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Monday, September 12, 2016

Review: Suicide Squad

Suicide Squad (2016): “Written” and “directed” by David Ayer.  Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Viola Davis, Joel Kinnamon, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje, Ike Barinholtz, Scott Eastwood, Cara Develingnine, and Jared Leto.  Running Time: 123 minutes. 

Rating: 2/4

            Suicide Squad is a bizarre case of a film.  It’s a brilliant concept featuring great (and sometimes inspired) casting, but undercuts itself constantly with inconsistent writing, shoddy editing, and a story that manages to be both impossibly convoluted and laughably simple.  The result is another film in the mold of Interstellar or Walter Mitty, where the final product ends up leagues behind what was promised by freaking amazing trailers

            For the uninitiated (or the blissfully ignorant), this is the third installment in the DC superhero universe that is supposed to be a fun, rompy inverse of the superhero-focused narratives of Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice.  A secret government organization ruthlessly led by Amanda Waller (a fantastically cold Viola Davis) has managed to track down and incarcerate some of the leading bad guys in the world, including Deadshot (Will Smith), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), The Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) and Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje).  Deciding that the world can’t afford to wait and see if the next Superman to pop around has the same moral standing as the recently-deceased Clark Kent, she decides to preempt that shit by forcing all these crazy evil dudes, plus one dudette, to serve together as a superpowered (and both morally and legally expendable) SWAT team. 

            This immediately proves to be as flawless an idea as Tony Stark’s plan to save the world by creating Ultron.  The Enchantress instantly goes rogue, revives her brother, and begins plotting to destroy the world (OF COURSE), so of course it’s up to the Suicide Squad to try and save the day while surviving long enough to get their sentences reduced. 

            In a nutshell, Suicide Squad wants so very much to be the next Deadpool, but simply doesn’t have the humor, self-awareness, or sheer manic energy needed to pull it off.  Given the rumors of extensive productive troubles, including script rewrites, several re-shootings, and the director’s questionable methods for motivating his actors, this may very well just be a product of there being way too many cooks trying to stick their hands into the stew to keep it from failing, only to have the end product come out even worse as a result.  Character motivations seem to change on a dime, there are huge gaping problems with plot continuity, and the Jared Leto’s massively-over-hyped Joker (the one bit of straight-up bad casting in the whole film) ends up seeming like a plot thread meant to have a movie all its own that just…disappears somewhere along the line, and only reappears in a slapdash of an ending. 

            The visual design of the film has the same issues that plague its entire franchise- it’s too dark, too grimy, and too muddled to make much of anything out, with the camera spending way too much time in close-up shots to give you any sense of the action.  Both the trailers and the movie posters are awash in bright, fantastic neon colors, and that SHOULD have been the color scheme for the film itself- there’s no other way to really sell this sort of concept, and it would have made for such a blessed change from the dreary color scheme of so many other blockbuster films of late.  There are clever music cues used to introduce each character, but like so much else, this is another great concept left dangling incomplete around the edges. 

            And yet, despite being such a riotously hot mess, this movie is not totally unsalvageable.  For all the misfires in the surrounding production departments, this remains a solid cast with very believable chemistry, and I certainly laughed plenty while watching.  Will Smith, Viola Davis, Margot Robbie, and Jai Courtney alone are charismatic and funny enough in their roles that I would still recommend seeing the movie just for them.   I found Viola Davis to be particularly fascinating; a black woman in a position of ridiculous power, who’s also a ruthless hardass to boot.  She’s easily one of the most fascinating characters we’ve yet seen in either of our two main superhero universes (both of which remain shamefully weak in the villain department), but given the Totesweg the DC cinematic experiment is currently on, I fear we won’t get another chance to see her in a better film. 

            It’s a real shame that this one ended up being another disappointment in a summer depressingly full of them, as I had high hopes for this one.  Not that I’ve ever placed much emotional stock in the success or failure of the superhero film universe, but it would be nice to something genuinely fresh break through the slog of the past few years.  Ah well.  At least we have more Star Wars fare to look forward to this winter. 

-Noah Franc 

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

In Memoriam: Gene Wilder

            Some people establish themselves as giants of film through the sheer volume of their work, becoming so ubiquitous and visible that they can’t possibly be ignored.  Others, though, through either the vagaries of Fate or simply personal choice, don’t have as long of a filmography, and gain the heights of cinematic Olympus by having just one or a handful of roles so powerful and iconic, so influential, that the rest of their work (or lack thereof) effectively doesn’t matter. 

            One such person was Gene Wilder.  While he mostly retired from on-screen work after the 80’s, the combination of his touchstone performance as Willy Wonka and his collaboration with Mel Brooks on three of the greatest film comedies of all time (Blazing Saddles, The Producers, and Young Frankenstein), all of which came out in the 60’s and 70’s, have long assured his immortality to lovers of great acting and great storytelling. 

            The moment that, for me, perfectly sums up his power as a performer and a comedian happens in his very first scene with Zero Mostel in The Producers, where he plays a somewhat hapless corporate accountant who is eventually drawn into the seedy underbelly of Broadway showbiz by the (literally) seductive Mostel.  This entire opening remains a gold standard of cinematic comedy in terms of its writing, visuals, and characterization, but its highlight is a moment where the *ever-so-slightly* neurotic Wilder, growing increasingly nervous and agitated over Mostel’s scheme and sleazy behavior, takes out his little blue security blanket to calm himself down.  Mostel, curious, grabs it out of his hand, and Wilder’s resulting flip-out is, quite simply, beyond words.  It’s a perfect example of sheer, instinctive acting, the sort of thing only someone with a talent like Wilder’s could make even remotely believable.  You can’t script it, you can’t plan for it, and God help you if you try to copy it. 

            I’m amazed, looking back, by how old Wilder looked, even back then, and how little his face seemed to change over the years.  There was such age, wisdom, and even a tint of sadness in his eyes, and it lent an air of seriousness to all his roles.  Which, maybe, was one of the keys to them being so damn memorable. 

            Some might say it’s a shame Wilder couldn’t establish himself as well as a director, or that he should have kept up making movies throughout his life.  Personally, I think his core work is so strong, so perfect, and holds up so well that I couldn’t have ever wished for more from the man.  He’s left us some remarkable treasures to remember him by, and I feel it will be some time indeed before we have a generation untouched by this man’s gift for bringing a smile to just about anyone’s face. 

            Rest in peace, Gene.  We love you still. 

-Noah Franc