Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Movie Review: "Zoolander" by David Pretty

I have no idea why Zoolander inspired a sequel fifteen years later. Oh, wait, yes I do. It's a five-letter word that starts with "m" and ends in "y".  And it ain't "mercy".

Ben Stiller plays Derek Zoolander, a pretty-but-incredibly-dim male model who's on the downside of his career trajectory. In addition to fending off irrelevance at the hands of "so hot right now" rival Hansel (Owen Wilson), Derek's monumental stupidity makes him the perfect unwitting pawn in the machinations of evil fashion designer Jacobim Mugatu (Will Ferrell) who wants to assassinate the Prime Minister of Malaysia for cracking down on child labor laws.

In addition to this surprising dollop of social commentary, Zoolander gets a lot of mileage out of making fun of the modelling and fashion industry. Since I've always thought that mega-designers like Karl Lagerfeld and Donatella Versace were vampires anyway, their here as James Bond style super-villains isn't much of a stretch to me. In fact, one can argue that the general population has become so vapid, vacant and self-absorbed in the intervening years that the movie's extreme parody is starting to feel distressingly normal.

It's pretty much self-evident that Ben Stiller had a blast with this role. In addition to his immaculately-coiffed fright wig of spiky, black hair, "blue steel" became the unexpected prototype for the duck-faced selfie. When you add in the slightly-effete man-child voice, his propensity to strut everywhere as if he's on a runway and that consistently vacant "I-don't-have-a-clue-what-you're-saying-but-maybe-if-I-look-really-intense-it'll-seem-like-I-know" look, you've got a memorable comedic character for the ages. So, above and beyond a dump truck filled with cash, I can see the appeal of bringing Zoolander back for another kick at the can.

At face value, Owen Wilson might seem like an unconventional choice as a male model, but he's actually spot-on as the pouty, granola-munching, patchouli-scented, breakdance-fighting, neo-hippy Hansel. Watching Hansel and Derek trying to access the files in a delightfully-archaic iMac, 2001: A Space Odyssey style, is pure comedy gold. Jut-jawed, doe-eyed and mouth slightly agape at all times, Wilson is perfectly straight while delivering such enduring lines like "Do I know what I'm doing today? No. But I'm here, and I'm gonna give it my best shot".

Someone's gotta be the straight man here and, in this case, the straight man is a woman, namely Ben's real-life paramour, the delightful Christine Taylor. After watching her excel as muck-raking reporter turned free-spirit crusader Matilda, I really think she deserves more work in Hollywood beyond her husband's flicks. On a more sober note, Matilda was clearly included to make fun of once-proud bastions of journalism like Time magazine for running blatant puff pieces on fashion and celebrity. Nowadays it's de rigueur in the media.

As a master at portraying befuddled, indignant characters, Will Ferrell makes Mugatu one of his best roles. Whether he's trying to fathom Zoolander's bottomless stupidity, having a diva moment over a coffee requisition or looking glassy-eyed during a Clockwork Orange-style brainwashing video, Ferrell pretty much steals every scene he's in. The fact that his character appears to be named after a slightly less goofy-looking monster that Captain Kirk fought in an episode of Star Trek is just icing on the cake.

Above and beyond the top-billed actors who do a great job with the material, the script actually serves up some pretty funny set-pieces. After suffering through an epic level moment of public humiliation, Derek seeks solace from his three male-model room-mates, including an embryonic-looking Alexander Skarsgård as Meekus. Unfortunately their attempts to buoy Derek's mood results in a "freak gasoline-fight accident" that inspires our hero to *gasp* retire from the industry.

This results in one of the comedic highlights of the film. Derek goes back home to "coal country" in "Southern New Jersey" where he reunites with his estranged dad Larry (John Voight) and his brothers Luke (Vince Vaughn) and, um, Scrappy (Judah Friedlander). The sight of these three guys in their matching jet-black fright wigs, looking slightly dazed into the camera with coal-smudged faces just kills me. Voight is particularly hilarious, employing a facial expression that's half "deer in headlights" and half "OMG, what smells so bad?!?"

