‘Suicide Squad’ Review: Assembly Required

So you ordered a chair. It’s a beautiful chair, best chair you’ve ever seen, will show up all the other lame chairs in your apartment. It will really tie the room together, is what I’m saying. So you order the chair from IKEA, that’s a trusted retailer right? Awesome, your chair is on the way and best yet, you get free shipping within two days. What could possibly be better?

Well, when the chair arrives, not only is assembly required, but the pieces that did come with it are broken and, worse, others were lost on the way to your house. Turns out the two-day shipping was because IKEA needed to sell chairs and it needed them sold and shipped stat. Which is a shame, because all these broken pieces look like they would have made a nice chair. Then Jared Leto shows up out of nowhere to slap used condoms and dead rats in your face. Worst of all, the Joker doesn’t even do anything!

If the ambiguous title of “Suicide Squad review,” didn’t prime you, I am indeed talking about Suicide Squad. Someday, master classes will be done on the massive fuckups Warner Bros. made on both Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad, marketing hybrids masquerading as filmmaking, because woo boy. I went in expecting bad, primed by Batman v Superman, the notorious production tumult and subsequent poor reviews. I was not prepared for what I would see next.

After Superman’s death in BvS, tough-as-nails government agent Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has the genius idea to replace one metahuman with a bunch: Task Force X comprised of the most dangerous inmates of the Louisiana prison Belle Reve. There’s the perfect hitman Deadshot (Will Smith), the psychotic Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the alcoholic Australian thief Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), human crocodile Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and the flammable former gangbanger Diablo (Jay Hernandez). The “suicide squad” operates under Col. Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman) and his samurai bodyguard Katana (Karen Fukhura).

That leads us to our villain, the Enchantress (Cara Delevigne), a 6,000 year-old entity possessing Dr. June Moone, who is in a relationship with Flagg. Everything about this character is atrocious, most of all her computer-generated “plan” (this all-powerful witch, who effortlessly conquers an entire American city, resorts to nonlethal combat against the squad at the climax. How nice of her).

Meanwhile, arguably the greatest comic book villain of all time, The Joker (Jared Leto) is poorly introduced and flits around in the background pining for Harley like a barely-intelligible hyena. Why the hell wasn’t he the villain? Ike Barinholtz, Scott Eastwood and Common are also in the film for no discernible reason. Oh yeah, and Slipknot (Adam Beach), but me and the film agree on one point: fuck Slipknot.

The moment the film begins, it’s apparent something is wrong as music video vignettes introduce characters that are reintroduced in the immediate next scene. The movie has little to no idea what to do with its moving pieces. So much bad editing and pacing are papered over by so, so, so many songs.

There’s a ridiculous number of characters in this film. but honestly that’s the least of its problems, because Suicide Squad isn’t actually a movie. This is not a problem unique to this film, especially this summer movie season, but it is the most blatant I have seen yet. Squad doesn’t actually tell a story but cobbles together ideas. Saying this film has a “plot” is a disgrace to the word “plot.” There’s little-to-no concern for storytelling economy or payoffs. The only characters who have something resembling an arc are Deadshot, Quinn, Diablo and Flagg.

Quinn’s infamous relationship with Joker is an excellent example of the film’s arrogance. There is absolutely no set up and no reason for audiences to believe in Quinn’s transformation because at no point do we see a charismatic Joker on-screen. The film banks entirely on audiences’ already knowing and accepting Harley Quinn and her abusive relationship with a clown psychopath. Speaking of which, remember how The Dark Knight spent 6 minutes brilliantly setting up Heath Ledger in the role for the payoff at the end? Here, Leto is shoved in the audiences’ face, constantly leering and being a general creep. His Joker is uninteresting, either because his scenes were cut or his take on the character is just fundamentally annoying and stupid.

On the flip side, there is an absurd amount of talent on display here and not even the butchered story and pacing can prevent stars like Smith and Robbie from shining. It’s refreshing to see Smith having so much fun again and while he doesn’t go as dark as I hoped, he straddles the line between villain and antihero admirably. Robbie is an excellent Quinn, understanding the subtly of her psychosis even though the film presents an unnecessarily violent version of her origin story in flashbacks. Hernandez is the standout among the supporting cast while Kinnaman and Courtney acquit themselves well despite boring characters. Davis is fine and Delevigne is wasted.

More surprising than the film being bad is it having virtually the same problems every DCEU film has up until this point – nothing is planned, everything is reactive and nobody has any hands on the steering wheel. This one is even more “moments over scenes” than Batman v Superman, if that’s possible. I’d feel bad for Ayer and Zack Snyder for getting skull-fucked by corporate, but these are two of the bro-iest directors in Hollywood, churning out macho entertainment such as 300 or Fury. We (and WB execs) really should have known they’d turn the DCEU into a broad examination of toxic masculinity (I plan on writing a column on this).

After Suicide Squad, all I have is questions, namely how did something with so much potential end up so awful? Why did this movie need all of these characters? Why did it need the umpteenth “death by CGI” plot? The film is the equivalent a plate piled with food from a buffet line, the pile so high it devolves into a morass of conflicting flavors. There is no care for what goes together or what works; it’s all about packing in as much as possible, as quickly as possible. What a waste.

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X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) – Review

xmenapocalypseimax-1

The rise of a mutant god means the stakes have never been higher for the X-Men and yet, this sixth entry in the series is the most vacuous and without consequence of the franchise. As Marvel innovates within its model and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice tried (and failed, admittedly) to claim its own unique tone, X-Men: Apocalypse only stands out as a rote and repetitious. After 16 years of watching these films, audiences expect better.

