Monday, February 22, 2016
Remember that scene in ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ where Iron Man uses the word “shit” and Captain America admonishes him for his language? Captain America would diarrhoetically obliterate his patriotic wank suit and have to mop up his star-spangled spew based on the opening scene of ‘Deadpool’, never mind the whole 108 profanity laden, PC-felching minutes of it. (And can I just say: thank you, mainstream American studios, for finally making a superhero movie that’s (a) adult-orientated, (b) funny, and (c) less than two and a quarter arse-numbing hours long.)
According to the opening credits, ‘Deadpool’ is a film directed by An Overpaid Tool and starring God’s Perfect Idiot, A Hot Chick, A British Villain, The Comic Relief, A Moody Teen and A CGI Character. Said credits are only a couple steps down from providing a bona fide synopsis. Let’s take care of that business:
Wade Wilson (God’s Perfect Idiot) is an ex-Special Forces nutjob reduced to doing “babysitting jobs”, hobnobbing with favourite barman Weasel (The Comic Relief) and frequenting strip joints. One day he meets the sassy and seductive Vanessa (A Hot Chick) and sparks fly: the banter is badass, the chemistry is chimerical, and the sex is sensational. But as Wilson himself would be the first to admit, pleasant interludes are just that – interludes – and the general shittiness of life is always waiting in the wings. In this case, it’s Wilson’s terminal cancer.
‘Deadpool’ is a film manages to toss off sarcastic one-liners about cancer. ‘Deadpool’ is a film that has no boundaries.
Reluctantly responding to an overture from a secret cabal seeking to configure latent mutants into super-soldiers, Wilson finds himself in the clutches of Ajax (A British Villain) who puts him through hell in order to activate him. It should be noted, at this point, that ‘Deadpool’ exists within the ‘X-Men’ timeline, though Wilson happily breaks the fourth wall to wonder whether Xavier is being played by Patrick Stewart or James McAvoy, admitting that he can’t keep track of the timelines.
Fourth wall. Let’s talk about the fourth wall. The main set-piece in ‘Deadpool’ has Wade, now reconfigured as the eponymous definitely-not-a-superhero, dispatch a fuckton of bad guys on a freeway bridge while two members of the X-Men try to dissuade him from further carnage; the origin story that the movie essentially is plays out as a series of flashbacks. During said flashbacks – hell, during the main action – Deadpool breaks character on numerous occasions and delivers pithy homilies directly to the audience. At one point, he breaks the fourth wall in order to facilitate a flashback, during which he breaks the fourth wall, an act which gives him leave to muse upon how many walls he’s broken – sixteen?
In fact there’s so much fourth wall destruction that Wade might as well be sitting next to you in the cinema providing a running commentary. The self-reflexiveness reaches its zenith in the post-credits sequence where … oh, but why spoil it? Just make sure you stick around for the post-credits sequence.
Sorry: I got distracted. I was talking about the plot. Or the structure. Or wondering how many of the wonderfully sweary examples of the screenwriter’s art I could possibly include in this review in the name of critical analysis. “Cockthistle” is a good one. “About as welcome as a sandpaper dildo” is another. Then there’s Weasel’s avocado speech, which is probably only three months off being quoted as lovingly by cineastes as Joe Pesci’s “you talkin’ to me” monologue from ‘Goodfellas’ or Marlon Brando’s “one way ticket to Palookaville” musings from ‘Scab: The Movie’
Sorry. I got distracted again. But it has to be said: ‘Deadpool’ finds an aesthetic centre to its world-building that all other superhero movies lack. Granted, this predominantly equates to hyper-violence, bad language and nudity. And yet all of these attributes are somehow truer to the essential emotional/intellectual retardation that defines the popularity of comic books than any of Captain America’s square-jawed jingoism or Thor’s mythic nobility. Hell, even the raging uncontrollability of the Hulk is less a realistic depiction of the creature from the id than Deadpool going home after a hard day’s mayhem and blood-letting and slipping on his “masturbating shoes”.
Yeah, you can imagine Tony Stark partying with Victoria’s Secret models or the Black Widow squeezed into skintight leather. And you don’t even have to imagine Mystique naked as long as blue skin isn’t a problem for you. But who else other than Deadpool would even admit to polishing the lighthouse let alone elevate the act to dimestore poetry?
Incidentally, is anybody still reading this review? Because if you are, quit wasting your time and get your arse down to your nearest multiplex. There’s a guy in a red suit with a foul mouth and a taste for strippers, alcohol and cartoon violence who’s just jizzed to make your acquaintance. Tell him Agitation sent you. PS. Look out for the unicorns. I’ll say no more than that.
Sunday, February 14, 2016
Any adaptation of R.L. Stine’s multi-million selling ‘Goosebumps’ series has one question to ask to ask itself from the outset: which story, or conflation of stories, from the 200-odd ‘Goosebumps’ titles the tirelessly prolific author has penned? Darren Lemke’s script, from a story by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, wisely sidesteps the problem of straightforward adaptation and instead crafts the whole movie about Stine himself.