The film also benefits from a slew of high-placed supporting actors, including Ben's real-life pops Jerry, who plays Derek's sleazy, caustic agent Maury Ballstein. Milla Jovovich pouts, sneers, glares, and stalks her way through the film as Mugatu's ass-kicking assistant / enforcer Katinka Ingabogovinanana. Even buried under a ton of severe-looking makeup she still looks impossibly hot. And even though David Duchovny as paranoid, conspiracy nut / retired hand model J.P. Prewett is bit on the nose, its fun to see a grizzled and extra-cranky alternate-timeline Fox Mulder. Shades of the new X-Files series. Zing!

There are way too many cameos to mention and a lot of them are hideously dated (Fred Durst and Lil' Kim, I'm looking in your direction) but some of them are great. I dare you not to crack up as Natalie Portman earnestly refers to Derek as "almost too good looking." It's also great to see the late, great David Bowie preside over the intense "walk-off" between Derek and Hansel. But my favorite cameos are the "blink-or-you'll-miss-it" variety which includes Patton Oswalt as the "monkey photographer" and James "Spike" Marsden as John Wilkes Booth.

My only real complain is that the film isn't nearly as vicious as I'd like it to be. Even though I have to give props to to Stiller for skewering such ripe targets as the fashion industry, superficiality, self-absorption, and info-tainment news, I really wish that he'd been a bit more merciless with the satire. Having said that, when you realize Mugatu's incredibly tasteless "Derelicte" fashion line was inspired by this ass-clowns actual work, you soon realize that Stiller didn't have to dig too deep to find the parody. He just had to rename it.

And while I think it's gutsy that the film raises some pretty serious issues, they're immediately jettisoned in lieu of some cheap, increasingly-surreal Naked Gun / Airplane! gags. I'm referring, of course, to the fate of Derek's roomies, our hero's animated erection, and the Force-like powers inherent in his "new" "look" Magnum. Sure, I didn't exactly expect a PBS documentary when I sat down to watch this thing but when you raise issues like child labor and then include scenes of David Duchovny wearing an oxygen chamber on his hand, the whole edifice takes a hit. 

Not-so-fun-fact: the movie was originally released in theaters on September 28'th 2001, two weeks after 9/11. Needless to say, not many people were in a jokey mood at the time and the film sunk into oblivion pretty quickly. High testimony then that the movie found its audience on home video and has since become a cult comedy classic, to the point where a sequel would be green-lit fifteen years later.

Inevitably, your tolerance for Zoolander will be based on how much you like Ben Stiller, how much you despise the fashion industry and how much goofy you can tolerate in your humor. Even after answering "a lot", "even more so" and "not so much", I wanted to write it off as disposable, but the more I think about it, the more I liked it. For its unique combination of social satire, appealing cast, fun cameos and genuinely amusing set-ups, the movie rates a "Relax...Go To It".

Tilt: up.


Thursday, February 18, 2016

Movie Review: "Deadpool" by David Pretty

Just as we're closing in on the saturation point for superhero movies, Deadpool arrives in the nick of time to parody the entire genre and nudge it into the realm of full-blown adult entertainment. As a kid, never in my wildest dreams would I ever think that a hard "R"-rated comic book property would be released in February of 2016 and pull in $135 million dollars during its opening weekend. In the immortal words of The Great Vizzini "Inconceivable!" 

Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) is a motor-mouthed merc who's chosen profession gives him carte blanche to threaten would-be stalkers within an inch of their lives. One night he meets Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), a delightfully vulgar hooker who turns out to be his soul-mate. Just when the movie seems destined for a "happily ever after" ending and the shortest run time ever, Wade gets diagnosed with terminal cancer and realizes that he's going to die. Like really, really really soon

With his options quickly drying up, Wade accepts a sketchy offer from a professional pall bearer / Agent Smith impersonator known only as The Recruiter (Jed Rees). The proposal is simple: guinea pig our experimental treatment and we'll cure your cancer and give you superpowers. Win, win! Well, in a classic example of clicking "I Agree" before reading all of the "Terms and Conditions", Wade soon finds himself laboring under the questionable bedside manner of the maniacal and decidedly-British villain Franci...er, Ajax (Ed Skrein) who's motivation *surprise, surprise*, turns out to be less than honorable.

