The fact that this movie even exists seems to be the result of sheer will power. Not to get lost in the history of the project, but some of you may not even realize that Ryan Reynolds has played the foul-mouthed, psychotic, Marvel comics mercenary Wade Wilson/Deadpool before, in 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The problem there was that the geniuses behind that film took a character whose most evil weapon is his mouth and literally sewed it shut. Reynolds had another shot at superhero stardom a couple years later with Green Lantern, and the less said about that the better. But if I told you that rather biting references are made to both of these subpar projects by Deadpool in this new work, might that pique your interest? It should.
Reynolds almost seems to have wished this do-over into being. The fast-talking, wise-cracking guy who birthed Van Wilder is certainly the right actor to play this misshapen rogue of an anti-hero who has been experimented on until his latent mutant powers (accelerated healing, much like Wolverine) were brought to the surface, along with a few criminally twisted mental deficiencies. Wilson was a happily retired Special Forces operative who had turned to a less-than-lawful life to stay afloat. One day, he meets the love of his life, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin of Firefly and Gotham), and it appears that his life is on the right path.
But not long after meeting Vanessa, Wade discovers he has cancer throughout his body, and coincidentally he is met by a recruiter (Jed Rees) who promises a way to rid him of his cancer and give him special powers. It turns out that a nasty piece of work known as Ajax (Ed Skrein of The Transporter Refueled) and his sidekick Angel Dust (Haywire’s Gina Carano) actually want to turn Wade into a super-powered slave.
Right off the bat, it’s clear Deadpool is trying to be something different. Although the origin story and subsequent first adventure/mission tale might feel familiar, the way first-time feature director Tim Miller structures the film—cutting back and forth between present-day fight sequences and recent-past backstory—in a rather fascinating and fast-paced manner. And the film transitions from its raunchy comedy framework to something darker and more emotionally rooted. As part of the process of giving Wade his powers, he is also horribly disfigured, which forces him to abandon his life, including Vanessa, leaving her thinking he’s likely dead.
Above many other things, Deadpool is a killer of bad people. He leaves the moral dilemmas about heroes killing villains to better X-men then he. In fact, since this film exists in the X-Men universe, there are a fair number of mutant hero references throughout, including the inclusion of one card-carrying X-Man, the Russian-born Colossus (voiced by Stefan Kapicic) and his so-over-it student-in-training Negasonic Teenage Warhead (newcomer Brianna Hildebrand, who was in the great Sundance offering First Girl I Loved), whom Deadpool is intent on getting any reaction out of. Colossus is not only attempting to bring Deadpool into the X-Men fold, but he’d love to cure him of his killing ways, neither of which seems likely. Their scenes are some of my favorite because they most directly illustrate what Deadpool is attempting to do—turn the superhero movie on its head by acknowledging that not all “good guys” are good guys.
Ryan Reynolds embraces the Deadpool persona with both gloved fists. He breaks the fourth wall with such regularity, I hesitate to call it a wall…more of an open window. He not only addresses and narrates for the audience but he calls attention to the fact that what we’re watching is a movie. He even comments on how the studio couldn’t afford more than the two previously mentioned X-Men, even in a scene in which Wade goes right up to the front door of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. And for those wondering if Wolverine fits into this story somehow, I can confirm that Hugh Jackman does indeed have a…presence in Deadpool.
Not since the first Iron Man movie or Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man films can I think of a superhero work that that so completely captured my sense of what a character was in the comic books. Taking Rob Liefeld and Fabian Nicieza’s creation (adapted by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick), Deadpool is sassy, excessively bloody, twisted, very funny, and strangely moving on a couple of occasions. Some of my favorite moments don’t involve action at all. The comedy here actually works thanks to strong turns from T.J. Miller as Wade’s longtime buddy Weasel; a completely surreal performance by Leslie Uggams as Wade’s elderly blind roommate Blind Al; and Karan Soni (Safety Not Guaranteed) as a cab driver who seeks relationship advice from Deadpool.
But the heart and soul of Deadpool is Ryan Reynolds’s shot-out-of-a-cannon performance. Wade is a man on a desperate mission, fueled by rage and vengeance, but he never forgets to tinge everything with flecks of nasty humor, and it’s what makes the movie work. Director Miller has taken his background in video game effects and turned it into something visually thrilling, while remembering to include a fairly progressive character study of a man who has clearly mentally snapped. Deadpool is one of Marvel’s most popular fringe characters, and this film makes it clear where the charm lies. Now how do we squeeze Deadpool into the next X-Men film?
