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The Dead Don’t Die (2019)

If you’re a Jim Jarmusch fan, you can probably stop reading now. I encourage you to continue but I don’t know if anything will be of help for you from here on out because, frankly, I don’t understand you. Jarmusch is a longtime staple of indie film and I’ve watched three of his films (Only Lovers Left Alive, Broken Flowers, Ghost Dog) and disliked all three to varying degrees, and that’s fine. There are plenty of hallowed names in filmmaking that are just beyond me, like Terrence Malick and Nicolas Refn, but I can at least partially understand what the fans of those auteurs value, an immersive visual, sensory experience at the sacrifice of narrative and coherency. When it comes to Jarmusch, I just don’t understand the appeal whatsoever. This is a man who found a way to make vampires crushingly boring, and now he finds a way to do the same with zombies. The Dead Don’t Die is the widest release of his career and it might be the worst movie I’ve seen in a theater all this year. It certainly feels like the longest.

In a sleepy small Ohio town, the police force consists of Chief Robertson (Bill Murray), Ronnie (Adam Driver), and Mindy (Chloe Sevigny). They’re going about their typical day, warning Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), listening to the alarmist worries of Farmer Frank (Steve Buscemi), and picking up supplies at the hardware store run by Hank (Danny Glover) and Bobby (Caleb Landry Jones). There’s a traveling group of students, lead by Zoe (Selena Gomez), as well as a group of kids in a juvenile detention center. Then the dead come back and small-town life will never be the same.

Anyone walking in expecting a zany comedy from the premise and cast, not to mention marketing materials, will be sorely disappointed, because what The Dead Don’t Die better resembles are the humorless anti-comedies of late-night Adult Swim blocs. It’s not so much that there are jokes, it’s more the absence of jokes, and somehow that might be the joke? The humor is stuck in one mode throughout the film. A character will slowly say something understated or obvious (Example: “That’s not good”) and then the reaction of others will be delayed, and then after that nobody will say anything for several painful seconds later. That’s about it, folks. It’s hard to find humor with that. The deadpan jokes are too obvious and too uniform to really strike any potent comedy targets. The consumer “satire” is brittle to the point of breaking. Various zombies will shamble around and say one-word items of whatever was important to them, ranging from “Coffee,” to, “Fashion,” to, “Chardonnay.” It’s like the one-word utterances are the entire joke (Hey, this dead guy liked fishing, isn’t that a riot?). It’s not satire and it’s not funny. How about the characters of Rosie Perez and Tilda Swinton being named Posie Juarez and Zelda Winston? Is that the kind of humor that sounds appealing? How about Tilda Swinton flexing a samurai sword to slice and dice the undead. Is that supposed to be cool? Is it supposed to be funny? Is it supposed to be funny that it’s trying to be “cool”? What is anything?

Later, the film inserts a new comedy element with meta asides where people seem to know they’re in a movie, and yet again the jokes are obvious and uniform, except now it’s even lazier, relying upon the meta recognition to simply stand in the place of a joke. If anything can happen in the small town, especially toward its crazy end, then why do these things have to happen? Or better yet why don’t better things happen? Because of the deadly pacing it makes every attempted bad joke feel that much more unbearable.

This movie is only 105 minutes but it felt so much longer. the pacing not just as a whole but scene-to-scene and even line-to-line from conversations is deadly still. Every moment feels stretched out but it doesn’t ever feel like you’re going anywhere. Characters will be introduced and given meet-cute moments and little indicators they might be significant players later, and then we’ll just find them dead. Other characters will be introduced and then never leave their locations, having no bearing on the larger story. It’s rare that I could honestly say there are entire supporting swaths of this movie that could be cut completely and not impact the story at all. It makes the many storylines we hopscotch across feel like they don’t matter and are generally wasting our valuable time.

Then there’s the ending where Jarmusch just instructs Tom Waits to unleash a torrent of narration bemoaning how society deserves whatever downfall it incurs and that we’re all just zombies anyway. It’s so clumsy and overbearing and unearned after an entire movie where the cultural criticism amounted to a racist saying he doesn’t like his coffee black and then pointedly staring at the only black man in the movie. Even if we got more moments like that I might say some of the ending vitriol is justified, but the commentary gets muted in the middle until Waits has to finally tell us what the point is. There are scant political and environmental references but they feel like tossed asides themselves.

I don’t blame the cast for any of this although I can’t say what on the page must have seemed attractive. Murray is always going to be an amiable screen presence and Driver is a fun partner, slipping into a skillful deadpan and straining to find humor where there is precious little. Everyone feels wasted on screen because even if you’ve never seen these actors before you know, instantly and instinctively, that they have been far better.

The Dead Don’t Die is further proof that I am not a Jim Jarmusch fan. I can’t fathom how someone can actually be a fan of this writer/director. I was tempted to walk out at several points but I held in there. The jokes are too obvious and barely jokes, the pacing is awfully slack, and the whole movie is reprehensibly boring. Even when it has moments of weirdness it finds ways to make it boring. The structure does little to nothing with a large ensemble of very good actors. The movie and premise had potential. The idea of a zombie outbreak in a small town where everybody knows everybody is ripe for comedy and tragedy. Ultimately The Dead Don’t Die feels like one egregiously long in-joke that the audience isn’t privy to. The joke’s on us, folks.

