Saturday, August 27, 2016

Suicide Squad / **½ (PG-13)

Deadshot: Will Smith
Harley Quinn: Margot Robbie
Boomerang: Jai Courtney
Rick Flagg: Joel Kinneman
June Moone/Enchantress: Cara Delevinge
El Diablo: Jay Hernandez
Katana: Karen Fukuhara
Killer Croc: Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje
Amanda Waller: Viola Davis
The Joker: Jared Leto

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film written and directed by David Ayer. Based on the comic book created by John Ostrander and characters created by Ostrander, Bill Finger and Ross Andru. Running time: 123 min. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of violence and action throughout, disturbing behavior, suggestive content and language).

DC Comics and Warner Bros. have finally brought the comic book battle to the cinemas, once again facing off against their arch nemesis Marvel. It took DC a long time to get their act together. While they were doing that Marvel wrote the book on a cinematic superhero universe. DC is playing catch up. They’ve already taken a good deal of flak for their first two entries “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”. The third, “Sucide Squad”, has likewise been a critical disaster, but not a box office one. It’s probably important to remember that the first two didn’t exactly slack at the box office either.

None of this really matters. The only thing that really matters is that Marvel took their time building their universe and DC wants to be where Marvel is right now. Marvel put out five films before they threw their heroes together in a team. DC put out 2, and one of those is pretty much a team up between three heroes, only one of which had a previous movie in this particular superhero universe. A total of three villains were introduced in those three movies, and now we get a superhero team made up of villains known as the Suicide Squad. They get their own movie, and we’ve never met any of them before. Batman makes an appearance, and a new version of the madman villain The Joker, with whom audiences are basically familiar from other films unrelated to this universe. But, neither of these previously revealed characters have anything to do with the Suicide Squad itself. What I’m taking a great deal of time to get at here—but DC has not—is that in the movie “Suicide Squad” we’ve got two hours to familiarize ourselves with nine new major characters and give them an engaging plot to survive, which just isn’t enough time.

I know. I know. This is a popular movie. People “loved” it. It’s a popular comic book. That doesn’t, however, make it good. I would say that the “Suicide Squad” movie is about as good as it could possibly be considering the circumstances with which Warner Bros. brought it about. The comic book on the other hand didn’t debut until most of its characters had been around for decades as arch villains to the world’s most popular superheroes. And, it was never a really a popular comic book until some writer had the brilliant idea of incorporating The Joker’s girlfriend Harley Quinn into the group, a character that wasn’t even originally created for the comic books, but rather made her first appearance in the “Batman: The Animated Series” cartoon. “Suicide Squad” is a movie perfect to be placed deep into the cinematic universe, not movie number three. By placing it in the third movie spot, Warner Bros. really set itself up for an artistic failure, if not a box office one. They got lucky on the later dice roll there.

So, we spend the first few minutes of the movie setting up the premise of this anti-superhero team in a briefing with Amanda Waller, a government opportunist who summarizes her idea to put a team of super villains together to fight for good, be totally expendable and create plausible deniability for the government should a Superman-type turn up one day as a bad guy. What the movie never really deals with, however, is that the first of this type of superpower their suicide squad is employed to dispense, only comes to power through Waller’s callous and fool-hearty execution of her plan. It’s obvious enough for the audience to realize this is a reflection on Waller’s character that one of her own villainous tools is what becomes such a threat to the world, but shouldn’t that also come back to her at some point in the story where someone—even one of her own team members—says, “but it was your dumbass idea that created this problem.”?

Anyway, although there are nine major characters here—apparently Jared Leto’s Joker role was considerably cut down for the theatrical cut of the film—the plot really focuses mostly on four of those characters, with Waller being a mostly unseen puppet master. Deadshot gets a starring treatment by Will Smith who adds his usual wisecracking to a reluctant hero and fairly sympathetic villain. He’s an assassin who just wants his daughter to grow up with opportunities he never had and no knowledge of how he provides her with that privilege. There wasn’t nearly the backlash that Smith had been cast as a character that has been historically white in previous comic book and television incarnations as there was when Michael B. Jordan was cast as Johnny Storm in last year’s “Fantastic Four” reboot. That probably has to do with the fact that Smith’s success has softened white audiences’ notion of the fact that he is black, more so even than how perfect he is for the role.

