Suicide Squad (2016)

★★

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Suicide Squad PosterDirector: David Ayer

Release Date: August 5th, 2016 (UK & US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Comedy

Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto, Joel Kinnaman

One of Batman v Superman’s biggest downfalls, as cited by the majority, was Zack Snyder’s reluctance to at least intermittently swerve away from a brooding tone. You cannot have a superhero movie without fun, right? And Batman v Superman was no fun, right? Perhaps I’m in the minority but I enjoyed the serious streak throughout Snyder’s film. Particularly the creator’s move to inject his superhero outing with a bout of harsh reality (co-writers Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer also deserve credit on that front). The end result never came close to threatening Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, not in genre terms nor thematically, but it did offer an alternative to the mantra of wit championed by Marvel.

Which is to say, essentially, that I was disappointed when I heard about the high profile Suicide Squad reshoots a few months prior to the film’s release. Especially since the rumour mill at the time pinned said reshoots on studio suits requesting more humour, they having seen an early cut of the film. Given this information was made public in early April, just weeks after the release of Batman v Superman, it doesn’t take a Commissioner-Gordon-esque detective to work out why DC higher-ups were worried about Suicide Squad’s tone. It’s a clawing bugbear of mine, changing one’s initial vision to suit the conjectural needs of moviegoers and/or studio execs.

And sure enough, the version of Suicide Squad that has made it through the cutting room and onto our cinema screens is a shell of what it could have — and very well may have — been. Jai Courtney revealed the reshoots were intended to bulk up the film’s action content, which strikes me as odd at best: I can’t say I’ve ever come across an action movie that wrapped filming without enough action. Regardless, if what Courtney claims is true, his words still paint the decision to reshoot sections as a worthless venture. The action in Suicide Squad is, after all, utterly generic. The fantasy elements are weightless. This is less Guardians of the Galaxy and more Thor: The Dark World — no Hiddleston or Hemsworth, only bland enemies and a lot of urban decimation.

Instead we have Will Smith as Deadshot, marksman extraordinaire and de facto leader of a criminal gang assembled by government agent Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) to deal with any catastrophic threat, such as a villainous metahuman. “In a world of flying men and monsters, this is the only way to protect our country,” apparently. Other baddies-on-a-mission include: Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), a psychopath, Courtney’s Captain Boomerang, flame-conjurer El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), and a talking crocodile (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) is the guy keeping them all right in the field, though his mission takes on a more personal pretence when the impending catastrophic threat turns out to be his girlfriend. Well, sort of — it’s Cara Delevingne as archaeologist June Moone corrupted by a bland ancient spirit.

Having decided the successful introduction of so many new faces wouldn’t be enough of a challenge, Ayer also summons Jared Leto to play the iconic Joker character. And since the Joker is a classic Batman villain, Ben Affleck is afforded the opportunity to earn a fleeting Batcheck too. This volume is a problem, the film’s most glaring misstep. Suicide Squad is, by definition, an ensemble piece that should be about connecting the arcs of characters already familiar to us. The idea that anybody could reel off so many personalities and effectively colour each of them with specialised quirks and emotive ticks is absurd. It took four years and five films for Marvel to acclimatise viewers to its universe, and only then could The Avengers work as well as it did. (I don’t mean to invoke Marvel at every opportunity when discussing DC outings, but when the former has perfected a storytelling model it would be remiss of me not to point out the latter’s mistake in ignoring it.)

We have Leto, for instance, whose Joker is set up for big things that never arrive. The actor tries, his interpretation of the infamous bad guy more sex pest than chaos-breeder, but Leto’s lack of screen time means the character never gets the opportunity to develop nuance or follow through on threats. He merely exists as a symbolic construction for Quinn to maniacally lust over. There are others with similar troubles, notably Croc, who infrequently mutters, and Boomerang, who does more drinking than developing. The film even seems to acknowledge this persona overload in a defeatist manner when it unveils another squad member halfway through proceedings only to have him killed off within minutes.

