Monday, September 26, 2016

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

The very first thing that must be said about The Magnificent Seven is that any movie directed by Antoine Fuqua that stars Denzel Washington is automatically worth a look. Having said that, one can’t help but feel that The Magnificent Seven suffers a bit for being an ensemble piece because we don’t get as much Denzel time as we deserve. That’s not to say that The Magnificent Seven is ever boring or unwatchable, but it is underwhelming.

In a remake of the eponymous 1960 western (which was itself a remake of Seven Samurai), Denzel Washington stars as Sam Chisolm, a bounty hunter recruited by Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) to save her village from a mustache-twirling robber baron (Peter Sarsgaard) who wants the exclusive mining rights to the valley. Chisolm assembles a posse comprised of the self-proclaimed “world’s greatest lover” (Chris Pratt), a mountain man (Vincent D’Onofrio), a traumatized Confederate and his Chinese comrade (Ethan Hawke and Byung-hun Lee), a Mexican outlaw (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and a Comanche (Martin Sensmeier) on his own path.

Here’s a pretty good cast, and it’s really very evident that they’re all having a terrifically good time together. D’Onofrio is delightfully strange, as is his wont, and the rest of the cast seem to enjoy playing off that peculiarity. (Ten points to anyone who can identify that accent, incidentally.) Washington and Pratt are, essentially playing variations on the Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen, with an engaging chemistry between the two of them.

It is, however, a chemistry predicated on Pratt playing the clown and Denzel as the straight man, which is a tragic underutilization of the latter’s skill. It’s no surprise that Pratt is a success as a character that boils down to “Star Lord by way of John Wayne,” but it’s a wonder that Denzel loses to his costar so many opportunities for clever one-liners and sarcastic reactions. This isn’t to say that Denzel himself is a disappointment – in a sense playing both the leads of Django Unchained, Denzel is charismatic and heartbreaking, determined and haunted, and (we sense) withholding a part of himself from his exterior out of a sense of duty and propriety. But it is a bit of a letdown to come to expect a leading performance out of an actor who’s modest enough to embrace his role as 14% of an ensemble.

The Magnificent Seven is not, as its title promises, magnificent. It’s not a transcendent moviegoing experience, but then again in late September I don’t think it has to be. Because on the other hand, The Magnificent Seven is not a disappointment of heroic proportions. It’s fun and fluffy and diverting, and it doesn’t do anything egregiously wrong. It’s in that Baby Bear territory of “just right,” and perhaps it’s gluttonous of me to want the Papa Bear portion of a Denzel Washington western. Moreover, it’s different enough from its predecessors to justify its existence as a variation on a theme. At any rate, keep them coming, Denzel, because I’ll be in the front row every time.

The Magnificent Seven is rated PG-13. Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Written by Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk. Starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Haley Bennett and Peter Sarsgaard.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Personal Canon - By the Numbers

Before we get started with a quick statistical analysis of the Personal Canon, a small update - The Personal Canon now holds 65 films. The updated list is as follows (films in blue have been added since 9/5/16):

Duck Soup (1933)
Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)
Citizen Kane (1941)
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Casablanca (1942)
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
Adam's Rib (1949)
Stalag 17 (1953)
12 Angry Men (1957)
Inherit the Wind (1960)
Psycho (1960)
Goldfinger (1964)
The Godfather (1972) / The Godfather, Part II (1974)
Annie Hall (1977)
Star Wars (1977)
Superman (1978) / Superman II (1980)
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Batman (1989)
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Goodfellas (1990)
The Rocketeer (1991)
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
Groundhog Day (1993)
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Toy Story Trilogy (1995-2010)
The Usual Suspects (1995)
Hamlet (1996)
Air Force One (1997)
The Big Lebowski (1998)
The Mummy (1999)
American Psycho (2000)
Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)
Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy (2003-2008)
The Incredibles (2004)
The Departed (2006)
Stranger than Fiction (2006)
Charlie Bartlett (2007)
No Country for Old Men (2007)
Ratatouille (2007)
There Will Be Blood (2007)
Burn After Reading (2008)
Iron Man (2008)
The Dark Knight (2008)
Taken (2008)
Black Swan (2010)
Easy A (2010)
Inception (2010)
The Avengers (2010)
Skyfall (2012)
Man of Steel (2013)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Not too many updates to explain - just the addition of Burn After Reading, which had been excised during the old "limit 50" days, and the other two films in Gore Verbinski's Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, which were on cable the other day and likewise were considered "encompassed" by the 2003 film. With that out of the way, let's get on to crunching the numbers.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Sully (2016)

