“Family is not an ‘f’-word.” Deadpool 2 and Solo: A Star Wars Story

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Ah, summer. The time we all look forward to all year long … until it’s actually here. We get to be outside. We get to do back-breaking yard-work. We get to enjoy the sun. We get to sweat through our dress clothes every day at work. We get to escape our troubles watching one blockbuster movie after another in the soothingly air-conditioned multiplex. We get to pay through the nose to be bombarded by an unyielding series of overblown, unwatchable chase scenes as latex-clad superheroes and blaster-wielding space-farers (most of them now owned in whole or in part by Disney) battle for the hearts and minds of John Q. Public.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Here we are, 2018. We’ve already witnessed Marvel’s Avengers storm cinemas, and I’m still a bit shell-shocked by what I did (and didn’t) see. Now, we steel ourselves for the one-two punch of Deadpool 2 (produced by 20th Century Fox in affiliation with Marvel Entertainment … though as Wall Street tells us Fox is soon to be owned outright by Marvel/Disney) and Solo: A Star Wars Story (released by Disney’s LucasFilm studio, less than six months after The Last Jedi underwhelmed some and thrilled a few more). I was prepared for the worst, and I was pleasantly surprised by both.

I thought the original Deadpoolwas a breath of fresh (raunchy) air, a genius bit of commerce that simultaneously lampooned the superhero genre (in the broadest Tex Avery-style possible) while laughing its red-and-black-ski-masked head all the way to the bank. I feared Deadpool 2 would be a stultifying, self-indulgent, self-satisfied, bloated, and unnecessary money-grab. The brainchild of producer and star Ryan Reynolds, Deadpool 2 welcomes a new director David Leitch (Atomic Blonde, John Wick) and a new raison d’etre. After burning the cape-and-cowl zeitgeist to the ground with the first flick, this latest chapter imbues our titular anti-hero with a compelling backstory and a heartbreaking new frenemy (Josh Brolin’s superb-I-won’t-break-character-for-any-bit-of-tomfoolery “Cable”) … while still frying our retinas and shaming us for any adoration we may still hold for these kind of films. And, yeah, admittedly it’s still kind of an unnecessary and bloated money-grab.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Nonetheless, I had a ball. I would have loved to have had 30 minutes of my life back from its lengthy run-time, but I had a ball.

(What happened to the fine art of the perfectly paced 90 minute or 1 hour 45 minute movie? Have filmmakers forgotten the time-tested strategy of “leaving the audience wanting more”? Asking for a friend …)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Similarly, I was wary that Solo: A Star Wars Story, with its troubled production history, would be a bust. LEGO Movie and 22 Jump Streethelmers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller had filmed nearly 90% of the movie when they were unceremoniously booted in the 11th hour and replaced with Ron Howard. Further, there is much hand-wringing this weekend in the House of Mouse that the latest Star Wars installment only broke $100 million domestic. Boo hoo.

Well, Solo is pretty damn fun and utterly heartfelt and overall a delight … and also would greatly benefit from having a tighter running time.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I’ll be blasphemous for a moment (I can’t wait for the comments). I actually like Alden Ehrenreich’s take on the title role. Solo details the “origin story” of this legendary character first portrayed by Harrison Ford, detailing Solo’s misspent youth meeting cute with Chewbacca, Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover, running rings around Billy Dee Williams), and, um, the Millennium Falcon. I thought Ford was gangbusters as Indiana Jones, but his Han Solo was occasionally too aloof, too smug for the “scruffy nerf-herder” he actually was purported to be. Ehrenreich brings a refreshing “little boy lost” quality to the role, not dissimilar to Chris Pine’s blessed de-Shatnerizing of the iconic role of Captain Kirk in the recent Star Trek reboot. My two cents. Let the hateration commence.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Both Deadpool 2 and Solo are glorified heist movies, employing the “building the perfect team to complete the perfect job” conceit as an excuse to explore what it means to be a family.  The best heist flicks (Channing Tatum’s Logan Lucky a great recent example) present us a collection of colorful, misdirected ne’er-do-wells who discover a higher reason for being – the fellowship of man – on their way to doing something truly despicable. Deadpool even offers us the poetic bon mot “family is not an ‘f’-word” as our favorite mutant mercenary loses his true love (a luminous Morena Bacarin) and fills his broken heart with a collection of wackadoodle buddies (the aforementioned Brolin as “Cable,” Stefan Kapičić as a comically CGI’d “Colossus,” Zazie Beetz as a dynamite take-no-prisoners “Domino,” and Leslie Uggams as Deadpool’s cantankerous roommate “Blind Al”).

