X-Farce

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Deadpool 2 is directed by David Leitch and, without identifying him until the closing credits (beyond a pretty funny “Directed by One of the Dicks who killed the Dog in John Wick” at the tail of a an amusing Bond credits gag complete with overqualified self-serious theme song by Celine Dion), you could instantly tell that this was a product of one of the best action filmmakers of the 21st Century.

Almost immediately, we jump into a montage of complex and extravagant combat sequences involving our titular invulnerable red-jumpsuit-donning Merc with a Mouth’s (Ryan Reynolds) growing business as an assassin (apparently only for bad people like human traffickers and drug kingpins). Each in a very distinct color palette like the cold blue pool-surrounded spa and green reflective high-rise bars with frenetic energy that matches the character’s interminable speech, topped off by the very best setpiece in the whole film: a single shot following a man fleeing from the carnage in a beeline while we watch Deadpool wreak havoc and slaughter everybody in the background, jumping around, shooting and slicing indiscriminately, ignoring a man on fire, and stealing a chainsaw until the man escapes into a panic room.

Now, I am not joking when I say that’s the best sequence in Deadpool 2, which sounds unpromising considering it’s only the first five minutes of a two hour movie. And that’s why I am happy to say even then, Deadpool 2 is pretty entertaining and a significant upgrade from its mostly annoying predecessor. I mean sure, it still has the handicap of being a platform for Reynolds (credited as co-writer alongside the returning Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick and I wonder how much of that is the Spinal Tap rule of “he ad-libbed so much he may as well be credited”) to deliver unimpressive pop-culture-based quips, make heavy efforts at vulgarity, or call unsubtle attention to the superhero clichés being mocked, thereby dampening the hell out of any true bite in the attempted superhero parodying.

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It’s also a pretty dense movie considering the punchline is just “lol, don’t all superhero movies do this stuff?”. It kicks off with the attempt by Reynolds and company to explore Wade Wilson’s (Deadpool’s true identity) exploration of grief and emptiness (catalyzed by an already pretty infamous story decision) and this is constantly undercut by Reynolds’ dedication to playing class clown under the mask, which IS the point of the character but demands a balance Reynolds is barely capable of providing. It’s improved by the subject of Deadpool’s first “X-Men” mission provided by his persistent recruiter of steel Piotr “Colossus” Rasputin (Stefan Kapičić for voice and face capture with Andre Tricoteux standing in on set for the CG character), the young distrustful Russell “Firefist” Collins played with magnificent effect by Julian Dennison. Dennison’s approach to the character is not all that different from his already charming turn as the contentious delinquent Ricky Baker in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a character that had a good amount of pent-up trauma informing his behavior and decisions.

Dennison turns that familiar territory into a sense of nervy hurt from the second we watch him surrounded by cops threatening desperately to kill anyone who approaches him, later on revealing a confused lonely desire for a friend that leads to unleashing one of the film’s surprise antagonists. It’s pretty hard to feel like there’s a more convincingly human performance in the whole movie, even while he’s calling Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) “Justin Bieber” or joking about sneaking pens into the steely foreboding mutant prison The Icebox via his butt. It works because both his desire to appear hardened and his genuinely pain-fueled rage come from the exact same place.

So yes, Dennison is one of Deadpool 2‘s best secret weapons, but I haven’t even finished discussing yet another layer of this overglutted screenplay. For the unsmiling cyborg Cable (Josh Brolin) comes from the future with his own vendetta against Russell, intent on killing the boy before Russell can set aflame to the venal fundamentalist headmaster (Eddie Marsan) that abused him and thus be locked on the path that ends with Cable’s family being massacred*. So Looper except Deadpool and Cable are coming from wildly different tones. Deadpool’s depression and newfound deathwish leads him eventually towards an epiphany that he can save Russell’s soul and move him towards a better path, leading to him being right in the crosshairs of Cable’s artillery requiring the recruitment of a special team of fellow mutants named X-Force.

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So there is a lot going on and Leitch moves through that material like one runs on a shallow lake: trying to rush as fast as one can, but having to push really hard to move one’s feet. That said, a good amount of the character work is pretty well-earned even despite the sloppiness with which they’re set up thanks to an intelligent cast: I’d daresay that Brolin might not be inventing the wheel here, but he’s a lot more interesting than his other big superhero tentpole of the summer. Brolin sells contrivances with sobriety just on the line between outrageous and self-aware so that Cable’s decisions later in the film feel like an evolution that mirrors Russell’s without killing the fun. Morena Baccarin takes a thankless treatment of her character (apparently also self-aware, though certain criticisms of her writing have caused the writers to shamelessly play stupid in interviews – SPOILERS for that link by the way) and turns it into the moral center to Deadpool’s arc, probably doing much more to make me feel for Deadpool’s sadness than Reynolds himself. So Leitch and company’s labored flopping in these plot tangents aren’t for naught: there is a sense of emotional satisfaction at the third act that I can’t recall feeling in a comic book film for a long time and I wasn’t expecting that for a screenplay mostly making me go “oh man, another joke or introduced character”.