Apocalypse is not as unrelentingly dark and deary as Batman v Superman but neither does it have the sharp character moments and interactions that made Civil War so joyous. While the former and latter veered in opposite directions with failure and success respectively, this entry in superhero canon accomplishes nothing of note. Say what you will about Batman v Superman (and I have) but you will not forget Granny’s Peach Tea after watching that movie.

It’s 1983 and a new day for mutants. In the decade since their reveal, they have earned a begrudging acceptance in wider society, allowing Charles Xavier’s School for the Gifted to flourish with young, familiar faces like Scott Summers and Jean Grey. Abroad, Raven aka Mystique works alone rescuing mutants from exploitation and Erik aka Magneto has started anew with a wife and daughter. Enter Apocalypse, a 2,000 year-old Egyptian mutant purported to be the world’s first, whose worshippers have awakened from hibernation.

A lot of the film’s choppy pacing can be attributed to the script from Simon Kinberg (based on a story by director Bryan Singer – back for his fourth go-around – and his X2 cohorts). It is exacerbated by surprisingly-sloppy editing, something unexpected coming from a director who pulled off the time travel juggling act with aplomb in Days of Future Past. There’s little sense of narrative arc or cohesiveness. When turns or payoffs are clearly meant to happen, they have diminished weight and feel more perfunctory than earned.

What does stand out are sequences, like whenever Evan Peters’ Quicksilver is showing off his powers or Wolverine’s extended cameo. Notably, both are echoes or revisions of previous popular parts of X-Men canon, as if reiterating how little this film has to offer the series

While getting a ton of marketing attention, the subtitular villain and his Four Horsemen are generic and their plot for world dominion is really stupid and, worse, a copy of a X2. The fact that Singer rounded up that films writers just to essentially remake it speaks volumes about the wheel-spinning neutrality he’s stuck the franchise in. There’s little sense of why they join Apocalypse, since he isn’t particularly charismatic or compelling.

Isaac is not as bad as I feared but that’s only because my expectations were so low that I expected a character assassination. Instead, we get two or three moments of Oscar Isaac straining to act through the makeup and the rest of the film he’s indistinguishable from the other doomsday villains who lack the resonance to make us fear them. For a film titled after him, he’s is its biggest disappointment.

Fassbender is outstanding but isn’t he always? His Magneto is a tortured Byronic hero of the tallest order but that the film just gives him absolution for his crimes (he commits genocide in this film, make no mistake) is laughable. McAvoy’s Professor X acts a fine counterpoint but, whether it’s his boyish looks or what, he still lacks the gravitas to believe in his naive wisdom. Lawrence is fine; there are hints of a story arc of her accepting her new role as hero but it’s pretty obviously an excuse to keep her happy and out of the makeup chair. Hoult is good as well, but underutilized again.

The young cast is good and the little glimmers of them just being teenagers was enough to get me to care about characters like Cyclops, mostly thanks to good work from Tye Sheridan. Sophie Turner also does the best with what she has, with the promise of a larger role to come. Shipp is good but largely wasted as an Apocalypse lackey for most of the film. Kodi Smit-McPhee is the standout as the adorable Nightcrawler. Poor Rose Byrne gets the shortest of the short sticks, basically acting as an exposition sex doll for Professor X.

Even writing this review, I struggle to remember what this movie was. It attempts to balance emotional devastation with snarky quips, to give two sides coherent development but both are half-hearted. Its cardinal sin is forgetting to be about something. This is a film with all the ingredients to a successful X-Men flick but none of the heart or depth.

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Captain America: Civil War (2016) – Review

Captain America: Civil War

Captain America: Civil War is as exemplary as any Marvel film about what they can and have achieved. It uses the past 12 films as a huge canvas to paint a personal story. It maintains the insane balancing act of telling, first and foremost, a Captain America story, second an Avengers movie and third, the thirteenth film in the ongoing MCU series. The film mentions that, as in our universe, it’s been eight years since the Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) revealed himself as Iron Man.  So much has changed since then, but Civil War proves Marvel remains ahead of the curve.

After an Avengers mission against in Africa goes awry, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and his team of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Scarlet Witch (Wanda Maximoff) and The Vision (Paul Bettany) are ordered by the new secretary of state Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt), with the support of Stark, to sign the Sokovia Accords, a registration act that would put the Avengers under the authority of the United Nations.

The Accords issue becomes more complicated with re-entrance of Cap’s best friend and fellow time traveler Bucky Barnes aka Winter Soldier, who becomes a lightning rod that draws the new king of Wakanda T’Challa aka Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and the mysterious Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), both with their own agendas for Bucky. And that’s not even mentioning Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) or the new Spider-Man (Tom Holland).

The fact that it is as good as it is obfuscates any flaws that lurk beneath the surface. Because directors Anthony & Joe Russo have complete tonal and narrative control, they can indulge in expert misdirection, juggling the largest cast of superheroes in any movie yet.

They compose beautiful shots and translate comic book action better than anyone. The airport scene that sees the Team Iron Man and Team Cap full-on fighting gives due to every character, whether it’s Hawkeye or Vision. Amazingly visceral fight scenes mirror and feed off the intensely personal story, one that doesn’t pull punches but doesn’t feel gratuitous. When we are horrified, it has a point and that makes it all the more potent.

