Action/Comedy Movies x3

deadpool_ver5Even with all of the good buzz surrounding Deadpool, it’s taken me a bit to get around to seeing it. As much as I worried about Logan being self-consciously “edgy” and “extreme” with its adult rating, those worried paled in comparison to my fears about Deadpool, which I worried would be smug and crass rather than clever. Thankfully, it turned out that, against all odds, Deadpool manages to be gleefully profane, wonderfully childish and chaotic, and somehow nonetheless avoids trading in shock value or anything truly offensive (that is, it may mock everything mercilessly, but there’s a welcome dearth of ethnic jokes, gay panic jokes, and the like). Even better, the result is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny; even without the fourth-wall breaking, Ryan Reynolds’ constant patter and jokes somehow manages to be both entertaining and surprisingly unexhausting (for us, at least; the movie manages to have fun with the amount of hatred he inspires in the villains, and even some of the friends, around him). Yes, at times, Deadpool falls into the standard Marvel formula – origin story, big villain, etc. – and yes, really, beyond Reynolds, most of the characters never really come to life very much beyond what the plot requires. (That’s most true for the film’s use of Colossus as a stand-in for the rest of the X-Men, who really never brings much to the table other than being there.) Even so, with Reynolds and the film constantly taking jabs at itself and its dramatic beats, the result feels surprisingly enjoyable and light, never taking itself seriously for too long. In short, the Marvel movie parts? They’re okay – nothing special. But the humor and patter makes for a really fun watch that I enjoyed more than I expected. Rating: ****

commando-posterOkay, sure, Commando isn’t technically an action-comedy; it’s, on paper at least, a pure 80’s action movie. It’s also perhaps the most quintessential, archetypal example of what we’ve come to think of as the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle – absurd masculinity, lots of gun/fist fights, Arnie being Arnie, and ridiculous one-liners after every major death. Really, Commando has basically enough plot just to lead to lots and lots of action sequences – there’s a man (the always welcome Dan Hedaya, even though he doesn’t get much to do here) who wants Arnie to overthrow a South American country, and to motivate him, he’s kidnapped his daughter. As you might guess, Arnie’s not super on board with this, and decides to take them all out. Every part of what you imagine as 1980’s Arnie action movies is here – gratuitous nudity, sleazy chauvinist bad guys, a love interest who doesn’t really have any chemistry or purpose in the film, lots of absurdly big explosions, homoerotic tension and plenty of one-liners. In other words, it’s not like it’s a good movie, but it’s a really fun one to watch; sure, there’s some regrettably 80’s approaches to the world in here (particularly if you’re a woman), and no, it never really makes any sense. But if you can’t get behind Arnold picking up a phone booth with a bad guy in it and throwing it around, or his fighting about twenty cops at once and throwing them all off at the same time, well, what kind of garbage film lover are you? Rating: *** ½

czqsvbgumaayhmz-jpg-largeMeanwhile, if Commando is an action movie that occasionally gets ridiculous, Keanu, the first film by Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key after the end of their series Key and Peele, is a comedy that occasionally becomes an action film. The story of two African-American friends who pretend to be ruthless underworld criminals in an effort to get back a missing cat, Keanu is undeniably uneven and a bit thin at times, stretching a solid premise for a few skits to the breaking point and a bit beyond. Luckily, Keanu also features the ridiculous charisma and comic timing of Key and Peele, who never look like they’re working hard to make you laugh, but whose comic timing is absolutely impeccable and dead on at all times. (Also working for the film: an absolutely adorable kitten.) As you might expect, coming from a sketch show background, Keanu feels a bit disconnected at times, with some sequences feeling like sketches loosely connected to the story. That doesn’t make it any less funny to see Key attempting to sell a bunch of hardened street kids on the cred of George Michael, or to see Peele trying to convince everyone in a Truth or Dare game just how hardened and ruthless he is. But it does mean that the film is fairly hit and miss, with more plot than we really need (a fact I think the movie is in on, given how silly it gets in the final stretch). Nonetheless, all I can say is that I laughed pretty frequently throughout Keanu, and if a lot of that is simply thanks to Key and Peele’s fantastic comic presences, well, that’s no small thing. Rating: *** ½

IMDb: Deadpool | Commando | Keanu

Review (Season 3)

review“Life. It’s literally all we have. But is it any good?”

