Suicide Squad Review

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The movie we saw in the Suicide Squad trailers would’ve put the floundering DC cinematic universe on track long before Wonder Woman leaped onto the scene. That film was imbued with a pervasive and striking neon aesthetic, featured a pleasantly off-the-beaten path conceit for a team of exclusively anti-heroes, and captured the pulpy levity that has made Marvel’s universe such a success.

But the movie Suicide Squad could’ve been pales in comparison to the movie Suicide Squad actually is. Instead we have a film that hints at style but retreats into the hideous blacks and blues that defined Batman vs. Superman. We have a film whose anti-hero premise devolves into characters merely stating “Don’t forget, we’re the bad guys” ad-nauseum and occasionally contemplating escape. We have a script that substitutes genuine character-driven comedy and cleverness with bafflingly bad “jokes.”

Suicide Squad is a mess. It tries to introduce close to a dozen major characters in the span of 45 minutes, and so becomes forced to resort to cringe-worthy tropes to give the story any meat at all. The action is jumbled and confusing, switching from character to character without ever giving the viewer a chance to get oriented. The team is terribly balanced, combining a man who can shoot fire with a woman whose only power is…holding a baseball bat.

But such flaws have plagued similar super hero movies in the past, and have never seemed to drag them down.

No, Suicide Squad ultimately fails not because of sloppy craft and jumbled pacing, but because it simply isn’t fun. The film tells us that they’re bad guys so often that it forgets to clue us in into why we should be rooting for them. None of them are quirky enough or fleshed-out enough to care about their individual fates, and the dull villain driving them forward doesn’t seem like anything a few well-placed missiles couldn’t solve.

Despite its lighthearted trailers, Suicide Squad takes itself much too seriously. This is partially due to the film’s odd insistence on trying to force “tragic backstories” on all its characters, and partially due to the fact that the characters themselves interact with each other almost always through raw hostility or cold indifference. Not even Jared Leto’s Joker, who seems more like a pimp than the clown-prince of crime and who probably should’ve been cut from the movie, can lighten the mood.

That’s a shame, because Suicide Squad had the potential to be the Guardians of the Galaxy of the DC universe. The comics on which they’re based are similarly niche, and their premises similarly goofy. Instead, the ending of Suicide Squad could’ve been improved with all characters actually taking their own lives. Then we wouldn’t have to endure the inevitable sequel.

The Legend of Tarzan Review

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Who asked for this movie? Sure, a reboot of Tarzan isn’t an inherently bad idea, especially considering Disney’s success with the character, but who wanted a historically-contextual Tarzan film, one that not only depicts surprisingly little vine-swinging, but that features no actual animals? The Legend of Tarzan is not an all-bad blockbuster; at points its gorgeous vistas make up for its completely flat characters and exposition filled dialogue. But aesthetics alone cannot make up for The Legend of Tarzan’s biggest problem: the classic Tarzan story is rife with problematic tropes, none of which The Legend of Tarzan can overcome.

It’s certainly aware of the inherent issue of telling a story about a white beastmaster conquering the savagery of Africa. It takes pains to humanize the people of the Congo, to refute the concept of their primitiveness with snippets of culture and sympathy. But ultimately the film uses the Africans in the same way as the brutal Belgians: as tools to be exploited for the white man’s benefit. King Leopold II’s brutality puts him on par with the dictators of the 20th century; some estimates of his death toll are as high as 15 million. The Legend of Tarzan never disrespects this atrocity, but never gives it the depth it deserves either. It comes off as a movie about Jews in Poland during WWII that only mentions the Holocaust in passing. Some Africans are shown fighting with Tarzan, in an obvious attempt to “include” them in the heroic story…but the action always seems to sideline them when it’s time for the real hero to split some heads. Samuel L. Jackson seems like a token, limping alongside the far more agile Tarzan, unable to do nearly as much damage with his rifle as Tarzan manages with his fists.

There is a fine line to be drawn here, between a sympathetic white hero helping resist the horrors of colonial exploitation and between a pale-skinned messiah that exists above his world. The Legend of Tarzan misses this line entirely.

It’s such a shame that, even though the writers were aware of such problems, they never took the time to fix them. At one point, Margot Robbie’s Jane is captured, and is asked by the villain to scream in distress to bait Tarzan. “Like a damsel?” she growls, and spits in the villain’s face.

Well, yeah, like a damsel. That’s her primary purpose in the movie.

But even apart from its societal deafness, The Legend of Tarzan is only mediocre as a blockbusting popcorn-chewer. Its fight scenes look like a gorilla grabbed the camera and started violently shaking it up and down. Its CGI lends life and humanity to the film’s cast of animals, but can’t compare with the richness of its most direct competitor The Jungle Book. It gets bogged down in an overly complicated spiderweb of a story, and takes far too long to reach its spectacular finale set-piece.