Cap’s story from the beginning has been inextricable from Bucky’s. In the comics, he began as a rote sidekick, an asswipe of the highest order. But later writers re-imagined him as Cap’s competent peer and then his popularity exploded with Ed Brubaker’s Winter Soldier story, which was the basis for the previous Cap film.

While the filmmakers likened that film to a political thriller, they curiously cast Civil War as a psychological thriller. At one point, they said they were inspired by the uber-dark serial killer thriller Se7en. Let’s put it this way: Aa Devin Faraci points out in the latest Heroic Insider, upon seeing the film it actually makes complete sense.

In this film, amidst the massive set pieces and fight scenes, it’s the moments of character stakes that stick out; when Tony and Cap are in a room, when the Avengers pair off such as Vision and Scarlet Witch, Falcon and Bucky, Spidey and Tony, the list goes on. These relationships establish the stakes.

We as an audience didn’t need to think these people were going to fucking murder each other to buy why they’d go at it. What I was skeptical of prior, how they would treat what amounts to a “family dispute” with gravitas, I was completely sold on during. This is a movie that understands payoff in a way most other movies are almost allergic to nowadays.

It’s long but it doesn’t feel overly stuffed because even the lesser roles get character beats and miniarcs. Everyone from Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) and Hurt, missing since Marvel’s red-headed stepchild The Incredible Hulk (and they should bring him back again as Red Hulk, just saying) get a chance to shine. They also craft a villain as good or better than Loki, in Zemo, a righteous antagonist whose lack of superpowers somehow makes him all the more threatening. A great villain in a universe that has been steadily improving in the area.

Black Panther was hands-down my favorite character and, while his solo film was already at the top of my Marvel must-see list thanks to director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) it’s Chadwick Boseman’s controlled rage, his soulful yet furious balancing act of a performance and fucking killer dialogue (consisting mostly of badass boasts delivered badassly) elevate it into the stratosphere. The mid-credits scene is a Black Panther tease and I can’t even praise it anymore because it’s so good.

Everyone is also talking about Spider-Man and he’s truly as good as they say. He pops in and out of the film very easily and feels natural, which was a shock actually. Holland’s rapport with Downey is nice but it’s the other bug hero Scott Lang aka Ant-Man that I think is even better with the best reveal of the movie given to him. But yet again, how all these characters bounce off each other is so natural and effortless and evocative of each character that you can’t help but be swept up in it, along with inevitable comparisons.

The elephant in the room is the film’s rival, the Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice of it all. First, the films are as similar as we we suspected. They’re so similar that not comparing them almost doesn’t make sense. Second, in almost every regard Civil War is better. It’s almost a factual statement (but not, because it’s my opinion, natch). It performs all the tasks that the former did with none of the flaws i.e. orchestrating a legitimate rivalry between heroes into epic fights motivated by a secret villain and introducing a ton of new elements. Compare the introductions of Spider-Man and Black Panther to what they did with Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman and there’s little to talk about. But I’m not here to shit on either, just get perspective.

Captain America: Civil War succeeds on its own terms. Where others’ would zig, the Russo brothers and Kevin Feige zagged because they know the story they are telling. Why? Because they have past decades of rich veins to tap for further decades to come. Do you have a favorite comic book? Hell, a favorite comic panel? Chances are you’ll see in the next 10-15 years. And you can probably bet as of today that Marvel will be leading the way.

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The Walking Dead 6.16: Last Day on Earth – Review

The Walking Dead

Don’t worry, fellow The Walking Dead fans. The show heard the criticism from this season (especially prevalent over the last two episodes) and responded accordingly – by supersizing the finale to 90 minutes to cram in every single poor storytelling choice and character decision they could. The irony was that they still denied viewers a satisfying climax, instead going with the tired who-is-dead? for the third fucking time this season. Except this time, the audience has to wait six months to get an answer.

Like me, a lot of viewers are rightfully upset and a lot of critics are walking away. The producers can defend it all they want and they’ll probably have the ratings and “fuck you” money to get away with it. But the show has become a stunningly predictable slog with a propensity for foot-shooting almost at every turn. This was the worst conceivable version of a finale. Let’s recap.

With Maggie suffering from labor pains and Denise dead, Rick put together a team including Carl, Sasha, Abraham, Eugene and Aaron to take her to Hilltop for medical help, leaving Fr. Gabriel and Spencer in charge of Alexandria’s defense (one of Rick’s many questionable leadership decisions this episode).

What follows is precisely this: they drive, hit a roadblock contrived by the Saviors (a blockade of cars, a chain of zombies, a pile of logs etc.) rinse, repeat. Literally, that is the plot of this “special” 90 minute episode. But really all this nonsense does is reinforce that “plot” has been a nonentity the final three episodes this season, with characters going on mad dashes from the safety of Alexandria’s walls per script requirements.

It also continues a trend I hate: villains keeping the heroes alive way past suspension of disbelief. The Saviors’ herding of our survivors as part of Negan’s mind game was reminiscent of the way Terminus did the same to get our survivors trapped in a train car in the other, superior Walking Dead cliffhanger finale of Season 4.

Instead, the show meanders into narrative brick walls every few episodes, to the point that it seems not only intentional but malicious. Given the amount of dirty storytelling tricks played this season, it seems like the producers and showrunners are deeply out of touch of the wants and needs of the audience. No amount of semantics will change the fact that the ending withholding Negan’s victim, regardless of their identity, only lessens the impact of the death.

The last time the show actually fulfilled a promise like that was season 4’s midseason finale “Too Far Gone,” the final prison/Governor episode that understood audience expectations and delivered in an gratifying way. But even that was only after an entire third season that built to a prison battle . . . that happened next year!

