‘Deadpool’ proves not all superhero films have to be the same

With superhero films flooding the marketplace, it was only a matter of time before someone made the anti-superhero film, a movie that takes all the signature tropes of the genre, presents them to the audience and then, almost literally, takes a steaming dump on them. That movie is “Deadpool.”

Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) is a smart-mouthed mercenary who falls in love with a stripper named Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). When he is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he volunteers for an experimental procedure run by a madman, Ajax (Ed Skrein). The procedure mutates his appearance, cures his cancer and gives him instant healing ability, but Ajax intends to use Wade as a slave. He escapes, but is horribly disfigured. This pushes him to don a mask and become the “superhero” Deadpool.

Much like Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man and Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, it is hard to picture anyone else other than Ryan Reynolds as the titular character. He inhabits the role of the snarky, wise-cracking hero with ease, simply becoming the character that fans have envisioned for years.

The violence is extreme, the language and innuendo filthy, and there are so many inside jokes about the genre that some might go right over the casual moviegoers head, but it all works because of the lighthearted tone and the charismatic lead. It is a near-perfect blend of Hollywood glamour meets counter-culture, a big-screen extravaganza that appeals to the disillusioned outsider in all of us. While it is not ground-breaking or terribly original in terms of plot, it is a lot of fun and serves as a welcome breath of fresh air in comparison to the more droll and serious fare of superhero films (*cough* Batman v Superman *cough*).

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‘The Martian’ a refreshing science tale

Directed by Ridley Scott, “The Martian” tells the tale of Mark Watney (Matt Damon), an astronaut presumed dead and left behind by his crew on the planet Mars after a sudden storm. Only Mark is still very much alive. Tasked with surviving the harsh Martian climate while trying to contact Earth for a rescue mission, Mark uses every scientific tool at his disposal, from creating fertile soil to digging up an old rover to connect with NASA.

“The Martian” feels like the third of a series of resurgent films on space, with “Gravity” (2013) and “Interstellar” (2014) coming before it. In comparison to those earlier films, “The Martian” is the lightest, filled more with the hope of success and scientific wonder than with pontificating on etherealism. So in that way, “The Martian” is more of a good-old-fashioned crowd-pleaser, enjoyable but somewhat more forgettable than “Gravity” or “Interstellar”.

Damon is very good in the title role, narrating what he is doing to a computer screen for record keeping and the rest of cast, including Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Kate Mara and Michael Peña, are also solid.

What the film does have going for it is a contagious adoration of science. As Mark uses every single item at his disposal to make himself food, transportation and communication, the viewer is tickled to see so many science experiments come to life. In a way, it is the most exciting science fair put to screen, a film Bill Nye himself would stamp with approval.

What’s missing is a personal tug of emotion with Damon’s character. There’s no lover awaiting him on Earth or daughter without a father. His background is not examined and that is a missed opportunity to establish an audience connection, something that really makes you pull for him to get off Mars.

While some will consider the film just a version of “Cast Away” (1999) in space, there is a lot of technique and charm in Scott’s direction of the film. It is a thrilling, if light, ride.

‘Despicable Me 3’ is harmlessly forgettable

The premise of the “Despicable Me” franchise is fairly straightforward: A supervillain adopts three girls and learns how to be a father. That is the first film, and the story is told very well. The problem for the franchise is how do you build upon that concept in successive films. And the filmmakers don’t really have an answer to that conundrum.

“Despicable Me 3” features a returning Gru (Steve Carell) discovering that he has a long-lost brother, Dru (also Steve Carell). When the newest villain Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker) appears on the scene, the two brothers work together to bring him down for different reasons. Also returning are Gru’s daughters Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Nev Scharrel) as well as Gru’s wife, Lucy (Kristen Wiig).

The problem with the film is that it never endeavors to advance the characters in any meaningful way. Since Gru has become a father, he has never been tested internally. Dru is a pointless distraction to the supposed real heart of the franchise: Gru learning to be a father and part of a family.