A few have better luck. Robbie sizzles as Quinn. A total tease; bright, breezy, and bonkers. Roman Vasyanov’s camera does leer uncomfortably whenever she is on-screen though, apparently revelling in Quinn’s sex appeal and suggestive demeanour (there are numerous shots of Robbie bending over, the camera positioned conveniently behind her). Granted, Quinn is supposed to purvey an overload of toxic allure before uncovering more empathetic tendencies. If only the filmmakers had more faith in the process of emotion and not appearance. Smith and Davis are solid in their roles, especially the latter, brazen and cold as Waller. Kinnaman’s Rick Flag draws the most sympathy and is the one actually worth rooting for. Kinnaman, star of The Killing, should be in far higher demand.

The film begins with a rush of comic book style, neon text splashing across the screen as it describes the various attributes of our new cinematic inmates. We get short vignettes establishing the main players, these clips incorporated in such a way that they reflect the panel format utilised by their source material. It does feel like the writers are stuck in an introductory loop for around 45 minutes; we see and hear about Deadshot’s impressive skills, and then see and hear about them again as the story remains static. When the action does get going it’s unspectacular, falling foul of the genre’s MacGuffin obsession (something about removing an evil heart). Having said that, these sequences are at least grounded in that gritty, wet aesthetic Ayer seems fond of — see Fury. It feels like events are happening on the street and not in a computer game.

The idea, then, is we’re supposed to root for bad people and then wonder why we’re rooting for bad people. In reversing the moral polarities, Suicide Squad is supposed to encourage a more complex interpretation and consumption of the supervillain (and superhero) identity. That there are varying degrees of villainy, for example, and that perhaps some criminal activity has value in the form of defending us from even greater peril. The truth is you don’t really come away from the film debating the intricacies of that mindset. You leave wondering why you haven’t just watched a Batman solo outing starring Harley Quinn and the Joker.

Suicide Squad - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros.

Oscars 2014 — Final Predictions

Hollywood’s favourite night of the year is once again upon us. Stars have campaigned. Odds have shortened. Dresses have been selected. Cinema trips have come thick and fast. Jared Leto’s hair has been straightened.

And, now that I’ve seen all the nominated films in all the most talked about categories, here are my final predictions for the 86th Academy Awards.

If you want to know a bit more about why I picked what/who, there are a few ponderings towards the end. For my review of each Best Picture nominee, click on the respective title.

Best Picture

American Hustle

Captain Phillips

Dallas Buyers Club

Gravity

Her

Nebraska

Philomena

12 Years a Slave

The Wolf of Wall Street

– What will win: 12 Years a Slave

– What I want to win: 12 Years a Slave

– What should’ve been nominated: Blue is the Warmest Colour

Best Actor

Christian Bale

Bruce Dern

Leonardo DiCaprio

Chiwetel Ejiofor

Matthew McConaughey

– Who will win: Matthew McConaughey

– Who I want to win: Leonardo DiCaprio

– Who should’ve been nominated: Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips)

Best Actress

Amy Adams

Cate Blanchett

Sandra Bullock

Judi Dench

Meryl Streep

– Who will win: Cate Blanchett

– Who I want to win: Cate Blanchett

– Who should’ve been nominatedAdèle Exarchopoulos (Blue is the Warmest Colour)

Best Supporting Actor

Barkhad Abdi

Bradley Cooper

Michael Fassbender

Jonah Hill

Jared Leto

– Who will win: Jared Leto

– Who I want to win: Barkhad Abdi

Who should’ve been nominated: N/A

Best Supporting Actress

Sally Hawkins

Jennifer Lawrence

Lupita Nyong’o

Julia Roberts

June Squibb

– Who will win: Jennifer Lawrence

– Who I want to win: Lupita Nyong’o

Who should’ve been nominated: Scarlett Johansson (Her)

Best Director

David O. Russell

Alfonso Cuarón

Alexander Payne

Steve McQueen

Martin Scorsese

– Who will winAlfonso Cuarón

– Who I want to win: Steve McQueen

Who should’ve been nominated: Joel and Ethan Coen (Inside Llewyn Davis)