Clint Eastwood’s directed fourteen films since he turned 70 in 2000, and while he may be better known to audiences as no-nonsense detective “Dirty” Harry Callahan or the grimly determined Man With No Name, he’s cultivating a reputation as a no-nonsense director, as well. Sully is one such exemplar of a tight and effective film with little patience for gaudy thrills or big-budget exploits; instead, the film wisely centers on a confident performance and its director’s admiration for the human dimension of heroism.

Sully is the true story of Chesley “Sully” Sullenberg (played by Tom Hanks), who became an international celebrity after successfully landing U.S. Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River in January 2009. The film explores the snap decisions made by the captain and the subsequent investigation following the water landing. From behind a tremendous mustache, Aaron Eckhart co-stars as Sully’s stalwart first officer Jeff Skiles.

At a little more than ninety minutes, Sully is an impressively tight biopic with an effective grasp on the emotions it wants its audience to have. Even though we know the true story and despite the film’s opening moments confirming the safe landing of US 1549, Eastwood manages a compelling amount of tension in the flashback sequences of the events in the cockpit. In a way, Sully reminds me of the more successful parts of Flight, in which Denzel Washington found himself the captain of a similarly troubled flight.

Of course, Flight succeeded on the shoulders of Denzel’s performance, and Sully lives up to the legend in Tom Hanks’s restrained, subtle turn as Sully. Hanks puts his everyman charm to good use in Sully, allowing us to see more easily the toll that such immediate celebrity takes on an average, good-natured human being. Hanks doesn’t have to tell us he’s shaken or weary or confident in his command decisions; he can do it all with a frown or a turn of his head or the certainty in his voice.

But Sully doesn’t verge as hagiographic as we might expect, reaffirming the decisions made by the captain but without overblowing his legend. Instead, Eastwood spends a surprising amount of time on the heroics of those around Sully – Skiles, the flight deck crew, the police, fire, and ferry workers who got the passengers out of the water. “It only took 24 minutes,” the film reminds us, for New York’s finest to rally together. And for a film that plays the numbers game, so often reminding us that Sully’s entire flight lasted 208 seconds, Eastwood is equally (if not more) invested in the way that US 1549 was an occasion for wider heroism.

As much of a piece with Flight as it is with Eastwood’s last, American Sniper, Sully is a portrait of Eastwood’s vision of heroism – patriotic, part of a community, willing and able to make hard decisions and to live with them. It’s a concise portrait from two master craftsmen, both affective and effective, and it shows that whatever directorial touch he’s got, Eastwood hasn’t lost it.

Sully is rated PG-13 for “some peril and brief strong language.” Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Todd Komarinicki. Based on the book Highest Duty by Chesley Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow. Starring Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, and Laura Linney.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Personal Canon (9/5/16 Update)

Happy Labor Day, all. While we're in a little bit of a lull for major motion picture releases, I thought it was the opportune moment to revisit the Personal Canon.

First, a reminder:
It's a list of fifty films that mean the most to me, for one reason or another. I don't purport that these are necessarily the fifty objectively greatest films of all time or the most important films. They're not even ranked in order of favorite-ness, nor do I suggest that they're better than a film that doesn't appear here. Instead, these are my movies. In fact, you might call them perfect movies - at least, as I define perfection, because these movies don't do anything wrong. They don't miss a beat. [. . .] These are the films that reach the pinnacles and plumb the depths of the human condition. They're films that represent my ideals of the best humanity and the aesthetic community have to offer, films I'd put in a time capsule or a Voyager-esque space probe. They're films I can't wait to introduce to my children, contenting myself in the meanwhile to stop and watch them any time they're on television. They're films that, if someone close to me hasn't seen, I take it upon myself to share with them. I get angry if you haven't seen these, sad for the wasted years you've gone without these. Indeed, for one reason or another, the reason I love movies so much is this collection of fifty movies.
As you'll see shortly, part of that definition doesn't hold up any longer. After careful consideration, the limiter of fifty films is gone. It was an arbitrary designation - I could have easily gone with ten, twenty-five, or one hundred - useful as a thought experiment to get my list organized, but I'm realizing that very few of us limit ourselves in that way. If I only had fifty films, suppose a film knocks me out of the water; would that mean excising one of the entries? In the interest of egalitarianism, then, the Personal Canon is henceforth open-ended.