Nate’s Grade: D

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The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (2019)

Everything might not be awesome but it’s still pretty great for this creative, heartfelt, and hyperactive family franchise that is better than it has any right to be thanks in part to returning writers Phil Lord and Chris Miller. It’s not quite as fresh and clever as the first go-round but it manages to better its predecessor in some key ways. Now that we know the colorful and zany antics of the animated Lego characters are also simultaneously the imaginative play of a real-world family, it provides a deeper thematic subtext with the unseen nature of siblings in conflict. I remember my own younger sister wanting to play with me and my toys, and me rebuffing her, and the film struck home some key emotional points about the inclusion of cooperative play. The different styles of play are on display as our characters are abducted by a shape-shifting space queen (voiced by Tiffany Haddish) who is determined to marry Batman and possibly rule the universe. A fantastic running joke is how transparently malevolent the queen is, which leads to an even better payoff. There are more songs and each is pretty well constructed, relevant to the story, and assuredly catchy, like “Catchy Song” used to brainwash people through pop, and a mournful version of “Everything’s Not Awesome” that becomes genuinely inspirational and uplifting by its climax. The life lessons are easily digestible and the sense of breezy fun is still alive and well. I was laughing throughout, sometimes quite hard, and the brother/sister subtext had me wondering if I owed my younger sister a decades-late apology for my behavior (sorry, Natalie). Lego Movie 2 is a worthy sequel that finds new and interesting ways to build off the irreverent original’s model. Bring on the Toy Story 3-style ending where our grown-up owner says goodbye to his childhood toys and friends. At this point, Lord and Miller can do anything and imbue it with wild wit, whimsy, and unparalleled mass entertainment (except Star Wars, I suppose).

Nate’s Grade: B+

Vice (2018)

If Oscar-winning funnyman Adam McKay can take the arcane, convoluted world of finance and spin it into one of the most entertaining, accessible, and enraging films of that year, then just imagine what he could do with the life of Dick Cheney?

We follow Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) from his early days as a college washout, to Washington intern to Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), to youngest chief of staff in a White House administration, to Wyoming Congressman, and eventually Vice President to George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) where Cheney redefined the VP role as a defacto second president. This is the story of his 60 years shaping the annuls of political power.

If you have one reason to watch Vice, it’s the staggering performance by Bale (Hostiles). As is custom, the man completely transforms himself into his subject, gaining weight, building muscle in his neck to simulate the Cheney shoulder hunch, and going unrecognizable in startling older age makeup. He doesn’t just look the spitting image of Dick Cheney but he sounds like him too, exhibiting his cadences and mannerisms, and fully inhabiting the man every second he’s onscreen. It’s a compelling, captivating turn that ranks up there with Bale’s best. He’s beyond great but strangely nobody else is. Amy Adams (Arrival) plays Lynne Cheney, Dick’s wife and shrewd political partner, and her worst acting moment is her introductory scene where she lays into the young Cheney. It’s like an audition where the actor is hitting the wrong notes too strongly. Adams regains herself as the film carries on but never has a standout scene. Nobody else other than Bale is given the material to stand out. Rockwell (Three Billboards) and Carell (Beautiful Boy) are enjoyable and aided by impressive makeup, especially old Rumsfeld, but they’re given one note to play. Their roles become more impression than performance and both men drop out of the movie for long periods of time. The next best actor might by Tyler Perry (Gone Girl) as Colin Powell, and maybe that’s because Perry is used to brokering nonsense with his own array of nonsensical characters. He’s already the weary adult.

The meta interludes and fourth wall breaks that helped The Big Short succeed conversely are part of the problem with Vice. Most Americans know a decent amount about the Iraq War and its documented fallout, so there’s less need to have celebrities interject and explain complex scenarios and institutions (the absence of Margot Robbie in a bubble bath will always be felt). The narration by Jesse Plemons (Game Night) doesn’t feel necessary, and his ordinary identity becomes a guessing game for most of the film, trying to link him with Cheney. I was thinking he would be an Iraq War soldier and get killed later on, that way establishing a stand-in for the thousands of men and women who are no longer walking this Earth as a direct result of Cheney’s misguided action. Nope. When his identity is finally revealed you’ll go, “Oh,” and that’s it. Because he wasn’t really a character, he was a narrative device and one that didn’t stand for anything larger. The visual metaphors can also be very, very obvious. There are consistent cuts to Cheney fly-fishing in a river, meant to evoke him luring others into his desired machinations. Even the end credits feature fly-fishing imagery, in case you had forgotten about this enduring metaphor. The conclusion literally involves a heart being removed and the sequence cut along a more figurative betrayal, and you can feel McKay vigorously pointing at the screen and yelling, “See, it’s because he’s heartless, get it? Do you get it?” We get it. The documentary-style and comedic techniques that allowed The Big Short to be as entertaining and accessible, and one of the best films of 2015, are paradoxically the things that seem at odds with Vice.

The meta breaks are meant to provide a degree of comedy to the picture, which is generally absent comedy otherwise, unless you count the rise of Cheney’s reign as the darkest of comedies. I suppose Cheney’s nonchalant recognition of his heart attacks (he’s had five) could be a potential comedic lifeline if you’re being generous. One second we’re told people don’t speak in Shakespearean soliloquies in real life, and the next second the Cheneys are talking in Shakespearean verse. When it looks like the Cheneys will drop out of public office to spare their gay daughter Mary (Alison Pill) the inevitable storm of harassment, the movie has a fake-out end credit sequence to sum up their hypothetical lives. To demonstrate Cheney’s knack for making the most ridiculous statement sound statesmen, he recommends that the Oval Office team put miniature beards on a part of their anatomy and perform an adult puppet show, which draws solemn nods of approval from the others. It’s a joke that feels too glib, like the intended point is being lost by the lewd nature of the comedic aside. The only meta aspect that feels earned is the final one, where Cheney turns to the camera and directly addresses the audience, acknowledging he can feel their contempt but refuses to apologize for his actions in order to keep people safe. Because he’s having the final say, because he’s offering a rebuff to his movie, it feels more earned and fitting, and it would have had even more power if it were the only break in the movie rather than the last. It’s hard to call this a comedy; it’s more an incredulous indictment looking for its mob.