Then there is Harley Quinn, a character that Warner Bros. Pictures is probably just as hopeful to turn into a successful franchise as their subsidiary DC Comics has. Margot Robbie, who has mostly been a pretty face in smart movies until now, does a surprisingly good job with the character. Harley is just as crazy as the Joker—perhaps more so to be his girlfriend—but in her anti-hero status it’s also important to make her charming and intellectually appealing to the audience. Robbie pulls this off better than I think anyone might’ve guess anybody could.

The two other most important characters would be Rick Flagg, the non-villain military leader of the group, and his girlfriend archaeologist June Moone, who is the human side of Waller’s misguided tool, the evil Enchantress. Flagg seems perpetually angry, which is understandable considering his mission of controlling a team of criminals. He also seems quite ineffectual in almost all of his functions. Enchantress is the element that backfires on Waller and becomes an incredibly powerful threat against Midway City and the world at large.

Among the other players, The Joker is established as a major one who must be sidelined for the entire midsection of the movie so the filmmakers can concentrate on the actual plot. Leto has been criticized for his performance, mostly in lieu of the methods he is rumored to have employed to achieve it. His Joker is clearly off his rocker. That is really all the character requires here, so I was not disappointed with him. I liked the character of El Diablo, a former gangster who refuses to use his power to create fire because of a secret in his past, as portrayed by Jay Hernandez. Katana is a good hero on the team, who has plenty to do if little dialogue. I would’ve liked to know more about her and how she got stuck with a bunch of criminals. Jai Courtney does a good job with what he is given for Captain Boomerang, a thief who uses… you guessed it… to aid him in his crimes. Unfortunately, his relegation mostly to the background seems a waste. And poor Abdewale Akinnouye-Agbaje is lost in his Killer Croc makeup and character design.

Like the movie, I’ve already run long just to cover the character summary. I was shocked to learn that the running time is just over two hours and not longer, because the filmmakers have so much to cover just in character introductions. How did they even fit a plot into that running time? Of course, there really isn’t that much of a plot to worry about. Enchantress tricks Waller into giving her what she needs to break Waller’s control over her. She then sets out to create a mystical machine that will enslave mankind. The Squad is dispatched to reign in one of their own. That’s pretty much it. Subplot: Joker sets out to free Harley.

One detail of many that I felt wasn’t well explained was just what the humans enslaved by Enchantress turn into. They appear to be faceless monsters who are killed off pretty effortlessly by the Suicide Squad without much concern for the humans they once were. I also experienced a great deal of confusion about time and place. There is very little sense of these two elements, which ironically are important to the mission. Usually there is some sort of clock involved when it is explained that time is limited.

One thing writer/director David Ayer gets right here is the humor. The first two DC Cinematic Universe films are greatly lacking in the humor department, but there’s quite a deal to be found here despite the dark nature and setting. The film is too dark. The murky lighting makes it difficult to see the action that packs the film from credits to credits and even mutes some of the potentially funny moments that work so well when they can be seen. It’s too bad that DC has chosen to light their films so poorly, since that seemed to be a problem that superhero movies were finally beginning to shake.

I was excited to learn that Ayer had been assigned the helming duties on this movie. His last two movies, “End of Watch” and “Fury”, were excellent. Unfortunately, the nature of this film never really allows Ayer to capitalize on his gift for solid, dark storytelling. There were too many elements to establish for all the necessary detailing of good storytelling to come together. I liked many of the aspects of the film. Perhaps since all the introductions have been done, a sequel could prove more satisfying, but I just can’t get behind this film with a recommendation.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Star Trek Beyond / ***½ (PG-13)

Captain James T. Kirk: Chris Pine
Commander Spock: Zachary Quinto
Doctor ‘Bones’ McCoy: Karl Urban
Lieutenant Uhura: Zoe Saldana
Montgomery ‘Scotty’ Scott: Simon Pegg
Sulu: John Cho
Chekov: Anton Yelchin
Jaylah: Sofia Boutella
Krall: Irdris Elba

Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Justin Lin. Written by Simon Pegg & Doug Jung. Based on the “Star Trek” television series created by Gene Roddenberry. Running time: 122 min. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi action and violence).