For those playing the home game, last time we had fifty films. This time, we're up to 62, including two new favorites from 2016. Last time, I had said the jury's still out on 2016 movies, but I'm pretty confident in these two.

Next, pairs and trios. And really, this one is all the fault of one film: The Godfather Saga, which joins The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II, rearranges its parts in sequential order, and expands with deleted scenes. But really, how can I separate the two in my memory? Ditto for the Toy Story Trilogy, whose holy trinity of animated movies is now together again on the Personal Canon - to be perfectly honest, Toy Story 2 was only cut because of the 50-film limit.

Finally, one cut: Father of the Bride. I had just watched the movie the night I finalized my Personal Canon, and it was a hasty decision. Now that I've had a few months to mellow, I'm not sure it's Personal Canon material. That's not to say it isn't a fantastic film, but it's just not up there for me.

With that said, on with the list! (Films listed in blue have been added since June 2016.)

Duck Soup (1933)
Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)
Citizen Kane (1941)
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Casablanca (1942)
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
Adam's Rib (1949)
Stalag 17 (1953)
12 Angry Men (1957)
Inherit the Wind (1960)
Psycho (1960)
Goldfinger (1964)
The Godfather (1972) / The Godfather, Part II (1974)
Annie Hall (1977)
Star Wars (1977)
Superman (1978) / Superman II (1980)
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Batman (1989)
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Goodfellas (1990)
The Rocketeer (1991)
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
Groundhog Day (1993)
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Toy Story Trilogy (1995-2010)
The Usual Suspects (1995)
Hamlet (1996)
Air Force One (1997)
The Big Lebowski (1998)
The Mummy (1999)
American Psycho (2000)
Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)
Pirates of the Caribbean (2003)
The Incredibles (2004)

The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012)
The Departed (2006)
Stranger than Fiction (2006)
Charlie Bartlett (2007)
No Country for Old Men (2007)
Ratatouille (2007)
There Will Be Blood (2007)
Iron Man (2008)
Taken (2008)
Black Swan (2010)
Easy A (2010)
Inception (2010)
The Avengers (2012)
Skyfall (2012)
Man of Steel (2013)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Monday, August 29, 2016

Hell or High Water (2016)

You wouldn’t believe what a difficult time I had seeing this movie. Aside from the fact that the limited release didn’t hit my area for a few weeks, my matinee showing had a problem with the audio, leading me to come back later in the evening. But despite the difficulty in actually getting to Hell or High Water, the experience was all worth it; it’s a first-rate flick, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it up for a few golden statues come early 2017.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster play brothers forced onto the wrong side of the law. In order to save their family’s ranch after the death of their mother, the two have resorted to bank robbery, meticulously planned and carefully precise. Their robbery spree attracts the attention of a retiring Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) and his partner (Gil Birmingham), who aim to stop the robberies – or at least understand why they’re happening.

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of westerns, perhaps just because I haven’t seen the right ones, but I’m a big fan of this genre-in-progress, the neo-western, which takes the themes of the western and relocates them into more contemporary trappings in order to continue to ask questions about justice, frontier spaces, and the nation’s long, complicated, and often troubling history. At the same time, it’s also (I think, indirectly) a space where older performers can step back into the genre and reevaluate it and themselves, where audiences can read the frontier’s weariness on the crags of an actor’s face.

You might think that I could very well be describing No Country For Old Men, and you’d be onto something, because Hell or High Water is very much of a piece with No Country. Both neo-westerns take questions of frontier justice into pressing issues of the twenty-first century (there, the loss of the “good old days”; here, the question of economic injustice). Bridges and Tommy Lee Jones are characters who ought to join each other on rocking chairs on the porch of their retirement, wearied as they are by the cases that baffle them. And while there’s no figure of pure evil like Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh in Hell or High Water, there is the same lingering attention to the prairie wastelands of Texas, highlighting the bleak despair of the soul and the relentless persistence of our protagonists, who have only their own codes to which they can cling.

