Sunday, November 20, 2016

Captain America: Civil War ***1/2

“Civil War” presents the premise that as superheroes have risen to protect the world, ever-more-super villains have risen to challenge them. The very existence of enhanced individuals seems to be putting humanity in constant jeopardy. The superheroes have to rise to each challenge, and the ensuing battles always seem to create a lot of collateral casualties. The world is tired of it, and the U.N. demands that the Avengers submit to a multi-government oversight system. The Avengers would no longer be answerable only to themselves. They would become U.N. Soldiers following orders.

Ironman Tony Stark, feeling guilty about the people killed in his past battles, buys into the plan. Captain America, also known as Steve Rogers, doesn't. This is Cap's movie, so of course we side with him, but the film does a reasonable job of presenting both sides of the argument. The autocratic model under which these heroes have been operating does seem a bit presumptuous. They jet around the world, unleashing tremendous powers in various countries, without the consent of the people they are “protecting.” The U.N.'s proposal would place that power under the control of the world's citizens, at least to the extent that the U.N. and the governments controlling it represent those people. There's the rub, and the reason that Rogers won't sign on to the plan. The Avengers are imperfect, but they at least know each other and each others' motives, which are generally good. Rogers isn't willing to surrender his team's individual consciences to the control of a faceless, conscience-less entity like the U.N.

In a sense, this is where the Captain America story on film has been headed all along. The Avengers have squabbled amongst themselves from the beginning, and in this film all of that discord finally breaks out into a full-scale war, where everyone has to choose sides. Of course, this sets up the perfect fantasy scenario. Every comic fan has had the “Who would win in a fight?” conversation, and “Civil War” delivers that fight, allowing us to see the heroes pit their powers against each other. It's the perfect movie for a teenage boy, which of course is who these movies are largely designed for. There's a bit more meat in this film than most,though. This authority-versus-individual argument is a complicated one, and “Civil War” manages to convey some of that complexity without pretending to deliver any final answers. Not bad for a comic-book movie.

3.5 stars out of 5   

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Deadpool (2016) ***

It's amazing how much fun you can have with the superhero genre when you aren't constrained by a PG-13 rating. That rating, which is critical to getting large numbers of teens into the theater, means you can show a little skin, but not too much; a little cursing, but nothing too foul. Of course, there can be lots and lots of violence, but preferably the kind without consequences. We don't want those 14-year-olds to think that people die horribly when you shoot them. When a filmmaker resigns himself to an R rating, it opens up more than just the level of gore and tits that can be shown. It means the film will be marketed to an older audience, so the themes and dialogue and such may be, just maybe, a bit more intelligent.

“Deadpool” isn't exactly more intelligent than the X-men movies with which it shares a comic-book universe, it's just a lot funnier. Ryan Reynolds plays Wade, a former Special Forces soldier who now ekes out a living as a thug-for-hire and smart-aleck. He hooks up with a tough-as-nails street girl named Vanessa (Morena Baccarin, who played the companion on Firefly), and the montage of their sexual exploits through the year, accompanied by the song “Calendar Girl”, is comedy gold.

Then Wade gets terminal cancer, and in his desperation for a cure he signs up for a shady,experimental program that promises to cure him and give him superpowers. The program turns out to be run by a sadist named Francis (Ed Skrein), himself a product of the program. The experiments do cure Wade, but they horribly scar his skin, leaving him as a super-strong, indestructible burn victim. Haunted by the horrified stares of strangers who see his face, Wade adopts a mask and the Deadpool moniker, and goes hunting for Francis, seeking revenge and a cure for his mutilation.

Even as “Deadpool” gleefully pokes fun at the superhero movie genre, it is, itself, trying to establish yet another superhero franchise, and the movie even pokes fun at itself for that. For all the parody, “Deadpool” still has all the elements of the genre: the origin story, the fast-paced frenetic action, the endless martial-arts fighting, the violence that only has consequences when the plot demands them. What “Deadpool” lacks is any sort of greater theme. The movie is fun and funny, but it isn't really about anything. I really wanted to absolutely love it, but I found myself forgetting it almost as fast as I watched it. Wade rejects the usual conventions of society, as well as the superhero code that the X-men try to impose on him. He basically rejects everything except his girl. Maybe in future “Deadpool”movies we will find out what he accepts.

