The Movie Scab: Deadpool, Risen & The Witch.
"The scab you're picking at is called execution."
--American film producer Scott Rudin.
Traditionally, January and February are the months when Hollywood craps out its worst movies, or movies it didn’t know how to market or wanted to destroy, and leaves them there to die—there’s a reason why they call them the Dump Months. January and February are Hollywood's version of the Island of Misfit Toys. But instead of abandoned toys, this island is littered with steaming piles of crappy movies that just want to be loved or not forgotten or, in the very least, washed into the Magic Christian's feces filled swimming pool of compromise and mediocrity—better to land in Sir Guy Grand’s Vat of Crap than the Island of Misbegotten Movies. For the unlucky movies released in January and February that deserve celebration and love, well, most of the time all is lost and there is no hope. As a casting director once said to an unlucky actor who missed a big break, "Tough luck, pal, that's show business."
But last year, Kingsman: the Secret Service was released in February, with Chappie following close behind in early March. Chappie didn't fare so well, but Kingsman pulled in a hearty $128 million domestic haul, as well as garnered positive reviews. As it turned out, they were two of the best movies of 2015.
In 2016, Deadpool, Risen and The Witch were released in the Dump Months and, similar to Kingsman and Chappie, they're movies that rise above the big budgeted piles of crap coming our way in March and summer.
So what is up with that? Well, maybe the weather is changing. Maybe January and February are warming up. Leonardo DiCaprio seems to think so, God bless the well-intentioned I Am Not A Green Expert But I Know Man Made Climate Change Is Our Greatest Challenge and, woosh, off he goes in his private jet. If it’s true, maybe the Island of Misbegotten Movies will have to find a new location. (Let me suggest a date: summertime, when the movie business is hot, hot, hot.)
Deadpool, Risen and The Witch are original, entertaining, politically incorrect and well crafted enough to garner three Acks! and an A...! out of five. That’s quite a feat. Monkey Boy does not give his Acks! away easily. How in the world did they accomplish this? As Sir Robin (Eric Idle) said in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, "That’s easy!” (Turns out, Sir Robin was wrong.)
Deadpool breaks all the rules—within a predictable framework. Risen does the same thing. It's less obvious and in your face, but it is no less inventive while still following formula. Same with The Witch—and it may be that The Witch is the most inventive and original of the three. But these are stories we know by heart. We've seen them a thousand times. We know what happens at the end. But they haven’t been told quite like this. And in recent times, we have not seen these stories told so bravely, without kowtowing to the social and political New Speak Censors that darken our day. Deadpool, Risen and The Witch may not be the best movies of the year, but they're worthy of celebration and love.
Let’s explore these three Dump Month anomalies together, shall we?
Deadpool: Ack! Ack! Ack! A...!
Deadpool stars the talented and awesome (because he's Canadian) Ryan Reynolds (star of 2014’s The Voices, a favorite of mine). He plays a foul-mouthed, smart-ass mercenary named Wade Wilson, a.k.a., Deadpool. After learning he has terminal cancer, he accepts a risky procedure promising to cure him. Instead, it turns him into a disfigured X-Man with superhero healing abilities that leave him mentally unstable (in the best possible way). After the procedure, he wants revenge, intending to kill everyone involved in his transformation—and have a good laugh along the way.
Reynolds is a versatile actor, blessed with the ability to play straight drama, comedy-drama and full-on screwball comedy. There aren’t many actors in Hollywood that can do all three. Most film actors do one thing well and then do it again and again and again until they’re dead. If you put all of their film performances together in a flipbook and then flipped the pages, you’d see one lifelong performance of sameness. Reynolds isn’t like that. He’s bendy, like Gumby. And the whole funny thing? Comedy is the hardest thing for an actor to do and Reynolds does it well. I mean, think about what he accomplished in Deadpool: Wade Wilson is a lethal mercenary with a goodness streak that sometimes gets in the way. He’s like a hooker with a heart of gold, i.e., the sex might be good, but it could kill you. At the same time, he’s a likable naughty boy who cracks dirty jokes as he gleefully kills people. After he’s transformed into an X-Man, his already unstable mental state goes full-on crazy—and gosh darn it, we like him, we really, really like him. That kind of acting is like walking a tightwire and that’s why Ryan Reynolds is Canada’s version of Daniel Day-Lewis, eh? So when it comes to why Deadpool works so well, Reynolds deserves an enormous amount of credit. He carries the entire picture and makes it worth seeing a second time—in a movie theatre.
