Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: the recurring feature that’s me jotting down capsule-sized notes about Stuff I’ve Been Watching at home. In this entry: four 2016 releases I missed in theaters because I can’t see every movie ever. Blame work, Netflix convenience, internet shenanigans, and The CW’s unwieldy yet not-bad DC Comics lineup for hogging my weeknight attention.
* Hell or High Water: Call it Butch and Sundance versus The Big Short. Chris Pine and Ben Foster (Captain Kirk and the forgettable Angel from X-Men: The Last Stand) as Texas brothers robbing banks like twin Robin Hoods with a specific agenda. In a more simplistic movie, they’d be just two good-ol’-boys trying to get rich quick; in this more complicated scenario, they’re united against a common foe: the reverse mortgage that has their mom trapped and near default. Hot on their heels is Southern Sheriff Jeff Bridges, less drunk than Rooster Cogburn but no less sharp at second-guessing how to follow the money.
Their battlefield is the enervated plateau of small-town 2016, where the desolate streets are lined with abandoned storefronts, struggling honest merchants, and tacky billboards pimping the services of payday-loan joints, debt consolidation peddlers, and used-car swindlers. Foster, playing a marginally less immoral variation on his 3:10 to Yuma mad-dog, commands center stage as the louder and showier of the daring duo, but his kid brother Pine — an ostensibly nice, book-smart guy counting down the pennies to their One Last Score — has to play more subtly because he’s got a lot more to lose. Rooting for the underdogs and booing Big Banking is easy at first, but not everything is Hollywood black-and-white when things go wrong and it’s time for a reckoning, and both gunplay and financial negotiation become necessary life skills to survive in one of the numerous parts of America where the recession never truly faded away.
* 10 Cloverfield Lane: Call it Godzilla versus Room. The original Cloverfield was one of the only two found-footage films I’ve ever super-liked, so I was both excited and skeptical when the sequel-not-sequel arrived shrouded in secrecy and irrelevance, and sporting what looked at first like a more conventional thriller design. Frequent movie winner Mary Elizabeth Winstead is a captive-turned-heroine taken to an underground bunker by the most frightening John Goodman ever, who swears she can’t leave because it’s the end of the world and he knows what’s best for her if only she would trust him unconditionally for no apparent reason. At her side is John Gallagher, Jr., the nice guy from Short Term 12, as a fellow captive who’s slower to shake off his Stockholm Syndrome and ends up mostly unhelpful baggage.
Winstead marvelously keeps her cool and stays at least a half-step ahead of her sometimes affable, sometimes alarming host and the surprises he has in store, and even maintains her dignity when the last fifteen minutes of the film shift genres altogether. If you buy in, you can see lines connecting events in the two films and hinting at a wider cinematic universe, depending on how far producer JJ Abrams continues to sponsor future playground expansions. This one’s a clever, suspenseful keeper if you don’t mind that it has as much in common with its predecessor as Rogue One had in common with The Phantom Menace.
* The Jungle Book: I originally skipped Disney’s live-action remake because I was never a big fan of the original even as a kid, I suspected it was superfluous (never saw their new Cinderella, either), and I was unimpressed by Bill Murray’s inferior cover of “The Bare Necessities” in the trailer. When it showed up conveniently on Netflix and we had family visiting over the holiday weekend, I figured why not. I was happy to see director Jon Favreau avoiding a note-for-note transfer and shepherding a few remarkable improvements, most notably Idris Elba as a Shere Khan who had me recoiling in my seat more than once. Ben Kingsley was perfectly serviceable as the panther guardian Bagheera, and the flimsy original ending escalates into an impressive showdown high in the air above a beautifully deadly forest fire.
That being said, I wish even greater departures had been permitted, such as taking a true “kill your darlings” stance and eliminating the musical numbers altogether. Between the amateur-hour “Necessities” and Christopher Walken totally Christopher Walkening the heck out of “I Wanna Be Like You”, vocals in general were an unwelcome interruption in the jungle-action flow. (Nice use of classic jazz here and there, though, and props to whoever elected to delete Scarlet Johansson’s “Trust in Me” number from the narrative and relocate it over the end credits.) I was also a little distracted at the overt sensation of “LOOK WE CAN MOVE 3-D CAMERAS AROUND LOTS MORE NOW WHEEEEEEEEEEEE!” that, while serving to rev up our capable li’l hero Mowgli, remind the viewer that Disney was really really hoping you’d pay extra for theatrical 3-D upcharges for the entire family.
* Deadpool: One of the most exhausting experience of my 2016 was the parade of people asking me, “Have you seen Deadpool yet?” And then I’d have to explain patiently I’m not a fan of R-rated comedies and thereby ensure I’m never invited to any of their parties, which is just as well because I also don’t drink, and sometimes I wonder if 21st-century American society is really a good fit for me. Then the Bluray edition came up as a Black Friday sale with an exclusive Christmas cover, and I was already ordering three other cheap Blurays anyway, so I figured, FINE, let’s do this and never speak of it again. Maybe the extras will be differently hilarious.
Over the past two decades I’ve been an on-again-off-again fan of Deadpool comics, which are more often PG-13 than R, but which bore me whenever they treat him too seriously. If he’s not breaking the fourth wall and poking fun at every tradition and cliché in sight, then he’s Boring Comics Antihero #7,006 and you’re wasting my time. Deadpool the movie embraces that same dichotomy: when Ryan Reynolds is allowed to go wild and take verbal potshots at everything in his path, he delivers a virtuoso madcap performance (for the kind of material it is), but when Deadpool turns to drama, we’re back in middling dramatic X-movie territory. As the best comic foils for the Merc with a Mouth, Negasonic Teenage Warhead was an underused asset and their version of Colossus was the best we’ve seen on screen to date, even allowing for the rude interruption to his closing heroism speech. I thought Ajax, basic though he might’ve been, was still a superior villain to Apocalypse, and I’m glad Stan Lee’s mandatory cameo as a strip-club DJ was tamer than it could’ve been.
I’ll admit I laughed more than I expected despite myself, but there’re a few parts of Deadpool I should probably never watch again, though I might brake for a TV-14 edited-for-basic-cable encore. I was more than a little saddened to see Karan Soni from Other Space reduced to playing Stereotypical Cabbie. Also, I have little use for Cable (my prime X-Men era ended years before Rob Liefeld’s arrival) and it’s gonna take tremendous bribery to get me remotely interested in the sequel, if that’s where they’re actually heading. And in conclusion, if you’re still bothering to read me after all that: hi there! I appreciate your surprisingly generous tolerance with my finicky peculiarities.