There is fun to be had here, and, unlike most apparent cash-in films, The Legend of Tarzan is probably worth the time to lay in bed and be entertained for two hours. But we’re living in the golden age of AAA film, with excellent options from Marvel to The Martian, and yes, The Jungle Book available at our fingertips. With that in mind, there’s no need to settle for this brutish, thoughtless ape of a film.

Memento Review

The thriller genre suffers from convoluted plot syndrome. All too often their stories amount to little more than a tangled knot, throwing so many names, places, and events at the viewer that their final twist comes not as a revelation but as a confused mess. The problem is pervasive; even early masterpieces like Lady from Shanghai make sense only during an attentive viewing; its intricacies cannot be clearly recalled afterwards.

But Memento is one of the few thrillers that dodges this problem entirely. Memento juggles dozens of macguffins, every plot point tied to a physical object, and Nolan maintains constant visual threads throughout each of them. Nolan presents our key plot points/objects (the two are inseparable) rapid-fire at the start, and maintains constant visual connection through the temporally backwards film, almost like maintaining a checklist in the viewer’s mind that unravels when and where each object was created.

The majority of these plot-devices are simple Polaroid photographs, taken by tough-guy Leonard (Guy Pierce) as a way to counter his short-term memory loss. His wife has been raped and killed, and the injury he sustained during a short tussle with the assailant prevents him from creating any new memories. In this way, Memento’s backwards plot structure is more than just a technical gimmick (as it has been in some previous works of similar structure) but ties the audience intrinsically into Leonard’s mind. He can’t remember the past, and, because we haven’t seen it yet, neither can we. As he struggles with trying to track down his wife’s killer, we share in his difficulties of trying to play detective without being able to remember anything. Memento’s time frame is confusing, often disrupting its backwards structure (which is easier to get used to than one might think), Nolan throws in lateral movements and flashbacks-within-flashbacks.

The end result is a film where we’re never quite sure exactly what has and has not happened. Memento brings in a satisfying final-act twist in typical thriller fashion, but questions are intentionally left unanswered. While the best thrillers end in a tightly-wound rope, Memento is frayed.

Obviously, this is intentional on Nolan’s part, a bold move that refuses to sacrifice the integrity of Leonard’s perspective for audience satiety. But in his outright dedication to Leonard’s condition, he’s failed to produce a character worth caring about. Leonard inherently has no emotional arc outside of any individual scene (how could he, both with the backwards structure and with the fact that he can’t remember the past beyond a few minutes?), and as such, despite its intriguing premise, Memento feels strangely bland. We root for Leonard because he’s the film’s only constant to hang on to, not because we genuinely care about him or his woman-in-the-refrigerator quest.

But Memento succeeds where it needs to. If not a work of impressive storytelling it is at the least a testament to Nolan’s skill in the director’s chair, and the rare budget thriller that keeps backsides in seats all the way through. It’s hardly the masterpiece it’s often made out to be, but Memento certainly is an experience to remember.

Alien: Covenant Review

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David, the android survivor of Prometheus, plays a simple, optimistic tune on a handmade flute, his uncanny-valley visage met with the confusion his Michael, the 2.0 robot that shares his face. The former adores music, the latter unable to understand even the concept of enjoying it. It’s an off-putting moment for the Alien franchise, so focused on dark corners and flowing blood, a strangely serene moment in an otherwise brutal universe.  

 

It also represents Alien: Covenant’s greatest strength. For all its flaws, it’s a film that realizes that part of the original Alien’s pop-culture longevity comes not from the titular xenomorph’s terror but from its otherworldly beauty. Ridley Scott’s camera lingers on its monsters, allowing the audience time to appreciate the H.R. Giger-inspired design. Scott has expanded his visual horizons, and though Covenant still has its fair share of traditional dark-spaceship-corridor-horror, most of its runtime takes place on Prometheus’s bleached-tone mountainscapes. Its environment is populated with the remnants of an ancient civilization, the Pompei’d bodies of its inhabitants strewn about like classical statues, capturing the cosmic horror that, rightfully, goes mostly unexplained.

 

But apart from its aesthetics, Covenant relies mostly on retread ground. It plays like a greatest hits album of the Alien franchise, at times imitating the creeping horror of Alien, the bombastic action of Aliens, and even borrowing some of the (few) good ideas from Alien 3.