I honestly think a straightforward biopic might have been the better route for Cheney. The first half of the film is more interesting and successful because it is the more illuminating half. I never knew that Lynne Cheney’s father likely killed her mother. That’s a pretty bold charge on behalf of the filmmakers. The early Cheney years are the moments the majority of Americans don’t know about, whereas the later years have been well documented by a slew of hard-hitting documentaries, books, and journalistic exposes. There are whole movies about topics like the Valerie Plame leaking (Fair Game), the mounting mistakes after the invasion of Iraq (No End in Sight), the administration’s policy on torture (Taxi to the Dark Side, Standard Operating Procedure), the drumbeat to the war and snuffing out of critical journalism (Shock and Awe, Lions for Lambs), the missing WMDs (Green Zone, Body of Lies), the Bush deferment memos (Truth), the long-term consequences for those servicemen who survive (The Hurt Locker, The Messenger, Stop-Loss, Last Flag Flying, In the Valley of Elah, American Sniper, Thank You For Your Service) and anything that Michael Moore sets his sights on. This list is not exhaustive by any means. Because of that the film seems to become a rudimentary montage once the Iraq War kicks off, sprinting through the rest as an intended tableau of hubris as Cheney’s star and influence falls. I would rather have learned more about Cheney’s early years in the Nixon, Ford, and H.W. Bush administrations and gleaned more personal insights into the man before he becomes this shadowy, mythic figure that seems downright Machiavellian in his control of government. It’s interesting to watch Cheney and his cohorts plot their unchecked executive power behind the back of President Bush, but then what?

It’s the “then what?” question I keep revisiting with McKay’s film, trying to figure out the larger intended message, themes, and dire warnings. I feel like because of the expanse of time covered, and the meta quirks applied, that the film too often feels like it’s just scratching the surface of Cheney, providing a slight gloss to a political caricature. The biggest takeaway is the slippery slope of the “unitary executive theory,” a term you’ll hear often, that basically follows Nixon’s own words: “If the president does it, it’s not illegal.” This questionable interpretation of Article II of the Constitution gives the president powers that approach a monarch, which seems antithetical the Founders’ intents. McKay warns that any president could take advantage of this theory to do whatever he or she (sad trombone noise… sigh) desires. This is clearly meant to draw a line right to President Trump, but it’s not like the 45th president needs sketchy legal cover to do his misdeeds. The idea that the Justice Department memos would be a lurking danger is quaint. A bad man with power is not going to look for the rules to allow him or her to break them. The idea that a president could be above the law is also a legally specious argument and one I don’t believe our courts would readily back, even with the “unitary executive theory” (at least I hope so). With that in mind, Vice becomes a cautionary tale about the expenditure of power but lacks the adequate follow-through.

Vice is a tricky biopic for a tricky subject and I wonder if it would have worked better being stripped of its prankster, meta interjections and tricks. It’s a condemnation of Dick Cheney but it doesn’t feel like it goes far enough if McKay’s eventual thesis is that the current world problems began, or were grossly exacerbated, by the actions of Cheney. Climate change warnings going unheeded, ISIS formations going ignored, the generational consequences for unsettling the Middle East, and laying the foundation for an authoritarian strongman to be an acceptable political position for millions of Americans. These charges are clearly intended to be a denunciation of Cheney’s legacy, but the end results play out somewhat differently, like a slap on the wrist. I think Dick Cheney could even watch this movie and nod in appreciation. That seems like a mistake. McKay is still a talented writer and filmmaker that knows how to keep his movie flowing and entertaining, buoyed by an outstanding performance from Bale. It’s a movie with great components but seems to clumsily get in its own way with its presentation. If you’re going to expose Dick Cheney as a heinous manipulator of power that has wrecked havoc for billions, then maybe you don’t want to dilute your message.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Life Itself (2018)

Under the thumb of writer/director Dan Fogelman (TV’s This Is Us), the lives of several inter-connected characters in Life Itself are bonded by a seemingly endless assembly of human tragedy. That’s life, he seems to say, but there’s also a lot of death here. There’s death by accident, death by suicide, death by cancer, parental abandonment, addiction, mental illness, let alone fleeting mentions of sexual abuse and incest. Throughout it all, the characters of Fogelman press onward, making whimsical observations about human existence and perception, some of which I don’t think are quite as profound as he may think. What does “life is an unreliable narrator” exactly mean? I understand the implication of unexpected twists and turns, but life is objective, it’s more a medium for events that others will impart differing perceptions… it doesn’t matter. We jump around through multiple chapters across generations, though it all looks like it takes place in the same five or so years, waiting for the final revelations of what connect these different people and their stories of heartache. Much of the story hinges on these connective revelations because a far majority of the characters have little characterization other than broad strokes. they are pieces meant to form a puzzle. Because of its ensemble nature, some storylines are just more interesting than others, and some characters are given more meaningful things to do onscreen. The film gets significantly better once we transition away from Oscar Isaac as an over-caffeinated smarty-pants reflecting about his pregnant ex-wife (Olivia Wilde). From there we go overseas to an olive ranch in Italy and Antonio Banderas, who uncorks a swell Spanish monologue to a man he wants to ingratiate into his family. Fogelman alternates his hearty doses of old melodrama with meta asides, some of which work like a grandfather-granddaughter sit-down where they express the verbose subtext out loud, and some of them do not, like Samuel L. Jackson appearing as a literal flesh-and-blood narrator. An ongoing diatribe about a Bob Dylan song from his 1997 comeback album also seems a strange student film-level pretentious linchpin. I liked individual performances, individual moments, but Life Itself cannot escape the smothering effect that Fogelman employs as a dramatist, trying to turn every moment into a mosaic he feels will gain beauty and clarity if he just keeps pulling further and further back to reveal the grand design. It wants us to take comfort in the big picture but the details are misery.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Deadpool 2 (2018)

It took the leaked release of the Deadpool test footage, and the ensuing enthusiastic fan response, before Fox finally decided to invest in a big screen, R-rated superhero movie. The result was 2016’s Deadpool, a huge smash and proof that a lucrative audience will turn out for more adult-oriented, outrageous, grisly versions of comic book movies. Because of Deadpool, we finally got an R-rated Logan that proved to be an outstanding swan song for Hugh Jackman’s iconic hero. Now Deadpool is getting the spotlight he has earned with a big, splashy summer release, but with success come expectations. Can it live up to the ever-increasing hype? In short: if you were a fan of the original, you’ll be happy enough, because Deadpool 2 isn’t much more than the sum of its zany parts.