It’s truly riveting stuff, a two-hour trip that flies by despite its fairly small scope and tight narrative focus. The key is the well-crafted screenplay, as precise as the bank heists and wisely funny in a way that the trailers didn’t let on. Pine is surprisingly subdued, given his recent turn as the swaggeringly confident Captain Kirk in Star Trek. Of course, a Jeff Bridges performance is always worth the price of admission, with Hell or High Water somewhere between True Grit and Crazy Heart on the Dude-ometer. His turn as the retiring ranger practically prickles, and it’s the knowing gleam in Bridges’s eye that humanizes the character as we and his partner question why he’s pursing the case so doggedly.

Who knew it would take me through hell and high water just to see Hell or High Water? It’s worth the watch if you can find it, and it’s worth a double feature with No Country For Old Men to really think about where the neo-western is going.

Hell or High Water is rated R. Directed by David Mackenzie. Written by Taylor Sheridan. Starring Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Gil Birmingham.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Monday at the Movies - August 22, 2016

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.”

The Gift (2015) – Hands up if you’ve heard of this film? I suspect not many people are aware of this, Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut in which Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall (two favorites around these parts) play Simon & Robyn Callem, a married couple who relocate to California, where they meet Gordon (Edgerton), an old acquaintance of Simon’s. Husband and wife have varying perceptions of Gordon, disagreeing over whether he’s a lonely friend or a creepy stalker, which unearths latent tensions in the Callem household. That’s a pretty guarded plot summary, because one of the great delights of The Gift is its unpredictability. This movie takes so many bizarre turns and veers into more than a few strange directions that it’d really be criminal to divulge too much in advance. Suffice it to say that Edgerton – who pulls triple duty on acting, directing, and writing – has put together something quite compelling and unsettlingly unique. As ever, Bateman brings his expert comedic timing to bear, but he gets to display here more than most places I’ve seen him (excepting, perhaps, This Is Where I Leave You) how deft he can be with more serious acting roles. Hall is sufficiently unsettled as Bateman’s beleaguered spouse, while Edgerton walks the line between genuine and disturbing in a way that recalls classic flicks like Fatal Attraction or more recently Enduring Love. I’m surprised that this flew under the radar, considering its critical reception and its star power and its overall success as a thriller.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you next week!

Monday, August 15, 2016

Catwoman (2004)

I finally sat down to watch Catwoman because it was by my count the last comic book superhero movie I hadn’t yet seen (I've since been reminded of the existence of Shaquille O'Neal's Steel). And after watching it, I can confirm that Suicide Squad was actually the last comic book superhero move I’d never seen, because Catwoman has absolutely nothing to do with the characters published by DC Comics beyond the overlapping imagery of leather, whips, and cats. But as much as it has a reputation for being one of the worst films ever made, I just can’t muster up the enthusiasm to tear it apart frame by frame, because the truth is that Catwoman is just appallingly uninspiring on every level.

Halle Berry stars as Patience Phillips, a graphic designer for a cosmetics company run by a couple (Lambert Wilson and Sharon Stone) who are more lazily written than they are evil. Patience discovers the shady truth about the company’s latest skin cream, falls victim to a corporate conspiracy, but is brought back to life by an ancient feline deity, and believe it or not the film continues to fall apart from there.

Let’s not mince words here – Catwoman is a terrible film. It’s almost entirely unwatchable, and it’s insulting how it lures in an audience with the promise of a story that doesn’t even get approximated in the film. But in spite of all the reasons I should be mad at Catwoman, I’m almost more disappointed – in the film, in Halle Berry, and in myself for going out of my way to borrow the movie and watch it. Throughout the film, I kept thinking to myself that I needed to cleanse my palate with either Batman Returns or The Dark Knight Rises, much more accurate representations of what Catwoman is supposed to be. Ultimately, I took a nap – a cat nap, if you will (maybe the only cat-related pun the film doesn’t trot out with all the subtlety of Harpo Marx’s bicycle horn) – largely because I couldn’t find the energy to do anything else.