 

Scott clearly understands what made his franchise great, but is never able to fully recapture it. Alien: Covenant is tonally inconsistent, swapping from bombast to tension to body horror too fast to process. There’s never any time to build tension, to induce the seat-squirming that the best horror can convey, and every time we start to “feel it,” Scott breaks the pace by swapping to the B-plot of Fassbender’s two androids or killing off one xenomorph to move onto another.

 

Worst of all, unlike Ellen Ripley, who though by no means is particularly complex at the very least provided a strong, engaging focal point, Alien: Covenant doesn’t seem to have any actual characters. Names are thrown out and forgotten almost instantly, the people written to be engaging blurring together to the point where I couldn’t point to them at a police lineup. The notion of pairing up the characters into couples has potential, but in reality feels like a cop-out to create emotional stakes where none naturally exist. The crew of the Covenant are meat to be thrown into the grinder, and their gruesome dismemberments satiate morbid curiosity more than creating any actual fear. Only Michael Fassbender truly delivers, simultaneously playing two androids in one of the most bizarre acting challenges of Fassbender’s career. Because they’re not alive they aren’t threatened by the aliens, and though Scott miscalculates his pacing, he also uses these scenes to allow the audience to ogle the xenomorphs in a “safe” environment.

 

And ultimately, that’s the only reason to see Covenant. Anyone who’s already seen the other (better) films won’t be experiencing anything new, and with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in theaters, Covenant is a poor second to satiate the urge for sci-fi. But Alien: Covenant creates beauty in horror, shifting the focus from what the later sequels did poorly to what Giger himself did so well. It lives up to its name, crafting a Lovecraftian universe that is not only alluring, but elegantly and uniquely alien.

Pacific Rim Review

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Pacific Rim ranks among the best blockbusters ever made because it understands exactly what it is and what it isn’t. What it is is a bombastic creature fest full of more CGI than a Pixar film and more giant robots than a Transformers film. What it isn’t is film that pays one lick of attention to anything other than what the audience paid to see. One could hardly call a film about giant robots punching massive monsters refined, but ultimately Pacific Rim ends up as a piece of fine art by accident.

 

Like the best fine art its flaws are calculated parts of the experience.

 

Like all fine art its fat has been trimmed, all vestiges of unnecessary content eliminated.

 

Like most fine art it conveys a single overwhelmingly powerful emotion, not grief nor anger, but pure and simple Fun.

 

After all, this is the work of Guillermo del Toro, famed director of such mature fantasy tales as Cronos and Pan’s Labyrinth. He’s comfortable in the unfamiliar, and precise about his vision. Though Pacific Rim is clearly a deviation from his normal tone, del Toro is still well within familiar territory.

 

So its flaws have been calculated. The story is thin, but we didn’t come for the plot anyway. The characters are pure-and-simple tropes, but that allows time to be reallocated from development to monster bashing. Everything you need to know is revealed in the first five minutes. Giant monsters called Kaiju (after the classic Japanese monsters that are the clear inspiration) emerge from a rift in the ocean, and rather than, say, use guns or missiles, the world decides the best defense would be a fleet of two-pilot rock-’em-sock-’ems, ready to plow the most ancient of weapons, the fist, through the spines of the blue-blooded monstrosities.

 

Know that, and you can safely ignore the mumbo-jumbo about brain melding and alternate dimensions and lean back for the ride. Pacific Rim is a never-ending torrent of spectacular sights and sounds, throwing monster after monster against robot after robot. Its world is a glorious mix between Blade Runner and Chinese knock-off Bionicles, rich in detail and artistry, and del Toro never forgets to steady and slow the camera just enough so that we can soak it all in. Pacific Rim knows the value of its raw cool-ness factor.

 

I won’t waste your time with explaining characters or story because you care as little as Pacific Rim itself does. This is a film for lovers of roller-coasters, for those who want to lose themselves completely in the fantasy and heroism of the big screen. It delivers on all accounts and more, and proves that, when made with care and passion, even the nuttiest concepts can become triple-A classics. Who knew that stupid could be so smart.

Passengers Review

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[Mild spoilers follow]

 

Walk out of Passengers the moment Laurence Fishburne’s character appears on screen. Leave then, and you’ll have a glimpse of the movie Passengers could have been, a sweet love story with a sinister undertone, a meditation on the danger of solitude, a simple narrative set within beautifully minimalistic sci-fi architecture. Stay, however, and you’ll see the movie that Passengers truly is, a creative mess, a series of decisions that all serve to undermine each other, a cinematic apologist for some of the most repulsive deeds one human being can inflict on another.