Look at its AMC sibling Breaking Bad. That was a show that wrung every decision for every ounce of drama. Everything had consequences, everything matter, the show was constantly evolving and changing within the framework of Walt’s descent/ascent as a meth kingpin. The Walking Dead doesn’t come close to that but you can tell it wants to. It needs to.

But when you have to hit preconceived beats, the writers end up coasting over drama beats others would milk. Like, how is Carl dealing with one eye? Seems like a big change. Haven’t heard a word on Glenn’s crisis after taking his first life since the show had to bother. Is Rosita actually a character? Why is Spencer around? All these strands exist indepedent of the narrative, not because of it. Thus, the show feels destined and predetermined as opposed to organic and natural.

A lot of these problems are probably traceable to creator/producer Robert Kirkman, who has always been insistent the show follow the comic to a large degree. In my opinion, a big reason Darabont left in Season 2, beyond budgetary constraints by AMC, was that Kirkman wanted to follow the comic and he was interested tangents like the CDC (which Kirkman didn’t like) and hanging out on a farm. At the time, it worked to boot Darabont but now the show is little more than a few years behind the comic and its attempts to “remix” classic moments, like tonight’s Negan/Lucille introduction, lack the necessary dramatic power.

I haven’t even mentioned the Carol/Morgan side-story, which as I’ve written about all season, worked for me . . . until this episode. Once again, recap: Morgan finds her, loses her, Carol gets shot by the survivor Savior from last week’s confrontation (who inexplicably went on a suicide mission instead of driving away) Morgan finds her again, kills the Savior (a moment which should feel weighty but doesn’t), then gets helped by two armored dudes on horseback. They’re members of the Kingdom, another new community led by Ezekiel, a former zookeeper with a pet tiger(!), whom I imagine we’ll be meeting this fall. I’m glad Lennie James is sticking around for Season 7 but is it just me, or did Carol seriously under-react to getting shot?

The ending scene and cliffhanger shittily resolved last week’s “cliffhanger” of Dwight shooting Daryl by simply showing us a bloody Daryl. Awesome. Between Carol and him, bullet wounds seem positively minor. We got our monologue dose of Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Negan and we got another bloody camera lens to end an episode. This isn’t a cliffhanger that asks possibilities. It’s just an excuse to tease out a death for six months. Any sense of dread built by the episode or Negan’s game was drained by a lack of consequence. Oops, see you in October!

It didn’t succeed in exciting me for Season 7, which will open on the crushed-in skull of the victim, presumably. As far as what to expect when it returns, I think the first fall half of the season will be the reign of Negan that will open up the show to adapt the epic All-Out War arc for the second half in winter/spring 2017.

In the meantime, I’ll be reviewing Game of Thrones Season 6, just as I did Season 5 last year, but doing it for Heroic Hollywood, the premiere site for pop culture buffs like me! It’s an exciting step up and I hope you’ll follow me there. And you can always get other reviews and updates right here on the Slog. Until October, fellow Dead-heads!

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The Walking Dead 6.15: East – Review

The Walking Dead

C’mon, The Walking Dead, Multiple beginnings? I thought Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice had the worst opening act of the weekend but the first ten minutes of the sixth season penultimate episode “East” was rough.

A Carol-focus is a good thing but opening flashforward was unnecessary and the montage – touching on the romances of Rick/Michonne, Glenn/Maggie and Abraham/Sasha/Rosita felt out of place after the scene between Carol and Tobin.

Daryl, clearly wracked with guilt over Denise’s death last week, runs off after his nemesis Dwight. Glenn, Michonne and Rosita run after Daryl without consulting Rick, who prompty takes off himself after Carol with Morgan, ordering Abraham, Sasha and Tobin to be prepared. Do as I say, not as I do, eh Rick? God, writing that series of un-events was painful. It feels like way-obvious pawn-moving on the writers’ part.

That said, there is always redemption in The Walking Dead, if not by the story but the characters. For example, Melissa McBride’s performance this week went a long way to clarifying Carol’s journey more, which seemed to go off the rails in recent weeks. At first, her evolution seemed panicked and rushed, but reflection of Morgan’s influence and her experience in episode 13 and suddenly I can see the thread emerge: she has a crisis of conscience and of fear, and she’s running.

Carol’s inner turmoil is endlessly fascinating and McBride’s scene of her breaking down in front of the Saviors, who think she’s weak when actually she just doesn’t want to kill them is heartbreaking. Wish I could say the same of the circumstances the show has put its characters, which feel less tragic and more arbitrary.

Glenn, Michonne and Rosita catch up to Daryl. Glenn’s speech backfires when not only Daryl refuses to let go but Rosita joins him. The duos part ways in probably the most ill-advised “let’s split up gang” since Scooby Doo. This turns sour immediately when Glenn and Michonne are captured by Dwight and his crew of Saviors.*

*Why do the Saviors not blow these people away? I get that they run the zombie apocalypse version of a protection racket and need able bodies but Rick’s group has slaughtered over 40 Saviors by my count. You’d think somebody with an itchy trigger finger and lust for vengeance would’ve killed someone by now. Or maybe it’s just indicative of the absolute hold Negan and his rules have on his minions.