Best Original Screenplay

American Hustle

Blue Jasmine

Dallas Buyers Club

Her

Nebraska

– What will win: American Hustle

– What I want to win: American Hustle

– What should’ve been nominated: Inside Llewyn Davis

Best Adapted Screenplay

Before Midnight

Captain Phillips

Philomena

12 Years a Slave

The Wolf of Wall Street

– What will win: 12 Years a Slave

– What I want to win: 12 Years a Slave

What should’ve been nominated: Blue is the Warmest Colour

Best Documentary Feature

The Act of Killing

Cutie and the Boxer

Dirty Wars

The Square

20 Feet From Stardom

– What will win: The Act of Killing

– What I want to win: The Act of Killing

– What should’ve been nominated: Blackfish

Additional Quick-hits

With the exception of a few glaring errors, The Academy has more or less come up trumps this year, at least nominations-wise. Time will tell whether the industry congregation get it right on the night, but until then, let’s take a look at some of the unfortunate snubbees (in a personal snub, I’ve opted not to include my Best Foreign Language picks above as, for whatever reason, i haven’t seen enough of the nominated films).

Inside Llewyn Davis, what is going on? Only up for Best Cinematography and Best Sound Mixing, my personal favourite film of the year has strummed a valiant strum, only to be waived by another Bud Grossman. As unlucky as Llewyn himself (irony eh?) the film should be up for a lot more.

Tom Hanks delivers the performance of a lifetime in the final moments of Captain Phillips, but his name is nowhere to be seen. I’m a fan of Christian Bale, and thought he was really good in American Hustle, but no phony wig can hide the travesty that places his performance ahead of Hanks’. Having said that, old Tom’s already won a couple, so he might not be that bothered.

Another disappointingly shunned near-masterpiece, the folks behind Blue is the Warmest Colour must feel hard done by. Adèle Exarchopoulos’ raw, enchanting portrayal is criminally ignored. The film was ineligible for a Best Foreign Language nomination, but Best Director, Best Supporting Actress and Best Film nods should’ve been calling. It’s almost as if some of those hardened Americana execs don’t fancy reading subtitles…

On to the actual bunch clambering for awards, and it seems Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor are all pretty much sown up. I’d love Leo DiCaprio to finally receive the adulation he deserves in the form of a golden statuette, but McConaughey is the favourite and a worthy winner. Barkhad Abdi surprised at the BAFTAs, but won’t here. Cate Blanchett is the definitive stick on.

Jennifer Lawrence and Lupita Nyong’o have been tussling for Best Supporting Actress throughout this awards season, the former having come out on top more often. Nyong’o delivers the more powerful and wholly better performance, thus should win the gong. Gravity is up for a lot, but outwith the technical categories, might only win Best Director for Alfonso Cuarón.

What then, of the top prize? Best Film. It appears to be a three-way jostle between the important 12 Years a Slave, the glitzy American Hustle, and the floaty Gravity. Apparently, some Academy members find 12 Years a Slave too tough a watch – which is absurd – and Gravity ain’t exactly at its best on a laptop screen (most voters see the films at home), therefore a shock could be on the cards which would see American Hustle hustle its way to the top. I don’t think so. For me, there’s no looking past Steve McQueen’s haunting 12 Years a Slave.

There we have it.

After a fairly lacklustre spring/summer, the arrival of that typical awards scent in late autumn summoned a plethora of very good to great films. From Captain Phillips to The Wolf of Wall Street, and many others in between, we’ve seen a mixture of high intensity drama, awe-inspiring visuals, harrowing story-telling and debaucherous eccentricity. All in all, I reckon it’s been a pretty good year.

Here’s to another!

Dallas Buyers Club (2014)

★★★★

Director: Jean-Marc Vallée

Release Date: November 22nd, 2013 (US); February 7th, 2014 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama; History

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner

About halfway through his moral readjustment and self-health stabilisation, Matthew McConaughey’s Ron Woodroof proclaims “Welcome to the Dallas Buyers Club”. It’s an off-beat moment in a fairly straightforward film (narratively speaking anyway). Woodroof, harassed by his own need and stricken circumstances, develops a strictly symptomatic relief program for AIDS, one that will help many others in a similar situation to his own. At its simplest the ‘club’ is a business, a money-making scheme to fund his own wellbeing. He’s a cowboy, a hustler, after all. But deep down it’s more than that. In his own plight against the horrible illness that Woodroof has mysteriously obtained, this homophobic, probably racist and really quite vile man has found humanity. So when he says, “Welcome to the Dallas Buyers Club,” of course he has dollar signs gleaming in his eyes and subsistence flowing through his limbs, but he also has a heart that beats in favour of survival. Not just his survival… everyone’s survival.