Eventually Wade escapes captivity, but not before he's horribly scarred from head-to-toe. With help from his nominal partner Weasel (T.J. Miller) and odd-couple roomie Blind Al (Leslie Uggams), Wade re-brands himself as Deadpool, a virtually unkillable killing machine hell-bent on tracking Ajax down and pummeling a cure out of him. In addition to this primary action item, he also does his best to protect Vanessa at arm's length while dealing with the X-Men's surprisingly-aggressive recruitment quotas.

As soon as the film's snarky title credits started to roll by, I knew that the film's producers were gonna do things right. In order for this to work we needed plenty of rapid-fire dialogue, twisted banter and a constant parade of salty irreverence and I'm pleased to report that writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick hit it out of the park. On paper, the character of Deadpool is like Spider-Man crossed with Jason Lee in Chasing Amy and Mallrats. He's sarcastic, profane, acerbic, cocky and a veritable font of pop-culture knowledge. In other words: he's your average a comic book shop owner but heavily armed and dressed up in spandex.

Now you can have the most dynamic, colorful, witty dialogue imaginable, but if it's not well-delivered and well-directed the entire artifice crumbles. Gilmore Girls, I'm looking in your direction. Er, sorry (not sorry). Mercifully the cast is up to the challenge and none moreso than Ryan Reynolds. Fuck Leonardo DiCaprio and his digital teddy bear, here's a dude who really suffered for his art. Between the constant physical abuse, full-body makeup, and being sealed up in a full-length costume for most of the movie, Reynolds is clearly game to do whatever it takes to bring this character to life.

Sometimes critics have a hard time taking Ryan Reynolds seriously in dramatic roles, but even the most cynical douche-nozzle has to admit that he's absolutely perfect for this role. Even early on Reynolds shows how adept he is at delivering rapid fire dialogue that relies heavily on comedic timing. I was laughing so consistently during the pizza delivery scene that I kept missing out on jokes. Even when he's vacuum sealed in that red and black costume his body language is still incredibly expressive.

Reynolds is equally on point during those rare, relatively-quiet moments. His scenes with Morena Baccarin are completely bereft of any pretension. Indeed, they're both asked to do some pretty crazy stuff on-screen and neither of them exhibit a hint of self-consciousness. Reynolds sells Wade's love for Vanessa and his desire to spare her any pain so effectively that his insane gamble makes perfect sense. Then, during the torture scenes, our hero goes from wise-assed to apoplectic with rage in a flash. His hatred for Ed Skrein's character is downright palpable, especially when Vanessa inevitably falls under his auspices. 

Speaking of Morena, I love how Vanessa is just as bawdy, perverted and uninhibited as Wade is. Mercifully, the writers managed to make her a tad more interesting than the average female action movie love interest. If you don't believe me then compare her to Natalie Portman's milquetoast Jane in the Thor movies. Even though screenwriters are virtually obliged to write all women now as generic ass-kickers, I'd still much rather see that than the former prevailing attitude which depicted women as professional hostages. Fortunately Morena is more than believable in the whole "tough as nails" capacity.

As subversive as Deadpool can be at times, it's still bound to action movie tropes, conventions and nigh-obligatory story beats. For example, it's pretty much mandatory that the love interest will be menaced by the bad guy at some point. In the defense of Reese and Wernick, they tried to keep me guessing within the narrow confines of their limited parameters, especially where Vanessa is concerned. Just when the story started to hint at an inevitable direction, the writers subverted my expectations, which is always a pleasant change. And whenever they had to adhere to cliche, they just tapped their main character to break the fourth wall and give them shit over it.  

The balance of the cast is equally solid. Ed Skrein isn't the most developed villain in cinema history, but at least he has a motive above and beyond "I AM EVIL". In the end you'll love to hate him just because of the sheer unmitigated joy he exhibits cranking out mutants in the most agonizing way possible. T.J. Miller is refreshingly frank and knows his limitations as Wade's fair-weather friend Weasel. Also major props to the casting department for tapping 60's / 70's-era singer and actress Leslie Uggams as Wade's blind room-mate Al. I In a lesser film, Al would be treated like a porcelain doll but here she's subjected Deadpool's acid tongue just like everyone else.

