Sunday, May 20, 2018

Review: Deadpool 2

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Sure, "Deadpool 2" has its share of laughs and snarky winks to the audience and, yes, it's potty mouthed and much gorier than your average comic book movie. On the other hand, despite some amusing moments and genuinely earned chuckles, the picture isn't as transgressive at its makers appear to think that it is.

In the film, Ryan Reynolds returns as Wade Wilson - aka Deadpool - the anti-superhero whose face is disfigured from a bad burn and whose body can regenerate, thereby making him nearly impossible to kill. This installment opens with a particularly dark moment, similar to the finale of the recent "Avengers" movie, that casts a pall over the otherwise wisecracking tone of the picture.

After Wade loses a loved one, he is left hopeless - that is, until he is befriended by a young mutant named Firefist (Julian Dennison), whose rebellious nature strikes a chord with Deadpool. The duo end up being thrown into a maximum security prison, but are busted out by a cyborg-looking fellow from the future named Cable (Josh Brolin, in his second comic book movie in the past few weeks), who has traveled back in time to assassinate Firefist for reasons that only later become clear.

Deadpool travels to the X-Men mansion, where he jokingly makes note of the fact that only the B-list mutants are there to greet him. There's a later sequence during which he and his pal Weasel (T.J. Miller) round up a group of individuals for a new team whose powers are, well, questionable at best. There's also a fairly funny running joke regarding one of the new team members named Domino (Zazie Beetz), whose superpower is good luck.

"Deadpool 2," as I'd mentioned before, is full of wink-and-nod jokes - such as references to the D.C. universe and wisecracks about this film's own screenplay - and some are funny, while others give the vibe of trying a little too hard. I had mixed feelings about the first "Deadpool" film. This one is slightly better, but it's still just an average superhero movie, albeit one filled with F-bombs, extremely gory fight sequences and a hero who occasionally does some shady business.

But all in all, "Deadpool 2" - which was directed by David Leitch, whose previous films "Atomic Blonde" and "John Wick" were better action movies with incredible stunts - gets the job done for this type of picture. It's foul mouthed and funnier than your average Marvel movie, but it also follows the same cliches of the genre, although it frequently attempts to subvert them. There's a scene near the end that is more emotionally resonant than you might expect for this series, but this is a film that otherwise doesn't take itself very seriously. For the sake of enjoying it, you might consider doing the same.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Review: First Reformed

Image courtesy of A24.
Raised in the strict Calvinist denomination of the Christian Reformed Church, writer-director Paul Schrader has long considered religion, sin, punishment and redemption in his works, from his iconic collaborations as screenwriter with Martin Scorsese - "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull" and "The Last Temptation of Christ" -  to his efforts behind the camera, such as "Hardcore" and "Light Sleeper." His latest picture, "First Reformed," is not only his best film in some years, but one of his best movies, period.

The film examines the anguish experienced by a lost soul named Ernst Toller (an incredible Ethan Hawke), who just happens to be a reverend at a mostly forgotten church known as First Reformed that is located in upstate New York. The church is overshadowed by a nearby mega-church known as Abundant Life, which is operated by Toller's mentor (Cedric the Entertainer). First Reformed is mostly visited for tours, despite the church's gift shop only having small-sized T-shirts.

As the movie opens, Toller is already bordering on the verge of some sort of crisis. It's not exactly the type you'd expect either. He hasn't lost his faith in God, per se, but rather his faith in the increasingly dark world in which he lives. Toller writes in a journal that he plans to keep for a year and burn. While extolling himself in writing, Toller spends his evenings mostly alone, unless you count the various bottles of booze that keep him company. Also, blood in his urine and a persistent cough spell trouble for the future of his health. We also learn that, years before, Toller had encouraged his son to enlist in the military. When his son died in Iraq, it wrecked his marriage. Toller had briefly had a relationship with his church's organist, but it has seemingly ended awkwardly.

A young woman named - what else? - Mary (Amanda Seyfried) visits Toller early in the film to plead with him to visit with her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist who had recently spent time in jail in Canada, and is now crippled by depression. Toller learns that Mary is pregnant, but Michael wants her to abort it, feeling guilty for bringing a child into a world that, he notes, will soon face environmental catastrophe.

