Friday, February 26, 2016

My 2016 Oscar Predictions!

image via Hollywood Reporter

For the first time in my entire life, I attempted to watch every single movie nominated for an Academy Award for this 88th Annual ceremony. It was an exhausting endeavor, one that I'm not sure I'd try to tackle again, but it was incredible to see the varying quality of nominees, particularly in categories like Documentary, Foreign, or Animated features. Not only will I successfully watch all 42 films + 15 short subjects by Sunday night (I have 3 left to go, marked with a * below), I've posted reviews for [almost] all of them, too! (click on the movie titles below to check out my thoughts in greater detail) The reviews that are missing will be posted within the coming weeks, but this is the very first year where I have an educated guess for all the categories, even those pesky short films. A mixed blessing, particularly when your favorites are not favored to win the top prize!

Every year, I post predictions somewhere online—anywhere I can—and my record isn't always so hot. This is especially true for our annual Oscar Party Pool, where I truly believe an upset just might happen, and that it'll be in my favor. My heart gets in the way of my head, and I just can't help rooting for the long shot. This year, though, many of my favorites have a pretty darn good chance of winning! So without further ado, I've posted by predictions for this year's Oscars below, tagging as follows:

 = My Prediction to Win
♥ = What I Wish Would Win

Don't forget to submit your picks, or share them in the comments below!

BEST PICTURE
• The Big Short
• Bridge of Spies
• Brooklyn
♥ Mad Max: Fury Road
• The Martian
 The Revenant
• Room
• Spotlight

BEST DIRECTOR
• Adam McKay, The Big Short
George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
• Alejandro González Iñárritu, The Revenant
• Lenny Abrahamson, Room
• Tom McCarthy, Spotlight

BEST ACTOR
• Bryan Cranston, Trumbo
• Matt Damon, The Martian
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
• Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
• Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

BEST ACTRESS
• Cate Blanchett, Carol
Brie Larson, Room
• Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
• Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years
• Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
• Christian Bale, The Big Short
♥ Tom Hardy, The Revenant
• Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight
• Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
 Sylvester Stallone, Creed

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
• Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
• Rooney Mara, Carol
• Rachel McAdams, Spotlight
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
• Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

Project 365: Movies 288 - 294

288 / 365: Suffragette (2015)
© Focus Features

I don't know how many of you were a mess of tears when you saw this film's trailer in the theater, featuring a cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide," sung by Robyn Sherwell, but it was enough to make me think that this could easily be the best film of the entire year. That's how effective the trailer was. Sadly, the film didn't quite live up to the promise of it's advertisements, though admittedly, the snapshot provided in the 2+ minute preview is, in fact, as perfectly succinct—and almost more emotional—version of the actual film.

In early 20th-century Britain, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) has been working as a laundress since she was seven years old. Now a wife and mother, the mild-mannered Maud befriends fellow laundry-worker, outspoken Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff), who encourages her to join the underground suffragette movement in an attempt to fight for their rights as women—and mothers. Inspired by the infamous Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep), a political activist and leader of the suffragette movement in London, Maud begins to find her voice as she engages in peaceful—and not so peaceful—protests in the face of police aggression and injustice. Risking their jobs, families, and lives, Maud and her compatriots fight selflessly to change the course of history.

The first thing that I noticed was that the film was structurally confounding, and the arc of the storytelling was limited by how the scenes were organized. Sequences, moments, dialogue, whatever it may be, anything of emotional depth or inspirational gravitas never seemed to hit at the right time. There was a lot of build-up to Streep's Pankhurst, who acts more as an inspirational figure than an active participant in the on-the-ground cause. Yet her reveal comes mid-way through the film, which means that it's bookended by a flurry of activity that deflates the entire sequence's importance. Had she appeared at the start, or maybe the end, the build up would have been justified and added just the right touch to aide Maud in her journey.

Otherwise, the significance of the story isn't lost on us, and Mulligan is a spectacular leading lady. I consider her a premiere talent, and I'm never without positive things to say about any one of her roles. The same is true for her performance as Maud Watts. She goes through a tremendous transformation during the course of this story, and it never feels forced, like its only for a desperate emotion-grab. Her tears and fire and anger are palpable, particularly in her scenes with her young son. It was impossible not to feel a drive right alongside her. The difficulty is trying to translate that same personal journey into such a massive political movement, one that—when we're taken away from Maud's story—feels more like a history lecture, and a dragging one, at that. But just watching the scene when Maud comes face-to-face with the Police Inspector, played by Brendan Gleeson, is worth the price of admission.

Rating: ★★★ / 5 stars
Watched: Theater
Seen Before: No

289 / 365: Anomalisa (2015)
© Paramount Pictures

Just look at this image of the shooting process, an exhausting construction of movements and shifts that would be enough for even the most patient filmmakers to lose their minds. Part of watching any Charlie Kaufman film is noticing the minute details that he incorporates, and oftentimes, figuring out how the hell he did it, and Anomalisa is no different. The script has a mighty message, one that changes its tune mid-way through, but that challenges the viewer to accept that life just might be as meaningless, or as meaningful, as we make it. Oh, and it also features the most realistic sex scene I've ever seen—between two puppets.

While on a one-day business trip to hold a seminar in customer service, author Michael Stone (David Thewlis), moves about his routine with disinterest, interacting blandly with those he must, but never attempting to make a connection with anyone. The purpose of his life appears to have diminished, even as it relates to his own wife and child—that is until he hears the voice, and sees the face, of a stranger named Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is staying at his hotel. From his perspective, she just might be the most special person in the entire world, and quite possibly the cure for his apathetic, mundane existence.

Thematically is where I begin to have issues with the otherwise flawless execution of the puppetry/stop motion. The entire concept of the film's first half hinges on the idea that life is a monotony of continuous sameness. That as you get older, it becomes obvious that people are just inherently the same, with the same selfish, boring desires. But the first half is hopeful, because, as Michael discovers, sometimes, there will come into your life a person that stands out from the rest, and shows you just how brilliantly unique and special life can be. A powerful, life-altering discovery that Kaufman handles with absolute brilliance. Lisa is so relatable, and she makes Michael relatable, and the way their relationship comes about is easily the most touching aspect of the film.