The macho Ron Woodroof dabbles in more than his fair share of alcohol, cocaine and women — behaviour that comes across more intrinsic than sporadic in his neck of the woods. He’s invincible, at least in his own mind. Recently though, coughing spurts have become common and dizzy spells just as a frequent, so when Woodroof collapses and shortly thereafter finds out he has contracted AIDS it’s less surprising than it is sad. Told nonchalantly he has around thirty days to live by Dr. Sevard (Dennis O’Hare), Ron initially dismisses the revelation as ridiculous, only to eventually succumb to reality. Often finding exuberance in the good-natured Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), Ron uses his resourcefulness — he’s an electrician — to devise a plan of survival, one that also incorporates Rayon (Jared Leto), an extravagant and kind transgender woman whose shining demeanour aids Ron’s attitude as much as his health.

Dallas Buyers Club works on a number of levels, but the film’s most outstanding achievement centres on a pair of performances. First, Matthew McConaughey truly is extraordinary as the depleted Woodroof (the actor went as far as to lose 40 pounds for the role). He’s never made out to be a hero, not in the conventional manner anyway, and McConaughey never tries to sell him as such. When we first meet Ron he’s pretty loathsome, yet even this early on there’s a charismatic spark that seems to grow brighter and brighter the longer Ron lives. McConaughey often reigns in the sentimental tone; his persona is such that emotion, grace and vulnerability are not instinctive traits. Yet he still persuades you to unequivocally vie for him. Undoubtedly, his relationship with Rayon aids this audience connection. Jared Leto is utterly unrecognisable in appearance, but seeps total authenticity through the dress and make-up. He strikes a fine balance in the role, punchy and effeminate but never stumbling towards caricature mode. Together, and apart, the duo make you believe in these people, in their struggles and in their staunch resistance to the cards life has dealt.

There’s an interesting ‘corporate versus the little guy’ battle going on too. Essentially, this is your proverbial ‘Hollywood’ addition to a film wrapped up in a far from glamorous topic. The grappling-against-the-system element succeeds though, both in furthering Ron’s personal redemption and also injecting the story with a greater scope, a wider base to juggle on. Set in the mid-1980s, knowledge about combating AIDS is lousy at best (“Can I read a copy of the study?”; “No it’s still being written.”) therefore the most promising bet appears to be an antiviral named AZT, a drug flaunted and prescribed in high test dosages by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), but one not entirely beneficial to patients. Ron discovers the non-truths, triggering his idea of a Dallas Buyers Club aimed at providing alternative medicines for sufferers. This fuels another morality fire, one which debates who is in the wrong: the multinational juggernauts selling false lies for cash, or the independent virus victim selling club memberships for life? FDA agent Richard Barkley (Michael O’Neill) is often the obstacle in Ron’s path only there’s a peculiar parallel that both men share. The duo are embezzled in the art of profiteering. However it’s what drives the men respectively that separates them, a moral compass that could not be more contradicting.

The film is based on a true story but envelops an artistic licence that sees it become something of a spiritual successor to Milk, and venturing further back Philadelphia, at least in terms of legal battles and humanistic principles. When Woodroof resolutely and poignantly exclaims, “I say what goes in my body, not you,” it resonates on both of these levels, particularly in regards to individuality and acceptance. There’s very little music going on the background to nudge your emotions in a certain direction. Instead your despairs and joys are all products generated from the poise of performance and presentation of story. A tough story at times, but one that is never told in an exploitative manner. Even still, director Jean-Marc Vallée seldom dismisses the presence of humour in telling the tale. Often these laughs emerge from McConaughey’s sly pretence and ingenuity — his character’s belief that he can get away with absolutely anything (including impersonating a priest) is endemic.

Dallas Buyers Club deals expertly with a painful subject, resultantly ensuring proceedings are far less demanding to watch in comparison to how tough they could easily have been. This is in no small part down to the performances of Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey, the latter’s portrayal never shirking away from his characters shortcomings and non-heroic demeanour. Yet, you engage with the man so much that even as the shaky final scene of appreciation plays out, any personal misgivings are forgotten.