I felt we didn’t get enough Rick and Morgan this season, so it’s nice to have this episode provided some great moments between the two on the search for Carol. After finding the aftermath of Carol’s encounter with the Saviors, they set out on foot on her trail, tailed by a wounded Savior. Rick and Morgan encounter a rando in “armor” supposedly looking for his horse. OK. Morgan forces Rick to let him escape by deflecting his gunfire and finally confesses about his earlier encounters with the Wolf, in and out of Alexandria. Rick is pissed but Morgan informs him the chain of events led to the Wolf saving Denise and she saving Carl. Morgan insists he continue alone and the two men part ways with a sweet callback-to-a-callback of his missing protein bar (SPOILER: Michonne totally took it).

I feel Morgan’s humanity has become essential to this show and would hate to see him go next week, either as an addition or replacement of Glenn’s death. It’s beyond my love of Lennie James; Morgan represents civilization and a pull away from the ruthless, survivalist world Rick inhabits. Way back in the premiere, I was most fascinated by the show seemingly taking a page from another AMC juggernaut Breaking Bad and shading the hero darker and darker. It didn’t become a huge theme of the season but, perhaps like Morgan’s jail cell, it’s a setup for things even further down the line than we imagined.

 

We end with a fairly pathetic attempt at a cliffhanger. Daryl and Rosita, attempting to rescue Glenn and Michonne (stupidly, I might add), are unsurprisingly ambushed by Dwight and his Saviors. Dwight shoots Daryl, but all the viewer sees is blood splatter on the camera as it fades to black, and Dwight says, “You’ll be alright.” (100% cheapening an already lazy trope).

It sucks and is evocative of last fall’s #IsGlennDead debacle. Why the show keeps cycling these tired conventions is baffling. Does it think it’s a hot feature, like yoga pants? Like addicts, can they not stay away from lazy subterfuge? Is the stubborn refusal to bend to critical analysis a sign of tonal control or “fuck you” money?

Who knows? At this point, we need Negan to shake things this repetition up.

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Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) – Review

Batman v Superman: Dawn of JusticeBatman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has all the problems we feared it would. This is Iron Man 2 on steroids. It’s a stepping stone, a get-rich-quick scheme by by a desperate studio Warner Bros. to ape the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Zack Snyder makes a macho-as-hell film that turns the titular characters into solipsistic Ubermensch. Meanwhile, the immense pressure to redeem Man of Steel, introduce Batman and the entire D.C. universe while actually telling a story proves too much for this single film to bear.

(SPOILERS FROM THE FILM BELOW)

Opening with a retellings of the murder of Bruce’s parents (cameos by Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Lauren Cohan) and Man of Steels climax from Bruce Wayne’s (Ben Affleck) perspective, it quickly establishes itself as a movie with a lot on its plate and little in the way of momentum. Two years after the last film, Superman (Henry Cavill) has become the world’s savior but remains controversial and even hated in some circles. The film’s events drive Batman to see him as a global threat and confront him while Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) manipulates both sides from behind the scenes.

A lot of stuff happens in between, none of it clear or linear. And none of this mentions the sprawling supporting cast featuring returnees Amy Adams, Diane Lane and Laurence Fishburne, newcomers like Jeremy Irons and Gal Gadot as the very first big screen Wonder Woman and the cameos by three future Justice Leaguers – The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher). And that’s even not including Doomsday, the Superman villain-turned-Orc ripoff. This movie is huge.

The film’s weaknesses intertwine corporate interests with aggressive Snyder-ism. This isn’t a movie but a morass. The first act’s editing is objectively terrible, a mess of scenes with little sense of flow between them. It feels pieced-together, a patchwork and hodgepodge of scenarios and ideas, some interesting some not but none given time to breath in between nonsense plot threads. No one is introduced in ways that properly set up their characters because of this. It feels very rearranged.

The film gets a shot-in-the-arm in the second act when it introduces Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince, otherwise known as Wonder Woman. Hey playfulness is sorely missed when she is not on-screen; the middle part of the film where she and Bruce attempt to steal from Luthor could have been a fun Thomas Crown Affair-like caper. Instead, the film barely notices before moving on.

The film is as dark as has been said. In Snyder’s conception, these “heroes” are ultimately fascistic figures who impose their will on the world instead of representations of ideals. The film mocks the idea of “justice” and gives almost no quarter to idealism. This is a blockbuster superhero movie with human trafficking, mass murder and torture. Were any of these things necessary to make the film “realistic?”

Snyder (and the film) argues that the D.C. superheroes are akin to the Greek gods, the cultural idols of our time. However, he also makes them as petulant, vengeful and angry as the Greek pantheon was. They were power-hungry and acted without quarter; that is exactly how the film portrays Batman and Superman.

Each character’s struggle, ostensibly the heart of the film and what drives them to fight, is opaque and dour. Occasionally, I would relate to Bruce’s feeling of helplessness or Clark’s damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. But these windows are brief.

We are told Superman is adored for the good he’s done. But we see little of either. Happiness is nonexistent in this D.C. universe and, per the actual definition of superheroes, they don’t exist in it either yet. In fact, the movie goes out of its way to tell us that Superman, as we know him, is 1930s bullshit and we’d better get used to this “real” Superman.

Batman displays uncharacteristic recklessness with the lives of others. While previous big-screen Batmen were hardly saints, it’s rarely been this blatant about his lack of concern for loss of life. And it stands even more starkly after three fucking years of people bitching about Superman killing Zod. You think they would have learned.

Maybe the saddest part is that there are rich ideas at play but the filmmakers are constrained by so many factors that they drown out whatever insights the film could’ve offered. And by God does the Fridge Logic of this movie suck. Nothing makes sense in hindsight. It barely passes muster in the theater.

Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor is failed by either the script or the actor, both of which never convince the audience that Luthor is anything other than a twitchy, obviously-evil psychopath. There could have been a contrast to Bruce’s own dual identities. You can see parts where the tone of the scene changes based on Luthor’s persona cracking and his darkness shows through. But he is never particularly charismatic or persuasive. In fact, the opposite. Even when supposedly “sweet-talking” a senator (Holly Hunter), he always comes off as mustache-twirling villain.

What is the audience supposed to walk away with from this film? There’s very little sense of completion; the only character who comes close in Affleck, who takes Batman from a raging Superman hater to honoring him by founding the Justice League. It’s the only arc that remotely works. Gadot isn’t given enough to do and Cavill remains a subpar Clark Kent / Superman. I wish I could say he’s grown with the character, but he’s mopey and aimless in this film.

This problem is encapsulated by an early scene set in Africa. Lois Lane is there on assignment because it makes her look “tough” as a character. But we all know it’s a set-up for something Superman-related. However, once this is revealed, a bunch of goons kill everyone. Superman doesn’t show up till the end and even then, he’s focused solely on saving his girlfriend. This Superman is not optimistic. This Superman was not raised to believe in the best of humanity but the worst. But, at the same time, the film wants Superman to be Superman, saving people and doing selfless deeds. It’s in-congruent and Cavill and the script can never sell the dilemma or even spell out the dilemma with clear stakes.

Batman has a dream/vision without explanation (dubbed the “Knightmare”) in the midst of the film depicting Earth as the domain of Darkseid with Superman as the leader of  Nazi-looking stormtroopers and Batman as a desert revolutionary. It’s a blatant copy of the worst part of Marvel movies (i.e. whenever Thanos has popped up the last four years) to tease events several years and films away. It’s meant to double as an illustration of Batman’s stakes and Lois’ role as Superman’s tether to humanity but like the rest of the film it’s muddled and quickly forgotten in the cacophony. It’s as bad as Thor’s infamous cave scene in Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Now what is the film telling us by showing us the Africa scene and dictator Superman? We already know Superman can’t save everyone; every conversation about Man of Steel over the past three years has concerned the destruction of Metropolis. This point needs no reiteration yet the film opens with the same question, repeated. And then, it doesn’t even illustrate an improved Superman. He doesn’t, for example, stop the murders before they happen. He only shows up too late. The film undermines the very idea of heroes so, by the end, when they have to do heroic things and Bruce delivers a closing monologue, it feels false and cheap.

What is a superhero, in its most basic form? If you ask most people, the answer will probably involve “powers” and a drive to do good with them. Really, those are the two most defining characteristics of traditional superheroes. Wish-fulfillment is elemental to all these characters. They are who we wish we could be, what we wish we could do. But when the “heroes” are devoid of joy, self-pitying and vicious because it’s “realistic?” They are no longer the characters that have captivated for decades. That’s the biggest failure of the film.

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The Walking Dead 6.14: Twice as Far – Review

The Walking Dead

It was inevitable after a series of strong episodes The Walking Dead would deliver a clunker.

It’s not even that “Twice as Far” is necessarily bad but it was more transitory than previous weeks, feeling more like an echo than a song. It had a conflict with the Saviors, some supply talk nonsense and character movement into positions primed for the season finale, ominously titled “Last Day on Earth.” It just didn’t have quite the narrative momentum of previous weeks and Denise’s death (thankfully taking the arrow, as it were, for Abraham who died the same death in the comics) while sad wasn’t unsurprising in thet least.

The Walking Dead has always been directorially ambitious enough to match its apocalyptic story, going all the way back to the amazing shot in the pilot of Rick riding a horse into a desolate Atlanta. “Twice as Far” gave us an opening montage with an interesting visual dissolve technique. When the story suffers, as it always does on this show, it’s nice to see the filming conventions pushed further.

Speaking Walking Dead stories, the best seem to percolate in the background and have hard time in the foreground. The Carol/Morgan conflict of killing vs. no killing has played off to the side all season but now seems to coming to the fore in the last two episodes, what with Carol leaving Alexandria and Morgan set to find her. For my money, it’s been the best part of the season, a character-driven storyline about moral consequences (albeit with a lame ending to the Wolf’s story back episode 9).

I realized belatedly this episode that Morgan’s actual prison cell he’s been constructing in his house, akin to his friend Eastman’s, will be the future home of (START COMIC SPOILERS) Negan. If it ends up being Morgan instead of Glenn who meets his maker at the hands of Negan in the coming finale, it’ll add some symmetry to Rick’s decision to keep Negan alive after winning the war against him (END COMIC SPOILERS). For those wary of spoilers, what this means is the show thinking ahead to Season 8. Gimple has always been clever, perhaps too much, about his Chekov’s Guns, laying the groundwork well ahead of time for maximum payoff.

“Twice as Far’s” main focus was the twin supply trips of Daryl, Rosita and Denise as well as Abraham and Eugene. While the former searches for medicine, the latter find a factory where Eugene can manufacture bullets. Both are boring in of themselves but it’s the characters’ trajectories that actually at play here. Eugene gets to assert himself to Abraham, Rosita gets to stand aside from Abraham (until she hilariously is upstaged again at the end), and Denise gets her moment in the sun that predictably precedes a death.