So begins every episode of Review, Andy Daly’s nightmarishly dark comedy, which follows professional reviewer Forrest MacNeil as he reviews different life experiences. From this basic premise, Andy Daly and his team have assembled one of the most darkly, viciously funny comedies in years, following Forrest as he’s reviewed everything from prejudice to religious cults, from madness to…well, all sorts of horrible things.

But more than that, what made Review so incredible was the choice to make the series more or less a running, coherent story, as Forrest’s desire to review experiences results in the constant destruction of his own life. It’s a choice that the show made early in season one (in a justly acclaimed and praised episode), and has never backed away from since. And so, unlike so many comedies, it felt right that Review actually got to come to an ending, giving Forrest the chance to make the choice between his life and his “calling”.

For all of that, Review‘s final season was frustratingly brief, lasting only three episodes. It’s not that they were bad episodes – far from it. But Review is a show that excelled in the escalation of things, letting things start dark and just going further and further from there. And with barely an hour of show time this season, the show never got to push things quite as far as I would have enjoyed seeing it go. Worst, it felt like the show ended just as it was starting to get into its usual rhythm of madness.

Again, not to say that the final season was bad. Indeed, it felt like the show getting to play with some ideas that it had been holding off on for some time, ranging from a day in the life of Forrest’s co-host to some reviews that forced Forrest to come to terms with some of his actions over the previous two seasons. And mixed in with those were the usual Review insanity, including a review of pet euthanasia, what it was like to be Helen Keller, and more. Even in its short run, Review remained hilarious, committing utterly to its choices and never backing down, and anchored by Daly’s ever positive, enthusiastic performance.

And as for the ending, it’s the perfect ending for Review, following the show and its characters to a satisfying conclusion that feels right for the show. Comedy Central’s efforts to keep the number of episodes under wraps is an odd one, considering that the final episode is even funnier and more surprising if you know that it’s the final one (given that it’s frequently unclear which way the episode will go as it ends). But the final choice feels right – it feels like the way the show should have ended, and for a comedy that’s as dark as Review to get the right ending is an unexpected treat.

So, as a season, the final season of Review was fine. Not great, not the best, but still gleefully demented and hilarious, and only really hampered by the lack of episodes and the short length. But as a final cap on the series, it’s a great ending, even if it’s a sad reminder that we won’t be getting any more of this great show.

IMDb

The Lego Batman Movie / ****

cym_yo1w8aqqn_zMuch as was the case with the original Lego Movie, there was really no reason to expect The Lego Batman Movie to be any good. While Will Arnett’s gloriously absurd take on Batman was undeniably a highlight of the original film, the idea of creating a movie that revolved around him…well, let’s just say that such spin-offs don’t have the best track record. But more to the point, don’t we already have enough Batman movies? Did we really need another one?

But really, I should have remembered that I had similar doubts before seeing The Lego Movie, and was pleasantly overjoyed by that experience. And luckily, the same happened here. No, The Lego Batman Movie isn’t quite as wonderful as its predecessor – it lacks some of that film’s surprising depth and heart – but it more than makes itself worthwhile simply by being so ridiculously, wonderfully fun – an underrated virtue in modern superhero movies.

Mind you, it doesn’t hurt that The Lego Batman Movie delivers a pretty great superhero story. Playing off of the Joker/Batman dynamic in incredibly silly ways, the movie follows Joker as he finds a new way to threaten Gotham City; meanwhile, Batman finds himself questioning his life of solitude and isolation as he’s forced into working with others. Yes, in broad terms, it’s all stories you’ve seen done before…but in the hands of The Lego Batman Movie, it all feels winning and charming – and, moreover, it handles Batman in interesting ways, feeling like a bit of a tonic after years of grimdark brutality that reached its nadir with Batman v. Superman.