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Likewise, Solo is populated with a rogues’ gallery of character players. Woody Harrelson, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge (her feisty, feminist, rabble-rousing ‘droid L3-37 deserves her own outing ASAP), Paul Bettany, Jon Favreau, Joonas Suotamo, and aforementioned Donald Glover all turn in standout moments in an otherwise overstuffed enterprise. Emilia Clarke is particularly impactful as Han Solo’s hometown love Qi’ra, resisting “femme fatale” cliches and presenting a conflict-ridden soul who will persevere by golly, despite a galaxy-full of misogynistic roadblocks.  (I also must note that the train-robbing scene in Solo is one of the crispest staged action sequences in the Star Wars series in quite a while.)

Neither film is perfect, nor does either need to be. We have become a film-going culture that consumes its heroes in episodic narrative gulps – as if Charles Dickens had written in less prosaic terms about people who wore tight pants and could bend steel with their bare hands. Wait, he didn’t?

Deadpool 2 and Solo are way-stations in their respective decades-long cinematic franchises: X-Men and Star Wars. The fact that both offer a bit of humanistic allegory – some nutrition along with their empty popcorn calories – is quite remarkable and welcome.The fact that they will both sell truckloads of overpriced action figures and smirkingly ironic t-shirts is a given. Welcome to 21st century America.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“How many lives is one man-cub worth?” Disney’s The Jungle Book (2016)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book has been adapted by Hollywood a lot. In the next two years alone, we have two live action adaptations on the way, including Disney’s just-released remake of its own 1960s animated offering. There were versions made in the 1940s, 1980s, 1990s, on television, live-action, animated, on and on. Even characters like Tarzan (and those countless adaptations and homages and rip-offs – hello, “George of the Jungle”) likely owe a debt to Kipling’s seminal work about a “man-cub” named Mowgli who is raised by wolves and finds himself at the crossroads of an animal culture war over who the true “king of the jungle” should be.

Like Kipling’s Just So Stories (which I actually prefer), the original format of The Jungle Book (and its sequel) is a series of allegorical tales, recounting Mowgli’s adventures, with anthropomorphic animals serving as avatars for the highs and lows of human culture (e.g. greed, pride, sloth, bravery, compassion, etc.). It is unsurprising, then, that the Mouse House, with its long history of invoking the innocence of our animal friends to teach kid life lessons (see: Bambi, Dumbo, The Lion King, Finding Nemo) would return to Kipling’s rich well time and again. (And the merchandising possibilities ain’t half bad either.)

I have to admit that I’m one of few people on the planet who just isn’t that terribly gaga over the Disney animated classic. The Sherman Brothers’ score isn’t as iconic as you might think – really, can you remember more than 2.5 songs from it? “Bare Necessities,” “I Wan’na Be Like You,” and … maybe “Trust In Me” (the latter standing out mostly because of Sterling Holloway’s trademark lateral lisp sibilant “ess” sounds). The animation is that regrettably flat Hanna-Barbera-esque style into which Disney fell from the late 60s to the early 80s. And the whole enterprise just seems clunkily episodic and ends on a weirdly dour and kinda creepy note about Mowgli’s burgeoning sexuality. Ewww.

That said, I’m happy to note that director Jon Favreau (Iron Man), while treating the source material and the beloved animated film with reverence, deftly course-corrects for a modern audience. The look of this remake is beyond lush. Building upon the remarkable CGI animal work of The Life of Pi, Favreau’s team gives us a fully realized jungle, teeming with gorgeously rendered, remarkably expressive creatures. He pulls shy of the kind of pandering “kid humor” we typically see in children’s films these days, though I got weary of hearing the word “cool” bandied about, as it was more jarring than inclusive. (Sorry, I can be a snob about stuff like that.)

I’ve been hot and cold over the wave of Disney live action remakes/reimaginings to date (Alice in Wonderland, Oz the Great and Powerful, Maleficent, Cinderella), but this one gets it right. To this point, there has been a strange reticence to fully embrace the classic musical numbers associated with these films’ animated inspirations. Favreau cleverly sidesteps that issue, incorporating the aforementioned three numbers (the ones we actually remember) as spoken/sung interludes that flow naturally from the character set-ups and ditching the remaining numbers that would just be goofy and forced. As Baloo is about to launch into signature ditty “Bare Necessities,” he takes a meta-swipe at Mowgli’s assertion that a pledge chanted by the wolves earlier in the film was music: “That’s not a song. That’s propaganda.”

(The three songs – “Bare Necessities,” “I Wan’na Be Like You,” “Trust In Me” – also make repeat appearances during one of the most intricate and beautiful end-credits sequences I can recall in ages. You must stick around for them – highly entertaining and a lovely recap celebration of the film you’ve just viewed. Good for Favreau – that is a lost art in Hollywood these days.)

