Monthly Archives: February 2016

Super Raunchy

Marvel’s new superhero is fast, funny—and definitely not for kids

DEADPOOL

Deadpool

Starring Ryan Reynolds and Morena Baccarin

Directed by Tim Miller

R

For the past few years, there’s been some major comic-book movie buzz about one of the minor characters on the superhero-spandex spectrum.

Deadpool, a latecomer Marvel Comics anti-hero introduced onscreen in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), had actually been making appearances in comic books since the early 1990s, later appearing in videogames, TV cartoons and in a line of promotional toy figures.

Originally a mentally unstable, mutated villain, he reforms a bit, morphing into more of a motor-mouthed, smack-talking, skull-cracking vigilante, for his first feature film.

Returning to the role after the X-men flick, Ryan Reynolds rips into the part with something-to-prove gusto—namely, that he can, indeed, headline a comic-book movie that doesn’t stink. The funky jade juju of The Green Lantern had been following him around since 2011, and he addresses it head-on—and crushes it—in the hilarious, snarky opening credits…and a couple of times later, too, just for good measure. The smart, razor-sharp script, from Zombieland scribes Rhett Reese and Paul Warnick, is a nonstop comic spray of R-rated barbs, f-bomb zingers, sarcastic spatter and wide-ranging pop-cultural riff-ery that often lampoons even itself.

This is clearly not your comic-book movie of yesteryear, or even yesterday, and Deadpool is no clean-cut Captain America. “I may be super, but I’m no hero,” he tells us in an opening scene, an extended, operatic clash in which he lays into an armada of bad guys like a psychopathic Spider-Man on speed, quipping nonstop as decapitated heads fly, brains splatter, bones snap and bodies are sliced, diced and impaled on his twin samurai swords like pieces of juicy kabob meat.

Deadpool (his name comes from a wager about who’d be the first to die) isn’t afraid of getting injured. Torturous laboratory experiments that left Wade Wilson, his real-life alter ego, hideously scarred and disfigured also gave him the “superpower” of cellular regeneration. That means when a body part gets shot through, smashed, hacked off, stabbed, incinerated or blown to bits, he just has to give it a little time—it’ll grow back.

Ryan Reyonlds and Morena Baccarin

Ryan Reynolds and Morena Baccarin

Of course, the movie has an obligatory cameo by Marvel’s founder, Stan Lee. Groundbreaking 1960s-‘70s singer-actress Leslie Uggams appears as Blind Al, Deadpool’s sightless roommate. Fanboys will be delighted to see lovely Morena Baccarin, from TV’s Gotham, The Flash and Homeland as Wade’s beautiful girlfriend Vanessa, who helps give the story a thumping romantic heart. And stay until the credits are over for one parting bon mot, a movie postscript that—unlike other Marvel outings—looks not to the future but instead to the past, to another memorable movie afterword.

Randy, raw and gleefully gritty, nastier, bloodier, more violent and riotously raunchier than any Marvel movie ever, Deadpool is just what a lot of fans have been waiting for—especially if they’ve been waiting for a “superhero” who swears, farts, babbles, jokes, listens to Wham!, loves unicorns, enjoys rough sex…and sure seems to get into his job a lot more than Thor, Batman or Superman ever did.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Ham, Corn or Cheese

‘The Choice’ is a sappy Southern buffet for the Nicholas Sparks faithful

The Choice

Starring Benjamin Walker & Teresa Palmer

Directed by Ross Katz

PG-13

Hokey, sappy and awash with clichés, The Choice nonetheless serves up exactly what audiences want when they strap on a Nicholas Sparks feedbag.

Movies from Sparks’ books (Message in a Bottle, Safe Haven, The Notebook, The Lucky One, Dear John) have featured big stars (Ryan Gosling, Richard Gere, Kevin Costner, Channing Tatum, Julianne Hough, Rachel McAdams) and grossed close to $900 million. Clearly, they’ve found their niche and their audience.