But, really, what’s most wonderful about The Lego Batman Movie is the sheer silliness of it all. From Batman commenting on studio logos in the opening moments, the film’s joyous, anarchic sense of humor is infectious, with a playfulness that extends to non-stop, rapid fire jokes that come both visually, audibly, and through the dialogue. Yes, a lot of them are even better if you’re a comic book fan (seriously, they go deep into the back catalog here, to some justly forgotten villains), but so often, the movie is just poking fun at itself, at its characters, at Batman continuity, at self-important superhero movies, and really, at anything. And while the movie doesn’t go quite as far meta as its predecessor does, there are still some wonderful carryover jokes – I never stopped laughing at the sound effects for guns, or the “worst villains of all time” that the film introduced. And by the time you start layering in all of the parody posters, the Hollywood in-jokes (which range from obvious to incredibly subtle – even some of the casting is based around jokes), the Airplane!-level pace to the jokes, and more, the result is genuinely hilarious. (Really, it’s hard to know who laughed more, me or my kids.)

The Lego Batman Movie isn’t groundbreaking or spectacular, the way the original Lego Movie was; it “suffers,” I guess, from a refusal to go back to the same well twice, which is admirable, but makes the movie feel a little less substantial than the original. And yet, for all of that, I wouldn’t change a bit of it; it’s an absolute blast, from beginning to end – it’s wonderfully silly, it’s inventive visually, cleverly constructed, and really, just a genuinely great family movie that’s actually fun, without ever being condescending, snarky, or aiming over the heads of kids. What else could you ask for?

IMDb

Toni Erdmann / **** ½

toni-erdmann-posterBy the time Toni Erdmann made its way to Nashville, its reputation was already far ahead of it. Almost universally acclaimed and beloved, it was hailed by many as one of the best films of the year, if not the best film of the year. That can make for an intimidating experience to approach a film, and when you factor in that Erdmann is a nearly three-hour German film, you’d be forgiven for making certain assumptions about the film.

But one look at the trailer for Toni Erdmann makes you realize that this film isn’t what you might think it is. Not unless you assumed that it’s a comedy about a prank-playing father who loves wearing false teeth and creating elaborate stories/lies for his own entertainment, and often at the cost of embarrassing those around him. And when he realizes that his work-obsessed daughter is at risk of letting her life pass her by, he decides to inject some madness into her world.

That’s right. This great film, this powerful experience? It’s a broad, silly comedy that mines some of the “slobs and snobs” archetypes. And that definitely isn’t quite what I expected.

To be fair, that’s not exactly what Toni Erdmann is, but it’s a good starting point. Because, yes, this film is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, with a knack for absurdism and broad comedy that you don’t often see in films like this, and a willingness to be silly that serves it well. But to call Toni Erdmann a comedy isn’t quite right, either; it’s a melancholy film in many ways, one that uses its comedic touches to lighten the material it’s grappling with: a father who worries that he’s failed his daughter; a woman struggling to make her name in the male-dominated (and often misogynistic) business world; a daughter who doesn’t understand her father at all, a feeling he reciprocates; a disconnect between corporate-speak and the real consequences that affect people’s lives; and plenty more. In short, this is heavy material, made palatable and enjoyable by the film’s comedy.

The result is a fascinating, odd film, one that really feels like little else that I’ve seen. It’s undeniably long, and yet, it lives in that length, using every minute of its time to let its characters breathe and develop, even in scenes that don’t add much to any traditional “narrative”. It’s a film that follows its characters through no end of trails – conversations with friends, awkward encounters with lovers, power struggles, moments of despair – and watches them all with equal compassion and understanding. And while the film’s synopsis above might make you think you know whose side the film is on – after all, in any film with a career-minded woman and an anarchic man, has any film ever taken the side of the woman? – writer-director Maren Ade doesn’t want to do anything so simple. She loves and admires both of these characters, and simultaneously finds both of them lacking and wanting in so many ways.

I’m still, to be honest, not entirely sure what I thought of Toni Erdmann, a film whose greatness seems to be less in filmmaking or being groundbreaking, and more in its humanity, its heart, and its kindness. (In some ways, it reminds me of my reaction to Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me, a film whose greatness arrived in a way I never expected.) It’s an endearingly odd, unique film, filled with memorable scenes, odd moments, and rich characterization, and marked by a refusal to give us any simple moral, any one lesson we can learn. Instead, it takes on the world, its characters, sexism, parenting, guilt, love, business, and more, and throws it all together into one unique mixture. It’s funny, and it’s heartbreaking, and it’s overlong at times, and just right at others, and in all really like little else out there. And at times, it’s genuinely profound, touching on the human experience in a way that a more “conventional” movie never could. But more than anything else, it’s wonderfully human, and wonderfully humane, and I kind of loved that about it. Is it great? Maybe, maybe not. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a pretty wonderful (and wonderfully odd) movie.