But then the shift. The very Kaufman-esque one that I should have known was coming, because things were just going too damn well for these characters. I don't want to spoil the last part of the film, but it's a huge factor in my not loving it more. When Michael experiences a very obvious shift in his perspective about Lisa, about his life... there is no more dismal reveal than this. What a damn disappointment. The transition that Michael is making to truly accepting that life can be a joy is cut down at the knees, and us optimists are left with our mouths hanging out, with pessimists left nodding their heads. Your enjoyment of this film really will hinge on if you're a "glass half empty" or "glass half full" kinda person.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars
Watched: Theater
Seen Before: No

290 / 365: The Hateful Eight (2015)
© Warner Brothers

Many mixed emotions here. What I love about Quentin Tarantino is ability to write an irreverent script and incorporate bloody gore in a way that doesn't make my stomach turn. Tarantino was never about that, even when the violence was brutal and disturbing (Django Unchained and that dog scene comes to mind). In The Hateful Eight, moments of absolute bloody decimation were broken up only by shots of sprawling landscapes and fur trappings used for impeccable interior design—oh, and some pretty fantastic acting. But for the first time since the gimp scene in Pulp Fiction, I found myself unsettled more than I was entertained.

Navigating the vast wilderness and sensing an impending storm, bounty hunter John Ruth (Kirk Douglas) comes along another bounty man, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), in need of transport. With the Major's bounty dead, Ruth agrees to bring him along with him to the nearby town of Red Rock, so long as the man keeps his distance from his live fugitive captive, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh)—the most wanted member of the Domergue gang, and he's taking her to Red Rock to hang. The two men then encounter Red Rock's new sheriff, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), stranded on the road, so with the blizzard ranging to the point of white out, Ruth has the group seek refuge at an establishment he's frequented often, Minnie's Haberdashery.

But when they arrive, they meet many new, unfamiliar faces—and no Minnie. Bob (Demián Bichir) is overseeing the place while Minnie is away, and a few guests have already settled in: cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), Red Rock's hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), and an old Southern general, Sandford Smithers (Bruce Dern). Fearing the loss of his bounty, Ruth establishes rules among the tense, untrusting group, and it isn't long before the eight travelers are trapped inside this cabin, with nothing to do but turn against each other. That is, unless the bounty hunters can uncover the truth behind who these men are, and what they want.

While most audiences are applauding Ennio Morricone's score and the lengthy vista shots of the 70mm edition (for good reason), I was—and still am—most taken with Yohei Taneda's production design. It was distracting in its beauty and detail, and the pacing of the story was comparable to watching a perfectly executed play, with a set to match. The perpetual movement through the cabin's distinct sections, the props littering the walls, shelves, arm chairs, and tables, rich with texture. How each piece catches your eye—as a distraction—but eventually comes into play later in the film with significant purpose. I was taken by it immediately, and it remains my favorite thing about the film. The script is a close second. Witty and disgusting, Tarantino does what he does best. The only difference here is that I didn't quite enjoy watching what I was hearing.

No one knows how to genre-twist like Tarantino. As likely the biggest cinephile making movies today, his attention in recent years has veered from dark noirish crime, to warped historical period myths, steeped in delightful untruths. Where Inglorious Basterds and Django managed to align the audience with whomever you perceived as the "good guys," there isn't a good guy to be found this time around. That's really what makes it so boldly brutal. Kirk Douglas' John Ruth may be as close as we'll get to a hero, but even he can't stand up against the treachery for long. Sam Jackson delivers some incredible monologues here, though he never shakes his common Tarantino persona. But he certainly does the most sleuthing, and that, in the end, is what this film is all about. Like a demented Agatha Christie/Murder on the Orient Express 'whodunit', Tarantino weaves together humor and outrageous violence that, at times, is a tough pill to swallow.

Jennifer Jason Leigh deserves a call out at this point, because she gives, hands down, the most carelessly wild performance of the year. Her character is downright appalling, crude and broken, with an appalling sense of humor. And Leigh f*ckin' delivers. Now, having said that, I'm still cringing at the beatings she takes at the hands of her captors, and there is a disconnect between the tone of the film and the story we're watching play out. The physical action we're seeing just doesn't match the comedic air of the editing and dialogue, and I'm left wondering why I'm not enjoying this whole experience more. For Tarantino's eighth feature film, I can't think of a story more appropriate, but despite the brilliant pieces that are impossible to overlook, The Hateful Eight doesn't quite come achieve the heights of is more recent masterpieces.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars
Watched: Theater
Seen Before: No

291 / 365: Scrooge (1970)
© National General Pictures

There must be something about Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol that just begs to be re-written as a musical. All of the best versions are, be it on stage or screen, and this one was introduced to me by my boyfriend and his family, who grew up on it—kind of like how I grew up on my #293 movie below. This is a simple, and incredibly magical story, and not a single beat is missed as Albert Finney takes on the role of Ebenezer Scrooge, an bitter old man with no patience for Christmas spirit... that is, until three of them—the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future—come to visit him on the night of Christmas Eve...

Albert Finney does Scrooge justice, though he edges on silly at times. A result of his wearing old age makeup and trying to act old, very likely, but it isn't a distraction. He does have the kick in his step that grows happier and happier throughout the film, and he plays it joyously. The ghosts are typical of this story, but conceived well. And no other take on this movie can claim Obi Wan Kenobi as their Jacob Marley.

The connection to all things Christmas is so dependent on your experience as a child. If you grew up singing hymns, those will always hold a nostalgic, special place in your heart, even if in your adult life, you aren't religious. When you were young, if you opened presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve, that desire continues to build out into your traditions with your children. I feel the exact same way about Christmas movies, particularly adaptations of this all-too-familiar tale. This was my very first time watching this, and it was wonderful. A top-notch re-telling that incorporated songs (my favorite element; seriously, this plot is so "singable"), which brings it as near to my all-time favorite Christmas movie as one could hope to get.

But no matter how hard it may try, or how much it might deserve it, it simply can't hold a candle to what I loved as a kid. My boyfriend swears by this version, but that's his childhood talking, just like mine.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars
Watched: Blu Ray
Seen Before: No

292 / 365: It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
© RKO Radio Pictures

[I watched this movie as part of my Project 365 (it was Christmas, how could I not??), but will review it in full when it comes up at #20 on the AFI Top 100]

293 / 365: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
© Buena Vista Pictures

Residing in a permanent position as my #1 Christmas movie of all time, and the first Muppet film not to headed by Jim Henson himself. But the homage to his legacy and his characters has never been stronger than in this feature film, where all of his very best creations get to join in on the fun and the irreverent joy. The timeless story of the miserable miser, determined to stomp on the happiness of Christmas, who comes face to face with his Past, Present, and dismal potential Future, thanks to three very different ghosts.