Wade Wilson a.k.a. Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) is killing bad guys for hire and considering starting a family with the love of his life, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). Trouble emerges when Cable (Josh Brolin) travels from the future to kill a rebellious, troubled young mutant teenager, Russell (Julian Dennison), who will one day grow up to be a monstrous villain. Deadpool reaches out for help and forms an elite squad of determined heroes, notably the luck-assisted Domino (Zazie Beetz). Can Deadpool save the kid, save the day, save the future, and save himself from incessant fourth wall breaks?

I was worried that a Deadpool sequel would fall into some of the same detractions that a Guardians of the Galaxy sequel did, and this is still applicable. Deadpool, much like the original 2014 Guardians film, was a breath of fresh air and a far looser, weirder, funkier super hero movie with a nose-thumbing, prankish attitude. We didn’t know what to expect from a Deadpool movie and now we do, and with that knowledge comes an anticipated formula of checklists to adhere to, and so any resulting sequel will invariably feel less fresh. It happened with Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 so to compensate James Gunn concentrated on fleshing out secondary characters into people you might shed a tear over. Deadpool 2 doesn’t bother because Deadpool 2 doesn’t take anything really seriously. That’s one of the hallmarks of the series and also one of the aspects that holds it back. There can never be a sense of stakes with a gleeful, fourth wall-breaking cartoon of a character who bounces back like Wile E. Coyote. The sequel introduces a sense of stakes with a startling turn in the first ten minutes of the movie, but by the end, even that will be corrected so that the Deadpool universe returns to stasis. The limitation of the Deadpool universe is that nothing feels meaningful or even ambitious. The movie wants to be a cheeky, transgressive good time and it achieves this single goal.

The appeal of Deadpool 2 is still its comedic voice and unpredictability. The laughs will be frequent and there are some subversive and unexpected directions that fully take advantage of the R-rating and the anarchic, nasty comic spirit of the franchise. The formation of the X-Force team and how their first big mission plays out had me howling with laughter. The meta humor commenting on the nature of super hero movies, as well as the film industry in general, begins with the very opening image (a nod to another successful R-rated super hero movie of last year) until the very last moment where Deadpool goes back in time to prevent some stinging cinematic grievances (there is no post-end credit scene, so you can skedaddle early). This is clearly the role Reynolds feels a spiritual kinship with, and his caddish, charming, persistent persona makes the perfect conduit for the film’s vulgar insanity. Whether it’s spitting insults, splashing in over-the-top violence, or making odd observations about the similarities between the songs from Frozen and Yentl, Deadpool 2 is first and foremost a bloody, depraved meta comedy.

Director David Leitch (Atomic Blonde) steps in for the departing original film’s director, Tim Miller, and continues his hot streak of stylish, action thrillers. Leitch has shown a propensity for staging intense action sequences to best showcase intricate choreography. With Deadpool 2, the most exciting moments are when the camera and editing allows the audience to fully appreciate the creativity of the choreography and stunt team. A shot of Cable leaping over the speeding caravan about to smash into him brings on a well-earned wow. Coming from that bruising world, I’m continually impressed with how Leitch approaches his action and finds organic points to develop and complicate matters. The prison caravan attack is the action peak with well-constructed, parallel lines of activity to follow and collaborate upon. It’s our first taste of Deadpool and X-Force versus the might of Cable. The characters enter the fray at different points and get separated from the runaway caravan, which keeps the momentum going. While the comedy is prioritized, Deadpool 2 can still unleash enough exciting, silly, and satisfying action.

The biggest additions to the sequel are an adversary and an ally, and both leave a favorable impression while still making you wish that Deadpool 2 had done more with them. Brolin (Avengers: Infinity War) bulked up considerably to play the gruff cyborg from the future, and his super serious, macho straight man provides a terrific comic foil for Deadpool, much like the stuffy Colossus in the first film. Brolin’s character is a capable fighter with a pretty streamlined back-story (shades of Looper abound) but it’s hard not to feel a little disappointment with how he’s ultimately utilized. He’s a great asset that feels put away for too long. Zazie Beetz (TV’s Atlanta) has a fun introduction especially as it relates to her mutant power, great luck. Deadpool scoffs at this as a power, and “being deeply un-cinematic,” but Domino proves otherwise as she’s able to dodge split-second danger in grand, complicated, Final Destination-like circumstances. Every time she’s onscreen, Domino brings a curiosity quality to the movie, and it’s usually something imaginative and fun. Beetz has an innate spunky energy, which makes it sad when the movie often asks her to be dour and dismissive. It’s taking such a lively character and constricting what makes her amusing and unique.

The biggest thing holding back the film, besides a general sense of “more of the same” or its inherent lack of stakes, is that the entire storyline is built around saving a mutant teen…. and I kind of hated the kid. My first impression was not good and it didn’t get much better from there. Part of it may be that Russell is meant to be an angry, obnoxious teenager, and maybe part of it is the generally grating performance from Dennison (Hunt for the Wilder People), but I could not care about this kid. Unfortunately, a lot of thematic emphasis is placed on saving the soul of this one annoying, wayward teenager. He’s supposed to be a point of redemption for Deadpool and a promise to be fulfilled, but my pal Ben Bailey came up with an instantly better revision. Instead of introducing this new teen character who will one day grow up into a super villain that slaughters Cable’s future family, why not have it be Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand)? We already have an investment in her character and it would provide a better, more personal sense of stakes for the story. Plus, Hildebrand (Tragedy Girls) is actually a good actress.