The 12th movie based on a novel by the prolific author, The Choice stars Benjamin Walker from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter as Travis, a drawly, smooth-talking, Southern-gent ladies’ man. Travis can charm just about any female—except his spunky new next-door neighbor, Gabby (Teresa Palmer, star of Warm Bodies, I Am Number Four and Point Break).

Travis and his dad (British actor Tom Wilkinson) are the local veterinarians, and Gabby is a nurse at the hospital, where she’s dating a hunky physician (Tom Welling, Superman in TV’s Smallville). Everyone in The Choice is white-collar and gainfully employed, and neither people nor pets seem to worry about health care in its quaint, peaceful, picture-perfect coastal North Carolina town (a favorite Sparks setting).

Everyone thinks Travis and Gabby should be a couple, especially Travis’ sister (Maggie Grace). This line of thought gains considerable traction when Gabby’s boyfriend packs up his stethoscope and goes out of town on a business trip—how convenient! Travis takes Gabby out on his boat and takes off his shirt, and Gabby shows off her rockin’ bikini bod. They splash and flirt. Gabby invites Travis over for dinner, they talk about the moon and the stars and God, and before you can say, “Hold on to your croutons,” there’s salad on the floor and bump and grinding on top of the kitchen table.

Director Ross Katz, making his mainstream feature debut after working his way up the filmmaking ladder, certainly tries to make the most of everything he’s got. He gives his two leads, Walker and Palmer, plenty of gorgeous, golden-glow close-ups. He reminds us that that time is precious and fleeting by showing us—repeatedly—shots of the tide. There’s old-time religion, new-age mysticism, a box full of puppies, a hurricane, a beach party, a festive birthday celebration, a wrenching hospital vigil, an emotional cemetery visit and a soliloquy on the significance of a chair.

When Gabby and Travis first meet, his backyard cookout has disturbed her studying for nursing exams. So it begins and so it goes: He “bothers” her, she “bothers” him, they draw closer and closer, and eventually “bother” becomes an all-purpose romantic shorthand. “Baby, bother me!” Travis breathlessly implores as he cradles Gabby later in the movie.

It’s mushy and gushy and gooey, but hey, that’s Nicholas Sparks. And if you’ve seen the trailer for The Choice, you know “the choice” refers to something that comes to involve a major, do-or-die decision.

“The secret to life is all about decisions,” says Travis. “Every path you take leads to another choice.”

The Choice offers a choice, all right—do you prefer your Southern-style canned corn with extra ham, double cheese or a heaping helping of buttered schmaltz?

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Hooray for Hollywood

Coen Brothers deliver a splendid spoof of movies’ golden era

Hail, Caesar!

Starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson & Alden Ehrenreich

Directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen

PG-13

“People don’t want facts—they want to believe!” says Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a 1950s Hollywood studio “fixer” in the new Coen Brothers comedy Hail Caesar!, a sprawling, star-studded spoof of the golden age of moviemaking.

Josh Brolin

Josh Brolin

What people believe, and what they make-believe, are the building blocks of Hollywood itself. And they’re certainly the cornerstones of the Coens’ lavish, multi-tiered parody that takes satirical shape around the production of a fictional studio’s major new movie, Hail, Caesar!, A Tale of the Christ, a Bible-based saga a la Ben-Hur, Spartacus and The Robe.

When the film’s lunkheaded leading man, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), is kidnapped, Mannix has to find him and get the money-train movie back on track.

But in the meantime, he’s also got his hands full with other problems, and other films. His job is keeping the machinery of Capitol Pictures Studios whirling, keeping its numerous stars in line and out of trouble, and keeping the whiff of scandal away from prying gossip columnists, particularly twin sisters Thora and Thessily Thacker (Tilda Swinton).