Michael Caine is the best Ebenezer Scrooge that has ever been. Maybe I'm biased... Nope. I'm not. He's the best. He plays this role, a complicated and very easy-to-over-act miser, as if it were Shakespeare. Oh, and did I mention he did it alongside the Muppets? Not for one single second on screen does Caine play down the part because of his co-stars, or give away that this just might be a version for children. He is truly one of the greats, and this is evidence of his true talent and professionalism. Nothing he does is played for a laugh, even though he's funny on many occasions. I'm still in awe of his performance, because he could have phoned it in, but he didn't. And more than that, he adds a seriousness to the story—and legitimizes the Muppets themselves—as true characters of fiction.

The best Muppet movies are the ones where the Muppets themselves have a place to "fit." Adapting classic stories where each familiar face can slip seamlessly into the character—a name tweak here, a tongue-in-cheek play on words there—and A Christmas Carol has a place for everyone. And I mean everyone (the red-headed step-child of the Muppets, Bean Bunny, whom I adore, even finds his purpose in this story). Kermit as Bob Cratchet is perfection, and Fozzi as Fuzziwig Fozziwig? Pure genius. Is there any story more ideal for a Muppet takeover than this one? I think not.

Lastly, the songs. From "One More Sleep 'Till Christmas" to "Bless Us All" to, of course, the finale "Thankful Heart," there is a beautiful, emotional track to represent each significant beat. And this Muppet version is unique in that is includes a Narrator, and a 4th wall breaking interaction with the viewer. Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat lighten the heavy nature of the story and bring light to the film, and it offers a consistency that you don't know you've missed until it's gone. A film from my childhood that will become required viewing for my future children, and one that continues to be staple during our holiday celebrations.

Rating: ★★★★½ / 5 stars
Watched: Blu Ray
Seen Before: Yes

294 / 365: The World's End (2013)
© Universal Pictures

It's been 20 years since Gary King (Simon Pegg) and his school mates attempted to tackle—and fail to complete—the country's most epic pub crawl in their hometown. Now, at 40 years old, a now embarrassingly immature and selfish Gary views this moment of his youth the pinnacle of his existence, and it's about time he finish what he started, with those who walked alongside him. When he eventually convinces his old friends—all of whom have grown up and moved on—to join him on this school boy dream, even though he is completely blind to the very real fact that every single one of them hates him, and maybe always did. As old wounds and memories open up, ignored completely by Gary, they soon discover that something just isn't right with the people in their old stomping ground... and it may take more than iron livers to get them through 12 pints in 12 pubs and make it to their final stop, The World's End.

Pegg plays Gary as so despicable, there is no amount of pity in the world that could make up for it. They don't even really try very hard to make you feel bad for him. Sure, you get hints about how the guy has never grown up, how stuck in the past he is, how completely delusional he is... but you don't care. He's just too mean and too unlikable. The saving grace of the movie is that everyone else thinks so, too. This is Nick Frost's best "Pegg sidekick" character since Shaun of the Dead, and it stands out because, this time, he couldn't want to be around Pegg less.

Edgar Wright's editing style—the sweeping transitions and comedic slam cuts—is what reminds us we're watching a comedy. The plot itself begins to fall apart not long after it starts, because, like ticking boxes off a list, there's only so many places it can go. The revelation about the supernatural element here is hilarious, and the action is great during the bathroom scene when everything goes to hell. But from there, it devolves into a rocky, endless stream of 'the same.' The final climactic sequence is so over the top, it isn't even interesting anymore by the time we get there, and we're still having to endure Gary in all his self-obsession. Glad I saw this at least once, but now I don't have to watch it again.

Rating: ★★½ / 5 stars
Watched: Blu Ray
Seen Before: No

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Movie Review: "The Revenant" (2015)

© 20th Century Fox

How did I not write this review the moment I saw the film? This was the last movie that I saw during the 2015 calendar year (hey, 300 movies ain't so bad), and it has since become a powerhouse on the Awards circuit, collecting Golden Globes, the DGA honor, and is—despite my hopes against it—the frontrunner to receive the Academy Award's top honor at this Sunday's ceremony. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu has never been a favorite of mine, mainly because I prefer not to walk out of movies feeling terrible and in need of a shower (thank you, 21 Grams and Babel, for the memories). But in recent years, he's begun to find a relatable humanity in his work that speaks to the beauty and complexity of the human experience without taking a big ol' dump all over it. The Revenant certainly rides the line there, but it also is a masterpiece of execution and filmmaking that is impossible to ignore, no matter how hard I try.

Based on the true story of 1820's American West frontiersman and tracker, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), who was hired as the guide for a group of trappers during a particularly harsh winter to lead them through dangerous territory under siege by Natives and French soldiers alike. When Glass is unexpectedly attacked by a bear and on the brink of death, the team's leader, Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), instructs hunter John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) to stay behind with Glass' son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), and bury Glass once he passes. In an attempt to tame this lawless land, the command is understood by all. But when Glass doesn't die quickly enough, Fitzgerald attempts to murder him and leave him for dead without protection, and Glass must use his wilderness skills to survive against all odds and track down the man that betrayed him.

Technically speaking, this is a wondrous film. Truly exceptional. Like Birdman before it, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki took it as a personal challenge to make this shoot as impossible as he could for all involved. Where Birdman's "gimmick" was its seemingly endless, single shot, the complexity of The Revenant is all in the lighting. It's completely natural, every second of it, generated from the beauty that is the "magic hour" of twilight. With minimal time to shoot each day, shots had to be long and they had to be fast—hats off to the grip on set who found himself in the middle of that crazy shot that one day that everybody practiced for 8 hours but only had 40 minutes to get in the can... you're now the reason the shoot's gone over budget and everyone missed dinner.

Reports about the fed-up crew and indignant production hands aside, Lubezki was uncompromising in his and Iñárritu's vision. The opening sequences of the trappers being shot at with arrows was unbelievably intense, with the camera's choreography floating through absolute chaos like it was a ballet rather than a bloodbath. This level of cinematic complexity continued throughout the entire film, right up until the gruesome climax.



I'm gonna add my voice to the perpetual broken record of the internet masses: give Leonardo DiCaprio an Oscar right the hell now! What are we even talking about anymore with this guy? His talent is undeniable, and his desire for an Oscar statuette has become Kate Winslet-level obvious. That's not to say he doesn't deserve it. He absolutely does, and should have taken home the honor for 2004's for The Aviator, but Leo hasn't had the best luck with voters. And I think that finally will change, as he walks across the stage on Sunday to accept what I consider to be a "career Oscar." This wasn't his most interesting or even best role (I maintain it's his turn in The Departed), and certainly not one that required much emotional depth. But it definitely was his most physically demanding, and when an actor as vain as DiCaprio allows himself to look this terrible in a film, you know it's time to give him his dues. The Academy has given away acting Oscars for significantly less.