If you were one of the many fans who enjoyed the irreverent antics of the first Deadpool, then you’ll enjoy Deadpool 2 as it’s more or less the same movie with a slightly limited freshness date. These movies are fun, funny, and ridiculous, but they’re also good for little else than a wicked good time, and that’s okay. There isn’t much ambition to be anything more than an irreverent satire on super heroes with edgy humor and explosive violence. The running theme of the sequel questions what Deadpool has to keep on going, and he’s told it’s one very specific F-word: “family.” I think it’s a different F-word, namely “franchise.” Fox (Disney?) will need the services of the merc with the mouth for an extended engagement as long as audiences do not tire of the same studio brand of naughtiness reheated with a few different ingredients added per revisit.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Lego Batman Movie (2017)

The Lego Batman Movie intends to expand the world of a movie that was designed to sell toys and was far better than anyone ever imagined. It’s frenetic, silly, and paced at spoof level speed with genial gags flying fast every ten seconds or so. It’s also flat, and while intermittently amusing I only chuckled, at best, a handful of times. Will Arnett’s self-involved Batman was a fun side character in the original Lego Movie but there’s not exactly enough there for his own starring vehicle (Jack Sparrow Syndrome). He’s saddled with a weak plot about letting others get closer and not having to be a loner. Besides a brief comedy bit about a cataclysm, the movie could have just been a broad Batman movie. It doesn’t really utilize the landscape of a Lego universe in any way. While many of the jokes didn’t work for me, I knew another one was mere seconds later, so I shrugged off the misfires. The final act of the movie involves a separate league of villains, all conveniently connected to other Warner Brothers properties. Lego Batman wore me down after the opening sequence where Batman battles his entire rogues gallery. It was high-energy but its aim was just too low for my tastes, and the results made me appreciate even more the cleverness and plain comedic accomplishments of the original Lego movie. There aren’t any memorable moments or jokes and there’s far too much Batman rapping. It’s colorful, it’s wacky, it’s filled with fine vocal actors with very little to do other than Arnett and an amusingly awed Michael Cera as The Boy Wonder himself, adopted sidekick Robin. It’s an acceptable albeit numbing experience that I wanted to enjoy more. I don’t know if this is the start of Lego spin-off movies but if it is I hope others do better with their own building blocks.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Deadpool (2016)

Deadpool-poster-2Deadpool is easily the most fan service of comic characters, so it makes sense that his big screen spotlight is a movie that feels a fan service movie. The “merc with a mouth” is a character that doesn’t take himself seriously and neither does his big screen adventure, which is the biggest appeal of an otherwise standard super hero formula hiding under waves of winking irony, crass humor, and gleefully bloody violent mayhem. Ryan Reynolds plays Wade Wilson, a hired gun that undergoes a risky experimental treatment by a shady black ops organization to cure his terminal illness. It makes him generally indestructible with a rapid healing ability but his flesh is also horribly scarred and Wade is afraid his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), a hooker with a heart of gold, will reject him. Even in the opening credits, you know this isn’t going to be a typical super hero movie. The time is ripe for a film that knowingly ridicules the tropes of the super hero film industry, and Deadpool scores some big laughs when its making fun of itself and its super peers. The dark humor can often surprise with how go-for-broke it can get, like Wade and his Vanessa’s flirty one-upsmanship of hypothetical sexual trauma. There’s a clever montage of Wade and Vanessa’s romantic history told through sexually-specific holiday celebrations, and the inclusion of a couple of low-rent X-Men provides a comic foil for Deadpool to bounce off from. The action is fun and the movie is entertaining from its opening credits to the now-mandatory post-credits bonus. Reynolds is spiritually attuned with the irreverence of the anti-hero, finally plugging into a part that makes full use of his charm, motor mouth, and physicality. Deadpool’s runaway box-office success (grossing more than any X-Men film and on at least half the budget) will hopefully allow Hollywood to feel comfortable allowing their less than family-friendly comic titles to stay true to their intentions. Then again maybe they’ll just take all the wrong messages and think that audiences just want to hear more swearing from people in spandex. Deadpool is a super hero movie that prioritizes fun over everything else, and while it may not be for everyone, at least it’s trying to be for someone different.

Nate’s Grade: B

22 Jump Street (2014)

When 21 Jump SMV5BMTcwNzAxMDU1M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDE2NTU1MTE@._V1_SX214_AL_treet was proposed as a movie, nobody thought it was a good idea. Even its stars and writers. They used that as an opportunity to craft one of the more charming, surprising, and hilarious films of 2012, a movie so good that it was also one of the best films of a relatively great year at the movies. Now that was something nobody expected with a 21 Jump Street movie. As often happens, Hollywood looks to keep the good times going, and 22 Jump Street is knocking at the door. In Hollywood tradition, sequels usually follow the “more of the same” format with a dash of “bigger is better,” a fact that 22 Jump Street takes to heart.

Having successfully busted a high school drug ring, Officers Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are the toast of their unit. That is until they let a dangerous criminal (Peter Stormare) get away with a shipment of drugs. It’s back to the Jump Street program, as their police chief (Nick Offerman) laments that everybody just needs to do the exact same thing that worked the last time. Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) has assigned Schmidt and Jenko to go undercover at the state university to sniff out where the student body is getting a powerful and deadly designer drug. Schmidt grows close to Maya (Amber Stevens), an art major who knew a girl who overdosed on the new drug. Likewise, Jenko is falling for team quarterback Zook (Wyatt Russell), or more accurately the bond they share as two athletes with a similar brain. The partnership of Schmidt and Jenko may be in trouble for the long haul if they can’t work together.

22-Jump-Street-2This may be one of the most meta movies of all time, existing outside itself in tandem to always provide a winking dose of commentary about its own silliness, excess, and corporate mentality about replicating success through the least creative means possible. There’s even a character with a literal red herring tattooed on his bicep. There are plenty of in-jokes without breaking down the fourth wall, and the meta cleverness is an entertaining way to pave over the general same-ness that goes along with the limited undercover premise. While cracking wise for its full running time, 22 Jump Street really is “more of the same.” For most, myself included, that is completely acceptable since the first 21 Jump Street was an unexpectedly witty and comically brash outing. Seeing another adventure with this same team is more than justifiable, especially with the kind of comic kinship that Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street) and Tatum (White House Down) share. Once again the guys go undercover to bust a drug operation, and once again they each get close to a different set of students, and once again their relationship takes a personal hit. It’s the same plot beats but with different jokes (like the R-rated version of Anchorman 2). The entire “going undercover as a school student” concept is so dated to begin with, and neither Hill nor Tatum can credibly pass at this point, so the entire enterprise feels like they’re squeezing the most they can while they can, enjoying the good times, the good chemistry, being silly on the studio dime, and counting their luck.