But it wouldn’t be a tale worthy of the franchise’s name if there weren’t a couple of plunky teens on protagonist duties. Step forward plunky team number one, Zach (Dylan Minette), newly moved to the town of Madison, Delaware, where his mother Gale (Amy Ryan) has taken the post of vice principal at the local high school. Not only saddled with this source of social embarrassment, never mind being the new kid in town, Zach also has to contend with the mortifying attentions of both his aunt Lorraine (Jillian Bell) – who is delusionally convinced that she’s down with the kids – and neighbourhood nerd Champ (Ryan Lee), who singles him out as his new (actually only) friend.
Zach’s woes are alleviated when he meets plucky teen number two, Hannah (Odeya Rush), his neighbour’s daughter and something of a social pariah herself thanks to her father’s over-protectiveness. When Zach and Champ intercede in what they think is a domestic disturbance at Hannah’s house, he discovers her reclusive and anti-social father is R.L. Stine (Jack Black). A bookcase full of leather-bound original manuscripts of the ‘Goosebumps’ novels, which Champ remembers from his childhood, catches their attention. What they don’t know is that Stine’s retinue of monsters is real, his writing the only thing that can subdue them, the lock on each manuscript a guarantee that they’ll stay imprisoned within the pages of fiction.
Needless to say, Zach and Champ are the unwitting architects of the release of one of the monsters – an abominable snowman type who, with Hannah’s help, they track down to an ice rink. In the meantime, however, and much to Stine’s chagrin, his lifelong nemesis and alter ego, ventiloquist’s dummy Slappy, wrests free of his particular magnum opus and gleefully sets about freeing all the other monsters.
At which point ‘Goosebumps’ turns into the best movie that Joe Dante never made. It’s very reminiscent of Dante’s own ‘Gremlins’: small town, pint-sized terrors, abject chaos and a cute couple to whom it falls to save the day Did I say pint-sized terrors? Well, some of them are – particularly the gnomes (they’re the single best thing in the film) – but the werewolf and the giant praying mantis present problems on a considerably larger scale. Madison’s police force is swiftly proves useless. The high school is just as quickly besieged. A cemetery provides an apposite backdrop to a spooky revelation about Hannah. An abandoned amusement park now overgrown by woodland is the perfect stage for the big finale. Director Rob Letterman knows his genre and exploits all of this to the full.
Black, his performance thawing from misanthropic to merely prickly during the course of the film, turns in his best work since ‘School of Rock’. Minette, saddled with a bit of a non-character, is likeable enough and it helps that there’s a nice low-key chemistry between him Rush, who turns in a winning performance. Kudos also to Lee who forges a character rather than just playing Champ as the butt of the script’s jokes.
True, there’s nothing going on here that you haven’t seen before, but Letterman is canny enough to wear his influences on his sleeve, dealing out in-jokes and viewer-friendly genre tropes with the panache of a cardsharp. He’s also confident in his special effects department, knowing that the monsters, more so than his headliner or his attractive young cast, are the real stars of the show. Slappy (voiced by Black, just to reinforced the alter ego aspect of the character) is genuinely mocking and malevolent. The abominable snowman and the giant mantis benefit from a real sense of scale and physical destructiveness. The werewolf is a snarling, salivating beast. And, as I may have hinted already, the gnomes are just fucking brilliant. In fact, the gnomes walked away with the Agitation of the Mind “man of the match” award the first scene they were in.
The more I think about it, the more the gnomes emerge as a metaphor for the film itself: they’re a bit creepy, a bit silly, eminently entertaining while you’re watching and if everything’s just a shade forgettable a day or two later, does it really matter if you enjoyed yourself for an hour and three quarters in the cinema?
Monday, February 08, 2016
During the nine years ‘Dad’s Army’ played to hugely appreciative audiences on the BBC, the Nazi threat never got closer to the Home Guard platoon of Walmington-on-Sea than a few cartoon arrows in the opening credit sequence. This was as it should be: the show, at its best, satirises Englishness, cowardice, incompetence and the class system and finds them to be almost incestuously interrelated. The best British sitcoms have always been studies in failure and microcosms of parochialism – ‘Steptoe and Son’, ‘Porridge’, ‘Open All Hours’, ‘Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads’ – and ‘Dad’s Army’ upped the ante with its wartime setting that took a big shiny pin to the translucent balloon of jingoism.
Or, to put it another way, the last thing ‘Dad’s Army’ needed was the Hun. However, 30-minute sitcoms can happily run for season after season and delight their fans simply by having their ensemble casts recreate in comically specific ways to any given situation (that’s why they’re called sitcoms, after all) while a 100-minute film – at least a mainstream one with well known actors in the lead roles and a chunk of studio money behind it – must necessarily have a plot. And thus it is that ‘Dad’s Army’ – the franchise’s first big screen outing since the original cast were assembled for a dreadful mishmash of a motion picture in 1971 – almost inevitably sees them tangle with invading German forces.