If actual icons of fashion and modeling are in on the joke, then what is the point of making a second Zoolander film that pokes fun at the industry? This is one of the many questions left unanswered in the 15-years-in-the-making sequel to the 2001 cult Ben Stiller-directed/starring movie about a fading male model determined to prove he still has “It.” This time around, Derek Zoolander (Stiller) and his fellow model pal Hansel (Owen Wilson) are pulled out of their self-imposed reclusion to help Interpol’s Fashion Police division stop…something nefarious happening in the fashion industry and the Fountain of Youth and killing Derek’s fat son. Hell, how the balls am I supposed to keep track of this nonsense?
I’m sure I won’t be the only reviewer to make this point about Zoolander 2, but it leaps out at you with such ferocity that it’s impossible not to notice: it’s truly bizarre how Stiller and company have take the formula that was tried out (unsuccessfully) on Anchorman 2 and use it as the blueprint for this film. Step 1: Take what worked in the first film and recycle it with surface updates. Step 2: Toss many cameos by famous faces on the screen hoping to distract the audience from noticing that your film has very few jokes that land or, you know, a story. Step 3: Go bigger with the effects and destruction because now you’ve got money to play with. Much to my shock and dismay, this three-step program doesn’t do anything to help Zoolander 2 be funny or entertaining.
I certainly don’t mean to imply that the film is void of laughs. There are certainly a handful of intentionally funny moments in the movie that result in big laughs. But what you’ll likely notice more are the long silence gaps, during which crickets will be heard mating, pins will be striking the floor with a deafening clatter, and individual brain cells will scream out as they die painfully.
What hurts more than just about anything else involving Zoolander 2 is the wasted talent involved in the making of it. Along with Stiller and his Tropic Thunder co-creator Justin Theroux (who naturally returns as Evil DJ), other writers on this film include Nicholas Stoller (who co-wrote Get Him to the Greek and The Muppets, as well as directed Forgetting Sarah Marshall and the two Neighbors films) and John Hamburg (I Love You Man, Along Came Polly, and who had a hand in the original screenplay). These people know how to write funny. So what went wrong? It seems that all of the carefully crafted jokes gave way to cameos and eye-roll-worthy one-liners.
There’s a backstory that fills in what happened between the last film and today that includes a hugely unfunny bit about how Zoolander’s wife (played by Stiller’s real-life wife Christine Taylor) died in a building collapse, and how their son Derek Jr. (Cyrus Arnold, who has a role in the upcoming Hardcore Henry) ended up in an Italian orphanage. Junior has become the target of an international criminal organization, and it’s up to Derek, Hansel and Interpol agent Valentino (Penélope Cruz) to prevent his murder and reunite father and son. Naturally, old favorites like Mugatu (Will Ferrell) return and new conspirators like Alexanya Atoz (Kristen Wiig, clearly doing a physically warped version of Donnatella Versace) pop up. Wiig has her humorous moments (mostly involving her impenetrable accent), while Ferrell just yells and screams and is remarkably unfunny.
The laughs are few and far between, but if you look carefully, you’ll chuckle a few times. Benedict Cumberbatch is on hand as the hot new model All, who embodies male and female traits—all of them. Every second All is on the screen is a gift. There’s also a great running gag about Hansel’s fondness for orgies, members of which are worth taking a closer look at. Kiefer Sutherland probably has some of the best lines in those moments. There’s a girl-fight near the end of the film that is hilarious on many levels. Scattered throughout the rubble are the rare jokes that might hit you the right way, but for the most part, you’ll have time to do your taxes between the funny bits in Zoolander 2.
There’s an extended sequence that serves as the climax of the film that epitomizes what’s wrong with this sequel. There’s a coven of world-famous fashion icons—I won’t name them for fear of spoiling the surprise, but even I knew who they were—gathered to taste of the Fountain of Youth. Each character (playing themselves) is given a joke or two to deliver, and they do so woodenly. And this scene goes back to my original question: if the idiots at the helm of the fashion industry are in on the joke, is it funny any more? Zoolander 2 answers that with a resounding “Nope.”
WHERE TO INVADE NEXT
The latest documentary from professional rabble-rouser (and I say that with all due affection) Michael Moore (Roger & Me, Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11, Capitalism: A Love Story) is that it comes across as one of his most subtle films—relatively speaking—in terms of the message he’s trying to deliver about the state of our union, especially in the context of the rest of the world. After a silly introductory about the many wars in which America has become embroiled over recent decades, he plots his own invasion of foreign lands with himself as the sole member of the invasion force. To what end? Well that’s where the subtlety comes in. And slowly over the course of the film’s two hours, it’s revealed that Moore is hoping to export American ideas and practices about education, the justice system, workforce practices, sex and equal rights into other nations. Naturally, things don’t go as planned.