And so does director Tim Miller, who has scored big on his first feature ($320 million domestic and rising, breaking all sorts of records), as do writers Paul Wernick (awesome because he's Canadian) and American Rhett Reese (co-writers of Zombieland). Even better, it’s clear these guys know and respect the Marvel comic book, a comic that has always amused itself by playing in a blurry, random, crazy playground somewhere between PG-13 and R, which is apropos when you think about it. Happily, the movie fully embraces its adult film status and gets a hearty R-rating for pervasive filthy language, graphic, bloody carnage, kinky holiday sex and a sleigh-load of prepubescent raunchy naughtiness and dirty jokes. Some of the jokes fall flat, of course, and that should not surprise anyone. When you shoot out that many jokes in one movie, odds are some of them are not going to hit the target. Regardless, Deadpool succeeds were most movies meant to be funny fail. (This Is the End anyone?) It’s a consistent, irreverent, laugh-out-loud action packed comedy—waaay fun, as some of my movie compatriots have said—nailing the essence of what funny is right in comedy’s bare ass.
Marvel has broken new ground because of the R rating. Let’s be honest, their comic book universe is getting stale. You can only see so many superhero movies before they all start to look the same and you stop caring. Truth is, when Monkey Boy sees the Marvel logo now, he says, “Ack! These Marvel movies need to be sent to the Dump Months.” (Avengers 2 anyone?) Lucky for Marvel, Deadpool has given longer life to the Marvel universe.
The downside to Deadpool is, even though it is consistently funny and original, it adheres to the typical Marvel superhero formula. Wade Wilson may break the fourth wall and talk to the audience and the movie may mock itself and the genre (the opening credits may be the best and most honest opening credits I have ever seen in a movie), but you know exactly how this Marvel movie is going to play out. It works because that’s how successful movies always work, right? But this is Deadpool, so it doesn’t work either because Deadpool doesn’t follow the rules. Sticking to the formula doesn’t ruin it, but it does make it predictable in the way that all Marvel movies are predictable. And, finally, will someone please tell Monkey Boy and me what the heck is up with Deadpool's eyes? Now, wait, wait a minute, wait a sec. I understand the filmmakers are paying respect to the comic book character--who has white eyes when he's in costume, as do plenty o' other comic book superheros--but it doesn't make any sense in the movie. I know it doesn't matter because it's the kind of movie where stuff like that doesn't matter--but it matters to me. Why do his eyes turn white when he puts on the mask? Why, why, why dammit? Why?
It doesn't matter. I know. It doesn't freakin' matter.
Risen: Ack! Ack! Ack! A...!
Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love, Enemy at the Gates) is the star of Risen and, like Ryan Reynolds, he carries the entire movie, a fine bit of acting by a fine actor. He’s intense, gritty and believable, and he’s backed up by a solid supporting cast. Nobody phones it in (like good actors sometimes do in faith based movies).
But it’s director Kevin Reynolds (The Beast, Rapa Nui, The Count of Monte Cristo) who makes this Jesus movie work. He and co-writer Paul Aiello tell the story about Jesus and his death and resurrection from a fresh perspective. It’s CSI: Jerusalem 33 AD, a murder mystery that’s engrossing, entertaining and original. It’s fun to watch Roman Detective Clavius (Fiennes) unravel the mystery, seeing it from his perspective, and there’s enough intrigue and police procedural drama and skeptical Sherlock Holmes deduction to hold your attention. Even though we know what’s going to happen, know how it’s going to unfold, even within that predictable formula there’s room for invention, as the crucifixion scene makes clear. Reynolds turns the crucifixion process into a totalitarian meat-grinding death machine, merciless, cavalier and so efficient I’m certain the Nazis would have approved. Even better, Reynolds handles the mystery of Jesus and his resurrection in a deft, subtle way so that it doesn’t come across as sentimental or grossly predictable like a crappy religious tract left in a public restroom. And, finally, Risen gives us a Jesus/Yeshua that doesn't look like a blue-eyed, blond haired Viking, the always cool and reliable Cliff Curtis from New Zealand. He gives his Jesus a sense of divine wisdom, strength and love coupled with a calm, average, everyday humanity. He's the Jesus you'd feel compelled to worship even as you hung out with him and had a beer.
One of the best examples of what I mean involves a scene with the disciples walking down a dusty ravine as they follow in obedience even though they’re skeptical about Jesus’ resurrection, uncertain and afraid. Unbeknownst to them, a small whirlwind follows as they walk the ravine. That’s it. That’s the scene. A totally realistic depiction of a dusty whirlwind following a number of dusty guys walking down a dusty ravine as they chatter and argue about what happened to Jesus and what they’re supposed to do about it now, but at the same time, the image suggests so much more. That’s deft subtly that works. And that’s how this little movie turned out, much more than expected. It drags in the second act, when Clavius interviews citizens of Jerusalem, gets a little repetitive, but soon thereafter it picks itself back up and gets its focus back.