With Lucy in the fold now, there are plenty of opportunities for storylines involving the family: Perhaps Margo is a teenager now and is tempted by the life of villainy her father aspired to and her mother despises. Maybe Edith gets into trouble at school and Gru has to help her confront her issues. Perhaps Agnes is kidnapped by an evil unicorn. The girls and their relationship with Gru are never really explored and that leaves Gru distant from the emotional stakes in the film. They should be at the heart of the story.

The minions, thankfully, are kept to a minimum in screentime and story purpose. After their awful standalone film, the filmmakers have realized that their appeal (what’s left of it) is best situated to short bursts (at least until their film has a sequel).

There are a few chuckles in the film, but nothing all that memorable, which can be said for everything as a whole. Balthazar adds some good bits and the film is lighthearted and endearing at moments, but the story and gags lack originality. This is the fourth go around for the franchise and things are stale. There are only so many minion jokes.

“Despicable Me 3” is by no means a terrible film. It’s just an unmemorable one. The filmmakers have worn out their original concept and don’t know where else to go with the franchise. In this case, perhaps that means moving on to a new story.

‘Baby Driver’ a dynamic thrill ride

After Edgar Wright’s infamous leaving of Marvel’s “Ant-Man” project, the anticipation for his next film has grown exponentially. And with “Baby Driver”, his fans are treated to a high-adrenaline, nostalgic, soundtrack-driven thrill ride.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a kid conned into working for a crime boss, Doc (Kevin Spacey), as his driver on heist jobs. Using iPod music to navigate his life, he becomes smitten with a waitress, Debora (Lily James). He has to protect her as some of the crazies from his crime life such as Bats (Jamie Foxx), Darling (Elza Gonzalez) and Buddy (Jon Hamm) question his loyalty.

The film is dynamic, utilizing all the tenets of good filmmaking (editing, score, cinematography, writing, shot design, sound) to tell an engaging, if not completely original, story. While the soundtrack-as-plot-driver is a little contrived, it is handled well enough that it is not too annoying. The action chase scenes are pulse-pounding and a lot of fun, the film using sound, editing and camera work to build up action rather than CGI bologna and explosions.

The film’s biggest problem is that it’s characters are not too original, more representative rather than three-dimensional. The love story between Debora and Baby is a little forced and bland, not given the opportunity to be fleshed out while psychos like Bats are rather one-note. While not a huge detriment, it keeps the film from being character-centered engaging.

Edgar Wright has always specialized in creating homage to an earlier era and here he incorporates 1950s idealism with 1980s car chases and millennial music obsession. It’s a fun ride if not perfect.

‘Hidden Figures’ a fine if predictable film

Directed by Theodore Melfi and based off a true story, “Hidden Figures” tells the story of three African-American NASA engineers, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Jenson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), who help coordinate John Glenn’s (Glen Powell) space orbit.

The cast is great and the direction is steady and sturdy. It is great to see Hollywood tackle not just the concept of strong women, but also the concept of smart women. The well-written script bursts with clever quips and strong characters.

The problem is that the film is primarily focused on message over story. The struggle of the women against a white chauvinist world prevents the film from being anything other than a simple morality tale: Racism bad, perseverance good. It’s not very deep and doesn’t really offer anything other than surface level viewing, not really sticking with the viewer nor offering new thought-provoking ideas about class, sexism or racism.

So while “Hidden Figures” wears it’s heart on its sleeve and is a solid work, it really is just a retread of a very similar theme we’ve heard before. It doesn’t really offer anything other than an anecdote, but its message is timeless.

Movie Essentials: “Eyes Wide Shut”

Being the last film of the great Stanley Kubrick, “Eyes Wide Shut” often gets a bad reputation for not being as strong as Kubrick’s other works, but doing that severely looks down upon a great film.

While not as revolutionary as “2001: A Space Odyssey” or as iconic as “The Shining”, “Eyes Wide Shut” is a brilliant examination into sexual dominance and subconscious lust.

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The film starts off with Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) and his wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman), going to a party hosted by the wealthy Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack). A suave, mature gentlemen dances with Alice while two beautiful women flirt with Bill. Once they get home, Alice questions Bill about his intentions with those women, wondering if he had intercourse with them. Bill tells her that he wouldn’t because he loves her, but Alice reveals that she almost cheated on him even though it would have meant throwing their lives away.