As the trailers may have informed you, Passengers tells the story of Jim and Aurora, a couple of Beautiful People who wake up from hibernation aboard what is essentially a luxury cruise liner in space. The trailers may have also pointed out that they woke up 90 years before the end of their voyage, doomed to live out the rest of their days in transit, destined to die before their final destination. What the trailer conveniently left out of this admittedly sweet conceit for a date-night movie is that only Jim’s pod malfunctioned. Out of loneliness he woke Aurora up, effectively murdering her, earning her trust, and raping her by deception.

As horrible as his actions are, that dynamic is one of the film’s greatest assets. Near the end of the second act, when Aurora inevitably finds out (that’s not a spoiler; did you really think she wouldn’t?), Passengers elicits the best and most complex performances that Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence have ever achieved (yes, comparable to Silver Linings Playbook from Lawrence).

Admittedly, Lawrence overshadows Pratt. This is hardly surprising, considering she has an Oscar on her shelf and Pratt’s acting history is comprised mostly of goofball-typecasts. But the fact that he’s able to keep up at all is, in itself, impressive. He’s out of his league here, in more ways than one.

Their immense talents compensate for a lack of natural chemistry, and the movie largely feels carried not only by their skills, but on the charm of their only companion, a gentlemanly robot bartender played by Michael Sheen.

But then Larry shows up. His character, more bland and lifeless than the ship’s Roomba-esque vacuum cleaners, seems to exist only for two purposes: 1) Expand Jim and Aurora’s access to previously closed-off rooms of the ship, and 2) try to wipe the narrative slate of Jim’s crimes. He is the first in a meteor shower of plot devices that bombards Passengers during its third act, transforming what was a decent movie in the vein of Moon into a hollow, badly paced, badly motivated blockbuster. It feels unnecessary, it feels unasked for, and most importantly, the way in which it shoves Aurora and Jim back together for a forced happy ending is distinctly unsettling. Aurora may seem to have inexplicably forgotten what Jim did to her, but we, the audience, haven’t.

At one point during the beginning of the film’s third act, Jennifer Lawrence laments that she’s “stuck on a sinking ship.” She was wrong; by that point, Passengers was already dead in the water.

Cloverfield Review

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In Cloverfield, director Matt Reeves pulls victory from the gaping, monstrous jaws of defeat. Cloverfield shouldn’t work. It’s characters are unreadable, failing to capitalize on the drama set up in the first few minutes, and usually failing to react with appropriate awe or horror to the carnage around them. They behave so erratically and illogically that the illusion of reality that the found-footage style lends is often lost. Its overarching plot is a simple damsel-in-distress tale, about a man trying to save a woman that the audience doesn’t care about as part of a relationship they’re not invested in. His friends come along instead of evacuating because…reasons. After all, somebody has to hold the camera.

But despite the odds, despite the abysmal script, flat characters, and laughable plot, this film does work. It’s an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride from beginning to end. As a found-footage monster/disaster movie, it portrays a Godzilla-like apocalypse from a unique on-the-ground civilian perspective. By eliminating unnecessary details like “what is it” or “where did it come from,” and without some complicated pseudo-science plot on how to take it down, Cloverfield needs only concern itself with constant tension. Partially that comes from Reeve’s beautiful unity of horror-style filmmaking and disaster-style spectacle, taking the best elements from both and perfectly balancing the pacing to ensure that every bit of action is calm, and that every bit of calm keeps the stakes high. What results is a film that is exciting but neither exhausting nor relentless, and that, unlike similarly intense fare like Mad Max: Fury Road, leaves the audience invigorated but not overwhelmed.

 One has to admire Reeve’s talent in working with the somewhat restrictive found-footage style. Unlike traditional filmmaking, every shot must be contextualized within the physical space of the set, forcing the filmmaker into a tunnel, so to speak, where their flexibility is limited by the grounded eye of the diegetic camera. Nevertheless, Cloverfield’s shot composition and striking imagery rivals the best in the genre; few shots in recent disaster movies will stick in the memory like the head of the Statue of Liberty, immersed in red and grey smoke, swarmed by confused survivors.

The monster itself is downright bizarre, like something from Pacific Rim combined with The Thing. Twice Cloverfield throws a twist into its abilities, adding a fear-of-the-unknown factor that pulls it closer to Blair-Witch than one might expect. Reeves is obviously proud of the creation, as the creature seems to rubber band back to the characters wherever they roam in the city, just so the camera can steal a few more glances.

Cloverfield may just be the best mediocre movie of the past decade. It won only one award, the Saturn for best sci-fi, and that’s about all it deserves. But for its creative angle on the established creature-feature genre, and for Reeve’s spot-on direction, Cloverfield is a must-see for the adrenaline junkies of the silver screen.