Scarlett Johansson

The studio’s twice-divorced “innocent” aqua-starlet (Scarlett Johansson) is pregnant with an out-of-wedlock child. Capitol’s prissy British prestige-picture director (Ralph Fiennes) is at wit’s end trying to wrangle the company’s riding, roping singing cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich) into more refined roles. And a tap-dancing song-and-dance hotshot (Channing Tatum) glides across the set of a new musical, but his light-on-his-feet moves may be hiding heavier secrets.

Look: There’s Jonah Hill, Frances McDormand and the guy (Wayne Knight) who played Newman in Seinfeld! Even if you don’t know anything about Hollywood’s “Red Scare,” you’ll still get a chuckle out of a boatload of Commies bobbing off the California coastline. And Alden Ehrenreich’s young sodbuster charming his studio-arranged dinner date (Veronica Osorio) by twirling a strand of spaghetti like a lariat will rope your heart, too.

Channing Tatum

Channing Tatum

For many viewers, the quirky movies of writer-director Joel and Ethan Coen have always been a bit of an acquired taste. Sure, most everybody now falls in line to applaud the genius of Fargo, No Country For Old Men, True Grit, The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou. But where was the box-office love for The Hudsucker Proxy, Barton Fink, The Man Who Wasn’t There and Inside Llewyn Davis?

There may be more commercially successful filmmakers, more mainstream filmmakers or filmmakers who win more awards. But you’d be hard-pressed to find many filmmakers who love movies, and making movies, more than the Coens. And that love is evident in every carefully crafted frame of this gloriously goofy homage to the glory days of big studios, big stars and the big wheels that churned out the spectacles of Hollywood’s dream factory from a bygone era.

While Hail, Caesar! is looking backward with such comedic affection, however, it’s also making a sly, playfully subversive statement about our “need” for entertainment, the importance of escapism and how movies have always been—and hopefully will always be—a “potion of balm for the ache of all mankind.”

“What a waste of talent,” a woman behind me groused as the credits rolled, somehow disappointed. Not me, and not a chance. Strike up another win for the Coens, I say. I’m a believer. Hooray for Hollywood, and “Hail, Caesar!”

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Water Water Everywhere

Chris Pine pilots true tale of Coast Guard heroics

The Finest Hours

Starring Chris Pine, Casey Affleck & Holliday Grainger

Directed by Craig Gillespie

PG-13

In an early scene of The Finest Hours, shy Cape Cod Coast Guardsman Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) gently tries to coax his new girlfriend, Miriam (Holliday Grainger), into a nighttime boat ride. But she’s afraid of the water after dark. “You can’t see what’s underneath,” she says.

“Just more watah,” Bernie reassures her.

Just more watah, indeed, in this splashy true tale of against-all-odds nautical heroics almost 65 years ago, by four Coast Guardsmen who responded to the distress signal from an oil tanker that had been split asunder by a treacherous nor’easter, one of the worst winter storms ever in Massachusetts. What happened on that snow-piled, water-water-everywhere February evening is still considered “the most daring rescue in Coast Guard history.”

The Finest Hours

Chris Pine & Holliday Grainger

After we meet Bernie and Miriam, and watch their romance sweetly blossom into marriage plans, we’re introduced to the men onboard the soon-to-be-doomed vessel. There the chief engineer (Casey Affleck) quickly becomes the de factor leader after the captain goes down with the front half of their ship.

By the time news of the greatly distressed, disabled tanker reaches the Cape Cod Coast Guard station, Bernie hardly seems like the man for a daring rescue. Some of the locals won’t let the soft-spoken coxswain forget a previous mission in which a life was lost, and Bernie is also teased by some of his fellow, more seasoned Coast Guardsmen when they find out that the “take-charge” gal he’s planning on marrying proposed to him, not the other way around.

“You sure you got your pants on, Webber?” one of them asks him.

All of this is to set up the “perfect storm” of circumstances for Bernie to prove himself a man, and a hero, when he’s asked to round up a crew and head into the maw of the storm, find the troubled tanker shell and attempt a rescue.

Others in the Coast Guard station consider it “a suicide mission.”