The voice casting is spot on with Bill Murray (a lower-key “Baloo” than Phil Silvers’), Ben Kingsley (his “Bagheera”sounding more Daniel-Craig-tough-guy than a typical Kingsley performance), Idris Elba (a hauntingly ominous “Shere Khan”), Lupita Nyong’o (deeply affecting as Mowgli’s wolf mother “Raksha”), Scarlett Johansson (an ethereal “Kaa”), Giancarlo Esposito (a militant “Akela”) and Christopher Walken (being full-creepy-a**-Walken as “King Louie”). Newcomer Neel Sethi is decent as Mowgli, mostly avoiding the adorable ragamuffin traps of the role but totally missing any of the feral survivalism that could have made for a truly transformative experience. Favreau does such a fabulous job immersing his audience in a layered world where wild kingdom danger lurks around every corner that Sethi’s day-at-the-mall pluck just didn’t quite complete the cinematic thought.

Favreau uses The Jungle Book‘s allegorical roots as a means of combating bullying in all its modern day forms. We live in a world where wannabe statesmen wag fingers, brutishly bloviate, and compare hand sizes; where school children bring semi-automatic rifles into the cafeteria and politicians fall all over themselves defending that “right” (such a funny choice of word); where gender, age, race, sexuality, class, species become an open invitation for hate and derision and alienation, wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross (with apologies to Sinclair Lewis). Favreau’s film is much less overtly political than those words might suggest, but just as Kipling used his stories to teach children lessons of kindness and acceptance, bravery and tolerance, Favreau (like Disney’s recent hit Zootopia) is challenging the kids (and parents)  in his audience to question their preconceptions and break apart the artificial boundaries separating us.

To that end, Favreau jettisons the original ending of Disney’s animated version (no doe-eyed potential paramour carrying a bucket of water this time), offering instead a tableau of an animal kingdom united against their oppressor(s). Early in the film, Akela asks, “How many lives is one man-cub worth?” How many indeed.

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LMA 16 3Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). 

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.  

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Shiny pop metaphor for how much harm we do ourselves through inaction and anxiety … X-Men: Days of Future Past

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

How many Oscar winners and nominees does it take to put together a successful comic book adaptation? Apparently, a boatload.

The per capita of Academy Awards/nominations among the cast in X-Men: Days of Future Past is astounding: Ian McKellen, Jennifer Lawrence, Anna Paquin, Halle Berry, Hugh Jackman, Ellen Page, Michael Fassbender … not to mention talented folks like Peter Dinklage, Nicholas Hoult, James McAvoy, Evan Peters, and even director Bryan Singer who likely may find themselves on the receiving end of a nod or a statuette of their own one day.

As comic book adaptations go, this is about as good as they get, marrying a bit of the self-serious sermonizing of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films with the gee whiz ironic whimsy of Jon Favreau’s and Shane Black’s respective Iron Man movies.

Having Singer return to the franchise (he rather unsuccessfully left to direct the bloated Superman Returns) is a stroke of much-needed genius. Other than last summer’s quietly effective The Wolverine, directed by James Mangold, or the zippy promise of Matthew Vaughn’s retro romp X-Men: First Class (Vaughn gets a writing credit on Days of Future Past), the series had started to lose its way with over-marketed, under-delivering, freakishly-merchandised failures like X-Men: The Last Stand (yeah, I’m a Brett Ratner hater too) or clunkily titled X-Men Origins: Wolverine (directed by Gavin Hood who went from Tsotsi and Rendition to X-Men Origins: Wolverine … wtf?)

Singer, not unlike J.J. Abrams with his seamless Star Trek reboot, brings us quite literally full-circle, mining all that has come before and brilliantly weaving the series’ best and crispest elements into a crackerjack narrative. The plot is a riff on Chris Claremont’s/John Byrne’s iconic “Days of Future Past” comics storyline from the early 80s. It details Wolverine’s mind-bending time travel leap from a dark dystopian future full of death and pain and murky CGI to a swinging 1970s full of death and pain and cheesy poly blends, all to avert a handful of historical moments that spark the creation of mutant-murdering robot Sentinels whose nefarious deeds bring about that nasty future everyone wants to avoid.

Clear as mud? It doesn’t matter ’cause the ride is a helluva lot of fun. The film isn’t perfect. I found this grim future-shock framing set-up with its overbaked Holocaust allusions, its bleak visuals, and its mopey characters and their endlessly ominous pronouncements rather tedious. Halle Berry (so miscast from the very first film) as weather-manipulating Storm still seems like she’s phoning her performance in from some all-inclusive Caribbean resort where they supply her an infinite series of bad white/gray wigs. And as much as I love McKellen and his comrade-in-arms Patrick Stewart as Magneto and Professor Charles Xavier respectively, they both appear to be marking time and collecting a paycheck (albeit a pretty hefty one).