I must admit to its credit these jokes got me laughing more often than the first Deadpool, whether a frankly mean-spirited punchline to the X-Force team’s motley of cameos (both of X-Men characters and screen personalities like the always welcome Terry Crews) or a physical gag involving cocaine or really any moment in which Zazie Beetz as Domino has to defend the existence of her superpower, which is being continuously lucky. I feel there’s more misses than hits because Reynolds’ motormouth is firing on all cylinders and T.J. Miller is present, but every once in a while even Reynolds scores a chuckle (Miller never does).

And once again, these are pretty exciting action setpieces on various levels. Leitch brings with him his dream team from 87Eleven Action Design: cinematographer Jonathan Sela and editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir (the latter working with Dirk Westervelt and Craig Alpert though I assume they worked more on comedy or dramatic moments), all three of which know how to work together to give power to every piece of the constructed action and find room for cool money shots. In one scene, we get to watch Deadpool start with nothing but a brick and every face smash crunches on that soundtrack because Cable refuses to give him a gun, ending with the duo casually blasting the faces off their enemies with shotguns simultaneously. This is intercut with a fistfight of two CGI characters that gets momentum just by Sela’s camera movements, as if he’s being yanked around by those giants. Or even a slow-motion rube goldberg machine indicating the truth behind Domino’s abilities as she effortlessly action jumps her way through explosions and wrecks onto a moving van.

It’s certainly the messiest and least Leitch’s so-far three movies, but when you’re following up on Atomic Blonde, you have more than enough room to still deliver an enjoyable and charming enough piece of summer popcorn movie levity. That Deadpool 2 is able to accomplish that coming from such obnoxious material only proves my consistent faith in Leitch and his crew, Dennison, and Beetz. They were the reasons I rushed to the theater on opening night and the result was still a pleasant surprise.

*We do get to see Russell’s evil future self and I am very sorry to say that he is not played by Taika Waititi, which would immediately make this the best movie ever made.

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25 for 25 – Psycho Killer, Qu’est-Ce Que C’est

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I wrote a 6000-word essay on this blog on the history of the slasher subgenre in horror films. I don’t think I need to qualify my love for that genre to any regular viewers, but yeah, I adore that trashy subgenre as a wonderful guilty pleasure. And if you read that essay (Godspeed to you), you may recall I optioned to end it on the note of Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon‘s release as a small gem in the ruins of the slasher genre’s popularity.

It’s more than just a singular event in the slasher genre… I mean, not that singular, given how Scream precedes it notably as a slasher parody and the careers of Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett also attempt some amount of slasher commentary, but I universally am not a fan of either of those… so I guess singular in being a much beloved slasher parody gem that I actually love and admire and find a lot of intelligence in. But it’s also the only feature film credit to director Scott Glosserman (his only other two directors credits is a documentary on Wikipedia and an MTV tv film) and writer David J. Stieve, who have spent most of the time between Behind the Mask‘s 2006 release and now in trying to will the existence of a sequel to the picture. And this is absolutely unfortunate because goddammit, it’s not just that I think Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is a great standout in 2000s horror, it’s also got a pretty loud enough cult following.

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The premise essentially functions as a 21st century version of the French serial killer mockumentary Man Bites Dog (though they’re distinctive in that BTM takes place in a movie world while MBD wants to live in the real world and thus comment more on documentaries and real-world serial killer fascinations than the horror genre itself), especially in being presented with that infamous 21st Century style of pseudo-documentary for the first 2/3: Journalism Graduates Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals), Doug (Ben Pace), and Todd (Britain Spellings) invited to the New England town of Glen Echo by a man named Leslie Vernon, who intends to embody a legendary slasher for the town akin to the in-film existence of Jason Voorhees for Crystal Lake, Freddy Krueger for Springwood, and Michael Myers for Haddonfield. When they meet Vernon (Baesel), it’s surprising to find he’s a young, energetic nerd who tries to make himself as personable and approachable as possible while elaborating on both his status within the town as a living ghost and all of the good ol’ prep stuff he’s getting into for the great big ol’ slash-a-thon with his selected Final Girl Kelly (Kate Lang Johnson).