Catwoman is a thoroughly enervating experience, and in spite of the grotesquely dizzying editing (the kind which would make even Paul Greengrass queasy), it’s incredibly boring to boot. That’s the worst thing a film can be, boring, and even at 104 minutes Catwoman feels agonizingly protracted. The script is predictable and wrought with clichés, the characters are the pinnacle of thinly drawn – so thin that Berry literally walks between prison bars – and the stakes of the film are so disjointed that you’re not sure if this is a romantic comedy between cops and criminals or a superhero film where the fate of the world rests in Catwoman’s claws.

To mirror the disjointed nature of the film, I have a series of disjointed criticisms – why establish that Catwoman stole a one-of-a-kind necklace if her identity is uncovered by a forensic analysis of lipstick? What movie did Alex Borstein’s randy friend character step out of, and can we put her back? How many times does the film need to have a “surprise reveal” that Sharon Stone is actually the villain? (I counted three.) Is this movie supposed to be in canon with Batman Returns, or does it merely plagiarize the “reanimated by cats” origin story? And has director Pitof ever actually seen a basketball game before?

Perhaps most importantly, how did this film cost $100 million to make? (For comparison, Deadpool had a reported budget of $58 million.) I can’t fathom where the money went – the special effects are dodgy, the acting is wooden, and the direction is purposeless. On top of the retrograde sexual politics and leery male gaze, Catwoman’s greatest sin is its intrinsic dullness.

Catwoman is rated PG-13 for “action violence and some sensuality.” Directed by Pitof. Written by Theresa Rebeck, John Brancato, Michael Ferris, and John Rogers. Starring Halle Berry, Sharon Stone, and Benjamin Bratt.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Suicide Squad (2016)

Suicide Squad is a very difficult film for me to review, because I genuinely believe that casual comics fans are going to encounter a somewhat different film than the one I saw this weekend. We hear this description “for the fans” being bandied about, usually when a comic book movie doesn’t perform well critically, but I think Suicide Squad is made more for the fans who are already on board with these characters, and it’s with that base that the film will be more successful.

In the wake of the events of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) believes that a metahuman war is coming, so she convinces the US Government to create a black ops team of psychopathic criminals to do Waller’s dirty work. Headlined by hitman-for-hire Deadshot (Will Smith) and manic pixie clown girl Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Task Force X – dubbed a “suicide squad” in an on-the-nose moment from Deadshot – is dispatched to Midway City for a rescue mission when a magical threat menaces the entire globe. Meanwhile, Harley Quinn is being pursued by her “Mistah J,” the Joker (Jared Leto), who wants his girl back.

I usually pride myself on my ability to look at a thing objectively, to set aside my enthusiasm for the source material and see how a fresh eye would look at things. (I hear some of you scoffing already.) But for a diehard DC Comics devotee, Suicide Squad is a real challenge because it nails some of the comics material from the starting gate, though I’m not sure Johnny Popcorn will have the same enthusiasm for it.

Case in point: Amanda Waller. Viola Davis absolutely nails the role from the comic books. If Amanda Waller could step off the page and onto the screen, we’ve got Davis as living proof. For comics fans, you couldn’t do better. But for the casual film fan, the character is well-developed and compelling, but without the lens of comics accuracy the character is probably somewhat unremarkable (aside from a midcredits scene that intimates a surprise depth to Waller’s influence).

Ditto for The Joker. And I’ll say this for Suicide Squad – it is pretty bold for the film to include Batman (Ben Affleck) and the Joker in largely supporting roles, the former in what amounts to a cameo performance. I just want to point out that we’re living in a world where Captain Boomerang has more screentime in Suicide Squad than Batman. (And boy, is the film aware of how ludicrous Captain Boomerang is.) But back to the Joker – as with Waller, I’m fully aware that I’m bringing decades of investment in the character into the theater with me, and so I can rationalize this wildly divergent interpretation of the character as emblematic of the Joker’s “super sanity,” in which he constantly reinvents his own personality to cope with the madness of modern life. But even then, and I imagine the effect is compounded for viewers who don’t care about the Joker like I do, there’s something puzzling about why the Joker looks like something out of a gangster rap music video. Is he satirizing the gangs he seeks to replace? Or is this just our post-Ledger edgier Joker (cribbing Ledger’s voice, to boot)? Either way, there’s a “not my Joker” reflex from this fan, and I suspect a sort of bemused perplexity from others.