The film itself is a stunner, yes, but it's also a powerful journey through a historic period little-explored in cinema. The focus is particularly tight on Glass and his company, but there is so much more going on. It's not hard to imagine the movie Last of the Mohicans happening just across the plain—that's how rich a world Iñárritu has created. Glass doesn't have the time to dwell on the terror happening around him—his goal is singular: find Fitzgerald and kill him for what he's done. But that doesn't mean he's blind to the plights of the Natives who help him, or his memories of a life that's been lost (told beautifully through non-distracting flashbacks and visions). He just won't be slowed down by them; we will, though. Watching the horrors of invading parties, the treatment of the Native population, while mostly on the periphery of the film, is shocking and troubling to witness. Because of the strategic way in which the filmmakers structured their story, it doesn't make the viewing experience unbearable, though, and that is key to my enjoyment of this Iñárritu production.

The rest of the cast is just as solid as DiCaprio, particularly the perpetually gruff and mono-syllabic Tom Hardy. While it's my hope that his other movie takes home all the Oscars this year, this is an acting award that—if he wins—he'll undeniably have earned. He's ferocious and unforgiving in this role, and he transforms into an almost inhuman villain by the story's end. Even Domhnall Gleeson, who had a fantastic 2015, gives a commanding performance, one so drastically different than any he's given before. It's difficult to find fault in this film. It's just too meticulously constructed, and as a result, any flaws would have been rubbed out long ago.

My only argument for Mad Max: Fury Road being honored above this at this year's Academy Awards might just be that it's not the passion project that George Miller's film was. The Revenant is a continuation of Iñárritu's impressive, awards-honored career—it's very likely something like this or better will flow out of him and be up for the same honors in a year, or two. But for Miller? His work was an unexpected, mainstream triumph... and it's time we publicly applaud those who give everything they've got—and ever had—to a project. That may not happen, not this time, but hey, a girl can dream, right?

Rating: ★★★★½ / 5 stars

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Project 365: Movies 280 - 287

280 / 365: Black Mass (2015)
© Warner Bros.

Johnny Depp takes on one of his more human roles in recent years, even though that role is a murderous mobster. Earning himself another Academy Award nomination (and another that he won't win), Black Mass is the under-appreciated crime thriller of 2015.

John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), is a born-and-bred South Boston native, now an agent in the FBI's Boston office. Desperate to make good and rise in the ranks of the Bureau, he tells his superiors that he has intelligence on prominent Irish Mob leader, James "Whitey" Bulger (Depp), who just so happens to be Connolly's childhood friend. While Whitey has visions to take down the Italian Mob that's infiltrating his territory, Connolly turns his—and the Bureau's—attention to the Italians, making a deadly deal with Whitey to inform on the business, giving the mobster veiled immunity to continue murdering, drug dealing, and racketeering. As Connolly gets in over his head, compromising his life and position in the process, Whitey begins a cat-and-mouse game with the FBI that eventually lands him on the Ten Most Wanted List.

I was most surprised by how unexpectedly funny and irreverent this story is, delivering a slew of captivating characters with plenty of depth. Now, it's not The Departed, but it sure tries to be. Connolly morphs into the strongest character of the bunch, because he's the one that you watch go through a total transformation. It's slow, and at first, understandable, the two-faced behavior as he's trying to get the intel that he needs. Edgerton is an unbelievable talent. Depp's performance is not subtle, but Edgerton's creeps up on you, revealing his as an equally dangerous player in this charade. And as ferocious and biting as Depp plays Bulger, he's still the most "normal" on screen character that Depp's played in a decade.

This is an exciting and interesting biographical crime film, one that takes a few liberties, but still manages to tell a hypnotic story with A+ talent.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars
Watched: Theater
Seen Before: No

281 / 365: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
© Columbia Pictures

This movie was the #36 film on my AFI Top 100 countdown challenge. Read my full review here.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars
Watched: DVD
Seen Before: Yes

282 / 365: Cinderella (2015)
© Walt Disney Pictures

This new live action reboot trend is one that could be construed as nothing other than a blatant Disney cash grab. The notion that any of these classic tales need to be revisited suggests something about the original not being enough, even in dire need of a gloss and a spit-shine, and we should all be a bit irked by that notion. What's better than the animated Sleeping Beauty? Or The Jungle Book? Don't mess with perfection, people.

Thaaaaat being said, I'm unabashedly a sucker for pretty things. And quality execution in a movie like this depends on the ingredients, and for this live action Cinderella, the ingredients came together into an unexpectedly impressive brew. No need to recount the plot here. Nothing has changed, it is quite literally exactly the same, all the way down to pudgy mouse Gus-Gus. But the standouts lie in two places: Lily James as Cinderella, and the incomparable Cate Blanchett as her evil Stepmother. Blanchett's introduction is complete with her fluff cat bouncing out of their coach on a leash, for god's sake! A far more interesting performance than her turn as the titular Carol this year, which I'm sure will incite hisses from most people.

But it was. It was playful and fierce and it never feigned importance. The film is like that too. While it suffers the same fate as many fairy tale adaptations in that it's thematically hollow—and Disney can't help itself but cast Helena Bonham Carter as blithering twits (Helena... you're better than that)—Lily James is a commanding star. I can't remember the last time I saw a face so fresh and so bright, and she carries herself with a grace that is reminiscent of the most classic cinematic princesses. Oh, and need I even mention her ball gown? A delightful version of this famous story, one that I hope hints at the quality and care of the upcoming live-action reboots.

Rating: ★★★ / 5 stars
Watched: Blu Ray
Seen Before: No

283 / 365: Spotlight (2015)
© Open Road Films

With the true crime fever that's hitting the entertainment-scape (thanks to podcast Serial and everyone's recent obsession, Making a Murderer), it should surprise no one that Spotlight had the all the ingredients of an audience pleaser. Consolidating an overwhelming amount of information related to the true sexual abuse scandal of the Boston Catholic archdiocese and the investigation surrounding it, the film manages to succinctly inform us about a series of events that had more than a few moving parts. An impressive task, to say the least.

