Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Deadpool 2

SPOILERS!

It's been over two years since we were treated to the exploits of Wade Wilson, that mutant tragic figure of the Marvel Comics who learned he had Stage 4 cancer, beat it, and discovered superhuman abilities.  He became "Deadpool" and swore revenge (and refused requests to join the X-Men) on the baddie who left him to die.  That was the original movie, a runaway success that had it both ways: an irreverent raspberry that took the piss out of the usual straight faced superhero adventure, yet played within its plot rules and contrivances.  It was the first R-rated superhero movie in the Marvel canon, a risky move that paid off and inspired other more adult comic book fare, such as the Wolverine saga LOGAN.

DEADPOOL 2 opens with a Wolverine joke, several actually, as Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) says that LOGAN was riding the coattails of his movie.  Yep, we're in meta land again.  The smart ass antihero regularly breaks the fourth wall and offers plenty of commentary on the business of sequels and "lazy writing".  Nice job there, guys.  In order to cover up for the deficiencies of this script, just toss off a self-deprecation.  And for the most part, as before, they get away with it.

This time, Deadpool is suicidal after failing to save the life of his girlfriend, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) who we met in the first movie and with whom he planned to have a child.  But this "family movie" will follow Deadpool as he joins a different sort of familial unit, perhaps the one he rejected before.  Yes, man of steel Colossus, Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), and even antagonist Cable (Josh Brolin) will form a team to attempt to stop/possibly save a young mutant called Fire Fist (Julian Dennison).  Other characters will also give Wade/Deadpool a bonding experience in such efforts, and a lengthy parachuting sequence (both hilarious and hilaroiusly grisly) will let you know how that turns out.

What is surprising about DEADPOOL 2 is how serious it is at times.  There is some heavy drama in the earlier moments, and you keep waiting for a wink or double entendre that may or may not come to lighten the moment.  Yes, underneath the snark and dirty jokes was something resembling a heart in the earlier film, and this one reveals even more of that.  Fine, and, I guess kudos to director David Leitch and the screenwriters (which includes Reynolds).  But things get too maudlin too often.  The sad story of young Fire Fist, aka Russell Collins and his abuse at an orphanage is pure comic book fodder, and perhaps examined a bit too closely here.  The DEADPOOL films soar when skewering the mythos, but deflate a bit when trying to remain loyal to it.  This is even more clear in this sequel, and it prevents it from equaling or (certainly) besting the original.

The action scenes are well mounted, and the ante has been upped (isn't it always in a sequel?).  But Leitch, as in his ATOMIC BLONDE, utilizes CGI when it really isn't necessary.  Jonathan's Sela's cinematography is mostly washed out, a common thing with today's blockbusters.  I think it looks ugly.

Some of the jokes land with a thud, like many of the film's corpses.  I saw this movie with an appreciative audience that laughed a great deal, but there were a few Deadpool cracks that didn't get a single giggle, quite deservedly.  The gag hit/miss ratio was not so favorable in this sequel.

But there is some comedy gold here.  The "baby legs" sequence gave me some of the biggest belly laughs I've had in a while.  Reynolds again has a blast with his pop culture spouting alter ego, and despite all of DEADPOOL 2's sins this is still great fun.  Just brush up on your Marvel lore and 2018 zeitgeist to yield maximum enjoyment.  Oh, and '80s/'90s movies and music.  And dubstep.

P.S. - There again are some extra scenes during the credits, but definitely wait until the very last titles, when we hear Juggernaut's little theme song. 

Monday, May 21, 2018

Eye to Eye

I became aware of Eye to Eye from their association with Steely Dan, namely producer Gary Katz.  Their self titled debut album from 1982 really caught my ear about a decade or so ago.  Immaculate production, as you would expect from Katz, who recruited many Dan session players, including Chuck Rainey, Dean Parks, and even SD co-founder Donald Fagen.  Eye to Eye's nucleus is the duo of singer Deborah Berg and keyboardist Julian Marshall.

Their songwriting is quite impressive.  The arrangements are complex and utterly unpredictable, a joy for the auditory cortex.  The witty lyrics share bars with some genuinely emotional sentiments, entirely earned.  Unlike many other artists who attempt such material, the songs never ring contrived or false.  A few, like "On the Mend" really get you in the aorta.  That one has moved me to tears more than once.

