, and while I am aware that the military salute is very important in the military, I would like to call a moratorium on the "you've earned MY respect" salute (complete with swelling orchestral fanfare) that permeates many military-themed films.

Yeah, not a great film, but definitely not a disaster, either. It would be interesting to see the longer cut of the film, or look at some of the material that was prepared to launch this "After Earth" franchise. It's a shame so much time and effort was wasted on such an endeavor. I'll give this (* * *) out of five stars. MPAA Rated (PG13) for strong physical violence, gore, and adult situations.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

A Few Minor Missteps: "Alive and Kicking" (1997)

The terminally underrated Jason Flemyng plays a dancer with AIDS who falls for someone unexpected in this dramedy.

Flemyng is Tonio, a dancer in London who is watching seemingly everyone around die from the disease. Infected himself, he and his dance troupe try to power on through a difficult performance under the mentally unstable eye of Luna (Dorothy Tutin, offering up a touching performance). Tonio meets the mysterious Jack (Antony Sher) at the funeral for his mentor/friend Ramon (Anthony Higgins), and learns Jack was counseling Ramon through his fatal diagnosis. Tonio and Jack begin to see each other, and complications arise almost immediately. Jack is HIV-negative, so physical sexual contact is difficult. Tonio throws himself into the upcoming performance, but his body begins having other ideas. Jack has issues of his own, drinking and smoking too much, perhaps racked by guilt that he does not have the very disease he is trying to coach others through. Tonio and his best friend Millie (Diane Parish) confide in each other as Tonio and Jack fight and make up ad nauseam.

While the performances are great all around, Tonio and Jack are hard characters to like. Tonio expresses his emotions through his dancing, but when he isn't onstage, watch out. Jack begins drinking his feelings away, asking Tonio some hard-hitting questions (why aren't you angry? would you have given me a second look if you weren't sick?) that both Jack and the viewer never get answers to. The dance troupe and Jack's counselor friends are all cliquey, and that does repel (again) both the men and the viewer. This isn't a "bad" thing, but where the film does falter is in its romantic conventions in an otherwise uncoventional romance. Jack and Tonio go away on vacation (if I see one more scene of someone's ashes getting scattered, and blowing back onto the person doing the scattering, I will scream). Their bickering gets tiring, and the film's pacing begins to suffer since we know the outcome of what will happen in the next scene. Fight, make up, fight, make up, fight, make up...

Flemyng was Dr. Jekyll in "The League of Extraordinary Gentleman," and was one of the best things about that film. I could imagine him in a Bond/007 villain role. While he expresses all of Tonio's emotions facially and physically, his voice is velvety deep and rich, but slightly monotone (think Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter). His Tonio isn't flighty and light, his bitchiness has an edge even in lighter moments (such as the droll scene where he and lesbian Millie decide to throw caution to the wind and have sex, or his tantrum before a performance). I didn't like the original title, "Indian Summer" (the name of the production that Tonio and Millie are in), as well as the American "Alive and Kicking," which sounds like a documentary about a spunky troupe of octogenarian tap dancers.

Nancy Meckler's direction is good, but Martin Sherman's script is tonally off-putting. Trust me, I'm an expert at unlikely romantic pairings, and while Tonio and Jack go through the paces, I found myself checking the clock once in a while. If anyone else but Flemyng had been in the lead role, you probably could knock a star and a half off my rating- (* * * 1/2) out of five stars.

MPAA Rated R for profanity, some female nudity, some male nudity, sexual content, strong sexual references, adult situations, mild drug use, strong alcohol and tobacco use.