3 stars out of 5  

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Only Yesterday (1991, 2016) ***

“The past isn't dead. It isn't even past.” W. Faulkner

“Only Yesterday” is an animated Japanese movie from Isao Takahata that explores the ways in which a young woman's past sometimes seems more present than her present. The film is from 1991, but it was only recently dubbed into English and released here.

27-year-old Taeko (voiced by Daisy Ridley) is a single gal living and working in Tokyo. Her real passion, though, is going out to the country to work on a farm. The film picks up with her preparing for her second “vacation” at the farm. Meanwhile, she has frequent flashbacks to her experiences of 5th grade. (It takes a little bit to realize that we are jumping between 2 time periods.)

You would assume that something dramatic happened during Taeko's 5th grade year for her to be sharing all these flashbacks with us, but, in fact, it's just the usual 5th grade stuff. She has her first, awkward crush. The girls learn about menstruation, and the boys tease them about it. At home there is sibling rivalry, and Taeko's father is emotionally distant. These seemingly quotidian events were apparently a highly formative period in Taeko's life, and at the age of 27, she continues to replay these memories.

In the present, Taeko arrives at the farm, where she meets an intense, young farmer named Toshio (Dev Patel). The two fall in love, but it is difficult for Taeko to process the feeling without first working through some of these 5th grade memories and sharing them with Toshio.

Does it get tiresome for Toshio, listening to this girl prattle on about 5th grade? If so, he doesn't show it. I, on the other hand, got a bit restless during this 2-hour, action-free movie. Nonetheless, I can see the value of this quiet exploration of the persistence of memory and how small things make us who we are. Parts of the film are quite funny, especially the bit about menstruation, which may be the best handling of the subject since Judy Blume. All of Toshio's talk about organic farming goes on a bit long, but there's a fascinating bit about how safflower is used to make red cosmetics. The animated countryside is stunning, and Daisy Ridley's voice acting is quite good.

“Only Yesterday” is as talky as they get. It tried even the patience of a Whit Stillman fan like myself. It's worth checking out, though, if you are into introspection in a big way.

3 stars out of 5   

Monday, November 07, 2016

The American Astronaut (2001) *****

First of all, “The American Astronaut” is not science-fiction, even though it involves flying around the solar system. What it is is a bizarre, comedic musical, and one of the most fun movies I've ever seen. A guy named Corey McAbee wrote, directed, and starred in this gonzo, fever dream of a movie back in 2001.

McAbee plays Sam Curtis, a space cowboy roaming the solar system in a space ship that looks like a model train engine. In a bar on the asteroid Ceres, he trades a cat for a suitcase that supposedly contains “a real, live girl.” His plan is to take the girl to the all-male, mining planet of Jupiter, where he will trade her for a teenage boy. He will then take the boy to Venus as a lucky gift to the women who inhabit that planet, women who can reproduce without a man, but still need an infusion of male genes once in a while, lest they become “too high-bred and snippy for even themselves to stand.”

It's a good plan, but in wanders a complication in the form of Professor Hess, a psychopath with a powerful gun and a grudge against Sam. When Hess isn't blasting everyone Sam comes in contact with into a gray powder, he is announcing that it's his birthday. Or doing a song-and-dance. Did I mention the singing and dancing? The movie is full of funny, crazy songs written and performed by McAbee and his friends.

I could write a thousand more words, and you still wouldn't really have an idea what “The American Astronaut” is like. There just isn't anything to compare it to. (Perhaps the closest comparison would be "The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension".) The movie is filmed in a stark, black-and-white that makes everything look sort of grimy, but makes grimy, weathered faces look beautiful. The songs are funny, and they stick with you. All laws of physics and reason are tossed out the window, and you are invited to completely sever your attachment to regular, literal storytelling, and just enjoy the ride. I first saw this at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival,where it earned a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize. I've watched it a few times since, and it is always hilarious. You can find it on DVD, and I highly suggest you do.

5 stars out of 5