However – and this is so key – all that Charles Dickens-meets-Philip K. Dick dreariness is essential to the fun once our time traveling mutant everyman (that would be Jackman with a crackling world-weary wit as Wolverine) hits the Me Decade. Everything comes alive.

McAvoy is so good – funny and haunting – as the young Xavier who has let his life (and fabulous mansion/school) go to seed. Fassbender (young Magneto) as the chillingly beautiful Malcolm X yin to McAvoy’s Martin Luther King yang is sharp as ever. The film smartly returns to Singer’s core hook: that mutant persecution is a righteous summer-blockbuster allegory for all the -isms/-phobias that plague our society and for the tension that always has and always will exist between the philosophies of blending/integration and of fighting/individualism.

All the players in the 1970s portion of the film acquit themselves nicely, from Lawrence’s fiery person-on-a-mission Mystique to Hoult’s worried caretaker Beast to Dinklage’s well-intentioned, quite-misguided military industrialist Trask.

The film’s best moments come from Evan Peters’ much-too-brief screen-time as speedster Quicksilver. He rocks every single freaking moment he has, like nothing I’ve ever seen in one of these tentpole epics. He wrings comic gold out of one word (“whiplash”) and has an absolute Bugs Bunny-esque ball torturing a gaggle of Pentagon guards, all set to the strain’s of Jim Croce’s time-warped classic “Time in a Bottle.” Give this character/actor his own movie. Now.

The smartest move of all in this very smart film? There is no villain. There is no mustache-twirling, blow-up-the-world, video-game-destructo fool in a cape leading us to a predictably cacophonous denouement. Nope. Everyone is their own worst enemy in this movie. Just like life. Fear and hate, self-loathing and prejudice those are the villains in this film, a movie which serves as a shiny pop metaphor for how much harm we do ourselves through inaction and anxiety.

Most importantly, X-Men: Days of Future Past leaves us with hope. No situation and no person are ever beyond redemption, as Stewart tells McAvoy in one of the film’s trippiest and most heartfelt moments. Amen to that.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Whimsy, one-liners, breath-taking action sequences: Iron Man 3

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[Image Soure: Wikipedia]

Summer movie season 2013 has launched with a bang (and clang) of endearingly smart-aleck-y Robert Downey, Jr. encased in his (now) trademark Iron Man armor.

Iron Man 3 is a genetically engineered hit from the Mouse House of Ideas, those wunderkinds at Marvel/Disney.

It is a smart, fun, glib theme park ride of a movie with absolutely no shame about entertaining eager-to-be-pleased moviegoers across the land/globe. And it is a worthy follow-up to last summer’s crackerjack Avengers.

After the bloated, dumb, and incomprehensible Iron Man 2 (a monumental letdown from the first film), this “threequel” is a fine, if at times derivative, return to form.

All the principals sparkle, from Downey, Jr. (of course) to Gwyneth Paltrow and Don Cheadle and Jon Favreau. The script revels in its rat-a-tat dialogue, like some postmodern hybrid of The Thin Man, The Front Page, and TV’s Big Bang Theory. Paltrow and Downey make a delightful couple, which is saying something, since otherwise I always find Paltrow as interesting as drying paint.

But what really makes this one sing is the addition of three great Brit/Aussie thespians Ben Kingsley, Guy Pearce, and Rebecca Hall…who show their American counterparts how it’s done. Bringing Masterpiece Theatre gravitas and Goon Show cheek to the party, these three inject the proceedings with a lovely zip. I don’t want to spoil the third act twist, but Kingsley has great fun with a role that veers wildly from spooky to silly, somehow channeling Gregory Peck, Osama Bin Laden, Russell Brand, and Sacha Baron Cohen. Yup, you read that sentence correctly.

And the ever-wonderful Pearce gives us a real actor’s take on the same megalomaniacal schtick Sam Rockwell ran into the ground in the last film, but convincingly and compellingly … and with much better hair.

Whether director/screenwriter Shane Black intended Iron Man 3 to be a bit of a polemic on the self-perpetuating circus industry that the self-proclaimed “War on Terror” has become, the film has a very interesting take on the power and money to be had by keeping all of us living in fear…of everything. Unlike Christopher Nolan’s somber, somber, somber take on a similar theme in last summer’s Dark Knight Rises, Black sneaks said message into his popcorn-chomping audience’s brains through whimsy, one-liners, and breath-taking action sequences. Well done!