Friday, May 25, 2018

Deadpool 2: Lacking in Wisdom, But Still Cracking Wise

Zazie Beetz, Ryan Reynolds, and Terry Crews in "Deadpool 2"
The dirty little secret of Deadpool was that, for all its supposed subversiveness—the meta commentary, the vulgar jokes, the extreme gore and relentless profanity—it largely proceeded as a straightforward superhero origin story. So it’s only logical that Deadpool 2 abides by the Law of the Sequel, doubling down on the original’s purported irreverence while also methodically expanding the franchise’s universe and setting the stage for further installments to come. If you deemed the first Deadpool to be an anarchic laugh riot, you’ll likely be sated by this follow-up’s well-stocked buffet of ad-lidded one-liners and bloody carnage. And if, like a certain humorless critic, you found the original to be a mildly clever, philosophically vacant sketch concept that quickly wore out its welcome, well, at least you still get to spend a few hours hanging out with Ryan Reynolds.

Reprising his role as Wade Wilson, the potty-mouthed assassin with a red leotard and a severely burned face, Reynolds receives a co-writing credit this time around (shared with Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, who scripted the first film), suggesting that the affable actor improvised acre-sized swaths of his dialogue. (In fact, given that Wade spends most of his time wearing a head-to-chin mask, it’s fair to wonder if Reynolds just muttered “insert wisecrack here” while on set, then looped in his gag of choice during post-production.) Here he favors a high-volume approach that seems rooted in the ZAZ school of comedy, the notion that if you keep the jokes flying fast enough, you’ll land enough punches to keep the audience in stitches. And he does land his fair share; apologizing to his girlfriend for arriving home late, Wade explains, “I was fighting a caped badass, but then we discovered that his mom is named Martha too.”

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Tully: My Queendom for a Nap, or a Nanny

Charlize Theron in "Tully"
Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody are good with words. Reitman’s first feature, Thank You for Smoking, was an acid satire about an amoral lobbyist with the gift of gab; for his next, Juno, he took Cody’s zinger-filled script and turned it into a sweet study of teenage loneliness and connection. But it’s telling that in Reitman and Cody’s subsequent collaboration, Young Adult, the jokes flowed slower as the characters got older, the rapid-fire one-liners replaced by caustic insults and grim observations. The trend continues now with Tully, a warm and thoughtful meditation on family and motherhood that’s less antic but no less resonant. Sonically speaking, if Juno was a clatter of snickers and shouts, Tully is a heavy sigh, the deep breath that you exhale as you collapse onto the sofa at the end of a long, hard, numbingly familiar day.

If this suggests that Tully is a wearying experience, well, it is and it isn’t. Certainly, Reitman and his star, Charlize Theron, articulate the film’s atmosphere of groaning exhaustion with discomfiting clarity. But there is pleasure, too, and not just the satisfaction of watching Theron work. (It is nigh impossible to reconcile the perpetually tired matriarch we see here with the ass-kicking secret agent of Atomic Blonde.) No, the real joy in Tully derives from watching a movie that intimately understands its characters, and that treats them with empathy and generosity.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Avengers: Infinity War: Everybody Must Get Stones

Benedict Wong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey Jr. in "Avengers: Infinity War"
Vaulting through the interplanetary air, sticky webs shooting from his genetically altered wrists, Spider-Man issues a sincere apology. “I’m sorry,” he says to his plummeting compatriots as he slings gobs of gummy goo at them, yanking them out of their falls and saving them from certain death. “I can’t remember anyone’s names.”

Can you blame him? The nineteenth official installment in the gargantuan compendium known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Avengers: Infinity War arrives as the ultimate crossover event, a superhero greatest-hits collection most notable for its sheer tonnage. No fewer than eight major characters here have already headlined their own standalone films, while countless others—all played by recognizable actors—have carved out sizable territory as villains, foils, squeezes, and sidekicks. The closing credits sequence alone feels like a breathless roll call, cramming as many high-profile names above the fold as possible, just so nobody’s agent complains about their client getting the shaft.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

You Were Never Really Here: Out for Blood, But Lost in Fog

Joaquin Phoenix as a sullen killer in Lynne Ramsay's "You Were Never Really Here"
Action-packed but not kinetic, stimulating but not engaging, immersive but not intimate—Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here might be described as an anti-thriller. Its plot, which is essentially Taken by way of Taxi Driver, features a handful of genre staples: a rugged but troubled hero, a girl in peril, a cadre of reprehensible evildoers, crushed skulls and buckets of blood. But while the movie hits all of the familiar revenge-narrative beats, it does so in decidedly offbeat ways, preferring to linger in the unsettling spaces that bubble up between the requisite moments of violence and mayhem. It’s less interested in elevating your pulse than in digging under your skin.