There is a lot of minor key mastery here.  That unmistakable early '80s sound, mainly the bass and keyboard work, combined with Berg's gorgeous voice (described by one critic as "so clean that you feel as if you have taken a long bath after listening"). She has admirable range.  Some songs are downright bouncy ("Nice Girls", "Life in Motion", "Physical Attraction").   Others feel melancholy and upbeat simultaneously ("Hunger Pains").  My favorites are the lamenting "More Hopeless Knowledge" and "Time Flys", which has a stunning chorus - Berg's alto part flying over the backing musicians combines in a manner that is almost as exciting as when Steve Gadd's drums thundered along with Wayne Shorter's saxophone on Steely Dan's "Aja."  For real.

This is a great after hours album.  Even if you don't pay attention to the words (but please do), the vibe created is of introspection, of a bemused analysis of social dynamics and courtship.  It's clever throughout, but, other than a few moments here and there, not too smug.

Eye to Eye would record another album in the '80s, Shakespeare Stole My Baby, but was dropped by Warner Brothers soon after due to low sales.  The duo returned in 2005 with Clean Slate and then continued on.  I'll have to get back to you on the other albums.  Eye to Eye, however, will always remain thirty six minutes of elegant bliss.  Crazily dated and quaint, and as powerful as ever.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Enforcer

When Clint Eastwood pointed his .357 Magnum at San Francisco vermin in the iconic DIRTY HARRY in 1971, there was more than just the birth of a new franchise.  There were reviews and essays crying "Fascism!", concerns of the portrayal of vigilantism that would bring cheers from those who act more from their gut than their brain. Those just looking for violent action and satisfying payback.  The screenplay championed a possibly sociopathic misanthrope who cared little about Miranda rights.  Sociologists found much fascination in the Harry Callahan character.  Many fans indeed merely saw a guy who took out the trash.  Someone who bucked the law to take care of those the System let off.  Real justice.

1974's MAGNUM FORCE, as I've written before, seemed to be a response to that criticism.  Its plot centered around a circle of young cops who form a secret society of vigilantes, taking orders from the chief of police.  The dangers of their ways is insightfully examined in John Milius' script.  Harry remains a lone wolf who puts down the lowlifes in his own violent manner (and forever gets reamed out by superiors because of it), but is also shown as a concerned voice as he slowly catches on to the cops' and chief's activities.  Frontier justice was now shown as a dilemma. 

By 1976, the Dirty Harry character was the stuff of legend.  Too bad THE ENFORCER is a somewhat tepid entry in the series, though with some good ideas and effective scenes.  Timely as well, involving a plot torn from the Patty Hearst headlines of the day.  An SLA-type group stages robberies around the Bay Area that get a lot of people killed.  Meanwhile, Harry is given a female partner named Kate Moore (Tyne Daly) after his ultra violent methods (check that classic liquor store bit) finally get him demoted to Personnel, a department that Callahan believes is "for assholes."  This comment adds nothing positive to his shaky relationship with the police Captain (Bradford Dillman).

Does the screenplay lay on the affirmitive action angle too thick? In an effort to be "with it" and "contemporary"? Nah, there's far more rough action and violence than preachiness, though Daly gets in some good lines in her conversations with her partner and even a group of Black Panther type militants, led by "Big" Ed Mustapha (Eastwood reg Albert Powell), who will figure significantly into the plot.  Clint does his thing with confidence and quiet swagger all the way through, and that's what people paid to see, not a thoughtful social document.  But then you keep thinking about that first film, had it somehow managed to be both things......

Monday, May 14, 2018

Absolute Beginners

Filmed musicals always tread a dangerously fine line between success and failure, between grandeur and garishness.  The very spectacle of song and dance makes the material vulnerable to excess and silliness, no matter how noble the intention.  1986's ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS attempts to seriously address racial tensions in 1958 London, in addition to making statements about celebrity and changing culture.   In one hundred and eight chaotic, sometimes headache inducing minutes, it succeeds in its laundry list aspirations but fails to examine any of them with any real dramatic weight.

That leaves the glitter.  Director Julien Temple, best known for short form rock videos and the Sex Pistols documentary THE GREAT ROCK 'N' ROLL SWINDLE, teams with cinematographer Oliver Stapleton to frame a brilliantly lit, eye popping swirl around impressive sets.  They create a very lengthy unbroken tracking shot around city streets that rivals the long dollies in TOUCH OF EVIL and THE PLAYER (in which someone refers to this movie, by the way).  That scene is very impressive, but like the rest of the film only exists intrinsically, in the moment.  Points are made within it by narrator/lead character Colin (Eddie O'Connell) about the plight of post WWII London, but poignancy is at a minimum.  Surely Colin MacInne's original novel was more urgent?