I overheard a critic speaking recently who said that nostalgia doesn’t belong in criticism. I’m not so sure I agree with this, which is no surprise since I write from a very nostalgic point of view. I understand what this critic was saying. There is an objectiveness that is necessary in criticism and getting too nostalgic runs the danger of adopting the false entitlement of ownership that so many fans espouse these days, leading to much of the illegitimate criticism felt by franchises, such as the “Ghostbusters” reboot. However, I think it’s impossible to critique these franchises without acknowledging their reliance on what has come before. Of course, the best franchise films work just as well if you’ve never seen any entry in the series before, but most are made with the notion their audience is familiar with the franchise characters, tone and mythology.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Twitter Thoughts—July 2016 Final Week

Downton Abbey, season 6 (2016) ****
Ghostbusters (2016) **½
The Shadow (1994) **
Star Trek Beyond (2016) ***½
Modern Family, season 7 (2015-2016) ***½
Jason Bourne (2016) ***
Androcles and the Lion (1952) ***

To call this the final week of July is a bit of a stretch. It’s more like the final half of the month. And this was all I watched in that time period. It was a busy time for both work and family that did not allow for much in terms of watching a screen for long periods of time.

My wife and I finally finished the BBC series “Downton Abbey” and couldn’t have been happier with it. It was consistently good and, like most British shows, did not outstay its welcome. I was happy with how the lives at the Abbey turned out, and while it might be nice to see how progress continued to change the class structure of British Royalty and their servants, it more than likely would’ve seemed more sad than what the results of progress really are. Like the elder generation, we all like our entertainment to stay the way it was.

In other television opinion, ABC’s “Modern Family” continues to quietly provide some of the most hilarious commentary on its titular subject matter. After seven seasons, you might expect some of the characters to become tired or irrelevant. You might think the barb would be dulled, but such is not the case with this series. It continues to pull out quality comedy from familial life without much change in style, structure or even cast. It’s quite remarkable.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Ghostbusters / **½ (PG-13)

Erin Gilbert: Kristin Wiig
Abby Yates: Melissa McCarthy
Jillian Holtzman: Kate McKinnon
Patty Tolan: Leslie Jones
Rowan North: Neil Casey
Kevin: Chris Hemsworth

Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by Paul Feig. Written by Kate Dippold & Feig. Based on the 1984 movie by Ivan Reitman, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis. Running time: 116 min. Rated PG-13 (for supernatural action and some crude humor).

The new reboot of the “Ghostbusters” franchise comes with a load of baggage, mostly having to do with the quite progressive idea of recasting the lead characters as women instead of men. I’ve never seen a beloved franchise so maligned by advance anti-buzz as this film. I’m a big believer in seeing the movie before forming an opinion about it. I guess it goes to show you how little progress we’ve made in this country in terms of equality that so many people have an issue with female heroes. People even criticized the editing of the first trailer as a negative point to avoid the fact that they were upset that their franchise had lost a Y chromosome. I’ve never seen the editing of a trailer criticized before. First trailers are usually poorly edited because they’re trying to tell a story before all the filming and effects have been completed.

Anyway, I think it is wonderful that this franchise was taken over by women. It is a great step forward to see women depicted as heroes while remaining women, instead of becoming over-sexualized props for the men they accompany. The main cast is wonderful. The Ghostbusters are just as iconic portrayed here by Kristin Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon. They’re funny. They’re capable. They aren’t “real” because they exist in a fantasy, special effects laden universe of the paranormal; but they are women, with thoughts and actions unique to them and not existing in the service of men or even necessarily the plot of the movie. The new Ghostbusters are a shining example of where women in mainstream entertainment should be.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Twitter Thoughts—July week 1

Featuring the films:
All the Right Moves (1983) ***
Andrei Rublev (1966) ****
Ghostbusters (1984) ****
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) ***½
The Shallows (2016) **½
Heaven’s Gate (1980) ***½
Ricki and the Flash (2015) **½
The Bourne Identity (2002) ***
The Bourne Supremacy (2004) ***½
Mannequin: On the Move (1991) ½*

I had a pretty good ten-day run of movies to start off July. I needed a football fix when I realized the Giants would face the Cowboys in a mere ten weeks, so I threw in a Tom Cruise high school classic, “All theRight Moves”. It’s actually pretty amazing that they gave Craig T. Nelson a sitcom where he plays a football coach after the ass he plays in this movie. I mean, yeah, he makes a pretty good football coach, but this ain’t the coach of his television show.