The end credits for 22 Jump Street deserve special praise just for the appearance of burning down its franchise. Throughout the film the guys are mocking the very notion of a sequel. By the end, they mock, without abandon, the idea of a franchise. We flash through an absurd array of new assignments, new sequels, and new school-setting undercover gigs, and it’s almost like a flash-forward into the timeline of the movie, like the finale of Six Feet Under. There are some amusing cameos and business satire to mock with as well as the general ludicrous nature of repeating this plot/formula (Magician school?). The end credits leave the audience feeling buzzy and giggly, a perfect comic high, and it’s the best end credit high since the original Hangover.

The real enjoyment is watching Hill and Tatum continue to mine what has become one of film’s best onscreen bromances of all time. I never would have pictured these two fitting together so smoothly, or Tatum being such an unexpectedly natural comedic talent. Thank goodness for the 21 Jump Street movies for offering us these untold comic gifts and for knowing what the main attraction is and how to properly develop it. The relationship between friends/colleagues/bros Schmidt and Jenko is the most consistently interesting, surprisingly emotional, and comically ripe subject in the film. We have two great actors and watching them butt heads is just as fun as watching them get along. In the sequel, the guys go through what serves as an analogue for a separation, wanting to see other partners. We know in our hearts these two are meant to be together, and so much of the fun is watching just how this odd coupling now seems so indispensable to one another, with Tatum’s zigs blending ever so delightfully with Hill’s zags. I could watch another movie of just these guys doing paperwork.

In the first film, Jenko and Schmidt were set up to fall back into stereotypical roles before the movie found a better solution. Jenko was going to be the jock with sports classes, and Schmidt the nerd with AP classes and drama. Then a mix-up, and they have each other’s identities, and the movie is that much better, forcing each out of their comfort zone and finding the better comic scenario. With 22 Jump Street, the movie falls back to the old social order. Jenko hangs with the football jocks and the frat brothers and gets to be the super popular student-athlete, while Schmidt is left to investigate the art majors who knew the dead coed. It has them falling back into their high school roles (popular vs. outsider) and it’s not nearly as interesting, especially after seemingly growing beyond these moments. The side characters aren’t as interesting either, many lacking material to develop beyond one-note joke machines, like Zook. I was mildly intrigued by H. Jon Benjamin (TV’s Archer, Bob’s Burgers) as a football coach obsessed with protecting the goalpost, but I wanted more. Twin stoners who talk at the same time are not enough.

channing-tatum-and-jonah-hill-drive-football-helmet-car-on-set-of-22-jump-streetThere is one supporting actor given enough material to shine and that is Workaholics’ actress Jillian Bell. She plays such a deadpan, biting, sarcastic, no-nonsense roommate who won’t entertain for one second that Schmidt is who he says he is, and she is wonderfully brutal with her insults. There’s a later scene where she keeps wrongly misinterpreting a fight with Schmidt into something else. It’s a highlight of the movie, a great example of her physical comedy skills and sense of timing, and it’s a plumb example of taking a topic that a situation that could be uncomfortable and finding the right balance to guide an audience along for the best laugh.

Like before, once the movie adapts to its action-filled climax, the jokes start taking a backseat to the action theatrics. Returning directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The LEGO Movie) have kept their same brand of rambunctious spirited comedy alive and well, which keeps the movie’s pace brisk and always open to fresh weirdness. While some jokes don’t work as well the second time (Vietnamese Jesus, the drug freak-out fantasy sequence, though its use of Creed music almost makes up for that), this is still more sequel than retread. This is not an Austen Powers that repeats the exact same jokes with slightly different settings. Lord and Miller understand how to satiate an audience without overt pandering. They know how to build payoffs that are small and payoffs that are big, ones directly linked to character goals. There are strong comedic set pieces unrelated to any sort of meta commentary, Schmidt’s impromptu slam poem being one of them. It’s a manner of giving people what they want while still finding new ways to surprise, because otherwise comedy is dead without the subversion of expectations.

“More of the same” is the best and worst summary for 22 Jump Street, and despite 1500 words of film criticism, all you really need to ask yourself. Is more of the same good enough for you when it comes to another 21 Jump Street movie? Sure, we’d all wish for the same sort of unexpected cheeky revelation that was the first film, but then again no one had any expectations that a 21 Jump Street movie would be anything worth watching, let alone one of the best films of that year. 22 Jump Street is hilarious, witty, aggressive, irreverent, and even when it has to take on the role of action-comedy, it does so with a consistent wink, pointing toward all the sequel tropes and absurdity without rubbing your nose in every single reference and gag. The second time around Jump Street is, by definition, never going to be as fresh, but the company is still top-notch, the jokes are still layered and cracking, and the determination is high. It’s a sequel that delivers what it promises. I’m ready to take this franchise as far as it can conceivably go for two men well into their 30s-posing-as-high-schoolers. Magician school, here we come.

Nate’s Grade: B+

A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)

MV5BMTQ0NDcyNjg0MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzk4NTA4MTE@._V1_SX640_SY720_I was no fan of Seth MacFarlane’s first big-screen effort Ted, but I had my hopes up for his Western comedy after some genuinely funny trailers and the reported promise of a lack of anachronistic jokes. A Million Ways to Die in the West lands about half of its jokes, which is a definite improvement though still has enough dead spots that left me shifting around in my seat. The main conceit, a self-aware individual explaining all the myriad ways the Wild West is horrible and will kill you, is a fun operating principal that is also weirdly educational. And MacFarlane actually makes a pretty good comedic leading man, enough so that he could get gigs in other people’s movies. He plays a coward roped into fighting an outlaw (Liam Neeson) after unknowingly falling for the outlaw’s wife (Charlize Theron). The meta jokes critiquing the romanticized living conditions of the West have the highest percentage of laughs, and there are some great sequences like a trip at the local fair which turns deadly so easily. Theron and MacFaralane make a good pair and the supporting cast, with Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman, are funny and don’t overstay their welcome. Neil Patrick Harris is also amusing as ever and even gets a song-and-dance number about the virtues of mustaches that, honestly, should have been better. But every so often MacFarlane can’t help himself. There are some gross-out jokes that go a little too far. Then there’s the fact that the movie forgets to be a comedy for long stretches, morphing into an action thriller or budding romance. The scenery is nice but I would have liked more jokes. The movie is also far longer than it needs to be, dragging out the climax. I’m also somewhat disappointed that MacFaralne and his writers missed out on an obvious payoff, namely the myriad ways the West can kill you. It only seems natural for Neeson and his gang to be foiled by the West itself, which would present a fun guessing game for the audience to anticipate what deadly condition would strike next. Alas, a missed opportunity. A Million Ways to Die in the West is a hit-or-miss affair with just enough hits to warrant a casual viewing.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Django Unchained (2012)

