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Movie Review: Deadpool

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Ryan Reynolds was the perfect leading man in 2009’s The Proposal and he has struggled ever since to find the right type of movie to match his unique talents, which at his best call to mind the dry humor of Clark Gable, Cary Grant and Spencer Tracy and other actors whose ironic performances never seem seedy or malicious.

Deadpool, one of the Marvel Comics-based characters and loosely tied into Fox’s X-Men series, is not that movie. But, for Reynolds, it is a start. Ryan Reynolds, as anyone who saw his spot for testicular cancer self-exams and a car commercial during Super Bowl 50 knows, is everything George Clooney was oversold as for the past 20 years: handsome, upright, comfortable in his own skin and distinctively humorous in a way that’s simultaneously barbed and bright. The makers of Deadpool, which is dark, gruesome and foul-mouthed, turn formulaic snark and bitterness inside out, wrap it around Reynolds’ irresistible screen appeal (which reminds me of James Garner) and deliver it into a thematic decency that lets the audience in on the joke.

That’s what Deadpool‘s marketing has done brilliantly for the past several months and it apparently worked. The movie opened huge at this weekend’s box office, beating both Zoolander 2 and How to Be Single and breaking records. Maybe today’s young audiences are ready for something sassy and smart if it comes in this genre. Deadpool, like Marvel’s similarly-themed Ant-Man, gets dirty and dark with cleanliness and light as the ultimate point, which is why it’s not as hard to take.

The plot is overly simple, with a young mercenary (Reynolds) meeting a lady of the evening (Morena Baccarin) and falling in love, getting funny and nasty to a montage of holiday-themed sex gags, until their bad boy and bad girl karma sneaks up and life throws a curve. Reynolds’ character ends up getting caught trying to resolve the problem in a deadly inducement of mutation by torture. A slavemaster (Ed Skrein) turns him into a would-be mutant mercenary. But the victim uses his mind to endure, resist and break free of the slavery to become the title character and strike back. All of this happens after opening credits that poke fun at Hollywood. The action is exciting, the classic soundtrack songs are perfect (especially Juice Newton’s 1980 cover of “Angel of the Morning” and “Calendar Girl”) and the computer imagery is fine.

Reynolds’ lines make the movie, though. As crude and disgusting as the material gets, with jokes about masturbation, emoji and Rosie O’Donnell displayed in that fast-talking, fragmented way today’s youths have of half-expression—i.e., “hashtag: drive-by”—Reynolds and company play bits up in order to slow down and have an impact. In mutant form, Ryan Reynolds makes his impression with snappy vocals of witty (if often vulgar) lines that underscore the contrast between the sacred and the profane.

Irreverence bridges the gap. Reynolds’s character plays with unicorns and Hello Kitty and mocks IKEA—aided by his blind roommate (Leslie Uggams in a welcome return to the screen)—and, in the end, with twists of anti-anti-heroism, he goes by his own judgment for his own sake. Deadpool may be sharp, rough and jaded, and he is, but it’s so he can cuddle, kiss and play and he does that, too. In other words, he’s made for Ryan Reynolds, who finally gets closer to making a movie his talent deserves.

Movie Review: Ant-Man

AntManPosterMarvel’s Ant-Man (opening on July 17) is good for what it is. These Marvel movies for Disney are comic book-based movies, and this resembles a classic comic book, with exaggerated lines and all, especially during the first half. It’s an original and tightly drawn plot about a thief’s redemption. With proper exposition, for a change, it’s as enjoyable as 2008’s Iron Man.

Things get fragmented, fast and predictable in the second half and this is not a young kid’s movie as scenes include profanity and disturbing deaths. But Ant-Man is a light movie about keeping perspective and it’s better than the recent Avengers picture. Look for Avenger Anthony Mackie (Black or White) and Marvel man Stan Lee.

The three main characters are Hank Pym (Michael Douglas, Last Vegas), his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly, The Hurt Locker) and Paul Rudd (Admission) in the title role. Pym invents a way of miniaturizing man, his daughter may be in on the plans and Rudd’s ex-convict burglar Scott Lang is recruited to conduct a live experiment on assignment to stop the bald, swaggering villain (Corey Stoll, Ernest Hemingway in Midnight in Paris) that aims to make the worst of the new discovery. The conflict plays out in corporate boardrooms and laboratories.

Aside from father-daughter storytelling arcs and Pym’s reclamation of an invention which rightfully belongs to him—he explains that he “hid it from the world”—the plot is plain. Action moves at a steady clip when it’s engaged. Ant-Man’s deployment, based on Lang wearing a suit and applying thought and technology that makes him the size of the insect and able to be skillful, agile and fast in commandeering other ants, comes at the expense of Lang’s redemption, largely due to a trio of clownish criminal cohorts. With Michael Pena (Lions for Lambs) doing a version of a Joe Pesci character, lines and scenes are broad. But this is a movie called Ant-Man, after all. Cartoonish comes with the deal.

With his geek, gee-whiz persona, Rudd’s fine in the role and Lilly is very good at measuring her performance in what could have been a flat character (despite a wig or hairstyle that makes her look like a cross between Swing Out Sister’s lead singer and Lee Grant in Airport ’77). Lilly’s character bridges Ant-Man‘s gaps, which should have been filled by Rudd as Lang. Veteran Douglas gets more screen time than expected and he’s good, too. This is pure popcorn fare, really matinee material at best, with glimpses of a more daring movie in scenes such as Ant-Man literally emerging from a groove into an electronic dance music scene as mindless as an acid-tripping hippie and a military-industrial complex scenario out of Starship Troopers. Audiences that become animated over everything Avengers will probably rave on Ant-Man, too, which offers coherent, light, witty escapism.