The year is 2001 when a new managing editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), is hired to oversee business at the offices of the Boston Globe newspaper. Neither a Catholic or a Boston native, Baron proactively tasks editor Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton) and his three reporters—Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James), and Sacha Pfieffer (Rachel McAdams)—with investigating the fervent accusations of misconduct and sexual assault of children among clergy members of the Boston archdiocese. The journalist team, known as "Spotlight," works in secret to aggressively investigate each story, sometimes taking years to compile. When Robinson and the team, all reformed Catholics to one degree or another, stumble across evidence of a massive cover-up, they fight against the full strength of the Catholic church, and a community willing to turn a blind eye in order to keep their faith alive.

Aside from loving this movie and everything it stood for, some problems stand out. There were a handful of leads, moments that piqued my interest and kept me glued to me chair, that were then dropped, never to come back into play again in this whirlwind investigation. I'm thinking specifically about a scene in which Sacha goes knocking on doors and comes across a man who... well, let's just say that he says some very interesting things. Things that made even Sacha scramble in disbelief. The conversation ends and she's resolute with Robby that no matter what, she's going to follow-up on this lead. But she doesn't. One of the most interesting revelations in the film, the one I couldn't stop thinking about, was dropped like a bad habit (pun intended).

The lack of resolution, in fact, distracted me from the development of the rest of the story. While it may not have been the most important detail of Spotlight's story, it was one of the only pieces that provided any psychological or emotional explanation for what was really going on. I'm still sad we didn't get more of it, and the inclusion of this scene without any revisiting of it is a major oversight on the part of director Tom McCarthy and writer Josh Singer. It may seem small, but every person I mentioned it to since seeing this movie responded with "Oh yeah... what the hell happened there?" I can't be the only one that thought that should have been incorporated differently into the film.

The performances are spectacular, though no one really stole the show. McAdams is nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, but it's hardly her best role. The truth is that the entire film is impressive, thereby, everyone in it stands out. Thematically, it's likely the most mature film of the year, taking cinematic plays directly out of All the President's Men, and even seeing it through to the end of the investigation where we feel the full catharsis of the truth being revealed. The poetry of the written word, the power of print and newspaper journalism isn't lost on a single viewer. The days in which a team could, almost unregulated, go in search of answers to society's most impossible questions... Those days really might be gone, and that's why Spotlight feels so special, and so precious.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars
Watched: Theater
Seen Before: No

© 20th Century Fox

[I watched this movie as part of my Project 365, but will review it in full when it comes up at #13 on the AFI Top 100]

© 20th Century Fox

Without question, the greatest Star Wars film in the franchise. It isn't because the script is better (it is) or because the acting is better (it really is). It's because The Empire Strikes Back is the first (and maybe even only) film in the series that knows exactly, at every beat, what kind of movie it is. It takes the right things seriously and doesn't get caught up in the little things, diving immediately into an action-packed story and wasting no time revisiting the past. With the controlling reigns taken away from over-zealous creator George Lucas, director Irvin Kershner and writer Lawrence Kasdan create one of cinema's greatest sequels—a balanced, emotional, and triumphant space odyssey.

The Death Star has been destroyed, and the Rebel base has been relocated to the ice planet, Hoth. Han Solo (Harrison Ford) has joined the Rebellion as a commanding officer, with Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) driving the fight against the Empire right alongside him. When the Empire forces discover the base and take over the planet, Han and Leia, along with trusty companions Chewbacca and C-3PO, escape across the galaxy to get intelligence and test alliances—or rather, discover new enemies. Luke, unable to ignore his destiny to become a Jedi warrior, travels with R2-D2 to the swamp planet of Dagobah to train under Jedi master, Yoda (Frank Oz), with the hope of one day coming face-to-face with the villainous Darth Vader (James Earl Jones), and avenge the death of Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness). Little does he know that it's Vader who will stop at nothing to find him.

Action sequences are spaced evenly throughout the film, and delicate care is taken with the dialogue and character development to tell a significantly more mature and human story than anything else to come out of the Star Wars universe. Betrayals are piercing and personal, and motivations are explored for each of our primary heroes. The surface-level, reactionary plot points are left to the original film; in Empire, the interplay between characters—be it romantic, sinister, vengeful, or hopeful—is complicated, layered, and bone-deep. Everyone feels so much more strongly this time around, and Kasdan makes sure that each actor has their apex. Lando's betrayel of Han in Cloud City remains my favorite scene of the series, because it's gut-wrenching and, due to Ford and Fisher's rock-solid chemistry, tragically romantic.

The older I get, the more nuance I see in this movie. The costume design is simplified (and more functional), the makeup is softer, and the galactic sets are epically scaled to be all-encompassing on the screen. The special effects stand the test of time, mainly because Lucas and the ILM team took advantage of puppetry whenever they could. The miniatures never feel that way—we're always treated to enormous pay-off with minimal distractions to tear us away from the story. The construction of the film is patient, less bombastic than its predecessor (and successor), which may be why it speaks to the cinema-phile rather than the sci-fi geek in me. While the newest revival by J.J. Abrams took similar care in its story-telling, nothing can compete with Empire, and I don't know that any Star Wars film ever will.

Rating: ★★★★½ / 5 stars
Watched: VUDU
Seen Before: Yes

© 20th Century Fox

When I was a child, there was no more incredibly awesome movie than Return of the Jedi (except maybe Grease 2). The colors, the variety of characters and puppets, the costumes, the EWOKS... what more could an 8-year-old want? This time around, director Richard Marquand takes the helm and delivers a far more flashy feature in this third (final of the original trilogy) venture into the Star Wars universe, and it's taken many years to recognize the faults in this otherwise nonstop action adventure. Taking a step away from the maturity of Empire Strikes Back and veering head-first into the realm of Jim Henson-esque storytelling, Jedi cranks the hijinks up to eleven and shoehorns the playful into the action at every turn. An approach that, while still enjoyable to this day, is better served to a young audience than its adult fans.

Not long after the events of Empire, the Empire has begun construction in secret of a new Death Star, and the Emperor has enlisted Darth Vader (James Earl Jones) as the commander of the project. With Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in hiding and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) imprisoned for his gambling debts by Jabba the Hutt, Darth Vader is confident that they'll once again regain power over the galaxy. But when Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca, R2-D2, and C-3PO fail to rescue Han from his carbonite prison and are captured themselves, Skywalker, now swathed in black with his Jedi skills refined, returns to his home planet of Tatooine to rescue them all. Tasked with a new mission to destroy the Death Star before it becomes fully functional, the group travels to the forest moon of Endor and, with the help of the native Ewoks, attempt to take down the Empire's last chance to rule the galaxy. Luke, however, cannot shake his selfish need to confront Darth Vader one last time, even if that means facing pressure to join the Dark Side of the Force.