1904It’s an understatement that no one makes films like Quentin Tarantino, though after Pulp Fiction it seemed like everyone was trying. The famous writer/director is an audacious filmic DJ, taking samples from all genres and mixing and matching them into a new and elevated form of art; he takes low-grade B-movie concepts and genres and turns them into highly literate A-class films. My only quibble is that, while I heartily enjoy the man’s unique efforts, I don’t know if we’re ever going to see a different Tarantino anymore. Since 1997’s Jackie Brown, he seems intent on re-imagining exploitation films and B-movies and putting his articulate spin on them. I have yet to dislike a Tarantino film (I rate Jackie Brown the lowest but that’s still an A-) and I’ll be first in line for anything the man attaches himself to as writer/director. Django Unchained is Tarantino’s ode to spaghetti Westerns, and it’s every bit as violent and tense and entertaining as you’d hope it to be.

In 1858 Texas, an abolitionist bounty hunter, Dr. King Shultz (Christoph Waltz) frees a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) and enlists his help in tracking down a team of outlaws. They strike up a mentorship, gunning down outlaws for money. “Kill white folk and they pay you for it? What’s not to like?” Django reasons. After a successful season nabbing bad guys and training Django in the ways of shooting, the men come to a crossroads. Django is looking for his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). She was torn away from him and sold off to wealthy Mississippi plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Schultz and Django cook up a scheme to rescue Broomhilda. Schultz will pose as a rich power player wanting to enter the “mandingo fighting” game (think savage gladiatorial combat). Django will play a black slaver, and expert when it comes to picking out prized fighters. With a generous offer, the two get invited to Candie’s family plantation, dubbed Candieland. Standing in the way of their plan is Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie’s head of the house. Stephen is deeply suspicious of their guests and ready to expose them for who they truly are.

89366_galI’ve been dragging my feet writing a review of Django Unchained and I’m trying to determine why that is. Just after typing that sentence I spent 30 minutes checking my e-mail. I’m an avid Tarantino fan, so I’m left wondering what my hesitation is about. I certainly enjoyed the film, thoroughly, but perhaps my question is whether I should have enjoyed the film as much as I did given the historical reality of slavery. No movie will ever approach the true horrors of slavery; even the very act of owning another human is a detestable and crushing reality. Of course I’m coming at this movie from the perspective of a white male, so I feel like aspects of my commentary can only be minor. Is the backdrop of slavery too horrific for Tarantino to stage his spin on a revenge-filled Western? Spike Lee seems to think so via his critical public remarks. Tarantino has great glee in reveling in over-the-top movie violence, the kind that audiences (at least mine) cheer for. I guess the questionable angle is marrying the two realities and tones. You don’t want to take away from the brutality of slavery and at the same time you want to tell a compelling revenge-soaked thriller that satisfies with its buckets of blood. I’d say Django Unchained mostly finds the right balance to hit you in the gut one minute and the next have you clapping along.

It seems like the media is pressing every black celebrity for his or her personal thoughts on Django and especially Tarantino’s copious use of the N-word. Tarantino has gotten into hot water before with his penchant for the N-word, notably his own sequence in Pulp Fiction, but the N-word is entirely period appropriate for Django. Let’s face it, a majority of Americans, let alone Southerners, had really one word for slaves, and it wasn’t kind. This is the word that would have been uttered. However, after seeing the film a second time, I can see the complaints about the overwhelming use of the N-word. If you were to turn this into an awful and disrespectful drinking game, you’d probably pass out before DiCaprio even steps onscreen.

Like Inglourious Basterds, this movie is really a series of sit-downs that simmer with tension. The man has gotten so good with establishing the particulars of a scene, what the characters desire, and to push it to its breaking point when it comes to tension. While I don’t think anything approaches the highpoints of Basterds, this is still a movie that luxuriates in beautifully played tension and the danger lurking underneath Tarantino’s finely crafted words. And let’s talk about those wonderful words of Tarantino talk, the kind that seem so effortless to build sensationally interesting characters. The man sure enjoys writing his umpteenth variances on badasses engaging in verbal pissing contests (the literal kind are far less entertaining, at least for me). When you have character this sharply developed with such counter objectives, I could watch them duke it out all day. There are some pacing concerns with the movie, particularly once we get to Candieland, but when I’m engaged this much in a movie, I’d rather it go overboard than scrimp. Tarantino’s signature cool/funny/funny cool dialogue is alive and well. Every scene advances the plot, pushes it toward its bloody conclusion where bodies explode with sprays of red mist. It’s completely over-the-top in the Kill Bill vein, enough to draw snickers and laughter from a crowd, but Tarantino knows how to serve up a satisfying ending even with a body count to rival Hamlet.

89365_galI don’t want to give the wrong impression that Django Unchained is deadly serious given the subject matter and historical context. I don’t think it disrespectfully sanitizes the horrors of slavery, but Tarantino’s brand of humor finds opportune moments to poke through. There’s a sequence with an early version of the KKK, a group of Southerners on horses arguing over whether they need to wear the ill-fitting bags on their head they prepared (plus Jonah Hill cameo). I was laughing so hard I thought people around me were going to shush me. It may well be the funniest thing Tarantino has ever written. There’s also natural humor to be had in the awkward handling of race relations, something that hasn’t exactly been perfectly ironed out to this day. A wealthy plantation owner (Don Johnson) struggles to explain how his slaves should treat Django, presented as a freeman by Schultz. “You want me to treat him like white people?” someone asks. This is followed promptly with a curt, “No.” There’s also plenty of gallows humor to be had with the over-the-top violence that pervades in the finale. It’s all key moments to blow off steam, so to speak, and make the film more bearable.