The good news is that the casting of the leads in the DC Extended Universe continues to be successful. Will Smith, despite my misgivings that he only ever plays Will Smith, does a fine job with Deadshot, giving the character sufficient nuance and a clear psychiatric profile. But far and away, Suicide Squad is Margot Robbie’s movie. For a relatively new character to the Batman mythos, Harley Quinn is one of its most beloved, and Robbie more than does the character justice. Granted, this is still early-days Harley, before she realizes just how abusive her relationship with the Joker really is, and I’m sure that future films will get to that part in due time. For now, though, Robbie revels in the harlequinade of madness, layering the character with shades of performance and insanity, leaving us to wonder just which is which. Above all, it’s clear that Robbie is having a blast with Harley Quinn, and that infectious enthusiasm transfers over to the audience’s side of things.

Suicide Squad is not Guardians of the Galaxy, though it seems to try very hard to be, nor is it quite Deadpool, which its detractors have accused it of aping. Fortunately, it’s also not Fant4stic, the dun standard for comic book movies. But it is, however, more than a little strangely crafted, from its opening montage to its Ghostbusters-esque climax. Almost aware of the fact that the general audience won’t know who Katana, Enchantress, and Killer Croc are, the film delivers this information in the bluntest exposition imaginable, replete with stylized on-screen rap sheet text. It’s aesthetically cringe-worthy and decidedly uncinematic, but in a way it’s understandable. The film’s use of the Suicide Squad against a mystical force who wants to destroy the earth for unknown reasons, using a big shining light in the sky to do it, is less sensible. The Squad is a pretty down-to-earth group with no discernible “super” skills, so they seem grossly outmatched and perhaps even in the wrong movie when juxtaposed with an otherworldly force. Put another way, it’s not the best narrative structure to allow the team to shine. If there’s to be a Suicide Squad 2, which box office receipts seem to indicate in the affirmative, I’d like to see the Squad stay closer to their home turf, against a villain that doesn’t require more expository mumbo-jumbo.

Suicide Squad is not a total disaster, a backhanded Trumpean compliment if ever there were one, but it’s not an unqualified success, either. It’s a strange film, off-putting in some ways but fantastically enjoyable in others, fun enough to get a thumbs-up from this reviewer but not quiet the triumph I wanted.

Suicide Squad is rated PG-13 for “sequences of violence and action throughout, disturbing behavior, suggestive content and language.” Written and directed by David Ayer. Starring Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, and Cara Delavingne.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Batman: The Killing Joke (2016)

It’s safe to say that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons turned in a work that is both seminal and controversial when they created The Killing Joke back in 1988. It’s a work that has sparked heated debate about its content, its treatment of Barbara Gordon, and its recently challenged ambiguous ending (which I’ll admit eluded even me at first). And I’m extremely satisfied with the forty-five minute animated adaptation DC Comics released this week, for reasons I’ll enumerate.

But for reasons I cannot begin to understand, the adaptation is preceded by the cartoon equivalent of a steaming dump taken to profane the very concept of the character of Barbara Gordon. Spoilers are going to follow on this one, folks, but the long and short of it is that you can skip the first twenty-eight minutes of the film and regale yourself with everything you wanted from a Killing Joke adaptation, or you can watch the whole thing and sit in a stunned stupor as you wonder how so many people thought this was a good opening act.

The Killing Joke is the quintessential Batman v. Joker tale, in which the Clown Prince of Crime (Mark Hamill) attempts to prove a point to his Dark Knight foe (Kevin Conroy) that madness is the only sane reaction to the tyranny of the world’s “random uncontrollability.” This existential dilemma plays out on the bodies of retired Batgirl Barbara Gordon (Tara Strong) and her father Commissioner Gordon (Ray Wise), victims of Joker’s obsession with the Batman.