The slapstick, cutesy comedy that permeates the action, particularly during the final climactic sequences on Endor and the rib-jabbing moments during the long opening scene on Tatooine are a major distraction from the otherwise brilliant conclusion to the trilogy. What made me love it as a kid made me deride it (a bit) as an adult. It doesn't change that the story itself is remarkably well constructed, tying up plenty of loose ends and keeping the momentum of the previous films moving right until the very end. But it does make me take it all a little less seriously. You don't notice it more than when you watch the two films back to back, and that's an unfortunate truth about the series. Consistency of character and theme get lost in the lack of consistency of tone.

With that said, it still manages to generate the same triumphant energy as the first film, especially at the end—and the weight of all that these characters have endured give it that much more significance. The joyous nature of the closing images left me completely satisfied—it's no wonder that it took Lucas another 30 years to tackle the next chapters... there really wasn't a need.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars
Watched: VUDU
Seen Before: Yes

© Walt Disney Pictures

New movie release, reviewed previously on Through the Reels. Read the full review here.

Rating: ★★★★½ / 5 stars
Watched: Theater
Seen Before: No

Monday, February 22, 2016

AFI Top 100: #35 "Annie Hall"

Diane Keaton & Woody Allen in Annie Hall (1977)

We seem to be watching comedies are less and less these days as this AFI Top 100 list progresses, and this time around, it's Annie Hall bringing us the laughs, coming it at #35. One of my favorite movies when I was in high school, it's a film that hold a special place in my heart, but one that I've also grown to view quite differently as I've gotten older. Writer/Director Woody Allen has always been known to tackle many taboo subjects—some physical, like sex and gender and drug use; some mental, like depression, anxiety, and compulsive disorders, to name a few. His unique and more-than-a-little personal perspective speaks less to the universality of love, and more to his own warped and selfish needs; something we find, inexplicably, that we can all relate to.

Allen stars as Alvy Singer, a self-important, Jewish intellectual living in New York City and working as a stand-up comedian/writer. He's also completely neurotic, and his mental neurosis unfolds before us as he recounts the rise and fall of his latest romance with flighty, waspy wannabe actress, Annie Hall (Diane Keaton), as well as a breakdown of his lifelong battle with his own personality that led him to date her in the first place. Twice divorced and perpetually inept in love, Alvy struggles with to figure out his love of women coupled with his innate need to rid himself of their presence once they've come into his life. As Annie falls in love with Alvy, the poor sucker just can't help but ruin it.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Ranking the 2016 Oscar Nominated Shorts: Animated

And the winner of the Animated Shorts should be... Documentary Short nomineeLast Day of Freedom! No no, just kidding—but not really. This year's collection of Oscar-nominated shorts is vastly varied, and last weekend, I trekked out to my local independent theater to catch the Animated flicks—an 80-minute presentation that included five nominees, and four additional (non-nominated), specially featured shorts.

To be honest, I found the entire group of nominees very underwhelming this year. While I was impressed by a couple, most left me scratching my head as to how and why they were being honored with a nomination at all. And screened alongside a few shorts that didn't receive nominations and should have (specifically, If I Were God...), the shortcomings really stood out. I'm realizing that my investment in animated films, particularly shorts, is hard to achieve. So without further ado, here is my ranking (1-best to 5-worst) of the 2016 Oscar Nominated Shorts: Animated:

1. WE CAN'T LIVE WITHOUT COSMOS


Directed By: Konstantin Bronzit
Country: Russia
Run Time: 16 min
View the Trailer

If ever there was a more pointed representation of friendship and shared dreams than this, I haven't come across it. Two best friends endure physical and mental strain to realize their childhood fantasy of becoming Cosmonauts. Through rigorous testing, these comrades blow away the competition and, finally, get fitted for their coveted space suits. As the dangers of galactic travel hit the men hard, the connection between the friends and their passion for the stars secure their bonds beyond all time and space.

The mood is playful, almost throughout, despite the weight of tragedy and the existential denouement that followed. Of all the films on this list that remain "silent" (i.e. there is no spoken dialogue), this one worked the best. There was nothing trite about the emotions here, and it wasn't manipulative even as it wrenched your heart and brought all the feels. As the action plays out, reality becomes less and less grounded—it's here where some viewers may have been lost, but it gripped me so fully, I found the ending quite powerful. Where equally as-good co-nominee, World of Tomorrow, was humorous and fantastical, We Can't Live without Cosmos is an emotional roundabout kick to the face. While I see the Oscar going to my #2 pick, this is the one I'll most remember.

2. WORLD OF TOMORROW


Directed By: Don Hertzfeldt
Country: United States
Run Time: 17 min
View the Trailer

For any Don Hertzfeldt fan, this is far and away his Citizen Kane. That means that it's brilliant, but probably slightly overrated. Known for his spectacular 2000 animated short, Rejected, a 9-minute series of vignettes that contributed some of the most quotable material from the noughts ("My spoon is too big!"), Hertzfeldt creates a rare fully-realized story in his signature stick-figure style, about a young girl named Emily who is contacted by her third-generation clone, Emily, from the very distant future. It is then that clone Emily whisks "Emily Prime," as she's designated, away on an all-too-lighthearted tour of a far more disturbing future.

Existentialism is the theme of the day with the two best nominees in this category, as subjects of space and time and reality and science are explored with aplomb. The brilliance of World of Tomorrow is in its desperately dry dialogue. Clone Emily is terrifying, but Emily Prime doesn't even realize it—the stories she's casually telling of a festering and tormented universe, overrun by scientific innovations and experiments, fall on deaf ears. Emily Prime's, that is, not ours. No, we're left to take in all of the laughably awful things Clone Emily feels inclined to share, and it is a remarkably fabulous ride. Not to mention, the animation itself couldn't be more unique in its flat and colorful beauty.

The only animated short—so far—available to stream instantly on Netflix. And very likely the winner come February 28th.

3. SANJAY'S SUPER TEAM


Directed By: Sanjay Patel
Country: United States
Run Time: 7 min
View the Trailer

Pixar's standard entry for the Animated Short Oscar category this year—usually the only cartoon short I end up watching—was missed by me this year, having been paired with the studio's last year release, The Good Dinosaur (sadly, their least successful film to date). While I still can't speak to that film's merits (it's on the "To See" list), this sweet semi-biographical fantasy has gotten some good Academy attention, likely surpassing the viewership of its initial release. A story about young Sanjay and his passion for the cartoon 'Super Team'—much to the dismay and distraction of his pious father. When Sanjay is implored by his father to partake in prayer rather than play, Sanjay reluctantly finds a connection through his imagination between his beloved heroes and the Hindi gods he's more or less dismissed.