 

One cool development that did occur was the return of Dwight (Austin Amelio) last seen in Episode 6 stealing Daryl’s bike and crossbow and christened with a new burn scar as punishment for his previous insurrection. Daryl retrieved his bike from the Saviors’ compound two weeks ago and gets his crossbow back this time but only after Dwight used it to shoot Denise through the eye. He then takes Eugene, who separated from Abraham to prove his mettle, hostage and demands Daryl and Rosita take them to Alexandria.

Fortunately, Abraham followed Eugene and ambushes group allowing  our team to escape. Eugene takes a bullet but survives. Back at Alexandria, boring white boy Spencer tries to get in boring Latina Rosita’s pants, Abraham wants to shack up Sasha, and Carol leaves her new romance with Tobin to depart Alexandria, determining if she’s lost the will to kill, she wants to be away from those she would kill for.

It’s a similar sentiment that Rick banished her for way back in Season 4 and it even gets a reference in Carol’s letter/ending monologue. It could backfire and make this story a retread of last time, but for now, I’ll take anything that bring Lennie James and his stick to the fore.

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The Walking Dead 6.13: The Same Boat – Review

The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead continues its Season 6B hot streak. Most impressively, “The Same Boat,” a Carol-centric episode, was a great example of what Season 6A did not do well: highlight specific characters while moving the plot forward.

The episode was laser-focused on Carol and Maggie’s predicament, being kidnapped by the surviving Saviors from last week’s climatic massacre.

But they framed it within the context of the previous week, rather than going off on a unrelated tangent. There’s nothing wrong with bottle episodes; in fact, they can even better than the story proper when done right. And “The Same Boat” does it very right.

The two women find themselves captured by four Saviors – Paula, Michelle, Molly and Donnie – who try to make an exchange with Rick for another captured Savior. They call in backup and hole up at a slaughterhouse (the aforementioned “bottle”).

Paula and Michelle act as effective foils for Carol and Maggie respectively. Alicia Witt, who played Paula, was especially good and reminds me of how another bottle episode feature – the one-off guest star – can actually be a character rather than a cipher or function of the plot.

One of this week’s failings was Carol’s arc in the episode – continuing to come to terms with her body count (20 as of this episode) – felt woefully unearned. Melissa McBride can sell pretty much anything but nonetheless there were pieces missing. This despite the fact that the Carol/Morgan conflict (Lennie James is sadly missing this week) was the best subplot of the first half.

While there was a month between the end of the Alexandria walker invasion and this era of the show and Carol could conceivably begin reflecting during that, the show tells (literally when Carol writes her murder list) rather than shows her growing doubt and regret. This makes it seem to come out of nowhere, particularly when she started as far at the other end of the spectrum as she did during the Wolves’ attack in “JSS.”

But the flaws, few that there are, in this episode are far over shadowed by the good, such as Billy Gierhart’s direction and, man, those performances. Witt and McBride are great and so is Lauren Cohan, thankfully better utilized this half-season than as Glenn griever in the last.

The show is finally willing to actually let the audience doubt their characters. Even when the group killed the Terminus cannibals, it was made clear they had it coming. Our group’s morality remained unsullied. That facade seemed to start breaking when Rick and the others got to Alexandria

Now the show has taken a page from the playbook of AMC’s masterpiece Breaking Bad and finally examined the moral relativism, both inside characters. There were hints of this way back in the premiere where Rick seemed edging closer and closer to the selfish, me-first nature of Walter White. It was dark, it was compelling, it was . . . more or less dropped after.

Now, with the conflict with the Saviors in full-swing, Angela Kang’s writing did a great job graying it up, presenting Paula and her group not as cowards like the Termites or savages like the Wolves but people just a few moral gradations away from our protagonists.

“We are all Negan” is not just an obfuscating tactic of their leader’s behalf but a thematic point – they are all human and they are all dedicated. The Governor had to manipulate people to do his bidding. The Saviors’ do Negan’s willingly. And that is what makes them so much more dangerous than anyone Rick’s crew has yet met. These people have been radicalized to the point they all have become “Negan.”

Shivers.

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10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) – Review

10 Cloverfield Lane

CREDIT: ComingSoon

First things first, 10 Cloverfield Lane is not a sequel (or prequel, or side-quel) to Cloverfield. The films share some themes and details but they’re all tertiary, evidence of the script’s late conversion into a patented J.J. Abrams Mystery Box. It seems that the shared titles are anthological, akin to Abrams’ Twilight Zone of low budget genre films. It’s a little bit bait-and-switch and I was prepared to hate the fact that Abrams’ sold me a false bill of goods. Fortunately, enough of Dan Trachtenberg’s directorial debut is good that it mitigates that disappointment as well as inevitable story weaknesses.

Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is in a troubled engagement (the film’s opening, a wordless montage of her packing her bags and leaving without her ring, immediately establishes Trachtenberg’s prowess for visual storytelling and mise-en-scene). While driving, Michelle is run off the road and awakens in the underground bunker of survivalist Howard Stambler (John Goodman), a paranoid former Navy man and satellite engineer.

He claims to have saved her from the wreck and brought her to his home because an apocalyptic attack has left the outside world inhospitable. While Howard is clearly troubled from the start, Michelle, along with fellow survivor Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), learn he may be right about the attack, paving the way for escalating tensions as time passes and secrets emerge.

The film largely succeeds on the strength of the performers. Goodman is brilliant in everything he’s a part of (The Flintstones nonwithstanding)  and it’s the case here. While I wish the script had layered more subtlety, especially at the beginning, about Howard’s mental state, Goodman is so good that he allows flickers of humanity to shine through even after, just enough to make us doubt ourselves about this man, who seems to have been proven right about everything.