It’s the ultimate Joker story, proving just how terrifying the grinning jester can be by exposing us to the very blackness at the core of his soul. It features some of the darkest humor ever uttered from those crimson lips, brutally uncomfortable in a way that is precisely the point. It’s a story about how deep the Joker’s obsession with Batman runs, even as the reader begins to see just how close these two diverging paths really are. Is Batman, too, mad? Is this a path that necessarily ends in death? Though Alan Moore has largely dismissed Killing Joke, there are some really good ideas in there.

There are also some really abhorrent things in there, some things with which every comics fan must wrestle, particularly the text’s treatment of Barbara Gordon. And I’m honestly not sure where I end up on this debate – is the text simply presenting the Joker’s horrors in all their appalling brutality, or is there something approaching at best ignorant representation and at worst virulent misogyny in the book’s violence? The book undeniably deprives Barbara of much of her agency and even some of her humanity in reducing her to a pawn in the conflict between Batman and Joker, but fortunately so much good work was done in the comics about how Barbara healed and became something even greater in the form of Oracle, the information broker of the DC Universe and arguably one of its smartest tech-savvy heroes. This, I contend, is the crux of the superhero genre – it’s a core narrative about how we make ourselves into our greatest ideals, how we build ourselves into the best possible versions of ourselves. That’s why Batman is the greatest superhero: he’s us, as we wish to be, at the cost we fear paying. He’s not superhuman, but he is a super human.

When producer Bruce Timm and writer/adapter Brian Azzarello announced some time back that they were adding a Batgirl-centric prologue to the film, in part to pad out the runtime and in part to give Barbara a more leading role, I was intrigued. I’ve always regretted that Barbara is merely a victim in The Killing Joke, so it was good to hear that the film’s creators were attuned to that sensitive element of the book. Now for a little thought experiment: in one sentence, give me a reason to care about Batgirl. If you don’t know much about Batgirl, you can try it with any character you admire – just one reason to care about them. Write it down.

Did you write down, “She’s able to have sex with Batman”? No? Oh, well, that’s the best thing Azzarello came up with. Look, I admire the man’s work tremendously, and I’ve met him in person and found him to be wise and affable. But how in the world did the man who gave us Doctor 13: Architecture and Morality decide that the best way to get audiences invested in Batgirl was to hook her up with Batman in a creepy, sleazy rooftop one-night-stand that reduces both of them to petulant children the morning after? In what alternate universe is that either palatable or acceptable? It’s leery and exploitive in a way that participates in, not decries, the Joker’s violence of the same kind. And I wish to heavens I were exaggerating when I say that the prologue is capped off by a scene of Barbara jogging as – and I swear on all that’s holy, I’m not stretching the truth – the camera lingers over her jiggling behind and chest, never ascending past her shoulders. I try to keep the language PG on this blog, but I have all manner of vituperative commentary just under my bitten tongue.

After that, about which I could decry so, so much more (like the fact that the prologue is ultimately, from a cinematic point of view, entirely unnecessary, as it’s never so much as acknowledged again), the film takes a complete 180-turn into a rendition of the graphic novella that leans hard into accuracy, embellishing just a little bit in ways that are really quite engaging. This Killing Joke does more with the carnival freaks, an intriguing visual here made into a coterie of Joker’s maddest henchmen, and it sets one of Joker’s monologues in a room that’s quite literally topsy-turvy, amping up the madness in a way that the comic only used words to accomplish.

In a very real sense, this is the Killing Joke for which we waited. The animation is a compelling if visibly low-budget approximation of Brian Bolland’s highly precise penciling, and the voice cast is Conroy and Hamill at their level best. The first time we hear Joker’s laugh, I burst into an irresistible smile and snicker. “That’s my Joker,” I thought, “and here’s my Killing Joke.” But that first half-hour I can guarantee I will never watch again. It angers me just to think about it. A friend of mine once said, “I know Batman better than I know most real people I know,” and I feel that way about Batgirl too. I care about this character in a way that I think no one watching only this film possibly could. She’s plucky, brave, and brainy as all get-out, and she deserves so much better. The original Killing Joke comic did violence to her, and it’s abhorrent to see that the violence continues. In the comics, Barbara healed and became Oracle, but here the credits roll and nobody seems terribly bothered by any of it. (Do stay through the credits, though.)