There's a fascinating conversation between Toller and Michael, during which it's difficult to argue with either's viewpoint. Michael despairs over the state of the world and questions how to find meaning in such a place. Toller attempts to comfort, even though he knows his words are, ultimately, well meaning, but incapable of providing solace. Toller is further disturbed to find out from Mary that her husband has put together a "suicide vest," which she believes he might use to blow up a local polluter operated by a smarmy jerk named Ed Balq.

Then, a tragedy occurs. But rather send Toller into further existential crisis, the reverend finds a new sense of purpose that is, at first, noble and righteous, but later self destructive. The final third of the picture focuses on Toller's gradual spiral as he contemplates whether to further Michael's work in some form or fashion. The film ends on a startling moment of relief as two of the film's characters realize something that had been in front of them the entire time.

Schrader's film examines faith in a fallen world, a concept that is as seriously contemplated here as in the best of Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson's work. The film was shot in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, which gives the picture a severe, constricted feeling, and this feels appropriate considering the subject matter. There's one scene that could best be described as a flight - quite literally, in fact - of fancy that I won't give away here, but it has a mystical vibe that would feel more at home in Terrence Malick's remarkable "The Tree of Life." However, it's a dreamy reprieve in a film so concerned with the suffering of the soul.

Following several missteps - the disastrous "The Canyons" and just average "The Dying of the Light" - Schrader has delivered one of his best movies in years with "First Reformed." This is an intense, moving, suspenseful and thematically rich picture that boasts one of Ethan Hawke's finest performances. It is, so far, the best movie I've seen this year.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Review: Life Of The Party

Image courtesy of New Line Cinema.
If Ben Falcone's "Life of the Party" does one thing right, it's that the director enables his wife - Melissa McCarthy - to just do her thing, which makes the film - a less raunchy version of "Back to School" - better than it should be. The film is otherwise a mediocre comedy with a plotline that is rarely convincing.

As the film opens, sweet natured Deanna (McCarthy) and her complete ass of a husband, Dan (Matt Walsh), are dropping their daughter, Maddie (Molly Gordon), off for her senior year of college. Deanna regrets never having finished school after becoming pregnant with Maddie and Dan insisting that he focus on his career. After having dropped their daughter off, Deanna wants to discuss the couple's upcoming trip to Italy, but Dan drops a bomb on her: he wants a divorce and is in love with a cheesy female realtor.

At first, Deanna is devastated, dropping by her parents house - Jacki Weaver is pretty funny as the elderly mom who just wants to make her daughter a sandwich, by God - but then she decides to finish the degree in archaeology that she never completed. Through a turn of events that is, well, slightly ridiculous, she ends up in a college dorm with a goth roommate - is that still a thing? - and, eventually, ingratiates herself with her daughter's sorority.

One of the hardest-to-swallow elements of "Life of the Party" is how Maddie goes from being mortified that her mom is palling around with her college buddies - and sleeping with a strapping frat boy named Jack (Luke Benward) - to being her mother's greatest advocate. Don't get me wrong, Deanna is lovable and it's hard not to like her - for her love of archaeology puns alone, mind you - but the only reason that Maddie goes from being embarrassed to endorsing the idea of her mother joining her sorority is because the plot depends on it.

There are some charming moments - especially all of the scenes during which Deanna empowers the sorority sisters, some of whom lack confidence - in the film as well as one flat-out hilarious one that involves Deanna meeting Jack's mother and stepfather at a restaurant where she is dining with her hilarious bestie Christine (Maya Rudolph). But "Life of the Party" could have used more of these, rather than the ending during which a pop star of yesteryear is called in for an unnecessary cameo.

McCarthy is an energetically hilarious comedian. She was wonderful in "Bridesmaids," funny in "The Heat" and hard to dislike in nearly everything she's in. But there have been few comedies that have done her justice in a leading role as her infectiousness is difficult to contain in formulaic Hollywood comedies. In "Bridesmaids," she was a supporting role. "Spy" came the closest to adeptly channeling her energy. So, as always, McCarthy gives it her all in "Life of the Party," which is otherwise pretty forgettable.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Review: Tully

Image courtesy of Focus Features.
I have no kids, so I can't attest to whether "Tully" does a good job of capturing the joys and agonies or raising a child - or, in this case, three - and I don't know enough about postpartum depression to know whether Reitman's film - which is his best since "Up in the Air" - accurately depicts such a condition. Regardless, "Tully" is a very well made, beautifully acted and surprisingly moving ode to the challenges of motherhood.