The fictional Colin is a lovesick shutterbug, attempting to escape his dour childhood slum of Napoli and win fame by selling photographs of the elite at play.  He pines for a cute fashion designer called Crepe Suzette (Patsy Kinsit) who seems to return his affections but is willing to sell him out for her own shot at fame.  The two part ways early on, each swallowed by the flashy culture of pre-Beatles London, alliances made with greedy hedonists and developers who will evacuate black residents from their neighborhoods at the same time that a horde of white supremacists will rise.  The infamous Notting Hill riots will follow.  Will hope rise from the shattered glass? Will Love conquer Hate?  Whose decision was it to add lyrics to Miles Davis' "So What", a piece that plays during the closing moments of this movie?

And that bit reminded me of a later film that perhaps owes a bit to ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS, MOULIN ROUGE! Baz Luhrmann's over the top evocation of Paris life and love featured re-imaginings of lots of songs, including "Smells Like Teen Spirit".  The two movies actually have quite a bit in common, though Baz's film is more successful.  Especially with its choreography.  My wife commented that much of the dance in ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS reminded her of XANADU!
Temple never quite achieves cohesion with the often slow paced ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS.  Ray Davies plays Colin's ineffectual, milquetoast father Arthur and has an elaborate number called "Quiet Life"s, which winds around an apartment with moments Fred Astaire might've applauded.  But David Bowie's "That's Motivation" sequence mostly falls flat (and his title track to the movie is a much better tune).  The music, some of it arranged by Gil Evans (the jazz scene is an important backdrop in this movie), is quite disappointing, though Sade's "Killer Blow" is a striking, dynamic song, and her appearance in this movie is a real highlight.
It is after that song that the film becomes decidedly much darker, as racial tensions explode into violence.  The entire last passage of ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS is energetic and powerful, but might've been more so had we gotten to know the blacks and white supremacist characters better.  This movie was an infamous box office bust, in part leading to the demise of a British studio, but still has a place in history, is still a worthy expenditure of time for fans of the artists and of Brit cinema.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Nashville, 2018

Nashville, Tennessee was the site of the annual American Academy of Audiology convention, celebrating its thirtieth year.  I have attended nine or ten since 2005, when I was a student.  You can go back and read my (wistful and dynamic) thoughts on some of them. This year's? I got to see numerous old classmates and professors, and even got to meet a colleague who works very close by back home.  That was quite interesting.    I wish I could share those conversations with you.  Anyhow, where the AAA Convention takes place plays largely in my decision to attend.  I skipped Indianapolis and Orlando because, well... But I did have a relative inform me that Indianapolis is a pretty cool place, so maybe I missed out? Phoenix, Chicago, and San Diego were chosen either because I already loved those cities or I was eager to explore for the first time.  This was also true of Nashville.

It was bigger and livelier than expected.  Broadway and its side streets are teeming with music and neon.  Live music spills out of just about every bar and restaurant (even out of speakers set on some street corners).  While we unfortunately did not get to visit the Ryman Auditorium - site of the Grand Ole Opry until the mid 1970s, I did visit the current auditorium in Opryland, about ten miles from downtown.  They're still doing live simulcasts on WSM AM, and an emcee stands at a lectern on the edge of the stage, informing us this this segment of the show is sponsored by Dollar General.  It was great fun.  I'm not a big country fan, but you have to give talent its due no matter the genre.

Pretty decent lineup, huh? I regrettably missed The Whites and Ray Stevens, the latter of whom made some novelty records I enjoyed when I was a kid ("Ahab the Arab" anyone?). I misjudged the timing.  I flew in, dumped my luggage in my hotel room and got to the theater half an hour late.  Each act did about three tunes.  Ricky Skaggs, clear royalty, is a very devoted Christian and spoke quite explicitly of his faith, nearly delivering a sermon.  Henry Cho is a Korean comic who grew up in the South and sounds like it.  His humour is homespun and refreshingly clean.  Trace Adkins ended the show on a very high note and got lots of excited screams from the womenfolk. The schedule is filled with country stars past and present.  Do not miss this if you visit Nashville.

Speaking of my hotel, doesn't this remind you of BLADE RUNNER?
The restaurant at the Sheraton is called "The Library".  The check always comes between the pages of a classic novel.
After getting the layout of the convention center, appropriately called the Nashville Music City Center, I got my first glimpse of Broadway and ate lunch at Jack's Bar-B-Que, which has been around for over forty years.  It is one of three locations.  My St. Louis ribs were fine and paired well with a Shiner Bock.  I heard Martin's (also downtown) is another good spot.  Before my afternoon sessions, I spent some time in the Johnny Cash Museum, a small but comprehensive look at a life lived to its fullest.  Records, posters, musical instruments, and all sorts of memorabilia fill the space to piece together this complicated and talented musician.  His Christian faith is not glossed over but rather embraced.