After seeing Chris Pine command the starship USS Enterprise across the universe in two Star Trek movies (with a third, Star Trek Beyond, coming in July), he looks a bit odd, teeny and constrained behind the wheel of a small boat, even one battling monstrous, mountainous CGI waves. And even if he’s playing his character true to what the actual Webber did, for the star and hero of the story, he doesn’t get a lot to do—it’s not terribly exciting to watch a “good guy” stand up and steer a wooden lifeboat, squint and shout into the darkness and get splashed with water for most of half an hour.

Casey Affleck

Casey Affleck

Onboard the floundering back half of the tanker, Casey Affleck fares a bit better, bringing some gung-ho realism and a sense of cool-headed determination to his role as he figures out a way to build a massive makeshift rudder and steer the broken hull of the ship.

And with a passionate, firecracker temperament to match her red hair, British actress Holliday Grainger provides a feisty onshore grounding for the salty seafaring action.

This clam-chowder winter drama won’t win any awards, but it does stand as a rousing Hollywood salute to a little-known incident in nautical history and a stirring tale of Greatest Generation heroism “rescued” from obscurity by the big screen.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Butting Heads

Will Smith tackles the NFL 

1286100 - Concussion

Concussion

Starring Will Smith, Alec Baldwin & Albert Brooks

Directed by Peter Landesman

PG-13

Will Smith has fought zombies, space aliens and killer robots. Now he’s squaring off against an even bigger, completely human foe—and certainly a much more popular one.

In Concussion, he plays Dr. Bennett Omalu, who discovers the link between football and CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy—potentially fatal brain damage from repeated concussions.

The true story (originally told in a 2009 article in GQ magazine) begins as we meet Nigerian-born Omalu in 2002, while he’s working in Pittsburgh as the county coroner’s forensic pathologist. The untimely death, and bizarre final days, of a former Pittsburgh Steeler football Hall of Famer, Mike Webster (David Morse), troubles him: Webster’s autopsy reveals severe brain trauma that caused him to go crazy, freak out and eventually expire of a heart attack. When Omalu learns of other NFL players dying in similar fashion, he investigates further and comes to a conclusion that almost no one wants to hear—especially not the National Football League.

Playing football can kill you.

Unlike some other creatures, such as the woodpecker or the bighorn sheep, Omalu points out, humans have no natural shock absorber in our skulls to cushion the blow when one of our noggins impact with something hard—like another noggin. Nature, or providence, simply did not equip us that way. Therefore, Omalu reasons, “God did not intend for us to play football.”

Smith, a bona fide movie star, is outstanding in a non-flashy role that doesn’t involve car chases, spaceships, shootouts or CGI special effects—just straight-up, strong, dig-in acting and a very plausible, start-to-finish nail-down of Dr. O’s West African accent and mannerisms. He makes you feel Omalu’s passionate sense of commitment—and his dream to be accepted as “American”—as the NFL tries to quash his research and discredit him.

Albert Brooks is Cyril Wecht, the county coroner who helps Omalu while warning him of squaring off against with the NFL. “You’re going to war with a corporation that owns a day of the week,” he tells him. Alec Baldwin plays Dr. Julian Bailes, the former Steelers team doctor who assists Omalu in getting his message to football players, managers, agents and the commissioner. “You’ve turned on the lights and given their biggest boogeyman a name,” Bailes says.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Will Smith star in Columbia Pictures' "Concussion."

Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Will Smith

British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Prema, the Nigerian student who becomes Omalu’s wife, reminding him that his family name means “He who knows, speaks.”

But the movie belongs to Smith, who tackles what might be his one of his trickiest, juiciest roles—a crusading underdog with a potentially life-saving message that falls on mostly deaf ears. “Tell the truth—tell the truth!” a frustrated Omalu jabs at a NFL team neurosurgeon who refuses to admit there’s any connection between football and brain injury.

As millions of football fans tune into the big game this weekend, it’s a truth that will likely be drowned out by the symphony of cheers all across America.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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