In the picture, Charlize Theron is Marlo, a mother of two living somewhere near New York City who is on the verge of being a mother of three. Her husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), is an affable guy who is so wrapped up in his work and nightly video game playing that he doesn't recognize his wife is struggling. Marlo's brother, Craig (Mark Duplass), is described as a "rich asshole," and while his house and lifestyle scream "bougie," he's attentive.

Marlo's oldest is an 8-year-old girl who is painfully shy and at the age of self reflection, while her younger son is - much to Marlo's annoyance - consistently described by teachers, friends and family as "quirky" when, in fact, he has behavioral problems and a learning disability. And Marlo's pregnancy - and then the processing of caring for her newborn baby girl - is taking a toll on her.

Craig suggests to Marlo to hire a night nurse and she eventually relents. Enter Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a plucky, hippyish young woman who instantly takes to Marlo's baby and provides a major quality of life upgrade to the family. Marlo and Tully instantly bond, and the latter strangely appears to be able to anticipate the former's every need.

There is a major plot twist late in the film that, in any other picture, might come off as contrived. But in the context of all that has gone on before in "Tully," it makes for a surprisingly moving story development. Theron gives a terrific leading performance here, and it ranks among her strongest performances. And while the film has a few very funny moments, the picture has more of a melancholy vibe, similar to "Up in the Air," which I believe is Reitman's best film to date.

The screenplay was written by Diablo Cody, who also collaborated with Reitman on "Juno" and "Young Adult." While the former was very charming and the latter acerbically funny, "Tully" is Cody's strongest collaborative effort with the director. They make a great team in crafting films about women who are often imperfect, but wholly realized and taken seriously by their creators.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Review: Let the Sunshine In

Image courtesy of Sundance Selects.
In some ways, "Let the Sunshine In" is the most radical departure of Claire Denis' career. The French filmmaker is known for such cerebral works as the remarkable "Beau Travail," the gorgeously grim "Trouble Every Day" and the acclaimed "White Material." So, it comes as somewhat of a surprise that her latest picture - starring an excellent as always Juliette Binoche - is a romantic dramedy, of sorts, albeit a somewhat heavy one.

The picture opens with a sex scene in which Binoche is prompting - at first subtly, then not so much - her lover to finish his business. At first, we are led to believe that it's Binoche's Isabelle who is, well, difficult until we realize what a creep her beau, Vincent - played by filmmaker Xavier Beauvois - is. As it turns out, Vincent is married, has no intention of leaving his wife - even going as far to noting that while Isabelle is "charming," his wife is "extraordinary" - and relishes in gossip. During one scene in which he talks down to a perfectly pleasant waiter at a Parisian bar, we wonder how Isabelle could put up with this guy at all.

"Let the Sunshine In" is not particularly concerned with a narrative as it is in placing its lead character in a series of scenarios - mostly of the romantic sort - that tend to end in her frustration. After Vincent - whom Isabelle finally shoves out her front door - she gets involved in a string of failed romances - first with a tattooed actor who is also married and confused about Isabelle's on-again-off-again approach to their affair, and then with a man she meets on a dance floor and, finally, a sensitive sort (played by the great Alex Descas), who doesn't want to rush things, much to Isabelle's dismay.

The picture ends with a somewhat baffling - although not in a bad way - sequence in which Isabelle meets up with a man who might be a shrink, friend, spiritualist or confidante - who knows? - played by Gerard Depardieu. This man talks to Isabelle in a rambling monologue that actually plays over the film's ending credits during which he gives advice - well, kind of - on her love life and describes how she must find her own "inner sun." It's a scene that is equally perplexing and entrancing.

But Denis has - throughout her career - been a master of such sequences. Consider the delirious finale of "Beau Travail" or the lovely scene involving the Commodores' "Nightshift" in "35 Shots of Rum." She makes great use of music, and there's a scene in "Let the Sunshine In" in which Isabelle dances by herself - and then with one of her new beaus - to Etta James' "At Last" on a dance floor that is absolutely radiant. Although much of Isabelle's life is trials and tribulations, mostly of the romantic variety, there are moments in which she does, in fact, let the sunshine in. And it's those moments that make Denis' latest picture such a delight.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Review: The Rider

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
Coupled with the recent "Lean On Pete" - which also told a story about a boy who loved horses - Chloe Zhao's "The Rider," a measuredly paced drama about a rodeo rider attempting to overcome an injury in South Dakota, proves that foreign-born filmmakers can often provide unique takes on the western, that most American of film genres.