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Bill’s eyes are closed to the undercurrents of the world around him, even from within his own family. He has societal shields set up that blind him to the ravenous sexual longings in others, shields such as congenial societal discourse and proper presentation. As he journeys forth from this discussion with Alice, he begins to see his blinders lessen in the dead of night.

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His anger and obsession with this vision of his wife and another man drives him to try infidelity himself. From the grieving daughter of his dead patient to a hooker he meets on the streets to the underage daughter of a costume shop owner, Bill finds the shady desire that lingers in a world he doesn’t understand. This is all culminated when he tricks his way into a nighttime sexcapade party where everyone is wearing a mask and the password is the not-so-subtle word “fidelio.”

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The masks represent the true selves of the participants, expressionless and ornery. Their actual physical faces are just facades that they use in public, facades that Bill has used to blind himself to the truth of the world around him; that subliminal desires drive us. This is also represented by the pale blue light lurking behind the characters in multiple scenes, beneath the surface but always present.

The entire party is presented as almost a dream, blurring the line between reality and surrealism. As the film continues, the viewer wonders exactly what is real: the dream or reality? The blending of both gives the viewer a portrayal of the psyche.

Kubrick is a master of crafting the subconscious into his films. The latent raw sexuality presented in “Eyes Wide Shut” is his reflection of the desires, grotesque or not, of the psyche inherent in us.

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At the film’s conclusion, Bill’s only salvation from his journey is his belief in marriage and the bond that holds him to his wife; not just sex but love and commitment as well. He can not unsee the desires that drive the world that he was blinded to, but he can maintain a sense of identity against those primal instincts and that identity is typified by being a husband. Whether or not he saves his marriage is unknown, but is left for the viewer to interpret.

The film is hypnotic in its ability to draw the viewer into its central mystery of possible murder, but it’s the peeling back of our “humanity” that sticks with the viewer. The delving into our inner psychosis is something that perhaps no filmmaker has done better than Kubrick and it makes everyone of his films memorable.

‘Red Army’ an interesting documentary

Documentarian Gabe Polsky illuminates the world of Soviet hockey in his film Red Army that predominantly features defenseman Vyacheslav Fetisov, the captain of the CCCP team during the 1980s.

The film is not so much about the Soviet hockey team as much as it is about how that team came to represent the nation, its rise, its beliefs, and its eventual splintering. Highly detailed are the events of the Miracle on Ice in 1980, the 1984 and ’88 Olympics and the mass exodus of Soviet players to the NHL in the late 1980s and early ’90s.

As a history piece, the viewer gets a strong overview of Glasnost and Perestroika and what life was like for Soviet families during the upheaval. As a sports documentary, the viewer gets to see how the Soviet hockey culture was orchestrated, from Anatoli Tarasov’s innovative training techniques and revolutionary style to competitions against Western teams to the Soviets intense preparations (unable to live at home and training at heart rates of 220) to the dictatorial regime of coach Viktor Tikhonov.

Being mostly Fetisov’s story, the viewer comes to see the man as quirky, dedicated and stubborn. He is highly entertaining, especially his interactions with Polsky himself. Without his wit and humor, the film would not be nearly as enjoyable.

What is missing from the film however, is more a broad sense of the issues from different sources. Other than Fetisov, the interviews are based around Scotty Bowman, Alexei Kasatonov, Vladimir Krutov, Vladislav Tretiak and Vladimir Pozner among others, but contrasting points of view, say from other members of the KGB or Tikhonov (who declined to be interviewed), would have helped to provide a more well-rounded film. As it is, the viewer latches onto Fetisov and his interpretation of history, which may or not be entirely accurate (his personality certainly lends itself to exaggeration at the least). The result is also a fairly straightforward narrative without deep reflection.

Red Army is a funny, intriguing and informative documentary that may not break ground in terms of style or worldview, but manages to entertain the viewer and remind them of a time when the Cold War spread to every corner of society, including sports, and how that competition created the greatest hockey dynasty of all-time.

 

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