IMDb

Big Hero 6 / **** ½

big_hero_6_film_posterOver the last few years, I’ve gotten a reputation among my friends for being a bit grouchy and dismissive of the whole “Marvel Cinematic Universe” thing. And they’re not wrong, but what I say less is how disappointed I am that I don’t enjoy the MCU more. I grew up loving comic books – especially the X-Men – and so I should be right in the prime audience for the MCU. But as each new movie has come out, and have felt less and less interesting – and more and more interchangeable and generic – I found myself giving up on the whole thing.

All of which brings me to Big Hero 6, which is a Marvel movie at least in spirit, if not quite in canon. Based on an obscure Marvel property (one review I read said that Marvel had forgotten that they even owned the rights to it), Big Hero 6 bears the Marvel stamps, but without being tied into the MCU, and with the freedom that comes from being the property of Disney Animation. And so, while Big Hero 6 still has some of the Marvel staples – a tragic origin story, a theatrical villain, a requisite cameo (of sorts) – it feels not so much like the other Marvel films as it does itself, and that’s a step in the right direction – especially when that vision of itself is so much fun.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Big Hero 6 has such an interesting world to play in. Set in an alternate near future where San Francisco has been partially rebuilt and funded by Japanese investors and technology, the film wastes no time in diving into its setting, kicking things off with underground bot battling for money. From there, we rocket ahead with our tale, finding ourselves in a technology institute with college students on the verge of changing the world with lasers, chemicals, and more. And we see it all through young hero, well, Hiro – a precocious, gifted teenager who graduated at an early age and drifts through life without much purpose, until his brother shows him the wonders of life in an incredibly well-funded research lab.

In many ways, much of Big Hero 6 feels like a throwback to the original Iron Man; after all, both are about gifted, cocky characters whose gifts for science allow them to push the boundaries of technology and inadvertently create heroes. But what Big Hero 6 brings to the table is a sense of wonder and imagination, a feat assisted by its animated medium, which eliminates the usual restrictions of budget and effects. Instead, the film is free to create whatever it wants, and its use of nanobots ends up being a blast, creating something fluid and nearly sentient out of the technology. And, of course, there’s Baymax, the medical robot turned lackadaisical superhero, whose charming nature and calming voice bring both a hilarious sense of humor and a much needed dose of levity to a genre that too often takes itself overly seriously.

Sure, in broad strokes, you’ve seen this story before. There’s an awful tragedy, and as a result of that, characters are forced into growth, finding in themselves a heroic side that they weren’t aware of. Meanwhile, a mysterious villain – motivated by revenge, naturally – is using some of our heroes’ own research and ideas against them. And it all comes down to a big, theatrical final confrontation (though luckily it avoids the usual “big beam of light into the sky” trope that’s been plaguing comic book movies).

And yet, I keep coming back to just how fun the whole thing is, and how it reminded me of what I loved about comics as a kid. It wasn’t always the plotting and the characters, though I loved that; it was the style, the action, the sense of glee at being “special”. And Big Hero 6 cashes in on that in spades, even going so far as to letting one of its characters be a gleeful fanboy who’s just excited to fight. And when it does get serious? It works pretty well, engaging with the emotions of loss and revel more thoughtfully than I expected.

In a lot of ways, Big Hero 6 is nothing special – another superhero movie, another kids movie about a misfit with a lovable sidekick, another unlikely hero story. And yet, there’s something really winning about the film, which gives us all of that, but does it in an interesting world, with good characters, a nice sense of style, a sense of humor and fun, and makes itself feel like its own product instead of another piece of a multi-part crossover event that you’ll finally see in ten years. In short, it’s a blast, and I’m glad I finally sat down and saw it.