“Andrei Rublev” is one of the more unique biopics I’ve ever seen. At times it veers of into seemingly surreal settings and fantasy, yet it never loses track of its subject. It’s filled with those unique images that Werner Herzog says are lacking in modern cinema. Although it isn’t modern, it isn’t as old as it looks and feels in its execution. It’s a strange but wonderful treatment for an important Russian historical figure.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Twitter Thoughts—June 2016

Featuring the films and shows:
The Flash, season 2 (2015-2016) ***½
Independence Day (1996) *½
All These Women (1964) ***
Party Over Here, season 1 (2016) *½
The Alphabet (1968) ***½
Always For Pleasure (1978) ****
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016) ***
Arrow, season 4 (2015-2016) ***½
Grimm, season 5 (2015-2016) ***
The Do Over (2016) **
The Dark Knight Rises (2012) ***
Our Brand Is Crisis (2015) **½
DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, season 1 (2015-2016) **½
Angie Tribeca, season 1 (2016) ****
New Girl, season 5 (2015-2016) ***
Piper (2016) ****
Finding Dory (2016) ***
Central Intelligence (2016) **½
The Boy Next Door (2015) *
Sleepy Hollow, season 3 (2015-2016) ***
Amarcord (1973) ****
The American Soldier (1970) ***
The Amputee, version 1 (1974) ***
Simply Irresistible (1999) ½*
Independence Day: Resurgence (2016) **
The Amputee, version 2 (1974) ***
Downton Abbey, season 5 (2015) ****
… And God Created Woman (1956) ***

Hopefully this will be my final full month summary of the year and for all time. Again, a great many movies and television finales to cover, so let’s get to it.

On the television front. I was running behind a bit on several series, so I finished up several series during the month of June. Most of them were comic book shows. “The Flash” continues to be the most fun comic book show on television, although “Supergirl” gave it a run this year. It was fitting that the second half of the season featured a crossover episode on Supergirl. Plus, it was like a bonus “Flash” episode. Didn’t the producers of “Arrow” say that this season wouldn’t be as dark as last seaon? I guess what they meant is that it would be darker. Heck, the team narrowly avoided nuclear Armageddon for its finale. That was after the crippling of Felicity, the failure of the Olicity relationship and the death of a main character. While Arrow teammates do have a tendency to come back from the dead, I think this one’s for real this time. I also finished the surpernatural fantasy shows “Grimm” and “Sleepy Hollow” this month. Both sustained their MOs, although “Sleepy Hollow” felt a little rockier, probably due to its new show runners. It’s renewal was a surprise, but I’ll stay on for another season. FOX’s stalwart sitcom New Girl also held steady for its 5th season.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Twitter Thoughts—May 2016

Featuring the films and shows:
Special Correspondents (2016) **
Patton Oswalt: Talking for Clapping (2016) ***
A Trip To the Moon (1902) ****
Alice in the Cities (1974) ***½
Captain America: Civil War (2016) ***
Hell Comes To Frogtown (1988) no stars
Ali Wong: Baby Cobra (2016) ***
Mommie Dearest (1981) **
The 33 (2016) ***
Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island (1956) ****
The Apartment (1960) ****
Mr. Turner (2014) ***½
The Keeping Room (2015) ***
Jurassic World (2015) ***
On the Town (1949) ***
Main Street Today (1944) ***
Elementary, season 4 (24 43-min. eps. 2015-2016) ***
The Last Man On Earth, season 2 (18 23-min. eps. 2015-2016) ****
Castle (8 seasons, 173 eps. 2009-2016) ***
A Room With a View (1985) ****
Saturday Night Live, season 41 (21 105-min. eps. 2015-2016) ***
Supergirl, season 1 (20 43-min. eps. 2015-2016) ****
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) ****
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., season 4 (22 45-min. eps. 2015-2016) ****
Blindspot, season 1 (23 42-min. eps. 2015-2016) ***
Gotham, season 2 (22 42-min. eps. 2015-2016) ***½
The Avengers (1998) ½*
The Asphalt Jungle (1940) ***½
X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) ***
All My Good Contrymen (1969) ****
All the Boys Are Named Patrick (1959) ***½
The Muppets (1 season, 17 eps. 2015-2016) **    

I’m so far behind that I’m forced to include the entire month of May in one post. I’ll have to do the same for June. With the end of the television season occurring in May, there are a great many individual shows and films I would like comment on in addition to my tweets, so let’s get to it.

OK. I checked out Ricky Gervais’s Netflix movie “Special Correspondents” and I have to say for all the freedom Netflix gives to their filmmakers, they seem to have a problem with their original film division. While that approach seems to work very well for their longer format series, it seems to result in feature films with a lack of energy. They need to be tightened up. Gervais is quite funny and he has a good premise here, but its approached with no urgency and suffers from it. We’ll return to this next month with Adam Sandler’s latest, “The Do Over”.