X-Men fans can also rejoice knowing that our favorite Borscht-flavored mutant has finally been represented on-screen properly for the very first time. Over the years we've seen something billed as "Colossus" in Bryan Singer's X-Men movies but in-name only. Thanks to writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, voice actor Stefan Kapičić and motion-capture work by Andre Tricoteux and Greg LaSalle, we finally get the Piotr Nikolaievitch Rasputin we all know and love. Can you imagine what other X-Men characters would benefit from a makeover if this same creative team got their talented mitts on them? 

And it's not just the character's size, ornamental haircut and striated metal skin I'm talking about; Reese and Wernick really nailed the character's boy-scout persona. In Deadpool, Colossus winces at the eponymous hero's potty mouth, turns away during an inadvertent costume malfunction, espouses the benefits of breakfast as the most important meal of the day and gets ill at the sight of graphic violence. Sure, he inexplicably fails to liberate Dopinder's (Karan Soni) trunk hostage or prevent Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) from torching a bunch of goons and, yes, upstart strong girl Angel Dust (Gina Carano) proves to be a bit too much of a challenge, but, hey, they got a helluva lot more right than wrong.

As for our favorite X-trainee Negasonic Teenage Warhead, Brianna Hildebrand's popularity is literally blowing up on the sosh meeds! With her surly, uncommunicative attitude, unimpressed facade and pre-battle Tweets, she's a pretty broad Millennial stereotype but she's also the welcome catalyst for a series of truly memorable scenes. I love how she constantly spars with Deadpool and the two eventually grant each other some modicum of respect. I sincerely hope she finds her way into the X-Men franchise proper or, at the very least, becomes a fixture in the inevitable deluge of Deadpool sequels.   

Here's the most promising thing I can say about the movie: I keep coming back to the writing. Realizing that Deadpool constantly blathering at the audience for close to two hours straight would likely lose its luster, the screenwriters wisely decided to deliver their story in an unconventional manner. After snagging our attentions with the incredible overpass action sequence, Reese and Wernick then dollop out Deadpool's origin story in tasty little morsels. They keep jumping back and forth between present day and flashbacks until all the blanks are filled in and Deadpool proudly tells us that we're "up to speed".

As a side note, Deadpool also benefits from pretty much the same approach that Attack the Block used for its own soundtrack. Interspersed amongst Junkie XL's electronic score is a slew of ironic / not ironic selections like "Angel of the Morning" by Juice Newton, "Careless Whisper" by Wham! and "Shoop" by Salt-N-Papa. And just like in Attack the Block, the end credits feature an original rhyme called "Deadpool Rap" by YouTube luminaries TeamHeadKick.

Now this what I'd call a CGI-soaked film but what little there is pretty impressive. Case in point: the previously-mentioned Colossus looks incredible. As for Deadpool himself, this could very well be the best-looking and most-accurate superhero costume ever committed to film. I love how the special effect team took the time to animate the eyes on the mask. It's a nice touch that not only dovetails perfectly with Ryan's performance it actually manages to enhance it.

Perhaps my only complaint with regards to Wade's appearance is how he looks unmasked. Frankly, I wanted them to go more gruesome and more gnarled, perhaps something like this. As it stands right now he just looks like your average burn victim, which isn't going to cause the sort of consternation shown in Vancouver's Chinatown as depicted in the film. This is so obvious that it's kinda hard to sympathize with Wade's desire to stay away from Vanessa. Indeed, if she reacted in horror to his face we'd be sorely tempted to write her off as a superficial bitch.

Above and beyond this minor beef and the sometimes-mechanical plotting, there's one other issue which, funny enough, hearkens back to my earlier Kevin Smith reference. Although the action sequences in Deadpool are par excellence, the dialogue scenes were clearly shot in the quickest, most perfunctory and workmanlike manner possible. If you want a stark contrast to this, just re-watch Guardians of the Galaxy and take note of how James Gunn clearly put a ton of effort into the dialogue set-ups versus the bland Lucas-esque shot / reverse shot approach used here.