Movie Review: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

TASM2 posterThe Amazing Spider-Man 2 is short, far short, of amazing. The 2012 original in Sony’s and Marvel’s rebooted series, The Amazing Spider-Man, was less predictable, more character-driven and more focused. This movie is not terrible, not middling, just lacking in cohesion and feeling unfinished.

Centering upon Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield again) and his girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone again), both graduating high school as the oldest high school students since any season of Glee, no less than three villains complicate Spider-Man’s already complicated life, not counting the evil Oscorp and its evil business executives in an unfortunately and implausibly anti-capitalist subplot that bubbles underneath the whole movie and finally pops with the impact of slowly deflating bubblegum pfftt. Easily the most developed and interesting villain is an electrical engineer played by Jamie Foxx, recreating his homeless lunatic from The Soloist, that also fades out without a proper finish. The character isn’t really believable as an engineer but he at least has reasons for becoming Electro.

And, taking back what he created, Electro zaps some life into an otherwise flat, lifeless script that doesn’t know what to do with its sense of humor or story, spreading Peter Parker’s doubt too thin and wasting time with disjointed scenes that result in a wildly fluctuating and self-contradictory movie. The throughline is misanthropy, which is shared by everyone from Parker’s photojournalist, who is never seen working at the Bugle, to a baggy-eyed business heir, gothic secretary and of course poor Maxwell Dillon/Electro (Foxx) who is lonely, invisible and misunderstood. Joined by Sally Field as Aunt May and Campbell Scott in flashback as Parker’s father, they all flit in and out of this kitchen sink sequel with abandon. The boozy Oscorp kid is not for a second plausible as someone who could contemplate what time it is let alone running a big business that powers Manhattan and the only one whose character makes some internally logical sense is a hammer-and-sickle tattooed Soviet type (Paul Giamatti) in what amounts to a cameo as a mad dog Russian bent on mowing every New Yorker down for kicks.

All of this takes place in large, cartoonish action scenes in 3D (I saw the picture in IMAX 3D, which adds nothing) and only the most invested and diehard Steve Ditko, Stan Lee and Marvel fans will want to shell out the cost of parking and movie ticket to see the twists (which most will see coming) and feel satisfied. The rest will leave the theater feeling subjected to a Wagernian exercise in overkill that magnifies everything but what matters to the max. The result reminds movie people that Marvel is capable of losing touch with what made its Captain America: The Winter Soldier a fine film – strong lead character, purposeful story and a meaningful theme – and getting caught in flat tales of misanthropy. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is at once incomplete, underdeveloped and overblown.

Movie Review: Captain America

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Paramount’s Captain America, directed by Joe Johnston (October Sky, The Wolfman), is another good Marvel serial. Tied into Marvel’s other comics-based pictures, Thor and Iron Man, and culminating in a heroic picture scheduled for release next year, it is weighted down but it moves with action, excitement and solid American heroism.

From eye-popping period design to a rousing patriotic song composed by Alan Menken and performed in a Busby Berkeley style number, the production is crisp, clean and visually arresting. Johnston incorporates the look and pace of both classic movies and comic books, which fits the alternate history World War 2-themed comics character, an intelligent weakling turned all-American hero played by Chris Evans (Fantastic Four). With Hugo Weaving (V for Vendetta) and Toby Jones (The Painted Veil) as Nazi villains, Tommy Lee Jones (The Company Men) for humor, Stanley Tucci (Burlesque) for pathos, and Hayley Atwell (cable TV’s The Pillars of the Earth) for romance, not to mention an international, multiracial band of war heroes evoking The Dirty Dozen and Where Eagles Dare, complete with impenetrable Nazi outposts, Captain America hardly has time for himself. The first half is strongest, with a brisk progression and developing bond between pre-hero Steve Rogers, who yearns to fight with his best friend and fellow countrymen, and Tucci’s German scientist. Atwell’s dead aim military ace is a good match for Rogers and his alter ego, and Weaving as the Red Skull foil, trying to out-Nazi the Nazis, is convincing as he schemes to destroy the West like an Islamic terrorist with a Third Reich convertible and a big, bat-shaped bomber aimed for taking out New York City.

The 9/11 parallel is hard to miss, in the 10th year since the worst attack in American history, and Captain America has a better grasp of how to fight the enemy than Clinton, Bush and Obama combined, going into the belly of the beast to wipe them out, granting no quarter to the enemy and not trying to understand their mystical-fascist philosophy. Being true to himself, he fights for his values, his freedom, and his country, with most Americans, from old women to young boys, joining in the crusade, and he does so with a spirit of steel and can-do Americanism. Liberals may feel like they want to throw up, especially because his icy British girlfriend has the same attitude, refusing to cower when faced with barbarians and instead picking up a gun and shooting to kill, not pleading to win hearts and minds. Only the State Department feels otherwise, quite otherwise, in a well-deserved dig at those longtime apologists and appeasers.

But Steve Rogers and his thoroughly self-made Captain America are no cheap cartoon characters. Contrary to anti-emotion types who think men that express emotion are inherently weak, he winces, feels the loss of those he loves, and he prefers to team with those who are different. In fact, you might say Captain America is a sensitive artist, designing his own uniform and sketching a figure on a drawing pad, even performing in musicals. He thinks his way to victory at every turn. But he is resolute in leading those General Patton, who is quoted in Captain America, called “the best minds in the free world.” He may not always get what he wants, and he may not save every comrade in arms, but he’s proud to be an American (in one scene, even an arrogant American), and he thinks and fights like he means it. Stick around for the closing credits, for once not a stream of toilet jokes, if you do, too.