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Suicide Squad (2016)
Directed by David Ayer • Written by David Ayer
With Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Jay Hernandez, Viola Davis, Cara Delevigne, Joel Kinnaman and Jared Leto
In terms of roll out, it’s felt like the DC cinematic series has been playing catch-up with those pesky do-gooders over at Marvel for a few too many years. Though it performed well at the box office, the disappointing critical response to Zack Snyder’s Batman Vs Superman didn’t help, causing heated fan division and an underlying lack of confidence for the studio’s slowly unraveling universe of goodies vs baddies, which, brings me neatly to Suicide Squad.
Written in just six weeks by David Ayer, Suicide Squad was DC’s opportunity to gain some genuine traction for its wavering franchise. Everyone knows the bad guys are the most interesting characters in the comic book sphere, so to tell a story in which they all get to run riot sounds like the best idea since ideas began. Or maybe not.
Picking up after the events of Batman Vs Superman, we find the government in a bit of a pickle. They have a problem that can only be solved by bad metahumans doing good things – which is a simplified way of setting up the ‘plot’ for this loud, attention seeking adventure into the all-too familiar.
With a large ensemble cast in tow, David Ayer fails to service most of the characters. What’s worse, is that Jared Leto’s much-anticipated depiction of the Joker is relegated to the role of substitute, showing up for a few scenes (mostly flashbacks) while the main plot lumbers forward in the most achingly predictable way. Meanwhile, half-baked backstories abound, as Ayer overpacks his film with thinly-sketched characters like Katana, Captain Boomerang and Killer Croc.
Thankfully, not everything misfires. With all the best one-liners and eye-catching hot pants, Margot Robbie is all three of crazy-sexy-cool, embracing the role of Harley Quinn to give a performance of great effervescence that temporarily boosts the quality of the overall film each time the camera finds her…even if it’s just for a naughty wink or a sideways glance. It’s no surprise the call is loud for a Harley solo movie.
Sharing the spoils of screen time with Robbie is Will Smith, who is sturdily charismatic as Deadshot, though his back-story is clunky and recycled, robbing the character of enigmatic intrigue. Viola Davis fares better as Amanda Waller, bringing some weight to proceedings as a hard-nosed government agent tasked with keeping the squad in check.
During the film’s promotional tour, Jared Leto spoke in tones of veiled disappointment at the amount of Joker footage left out of the finished film. It’s a shared disappointment, as whenever he and Robbie are allowed to express themselves, the movie wakes up.
Though it pines for cult status, Suicide Squad is like a film for the crowd who thinks Avril Lavigne is genuine punk rock. Margot Robbie captures some vital edge, but she’s marooned in a movie that feels like it’s been made by committee for pre-teens, even though its non-stop soundtrack is peppered with dad-rock anthems. Ironically, a story about an incongruous team of anarchists that plays it safe to the point of tedium.
10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
Directed by Dan Trachtenberg • Written by Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken & Damien Chazelle
With Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman and John Gallagher Jr.
It’s been 8-years since the surprise attack of Cloverfield, Matt Reeves’s monster-on-the-loose-in-Manhattan horror-thriller – a film built on the foundations of a cleverly clandestine marketing campaign that wielded the element of surprise as a means for its primary pulling power. Ditching the found-footage style of its predecessor, Dan Trachtenberg’s loose sequel, 10 Cloverfield Lane, changes more than just aesthetics, finding its home in a different genre altogether.
More of a distant cousin than a straight-up follow on (producer J.J. Abrams calls it a “blood relative”), what we have is a smartly effective thriller that adds breadth and depth to intrigue, intentionally swerving exposition and in doing so, teases the kind of franchise curiosity that ignites endless theories on internet message boards.
The opening strains of Bear McCarthy’s score describe a mournful danger afoot, as we’re introduced to Michelle (Winstead), a young woman fleeing personal problems who manages to find a whole set of new ones. After her car is bumped off the road, she finds herself in an underground fallout bunker, at the mercy of Howard (Goodman), an unnervingly peculiar man with dubious motivations. Goodman’s performance shares kinship with Kathy Bates in Misery, impressing his own neurotic misery on others. It’s an effective reversal of his reputation as the agreeable comic-relief. The intensity in Goodman’s eyes, coupled with violent quirks and a growing suspicion about skeletons in his closet, contribute to a thick layer of tension as he aggressively micromanages every corner of his underground sanctuary/prison.
Winstead is excellent, channelling her own take on Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, as her fight for survival takes a series of horrific twists and turns. Joining Winstead down under, is Emmett, played by an amiable John Gallagher Jr. Together, they tiptoe around eggshells as Goodman’s overbearing ways become increasingly threatening.