Django Unchained follows a traditional Western plot; in fact I’d say what we watch is essentially Tarantino’s whacked out spin on The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexander Dumas is even referenced in the film by name). Our lead character, Django, is in the Clint Eastwood mode of the strong and silent type. Schultz is the one who does all the talking while Django learns and glowers. They make a terrific buddy team and you almost wish that Tarantino had just diverged his story and allowed them to keep doing their bounty business. But Django’s wife needs some saving and that’s where the movie slows down. I wish Broomhilda had been given more character development. She’s pretty much the princess that needs saving, much like the German folk tale we learn is where Broomhilda gets her uncommon name. My sister described Django Unchained as a love story and I think that’s being a little generous (Tarantino did cut much of her torture, physical and sexual, from his script). We certainly feel Django’s desire to rescue her, and we worry about all the plot machinations and masks the characters must wear to accomplish this feat. With that said, the movie still has plenty of sucker punch surprises, much like Basterds, where violence erupts and despicable characters are given arias to illuminate the depths of their depraved worldviews.

I do wish that Tarantino had been a bit more judicious with his editing (the first without longtime editor Sally Menke who died in 2010) and curtailed all his self-indulgent meta film homage nods. We get stuff like Amber Tamblyn (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) in one shot. Why you ask? See her father also stars in the movie in a small role, and he once played a character titled “Son of a Gunfighter.” So in his own credits, Tarantino lists him as “Son of a Gunfighter” and his daughter as, what else, “Daughter of a Son of a Gunfighter.” When all of that contorting is for an end credits gag and one shot in the whole movie, you feel like it was strictly masturbatory. Then there’s the original Django, Franco Nero, asking Foxx how to spell his name. Old Django asking new Django how to spell his name. I guess it’s supposed to be like a cinematic passing of the torch but it’s another moment that feels superfluous in a 165-minute movie. The movie can get a tad exhausting. The final 15 minutes, while still smartly written and boasting some terrific bloody comeuppance, feels like an add-on that wasn’t needed. It does manage to tie some elements back together but at this point the audience is ready for Django to ride off into the sunset, not have another obstacle to overcome in improbable yet badass fashion. At my first viewing, the kid behind me kept complaining to his parents that the movie had failed to end (“This is still going? It’s already been two hours!”). I also understand the fruitless and ironic nature of asking Tarantino to reign in his self-indulgences; that is, after all, what makes him who he is.

As expected from Westerns, the movie is a boy’s show. Foxx (Ray) has a steely screen presence that works very effectively for the character. The man’s quiet confidence and growing insolence play well, as he burrows into a role that boosts his confidence and assertiveness. Foxx’s journey from beleaguered and shell-shocked slave to mighty walking vengeance is definitely a full performance and one that Foxx delivers without any winks to the camera. Waltz (Carnage) will be dinged for playing a character similar to his Oscar-winning role in Basterds, but he’s still joyously entertaining, with that strange speech pattern of his that he plays like a musical instrument. He has a lot to say with plenty of theatrical flourishes, but that’s what makes him so entrancing. Simply put, Waltz and Tarantino are a match made in heaven.

93034_galDiCaprio (Inception) doesn’t appear until over an hour into the film but he’s worth the wait. At my first screening, I thought DiCaprio was good but was unimpressed. Upon a second viewing, I must say my appreciation grew for the man’s performance. Calvin Candie is certainly a vile man and DiCaprio is able to give him such an intriguing brio; he’s not the magnetic source of evil that Waltz was in Basterds, a man able to stay two steps ahead of his prey. Candie is easily taken for a fool. He’s not the smartest guy in the room but he can work up a pretty sizable fury; DiCaprio actually cuts open his hand during a confrontation and remains in character, undeterred. But the best actor in the movie is Jackson (The Avengers). There are far more layers to his head house slave than meets the eyes. It sure seems like he’s really the fist behind the glove. He may put on an act for company, but the man is far more calculating and sinister than anyone else in the film. You know he’s a good villain when the audience cheers the loudest at his demise (don’t act surprised, spoiler-phobes). I wouldn’t be surprised if Waltz, DiCaprio, or even Jackson get nominated for supporting Oscars.

It seems like Tarantino has also stumbled into a hidden lucrative subgenre at the box-office, namely the historical revenge film. Who doesn’t want to see a group historically shafted get some sweet revenge, the bad guys punished, and all with sparkling dialogue? In 2009, Tarantino went on a Nazi scalping spree and got to shoot Hitler in the face. With Django, a brutalized slave becomes the hero of his own story and kills some vile slave owners and traders. It’s essentially a Nat Turner-style rebellion from history, albeit with some harebrained scams and colorful characters. Following this lucrative model, Tarantino could take other maligned minorities and give them cinematic justice. Sadly, there are too many examples to count where Tarantino can take inspiration.

Django Unchained is a bloody, rollicking, talky, messy, exciting, surprising, uncomfortable yet satisfying movie and probably one of the oddest crowd-pleasers in recent memory. I saw it on Christmas day and my theater was a sell out. They loved it, soaking up every minute, laughing at the funny parts and wincing at the gruesome violence. I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate the birth of baby Jesus. It doesn’t whitewash the evils and viciousness of slavery, but at the same time Tarantino knows how to serve an audience and their demands for big characters, big set pieces, and big vengeance. Django is a sturdy Western/blaxploitation film, and whatever other genres Tarantino feels like tossing into his cinematic blender. Whatever you classify it as, Django Unchained is another Tarantino original specialty and his tremendous talent comes through loud and clear, even with a few false endings and self-indulgences at play. It looks great, has a great soundtrack, and presents great acting talent reciting Tarantino’s great words like they were prized possessions. It’s a bit long and a bit overdone, but when you’re enjoying yourself, who wants to leave the party early?

Nate’s Grade: A

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