I don’t think I’m ruining anything in saying that Moore discovers that all of the core ideals at the heart of the American Dream are not only alive and well in these other nations, but they are also sadly lacking within our borders. Perhaps the most startling section of the film is early on in dealing with schools in France, who serve excellently prepared, healthy lunches; have frank and open discussions on sexual attitudes; and don’t teach to the test. The kids are healthier, rates of STDs are lower, and (as we see in a quick jaunt to Finland) educating the entire person is resulting in much smarter kids.
Moore takes measured looks at factories where workers are actually valued by their employers, prisons where murderers have a fair number of freedoms and are taught to be self-sufficient; national governments where women hold the highest offices; colleges where tuition is free, thus freeing graduating students from decades of debt; and a healthy number of Holocaust memorials throughout Germany, underscoring the need of nations to acknowledge their darkest days. (Moore wonders where the abundance of US memorials to Native Americans and slaves are.)
What sets Where To Invade Next apart from Moore’s other works is that, even as he’s taking the occasional potshot (well deserved in many cases) at American practices, he’s often simply praising the good works of other countries and holding them up as an example to the US and the rest of the world of what we once were capable of and what we might be again. Sure he’s still cracking jokes and creating visual gags, but mostly he’s just gazing in astonishment at how others make sensible policies look easy. The film’s final segment in Iceland, where a great many women are in top positions in government, Moore lets the statistics on corruption (or lack thereof) do the talking for him—although his interviews with many of these leaders are fascinating and quite revealing.
With example after example, Moore isn’t trying to parade a bunch of countries that are better than America. His thesis is that many of these great ideas were at one point in history part of the American ideal and way of life. These were nations that didn’t like the way things were going where they were, and so they changed them, a practice that seems to have been subverted by special interest groups stateside. Using his own slanted, yet effective, brand of storytelling, Moore is pointing us in a direction that he believes will result in a better America. For those who criticized his films in the past for emphasizing problems without suggesting possible solutions, he’s done that in spades here, and it left me not feeling angry but strangely hopeful. In many ways, Where To Invade Next is the Michael Moore movie for people who don’t like Michael Moore movies.
IN THE SHADOW OF WOMEN
There’s something quite wonderfully old-school New Wave-ish about this black-and-white tale of a dysfunctional romance that somehow finds a way to function, from one of the few remaining masters of French cinema Philippe Garrel (Jealousy, A Burning Hot Summer).
In the Shadow of Women centers on the tumultuous relationship between middling documentarian Pierre (Stanislas Merhar), and his editor wife Manon (Clotilde Courau). They’re working together on a film about surviving members of the French Resistance during World War II. They are both clearly unhappy in the marriage, but rather than simply end it, they both discover the fleeting joys of cheating—he with Elisabeth (Lena Paugam), an intern at the film archive where he works; she with a pretty boy that we barely get to know.
As part of the film’s pitch-black humor, we aren’t really meant to like any of these characters, and director Garrel (writing with frequent Luis Bunuel collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière) makes that pretty easy by making his two leads insufferable, whiny hypocrites, who complain when all is well about as passionately as they complain when things are a mess. Still, there are few funnier moments than watching Pierre get more and more jealous of his wife the more he cheats. And when he finally discovers her dalliance, he’s crushed, and we celebrate his pain like it’s a global holiday. Tables are turned and then turned again, and as much as we fully understand that these two maniacs don’t belong together, we still root for them to keep things on track because we wouldn’t wish them on anybody else.
In the Shadow of Women is all about the droll delivery, the callous attitudes, and making certain that almost no one in this story places any real value on emotion. Elisabeth might be the only character we actually sympathize with, but even she knows she’s getting involved with a married man and dives in headfirst. Although most of the characters are fairly appalling, Garrel seems to save a little extra vitriol for the men. There seems to be a foregone conclusion in this movie that men will cheat because they can, whereas women only do so when they’re lonely and need to feel wanted and alive.
Resorting largely to stereotypes about the sexes, but still bringing a little something extra to the mix through clever writing, the film exists largely to make certain that men and women understand that, for the most part, the other sex has your number, and there’s little you can do or say in the realm of cheating that hasn’t been done or said before, with more intelligence, wit, and cunning. The film opens in Chicago today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.