This approach has its rewards. You will surely see more exciting movies in 2018 than You Were Never Really Here, but you may not see a more distinctive one, and there’s intrigue in the way Ramsay upends expectations and shows you something creepy and new. But her assaultive style has limitations, too; when viewed from a certain angle, her commitment to jaggedness is less suggestive of a disciplined artist abiding by her principles than of a smug director refusing to entertain her audience. The result is a film that’s easy to admire but difficult to, you know, actually like.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Beirut: Watch the Terrorists, and Your Back

Rosamund Pike and Jon Hamm in the spy thriller "Beirut"
For a movie purportedly concerned with the strife and factionalism that have ravaged its war-torn central city, it’s telling that Beirut opens with a scene of hobnobbing luxury. The year is 1972, and we’re at a lavish dinner party where the host, Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm), is schmoozing effortlessly with his well-to-do guests. He’s regaling them with some Lebanese history, and while his tale—a loaded parable about uninvited immigrants chafing an entrenched citizenry—may be troubling, his tone is buttery velvet, his face all smiles. It’s a productive dissonance that proves to be an apt metaphor for Beirut itself, a film that strives to be profound and discomfiting and settles instead for being broadly, almost inadvertently enjoyable. As brokered compromises go, the Middle East has seen worse.

The most obvious source of this accidental pleasure is Hamm, who plays Mason with a twinkly intelligence that nicely complements his patented superiority and world-weariness. As sketched in Tony Gilroy’s uneven script—which punctuates that initial soiree with a fatal spray of gunfire before fast-forwarding ten years—the Mason of the present is a classic redemption case, a morose drunkard who scarcely resembles the cheery mingler from a decade earlier. Hamm articulates Mason’s superficial glumness well enough—and it doesn’t get much glummer than mediating labor disputes in a rainy Boston suburb—but he’s better at revealing the smooth operator underneath, the intuitive poker player who once served as one of his country’s top diplomats. Mason, who may be the highest-functioning alcoholic in recent cinematic memory, is too up on his game to be down in the dumps.

Friday, April 13, 2018

A Quiet Place: Staying Alive, with Mouths Shut and Eyes Open

John Krasinski and Noah Jupe in "A Quiet Place"
We begin with a stark title card: “Day 89.” A family prowls through a deserted pharmacy, the mother scanning labels on vials while the kids amble through the aisles and pluck goodies from the shelves. It’s a familiar scene to fans of apocalyptic fiction, the dusty sills and sparse surroundings recalling similarly ominous openings from movies like 28 Days Later and I Am Legend. The key difference here is that the characters, plainly well-versed in this foreboding new normal, take special care not to make any noise whatsoever. Yet before long, a mistake is made, a sound is blared, and in the blink of an eye and the rustle of some leaves, a life is taken.

And with this brief and riveting and ghastly cold open, A Quiet Place announces itself as an expertly conceived and executed horror film, perhaps the best of its kind since It Follows. Combining a knockout premise—stop, hey, what’s that sound?—with white-knuckle set pieces and a bracing degree of economy, the movie both elevates your pulse and digs under your skin. It’s scary, sure, but not so scary that it prevents you from admiring it as a polished, fiendishly inventive piece of pulp art.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Isle of Dogs: Barking Mad, and Canines Too

Bryan Cranston leads a pack of tender beasts in Wes Anderson's "Isle of Dogs"
In Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, a corrupt and bigoted politician mongers fear to stigmatize a vulnerable class of citizenry, which he then unilaterally deports to a faraway land for the supposed safety of his voter base, despite scientific data demonstrating that this marginalized sect poses no threat to the populace. Also, there are talking dogs.