The influence of Alfred Hitchcock oozes from every pore of 10 Cloverfield Lane. Trachtenberg’s self-assured direction is bolstered by Jeff Cutter’s tidy photography and an effectively foreboding use of sound. There’s a stifling claustrophobia, brought about by the tight confines of the queasily homely bunker, further heightened by the uncertainty of circumstances outside of the protagonist’s control. That same uncertainty underpins a suspense that simmers throughout, even if much of what occurs is straight out of the handbook. 4/5
X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
Directed by Bryan Singer • Written by Simon Kinberg, Bryan Singer, Dan Harris & Michael Dougherty
With Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Oscar Isaac, Rose Byrne, Evan Peters and Sophie Turner
After the time-hopping fun of X-Men: Days of Future Past, writer-director, Bryan Singer, returns to the series to serve up a comparatively underwhelming fourth helping of mutant fun. The thrust of the plot centres on a barely recognisable Oscar Isaac as En Sabah Nur , a demigod mutant awoken from an ancient sleep to bring terror to the modern world. On paper, it sounds quite exciting, and sometimes it is. Sometimes.
These multi-team-up comic book movies have become a tricky juggling act that even the best writers and directors can have difficulty keeping a grasp of. Joss Whedon toiled with Ultron, as did Zack Snyder and David Ayer with BvS and Suicide Squad respectively. Until now, Bryan Singer had proven himself one of the better overseers of this kind of fare, but he’s overburdened by characters and crisscrossing narratives to the point that his latest X offering begins to feel like an old, fatigued heavyweight boxer hanging on for the final few rounds. What is designed to feel like the end of the world, slowly feels like the beginning of the end of the series.
Jennifer Lawrence, so effective in previous X adventures, is semi-redundant as her plot imperative is veiled as important, yet her contribution to the drama is little more than token – a lot like Han Solo’s there-but-not-there turn in Return of the Jedi – ironically, a film that is invoked and dismissed for its inferiority to Empire. Moreover, Lawrence looks mostly disinterested. To a lesser extent, the same can be said of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, as the epic over-ambition of the structurally unsound narrative robs their characters of space to be suitably evolved.
A symptom of the overcrowded cast, is a nagging feeling of important things being skimmed over, as the screenplay is forced to spread itself too thinly in what should be weighty areas of drama. What results is a hollow epic that possesses all the dazzle and sparkle, but virtually no emotional resonance.
As Jean Grey, Sophie Turner carries Sansa Stark with a shallow performance that can’t hide a seemingly inherent level of petulance. Her American accent wobbles alongside her limitations as an actress, which appear ever more pronounced given her central importance to the plot. Turner can’t find that wry sex appeal, or concealed sense of burning danger brought so effectively by Famke Jansen.
It would, however, be remiss to pin the blame on Turner for the things askew with Apocalypse. With Singer at the helm, it’s surprising to find such a muddled film. Yes, there are plenty of spectacular moments to feast upon, but given the overall strength of the series (X-Men: The Last Stand notwithstanding) high hopes are largely dashed by a movie that plays out like an easily discarded comic book, begging to be taken seriously as a meaty graphic novel. 3/5
Directed by Paul Fieg • Written by Katie Dippold & Paul Fieg
With Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones and Chris Hemsworth
The rule should be, you either reboot and make an original story based on the established premise, or, continue what came before, but with a new adventure. Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters does neither. It’s a remake that copies the narrative blueprint of Ivan Reitman’s 1984 horror-comedy classic, play for play, relying on updated effects and an all new team to supposedly reinvent things we already know and love.
The internet made a huge ectoplasmic stink about the validity of an all-female ghostbusting team, being so distracted as to barely notice Sony’s plan to reset the franchise as if 1984 never happened – a plan with the bare-faced temerity to plagiarise at almost every turn. As it is, the women are the best aspect, having fun while working for each other to give their best amid a story that has few original ideas of its own.
It’s sometimes said we shouldn’t compare remakes or sequels with the source of their inspiration, but I’d be more inclined to assess this incarnation on its own merits if it wasn’t constantly going out of its way to remind us of Reitman’s original. It wouldn’t take long to write out a checklist of things they recall, including cast members from the original film regularly popping up in random, tacked on roles that aren’t funny, reinforcing an empty feeling of what might have been.
Whatever the reasons for it never happening, it’s hard to escape the nagging disappointment that Ghostbusters 3 never got the green light. Though it plays well as a harmlessly throwaway family comedy, this shiny new Ghostbusters only serves to highlight how good the original film was. Somehow, with Feig in the chair (a man best known for his adult-themed comedy), everything is much safer and cleaner. In Reitman’s film, everyone smokes and swears (there’s even ghost-on-human fellatio) – here it’s sanitised, cleaning out the grubbiness and replacing it with colourful CGI and overly-staged silliness.
Musically, there’s a brief snippet of Ray Parker Jnr’s iconic song, before its massacred by a thudding Fall Out Boy cover version halfway through. The score doesn’t achieve the same symbiosis as Elmer Berstein’s classic, flitting between generic action music that fails to invite intrigue or suspense. There’s an empty sense the film largely exists in the name of making money – a movie-making by committee attempt to force feed a new Ghostbusters franchise.