IMDb

Inherent Vice / **** ½

inherent_vice_ver4To say that Inherent Vice may be Paul Thomas Anderson’s weakest movie is to undersell its many pleasures. Yes, Inherent Vice is shaggy, meandering, and more than a little sprawling, and trying to follow its plot is a bit of an exercise in futility. But the fact that it’s Anderson’s weakest has less to do with the film – which offers far more pleasures than the above comments might imply – and more to do with his incredible filmography. When your films include The MasterThere Will Be BloodMagnoliaBoogie Nights, and more, failing to crack the top few isn’t really as much of an issue as it might be with someone else. (It’s basically the same problem Hail Caesar! has – by Coen standards, it’s lesser, but on its own, it’s a joy.)

Mind you, I’m probably predisposed to enjoy Inherent Vice, given that it resembles nothing so much as Paul Thomas Anderson doing The Big Lebowski. Both films are basically homages/parodies of the Raymond Chandler style Los Angeles mystery, complete with sprawling, labyrinthine motivations, colorful supporting characters, rambling private eye, and observational narration. More than that, both do all of these things with a sense of humor, poking holes in its own grandiose story while winking at the audience and allowing a slew of character actors the freedom to bring their characters to life.

But while Lebowski is laid-back and passive to the point of being meandering, Inherent Vice finds a focus and motivation in its main character, Doc Sportello, played by Joaquin Phoenix in a fantastic, enjoyable performance. Unlike the Dude, Doc is a legitimate private detective, one who’s keenly interested in getting to the truth. And when an ex shows up at his house worried about a man she’s involved with, Doc can’t help but start digging. Add into that a client who asks him to track down a friend from prison, and Doc slowly finds his way into a massive conspiracy involving smuggling, dentists, missing musicians, informants, drugs, insane asylums, the LAPD, and more.

Let’s get this part out of the way: following the story of Inherent Vice is a fool’s errand. To call it “sprawling” is an understatement; at various points, there’s so much going on, so many feints and bluffs, that you find yourself just drifting along and enjoying the vibe of the film – a laid back, somewhat mournful look at Los Angeles, people’s reactions to the past, and more. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – after all, there’s the infamous murders in The Big Sleep that no one knows who committed. No, a complicated plot is forgivable as long as the film itself is enjoyable, and Inherent Vice delivers on that front and then some. The cast is uniformly excellent, and wonderfully deep, with great performances by Michael Kenneth Williams, Benicio del Toro, Owen Wilson, and Martin Short, just to name a few.

But even with the great cast, it’s worth taking the film to single out Josh Brolin as LAPD detective Bigfoot Bjornsen. Playing the straight man to Doc’s medicinally-induced ways, Brolin makes a perfect foil for Phoenix, and any scene between the two men is wonderfully hilarious to watch unfold – and that’s before Bigfoot starts yelling at the cooks at a diner, or we start seeing his home life. It makes for a great variation on the “police” presence in movies like this, and allows Brolin another chance to add to the highlight reel that is his recent career.

Ultimately, the biggest knock against Inherent Vice is the sense that it’s not quite “about” anything. Yes, it’s about families, and love, and LA, and guilt, and all those sorts of things, but ultimately, it’s a film about mood and the performances. And yet, I can’t complain too much about it, not when it’s all done this well, provides this many great moments (including one scene that’s the hardest I’ve laughed in a very long time, involving nothing more than Phoenix’s reaction to a picture), and engages you so well with its style and mood. No, it doesn’t hold up against There Will Be Blood…but so what? That doesn’t make it any less of a joy to watch, and another gem in Paul Thomas Anderson’s fantastic, flawless career.

IMDb

 

Fox 8, by George Saunders / *****

450x600Here’s what I’d prefer: I’d prefer that you just trust me on this one, and go pick up “Fox 8.” It’s only 99 cents for your Kindle, it’s hilarious, and it’s a short story by maybe the most gifted short story author working today. And really, that should be enough for you – this one is so much fun to just read and watch unfold, the language is a joy, it’s frequently laugh-out-loud funny, and the message is heartfelt.

But I recognize that saying all of that doesn’t really qualify as a “review”, per se. So let me say a little bit more. And then, you should go buy it. Continue reading “Fox 8, by George Saunders / *****”