Vernon is obviously Stieve and Glosserman as one person trying to show off everything they notice and love about all those big franchises, even to the point of Vernon getting to have his own little fan moment showing off his friendship to another legend Eugene (Scott Wilson; it’s a popular fan rumor that the character is Billy from Black Christmas but nothing in the movie implies that). Meanwhile, Vernon is proud to show off all the research and work he’s been doing and involve the team in his antics.

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And that’s more or less where Behind the Mask can actually flex its superiority in my opinion above Scream: the very premise of Behind the Mask demands that the movie call attention to so many physical leaps and inconsistencies like the ability of a stalker to catch up to running prey without breaking a sweat or the contrivances of a killer’s backstory and connection to his Final Girl. I’m imposing my own attitudes towards parodies in general, but you can’t just put a couple namedrops and an attitude of smug contempt for your genre (something BTM absolutely lacks and I love it all the more for it) and pass off your film as critic-proof satire. You need to have something to say about the genre, dammit, you need to dig real deep into it.

And Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon goes deeper than it even needs to. What at first begins as an invitation to join Glosserman and Stieve in their own little fake “behind-the-scenes” dissection of heightened slasher films, suddenly becomes an indictment of the genre writing new motivations for their characters and the arbitrariness of them (leading to one of my favorite jokes in the movie when confronted about Leslie’s newly concocted fiction: “A lot of what we use is CGI.”). Then there’s the really psychoanalytical stuff it jumps headfirst into in a manner that even Taylor herself feels uncomfortable with, the gender attitudes inherent in a slasher plot and Leslie insistence that Taylor needs to respect his orthodox conventions if he will allow her to continue asking him about this.

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And then there’s STILL the unsubtle callout about the amorality of the slasher genre (given a much headier divide from the viewer because they’re watching a movie while Taylor and the crew are witnessing real life) and how he could be as interested into this, but this is kind of flawed in how the movie earlier answers that question preemptively with “Well, it’s fun, isn’t it?” (and again, the fact that Taylor has to be more involved than the audience shoots itself in the foot). But BTM also makes up for that, kind of, by becoming its own slasher movie in a conventional shooting manner. The first-person camera is abandoned and now we are witnessing it with an objective third-person eye (and something fun about this is how Leslie’s explanation of his plan early on mirrors a lot of the subsequent moments). And there’s obviously only so much meta-commentary to dissect from such a third act shift, but I honestly enjoy it on the shallowest level more than anything: Glosserman and Stieve putting their money where their mouth is at the end of it all and indulging in a smartly-craftey, unexpected slasher movie all the way through its third act.

I mean, I did say I’m a fan of slasher movies.

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Plus, Baesel’s just a very captivating presence to be around. He’s got a casual yet off-beat energy that makes him constantly watchable and a twisted sort of subject/interviewer chemistry with Goethals that gets close to “oh boy, they’re into each other, aren’t they?”. I might go so far as claiming I prefer him to Benoit Poelvoorde in Man Bites Dog, which is a tall order as I love Poelvoorde as an actor and nothing in Baesel’s acting resume implies he’d ever do much of note again (editing, on the other hand…). And there’s such a home-crafted sense to the film that’s probably thanks to the limited resources… the New England town feels full and lived in and the area Leslie’s legend revolves around so decrepit and abandoned but still an obvious part of Glen Echo. The costume he makes for himself primitive and dusty and yet so obviously a costume that it’s all thanks to Baesel’s performance that he can actually feel like a killer underneath it (indeed one of his killings involves the literal mask being removed and it’s an understated character moment). The world within Behind the Mask feels like a slasher reality – haunting, isolated, small – guided by Vernon’s confident and eager smiles and showcases.

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is the sort of fan-service I enjoy indulging in when I watch. On the surface, it’s all “isn’t this kind of great?” are horror movies with its own little allowances for visual references and callbacks and throwbacks (those who just look for visual gags will have a ball in the early first act). On the back end, just a great genre piece for night time watching. And on the inside, a pop culture inquiry on that genre for anybody who wants to unpack it all. That’s a lot to juggle and I’m not sure you CAN do so perfectly (alongside the “isn’t this kind of bad? But here’s a horror movie anyway” aspect, there’s the inconsistency in having Robert Englund act in a film where Freddy Krueger is acknowledged as a real person and really was 2006 the perfect point to comment on found-footage craze pre-Paranormal Activity), Glosserman and Stieve do it with such gusto that it’s unacceptable they don’t have more films under their belt to show for it.

At least we’ll always have this movie.

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