Ryan Reynolds has a wonderful time as “Deadpool”—a foul-mouthed superhero in red spandex who can resist breaking character to and make us laugh with his running commentary. “Deadpool” is as much atmosphere as it is story. Oh there’s a story all right. Ryan Reynolds finds the girl of his dreams Gina Carano — the two showcase their love-making variety in a hilarious montage. Wouldn’t you know it, tragedy intervenes. Reynolds comes down with Cancer. Bad guy Ed Skrein lures our hero to his laboratory with the promise of a cure. This being an origin story, Skrein turns Reynolds into a monster so hideous he must cover his face in spandex. The rest of the story has Reynolds looking to find the guy whose messed him up so he can get his face back and return to the woman he loves. “Deadpool” may shock those who expect superheros to operate in PG rated stories. This one for the for “R” and hits the bullseye. Don’t expect another “Ironman” but do expect a lot of guilty pleasure fun. Does it deliver what it promises? R rated superhero comedy. Is it entertaining? Even the credits are funny. Is it worth the price of admission? For fans.
Brilliant filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen pay tribute to the golden age of cinema while mercilessly lampooning the classics in “Hail, Caesar!” Movie lovers can check off the “quotes” which parade through at a clip. The story takes place on the studio lot run for the New York boys by Josh Brolin. We watch the action as Brolin oversees this entertainment circus. His duties including saving a starlet from scandal, fixing a pregnant superstar’s image, and rescuing kidnapped superstar George Clooney in time for the star to finish the studio’s high prestige picture of the year, a Roman drama somewhere between “Spartacus” and “Ben Hur.” The great sport George Clooney plays the kidnapped superstar, hijacked by a group of Communists who funnel the ransom money to an unlikely source. Maybe because I’ve been around a while I get most of the references, including Tilda Swinson as a Hedda Hopper-esque gossip columnist, Scarlett Johansson as an Esther Williams-style swimming star, Channing Tatum as a Gene Kelly-ish hoofer, and up and comer Alden Ehrenreich as a singing cowboy. Ehrenreich steals the picture with a series of rope tricks that give new meaning to the word “delightful.” “Hail, Caesar!” full of delight. Does it deliver what it promises? A movie lovers movie. Is it entertaining? Delightful. Is it worth the price of admission? Absolutely.
Nicholas Sparks has a winning formula for his books and films. “The Notebook” remains the high point so far. The stories take place in either North or South Carolina and revolve around feisty Southerners meeting cute, playing in the ocean, falling in love, and surviving or being transformed by tragedy. Characters in a Nicholas Sparks story often spend a lot of screen time in a coma. “The Choice” follows Sparks’ successful formula. Benjamin Walker plays the feisty Southerner. Teresa Palmer is the appropriate blue-eyed blond. She lives next door in a Martha Stewart approved cottage by the sea. They meet cute, don’t like each other, overcome other boy and girlfriends, and marry. The proposal scene between these two brims with so much emotion it’s impossible to resist. Cynics will snicker at the usual formula, but fans won’t care. I would love to see a Nicholas Spark movie approach the brilliance of “The Notebook” which combined generations as an elderly man tells his memory challenged wife the story of their romance. “The Notebook” identified Rachael McAdams and Channing Tatum as actors on the rise and gave James Garner and Gena Rowlands a late career plum. “The Choice” merely claims Nickolas Spark’s position as a moneymaking movie to release close to Valentine’s Day. Does it deliver what it promises? A Nicholas Sparks movie. Is it entertaining? Aimed squarely at romantics. Is it worth the price of admission? Not really a must see but more of a if you must.
As “45 Years” begins, Charlotte Rampling plans for a 45th anniversary dinner dance to celebrate her long satisfying marriage to husband Tom Courtenay. The couple’s comfort gets a jolt from unsettling news. Authorities have found the body of husband Courtenay’s former girlfriend, lost fifty years earlier in a hiking accident. The news awakens his feelings for this other woman. His response in turn unsettles what had looked like a happy partnership. “45 Years” drama unfolds quietly under the surface. Charlotte Rampling has received award attention including an Oscar nomination as Best Actress. She gives a slow subtle performance which ends with a chill. This is powerful stuff. Does it deliver what it promises? Longtime relationship unravels. Is it entertaining? A performance to admire. Is it worth the price of admission? Award worthy acting.
Maggie Smith delivers yet another winning portrait of a crusty old lady as “The Lady in the Van.” That alone is enough reason to enjoy this story. I’m glad to report Maggie’s grand presence combines with several other winning elements to make a delightful experience. Writer Alan Bennett first produced “The Lady in the Van” as a play, based on a real character in his neighborhood, a mysterious old lady who insisted on living in a van. In real life, she parked her van in Bennett’s driveway and stayed fifteen years. Smith puts her winning stamp on Mary Shepherd, the real character who lived in Bennett’s driveway. The story develops into a English twist on “The Odd Couple.” We get a glimpse of Bennett’s world as a writer, and we gradually learn odd and mysterious facts about Shepherd as played by Maggie Smith. I especially like a couple of moments toward the end when the real Bennett appears and life and art seem to merge. Does it deliver what it promises? Dry British wit. Is it entertaining? Funny and charming. Is it worth the price of admission? As a “Downton Abby” fan all I can say is one can never have too much of Maggie Smith.