Set against stunning backdrops, Zhao's film takes a near documentary approach as it follows Brady Blackburn, a rodeo rider and horse trainer who is played by Brady Jandreau - who is now an actor, but was formerly a rodeo rider and horse trainer. There's a scene in the picture during which Brady trains a wild horse and the scene plays out in real time. From what I understand, this was not a scripted moment, but rather Zhao capturing Jandreau actually training a horse that ended up becoming a scene in the film

In other words, this is a fictional story, but more than a few moments are grounded in the real lives of the mostly nonprofessional actors portraying the characters. Brady - Blackburn, that is - has recently suffered a serious injury from rodeo riding, and has large staples - and, apparently, a metal plate - in his head to show for it. His doctors, father and sister, Lilly - who is autistic and played by Lilly Jandreau - advise him against riding again, but we know that advice will go unheeded.

Brady's closest friend is a guy named Lane (Lane Scott), a former rodeo rider who had a catastrophic accident that left him severely paralyzed and unable to speak. Brady sees the dangers of his passion in the state in which Lane has been left, but also can't tear himself away from it. As he waits for his wounds to heal, he trains two horses - Gus and a wild stallion named Apollo - and helps out a young man who wants to follow in Brady's footsteps.

Story is minimal in "The Rider" and characterization mostly takes place on faces. Jandreau is the silent, stoic type, although he does a great job of getting us inside the head of his character, despite his propensity for remaining quiet. Brady's life is one that has been filled with disappointment and tragedy. While his head bear the scars of his accident, he spends a quiet moment early in the film at his mother's grave. We don't hear the story of her death, but don't particularly need to. The film is also filled with devastatingly sad moments during which Brady sits in an assisted care facility with Lane as the two of them watch the latter's old rodeo videos.

This is a visually stunning movie. Zhao trains her camera on gorgeous vistas at sunrise, the magic hour and the nighttime - and the result is often breathtaking. "The Rider" is a slowly paced drama that mostly observes, rather than relies heavily on storytelling - and this goes a long way in creating the film's somber, dirge-like tone. Patient moviegoers who are interested seeing a story told in a corner of the United States that is mostly ignored by the movies will be duly rewarded.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Review: Truth Or Dare

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Until a terrifying film chronicling a deadly game of Spin the Bottle makes its way into theaters, Blumhouse's "Truth or Dare" is the most ridiculous game in town. With the recent success of "A Quiet Place" and the laudatory reception with which the upcoming "Hereditary" was met at Sundance, horror movies are once again making the case that they can be financially successfully works of artistic merit.

But not "Truth or Dare." This is one of the goofiest horror pictures I've seen in some time. The film opens in Mexico, where a young woman is hearing voices inside of a convenience store that tell her to light someone on fire. Shortly thereafter, a group of college students take a road trip to Mexico. Their group includes the brainy do gooder (Lucy Hale's Olivia), her bestie (Violett Beane's Markie), her pal's boyfriend (Tyler Posey's Lucas), a horndog (Sam Lerner's Ronnie), a gay pal (Hayden Szeto's Brad), a jerky medical school student (Nolan Gerard Funky's Tyson) and his girlfriend (Sophia Ali's Penelope). It's like "The Breakfast Club," but a version in which no one seemingly learns anything about each other or dances around a library.

At a bar, Lucy meets a mysterious guy named Carter (Landon Liboiron), who lures the group to a secluded and abandoned church, where they play Truth or Dare. As it turns out, a deadly round of the game had taken place formerly at the spot and - similar to the setup of "Final Destination," but minus the gore or thematically sound scenario - Carter must bring other people into the game to ward off his being chosen for another round.

As the film goes on, the game holds higher stakes - deep dark secrets are unleashed and dares become deadly. Those who opt out end up checking out, but in a bloodless manner because, hey, this is a PG-13 movie. The film is never particularly scary, especially when demonic forces take over the characters and give their face an annoyingly elastic look.

There's a particularly ludicrous moment in which the gang tracks down an elderly Mexican woman who once took part in a game with the demon that is tormenting the youths. For reasons I won't divulge, she can no longer speak, so there's an entire scene in which she is frantically writing down clues for the protagonists as they ponder ways to beat the game.

As ridiculous as the film's central concept is, "Truth or Dare" could have possibly been fun. But it's mostly a dreary entry into a long assembly line of movies about teenagers being picked off one by one by supernatural forces beyond their control. The truth is: you could do much better, considering the current and upcoming crop of horror movies.