There are listening stations for each decade of Johnny's career.  There's even an exhibit with a soundboard that allows you to remix Cash's tunes.

Johnny's museum is downstairs from the Patsy Cline Museum, by the way.

On Saturday we met an old friend I hadn't seen in person for close to thirty years. She and her husband picked us up at the hotel and drove us to their neck of the woods, Franklin.  We stopped to pet horses in a field before walking down a street with quaint jewelry shops and a cool record store.  Dinner was at Scout's Pub, where we snacked on almonds that had been soaked in duck fat.  Delicious!

I first met Karen on the school bus when I was in kindergarten. She told me I used to make disapproving faces at her and Leah, whom I've seen more recently, joining her and another old friend at the South Florida Fair.   We went to a private Christian parochial school and grew up in the same church (later also the same high school and college).  We had lots to catch up on, and reminisced of the old days, with a few misconceptions on both sides cleared up. Lots of Youth Group tales.   Her life has taken quite a turn, as these days she is a defiant agnostic.  Back in the day she was a very devoted believer, and even became a missionary.  Along the way she began to question her faith, and faith itself.  It's a long complicated story that she claims will comprise a memoir.  My fingers are crossed.  What has not changed is that Karen is a caring, intelligent soul, no matter who she feels the owner of it may be.

Nashville.  Check it out!

Monday, May 7, 2018

The Stunt Man

It wasn't released.  It escaped.

Peter O'Toole spoke those words, referring to his 1980 movie THE STUNT MAN.  A film that took many years from conception to release.  One that 20th Century Fox shelved for a year before its "escape". Certainly, the film defies categorization.  Very hard to pin down the genre.  How to market such an offbeat picture? Thriller? Comedy? Action? All of the above are accurate, but don't mesh in the way that say, ROMANCING THE STONE would.  THE STUNT MAN unsurprisingly did not rake it in at the box office.

The critics liked it.  Even Pauline Kael deemed it one of the best pictures of its year.  THE STUNT MAN has many admirers, and I would count myself among them, but I have several problems with co-writer/director Richard Rush's film.  The tone, for one.  Despite a screenplay filled with potentially dark themes, the tone is very light hearted.  Too much so.  Even whimsical and silly at moments.  If Rush was attempting for some sort of knowing incongruity to make his (and original author Paul Brodeur's) points more effective, he's only successful in spurts. Adding to this is Dominic Frontiere's jokey score - loud, vibrant, sounding like old timey nickelodeon/silent movie music.  There had to be a point to this? For me, it undermined the film at every turn.

THE STUNT MAN begins with a scraggly guy running from the police.  Actually, it begins with a dog licking his testicles as it sits in the road but, hey...Cameron (Steve Railsback) is a Vietnam vet who soon after eluding the fuzz is nearly run down by a motorist on a bridge.  A few scenes later, he's looking down on a beach, watching planes fire artillery at soldiers on the dunes.  Yep, it's a movie set.  The director is Eli Cross, (O'Toole) who informs Cameron that the bridge was also a set, and that the motorist was a stunt man who plunged his vehicle into the river and died.  Is Cameron to blame? No matter; Cross offers to cover for the young man when the police arrive if he'll assume the dead stunt man's identity.

Cameron finds himself with no other option, but regrets his decision soon afterward.  Cross is directing an elaborate WWI drama filled with dangerous set pieces.  Makeup renders Cameron a look-alike for the dead stunt guy and the film's leading actor.  The film's leading actress is the beguiling Nina (the beguiling Barbara Hershey) and soon Cameron is in love.  Enough to fly into a jealous rage when he learns Nina slept with the director once upon a time; "Don't you know that's how little girls get into the movies?"

Cross is a mercurial, manipulative, flamboyant auteur who charms and berates his crew in equal measure. Will do whatever to get a scene, an emotion.   Of Cameron he summarizes: "It's not what he's eating, but what's eating him that makes it sort of interesting."  Cameron soon believes that his director in fact wants to kill him, subjecting him to increasingly dangerous set-ups, including a rooftop chase then soon turns into something ultra elaborate, and later a recreation of that bridge stunt.  When he asks an extra if his rifle is loaded with blanks, the response is "That's not what is says on the box."  Is Cameron delusional? Paranoid?  Suffering post traumatic stress disorder? He will share some memories of his time in the jungle, but no one is impressed. "Ancient history" states the stunt coordinator.