“Son of Saul” makes a unique contribution to the list of films about the holocaust. Made in Hungary by director Laszlo Melis, the story unfolds almost in silence with a minimum of subtitles. It starts out of focus. After enough time to make us uncomfortable, Geza Rohrig as Saul comes into frame and soon we discover he is one of the prisoners forced to help the Nazi’s exterminate the trainloads of Jews arriving by the hour. Saul herds passengers into the showers where they hear promises of hot soup and coffee and jobs on the other side. The camera stays on Saul as we hear their screams off screen. As the story begins, a young boy survives the gas. Nazi doctors surround the boy and suffocate him, saving the body for autopsy. Something makes Saul believe this young man is his son, we’re never sure if that’s true. While his fellow workers plot an uprising, Saul plots for a proper funeral and burial for this boy. “Son of Saul” shows us the holocaust through Saul’s eyes, with few if any wide views. It has urgency, intensity and great power, and leads to a conclusion that will stay with you for days. I this is the best foreign film of the year and I believe the Oscars will agree. Does it deliver what it promises? Powerful holocaust story with a unique perspective. Is it entertaining? Not fun to watch but very powerful. Is it worth the price of admission? A deserving award contender.
“13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” focuses on the experience of five of the survivors of the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate and a nearby CIA station in Benghazi, Libya. U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others died during the ordeal. Politicians have turned the event into campaign rhetoric. “13 Hours” avoids the rhetoric, sticking to the story of the men whose actions saved dozens of American lives. Director Michael Bey stays with this good guys versus bad guys theme. The bad guys include rebel attackers as well as a CIA bureaucrat who delays the contract soldiers permission to do their job. The action comes with a sense of dread since we know the outcome and we know those in danger were left hanging by a weak U.S. response. What “13 Hours” lacks is much in the way of why this happened. The film hints that the attacks were planned days in advance. The result is a gripping fact based video game. John Krasinski makes a nice contribution as one of the soldiers for hire. Does it deliver what it promises? Recreation of the terror of Benghazi. Is it entertaining? Tense. Is it worth the price of admission? For action fans.
Leonardo DiCaprio makes another bid for an Oscar in “The Revenant.” As the film opens he leads a group of trappers on a hunting expedition somewhere in the mountains. Suddenly hostile Indians strike and the screen turns bloody. DiCaprio must lead the survivors back to an Army fort and safety. Then, in a scene that sets the bar for state of the art terror, a mama bear attacks DiCaprio and comes close to eating him alive. Tom Hardy continues his string of amazing characters. His character’s in this expedition for the money. As winter sets in, the survivors must move out promising a reward to Hardy and Will Poulter if they can bring DiCaprio back to safety and treatment. Future expeditions need DiCaprio due to his tracking knowledge. Hardy waits for the group to move out and then buries DiCaprio alive. DiCaprio rises from his grave now tracking Hardy for revenge. “The Revenant” communicates the harshness of nature and of winter and the dark side of man’s nature. But, frankly it’s a slog. DiCaprio may win the Oscar. I get it. “The Revenant” was a difficult project. But that doesn’t mean I have to watch or enjoy it. Oh by the way, this takes two and a half hours. Does it deliver what it promises? Old school revenge drama. Is it entertaining? A slog. Is it worth the price of admission? I pass.
Writer/director Charlie Kaufman has created some of the most delightful mind bending movies of the last couple of decades including “Being John Malkovich” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Adaptation.” Watch these if you missed them or want a reminder of Kaurman’s talent. “Anomalisa”—an anagram of “Anonamie” and “Lisa” begins as a semi famous business author lands in Cincinnati to make a speech and sell a few books. Bored, he calls up an old flame and it ends badly. Roaming around the hotel he meets Jennifer Jason Leigh. She connects with him in a way no one else does. By the way, have a told you this story’s played with fuzzy looking puppets stop action style? Weird, right? Everyone’s voice is the same except for the lead — voiced by and modeled on actor David Thewlis — and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Thus their connection. The pair have a one night stand graphically portrayed by puppets. Can this get any weirder? Yes. A nighttime dream sequence throws Thewlis into a Kafka nightmare. I now will quote the reaction of my friend Travis Hopson who left the preview and pronounced “That’s some weird s**t.” Yeah, too weird for me. Does it deliver what it promises? Puppet show. Is it entertaining? Off putting. Is it worth the price of admission? Kaufman’s fans will want to see but the rest of us can take a pass.
The American Film Institute is one of a handful of theaters showing the 70 mm road show production of Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight.” The $20 presentation takes more than three hours, so long they break halfway through for an intermission. The experience, which includes a full scale overture, is old school in the best sense of the world. The story is Tarantino in the best and worst sense. Broken into chapters it begins in a stagecoach trying to outrun a blizzard. Kurt Russell is in the process of transporting Jennifer Jason Leigh to Red Rock Wyoming for justice and a $10,000 bounty. Samuel L. Jackson talks his way onto the stage, when his horse collapses under the weight of the dead criminals he’s transporting. “The Hateful Eight” cements Jackson’s place as the most outrageous actor of our time. A fellow bounty hunter, he smells a rat when the stage stops at a roadhouse full of travelers stuck in a driving blizzard. The eight staying inside include Bruce Dern as a racist former Confederate General, and Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Walton Goggins and Demian Bichir as characters who turn into more than meet the eye. Channing Tatum also makes an appearance, but the movie belongs to Jackson, Russell, and Jennifer Jason Leigh. She turns this old west tale into something just this side of a horror movie. I hate to think of some poor soul stumbling into this with no idea of what he or she is in for. I’ll just say the language fails the “politically correct” test and the violence gives new meaning to “over the top.” “The Hateful Eight” certainly qualifies as a guilty pleasure, even though it takes too long. Does it deliver what it promises? Violent, crude western horror Tarantino delight Is it entertaining? Long but outrageous fun. Is it worth the price of admission? Some of you will love this and you know who you are.