This is a shame 'cuz if these scenes had been shot with the same sort of flair and imagination that matched the dialogue, it could have complimented the word-play perfectly. But being a first-time director, perhaps Tim Miller didn't want to do anything to jeopardize the dialogue and the performances. And, yeah, I understand that, but I think the film is a bit poorer for this conservative stance. What I'm saying is that the film could have been even more creative, gonzo and artistic with a more visionary eye behind the camera.

Okay, I'm done. I don't wanna talk about the movie anymore for fear of spoiling so much as a single gag or scene.

But one last thing: to the clueless parents out there who started up this moronic "Give Us A 'PG-13' Deadpool Movie So My Spoiled, Whiny, Afterthought Brat Can See It" petitions, get a fucking clue. When I was a kid there were tons of bad-ass "R" rated movies that I really wanted to see, but I either had to wait until I was old enough or find some sneaky way to see it. Either alternative will do more to build up character in your dumb wiener kid then trying to cram a square peg into a round hole. It's people like you that kept comic book movies in the ghetto of "children's entertainment" for far too long. So, fer Chrissakes, teach your kid the meaning of "No" just once in their entitled lifetimes.

"Oh won't someone think of the children!" Fuck that, I'm tired of acquiescing to your ill-conceived motivations to breed. It's about time movie makers started thinking more about discriminating adults and artistic integrity than appealing to half-developed brains and making sure that every possible demographic is covered for the sake of a few hypothetical profit points. Hopefully the unmitigated success of Deadpool will finally make Marvel Studios sit up and take notice. Can you imaging what a Guardians of the Galaxy movie would be like if the kid gloves were taken off?

Here's the best thing about Deadpool: it's so unremittingly perverted, foul-mouthed and violent that a "PG-13" cut would render it as about comprehensible as the "R"-rated cut of Peter Jackson's Dead  / Alive.

Okay, we're done here. Just go out and see the friggin' movie already.

Except you, Matthew. You just stay right there and watch another episode of Arthur.

Tilt: up.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Movie Review: "Attack The Block" by David Pretty

In much the same way that Låt Den Rätte Komma In revolutionized the vampire yarn by setting it in Sweden during the early 80's, Attack the Block resuscitates the alien invasion genre thanks to the colorful backdrop of a public housing high-rise tenement in South London.

During Guy Fawkes night, Moses (John Boyega) and his band of street thugs decide to kick the evening off  by liberating a local nurse named Samantha (Jodie Whittaker) of her belongings. Seconds later a meteorite slams into a parked car, prompting Moses to rummage through it for valuables. What he finds instead is a  vicious creature which slashes his face and bounces off. Not one to back down from a fight, Moses and his crew track the thing down and kill it.

Unfortunately the critter turns out to be alien in origin and, even worse, a scout of sorts. Pretty soon the things are raining down in Brixton like hailstones, terrorizing the residents and "wilding" like no gang member ever could. Seeing this a direct affront to the "block", Moses does his best to defend Wyndham Tower from the invaders and pretty soon the council estate becomes an interstellar battleground for the ages.

Attack the Block is loads of fun. Although the premise might not be the most original thing in the world, the setting alone makes it unique. Like a real-world version of Alex's Droogs from A Clockwork Orange, these aspiring punks have their own unique language. Other than Sascha Baron Cohen's Ali-G, I've never heard characters talk like this in a movie before and the challenging patois forces you to sit up and pay attention. For example, the predisposition of local wannabe gangsta rapper Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter) to shout the Jamaican greeting of "Wagwan!" whenever he bombs into a room had me chuckling every time.

Despite the fact that movie's budget was under twelve million dollars, it looks incredibly slick. Director Joe Cornish and cinematographer Tom Townend have produced a beautiful looking picture which is impeccably lit, rain-glossed and awash with gorgeous splashes of neon color. Add in some dynamic blocking, lively editing, thrilling action set-pieces and a modest run time and you've got an experience that just jets by in the most entertaining way imaginable.

The film's aural accomplishments are also considerable. Above and beyond the shrill screams of the monsters, the audio mix is powerful, with booming meteorite hits, roaring mopeds and blazing fireworks. The film's original soundtrack features moody, John Carpenter-esque ambient electronic tones by Basement Jaxx punctuated with classic tunes by Richie Spice and KRS-One. One notable highlight is an original jam "by" High-Hatz called "Get That Snitch" which manages to marry gangsta rap with a twinge of nerdcore.     