There are no 3D animated graphics that can rival Pixar. In that sense, this is the most familiar film, stylistically, for most audiences on this list, particularly 21st century children. I was impressed by the sweetness of the story and the colorful imagination of our little protagonist. It's sweet, and there are touching moments that cap the film off nicely. Yet it doesn't quite feel... special. The subject here simply can't compete with the depth of the previous two shorts, two stories that had so much more to say than was confined in their short run time. With Sanjay, what you see is what you get. An exemplary effort from Pixar, but no where near their best contribution to this category.

4. BEAR STORY


Directed By: Gabriel Osorio
Country: Chile
Run Time: 11 min
View the Trailer

A lonely Bear tells the story of a family of happy bears through the complexity of a paw-made mechanical diorama on the street corner of his city, one that may well reflect the tragedy of his own life. In his construction, a father bear—among many other animals—is kidnapped by a human traveling circus, taken away from his family and abused for the entertainment of the unknowing masses. His eventual escape propels his fight to return home and find the family that he lost. There's a political undercurrent to this film that I wasn't familiar with upon my first viewing, one that explains the allegory of this tragic Bear's story—more specifically, the kidnappings that take place in Chile, where people are taken and seemingly disappear off the face of the earth.

Having seen this connection, however, made me realize that my dislike of this short isn't because of the story—it's because of the animation. The still images and parts of the moving diorama were impressive, and creatively realized, a technical achievement that was metallic and geared, moving the way a cranked machine just might. But that same mechanic spilled over into the protagonist's reality as well, the animation broken and uneven. This never felt like a stylistic choice, but rather, a messy, unintentional one. Movements of the character were never smooth and the transitions were really rough. Sadly, it distracted from the true weight of the film, one that had a significantly stronger personal message than many of these other films could claim. Unfortunately, I just wasn't impressed.

5. PROLOGUE


Directed By: Richard Williams
Country: United Kingdom
Run Time: 6 min
View the Trailer

What... what was this movie?

Thank the gods this was the shortest of the bunch. I wanted it to be over immediately. Following the viewing of the fourth nominee, we were treated to a "Parental Warning" citing this final short as completely inappropriate for children. Intriguing, to say the least. Graphic violence and nudity were included, so little tykes needed to be taken out of the theater after a handful of "non-nominees" screened. As this film started, I was taken by the lightly textured pencil sketching that began to take form, the only film that felt like we were watching it be drawn in real time on real paper.

But then the story unfolded. Four warriors, two Spartans and two Athenians, fight brutally to the death, unknowingly displaying the carnage of their battle in front of a young child. If you view the trailer, it's in fact an interview with the director, who speaks about his vision for this as a longer, more complex feature film (hence the title Prologue.) Considering the animation itself, pencil-drawn and soft, completely organic and almost tangible, that would likely be a vast improvement. It was difficult to watch this and connect with the story in any way, because it seems so empty and gratuitous, and without motivation. In fact, it also felt like a desperate call for attention from the director, and I resented sitting through something that was so unfinished and hastily pushed out for an audience. Impatience on the part of an artist, if I've ever seen it.


There are my thoughts! Have you seen these movies yet? If so, what were your thoughts?

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Movie Review: "How to Be Single" (2016)

© Warner Bros.

Don't be mistaken. How to Be Single is not a riotous comedy. Despite all the advertisements suggesting otherwise, showcasing a drunken, delightful Rebel Wilson in a sequined party dress downing tequila shots, she is about as involved in the story as Mr. Chow is in The Hangover. That is to say, she's on the periphery—the single-woman Sensei, if you will—but the film is, in no way shape or form, about her. Instead, it's actually an occasionally dire and serious look at the various pitfalls of being a single (white) female in the big city, and a quick reminder to us all that spending your singledom wishing you had what you don't is a sure-fire way to screw up your life. It's a message that may have resonated had the film not been so mind-numbingly basic.

Alice (Dakota Johnson) met her perfect boyfriend Day One of college. It was easy and droll and, now, four years later at graduation, she's desperate to know what it's like to be on her own, as only someone who's never been alone could. Leaving heartbroken ex, Josh (Nicholas Braun), behind, Alice is off to New York City to find her independence and start a new career as a paralegal. There's just one problem: she has no clue how to not want a man in her life. When she meets free-loving party girl, Robin (Rebel Wilson), she begins an exploration of self that might involve plenty of drinks—and plenty of men, including womanizing bar owner, Tom (Anders Holm). Tom, meanwhile, meets Lucy (Alison Brie), a single woman desperate to find a husband by whatever means necessary, including creating a man-hunting algorithm. But could she be the one to revive his cold dead heart?

As Alice struggles with her new-found freedom and lingering regrets about leaving Josh, big sister Meg (Leslie Mann), a successful gynecologist, decides she doesn't need a man in her life at all—especially to have a baby. Naturally, though, she meets the much younger Ken (Jake Lacy), who pursues her despite every attempt she makes to shake his romance off. Each woman may go into their singlehood with different priorities, but they all discover that there's nothing more freeing than letting go of control... and loving yourself. Yes, it really is that hokey. And Robin doesn't show up enough to revive the promise of the comedy.

Thank god for that autumn networking event and that Santa Claus party and that St. Patrick's Day parade to establish a timeline, otherwise we'd have been at a loss as to when and how fast all of this was going down. In the world of How to Be Single, nothing ever happened to any of these people until we all came into their lives. They seem to have just been in a suspended animation or stasis before pushing "Play" on this plot line, because for characters so undeveloped and boring, a lot seems to happen to all of them all at once. Every single female begins this film "knowing" exactly who she is, and what she wants, but find it impossible to get, and refuse to change or take advice from anyone. It makes for an infuriating viewing experience.



Every relationship is a bit inexplicable, all of their anxieties springing up about apparently non-existent first-world problems, so it's immediately exhausting—if not impossible—to relate. Alice is perfectly at ease with people and then terrified to run into them during a crowded party the next, even though they've experienced no awkwardness in each others' presence whatsoever. It's contrived and annoying, and Rebel Wilson is the only one who seems to want to have any real fun around here, anyways. Naturally, though, she's more or less dismissed as useless for the majority of the film, but why she'd be friends with Alice makes even less sense in the grand scheme of things. Give Robin her own movie, she doesn't need these bumps on a log.