Little of what we see feels genuinely organic. It has the sense of something that wants to be embraced, but in doing that, refuses to sidestep its responsibilities in being a ‘Ghostbusters’ movie. Ultimately, the attempt to please everyone spreads its attributes too thinly, leaving a shell of a film that provides temporary fun youngsters, but not nearly enough for everyone else. 2.5/5
David Brent: Life on the Road (2016)
Directed by Ricky Gervais • Written by Ricky Gervais
With Ricky Gervais, Doc Brown, Jo Hartley, Tom Basden and Tom Bennett.
Since we last met him, David Brent’s rock n’ roll aspirations haven’t waned. The multi-talented Ricky Gervais returns with his own downbeat version of Spinal Tap does Dad-rock, in this new mockumentary, David Brent: Life on the Road. Now in his 50’s, David Brent is having one last crack at the music industry. He’s working as a sales rep, frequenting the same painfully-familiar office surroundings, spouting the same old cliche, dreaming of an album deal to escape from the humdrum. He uses his pension assets to hire a band of session musicians to go out on tour, taking unpaid leave from work to pursue his dream.
Without the presence of strong supporting narratives, like those brought about by Tim, Gareth and Dawn in the series, there’s a distinct feeling of something missing. Indeed, the film as a whole seems less fleshed-out than you might hope, leaving a sense of wanting more at the end. But then Gervais (and Brent) might argue – isn’t that what all the best entertainment is supposed to do!? Well, in this case, yes and no. Not giving us more seems to deprive the film of an opportunity to be great, even though thanks to Gervias’s strong hold on his fascinatingly contrived central character, it is, for the most part, very good.
Gervais employs the same fly-on-the-wall style of the TV show, with a tinge of cinematic expanse. We still get random inserts of unmanned photocopiers whirring away, which in the series, created a sense of dry amusement, whereas when repeated here, have the feel of a little nod to what came before. You could apply that to much of the film – David Brent is in the same place we left him, creating the same social stink for a fresh set of characters to endure in the name of our amusement.
But then, therein lies the intelligence behind this character. There are moments when Gervias makes us feel complicit in the bullying – almost like being back at school, on the fringes of playtime banter between a few kids, when gradually, the humour is taken too far and one of the kids begins to get bullied. You question yourself, am I part of the harassment if I’m still laughing!? Gervais seldom seems to do straight-up comedy, more like, he layers his films with multiple layers of it, all of which lead to side-roads of moral inquisition.
Then we have the songs. If you listen closely, you can’t deny the genius in Gervais’s achievement of writing songs that are deliberately bad, yet somehow good. They’re funny and tragic, both musically and lyrically, as Brent adopts a faux-American accent – desperately trying to bottle ‘cool’ to give himself some kind of real world acceptance. It’s immediately funny that his ability to play the guitar and sing in tune gives him the platform to do what he does, yet even with this skill, he still manages to make himself a social pariah.
There’s no question that David Brent works best in his position of office manager, but still, it’s a lot of fun to revisit the character and Gervais hasn’t lost sight of that keen sense of pathos that often exists in his best work. He achieved it brilliantly in the final few episodes of the TV series, and he repeats it here with bells – making us care about David Brent by sending him out into a world in which he is hopelessly out of his depth. He’s bullied, ridiculed and humiliated at regular intervals, and even though we know he’s often the victim of his own downfall, we can’t help but want the best for him. 3.5/5
Directed by Rob Reiner • Written by William Goldman • Novel by Stephen King
With James Caan, Kathy Bates and Lauren Bacall.
Based on the Stephen King novel, Misery stars James Caan as a successful pulp writer, who as we meet him, has completed his latest novel and is preparing to drive home from the wintry Colorado haven he uses as a creative retreat, to deliver the final draft to his publisher. On the way, he runs into bad weather and plants his car in front of a tree. Luckily for him, Kathy Bates’s Annie Wilkes was just passing by. Insert sarcastic emoji face.
Without any ado, the film gets its weird on. Bates’s creepy home has a Norman Bates feel, as her skew-whiff diligence toward the badly injured Caan immediately sets off our creep sensors. As he lays there, utterly dependent, the movie quickly establishes itself as a survival thriller, as Caan’s vulnerability forces him into a psychological battle of wits with Bates. On this level, the film is never less than fascinating.
Under the Hitchcockian, psycho-thriller surface of Misery, there’s a sizeable amount of black humour in both Kathy Bates’s over-the-top delivery and James Caan’s dry placation of her. It’s hard not to see the humour when Bates exclaims – “YOU! YOU DIRTY BIRD!”. Her cartoon-like demeanour is accentuated by her characteristic contradictions; she’ll smash you with a sledgehammer but heaven forbid you use a curse word.
Rob Reiner summons Alfred Hitchcock at nearly every turn, managing to create levels of threat and suspense that the master himself would have been proud of. Bates conveys great danger, finding a rare edge in her performance that makes us fear the slightest misplaced word from Caan.
In a sense, Misery is a strange little film. It’s housed within the parameters of just a few performances and feels structurally akin to The Shining, sharing the popcorn-fun repeat watch-ability of Kubrick’s classic, if not the overall sense of otherness. Bates and Caan are excellent, though, and the deep reverence for Hitchcock doesn’t hurt. 4/5