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

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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.

“Ah, what the heck! I’ll just raise my li’l Beelzebub. Rockabye, babeeee….” Rosemary’s Baby (2014 NBC mini-series)

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[Image source: Wikipedia]

Is anyone else’s DVR a graveyard of shows and movies you’ve saved, thinking you should watch them, but when it comes down to actually committing the time to a given program, you just keep deferring it?

The last three episodes of this season’s Glee remain (gleefully?) unwatched, as does the second half of The Maya Rudolph Show, the otherwise super-talented comedienne’s clunky attempt at a Sonny and Cher meets The Carol Burnett Show variety romp. And we skipped about half a dozen episodes of Arrow, just to view the finale in head-scratching befuddlement.

However, we did clear one lingering mini-series from the queue last night: NBC’s recent “reimagining” (what does that even mean? what happened to the term “remake”?) of Rosemary’s Baby.

Originally a novel by Ira Levin, Rosemary’s Baby was first made into a film by Roman Polanski in 1968, starring Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon (who won an Oscar for her work), Ralph Bellamy, Patsy Kelly, and Charles Grodin (!). Polanski’s screenplay was also nominated for the Academy Award, though it didn’t win.

The plot at this point is legendary (if not a bit dorky). Young couple (Farrow and Cassavetes) moves into apartment, befriends strangely overeager neighbors, and gets pregnant; husband (literally) makes deal with the devil; spooky doings ensue; child of Satan gets born; Farrow freaks out (justifiably) but then decides, “Ah, what the heck! I’ll just raise my li’l Beelzebub myself. Rockabye, babeeee….”

(Sort of sounds like some of Farrow’s recent interactions with ex-Woody Allen, come to think of it. What? Too soon?)

The recent NBC “movie event” adaptation, starring Zoe Saldana in the Farrow role, stretches this rather thin narrative from two hours to four and seems to exist primarily as a showcase for Saldana’s ability to cry, smile, cry, mope, cry, scream, and cry.

Don’t get me wrong. I really like Saldana (Avatar, Star Trek, upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy). She’s like a less manic Thandie Newton. She does her level best to keep the sloooooowly paced proceedings (transplanted to Paris from New York for no discernible reason) interesting.

She craftily cribs from the Audrey Hepburn Wait Until Dark school of worried pixie-cut acting, painting a compelling picture of a sweet soul trying to please everyone but herself and getting in deeper and deeper. Heck, Saldana’s Rosemary even has an adorable pet feline named “No-Name” (a la Breakfast at Tiffany‘s “Cat … poor slob without a name”).

It’s just that this story does. not. need. four hours. to be told.

There probably is a really crackerjack 90-minute telefilm in there, but I just kept forgetting why I was supposed to care. And, most surprising, the more interesting half of the mini-series is the first night which is all creepy, Hitchockian set up; the second night’s pay-off of gothic carnage and cuckoo witchery is a flat-out bore … by the time we finally get there.

The supporting cast is wildly uneven, with only Jason Isaacs (The Patriot, Harry Potter) rising above the fray as the smoothly cavalier, devil-worshipping neighbor/landlord. (Isaacs is just such a presence, as if Daniel Craig and Patrick Stewart had a really pretty son.)

Carole Bouquet as Isaac’s equally nefarious wife, is okay but not great, saddled as she is with the chief responsibility of making Saldana drink (over and over) some really gross-looking, moss-green smoothies made from some witch-y herbs in her fabulous botanical garden. (Yeah, you read that right.) Bouquet’s idea of setting a spooky tone is giving a lot of sidelong glances and delivering her oddball earth-mother-from-Pluto dialogue with Pepe le Pew “Frenchy-ness.” (She kind of sounds like a Martin Short character most of the time).

Patrick J. Adams (Suits) is a dull milquetoast of a husband, and Christina Cole as Rosemary’s Brit pal Julie is on hand primarily to bring the exposition every 10 minutes or so.

It’s a shame. In this postmodern, American Horror Story, “let’s use scare-fest genre tropes as metaphors for social ills” era, there was great potential for this new Rosemary’s Baby to say something interesting about gender politics, class warfare, race issues, and the increasingly slippery definition of “family.” Alas, no, the devil was not in these details. Better luck on the inevitable third time around for this tired tale.

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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.

Fun escapist trifle far better than it deserves to be: Sparkle

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[Image source: Wikipedia]

I have foggy half-remembered impressions of the original Sparkle with Irene Cara and Philip Michael Thomas. I, like so many others, am more keenly aware of all the films and musicals that came in its wake, paying homage (or swiping) its central conceit, including both stage and film versions of Dreamgirls. But, probably my most memorable exposure to the film was hearing En Vogue’s hit remake of the original Sparklesoundtrack cut “Giving Him Something He Can Feel” in the early 90s.

Consequently, this remake is no doubt going to land with an anti-climactic thud, which is a bit unfair. Yes, the film manages somehow to outdo both Douglas Sirk AND Tyler Perry in overwrought, under-scripted, over-accessorized, oddly-bewigged melodrama. Yes, it is yet another in the strange new subgenre of cheaply made, kinda junky, shamefully enjoyable Hollywood film musical featuring pop divas at odd way-stations in their careers (see: Cher and Xtina in Thanksgiving turkey Burlesque).

HOWEVER, a key difference is that the generally winning cast here overcomes limited material and an unfortunate Lifetime TV-movie approach to direction and screenplay to deliver a pretty compelling and always entertaining two hours. The specter of Whitney Houston’s passing hangs heavy on the production but also gives it an emotional heft it might not have otherwise had. Never an actress of great depth but always a presence, Houston, in this case, gives a nuanced performance, providing the film its emotional center. She plays a matriarch whose misspent youth has left her living in fear that her daughters will repeat her sordid deeds (which one of them does) and overcompensating through religious zealotry. If you can make it through Houston’s singing “His Eye is on the Sparrow” at a key moment in the film without becoming a puddle, well, you’re a stronger soul than I…or you’re a cyborg.

The other performers all turn in credible performances, and keep the enterprise moving along. Mike Epps is quite effective as a charmingly smarmy and eventually rabidly mean comedian who woos (and worse) Houston’s eldest daughter, the equally good Carmen Ejogo. Ejogo is kinda like a less-scenery-chewing Thandie Newton. As Houston’s middle daughter, Tika Sumpter has great fun with an otherwise thankless role – I looked forward to every line she zippily delivered. There was far too little of her in the film.

I’m not a fan of American Idol Jordin Sparks who played Houston’s song-writing title character daughter, and she and fellow romantic lead Derek Luke were a bit too cloyingly wholesome to be endured at times. BUT she dutifully served her purpose as a pleasant cipher upon whom we as audience members could project our own reactions to the, at times, goofy “movie logical” moments that would never actually happen in reality. (For example, not to spoil anything, but at one point a key figure is, yes, murdered with a fireplace poker, and, while the murder is in self-defense and no court in the land would debate it…all the other characters cover it up, while another nobly takes the rap. That’s what I call “movie logic.”)

Catch this one at the dollar theatre or on DVD/online. It’s a fun escapist trifle that is far better than it deserves to be because the ensemble is so devoted and engaged. Whitney Houston’s passing broke my heart for many reasons, though not necessarily because of her prior film performances. After seeing her in this, though, I think we have been deprived of what could have been a very interesting third act in her remarkable, challenged, and challenging career.