Leslie Mann's Meg has touching moments only between scenes of being a complete mess and occasional bitch, even to her baby sister. Why, you may ask? That's just how all workaholics are, I guess. I think I read that somewhere once. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Alison Brie's Lucy, who's so unsympathetically desperate for a husband that it actually makes me annoyed when she finds one. Dakota Johnson puts on her best "I don't know what's going on" face, but it works, since she's the one who goes through the biggest transformation, despite no one having much dimension at all. Johnson's breathy, clueless laugh is endearing but her eyes are still pretty lifeless—this will not be a role she's remembered for. Her performance in Fifty Shades of Grey had more depth.

It might sound like I hated this movie, but I didn't. In fact, I respect many parts of it, particularly the closing message of independence (which, by the way, made me cry)—but it takes so goddamn long to get there. Time is wasted either trying to be funny (the hangover cure montage, which... granted, was the most fun the film could muster) or developing characters that have no relevance to our heroine (*cough*Lucy*cough), and as a result, the film is less funny and only barely gets to the point. Everyone flat-lines for nine-tenths of the movie, only to suddenly transform and "get it," while we're all left muttering "It's about time." You'll walk away feeling the heavy weight of the message rather than the cathartic release of a good time.

Rating: ★★½ / 5 stars

Friday, February 12, 2016

Movie Review: "Deadpool" (2016)

© 20th Century Fox

The era of hard-R comic book films (and TV) is upon us (fingers crossed that Warner Brothers lets Suicide Squad reach its full potential), and 2016's first foray is Tim Miller's surprisingly solid Valentine's Day weekend release, Deadpool. Marvel's popular joke-cracking, audience-aware anti-hero based on the comic of the same name sweeps into theaters with a little something for everyone—as long as you're unphased by sex and gore and dirty jokes. With my only knowledge of the Deadpool character coming from his narration of the 2013 LEGO Marvel Super Heroes game (which is to say, I had literally none), watching star Ryan Reynolds come into his own as the titular prankster made for hearty, laughter-filled good time.

Former Special Ops soldier, Wade Wilson (Reynolds) hasn't let his history of taking lives get him down. In fact, he's taken his skull-cracking skills to the streets, becoming a rogue faux-justice fighter for the little guy, scaring away stalkers and assholes and the like—for a fee, not out of the kindness of his heart. His happy peak is reached when he meets his female equivalent, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), a prostitute with a potty mouth and a soft spot for his shenanigans. It's real love.

Things just aren't meant to work out for Wade, though, after he finds out he's got terminal cancer and is approached by a secret organization that can promise to cure him. With nothing left to lose, he walks out on Vanessa and, well... things once again don't quite work out. Tortured into a mutated state by the—sadly very forgetful—villain, Ajax (Ed Skrein), Wade must save himself by seeking revenge and finding a way to get back to his girl, now using the new moniker "Deadpool." All with a little help from his friends (cue Beatles track).

The comedy is not dry or subtle. There are no innuendos or double-entendres. Deadpool doesn't mince words. He's crude and explosive and gleefully filthy, and his fourth-wall breaking humor is as pointed as it is obvious. This was true when he was Wade, and it continued to be true as he unwillingly transformed into his mutant self. With cracks about the X-Men franchise and the general rules of filmmaking littering the script, there isn't much that you'd be thinking or criticizing that Deadpool doesn't take a quick moment to verbalize for you. Some might find that obnoxious, but I found it hilariously refreshing, and at times, insightful.



On the surface, Wade/Deadpool is just despicable. He doesn't listen, he's violent and unforgiving, and he's mean to the people he seems to care most about. But underneath all that, there is a subtle layer that I found compelling, one that hinted at a man who is resentful in his knowledge that he's just not meant to be happy. Instead of wallowing, though, he acts out, picks fights, and laughs at his, yours, my, everyone's expense. Mostly the X-Men, but everyone else, too. It's easy to miss all this, because director Tim Miller doesn't pay it much mind or seem to want to acknowledge that it's there, but I saw it, and it made me care about Wade and forgive him his wild indiscretions. Even root for him.

That brings me to the love story. Morena Baccarin as Wade's female counterpart, Vanessa—a woman who doesn't simply "put up with" her leading man and have nothing to contribute, like most superhero "girlfriends" in these films—is wonderful. She's literally his other half, without simply repeating his eccentricities. Despite a third the screen time, Vanessa is as well developed—and funny—as Wade Wilson. Yes, I think he's well-developed, too, despite the fart jokes. A romance this effective and touching was unexpected, to say the least, and while their romantic sequences were quick and full of nudity, it just worked, because their chemistry was there. So when he transforms into a monster, his ego becomes his enemy and the fear of her rejection is enough to push him into the bloody, frenzied revenge that makes up the majority of the film. As worthy a motivation as one could find in a Marvel flick.

T.J. Miller as Wade's best friend, Weasel, essentially plays himself, and the role was hardly a stretch for him. His comedy was dry where Wade's was sticky and harsh. The stale elements of the film came in the form of the X-Men themselves... or rather, the two that 20th Century Fox could afford (nudge-nudge-wink-wink). This is where the audience har-hared the most, but the jokes were the least clever. Like the mock-opening credits, it was not as funny as the audience's laughter might have led you to believe, but it was playful and gave Deadpool the necessary ammunition to comment directly on the genre—an undeniably important element of the comic. The self-aware, tongue-in-cheek (or rather, lack thereof) comedy isn't for everyone—normally, it's not really for me, either—but Reynolds slipped into the part so naturally, it was hard to not enjoy him and his attempts to lighten even the ugliest of situations.

Ryan Reynolds struck gold with this role. As an actor, he's seriously struggled to be in anything memorable, despite his looks and stellar comedic timing. This role is, for him, the hard-R version of Hugh Jackman's PG-13-limited Wolverine—it is a career defining turn, one that is bound to continue through the next decade of the Marvel franchises.

With superhero films becoming so predictably low-to-no-stakes, Deadpool shines in its rough and messy visual (and emotional) tone. It's also rough as a film overall, shallow in its scope and themes, but as a set-up for the character, it did splendidly. It risks overkill in all aspects, and managed to stay right at the edge this time around. Regardless of the constant desperate-for-a-laugh lines and situational comedy (I'm still chuckling about Wade's IKEA furniture fight with Blind Al), the film has a lot of heart. The danger is tangible, and even the handmade costume speaks to the "anti-gloss" nature of his story. Side by side with shiny and CGI'd Colossus, it's clear that Deadpool is quite literally the antithesis of the X-Men. That was welcome, indeed.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars
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