The Witch: A New England Folk Tale: Ack! Ack! Ack! A...!
The Witch takes the originality up a notch. Directed and written by Robert Eggers, this is not your typical Hollywood horror show. It’s about a tormented Puritan family in 1630 New England, banished by the town and brought to ruin by their own flaws, doubts, fears and real live satanic witchcraft. It’s historically accurate, the attention to period language and historic set detail is astonishing, it’s smart, subtle and takes its devilish time, building character, story and tension so slowly it’s almost excruciating.
Now, Monkey Boy and I feel that we need to point out that the violence is limited and nowhere near gratuitous. There is no gratuitous sex or gratuitous nudity (even though it is rated R for “graphic nudity,” an advisory label Monkey Boy and I felt was ridiculous because the nudity is sensible and we did not find it graphic. In other words, it’s not close up, in your face penis and vagina). Again, not what you’d expect from a modern horror film, which tend to be the opposite, showing everything they possibly can (especially when it comes to sex and violence) and to hell with the characters and story. The less this movie shows, the scarier it is. It’s so convincingly made you feel like you’re watching a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary about the Puritans or that PBS reality TV show called Colonial House where modern people tried to live as 1628 colonialists in the "New World." Now, for some folks, that kind of reality is a killer for a movie because it moves slow—and, indeed, this is a slow mover. It’s not a thrill ride, but it is thrilling. It’s Eggers mastery at storytelling and direction, and choosing to take his old, sweet time to tell the tale, that makes this such an effective horror story.
Actors Ralph Ineson, Anya Taylor-Joy, Harvey Scrimshaw, Katie Dickie and two of the creepiest child actors I’ve seen on screen since The Omen (1976 and 2006)—Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson, scary devil kids from hell—play it straight and believable, making it an even more convincing ride.
Horror—true H.P. Lovecraftain horror—doesn’t get better than this.
When Monkey Boy and I saw the movie, the audience revealed just how successful it is: About midway through the second act, a nervous young woman cried out, “This movie doesn’t make any sense!” She sounded upset and confused. During the scene when Satan speaks through Black Philip, a billy goat, a young man laughed and then swallowed his laughter with a gulp. Monkey Boy pointed out that the young man sounded just like the young woman, upset and confused. Like they didn't know what to do. Toward the end of the movie, we could hear the audience shift in their seats, uncomfortable, murmuring, grumbling. They sounded as if they did not understand what they were watching and that awful fact scared the hell out of them. H.P. Lovecraft, the father of modern horror, said, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” And then I understood what was happening. The audience was really grappling with this movie. They were having a hard time understanding it because it is not what they expected, nor was it what they were used to. It did not make any sense to them because it is a faithful, historically accurate telling of an ancient American horror story told in the period language of the time from the Judeo-Christian perspective. In other words, there isn’t a modern politically correct conceit in the entire movie. And lo! Behold how it scared the children.
Noah is a great example of what I’m talking about. That craptastic movie told the ancient biblical tale about Noah and the flood and added modern concepts, from the theory of evolution to Man Made Global Warming to radical environmentalism, turning it into one of the dumbest propaganda pieces and failures in film in recent memory. Of course they should have left their modern egos behind and told the story as it has always been told for thousands of years. And that’s exactly what Eggers chose to do with The Witch. And that’s why it’s so effective. It’s an old, old, old story told in an old, old way. Millennials will struggle with this movie because it does not provide trigger warnings or safe spaces or mollycoddling psychology or sexy, sweet, nice PC witches in the form of Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman from Practical Magic. In The Witch, God exists and so do Satan and witches, and the witches are evil. There is no doubt about it. And that’s either scary as hell or unfathomable, which may even be scarier.
My rating: Before seeing any of these movies you need to do one Deadpool shot (strawberry vodka, strawberry liqueur, grenadine, shaken, then poured into a shot glass with Black Absinthe poured on top). After that, gulp down a Mister Christian (light rum, brandy, orange juice, lemon juice, lime juice, grenadine, shaken and poured into a cocktail glass) and a Witch's Brew (2 oz Yellow Chartreuse, 2 oz Blue Curacao, spiced brandy, ground cloves, dash of nutmeg and allspice). Next, you need to do the Practical Magic Midnight Margarita Conga Line to the tune Put the Lime in the Coconut, naked. At that point, you should be in a the right frame of mind to sit back and enjoy Deadpool, Risen and The Witch.