The 1971 film, directed by Norman Cohen and mercilessly buggered about by Columbia Studios (who saw fit to junk whole tranches of series creators Jimmy Perry and David Croft’s screenplay), is essentially an origin story – dear God, a ‘Dad’s Army’ origin story! – culminating in the bumbling platoon finally cohering as a unit to rescue hostages taken by the crew of a downed German aircraft. The new film, directed rather more ably by Oliver Parker, has the common decency to raise the stakes and throw in secret codes, D-Day plans and a glamorous double-agent. But does this make it any more successful?
If transferring small-screen situation comedy to a narrative-driven big-screen dynamic isn’t a difficult enough proposition as it is, doing so without the comfort blanket of the original cast presents a whole other problem. ‘Steptoe and Son’ (1972) and ‘Steptoe and Son Ride Again’ (1973) might be woefully inept attempts at film-making, but at least that’s Wilfrid Brambell and Harry H. Corbett up there on screen verbally gouging each other. The biggest pitfall ‘Dad’s Army’ faced from the outset was the potential embarrassment factor of watching a septet of (mostly) A-list movie icons doing impersonations of TV actors.
And, by God, is the cast of ‘Dad’s Army’ its selling point! Here we have Toby Jones as Captain Mainwaring, Bill Nighy as Sergeant Wilson, Tom Courtenay as Lance Corporal Jones. Michael Gambon as Private Godfrey, Blake Harrison as Private Pike, Daniel Mays as Private Walker and Bill Paterson as Private Frazier. By and large, all filter their performances through the audience’s memories of the original actor while bringing enough to the role to reinvigorate it if not (purposefully, one feels) reclaim it. Only Jones seems on a mission to make Mainwaring his own, while Harrison and Mays happily play to the audience’s expectations. Nighy, Paterson, Gambon and – especially – Courtenay fare the best.
It’s the ladies of the cast who really excel, though. Catherine Zeta Jones, as vampish journalist Rose Winter, has more fun than I’ve seen her exhibit in a performance since she cut lose with ‘Hit Me with Your Best Shot’ in ‘Rock of Ages’. Of course, Zeta Jones could play the vamp in her sleep, and the script, by Hamish McColl, doesn’t require her to do much more than smoulder and purr seductive double entendres, but she goes for broke and emerges as one of the film’s greatest assets. Its other assets are: Sarah Lancashire as Mrs Pike, Alison Steadman as Mrs Fox, Annette Crosby and Julia Foster* as Godfrey’s sisters Cissy and Dolly (their double act is priceless), Emily Atack as Walker’s dollybird girlfriend Daphne, Holli Dempsey as Pike’s long-suffering girlfriend Vera and Felicity Montagu as Mrs Mainwaring.
Yes, you read that correctly. Never seen in the show and avoided with almost tactical precision by Arthur Lowe’s Mainwaring, Mrs M not only gets a belated appearance, but leads a corresponding platoon of Walmington’s womenfolk in the climactic action scene. I use the term “action scene” purely as a generic description. It’s actually as geriatric as any of the main cast.
The shoot-out finale is as good an example as anything in the film of how uneven the humour is. There are moments of quiet snobbish one-upmanship, mainly between Mainwaring and Wilson, but also (taking the chain of command up a notch) between actual officer Colonel Theakes (Mark Gatiss) and Mainwaring; the film scores its most effective points during these moments. Slapstick predominates elsewhere, and there’s an extended sequence where various members of the cast dive behind sofas and snag their trousers climbing out of windows, that makes your average Brian Rix farce look like Strindberg. This is offset against the borderline surrealism of inflatable tanks coming loose from their mooring and floating off (one ends up impaled on a church spire, leaking air in a flatulent manner as Mainwaring tries to make a heartfelt speech). There’s also a sequence, early on, where the aforementioned cartoon arrows of the opening credits are recreated as blocks on a map in a German war room; a Nazi officer sniggers that any thoughts of England having the Third Reich on the run are misguided, and asks rhetorically “Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Churchill?” For all I know, it might have been funny as hell on paper; I was a little bit sick in my mouth watching it on screen.
For all its problems, though, I’ll admit to enjoying ‘Dad’s Army’ a lot more than I had any right to. Maybe the tradition of British sitcoms utterly failing as feature-length expositions – the first ‘Dad’s Army’ film, both ‘Steptoe’ attempts, ‘Porridge’, ‘The Likely Lads’ – justifies a certain creative accountancy as regards my usual critical standards. Maybe it’s because it was a cold, wet and miserable evening and a few good belly laughs in a warm cinema auditorium were worth an hour and three quarters of my time. Maybe it’s because Catherine Zeta Jones looks good in a burgundy two-piece and a pillbox hat. Or maybe it’s the unalloyed delight I took in the cameo by Ian Lavender (Private Pike in the original), a piece of reverse-casting that works a treat.
*Meta moment: Julia Foster starred alongside Tom Courtenay 54 years ago in ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’; there’s a lost episode of ‘Dad’s Army’ called ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Walker’.