Winstead is a lady MacGyver. There’s an early scene, when she initially discovers her predicament and she starts crying before steeling and using her own IV as a tool. Her relationship with her savior Howard (or rather, his fixation on her as substitute for his mysteriously-absent daughter Megan) forms the spine of the story, combining feminism and Freud into a mediation Michelle’s feminine empowerment over patriarchy and male impotence.

Gallagher is very good despite being dealt the “third wheel” role. Both the writing and his acting elevate the role above plot function or comic relief and he adds weight to the proceedings, caught between the two leads as an object of Howard’s scorn and Michelle’s affection (though thankfully an unnecessary love story is avoided).

It’s an accomplished debut for Trachtenberg, who got on peoples’ radars, including Abrams’, through a fan film based on the video game series Portal. He makes the most of the bunker’s confined, claustrophobic setting and packs information into most every frame. It isn’t until Act III when Michelle executes her escape that Trachtenberg spends much of his $5 million budget and therein lies what I hate to admit is the film’s weakness.

It’s pretty easy to see where the rewritten elements were added to appease and connect the film to the previous one, because it’s when all the money shows up on screen in the form of CGI. I can confirm there are monsters for fixers like me, but after the ratcheting tension in the bunker, even I felt like the balloon had let the air out, along with common sense and reason. Even if the genre elements feel tacked on and leave something to be desired, the film’s final shot is flat-out amazing.

See, 10 Cloverfield Lane began as The Cellar (and as Valencia during production), an acclaimed spec script with no relation to Cloverfield. Upon development, it was producer Abrams’ idea to make this part of the Cloverfield universe or anthology or brand or whatever the hell he wants to call it, ostensibly to help get the film made in a franchise-driven marketplace.

An actual Cloverfield 2 had only been bandied about by fans and by the off-the-cuff remarks of the creative team, including director Matt Reeves (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) writer Drew Goddard (The Martian), Abrams, his producing partner Bryan Burk. Ultimately, it seemed none of them had any idea what they wanted to do and so lacked any motivation or enthusiasm to develop it.

Now, with this film’s release, Abrams has been teasing, in varying terminology, about the series and a potential third film. “This is just this movie, and it’s only two films that we’re talking about right now,” Abrams told EW on the film’s press day. “[But] there is something else that we’d like to do, and hopefully we’ll get a shot.”

If Abrams can keep delivering genre films this good, I will consider a potential Cloverfield sequel or return of the Clover monster a bonus rather than a requirement. Considering my resistance to his exploitation of this brand, I’d say that’s my stamp of approval for 10 Cloverfield Lane.

Grade: B

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The Walking Dead 6.12: Not Tomorrow Yet – Review

the walking dead

EDITOR’S NOTE: This review was delayed by life and other things. Complaints can be transmitted by Morse code only to .. . .. … . . .. . . .. .. . All current technologies are prohibited. Solicitors will be summarily executed.

The second half of The Walking Dead‘s sixth season is working in all the ways the first half didn’t. The herky-jerky pace is gone, conceivable time is given to building (the Carol/Tobin kiss was a welcome surprise) and severing (Abraham is insane to leave Rosita even if she does have no discernible personality) romantic relationships and characters struggle with weakness without being complete fucking morons.

The midseason premiere succinctly wrapped the zombie herd/Wolves arc a bit too neatly but at least established a clean break for the show to have a “first time again,” as it has multiple times in the past. The group, scattered in the first half and trapped within a timeline of two days stretched over eight episodes, is back together and they stay together. After a trip to Hilltop last week, Rick led another mission of his A-Team to assault one of the Saviors’ compound.

It’s a pulse-pounding action sequence that notably involves zero zombies and utterly successful. Rick’s group has been transformed by his leadership and the zombie apocalypse into a black ops team. Jesus (Tom Payne) continues to be a great addition who adds flavors of mystery and mischief  and I can’t get enough of the Badass Gay that is Aaron (Ross Marquand). More of both, please.

The show doesn’t shy away from the moral ambiguity of Rick’s plan – to preemptively murder all the Saviors for both protection and trade with Hilltop. Since this is The Walking Dead, where there’s a moral question, there will be a black guy to question it (ask T-Dog, Oscar, Tyreese, Bob etc.). Morgan, the latest in the line, is thankfully back after two weeks. His bond with Carol – who told the others to keep the Wolf incident secret – is delightfully complex, as is his no-killing philosophy. The show absolutely needs Morgan’s perspective but given that he died during the zombie invasion in the comics, I fear he’s living on borrowed time.

Speaking of moral quandaries, appropriate gravitas is given to Glenn and Heath taking their first human lives during the attack, Steven Yeun and Corey Hawkins are highly-capable actors coupled with some potent material and direction, specifically the scene where Glenn’s face crumbles as he stabs the head of a sleeping Savior off-screen and then takes Heath’s place to kill another. It’s heartwarming in a Glenn way and then brilliantly followed by the sight of Polaroids, all depicting numerous victims with crushed skulls and brains from what looks like a baseball bat . . .

And how badass has the redemption of Fr. Gabriel been? You couldn’t sink much lower than where that character’s been. He’s been the very definition of a Butt Monkey and Hate Sink, seemingly written specifically to piss people off. This was of course strategic to make the transformation much more satisfying but I doubted it would work. Turns out, both Seth Gilliam and the writing staff paid this character arc off, to the point that the cowardly priest delivered a postmortem one-liner and it worked.

“Amen.”

Grade: A+

 

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