Another major part of the film's appeal is the original creature design. Looking like a combination of Donkey Kong, Sonic the Hedgehog, Fizzgig from The Dark Crystal and a really pissed-off shadow puppet, the aliens in Attack the Block are like elemental forces of nature. These spiky-haired black holes of pure rage are inherently terrifying, particularly when they lunge directly at the camera, their rows of glowing, blue, translucent, crystalline fangs intent on your neck. The effect used to drain every ounce of color and light out of their hides is strikingly effective.

A movie like this has the potential to go from good to great if the cast is game and Attack the Block truly shines in this regard. John Boyega, who recently became Finn for a whole new generation of Star Wars fans, makes a meteor-like impression as young tough Moses. It's so rare to see a character have an arc like this in a sci-fi picture this but screenwriter Joe Cornish gives Boyega a lot to work with and he really delivers.     

What I like most is that the script doesn't patronize Moses and his gang. In a shitty American movie, Moses  would never rob an innocent girl and then willingly accept a drug peddling assignment from High Hatz. In other words, he'd be "badass" without being bad. This is, or course, is completely idiotic because you need to see a character at their lowest point to better contrast where they end up.

Joe Cornish does a great job peeling back the layers to this character. As soon as goes after the creature that attacks he we can see that he's brave, so that's a tic in the "positive" column. Not long after he expresses regret over what this random act of violence has wrought. By the time he Sam sees his room, learns about his home life and realizes how old he is, Moses has come fill circle in our eyes. Major props to John Boyega for making the evolution of this character seem genuine every step along the way.    

Since most people haven't grown up on the hard streets of South London, our window into this world is the character of Samantha Adams, played to perfection by Jodie Whittaker. She's a hard working nurse, barely getting by and she's new to the neighborhood. So when she gets jacked up by Moses and his posse we're immediately on her side. Throughout it all, Whittaker is strident, sympathetic, feisty and self-assured. Better yet, she's the perfect sounding board for our increasingly-complicated feelings about the gang members.

Speaking of the gang, they're all clearly drawn and well-represented by talented young actors. Motor-mouthed Alexander Esmail is great as the cocky, lovable, pyromaniacal irritant (appropriately) named Pest. Franz Drameh brings an out-of-patience edge to the character of Dennis. Leeon Jones is whip-sharp as the relatively bookish Jerome. His frantic delivery of the classic line "This is too much madness to explain in one text!" is spot-on. Rounding out the gang is Simon Howard as Biggz, who spends most of his screen time trapped in a alien-besieged dumpster. He does a great job selling "scared shitless" to the audience.

Even the bit players are great. Genre comedy darling Nick Frost is perfectly cast as the block's friendly neighborhood weed-peddler Ron. Luke Treadaway is a skittish delight as Brewis, an anthropology student who just so happens to be Ron's best customer. It's great to watch him slowly earn the gang's respect when his half-baked theories turn out to be accurate. And although Jumayn Hunter has plenty of legitimate swagga as Hi-Hatz, the script forces him to act like a complete moron in order to preserve him as an antagonist. Sorry, but even the dimmest bulb on the planet would rethink their priorities after encountering one of those "big alien gorilla wolf motherfuckers".

Impressively, Attack the Block isn't content just being a sharply-written sci-fi actioner; it also strives to provide some biting social commentary. This is nicely summed up in the following soliloquy by Moses who opines about a possible reason for the attack:

"I reckon the Feds sent them anyway. Government probably bred those things to kill black boys. First they sent in drugs, then they sent guns and now they're sending monsters in to kill us. They don't care man. We ain't killing each other fast enough. So they decided to speed up the process."  
This is further borne out by the film's brave denouement in which the authorities go after the usual suspects versus the obvious, if unconventional, ones.

Honestly, Attack the Block surprised the heck outta me. While casual viewers can enjoy it on a purely superficial level, cinephiles will dig it for the great dialogue, solid performances, witty script and the thematic relevance. Honestly, it's a movie that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Neill Blomkamp's District 9 when talking about impressive genre-themed directorial debuts. 

             Tilt: up.