THE STUNT MAN does a creditable, sometimes remarkable job of toying with the ideas of reality.  Rush has great fun with verisimilitude in his movie.  And what better canvas than a movie set? The film is admirably multi-layered.  It doesn't take long to recognize the theological theme of an Everyman who feels at the whims of an angry god.  Or the plight of veterans.  Even one of the most absurd scenes - Cameron destroys a warehouse filled with props and falls under several cans of different colors of paint as he explains what greeted him back in the U.S.A. after his tour in 'Nam - brings the point across.  But overall the film is a muddle.  Smoke and mirrors about an industry of smoke and mirrors but also about the confusion of those who are not part of that world.

O'Toole is fabulous.  No argument there.  His Eli Cross was reportedly based on David Lean, who O'Toole worked with on LAWRENCE OF ARABIA.  I adored the scene as Cross remains on a crane, swooping down to follow Cameron as he walks down a path.  Perfect imagery.   Allen Goorwitz is also excellent as the film's screenwriter.  The conversations between him and Cross may get to at least part of the crux of this story.  One great line - "Eli, do you know that when I read the insane asylum scene to my family, do you know that my oldest son shook my hand for the first time in his whole life? So why is it, Eli, why is it that your vulgar little scene turns out to be so much more moving? So much more impassioned?"

Railsback does interesting work himself, trying to navigate perhaps the most enigmatic character, which of course makes this hero confused about the enigmatic behavior of everyone else so delicious.  Is he cunning? A dolt? We're never quite sure.  Or about THE STUNT MAN itself.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Free Fire

SPOILERS!

I wanted to believe 2016's FREE FIRE was more than just another (albeit VERY late) Tarantino wannabe.  Or worse, warmed over Guy Ritchie.  Maybe that's unfair, but as I sat through this ninety one minute noisemaker - which felt much longer by the way - those were the thoughts I had.  This review could be very short, a paragraph long, even.  There isn't much to say, other than that co-screenwriter and director Ben Wheatley's film is lots of quips and bullets.  Not much else.  The first half hour or so is a lot of talk, the remaining hour is less talk with a nonstop shootout.  Oh, add a few John Denver songs to be ironic and cool.  I guess that part is OK, as the film takes place in 1978 and the songs are played on an 8-track tape in a van.

Here's your plot: Two shlubs are meeting their bosses, IRA members, after hours at a warehouse in Boston.   The two IRA toughs are buying weapons from some other guys.  Also in attendance is a suave, smart mouthed rep for the sellers and a woman who seems to have brokered the whole deal.  It is revealed that the wrong guns are brought, but fook it, they fire well enough.  The pieces are placed in the van.  A briefcase with money is handed to the dealers.  They count it.  It's all there.  One of the IRA members asks the woman to dinner.  Despite some mildly terse exchanges and put downs, everyone seems to be ready to go off into that good night.

But right before the deal is done, one of the shlubs recognizes one of the dealers as the guy who beat his ass the night before.  The dealer had just cause - the shlub had been abusing his female cousin.  Sparks begin to fly.  The shlub is reprimanded by the IRA guys, who demand he apologizes.  Well, things don't go as planned.  Soon, weapons are drawn and the warehouse becomes a shooting gallery.  Everyone crouches behind something and spits a few rounds, taunting their adversaries.  Then others show up: snipers.  Who do they work for?  Sometimes, it seems that maybe someone switched sides.  And whose side is the girl on, anyway?

Problem is, I never cared.  You see I haven't gone to the trouble of identifying the characters.  They don't merit the effort.  Wheatley and the actors could've drawn sketches that pique our interest but these are just archetypes at best.  They're not interesting as flesh and blood OR as metaphors, ideas.  They are just bodies, fresh meat.  As skillful as some of Wheatley's direction may be, the firefight gets old very quickly.  I like a well executed gun battle as much as the next guy, but despite a few exciting moments (and great sound editing), the battle is stale and boring.  The dialogue is likewise.  I just found myself marking time.  Like watching someone else play a video game.  I had nothing at stake here.  When folks were cut down it meant next to nothing.

The cast includes notables like Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, Brie Larson, and Sharto Copley.  Everyone delivers decent performances, but they have little with which to work.  I guess I thought that since Martin Scorsese was one of the producers this would've been a nice little sleeper.  A latter day homage that was worth the time.  Sorry to say..

I haven't seen Wheatley's other work.  He has much talent.  He should not squander it on junk like this, a film that wants to be compared favorably with RESERVOIR DOGS but barely holds muster with imitators like KILLING ZOE and LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN.   I also wish Hammer's character had lived long enough to finish his John Denver story.