As I wrap up this review, I’ve got a stack of new comic books waiting for my eyes, but I’m so eager to go back and enjoy the forty-five minutes of Killing Joke proper once more. It’s on those grounds, then, that I can recommend The Killing Joke: it’s a gourmet steak dinner preceded by the crudest crudité imaginable. If I were a principled man, I’d boycott DC Animated Films from here on out. But next up, it’s Justice League Dark. And I can’t say no to an animated Swamp Thing. I just can’t. And that’s no joke.

Batman: The Killing Joke is rated R for “some bloody images and disturbing content.” This isn’t one for the kiddies; Barbara’s injuries are pretty graphic, and the shots of her pained body are framed in a way that obscures the most explicit details but leaves the imagination to run rampant. Then there’s the offensive hypersexualization of the character, the aforementioned jogging shot and a beat in which Barbara removes her mask and costume, wearing a bra, before the Hitchcockian pan away. The film is relentlessly dreary, bleak in the way it needed to be to do the book justice, and it spares no blood. Weirdly, though, the language is self-censored, as when a mobster says “What the eff?” If you’re going to go for the R rating, why stop short on that point?

Monday, August 1, 2016

Jason Bourne (2016)

Over the course of the past fourteen years, we’re five movies deep into the Bourne franchise, four of which have starred Matt Damon, with three of those directed by Paul Greengrass. I give you the numbers because Jason Bourne paints very close to them, tampering very little with what has worked in the past. Ultimately it’s a very enjoyable fifth outing, but at the same time it is the fifth time we’ve been down this road.

Once more a hidden secret emerges about the mysterious past of Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), sending him on a quest for answers. Placed in the crosshairs of the CIA director (Tommy Lee Jones) and his ambitious assistant (Alicia Vikander), Bourne crosses continents in order to uncover the truth about one last mystery surrounding the shadowy Treadstone project that gave birth to Bourne.

Both Damon and Greengrass took a film off, allowing Jeremy Renner to fill in for The Bourne Legacy, and so there’s an atmosphere of “back to your regularly scheduled programming” at play in Jason Bourne, right down to the back-to-basics title. I had said that the fourth one “may be my favorite of the Bourne films,” but to be perfectly honest I’m not certain I can distinguish among them in the mind palace of my memory. To be fair, I’ve seen a lot of movies in my day, but the Bourne movies have a way of running together for me.

They all seem to rely on a pretty transparent formula – Jason Bourne comes out of the cold, discovers a secret from his past, jet-sets across continents following leads gleaned from snippets of classified documents (one of which always takes him into a dense crowd where he has to duck surveillance), and confronts the gatekeeper of secrets at gunpoint, only to demonstrate he’s still not at peace, slinking off into the sunset. It’s theme and variation at its most reliable; I can’t say that I’ve been disappointed in the execution of a Bourne movie yet, this one included, but there’s also something to be said for the fact that it’s exactly the film promised by the trailers.

The action sequences are precisely as compelling as before, more so the further we get into the film. It gets better once the audience has a better handle on the mysteries of the film and as the direction of the plot becomes clearer. That is, once we know the stakes, Jason Bourne is about as good as a Bourne movie’s ever been. Damon is credible as ever in the role, a welcome return in spite of the ever-reliable Renner filling in last time around. Tommy Lee Jones is inspired as the craggy-faced CIA director; no one does dialogue about morality and greater-goods than Jones. And Vikander, in a role that’s probably built to extend into sequels (about which, more in a bit), is a credit, just suspicious enough for us to wish for a bigger role for her.

For two more hours of exciting action and espionage, Jason Bourne is about as good as it gets, competently presented but never too taxing. Throughout the film, though, nearly everyone tells Jason Bourne some version of, “You can’t keep doing this forever. You’ve got to do something else with your life,” and to that I’d have to say I agree wholeheartedly. If there’s going to be a sixth Bourne film, it’s got to move forward (perhaps bringing in Renner as Aaron Cross?) and show us something we haven’t seen from Bourne. It’s a bit like hearing Paul McCartney play “Hey Jude” for the fifth time in a row – we know it’s a great song and we know he plays the heck out of it, but what about “Get Back”?

Jason Bourne is rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of violence and action, and brief strong language.” Car chases, explosions, gunfire, and stabbings comprise the violence, with some degree of blood.