Anderson’s films are typically too micro-focused to toy with big-picture ideas, but this isn’t the first time he’s dabbled in political allegory; his last movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel, smuggled a poignant anti-fascist message inside its candy-colored packaging. The politics in Isle of Dogs are more pointed, the parallels to contemporary figures more easily drawn. But it would be a mistake to reduce this whimsical, stupendously well-made film to its symbolic elements. Anderson’s themes may be partisan, but his exquisite craftsmanship knows no ideology, except maybe perfection.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Ready Player One: For These Teens, It's Game On or Game Over

Tye Sheridan and Olivia Cooke in Steven Spielberg's "Ready Player One"
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: An intrepid young man, living in a dystopian future, must use his pluck and ingenuity to defeat a powerful villain whose mercenary greed threatens our hero’s livelihood, along with the rest of the planet’s. In so doing, he will assemble a ragtag team of similarly disenfranchised youths, one of whom will catch his eye as a potential love interest, another of whom will support him with weapons and wisecracks. Foes will be vanquished, bonds will be forged, and while setbacks will surely be suffered (tertiary characters may even be killed), in the end, the world will almost certainly be saved.

Ready Player One, the robust and flawed film adaptation of Ernest Cline’s immensely popular book, doesn’t so much follow this familiar script as live inside it. It envisions a universe where the very act of engaging with popular art—mostly playing videogames, but also watching movies and spotting references—becomes the fulcrum of its story. It’s a recursive premise that’s less interesting than it sounds, primarily serving as the excuse for a non-stop parade of pop-culture allusions and winking asides. And perhaps in an alternate dimension—maybe one reached by traveling through some sort of vaguely defined wormhole whose laws are breathlessly explained to us in a bout of foggy exposition—Ready Player One would have been a piece of hackwork that turned out to be a tedious, imitative slog. But in our reality, it’s better than that, because in our reality, it’s been directed by Steven Spielberg.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Unsane: One Blew Into the Cuckoo's Nest

Claire Foy in Steven Soderbergh's iPhone experiment "Unsane"
A daub of acid on an exposed nerve, Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane is a charmingly nasty piece of work, full of rich colors and garish shocks. It’s a proudly ridiculous B movie, one with little sense and lots of blood. Soderbergh has made far better films—just last year, he delivered Logan Lucky, a spry and surprisingly tender heist picture—but it’s still exciting to watch him dispense with any semblance of sensitivity and just slather on the gory carnage.

With the exception of the Ocean’s Eleven movies, no two Soderbergh productions are alike. Yet his restless career has followed something of a pattern, toggling between quirky, experimental features (Full Frontal, Bubble, Che) and more brusque genre fare (Haywire, Contagion, Side Effects). Unsane may be his first film that falls into both camps. In terms of plot, it’s pure pulp, a grisly tale of violence and murder. But while Soderbergh typically flaunts his smooth craftsmanship when making mainstream material, Unsane is different, carrying none of the elegant polish that heightens the Ocean’s films. Instead, it looks cheap and DIY, almost as though it was shot on an iPhone. Which, of course, it was.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Annihilation: Sights to See, But Beware of Monsters, and Humans

Natalie Portman & Co. head into the unknown in "Annihilation"
It’s called “the Shimmer”. A kind of holographic hemisphere, it is a translucent dome of shape-shifting light and iridescent color, steadily encroaching across an unspecified swath of lightly forested land. Nobody knows where it came from, and nobody knows what it is or why it exists. All anyone knows is that once you step inside it, you never come out.

This is the tantalizing setup of Annihilation, Alex Garland’s consistently stunning, occasionally baffling thriller. A film of beguiling beauty and nightmarish horror, it is first and foremost the product of an auteur with a distinctive vision. In Ex Machina, Garland showcased a talent for taking recognizable cinematic patterns and twisting them into distorted shapes that bled with a disquieting intensity. Here, he makes that metaphorical gift literal; in Annihilation, bodies mangle and mutate, contorting into indescribable forms that blur traditional lines—between flora and fauna, between human and animal, between earthly and otherworldly. Yet it’s all so gorgeously done that it presents an intriguing contradiction. Rarely has a movie simultaneously seemed so lovely and so demented.